WWI PACIFIC ISLANDS

Painting of HMAS Sydney (I), hung in the Sydney Room in the Office of the Chief of Navy, Russell Offices in Canberra. The painting was produced by Percy Spence to commemorate the sinking of the German Cruiser Emden off Cocos-Keeling Island on 9 November 1914.

Soon after London declared war on August 4, 1914, Britain’s colonial and dominion governments worked closely with the Admiralty to put together expeditions designed to seize Germany’s overseas ports and high-frequency radio stations. At the same time, the India Office organized the expedition to Mesopotamia to protect the Anglo-Persian oil fields. The choices political, military, and naval leaders made with respect to the overseas expeditions demonstrated that London’s decisions were foremost naval considerations. Whitehall’s priorities for overseas operations were, in order of importance, maintaining the integrity of the trade routes, eliminating logistics and intelligence bases for German commerce raiders, protecting an independent source of fuel for the Royal Navy, capturing and destroying Germany’s commerce raiders, and curtailing German trade.

As July came to a close without an abatement of the European crisis, the Royal Navy attempted to shadow and track German warships and merchant vessels. At the war’s outbreak, it knew little about the location of Germany’s East Asia squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee. This lack of knowledge demonstrated that although a peacetime intelligence system had been implemented, diligent personnel at the ports still had to track and monitor warships’ activities. On August 1, the German merchant vessel Komet was within clear communications range, about fifty nautical miles, of the British wireless station at Port Moresby in Papua. On the same day, the German armored cruiser SMS Scharnhorst communicated via high-frequency radio with the German wireless station on Yap, but the Royal Navy could not determine the warship’s position. As of August 3, 1914, British naval intelligence knew that the armored cruiser SMS Gneisenau had departed Nagasaki, Japan, on June 23 but the warship’s whereabouts were unknown. Intelligence believed Gneisenau had joined Scharnhorst and that these two marauders were near Tsingtao. The cruiser SMS Nürnberg had been at Mazatlan, Mexico, on November 13 the previous year. British intelligence believed the warship remained there or was transiting back to Tsingtao to rejoin its squadron. The cruiser SMS Leipzig was patrolling somewhere in the vicinity of Vancouver, British Colombia. The Admiralty knew, however, that the cruiser SMS Emden departed Tsingtao in company with four colliers on August 3. SMS Grier, an aging light cruiser, was transiting the Rhio Strait somewhere between Java and Singapore.

When war broke out on August 4, Australia’s governor-general, Ronald Munro Ferguson, detained several German colliers in Australian ports, preventing them from potentially supplying von Spee’s squadron. Nevertheless, some German colliers in port at Newcastle, New South Wales, slipped through Australia’s bureaucratic net and hurriedly departed the morning of August 6. Each of the East Asia squadron’s warships remained in communications with the German wireless station at Yap, facilitating von Spee’s ability to bring his ships together. By August 6, the Admiralty’s intelligence branch indicated Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and possibly Nürnberg were together in the vicinity of 8° south latitude and 162° east longitude, heading in a southeasterly direction.

Rear Admiral George Patey, commander of Australian naval forces, rallied his squadron and planned to attack Simpsonhafen in German New Guinea unless he received specific reports of German warships’ locations. His most recent intelligence postulated that the enemy’s armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, remained within 1,500 nautical miles of Australia, possibly at Simpsonhafen in company with Komet, and a survey ship, Planet. If true, Patey intended to surprise the German squadron in port with a superior force of his own. If the enemy warships were absent, the Admiral could still destroy the wireless station located there.

Patey dispatched the cruiser HMAS Sydney and several destroyers to Simpsonhafen with orders to attack any ships there on August 11 at 9:00 p.m., which was about one hour prior to moonrise. Sydney would remain outside the harbor in support. Because Patey’s priority was to sink the two larger armored cruisers, if the harbor were empty or only the smaller ships, Komet and Planet, were in the harbor, Sydney and accompanying destroyers would proceed to nearby Matupi harbor. Unfortunately, no German warships were found in either harbor. The Sydney flotilla also reconnoitered nearby Tilili Bay, which was also empty.

The following day, Patey landed a raiding party to find and destroy Rabaul’s wireless station, but could not locate the transmitter. Fortunately, HMAS Australia stopped the German tanker Talasea outside of Rabaul. The ship’s master divulged that the high-frequency transmitter sat several miles inland in the bush. Meanwhile, the Germans working the transmitter learned of the Australian squadron’s presence and repeatedly broadcast Patey’s ships’ positions. In desperation, Patey informed Rabaul that he would shell the city unless the station ceased transmitting. The Rabaul district office administrator replied that he had no authority over the wireless company, and the governor was absent. Nevertheless, the radio station fell silent. Sydney crossed the bay to Herbertshohe in search of the transmitter. Patey’s squadron scanned the coast but could not visually locate the wireless station. His squadron, low on fuel, departed to replenish. Shortly after leaving, Patey acquired additional intelligence that placed the transmitter on the Herbertshohe side of the bay, opposite Rabaul, about four miles inland.

That same day, New Zealand’s governor, Arthur Foljambe, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, asked Patey whether it was safe to proceed with a proposed expedition against the German territory in Samoa. The admiral knew nothing of the proposed expedition but supported it in principle because Samoa’s capture denied Germany’s commerce raiders an additional support base. Patey could not guarantee the safety of the expedition while the German East Asia Squadron’s location remained unknown, so he told Governor Liverpool that the expedition could proceed if escorted by the fleet. Another factor that favored supporting the New Zealand expedition was that Australia’s warships would then be in position to intercept von Spee’s squadron if it headed for Samoa or attempted to escape toward the southeast.

Patey planned first to cover the movement of the Australian expedition to Rabaul; then he would escort the New Zealanders to Samoa. When the admiral received news on August 16 that the New Zealand expedition had already started, it surprised him. The Australian operation against Rabaul had been scheduled for August 19, so Patey believed that the Kiwis would wait until his forces were freed from escort duty before proceeding with their offensive. The Admiralty, however, had pressured Liverpool to begin as soon as he had his forces assembled, as it had also done with Australia’s expedition. When Patey learned of this, he split his force to provide naval escort for both expeditions. In doing so, however, he suspended all other naval operations, which included searching for von Spee’s warships. The decision that Patey made, and the Admiralty’s forcing the rapid dispatch of his expeditions, indicated that extinguishing potential naval bases and intelligence centers constituted a higher priority than destroying German warships.

Admiral Patey rendezvoused with the New Zealand force on August 17. He learned then that the Kiwis were escorted by the cruisers HMS Psyche, Philomel, and Pyramus and the French cruiser Montcalm. He added his ships, the battle cruiser HMAS Australia and the cruiser HMAS Melbourne, to the convoy. The force stopped to coal at the French port, Noumea, New Caledonia, and conducted rehearsals at Suva, Fiji. The expedition got under way again in order to arrive at Apia, Samoa, at dawn on August 30. The New Zealand force also brought with them ten Fiji islanders knowledgeable of the local tribes on Samoa.

The task force arrived at 7:45 a.m., slightly later than planned because of heavy weather. Immediately upon the New Zealand force’s arrival, the German wireless station sent a coded message—the letters “S G”—four times. Seeing no enemy ships in the harbor, Patey directed Psyche to send a boat under a flag of truce to explain the situation to Samoa’s German officials and request the colony’s capitulation. The surrender documents Psyche’s delegation carried stipulated that the wireless transmitter must cease broadcasting immediately or the naval force would destroy it with gunfire. The German authorities protested Patey’s threat of bombardment as a violation of the Second Hague Peace Conference, but nevertheless surrendered without resistance. The landing force disembarked at 1:00 p.m. and hoisted the Union Jack at the governor’s house thirty minutes later. The following morning, the invaders flew the British flag over the courthouse. Although the Montcalm was present, the French did not unfurl their flag over the German colony.

The admiral left Apia in HMAS Australia at noon on August 31 for Rabaul. With Samoa secured, Patey prepared to seize Rabaul and Herbertshohe, in German New Guinea, and capture the as-yet-unlocated wireless station. He intended to seize the towns and establish a base in the harbor for future operations aimed at Yap, Angaur, and Nauru. Meanwhile, because of repeated urging from the Admiralty, he dispatched HMAS Melbourne directly to Nauru to destroy the wireless station there. Once the wireless transmitter was inoperable, the island could be occupied at a convenient time later.

The China squadron had already eliminated the German wireless at Yap, but a telegraph cable that connected to Shanghai, Guam, and Manado, in the Celebes archipelago, remained in service. The commander of the China squadron wished the wireless station at Angaur destroyed. He recommended that Allied forces forgo occupying the island because it was not connected to any other locations by telegraph cable, and he did not believe that it had adequate resources to serve as a base for German warships. He informed the Admiralty that he could not spare ships for the three-thousand-mile voyage to Angaur, but he was prepared to cut the telegraph cable at Yap if directed. Because the Yap cable landed at neutral territory, however, the Admiralty instructed the squadron not to cut it.

Foreign Secretary Edward Grey disagreed with the China Squadron commander’s recommendation against occupying Angaur. Grey had recently received information from the managing director of the Pacific Phosphate Company that Angaur was rich in phosphate deposits. The foreign secretary believed the phosphates ought to be secured as soon as possible. Colonial Secretary Lewis Harcourt also desired that the Australians occupy the islands. His intelligence indicated that the Germans were ready for attacks on the wireless stations. They planned to hide parts to repair the stations, wait for the danger to pass, and then put the stations back in service. Harcourt believed that the only way to prevent the Germans from using the islands as centers for intelligence was to occupy them. The Allied garrisons could consist of small forces because German warships could not afford to detach landing parties from their crews to retake the islands.

The Admiralty and the Colonial Office had not counted on occupying all the German territories in the Pacific. Intelligence received subsequent to the expeditions’ departures from New Zealand and Australia pointed to the conclusion that Germany’s Pacific islands might have to be seized and held to deny their usefulness to enemy communications. The Foreign Office concluded also that there might be minerals and other raw materials of value to the empire that warranted an island’s occupation. When the cabinet approved the expeditions, however, neither of these facts was known. As a consequence, the Royal Navy and dominion governors planned to garrison some of the enemy islands and leave the other German territories alone after they could no longer contribute to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war effort. With receipt of this new information, however, the Admiralty and colonial military leaders revised their plans.

On August 31, the commander in chief, China, operating out of Singapore, asked Patey whether he intended to sweep the Caroline and Marshall Islands for SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Admiralty had not only tasked Patey with invading Yap, Nauru, and Angaur, but two weeks earlier had also ordered the admiral to escort a future convoy of Australian troops to Aden. The cruisers HMAS Melbourne, Sydney, and Encounter would soon depart from Sydney to accompany the convoy. Patey’s future movements hinged on whether he would lose ships from his squadron to perform that task. He informed the Admiralty and his colleague in Singapore that his current orders left him with insufficient warships to execute the expeditions to Yap, Nauru, and Angaur while simultaneously protecting a convoy bound for Aden.

With these requirements imposed on Patey’s squadron, he could not engage in lower priority sweeps for German raiders. If the Admiralty permitted the Australian squadron to keep its ships by terminating the convoy escort, the admiral could search for Scharnhorst and company after subduing the three small islands. Montcalm, under the command of Rear Admiral Albert Huguet, returned to Noumea to pursue additional missions that the French government might desire. Huguet found his only orders were to fully cooperate with Australia’s naval forces. Montcalm, therefore, left Noumea to rejoin Patey’s squadron at Rabaul.

Meanwhile, Patey discovered that German trade in the Pacific had ceased at the beginning of the war. Because German ships were no longer running, provisions on Samoa were low. The British cabinet was certainly aware of this development. Grey boasted to his ambassador in Tokyo that British cruisers operating throughout the world had brought German trade to a standstill. The German High Seas Fleet could not interfere at all with British trade because of the distant blockade. About 70 percent of all German merchant tonnage had been confiscated by the British; another 20 percent was sheltered in neutral harbors because of the danger presented by the Royal Navy if it moved. In contrast, British shipping carried on business as usual. Britain lost less than 1 percent of its ships as a result of their having been in German harbors at the start of war. Grey may have provided this data to ease concerns from shippers in Tokyo who continued to inquire about the safety of the trade routes to Australia and the United States.

Patey had to charter several shiploads of rice and other food to sustain the population of Chinese workers at Samoa. All of Germany’s Pacific colonies suffered similar shortages. Melbourne, en route to Nauru, was due to arrive there on September 9, render the wireless transmitter inoperative, and rejoin Patey at Rabaul on September 12. In radio exchanges with the Admiralty, Patey relayed his misgivings about having to care for the inhabitants of the German colonies. He expected Melbourne would report that Nauru’s inhabitants required provisions. He also recommended that Australian naval forces only disable the radio transmitters at Nauru and Angaur, leaving the islands unoccupied. By this course, Patey hoped to avoid responsibility for the islands’ inhabitants. Melbourne completed the mission on September 9 and captured two German engineers maintaining the high-frequency station on Nauru.

The German facility at Yap possessed both a wireless transmitter and a submerged telegraph cable connection. Despite the fact that Patey’s forces were spread thin, he saw no alternative but to occupy the island. Moreover, the Naval Board notified Patey that it still expected him to release Melbourne and Sydney to escort the Australian convoy scheduled to depart for Aden on September 22. Patey anticipated completing occupation of Simpsonhafen by September 12. He believed he could safely release Sydney and Melbourne for convoy duty following that operation, but knew that Melbourne might not actually be ready until September 23.

Naval intelligence received on September 9 told Patey that there might be two wireless stations in the Rabaul area. One was possibly located about four miles up a road leading out of Herbertshohe and a second just inland from a plantation near Kabakund. The personnel staffing the intelligence branch reported that one of the two stations was in operation and the other under construction. Intelligence, however, did not know which of the stations was operational.

Admiral Patey’s force arrived at German New Guinea on September 11. The main body would proceed to Simpsonhafen while Sydney and Patey’s destroyers reconnoitered the nearby harbors at Simpsonhafen and Watupi. The harbors were empty when Sydney arrived at 3:30 a.m. The cruiser landed two parties of twenty-five men: at Herbertshohe, consisting of a mixture of naval reserve volunteers and infantry from the Australia Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to seize the wireless transmitter in that vicinity, and at Kabakund, about four miles away from Herbertshohe, to find and capture the high-frequency radio station reported to be there. A short time later, Sydney stopped the Norddeutscher Lloyd collier Sumatra en route to Rabaul, a clear sign that German merchant vessels had little intelligence on Australian navy activity. The party that had landed near Herbertshohe returned to the town without locating a wireless station. The force occupied Herbertshohe and hoisted a British flag there at 7:30 a.m. on September 11. The party put ashore at Kabakund encountered resistance as it worked its way inland. Sydney landed reinforcements to assist the original party, which located and captured the radio transmitter at about 7:00 p.m. that day. Patey’s main force occupied Simpsonhafen and Rabaul as well. The German government had not yet surrendered, but occupation of the towns occurred without incident. The locations the Australia and New Zealand expeditions had occupied had little to fear from Admiral von Spee’s squadron except a possible shelling because the Germans had no personnel to spare for landing forces.

The Australians received information that SMS Geier was at Kawing arming a large German merchant steamer. Patey dispatched Melbourne and the destroyer Warrego to investigate the report while on their way to Sydney for convoy duty. Melbourne found the German yacht Nusa and learned that the Geier had been in the area, but departed September 7. Melbourne proceeded to Sydney, and Warrego returned to Simpsonhafen. A rumor cropped up that German reinforcements had landed and were marching to retake Rabaul. Patey conducted searches for landing parties, but the only evidence found was the wrecked German ship Koloniel Gesellschaft, which had run aground and burned. The wrecked ship’s hold contained a dismounted gun, evidence that supported Admiralty suspicions that German merchant ships had the potential to arm themselves on the high seas. German warships prowled the area, most likely somewhere northwest of New Guinea.

On September 14, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had appeared off Apia, Samoa.19 SMS Emden’s activity in the Bay of Bengal also began to concern British shippers. Additionally, the governor of German New Guinea surrendered on September 15. Patey’s next priority was to organize the convoy of Australian troops for Aden. The convoy, originally consisting of twenty-seven transports, would be joined by fifteen troop carriers full of New Zealanders bringing the total ships needing escort to forty-two. When Patey learned of these developments, he postponed the convoy’s departure until September 27 so he could attempt to deal with the German threat. Patey directed Melbourne to continue to Sydney while he proceeded with Australia and Sydney to Rabaul. The admiral reasoned that since Admiral von Spee had determined that Samoa was occupied, the German might steam to Rabaul for intelligence and fuel. Because Apia lay at the far southeast reaches of German territories, any help that von Spee’s squadron might have received would have come from the north and west. Rabaul was the closest friendly base from which Germany’s East Asia squadron could draw fuel and information.

The Australian warships arrived at Rabaul on September 19 and refueled. Patey calculated that von Spee’s raiders could reach Rabaul by September 22. Patey, however, had guessed von Spee’s intentions incorrectly. Von Spee had continued eastward, abandoning his own bases of supply, electing to survive off of what he could possibly seize from the Allies.

Patey sent Sydney to Angaur to destroy the wireless station and then to check a known rendezvous point for German colliers in the open ocean on the equator. Australia and the remainder of Patey’s ships patrolled the vicinity north of New Guinea, looking for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. HMAS Sydney arrived at Angaur on September 26 and promptly put the high-frequency wireless station out of commission. The situation regarding provisions at Angaur was similar to that found at Samoa. Patey informed the Admiralty of the food shortages in the German territories and recommended that the Australians forgo occupying Angaur, Yap, and Nauru until they had made arrangements to properly care for the inhabitants. Supply shortages were the natural consequence of nearly completely curtailing German trade. Placing additional personnel on the islands without regular replenishment would only heighten the food deficit. The Admiralty, aware of Patey’s concerns, requested help from the Colonial Office to supply Germany’s Pacific islands.

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1 thought on “WWI PACIFIC ISLANDS

  1. . . . And later Rabaul becomes a key Japanese base in the Pacific. In the past, people understood the importance of geography to communications. Today, I wonder whether or not we have forgotten the importance of geography and have come to believe communications are independent of geography.

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