The Rabaul Guns
German Artillery in New Guinea 1914
Researched by Aaron Carson

7.85cm Krupp Feldkanone C73 captured in German New Guinea
Photo taken at the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre, Garden Island in Sydney by Nick Dowling / WikiCommons

 

 

 

 
 

The small German force of Polizeitruppe and Reservists that defended the radio station at Bita-Paka from the Australian invasion of 1914 did not use any artillery in their defence. Period photographs show a couple of very obsolete artillery pieces were owned by German forces in New Guinea over the years but nothing that would be of much use in modern warfare. Thus it is usually written in histories that there was no German artillery on New Guinea.

This was proven to be wrong when the gun shown above was spotted at the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre in Sydney, Australia. It is a 7.85cm Krupp Feldkanone C73 and the museum caption says that it was captured by the Australians in German New Guinea 1914-

  "On 11 Sep 1914 under the cover of His Majesty's Australian Ships (HMAS) Australia, Sydney, Encounter, Yarra, Warrego and the submarines AE1 and AE2, Reservists of the RAN Naval Brigade landed at Rabaul in German New Britain as part of the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF). Opposed by 300 German and colonial troops, the Brigade outflanked and overwhelmed the defenders seizing an important wireless station. The action cost the lives of the first Australian sailors to fall in World War I, Able Seaman John Courtney and Able Seaman Bill Williams. This gun is the first piece of enemy ordnance captured in combat by Australian forces in World War I."  

The director of the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre in Sydney, Commander Shane Moore recently provided this information on the gun in Sydney-
 

  "The gun is a Krupp 12 pdr (75mm/7.5cm) field piece c1889. It was not unusual for guns that were aging to be transferred to Colonial outposts (as was this one c1910) as the most up-to-date artillery was not normally required. The gun, when captured, was part of the defensive works that the Germans had established....Any shells captured with the gun would more than likely would have dumped in the ocean. The records show that the gun was fully operational and fired during the engagement..... Many 'old' guns transferred to colonial outposts (German, British, French and Spanish) were more for 'show than go' but operational (even if obsolete) weapons were still required (as in this case)."  

This is the only reference I have so far found to the gun having been used in action. The 'Australian Official History of the War' (Vol X, P47, SS Mackenzie) says the guns had no ammunition and further mentions in its description of the German forces that there were two guns at Rabaul-

  A police inspector, a cavalry captain in the regular army, supervised the training, armament, and distribution of the native police. The Colonial Office provided in addition the services of a senior lieutenant of the regular army; he had charge of the training of the native expeditionary force, the strength of which had, some months before the war, been raised to 240. There were no fixed defences at any place in the territory, nor any field artillery, and though there were in Rabaul two guns without limbers, to be used for firing salutes, there was no effective ammunition available for them. A machine-gun which had been stored in Rabaul was taken away by the Planet when she departed early in August ; another was at Madang. The troops were armed with the Mauser rifle, for which there was an ample supply of ammunition."  

Having no limbers would have made the guns difficult to move. The fact they limbers were not issued would seem to indicate they were not meant for action, certainly not on expeditions to the interior of the colony to suppress rebellious tribes.

After the surrender of German New Guinea, the former German acting governor of the colony, Eduard Haber was repatriated to Germany via America, which was of course still neutral at the time. While in New York, Haber gave an interview to the New York Times (published 11th February 1915) in which he described the German forces and confirmed the possession of two guns-

  "Both Rabaul and Herberstohe, the sea ports, were undefended. There were no fortifications at Toma, simply open plantations. We had no canon of any kind except two little pieces that were used for saluting but we had a number of rifles of the 1898 pattern."  

So if there were two guns what became of them both? In the Australian Archives is a copy of a dispatch received from the Administrator, Rabaul, New Britain dated the 11th December 1914. It tells of the guns' fate-
 

  "With reference to the two Krupp field guns taken at Rabaul...One gun was sent to Sydney ex 'Berrima' which left here on October 4th.... If it has not been handed over to the military commandant, it is probably still in the possession of the naval authorities at Garden Island."  

This explains the gun seen above which is now at the still in naval possession in Sydney and was until recently at the Garden Island naval base in Sydney. In the same dispatch, the Administrator then went on to describe the second gun-
 

  "The other gun is still here, but is without its wheels which were both damaged beyond repair, caused by the gun having been thrown into a ravine. I will endeavour to fit it with wheels but if not successful I will send it to Australia as is at the first opportunity."  

So it appears that the Germans may have attempted to prevent the gun falling into enemy hands and damaged the wheels in the process. It seems from later notes that the Administrator in Rabaul was true to his word and had sent the un-fixed remains of the second gun onto Sydney at some point.

After the war when the idea of an Australian War Museum was conceived, the museum requested that one of the Rabaul guns be added to its collection.  On 5th august 1920 the Australian War Museum wrote to the Ministry of Defence in Melbourne to say they were interested in displaying a gun from New Guinea-
 

  "With reference to your letter 55375 of the 21st July, the War museum would be very pleased to receive the Krupp Gun No 669 now in Sydney received from Rabaul. This gun will add considerably to the interest of the collection of trophies and relics connected with the occupation of the North West Pacific Islands at present in the possession of the War Museum."  

The ministry of defence passed the request onto the the Ordinance Department of the Australian 2nd Military District in Sydney who confirmed to the Museum in Melbourne on 17th September 1920-
 

 

"I beg to advise you that in accordance with instructions received from headquarters, Melbourne, I have arranged to dispatch per SS Karoola sailing on  18/9/20 the following:- 1 Krupp gun, No 6695/1892, 1 Carriage, 2 Wheels without spokes, 1 Nave for breech block, 1 Box, breech block"

 

Note the wheels are without spokes suggesting that this is the damaged second gun. The first gun in better condition remained in Sydney. The museum acknowledged receipt of the delivery on 29th September 1920. The Australian War Museum opened to the public on ANZAC Day 1922 but the Rabaul Gun 6695 was not on display. The current Australian War Memorial does not display the gun either and has no record of it in their collection. We emailed the AWM and got this reply from Assistant Curator Mike Eztel-
 

  "There is mention of a ceded war trophy coastal gun being allocated to Longreach in Queensland c 1919 of a 3.5 inch (87 mm) Coastal Gun Krupp Model C/73 that allegedly came from Rabaul and transported to Longreach by the SS Austral Glen. The serial number is 6695 (669 S)?  The reference is War Trophies, from the First World War 1914-1918, Major R S Billet Kangaroo Press, 1999 ISBN 0 86417 977 4. Maybe this is the missing artillery piece that you are searching for?"  

Since then we have emailed the Longreach Tourist Board to see if they know anything of the gun. So far we have yet to receive a reply.

Sources and Recommended External Links
Australian Official History of the War in the Pacific
Governor Haber's New York Times Interview

Australian War Memorial
Origins of the Australian War Memorial
List of Guns allocated as War Trophies in Australia from Artillery History (no mention of the Rabaul Guns)
List of Guns allocated as War Trophies to the Australian War Museum (no mention of the Rabaul Guns)
Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre
Article on the C73 Gun on Lovett Artillery
 

This article was researched by Aaron Carson. Thanks very much to him for sharing all his research with us. Thanks also to Mike Eztel of the Australian War Memorial and Commander Shane Moore of the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre for their generous assistance.

 


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