Missing image
Space Radar Image of Rabaul Volcano

Rabaul was the capital of East New Britain province, on New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea until 1994. It was built within the caldera of a large volcano, and was always vulnerable to an eruption. In 1994, a particularly large eruption took place. The new capital, Kokopo, is just 20km away, so the region (and new airport) is still most often referred to as Rabaul.

Rabaul has good diving and snorkeling sites and a spectacular harbour, and so was slowly becoming a popular tourist destination before the eruptions. There are still several diving operators based there.



In 1910 Germany relocated their headquarters to the new town of Rabaul. It was given the name Rabaul as this means mangrove in Kuanua (the local language) and the town was built on a reclaimed mangrove swamp.

Britain was awarded New Guinea from the German Empire after the First World War. Rabaul susquently became the capital of the Territory of New Guinea. Before World War II, Rabaul was being developed into a regional base.

World War II

Missing image
WWII Japanese landing barges near Rabaul

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor it was obvious that Rabaul would come under attack. By December 1941 all women and children were evacuated. In January 1942 a huge bombing raid by the Japanese announced the coming invasion.

After occupation the Japanese developed Rabaul into a much more powerful base than the British had planned. The occupying Japanese army dug many kilometres of underground tunnels as shelter from the Allied air forces. By 1943 there were about 110,000 Japanese troops based in Rabaul.

On April 18 1943, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was shot down and killed by U.S. fighter planes after taking off from Rabaul. Japanese communications describing Yamamoto's flight itinerary were decrypted allowing the hastily dispatched fighter contingent.

Instead of capturing Rabaul, the Allied forces bypassed it by establishing a ring of airfields on islands around it. Cut off from resupply and under constant air attack, the base became useless. The Japanese held Rabaul until they surrendered at the end of the war in August 1945.

The war made a lasting impression on Rabaul. There is still much military debris in the harbour, on the land and buried in the hills.

Volcanic Eruptions

Remains of an internal staircase in Rabaul from the 1994 eruption. Note the depth of the ash.
Remains of an internal staircase in Rabaul from the 1994 eruption. Note the depth of the ash.

Rabaul's close proximity to its volcanos has always been a source of concern. In 1878 an eruption caused the formation of Vulcan in the harbour.

In 1937 two volcanos, Tavurvur and Vulcan, erupted killing 507 people and causing enormous damage. Following this the Australian administration for the Territory of New Guinea decided to move its headquarters to the safer location of Lae.

In 1983 and 84 the town was ready for evacuation when the volcanos started to heat up. Nothing happened until the 19th of September 1994, when again Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted destroying the airport and most of the town with heavy ashfall.

The last eruption prompted the relocation of the provincial capital to Kokopo.

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