“German warships would carry to the fight against the Allies to the very shores of Nauru. The ensuing battle would represent the only Nazi military action of World War Two to take place in the South Pacific.”
IN LATE 1940, the tiny tropical island of Nauru seemed about as far from the bloody battlefields of the Second World War as one could get. Also known as Pleasant Island, the 21 sq. km (8 sq. mile) paradise sits roughly 3,000 km due east of New Guinea and 5,000 km southwest of Hawaii – a long way from Europe and North Africa indeed. Yet by December of that year, German warships would carry to the fight against the Allies to the very shores of Nauru. The ensuing battle would represent the only Nazi military action of World War Two to take place in the South Pacific.
Despite its small size Nauru figured prominently in the Allied war effort. The isolated island supplied a million tons of phosphate a year. A key ingredient in the production of fertilizer, phosphate was of particular importance to Australia’s agricultural sector. Since the First World War, administrators from the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) had overseen the extraction of the precious commodity from the island. The agency employed nearly all working-age males out of Nauru’s 1,700 inhabitants in the process and imported another 1,300 Chinese labourers to lend a hand. And while the small, oval-shaped territory lacked any sort of natural harbor, BPC engineers outfitted Nauru with a massive steel jetty for cargo ships along with a loading chute to help move the all-important resource. As such, the waters off Nauru were teeming with sea traffic as vessel after vessel came alongside to fill their holds with phosphate. Yet, despite the island’s strategic significance, it was virtually undefended — even more than a year into the war.
The Battle of Nauru
Nazi Germany was only too happy to capitalize on Nauru’s vulnerability. On Dec. 6, 1940, two heavily armed German commerce raiders, the Orion and the Komet, along with the supply ship Kulmerland, arrived in the waters surrounding the island. The vessels had already been laying mines and preying on Allied sea traffic in the Indian Ocean for weeks. Now the small fleet was about to turn its guns on the unprotected merchant ships at Nauru.
In less than 48 hours, the attackers, which had initially sailed in to the area disguised as harmless Japanese transport vessels, easily destroyed five British, Australian and Norwegian boats using both guns and torpedoes. After driving off the remaining shipping, the Komet’s the commander of the expedition, Robert Eyssen, organized a shore party to storm Nauru and destroy the phosphate facilities there. High winds and choppy seas prevented a landing and the mission had to be scrubbed.
Eyssen withdrew and made for the island of Emirau – a sparsely inhabited Australian territory several days voyage to the west. Once there, the Germans put ashore more than 100 survivors of the doomed merchant ships and then scattered before the alarm could be raised. The Kulmerland steamed for the safety of Japan while the Orion set a course for the Marianas. The ship lingered in the South Seas for a few more months with only limited success before heading for home. Captain Eyssen ordered his ship, the Komet, to return to Nauru alone and continue the earlier attacks.
At dawn, two days after Christmas, the German warship re-appeared off the beaches of Nauru. Shortly before 7 a.m., the vessel opened fire on the island, targeting the harbour facility and loading terminal using its battery of a half dozen 15 cm guns. After a 60-minute cannonade, the Komet withdrew and set sail for the Indian Ocean. Although brief, the attack caused significant damage to the phosphate loading facility and disrupted exports for several months. The stoppage led to a major fertilizer shortage in Australia, cutting into agricultural output. Surprisingly, even Japan, which was not yet at war with the Allies, suffered from the German action. It too depended on Nauru for phosphates and was also more than a little irked that Nazi ships had initiated hostilities while under a Japanese flag. In fact, Tokyo was so incensed by the circumstances surrounding the attack, it lodged a protest with the Fuhrer in Berlin. The emperor’s diplomats even threatened scale back relations with its new Tripartite Alliance partner because of the disruption.
Australia, recognizing its vulnerability, immediately stepped up naval patrols throughout the western Pacific to check the threat of Nazi commerce raiders. But the damage was already done.
The Fate of the Komet
The Komet remained in the South Seas well into 1941 before crossing the Pacific, rounding Cape Horn and sailing into the Atlantic. When it finally put into port at Cherbourg, France later that year, the ship had circumnavigated the globe, logging an impressive 100,000 sea miles in less than 600 days. More significantly, the Komet, and its two accompanying vessels, had successfully undertaken the only significant Nazi military operation in the Pacific during World War Two.
In 1942, the Komet embarked on a second voyage, but was intercepted and destroyed by British vessels off Normandy. All hands were lost. The wreckage of the German raider was discovered off Cap de la Hague, France in 2006.
Post Script: No Peace for Nauru
Calm quickly returned to Nauru following the Nazi attack, but it wouldn’t last.
In the fall of 1942, several hundred Japanese troops landed on the island and captured it without a fight. The occupiers evacuated most of the westerners to internment camps elsewhere in the Pacific and bolstered the local workforce with labourers from Korea and elsewhere. Phosphate extraction was stepped up considerably and, in addition to strip mining, the workers were forced to build an airstrip and defensive fortifications. Living conditions on Nauru were brutal under the Japanese. Several hundred natives were forcibly moved to neighbouring islands but the occupiers were even more cruel to the Chinese workforce, whom they considered sub-human. Scores were worked and beaten to death.
In March of 1943, American bombers struck the finished airstrip on Nauru. By way of retaliation, Japanese troops slaughtered the handful of Australians that had remained on the island following the invasion. More air raids would follow.
As the Americans steadily began to win control of the Pacific, the Japanese high command found it impossible to re-supply the isolated outpost on Nauru. By 1944, labourers and soldiers alike began to go hungry. Yet, although the island was completely cut off and slowly starving, the Allies bypassed it entirely, landing troops elsewhere.
Even after Japan’s surrender, hundreds of occupying troops remained on Nauru for weeks – they had no way of leaving. What’s more, the Allies seemed to be in no hurry to reclaim the territory. Australian troops finally arrived in mid-September and disarmed the defenders without incident. But the war had left its mark on the island — hundreds of Nauruese perished or been deported. What’s more, the starving occupiers ravaged the landscape in search of food. It would take years for the island to recover from the tragedy. Nauru eventually declared independence in 1968. Today, it’s the world’s smallest island nation.