The NW Pacific Islands overprint: Neville Threfall

Early in my schoolboy days of stamp-collecting I came across Australian stamps overprinted ‘N.W. Pacific Islands. This was a puzzler: what islands did Australia ever administer in the North-West Pacific? It took years to unravel the full story.

It begins in 1914, with the outbreak of World War 1. The British Government asked Australia to find and destroy the German Far East Cruiser Squadron, and to seize the German wireless stations in the Pacific. At that time Germany held a large colony under the title of ‘German New Guinea’, divided into two portions. The ‘Old Protectorate’ comprised the north-eastern quarter of the island of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago (New Britain, New Ireland, Manus and lesser islands) and Bougainville. The ‘Island Territory’ comprised several Micronesian island groups:  the Carolines, the Marianas and the Marshalls, and also Nauru.

The German Cruiser Squadron moved away eastward across the Pacific and did not feature in Australian operations. An Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force landed on New Britain on 11 September 1914 and seized the wireless station at Bitapaka after a sharp battle. The Acting Governor signed a surrender document on 17 September, ending all resistance in German New Guinea.

In the meantime Japan entered the war as an ally of Britain. The British Government requested that the Japanese Navy patrol the waters of the Island Territory until Australia could occupy those islands. The Japanese rushed to occupy a number of the islands, but promised to leave when Australia was ready to take over. A separate force, called the North- West Pacific Expedition, was prepared in Australia to take over and administer the Micronesian island groups until the end of the war. They took with them a quantity of Australian stamps overprinted ‘N.W. Pacific Islands’, for use in the islands, which were indeed in the north-west Pacific.

In mid-November, the North-West Pacific Expedition was ready to sail for the Island Territory and take over from the Japanese but when the Japanese were advised of this there was an abrupt reversal of the promise to allow the Australian force to occupy the islands. The Japanese were already mining phosphate in the Micronesian islands and were not prepared to leave. In order to keep Japan as an ally, Britain told Australia to keep its forces south of the Equator. Australian forces had already occupied Nauru, which had been administered by Germany as part of the Marshall Islands, and as this island was south of the Equator, the Australian garrison was allowed to remain there.

The NWPE therefore went to Rabaul and its members served with the Australian garrison of the Old Protectorate. The stamps they carried, with the N.W. Pacific Islands overprint, were put into use there, as there was a need for postage stamps at Rabaul and other centres. The colonial stamps of German New Guinea had previously been overprinted ‘G.R.I’ (Georgius Rex Imperator: George King and Emperor) with values in shillings and pence, for use by the Australian occupying force. When these were used up, registration labels were overprinted for use as stamps, and Marshall Islands stamps brought from Nauru were overprinted; but these stocks were also exhausted. The Australian stamps with their N.W. Pacific Islands overprint were therefore very welcome, and orders were sent to Australia for further stocks of the overprints.

The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force continued to occupy and administer the Old Protectorate portion of German New Guinea until 1921, still using these overprinted stamps. This is a rare example of stamps being overprinted for use in one region but never getting there and being used in another region. Some of the overprints were also used in yet another area, Woodlark Island, where the ANMEF established a wireless station to improve wireless signals between Rabaul and Australia.

The ANMEF’s work ended in May 1921, when Australia was granted a Mandate by the League of Nations to administer the portion of German New Guinea south of the Equator. (Japan received a Mandate to administer the portion north of the Equator, the former Island Territory.) The overprinted stamps continued in use for another four years. Australia provided no money to the civil Administration of the Mandated Territory and the cost of designing stamps for the Territory was deferred until 1925. So the overprint intended for use in Micronesia, ‘the North-West Pacific Islands’, was never used there but was used instead by the:

  • British Military Occupation of German New Guinea (south of the Equator) 1915-21;
  • ANMEF personnel operating Woodlark Island Wireless Station, in the Territory of Papua 1916-21;
  • Administration of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea 1921-25.


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