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Category: Conflicts

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This page is a sub category index

World War II, WW2, Second World War

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Sections on this page (Click the links)

World War II – The Leadup

World War II - Initiation

World War II - The Middle East

World War II - South East Asia 1941-42

World War II - South West Pacific 1941- 42

World War II - South West Pacific 1943-45

World War II -Army Casualties

World War II – The Leadup

Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and two days later Britain and France were once more at war with Germany. Australia, as a consequence, was also at war on the 3rd of September 1939.

Australia went to war with an ill-equipped and incompletely trained Army, still home-bound by the provisions of the Defence Act. The 2nd AIF was, therefore, raised in a similar fashion to the 1st - from former soldiers, civilians and volunteers from militia units.

Strangely enough the first round fired by Britain and the Dominions was again fired from the Fort Nepean Battery. A freighter repeatedly refused to be identified and attempted to enter Port Phillip at 1.50 am on 4 September, only five hours after the declaration of war. One round was sufficient for the SS 'Woniora' to establish her friendly intentions.

World War II - Initiation                

The outbreak of the war posed a difficult problem for the Government. The uncertainty of Japan's intentions and an Opposition opposed to both the raising of an expeditionary force and conscription for home defence, the contribution Australia should and could make to the war effort in Europe in terms of soldier numbers and composition. 

The same problem did not affect the Royal Australian Navy or the Royal Australian Air Force who were not bound to home service by the Defence Act and already had personnel serving overseas.

On 15 September 1939 the Government announced the raising of an infantry division (later to become the 6th Division) ‘for service at home or abroad as circumstances permit'. By late November it decided that the 6th Division should leave for the Middle East with the first elements departing in January 1940. Subsequently, approval was given in February to raise the 7th Division to increase Australia’s contribution to a Corps.

The German’s successful invasion of France and the Lowlands in May 1940 left Britain and the Dominions standing alone. This, with the ongoing uncertainty over Japanese intentions in the Pacific, changed both the Government’s and people’s attitude to the war to one of total commitment, including the raising of another AIF formation, the 8th Infantry Division.

By May one brigade of the 6th Division was already in Palestine, and two more convoys were on their way there. After inter-Government discussions one convoy continued to the Middle East while the other was diverted to England, subsequently to be reorganised into two infantry brigades. It was also decided that the 7th Division should join the 6th Division, while the 8th Division would be sent to Malaya as garrison troops. 

When Australia followed the British decision to reduce the number of Battalions in a brigade from four to three a train of re-organisation was started that provided enough resources to form a fourth AIF Infantry Division. The 9th Division was formed from the troops in Britain, together with others in the Middle East. 

As a result of the experiences in Europe, an armoured division was raised in Australia at the beginning of 1941, the 1st Armoured Division, but it was destined never to serve outside Australia. Meanwhile, Japan continued her peaceful penetration of South-East Asia

World War II - The Middle East                  

The Italians declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940 and in September began an advance into Egypt. Initial successes enabled them to reach Sidi Barrani, an advance of about 50 kilometres but on 10 December British and Indian troops counter attacked and forced them back to Bardia. 

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On 3 January 1941 the 6th Division launched an attack on Bardia, which was quickly taken for the loss of 130 killed and 326 wounded. Two days later, the 6th was outside Tobruk, well into Cyrenaica. Tobruk, a major Italian fortress, was attacked on 21 January and captured the next day, with 49 Australians killed and 306 wounded.The retreating enemy was pursued relentlessly and by 6 February, the 6th Division had reached Benghazi. On 9 March the 9th Division began to relieve the 6th. In two months an Italian Army of ten divisions, some 1300 guns and 400 tanks had been destroyed.

Change was soon to occur, with advance elements of the German Afrika Korps landing in North Africa during late February. Their advance forced the withdrawal of British and Dominion troops from most of their recently captured territory in Cyrenaica. By 11 April, the 9th Division, 18th Infantry Brigade and British armoured and artillery units were besieged in Tobruk, with German forces as far forward as the Egyptian frontier. 

Tobruk was heavily attacked on 30 April but, although a salient was forced on the defences, the garrison held firm. Another attack on 16 May was similarly defeated while the salient was steadily reduced by intense patrolling. During September and October the Australians were relieved for a well-earned rest. Some 3000 casualties had been sustained and 941 taken prisoner.

Further east, following a coup d’etat by Rashid Ali in early May, Iraq abrogated its treaty with Britain. The Iraqi Army was quickly defeated by British and Kurdish troops and the internal situation stabilised. However, the risk of German intervention, not just in Iraq but in areas under Vichy French control; made it strategically necessary to take control of Syria as well.

Syria was invaded on 8 June by the 7th Division (less 18th Brigade in Tobruk), together with one Indian and two Free French brigades. The attack followed three routes: the direct road to Damascus, through the mountains to the Damascus/ Beirut road at Zahle, and the coast road to Beirut. The Vichy French fought courageously, but by 15 June the allied force had reached the line Kiswe-Merdjayoun-Jezzine-Sidon. 

Despite a strong Vichy counter-attack in the vicinity of Merdjayoun, Damascus was captured on 21 June. Fighting continued until 12 July when the Vichy French were granted an armistice. This campaign resulted in 1600 Australian casualties, including 416 killed in action.

In addition to their military reversals in North Africa in February and March 1941, the Italians were in danger of being driven out of Greece. On 1 March 1941 German forces had entered Bulgaria and, on 6 April, Yugoslavia. Allied assistance had been ordered to Greece, and by 3 April a British armoured brigade and the ANZAC Corps (most of the 6th Australian Division and the New Zealand Division ) had arrived. On 10 April elements of this force made contact with the Germans some fifteen kilometres south of the Yugoslav. 

Outnumbered and with the enemy in total control of the air, the force was forced back through the Aliakmon and Thermopylae Lines to Athens area. Resistance finally collapsed but the skill and resolution of the Navy ensured that almost every fighting unit was evacuated, by 28 April, to Egypt or Crete. 

On 20 May Germany launched a parachute and airborne attack on Crete. Awaiting them was an 'ad hoc' mixed force of British, New Zealand, Australian and Greek troops, most recent evacuees from Greece, with little heavy equipment and almost no air support. By 26 May the position of the outnumbered allies was hopeless and evacuation ordered. Despite crippling losses the Navy saved 15,000 troops. A further 12,000 including 3000 Australians could not be evacuated and were taken prisoner.

Following the entry of Japan into the war on 7 December 1941, the 6th and 7th Divisions returned to Australia. The 9th Division remained in the Middle East. Late in May 1942 reinforced Axis forces began to advance in the Western Desert, and by 20-21 June had recaptured Tobruk. They were finally halted by three days of intense fighting at the El Alamein defensive positions, only some 90 kilometres of Alexandria., The 9th Division, then in Syria awaiting transport to Australia, was hurried forward to El Alamein. On 30 August the Axis forces again attacked but were defeated at Alam el Halfa. The German General von Mellenthin was later to describe this action as 'the turning point of the desert war’.

On 23 October the 8th Army attacked at El Alamein, the battle reaching a climax a week later. An attack by the 9th Division north toward the sea gained ground which successfully held against heavy German counter-attacks. After intense effort British armoured forces then broke out through the corridor originally secured by the 9th Division and by 9 November the Axis forces were in full retreat. This success released the 9th Division to return to Australia, where it arrived in February 1943. Australian losses for the whole period of the El Alamein operations from 7 July were 5809, including 1225 dead, 3638 wounded and 946 taken prisoner.

World War II - South East Asia 1941-42              

Following September 1940 when Japanese forces entered northern Indo-China, the Australian Government had become most concerned about the security of Singapore. From October 1940, the British and Dominion garrison there was steadily strengthened, including the 8th Division (less one brigade) which arrived in February 1941. In accordance with an agreement with the Netherlands East Indies made in early 1941, Australian battalion groups were landed at Ambon and Timor by mid-December 1941.

The Pearl Harbour attack was not the only Japanese operation in early December 1941. Japanese forces landed in Thailand and Malaya and attacked the Philippines. They advanced quickly, capturing Rabaul by 23 January 1942 and accepting the capitulation of Singapore on 15 February. Both Timor and Ambon were overrun by the Japanese by 23 February 1942 ( although some 300 Australians continued to harass them in Timor until withdrawn between December 1942 and February 1943). By 12 March the Japanese had taken Java.

Australian casualties in the campaign were 18,940, including 1,789 killed and 1,306 wounded

World War II - South West Pacific 1941- 42        

Elsewhere in the Pacific the Japanese advance had been equally dramatic, reaching Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea by 8 March 1942. Following a Japanese landing in the Philippines on 10 December 1941, Bataan surrendered on 9 April 1942 and Corregidor a month later. Fortunately the US Navy, supported by ships of the RAN, turned back a Japanese convoy headed for Port Moresby at the Battle of the Coral Sea on 5-8 May. After a further naval defeat at Midway on 4-6 June, the Japanese attempted an overland attack against Port Moresby.

In December 1941 Australia's seven militia divisions were mobilised and, early in January 1942, Australia agreed to redeploy the 1st Australian Corps (6th and 7th Divisions ) from the Middle East to the Far East. At about the same time the Port Moresby garrison was strengthened by two militia battalions and other units. The destination of 1st Australian Corps was changed to Australia following the fall of Singapore. 

In March-April 1942 the United States formed the South West Pacific Command and, with Australia’s agreement, General Douglas MacArthur was appointed supreme commander, with General Sir Thomas Blamey as his Commander Allied Land Forces.

The Japanese continued their campaign to seize New Guinea and on 21-22 July 1942 landed two infantry regiments with supporting troops at Gona and quickly moved inland to the northern start of the Kokoda Track. They planned to advance across this tortuous path and take Port Moresby from the north. The small Australian forces in the Buna/Gona area, and later the 39th Battalion coming up the Track to reinforce Kokoda fought a desperate rearguard action but were pushed all the way across the mountains to Isurava. On 23 August, the 21st Brigade of the 7th Division was sent into action on the Track. Fierce fighting continued but after a desperate struggle the Australians withdrew closer to Port Moresby.

Meanwhile Milne Bay had been reinforced by Army and RAAF units under the command of Major General Cyril Clowes, which pre-empted a Japanese landing force attempt to capture the Bay as additional base from which to advance on Port Moresby. The Australian Army and Air force worked together to defeat the Japanese amphibious force. Two weeks after landing the Japanese withdrew their survivors. This was the first time in the Pacific War that a Japanese amphibious force had been defeated.113

By 2 November the reinforced Australians had retaken Kokoda and on 11 November Japanese fighting units were forced to abandon Oivi. By 13 November the Australians had reached the Kumusi River. The battle for the Kokoda Track was over, although Japanese units continued to resist strongly in the extremely difficult terrain adjoining the coast around Buna, Gona and Sanananda until mid-January 1943.

World War II - South West Pacific 1943-45      

Allied intentions for 1943 included plans to recapture the Solomons as far as southern Bougainville, the New Guinea coast as far as Madang and the west coast of New Britain. The establishment of airfields on Kiriwina and Woodlark Islands was also planned. A defensive posture was to be taken against any possible attack against northern Australia from the Merauke-Torres Strait area.

By now, as in World War I, Australia was facing acute manpower problems from maintaining an Army of twelve divisions - a far larger number in proportion to population than Britain, America or Japan. Battle casualties and a high rate of tropical disease, particularly malaria and dysentery that had reduced the Army by the equivalent of a division. The provisions of the Defence Act, preventing conscripts from serving outside Australian territory, compounded the manpower problem. Many militia units were already designated as AIF since three-quarters of their strengths were volunteers. In February 1943, an Act was passed allowing the militia to serve anywhere in the South West Pacific Area below the equator.

By early 1943 the Japanese had heavily reinforced the Lae-Salamaua area and were exploiting to the south-east through Mubo to Wau, but were forced back to Mubo. In early March enemy attempts to reinforce Lae were defeated in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. By 14 July, the 3rd Division had cleared Mubo and then laid siege to Salamaua, held by the substantially reinforced Japanese 51st Division. Salamaua fell on 11 September and Lae, following operations by the 7th and 9th Divisions to its west and east, fell on 16 September.

The 7th Division continued the offensive, moving up the Markham Valley and the Ramu River, to occupy Dumpu by 4 October. Although heavy fighting developed on Shaggy Ridge in the Finisterre Mountains to the north, Japanese resistance collapsed by the end of January 1944. Meanwhile, on 22 September, the 9th Division had made a further landing north of Finschafen. Bitter fighting followed, particularly for the possession of Satelberg which did not fall until 24 November. By 8 December, the Japanese were in retreat, Sio falling on 15 January 1944. The three AIF divisions were withdrawn for rest and retraining, being replaced by the 3rd, 5th and 11th Militia Divisions.

Allied successes opened the way for a US invasion of the Philippines. As Australia’s national strategy was focussed on clearing Japanese forces from New Guinea, Australian forces were used to relieve the US garrisons in these territories. Due to manpower problems, the relieving Australian forces were much smaller than the US garrisons.

The ensuing Australian campaigns have since been the subject of much debate. From October 1944 onwards the 3rd Division and two independent brigades were moved to the Solomons, the 5th Division was allotted to New Britain and the 6th Division to Aitape, while the 8th Brigade continued its operations in the Madang-Sepik River area. Plans for 1945 committed I Corps (7th and 9th Divisions) to operations to the west of the American invasion of the Philippines, to capture areas in Borneo suitable as naval and air bases for future operations, to capture and hold the Borneo oil installations and re-establish the Netherlands East Indies Government in Borneo.

On 29 November, the unofficial policy of live-and-let-live between the American and Japanese forces on Bougainville was broken by the 3rd Division offensives to the north, across the centre and to the south of the Island. These continued, against periodic strong resistance and counter-attacks by the Japanese, through the first half of 1945. On New Britain, operations against the main Japanese positions across the Gazelle Peninsula were launched by the 5th Division, initially from Jacquinot Bay where it arrived in early November 1944. From mid-March the Division had reduced the Japanese garrison to such an extant that operational requirements were reduced to active patrolling forward of the secured areas. Meanwhile in New Guinea, the 6th Division developed its operations eastward along the coast from Aitape and through the Torricelli Ranges towards Wewak, which was secured by the end of May; operations continued against the Japanese forces which had withdrawn into the Prince Alexander Ranges until fighting ended in August 1945.

Operations on Borneo commenced eight days before the fighting in Europe ended. On 1 May 1945 the 9th Division landed at Tarakan and against heavy opposition secured the airfield. However obstinate opposition by the Japanese continued around Tarakan until the enemy withdrew on 14 June, being pursued relentlessly until the ceasefire in August. The 9th Division, on 10 June, was committed to capturing Brunei following landings at Labuan, the Muara Islands and Brunei Bluff. On 1 July, on the other side of the island, the 7th Division landed at Balikpapan in the largest amphibious assault undertaken by the Australians. After heavy fighting, the enemy withdrew on 21 July.

World War II Army Casualties

From over 724 000 enlistments, with almost 400,000 serving outside Australia, there were over 18,000 deaths, 22,000 wounded and over 20,000 prisoners of war, mainly from the early stage of the war with Japan.

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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces