World War 2 (3 September 1939 to 15 August 1945)

About This Conflict

"Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement."     Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies. 3 September 1939 (/research/home-page-archives/80-years-since-the-declaration-of-war-on-germany-to-begin-the-second-world-war)

If World War 1 impacted Australia in terms of sheer numbers of personnel losses, it was largely remote from Australia.  Just 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles bought the Great War to an end, World War 2 (WW 2) began, initially in Europe.  But this conflict was to bring the war to Australia’s doorstep; bombs rained on its Northernmost settlements and the threat of invasion seemed real and imminent.  It changed Australia’s outlook on the world and our society forever.


WW 2 commenced when Britain and the Commonwealth declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland in September 1939.  As in World War 1, Britain's former colonies rallied to her colours.  Australia, which had run down its defence forces dramatically during the 1930s,  immediately set about raising the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to comprise the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Divisions for overseas service.  

Concurrently, a truly remarkable piece of visionary mobilisation planning began to take effect with the establishment of the Empire Air Training Scheme. (/explore/campaigns/13)  Training bases began to take shape all over the Commonwealth but particulary in Australia and Canada.  Britain had realised early that it would never match the much larger Germany in the manpower stakes of running a modern airforce.

With the conflict initially confined to Europe, the first units of the AIF were despatched to the United Kingdom, which by then was standing alone against the might of Nazi occupied Europe with an imminent prospect of invasion, a depleted Army with much of its equipment lost after the retreat from Dunkirk and just its Air Force and Navy standing between a beleaguered island and a Nazi invasion force.


The Australian Second AIF 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions were despatched as in the Great War,  to the Middle East.  The 8th Division was moved to Malaya (/explore/campaigns/49) to join British garrison forces there. At the time it was a move that seemed relatively benign, but it was one which was later to have far reaching consequences.

The RAAF meanwhile provided aircraft and men, in a major commitment to the UK. The Empire Air Training Scheme (see link above) eventually trained some 27,000 airmen, with thousands of men training and ultimately serving alongside and within the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom.  

Indeed it was among these men, primarily those in Bomber Command, (/explore/campaigns/12) that the single largest cohort of Australian losses in WW2 occurred. 

No. 10 Squadron RAAF had been in the UK at the outbreak of war to take delivery of its Sunderland Flying Boats.  It was to remain in the UK as part of Coastal Command for the duration of the War.  It was later joined by No. 461 Squadron making a major contribution to the UK's maritime protection screen in the Battle of the Atlantic (/explore/campaigns/99).

In June 1941 the Soviet Union entered the War when it was invaded by Germany.  Thus at last a major slice of the German war machine was diverted diverted away from other theatres of battle in which Britain and its Dominion Forces were barely holding on.

The Middle East

The Middle East campaign may have seemed much like WW1 to the Australian population, when the War was a very long way away. Australian Forces fought with distinction throughout the Middle East campaign, operations in Libya in North Africa (/explore/campaigns/107) where they largely expelled the Italian Forces there, before the campaign fragmented with forays to Greece, Crete and Syria.  

The latter was successful in overcoming the Vichy French forces there but Greece (/explore/campaigns/10) and later Crete (/explore/campaigns/134) ended in disaster as the Germans came to aid of their beleagured Ally, Italy.  Later with the arrival of the German Afrika Korps in the Western Desert, the Allies' fortunes took a turn for the worse.  In a massive filip to Alied morale, the Siege of Tobruk (/explore/campaigns/85) earned the  9th Division and its supporting elements, including the 18th Brigade from the 7th Division, the derisory sobriquet 'Rats of Tobruk' from the German propagandist 'Lord Haw Haw'.  They adopted it with pride and wrote a new and very creditable chapter in the annals of Australian military history.

Meanwhile Australia had committed naval elements to the Mediterranean early in the war.  Ships such as the HMAS Perth and Sydney, which played a key role in actions at  Cape Spada and later Cape Matapan, both off Crete.  In the first, Sydney played the key role in the destruction of the Italian crusier Bartoleomo Corleoni.  Cape Matapan was a major victory for the Royal Navy, resulting in the destruction of an Italian cruiser squadron. The legendary 'Scrap Iron Flotilla' comprised of WW1-era ships, HMAS Stuart, Voyager, Vampire, Vendetta and Waterhen were made famous by the Battle of Matapan, the evacuation of Allied forces from Greece and Crete and the so-called "Tobruk Ferry Service" in which 'Waterhen' was lost.

RAAF units also served in the Middle East as part of the 'Desert Air Force'  and later in the Italian campaign in the northern Mediterranean.

Although the European war was a long way away, Nazi Germany had a long reach, as was evident with the loss of HMAS Sydney (/research/home-page-archives/19-november-anniversary-of-the-sinking-of-hmas-sydney) on 19 November 1941, off the Western Australian coast.  The southern coast of Australia was also the subject of enemy mine-laying activities.

The Pacific War

Australia's focus changed dramatically on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese entered the War by bombing Pearl Harbour, and crippling the US Pacific Fleet.  This action brought the USA into the War as well. All of a sudden, Australia was in direct imminent danger.

The 8th Division, fully 25% of the AIF's Field Force, was swallowed up by the Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula. (/explore/campaigns/48)  Britain's "Fortress Singapore" strategy went down with its two capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, sunk off the Malayan coast by Japanese air power, in the absence of any worthwhile air support of their own. With the fall of Singapore in February 1942 (/research/home-page-archives/the-fall-of-singapore), the 8th Division and RAAF ground crews, who could not get out on departing aircraft, were largely consigned to captivity for the rest of the War.  The 23rd Brigade of the 8th Division had been scattered across the island groups to Australia's north in a flawed strategic setting, the so-called 'bird' Forces.   

Meanwhile, the 6th and 7th Divisions were hastily recalled from the Middle East.  A major divide occurred between the Curtin Government in Australia and Britain's Sir Winston Churchill, when Churchill tried to re-direct the convoy to Burma to support beleaguered British and Indian forces there. Curtin was having none of that and it is hard to imagine the troops on board wanting to be anywhere other than rushing to the defence of their own homeland.  This precipitated the famous speech in which Curtin said that Australia now turned to the United States (/research/home-page-archives/australias-shift-from-the-united-kingdom-to-the-united-states) as its principal partner in stemming the Japanese threat, thus radically re-shaping Australia's traditional strategic relationships.

The shock loss of Singapore and nearly all of the 8th Division to the seemingly unstoppable Japanese onslaught caused near panic in Australia.  To further deepen the sense of foreboding, a scratch force, called "Blackforce" (/research/home-page-archives/java-1942--blackforce-and-the-loss-of-hmas-perth) had been diverted to Java from the returning convoy, and was effectively abandoned in a hopeless situation, without even weapons, vehicles or ammunition, which were on other ships in the convoy.  Named for its commander, South Australian Brigadier Arthur Blackburn, VC, Blackforce gave a very good account of itself, equipping with abandoned Dutch weapons and stores.  They conducted an effective delaying defence, until they ran out of options or any chance of the promised evacuation. So Blackforce was left with no option but surrender,  thus squandering a significant capability that would be sorely needed elsewhere.

Australia's naval and air units also took a mauling with the loss of HMAS Yarra and HMAS Perth (see the link at Blackforce above), and numerous fighter, light bomber and maritime patrol aircraft.  

The 23rd Brigade elements of the 8th Division scattered through the islands of Timor and New Britain suffered a similar fate;   "Lark Force" at Rabaul and "Gull Force" in Ambon (/research/home-page-archives/the-loss-of-ambon-and-gull-force) were overwhelmed and subjected to brutal atrocities by the Japanese victors.  Only "Sparrow Force" in Timor (/research/home-page-archives/dutch-timor-and-sparrow-force) avoided total annihilation and went on to wage a guerilla war against the Japanese for some time.

Homeland Defence

Back in Australia, all that was left in the way of armed forces was the Militia or Citizen's Forces.  The militia battalions, many with direct lineage to the battalions of the First World War, were also mobilised on the outbreak of war,  but for home service (and in designated territories) only. This created a schism with the AIF that had far reaching consequences well beyond the Second World War.

The militia were derisively referred to as 'Chockos' by the AIF (and the media),  implying that they were 'chocolate soldiers' who would 'melt' when 'the heat was on'. Ironically, 'the heat was on' very shortly afterwards.

Darwin was bombed for the first time on 19 February 1942 (/research/home-page-archives/75th-anniversary-of-the-bombing-of-darwin), with heavy loss of life and not entirely creditable behaviour by some of the forces deployed there.  Additional detail HERE (/research/home-page-archives/the-bombing-of-darwin)

Fortuitously, the Battle of the Coral Sea (/research/home-page-archives/the-battle-of-the-coral-sea) in May 1942 checked the Japanese advance and their intention to put a marine landing force ashore near Port Moresby.  It was the first naval battle in which the ships engaged in it never sighted one another, but rather fought it out with naval air power. 

However, their goal to mount an amphibious landing at Port Moresby, thwarted by the losses at Coral Sea, was replaced with an overland strategy. Things got worse for the Australians when the Japanese landed on the north coast of New Guinea in June 1942.  This very soon developed into the Kokoda campaign by August 1942 (/explore/campaigns/51).  It was a "chocko" Militia Brigade and in particular one Battalion, the 39th, which stoically stood in the breech against a Japanese force that threatened Port Moresby. This was achieved despite being seriously outnumbered; under equipped with no artillery or support weapons; poorly supplied with inadequate food and clothing; being directed by a dysfunctional higher command structure in a combined US / Australian headquarters in Brisbane that had no first-hand notion of the conditions under which operations were being conducted. In the author's opinion, a greater scandal in the conduct of the nation's defence cannot be found. 

'Chockos' indeed.  They held the line in appalling conditions until relieved by elements of the newly arrived 7th Division, which were initially integrated into'Maroubra Force',  commanded by Brigadier Arnold Potts.  They too came under pressure of the Japanese advance.  Potts fell back realising the Japanese supply lines would be extended as his own were shortened.

Concurrently, elements of the 6th Division, specifically the 18th Brigade, comprising the 2nd/9th, /10th and /11th Battalions supported by the RAAF' 75 and 76 Squadrons, inflicted the first defeat of the War on Japanese land forces at the Battle of Milne Bay (/explore/campaigns/51) on the Eastern tip of Papua New Guinea in August - September 1942 as famously noted by Field Marshal Sir William Slim commander of the British 14th Army in Burma, and later Governor General of Australia.

Australian troops had, at Milne Bay, inflicted on the Japanese, their first undoubted defeat on land.  Some of us may forget that of all the Allies, it was the Australians who first broke the spell of Japanese invincibility."

Meanwhile Australia's remaining Division still in the Middle East, the 9th Division, under arguably Australia's most successful Commander, Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Moreshead, played a key role in the final defeat of the Germans at El Alamein in late 1942.  The 9th Division then also returned to Australia.

Fight Back

Air War SW Pacific (/explore/campaigns/84)

RAN Operations SW Pacific / Indian Ocean 1941/43 (/explore/campaigns/96)

Battles of the Beachheads (/explore/campaigns/93)

Australia's Front Line - Darwin Defenders (/explore/campaigns/130) 


more to follow................


Steve Larkins  November 2013 updated February 2022



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