Australia entered the Second World War soon after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Though like most of the combatants in the First World War the country's military resources had been run down in the inter war period a there was a core of experienced soldiers, sailors and airmen around which an expanded force could be built.
Remote from Europe and at the end of a long an hazardous shipping route in the Second World War Australia became innovative and inventive. The Owen gun – a 9mm sub machine gun developed in 1940 was superior to the British Sten and would remain in service into the 1960s with the Australian Army. In the air the CAC Boomerang became the first Australian designed and built combat aircraft and would serve from 1942 to 1945.
Greece and Crete
The Second Australian Imperial Force (2 AIF) was made up of volunteers and would would play a significant part in the war in North Africa and Greece and Crete before facing the more immediate threat of Japanese invasion. Within 2 AIF the 6th Division and 9th Division would see action in Greece, Crete and North Africa including the critical battle of El Alamein.
On 6 April 1941 in support of an abortive campaign by fascist Italy, German forces had attacked Greece and Yugoslavia. The Greeks had been promised support by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and consequently British, Australian and New Zealand troops were despatched from Egypt to Greece.
From the outset, the Allied forces were vastly outnumbered. Some 58,000 men, including two thirds of the Australian 6th Division, were transported from Africa and, together with the Greek Army, faced two German armies: the 12th, consisting of 13 divisions, and the 2nd, with 15 divisions, and including four armoured divisions in each. The campaign was hindered by poor communications between the Greek and British commanders, the primitive road and rail system in Greece, the difficult terrain, and the speed and success of the German advance. On the first day, the Germans made a devastating air attack on Piraeus; the Allies lost the initiative and never regained it. Yugoslavia capitulated quickly, cutting the Greek supply route to its forces on the Italian front.
Australian and New Zealand troops (redesignated the ANZAC Corps) undertook some very successful local fighting but withdrawal was soon inevitable. The occupation of historic Thermopylae Pass by Vasey's 19th Brigade was merely a respite in the retreat down to Athens. The evacuation began on 24 April and over 50,000 troops were removed over five successive nights. A number of small, isolated groups and individual Allied soldiers who had been cut off from the retreat were left behind in Greece. Many of these escaped largely owing to the bravery of the Greek people who assisted them.
Many of these men from the ANZAC Corps were evacuated to Crete where though now woefully ill equipped and armed along with local Greek, British troops they prepared to hold this strategically important island.
The German airborne invasion of the island is a unique as the first mass airborne attack in military history. The island garrison fought hard and were close to defeating the Germans but a combination of German aerial superiority and poor communications allowed the paratroopers and mountain troops to roll up the defences of the island from west to east But it was at a terrible cost One German battalion lost more than two-thirds of its men. The heroic rearguard action at Galatas by the 2/7th Battalion, AIF, and the New Zealand Maori battalion left 280 German dead and allowed the retreating forces to reach the evacuation point on the south of the island at Suda Bay. HMAS Perth was hit while carrying members of the AIF back to Egypt.
Although 15,000 men were evacuated by ships of the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, some 12,000 Allied troops, including 3,000 Australians, were left on Crete and most became prisoners of war of the Germans. As in Greece, some made daring escapes. Many were sheltered by the people of Crete. The Commonwealth War Graves war cemetery at Suda Bay contains the graves of 139 men of the AIF and the RAAF.
Rats of Tobruk
It was in the Libyan port of Tobruk in North Africa that men of the Australian 9th Division under their experienced commander Lt General Leslie Morshead became a legend as the "Rats of Tobruk". The Australians gave themselves the nickname 'the Rats of Tobruk' after Radio Berlin described the garrison being as 'caught like rats in a trap'. The rat association also came from the ability of the Diggers to scavenge captured enemy equipment and use it against its former owners as well as the extensive tunnels and field fortifications.
The old warships that in hazardous night time operations brought supplies and evacuated the wounded from Tobruk were described by a broadcaster from Radio Berlin as a 'pile of scrap iron'. The Australians therefore affectionately dubbed their life line 'The Scrap Iron Flotilla'.
General Archibald Wavell C-in-C British Middle East Command had tasked Morshead to hold the port for eight weeks, but the division would eventually hold it for over five months. It was in the fighting for Tobruk that on July 1, 1941 Corporal John Edmondson would win the first Australian Victoria Cross of the Second World War. His citation reads:-
"On the night of 13th-14th April, 1941, a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences at Tobruk, and established themselves with at least six machine guns, mortars and two small field pieces. It was decided to attack them with bayonets, and a party consisting of one officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates, took part in the charge. During the counter-attack Corporal Edmondson was wounded in the neck and stomach but continued to advance under heavy fire and killed one enemy with his bayonet. Later, his officer had his bayonet in one of the enemy and was grasped about the legs by him, when another attacked him from behind. He called for help, and Corporal Edmondson, who was some yards away, immediately came to his assistance and in spite of his wounds, killed both of the enemy. This action undoubtedly saved his officer's life."
Shortly after returning from this successful counter-attack, Corporal Edmondson died of his wounds. His actions throughout the operations were outstanding for resolution, leadership and conspicuous bravery
Edmondson is buried in the Tobruk Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
Men of the 2 AIF 8th Division fought in Malaya and Singapore but many who had been rushed to Singapore as reinforcements became prisoners when the island fortress fell to the Japanese. In New Guinea the 7th Division would fight their Japanese adversaries to a stand still and then begin the long slog northwards towards Japan.
The War at Sea
On November 19, 1941 the cruiser HMAS Sydney fought a battle to the death with the German commerce raider Kormoran off the west coast of Australia. Though there were survivors from the German ship, the Sydney was lost with all hands. The wrecks of the two ships were only located in March 2008.
HMAS Sydney (DDGH42) a Hobart Class guided missile destroyer that will enter service in 2017 has a name with a rare pedigree – fourteen battle honours have been awarded to HMAS Sydney including the rare distinction of the single ship on ship actions in the First and Second World Wars.
The War in the Air: Fighter Command: Britain, North Africa & Malta
Of the 21 Australian Air Crew in the Battle of Britain, 13 were killed. Australian fighter pilots flew and fought in North Africa and Malta and later in the Pacific and Burma. In 1940 Flying Officer Les Clisby flying a battle damaged Hurricane shot down a German He 111 bomber May 10, 1940 and then was forced to land near the damaged enemy aircraft. He pursued the crew and took them prisoner and then handed them over to the French. The American news magazine Time noted "Clisby's commanding officer remarked it was a bit uncommon for pilots to bring back prisoners"!
The War in the Air: England & Europe: Fighter Command and Bomber Command
Over 4,050 members of the Royal Australian Air Force were killed in Bomber Command in WW2. Bomber Command suffered an appalling 44% casualty rate with a crew member life expectancy of around 2 weeks - less than a WW1 infantry officer. Of the 125,000 who volunteered, 55,000 died, 15,000 were wounded and 10,000 taken prisoner. Most of those who lost their lives were less than 25 years old, many of them teenagers. While many Australians served as individuals in RAF Bomber Command crews all Australian Bomber Command squadrons were:
Australian Bomber Command Squadrons:
455 Squadron: Motto: "Strike and Strike Again", (455 Squadron was formed in 1941 and were the first all Australian Squadron to fly in Bomber Command transferring to Coastal Command in 1942). 458 Squadron (458 Squadron were transferred to the Middle East in 1942), 460 Squadron: Motto: "Strike and Return" (460 Squadron flew the most Lancaster bomber missions, dropped the greatest tonnage of bombs, and suffered the greatest crew losses of all the Australian Squadrons) 462 Squadron, 463 Squadron: Motto: "Press on Regardless" (463 Squadron suffered on average the greatest losses amongst it's crew, although less that 460 & 466. It was formed from crews from No 467 Squadron and both formations played a major part in the Battle for Berlin and in 1944 the preparations for the D-Day landings and attacks on the launching sites for V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets. At the close of the war the bombers were among those tasked with flying former Allied PoWs back to the United Kingdom). 464 Squadron: Motto: "Aequo Amimo", 466 Squadron (466 Squadron had the greatest crew losses amongst Wellington Bombers) and 467 Squadron (467 Squadron operated several famous Lancaster bombers, amongst them LL843, which survived 118 missions, and R5868, "S" for Sugar, which flew 137 operational sorties, more than any other RAF Bomber.
After the war "S for Sugar" was selected to be preserved and could be seen for a number of years as a "gate guard" at RAF Scampton. It now resides at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon and is a 'must visit' during your trip to the UK.
* The Australians who flew in Bomber Command in WW2.
The RAF has produced the sculpture of a 60kg bronze wreath as a permanent memorial in London to commemorate the Australian aircrew who flew with Bomber Command in WW2, with over 4000 killed in action. (The RAF memorial at Runnymede on the Thames lists the names of these Australian airmen who gave their lives). Here's a PODCAST about the those dark days and what it was like - from the national president of the Australian Bomber Command Association - Ron Houghton - an amazing man - who survived 33 missions as a Bomber pilot at the age of 20 and then after the war went on to fly for Qantas for over 35 years, then gained 2 University degrees - just for something to do!
The Second World War cost tens of thousands of Australian lives and consumed a large portion of the country's national income. During the war, 27,073 members of the Australian military were either killed, died of wounds or died as PoWs. Of these, 9,572 were killed in the war against Germany and Italy and 17,501 in the war against Japan. Prisoners of war held by the Japanese made up nearly half of Australia's deaths in the Pacific.
At least 386 Australian civilian seamen were also killed during the war.