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World War II, Australia

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Of a population of only 7 million in 1939,[1] almost a million Australians, both men and women, served during World War II.[2] Of those, around 30,000 died. Australians fought Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, and Japan in South-East Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific. For the first time the Australian mainland was directly attacked, by Japanese aircraft in northern Australia and Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour. If for no other reason than this, Australia had a lot more at stake during World War II than it had in World War I.

Early operations

After Italy joined the war in June 1940, the RAN took part in operations against the German ally. A number of Australians fought in the Battle of Britain in August and September of that year, but the Australian Army did not see combat until 1941, when the 6th, 7th, and 9th divisions took part in Allied operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

High Command

Australia was part of Douglas MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Area.


See also: Signals intelligence in the Second World War#Australian Army

There was significant intelligence cooperation, especially in the Central Bureau.

North Africa and the Mediterranean

After early successes against Italian forces, Australia, along with its Allies, began to suffer defeats against the Germans in Greece, Crete and North Africa. In June and July 1941, however, Australians were part of the successful Allied invasion of Vichy French mandate Syria.

The desperate Australian defence of the Libyan port of Tobruk earned its Australian defenders – up to 14,000 of whom held out against repeated German attacks during a siege between April and August 1941 – the initially derisory sobriquet "the Rats of Tobruk", which came to be a badge of honour among the Australian troops who had fought there.

After being relieved at Tobruk, the 6th and 7th divisions departed to take up the war against Japan in the Pacific. The 9th Division stayed on, only joining the 6th and 7th after having played a vital role in the Allied victory at El Alamein in October 1942. The only Australians still in the Mediterranean theatre by the end of 1942 were airmen serving with 3 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), or in the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Japan enters the fray

Japan's sudden entry into the war on 7 December 1941 and its swift and seemingly inexorable victories saw its forces occupy most of South-East Asia and large swathes of the Pacific by the end of March 1942. Singapore had fallen in February, which left an entire Australian division (the 8th) struggling to survive in Japanese prison camps at Changi and on the Thai-Burma Railway. When Darwin was bombed that month the government recalled all RAN ships in the Mediterranean, and the 6th and 7th divisions, to the defence of Australia. The government also expanded the army and air force, and set in place policies that allowed the nation to mount a total war effort at home.

Stemming the Japanese tide

By March 1942, after the fall of the Netherlands East Indies, Japan's southward march began to slow. Australian fears of an imminent invasion were eased, and further relief came in the form of returning AIF veterans from the Mediterranean. Then the United States, with forces under General Douglas Macarthur, assumed responsibility for Australia's defence, committing reinforcements and equipment to the task.

Finally, too, the Allies began to defeat the Japanese in a series of decisive battles: in the Coral Sea, at Midway, on Imita Ridge and the Kokoda Trail, and at Milne Bay and Buna-Gona. The apparently invincible Japanese were able to be defeated after all, and the threat of invasion faded further still.

The Japanese suffered further defeats during 1943. Australian troops were predominantly involved in land battles in New Guinea, the Japanese defeat at Wau and forcing Japanese troops off the Huon Peninsula. This, Australia's greatest and most complicated offensive of the war, only ended in April 1944.

Australian troops also began in 1944 a series of campaigns in against Japanese garrisons dotted from Borneo to Bougainville. These actions involved greater numbers of Australian soldiers than at any other time in the war. The first of these campaigns was fought in New Britain and at Aitape, on Bougainville. The value of the Borneo campaign (1945) to the overall war effort is still a matter of some debate. When the war ended in August 1945, Australians were still fighting in Borneo.

Australians in the air war in Europe

Although Australia invested most of its energies from 1942 in the defeat of Japan, in Europe and the Middle East thousands of Australians continued to serve with the RAAF. Losses among those flying against Germany were much greater than those who fought the Japanese, despite the greater numbers of airman involved in the latter campaign. Australians played a particularly prominent role in Bomber Command's European offensive, which for Australia, with around 3,500 of its airmen killed, was the costliest of the war.

"Guests" of the enemy: Prisoners of war

Of the more than 30,000 Australian servicemen taken prisoner during World War II, two-thirds were captured by the Japanese during the first weeks of 1942. Those imprisoned by the Germans had a good chance of surviving the war; 36 per cent of Australian prisoners of the Japanese died in captivity.

The changing role of women

Although nurses had gone overseas with the AIF in 1940, during the early years of the war women were otherwise unable to make a significant official contribution to the war effort. As labour shortages grew, however, the government had to allow women to become more active. In February 1941 Cabinet authorised the RAAF to set up the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Simultaneously, the RAN began to employ female telegraphists, which eventually led to the establishment in 1942 of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). To release men from certain military duties in base units in Australia and allow them to fight overseas, the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) commenced in October 1941. Outside the armed services, the Women's Land Army (WLA) encouraged women to work in rural industries, while women in urban areas were employed in industries such as munitions. Although with the end of the war women were largely expected to return to their prewar roles, they had shown that they were as capable (if not more so, in some cases) than men, and paved the way for women of the future to take on roles outside the home.

References and notes

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Table 2. Population by sex, states and territories, 30 June, 1901 onwards", 3105.0.65.001 - Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2006 (Microsoft Excel spreadsheet). Retrieved 18 August 2008 from
  2. Unless otherwise specified, information in this article is from Australian War Memorial. n.d. "Second World War 1939–45". Retrieved 18 August 2008 from