Australia entered World War II shortly after the invasion of Poland, declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939. By the end of the war almost a million Australians had served in the Australian armed forces and Australian military units had fought in Europe, North Africa, and the South-West Pacific.


Australia entered World War II shortly after the invasion of Poland, declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939. By the end of the war, almost a million Australians had served in the armed forces, whose military units fought primarily in the European theatre, North African campaign, and the South West Pacific theatre. In addition, Australia came under direct attack for the first time in its history; its casualties from enemy action during the war were 27,073 killed and 23,477 wounded.

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies was twice Prime Minister of Australia. His first period in office, from April 1939 to August 1941, spanned the first years of the Second World War. On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Menzies announced the beginning of Australia's involvement in the Second World War, on every national and commercial radio station in Australia. The broadcast began at 9.15 pm. It was a controlled and sombre performance in which he asked an anxious nation to steel itself for a new war, the second within the memory of most of his listeners.

In effect, Australia fought two wars between 1939 and 1945 – one against Germany and Italy as part of the British Commonwealth's war effort and the other against Japan in alliance with the United States and Britain. While most Australian forces were withdrawn from the Mediterranean following the outbreak of war in the Pacific, they continued to take part in large numbers in the air offensive against Germany. From 1942 until early 1944, Australian forces played a key role in the Pacific War, making up the majority of Allied strength in the South West Pacific. The military was largely relegated to subsidiary fronts from mid-1944, but continued offensive operations against the Japanese until the war ended.

World War II contributed to major changes in the nation's economy, military and foreign policy. The war accelerated the process of industrialisation, led to the development of a larger peacetime military and began the process with which Australia shifted the focus of its foreign policy from the UK to the US. The effects of the war also fostered the development of a more diverse and cosmopolitan Australian society.

Outbreak of War

Between World War I and World War II, Australia suffered greatly from the Great Depression. This limited Australian defence expenditure and led to a decline in the size and effectiveness of the armed forces during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In the years leading up to the war, Australia followed Britain's policy towards Nazi Germany, supporting first its appeasement of Hitler and then its guarantee of Polish independence.

Australia entered the war against Germany on 3 September 1939, shortly after Britain declared war when its ultimatum for Germany to withdraw from Poland expired. The Government's decision to immediately enter the war was primarily made on the grounds that Australia's interests were inextricably linked to those of Britain, and that a British defeat would destroy the system of imperial defence which Australia relied upon for security against Japan. This position received almost universal public support, though there was little enthusiasm for war.

On 15 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced the formation of the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF). This was an expeditionary force, which initially consisted of 20,000 men organised into an infantry division (the 6th Division) and auxiliary units. The AIF was institutionally separate from the CMF, which was legally restricted to service in Australia and its external territories, and was formed by raising new units rather than transferring CMF units. On 15 November Menzies announced the reintroduction of conscription for home defence service effective 1 January 1940. Recruitment for the AIF was initially slow, but one in six men of military age had enlisted by March 1940 and there was a huge surge of volunteers after the fall of France in June 1940. Men volunteered for the AIF for a range of reasons, with the most common being a sense of duty to defend Australia and the British Empire.

The AIF's major units were raised between 1939 and 1941. The 6th Division was formed during October and November 1939 and embarked for the Middle East in early 1940 to complete its training and receive modern equipment after the British Government assured the Australian Government that Japan did not pose an immediate threat. It was planned that the division would join the British Expeditionary Force in France when its preparations were complete, but this did not eventuate as France was conquered before the division was ready. A further three AIF infantry divisions (the 7th Division, 8th Division and 9th Division) were raised in the first half of 1940 as well as a corps headquarters (I Corps) and numerous support and service units. All of these divisions and the majority of the support units were deployed overseas during 1940 and 1941. An AIF armoured division (the 1st Armoured Division) was also raised in early 1941 but never left Australia.

While the government initially proposed deploying the entire RAAF overseas, it was instead decided to focus the force's resources on training aircrew to facilitate a massive expansion of Commonwealth air power. In late 1939 Australia and the other Dominions established the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) to train large numbers of men for service in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and other Commonwealth air units. Almost 28,000 Australians were eventually trained through EATS in schools in Australia, Canada and Rhodesia. While many of these men were posted to Australian Article XV squadrons, the majority served with British and other Dominion squadrons. Moreover, these nominally 'Australian' squadrons were not under RAAF control and Australians often made up a minority of their airmen. As the Australian Government had no effective control over how airmen trained through EATS were used, most Australian historians regard the scheme as having hindered the development of Australia's defence capability. Nevertheless, RAAF airmen trained through EATS represented about nine percent of all aircrew who fought for the RAF in the European and Mediterranean theatres and made an important contribution to Allied operations.

North Africa

The RAN was the first of the Australian services to see action in the Mediterranean. At the time Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940 the RAN had a single cruiser (Sydney) and the five elderly destroyers of the so-called 'Scrap Iron Flotilla' at Alexandria with the British Mediterranean Fleet. During the first days of the Battle of the Mediterranean, Sydney sank an Italian destroyer and Voyager a submarine. The Mediterranean Fleet maintained a high operational tempo, and on 19 July Sydney, with a British destroyer squadron in company, engaged the fast Italian light cruisers Bartolomeo Colleoni and Giovanni dalle Bande Nere in the Battle of Cape Spada. In the running battle which followed, Bartolomeo Colleoni was sunk. The Australian ships spent much of their time at sea throughout 1940 and Sydney was relieved by her sister ship Perth in February 1941.

Australian troops advance into Bardia, North Africa, 6 January 1941
Australian troops advance into Bardia, North AFrica, 6 January 1941

The Australian Army first saw action in Operation Compass, the successful Commonwealth offensive in North Africa which was conducted between December 1940 and February 1941. The 6th Division relieved the 4th Indian Division on 14 December. Although the 6th Division was not fully equipped, it had completed its training and was given the task of capturing Italian fortresses bypassed by the British 7th Armoured Division during its advance. The 6th Division went into action at Bardia on 3 January 1941. Although the fortress was manned by a larger Italian force, the Australian infantry quickly penetrated the defensive lines with the support of British tanks and artillery. The majority of the Italian force surrendered on 5 January and the Australians took 40,000 prisoners. The 6th Division followed up this success by assaulting the fortress of Tobruk on 21 January. Tobruk was secured the next day with 25,000 Italian prisoners taken. The 6th Division subsequently pushed west along the coast road to Cyrenaica and captured Benghazi on 4 February. The 6th Division was withdrawn for deployment to Greece later in February and was replaced by the untested 9th Division, which took up garrison duties in Cyrenaica.

In the last week of March 1941, a German-led force launched an offensive in Cyrenaica which rapidly defeated the Allied forces in the area, forcing a general withdrawal towards Egypt. The 9th Division formed the rear guard of this withdrawal, and on 6 April was ordered to defend the important port town of Tobruk for at least two months. During the ensuing siege of Tobruk the 9th Division, reinforced by the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division and British artillery and armoured regiments, used fortifications, aggressive patrolling and artillery to contain and defeat repeated German armoured and infantry attacks. Tobruk's defenders were sustained by the Mediterranean Fleet, and the elderly Australian destroyers made repeated supply 'runs' into the port. Waterhen and Parramatta were sunk during these operations. Upon the request of the Australian Government, the bulk of the 9th Division was withdrawn from Tobruk in September and October 1941 and was replaced by the British 70th Division. The 2/13th Battalion was forced to remain at Tobruk until the siege was lifted in December when the convoy evacuating it was attacked, however. The defence of Tobruk cost the Australian units involved 3,009 casualties, including 832 killed and 941 taken prisoner.

Two Australian fighter squadrons also took part in the fighting in North Africa. No. 239 Wing, a Curtiss P-40-equipped unit in the Desert Air Force, was dominated by Australians, in the form of two RAAF squadrons—No. 3 Squadron and No. 450 Squadron—and numerous individual Australians in RAF squadrons. These two squadrons differed from the other RAAF squadrons in the Mediterranean in that they were made up of predominantly Australian ground staff and pilots; the other RAAF units had ground crews made up of mostly British RAF personnel.

Greece, Crete, & Lebanon

In early 1941 the 6th Division and I Corps headquarters took part in the ill-fated Allied expedition to defend Greece from a German invasion. The corps' commander, Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, and Prime Minister Menzies both regarded the operation as risky, but agreed to Australian involvement after the British Government provided them with briefings which deliberately understated the chance of defeat. The Allied force deployed to Greece was much smaller than the German force in the region and the defence of the country was compromised by inconsistencies between Greek and Allied plans.

Australian troops arrived in Greece during March and manned defensive positions in the north of the country alongside British, New Zealand and Greek units. Perth also formed part of the naval force which protected the Allied troop convoys travelling to Greece and participated in the Battle of Cape Matapan in late March. The outnumbered Allied force was not able to halt the Germans when they invaded on 6 April and was forced to retreat. The Australians and other Allied units conducted a fighting withdrawal from their initial positions and were evacuated from southern Greece between 24 April and 1 May. Australian warships also formed part of the force which protected the evacuation and embarked hundreds of soldiers from Greek ports. The 6th Division suffered heavy casualties in this campaign, with 320 men killed and 2,030 captured.

While most of the 6th Division returned to Egypt, the 19th Brigade Group and two provisional infantry battalions landed at Crete where they formed a key part of the island's defences. The 19th Brigade was initially successful in holding its positions when German paratroopers landed on 20 May, but was gradually forced to retreat. After several key airfields were lost the Allies evacuated the island's garrison. Approximately 3,000 Australians, including the entire 2/7th Infantry Battalion, could not be evacuated, and were taken prisoner. As a result of its heavy casualties the 6th Division required substantial reinforcements and equipment before it was again ready for combat. Perth and the new destroyers Napier and Nizam also took part in operations around Crete, with Perth embarking soldiers for evacuation to Egypt.

The Allied defeat during the Greek Campaign indirectly contributed to a change of government in Australia. Prime Minister Menzies' leadership had been weakened by the lengthy period he spent in Britain during early 1941, and the high Australian losses in the Greek Campaign led many members of his United Australia Party (UAP) to conclude that he was not capable of leading the Australian war effort. Menzies resigned on 26 August after losing the confidence of his party and was replaced by Arthur Fadden from the Country Party, which was the UAP's coalition partner. Fadden's government collapsed on 3 October and was replaced by an Australian Labor Party government under the leadership of John Curtin.

The 7th Division and the 17th Brigade from the 6th Division formed a key part of the Allied ground forces during the Syria-Lebanon campaign which was fought against Vichy French forces in June and July 1941. RAAF aircraft also joined the Royal Air Force in providing close air support. The Australian force entered Lebanon on 8 June and advanced along the coast road and Litani River valley. Although little resistance had been expected, the Vichy forces mounted a strong defence which made good use of the mountainous terrain. After the Allied attack became bogged down reinforcements were brought in and the Australian I Corps headquarters took command of the operation on 18 June. These changes enabled the Allies to overwhelm the French forces and the 7th Division entered Beirut on 12 July. The loss of Beirut and a British breakthrough in Syria led the Vichy commander to seek an armistice and the campaign ended on 13 July.

El Alamein

In the second half of 1941 the Australian I Corps was concentrated in Syria and Lebanon to rebuild its strength and prepare for further operations in the Middle East. Following the outbreak of war in the Pacific most elements of the Corps, including the 6th and 7th Divisions, returned to Australia in early 1942 to counter the perceived Japanese threat to Australia. The Australian Government agreed to British and United States requests to temporarily retain the 9th Division in the Middle East in exchange for the deployment of additional US troops to Australia and Britain's support for a proposal to expand the RAAF to 73 squadrons. The Government did not intend that the 9th Division would play a major role in active fighting, and it was not sent any further reinforcements. All of the RAN's ships in the Mediterranean were also withdrawn to the Pacific but most RAAF units in the Middle East remained in the theatre.

In June 1942 four Australian N class destroyers were transferred to the Mediterranean from the Indian Ocean to participate in Operation Vigorous, which was an attempt to supply the besieged island of Malta from Egypt. This operation ended in failure, and Nestor had to be scuttled on 16 June after being bombed the previous day. After this operation, the three surviving destroyers returned to the Indian Ocean.

In mid-1942 the Axis forces defeated the Commonwealth force in Libya and advanced into north-west Egypt. In June the British Eighth Army made a stand just over 100 km west of Alexandria, at the railway siding of El Alamein and the 9th Division was brought forward to reinforce this position. The lead elements of the Division arrived at El Alamein on 6 July and the Division was assigned the most northerly section of the Commonwealth defensive line. The 9th Division played a significant role in the First Battle of El Alamein which halted the Axis advance, though at the cost of heavy casualties, including the entire 2/28th Infantry Battalion which was forced to surrender on 27 July. Following this battle the division remained at the northern end of the El Alamein line and launched diversionary attacks during the Battle of Alam el Halfa in early September.

In October 1942 the 9th Division and the RAAF squadrons in the area took part in the Second Battle of El Alamein. After a lengthy period of preparation, the Eighth Army launched its major offensive on 23 October. The 9th Division was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the battle, and its advance in the coast area succeeded in drawing away enough German forces for the heavily reinforced 2nd New Zealand Division to decisively break though the Axis lines on the night of 1/2 November. The 9th Division suffered a high number of casualties during this battle and did not take part in the pursuit of the retreating Axis forces. During the battle the Australian Government requested that the division be returned to Australia as it was not possible to provide enough reinforcements to sustain it, and this was agreed by the British and US governments in late November. The 9th Division left Egypt for Australia in January 1943, ending the AIF's involvement in the war in North Africa.

Tunisia, Sicily, & Italy

Although the Second Battle of El Alamein marked the end of a major Australian role in the Mediterranean, several RAAF units and hundreds of Australians attached to Commonwealth forces remained in the area until the end of the war. After the 9th Division was withdrawn Australia continued to be represented in North Africa by several RAAF squadrons which supported the 8th Army's advance through Libya and the subsequent Tunisia Campaign. Two Australian destroyers (Quiberon and Quickmatch) also participated in the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942.

Australian soldiers in Sicily
Australian soldiers in Sicily

Australia played a small role in the Italian Campaign. The RAN returned to the Mediterranean between May and November 1943 when eight Bathurst class corvettes were transferred from the British Eastern Fleet to the Mediterranean Fleet to protect the invasion force during the Allied invasion of Sicily. The corvettes also escorted convoys in the western Mediterranean before returning to the Eastern Fleet. No. 239 Wing and four Australian Article XV quadrons also took part in the Scilian Campaign, flying from bases in Tunisia, Malta, North Africa and Sicily. No. 239 Wing subsequently provided air support for the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943 and moved to the mainland in the middle of that month. The two Australian fighter bomber squadrons provided close air support to the Allied armies and attacked German supply lines until the end of the war. No. 454 Squadron was also deployed to Italy from August 1944 and hundreds of Australians served in RAF units during the campaign.

The RAAF also took part in other Allied operations in the Mediterranean. Two RAAF squadrons, No. 451 Squadron (Spitfires) and No. 458 Squadron (Wellingtons), supported the Allied invasion of southern France in August 1944. No. 451 Squadron was based in southern France in late August and September and when the operation ended both squadrons were moved to Italy, though No. 451 Squadron was transferred to Britain in December. No. 459 Squadron was based in the eastern Mediterranean until the last months of the war in Europe and attacked German targets in Greece and the Aegean Sea. In addition, 150 Australians served with the Balkan Air Force, principally in No. 148 Squadron RAF. This special duties squadron dropped men and supplies to guerrillas in Yugoslavia and attempted to supply the Polish Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Defense of Britain

Australians participated in the defence of Britain throughout the war. More than 100 Australian airmen fought with the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in 1940, including over 30 fighter pilots. Two AIF brigades (the 18th and 25th) were also stationed in Britain from June 1940 to January 1941 and formed part of the British mobile reserve which would have responded to any German landings. An Australian Army forestry group served in Britain between 1940 and 1943. Several Australian fighter squadrons were also formed in Britain during 1941 and 1942 and contributed to defending the country from German air raids and, from mid-1944, V-1 flying bombs.

The RAAF and RAN took part in the Battle of the Atlantic. No. 10 Squadron, based in Britain at the outbreak of war to take delivery of its Short Sunderland flying boats, remained there throughout the conflict as part of RAF Coastal Command. It was joined by No. 461 Squadron in April 1942, also e quipped with Sunderlands. These squadrons escorted Allied convoys and sank 12 U-boats. No. 455 Squadron also formed part of Coastal Command from April 1942 as an anti-shipping squadron equipped with light bombers. In this role the squadron made an unusual deployment to Vaenga in the Soviet Union in September 1942 to protect Convoy PQ-18. Hundreds of Australian airmen also served in RAF Coastal Command squadrons. In addition to the RAAF's contribution, several of the RAN's cruisers and destroyers escorted shipping in the Atlantic and Caribbean and hundreds of RAN personnel served aboard Royal Navy ships in the Atlantic throughout the war.

Air War Over Europe

The RAAF's role in the strategic air offensive in Europe formed Australia's main contribution to the defeat of Germany. Approximately 13,000 Australian airmen served in dozens of British and five Australian squadrons in RAF Bomber Command between 1940 and the end of the war. There was not a distinctive Australian contribution to this campaign, however, as most Australians served in British squadrons and the Australian bomber squadrons were part of RAF units.

The great majority of Australian aircrew in Bomber Command were graduates of the Empire Air Training Scheme. These men were not concentrated in Australian units, and were instead often posted to the Commonwealth squadron with the greatest need for personnel where they became part of a multi-national bomber crew. Five Australian heavy bomber squadrons (No. 460, No. 462, No. 463, No. 466 and No. 467 squadrons) were formed within Bomber Command between 1941 and 1945, however, and the proportion of Australians in these units increased over time. No. 464 Squadron, which was equipped with light bombers, was also formed as part of Bomber Command but was transferred to the Second Tactical Air Force in June 1943 where it continued to attack targets in Europe. Unlike Canada, which concentrated its heavy bomber squadrons into No. 6 Group RCAF in 1943, the RAAF squadrons in Bomber Command were always part of British units, and the Australian Government had little control over how they were used.

Australians took part in all of Bomber Command's major offensives and suffered heavy losses during raids on German cities and targets in France. The Australian contribution to major raids was often substantial, and the Australian squadrons typically provided about 10 percent of the main bomber force during the winter of 1943–44, including during the Battle of Berlin. Overall, the Australian squadrons in Bomber Command dropped 6 percent of the total weight of bombs dropped by the command during the war. Australian aircrew in Bomber Command had one of the highest casualty rates of any part of the Australian military during World War II. Although only two percent of Australians enlisted in the military served with Bomber Command, they incurred almost 20 percent of all Australian deaths in combat; 3,486 were killed and hundreds more were taken prisoner.

Hundreds of Australians participated in the liberation of Western Europe during 1944 and 1945. Seven RAAF squadrons, hundreds of Australians in RAF units and about 500 Australian sailors serving with the Royal Navy formed part of the force assembled for the landing in Normandy on 6 June 1944. From 11 June until September 1944 the Spitfire-equipped No. 453 Squadron RAAF was often based at forward airfields in France and it and Australian light bomber and heavy bomber squadrons supported the liberation of France. RAAF light bomber and fighter squadrons continued to support to the Allied armies until the end of the war in Europe by attacking strategic targets and escorting bomber formations. No. 451 and 453 Squadrons formed part of the British Army of Occupation in Germany from September 1945, and it was planned that there would be a long-term Australian presence in this force. Few RAAF personnel volunteered to remain in Europe, however, and both squadrons were disbanded in January 1946.

War in the Pacific

Japan entered the war in December 1941 and swiftly achieved a series of victories, resulting in the occupation of most of south-east Asia and large areas of the Pacific by the end of March 1942. Singapore fell in February, with the loss of an entire Australian division. After the bombing of Darwin that same month, all RAN ships in the Mediterranean theatre, as well as the 6th and 7th Divisions, returned to defend Australia. In response to the heightened threat, the Australian government also expanded the army and air force and called for an overhaul of economic, domestic, and industrial policies to give the government special authority to mount a total war effort at home.

A Bofors gun position manned by the 2/9th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, at Gili-Gili airfield. In the background a Kittyhawk is about to land.  Milne Bay, Papua, September 1942.
A Bofors gun position manned by the 2/9th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, at Gili-Gili airfield. In the background a Kittyhawk is about to land. Milne Bay, Papua, September 1942.

In March 1942, after the defeat of the Netherlands East Indies, Japan's southward advance began to lose strength, easing fears of an imminent invasion of Australia. Further relief came when the first AIF veterans of the Mediterranean campaigns began to come home, and when the United States assumed responsibility for the country's defence, providing reinforcements and equipment. The threat of invasion receded further as the Allies won a series of decisive battles: in the Coral Sea, at Midway, on Imita Ridge and the Kokoda Trail, and at Milne Bay and Buna.

Further Allied victories against the Japanese followed in 1943. Australian troops were mainly engaged in land battles in New Guinea, the defeat of the Japanese at Wau, and clearing Japanese soldiers from the Huon peninsula. This was Australia's largest and most complex offensive of the war and was not completed until April 1944. The Australian army also began a new series of campaigns in 1944 against isolated Japanese garrisons stretching from Borneo to Bougainville, involving more Australian troops than at any other time in the war. The first of these campaigns was fought on Bougainville and New Britain, and at Aitape, New Guinea. The final series of campaigns were fought in Borneo in 1945. How necessary these final campaigns were for Allied victory remains the subject of continuing debate. Australian troops were still fighting in Borneo when the war ended in August 1945.

Women in Service

Nurses had gone overseas with the AIF in 1940. However, during the early years of the war women were generally unable to make a significant contribution to the war effort in any official capacity. Labour shortages forced the government to allow women to take a more active role in war work and, in February 1941, the RAAF received cabinet approval to establish the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). At the same time, the navy also began employing female telegraphists, a breakthrough that eventually led to the establishment of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) in 1942. The Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) was established in October 1941, with the aim of releasing men from certain military duties in base units in Australia for assignment with fighting units overseas. Outside the armed services, the Women's Land Army (WLA) was established to encourage women to work in rural industries. Other women in urban areas took up employment in industries, such as munitions production.


Over 30,000 Australian servicemen were taken prisoner in the Second World War and 39,000 gave their lives. Two-thirds of those taken prisoner were captured by the Japanese during their advance through south-east Asia in the first weeks of 1942. While those who became prisoners of the Germans had a strong chance of returning home at the end of the war, 36 per cent of prisoners of the Japanese died in captivity.

References & Resources

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Retrieved March 4, 2010, from

From Australia's War, 1939-1945
Retrieved February 10, 2002, from

Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Gavin Long, The six years war: Australia in the 1939–45 war (Canberra: Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, 1973)

J. Robertson, 1939–1945: Australia goes to war (Sydney: Doubleday Australia, 1984)

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.