The Australian army in North Africa and the Pacific during the Second World War.
Organization, strength, divisions and uniforms in the Mediterranean theater 1941 and 1942 and in the Pacific War 1941 to 1945.
Australian soldiers fought during the Second World War in 1941 and 1942 in North Africa and on the Mediterranean theater of war.
Australian Army in the Mediterranean Theater of War 1941-42
The Australian Army provided some of the toughest soldiers on the Allied side and were therefore highly respected by the Germans.
Seven RAAF squadrons, only three of which, however, with the numbers 3, 450 and 451 were completely Australian, a cruiser and some smaller warships fought in the Mediterranean theater of war.
However, the most important units were the 6th, 7th and 9th Infantry Divisions. The Australian 6th Division participated in the British offensive against the Italian troops in Libya since January and February 1941.
The Australian 9th Division played a decisive role during the Siege of Tobruk from February to October 1941, during which the division lost 749 men killed, 1,966 wounded and 604 prisoners.
The Australian 6th Division was in Greece during the Balkans Campaign in April 1941 and its 2nd Brigade was on Crete when the German airborne invasion took place on the island.
On the Greek mainland and on Crete the division lost 594 killed, 1,001 wounded and 5,109 prisoners.
The 6th and 7th divisions were moved to the Far East when Japan declared war, but the Australian 9th Division remained in Egypt, where its infantry played an important role in the Second Battle of Alamein in October 1942.
In the Battle of Alamein, the division lost a further 1,225 killed, 3,638 wounded and 946 prisoners. In February 1943 it also returned to Australia.
In September 1939 Australia’s regular armed forces consisted of 3,000 men and a staff corps. The ‘Volunteer Militia’ had been expanded to 80,000 partially trained men, who were only obliged to serve in their own country.
In 1914 the declaration of war by Great Britain had been binding for the whole Empire. This was no longer the case in 1939 and Australia and the other Dominions were free to make their own decisions about war or peace.
Both New Zealand and Australia declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, but Australia’s decision about its contribution to the war effort of the British Empire was complicated by uncertainties about Japan’s intentions.
A Japanese entry into the war would prevent the sending of an expeditionary force overseas and limit Australia’s military options to the defense of its own coasts, the Western Pacific and Singapore.
The Australian government agreed with the opinion of the heads of its intelligence service that Japan would not attack in the Pacific until the Allies in Europe were defeated. It therefore ordered the deployment of a ‘special force’ of 20,000 men for use at home or abroad. At the same time the militia was mobilized for training with two waves of conscription of 40,000 men.
The ‘special force’ was soon renamed to the 6th Division, because with the militia five more infantry divisions were already under construction. Its recruits were, however, largely untrained, as only 5,000 men had volunteered from the militia. However, they were fit, eager to learn and young, as the age limit for recruits was 20 to 35 years.
The initial strength of the division’s infantry consisted of three brigades, each with four battalions. Although the formation of the division with soldiers was soon completed, the provision of equipment was a major problem. For example, each battalion needed more than ten Bren Gun Carriers and the 18-pounder and 4.5-inch howitzers were to be replaced by the new 25-pounder. The mechanized reconnaissance regiment needed 28 light tanks and 44 Bren Gun Carriers.
The defeat of the Allies in France led to a wave of recruitment in Australia and although the government had approved a corps of three divisions (6th, 7th and 8th Australian Infantry Division) with a total strength of 65,000 men, it already had well over 100,000 volunteers.
Recruitment ceased in September 1940 and it was decided to create another division (9th Australian Infantry Division) with men already in the UK for training.
By the spring of 1941, there were three Australian divisions in the Middle East: the 6th (16th, 17th and 19th Brigade), the 7th (18th, 21st and 25th Brigade) and the 9th (20th, 24th and 26th Brigade).
In total 108,156 Australians were under arms.
Uniforms in the Mediterranean area
The basic service uniform for other ranks is shown in the illustration to the right, while the officers wore the same khaki uniform as British officers, either with the slouch hat (called ‘Wide Awake’) or the peaked cap. Buttons and badges were usually made of burnished metal.
Since the khaki uniform was made of a lighter fabric than the British model, it was more suitable for wearing in the desert, but was soon replaced by British khaki drill and serge uniforms. The rank insignia were the same as those worn in the British army.
Arm-of-service badges as such did not exist, although the units could be identified by a flash in the color of their arm-of-service on their sleeves. The geometrical shape of the flash was different for headquarters, divisions, brigades and supporting services.
Australian Army on the Pacific Theater of War 1941-45
As soon as hostilities with Japan began, the Australian government decided that a corps of two divisions would be transferred from the Middle East to the Far East. Thus, from the end of January 1942, units of the 6th and 7th Australian Division began to withdraw from the front in North Africa.
A total of 61,151 troops were to be transferred. These consisted of the 18,465 men of the 6th Division, the 18,620 men of the 7th Division and an additional 17,866 corps troops and 9,200 personnel from bases and lines of communication.
To support these corps of veterans, there were seven militia divisions in Australia, which were mobilized in December 1941. In addition, there was the Volunteer Defense Corps, which was largely made up of older men who had served in World War One.
General Blamey had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Armed Forces and in April 1942 he regrouped his forces for the defense of Australia as follows
- 1st Army in Queensland and NS Wales,
- 2nd Army in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania,
- III Corps in Western Australia,
- a division in the Northern Territory.
The troop strength of this Orders of Battle included some 46,000 experienced combat troops, 63,000 AIF volunteers in various levels of training, 280,000 militiamen and 33,000 American soldiers with little or no combat experience.
The Australian 8th Division was deployed in Malaysia and Indonesia. Their 22nd and 27th brigades lost 1,789 casualties, 1,306 wounded and 15,000 prisoners in Singapore.
However, the most important Australian contribution in the Pacific War was in the South West Pacific. In July 1942, a mainly Australian force had repulsed the first Japanese attack on Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and the Australian forces bore the brunt of the fierce fighting along the Kokoda Trail.
In March 1943 the main units of the Australian Army in Australia were grouped as follows:
- 1st Army: 3rd Armored Division and 4th Infantry Division;
- II Corps: 6th Division (from 16th and 30th Brigade), 7th and 9th Division;
- 2nd Army: 1st Division, 3rd Army Tank Brigade;
- III Corps: 1st Armored Division, 2nd Infantry Division;
- Northern Territory Force: 12th Division;
- Reserve: 3rd Infantry Brigade, 4th Armored Brigade;
- New Guinea: 3rd Division (17th Brigade), 11th Division (7th and 15th Brigades), 5th Division (4th and 29th Brigades).
The two armored divisions, which had originally consisted of two tank brigades and a support group each, had been reduced in strength to one tank brigade each at that time. However, the now independent tank brigades remained with the army.
For most of 1943, the Australian forces in the combined Allied Forces in the South West and South Pacific were numerically larger than the American forces deployed. In October 1943, for example, there were 492,000 Australian ground troops in the South West Pacific, compared with only 198,000 US soldiers.
In the first months of 1944 Australian troops continued to advance along the east coast of New Guinea and in April 1944 Australian troops were split into two corps in the theater of war for the southwest Pacific.
The I Corps consisted of the 6th, 7th and 9th AIF divisions, returned from the Middle East after the Second battle of Alamein, stationed in Queensland.
The II Corps consisted of the 3rd, 5th and 11th Militia Divisions, which now formed the New Guinea Army.
Since the end of 1943, it was planned that the US Army forces would gradually take over the operational role of the Australian troops in New Guinea.
Since a while American forces were ‘jumping’ from island to island, their bases were still threatened by Japanese troops who had retreated inland after losing the battles for the beaches. Although the Japanese were largely cut off from their supply sources, their mere presence seriously disrupted American strategy. The momentum of the advance would be lost if American troops had to be constantly withdrawn to defend the rear bases threatened by the Japanese.
MacArthur now decided that securing the bases would be the task of the Australian troops. Twelve Australian brigades were to be distributed among the bases on Bougainville, New Guinea, New Britain and the smaller islands, freeing up six American divisions.
To carry out this operation, the Australian 6th Division was transferred to the II Corps and, together with the militia divisions, was to engage in substantial combat against the Japanese garrisons still remaining in the Allied rear operations’ area.
In April 1945, the remaining divisions of the I Corps were assigned a task in the northern advance, with the 7th Division in charge of the conquest of Balikpapau in Dutch Borneo and the 9th Division in charge of the capture of Tarakan (also in the Dutch part of Borneo) and Brunei Bay in British Borneo.
In May and July the landings were successfully completed and the Australian forces continued to clean up the area from the enemy until the Japanese surrender in August.
The total strength of the Australian army during the Second World War was 727,703 men. Of these, 396,661 had served overseas.
The total number of casualties was 61,575 men, including 18,713 dead. When Japan surrendered, the strength of the army was 385,000 men, of which 167,000 were deployed outside Australia.
Uniforms in the Pacific
During the long hard and wet campaign in New Guinea, the Australians found that their tropical clothing simply rotted and fell apart, uniforms and equipment were eaten by rats, and metal fittings rusted.
The Australians began to develop a new jungle-green combat suit that would withstand the demands of the jungle warfare. The buttons had to be made of a material that would not rust, and shirts and trousers had to be safe against both rat and mosquito bites. The felt slouch hat was popular but expensive and had to be replaced by a much cheaper and more practical jungle beret.
Shoes were a big problem and a new jungle boot with non-shrinking socks, which could also grip in mud, replaced the leather ‘ammunition shoe’.
In the final phase of the war the Australian troops began to receive more and more American clothing and equipment.
At the beginning of the campaign in New Guinea, the average Australian infantryman carried 80 lb (over 36 kg) of equipment. This turned out to be far too heavy, so much thought was given to reducing the load on the soldier to a minimum of 35 lb (just under 16 kg) and a maximum of 40 lb (just over 18 kg).
It was also found to be more practical to carry the personal equipment as high up on the body as possible (see picture on the right), as this prevents the equipment from swinging and making noise. The Australian jungle veteran carried his personal items in a waterproof bag and his ammunition and extra rations in special large bags, while the bread bag had an extra pocket for clothes.
The blanket roll consisted of a particularly light special blanket, half of a protective tent and either a gas cape (waterproof cape for use with a gas mask) or a light waterproof poncho, called the ‘Brown Special’.