The RAN crew of HMAS Perth presenting for inspection by Prime Minister MenziesArmy personnel in Gorari, New GuineaThe RAAF crew of a Halifax aircraft, Squadron 466Australian Army Medical Women's Service (AAMWS) members after returning home from Balikpapan aboard the aircraft carrier HMS VengeanceA group of the Merchant Navy survivors off the Macdhui
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WW2 Overview

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Merchant Navy
Introduction back to top  

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.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies spoke these words in his address to the nation on 3 September 1939. World War Two had broken out two days earlier when Germany invaded Poland. After Britain and France declared war on Germany, Australia, part of the British Empire, promptly followed suit. It would be six years before Australia, and the world, was at peace again.

War service would take Australians to virtually every corner of the world. Nearly one million served in the armed services (Navy, Army and Air Force) or Merchant Marine, otherwise known as the Merchant Navy.

Australians served on two 'fronts' - in war zones and on the home front. About half the Australian servicemen and women saw active service, with the rest manning coastal defences, headquarters, supply depots, bases, training and other military establishments around Australia. Initially, women could serve only in the Australian Army Nursing Service and Voluntary Aid Detachments (supporting nurses) but from mid-1941 women began serving in non-medical roles in all three armed services, performing military duties for the most part within Australia, as well as serving in the air force and naval nursing services.

During 1940-41, the main actions involving Australians were in the Mediterranean, North Africa and Greece against German and Italian forces; in Syria against Vichy French forces; the air and sea war in the Atlantic; and the air war over Europe. Closer to home, the Royal Australian Navy engaged German raiders that threatened merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean.

War with Japan was also anticipated. Forces were sent to Darwin, Malaya and other locations in the so-called 'island barrier'. After Japan attacked on 7/8 December 1941, Australians fought at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, and in Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. From mid-1942, the main Australian campaign was in Papua New Guinea, though large forces were also deployed to Darwin, which was bombed repeatedly, and other areas of western and northern Australia where there a perceived threat of invasion. A sizeable force was also sent to southern Dutch New Guinea, which remained in Allied hands, and naval forces participated in the Solomon Islands campaign. Northern New South Wales and Queensland became important areas for military training and support of operations in 'the islands'. In 1945, Australian forces also served in Borneo, with smaller numbers in the Philippines and further north.

In addition, about 50,000 servicemen (mostly Air Force and Navy) continued serving in other theatres with British forces. From 'Russian convoys' in the North Atlantic to anti-submarine patrols off South Africa, from dark 'bomber nights' over Germany to steamy skies over Burma, from the fire-swept invasion beaches in Italy and France to the sparkling blue seas of the Caribbean, Australians served in these areas.

About 10,000 Australian servicemen were prisoners of war in Europe, most having been captured in Greece or North Africa or in air operations over north-west Europe. Another 22,000 were prisoners of war in the Asia-Pacific theatres. Most spent between three and four years in captivity. Those in Europe moved between different prison camps, most ending up in Germany, Austria, Italy or one of the occupied countries of eastern Europe, held in camps or working in factories and farms. In the Far East, Australians were captured in New Britain, Malaya, Singapore, the islands of the Netherlands East Indies, and a few in Burma; prisoners were sent to many other areas including Burma and Thailand (most of these men working on the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway), Borneo, Japan and Korea, but almost 8000 died in captivity under horrendous slave labour conditions.

Thus unlike most conflicts in which Australians have served, there was no 'standard' experience for Australians in World War Two. The nominal roll and other records reflect the wide areas of service and many different types of units (Australian and foreign) in which Australians served.

RAN back to top  

Australian naval personnel served literally in every corner of the world during World War Two. Indeed, the light cruiser HMAS Perth was in the Atlantic Ocean when war broke out and served for the first six months in the Caribbean.

Many sailors were members of the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR), most of whom had signed up as reservists before the war. Some were members of programs like the Yachtsmen's Scheme, devised to give men the opportunity to train in seamanship before the war and then to receive specialist naval training when they were called up.

The RAN had a large onshore requirement to support the hundreds of vessels used during the war, ranging from cruisers to small Fairmile launches used for patrol and liaison duties. Many sailors were required to serve ashore, either for periods between postings at sea or for all of their service. Shore service included signals, training, administrative, intelligence, stores and repair work. In 1941, the first recruits for the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) were accepted.

At sea, it was not uncommon for a sailor to serve in more than one warship or small vessel - indeed, there were men who saw service on three or four (or more!) warships during six years of service. In 1939-41, the main area for operations of Australian warships was the Mediterranean where several made their combat 'debut', with the HMAS Sydney sinking the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in June 1940, others serving off Greece and Crete, and some older ships joining the 'Scrap Iron Flotilla' taking part in the 'Tobruk Ferry'. Another important role was escort duties, particularly across the Indian Ocean where German armed merchant cruisers, or 'raiders', were active. It was in the Indian Ocean that the German raider Kormoran sank HMAS Sydney in November 1941, the worst Australian naval loss of the war.

From early 1942, the main area of operations was the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Most Australians who served at sea would have seen action in these theatres, though others continued serving overseas, with several corvettes sent back into the Mediterranean to take part in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. For most, naval service meant days of mundane anti-submarine or patrol duties interspersed, occasionally, by a few minutes or hours of excitement when there was the 'ping' of a submarine on the ship's Asdic set or the approach of an enemy aircraft. But several warships were lost, such as HMAS Vampire in the Bay of Bengal and HMAS Armidale off Timor, and some others, including HMAS Australia, were damaged (in Australia's case by Kamikaze aircraft) with resulting loss of life.

HMAS Perth was the only Australian warship sunk in enemy waters whose survivors were taken prisoner. However, some other Australian sailors who served in British warships and merchant ships (on which they served as gunners) ended up in Japanese, German or Italian prisoner of war camps.

Hundreds of men, particularly RANVR personnel, were seconded to the Royal Navy (RN) and served in British shore establishments and warships all over the world. These men performed a variety of operational roles, with many receiving specialist training such as mine disposals officers who defused enemy mines and bombs in England, the Middle East and Europe; anti-submarine warfare officers who specialised in the tactics and electronic equipment used in hunting enemy submarines; landing craft skippers who landed troops and supplies in the invasions of Italy and France; and midget submariners who made daring raids on German and Japanese ports. The men seconded to the RN were among the highest decorated Australian servicemen of the war.

Army back to top  

The Army's official title in World War Two was the Australian Military Forces (AMF), often reflected on service records. The AMF consisted of the Permanent Military Force (PMF), Citizen Military Force (CMF) and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

In 1939, the PMF comprised about 3000 regular troops - mostly administrative staff, instructors, coastal fortress gunners and troops of the Darwin Mobile Force, the first regular field force. The CMF, or Militia, had about 80,000 troops who in effect were reservists. Some militiamen were called out on the first night of the war to guard installations. Training increased and in 1940-41 numbers of militiamen were boosted with further volunteering and reintroduction of compulsory military service (conscription). The CMF was thus part-volunteer, part-compulsory; its men could serve anywhere in Australia and, later, in Papua New Guinea but could not be compelled to serve any further afield.

The AIF was formed in October 1939 as an expeditionary force and included increasing numbers of men who transferred from the PMF and CMF. By mid 1940, the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Divisions had been formed. The 6th, 7th and 9th went to the Middle East, forming I Australian Corps and fighting German, Italian and Vichy French forces. Most of the 8th Division went to Malaya, with some troops sent to Rabaul and Darwin (and, later, Timor and Ambon). The 1st Armoured Division AIF was also formed but remained in Australia (some armoured units later saw action in Papua New Guinea and Borneo).

Most of the 8th Division was lost in early 1942 after Japan entered the war. The 6th and 7th Divisions were recalled from the Mediterranean and North Africa to defend Australia. About 3000 men of the 7th were taken prisoner of war after landing at Java. Many 6th Division troops served on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) briefly before returning to Australia. The 9th Division stayed in North Africa until the end of 1942, playing a vital role in the Battle of El Alamein.

Militia and AIF troops served side-by-side in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The two largest defence commitments within Australia were III Corps in Western Australia and Northern Territory Force. Many troops served at base and defence establishments around the country.

In early 1942, to boost manpower, the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) began recruiting for administrative, intelligence, signals or anti-aircraft service within Australia. This was the third 'female' service, along with the Australian Army Nursing Service and Australian Medical Women's Army Service (previously Voluntary Aid Detachments), whose personnel could serve in Australia and overseas. AWAS members were enlisted specifically to serve in Australia, but this restriction on service was eventually relaxed and about 365 members of the AWAS served in New Guinea in 1945-46.

In 1942, many militiamen wanted to transfer to the AIF but were blocked, to stop the militia units from folding. A compromise was reached whereby militiamen could transfer to the AIF, but stay in their unit, at least initially. If more than half a unit transferred it could become a 'brackets AIF' unit - for instance, the 7th Field Company (AIF). AIF officers and NCOs were transferred to militia units to improve leadership and training.

From late 1942, reinforcements for units came from a central pool, rather than from reinforcement depots in each State, so the regional 'identity' of many units dissipated. For instance, the 2/9th Battalion AIF was raised in Queensland but from late 1942 included men from every State.

Soldiers served in a variety of combat and non-combat units, with logistic support required within Australia, along lines of communication and in battle areas. Indeed, so great was the demand for logistic support provided by base, administrative, supply and transport troops, that by war's end less than one in five troops was serving in a combat unit.

The main campaign in the Pacific was in Papua New Guinea but in 1945 the 7th and 9th Divisions went to Borneo. The 6th continued fighting in New Guinea, the 3rd on Bougainville and the 5th on New Britain (the latter two being militia divisions). Only a handful of soldiers served overseas at this stage with British forces, but thousands were still in prisoner of war camps in Europe and the Pacific, having been captured in 1941-42.

RAAF back to top  

The Royal Australian Air Force was expanding when war broke out, having 12 squadrons formed or in the process of forming. Most were located in Australia, but Australian airmen would end up serving in every theatre of the war.

At the outbreak of war, 10 Squadron RAAF was in Britain collecting Sunderland flying boats purchased by the RAAF. The squadron was offered to Britain to serve as part of Royal Air Force Coastal Command, flying anti-submarine patrols over the Atlantic Ocean for the duration of the war. 11 Squadron was stationed at Port Moresby with Catalina flying boats, flying long-range reconnaissance patrols over northern Australia and north of Papua New Guinea. In 1940, 3 Squadron was posted to the Middle East as an army co-operation squadron with the Australian Imperial Force, but became a fighter squadron.

Plans had been made to raise and send more squadrons overseas but the Australian Government then signed up to the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), under which the Royal Australian, New Zealand and Canadian Air Forces would train aircrews to be loaned to the Royal Air Force. Most would serve in British squadrons, though some would be posted to 'Article XV', or '400-series' squadrons. These squadrons were raised by the RAF but with their nationality officially recognised - for instance, 460 Squadron RAAF, to which the famous Lancaster G for George at the Australian War Memorial belonged. Many aircrews who survived their tours of duty returned to Australia to serve in RAAF squadrons and as instructors.

Training of EATS recruits took place in Australia, Canada, Rhodesia and Britain. By war's end, almost 40,000 Australians had been sent overseas under this scheme, serving in Europe, the Middle East, Burma and other places. Many men in Australia and overseas died in training accidents. Many who graduated from courses flew with Bomber Command, which had the highest operational loss rate of any British Commonwealth force in the war. The RAAF also sent ground crews to serve in most of its Article XV squadrons (as well as 3 and 10 Squadrons), most serving up to four years overseas. Hundreds of RAAF members became prisoners of war in Germany and Italy, as well as a smaller number in the Far East.

The majority of RAAF personnel remained in Australia. The massive expansion of the forces required extensive administrative, training, supply and maintenance services, and there was also a strong commitment to 'home defence', so many men and most women who volunteered for the RAAF never got the chance to serve overseas. To assist in meeting the demand for manpower within Australia, the RAAF formed the Women's Australian Auxiliary Air Force in 1941, recruiting women to serve in administrative roles and to perform routine maintenance on aircraft, serving alongside men, in non-operational units (mostly training establishments) in Australia.

In 1940, the RAAF sent three squadrons to Malaya; in 1941 these were joined by an Article XV squadron, 453, raised at Bankstown, New South Wales, along with some EATS graduates posted to British squadrons. They were the first to see action against Japanese forces. About 200 RAAF men, mostly ground staff, were taken prisoner by the Japanese. By the end of 1942, RAAF squadrons also had seen extensive operational service in northern Australia, the Netherlands East Indies and Papua New Guinea. Other squadrons flew anti-submarine patrols over the shipping lanes around Australia.

The majority of RAAF personnel who saw active service served in these campaigns against Japan. A few had previously served in Europe or the Middle East. Along with flying squadrons, RAAF members served in various supporting units including headquarters, supply depots, communications flights, medical aerial evacuation units, radar stations and airfield construction squadrons - some of the latter two types of units serving in the Philippines in 1945 with American forces. The RAAF also played a part in the repatriation of prisoners of war at the end of the war. The only RAAF servicewomen to see active service were members of the RAAF Nursing Service.

Merchant Navy back to top  

The Merchant Navy, or Merchant Marine, was often said to be the 'unseen' or 'silent' service. Thousands of Australians served as merchant mariners, shipping troops and supplies around the world and sometimes directly supporting military operations.

Merchant seamen generally signed on to a merchant ship, rather than being posted to one. Australians could serve on ships of virtually any nationality serving the Allied cause. Thus, although most served on vessels belonging to Australian shipping lines, many were on British or even Norwegian vessels, and a few on American and other ships.

Men who served in the Atlantic convoys sailing between North America and Britain faced some of the highest casualty rates of the war, as German U-boats (submarines) waged a campaign against merchant shipping that reached its peak in 1942-43. Most dangerous were the Arctic convoys taking supplies to Russian ports, as crewmen of any ship sunk had little chance of survival unless picked up quickly from the freezing North Atlantic waters. Merchant seamen also suffered heavy losses against enemy aircraft while running supplies to the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean, and off Greece and Crete.

Many ships had anti-aircraft and anti-submarine guns fitted, thus turning them into Defensively Armed Merchant Ships (DEMS), with naval ratings posted aboard to provide gun crews, but in practice these guns were little defence against determined enemy attacks.

Merchant seamen were among the first Australians captured by enemy forces during the war. In 1940, several men were captured by German raiders operating in the Indian Ocean. Merchant ships in this area often sailed unescorted unless they were carrying troops or could accompany a troop convoy, and so they proved to be easy prey. Some men were taken as prisoners of war to Italian Somaliland, but were released when British forces occupied the territory in 1941, while others went to Germany and a few to Italy. In late 1941 and early 1942, several Australian merchant seamen were killed or taken prisoner by Japanese raiders in the Indian Ocean or when their ships were sunk in air or sea attacks in Malayan, Netherlands East Indies or New Guinea waters.

From 1942, many merchant seamen sailed in the regular supply runs around the Australian coastline and to Papua New Guinea, servicing Australian, American and Dutch forces. Many of the merchant ships were Dutch or American, but Australian shipping lines such as Burns Philp, Australian United Steam Navigation and Huddart Parker played a vital role in supporting military operations in this theatre. Several merchant ships were sunk by Japanese submarines or mines, mostly off Australia's east coast, or attacked by enemy aircraft in operational areas, but generally shipping losses were light.

Australian merchant seamen continued serving in every theatre of war. Australia was a significant primary producer, sending bulk agricultural products to Britain and India (along with military supplies), while also requiring military and commercial supplies to be brought from Britain, North America and elsewhere. Shipping lanes, particularly those in the Atlantic, remained dangerous, though not so bad as the worst years for merchant shipping losses of 1940-43. At war's end, it was recognised that merchant seaman had risked their lives playing a vital role in the war effort and they qualified for service medals.

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