The War Begins
After New Zealand offered a division to the British government to fight in Europe, Australia felt compelled to announce on September 15, 1939, that they would also supply a division.
The 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was formed around the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Divisions, which was to be its army for fighting overseas. Another army was setup for local defense, which included Papua and New Guinea.
The 6th Division was sent to Palestine to complete its training before it was to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France. Part of the division was sent ahead to England and formed the basis of the 9th Division.
The Australian Ministry of Munitions decided that Britain would be unable to supply them with tanks and needed to built up forces in case Japan attacked.
Australia didn't manufacture their own vehicles or have a very large engineering facility to develop a vehicle from. In 1940 an ordnance production engineer, A Chamberlain, went to the United States to study tank production. About the same time Colonel W D Watson from England joined the Australian Army Design Directorate. Another tank expert, Frenchman R Perrier, joined the group after having escaped from Japan.
The General Staff in November 1940 put out specs for a tank that had 4-5 man crew, weighed 16-20 ton, had 50 mm armor, had speed of 30 mph, and would be armed with a 2 pdr and 2 MGs. It wanted around 2,000 vehicles and the first deliveries were needed by July 1941 and production at 10 tanks a day.
Chamberlain and Watson had seen the American Medium M3 Tank and based their design on it. The AC 1 had manufacturing difficulties with the components and cast parts. A new design, the AC 2 was designed by Chamberlain. However, it became difficult to get components for it from the US so it was dropped and the AC 1 was produced.
The US was able to supply enough tanks to supply the 1st Australian Armored Division.
In The Middle East
After the fall of France the 1st Australian Corps, under Lt. General Blamey, was formed in Egypt with the 6th, 7th, and 9th Divisions. These units took part in the defeat of the Italians in the early desert campaigns.
Parts of the 6th Division joined New Zealand and British forces in Greece. They were also at Crete when the Germans landed.
The 7th Division took part in the Syrian Campaign in July 1941.
The 9th Division helped in the defense of Tobruk and in the battles at El Alamein. It was withdrawn in late 1942 to fight in the Pacific. By this time the 6th Division was already in Australia.
The 7th Division was sent to Colombo in March 1942 when Ceylon was threatened by the Japanese.
Preparing in the Pacific
Australian strategic planning considered Singapore the key to the security in the southwest Pacific. Two brigades of the 8th Division and 2 squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force were sent to help in its defense.
A battalion of the 8th Division was sent to Rabaul along with other units being sent to the islands north east of New Guinea.
After the Japanese captured Singapore, they proceeded to route the 7th Division on Java, and overcome units on Ambon, New Britain, Timor, New Ireland, and the Solomons.
The War Expands
On December 27, 1941, Curtin told the nation that “I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.” Curtin ordered the recall of 3 divisions that were in the Middle East. This lead to arguments with Winston Churchill, but a compromise was made to have 2 of the divisions returned. However, Churchill reneged on his promise by delaying their departure and planning to use them to protect British areas in India and this lead to further rifts between their two governments.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the successes in the Southeast Pacific, Australia realized that it could be invaded. The government instituted more controls, including civil conscription, which meant that men or women could be assigned to any occupation.
A Manpower Priorities Board and a Manpower Directorate were created to control food, clothing, tobacco, and gasoline.
In February 1942, Singapore fell and John Curtin (the prime minister) told Australians that it opened “the battle for Australia.”
On February 10, 1942, Darwin was bombed by the Japanese and widespread panic resulted.
Rationing was 8 oz. of tea every 5 weeks and 1 lb. of sugar a week. Beer production was reduced by a third. After February 1942, 8 horsepower cars received 6 gallons of gas per month, and 16 horsepower received 16 gallons per month.
The Volunteer Defense Corps (VDC) was originally formed around the Returned Soldiers’ League (men who served in World War I) but was expanded to include any man between 18 and 60 that would be willing to give up weekends and evenings for training.
The VDC was used to guard key areas, local intelligence, manned anti-aircraft guns, and coastal defenses. This freed up about 4,000 men of the armed forces.
The VDC was expanded from 50,000 to 80,000 in February 1942. This was later increased to 100,000 men. By May 1944, with the threat to the homeland reduced, about half were released.
The Early Build Up
When MacArthur arrived in Australia, Blamey was made commander of all ground forces under MacArthur. This included seven militia divisions, the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions, and the 41st United States Division.
In April 1942 Blaney reorganized the Army for the defense of the Australian mainland. By mid 1942 the Australian ground forces were engaging the Japanese at New Guinea with an independent Australian Company and units of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. By November 1942 the 6th and 7th Divisions and two militia brigades were defending Port Moresby.
In February 1943 the Militia Bill was passed which allowed for the posting of conscripts outside of the country. The conscripts were nicknamed the “chokos” (short for “chocolate soldiers”).
A Civilian construction Corps (CCC) was formed to help construct the facilities that Australian and the arriving United States forces would need. Those that were 45-60 were recruited and by June 1943 totaled 53,500. 16,000 of them were conscripts.
The Massing of Troops
Late in the war, when elements of the British Pacific Fleet, along with more United States troops, were potentially arriving, more installations were needed. In August 1944, the government instructed that 30,000 men from the army and 15,000 from the air force were to be discharged over the next 10 months to help with construction. However, with the campaigns in New Guinea, the man power wasn’t available. It was decided to use around 10,000 Italian POWs on farms and in other production which freed up those men for construction. 2,000 women from the Australian Women’s Land Army were added to the work force.
From October 1944 the Australian forces were used to replace American units so that they could be used for the upcoming Philippine campaign. The 3rd Division went to Bougainville, the 5th Division to New Britain, and the 6th Division to New Guinea.
The 7th and th Divisions were used in the assault on Bornea.