Second World War, 1939–45
On 3 September 1939 Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies announced the beginning of Australia's involvement in the Second World War on every national and commercial radio station in Australia.
Almost a million Australians, both men and women, served in the Second World War. They fought in campaigns against Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, as well as against Japan in south-east Asia and other parts of the Pacific. The Australian mainland came under direct attack for the first time, as Japanese aircraft bombed towns in north-west Australia and Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney harbour.
On 7 May 1945 the German High Command authorised the signing of an unconditional surrender on all fronts: the war in Europe was over. The surrender was to take effect at midnight on 8–9 May 1945. On 14 August 1945 Japan accepted of the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. For Australia it meant that the Second World War was finally over.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) participated in operations against Italy after its entry into the war in June 1940. A few Australians flew in the Battle of Britain in August and September, but the Australian army was not engaged in combat until 1941, when the 6th, 7th, and 9th Divisions joined Allied operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Following early successes against Italian forces, the Australians suffered defeat with the Allies at the hands of the Germans in Greece, Crete, and North Africa. In June and July 1941 Australians participated in the successful Allied invasion of Syria, a mandate of France and the Vichy government. Up to 14,000 Australians held out against repeated German attacks in the Libyan port of Tobruk, where they were besieged between April and August 1941. After being relieved at Tobruk, the 6th and 7th Divisions departed from the Mediterranean theatre for the war against Japan. The 9th Division remained to play an important role in the Allied victory at El Alamein in October 1942 before it also left for the Pacific. By the end of 1942 the only Australians remaining in the Mediterranean theatre were airmen serving either with 3 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) or in the Royal Air Force (RAF).
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.
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.
While Australia's major effort from 1942 onwards was directed at defeating Japan, thousands of Australians continued to serve with the RAAF in Europe and the Middle East. Athough more Australian airmen fought against the Japanese, losses among those flying against Germany were far higher. Australians were particularly prominent in Bomber Command's offensive against occupied Europe. Some 3,500 Australians were killed in this campaign, making it the costliest of the war.
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.
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.
Sources and further reading:
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)
Essays, articles, and talks
- Fighting in Timor, 1942: history and photo essay
- Crete: the battles of May, 1941
- Australian military unit profiles: Second World War, 1939–45
- Australia–Japan Research Project
- Anniversary talks marking significant events of 1942
- Conference papers: Air war Europe
- Conference papers:- Remembering 1942
- Conference papers: Remembering 1941
- Encyclopedia: answers frequently asked questions about the Second World War
- Articles from Wartime, the Memorial's official magazine:
- Mark Johnston, "The Blockhouse, El Alamein" (0.65Mb PDF file) Wartime 8 (1999)
- Peter Stanley, "Getting our knees brown: exploring the El Alamein battlefield" (0.21Mb PDF file) Wartime 8 (1999)
- Mark Johnston and David Pearson, "Magnificent Menace: 88 mm guns and Australians at El Alamein" (0.17Mb PDF file) Wartime 8 (1999)
- David Pearson, "Diana" (0.06Mb PDF file) Wartime 8 (1999)
- Vanessa Seekee, "One ilan man" Wartime 12 (2000)
- Julie Padanyi-Ryan, "Loyalty and courage at Bardia" Wartime 13 (2001)
- Mike Cecil, "A crucial edge" Wartime 15 (2001)
- Peter Burness, "In the event of my death …" Wartime 19 (2002)
- Peter Stanley, "New Guinea offensives" Wartime 23 (2003)
- Daniel Oakman, "The battle of Berlin" Wartime 25 (2004)
- Robert Nichols, "The first kamikaze attack?" Wartime 28 (2004)
- Eric Carpenter, "Accepting the Japanese surrender" Wartime 31 (2005)
- Garth Pratten, "Professional men of war" Wartime 37 (2007)
- Articles from the Journal of the Australian War Memorial
- Betty Peters, "The life experience of partners of ex-POWs of the Japanese" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 28 (1996)
- Mark Johnston, "The civilians who joined up, 1939–45" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 29 (1996)
- Herman Bussemaker, "Australian–Dutch defence cooperation, 1940–1941" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 29 (1996)
- Hara Takeshi, "Historical materials on the Japanese Army that relate to Australia in the Second World War" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 30 (1997)
- David Sissons, "Sources on Australian investigations into Japanese war crimes in the Pacific" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 30 (1997)
- Tanaka Hiromi, "The Japanese Navy's operations against Australia in the Second World War, with a commentary on Japanese sources" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 30 (1997)
- Hank Nelson, "A map to Paradise Road: a guide for historians" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 32 (1999)
- Hiroyuki Shindo, "Japanese air operations over New Guinea during the Second World War" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 34 (2001)
- David Stevens, "The naval campaigns for New Guinea" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 34 (2001)
- Jozef Straczek, "The empire is listening: naval signals intelligence in the Far East to 1942" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 35 (2001)
- Lorna Froude, "Petrol rationing in Australia during the Second World War" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 36 (2002)
- Ooi Keat Gin, "Prelude to invasion: covert operations before the re-occupation of Northwest Borneo, 1944–45" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 37 (2002)
- Peter Stanley, "'Great in adversity': Indian prisoners of war in New Guinea" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 37 (2002)
- Ann Elias, "The organization of camouflage in Australia in the Second World War" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 38 (2003)
- Ian Willis, "Camden's salvage campaign, 1939–45" Journal of the Australian War Memorial 38 (2003)
From the collection
Find a person
- Roll of Honour: details of members of the Australian armed forces who died while on active service
- Australian Military Forces' (AMF) prisoners of war and missing in the Far East and South West Pacific Islands: details of approximately 23,000 personnel, as at 30 June 1944
- Information sheet: researching Australian military service, Second World War
- Information sheet: Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Second World War
- Information sheet: Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA)
- Information sheet: Australian prisoners of war, Second World War – Europe
- Information sheet: Australian prisoners of war, Second World War – Prisoners of the Japanese
- Chronological guide to Official Records: Second World War, 1939–45
- Reading list: Australian involvement in the Second World War
- Second World War, 1939–1945: perrmanent gallery
- Allies in adversity: Australia and the Dutch in the Pacific War : online exhibition
- Shared experience: art and war – Australia, Britain and Canada in the Second World War: online exhibition
- Looking back: Australians on Crete – works of art by Michael Winters: online exhibition
- Australia under attack: 1942–1943: online exhibition
- Stella Bowen: art, love and war: online exhibition
- World War 2 Nominal Roll: Department of Veterans' Affairs
- Online Exhibition - Australia's Northern Territory WWII: Northern Territory Library
- "The track": a historical desktop study of the Kokoda Track: By Dr Karl James, Military History Section, Australian War Memorial, commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2009