Unit war diaries were produced each month in order to record in detail a unit's activities, and to document any relevant orders or reports. This process was of benefit in analysing events to learn from them, as a reliable record of events for evidential purposes, and for future historical reference.
During the 1939-45 War instructions for keeping and submitting a unit war diary were outlined in Field Service Regulations, Vol 1, Section 174. The original copy was to "be forwarded on the first day of the succeeding month to the 2nd Echelon for transmission to the War Office." Duplicate copies were to be forwarded to the same destination within a period of two or three months, depending on the unit or formation involved. 2nd Echelon appear to have receipted the diaries they received without checking contents or following up missing diaries. This arrangement had its problems as many of the diaries from certain Middle East campaigns and the early New Guinea period were not only uninformative but missing altogether. Citizen Military Forces (CMF) units on active duty in Australia forwarded their diaries to their District Records Office in their own state where a similar situation eventuated.
With the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and the return of the main portion of the AIF from the Middle East, the Military History and Information Section attached to AIF Administrative Headquarters Overseas was necessarily reconstructed. The section now located in Melbourne, became part of the Directorate of Staff Duties, Army (Land) Headquarters and was given the shorter title of Military History Section (MHS). Lieutenant Colonel J. L. Treloar, the Director of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), was appointed Officer in Charge.
In November 1942 the MHS took over responsibility for the collection of AIF and Citizen Military Forces (CMF) unit war diaries from the Army's 2nd Echelon and District Record Offices. It also became responsible for gathering other relevant written material and relics representing the work of the Australian Military Forces (AMF) for the use of historians and the AWM after the war.
Under the guidance of Treloar, field officers visited units to inspect their current diaries and often presented lectures to interested personnel, aimed at stimulating the interest of the unit's diary keeper and highlighting the importance of the record they were creating for future researchers. The MHS also produced a number of pamphlets (see AWM 54, 255/4/3), expanding upon the instructions for keeping a unit war diary provided in the Field Service Regulations. On one occasion the MHS even suggested specific types of information that different units could include in their diaries.
On arrival at the MHS, a diary was checked and an official receipt was made out and despatched to the unit. For a short period of time staff of the MHS also read all the original diaries and prepared a short précis of the contents of each. Two copies of the précis were then filed, one by subject and the other by unit and the diary was placed in an envelope with another copy of the précis on the outside (AWM 54, 492/2/9). If extant, these précis have been filed with the original diary. Duplicate diaries were simply receipted and stored, unless an original copy of the diary had not been received from the unit.
It was decided early in the war that the Australian War Memorial in Canberra would be the final resting place for the war diaries and, subsequently, for the additional historical material collected by the Military History Section. The transfer of the war diaries and other records and relics from MHS began in July 1946. Boxes of records were transported from Melbourne by truck directly to the Memorial and the move was completed by early 1947 (AWM Registry File: 422/001/009).
Between 1946 and 1956 the diaries for units serving with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), Japan and with the United Nations in Korea were received by the Memorial from the MHS in Melbourne. These diaries were also registered and incorporated into AWM 52 and AWM 85 (Australian Army unit war diaries, Korea).
The content of individual war diaries depends on the unit concerned and their functions and daily activities. Overall, however, the main factor controlling the contents and quality of contents of a particular diary remains the skill, dedication, and enthusiasm of the officer who was in charge of compiling it.
The official instructions to units on the preparation of war diaries suggest that war diaries should include:
i. Important orders, instructions, reports, messages or despatches received and issued, and decisions taken.
ii. Daily location. Movements during the past twenty-four hours and present dispositions. March tables in the case of large units or of formations are of assistance.
iii. Important matters relating to the duties of each branch of the staff.
iv. Detailed account of operations. Exact hour of important occurrences, factors affecting operations, topographical and climatic. Clear sketches showing positions of troops at important phases.
v. Nature and description of field engineering works constructed, or quarters occupied.
vi. Changes in establishment or strength. As regards casualties the names and ranks of officers and the number of other ranks or followers and of animals should be noted. In addition in the case of units on the L. of C. changes in stores, transport, &c
vii. Meteorological notes
viii. Summary of important information received, whether military or political.
This type of information was recorded on Army Form C. 2118, the war diary or Intelligence Summary sheet, which has columns for recording the date of each entry, the units location, a summary of events and a column for any remarks or references to appendices. These war diary sheets are located at the beginning of each monthly diary and are followed by a number of appendices, which make up the larger part of each diary. The appendices should include copies of field returns (A.F.W 3008 and A.F.W 3009), operation or routine orders for the month the diary covers, orders or instructions received from higher commands and a copy of each narrative report describing operations drawn up by a subordinate formation or unit. Appendices may also contain sketches, maps or photographs to supplement the operation reports or the diary in general.
System of arrangement and control:
To enable filing and retrieval of the diaries the MHS devised a multiple number system based on the same precedence of corps system used to control the 1914-18 war diaries (see, AWM4: Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-18 War). The diaries are still arranged by this three-part numbering system. The first number represents a corps or a group of related units. The second number refers to the units within the corps, eg battalions and the third number identifies a particular unit within the above sub-group. An outline of precedence of corps is as follows:
1/- Headquarters Units
3/- Armoured Corps
10/- Supplies and Transport
14/- Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers
16/- Veterinary and Remount
19/- Class does not exist
20/- Printing and Stationery
22/- Labour, Employment and Work Companies
24/- Class does not exist
25/- Miscellaneous (includes North Australia Observer Unit, Independent Companies, Concert Parties and POW contact units)
26/- Class does not exist
27/- Class does not exist
28/- Camp and Ship Staffs
29/- General Details Depot and Discharge
30/- Reception Camps
32/- Australian Women's Army Service Barracks
36/- Volunteer Defence Corps
38/- Class does not exist
39/- Class does not exist
40/- Movement Control