The 2/32nd Infantry Battalion was unique in being one of only three Australian infantry battalions formed in the United Kingdom. In June 1940 a troop convoy carrying almost 8,000 Australians, sailing to Middle East to join the 6th Division, was diverted to Britain. This force was based around the 18th Brigade and also consisted of infantry reinforcements and other support troops. In late-June it was decided these reinforcements and support troops would form the basis of a new infantry brigade, the 25th Brigade, for the 7th Division. However, each battalion only had three rifle companies instead of the usual four. The brigade’s three battalions were the 70th, 71st, and 72nd Battalions. The 71st Infantry Battalion, established on 27 June, became the 2/32nd on 28 October. The 70th and 72nd Battalions became the 2/31st and the 2/33rd Battalions respectively.
The 25th Brigade carried out its training at Tidworth and Colchester. In January 1941 it left Britain and sailed to the Middle East. The 2/32nd left Scotland on 4 January 1941 and disembarked in Egypt on 9 March. With the rest of the brigade, the battalion travelled by train to Palestine and went into camp at Kilo 89. It then absorbed its fourth rifle company, D Company, that had formed and trained in Palestine.
By April the war in the Western Desert had turned against the Allies. The German Afrika Korps led the Axis counter-attack, pushing the British back from El Agheila and Benghazi. The 9th Division was subsequently forced to withdraw to Tobruk. One of the division’s brigade’s, the 24th Brigade, had only two battalions in the “fortress” and it was decided the 2/32nd would transfer to Tobruk. The 2/32nd remained with the 24th Brigade for the rest of the war.
On the night of 11 April the 2/32nd travelled by train from Gaza to Ikingi Maryut, near Alexandria, before going to Mersa Matruh. From 27 April to 4 May units from the battalion were transported by sea to Tobruk. The 2/32nd participated in the usual pattern of defensive duties, manning parts of the Red Line and aggressively patrolling no man’s land. The Red Line was Tobruk’s outer line of defence and consisted of a series of concrete pillboxes forming a semicircle around the town. Between September and October the 9th Division, except the 2/13th Infantry Battalion, was evacuated by sea. The 2/32nd left Tobruk on night of 23 September and sailed to Alexandria, from where it was transferred to Palestine and then Lebanon for rest and training.
The war in North Africa had become critical for the British forces. In July 1942 Germans and Italians had reached El Alamein in Egypt, about seventy miles from Alexandra. The 9th Division was consequently rushed to the El Alamein area and held the northern sector for almost four months as the British Eighth Army was reinforced for an offensive under new a commander.
The division’s orders for the first attack were issued on 7 July. Moving inland from the coast, the 2/32nd and 2/43rd Battalions (comprising the 24th Brigade) would attack along the ridgeline from Trig 22 and approach Ruin Ridge. The 2/32nd would lead the attack, advancing from Trig 22 to the Qattara Track. The 2/43rd would then proceed towards Ruin Ridge.
The attack began on 17 July at 2.30 am. The 2/32nd captured the Trig 22 and linked with the 2/43rd but the Germans resisted fiercely and counter-attacked with tanks. During this and in a subsequent attack on 22 July, the 2/32 suffered heavily: nearly half its number were either killed or wounded and over 200 men became prisoners of war. The fighting continued for several days. On 4 August the 2/32nd was relieved and moved back to a position astride the Alexandria-Mersa Matruh road to rest.
During the general Allied offensive from 23 October to 4 November, the 24th Brigade stayed in reserve, while the 26th and the 20th Brigades made the initial attack. The task was to deceive the Axis forces by faking an attack. The 2/28th and 2/43rd raided enemy lines, while the 2/32nd directed a smokescreen and placed “dummy soldiers” in no man’s land. The 24th Brigade did not take part in the main fighting until the night of 31 October, when it relieved the 26th Brigade in the “Saucer”, where the heaviest fighting took place.
Alamein was a great, although bloody, success for the Allies and by 6 November Axis forces were retreating. But the 9th Division was needed elsewhere. The 2/32nd left Alamein during the first week of December and went to Gaza in Palestine, where it participated in the 9th Division parade on 22 December. The battalion left Palestine in January 1943 for the Suez Canal and the return voyage to Australia, reaching Sydney on 27 February.
Reorganised for jungle operations, on the 2/32nd participated in the 9th Division’s amphibious landing at Red Beach, north-west of Lae. While the division’s other brigades had landed on 4 September, the 24th Brigade came ashore during the night of 5 September. The 2/28th and 2/43rd went into the fighting around Lae but the 2/32nd, which had been the divisional reserve, did not take part in the fighting until 14 September.
Following the fall of Lae, the 20th Brigade landed at Scarlet Beach, north of Finschhafen, on 22 September. On 11 October the 24th Brigade moved to Scarlet Beach and successfully defended the area when the Japanese counter-attacked later that month. By the end of the month the main Japanese offensive had withdrawn to Sattelberg but large numbers of troops were still north of Scarlet Beach on Pino Hill and at Nongora. Advancing along the coast the 2/28th captured Guiska and the 2/32nd, further inland, captured Pino and then Pabu on 20 November. Between 22 to 25 November the Japanese launched a series of unsuccessful attacks against Pabu. The 2/32nd held on - “an Australian island in a Japanese sea” - and suffered 25 men killed and 51 wounded. It counted 195 dead Japanese. Ten days later the 2/43rd joined the 2/32nd and both moved further inland, despite being seriously depleted by illness. They advanced to Christmas Hill on 10 December and the 2/32nd was relived two days later. It returned to Australia in February 1944.
After some leave, the 2/32nd reformed at Ravenshoe on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland and undertook an extensive period of training. The war was almost over before the battalion went into action again.In April 1945 the 9th Division was transported to Morotai, which was being used as a staging area in preparation for the 7th and 9th Divisions amphibious operations on Borneo. The 24th Brigade landed on Brown Beach on Labuan Island on 10 June. After 11 days of fighting the 2/28th and 2/43rd had cleared the island. Meanwhile, the 20th Brigade landed at Brunei Bay.
With the Japanese falling back in British North Borneo, the 9th Division commander decided to clear the Klias Peninsula and follow the railway from Weston to Papar. The 2/32nd had been in reserve during the earlier operations. On 17 June it crossed Brunei Bay in landing craft to Weston. The 2/43rd landed at Menumbok and the 2/11th Commando Squadron landed at Mempakul on 19 June.
By end of the first day, patrols from the 2/32nd had reached Lingkungan. The next day a platoon moved further inland along the railway from Weston to Maraba. Patrols also followed the Padas River, enabling the 2/32nd to advance on Beaufort. Similarly the 2/43rd moved on Beaufort via the Klias River. Beaufort was captured on 29 June. Thereafter, the 2/32nd moved along the railway towards Papar and on 10 July one of its companies made an amphibious landing south of the town. Papar was occupied two days later.
Following the end of the war and Japan’s surrender, the ranks of the 2/32nd thinned, as men were discharged, transferred, or volunteered for the occupation force for Japan. Those who remained with the unit returned to Australia in January 1946 and the 2/32nd was disbanded at Ingleburn at the end of the month.
- 2nd Australian Imperial Force
- 6 Division
- 9 Division
- North Borneo
- Capture of Lae
- El Alamein
- Mersa Matruh
- North Africa 1941-42
- Defence of Tobruk
- Defence of Alamein Line
- El Alamein
- South-West Pacific 1943-45
- Defence of Scarlet Beach
- Liberation of Australian New Guinea
- Tell el Makh Khad
- Sanyet el Miteirya
- 214 died
- 567 wounded
- 225 prisoners
- Anderson, Raymond Keith
- Balfe, John Walter
- Conroy, Thomas Mayo
- Scott, Thomas Henry
- Sparkes, Alonzo Sydney Clive
- Whitehead, David Adie 'Torpy'
- 3 DSO
- 3 OBE
- 4 MC
- 4 DCM
- 16 MM
- 42 MID
For more information please see Honours and Awards database
Search for related collection items
- AWM52/8/3/32: 2/32 Infantry Battalion unit diary
- Trigellis-Smith, Syd; 2/32 Australian Infantry Battalion Association, Britain to Borneo : a history of 2/32 Australian Infantry Battalion, (Sydney : 2/32 Australian Infantry Battalion Association, 1993)