55/53rd Battalion (New South Wales Rifle/ West Sydney Regiment)

After the First World War the defence of the Australian mainland lay with the part-time soldiers of the Citizens Military Force (CMF), also known as the Militia. The Militia was organized to maintain the structure of the First AIF and kept the same numerical designations. Consequently, Militia units were also known by the name of their shire. Thus Sydney’s 53rd Infantry Battalion was the “West Sydney Regiment” and the 55th Infantry Battalion was the “New South Wales Rifle Regiment”. During the 1930s, little was spent on defence and the Militia had few volunteers. Thus, in 1937 the 55th merged with the 53rd Battalion, forming the 55th/53rd Infantry Battalion. However, it was separated again in October 1941.

While both battalions served in Papua in 1942, the 55th and 53rd had very different histories. The 55th demonstrated good potential for active fighting. However, the 53rd did not fare well when it went into action for the first time along the Kokoda Trail. It was thereafter disparagingly referred to as “that mob’.

Having fought the Japanese back along the Kokoda Trail, the Australians attacked the Japanese in their heavily defended positions in Buna, Gona, and Sanananda. After Buna and Gona were captured, the 16th Brigade attacked Sanananda but made little headway. It was decided to move the 30th Brigade, composed of the 55th/53rd, 36th and 49th Battalions, into the assault. The 55th/53rd soon lost its stigma during the hard fighting at Sanananda and on Bougainville that ensued.

On 5 December the 55th/53rd was flown from Port Moresby, over the Own Stanley’s, to Popondetta and Dobodura. They marched to the Sanananda Track, relieving the 16th Brigade on 6 December. The 30th Brigade went into action the next day.

Early on 7 December the 55th/53rd B Company made a small attack against Japanese positions to divert enemy attention from the 49th’s main attack against Sanananda. The remaining 55th/53rd joined the 49th in the main battle. However, both battalions could not penetrate the strong Japanese fortifications and suffered heavily: the 55th/53rd had 130 casualties, including killed, missing, and wounded; the 49th took 229 casualties, more than half the battalion’s fighting strength.

From the next day and until 19 December, the 55th/53rd patrolled the fringes of Japanese positions in an attempt to draw their fire and make the Japanese deplete their ammunition supplies. On 19 December the 55th/53rd and 49th made another unsuccessful attack on Sanananda but this time with less casualties - 108 men from the 55th/53rd killed or wounded. The 55th/53rd resumed patrolling and, on 26 December, supported the 36th in another attack. Had the 36th been successful, the 55th/53rd would have followed the 36th and helped to consolidate the captured ground. This did not happen. Once again the Australians could not penetrate the Japanese defences. The 55th/53rd was relieved in early January 1943 and moved to a new position at Gona. Sanananda was not finally cleared and captured until 21 January. The 55th/53rd returned to Port Moresby at the end of January.

On 2 March the battalion embarked for Australia on the transport ship Duntroon and reached Cairns three days later. The 55th/53rd then travelled to Ravenshoe, approximately 220 km south of Cairns, where the men were given leave. In April the battalion moved to Townsville, where it briefly joined the 12th Brigade and then the 3rd Brigade in July. The battalion was employed in garrison duties and work parties in Townsville and the surrounding area.

In December 1944 the battalion sailed from Brisbane to Torokina, the Australians’ main base on Bougainville. This time the 55/53rd joined the 26th and 31st/51st Battalions as part of the 11th Brigade. The brigade was responsible for the Northern and Central Sectors. The 31st/51st went to north Bougainville, while the 26th moved into the Central Sector. The 55th/53rd moved into position between Torokina and the 26th, in the Laruma River area.

In February 1945 the 55th/53rd relieved the 26th from their positions in the Central Sector. “Comparatively quiet”, was how one veteran described their time on Pearl Ridge compared to the battalion’s previous campaign at Sanananda. The battalion sent out regular patrols and there was frequent contact with the Japanese, but it did not fight any large engagements and was relieved in mid-March.

On 6 April the 55th/53rd moved into the Northern Sector, where they again relieved the 26th Battalion. The 55th/53rd was to continue the advance from the Soraken Plantation to Pora Pora and beyond. This they did, occupying Pora Pora on 4 May and then Ratsua. By 11 May they had cut across the Bonis Peninsula, eventually reaching Ruri Bay and establishing the Ratsua-Ruri Bay line. This effectively contained the Japanese to the Bonis Peninsula, the northern most tip of Bougainville.

The 55th/53rd established the line with constant patrolling. However, from mid-April Japanese resistance intensified, infiltrating the Ratsua-Ruri Bay line and continually shelling the Australians. The terrain was also wearing down the battalion, as the men had to patrol through leach-filled swaps and fast-flowing rivers. Exhausted, the 55th/53rd was relieved by the 26th on 19 May. The 55th/53rd returned to Torokina.

After the Second World War, Brigadier John Stevenson, the commander of the 11th Brigade, made a special effort to single-out and praise the 55th/53rd, aware of the battalion’s sensitive history as “that mob”. So too did Lieutenant General Stanley Savige, the Australian commander on Bougainville, who congratulated them for doing an “all-round splendid job” and closed with the sentiment that the “55th/53rd Battalion will do me”.

In September 1945 the battalion embarked for Simpson Harbour in New Britain, where it joined the Australian force garrisoning Rabual and was completely reorganised. Many veterans where discharged and replaced with men whose original units had been disbanded or with young, fresh reinforcements. The battalion remained on Rabaul until May 1946 before it finally returned to Australia.

Glossary

Battle Honours

Casualties

  • 135 died
  • 197 wounded

For more information please see the Roll of Honour and Second World War Nominal Roll (external website) databases.

Commanding Officers

Decorations

  • 1 MC
  • 1 DCM
  • 4 MM
  • 12 MID

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

Collection Items

Search for related collection items

References

  • AWM52/8/3/91: 55/53 Infantry Battalion unit diary
  • Budden, Frank M, That mob : the story of the 55/53rd Australian Infantry Battalion, A.I.F. / by F.M. Budden, (Sydney : F.M. Budden, 1973)
  • Laycock, Kenneth George, Memories of a militiaman 1938-1944, (Griffith, A.C.T. : K.G. & F.F. Laycock, 1995)