2/2nd Pioneer Battalion

The 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion was raised in Puckapunyal in Victoria in May 1940. After completing its initial training at “Pucka”, the battalion sailed for the Middle East aboard the Queen Mary in April 1941.

The battalion arrived in Port Tewfik, the port of Suez, in May and travelled by train to Palestine and camped at Hill 95. It began preparing for its first action supporting the 7th Division in Syria.

Initially the battalion did not fight as a whole - each of it companies supported different brigades. A Company went to the 21st Brigade at Er Rama and B Company to the 25th Brigade near Rosh Pinah.

When the attack began on 7 June A Company was placed under the command of the 2/16th Infantry Battalion and had three tasks: breach the frontier fence at El Malakiya, a formidable obstacle of barbed-wire and iron picket; improve the approaches from the frontier road to the gap in the fence; and build a road across the fields to link with the road passing through Aiteroune. B Company had a similar task. At Metulla it prepared artillery approaches and improved the track from Mezudal and Banias. The men also assisted engineers to repair a crater in the road near Dan.

D Company joined the 25th Brigade and also assisted maintaining and repairing roads. Several days later C Company came forward from Er Rama and began improving the rough track to Metulla for vehicles to pass.

But when the Vichy French counter-attacked Merdjayoun on 15 June the 2/2nd recalled its scattered companies to hold the Litani Bridge and prevent further enemy advance.

On 17 June the pioneers participated in the attack on Fort Merdjayoun. In a reckless decision, A and B Companies made a frontal attack on the fort. French machine-gun fire quickly stopped the attack and the Australians were exposed. Casualties mounted but the companies were pinned, unable to withdraw until evening. They suffered heavily: 27 killed, 29 captured, and 46 wounded.

Despite the losses the battalion remained in action for the rest of the campaign. It was particularly active in the fighting around Merdjayoun and El Mtolle and in the attack on Damour in July.

Following the surrender of the Vichy French the battalion concentrated first at Damour and then near Tripoli, bivouacking in the olive groves opposite Fort Legout. For the next four months the battalion trained and conducted garrison duties, with each company sent to different locations as needed. In November the pioneers moved to Qatana.

In early 1942 the 6th and 7th Divisions returned to Australia and the 2/2nd began the voyage home on the troopship Orcades. The 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, 2/6th Field Company, and other support units were also on board. However, the Orcades was about to be caught in the Japanese thrust.

British forces in Singapore surrendered on 15 February. Two days later the Orcades reached Oosthaven in Sumatra before going to Batavia in Java. The Japanese were moving through the Netherlands East Indies and decided to make a stand on Java.

The troops aboard Orcades, as well as a battery of American artillery and a squadron from the 3rd King’s Own Hussars, combined to defend Java. They became known as the “Blackforce”. Their directive was political rather than strategic and ultimately futile.

The Japanese landed on Java on 28 February. Blackforce went into action at Leuwiliang near Buitenzorg on 4 March. It fought against the Japanese for two days but was ordered to lay down arms the day after Dutch surrender on 8 March.

The majority of the 2/2nd survived the fighting (865 officers and men) and spent the rest of the war as prisoners. Of these, 258 men died, most while working on the Burma-Thailand railway. Others died in Java, Borneo, and at sea when ships they were being transported on were sunk.

Not all the battalion was captured. Days after the Blackforce surrender, ships carrying the battalion’s rear echelon troops, baggage, and stores returned to Australia. There were also a handful of troops, mainly drivers, who had remained in Australia. Initially the remaining troops were told the 2/2nd was not going to be reformed but the decision was reversed the following month. By June 1943 the new 2/2nd was ready for action and sailed to Port Moresby in Papua the following month.

The pioneers supported the 7th Division in New Guinea for the rest of the year. Its first action was near Nabzab, during the Ramu Valley campaign and then in the advance to Lae. The pioneers served as both infantry and engineers.

In February 1944 the 2/2nd returned to Australia, exhausted and wracked with tropical disease. After a short period of leave, it met at Townsville and then Deadman’s Gully near Cairns and undertook amphibious training with the 2nd Australian Beach Group.

In March 1945 the battalion finally left Deadman’s Gully and moved to Morotai. The 7th and 9th Divisions were being concentrated in readiness for their amphibious landings on Borneo, as part of OBOE efforts to reoccupy areas of the Netherlands East Indies.

The first landing took place at Tarakan on 1 May. The pioneers supported the 9th Division’s 26th Brigade, helping to defend the beachhead. The rest of the division landed on Labuan Island and Brunei Bay in June. On 2 May the 2/2nd and the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion relieved the two infantry battalions protecting ANZAC Highway. The 2/2nd took over Finch feature and the Lingkas Tank Farm and helped unload landing craft.

By the end of June the fight on Tarakan was almost over but by this time the 2/2nd had returned to Morotai in preparation for the 7th Division landing at Balikpapan on 1 July.

The 2/2nd was unique in supporting both divisions. Its work at Balikpapan was similar to Tarakan: helping to organise and defend the beachhead, guarding prisoners, and providing labour for burial parties and other activities. On 11 July the battalion was concentrated at Romilly at the site of the bombed hospital.

Japan surrendered on 15 August. With the war over the 2/2nd was declared “redundant” and its personnel were either discharged or transferred by the end of the year.

Glossary

Battle Honours

Casualties

  • 394 died
  • 121 wounded

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

Commanding Officers

Decorations

  • 2 DSO
  • 5 OBE
  • 2 MC
  • 2 BEM
  • 13 MM
  • 13 MID

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

Collection Items

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References

  • AWM52/8/6/2: 2/2 Pioneer Battalion unit diary
  • Aitken, Edward Fawcett, The story of the 2/2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion, (Melbourne: 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion Association, 1953)
  • Holmes, Linda Goetz, Four thousand bowls of rice : a prisoner of war comes home, (St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1993)
  • MacPherson, Neil, 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion prisoners of war : a collection of research, (Australia: N. MacPherson, 2001, 2001)
  • Nolan, Kevin, Neither hero nor coward : featuring the war diaries of Sgt. Kevin Nolan 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, (Parkdale, Vic.: Mary Bingham, 1997)