Monday 14 April 2014 by Emma Campbell. No comments

The often criticised role of Australian forces during the final 12 months of the Second World War will be examined at an international conference of leading historians and academics being held on the 70th anniversary of the period.

At the conference 1944: seventy years on, convened this month by the respected Second World War journal Global War Studies at Britain’s Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Australian War Memorial senior historian Dr Karl James will challenge accusations that Australians involved in mopping-up campaigns in New Guinea and on Bougainville in 1944–45 were “bludging”.

Troops of 'A' Company, 61st Infantry Battalion, move out on patrol at Warapa on Bougainville Island, in February 1945. Troops of 'A' Company, 61st Infantry Battalion, move out on patrol at Warapa on Bougainville Island, in February 1945. 079096

In 1944 Australians took over from American forces fighting the Japanese on the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea and Bougainville as part of the Allied counter-offensive to regain domination over the South-West Pacific Area. These aggressive island operations were aimed at freeing up Australian manpower for future operations against Japan or for employment on the home front. However, critics at the time claimed that Australian forces were being “whittled away” on more or less “face-saving” tasks.

Such criticisms have persisted over the decades, and in 2007 British historian Sir Max Hastings alleged that during 1944–45 the Australian army had effectively disappeared from the war.

But James, whose book The hard slog: Australians in the Bougainville campaign, 1944–45 (Cambridge University Press, 2012) examines the period, contends that Hastings’ claims “could not have been further from the truth”.

“In addition to the thousands of Australians (mainly airmen) fighting in the European war, Australian forces actively participated in the liberation of the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies, as well as in Australia’s own territory of New Guinea,” he says. “Australian forces were more heavily engaged in the final year of the war than at any other time.”

James asserts that 1944 was a year of frustration and disappointment for Australia. The government had to balance the country’s war effort between the pressures of the domestic economy and the establishment of infrastructure to support the anticipated arrival of a sizable British force, while maintaining a military large enough to continue an active role in the war.

“Mid-year, the Australian prime minister and the army’s commander-in-chief travelled to Washington and London, in part to seek a greater role for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), the army’s all-volunteer expeditionary force,” says James. “They were disappointed. At the end of the year, General Douglas MacArthur deliberately excluded the AIF from the Philippines, despite longstanding assurances to the contrary.”

The Australians were instead sent to conduct a series of amphibious operations on Borneo and campaigns in New Guinea and Bougainville. These operations were gruelling, with little relief from tough conditions and a still-fierce enemy.

James contends that, far from “bludging”, Australia suffered from the limitations of being a minor partner in a coalition war. “Our army was ultimately marginalised from the final battles to defeat Japan.”

Troops of the 4th Field Regiment unload jeeps and trucks on the beach at Puto, Bougainville Island, in February 1945. Troops of the 4th Field Regiment unload jeeps and trucks on the beach at Puto, Bougainville Island, in February 1945. 079140

The conference will bring together over a hundred historians, academics, and military history experts to present the latest scholarship on the events of 1944, a year of decision in many theatres of the war. Among the key events was the Allied invasion of occupied France, the peak of wartime industrial output, and the climax of the Holocaust.

The keynote speakers at the conference will include best-selling author and British historian Antony Beevor, esteemed American historian Richard B. Frank, and British historian Richard Overy. Beevor and Frank took part in the Australian War Memorial’s 2012 international history conference Kokoda: beyond the legend, which examined that campaign in the broader context of the war. Overy and Beevor have each contributed articles to the Memorial’s Wartime magazine.

James says that while much interest will understandably be focussed this year and the next on the 100th anniversary of both the outbreak of the First World War and the Gallipoli campaign, 2015 will also mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

“The Second World War was the single most destructive event in human history: at least 60 million people died, one in seven Australians served in the forces during the war, and some 40,000 of those died in service. Australians served in virtually every theatre of what was a truly global war.”

James says the Second World War shaped modern Australia. “Australia emerged from the war with a more sophisticated relationship with Britain and the United States, with the federal government – rather than the states – being the centre of power. Australian industry and science had rapidly expanded and modernised, and the war had seen a change in the role of women. Postwar European migration also forever changed and enhanced Australian society.”

The conference runs from 14-17 April.