2/43rd Battalion

The 2/43rd Infantry Battalion was formed on 17 July 1940 at Woodside camp, near Adelaide in South Australia. The battalion was initially raised as part of the 8th Division’s 24th Brigade and was transferred to the newly formed 9th Division in December. The 2/43rd left South Australia at the end of December and moved to Melbourne, where it joined the convoy taking the brigade to the Middle East.

The battalion arrived at Egypt at the end of January 1941. Disembarking at Port Tewfik, the port of Suez, it travelled by train to Palestine. Southern Palestine was being used as a base for the Australians, where they could complete their training. The 2/43rd went into camp at Khassa, north of Gaza.

By early 1941 the British advance in the Western Desert had reached El Agheila. In March the 9th Division was brought to Libya, to garrison the area east of Tobruk. The division did not have enough vehicles to bring all its units forward towards Benghazi. Consequently, the 24th Brigade (comprising the 2/43rd, 2/28th, and 2/32nd Battalions) remained in Tobruk.

The situation quickly changed in April. The German Afrika Korps, leading the Axis counter-attack, pushed the British from El Agheila and the 9th Division withdrew to Tobruk. The division and the 18th Brigade defended the “fortress” for the next six months. The 2/43rd participated in the usual pattern of defensive duties, manning parts of the Red Line, working on the Blue Line, and aggressively patrolling no man’s land. The Red Line was a series of concrete pillboxes forming a semi-circle around Tobruk. It was the town’s outer line of defence, while the Blue Line was the second line.

In September and October the majority of the Australian force was evacuated by sea. The 2/43rd evacuated Tobruk in the early hours of 17 October and sailed to Alexandria, from where it was transferred to the camp at Kilo 89 in Palestine. It later moved to Syria and Lebanon for rest, training, and garrison duties.

By July 1942 the war in North Africa had become critical for the British forces. The Germans and Italians had reached El Alamein in Egypt, about seventy miles from Alexandra. Consequently, the 9th Division was rushed to the Alamein “box” and held the northern sector for almost four months as the 8th Army was reinforced for a new offensive.

The 2/43rd reached the Alamein front on 5 July and two days later conducted a highly successful night raid. The division attacked ten days later. On 17 July the 2/43rd and 2/32nd (comprising the 24th Brigade) moved inland, fighting along the ridgeline from Trig 22 to Ruin Ridge. The 2/32nd led the attack, advancing from Trig 22 to the Qattara Track. The 2/43rd then followed towards Ruin Ridge, which was briefly captured by the ill-fated 2/28th later that month.

During the general Allied offensive from 23 October to 4 November, the 24th Brigade was in reserve. Its task was to deceive the Axis forces by faking an attack. The 2/43rd and 2/28th 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 and moved forward to the Blockhouse area. On 1 November the battalion suffered over a hundred casualties in just one day, testament to the intensity of the battle.

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. In December the 2/43rd went to Gaza, participating in the 9th Division parade on 22 December. In January 1943 the battalion left for the Suez Canal and boarded troopships to Australia. The battalion reached Sydney on 27 February.

Reorganised for jungle operations, the 2/43rd participated in the 9th Division amphibious landing at Red Beach, north-west of Lae. The 2/43rd came ashore during the night of 5 September.

One of the unit’s historians described the next 11 days as the battalion’s most difficult, with the men crossing rivers, drenched with rain and sweat, and “Hacking their way through jungle and swamp”. Little resistance in the early stages soon intensified after the battalion crossed the Busu River, at which point the Japanese “contested every step of the way”. The 2/43rd reached the Butibum River on the outskirts of Lae on 16 September.

Following the fall of Lae, the 20th Brigade landed at Scarlet Beach, north of Finschhafen, on 22 September. It was followed by the 24th Brigade, with the 2/43rd moving to Scarlet Beach in the early hours of 30 September and the rest of the brigade in October. It successfully defended the area against the Japanese counter-attack. By the end of October the main Japanese force had withdrawn to Sattelberg but large numbers of troops remained north of Scarlet Beach, near Pino Hill and Nongora. Advancing along the coast, the 2/28th captured Guiska, while further inland the 2/32nd captured Pino and Pabu. Between 22 and 25 November the Japanese launched a series of unsuccessful attacks against Pabu. After ten days the 2/43rd joined the 2/32nd. Although the battalions were seriously depleted by illness, they continued inland and to Christmas Hill by 10 December. The 2/43rd was relieved shortly afterwards and spent Christmas at a rest area near Scarlet Beach. The battalion returned to Australia at the end of January 1944.

After some leave, the 2/43rd reformed at Ravenshoe on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland, for what proved to be an extensive period of training. Indeed 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. As part of a series of landings, the 24th Brigade landed on “Brown Beach” on Labuan Island on 10 June. It took the 2/43rd and 2/28th 11 days to clear the island. With the Japanese falling back in British North Borneo, the 9th Division commander decided to clear the Klias Peninsula and the follow the railway from Weston to Papar. Crossing Brunei Bay in landing craft, the 2/32nd Battalion landed at Weston on 17 June. The 2/43rd and 2/11th Commando Squadron landed at Menumbok and Mempakul two days later.

Patrolling up Klias and Padas Rivers the 2/43rd moved on Beaufourt. The 2/32nd had also reached Beaufort and on 26 June the two battalions attacked the town. Beaufourt was secured three days later.

Private Leslie Thomas Starcevitch, a section Bren gunner, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the fighting on 28 June. When his section came under fire from two Japanese machine-gun posts, Starcevitch went forward and attacked each post in turn, killing the occupants or forcing them to retreat. The Australian attack continued until they came under fire from another two machine-gun posts. “Firing his Bren from the hip”, Starcevitch again went forward and single-handedly captured both posts.

Following the end of the war and Japan’s surrender, the ranks of the 2/43rd thinned, as men were discharged, transferred, or volunteered for the occupation force for Japan. By 24 December only 25 men remained in the battalion. They returned to Australia in January 1946 and the 2/43rd, now just seven men, was disbanded at Puckapunyal on 22 February.

Glossary

Battle Honours

Casualties

  • 251 died
  • 558 wounded
  • 39 prisoners

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

Commanding Officers

Decorations

  • 1 VC
  • 2 DSO
  • 14 MC
  • 3 DCM
  • 23 MM
  • 1 MM and Bar
  • 1 OBE
  • 42 MID

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

Collection Items

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References

  • AWM52/8/3/35: 2/43 Infantry Battalion unit diary
  • Boss-Walker, Geoffrey, Desert sand and jungle green : a pictorial history of the 2/43rd Australian Infantry Battalion (Ninth Division) in the Second World War 1939-45, (Hobart : Distributors: Oldham, Beddome and Meredith, 1948)
  • Combe, Gordon Desmond; Ligertwood, Frank; Gilchrist, Tom; Second 43rd Battalion A.I.F. Club, The second 43rd Australian Infantry Battalion 1940-1946, (Adelaide : Second 43rd Battalion A.I.F. Club, 1972)
  • Graham, Vincent Edwin, At Scarlet Beach : the story of a soldier, (Boorowa, N.S.W. : P. Bateman, 1995)