53rd Battalion (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. The Militia units were distributed in the same areas in which the original AIF units were raised. Thus Sydney’s 53rd Infantry Battalion was the “West Sydney Regiment”. However, during the 1930s little was spent on defence and the Militia had few volunteers. In 1937 the 53rd merged with the 55th Infantry Battalion, forming the 55th/53rd Infantry Battalion. In October 1941 the battalions were separated, which proved to be only a short-term measure, as in October the following year they merged again.

The 55th/53rd had been camped at Bathurst but with the unlinking it was expected the 53rd would go to Darwin via Sydney. At the start of November the 53rd was reinforced with men from a number of other Militia units. In December, just before the battalion was to sail on the transport Aquitania, it also received 104 18-year-olds who had just been called up for duty. Some of these young conscripts were given a leave pass for one night, embarking on the Aquitania the next day. Others were selected the day the Aquitania sailed and did not get a chance to say goodbye to friends and family.

More surprises were to follow. While at sea the men learnt they were not going to Darwin but to Port Moresby in Papua. The Aquitania arrived in Moresby on 3 January 1942 and the 53rd, as part of the defence of Port Moresby, was assigned to the area of Boera, Napa Napa, and the Napa Napa Peninsula. This was the worst area in Moresby for malaria and the battalion suffered badly from the disease over following months.

While in Moresby the battalion members received minimal or no training, as the 53rd was mostly used for work parties. The battalion did not receive any major training until July, when B and C Companies were sent to the Kokoda area. B Company went to Koitaki and C Company went to Itiki, acting as reserve for the 39th Infantry Battalion moving to Kokoda.

On 10 August the 53rd was ordered to relieve the 39th at Uberi. C Company moved forward to Uberi and then went on to Kokoda. While at Uberi C Company was given eight new Bren guns but received only a few hours instruction and not even the chance to fire their weapons. Three days later, B Company reached Uberi and also received new weapons with minimal instruction. Meanwhile, the rest of the battalion was preparing to move up the trail.

Poorly trained and ill-prepared, the 53rd was about to go into battle against experienced Japanese troops. Not surprisingly the battalion did not fare well and the Japanese infiltrated the 53rd’s lines and bypassed some of their positions altogether. In one ambush, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Ward and several other members of his headquarters staff were killed. Communication between the battalion’s companies broke down and there was “confusion” as the Japanese showed their “superiority in all phases of jungle warfare”. In fact, the confusion within the 53rd left a gap in the Australian line, leaving the way to Alola open. Fortunately, the gap was not exploited by the Japanese and was filled by the 2/16th Infantry Battalion. This was a nuisance, though, as the 2/16th could have been used elsewhere.

Sickness and disease, such as dysentery, also took its toll the 53rd. In early September the battalion, down to only 213 men, was ordered back to Myola and then Efogi. C Company joined at Efogi, having been briefly attached to the 2/14th Infantry Battalion. The 53rd prepared a defensive position astride the Kagi-Efogi track. They had to establish a firm base through which the 39th and troops from the 21st Brigade could withdraw. On 5 September the 53rd held the position, withdrawing behind the 21st Brigade that night. Over the next few days the 53rd was progressively ordered further back, until it was removed from the battle area and relegated to working parties, guard duties, and coast watching. One hundred fit men were taken from the 53rd to reinforce the 39th.

On 25 October the 53rd was informed that it would again merge with the 55th, which took place two days later. When the 53rd went into action for the first time along the Kokoda Trail it had not fared well. Thereafter, it was disparagingly referred to as “that mob”. After the hard fighting at Sanananda and on Bougainville, the 55th/53rd overcame the stigma.

Glossary

Battle Honours

Casualties

  • 21 died
  • 23 wounded

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

Commanding Officers

Decorations

  • nil

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

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)