Wartime Issue 37 - Professional men of war

By Dr Garth Pratten.

Just before 9 am on 1 July 1945, with the acrid smell of burning oil hanging heavy in the air, the troops of the 2/10th Australian Infantry Battalion waded ashore at Balikpapan. It was Australia ’s last campaign of the Second World War.

Balikpapan, August 1945. Brigadier Ivan Dougherty of the 21st Brigade with his three battalion commanding officers: Lieutenant Colonels Frank Sublet, Keith Picken and Philip Rhoden. AWM 113192

Almost immediately the 2/10th’s commanding officer, 32-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Tom Daly, was confronted with a dilemma. The battalion’s objective, a ridge known as Parramatta, loomed ahead but the supporting tanks were bogged on the beach, the artillery was not yet ashore, and naval gunfire support was unavailable. Should he wait for the fire support, which might give the Japanese time to recover from the preinvasion bombardment? Or should he push on, with all the risks that entailed? Each option had the potential for heavy casualties. Knowing the danger an organised Japanese force could pose to the landings, Daly ordered his troops forward.

Advancing with only small arms, the men of the 2/10th surged up Hill 87, the first feature on the way to the summit of Parramatta; it was in Australian hands by 12.40 pm. By this time the tanks had been freed and moved forward, and the artillery was also in action. With this support in train, Parramatta was secured by 2.12 pm. Visiting the summit the next day, and seeing the fields of fire it provided over the landing beaches, Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead, commander of I Corps, commented, "Thank God for the 2/10th Battalion."

Daly walked the Australian official historian Gavin Long through the attack on Parramatta a few days after the end of the war. Long noted that Daly was "a quiet, shy chap" but that concealed beneath this persona was "great drive and sound military sense". These qualities were still evident when I spoke to Daly 55 years later. His answers to my questions were considered, honest and self-effacing. Reflecting on the assault on Parramatta, Daly recalled the "warm glow" he felt when he issued orders and they were carried out without hesitation: "I had never been so proud of the chaps . all their battle drill was just exactly as we'd trained." Despite his success that day, he still pondered his actions, admitting he often lay awake at night thinking about how he could have done better: "I wonder if I had been more efficient, if I'd really been more on top of my job, been more professional, if some chaps wouldn't have died."

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Daly addresses the 2/10th Battalion on the fifth anniversary of its formation, 31 October 1944. AWM 082067

Daly's actions, and his reflections on them, illustrate the challenges faced by Australian COs during the Second World War: to train soldiers well; to employ supporting arms to best effect; to improvise when plans went awry; to motivate soldiers to do things that self-preservation argued against; and to value the life of individuals and yet have the courage to sacrifice them in pursuit of larger objectives.

Daly epitomised the Australian army's field commanders in 1945. The army had been at war more than five years and committed to active operations for four. In its ethos, structure and proficiency it bore all the hallmarks of a long-established professional army. The men who were commanding its battalions were younger, more experienced and more thoroughly trained than they had been at any time since 1939. Paul Cullen, CO of the 2/1st Battalion in 1945, observed: "We were a very experienced, toughened, competent army, with a wonderful team of company commanders and platoon commanders . It was a marvellous team to be the captain of."

Battlefield success in 1945 was the product of an evolution in command practice and training that began with Australia's first battles in 1941. During the Second World War, Australian infantry battalions fought in a variety of battlefield environments but the human aspect of war remained constant. Command in all theatres demanded immense reserves of physical and mental stamina; this was reflected in the steady decline of the average age of COs between 1939 and 1945, from 43 to 35. Most telling, however, is the average age of the COs actually appointed in 1945, which was 31. The youngest, Lieutenant Colonel "Charlie" Green of the 2/11th Battalion, was just 25. In the face of prolonged hardship and extreme danger, a CO had to elicit endurance and aggression from his battalion. The leadership this required was multifaceted. Reflecting on the qualities of a good commander, Phil Rhoden, who commanded the 2/14th Battalion on the Kokoda Trail when just 27, observed:

A commander has status, has his badges of rank . [is] supported by military law . But that's not enough . He's got to have standing. He needs knowledge of his craft; be able to get on with people both upwards and downwards; have the power of communication; [be] seen to be interested in the job and those under his command and care . but above all must know his trade. If he has the opportunity to display that in battle, and he comes out on top, it's a great plus for him.

Rhoden highlights the essence of battlefield leadership in the Australian army during the Second World War. Commanders could not rely on the authority of their hierarchical status to make men carry out their orders. They needed to win the trust and respect of their subordinates, and they largely did so through competent and timely decision making on the battlefield.

Australian officers at a tactical lecture in Palestine April 1940. AWM 001353

The first Australian battalion commanders despatched overseas in 1939 and 1940 were ill-prepared for a war where infantry fought with close support from tanks, artillery and aircraft. They were the product of Australia ’s inter-war part-time army that used horse-drawn transport and lacked modern weapons and signals equipment. Furthermore, owing to their intermittent training with understrength units their command experience was limited. John Field, the original CO of the 2/12th Battalion, conceded there were “no tactical tigers” among his peers and that “high and low” they had much to learn. Although Australian officers began attending British army schools soon after their arrival in the Middle East, the Australian campaigns of 1941 often featured rash decisions born of desperation, inexperience, or pigheadedness. In action, COs found the existing command system, and in particular its communications, inadequate for maintaining control over increasingly fast moving, dispersed and complex operations. They had to develop means to manage this situation, as well as to adapt their tactical training to the realities of the battlefield. Battle experience became the principal arbiter of an officer's fitness to command. For example, by the time they embarked for Greece in April 1941 following their earlier campaign in Libya in January and February, only three of the 6th Australian Division's nine battalions were commanded by their original COs.

The new battalion commanders were the product of the experience gained in the campaigns of 1941 and distilled in and disseminated by the British army's schools. These schools became a critical element in training Australian COs. A quarter of all Australian infantry COs completed courses at the Middle East Tactical School, and they took this training and experience with them when they left the Middle East.

The battles of El Alamein in 1942 were the highpoint of Australian command practice in the Middle East. Command at Alamein, particularly in the October battle, demonstrated a maturity and refinement that was absent in many of the engagements of 1941. COs were still prepared to take risks, but generally these were calculated risks firmly grounded on experience, rather than the foolhardy risks of untutored enthusiasm or sheer desperation. Improvements in communications, principally reliable wireless sets, more experienced troops, and the development of drills to ensure thorough battle procedure was carried out even when time was short, increased control of operations. In the south-west Pacific battalion commanders faced a host of new challenges. Initially, command in the jungle was a very personal affair. COs fought with only the resources of their own battalions and commanded in close proximity to their forward troops; the terrain, vegetation and climate all severely affected communications, tactics and the ability to manoeuvre. Few heavy weapons could be employed and observation was limited.

Lieutentant Colonel Thomas Louch of the 2/11th Battalion confers with two of his company commanders, before the action at Derna on 31 January 1941. AWM 005669

During the fighting in Papua in 1942 it became apparent that COs would regularly have to accept limited direct control over their companies and platoons; as one report noted, subordinate commanders had to be "trusted implicitly". Common tactics and procedures, based on experience, became essential. Following the British model from the Middle East, the Australian army established or reorganised several schools to pass on experience gained in the fight against the Japanese. Foremost among these was the Senior Officers Course at the Land Headquarters Tactical School, designed to prepare unit commanders for warfare in the jungle.

Throughout 1943 and 1944 the Australians wrested the initiative from the Japanese in New Guinea. Growing confidence in jungle warfare was apparent in tactics that embraced, rather than feared, dispersion. For COs, battlefield leadership was not as heavily dependent upon their personal example as it had been in Papua. As innovations in weapons and air transport techniques, combined with more favourable terrain, allowed greater levels of support to be provided to the infantry, battalion COs were able to take a step back and concentrate on coordinating operations that often involved tanks, artillery and air support. Cooperation between units was itself fostered by relationships established at army schools. By 1945, the Australian army was arguably the best jungle fighting organisation in the world. At the heart of its success was the insight, trust and mutual respect that underlay its command relationships. These relationships were not only the product of a shared ordeal but also of a centralised and universal system of training that captured and distilled four years of hard-won operational experience and then steeped front-line commanders in its lessons.

During the Second World War the majority of infantry COs were citizen soldiers - volunteers who handed back their uniforms and returned to civilian life at war's end. These battlefields, however, were no place for amateurs. The complex set of skills needed to bring about victory could only be developed through focused and systematic training. As Frederick Wood, CO of the 2/6th Battalion from 1942 to 1945, observed in his battalion's history, Australian infantry COs were not professional soldiers but they became professional men of war.


Dr Garth Pratten is a historian at the Australian War Memorial. His PhD thesis on Australian infantry battalion commanders in the Second World War was awarded the C.E.W. Bean Prize for Australian Military History for 2006.