On the great crusade

28 May 2019

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force

Seventy five years on from the day Eisenhower issued his famous message to the Normandy invasion force, few Australians may realise the diverse experiences of Australia’s Second World War in Europe and the role Australians played in the Normandy campaign. Yet, as well as Normandy, Australians served in all the major campaigns and actions in which British forces took part in Europe: at Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, in the Artic and Atlantic convoys, at Dieppe, and in the invasions of Sicily and Italy, to name but a few. So wide and diverse was their service that for a period of 1942, the Australian No. 455 Squadron was based at Murmansk, Russia. Where Australians have served as a single unit – such as an Australian Imperial Force (AIF) battalion, brigade and division – it has been easier to document group actions and experiences at places such as Tobruk, El Alamein and Kokoda. This is true too for Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships. However, where Australians served as individuals, scattered throughout the ranks of the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF), it has made the job much harder for the historian to document the wider Australian story .

     Understandably, actions closer to home, particularly in New Guinea, have come to dominate Australian postwar memory. But in fact Australians went to war in 1939 over affairs in Europe. It was, after all, in response to the Nazi invasion of Poland that Australia declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. The belief that Australia entered the Second World War simply because of its ties with Britain and empire is misleading. The international crises facing Europe in the 1930s were of great concern to Australians. In his speech informing the Australian public that Australia – an independent nation – had declared war on Germany, Prime Minister Robert Menzies said, “The peaceful adjustment of difference, the rights of independent peoples to live their own lives, the honouring of international obligations and promises – all these things are at stake.” If German aggression went unchecked, he said, “there could be no just peace for the world”.

A veteran of more than 100 sorties, RAAF Pilot Officer Donald Mason flew Hawker Typhoons with 198 Squadron RAF. Shot down by flak near Caen on 18 June 1944, it was not until 1992 that Mason's body was recovered and buried in the St Charles De Percy Calvados War Cemetery. AWM P01899.001

In the overall scheme of the war in Europe, Australian numbers were small when considered among the millions mobilised. Nonetheless, however slight in numbers Australian involvement was, it does not mean that it was simply a token gesture made in the spirit of British solidarity. From an Australian perspective, the total numbers who served in Europe between 1939 and 1945 are certainly not insignificant. Australia was a small nation with a population of less than seven million, yet from 1941 was fighting in a global war on multiple fronts. Throughout the course of the war, the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) saw almost 16,000 RAAF pilots, navigators, wireless operators, gunners, and engineers join RAF squadrons. Another 11,541 joined the Australian squadrons formed in Britain under Article XV of the EATS. For the navy, precise numbers do not exist. We do know, however, that at the very least 1,100 RAN personnel served – on attachment – with the Royal Navy throughout the war. There were also the unknown number of Australians who served in the merchant marine in the European theatre, as well as those who chose to enlist into the British forces. And we should not forget too that at the time of the Normandy landings, there were around 8,000 Australian prisoners of war in Germany – most of them captured in Greece and Crete – whose fates rested on the outcome of the landings.

        There have been previous estimates that around 3,300 Australian servicemen participated in the D-Day operations on 6 June 1944 (see Wartime Issue 26), but the total numbers involved in the wider campaign of the months leading up to D-Day and the liberation of Western Europe are higher. Figures only tell part of the story, but the wide dispersal of Australians fighting throughout British formations provides some guide.  

There were, as of 1July 1944, 14,000 RAAF personnel serving in Britain, 12,400 of them aircrew. Most were serving in Training Command (and in the reserve pool yet to be assigned to squadrons), or in training units within operational commands. At the beginning of June around 1,000 aircrew were serving with the Australian squadrons (No. 10 , RAAF, and the Article XV squadrons, Nos. 453, 455, 456, 460, 461, 463, 464, 466 and 467). As well, around 1,800 were serving throughout more than 200 RAF and British Commonwealth squadrons. Significantly – and the reason why earlier estimates are on the conservative side – as casualties among aircrews mounted throughout the months of the Normandy campaign, more and more men from the training and reserve pool joined operational squadrons to replace the losses. This increases the total participation markedly from the figure for the operation on D-Day itself. As an example of the high turnover of aircrew, of the 23 pilots with No. 453 Squadron at the end of May 1944, 20 were no longer with the squadron by the end of September. In fact, during this period 57 pilots served, and almost the entire squadron had been turned over, replacing pilots killed, missing, wounded, captured or “operationally tired”, as it was termed.

      The stories and experiences of these men in the Normandy campaign were diverse. The stories told here are just a small sample. On the night of 5–6 June, in the airborne operations ferrying the paratroopers and gliders of the British 6th Airborne Division, the 41 Australian pilots of No. 38 Group Transport Command made up 14 per cent of the total force. Throughout the build-up period and after the landings, Australian crews of No. 196 and No. 299 squadron were also involved in the specialist task of dropping supplies to special operatives and resistance movements working behind enemy lines. The Australians included 20-year-old Pilot Officer Albert Coates of Daylesford, Victoria, who was killed on D-Day when his Stirling bomber, towing a glider laden with soldiers, was shot down over the drop zone. In deception operations mounted in conjunction with the operations in Normandy, No. 617 Squadron (the famous Dambusters squadron, which included a large percentage of Australians) undertook the highly specialised task of dropping “window”. These were huge clouds of aluminium strips scattered at altitude to deceive German radar and to simulate a large Allied fleet approaching the Pas de Calais area of northern France. The Australian pilots of No. 199 Squadron were also involved in radar jamming operations, as well as dropping dummies suspended from parachutes to mimic paratroopers.

Shown with black and white invasion markings on the wings and fuselage, the Bristol Beaufighter in the famous image is from No.455 Squadron, RAAF. AWM138204

      Bomber Command began pre-invasion operations in April with the diversion of resources from the strategic bombing campaign over Germany to tactical strikes in France. Each of the Australian bomber squadrons was active in support of the amphibious operations on D-Day itself, comprising nearly 15 per cent of the Bomber Command force committed on D-Day. A force including Lancasters of No. 460 Squadron targeted the 210 mm naval guns mounted at the Crisbecq battery, and the St-Martin-de-Varreville battery that threatened Utah Beach. The raid on the Maisy battery, which threatened both Omaha and Utah beaches, included Halifax bombers from No. 466 Squadron. Also threatening Omaha was the battery at Point du Hoc, which a force that included Lancasters of No. 463 Squadron bombed before the US 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the 30-metre cliffs. In the British sector, a force that included Lancasters of No. 467 Squadron bombed batteries threatening Sword Beach.

        In close support of the ground forces were the Fighter Command squadrons, which included the Spitfires of the Australian No. 453 Squadron and more than 200 Australian pilots serving with RAF squadrons. By 16 June, No. 453 Squadron was operating from an advanced landing strip within the beachheads, and was fully deployed in France by 25 June. Close to the front lines and within range of German artillery fire, the dangers were very real for ground and aircrews alike. On 14 July, the day after the squadron began operating from an airstrip at Lingevres, a raid by a lone Luftwaffe plane killed one pilot and wounded two more. Attacking enemy positions and road traffic, low-flying Spitfires and Typhoons were also vulnerable susceptible to ground fire. Casualties were high. One was Pilot Officer George Kingsley Martin of No. 609 Squadron, who had disabled a German tank with his rocket-firing Typhoon and attempted to attack a second when he was brought down by ground fire. Martin was badly burned and had a broken leg, but was able to escape the crash scene and evade enemy patrols. He was assisted by French civilians, and by posing as a deaf-mute refugee injured by the Allied bombings, he avoided capture and eventually made it back to Allied lines

      Crucial to the Allies gaining a foothold in Normandy was the interdiction campaign to harass and slow German formations trying to reach Normandy. As well as the Bomber Command squadrons – who on these missions, many by daylight, bombed from altitudes as low as 3,000 feet – the main force were squadrons of the RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force. Crews from these squadrons destroyed bridges, roads, rail centres, lines of communication, fuel and ammunition dumps and enemy assembly areas behind the battlefront. The Mosquitos of No. 464 Squadron were heavily engaged in these efforts. Killed in the action of 5–6 June was the popular Squadron Leader Arthur Geoffrey Oxlade; at 24 years of age, he was a veteran Mosquito pilot who had been on active service in Britain since 1941. Throughout June, one task of the squadron was the continual harassment and of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions, delaying their arrival at the Normandy front. This squadron, which had flown in Operation Jericho, the famous raid on the Gestapo prison at Amiens in February 1944, also performed several specialist tasks in Normandy. Most notable was the raid on the Gestapo headquarters at Bonneuil-Matours on the night of 14–15 July.

        Throughout the interdiction campaign, RAAF bomber squadrons took part in 15 of the 25 raids on rail centres throughout July and August. One mission in July on the rail centre of Revigny resulted in severe casualties. The chosen route took the bomber force over a dangerous searchlight belt in the Pas De Calais, after which the waves of bombers flew headlong into a large Luftwaffe force of fighters which had been sent westward from Belgium. The German fighters harried the bomber stream all the way to the target and back to the coast. One Lancaster of No. 83 Squadron, with an Australian crew piloted by Flight Lieutenant David Jennings, fought off twelve separate attacks by German fighters on the homeward flight.

      While Bomber and Fighter commands were helping ground forces establish a foothold in Normandy, the squadrons of Coastal Command (which included the three RAAF squadrons: Nos. 10, 455 and 461) also played an important role in protecting the naval forces. In the lead-up and throughout the Normandy campaign, Coastal Command were on constant alert, patrolling the seas to protect the invasion fleet in the channel from U-boats, E-boats (very fast timber-hulled motor torpedo boats) and German mine-laying activities.

       From mid-June, Allied air power became divided as the attention of the RAF turned from the foothold in Normandy to the V-1 terror bombing campaign on London. Australian aircrews were involved in attacking and bombing the V-1 launch sites in northern France as well as intercepting V-1s in flight. On 23 June an Australian pilot from No. 91 Squadron, Flying Officer Kenneth Collier, flew his Spitfire alongside a flying V-1. He had already exhausted his ammunition but was determined to bring the missile down, so he used his wingtip – becoming the first pilot to use this technique – to flip the rocket, upsetting its gyroscopes and sending it spiralling out of control.

       In the Channel on D-Day around 500 RAN personnel serving with the RN took part in Operation Neptune, the naval component of Overlord. Like the airmen and aircrews, Australian sailors had diverse roles in the invasion. Australian officers were scattered throughout the fleet, including aboard British cruisers and destroyers that took part in the bombardment: for example, HMS Ajax and HMS Scylla at Gold Beach, HMS Glasgow at Omaha Beach, and HMS Enterprise at Utah Beach. Within the invasion fleet, ships commanded by RAN officers included the destroyer HMS Vanquisher (Lieutenant Commander Frederick Osborne, RANVR) and the frigate HMS Loch Killin (Lieutenant Commander Stanley Darling, RANVR). Australians also commanded two corvettes, a submarine, and a minesweeper. A number of Australians also commanded Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs). They included Lieutenant John Ferguson RANVR, who commanded a flotilla of MTBs and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his work in transporting troops and supplies on D-Day. Australian officers commanded a number of individual landing craft, as well as four flotillas of Landing Craft Tank (LCT). One was Lieutenant Commander Stewart Browne, RANVR, who in his role commanding a flotilla from LCT 1048 was awarded a second Mention in Despatches to go with the MID he was awarded for Operation Torch in North Africa.

      One Australian with a notable mission was Lieutenant Kenneth Hudspeth, RANVR, who commanded the submarine X20. Hudspeth had already had a decorated career, having commanded the X10 in a famous raid on the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord in September 1943, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). In the months before D-Day, Hudspeth commanded the X20 on a daring operation to survey and collect geological samples from the chosen landing beaches at Normandy; for these efforts he was awarded a bar to his DSC. On the morning of D-Day, Hudspeth’s mission was to moor the X20 as a navigational beacon for the invasion fleet off Juno beach, where bad weather had kept his submarine since 4 June. For this he was awarded a second bar to his DSC.

      Another decorated Australian sailor at Normandy was Sub-Lieutenant Richard Pirrie, RANVR. A promising sportsman, Pirrie had played three games for the Hawthorn Football Club before volunteering in the navy. On D-Day (his 24th birthday) Pirrie commanded Landing Craft Support (M) 47 in the first wave of landing craft approaching Juno Beach. Pirrie had been given the dangerous job of piloting his craft close to the beach in full view of the enemy, and from there  directing naval gunfire onto the German defences. It was a daunting task and before long, heavy gunfire was raining down on LCS (M) 47, killing Pirrie. For his “gallantry, leadership and determination” Pirrie was posthumously awarded a Mention in Despatches. His citation stated that he performed his task with great “skill and his conduct and bearing greatly encouraged his men”. Also killed on D-Day was Sub Lieutenant Bruce Ashton. He was commanding Landing Craft Assault (HR) 1106 approaching Gold Beach, when his craft was accidently rammed by an out of control Landing Craft Tank, causing Ashton’s craft to capsize. He and three of his Royal Navy crewmates were killed.


       The AIF was also represented at D-Day, though in very small numbers. Thirteen AIF officers were attached to British units within Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s 21stArmy Group (for details see Wartime Issue 27). The best-known was Major Henry “Jo” Gullett of the 2/6th Battalion AIF, later a federal member of parliament, who landed with the 7th Battalion of the Green Howards on Gold Beach. With him he carried his Australian-issued Lee-Enfield rifle and an Italian Beretta pistol, a souvenir from an early battle at Bardia. Gullett became a company commander with the 8th Battalion of the Royal Scots during the battle for Normandy until he was wounded in July; he later re-joined the unit in the Netherlands.

       The Australian presence in and contribution to the war against Germany continued beyond the European summer of 1944. Pilots and aircrew remained in combat operations with their squadrons in Europe until the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. At war’s end the RAAF was 15,500 strong in the European theatre, a vast majority being aircrew. To give an idea of the scale and importance of the substantial ongoing RAAF presence in the European war, particularly from 1942, it would not be out of place to compare it in size to an AIF division in the Pacific during the same period.

       Losses for the RAAF in Europe were severe. During the Second World War 5,397 Australian airmen were killed in the air war over Europe. The 4,050 killed in Bomber Command represent almost 20 per cent of all Australian combat deaths in all services and all theatres for the entire war. Our image of Bomber Command is one of Australian airmen braving the night skies above Berlin, Hamburg or the Ruhr Valley – yet large numbers of casualties from all branches of the air force occurred in other operations. In the five months from April to August 1944, when much of Bomber Command was redirected to support the invasion and liberation of Western Europe, RAAF casualties totalled 1,978. This is ten per cent higher than the 1,788 RAAF casualties sustained during the five months of the battle for Berlin from November 1943 to March 1944. So central is Normandy to the Australian story that the month of June 1944 represents the peak in RAAF casualties (422) for the entire war. As further testament to the diverse roles and duties of the 485 Australians buried in France for the year 1944, those killed served in more than a hundred different squadrons.

            The contribution to the European theatre made by the Australians, and the number of them who died, show that Australia made major sacrifices in the fight to rid occupied Europe of Nazi tyranny. Seventy years on, it remains a neglected fact that roughly as many Australians were killed in action or died of wounds in combat operations against the Germans and Italians (approximately 9,372) as against the Japanese (9,520). During the period of the Normandy campaign and the build-up to it (April to August 1944), 1,117 Australians were killed and are buried in cemeteries or listed on memorials across Britain and Western Europe, according to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records. That is much higher than the number of Australians buried and commemorated in the territories of Papua and New Guinea (202) for the same period. It is higher than the approximately 700 Australians buried or listed on memorials in Papua, New Guinea and Bougainville for the entire year of 1944. Australia’s major campaigns of the Pacific War took place in 1942, 1943 and 1945. But seventy years on, the prominence given to remembrance of actions to our ”near north” – in particular, the credence sometimes given to a “battle for Australia” – comes at the cost of the bigger picture that includes Australia’s role in a wider global conflict. The lack of awareness of the diverse roles and experiences that came with Australia’s war in Europe – particularly in 1944, a year of frustration and marginalisation for Australian forces in the Pacific War – shows how popular memory has been skewed.

Australia’s war in Europe in the tumultuous summer of 1944 was far from a token effort. Normandy was a major campaign for Australian military forces in the Second World War and a major focus of Australia’s war effort in 1944. The numbers of Australians killed are testament to this. The esteemed battle honours that proudly appear on the banners of Australian squadrons and for the squadrons and ships with which Australians served – such as “Fortress Europe 1940–1944”, “Normandy 1944” and “France and Germany 1944–1945” – were certainly hard-earned. Most importantly, Australian experiences and sacrifices in Europe during the Second World War remind us that Australia played a role in a wider global struggle – not only to defeat Japanese militarism in our own region of Asia and the Pacific, but in the “great crusade” to defeat of the evils of Nazism and Fascism in occupied Europe.


About the author

Dr Lachlan Grant is a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial.