World War II     (WWII)     -     1939 to 1945

As part of the British Empire, Australia was among the first nations to declare war on Nazi Germany and between 1939 and 1945 nearly one million Australian men and women served in what was going to be World War II. They fought in campaigns against the Axis powers across Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa.


Australia at War (3 September 1939)

On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies announced that Australia was at war with Germany.


Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement.


[From speech made by Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies, 3 September 1939: Screensound Australia, National Screen and Sound Collection, Screensound Title No: 387919]


After Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Australia raised a volunteer force, the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and sent the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions of the AIF overseas to support Britain. Despite long-held fears that Japan would enter the war on the side of the Germans, the Australian government also sent Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircrews and a number of Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships to fight for Britain. During the years 1939-1941, Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen fought the Germans, Italians and Vichy French in Europe, Egypt, Libya, Syria, the Lebanon, Greece, Crete and the Mediterranean.


When Japan entered the war in Malaya on 7/8 December 1941, the 8th Division AIF, together with a few Australian ships and aircraft, were there with other British Empire forces. In early 1942, the 6th and 7th Divisions from the Middle East together with RAN ships were ordered back to Australia to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. The 9th Division stayed in North Africa until early 1943 while many Australian airmen serving in both the RAAF and the Royal Air Force (RAF) remained to fight in Europe.



Great Britain has declared war


Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Although not directly threatened by the conflict, Australia sent a volunteer army - the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) - to support Great Britain. During 1941 the men of the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions, along with Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) units, fought the Germans and Italians in Egypt, Libya, Syria, the Lebanon, Greece and Crete.


Australian defence and foreign policy since the end of the First World War had relied on British support in the event of attack. Singapore, the largest Royal Navy base in Asia, was to provide a barrier for Australia and it was expected that Britain would provide forces to assist Australia against any Japanese aggression. So, despite long-held fears that Japan would enter the war on the German side, the Australian government under Robert (later Sir Robert) Menzies, in 1939 and 1940 committed almost half of the RAAF and a number of RAN ships to assist with the war in Europe. However, as the war developed in the Northern Hemisphere, it became clear that the British would have to concentrate their forces there. They would be unable to provide further support for Singapore or for the defence of Australia.


In 1941, two brigades of the 8th Division AIF were sent to Singapore to support British defences in Malaya. These men spent months preparing for war against the Japanese. Also during 1941, three other small Australian forces from the 8th Division went north to strengthen existing bases. In April 1941, 'Lark Force' (the 2/22nd Battalion and supporting units) went to Rabaul, the administrative centre of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. In December 1941, two other forces were sent to the Netherlands East Indies to support Dutch garrisons there. 'Gull Force', consisting mainly of men from the 2/21st Battalion, together with anti-tank, engineer and other detachments, was sent to defend the airfield on the island of Ambon. The third group, 'Sparrow Force', built around the 2/40th Battalion and the 2/2nd Independent Company, was sent to Timor.




Japan entered the war on 7/8 December 1941. Japanese troops landed on the north coast of Malaya and at the same time Japanese carrier-based aircraft bombed the United States Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. By destroying US naval power in the Pacific the Japanese had hoped to acquire a huge Asian-Pacific empire. This 'Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere' was to stretch from the Indian-Burmese border, down through Malaya, across the Indonesian islands to New Guinea, out into the Pacific as far as the Gilbert Islands and north to the Kurile Islands off the coast of Japan.



Casualties of War

Second World War

3 September 1939 to 30 June 1947
Number of Deaths: 39,654



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