Australia in World War II

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Australia in World War II

Australia entered World War II shortly after the invasion of Poland, declaring war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Almost a million Australians had served in the armed forces by the end of World War II. Australia fought two wars between 1939 and 1945, against Germany and Italy as part of the British Commonwealth's war effort and against Japan in alliance with the United States and Britain. From 1942 until early 1944, Australian forces played a major role in the Pacific War, making up the majority of Allied strength throughout much of the fighting in the South West Pacific.

Australian commandos, New Guinea July 1943
Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943
Australians killed - 27,073
Australians wounded - 23,477
Australians Prisoner of War - 29,000 were taken prisoner by the Axis during the World War II. Of the 21,467 Australian prisoners that were taken by the Japanese, only 14,000 survived. The main reason was due to malnutrition and disease.

Sinking of HMAS Sydney 19 November, 1941

HMAS Sydney

In May 1940, HMAS Sydney joined the British Mediterranean Fleet for an eight month deployment, during which she sank two Italian warships, took part in number of shore bombardments, and provided support to the Malta Convoys, she received no casualties. On 19 November 1941, HMAS Sydney was involved in a battle with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, the Sydney was sunk and was lost with all 645 aboard.

The Kormoran was also sunk, and 80 of its crew died, 317 survivors of the Kormoran's crew were picked up.The Sydney's loss with all hands compared to the survival of most of the Germans have resulted in controversy, with some alleging that the German commander used illegal tatics to lure Sydney into range, that a Japanese submarine was involved.The wrecks of both ships were lost until 2008.

Rats of Tobruk

Ship of the desert

Between April and August 1941, around 14,000 Australian soldiers held the Libyan port of Tobruk against the Afrika Corps, during the Siege of Tobruk. They fought for 8 months surrounded by German and Italian forces, the men of the Tobruk garrison, mostly Australians, withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages, and daily bombings. They had to endured the desert’s terrible heat, the freezing cold nights, and horrible dust storms. They lived in dug-outs, caves, and crevasses. The Rats of Tobruk did not surrender, they did not give up. Their determination, bravery, and humour, combined with the aggressive tactics of their commanders, became a source of inspiration. They achieved lasting fame as the Rats of Tobruk.

unofficial Rats of Tobruk medal

Lord Haw Haw a wartime broadcaster William Joyce, who worked for the English-language propaganda radio programme Germany Calling called the Garrison poor desert rats of Tobruk.The Australians gave themselves the nickname the Rats of Tobruk after Radio Berlin described the Australians as caught like rats in a trap.The men were proud of the title and some of them now treasure an unofficial medal, bearing the stamp of a rodent rampant, which was unofficially struck to commemorate the defence of Tobruk.The medal was made from aluminum taken from the fuselage of a German bomber brought down by the anti-aircraft fire.

2/17 infantry battalion

Kokoda Track campaign July-November 1942

The Kokoda Track campaign was part of the Pacific War of World War II. The campaign was a series of battles fought between July and November 1942, between Japanese and Allied mostly Australia forces. On 21 July 1942 the Japanese landed near Gona on the north coast of Papua . In the next two months they drove the Australians and their Papuan allies back over the mountains towards Port Moresby. Port Moresby was vital to the defence of Australia. If they took Port Moresby the Japanese planned to begin bombing north Queensland. In September the Australians, pushed the Japanese back. By mid November the Japanese were forced to abandon their plan to take Port Moresby.

Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels

The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels was the name Australian soldiers gave to a group of Papua New Guinean people who helped and escorted injured Australian troops down the Kokoda track during WWII. Over 4,000 Australian lives were lost in the campaign but the number would have been much higher without the help of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels carried the stretchers, sometimes under fire, back to the Advanced Dressing Station.They worked under shocking conditions, up and down treacherous mountain ridges over 13,000 ft high, down into the dark narrow valleys of the Owen Stanley Range. They carried heavy loads along a narrow, rough track.The Kokoda track turned into liquid mud from all the movement. But despite all this, they carried and cared for their wounded Aussie soldier.

Christmas Day, 1942, George Whittington, helped by Raphael Oimbari, one of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels at the Battle of Buna-Gona. George Whittington died in February 1943, from bush typhus.

Bombing of Darwin 1942-43

Bombing of Darwin by Japan February 19, 1942

On 19 February 1942, Australia came under attack for the first time. Japanese forces mounted two air raids on Darwin. The two attacks were led by the commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour ,they involved 54 land based bombers and 188 attack aircraft which were launched from four Japanese aircraft-carriers in the Timor Sea.It was the largest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships in the harbour were sunk, and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.

The air attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943, the Japanese had bombed Darwin 64 times.At the time, there were many rumours to the Australian Government's suppression of information about the bombings, it was thought that reports of casualty numbers were made smaller to maintain national morale. Local sources estimated that between 900 and 1100 Australians were killed. 235 Allies were killed and between 300 and 400 wounded.There were air raids on Broome at least 88 Allied civilians and military personnel were killed and 24 aircraft were lost.There were almost 100 Air raids against Australia in WWII.

Vivian Bullwinkel

The Battle of Singapore In January 1942, just prior to the Battle of Singapore and the Allied surrender to the Japanese , Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons had been evacuated and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships were ordered to leave Singapore,the remaining 65 Australian Army nurses stationed in Singapore were also ordered to evacuate aboard the SS Vyner Brook, a British ship. The SS Vyner Brook took a direct hit from Japanese bombers and those who survived made their way to shore on Banka Island. Civilians, wounded soldiers and nurses were ordered in to the sea. The Japanese shot them all only one nurse survived, Vivian Bullwinkle who pretended she was dead, Vivian was was later captured and sent to a POW camp for almost 4 years.

Singapore was the major British military base in South-East Asia and nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East", the fighting in Singapore lasted from 8–15 February 1942. After the Japanese captured Singapore 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, it was the largest surrender of British led military personnel in history.

The Thai–Burma Railway

Prisoner of war workers and deaths on the Burma Railway, 1942–1945

NationalityPOWsDeathsDeath Rate
British30,131 6,904 23%
Dutch 17,990 2,782 15%
Australian13,0042,802 22%
America686133 19%
Total 61,81112,621 20%

Australian and Dutch POWs,Thailand 1943
Over 22 000 Australians were captured by the Japanese in South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II.The Thai–Burma Railway known as the Death Railway, was 415 kilometres of Railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, it was built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. Forced labour was used in its construction. More than 180,000 Asian civilian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war POWs worked on the railway.Conditions in the railway camps were primitive and horrific with hardly any food, frequent and severe beatings , there were no medical supplies, tropical disease was rampant.

Laying tracks on the Thai- Burma Railway

Colonel Edward "Weary" Dunlop

I have a conviction, that
only when you are put at full
stretch can you realise your
full potential
Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop 1907-1993
Weary Dunlop

Weary Dunlop was an Australian surgeon, he became a Japanese prisoner of war in 1942. He was moved to the Thai-Burma railway. Like a number of other Commonwealth Medical Officers, Weary Dunlop's commitment and bravery became a legend among the POWs. He was a daring leader and caring doctor, he restored morale to the POWs and gave hope to the sick and eased the pain and suffering of the dying. One of his men said, a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering.

Hellfire Pass

Is the name of a railway cutting on the former Burma Railway in which was built with forced labour during the Second World War.It was remembered for the harsh conditions and heavy loss of life. Hellfire Pass is so called because the sight of emaciated prisoners labouring at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from Hell.

Hellfire Pass

Sinking of the SS Montevideo Maru

On 22 June, 1942, weeks after the fall of Rabaul to the Japanese, a large number of Australian prisoners were placed on the SS Montevideo Maru. Unmarked as a POW ship, she was heading towards the Chinese island of Hainan. On 30 June she was sighted by the American submarine USS Sturgeon.Unaware that it was carrying Allied prisoners of war and civilians, the Sturgeon fired four torpedoes at the Montevideo Maru on 1 July, sinking the SS Montevideo Maru in only 11 minutes. An eyewitness said There were more POWs in the water than crew members. The POWs were holding pieces of wood and using bigger pieces as rafts. They were in groups of 20 to 30 people, probably 100 people in all. They were singing songs. I was particularly impressed when they began singing Auld Lang Syne as a tribute to their dead colleagues. Watching that, I learnt that Australians have big hearts.Eyewitness Yoshiaki Yamaji

The sinking is considered the worst maritime disaster in Australia's history. It is thought that a total of 1054 prisoners 178 non-commissioned officers, 667 soldiers and 209 civilians died on the Montevideo Maru.

USS Sturgeon torpedoed SS Montevideo Maru

Cowra breakout August 5, 1944

On the 5th August 1944, 1,104 Japanese prisoners of war attempted to escape from a Prisoner of War camp near Cowra, in New South Wales, Australia. 4 Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed.Privates Benjamin Gower Hardy, Ralph Jones and Charles Henry Shepherd were killed during the breakout, Lieutenant Harry Doncaster was killed when ambushed during the recapture of the prisoners. Private Hardy and Private Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross. It was the largest POW breakout in WW11 this became known as the Cowra breakout.

Sunday Telegraph - Headlines reporting the mass breakout of Japanese POWs at Cowra.

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On 19 Dec 2018 at 06:26 GMT Anonymous Rocca wrote:

Might add some related categories, like "Category: Burma-Siam Railway" - come across a lot of Australians in that.

On 11 Nov 2018 at 18:52 GMT Lincoln Lowery wrote:

Hi, I was just thinking of this photo today ( George Whittington pictured below) I made a profile for him. I am not Australian, but it has always stuck with me since seeing it decades ago. If anyone wants to add proper tags or anything, please do.

Sincerely, Lincoln Lowery

On 8 Dec 2015 at 20:45 GMT Julia (Balzarano) Ryan wrote:

Beautifully done, well thought out. OUTSTANDING!