This famous statue at the Kokoda Track Memorial (“1000 steps”) in Upper Ferntree Gully, Vic.

World War 2, 1939-45

Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of the persistence of Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war

National radio broadcast from Prime Minister Menzies, 9.15 pm 3 September 1939

Years Active

Australians Served

Australians Wounded

Australians Killed

On September 1 1939, Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. In response, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. World War II had begun.

RAAF No. 460 Squadron, who flew the aircraft on its last operation against Cologne, Germany on 20 April 1944.

This was to become the bloodiest and largest war in history. At its conclusion six years later it was estimated that 40-50 million people had lost their lives worldwide and geo-politics were indelibly changed. Australian losses in active service numbered over 27 000 and over 30000 servicemen were taken prisoners of war.

Almost a million Australians served in World War II, fighting in European, Mediterranean and North African campaigns against Germany and Italy, as well as against Japan in south-east Asia and the Pacific. The Australian mainland came under direct attack for the first time, as Japanese aircraft bombed towns in north-west Australia and midget submarines attacked Sydney harbour.

In heeding the call of the “motherland” and accepting her advice that Japan did not pose an immediate threat, from early 1940 the majority of Australians travelled to the Middle East, where they formed a key part of the Commonwealth forces in the area. In fact, relative to our WWI experience, very few Australian soldiers fought in Europe in WWII. However, the contribution of Australian RAAF personnel in the air defence of Great Britain and bombing offensives over Germany was significant, with approximately 13000 Australian airmen involved and losses numbering around 3500.

Certain place names are proudly etched into our WW2 military consciousness. Tobruk in Libya is one of those, where our besieged troops held out repeated German attacks upon this strategically important port, from April – August 1941. El Alamein in Egypt is another site of a famous Allied victory in October 1942. Less glorious outcomes were defeats for Australian and Allied troops in Greece and Crete.

War in the Pacific

One view of our wartime history is that we fought two wars between 1939 and 1945: one against Germany and Italy as part of the British Commonwealth and Empire forces and the other against Japan in alliance with the United States and Britain.

Japan entered the war on 7 December 1941 with the bombing of the US naval base at Pearl Harbour Hawaii; also triggering a declaration of war upon her by the USA, Great Britain and Australia. The “Rising Sun” occupation flag was flying over most of south-east Asia and large areas of the Pacific by the end of March 1942. Singapore fell in February, with the loss of an entire Australian division. After the bombing of Darwin that same month Australia went on high-alert. All RAN ships in the Mediterranean, as well as the bulk of troops from the Middle-East, returned to defend Australia. The United States committed to the defence of Australia, providing much-needed reinforcements and equipment.

In early 1942, Japan’s southward advance began to lose strength, easing fears of an imminent invasion of Australia. A famous Australian campaign from July- November 1942 that resulted in victory and subsequent legend, was that fought on the Kokoda Track. Further Allied victories against the Japanese followed in 1943. Whilst the Japanese expansion campaign had been stifled, dangerous jungle patrols in New Guinea and beyond continued throughout 1944. The final series of campaigns were in Borneo in 1945 and Australian troops were still fighting there when the war ended.

The War is over!

On 30 April 1945 Adolf Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker. Eight days later, the German High Command authorised the signing of an unconditional surrender on all fronts: the war in Europe was over. 8 May is still commemorated as “V.E. Day”.

On August 6 and 9 1945, the United States dropped nuclear (“atom”) bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with a devastating loss of civilian life. As at 2018, this remains the only time that nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. On 15 August 1945 Japan accepted of the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, which occurred on 2 September. World War Two was finally over.


National Archives of Australia
Encyclopaedia Brittanica: Korean War

When the war came to Australia

On 19 February 1942, World War Two came to Australia with the air raids upon Darwin. Japanese fighters and bombers attacked the port and shipping in the harbour twice during the day, killing 252 Allied service personnel and civilians, with a further 300-400 injured.

Oil tanks on Stokes Hill, Darwin burning during the first Japanese air raid on 19 February 1942, with the main wharf and buildings in the foreground.

Darwin, the largest population centre in northern Australia, was considered a vital asset in Australia’s defences against an increasingly aggressive Japanese Empire in the 1930s. Its port and airfield facilities were developed, coastal defence batteries constructed and its garrison steadily enlarged. The outbreak of war in the Pacific resulted in the rapid enlargement of the military presence in Darwin and it was used as a base from which to deploy forces for the defence of the Dutch East Indies (current day Indonesia).

The two air attacks were planned and led by the commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor ten weeks earlier.188 attack aircraft launched from four Japanese aircraft-carriers in the Timor Sea were involved in the first attack and the second raid comprised of 54 land-based bombers.

Thirty aircraft were destroyed, including nine out of the ten flying in defence, nine ships in the harbour and two outside were sunk, and some of the civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed. The Japanese lost four aircraft to a spirited defence: two Val bombers and two Zero fighters. One of the fighters crash-landed on Melville Island to Darwin’s north, and its pilot was captured by a local Aboriginal man, to become the first prisoner of war taken on Australian soil.
Whilst the initial WW2 attacks on Darwin are generally well known throughout Australia, there is little mainstream contemporary knowledge of Japanese attacks that followed in succeeding months, including many towns in northern mainland Australia: Broome, Wyndham, Port Hedland, Derby, Katherine, Townsville and Mossman. A separate attack occurred on Horn Island in Torres Strait. The 64th, and last air raid on Darwin occurred on 12 November 1943.
Contrary to widespread belief at the time, the attacks were not a precursor to an invasion. The Japanese were preparing to invade Timor and anticipated that a disruptive air attack would hinder Darwin’s potential as a base from which the Allies could launch a counter-offensive, and at the same time would damage Australian morale. The Japanese also planned to take New Guinea, cutting Australia off from US support. Denying Darwin’s ability to act as a base would help achieve that aim.
Notwithstanding the probable lack of appetite for an invasion of Australia, the attack on Darwin focussed Australian minds upon that possibility. An audacious attack by Japanese midget submarines on warships in Sydney harbour on 31 May and 1 June 1942 was a wake-up call to Sydneysiders, for whom the war had hitherto seemed somewhat distant.


National Archives of Australia: The bombing of Darwin – Fact sheet 195


There is a proud history of shared military endeavour between Australia and New Zealand that stretches back to the shores of Gallipoli but which also included World War 2 service. This sits at the core of a historically deep relationship between the countries.

Desperate finish to a sprint race at a combined ANZAC sports meeting on Bougainville Island, Solomon Islands on 12 January 1945.

Beyond the military context, this healthy relationship is ironically most recognised when it spills over into vigorous rivalry on the international sporting stage. Perhaps this rivalry is anchored in the historic aggregation of Australian and New Zealand sporting teams under the “Australasia” banner at the 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games?

This aggregation initially flowed into the military sphere but complaints from New Zealand military recruits led to the changed terminology to reflect separate forces from either country, albeit with an over-arching military association. In December 1914 the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was formed, quickly abbreviated to A.& N.Z.A.C. and then simply ANZAC. Australian and New Zealand troops fought under this banner at Gallipoli, where the ANZAC legend was initially forged.

Disbanded in 1916 after World War 1, the ANZAC Corps did not formally re-convene for 25 years until the 1941 World War 2 Battle of Greece. Almost three decades later during the Vietnam War, two companies from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment were integrated into the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR). These integrated battalions had the suffix ANZAC added to their name (e.g. 4 RAR became the 4RAR/NZ -ANZAC- Battalion). Once again after a thirty years break, in 2006 the ANZAC name appeared as the “Anzac Battle Group”, comprising New Zealand and Australian units deployed to Timor Leste as part of the Operation Astute peace-keeping mission.

The New Zealand contribution to the security of our region in both a combined and “aligned but independent” sense has been significant. NZ troops were deployed alongside Australians in the Malay Emergency in support of the British Commonwealth forces and in both Korea and Vietnam, in support of the United States.

Our cooperative association has been formally enshrined in Agreements since WW2, starting with the bi-lateral Canberra Pact of 1944. Whilst not a military alliance, the Canberra Pact’s focus was on working together on issues of mutual interest.

Both countries were signatories to the UN charter of 1945, which enshrined a collective international commitment to the security of small nations. Subsequent shared alliances such as ANZAM in 1949, ANZUS in 1951 and SEATO in 1954 underscored both nation’s cooperative approach to regional security amidst the uncertainty and nervousness of the Cold War period.
Whilst spats between the two nations are not unusual, the abiding sense of fraternity and mutual support – whatever the rugby or cricket results – has survived and is embraced on both sides of the Tasman Sea.


Australian War Memorial

Callsign Rockbank

The land upon which the Aintree community now occupies was suddenly shaken out of its quiet pastoral existence when the United States Army arrived in April 1942. The farm owned by the Gidney family was compulsorily acquired under wartime legislation that allowed the military to commandeer private property essential to the war effort .

The receiving hut at Land Headquarters Receiving Station, Rockbank, Victoria, 11 September 1945.

US General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander South-West Pacific, set up his Melbourne headquarters in March 1942 and immediately set out to establish long range communications with the allied forces under his command, spread far and wide across Australia, New Guinea and the South Pacific. This site was chosen for the Receiving Station and Diggers Rest further to the north for the Transmitting Station. A series of huts were quickly thrown up to house the ‘Radioshack’, mess and accommodation for the signal troop, located under the tree canopy in the remnant woodland near Leakes Road.

Four Rhombic aerials mounted on 30 metre high masts were arrayed across the paddocks and set up to receive messages sent directly from transmission stations far afield in Port Moresby, San Francisco, Noumea and Chungking, as well as to communicate closer to home with Darwin and Townsville. This Receiving Station played a very important communications role in the most critical stage of the Pacific campaign. By late 1942, the focus of the Pacific campaign moved further north after key allied victories in New Guinea, on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal and in the naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. With it went the allied HQ, which shifted north to Brisbane. By the end of 1942, the US Army no longer needed the Receiving Station and the Diggers Rest Transmitting Station. Both were transferred to the Australian Army in early 1943 and would remain an important international military communications facility for the next forty years.

Signalmen working in the Receiving Station at Rockbank, Victoria, 11 September 1945.

After World War Two the signal stations continued to play a critical role in the Australian Relay Station, which formed part of the Empire Wireless Chain linking with British and Commonwealth signal stations and the Australian Military Forces communication system. Additions within the complex included antennae, staff housing near the current Leakes Rd/Western Hwy interchange and a more substantial communications building close to the centre of the site.

The important role in army signals communications within Australia and to units deployed overseas included communications with the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat during the Vietnam War. The station even played a civilian communications role during the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, communicating the results and major events of the games out to the world.

By the late 1980s, the short wave communications technology was superseded by advances in satellite communication and the facilities at Rockbank became obsolete. Most of the buildings were demolished, the antennae, aerials, masts and cables were removed and the land sold in 2001.


“Callsign Rockbank – The critical role of the Rockbank Receiving Station in the Empire Signal Chain”, in There and back – the story of Woodlea. J.Wheeler Extent Heritage


Even when a war is fought on the other side of the world, it’s domestic impact can be profound. In both World Wars, an Australian resident with a birthplace or heritage connection to a country with which we were at war, was vulnerable to being declared an “enemy alien” and interned in prisons or camps.

In the interests of national security the Australian Government Australia interned almost 7000 people during World War I, of whom about 4500 were enemy aliens and British nationals of German ancestry already resident in Australia.

During World War Two, total internees in Australia included approximately 7000 residents and an additional 8000 who were transferred to Australia after being detained overseas. At its peak in 1942, more than 12,000 people were interned in Australia. At this time Australian authorities established internment camps for three reasons – to prevent residents from assisting Australia’s enemies, to appease public opinion and to house overseas internees sent to Australia for the duration of the war.

Japanese internees of No. 4 Camp line up for dental parade at Tatura Internment Group, Tatura, Victoria on 15 June 1943.

Internment during the World War Two was initially to identify and intern those who posed a particular threat to the safety or defence of the country. As the war progressed, however, this policy hardened and Japanese residents were interned en masse. In the later years of the war, Germans and Italians were also interned on the basis of nationality, particularly those living in the north of Australia. In all, just over 20 per cent of all Italians resident in Australia were interned. However, many were released before the end of the war, coinciding with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini being deposed and Italy joining the Allied cause against the German army.

Prisoners of war (members of enemy military forces who were captured or had surrendered, mainly sent from overseas) were also interned and in many cases accommodated in the same camps as domestic internees.

Internment camps were administered by the army and run along military lines. Camps were initially established in re-purposed institutions such as old gaols. The largest camp during World War l was at Holsworthy, west of Sydney which still operates as Australian army barracks. During World War II, internees were first housed in prisons, such as at Long Bay gaol in New South Wales, or impromptu accommodation such as at the Dhurringile Mansion near Murchison, Victoria. As the numbers of internees grew, the early camps became too small. The government then constructed purpose-built camps at Rushworth in Victoria, at Hay and Cowra in New South Wales, Loveday in South Australia and at Harvey in Western Australia.

At the end of each war the internment camps were closed down. After World War One, most internees were deported. After World War Two many internees were allowed to leave the camps after hostilities ceased. Internees of British or European origin were permitted to remain in Australia after the war, including those who had been brought from overseas by British authorities. However, most of those of Japanese origin, including some who were Australian-born, were ‘repatriated’ to Japan in 1946.


National Archives of Australia
National Museum Australia

Allied occupation of Japan 1945-52!

And what of the vanquished?

After the defeat of Japan in World War II, the United States led the Allies in the occupation and rehabilitation of the Japanese state. Australian troops formed part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF); marking the first time that Australians were involved in the military occupation of a sovereign nation it had defeated in war.

Troops of the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment with the BCOF in Japan trained intensively for combat at weekend field exercises at Haramura, Japan.

The groundwork for the Allied occupation of a defeated Japan was laid during the war. In a series of wartime conferences, the leaders of the Allied powers of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, and the United States discussed how to disarm Japan, deal with its colonies (especially Korea and Taiwan), stabilize the Japanese economy, and prevent the remilitarization of the state in the future. In the Potsdam Declaration, they called for Japan’s unconditional surrender; by August of 1945, that objective had been achieved.

The main body of Australian troops arrived in Japan in February 1946. Until 1952, approx.16 000 Australians served in the BCOF, alongside military personnel from Britain, New Zealand and India. By 1948 BCOF was comprised entirely of Australians. The Royal Australian Navy also had a presence in the region as part of the British Fleet. Throughout its existence, BCOF was always commanded by an Australian officer.

The primary objective of BCOF was to enforce the terms of the unconditional surrender that had ended the war the previous September. The task of exercising military government over Japan was the responsibility of the United States forces. BCOF was required to maintain military control and to supervise the demilitarisation and disposal of the remnants of Japan’s war-making capacity.

The force was dismantled in 1952, as responsibilities in Japan were handed over to the British Commonwealth Forces Korea Some Australian personnel stayed on to serve in the Korean War. BCOF ceased to exist on 28 April 1952 when the Japanese Peace Treaty came into effect.


Occupation and Reconstruction of Japan 1945-52 Office of the Historian
Dept. of State, United States of America
Australian War Memorial, British Commonwealth Occupation Force 1945-52

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in every conflict and commitment involving Australian defence contingents since Federation and it is also believed that there was a small number of indigenous enlistments in the colonial defence forces in the era of the second Boer war.

Great historical inequities are underscored in any reasonable analysis of indigenous military service. Given that aboriginal people were not permitted to vote until 1962 and not granted citizenship until 1967, the hardships and restrictions also placed upon them in relation to military service come as no surprise, sadly.

When World War 1 broke out in 1914, many indigenous Australians who tried to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race. However, towards the end of the war when recruits were harder to find and one conscription referendum had already been lost, restrictions were cautiously eased. A new Military Order stated:

Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.”

This was as far as Australia – officially – would go.

Second World War

At the start of the Second World War Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were allowed to enlist and many did so.

Hundreds of Indigenous Australians served in the 2nd AIF and the militia. Many were killed fighting and at least a dozen died as prisoners of war. They served under the same conditions as whites and, in most cases, with the promise of full citizenship rights after the war.

Generally, there seems to have been little racism between soldiers, which is at odds with the tone of the Australian Defence Committee in 1940 which decreed the enlistment of Indigenous Australians “neither necessary not desirable”, partly because white Australians would object to serving with them. However, when Japan entered the war increased need for manpower forced the loosening of restrictions.

Group portrait of the special platoon consisting of Aboriginal soldiers, all volunteers and the only Aboriginal squad in the Australian Military Forces, taken in December 1940 at Number 9 Camp, Wangaratta, Victoria.

Once the war was over, the army initially re-imposed its restrictions on aboriginal enlistment and indigenous soldiers who had fought for their country came back to the same societal discrimination as before and enjoyed none of the Government benefits such as access to land under the second soldier settlement scheme (a sad irony, given the land dispossession suffered by their forebears)

Fortunately, enlistment restrictions based upon race were abandoned in 1949.

Since early in the early twentieth century proposals were made to train the Indigenous Australians of northern Australia as a defence force. In the Second World War these ideas were tried out.

In 1941 the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was formed to defend the strategically-important Torres Strait area from Japanese incursions. Other formal Islander units were also created along with informal units comprising un-enlisted men, whose role with the Royal Australian Navy included patrolling large areas of coast and islands. The un-enlisted men were unpaid, despite a promise to the contrary.

In proportion to population, no community in Australia contributed more service personnel to the war effort in World War Two than the Torres Strait Islanders.

Lieutenant Kemuel Abednego

During World War Two, The United States Army recruited about 20 Torres Strait Islanders as crewmen on its small ships operating in the Torres Strait and around Papua New Guinea. Islander Kemuel Abednego from Moa (Banks) Island attained the rank of Lieutenant, and history records him as the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander man to serve as a commissioned military officer, albeit not for the country of his birth.

For a list of all known Australian indigenous military service people:


Australian War Memorial

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