Australians of the 6th Division walk through Derna. After hard fighting on the outskirts of the town, the Italians, faced with Allied troops who had occupied the important high ground overlooking their positions, and realising that they were being outflanked, withdrew on 29 January 1941.
At 5.30 am on 3 January 1941, the first major attack by an Australian division in World War II was launched at Bardia in Italian Libya. In three days of fighting, the 6th Australian Division defeated the Italian garrison, capturing four generals and 40,000 prisoners, including their weapons and equipment. News of the victory began streaming into the Australian press. On 8 January The Argus proudly announced ‘A.I.F widely praised’, reporting messages of support which directly linked the Bardia heroes with the heroes of World War I.
Mr Vrisakis, the Greek consul-general in Australia, was reported as congratulating the A.I.F for their ‘magnificent feat of arms’ in Bardia, saying ‘once more the sons of Australia have covered themselves with imperishable glory’.
On 7 January The Canberra Times announced Bardia as a ‘Bloodless Victory’. Bardia may well have been a victory, but it was not bloodless, as the killed in action notices which also began to appear in the papers testified. Private Harold Pagram’s family published a simple tribute in the 20 January edition of The Argus: ‘killed Bardia January 3 loved brother Albert and brother-in-law Mollie, loving uncle Bob and Albie.’ The Pagram family would not have agreed it was a ‘bloodless victory’.
The origins of the war, and the inevitable grief which would follow, began on 3 September 1939, when Australia and New Zealand joined Britain and France in declaring war on Germany, which had invaded Poland on 1 September. On 15 September, the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced the formation of a special military force of one infantry division and auxiliary units, totalling 20,000 men for service at home or abroad. The Government was concerned about Japanese intentions, and also announced that the militia would be called up for home defence. The new division was named the 6th Division and the special military force was called the Second Australian Imperial Force (Second AIF). Major General Sir Thomas Blamey was chosen on 28 September to command the force.
The 6th Division comprised three infantry brigades: the 16th, 17th and 18th, each of four battalions numbered 2/1st to 2/12th. The first contingent, consisting of the 16th Brigade, embarked for the Middle East on 9 January 1940, arriving at Ismailia in the Suez Canal on 12 February. The Australians disembarked and moved to a camp at Julis in southern Palestine for training. On 28 February, the Australian War Cabinet decided to form a new division and additional corps troops, and to adopt the smaller British establishment. Adopting the British establishment meant reducing the 6th Division from twelve to nine battalions, with the three surplus battalions forming the 19th Brigade. Sir Thomas Blamey was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of the Australian Corps, Major General Iven Mackay command of the 6th Division, and Major General John Lavarack command of the 7th Division.