On the first Wednesday of September, we commemorate the Battle for Australia. We reflect on the bravery of those who served on Australia's home front, and the islands, the seas and in the skies to the north. It's an important reminder of a challenging time for Australians between 1942 and 1945.
Prime Minister John Curtin used the term 'Battle for Australia' after the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942.
Just as Dunkirk began the Battle for Britain, so does Singapore open the Battle for Australia. It is now work or fight as we have never worked or fought before. On what we do now depends everything we hope to do when this bloody test has been survived.
[Prime Minister John Curtin, as quoted by the Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Mr Chris Moraitis on 2 September 2009]
A few days later, the Australian mainland was attacked by Japanese aircraft during the Bombing of Darwin.
In response, thousands of Australians were engaged in multiple actions against Japanese forces between 1942 and 1943. These battles aimed to defend Australia and stop the Japanese from advancing further south.
Significance of the day
The first Wednesday in September is when we commemorate Battle for Australia Day. This day represents the first defeat of Japanese forces on land during the Battle of Milne Bay. Japanese forces had evacuated Milne Bay by 7 September 1942.
This commemorative day is a time for us to recognise all those who served in the defence of the Australian mainland, and in sea, land and air battles in the Coral Sea, Papua and New Guinea. Their efforts contributed substantially to the defeat of Japan.
Australia at war
After Japan entered the war in December 1941, Australia's economy was fully mobilised towards defence.
The Australian population of more than 7 million was living with wartime controls on their daily lives, including rationing, restrictions on movement and with many directed to jobs supporting the war effort. The Australian economy was geared towards the defence of Australia, and industry turned from peacetime production to wartime requirements. Women joined the paid workforce in their thousands, and children volunteered to help too.
Australia was being defended by more than half a million full-time Navy, Army and Air Force personnel and the women's services. The part-time Volunteer Defence Corps was also preparing for the defence of the Australian mainland. As well as 10 Army divisions, the equivalent of one division each was deployed in the Northern Territory and Papua with support from the Navy and Air Force.
Australia under attack
Between 1942 and 1943, Japanese aircraft attacked Australia's mainland. Cities and towns were bombed and shelled. Vessels of the Royal Australian Navy and merchant ships were sunk in the waters around the mainland and off the islands to the north.
On 19 February 1942, Darwin, with a population of only 2000, was raided by 188 Japanese aircraft. Japan sought to destroy Darwin's airfields before it attacked Timor. Around 250 Australians and personnel of other nationalities died.
When the Japanese attacked Broome on 3 March 1942, 88 people were killed, including many Dutch refugees.
In late May and early June 1942, Japanese midget submarines launched a surprise attack on Sydney Harbour. They sunk HMAS Kuttabul, and 19 Australians and two British sailors died. Watch footage of the sinking of HMAS Kattabul.
By November 1943, more northern Australian towns and locales, including Port Hedland, Derby, Katherine, Horn Island and Townsville, had all been attacked.
Battles around Australia
Often described as the battle that saved Australia, the Battle of the Coral Sea is the largest naval battle ever fought off Australia's shores.
On 4 to 8 May 1942, in the waters south-west of Solomon Islands and east of New Guinea, the Allies prevented a Japanese seaborne invasion of Port Moresby. No Australians were killed, but the aircraft carrier, USS Lexington, was sunk.
Australian service personnel also played a key role in the battles on the Kokoda Track, Milne Bay and Buna, Gona and Sanananda in Papua, and in New Guinea in places like Wau, the Huon Peninsula, Wewak and Bougainville.
Learn more about the battles of the Coral Sea, Kokoda and Milne Bay.
Remembering those who served
The war ended on 15 August 1945, but Australia will never forget its significant role in World War II and how it helped shape our nation.
Over 39,000 Australians died during the war, mostly in Asia and the Pacific campaigns. Many more were wounded in action – some so seriously as to end their service. Some 22,000 Australians became prisoners of the Japanese during the war, of whom about 8,000 lost their lives.
Chris Moraitis, Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea's Speech 090902 Battle for Aust, on the occasion of the commemoration of Battle for Australia Day, 2 September 2009, Bomana Cemetery, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, accessed 20 June 2023, https://png.highcommission.gov.au/pmsb/Speech090902.html
- home front
- merchant ship