1940: Paths to Victory in the Second World War


1940 was a year largely of war preparation for Australia. Troops were recruited, trained and sent overseas, as Britain became increasingly isolated in Europe. Royal Australian Navy ships assumed an active role as part of the British Mediterranean Fleet. HMAS Sydney sank an Italian cruiser in July. By year's end, the Australian 6th Division was advancing in Libya.

Australia's military plans

Coming? – then hurry! Recruiting poster for RAAF aircrew, photolithograph, c1940. AWM ARTV04297

Soldiers deployed to the Middle East

With war declared, Australia set about raising its armed forces for overseas service.

The bulk of men who served abroad would be volunteers with the Second Australian Imperial Force. The Australian Army raised four divisions - the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th.

In January and October, the 6th and 7th Divisions were despatched to the Middle East.

At the time, German U-boats were a constant threat to troop convoys and general shipping. So two brigades of the 6th Division were diverted to the United Kingdom (UK) to act as a mobile reserve to help oppose any German invasion.

Royal Australian Air Force movements

Other volunteers joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), which was announced in December 1939.

Nearly 28,000 Australian aircrew graduated under EATS. This supplied about 9% of all aircrew who fought for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in the Mediterranean and European theatres in the air war against Germany and Italy.

When war broke out, a RAAF party was already in the UK to take delivery of new Sunderland flying-boats. The men remained there, becoming No 10 Squadron RAAF, the first Australian squadron attached to the RAF.

By the end of 1940, the first Australians trained under EATS started to arrive in Britain.

News from Europe and the Pacific

There was little good news to buoy allied spirits as 1940 unfolded.

Poland had already been crushed and carved up between the Germans and Russians the previous year. In March, Finland fell to the Russians. In April, Denmark and Norway fell to the Germans. In May, Holland and Belgium were overrun. In June, France capitulated, and Italy declared war on the Allies. In September, Japan signed a pact with the Axis powers.

Despite the dark headlines and Britain's increasing isolation, the British heritage of many Australians allowed them to share the thrill of the Mother country's heroic stoicism. The stories of the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain quickly assumed epic proportions throughout the Empire as examples of British courage and persistence.

In July, HMAS Sydney (II), as part of the British Mediterranean Fleet, continued the ship name's fine war record by sinking the Italian light cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni near Crete. HMAS Sydney (I) had famously sunk the German ship SMS Emden in 1914.

On the home front

Closer to home, the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA, now RSL) formed the Volunteer Defence Force (VDC) for home-front defence. The force was composed mainly of First World War veterans.

On 13 August, a singular disaster befell Australia when a RAAF bomber carrying senior military and government leaders from Melbourne to Canberra crashed in the hills close to the capital, killing all on board.

Australians in North Africa

The year ended on a brighter note, with news of the 6th Division advancing against the Italian army in Libya as part of the British Army's offensive in the Western Desert.

Photo essay: what people did

We've collated images of our veterans going through recruiting, enlistment and training during the early years of the Second World War. Browse the image gallery.

In the press: what people read

AUSTRALIA'S FIRST MAJOR VICTORY IN WAR, The Newcastle Sun, 20 July 1940, p.1 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article167467113

THREE FEDERAL MINISTERS KILLED, The Sun (Sydney), 13 August 1940 (LATE FINAL EXTRA), p.1 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article230915951

Newsreels: what people saw

The first Anzac Day of the war was seen very much as a passing of the torch from the original AIF to the Second AIF. In this newsreel footage, we see troops, World War I veterans and police marching through crowd-lined streets to commemorate Anzac Day in Sydney, 1941. This film would have been shown at cinemas throughout Australia. British Pathé FILM ID: 1045.05

In December 1940, the first Australian aircrews trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) began to arrive in Britain. In this newsreel footage, we see Australian EATS graduates arriving at a port in England. This film would have been shown at cinemas throughout Australia. British Pathé FILM ID: 1031.09

Veterans' stories: what people remembered

More stories of our veterans

We've produced over 100 commemorative and education resources in the past 20 years, most of which are now available free online.

Discover Australia's military history through the experiences and stories of those who served in our armed forces.

Bomber Command

This is part of the series Australians in World War II. It focuses on the Australians who flew in Bomber Command with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). This resource shares their training, operational lives and unique experiences. Read it online or download the PDF file.

Other titles

Other resources commemorating Australians who served in the early years of World War II:

See our digital library

Last updated: 8 October 2021

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2021), 1940: Paths to Victory in the Second World War, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 9 December 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/commemorative-stories/victory-in-the-pacific/1940-paths-victory-second-world-war
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