1939: Paths to Victory in the Second World War

 

Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced on radio that Australia was at war in early September 1939. The press and cinemas reported on our preparations for war. For most people, everyday life continued almost as usual.

Australia's response to war

Front cover of a women's newspaper showing a painting by VIRGIL with an image of a concerned woman's face appearing behind three Australian service men in uniform - a sailor, a soldier and an airman.

Son's of Australia, steady and strong', 21 October 1939, was the front page of The Australian's Women's Weekly newspaper that inspired a 1940 postage stamp http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page4626445

Menzies' declaration of war

In the years before the outbreak of war, Australians watched from afar with mounting trepidation. Germany unleashed its Blitzkrieg against Poland on 1 September 1939. Once again, Europe descended into catastrophic armed conflict.

In Australia, on the evening of Sunday 3 September, Prime Minister Robert Menzies went on national radio to tell Australians that Britain had declared war on Germany. It was his 'melancholy duty' to say that 'as a result Australia is also at war'.

Listen to Menzies' declaration of war

Australia had long held Japan in suspicion. A threat of conflict to the north was greatly feared. However, all eyes were on Europe for the time being.

Preparations for war

Australia set about duplicating its response to help Britain 25 years earlier. Australian ships passed into control of the British Royal Navy. A second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was raised for service overseas. Militia units were sent north to boost Darwin's defences in the Northern Territory.

The Darwin Mobile Force had been raised in 1938 and was sent to Darwin in March 1939, in case a Japanese threat became a reality. Australia's militia strength at that stage had reached 70,000, aligning with the government's goal set the previous year.

Military training camps were set up on the outskirts of all major cities and in many regional districts. The camps housed increasing numbers of militia, and would train the volunteers needed for overseas service.

Training of recruits early in the war was compromised by shortages of instructors, clothing and military equipment.

Jack Brinkworth of the 2/2nd Battalion remembered being issued with broomsticks for practice instead of rifles at Ingleburn Army Camp in New South Wales. These problems would be fast overcome as Australia switched to a total war footing.

As the war progressed, training became quite specific to cover many specialised areas, such as signalling with Morse code. Bushcraft and survival techniques were also taught at the jungle warfare training centre in Canungra (Qld).

For many Australians, the war remained a distant threat. In the early stages of the war, life in Australia continued much as it had done before. Football finals had to be played, and people prepared for cricket and tennis seasons.

Nevertheless, the Australian press quickly filled with articles on war preparations and what to expect.

The full effects of the war on Australia's home front would not become apparent until after Japan entered the war in December 1941. That would usher in a rapid change of everyday life.

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

Clipping of a 1939 article from The Newcastle Sun newspaper published in New South Wales

GENERAL BLAMEY TO LEAD NEW A.I.F., The Newcastle Sun (NSW), Friday 29 September 1939, p.7 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article167316923

Clipping of an article from 1939 Mercury newspaper published in Tasmania

WOMEN'S INTERESTS Keeping Up The Morale Against War-Time Blues, The Mercury (Tas.), Thursday 14 December 1939, p.4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25765051

Newsreels: what people saw

In March 1939, before war's outbreak, Australian militiamen were sent north to Darwin, as part of the Darwin Mobile Force. Their mission was to defend the northern approaches to the country should a threat materialise. In this newsreel footage, we see an Australian troop ship leaving Sydney for Darwin before the Second World War. The farewell scenes at the docks would be repeated many times over during the war. This film would have been shown at cinemas throughout Australia. British Pathé FILM ID: 1005.23

Prime Minister Robert Menzies had the 'melancholy duty' to announce Australia’s entry into the Second World War. In this newsreel footage, he spoke of the struggle that lay ahead. This film would have been shown at cinemas throughout Australia. British Pathé FILM ID: 1025.07

Veterans' stories: what people remembered

Phyl Ahearn, who served in the Australian Army Women's Service, remembered the moment Australia entered the war.

David Mattiske, who joined the Navy in 1943, reflected on his feelings when he first heard about the outbreak of war.

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.

Australia's Home Defence: Australians in the Pacific War

This is a part of the series, Australians in the Pacific War. It explores Australia's approach to home-front defence, with more detail on the early years of the war. 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: 3 August 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), 1939: Paths to Victory in the Second World War, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 22 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/commemorative-stories/vp75-paths-victory/1939-paths-victory-second-world-war
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