1941: Paths to Victory in the Second World War
All four of the Second AIF divisions were deployed overseas in 1941. After early successes in Libya, Australian troops were beseiged at Tobruk. In Greece and at Crete, the 6th Division suffered heavy losses. Australians were part of the victorious campaign in Syria against the Vichy French while others were sent to Malaya and the South West Pacific. The loss of HMAS Sydney in November with all hands was a national calamity. The year ended ominously with Japan's entry into the war.
Continued involvement in the war
In 1941, the nation started to recruit Australian women. They would take over some military duties to allow more men to join fighting units. The new units were:
- Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force, formed in March
- Women's Royal Australian Naval Service, formed in April
- Australian Women's Army Service, formed in August
Movements around the world
A string of victories at the beginning of 1941 in the Western Desert raised allied hopes. Bardia, Tobruk and Derna were captured in January as British forces pushed the Italian army back, advancing west along the North African coast. In February, Benghazi fell. The Australian 6th Division played a prominent role in these successes.
Also in February, 8th Division troops began to arrive in Singapore to defend Malaya against a potential Japanese threat.
Australians scored success against the Italians in March. As part of the British Mediterranean Fleet, HMA ships Perth, Vendetta and Stuart participated in the Battle of Matapan. The Italian navy was crippled, losing seven ships and 4000 men.
These victories were soon overshadowed by Germany's intervention.
In April, German troops invaded Yugoslavia and Greece.
The 6th Division was sent to Greece as part of a British force to help the Greek defence. By month's end, the British and Empire troops were forced to evacuate Greece and withdraw to Crete, which was overrun in May.
The hard-won gains in the Western Desert were lost to a German-led counterthrust. The Australian 9th Division and a brigade of the 7th were besieged in the Libyan port of Tobruk.
HMAS Waterhen was sunk on 30 June by a dive bomber while supplying Tobruk's beleaguered defenders.
In Britain, Australian aircrew were becoming more involved in the air war over Europe.
In June, the Australian 7th Division was part of a joint British and Free French force that launched a short decisive campaign against the Vichy French. The Vichy French surrendered just over 1 month later.
On the home front, the Australian Government was in turmoil. Prime Minister Robert Menzies had been absent from the country for nearly 4 months between February and May while visiting Britain. On his return, he could not hold his party's loyalty and resigned on 28 August.
Menzies was replaced by Arthur Fadden. The federal budget was defeated on 3 October with the support of independent members, and the Fadden government collapsed after only 40 days.
Labor leader John Curtin was appointed as prime minister elect. He was sworn in on 7 October 1941.
One of Curtin's earliest duties was to announce the loss of HMAS Sydney. The ship sank off the coast of Western Australia on 19 November 1941 after an action with the German merchant raider Kormoran. All 645 crew members died.
Japan's entry to the war
Australia's worst fears were realised when the Japanese invaded the Malay peninsula and attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December. United States (US) President Franklin Roosevelt described the surprise attack as 'a date that will live in infamy'. The next day, Britain, America and Australia declared war on Japan.
In an end-of-year speech to the nation, delivered on the radio on 26 December, Curtin announced that he saw America's entry into the war as providing Australia's salvation, stating:
Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.
Photo essay: what people did
We've collated images of our veterans in the Crete, Greece and North Africa during the Second World War. Browse the image gallery.
In the press: what people read
Newsreels: what people heard
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.
Australian Women and War
This education resource focuses on the role of Australian women during wartime from the front line to the home front. It highlights the evolution of women in service since 1899 through to the present day. Read it online or download the PDF file.
Other resources commemorating Australians who served in the early years of World War II:
- Australia's Home Defence
- Australian Prisoners of War 1941-1945
- Bomber Command
- Burma and India 1941-1945
- Greece and Crete
- Japanese Advance 1941-1942
- New Britain 1941-1945
- North Africa and Syria
- Royal Australian Air Force 1941-1945
- Royal Australian Navy
- Royal Australian Navy in the Atlantic and Mediterranean
- Stolen Years: Australian Prisoners of War
- United Kingdom: Australians in World War II