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

Men are crowded on the deck and stand in the rigging. Ships officers are seated three rows from the front. The only clearly identifiable figure is that of a smiling Captain John Collins, seated in the centre.

Group portrait of officers and crew of the Royal Australian Navy light cruiser HMAS Sydney. Captain John Collins is smiling, seated in the centre. Photo taken after the successful action against the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni on 19 July 1940. AWM P00795.001

Female recruits

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.

Political turmoil

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.

Listen to Curtin Speech: Japan Enters Second World War (1941)

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

Clipping of a 1941 article from News newspaper published in South Australia

Australians' Big Part in Syria, News (Adelaide), 9 August 1941, p.2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131524847

Clipping of a 1941 article from Goulburn Evening Post newspaper published in New South Wales
JAPAN STRIKES : DECLARES WAR, 8 December 1941, Goulburn Evening Post (NSW), p.3 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article103618281

Newsreels: what people heard

On 3 January 1941, the 6th Australian Division attacked and broke through the Italian defences at Bardia in Libya. Fighting lasted until the morning of 5 January. The attack cost the 6th Division 130 men killed and 326 wounded. About 40,000 Italian prisoners and large quantities of supplies were captured by the Allies. In this newsreel footage, we see allied sailors and soldiers at Bardia, as well as Italian prisoners of war (POWs). This film would have been shown at cinemas throughout Australia. British Pathé FILM ID:1067.18

On 6 April 1941, German forces attacked both Greece and Yugoslavia. Some 58,000 allied troops, including two-thirds of the Australian 6th Division, were transported from Africa to help the Greek army face the Germans. Australians and New Zealanders ('ANZAC Corps') served in some successful delaying actions, but withdrawal was soon inevitable. Evacuation began on 24 April. The British removed more than 50,000 troops over 5 successive nights. In this newsreel footage, we see allied troops from Greece arriving in the port of Basra in May 1941. This film was shown at cinemas throughout Australia. British Pathé FILM ID: 1115.24

Veterans' stories: what people remembered

Bob Semple enlisted on 18 June 1940. He was proud to be one of the 'Rats of Tobruk' and also fought in the Battle of El Alamein. Later, he would serve in the Brunei Bay area of Borneo. He talked about the accuracy of German artillery and air attack during the siege.

Pat Guest recalled hearing about the Australian Women's Army Service and talked about her desire to enlist and fight the enemy.

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 titles

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


Last updated: 20 July 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), 1941: 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/1941-paths-victory-second-world-war
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