1942: Paths to Victory in the Second World War
The Fall of Singapore in early 1942 was followed by the Japanese advance through the Netherlands East Indies and the South West Pacific. War was at Australia's doorstep too, with the bombing of Darwin and the Sydney Harbour submarine attack. The 6th and 7th Divisions of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were recalled to Australia's defence. The Citizen Military Forces also played a role, particularly in the early stages of the Kokoda Campaign and at Milne Bay in New Guinea.
Fighting closer to home
Japanese forces in Asia and the Pacific
Japan's declaration of war and surprise attacks in December 1941 were followed by a string of rapid successes in early 1942 as Japanese forces swept through South East Asia and into the South West Pacific.
Most of the Australian 8th Division was captured when Singapore surrendered on 15 February. More Australian troops became prisoners of war as the Netherlands East Indies and New Britain were overrun by the Japanese. Over 22,000 Australian troops and nurses would be captured by the Japanese and of these one-third would not survive the war. Many died while working on the Thai-Burma Railway which started in June.
Australia under attack
On 19 February, Darwin was heavily bombed by two concentrated Japanese air attacks. This marked the first time Australia had come under direct attack. It was the start of a series of Japanese air raids across the northern part of Australia.
The Japanese attacks placed civilian Aboriginal peoples in northern Australia and Torres Strait Islanders squarely in the front line.
At the start of the war, First Australians were permitted to enlist in the Australian armed forces and many did, such as the legendary Reg Saunders. However, there was some resistance to the idea of enlisting Indigenous service men in the Australian armed forces. This objection lessened markedly after Japan's entry into the war.
The Torres Strait Island Light Infantry Company, which had been established in 1941, was expanded in 1942 and granted full battalion status in 1943.
Thousands of Indigenous Australians were recruited or conscripted for operations against the Japanese. Their mission was to build local defences and aerodromes that would carry the war to Japan.
American General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Australia on 17 March. He would soon assume the role of Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area, while General Thomas Blamey was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Australian Military Forces.
In early May, the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought between US and Japanese carrier fleets, saw both sides withdraw from the area. The battle had thwarted a Japanese attempt to seize Port Moresby. It has gone down in history as the battle that saved Australia. Such a call may have seemed premature to many Australians at the time.
On the night of 31 May to 1 June, Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour and wrought havoc. Just over 1 week later, both Sydney and Newcastle were shelled by Japanese submarines.
Throughout 1942, Australian shipping came under increasing attack from Japanese and German submarines, as well as being a victim to some of the many mines laid in Australian waters.
1942 was one of heavy loss for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Its involvement in operations against the Japanese off Malaya, Java, Timor, in the Bay of Bengal and the Solomon Islands resulted in the loss of HMA Ships Perth, Yarra, Vampire, Canberra, Voyager and Armidale. The depot ship HMAS Kuttabul was sunk in Sydney Harbour during the Japanese midget submarine attack and the destroyer HMAS Nestor was lost in the Mediterranean in June 1942.
The landing of Japanese troops at Gona in July signalled the start of the ground war for Papua and New Guinea. Fighting took place along the Kokoda Track as Australian troops were pushed back towards Port Moresby. The Australian counterattack followed the start of a Japanese withdrawal over the Owen Stanley Range. By the end of 1942, the Japanese were forced to take up defensive positions in the northern beachheads at Gona, Buna and Sanananda.
In August and September, a Japanese landing near Milne Bay in Papua was contained and the subsequent advance driven back, forcing the Japanese to evacuate the area after heavy loss. It was the first significant defeat of a Japanese amphibious landing. The Australian force was a combination of militia and AIF units, the 6th and 7th Divisions having been recalled from the Middle East earlier in the year. Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons and RAN ships also supported the Milne Bay defence.
While the focus was in the Pacific, Australians were also still further afield. The 9th Division had remained in the Western Desert where it fought in the decisive battles at El Alamein.
On the home front, the arrival of thousands of American service men had a significant effect on the social norms of the nation. Overall, the American presence was a welcome one, but it also created tension. In May, Melbourne was terrorised by the murder of three women by a US soldier, Edward Leonski, dubbed the 'Brown-out' murderer.
In late November, Brisbane experienced 2 nights of rioting and brawling by and between Australian and American troops. The bitter refrain "Overpaid, over-sexed, over here" was one that passed the lips of many Australian soldiers about their American brothers in arms.
Photo essay: what people did
We've collated images of our veterans in the North Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific region, as well as Australians on the home front, during the Second World War. Browse the image gallery.
In the press: what people read
Newsreels: what people saw
Celebrated war correspondent Damien Parer accompanied Australian troops along the Kokoda Track. His camera captured the fighting conditions, as well as the help of indigenous carriers to take wounded soldiers from the front line.
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.
Japanese Advance 1941-1942
This commemorative publication is a part of the series Australians in the Pacific War. It focuses on the Japanese advance during 1941-42 when Japanese forces defeated Australian and allied forces. Read it online or download the PDF file.
Other resources commemorating Australians who served in the later years of World War II:
- Australia's Home Defence
- Australian Prisoners of War 1941-1945
- Battle of the Beachheads 1942-1943
- Bomber Command
- Borneo 1942-1945
- Bougainville 1942-1945
- Burma and India 1941-1945
- Kokoda 1942
- Milne Bay 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
- Sandakan 1942–1945
- Stolen Years: Australian Prisoners of War
- United Kingdom: Australians in World War II
- Wau-Salamaua 1942