Australia and the Second World War

Australia at War (3 September 1939)

On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies announced that Australia was at war with Germany.

Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement.

[From speech made by Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies, 3 September 1939: Screensound Australia, National Screen and Sound Collection, Screensound Title No: 387919]

After Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Australia raised a volunteer force, the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and sent the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions of the AIF overseas to support Britain. Despite long-held fears that Japan would enter the war on the side of the Germans, the Australian government also sent Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircrews and a number of Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships to fight for Britain. During the years 1939-1941, Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen fought the Germans, Italians and Vichy French in Europe, Egypt, Libya, Syria, the Lebanon, Greece, Crete and the Mediterranean.

When Japan entered the war in Malaya on 7/8 December 1941, the 8th Division AIF, together with a few Australian ships and aircraft, were there with other British Empire forces. In early 1942, the 6th and 7th Divisions from the Middle East together with RAN ships were ordered back to Australia to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. The 9th Division stayed in North Africa until early 1943 while many Australian airmen serving in both the RAAF and the Royal Air Force (RAF) remained to fight in Europe.

The first casualty

Probably the first Australian casualties after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 were serving members of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). A pilot and his observer were killed in a flying accident while ferrying a Wirraway to Darwin, where 12 Squadron RAAF was based for coastal patrol missions.

5 September 1939

The Anson and five Wirraways arrived at DARWIN at 10.30 hours from Daly Waters. Unfortunately the arrival of the Wirraways was marred by a fatal accident. Flying Officer AV Dolphin of Recruit Training Depot, Laverton who was ferrying Wirraway A20-5, stalled and crashed onto aerodrome and both he pilot and observer, No. 1 Corporal JOHNSON, H W - Air Observer, No. 12 Squadron were killed. Three air searches were carried out.

[Operations Record Book of 12 (General Purpose) Squadron RAAF. AWM64 Item 1/74]

28 September 1939

The first Australian to be killed in action was probably Wing Commander Ivan McLeod Cameron, who was serving with Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) at the outbreak of war. Wing Commander Cameron, 110 Squadron RAF, was on a reconnaissance flight over Germany on 28 September 1939 when his Bristol Blenheim bomber, serial N6212, was intercepted and shot down by a German pilot, Feldwebel Klaus Faber, of l/JG I, Luftwaffe. The Blenheim crashed near Kiel, Germany. Wing Commander Cameron is buried at Reichswald Forest Cemetery, Kleve in Germany.

[Dennis Newton, First Impact, Maryborough, 1997, p.49]

29 September 1939

Flying Officer John Tulloch Burrill Sadler, 144 Squadron RAF, was probably the second Australian killed in action. Flying Officer Sadler, who was serving in the RAF, was the pilot of a Handley Page Hampden bomber, serial L4121, part of a formation of five aircraft on a bombing mission on 29 September 1939. All five aircraft were intercepted and shot down between Heligoland and Wangerooge in Germany. Sadler, who has no known grave, is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial in England.

[Dennis Newton, First Impact, Maryborough, 1997, p.49]

Great Britain has declared war

Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Although not directly threatened by the conflict, Australia sent a volunteer army - the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) - to support Great Britain. During 1941 the men of the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions, along with Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) units, fought the Germans and Italians in Egypt, Libya, Syria, the Lebanon, Greece and Crete.

Australian defence and foreign policy since the end of the First World War had relied on British support in the event of attack. Singapore, the largest Royal Navy base in Asia, was to provide a barrier for Australia and it was expected that Britain would provide forces to assist Australia against any Japanese aggression. So, despite long-held fears that Japan would enter the war on the German side, the Australian government under Robert (later Sir Robert) Menzies, in 1939 and 1940 committed almost half of the RAAF and a number of RAN ships to assist with the war in Europe. However, as the war developed in the Northern Hemisphere, it became clear that the British would have to concentrate their forces there. They would be unable to provide further support for Singapore or for the defence of Australia.

In 1941, two brigades of the 8th Division AIF were sent to Singapore to support British defences in Malaya. These men spent months preparing for war against the Japanese. Also during 1941, three other small Australian forces from the 8th Division went north to strengthen existing bases. In April 1941, 'Lark Force' (the 2/22nd Battalion and supporting units) went to Rabaul, the administrative centre of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. In December 1941, two other forces were sent to the Netherlands East Indies to support Dutch garrisons there. 'Gull Force', consisting mainly of men from the 2/21st Battalion, together with anti-tank, engineer and other detachments, was sent to defend the airfield on the island of Ambon. The third group, 'Sparrow Force', built around the 2/40th Battalion and the 2/2nd Independent Company, was sent to Timor.

Japan entered the war on 7/8 December 1941. Japanese troops landed on the north coast of Malaya and at the same time Japanese carrier-based aircraft bombed the United States Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. By destroying US naval power in the Pacific the Japanese had hoped to acquire a huge Asian-Pacific empire. This 'Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere' was to stretch from the Indian-Burmese border, down through Malaya, across the Indonesian islands to New Guinea, out into the Pacific as far as the Gilbert Islands and north to the Kurile Islands off the coast of Japan.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australia and the Second World War, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 26 June 2024,
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