The first two years of the war, Australia concentrated its military effort against the Germans, Italians and Vichy French in North Africa and Europe.
The Second Australian Imperial Force ( 2nd AIF) played an important role fighting alongside Britain and her allies against Italian and German troops. The most important campaigns in which Australians fought in Europe were in Greece and Crete, Syria, and the Battle of El Alamein alongside British and Allied troops.
Why the Second AIF?
The First AIF had five divisions and all five served in World War I. The Second AIF was formed from troops recruited from volunteers for overseas service after the declaration of World War II on 3 September 1939.
The Second AIF consisted of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Divisions. After troops were recruited and trained, the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions were sent to the Middle East. The 8th Division was sent to Malaya (modern Malaysia) and its adventures are discussed more thoroughly in the Pacific War chapter.
100 000 men volunteered for service overseas by the end of March 1940 - 22 000 in AIF, 7 000 in navy, and 68 000 in the air force. By the end of 1940, 600 000 men aged between 20 and 29 were enlisted for military service.
The AIF was structured in divisions. There were four divisions in the Second AIF - the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th. These divisions were made up of multiple battalions. Often several battalions from the same division could be sent for service in different areas of North Africa and Europe.
Greece and Crete
After his failure in North Africa, Italy's leader Benito Mussolini produced plans to invade Greece on 28 October 1940. See image 1 and animation
The Greeks resisted the invaders strongly and pushed the Italian army back into Albania. Hitler came to the rescue of the failing Italian army. If Hitler occupied Greece, he would gain airfields and naval bases from which he could strike further east.
Greece was the only ally in Europe who had not fallen to Hitler and Mussolini's armies. The Allies assisted the Greeks out of a sense of duty. British high command transferred troops from North Africa to support the Greek campaign.
The decisions were made in London and the Australian General Thomas Blamey was unaware of the changes. Prime Minister Menzies, weary of being left out of the decision-making process, travelled to London to consult with the British. He also toured the Middle East, visiting Australian troops to boost their morale.
The Greek campaign got underway at the same time that Rommel restarted the North African campaign. The 'Rats of Tobruk' suffered from lack of troops as the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions were sent to Greece. The Allied forces were overwhelmed in Greece. The Germans had sent eight armoured and mechanised divisions. They also had air superiority.
On 6 April 1941, Allied forces were stationed along the Aliakmon river, between the border of Yugoslavia and central Greece. While the Allies were held by a frontal attack, other German divisions advanced into the Florina Valley, surrounding the Allied forces. The Allies retreated, Greek cities such as Thessaloniki, falling in their wake.
On 19 April, a new defensive position was occupied at Thermopylae. However, Greek resistance was beginning to crumble. Orders for the evacuation of Allied troops to occur at night from 25 April were given. The evacuating forces lost all vehicles and heavy weapons. More than 50 000 men were evacuated. 14 000 were left behind, including 2000 Australians in the 2/7 Battalion. Athens, the capital of Greece, fell to German troops on 27 April.
Many of the evacuated soldiers were sent to Crete. 30 000 troops in Crete fought against a German paratroop division. Allied forces established defensive positions at Suda Bay, Maleme airfield, Retimo, and Heraklion.
On May 20, the Germans launched attacks against the Allied positions. Defence proved hopeless. The Allied forces had no heavy equipment or supplies. Over several nights, the navy attempted to evacuate Allied troops to Egypt. German air attacks hindered evacuations and 12 000 Allied soldiers, including 3000 Australians, were left behind to be taken prisoner by the Germans.
The Germans had suffered 5200 casualties in the Greek campaign and their paratroop division was badly damaged. Operations in Greece also took their toll on Australian soldiers. The 6th Division was ruined as a fighting force and needed months of recuperation.
Australian divisions were stretched to the limit when troops in North Africa were sent to undertake an invasion of Syria to stop German occupation. The fortunes of the Allied forces in the Eastern Mediterranean had shifted dramatically in the one month of the Greek campaign. Germans had occupied all of Greece and had access to strong air and naval bases. Australian divisions were fatigued and British morale had plummeted. It was a tragic defeat.
The Australian 7th Division was sent to Syria on 8 June 1941. Vichy France (the term used for the French government installed after German occupation) in Syria planned to assist Germany with supplies for the push into Egypt. Syria was also rocked by a revolt by Iraqi nationalists which destabilised political control. The Allies sought to capitalise on the instability in the region. The campaign was intended to deny Germany a base in the Middle East.
Although the Allied force sent to Syria included British, Indian and Free French units (independent from German control), the Australians carried out the majority of the fighting and suffered the most casualties.
They fought against the highly trained Vichy troops commanded by General Henri Dentz. Australian soldiers captured forts and engaged the French Foreign Legion in battle throughout June. Iraqi nationalists were defeated on 30 May.
The Allied forces suffered 30 000 casualties. An armistice was signed on 14 July and pro-German governments in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria ceded to Britain. By December, the Allies had gained the upper hand.
The next significant engagement involving Australian soldiers in North Africa was the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. See image 2
The twelve day battle was an Allied offensive led by the British General Montgomery against the Germans. Australian soldiers distinguished themselves through their bravery.
The battle began on 23 October 1942. The Australian 9th Division was the last Australian military force left in North Africa - the beginning of the Pacific War in December 1941 hastened the return of the remainder of the Australian troops.
The 9th Division, led by General Morshead, led the attack on the Germans. The battle was protracted and brutal. The 9th Division alone lost 620 men, 1944 wounded. 130 were taken prisoner by the Germans.
The Allied attack, however, repulsed the German advance. The Battle of El Alamein was a turning point in World War II. The Germans were pushed significant distances back along the coast of North Africa.
After playing a decisive role in the battle of El Alamein, the 9th Division returned to Australia to face the new threat of Japan.
The experience of the Australian soldiers
Australian troops stationed in North Africa and Europe experienced both victory and defeat. They had proven themselves to be hardy and resilient fighters. Australian soldiers learned about modern industrial warfare and training programs were improved.
The campaigns fought in North Africa provided the Australian soldiers with the experience needed to face their next challenge - the Japanese in the Pacific, and defending the Australian mainland.