When Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that Australia was at war with Germany, the need to improve Australia's military services became apparent. After World War I, the soldiers, sailors and pilots returned to civilian life. Drill and training was neglected in the peaceful 1920s and 1930s.
When war was declared, the government recognised that Australia was not prepared. The call for soldiers went out and by March, 22 000 soldiers had enlisted in the army. 7000 had applied for service in the navy, and 68 000 for the air force. Australia needed to train these new recruits to prepare them for the rigours of battle.
Australia's navy was suffering from a lack of maintenance. Australia had two heavy cruisers HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra; four light cruisers the HMAS Hobart, HMAS Perth, HMAS Sydney, and HMAS Adelaide; and five World War I destroyers on loan from Britain. See image 1
The navy consisted of 5400 permanent sailors, 5000 reserves, and 700 coastwatchers in northern Australia.
Despite its small size, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was sent to Europe to participate in Allied activities in the Mediterranean against the Germans and Italians. Upon the outbreak of the Pacific War, the majority of the Australian navy returned to Australia to participate in Allied offensives against the Japanese.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was in a similar state of disrepair. There were no modern aeroplanes. The fastest Australian planes were Wirraway trainers, capable of one-third the speed of the German Messerschmidt BF109s, which were the fastest planes of the time.
The air force consisted of only 3000 regulars, 500 men in the Citizen Air Force, and 150 reserve officers. In October 1939, the RAAF started training air crews.
The air force personnel were soon called upon by the British Royal Air Force to train in the British-run Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), a training program aimed at training Commonwealth air personnel quickly and deploying them for service in the war. Like the RAN, the RAAF personnel returned to Australia upon the outbreak of the Pacific War.
Royal Australian Navy in Europe
It was clear to the Australian government that, at the time of the outbreak of war in Europe, Japan was not intending to exploit the opportunities provided in the Pacific. Convinced that mainland Australia was safe from attack, the government resolved to concentrate the majority of Australia's defence forces in Europe.
On November 7, an order was made, placing all commissioned naval ships at the disposal of the British navy.
The RAN played an active role in the Mediterranean. Before the Italians declared war, Australian ships were engaged in patrolling duties in the eastern Mediterranean.When the Italians entered the war, they began naval hostilities with a submarine campaign in the harbour of Alexandria in Egypt. The submarine campaign was aimed at confining the Allied fleet to Alexandria. After 19 days, the Italians lost 10 submarines to underwater minefields. See image 2
While Australian troops engaged the Italians in North Africa, the RAN attacked the Italian navy in the Mediterranean Sea. On 9 July 1940, Australian ships took part in a large co-ordinated naval attack at the Battle of Calabria. Although neither the Italians nor the Allies claimed victory, the experience gave Australian crews a taste of naval battle.
On 19 July 1940, the light cruiser HMAS Sydney sank the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. The battle was a classic ship-to-ship engagement.
On 19 November 1941, during an engagement with the German raider HSK Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia, the HMAS Sydney was lost with no survivors. The HSK Kormoran also sank during the battle.
The RAN provided invaluable support for the troops in North Africa. While Australian troops were pursuing Italians across North Africa, the RAN bombarded the shore to support ground forces at Bardya.
During the siege of Tobruk, Australian destroyers escorted convoys of supplies for Australian troops. The HMAS Waterhen was sunk by German dive bombers on 29 June 1941, during one of these escorting activities.
During the campaign in Greece and Crete, the RAN provided ships to land and evacuate troops.
The RAN also supported British offensives. In September 1941, the cruiser HMAS Australia accompanied a British fleet on its failed expedition to Dakar in Senegal. It was an attempt for French General Charles de Gaulle's Free French army to gain a foothold in the French colony of Senegal from which the Allies could stage offensives against the Vichy Regime.
The failed expedition drew criticism from the British and Australian governments over its use of defence forces.
Naval operations soon involved minesweeping, patrolling, supply, and escort activities. The Italians often avoided confrontation with their fleet, preferring to use submarines and aircraft.
After the army was defeated in Greece and Crete, naval forces in the Mediterranean were greatly reduced. Japan soon entered the War and fears for Australia became very real. The fleet in the Mediterranean was sent back to Australia to defend her against Japan.
Some ships, though, remained in the Mediterranean and, in 1944, supported British and French navies in offensives against the Germans and Italians.
Royal Australian Navy in the Pacific
It has been said that Australia's role in the Pacific was disappointing. Although some Australian ships gained experience in battle, people were unsure whether Australia could maintain an independent role in the Pacific. For the majority of the war in the Pacific, the RAN participated in the co-ordinated offensive against the Japanese.
The RAN was expanded to 68 ships and almost 20 000 men in 1942, but the year proved to be disastrous for the Australian navy.
On 20 February, HMAS Perth was lost to Japanese torpedoes at the Battle of Sunda Strait in the Dutch East Indies. In August 1942, at the Battle of Savo Island in the Solomon Islands, HMAS Canberra was sunk. On 1 December, HMAS Armidale was sunk in the Timor Sea after an attack by 13 Japanese aircraft.
The RAN fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, helping to avert the Japanese occupation of Port Moresby in Papua.
In August 1942, three cruisers supported the landing of US marines at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
Many Australian ships participated in the Burma campaign and British operations against Japanese islands as the Allies closed in around Japan.
At the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 in the Philippines, the HMAS Australia was the first Allied ship to be hit by a Japanese kamikaze plane (the Japanese word for divine wind, which was used for suicide attack planes used in World War II). In the Pacific, the RAN played an important role in supporting the Allied response to Japan's bid for power.
Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in Europe
At the time of the declaration of war against Germany, one squadron of Australia's air force was already stationed in Britain. The British used it in RAF Coastal Command activities. A squadron was also formed in Port Moresby in Papua to help defend the Pacific. There were no planes left for the defence of mainland Australia.
The Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), also known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, was formed to help train pilots quickly. The Australian government offered another four bombers, two fighter squadrons, and 3200 air force troops to Britain.
The idea of an Empire air force had existed since 1936. It was decided by the prime ministers of Australia, England and Canada that Dominion crews would join squadrons formed in Britain and travel to Canada to gain advanced air training. 2800 trainees would attend the scheme - half from Canada, one-third from Australia, with the remainder from Britain and New Zealand.
33 training schools were established in Australia to provide basic training for aircrew before their skills were honed in Canada. 9600 pilots and aircrew were trained in Australia before being sent to Canada. EATS was able to train over 15 000 aircrew before dispatch to Britain.
Many young Australians fought over Germany under the leadership of the RAF. About 100 Australian pilots fought in the famous Battle of Britain. 26 000 Australians served in fighter and bomber squadrons.
Most air force activities involved strategic bombings, destroying key enemy installations and supporting ground troops. Australian aircrews fought over the Middle East, in Tunisia against the Italians and Germans, in the Mediterranean against the Italians, and in India and Burma against the Japanese.
There was little activity in the Pacific during the European War. Air defences in Australia were not strong. When the Pacific War broke out, Australian aircrews sent back to Australia had their first taste of independent command.
Royal Australian Air Force in the Pacific
When America joined the War after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Allied leaders decided that American naval commanders would co-ordinate the Pacific assault against the Japanese. The RAAF became part of the US Far East Air Force. See image 3
It has been said that Australia's role was greatly reduced in the Pacific assault because America only allowed Australia to take on subsidiary roles. However, it should be remembered that Australia was participating in a larger coordinated assault which was not led by Australians but Americans.
The RAAF was expanded under the US Far East Air Force. Kittyhawks were used in the Papuan campaign. The RAAF played a significant role in re-supplying ground troops in New Guinea.
During 1943 and 1944, RAAF Darwin squadrons raided Japanese positions in Indonesia and destroyed Japanese air and sea power in Rabaul. Activities also included the bombing of Japanese oil fields in the south-west Pacific and supporting the American drive into the Philippines.
Of the 216 900 men and women who served in the RAAF, 11 061 were killed in the War. Over three-quarters in the European War.
The experience of the air and naval war
The RAN and RAAF participated in important battles and campaigns in both the European and Pacific Wars. Australia's navy and air force greatly expanded in terms of personnel and craft during this time.
The Empire Air Training Scheme ensured that the Australian air force operated at the highest standard. American aircraft given to Australia during the Pacific War gave Australians the best technology of the time.