Relief map of Australia

Australia was a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire in 1941.  It is a flat, ancient continent with an area of over 2,940,000 square miles (7,600,000 km2).  Located in the southern horse latitudes, it is also very dry, except for the eastern and northern coastal regions.  It was also sparsely inhabited in 1941, with a population of just seven million.

The economy was mostly agricultural, industrialization having been hindered by protectionist policies which had the effect of discouraging foreign investment. However, the Cockatoo Shipyard in Sydney was capable of building ships as large as light cruisers, and aircraft factories had been established to build the Wirraway fighter.  (An attempt to produce the more capable Hurricane was less successful.)  Many other useful goods were produced that would be of service to the Allies.  But these fell far short of the requirements of total war, and much of the early war strategy of both sides was directed at the sea lanes through which Australia received military supplies and reinforcements. The lines of communications from the U.S. West Coast to Australia were garrisoned by 41,000 U.S. Army and 15,000 U.S. Marines by mid-1942, and the battle of the Coral Sea was fought for control of Port Moresby, from which the Japanese hoped to isolate Australia from the United States. 

After the fall of Singapore, Australia turned from Britain to the United States for its defense against Japanese aggression. The first American troops in Australia were 4600 men originally intended for the Philippines but diverted to Brisbane when war broke out. MacArthur was given a rousing welcome after his escape from Corregidor on 17 March 1942, partly because it was assumed he would take command of a large American army on the continent.  Large numbers of American troops began arriving on 14 March, beginning with 41 Division, a National Guard unit from the northeastern States.

Australia mobilized 900,000 of its men during the Second World War.  At the time the Pacific war broke out, three divisions of 2 Australian Imperial Force, constituting most of Australia’s best volunteer troops, were already committed to North Africa.  Another division (8 Division) had just been shipped to Malaya, its training still incomplete.  It would be lost with the fall of Singapore. This left five divisions of the Citizen's Military Forces and some other skeleton formations to defend Australia itself.  The Australians demanded (and got) the return of their divisions from Africa, and these served in the Pacific through the remainder of the war.

The Royal Australian Air Force, though not large, would serve with distinction in the South Pacific.  The Royal Australian Navy, which included ships of up to heavy cruiser size, also served with distinction alongside the U.S. Navy.  Australian soldiers were regarded with entirely undeserved contempt by MacArthur, who assigned them mopping up duties and minimized their successes in his communiques.  In fact, when fully trained, the Australians were possibly the best infantry in the entire Pacific theater. They were responsible for handing Japan its first land defeat of the Pacific War, at Milne Bay. Their morale rivaled that of the Japanese at times, as when 27 walking wounded from 39 Battalion decided on their own initiative to return to battle on the Kokoda Trail when they heard the battle was in the balance, or when Corporal John Metson, shot in the ankle, attempted to crawl back to Port Moresby rather than take eight of his mates out of the battle as stretcher bearers. (He was overtaken and killed by the Japanese three weeks later.) Their morale was matched by their fighting skill: During the New Guinea campaign of March 1943 to April 1944, the Australians lost 1200 killed while killing 30,000 Japanese.

The fighting qualities of the best Australian troops were not always reflected by the conscripts of the Citizens' Military Forces (the Australian militia) or the civilian population. Though some CMF units performed well, such as the aforementioned 39 Battalion, most CMF units languished at home or in pointless mopping up operations and their morale plummeted. There were reports of poor discipline and outright mutiny. A Sydney polling organization reported to the government that there was "apathy amongst large sections of the people towards the war effort." Australia's Communist-dominated trade unions went on strike repeatedly, with the dock labor force acquiring a particularly odious reputation with American supply officers. The rail system used several different gauges, typically by state, requiring frequent transshipment of rail cargo at state boundaries, but efforts to adopt a uniform gauge were thwarted by the transshipper's union.

Total Australian deaths as a result of the Second World War numbered 39,668, of which 17,501 were lost in the war against Japan. Of these, 8,031 died in POW camps following their surrender at Singapore. Some 1700 were killed and 16,000 taken prisoner from 8 Division alone in the Malaya debacle. These were huge losses for an army as small as Australia's and contributed to Australia turning from Great Britain to the United States for assistance with its own defense. Another important factor was MacArthur, who became Australian Prime Minister Curtin's chief military advisor and exercised unprecedented influence over the Australian government.

Australian Order of Battle


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