During World War II, of the 7 million people who lived in Australia, 550 000 served overseas in the armed forces. While this was a high proportion of the population and they all fought bravely in battle, it still can not be said that their efforts made a significant contribution to the course and outcome of the war. In campaigns such as Tobruk and El Alamein in North Africa and, primarily, Papua New Guinea, the Australian troops gave a good account of themselves and made significant contributions to the battles in each of these areas.
However, in comparison to battles in the European theatre of war such as Leningrad and Stalingrad where the German progression was halted, the Australian troop’s contribution can not be considered a vital part in the course or outcome of the war. As Joan Beaumont, lead historian at Monash University assessed, “Only in stemming the Japanese advance across Papua in 1942 can Australia claim to have made a decisive contribution to the war”.
Firstly, the Australian troops played a significant part in the Tobruk campaign in North Africa.
Tobruk is a small port on the coast of Libya and at the time its importance lay in the fact that its harbour was the only safe and accessible port for over 1600km. The Allied forces knew that if they were able to occupy this area, it would threaten the German advance into Cyrenaica. The fighting began on the 21st and 22nd of January 1941, when Australian troops from the 6th division, along with other members of the allied forces defeated a defending force of approximately 30 000 Italians.
German forces landed in Tobruk just 2 weeks after this, commanded by General Erwin Rommel, and prepared to launch a siege on the port. The events that followed show the Australian troops bravery and courage. On the 10th of April, the German forces began their siege on Tobruk which was being defended by 10 000 allied troops including 4 brigades of the Australian 7th and 9th divisions. This position was held by the allies for an amazing 242 days in which they consistently were under fire from German attacks.
It is clear here that the Australians made a significant contribution to this battle, but it was not a battle which was going to have huge repercussions on the rest of World War II as the Germans campaigns in Europe which were raging at the same time were more vital to the entire course and outcome of the war. When judging the Australian’s contribution to this battle, it can be found in the courage and bravery with which they fought. German commander Erwin Rommel wrote “The Australians fought with remarkable tenacity…. they were immensely big and powerful men, who without question represented an elite formation of the British Empire”.
What makes the contribution even more admirable is the fact that they fought in the face of incredibly hard conditions and with limited resources. Temperatures each day exceeded 40 degrees Celsius and water was hard to come by, as Rommel wrote “water is very short in Tobruk…one’s thirst becomes almost unquenchable”. Australian leadership was another factor that was present at Tobruk. General Leslie Morshead, known to his men as “Ming the Merciless” commanded the allied forces from 10th April to the 22nd of October. He was a harsh and tough commander who brought discipline to his forces.
It was his determined attitude that helped the forces to hold out for such a long time. This attitude is displayed in the comments that he made to his staff, “there is to be no surrender and no retreat”. This battle also proved to provide a much needed morale boost to the Allied forces and the home front as well as removing the idea that the German forces were undefeatable. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister wrote to the Australians “The entire empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this outpost of Egypt with gratitude and admiration”.
In total, throughout the entire Tobruk campaign, Australians suffered 3009 casualties, including 832 killed and 941 taken prisoner. While this battle was not pivotal in the course of the war, it is still extremely clear that the Australian troops contributed greatly. The next battle, in which there was significant Australian contribution, was in El Alamein, in the Mediterranean theatre of war. This was a battle which after the loss of Tobruk, halted and turned around the German forces which were advancing towards Egypt.
After the battle Churchill said “Before El Alamein, we never had a victory, after El Alamein, we never had a defeat”. This campaign managed to destroy the Germans hopes of capturing Egypt. The 1st battle of El Alamein, which included the Australian 9th division, took place between the 10th and 27th of July 1942. While Allie losses in this battle were greater than German losses, it stopped and exhausted the Germans and forced them to regroup before they tried to advance again. The 2nd and more decisive battle of El Alamein took place on the 23rd of October.
By this time the Allied forces had brought together an vast reserve of men, approximately 220 000 troops, of which 32 000 were Australian. Having intercepted German plans, the Allied forces, commanded by Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, were able to anticipate the German movements and eventually defeat them, with the battle ending on the 5th November. While the Australian troops only made up 6% of Montgomery’s forces, the suffered 20% of the casualties, with 620 men killed, 1994 wounded and 130 taken prisoner. From these statistics, it is clear that the Australians played a significant role in the fighting at El Alamein.
The Australian troop’s achievements were later praised by Montgomery when he wrote “We could not have won the battle…without the magnificent Australian Division”. The Australian troops definitely did play a huge part in this wonderful victory for the Allied forces which was described by the Rommel’s intelligence chief as “the turning point of the desert war”, however, it still can not be said that this battle was a vital part of the course and outcome of the war, as it did not really help in the overall outcome of the war, but just helped to stop the German advance across the East.
The Australian troops played a significant role at Tobruk and El Alamein, through their courage and leadership qualities that they displayed in battle. However, their most significant contribution to the war undeniably came in the campaign in Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific Theatre of War. This was fought against the feared Japanese forces, and it was there that the Japanese sustained their first land defeat, and according to Paul Ham, who wrote the book Kokoda (2004) it was “the start of the great roll-back of the Japanese troops”.
The Australian troops, with very little aid from any other country, managed to stop the Japanese advance across islands in South East Asia. In doing this they were able to play a big role in the downfall of the Japanese, one of Germanies main allies. Joan Beaumont wrote “The allied defeats of the Japanese in Papua in 1943…signalled a decisive shift in the initiative of the war in the Pacific”. Australia’s first military involvement in the area was at Milne Bay, where the Japanese hugely underestimated the number of troops they would be up against due to faulty intelligence.
Therefore, they suffered a decisive defeat, their first of the Pacific War. In the conflict, the Japanese lost a hefty 612 troops with 535 wounded while the Australian lost 161. However, the main fighting in the area was based around the small airfield at kokoda. It was sought after because both armies wanted its control in order to bring in supplies. Over the next 4 months, a vicious battle raged in the forest around Kokoda, in which Australians made a name for themselves as being extremely courageous.
Throughout the whole Papuan campaign, the Australians lost 2165 men while the Japanese lose a horrendous 12000 of the 16000 men that they had sent to the battle. From these figures we can see the immense feat that the Australians managed in comprehensively defeating a previously undefeated force. When examining the victory, its significance is heightened due to the fact that the Australian forces were extremely inexperienced and that they had to deal with extremely inhospitable terrain. The majority of Australian troops in Papua were Militia.
These were civilian soldiers who had enlisted for home service only. Many of these men had never even fired a gun before when they were thrown into battle. They were known by other soldiers as “chocos” because it was thought that they would “melt” in the heat of battle. In Papua, the 49th militia battalion of 3000 men and the 39th militia battalion of 4000 men fought together against an experienced Japanese enemy. They proved themselves to be more than capable of fighting as they defended Port Moresby and drove the Japanese out of Papua.
This amazing feat shows the great courage and natural ability of the Australian soldiers. Also, given that the Australian troops were so inexperienced, their trouble was doubled by the fact that they were fighting in such difficult terrain. American historian described the Owen Stanley Range in Papua as “towering saw-tooth Mountains” while Joan Beaumont described it as “a great boot-sucking porridge”. The fact that these inexperienced soldiers were able to handle these terrible conditions and make such a significant contribution to the fighting in Papua is a truly amazing achievement.
While the Australian troops played a significant role in the defeat of the Japanese at Papua, it also can not be considered a vital point in the course or outcome of the war; however it was a great defeat of one of the Germans greatest allies. In conclusion, the Australian troops made significant contributions to several battles during World War II. They also showed themselves as being extremely brave and talented in battle. However, it can not be said that they made a significant contribution to the course and outcome of World War II as they did not participate in the battles that really decided the outcome of the war.
Cite this Australian History – Contributions in World War 2
Australian History – Contributions in World War 2. (2017, Feb 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/australian-history-essay-contributions-in-world-war-2/