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Australian Army on 3 September 1939

(Queensland Units only) (PF = Permanent; M = Militia)

  • 1st Military District: HQ Brisbane, Queensland
  • Base Units
    • 8th Heavy Battery, RAA (Artillery) (PF) : Brisbane 
    • 108th Heavy Battery, RAA (M): Brisbane
    • 1st Fortress Company, RAE (Engineers) (PF) : Brisbane 
    • 21st Heavy Battery, RAA (PF): Townsville
    • 121st Heavy Battery, RAA (M): Townsville
    • 22nd Heavy Battery, RAA (PF): Brisbane
    • 122nd Heavy Battery, RAA (M): Brisbane
    • 32nd, 37th Fortress Companies, RAE: Brisbane 
  • District Troops:
    • 5th Field Brigade, RAA (13th, 14th, 105th Btys) : Kelvin Grove
    • 11th Field Brigade, RAA (42nd, 43rd, 111th Btys) : Kelvin Grove
    • 7th Field Company, RAE: Ipswich
    • 11th Field Company, RAE: Kelvin Grove
  • 1st Cavalry Brigade: HQ Brisbane
    • 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment Brisbane
    • The Moreton Light Horse
    • The West Moreton Light Horse
    • Queensland Mounted Infantry (QMI)
    • 5th Light Horse Regt (The Wide Bay-Burnett Lt Horse) (QMI): Gympie 
    • 11th Light Horse Regt (The Darling Downs Lt Horse) (QMI): Toowoomba


  • 7th Infantry Brigade: HQ Brisbane
    • 9th/49th Battalion (The Moreton Regt/The Stanley Regt): Brisbane
    • 15th Battalion (The Oxley Regiment): Brisbane
    • 25th Battalion (The Darling Downs Regiment): Toowoomba
    • 47th Battalion (The Wide Bay Regiment): Maryborough
    • 61st Battalion (The Queensland Cameron Highlanders): Brisbane


  • 11th Infantry Brigade: HQ Townsville
    • 31st Battalion (The Kennedy Regiment): Townsville
    • 26th Battalion (The Logan and Albert Regiment): Hughenden
    • 42nd Battalion (The Capricornia Regiment): Rockhampton
    • 51st Battalion (The Far North Queensland Regiment): Cairns

Notes on the Australian Army in WW2 by Paul Haseler and Mark McGilchrist

Australia basically had done without a ‘regular army’ since it became an independent nation in 1901. In 1938, it had a ‘permanent force’ of about 1600 officers and NCOs in order to maintain skills in all service branches. Each time the country became embroiled in a conflict an expeditionary force was raised. The Australian Army during 1939-45 was divided into two forces, effectively two armies:

The 2nd Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) was a volunteer force (initially of four infantry divisions, and later an armoured division) whose troops enlisted for overseas duty. Having served in North Africa, Greece and Syria with considerable distinction, three veteran divisions (6th, 7th and 9th) were returning to Australia by late 1942. They were experienced in both attack and defence, but had not been exposed to jungle warfare or the Japanese. Gradually doctrines and techniques were developed, but those who were first involved on the Kokoda track and at Gona learned about it ‘on the job’.

(Note that the 2/x for AIF units stands for 2nd AIF/ Battalion x to distinguish each unit from the battalion with the same number that fought in the 1914-18 World War as part of the 1st AIF. e.g. since the 14th Battalion served in WW1, the 2/14th was raised for WW2).

The other part of the army was the Citizens' Military Forces (C.M.F.) or national militia, which had a few ‘permanent soldiers’ attached, but was otherwise composed of a mix of enthusiastic volunteers (including WW1 veterans) and some ‘national service’ draftees. The Militia’s purpose was the defence of Australian territory (and this included Papua, which had been a German colony before the 1914-18 war). This political and geographic restriction led to the CMF troops being ridiculed by the all-volunteer AIF as 'a protected species - not available for export' or ‘Chocolate Soldiers’, and other less polite terms.

In the pre-war period, Militia units would have been kept under-strength and under-trained for budgetary reasons. During 1939-1940, the best (young) Militia soldiers volunteered for the adventure offered by the AIF, leaving the CMF very short of energy and expertise. The ranks were then filled to wartime strength with 17-19 year old conscripts. In general, the Militia units of 1942 had limited training and no field experience. In a late effort to improve the standard of these units, AIF officers were removed from their own units and drafted into CMF battalions (replacing the older CMF officers), to the dismay of both sides. Those new officers would need a while before they could trust their men and be trusted by them.

CMF units were usually keen, but unskilled. In New Guinea, they were used initially as labour or construction units, and when called into battle, received a bloody and traumatic initiation. Some rose to the challenge, whilst others found themselves unable to cope with the stress and isolation of jungle warfare*.

By the time of the end of 1942, a number of Militia units had been battle-tested at places like Milne Bay, Kokoda and Oivi-Gorari. The rising level of skill allowed CMF Brigades (and later, Divisions) to be successfully employed against the Japanese in 1943-45 in New Guinea, New Britain, Bougainville and later Borneo. This was essential if Australia was to maintain a viable army in the field when its manpower resources were stretched to the limit.

*The 53rd Battalion is the classic example, consisting mostly of young conscripts who had been thrown aboard a ship without warning, bound for Port Moresby. There they lived for months in lousy conditions, spending their days unloading ships or digging ditches, but not training as soldiers. In the desperate days of August 1942 when the Japanese were pushing the 39th Battalion back along the track from Kokoda, the troops of the 53rd were armed and marched into the mountains, led by new and unfamiliar officers.

Having struggled over the Owen Stanleys, and seen the wounded being carried or crawling past along the steep, muddy track, the newcomers felt understandably shaky. The 53rd arrived in time for the crisis at Isurava and were deployed to secure the vulnerable right flank (since there was nobody else available). After losing their new CO and other officers, and being forced to operate out of sight of friendly units, several of the companies of the 53rd did not have the will to fight. Too many men ‘lost’ their weapons and drifted away from the fearful chaos of that battle; but in hindsight they could not really be blamed. Many of those soldiers were later absorbed into other units, including the 39th, where they performed very well (including at Gona), after receiving training.

Organisation of the Army

The Australian Army of 3rd September 1939 consisted of a small Permanent Force cadre mostly manning staff, Royal Australian Artillery fortress units and Royal Australian Engineer fortress units. The majority of the army formed part of the Citizen Military Force (CMF), which was also known as the militia. Unlike the United Kingdom, where both regular and Territorial Army units were integrated into a single force entitled the British Army, Australia maintained two distinct armies until the third year of the war. During September 1939 an all-volunteer force was raised for service world-wide. This force was entitled the Second Australian Imperial Force or 2nd AIF and was modelled after the First Australian Imperial Force (1st AIF) that was raised during the first world war. The divisions and brigades of the CMF or Militia constituted the part-time home defence army and held this role until the start of the war with Japan on December 7, 1941. The Militia was not mobilized until that date, but all units did a series of brigade camps beginning at the outbreak of war and ending with full-time service on mobilization. The outbreak of war with Germany caused an additional month of training to be instituted for the militia and later extended to three months. Complete units were later given a 70 day camp preceded by 18 to 24 days of intensive training for NCOs. New recruits were given six months training while those that already had done a 90 day spell were given an additional three months of training. For example, the 5th Battalion (The Victoria Scottish Regiment) of South Melbourne, Victoria did a 90 day camp at Mt. Martha starting on January 3, 1940, another 90 day camp from September to December 1940 at Mt. Martha, and a third camp there from 1 May to 29 July 1941. At the end of the later camp, the battalion remained on full-time service. The 5th's experience was repeated by the other units of the militia.

The Militia divisions and brigades saw very little change in the period from 3 September 1939 until 7 December 1941. Within the artillery, anti-tank regiments were formed for each of the divisions and the designation of brigade for field units was changed to field regiment in July 1940. There were two organizational changes that took place during this time period. In October 1939, Military Districts #1-6 were incorporated into four commands: Eastern, Western , Northern and Western. Military Districts #7 and #8 were retained. In April 1941, there was also a reorganization within Eastern Command. These two changes are reflected in the difference between the 3 September 1939 and the 7 December 1941 order of battle. The engineer component for each division were increased by the addition of a field park company that was disbanded in the inter-war period. The infantry changed very little but some previously amalgamated battalions were separated as recruiting increased the strength of units. An example of this was the separation of 2nd/35th Battalion of Newcastle, New South Wales into separate 2nd and 35th Battalions in April 1941. The cavalry regiments also underwent similar changes to the infantry in terms of separation of units. For example, the 2nd/14th Light Horse of Brisbane, Queensland was formed into the 2nd Light Horse and the 14th Light Horse (Machine-Gun) Regiment on 30 August 1940 with the later being raised in New South Wales. Most Light Horse regiments became increasingly mechanized during this period, but did not take on the formal titles of Motor and Reconnaissance regiments until December 1, 1941. By 7 December 1941, the Australian Militia was virtually unchanged with only some minor changes. When the 2nd AIF began to form it initially recruited heavily from the militia units, but this was stopped shortly to the consternation of many militia officers and men. The first major reorganization of the home army did not take place until 15 April 1942.

Additional units were formed after the start of the war that provided support for the militia and relieved units of the tedium of garrison and vulnerable point protection duties. The Australian Army recruited seven Garrison Battalions (1st-7th) from veterans of the First World War in October,1939 and by January,1940 there were eight such battalions with a strength of 4,967 men. By 20th March,1942 the twenty-eight such battalions existed organized into five garrison brigades. In addition, the Volunteer Defence Corps, a "Home Guard" of units for local defence was raised in each military district. For example, No 4 Queensland Battalion, the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) was located at Nambour, Queensland with five companies. These VDC battalions were consecutively numbered within each district starting as No. 1.

Three additional units were raised in the period up to Japan's entry into the war. On 4 September 1939, in strict adherence to the League of Nations mandate, Australia raised the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles in the trust territory of Papua. It was raised from Europeans of the Mandated Territories with HQ at Rabaul and companies at Rabaul, Wau, Salamaua, and Lae as well as subsections at Kakapo (Rabaul), Kavieng and Madang. This unit was later the first to oppose the Japanese landing on New Guinea. On 19 June 1940, the Papuan Infantry Battalion was raised at Port Moresby, Papua with Australian officers, some Australian NCOs and native troops. This unit would see valuable service in New Guinea and later in the war on Bougainville. A third unit was formed in mid-1941 on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait area. This was the Torres Strait Infantry Company. It initially had two Australian officers, six Australian other ranks and 107 Torres Strait islanders. It served the war on Thursday Island and was expanded to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion in February 1943.

The raising of the 2nd AIF began on 28 September 1939 with the formation of the 6th Australian Infantry Division. The number six was assigned to this division to perpetuate the continuation of divisional numbers of the 1st AIF which had 1st to 5th Divisions. Similarly, the first brigade of the division raised was the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade. Battalions of these brigades were recruited from the same state as their militia numerical equivalent with the exception of the 2/12th Battalion, which was recruited Queensland as well as Tasmania, the home state of 12th/50th Battalion of the militia. For example, the 2/1st Australian Infantry Battalion of the 2nd AIF was recruited from New South Wales, the home of the 1st Battalion of the Militia. The numbers 1 to 48 also perpetuated the numbers of battalions of the 1st AIF, but since brigade organization changed from four battalions to three battalions per brigade, there was no 34-39, 41-42 or 44-47 battalions in the 2nd AIF. The 6th Australian Infantry Division was reflective in miniature of the population of Australia in its recruitment. 16th Australian Infantry Brigade was the first unit to sail for the Middle East on 20 January 1940. It was followed by 17th Australian Infantry Brigade on 11 April 1940. The 18th Australian Infantry Brigade sailed on 8 May 1940, but was diverted to the United Kingdom rather than the Middle East. It later joined the rest of the AIF in the Middle East, but transferred to 7th Australian Infantry Division. Each brigade sailed with a contingent of divisional troops. The shortfall in 6th Division because of the loss of 18th Brigade was made up by reorganising each brigade into the standard three battalions per brigade. This allowed for the formation of 19th Australian Infantry Brigade on 23 May 1940 in Palestine. At first 19th Brigade was designated as part of 7th Australian Infantry Division but in November it transferred to 6th Australian Infantry Division.

7th Australian Infantry Division was the next formation to be formed in the 2nd AIF. It initially had 20th and 21st Australian Infantry Brigades formed respectively in May and July 1940. Both brigades were sent to the Middle East in October 1940. 19th Brigade was designated to join this division on the division's arrival in the Middle East but left it in November 1940 for 6th Australian Infantry Division. 18th Brigade, as noted above, would later join the division on its arrival in the Middle East from England. But this division also underwent other changes. 20th Brigade was transferred in January 1941 to the newly created 9th Australian Infantry Division, which was formed in the Middle East on 18 December 1940. To take its place, 25th Australian Infantry Brigade was moved from the United Kingdom in March 1941 to complete 7th Division. The 25th Brigade was created in England in June 1940 from extra troops attached to 18th Brigade. Various corps and army troops began to form after this division was raised.

8th Australian Infantry Division was formed in Australia on 4 July 1940 with 22nd, 23rd and 24th Australian Infantry Brigades. The 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade was the first unit of this division sent overseas when it was despatched to Malaya on 2 February 1941. The 23rd Brigade was moved to Northern Territory in April 1941 and each of its battalions were sent to the surrounding chain of islands bordering the northern coast of Australia and all were lost in the initial Japanese attacks on these islands. The 2/22nd Australian Infantry Battalion was the first of the brigade to leave in April 1941 for Rabaul. 2/40th Battalion left on 12 December 1941 for Timor and 2/21st left on 17 December for Ambon. The brigade then took on militia battalions and became in effect a militia brigade for the rest of the war. 24th Infantry Brigade left the division in December 1940 and was sent to the Middle East in January 1941 to complete the 9th Australian Infantry Division. Its place was taken by the 27th Australian Infantry Brigade formed in November 1940 and sent to join the division in Malaya in August 1941. The division was captured in Singapore on 15 February 1942.

The final infantry division of the 2nd AIF was 9th Australian Infantry Division which, as noted above, was created on 18 December 1940 in the United Kingdom. It was initially assigned 18th, 24th and 25th Australian Infantry Brigades. Of these, only 24th Infantry Brigade was to remain with the division for the rest of the war. 25th Infantry Brigade was only designated and never formed part of the division, since it joined 7th Australian Infantry Division on its arrival in the Middle East. 18th Brigade joined on its arrival in the Middle East in December 1940, but was transferred to 7th Australian Division. It did not actually join this division until it was evacuated from Tobruk in August 1941, serving attached to 9th Australian Infantry Division in Tobruk from April to August 1941. To replace 18th Brigade, 26th Australian Infantry Brigade was formed in Australia in July 1940 and sailed for the Middle East on 18 November 1940. It joined the division in January 1941 on its arrival in the Middle East.

One additional division was formed as part of the 2nd AIF during the war. This was the 1st Australian Armoured Division formed on 1 July 1941 and consisting initially of 1st and 2nd Australian Armoured Brigades. Its organisation would change as the war developed, but it remained in Australia until disbanded in September 1943.

By 7 December 1941, the AIF had units in the Middle East, Malaya, Australia, the islands and the United Kingdom.

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