In 1941, Australians fought in land and air campaigns in Egypt and Libya in North Africa. Three AIF divisions - the 6th, 7th and 9th - fought in those countries. Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships served in the eastern Mediterranean and in particular provided support to ground forces during the 'Siege of Tobruk' (April-December 1941). Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons, as well as RAAF personnel serving with Royal Air Force units, provided air support against the Germans and Italians.In January 1941, Australians fought their first major land battle in World War II when men of the 6th Division AIF, and other Allied troops, engaged Italian forces at the town of Bardia on the coast of Libya. On 3-5 January 1941, the Italian positions were attacked and Bardia was captured. Over 40,000 Italian prisoners were taken.Advancing west along the Libyan coast, the 6th Australian Division captured Tobruk from the Italians on 21-22 January 1941 and the town became a garrison for the Australian and British forces. In early March, one of Hitler's best generals, Erwin Rommel with his Afrika Korps, came to the aid of their Italian allies in Libya. By April, German forces had begun to cut off and surround Tobruk. For eight months, from April to December 1941,Tobruk was besieged and Australian forces, notably the men of the 9th Division, the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division and RAN ships of the famous 'scrap iron flotilla' played a prominent role in the town's defence.
The year 1941 was a dark one for the Allies. The Germans conquered all before them but Tobruk held out against Rommel and stood in the way of his advance towards Egypt and the Suez Canal. The defiance of the defenders of Tobruk raised morale in the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Those who served there became known as the 'Rats of Tobruk', so-called because the German radio propaganda broadcaster 'Lord Haw Haw' described them as rats living in the ground.
After the surrender of France in June 1940, the French colonies of Lebanon and Syria passed into the control of the pro-German Vichy French government. The British saw these colonies as a threat to their interests in the Middle East and as possible areas from which the Germans might attack Egypt and threaten oil supplies from Iraq. On 7-8 June 1941, Australians of the 7th Division, along with British and Free French forces, striking north from Palestine, invaded Syria and Lebanon. The operation was supported by RAAF and RAF units and by British and Australian warships off the coast of Lebanon.On 9 June, the Australians were involved in heavy fighting at the Litani River in southern Lebanon. Further intense action occurred between 11-27 June at Merdjayoun, Lebanon, where Australian and British troops attacked and counter-attacked Vichy forces. On 21 June, the Syrian capital of Damascus fell to a combined Indian, British, Australian and Free French force. Fighting, however, continued in Lebanon as the Allies struggled to take the important coastal centre of Damour. With the fall of Damour on 9 July 1941, the Vichy commander, General Dentz, asked for an armistice which was signed at Acre on 13 July 1941. Altogether about 18,000 Australian troops took part in the Syrian campaign
Between 1940 and late 1942 the British Empire and Dominion forces struggled against the German and Italian 'Axis' forces in North Africa as the Axis forces tried to capture the Suez Canal and take control of the Middle East oilfields.
On 1 September 1942, Australians from the 2/15th Battalion crossed a minefield and seized an enemy post about 3 kilometres from Tel el Eisa, near El Alamein. They were forced to withdraw, their brief raid costing 39 Australian lives, 100 wounded and 25 missing.Seven weeks later, on 23 October 1942, El Alamein in the western desert of Egypt became the scene of one of the major battles of World War II. The British Eighth Army, which included the 9th Australian Division under Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead, was pitted against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel with four German and eight Italian divisions.
During the next 10 days, aircrews of the Royal Air Force's Desert Air Force, which included men from the Royal Australian Air Force, flew many sorties in support of the ferocious ground battles. Rommel began to withdraw his troops to the Libyan border at dawn on 4 November, ending the Battle of El Alamein, but the Allies pursued their defeated enemies until May 1943 when the Axis forces in North Africa finally surrendered.
The Battle of El Alamein was the last great imperial battle. More than 13,500 men in the Eighth Army were killed, wounded or missing including 2,694 Australians from the 9th Division, approximately one-fifth of the Eighth Army's total casualties.
The last battle of 1942 involving Australians was for the Japanese beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda in northern Papua. The Allies expected the battle would be easily won but underestimated Japanese strength and resolve and grossly overestimated Allied capabilities. The battle opened on 19-20 November with attacks against Buna by the Americans, against Gona by the Australians, and against Sanananda by Australians and Americans. Tropical diseases, rain, mud and supply difficulties impaired both sides and the battle dragged on. By the time the last Japanese positions fell in January 1943, about 1300 Australians and 1000 Americans lay dead, with thousands more evacuated wounded or sick. More than 6000 Japanese had fought to the death. It was the single most costly battle for Australians in 'the islands'.
By early 1943, Japanese forces still held most of New Guinea, including the main coastal settlements of Lae and Salamaua. Australians defeated a Japanese force at Wau in late January and early February 1943. By May 1943, the Allies had captured Japanese positions near Salamaua and on 11 September 1943 they captured Salamaua. Also in September, a joint Australian and American air, land and sea operation with the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions recaptured Lae. The 7th Division was then ordered into the Markham-Ramu Valley to pursue Japanese forces across the Finisterre Range where the fighting for Shaggy Ridge continued on into 1944.
European women and children are evacuated from Salamaua airfield ahead of the expected invasion of the territories of Papua and New Guinea in December 1941. They were flown to Port Moresby and then sailed to Australia, where they remained for the duration of the war.
The 9th Division, the 'Rats of Tobruk', were ordered to take the Huon Peninsula and by the end of October had secured the Japanese strongholds at Finschafen and Sattelberg. By January 1944 they had captured Sio and by April the Australians had entered Madang.
While the Australians were engaged in the Markham-Ramu Valleys and the Huon Peninsula campaigns, American forces were in an 'island hopping' campaign on Eastern New Britain through Dutch New Guinea and the Netherlands East Indies. Both the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Australian Navy were involved in General Douglas MacArthur's advance towards the Philippines in 1944, one of the most successful campaigns of the Pacific war.
Vickers-Armstrong 3.7 inch Anti-Aircraft Gun Mark II
Similar to Germany's FlaK 88mm and the American 90mm, the OF 3.7" was developed in 1937, and served until 1959 when it was replaced by guided missiles. It fired a 28 pound (12.8 kilogram) 94mm shell to 32,000 feet at 20 rounds per minute. It was crewed by seven men. These guns were made in the United Kingdom until 1943 and then in Canada for the rest of the war. Unlike the Germans, who used their 88mm guns as both anti-aircraft and anti-tank, the QF 3.7" was too heavy to be used in mobile warfare and was damaged by low elevation firings. The last version, Mark VI, was only employed in static positions.
The 40mm Bofors light anti-aircraft automatic gun was used extensively by the military in Australia during WW2. It was developed by A.B. Bofors of Sweden in 1929. It was adopted by the British Army in 1938 and by the U.S. Army in 1941. The German Army captured and used a number of Bofors guns captured from France and Poland.
It was used to defend airfields, and other military establishments against low level enemy attack. It fired a 2lbs (1kg) high explosive shell at 2,800 ft/sec (848m/sec) at 120 rounds per minute. The Bofors maximum ceiling was 7, 151 metres but the most effective ceiling was 3,787 meters.
The standard mounting for Bofors gun was a four-wheeled trailer unit. Two wheeled versions were produced for airborne units in the United Kingdom and USA. Self-propelled mountings were also produced for the protection of mobile columns.