On this day: Australia at war
ON SUNDAY 3 SEPTEMBER 1939, Australians tuned in to their radios to hear Prime Minister Robert Menzies make a fateful announcement. Two days earlier Germany had invaded Poland, and mere hours had passed since Britain and France had declared war in response.
“Fellow Australians,” said Menzies. “It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.”
Thus began our nation’s involvement in what would become the deadliest conflict in history. Almost 1 million Australians were to serve in the armed forces, effectively fighting two wars: one against Germany and Italy in Europe and North Africa, the other against Japan in South-East Asia and the West Pacific.
Hear an audio clip of Menzies’ speech here.
Total support for War
Menzies’ announcement did not come as a surprise to Australians, says Dr John Knott, a historian at the Australian National University in Canberra. He says a fear of war had been building since Adolf Hitler came to power. “There had been a sense of anticipation slowly growing,” says John. “Certainly by 1938 there was great fear of war.”
A strong sense of duty to Britain meant that Menzies’ declaration was met with almost total support. “I don’t think there was a single voice of protest raised in the federal parliament, and almost no newspaper questioned his decision,” says John. “Most Australians identified with Britain; they saw themselves, in a sense, as British.”
Britain soon requested military assistance from Australia. On 15 September, Menzies announced the formation of a volunteer force of 20,000 men, known as the Second Australian Imperial Force (Second AIF). However, the Australian army didn’t engage in combat until early 1941, when three divisions joined Allied forces fighting in North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Growing fear of Japanese invasion
In the early stages of the war, Australians who remained at home felt little direct threat. “But that all changed with the growing fear of Japan,” John says. Japan entered the war in December 1941 – forming the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy – and achieved swift victories throughout Southeast Asia.
Australia’s growing fears were realised with the Japanese bombing of Darwin in February 1942 – the first time in history that we had been under direct attack. In response, all Royal Australian Navy ships in the Mediterranean returned to defend the home front, as well as the 6th and 7th Divisions of the Second AIF.
The situation gradually swung in Australia’s favour in 1942 with decisive victories in the Coral Sea and on Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track. The threat of invasion continued to recede until Japan finally surrendered on 14 August 1945, days after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All told, World War II had claimed the lives of more than 39,000 Australian service men and women.