Australia in the War of 1939-1945

Series One

Volume I
To Benghazi


Gavin Long

Canberra Australian War Memorial

First published in 1952
Reprinted (with corrections) 1961



  Preface ix
  Chronology xiv
    The A.I.F. in the United Kingdom 305
    The 6th Division's Operation Order for the Capture of Bardia 312
    Abbreviations 318
    A.I.F. Colour Patches, 1941 321
  INDEX 325


  Militia exercises at Port Stephens, October 1938 18
  Militia exercises at Port Stephens, October 1938 (2) 18
  An 18-pounder field gun firing during exercises 19
  Senior leaders of the Second A.I.F. 34
  Senior leaders of the Second A.I.F. (2) 34
  Victorian recruits for the 6th Division entraining at Flemington, Victoria 35
  At sea with the first convoy, January 1940 66
  The Middle East Commanders-in-Chief 67
  A race meeting organised by the 6th Division at Barbara, Palestine 82
  The 2/6th Battalion in Palestine and Egypt 83
  The 2/6th Battalion in Palestine and Egypt 83
  "The Head Man" (cartoon by David Low) 92
  Exercises in the Western Desert 114
  Italian lines at Tummar 115
  Infantry tanks in the Western Desert 130
  Handling a cargo at Salum 131
  Lieut-General R. N. O'Connor and Major-General I. G. Mackay 146
  Living conditions outside Bardia 147
  Living conditions outside Bardia 147
  Infantrymen advancing towards Bardia 162
  Infantrymen advancing on Bardia 163
  Engineers at the anti-tank ditch 178
  Sheltering in an anti-tank ditch at Bardia 179
  An abandoned Italian battery position 194
  Upper and Lower Bardia 195
  Upper and Lower Bardia 195
  British Infantry tanks advancing towards Tobruk 210
  Brigadiers A. S. Allen and L. J. Morshead 211
  Infantrymen at Tobruk 226
  Captured Italian tanks 227
  Infantrymen advancing towards Tobruk 234
  On the heights overlooking Tobruk from the south 234
  Italian prisoners 235
  Australian troops approaching Derna 235
  The road climbing the escarpment from Derna 242
  The advance to Giovanni Berta 243
  The advance to Giovanni Berta (2) 243
  An abandoned ammunition dump near the Wadi Cuff 258
  Overlooking the Italian colonies near Barce 259
  Captured Italian tanks at Beda Fomm 282
  The ceremony at the capture of Benghazi 282
  The ceremony at the capture of Benghazi (2) 282
  Giarabub 283
  Giarabub (2) 283
  Giarabub (3) 283
  Giarabub (4) 283
  The staff of the 6th Division at Barraca 290
  Mr S. M. Bruce with Australian soldiers in England 291
  Sawing competition between New Zealand and Australian foresters 306
  The march of Australian foresters through New York 307


  The Middle East 106
  Bardia, dusk 3rd January 1941 170
  Tobruk, 11 a.m. 21st January 1941 218
  Derna, night 29th-30th January 1941 250
  The advance to Beda Fomm and Benghazi: dusk 5th February 1941 269
  Giarabub: 2/9th Battalion's attack, 21st March 1941 300


  Australia: Military Districts and Command areas, 3rd September 1939 28
  Palestine: Leave towns and military encampments 73
  Cyrenaica 99
  Greek-Albanian frontier area 117
  Alexandria area 124
  The attack on Sidi Barrani, 9th December 1940 134
  Italian dispositions at Sidi Barrani, December 1940 139
  The advance of detachments 7th Armoured Division to the Bardia-Tobruk road, 14th December 1940 141
  The encirclement of Bardia, December 1940 144
  Forward battalions of the 6th Division, 1st January 1941 153
  Forward companies of the 2/6th Battalion, 1st-2nd January 1941 154
  The plan of the attack on Bardia 157
  The 16th Brigade dispositions at midday, 3rd January 1941 173
  The 2/5th Battalion in the Wadi Scemmas, 3rd January 176
  Forward companies of the 2/5th and 2/7th Battalions, dusk 3rd January 181
  Forward companies of the 2/5th and 2/7th Battalions, morning 4th January 183
  The 2/6th Battalion in the Wadi Muatered 185
  The situation on the southern flank at Bardia, dusk 3rd January 188
  The 16th Brigade's attack at Bardia, 4th January 194
  Bardia to Tobruk 209
  The plan of attack at Tobruk 217
  The advance of the 2/8th Battalion on Ford Pilastrino, 21st January 226
  Tobruk: position at dusk 21st January 234
  Tobruk to Cyrene 243
  The 19th Brigade dispositions at Derna, morning 26th January 247
  Dispositions at Derna, dusk 31st January 258
  The Mediterranean area 276
  British and Italian dispositions, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, midday 10th February 1941 279
  East Africa 283
  The Egyptian frontier 287
  Giarabub 291


In March 1943 the War Cabinet appointed the writer of this volume to prepare a plan for an official history of Australia's part in the war then being fought. This action was a result of representations by Dr C. E. W. Bean who had completed his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 in the previous year. After advice had been sought from a number of authorities, a provisional plan was presented to the War Cabinet and approved by it in July 1943. It provided for the writing of sixteen volumes, not including those which might be devoted to a medical history to be planned by an editor nominated by the medical directors-general of the three Services; for the preparation, as a depart mental responsibility and for the guidance of future administrators, of wartime histories of Federal departments, not necessarily for publication; for the establishment of a naval historical records section; and an enlargement of the air force historical records section. (An adequately staffed military history section was already at work.) Among other proposals was one that the trustees of the Canteen Fund be asked to help in providing funds towards the production of unit histories where needed.

A revised and extended plan was approved by the War Cabinet in December 1945. Under this plan, as finally amended in 1950, there will be, in the civil series of this history, two volumes on wartime government and the war's effects on the people, two on economic developments, and one on technological and scientific achievements. The volumes on wartime Government present the over-all view as seen by the War Cabinet, and to that extent they form a key to the work as a whole. The experiences of the fighting Services are described each in a separate series. It would not have been practical to write volumes which described the combined operations of all three Australian fighting Services, because they were in action together so seldom.

The history of the Australian Army from 1939 to 1945 is to be described in seven volumes, three of which deal principally with campaigns in the Middle East and four with campaigns in East Asia and the Pacific. A large part of the present volume is concerned with the period before military operations began, and to a great extent it forms an introduction to the military series as a whole. It includes only one relatively brief campaign. In the air force series two will describe the experiences of the Australian Air Force at home and in the war against Japan, and two the part which Australians played in nearly six years of air warfare in Europe and the Middle East. The two naval volumes relate the story of the world-wide activities of the Australian Navy; the first ends at a convenient date in 1942. Each of these three series is introduced by a brief account of developments between the wars. The medical history is planned in four volumes in which wartime problems of the medical profession in general and the medical services in particular are examined, and their organisation


and work described in relation to the needs of the armed Services and the health of the nation.

In all this planning Dr Bean's advice was constantly obtained. He also read the first draft of this and the succeeding volume of the army series and offered much valuable criticism.

The administration of the official war history was placed under the Minister for the Interior, largely because to his department belongs the Australian War Memorial at Canberra, which nursed the small staff of the official history in its infancy and is the home of the records of the Australian fighting Services in the first and second of the world wars of this century. In 1943 the Prime Minister, Mr. Curtin, established a committee consisting of the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for External Affairs and himself to consult with the Minister for the Interior and the General Editor about the appointment of writers of individual volumes of the history . Thus the writers whom the General Editor chose and recommended had to have the approval of both Government and Opposition. The General Editor and the Medical Editor were salaried. The other eleven writers signed agreements with the Minister for the Interior to complete their work within a specified time generally four years for one volume. Their fee was paid in instalments as sections of the work were delivered. Each writer was required to spend on each volume a year free of other employment, but in fact several have devoted considerably more full-time work than that to the task . The writer of the volumes on wartime government obtained a cancellation of his contract with the Commonwealth in order that he might stand for election to the House of Representatives, but, with the agreement of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition, he continued his work as a labour of love.

At its maximum the staff employed to help the writers has included seven research workers or literary assistants, a cartographer, a secretary and two part-time typists. It has been a general principle that, so far as was practicable, the researchers should not intervene between the writer and his source material. One result of this policy has been that the research and editorial staff has probably been smaller in relation to the size of the undertaking than in other organisations working in this field. A main task of this hard-working and devoted team has been to provide each writer with the greater part of his source material -- a task demanding exceptional patience and initiative in view of the fact that only a proportion of it was yet in the good order and arrangement that the archivists will eventually achieve, and much still in the custody of Government departments. They have also carried out detailed research work of a strictly factual kind. However, the writers of these volumes have not been dependent to any great extent on narratives or summaries prepared by others. The research staff has prepared the typescript for the printer, prepared the biographical and other footnotes and the indexes, and done a great amount of checking.

An undertaking by the Government to give reasonable access to official documents has been generously carried out by Ministers, administrators


and archivists. The writers have been helped also by the exchange of documentary material with colleagues in the British countries, the United States and Holland. As the work progressed several volumes of British Commonwealth and American official histories and many memoirs by wartime leaders became available. These helped to fill notable gaps, particularly in enabling Australian writers to record deliberations in London, Washington and other places which affected the employment of Australian forces.

When I accepted appointment in 1943 it was on the understanding that after the war I should be free to take up the question of freedom from censorship. When the War Cabinet approved the final plan of the history in December 1945, it decided that "the exercise of censorship by the Government is to be limited to the prevention of disclosure of technical secrets of the three Services which it is necessary to preserve in the post-war period." Thus this history is official in the sense that it has been financed by the Government, that the writers have been given access to official papers, and have been conscious of the special responsibilities which rest upon writers of a national history.

While writers and editor have on occasion only reached agreement after considerable discussion, in no case was agreement impossible. That is not to say that writers and editor are devoid of opinions and sentiments and have achieved complete agreement on the multitude of problems raised by a work such as this; but that, in my opinion, each writer has gone as far as could reasonably be expected in subordinating to his responsibilities as an historian, his loyalty to his nation, to his Service, or to a political point of view. Each writer has been given opportunities to read and comment on the drafts of those other writers whose work runs parallel with his own, and, making the most of one of the advantages enjoyed by a contemporary historian, has had his whole work or parts of it read by men who participated in the events he describes.

The nature of the sources on which the civil volumes are based will be discussed in their prefaces . This volume, like others of the military series, is chiefly based on the war diaries and reports of formations and units, on some hundreds of interviews with participants obtained during the war and on much correspondence and many interviews conducted after the war with a large number of soldiers, some of whom gave many laborious evenings to helping to solve our problems. Thus the authority for most of the statements is contained in documents now at the Australian War Memorial at Canberra. Footnotes have been kept to a minimum by citing authorities only where they are quoted verbatim or where support seemed to be needed for controversial statements. As a rule German, Italian and Japanese documents are named only when they have been published or otherwise made widely available. Each writer's notes will be handed to the Director of the War Memorial for preservation. Generally our policy is to accept the evidence of a witness close to the event in place and time in preference to one farther away. Thus a company commander's report is preferred, so far as the experiences of his company goes, to a battalion's


or a brigade's account of the same incident. All published sources of which substantial use has been made are named in footnotes, but in this as in other volumes of the military series they comprise only a small part of the source material.

In this preface I do not attempt to answer a number of interesting questions likely to arise in the minds of other workers in this and related fields of history. Later I will write a more detailed account of the problems encountered during the writing of the history as a whole and this series in particular.

In this volume and others dealing with operations in the Middle East the spelling of place names was a wearisome problem. There are several systems of transliterating Arabic and Greek words, each with its devoted adherents. As many as six different spellings of certain place names in Syria can be collected from maps and gazetteers in use in 1941 or later. In these volumes we have tried to avoid spellings which would be misleading or unduly irritating to Australian readers yet at the same time to go some distance towards following sensible methods of transliteration.

The practice employed in the previous Australian war history of providing a short biographical footnote about each person mentioned in the text has been followed in the army, navy and air series, and in a modified form in the civil series. We have tried to give his occupation before the war and the town or district which he considered to be his home. In the army and air series a biographical footnote published in a volume dealing with the war in Europe and the Middle East is repeated if the man concerned reappears in a volume dealing with the war against Japan.

In the preface to each volume the writer will state to what extent he had first-hand experience of the events which he records: I joined the I Australian Corps as a correspondent representing Australian morning newspapers in November 1940, after having been in France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1939-1940. I reported the operations in the Western Desert until late in February when my colleagues and I began to make ready to go to Greece.

I will not try to record the names of the very many soldiers from generals to privates who helped me in the writing of this volume. Some handed over valuable collections of documents and personal records; some have read all these chapters; some have read and offered helpful criticism of single chapters or special passages on which they could comment with authority. Many submitted to interviews lasting often for hours; many have taken great pains to collect and set out replies to our questions. In the writing of this volume much help was received from Brigadier H. B. Latham of the historical branch of the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom and his staff.

In my work as general editor I owe much to the support of three Prime Ministers, Mr John Curtin, Mr J. B. Chifley and Mr R. G. Menzies. Mr Menzies and Mr Chifley were also wise and generous members of the History Committee during the periods when they were Leaders of the Opposition. Constant support was given by four successive Ministers for


the Interior, Senator J. S. Collings, Mr. H. V. Johnson, Mr. P. A. M. McBride and Mr W. S. Kent Hughes, and by two Secretaries of that department, Mr J. A. Carrodus and Mr W. A. McLaren.

In common with the other writers of volumes in the army series I have received generous cooperation from the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Lieut-Colonel J. L. Treloar, and his staff; the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Sir Frederick Shedden, and other officers of that department; the Chief of the General Staff, Lieut-General S. F. Rowell; and the Secretary of the Department of the Army, Mr F. R. Sinclair.

My principal assistant on this volume, and the next, has been Mr A. J. Sweeting. He was lent to me from the A.I.F. in 1944 when he was a young veteran of one Middle Eastern and two New Guinea campaigns and has worked on the history since then. He has been responsible for the index, the biographical footnotes, the preparation of the typescript for the printer, and much correspondence and checking. Beside him has been Mr John Balfour, his senior, who was on Dr Bean's staff from 1919 until 1942 and on mine from 1946, and has been the tutor of all the assistants who have worked on volumes of this history. All of us owe much to my secretary, Miss Mary Gilchrist, who has steered our organisation through its administrative problems and also done much of the typing when it presented special difficulties. I was lucky to have Mr Hugh Groser, both artist and draughtsman, as cartographer; more of his work will be seen in later volumes.


4th July 1951.



FROM 31 MARCH 1939 TO 25 MARCH 1941

Events described in this volume are printed in italics

1939 31 Mar The British Prime Minister announces British and French guarantees to Poland
  23 Aug Russo-German pact of non-aggression signed
  1 Sept German army invades Poland
  3 Sept Britain and France declare war on Germany;
  Australia and New Zealand declare war on Germany
  29 Sept Russo-German treaty partitioning Poland
  30 Sept Russia invades Finland
1940 9 Jan First A.I.F. contingent embarks
  10 May German army invades Holland and Belgium
  4 June Embarkation from Dunkirk completed
  10 June Italy declares war
  22 June France signs armistice with Germany
  10 July- Battle of Britain
  13 Sept Italian army invades Egypt
  22-23 Sept Japanese occupy bases in Indo-China
  28 Oct Italian army invades Greece
  11-12 Nov Fleet Air Arm attacks Italian naval base at Taranto
  9 Dec Battle of Sidi Barrani begins
  18 Dec Hitler directs that preparations be made to attack Russia
1941 3-5 Jan Battle of Bardia
  21-22 Jan Battle of Tobruk
  30 Jan Australians enter Derna
  6 Feb Australians enter Benghazi
  18 Feb Australian troops arrive at Singapore
  22-24 Feb Athens conference on British aid to Greece
  11 Mar Lend-Lease bill signed by President of United States
  21 Mar Australians capture Giarabub
  25 Mar Keren falls


Transcribed and formatted by Szymon Dabrowski for the HyperWar Foundation