Australians who served overseas in World War Two were all volunteers.
Recruiting poster for the Australian Imperial Force showing civilian, uniform, rifle; holding Army uniform and rifle, newscutting referring to AIF’s fighting prowess in background. Australian soldiers in World War One had been ferocious soldiers. Often combined with New Zealand units and referred to as ANZACS.
Australian soldiers in North Africa looking over a JU-87D shot down in the Western Desert.
The Stuka, as this plane was known, was already obsolete when the war broke out although it was used to deadly effectiveness in the Blitzkrieg against Poland and France as “flying artillery.” Nonetheless, with a fixed under carriage, the plane only averaged 240 miles per hour which meant it could only be employed if the Germans had full control of the air.
In the Battle of Britain, the Stukas proved so vulnerable to RAF fighters that they had to be withdrawn from service in the West.
Australian troops fighting with the British 8th Army made heroic contributions to Allied campaigns in North Africa, Crete, Greece and the Italian Campaign. According to the official Australian history of World War Two, 9,572 Australians were killed in action fighting against Nazi Germany (and Italy). More than twice that number, 17,501 were killed in action fighting the Japanese.
Many photos from the British campaign in North Africa were taken by Australians because Australian forces were employed in the Western Desert campaign as part of the British Eighth Army. Great Britain had appealed to the self-governing Dominions (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa) to send troops to bolster the British Army.
The dominions complied with the proviso they could get their soldiers back if they needed them. Further, all the soldiers who served overseas were volunteers. As brutal as the war became, there was never a shortage of volunteers from the Dominions to fight the Third Reich.
While kept in separate units in the army, Aussies and Kiwis who joined the Royal Air Force or Royal Navy and were mixed in with everyone else.
Australian soldiers on a wrecked German Ju 87B Stuka dive bomber, Libya, circa 1941
While still provoking controversy today, British generals considered Imperial and Commonwealth troops to be far better assault troops than the average British divisions. Actually, they considered them better assault troops than any British divisions with the exception of elite British forces such as the Guards Armored Brigade, composed of men from the Royal Household troops. (These are the soldiers who stand guard in redcoats at Buckingham Palace and other places).
The Australians were favored over all dominion troops except for the New Zealanders who were thought by many generals and policy makers in London to be the toughest fighting troops in the British Empire. Sadly, it was the very small Dominion of New Zealand which suffered the highest number of men killed in action as a percentage of their male population than any other Dominion or colony.
Australian troops moving up to the front lines during the Battle of Tobruk
An Australian light machine gun team in action during the Aitape–Wewak campaign, June 1945
(All photographs and the recruiting poster courtesy of the collection of the Australian War Memorial).