Australia in WWII

By Bethannie Lappin

Australian war

Almost a million Australians, both men and women, served in the Second World War. They fought in campaigns against Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, as well as against Japan in south-east Asia and other parts of the Pacific. The Australian mainland came under direct attack for the first time, as Japanese aircraft bombed towns in north-west Australia and Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney harbour.


On 7 May 1945 the German High Command authorised the signing of an unconditional surrender on all fronts: the war in Europe was over. The surrender was to take effect at midnight on 8–9 May 1945. On 14 August 1945 Japan accepted of the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. For Australia it meant that the Second World War was finally over.


Forced to repel a Japanese invasion force, which landed at Gona on the north coast of Papua on 21 July 1942, the Australians fought in appalling conditions over the next four months. The Japanese objective was to capture Port Moresby, the main Australian base in New Guinea, by an overland strike across the Owen Stanley Range. The most direct way across these rugged mountains was by a jungle pathway known as the Kokoda Track.

Anzac Legend

In July 1942 Australia had just two Militia brigades in Port Moresby, the administrative centre of Papua. In that month the Japanese landed troops at Buna and Gona on the Papuan north coast and in the following month they landed another force at Milne Bay.

The barrier between the Japanese forces in the north and Port Moresby on the south coast was the Owen Stanley Range - a steep, rugged series of mountains crossed only by a few foot tracks, the most important of which was the Kokoda [Track]. At the end of June, one thousand Militiamen, ‘Maroubra’ force, had been ordered to hold Kokoda and its airfield against any possible Japanese attack - but this proved an impossible task.

Japanese Advance

As the Kokoda fighting began in July 1942 the strategy of both sides was in transition. The Japanese felt that they had overextended themselves in their advance and it was time to halt and defend their gains. The Allies were thinking the opposite. Having massed troops, ships, aircraft and supplies in Australia and New Zealand, they decided to launch a counterattack to retake some of the islands now occupied by the Japanese.

The Tai-Burma railway

The Thai–Burma railway (known also as the Burma–Thailand or Burma–Siam railway) was built in 1942–43. Its purpose was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes which had become vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

Anzac Legend

In the decades since 1945 prisoners of war and the Thai–Burma railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia’s national memory of war. There are good reasons for this. Over 22 000 Australians were captured by the Japanese in South East Asia. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation.

Manpower controls

As more men and women volunteered and were drafted for military service abroad, the government was faced with a dire shortage of labour for all industries. Australia was faced with a shortage of resources and human labour.

At the outbreak of war, there were few structures in place to control the Australian workforce and direct its production energies. Some jobs, such as engineers and munitions producers, had been reserved. People who were occupied in these professions and trades were not allowed to enlist. This was, however, the extent of the government's control over the economy.

The effects

Australians began to experience shortages of almost everything they needed in daily life. At the time of World War II, most of them drank tea, not coffee. When the Japanese captured many of the countries that grew the tea supplied to Australia, this caused severe shortages. Enemy action in the Pacific also disrupted the normal supply of goods by ship to Australia. Australian troops abroad had to be supplied with food produced in Australia, and when thousands of American troops arrived in Australia to fight the war in the Pacific, they also had to be fed.


The involvement of Australian women in each war is closely connected to their role in society at different times, and the nature of each war.

On the home front, women dealt with the consequences of war – managing children and family responsibilities alone, shortages of resources, as well as their fears for the future, and the grief and trauma of losing loved ones. Many women were also actively involved as nurses and in other active service duties, and contributed more actively to war efforts through military service. Other Australian women were also closely connected with war through male relatives and friends away on military service. In World War II, women were actively recruited into jobs that had always been the preserve of men; they worked in factories and shipyards, as members of the Women's Land Army and as Official War Artists.

Womens impacts

Women's lives changed in many ways during World War II. As with most wars, many women found their roles and opportunities -- and responsibilities -- expanded. Husbands went to war or went to work in factories in other parts of the country, and the wives had to pick up their husbands' responsibilities. With fewer men in the workforce, women filled more traditionally-male jobs. In the military, women were excluded from combat duty, so women were called on to fill some jobs that men had performed, to free men for combat duty. Some of those jobs took women near or into combat zones, and sometimes combat came to civilian areas, so some women died.