09/07/2009 - 00:00

Wartime contributions remembered

09/07/2009 - 00:00


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A major analysis of Australia’s wartime army units will be released soon.

IT'S so easily forgotten that the 20th century gave us several pivotal dates from its two drawn-out global wars that nearly destroyed Western civilisation.

Undoubtedly the most significant are: Armistice Day (November 11 1918); VE Day (May 8 1945); and VJ or VP Day (August 15 1945).

Australians and New Zealanders have added Anzac Day to recall their battlefield debut of April 25 1915.

Few Australians are likely to realise that another such day was recently added to commemorate what is called the Battle for Australia and that it falls on the first Wednesday of September.

So far, Battle for Australia Day has only been commemorated once - in 2008 - since former Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, proclaimed it on June 26 last year.

When announcing it, Veterans' Affairs Minister Alan Griffin said this meant the Rudd government had delivered on a Labor Party election promise.

"Battle for Australia Day will commemorate the service and sacrifice of all those who served in defence of Australia in 1942 and 1943 when we faced the gravest threats to our nation," Mr Griffin said.

"This national day of observance will provide tangible recognition and greater community awareness of the contribution to Australia's freedom and democracy of those who fought in the Battle for Australia.

"There were direct attacks on the Australian mainland, particularly in Darwin, and battles in the Coral Sea and Papua and New Guinea, including Milne Bay and the Kokoda Track."

Wyndham, Kalumburu Mission, Broome, Port Hedland, Exmouth, and Onslow were also bombed, with a West Timor-based Japanese reconnaissance unit even landing in the Kimberley, north of Derby.

The first Wednesday of each September was not selected because it was during the first week of that month in 1939 that Adolf Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland.

Rather, veterans chose that Wednesday because it represents the first defeat of Japanese forces on land in the Battle of Milne Bay.

State Scene most certainly welcomes this belated recalling of the defence of Australia by so many patriotic Australians, with crucial American and Dutch assistance.

Australians rarely hear of the likely fate awaiting them if things had been different.

There would certainly have been a puppet government emerging in Canberra, and colonial enslavement within the orbit of the Hideki Tojo-dominated Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, where genocide or death through toil were distinct possibilities.

Genocide was, of course, mercilessly inflicted upon European Jewry, with men, women, children and even infants, murdered on mass.

And although few realise it, that's what was intended for Poles - indeed all Slavs - under Adolf Hitler's and Heinrich Himmler's top secret Generalplan Ost, which, fortunately, could not be realised even though it was launched on November 28 1942, with the ethnic cleansing of my mother's village of Skierbieszów in eastern Poland.

Generalplan Ost envisaged mass deportations of all Eastern Europe's Slavs into the frozen wastelands of Western Siberia over a 25-year period, with their lands gradually settled by so-called Aryans following a series of major mopping-up actions, after the Wehrmacht's anticipated victories in the pivotal Battles for Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad.

Moreover, the forcible expulsion of tens of millions of Slavs could have easily been replaced by the gassing option as applied to many million of European Jews under the cover name, Aktion Reinhardt, to disguise it in bureaucratic correspondence.

Since Hitler's Reich and Tojo's Imperial Japan were allies, one cannot discount the likelihood of exchanges of ideas on how Australia's exploitation could best be undertaken.

Death marches were certainly resorted to by both Axis powers.

Anything is possible for conquering victors, as the 1937 Japanese Rape of Nanking so vividly showed. Casualties during that act of mass carnage exceeded 250,000.

Coincidentally, last month I met, at Mosman Park's fascinating Buckland Hill wartime tunnels complex, Perth military historian Graham McKenzie-Smith, author of three publications in my posession: Defending Fremantle, Albany and Bunbury, 1939 to 1945; Australia's Forgotten Army, Vol.1, The Ebb and Flow of the Australian Army in Western Australia - 1941 to 1945; and Australia's Forgotten Army, Vol. 2, Defending the Northern Gateways - Northern Territory and Torres Strait - 1938 to 1945.

Four years ago, Mr McKenzie-Smith embarked on what can only be described as a monumental task, one for which future generations of Australia will be greatly indebted to him.

Called the 'unit guide project', it will identify for researchers and interested readers every Australian Army unit including their whereabouts at particular times during World War II.

The guide will be published in four volumes, each more than 800 pages, and will be the definitive reference on where and when Australia's 850,000 or so army servicemen and women were serving on the home and overseas fronts from when war broke out in September 1939 until VJ or VP Day, 1945.

His basic research source for all units has been their war diaries, most of which are preserved.

"Because the diaries for some units have been lost, I've had to locate various other primary sources to identify and determine their movements over the war years," Mr McKenzie-Smith said.

The project is further complicated by the fact that many units had several name changes during the six-year-long war.

All up the project will identify and locate 5,500 wartime army units and sub-units under their varying designations.

Researchers or anyone wishing to determine where a family member served either during the Battle for Australia or overseas campaigns will soon be able to access this information easily and quickly.

Mr McKenzie-Smith said that he'd identified a large number of units and sub-units people were unlikely to immediately associate with a wartime armed force.

Among the more unusual are army-owned radio stations, mobile cinemas, concert party organising teams, army-owned and operated farms and fishing ventures, as well as printing, stationary, bathing, and even messenger pigeon units.

He expects his first volume, which includes details on all the Australian Army's infantry, cavalry/armoured, intelligence, provost, recruiting, transit, training, and prisoner-of-war recovery units, to be published early next year, with the other three volumes to be released by late 2012.

"What most civilians do not perhaps fully appreciate is that an army, especially a fighting one like Australia's from 1939 to 1945, includes all civilian occupations - from recruiting, outfitting, feeding, transporting, comprehensive medical care to undertakers and grave diggers," Mr McKenzie-Smith said.

"There's far more to an army than simply marching people off to war."


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