Australia’s War: 1941

A weekly presentation on the operations of Australian forces and changes to Australia’s strategic position in 1941.

Pearl Harbour, The Warnings and What Became of Them.

8 December 1941

The Japanese Avalanche crashes down on the Pacific and South East Asia.

1 to 7 December 1941

Australians taking up positions in Malaya, New Guinea and The Netherlands East Indies. Crusader continues in North Africa with both sides approaching exhaustion. Prince of Wales and Repulse reach Singapore. Reconnaissance, Signal Intercepts and Radar detect Japanese forces moving south but the whereabouts of the Aircraft carriers is unknown. Efforts to reinforce the Philippines continue. In Hawaii the Army exercises.

24 to 30 November 1941

Cunningham is demoralised by his tank losses and is relieved by Auchinleck. The Allies continue some successes against Axis shipping in the Mediterranean but the Germans sink Parramatta, Sydney, Dunedin and Barham. The war in North Africa continues. Rommel continues his adventurous tactics but achieves no significant results. Australian troops are drawn into the fighting round Tobruk again despite the best efforts of three Australian Prime Ministers over 6 months. Japan decides on war and issues plans. Informed by decrypted intercepts the Americans issue War Warnings.

17 to 23 November 1941

The British Launch Operation Crusader. The air war in Europe is supressed by winter weather. Negotiations between Japan and the USA continue in Washington while the US builds up its forces in the Philippines as fast as possible. HMAS Sydney fails to arrive in Fremantle. The Tobruk garrison break out of the perimeter but suffer heavy losses. In very confused fighting around the Sidi Razegh airstrip the British lose the tank battle which was the basis of the Crusader plan.

20 October to 16 November 1941

The Russians are on the outskirts of Moscow but seem to be making no more progress. An American destroyer is sunk by a U-Boat and America inches closer to war. The final relief of the Australians in Tobruk is delayed by the sinking of the Latona. The British prepare to attack in North Africa. The Germans are battling to supply their forces in North Africa and the British are battling to supply their forces in Malta. The Japanese are preparing to attack in the Pacific. The British, Americans and Australians are all sending as much as they dare divert from the war in Europe to Malaya and the Philippines. HMAS Sydney left Fremantle to escort Zealandia to Sunda Strait.

13 to 19 October 1941 and Wrap up of the Battle of the Atlantic and Decyphering Enigma.

The relief of the 9th Division from Tobruk and the debate about it continues. Curtin takes up the debate. The United States inches closer to war in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Japanese civilian Government resigns and is replaced by a Government lead by General Tojo. Australia is alarmed by a Japanese move into Portuguese Timor. There is a major convoy battle in the Atlantic.

1 to 12 October 1941

The Soviet Supply Protocols are signed and welcomed by M. Molotov. The Air War across the English Channel continues. The two independents cross the floor to remove the hapless UAP-Country Party government of Arthur Fadden and to install John Curtin, of the Australian Labour Party, as Prime Minister of Australia. President Roosevelt authorizes the US Army to “deliver aircraft to the Netherlands East Indies and Australia” and to construct the facilities needed for effecting such delivery. Churchill continues the debate about the relief of the 9th Division. Fighting continues at a low level at Tobruk and on the Egyptian frontier.

September 1941

The air war continues. The Luftwaffe attacks Tobruk, Fighter command and the light bombers attack targets in France, Bomber Command attacks targets in Germany and Coastal command searches for U boats. None achieve conspicuous success and all incurr casualties. Blamey and Fadden continue an extensive negotiation with Auchinleck and Churchill for the relief of the AIF in Tobruk. By the end of the month two brigades have been relieved two remain. The war in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea across the supply routes to North Africa continue. The US Army Air Force flies B17s into the Philippines via Port Moresby and Darwin. President Roosevelt sets about to make sure the Allies have the weapons and supplies to achieve Victory. Rommel’s latest unauthorised action outruns his means and he has to return to his start line. Efforts to reinforce Malaya are frustrated by the universal shortage of forces and equipment.

The Emergence of Japan 1853 to 1941

18th to 31st August

A damning report on the effectiveness of British bombing. The 18th Brigade AIF is relieved from Tobruk by the Poles. The RAN takes a prominent part in the naval attack on Persia in support of the Russian – Indian invasion. Churchill and the Admiralty debate the makeup of a fleet for Singapore. Menzies is replaced as Prime Minister by Fadden. The 8th Division takes over the defence of Johore in Malaya. No. 452 Squadron RAAF is the highest scoring squadron in Fighter Command. A change in the strategy for the defence of the Philippines.

11th to 17th August

The Atlantic Charter. Background on some of the decision makers. 27th Brigade lands in Malaya. The 18th Brigade is to be relieved from Tobruk. Roosevelt Warns Japan. The air war continues in Europe.

28th July to 10th August

Reactions to the Japanese occupation of Indochina and the American freezing of Japanese assets. The air war in Europe builds up. Roosevelt and Churchill meet in the Atlantic.

7th to 27th July 1941

Cut off from reinforcements and facing growing allied forces the Vichy French surrender in Syria. Australian EATS squadrons start offensive operations in Europe. The Japanese move into Indo-China and Roosevelt imposes sanctions. The first casualties in Australia.

16th June to 6th July 1941

The Japanese are seen to be considering their future actions in the light of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. The war in Syria continues the Allies bring in more forces and make slow progress. The introduction of Australian EATS airmen to the European theatre and the build up of the bombing campaign make very slow progress. VCs are awarded for the actions of Hughie Edwards and Roden Cutler.

23rd to 29th June 1941

In Syria, despite determined attacking, little progress was made in very difficult country. Wavell had ordered up the 23rd Australian Brigade from Egypt to strengthen the attack and two Brigades of the 10th Indian Division were preparing to join in the attack from Iraq.

Morshead’s prescription to counter the disappointment at the failure of efforts to relieve Tobruk was hard work. The construction of field works by units in reserve was intensified. In the front line active patrolling and raids were encouraged still further.

Supplying the fortress continued a challenge. In June there was a fuel crisis. On 24th June the sloops Auckland and Paramatta, escorting the tanker Pass of Balmaha once more to Tobruk, were attacked by torpedo-bombers, then by forty eight dive-bombers. The Auckland was sunk, and the Pass of Balmaha—badly damaged—was towed in by H.M.A.S. Waterhen. On 29th June, when once more proceeding to Tobruk, Waterhen, the old “Chook”, was herself sunk by bombs.

The U.S. was energetically producing arms and ammunition for its allies overseas. Despite the boom in manufacturing this brought, African Americans were barred from working in defense plants. Racial tensions rose as Black labor leaders and their white allies began organizing protests and marches. To combat this social unrest, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act) on 25 June 1941. The order came three days after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, at which time the Communist Party quickly directed its members to get behind the draft and forbade participation in strikes for the duration of the war.

16th to 22 June 1941

On 22nd June 1941 in a massive escalation of the War about three million men of the Axis powers—the largest invasion force in the history of warfare—invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer front, with 600,000 motor vehicles and over 600,000 horses. The initial momentum of the German ground and air attack completely destroyed the Soviet organizational command and control within the first few hours. The Luftwaffe reportedly destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of the invasion.

In the Western Desert The British achieved mixed results on the second day of Battleaxe, being pushed back on their western flank and repulsing a big German counter-attack in the centre. On the third day, the British narrowly avoided disaster by withdrawing just ahead of a German encircling movement.

In Syria in the centre, after the retreat from Merdjayoun Allied troops successfully defended the pass leading back to Palestine. The eastern column continued the advance on Damascus despite the threat to its rear from the Vichy counterattack. Damascus surrendered on 21 June. 

9th to 15th June 1941

In Syria the coastal column advances to Sidon, the eastern column advances close to Damascus. The central column makes little progress and gets thrown back in disarray by a French counter attack on the 15th. The Australian government decides to send another Brigade group to Malaya. Western Desert Force launches Operation Battleaxe, two out of the three columns make no progress at all. There are reports of major Japanese troop movements southwards on the China coast.

2nd to 8th June 1941

Review of the outcome of the Battle for Crete. Intelligence and the plan for the invasion of Syria. The first day of the invasion.

26th May to 1st June 1941

A decision is taken to evacuate Crete. A Catalina finds the Bismark and Ark Royal’s aircraft torpedoe it and slow it down. Captain Vian’s destroyers maintain contact over night and the Home Fleet’s battleships come up in the morning and destroy it. The force at Heraklion and most of the combat units are evacuated. 5,000 base troops at Sfakia and the whole of the force at Retimo, out of food and ammunition are compelled to surrender.A cruiser and two destroyers were sunk and an aircraft carrier, a battleship three cruisers and two destroyers were damaged during the evacuation.

19th to 25th May 1941

German Airborn forces invade Crete on an enormous scale. They force the New Zealand Division off Maleme airfield and sart flying in reinforcements, heavy weapons and supplies. The Bismark sinks the Hood and escapes into the Atlantic. The ground war in Iraq and the air war in Syria rumble on at low level. Australian efforts to procure effective aircraft for the home defence RAAF squadrons continue to be frustrated by a world wide shortage of aircraft.

12th to 18th May 1941

The Tiger convoy lands 238 tanks and 43 crated Hurricanes at Alexandria. War breaks out in Syria. The British attack on the Egyptian frontier in Operation Brevity but achieve only very limited success. Operations, real and deceptive, are mounted in Tobruk to distract the enemy from Brevity. The war against supplies in the Mediterranean continues. Preparations continue in Crete as intelligence predicts an imminent attack.

5th to 11th May 1941

The campaign in East Africa comes to a successful conclusion. War breaks out in Iraq and looms in Syria. The Allies prepare to defend Crete. Both sides attack the opposition logistics in the Mediterranean, the British with submarines and ships, the Germans from the air. The Tiger convoy runs the gauntlet through the Mediterranean and loses one ship out of five in the Sicilian narrows. The British at Habbaniya forced the Iraqis back from the airfield and the flying column from Jordan captured Rutbah. In Britain the first EATS RAAF fighter squadron is formed. Low level operations continued around the Salient at Tobruk. The raider Pinguin is found and sunk in the Indian Ocean.

28th April to 4th May 1941

Final withdawals from Greece, 45,000 troops are got away, 14,000 are captured. 25,000 men and General Freyberg are landed on Crete with only the clothes they wore and the weapons they carried. The 9th Australian Division with supporting British artillery and tank units fight off a serious German attack on Tobruk. The strategic debate on Crete determined that Freyberg would have to do the best he could with what he had.

21st to 27th April 1941

Both sides mount raids at Tobruk and the defenders continue to dig in. The Greek army capitulates and the government withdraws to Crete.The British/Commonwealth force in Greece withdraws from the Thermopylae line and starts to evacuate. The Germans build up their air attacks in Greece, on shipping and at Tobruk and drop paratroops at the Corinth Canal. Many ships are sunk with over a thousand dead.

14th to 20th April 1941

The first German attack on Tobruk is quickly defeated and significant casualties are inflicted on the attackers. The CinCs decide Greece must be evacuated. The British/Commonwealth force in Greece withdraws from the Aliakmon line to the Thermopylai line. Most units retire without contact with the enemy but the Australian 16th Brigade and New Zealand 21st Battalion suffer heavy casualties resisting strong German attacks at the Pinios Gorge. The navy inflicts a serious defeat on Rommel’s supply line in the battle of the Tarigo Convoy. Yugoslavia surrenders. The British decide to run a convoy carrying tank reinforcrments to Egypt through the Mediterranean instead of round the Cape.

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7th to 13th April 1941

The Germans advance into Greece through Yugoslavia and the Greek eastern armies capitulate. The Australian 9th Division withdraws into the Tobruk fortress and prepares to defend it. The remains of the British armoured division retreat to the Egyptian frontier. The Australian 6th Division moves to new positions in Greece, marching and digging in at high altitudes in the snow. The 19th Brigade fights a delaying action to give the rest of the Allied armies time to withdraw to stronger positions. They achieve the delay required but suffer very high losses. Yugoslavia collapses. Japan and the Soviet Union sign a Non Aggression Pact. The First German thrusts at Tobruk were repelled.

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31st March to 6th April 1941

The Germans attack in Libya. British forces are forced to withdraw, suffering heavy losses of tanks mainly from mechanical unreliability. British command and control systems break down transforming the withdrawal into a rout. Two British Generals are captured. The Australian 9th Division withdraws in good order, fighting two rearguard actions and are withdrawing into Tobruk at the end of the week. Germany invades Yugoslavia and Greece on the 6th April.

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24th to 30th March 1941

The Italian Navy is decisively defeated at the Battle of Cape Matapan. The Yugoslav government threw in its lot with Hitler and signed the Tripartite Pact but was then overthrown in a Coup D’Etat. The slow build up of Allied forces in Greece continues while the Allies attempt to form some coherent plan of defence against the threatened German invasion.Vichy France conceded the Japanese unrestricted access to Indochinese airfields and harbours. The 9th Division AIF was concentrated in Libya. The anti submarine war continues in the Atlantic.

17th to 23rd March 1941

Morshead negotiates relief of 20th Brigade from the front line in Libya. The 16th Brigade goes to Greece. The 18th Brigade takes Giarrabub. No 10 Squadron is put temporarily out of action by two air raids. Increased indications of a German offensive in Libya.

10th to 16th March 1941

Blamey’s advice on the Greece expedition. Roosevelt signs the Lend Lease bill. The New Zealand Division moves to Greece. The 18th Brigade AIF prepares to attack Giarabub. Indications of an enemy build up in Libya are detected.

3rd to 9th March 1941

The plan for the expedition to Greece is revisited and revised and finally authorised in London again on very imperfect information. General Blamey belatedly seeks to advise the Australian government. The 9th Division AIF reaches the front in Libya. The war at sea goes on in the Indian Ocean as well as the Atlantic.

24th February to 2nd March 1941

The Australian and New Zealand governments approve the dispatch of their forces to Greece based on very imperfect information. The 8th Division AIF was retained for use in the Far East. Allied forces in Libya were thinned out to match logistics capability and to provide the more experienced forces for Greece. There are signs of Axis forces in Libya building up and becoming more aggressive. Allied navies have a win against surface raiders.

17th to 23rd February 1941

The Luftwaffe attacks the Australians’ logistics in North Africa. The RAN searches fruitlessly for a German surface raider in the Indian Ocean. A Brigade of the AIF land in Singapore. In Greece the desire to support a gallant ally is confused by wild schemes for a Balkan Front and both outrun the resources available.

10th to 16th February 1941

The Advance in North Africa is halted and the switch of forces to Greece is prepared. Churchill and Eden press for action in Greece. Menzies visits the AIF and the RAN in North Africa. Individual Australians are involved in widespread fierce action at sea against air, surface and U boat forces. In Washington Roosevelt advances the Lend Lease program. Incudes links to video.

3rd to 9th February 1941

The 6th Division takes Benghazi. The 7th Armoured Division cuts the Italians escape route at Sidi Saleh and captures the remains of the Italian 10th Army. General Marshal reacts to intelligence from Japan. Some personalities of the campaign. Includes links to video.

27th January to 2nd February 1941

The 6th Division takes Derna. Troubling intelligence of Japanese intentions and capability. The air sea war in the Western Approaches to the UK continues. Includes links to video.

20th to 26th January 1941

The 6th Division AIF, with the Infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, storm and capture Tobruk, 25,000 Italian prisoners and masses of weapons and stores.

13th to 19th January 1941

The immediate dispatch of forces to Greece is rejected by the Greeks. The debate on forces for Malaya continues. The 6th Division builds up in front of Tobruk.

6th to 12th January 1941

President Roosevelt unveils the Lend Lease concept. The level of forces for Malaya is debated. The Australian 6th Division moves forward to Tobruk and prepares for the assault.

30th December 1940 to 5th January 1941 and an Introduction to the War in the Middle East

The Australian 6th Division supported by the Matilda tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment storms Bardia capturing 36,000 Italians and huge quantities of weapons, vehicles and supplies.

The Strategic background to the War in the Middle East.

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