Australia’s War: 80 years ago this week

A weekly presentation on the operations of Australian forces and changes to Australia’s strategic position, this week, 80 years ago.

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.