Australia’s Military History For Dummies
More people are taking a greater interest in Australia’s military history. Australians have been involved in war for a variety of reasons and in many places since soon after white settlement. Australian military and police have also taken part in numerous peacekeeping missions around the world.
Australia’s Military History Pre-Federation
From shortly after white settlement to Federation, Australians have been involved in military activity in many places and for a variety of reasons. Prior to Federation, Australians fought in Australia as well as abroad.
Australia, 1788–1900. Very minor battles took place at Vinegar Hill (against rebelling prisoners) in 1804 and Eureka Stockade (against rebelling miners) in 1854. The Frontier War took place against the Aborigines from soon after settlement to the 1920s.
New Zealand, 1860, 1863‒64. The Victorian ship Victoria served off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island in 1860. Australian volunteers served in locally raised British units in the New Zealand wars along the Waikato River, south of Auckland, during 1863‒64.
Sudan, 1885. New South Wales sent a contingent, under Colonel John Richardson, to assist British forces in Sudan. They saw little action.
Boxer Rebellion, 1900. A naval brigade, consisting of sailors acting as soldiers, from New South Wales and Victoria, served in China.
South Africa, 1899‒1902. As many as 20,000 Australians fought in South Africa against the Boers. Significant battles included Sunnyside, Slingersfontein, Pink Hill, Diamond Hill, Koster River, Eland’s River (all in 1900) and Wilmansrust (a defeat in 1901).
Australia’s Military History during the First World War, 1914‒18
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Australia was a self-governing nation but still firmly supported Britain. Many citizens felt that war would be a way of demonstrating the mettle of the new nation. During the First World War more than 330,000 troops served overseas as part of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Major campaigns were:
Gallipoli 1915. As part of the Anzac Corps under Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. Key battles included Helles (May 1915) and Lone Pine, the Nek and Hill 60 (August 1915).
Palestine 1916‒18. The Australian Light Horse served as part of the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions under Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel in the Sinai, Palestine and Syria. Significant battles were Romani (August 1916), the charge at Beersheba (October 1917), the Es Salt raids (March to April 1918), and the capture of Damascus (September to October 1918).
Western Front 1916‒18. Five Australian infantry divisions fought in many battles in northern France and Flanders (Belgium) including Fromelles (July 1916), Pozières (July to August 1916), Bullecourt (April to May 1917), Messines (June 1917), 3rd Ypres (September to October 1917), Dernancourt (April 1918), Villers-Bretonneux (April 1918), Hamel (July 1918), Amiens (August 1918) and Mont St Quentin (August 1918). Lieutenant General Sir John Monash commanded the Australian Corps in the successful battles between June and the end of the war in November 1918.
The new Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was relatively small. Its most significant action was the sinking of the German raider, Emden, by HMAS Sydney in November 1914. A small naval and military expedition seized German New Guinea in September 1914.
Australia’s Participation in the Second World War, 1939‒45
During the Second World War Australia sent contingents from the three services to assist the British Empire in Europe and the Middle East, and then fought with the allies in the Pacific. Major theatres of war were:
Middle East and Mediterranean, 1940‒42. Key naval battles were HMAS Sydney sinking an Italian cruiser (July 1940), Australian ships fighting in the battle of Crete (May 1941) and the resupply of Tobruk (April to November 1941). Troops from the 2nd AIF, under General Sir Thomas Blamey, fought in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria. Significant battles were Bardia (January 1941), Tobruk (January and April to October 1941), Greece withdrawal (April 1941), the defence of Crete (May 1941), Merjayoun (June 1941), Damour (July 1941) and El Alamein (July and October to November 1942).
Europe 1940‒45. Based mainly in Britain, Australian airmen served in British Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Commands, operating over Germany and other countries. Australian airmen also served in North Africa, Syria and Italy.
Pacific 1941‒45. Australian troops served in Malaya, Java, Timor, Ambon, New Guinea and Borneo. Major land battles included Muar (January 1942), Singapore (February 1942), Kokoda Trail (August to October 1942), Milne Bay (August to September 1942), Buna, Gona, Sanananda (November 1942 to January 1943), Wau (January 1943), advance to Salamaua (April to September 1943), Lae (September 1943), Finschhafen‒Sattelberg (September to November 1943), Shaggy Ridge (October 1943 to March 1944), Slater’s Knoll (March 1945), Wewak (May 1945), Tarakan (May to June 1945), Brunei‒Labuan (June to August 1945) and Balikpapan (July to August 1945).
The RAN fought numerous battles including Sunda Strait (February 1942), Coral Sea (May 1942), Savo Island (August 1942), Leyte Gulf (October 1944) and Lingayen Gulf (January 1945). The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) supported the Allied campaigns throughout and its most noteworthy battle was in the Bismarck Sea in March 1943. Between April 1942 and August 1945, the Australian forces were under the command of US General Douglas MacArthur.
Australia’s Involvement in the Cold War — Korea, Malaya, Malaysia and Vietnam
As a member of the Western Alliance, Australia fought in two of the biggest conflicts of the Cold War — the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Australian forces also supported Britain in Malaya and assisted Britain and Malaysia against Indonesia.
Korean War, 1950‒53. Australia sent contingents from the three services to fight with the United Nations in Korea. Most of the UN force was American, but with contingents from other countries. The 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) served from September 1951 to July 1953. Significant battles were Kapyong (April 1951) and Maryan San (October 1951).
Malaya, 1950‒60. Australia sent units from the three services to assist Britain and the Malayan Government fight Communist Terrorists in the Malayan Emergency. Australian battalions served on rotation for periods of two years beginning in 1955. There were no major battles and only a few ambushes and patrol clashes.
Malaysia, 1965‒66. Australian forces assisted Britain and Malaysia in countering Indonesia’s Confrontation with Malaysia. Two Australian battalions, two Special Air Service (SAS) squadrons and several engineer squadrons served in Borneo. There were several deadly ambushes and patrol clashes, but no major battles.
South Vietnam, 1962‒72. Australian forces assisted South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War. In 1962 Australia sent army advisers. In 1965 a battalion was deployed. The following year this battalion was replaced by a task force with two and later three battalions operating in Phuoc Tuy Province. The RAAF sent helicopters, Canberra Bombers and Caribou transport aircraft. The RAN generally had a ship operating offshore. Major battles were Long Tan (August 1966), Coral‒Balmoral (May 1968) and Binh Ba (June 1969).
Australia’s Military History in the 1990s and the 21st Century
After 1990 Australia again started sending troops overseas for combat operations, although on a much smaller scale than in earlier wars. The Australian forces were part of coalition operations, generally led by the United States.
Gulf War, 1991. Australia sent mainly ships to assist the US-led coalition in the war with Iraq. There were no Australian deaths.
Afghanistan, 2001‒02. Australia sent units from the three services to assist the United States. The SAS took part in several fierce battles.
Iraq War 2003. Australia sent units from the three services to assist the US-led coalition in the invasion of Iraq. The SAS had several small battles but there were no Australian deaths.
Iraq 2005‒09. Australia sent units from the three services to assist the US-led coalition maintain security in a vicious guerrilla war, but there were no Australian combat deaths.
Afghanistan, 2005‒present. Australia sent units from the three services to assist the force organised by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The major Australian contribution was engineers, special operations troops and small numbers of infantry. There had been 16 deaths by June 2010.
Australia’s Involvement in Peacekeeping Missions, 1947‒2010
Australian military and police have taken part in numerous peacekeeping missions around the world. The largest single deployment was as part of INTERFET in East Timor in 1999‒2000. Peacekeeping missions have included:
Middle East (Israel and its neighbours, 1956‒present)
Persian Gulf (1990‒present)
Western Sahara (1991‒94)
Bougainville (1994, 1998‒2003)
East Timor (1999‒2005, 2006‒present)