Formed in October 1939 the 2/2nd Battalion became part of the 16th Brigade, 6th Division, part of the all-volunteer Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The battalion adopted the same colors for its unit color patch as the 2nd Battalion, a unit with World War I service, choosing purple over green in a horizontal rectangular shape, with a grey border added to distinguish it from its Militia counterpart. Its motto was Nulli Secundus (Second to None).

With an authorized strength of around 900 personnel, the battalion, like other Australian infantry battalions at the time, was organised around four rifle companies (designated ‘A’ through ‘D’), each consisting of three platoons. Raised at Victoria Barracks, Sydney, the battalion moved to Ingleburn Army Camp for basic training almost immediately. In early 1940, the battalion was deployed to the Middle East, arriving in Egypt in mid-February and completing training in Palestine.

Corporal W Ryan of the 2/2nd Battalion in Palestine, 1940. He is talking with Hanna Bisharat, who fought alongside Corporal Ryan’s father and other Australian Light Horseman in 1918.

In January 1941, the 2/2nd participated in the Battle of Bardia and later contributed to the Capture of Tobruk. March 1941 saw the 6th Division sent to Greece, ahead of the expected German invasion. The battalion engaged in a critical delaying action at Tempe Gorge, also known as Pinios Gorge. Following the campaign, most of the battalion was evacuated to Palestine, but around 200 members participated in the Battle of Crete in May 1941. After the fighting on Crete, the 2/2nd was rebuilt and sent to Syria, where it undertook garrison duties from October 1941 to January 1942. The Australian Government requested its return following Japan’s entry into the war.

On the way back to Australia, the 2/2nd Battalion, along with the rest of the 16th and 17th Brigades, was diverted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to defend against a potential Japanese invasion. After successfully fulfilling this role until July, the battalion continued its return journey, arriving in Australia in August 1942. The following month, the 2/2nd participated in the Kokoda Track campaign, arriving as the tide turned in the Allies’ favor. The battalion fought several actions along the track, including significant ones at Templeton’s Crossing and Oivi. Heavy casualties were suffered as they counter-attacked and advanced north towards the Japanese beachheads around Buna and Gona. By December 1942, the battalion’s effective strength had fallen below 100.

The battalion was later withdrawn to Australia and, throughout 1943–44, was rebuilt and reorganized on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. After over a year of preparation, they were committed to the Aitape–Wewak campaign in late 1944, a mopping-up operation to clear the Japanese from around the airfield at Aitape and its surroundings. The campaign saw the Australians advance along the coast towards Wewak and inland towards the Torricelli Mountains. Lieutenant Albert Chowne, one of the battalion’s officers, was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions during the campaign. members of the battalion received the following awards: four Distinguished Service Orders, nine Military Crosses and one Bar, four Distinguished Conduct Medals, 24 Military Medals, and 79 Mentions in Despatches. Throughout the war, 2,851 men served with the battalion, with 217 killed and 368 wounded. The battalion was disbanded on February 18, 1946, upon its return to Australia after the hostilities concluded.

The Men of the 2/2nd Australian Infantry Battalion

Private Albert “Jack” Ulrick

Albert Ulrick was born in 1918 in Maclean, NSW. In 1936, he joined the militia, an experience he did not find particularly helpful during the war, but which, nonetheless, made the transition into the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) smoother than that of the fresh recruits. When the war broke out, Albert was among the 16 members of his militia unit from Ulmarra who volunteered for the AIF.

“I remember this bloke, this McMahon rooster, he said. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘what are you joining the AIF for? You know you’ll be sent overseas if you do that.’ One of the blokes behind me said, ‘For Christ’s sake, isn’t that where the war is?’”

In the Middle East, Albert contributed to the great Australian-led victory in Bardia. He participated in the siege of Tobruk, but victory celebration eluded him this time as Albert and his unit were among those pulled out and shipped to Greece: “We only got the one air raid on the way over. We landed at Piraeus and somebody told me after that the German ambassador to Greece was on the wharf watching us arrive. Germany and Greece weren’t at war then. Only Greece and Italy.”

Albert remembered that all the ANZAC forces were in high spirits from the victories over Italian forces, which he expected to face again in Greece, as they were attacking the country from Albania. Albert described the situation: “The Greeks were handling the Italians. Bloody schoolkids could handle them. But the Germans were a different kettle of fish. They were cocky, as you can imagine. They just conquered the whole of Europe and they hadn’t been silly enough to go into Russia yet, but they’d beaten Europe and they were coming in and they were flogging the Greeks.”

2/2nd Australian Infantry Battalion, along with other ANZAC forces, moved from Athens to Larissa. Albert remembers Greeks throwing flowers at them as they went north. The furthest he and his mates got was the Pinios River, where they tried to prevent Germans from crossing into Greece on 18th April 1941. The Battle of Pinios Gorge, also known as the Battle of Tempe Gorge, had ANZAC forces facing a force both numerically and technologically superior to their own.
Albert described the situation: “We knew what to expect. It wasn’t good enough. We were landed in Greece, didn’t even have our own artillery. We had New Zealand artillery, we had no aircraft, no heavy tanks. We had Bren gun carriers and a few parts of the armored brigade or whatever they called them. Nothing new. We didn’t have proper gear. Nothing.” To make things worse, his unit had not time to make any defensive preparations or use the terrain; it was straight into the fray.

After some time, Albert’s unit was in retreat, but he was not actually aware of this at the time. He remembered it simply as an order to move in another direction, and having little to no idea where they were going most of the time, this direction seemed as good as any. His detachment was composed of three carriers, which very soon got the attention of German mortars.

“So they started throwing three-inch mortars. And they’re pretty good those Jerries, with mortars. I reckon they could lob it in a bloody bucket; they were that good. It wasn’t long before we left the carriers in that hollow, we went over and into the next hollow, because they were drawing the crabs these carriers. They seen us do that too, I reckon. Next thing one landed in the hollow with us. It lobbed on the back face. Not far enough, and it all come back, this mortar shell. Three of us got wounded. The three drivers that were there. The other two blokes, I remember them rolling around squealing, yelling, ‘It’s burning!’ Because shrapnel is red hot.”

Albert was seriously wounded, shrapnel going through his chest, lungs, and sternum. He remembered thinking he was dead, only to wake up on the deck of another carrier. He had been saved by its crew. His childhood friend and schoolmate, with whom he shared a foxhole in Bardia, did not survive this attack.

After a couple of days of pursuit and heavy air raids, Albert’s mates managed to evacuate him to a British hospital near Athens. Here he met Sister Bathgate, who was also from Maclean and knew his mother and grandfather. “I remember her saying to the nurses and sisters, ‘This one is special. Don’t you let anything happen to him.’” Eventually, nurses were evacuated but all the doctors and orderlies remained in the hospital with men not well enough to travel. Albert’s brother, serving in a different unit, was also evacuated and fought for the rest of the war.
“The orderly came in one day; he was a funny old fellow. He said, ‘Do you know something?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re now a prisoner of war.’ I said, ‘Fancy that.’ I burst out laughing. He said, ‘Hang on.’ So he lifted up the flap of the tent and said, ‘Look.’ And here was a Jerry in uniform with the rifle at the sling, walking up and down. I said, ‘Oh well, so be it. Not much we can do about it.’ He said, ‘That’s a bloody fact.’” – Albert remembered.

He remained in the hospital for the next six months and remembers seeing hundreds of wounded New Zealanders brought from Crete, many of whom eventually escaped. He did not remember ever being mistreated by Germans, not in Greece nor the working camps in Germany, where he spent the rest of the war in Europe. Nonetheless, captivity was an ordeal enough of its own. Eventually, he was liberated by American troops, and after a few weeks of leave in Britain, he returned home to his family. Albert got married in 1946 to Gwen, a girl he knew before the war.

Sergeant Raymond ‘Jimmy’ Coombes

Raymond “Jimmy” Coombes was born in Forbes on the upper Hastings as the fourth son of a family of six boys. The first time Jimmy was shot at was when he was just 15 years old. His brother accidentally shot him with a .22 rifle. “The bullet went in my nose there and across my mouth, and the lead is still there in my neck.” While this led to a fear of firearms, it didn’t prevent Jimmy from enlisting on New Year’s Day 1940, when he was just 17. He was almost rejected based on his age and the fact that he put on the paperwork that he was 20. After some persuasion, “I got my regimental number and took the oath on the Bible, and I was in the army, and I enjoyed every day of my army career”, Jimmy recalled.

Jimmy remembered arriving in Greece via a ship before that country entered the war. His division found itself spread thinly in northern Greece along the border with Yugoslavia, anticipating a German attack. Jimmy explained that three passes led into the county, the coastal one held by New Zealanders (along the Albanian border), and two mountainous passes (towards Yugoslavia and Bulgaria) held by Australian brigades. Members of his unit had to carry their equipment up the mountains on donkeys to destroy bridges and roads leading into Greece.

Yugoslavia surrendered to Germany on the 17th of April, and the very next day, Jimmy and his unit faced the Wehrmacht along the Pinios River. What followed, we know today as the Battle of Tempe Gorge, also known as the Battle of Pinios Gorge. Here, despite staunch resistance, the Anzac forces endured significant losses and were compelled to retreat from the gorge. However, their resilient stand enabled other Allied forces to safely withdraw through Larissa.

“I think that was the closest we ever were because they had us in their sights with a machine gun,” Jimmy remembered telling one of his friends as they were retreating. He recalled exchanging fire with the enemy, but the 2/2nd Battalion eventually disintegrated under overwhelming pressure. With a few of his mates, Jimmy was directing the troops retreating through the passes until the point a superior showed up to warn them: “You’d better get on this carrier because… there’s no one out there, only Germans, so you’d better get on this carrier and come back with us.” In other words, Jimmy was among the last Australian soldiers to pull back from the Pinios Gorge area.

Jimmy described losing some of his mates during the chaotic retreat: “Bluey Dunn survived after the tank even ran over him, took the skin off him, and he got killed. Ken Cameron was taken prisoner of war, his legs were run over, his legs, and he had to get help and he eventually had to give in, and the Germans got him, and he finished the war in Germany.”

On foot, with carriers and New Zealand trucks, Jimmy and what remained of his unit eventually reached Kalamata. During the night, they were put onto a destroyer HMS Hero. The flotilla of destroyers, commanded by Lord Louis Mountbatten, encountered a squadron of some 30 low-flying German aircraft, as Jimmy recalled. He remembered a bomb hitting HMS Costa Rica, which resulted in her letting in water. Another destroyer pulled along the sinking vessel and transferred its crew and passengers onboard. Jimmy remembered seeing that three or four of the Stukas were shot down by the flotilla.

He assumed many of the troops from the flotilla ended up in Crete, as this was all happening near the island. However, Jimmy himself had more luck and ended up in Alexandria. Jimmy summed up his opinion of the Greek campaign: “Churchill promised the Greek government support, and we were sacrificed. We were a division of 10,000 troops that were sacrificed for something that we never, ever had a chance of doing any good. We lost all our equipment, guns, trucks, men. In our battalion, there were 178, I think, were taken prisoner of war, some killed, and we come back, luckily a few of us got out, a depleted battalion, well, a depleted division really.”

Jimmy later participated in the Syrian campaign and the Malayan campaign, rising to the rank of a sergeant. He was discharged in October of 1944 after being hospitalised with malaria. After the war, he worked briefly on his family farm, as a linesman at Telecom, as a barman but eventually settled on a career running a butcher shop. He was heavily involved with his local community throughout his life. Among other things, he was the president of the Bellingen RSL as well as Grafton Services Club for 25 years. With his wife Margaret, he helped raise significant funds for Army Cadets. They had a son and a daughter and quite a few grandchildren. Throughout his life he remained very proud of his service in the war.