The Rebirth of the 6th Division

Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies notified the British government in London that Australia would join England in its declaration of war with Germany on September 3rd, 1939. But Australia was not prepared for a war. The army only had 3,000 regulars, and while 80,000 men served in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF), these were part-time reservists.

The Australian Army had been a fearsome force during the Great War. Together with the New Zealand Army and the Canadian Army, they were the shock troops of the Allied forces on the Western Front. The Australian 6th Division had been raised in 1917 but then was broken up shortly after to reinforce other divisions serving on the Western Front.

The 6th was stricken from the Army’s order of battle and was all but forgotten during the interwar years. But the declaration of war in 1939 changed things. The Defence Act barred the civilian militias from serving overseas, so the government needed to raise an entirely new AIF from scratch. The 2nd Australian Imperial Force would consist of one infantry division and several auxiliary units. The new formation of 20,000 men would be the 6th Division.

There was at first a wave of patriotic excitement and thousands of young men signed up to serve. But for many, duty was not the only thing on their minds. The Depression was still in effect, and even though things had become better since its height in 1932, many were still living on meager paycheques. The Army offered steady pay and a roof over their head.

The 6th was raised by the end of September with 16 battalions organized into three brigades. However, the Australian Army was forced to adopt the British Army system of four brigades with three battalions each when the 18th Brigade was sent to England. One battalion from each brigade was shuffled into a new 19th Brigade so that by 1940 the 6th Division was organised much like a British division.

  • 17th Brigade – Brig. Stanley Savige
  • 18th Brigade – Brig. Leslie Moorhead
  • 19th Brigade – Brig. Horace Robertson
    • 2/4th Battalion
    • 2/8th Battalion
    • 2/12th Battalion

The entire division was put under the command of Lt-General Thomas Blamey, who had served with the Australian Army throughout the Great War. He had even led an intelligence party behind Turkish lines during the Gallipoli campaign and had served extensively on the Western Front. Blamey had helped with the formation and management of the civilian militias in the interwar years and served as Victoria’s chief commissioner of police at the height of the Great Depression. He was an astute administrator and a leader who inspired obedience, even if he was not a well-loved figure.

The men who joined the 6th were among the first enlistments of the million people who would serve Australia throughout the Second World War. They were mostly young, with an initial age cap for joining of between 20 and 35. In 1940 the age range was changed to between 19 and 40. However, many recruiters found loopholes in the age caps and there are cases where men as young as 15 and as old as 55 were found serving. Officials turned a blind eye.

The overwhelming majority of the men who joined the 6th Division were unmarried and under 29 years of age. More than half of these men had not finished high school. They were mostly blue-collar workers and many were unemployed or underemployed due to the lingering effects of the Depression.

Officers were a different story. Most of them were drawn from the CMF militias, and they all had post-secondary educations. Ian Ross Campbell was one such officer.

He had obtained a degree from Scots College in Sydney and then attended the Royal Military College in Duntroon. He served with the Royal Scots Fusiliers on an exchange with the British Army, where he helped train the Gurkhas in Nepal and climbed in the Himalayas.

He was serving as an adjutant with the General Staff on the outbreak of war. He quickly volunteered his services with the 6th and was made Brigade Major of the 16th. Putting Ian Campbell in this position would end up playing a major role in the defense of Rethimno just over a year later, although at the time nobody expected them to be anywhere near Greece, let alone Crete.

North Africa was to be the division’s first experience of combat.

The 6th in North Africa

The men from places such as Mildura, Alice Springs, Canberra, and Nowra began arriving in Palestine in mid-1940. But the 18th Brigade was rushed to England to be ready to repel a feared German invasion. That left three brigades plus auxiliary units. Two new divisions were being raised back home in Australia, but it would be some time before they could arrive. The 6th Division was placed under the control of the British Middle East Command.

In the meantime, Blamey was elevated to overall command of the 2 AIF, which gave him the ability to consult with Canberra before the Australians could be used for any British operations. A hero from the Great War with a chest full of hard-earned medals was recalled from retirement to take over command of the 6th Division – Major General Iven Mackay.

The troops called Mackay “Mr. Chips” after a book he had written during his retirement. He was not well-liked by his staff and was considered stuffy and focused too much on irrelevant issues, such as proper spelling and grammar in reports, rather than operational command. ‘That bloody schoolteacher wants to dot every i and cross every t!’ his divisional quartermaster, Colonel George Vasey, once wrote in a letter home.

More problems among the division’s top brass were springing up thanks to the Menzies government’s policy of putting militia officers in command of field units and keeping regular force officers in consultation and administrative roles. This rankled the regular officers, who felt they had the experience and know-how to manage large formations of troops in the field. Many had attended military colleges and understood the finer details of the logistics needed to keep tens of thousands of men fed, clothed, and in fighting order.

‘This is a damn insult to the professional army,’ wrote Colonel Frank Berryman, the general staff officer of Mackay’s command. ‘We were to be the hewers of wood and water. We, the only people who knew the job, were to assist these militia fellows.’

All of the 6th Division brigade commanders were CMF officers, although they all had military experience from the Great War. Nevertheless, they were looked down upon by their colleagues in the regular forces and were considered old and outdated.

More problems began to arise as the situation in North Africa went from bad to worse for the Empire forces defending Egypt from an enormous Italian army. The 7th Division arrived in theater in late 1940 and the two Australian divisions were formed into the I Corps. The Italian Army launched a major offensive into Egypt around the same time, which saw some initial successes until the British and their Commonwealth troops chased them out and back across the desert to the Libyan border.

It had been a grueling month-long advance in inhospitable terrain for the troops. Hence, the British commander of the Middle East theater, General Archibald Wavell, began to plug holes in his army with individual battalions from the 6th Division.

This went against the charter given to the 2nd AIF from the Menzies government, which directed all Australian units to fight together under Australian command. There were several heated back-and-forths between Menzies and British officials in London, but Australian battalions would continue to serve apart from each other for the rest of their time in the theater.

This infighting would not auger well for the men of the 6th Division as they moved into the western Egyptian desert in early 1941. The 16th Brigade was the first to reach the front and took up positions outside the border town of Bardia. The 17th joined them shortly after.

The Australians went into action for the first time in the war on January 3rd, 1941, with an assault on Bardia. This coastal town was an Italian stronghold on the Libyan border and a major objective for any advance into Libya. The 6th Division opened with an artillery barrage followed by an infantry assault. Several British Matilda tanks supported the Australians as they dashed forward under machine gun and mortar fire.

2/2nd Battalion (16th Brigade) ran into intense fire from several defensive posts protected by antitank ditches. The men rushed forward, scrambled across the ditches, and jumped into the trenches to fight the Italians in fierce hand-to-hand combat.

The 2/1st Battalion and several British Bren gun carriers hit an Italian defensive post and cleared it with grenades and suppressive fire from the Bren guns. But the 2/3rd ran into problems when six Italian M13/40 tanks counter-attacked as the Battalion advanced towards Bardia.

The supporting British Matilda crews didn’t believe the Australians as they radioed for amoured support and the Italian tanks nearly overran the Battalion. Three Australian anti-tank guns were manhandled into the open and began firing on the tanks, knocking out four of them. One of the guns was hit by fire from the remaining two tanks, killing several of the crew. The lone survivor, Corporal A. A. Pickett, single-handedly rotated the gun from left to right, loading and firing it himself, and destroyed a fifth Italian tank. The remaining tank retreated.

The 16th Brigade held the outer perimeter of Bardia by mid-morning, and the 17th moved in to clear the town. It would take two more days of intense house-to-house fighting, but Bardia was in Australian hands by January 5th. They captured more than 5,000 Italian prisoners in the battle.

The advance into Libya was rapid and the Italians retreated in a panic. The 6th Division reached Tobruk on the 22nd of January, and the entire Italian garrison of 25,000 men surrendered. The advance continued, with several short, but sharp, clashes at Benghazi and Derna. The Italian army was completely destroyed by the end of March.

But there was a new threat arising far across the Mediterranean, and the men of the 6th Division would get no rest. They were needed in Greece, where Mussolini had just invaded.

Valour in Greece

The three brigades of the 6th Division still in North Africa scrambled to Greece in late March 1941 and joined 40,000 British and New Zealand troops as part of an expeditionary force to bolster the 450,000 Greek troops attempting to hold back the Italians. The 6th was trucked to the Florina Valley, on the border with Yugoslavia. The men dug in.

They didn’t have long to wait. The 1st SS Panzer Division “Liebstandarte” hit the Australians head-on during the early morning hours of 6th April. The 1st SS had just overrun central Yugoslavia in a lightning campaign and continued right on into Greece. The attack came suddenly. The men of the 6th were not prepared for the surprising violence and aggression of a German panzer assault and desperately hung on as their lines fell apart.

Stuka dive bombers screamed out of the sky and Bf-109s and Bf-110s strafed everything on the roads. The German Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs of the 1st SS moved quickly in unison with their supporting Panzergrenadiers. This was nothing like fighting the Italians in North Africa.

The division was part of several successful delaying actions during the Greek Campaign, and was critical at the Battle of Pinios Gorge and the Brallos Pass.

The entire Allied force had to retreat south down the Greek mainland to avoid being cut off by the rapid German advance. The Australians found themselves fighting a sharp rearguard action at Porto Rafti. They held off the Germans as the expeditionary force was evacuated in a mini Dunkirk. The brigades of the 6th got all mixed up when it was finally their turn to embark, and they were some of the last men to leave Greece as the German panzers closed in on them.

The 16th and 17th Brigades were sent to Alexandria, in Egypt, but several of their battalions were landed in Crete. The entire 19th Brigade was also landed in Crete. Two field regiments of Divisional artillery were also landed in Crete.

All these disparate battalions were cobbled together to form a temporary composite brigade, the 14th. These two Australian brigades were given a new task: defend the region of Rethimno on the north coast of central Crete.

Following the evacuation of Crete, the 6th Division began rebuilding in Palestine, with its cavalry and depleted infantry battalions from the 17th Brigade participating in the Syria-Lebanon campaign against Vichy French forces where they successfully contributed to the capture of Damascus.

After operations in Syria, the division remained there for garrison duties until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and invasion of Malaya prompted plans for their return to Australia in January 1942. However, the 16th and 17th Brigades were diverted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to defend against Japanese advances, staying until July 1942. The 19th Brigade, having returned to Australia, undertook garrison duties without seeing combat for over three years.

In September 1942, elements of the division, including the 16th Brigade, were sent to New Guinea to participate in the Kokoda Track campaign and the Battle of Buna–Gona, reinforcing militia units and relieving other divisions. They faced exceptionally tough conditions and strong Japanese resistance but succeeded in pushing back the enemy, although they suffered significant casualties.

Following the Kokoda and Buna–Gona campaigns, the division was part of the Battle of Wau and Salamaua–Lae campaign, where they pushed back the Japanese. Despite logistical challenges and heavy fighting, the division made significant gains, contributing to the eventual withdrawal of Japanese forces.

The division was re-organised under a jungle divisional establishment, reducing its size and equipment to better suit the conditions of the Pacific theater. It then participated in the Aitape–Wewak campaign, clearing remaining Japanese forces in northern New Guinea. This campaign saw the division facing difficult terrain, weather, and determined Japanese resistance, resulting in high casualties but significant territorial gains. Two members of the division were awarded the Victoria Cross for their gallantry during the campaign.

The division formally accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in New Guinea in September 1945 and was subsequently employed in garrison duties and war crimes investigations until its demobilisation and formal disbandment in November 1945. Over its six-year existence, approximately 40,000 men served in the division, with 1,763 killed or died, 3,978 wounded, and 5,153 becoming prisoners of war.

Podcasts about Australians in the Mediterranean during WW2