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Middle East 1930 - 1947:

Australian Formations

Pre-Second World War, the Australian Army comprised a small Permanent Force of Regular officers and other ranks, most of whom fulfilled staff roles. By far the largest element of the Army was the Citizen Military Force (C.M.F.), also known as the Militia, similar to the British Territorial Army. On 3 September 1939, Australia as a Dominion of the British Empire, declared war on Germany. It began raising the Second Australian Imperial Force for deployment overseas, all of whom were volunteers.

By 1941, Australia had provided a corps headquarters, three infantry divisions and supporting units for deployment in the Middle East. Indeed, it can be argued that without the support of Australia, New Zealand and India, the British would not have been able to pursue any offensive operations in the Middle East until at least 1943.

The I Australian Corps was established on 11 April 1940 in Melbourne, Australia as part of the Second Australian Imperial Force. It left for Palestine on 10 June 1940, and on 16 February 1941, the Corps took control of Cyrenaica, Libya, replacing the British XIII Corps. In April that year, the Corps Headquarters moved to Greece, opening there on 5 April 1941. It had under command the 6 Infantry Division, 2 New Zealand Infantry Division, 12 Greek Division and British 1 Armoured Brigade. On 12 April, the Corps was redesignated as ANZAC Corps to recognise the formations under command. The Allies were overwhelmed by the German advance and the Corps Headquarters left Greece on 23 and 24 April, returning to Egypt. The Corps assumed command of Allied Forces in Syria and Lebanon on 18 June 1941, being responsible for the whole of Syria and Lebanon north of the Beirut to Damascus road.

With the entry of Japan into the war, calls grew for the Australian formations in the Middle East to return to Australia. The I Australian Corps, 6 Australian Division and 7 Australian Division left Egypt bound for Java at the end of January, however, the Corps Headquarters and 7 Infantry Division returned direct to Australia, whilst the 6 Infantry Division was detached to Ceylon for a period.

The raising of the 6 Australian Infantry Division on 28 September 1939 marked the beginning of the formation of the 2 Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.). The 1 A.I.F. had fought during the First World War, so the numbering of the divisions and brigades in the 2 A.I.F. followed on from those in the 1 A.E.F.. In the same manner, the numbering of the infantry brigades was consecutive to those raised in the First World War. The infantry battalions were numbered 2/xx in order to reflect their raising for the 2 A.I.F. The 6th Division was allocated initially the 16, 17 and 18 Australian Infantry Brigades, but in Egypt the 19 Australian Infantry Brigade replaced the 18 Brigade.

The division first saw combat when it joined Operation Compass on 12 December 1940, replacing the 4 Indian Infantry Division which had been withdrawn for active service in East Africa. Benghazi was entered on 5 February, with the Italian Tenth Army surrendering two days later. The division fought in Greece in April 1941 until evacuated on 26 April 1941. Most returned to Egypt, but the 19 Infantry Brigade was sent to Crete. Following the German invasion of Crete, the remaining Australian units on the island were evacuated to Egypt. On 5 June, the units which had served in Crete were reunited with the division in Palestine. Elements from the division were deployed to Lebanon on 11 June 1941 as part of ‘Exporter Force’. On 9 October 1941, the division commenced moving into Syria to guard against German invasion from the north, remaining in Syria until February 1942, when it travelled to Suez and embarked for the Far East.

The 7 Australian Infantry Division was the second formation in the 2 A.I.F. to be formed, and came into being in April 1940. Originally, it consisted of the 20 and 21 Australian Infantry Brigades, with the 19 Brigade due to be the third brigade in the division. Both the 20 and 21 Brigades were sent to the Middle East in October 1940. In January 1941, however, the 20 Brigade was transferred to the newly formed 9 Australian Infantry Division. In addition, the 19 Brigade joined the 6 Australian Infantry Division in November 1940. This allowed the deployment of one complete Australian division following the Italian invasion of Egypt. To complete the division, the 18 Brigade and the recently formed 25 Brigade were sent out from the United Kingdom to the Middle East in March 1941. In June 1941, elements of the division formed the main part of the initial force for the invasion of Syria and Lebanon. The division was stationed in Palestine and provided the majority of the Allied troops used to invade the Vichy French territories of Syria and Lebanon. Then it was used to garrison Syria and Lebanon until sent back to Australia in early 1942 as a result of Japan’s entry into the war.

The 9 Australian Infantry Division was the fourth and final infantry division raised as part of the 2 A.I.F.. It was formed in the Middle East on 18 December 1940, and initially it was allocated the 18, 24 and 25 Australian Infantry Brigades, but of these only the 24 Brigade was destined to form a part of the Division operationally. The 25 Brigade, which was then based in the United Kingdom, transferred to the 7 Australian Division on its arrival in the Middle East in March 1941. The 26 Brigade was formed in Australia in July 1940 and sailed for the Middle East on the 18 November 1940. It joined the division in January 1941 on its arrival in the Middle East. The division concentrated in Palestine, under the command of I Australian Corps. With the conclusion of Operation ‘Compass’, which resulted in the capture of Cyrenaica, the 6 Australian Infantry Division was withdrawn to prepare for deployment to Greece. The newly arrived 9 Australian Infantry Division was sent to Cyrenaica to replace the 6 Australian Division, and came under command of Cyrenaica Command. The German Forces launched their offensive on 31 March 1941 and the division was encircled in Tobruk. It then fought in the famous siege of Tobruk until relieved by the British 70 Infantry Division. The division remained in the Middle East after the departure of the rest of the corps to take part in the battle of El Alamein. Following its key role in that battle, the division returned to Australia in late 1942.

The Australian Government has kindly digitised some of the war diaries of infantry formations and units, which are available at:

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