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World War II the Australian experience

Not long after World War I, Australia found itself at war again, but this time the conflict would come much closer to home.

Although Australians were again fighting German forces in Europe and North Africa, after 1941 they were also fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

For the first time, Australians were conscripted into active service. Although these soldiers were not supposed to serve overseas, many of them fought in New Guinea, which was an Australian territory at the time.

Women also played a more active role, both at home and overseas.

And Australia feared the possibility of being invaded by Japanese forces – Darwin was bombed several times and Japanese midget submarines attempted an attack on Sydney Harbour.

Singapore - A group of Australian nurses awaiting to entrain

Singapore - A group of Australian nurses awaiting to entrain. Australian War Memorial 005829.

Finding out

What do you know about the experiences of Australians in World War II?

Do you know where Australians served and the campaigns they took part in? See if you can find these places on a map:

  • Tobruk, in Libya
  • Crete
  • Singapore
  • Payathonzu, in Myanmar (formerly Burma)
  • Kokoda Trail, in Papua New Guinea
  • New Britain and Bougainville
  • Kalimantan in Indonesia

Sorting out

Australians took part in some of the major air campaigns in Europe, including the Battle of Britain and bombing raids over Germany. The Battle of Britain was fought between July and October 1940 to prevent German forces from invading Great Britain. The Hawker Hurricane, like the one shown in Image 2, was a state-of-the-art fighter plane that was used to combat the German Luftwaffe.

Australians who defended the port of Tobruk (Image 3) were called ‘rats’ by the Germans, a term the Australians embraced. Why do you think they were called rats? What does this suggest about the conditions in which they lived and the way they fought?

In 1941, Australians joined British forces to defend the island of Crete from German invasion. Many did not receive the message to evacuate between 28 May and 1 June and were taken prisoner, as shown in Image 4.

Images 3, 9 and 11 show Australians in places of intense fighting. How well protected are they? Do you think modern soldiers would be allowed to dress this way in combat zones?

The three men in Image 7 were deemed to be fit to work by their Japanese captors. What does this suggest about the care and respect they received?

In Image 8, a bomb disposal unit is recovering an unexploded device. Do you think their helmets will save them if the bomb explodes?

Between 1942 and 1945, Australians fought to drive occupying Japanese forces from Bougainville, New Britain, Borneo and New Guinea. Considering the latitude and terrain of these locations, what sort of conditions would they have encountered?

Taking action

The nurses in Image 5 arrived in Singapore in February 1941, only days before the Japanese invasion. Go online or visit the library to find out more about the roles women played in World War II. Some questions to consider are:

  • What sort of work did women do at home and overseas?
  • Where did women serve?
  • What support did the Australian Government offer families whose fathers and husbands were serving overseas?
  • What were the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF), the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS), the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and the Women’s Land Army (WLA)? What did women do in these organisations?

More for years 7 - 10

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2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment

For teachers and parents

Teachers' notes for World War II: the Australian experience