DESIGNATION: 2/9 Australian Imperial Forces Battalion
ACTIVATION: September 1939
CAMPAIGNS: North Africa 1941, Southwest Pacific 1942-45, Liberation of Australian New Guinea 1943-45, Borneo 1945
Following quickly on the heels of their mother country’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939, the nations of the British Commonwealth made their own declarations and prepared expeditionary forces to fight in Europe. In Australia, organization of this force began that same month.
The Second Australian Imperial Force, or 2nd AIF, was made up of volunteers and modeled after the AIF of World War I fame. To distinguish the new organization’s component battalions from those of the earlier war, the designations were all preceded by the number 2. One battalion to be organized from the 2nd AIF was the 2/9, which was formed in September and assigned to the 18th Brigade. The brigade was initially part of the 6th Division and consisted of 32 officers and 770 men, largely from Queensland.
Typical of the organization of Australian battalions, 2/9 had a headquarters company of six platoons: signals, mortar, Bren-gun carrier, pioneer, anti-aircraft and administration. Each of the battalion’s four rifle companies had three platoons, every one with three sections. Each section was armed with a Bren light machine gun, a 2-inch mortar and a Boys antitank rifle. The mortar platoon was armed with 3-inch mortars, and the carrier platoon with 10 Bren-gun carriers.
Once organized, the 18th Brigade departed for Europe on May 8, 1940, destination France. Before the Australians reached France, however, it fell, and they were diverted to England. When the threat of a German invasion had passed, the 2/9 Battalion was shipped to the Middle East to bolster British troops there.
The “Diggers,” as the Australians were known, arrived in Palestine in December 1940, and were assigned to the 7th Australian Division. Their period of training and acclimatization was cut short when Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel broke out from El Agheila and went on the offensive. In response, 2/9 was trucked across Egypt to Libya to engage Axis forces, which it did for the first time at the oasis of Giarabub on March 19, 1941.
As Rommel pushed the British Eighth Army back toward Egypt, 2/9 and the entire 18th Brigade was transported to Tobruk on the Libyan coast and attached to the 9th Australian Division. Shortly after their arrival, Tobruk was cut off. Although designated as part of the fortress’ reserve, the 2/9 Battalion conducted its share of patrols along the main line of defense. It participated in a major counterattack at “The Salient” on May 2 to help stabilize a rupture of the main line.
At the end of August, the Polish Brigade arrived to relieve the Australians. Pulled from the line, 2/9 Battalion was sent to Mersa Matruh. During its 20 weeks at Tobruk, the battalion had lost 43 men killed in action.
Over the objections of many British officials, with the outbreak of war in the Pacific in December 1941 the 7th Division was shipped back to Australia and reequipped for jungle warfare.
The battalion arrived at Milne Bay on the southern tip of New Guinea in August 1942 and took up positions around the airfield at Gili Gili. The Japanese launched an assault at the end of August, and on September 3 the battalion was thrown into battle and regained a considerable amount of lost ground. During an infantry attack the next day, Corporal John French was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for destroying three enemy machine gun positions. Four days later, the Japanese attacks at an end, the battalion returned to its positions at Gili Gili. The Australians had won what would come to be called the Battle for Milne Bay. The victory cost the 2/9 Battalion 30 men killed and 90 wounded.
The battalion was next shifted to the northeast coast near Buna. Supported by Australian tanks and American mortars, 2/9 attacked toward Cape Endaiadere on December 18. Over the next five days, the battalion lost half its personnel as it approached Simemi Creek and an additional 58 men once it breached the Japanese lines, but it had opened a route to the airfield at Buna. The exhausted battalion was then withdrawn on December 31.
Two weeks later, the battalion was back in action on New Guinea’s north coast, fighting along the Sanananda Track and driving on Cape Killerton from January 12 to 22, 1943. Pulled off the line again, 2/9 remained in garrison at Port Moresby until September.
On September 5, the entire 7th Division made its debut as an air-landing force. The division was part of a combined amphibious-air attack on Lae. After being transported from Jackson Field at Port Moresby to the airfield of Nadzab, northwest of Lae, the battalion drove through the Markham River Valley. On September 16, it reversed course and retraced its route through the valley to seize Madang.
After some much-needed rest and recuperation at Port Moresby, the battalion rotated back to the front on January 3, 1944, with the order to assault Shaggy Ridge. What followed were 20 days of some of the heaviest, most intense combat the battalion ever experienced. It cleared the ridge, then passed through the Kankiryo Saddle and in February was rotated back to Port Moresby.
The entire 7th Division then returned to Australia, where the 2/9 spent a long period of well-deserved rest, rebuilding its strength and training new recruits in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland.
In April 1945, the Australians decided to have the 7th Division, which included 2/9, assault Balikpapan on the southeast coast of Dutch Borneo, which it did on July 4. The fighting continued until August 15, when it was announced that the Japanese had finally surrendered.
Recruited during the initial days of the war, when enthusiasm for fighting back was at its peak, the citizen soldiers of 2/9 were molded into a highly effective body of men that had the distinction of engaging all three major Axis powers on battlefields on four separate continents. The battalion was also noted for retrieving the body of every one of its 275 members killed in action and not losing a single member as a prisoner of war during more than 2,000 days of service.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.