Battle for Australia

The 2017 Commemorative Service to remember the courage and sacrifice of Australians and our Allies who fought against the Japanese in SE Asia and the Pacific Areas duirng World War II was held at the Australian War Memorial on 6 September.


On 7-8 December 1941 the Japanese entered World War 2 by attacking American, British Commonwealth and Dutch Forces in South East Asia and the South West Pacific. Most of Australia's armed forces were away fighting in Europe and North Africa. By January Malaya had fallen.

The Japanese overwhelmed the Allied forces, capturing Rabaul, which was then Australian territory, on 23 January and Singapore on 15 February 1942. During the Japanese invasion of the island chain from Singapore across the north of Australia, the cruiser HMAS Perth was sunk (1 March) in the Battle of Sunda Strait, HMAS Yarra was sunk (4 March) defending a convoy south of Java and HMAS Vampire was sunk (9 April) in the Bay of Bengal. Army and RAAF forces defending Ambon and Timor were lost. Overall, there were heavy casualties, the entire 8th Division and many RAAF aircraft were lost and over 15,000 Australians became prisoners of war.

Using Rabaul as their main base, in May 1942 the Japanese sought to threaten and isolate Australia by attempting a direct sea-borne landing at Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. They were turned back by a combined Australian and American naval force in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This battle was the first naval engagement in history where the opposing fleets, using carrier borne aircraft, were never in direct sight of each other.

In their next attempt to capture Port Moresby, the Japanese made a sea-borne landing at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea in August 1942. In a fortnight's hard fighting, the defending Australian troops, supported by RAAF fighters and American forces, inflicted the war's first land defeat on the Japanese. During this and other campaigns, the Australians were supplied by ships of the Merchant Marine of several nations, the Dutch providing the largest number.

To assist their move against Port Moresby, the Japanese landed troops on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea and advanced over the Owen Stanley Range along the Kokoda Trail. After eight weeks of fighting (July-August 1942), with heavy casualties on both sides, the Japanese attempt was stopped by the Australians a mere 25 kilometers from Port Moresby. Over the next 18 weeks (to January 1943) the Australians began to drive the Japanese back over the Owen Stanley Range and, in conjunction with increasing American forces, to expel the enemy from their beachheads at Gona and Buna on the north coast of Papua. Throughout the battle over the Owen Stanley Range, the support of Papua New Guinea porters and stretcher-bearers, affectionately known as 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels', was invaluable.

Meanwhile, in the Solomon Islands to the east of Papua New Guinea, Australian and American ships and aircraft were engaged trying to prevent the Japanese establishing a base on Guadalcanal. Many ships, including the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra (9 August 1942), were sunk in the fierce sea battles off Savo Island and Guadalcanal. American, New Zealand and Fijian forces cleared the enemy from Guadalcanal and surrounding islands.

During this period Australia's northern towns, including Broome, Darwin and Wyndham, endured enemy air attacks. Darwin was the main target, suffering repeated bombing attacks from 19 February 1942 to 12 November 1943. The city was defended by Australian, American and British fighter aircraft as well as by Australian anti-aircraft gunners and a flotilla of corvettes, one of which, HMAS Armidale, was sunk by Japanese aircraft in the Timor Sea. Australian, American and Dutch aircraft, flying from Australian bases, mounted counter strikes against the Japanese. Other attacks by Japanese aircraft and submarines were made on Sydney and Newcastle. Many merchant ships were torpedoed along the east coast of Australia.

By the end of 1942, the Japanese advance had been checked. The direct threat to Australia was over. But hard fighting followed for nearly three more years, in New Guinea, the Northern Solomons, the Pacific islands and the East Indies (now Indonesia), before major coordinated Allied advances toward Japan culminated in the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.