Appendix 1: The AIF in the United Kingdom
To the men of the Australian force which arrived in the United Kingdom in June 1940 and departed the following November and January, the experience was one to be long remembered. Most of them had never seen England or Europe before and would not again, and the fact that for half a year they helped to garrison England against possible invasion gave the adventure a special quality. Politically the presence of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers in England in that time of danger probably had a greater importance than their numbers justified. Yet so empty was England of trained men, and even of such arms as the Dominion forces brought with them, that they made an appreciable addition to the defending army.
Thirteen British divisions, including three for which no artillery could be provided, had been in France when the German Army attacked on 10th May. They had lost practically all their equipment. In June, after the embarkation from Dunkirk, there remained with the French Army south of the Somme, the recently-arrived 1st Armoured Division, the 51st Highland Division, and several brigades and improvised forces. It was planned to reinforce them with the 1st Canadian and 52nd, which were the only divisions in England ready for action, and the 3rd, which was refitting after Dunkirk but, early in June, was at less than one-third strength. The 52nd and part of the 1st Canadian reached France and, though they and the armoured division were soon withdrawn, they lost much equipment. Consequently, by the end of June, although there were twenty-five divisions in Britain none was fully-armed. The best was the 1st Canadian, the next the 3rd (Major-General B. L. Montgomery). Mr Churchill has written that the armies “were known to be almost unarmed except for rifles. There were in fact hardly five hundred field-guns of any sort and hardly two hundred medium or heavy tanks in the whole country.”1
In fact, the ability of this army to defend Britain was not tested because the Navy commanded the seas girdling Britain and the Air Force defeated German efforts to gain control of the air. In the air battle the principal role was to be played by Fighter Command which included (in July when the Battle of Britain opened) fifty-nine squadrons – armed chiefly with Hurricanes and Spitfires – of which eight were forming or re-forming and a majority had been heavily engaged in fighting on or over the Continent.2
The Australian force which began to disembark at Gourock on the Clyde on 17th June – six days before the Franco-German armistice – from the liners Queen Mary, Mauretania and Empress of Canada (three other liners carried the New Zealanders in the same convoy) included just short
of 8,000 officers and men. They comprised approximately one-third of the 6th Division and the corps troops raised with it, plus some 450 infantry reinforcements for that division. There were the 18th Infantry Brigade, 2/3rd Field Regiment, 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion, 2/3rd Field Company, 2/1st Field Park Company, 2/3rd Field Ambulance – a force which, when equipped, might have been assembled to form a strong brigade group; the convoy also carried a great part of the signals, army service corps and ordnance troops of the 6th Division.3 On 18th June this hotch-potch force began to reach Salisbury Plain where it established itself in a camp well equipped with bell tents, marquees and huts. Wynter’s headquarters were placed at Amesbury Abbey, a stately home among pleasant gardens; the 18th Brigade at Lopcombe Corner; and the remainder of the force near Tidworth. The task was begun of preparing the force to take its part in meeting the invasion that then seemed imminent.
Until two days before the convoy anchored the senior officer had been Brigadier Morshead of the 18th Brigade, but, on the 14th, Brigadier Wynter of General Blamey’s staff, who was travelling with the contingent, had been promoted major-general by the distant headquarters in Australia and appointed to command AIF Administrative Headquarters. On the 18th the Military Board informed Wynter that he had been appointed instead to command the Australian force in the United Kingdom. The new commander faced a difficult problem of organisation, complicated by the fact that his infantry and machine-gunners had only rifles and machine-guns, his artillery no guns, and vehicles and technical gear were lacking. One course (and this had been proposed by Morshead during the voyage while he was in command) would have been to form an augmented brigade of four battalions, and to retain the supporting arms and services under the control of the force commander; another, to have formed a brigade group by placing the artillery, machine-gunners and such engineers and other troops as were appropriate under the command of the brigadier, and to have put the surplus troops into a training organisation. Wynter adopted a third course. He took into consideration that it would be long before he received full equipment for his artillery and technical units, yet that his force might be required to fight at short notice, though armed, perhaps, only with machine-guns and rifles. Consequently he decided to form a second infantry brigade, establishing three new battalions by using his infantry reinforcements and reducing the strength of his artillery regiments, his machine-gun battalion and particularly his technical units, which were disproportionately large even for a force based on seven battalions.
By 22nd June his plan for reorganising the force had been outlined and the War Office had agreed. Wynter’s headquarters had a mobile and a fixed echelon, the latter concerned with records, pay, etc. – an AIF headquarters in miniature. His field force included two infantry brigades,
two field batteries, two anti-tank batteries, two companies of engineers, a machine-gun battalion and ancillary troops. Wynter considered that the improvised brigade would be “in reasonable shape” within a month. Its battalions consisted principally of officers and men hitherto trained in artillery, army service corps and other units. To the infantry were transferred, for example, 450 men of the army service corps, 276 from the machine-gunners, and 384 from artillery. By thus adding 1,300 technical troops to his 459 infantry reinforcements he was able to give each of the three new battalions a strength of about 600; each had only three instead of four rifle companies.4
One of the principal difficulties was to find officers and particularly staff officers. Fortunately Wynter had with him a handful of staff officers of AIF Headquarters and I Australian Corps, and there were at Australia House in London some Australian liaison officers, notably Colonel Bridgeford,5 an able and widely-experienced soldier who had recently been at the Imperial Defence College; he was appointed to command the new brigade, which was numbered the 25th. The 18th Brigade contributed some officers and men to the new battalions; twenty-one subalterns came from the infantry reinforcements; most of the other officers from artillery and technical units. For example the colonel, the one major and most captains of the then “70th Battalion” were transferred from the anti-tank regiment; five subalterns were contributed by the 18th Brigade, one by the field artillery, one by the engineers.
The four months which the force spent on Salisbury Plain were strenuous and exciting. Both in Wiltshire and on leave, when they went as far afield as Scotland, the Australians were received with warm hospitality. On 4th July the King spent a day inspecting them on parade and in training. (He had been told that the upper age limit was 35, and unsmilingly asked men whom he noticed wearing medal ribbons of the previous war how old they were; they gravely answered.: “Thirty-four”.) Later in July Lord Birdwood visited the force and sought out men who had served under him in 1915–18. On 13th July the force came under fire, and the AIF suffered what appears to have been its first battle casualty; a German bomber appeared out of low cloud and, as it passed over the lines of the 2/9th and 2/10th Battalions, fired 300 to 400 rounds at the tents and huts.6
Within a few days of their arrival on Salisbury Plain a school was established for training infantry leaders – a step specially necessary in view of the transfer of gunners, engineers and others to infantry battalions – and a number of regular British NCOs were obtained as instructors. In early
July sixty-eight officers and NCOs of the artillery were attending courses at the artillery school at Lark Hill. Equipment was received at a slow rate that distressed the troops but was inevitable in a country which had denuded even training schools to arm the BEF in France. Early in July Brigadier Morshead (whose men then had only fifty rounds a rifle) visited the ordnance store at Tidworth himself and obtained seventeen Bren guns and twelve anti-tank rifles for each of his battalions. The artillery batteries then possessed between them three guns and three howitzers of outdated models (their proper quota would have been twenty-four of the new 25-pounders). Later in the month the battalions reached their training scale of equipment, which included eighteen light machine-guns (instead of fifty) to a battalion and two carriers (instead of ten). On 26th July part of the force, though still so ill-equipped, was given an important role in the defence of Southern England – the 18th Brigade, with artillery, the machine-gun battalion and other troops attached, became the Southern Command Striking Force, if a mobile striking force was needed, or alter-natively the reserve to V Corps.
If used as Southern Command Striking Force (wrote the diarist of 18th Brigade) it is anticipated that one complete field battery (25-pounders) will be added, also two or three of the Mobile Striking Columns raised in the Salisbury Plain area. In this event HQ Australforce will go into the field and assume command.
Wynter regarded the 25th Brigade as suited only for a local protective role in the Salisbury Plain area.
In August the Luftwaffe began large-scale bombing attacks on targets widely spread throughout Britain, including the military encampments. By 15th August the Australian area had been bombed, though without much effect, on three consecutive days, and one diarist decided that “attacks of this nature are going to be an almost daily occurrence”. However, the transfer of the force to the Middle East, where (as General Blamey was emphasising) its units were urgently needed to complete the force of which they were part, was already under discussion and, on the 23rd, General Wynter ordered the reconstruction of the anti-tank regiment and the return of enough gunners to the field artillery regiment to bring it to full strength. And welcome news was received from Army Headquarters in Melbourne that the 25th Brigade was to be considered no longer an improvised formation but a permanent part of the AIF
In the midst of these discussions the Prime Minister, Mr Churchill, (on 4th September) visited the Australians, greatly to their satisfaction, and gave them one of his rousing addresses, eloquent but earthy, stirring yet humorous.
You have come a long way to see us in this island (he said to one battalion) and at one time we thought we could have had a party for you. Perhaps we shall still have one. But things are very much more solid than they were when you first came. If that man you all know comes now he will have to come with a lot and that makes it all the easier for the Navy and the Air Force to look after him on the way. And anything that slips through we shall look to you to deal with. It has been very gratifying and refreshing to have Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians with
us in this island during what has been undoubtedly one of the most anxious periods in our long history. The days of the Spanish Armada, or those days when Napoleon was at Boulogne with his Grand Army, were not so dangerous as those we have lived through and from which we are emerging stronger than ever. ... Speaking to you in the name of the British Parliament and the people I express to you our deep gratitude not only because we know you would fight to the death – for after all no one wants to live for ever – but because of the encouragement it gives us here, now that we are all alone. We feel that though we are alone, as far as Europe is concerned, yet the sons of the motherland, freely and of their own will, come across wide ocean spaces, wherever the Navy can carry them, to stand by our side, giving us their aid, giving their lives, giving us the moral sense of the conviction which they feel in their hearts, that, having made every effort to avoid this war, we are bound to fight it at all costs until this time, at any rate, we have made an end of it. I used to see the Anzacs in the last war, and I am certain that this new expeditionary force from Australia will revive and equal – it cannot excel – the glories of the famous Anzac Corps. We do not know where the course of the war will carry us. It may be that the crisis will be reached in other lands, it may be that the struggle will be here. Wherever it is, we are certain that the divisions sent from Australia will preserve the same glorious reputation whim made them renowned twenty-five years ago and which caused the Australian Corps to be recognised by friend and foe alike as unsurpassed in all the valorous manhood of Europe. It gives me pleasure to see you here, because when this war is won, and I have no doubt it will be, there will be new ties and new understandings between Australia and the mother country. ... We will be determined to lead our lives together and to march along our common path of destiny, certain that we carry with us the high hopes of civilisation and mankind.
By this time preparations for the opening of the long-awaited German invasion were evident; on Saturday 7th September the bombing of London proper opened and it appeared that seaborne attack was near. The code word “Cromwell”, meaning “invasion imminent”, went out to the Southern and Eastern Commands, and units of the Australian mobile forces were placed on one hour’s notice to move. On the 17th, Mr Churchill told the anxious Commons at a Secret Session that 1,700 self-propelled barges and 200 ships could be seen on the other side of the Channel.
However, though the British leaders did not then know it, the crisis had already passed. On the 15th the Luftwaffe had made its strongest daylight attacks and had lost fifty-six aircraft (at the time the Royal Air Force believed that 185 had been brought down), and thereafter its attacks waned. On the 17th, the day of Churchill’s speech to the Secret Session, Hitler had ordered that the invasion be postponed indefinitely and, in a few days, the assembled shipping began to move away.
If the invasion had been attempted in September the enemy would have encountered a far stronger army than the disorganised, ill-armed force of June. The equipment of the twenty-seven divisions and numerous independent brigades then in England, though still defective, had been greatly increased. There were two armoured divisions and about 1,000 tanks; more than half the infantry divisions had their full scale of field artillery or near it.
During the crisis of September the role of the 18th Brigade was to prepare to deal with parachute troops landing on Salisbury Plain. It was
not until 23rd September that the Australian force, in common with the remainder of the army in Britain, was ordered to stand down. Meanwhile its proposed departure from England began to appear more remote, and on 16th October it was transferred to Colchester in the Eastern Command, where the 18th Brigade was allotted the defence of that garrison town, and the 25th, now better trained and equipped, was made mobile reserve to XI Corps, with the task of counter-attacking an invader landing at Harwich, Frinton, Clacton or Mersea.7
On 29th September General Wynter was informed by Army Head-quarters in Melbourne that it had been decided to form a 9th Division using the force in the United Kingdom as a nucleus, and on the 23rd October he was appointed to command it.
At last on 15th November the 18th Brigade embarked, again at Glasgow, leaving the 25th, now commanded by Brigadier Wardell,8 at Colchester. The 18th reached Alexandria on the 31st December; the 25th embarked on 3rd January and reached its camp in Palestine on 10th March.
Also in January a separate body of Australians which had been in England during the last half of 1940 sailed for the Middle East. This was the Railway Construction and Maintenance Group, under Lieut-Colonel Fraser.9 It consisted of a company and a half with a group headquarters which had arrived at Liverpool on 17th July and at length went into camp in Woolmer Forest, near Longmore, where it built a number of large storage sidings and carried out other work.
The departure of the force which had arrived in the United Kingdom as “the third convoy”, had become “Australforce”, and departed as the nucleus 9th Division, did not entail the removal from England of all Australian soldiers. In addition to a small AIF administrative section which was attached to the liaison staff under Brigadier Wardell in London, there remained two forestry companies, which had arrived in England in July soon after the third convoy.
It will be recalled that the British Government had asked Australia for forestry companies in 1939. The origin of this request was a decision to send up to thirty such companies to France to cut timber for the British Expeditionary Force. Britain could not provide as many experienced foresters as were needed and therefore it was agreed that Canada would contribute twenty companies (each about 200 strong), and Britain, Australia and New Zealand each three – an allotment based on the extent of the forestry industry in each country. The Dominion companies arrived too late to go to France, but the German conquest of Western Europe,
and the increasing threat to British shipping made them no less necessary in Britain. War is an avid consumer of timber as well as of steel and explosives, and timber is a bulky cargo. As in the war of 1914–18 it was essential for Britain to take what timber she could from her own forests to save shipping space. Only with difficulty had she been able to raise her three companies of foresters. There would be work in Britain for all the Dominion companies and more.10
The Australian companies were raised as engineer units and officered by members of Commonwealth and State forest services and the sawmilling industry. The French Government had stipulated that a condition of the employment of forestry companies in their forests was that they be commanded by qualified forestry officers, so that wasteful cutting and unnecessary damage which was caused to their forests by Allied forestry companies in the war of 1914–18 would not be repeated.
On arrival the first two companies went into camp in the south of England for military training and, in September 1940, only five months after they had been raised in Australia, were cutting timber in Northumberland. There they soon found themselves working in snow and mud during an exceptionally cold winter. It was a severe test for Australians, many of whom had not seen snow before, and there was much illness, especially among the older men. It surprised them to discover that in England it was the custom – and they had to follow it – to cut a tree almost flush with the ground and not two or three feet from it as they were accustomed to do. (Similarly, the French authorities had asked that when British and Dominion foresters went to France they should discard their wide-toothed circular saws which cut a wasteful 3/8-inch kerf through and along log and plank and use bandsaws, but this was impracticable.) In 1941 a third company arrived from Australia and, in July of that year, the three were formed into a group under Lieut-Colonel Cole.11
In three years the Australian companies produced 30,000,000 super feet of sawn timber. The men were highly-skilled forest workers and, so that their abilities would not be wasted, Honduras forest workers and Italian prisoners worked under them doing unskilled work. At the same time the companies had been maintained as fighting units, had spent one day a week and a fortnight every six months in military training, and had a role in the defence of Britain. (In the critical period of 1940 it had been the defence of a long stretch of the coast of Northumberland.) With the New Zealanders the Australians maintained a friendly rivalry in periodical axemanship and sawing competitions; and Australia, in 1943 at Dumfries, won “the championship of Britain” which New Zealand had held for two years. The extent to which both groups became absorbed by their temporary home may perhaps be gauged by the fact that the 600 Australians acquired about 120 British brides, the 600 New Zealanders a similar number.