Chapter 2: A Second AIF
Inevitably the immediate cause of a war is some action which, when isolated, seems of petty importance beside the real causes. In Europe in 1939 the question whether or not there would be war was reduced finally to whether or not the German Government would order its army to invade Poland. Such an invasion would defy an undertaking by the United Kingdom Government to support Poland against “any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces.”1 In the early morning of 1st September German forces crossed the Polish frontier, and at 11 a.m. on Sunday, 3rd September, an ultimatum by the British Government demanding the withdrawal of the German forces expired. Immediately Mr Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. The responsibility for deciding the exact hour at which the world is to plunge into war rests on the political leaders. That decision made, there is an interval while the air is crowded by telephone, cable, and wireless signals, generally pre-arranged, to governments, senior officials and, eventually, to citizens who must report immediately for duty.
Thus, in Australia, soon after Chamberlain’s announcement, Mr T. J. Hawkins of the Naval Secretariat informed the Secretary of the Defence Department, Mr Shedden,2 that a naval signal had been received containing the order: “Commence hostilities at once against Germany.” Shedden informed Mr F. Strahan, Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, at Canberra, that although the pre-arranged signal from the Dominions Office announcing the outbreak of war had not arrived, this naval signal had been picked up. Within an hour a meeting of the Executive Council had been convened in the Prime Minister’s room at the Commonwealth offices in Melbourne and the issue of a proclamation declaring the existence of a state of war approved. At 9.15 p.m. the voice of the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, was heard by listeners throughout Australia. “It is my melancholy duty”, he said, “to inform you officially that, in consequence of a persistence by Germany, in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.” After a lucid and simply-phrased account of the events in Europe that had immediately led to the declaration of war, he appealed to the people for calmness, resoluteness, confidence and hard work. He made no suggestion that Australia could have taken any other course than to stand beside Great Britain. At 10.14 a proclamation was issued in Canberra that Australia was at war, and, at 10.25 Mr Shedden signed a memorandum to the Secretary of the Military Board, as to other Federal
departments, stating that “the action specified in the Commonwealth War Book for the War Stage (including that for the Precautionary Stage not yet taken) should be initiated forthwith”; at 11.47 a message that war had begun was sent to all military districts.
The action to be taken by Federal departments when war broke out was set out in the “Commonwealth War Book”, a thick loose-leaf volume which had been prepared by the senior staffs of the three fighting Services and the civil departments under the supervision of Mr Shedden and officers of the Department of Defence. The staffs of each of the fighting Services had prepared a companion volume, the army’s being the “War Book of the Australian Military Forces” in which the army’s plans were described in greater detail.
The plans of the little Australian Army provided for three stages of readiness. The signal for the adoption of the first stage was to be a decision by the Government that a state of tension existed. In this period the regular troops would man the coast defences and other precautionary measures would be taken. When the Government learnt that war was imminent a second precautionary series of preparations was to be adopted which would include preliminary steps to prepare for a war that would include the Far East. The plans anticipated that, on the actual declaration of war, the Government would direct the Chiefs of Staff of the fighting Services to prepare for either a war that was, likely to be restricted to the Middle East and Europe or against a war in which Japan was an enemy. If the war seemed likely to be confined to Europe and the Mediterranean the War Book plan anticipated that the Chiefs of Staff would be asked only to defend vital centres against raids. In a war in which Japan or any other Eastern Power was an enemy the Chiefs of Staff would be called upon to order full mobilisation and make ready to resist invasion.
Already on 24th August, in anticipation of a cablegram from London warning that war was imminent, the Defence Committee – that is to say the Chiefs of Staff of the three Services and the Secretary of the Defence Department – had met in Melbourne and decided to advise the Government to take certain precautions as soon as the message arrived. The committee recommended, for example, that additional troops be sent to Darwin, some guns installed at Port Kembla to protect the steel works there, and guards placed on certain “vulnerable points” such as factories, wireless stations and railway centres. On the 25th warning signals had been sent to the military districts, the commanders of independent formations, and the isolated garrisons at Darwin and Port Moresby informing them that “a state of tension” existed with Germany; some militia officers of the heavy artillery were called up; the emergency coast defences were installed at Port Kembla and forty-four regular soldiers were flown to Darwin, where the commandant was instructed to enlist a local militia force of up to 250 men. Arrangements were made to send rifles and ammunition to Port Moresby and Rabaul. On 1st September the following long-awaited warning telegram arrived from London: “Precautionary Stage Adopted Against Germany and Italy.” Next day proclamations were issued
declaring that a danger of war existed and formally calling out the citizen forces. By 8.15 a.m. on 2nd September all military districts had been ordered to man the coast defences though, for the present, only with permanent troops. On the 5th, after the formal declaration of war, it was announced that militiamen would be called up 10,000 at a time for sixteen days to provide relays of guards on “vulnerable points.”3
These were mere machine measures, and, since there seemed to be no sign of attack by Japan, the eyes of most Australians were fixed on a war in which they might have to shoulder their rifles and defend the status quo against Germany.
When the Federal Parliament met on 6th September Opposition members offered no criticism of the Government’s action in entering the war; it was soon evident that the burning question was whether or not Australia would send forces overseas – the problem which had coloured every debate on defence in that Parliament for more than twenty years. In a short opening statement the Prime Minister made no reference to that possibility, but the leader of the Opposition, Mr Curtin, who spoke next, said:
there ought not to be, but there may be, two major points of difference between the Government and ourselves. One is conscription, to which we are opposed. The other does not arise, in view of last night’s pronouncement by the Government that it does not contemplate expeditionary forces. Those two issues are, as the Government knows and as the country knows, issues upon which the Opposition is pledged, and we are determined to maintain the views and the principles for which we have stood and fought while we have been a party.4
In reply, the Minister for External Affairs, Sir Henry Gullett,5 said that he knew of no statement that the Government did not propose to send expeditionary forces overseas. “The Government had not yet seriously discussed the question”, he added.
The Government was allowing its decision as to what form its assistance to Britain would take to await consideration of advice from the British Government. That advice arrived on 8th September in a long cablegram from the Dominions Office expressing the opinions of the British Chiefs of Staff. The Dominions Office based its recommendations on two alternative hypotheses, first “that Japan is not only neutral but adopting a friendly attitude towards the democratic countries”, and secondly, “that Japan is neutral and reserving her attitude towards democratic countries.” The Australian Government was warned that there must be preparation for a long war. “We therefore hope,” the cablegram continued, “that Australia will exert her full national effort including preparation of her forces with a view to the dispatch of an expeditionary force.” It was not yet possible
to make any suggestion to the Commonwealth Government about the destination and composition of any expeditionary forces which they might see fit to provide, but the Commonwealth Government might like to consider whether it would prefer to relieve United Kingdom units and formations in, say, Singapore, Burma, or India as brigades became available, or would prefer to delay until complete divisions could be sent to a main theatre. The policy of the United Kingdom Government, the cablegram stated, was to avoid a rush of volunteers, but she would nevertheless welcome at once, for enlistment in United Kingdom units, technical personnel, such as fitters, electricians, mechanics, instrument mechanics, motor vehicle drivers and “officers with similar qualifications and medical officers.” If Japan gave no evidence of a friendly attitude, it might be thought unwise for Australia to dispatch an expeditionary force overseas but the Commonwealth Government could assist by holding formations ready at short notice for reinforcement of Singapore, New Zealand, or British and French islands in the Western Pacific.
It is probable that uncertainty about Japanese policy was not the only reason for the British Government’s hesitation to request military aid in the main theatre of war and the somewhat cautious tone of the communication. Britain lacked military equipment, and knew that the Dominions could not fully arm their own expeditionary forces; indeed that Australia, for example, was still awaiting the delivery of modest orders from Britain that had been lodged four years before. This general shortage had already set up in Britain a struggle for manpower between the fighting Services.
Until the Munich crisis Britain had been planning “a war of limited liability” in which only five regular divisions would be prepared for service on the Continent. After Munich, however, Britain reached an agreement with France whereby she would have thirty-two divisions (including six of regulars) ready for overseas service within a year after the outbreak of a war. This entailed doubling the territorial army; yet the equipment of the unexpanded territorial army was then no better than that of the Australian militia. After war broke out the British Government decided to prepare to equip fifty-five divisions – her own thirty-two and twenty-three from the Dominions, India and “prospective Allies.”6 This estimate was evidently based on an estimate that contingents from the Dominions would be on the scale of 1918, when there were six Australian divisions (including one mounted), four Canadian divisions, one “Anzac” mounted division and one New Zealand division in the field.7
It was already evident that it would be impossible for Australia to be at war and Australians to stand aloof. For example, to have withheld
the ships of the Australian Navy, if it was decided that they were more urgently needed in foreign waters, would have been morally indefensible, because, under the treaties of naval limitation which had expired only three years before, these ships had been reckoned as part of British naval strength. Moreover, for several years Australia had been sending batches of trained pilots to serve in the Royal Air Force and these young men were now with their squadrons on active service. Also the nucleus staff of an Australian flying-boat squadron was in England waiting to take delivery of their boats and fly them to Australia, and the British Government specifically asked that these men and their aircraft be allowed to remain in England at the Air Ministry’s disposal. Could these men be brought home leaving others to fly their boats in action? The Ministers could be certain that if no expeditionary force was raised no regulation could prevent Australians from finding their way to other Allied countries to enlist; and the British Government had already asked that professional men and technicians be allowed to volunteer for service in the British forces.
Not all Labour leaders were opposed to voluntary service overseas. For example, early in September Mr E. Dwyer-Gray, the Labour Premier of Tasmania, had said that his Government would approve the sending of a volunteer expeditionary force to New Guinea and Singapore, and on 15th September a meeting of the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council rejected a proposal that, if a voluntary force was raised, it should be used only in Australian territory.8 Nevertheless, most of those Labour members who broached the subject in the Federal Parliament on 6th September opposed an expedition on the ground that every man would be needed for home defence. “Australia, with its huge territory and sparse population,” said Mr Ward, for example, “cannot afford to send men out of this country to take part in the conflict overseas. They will be required here to defend Australia. ... I believe that if we defend Australia, we shall do all that can reasonably be expected of us.”9 Mr Blackburn said that he opposed voluntary recruiting for overseas service “as being the first step towards compulsion.”10 But Senator R. V. Keane said that “if ever there was an occasion on which the Labour party was interested in an overseas war it is now, because it is vitally concerned with the overthrow of that system which has plunged the world into this Armageddon.”11
Within a day after the declaration of war by Britain and France the Japanese Government shed a little light on its policy by informing the belligerents of its intention to remain not “neutral” but “independent.”
Thus, while fear that Japan would take advantage of the preoccupation of Britain and France in Europe had always to be taken into account, it appeared that, for the present, either she was too heavily committed in China – and Manchuria where a minor war against Russian frontier troops was in progress – or she intended to wait and see how affairs developed in Europe. Nevertheless plans for sending Australian expeditionary forces abroad had to take into account the possibility of both of Germany’s allies, Italy and Japan, being at war. In that event Britain and France would be outnumbered at sea and, unaided, could not command the oceans both in the West and the East. Moreover, the British and French Air Forces were inferior both in Europe and the East to those of their enemies or potential enemies.
In addition to fear of Japan, lack of equipment, and the opposition of the Labour party, there were other brakes on the sending abroad of a military force. One of these was the widespread conviction that, in the coming war, armies would play a far less important part than in the past. It had become apparent between the wars that the air forces would inflict greater damage in a future struggle than in 1914–18 and also that the increasing elaboration of the equipment of each of the fighting Services would require that a greater proportion of a belligerent’s manpower than hitherto would be needed in the factories and in the maintenance units of the forces. Enthusiasts had expounded these points with such extravagant eloquence that the impression had become fairly general that armies, and, in particular, infantry would play a minor part in the coming war, an impression which air force leaders and industrialists had done much to encourage.12 An additional brake on a full-scale war effort was the opinion not noised abroad but nevertheless widely entertained at the time by leaders in politics and industry in Australia as in England – and Germany – that an uneasy peace would be negotiated leaving Germany holding her gains in eastern and central Europe.
However, a chain of events had been set in motion and there could be no arresting it. War had been declared; Britain was in danger; Australians should be there. To probably a majority of Australians the problem was seen in as simple terms as that. And on 9th September the New Zealand Government, which faced a similar situation, announced that it had decided to raise a “special military force” for service in or beyond New Zealand, and as a first step 6,600 volunteers were to be enlisted. In Australia most of the newspapers had from the beginning urged that an expeditionary force be formed, and as days passed and no decision was announced, their demands became more vehement. “The outward complacency of a Federal Government actually engaged in carrying on a war,” declared the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, on 14th September, “is beginning to arouse more than astonishment among the Australian public.”
Finally, on the 15th, after Parliament had risen for the week-end, Mr Menzies, in a regular Friday night broadcast, announced that a force of one division and auxiliary units would be created-20,000 men in all – for service either at home or abroad “as circumstances permit.” At the same time, he said, the militia would be called up in two drafts each of 40,000 to receive a month’s continuous training, which would be extended if the situation demanded. The new infantry division, he said, would consist of one brigade group from New South Wales, one from Victoria and one from the smaller States (as had the 1st Division of the AIF of 1914). Privates and NCOs must be over 20 and under 35, subalterns under 30, Captains under 35, Majors under 40 and Lieut-Colonels under 45, and preference would be given to single men not in “essential civil jobs.”
We are at war (he said) as part of the British Empire. Our strategic position may very well change from time to time according to the alignment of the combatant nations. At present the prime necessity is to ensure the defence of Australia itself. But it would be wrong to assume that throughout the duration of the war our duty would continue to be as circumscribed as that. ... It may be that, under some circumstances, Australian forces might be used to garrison some of the Pacific islands, to cooperate with New Zealand, to release British troops at Singapore, or at other posts around the Indian Ocean. Under other circumstances it may be practicable to send Australian forces to Europe.
In the House of Representatives five days later he emphasised that he considered that, at least at first, the provision of a military force would be of secondary importance.
We have been in very close touch with the Government of the United Kingdom (he said) as to the most appropriate and effective means of rendering assistance, and we know from the communications which have passed between us, and from our study of the position generally, that – particularly during the first year of the war, when the production of military aircraft in Great Britain and France will be rapidly expanding, and when it may be anticipated that air warfare will be of predominating importance – the greatest possible assistance that can be given to Great Britain will be in the provision of trained air crews.13
In a broadcast address a week later he said “that Great Britain did not want Australia to send a large force of men abroad” and expressed the opinion that “any active help that Australia gave would be in the air.” “Every step we take,” he added, “must be well considered, and we must not bustle around in all directions as if we were just trying to create an illusion of activity. We must see that every step is a step forward.”14 On the other hand, on 8th September the British Government had spoken not of a division but divisions.
An additional curb on plans for a possible expeditionary force was provided by the fact that the army staff, acutely aware of their lack of equipment and the time it would take to acquire it, were anxious not to
lose their bird in the hand – the militia – whose strength was already being threatened by a policy of withdrawing men from it to serve in industry. When the people were told that the militia would be called up 10,000 at a time to continue training and to guard vulnerable points it was announced that “experts” would cull out militiamen in reserved or exempted occupations. Before the actual medical examination and attestation of recruits for the special force began a list of these occupations was published. This list, which followed closely a similar British list prepared as a necessary step towards rapid and full national mobilisation, military and industrial, was applied in Australia – a country which at this time was not contemplating such mobilisation, but merely the raising of forces far smaller relatively than European nations maintained in peace. It provided, for example, that tradesmen such as shearers and carpenters would not be accepted if they were over 30; foremen if over 25; brewing leading hands over 25; there was a complete ban on the enlistment of engineers holding degrees or diplomas. The list occupied three columns of small type in the newspapers. Later it was provided that men in reserved occupations might enlist if it was guaranteed that they would be employed in their trade capacity.
Added reason for the army staff’s anxiety about the militia was provided on 10th October – four days after Hitler’s peace offer to Britain and France – when the War Cabinet decided not to fill gaps caused by enlistment in the AIF and discharges to reserved occupations. Already the Government had decided to allow married men to transfer to the reserve after one month’s training. These decisions threatened to reduce the militia by half, since 10,000 vacancies in the AIF had been allotted to it, more than 6,000 men had been lost to the reserved occupations in the first few weeks of the war, and an additional 16,000 men of the force were married.
In September 1939 the militia had a strength of about 80,000, that is to say about 40 per cent of the full mobilisation strength of the four infantry and two cavalry divisions, the independent brigades and ancillary units. Considerably more than half the citizen soldiers of September 1939 had been in the force less than a year. All divisional and brigade commanders and most unit commanders had served as regimental officers in the war of 1914–18 and the junior officers had been trained under these experienced leaders,15 but the strength in veteran leaders in the senior ranks was offset by an extreme shortage of regular officers to fill key staff posts. A divisional commander was fortunate if he had two Staff Corps officers on his own staff, four as brigade majors and four or five as adjutants. Substantially the force was armed with the weapons which the AIF had brought back in 1919; the infantry with rifles, and Lewis and Vickers machine-guns; the artillery regiments with 18-pounder field guns and 4.5-inch howitzers. Most of the signal and engineer equipment was
obsolete nor was there enough to meet active service conditions. Obsolescence and deficiency are relative terms; there were armies in Europe which were not so well equipped as the Australian militia, but Australians judged their force by the standard of the British regular army. There were not enough anti-tank and modern anti-aircraft guns in Australia fully to equip one unit. The tank corps consisted of a small training section with a few out-dated tanks.
The only weapons that the Australian factories were manufacturing for the army were anti-aircraft guns of an out-dated type, rifles and Vickers machine-guns, though it was hoped soon to be producing Bren light machine-guns to replace the Lewis guns which were already decrepit and would soon be quite worn out, and machine-gun carriers and 3-inch mortars had been ordered. If the militia and the special force were to be modernly armed from Australian sources it would be necessary to manufacture field, anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, mortars, pistols, grenades, armoured fighting vehicles, a wide variety of other technical gear, and thousands of waggons. To meet these requirements would demand expenditure on factories and war material on a far higher scale than Australian Governments had hitherto contemplated.
On 29th September Mr Casey, the Minister for Supply and Development, submitted to the War Cabinet (which had been established the previous day) a proposal for capital expenditure on new munitions projects amounting to £.2,755,000 “to bring munitions production up to a condition whereby the war may be prosecuted effectively.” The largest item but one was £750,000 to build a second explosives filling factory at, perhaps, Albury, because the existence of only one such factory which a single air attack or a single accident might put out of action had long been an anxiety. This was agreed to; but the largest item, £855,000, to extend the Commonwealth’s only gun factory and its ammunition and explosives factories so that they could produce 25-pounder field guns and ammunition, was not approved. A few weeks later a proposal to buy 2,860 motor vehicles, including 664 motor cycles, for the militia and 784, including 180 motor cycles, for the new division was approved. Those numbers, however, would not equip either force for war, but only for training, the vehicles on the war establishment of one infantry division at that time being about 3,000.
In this way plans for adequately equipping the army in general and the AIF in particular were allowed to proceed at only cautious pace. The Treasury officials seemed resolved that the war should not be an excuse for undue extravagance on the part of the Services. Fortunately Casey’s department persisted in the proposal to make 25-pounder guns and, on 17th January, succeeded in obtaining Cabinet assent to the expenditure of £400,000 (less than half the original sum) to provide for the manufacture of 25-pounder field guns and 2-pounder anti-tank guns. There had then, however, been a delay of four months in initiating the manufacture of modern field guns, in spite of the fact that at the outset, in September, the War Cabinet had been told that the guns with which the militia was
equipped were “obsolete” although “quite effective for local defence”. This was a somewhat optimistic description of them, and, in any event, there were not enough to equip the AIF as well as the home army, as will be seen below.
In February the Treasury urged the War Cabinet that a brake be applied to orders of vehicles for the AIF “pending further consideration of the sphere in which 6th Division is to operate and if mechanical transport is to accompany it overseas”. There was some anxiety among the officials lest the shipping of vehicles to the Middle East might reduce the space available for wheat cargoes, and, in the same month, the Board of Business Administration suggested that orders for army vehicles be related to the shipping space available on the Middle East route. Whatever may have been the relative value to the war effort of a shipload of wheat and a shipload of military vehicles, the Treasury officials’ notion that the question whether or not the AIF was equipped with vehicles should be deferred until its destination was known was a strange one. The implications appear to be that, in certain areas of the Middle East and Europe, vehicles are not needed by an army, and that, in war, once an army is placed in an area it remains there for the duration.
Thus, the Government had called for volunteers for an expeditionary force, but on a minimum scale; and had approved a plan of militia training, but one which would take only 40,000 men at a time away from fields and factories. By 15th September it had approved expenditure on the fighting Services and munitions amounting to over £40,000,000 – as much, as Mr Menzies pointed out, as Australia had spent in 1915–16 “with the war in full blast and large forces overseas” – and the Services were asking for more and more. “I don’t say this with any pleasure,” said Menzies, “because I know what it means, and what a burden it means placing on you. But it completely disproves the ill-founded and damaging suggestion that Australia is hanging back.” Relative to pre-war military expenditure it was indeed a huge sum, but, in relation to the demands that would be made if full mobilisation became necessary, it was small indeed; and, in any circumstances, could be based only on an assumption that the greater part of the equipment the Australian forces needed could be bought from Britain.
Throughout October a decision about the future of the Second AIF, as the new force was named, was deferred. In a submission to the War Cabinet the three Chiefs of Staff16 emphasised the danger of attack by Japan, pointing out that the advice from the British Government had disregarded the possibility that Japan would be hostile. They said, however, that, by the end of December, if Japan was friendly, battalions or brigades of the AIF, though little more than rifles and bayonets could be spared to arm them, could be sent overseas to continue training and relieve
United Kingdom garrison units, but with a proviso that when fully trained and equipped they be reassembled in an Australian division. If Japan was hostile, no troops could be sent out of Australia except to reinforce Far Eastern garrisons and localities “as a measure of Australian defence.” The Chiefs of Staff recommended an increase totalling 15,000 to 20,000 in the peace establishment of the militia, and advised that, after the establishment of the first division, further recruitment for the special force be by way of the militia with very few exceptions. They opposed the recruitment of skilled technicians for the British Army. After considering these recommendations the War Cabinet decided, on 25th October, to inform the Dominions Office that the period needed to train the Second AIF even up to the stage where it might be possible to send units abroad for garrison duty and further training would “afford a further opportunity for the international position to clarify itself as to the possibility of the dispatch of an expeditionary force from Australia.” Meanwhile the staffing and organisation of that force proceeded. It was named the 6th Division, there being four infantry divisions and the elements of a fifth in the militia.
When war began the senior general on the active list of the Australian Army was Major-General Gordon Bennett,17 52 years of age, who had not held a command for seven years. After him came Major-General Sir Thomas Blamey, 55, who had been on the unattached list for two years, and then Major-General Lavarack, 53, who had been Chief of the General Staff since 1935 and had been on a tour of duty abroad since May 1939, while Lieut-General Squires acted both as Inspector-General and Chief of the General Staff. Next on the list were the Adjutant-General, Sir Carl Jess,18 55, who had been a brigade commander in France when the previous war ended, Major-General Phillips,19 57, Major-General Drake-Brockman,20 55, commanding the 3rd Division and Major-General Mackay,21 57, commanding the 2nd. Of these all but Bennett, Drake-Brockman and Mackay were or had been regular soldiers. Unless the Cabinet were either notably to disregard seniority or to recall a retired officer, it was from among these senior major-generals that the commander of the new force must be chosen. To find a leader aged, say, 50 or less, it would have been necessary to go far down the list to colonels of the Staff Corps such as V. A. H.
One of the senior candidates, Blamey, not only had the very substantial qualification of having been General Monash’s chief staff officer in France in 1918, but was well known to two leading members of the Cabinet. Mr Menzies had been Attorney-General in the Victorian Government when Blamey had been the Commissioner of Police and had then been impressed by Blamey’s firmness and clear thinking; Mr Casey had served as a junior to Blamey on Gallipoli and in France on the staff of the 1st Australian Division and the Australian Corps. These two ministers had decided at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938 that, by reason of both his ability and experience, Blamey was the man to command the Australian Army if war broke out. In this decision they had the support of at least one senior leader of the First AIF. Sir Brudenell White,25 who had been General Birdwood’s chief of staff, and later Chief of the General Staff in Australia, was not consulted but, after Blamey had been appointed, he said that he considered that Blamey was the only man who could cope with the political aspects of the task of a commander of a Dominion force overseas and, particularly, would be able to preserve the integrity of an Australian force abroad. White feared that unless a man was chosen who could deal firmly with such problems the Australian division would soon be split up into brigades by the British commander in the area and the force would begin to lose its identity and unity.
This decision passed over Bennett, a gallant and able fighting leader, but one whom some senior soldiers considered to lack the tactfulness needed in the commander of a Dominion force which had to cooperate closely with British and Allied armies. He had become widely known as an outspoken critic of weaknesses in Australian defence – evidence of his enthusiasm for his country and its army. It was a sharp disappointment also to Lavarack, when he arrived at Perth on 27th September on his way from England, to be told by Squires that he was not to command the 6th Division, but that Blamey probably would be selected. He learnt from Squires also that Squires himself was to be appointed to replace Lavarack permanently as Chief of the General Staff, the post of Inspector-General having lapsed, and that the Prime Minister had “announced (without reference to anybody) that the commands in that division would go to militiamen.” Lavarack was able to reflect that his service as a regular officer had been longer than Blamey’s, that it had included four years as
Chief of the General Staff, the most important post the peace-time army could offer. However, he had not won the confidence of the Ministers to the extent that Blamey had, nor – and this was to produce consequences which cannot be overlooked – did Blamey have as much confidence in Lavarack as in some of his juniors. The War Cabinet, at its first meeting on 28th September, appointed Squires as Chief of the General Staff, Blamey to command the 6th Division and Lavarack to the Southern Command.26
The new appointments all became effective on 13th October, on which day both Blamey and Lavarack were promoted to the rank of lieut-general, and the officers who had been chosen for the four new commands – Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western – took up their appointments. All of these were regular officers, and thus, while the principal staff officers at Army Headquarters and the four area commanders and their senior staff officers were regulars, the commander of the 6th Division and the generals leading the six home-service divisions were all militiamen.
Menzies’ statement that the commanders in the new force would be provided by the militia had caused chagrin not only to Squires and Lavarack, but to the regular officers generally. For nearly twenty years a sense of injustice and frustration had grievously affected the outlook of this corps. Not until 1935 and 1936 had most of the senior Duntroon graduates regained in the peace-time army the substantive rank and the pay they had won in the AIF. A number of their most enterprising members had resigned and had joined the British or the Indian Armies where they had gained more rapid promotion than those who remained in Australia. Promotion of militia officers had been relatively rapid so that some had risen from the ranks to lieut-colonels in ten years, while it had been usual for a Staff Corps officer, after having spent eight years as a lieutenant, to remain in the rank of captain for ten or, perhaps, twelve.27 The pre-war plan for the overseas force had provided that one-third of the commanding officers might be chosen from the Staff Corps; the corps mistakenly interpreted the Prime Minister’s statement as meaning that regular officers were to be debarred from commands in the new AIF. In fact, however, before the 6th Division was fully organised one Staff Corps officer had been appointed to command a unit,28 and, before the division went into action one of its brigadiers and several commanding officers were regulars. But the effect of the omission of regular officers from the first list of appointments to AIF commands was to make the
corps more firmly resolved than ever to defend its interests – in fact to make it to a greater degree a compact and defensive group within the army as a whole.29
The commander of the new division, General Blamey, was born in 1884 at Wagga, in New South Wales, the son of a rural worker. After working as a schoolteacher he obtained in 1906 a commission in the Administrative and Instructional Staff – the corps to which were allotted most of the regular officers in that period. In 1912 and 1913 he attended the Staff College at Quetta in India and was on exchange duty in India and England until the end of 1914 when, as a major, he was appointed to the general staff of the 1st Australian Division. Afterwards General Gellibrand, then a fellow major on the staff of the division, wrote of him as he was at that time: “Short of stature, rugged in appearance, it took some little time to discover that behind that broad forehead there was well seated an unusual brain, and that the square jaw denoted not obstinacy and lack of tact, but quiet resolution and a calm and definite power of expression.”30 He joined the 1st Division at the beginning of its training in Egypt, landed with it at Anzac, and served with it and later with the 2nd Division in the Gallipoli campaign during which his explorations of the front line and in no-man’s land gave evidence of his personal bravery. Recognised as a very able officer, in July 1916, when only 32, he was appointed senior staff officer (GSO1) of the 1st Division with the rank of lieut-colonel and in June 1918 General Monash, who had just been appointed to command the Australian Corps, took Blamey with him as his senior staff officer, with the rank of brigadier-general.
Monash, himself a brilliant organiser, and one for whose intellect and breadth of view the young Blamey had great respect, wrote of his chief of staff that “he possessed a mind cultured far above the average, widely informed, alert and prehensile. He had an infinite capacity for taking pains.” His orders, Monash added, “were accurate, lucid in language, perfect in detail, and always an exact interpretation of my intention.”31
When the war ended Blamey, though he was only 34, was one of the most senior of those regular Australian officers whose wartime experience had been in command or in general staff appointments. In 1920 he was appointed Deputy Chief of the General Staff in Australia, and from 1922 to 1925 served as Australian representative at the War Office in London. Soon after his return to Australia he was appointed Chief Commissioner of Police in Victoria, where recently the police force had passed through a dangerous crisis and for a time had been on strike. He held this appointment until 1936 when he resigned and was replaced by a professional police officer.
General Monash’s praise did no more than justice to the swiftness and clarity of Blamey’s mind, his quick appreciation of the essentials of any
problem that faced him and his power of logical analysis and clear decision. The political aspects of a military problem were within his grasp. He won the regard of almost all the political leaders with whom he was in close touch because he was above all a realist and could offer them a well-defined line of policy, clearly and firmly presented. By experience and temperament he was well fitted to cope with the problems of a commander of a Dominion expeditionary force and to steer a course between his loyalty to the Ministers at home and a perhaps conflicting loyalty to a British or Allied commander-in-chief in the field. In his time as chief of Monash’s staff the AIF had fought next to French, British, Canadian, and American troops in circumstances often calling for diplomatic judgment in balancing the interests of his country with the general interest. It was this quality and experience which led old AIF chiefs to back him in 1939 for command of the Second AIF
A gap in his otherwise wide experience was the brevity of his service as a regimental officer. In France he had commanded a battalion for three weeks and a brigade for six; otherwise his service had been on the staff. And in any event he had qualities of temperament that would probably have ensured that he achieved greater success as a staff officer or senior commander than as a leader of a unit or a formation. As a junior he kept to himself and made few close friends. In later life, to those who crossed his path he was hard and unsympathetic. Insubordination or criticism were not forgiven. His juniors were more likely to fear than love him, for he lacked Birdwood’s ability to win a deeply affectionate response from his subordinates. The rank and file regarded him as a tough leader of undoubted capacity and were ready to trust his decisions; but to many of them the fact that he had the reputation of being a bon viveur was a bar to warmer feelings. Although when he addressed the troops he almost invariably spoke wisely and impressively, he had little talent for – probably no interest in – the astute and carefully managed words and gestures when moving among his men that help to create in the soldier’s mind a picture of the good general.
Two of the infantry brigade commanders whom Blamey chose – Allen and Morshead – had led battalions in the war of 1914–18 when they were still in their twenties. The third, Savige,32 after service as an NCO at Gallipoli and as a subaltern in France, had commanded a small independent force in action in Kurdistan in 1918. Allen of the 16th was a chartered accountant by profession and a devoted amateur soldier who had been first commissioned in 1913 at the age of 19 under the universal training system. At 24 he was leading his battalion (the 45th) in the battle of Dernancourt, for the last six years he had commanded the 14th Infantry Brigade. Blunt in speech, honest as the day, choleric yet kindly, completely without affectation or pomposity, he was a leader of a kind that appeals immediately to Australians. His military lore was drawn
from experience rather than study, and was based on a wide and sympathetic knowledge of men in battle. Because of his short stature and heavy build he was affectionately nicknamed “Tubby”.
Savige had returned from the previous war late and had had to struggle to re-establish himself in civil life, eventually founding a successful business in the city of Melbourne. This experience, combined with his warm and sympathetic nature, made him a leader in the Legacy Club movement. He also found time to serve in the militia in which, in 1935, he was appointed to command the 10th Brigade. He was a skilful manager of men, using an easy friendly manner and a slanginess of speech to decrease the distance that separated him from his subordinates. He was a sage leader in battle whose approach to all problems was practical and objective. He could write clearly and interestingly and enjoyed writing, whether it was orders and doctrine for future operations or accounts of past battles; he had a sense of history and the doings of his commands were usually more fully recorded than those of companion formations.
The third brigadier, Morshead, was by 1918 standards the senior of the three. He had been a young captain at the landing on Gallipoli, had commanded a battalion from April 1916 onwards, and for seven years had been a brigade commander in the militia. Before the war of 1914–18 he had been a schoolmaster, and after it became a branch manager of the Orient Line, but continued to devote himself to spare-time soldiering with keen enthusiasm.33 To each brigade was allotted a regular officer as its brigade major: I. R. Campbell,34 to the 16th Brigade, B. W. Pulver35 to the 17th, and (in January 1940) A. R. Garrett36 to the 18th.
Blamey chose to command his artillery E. F. Herring,37 a leading Melbourne barrister who had served with distinction in the British Army in the previous war, having been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when it began. Herring had joined the militia in 1922, and for ten years had commanded artillery regiments.
When the brigadiers began to choose commanding officers for their units they found among their fellow officers some hesitation due to a conviction that the new division was merely the nucleus of a wartime “regular” army and no more likely to go abroad than were the militia formations. One officer Allen sought as a battalion commander wished to wait until an armoured force was formed; others were on the verge of promotion to the command of brigades in the militia and were unwilling
to accept battalions in the new force; one failed in the medical test (but passed a later test and served through four arduous campaigns). In Victoria, Savige decided that he would recommend three commanding officers who had seen active service, including one from the cavalry (for which no place had been provided in the new division except in the mechanised reconnaissance regiment – the equivalent of the divisional cavalry of 1914) and one who belonged to the new generation. Morshead, a Sydney man, had the difficult task of selecting commanding officers from the less populous States, and consequently men whom he was not likely to know personally.
Finally, of the twelve battalion commanders chosen, eight had served in the first AIF and four had been too young to do so. The upper age limit of 45 for lieut-colonels was not strictly observed and the ages of a number of officers in lower ranks also exceeded the limits that had been set, sometimes because no other suitable applicants were available. To have strictly observed the limits would have excluded practically all majors and captains who had served in 1914–18, yet some of the unit commanders wished to have two or three such officers to provide a leaven of experience. The oldest battalion commander, for example, was J. W. Mitchell38 who at 26 had commanded the 8th Battalion in France and who at 48 was given the 2/8th to form; the youngest was J. E. G. Martin,39 35, appointed to form the 2/9th (Queensland) Battalion. Command of the mechanised reconnaissance regiment, later to be named the divisional cavalry regiment, was given to M. A. Fergusson,40 43, who had served in the artillery in the First AIF and in 1939 commanded a light horse regiment in Victoria. Two out of the four artillery commanders first chosen were too young to have served in the last AIF. The commanding officers of the technical arms were citizen soldiers who had served in the last war and who had relevant professional qualifications. The senior engineer officer was C. S. Steele,41 a consulting engineer of Melbourne in civil life; the chief signals officer, J. E. S. Stevens,42 a senior officer in the Postmaster-General’s Department. N. B. Loveridge,43 who was appointed to command the Army Service Corps was a militiaman who had been a subaltern in the corps on Gallipoli in 1915.
Blamey chose as his senior staff officer or “0.1” (first-grade general staff officer) Lieut-Colonel Rowell, who has been mentioned earlier. Rowell’s service in the previous war had been brief; he had been invalided to Australia after six months’ service as a subaltern in a light horse regiment on Gallipoli. Between the wars he graduated at the Staff College in England and was the first Duntroon man to attend the Imperial Defence College, training ground of future senior commanders.44 He was clear and incisive in thought, sensitive in feeling, frank and outspoken in his approach to men and to problems. Five recent years of service either at English staff colleges or on exchange duty made it probable that wherever he went his opposite numbers in British formations would be men with whom he had previously worked and played. The Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General, or senior administrative officer of the division was Colonel G. A. Vasey,45 who had served as an artillery officer and later as a brigade major in the First AIF in 1915–18, graduated at the Staff College at Quetta in 1930, and spent more than two years with the Indian Army from 1934 to 1937. Highly strung, thrustful, hard-working, Vasey concealed a deeply emotional even sentimental nature behind a mask of laconic and blunt speech. Although he was appointed to head the administrative staff there burned within him a desire to lead Australians as a commander. Both he and Rowell were not only efficient soldiers but men of commanding temperament and wide talent.46
So intricate was the equipment problem facing the new force that to generalise about it too broadly can be misleading. During the years of shortage such generalisation was the fashion among publicists and politicians who sought a simple answer to a complex situation. One critic would discover that the panacea was the dive-bomber, another that the Allied armies needed only more tanks to win an early victory, or a larger anti-tank gun, or new tactics, or more fighter aircraft, or more “Tommy guns”. These suggested solutions overlooked the fact which soldiers had for years been underlining, that to face a German army, for example, on equal terms, a force must have a large variety of weapons, vehicles and other equipment. A commander might have tanks and guns in plenty, but for lack of telephone wire, or water waggons, or spare parts for motor trucks, or bridging material, the battle could be lost.
Since the early years of the century a basic principle of defence agreements between the members of the British Commonwealth was that they
should organise and equip their forces similarly. In effect this meant that the Dominions should adopt British equipment and organisation because Britain alone carried out the research and experiment upon which changes could be founded, and this they had largely done. In 1939, however, the British Army was in process of discarding her 1918 weapons and re-equipping with new weapons of almost every category. This re-equipment necessitated a radical reorganisation of the division and this had been carried out in some regular divisions of the British Army. In Australia, however, the organisation of the fighting units differed in only minor respects from that of 1918. The problem which faced the staff was whether to adopt the new organisation in the hope that, later, the force would receive the new equipment, or to adhere to the old organisation, under which Australia could provide most of her own needs – a problem complicated by the fact that Australia had offered to equip the first brigade group of the new force herself, while the remainder were to be equipped from British factories. The final decision was a compromise: to adopt some features of the new organisation and retain some of the old. For example, each of the three infantry brigades at the outset included four battalions, not three as in the new British Army. In consequence of this and other differences between the Australian and British organisation the establishment of the 6th Division was 16,528, which was 3,336 more than that of a British division.
A second problem was one which had faced the staff in 1914, namely to organise a division in which quotas of all arms were provided by each State. This was done by following closely the organisation of the 1st Division of the First AIF. Thus the 16th Brigade, like the 1st Brigade of 1914, was to consist of four battalions raised in NSW, the 2/1st, the 2/2nd, 2/3rd and 2/4th, the prefix 2/ distinguishing them from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, which were among the NSW battalions of the militia and to which belonged the Battle Honours of the corresponding units of the old AIF47 The 17th Brigade (2/5th, 2/6th, 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions) was to be recruited in Victoria. In the 18th Brigade, the 2/9th Battalion and two companies of the 2/12th were to be recruited in Queensland, the 2/10th in South Australia, the 2/11th in Western Australia and the remainder of the 2/12th in Tasmania.48 The recruiting of the reconnaissance regiment, the artillery and other arms were allotted similarly among the States, an unwieldy procedure but one which local sentiment demanded.49
It was decided that the shoulder patch of each unit should be identical with that of the equivalent unit in the First AIF, but with a narrow
border of grey cloth to distinguish the new units from similarly numbered units of the militia. Later another outward sign of membership of the AIF was added – the word “Australia” in metal at the outer edge of each shoulder strap.
Nevertheless, beyond the system of numbering described above, the shoulder patch, and an instruction that commanders of AIF units were to choose their officers from certain groups of militia units (thus avoiding competition) no effective link was established between the AIF and the home army, with unhappy results that became apparent within a few weeks and were to persist until the end of the war. When describing the mutinies that followed the disbandment of Australian battalions in the previous war, Bean50 recorded that General White always strongly wished that it had been possible to tie the AIF battalions to the corresponding regiments of the citizen forces in Australia, “so that the home regiment fed battalions or even companies overseas as in the New Zealand.” It was perhaps surprising that commanders and staffs, generally so anxious to follow British military tradition, should again have discarded the British regimental system whereby the number of battalions in each regiment was increased or decreased as the occasion demanded, but each new battalion inherited the history of and was formed and maintained by an historic regiment.
Although, in the 6th Division of 1939, the old organisation was followed in that the brigades had four battalions, the individual battalions were ordered to adopt the British shape soon after their formation. Thus, at the outbreak and after, Lieut-Colonel Cook’s51 5th Battalion of the militia at South Melbourne consisted of a headquarters wing which was chiefly administrative, two rifle companies, equipped also with a light machine-gun to each platoon, and a support company which included a platoon armed with mortars and two armed with Vickers machine-guns. But, after the first few weeks, the 2/5th Battalion, which Cook was chosen to command, consisted of a headquarters company of six platoons (signals, mortar, carrier, pioneer, anti-aircraft, and transport and administrative), and four rifle companies each of three platoons, each of three sections. Eventually, when the weapons were available, each section would possess one of the new Bren light machine-guns, a lighter, more accurate and more rugged weapon than the Lewis; each platoon would have, in addition, a 2-inch mortar and one of the new single-shot anti-tank rifles firing a i-inch bullet. The mortar platoon would be armed with two 3-inch mortars, the carrier platoon with ten carriers armed with Brens.
Another innovation was the addition to the division of the mechanised cavalry regiment, mentioned above, which was to be equipped with forty-four carriers and twenty-eight light tanks, the carriers armed each with a
Bren and an anti-tank rifle, the tanks each with a heavy and a medium machine-gun – a belt-fed gun firing a .303 bullet.
The artillery units also were reorganised to conform with the new British tables. Whereas the militia artillery “brigades” included two batteries of 18-pounder guns and one of 4.5-inch howitzers, the new units would be called “regiments”52 and consist of two batteries each of twelve of the new 25-pounders which could do the work both of gun and howitzer. Pending the arrival of the new guns an alternative organisation provided that each battery of the Australian regiments included eight 18-pounders and four howitzers. The division included also an anti-tank regiment, to be equipped with 2-pounder guns. To carry its heavy equipment, its stores and ammunition, each division was to have 3,163 vehicles, including 349 30-cwt and 206 3-ton lorries. Australia could raise and train a division on the new model but only partly equip it out of local resources.