Australia during World War II

Australian troops plough through mud at Milne Bay, New Guinea (north of Australia) in 1942.
Map of Australia, with the city of Darwin in the north.
A small Japanese war vessel bombed by a U.S. bomber in 1944.
Territories controlled by Japan in 1942 shown in green. Japan itself is shown in dark green.

Australia participated on the side of Britain and the other Allied powers in World War II. As a consequence, during this war, in 1941, Australian troops battled Erwin Rommel’s German army in North Africa. At the same time, the Japanese military, an ally of Germany, started to move south through Southeast Asia. The Japanese rapidly conquered British Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, and in early 1942 stood at Australia’s doorstep, carrying out bombing raids over Darwin. All Australians’ worst nightmare had now become a reality; the dreaded “Yellow Peril” was attacking their country.

Attacks on Australia

As a response to the Japanese threat, Aussie soldiers were quickly ordered home from North Africa, and the United States was called on for help. Subsequently, while Japanese forces continued to bomb targets in Australia, pressured Australians and fast-responding U.S. military contingents met up and regrouped. A combined force of Australian and American soldiers, after having drawn up a tactic, then launched a counter-attack with the goal of quashing Japan’s imperialist ambitions altogether. Harsh fighting ensued in the air, at sea and in the jungle, and the Asia Pacific region, from this moment, would not see peace for over three years.

Australian prisoners of war

Finally, by 1945, Japan and the rest of Australia’s wartime enemies had been defeated, albeit with heavy losses on all sides. Counting casualties among Australians alone, the number of war dead reached the tens of thousands, with several thousand soldiers having succumbed as prisoners of war held by the Japanese. Even so, many POWs remained alive in the Japanese camps, and came out as scrawny copies of their former selves when they were liberated by the end of the war. Their terrible condition was the natural result of years of malnutrition and neglect.

Victorious but vulnerable

When the malnourished POWs had returned home and the euphoria from winning World War II had subsided, the Australians realized that their country was more vulnerable than they had previously thought. During the war, former world superpower and longtime ally Britain, whom the Australians had counted on for defense, had been too weak to save them from attack, and Australia itself, in 1942, had nearly been conquered. Australia, it was therefore concluded, needed to boost its own defenses to be safe for the future.