Section 6: Anniversaries

This year, 2014, is the 100th anniversary of the first year of the First World War.

First World War

Australia, like the other parts of the British Empire, was not consulted about the decision to declare war with Germany. Nonetheless, Australia did not demur and as Neville Meaney has written ‘those thin attenuated cables which had carried the message from London became chains of immense power, ineluctably drawing the Pacific Commonwealth into a great European conflict’ (Australia and world crisis 1914–1923, Sydney University Press, 2009, p. 3).

Australia was indeed being driven closer to major war in Europe, but during the remaining months of 1914 the war was considerably closer to home.

Bitapaka, 11 September 1914

Australia’s war started in German New Guinea on 9–11 September 1914 when personnel from the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force (AN&MEF) landed at Rabaul and Kabakaul Bay with the intention of forcing the surrender of the German authorities in the colony. The Kabakaul party headed down the Bitapaka Road in search of a German wireless station that was known to be in the area and it was here that the first casualties of Australia’s war occurred. The advancing Australians met a group of Melanesian soldiers under the command of German officers with one, Sergeant Major Mauderer, wounded in the hand (later amputated without anaesthetic).

In the somewhat confused fighting on the road and in the surrounding jungle Australia suffered a number of casualties with Able Seaman William Williams of Northcote Victoria becoming the first death of the war.

The attack on the wireless station also resulted in Lieutenant Bond winning the DSO. The citation reads:

On 11th September, 1914 during the attack upon the wireless station, Bita Paka, German New Guinea, Lieutenant Bond displayed conspicuous ability and coolness under fire in leading his men through most difficult country and enforcing the terms of surrender whilst drawing off an attack by another body of the enemy. He showed great daring, when accompanied by only one officer and one man, in suddenly disarming eight Germans in the presence of twenty German native troops drawn up under arms, all of whom were marched off and held prisoners. Later he personally captured five armed natives.

The wireless station was captured, albeit badly damaged, with the loss of 7 Australian lives. One German officer and thirty Melanesian troops were also killed. The German Governor surrendered the colony on 17 September 1914.

Further reading: G Swinden, ‘First to fight! The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force and the capture of New Guinea’, The Navy, v.71(2), April–June 2009; C Coultard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, 2nd edn, Crows Nest, Allen and Unwin, 2001, pp. 96–97.


The loss of Australia’s first submarine AE1 on 14 September 1914 while patrolling off the coast of New Guinea resulted in the deaths of all 35 crew members. AE1 was Australia’s first submarine and was almost new at the time of her loss, having been built by Vickers in their shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness during 1913.

During September 1914 AE1 was part of the forces taking part in the capture of German New Guinea. On the day of her loss she was patrolling with the destroyer HMAS Parramatta (I) in St George’s Channel to the south and east of the Duke of York Islands. The two vessels became separated during the afternoon and AE1 was never seen again. The wreck has not been found and the exact cause of the tragedy has never been established.

The Royal Australian Navy is planning to use HMAS Yarra (a Huon Class minehunter) to search for AE1 around the 100th anniversary of its loss.

More information can be found on the website of AE1 Incorporated, an organisation dedicated to finding the wreck of the submarine.

Further reading: P Briggs, ‘What happened to AE1?’, Headmark, no. 142, December 2011.

Cocos Islands—Emden, 9 November 1914

The German light cruiser SMS Emden had commenced raiding allied shipping in the Indian Ocean almost as soon as war was declared. On 9 November 1914 the Emden arrived at the Cocos Islands intent on destroying the wireless station on Direction Island and cutting one of the underwater communications cables which linked Australia to Great Britain. Unbeknown to the Emden’s captain, Carl von Muller, the first troop convoy to leave Australia was only 80 km from the Cocos Islands and HMAS Sydney was excused from escort duties in order to investigate.

The Emden sailed out to meet the larger and faster Sydney, but was outmatched and 90 minutes later the battle was well and truly over and Captain Glossop was able to signal ‘Emden beached and done for’.

Further reading: R Nichols, ‘Emden beached and done for’, Wartime, Spring 2001; M Carton, ‘First victory: 1914’, North Sydney, Random House, 2013.

Second World War

Shaggy Ridge, New Guinea, 19–31 January 1944

Shaggy Ridge is a long ridge line which is the highest part of the Finnistere Ranges in what was then north-eastern New Guinea. It was steep and difficult terrain and during December 1943 and January 1944 it was the scene of intense fighting as the attacking Australians pushed towards the north east coast attempting to wrest the Huon Peninsula from the Japanese. During the second half of January 1944 the 18th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Frederick Chilton, took part in Operation Cuthroat. The aim of this operation was to capture Kankiryo Saddle, at the northern end of the Ridge. The Japanese defenders contested this advance with great vigour. When the 18th had taken Kankiryo Saddle the Japanese continued to fight from Crater Hill which overlooked the saddle. By this time they were all but surrounded, and by 31 January those who had not been killed or wounded retreated. The 18th Brigade suffered  46 deaths and 147 casualties. The Japanese are thought to have suffered up to 500 casualties.

Further reading: C Coultard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, 2nd edn, Crows Nest, Allen and Unwin, 2001, pp. 245–246; D Dexter, The New Guinea offensives, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1961, pp. 680–755; Australian War Memorial, Shaggy Ridge operations (website); Department of Veterans’ Affairs, To Shaggy Ridge, Australia’s War 1939–45.

Cowra—Japanese prisoner break-out, 5 August 1944

On 5 August 1944, Japanese prisoners of war housed at the detention camp in Cowra, NSW, attempted to break out. Many of the POWs were armed and the guards opended fire on the would-be escapees. Some 231 prisoners were killed, along with four Australians.

National Archives of Australia factsheet 198: Cowra break-out 1944.

Harry Gordon, Die like a carp!: the story of the greatest prison escape ever, Stanmore, NSW, Cassell, 1978.

Steve Bullard, Blankets on the wire; the Cowra breakout and its aftermath, Australia Japan Research Project, Australian War Memorial, 2006.

C Coultard-Clark, Where Australians fought: the encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, 2nd edn, Crows Nest, Allen and Unwin, 2001, pp. 246–247

Leyte Gulf, October 1944

Few Australian ground forces played a part in the campaign to reclaim the Philippines from the Japanese which took place from October 1944. The Australian Government and General Douglas MacArthur had been unable to reach an agreement about the involvement of Australian troops with MacArthur wanting two Australian Divisions strictly under his control and the Curtin Government unwilling to cede so much control.

As a result of this lack of agreement, Australia’s main involvement in the campaign to retake the Philippines was through the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Australian Air force (RAAF).  Many of Australia’s casualties in the campaign to retake the Philippines were the result of kamikaze attacks and of these the majority were against the Country Class heavy cruiser HMAS Australia.

The Americans decided that the initial attack would be at Leyte Island  for the simple reason that they had identified that Japanese defences were weak there. The target date, named ‘A day’, was set for 20 October 1944.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ provides some background to Australian involvement on its Australia’s War 1939–45 website:

As the naval invasion fleet approached Leyte, at its forefront was a hydrographical survey group plotting and marking the approaches to the beaches. It included the Australian frigate HMAS Gascoyne and Fairmile motor launch HDML 1074 laying buoys to mark the approach channels. The ships that followed delivering American troops included the three Australian landing ships, or LSIs (Landing Ships, Infantry), HMA Ships Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia. As well as the Americans on board, they carried landing craft to ferry the troops ashore. On board also were several Australian soldiers who served in landing craft liaison teams. Protecting the force were many more Allied warships including the Australian cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Shropshire and the destroyers HMA Ships Arunta and Warramunga. The warships bombarded enemy positions on the shore before sailing further out to sea to protect the flanks of the invasion fleet.

In the days that followed, the Allied ships endured repeated air attacks as the Japanese reacted to the landing. The Australia became the first Allied warship struck by a kamikaze (suicide) aircraft when it was rammed on 21 October. Thirty of Australia’s crew, including Captain Emile Dechaineux DSC, were killed or died of wounds. Another 64 men, including a soldier who was a member of a liaison team from the Army’s 1st Australian Naval Bombardment Group, were wounded; 26 of these were classified as seriously wounded with burns and shrapnel wounds. Badly damaged, the Australia was escorted out of the battle area by the Warramunga for repairs. The Shropshire and Arunta stayed on battle station and took part in the Battle of Surigao Strait, part of the wider Battle of Leyte Gulf, in which the Allied naval forces defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attempt to attack the invasion fleet.

Further reading: Robert Nichols, ‘The first kamikaze attack’, Wartime, Issue 28, 1 October 2004.

Vietnam War

45 years since the battle of Binh Ba, 6–7 June 1969

Binh Ba, a village located adjacent to a rubber plantation and less than 10 km from Nui Dat, was the scene of the last large-scale action fought by Australian troops in Vietnam. The fight at Binh Ba began when a Centurion tank was hit by a rocket propelled grenade fired from a house in the village. The tank retreated but a ready reaction force from 1ATF comprised of troops from 5RAR and armoured units returned to the village to clear it of enemy combatants. At first it was thought that the enemy force was light but it soon became apparent that this was not the case and it took the rest of 6 June to take the village and 7 and 8 June to clear the surrounding plantation. Fighting predominantly in a town and with armoured support was a relatively unusual occurrence for the Australians in Vietnam. Australian losses were 1 dead and 10 wounded with the presence of the tanks considered a vital factor. 

Further reading: B Davies and G McKay, Vietnam: the complete story of the Australian war, Allen and Unwin, 2012, pp. 439–448; A Ekins and I McNeill, Fighting to the finish: the Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1968–1975, Allen and Unwin and the Australian War Memorial, 2012, pp. 210–230; Department of Veterans Affairs’, Battle of Binh Ba June 1969, Australia and the Vietnam War.


It is 11 years since the US-led invasion of Iraq. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History describes the reasons for Australia’s decision to offer military support to the invasion of Iraq in the following terms:

(Prime Minister) Howard saw the Iraq conflict as another phase in a battle against worldwide terrorism that commenced after Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001. Under Howard the Australian Government reverted to the policy of forward defence of the Menzies era. He accepted that the basis of Australian national security included national interest not just physical territory. The support of Australia’s alliance with the United States was a cornerstone of his national security policy.

To that end an announcement was made on 1 February 2003 by Defence Minister, Robert Hill, on the planned forward deployment of some RAAF units to prepare for a potential military campaign against Iraq. On 7 February 2003 the Defence Minister announced the final forward deployments of a Special Forces Task Group, a Navy clearance diving team and other elements.

Operation Catalyst began on 16 July 2003 as the successor to Operations Falconer and Bastille. Operation Bastille was the name given to the forward deployment of ADF assets and personnel between January and March 2003. Operation Falconer, which began on 18 March 2003, was the name given to Australia’s contribution to the coalition to disarm Iraq. Australian combat troops were to stay in Iraq until June 2008.

On 11 May 2009 the Department of Defence announced that Operation Catalyst would cease on
31 July 2009 with the withdrawal of the last service personnel. The only ADF personnel left in Iraq were those guarding the Australian Embassy and two people attached to the United Nations (UN) mission. More than 20,000 ADF personnel saw service in Iraq during these years.


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