Australian History Essay - Contributions in World War 2

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JJ Selwyn IV DJM

How significant a contribution did Australian troops make to the course and outcome of World War II?

During World War II, of the 7 million people who lived in Australia, 550 000 served overseas in the armed forces. While this was a high proportion of the population and they all fought bravely in battle, it still can not be said that their efforts made a significant contribution to the course and outcome of the war. In campaigns such as Tobruk and El Alamein in North Africa and, primarily, Papua New Guinea, the Australian troops gave a good account of themselves and made significant contributions to the battles in each of these areas. However, in comparison to battles in the European theatre of war such as Leningrad and Stalingrad where the German progression was halted, the Australian troop’s contribution can not be considered a vital part in the course or outcome of the war. As Joan Beaumont, lead historian at Monash University assessed, “Only in stemming the Japanese advance across Papua in 1942 can Australia claim to have made a decisive contribution to the war”.

Firstly, the Australian troops played a significant part in the Tobruk campaign in North Africa. Tobruk is a small port on the coast of Libya and at the time its importance lay in the fact that its harbour was the only safe and accessible port for over 1600km. The Allied forces knew that if they were able to occupy this area, it would threaten the German advance into Cyrenaica.

The fighting began on the 21st and 22nd of January 1941, when Australian troops from the 6th division, along with other members of the allied forces defeated a defending force of approximately 30 000 Italians. German forces landed in Tobruk just 2 weeks after this, commanded by General Erwin Rommel, and prepared to launch a siege on the port. The events that followed show the Australian troops bravery and courage. On the 10th of April, the German forces began their siege on Tobruk which was being defended by 10 000 allied troops including 4 brigades of the Australian 7th and 9th divisions. This position was held by the allies for an amazing 242 days in which they consistently were under fire from German attacks. It is clear here that the Australians made a significant contribution to this battle, but it was not a battle which was going to have huge repercussions on the rest of World War II as the Germans campaigns in Europe which were raging at the same time were more vital to the entire course and outcome of the war.

When judging the Australian’s contribution to this battle, it can be found in the courage and bravery with which they fought. German commander Erwin Rommel wrote “The Australians fought with remarkable tenacity….they were immensely big and powerful men, who without question represented an elite formation of the British Empire”. What makes the contribution even more admirable is the fact that they fought in the face of incredibly hard conditions and with limited resources. Temperatures each day exceeded 40 degrees Celsius and water was hard to come by, as Rommel wrote “water is very short in Tobruk…one’s thirst becomes almost unquenchable”. Australian leadership was another factor that was present at Tobruk. General Leslie Morshead, known to his men as “Ming the Merciless” commanded the allied forces from 10th April to the 22nd of October. He was a harsh and tough commander who brought discipline to his forces. It was his determined attitude that helped the forces to hold out for such a long time. This attitude is displayed in the comments that he made to his staff, “there is to be no surrender and no retreat”.

This battle also proved to provide a much needed morale boost to the Allied forces and the home front as well as removing the idea that the German forces were undefeatable. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister wrote to the Australians “The entire empire is watching your steadfast and spirited...
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