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Research essay
Australian Pacific War unit histories
Richard Pelvin


The Oxford companion to Australian military history effectively defines unit histories as those produced by Army unit associations after the end of each of the World Wars. Mostly the units are of battalion equivalent. For the purposes of this paper this definition will be expanded to take into account the other services. Consequently, RAN ship and RAAF squadron histories are included. However, by sheer force of numbers Army unit histories will necessarily dominate this short discussion. The works consulted are essentially those listed in the Australian War Memorial’s guide Access to published unit histories which provides the basis of the annotated bibliography. A shorter bibliography, confined to works listed in this discussion, is appended at its conclusion.


The AWM guide lists over 150 histories. Mostly the Army histories follow a standard pattern. The history is commissioned by the battalion/regiment etc. association. The author is usually a member of the association or, like Corfield and Graeme-Evans, is in some way connected to it. A number of associations commissioned outside authors who specialise in battalion histories, such as Trigellis-Smith or Ronald Austin. More recently, academic studies such as Barter’s excellent Far above battle have appeared.


The most basic histories are simply compilations of reminiscences, poems and copies of newspaper cuttings and official documents. They are aimed specifically at an insider audience and add little to the knowledge of those who are not part of the unit culture, while no doubt having meaning for those who are.

The standard unit history usually commences with an introduction or foreword by a former significant member of the unit, usually a former commanding officer or someone who has achieved prominence later. The story of the unit’s war service is then outlined. Typically the history will include a nominal roll, a roll of honour and a list of honours and awards, often with citations. Maps, often of a high standard, are normally included as are illustrations, which are usually drawn from AWM or private sources. Sourcing and indexing is not common, especially in the case of histories published by battalion associations without access to sophisticated publishing techniques.

Many of the ship histories, especially those published by the Naval Historical Association, are fairly bland accounts of the ship’s movements and actions. Nicholls is an honourable exception. Histories published by former crew members such as those of Whyte or Smith, are closer to the style of the battalion histories. This is also true of RAAF squadron histories, such as Harding or Rice. The more professionally written squadron histories do not have the academic depth of Barter but use primary sources well to produce excellent popular histories. The works of Bennett and Brook are good examples. It is understood that an academic study of 1 Squadron is in preparation.

The story of the unit is almost invariably a straightforward chronicle of events. The authors’ sources are the reminiscences and diaries of the unit’s members and previously unpublished informal unit histories. These are checked against and amplified by reference to primary and secondary sources, especially the official histories and unit war diaries, squadron histories or ship’s Reports of Proceedings (AWM 52, AWM 64 and AWM 78 respectively). The most common method of writing is to provide a narrative which places the battalion's story into its strategic and operational perspective before recounting its deeds in detail. The text is heavily interspersed with quotations providing eyewitness detail.

Mostly, this methodology works well. The authors select their quotations skilfully and are generally deft in weaving them into the story to add an immediacy and vividness. Occasionally matters may get somewhat out of hand. Clift relies too heavily on personal accounts in the final part of his book and the account becomes repetitive and disjointed. Graeme-Evans intersperses too much background material, much of it irrelevant.

The authors of the most recent bibliography of Army unit histories, two of whom have themselves written examples of the genre, warn in the foreword that histories “may be ‘shaped’ by authors or historians to their own satisfaction, either by sanitising, dramatising, bias or pride in having been a member of the unit involved” (Trigellis-Smith et al., p. iii). This is a fair comment. Unit histories are, after all, corporate histories and must accommodate a diversity of experience and opinion without washing the unit’s dirty linen. Bolger and Littlewood, for example, state quite explicitly that their account of the 2/7th Battalion is a “family history”, that criticism will be eschewed and praise given where deserved. While this approach is evident across the genre, there are exceptions. The historians of the 36th, 39th and 49th Battalions are frank about their subjects’ shortcomings prior to Kokoda, although are keen to place them in the perspective of low morale resulting from causes external to the battalion. The problems with some AIF battalions on their return from the Middle East are addressed by Fearnside and Oakes. Matthews’ records that the 58/59th Battalion’s initial assault on the Old Vickers Position left something to be desired and that replacements in the leadership were made. Corfield goes to considerable lengths to identify and describe the tensions that must exist in any body of different personalities thrown closely together and involved in such an emotionally draining experience as battle.

However, the overwhelming impression is of pride in a difficult and dangerous job well done, even by units such as McGoldrick’s 7th Australian Machine Gun Battalion which saw little service and no fighting. The books reflect the traditional Australian male values of mateship. Men resist attempts to separate them from their units on the grounds of illness or promotion. Deaths and serious wounds are chronicled with sadness; neurological casualties are scarcely mentioned. Humour is plentiful and laconic, even in the most desperate circumstances. Sport plays a substantial part in unit life and scores are recounted many years after the event. There is the larrikinism of going absent without leave, the game of two-up, the illegal still and taking advantage of less sophisticated Americans (but not Australians). The elements of the traditional Australian male ethos, both factual and mythical, are fully rehearsed in these volumes.

More recently a different form of battalion history has appeared as academic historians see the battalion histories in a different light. They are concerned to penetrate the corporate facade and analyse more closely the dynamics of a unit at war. Henning and Beaumont have produced important studies in this field but they are more concerned with the prisoner-of-war aspects of the unit’s history and POW studies are a genre of their own. The archetypal work of this nature is Barter’s study of the 2/2nd Battalion. Of the conventional unit histories the one that attempts most to outflank the facade is Corfield’s. Graeme-Evans also tries. These authors have a certain amount of success but both note that there is a certain level of reminiscence beyond which their sources will not go.

Unit histories as source material

The bibliographies of academic studies of Australians at war are testimony to the value of the unit histories to historians. (See, for example, Stanley, p. 231.) Taken singly a unit history provides a “clear picture of life at the bottom of the structure and at the end of a long supply route,” (O’Neill p. 61), although the cautions of the preceding paragraphs should be borne in mind.

When studied collectively however certain themes consistently reappear which portray many aspects of the experience of the Australian soldier at war in the Pacific. The divisions in the Army between AIF and militia soldiers become very apparent, even to the extent of physical violence. Although there was a lessening of the rift as time passed and militia units could elect to become AIF units, it is clear from consistent reference in the unit histories that it was never completely healed.

Its influence is shown in as basic a part of the soldier’s life as training. AIF units were trained and blooded in the conditions of modern warfare overseas and went to the Pacific war as veterans. By contrast a number of the militia battalions were originally commanded by officers with First World War experience only and the histories make clear that their early training was deficient. When these officers were to a large extent replaced by members of the AIF, the battalions’ performance improved. The militia battalion histories reveal their development as fighting soldiers and their members’ concern that their contribution is not overshadowed by the AIF.

At a time when tactical studies are becoming more prominent in the academic military studies, the battalion histories offer a rich resource for those wishing to study the tactics employed in the Pacific war by both sides. The closeness of the fighting, the setting and avoiding of ambushes and the development and application of firepower in jungle warfare are but a few of the aspects of the way the Australian soldier went about his business upon which the histories provide a wealth of detail. Useful assessments of the effectiveness of both Australian and Japanese weapons may be gleaned.

The logistic difficulties of the Pacific campaign are a dominant theme. The respective value and limitations of locally-recruited carriers, airlift and even mules for operational level movement are discussed. At the tactical level everything had to be carried on the man which had implications for the effectiveness of troops going into action. Equipment was often in short supply, deficient or inappropriate. Frequent mention is made of the ravages of malaria, dengue fever and scrub typhus and the poor quality and quantity of rations to the extent that troops were unable to maintain their fitness for work. Medical problems are a constant in all the histories, especially malaria which took an extraordinarily high toll of the Army’s fighting strength. War took its toll in other ways. While training in Australia the 2/12th Battalion lost its commanding officer to a stroke from which he never fully recovered. Ronald Austin sensitively deals with the suicide of the second-in-command of the 2/15th Battalion.

In respect of attitudes to non-Australians the histories are profuse in their praise of the indigenous peoples of Papua and New Guinea but there are a number of instances listed where their loyalty is considered suspect. The attitude to the Americans depends on the circumstances and may not remain constant within the bounds of any one history. Douglas MacArthur is almost universally disliked (and Frank Forde, the Australian Minister for the Army, was also quite unpopular).

Attitudes towards the Japanese

Attitudes towards the Japanese, as recorded in the histories, were not complex. With their determination to fight to the last man, the Japanese commanded respect as fighting soldiers. Snipers were especially feared. But the Japanese were despised for their brutality and the Australian soldiers reacted accordingly. Graeme-Evans describes the bayoneting of Japanese wounded at Milne Bay partly as a safety measure but also in revenge after finding the bodies of Australian soldiers and local people who had been bound, mutilated and used for bayonet practice. Histories of units fighting on Kokoda record finding evidence of cannibalism amongst the retreating Japanese. Matthews records that at Salamaua some wounded Japanese would call for mercy which the Australian soldiers were prepared to give. However when the wounded Japanese responded with light machine-guns and grenades, “mercy was considered dangerous.” On Bougainville battalion orders for the 57/60th Battalion reminded the troops that Japanese prisoners were an important source of information.

On the other hand Victor Austin recognises the gesture of the Japanese commander at Rabaul who arranged for mail from Australian prisoners to be dropped in the course of a bombing raid on Port Moresby. Austin also records a meeting of reconciliation between Australian ex-servicemen and their former enemies at a meeting in Cowra in the 1980s. Austin’s book was published in 1989. It would be difficult to expect such an event to be documented in histories published in the 1950s or 1960s.


The unit histories provide a valuable resource to historians of the Pacific war, especially in fields such as logistics and tactics which await scrutiny. They are a record of the war as perceived by the soldier and will remain after age has inevitably removed the protagonists. Uniformity of their approach, which has remained constant across the genre over three decades, reflects their corporate nature and should act as a warning against face-value acceptance. Nevertheless differences can be discerned. They reflect the contemporary prejudices of the Australian serviceman and it may be safely said that half a century on many survivors retain them. Whereas each volume provides useful data concerning its subject, when studied en bloc the reader is given a picture of the culture of the Australian Army in the Pacific.


Allchin, Frank, Purple and blue, the history of the 2/10th Battalion AIF (The Adelaide Rifles) 1939–45. Adelaide: Griffin Press, 1958.

Austin, Ronald J., Let enemies beware! caveat hostes, the history of the 2/15th Battalion AIF 1940–1945. McCrae: Slouch Hat Publications and the 2/15th Battalion, AIF, Remembrance Club, 1993.

Austin, Victor, To Kokoda and beyond: the story of the 39th Battalion 1941–1943. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988.

Barter, Margaret, Far above battle: the experience and memory of Australian soldiers in war 1939–1945. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1994.

Beaumont, Joan, Gull Force: survival and leadership in captivity 1941–45. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1988.

Bennett, John, Defeat to victory: No. 453 Squadron RAAF. Point Cook: RAAF Museum, 1994.

Bennett, John, Highest traditions: the history of No. 2 Squadron, RAAF. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995.

Bolger, W. P., and Littlewood, J. G., The fiery phoenix, the story of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939–1946. Parkdale: The 2/7th Battalion Association, 1983.

Brook, W. H., Demon to vampire: the story of No. 21 (City of Melbourne) Squadron. Glen Waverly: Demonvamp Publications, 1986

Clift, Ken, War dance, a story of the 2/3rd Australian Infantry Battalion, AIF. Kingsgrove: Fowler and the 2/3rd Battalion Association, 1980.

Corfield, Robin S., Hold hard cobbers: the story of the 57th and 60th and 57/60th Australian Infantry Battalions 1912–1990, vol. II, 1930–1990. Glenhuntly: The 57/60th Battalion (AIF) Association, 1991.

Dennis, Peter, et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Fearnside, G. H. (ed.), Bayonets abroad, a history of the 2/13th Battalion AIF. Swanbourne: John Burridge Military Antiques, 1993.

Graeme-Evans, Alex, Of storms and rainbows, the story of the 2/11th Battalion AIF, volume II: March 1942– January 1946. New Town, 1991. (Volume I concerns the battalion in the Middle East.)

Harding, James H., It had to B U: the life story of 80 Squadron RAAF in the South-West Pacific Area. Burwood: Chandos Publishing, 1996.

Henning Peter, Doomed battalion, mateship and leadership in war and captivity, the Australian 2/40th Battalion 1940–45. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1995.

Matthews, Russell, Militia battalion at war, the history of the 58/59th Australian Infantry Battalion in the Second World War. Sydney: The 58/59th Battalion Association, 1961.

McGoldrick, D., History of the 7th Australian Machine Gun Battalion AIF. Beecroft: The 7th Australian Machine Gun Battalion Association, [c.1972].

Oakes, Bill, Muzzle blas: six years of war with the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion AIF. Lane Cove: The 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion AIF War History Committee, 1980.

O’Neill, Robert, Review of the book, Of storms and rainbows, in Australian Defence Force Journal, 93 (March/April 1992) 61–62.

Rice, Bert, 22 Squadron RAAF. Mt Waverley: 22 Squadron Association of Victoria, 1987.

Trigellis-Smith, Syd, et al., Shaping history: a bibliography of Australian Army unit histories. Hawthorn: published by the authors, 1996.

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