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The formation of the Second AIF

Friday 13 September, 2019

“It is my melancholy duty 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.”

Prime Minister Robert Menzies, September 3, 1939


Although Menzies’ broadcast publicly marked Australia’s entry into World War Two, behind the scenes planning had been well underway for some time.  Already, a Defence Committee had been established consisting of the Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy and Air Force and the actions to be taken by each in the event of a declaration of war had been outlined in the “Commonwealth War Book” and it’s supporting companion volumes for each of the services.

The Australian Army, which was relatively small at the time, had been assigned to defending Australian shores with additional troops sent to Darwin and Port Moresby.  Troops were also sent to places considered to be ‘vulnerable points’, such as factories, wireless stations and railway centres.

As warning telegrams continued to arrive through the end of August and in to September, security and military efforts increased until the official declaration of war on September 3.  By this time, all military districts had been ordered to man the coast defences with permanent troops. 

As war was declared, the question was whether or not Australia would send forces overseas, a problem that had coloured every debate on defence since the end of World War One.  The Menzies government was awaiting advice from the British government as to what action should be taken.  At this stage it was still uncertain where our troops would be required.  In addition to the Middle East and Europe, it was also possible that Japan or another Eastern power would also be at play. 

On September 8th 1939, the advice from the British government arrived and Australia was warned to prepare for a long war.  “We therefore hope that Australia will exert her full national effort including preparation of her forces with a view to the dispatch of an expeditionary force.”  Although the request for assistance had been made, there was still no clarity about the destination of the troops required.

Another factor of consideration was the widespread conviction that armies would play a far less important role in this coming war and that air forces would inflict more serious damage and be the more prominent service.  Greater manpower was also needed in the factories rather than out on the battlefield, to ensure that the highly-developed equipment that the services required could be produced. 

The day following the advice from Britain, the New Zealand announced that they would be raising a ‘special military force’ of 6,600 men to begin with.  This resulted in further urges to the government to form an expeditionary force, but no decision was announced until September 15, when the government announced that a force of one division and auxiliary units would be created – 20,000 men in all – for service at home or abroad ‘as circumstances permit’.  This new force would be named the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

As a result of this commitment, the government called for volunteers for an expeditionary force, but only on a minimum scale.  Britain had expressed that they did not want Australia to send a large force of men abroad, but rather expected that ‘any active help that Australia gave would be in the air’. However, planning for the new expeditionary force stalled in October when a submission to the War Cabinet by the three Chiefs of Staff pointed out that Britain’s advice had not considered the possibility that Japan would be hostile.  There were concerns that if they were, considerations and plans were not being made for this case-scenario where Australian shores were at risk of attack.   It was suggested that if by December, Japan had proven to be ‘friendly’, battalions and brigades of the AIF could be sent overseas to continue training and relive United Kingdom units.  The proviso was that once these Australian troops were fully trained and equipped, they would be reassembled in an Australian division.

The new force now required a commander, but the selection process was complicated by the fact that none of the prospects for the task met the requirements as stated by Menzies in that Lieutenant Colonels would be under the age of 45.  To find a leader within the Australian Army under the age of 50 proved difficult, but Major-General Sir Thomas Blamey, aged 55, stood out for his firmness, tact and clear thinking qualities as well as his ability and extensive experience.  Blamey had been General Monash’s chief staff officer in France in 1918 and following the war had become the Commissioner of Police.  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.


At The War Cabinet’s first meeting on September 28, Blamey was formally appointed as the commander of the 6th Division.  It was at this meeting that time Lieut-General Ernest Squires appointed as Inspector-General and Chief of the General Staff and Lieut-General Lavarack as the General Officer Commanding Southern Command (who, in February the following year, would become the commander of the 7th Division). 

Officers waiting at the embarkation of the second convoy. Left to right: Lieutenant Colonel F. H. Berryman; Colonel (Col) S. F. Rowell; Col S. R. Burston; VX1 Lieutenant General (Lt Gen) Sir Thomas Blamey; Lt Gen J. D. Lavarack.

On October 13, 1939, the commanders officially took command.  The three infantry brigade leaders selected by Blamey to command the 6th, 7th and 8th Divisions were Arthur Allen, Leslie Moreshead (who had both led battalions in World War One when they were still in their twenties) and Stanley Savige.

With the command structure finalised, the challenge became how the 6th Division could be organised so that quotas of all arms were provided by each state.  In the end, the following organisation was established:

The 16th Brigade consisted of four battalions raised in New South Wales (2/1st, 2/2nd, 2/3rd, 2/4th)

The 17th Brigade consisted of four battalions raised in Victoria (2/5th, 2/6th, 2/7th, 2/8th)

The 18th Brigade consisted of four battalions raised from the remaining states:

  • 2/9th and two companies of the 2/12th raised in Queensland;
  • 2/10th raised in South Australia;
  • 2/11th raised in Western Australia; and
  • The remainder of the 2/12th being raised in Tasmania.

The prefix of 2/ distinguished the new battalions from the First AIF equivalent battalions and it was decided that the shoulder patch of each unit should be identical with that of First AIF unit but with a narrow border of grey cloth to distinguish the new units from similarly numbered units of the militia. 

Following the establishment of this initial division, an additional 4 divisions were raised over the course of the war:

  • The 7th Division, sometimes known by the nickname “The Silent Seventh” due to a perception that its achievements were unrecognised, that was formed in February 1940;
  • The 8th Division, deployed to the Asia-Pacific region, that began service from July 1940 onwards;
  • The 9th Division, which became one of Australia’s most decorated formations, that was formed in the UK in late 1940; and
  • The 1st Armoured Division, an armoured formation of the Australian Army that was raised in 1941. While this division was originally supposed to be deployed to North Africa, it was retained in Australia following the outbreak of the Pacific War, defending Australia against a feared Japanese invasion.

Members of C Company (mostly from 14 Platoon), Australian 2/11th Infantry Battalion, part of the 6th Division having penetrated the outer defences of Tobruk, assemble again on the escarpment on the south side of the harbour after attacking anti-aircraft gun positions. Source: Wikipedia/Frank Hurley

Although the Royal Australian Navy had participated in operations against Italy in June 1940 and a few Australian pilots had flown in the Battle of Britain, the Australian army was not engaged in combat until early 1941 when the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions joined allied operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Over the course of the war, almost a million Australians would fight in campaigns against Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa as well as against Japan in south-east Asia and other parts of the Pacific.  They also played an important role in the defence of our country against the Japanese as Australia came under attack for the first time when Japanese aircraft bombed towns in the north-west in February 1942 and when Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour in May/June 1942.  You can read more about Australia’s involvement in World War Two here.

Over 30,000 Australian servicemen were taken prisoner in the Second World War, 39,000 gave their lives.

Lest We Forget.




Long, G. (n.d.). Second World War Official Histories. Australian War Memorial, pp.33-53.

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