Fortieth Battalion

'D' Company, Fortieth Battalion, Brighton in 1940 (AOT, PH30/1/5473)

The 2/40 Battalion was formed in mid-1940, in the aftermath of the German invasion of France, recruits enlisting in the belief that they would fight in a theatre against Germany. Initially planned as a joint Victorian–Tasmanian unit, political pressure ensured that it was mainly Tasmanian (over 86 percent of the final 919 men who served overseas enlisted in Tasmania), as was the 40th Battalion in the First World War. But Victorians held most of its senior positions because it joined two Victorian battalions (2/21 and 2/22) to form the 23rd Brigade of the 8th Division.

In early 1941 it was decided to use the 23rd Brigade to garrison forward air bases at Ambon, Timor and Rabaul in the event of war with Japan. The 2/40 Battalion was allocated Timor, but remained in the Northern Territory during most of 1941. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December, the battalion and associated units, now named Sparrow Force, were sent immediately to an air base near Kupang in Dutch Timor, and another associated unit (2/2 Independent Company) went to Dili in Portuguese Timor.

In early 1942 the Japanese conducted air operations over Timor unimpeded for nearly a month. At the same time they launched their first bombing raid on Darwin, isolating Sparrow Force. The Japanese then invaded Timor, and the 2/40 Battalion fought a retreating action for three days without rest, through a succession of positions held by Japanese paratroops, until forced to surrender by the main enemy force of 5,000 men. A similar fate had already befallen the other battalions at Rabaul (Lark Force) and Ambon (Gull Force).

The story of the 2/40 Battalion in captivity is a microcosm of the Australian prisoner-of-war experience in Asia. After internment for six months in Timor, the battalion was progressively split and spread through camps. By war's end in 1945 there were sizeable groups of survivors in Java, Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Sumatra, and smaller numbers in Saigon, Borneo, the Celebes and Manchuria. Some worked on the infamous Burma–Thailand railway. The battalion lost 264 of its men during the war, 74 as battle casualties and 190 while in captivity. Tragically, 85 of those who died after capture were killed in June 1944 when a ship transporting them to Japan was sunk near Nagasaki by an American submarine.

Although the 2/40 Battalion made up a significant proportion of Tasmanian prisoners-of-war and about a third of Tasmanian AIF casualties in the Second World War, there are few memorials to them and scant public awareness of their history. None of the battalion's veterans has written of their experiences, although a few have had their stories recounted in several publications. As a group they exhibited higher than normal rates of illness and mortality after 1945. The 2/40 Battalion Association remained active in Tasmania for over forty years, maintaining a tradition of annual reunions as close as possible to the date of their capture on Timor (23 February), and providing a support network for veterans and their wives. (See also Second World War.)

Further reading: P Henning, Doomed battalion, Sydney, 1995; P Hay, ‘The silent fathers', Vandiemonian Essays, Hobart, 2002; L Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, Canberra, 1957.

Peter Henning