Peter Brune in his “Those Ragged Heroes’ states that, “In the long proud history of Australia at arms there can be no more tragic and damning story than that of the raising, deployment, equipping and training of the 53rd Battalion.” This is the fifth episode in the Kokoda series looking at the 53rd Battalion. This episode looks at the mobilisation mistakes as the 53rd Battalion was formed. Many of theseerrors were common to militia battalions as they were formed to fight the Japanese in 1941 and 1942.
These are just the show notes – listen to the podcast for all of the details of the formation of the 53rd Battalion.
Mobilisation is a rare but key skill for countries, especially non-aggressive nations, because they do not pick the time or place of the first battle. The problems occur frequently when it is done rapidly. Many of the mobilisation mistakes seen with the 53rd are similar to mistakes made by Russia as they mobilised to invade Ukraine in 2022.
The Proud history of the 53rd Battalion
The 53rd Battalion, a part of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), was established in Egypt on February 14, 1916. This formation was a result of the AIF’s expansion strategy, “the doubling”. The battalion was primarily made up of men from Sydney’s suburbs, with half of its recruits being veterans from the 1st Battalion who had served in Gallipoli, and the other half being new reinforcements from Australia. The 53rd Battalion was assigned to the 14th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division.
The battalion arrived in France on June 27, 1916, and entered the front line for the first time on July 10. It soon found itself in the midst of its first major battle on the Western Front at Fromelles on July 19. This battle proved to be disastrous for the battalion, which suffered heavy losses, including its commanding officer. Over three-quarters of its attacking strength, amounting to 625 casualties, were lost. Despite these heavy losses, the battalion continued to hold the front in the Fromelles sector for another two months.
During the harsh winter of 1916-17, the battalion alternated between serving in and out of trenches in the Somme Valley. It was during this time that it earned the nickname “the Whale Oil Guards”. This was after Lieutenant Colonel Oswald Croshaw ordered his troops to polish their helmets with whale oil (which was issued as a preventative measure against trench foot) for a smart appearance on parade.
In March 1917, the battalion took part in the advance that followed Germany’s retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Although it did not participate in the assault, it defended gains made during the second battle of Bullecourt. Later that year, operations for the AIF shifted focus to the Ypres sector in Belgium. The battalion’s major battle here took place at Polygon Wood on September 26.
With Russia’s collapse in October 1917, a significant German offensive on the Western Front was anticipated in early 1918. This offensive came towards the end of March, and saw the 5th Division move to defend Corbie’s sector. The 14th Brigade held positions north of Villers-Bretonneux even when their flanks were threatened by the fall of the village.
Following the defeat of Germany’s offensive, an Allied offensive was launched in August 1918. The 14th Brigade did not play a significant role until late August. However, its actions were crucial to capturing Peronne on September 2nd. During this operation, Private William Currey demonstrated exceptional bravery and was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The last major battle for the 53rd Battalion occurred on September 29th, 1918. This operation aimed to break through Germany’s formidable defenses along St Quentin Canal and involved cooperation between American forces and Australia’s 5th and 3rd Divisions. The battalion withdrew for rest on October 2nd and remained so when war ended. As troops progressively returned to Australia for discharge, the battalion merged with the 55th Battalion on March 10th, 1919. The combined battalion disbanded a month later on April 11th.
SGT Keith Irwin wanted to serve in the 53rd Battalion, because he had been given his fathers colour patches, a Veteran of the 1st Battalion. There was nothing made of the proud linage from the 53rd Battalion in the 1st AIF.
The Mobilisation Mistakes with the 53rd Battalion
The ‘doubling’ of the AIF was an effective way of doubling the number of Battalions. This was not used for the personnel for the
On the 28th of October when the Battalion has just 12 soliders, it is just 48 days before the Japanese attack and 67 days from boarding for deployment to New Guinea.
Rather than ‘doubling’, 18 Battalions were instructed to provide 62 soldiers each. Many saw this as an opportunity to offload their troublemakers, with one Battalion going through their charge sheets to determine who was going to be sent to the 53rd Battalion.
The ‘Shanghai’ – how 104 troops from the GDD found themselves in the Battalion.
Christmas Day 1941 saw leave being granted until 22:00 hrs. The Battalion had been formed with the purpose of garrisoning Darwin, and it was getting close to moving out. At 22:00 hrs, when the roll was called, there were 275 AWOL soldiers. To make up the losses, 104 troops from the General Duties Depot were taken and marched into the Battalion on the 27th of December. Most of these troops had been in the Battalion for less than 2 weeks and had never seen a weapon.
Convoy ZK.5 to Port Moresby.
On the 27th of December, Convoy ZK.5 departed. It had the sloop HMAS Swan, the light cruisers HMAS Perth and HMNZS Achilles, the heavy cruisers HMAS Canberra and HMAS Australia. After clearing Sydney Heads, an announcement was made that the convoy was headed for Port Moresby, rather than Darwin. This came as a surprise to many of the troops.
HMAS Canberra would be lost in action on the 9th of August, 1942 in the Battle of Savo Island.
HMAS Perth would be sunk on the 1st of March, just 8 1/2 weeks after this photo was taken in the Battle of the Sunda Strait. In total 353 were killed when she capsized to port at 00:25 that morning. Of the 326 survivors, 5 died after reaching the shore, and the rest become PoWs with 106 dying during captivity. The remaining 218, including my grandfather, were repatriated after the war.