5th Division (Australia)

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Australian 5th Division
AWM AWM E03183 peronne.jpg
1 September 1918. A machine gun position established by the 54th Battalion during its attack on German forces at Peronne, France. The photograph was taken the following day, after the capture of the town. A British General, Henry Rawlinson, described the Australian advances of 31 August – 4 September through Peronne and Mont St Quentin as the greatest military achievement of the war.[1]
Active 1916–1919
1921–1946
Country Australia Australia
Branch Australian Army
Size Division
Part of II ANZAC Corps
Engagements

World War I

World War II

The 5th Division was an infantry division of the Australian Army which served during the First and Second World Wars. The Division was formed in February 1916 as part of the expansion of the Australian Imperial Force infantry brigades. In addition to the existing 8th Brigade were added the new 14th and 15th Brigades, which had been raised from the battalions of the 1st and 2nd Brigades respectively. From Egypt the division was sent to France, where they served in the trenches along the Western Front.

After the war ended and the AIF was demobilised, the 5th Division name was revived in 1921 and assigned to an Australian Citizens Military Forces (reserve) unit. During the Second World War the division was mobilised for the defence of North Queensland in 1942, when it was believed that the area was a prime site for an invasion by Japanese forces. Most of the division was concentrated in the Townsville area, although the 11th Brigade Group was detached for the defence of Cairns and Mareeba. In 1943–45, the division took part in the New Guinea campaign.

First World War[edit]

Egypt[edit]

On formation in February 1916, the 5th Division joined II Anzac Corps. When the more experienced I Anzac Corps embarked for France at the end of the month, they took most of the available artillery pieces and trained artillery personnel, leaving the II Anzac divisions to train new artillery batteries from scratch, a process that would take three months. Major-General the Honorable J.W. M'Cay, formerly commander of the Australian 2nd Infantry Brigade, assumed command of the division on 22 March 1916.

The first "test" for the division was a training march of 40 miles (64 km) from the Anzac camp at Tel el Kebir to the Suez Canal defences which were being maintained in expectation of a Turkish attack. M'Cay objected to the undertaking, but nevertheless imposed strict march discipline on his men. Taking three days over soft sand and in extreme heat, the men in the brigades suffered severely and the march was completed in disarray.

The 5th Division began arriving in France in July 1916, the last of the four Australian divisions from Egypt to do so. At this time the Battle of the Somme was underway and going badly for the British. The three Australian divisions of I Anzac Corps, which had been acclimatising on the quiet sector near Armentières, had been dispatched to the Somme as reinforcements and so the 5th Division took their place at Armentières on 12 July 1916.

Fromelles[edit]

members of the 53rd Battalion, shortly before the Battle of Fromelles, July 1916.

The result of this move was that the 5th Division, the most inexperienced of the Australian divisions in France, would be the first to see major action in the Battle of Fromelles, a week after going into the trenches. As the Germans had been reinforcing their Somme front with troops from the north, the British planned a "demonstration" to try to pin these troops to the front.

The attack was masterminded by Lieutenant-General Richard Haking, commander of the British XI Corps, which adjoined II Anzac Corps to the south. The aim was to reduce the slight German salient known as the "Sugar Loaf", north west of the German-held town of Fromelles. The 5th Division happened to be the unit facing the northern flank of the salient.

By the time the attack was ready to be launched, its purpose as a preliminary diversion to the main action at the Somme had passed, yet Haking and his army commander, General Sir Charles Monro, were keen to go ahead. At 6pm on 19 July 1916, after 11 hours of preliminary bombardment, the 5th Division and British 61st Division attacked. The Australian 8th and 14th Brigades, attacking north of the salient, occupied the German trenches but became isolated and out-flanked. They were forced to withdraw, through withering German enfilades, by morning. The 15th Brigade and the British 184th Brigade were cut to pieces while attempting to cross no man's land. The 8th and 14th Brigades were forced to withdraw, through withering German enfilades, the following morning. The failure was compounded when the British 61st Division asked the Australian 15th Brigade to join in a renewed attempt at 9pm, but cancelled without informing the Australians. Consequently half of the Australian 58th Battalion made another futile, solo effort to capture the salient.

The battle was responsible for the greatest loss of Australian lives in one 24-hour period. The 5,533 Australian casualties, including 400 prisoners, were equivalent to the total Australian losses in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War combined.[2] The 5th Division was effectively incapacitated for many months afterwards. Two battalions, the 60th and the 32nd, each suffered more than 700 casualties, or more than 90% of their fighting strength and had to be rebuilt: out of 887 personnel from the 60th Battalion, only one officer and 106 other ranks survived; the 32nd Battalion sustained 718 casualties.[3] The attack had completely failed as a diversion when its limited nature became obvious to the German defenders. The perceived "failure" of the British 61st Division poisoned relations between the AIF divisions and the British. In its communiqués, the British GHQ passed the Battle of Fromelles off as "some important raids".

December 1916. Unidentified members of the 5th Division, on "smoko" by the side of the Montauban road, near Mametz, on the Somme. Some are wearing slouch hats, steel helmets, sheepskin jackets and woollen gloves, demonstrating both the variety of official battledress, and how it was modified and augmented, for local conditions.

The 5th Division was not ready for combat again until October 1916, when it joined the other Australian divisions on the Somme, in extreme winter conditions.

Hindenburg Line, 1917[edit]

In January 1917, Major-General Talbot Hobbs assumed command of the 5th Division. When the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line began on 24 February 1917, the division joined the pursuit, skirmishing with the German screen covering the withdrawal. On 17 March 1917 the 30th Battalion attacked towards Bapaume, the objective of the previous year's Somme offensive, and found the town abandoned, a smoking ruin. The 15th Brigade advanced south of Bapaume until, having lost touch with the British Fourth Army units on its flank, was ordered to halt. By 24 March 1917 the headlong advance had ended and a period of cautious approach to the Hindenburg defences began. On 2 April 1917 the 14th Brigade captured the villages of Doignies and Louverval before the 5th Division was relieved by the Australian 1st Division.

When General Allenby's British Third Army launched the Battle of Arras on 9 April 1917, the Australian divisions—part of General Gough's British Fifth Army since the Somme fighting—were called on to participate in an attempt to break the German flank on the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt. The 5th Division at this time was part of I Anzac under General Birdwood. It avoided the first of the fighting but was thrown into the closing stages of the Second Battle of Bullecourt which had begun on 3 May 1917. The division was mainly responsible for holding on against German counter-attacks.

After the Bullecourt fighting subsided on 17 May 1917, the 5th Division, along with the rest of I Anzac, was withdrawn for a long rest.

Third Battle of Ypres[edit]

The 5th Division took over from the 1st Division following the Battle of Menin Road on 20 September, which was the start of a phase of "bite-and-hold" limited-objective attacks in the Third Battle of Ypres. The next step was taken on 26 September in the Battle of Polygon Wood with two Australian divisions (4th and 5th) attacking in the centre of seven divisions.

The previous day (25 September) a German counter-attack had driven in the neighbouring brigade of the British X Corps however the attack was ordered to proceed despite the Australian 15th Brigade's flank being exposed. Attacking with an open flank, the 15th Brigade, supported by two battalions of the 8th Brigade, reached its objectives, and captured some of X Corps' objectives as well. The 14th Brigade, attacking on the left, captured Polygon Wood. In keeping with current policy, the attacking divisions were immediately relieved and the 5th Division was spared involvement in most of the worst fighting that followed as the British line edged towards Passchendaele.

German Spring Offensive, 1918[edit]

The 5th Division returned to action in late March as the German Spring offensive, launched on 21 March, began to threaten the vital rail hub of Amiens. On 4 April the 15th Brigade, which had been guarding crossings of the River Somme, moved to hold Hill 104 north of the town of Villers-Bretonneux, a place that was to become famous in Anzac legend. By mid-April a renewed German push for Amiens was evident and the entire 5th Division was put into the line astride the Somme.

When the attack came on 24 April, the 15th Brigade was back in reserve west of Villers-Bretonneux, which was defended by the British III Corps. The German assault, for the first time spearheaded by tanks, succeeded in capturing the town and neighbouring woods. III Corps was lent the 15th Brigade and the 13th Brigade (from the Australian 4th Division) to mount a counter-attack. Attacking after 10pm that night, the two brigades encircled the town, the 15th from the north and the 13th from the south, and after dawn the town itself was recaptured. This victory marked the end of the German advance towards Amiens.

In the period leading up to the final Allied offensive, Australian divisions used Peaceful Penetration to continual harass their German opposition. On the night of 29 July, units of the 5th Division raided the German defences near Morlancourt, capturing 128 prisoners, 36 machine guns and two trench systems.

Hundred Days, 1918[edit]

A platoon from the 29th Battalion in August 1918

When the "Hundred Days" campaign began with the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, the Australian Corps attacked from between Villers-Bretonneux and Hamel. The 5th Division was to follow up the initial attack of the 2nd Division, passing through to take Harbonnieres, an advance of two miles. On the following day, the 5th Division, which had meant to be relieved by the 1st Division, continued the advance with the 15th Brigade supporting the neighbouring advance made by the Canadian Corps and the 8th Brigade taking Vauvillers.

In late August 1918 the 5th Division followed the German retreat to the Somme near Péronne. On 31 August, while the 2nd Division attacked Mont St Quentin, the 5th Division stood ready to exploit any opportunity to cross the Somme and take Pérrone. On 1 September 1918 the 14th Brigade captured the woods north and followed up by taking the main part of the town. The 15th Brigade captured the rest of the town the following day.

By the time the Australian Corps reached the Hindenburg Line on 19 September 1918, the 5th Division was one of only two Australian divisions fit for action, the other being the 3rd. The 15th Brigade's 60th Battalion had already been disbanded to keep other battalions up to strength. For the attack on the Hindenburg Line to be made on 29 September 1918, the corps was reinforced by the American 27th and 30th Divisions (from the U.S. II Corp). The 5th Division followed up the initial attack made by the American 30th Division and by 1 October 1918 the first two Hindenburg Line trench systems had been captured (see Battle of the Hindenburg Line).

The 5th Division was relieved by the 2nd Division and, when on 5 October 1918 the Australian Corps handed over its line to the U.S. II Corps, the division was withdrawn to the coast for a rest that would last until the end of the war.

Order of battle[edit]

Upon formation, the division consisted of the following infantry units:

8th Brigade 
14th Brigade (New South Wales) 
15th Brigade (Victoria) 
  • 57th Battalion (New South Wales)
  • 58th Battalion
  • 59th Battalion
  • 60th Battalion (Disbanded in September 1918)
5th Division Artillery
5th Division Field Ambulance

Commanders[edit]

1916–17: Maj Gen. J. W. McCay
1917–19: Maj. Gen. J. J. T. Hobbs

Inter-war years[edit]

Second World War[edit]

1942[edit]

The division was formed in 1942 at Marist Brothers College, Ashgrove, Brisbane. (A plaque in the college commemorates its formation there. )

An advance party of 25 officers and 55 other ranks from the divisional headquarters arrived in Townsville on 30 April 1942, along with an advance party of 40 members of the 29th Infantry Brigade. They travelled by train and were initially accommodated at the Townsville Showgrounds Staging Camp.

The infantry and field regiments were distributed widely around the Townsville area including, Aitkenvale, Antill Plains, Castle Hill, Jimmy's Lookout, Belgian Gardens and Mount Louisa.

The Headquarters for the 5th Australian Division were located at Aitkenvale in Townsville in May 1942. In December 1942, the Headquarters was located in a reinforced concrete bunker at Roseneath. 5 Div Signals were also located at Roseneath.

Major General Edward Milford was appointed Commanding Officer of the 5th Division in mid-1942, under Lieutenant General James Durrant, Commander in Chief Northern Command (Queensland). Durrant promoted the evacuation of non-essential civilians and a scorched earth policy in the event of invasion, to the local town and shire councils and the Chamber of Commerce. They began plans for the demolition of airfields and other vital defence facilities in north Queensland such as the Townsville Harbour facilities and road a rail bridges.

If communications with Northern Command were severed, the 5th Australian Division commander was to assume command of all Allied forces services (except bomber aircraft). For this purpose an Operations Room was set up at HQ 5 Div.

In the event of an invasion, the 5th Division would have had the following responsibilities:

  • attack any enemy force landing between Rollingstone and the Bohle River and/or advancing from the north.
  • creating a holding force in the Clevedon-Woodstock Hill area with the task of opposing an enemy landing in Bowling Green Bay, and halting any advance towards Townsville
  • the blocking of roads connecting the coast and inland from Ingham (through Mount Fox) and from Moongobulla (through Mount Spec)
  • demolitions in the Ingham area and, if necessary, the destruction of the Mount Spec and Mount Fox roads.
  • the manning of beach defence guns for the defence of beaches between Bohle River and Rollingstone, and between Houghton River and Chunda Bay.

1943–45[edit]

On 23 August 1943, the division, under Milford moved to the north coast of New Guinea, to take over the Salamaua campaign in its dying stages. The division occupied Salamaua on 11 September.

During 1945, the division took part in the New Britain campaign.

Commanders[edit]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

External links[edit]