2/40th Battalion (Australia)
Troops from the 2/40th march through Brighton, 1940
|Part of||Sparrow Force,
|Colours||White over Red|
|Unit Colour Patch|
The 2/40th Battalion was an infantry battalion of the Australian Army. Formed in mid-1940 from personnel recruited from Tasmania, the battalion was assigned to the 23rd Brigade, which formed part of the 8th Division. After completing basic training, the 2/40th was sent to Darwin to form part of the defensive garrison there as tensions with the Japanese grew throughout 1941. Following Japan's entry into the war, the battalion was deployed to Timor as part of Sparrow Force and in early 1942 they took part in the fighting on the island against the Japanese. Outnumbered and lacking supplies, the majority of the 2/40th's personnel were captured and spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war, although some were able to wage a guerrilla campaign across the island before being withdrawn by the end of year.
Formation and garrison duty in Australia
Raised for service during the Second World War as part of the all-volunteer Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF), the 2/40th Battalion[Note 1] formed part of the 23rd Brigade attached to the 8th Division; the majority of its personnel were drawn from the state of Tasmania.[Note 2] The colours chosen for the battalion's Unit Colour Patch (UCP) were the same as those of the 40th Battalion, a unit which had served during the First World War before being raised as a Militia formation in 1921. These colours were white over red, in an oval shape, although a border of gray was added to the border of the UCP to distinguish the battalion from its Militia counterpart; the oval shape designated the battalion as being part of the 8th Division.
With an authorised strength of around 900 personnel, like other Australian infantry battalions of the time, the battalion was formed around a nucleus of four rifle companies – designated 'A' through to 'D' – each consisting of three platoons. The battalion's first commanding officer was a Tasmanian, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Youl, a Militia officer who had previously commanded the 12th/50th Battalion and who, according to author Garth Pratten, was appointed largely as a result of political pressure from the Tasmania government. In July 1940, the 2/40th began training at Brighton, Tasmania, before moving to Bonegilla, Victoria, to join the rest of the 23rd Brigade in January 1941. While the 8th Division's other two brigades—the 22nd and 27th—would both subsequently be sent to Malaya, the 23rd was held back in Australia as the government decided to use it to defend the islands to Australia's north—Timor, Ambon and Rabaul—in the event of Japan's entry into the war; as part of this plan, the 2/40th was allocated to the defence of Timor.
In late March, the 2/40th moved north to the Katherine region, in the Northern Territory, with the last elements of the battalion arriving on 25 April 1941. There they undertook further training as the battalion received further drafts of men, before moving to Darwin over the course of a month between June and July. In Darwin they undertook defensive duties as part of the town's military garrison, with companies detached to defend various locations around Noonamah and Adelaide River.
Fighting in Timor and fate
Throughout October 1941 plans were put in place for the battalion's deployment to Timor, with a reconnaissance party being dispatched to the island between 6–12 October. Upon return, the battalion's commanding officer, Youl, was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt in "controversial circumstances" on 5 November 1941. The following month, shortly after the Japanese entered the war in the Pacific, the 2/40th Battalion embarked upon the transports Zealandia and Westralia on 8 December, and were deployed to Timor. Arriving there on 12 December 1941, they formed part of Sparrow Force which was tasked with defending the island against invasion by the Japanese.
After Japanese air strikes began in January 1942, the invasion came the following month on 20 February 1942, with Japanese soldiers carrying out airborne and amphibious landings around the island. Outnumbered and with limited supplies, after the initial contact the battalion destroyed the airfield and moved inland, reducing a number of Japanese positions as they went, including an attack upon Usua ridge where the Japanese 228th Infantry Regiment suffered at least 123 casualties on 22 February. By the morning of 23 February the situation was desperate and the battalion all but surrounded around Champlong. Lacking air cover and faced with an ultimatum to capitulate or be subjected to an intense aerial bombardment that would likely have wiped out the battalion, Leggatt was forced to surrender his command and as a result most of the 2/40th was captured. Some managed to escape, however, while others who had been detached elsewhere evaded capture and took part in the guerrilla campaign that followed before being evacuated back to Australia in December 1942. These personnel were dispersed to other units, with some being transferred eventually to the 2/12th Battalion, and the 2/40th Battalion was never reformed.
The men who were taken as prisoners spent the rest of the war in captivity in camps throughout Southeast Asia including Java, Burma, Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Sumatra and did not return to Australia until September 1945. The battalion had 271 men killed in action or died while prisoners of war, while a further 79 were wounded. For their involvement in the fighting on Timor members of the battalion received the following decorations: one Distinguished Service Order, one Military Medal and seven Mentions in Despatches.
The battalion was awarded two battle honours for its service: "South-West Pacific 1942" and "Koepang". Koepang is unique to the 2/40th, with no other unit in the Australian Army holding this battle honour. In 1961–62, these honours were entrusted to the Royal Tasmania Regiment, and they are maintained by the 12th/40th Battalion, Royal Tasmania Regiment.
- Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Youl (1940–1941);
- Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt (1941–1942).
- Kuring 2004, p. 47.
- Long 1952, p. 51.
- "2/40th Battalion". Second World War, 1939–1945 units. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 8 November 2009.
- Henning 1995, p. 43.
- Long 1952, pp. 321–323.
- Long 1952, p. 52.
- Pratten 2009, pp. 133 & 315.
- Henning 1995, p. 19.
- Morgan 2013, pp. 4–6.
- Henning 1995, p. 25.
- Henning 1995, p. 33.
- Henning 1995, p. 34.
- Henning 1995, p. 35.
- Henning 1995, p. 37.
- Browne 2000, pp. 77–79.
- Henning 1995, pp. 38–39.
- Wigmore 1957, p. 467.
- Henning 1995, p. 104.
- Graeme-Evans 1991, p. 391.
- Wigmore 1957, p. 490.
- Maitland 1999, p. 141.
- "12th/40th Battalion, Royal Tasmania Regiment". Digger History. Archived from the original on 29 April 2010. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
- Festberg 1972, pp. 33 & 98.
- Pratten 2009, pp. 327–328.
- Browne, Geoff (2000). "Leggatt, Sir William Watt (Bill) (1894–1968)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15. Melbourne University Press. pp. 77–79.
- Festberg, Alfred (1972). The Lineage of the Australian Army. Melbourne, Victoria: Allara Publishing. ISBN 978-0-85887-024-6.
- Graeme-Evans, A. L. (1991). Of Storms and Rainbows: The Story of the Men of the 2/12th Battalion AIF. Volume 2: March 1942 – January 1946. Hobart, Tasmania: 12th Battalion Association. ISBN 0-646-03981-4.
- Henning, Peter (1995). Doomed Battalion: Mateship and Leadership in War and Captivity. The Australian 2/40 Battalion, 1940–45. St Leonards, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-86373-763-0.
- Kuring, Ian (2004). Redcoats to Cams: A History of Australian Infantry 1788–2001. Loftus, New South Wales: Australian Military History Publications. ISBN 1-876439-99-8.
- Long, Gavin (1952). To Benghazi. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 – Army. I (1st ed.). Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 18400892.
- Maitland, Gordon (1999). The Second World War and its Australian Army Battle Honours. East Roseville, New South Wales: Kangaroo Press. ISBN 0-86417-975-8.
- Morgan, Joseph (2013). "A Burning Legacy: The Broken 8th Division". Sabretache. Military Historical Society of Australia. LIV (3, September): 4–14. ISSN 0048-8933.
- Pratten, Garth (2009). Australian Battalion Commanders in the Second World War. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-76345-2.
- Wigmore, Lionel (1957). The Japanese Thrust. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 – Army, Volume IV. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 3134219.