8th Division (Australia)

8th Division

Australian infantry disembark at Singapore harbour, 15 August 1941.
Active 1940–1942
Country Australia
Branch Australian Army
Type Infantry
Size Division
Part of Second Australian Imperial Force

World War II

Disbanded Ceased to exist in 1942 after majority of division were captured as prisoners of war.
Gordon Bennett
Unit Colour Patch

The 8th Division was an infantry division of the Australian Army, formed during in World War II as part of the Second Australian Imperial Force. The 8th Division was raised from regular army units and new, all-volunteer infantry brigades, from July 1940 onwards. As war with Japan loomed in 1941, the division was divided into four separate forces, which were deployed in different parts of the Asia-Pacific region. All of these formations were destroyed as fighting forces by the end of February 1942 during the fighting for Singapore, and in Rabaul, Ambon, and Timor. Most members of the division became prisoners of war, and a large number died in captivity.


The 8th Division was raised to fight Nazi Germany, and was trained for the conditions of the Middle East. In December 1940, the 24th Brigade was sent to North Africa, and became part of the 9th Division. It was replaced in the 8th Division by the 27th Brigade.

However, as the possibility of war with Japan loomed, the 22nd Brigade was sent instead to Malaya on 2 February 1941. The 23rd Brigade moved to Darwin in April. The 2/22nd Battalion was detached from it and deployed to Rabaul, New Britain in April. The 27th Brigade joined the 22nd Brigade in Malaya, in August. The remainder of the 23rd Brigade was split into another two detachments: the 2/40th Battalion left for Timor, on 12 December and; the 2/21st Battalion went to Ambon in the Dutch East Indies on 17 December. The 23rd Brigade headquarters remained in Darwin.


Gemencheh Bridge in 1945. Troops of the 2/30 Battalion, 8th Division, inflicted losses of over 700 men of the Japanese 5th Division in a single engagement in the Battle of Gemas.

As war broke out Japanese forces based in Vichy French-controlled Indochina quickly overran Thailand and invaded Malaya. The demoralising loss of two British capital ships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, off Malaya on 10 December 1941, neutralised Allied naval superiority, allowing the Japanese to perform amphibious assaults on the Malayan coast with much less resistance. Japanese forces met stiff resistance from III Corps of the Indian Army and British units in northern Malaya, but Japan's superiority in air power, tanks and infantry tactics forced the Allied units, who had very few tanks and remained vulnerable to isolation and encirclement, back.

On 14 January, parts of the division went into action south of Kuala Lumpur, at Gemas and Muar. The 2/30th Battalion had some early success at the Gemencheh River Bridge, destroying a Japanese battalion. However, other Allied units were already severely depleted and demoralised, and Japanese flanking operations began to take their toll, whose tactics of isolation and encirclement often forced mass surrenders of other Allied units.

The 2/29th and the 2/19th Battalions were detached as reinforcements for the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade, which was in danger of being overrun near the Muar River. By 22 January, a mixed force from the two battalions, with some Indian troops, had been isolated and overrun. Members of the Imperial Japanese Guards Division massacred about 150 Allied prisoners at Parit Sulong, following the fighting. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Anderson, acting commander of the 2/19th, was taken prisoner and was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.

The remainder of the 27th Brigade was waging a rearguard action, while the rest of the 22nd Brigade had been sent back to guard the north end of the Johor-Singapore Causeway which linked the Malayan Peninisula to Singapore, as Allied forces retreated.


Main article: Battle of Singapore

As Allied forces in Malaya retreated towards Singapore, a 2,000-strong detachment of 8th Division reinforcements arrived in Singapore, including the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion.

By 31 January, the last Allied forces had left Malaya, and Allied engineers blew a hole 70 feet (21 m) wide in the causeway.

The Allied commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, gave Major General Gordon Bennett's 8th Division the task of defending the prime invasion points on the north side of the island, in a terrain dominated by mangrove swamps and forest. The 22nd Brigade was assigned a daunting 10-mile (16 km) wide sector in the west of the island, and the 27th Brigade a 4,000-yard (3,700 m) zone in the north west, near the causeway.

From vantage points across the straits, including the Sultan of Johore's palace, as well as aerial reconnaissance and infiltrators, the Japanese commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita and his staff gained an excellent knowledge of the Allied positions. From 3 February, the Australian positions were shelled by Japanese artillery. Shelling and air attacks intensified over the next five days, destroying communications between Allied units and their commanders. In addition, internal miscommunication and poor last-minute brigade and artillery command changes weakened the effectiveness of both Brigades facing the Japanese on the northwest shore of Singapore Island.

At 8.30pm on 8 February, Australian machine gunners opened fire on vessels carrying a first wave of 4,000 Japanese troops towards Singapore Island.

Confused and desperate fighting raged all day, but eventually the increasing Japanese numbers, poor siting of defensive positions, and lack of effective communications, allowed Japanese forces to exploit gaps in the Australian lines. By midnight the two 8th Division infantry brigades, 22nd and 27th, were separated, isolated, or withdrawing in haphazard, sometimes unauthorised fashion towards the last line of defence on the island, the Krangi-Jurong Line.[1] At 1 am, further Japanese troops were landed in the west of the island and the last Australian reserves, mainly support troops, went into position.

Towards dawn on 9 February, elements of the 22nd Brigade were being overrun and it was decided to form a secondary defensive line. The 2/18th Battalion had lost more than 50% of its personnel. During the course of the day, the 22nd and other Allied units in the east were forced to retreat further south.

The 27th Brigade had not yet faced an attack. However, the next day, the Japanese Imperial Guard made a botched landing in the northwest, suffering severe casualties from drowning and burning oil in the water, as well as Australian mortars and machine guns. In spite of the 27th Brigade's success, as a result of a misunderstanding, they began to withdraw from Kranji in the north. That same day, further misunderstandings, increasing numbers of desertions and the arrival of Japanese tanks caused the Allies to lose control of the crucial Kranji-Jurong ridge through the western side of the island.

On 11 February, knowing that his own supplies were running low, Yamashita called on Percival to "give up this meaningless and desperate resistance".

The next day the Allied lines attempted to stabilise along the Krangi-Jurong line on west side of the island. However, the Allies steadily lost more ground, with Japanese penetrating to within five miles of Singapore urban centre, by 10 February capturing Bukit Timah. On 13 February, Bennett and other senior Australian officers advised Percival to surrender, in the interests of minimising civilian casualties. Percival refused but unsuccessfully sought authority to surrender from his superiors.

The following day the remaining Allied units battled on; civilian casualties mounted as civilians crowded into the area now held by the Allies and bombing and artillery attacks intensified. Civilian authorities began to fear that the water supply would soon give out. Japanese troops killed 200 staff and patients after they captured Alexandra Barracks Hospital.

By the morning of 15 February, the Japanese had broken through the last line of defence in the north and food and some kinds of ammunition had begun to run out. After meeting his unit commanders, Percival contacted the Japanese and formally surrendered the Allied forces to Yamashita, shortly after 5.15 pm. Bennett created an enduring controversy when he handed over the 8th Division to the divisional artillery commander, Brigadier Cecil Callaghan, commandeered a boat and managed to escape captivity.[2] His lack of inspired leadership was exemplified by one of his last orders: because of lack of ammunition he issued orders that Australian gunners were only to offer artillery support in their own sector. He did not inform Percival of this order.[3]

The 8th Division was criticised for its role in the defence of Singapore as mostly green, defeatist and ill-disciplined. Most of this was hushed up in the aftermath of the fall of Singapore. Bennett described his own troops as "woobly" and Brigadier Harold Taylor, commander of the 22nd Brigade, told his men they were a "disgrace to Australia and the AIF." [4] In the closing stages of the battle Australian "fugitives" — up to a third of all Australian troops — were often heading away from battle leaderless, impossible to control and engaging in crimes of looting and rape of civilians.[5] In many instances they commandeered ships evacuating civilians and wounded at gunpoint. Colonel Kappe, Bennett's Chief Signals Officer, related that "one party of 50 under an officer, after being steadied and persuaded to occupy a locality, soon afterwards vacated it without order."[6] General Bennett himself told another Australian commander, shortly before leaving his command, "I don't think the men want to fight."[7]

In contrast, however, the British commander of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders singled out the relatively green Australian 2/29th as fighting with "great coolness" and worthy of entering battle with them.[8]

Almost 15,000 Australians became prisoners of war at Singapore, an absolute majority of all Australian prisoners of the Japanese in World War II. During the Malaya-Singapore campaign as a whole, the 8th Division suffered 73 percent of Allied deaths in battle, even though they comprised only 13 percent of the Allied forces.[9] Due to Japanese mistreatment and neglect, many died in the prisoner of war camps, and over 2,400 Australian prisoners died in the Sandakan Death Marches. A very few were able to escape POW camps and continue fighting, either as members of guerrilla units or after making their way back to Australia.[10]


The 2/22nd Battalion—composed of 716 men—made up the majority of the combat personnel in the Lark Force, the name given to the 1,400-strong garrison concentrated in Rabaul, New Britain, from March 1941. Lark Force also included personnel from the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, a coastal defence battery, an anti-aircraft battery, an anti-tank battery and a detachment of the 2/10th Field Ambulance.

The island, part of the Australian territory of New Guinea was important because of its proximity to the Japanese territory of the Caroline Islands, including a major Japanese Navy base on Truk Island. The main tasks of Lark Force were protection of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airfield and flying boat anchorage, which were important in the surveillance of Japanese movements in the region. A 130-strong detachment from the 2/1st Independent Company was detached to the nearby island of New Ireland.

In January 1942, Lark Force came under heavy attack by Japanese aircraft, which neutralised coastal artillery. In the early hours of 23 January 1942, 20,000 Japanese marines began to land. Some faced fierce resistance, but because of the balance of forces, many landed unopposed. Within hours, the Lark Force commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Scanlan, had ordered: "every man for himself" and Australian soldiers and civilians split into small groups and retreated through the jungle. Only the RAAF had made evacuation plans and its personnel were removed by flying boat.

The army had made no preparations for guerilla warfare, and most soldiers surrendered during the following weeks. At least 130 Australians, taken prisoner at the Tol Plantation, were massacred on 4 February 1942. From mainland New Guinea, some civilians and individual officers organised unofficial rescue missions and — between March and May — about 450 troops and civilians who had managed to evade the Japanese, were evacuated by sea.

At least 800 soldiers and civilian prisoners of war lost their lives on 1 July 1942, when the ship on which they were sent from Rabaul to Japan, the Montevideo Maru, was sunk off the north coast of Luzon by the US submarine USS Sturgeon.

A handful of Lark Force members remained at large on New Britain and — often in conjunction with indigenous people — conducted guerilla operations against the Japanese. Rabaul became the biggest Japanese base in New Guinea. Allied forces landed in December 1944, although substantial Japanese forces continued to operate on New Britain until Japan surrendered in August 1945.

By the end of the Pacific War, more than 600 members of the 2/22nd Battalion were dead.


Main article: Battle of Ambon

The island of Ambon, in the Dutch East Indies, was perceived to be under threat from Japan because of its potential as a major air base. However, by mid-December 1941, only two flights of RAAF light bombers were deployed there, along with assorted US Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy aircraft.

The 8th Division's 1,100-strong Gull Force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel L. N. Roach, arrived on 17 December. In addition to the 2/21st Battalion, it included 8th Division artillery and support units. The existing Royal Netherlands East Indies Army garrison, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J. R. L. Kapitz, consisted of 2,800 Indonesian colonial troops, with Dutch officers. Kapitz was appointed Allied commander on Ambon. Roach had visited the island before Gull Force's deployment and requested that more artillery and machine gun units be sent from Australia.

Ambon first came under attack from Japanese aircraft on 6 January. Roach complained about the lack of response to his suggestions and he was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel W. R. J. Scott on 14 January 1942.

A Japanese fleet including two aircraft carriers and about 5,300 Japanese marines and soldiers reached Ambon on 30 January 1942. Although the Japanese ground forces were numerically not much bigger than the Allies, they had overwhelming superiority in air support, naval and field artillery, and tanks. In the belief that the terrain of the southern side of the island was too inhospitable for landings, the Allied troops were concentrated in the north. However, the iniital Japanese landings were in the south.

Within a day of the Japanese landing, the Dutch forces had been surrounded and had given up. Gull Force held out until 3 February, when Scott surrendered.

According to Australian War Memorial principal historian, Dr. Peter Stanley, several hundred Australians surrendered at Laha Airstrip. At intervals for a fortnight after the surrender, more than 300 prisoners taken at Laha were executed. The government of Australia states that "The Laha massacre was the largest of the atrocities committed against captured Allied troops in 1942."[11]

Dr. Stanley said of Australian prisoners of war on Ambon: "They suffered an ordeal and a death rate second only to the horrors of Sandakan, first on Ambon and then after many were sent to the island of Hainan late in 1942. Three-quarters of the Australians captured on Ambon died before the war's end. Of the 582 who remained on Ambon 405 died. They died of overwork, malnutrition, disease and one of the most brutal regimes among camps in which bashings were routine."[11]

Only 302 members of Gull Force survived the war.


In 1941, the island of Timor was divided into two territories under different colonial powers: Portuguese Timor and West Timor part of the Dutch East Indies. The Australian and Dutch governments agreed that, in the event of Japan entering World War II, Australia would provide forces to reinforce West Timor. Consequently, a 1,400 strong detachment, known as the Sparrow Force, and centred on the 2/40th Battalion, arrived at Kupang on 12 December 1941.

The force was initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt. It also included the Australian commandos of the 2/2nd Independent Company. Sparrow Force joined about 650 Dutch East Indies troops and was supported by the 12 Lockheed Hudson light bombers of No. 2 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force and a troop from the British Royal Artillery's 79th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. The Allied forces were concentrated around the strategic airfield of Penfui.

As the government of Portugal declined to cooperate with the Allies, a force composed of the 2/2nd Independent Company and Dutch forces occupied Portuguese Timor, without any resistance being offered by the Portuguese Army or officials; the civilian population, both Portuguese and Timorese, generally welcomed the Allied soldiers.

Additional Australian support staff arrived at Kupang on 12 February, including Brigadier William Veale, who was to be the senior Allied officer on Timor. By this time many of the Australians, unused to tropical conditions, were suffering from malaria and other illnesses.

Timor came under attack from Japanese aircraft on 26 January. The bombing — hampered by AA guns and a squadron of US Army Air Forces fighters based in Darwin — intensified during February. Air attacks forced an Allied convoy—escorted by the destroyers HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego—to return to Australia. It had included valuable reinforcements, such as a US Army artillery battalion and the remainder of the British AA battery.

During the night of 19/20 February, the Imperial Japanese Army's 228th Regimental Group, under the direct command of Colonel Sadashichi Doi, began landing in Portuguese Timor.

The first contact was at Dili, the capital of Portuguese Timor, where the Allies were caught by surprise. Nevertheless, they were well-prepared and the garrison began an orderly retreat towards the mountainous interior and the south coast.

On the same night, Allied forces in West Timor were under extremely intense air attacks, which had already caused the RAAF force to be withdrawn to Australia. The bombing was followed up by landings from the 228th Regiment, on the undefended south west side of the island, at the Paha River. Light tanks were landed to support the Japanese infantry, and the force advanced north, cutting off the Dutch positions in the west and attacking the 2/40th Battalion positions at Penfui. A parallel Japanese thrust to the north-east, aimed to cut off the Allied retreat, at Usua. Sparrow Force HQ was immediately moved further east, to its supply base at Champlong. Leggatt ordered the destruction of the airfield.

The 2/40th's line of flight towards Champlong had been cut off by the dropping of about 500 Japanese marine paratroopers, from the 3rd Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force, near Usua. Sparrow Force HQ moved further eastward and Leggatt's men launched a sustained and devastating assault on the paratroopers. By the morning of 23 February, the Allies had killed all but 78 of the enemy forces in front of them, but had been engaged from the rear by the main Japanese force once again.

With his soldiers running low on ammunition, exhausted and carrying 132 men with serious wounds, Leggatt consulted his men and then accepted a Japanese invitation to surrender, at Usua. The 2/40th had suffered 84 killed in action. More than twice that number would die as prisoners of war during the next two and a half years.[12]

Veale and the Sparrow Force HQ force—including about some members of the 2/40th and about 200 Dutch East Indies troops—continued eastward across the border, and eventually joined the 2/2 Independent Company. The 2/40th effectively ceased to exist, its survivors being absorbed into the 2/2nd.

Postscript 1942–45

After a journey lasting several weeks, Bennett arrived in Darwin. The Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, made the unusual gesture of publicly exonerating him. However, the high command effectively sidelined Bennett by appointing him commander of III Corps, a formation responsible for the defence of Western Australia.

Following the loss of its original battalions, the headquarters units of the 23rd Brigade acquired Militia battalions and ceased to be a part of the 2nd AIF. The 8th Division had ceased to exist.

During the fighting in Malaya, Singapore, Ambon, Timor and Rabaul the 8th Division lost over 10,000 men, including 2,500 killed in action, with this figure represented two thirds of all deaths sustained by the Australian Army in the Pacific.[9]


Major General Vernon Sturdee, 1940
Major General Gordon Bennett, 27 September 1940 – 15 February 1942.


Infantry units (with state of origin, where applicable)

See also


  1. Colin Smith, Singpore Burning, pp. 162–172,(Penguin, 2006)
  2. Wigmore, 1957, pp. 381  382
  3. Frank Owen, "The Fall of Singapore," pp.202, (Penguin, 2001)
  4. Colin Smith, Singapore Burning, pp. 473,(Penguin, 2006)
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, "The Day the Empire Died of Shame," Lindsay Murdoch, 21 Nov 2012
  6. Colin Smith, Singapore Burning, pp.470,(Penguin, 2006)
  7. Colin Smith, Singpore Burning, p. 497, (Penguin, 2006)
  8. Colin Smith, Singapore Burning, pp.486,(Penguin, 2006)
  9. 1 2 Morgan 2013, p. 13.
  10. Richardson, H. One-man War.
  11. 1 2 Peter Stanley, Speech "The defence of the 'Malay barrier': Rabaul and Ambon, January 1942", Australian War Memorial, Accessed 9 April 09
  12. Brad Manera, Speech "The battles on Timor, 20–23 February 1942", Australian War Memorial, Accessed 9 April 09


Further reading

External links

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