Military History

This Week in History | Week 4

By The Cove January 20, 2020

20 - 26 January
21-22 January 1941: 6th Australian Division attack and capture of Tobruk

Following the capture of Bardia, the 6th Australian Division advanced west along the Libyan coast to the Italian defended port town of Tobruk. At dawn on 21 January 1941, after air and artillery support, the 6th Division broke through the Italian lines in the south and by 8 am the entire division was within the Italian perimeter and fanning out into the enemy enclave. The stiff fighting on the opening day was not repeated on 22 January when 25,000 Italians surrendered and hundreds of artillery pieces and vehicles were captured.

23 January 1944: 7th Division defeat the Japanese at Shaggy Ridge, New Guinea

High in the Finisterre Mountains in north-eastern New Guinea is a feature known as Shaggy Ridge. For the men of Australia’s 7th Division fighting the Japanese during the Second World War, this razor-backed ridge represented hell on earth.

The Japanese endured a month of strafing and bombing, and managed to hold their ground. It became clear that the only way for the 7th Division to meet its objective of crossing the Finisterre Range to join the Allied advance along the Huon peninsula coastline was a frontal assault on the single track running along the ridge. 

“In places the single pathway along the ridgeline was only wide enough for one man to pass, with sheer drops on either side,” Grant writes. “This made outflanking the Japanese prepared positions impossible. The soldiers who fought there would come to describe the battle of Shaggy Ridge as occurring on a one-man front.”

Fierce fighting took place at sites known as the Pimple, McCaughey’s Knoll, and Prothero – which was a particularly harrowing experience for the Australian soldiers.

Many of these men were veterans of Tobruk, Milne Bay and the beachhead battles, but it would be the attack on Prothero that would mark the low point of their war. Dwelling on the damage caused by the Japanese mountain gun at Prothero, Sergeant Geoffrey Lowe reflected that “Tobruk was a picnic” when compared with the battalion’s experience on Shaggy Ridge.

Check out this page from the Australia War Memorial's website to watch rare footage of the battle taken by a Commonwealth Film Unit camera team.

24 January 1967: First contact at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam

Fighting at Bien Hoa involved a series of contacts between units of the 1st Australian Task Force and communist forces in the area of the Bien Hoa - Long Binh complex near Saigon. Australian and American units sought to dominate the area and prevent enemy rocket attacks on nearby military bases and installations.

26 January 1945: Start of the Sandakan death march, Borneo.

Sandakan prisoner of war camp was established by the Japanese in July 1942. Australian prisoners were sent to Sandakan in 1942 to build an airstrip. At first they were treated reasonably well. Gradually, however, rations were reduced and bashings increased. 

Fearing invasion from Allied forces, the Japanese decided to send about 2,000 Australian and British prisoners westward to Ranau, in Borneo’s rugged interior. Weak and sick prisoners staggered for about 260 kilometres along jungle tracks. Many died on the way, their bodies never recovered. Those unable to continue were killed; those too weak to march had been left behind in Sandakan, where all died or were killed. Only six – all Australians – out of about a thousand sent to Ranau survived the war.

The Sandakan “death march” remains the greatest single atrocity committed against Australians in war.



The Cove

The home of the Australian Profession of Arms.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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