The Australian troops were all volunteers. They didn’t need to come and fight and die in the desert. They came out of loyalty to Britain at a moment of desperate need. They came inspired by the national saga of Australian audacity and courage at Gallipoli. They came to break out of their island continent and see the world, just as their backpacking offspring were to do a generation later.
Alan Moorehead, Australian war correspondent in North Africa, described his compatriots as hailing “from the dockside of Sydney and the sheep-stations of the Riverina” with a look of such “downright toughness with their gaunt dirty faces, huge boots, revolvers stuffed in their pockets, gripping their rifles with huge shapeless hands, shouting and grinning – always grinning”. The Italians thought them savages, unleashed into the desert from some wild outpost of the British Empire. The Egyptians refused to have them billeted in Cairo, so traumatised were they by their experience of Australian troops celebrating at the end of the First World War. The toops had to be garrisoned in Palestine where they passed the time in brawls with the equally pugnacious Military police. But Wavell and Montgomery knew their quality and both used them as shock troops. These were the men who broke through the Italian front in Libya in 1940; who survived five months of siege in 1941 as the rats of Tobruk; who tore apart a whole German division at El Alamein in 1942.
Compulsory military service in Australia was restricted to the formation of militias that were reserved for home defence. Attempts during the First World War to extend conscription to overseas service had been defeated twice in referenda and the government was not going to try again. Only volunteers could enlist to help the Brits, and almost 70,000 did, forming the Imperial Expeditionary Force with four infantry divisions, an armoured division and two air force squadrons. They fought in Greece, Crete and North Africa before being called back to defend their homeland with the entry of Japan into the war. Their families were now in peril and the Defence Act was finally adjusted to allow conscripts to join the volunteers in combat beyond the country’s borders, though confined to the South West Pacific theatre of operations.
Like Australia, New Zealand declared war on Germany on the same day as Britain, her prime minister asserting, “It is with gratitude in the past, and with confidence in the future, that we range ourselves without fear beside Britain, where she goes, we go! Where she stands, we stand!”
Feeling it was the fairest way to mobilise its troops, New Zealand introduced conscription after the fall of France in 1940, though 60,000 had already volunteered and been sent off to the front in Europe, fighting in Greece and Crete before entering combat in North Africa.
Of all the dominion forces, only NZ had a battalion of indigenous troops, a result of lobbying by the handful of Maoris in the NZ parliament. Recruitment was voluntary, but competition to enlist was fierce and the Maoris managed to maintain a battalion of 700 men throughout the war
While the New Zealanders were training in Palestine, Wavell allowed Bagnold to recruit from amongst them for his Long Range Desert Group, a buccaneering team of motorized guerrillas who were trained to drive and navigate across the sand dunes and gravel wastes of the Libyan Desert, keeping the enemy under constant surveillance and engaging them in surprise attacks. Since many of the New Zealanders were farmhands, they had been toughened by the outdoors and knew how to drive vehicles on rough terrain and fix them when they clapped out. It was an entirely voluntary force.
In South Africa, loyalty to the British crown was far from universal. The Afrikaners retained raw memories of the British scorched earth policy, concentration camps and land grab of the Second Anglo-Boer war. It was only due to the advocacy of Jan Smuts, former Boer guerrilla-leader-turned-diplomat, that the cabinet was swayed to join Britain, though only 7 out of the cabinet of 13 were in favour. Conscription was out of the question. Nevertheless, one out of every three able-bodied men enlisted, including a fair number of Afrikaners. When Grannie Smuts set up a fund to provide the troops with a daily tot of Commando brandy and a packet of Springbok cigarettes, families from both sides of the white divide hastened to contribute.
South Africa fielded two divisions in North Africa which arrived towards the middle of 1941 after assisting in the expulsion of the Italians from Abyssinia and the Vichy French from Madagascar. It wasn’t a propitious moment. Rommel had just pushed the British out of Cyrenaica and Wavell had been sacked from the supreme command. When the Allies counterattacked, it proved to be a messy campaign and in one of their first engagements, the 5th Brigade of the South African1st Division found itself surrounded by a concentrated attack from Rommel at Sidi Rezegh and were hopelessly outgunned and forced into captivity. The following year, the 2nd Division found itself in the second siege of Tobruk and fell victim to Rommel’s ferocious determination to recapture it. There was nothing to do but follow Churchill’s dictum, KBO, “keep buggering on”. Revenge was exacted in the battles of El Alamein when the remaining three battalions of the 1st Division took positions on the Ruweisat ridge and the SA armoured cars of the XXX corps pursued the enemy in retreat.
Jan Smuts had not only brought South Africa into the Second World War, he had also been part of the Imperial War Cabinet during the First World War, and it was he who had first proposed the formation of the Royal Air Force out of disparate flying units attached to the army and navy. He was now to support the RAF again by contributing 9 squadrons of the South African Air Force to the total of 37 squadrons of the Allied Desert Air Force, the largest contribution of all the Dominions.
With the final defeat of Rommel, the South African division returned home to honour a promise to the South African parliament that troops would not be used outside of Africa. The infantry division, however, was converted to an armoured division and then Smuts managed to persuade parliament to have it sent out to Italy to aid the allied invasion.