The Australian 16th Battalions
The Great War
The outstanding history of the Western Australian 16th Battalions begins with the Great War. Late in 1914 the Australian Government decided to raise another force to supplement the 1st Division already in training. The new unit was to be known as the 4th Brigade and commanded by Victorian, Colonel John Monash. To Western Australia was allotted the task of raising the new 16th Battalion headquarters, a machine-gun section, signal section and five companies of infantry; the remaining three companies were to be filled by South Australians.
During the course of the war the battalion fought on Gallipoli and in France and Belgium along the Western Front. Its battle honours include the landing at Anzac Cove, Sari Bair Ridge (1915); Pozieres (1916); Bullecourt, Messines, Ypres [Passchedaele] and Polygon Wood (1917); Hamel and, finally, Mont St Quentin on the Somme (1918). In its last engagement, which ended on 21 September 1918, it was led into battle by Major W. Lynas DSO MC who had landed on Gallipoli as a private nearly four and a half years before.
Arguably the most remarkable pair of 16th Battalion men was Hugh Murray and Percy Black. They joined up together in 1914 as private soldiers from the timber-getting township of Manjimup in the south-west of Western Australia. Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Murray VC CMG DSO MC DCM Croix de Guerre, ended the war as the most highly decorated soldier of the Great War. Major Percy Black DSO DCM Croix de Guerre, was killed at Bullecourt on 11 April 1917 fighting with the 16th Battalion. It was Harry Murray who had the traumatic task of cutting his friend from the wire after an action which cost the battalion 650 casualties of the 800 who went into action. Captain Arnold Potts [later Brigadier A.W. Potts DSO OBE MC of Kokoda Track fame] led his 45 men of the 4th Light Trench Mortar Battery in the action and lost 34 of them, some from the 'friendly' fire of the new-fangled British tanks. The 4th Brigade lost a total of 2450 men of the 3000 who were committed on that fateful morning.
After the war the survivors returned home (one estimate has it that well over 10,000 men passed through the ranks of the 1000 man battalion during the course between 1914 and 1918). Some of them joined militia units in the 1920s and 1930s but it was not until 1936 that a citizen military forces unit, the 16th Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders, was formed to train a new generation of young men as war clouds loomed in Europe. The unit operated out of headquarters at the foot of William Street in the heart of Perth and was subsequently to provide many of the future officers and N.C.Os of the armed services when eventually war was declared.
World War II
After the outbreak of World War II the 2/16th Battalion was formed in Western Australia as part of the 7th Division. Brigadier Alfred Baxter-Cox, a Perth architect and Great War veteran reverted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and took up command.
Initially they recruited from an office next to Swan Barracks in Francis Street (across from the museum) and then moved up to Northam Army Camp, 60 miles east of Perth in the Avon Valley, to commence their training. George Gilmour, who had served in the South African War as a drummer boy with the Kings Own Rifles, and subsequently through the Great War and beyond with the same regiment, composed the 2/16th Battalions marching song, along with George Reid a well known conductor and musician:
The Middle East
On the completion of their training the battalion marched the 60 miles to Perth and in a final ceremonial parade down St George's Terrace past the convict built Government House on 10 October 1940, the men wore their new colour patch (a white rectangle over blue rectangle on a diamond of grey) for the first time. Veterans of the Old 16th were there to see the parade. There many tears down tough, weathered faces.
On 25 October 1940 a troop train transported them to Fremantle and they boarded the Aquitania for passage to the Middle East. Already aboard were their distant cousins, the Victorian 2/14th Battalion. Together with the South Australian 2/27th Battalion, the three units would comprise the 21st Infantry Brigade.
They disembarked at El Kantara on 25 November 1940. From there they were moved into Palestine (Julis Camp). Subsequently the unit was stationed at Dimrah and at Mersa Matruh in Egypt while High Command decided what their fate should be. It was a case of hurry up and wait again; boredom and discontent set in. It was to be 13 months in all before they were sent in to action.
The mid-1941 the Allies feared a German presence in Syria would compromise the security of the Suez Canal region. Vichy French forces, sympathetic to the Nazi regime, were centred on Bieruit and held strong positions down the coast through Palestine. It was an ideal situation for the Germans to build up a presence and conceivably launch an attack . General Charles de Gaulle, the Free French commander, urged Churchill to launch an invasion into Palestine and Syria. In consequence General Wavell began preparing an expeditionary force to be called Operation Exporter.
The core of the hurriedly assembled force was to be two brigades of the AIF 7th Division, the 21st and 25th (the 18th was trapped in Tobruk) while other units were the battle-hardened 2/3rd and 2/5th Battalions of the 6th Division, the 6th and 9th Division Cavalry and complimentary units of artillery, anti-tank, machine-gunners and pioneers. There was also the 5th Indian Brigade and a Free French Force of 5,000; a total of 34,000 men supported by twenty ships and seventy aircraft. Arraigned against them was a comparable force of 35,000 Senegalese, Algerians, Moroccans, Syrians, Circassians, White Russians and, of course, a sizeable presence of French Foreign Legion units.
Forward elements of the 2/16th Battalion crossed the border into Palestine at 2a.m. on the 8 June 1941 with Major Arnold Potts MC in command of the advance guard. The 25 mile advance to the Litani River was made over difficult, mountainous country. The troops had been instructed to wear their slouch hats in the vain hope that the French, remembering the Australians as brothers-in-arms from the 1st World War, would not fire on them. To no avail. It did not take long to don helmets once the bullets and bombs began flying.
Early the following morning they attacked across the well-defended river with great difficulty. It was only superb discipline and training that enabled them to complete the task under heavy opposition against the well entrenched French forces. Casualties, however, were heavy.
There was little time to rest. On the following day the brigade marched north again on the coastal thrust (there were brigade strength thrust through central and eastern routes as well). An attack on Sidon was launched on Friday the 13th. They began to move through the orchards and open ground at 1000 hours. The French had prepared well and they had tanks at their disposal. It was 'pillar to post' fighting, through orange groves and ditches and gullies. Black Friday lived up to its reputation.
The next day the navy joined in with a bombardment off the coast and the battle of attrition went on throughout the day. But by dawn on the 15 June the French had pulled out and the town was secured.
After four days the depleted ranks of the 2/16th Battalion moved north again, clearing out scattered pockets of resistance. By this time, after four weeks of campaigning, casualties and sickness had reduced the effective strength to 270 men.
On 25 June they reached El Harem Ridge and preparation for the battle of possession of the town of Damour began. Here lay the last pocket of resistance against the Allied advance on Damascus the capital and on Bierut the French headquarters.
The attack toward El Atiqua began on 6 July at 0615. All hell broke loose. Resistance was heavy. A, B and C Companies of the 2/16th were to attempt river crossings then re-align, consolidate before moving on. After the crossings the battle broke into platoon and section engagements. Subalterns and corporals took the intiative in many fierce skirmishes, as they had been trained to do. They pressed on hard. It was in this vicinity that Lieutenant Roden Cutler was wounded while attempting to bring up a telephone line for the artillery. He was later to be awarded a Victoria Cross for gallantry in an earlier action near Merdjayoun. A little further northward at Djezzine, Private Jim Gordon, the tough Western Australian Gingin farmer of the 2/31st Battalion had won his Victoria Cross by assaulting a machine-gun nest on his own and bayonetting the four man crew.
By late afternoon the 2/16th were pinned down but then the news came that the 2/27th had broken through on the right flank. In consequence the French chose to withdraw. By 8 July the battalion, after continued heavy fighting, had managed to consolidate on the ridges at Mar Mikhail and El Atiqua beyond the Damour River, about a kilometre from the outer limits of the city of Damour.
On 11 July the French commander, General Dentz agreed to negotiate a truce with Lieutenant-General John Lavarack, I Australian Corps commander and by the early hours of 12 July hostilities had ceased. Estimates vary but the overall Allied casualties during the campaign vary between 1505 (Official History) and 1682 (Blamey cable 19.7.41). In all the 2/16th Battalion had lost 269 men killed or wounded in the push.
On the 15 July the 2/16th Battalion led the march into Bierut to great fanfare. People lined the roads all the way from Damour, up the Rue Damas to the Place de Martyrs (or 'Place Tomatoes' as the Australians called it).
There followed a period of well-earned rest in Bierut (the 'Paris of the East'), after which they allotted a peace-keeping role at Syr, 6,500 feet above sea level where they spent Christmas and New Year in bitter conditions of ice, snow, sleet, hail and mud.
This time they did not have long to wait to learn of their new role. Fate had already decided. To the north of Australia, Japanese forces were moving rapidly down the Malayan Peninsular and spreading their tendrils across the South-West Pacific region toward the Australian mainland.
The Papuan New Guinea Campaign
With the entry of Japan into the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin and his cabinet decided that the A.I.F. 6th and 7th Divisions should be returned to Australia from the Middle East as a matter of urgency. The 2/16th Battalion arrived back at Fremantle on 15 March 1942 and, after a short period of leave and training, were placed in defensive positions in Queensland on the so-called Brisbane Line in case of a Japanese invasion.
While awaiting further orders a group of 2/16th soldiers paid an official visit to the 16th Motor Brigade at Gympie. The purpose of the visit was to pay the battalion's respects to one of their greatest 'sons', the quiet and unassuming Colonel Harry Murray VC, now the commanding officer of the 16th Motor Brigade. This unit, which had been formerly been the 16th Light Horse, the Hunter River Lancers in 1918 (originally the 4th Light Horse, New South Wales Lancers in 1907) was subsequently active as a militia unit between the wars and in 1936 was converted to a machine-gun unit, the 16th Light Horse Machine-Gun Regiment, Hunter River Lancers. In May 1942 it was converted into a motorised unit.
The Japanese landed on the northern coast of New Guinea on the 21/22 July 1942 and, unexpectedly began to march over the Owen Stanley Ranges with the intent of capturing Port Moresby and the vital airfields there. Had they succeeded the mainland of Australia would have come under extreme threat.
The 21st Brigade (of which the 2/16th Battalion was part), commanded by Brigadier Arnold Potts DSO MC, who had formerly been the commanding officer of the 2/16th, was rushed to New Guinea and, within days, its 1500 members were climbing into the precarious Owen Stanley Ranges in an attempt to position themselves to stop the advance of the Japanese forces, now building up to over ten thousand men and already engaging the ill-trained but gallant militia 39th Battalion at Isurava in the foothills on the far side of the range.
What followed will forever go down as one of the most heroic defensive actions in the annals of military history. From the 26 August to 16 September 1942 the 2/16th Battalion, together with their brothers-in-arms of Brigadier Potts's Maroubra Force ( the Victorian 2/14th, the South Australian 2/27th, the militia 39th and scattered elements of the ill-trained militia 53rd battalions), out-numbered by an estimated 5:1 (and out-gunned by superior weaponry), fought the Japanese to an eventual standstill on the ridges over-looking Port Moresby.
Two main battles were fought during that period (Isurava, 26 to 29 August and Brigade ['Butchers'] Hill from 6 to 8 September), but in the main the desperately tired but determined force kept themselves between the Japanese Major-General Horii's South Sea Force and Port Moresby - defending, retreating and then counter-attacking in a masterly display of strategic defence. Conditions were almost indescribable. It rained for much of the time, the weary men endured some of the most difficult and exhausting terrain in the world and, increasingly, they were racked by malaria and dysentery. But they kept fighting, making the enemy pay dearly for every yard of ground. They bought time for those being prepared to come up from Port Moresby to relieve them.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner DSO MC, who commanded the gallant 39th in the action, later wrote of these men in the foreword to Peter Brune's book, Those Ragged Bloody Heroes: 'They have joined the immortals...' He likened them all to King Henry V's soldiers at Agincourt. Of those that did not survive he wrote, '...Wherever their bones may lie, the courage of heroes is consecrated in the hearts and engraved in the history of the free.'
After the 143 remaining men (of the original 1500 or so who went up the Track) were finally withdrawn, as the fresh 25th Brigade took over the struggle back along the Kokoda Track, the survivors of Maroubra Force were paraded before their Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey at Koitaki and accused of running like rabbits. Some weeks later they were sent in across open ground against well prepared Japanese positions at Gona on the northern shores of Papua when it was known that it was virtually suicidal to do so. The 'long eye' of history has brought into focus now a series of command initiatives and actions which border on the infamous. The controversies about those decisions still rage to this day.
The 2/16th Battalion left the Gona battlefield with less than 50 'fit' men. They were sent to the Atherton Tableland in Queensland to rest and re-equip. Much needed reinforcements came from the break-up of Colonel Hugh Murray's 16th Motor Regiment. That unit was disbanded in July, 1943 and its personnel absorbed into the ranks of the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade. These men were to become integral part of the 21st Brigade's campaigns until the end of the war - and then in a peace-keeping role in the Celebes for some months after.
Later in 1943 the 2/16th Battalion went back to New Guinea and took part in the Markham and Ramu Valley campaign where they fought valiantly again. Shaggy Ridge is now a proud part of their long list of battle honours.
During 1944 and 1945 they waited in their Atherton (Queensland) encampments for General MacArthur to decide how Australian troops might be used in the offensive against Japanese forces through the islands and into Japan. Eventually the 2/16th Battalion was engaged in the successful landing and capture of Balikpapan in the Eastern Borneo region in July 1945.
After peace was declared on the 15 August many of the long term soldiers were sent home but the more recent battalion members, with a smattering of seasoned veterans to guide them, such as the commanding officer, Major John (Ben) Hearman, acted as a peace-keeping force in the Celebes until finally sent home in the early months of 1946.
These days the 2/16th Battalion Association, the 16th Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders of Western Australia Association and the current 16th Battalion, The Royal West Australian Regiment which centres its activites on Irwin Barracks, Karrakatta, an inner suburb of Perth, Western Australia have joined together to preserve and promulgate the traditions of these famous units.
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