The Story of the 2/24th Battalion

In July 1940 the 2/24th Battalion Headquarters group was formed, as part of the 26th Brigade – one of only two Victorian battalions in Victoria. They set off from Caulfield for the still-being-built Bonegilla camp, stopping off at Wangaratta where they camped at the showgrounds. They were welcomed with open arms by the local community as they rapidly built up their numbers. The people of Wangaratta adopted the Battalion and they became known as ‘Wangaratta’s Own’. Presented with a 14 foot pennant the Battalion marched through the streets of Wangaratta on 27 September 1940 on the way to Bonegilla. Training continued in Bonegilla until the soldiers sailed on HMT Strathmore for the Middle East on 16 November.

The Battalion was eventually attached to the 9th Australian Division, one of the most famous army fighting formations in World War 2. They served in Tobruk (1941) Tel el Eisa (1942), El Alemain (1942), New Guinea (1943) and Tarakan (1945).During the Tobruk siege the 9th Division was called the ‘The Rats of Tobruk’ by Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce), the German propagandist. The 2/24th Battalion suffered more casualties than any other 2nd AIF Battalion – 360 killed and 900 wounded.

In early 1941, along with the remainder of the Brigade, the 2/24 moved to Tocra in Cyrenaica (Libya) to complete its training and to relieve the 6th Division that had pushed the Italian Army back beyond Benghazi. The 6th Division was being sent to Greece. However, the German Afrika Korps led an Axis counter-attack that pushed the 9th Division back until it entered the defence line around Tobruk – a rapid retreat often known as the ‘Benghazi handicap’. Told by General Wavell to hold Tobruk for 2 months the 2/24th, along with others units and nationalities, held Tobruk for the eight months from 10 April until 20 October. They defended the ‘fortress’ from Rommel’s major attacks and continual shelling and bombing.

The 2/24th manned the Red Line at a number of different locations, but mostly to the south-west. The Red Line was an outer land defence perimeter of 28 miles that arced around Tobruk, protecting the town and its harbour. The Red Line was backed up by the Blue Line of reserve troops about 2 miles inside the outer perimeter. On the night of 30 April-1 May 1941 the Axis tanks and troops broke through the perimeter at Hill 209, creating a Salient. Although the line was penetrated the Axis forces never achieved their aim of breaking through to Tobruk. Through intensive patrolling and harassment the Battalion held its sector throughout the siege. The ‘Rats of Tobruk’ became known and feared for their skilfull night patrolling. Leaving behind the 2/13th Infantry Battalion, the 9th Division was evacuated by sea over a period of a month. The 2/24th left on the night of 20 October, sailing to Alexandria and then on to Palestine and Syria for rest, reinforcement and garrison duties.

By July 1942 German and Italian forces had moved across Libya, captured Tobruk and reached El Alamein in Egypt, about seventy miles west of Alexandria. The 2/24th was sent to the Alamein area to hold the northern sector. This they did for almost four months as the Eighth Army was re-equipped and reinforced for an offensive under the new commander, General Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery.

The division’s orders for the first attack were issued on 7 July. The 26th Brigade advanced along the coast, driving a wedge between the sea and German positions and captured the feature known as Tel el Eisa (‘Hill of Jesus’), which ran north-west between the railway line and the sea. During this engagement the 2/24th was instrumental in capturing Rommel’s forward intelligence unit – Company 621, a German Wireless Intercept Unit at trig 33 near Tel el Eisa on 10 July 1942 - an event that helped change the course of the conflict in Africa. The capture of 621 company was, according to one of Rommel's intelligence staff, Hans-Otto Behrendt, a ‘catastrophe (with) serious consequences for Panzerarmee Afrika’. He quotes a fellow officer of saying that Rommel was furious when he heard the news.

During the main offensive from 23 October to 4 November (often called the Second Battle of El Alamein), the 26th Brigade were ‘right of line’ and crossed the Australian start line south of Tel el Eisa, and fought in a sweeping arc moving through the Fig Orchard, Thompson’s Post, and numerous German mine fields, towards the sea. The heaviest fighting took place at the ‘Saucer’. By the end of the October the 2/24th had suffered heavy casualties and was disengaged from the fighting on the night of 31 October, and was successfully relieved by the 24th Brigade. Out of the whole 2/24th Battalion only 55 men left the battle zone by transport.

The 9th Division was to return to Australia to face the Japanese in the Pacific. The 2/24th left Alamein during the first week of December and went to Gaza in Palestine, where it participated in the 9th Division parade on 22 December. The battalion left its camp in Palestine on 23 January 1943 for its return voyage to Australia, reaching Melbourne on 25 February.

Retrained and reorganised for jungle operations, the 2/24th, on 4 September 1943, was involved in the division’s amphibious landing at Red Beach, east of Lae. After fighting in the battles around Lae, Finschhafen, and Sattelberg, the battalion returned to Australia in March 1944.

After leave, the 2/24th was reformed in Queensland at Ravenshoe on the Atherton Tablelands, for what proved to be an extensive training period - and the war was nearly over before the battalion went into action again. In April 1945 the 9th Division was sent to Morotai, a staging area, in preparation for the 7th and 9th Divisions’ amphibious landings on Borneo.

The 26th Brigade landed on Tarakan on 1 May, just three years to the day when it suffered heavy losses when Rommel’s forces penetrated the Tobruk perimter at Hill 209. The two lead battalions were the 2/48th and 2/23rd, with the 2/24th in reserve. There was extensive air and naval bombardment prior to the landing so there was no opposition as the troops landed on the beaches. However, the troops came under fire from Japanese on Lingkas Hill. The two battalions pushed inland towards the Tarakan township, overcoming Japanese resistance as they went. By nightfall they had established a beachhead 2.5km wide and 2km deep. The Japanese held out on the position called ‘metho’ and the 2/24th was ordered to push through and capture the airfield the next day. The Japanese fight-back was powerful and the airfield was not taken until 5 May.

Worse was to come. From 6 May to 16 June they fought in the jungle on the mountain ridges behind the town. The Japanese used mines, booby traps, and suicide raids to delay the Australian advance. The 2/24th fought along Crazy Ridge. On 20 June it captured the Australians’ last main objective, Hill 90, after 21,000 artillery rounds and 600 mortar bombs had targeted the area.

The capture of Hill 90 was the last of the main battles. The island was divided into sectors, which each unit was to clear of any remaining Japanese - along with the 2/4th Commando Squadron and some Dutch troops. The 2/24th sector was the northern part of the island, covering the Juata Oilfields.

Following the end of the war in August, and Japan’s surrender, the ranks of the 2/24th thinned as men were discharged, transferred, or volunteered for the occupation force for Japan. Those who remained in the battalion returned to Australia in December, 1945. The 2/24th Battalion was disbanded at Puckapunyal in 1946.

A Commemorative Service is conducted annually at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance on a Sunday in October each year, and at the 2/24 Battalion Memorial Wall at the Wangaratta Cemetery on the Saturday following Melbourne Cup Day in November. The tradition and memory of the fighting men of the 2/24th is maintained by the 2/24 Australian Infantry Battalion Association.

The full story of the 2/24 is in the official history, which can be obtained from the Secretary. Go to the Products page in this website for details on ordering.