History

Background

Pioneer Battalions were originally intended to construct roads, etc for the Armed Forces in battle areas with the members also trained as soldiers for "emergency" fill in. The reality was that there was always an emergency and the Pioneers performed both roles; often at the same time.

First Forming of the Battalion

The 2/2 Pioneer Battalion was first formed in May 1940 in Victoria. Lt-Col N. F. Wellington M.C., V.D. was its first commander. The Battalion comprised A, B, C, D and Headquarters companies. Age of men varied between 15 and 57 years of age.

Training commenced at Puckapunyal Camp, Seymour, Victoria and continued at Balcombe Camp, Mt. Martha, Victoria.

Syrian Campaign (Fort Merdjayoun, Damour)

Maps : Palestine, Syria, Merdjayoun, Merdjayoun Attack 27/06/1941, Damour 03-12/07/1941, Damour 06/07/1941, Syria.

The Battalion was entrained to Sydney to board the H.M.S. Queen Mary and sailed April 9th, 1941 for the Middle East via Fremantle, Western Australia and Trincomalee, Ceylon. The ship arrived at the Port Tewfik (port of Suez) May 4th and the Battalion was transhipped to the S.S. Ethiopia for the journey up the Suez Canal. The men were disembarked at El Kantara then entrained to Hill 95 camp (near Dier Suneid) in Palestine. Although referred to as the “Syrian Campaign”; military operations were actually confined to the Lebanon. The Battalion’s first action occurred between June 15th to 22nd 1941 at Fort Merdjayoun; sustaining many casualties.

Initially the Battalion did not fight as a whole – each of the companies supported different brigades. A Company went to the 21st Brigade at Er Rama and B Company to the 25th Brigade near Rosh Pinah.

When the attack began on 7 June, A Company was placed under the command of the 2/16th Infantry Battalion and had three tasks: breach the frontier fence at El Malakiya (a formidable obstacle of barbed-wire and iron picket), improve the approaches from the frontier road to the gap in the fence and build a road across the fields to link with the road passing through Aiteroune. B Company had a similar task. At Metulla it prepared artillery approaches and improved the track from Mezudal and Banias. The men also assisted engineers to repair a crater in the road near Dan.

D Company joined the 25th Brigade and also assisted maintaining and repairing roads. Several days later C Company came forward from Er Rama and began improving the rough track to Metulla for vehicles to pass.

But when the Vichy French counter-attacked Merdjayoun on 15 June, the 2/2nd recalled its scattered companies to hold the new Litani River bridge and prevent further enemy advance.

On 17 June the Pioneers participated in the attack on Fort Merdjayoun as part of Todd Force. In a reckless decision, A and B Companies were ordered to make a frontal attack on the fort. French machine-gun fire quickly stopped the attack and the Australians were exposed. Casualties mounted but the companies were pinned, unable to withdraw until evening. They suffered heavily: 27 killed, 29 captured, and 46 wounded.

Despite the losses the Battalion remained in action for the rest of the campaign. It was particularly active in the fighting around Merdjayoun and El Mtolle and in the attack on Damour in July.

Following the surrender of the Vichy French (battle memorial plaque near Dog River, Damour) the Battalion concentrated first at Damour and then near Tripoli, bivouacking in the olive groves opposite Fort Legoult Barracks. For the next four months the Battalion trained and conducted garrison duties, with each company sent to different locations as needed. In November the Pioneers moved to Qatana.

Java Campaign (Tjililitan, Leuwiliang, Tjampea)

Maps : Far East, Llewiliang, Java.

In early 1942 the 6th and 7th Divisions were recalled to Australia to prepare for the Japanese threat from the north and the 2/2nd began the voyage home on the troopship S.S. Orcades. The 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, 2/6th Field Company, and other support units were also on board. However, the Orcades was about to be caught in the Japanese thrust.

British forces in Singapore surrendered on 15 February. Two days later the Orcades reached Oosthaven, Sumatra (port of Teloek Betoeng) before going to Batavia in Java. The Japanese were moving through the Netherlands East Indies and it was decided to make a stand on Java.

The troops aboard Orcades, as well as a battery of American artillery and a squadron from the 3rd King’s Own Hussars, combined to defend Java with little in the way of supplies or weapons. They became known as Black Force. Their directive was political rather than strategic and ultimately futile.

The Japanese landed on Java on 28 February. Black Force went into action at Leuwiliang near Buitenzorg on 4 March. It fought against the Japanese for two days but was ordered to lay down arms the day after the Dutch surrendered on 8 March.

Prisoner Of War (P.O.W.)

Map : Burma Railway.

The majority of the 2/2nd survived the fighting (865 officers and men) and spent the rest of the war as prisoners. Of these, 258 men died, most while working on the Burma Railway. Others died in P.O.W. work camps across Asia and at sea when hellships they were being transported on were sunk.

P.O.W. Camps
The Pioneers were sent to a number of P.O.W. camps across Asia including Bicycle Camp (Java), Changi (Singapore), Malaya, many work camps along the Burma Railway, Bangkok and other camps in Thailand, Sandakan (Borneo), Fukuoka and Hakodate (Japan) and Indo China.

Burma Railway
The Japanese supply lines to Burma depended on a long and dangerous sea route around the Malay Peninsula. With the constant threat of shipping being attacked and sunk by Allied warships and aircraft, the military decided that a small gauge railway line needed to be built between Moulmein, Burma and Bangkok, Thailand to transport supplies and troops. The idea was not new and a survey had been completed before the war started by the British governing Burma. However, it was abandoned at the time since the difficulties were too great and costly in labour and risk.

As it turned out, they were right.

Approximately one life was lost per sleeper laid on the railway through injury, disease or barbaric treatment of the prisoners by the guards. Some 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 P.O.W.s worked on the railway between June 1942 and October 1943. Of these, about 90,000 Asian forced labourers (slave labour) and 16,000 P.O.W.s died. These appalling statistics included 6,318 British, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a number of Canadians. The working conditions included extremely long hours with little food and almost non-existent medical facilities.

Hellships
Japanese hellships transported slave labour (including P.O.W.s) under horrendously disgusting conditions. Sanitary considerations were simply ignored and thousands died in transit to different work camps of easily preventable medical conditions such as dysentery, beriberi and heat stroke caused by woefully inadequate ventilation in the ships holds. Hellships were often attacked by the Allies as they were marked like any other enemy shipping and at least nineteen were sunk with large loss of life. Some of the hellships Pioneers were transported on were : Awa Maru, Dainichi Maru, Imbari Maru, Kenkon Maru, Kibitsu Maru, Maebashi Maru, Miyo Maru, Moji Maru, Nagara Maru, Rakuyo Maru, Rashin Maru (Bioki Maru), Tamahoko Maru and Yamagata Maru.

Medical Conditions
The troops suffered badly from diseases such as avitaminosis, beriberi, cholera, dengue fever, dysentery, malaria, pellagra, septic arthritis, typhoid fever and typhus. P.O.W.s were especially vulnerable as they were already badly malnourished in Japanese camps.

Second Forming of the Battalion

Not all of the Battalion was captured. The Nigerstroom, S.S. Sophocles and the Shillong carrying the Battalion’s rear echelon troops, baggage and stores returned to Fremantle, WA, Australia just days after the Black Force surrender. There were also a handful of troops, mainly drivers, who had remained in Australia. Initially the remaining troops were told the 2/2nd was not going to be reformed but the decision was reversed the following month. Training (including amphibious assault) was at Kapooka (Wagga Wagga, NSW), Strawberry (WA), Wondecla (Atherton Tableland, QLD) and Tully Falls (QLD).

Huon Peninsula Campaign (Lae, Ramu Valley, Shaggy Ridge)

Maps : New Guinea, Ramu Valley.

By June 1943 the new 2/2nd was ready for action and sailed to Port Moresby, New Guinea the following month. The Pioneers supported the 7th Division in New Guinea for the rest of the year. Its first action was near Nabzab, during the Ramu Valley campaign and then in the advance to Lae. The Pioneers served as both infantry and engineers.

Capture of Lae (Reference Australian War Memorial)
Prior to the Second World War, Lae, a small town on the shores of the Huon Gulf in eastern New Guinea, was one of several servicing the rich goldfields further inland. Following the fall of Rabaul in New Britain to the Japanese in January 1942, Lae was selected as the new capital of Australian-mandated New Guinea; the establishment of necessary organisations and infrastructure was still underway when Lae too was occupied on 8 March 1942. It was subsequently developed by the Japanese as a base area as part of their defence barrier running from Timor in the west, to New Georgia in the east.

The Allies began planning for the recapture of Lae in July 1942 (Operation Postern), as part of a larger operation to occupy the Huon Peninsula and thereby close-down the vital Vitiez and Dampier Straits between New Guinea and Rabaul. The concept that developed for the capture of Lae was in the nature of a pincer - an amphibious force would land east of the town and then advance upon it along the coast and an airborne force would be flown into Nadzab in the Markham Valley and advance on Lae from the west. The ongoing operations west of Salamaua would also continue with the aim of diverting Japanese attention from Lae.

The 9th Australian Division landed east of Lae on 4 September, and, although demonstrating a degree of inexperience as far as amphibious landings were concerned, quickly established its beachhead and began the advance on Lae. Nadzab airstrip was captured by a parachute landing by the 503rd United States Parachute Regiment on 5 September and, after work by the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and 2/6th Field Company that had advanced overland, began to receive the first transports carrying the 7th Division on 7 September. The landward advance on Lae began on 11 September. The two arms of the pincer made rapid progress, and the operation developed into a race for Lae by the two Australian divisions. They both reached Lae on 16 September although the troops of the 7th had the honour of being first into the town. Around 1,500 Japanese were killed in the operation and another 2,000 taken prisoner, but close to 6,500 managed to escape, despite the 21st Australian Brigade being moved into positions to block their path. The 9th Division suffered 150 fatal casualties in the operation and the 7th Division 38 casualties in the actual fighting and 59 casualties in an aircraft accident, involving the 2/33rd Battalion, at Port Moresby (engine failure of a bomber taking off resulted in it crashing into trucks loaded with soldiers at the end of the airstrip).

Lae was subsequently developed by the Allies as a major base. Today Lae is the site of the second-largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Papua New Guinea. 2,359 Australians are buried there, and another 348 with no known grave are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing.

Shaggy Ridge (Reference Australian War Memorial)
Shaggy Ridge is a six and a half kilometre long razor-backed ridge that is the highest feature in the Finisterre Mountains in north-eastern New Guinea. The ridge was named after Captain Robert "Shaggy Bob" Clampett of the 2/27th Battalion whose company was the first to reconnoitre its approaches. The ridge rises sheer from river beds to 5000 feet between the valleys of the Mene and Faria Rivers and ends at Kankiryo Saddle - a bridge of land separating the Faria Valley from the Mindjim River Valley. In 1943 Shaggy Ridge was the site of the main Japanese defensive position blocking access from the Ramu Valley to the track and road network that joined it with the north coast. Operations by the 7th Australian Division in September and October 1943 caused the Japanese to withdraw from the Ramu Valley and the lower features of the Finisterres and consolidate their defences around Shaggy Ridge. The Japanese did not believe that a large body of troops could mount an attack up the steep face of Shaggy Ridge from the Mene River valley while overcoming the extra obstacles of powerful streams and dense jungle.

Initially, orders from II Australian Corps for 7th Division to limit its operations to a scale that could be maintained by the limited supplies available prevented action being taken to capture Shaggy Ridge, but by late December sufficient supplies were available to conduct a limited operation to secure a foothold on the southern end of the ridge around a knoll called the Pimple. B Company of the 2/16th Battalion attacked just after 9am, following an intensive aerial and artillery bombardment of the Japanese positions. Clambering up the precipitous slopes, still supported by artillery fire, the Australians quickly captured the Pimple and pushed on for another 100 metres to capture the next knoll along the ridge. B Company was subsequently relieved by D Company, which renewed the attack the next day and captured the next two knolls along the ridge, the last being named McCaughey's Knoll after the commander of the leading platoon. The Japanese counter-attacked that afternoon but were beaten off and thereafter were content to shell the Australian's newly won position with a mountain gun.

The next major assault along Shaggy Ridge - codenamed Operation Cut-throat - would be launched by the 18th Brigade with the aim of capturing the entire feature, including Kankiryo Saddle. The plan involved the brigade's three Battalions converging on the saddle from three different directions. The 2/12th with B and D Companies, 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, would advance from Canning's Saddle, east of Shaggy Ridge, and attack Kankiryo Saddle via two well-defended knolls on the northern end of Shaggy Ridge known as Prothero 1 and 2; the 2/9th would attack northwards along Shaggy Ridge itself; and the 2/10th would advance along Faria Ridge and attack Cam's Saddle, which lay to the east of Shaggy Ridge and joined it at Kankiryo Saddle. All three Battalions would be supported by artillery and heavy Allied air-strikes commencing three days before the attack and continuing until the day after. These strikes were designed to soften up the enemy defences and to cover the concentration of the attacking battalions.

The 2/10th and 2/12th Battalions began their approach marches on 19 January; the 2/12th in particular had a great deal of precipitous country to traverse and was not scheduled to attack for another two days. On the 20th the 2/10th attacked Japanese positions on Cam's Saddle in order to fight their way onto Faria Ridge but were held up by stubbourn Japanese resistance. The operation began in earnest the next morning with the 2/12th clambering up the steep slopes below Prothero 1 and A Company of the 2/9th doing the same on the eastern side of Green Sniper's Pimple, the highest point on both McCaughey's Knoll and Shaggy Ridge. The unexpected direction of these attacks, up slopes the Japanese obviously regarded as almost impassable, allowed the Australians to quickly establish a foothold on both features and they were secured by the end of the day. Their new occupants, however, had to withstand several counter-attacks and persistent and accurate artillery bombardment. The 2/10th's own artillery support had helped it to force its way onto Faria Ridge earlier in the day and by nightfall it had advanced to within a kilometre and a half of Kankiryo Saddle. January 22nd resulted in another day of hard fighting. The 2/12th Battalion pushed south along Shaggy Ridge to capture Prothero 2 while the 2/9th pushed north to take the rest of MacCaughey's Knoll. As the two Battalions readied themselves to meet the inevitable night time counter-attacks, less than a kilometre separated them. Next morning patrols encountered little opposition and by midday the 2/12th and 2/9th had linked up; all of Shaggy Ridge was in Australian hands. The 2/10th had attacked both north and south along Faria Ridge on January 22nd and continued to do so on the 23rd. In the north it was held by another strong Japanese position that was not occupied until late on the afternoon of January 24th.

By this time, the remaining Japanese stronghold in the area was atop a knoll north east of Kankiryo Saddle known as Crater Hill. It was the former Japanese Regimental Headquarters and the defences were well-sited and constructed. It was decided that rather than attack this position the 18th Brigade would contain it with patrols and then pound it with bombs and artillery to inflict sufficient casualties that a final assault could be conducted at minimal cost. This siege lasted until February 1st when a company from each of the 2/9th and 2/10th Battalions advanced up Crater Hill to find it devastated and unoccupied.

The capture of Shaggy Ridge cost the 18th Brigade 46 killed and 147 wounded and inflicted over 500 casualties on the Japanese, including 244 confirmed deaths. It cleared the way for an advance across the Finisterres to the northern New Guinea coast to link up with the Australian forces advancing from the east and thus complete the capture of the Huon Peninsula.

Borneo Campaign (Tarakan Island, Balikpapan)

Maps : Tarakan, Balikpapan.

In February 1944 the 2/2nd returned to Australia, exhausted and wracked with tropical disease. After a short period of leave, it met at Townsville and then Deadman’s Gully near Cairns and undertook amphibious training with the 2nd Australian Beach Group.

In March 1945 the Battalion finally left Deadman’s Gully and moved to Morotai Island off Borneo. The 7th and 9th Divisions were being concentrated in readiness for their amphibious landings on Borneo, as part of OBOE efforts to reoccupy areas of the Netherlands East Indies.

The first landing took place at Tarakan Island on 1 May. The Pioneers supported the 9th Division’s 26th Brigade, helping to defend the beachhead. The rest of the Division landed on Labuan Island and Brunei Bay in June. On 2 May the 2/2nd and the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion relieved the two infantry Battalions protecting ANZAC Highway. The 2/2nd took over Finch feature and the Lingkas Tank Farm and helped unload landing craft.

By the end of June the fight on Tarakan Island was almost over but by this time the 2/2nd had returned to Morotai Island in preparation for the 7th Division landing at Balikpapan on 1 July.

The 2/2nd was unique in supporting both divisions. Its work at Balikpapan was similar to Tarakan Island: helping to organise and defend the beachhead, guarding prisoners, and providing labour for burial parties and other activities. On 11 July the Battalion was concentrated at Romilly at the site of the bombed hospital.

Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945. With the war over, the 2/2nd was declared “redundant” and its personnel were either discharged or transferred by the end of the year. Some Pioneers decided to remain in the Army and were sent overseas as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (B.C.O.F).

P.O.W. Repatriation

Numerous ships were used to repatriate recovered P.O.W.s to Australia. 2/2 Pioneers were returned on ships such as : U.S.S. Chenango, Circassia, H.M.T. Duntroon, H.M.S. Formidable, H.M.S. Glory, M.V. Highland Brigade, M.V. Highland Chieftain, S.S. Karoa, A.H.S. Manunda, Moreton Bay, S.S. Oranje, H.M.A.S. Quiberon, S.S. Sophocles, H.M.S. Speaker, S.S. Tamaroa, Tjitjalengka and H.M.A.S. Westralia.

Aftermath

AWMaftermath.jpg
Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (AWM).


Casualties

394 died and 121 wounded.

Battle Honours

Syria 1941, Merdjayoun, Damour, Mazaraat ech Chouf, Java 1942, South-West Pacific 1942-1945, Lae-Nadzab, Lae Road, Shaggy Ridge, Ramu Valley, Liberation of Australian New Guinea.

Award Summary (see Glossary)

Distinguished Service Order (DSO) : 2

Order of British Empire (OBE) : 5

Military Cross (MC) : 2

British Empire Medal (BEM) : 2

Military Medal (MM) : 13

Mentioned in Despatches (MID) : 13

Commanding Officers

Edward Fawcett Aitken, Clayton Edington Davis, Joe Tilson Lang, Raymond Frederic Monaghan, Nelson Frederick Wellington, John Munslow Williams.