This was the British convoy to transport the Australian 9th Division from the port of Suez at the southern end of the Suez Canal in Egypt to ports in Australia as this formation was pulled out of Middle Eastern operations for service against the Japanese (24 January/27 February 1943).
After Japan’s entry into the war on 7 December 1941 and the growing threat to Australia which was soon perceived, the 2/5th Battalion of Major General Edmund F. Herring’s 6th Division left the Middle East on 10 March 1942 to defend Australia, but while still on passage was diverted to the defence of Ceylon between mid-March and early July 1942. Brigadier J. B. Lloyd’s 16th Brigade and Brigadier M. J. Moten’s 17th Brigade were at first sent to garrison Ceylon, which was under threat of invasion.
Late in 1942 the 16th Brigade and other elements of the division were sent to New Guinea, initially to reinforce and relieve militia and 7th Division units on the Kokoda Trail.
Elements of Major General Arthur S. Allen’s 7th Division were diverted to Java, and fought beside Dutch troops before being overwhelmed, but most of the division went straight to Australia. Finally, during October 1942 the Australian government requested that Major General Leslie J. Morshead’s 9th Division be released from service in the Middle East and returned to Australia for service against the Japanese.
'Pamphlet' came after the British and US governments agreed to an Australian request that the 9th Division be returned home, so ending the role of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force in the North African campaign. This followed a lengthy debate between the respective national leaders, of whom Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to convince the Australian Prime Minister John Curtin to withdraw his request until the Allied victory in North Africa was complete. Curtin was unwilling to delay, as he and the Allied military leaders in the South-West Pacific Area believed that the veteran division was needed to bolster the forces for offensive operations in New Guinea.
The assembly of the convoy to return the 9th Division to Australia began in the Red Sea near Massawa late in January 1943 and ended early in February. The ships began their voyage across the Indian Ocean on 4 February, refuelled at Addu Atoll, and arrived at the Western Australian port of Fremantle on 18 February. Four transports continued to the Australian east coast, one docking at Melbourne on 25 February and the remainder arriving at Sydney two days later. After its return to Australia, the division made an important contribution to operations in New Guinea late in 1943.
During 1940 and 1941, three infantry divisions and other units assigned to the I Corps of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force had been transported by sea to the Middle East, where they took part in several campaigns against German, Italian and Vichy French forces. Following the outbreak of the Pacific War, however, 'Stepsister' early in 1942 saw the movement of the corps headquarters and the 6th and 7th Divisions to Australia as reinforcements for the defence of Australia. At this time the Australian government agreed to British and US requests for the temporary retention of the 9th Division in the Middle East in exchange for the deployment of more US Army units to Australia and British support for a proposal to expand the Royal Australian Air Force to 73 flying squadrons. The 9th Division played an important role in the 1st Battle of El Alamein during July 1942 and in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein between 23 October and 4 November. The division suffered many casualties during the latter battle, and did not take part in the 'Guillotine' pursuit of the Axis retreat.
Several factors influenced the Australian government’s decision of October 1942 to recall the 9th Division. Most importantly, the government and the commander of the Australian Military Forces, General Thomas Blamey, wanted to relieve the 6th and 7th Divisions from combat in the New Guinea Campaign and Blamey considered the 9th Division to be better prepared for this responsibility than the Australian army’s militia forces or US Army formations. The commander of Allied forces in the South-West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, had also been pressing the US and Australian governments for reinforcements to facilitate offensive operations against Japanese positions in New Guinea. Other factors influencing the Australian government’s decision were a desire to concentrate the Australian army in a single theatre, the increasing difficulty of finding replacements for the 9th Division’s casualties given the army’s continuing manpower shortages, the political difficulties associated with implementing reforms to permit militia units to serve outside Australian territory, and concerns that a prolonged absence from Australia would affect morale among the 9th Division’s soldiers.
On 17 October 1942, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin cabled British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to request that the 9th Division be returned to Australia. In the cable Curtin stated that, owing to Australia’s manpower shortage and the demands of the war in the Pacific, it was no longer possible to provide enough reinforcements to sustain the division in the Middle East. The British Government initially resisted this request on the grounds that the 9th Division was required for the upcoming offensive at El Alamein. On 29 October (six days into the battle) Curtin again cabled Churchill, stating that Australia needed the division in the Pacific and in a fit state to participate in offensive operations. On 1 November, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Curtin proposing to send another US Army division to Australia if the Australian Government agreed to retain the 9th Division in the Middle East. Curtin, acting on the advice of MacArthur, responded to Roosevelt on 16 November rejecting this suggestion, and again requested that the 9th Division be returned.
On 21 November, Morshead, the commander of the 9th Division, was informed by General Sir Harold Alexander, commander-in-chief of the Middle East Command, that the decision had been made to return the division to Australia. Churchill told the Australian government on 2 December that while he was prepared to recommend to Roosevelt that the 9th Division be returned, the resultant diversion of shipping would reduce the size of the build-up of US forces in the UK and North Africa by 30,000 men. In the same cable, Churchill also stated that as a result of a shortage of shipping the 9th Division’s heavy equipment would have to be left in the Middle East. On 3 December, Roosevelt again wrote to Curtin to suggest that the 9th Division remain in the Middle East until the final defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa. Roosevelt also informed Curtin that the US Army’s 25th Division would be transferred to Australia during December. Following these messages the Australian government sought the advice of Blamey and MacArthur about whether or not it was necessary for the 9th Division to return with its heavy equipment, and was informed that the necessary supplies could be sourced from US resources once the formation had arrived in Australia.
Curtin replied to Churchill and Roosevelt on 8 December, and again stressed the need to return the 9th Division to Australia as soon as possible to make good the army’s losses to tropical diseases and prepare for future offensives in the Pacific. In his message Curtin agreed to leave the division’s heavy equipment in the Middle East, and requested only that the division travel with items necessary for a rapid re-entry to combat in the South-West Pacific Area. No further debate took place, and on 15 December Churchill informed Curtin that shipping would be made available late in January to transport the division and a small portion of its equipment to Australia.
The 9th Division’s commitment in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein ended on 5 November 1942, and from 30 November the division travelled by road to Palestine, where all of its unit had arrived by 9 December. After settling into camps between Gaza and Qastina, the 9th Division undertook a period of rebuilding and training, and many soldiers were granted leave, and on 22 December a formal parade of the whole division was conducted at Gaza airport.
Preparations to return the 9th Division to Australia had begun late in December 1942. On 26 December, the commanders of all 2nd AIF units in the Middle East were informed that their commands were to return to Australia in a movement codenamed 'Liddington'. Tight security measures were instituted, and more junior personnel who needed to be informed were told that their units were being transferred to Egypt. Many members of the 2nd AIF initially believed that they would take part in further fighting in the Mediterranean, but as preparations continued it became obvious that the units were about to undertake a long sea voyage. The 9th Division’s artillery, tanks and other heavy equipment were transferred to ordnance depots during early January 1943, and on 16 January the division began moving to the Suez Canal area, in which it was to embark. During this period all of the personnel assigned to the 2nd AIF Reinforcement Depot in Palestine were transferred to the 9th Division, making the formation larger than its authorised strength. The movement of the 9th Division took place in groups, each of which spent one or two days at a transit camp at Qassin, where all vehicles were handed to the British. The 9th Division also began training for jungle and amphibious warfare before departing the Middle East. During January, each brigade spent three days exercising in the rough terrain near Bayt Jibrin, which was believed to be the nearest equivalent to a jungle in Palestine. Most of the brigade commanders and several officers from each of the infantry battalions also attended short courses at the British amphibious warfare school on the Bitter Lakes in Egypt.
The Royal Navy also started to make preparations late in 1942 for the movement of the 9th Division to Australia. Four large troop ships were allocated to the task, and the British Chiefs-of-Staff Committee initially proposed to Churchill that these ex-liners steam across the Indian Ocean without a protective escort. However, as the eastern part of the Indian Ocean was within range of Japanese warships based at Singapore and Japanese submarines had occasionally attacked ships near Aden, this was judged to be unacceptably risky, especially as it was not likely that the movement of so many soldiers could be kept secret. Moreover, the transport of the division without an escort would have violated the long-standing policy of assigning at least one capital ship to protect troop convoys in this region, and would not have been accepted by the Australian government. In November, the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee decided to allocate an escort, but did not specify what it should comprise.
The ships assigned to transport the 9th Division were converted ocean liners in the form of the 44,786-ton Aquitania, 43,450-ton Ile de France, 36,287-ton Nieuw Amsterdam and 81,235-ton Queen Mary, all of which had previously been used to carry Australian troops to the Middle East and elsewhere. The liners were heavily tasked transporting Allied military personnel across long distances, and arrived at Suez individually. Aquitania put in from Australia on 5 January, Queen Mary was reassigned from transporting US troops across the Atlantic and arrived from the UK on 18 January, Nieuw Amsterdam completed one of her frequent voyages along the coast of East Africa on 31 January, and Ile de France arrived late in January. In addition to the four converted liners, the 22,257-ton armed merchant cruiser Queen of Bermuda was transferred from transport duties in the Indian Ocean both to augment the convoy’s escort and to carry Australian personnel. The four liners were each armed with anti-aircraft guns manned by specialist personnel, as well as two 6-in (152-mm) guns.
The troops started to embark on 23/24 January. As the ports of Suez Canal were too small for the four troop ships to load simultaneously, embarkation was staged and the convoy’s five vessels sailed separately through the northern part of the Red Sea to rendezvous near Massawa in Eritrea. The British destroyers Pakenham, Petard, Derwent and Hero, together with the Free Greek destroyer Vasilissa Olga were transferred from the Mediterranean Fleet to guard the troop ships from Japanese submarine attack as they passed along the Red Sea.
Queen Mary was the first ship to complete loading, and left Port Tewfik on 25 January. She anchored at Massawa three days later, and the soldiers on board endured very hot conditions until she resumed her journey. Aquitania was next to load, and embarked the entire 20th Brigade between 25 and 30 January. Ile de France completed loading and departed Egypt on 28 January, and Nieuw Amsterdam and Queen of Bermuda sailed together on 1 February. Overall, 30,985 Australians were embarked on Queen of Bermuda and the converted liners: Aquitania carried 6,953 men, Ile de France 6,531, Nieuw Amsterdam 9,241, Queen Mary 9,995 and Queen of Bermuda 1,731. Some 622 2nd AIF personnel remained in the Middle East after the ships departed Egypt, but these were steadily reduced to fewer than 20 by March.
The convoy’s five ships made rendezvous off the Red Sea island of Perim on the morning of 4 February, and passed Aden later on the same day. The destroyers left the convoy as it passed Cape Guardafui, and were replaced by the heavy cruiser Devonshire and, from the island of Socotra in the Gulf of Aden, the light cruiser Gambia, which were to serve as ocean escorts. Captain James Bisset, commander of the Queen Mary, was the convoy commodore. The four large converted liners sailed in line abreast formation and Queen of Bermuda's position varied based on the time of day and the situation. The convoy travelled at 17 kt: although the liners typically sailed at much higher speeds during their independent voyages, they were constrained by the maximum that Queen of Bermuda could maintain. Bisset was frustrated by the decision to sail the transports together, as it considerably increased the time taken to complete the voyage and entailed lengthy delays for the heavily tasked Queen Mary.
After passing Aden, the convoy shaped course for Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney with heavy cover for the oceanic part of the voyage in the form of Force 'A' comprising the battleships Resolution, Revenge and Warspite, light cruiser Mauritius and six destroyers. Farther to the east Force 'A' was reinforced by the Free Dutch light cruisers Jacob van Heemskerck and Tromp as well as two destroyers.
On 18 February the convoy arrived in Fremantle, and from here proceeded round the south of Australia under escort of three light cruisers (Australian Adelaide and Free Dutch Jacob van Heemskerck and Tromp, and the Free Dutch destroyer Tjerk Hiddes. The covering force to the south of Australia was Task Force 44.3, comprising the heavy cruiser Australia and the US destroyers Bagley, Henley and Helm. From Melbourne the Free Dutch ships, with the exception of Jacob van Heemskerck, were detached, as was the Free French destroyer Triomphant. The convoy reached Sydney safely on 27 February.