Boer War to Vietnam

Boer War

Six patriotic nurses bound for South Africa, 1900.
Six patriotic nurses bound for South Africa, 1900. (NAA: D4477, 425)

Between 1899 and 1902 more than 10,000 Australian soldiers sailed for South Africa to support British troops engaged in the war against the Boer Settlers. The first contingents were raised by the colonial governments and it was not until 1902 that the newly formed Commonwealth government raised the eight battalions of the Australian Commonwealth Horse. The records held in our collection and the Australian War Memorial's collection document the process of recruiting, training and shipping contingents through nominal rolls, pay sheets, reports and thousands of policy and administrative files.

In 1999 the National Archives published The Boer War: Australians and the War in South Africa, 1899–1902, a 94-page guide to the official government records of Australia’s involvement in the Boer War. It describes both colonial and Commonwealth records held by the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial. The guide is a valuable resource for those conducting research into the war.

For information about records of service for those who served in the Boer War, see Army – Boer War.

World War I: 1914–18

Wounded Australians
Wounded Australians during the battle of the Menin Road, 20 September 1917. (NAA: B4260, 1)

More than 330,000 Australians served overseas in World War I. Of these, nearly 60,000 died, 152,000 were wounded, and over 4000 were taken prisoner, of whom 395 died in captivity. For information about records of service for these personnel see Army – World War I.

The National Archives holds few operational records of World War I, the main exceptions being courts-martial files and records of service. Most operational records are held by the Australian War Memorial.

The National Archives holds more than 300 series of records relating to non-operational aspects of World War I, including measures taken within Australia to support the war effort and to secure Australia from invasion.



The following images of the Gallipoli campaign can be viewed online:

Many records in addition to those listed above can be found by doing keyword searches in RecordSearch and typing ‘1914–1918’ in the Date field, to limit the records found to those of the war period.

Other records

See also information about records of service for World War I service personnel, and records of World War I internees and prisoners of war.

World War II: 1939–45

Operation Jaywick
Members of Operation Jaywick, which raided Singapore Harbour in 1943. (NAA: A3269, Photo 56a)

Over 993,000 Australians served in the armed forces during World War II. Of those on active service, 27,073 were killed in action or died, 23,477 were wounded, and 30,560 were taken prisoner of war. Of those taken prisoner, 8296 died in captivity.

Service records

To find a service record for a World War II serviceperson, see Army – World War II.

Other records relating to World War II

The National Archives holds more than 1500 other series of records relating to the World War II period. They cover every aspect of the war, and include evacuation plans, defence production, development of the Commonwealth War Book, censorship of broadcasts and films, rationing of clothing and food, food production, security investigation files, air raid precautions, records of the Australian Women’s Land Army and other forms of civilian service, RAAF unit history sheets, Navy signal packs, as well as strategic and operational planning documents relating to the war itself.

Details of specific records can be found using RecordSearch. You will need to target your search by undertaking keyword or other searches, and specifying that you only want records within particular date ranges – for example ‘1942–1943’ or ‘1939–1945’. The records highlighted below, dealing with several issues of domestic concern during the war, represent only a small proportion of the series held.

Japanese air raids on Darwin

The first bombs were dropped on Darwin on 19 February 1942 when Japanese aircraft were launched from four aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. A second wave of bombers attacked later the same day. At least 243 people were killed and between 300 and 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk, and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed. With Singapore having fallen to the Japanese only days earlier, and concerned at the effect of the bombing on national morale, the government announced to the rest of Australia that only 17 people had been killed.

Believing an invasion was imminent, approximately half Darwin’s civilian population fled. The civilian and military panic that followed the bombing was such that the government ordered an immediate investigation by a Commission of Inquiry.

The air attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943, by which time the Japanese had bombed Darwin 64 times. Northern Australia generally was also the target of Japanese air attack, with bombs being dropped on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.

Japanese midget submarine attacks

On the night of 31 May 1942 three Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour. One of the submarines became entangled in the boom net at the entrance to the harbour and was destroyed by the crew. Another fired a torpedo which sank the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul with the loss of 19 sailors. A third submarine was attacked with depth charges and sunk by vessels of the RAN.

Japanese submarine attacks along the Australian coastline continued until June 1943. The submarine campaign sank 19 ships (including the hospital ship Centaur) and claimed 503 lives. Rather than being a precursor to invasion, the attacks were intended to isolate Australia and hinder its war effort.

Chemical warfare trials

During World War II, the Australian Chemical Warfare Research and Experimental Section, under the guidance of the Chemical Defence Board, conducted trials in Australia of chemical weapons and chemical defence measures under tropical conditions. The trials involved the firing of shells, mortar bombs, aircraft bombs and other experimental munitions filled with chemical agents. The trials were conducted both in the field and in gas chambers, and included tests on the effectiveness of chemical agents (gases, liquids and irritating ointments) and the effectiveness of a range of protective equipment, especially respirators and impregnated clothing.

Between 1943 and 1945 over 750 men volunteered to participate in chemical warfare trials. The subjects used in the early trials were students from Melbourne University, but once the trial program became more established, most of the volunteers were servicemen, the majority of whom had battle experience. The scientists conducting the trials on occasions used themselves as subjects. Animals were also used. Trials were conducted at Port Wakefield, Singleton, Forbes, Grafton, Humpty Doo, Innisfail, Proserpine, Townsville and Brook Island (Qld).

The records of the Chemical Defence Board include:

Other records dealing with chemical warfare:

Some records of the Munitions Supply Laboratories are also relevant.

Other records

See also information about records of World War II internees and prisoners of war.

Korean War: 1950–53

On 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea. Elements of the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force, still with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, were quickly committed to the war in Korea. These were supplemented by additional forces sent from Australia. The war lasted until 1953, by which time total Australian casualties were 1584, with 339 killed and 29 taken prisoner of war.

For details of the records of service of those who served in the Korean War refer to service records.

Other records of interest are those of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Commonwealth Forces in Korea. The records created by this agency include:

The Malayan Emergency: 1948–60

In June 1948 the British colonial government in Malaya declared a state of emergency in order to combat violence and unrest, set against a background of political, racial and industrial conflict. Over the next 12 years, British, Malayan and Commonwealth armed forces were to fight against an insurgency led by the Malayan Communist Party, which was to become known as the Malayan Emergency. The state of emergency was not completely lifted until 1960, three years after the Federation of Malaya had achieved independence.

Australia’s involvement began in June 1950 with the contribution of six Lincoln bombers from No. 1 (Bomber) Squadron, RAAF, and a flight of Dakotas from No. 38 (Transport) Squadron, RAAF.

The first Australian ground forces arrived in Malaya in 1955; the last left in 1963, more than three years after the Emergency had been declared officially over. As well as air and infantry forces, Australia contributed artillery and engineering support, an airfield construction squadron and signals personnel, as well as a number of Royal Australian Navy ships. Fifty-one Australian servicemen were killed in Malaya, and 27 were wounded.

For details of the records of service of those who served in the Malayan Emergency, see service records.

Most operational records of Australia’s involvement in the Malayan Emergency will be found in the records of the Department of the Army, the Department of Air, and the Department of the Navy.

Policy and diplomatic files are located in records of the Department of Defence, the Department of External Affairs and the Cabinet Secretariat. Examples of other types of records relating to the Malayan Emergency include:

Additional records may be located by doing a keyword search in RecordSearch, using the phrase ‘Malayan Emergency’ and an All words search on ‘malay* emergency’.

Indonesian Confrontation: 1962–66

Confrontation was a small, undeclared war fought from 1962 to 1966 through which President Sukarno of Indonesia sought to destabilise and destroy the new Federation of Malaysia which had emerged in 1963. Sukarno argued that the creation of Malaysia was a means of maintaining British colonial rule in South-East Asia behind a guise of independence for its former colonial possession, Malaya.

In early 1963 military activity increased along the Indonesian side of the border in Borneo, with small parties of armed Indonesians infiltrating Malaysian territory on propaganda and sabotage missions. Armed incursions increased in strength. By 1964 regular units of the Indonesian army began cross-border raids, and later that year began launching attacks against peninsula Malaysia itself. Australian forces were already based in Malaysia as part of the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve, and participated in the defence of the peninsula in September–October 1964. In 1965 Australian troops joined British and New Zealand forces in Borneo, where they mounted extensive operations on both sides of the border. Because of the extreme sensitivity of the cross-border operations, they were never officially admitted at the time. Confrontation ended in August 1966 when the Indonesians and Malaysians signed a peace treaty in Bangkok.

In all, Australia contributed two infantry battalions, two squadrons of the Special Air Service, several artillery batteries, parties of the Royal Australian Engineers, ships of the RAN and 5 Squadron RAAF. Twenty-three Australians were killed during Confrontation and eight were wounded.

For details of the records of service of those who served during Indonesian Confrontation, see service records.

Most operational records will be found in the records of the Department of the Army, Department of the Navy and Department of Air. Records on the defence, political and diplomatic background to Australia’s involvement in Confrontation are located in records of the Department of Defence, the Department of External Affairs and the Cabinet Secretariat.

Many hundreds of additional records may be located by doing a keyword search in RecordSearch using the term ‘confrontation’.

Vietnam War: 1962–75

When the last Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in December 1972 Australians had been fighting in Vietnam for more than 10 years. By that time more than 50,000 Australians had served in Vietnam. Battle casualties were 521 killed and 2398 wounded, of whom 43 percent were national servicemen.

The National Archives holds many records concerning Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War provides a good starting point for research. Information is also available about Australia and the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

The following collections show some of the material held.

Australian Army records on Vietnam

Also available are records of the Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam.

Photographs of the Army’s activities in Vietnam and anti-war demonstrations in Australia are available to search in PhotoSearch. Photographs related to the Vietnam conflict can also be found by searching in the Australian War Memorial's collection databases.

Royal Australian Navy records on Vietnam

During the course of the war, the Royal Australian Navy supported the Allied forces with destroyers and transports. We have records that provide details of their involvement for the following ships:

The records of the 723 Helicopter Squadron of the Royal Australian Navy are also relevant.

Royal Australian Air Force records on Vietnam

These records were created by both the HQ RAAF Contingent at Vung Tau and the RAAF Element in Saigon. They include:

The records of No. 2 Bomber Squadron are also relevant.

Photographs of the RAAF’s activities in Vietnam and anti-war demonstrations in Australia are available to search in PhotoSearch.

Further information about how conscription was used during the Vietnam war to boost the size of the Army is available.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019