The 2/20th Battalion was formed in Sydney in July 1940 after the outbreak of war in Europe the previous year.

It formed a part of the 22nd Infantry Brigade of the 8th Division of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Most of the men who formed the original unit were on the north coast of NSW and the Newcastle area while there were also several from Sydney and other NSW country areas.

Basic training was done at Wallgrove in western Sydney and later at Ingleburn near Liverpool. They transferred to Bathurst Camp in November 1940. For most men, final leave before overseas assignment was taken in January 1941.

The battalion (together with the 2/18th and 2/19th Battalions) boarded the Queen Mary which was at anchor in Sydney Harbour near Bradleys Head. On the morning of 4th February 1941 they set off on an unknown journey that would ultimately change their lives forever. Outside Sydney Harbour, they were joined by the Aquitania (with Australian troops aboard) and the New Amsterdam (with New Zealand troops on board). In company with the escort cruiser, HMAS Adelaide, they steamed southwards before turning to the west below Tasmania. They were then joined by the Mauritania with troops from Victoria.

A few days after leaving Fremantle on 12th February, the Queen Mary, a much faster ship than the others or indeed their escort, steamed through the center of the convoy before circling right around it and then sailed away northward to meet up with the British destroyer Durban, its new escort. This was a significant day (16/2/41) since it was now apparent to all that their destination would be Singapore and not the Middle East as had previously been thought.

After disembarking at Singapore, the battalion was transported by train to Malaya before moving to Port Dickson on the west coast. They underwent jungle training here and stayed until August before moving to Mersing on the east coast where they constructed defensive positions against possible Japanese seaborne attack.

Mersing was considered to be strategically important because it could provide a shortcut to Singapore. Japanese landings were made further north in early December 1941. Japanese planes were seen overhead a few days later (en route to bomb Singapore). By mid-January 1942 it was clear that the Japanese attack would be land-based and several encounters had taken place. By late January the strength of the Japanese forces was such that Australian forces were having to withdraw to the south. In conjunction with other units several operations were devised to slow the Japanese advance. Following the complete withdrawal of Allied forces onto Singapore Island, the 2/20th were then
positioned defensively in a western area adjacent to Johore Strait. The battalion took the major assault on Singapore Island on the night of 8th February 1942 with more than four hundred casualties. In the calamitous close-quarter fighting, a further one hundred of the battalion were killed by the week’s end when fighting ceased.

The surrender occurred on 15th February 1942.

The remaining men of 2/20th, along with many other Australian, British, and Indian troops became prisoners of war (POWs) from that day.

While some, (particularly those wounded) spent the next three and a half years in Singapore’s Changi gaol, others were put to work by the Japanese in one or more of the many working parties. These included the various ‘Forces’ that were assembled to work on the ‘infamous’ Burma-Thailand Railway between 1943 and 1945. There were others who were transported to Japan on ‘hell ships’ and then forced to work in coal mines and metal refineries.

Many men perished in captivity from malnutrition, tropical diseases and brutal treatment. The battalion had no survivors from the ‘death marches’ of Borneo where, out of more than two thousand who perished, over one hundred men were from 2/20th. Some 2/20th prisoners suffered a torpedo attack when their Japanese transport ship was sunk by an American submarine in 1944.

After they were released from various parts of South East Asia and Japan in 1945, they made their way back home by ship and plane. Word had reached their families of their ‘well-being’ following their release. This was the first time in three and a half years that their families and loved ones knew for certain that they had survived. Only five hundred and fifty of the eleven hundred and eighty-five men from the battalion returned. Many carried scars both physical and mental following their ordeals. Most found it difficult if not impossible to tell more than the briefest outline of what had happened to them. As was common for the time, little if any assistance was given to them to help in their return to normal life.

The work of Don Wall, a member of the Battalion, in researching and collecting information from survivors (some speaking of their experiences for the first time in forty years) cannot be underestimated. His book, ‘Singapore and Beyond’ was first published in 1985. It tells many stories of these days and covers a wide range of experiences of the men of the 2/20th Battalion. The book has been reprinted in 2000 and is available by contacting Mr James Keady at PO Box 299 Cowra 2794 NSW Australia