Title: Mud and Sand – 2/3 Pioneer Bn at War
Author: Anderson, J A, and Jackett, J G T
Condition: Very Good
Edition: 1st Edition
Publication Date: 1994
Cover: Soft Cover without Dust Jacket – 208 pages
Comments: The history of the 2/3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion during World War II.
The 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion was raised in May 1940 at Glenfield, near Liverpool, with men mainly from the Sydney area. The battalion did its initial training at Glenfield, before moving to Cowra in September for further training. In March 1941 the 2/3rd moved to Darwin, where it became attached to elements of the 7th Division. In September the pioneers returned to Sydney and in November left Sydney as part of a convey going to the Middle East. The 2/3rd sailed on the Queen Mary, the same ship that brought them home 14 months later.
The battalion arrived in Egypt in the third week of November and travelled by train through Palestine, spending Christmas in Qastina. In January 1942 units from the 7th Division began returning to Australia. However, the 2/3rd moved to Syria and became attached to the 9th Division. The 2/3rd fought alongside the 9th Division for the rest of the war.
By July 1942 the battle in North Africa became critical for the British Eighth Army, with German and Italian forces reaching El Alamein in Egypt, about seventy miles from Alexandria. The 9th Division was rushed from Syria to the Alamein area and held the northern sector for almost four months as the Eighth Army reinforced for an offensive under new a commander.
The 2/3rd moved to Bir Abu Shinena, part of the “Alamein box”, at the start of August and became attached to the 24th Brigade. The pioneers replaced the 2/28th Infantry Battalion, which had suffered heavy casualties, and went into reserve. They helped defend the area and improve the defences before the Allied counter-attack in October.
The battalion played a prominent role in the heavy fighting around areas known as the “Saucer” and the “Blockhouse”. The operation was carried out at the end of October by two battalions from the 26th Brigade, a battalion from the 24th Brigade, three companies from the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion, and a number of British tanks. The 2/3rd was directed to attack 3,000 yards directly north from the Saucer and take up a blocking position in the dunes near the coast. In the early hours of 30 October the pioneers had travelled only halfway when they were blocked by supporting artillery bombardment. Forced to leave their heavy weapons and ammunition behind in trucks, the pioneers continued on. At the break of dawn, however, they found themselves in another saucer, subject to enemy fire from three sides. But they had achieved their goal and virtually sealed-off the enemy in the coastal salient.
For the next two days the Australians defended their exposed positions. Many of their front positions were either captured or ground down by repeated German attacks. In the main Saucer, however, the Germans had less success, even though the eastern part of the Australian defence was pushed back south of the railway line. Fighting continued for the next couple of days and German forces were worn down. By 5 November Axis forces were falling back.
Between August and November the battalion suffered 28 men killed and 46 captured. Alamein was a vital, although bloody, success for the Allies and one of the war’s turning points. The 9th Division, however, was recalled to Australia to face a new enemy – the Japanese. The 2/3rd returned to Australia in early 1943.
After leave, the battalion underwent jungle training on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland but would soon return to action. As part of the move to capture the Japanese base at Lae the 9th Division landed at Red Beach, north-west of the area, in September. Following Lae’s capture, the Australians made another landing at Scarlet Beach, near Finschhafen. The 2/3rd rejoined the division and in October participated in the successful defence of Scarlet Beach when the Japanese counter-attacked. When the fighting was over, the pioneer’s reverted to their engineering role, working on the Satelburg Road and other locations on New Guinea’s northern coast supporting the Huon Peninsula campaign.
The 2/3rd returned to Australia in March 1944, disembarking in Brisbane. After leave, the battalion reformed at Ravenshoe in May and did not go into action again until the final months of the war.
Devised towards the end of the war, the OBOE operations were designed to reoccupy areas of the Netherlands East Indies with the 9th and 7th Divisions making amphibious landings on Borneo. The 9th Division landed on Tarakan in May and on Labuan Island and Brunei Bay in June. The 7th Division land at Balikpapan in July.
In order to support the landing at Tarakan, Australian troops first landed on Sadau. A detachment from the 2/3rd worked as gun crews on the landing craft that took the men ashore. When the 26th Brigade landed on Tarakan, the pioneers were assigned to the 2nd Beach Group. On 4 May the battalion relieved the 2/23rd Infantry Battalion and began patrolling the Tarakan township and around the Pamoesian oilfield. The next day they began clearing the Japanese from high ground to the east of the town.
On 5 May two companies from the 2/3rd advanced eastward along John’s Track and found two Japanese positions – called the “Helen” and the “Sadie” – on each side. The positions were overcome with persistent attacks from the pioneers supported by heavy artillery, naval concentrations, and napalm air strikes. They were finally occupied on 14 May. At the same time elements of the pioneers reached the coast and captured the Japanese defences. Corporal John Bernard Mackey was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his involvement in the fight for the Helen.
By the end of June the fighting was over on Tarakan and Japan surrendered in August. The 2/3rd gradually thinned, as men were discharged or transferred. In January 1946 the remaining troops returned to Australia and the battalion was disbanded shortly after.