2/17th Battalion Colour Patch[1]

The 2/17th Battalion was formed in the late April and early May of 1940 at Ingleburn Army Camp in south-west Sydney. As an infantry Battalion it comprised roughly nine hundred newly recruited New South Welshmen.

The 2/17th Battalion was assigned to the 20th Brigade for the duration of the war, originally as part of the 7th Division and later, after November 1940, the 9th Division.[2]

Theatres of Operation & Battle Honours
Between 1940 and 1945 the 2/17th Battalion saw service in North Africa, the Middle East, New Guinea and Borneo. During this time the Battalion accrued numerous battle honours; North Africa 1941-42, Defence of Tobruk, El Adem Road, El Alamein, South-West Pacific 1943-45, Lae-Nadzab, Finschhafen, Scarlet Beach, Defence of Scarlet Beach, Jivenaneng-Kumawa, Liberation of Australian New Guinea, Sio, Borneo, Brunei and Alam el Halfa.[3]

Casualties & Decorations
Of the hundreds who served in the 2/17th Battalion, 188 men died and 573 more were wounded. Among those same hundreds 81 decorations were awarded, making the Battalion one of the most illustrious to have served for Australia. Decorations included 1 Victoria Cross, 3 Distinguished Service Orders, 1 Distinguished Service Order and bar, 3 Officers of the Order of the British Empire, 1 Member of the Order of the British Empire, 1 British Empire Medal, 11 Military Crosses, 3 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 11 Military Medals and 46 Mentions in Dispatches.[4]

Plaudits & Distinctions
The 2/17th Battalion has been widely recognised. Major-General J R Broadbent CBE DSO ED alluded to the Battalion’s gallantry as “calm, responsible, dependable, fundamentally Australian, co-operative, aware and ready to face duty with initiative, force, steadiness, endurance as occasion required or allowed” and noted that “chance or allocation gave the Battalion prominent roles in critical and effective operations”.[5] It has similarly been noted that “the men of the 2/17Bn had fought against the fighting soldiers of Germany, Italy and Japan, and they had never been defeated. No Battalion can hope for a better record”.[6] Less formally, an English-speaking German soldier captured by soldiers of the 2/17th Battalion at Tobruk felt compelled to remark to his captors that “Australian soldiers are very brave” – a remark which met with the suitably laconic response of “my bloody oath”.[7]

Aside from this praise, the 2/17th Battalion holds a number of curious or unique distinctions.

  • Corporal John Hurst Edmondson of the 2/17th Battalion was awarded Australia’s first Victoria Cross in the Second World War for his actions in battle at Tobruk.
  • The Battalion played a key role in the Easter Battle at Tobruk, an event which marked the first sustained defeat of the famed and seemingly invincible German Wehrmacht in the Second World War.[8] In a letter to Roosevelt, Churchill commented that “the repulse of the German attacks - this small fierce fight, in which the enemy lost prisoners, killed and tanks, together with aircraft out of all proportion to our losses, is the first time they have tasted defeat”.[9]
  • The 2/17th Battalion spearheaded the first amphibious landings of Australian troops since Gallipoli, at Lae and Finschhafen in 1943.
  • Evelyn ‘Evo’ Owen was serving with the 2/17th Battalion in 1940 when he designed and perfected the Owen Gun – the mass-produced submachine gun of Australian soldiers by the end of the war. A 2/17th contemporary of Owen remarked that “in doing so [he] not only saved the lives of men from Australia by putting quickly produced automatic weapon in their hands, but perhaps reduced the loss of casualties against the Japanese in New Guinea”.[10]

[1] ‘2/17th Battalion’, Australian War Memorial, http://www.awm.gov.au/units/unit_11268.asp.
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] 2/17 Battalion History Committee, ‘What We Have - We Hold!’: A history of the 2/17th Australian Infantry Battalion, 1940-1945, 2/17 Battalion History Committee, Balgowlah, 1990, p.xiii.
[6] ibid., p.318.
[7] H.D. Wells, ‘B’ Company Second Seventeenth Infantry, H.D. Wells, Toowoon Bay, 1984, pp.68-69.
[8] 2/17 Battalion History Committee, p.xiii.
[9] Wells, pp.67-68.
[10] ibid., p.17.

Information researched by Nick
Editing, Layout and title images done by Dominique