Unsung heroes

Patrick Ferry and Matthew Parker
Thursday, 21 April 2022

We will not yield easily a yard of our soil.
– Prime Minister John Curtin, 14 March 1942

This Anzac Day, we remember the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC). 80 years ago, this now largely forgotten force of nearly 100,000 Australians stood ready to help defend Australia following Japan's explosive entry into the Second World War.


Dads defending Australia

The VDC was formed in 1940 by the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia (now the RSL). Modelled on the British Home Guard - the famous 'Dad's Army' – VDC members were initially 'Great War' veterans who could do guard and other duties in Australia. This enabled younger men to be deployed overseas with the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF). VDC members were also trained to defend their local communities if needed. General Sir Harry Chauvel, who commanded the Australian Light Horse at the legendary Battle of Beersheba in 1917, came out of retirement to serve as VDC Inspector-in-Chief. In 1941, the VDC was officially incorporated into the Australian Army as part of the Citizens Military Forces (CMF). 

Preparing for invasion

In the dark days of early 1942, Allied defences north of Australia rapidly collapsed in the face of the Japanese onslaught. Over 20,000 Australian troops were captured. With the Japanese expected to soon invade Australia, VDC membership was expanded to include volunteers from the ages of 18 to 60. Farmers, munitions workers and others in 'reserved occupations' were also now eligible to volunteer. People rallied to the call and by June 1942, the VDC had nearly 100,000 members. Most served part-time, doing 4 to 6 hours of training weekly while continuing their normal employment. With resources in short supply, VDC units often had to scrounge for their own equipment locally.

According to secret defence plans, in the event of successful enemy landings, VDC units would use guerilla warfare tactics to 'destroy and delay [the] enemy at every opportunity'. VDC members were to create roadblocks,demolish bridges and piers, attack the enemy's lines of communications and flanks, gather local intelligence, and take part in counterattacks once they could be mounted.

Mortars, Molotov cocktails and tank hunting

VDC units were trained to fight on their local terrain, be it in the suburbs or the bush. Their training included not only the use of conventional weapons such as rifles, grenades and mortars, but also more unconventional ones like Molotov cocktails. VDC members also learnt the art of camouflage and other tactics which would be vital during guerilla warfare, including night-fighting, street and village fighting and even tank hunting.

Receding threat, shifting focus

Fortunately, as the tide turned against the Japanese in New Guinea in late 1942 and throughout 1943, the VDC were never required to put their guerilla warfare skills into real action. As the threat of invasion receded, the VDC’s focus shifted to operating coastal defences, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns. This included defending northern Australian towns against ongoing threat of Japanese aerial attack. As Japan’s eventual defeat became more certain, VDC membership and training obligations were reduced. The VDC was officially disbanded on 24 August 1945, just days after the end of the war.

Making their records of service accessible

Although today the VDC is largely forgotten, an amazing collection of photographs documenting its wartime service (MP1113/1) has been preserved and digitised by the National Archives. Most army service records for VDC members are contained in series B884 - Citizen Military Forces Personnel Dossiers, 1939-1947. This series is currently being digitised as part of a four-year, $10 million digitisation project to make WW2 service records freely available to the Australian community.