The Battalion’s first Commanding Officer was South Australian born 41-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Rudolph Bierwirth, a distinguished career officer who went on to become a Lieutenant General in the Korean.

The newly-arrived Australians were headed for the Middle East, but England’s dire emergency took precedence. An urgent decision was made to use some of the men to create a temporary 25th Brigade with three battalions to help defend south-eastern England in the event of an invasion. One of the battalions was the 2/33rd. It was initially called the 72nd Battalion, but renamed the 2/33rd on October 21, 1940, when it became a permanent 2nd A.I.F. Unit, attached to the 25th Brigade, 7th Division – the “silent” 7th – for the rest of the war.
Its first Commanding Officer was distinguished career soldier, South Australian born, 41-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Rudolph Bierwirth, who went on to become a Lieutenant General in the Korean war. He and the other two new commanding officers faced many immediate challenges. All three battalions were unique; the first Australian battalions ever raised overseas. Raising battalions in Australia normally took weeks or months.

England’s freezing weather tested the battalion’s resilience to the limit, especially for men who grew up enjoying Australia’s sunshine. They had to undertake many long route marches in training even when snowing. The ground was covered with snow when this photograph was taken of A Company, headed by O.C. Captain Tom Cotton, marching to a waiting troop train at Colchester railway station, the first stage of their long-awaited deployment to the Middle East.

The battalion forming up at Tidworth, England, on June 26, 1940.
Initially it had three companies instead of four due to a manpower shortage.

The formation of the three new battalions to help defend England against an invasion was announced at the 2/3rd Field Regiment, Tidworth, England, June 26, 1940. The raising of the 2/33rd, initially called the 72nd Battalion, began the next day.

W ith Hitler’s soldiers staring across the channel at England the 2/33rd and the others had to be assembled in hours to meet the war emergency. In The Footsoldiers, William Crooks wrote that bringing together such “a hotch-potch” of men, from every unit, from every Australian state and previously unknown to each other, was hardly the way to create a good battalion in a hurry. However, everyone rose to the challenge. Out of it emerged what Crooks, and later Brigadier General Kenneth Eather, the Commander of the 25th Brigade on the Kokoda Trail, called one of the finest battalions of the 2nd A.I.F.

A severe manpower shortage posed one of the main dilemmas. On formation, the 2/33rd Battalion had only 11 officers and 453 other ranks, half its authorised strength. It could muster only three under-strength rifle companies A, B and C instead of the normal four. Equipment was so woefully short many had to use wooden pick handles for make-believe guns in training. No battalions raised in Australia ever faced such adversity. With the renaming of the battalion, the 2/33rd was issued with its own colour patch, the now famous “Mud and Blood” – brown over red with a grey border to denote it was a 2nd A.I.F. unit

A new sense of unity and pride swelled among the men when they sewed the new patch onto their uniforms. The battalion’s new motto “Strike Hard” further inspired them. Danger was never far away during the battalion’s stay in England, first at Tidworth, in the southeast and then Colchester, northeast of London.

German bombing of nearby airfields could be heard the day the battalion was raised at Tidworth, on June 26, 1940. Anxious weeks followed as German bombers stepped up fierce raids on London and other cities, as well as airfields and Military camps, including the 2/33rds. Daily battles filled the sky overhead. England’s freezing, dismal weather – especially heavy snow at Colchester – made training and long route marches unpleasant for men used to the Australian sunshine, but they knew the toughening-up and fitness could save lives, their own or others, in the dangerous missions ahead.

The battalion felt it had finally entered the war, at least in a small way, on August 13, 1940, when duty Ack Ack gunners, Lance Corporal Bill Crooks, and NX13159 Private Les Skiffington, fired the battalion’s first angry shots at a German Dornier bomber, flying low over Tidworth camp.

Duty Ack Ack gunners Private Les Skiffington (left) and Lance Corporal Bill Crooks fired the battalion’s first angry shots of the war when they engaged a German bomber flying low over the camp at Tidworth on August 13, 1940.

It was the first blow against an enemy they’d travelled half way around the world to fight. Even though it was doubtful they hit the plane it boosted morale. The battalion suffered its first casualty the same day, VX2929 Private John Beck, who was on a route march when wounded in the arm during a German Stuka dive-bomber attack. The luckless Beck was wounded three more times, in Syria, Papua and then mortally wounded in the Battle of The Knoll, Surinam, New Guinea, in 1943. The battalion suffered its first casualty the same day, Private John Beck, who was wounded in the arm. during a Stuka dive-bomber attack
On September 13 the battalion had its first death, the highly-popular SX1625 Corporal Dermott Polkinghorn, killed in a motor accident returning from leave. He was buried at Tidworth Military Cemetery with full Military honours.

In October, 1940, the battalion was honoured with a visit by His Majesty King George VI. He took the salute at a march led by Lieutenant J.B. Ferguson. In October, 1940, Royalty honoured the battalion when His Majesty King George VI took the salute at a march past led by VX11997 Lieutenant J.B.Ferguson, who was to die tragically in the Liberator crash three years later. Despite the seriousness of the times typical larrikin Aussie humour often helped brighten the days – and nights. One example was a cold, windy night at Colchester when WX96 Private Murray Sweetapple – later in life a 2/33rd Battalion Association President–and a mate removed the guy ropes on the tent of a much disliked major. The tent came crashing down in the next strong gust of wind, bringing the major rushing outside in boots and nightwear, roaring: “Who did that?” He never discovered the culprits, but everyone else knew it was Murray and his mate. Murray well remembered playing a rugby league match when a bombing raid started. “The air raid shelters were at the other end of the field. All we could do was lay on the ground and hope for the best,” he recalled. Training difficulties weren’t all confined to battle tactics. Three weeks after being formed, the battalion’s band, with little practice, was called on to play at a ceremonial farewell to a senior officer, an occasion demanding Military pomp and precision. The first problem was the bandsman in charge of the sheet music forgot to bring it. After a cacophonic, out-of-tune performance, the puzzled senior officer askedwhat the band had played. “The regimental march, Sir”, the bandmaster replied. “But what was the tune?” the officer asked. “Sussex By The Sea, Sir” came the reply. At that, the red-faced C.O. burst out: “It sounded more like the chicken’s last march to the woodheap.” The bandsmen improved with practice and further fully justified their existence as full-time stretcher-bearers or infantrymen when the fighting began.

In October, 1940, the battalion was honoured with a visit by His Majesty King George VI.
He took the salute at a march led by Lieutenant J.B. Ferguson.

B Company marching through the streets of Colchester on its way to the railway station for the start of their long rail and sea journey to the Middle East. The N.C.O.’s are NX6199 Ted Oldham (left) and VX16750 Charlie Newman (right).