Torres Strait LI at 80

Some 80 years ago this month, on 17 March 1943, the Australian Army formed the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, so named as it was drawn from the indigenous men of the fourteen inhabited islands along the Torres Strait between Northern Australia and New Guinea.

The 880 volunteers– many as young as 16– were organized into companies according to their island of origin:

A Coy – Murray, Darnley, York, and Stephen Islands
B Coy – Badu, Moa and Mabuiag Islands
C Coy – all the above
D Coy – Saibai and Boigu Islands (the two most remote islands)

As with Gurkha units, all of the unit’s officers, under Major Jock Swain and then Major Charles Frederick Mayne Godtschalk, were white.

Exercising in the jungle on Prince of Wales Island with the 5th Machine Gun Battalion and the 26th Battalion, AIF, by October they were testing out their military skills on patrols deep into the jungles of Dutch New Guinea. In the end, no less than 36 members of the unit perished on active service before it was disbanded in 1946.

Inspection of Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, Thursday Island, 1945. AWM C202332/ C47381

The only “indig” regular army unit in the WWII Australian forces, they received only one-third the pay (later increased to two-thirds) of comparable ranks and it was not until the mid-1980s – four decades later – that the veterans of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion received their service medals and full pay to which they were entitled.

Today, their lineage is carried on by Charlie (Sarpeye) Company of the 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment (51 FNQR), which has been responsible for sovereignty patrols in the Torres Strait since 1987.

And they conduct a unique Sarpeye Steyr dance, complete with both traditional weapons and the current F88 Austeyr.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) commemorated the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion on Thursday Island, Queensland on 16-17 March 2023. Today, descendants of the Battalion continue to serve in the ADF across Australia, many within Thursday Island’s Charlie (Sarpeye) Company of 51st FNQR

LTGEN Simon Stuart, AO DSC, Chief of the Australian Army, along with members of 51 FNQR, was present at a ceremony on Thursday Island last week honoring the “ilan men” of the old battalion.

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