9. World War II and Australia



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(b) Churchill and Roosevelt Meet - the ‘Atlantic Charter’

Meanwhile, in August, 1941 Churchill met with US President Roosevelt to review the progress of the war and frame a ‘Charter’ to guide post-war policy for a juster, more secure world. Later, commenting on its origins, Churchill was proud to declare: “Considering the tales of my reactionary Old World outlook, and the pain this is said to have caused the President, I am glad it should be on record that the substance and spirit of what came to be called the “Atlantic Charter” was in its first draft a British production cast in my own words.” (WC4iii, 386) Indeed these show that Churchill had in fact a very clear idea of what was required to make the world a far better place for all and, even more significantly for his immediate needs, what would appeal to people everywhere to encourage their whole-hearted support for the war against Nazism, Fascism and the soon-to-be expanded Japanese militarism. Like the earlier League of Nations Covenant and the subsequent United Nations Charter, it contained commonsense declarations, all essential conditions for a far far better world for people everywhere, - i.e., in marked contrast to what had gone on between the two World Wars in blatant defiance of much wisdom in the League’s Covenant! (see WC4iii, 393 for Atlantic Charter text)

What had gone wrong in not learning from the WWI catastrophe, in not taking seriously Lord Cecil’s wise counsel and, in good faith, following the League Covenant’s best principles had been played out not only in Europe with Hitler and Mussolini, but in Asia, with Japan also continuing to emulate the West’s colonial exploitative behaviour - while the major Western Powers, ignoring their obligations under the Covenant, simply ‘looked on’.(RC, 199). Only in recent years had some in the West begun to feel real unease at Japan’s depredations in China and what they feared might follow. The United States, bordering the Pacific, had long had concerns about the sort of nation they had forcefully ‘woken up’ (by Admiral Perry, 1853 - see 3A(a) above) and, together with Britain, subsequently encouraged.(see below, D,(a)). And they were especially concerned at Japan’s more recent behaviour in China and very recently in ‘French Indochina’ (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). On November 26, 1941, the United States informed the Japanese government that if the US oil embargo against it was to end, Japan must first withdraw its armed forces from both China and Indochina, an uncompromising stand encouraged by Churchill who desperately wanted to see the US join the war.(DD2)

D. Japan Enters WWII

(a) Early Lightning Gains – with historical roots

It was not so surprisingly then that before 1941 had ended, Japan became a major contender on the WWII stage when its forces attacked the US’s Pearl Harbor fleet. As outlined above (3A(a)) it had, since the 1890s been at war, forcefully colonising various of its Asian neighbours, but this attack was ‘different’ precisely because, finally, it involved Japan taking on its models, its teachers, the Western Powers themselves.

Before saying more about Japan’s role in WWII, its worth commenting on Churchill’s views of that historical process.(seeWC4iii, 514) There is no doubt that despite his undoubtedly Conservative upbringing, Churchill had developed many informed insights, some of which he revealed publicly, as where he reviews the early influence of the West on ‘modern’ Japanese developments, thought, and history. It is highly informative to recount some of it, both for its content and for the realisation as to what he as a world leader understood. As he began, “Uncle Sam and Brittania were the god-parents of the new Japan. In less than two generations, with no background but the remote past, the Japanese people advanced from the two-handed sword of the Samurai to the ironclad ship, the rifled cannon, the torpedo, and the Maxim gun; and a similar revolution took place in industry. The transition of Japan under British and American guidance from the Middle Ages to modern times was swift and violent.” (WC4iii, 515) Churchill then goes on to comment on Japan’s earlier assaults on China, its 1905 defeat of Russia, how Japan “…took her place amongst the Great Powers”, and how the Japanese leaders were “…astonished at the respect with which they were viewed.” ‘Respect’!, How telling! He further admits how he sided with them in the Russo-Japanese war, that he had welcomed the Anglo-Japanese Treaty (1902-&1904-1921) and ‘rejoiced’ when Japan, joining the Allies during WWI, took over Germany’s ‘possessions’ in the Far East. My, as illustrated above, it certainly was a fast ‘learning time’ for the Japanese ‘modernisers’, those imitators of the West!

Yet, despite all such seemingly insightful revelations, instead of drawing the straightforward conclusion that Japan was simply emulating, ever so ‘successfully’, the behaviour of the Western Powers, he then goes to much trouble to show how ‘different’ they were, how one has to struggle to understand ‘the Japanese mind’. “It was indeed inscrutable.” (WC4iii, 516) Thus rather than interpret the tensions that developed during the inter-war period as a growing disagreement between Great Powers as to who should get what of colonial spoils ‘available’ in the Far East, Churchill seeks to explain such disagreements in terms of the ‘difference’ of the Japanese mind, and of Japanese militarism. At the same time he also admits there were elements in their leadership that were keen to avoid conflict with the West - even if for no better reason than that the United States in combination with Britain would prevail.

But as we have seen, the Japanese militarists were determined to continue their horrifying program of ‘pacifying’ China, just as they wished to extend such campaigns to other parts of the Pacific which, as ‘local administrators’, they regarded as their ‘back yard’. And the Americans, fearful of where all that might lead, having cut off Japan’s oil and other essential supplies, made clear that such would remain embargoed until it withdrew completely from China and Indochina. Hence, by November 26, the date of Washington’s final ‘ultimatum’, it was virtually certain that Japan would respond by going to war with the United States. (WC4iii, 521-36)

And so it came to pass on December 7, 1941, - Japan’s ‘surprise’ attack on the US’s Hawaian naval base of Pearl Harbor. Churchill was ‘to rejoice’, for it brought the United States into the war, and not only did the US declare war on Japan, but within days, Germany declared war on the US. That situation, - Germany, Italy and Japan, being opposed not only by Russia and Britain but by the USA, with its large population, vast resources and long-underused (seemingly unlimited) production capacity, - convinced Churchill that despite the coming difficulties, it must be only a matter of time before the Axis Powers would be defeated.

The Japanese bomb and torpedo attack on Pearl Harbor, made with some 366 carrier-based planes, had taken the US naval base unawares. The Arizona and three other battleships were lost, along with 1,777 sailors, the total killed in the raid being over 2,400. On December 9 the German navy was ordered to attack any US shipping encountered and, having declared war on the United States, Hitler felt confident that the Axis Powers’ combination was unbeatable, bizarrely commenting, “Now its impossible for us to lose the war.” (MG2,408) Oh, what insightlessly ‘grand’ delusions!!

The Japanese onslaught on the West had begun with great ‘efficiency’, more or less simultaneously on many fronts. Indeed, on the same day as Pearl Harbor there were air raids on both Hong Kong and the Philippines. Also on that day, a Japanese force of 24,000 landed just south of the Siam border, at Kota Bharu on the Malayan peninsula. The British Governor when informed by his military, is said to have responded: “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.” (MG2,408) There was indeed at the time a long-held view in British quarters that the Japanese were not only ‘little’ people, somewhat in-coordinate, short-sighted and subject to night blindness, but also generally inferior imitators of the West’s technological accomplishments. It was a view that would change, but not before many many more tragedies had ensued.

As a morale-booster for the British in Malaya, Churchill had sent two of Britain’s newest battleships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse to Singapore. They had arrived on December 2, but in view of what had happened at Pearl Harbor, it was decided to have them join the two remaining battleships of the American Pacific Fleet on the US West Coast. It was to be a symbolic ‘proud gesture’.(WC4iii, 547) However, as further Japanese landings were proceeding on the Malayan peninsular, a fateful decision was made to have the British ships assist in Malaya’s defence, - notwithstanding that many Japanese ships had been sighted in the Gulf of Siam. Again, sadly, as Churchill indicated, “The efficiency of the Japanese in air warfare was at this time greatly under-estimated….”., (WC4iii, 551), for these two ‘top’ British battleships were attacked by torpedo bombers and sunk with the loss of 840 young lives.

Churchill was concerned that attempts to defend Malaya might result in piecemeal defeats, resulting in the loss of troops needed to retain the British ‘fortress’ of Singapore - then claimed to be ‘impregnable’. With that eventuality in mind, however, he recommended moving the 1st Australian division from Palestine - to add to our 8th division already in Singapore.(WC4iii, 565) Another proposal was to get another Australian division into India, since it too might soon come under Japanese attack.(WC4iii, 566) (Just moving the forces around, so reminiscent of the wonderful game of chess!)

On December 10, 1941 Japanese forces landed on Luzon. That was preliminary to their main force landing aimed at Manila. (WC4iii, 546) It was at this very time that Churchill, on his way to visit President Roosevelt (FDR) to discuss agreements relating to the further conduct of the war, wrote several Memoranda to share with FDR. The one of December 16, 1941, titled “The Atlantic Front” reveals his true evaluations of the significance of the Russian war effort. It is worth quoting the first two paragraphs. He writes:

Hitler’s failure and losses in Russia are the prime fact in the war at this time. We cannot tell how great the disaster to the German Army and the Nazi regime will be. This regime has hitherto lived upon easily and cheaply won successes. Instead of what was imagined to be a swift and easy victory, it has now to face the shock of a winter of slaughter and expenditure of fuel and equipment on the largest scale.



Neither Great Britain nor the United States have any part to play in this event, except to make sure we send, without fail and punctually, the supplies we have promised. In this way alone shall we hold our influence over Stalin and be able to weave the mighty Russian effort into the general texture of the war.” (WC4iii, 574)

Indeed, from these memoranda we can begin to see something of Churchill’s philosophy on ‘how to win the war’ against the very formidable Axis Powers. Marking time comes into it, as in the North African campaign. Using the forces of other nations plays another most important role, whether the forces of the Dominions or other Allies: Russians, Chinese, Free-French, Poles or whoever. And of course the Americans, at last brought in, though at this early stage with only some 30 divisions of trained troops, 5 armoured divisions (WC4iii, 620) a heavily-depleted Pacific navy and a still-to-be-developed offensive air force. Indeed, the use of air forces, specially bombing forces, was a major element in his concept of what ‘the Allies’ could most ‘economically’ do best, producing enormous levels of destruction on enemy cities and their populations at minimal human, economic and (domestic) political cost to the bombing side. To this end Churchill’s early memorandum proposed that American bombing squadrons based in the UK should also target Germany, thus supplementing the British efforts in that direction. The idea was to affect “….German production and German morale by ever more severe and more accurate bombing of their cities and harbours, and that this,……may produce important effects upon the will to fight ….”, to which end, “Arrangement will be made …to increase….the Anglo-American bombing of Germany without any top limit from now on till the end of the war.” (WC4iii, 576-7)

There were in addition two other considerations. One, shared by FDR, was for enormously-augmented American war production. For example, for 1942 alone the targets included 45,000 combat aircraft, 45,000 tanks, 500,000 machine guns, and 8,000,000 tons of merchant ships, targets to be greatly exceeded in 1943.(WC4iii, 611) The second consideration was of a Second Front, a land-based invasion of the European Continent, hopefully to encourage local resistance and, eventually, to invade the German homeland, - but only ‘eventually’. Indeed, such an invasion was to be carefully timed so it would not occur until Germany was suitably weakened, ‘the right moment’. As Churchill was later to comment on deferring the Second Front from summer 1943 to 1944, “The year’s delay in the expedition saved us from what would at that date have been at the best an enterprise of extreme hazard, with the probability of a world-shaking disaster.” (WC4iii, 586)

But what about Japan?! Well, despite all that ‘holding back’ on Germany, Churchill cleverly advocated a definite ‘Germany First’ policy which the US accepted, but which he did not discuss with or even disclose to Australia. He could see Japan’s serious resource limitations and, despite its temporary naval strength in battleships (though not in aircraft carriers) the fact that their forces across the Pacific would be spread too widely to provide for strong defence of any one outpost. Hence, when the time came, these could be picked off one by one. (WC4iii, 578-81) Of course, that simple view of the future might apply, but only if Japan failed to occupy and exploit the resource-rich territories of South, and South-East Asia, China, Indochina, Burma, India, Indonesia, New Guinea, etc., - as it fully intended. Indeed, if it were totally successful in fully exploiting those areas it could well grow far stronger, more determined, and better able to accomplish further conquests. And should that occur, there would be no doubt that at some stage it would invade Australia, as Australians and the Australian government feared at the time.

Moreover, when Japan was moving south through Malaya, Churchill could, in fact, clearly see why Australia had good reason to be alarmed, for as he wrote in 1948 after the war, since “The command of the Pacific was lost; their three best divisions were in Egypt and a fourth at Singapore …. A mass exodus into the interior and the organising of a guerrilla without arsenals or supplies stared them in the face. Help from the Mother Country was far away, and the power of the United States could only slowly be established in Australian waters.” Notwithstanding this clear insight, Churchill went on, to claim that ‘he did not believe’ that Japan would invade Australia.(WC4iii, 592) Understandably, however, the Australian people and government, acutely aware of both that risk and the country’s own extremely poor state of defence preparedness – almost all its experienced army, navy and air force personnel far away protecting Britain and its Empire, leaving itself with but few troops, a handful of tanks and virtually no operational aircraft, - took a very different view.(DD1, 307-310)

Notwithstanding that precarious situation, one made clear to Churchill by John Curtin, Australia’s Prime Minister, Churchill was at pains to reassure Curtin that fears of Singapore falling were groundless despite the fact that on January 10 he had indicated to General Ismay of his Defence Committee, “The Japanese, having obtained temporary command of the sea, and air predominance over considerable areas, it is within their power to take almost any point they wish, apart, it is hoped, from the fortress of Singapore.” (WC4iii, 623) In retrospect, hardly a convincing reassurance, as his forebodings of approaching ‘immense disasters’ confirm.(seeWC4iii,625) Despite that, he was at the same time proposing to Curtin that one Australian division (then in Palestine) go to Singapore or India (!) while also stressing the need for fighter aircraft to be retained in Libya (time indefinite) before they could go to Singapore.(WC4iii, 592-3) Considering the urgency of the imminent threat, it seemed altogether strange that Churchill should at the same time be urging President Roosevelt to send 4 divisions of American troops to Northern Ireland rather than to Singapore for its defence!(WC4iii, 606-7) Again, all a matter of priorities.

To put it mildly, it was all one sided, a reflection of the traditional attitudes of British governments to Dominion and Colonial peoples. It was firmly held that these must serve the Empire (i.e., ‘British interests’) especially militarily, ‘in time of need’. Yet, notwithstanding much placatory rhetoric to the contrary, there existed no reciprocal obligation.(JM) Although this had ever been so, Australians had never come to terms with the reality. Over the previous two years of the war, on the understanding that Britain would guarantee our defence in case of need, not only did Australia provide its top army divisions to serve Britain in the Middle East, and much of its naval strength too, but in November 1939, under the ‘Empire Air Training Scheme’ (EATS) it committed much of its eagerly ready-to-serve youth to supply Britain with aircrew. That commitment was to provide 36% of the 28,000 Dominions’ aircrew committed over the following three years, all to serve under the control of the RAF.(JMcC, 21) Indeed, already by the end of 1941, some 9,000 young Australian airmen were serving in Britain, the Middle East and Malaya. Yet at that critical time, despite assurances on December 18, 1941, that “…very substantial naval, air and army reinforcements were already on the way or arranged for the Far East”’, Australia was left with no experienced army and little of its navy or air force – that is, almost no battle-experienced aircrew and but a few very inadequate Wirraways (over-weight cumbersome training planes) as the only ‘fighter’ planes for its home defence.(DD1, 214)

In January 1942, in response to the crisis, Australia stopped EATS trainees going abroad, - but did not recall its overseas aircrews or armies. However, as there were in any case far too few aircraft for our aircrews to use in Australia’s defence, their continued retention was lifted the following month. That way it was hoped Britain would make good its promises of aircraft and other equipment for Australia’s defence. In the meantime, our government continued producing more of the inadequate Wirraways and the less-than-adequate Beaufort torpedo bombers.(DD1, 214-5)

At this time, since Japanese forces were continuing their conquest of the Philippines, the United States was not ready to give Australia direct help. On January 20, as British General Pownall, on his way to relieve Brooke-Popham in Singapore, saw the situation, the “Jap war so far looks a long way from being a good show”, going on to indicate in his diary that the loss of Singapore could. ”..well mean losing Australia, if not New Zealand” - not “..to the Japanese, but to the Empire, for they will think themselves let down.(DD1, 220) But Churchill, in denial mode, while determined not to transfer significant arms from Libya, was at the same time reassuring Curtin that Singapore could be successfully defended.(DD1, 224) On December 27, Curtin’s statement printed in Melbourne’s Herald indicated that Australia must look to America for help, that we must refuse to accept that the Pacific war be treated as subordinate within the general conflict, that there must be a concerted plan aimed at “..hurling Japan back”, further stressing that “…the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies’ fighting plan”. Churchill was ‘deeply shocked’ on hearing of Curtin’s ‘insulting speech’.(DD1, 227-8)

In Washington, Churchill had secured the US’s renewed commitment to giving top priority to his ‘defeating Germany first’ strategy. Australia was still neither consulted nor even informed of this agreement. A further Washington decision was to appoint General Wavell to head a ‘supreme command’ of the ‘south-west Pacific’, a region to include northern Australia.(DD1, 234) Churchill proposed transferring Australian forces from the Middle East, not to defend Australia, but either India or Singapore where our 8th division had already been transferred. The Australian government agreed only to 1800 additional troops for Singapore, but its confidence was not improved when it learned on December 31 that General Wavell’s area of responsibility was after all to exclude Australia and Papua New Guinea! At the same time it heard of the decision that the US Pacific Fleet was not to be responsible for Australia’s eastern coastline.(DD1, 236-7)

Despite all that, Australia’s war Cabinet agreed that its 6th and 7th divisions be transferred to the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) and that the 9th division remain in the Middle East.(DD1,241) Although Churchill continued to assure Australia of the security of the Singapore ‘fortress’, he was in fact anything but confident and by January 19, was focussing more and more on the need to defend Burma, especially as it was seen as the key to blocking a Japanese invasion of India. Indeed, Japanese forces moved from Thailand into Burma on January 20, following which Churchill was stressing that “…Burma was more important than Singapore”.(DD1, 247) That threat could only have exacerbated Churchill’s overriding fear, shared by all the colonial powers, of a pan-Asian solidarity movement directed against Western powers, one already being shamelessly exploited by Japan.(DD1, 244-5; JWD, 6-8, 262-5)

(b) Singapore falls; facing invasion, Australia fights back

Before long, by-passing Singapore and striking well south, a large force of Japanese planes attacked Rabaul, New Britain.(DD1, 248) Moreover, by February 8 Japanese forces had crossed to the island of Singapore, then defended by Britain’s 18th division along with Australia’s 8th. On February 10, Churchill instructed his commanders there to put aside any “…thought of saving troops or sparing the population. …. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.” Exactly five days later, on February 15, Britain’s General Percival surrendered his forces. As David Day commented, it had been a bad fortnight for Britain, not only for the fall of Singapore, but also because two German cruisers, escaping the Royal Navy, had passed safely through the Channel; Rommel had turned the British advance on Tripoli into a retreat; and fresh moves were afoot for Churchill’s demotion as leader.(DD1, 255-6)

On February 17, responding to the dire situation close to home, Australia put itself on a ‘total war footing’ for the “…total mobilisation of all resources…”. Yet, as Britain’s High Commissioner commented, “..the military situation had so worsened that Australia lay open to invasion whilst not possessing the means of effective resistance”. At this stage the government met with appeals from our servicemen overseas wanting to return to defend their homeland.(DD1, 261-3) Indeed, the threat further heightened as Japanese forces landed in Sumatra. In light of this, Britain’s Defence Committee stopped all reinforcements for Java, further ordering a fall-back to “essential bases” – Burma, Ceylon, India and Australia. Concerning the latter, Churchill acknowledged “..it would be difficult to refuse the Australians’ request that their divisions should return home’. The UK Defence Committee then instructed the British 70th division to go to Ceylon and Burma, and Australia’s 7th division, about to board ship, to proceed home rather than to Java.

Notwithstanding that instruction, Churchill was determined that Australia’s soon-to-be-shipped 7th division must be diverted to Burma, a view supported by a cooperative Roosevelt who proposed United States troops for Australia ‘in exchange’ for two AIF divisions for India or Burma. Despite that, Australia’s war Cabinet maintained its insistence on the return to Australia of both its 6th and 7th divisions. Also made clear was an insistence on the early return of its 9th division, Curtin stating that the priority for the three divisions must be Australia’s defence. Of particular concern was that such arbitrary diversions of one division, the 7th, might well lead to a dangerous and fruitless diversion of all three to Burma where, as almost happened earlier in Greece and Crete, they would likely be overcome and totally lost.(DD1, 264-8)

On February 19, 100 Japanese planes bombed Darwin. Notwithstanding Australia’s predicament, Churchill kept insisting it give in to his requests for priority to defend Burma, but our government firmly resisted. So Churchill sent British troops from Cyprus, India and the Middle East. And as if to cap it off, not only against Curtin’s clear instructions but unbeknown to him, on February 20, Australian troops in ocean transit were diverted to Burma. By the time Curtin learned of this and again insisted on their return home, the ships were so far off course they could not be re-diverted without being re-fuelled in Ceylon.(DD1, 268-70) Taking advantage of that eventuality, Churchill claimed his action was guided by the view that Britain “…could not contemplate that you would refuse our request and that of the President of the United States”, further noting that the Ceylon re-fuelling would give Curtin time to sympathetically “review the position”. At this stage (as throughout their long voyage) the diverted Australians were at high risk from Japanese submarines since, as Churchill had acknowledged, throughout the Indian Ocean the British Navy had lost all control.(DD1, 309) Thus it was by only the greatest of good fortune that they escaped being sunk.

In the event, however, Australia agreed to leave its 9th division in the Middle East for a further year and even to allow two brigades of its 6th division to remain in Ceylon for 4-6 weeks, i.e., until relieved by Britain’s ‘expected’ 70th division. But once Churchill knew of Australia’s commitment, he offered Wavell 2 brigades of the 70th for India and Burma which meant that Australia’s 6th division did not return home until August 1942, too late to assist in the crucial battle to save Port Morseby.(DD1, 276-7) Moreover, as events proved, Burma was not defensible. Indeed, to escape the encircling Japanese forces, Rangoon’s evacuation was ordered on February 27, its British defenders embarking on an enforced long march through northern Burma, the lucky ones reaching safety in India.(DD1, 277) As the British Governor, Dorman-Smith, later recorded, the Australians had a narrow escape, for had they been thrown into the defence of Burma, “Lud knows what we’d have done with them. They might have been thrown straight ‘from ship to Jap’ – with disastrous results. They’d have died gallantly or would have been rounded up by the Japs, as so many of our own and Indian troops were”.(DD1, 271)

Although Singapore had fallen on February 15 and British troops would soon be forced to retreat from Burma to India, by February 18, Britain’s Pacific War Council, had terminated further reinforcements for the Netherlands East Indies, as well as ordering the evacuation of Wavell’s NEI Area Command headquarters. Yet, at that very time this War Council was advocating that the mixed garrisons of Dutch, British and Australian troops remain and fight it out with the Japanese. Naturally, the Australian government disagreed. With the evacuation of Wavell’s command, Australia wanted to see the same for its 3,000 troops recently arrived from the Middle East. But that was refused, the result being their capture following the NEI surrender on March 12.(DD1, 277-8)

At this stage the situation for Australia looked extremely grave. When Britain’s Chiefs of Staff documented their gloomy view of Britain’s prospects against Japan, Churchill tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent it being seen by the Dominions. But his true view of the situation came through in his March 5 cable to Roosevelt in which he indicated it was “…not easy to assign limits to the Japanese aggression. All can be retrieved in 1943 or 1944, but meanwhile there are very hard forfeits to pay.” (DD1, 280)

On March 13, 1942, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr H.V.Evatt, went to the US to seek help for Australia’s effective defence. However, on leaving he (in common with his Cabinet colleagues) did not know of the secret Anglo-American agreement (code-named “W.W.I”) to have Germany defeated before making serious efforts to overcome Japan.(DD2, 287) Indications of that reality were to come to Australia’s leaders only slowly and indirectly, as piecemeal bits of information. While it was easy for them to recognise Churchill’s priority in first defeating Germany, they believed the US to have been so outraged by the Pearl Harbor assault, that the Japanese threat would be taken at least as seriously. And in travelling to the US just 4 days after General MacArthur’s secret arrival in Australia, Evatt’s role was also to encourage that balanced viewpoint.(DD1, 288-9) As Churchill saw Evatt’s visiting role, he “…was reputed to be one of the least friendly of the Australian Ministers, and most eager to throw himself into the arms of the United States”(DD1, 296)hardly an appropriate remark by the leader of the US’s ‘staunchest ally’, but there you are! And, after all, it was known from Churchill’s speech of January 28 in the Commons, that he had formally handed over Australia’s protection to the Americans. (A, E & P, 157)

At all events, following General MacArthur’s arrival, Curtin promptly acceded to an American request to nominate him “Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific Area” (AE&P, 157), believing that at last some importance would be given to prosecuting the war against Japan in our region. And Curtin was further encouraged to again insist on the return from Palestine of Australia’s 9th division, which had been a condition of the temporary retention of the 6th division’s two brigades in Ceylon. Also expected was that the United States would send to Australia significant forces for MacArthur’s command. Through Evatt, Churchill was requested to return the 9th division, but again he refused to withdraw his claim on its command.(DD1, 297-8) A little earlier Churchill had again sought to reassure Australia that “…if you are actually invaded in force….we shall do our utmost to divert troops and British ships….to your succour, albeit at the expense of India and the Middle East”. And as he later informed Evatt, “..not a day passes when we do not think of Australia”, - on which Day comments, “This was certainly true, but not in the sense Churchill was trying to convey.”(DD1, 299-300)

Seemingly encouraging, a directive from the US Chiefs of Staff to MacArthur indicated that his objectives should include holding “…key military regions of Australia as bases for future offensive action against Japan” and that he should “…prepare to take the offensive”. At the same time, however, US Army Chief General George Marshall was in London to discuss Churchill’s earlier proposal for a European Second Front in 1942. Churchill’s proposal had been made soon after Pearl Harbor with a view to having the US focus on Germany rather than immediate retaliation against Japan. Since then the British navy had suffered a series of serious losses – most recently from Japan in the Indian Ocean - but in any case as we have seen, in reality Churchill had long been averse to engaging in any major ‘second front’. The outcome was that any invasion of Europe was deferred in favour of a later and more readily attainable joint Anglo-American occupation of North Africa. Notwithstanding that, yet again it was stated that the struggle against Germany would continue to be the Allies’ prime focus.(DD1, 303-4)

On April 20, 1942, General MacArthur met with Curtin to discuss Evatt’s progress in Washington for garnering material support via US Chiefs of Staff directives for the war in the SWPA. As MacArthur firmly believed that the necessary support in equipment and troops was yet to be committed by the US, he arranged with Curtin to meet with Australia’s Chiefs of Staff to compile an agreed list of requirements – both for Australia’s defence and for subsequent offensive action. That was done, but all to little effect, MacArthur being “..bitterly disappointed with the meagre assistance “ received as it was “…entirely inadequate to carry out the directive given him…” and it would ”...leave Australia as a base for operations in such a weak state that any major attack will gravely threaten the security of the Commonwealth”. You see, although Roosevelt had established a ‘Pacific War Council’ in Washington, it had no executive powers, - advisory only. So, whilst the existence of this Council, together with the US Chiefs of Staff ‘directive’ to MacArthur gave the impression of firm resolve and calmed the anxieties of some, it left Australia in the lurch, effectively by-passed by the priorities of the ‘Germany first’ policy and vulnerable still to Japanese attack.(DD1, 309)

Churchill had acknowledged the loss of British naval control East of Suez. Its ships were sticking close to the east African coastline, assiduously avoiding contact with the Japanese. So of course there was no question of having help in Australia’s north from the British navy. At this stage, the Japanese were assembling expeditionary forces in Rabaul for an assault on Port Moresby. Yet in Australia there was no sign of air reinforcements from Britain in recognition of the contribution of Australian aircrews and the ongoing retention of its 9th division in the Middle East. Of the nearly 500 American aircraft in Australia, less than half were serviceable and in any case their crews were yet to be fully trained. Eighty of the 210 US tanks in Australia were of the two-man light variety and of limited use. On MacArthur’s recommendation, Curtin requested two British divisions to meet the emergency. Learning of this and claiming it a threat to his ‘Germany first’ policy, Churchill contacted Roosevelt to question whether the SWPA Supreme Commander had “..any authority from the United States for taking such a line”. As Britain “was quite unable” to accede to that request, coming from the Supreme Commander, it was “..a cause of concern”, a highly embarrassing faux pas. Supporting Churchill, Roosevelt strongly rebuked MacArthur and, in effect, Australia for making such a proposal.(DD1, 309-10)

Britain’s Defence Committee had just reaffirmed its commitment to the ‘Germany first’ policy, Churchill supporting the priority of aircraft for Russia arguing, “…it was in our vital interests to do so, as the Russians would shortly be engaged in mortal combat with our main enemy”. Interesting comment, that! As Germany was about to mount its spring offensive, there was no doubt such assistance was needed. But since Britain was not behaving as if Germany was indeed its ‘main enemy’, what also was needed was the diversion of even a small allotment of fighter aircraft and other arms from Britain’s imports of US armaments (its vast, ever-mounting home stockpile) for Australia’s defence – but that was still firmly rejected.(DD1, 309-10)

While Evatt, first in Washington, later in London, had been inordinately slow in comprehending Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s overall war strategy, Curtin certainly came to understand its underlying reality, as all too clearly did MacArthur who was convinced that “…little assistance was to be afforded the Southwest Pacific Area. The President and General Marshall were under the influence of Mr Churchill’s strategy…….General Marshall…..had said that if the Japanese overran the Commonwealth it would be just too bad. He could help the Australians no more than he could help MacArthur in the Philippines.”. By early May, 1942, although there were 400,000 American troops in Australia, they were only part trained and ill-equipped to withstand a Japanese attack. Again, MacArthur urged Australia to demand the return of its 9th division, a call backed by our most senior General, Thomas Blamey.(DD1, 319-22) On May 6, Curtin put that issue to his Advisory War Council which fully agreed that its “….predominant concern is the security of Australia”. Curtin cabled Evatt that while “..it would be very difficult to get the President and Mr Churchill to deviate from the view that all efforts have to be concentrated on knocking out Germany first”, he should nevertheless again press for the return of the 9th division.(DD1, 323)

Most fortuitously for Australia, however, at that critical stage the first tide-turning battle of the Pacific took place. Occurring between May 5 and 8, this was a US naval engagement of a Japanese invasion fleet in the Coral Sea on its way from Rabaul to Port Moresby. Warned in advance via deciphered Japanese signals, the timing and positioning of the evenly matched intercepting US fleet (though it never sighted the invasion flotilla) allowed US carrier-based planes to make a surprise attack. Although the losses of one aircraft carrier each side were about equal, it was a caution for the Japanese who returned their fleet to Rabaul. Instead, Japan sent its army over the steep Owen Stanley Ranges on a land-ward attack aimed at Port Moresby.(DD1, 323-4)

Meanwhile, armed with figures MacArthur had provided, Evatt in London requested more aircraft for Australia’s defence. Britain had supplied only 316 of the 2087 earlier ordered. Indeed, between January and August 1942, Britain supplied only 77 combat aircraft from its own production. A further 366 planes had arrived from Britain, but since these were for training Australian aircrew for RAF operations over Europe and the Middle East, they were entirely unsuitable for combat. On May 20 Churchill finally agreed to send 3 Spitfire squadrons to Australia, 2 of them Australian RAAF squadrons serving in Britain. Churchill was anxious that Britain make a visible, if token, contribution to our defence. As he remarked, he had to consider Britain’s “..permanent relationship with Australia and it seems very detrimental to the future of the Empire for us not to be represented in any way in their defence.” Evatt, was appreciative, believing that he had extracted from Churchill a ‘guarantee’ that the Spitfire squadrons would not detract from the existing commitment of American planes. But as MacArthur saw Britain’s offer of the three squadrons, “Churchill was only giving back to Australia part of her forces and one R.A.F. squadron as a gesture. …. They and more should be forthcoming as a right.” Evatt had also sought a contribution of British naval forces, though without success. (DD1, 332-6)

Not until May 28 did Evatt cable Curtin with “W.W.I”, the formal text of the ‘Germany first’ Anglo-American agreement. But by then Curtin and his war cabinet had already a very clear understanding of its practical outcomes for Australia. In fact Evatt’s trip had done little to improve Australia’s security. The promised 48 second-hand Spitfires arrived nearly 6 months late, having been diverted to the Middle East. And the United States subtracted an equivalent number of aircraft from its Australian allocation, Churchill refusing to appeal that decision. MacArthur’s judgement was bitterly critical of Britain’s failure to provide effective help for Australia’s security. As MacArthur noted, since his arrival Australia had not received from Britain “…an additional ship, soldier or squadron’. Further, he berated Britain for not matching the assistance Australia had rendered it overseas, with its naval, military and air forces, contrasting Britain’s 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne with the forty, mostly unserviceable bombers provided to his SWPA command.(DD1, 338-9)


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