9. World War II and Australia

(c) Midway Battle turns the Naval Tide

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(c) Midway Battle turns the Naval Tide

During the first week of June another and more decisive American-Japanese naval engagement occurred at the battle of Midway. To capture this island the Japanese navy had assembled 200 ships. Against that force the Americans could muster only 76 ships, MacArthur warning Curtin that Australia’s fate would hang on the outcome. Since a Japanese victory would result in Australia’s total isolation, he stressed the absolute necessity of the 9th division’s return and the urgency of more combat aircraft. Meanwhile, and before Australia’s Advisory War Council met to consider MacArthur’s proposals, the Midway battle, by then under way, was to turn the tables dramatically. Despite the unfavourable balance, the US navy sank no less than 4 Japanese aircraft carriers, this resulting in a decisive victory which forced the Japanese onto the defensive for the rest of the war.(DD1, 338)

With much relief for Australia, the immediate crisis, - the threat of imminent invasion was at least deferred. At the same time the war as a whole was far from over and for Australia there remained still, moving towards Port Moresby, a Japanese army which had to be stopped. Initially success in that was extremely doubtful because no Australian soldiers with battle-experience were available for the task - almost all being either in Japanese captivity or far away, fighting in the Middle East.

(d) Young Australians repel Japan’s forces aimed at Port Moresby

Hence at this critical time of the war for Australia, that most difficult and dangerous struggle was for some agonising critical months undertaken by totally inexperienced young home defence militia soldiers, members of the 39th Battalion, - about 700 mostly 18 and 19 year-olds who, having been called up the previous October, were barely trained.(PC, 142) Some feeling for what these young boys endured in their heroic efforts to stem the Japanese advance across the Owen Stanley Ranges is given in film-maker, Damien Parer’s moving documentary, Kokoda Front Line, as well as from Peter Cochrane’s graphic descriptions of the extreme difficulties, dangers and costs involved. These included combating not only the 4-to-1 superior numbers of experienced Japanese soldiers, but doing so in freezing rain at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet, lacking dry clothing, adequate food and suffering dysentery and malaria, while desperately hanging on for the long-delayed reinforcements essential to stem the enemy’s advance.(PC, 142-51)

The campaign had begun on July 21 following the Japanese landings at Buna and Gona on the Solomon Sea coast. Quickly advancing, the 39th marched 120 kilometres across the narrow, ever-so-steep Track to Kokoda. But then, meeting the far greater force, their role was inevitably but a delaying-action, a gradual fighting-retreat aimed at stemming the tide long enough to allow reinforcements to arrive before they were driven back to Port Moresby. Through August and into September, with limited but welcome help from a small Papuan Infantry Force (about 30) and numerous ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ to carry and sustain their wounded, - and only later supported by the 53rd Battalion, another militia force, - this task was heroically accomplished with enormous difficulty and at awful cost.(PC, 142-51) Eventually, with vital support from seasoned units from our 7th Division sent from Queensland, the Japanese forces, - by then a mere 50 kilometres from Port Moresby, - were not only blocked but, over the following months, forced back to the Solomon Sea. Indeed, by the end of 1942, the Japanese offensives in eastern New Guinea were at an end. However the eventual battle casualties had been high, amounting to some 5, 698: - 1,731 killed in action, another 306 dying of wounds, a further 128 from disease and other causes. In addition 3,533 had been wounded, - and 15,000 were suffering serious infectious disease. Japanese losses were very severe. Indeed, of its force of some 17,000 troops, approximately 12,000 had died. (PC, 157-61)

As a consequence of these military actions, by the end of 1942 no longer were there on-going concerns that Australia itself would be invaded. So, given that, let us consider what role Australia’s military forces might best have taken through the remaining three years of the Pacific War.

(e) Its Security Assured, how then should Australia have fought the Pacific War?

To amplify that question: - given what we now know of the strategy employed by the US in the Pacific to win the war against Japan, we can ask what military strategy should Australia have followed during those final three agonising years of the war? ‘What we now know’ refers to information contained in several official Reports included in the United States Strategic Bombing Surveys of the Pacific War, (reports which, importantly, covered more than the air war) - especially one titled, The War Against Japanese Transportation 1941-1945, and another, Japan’s Struggle to End the War. These are dealt with in greater detail below (c.f. 9G(a)). However, to explain in outline, the US ‘attack on Japanese transport’ entailed (i) employing enough naval (especially submarine) and air power in the Pacific to give the US total command of the seas and skies; (ii) to use that power systematically to sink all Japanese freighters and oil tankers linking Japan’s home islands to its recently ‘acquired’ Empire outposts and (iii) to thus blockade Japan’s home islands, -- that most successful strategy finally isolating and ‘containing’ its overseas forces and completely strangling both its domestic and war economies, this final result completely destroying Japan’s ability to continue the war.(see 9G(a) and USSBS-1to3)

The issue of how best Australia should have conducted its own war policy is raised because, under General MacArthur’s leadership, Australian forces were kept fighting ‘up North’ in one location after another in hazardous operations which, whether taken individually or together, neither shortened the war nor made its ultimate victory more certain. Each of these operations resulted in significant numbers of Australians and Americans being killed or wounded. And all to no advantage, since through the US’s long-planned and successful home island blockade and by-pass strategies these isolated island-bound Japanese forces ultimately had no option but to surrender, as finally they did.

Unfortunately, however, the record shows Australian forces under MacArthur’s command faithfully carrying out three years of unremitting campaigns, all at considerable cost, all only slowly beating back the Japanese forces - westwards along New Guinea’s northern coast (eventually as far as Aitape), up the Markham-Ramu valley; eastwards, through the Huon Peninsula to Alexishafen, and well beyond - into New Britain and the Solomon Islands. Just as hazardous and inappropriate were the final campaigns in Borneo. Indeed, MacArthur planned operations not only to liberate the Philippines (with American troops) but, - in defiance of Roosevelt and Churchill’s joint commitment to national independence proclaimed through their Atlantic Charter (see 9C(b)), - to restore the ‘Netherlands East Indies’ and other former colonies to the Dutch, its previous long-time ‘owners’.(PS) Eventually that latter strategy was overridden by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, but not before (within months of the war’s end in 1945) Australians had been thrown into costly operations in Borneo - those of Tarakan, Labuan and Balikpapan, all with much unnecessary loss of life.

Sadly, all of these post-Kokoda campaigns which MacArthur had presented to Australia, were endorsed by our own government with the mistaken message that each was ‘helping to win the war’. Well, MacArthur knew he was ‘just marking time’ until the ‘real’ Pacific war got underway - (as a proud General-in-charge of the SWPA, he had to be actively doing something didn’t he?!). But that should not have meant our Australian government agreeing to go along with fruitless, irrelevant, casualty-producing operations. After all, by the end of 1942 Australia was secure from Japanese invasion, Japan’s forces were increasingly isolated from their home islands and, as indicated, following Japan’s ultimate defeat they would just have to give up and go home – i.e., exactly what finally happened.

In short, in view of the practical implications for Australia of the extraordinarily successful Japanese home island blockade employed by the US navy to defeat Japan, the most appropriate actions for Australian troops, naval and air forces should have been purely holding operations, - actions limited to keeping Japan’s overseas troops immobilised where they were. That, and giving priority to strengthening Australia’s home defence (the compelling need for any country) and hence a far greater emphasis on self-sufficiency, including the production of combat planes and other equipment for relevant overseas operations limited to the South West Pacific Area. And then top priority could have been given to serious efforts to liberate at least some of Australia’s 8,000 prisoners of war, those suffering in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. I say ‘some’ since misguided or poorly planned attempts could have resulted in even greater tragedy. Thus, it may not in fact have been feasible to liberate many, if any, in Thailand, Malaya or Singapore - for such attempts might have put our POWs at even greater hazard – yet with careful intelligence and planning, it might have worked out for many others.

With the Allies’ capacity to decipher Japanese codes, information on POW transfers could have been ascertained, such providing opportunities for well-planned rescue raids. Obviously Australia’s Army commandos working with our Navy and Air Force, (adequately equipped with long-range transporters, e.g., US Liberators or UK Sunderlands, with fighter escort) - all efficiently coordinated - could have played important roles. One of these would have been to intercept Japanese ships carrying Australian and other Allied POWs to Japan. Due to the US policy of sinking all Japanese ships, that periodic transfer operation placed the POWs at special risk from submarine attack, such truly horrifying tragedies being reported on numerous occasions.(MG2, 611-2; 622-3) (more details in Joan Beaumont’s article, Victims of War: The Allies and the transport of prisoner-of-war by sea, 1939-45, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, No.2, 1983) To have the cooperation of US intelligence would have served the dual purpose of alerting US submarine crews to the presence of POW ‘cargos’ and, at the same time, informing Australia of its opportunity to rescue that living cargo. Likewise, land transfers of POWs, for example in New Guinea or Borneo, especially those involving ‘long marches’, could have provided rescue opportunities.

Even though casualty rates among rescuers might well have been high, that contribution to Australia’s war effort would have received the strongest support from fellow Australians. Of course such operations would have required first-rate equipment, only some of which Australia could have manufactured, and intelligence, much of which may well have had to come from US code-breaking sources. It is an open question, therefore as to whether these operations would have received the necessary Allied cooperation and assistance, but Australians should not have hesitated to make up their own minds, develop their own war strategies, and proceed towards the necessary rescue efforts.

Just how the Pacific war was concluded, - through the very effective blockade of Japan’s home islands, the ‘island hopping’ (at great cost to the combatants of both sides) and, finally, the use of overwhelming air power, bombing Japanese cities and their civilian populations, will be covered later (see 9G (a-c)) - with suggested alternative approaches that could have greatly reduced the final awful death tolls. But first let us consider reasons for delaying the Second Front and the tragic effects of Britain’s RAF-based approach to ‘winning the war against Germany’.

E Back to ‘Germany First’ – and further delaying the Second Front!

(a) The Strategy and Rationale

As indicated above, although Churchill, Roosevelt and their high commands planned for their armies to make a direct attack on Germany ultimately, they were strongly motivated to carefully ‘time’ that eventuality. Certainly by the end of 1942 those two nations between them already had the means to do so. Both from its own production and with US help, Britain had been stockpiling enormous quantities of armaments and the United States’ industry, by then well geared up for war, was capable of providing vast quantities of all types of weaponry from its production lines. Indeed, as documented by David Kennedy, the United States’ industrial capacity was so great, it very easily coped with all such demands without having to restrict civilian consumption levels in any manner.(DK, 9) And since Germany was their avowed ‘prime enemy’ there appeared no material bar to mounting a direct attack on Germany itself from the West at any time from 1942. After all, what otherwise should have been the logical ‘Germany First’ top priority ?!

But there were two major considerations holding them back. One was the political costs of the very high casualty rates inevitable with a major Second Front attack. That could be very unpopular and politically dangerous to those in government. The second consideration was their long-standing concern over what Russia/the USSR stood for politically/economically. That country was, ever since the end of WWI, a Communist state, one committed to its own version of ‘collectivism’ and opposed to ‘private ownership of the means of production’, an approach much disliked and feared by Western leaders, an idea they had long feared might ‘catch on’. This was especially so since the Great Depression which from 1929 persisted throughout the 1930s, causing much unemployment, deprivation and civil unrest. Indeed, even in the US and Britain, profound economic collapse had been so serious a problem that it had persisted until relieved by the stimulus of war production and the military demands on man (and woman) power.(DK, 3, 8-9 )

From the earliest post-WWI days, there was no doubt, especially in Churchill’s and Lloyd George’s writings, of the desire to see Communism, this ‘Russian experiment’, fail. Indeed, that was the prime reason for the military intervention by the UK, France, US, other Western powers and Japan, in Russia’s post-Revolutionary Civil War, expeditionary forces remaining there from 1918 through into 1920. Not that the Russians had any ‘democracy’ in their past history, but that aside, its no wonder they promptly set up a centralised government with far-reaching powers to protect their new-born state. In Churchill’s terms, that prompt Western military intervention aimed to ‘strangle the revolution at birth’ - before it could get established, especially as the revolution might influence other desperate war-torn countries to ‘go the same way’.(WC2, 163- ; 232- ; MG1, 669) So although Churchill was greatly opposed to Hitler and his aims, and sincerely sought his defeat, he was more than happy to see Germany and Russia ‘fight it out’, each greatly weakening the other in the process. (A modern parallel was the US encouragement to the mutual destruction involved in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.)

So for Churchill it could not have been too difficult to reach agreement with the US to engage in more peripheral relatively small military campaigns (which, while they would contribute to eventual victory and divert a few German divisions from the Eastern front would limit the human and material costs of the Western Allies) and defer the timing of their final direct confrontation with what was left of Germany’s military might. A parallel strategy was to be the joint Anglo-American air war, the plan to bomb German cities and their populations from bases in England. As that long-held plan involved aircrews from Australia and the other Dominions, it will be dealt with below in some detail. Suffice to say that while these bombing raids caused relatively low casualty numbers for the bombing countries (c.f., the Eastern and eventual Second Front), as percentage losses of the young aircrew lads involved, the casualty rates were extremely high.

Of course a genuine Second Front aimed at invading Germany would eventually become necessary since otherwise the Russians would finally have ‘done it all’ and the Western Allies might then play little part in the control of the defeated Germany. But in the meantime there occurred, besides the air offensive over Europe, those earlier pre-Second Front military campaigns. These began in November, 1942 with the US invasion of North-West Africa and its occupation of Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca. Then in mid-January 1943 there followed Churchill’s meeting with Roosevelt at Casablanca. As documented by historian Martin Gilbert, there they agreed in secret to the following: First, their policy of ‘unconditional surrender’ (making difficult or impossible any separate peace with Germany’s generals intent on overthrowing Hitler). Second, their plan to intensify the air war over Germany, to dislocate its “military, industrial and economic system”, aimed also at “undermining the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened” (a clear reference to terror bombing of civilians); And third, in “strictest secrecy”, agreement that no cross-Channel Second Front would be attempted until the summer of 1944. (MG2,482)

Given the successful US occupation of Algiers and its encouragement to Montgomery’s 8th Army, it was perhaps not surprising that by February 12, 1943, Rommel’s forces had retreated back to Tunisia. And by May 7 British, French and American troops had taken Tunis, the take-off point for a joint invasion of Sicily, which began on July 10. Then, on September 3, 1943, four years to the day since Britain had ‘declared war’ on Germany, came the Allies first invasion of Europe, namely that of Sicily, the southern-most part of Italy. That was followed by Italy’s prompt offer of an armistice, following which German forces took over the opposition, occupying Rome on September 8. Strongly resisted by these forces, the Allies’ advance up the Italian ‘boot’ was slow. Indeed, the Allies did not finally liberate Rome until May 4, 1944, just one month before the opening of the cross-Channel Second Front.(MG2, 567)

(b) Post-Stalingrad Eastern Front : January 1943 - May 1945

After the greatest struggle to save Stalingrad under the most appalling freezing conditions and in the face of Hitler’s directive to General Paulus that his surrounded and by then powerless Sixth Army must continue to fight on “..to the last man and the last round”, - Paulus’ forced surrender occurred on January 31, 1943. Stalingrad had ultimately been saved. Gilbert does not cite the Russian losses, but the German costs were horrifying, 160,000 dead, 60,000 taken prisoner. Then, slowly and at terrible cost, the tide began to turn, Kursk, another key city, being taken on February 8.(MG2, 486) The confidence of senior German military staff in Hitler’s leadership was so greatly shaken by his role in this turn of events, that two further assassination attempts by his senior army officers occurred. Unfortunately the first on March 13 failed due to a defective fuse in the bomb placed on his plane.(MG2, 490) In the second attempt, planned for November, Baron Axel von dem Bussche, appalled by Hitler’s callous incompetence towards his soldiers’ suffering on the Eastern front, and due to demonstrate an improved winter great-coat to his leader, planned to kill both Hitler and himself using a bomb in its pocket. The plan fell through when, before his appointment, the entire great-coat prototype stock was destroyed by a British air raid, Baron Bussche soon after being returned to the Eastern Front where he was severely wounded.(MG2, 532)

Of course, while the saving of Stalingrad, Kursk, and other cities in early 1943 represented the turning point on the Eastern Front, it was, to quote a Churchillian expression, not so much ‘the beginning of the end’ but rather only ‘the end of the beginning’. And yet already the losses on both sides were unspeakably awful. But Hitler, determined to be confident still, was insisting that with his leadership, Germany must prevail, no matter what the costs to his, (by now ‘graduated’) ‘Hitler Youth’. After all, from the very beginning of the movement, that was always to have been their ultimate role: ‘glorious sacrifice’ in his distorted Cause of the Fatherland.

And, for the Russians, well, with backs to the wall, they were desperately determined to expel those invading their homeland. So, whether or not they were committed politically to the sort of societal organisation that had developed out of the 1917 Russian Revolution, understandably they were utterly opposed to any foreign takeover. And if some Russians were ambivalent on that score, Hitler and his SS ‘exterminate the inferior’ teams must have greatly augmented their resolve to at all costs resist,

And what a grim task that was, for even after Stalingrad the hoped-for turn of the tide was still but a desperate dream (competing with nightmares) since millions of enemy troops were still deeply embedded many hundreds of miles inside the USSR, along that highly extended front, - from Leningrad in the Baltic north, to the Black Sea and the Caucasus in the south. And as events proved, although from early 1943 the Russians began an offensive which eventually drove enemy forces from their land, that slow grinding traumatic process, always with horrifying losses on both sides, was to go on for a further two and a half years. For the human costs in deaths alone, see Kennedy’s figures (DK, 10). Add to those, the awful human costs to those grievously wounded – in body and mind, the bereaved, - it is all past our proper comprehension. In addition, one should consider the vast material losses and opportunity costs to a country which had earlier suffered so very greatly as a result of WWI, the so-called Great War, the ‘War to end all War’, a country which, had long been grindingly impoverished at the sub-elite levels, yet had been trying to catch up to the living standards of many Western countries. Well, of course the Second World War could only be an enormous set-back to all such developments, to all such hopes.

(c) Britain’s Contribution to ‘Winning the War against Germany’

As we have seen, even after the inactive period of the Phoney War (September 1939-May 1940), the eleven months that followed, - marked by a series of military disasters (Norway, France/Dunkirk, Greece, Crete) - clearly demonstrated that, even if given the political will, Britain could not alone have made any direct land attack on Germany. Indeed, it was not until Russia came into the war that, pressure on Britain relieved, its elite Conservatives gave up thoughts of ‘reaching a settlement with Hitler’ (their preferred option) and began to support a war effort. But there were, all round, limits placed on what that effort should be. Early after Dunkirk there was the urgent issue of air defence against German bombers. And once that was successfully overcome, defending the Home Islands against the strangulating effects of submarine warfare came top of the list – a struggle which continued to mid 1944. Indeed, it was a struggle which occupied much of Churchill’s war-time speeches. The next priority was defending Egypt (with its Suez Canal), India, and other colonial possessions not already swallowed up by Germany, Italy or Japan. Clearly, all these efforts were defensive. Not one threatened the defeat of Germany.

For all the reasons mentioned above, and notwithstanding all the talk of ‘Germany First’, there was no British intention to make a direct military territorial attack on Germany itself (even with America’s support) until late in that terrible five and a half-year war. In the meantime, the elected strategy was to undertake limited military campaigns that would engage relatively small numbers of German divisions; and to supplement that with an increasingly violent night area-bombing campaign on German cities (new and old) and their inhabitants.

Indeed, as indicated by Churchill to his War Cabinet in September, 1940, the air war was to be Britain’s prime contribution to ‘winning the war’ for as he said, “… the Navy can lose us the war, but only the Air Force can win it…. The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.” Thus, quoting again a passage from Churchill’s Memorandum to President Roosevelt dated December 16, 1941, this strategy was to attack “….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) Indeed, in further reviewing the war position in July 21, 1942, Churchill again emphasised this strategy in volume 3 of his Second World War history series. Here he writes: “In the days when we were fighting alone we answered the question, “How are you going to win the war” by saying, “We will shatter Germany by bombing.”, then going on to proclaim, “….that the severe, ruthless bombing of Germany on an ever-increasing scale will not only cripple her war effort, including U-boat and aircraft production, but will also create conditions intolerable to the mass of the German population.” ….. “We must regard the bomber offensive against Germany at least as a feature in breaking her war-will second only to the largest military operations which can be conducted on the Continent until that war-will is broken.” (see points 5 – 7 in WC4iii, 781-4 )

Thus, clearly for Britain, until the Cross-Channel Front in June, 1944 - almost five years into the war - that strategy was its prime effort directed towards ‘winning the war against Germany’. However, as documented below, while the RAF’s night area-bombing exceeded all expectations in the destruction of the buildings, men, women and children of these cities, it had no success in its stated objectives of reducing Germany’s arms production or its factory workers’ morale. Accordingly, (and leaving aside the issue of the immorality of ‘winning the war’ by bombing civilian men, women and children) that British Government/RAF strategy made no contribution whatever to winning or even shortening the war. And since some half of the RAF’s aircrew came from Britain’s Dominions, none of which was provided with any policy input on what occurred, it seems important to set straight the record on how these young people were so tragically involved. I begin with the background to that terrible entanglement for the young Australian and other Dominions’ aircrews.

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