Australia’s hopelessness to resist invasion,
as viewed by US defence officials
In the grim, worrying days of early 1942, when the Japanese armed forces seemed invincible in their thrust southwards, General MacArthur’s defence chiefs thought Australia would be forced to abandon the country’s north, according to 1942, Australia’s greatest peril.
The Australians would be virtually compelled to yield the northern Australia to the Japanese should they attempt an invasion, MacArthur’s men wrote in a secret report now in US archives Australia’s lack of preparedness for war close to home was starkly evident. Australia’s Lieutenant General Sir Iven Mackay, commander-in-chief, Home Forces, even before Japan entered the war, found Australia:
“…virtually naked, militarily … because all I can see is more than 12,000 miles of Australian coastline, and so little wherewithal for defending the points that really matter.”
After participating in more than two hard years of war far from Australia, the nation’s scant armed forces at home were shockingly unprepared to meet the sudden Japanese threat after Malaya, Pearl Harbor and the other landings. In Australia, inexperienced Australian soldiers were drilling with broomsticks as the Army rushed to recondition First World War rifles.
The majority of experienced Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen were overseas helping to defend British interests, leaving the forces in Australia significantly depleted. Australia’s battle experienced AIF divisions were still in the Middle East. Two brigades were in Singapore and Malaya.
Simply, Australia itself had not been the first defence priority. Incredulous diplomats at the American Embassy in Canberra had long witnessed Australia’s lopsided priorities with mounting alarm. The traditional thinking in Australia was that the dominion fought Britain’s wars on the expectation that if threatened, Australia would be defended by the ‘motherland’. Suddenly, that thinking was about to be overturned.
Labor’s John Curtin had been prime minister just over two months and was desperate to sound the alarm and wake-up Australians to the imminent threat. He took the opportunity at a war savings bonds lunch in Melbourne on 11 December:
“Today the war rages in Australian waters; the enemy is seeking the earliest possible hour in which he can set foot on our soil.”
Soon, as the Japanese were sowing mines off Darwin, Prime Minister Curtin in Melbourne turned to defence chiefs in Australia, calling for their immediate assessment of the danger of invasion in force. The chiefs presented their report on 16 January 1942.
Churchill: ‘I do not understand … this mood of panic’
In the meantime, Winston Churchill, in response to John Curtin’s urgent calls for British assistance to block a Japanese invasion, cabled back, in party:
“I do not understand the reason for this mood of panic which I am sure is not shared by the people of Australia.”
The defence chiefs’ review was hardly the expression of insular and ‘jumpy’ Australian politicians and services chiefs, as Churchill inferred of Curtin and senior officers in Australia. In fact, two of the three forces chiefs - the chief of the Air Staff, C.E. Burnett and the chief of the Naval Staff, G.C.C. Royle - were senior British officers on secondment. The Army’s chief, Australian General Vernon Sturdee, was in agreement with his two British colleagues about the dire Japanese threat. Their assessment was at odds with the opinions of Churchill, who did not think Australia would be invaded in force.
Hong Kong had fallen, the Philippines were a wasting asset, and the enemy was within 150 miles of Singapore and had made landings in British and Dutch Borneo and the Celebes, the report said. A direct move towards Australia from the Japanese bases “grows more probable”, Curtin was told by his defence chiefs. This was likely to take the form of a progressive southward move securing New Guinea, New Hebrides and New Caledonia as advanced bases.
A major attack could be launched on Australia from these advanced bases ‘if and when the strategic situation in the area of Malaya and Netherlands East Indies is judged to be suitable’:
“We therefore consider that the danger of invasion in force will remain until we have clearly stabilised our front along the Malay barrier or until we have secured supremacy over the Japanese fleet.”
‘Beyond our capacity’ to meet Japanese invasion
The so-called Malay barrier comprised the land masses stretching down from Malaya, Sumatra, Java, and the islands to the tip of Cape York Peninsula. In reality, it was effective no barrier. The defence chiefs, considering the length of the Australian coastline, added almost despairingly:
“Should Japan secure complete freedom of the seas, the only limit to the forces she could employ against us would be that imposed by the amount of shipping available to her. It is clearly beyond our capacity to meet an attack of the weight that the Japanese could launch.”
Japan soon proved that it had secured freedom of the seas en route to Australia. The defence chiefs were at a loss as to how they could defend mainland Australia against a Japanese attack and could only hope that the Imperial Navy would be kept at bay by the remainder of the US Pacific fleet that had not been put out of action at Pearl Harbor.
Most of the ground forces in Australia at this time were untrained citizen’s militia. The front line RAAF strength was 65 Hudson bombers, an assortment of flying boats and 98 Australian Wirraways, useless against the modern Japanese Zero fighter.
A senior American officer also was wondering whether Australia could be held. Brigadier General Leonard T. Gerow, assistant chief of staff of the war department in Washington began his own assessment on 17 January with the unsettling words:
“…it is not practicable to state how long Australia will remain in friendly hands.”
Gerow didn’t think the Japanese would try to conquer all of Australia, but acknowledged that the enemy could occupy portions of the country, bomb any cities with carrier-based aircraft and, if they seized New Guinea and New Caledonia; bomb northern Australia with long-range bombers.
On 4 February General Mackay wrote to Army minister Frank Forde seeking the government’s agreement as to which portions of Australia could be considered vital to hold in the event of an attempted invasion. The plan would be highly controversial:
“In reality most of the Australian coast and many important towns must be left without troops, whilst other troops are likely to be withdrawn from dispositions in which they are now temporarily placed.”
Mackay stressed the importance of holding the Port Kembla-Sydney-Newcastle industrial region as well as Brisbane, because of the decision to develop Brisbane as an important base for US forces. He also recognised the importance of holding Melbourne, because of its military importance. Mackay’s assessment would be the start of acrimonious political debate to be known as ‘The Brisbane Line’, a term Mackay would say he never used.
“It may be necessary to submit to the occupation of certain areas of Australia by the enemy should local resistance be overcome, and I remind the government that it may be necessary to accept such a possibility.”
Darwin was heavily bombed by carrier based aircraft on February 19. Six days after the Darwin attack, Curtin issued a bitter statement which began: “What is wrong with this country at the moment is a lack of realisation of the danger that confronts us.” He went on to set the public mind straight on the immediate threat:
"Every man and woman in Australia today has to realize that this country is in imminent peril and that a degree of self-discipline is exacted by the grim facts that confront us.”
Australia low on US priorities
At this time, the US Army was strongly considering a much reduced role in the Australian region. The US Army had diverted, or was in the process of diverting, two infantry divisions, anti-aircraft battalions, one tank battalion and other support battalions to Australia in late February 1942. These US forces, together with Australia’s own available forces, could not possibly have held out against anything like the force the Japanese would have been obliged to use to capture parts of Australia.
The security of Australia had just been listed as very low on a secret US army inventory of strategic priorities - in fact behind seven other priorities, beginning with maintaining Britain, keeping Russia in the war as an enemy of Germany and maintaining the situation in India, the Middle East and China.
In the appraisal to the US army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, the assistant chief of staff Brigadier General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would become president, said “the situation involving Australia had changed” for America because Japan now controlled ample sources of oil and tin and practically all the rubber resources of the world:
“Thus, reasons for expanding our forces into the Far Southwest Pacific, are, in this respect, less compelling than they were two months ago.”
In early March 1942, the commander of US forces in Australia, General George H. Brett, who was about to become, briefly, General MacArthur’s deputy, prepared an estimation of Australia’s grim position in conjunction with Australia’s three defence chiefs, Burnett, Royle and Sturdee. Brett and Australia’s senior officers said their best forecast was that Japanese attacks may occur on Darwin in early April, Port Moresby in the middle of March, New Caledonia in the middle of April and on the east coast of Australia in May:
“We visualise that, should New Caledonia be occupied, the next step of the Japanese might well be to attack the east coast of Australia.”
The officers said that with the expected fall of Java, Japan could reinforce her attacks on Australia. Rather than mere raids, the chiefs were actually talking about Japanese troops landing at points in Australia and the islands. They said, for example, a minimum Japanese force of one division would be sufficient to secure Darwin.
Australian defence chiefs at this stage had just about given away the idea of holding Darwin, which they expected to be invaded by the Japanese at any time. In early March the defence chiefs had made dire predictions about a Japanese invasion of Australia and Curtin forwarded the appreciation to the Australian minister in London, Sir Earle Page, on 12 March, for discussion with British chiefs.
Perhaps no other archival documents points to the hopelessness of the Australian situation at the time and how vulnerable the nation was if the Japanese had decided to move further southward.
Attempt to occupy Darwin & Broome ‘not unlikely’
The defence chiefs noted that with Malaya and Singapore gone, the Japanese invading Burma, occupying Borneo, the Celebes, Sumatra, Ambon and Timor and Java being overrun, “an attempt to occupy Darwin and Broome “is not unlikely.”
Further, Port Moresby, New Caledonia and Fiji were immediately threatened.
“Australia and New Zealand are therefore in danger of attack. This loss would mean the loss of the only bases for offensive action by the Allied Nations against the Japanese from the south east.”
Curtin relayed to London and Washington his defence chiefs’ plea that the minimum forces needed to defend Darwin were at least three carriers and their aircraft escorted by cruisers, destroyers and submarines, an additional army division and 10 squadrons of planes, mostly fighters and bombers. The chiefs also thought the east coast of Australia was vulnerable:
“It is likely that Moresby and New Caledonia will be occupied by the enemy before an invasion of the East Coast [of Australia] is attempted. Such an attempt may be made in May if the attacks on Moresby and New Caledonia are successful…”
The chiefs said the area of Australia vital for continuing the war effort was generally between Brisbane and Melbourne. But the Japanese, with air and sea superiority, could now attack from a number of quarters. They worried that Fremantle could be captured in an invasion launched from the former Netherlands East Indies [now Indonesia].
Australia’s position in March 1942 appeared hopeless to the three service chiefs:
“Until such time as adequate naval and air forces are available, it is estimated that it would require a minimum of 25 divisions to defend Australia against the scale of attack that is possible.”
In a review of Australia’s plight soon after the start of the war with Japan, conducted by General MacArthur’s general staff in Tokyo in 1945, the Americans agreed with the hopelessness of the Australian position in 1942:
“…by the middle of March the Japanese were approaching the doorstep of Australia. Darwin … had already been severely bombed. Townsville had also been subjected to air raids. With each passing day, the Japanese were forging new links in their chain of encirclement and preparing new strikes against Australia and her life line to the outside world.”
On 27 March, Curtin announced that General Thomas Blamey had been appointed commander-in-chief of Allied Land Forces under MacArthur. Blamey that day privately told Curtin the Japanese attack on Australia would come via the west – Fremantle and Albany.
So this was how Australia found herself in April of 1942. The Australian chiefs with the concurrence of the American commander in Australia under the heading “Forces Available for the Defence of Darwin” inserted the grim, solitary line: “No Naval forces are available at present.” They noted that Army forces consisted of about two thirds of one division of largely untrained and inexperienced men, while the air force defence of Darwin was two under-strength squadrons of lumbering Hudson bombers, one squadron of shockingly inadequate Wirraways and training aircraft.
Yielding Australia’s north
So serious was the position in April 1942 that General MacArthur’s senior staffers believed that the Australian military forces were prepared to abandon much of Australia’s north to the Japanese if necessary, reporting:
“The Australian Chiefs of Staff would be virtually compelled to yield the northern part of the continent to the Japanese should they attempt an invasion.”
In a report prepared in Tokyo soon after the surrender, officers from MacArthur’s general staff said the Australians would have made their defence against the Japanese at Brisbane. Defence by major units north of Townsville was not even contemplated and sufficient forces to secure Fremantle in the west and Darwin in the north against determined enemy assault simply were not available.
The American report was very close to the truth. Minimal or no reinforcements were planned for the more remote outposts, which were expected to fight to the last should the Japanese land. Withdrawal of forces was considered to be bad for morale.
With his accumulated ominous expert defence opinion, Curtin immediately sent the latest forecast from General Brett and the Australian chiefs to his foreign minister Evatt in Washington for dissemination to President Roosevelt with a copy to Prime Minister Churchill.
Curtin told the Advisory War Council on 8 April that General Douglas MacArthur, the new supreme commander for the south west Pacific, ‘was in entire agreement’ with the defence appreciation by General Brett and the Australian chiefs.
President Roosevelt eventually was convinced that saving Australia was essential in the coming offensive against Japan and, in time, U.S. personnel and arms began to build in Australia until the nation was considered safe from Japanese invasion. But there were many months of imminent danger to Australia.
(Edited detail from 1942, by Bob Wurth.)
British plan to ditch Darwin?
Was Churchill preparing to abandon the north if ‘limited’ Japanese invasion?
1942, Australia’s greatest peril raises the spectre of Britain abandoning northern Australia in 1942 had Japanese forces captured points in the north. In a war of words by cable from late 1941, Winston Churchill and John Curtin disagreed from the start about the level of the invasion threat to Australia.
On 27 January 1942 the British prime minister had told the House of Commons that he was sure everyone sympathised with “our kith and kin in Australia now that the shield of British and American sea power has, for the time being, been withdrawn so unexpectedly and so tragically”.
Churchill said hostile bombers might soon be within range of Australian shores. But he thought the Japanese were likely to occupy themselves securing the rich prizes of the Philippines, Dutch East Indies and the Malay Archipelago:
“I think they are much more likely to be arranging themselves in those districts which they have taken or are likely to take than to undertake a serious mass invasion of Australia. That would seem to be a very ambitious overseas operation for Japan to undertake….”
The British Prime Minister was counting on Japanese logic, which was in short supply at the time. Churchill’s qualification of a ‘serious mass invasion’ should be noted because at this very time his own intelligence chiefs were suggesting that a limited invasion of Australia, namely at Darwin, was a distinct possibility:
“Japanese plans at this stage not thought to embrace major attack on Australia and New Zealand as distinct from raids as set out above. Only exception is attempt to occupy Darwin.”
It was Churchill’s use of strong qualifying words like ‘heavily invaded’ and ‘localised attacks in the north’ that had ominous implications for the future of Darwin and the north in 1942. The British prime minister didn’t say it, but he might well have regarded the capture of Darwin and other northern Australian outposts, expected by many defence experts, as ‘localised attacks’ which could not be helped and therefore would not be re-enforced, so long as major populated southern manufacturing capitals remained safe a long distance away.
Curtin and MacArthur were keen to take the offensive against the Japanese, but London and Washington had higher priorities with their ‘beat Hitler first’ strategy. Churchill at this time was insisting that the Japanese probably were not planning to invade Australia in force. He thought there was a grave risk in over committing forces and weapons to Australia which would prejudice the build up of adequate forces in the Middle East and India.
British intelligence predicts taking of Darwin
Britain’s joint intelligence committee in reports in late January and early February 1942 expected a Japanese raid on Darwin or a landing to capture the northern port, even before the battle in Malaya was over:
“Before attempting any major operation against Australia and New Zealand, Japanese likely to attempt capture of Darwin, denying to us only possible bases in Northern Australia.”
While the chiefs of Britain’s three armed services tended to agree with their prime minister that there would be no mass invasion to take all of Australia, they were much more circumspect than Churchill on the crucial issue affecting Australia’s very survival, according to 1942, Australia’s greatest peril. They made an assessment on the defence of Australia in light the assessment of 12 March by Australia’s defence chiefs, which was forwarded to London by Curtin.
As a result the words of the British chiefs were far more qualified than Churchill’s confident assessments and spoke directly of the likelihood of a Japanese invasion of parts of Australia. The three British chiefs were the first sea lord Sir Dudley Pound, air chief marshal Charles Portal and chief of the General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke.
The British defence chiefs in fact thought Japan might capture one or two key Australian cities, mentioning Darwin and Fremantle, but would not attempt to take over the whole Australian continent which they described as ‘a genuine invasion’.
“It seems clear that Japan intends to capture Port Moresby and probably Darwin also”, the most senior British officers wrote unequivocally in their appreciation which was read by Curtin in Canberra on 4 April.
In saying this, the British defence chiefs were agreeing with their Australian counterparts and with Curtin’s assessment of likely Japanese action. The chiefs said there were four major operations which Japan might consider or face; invasion of India, invasion of the Pacific islands, invasion of Australia or war with Russia.
They said ‘a genuine invasion of Australia’ - that is, capturing the whole Australian continent - did not form part of present Japanese plans. The British defence chiefs thought Japan probably could consolidate her Asiatic co-prosperity sphere more easily and cheaply by placing herself astride the eastern and western reinforcement routes to Australia than by taking ‘the whole of Australia’, adding:
“This could subsequently be achieved by occupation of Samoa, Fiji and Caledonia on the one hand, and Fremantle on the other. Admittedly this would not isolate Australia, but we think that it would suffice for Japan’s purpose.”
The chiefs thought that invading parts of Western Australia would be safer for Japan than any objective on the east coast of Australia:
“For these reasons we consider the defence of Fremantle just as urgent a commitment as the defence of eastern Australia, although the area is intrinsically less important … We estimate that the scale of the attack might be two to three divisions.”
None of these were reassuring words from the British chiefs Pound, Portal and Brooke for the Australian Prime Minister, who also happened to be the local member for Fremantle.
Britain’s joint intelligence committee at this time was expecting a Japanese raid on Darwin or a landing to capture the vital northern port. British intelligence chiefs assessed the military threat to Australia as primarily one of raids, ranging from attacks by midget submarines up to carrier raids on major ports, notably Darwin.
They thought that for Japan to invade Australia would require Russian neutrality, the capture of Singapore, Java, Sumatra, the Philippines and control of New Guinea, New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. But even then, the British defence chiefs said, Japan would need control of the sea. Many of these factors at the time were quite feasible and some were rapidly becoming a reality.
In Washington, American intelligence chiefs sitting as the Combined Staff Planners considered the British assessments and generally agreed that “a major invasion” or Australia or New Zealand was unlikely. However, the Americans on 13 February added the following caution referring to the “barrier” of Burma-Malaya-Netherlands East Indies and Japanese mandated islands:
“From the barrier, without undertaking a major offensive operation, Japan could deny the use of the Torres Strait by neutralising or occupying key points on the north coast of Australia.”
Churchill never mentioned this Darwin invasion scenario from his own intelligence chiefs in his ongoing dismissive and disdainful responses to Curtin’s fears.
Indeed Churchill would write to his chiefs of staff telling them in no uncertain terms of his views about a possible wholesale invasion of Australia. An example of Churchill’s pressure on his chiefs to see his view and perhaps downplay Australia’s potential plight came the following month when he wrote:
“On this lay-out of Japanese forces it seems very unlikely that an immediate full-scale invasion of Australia could take place. You are now making an appreciation for Australia of her position, and this disposition of Japanese forces might well be the starting-point.”
Curtin feared ‘too little, too late’
Churchill gave John Curtin an assurance on 30 March and again on 1 April 1942 that Britain would support Australia in the event of an invasion ‘in force’. Churchill promised Curtin the assistance of the 2nd British Infantry Division which was rounding the Cape of Good Hope en route to the Far East in late April or early May:
“If, by that time, Australia is being heavily invaded, I should certainly divert it to your aid. This would not apply in the case of localised attacks in the north or mere raids elsewhere. But I wish to let you know that you could count on this help should invasion by, say, eight or ten Japanese divisions occur.”
Curtin was unimpressed with Churchill’s offer, which he thought would prove to ‘too little, too late’. As it was, there were several delays in those troops ‘rounding the Cape’.
Australia had made a major contribution to Britain in the First World War, suffering very significant casualties. As a result the Curtin Government expected Britain to come to Australia’s aid if invaded.
The book 1942 suggests that with Churchill’s references to ‘invasion in force’, ‘full-scale invasion’ and other qualifications, the British assessment raises the possibility that Churchill might have been preparing to abandon Darwin if invaded, given its distance from Australia’s key industrial cities, the difficulties of its defence in a remote region of the continent and Britain’s greater interests elsewhere.
In hindsight, Churchill was right in that no invasion would occur. But ambitious as it seemed then, the Japanese indeed were seriously considering landing on Australian soil.
From the time of the first Australian defence assessments on the invasion threat from Japan, Churchill, having gone through the Battle of Britain, thought Curtin and his defence chiefs were ill-advised and panicky about invasion.
As Bob Wurth writes in his book, in early 1942, with Churchill’s references to ‘invasion in force’, ‘full-scale invasion’ and other qualifications, his assessment raises the spectre of a British leader who might have been preparing to abandon Darwin temporarily, if it was invaded, given its distance from Australia’s key industrial cities, the difficulties of its defence, and Britain’s interests elsewhere.
Churchill, it is argued in 1942, appears not to have equated the potential loss of remote Darwin with the loss of the whole Australian continent. The book examines the distinct possibility that Churchill believed that a Japanese-controlled Darwin might not have been preventable in early 1942, but that Darwin could be retaken later when the Allies regained control of the Pacific.
John Curtin did not live to see the surrender of Japan. After illnesses that plagued him as Prime Minister, he died on 5 July 1945 aged 60.
The Allied chief General Douglas MacArthur had no doubts that the loss of Port Moresby via the Japanese on the Kokoda trail would have meant the loss of Australia, writing in his memoirs:
“… I decided to abandon the [Australian defensive] plan completely, to move the thousand miles forward into eastern Papua, and to stop the Japanese on the rough mountains of the Owen Stanley Range of New Guinea – to make the fight for Australia beyond its own borders. If successful, this would save Australia from invasion and give me an opportunity to pass from defense to offense, to seize the initiative, move forward, and attack.”
Curtin had felt the same about the battle for the Kokoda trail, telling newsmen in a long private briefing on 21 September, 1942:
“We are not defending New Guinea of course, we are defending Australia.”
General MacArthur and Prime Minister John Curtin arrive at Parliament House Canberra in 1942.
Prime Ministers John Curtin and Winston Churchill, London, during the war.
Curtin making a wartime speech with Opposition Leader Arthur Fadden, far right.
Japanese troops take Singapore in 1942.
Ship's company aboard the Japanese flagship, the battleship Nagato.