The World at War

Australia's War
by Paul Langtry B.A. (ADFA)

To What extent did Australia decide its own war strategy and policy between September 1939 and February 1942 ?

We in Australia generally regard the Second World War as beginning on September the 3rd of September 1939. If we lived in China however we might see the war as beginning in 1931, in Czechslovakia in 1938, in Russia in May 1941 and in the United States on the 7th of December 1941. This last date has special significance for Australians also for it meant that Australia was no longer just at war, it was fighting against a direct threat to its sovereignity as a nation.

Initially it seems that not only did Australia fight against the Germans and Italians in the Middle East and the Japanese in the Far East, but against their allies for a right to have some influence in the strategy and policy of the Pacific War. As the war continued, this level of influence on the strategy and policy of the war dramatically declined

Only hours after Neville Chamberlain’s Declaration of War on Germany came Australia’s Prime Minister Robert Menzies promising the support of the Australian Commonwealth in the struggle against Hitler’s Germany. By January 1940 the first Australian troops had sailed for overseas and by mid February they had arrived in Palestine where they began training in earnest. In these the early stages of the war, there was no particular worry about home defence and Australians believed the 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force) would be deployed in exactly the same manner as the 1st AIF in World War 1: that is as Great Britain saw fit. As Menzies put it: “We shall be guided by the (British) ‘Chiefs of Staff in what theatre of war our troops are used”1 fortunately for Australia and the 2nd AIF, this attitude did not last for long. For many Britons, and in particular Winston Churchill, the belief that the Dominions would do exactly as they were told, was hard to shake.

When the Australian 6th Division had sufficient training it was committed to action in North Africa. The initial campaign against the Italians at Bardia and Benghazi was very succesful with over 100,000 Italians taken prisoner. The Australian and British troops at this time were operating against troops who were not considered of a high standard. The situation would change dramaticallly when Hitler committed General Rommel and German troops which in combination with the Italians made up the Africa Korps.2

In the meantime Winston Churchill was anxious to gain more victories over the axis forces. Churchill saw Greece as a place to open up a new campaign against the German’s who had recently joined the badly mauled Italians who had invaded Greece.

Churchill asked Menzies for the use of Australian troops in this venture. Menzies with some misgivings and with Arthur Shedden’s (head of the defence department) disapproval,3 approved the use of Australian troops in the campaign, although he had been unable to communicate with Lieutenant General Thomas Blamey the Australian Corps Commander at the time. The result was a fiasco with the loss of both the Greek mainland to the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg and subsequently the humiliation of defeat on the Island of Crete. The cost to Australia without taking in to account the wounded or the dead was 5000 prisoners of war. Strangely enough this was one of the few times at this stage of the war where the Australian government was consulted. Australia via the Prime Minister Menzies had been able to make the decision whether to commit or not commit troops to this campaign.

Another example of where Australia was able to decide the destiny of her own troops was during the siege of Tobruk. Australian soldiers of the 9th Division and one brigade of the 7th Division held out at Tobruk for 5 months against the opposition of Rommel and the Afrika Korps. The defence of Tobruk denied Rommel a safe port through which to resupply his forces. It slowed the Axis advance across North Africa and gave the commanders of the British Eighth Army the time to prepare their forces in the defence of Egypt. After five months of battle the mostly Australian garrision under Major General Leslie Moreshead was exhausted. It was only on the insistence of Blamey and Menzies however that Australians were finally relieved in late August 1941. Six months after their relief, Tobruk fell to the axis forces but such was the delay that the Eighth Army was able to hold off the Afrika Korps from entering Egypt4.

The Empire Air Training Scheme and the reinforcement of Singapore are two examples showing how difficult it was for Australia to have a say on strategy and war policy. The Empire Air Training Scheme or EATS was put forward early in the war as the only means whereby the RAF could be supplied with the pilots and aircrew to defend Britain. The British aircraft industry was able to produce the aircraft, but without EATS which was centred mainly in Canada and Australia, there would not be enough aircrew to fly the planes. Australia was initially behind the scheme wholeheartedly but the British, although happy to receive the aircrew, were loath to allow the Australians to serve in individual Australian squadrons under Australian commanders. Instead except for 5 squadrons or so, the Australians (and other empire aircrew) were allocated piecemeal to other squadrons. Australians officers often found it difficult to receive promotion, even over junior British officers5.

The debate over the reinforcement of Singapore is another example of Australia’s inability to act or dictate war policy. For many years before the war, Singapore Island had been declared by the British government as their major defence position in the Far East. Millions of pounds were spent on fortifications to the seaward side of the island and on port facilities for the ships of the Royal Navy. After 1939 as relations with Japan worsened and as war in the pacific loomed, the Australian Government began to urge the British Government to send a fleet of Royal Navy ships to Singapore to safeguard Australia. The British refused to be pushed. They needed their fleet to safeguard Britain and the Mediterranean. In the end Britain committed the Battleship “Prince of Wales” and the Battlecruiser “Repulse” in October 19416. It was too little too late and significantly there was no provision of either land based or naval aircraft to protect these captial ships. The war in the Pacific would revolve around airpower and although the British didn’t know it, both ships would learn this lesson as they sunk between the waves as the results of Japanese air attacks.

Australia had already committed the 8th division to the defence of Malaya and Singapore. Like the other AIF divisions, the 8th was sent from Australia mostly untrained and underequipped. The equipping and training of the troops was expected to take place in Malaya as the Australians acclimatised to the tropics. With the lightning fast advance of the Japanese down the Malayan peninsula in December 1941, and early 1942, the Australians played a major part in slowing their advance even though they had had little time for training. There was however a general breakdown among the remaining British forces in Malaya, who retreated back to Singapore. Here on the 15th February 1942, the impregnable fortress and the British defenders including the Australians were surrendered to the Japanese. Australia although having committed troops to the defence of Singapore, had had no say in their use. These men would go on to rot in Japanese prison camps or die of exhaustion and starvation on the Thailand-Burma Railroad.

It has been mentioned in other areas, the attitude of Winston Churchill to Dominion troops and the Dominions in particular. Following the surrender of the British troops in Malaya, the situation for Australia began to look grave. There only stood the poorly defended Netherlands East Indies and New Guinea between the advancing Japanese and the continent of Australia.

At the same time, the Japanese were also advancing from Thailand into Burma and were threatening Rangoon. Meanwhile the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions were on their way home to Australia from the Middle East. Churchill was however concerned about Burma in its role as buffer against a threat to India. On the 19th of February Churchill asked John Curtin Prime Minister of Australia to allow the 7th Division to be diverted to the defence of Burma. Curtin refused as he believed that these troops would be necessary for the defence of Australia. The next day Churchill repeated his request and he ordered the convoy to change course anyway. Two days later he told Curtin of his action and Curtin was horrified at the news and insisted that the convoy be returned to Australia. Churchill finally backed down. The incident shows how unimportant the feelings of the Australian Government were to the British. Had these been British Divisions sent to defend Australia, the outcome most certainly would have been different.

The period from September 1939 (the Beginning of World War 2 in Europe) until February 1942 (the fall of Singapore) is one of the most revolutionary in Australia’s history. The population of Australia at this time (about 7 million) precluded Australia from being a major ally in the war. Both Menzies and Curtin the Prime Minister’s of the time attempted to maintain the integrity of Australian forces in Europe and the Middle East. They managed to have a small effect upon policy, but only in regard to the employment of Australian troops. Their involvement was never a large one and with the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, Australia’s place in the decision making of the war would be further reduced.

by Paul Langtry

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