Australia had a dilemma at the start of World War Two. When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, Australia had to decide whether to use her military to support Britain in the European sphere of war or to keep her forces in the Far East in view of the worsening situation there with regards to Japanese expansion. Any movement of Australian troops to Britain (or to places such as Egypt) would weaken the strength of Australia’s military at home. Any serious Allied military defeat would also impact on the Australian military, which might be part of this defeat. The Australian government decided that any major Axis victory in Europe against the British would almost certainly be decisive and change the course of the war – therefore, the government decided that it would commit all its forces against the danger Germany posed in Europe.


Australian soldiers in Syria

Australia had anticipated Britain’s declaration of war against the Germans as early as August 1939. Heavy artillery units were mobilised and outlying military centres such as Port Moresby, received supplies of weapons and ammunition in case such a declaration stimulated further Japanese aggression.

The Australian Parliament was united on a declaration of war against the Axis powers. The only potential problem was the issue of conscription. During World War One, this had caused major political troubles. However, in World War Two, a compromise was reached. Parliament voted in November 1939 for conscription, but conscripts could only serve in Australia itself and neighbouring islands.

Britain requested military assistance from Australia within a week of declaring war on Germany. However, the army was short of both equipment and manpower. 20,000 men were assigned to the 6th Division. The man appointed to command it was Major-General Blamey. He was a man with a direct way of dealing with people and he took badly any criticism of his style of leadership. Blamey had his supporters in the army, but there were also many who had not supported his appointment.

In November 1939, the government announced that the 6th Division would be sent overseas when their training had reached a certain standard of proficiency. Training abroad in terrain more European or North African would follow so that the 6th Division would hone their skills in a similar environment to one they would be fighting in. When Britain announced that they were concerned for the safety of the Suez Canal, it seemed logical that the 6th Division should be sent to Egypt to act as a deterrent to Italy. From Egypt, they could transfer to France it required. The first troops left for what was then Palestine in January 1940 and over the next few months more brigades from the 6th Division followed. The rapid collapse of France in the spring of 1940 ensured that the 6th Division would not be transferring to Europe.

The European situation also led to the Australian government forming three new divisions (the 7th, 8th and 9th Divisions). The entry of Italy into the war, and the increased threat to the Mediterranean area, and Germany’s supremacy in northern Europe, meant that Australia faced a massive task simply getting its new fighting force properly trained. Many in Australia simply assumed that the Australians would soon be involved in fighting major battles.

Away from the army, men in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fought in the Battle of Britain as part of the RAF. Men from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) gained operational experience with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, the Australian government started to re-focus on Australia itself. Many politicians rightly believed that the Axis victory in Europe would stimulate further Japanese aggression in the Far East and that Australia itself might be threatened. With so many of its army abroad, many felt that this would also stimulate Japanese aggression. A joint-approach was made to America by Britain and Australia for the US to send a fleet to the British naval base at Singapore. It was hoped that such a gesture would make it clear to the Japanese that any action by them would be met with an aggressive reaction. No such naval force was sent to Singapore.

Another idea to stop Japanese aggression was to greatly increase the military power the Australians had in Malaya. This would require troops from the 6th Division to be removed from the Middle East and sent to the Far East. However, at this time, Italy was expanding aggressively in the Mediterranean region and all the men from the 6th Division were needed where they were based. In August 1940, the Australian government received an assurance from Winston Churchill that any threat to Australia or New Zealand would result in the Mediterranean Fleet being sent to the Far East immediately.

The declining situation in the Far East led to a meeting in October 1940 of military representatives from Australia, Burma, India and New Zealand. They met in Singapore. They all agreed that the defence of Malaya was vital if any Japanese aggression was to be halted. The Australians wanted the Indian Army to take the responsibility for defending Malaya while the Australians would provide a naval force for the region. It became obvious to many that Singapore had the potential to be an Achilles heel for the Allies. It would be an obvious target for the Japanese but its power had been built around the navy and not land and air defences. In late 1940, its vulnerability to a land attack was a major fear for many, even if few thought that the Japanese could come down the Malayan Peninsula. In December 1940, an Australian brigade was sent to Malaya. The plan was that an Indian brigade should replace it in May 1941.

The Australian 6th Division saw action in the deserts of North Africa from December 1940 on. They also fought in the Greek campaign and their stand at Thermopylae allowed a relatively successful Allied evacuation to take place. The Australian 7th Division successfully occupied Vichy Syria.

“Thus Australia’s expeditionary force to the Middle East had been of incalculable value in saving the Middle East from Axis domination during the first six months of 1941.Robert O’Neill

Throughout March 1941 Australian intelligence intercepted cables sent by the Japanese government to Japanese firms based in Australia. These recommended that as many personnel as possible should be sent back to Japan. These cables convinced many in the Australian government that an attack in the Far East was imminent. There was a general concern that too much of Australia’s military was based too far away to defend Australia. Clashes also occurred with senior British commanders in Singapore. Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, c-in-c in the Far East, claimed that talk of Singapore’s downfall was “defeatist”. Even Churchill referred to Singapore as a fortress – much to the concern of military figures in Australia who held the opposite viewpoint. To complicate matters more, America stated that though the loss of Singapore would be unfortunate, it would not be a vital loss.

It was in 1941, that relations between Canberra and London became strained. In particular, the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, believed that Churchill was fully focused on Europe and not what was happening in the Far East. On June 10th, 1941, Menzies reported to his government after meeting with Churchill:

“Mr. Churchill had no conception of the British Dominions as separate entities and the more distant the problem from the heart of the Empire the less he thought about it.”

However, it was Menzies who was a casualty from this. The Australian press had turned against him and so had many in his own party, the United Australia Party. The charge against him was that he had not been as robust against Churchill as Australia needed him to be for their own security. In August 1941 he resigned. Between August and October 1941, Australia was governed by Fadden’s County Party. But in October, the Australian Labour Party took over government led by John Curtin.

From October onwards, Australia prepared for a Japanese sweep south in the Far East. In August 1939, the Labour Party had opposed conscription. Now, Curtin argued that it geographical limits should be increased to include New Guinea and the South-West Pacific. It was decided that the most important part of Australia, a zone around Sydney which included major industrial plants, should be the most defended area. As the militia of Australia only consisted of 5 infantry and 2 cavalry divisions, only a very small area of the country could be covered. Areas outside of this zone were angered that they were being seemingly sacrificed to the Japanese military machine. Though the zone was expanded to the so-called ‘Brisbane Line’, the feeling remained that the government was too concerned with New South Wales at the expense of the rest of the country.

When the attack on Pearl Harbour (December 1941) brought general war to the Far East, few could have anticipated the success the Japanese military would have. Within 5 months, northern Australia was threatened as the Dutch East Indies fell. Darwin in particular was under threat.

America wanted to use Australia as a base for its troops and an agreement was reached on this in December 1941. 4,500 American troops arrived in Australia on December 22nd and in February 1942, the US 41st Division was ordered to Australia along with 38,000 support troops. Most had arrived by May 1942. Here a clear difference was appearing – many realised that Britain was not in a position to help Australia but America not only promised help but backed up that promise with men and equipment. When the Australian General Bennett arrived in Darwin after his escape from Singapore, he received a less than cordial greeting. When Douglas MacArthur arrived in Darwin after his escape from the Philippines, his reception was a lot more positive. Curtin suggested that MacArthur be made Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces , South-West Pacific Area – a suggestion that was taken up.

By mid-1942, Australia was in a much better position to defend itself against the Japanese onslaught. There were 38,000 American troops in Australia, the Australian Imperial Force numbered 104,000 as the 6th and 7th Divisions had returned from the Middle East, and there were 265,000 men in the militia. All land forces were placed under the command of General Blamey.