Chapter 2: Australia’s Problem
Australia’s response to the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 was first to await indications of what Japan’s policy would be; and when Japan soon declared that she would not join Germany, to prepare to send expeditionary forces to Britain’s aid, as she had done in 1914.
At that time, however, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance had made it relatively safe for Australia to employ her forces in this way. Now Japan was a potential enemy. In this new situation it might not have been surprising had the Australian Government decided to build up forces as defensive reserves on her own soil and in her northern island territories, and to send any she felt she could spare to Malaya, where they would constitute a further safeguard to Australia and might relieve British forces for employment elsewhere. A tradition had been established in previous wars, however, of sending Australian forces to battlefields in which Britain’s forces were in action, rather than of employing them in a garrison role. In the event it was upon building up formations for use in the Middle East and Western Europe that Australia’s main military energies were concentrated on this occasion also. This left her own safety bound up with such protection as British forces in Asia might be able to give, and the fact that America, although she remained nominally neutral, might be considered to have replaced Japan as Britain’s partner in the Pacific.
In the eight months after the declaration of war Australia raised a corps including the 6th and 7th Division’s; most of the 6th Division had sailed from Australia; a large part of the Australian Navy had gone to overseas stations, and an air contingent, the nucleus of a larger force to come, was established in England.
It was the policy of the United Kingdom and of Australia to avoid war with Japan. As a means to this end Britain, in October 1939, withdrew her gunboats – twenty in all – from the Yangtse Kiang and the West River and at length decided to withdraw three infantry battalions that had been stationed at Shanghai and Tientsin. On the other hand, in August, she had added some strength to the garrison of Singapore, which then contained only six battalions – three British, two Indian and one Malay – by sending there one of three brigade groups which were held ready by the Indian Army for overseas service. The air force at Singapore comprised five poorly-equipped squadrons, to which a sixth was added on 22nd September 1939.
The commanders of the military and air garrisons at Singapore asked London for reinforcements, but were told that none could be sent. The Overseas Defence Committee, on which sat representatives of the Colonial Office, the three Services, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Home Defence, and the ubiquitous Treasury, recommended that the General
Officer Commanding in Malaya, Lieut-General Bond,1 should increase his strength by improving the efficiency of the Volunteers, a local force whose British establishment was 2,370, including some 300 officers. This volunteer force included four battalions of the Federated Malay States Volunteers. About one-third of the personnel were Europeans and the remainder Malays and Chinese.
Malaya produced 38 per cent of the world’s rubber and 58 per cent of the world’s tin; 70 per cent of her exports were sold to the United States. The British Government, in need of dollars, intimated to the Malayan Government that first priority should be given to dollar-earning. The mobilisation and expansion of the Volunteers would take experienced managers and technicians from the rubber plantations and the tin mines; therefore the Volunteers were not mobilised.2 At the end of September 1939 the Chiefs of Staff in London increased to 180 days their estimate of the time the garrison of Singapore would have to hold out before relief could come.
So matters stood in Malaya, when, in May and June 1940, Germany’s defeat of France and Holland offered Japan the glittering chance her expansionists had sought to carry into effect in the Pacific, and through East Asia, the ambitions which underlay her actions in Manchuria and China.
Australian attention, however, still remained focused chiefly upon the struggle in Europe rather than upon defence against Japan. A contingent of Australian and New Zealand troops, diverted while on the way to Egypt, landed in the British Isles on 16th June; and it was expected that the 7th Division, then in training, would soon join the main body of the 6th Division in the Middle East. “As long as Great Britain is unconquered, the world can be saved,” declared the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Menzies.
The crisis leading up to and succeeding the fall of France brought a rush of recruits to the AIF. This raised the number of enlistments for the 7th Division from 15,196 on 30th May to 54,897 on the 27th June. Thus ample manpower became available not only to complete the 7th, but also to form an 8th Division which the Australian War Cabinet had authorised on 22nd May. Many of those who now enlisted did so with the words of the British Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, ringing in their ears: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say ‘This was their finest hour’.”
Nevertheless, the Australian War Cabinet had considered on 12th June an agendum which referred to the possibility of “recurrence of danger of aggression in the Pacific, which would certainly be accompanied by grave
interference with our seaborne trade” and the “need for instant action in a number of ways to ensure that Australia will be able to continue the fight, or at least to exist”. Underlying the question of what measures were to be taken was “whether or not we should continue to rely on the pre-war undertaking that a British squadron of capital ships would proceed to Singapore immediately on hostile action in the Pacific”.3
A cable was dispatched to the British Government4 asking as a matter “of the greatest possible urgency” for information covering the probable alternatives with which the Empire might be confronted, to enable Australia to review her policy on local defence and Empire cooperation, and to decide on the measures necessary to give effect to it. At the same time, further assistance which it might be possible for Australia to give was outlined. This included making available, in addition to a squadron of Hudson bombers (which it had been decided at the end of May to send to Singapore to replace a Royal Air Force Blenheim squadron) a further squadron of Hudsons, and one equipped with Australian-made Wirraways, an aircraft used mainly for training.
When the War Cabinet met on 18th June, France had asked Germany for peace terms, and a newspaper report had stated that these would include allotment to Japan of the New Hebrides and New Caledonia. The Cabinet considered the possibility of a Japanese invasion of Australia, and whether Darwin and Port Moresby should be reinforced. The Chief of the Naval Staff (Admiral Colvin5) advised the Ministers that defence of the northern part of Australia hinged on whether or not a battle fleet was based on Singapore; without it, the situation became radically changed. The Chief of the General Staff (General White6) pointed to the possibility that, by successful attack on British naval forces and bases, Japan could bring Australia to terms by the exercise of sea power alone, and would not need to invade her soil. By the end of the month certain passenger ships had been requisitioned, and were being fitted to carry 900 and 500 troops to reinforce the small garrisons at Darwin and Port Moresby respectively.
Japan had ardently pursued opportunity as the crisis heightened in Europe. On 15th April, within a few days of the invasion of Norway by German forces, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mr Hachiro Arita, had spoken of an “intimate relationship” between Japan and the South Seas region, especially the East Indies. Early in June, he said “our concern
is not confined to the maintenance of the political status quo. Because of their resources ... it is only natural that this country should be seriously concerned about the economic status of the Netherlands East Indies.” By this time, Holland had been overrun by German forces. Into whose hands might the East Indies, with their enormous riches, fall? Japan was intent on staking her claim, for the prospect fitted admirably into the process of swinging away from economic dependence upon the sterling and United States dollar areas, and towards those in Eastern Asia where she hoped to build up an economic bloc under her leadership – or, as her expansionists termed it, a “CO-prosperity Sphere of Greater East Asia”. This conception of becoming a “master race” was common to the utterances of German and Japanese leaders.
Japan turned her attention also to the routes of supply to China, some of which after three years of undeclared warfare Japan had been unable to block. If these could be sealed, Chinese resistance might be weakened, or might collapse, freeing Japanese forces for other tasks. The most important of the routes still open commenced at the Tonkinese port of Haiphong, passed through Hanoi, capital of Tonkin, north-eastern Indo-China, and then divided practically at a right-angle. One branch went to Lungchow, in the Chinese province of Kwangsi, where it connected with a road to Nanning; then forked north-east to Hunan and Kiangsi, and north-west to Kweichow and Szechwan. Another was from Haiphong over a metre-gauge, single-line railway track, traversing steeply mountainous country, to Kunming, terminus of the line; thence by road to Chungking, whither the Chinese Government had retreated.
Supply through Burma was from Rangoon via Lashio, and to a smaller extent, from Bhamo, a port on the Irrawaddy River. These Burmese routes joined some distance past the Chinese border, and the Burma Road then threaded through the great gorges of the Salween and Mekong Rivers, and clambered over towering mountain ranges, also reaching Chungking through Kunming.7 The “North-West Road”, which was the main route from Russia, was served by the Turkistan-Siberian railway at Sergiopol. Running south-east, it crossed the border of Sinkiang, China’s westernmost province, and joined the ancient caravan route known as the Old Silk Road, to Lanchow. Thence supplies went to Chungking and other parts of China. Another route, of minor importance, left the Trans-Siberian railway near Lake Baikal, and crossed Outer Mongolia.
The French Government, in the face of impending disaster, agreed under Japanese pressure to prohibit transport of motor vehicles, petrol, and many other classes of supplies through Indo-China, and to admit Japanese military inspectors to see that the undertaking was observed. Then the Japanese Government sought from Britain action to prevent war material reaching Chungking via Burma, and through Hong Kong. The Japanese Minister for War, General Shunroka Hata, stated plainly that Japan should take advantage of the European situation to use
drastic measures against any power trying to obstruct the execution of “Japan’s national policy”.
“Time pressed if they were to snatch for themselves in the South Pacific the spoils which might otherwise fall to a victorious Germany. Now, cried the expansionists, was the great moment in Japanese history. How were they to face their ancestors should this supreme opportunity be missed?”8 Before the end of June, while the implications of Britain’s plight were causing acute concern in the United States, Arita broadcast a statement that the destiny of the Far East and the South Seas, any development in them, and any disposal of them, was a matter of grave concern to Japan.
United States’ vested interests in China were important, but in America opposition to involvement in war was strong. Thus while America as well as Britain had exercised a restraining influence upon Japanese actions in China, American policy was averse to full Anglo-American collaboration with the possibility of having eventually to back it up by force of arms. Neither nation was prepared psychologically or physically for such a show-down.
Herein lay a weakness which had served Japan’s purpose as, step by step, she had put plans into operation for establishing her “New Order”. Nevertheless, American influence and her enormous war potential were a powerful impediment to Japan’s ambitions. Conversations were entered into by the United States Ambassador in Tokyo (Mr Joseph C. Grew) with Arita. Grew aimed to improve Japanese-American relations, particularly as by this time his Government was sending increasing quantities of military supplies from its small stocks to Britain, and was ill-prepared for war in the Pacific. He proposed an exchange of notes in which the United States and Japan would affirm “their wish to maintain the existing situation in the Pacific, except through peaceful change”. Arita refused, declaring in a subsequent broadcast that the sword Japan had drawn in China was “intended to be nothing other than the life-giving sword that destroys evil and makes justice manifest”. However, the Chinese did not see it that way; and neither did others.
The British Ambassador in Washington (Lord Lothian), accompanied by the recently-appointed first Australian Minister to Washington (Mr R. G. Casey), called on the American Secretary of State (Mr Cordell Hull) on 27th June and handed him an aide-memoire on the whole situation in East Asia, including the demands made by Japan on Britain. In this it was stated that having the whole responsibility for resisting the Axis powers in Europe, Britain found it impossible to oppose aggression in Eastern Asia also.
Britain therefore believed there were only two courses open. One was for the United States to increase pressure on Japan either by imposing a full embargo on exports to Japan or by sending warships to Singapore, fully realising that these steps might result in war. The second was to negotiate a full settlement with Japan.9
After discussing Britain’s proposals with President Roosevelt and his associates at the State Department, Hull told Lothian and Casey that sending the United States fleet to Singapore would leave the entire Atlantic seaboard, north and south, exposed to possible European threats. The main fleet was already well out in the Pacific, near Hawaii. As to the embargo proposal, the United States had been progressively bringing economic pressure on Japan for a year, and on several occasions the British Government had suggested caution lest this worsen rather than improve the situation.
When sounded as to America’s likely reactions to an attempt by Britain and Australia to establish peace between Japan and China, Hull said that if Britain and Australia would make concessions, such as granting the right to mine iron ore in Australia (mentioned by Casey), and then ask Japan and China what concessions they would make, this would be in line with American desires.10 However, the principles underlying Japan’s application of her “New Order” would need negativing, or at least serious modifications; and no properties or interests of China should be offered to Japan. Hull suggested a third course, amounting to acquiescence in Japanese demands and moves where this was a matter of necessity, but avoiding assent and concessions which Japan could use as stepping-stones to further aggression; avoiding also military or economic action so drastic as to provoke immediate war with Japan.
Meanwhile the British Chiefs of Staff had considered the problems created in the Far East by the fall of France and Holland, and had decided that Japan’s first move would probably be into Indo-China and perhaps Thailand (Siam); she might then advance against the Netherlands Indies, and at length against Singapore. It was now impossible to send an adequate fleet to Singapore, and Hong Kong was indefensible. They recommended that Britain should play for time, but should offer full support to the Netherlands Indies if they were attacked.
Since 1939 staffs in both Singapore and London had discussed whether the garrison of Singapore should be concentrated on the island or deployed partly in defence of the Malayan mainland. The air force commander urged that in the absence of a fleet, Malaya must rely mainly on air power, and, consequently, the army must defend airfields far and wide throughout Malaya. The United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff now decided that reliance must be placed chiefly on air power and that the whole of Malaya must be defended. They stated that Malaya required for its defence 22 air force squadrons with 336 first-line aircraft (only 8 squadrons were then available); and two additional infantry divisions plus a third until the air force had reached the required strength. None of these reinforcements
was then available from Britain. The Chiefs of Staff recommended that Australia be asked to provide a division for Singapore.11
Whence, except Australia, could military reinforcements have been sought? Britain, facing possible invasion, could not spare a man or a weapon. The army in the Middle East was still small and ill-equipped and now faced almost certain attack by far more numerous Italian forces in North Africa and Abyssinia. India had already sent a brigade to Malaya and two brigades – later forming into the 4th Division – to Egypt.
In the first half of 1940 the 5th Division was formed in the Middle East from existing units. In the same period India recruited some 53,000 men, but her army, although it contained infantry units enough to form several more divisions, was short of technical troops and heavy equipment, and had a continuing responsibility for the defence of the North-West Frontier and for internal security. When France fell Britain accepted an Indian offer to form five more infantry divisions (6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th); but to find officers, arms, and technical units, and particularly artillery, for these divisions would be a problem. Relatively little artillery had been needed by the Indian Army within India, and a policy had been adopted of manning very few artillery, engineer and signals units with Indians. Nevertheless India not only set about forming these five divisions for the general overseas pool, but planned to form five more to replace them when they went away.12
As an outcome of the appreciation by the British Chiefs of Staff, a recommendation that two squadrons of aircraft (already offered by Australia) and a division of troops be rapidly moved to Malaya came to Australia in a cable from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (Lord Caldecote) on 28th June. He said that while it was not thought that war with Japan was necessarily imminent, the Chiefs of Staff, having reviewed Far Eastern strategy, considered that
the security of our imperial interests in the Far East lies ultimately in our ability to control sea communications in the south-western Pacific, for which purpose adequate fleet must be based at Singapore. Since our previous assurances in this respect, however, the whole strategic situation has been radically altered by the French defeat. The result of this has been to alter the whole of the balance of naval strength in home waters. Formerly we were prepared to abandon the Eastern Mediterranean and dispatch a fleet to the Far East, relying on the French fleet in the Western Mediterranean to contain the Italian fleet. Now if we move the Mediterranean fleet to the Far East there is nothing to contain the Italian fleet, which will be free to operate in the Atlantic or reinforce the German fleet in home waters, using bases in north-west France. We must therefore retain in European waters sufficient naval forces to watch both the German and Italian fleets, and we cannot do this and send a fleet to the Far East.
In the meantime the strategic importance to us of the Far East both for Empire security and to enable us to defeat the enemy by control of essential commodities at the source has been increased.
The Japanese advance in China and Hainan has increased the threat to Malaya and any further advance, into French Indo-China, Dutch possessions or Thailand,
would endanger still more our position at Singapore, which is the key point in the Far East. Owing to the increased range of aircraft and the development of aerodromes, particularly in Thailand, we can no longer concentrate on the defence of Singapore Island entirely, but must consider the defence of Malaya as a whole, particularly the security of up-country landing grounds. For this reason, and because we cannot spare a fleet for the Far East at present, it is all the more important that we should do what we can to improve our land and air defences in Malaya.
The Dominions Secretary, after having stated that the Chiefs of Staff asked particularly whether the proposed division could be equipped as fully as possible from Australia’s pool of military equipment, continued: “They realise that you could not equip these troops up to full western standards, nor would this be necessary in view of the unlikelihood of the Japanese being able to bring mechanised troops with the latest form of equipment to attack them. ...” The Chiefs of Staff recommended movement by brigade groups as they became available if a whole division could not be sent immediately.
These significant views made clear to the Australian leaders the necessity for radically reviewing ideas about the Singapore base upon which Australia’s defence plans had been largely founded; and they set off a train of intricate problems of home defence and use of the AIF overseas for consideration by the Australian War Cabinet.
The Australian Chiefs of Staff reported to the War Cabinet that they were concerned with the necessity for ground protection of bases from which Australian air units would operate in Malaya. The 7th Division of the AIF, however, had just been organised. To send a division from Australia equipped on even a modest scale would not only seriously hamper training of the remainder of the AIF in Australia, but also the equipment of necessary forces for home defence. Moreover, they felt that Australia’s first obligation was to assist in the equipment of that portion of the 6th Division in the Middle East. They suggested three choices:–
(1) Transfer of the 6th Division from the Middle East to Malaya, where Australia would assist in completing its equipment (the Chiefs of Staff said they recognised that there were serious general objections to this);
(2) dispatch to Malaya of a brigade group, trained and equipped, from the 7th Division in Australia (this would not be ready to leave Australia for two or three months, depending on whether the 6th Division could be provided with equipment from other sources; the scale of equipment would be low; no anti-aircraft equipment and no anti-tank guns or armoured vehicles could be provided from Australia);
(3) transfer of one brigade group at a time from Australia to India to relieve troops from India for use in Malaya. (These groups could complete their training in India, and Australia would complete their equipment as far and as quickly as possible; they could then be used for active operations.)
The War Cabinet decided to inform the British Government that it was unable on the information before it to send a division to Malaya; to draw attention to the related urgent need for completing equipment of the 6th Division and deciding its theatre of employment; but to leave the door open to further consideration when an appreciation then awaited from Britain arrived.
This later appreciation, by the British Chiefs of Staff, dealt with the situation in the Middle East. In it they reviewed factors on which the security of the Middle East hinged, and said that it was clearly necessary to strengthen the Imperial defence forces there at the earliest possible moment. The situation was, however, governed by the probability of a large-scale air offensive and even invasion of Great Britain in the near future, and shortages of equipment to meet these threats. Britain’s policy therefore must be to concentrate immediate efforts on home defence, and to begin releasing equipment for the Middle East only when the situation could be more clearly judged following the impending trial of strength at home. Meanwhile, Britain would endeavour to send anything she could spare, including, if possible, modern fighters to re-equip squadrons in Egypt, and bombers to replace wastage.
The outlook in Australia and the United Kingdom, as presented by the Chiefs of Staff of both countries, was bleak. Both on political and strategical grounds, there were grave objections to dispatching a substantial force of men and equipment from Australia in such circumstances. It would be all too easy to make an unwise move. The Australian War Cabinet deferred decision, pending still further information which it was expecting; and on 10th July Mr Menzies told his colleagues that he thought it desirable that he should confer with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and representatives of other Dominions, particularly New Zealand. This proposal was generally approved, although Mr Menzies did not in fact leave Australia until the following year.
While the destination of the AIF was still under consideration, Britain was being pressed by Japan to withdraw the British garrison from Shanghai, as she had decided to do in 1939; and, as noted, to close Hong Kong and Burma to passage of war supplies to China. With the closing of the routes through Indo-China, the Burma Road became of prime importance, for the enormous length of the haul from supply centres in Russia made the “North-West Road” of relatively little value. Although the volume of supplies carried over the Burma Road was not large in relation to China’s needs, it was regarded by China as a lifeline of her resistance.
In the course of Imperial consultation on the issue, Australia favoured compromise; and, in a statement to the House of Commons on 18th July, Mr Churchill said that the Government of Burma had agreed to suspend for three months the transit to China of arms and ammunition, petrol, lorries, and railway material. The categories of goods prohibited in Burma would be prohibited in Hong Kong. Asked whether the agreement would secure Japan’s goodwill, Mr Churchill said succinctly: “I think that all that happens to us in the Far East is likely to be very much influenced by what happens over here.” Clearly, he had no illusion that this humiliating step would do more than gain time. It cut across the feelings of all who admired China’s prolonged resistance to the Japanese. China’s leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, declared that, if Great
Britain was trying to link the question of the Burma route with that of peace between China and Japan, it would practically amount to assisting Japan to bring China to submission. “So long as China has not attained the object for which she has been fighting,” he said, “she will not lay down her arms”; to which the Chinese Foreign Office spokesman added, bitterly, “We are confident that we will win, whether we are betrayed or not.”
Such hopes as were held for an improvement of relations with Japan were discouraged by the fall, on 16th July, of the relatively moderate Cabinet headed by Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, and his succession by Prince Fuminaro Konoye, with General Tojo as War Minister and Mr Yosuke Matsuoka as Foreign Minister. Prince Konoye had been Premier at the time of the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937; Tojo was a leader of the powerful group within the army which was determined to conquer East Asia; Matsuoka, also an advocate of aggressive nationalism, had led the Japanese delegation out of the League of Nations in 1933, after defending Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, and was regarded by the American Secretary of State as “crooked as a basket of fishhooks”.13
Prince Konoye allowed himself only a week in office before announcing that there must be a “new national structure”, since the enunciation of divergent views might mislead people, and the nation might miss an opportunity. He had reached agreement with the army, and on this he based confidence that he could solve the many problems which had accumulated. Nevertheless, he cautiously added that Japan would retain her autonomous position in foreign relations. She must not be blinded by the prospect of immediate gains, but must look ahead fifty or one hundred years towards the goal of national self-sufficiency, to be attained by developing Manchukuo, China, and the South Seas.
In July the United States initiated the first of a series of “economic sanctions” aimed at Japan, along the lines that Britain had urged earlier. Congress passed an Act authorising the President to prohibit or curtail export of munitions whenever he considered it necessary in the interests of defence. Soon afterwards the President prohibited the export, except to Britain and her allies, of aviation fuel and certain kinds of iron and steel scrap. Also in July Congress passed a bill authorising an immense expansion of the American Navy.
The Secretary of State for War, Mr Henry L. Stimson, concurrently told a committee of the House of Representatives, which was considering a “Selective Service” or Conscription Bill, that the executive and legislative branches of the Government were the trustees of the nation’s security, and “a prudent trustee must take into consideration that in another thirty days Great Britain might be conquered and her fleet come under enemy
control”. Although he had been speaking principally of Europe, he added that the Japanese fleet was the agent of a Power “working very closely with the Axis”.
Those crowded and critical two months, June and July 1940, were followed by a comparative lull in the Pacific, but they had given a warning that none could ignore. They had also assured the passing, at length, of the United States Selective Service Bill, which President Roosevelt signed in September, rendering liable to service some 16,500,000 Americans, and had brought about an immense American naval construction program.
The British troops were withdrawn from Shanghai and Tientsin in August;14 but at home Britain steadily gathered strength despite the hammering she now was suffering from the skies. A move to coordinate and develop the arming of British countries around the Indian Ocean basin was set afoot by calling a conference of their representatives, to be held in New Delhi in October. Announcing the appointment on 18th August of Sir John Latham, Chief Justice of Australia, and a former Deputy Prime Minister, as first Australian Minister to Japan, the Minister for External Affairs, Mr J. McEwen, said that this was “the culmination of the desire of Australia and Japan for a more direct and intimate relationship”. Also in August informal Anglo-American staff talks began for the purpose of closer collaboration in both hemispheres.
Another fateful measure had been adopted by President Roosevelt. On 15th June, the day after the fall of Paris, he signed a letter establishing a National Defence Research Council and bringing under its direction a special committee he had recently appointed “to study into the possible relationship to national defence of recent discoveries in the field of atomistics, notably the fission of uranium”.15
When on 28th August the Australian War Cabinet resumed consideration of the British proposal to send a division to Malaya, it had before it a series of cablegrams from the Dominions Office, a further and far from reassuring appreciation of the position in East Asia and the Pacific by the British Chiefs of Staff, and the views on this of the Australian Chiefs of Staff. Outstanding among the communications from Britain was one from Mr Churchill dated 11th August:–
... We are about to reinforce with more first-class units the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. This fleet would of course at any time be sent through the Canal into the Indian Ocean, or to relieve Singapore. We do not want to do this, even if Japan declares war, until it is found to be vital to your safety. Such a transference would entail the complete loss of the Middle East, and all prospect of beating Italy in the Mediterranean would be gone. We must expect heavy attacks on Egypt in the near future, and the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet is needed to help in repelling them. If these attacks succeed the Eastern Fleet would have to leave the
Mediterranean either through the Canal or by Gibraltar. In either case a large part of it would be available for your protection. We hope however to maintain ourselves in Egypt and to keep the Eastern Fleet at Alexandria during the first phase of an Anglo-Japanese war, should that occur. No one can lay down beforehand what is going to happen. We must just weigh events from day to day, and use our available resources to the utmost.
A final question arises: whether Japan, having declared war, would attempt to invade Australia or New Zealand with a considerable army. We think this very unlikely, first because Japan is absorbed in China, secondly, would be gathering rich prizes in the Dutch East Indies, and, thirdly, would fear very much to send an important part of her Fleet far to the southward, leaving the American Fleet between it and home.
If, however, contrary to prudence and self-interest, Japan set about invading Australia or New Zealand on a large scale, I have the explicit authority of the Cabinet to assure you that we should then cut our losses in the Mediterranean and sacrifice every interest, except only the defence and feeding of this Island, on which all depends, and would proceed in good time to your aid with a fleet able to give battle to any Japanese force which could be placed in Australian waters, and able to parry any invading force, or certainly cut its communications with Japan. ...
This very positive assurance, in marked contrast to what the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff had said in June and had now repeated, about prospects from a strategical viewpoint of sparing naval forces from European waters, had a decisive effect. The Australian Chiefs of Staff declared that the defence of Singapore, and incidentally the holding of Malaya, remained of vital importance to Australia. Without Singapore the British fleet would have no suitable base for operations in the Far East. “We consider that this assurance ... is of such importance,” they said, “that we should strain all our efforts and resources to cooperate in the actual defence of the area as, strategically, it now becomes, as far as Australia is concerned, of greater ultimate importance than the Middle East.” The security of Singapore, they said, would appear to depend largely on the defence of the whole of Malaya, and, to a less degree, the use by Japan of the air bases in Indo-China and Thailand; and denial of the use by Japan of air and naval bases in the Netherlands East Indies.
Accepting the premise that effective opposition to occupation of the East Indies was impracticable in the immediate future, the Australian Chiefs of Staff said that harassing and delaying action would be the best policy in Malaya and the East Indies. The strategic disabilities which would result from an unopposed Japanese occupation of the East Indies were so great that Australia should support the Dutch in the event of Japan attempting to seize the islands, unless the British Government considered that the delay of declaration of war against Japan would more than compensate for this loss. The Chiefs of Staff emphasised that they thought it desirable to undertake conversations with the Dutch as soon as sufficient forces were available to permit an offer of substantial help.
The British Chiefs of Staff had held that attack by Japan on Australia or New Zealand would be likely to be limited to cruiser raids, possibly combined with a light scale of seaborne air attack against ports. The Australian Chiefs of Staff, on the other hand, said that the Japanese leaders
must be well aware that Britain’s main fleet was contained in European waters, and might well accept as a reasonable risk the employment of naval forces including their capital ships and aircraft carriers. The possibility of attack on a medium scale, or even invasion, could not be ruled out, but a Japanese attempt to invade Australia when they could with far less risk obtain possession of the East Indies would be an unwise and improbable course of action. Once in possession of the Indies, they could, without serious risk, institute a blockade of Australia, and make raids on her coasts and shipping. They could also contemplate invasion of Australia if they were firmly in possession of the Indies, and the Singapore base was either in their hands or reduced to comparative impotence by the absence of a British (or American) main fleet.
In general assent to the Chiefs of Staff recommendations, the War Cabinet decided (at the meeting on 28th August) to assure Britain of its willingness to cooperate by the dispatch of the 7th Division to the theatre in which it could give the most effective support. In giving this assurance, the Government said it was realised that considerations of training and equipment precluded dispatch of the division to the Middle East then, although the intention ultimately to concentrate the Australian Corps in that region was noted. The War Cabinet would prefer that the 7th should go to India to complete its training and equipment, and to relieve for service in Malaya troops better equipped and more acclimatised; a less circumscribed role than that of garrison duties at Singapore would be more compatible with the psychology of the Australian soldier. However, should the British Government still desire the 7th Division to go to Malaya after carefully weighing the views to which the War Cabinet attached great importance, the latter would be quite agreeable to this course.
The War Cabinet also decided to inform the British Government that it felt that almost inevitably war would follow if Japan attacked the East Indies. Nevertheless, because of the military position in the United Kingdom and the Middle East, and the attitude of the United States, a binding one-way obligation to go to the assistance of the Dutch in this event should not be undertaken. The Empire’s policy should be to take a realistic view of such an act of aggression in the light of its military position at the time. If the British Government concurred in the course, the views of the Empire should be put to the United States Government, with a suggestion that a similar attitude be adopted by it.
Reports of Japanese demands on French Indo-China became current in August, and talks between Hull, Lothian and Casey followed in Washington. Hull declared that a governing factor in the United States attitude was that it would be most undesirable, even from the British standpoint, for two wars to be raging at the same time, one in the East and the other in the West. If the United States should enter any war, it would immediately result in a great reduction of military supplies to Great Britain
which she could ill afford to forego. The possibility of holding conferences on bases and unified defence in the Pacific was touched upon, but no positive advance in that direction was made at the time.
America and Britain continued to exert diplomatic pressure on Japan, but the French Government at Vichy, under German domination, yielded late in September to Japanese pressure. It declared that it recognised that the political and economic interest of Japan in East Asia was predominant, and conceded passage of Japanese troops into the Tonkin Protectorate in Northern Indo-China, with the use of bases therein. This move not only gave Japan advantages in her war with China; preceded by warnings by Britain and America, it showed that Japan was prepared to set them both at defiance to gain her ends. It also made bases available to the Japanese which in their hands encroached upon the security of Singapore, and constituted a menace to the whole area which the Singapore base had been designed to protect.
Thus the fall of France, with consequent weakening in her attitude to Japan, had produced circumstances greatly different from those contemplated when the Singapore base was planned. Then it had been assumed that Great Britain could count upon the support, or at least neutrality, of France in any conflict with Japan. Now French East Asian territory was to become enemy territory; and uncertainty about the future of what remained of the French fleet was a powerful factor in preventing British vessels being spared from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to give reality to Singapore as a naval stronghold.
Once again, Japan was reflecting in her actions the tide of war in Europe; and not only what had happened on the Continent. Only a few days before Mr Churchill had said publicly that at any moment a major assault might be launched on Britain. He had stated at a secret session of the House of Commons that more than 1,700 self-propelled barges and more than 200 sea-going ships, including some very large ones, were gathered at the many invasion ports that were in German hands. The shipping available and assembled was sufficient, he said, to carry in one voyage nearly half a million men.
Between the end of August and the Japanese occupation of Tonkin late in September, however, the destination of the 7th Australian Division had been decided. It would go not to Malaya or India, but to the Middle East.
After its polite expression of reluctant agreement with the proposal to send the 7th Division to India or Malaya the Australian War Cabinet, on 7th September, had sent to London a fervent plea for ensuring the defence of the Middle East, and by inference had thus reinforced earlier arguments against diverting it to India or Malaya. Thereupon, on the 10th, Mr Churchill, with whose feelings this Australian opinion accorded,
sent a memorandum to his Chief of Staff, General Ismay,16 in which he said:
The prime defence of Singapore is the Fleet. The protective effect of the Fleet is exercised to a large extent whether it is on the spot or not. For instance, the present Middle Eastern Fleet, which we have just powerfully reinforced, could in a very short time, if ordered, reach Singapore. It could, if necessary, fight an action before reaching Singapore, because it would find in that fortress fuel, ammunition, and repair facilities. The fact that the Japanese had made landings in Malaya and had even begun the siege of the fortress would not deprive a superior relieving fleet of its power. On the contrary, the plight of the besiegers, cut off from home while installing themselves in the swamps and jungle, would be all the more forlorn.
The defence of Singapore must therefore be based upon a strong local garrison and the general potentialities of sea power. The idea of trying to defend the Malay Peninsula and of holding the whole of Malaya, a large country 400 by 200 miles at its widest part, cannot be entertained. A single division, however well supplied with signals, etc., could make no impression upon such a task. What could a single division do for the defence of a country nearly as large as England?
The danger of a rupture with Japan is no worse than it was. The probabilities of the Japanese undertaking an attack upon Singapore, which would involve so large a proportion of their fleet far outside the Yellow Sea, are remote; in fact, nothing could be more foolish from their point of view. Far more attractive to them are the Dutch East Indies. The presence of the United States Fleet in the Pacific must always be a main preoccupation to Japan. They are not at all likely to gamble. They are usually most cautious, and now have real need to be, since they are involved in China so deeply. ...
I do not therefore consider that the political situation is such as to require the withholding of the 7th Australian Division from its best station strategically and administratively. A telegram should be drafted to the Commonwealth Government in this sense.17
This mandate by Mr Churchill, which overrode the advice of his military advisers but had Australia’s backing, was embodied in a telegram which reached Australia on the 18th September, five days after the Italian Army crossed the frontier into Egypt. This event helped the argument that the I Australian Corps should be concentrated in the Middle East against an active enemy, rather than be divided between that theatre and Singapore.