Chapter 3: The General, The Parliament and The Ministers
BY December 1944 the II Australian Corps in Bougainville and the 6th Division about Aitape had embarked on offensives against the strong Japanese forces in those areas. By the end of February 1945 the II Corps had gained control of most of the western half of Bougainville, and the 6th Division had thrust eastward more than half way to Wewak. In New Britain the 5th Division had advanced, against little opposition, to a line across the neck of the Gazelle Peninsula. The situation of October 1944 had been reversed. Whereas then the American garrisons had been defending bases in these three areas, in February it was the Japanese who were defending their bases.
While the First Australian Army (three divisions and the elements of a fourth) was dealing with the Japanese armies (six divisions) by-passed in Australian New Guinea, the Eighth American Army (four divisions) was performing a similar task in the southern and central Philippines where it faced the remnants of five divisions on Leyte and two divisions and some smaller forces in the other islands; the Sixth American Army (ten divisions), with some help from the Eighth, was fighting in Luzon, where the Japanese had deployed seven infantry divisions and one armoured division, the strongest single Japanese force yet encountered outside China.
In view of the discussion in Australia about the policies adopted by the Australian forces in the New Guinea territories, the operations of the Eighth American Army in Mindanao and the Visayas – the central part of the archipelago – are of special interest. During March and April about one-third of MacArthur’s American divisions were employed destroying the Japanese forces in these “by-passed” islands. On 28th February part of the 41st Division occupied Palawan. On 10th March the 41st Division landed at Zamboanga in western Mindanao and on 17th April the X Corps (24th and 31st Divisions) landed on the south coast of that island.1 On 18th March the 40th Division landed on Panay and on 26th March the Americal Division landed on Cebu. On Leyte “mopping up” was still in progress; the campaign on Leyte would be declared “officially closed” on 30th June, but “mopping up” was then still going on. At that time three American divisions-31st, 41st and Americal – were still in action in the southern and central Philippines, and a division was defending the perimeter on Morotai. Indeed, the American forces employed against
the Japanese by-passed in the Philippines south of Luzon were never smaller and for much of the time were considerably larger than the Australian forces fighting the stronger Japanese formations in the New Guinea territories. Between 25th December and 8th May the Eighth Army on Leyte alone lost 544 men killed; in the earlier operations in that area the Sixth Army had lost 3,049 killed.
In Luzon at the end of February 1945 the Sixth American Army was fighting round Manila Bay, which was secured early in March.
In the first three weeks of February, as mentioned, the Australian operations ceased to gain much prominence in the newspapers, whose headlines were being given mostly to the fighting in the Philippines and on the Rhine, but, when the Federal Parliament met on 21st February after a recess of two months, the conduct of operations in New Guinea became the subject of criticism which rapidly developed in vehemence. The Opposition based an attack on three main grounds: first, Australian troops were being misemployed “mopping up” in the islands; secondly, they should be fighting in (a) the Philippines or (b) South-East Asia; thirdly, they were inadequately equipped. At a later stage violent personal attacks on the Australian Commander-in-Chief were added.
The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Menzies, opened the discussion in a speech during the debate on the Address-in-Reply, in the course of which he said:
Are we to use our major forces primarily for doing what I call “mopping-up operations” in by-passed areas, or should they be used as an integral portion of a British army to deliver those countries in the Far East which have been overrun by Japan? As to that I confess I have very strong views. ... We have a profound political interest in the restoration of British authority in Burma, Malaya and Singapore, and a profound future interest in the relief and restoration of the Netherlands East Indies. I should like to think ... that we were able at this time to have a division, or perhaps two divisions, of the Australian Imperial Force fighting with other British troops for the relief of Malaya, and the rescue of those men who were captured at Singapore.2
In reply the Attorney-General, Dr Evatt, said that five countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand – had agreed upon the directive governing the disposition of forces in the SWPA; the Australian forces were at the disposal of the Supreme Commander, General MacArthur. The Australian Government had loyally conformed to his decisions. There was no role in the theatre that was secondary. He quoted words of praise from MacArthur for Australia’s war effort.
Mr Spender questioned the use to which the Australian Army was being put in ridding New Guinea and Bougainville “of Japanese who were supposed to have been left there to wither and famish, but are, in fact, firmly entrenched, well-disciplined and adequately equipped and supplied”.3 Mr Forde had said publicly, he added, that all Australian Services would ultimately be in action in the Philippines. He was waiting to hear that
the Australian Army was actually engaged there. It was time to discuss whether the manpower was being employed in the most effective way. Australia’s position at the peace table would be determined solely by the fighting contribution made by Australia.
Mr Curtin said that he agreed that Australia had a major political and national interest in the British Empire, Malaya, Singapore and the Far East, but she had a major political issue nearer home: to clear out the enemy still in occupation of territories for which the Australian Government was politically responsible.
In the Senate on 28th February the attack reached its second and third phases. Senator McLeay4 declared that reports were arriving from the front that the equipment of the Australian troops was “far inferior” to that of the Americans. The reports should be investigated. Senator Foll5 criticised the employment of Australian troops against “besieged Japanese forces” and went on to a direct attack on Blamey.
The general public has very little faith in him as the Commander-in-Chief, and the Army itself is seething with dissatisfaction ... the best service he could render to Australia would be to resign.6
Foll added that Blamey had “virtually thrown out of this country’s service” General Rowell. General Lavarack had been “sacrificed” and sent to Washington, “because of a personal disagreement, apparently”. General Bennett was “never given a chance, as others were, to go back and attack his old foe”. General Robertson “was sent home and put on the shelf, never to lead his men in action again”.7
Senator Mattner,8 quoting passages from soldiers’ letters, complained that the army lacked the heavy equipment possessed by the Americans – road-making equipment, amphibious craft and the like; and he declared that the Commander-in-Chief should be “a young and experienced man
who has seen service in this war, and is game enough to go to the front and see for himself what is taking place”.9
On 1st March Blamey, evidently in the hope of halting the personal attacks, wrote a letter to Menzies denying the statements of Senator Foll concerning the shelving of generals and pointing out that “a very great proportion” of his time had been spent “on the Atherton Tablelands and New Guinea”.10
The allocation of Australian troops to operations is entirely the responsibility of General MacArthur (he continued) and I have no real say in the matter beyond carrying out the orders I receive. While I have pretty strong feelings on certain of these allocations, I have no right to criticise them.
My chief objection to these criticisms, however, is on account of the evil effect they must have upon the forces. As for myself, you know very well that I do not seek to remain in this office, and would be very happy indeed to be relieved of it. I think it is due to the country’s war effort, however, that those responsible for its legislation should not continue to sow seeds of dissent and criticism to the destruction of the morale of the Army.
Menzies replied, on 6th March, advising Blamey to ignore Foll’s criticism, and adding that, after Foll’s speech, Menzies and several of his members in informal discussion agreed that if today they were appointing a “No. 1” for the Australian Military Forces Blamey would still be their choice. He suggested that the Prime Minister should make a statement indicating the nature of Blamey’s responsibilities. “This, I think, would set a great deal of criticism at rest.” Menzies added that among his colleagues and friends the real uneasiness related primarily to a feeling that many thousands of young men in the armed forces, including the air force, were under-employed and that the effect of this might be “demoralising and dangerous”.
In Parliament the debate had continued. In the House of Representatives on 2nd March the Minister for the Army, Mr Forde, said that some nation had to be responsible for “mopping-up, cleaning out, driving into the sea and annihilating 100,000 fearless fighters of the Japanese Army. They could not be allowed to remain in the islands.”11 It was the opinion of the Government’s expert military advisers that Australian troops should be committed to this task. He added that last year some members had complained that some divisions were being overworked; they now contended that Australian troops had been allotted a puny task and should be used elsewhere on difficult and dangerous tasks befitting soldiers of their calibre. He denied that the army was ill-equipped.
In defence of Blamey against his critics Forde said that the actions planned by the Commander-in-Chief and his efficient general staff, “in
the majority of which the Commander-in-Chief himself participated”, combined with American operations, had eliminated the enemy from the areas nearest Australia. It was surely ungrateful now to criticise the leader of the Australian Army. Blamey’s task made it necessary for him to keep in touch with his headquarters in Australia as well as with forward units. He considered the criticism “grossly extravagant and most unfair”.
Blamey had some defenders among back-benchers as well as among the Ministers. Mr Donald McLeod,12 for example, said on 15th March that Blamey’s direction of the campaigns in the north had been “marked by complete success”; it had been said that he was too old whereas he was “about the same age as General MacArthur” (in fact he was four years younger). “Let the critics, if they have anything against him, come out into the open and state their charges plainly.. In the meantime, let us judge the Commander-in-Chief on his record.”13
From Bougainville on 31st March Blamey made a statement in reply to criticism of the army’s equipment. He said that “Australians were never better situated for troops, organisation, administration and supplies”; but there was an immediate shortage of water transport due to the general shipping shortage.
As will be seen later there was little more that could usefully be said about equipment at that time. On 5th April, however, Mr Curtin made an announcement which could be interpreted as meaning that the Government as well as the Opposition lacked confidence in Blamey. He quoted reports from Blamey about transport difficulties then being encountered in and round New Guinea, but added that the acting Minister for the Army, Senator Fraser,14 would visit the forward areas and report.
In the newspapers at this stage a new field of criticism was being explored: why were the names of the leaders and units then in action not being released for publication?
Blamey’s conduct of operations had now been under criticism for some weeks; members of Parliament had charged him with not being “game” to go to the front and with having treated subordinate commanders unjustly, and had urged that he should resign; he had neglected the equipment of his troops; he was too old; the nation had lost confidence in him. On 15th April he retaliated. During a broadcast appeal for subscriptions to a war loan he said:
You may be assured that [the troops’] morale, their fighting capacity, their training and equipment will ensure that their future successes will be no less complete and no less vital than those which they have realised in the past five and a half years of war. But for those troops themselves I have something to say to you. It is this: in no other country have the achievements of a successful army been so belittled as in Australia.
It was different three years ago when the threat of Japanese invasion was very real; when Australian soldiers were fighting desperately to halt the Japanese. It was
different even when those same soldiers halted the Japanese and turned him back along the long road to Tokyo. Then they were the nation’s saviours. The armchair strategists – though fearful – were content to leave the saving of this country to the men who did save it. But now these same amateurs lose no opportunity to publicise their views, without regard to the effect these may have on the self-sacrificing efforts of the troops who are fighting the same battle against the same enemy and in the same type of country as three years ago.
They have advanced little, if any, from the ignorance which characterised their panic of 1942. They seem to have learnt, however, that this country will not tolerate any direct attack on the individual soldier. So they wrap their barbs in other material. They do not suggest that the Japanese is a better soldier than the Australian, but imply that the Australian might be elevated to the Japanese category if he had more arms of a particular type, or vehicles to take him over razorback ridges where no tracked or wheeled vehicle has ever been before or is ever likely to go. ... They suggest that we should leave this enemy fruit to wither on the vine. ... It is no mopping-up to those Australians who have to fight it.
It was probably these parts of an address of about 1,000 words that astounded his critics. Mr Spender, for example, was “staggered” that Blamey had used a war loan speech “to engage bitterly in a controversy which had now entered the political field”. He added, in the course of a long reply, that Blamey seemed unaware that in democratic countries the general rule is for the Prime Minister or his responsible Minister to answer political criticism and not for any Service chief no matter how exalted his rank.15
The newspaper onslaught was no less vehement. In a leading article the Sydney Morning Herald found that the general had been “ill-tempered” and “unseemly”, and proceeded to attack him in language more vehement than his own, impugning both his honesty and his capacity as a commander.
Next day Curtin, however, told a Press conference that he thought that as Blamey had been severely criticised he might at least be allowed to state his case the same as the critics. “The critics surely can’t object to being criticised,”16 he said.
Mr Menzies referred to the subject in the House of Representatives on 26th April. He said:
I happen to entertain the strongest possible view that it is wrong to use the Australian forces – which, we are told, number hundreds of thousands of men – in operations in those islands which seem to me to have no relation to any first-class strategic objective in this war.17
He felt that Australian troops should be engaged in a real drive against the enemy, for example in Malaya or the Netherlands East Indies, instead of doing something which, in his uninformed opinion, could be left until after victory had been achieved. He quoted MacArthur as having said in a communique of 16th February: “For all strategic purposes, this completes the campaign in the Solomon Islands.” Menzies then said that he
regarded Blamey as a distinguished Australian and a distinguished soldier but his broadcast of 15th April was an “elementary blunder”.
No Commander-in-Chief (he said) occupying the place he does, and exercising the authority and responsibility he has, ought to come into the political arena with such an ill-judged and intemperate speech.
Later in his speech Menzies described Blamey’s language in this broadcast as “intemperate, unjust and misleading” – adjectives that could justly have been applied also to the language of some of Blamey’s critics.
Meanwhile Mr Archie Cameron18 had offered criticism of Blamey in a Press statement. He charged Blamey with not being in the forward areas enough. Blamey was then in the Northern Territory, whence, on 21st April, his Director-General of Public Relations, Colonel Rasmussen,19 sent to headquarters in Melbourne a statement for issue to the Press. In it “the official army spokesman” said that “like all personal criticisms that had been directed against the Commander-in-Chief this allegation was notable only for its complete inaccuracy”. He had spent more than half of 1944 outside the mainland. Since April 1944 he had travelled 65,000 miles by air, 7,000 miles by sea and 7,500 on land. The statement concluded: “Major Cameron is a comparatively young officer whose name has been on the active list during most of the war but he has not yet put foot outside Australia since its commencement.”
Senator Fraser’s 12-day visit to the forward areas had ended on 16th April and, on the 24th, Curtin had made a comprehensive statement in the House of Representatives. He defended the offensive policy being adopted by the forces in New Guinea, and said that the Government accepted full responsibility for the operations being carried out by the army. The casualties were remarkably low: 317 Australians killed up to 4th April compared with 5,549 Japanese confirmed killed.
In the Philippines the Americans are clearing the Japanese from the whole of the islands to free the native people, to obtain the use of the resources of the islands, and to free their forces from a prolonged and continuing commitment.20
Australia was following the same principle. Curtin then reported the main conclusions reached by Senator Fraser after his visit to the operational areas to investigate the alleged shortages of equipment. There was adequate fighting and engineering equipment on Bougainville and New Britain. In the Aitape–Wewak area, however, floods and unprecedented shipping difficulties due to bad weather had held up the dispatch of certain equipment. Finally Fraser decided that except in New Britain the heavy mechanical equipment could be added to with advantage. Curtin added that General Blamey’s comment on this opinion was that the type of operations being carried out did not demand paved roads but, with jeeps, trailers, and six-wheel drive trucks, a cleared earth track sufficed. Concerning shipping, Mr Curtin added, Senator Fraser had said that there
were insufficient small craft except in New Britain; and there was a shortage of ships – a world-wide problem.
After his tour Senator Fraser had addressed to the Prime Minister, in addition to the observations contained in the report that was tabled in the House, some general remarks on the operations in New Guinea. In the course of these he said that
operations should not have been undertaken, except under necessity, until complete fighting, mechanical engineering and small craft equipment, which was necessary for the success of these operations with a minimum casualty rate, had been transported to the operational bases and were available for use.
In Fraser’s view practically the whole of the allegations about Australian equipment had been brought about by the fact that American troops always had plenty of heavy mechanical equipment and small craft, and this caused the Australians to compare the inactivity of the American fighting troops when in the areas with the activity of the Australians in “grappling with the enemy with quite good facilities, but in lesser number and spread over a very much greater area”. Fraser then wrote critically of a Treasury direction concerning Lend-Lease and American administration of Lend-Lease in the islands; these, he considered, had impeded the smooth transfer of American facilities to the Australian forces.
In Parliament a long and heated debate followed in the course of which many members expressed their views on the aggressive policy being followed in New Guinea and on details of army equipment and organisation, and some continued the stinging attacks on Blamey. The complaints about details of Australian equipment were based on conversations and correspondence with generally anonymous American and Australian soldiers and on newspaper reports, and often were inaccurate or misleading.
However, as Menzies pointed out in the House, the debate had the effect of sifting out the real nature of the problems. So far as equipment was concerned it appeared that it was adequate except that there were shortages of heavy mechanical equipment and light water craft.
Mr Chifley,21 who was acting Prime Minister because Mr Curtin was ill, spoke in support of Blamey on 27th April, but without marked enthusiasm. General Blamey had a distinguished record. He (Chifley) understood that he was a splendid soldier. “I do not know anything of his other qualities,” he added. Blamey’s retaliatory broadcast, however, had Chifley’s approval.
Having thrown brickbats at him (he said), honorable gentlemen opposite consider that he should not throw any brickbats in return. It was all right for him to attack the Minister for Information, but when he gave the daily Press and the Opposition a clout, they squealed to high heaven.22
On 1st May Australian troops landed at Tarakan. The news that Australians were in action in Borneo was given big headlines in the
newspapers and so was news of a coastwise movement against Wewak a few days later. These events were hailed with enthusiasm. On 5th May the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, in a leading article on Tarakan wrote:–
It is to be hoped that the fact that Australian troops are in the front line once more will create in the community at large an adequate appreciation of its debt and responsibilities to them.
For some days Wewak and Tarakan continued to be front-page news. Thenceforward there was little more public criticism of the army’s policy and equipment or of the character of Blamey. It remained, however, to unearth the “official army spokesman” of 21st April and to thrash out in the relative privacy of the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council the rights and wrongs of the New Guinea and Bougainville offensives.
On 3rd May Major-General Rankin23 in the House of Representatives sought the identity of the “official army spokesman” but was fended off with an uninformative reply. Mr Chifley, however, set off in pursuit of the offender. He wrote to the acting Minister for the Army quoting a decision of the War Cabinet on 18th March 1942 (the date was not mentioned in the letter) that members of the Services were not to make public statements and quoting part but not all of a subsequent Cabinet decision elaborating the first one. Paragraph (ii) of this second decision had originally read:
All statements in relation to military matters by members of the Services are to be submitted to the Censor, who will consult with representatives of the Services regarding the deletion of information which would be prejudicial to security or public morale.
In Chifley’s letter this paragraph was omitted, but the third and final paragraph was included, and numbered (ii). It read:
The direction relates to statements by all ranks of the Services and covers statements attributed to members of the Forces whose identity is not disclosed.
Chifley concluded that “this resort to anonymous but pseudo-authoritative statements is a contravention of the War Cabinet instruction referred to in sub-paragraph (ii) above, and is to cease forthwith”.
On 31st May Blamey named the spokesman. He wrote to the Secretary of the Defence Department:
The statement in answer to Mr Cameron was prepared by me, and was sent from a forward area to Melbourne for release to the press. Mr Cameron’s original allegation was made in the public press and not under the privilege of Parliament. I insist on my right, in common with every other subject of His Majesty, to deal with any attack made upon me, private or public, not made under privilege.
Time passed. On 6th June Fraser sent Blamey’s reply to the new Minister for Defence, Mr Beasley.24 On 18th July Beasley replied to the
effect that Blamey should have consulted his Minister and that the Government would “defend him from unprovoked attacks”. He listed seven speeches made in the House by Ministers since February 1944 replying to criticism of Blamey. Beasley said that he proposed to reply to Rankin’s question in the House by quoting Blamey’s statement and adding that he had directed Blamey’s attention to the War Cabinet instructions, which the army spokesman had contravened. Forde, as Minister for the Army, wrote to Blamey in effect asking him to comment on this reply before it was given. Blamey delayed his reply. Three weeks later the fighting ended. On 21st September the question was again raised in the House and Forde telegraphed Blamey, now in Melbourne. On the 22nd Blamey replied: “Concur proposed reply.”
Throughout the five months occupied by this episode, as during the previous two or three years, “army spokesmen” had been making statements to the newspapers at frequent intervals and without being rebuked by the Government. But it seems that the Cabinet decision was never once invoked in the interest of security or even public morale but always, whether by a Minister or a general, to silence or rebuke someone lower down in the chain of command, and not because he had said something harmful, but because he had said anything at all. Thus, on 18th July 1942, Blamey invoked it when rebuking one of his army commanders, Lavarack, who had been quoted in a newspaper article, and on 15th December 1942 he invoked it when rebuking a corps commander, Bennett, in similar circumstances.
On 2nd August 1943 Blamey sought to prevent Chester Wilmot,25 with whom he had had a dispute in 1942 and whom he had disaccredited as a war correspondent, from broadcasting in Australia interviews with members of the army, but it was pointed out to him that the army had no power over Wilmot, and that the Chief Publicity Censor’s interpretation of the War Cabinet’s direction was that statements by and interviews with members of the Services could be published, after censorship.
On 8th November 1943 Curtin wrote to Forde quoting the War Cabinet’s objection to Press statements by General Savige on 4th September and General Herring on 28th October about the Lae–Salamaua operations in New Guinea, and complained incidentally that he had not yet had Blamey’s report of these operations. The release of an account of such operations was a matter for the Government. Forde passed the complaint on to Blamey who replied that he had authorised the making of the statements and was under the impression that a certain elasticity was allowed him “although such is not by any means indicated by the War Cabinet Minute”.
In every instance quoted above (and they include all that are recorded in the Commander-in-Chief’s files) the news item concerned was informative and innocuous.
The regulations of the Services combined with the censorship procedures were sufficient to ensure that officers and men of the Services did not
make improper communications to the Press. If the alleged offender was the head of a Service it was the business of the Minister to deal with him on the merits of the case and with the public interest in mind, and not, as in 1945, by quoting a decision of three years before which had been frequently disregarded.
The Ministers had loyally supported Blamey’s policy in New Guinea but nevertheless were uneasy about it. On 7th May Chifley wrote to Blamey and pointed out that General MacArthur had written:
Forces in Bougainville, New Britain and New Guinea have the mission of neutralising the enemy garrisons that have been isolated. These hostile forces are strategically impotent and are suffering a high rate of natural attrition. Australian Forces now engaged are continuing the missions previously assigned American elements. A local Commander in such situations has considerable freedom of action as to methods to be employed. The Australian Commanders have elected to carry out active operations in effecting neutralisation where other Commanders might decide on more passive measures.
Chifley pointed out that Curtin had defended the operations and stated that the Government accepted full responsibility, but a stage had been reached when the Government should have fuller information. He would be glad if Blamey would attend a meeting of the War Cabinet to give an appreciation and answer questions.
The letter reached Blamey at Lae on 12th May. He returned to Australia to attend a meeting of the War Cabinet to be held on the 22nd. Meanwhile, on the 16th, he sent a paper to the acting Minister for the Army in which he said that the end of the war in Europe (Germany had surrendered on 7th May) required that reallocation of the Australian Army be considered. Henceforward the allocation of national forces by the Allies would be on a lower scale. Australia was maintaining one division to each 1,200,000 of population, which was equivalent to about 100 American divisions or 38 British (not including Indian). Not more than half as many divisions could be used against the Japanese. Assuming that 50 American and 20 British divisions were employed, Australia’s contribution, on a population basis, should be about three. Three divisions and part of a fourth were already engaged in New Guinea, and two more were either engaged in Borneo or about to move there. It was impossible to foresee when the force in New Guinea could be reduced below two divisions. He suggested that the force to be contributed by Australia to operations outside New Guinea should be one division formed by taking about one-third of the 6th, 7th and 9th. The 7th Division was scheduled for operations against Balikpapan at an early date.
If it is accepted that the Australian military contribution to the Allied effort should be greatly decreased, it is most desirable that the 7th Division should not be committed to this operation on the Borneo mainland, since it will form a commitment where there may be considerable fighting and where we may ultimately be committed to a very large garrison.
Where the Australian contribution should be employed was a purely political and not a strategical question, he added. It was probable that
if it was allotted to the South-West Pacific Area it would be included in the force that would reach Japan proper, and that would be most popular with a great many of the troops. The Americans, however, would endeavour to alter its organisation to American pattern. There was also considerable strength of public opinion anxious that the force should participate in operations for the recapture of Singapore. He suggested that even if the main force continued to serve in the South-West Pacific Area a token force should be allotted to South-East Asia Command.26
On 22nd May the War Cabinet met to hear Blamey state the reasons for his policy in the islands. The problem before the Australian Ministers and commander was: what policy should the Australian forces have followed in those areas of Australian New Guinea where they had relieved American formations? Should they have sought only to hold the defensive perimeters as the Americans had done, or should they have set out to destroy the enemy, or to attempt some middle course? Hitherto the policy of the Australian commanders had been persistently aggressive. On the Buna–Gona coast in 1942 and 1943 the isolated Japanese force might have been hemmed in until it starved; instead it was attacked and destroyed. On the Huon Peninsula and in the Ramu Valley defensive lines might have been maintained around the captured ports or airfields; instead the enemy was attacked, defeated, and pursued. The practice of holding defensive perimeters round captured airfields had been introduced in the South-West Pacific only in 1944 when American formations took over the main burden.
Blamey presented the War Cabinet with an appreciation dated 18th May.27 In it he wrote that his object was
To conduct operations against the enemy with a view to
(a) destroying the enemy where this can be done with relatively light casualties, so as to free our territory and liberate the native population and thereby progressively reduce our commitments and free personnel from the Army;
(b) where conditions are not favourable for the destruction of the enemy, to contain him in a restricted area by the use of a much smaller force, thus following the principle of economy.
He pointed out that American operations in New Guinea, New Britain and the Solomons had been designed to secure air bases from which to neutralise the enemy’s air power and permit an advance to the Philippines for the purpose of liberating them. Having seized an area for a port and airfields the American Army would form a close perimeter round it and make no effort to seek out the enemy beyond the perimeter; but when it reached the Philippines its policy changed and it sought the complete destruction of the enemy’s forces – a change of policy based on political rather than military grounds.28 The reason given for the American policy in the Australian territories was that the enemy would “wither on the
vine” in a few months, but the policy was now well into its second year and the enemy were still strong and well-organised, cultivating gardens and employing natives to do so, and importing seeds and technical military equipment by aircraft and submarines.
Blamey added that, on reaching Morotai, General MacArthur had said that the enemy forces by-passed in the Australian territories were “strategically impotent”, yet six American divisions and one regiment were then disposed in those territories. These American forces were mainly confined within their perimeters; when the enemy had attacked in strength at Torokina and Aitape he was beaten off but not pursued and destroyed and was allowed to re-form. Most of the patrolling outside the perimeters was left to Allied Intelligence Bureau, Angau and Fijian troops.
General Blamey added that when General MacArthur’s staff began planning the Philippines campaign they had asked that the American forces be relieved by equivalent Australian forces. However, when General Blamey represented that such large forces were excessive, MacArthur’s staff agreed that one Australian division and two brigade groups should relieve the three American divisions in the Solomons, one Australian division (since reduced to two brigades) the one division of Americans in New Britain, and one division the two divisions plus a regiment at Aitape – a saving of the equivalent of three divisions. The fact that the by-passed enemy forces required the deployment of such substantial Australian forces refuted the claim that they were strategically impotent. Just as it was necessary to destroy the enemy in the Philippines so it was necessary that the Australian forces should destroy the enemy in those Australian territories where conditions favoured such action, and so liberate the natives. If Australia waited it could be said that the Americans, having liberated the Philippines, were responsible for the final liberation of the natives in Australian territories, with the result that Australian prestige would suffer both abroad and in the eyes of the natives.
Blamey then discussed the policy adopted in each area where Australians had relieved Americans. In the Solomon Islands three courses were open to him: to continue the American policy, to undertake an all-out offensive with full-scale air and naval support when available, or by aggressive patrolling to gain information of enemy strengths and dispositions (of which the American formation knew little) and, by systematically driving the enemy from his garden areas and bases, to force him into starvation and eventually bring about his total destruction.
He decided that to commit any troops, and particularly Australians, to a passive role of defence was quickly to destroy their morale, create discontent and decrease resistance to sickness. The enemy would have continued his domination of the natives and inflicted a steady flow of casualties on the defenders by sporadic raids. “This course would lower the prestige of the Australian nation throughout the world and particularly would, in the native mind, lower the prestige of the Government to such an extent that it might be difficult to recover on the termination of hostilities.”
The second course – a major offensive operation with air and naval support – would have gained control of the enemy’s bases, but his forces had become so self-sufficient that it would still be necessary to follow them into the jungle to destroy them; and, in any event, the necessary naval forces were not available. Consequently at Torokina the third course was followed. Active patrolling was undertaken and information obtained. It was decided to probe the enemy’s positions and carry out offensive operations with small forces with a view to seeking out and destroying the enemy where found.
New Britain presented a different problem to New Guinea and the Solomons (he continued). Here we were faced with a force of approximately 56,000 troops. ... The enemy defences were strong and the enemy themselves well equipped and fed. A major offensive operation with the forces at our disposal was impossible. ... It was decided to drive the enemy patrols back into the Gazelle Peninsula and then regain control of the major portion of New Britain and contain a large force in the northern end of the island with a considerably smaller one. This is in accordance with the military principle: “A detachment from the main forces is justified if it contains a force superior to itself.” In the situation in which I found myself taking over from the Americans, the Japanese, on their side, in certain areas justified this principle.
Blamey added that in the Aitape area in November an American army corps had been “strongly entrenched behind barbed wire with the exception of one regiment on the Driniumor River. AIB patrols were operating to the south but, through lack of support by ground troops, which had been denied to them by the Americans, they were forced to yield large areas to Japanese forces.” The enemy had from 24,000 to 27,000 troops, organised in three divisions. He was cultivating gardens, had large stores, and urgent medical and ordnance supplies were brought in by submarines and aircraft. The Australians adopted a plan to advance east on two axes: along the coast to Wewak to destroy the enemy forces and supplies and cut off the forces inland, and into the Torricellis to drive the enemy from his gardens and destroy his organisation and men there.
Blamey appended figures showing, for example, that in the three areas to 18th May 7,958 Japanese dead had been counted, whereas only 573 Australians had been killed or were missing, and 1,433 wounded. He added that, as a result of this aggressive policy, he hoped by the end of the year to be able to reduce the force in the Aitape–Wewak area and the force on Bougainville each to one brigade group.
When Blamey’s appreciation was placed before the Advisory War Council on 6th June Sir Earle Page said that insofar as there were political reasons for the change of policy General Blamey had instituted, that was a matter for decision by the Government not General Blamey. The non-Government members had not been informed of the change of policy and were under the impression that the strategy followed was General MacArthur’s. A policy of concentrating the forces and reducing each enemy stronghold in turn might have been followed. He was not prepared to take any responsibility for the operations.
Mr Spender said that he could not reconcile the policy of destroying the enemy in two areas and containing them in the third. He was not satisfied that General Blamey’s appreciation justified the course he had taken. Mr W. M. Hughes said that the important consideration was: had the operations been successful at relatively small cost? The reports indicated that they were proceeding satisfactorily, losses had been small, and the Australian forces had the task well in hand.
Mr Beasley said that General MacArthur considered that the operations were being carried out with skill and energy. The Government accepted full responsibility for the operations, whose success vindicated the strategy being employed.
At length the Council agreed to Blamey’s policy: to destroy the enemy where that could be done with light casualties, but, where conditions were not favourable to the destruction of the enemy, to contain him in a restricted area by the use of a much smaller force.
In his statement to the War Cabinet Blamey said that, when the enemy’s organisation in the Solomons, New Britain and New Guinea had been “sufficiently destroyed”, he proposed to retain a minimum of Australian troops there and use the Pacific Islands Regiment, with AIB and Angau elements, to develop partisan fighting until the enemy was completely annihilated. Thus he considered that the force on Bougainville might be reduced to two brigades, then progressively to two native battalions. Similarly he looked forward at length to employing only two native battalions on the New Guinea mainland. On New Britain, however, a division of two brigades would be needed, with a brigade in reserve conveniently near in case the enemy attempted to break out of the Gazelle Peninsula.
A letter informing Blamey that both the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council had recorded their agreement with the “objects” stated at the beginning of his appreciation was not written until 31st July and appears not to have been seen by Blamey until 14th August, the day on which Japan accepted the terms of surrender.
The criticism of the Commander-in-Chief’s policies and character had taken five main directions: that the Australian forces should have been employed elsewhere, that the forces in the New Guinea areas should not have adopted the offensive, that those forces were not properly equipped for their task, that General Blamey was not in the forward areas enough and had lost the confidence of the nation and the army, and that he had treated some of his generals unfairly. The charge that Blamey was idling in Melbourne when he should have been in New Guinea was entirely unjust. The foregoing narrative (and the earlier volumes of this series) have shown that the division of his time between the various areas of his command was wisely arranged. The degree in which the forces lacked equipment shall be revealed in the following descriptions of the operations themselves. The deployment of the Australian forces was in
General MacArthur’s hands, and the factors which led to their allocation to New Guinea and Borneo have been discussed.
Blamey defended his treatment of some of his generals in a confidential Press conference at Perth on 9th July 1945.29
“I think you people have been a little unkind to me,” he said. “You have charged me with having got rid of generals. We had twelve divisions to fight the Jap. On arrival of other equipment, other considerations came in and we now have six divisions. Can you tell me what should have been done with the surplus generals? I do know that on every occasion I proposed to terminate a general’s appointment, politicians have tried to stop it.
“I want to tell you this about your generals. We have only removed one from his command in the field during this war. That says a great deal for the selection of your commanders. As for my method of dealing with them, we will see what happened to them. General Williams30 has got a great job and is now head of the Imperial War Graves Commission at a much greater rate of pay than he drew before. General Mackay had his turn in New Guinea. Mr Curtin discussed it with me and decided that the tropics were a bit trying for him and stated that he was agreeable to appoint General Mackay as High Commissioner in India at a considerably increased salary. General Herring has got the most honourable appointment in Victoria, where he is now Lieutenant-Governor. All these men accepted these appointments entirely at their own desire.
“Lavarack has been sidetracked. Nobody thought General Sturdee was sidetracked when he went to Washington. In the opinion of the Government we must have senior commanders to look after our interests in America. Two Lieut-generals held the American appointment before General Lavarack. It was then decided that we must have a general with active service in the present war in the appointment, and so General Lavarack took it on. It is the highest paid job that the Australian Army has to offer.”
Concerning Rowell, Blamey contended that he “found himself unable to accept the Government’s directions” and “had to go”. Concerning Bennett, Blamey said that he had told Bennett that he would not have the confidence of his troops in the field.
“The giving and placing of commands is not at my discretion,” he said. “They are done under the authority of the Minister for the Army and by direction of the Minister for Defence and I have no authority. Once or twice I have been overruled and it is my business to accept it when I am. Democracy fails if we don’t accept the direction of the Government.”
In this explanation Blamey did himself less than justice. Most of the criticism of his treatment of his generals had revolved about the names of Lavarack, Bennett and Robertson. In 1942, when the country seemed
to be threatened with invasion, Lavarack had been appointed army commander in north-eastern Australia, the most likely point of attack; Bennett had been promoted to the corps command in Western Australia, an isolated area and a possible enemy objective; Robertson had the AIF Armoured Division, a corps d’élite certain to play a leading role in any operations on the mainland.
At this distance after the event, General Blamey’s appreciation of 18th May does not seem to be the last word on the problem of the extent to which offensives should have been undertaken on Bougainville and towards Wewak. It was true that a similar policy was followed by the Eighth American Army in Mindanao and the Visayas and that any criticism by GHQ of the Australian operations was inconsistent with their own practice. But, perhaps, GHQ’s policy was ill-judged too.
Blamey based his decisions on three main grounds: first, that the isolated Japanese armies were tying down Australian forces which could be used elsewhere and, until made virtually impotent, would continue to do so; secondly, that Australian troops would deteriorate if they remained on the defensive, and were subject to infection with tropical diseases as long as they were in New Guinea; thirdly, that it was politically desirable to regain control of the native peoples of whom Australia was the guardian.
The first contention can be disputed on the ground that extreme difficulty had been found in obtaining any role for Australian troops in the final advance to the Philippines and beyond. In the event American forces were able to carry out unaided all important tasks north of the equator; and most of the Australian units in the “mopping-up” consisted in part of men who could not be sent north of the equator without another amendment of the Defence Act. Had the war continued a role might have been found in Java for all available Australian troops, but operations against the Japanese by-passed in Java were open to the same criticism as operations against the Japanese in New Guinea.
Blamey’s second contention was denied by the effects of his own policy in New Britain, where the Australian force advanced to the neck of the peninsula and no farther, but continued active patrolling; and in the mountain sector in Bougainville where the main force was halted, but deep patrolling, of a kind seldom excelled in Australian military history, kept the units concerned always tense and confident.
His third contention was based on political considerations of a kind which, as Sir Earle Page pointed out, fall within the sphere of responsibility of the Cabinet rather than the commander of its forces, and it is arguable that he should have sought the direction of the Government on this matter. The Government supported him, but was not consulted in advance.
When MacArthur ordered Blamey to employ twelve brigades in the four New Guinea areas though Blamey considered that seven would suffice (leaving the 6th Division free to move forward with the AIF Corps), Government backing for Blamey’s contention might have induced GHQ to change its mind, but Blamey did not enlist the Government’s support.
As mentioned earlier, if only seven brigades had been employed the offensives could not reasonably have been undertaken, and it was the insistence of GHQ that larger forces be used that made the offensives possible. General Headquarters, however, was obviously unenthusiastic about the offensives, and yet controlled shipping and aircraft. Therefore it was likely from the beginning that the Australian formations would be short of both ships and planes. In fact, they generally had to fight their way overland although local commanders were convinced that the right answers were fully-supported amphibious operations.
Was it desirable to destroy the XVII Japanese Army on Bougainville and the XVIII Army round Wewak before they undertook large-scale attacks? The armies were full of courage, but, on the other hand, each had spent much of its strength in a disastrous counter-offensive against the Americans, and was unlikely to attempt other such projects. Indeed, their leaders afterwards said that they welcomed the Australian offensives as giving their armies a useful task to perform for the Emperor.
The cost in Australian soldiers’ lives lost in battle in New Guinea in this last year of the war was 1,048 (a grave loss, yet fewer than the number of Australians who would be killed in the following year in automobile accidents: 1,206).
The major decisions affecting the operations were made by Blamey. The narratives which follow will show that the local commanders, although they sometimes strongly emphasised their lack of resources, were never slow in carrying out offensives that had received higher approval. In two long wars the doctrine had been dinned into Australian fighting men from generals to privates that they must press on, must master no-man’s land, must attack at every favourable opportunity. It was also characteristic of the national tradition, with its sensitiveness about military honour and its desire that Australian forces should be employed in the decisive battles, that at one time critics at home should charge the Government and the commander with both doing too little and doing too much.
In fact the Australian Army was doing far more than its share in 1945. In New Guinea it was employing larger forces than the Australian Commander-in-Chief had at first desired, and these were spending their strength in unnecessarily aggressive operations. In addition a corps of two divisions was committed to operations in Borneo which were to be a prelude to an invasion of Java. At a time when, because of the German surrender, the effort of every other ally was lessening, the Australian Army was approaching its period of greatest activity. If in 1944 Australia had reduced her fighting formations to three divisions she would have been able, in 1945, to contain the Japanese forces in New Guinea and the Solomons and at the same time would have been maintaining in action in the Pacific an army larger, in proportion to population, than that of any other ally.