In late May, 1944, the Dominion prime ministers gather in London to discuss imperial strategy and post-war order. Churchill, the host is gracious, yet commanding, knowing full well that his reserve of wits must be tuned more to the needs of Roosevelt, Stalin even De Gaulle, than prime ministers William Mackenzie-King, John Curtin or Jan Smuts.
This was to be Curtin’s first and only visit to London during his prime ministership. Of a different political ilk and style than the imperious British Leader, Curtin was not at ease in the company of Churchill or with the sophisticated national war machinery that he had built. As was his way, Churchill invited Curtin to Chequers, ostensibly to meet his daughters, but also to privately discuss imperial defence – especially war strategy in the Pacific, where Churchill feared Australia had fallen too far into the American orbit.
Churchill’s attention must have been distracted. Only days before, in the company of the allied commanders, Montgomery had presented his Continental invasion and break-out plan for Overlord. Just as concerning were signals intelligence intercepts and photographic intelligence pointing to the re-commencement of a Nazi rocket campaign, bringing back the horror of the Blitz and the threat posed to docks heavily laden with embarked troops and supplies. All the same, Churchill greeted his Australian counterpart into his family home. Accompanying Churchill was the unsung architect of the Allied strategy – a strategy that would lead to victory. Field Marshal Alan Francis Brooke — Viscount Alanbrooke — was a regular soldier turned grand strategist, and he was well aware of the outstanding reputation the AIF had developed in North Africa. He had been told so by Montgomery, who he had long mentored and sponsored to lead the 8th Army. Likewise accompanying Curtin was General Thomas Blamey – Alanbrooke’s opposite number and Commander of Australian Forces – albeit more in name than authority, as Curtin and his cabinet had assigned effective command of all Australian forces to General Douglas Macarthur.
Alanbrooke and Churchill had an extremely close yet tense relationship. Meeting on a daily basis, often till early in the morning, Churchill was the frustrated Generalissimo, often confusing the reach of his political responsibilities. Alanbrooke was measured, exact and kept his leader’s exuberance in check. Curtin, so often touted for his war leadership, preferred a distant relationship with his senior military officer. This was especially strange given the dire threat to Australia which existed from 1942 till early 1943. Blamey was kept at a distance by his prime minister, even to the extent that Curtin instructed Blamey not to directly correspond with him. Given the need for close civil military relations one wonders how Curtin kept himself abreast of the complexity of the grand struggle?
In August, 1942, during the height of the Kokoda crisis, Curtin instructed Blamey to correspond with him in only “special cases … at the same time forwarding a copy direct to the Minister for the Army. This method is only to be used in exceptional cases.”1 How extraordinary is it that an Australian PM should issue such a dictate to his commander in chief at a time of national crisis? What did this say about the senior management of war strategy in Australia?
In late 1941 Curtin was elected Prime Minister by way of a no-confidence motion. Soon after taking office he was faced with the Japanese attack and the direct threat to the Australian mainland. On February 10, 1942, five days before Singapore fell, Curtin declared to the nation ‘a complete charter for a total war effort in Australia’. This was the clarion call for the mobilisation of the nation’s physical, economic and human resources.
Back in London in mid-1944, what a difference fifteen months would make! With the Japanese defeated in New Guinea by mid-1943 and the direct threat to Australia now remote, Curtin was delivering a very different message to Churchill. At Chequers, Churchill was keen to understand how a re-awakened and now secure Australia could further contribute to the Allied war effort. Churchill was to be very disappointed by his dominion opposite number. In Churchill’s study Curtin reiterated his letter to Churchill of September, 1943, when he advised his government had
considered whether it should sanction a further regimentation of the civilian economy in order to make available additional manpower. This would necessitate the imposition of such drastic measures as to involve in Australia a higher degree of regimentation than exists in any democratic country. In view of this and in having regard to the effect on morale and the war effort itself, the government (of Australia) has rejected this course.3
Given the short time, the turnaround in Curtin’s position is bewildering if it taken to reflect more than his singular view of the conflict. One can only surmise that the improved security outlook for Australia had led Curtin to gradually opt out of the wider struggle. Britain, by comparison, was an armed camp. Civil liberties were restricted, evacuated children were still living in the countryside, food and fuel rationing remained severe. In Normandy in ten days’ time Churchill was faced with the certain death of thousands of his countrymen, plus thousands more American, Canadians and other allies. Yet here was the Australian Prime Minister seeming to back out of the conflict. Blamey protested to Curtin that Britain had “accepted the conditions of privation and stepped up production in order to preserve their striking power, for they appreciate that by this method, and this method alone can the enemy finally be brought to its knees.”4 Curtin and his cabinet were unmoved.
Blamey had to bear the brunt of Curtin’s desire to back out of the conflict. While the Allies built up for the assault on the Axis, the Australian Army had been shrinking since mid-1943. Despite Blamey’s demands to replace losses and discharges, the cabinet under Curtin had been demobilising while simultaneously demanding Blamey do more with less. Curtin had informed Blamey that he would be reducing the overall size of the forces and the monthly intake.When he assumed the prime ministership, Curtin inherited an Army of twelve divisions; by September, 1944, only eight remained. By 1945 only six remained. Similarly, Curtin reduced total war expenditure once the immediate threat subsided. In 1942-43 Curtin committed £562m to the war effort; the following year he reduced the war chest to £545m, then to £460m.
The linkage between the downgrading of the commitment and the securing of New Guinea is unmistakable, yet in mid-1943 the wider war was far from won.
At the time, when the allies had not yet landed in Sicily nor the Japanese repulsed in Burma, the Australian government led by Curtin was effectively winding down the war effort. Production of all 25-pounder artillery ceased in late 1943, tank production ended in July, 1943. Aircraft and engine production reached its peak of 1632 units in 1941/42, but it decreased every year thereafter to total only 760 units in 1945. Eight munition factories were closed in September, 1944, having been operational for just 12 months. Munitions Minister Norman Makin was perturbed by the reductions and underlined the dire needs of allied forces in Burma and India. Mountbatten had requested the use of Australian forces in his South East Asian theatre. This request was refused by Curtin long after the direct threat to Australia had evaporated. Similarly, Australia had a fully equipped and trained Armoured Division idle in WA, yet the last incursion into the Indian Ocean by a small Japanese surface flotilla occurred in early 1944.
As a nation we must ask the hard questions as to why Curtin, who is held so high for his wartime leadership, deserves the laurels given his obvious intent to wind down the war effort once the threat to his immediate sphere of influence was reduced. Is this the mettle of alliance warfare? What is the justification for the demobilisation whilst countrymen of other nations were dying in their thousands in order to defeat totalitarianism and ensure the defence of Australian liberty? Moreover, how the reductions could be countenanced while Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen continued to be supplied with British and American weaponry, aircraft and ammunition?
Those who seek to defend the record of Curtin’s war commitment will probably point to the heavy demands placed upon our small population to sustain both a military and industrial infrastructure. It is useful to contrast the Australian and
Canadian war experience to properly judge the performance of the Australian war economy under Curtin. At the outset of war, Canada and Australia each had a very small munitions base. Indeed, the Australian naval ship building capacity was the larger of the two. Canada has a larger population and greater GNP, but the two were comparable. Offsetting this difference in size is the fact that Canada was not directly threatened by invasion, so it could be argued that it had less urgency to imitate Curtin’s rally for a ‘total war effort’.
Some comparisons of war production between the two nations call for a deep revision of Curtin’s ability to meet the urgency of the situation. During the war years, Canada produced 16,400 aircraft, including 1500 Hurricanes, 1000 Mosquitos, 650 Catalinas and 450-plus Lancasters. Australia produced 3500 aircraft of which most were Tiger Moths, Beauforts, Wirraways and Wackett Trainers. Likewise Canadian ship-building development was an industrial miracle. Its ship yards turned out three 10,000-tonne merchant ships per week, 410 in all. In all, 206 corvettes were produced in Canada while Australia managed only 60. The disparity is more pronounced in the production of land-based munitions. During the war, Australia hailed the production of 66 cruiser tanks – that were never fit for action. by contrast, Canadian factories produced 2000 Ram tanks, also cruiser class, along with 815,000 trucks and utility vehicles. The Canadians also built 1420 Valentine tanks, 188 Shermans and 2100 self-propelled guns.
From any standpoint Australian munitions production was paltry when ranged alongside the Canadian effort. Moreover, the Canadians increased their production through to 1945, rather than the scale-down evidenced in Australia from 1943. Indeed, between 1941/42 and 1942/43 (the first full year of Curtin’s term), the Canadian war expenditure doubled, whereas Australia’s effort was diminished. This trend continued such that, despite being on roughly level pegging during Menzies term, the Canadians were outspending Australia three fold by war’s end  How can the claim be made that Australia’s economy and society could not be both a fighting and industrial contribution, when the relative gross output was so abysmally low, even when taking into account Canada’s larger economy and population.
Curtin was a Labor leader. Yet given the lifelong bonds he had built with the unions he was unable to prevent a rapid increase in industrial disputes during his term. In the 18 months prior to his election, under the UAP, Australia suffered 592 industrial disputes in the coal industry. Once Curtin was elected, the ensuing 18 months saw this number of disputes nearly double to 10,210. It seems inconceivable that during the dire struggles in New Guinea, from mid-1942 to early 1943, that a Prime Minister with such a union pedigree could not marshal the tools of war – both man and material
to meet the common cause. Curtin imploring waterside workers to load supplies for the troops in New Guinea was not the stuff of Cinetone newsreels. In the end the wharfies returned to work only after he threatened to lift their exemption from wartime service.
Curtin’s failure to fully industrialise the war economy, especially the ship-building industry, had far more negative medium-term implications for Pacific strategy. As time progressed and the Japanese surge faltered, the initiative passed back to the allies. In island warfare, offensive and logistics naval forces provide the platform for tactical and strategic operations. Curtin had failed to anticipate and build such a naval force such that, when the urgency passed, Macarthur was able to bypass the Australian forces and leave them as garrison troops on islands already secured by American units. While a sombre statistic, it is noteworthy that of the 39,000 deaths of Australians in the war less than 1700 Army casualties occurred in the Pacific theatre after Jun 1944. Blamey observed that a “feeling that we are being side-tracked is growing strong throughout the country.” A root cause of the problem was the lack of shipping to support Australian operations. If Australia had developed the means to provide for its own amphibious and logistics operations then it would have had more leverage to dictate the place and tempo of operations and strategic options. To rely on the US Navy to supply and manoeuvre Australian forces was a cardinal error — clearly one we had the capacity to deal with, given the Canadian mobilisation.
Did Australia lack this political will? In his authoritative study of Australia and Allied Strategy, Dr David Horner makes the final judgement on Curtin when he writes “he does not appear to have had any overall strategic view of his own, and once Macarthur arrived, Curtin was content to agree with his views.”Curtin’s seeming indifference to retaining Australia influence over allied strategy and operations was most manifest in his unexplained acceptance of Macarthur’s insistence that no Australian officers be appointed to allied GHQ staff. For decades the British have been ridiculed for their seeming indifference to ANZAC military contributions – some of that venom justified. Yet British headquarters were peppered with Dominion officers: Blamey was deputy commander in chief in the Middle East; Lindsey Conningham, a New Zealander, commanded the Desert Air Force; Donald Bennett, an Australian, led the Pathfinders. How can Curtin justifiably wear the mantle of an Australian nationalist when he bequeathed control of military strategy to a foreign general, without adequate safeguards and checks at the staff level?
Gavin Long in the Official History noted, “The existence of a joint staff is essential if the point of view of each national component is to be fairly represented and its needs satisfied. For instance in 1944 and 1945, when the two armies were operating in widely dispersed areas, the American Army was generously supplied with equipment and, in particular, ships, the First Australian Army was left gravely short of essentials. Under a joint staff this should not happen.” 14
Curtin was in a powerful position to demand a joint staff, as Roosevelt had instructed Macarthur to appoint Australians to “a number of high positions”. Macarthur replied that the Australians did not have enough staff officers for even their own Army. The truth is that Australia had seasoned staff officers with two years’ experience fighting the Germans and Italians on land, sea and air. The real question is why Curtin did not insist that the Roosevelt instructions be implemented? In that failure, Curtin surrendered Australian strategy and sovereignty to Macarthur, leaving Blamey and the service chiefs stranded.
In the sixty years since the surrender the Curtin legacy has been underwritten by a myth that served a post-war political purpose. The legitimate demand to deny use of the 7Th Division to Rangoon has become ingrained as the single key hole to view Curtin’s performance. It was the right decision by Curtin, but surely a wider prism must now be employed to review Curtin’s ability to mobilise the nation for war and steer national defence strategy. Historian John Robertson wrote “why should a small-town journalist turned politician, who was good a rebuilding a shattered Labour Party, be expected to have expertise in running a war”. This may be true, but all democratic leaders in war are thrust into challenges that tower above that which was expected when they entered office. Far less well publicised is the little-known fact that on not one occasion — not once! — did Curtin visit troops in the field. Never did he seek to appraise himself firsthand about battle conditions or his field commander’s views. Even the crippled Roosevelt visited his troops, as did Churchill many times, often across perilous passages. The presence of a national leader in company with his troops serves to reinforce in the combatant’s minds the popular will in the face of conflict. Blamey advised Curtin to visit the troops in New Guinea, Macarthur advised against it. The latter prevailed.
Appraisals of Curtin’s leadership must finally move beyond the Movietone newsreel. It must be analysed and critiqued in an objective fashion. The British and American historians have maturely analysed the performance of Churchill and Roosevelt and it has not reduced their stature. We, as a nation, seem unwilling to do the same. Curtin is upheld as a great prime minister and, to the Labor side of politics, the greatest. Yet on what basis is that mantle deserved? Surely the measure must be the extent to which Curtin met his own standard of “waging national war” and the balancing of Australian sovereignty within the context of a global struggle. It would seem that, to Curtin, the national struggle was over by mid-1943 and moreover that he was willing to relinquish sovereign authority to a foreign general. Yet in 1943 the
wider war of civilisation and ideals, in which Australia was initially committed, armed and defended, was far from won.
Finally, as Curtin departed Churchill’s study, Alanbrooke listening in the shadows, later penned in his diary “…Curtin is entirely in Macarthur’s pocket.”
Johnathan Huston, a former Army officer, is a Perth businessman
1 Letter from Curtin to Forde and Blamey dated 12 August 1942, quoted in Gavin Long “ The Final Campaigns” AWM 1963 p. 593.
2 Gavin Long, “The Six Years War”, AWM 1973 p. 217
3 Letter from Curtin to Churchill, quoted in Gavin Long, “The Six Years War”, AWM 1973 p 398-399.
4 Letter from Blamey to Curtin dated 27 Oct 1944, quoted in Gavin Long “The Final Campaigns”, AWM 1963 p 33.
5 Australian Year Book, No 37, 1946-47.
6 Beaumont, J. “The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume VI – Australian Defence: Sources and Statistics”, Oxford University Press, 2001. p 453.
7 Gavin Long “The Six Years War”, AWM 1973. p 317.
8 J.L Granatstein, “ Arming the Nation, Canada’s War Effort 1939-45”, Ottawa, 2005. pp 10-14
9 Comparison of Australian and Canadian Defence Expenditure. Sources: Australian Year Book no 37 1946-47 and ‘The Official History of the Canadian Army: Six Years of War’.
10 Gavin Long, “The Six Years War” , AWM, 1973. See table at p 320.
11 Gavin Long, “The Final Campaigns”, AWM, 1963. p 635.
12 David Horner, “High Command – Australian and Allied Strategy 1939-45”, AWM, 1982, p 384,
13 David Horner, “High Command – Australian and Allied Strategy 1939-45”, AWM,982. pp 440-441.
14 Gavin Long, “ The Final Campaigns”, AWM, 1963. p 598.
15 John Robertson, “Australian War Policy”, Historical Studies Vol 17, No 69, 1977. p 504
16 David Horner, “High Command – Australian and Allied Strategy 1939-45”, AWM, 1982. pp 441-442.
17 Alanbrooke Papers cited in David Horner, “High Command – Australian and Allied Strategy 1939-45”, AWM, 1982. p 321.