Australia’s Pacific War

Australia’s role in the Pacific war from 1941 to 1945 is generally not well understood by the broader Australian community, even among some who count themselves as historians. For a small and underdeveloped nation of some seven million, it is in fact a remarkable story that should be told to dispel many of the myths that have become received wisdom. The popular view is narrow and far too chauvinistic. There is little sense of the overall context of Australia’s effort as a part of a global Allied effort.

The twenty-two volumes of the Official History are good value as reference works but intimidating in their bulk for the general reader. The more popular works focus too much on campaigns and battles—especially defensive ones such as the Kokoda campaign, on the Army, or on Australia’s role in isolation. They convey little sense of the nature of warfare and Australia’s total national effort with its contribution to Allied victory. Certainly there is an excessive concentration on what is now miscalled the “Battle for Australia”, the defence against the invasion which we now know was not going to occur and which should have been reasonably apparent to policy-makers after the US Navy’s decisive victory at Midway in June 1942. And perhaps in a typically Australian fashion, there is a strong tendency to seek scapegoats but without drawing out all the lessons to be learned.

In a broad sense, Australia’s involvement in the Pacific war can be seen in several phases. The first phase was Australia’s failure to prepare for a conflict which many feared was inevitable sooner rather than later. The second phase was the panic-stricken response to Japan’s extraordinary early victories that resulted as much from our failure to prepare as from our adversary’s well-organised campaigns. The third phase saw the defensive battles throughout the whole Pacific theatre including India and Burma that demonstrated to Japan that their offensive had reached its limits, that the best it could do would be to hold the line pending a negotiated peace.

That the Allies had rejected the option of a negotiated peace at Casablanca in January 1943 and were committed to unconditional surrender was demonstrated by a rolling series of offensives extending from the mid-Pacific islands through New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to the India–Burma border. For reasons that owe much to Australia’s isolationist mentality, this country’s role was limited, so that by mid-1944 a growing war-weariness had set in and arguments raged over our future commitments. The conflict between those who wanted to get out of the war and those who saw that Australia’s future standing would depend upon a continuing commitment to winning the peace was resolved generally in favour of the latter, but the former view still holds attraction for today’s generation.

The end of the First World War had seen the outbreak of a rash of idealism in international relations. Many held to the notion that the war had been “the war to end all wars”. The establishment of the League of Nations without the United States and without any coercive powers was supposed to control international violence while the 1928 Kellogg–Briand Pact purported to outlaw war. A more realistic view was put by the Allied commander-in-chief, Marshal Foch, who commented that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was not a peace treaty but a twenty-year armistice. Disarmament was in the air and the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 sought to put limits on the size of navies and the size of the ships they could build. France and Italy refused to sign while Japan, though a signatory, objected to what it regarded as unfair restrictions.

Australia was already wary of Japan, which had been a nominal ally during the war. At Versailles, Prime Minister Hughes fought for and obtained a League of Nations mandate over the former German colony of New Guinea. Hughes regarded the New Guinea mandate as essential for keeping Japan at some distance and thus strengthening Australia’s security. But having acquired the mandate, Australia did nothing to defend it. Australia also disarmed by scrapping ships, failing to modernise the air force and making the universal military training system voluntary.

By the early 1930s with the world experiencing the Great Depression, Japanese adventurism in Manchuria and China coupled with the rejection by Japan, Germany and Italy of the League of Nations’ collective security system, the warning signs were there for all to see. Britain—and Australia—had their ten-year rule: that no war could be expected within the next ten years. Britain’s was abandoned in 1935, ten years before the next war ended. Australia took longer, not launching even a tentative and very limited rearmament until 1937. The defence planners could not agree on strategy, with the Navy arguing for support for the British fleet base strategy at Singapore while the Army wanted more men and modernisation within what was a very limited allocation for defence. The political leadership was comfortable with the inter-service rivalry, opting for Singapore because they believed it committed Britain to defending Australia against Japan. Those who argued that Britain might be preoccupied with another conflict in Europe were ignored, as was the Anglo-Australian understanding that Australia would be responsible for its own local defence. Treasurer Richard Casey once proclaimed that spending more than 3 per cent of national income on defence would bankrupt the country. Five years later Australia was spending more than 55 per cent of national income on defence. For his part, the leader of the Labor opposition, John Curtin, insisted that Australia could be defended by the collection of obsolete stringbags that constituted the Royal Australian Air Force.

When war with Germany did come in 1939, Australia’s initial response was half-hearted at best. The large expansion of the all-volunteer AIF (from one division to four) as well as the Empire Air Training Scheme was driven more by the flood of volunteers, especially after the collapse of France and Italy’s entry into the war on Germany’s side. Service in the conscript Militia was not made full-time until 1941 and training levels were limited at best. Moreover, the Militia could not be deployed beyond Australian territory. A good deal of work was done in developing industry but the pace was slow and the troops overseas had to depend heavily upon British logistic support. For most of the Australian community, it was business as usual.

Throughout 1940 and 1941 the Japanese threat loomed larger. Already heavily involved in China, Japan nevertheless sought expansionist opportunities in Indo-China and what is now Indonesia, whose colonial masters were living under German occupation. British and American embargos on raw material trade with Japan as a response to the invasion of China threatened Japan’s supplies, especially of the oil that drove her navy and air force. Allied intelligence could see what was coming but the governments like rabbits caught in a spotlight continued to indulge in that widespread vice of politics, wishful thinking.

Japan’s strategy when she launched her war of conquest had two principal aims. One was to secure the raw materials—especially oil, rubber and tin—of South-East Asia; the other was to cripple the ability of the United States to intervene. Within four months by March 1942, Japan had largely achieved those objectives and dug in to protect its gains. Despite warnings by its best strategist, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, Japan clearly hoped to negotiate peace from a position of strategic strength. The attack without warning on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines coupled with Hitler’s reckless declaration of war on the United States, however, guaranteed the development of a grand alliance primarily of the United States and the British Empire underpinned by America’s industrial might that Yamamoto realised could only result in total defeat.

The impact on Australia was profound although more from a psychological than material perspective. With their rapid advances against the complacent colonial powers coupled with the raids by Admiral Nagumo’s carrier force ranging from Pearl Harbor to Ceylon, the Japanese looked to be nearly invincible. When Nagumo raided Darwin on the morning of February 19, 1942, with a strike force as large as that which attacked Pearl Harbor, many saw this as a prelude to an invasion of Australia. According to the Official History, the raid was intended merely to cover the Japanese invasion of Timor. My own view is that the raid, followed as it was by fifteen months of intermittent land-based raids, was intended to delay the development of Darwin, the best possible base for strategic attacks on the Japanese-held oil fields that were critical to Japan’s war-fighting ability. Be that as it may, the raid, followed by nuisance attacks on other northern towns and shipping, reinforced the conviction that Japan intended invasion. Australian government propaganda and the press reinforced the belief and an air of panic developed. The government was intent upon reinforcing a sense of crisis so as to encourage the community to gear up for total war after more than two years of little more than business as usual, and the sense of panic was reinforced by the loss of the 8th Australian Division in Singapore and its detachments throughout the island chain to the north. Allied to the official propaganda were the rumours of landings, alleged submarine sightings and the like that proliferated and continued throughout the war. Many of these have become received wisdom ever since.

At the level of government there was serious cause for concern at the time. Three experienced AIF divisions were in the Middle East, while the conscript army at home consisted of some ten divisions on paper which had not received adequate training for combat operations and were seriously deficient in equipment. The attempt by John Curtin, now the Prime Minister, to have the AIF divisions returned to Australia led to a serious confrontation with the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who wanted to use two at least to defend his beloved empire in Burma and India. Fortunately Curtin, backed by the unanimous opinion of his chiefs of staff (two of which were British officers), prevailed and the 6th and 7th Divisions came home, not without some further prevarication by Churchill, who diverted convoys and held troops in Ceylon for some time. What the histories tend not to tell us is that if Churchill had prevailed, those two divisions would have reached Burma just in time to be captured.

What is now well known is that the Japanese never intended to invade Australia although the myth does persist. The Japanese navy certainly wanted Australia occupied but the army pointed out that it did not have enough troops to do the job, that the navy could not provide enough shipping and, in any case, Australia was too tough a nut to crack because the Australians would fight hard. Thanks to some very capable American, British and Australian cryptographers, Japan’s rejection of the invasion option was probably known to the government by the end of April 1942. In any case, the US Navy’s smashing victory at Midway in June 1942 ensured that Japan could do no more than carry out nuisance raids. Thereafter the invasion story had propaganda value only.

Thanks largely to the sometimes bitter American Army–Navy rivalry, the flawed Australian perspective of the war began to take hold from the middle of 1942. The global Allied organisation divided the world into theatres of operations. Australia became the headquarters of the South-West Pacific Area under General Douglas MacArthur. Admiral Chester Nimitz in Hawaii commanded the greater part of the Pacific including the South Pacific. Nimitz and his chief, Admiral Ernest J. King, had no time for MacArthur and ensured that the naval forces available to the SWPA were never adequate to the task.

For his part, MacArthur and his mainly American staff were initially disparaging of the Australian Army that for at least a year provided the bulk of his ground forces. This reserve—to put it politely—endured until the Australian troops demonstrated in combat that they were superior to their poorly trained and inexperienced American counterparts. Time was to change attitudes and performance but MacArthur, like Eisenhower in Europe, refused to allow a non-American to command American forces in the field. The Australian Commander-in-Chief, General Blamey, was nominally MacArthur’s ground force commander but was never allowed to exercise that command over American troops. On the other hand, the US 5th Air Force commanded by General George Kenney under MacArthur was perhaps half Australian in strength and has been credited by at least one American historian with the destruction of the Japanese air force.

The series of defensive battles that have dominated Australian history began in July 1942. By that time, the Japanese had occupied the coastal towns of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and had built a major naval and air base at Rabaul. By early May, their attempt at a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby had been defeated in the Coral Sea battle by a combined US-Australian naval force. Japanese strategy then concentrated on two offensives to protect their base at Rabaul and to attempt to cut the supply line between the United States and Australia. The first saw landings at Buna on the north coast of Papua, at Milne Bay at the south-eastern tip of the main island and a possibly diversionary push at Wau in the New Guinea goldfields. The aim of these operations was to occupy Port Moresby and prevent its use as a base for air attacks on Rabaul although success might have created additional options for offensive air operations against the Australian mainland. The second offensive saw a drive down the Solomon Islands chain initially to build an air base on Guadalcanal.

The story of the long retreat from Buna through Kokoda and eventually to the Imita Ridge just outside Port Moresby has very properly become the stuff of Australian legend. The experienced and well-equipped Japanese troops were not as great an enemy as the terrain, the climate and the mosquito. Both sides struggled and the underlying operational problem that beset both sides was that, in advancing, they drew away from their supply base, while in retreating they were more easily supplied.

The Japanese were stopped at Wau and soundly defeated at Milne Bay for the first time in the Pacific war. After a bitter struggle in the rain and mud, they were withdrawn. Similarly the overland campaign across the Kokoda Track was defeated with many of the Japanese troops withdrawn to support the Guadalcanal operation. Those left fought on with dwindling supplies until they were finally mopped up in January 1943.

The Guadalcanal operation was strategically far more important to Australia’s security but is hardly recognised in Australian history primarily because Guadalcanal was in the Pacific Ocean theatre of operations. A Japanese success would have gone far to cut off Australia—and MacArthur—from America’s industrial cornucopia with devastating results especially for our air force. Guadalcanal was a mainly American operation although Australian naval and air units played some part and Australian naval intelligence through cryptography and the Coastwatchers played a vital role. The Navy lost the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra sunk and the light cruiser HMAS Hobart badly damaged. Guadalcanal was above all a naval campaign of attrition in which the Japanese navy suffered heavily in ships and trained naval aircrews. The real story is that the Kokoda, Milne Bay, Wau and Guadalcanal campaigns were intimately linked by Japanese strategy, and Allied victory resulted from a close Australian-American, that is Allied, partnership. That the partnership has been characterised too much by too many perhaps avoidable squabbles should not detract from its effectiveness.

After securing Guadalcanal and Papua, Allied strategy initially called for the capture of Rabaul. MacArthur however argued for Rabaul to be by-passed and that bases be developed on the north coast of New Guinea preparatory to an invasion of the Philippines. Allied forces—mainly American and New Zealand—pushed up the Solomons chain but the main operations secured the Vitiaz Straits between New Guinea and New Britain with numerous amphibious landings on both flanks of the straits in the last three months of 1943. In fact, over this period, Allied forces in the South-West Pacific are said to have conducted more amphibious landings, sometimes at fortnightly intervals, than in the whole of the prior history of warfare. Land operations were dominated by the Australian Army while the RAAF formed around half of the Allied air force and the growing number of RAN small ships provided an important part of MacArthur’s relatively small Seventh Fleet.

By early 1944, the Allies were well established on the road to Tokyo. But it was at this time that significant contradictions arose in the Allied plans. While MacArthur initially sought to have the very experienced Australian divisions available for the Philippines invasion, American policy was anxious to have that American colony liberated by US forces. As well, the different supply requirements of the Australian and US forces would have created difficulties that, though not insurmountable, provided a complication. For Australia, the critical factor was the legal obstacle to the Army’s employment.

Throughout the Pacific war, Australia had in fact two armies. The all-volunteer Australian Imperial Force could be employed anywhere, while the bulk of the army was the conscript Australian Military Forces, known as the Militia and often by less complimentary terms. Legally and under long-standing Labor policy, the AMF could only be used for operations on Australian territory. This allowed AMF formations such as the 7th and 30th Brigades to fight in Papua, where they proved their considerable ability. When operations moved on to the New Guinea mandated territory, the three combat divisions of the AMF could not be used until Curtin managed to persuade the Labor Party to extend their sphere of operations as far north as the Equator. Even then, land operations north of the Equator were restricted to the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions of the AIF. By early 1944, these divisions needed extensive rest and refitting after almost three years of continuous operations in the Middle East and New Guinea. The three AMF divisions, 3rd, 5th and 11th, were restricted to New Guinea while the very large garrison forces designed to defend Australia against the mythical invasion served little purpose except to support the field forces and the government’s “defence against invasion” propaganda. One of my earliest memories is of watching the searchlights scanning the skies for enemy bombers from a battery in the park across the street from my home in Melbourne’s suburban East Camberwell in 1943-44. It was manifestly impossible at that time for Japanese aircraft to attack Melbourne but those conscript soldiers had to be employed doing something.

For their part, the RAN and RAAF could be and were employed throughout the SWPA. As well, RAN units served with the Royal Navy’s Eastern and, later, Pacific Fleet. RAN ships formed part of both the British Pacific Fleet and the US Seventh Fleet when these forces entered Tokyo Bay at the end of the war. Similarly RAAF units served throughout the world, predominantly in Europe, and many RAF units included Australian products of the Empire Air Training Scheme.

Behind the combat forces lay a vast Australian agricultural, industrial and transport infrastructure devoted to supporting the Allied forces in the field locally and overseas. By 1944, the demands on this infrastructure had become so great that, with the sidelining of much of the Army, troops were increasingly discharged to civilian life to support production. The mobilisation and development of industry especially was to provide the basis for rapid economic expansion after the war. In terms of the war effort itself, few Australians are aware that Australia was the only Allied nation to contribute more to the Lend-Lease program than it received. Even so, by war’s end, the RAAF was the fourth-largest air force in the world while the RAN, despite heavy losses of its major units, still boasted 337 vessels of all kinds, many of them built in Australian shipyards.

Politically, the Curtin government rejected the option of forming a national all-party government on the British model. Elections were held as scheduled in 1943, resulting in a smashing Labor victory against a demoralised opposition whose core United Australia Party had collapsed. Nevertheless, the all-party Advisory War Council was offered and accepted a significant role so that decisions by the council were accepted as cabinet decisions.

Not all was sweetness and light. The Army was plagued by numerous squabbling generals who tested the authority of the Commander-in-Chief. In the RAAF command relationships were so poisonous that the air units allocated to the SWPA were formed into a semi-independent RAAF Command under an officer of equal rank to the Chief of Air Staff. In industry and transport, strikes were all too common and exacerbated often by poor working conditions and long hours. A massive growth in the Commonwealth bureaucracy imposed widespread restrictions and processes whose utility was not always obvious. For far too many, political and administrative power was highly addictive.

When the main Allied forces moved on to the Philippines and beyond, they left numerous Japanese forces more or less isolated in New Guinea. The question then arose of what to do about them. These forces were substantial and, although lacking more than a trickle of supplies, managed to subsist mainly by growing their own food. The decision to use the AMF divisions and the 6th AIF division to confront and destroy these forces in New Guinea, New Britain and Bougainville led to a furious debate between most of the government on the one hand, and some of its supporters, the Opposition and much of the press on the other. The dispute continues to this day.

The opponents of the policy argued that the Japanese were defeated and harmless, that they should be contained and allowed to wither on the vine and that Australian casualties should be avoided. In essence, that view argued that Australia had done its bit and that there was no longer any question of invasion. Fundamentally, it was a “little Australia” isolationist view in which having allies guarantee Australia’s security was a convenience if not a right. The government view had several parts. Dr Evatt as External Affairs Minister was anxious that Australia continue to use its resources to play as great a role as possible in the defeat of Japan so as to boost Australia’s credibility in the peace settlement. With discussions under way for the formation of the United Nations, Evatt wanted as great a say as possible. For its part, the military view paralleled Evatt’s, particularly as General Blamey’s more sophisticated strategic view tended at that time to lean away from the USA and back towards Britain with a role for the AIF divisions in what is now Indonesia and East Malaysia. Blamey also understood that having an army with nothing to do was an anachronism.

There is a third argument for mopping up those by-passed Japanese garrisons in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. In 1919 Australia had argued passionately to acquire the Mandate and had indisputably accepted responsibility for the welfare of the New Guinean people. To that extent and especially because we had neglected their security before 1941, Australia could be said to have a fundamental responsibility to relieve them of what was an oppressive occupation. To me, having lived and worked in what had been occupied areas, this has always been the most important consideration and a basic test of Australian maturity.

There is much fine writing about Australia’s role in the Pacific war. Somewhat disappointingly, it tends to the descriptive and the parochial. There are many fine works on for example the Kokoda campaign but they fail to set it in the perspective of the whole of the world war in which Australia played an important role as a member of the Grand Alliance. Moreover, too many take sides in the internal squabbles, looking for scapegoats and forgetting that warfare is a highly dynamic enterprise because there are usually competent adversaries to take advantage of surprise, error or misjudgment. The Official Histories are an invaluable resource but any overarching strategic view tends to be buried in the detail. Australia’s wartime story is a great one that laid the foundations of its remarkable postwar development. It deserves to be better understood by the generations that have benefited.

The temper of much writing about Australia’s role in the Second World War is isolationist. As a nation almost wholly dependent for its prosperity on overseas trade, Australia cannot afford isolationism and has not been able to do so since the First Settlement. The isolationist sentiment still drives much of what passes for a defence debate by Australians who fail to realise that our vital interests extend to the shores of our trading partners. As a former Governor of New South Wales, Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair, once said, “Australia is a maritime nation with a continental mindset.” That debate will not go away until we recognise the strategic reality.

Michael O’Connor is the former head of the Australia Defence Association.

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