Curtin: A War Leader Out of his Depth

curtinI expected John Edwards’ John Curtin’s War to be part of the Judith Brett–Peter Stanley–John Pilger–Philip Knightley axis of anti-Liberal writers. However, though it leans to the left, it is somewhat more objective, or more subtle, than I had expected. It is not exactly a whitewash of Curtin and Labor, but more a greywash.

John Edwards has put a massive effort into discovering who said what and when, but one feels both a greater selectivity and a wider vision would have been helpful. A not-too-faint anti-Churchill sneer runs through much of it: “When it came to exculpation, no one could do it better than Churchill.” Well, Churchill pointed out correctly that he had been almost a lone voice against appeasement and for rearmament in the 1930s.

Edwards says Churchill despised Menzies, but offers no evidence. Churchill was grateful for Menzies’s support of Britain in the darkest hours, and described Australians as “gallant” and “glorious”. Menzies’s willingness to share the hazards of the Blitz night after night so he could address and encourage factory workers by day, and show them that Britain was not alone, was just the sort of physical courage Churchill admired.

Edwards says Britain was in no danger of invasion by the time the Japanese attacked, and could therefore have sent more help to Australia. But it was still in danger of military defeat, as well as defeat in the Atlantic, leading to economic collapse and national bankruptcy, after which it could no longer have fought. There was always a chance Russia would be knocked out, and its vast resources become German assets. By late 1941 things were becoming desperate in Britain in every way, and the standard of living relentlessly falling, with starvation not out of the question.

Edwards says, with what seems a tone of approval, that during the Depression, “The Scullin [Labor] Government was able to raise tariffs within six months of election.” For an export-dependent economy, this was the equivalent of hosing down a fire with petrol. Darwin, he says, was “full of naval shipping” when the Japanese attacked. It wasn’t.

The book mentions “the awkward subject of the admission of Chinese and Eurasian refugees to Australia”, as the Japanese closed in on Singapore, but not the more awkward fact that the Curtin government admitted only a token number (“50 Chinese, 50 Eurasian souls”), despite the pleadings of the Malayan Governor, and the fact that the rape of Nanking had served warning that the Japanese could be expected to treat the Chinese population atrociously. (In Singapore execution would be by boiling water was well as more conventional methods.) It was a shameful episode.

Edwards says, “Curtin found strikes infuriating”, as if someone was pinching his bottom. This is a massive understatement, though a change from those pro-Labor histories that hardly mention wartime strikes at all. In fact strikes, plus go-slows, work-to-rule, frivolous demarcation disputes, demands for excessive overtime and outright sabotage were massive problems, crippling the war effort, distressing Curtin to the extent of probably contributing to his early death. (Meanwhile convicts in prisons refused to be paid for rolling bandages for the forces.)

It is less crude than, for example, Knightley’s claim that Sir Robert Menzies believed “the great betrayal of the Second World War [that is, the fall of Singapore] could be forgiven”. It is worth saying straight away, before we get to the body of the book, that more than twice as many British as Australian troops were lost in Singapore, and Britain made desperate, if belated, efforts to reinforce it: as late as January 13, 1942, a British convoy arrived there with fifty crated Hurricane fighters, an anti-tank regiment of fifty guns, light and heavy anti-aircraft regiments, each of fifty guns, and the 54th Infantry Brigade, totalling about 9000 men.

Had the Japanese assault come a few weeks later or if the British had had a more enterprising commander than Percival, it might have failed. That it succeeded was, for the allies, largely due to the bad luck all wars are full of.

An ambush set by the British Admiral Somerville with a powerful fleet in the Indian Ocean on April 1, 1942, very shortly after the fall of Singapore, missed the Japanese fleet by four days. This British fleet was assembled despite the fact that the British, over a short period, had losses of capital ships exceeding the American losses at Pearl Harbor.

Australia expected Britain to send conscripts to defend Singapore, but under Labor pressure, would not send its own, though Singapore was half a world away from Britain and in Australia’s back-yard. It did not take a strategic genius to work out that Britain had to give priority to the war against Germany with its army of hundreds of divisions and all the resources of Europe, to keeping Russia in the war, and to keeping the enemy from capturing the Middle East oil-fields.

In 1937, Britain was spending 5.6 per cent of GDP on defence, Australia 1 per cent. Australia’s policy-makers were shockingly complacent and unrealistic, much of its union movement was frankly treacherous—a situation which Menzies and Curtin inherited as prime ministers and which they both struggled mightily against, though Curtin had argued against increased defence spending as late as 1938, after Munich. Australia was certainly “betrayed”, but not by Britain.

As the Japanese invaded Rabaul, and reached Johore, opposite Singapore, munitions workers were planning to take holidays. Curtin was on holiday himself, leaving a War Cabinet that was, as Edwards admits, incapable of “careful thought or anything other than indignation” towards Britain. When the Prime Minister’s holiday, after having exhorted the nation to work, was commented on by the BBC, he made a lame excuse that fooled nobody (Edwards recounts this frankly). It was one of the worst episodes of his prime ministership.

Edwards’s leftward lean is largely a matter not of falsehoods but of the omission or understatement of some facts at odds with Labor’s historical memory. This is despite masses of detail, some of it drearily obvious, such as telling us that a soldier on the deck of a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean could only see “the white wake of the ship and empty sea from horizon to horizon”.

Edwards attributes the loss of Singapore to Britain’s failure to provide Singapore with all-round defences. However, much of the blame must be attributed to the failure over many years of Australian governments of both parties, but most dramatically Labor, to take serious notice of what was happening in the world, and to make an effort to fulfil their first duty to the Australian people and provide defence and security, whether land, sea or air, and this in the face of warnings by Britain and by Billy Hughes and some other Australians.

As early as 1919 Britain’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Jellicoe, after touring Australia, proposed a combined Anglo-Australian-New Zealand Pacific fleet, Australia contributing 20 per cent. Australia, however, declined to co-operate. Australian governments ignored repeated warnings from Britain that in the event of a Japanese attack a British fleet might not be available, if Britain was engaged in Europe. Australia had years to strengthen Singapore by its own efforts but did nothing. It also did little for home defence until it was nearly too late.

In 1930 the Scullin Labor government’s delegate to the London Naval Conference claimed, “Australia is not apprehensive of the designs of Japan upon Australia.” A government paper the same year claimed that Australia’s only direct concerns beyond its borders were the future ownership of the Antarctic and the administration of the New Hebrides. The service colleges were closed. From 1929-30 to 1934-35, defence expenditure would remain at less than 1 per cent of the shrunken national income of the Depression years. The Labor Attorney-General Frank Brennan, speaking at the League of Nations, made Australia’s military unpreparedness a matter of pride:

Australia tells the world that, as a gesture of peace, she is not prepared for war … we have drawn the pen through the schedule of military expenditure with unprecedented firmness. We have reversed the policy which has subsisted in Australia for 25 years of compelling youth to learn the art of war.

Two days after the outbreak of the Second World War, the Australian Labor Party executive passed a resolution, endorsed by caucus, evidently intended to bring Hitler and the Panzer divisions pouring into Poland smartly to heel without the necessity for further exertion. It began: “The Australian Labor Party affirms its traditional horror of war and its belief that international disputes should be settled by negotiation.” The much-despised Neville Chamberlain’s description of Nazism as “an evil thing … brute force, bad faith and persecution”, seems to read rather better for the record, not to mention King George VI’s magnificent broadcast speech.

The Australian Worker claimed Australia was at war only because of sentimental links to the British Empire and that there was no sound reason for drastic war precautions. A fortnight after the outbreak of war, Labor front-bencher Eddie Ward—who dubbed Australian servicemen “four bob a day murderers”—moved an amendment to the Defence Act guaranteeing against conscription for service outside Australia. At this time Labor was opposed to conscription even for home defence. All this did not aid its argument when Australia was calling desperately for help against the Japanese onslaught.

Curtin, in opposition in 1939, refused to obey the ACTU’s directive to directly and illegally oppose the government’s proposal to compile a national register of manpower and assets, which would have amounted to outright rebellion, but in a bizarre speech to Parliament he attacked the proposal as a violation of liberties comparable to Nazism itself. When he proposed a voluntary register, the ACTU opposed even that.

These things—and those quoted here are only the tip of an iceberg—are all glossed over or barely mentioned in Edwards’s book, as are the multitude of strikes on the water-front and, possibly even more damaging, on the coal-fields as well as in shipyards and munitions plants. About six million working days were lost in Australia directly through strikes, the number lost indirectly being a multiple of this. These strikes would go on, and in some areas even increase, after Curtin had become Prime Minister, Japan had entered the war, and Australia’s national survival was thought to be in danger. Menzies was inhibited from dealing with the strikers with a heavy hand, for fear of provoking worse trouble, but Curtin, as the head of a Labor government, was in a stronger position to do so. It was largely due to strikes that Darwin was so poorly prepared when the Japanese attacked it in 1942.

Edwards states that after the fall of Singapore, Britain sent no help to Australia. There is no mention of the fact that Britain sent the modernised Queen Elizabeth-class super-dreadnought HMS Warspite, armed with 15-inch guns and probably the best-worked-up ship in the Royal Navy, to Australian waters. In 1942 there were three squadrons of British Spitfires operating out of Darwin and British submarines operating out of Fremantle and Albany (neither mentioned in this book).

Everything was connected to everything else. It was because Britain and Canada were doing the heavy lifting in the Atlantic, and Britain was pressuring the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and Burma, that America was free to concentrate naval strength in the Pacific and Japan had a large army tied up in the Indo-Burma theatre. Edwards does make the point that had Australian troops been landed in Rangoon as it was falling—as Churchill and General Wavell apparently briefly wanted at one point, though they soon changed their minds—they would have been uselessly captured. However, had they, or some of them, been sent to India after the Burma Army, battered but holding together under Slim’s magnificent leadership, reached India to regroup for an eventual successful counter-attack, they might have been very useful indeed, once any direct threat to Australia was stopped. (I have seen anecdotal accounts of small Australian units in the Burma campaign but the details don’t seem to have been investigated.) The Battle of Midway, the turning point for the war against Japan, where it lost four fleet carriers, may have gone the way it did because Japan lost up to fifty highly trained and irreplaceable carrier-pilots in the battles against British forces around Ceylon. To say Britain simply abandoned Australia is simplistic.

If Britain were defeated, as Menzies and belatedly Curtin certainly understood, Australia was probably gone as well. As Gandalf said in The Lord of the Rings, “If Gondor falls, the Shire will be no refuge.”

We are told here that “there was very little chance Churchill would send more planes to Malaya”. In fact, as mentioned above, he sent fifty Hurricanes which reached Singapore too late, and others which were diverted to Ceylon and saw fierce fighting there.

I was unable here to find any reference to Curtin’s statement to Parliament of June 24, 1941: “The Labor Party has no objection whatever to the Germans practising Nazism in Germany.” One can imagine the feast Australian historians would have made of this conspicuously unremarked statement if Menzies had made it.

Menzies would say after Curtin’s death that “he led his party out of a species of pacifism and isolationism that had marked it for many years”. It was a considerable, even great, feat, considering what he had to contend with, but he was mighty slow in doing it, and he never decisively tackled the strikes and other industrial trouble that handicapped Australia’s war effort and cost the lives of Australian servicemen. Throughout the war, Australian industrial production remained lamentable, a fact most graphically seen when it is compared to that of Canada. Jonathon Huston writes in “Time to Dispel the Curtin Myth (Quadrant Online, December 2017):

Some comparisons of war production between the two nations call for a deep revision of Curtins 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. [And these were the smaller Bathurst-class of only about 750 tons.] The disparity is more pronounced in the production of land-based munitions. During the war, Australia hailed the production of 66 cruiser tanksthat 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.

Canada, which had begun the war with four ships, ended it with the third-largest navy in the world.

Notwithstanding Curtin’s noble efforts, Menzies’s achievements as a war Prime Minister were far more impressive than those of his Labor successors, and Curtin in opposition paid tribute to them. Sir Percy Joske, a distinguished judge and politician, said in Sir Robert Menzies, 18941978:

The fact is that the war effort of the Menzies Government had been magnificent. Great judgement had been shown both in the organization of the armed forces and the civilian effort … The forces, raised from nothing, and in the face of tremendous opposition from opponents in Parliament and in the trade unions, had achieved great and glorious successes …

Five months before October, 1941, when he became Prime Minister, Curtin, the Labor leader, said: I claim that the war has been prosecuted to the maximum of Australias capacity.

The Curtin Government retained all [the leading industrialists appointed by Menzies] in the service of Australia and in the carrying out of the munitions programme … At the time Menzies went out of office, the local defence force and local materials for war were such as had never before been dreamt of in Australian history.

Frank Forde, the Labor Army Minister, said on October 20, 1941, less than a fortnight after Labor took office: “Our army, navy and air force are at a high standard of efficiency.” Another leading Labor MP, E.J. Holloway, said on August 21, 1941, when Menzies was still in office: “I know something of the organisation of industry, and when we compare what has been achieved with what we thought to be possible, we realise that somewhat of a miracle has been wrought.”

John Curtin himself said upon taking office: “I have to pay tribute to the government which preceded my own for the constructive work they have done in defence and the foundations they have laid.” And a week later:

The Navy was at its highest peak of efficiency, as demonstrated by the notable exploits of its ships overseas. The Home Defence Army was well trained and its equipment had been greatly improved. The strength of the Air Force had been largely increased, both in respect of home defence squadrons and the training resources of the Empire Air Scheme. The equipment of the Air Force has also much improved. Finally, munitions production and the development of production capacity over a wide range of classes, including aircraft, is growing weekly.

Earlier, speaking in Parliament on May 15, 1940, Curtin had said:

The Australian nation is better equipped now to meet any consequences of the war than was the case when the war started … I believe that that is the direct outcome of the sensible outlook of the Prime Minister … the high considerations of patriotism that animated him.

When Japan struck south, and three of Australia’s AIF divisions were in the Middle East, and the ill-fated 8th in Singapore, Australia actually had twelve home-defence divisions. They were poorly equipped and trained, but in the event of a Japanese invasion the facts that the Japanese would be fighting at the end of enormously long lines of communication, subject to attack all the way, and without America’s huge “fleet train” of supply vessels, and against highly-motivated forces, would probably have greatly increased the effectiveness of the defences. America could not afford to see Australia go, and it could be expected that its forces would have been landing all the time. The British Eastern Fleet was also in the Indian Ocean. It is not surprising that the Japanese saw an invasion of Australia as “a bridge too far”, and never attempted it.

Australia’s poor war production can be blamed on both the workforce and the government. Menzies had confronted the striking coal-miners and been pelted with missiles. The best Curtin could do was bleat pathetically to these same coal-miners, on whom the war effort largely depended: “I’m fed up. I can’t satisfy you. I grant you conditions you have been demanding for years—and that I have always regarded as your right. What will satisfy you? There’s a war on.” And again in Parliament on March 8, 1944: “The miners not only refuse to respect the wishes and policy of the government, but they also refuse to respect and heed the advice of their leaders … Frankly I do not know the basic cause which produces this state of mind.” Industrial production was so bad that first two, and then two more, divisions had to be disbanded before the end of the war to make up for the desperate situation. Ben Chifley, who said on Curtin’s death that he was “too fine a gentleman for politics”, and blamed “the people with whom he was associated” for killing him, simply put the Army in to dig coal.

Curtin appears to have been fatally handicapped by the conflicting demands his own mindset, setting loyalty to the union movement—he seems to have regarded unionism as literally sacred—against the demands of total war. He stated at Sydney University on November 30, 1939:

“The paramount thing about this war is that, however the war ends, its termination must see Australia with a united, well-organised clear-thinking, labour movement.” (If the allies had lost the war, all these objectives for the labour movement might have been achieved: unified, clear-thinking, organised. As an Orc put it in The Lord of the Rings: “Where there’s a whip there’s a will!”) In 1943 Curtin was still saying: “Trade unionism, the right of workers to organize for industrial or political purposes—is the real thing at stake in this war.”

The real thing at stake? Never mind the millions of Jews murdered in Europe or the millions of Asians murdered by the Japanese.

The conflict within him may have been literally fatal: he died of hypertension and stress at the sage of sixty. After his death three of his closest friends and colleagues—his successor Ben Chifley, West Australian Labor Premier Philip Collier, and Curtin’s biographer and press secretary Lloyd Ross—all more or less said this, blaming his colleagues in the Labor movement.

The claim that his disputes with Churchill in 1941-42 had taken a toll on his health seems less likely. He “made up” with Churchill and, as Wayne Reynolds documents in his excellent and original Australias Bid for the Atomic Bomb (2000), went so far at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference in London in 1944 as to offer Churchill all Australia’s uranium for an Empire nuclear strike force. So much for the myth that Curtin was anti-British.

Both Menzies and Curtin struggled against disloyalty in their own parties to an extent that seems shocking in wartime. Eddie Ward, who, with amazing folly, Curtin made Minister for Labour and National Service, more-or-less called Curtin a liar in Parliament and a collaborator for sitting with Menzies on the War Council. Evatt, keen to please Stalin, pressed Britain to declare war on Stalin’s innocent victim Finland, which had done, and could do, Australia no harm whatsoever. It was another scurvy episode.

The famous article signed by Curtin in the Melbourne Herald of December 27, 1941, to the effect that Australia looked to America “free from all pangs” regarding its relationship with Britain, which angered Churchill, did not impress America, and was made much of by enemy propaganda, appears to have been largely Evatt’s work, though approved by Curtin (he later said he regretted it). The decision had already been made between Britain and America that America would take over the Pacific and Britain and Canada the Atlantic. The article was, Churchill said, “flaunted around the world by our enemies [and] produced the worst possible impression both in high American circles and in Canada”. The article did nothing but create bad feeling all round and was a good chance to shut up missed.

Then there was the allegation cabled to London by Evatt, but sent under Curtin’s name and apparently with Curtin’s knowledge, that the evacuation of Singapore would be regarded as an “inexcusable betrayal” (as if Britain wanted to lose Singapore). Actually, the evacuation of Singapore would have been the best and most obvious thing to do in the light of the strategic situation if major and timely reinforcement was impossible, perhaps saving tens of thousands of allied troops, including the 8th Australian Division, from murderous captivity. Instead of calling the evacuation inexcusable betrayal (whose ever the wording actually was) Curtin should have been pressing for it, and if necessary sending every ship Australia could find to help. As it was, the cable smacked of panic and paralysis in Australia’s war-leader.

It appears Evatt’s derangement had been growing long before the Petrov affair made it public. With colleagues like that, Curtin needed no enemies. Whether Australia’s diplomacy then had any effect at all in securing American aid is hard to say. But it would appear obvious that it was in America’s interest to use Australia as the base for a great Pacific counter-offensive.

Had Australia contributed before the war to the strengthening of the Singapore base, history might have been very different. When the Japanese attacked Singapore, the big 15-inch naval guns mounted there could only fire to seaward, but the 9.2-inch guns, with all-round fields of fire, had only armour-piercing shells which, firing into the jungle, buried themselves uselessly in the mud. Australia had a number of 9.2-inch guns. Could not high-explosive ammunition have been rushed to Singapore from Australia in the six weeks it took the Japanese to fight their way down the Malay Peninsula, or before, when the menace of Japan had become obvious?

Then there is Curtin’s minute as leader of the Opposition, unmentioned here, to the bipartisan Advisory War Council of February 5, 1941, advising Prime Minister Menzies in regard to strikes against the manufacture of ships and mine-sweeping equipment. It shows what both Menzies and Curtin were up against:

If it can brought vividly home to the members of the unions engaged in such activities that the lack of ships and of degaussing and paravane equipment was causing the deaths of fellow unionists in the seamens union, they would readily agree to forgo their objections and make extreme efforts to remedy the situation to the best of their ability. The general public did not realise the danger that lay at their very doors. There was an urgent need for the general public to be shocked into a proper realization of the position. [Emphasis added]

This has a claim to be the most shocking, not to say sickening, document in Australian history. Curtin, who knew unions if anyone did, was saying unionists were prepared to let non-unionists fighting Nazism and fascism die—members of their own class and perhaps their own families. It is impossible to know now if his segue about the “general public” was sincere, or if it was an attempt to shift blame from the traitorous shipyard workers to the community at large.

His claim that they did not realise the gravity of the position seems another lame, or perhaps naive and bewildered, attempt to excuse his beloved union movement. Unless shipyard workers were all mentally retarded they would have been fully aware there was a war on.

The Rabaul episode is another indictment of the ALP government’s handling of the war, for which Curtin must take ultimate responsibility. A few days after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked Rabaul with a huge fleet including battleships and aircraft carriers. It was an obvious base for attacks on both Australia and the islands.

The 1500 Australian troops there were hopelessly outnumbered and ill-equipped, but instead of being evacuated as soon as Japan entered the war, to live and to reinforce Australia’s home defences, they were left to die. (Hardly any survived the war.) Rabaul’s air defence consisted, utterly inexcusably, of ten Wirraway training aircraft—slow, cumbersome, and armed with two machine-guns, which in a gesture of doomed heroism took off to meet the swarming Zeros and were shot out of the sky. There should have been a court of inquiry, a royal commission, or perhaps a court martial, into who was to blame for leaving them all in that position. The Wirraways could have been withdrawn and their brave pilots could have lived to fight another day. If there was ever an “inexcusable betrayal” that was it.

Curtin decided this would be a good time to take a holiday and trundled back to Perth across the Nullarbor in a steam train, his own comfortable coach coupled up to some barely-converted cattle-trucks containing Australian soldiers. He was almost totally out of touch with events (one hut on the Nullarbor was equipped to pick up morse code) and missed several sittings of the War Cabinet and War Council. Edwards does not try to whitewash this, apart from stating Curtin needed a holiday. One cannot imagine Churchill, no matter how exhausted, doing this in the middle of a crucial battle.

Again, in Timor, a hopelessly inadequate garrison was left to die, though evacuation would have been easy. The 2/2nd Independent Company escaped and carried on a guerrilla war for months, tying up two Japanese divisions and killing many times their own number. But Timor was an isolated bright spark. As Churchill pointed out, they were the only troops in the Pacific who did not surrender. The rest were lost. In fact, all these penny-packet forces spread thinly among the islands to Australia’s north should have been withdrawn.

In December 1941, the Bulletin published a cartoon, “All out of step but Jack”, showing the major allied leaders marching together in full uniform. Curtin, however, though carrying a rifle and wearing a slouch-hat, was out of step and in partial civilian dress, including—cruel touch!—a cardigan.

Curtin’s press secretary, Don Rogers, interviewed for ABC radio, said that Curtin, in Melbourne during the invasion fears of about March 1942, and unable to sleep, woke Rogers about midnight and walked with him unrecognised to St Kilda pier. He discussed with Rogers the idea of imposing a seven-day working week on Australia. This seems bizarre, not because such a measure would not have helped the defence effort in this emergency, but because Curtin was unable to get large sections of Australia to work even a normal week. It shows how violently his whole psyche was being wrenched about.

According to Ross McMullin’s The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991 (1991), Cabinet, with the exception of Chifley, was “stunned” when Curtin was daring and radical enough to raise the possibility of conscription for service outside Australia in 1942. Limited conscription for service in the South-West Pacific was introduced in November-December 1942. Before then the only conscripts allowed to defend the approaches to Australia and its immediate territories apart from New Guinea were British and American. The extent that opposition to conscription was embedded in “identity politics”, rather than in anything rational or susceptible to argument, is graphically demonstrated by the fact that The Light on the Hill could state:

During 1942 Labors opponents kept trumpeting [sic] Australias need for one army which could be utilised wherever appropriate. They knew this would mean in effect the introduction of conscription for overseas service, the very issue which had smashed the ALP during the previous world war: they were hoping for a repetition, but claimed that the interests of national defence were uppermost in their minds.

This implies that advocating military efficiency when Australia was thought to be in danger of invasion was an anti-Labor plot, and the “opponents of Labor” could have no real agenda beyond such a plot. It was not possible they could really have higher intentions. This suggests an enmeshment in a particular mindset and mythology from which it is evidently very hard to escape. “Trumpeting”, of course, is an action associated with elephants rather than humans, and to use it in such a context looks like an instance of the polemical technique known as animalisation of the enemy.

Those who “trumpeted” the need for one Australian Army included John Curtin. In November 1942, he told the Federal Labor Conference that “the war plans of the Allied Command in the Southern Pacific were being hampered” by Australia’s inability to send conscripts to the islands immediately beyond its shores. This was a flat contradiction of frequently repeated declarations of the Minister for War and several other Cabinet ministers that there was no need to conscript the Citizens Military Force to serve outside Australia. It was no light thing for the Prime Minister to tell the conference that government policy—dictated by the Party—was hampering the Allied Command. Later Curtin pointed out that it was hardly logical that an Australian conscript could be sent to Darwin to be bombed but not to Timor to stop Darwin being bombed.

Curtin told Menzies at Christmas 1942 that his health was “only fair” and that he was suffering from a skin condition, evidently psoriasis, which probably had a psychological cause. In the Bulletin of January 6, 1943, Norman Lindsay drew another cruel cartoon of a hunched, cringing Curtin begging humbly to be allowed to address the ALP Conference on the subject of conscription, which in fact was not cartoonist’s licence but a depiction of exactly what happened: the Prime Minister was physically kept outside, being shown who was boss, until the conference deigned to admit him. Curtin wept when Ward, cleverly pushing his psychological buttons to cause him the maximum distress, told him that he was “putting young men into the slaughterhouse, although thirty years ago you wouldn’t go into it yourself”.

From one aspect, Curtin had an immeasurably less stressful task than did Menzies. Menzies was Prime Minister when the British Empire was fighting alone and final defeat was very much a possibility. When Curtin was Prime Minister, America and the Soviet Union were in the war, with at least three times the strength of the Axis. The production of America alone was estimated at eleven times that of Japan, and even allowing for the period when it was thought Australia might be raided or invaded or some of its ports occupied, eventual victory was certain and became more so with each month that passed and the mighty wheels of American industry speeded up.

In his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt set out the war production targets of the United States to thunderous applause: 60,000 aircraft in 1942, 125,000 in 1943; 45,000 tanks in 1942, 75,000 in 1943; 6,000,000 tons of merchant shipping in 1942, 10,000,000 tons in 1943. These targets, Andrew Roberts says, “were not simply reached but comprehensively beaten”. One 10,000-ton Liberty ship—admittedly a special propaganda effort—was built in four days, the keel-plate of the next being laid on the slipway before it hit the water. America built 35,000-ton aircraft-carriers almost as quickly as Australia built corvettes.

By the end of the war, Australian troops, though by now better equipped, were being thrown away—as Menzies pointed out in Parliament—in pointless campaigns against isolated and by-passed Japanese island garrisons, for little better reason than to show that Australia was doing something.

Curtin remains a puzzling figure of nobility and weakness. Any possible objective picture of him is now overlaid and blurred by clouds of partisan mythology. The overall impression one gains is that Curtin was a profoundly decent man out of his depth as a war leader who died trying to do the best he could, but was partially stuck in an incompatible trade union mindset. Was he living in one of those nightmares in which one wades through a sea of treacle? My father, Sir Hal Colebatch, a Liberal politician who knew Curtin well, wrote on his death: “that he gave his life for his country is abundantly clear”.

Hal Colebatch’s book Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II is published by Quadrant Books.


2 thoughts on “Curtin: A War Leader Out of his Depth

  • rodcoles says:

    “An ambush set by the British Admiral Somerville with a powerful fleet in the Indian Ocean on April 1, 1942, very shortly after the fall of Singapore, missed the Japanese fleet by four days. This British fleet was assembled despite the fact that the British, over a short period, had losses of capital ships exceeding the American losses at Pearl Harbor.”

    Nagumo’s Kidō Butai had five of the six fleet carriers from the Pearl Harbour, plus a light carrier, with about 350 aircraft embarked, the four “Kongo” battlecruisers, with cruisers and destroyers, all flush with unbroken success. Somerville had two fleet carriers and the old, small Hermes with a total of about 60 aircraft, mostly inferior to the Japanese. His five battleships were the famous modernised HMS Warspite, with the four obsolete slow “Revenge” class antiques. Although stronger numerically in cruisers and destroyers, there had been little opportunity to work up the individual units into a properly cohesive force.
    Perhaps it were better that Admiral Somerville, renowned for his fighting qualities, did not manage to spring his ambush. The result would surely have been disaster.

  • en passant says:

    Politicians of all creeds make terrible appointments (despite the clear evidence of intention on the appointee’s part) that bring them down: “Eddie Ward, who, with amazing folly, Curtin made Minister for Labour and National Service, more-or-less called Curtin a liar in Parliament and a collaborator for sitting with Menzies on the War Council.” A modern example is Abbott appointing Turnbull to the Communications portfolio.

    I bought two copies of your book and sent one to the ‘Prime Minister-in-waiting, but received no ‘Thank You’ note.

    Believe it or not, Armies are more often defeated by peace and the decisions of politicians, than on the battlefield.

    In 1978 I served in 3 Brigade in Townsville. One night at a local club I belonged to I was berated by an old man who claimed he had been a wharfie in Townsville. I have recently tried (but failed) to verify his proudly told story that he had been imprisoned for sabotaging equipment being sent to the islands. He went on to claim that on his release he then volunteered to help the war effort as Russia had entered the war, but his offer was refused. He claimed he was not allowed to work on the wharves, so he spent his time sabotaging the railway rolling stock. He was unrepentedly proud of his war effort 38 years later.

    As for today’s ADF, it is not the Army I was part of but it will not be defeated – as it will soon be incapable of even fighting. Training in diversity, saying “Boo” to the enemy and identifying climate change as the greatest threat, just isn’t going frighten or stop armed enemies.

    Thanks to a ‘Hell in High Heels’ General I would not join the Army today. So when the warriors such as Andrew Hastie and Ben Roberts-Smith departed, the remainder can have a luv-in, pillow fights and sleepovers. Much better than mud & blood. I doubt the hard men who will be our enemies will find the Anzac’s of tomorrow the equal of those of yesteryear.

    So, how do we define the objectives of our expensive, taxpayer funded killing machine (no, not the ABC):

    1. What is the objective of our war on climate change?
    2. How do we know when the ADF has defeated this enemy?
    3. What is the ideal average global temperature grail we seek?
    4. What is the ideal concentration of CO2 we seek to regulate in the atmosphere?
    5. What effect can the Oz sacrifice have on the climate compared to doing nothing?
    6. Why is it so urgent to go to war now when the ‘threat’ is 50 to 100+ years away and may never happen
    7. How much has the sea risen in geologically stable Hobart since the high water mark was carved into a cliff in 1841 by Captain Ross

    Seven deadly questions that must be obfuscated, but never answered.

Leave a Reply