14 Memorandum prepared for Delegation to Imperial Conference
MELBOURNE, 8 March 1937
STRATEGICAL IMPORTANCE OF PACIFIC ISLANDS
1. ITEM SUBMITTED
The New Zealand Government has submitted the subject of the strategical importance of Pacific Islands.
2. OBSERVATIONS OF AUSTRALIAN NAVAL STAFF
Any examination of the strategical value of the Pacific Islands must start from an estimate of the position in the Pacific after war has broken out.
The only possible enemy is Japan, and although the disparity of force in our disfavour will be large at the outset, we shall be in possession of a first-class and almost impregnable base-Singapore.
Furthermore, it is impossible to conceive of a world situation such that the United Kingdom would be unable to despatch a large proportion of the Main Fleet to Eastern Waters in the case of such a war. Hence, we may expect the balance of forces at the scene of operations to be levelled up in a comparatively short time.
(b) Importance of Pacific Islands to the Empire
To consider, firstly, the importance of these Islands to ourselves.
From the point of view of supplies, Borneo is of some importance for the supply of oil, while Nauru is of the highest importance on account of the supply of phosphates from that source.
As regards Imperial Communications, Fiji, Norfolk and Fanning Islands are cable stations, and are therefore of some importance. The destruction of the cable and instruments at these points would cause an interruption of some three weeks on this line, causing an overload on other lines.
From the point of view of warlike operations, none of the Islands are of very much value to us. Their only use would be as advanced bases, and for this purpose they are too far from any possible points of attack to be of value.
The only exceptions to this are the Japanese Mandated Islands, raids on which might have the effect of forcing a limited degree of dispersion on the enemy forces.
(c) Importance of Pacific Islands to Japan
An examination of the importance of these Islands from a Japanese point of view presents a slightly different picture. Several of them possess good harbours, which would be-if usable-of great value as advanced bases for attacks on our possessions and trade. In addition, Borneo would be a valuable source of oil supply for the Japanese Navy.
The islands under Japanese Mandate are of little importance from the point of view of trade, but there are several good harbours in these groups which could be used as advanced bases. What is probably of high importance, however, is the question of the loss of Japanese prestige involved in any successful attack on these islands'
To examine in slightly greater detail the use of islands not under Japanese control as advanced bases for their forces, it may be said that the further West they are, the better they are. For example, Borneo, the Solomons, New Guinea and Fiji, all possess numbers of good harbours, which would serve as bases for large fleets.
The remainder of the islands are poor in harbours, although there are many that a single cruiser could use as a fuelling base. From the Japanese point of view, however, all these islands, however great their natural advantages, suffer from one overwhelming disadvantage. That is their distance from the main base of supply-Japan. As long as Singapore remains in British hands and the British Fleet is in being, it will be an impossibility for Japan to subsist a fleet at such a distance from home, and the greatest use to which they can put any of the islands is as bases for cruisers and submarines employed on commerce destruction. Even so, the area in which they could work is not one in which our trade is vital.
From the above, it will be seen that the strategical importance of the Pacific Islands is not high, although those under Japanese mandate are of value to us as points of possible raiding attack, with a view to forcing dispersion on the enemy.
The trade in phosphates from Nauru is of high importance to Australia, and every effort should be made to safeguard this, if possible.
It is desired to state that, in this question-as in so many others-the greatest factor is the Sea Power of the Empire. With it, the importance of these islands is low-without it, this importance does not matter, for the enemy can work his will regardless of geographical situations.
Minister for Defence
[AA : CP 4/3, BUNDLE 1, ITEM 17]