289 Advisory War Council Minute

Minute 145 SYDNEY, 13 February 1941

INTERNATIONAL SITUATION-FEBRUARY 11TH, 1941

(Previous reference-Minute No. (125) [1]).

(The Minister for Supply and Development [2] was present for the discussion of this subject).

The statement on the international situation prepared by the Department of External Affairs, dated 11th February, 1941 [3], was read and noted by the Advisory War Council.

Dominions Office cablegram Z.43 of 11th February [4] and Australian Legation cablegram No. 106 of 10th February [5], on the Far Eastern situation were also read to the Council. A general discussion took place during which the following questions were raised:-

(i)Japanese Nationals. The information contained in the statement in regard to the warning of Japanese nationals in Australia was confirmed by the Minister for the Army. [6]

(ii) Thailand. Mr. Beasley [7] suggested that the statements in paragraph 6 indicated that Thailand was playing a double game. The Minister for the Army stated that as a result of his visit to Thailand he had reported to Cabinet that Thailand had found herself literally forced into the hands of the Japanese, in that she received very little support elsewhere and the Japanese in consequence had exercised a tremendous influence on Thailand, which we were now endeavouring to counteract.

(iii) Discussions with Netherlands East Indies. Mr. Beasley made reference to the statements in the External Affairs appreciation and also in the outline of the recent defence measures, to discussions now taking place, and suggested that they had been left to rather a late period. The Minister for the Army stated that a complete change of opinion had taken place in the Netherlands East Indies in the last few weeks and it was only within that period that the Governor-General of the Netherlands East Indies [8] had agreed to the conversations. The victories of the British Forces in North Africa had probably brought about this result.

(iv) Attack on Hong Kong. Mr. Curtin [9] made reference to cablegrams which were read from which it could be inferred that the possible Japanese movements would be by an attack on Hong Kong with gradual penetration southward. By refraining from a forceful attack further south, Japan could hope to save herself from American intervention for the time being and by indicating her intention of dominating the foreign areas adjacent to Japan and withdrawing her attack from Communistic [sic] China might placate and strengthen her relations with Russia.

He thought that eventual American intervention was probable, but should the war show signs of going against us she might, in the first instance, concentrate on strengthening the United Kingdom in the Atlantic and help to get back the outposts of the Empire later.

The transfer of American Naval Forces from the Pacific to the Atlantic would be disastrous to Australia. He suggested that there were two questions which required immediate attention, viz:

(a) the strengthening, if possible, of the Naval Forces at Singapore;

(b) ensuring the utmost efficiency of the Australian Air Defences to counter air attack which, in the early stages, would possibly be sporadic but nevertheless have serious results.

It was clear in his mind that if we were drawn in we must stand alone for the time being. Even if America intervened immediate assistance would not be available.

(v) Mobilization Plans. Mr. Curtin referred to the attitude of neutral European nations before they had been invaded, that no action must be taken of a provocative nature, and he felt to some extent there was reluctance in the same direction in Australia.

There should be no emulation of the attitude of the neutral European nations of the fear of provocative action.

He doubted whether any advantage could be obtained by hesitancy, and suggested that we should mass our forces for our own defence and issue orders immediately for a test mobilization. This would not hasten enemy action, as undoubtedly they had full plans completed and it was only a question of time as to when they would put them into effect.

Whatever the cost, strain or provocation, a test mobilization would show our determination to withstand the enemy, and all sections of the community would stand fully behind the Government if such action were taken.

A test mobilization would be costly and would immediately affect the output of industry, but its eventual result would be a stimulation of all industrial output while its immediate advantage would be the test of our war machinery and the rectification of deficiencies found to exist therein. Cost must not be regarded as a factor.

Mr. Spender stated that he already had plans in hand for a partial test mobilization but did not propose that a full mobilization should be carried out because of its effect on industry. The latter test, however, Mr. Curtin suggested, was of great importance for the reason stated previously that such a test would show what was required in industry to remedy deficiencies. If a full test mobilization proved that industry could not carry on, then a similar outcome would result from mobilization under war conditions.

Mr. Curtin therefore recommended to War Cabinet 'that Australia be put on a war footing now because of the following factors:-

(1) The sense of expectation by the people of some such action and its psychological effect on the public in bringing them to a full realisation of the position.

(2) Deficiencies would be laid bare and steps would be taken to rectify them.

(3) It would result in training not only the fighting forces but also the civil population, showing them the role they should fill under war conditions.

(4) It would bring the civil population to some realisation of the danger of air attack on cities (particularly Sydney) by high explosive and incendiary bombing and gas.

(5) It would bring to light the paucity of our anti-aircraft protection. In this connection Mr. Beasley had suggested that anti-aircraft guns should be mounted in Australia instead of being despatched abroad, and that if such defences were provided at Newcastle, he felt that, apart from its defence value, its psychological effect would be such as to bring the dispute to a rapid conclusion. Mr. Spender referred to the deficiency of predictors which prevented the mounting of new anti-aircraft batteries to a great extent in Australia, and stated that our surplus of anti-aircraft guns output was at present being sent to Singapore, where it could be used to the greatest advantage.' (vi) Industrial Problems. Mr. Curtin stated that while the dissemination of information made available during the morning to the Advisory War Council was not advisable, he thought consideration might be given to leaders of industry, both employers and employees being called together to be given information which would clearly bring home to their minds the seriousness of the situation. There would be some leakage even with censorship, but the results would not by any means be more serious than the present Fifth Columnists' activities. If the leaders of industry could be given the facts the results would be effective.

The Acting Prime Minister [10] stated that he would hesitate, on the information at present before the Government, either to direct a general mobilization or to call the leaders of industry in conference on the lines suggested unless Parliament were first called together and had been taken into his confidence.

(vii) Army Plans. The Minister for the Army stated that plans for mobilization must take into consideration whether such should cover the whole of Australia or, in the first instance only, those areas which would be vital to Australia and, therefore, where the greatest danger would lie. This, he thought, could be looked upon as the requirements for first mobilization and thereafter units would be mobilized step by step in accordance with the capacity to provide for them both in the way of accommodation and equipment.

Plans on these lines were already being drawn up and he hoped that the Chief of the General Staff [11] would be in a position in the morning to give the War Cabinet the framework of the proposals.

Many aspects had to be taken into consideration, not only in regard to the effect on industry, but the capacity of the present machinery to meet the situation, including transportation. He appreciated that an immediate attack on Australia would bring about the necessity for a complete mobilization, but under present circumstances he considered it was undesirable knowingly to strain our machinery to the breaking point to carry out a full test mobilization.

Mr. Beasley sugested that the lines on which the Minister for the Army proposed to operate were convincing. If Parliament were called together, plans on which action must be taken should be complete and decisive action should immediately result.

DECISION Note was taken of the report of the Minister for the Army that plans were at present under review for partial mobilization, and it was recommended to War Cabinet that, in view of the serious international situation and the menacing attitude of Japan, plans for a mobilization of the Armed Forces of Australia should be taken in hand so that Australia could be put on a war footing immediately the necessity should arise.

WARNING REGARDING SECRECY The Acting Prime Minister stated that, in view of the very secret nature of the information that had been made available, during the course of the discussion on this subject, members should refrain from making any of the information available to the press. An official announcement would be made in the name of the Council in a prepared statement.

DRAFT PRESS STATEMENT Mr. Curtin submitted the following draft as a suggested press statement:-

'The War Council tells the people of Australia that the war has moved to a new stage involving the utmost gravity. A complete review was made of the situation and its implications. These can only be described as of the most serious import. Measures have been taken to prepare for all contingencies. The Chiefs of the Services will meet the War Cabinet and the War Council tomorrow.

The people of the Commonwealth are advised that the maximum preparations are in train and that these are being made with the maximum speed. We have been at war for more than a year. Our sea, land and air forces have been gallantly and effectively engaged in various theatres of this crucial conflict. They have proved their mettle incontestably. Events now widen the area of the general conflict; they bring it closer to our shores. What the future has in store is today not precisely clear. But what is clear is that Australia's safety makes necessary that there be neither delay nor doubt regarding the need for the greatest effort at preparedness the country has ever made.' After discussion it was agreed that the draft statement might create a panic and it was suggested that the Acting Prime Minister and Mr. Curtin should confer and decide on the statement to be issued.

(Mr. Spender, Mr. Hughes [12] and Mr. Beasley were not present during final discussion of the press statement).

APPROVED PRESS STATEMENT The following statement was finally agreed upon and was released to the press on the evening of the 13th February:-

'When the Advisory War Council adjourned early this afternoon, the Acting Prime Minister (Mr. Fadden), the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Curtin) and the Leader of the Non-Communist Labour Party (Mr.

Beasley) issued the following statement:-

"The Advisory War Council, at its meeting today, considered certain cable messages received by the Government dealing with recent developments in the international situation. The nature of these messages led the Council to decide to adjourn until tomorrow afternoon because in the meantime the position will be reviewed by the War Cabinet in consultation with the Chiefs of Staff of the Services.

"The Chiefs of Staff have been asked to come to Sydney to attend a special meeting of the War Cabinet tomorrow morning.

"As the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in the Far East (Sir Robert Brooke-Popham) is now in Australia, he has been invited to be present.

"The Advisory War Council will meet later in the day and the Chiefs of Staff will be invited to discuss the present situation.

"We think we should tell the people of Australia," the statement added, "that it is the considered opinion of the War Council that the war has moved to a new stage involving the utmost gravity. At the meeting today a complete review was made of the existing situation and its implications. These can only be described as of a most serious import.

"It is necessary to say that various contingencies of the next few weeks have been taken into account and effective preparatory measures have been taken.

"Australia has been at war now for more than a year. Our sea, land and air forces each have been gallantly and effectively engaged in various theatres of war in this crucial conflict. Each arm of the Service has proved its mettle incontestably.

"What the future has in store is at present not precisely clear.

What is clear is that Australia's safety makes it essential that there should be neither delay nor doubt about the clamant need for the greatest effort of preparedness this country has ever made." ' [13]

1 AA:A2682, vol. 1, Minute 125 of 5 February. For a record of the discussion which resulted in Minute 125 see Document 271.

2 Senator P. A. M. McBride.

3 Not found.

4 & 5 On file AA:A981, Japan 185B, i.

6 P. C. Spender.

7 Leader of the Lang Labor Party in the House of Representatives.

8 Jonkheer Dr A. W. L. Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer.

9 Leader of the Opposition.

10 A. W. Fadden.

11 Lt Gen V. A. H. Sturdee.

12 Attorney-General and Minister for the Navy.

13 The statement appeared in the press on 14 February.

[AA:A2682, VOL. 1]