110 Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister

Cablegram P3 LONDON, 14 November 1941, 1.10 a.m.


My telegram [P]2. [2]

In consultation with Bruce [3] I prepared a statement for the special meeting of the War Cabinet held on November 12th. I set out below a summary of this statement and in a separate cable I am sending a report of the discussion on it. [4] Summary begins- The object of my visit is to give the United Kingdom War Cabinet at first hand Australian point of view with regard to such problems arising from the war. Australia's geographical position renders her position somewhat different from that of the other Dominions, except New Zealand, owing to difficulties of communication other than telegraphic and the absence of personal contacts. Also, our isolated position in the Pacific, with the special problems involved in that area, demands special consideration.

During my visit, I hope to have opportunities of dealing with many questions of vital concern. On the present occasion I propose to confine myself to the one question of the position in the Pacific and the danger arising from Japan's present attitude.

The Pacific and Indian Oceans:

This portion of the British Empire is vital to our future destiny and prosperity. It is essential that we should keep for ourselves and deny to the enemy the sources of vital raw material this area provides. Areas of the Pacific and Indian Ocean portions of the Empire are three-quarters of the whole, but they hold six-sevenths of the population and there is double the import and export trade into and out of [the United Kingdom of remainder of the Empire].

Its products are indispensable to the prosecution of the war to both Britain and America.

This objective can best be achieved by keeping Japan out of the war. This can be done- (a) by being, ourselves, strong; and (b) by the closest co-operation with the United States of America.

Dealing with (a), Australia recognises the paramount importance of the defence of the United Kingdom and the necessities of the situation in the Middle East. We appreciate how limited were our armaments when we started this war, how magnificent has been the effort of building them up, how difficult has been the task of determining the allocation of our limited resources between the different spheres of our responsibilities. At the same time, Australia feels that there has not been quite a sufficient recognition of the importance of the Far East. In saying this I am not overlooking the recent action in sending a battle squadron, which Australia greatly appreciates, nor do I overlook all that has been done-which I recently had an opportunity of seeing at first hand -with a view to strengthening Singapore.

I feel, however, so vital is it that if we are to deter Japan, we should increase our air strength even at the expense of the other theatres. Figures of the Singapore Conference were that 22 squadrons were necessary of which 64 were fighters, 128 bombers, 32 torpedo bombers and 144 general reconnaissance and flying boats, making a total of 336 or 22 squadrons. [5]

I understand that there are 76 fighters available at present and 44 bombers. Of these, 24 torpedo bombers are of an obsolete type 'Vildebeeste' and there is a shortage of nearly 100 general reconnaissance planes.

This estimate was a reduced estimate from 582. It is very important that the 336 aircraft should be immediately available- first of all because of their value in the nature of a deterrent.

The position we will have to face if even this does not act as a deterrent shows that a strengthening of the air force would be equally imperative under those circumstances. [6] Even with this strength, which may deter a direct attack upon us, we are faced with four possibilities of Japanese attack on neighbouring nations on which we must make up our minds. These four instances are:-

(1) Japanese attack on Russia.

In this case we would be forced to [go to] her aid by declaring war on Japan. Public opinion both in Britian and Australia on this point would force the issue because we have been building up this psychology of the necessity of aid to Russia. While we would not be in a position to give Russia direct aid, the presence of a strong Air Force in Singapore would enable us to give her indirect aid by assisting the Chinese to harass the Japanese in China.

(2) Japanese attack on Kunming and the Burma Road.

Chiang Kai-shek's message [7] was regarded as of such importance by the Prime Minister as to send his own appeal to the President of the United States of America. [8] You have seen the attitude adopted by General Smuts in his cable from South Africa and to the cable on similar lines from Australia. [9] In my view it would be disastrous if our failure to assist Chiang Kai-shek led to [the cessation of Chinese resistance to Japan].

I would emphasise again that it is only by strengthening the Air Force in the Far East that effective help could really be given to China.

(3) Japanese attack on Netherlands East Indies.

Feeling in Australia is very strong. Some people would be under a delusion that we could sit by and do nothing in the face of a Japanese attack on Netherlands East Indies, and I was glad to learn from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs [10] that the question of giving an undertaking to the Dutch was being considered. The reaction in Australia and New Zealand to inaction by Britain if the Netherlands East Indies were attacked would be such as to almost break the Empire. In addition the raw materials that would be given to the Axis partners by their successful inroads on the Netherlands East Indies would lengthen the war and cost many hundreds of thousands of lives.

I would stress that the strengthening of the Air Force in Singapore is the only immediate step we can take in the face of this possibility now that the very wise action of sending the battle fleet and basing it at Singapore has been taken.

(4) Japanese invasion of Thailand.

Feeling in Australia [is that] military necessity, quite apart from political considerations, would almost inevitably force us to come in should the Japanese go into Thailand, but it is possible that this case may not be as clear as the first three I have mentioned. I, myself, have little doubt that we would have to take action. Here, again, an increase of air strength is the only practical step to meet this eventuality.

The position therefore is that in these four instances, all of which are out of our control, we would probably immediately have to take the field against Japan if she attacked these distant powers. On the declaration of war even greater forces would be despatched to Singapore than those necessary now to deter Japan from aggressive action.

With regard to co-operation with America, I would stress that I recognise that our policy in the Pacific must be- (1) to keep Japan out of the war;

(2) that if we are unsuccessful in doing that, we must ensure that we will have the co-operation of America.

I understand that the United Kingdom Government's policy in giving effect to these principles is to maintain the closest liaison with the United States down the lines of ensuring that the United States will take the lead and that our actions will depend on what the United States does. I would like to discuss with the War Cabinet this line of policy towards the United States. Australia has grave doubts with regard to the United Kingdom Government's attitude of insisting that the United States must take the lead and that our actions must be dependent upon what the United States does. To support this contention I would point out that I have already shown that in case of an attack by Japan upon Russia, Kunming, or the Netherlands East Indies, we would inevitably have to take action irrespective of what America did.

In these circumstances would it not be better to tell America frankly that this is our position and to put it to them [that] even if they could give us no undertaking as to what they could do in such circumstances, which is almost certain to be the case, ask them at least to give us privately, without any commitments, the definite tip that they will, as soon as they can, come to our aid? I realise that this somewhat frank and outspoken approach to the United States may not be acceptable to the British Government. If that is so, in my view it is a pity, but I do not believe that it makes very much difference as America would be forced, in her own interests, to come to our aid in the event of our being at war with Japan although we might have to face a certain delay before this happens. My view on this point is strengthened by what I have seen as I have come through of the complete change in the outlook in American Pacific outposts and the work they are doing in speeding up their defensive and offensive preparations in the Philippines, Guam, Wake and other islands and in arrangements (already made) with the British Government and with the Australian Government to build themselves aerodromes to get their longest distance bombers on the spot at the earliest possible moment to help smash any movement of the Japanese fleet.

I have thought that this waiting on America may not help us much with American public opinion. I am sure that a forthright statement like the Prime Minister made on Monday has already helped us tremendously. [11] I As far as American administration is concerned, there is no doubt that they are quite soundly behind the Prime Minister and the British Government. They would recognise the necessity of coming to our aid and would do it just as fast as public opinion would let them.

If we had taken a resolute and determined line, American public opinion would be sympathetic with us and the Administration's task would be facilitated. If, on the other hand, we had stood by in the face of Japanese aggression, American opinion quite [unjustly] would be hostile to us and the Administration's task would be made more difficult. [Reflection of this] attitude in the Army and Navy can be seen in the conduct of negotiations earlier in the year when Americans spoke quite frankly about the British simply protecting the trade routes while not being ready to take the offensive with their Navy, and the surprise of the American Admiral that we did not have Singapore ready to repair our battleships and had to send them on to Pearl Harbour.

The whole case that I wish to make is that I am using every endeavour to strengthen the air position at Singapore. I urge that action be taken, not on the basis of thinking what can be done, but [by a] definite and immediate decision of the War Cabinet to send a certain number of additional planes and that the decision be implemented by issuing of instructions that this must be done.

The number at stake is relatively small. The use that they can be put [to] to help in China, in Netherlands East Indies, in Singapore, is very great. [We must and we do keep in these situations even as far away as Australia definite home defence squadrons, which public opinion forces us to make as adequate and efficient as possible.] The influence of the action I ask for in either preventing war or delaying it will have a great effect on the psychology of Australia towards the war effort. It will markedly affect the manner in which Australia will be able to handle its limited man power. This, in its turn, will increase the number of men available for overseas service, for munitions making and for food industries and improve substantially Australia's contribution to the whole of the Empire's war effort.

Summary ends.


1 Words in square brackets have been corrected/inserted from the London copy on file AA : M103, 1941.

2 Dispatched 14 November. On file AA : A981, Pacific 8, i. It reported that Page, at a meeting of War Cabinet on 5 November, had stressed the dangerous situation developing in the Far East and the need of immediate reinforcements for Singapore.

3 High Commissioner in the United Kingdom.

4 Document 113.

5 The Singapore Defence Conference of October 1940 had recommended that a minimum of 582 aircraft was necessary to guarantee the security of Burma and Malaya, but the U.K. Chiefs of Staff had concluded subsequently that 336 aircraft 'should give a very fair degree of security' (see cablegram 49 of 28 January on file AA :

A2671, 61/1941). In a paper dated 11 April (see Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol. IV, Document 400), the U.K. Chiefs of Staff had provided a breakdown of the types of aircraft required. In using these figures Page misquoted the number of bombers, the correct number being 96.

6 Page's views on the reinforcement of Singapore were not shared by the Minister for External Affairs. Evatt argued that the air reinforcements requested by Page would not be 'a clear deterrent' to Japan and that it was 'more important to urge expedited arrival of capital ships than increase the air strength'. This would 'not only act as a deterrent, but be a very material factor in influencing the course of operations, if Japan did in fact attack in any direction'. Moreover, the withdrawal of ships from the Middle East would have less effect on vital operations there than would be the case with aircraft. See 'Comments on Telegrams P2 P6', dated 20 November, on file AA : A981, Pacific 8, ii. The paper is unsigned, but is identified in Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939-1941, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1952, P. 549, note 2.

7 See Document 98, note 1.

8 The substance of Winston Churchill's message to Franklin D.

Roosevelt was conveyed to Australia in the cablegram published as Document 102.

9 See Document 106, note 3 10 Anthony Eden.

11 In a speech on 10 November at the Mansion House Churchill had vowed that 'Should the United States become involved in war with Japan the British declaration will follow within the hour'. See the Times, 11 November 1941, P. 5.


Memorandum by Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom

[LONDON], 29 November 1941

Page [1] was invited to the War Cabinet the day after his arrival (October 30th) in England. When I went to see him I found him preparing notes of what he would say at this meeting. I strongly advised him not to make any statement but merely to acknowledge whatever courteous thing Winston said and if invited to make a statement, indicate that he would prefer to have an opportunity of talking to the Service Ministers and Chiefs of Staff before doing so, and ask for an opportunity to be afford[ed] at some later date.

This advice Page agreed with and at the meeting took this course.

Arrangements were made for him to make his statement on the 12th November.

On the evening before he was making his statement he came to my office about 5.00 p.m. and outlined to me what he was going to say. This statement appeared to me to introduce innumerable irrelevant matters and not to make the point which was his objective, namely, the reinforcement of Singapore.

I told Page this and outlined to him what I thought he should say.

He agreed with my suggestions, but to my horror asked that I should dictate them. Very reluctantly I did so as the job had to be done in half an hour and I would have liked more time to think the statement out carefully.

Attached hereto are the notes which I did however dictate and also a copy of the statement that Page made to the War Cabinet. [2]

S. M. B[RUCE] [AA : M100, NOVEMBER 1941]

1 Special Representative in the United Kingdom.

2 Both documents are on file AA:M100, November 1941

[AA : A981, PACIFIC 8, i]