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

Cablegram P16 LONDON, 20 December 1941, 7.37 p.m.

MOST IMMEDIATE MOST SECRET FOR THE PRIME MINISTER HIMSELF ALONE

Far Eastern situation.

The following are my comments on discussions at the Defence Committee meeting last night.

At the Defence Committee meeting, which lasted 3 1/2 hours, I broadly agreed with the general recommendations on the Far East set out in the report of the Chiefs of Staff, but said that though they might be all right as a relatively long term policy they did not meet the immediate position. The vital point at present was to prevent Singapore capitulating and to save the Dutch East Indies.

This was not merely because Australia would then be open to attack -which would be a sufficient reason of itself-but because in order to win the war it was vital to hold Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. The tenor of the report of the Chiefs of Staff is that Singapore must be saved, but [their recommendations] [1] seem to baulk at the immediate means. I pointed out that if Singapore went out of our hands and this strong British defensive point became a strong offensive point for Japan I could not see how we would be able to defeat Japan for years and that if we could recapture any neighbouring territories we would not be able to use the resources of these areas while the Japanese held Singapore. It was necessary to preserve for our own requirements vital raw materials of tin, rubber and oil to enable us to win the war on every front. I asked what stocks of these commodities had the United States and Great Britain and how we could renew our stocks of tin and rubber and maintain our munitions production if we lost our Far Eastern possessions. We would then find ourselves in as bad a position in this regard as Germany is now, and would be much worse off than Japan. From this point alone preservation of Singapore should become an A. 1 priority. For that reason I felt that in the report of the Chiefs of Staff there was not enough emphasis laid on immediate air reinforcements. We could not after the experience of Hong Kong any longer rely on previous estimates of the time which strong points could stand siege.

I would like to see a balanced battle fleet in the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the earliest possible moment and hoped that they would come, but if Singapore is to be saved it had to be by air forces immediately. That air support must come directly from the Middle East or from America. Our policy should be if necessary to take from the Middle East for Singapore what could be immediately physically transferred and to reinforce the Middle East from Britain as rapidly as possible to maintain the Libya campaign. On this point the Middle East might possibly be reinforced from America.

The needs of the Middle East and Far East should be examined together and an attempt made to see whether we could get fighters quicker from Britain or America or both across Africa. After a great deal of arguing, I secured a promise of an additional Blenheim Squadron to go forward from the Middle East almost immediately.

On the fighter position it was obvious that we could only have for use immediately what was already with the convoy in the Indian Ocean mentioned in the immediately preceding cable [2] or use American planes arriving in Brisbane today.

The Chiefs of Staff said that they were diverting fighters on convoy which was the quickest way of reinforcing Malaya. With regard to American planes, it was agreed that a request should be made to America to allow these planes to be used by us in Singapore fighting as soon as they were assembled. [3] It was felt that if Casey [4] also made a request in Washington it would expedite the permission and I urge that this be done immediately.

On the question of bombers, which are as important in Singapore as fighters, I urged that six squadrons of Blenheims should go at once and that Middle East squadrons should be filled up from Britain if this policy will embarrass their Mediterranean operations, and that every effort should be made to remove all bottlenecks or blocks on the reinforcement route.

Bombers and fighters could keep the Japanese from getting possession of Sumatra aerodromes. Once the Japanese get possession of Sumatra aerodromes they will be able to interfere with our reinforcements through the Indian Ocean to Singapore. Once they get possession of North Borneo they can stop us getting material reinforcements to Singapore through the Sunda Straits. The presence of British bombers and fighters could force away convoys that are bringing Japanese reinforcements to smash our men, could destroy their supply lines, could impede the use of railway transport, thus limiting the number of divisions they could employ against our own forces in Singapore, could prevent the Japanese making effective land or sea attack on Singapore itself, and could render our own troops much needed air support.

We might only have three or four weeks to save the position and immediate action might save us five or six years of war.

I pointed out most strongly, on the question of transfer of an Australian division from the Middle East to Malaya, that on every occasion up to the present the Australians have been asked to fight with inadequate air support and that the attitude of the Australian Government was likely to be very strongly influenced by British plans for air reinforcement.

I emphasised the deep concern felt by the Australian Government and people at the insecurity of Singapore through the inadequacy of air strength and stated that the establishment of forces in the Far East had never approximated the Chiefs of Staff's recommendations. I recalled my warnings given from my arrival in England as to the dangers of being too late after the Japanese attack if we did not have adequate air support in position. Every Japanese success made reinforcements more difficult.

The attitude of the Defence Committee on the Whole was that they were anxious to reinforce in every possible way if we could find physically practical means of doing so. The Vice-Chief of the Air Staff' said at the conclusion that he would immediately further examine the position to ascertain the possibility of expediting and increasing support promised.

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1 Words in square brackets have been corrected/inserted from the London copy on file AA:M100, December 1941.

2 See cablegram P15 of 20 December on the file cited in note 1.

3 On 21 December, the Naval Attache at the Legation in Washington, Commander D. H. Harries, reported that the U.K. Joint Staff Mission in Washington had asked the U.S. Chiefs of Staff to 'issue immediately orders for the go United States aircraft now arriving at Brisbane to be sent to Malaya or N.E.I. if they cannot be sent to Philippines'. See cablegram 1187/Tropic 137 on file AA:A981, War 33, i.

4 Minister to the United States.

5 Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman.

[AA:A2680, 143/1941]