281 Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister

Cablegram Winch 10 LONDON, 19 January 1942, 4.20 a.m.


Your Johcu 17. [1]

1. I thank you for your frank expression of views. I have not been responsible for the neglect of our defences and the policy of appeasement which preceded the outbreak of war. I had been for eleven years out of office and had given ceaseless warnings for six years before the war began. On the other hand I accept the fullest responsibility for the main priorities and general distribution of our resources since I became Prime Minister in May 1940. The eastward flow of reinforcements and aircraft from this island has been maintained from that date forward to the utmost limit of our shipping capacity and our means of moving aircraft and tanks. I deem the Middle East a more urgent theatre than the now christened A.B.D.A. area. We had also to keep our promises to Russia of munitions deliveries. No one could tell what Japan would do but I was sure that if she attacked us and you, the United States would enter the war and that the safety of Australia and ultimate victory would be assured.

2. It must be remembered that only three months ago we faced in the Middle East, where the Australian Imperial Force lay, the threat of a double attack by Rommel [2] from the west and over- running of the Caucasus, Persia, Syria and Iraq from the north. In such a plight all the teachings of the war showed that everything should be concentrated on destroying one of the attacking forces.

I thought it best to make a job of Rommel while forming with the rest of our resources the best Levant- Caspian front possible.

This latter was largely beyond our resources. Since then two thirds of Rommel's army has been destroyed and Cyrenaica cleared, but only by a very close margin. In fact it hung in the balance at the moment when Auchinleck [3] rightly superseded Cunningham. [4]

3. Although I cannot promise total destruction of Rommel we have at least gained a very substantial success which has already rid us of one serious danger and liberated important forces. At the same time the tremendous, unexpected resistance of Russia has given a considerable breathing-space, and it may be more, on the Levant-Caspian front. Thus we are able to move the 17th Indian Division and soon several other Indian Infantry Divisions previously assigned to the Levant-Caspian front, together with the 18th British and 7th and 8th Australian Divisions, with substantial aircraft and some armoured forces, from the Middle to the Far East theatre. This we are doing with all speed. You may judge how melancholy our position would have been if we had been beaten by Rommel and if the Caucasus, the Baku oil wells and Persia had been overrun by the enemy. I am sure that it would have been wrong to send forces needed to beat Rommel to reinforce the Malay Peninsula while Japan was still at peace. To try to be safe everywhere is to be strong nowhere.

4. We have to be thankful, firstly for the Russian victories, secondly for our good success against Rommel and thirdly that the United States was attacked by Japan at the same time as ourselves.

The blame for the frightful risks we have had to run and will have to run rests with all those who, in or out of office, failed to discern the Nazi menace and to crush it while it was weak.

5. No one could foresee the series of major naval disasters which befell us and the United States around the turn of the year 1941/42. In an hour the American Naval superiority in the Pacific was for the time being swept away. In another hour the PRINCE OF WALES and the REPULSE were sunk. Thus the Japanese gained the temporary command of Pacific waters and no doubt we have further grievous punishment to face in the Far East. In this new crisis affecting you, I should have approved the sending of the three fast Mediterranean battleships to form, with the four R's [5] and H.M.S. WARSPITE just repaired, a new fleet in the Indian Ocean, or to move to your protection as might be most helpful.

6. I have already told you of the H.M.S. BARHAM being sunk. [6]I must now inform you that H.M.S. QUEEN ELIZABETH and H.M.S. VALIANT have both sustained underwater damage from a human torpedo which put them out of action, one for three and the other for six months. [7] As the enemy do not yet know about these three last mentioned ships you will see that we have no need to enlighten them and I must ask you to keep this last deadly secret to yourself alone.

7. However these evil conditions will pass. By May the United States will have a superior fleet at Hawaii. We have encouraged them to take their two new battleships out of the Atlantic if they need them, thus taking more burden upon ourselves. We are sending two and possibly three out of our four modern aircraft carriers to the Indian Ocean. H.M.S. WARSPITE Will soon be there and thereafter H.M.S. VALIANT. Thus the balance of seapower in the Indian and Pacific Oceans will in the absence of further misfortunes turn decisively in our favour, and all Japanese overseas operations will be deprived of their present assurance.

Meanwhile we are trying to make up by air power in the Mediterranean our lack of a battlefleet and the impending arrival of ANSON and completion of working up of the DUKE OF YORK enable us to face large reductions in American strength in the Atlantic for the sake of the Pacific.

8. We must not be dismayed or get into recrimination but remain united in true comradeship. Do not doubt my loyalty to Australia and New Zealand. I cannot offer any guarantees for the future and I am sure that great ordeals lie before us, but I feel hopeful as never before that we shall emerge safely and also gloriously from the dark valley.

1 Document 278.

2 German Commander-in-Chief in North Africa.

3 U.K. Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East.

4 Commander of the U.K. Eighth Army in North Africa until 26 November 1941.

5 Ramillies, Resolution, Revenge and Royal Sovereign.

6 See Document 131.

7 Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in fact had been attacked in Alexandria harbour on 19 December 1941.

[AA:A3195, 1942, 1.2352]