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

Cablegram P29 LONDON, 22 January 1942

MOST IMMEDIATE MOST SECRET CURTIN FOR HIMSELF ALONE

Last night as a result of a personal wire from Wavell [1] to Churchill a special meeting of the Defence Committee was called.

This wire pointed out the deterioration of the situation in Malaya. One Indian Infantry Brigade and two Australian Battalions on the left flank had been cut off and if the position could not be restored this might necessitate withdrawal of troops in the Segamat-Labis area and ultimately withdrawal to the island of Singapore.

On this, the question was raised as to whether, if the retirement to the island of Singapore became necessary, it was possible to hold it and if not whether the question of its evacuation should not be now considered, and whether the proposed reinforcements for Malaya and Singapore should be sent to the Burma Road to keep the track open to China.

At the Defence Committee meeting I pointed out that Chiefs of Staff had always insisted on the imperative necessity of holding this considerable part of Johore to give depth to the Singapore defences, that Wavell's line in Johore had been determined as the line that must be held at all costs, that this line could be held with less troops than Singapore island, that all possible reinforcements should be sent from the Singapore garrison to put Japanese infiltrators who had come south of that line in between two fires, that there would be less loss by fighting on this line and more chance of victory than there would be in withdrawal and finally attempted evacuation from Singapore in which there must be considerable loss of life, and that therefore promised reinforcements should all be delivered. Evacuation would cause irreparable loss of prestige, and I think irreparable damage to the Allied cause, quite apart from its military aspect. The evacuation of Malaya and Singapore would make the five Japanese divisions in Malaya available for attacking the Burma Road, the Straits of Malacca would be open to the Japanese fleet, which with air protection from the Malayan coast could then get into the Indian Ocean and practically cut off Rangoon, interfere very considerably with all sea-borne reinforcements from the Middle East or from England via the Cape. I asked had Bennett's [2] opinion been obtained as to what should be done and what reinforcements were necessary for him to hold the present line, and had the Dutch been consulted. After much argument it was generally agreed to wait on events for a couple of days to see what happened-the Australian Battalions and the Indians might easily fight their way back to the main army.

In the meantime it is imperative that you should let me know what Gordon Bennett thinks of the whole situation. This emergency emphasises the value of having such matters discussed in London where Prime Minister and his Chiefs of Staff are available. Though under the AngloAmerican arrangement orders to Wavell are transmitted through Washington, the representatives there of the British Chief[s] of Staff receive their instructions from London and if there is disagreement between those instructions and the American Chiefs of Staff Roosevelt and Churchill settle the issue by agreement. In London Churchill has the advantage of the views of his own whole staff organisation, opportunity of consulting Dutch and is also able in a personal way to give Wavell his mind.

Under the constitution as proposed executive advice to the Chiefs of Staff in London which would be transmitted to Washington would come from the Far Eastern Council if established. On this Council Australia, New Zealand and the Dutch would dominate the position, would be able to bring the strongest pressure to bear on the Chiefs of Staff here and ensure that the instructions to their representatives in Washington would be more on the lines we wished followed. I think the history of the American attitude towards Singapore makes it imperative that the advice on this matter to Washington should come from London as the Americans, in addition to their past views on the relative unimportance of Singapore, are more anxious to assist China than any of the other Allies. If the matter is not argued out in London and a definite view put up from the Chiefs of Staff here, we may find Malayan reinforcements diverted despite our wishes.

I regret I did not see Dominions Office telegram No. 72 of 19th January [3] prior to its despatch, as would have asked for fuller details to be given you. Explanatory note handed to me is incorporated in my immediately following cablegram. [4] I feel certain your reply No. 68 [5] will materially assist clear up whole question of machinery of representation that will meet Australia's needs and desires, especially now that our request for continuous representation in War Cabinet has been granted.

Am glad to see your telegram 65 [6] on Bennett's status and will push from this end if necessary.

Suggest that whatever representation you have on Wavell's staff should be fully seized of your views.

PAGE

1 Allied Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. Area.

2 General Officer Commanding 8th Division, A.I.F.

3 Document 283.

4 See cablegram P30 of 22 January On file AA: A2680, 14/1942. See also Document 298.

5 Document 289.

6 Document 286.

[AA:A2937, A.B.D.A. STRATEGIC AREA, 1941-1942]