293 Mr V. G. Bowden, Official Representative in Singapore, to Dr H. V. Evatt, Minister for External Affairs

Cablegram 66 (extract) SINGAPORE, 23 January 1942, 1 a.m.

MOST IMMEDIATE MOST SECRET PERSONAL FOR EVATT

[matter omitted]

10. Fitchett [1] describes the present position of the British Forces as 'desperate and perhaps irretrievable' and I feel this is justified.

11. General Officer Commanding Malaya [2] is clearly uneasy about the position. He states that the Japanese being rice-eaters can live on the country and are organised to move without wheeled transport which enables them to move freely across the country without metal roads. (Advance down the east coast to Mersing for instance has been made entirely by land and the great part without roads.) Our forces on the other hand must transport all their supplies and are thus bound to the roads. He stated that Indian troops have not proved suitable for the conditions of fighting in Malaya.

12. My conversation with Air Commodore this morning revealed that only relatively small portion of air reinforcements received [?or] expected can be regarded as immediately effective because full complement of crews do not accompany them. Thus although 52 Hurricanes have been received and 32 assembled only 13 are serviceable today because only 16 crews came with them, some of which have been lost. The aircraft carrier expected at the end of the month south bound brings 48 Hurricanes with pilots who will fly them ashore but ground staff and spare parts for these and bomber reinforcements flying here from the Middle East will be following by convoy. Until they arrive these aircraft cannot be serviced and it will therefore only be possible to use as many as the personnel already here can cope with. As our needs are immediate reports received of substantial air reinforcements arriving thus prove extremely misleading and hopes based thereon are largely illusory.

BOWDEN

1 Official war correspondent attached to the 8th Division, A.I.F.

2 Lt Gen A. E. Percival.

Curtin left Melbourne on 21 January for a holiday in Western Australia. During his absence the Deputy Prime Minister, F. M.

Forde, presided at War Cabinet meetings and was referred to in some press reports as the Acting Prime Minister, although some cablegrams continued to be dispatched under Curtin's name.

Following press and Opposition criticism of his absence from War Cabinet at such a critical time, Curtin issued a statement on 26 January, revealing that one of the reasons for his visit to Perth was to carry out a request from the U.K. Admiralty that he discuss vital defence matters with the Premier of Western Australia. J. C.

Willcock; he returned to Melbourne on 1 February. Almost certainly among the defence matters Curtin discussed in Perth was an Admiralty request that commercial shipping be diverted from Fremantle to allow the port to be used by British capital ships.

See Curtin's unnumbered cablegram of 20 January to Willcock (AA:A3196, 1942, 0.1881-2).

[AA:A981, WAR 42]