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

Cablegram Johcu 21 CANBERRA, 23 January 1942


I am communicating the following message as the result of an emergency meeting of the War Cabinet summoned today to consider reports on the situation in Malaya and New Guinea. [1]

PART I-MALAYA 1. The General Officer Commanding A.I.F., Malaya [2], reports that part of his force has been cut off without possibility of relief.

It would appear from information received regarding the disposition of the A.I.F. and its operations that support for it has not been forthcoming.

2. Whilst we have no intention of suggesting any criticism of the Indians who are fighting the common foe, we are greatly disturbed by references made by the General Officer Commanding A.I.F. to their unsuitability for this type of warfare. If this is correct, we hope you are not placing too much reliance on the mere numerical strength of the land forces you are sending without regard to their qualities.

3. Page has reported that the Defence Committee has been considering evacuation of Malaya and Singapore. After all the assurances we have been given, the evacuation of Singapore would be regarded here and elsewhere as an inexcusable betrayal. [3] Singapore is a central fortress in the system of Empire and local defence. As stated in Johcu 17 [4] we understood it was to be made impregnable and in any event it was to be capable of holding out for a prolonged period until the arrival of the main fleet.

4. Even in an emergency diversion of reinforcements should be to the Netherlands East Indies and not Burma. Anything else would be deeply resented and might force the Netherlands East Indies to make a separate peace.

5. On the faith of the proposed flow of reinforcements, we have acted and carried out our part of the bargain. We expect you not to frustrate the whole purpose by evacuation.

PART II-THE PACIFIC 6. The heavy scale of the Japanese attack on Rabaul, where including other parts of the Bismarck Archipelago there is a force of 1,700, and the probability of its occupation, if such has not already occurred, presage an early attack on Port Moresby.

7. The strength of Australian troops at Port Moresby is 5,500.

Great importance is attached to this centre by our Chiefs of Staff as it is the only base in this region from which control can be exercised of the Torres Strait, which is the most direct line of supply to Darwin, the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya, for which it is being extensively used. In the absence of Rabaul, Port Moresby is also a base for offensive operations against the Caroline and Marshall Islands when British and American strength permits of counter-offensive action.

8. We have information at the present moment that a United States naval force consisting of two carriers, five 8-inch cruisers, one 6-inch cruiser and three destroyers is carrying out a sweep from Samoa towards the Gilbert Islands. Such an operation if carried on towards the Japanese bases in the Marshalls will, by threatening their flank, form a valuable diversion from the Japanese southward advance from Rabaul, and would be a great help to us. Chief of Naval Staff, Australia [5], is communicating direct with Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet [6], following the arrangements relating to Anzac area, offering our forces and seeking his cooperation in this offensive action against the Japanese. The assistance of yourself and your naval advisers in influencing such a move on the part of the Americans would be most helpful.

9. Our advisers state that submarines would form a most valuable addition to the defence of Port Moresby, where there is every facility for their operation, and it is requested that if possible some may be allotted to that base.

10. We are in full agreement with the concluding sentence of the New Zealand reply on the Anzac area [7] to the effect that unified command over all naval forces engaged in the war against Japan and the eventual formation of a fleet superior to the Japanese capable of wresting from our enemies the command of the western Pacific remain essential to the defeat of Japan. We expect that the best immediate measures will be taken to remedy the situation.

PART III-AIRCRAFT 11. Our experiences at Ambon and Rabaul have emphasized the urgent necessity for fighter aircraft immediately. Japanese methods make it clear that without fighter protection for our aerodromes there is every prospect of carrier-borne enemy air attack destroying our extremely limited striking force on the ground by low attack, designed to search out individual aircraft. These tactics may be practised with impunity by enemy against our mainland aerodromes as well as at advanced bases, owing to lack of fighter protection and almost complete absence of gun defences. A request is made for the immediate allotment to the R.A.A.F. of Up to 250 fighter aircraft of Tomahawk, Hurricane II or similar type.

12. It is impossible to expect us to give effective resistance with the inadequate aircraft at our disposal and we desire the allotment to the R.A.A.F. of United States aircraft of suitable types which are already in Australia or are likely to arrive shortly. This course would be in substitution of aircraft long since ordered for the R.A.A.F. expansion programme but not yet delivered from the United States of America.

13. Your support of the above proposal with the United States America authorities is requested, together with an immediate arrangement for the allocation to the R.A.A.F. for use at Port Moresby of a squadron of United States of America P.40 fighter aircraft approaching completion at Townsville. General Brereton [8] has communicated this request to Commander in Chief, A.B.D.A.

area [9], for whose area the aircraft are intended, but we ask that the authority controlling General Wavell should direct that it be approved.

PART IV-GENERAL 14. The trend of the situation in Malaya and the attack on Rabaul are giving rise to a public feeling of grave uneasiness at Allied impotence to do anything to stem the Japanese advance. The Government, in realising its responsibility to prepare the public for the possibility of resisting an aggressor, also has a duty and obligation to explain why it may not have been possible to prevent the enemy reaching our shores. It is therefore in duty bound to exhaust all the possibilities of the situation, the more so since the Australian people, having volunteered for service overseas in large numbers, find it difficult to understand why they must wait so long for an improvement in the situation when irreparable damage may have been done to their power to resist, the prestige of the Empire and the solidarity of the Allied cause. [10]

1 See War Cabinet minutes 1741 and 1742 of 23 January in AA:A2673, vol. 10.

2 Maj Gen H. G. Bennett.

3 See Document 292.

4 Document 278.

5 Vice-Admiral Sir Guy Royle.

6 Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

7 Repeated to the Commonwealth Goat on 16 January as no. 21 (AA:A3195, 1942, 1.1969).

8 Commander, U.S. Army Forces in Australia and Air Commander in the A.B.D.A. Area.

9 General Sir Archibald Wavell.

10 This cablegram was repeated on the same day to R. G. Casey, Minister to the United States, as no. 15 (on file AA:A981, War 33, attachment B) with a request to show it to President Frank in D.

Roosevelt and to ask for his help in preventing the evacuation of Singapore.