449 Note by Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, of Conversation with Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister

I had nearly an hour with the Prime Minister this evening with regard to Evatt's cablegrams. [1] I was somewhat surprised at the length of time as I thought half an hour was the outside limit.

Notwithstanding, however, that Duncan [2] turned up at the end of half an hour, the Prime Minister went on and kept him waiting.

The party opened somewhat coldly as when I went in to the room the Prime Minister had the telegrams I had sent to him before him, said he had read them, and in a somewhat crisp voice asked me what I had to say.

I replied I had asked him to see me because I wanted to urge on him to send a friendly reply as otherwise the relations between Australia and the United Kingdom would be further strained.

This statement by me was greeted by a tirade from the Prime Minister which was more or less down the lines that the Australian Government was impossible and quite unhelpful; that they had pinned their hopes on the U.S.A., but now having found in Washington that those hopes were not likely to be realised they were falling back on the old country. As instances of the unhelpfulness of the Government he went back to the question of our taking our troops out of Tobruk, and referred to the refusal to allow the 7th Division to go to Rangoon.

I said that the Prime Minister's statement was quite unfair and was contrary to the fact. It was not true that the Australian Government had gone to Washington and because the going was not as good as they hoped they were falling back on the old country. That Evatt had made it plain in his cablegram that he was most anxious to avoid the position where Australia was being saved by the Americans and the Americans alone.

I said that with regard to Tobruk, that it was unfair to blame the present Government for this as the decision had been taken by their predecessors and it would have been politically impossible for the new Government immediately on coming into office to reverse the decision previously taken and that here to [sic] in face of requests for reconsideration.

With regard to Burma, I said their attitude had been quite a natural one because at the time that the request for the diversion was made there had been no clear indication that Australia's critical position was recognised and that she was going to receive adequate help.

The Prime Minister then switched on to the Casey episode [3] and said that Curtin [4] had given his consent and then made a quite unfair press statement; it was quite clear the Australian Government was playing politics and had deliberately tried to harm Casey and finished up by saying that the whole trouble was due to the Australian Government and that he, Winston, had behaved irreproachably.

I replied that the suggestion that the Australian Government had been playing politics over this matter was quite without foundation and it would have been senseless if they had been because Casey was now out of the political ring.

I then went on to say that I did not accept the view that the faults were all on one side and said quite frankly that I thought he, Winston, had contributed to the trouble. I said that I thought his second cable to Curtin [5], the one which suggested he might be risking a rebuke, was couched in admirable language but that in my view the reference to the private conversation with Casey indicating that he was prepared for a change and the suggestion of Menzies [6] as his successor were fatal blunders.

Not having minced my words in expressing my view I was somewhat startled when it had the effect of Winston announcing that he was not going to be scolded for what he had done in regard to the Casey episode.

I assured him I had no intention of scolding him but that I was only trying to remove some impressions and obvious prejudices which the Prime Minister had formed, which were quite unfounded.

I then put to him that he ought to take a bigger attitude in the whole matter. I said I would not suggest for a moment that some of the communications and statements by the Australian Government had been somewhat ill-advised and certainly irritating, but after all he, Winston, had had 30 or 40 years either in Governments or in the front line in politics, whereas the Government in Australia was entirely new to office. That as soon as they came in they had been faced with an appalling crisis and in view of their responsibilities and anxieties it was not surprising that at times they had been somewhat emphatic in the language they had employed.

I urged on the Prime Minister that the very understandable resentment he might be feeling must not prejudice his attitude towards Australia as it would inevitably have unfortunate repercussions upon the common cause.

With this statement Winston became all high minded and respectable and even pompous by saying that his personal feelings would never prevent him doing his duty.

I replied to that that God might be able to take as exalted an attitude as that, but that he, Winston, not being God, could not.

That while his feelings might not affect his actions it was inevitable that they must be reflected in his attitude and communications. I then stressed that Evatt in his cables showed an obvious desire to remove the present atmosphere of misunderstanding and I urged the Prime Minister to send him a friendly telegram in reply to his message. I suggested that a basis for such telegram was the information with regard to the armoured division being diverted to Australia if necessary, which he had given to us last night.

Winston agreed that this was so and went on to say there was a steady flow of divisions leaving this country via the Cape during the next few months and indicated that he would be prepared to divert part or all of these divisions to Australia if she was in dire peril. He was very emphatic in saying he would do this and, referring to the pledge of August last contained in Evatt's cablegram [7], gave me a dissertation on his still adhering to that pledge. He instanced in support of what he was saying that they were not keeping Capital ships or aeroplane carriers in the Mediterranean.

He said so much and was so emphatic as to adhering to the August pledge that I think he himself must have some doubts as to the wisdom of what he committed himself to.

As by this time the conversation was going in the direction I wanted it to, I refrained from expressing the views I hold with regard to the August pledge.

Winston then stressed very strongly that the diversions which he was prepared to make from the Cape were dependent upon Australia's danger being a real one. He went on to elaborate his view that in fact Australia is not in danger of any serious attack. His view is that Japan will go on in Burma, trying to isolate China and eventually to knock China out altogether.

We had some discussion on the probabilities of what line Japan would take, I stressing that while sums based on numbers of divisions appeared convincing, they had to be discounted in the light of what the Japanese had already accomplished.

We then dealt with the question of equipment vitally necessary for Australia's own divisions. I pointed out that the most serious shortage was with regard to A.A. equipment, Bofors guns and R.D.F.


I suggested that Winston should issue an instruction to the Sub- Committee of the London Assignment Board dealing with anti- aircraft equipment, which was meeting tomorrow, to accord the maximum priority to Australia's requirements.

We then had some conversation with regard to the Naval Forces in the Indian and Pacific Oceans-Winston indicating that they should reach formidable proportions in the next 2 or 3 months. I put to him the point that it seemed to me that the development must be down the lines not of a clash and final determination between major forces, but between Unit groups-the Naval action always being preceded by an air contest for supremacy. This supremacy having been established by one side or the other the Naval forces would go on to clean up their disabled opposite numbers.

Winston appeared to agree that this was the form that Naval warfare in the wider oceans would take. I urged that if this was so we should be doing everything to fit out craft capable of carrying planes even if it was only a limited number.

Winston indicated that this was being done but I am not quite sure if his statement was accurate.

At the end of our conversation I stressed very much the position of Fiji and New Caledonia, down the lines that so long as we could keep the air and sea routes open between Australia and the U.S.A.

we could face up to any developments, but that the position would be very serious if those routes were cut even if before it happened we had got very much more substantial forces into Australia than were there at present.

At the end of the conversation I again urged that Winston's reply to Evatt should be down as friendly a line as possible and should avoid going into too much detail or embodying too much argument.

Whether he will give effect to his apparent agreement with this view remains to be seen when his telegram to Evatt has been drafted.

The conversation on the whole was, I think, valuable and should do something to clear the air. [9]


[AA:M100, MARCH 1942]

1 Dr H.V. Evatt (Minister for External Affairs) had instructed Bruce to show Churchill copies of the cablegram published as Document 438 and of his (Evatt's) cablegram 47 of 30 March (on file AA:A2937, Far East position 1942). The latter cablegram (which included the instruction to approach Churchill) urged that the United Kingdom assume a larger role in the defence of Australia.

2 U.K. Minister of Supply.

3 For the circumstances surrounding R. G. Casey's appointment as U.K. Minister of State resident in the Middle East, see Casey in the Index of Persons.

4 Prime Minister.

5 Document 412.

6 Prime Minister 1939-41. He remained a member of the Advisory War Council.

7 This is an incorrect reference to Churchill's pledge of August 1940, which is quoted in Document 438.

8 Radio Direction-Finder.

9 Bruce dispatched a summary of this conversation to Evatt in Washington. See cablegram E7 of 1 April on file AA:M100, April 1942.

[LONDON], 31 March 1942