531 Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister

Cablegram 88A LONDON, 26 June 1942, 8.15 p.m.

IMMEDIATE FOR PRIME MINISTER MOST SECRET PERSONAL HIMSELF

Your telegrams Nos. 5772 [1] and 347 [2] to Dominions Office. I entirely appreciate your point of view and Australia's case is put with restraint and clarity in your telegram to the Dominions Office.

It is desirable in order to avoid any misunderstanding and friction with the United Kingdom Government that I should make clear to you the position here.

The request contained in Dominions Office telegram No. 871 [3] in no way indicated any alteration in the realisation of Australia's great needs, to which Evatt's [4] Visit So materially contributed and [which] is exemplified in the undertakings given in Ismay's letter of May 28th [5], or a desire to go back on those undertakings.

The disastrous turn of events in Libya created a situation in which every avenue had to be explored whereby the position could be restored. In this exploration the Spitfires en route to Australia came under review and their diversion was examined on the same basis as all other possible diversions, e.g. from India, namely where was the need most urgent in the light of present circumstances and probable developments of the immediate future.

As a result of the examination on this basis and after full consideration of the views of the Chiefs of Staff the War Cabinet came to the conclusion that the situation in the Near East was so critical and the need of Air reinforcements so great that Australia should be asked to agree to the 42 Spitfires on their way to Australia which were the only machines which have been tropicalised being sent to the Middle East, the personnel and equipment proceeding to Australia and the machines being replaced in the following convoy.

In the discussion in the War Cabinet I had to confine myself as you have done in your telegram to the Dominions Office to the issue of where the need was greatest as there had been no suggestion of repudiating the arrangement but that Australia should be asked in the light of the altered circumstances to agree to a postponement in the date of implementing it.

In putting our case I stressed strongly the importance of these Spitfires, limited though they were in number, in the whole scheme of Australia's defence because of the superior performance of the Spitfire to anything the Japanese had. I also emphasised strongly the special significance which attached to their presence in Australia. I particularly concentrated on the point that they would not be available in the Middle East until the 25th July and that that might well be too late in which event their presence in Australia would be absolutely vital because of the deterioration of the position in the Middle East.

On this latter point I was countered by the argument that probably the date of their arrival would be when they would be of the maximum value. This was based upon the view that the most serious menace we have to face is the bombing of Egypt, Alexandria and the Suez Canal in particular; that the staging of such bombing on a serious scale will take time -a view as to which I have considerable doubt; and that the presence of first class fighters to deal with the fighter escorts to the bombers when large scale attacks eventuate will be the major necessity.

Although I put all the arguments I could think of to support the case that the common interest would best be served by the Spitfires going to Australia I was unable to convince the War Cabinet. Eventually when I saw that I could not alter the Cabinet view I suggested the course indicated in my telegram No. 86 A [6], namely-'that as I had had no opportunity of consulting my Government and as the proposed diversion was in conflict with the spontaneous and specific offer made to Evatt, I felt the United Kingdom Government should approach you direct setting out their reasons.' I came to the decision to take this course as I felt, in view of the fact that all the professional advice and views expressed by Members of the War Cabinet were in the direction that if Australia would agree the wisest course in the common interest would be for the Spitfires to be diverted, to continue to oppose the request being put to Australia would have created the impression that I was merely sitting in the War Cabinet as an advocate for Australia irrespective of the merits of the case. To have placed myself in such a position would unquestionably have weakened my influence in the War Cabinet and with individual Members in regard to the higher direction of the war.

I have telegraphed to you at length as I feel this particular case raises fundamental considerations in regard to our representation in the War Cabinet. Our objective in having representation in the War Cabinet is that Australia's interests should be safeguarded, that her point of view should be fully represented, and that we should exercise the fullest influence on the higher direction of the war in its widest aspects.

I appreciate the difficulty of realising this objective but I believe that with full confidence and understanding between us it can be achieved.

BRUCE

1 Dispatched 25 June. On file AA:M100, June 1942.

2 Document 530.

3 See Document 530, note 1.

4 Minister for External Affairs.

5 See Document 502.

6 Document 529.

[AA:M100, JUNE 1942]