Skip to main content

Historical documents

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

Cablegram P4 LONDON, 16 November 1941, 8 p.m.


War Cabinet discussion [1] followed on these lines.

(Begins):Churchill said that early in August it had been thought
that Japan might match immediately into Thailand, but so far she
had not done so. He recalled that the Japanese situation had been
discussed at the Atlantic Conference when President Roosevelt had

(a) to endeavour to gain time;

(b) to warn Japan that she would come up against the United States
in the event of her marching into Thailand.

I said that in all four contingencies (Russia, Kunming, N.E.I. and
Thailand) the initiative lay with Japan and we might have to take
the field against her. Immediate action required was therefore to
ensure that we had sufficient forces available in the Far East to
act as a deterrent.

The First Sea Lord [2] gave a review of the naval position.

Dealing first with the battle of the Atlantic, he said that German
U-boats were now working right across the whole ocean. At one time
we had thought that after Americans had assumed responsibility for
defence contingencies of half the Atlantic, German U-boats would
not operate in that sphere. We [now] [3] had some indication that,
while German U-boats would not take aggressive action against
United States warships, except to facilitate their own escape,
there was no sign that they would not attack convoys in this area.

At one time we had hoped we should be able to bring back all our
corvettes from the other side of the Atlantic. Under present
arrangements, however, we retained the responsibility for S.C.

Convoys. [4] We had therefore to keep some destroyers and
corvettes already based at Canadian ports.

U-boats' present tactics were that some of them operated
independently, and others in large groups. Those acting
independently gave notice of movements of our convoys to larger
groups. Attacks were made at night, at considerable range, after
which U-boats made away from the convoy. It was therefore
difficult to establish contact with them in order to attack them.

This was being dealt with by the fitting of new apparatus.

Air menace to our convoys had diminished, owing mainly to a
greater number of guns mounted on our merchant vessels and to our
improved shooting. Focke Wulf and other long-distance aircraft now
tended to confine themselves to reconnaissance duties.

Enemy attacks on east-coast convoys continued, especially at full
moon. Our anti-aircraft gunners were now bringing more down. Mine
menace continued, but the situation was in hand. We were always
expecting to have to face a new type of mine. But our scientific
advisers thought they knew the lines of possible future

Raider Situation. The Germans had normally from one to three
raiders out. They had not caused much damage lately.

Destroyer Escorts. All destroyers not required for service with
fleets were fully employed in escort duty. He hoped the Australian
Government would agree to their four destroyers lately in the
Mediterranean joining the Far Eastern Fleet after complete refit
in Australia.

The cruiser situation was pretty tight owing to demands of escorts
for convoys.

Far Eastern Situation. The First Sea Lord was asked to explain
what the position would be if we find ourselves at war with Japan
before Christmas, the United States remaining neutral. He saw that
in the absence of a threat from the United States Pacific Fleet,
Japanese would be able to move southward a much stronger capital
ship force than we could assemble in Far Eastern waters. By
January/February, 1942, our Far East Battle Fleet would be
composed of:-PRINCE OF WALES, a battle cruiser (REPULSE or

The United States authorities were showing signs of adopting views
of a more forward policy. There were many people in America who
thought that they ought to send capital ships to join our Fleet at
Singapore. For the moment, however, Americans still adhere to the
policy of maintaining their main fleet at Hawaii. They were,
however, taking steps to strengthen their fleet in the
Philippines. They had already undertaken to send nine destroyers
and twelve submarines to work with the 'Eastern Fleet' in the
event of their coming in. The Philippines were now an American
submarine base, and defences there were being strengthened.

A complete understanding had not yet been reached as a result of
our conversations with the United States Naval Authorities. They
held that we ought to hold 'Malay Barrier' in the event of war
with Japan. This had been out of the question with the forces
hitherto available to us in the Far East, but adoption of American
[Plan 5] had eased the position in the Atlantic and had enabled us
to decide on the strengthening of our Far East Naval Forces. We
were to hold further Naval conversations in the Far East with
Americans in December. These would be followed by joint
conversations with the Americans and Dutch.

The United States Naval Staff contended that it was unnecessary to
maintain so many Australian and New Zealand cruisers in Australian
and New Zealand waters. It was possible that the Dominion
Governments had over-estimated the raider menace in those waters.

Some compromise between the two views might well be arrived at.

Air Situation. The Chief of the Air Staff 5 gave an appreciation
of the air situation in the Far East. Our idea was to maintain
some 3 30 aircraft at Singapore. We had now about 200 there. He
understood that Sir Earle Page agreed that this was [an] adequate
[garrison for] defence purposes, but would like to see a powerful
striking force added. We share that view and wish to give effect
to it as soon as possible. United States had sent thirty heavy
bombers to Manila. It was understood that thirty-five more would
follow next year. Manila was, of course, more central and
strategically situated than Singapore.

If it became necessary to reinforce Singapore by medium bombers,
this could only be done at the expense of the Middle East. Medium
bombers would have to be flown out, and we were already sending
out as big reinforcements via Gibraltar and Malta as this route
could carry.

If a situation in the Far East arose in which it was necessary to
send the Fleet from the Middle East to the Far East, there was no
doubt that we should also send bombers from the Middle East to the
Far East theatre. This journey could be done by air. Broadly, the
situation was that in the absence of extreme danger in the Far
East, it was uneconomical to employ, simply in a precautionary
role, bombers now being used to attack targets in Germany and in
the Middle East.

In reply to a question, the Chief of the Air Staff said that
Liberator 2 aircraft, if to be used as day bombers, could not be
sent direct from America to the Far East. They had to go via the
United Kingdom where they were fitted with turrets. We should get
no more Flying Fortresses from the United States until 1942.

Military Forces. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff [6] said
that the Garrison of Singapore was something over 63,000 together
with 14,000 volunteers. In addition to heavy fixed defences of the
fortress, there were over 200 anti-aircraft guns there. There
were, however, shortages in field and anti-tank guns.

Churchill thanked me very cordially for my statement which would
be most fully considered by the Chiefs of Staff. The United
Kingdom were resolute to help Australia if she were menaced with
invasion, but I would recognise that it would be a grave strategic
error to move forces to the Far East-possibly to remain inactive
for a year-which were now actively engaged against the Germans and
Italians. Our correct strategy was to move our strength from
theatre to theatre as the situation changed. At the present time,
the theatre in which the forces could be most profitably employed
was the Middle East. A policy of spreading our resources to guard
against possible but unlikely dangers may be fatal.

What was the best deterrent to employ against the Japanese? In his
view, the answer was to maintain a stiff attitude towards her, but
not to become involved in war with her unless we had the assurance
of the United States participation. There were four situations
which we had to contemplate in the Far East:-

(1) United States at war with Germany, and Japan neutral;

(2) United States in the war with us, and Japan at war with the
United States and us;

(3) Both countries out of the war;

(4) United States out of the war, but Japan in against us.

The fourth possibility was clearly the most unfavourable, and the
one which we should at all costs avoid. But the whole position was
too complex to be dealt with on the basis of any rigid formula and
he hoped that they might be allowed some latitude in handling the
matter. We had to watch the situation from week to week and from
month to month, and to deal with it as best we could.

Churchill said that he was not one of those who believed that it
was in Japan's power to invade Australia. Nevertheless, he would
renew his assurance that if Australia were gravely threatened, we
should [cut] our losses in the Middle East and move in great
strength to Australia's assistance. Such a decision, however, was
not one to be taken lightly. Churchill went on to refer to the
difficulties which faced President Roosevelt as a result of [the
slow development of American] opinion and the peculiarities of
American Constitution. Nobody but Congress could declare war. It
was, however, in the President's power to make war without
declaring it.

President Roosevelt was a great leader. In the last twelve months
American opinion had moved under his leadership to an extent which
nobody could have anticipated. They had made immense credits
available to us; they had made immense resources available to us
under Lease Lend; their Navy was escorting Atlantic convoys; and
finally they were taking a firm line with the Japanese.

Churchill then referred to the series of personal telegrams which
the President and he had exchanged since the beginning of the War.

This exchange of views continued down to the present moment, but
it would be a great error on his part to press the President to
act in advance of American opinion. The difference between the two
countries in a nutshell was that he, Churchill, had it in his
power, with the approval of War Cabinet, to go to Mansion House
and say 'Should the United States become involved in war with
Japan, the British declaration will follow within an hour.' [7]
The American President had no such power and it remained possible,
though unlikely, that [United States] would disinterest themselves
if we were to declare war on Japan. Very likely, developments in
America might become more rapid after the repeal of the Neutrality

In conclusion, Churchill said that we were in [the] difficulty
[that] the R.A.F. expansion programme fell short both of our
expectations and our needs. My suggestions would all be most
carefully considered. The War Cabinet would hold themselves in
readiness to assist me while I was in this country. If I wished
for another exchange of views, a special meeting could be held at
any time. [8]


1 See Document 110.

2 Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound.

3 Words in square brackets have been corrected/inserted from the
London copy on file AA : M103,1941.

4 The prefix SC denoted slow-moving Atlantic convoys starting from
Sydney, Nova Scotia.

5 Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal.

6 Field Marshal Sir John Dill.

7 See Document 110, note 11.

8 In cablegram P5 of 15 November(on the file cited in note 2) Page
reported that after the War Cabinet discussion he had had a long
interview with the U.K. Secretary of State for Air (Sir Archibald
Sinclair) and his planning staff. Page was given a number of
reasons why immediate action to strengthen air forces in Malaya
was 'not practicable' and told that the target figure of 336
aircraft was 'under review following recent developments'.

[AA : A981, PACIFIC 8, i]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
Back to top