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237 Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr R. G. Casey, Minister to the United States

Cablegram 166 [1] CANBERRA, 29 December 1941


I shall be glad if you will transmit the following to the Prime
Minister of Great Britain [2]:-

With reference to Dominions Office Cablegram M. 476 [3] the
summary of the appreciation of the Defence Committee of War
Cabinet has been carefully considered by our Chiefs of Staff, who
have furnished the undermentioned comments. [4]

2. In view of the opinions expressed on the concentration of a
superior fleet, I am transmitting them forthwith for the urgent
consideration of the President [5], yourself and your advisers,
without awaiting their submission to War Cabinet tomorrow. [6]
Whilst there may be obstacles to the immediate achievement of the
course proposed, it would appear that a superior naval
concentration should be aimed at as soon as possible:-

1. The situation disclosed in this appreciation is most

2. In paragraph A.1, it is stated that limited United States naval
support can be expected in the Atlantic where our mutual interests
coincide and from the United States Asiatic Fleet but not
elsewhere. In other words, the United States Pacific Fleet on
which we had based great hopes is unable or unwilling to assist.

3. Again in paragraph A.3, it is stated that there is not one base
which would be acceptable to both the United States and ourselves
as affording sufficient protection to the interests of each at
which our own and the United States forces equal or superior to
the Japanese can be assembled. As the protection of the interests
of both America and Great Britain is identical and depends solely
on our regaining control of the sea by the defeat of the Japanese
fleet, this statement is difficult to understand.

4. It is also stated that British Naval strategy is to ensure sea
communications in the Atlantic first and in the Indian Ocean
second, and that we intend to form a fleet of 9 capital ships and
4 carriers and base them in the Indian Ocean.

(Note: This fleet will be inferior to the naval forces which Japan
could bring against it.)
5. In order to form this fleet, it will be necessary to withdraw
certain capital ships from the Eastern Mediterranean and to take
the remainder from the Home Fleet, on the assumption that the
'Gneisenau' and 'Scharnhorst' are out of action. No information is
given about the cruisers and destroyers which are necessary to
make up a well-balanced fleet, except that in paragraph A.4 it
states that 'we ourselves cannot provide a balanced fleet at
Singapore at once, and it is therefore unsound to send capital
ships there at present'.

6. To sum up, therefore, the present situation is that we intend
to base an unbalanced fleet in the Indian Ocean during the next
two months, which will be inferior to the Japanese fleet, and
during the period of formation we intend to use important portions
of it, e.g., carriers (vide paragraph 15) in waters under Japanese
naval and possibly air control.

7. No reason is given why the United States Pacific Fleet are
unwilling to give any immediate assistance. In the American-
British conversations (A.B.C.1) held in Washington in March, 1941,
the coordination between our fleets was fully discussed, and one
of the principal operations to be carried out by the United States
Pacific Fleet was 'offensive actions against the Japanese Mandated
Islands'. Since the attack on the American Fleet at Hawaii by the
Japanese, however, the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington [7],
has decided as follows:-

'Until the present situation in the Pacific Ocean becomes more
favourable the Pacific Fleet cannot undertake the following

(a) Supporting forces of associated powers in Far East area by
diverting enemy strength from Malay barrier through denial and
capture of possessions in Marshall Islands.

(b) Support British naval forces south of the Equator as far west
as longitude 155 degrees E.

(c) Prepare to capture and establish control over Caroline and
Marshall area.

On the other hand, he has assigned to the United States Pacific
Fleet certain purely defensive tasks to the eastward of 180
degrees, such as:-

Protection of Sea Communications.

Supporting Army in defence of Hawaiian Coastal frontier.

Defence of certain Islands, such as Samoa, Midway, Johnston,
Palmyra, Wake, etc.

8. The reason for the abovementioned change in policy is obviously
due to the loss or damage of certain valuable ships.

9. It would therefore appear that if Great Britain were able to
make good the damage done by replacing with her own ships those
that have been put out of action, and were to raise the strength
of the United States Pacific Fleet in capital ships and carriers
so that it was decisively superior to the Japanese, the situation
in the Pacific would again become more favourable, and an attack
on the Japanese possessions in the Mandated Islands would again
become possible, thus leading to a fleet action and, by the defeat
of the Japanese Fleet, enable us to regain control of the sea.

Such offensive action will provide a more effective protection to
Australia than the presence in the Indian Ocean of a British force
inferior to the Japanese main fleet.

10. Our present intention of forming a separate fleet in the
Indian Ocean is obviously unsound and must have been forced on us
by the American attitude which is undoubtedly receiving close
attention at Washington now. It is deliberately playing into the
hands of the Japanese and may have the most serious consequences.

There appears to be nothing we can do other than to await the
result of the present conversations or to recommend that an
endeavour be made to re-establish confidence in the American
Pacific Fleet by offering them adequate reinforcements of both
capital ships and carriers at their selected base. (We shall
benefit by the American contribution of cruisers and destroyers
which are necessary for a balanced Fleet and which we cannot
provide ourselves.) In so doing, we must accept a temporary
reduction in naval protection to our interests in the Indian Ocean
but we shall have formed a Fleet which is a match for the Japanese
and taken the first step towards regaining control of the sea.

11. Observations upon the appreciation paragraph by paragraph
Paragraphs A.1, 2, 3 and 4: Our views on these paragraphs have
been stated in our general observations.

Paragraph A.5: We agree with what is stated but would point out
that if the junction of a British Naval Force with the United
States Pacific Fleet were effected in the manner already
indicated, the British Force required would not be so large as to
make it necessary to denude ourselves of Naval Forces in other
important theatres of war.

Paragraph A.6: We think that the situation envisaged in the last
sentence of this paragraph has already arisen as the Japanese have
secured bases in Borneo from which attacks by land based aircraft
can be launched. The security of escorted convoys to Singapore is
therefore a matter of grave doubt. We do not think that the cover
that could be provided by what air forces there are in Sumatra is
adequate to ensure the protection of such convoys.

Paragraph A.7: No comment.

Paragraphs B.8, 9, 10, 11 and 12: We would again emphasize our
view that it is unsound to divide and dissipate our Forces in an
attempt to defend widely dispersed interests at the expense of
making the most of our available strength by assembling an Allied
Fleet that is superior to that of the Japanese with a view to
forcing a decisive action upon the enemy. With such a Fleet, we
could take the initiative and a decisive victory would render any
enemy successes in the meantime worthless to him. Without such a
Fleet, we must remain on the defensive and in grave danger of
being defeated point by point. It appears to us that the policy
outlined in these paragraphs is purely defensive and thoroughly

Paragraphs C.13 and 14: We are in complete agreement with these

Paragraph C.15: We disagree with these views and are of the
opinion that it is vital for us to conserve our aircraft carriers
for the main engagement with the enemy in which they will be
invaluable. To assemble a balanced and decisively superior Fleet
should be our main objective and if concentration upon doing this
involves the risk of the temporary loss of subsidiary interests,
such risks should be accepted.

Paragraph C.16: We agree with this paragraph.

Paragraph C.17: We would point out that the maintenance of the
Sunda Straits route to Singapore is already endangered by the
Japanese landings in South Borneo.

Paragraphs C.18 and 19: We agree with these paragraphs.

Paragraphs C.20, 21 and 22: No comment.

Paragraph C.23: We approve of the proposal to increase the scale
of defence at Australian Naval Bases and would point out that, to
achieve this, no better step could be taken than to expedite the
delivery to Australia of the aircraft and tanks that have been on
order in the United States for such a long time.

Paragraphs C.24, 25, 26 and 27: No comment.

Paragraphs C.28, 29, 30, 31 and 32: We assume that the
reinforcements that are here enumerated are the maximum available
and on this basis we are in agreement with what is proposed.

Paragraphs C.33 and 34: No comment.

Paragraph C.36: We agree with this contention.

Paragraph C.37: We would point out that the Southern Pacific air
route here referred to includes Suva and Noumea.

Paragraphs D.38, 39, 40 and 41: We agree with the observations
relating to Japan's courses of action and consider that the extent
of these possible undertakings affords confirmation of our view
that there must be a bold Allied move to deprive the enemy of the



1 Repeated to the N.Z. Prime Minister as no. 559 and to the High
Commissioner in the United Kingdom as no. 8276 for communication
to the U.K. Dominions Office.

2 Casey advised on 30 December that the cablegram had been
forwarded to Winston Churchill, who was then in Canada. See
cablegram 1238 on file AA: A981, War 33, attachment B.

3 Document 215.

4 The full report is on file AA: A2671, 445/1941.

5 Franklin D. Roosevelt. In cablegram 167 of 29 December (on the
file cited in note 2) Dr H. V. Evatt, Minister for External
Affairs, asked Casey to 'inform Churchill that, owing to doubt
whether telegram M. 476 has been communicated to the President,
and to fact references to American co-operation are not couched in
suitable language, this message is not (repeat not) intended in
the first instance to be communicated in full to the President'.

6 The views of the Chiefs of Staff were generally endorsed by War
Cabinet and the Advisory War Council On 30 and 31 December,
although War Cabinet decided that Australia's contribution to the
Empire Air Training Scheme should be re-examined. See AA: A2673,
vol. 9, minute 1632; AA:A2682, vol. 4, minute 633; and cablegrams
169 and 171 of 31 December to Casey (for Churchill) on file AA:

A3300, 101.

7 Admiral Ernest J. King.

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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