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

Cablegram Winch 10 LONDON, 19 January 1942, 4.20 a.m.


Your Johcu 17. [1]

1. I thank you for your frank expression of views. I have not been
responsible for the neglect of our defences and the policy of
appeasement which preceded the outbreak of war. I had been for
eleven years out of office and had given ceaseless warnings for
six years before the war began. On the other hand I accept the
fullest responsibility for the main priorities and general
distribution of our resources since I became Prime Minister in May
1940. The eastward flow of reinforcements and aircraft from this
island has been maintained from that date forward to the utmost
limit of our shipping capacity and our means of moving aircraft
and tanks. I deem the Middle East a more urgent theatre than the
now christened A.B.D.A. area. We had also to keep our promises to
Russia of munitions deliveries. No one could tell what Japan would
do but I was sure that if she attacked us and you, the United
States would enter the war and that the safety of Australia and
ultimate victory would be assured.

2. It must be remembered that only three months ago we faced in
the Middle East, where the Australian Imperial Force lay, the
threat of a double attack by Rommel [2] from the west and over-
running of the Caucasus, Persia, Syria and Iraq from the north. In
such a plight all the teachings of the war showed that everything
should be concentrated on destroying one of the attacking forces.

I thought it best to make a job of Rommel while forming with the
rest of our resources the best Levant- Caspian front possible.

This latter was largely beyond our resources. Since then two
thirds of Rommel's army has been destroyed and Cyrenaica cleared,
but only by a very close margin. In fact it hung in the balance at
the moment when Auchinleck [3] rightly superseded Cunningham. [4]

3. Although I cannot promise total destruction of Rommel we have
at least gained a very substantial success which has already rid
us of one serious danger and liberated important forces. At the
same time the tremendous, unexpected resistance of Russia has
given a considerable breathing-space, and it may be more, on the
Levant-Caspian front. Thus we are able to move the 17th Indian
Division and soon several other Indian Infantry Divisions
previously assigned to the Levant-Caspian front, together with the
18th British and 7th and 8th Australian Divisions, with
substantial aircraft and some armoured forces, from the Middle to
the Far East theatre. This we are doing with all speed. You may
judge how melancholy our position would have been if we had been
beaten by Rommel and if the Caucasus, the Baku oil wells and
Persia had been overrun by the enemy. I am sure that it would have
been wrong to send forces needed to beat Rommel to reinforce the
Malay Peninsula while Japan was still at peace. To try to be safe
everywhere is to be strong nowhere.

4. We have to be thankful, firstly for the Russian victories,
secondly for our good success against Rommel and thirdly that the
United States was attacked by Japan at the same time as ourselves.

The blame for the frightful risks we have had to run and will have
to run rests with all those who, in or out of office, failed to
discern the Nazi menace and to crush it while it was weak.

5. No one could foresee the series of major naval disasters which
befell us and the United States around the turn of the year
1941/42. In an hour the American Naval superiority in the Pacific
was for the time being swept away. In another hour the PRINCE OF
WALES and the REPULSE were sunk. Thus the Japanese gained the
temporary command of Pacific waters and no doubt we have further
grievous punishment to face in the Far East. In this new crisis
affecting you, I should have approved the sending of the three
fast Mediterranean battleships to form, with the four R's [5] and
H.M.S. WARSPITE just repaired, a new fleet in the Indian Ocean, or
to move to your protection as might be most helpful.

6. I have already told you of the H.M.S. BARHAM being sunk. [6]I
must now inform you that H.M.S. QUEEN ELIZABETH and H.M.S. VALIANT
have both sustained underwater damage from a human torpedo which
put them out of action, one for three and the other for six
months. [7] As the enemy do not yet know about these three last
mentioned ships you will see that we have no need to enlighten
them and I must ask you to keep this last deadly secret to
yourself alone.

7. However these evil conditions will pass. By May the United
States will have a superior fleet at Hawaii. We have encouraged
them to take their two new battleships out of the Atlantic if they
need them, thus taking more burden upon ourselves. We are sending
two and possibly three out of our four modern aircraft carriers to
the Indian Ocean. H.M.S. WARSPITE Will soon be there and
thereafter H.M.S. VALIANT. Thus the balance of seapower in the
Indian and Pacific Oceans will in the absence of further
misfortunes turn decisively in our favour, and all Japanese
overseas operations will be deprived of their present assurance.

Meanwhile we are trying to make up by air power in the
Mediterranean our lack of a battlefleet and the impending arrival
of ANSON and completion of working up of the DUKE OF YORK enable
us to face large reductions in American strength in the Atlantic
for the sake of the Pacific.

8. We must not be dismayed or get into recrimination but remain
united in true comradeship. Do not doubt my loyalty to Australia
and New Zealand. I cannot offer any guarantees for the future and
I am sure that great ordeals lie before us, but I feel hopeful as
never before that we shall emerge safely and also gloriously from
the dark valley.

1 Document 278.

2 German Commander-in-Chief in North Africa.

3 U.K. Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East.

4 Commander of the U.K. Eighth Army in North Africa until 26
November 1941.

5 Ramillies, Resolution, Revenge and Royal Sovereign.

6 See Document 131.

7 Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in fact had been attacked in
Alexandria harbour on 19 December 1941.

[AA:A3195, 1942, 1.2352]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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