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

Cablegram Johcu 21 CANBERRA, 23 January 1942


I am communicating the following message as the result of an
emergency meeting of the War Cabinet summoned today to consider
reports on the situation in Malaya and New Guinea. [1]

1. The General Officer Commanding A.I.F., Malaya [2], reports that
part of his force has been cut off without possibility of relief.

It would appear from information received regarding the
disposition of the A.I.F. and its operations that support for it
has not been forthcoming.

2. Whilst we have no intention of suggesting any criticism of the
Indians who are fighting the common foe, we are greatly disturbed
by references made by the General Officer Commanding A.I.F. to
their unsuitability for this type of warfare. If this is correct,
we hope you are not placing too much reliance on the mere
numerical strength of the land forces you are sending without
regard to their qualities.

3. Page has reported that the Defence Committee has been
considering evacuation of Malaya and Singapore. After all the
assurances we have been given, the evacuation of Singapore would
be regarded here and elsewhere as an inexcusable betrayal. [3]
Singapore is a central fortress in the system of Empire and local
defence. As stated in Johcu 17 [4] we understood it was to be made
impregnable and in any event it was to be capable of holding out
for a prolonged period until the arrival of the main fleet.

4. Even in an emergency diversion of reinforcements should be to
the Netherlands East Indies and not Burma. Anything else would be
deeply resented and might force the Netherlands East Indies to
make a separate peace.

5. On the faith of the proposed flow of reinforcements, we have
acted and carried out our part of the bargain. We expect you not
to frustrate the whole purpose by evacuation.

6. The heavy scale of the Japanese attack on Rabaul, where
including other parts of the Bismarck Archipelago there is a force
of 1,700, and the probability of its occupation, if such has not
already occurred, presage an early attack on Port Moresby.

7. The strength of Australian troops at Port Moresby is 5,500.

Great importance is attached to this centre by our Chiefs of Staff
as it is the only base in this region from which control can be
exercised of the Torres Strait, which is the most direct line of
supply to Darwin, the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya, for
which it is being extensively used. In the absence of Rabaul, Port
Moresby is also a base for offensive operations against the
Caroline and Marshall Islands when British and American strength
permits of counter-offensive action.

8. We have information at the present moment that a United States
naval force consisting of two carriers, five 8-inch cruisers, one
6-inch cruiser and three destroyers is carrying out a sweep from
Samoa towards the Gilbert Islands. Such an operation if carried on
towards the Japanese bases in the Marshalls will, by threatening
their flank, form a valuable diversion from the Japanese southward
advance from Rabaul, and would be a great help to us. Chief of
Naval Staff, Australia [5], is communicating direct with
Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet [6], following the arrangements
relating to Anzac area, offering our forces and seeking his
cooperation in this offensive action against the Japanese. The
assistance of yourself and your naval advisers in influencing such
a move on the part of the Americans would be most helpful.

9. Our advisers state that submarines would form a most valuable
addition to the defence of Port Moresby, where there is every
facility for their operation, and it is requested that if possible
some may be allotted to that base.

10. We are in full agreement with the concluding sentence of the
New Zealand reply on the Anzac area [7] to the effect that unified
command over all naval forces engaged in the war against Japan and
the eventual formation of a fleet superior to the Japanese capable
of wresting from our enemies the command of the western Pacific
remain essential to the defeat of Japan. We expect that the best
immediate measures will be taken to remedy the situation.

11. Our experiences at Ambon and Rabaul have emphasized the urgent
necessity for fighter aircraft immediately. Japanese methods make
it clear that without fighter protection for our aerodromes there
is every prospect of carrier-borne enemy air attack destroying our
extremely limited striking force on the ground by low attack,
designed to search out individual aircraft. These tactics may be
practised with impunity by enemy against our mainland aerodromes
as well as at advanced bases, owing to lack of fighter protection
and almost complete absence of gun defences. A request is made for
the immediate allotment to the R.A.A.F. of Up to 250 fighter
aircraft of Tomahawk, Hurricane II or similar type.

12. It is impossible to expect us to give effective resistance
with the inadequate aircraft at our disposal and we desire the
allotment to the R.A.A.F. of United States aircraft of suitable
types which are already in Australia or are likely to arrive
shortly. This course would be in substitution of aircraft long
since ordered for the R.A.A.F. expansion programme but not yet
delivered from the United States of America.

13. Your support of the above proposal with the United States
America authorities is requested, together with an immediate
arrangement for the allocation to the R.A.A.F. for use at Port
Moresby of a squadron of United States of America P.40 fighter
aircraft approaching completion at Townsville. General Brereton
[8] has communicated this request to Commander in Chief, A.B.D.A.

area [9], for whose area the aircraft are intended, but we ask
that the authority controlling General Wavell should direct that
it be approved.

14. The trend of the situation in Malaya and the attack on Rabaul
are giving rise to a public feeling of grave uneasiness at Allied
impotence to do anything to stem the Japanese advance. The
Government, in realising its responsibility to prepare the public
for the possibility of resisting an aggressor, also has a duty and
obligation to explain why it may not have been possible to prevent
the enemy reaching our shores. It is therefore in duty bound to
exhaust all the possibilities of the situation, the more so since
the Australian people, having volunteered for service overseas in
large numbers, find it difficult to understand why they must wait
so long for an improvement in the situation when irreparable
damage may have been done to their power to resist, the prestige
of the Empire and the solidarity of the Allied cause. [10]

1 See War Cabinet minutes 1741 and 1742 of 23 January in AA:A2673,
vol. 10.

2 Maj Gen H. G. Bennett.

3 See Document 292.

4 Document 278.

5 Vice-Admiral Sir Guy Royle.

6 Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

7 Repeated to the Commonwealth Goat on 16 January as no. 21
(AA:A3195, 1942, 1.1969).

8 Commander, U.S. Army Forces in Australia and Air Commander in
the A.B.D.A. Area.

9 General Sir Archibald Wavell.

10 This cablegram was repeated on the same day to R. G. Casey,
Minister to the United States, as no. 15 (on file AA:A981, War 33,
attachment B) with a request to show it to President Frank in D.

Roosevelt and to ask for his help in preventing the evacuation of

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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