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

Cablegram 24 CANBERRA, 15 February 1942


1. In cablegram No. 21 [1] I asked you to examine the following
with the United Kingdom Government and its advisers and furnish me
with the earliest possible advice:-

(i) The present and prospective situation at Singapore and the
prospect of holding it, including the plans for its reinforcement
and relief;

(ii) The effect on the general strategic plan should Singapore be
lost or should the Japanese in addition to besieging Singapore use
their sea power against the Netherlands East Indies, Portuguese
Timor or Australia;

(iii) The disposition of the A.I.F., which is dependent on the
ultimate strategical position;

(iv) The adequacy of the naval escorts that can be provided in
view of superior Japanese naval and air power and the consequent
risks of getting our forces into the N.E.I.

2. In considering the primary responsibility of Australia for its
own local defence and the part it can play in overseas co-
operation, I am furnishing you with the following observations in
order that you will fully understand the setting of the questions
referred to you in paragraph 1 and the fundamental background
behind them insofar as Australian Defence is concerned:-

3. The Australian Army was organised on the basis of providing a
Force for Home Defence, or, if the situation permitted, the
raising of an Expeditionary Force for service overseas. The
present disposition of the A.I.F. has to be looked at from these
two angles, the latter of which is considered in Part 2 and the
former in Part 3.

4. It was never contemplated, with war in the Far East, that our
Expeditionary Force would proceed further afield than Singapore
and Malaya, as the whole of the Forces that we could raise would
be required for the local defence of Australia and for helping to
reinforce the outer screen extending from Singapore at one end to
New Caledonia at the other.

5. An Expeditionary Force was sent to the Middle East because
Japan was not an enemy. In the military position then existing
there were overseas fronts in Western Europe and a series of
Middle East fronts in the Italian African colonies which presented
threats to our communications through the Mediterranean. The
Empire's unpreparedness necessitated putting into the frontline
theatres all the Forces that could be raised in and spared from
less threatened centres.

6. Now that the Empire is marshalling its strength with the
raising and equipping of forces, it is a natural sequel to review
their distribution in the rational manner in which we would have
looked at the position had we originally been confronted with it.

it is logical, in view of the situation that has now arisen, that
as soon as forces can be made available to relieve them, the whole
of the A.I.F. Corps should be transferred to the Pacific theatre.

Whether they should be an Expeditionary Force outside Australia or
an addition to the Home Defence strength is dealt with in Part 3.

Part 2 is confined to the most appropriate location of the A.I.F.

as an Expeditionary Force.

7. The general line of strategy agreed upon by Generals Wavell [2]
and Brett [3] as reported earlier is to hold the Netherlands East
Indies and Malay Barrier until we are in a position to take the
offensive against the Japanese. To achieve this, adequate forces
have to be built up in this area. Portuguese Timor is also an
extremely vulnerable spot to us, and it is not improbable that the
security of this territory may entirely depend on the speed with
which we can dispose forces to nip in the bud any Japanese attempt
at occupation. We also lack forces for the defence of the islands
to the east of Australia such as New Caledonia.

8. These strategical reasons fully support the case that if we
have an Expeditionary Force abroad it should be concentrated in
the Pacific theatre.

9. There are also other military advantages. The transfer to the
Pacific theatre would mean a shorter line of communication for
reinforcements and supplies, and a lesser demand on shipping and
escorts. It would also strengthen the defence of Australia. In the
last resort, should fortune still further favour the Japanese, it
gives a line of withdrawal to Australia for our Forces, which we
do not possess at present with the A.I.F. in the Middle East.

10. There are in addition important psychological considerations.

The concentration in this theatre would have a great influence on
the morale of the troops, who would feel that they are more
directly resisting aggression against their homeland. It would
have a stimulating effect on the spirit of the Australian people.

11. Finally, the concentration of the A.I.F. in the Pacific
theatre would greatly increase the proportion of Australian Forces
in a theatre so vital to us. It ensures the unity of direction and
operation of the A.I.F. It greatly strengthens our claim to a
voice in the higher direction of operations in this region.

12. The conclusion expressed is that if Australian Local Defence
permits of an Expeditionary Force serving abroad it should be in
the Pacific theatre. The relation of an Expeditionary Force to
Australian Local Defence is dealt with in Part 3.

13. The important questions of the immediate future are:-

(i) Can we hold the Netherlands East Indies? This depends on-
(ii) Will the Japanese establish themselves there before us?
(iii) Can we get our forces in and maintain them without superior
sea power and air power?
14. In the Malayan campaign, it was originally contemplated that
the Japanese should be opposed in Thailand, the next point was
northern Malaya, then the frontier of Johore, and finally, before
the ultimate withdrawal to the fortress, a line drawn across

15. It can be argued that it is good defensive-offensive tactics
to meet the enemy as far afield as possible and withdraw whilst
inflicting losses on him, though suffering losses oneself The
enemy is ultimately driven back by a counter-offensive from a
suitable base by forces drawn from the main reservoirs of strength
or, if the enemy is dependent on remote sources of reinforcement
and supply, his lines of communication may be cut.

16. It is however risky to hazard one's main base and largest
reservoir in the theatre of operations by stringing out the
resources of this reservoir along the line of the enemy's advance
where, owing to superior sea power, air power and greater military
strength, he can bring stronger forces to bear. This strategy
invites progressive defeat along the line and ultimately imperils
the capacity to defend the main base through the dispersion of

17. If such is the case, the absolute security of the main base is
of fundamental importance and no risk should be taken with its
security. It is important to note that Japan's line of
communication is shorter than those of the United Kingdom and the
United States of America.

18. Applying the validity of the foregoing to Australia as the
main base in the south-west Pacific, the following conclusions are
to be noted:-

(i) The foundation of the defence of British territories in the
Pacific was the Singapore Base with a fleet based thereon.

(ii) Singapore as a fleet base is lost and it will not be until
May that fleets of any strength can be concentrated in the Indian
and Pacific Oceans. No indication is given as to when a superior
fleet will be possible.

(iii) Australia, which is the main base for operations against
Japan, is in jeopardy until superior sea power is regained. Even
then it can be imperilled by the loss of a fleet action.

(iv) In the meantime Australia, as the main base, must be made
secure. This can be achieved by holding Japan on the outer screen
extending from the Netherlands East Indies to New Caledonia, or by
increasing the local defence strength, part of which would become
available for operations outside Australia when strength has been
gathered for a counter-offensive.

(v) Holding the outer screen at the risk of weakening the defence
of the main base is hazardous if the Japanese can reach the
Netherlands East Indies in greater force before us. This appears
probable because of their shorter lines of communication and
superior sea power and air power.

(vi) Japanese sea power and air power can also greatly limit our
capacity to reinforce the Netherlands East Indies and maintain
forces there.

(vii) Until superior sea power and air power are attained by the
Allies the resistance to the Japanese in the Netherlands East
Indies will probably be limited to the forces there and such
reinforcements as can be readily despatched, such as submarines
and aircraft.

(viii) The alternative method of securing Australia as the main
base was stated in (iv) to be the strengthening of its local
defence until strength had been gathered for the counter-
offensive. In view of the conclusions in (vi) and (vii) it is a
matter for urgent consideration whether the A.I.F. should not
proceed to the Netherlands East Indies but return to Australia.

The defence of Australia in the short-term period must largely
rest on Australian Forces and the degree to which they can be
supplemented by forces, and to a large degree equipment, from
United States of America. The question of large-scale assistance
to Australian Defence by American and Canadian forces has been
raised but nothing can be of assistance as quickly as the A.I.F.

(ix) The conclusions expressed above are fully co-operative. Their
purpose is to ensure as far as possible the certainty of ultimate
victory by defending Australia as a base, even though ground may
be given to the enemy. We avoid a 'penny packet' distribution of
our limited forces and their defeat in detail. When we are ready
for the counteroffensive, superior sea power and the accumulation
of American forces in this country will enable the A.I.F. again to
join in clearing the enemy from the adjacent territories he has

19. You will consider the foregoing as observations for your
guidance and should put them forward as authoritative, but they
have not yet been considered by the Government. I shall
communicate with you again as soon as possible. The matter is one
of great urgency as the first flight of the A.I.F. is at Bombay.


1 Document 332.

2 Allied Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. Area.

3 U.S. Deputy Commander, A.B.D.A. Area.

[AA:A3196, 1942, 0.4664]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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