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357 Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs

Cablegram 136 CANBERRA, 22 February 1942


For the Prime Minister [1] from the Prime Minister.

Reference your 233 and 235 . [2] I have received your rather
strongly worded request at this late stage, though our wishes in
regard to the disposition of the A.I.F. in the Pacific theatre
have long been known to you and carried even further by your
statement in the House of Commons. [3] Furthermore, Page [4] was
furnished with lengthy statements on our viewpoint on 15th
February (repeated to Dominions Office in No. 123), 17th February
(repeated to Dominions Office in No. 127) and 19th February (two
cablegrams). [5]

2. The proposal for additonal military assistance for Burma comes
from the Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. Area. [6] Malaya,
Singapore and Timor have been lost and the whole of the
Netherlands East Indies will apparently be occupied shortly by the
Japanese. The enemy, with superior sea and air power, has
commenced raiding our territory in the north-west and also in the
north-east from Rabaul. The Government made the maximum
contribution of which it was capable in reinforcement of the
A.B.D.A. Area. It originally sent a division less a brigade to
Malaya with certain ancillary troops. A machine gun battalion and
substantial reinforcements were later despatched. It also
despatched forces to Ambon, Java and Dutch and Portuguese Timor.

Six squadrons of the Air Force were also sent to this area,
together with two cruisers from the Royal Australian Navy.

3. It was suggested by you that two Australian divisions be
transferred to the Pacific theatre [7] and this suggestion was
later publicly expanded by you with the statement that no obstacle
would be placed in the way of the A.I.F. returning to defend their
homeland. [8] We agreed to the two divisions being located in
Sumatra and Java and it was pointed out to Page in the cablegram
of 15th February that should fortune still favour the Japanese
this disposition would give a line of withdrawal to Australia for
our forces.

4. With the situation having deteriorated to such an extent in the
theatre of the A.B.D.A. Area with which we are closely associated
and the Japanese also making a southward advance in the Anzac
Area, the Government, in the light of the advice of its Chiefs of
Staff as to the forces necessary to repel an attack on Australia,
finds it most difficult to understand that it should be called
upon to make a further contribution of forces to be located in the
most distant part of the A.B.D.A. Area. Notwithstanding your
statement that you do not agree with the request to send the other
two divisions of the A.I.F. Corps to Burma [9], our advisers are
concerned with Wavell's request for the Corps [10] and Dill's
statement that the destination of the 6th and 9th Australian
Divisions should be left open, as more troops might be badly
needed in Burma. [11] Once one division became engaged it could
not be left unsupported, and the indications are that the whole of
the Corps might become committed to this region or there might be
a recurrence of the experiences of the Greek and Malayan
campaigns. Finally, in view of superior Japanese sea power and air
power, it would appear to be a matter of some doubt as to whether
this division can be landed in Burma and a matter for greater
doubt whether it can be brought out as promised. With the fall of
Singapore, Penang and Martaban, the Bay of Bengal is now
vulnerable to what must be considered the superior sea and air
power of Japan in that area. The movement of our forces to this
theatre therefore is not considered a reasonable hazard of war,
having regard to what has gone before, and its adverse results
would have the gravest consequences on the morale of the
Australian people. The Government therefore must adhere to its

5. In regard to your statement that the 18th Division was diverted
from Burma to Singapore because of message No. Johcu 21 [12], it
is pointed out that the date of the latter was 23rd January,
whereas in Winch No. 8 of 14th January [13] you informed me that
one brigade of this division was due on 13th January and the
remainder on 27th January.

6. We feel therefore, in view of the foregoing and the services
the A.I.F. have rendered in the Middle East, that we have every
right to expect them to be returned as soon as possible with
adequate escorts to ensure their safe arrival.

7. We assure you, and desire you to so inform the President [14],
who knows fully what we have done to help the common cause, that,
if it were possible to divert our troops to Burma and India
without imperilling our security in the judgment of our advisers,
we should be pleased to agree to the diversion.


1 Winston Churchill.

2 Documents 352-3.

3 See Churchill's speech of 27 January in House of Commons,
Parliamentary Debates, 5th series, vol. 377, col. 614.

4 Special Representative in the United Kingdom.

5 Documents 334, 336 and 345 and cablegram no. 29 of 19 February
on file AA:A916, 52/ 302/142.

6 General Sir Archibald Wavell.

7 See U.K. Dominions Office cablegram 16 of 3 January (AA:A3195,
1942, 1.426).

8 See note 3.

9 See Document 352.

10 See cablegram 219 of 18 February on file AA:A816, 52/302/142.

11 See Document 346.

12 See Document 3 52. Cablegram Johcu 21 is published as Document

13 AA:A3195, 1942,1.1624 It outlined the program of army and air
reinforcements for Malaya. 14 Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[AA:A3196, 1942, 0.5403]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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