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510 Prime Minister's War Conference Minute 23

MELBOURNE, 1 June 1942

The Prime Minister's War Conference, which consisted of John
Curtin as Prime Minister and Minister for Defence and General
Douglas MacArthur as Allied Supreme Commander in the South-West
Pacific Area, met for the first time in Melbourne on 8 April 1942.

Curtin had the power to convene meetings and to request the
attendance of ministers and officials as he saw fit. For details
of the establishment of the War Conference see file AA:MP1217, Box
669, Prime Minister's War Conference agendum no. 1/1942, Changes
in machinery for higher direction of war.]

The Commander-in-Chief and his Chief of Staff [1] were handed for
perusal copies of the following cablegrams, paraphrases of certain
parts of which had been furnished to the Commander-in-Chief on
31st May:-

From the Minister for External Affairs-ET.30, 31, 32 and 33. [2]

To the Minister for External Affairs PM.76. [3]

2. The Commander-in-Chief said that, though he had now been in
Australia for some time, we were still where we had started
insofar as assistance from the United Kingdom was concerned, as we
had not obtained an additional ship, soldier or squadron to the
forces that were here. He considered these results were

3. The Commander-in-Chief desired to point out the distinction
between the United States and the United Kingdom in their
relations and responsibilities to Australia. Australia was part of
the British Empire and it was related to Britain and the other
Dominions by ties of blood, sentiment and allegiance to the Crown.

The United States was an ally whose aim was to win the war, and it
had no sovereign interest in the integrity of Australia. Its
interest in Australia was from the strategical aspect of the
utility of Australia as a base from which to attack and defeat the
Japanese. As the British Empire was a Commonwealth of Nations, he
presumed that one of its principal purposes was jointly to protect
any part that might be threatened. The failure of the United
Kingdom and U.S.A. Governments to support Australia therefore had
to be viewed from different angles.

4. The Commander-in-Chief added that, though the American people
were animated by a warm friendship for Australia, their purpose in
building up forces in the Commonwealth was not so much from an
interest in Australia but rather from its utility as a base from
which to hit Japan. In view of the strategical importance of
Australia in a war with Japan, this course of military action
would probably be followed irrespective of the American
relationship to the people who might be occupying Australia.

5. The Commander-in-Chief said that he had detected a cooling off
of the earlier eagerness for offensive action which had been
manifested when the Southwest Pacific Area had been created. This
was apparently due to the Churchill-Roosevelt agreement to treat
Germany as the primary enemy. The directive had provided for
preparations for offensive action. Reinforcements had commenced to
flow to Australia from U.S.A. Then they had stopped. The
Commander-in-Chief considered that any appeal to the United
Kingdom should not be for forces for offensive action, but for
those necessary to ensure the security of Australia by adequate
defence. The United Kingdom did not admit earlier that the forces
were not sufficient for defence. This view had been modified by
the promise of reinforcements should Australia be heavily
attacked. They now said that they did not believe in the
probability of Australia being attacked. The promise of help if
Australia were heavily attacked was an extremely weak reed on
which to rely, as it would be impossible to come to the assistance
of Australia in sufficient strength and early enough if Japan had
air and sea superiority to carry out such an attack. Furthermore,
the Commander-in-Chief did not consider that any quid pro quo was
being offered for the assistance Australia had rendered overseas
with naval, military and air forces. The fact that Britain had
carried out a raid on Cologne with 1,000 heavy bombers showed that
she must have reserves behind this force of anything up to 4,000
bombers, yet the Commander-in-Chief, Southwest Pacific Area, had a
total of 40 heavy bombers, of which a large Dumber were

6. The Commander-in-Chief considered it the fundamental duty of
the United Kingdom Government to give aid to Australia, and it was
to the strategic advantage of the United States that the security
of Australia should be maintained. Therefore, both countries
should help.

7. In regard to the future prospects of assistance from the
U.S.A., the Commander-in-Chief said that the flow of planes to
Australia had been resumed, and he had been promised 107 in June,
Plus 75% of the requisite personnel. He had been promised that
this flow would continue in the quantity based on losses in the
Southwest Pacific Area and the estimate of the United States
Chiefs of Staff of the situation. The United States authorities
are re-considering the amount of assistance by U.S.A. air forces
which could be given in the Southwest Pacific Area, and General
Arnold's [4] visit to London was no doubt connected with this. The
Commander-in-Chief was hopeful that increases in the United States
air forces would be approved in accordance with his request for an
increase in the first-line strength from 500 aircraft to 1,000
aircraft. In regard to land forces, the Commander-in-Chief said
that the 37th Division was on its way, two-thirds being intended
for New Zealand and one-third for Fiji. It would be followed by a
United States Marine Division, which would go to New Zealand and
be under American and not New Zealand control. It was expected to
arrive in July. The Commander-in-Chief stated that he was hopeful
of getting the Corps of three divisions for which he had asked.

General Richardson, who was the Commanding General of a United
States Army Corps, was coming to Australia shortly. The purpose of
this mission was not known, but the Commander-in-Chief was
hopeful, in view of General Richardson's command, that it meant
that his forces would follow later.

8. In regard to naval forces, the Commander-in-Chief referred to
his request for two aircraft carriers for the Southwest Pacific
Area. Since the Battle of the Coral Sea the American naval forces
in this area had been increased by one 8-inch cruiser and one
destroyer. There were therefore now five 8-inch cruisers allotted
to the Southwest Pacific Area. The United States authorities had
advised the Commander-in-Chief that no carriers were available. At
his suggestion, the United States authorities had asked the United
Kingdom Government whether they could make any carriers available,
but a negative reply was received. The Commander-in-Chief pointed
out that Admiral Somerville [5] had three aircraft carriers, and
he considered that one could be spared in view of the fact that
naval action was now centred in the Pacific Ocean, since the
Japanese naval forces had withdrawn from the Indian Ocean. The
Eastern Fleet was working between the African coast and Ceylon.

The Commander-in-Chief suggested that arrangements should be
sought whereby part of Admiral Somerville's forces could operate
in the Southwest Pacific Area, by special arrangement, in order to
exercise joint pressure against Japanese bases to the north of
Australia. It was evident, in view of the wide area over which the
Japanese were spread, that they could not be strong everywhere.

The American Intelligence was good regarding the location of the
Japanese forces, and the success of Allied attacks could be
ensured by superior forces. The Commander-in-Chief was very
distressed at the number of targets which were offering but which
could not be attacked owing to the absence of a balanced naval
force. He pointed out that any such arrangement between the
Eastern Fleet and the Naval Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area
would be entirely elastic and would not commit Admiral
Somerville's forces to this theatre.

9. The Commander-in-Chief stated that the latest naval information
indicated a Japanese concentration between Truk and Japan. The
Commander-in-Chief stated that he had been hammering the Japanese
in nearby island bases and had established a sufficient degree of
air control to prevent the Japanese from launching a southern
attack without first making a concentration in force at one of
these bases. The Japanese were seeking to extend their bases for
reconnaissance purposes, in order to obviate the possibility of
surprise attack.

10. In the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, there will be a
decisive naval action in June and this will be fraught with the
gravest consequences for Australia. If it is successful it will
relieve the pressure on Australia. If it results in a draw it will
decrease the pressure, but if it results in a Japanese success, it
will be followed up by mopping-up operations against the islands
on the line of communication between Australia and Hawaii, in
order to isolate Australia from America. The purpose of the recent
operation against Moresby was to free Rabaul from air attacks and
make it more secure as a base.

11. In regard to the results of Dr. Evatt's mission as shown in
the cablegrams, the Commander-in-Chief said that, if he might
speak with frankness (which the Prime Minister asked that he
should do), he considered that Dr. Evatt was undoubtedly a
brilliant advocate who, by the skilful manner in which he had put
his case, had aroused a live interest in the English people as to
the security of Australia, and had achieved a good press for his
case. He had no doubt evoked a sympathetic hearing from Mr.

Churchill and other Ministers, but from the practical military
point of view little had been achieved. He added, however, that
probably no one could have done better. As the cables showed, the
efforts he had exerted had been those of a great pleader, but the
agreement between Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt On grand
strategy was a high hurdle to get over. It was evident that Mr.

Churchill was determined that the seat of war should not be in the
Pacific Ocean. The Commander-in-Chief agreed that this was good,
if Tokyo also agreed. The conception of grand strategy of
concentrating against one flank whilst holding the other was quite
sound in principle, but he would emphasize that the holding was as
important as the attacking. The United Nations had utterly failed
to provide the forces necessary to hold the flank in the Pacific.

This was evident from the tragedies that had occurred in Malaya,
the Philippines, the Netherlands Indies and Burma. They proved
that the United Nations did not have sufficient forces for holding
the situation in the Pacific. He emphasized that he was referring
to a defensive and not an offensive situation. The latter would
require much greater forces. If the additional Army Corps which he
had requested were despatched to Australia and he was able to
secure the increased air strength for which he had asked and also
obtain a balanced naval force, he considered that, short of a
naval disaster, these forces should be sufficient to safeguard
Australia. If Japan attained naval and air superiority no land
force would be sufficient to defend the Commonwealth.

12. In regard to what Australia was doing to help itself, the
Commander-in-Chief said that the Defence programme was clear and
well-defined, and was being executed with reasonable efficiency
and speed. It should ultimately provide a first-class Army and
also a first-class Air Force by 1943, if the aircraft requested
were despatched. Two carriers, however, were required for the
naval forces, and a concentration of effort should be made in
London to obtain these carriers for Admiral Leary's [6] forces, or
an arrangement for Admiral Somerville to work in closest contact
with the naval forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. The support
of Great Britain should also be obtained for the supply to
Australia of the aircraft required for the expansion of the
R.A.A.F. to 71 squadrons. In regard to the 9th Division of the
A.I.F. in the Middle East, the Commander-in-Chief said that he
would insist on its return to Australia, but not in too abrupt a
manner. Syria was not an active battle zone, and it probably would
not become one until after operations in the Pacific. The
Commander-in-Chief considered that in Australia's hour of peril
she was entitled at least to the use of all the forces she could
raise herself. If Australian forces were serving overseas and
could not be returned, then it was essential that a quid pro quo
should be given in the shape of corresponding British forces. In
regard to the two R.A.A.F. Spitfire squadrons which were being
returned to Australia, the Commander-in-Chief noted that Australia
had two permanent R.A.A.F. squadrons abroad and ten squadrons
which had been formed under the R.A.A.F. infiltration scheme. Mr.

Churchill was only giving back to Australia part of her forces and
one R.A.F. squadron as a gesture.

13. The Commander-in-Chief suggested that a statement be prepared
in two columns, the first of which would show what forces
Australia has in other theatres and the other what is required for
the defence of Australia. He considered that Australia was
entitled to have in the Southwest Pacific theatre every unit it
could raise, and in his opinion the military situation warranted
such a view. The only opinion that he offered that differed from
Dr. Evatt's conclusions was that the latter appeared to accept the
R.A.A.F. squadrons as a favour and a concession, whereas, in the
Commander-in-Chief's view, they and more should be forthcoming as
a right. Nevertheless, probably in view of what he was up against
he had to take what he could get.

14. The conclusion of the Commander-in-Chief was that the
Australian Government should hammer the naval aspect for aircraft
carriers for the Southwest Pacific Area or for a working
arrangement with the Eastern Fleet for a greater combination of
the forces in the Indian Ocean with those in the Southwest Pacific
Area. Finally, in view of the changing strategical situation in
the Pacific, it was important to get regular and up-to-date
appreciations from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and the views
which he had put forward might well be communicated to Washington
and London as contributions by the Australian Government which
expressed its viewpoint on these particular aspects.

15. Following a general discussion, the Prime Minister stated that
he would submit the Commander-in-Chief's suggestions to the next
meeting of the Advisory War Council. [7]

AND USA-1942]

1 Maj Gen Richard K. Sutherland.

2 Dr H. V. Evatt's cablegrams ET30 and 323 are published as
Documents 500-2. Cablegram ET31 is cited in Document 497, note 2.

3 Document 506.

4 Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

5 U.K. Commander-in-Chief, Far Eastern Fleet.

6 Commander, Allied Naval Forces, South-West Pacific Area.

7 On 3 June the Advisory War Council authorised the preparation of
a cablegram to the U.S. and U.K. Govts embodying the views of
MacArthur and the Chiefs Of Staff (See AA:A2682, vol. 5, minute
955). Curtin submitted a draft to MacArthur the following day (see
letter in Defence: Special Collection II bundle 5, Strategical
Policy-S.W.P.A. File No. 2, and copy of draft cablegram in
MacArthur Library), but MacArthur subsequently decided that, in
view of Japanese aircraft carrier losses in the Coral Sea and
Midway Island actions, no further representations should be made
through governmental channels until the strategic situation had
been reassessed (See AA:A2682, Vol. 5, minute 960).

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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