Burning postwar issues may arise—but now Australia’s only interest is survival

CLIVE TURNBULL February 15 1942


Burning postwar issues may arise—but now Australia’s only interest is survival

CLIVE TURNBULL February 15 1942


Burning postwar issues may arise—but now Australia’s only interest is survival


MELBOURNE, (By Cable). When Japanese bombs burst on Pearl Harbor a metaphorical bombshell burst on Australia. The war became an urgent reality. It had been real enough before for some; many an Australian home mourns a soldier dead in the Middle East, an airman lost over Europe, a sailor gone down with his ship. But these men had gone to meet death. Now death was coming to meet those they had left behind.

Japanese airmen—the myopic little men said to suffer night blindness from nutritional deficiencies, who flew third-rate airplanes and only according to textbook rules at that—suddenly became a cloud of destruction menacing the Pacific and all around it.

On the majority of Australians not directly affected by personal loss the war had borne lightly enough. Taxes were high but not insufferable. There was some shortage of tobacco. Restrictions, except in the use of gasoline, were negligible. Australians had entered the war almost with relief at the climax to the tensions of the false peace. For a long time nothing much happened; it was the “phony war.” Then came the blitzkrieg on London and other centres. Anger and indignation swept Australia. But the blitzkrieg was countered and countered magnificently. Life surged back almost to normal.

In the middle of last year I returned to Australia from the Far East—from the spy scares and arrests of Tokyo, the ferments of Shanghai, the barbed wire and blackouts of Hong Kong, the bombings in Chungking and all the alarms and excursions of Rangoon, Singapore and Batavia. I found the football matches and race courses thronged — 90,000 people at the Melbourne Cup —and the cabarets crowded, although with a rather older crowd, for many thousands of young men voluntarily enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force or the Royal Australian Air Force were serving overseas. There were the makings of a mild boom.

The sun shone, the reverses of North Africa were retrieved, the Russians routed the Germans. General Sir Thomas Blarney, commanding the A.I.F. in the Middle East, on a flying visit slated the community in general with leading “a carnival existence”—an expression of opinion which had a mixed reception.

For the Curtin Government, it has to be remembered, is just as much a war government as was the Menzies Government, in the sense that like all Australia it believes firmly in the justice of the Allied cause and in the sternest measures to preserve the integrity of Australia. But—and this is a fundamental and traditional policy of Labor —it does not believe in conscription for military service outside Australia, and it is less inclined to accept, unchallenged, all decisions which Whitehall may make, vitally affecting Australian affairs, or to consider the defense of the United Kingdom as the wholly dominant factor in all Imperial strategy.

“Who dies if England live?” can never have precisely the same meaning for Australians as for Englishmen.

Lack of adequate air support for Australian forces in the first Libyan campaign and in Greece created restiveness in Australia — Mr. Curtin himself has always been a strong advocate of air defense. But it would be utterly wrong to suppose

Australia had time to indulge in the ancient game of politics. The leadership of the Coalition Government passed from Robert Gordon Menzies, the barrister head of the Conservative United Australian Party to Arthur William Fadden, the accountant leader of the even more conservative Country Party, and in due course the Government was itself defeated and replaced by a Labor Government headed by Prime Minister

John Curtin—a government socialist in theory but liberal in practice, abhorring Communism. that this indicated any fundamental split in Imperial aims. The Australian is a free critic. If he thinks a job has been botched he does not hesitate to say so, not because he thinks the job should not have been done at all but because he thinks it should have been done properly.

The Old Story

JAPAN’S treacherous entry into the war did not astonish the Australian; there has been unease about Japan for forty years. But the extraordinary series of disasters which the Allies immediately suffered not only astonished but infuriated him. To appreciate the full significance of this reaction two points must be realized. ( 1 ) Australians ha ve been told for years that their security depends upon and will be maintained by the British Navy. (2)They have been told by all and sundry for the last five or six years at least that “Singapore is impregnable,” the keystone of British Far Eastern defense.

Japan’s bolts from the blue found the British Navy, for well-appreciated reasons, elsewhere. And almost immediately northern Malaya fell to the Japanese. When two great British ships did appear they were promptly sunk by the despised manikins of Nippon.

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Pacific Peril

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Once more the old story of Libya and Greece was heard—“Not enough airplanes,” and with it went the familiar reshuffling of high service dignitaries. The immediate reaction of Australians was that they had been let down and deceived about Malaya. Where were the planes Malaya needed? Official explanation said, “In Libya, in Russia.” But it still seemed to the people that more aircraft could have been spared from the United Kingdom where nothing in particular was happening during the struggle on the Russian front. It seemed that in the British Imperial strategy the United Kingdom loomed so large that the Dominions were sometimes apt to seem rather smaller than life-size. That may have been an erroneous view but it was one widely held in Australia.

It is no secret that the Curtin Government was angered by the Malayan debacle and concerned about the fear that Atlantic strategy would dominate the United Kingdom’s war councils and the conferences with President Roosevelt. Mr. Curtin decided the time had come for the launching of a small thunderbolt. It was well wrapped up. In fact it was wrapped up in what was supposed to be a conventional New Year article in the magazine section of the Melbourne Herald, headed simply “The Task Ahead.” In it the Premier said:

The Australian Government regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the Democracies’ fighting plan.

“Without any inhibitions of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

The article reverberated round the world. It startled some English publicists and some representatives of English capital in Australia, produced widespread approval and some anger—for there are a few foolish people who believe the Berlin commentators when they say that Australia plans to cut the Imperial tie and become the forty-ninth of the United States of America. Of course that is nonsense. Some explanation and more careful consideration showed that Premier Curtin’s words meant exactly what they said and no more.

The result of this calculated “indiscretion,” if it was an indiscretion, and of other less public representations was agreeable. Australia’s needs have had more detailed consideration from the Allied leaders and the setting up of a unified Western Pacific Command, with General Sir Archibald Wavell as supreme commander and Major General George H. Brett of the United States Army Air Corps as his deputy, has done much to reassure the Commonwealth.

With the creation of the Command and the implementing of the twentysix - power Washington agreement comes the “reasonable expectation” of United States naval assistance in Australian waters and perhaps other forms of assistance too.

What form this assistance will take is not yet publicly known. But it is obvious that British - American strategy has long contemplated the use by friendly fleets of Australian and New Zealand ports. U.S. vessels are not strangers to these ports. Admiral Thomas G. Hart, now commanding in the Southwestern Pacific, was himself in Australia in 1925. Captain of the battleship Mississippi, he was responsible for shore discipline of the men of the visiting U.S. fleet.

Shadow Factories

Tt/|EANWHILE Australia, though -LYA she looks to U.S. aid, is neglecting no effort of her own. There are many thousands of Australians overseas, hut up to the entry of Japan into the war her most remarkable contribution had been in munitions.

Halfway through 1940 the Menzies Government set up a Department of Munitions and appointed a dollara-vear-man as its director-general, giving him virtually a blank cheque and dictatorial powers. He was Essington Lewis, chief general manager of Australia’s hundred-milliondollar heavy industry corporation, the Brokenhill Proprietary Company. Lewis and his associates, many of whom are also leading industrialists, have extended and multiplied beyond all peacetime thought the existing munitions factories, have set up new “annexes,” or shadow factories, and swung over a vast proportion of peacetime industry— notably the great automobile bodybuilding plants—to war production. High-pressure methods have brought results remarkable by any standards. The largest explosives factory in the southern hemisphere, for instance, now stands where only eighteen months ago there was nothing hut fields of grain. Decentralization and specialization are the watchwords of this campaign, now entering its second phase of expansion. Australia today makes airplanes, anti-aircraft, antitank and field guns, small arms, all kinds of ammunition and many highly-technical products used in war—such as optical glass, not before made in the Commonwealth. At the end of last year the new Labor Government, despite its hostility to big business, showed its confidence in Essington Lewis by making him also director-general of aircraft production—a more convincing gesture of national unity than the bringing into the Government of any number of rejected politicians could have been.

With Japan’s aggression has come urgent need for a far greater Home Army. For this the Government now conscripts all men up to thirty-five and all single men up to forty-five, excepting those reserved because they are needed in war industries and essential services. The trade unions themselves have willingly waived their cherished rights, to allow the employment of unskilled and partly skilled workers in industry without the necessary apprenticeship.

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Pacific Peril

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All this is costing, by Australian standards, a vast sum. Taxes are now at unprecedented levels and certain classes of goods required by the services or regarded as luxuries are disappearing from the market.

Australia has only seven million people. It is difficult to strike a balance between the man-power requirements of industry and those of the services, and despite much machinery that balance has not yet been struck with complete success. The number of women in war production is still small and will no doubt need to he larger.

Experience in the war zones has convinced the Government that this is a young man’s war. As a result a number of senior officers in the home army were retired at the end of the year and replaced by young officers brought hack from the Middle East. Commander in Chief of the Army in Australia, Major General Sir Iven Mackay is himself a veteran of the Middle East, and the home army is being stiffened not only with senior officers from the front but with junior leaders, sergeants and corporals proven in the field.

Unless there is complete collapse in Singapore and the Indies, Australia does not expect invasion. But she is prepared for naval shelling and air bombing of coastal cities, the centres of Australia’s secondary industry. Blackout has been practiced and may be imposed over the whole coastal belt, and such protection of civilians as can be given, failing deep shelters, which it is not now practicable to dig, is being improvised.

Australians have no illusions about their peril. But they look to the future with good heart. They will fight passionately for their country which has never known the foot of an invader. And they look frankly for help, particularly in fighter aircraft, to friends across the Pacific. Because the situation is what it is, help is certain from that quarter and uncertain in degree from the United Kingdom. What questions will arise from this when the war is over? Australians are not at present interested in that. They are interested in survival.