Australia enters WWII

Australia was ill prepared for the war when it broke out in Europe. It had relied heavily on Britain for its foreign affairs and military policies.

Just at that time in Australia a new government had been formed, by the newly established United Australia Party (which would later become the Liberal Party of Australia) and the Country Party. They didn’t hold a majority in Parliament. Parliament agreed that the new Prime Minister Robert Menzies travel to London to discuss the war situation. He came back after four months with no support from Britain for the emerging war in SE Asia. Menzies was furious when he heard that Britain had secretly decided, without any input from Australia to concentrate its war effort in Europe. On top of this Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed with China on peace terms for the Pacific without consulting Australia.

Back home Menzies lost the support of his government and resigned in August 1941.  A joint UAP-Country Party conference chose Country Party leader Arthur Fadden as Coalition leader.

He ruled for only 40 days before the House of Representatives rejected Fadden’s budget and therefore the Fadden Government fell. Until 2019, this was the only occasion where a government was defeated as a result of losing the confidence of the House of Representatives. A few days after the fall of the Fadden Government the Opposition Leader John Curtin was sworn in as Prime Minister. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor – 7 December 1941 – occurred two months after Curtin became prime minister. Australia was bitterly disappointed about the lack of military support from Britain and Curtin publicly declared that Australia would now turn to America. The country entered the war with Japan on the side of the United States. Churchill was fuming about Australia’s decision but the reality was that he was unable and/or unwilling to support the war effort in SE Asia and the South Pacific. On January 25th 1942, full mobilisation was ordered in Australia.

With the threat of Japan invading Malay, Singapore and Netherlands East Indies (NEI), ABDA was formed a combined American-British-Dutch-Australian military force, under the command of British. The Dutch were not consulted in this process and were not aware that the British General Wavell – in charge of ABDA – had established the Malay Barrier, starting from the northwest coast of Australia, via the Netherlands East Indies to Burma. The aim was to stop the Japanese at this barrier. However, nothing could stop the Japanese, Malay and Singapore fell, the war effort moved on to NEI, the end goal for the Japanese, at least at this stage of the war. It desperately needed to lay its hands on the oil plants around the country, in order to keep the supply going for its war effort.

Important Allied supply lines to NEI ran from Australia and for that reason the Japanese bombed Darwin, Townsville, Broome and Wyndham. At that stage there was no plan to invade Australia.

From the beginning the war in SE Asia was unwinnable. Many Dutch and Australian ships, planes and troops were lost in the battle of Singapore. This also hampered the further defense of NEI. With the fall of Singapore, the British force in the area was nearly completed taken out.  The battle of NEI lasted three months and many Dutch and Australian units did fight to the very last day. They caused severe losses to the Japanese, but in the end had to give up. By that time the Americans and British had already abandoned NEI. In the end the Japanese took over the  enormous archipelago without any resistance, many of the Indonesians welcomed the Japanese as they hated the Dutch colonialists.

 Back in Australia Curtin placed Australian troops under the command of the American general Douglas MacArthur. After Japan had invaded NEI also what was left of the NEI and British troops in the Asia-pacific region were placed under his command. Curtin was able to forge a close relationship with MacArthur, and successfully negotiated the issue of conscription for services overseas which had split his party during World War I.

However, there was equally a lot of opposition to the subservient position in this relationship. While President Roosevelt and the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George Marshal, had ordered MacArthur to appoint Australian and Dutch military leaders in his HQ, MacArthur ignored the request. Instead he worked mostly with the team of military that on March 12 1942 had fled together with him to Australia after the fall of the Philippines. MacArthur made no secret of his belief that the Australian troops lacked spirit, he never receded from that position.

MacArthur wielded significant political influence in Australia.

Since July 1942 he had moved his HQ to Brisbane occupying the Australian Mutual Provident Society building in the CBD (renamed after the war as MacArthur Chambers).

Office of General Douglas MacArthur
Office of General Douglas MacArthur in Brisbane

MacArthur had the most successful PR machines of all of the American forces. This had made him extremely popular and politically powerful in his home country. In order to achieve this – and hide some of the controversies he was involved in – he had been able to enforce significant censorship on the press in Australia.

Between 1942 and 1945, over one million US military personal passed through Australia on their way to the South Pacific and SE Asia. At the height of the war roughly 80,000 of  them were stationed in Brisbane . Brisbane’s population in December 1940 was estimated at 335,000; the American presence in the city had a significant demographic impact.

The American military were paid twice as much as the Australians. They had better clothing and access to luxury goods – supplied by the American PX (Postal Exchange) canteen in CBD Brisbane – which were not available to Australians. This led to tension that eventually – on 26 and 27 November 1942 – boiled over in what has become known as the “Battle of Brisbane”. After an unrelated incident perhaps a few thousand Australian service man led siege to the PX. A street battle followed with American MPs which led to one Australian gunner dead and half a dozen wounded by gunshots. The street battles of the following night saw 20 Americans hospitalised.

Nevertheless, Curtin was extremely popular and the ALP won almost two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives at the 1943 election. Curtin died in office in July 1945, after months of ill health attributed to the stresses of the war. Many of his post-war reconstruction plans were implemented by his successor Ben Chifley.

 While the Dutch-Australian collaboration reached its high point in 1942 it reached its deepest point after the war. The Netherlands wanted at all cost to hold on the NEI, while Australia (and the USA) took the decision to a support an independent Indonesia. Chifley also took a leadership role in the negotiations between the Dutch and ‘Indonesians’ which after a colonial war, under international pressure from Australia, India and others, ended in the independence of Indonesia.

Dutch – Australian military cooperation