The battle for Australia

Churchill thought parts of Australia could fall in early 1942

   In late 1941 and early 1942 both Britain & US considered abandoning Australia to invading Japanese, to be recovered later after Germany's defeat.

   The Battle for Australia documents evidence in this period suggesting that both Britain and the US were giving serious thought to abandoning Australia to the Japanese if heavily invaded and recovering the country at a later date.   


    Prime Minister Winston Churchill disparaged John Curtin for fearing a Japanese invasion of Australia, yet he told King George VI on 24 February 1942:

   "Burma, Ceylon, Calcutta and Madras in India, and part of Australia, may fall in to enemy hands."

US Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a vice admiral, records that he was surprised at talk in Washington about abandoning Australia and New Zealand. In his extensive history of US naval operations, Morison, a friend of President Roosevelt, wrote of the immediate plight Australia and New Zealand faced:

Morison: "serious talk of abandoning Australia..."

"Nobody seemed able to stop the Japanese and in Washington there was even serious talk of abandoning Australia and New Zealand to the enemy."

But, as King told the President, ‘We cannot in honour let Australia and New Zealand down. They are our brothers, and we must not allow them to be overrun by Japan’. And the President agreed. Less than two weeks into 1942, Curtin and his ministers, the press and a great many Australians were deeply alarmed when the two politicians managing the naval affairs of their respective nations in Britain and the United States both made public speeches that played down the war with Japan as a secondary consideration for the Allies.

Their alarming statements clearly were a result of the secret ‘Beat Hitler First’ policy which was reconfirmed in late December 1941. The insensitive and undiplomatic remarks stunned many, not least John Curtin. The comments began with a speech on 10 January by Prime Minister Churchill’s First Lord of the Admiralty, A.V. Alexander (pictured below) who emphasised the Allied war priority as Germany, despite recent Japanese victories. He said Britain should never take her eyes off the Axis Powers in Europe:

“If we knock them (the Germans) out we can do what we like with Japan afterwards. In the meantime we must hold on to the Far East. We have a duty towards out kith and kin in the Commonwealth.”

Alexander: "Do what we like with Japan afterwards."

Alexander said the combined strength of the British and American fleets in the long run would ‘see us through, but it will take a little time.’ Two days later the US Secretary for the Navy, Frank Knox, known for his bluntness, addressed a conference of mayors in Washington:

“We know who our greatest enemy is. It is Hitler and Hitler’s Nazis; Hitler’s Germany. It is Hitler we must destroy. That done, the whole Axis fabric will collapse. Finishing off Hitler’s satellites will be easy by contrast.”

Knox (pictured below) told the mayors not to expect ‘favourable dramatic developments of triumphant American full-scale naval engagements in the Pacific’ in the near future because of the wide distribution of US naval forces. Australian newspapers were indignant with both men for relegating the Far East and the Pacific to the status of minor theatres of war. The Argus said the remarks now made it apparent that ‘impregnable’ Singapore was gravely endangered. The Age in Melbourne said British authorities apparently believed Singapore to be of secondary importance. The truth was out.

Knox: "We know who our greatest enemy is."

‘What’s all the hullabaloo about?’ Knox asked Australia’s Minister to Washington, Richard Casey. Casey said he believed there was concern and resentment in Australia that the war against Japan was a side-show. Knox asked Casey to reassure Australia that there would be no slackening of American effort in the war against Japan.Time magazine called the Knox statement ‘stupid’ and ‘the last straw’.

General George C. Kenney, commanding general of the 4th US Air Force on the west coast, was appointed Allied air chief in the South West Pacific, to be based in Australia. On his appointment Kenney readily detected an apparent neglect of the war against Japan. He took his concerns to the US Chief of the Army, General George C. Marshall and US Chief of the Army Air Force, General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold. The Pacific, Kenney (pictured below) was told by the generals, would have to wait until Germany was disposed of. General Kenney’s private recollections starkly underlined Curtin’s deepest fears:

Kenney: "The possibility that the Japs would soon land in Australia itself was freely admitted..."

“The thing that worried me most, however, was the casual way that everyone seemed to look at the Pacific part of the war. The possibility that the Japs would soon land in Australia itself was freely admitted and I sensed that, even if that country were taken over by the Nipponese, the real effort would still be made against Germany.”

Kenney defence chiefs made it clear that ‘they just had to build up the European show first’.

The British Government said openly that it thought that Darwin would be attacked. The British Dominions Office at the start of March gave a hint though, in a message to Curtin, that the capture of Darwin might not be critical to the future recovery:

“Port Darwin is principally of value while we retain any hold on the Malayan Barrier, but is not strategically essential for the eventual offensive... Australia is insecure at present but, as we have not the forces available, United States must be largely responsible for reinforcing this area.”

The Battle for Australia documents Churchill as saying in Parliament that Japanese troops would do their utmost to establish bases in northern Australia.  


the war that killed A prime minister wracked by depression and fear for australia's preservation


   This is the last photograph of John and Elsie Curtin. They are in the garden of the Lodge in April 1945. The prime minister's illnesses by this time had become almost continuous with ongoing strain and anxiety. Between November 1944 and January 1945 his deputy Frank Forde acted as prime minister. For three months Curtin was able to return to work and attend Cabinet meetings. He became ill again in June. There were doubts if he would receover from a heart condition.

   In early November 1944 Elsie Curtin had received word that her husband was ill in hospital in Melbourne. She said ‘John insisted that he was just feeling a bit knocked up’, but soon doctors told her that her husband had suffered a heart attack. After attending her son's wedding in Perth, Mrs Curtin arrived in Canberra:

   “By this time ‘Dad’ was back on the job, but the strain on his heart was very great. He would make a speech, then have to rest up for a few days, then he would insist on going back to the House again. Even then I didn’t know how seriously ill he was. He still said he was just tired. I had planned to return home in April, but when I mentioned it to the doctor he asked me to stay on.”

   In early February 1945 the Melbourne Herald’s Harold Cox, who knew Curtin well, thought the leader was suffering from the mental disorder then called neurosis, characterised partly by anxiety behaviour:

   “For the last week he had again looked tired and listless. He improved slightly on the first few days after his return but my impression is that he is looking very sick again...”

   Curtin was making impulsive outbursts. At the end of March, he spoke about wanting to take a holiday. On 9 April 1945 he left the Lodge for the first time in more than a week to go to Parliament House. He was increasingly ill and was admitted to a private hospital in Canberra on 30 April 1945 with ‘congestion on the lungs’. A friend from Perth, the Presbyterian clergyman Hector Harrison, visited Curtin in hospital. He found the Prime Minister’s health badly run down.

   For a time it looked as though Curtin had recovered, but on Monday 2 July Curtin’s office issued an ominous statement to the press:

   “Since the last bulletin on the health of the Prime Minister there has been unsatisfactory progress and during the past two weeks a deterioration in his condition has occurred.”

   Elsie Curtin recalled her husband wanting to leave hospital:

   “[Ray] Tracey drove him home and an ambulance with a stretcher was waiting for him at the Lodge door because ‘Dad’ wasn’t allowed to walk up the stairs. ‘Dad’ paused for quite a while after he got out of the car and had a good look at the garden, as if he sensed it would be his last opportunity. He was carried upstairs to his room and never came down again alive. In June he discussed with me his coming death. We both knew he hadn’t long to go."

  Mrs Curtin recalled her husband's last night:

   “Late on July 4 I had a cup of tea with Dad. You’d better get some sleep, he said. The nurse brought him a sedative. ‘Just wait a minute’, he said. He was quiet for a moment, then, ‘I’m ready now.’ I kissed him goodnight and went off to my room. Three or four hours later, when the sister in charge, Sister Shirl, came to my room, I knew before she spoke that it was all over. .”

   John Francis Curtin died peacefully on 5 July 1945 aged 60. He was ‘a war casualty if ever there was one’, according to biographer Dr Geoffrey Serle.


the major battles affecting australia

The Battle for Australia examines all the major battles that affected the security of Australia, including fighting in Malaya, Singapore, the East Indies, Timor, Ambon, the bombing of Darwin, the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway and submarine attacks around the Australian coastline.

author's book research

A fellowship granted by the Australian Prime Ministers Centre at the Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra, enabled Bob Wurth to undertake overseas research trips. In Singapore he visiting the National Library, the National Museum and other institutions.

In Tokyo, he researched at the National Diet Library, the National Institute for Defense Studies and the Public Records Office. Among interviews he spoke with Professor Hiromi Tanaka (pictured) , Japan's foremost historian on the fighting in New Guinea.


In Britain, the author worked at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College, the National Archives, the Imperial War Museum and the Churchill Archive Centre.

evidence of churchill's deception of curtin

Evidence is presented in The Battle for Australia that Prime Minister Winston Churchill deceived his Australian counterpart when discussing the seriousness of the threat to Australia by the Japanese.

Churchill dispared Curtin's fears of an invasion of Australia in force, yet the British leader clearly believed that the Japanese would make landings in northern Australia, according to documents found by the author..