Understanding our Japanese threat...

How grave was the threat of invasion to Australia in those first few critical months of 1942?

In Autumn 2009 the Australian Army Journal published a lengthy essay by Bob Wurth in response to a previous essay in the journal by a Canberra historian challenging the view that there was a Battle for Australia in the Second World War. As the Journal said in an editorial, it had expected that Stanley's article would spark controversy: "We publish Bob Wurth's article in that spirit of fairness and balance."

I wrote the essay for the Army Journal because I feel that some Australian historians have siugnificantly downplayed the role of Australian troops in battles near Australia and have further failed to grasp the severity of the Japanese threat in 1942. The complete text can be read at:


Here is a summary...


The wording might have changed a little since Chinese general Sun Tzu brushed ‘The Art of War’ in circa sixth century BC, but the meaning today is clear enough:

'Know thy enemy and know thyself, find naught in fear for 100 battles. Know thyself but not thy enemy, find level of loss and victory. Know thy enemy but not thyself, wallow in defeat every time.'

If you argue that an enemy never harboured desires for your soil, one would think that, had you the opportunity, you would go to the sources of the former enemy to verify your contention. Regrettably some of our historians have not, nor indeed spent time in Japan engaging in research. In reality, many Australians even today know precious little of the behind-the-scenes motivations and machinations of our former enemy and the thinking of that country’s militaristic leaders towards us, especially in those heady and crucial days of early 1942, when Japan seemed unstoppable and Australia’s future was being actively debated.

That Australians promulgate and accept the theory that an invasion threat was minute or even that it did not exist, and thus a Battle for Australia commemoration has no validity, might well demonstrate that on Sun Tzu’s score, apart from our lack of knowledge about Japan’s intentions, we also know little of ourselves.

If our wartime history is to be reflected accurately, today’s Australians need to study the mind and motivation of the former enemy just as thoroughly as did the Australian generals in the war of 1941–45.

How different things are today in our relationship with Japan; with our close
economic ties, Australia now has a strategic defence partnership with Japan based on high ideals, including democratic values, a commitment to human rights, freedom and the rule of law, and attributes such as mutual respect, trust and deep friendship, to quote the bilateral defence agreement.

Snug, questionable 'internationalist' theories

[Yet] ... it is ironic that important aspects of our knowledge about the intentions of the former enemy between 1941 and 1945 and their full impact are blurred and misunderstood today. More alarmingly, this lack of reliable knowledge from our wartime past by those who should know better and the expression of questionable theories designed to fit snugly into a modern-day academic hypothesis, such as Australians today being indoctrination by wartime and pre-war propaganda, means that our future generations are being taught inaccurate and subjective history.

This lack of knowledge is preventable and unnecessary, for there is abundant and compelling evidence on the gravity of Japan’s threat to Australia in 1942 and related subjects available for any researcher’s seeking, especially in Japan. Primary evidence includes Japan’s official war history series, Senshi sosho, in its 102 volumes from the National Institute of Defense Studies (NIDS) in Tokyo, which is the main policy research arm of the Ministry of Defense.

(The Australian War Memorial has translated one segment of one volume of Senshi Sosho in relation to Australia. The complete 102 volumes in Japanese sit on the shelves of the National Library of Australia in Canberra.)

Primary evidence on the Japanese threat also is available in Japan and elsewhere in recorded interviews and interrogations of surviving Imperial Army and Imperial Navy officers, in their memoirs, diaries and books, and in the actual minutes of meetings actually discussing the invasion of Australia. One of Senshi Sosho’s senior contributors was Sadatoshi Tomioka, the former captain and later rear admiral, who as a war planner in the Imperial Navy’s General Staff, was one of the leading advocates of an invasion of Australia in 1942.

Tomioka also wrote on the Australia issue in his Kaisen to shusen: Hito to kiko tokeikaku (The opening and closing of the Pacific war: the people, the mechanisms and the planning):

The enemy had to be beaten and victory won. In order to win, the enemy had to be denied the use of Australia as a base, no matter what. As long as the enemy had no foothold there, Australia could be taken. But if within the next two years the United States concentrated rapidly on aircraft production and made full use of Australia, Japan would never be able to resist the material onslaught which would follow.

Western countries, including the United States, have valuable resources on the subject too. Many interviews with Tomioka are available through the Papers of Gordon W Prange at the University of Maryland Libraries and other material is in the Prange Collection at the University of Pittsburgh.

The editorial in the Australian Army Journal, Winter 2007, correctly predicted that the oration/essay by Dr Peter Stanley, ‘Was there a Battle for Australia?’ would be controversial. Stanley’s submission was a re-publication of the Australian War Memorial’s Anniversary Oration, delivered on the eve of Remembrance Day before an invited audience on 10 November 2006.

Putting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of using a Remembrance Day eve oration to attack one’s critics, it should be noted that at the time of his address Stanley was the principal historian of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), a public employer which allowed him, to quote the AWM, ‘the intellectual freedom to research and publish his views, as you would expect by virtue of his position then at the Memorial’.

Japanese threat: an 'emotional saga'

Stanley's words were controversial not so much because they challenged the contentious idea of combining various battles or campaigns into one composite ‘Battle for Australia’, and commemorating it on a set day, but more so because they promoted what Stanley (pictured) described in his work as his ‘internationalist’ stance on Australia’s involvement in the Second World War. This is a contentious stance which since May 2002 has challenged thoughts about the very basis of Japan’s aims and motives in the war as that nation looked southward to the Australian continent.

Dr Stanley argues in the Army Journal that proponents of the ‘Battle for Australia’ want to believe that Australia was under threat and it is this need that drives them to build an emotional saga around the Japanese menace and how Australian Servicemen prevented the cataclysm:

'Those who advance this idea argue that from the outbreak of war with Japan Australia was the objective of the Japanese advance, and that 1942 saw a series of crucial campaigns that resulted in the defeat of this thrust. In some versions of the battle it is seen as continuing up to the Japanese surrender. The point of the Pacific war, they imply, was that Australia was in danger of attack or conquest, and that the significance of the campaigns in the south-west Pacific was that they prevented such a calamity.'

Stanley and other like-minded ‘internationalists’ have long preferred to see Australia’s Second World War contribution in the context of a global war, and ‘an international coalition against inter-continental enemies’ in an alliance in which Australia played as much a part as any and any other view is parochial. This idea was expounded rather forcefully by Stanley in the Griffith Review in 2005 when he wrote:

'Why is it that stories of attack, invasion and incursion are so persistent? It seems to me that Australians want to believe that they were part of a war, that the war came close; that it mattered. Why can’t we as a nation accept that the war the Allies fought was decided far from Australia—in North Africa, north-west Europe and above all on the steppes of European Russia?'

Why do we appear to want to believe that Australia really was threatened with
invasion, that it was attacked; even that Japanese commandoes really did want to
land on its shores? Set against the prosaic reality, the desire is poignant and rather

'Relatively unimportant events close to Australia...'

Dr Stanley castigated with a broad brush those who might differ:

In the eyes of nationalist historians, such as David Day, and popular writers who follow them, such as journalists Paul Ham and Peter FitzSimons, Australia faced an actual threat of invasion, a danger dispelled by a combination of a resolute Curtin in Canberra and heroic diggers in Papua. As he stated in the Australian Army Journal:

'It promotes relatively unimportant  events close to Australia over important events far away, purely on rather simplistic calculus of proximity. It has become the new orthodoxy in Australian military history.'

This is where feathers can become ruffled. Tell any old Digger, who fought for instance at Kokoda or Milne Bay, that their campaign was a ‘relatively unimportant event’ and watch the reaction. Having the author of such words bearing the title of the principal historian of the Australian War Memorial, as they have, and the words become even more acerbic.

The changing words to outline the theory have been expressed in a variety of hues. ‘No historian of standing believes the Japanese had a plan to invade Australia, there is not a skerrick of evidence’, Stanley lectured The Australian newspaper’s Higher Education section in one interview.

Four key revisionist pillars

Four pillars to this academic hypothesis can thus be summarised:

1. Australia did not face an invasion threat from Japan.

2. Discussion of an invasion of Australia in Japan was an activity, quickly dismissed,
by a few middle-ranking naval officers.

3. Australia’s defences in 1942 were not weak.

4. Australia’s wartime leader John Curtin, in an effort to motivate the Australian
public’s war effort, resorted to lies about the threat of invasion and his deception
skewed Australian thinking on the matter.

At the ‘Remembering 2002’ conference Stanley said it was common for Australians
to assume that the invasion threat was real:

So the popular perception is that Japan planned to invade Australia, would have had not the battle for Papua been won, and that the man responsible was the great war leader John Curtin. This paper takes issue with that perception. He declared that there was no invasion danger:

'An actual danger of invasion had never existed and the likelihood diminished through 1942 as Allied victories eroded Japan’s offensive capability.'

Few who have studied the subject would argue that orders for the  invasion of Australia were ever issued. Simply, they were not. However, there is strong evidence to indicate that in the first three months of 1942, when Japan went from victory to victory, proposals to invade Australia were very actively considered by the Imperial Navy at a senior level. Indeed there were a variety of serious proposals coming from different naval sources.

Both the Combined Fleet at Hashirajima and Naval General Staff in Tokyo had their invasion plans, which at the very least can be described as a real and significant threat. Further, an influential navy, which had the Pearl Harbor success under its belt, repeatedly and frequently pressured the Imperial Army, sometimes in heated debate, to become involved in its schemes for the invasion of Australia and in its early stages even had some army support.

 Lightly dismissing Tokyo's  invasion debate

In his book Invading Australia, Stanley contends:

'Again, it is important for Australians not to imagine that Imperial Headquarters argued for weeks just over Australia’s fate.'

Certainly, the record shows that other options also were being debated. But it is ill-advised to dismiss lightly the level, strength and length of the debate on Australia and the Imperial Navy’s determination to see the invasion happen.

To suggest that at this time Australia was not seriously threatened is to deny the factual evidence.


The complete text of Bob Wurth's essay can be read at:



THREAT? What invasion threat?

THE 2002 Start of the revisionIST THEORY...

In a 2002 address to a conference at the Australian War Memorial called ‘Remembering 1942’ conference, Dr Peter Stanley dismissed a Japanese invasion of Australia with the words:

"In the euphoria of victory early in 1942 some visionary middle-ranking naval staff officers in Tokyo proposed that Japan should go further. In February and March they proposed that Australia should be invaded … The plans got no further than some acrimonious discussions."

As we have seen, the proponents were neither restricted to middle-rankers nor naval staff officers in Tokyo. They included influential admirals, including those in Combined Fleet, and some generals. Stanley was following a flawed line expounded by the ‘magisterial’ Frei, who simply got it wrong, about the middle-rankers.

Stanley, in his 2008 book, has dropped the dismissive ‘middle-ranking’ tag.

Curious views on Australia's 1942 strengths

Another pillar expounded is that Australia’s defences were not weak in 1942.

As part of the process of downplaying the threat of invasion, while subscribing to Churchill’s view that Curtin had been ‘panicky’ about invasion, Stanley has maintained that Australia in 1942 could have defended herself:

There is an exaggerated perception these days that Australia’s defences were ‘weak’:
‘Australia stood utterly defenceless’, writes Brian McKinley. But even before the
valorising of Kokoda began, the official historians thought the value of the Militia had been ‘written down’.

The contention that Australia was not weak in 1942, especially at the outbreak of
war, is unsustainable. Willmott is among dozens of experts who differ with Stanley:

Both dominions [Australia and New Zealand] were desperately weak, as their
attempts to reinforce their various garrisons and islands showed only too well.

Stanley contends that Australia’s Army commander-in chief, General Thomas
Blamey, ‘remained confident’ of holding the Japanese.

In fact, Blamey later wrote:

"Had the Japanese wished to seize it, Western Australia, with its vast potential wealth, might have fallen an easy prey to them in 1942. While it would have extended their commitment to a tremendous degree, it would have given them great advantages. At that time it could probably have been captured and controlled by a force no greater than that used to capture Malaya."

For years Dr Stanley maintained that wartime Prime Minister John Curtin deceived Australia about the Japanese threat. Stanley began his criticism of Curtin at the‘Remembering 1942’ history conference in 2002. The criticism lasted until 2008, when it underwent a sea change. Stanley initially spoke of Curtin lying to the public:

"… Curtin did not save Australia from any real threat. Instead, one of the lasting legacies of his whipping up of the fear of invasion has been a persistent heritage of bogus invasion stories."

He also spoke of Curtin’s alleged deception:

"I’m arguing that there was in fact no invasion plan, that the Curtin Government exaggerated the threat, and that the enduring consequences of the reality of its deception was to skew our understanding of the reality of the invasion crisis of 1942."

Stanley at the same time castigated Australian historians who since the war had
for ‘misunderstood the crisis’ and/or ‘accepted Curtin’s exaggerations’.

Indeed, it was Stanley, by his own frank admission, who got it wrong. In September 2008, Stanley ended this particular line of criticism of Curtin’s ‘bogus stories’ and ‘deception’ while speaking on ABC Radio:

'And I now believe that he was absolutely sincere.'

"I am at a disagreement with myself. In 2002 I was arguing that Curtin was motivating the people by gingering them up about a possibility that there was an invasion and that that was quite a deliberate manipulation. And I have to say that I have changed my mind on that.

"In the research for this book over the last couple of years, I gained a deeper appreciation and a greater respect for John Curtin. And I now believe that he was absolutely sincere. Deluded perhaps, but sincere and he wasn’t manipulating at all."

The few historians insisting that the Japanese invasion threat to Australia in early
1942 was merely a ‘myth’ and the product of wartime Australian fears of Japan must elevate the debate by research, specifically into Japanese sources. #

Vice Admiral Sadatoshi Tomioka


Peter Stanley

Australian wounded Digger and Papuan helper on the Kokoda Trail.


General Sir Thomas Blamey.


        John   Curtin

   Prime Minister John Curtin.

Students learning about Australia at war at the Australian War Memoprial, Canberra.