World War II Country Trends: Australia

Australia World War II
Figure 1.--Here Australian children are riding on a miniature train at Sandringham near Melnourne. The photograph is undated, but was probably taken in 1943. A year earlier, Australia had been on the front line and bracing for a Japanese invasion. Only three American carriers stood between Australia and the Japanse. The train ride was organised for the 'Bomb Children of Britain' charity. Children turned over a toy for a train ride. The charity was operated during 1943 and 44 by British immigrants Robert and Madge Edwards. The boy driving the train in their son Bill. Notice the toys the children awaiting their turn are holding.

Australia joined Britain in fighting NAZI Germany after the German invasion of Poland (1939). As in World War I, the draft became a potent political issue. War with Italy followed after Mussolini declared war and invaded an already defeated France (June 1940). Australia's small army was deployed to Egypt and played a major role in the defense of the Suze Canal against Rommel's Afrika Korps. Other Australia units were deployed to the British bastion at Singapore. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Singapore quickly fell. Perhaps the greatest disaster to British arms in the War. The British and Australians taken in Singapore were bryrally treated by the Japanese. The fall of Singapore meant that Australia itself was largely defenseless, Its army was either in North Africa or captured along with the Singapore garrison. After seizing the Dutch East Indies and much of New Guinea. The Japanese bombing Darwin and other cities in northern Australia. The Japanese next targeted Port Moresby to complete their conquest of New Guinea in preparation for an eventual invasion of Australia. The country was vulnerable because the Australian Army was largely in North Africa fighting the Afrika Korps. The Australians had also been weakened by the surrender in Singapore. At the time the only meaningful force between Australia abd the Japanese were two American carriers Yorktown and Lexington. These carrers alerted by American code breakers and intercepted the Japanese in the Coral Sea (April 1942). Although Lexington was sunk and Yorktown badly damaged, the Japanese invasion force turned back. This gave the Australians time to train a new army and for American troops and supplies to arrive in Australia to build a creditable force. The Australians then turned back a Japanese effort to seize Port Moresby in an overland attack and played an important role in the reconquest of New Guinea.

World War I

World War I was the most costly war ever fought by Australia. Australia's population in 1914 was less than 5.0 million people, less than Belgium. Conscription proved to be highly controversial. Australians reacted to the outbreak of the War in Europe with a wave of enthusiam to support Britain. Over 0.4 million men enlisted. The Army set very demanding physical standards. The first Australian troops were deployed to Egypr to protect the Suez Cannal which was threaened after the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers. The Australians were rushed Egypt with little military training. They were trained after arriving in Egypt. The Australians were used along with New Zealand, British, and French troops in the costly Gallipoli campaign (1915). After Gallipoli the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was reorganised. Reinforcements arrive from Australia expanded the force from from two to five infantry divisions. The AIF was shifted to France, beginning in March 1916. There they participated in the bloody engagements on the Wstern Front. Caulties totaled 60,000 killed, four times that of Belgium where much of the War was fought. Another 156,000 men were wounded or captured.

Political Consequences

There had been great enthusiasm for coming to Britain's assistance when war broke out in Europe. Most Australians still saw Britain as the mother country. The fact that Britain declared war for Australia did not come into political focus until the conscription debate and even more so after the War. Australians as people in other countries began to see the War as a huge mistake. This provided great support for the Labour Party. Many Australians began to question Australia's constitutional status and ties with Britain,

Declaration of War

Australia joined Britain in fighting NAZI Germany after the German invasion of Poland (1939). The Australian experience in Workld War I had created considerable pacifist sentiment in Australia, but news of Hitler and the NAZIs had also alerted Australians to the nature of the NAZI regime. Thus when Britain declared war on Germany, the Australian Government followed Britain. Prime Minister Menzies announced that ‘Australia was also at war’. At the time the Australian focus was on Europe. Most Australians still felt that Britain was the mother country. Must less attention was focused on Japan.

Strategic Position

Australia had a very small military force. Britain as the the war progressed in Europe found itself in mortal danger. Australia had to decide whether to commit its small force to assist Britain or to keep it in the Pacific area because of the threat from Japan. British military planners assured the Australian Government that the bastion of Singapore would prevent the Japanese from expanding south. Of coursr the Americans in the Philippines was another barrier to Japan. Australian security was improved when the United States moved its Pacific Fleet headquaters west to Pearl Harbor. As a result, much of Australia's small army was deployed to Singapore and to North Africa to assist the British. What the Australian Government like the Americans and British did not fully appreciate was the full extent of Japanese naval power--especially their huge carrier force.

Naval Campaign

The Royal Australian Navy was put under the operatonal control of the British.


Most Australians had rallied to aid Britain during World War I. There was wide spread support for forming a voluntary army to fight in Europe. Conscription was, however, highly controversial. Australian law permitted conscription, but not outside of Australia. There were bitter debates in Parliament as well as street demonstrations. Australian voters in a national vote rejected compulsory military service twice (1916 and 1917). World War II was a very different conflict. The Australian Army was deployed in the Western Dessert when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and moved south toward Australia. For a time only a few American carriers stood between Australia and the Japanese. With the Japanese threat Australia confronted the issue of conscription again. This time the Japanese were moving toward Australia itself and actually invaded New Guinea, an Australian protectorate. Australian sconscriptts were used there and played a key role in preventing the Japanese from seizing Port Moresby, from where they would have threatened northern Australia. The Cabinet proposed major changes in the conscription law. The Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943 included provisions allowing the use of in the South West Pacific Area during the War. A provision of the Act provided for the rescinding of this authority 6 months after the end of the War. As the fighting moved away from Australia in 1943, the issue arose of using conscripts in the new theaters further north. As American conscripts were fighting in these areas, still much closer to Australia than America, limitations on conscription seemed to represent a lack of commitment on Australi's part. The Government had the votes in Parliament, but the issue had been so contentious during World War I, Prime Minister Curtin from the Labour Party was reluctant to act. Curtin had been a vocal opponet of conscription in World war I. Instead he staged a debate within the Labour Party. Opposition proved so limited that the Government proceeded to amend the conscrioption law. The area was expanded, but there was still significant limitations. There proved to be no substantial objection to conscription during the War--in sharp contrast to World War I.

The Mediterranean (1940-41)

The British Royal Navy (RN) was streached to the limit by the German U-bpoat attacks in the North Atlantic. Italy's declaration of war, however, significantly changed the strategic naval balance. The defeat of France had removed the French fleet from the Allied order of battle. It also meant that the British now faced the powrful Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. There was no realistic prospect for the British to deploy meaningful forces in the Pacific in case of war with the Japanese. In fact, units of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) were deployed westward to the Mediterranran to participate in operations against the Italian fleet. In a series of ferocious naval balttles, the Italian Fleet was defeated (1940-41). The Australian Army units in the are the best known Australian contributiom in to the Western Desert. The RAN also made a contribution--notably the 'The Scrap Iron Flotilla'. This was a RAN destroyer group that operated first in the Mediterranean during World War II. The name was bestowed on the group by NAZI Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbelsmaking the case that the British were scraping the bottom of the barrel. The RAN flotilla was made up of five aging RN World War I destroyers. The RN thinking that because of SONAR (Asdic) that U-boats wre no mlonger a threat and escorts were no longer needed in numbers, transferred the the destroyers the the RAN (1930s). HMAS Waterhen was sunk in the Mediterranean (1941). The defeat of the Italian Navy allowed the RAN destoyers to be transferred back into the Indian and Pacific Islands. The Inian Ocean was vital in 1942 because American and British supploes for the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert had to be dlivered through the Indian Ocean. HMAS Vampire was sunk in the Indian Ocean (1942). HMAS Voyager was sunk near Timor (1942). HMAS Stuart and HMAS Vendetta managed to survived the War. [Moyes]

Air War

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has origins dating to the Imperial Conference held in London just before World War I (1911). One of the decisions reached was that aviation capability should be developed within the armed forces of the British Empire, primarily the Dominions. Australia was the first Dominion to comply. The Governmnt established the Australian Aviation Corps beginning with the Central Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria (1912). By the tome of World War I. Australia was opoerating the Australian Flying Corps (1914). Australia mobilized eight squadrions during the War, half of whichg was action in the Middle East and on the estern Front. Four of the eight squadrins were still training whwn the War ended. Some 200 Aystrlians served with British flying service. The Australian Flying Corps was part of the Australian Army during the War. It was disbanded after the War. The Australian Air Corps (AAC) was formed (1920). The Australian Air Force was formed (1921) and King George V . on 31 March 1921. King George V approved the prefix 'Royal' bring the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The RAAF then became the second Royal air arm to be formed in the British Commonwealth, after the British Royal Air Force. It was equipped with World War I aircraft. Australia did not have the industrial or technological capability to build modern high performance aircraft or the desire to commit funds to building a modern air force. Australia's defence policy was to rely on the British for defense, primarily the Royal Navy and the Singapore bastion. Australia did purchase a few modern ships for the Royal Australian Navy. When Hitler and Stalin launched World War II, the War seemed far away from Australia (September 1939). The Australian Air Board had only a few facilities. There was the RAAF Station Laverton, RAAF Station Richmond, RAAF Station Pearce, No. 1 Flying Training School RAAF at Point Cook, RAAF Station Rathmines and five small units. The RAAF had an asorment of mostly obslete aircraft. Worse still, Btitain was hard pressed. It also had not made the military a priority abd incredibly almost entered the War with biplanes. They were unable to deploy substantial naval unis, modern aircraft or heavy equioment tothe Pacifuc. Not only was Australia not supplied, but neither ws the Singapore bastion. The focus on Europe, at first defending France and than Britain itself. Australia joined the Empire Air Training Scheme. Air crews could not be easily trained in Britain under war coinditions. Flight crews received basic training in Australia and then went to Canada for advanced training. A few Australian airmen flew in the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940). The war in the Western Desert began when Italy entered the War (June 1940). Australian served in the Desert Airforce with mdern British aircraft. The Lufttwaffe did not badly damage the RAF or the British Aircraft industry in the Battle of Britain. The RAF was more effective after the battle than before and aircraft oprofuction increased. Australians also served in RAF Bomber Command and for reasons we do not fully understanhd sustanined very heavy caualties. [Stephens, p. 96.] But the British struggked to meet the neds of the RAF for European/North African operations. As it became apparent that Japan was prefiring to launch the Pacific War (1940), the Australian government established the Department of Aircraft Production (DAP). This was what was to become the Government Aircraft Factories to supply Commonwealth air forces (1941). [Dennis, p. 277.] The RAAF was eventually provided with large numbers of locally built versions of British designs such as the DAP Beaufort torpedo bomber, Beaufighters and Mosquitos, as well as other types such as Wirraways, Boomerangs, and Mustangs. Australian did not have the technological capabiity to design aircraft, but they developed the capability to manufacture aircraft. But this had only began when the Japanese struck a Peal Harbor and the planes built weee not at beginning the match of the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero (December 1941). Abd in only a few monhs, Japanese aircraft were in range of northern Australia. This meant that the Australian Hmeland was threatened for the first time. The ar was no longer halfway around the world. And with the fall of Sungapore, Britain could not be of assistance. The RAAF was unprepared for the emergency, They initially had negligible forces available to defend the country. The Australian Army was in the Western Desert and the RAN suffered serius losses. The RAAF did not have modern aircraft or much in way of air bases in the north when the Japanese began bombing. The RAAF had started to develop a series of military airfields across North West Australia under the Aerodrome Development Program (1940). The initial series of five major air fields were built between Adelaide River and Birdham to enable aircraft from Darwin to be relocated in the event of a Japanese raid. The Japanese struck only 3 months after Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombers hit Darwin (February 19, 1942). The airrfield construction program was excelerated. These airfields would as te Australiand expressed it, enabanled the RAAF "Air War over the Top End and to take the fight to the enemy." Over 40 airstrips were eventully built along the length of the North-South road, most in the Top End. Fortunately American aircraft was beginningto arrive. The U.S. Navy carriers at connsiderable cost blocked a Japanese anphibious attack on Port Moresby that would have given the Jaoanese airbases to bomb Australia. And American C-47 transports supplied Australians on the rugges Koda Trail. The Japanese without any air support began to starve on the Trail Not obly did the Australians began building a major air force, but a steady transports from America built up a major American air cokponents in Australia --the Fifth Air Force. The Americans also established numerous airfields in Australia, at first for the collective defense of the country after the dusasters in Singaportr, the Dutch East Indies, and Singapore. But as the RAAF abd the American 5th Air Force built up its strength, offensive operations began. At the end if the War, over 215,000 men and women served in the RAAF. Nearly 11,000 were killed in action. ThecRAAF formned 76 squadrons were formed. Over 152,000 personnel operated nearly 6,000 aircraft. It was the world's fourth largest air force. The RAAF alone exceeded the Imperial Japanese Air Force at the peak of its power. That important force, hoever, remained in the southwest Pacific and did not join the Americans in the Central Pacific and the straregic bombardment of the Japanese Home Islands.

North Africa and the Mediterranean (1940-42)

The Australian Army was not engaged in combat until Mussolini declared war on Britain and France and invaded an already defeated France (June 1940). Next the Italians invaded Egypt from Libya in an effort to seize the Suez Canal (September 1940). The British with a small force aided by the Indian Army managed to defeat the much larger invading Italian Army (Devember 1940). The Australian 6th, 7th, and 9th Divisions joined British forces n the Mediterranean and North Africa. Australia's divisions plsyed a major role in the defense of the Suze Canal and the defeat of the Italians forces ivasing Egypt. The British had the opportunity to finish off the Italians, but Churchill honored a commitment to the Greeks and transferred troops to Greece (April 1941), including Australians. There the Germans quickly defeated the Greeks and British and they had to be evacuated, first from Greece and then from Crete. This provided the respite needed for the Germans to reinforce the Italians. Mussolini had rejected German offers earlier, but faced with defeat he finally accepted German assistance. The Germans began landing mechanized units which would the Afrika Korps (March 1941). The commanddrvwas Gen Erwin Rommel who had destinguished himself in France. Australians participated in the Allied invasion of Syria which was controlled by Vichy France (June-July 1941). By this time Rommel's Afrikaps has scorned some important victories and was preparing a second invasion of Egypt. About 14,000 Australians and other Commonwealth troops held Tobruk against reprated German attacks (April-August 1941). They were surrounded, but supported by the Royal Navy. British control of Tobruk greatly complicated German operations into Egypt. The British mounted another offensive and relieved Tobruk. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor opened the Pacific war. This was a dangerous time for Australia because it faced a Japanese offensive at a time when most of the combat units were in North Africa. The Australian 6th and 7th Divisions were shipped back from North Africa to Australia to seve as the backbone of Australian operations against Japan. The Australian 9th Division remained in North Africa and played an important role in the Allied victory at El Alamein (October 1942). The 8th Army pursued the Afrika Korps west. The Australian 9th Division after El Alemein was alao reassined back to Australia. Thus the only Australians left in North Africa were three squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) or a few Australians in British RAF.

The Home Front

Australia and the iother Dominions declard war to support Britan (September 1939). Few feklt actually endangered. Thus Australia was one of the few countries that was involved in the War from the onset. At the time, the War in Europe seemed very far away. Many Australians remembered very well what had happened in Workld War I and the terrible lossess and like the British entered the War reluctantly. It did not at first have a great impact unless they had family members depooyed overseas. The Australian Army was sent to the Middle East which helped the hard-pressed British facing the Germans on the Wstern Front. For many the major impact was rising prices. The fall of France changed the startegic balance (June 1940). And although Britain survived becaue of the Channel and Royal Air Force, bad news kept coming. The failure of the Greek campaign hit Australia hard as there men were involved ((pril 1941). The Casuaklties in the Western Desert continued. Then the Japanese menace grew with the seizure of UIndo-China. Australians began feeling vulnerable in a way they had not in World War I. The primary feeling had been disgust ovr the casulaties during World War I. Now many began to fear a Kapanese invasion. The Australian Government conscripted both men and women into industries essential to the war effort. The Government converted factories to war productions. Many civilians signed up for voluntary work. Political changes occured. Prime Minister Robert Menzies resigned in favor of Arthur Fadden, the leader of the Country Party (August 1941). The Labour Party leader, John Curtin, became the new Prime Minister (Octiber 1941). He would lead the ciountry through the War. Soon after Japan launched the Oacifuc War by striking the American naval base at Peart Harbor (December 7, 1941). Japanese forces launched an offensive that would bring them to the borders of Australia. The fall of Singapore (Fenruary 1942) removed the bastion that most Australians saw as vital to their defense. Australians suddenly saw the War very differently. The Government and military chiefs braced for a Japanese invasion. The Government began conscripting engineers and laborers into the Civil Construction Corps. They performed a range of tasks, including building landing strips, and roads. This was especially important after Pearl Harbor to connect Darwin where a Japanese invasion was forseen to the rest of Australia by land. Before the War sea transport had been the major connection. Women began working in the war industries. Many began factory work for the first time. The Government using the British example formed the Women’s Land Army. This allowed farmers to replace the men joiningd the services so agricultural production could be maintained. Food productiin was an imoportant part of the war effort. After the fall of Singapore, preparations to fight off a Japanese invasion began. Te Government introduced blackout restrictions (February 1942). Air raid warning instructions were developed and issued. The military began strining barbbed wire across many east coast beaches as the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indiaes. The Government urged all Australians, men, women and children, to put their backs into the war effort and mobilized the adult cuivilian population. The Government encouraged everyone to go 'all in' to support the war effort. Women enlisted to serve as nurses. Others enlisted in all the services (Air Force, Army and Navy) to serve in support roles, primarily at bases in Australia. Thousands of young women joined the women's auxiliary services - the WAAAF (Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force), the AWAS (Australian Women's Army Service) and the WRANS (Women's Royal Australian Naval Service). Others joined voluntary organisations such as the Red Cross. Others assisted the military to erect and patrol coastal defences. Cubilans also hlped spot aircraft and shipping. Children pitched in as well, collecting bottles, newspapers, old tires (rubber with the fall of Malaya was in short supply), and metal, especiallyn aluminum need for aircraft construction. Demand increased exponentially for food and other agricultural products like cotton. Australia not onlyb had to oroduce, but also finaance the war effort. He Governmentb issued 'Austerity' war loans. Australia had to supply not only the men serving in the Middle East, but the American troops sent ton defend th country. They began arriving in large numbers. Well welcomed, American were accustomed to a life style and diet that Australia struggled to provide. The Governmnt introduced rationing (June 1942). Ration books were issued to civilians for food and clothing.

Japanese Carrier Forces (1941)

Japan in 1941 had the largest, most advanced caarier force in the world. The commander of the Imperial Fleet, Admiral Yamamoto, was a proponent of naval aviation. The Imperial Navy had 13 carriers. It was not just that the Japanese had more carriers, but they had higher performance aircraft and more experienced pilots. The carriers had Mitsubishi Zero fighters which out performed any fighters available to either the U.S. Navy or the U.S. army Air Corps had. Japanese carrier pilots went through a rigorous training program. Many had combat experience from operations over China. The Japanese pilots were the most skilled naval aviators in the world. The U.S. Navy Pacific fleet had two carriers, Lexington and Yorktown. Rising tensions in the Pacific caused the Navy to shift Enterprise to the Pacific to join them. The significance of this disparity in forces was not fully appreciated in 1941 because most naval planners still considered the battleship to be the capital ship. Also most Americans did not consider the Japanese to be capable of building hogh quality ships or planes or the Japanese to be effective fighters.

Japanese Imperial Conference (July 2, 1941)

The Japanese decided on a "southern advance" policy with the understanding that this could lead to war with the United States. Japan had earlier acted to safeguard its northern territories by signing a neutrality pact with the Soviets (April 13, 1941). The NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22) provided further assurance that there would be no danger of interference from the Soviets if Japan moved south.

Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

The United States by 1941 was the only country with the naval power needed to oppose Japan and protect Australia. The Japanese carrier strike on the American Pacific fleet at Pear Harnor was devestating. All eight American battleships were sunk. Large numbers of aircraft were destroyed. The battleships were put out of action, but only two were destroyed. Even more importantly, the American aircraft carriers were not at Pearl. Largely unnoticed by the Japanese was that the American Pacific fleet was disabled but not destroyed. The Pacific Fleet would be unable to effectively oppose the Japanese offensive which took the Philippines, Dutch West Indies, Singapore, and much of New Guina. It would, however, succeed in stopping the Japanese drive on Australia.

Japanese Offensive (December 1941-May 1942)

The imobilization of the U.S. Ps\acific Fleet after Pear Harbor permotted a massive Japanese offensive in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The Japanese invaded British Borneo (December 16). The Japanese invaded Hong Kong (December 18). The Japanese launched invasion of Luzon in the Philippines (December 22). After an initiak repulse, the Japanese took Wake Island (December 22). The British surrendered Hong Kong (December 25). The Philipino Government declared Manila an open city (December 26), but the Japanese bomb it (December 27). The Japanese take the American naval base at Cavite and enter Manila (January 2, 1942). The Japanese launched their offensive against the American and Filipino forces that had withdrawn to Bataan in the Philippines (January 7). The Japanese invades the Dutch East Indies and Dutch Borneo (January 11). The Japanese began an advance into Burma through Thailand from Indochina (January 16). Japanese took North Borneo (January 19). Japanese began the Solomons campaign by taking Rabaul on New Britain (January 23). The Japanese were to turn Rabaul into the most powerful military base in the South Pacific. The Japanese also invaded Bougainville, the largest island in the Solomons. The Japanese invaded Java in the Dutch East Indies (February 2). The Japanese invaded Sumatra in the DEI (February 14). The Japanese invaded Bali (February 19). Surving Allied naval units attemp to slow down the Japanese in the DEI. The Japanese emerged victorious in the Battle of the Java Sea (February 27- March 1) The crusier Houston, the largest American warship (except the cartiers) still aflot in the Pacific, was sunk. The British are forced to evacuate Rangoon (March 7). Rangoon was the principal port in Burma. Without Rangoon, the British position in Burma was untenable. It also effectively cut the Burma Road, cuting off China from American war materials. The Japanese landed at Salamaua and Lae on New Guinea (March 7). The Dutch on Java are forced to surrender (March 8). The Japanese invaded the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal (March 23). The Japanese move into central Burma (April 29). They occupy Mandalay May 1). They then proceeded to drive the British out of Burma, reaching India (May 20). Here the Japanese were stopped, in part by Britiah and Indian forces and in part by the difficulty of transporting supplies. As a result the Japanese decide to construct the Thailand-Burma railroad using POWs and local conscripts as a labor force. The Japanese move south into the Solomons, taking Tulagi (May 3). This was at the southern end of the Solomons next to Guadacanal. The Japanese had successfully carved out a huge empire in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. They now had the territory with the raw materials they so craved including oil. It is at this point that the Battle of the Coral Sea (April 1942) first slows the Japanese advance and the defeat at Midway (June 1942) disaterously weakens the Imperial Fleet on which this offensive was based. Even so the offensive had brought Japanese forces perious close to Australia as they commanded the DEI, most of New Guinea and the Solomons.

Singapore (January-February 1942)

Australia units were deployed to man the key British bastion at Singapore. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they also moved on Singapore which was central to the British and Australian stategic position in the Pacific. The Singaporre defense plan involved the use of heavy guns were sited for a sea attack. The Japanese, however, attacked by moving down the suposedly inpassable Malayan Peninsula to Singapore. British forces proved inept and unprepared for the jungle fighting in the Malay Peninsula. The British withdrew into Singapore (January 30). The Japanese with command of the sea began the siege of Singapore. Japanese attacked the Singapore (February 8/9). Singapore quickly fell. General Percival surrendered at Singapore (February 15). Singapore fell with relatively little ressistance. It was perhaps the greatest disaster to British arms in the War. Australians were shocked. It in effect meant that Australia was on the fromtbline of the War. Australia had fought World War I far removedcfrom the front lines. World War II was very different.

Japanese Treatment of POWs

Thousands of Allied troops, including over 15,000 Australians, were taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore. The British and Australians taken at Singapore were brutally treated by the Japanese. The Webb Report was a Commonwealth effort to collect information on Japanese attrocities.

The Philippines (January-May 1942)

Next to Singapore, the other bulwark to Japanese expansion was the Philippines, at the time an American Cimmonwealth. The Japanese attack on the Philippines began with the destruction of Americans planes clustered together at Clark Field. With the Japanese commanding the sea and the air forceds largely destroyed, the Philippines was cut off and incapable of preventing a Japanese invasion. General MacArthur decided to withdraw his outnumbered forces to Bataan. The problem was that there had been no planning for this. The defense plan had involved an air force and the Pacific Fleet. Now both were gone. MacArthur was able tgo withdraw to Baatan. He was unable, however, to get adequate supplies there. The American and Filipino forces managed to hold out on Bataan against the larger and well supplied Japanese forces for 3 months. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered General MacArthur out of the Philippines (February 22). He was spirited off Corregidor by PT boats (March 11). He was ordered to Australia to oversee Allied operations, inituially the defense of the Australia. General Jonathan Wainwright replaces MacArthur as the U.S. commander.The Japanese launched a massive offensive (April 3). The American forces on Bataan runing out of food and amunition finally had to surender (April 9). The Japanese forced the starving, sick prisonors on a forced march that became known as the Bataan Death March (April 10). Over 76,000 POWs were forced to march in hot, tropical conditions without adequate food or water over 60 miles. Over 5,000 American died. The Japanese take Corregidor (May 6). General Wainwright after the Japanese threaten to masacre the Corregidor garrison including the Army nurses unconditionally surrenders all U.S. And Filipino forces in the Philippines (May 6).

Nature of the War

Most accounts of World War II find that the Pacific War was fouught more savagely than the European War, especially the fighting between the Germans and Western Allies. The differences can be exagerated. Tere were German attrcities in the West (Oradour-surGlane and Malmedy). Both the Germans and Allies carried out air raids on cvilian populations. There are, however, reasons to conclude that the fighting in the pacific Gheater reached a level of savergy not normally experienced in the Western Front of the European War. A range of explanations have been offered to explain the savagery of the conflict. Race certainly was a factor. The overwealmin factor, however, appears to be the Japanese martial code (Bushido) and the assumtion as in the case of the NAZIs that the War was won and Japan would never have to answer for the attrocities committed. In fct Japan has a nation has never come to terms with the attricities committed by the Imperial army in its name.

Statute of Westminster (1942)

The Australian Army was used by the British in the Desert Campaign (1940-42) and played a key role in the War. Deploying the Army to North Africa, however, left Australia largely undefended when the Japanese declared war. Before the War, Australians had looked on Britain and the Royal Navy as their primary defense. After Pearl Harbor, however, the Royal Navy proved incapable of resisting the Japanese. The Japanese seizure of the British bastion at Singapore left Australia exposed to the Japanese. Australia in large measure was defended by the Americans, most notably in the Battle of the Coral sea. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Navy prevented American from resupplying and reiforcing MacArthur in the Philipines. American men and material did flow into Austrlia. Australian politicans decided that in the future the country had to have greater control over declaring war and deploting its military forces. Parliament adopted the Statute of Westminster, giving it complete authority over its own affairs. The Australian Government backdated it to 1939 to pass their own Declaration of War.

Defense of Australia

Australians were shocked by first Pearl Harbor and then the amazing Japanese successes in the Pacific, especially Singapore where some of their troops were sent. The fall of Singapore meant that Australia itself was largely defenseless, Its army was either in the Western Desert or captured along with the Singapore garrison. With the fall of the Dutch East Indies and much of New Guinea, Australia was within range of Japanese bombers. Only Port Moresby in southern New Guinea protected by the Own-Stanley Mountains remained in Australian hands. People looking at the map realized that Australia was next. The situation was dire. Not only was most of the Australian Army in the Western Desert, but there was no substantial Royal Navy force to opose the seemingly invinvible Imperial Fleet. The Japanese launched the largest air raid since Pearl Harbor. They targeted the northern Australian city of Darwin (February 19). Australians saw this as the prelude to an invasion. Presiden Roosevelt ordered General MacArthur to escape from Corregidor in the Philippines to organize the defense of Australia. He escaped by PT boats (March 11, 1942). They managed to elude Japanese patrols and reached Mindanao. There a B-17 Flying Fortress. took him, his famuily, MacArthur arranges for himself and his family, and a handful of selecred military aides. MacArthur arrived in Australia expecting to find a combat-ready force force waiting for him to launch an offensive against the Japanese to relieve the Philippines. He found that American troops and equipment have not yet arrived in force and that the Australian Army was in the Western Desert. He announced to the public about the Philippines, "I shall return." Typical for MacArthur, it was "I' not "we". President Roosevelt appointed MacArthur appointed commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater (March 18). While MacArthur brought no military forces with him, his appointment and assignment was critical for Australia. It meant that Australia would not face the Japanese alone, but would be supported by United States of America. At first it was only symbolic. The Japanese at this point of the War were indecisive. They had not anticipated the full extent of the success that they achieved. Their primary goals were Borneo, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and Singapore. The key was Borneo and the DEI because of the oil. A cursory look at the map leads to the obvious observation that the newly-won territories were not secure with Australia still in Allied hands. That was obvious to the Japanese who debated not whether, but the timing of invading Australia. The problem for the Japanese was that first most of their army was in China and secondly the Japanese merchant marine (maru) fleet was hard pressed to supply the Japanese forces now spread all over the western Pacific and Southeast Asia. This meant that launching another major offensive was very difficult in 1942. The Japanese did begin to bomb Port Moresby in New Guinea anf Darwin in northern Australia. The Japanese inability to launch an immediate invasion when Australian and American forces were still weak prived critical. It gave the Americans and Australians badly needed time. The first U.S. troops arrived in Australia (April 6). They were followed by a steady stream of troop and cargo vessels which rapidly built up a military creditable force. Until this time Australia had always looked at Britain for its security. The first force to make that commitment meaningful in World War II were two American carriers in the Coral Sea (May 1942).

Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942)

The Japanese next targeted Port Moresby to complete their conquest of New Guinea in preparation for an eventual invasion of Australia. The country was vulnerable because the Australian Army was largely in North Africa fighting the Afrika Korps. The Australians had also been weakened by the surrender in Singapore. At the time the only meaningful force between Australia abd the Japanese were two American carriers Yorktown and Lexington. These carrers alerted by American code breakers and intercepted the Japanese in the Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942) Although Lexington was sunk and Yorktown badly damaged, the Japanese invasion force turned back. The Japanese only lost a small carrier, but the damage was much more severe. One of their front-line carries was badly damaged and the air crew of a second was mauled. This meant that two of Japan's major carriers were not available for the Midway Operation or to interdict the American men and supplies streaming into Australia in quantities that the Japanese never perceived.

Midway (June 1942)

Admiral Yamamoto was convinced that the remaining American carriers could be brought to battle and destroyed at Midway. The Japanese plans were based on achieving an element of curprise and on the fact that two American carriers had been destoyed in the Coral Sea, in fact the Yorktown, although heavily damaged had not been sunk. American code breakers had alerted the Ameicans to the Jaspanese plans. Admiral Nimitz positioned Enterprise and Hornet, along with the hastily patched up Yorktown northwest of Midway to ambush he Japanese. The American carrier victory at Midway dealt a crippling blow to the Imperial Navy. The Americans sank four first-line Japnese carriers, killing most of the well-trained crews. While the Imperial Navy still held an advantage, it was no longer an overwealming one. Meanwhile American shipyards were turning out the new Essex clss carriers that would engage the weakened Imperial Navy in 1943.

Allied Buildup

The Japanese war plan envisioned a quick victory after which the Allies would sue for peace. Most realized that Japan could never win a war of attritiion. They assumed in 1941 that Britain would have difficulty surviving let along be able to project its power into the Pacific again. They also calculated that America would not have the stomache for the daunting and costly operations needed to retake the islands being fortified. Here the Japanese grossly miscalculated. Before Pearl Harbor, America was a divided nation with string isolationist and pacifist sentgiment. After Pearl Harbor America was a united nation, determined to use its industrial strength to wage war. The Allied war plan involved giving priority to the European theater. Even so America rapidly shifted its economy into a war mode and vast quantities of supplies streamed out of American ports to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and India. The naval battles at Coral Sea and Midway, the Australians time to train a new army and for American troops and supplies to arrive.

South Pacific (1942-45)

Australia's participatio in the Pacfic War was conducted in the South Pacufic. Control of the South OPacific, what Kapan called the Soithern Resource Zone (SRZ) was the reason Japan lauched the Pacific War. The SRC had many resources the Japabese wanted, but the primary rescouece needed was oil and their were impoirtant oil fields on Borneo (a shared British and Dutch island) and the Dutch East Indiaes (Indonedia). The longest campaign of the Pacific War was the struggle for New Guinea. The Japanese began landing along the northern coast. The Ausralians only defended Port Moresby aling the Southern Coast. The Japanese attempted to seize an amfibiou operation and then an overland assault. Both failed. The struggle for New Guinea was primarily an Australian operation until 1944. It began at Milne Bay (August 1942). The Australians also played an important role in the New Britain campaign. As American forces concentated on the Central Pacific, the Australians assumed the rolle of dealing with isolated Jappanese garruisons. The fighting in the South Pacific was vicious with terrible atrocities, very difficult logistics, men suffering from malaria and dysentery struggling to move guns and supplies forward over difficvult teraine.

Port Moresby

Japanese operations in New Guinea were their last offensive operations in the Pacific War, landing at various locations along the northern coast with little opposition. Due north of Port Moresby, on the northeast coast is Huon Gulf and the Huon Peninsula. The Japanese entered Lae and Salamaua, two locations on Huon Gulf, unopposed (early-March 1942). The Japanese wanted Port Moresby so they could expand their bombing campaign on Australia. They were, however, twarted in their amphibious operation to take Port Moresby by American carriers in the Coral Sea (May 1942). They then launched an incredible land attack on Port Moresby involving moving on the Kokoda Trail across the towering Owen Stanley mountains. The Australians turned them back only a few miles short of Port Moresby. The Australians then launched thedir own overland attack along the Kokoda Trail. Australian infantry stopped them a few miles outside of Port Moresby.

Guadalcanal (August 1942)

Virtually no Americans and few Australians had ever heard of the Solomon Islands, let alone Guadalcanal. The Solomons were British territory administered from Australia. The Japanese seized the Solomons (January-May 1942). Rabaul in the north was turned into a major base from which to support the conquest of New Guinea and then Australia. The Japanese after Midway had to reassess their stategy. The loss of four carriers meant that they were no longer the overwealingly dominant naval force. They knew that American forces were flowing into Australia by sea. They decided to build an air strip on the southern-most island in the Solomons--Guadacanal. Interestingly the Japanese never deployed their poweful submarine fleet to interdict the American convoys in a meaningful way. When American reconisance aircraft spotted the airstrip being constructed, the Americam marines training on New Zealand were ordered to launch the first Allied offensive of World War II. The American 1st Marine Division land at Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the southern Solomons (August 7). The Marines take the unfinished Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal and rename it Henderson Field after Maj. Lofton Henderson, a pilot killed at Midway (August 8). The American invasion surprised the Japanese. But air attacks from Rabaul destroyed or drove off the supply ships leaving the Marines without much of their supplies and equipment. The Japanese Navy moved down the slot and destroyed the Allied naval force covering the landings in a savage night action--the battle of Salvo Island. The Japanese were highly skilled in night fighting and the Allies were not yet exploiting their advantage with radar to best effect. Eight Japanese ships manage to sink three U.S. heavy cruisers, an Australian cruiser, and one U.S. destroyer. This all occured in one disastrous hour. In addition another U.S. cruiser and two destroyers were damaged (August 8-9). This serious impaired the Navy's ability to support the Marines on Guadacanal. The Japanese did not have a substantial garison in Guadacanal and the Marines had destroyed the force on Tulagi. The Japanese quickly landed ground forces and attack the Marines who had dug in to defend the airfield (August 21). The Japanese landed substantial forces on Guadacanal, but they were committed peace-meal. The terraine also made it difficult for the Japanese to move artillery and other heavy guns forward. The Japanse were also unable to adequately supply the forces landed. As a result the Marines were terribly mauled, but were able to hang on. The Japanese had superior naval forces in the Solomons, especially after the Battle of Salvo Island. The U.S. And Japanese carriers fought the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (August 24). This discouraged the Japanese from fully commiting their naval forces for the effort to retake Guadacanal.

New Guinea (1942-45)

Perhaps the most unlikely battlefield of World War II was New Guinea one of the most remote and primitive places on earth. Not only was New Guinea a major battlefield, but the battle lasted more than 3 years. Many Pacific islands that became caught up in World War II were small islands some like Iwo Jima were not even populated. This was not the case of New Guinea. The island was a huge island with a substantial, albeit primitive population. It was perhaps the most isolated corner of the world, virtually unknown to the rest of the world. This changed suddenly after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese lunched an offensive that swept over the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. The Allies suffered one stunning defeat after another. It was on New Guinea and Guadalcanal that the Allies first succeeded in stopping the Japanese. This set up a 2-year struggle for the island. The Japanese Army succeeded in taking the western and northern sides of the island. The New Guinea Campaign was a joint American-Australian campaign. And until 1944 the Australians provided the bulk of the ground forces.

New Britain (1943-45)

The New Britain campaign was part of Operation Cartwheel. The goal at first was to seize Rabaul on the eastern portion of New Guinea. The Japanese has seized Rabaul soon after Pearl Harbor (January 1942). They built a major naval base there and ringed it with protective army bases and air fields. The Japanese garrison there exceed 100,000 men and that was after sending nearly 40,000 men to Guadalcanal ad massic\ve naval forces fir sea battles fought off Guadacanal. Eventually the Allied pbjective was changed to isolating the Japanese in Rabaul. The New Britain part of Cartwheel was conducted in two phases (December 1943 - August 1945). American forces began the campaign by landing and securing bases around Arawe and Cape Gloucester in western New Britain (December 1943). Further landings took place (March 1944 around Talasea). This basically defeated the Japanese forces in the eastern part of the island. The island is very rugged with virtually no roads. This meant that the large Japanese garrison in Rabaul did not have the abiloyt or supplies to get at the Allied foreces in eastern New Britain, although there were raids. The Allies, however, from air bases in eastern New Britain and other islands could bomb Rabaul. And growing Allied naval dominance made it impossible for the Japanese to supply and reinforce Rabaul. The Australian 5th Division took over from American troops (October 1944). They undertook a Landing at Jacquinot Bay (November 1944). They then carried out a limited offensive to secure a defensive line across the island between Wide Bay and Open Bay. This they contained the numerically supperior but poorly supplied Japanese forces until Japane surrendered. The Japanese for their part began digging in at Rabaul. This was partly because of intense Allied bombing and their expectatii that the Allies would attempt to seize the base, an attack which never came. Historians today debate the necessity of the campaign. The Australian forces left on the island criticize the limited air and naval support, meaning what Gen. MacArthur allocated.

Stranded Japanese Garrisons (1945)

The Australian Army in the last year of the War amounted to six divisions and two armored divisions. They were primarily deployed to engage stranded Japanese garrisons on New Guinea, New Britain (Rabaul), and Bougainville. General Sir Thomas Blamey primarily pursued a policy of retaking islands that had been under Commonwealth Administration before the Pacific War. He was anxious to limit casualties, but thought the Japanese if left alone could prepare counter attacks. This seems unlikely to any significant extent. Japanese garrisons were cut off and not receiving the supplies needed for any siignificant offensive. In fact many of the garissons were beginning to sustarve. They had little to know aur support. And the Imperial Fleet after the battles of the Philippines Sea (June 1944) and Leyte Gulf (October 1944) was no longer a substantial force. General MacArthur felt the Australians were not sufficently offensive minded and suggested redeploying some of the units to the Philippines. The Australians for their part were understanably not anxious to return to MacArthur's control.

Borneo (May 1945)

The Joint Chiefs saw Australian operations in New Guinea as largely pointless. And six divisions in Pacific Island terms was a substantial force. They decided to ask the Australians to plan an operation on Borneo. It was before the War split betweem British and Dutch administration. MacArthur endorsed the operation, seeing it as the first step toward the evetual retaking of the Dutch East Indies. Borneo was chosen because of the oil fields, refineries, and air bases. There was also a resistance movement on Borneo, which was not the case in the other islands of what is today Indonesia. The resistance included Chinese refugees (ethnic Chinese were targeted by the Japsnese throughout Southeast Asia), Allied soldiers who had not surrendered, and Dyak tribesmen. In other areas of the DEI there was considerable collaboration with the Japanese by nationalist groups. (This was in sharp contrast to the Philippines.) An Australian corps with Allied naval and air support landed on Borneo (May 1945). Australian casualties were light compared to the Central Pacific campaign, but not inconsequential. A real concern was the Allied POWs and civilian internees who were dying in large numbers as the result of the brutal Japanese camps. The Japanese killed about 3,500 POWs and civilian internees on Borneo and Ambon Islands before Allied special forces could reach them.


Dennis, Peter, Jeffrey Grey, Ewan Morris, Robin Prior, and Jean Bou. , Jean (2008). The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History 2nd ed. (Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Moyes, John F. Scrap-Iron Flotilla (Sydney: N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Pty. Ltd, 1943).

Stephens, Alan. The Royal Australian Air Force: A History (London: Oxford University Press, 2006).


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Created: 6:12 PM 11/9/2005
Last updated: 7:41 PM 7/20/2019