Man on the brink
John Curtin felt unable to go on. It had been just over six weeks since Japanese forces had launched their colossal downward thrusts through East Asia and across the Pacific. Seemingly they were unstoppable. Aged fifty-seven and prime minister of Australia for the last 107 days, Curtin was under great stress and teetering on the brink. The last six weeks had been appalling.
Japan had sent great American battleships to the bottom in Pearl Harbor. Thailand had accepted occupation. Hong Kong had fallen. Manila had been taken and the Philippines was under siege. Japanese troops were overwhelming British forces, including powerful Australian contingents, in Malaya. Retreat followed retreat. British and Australian air defences were comparatively weak. Japanese pilots flying superior aircraft and in far greater numbers were quickly gaining supremacy in the skies from northern Malaya south to the British base of Singapore.
On the ground, despite bitter fighting, well-trained and powerful Japanese forces were successfully pushing their way southwards through jungle and plantations towards the Singapore island. Burma had been invaded. The Dutch-governed islands of Sumatra and Java were immediately threatened. And now Rabaul, on the big New Guinea island of New Britain, was about to be overwhelmed. That immediate looming scenario sent shivers down the spines of those in Australia who knew the truth: that the beautiful tropical town of Rabaul, with its big, deep harbour, would become a Japanese stepping stone towards the ill-defended Australian base of Port Moresby, sitting on the coast of Papua just to the north-east of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula.
Australia at home was militarily terribly weak. The continent with its small population was significantly exposed, its best troops fighting with Britain in the Middle East and North Africa or in the air over Europe and its small navy widely scattered around the globe. Australia lacked all the most modern armaments. It had no aircraft that truthfully could be called fighters. It had no tanks. It had few powerful ships in Australian waters. There was even a significant shortage in Australia of basic rifles for the army.
Japanese carrier-borne aircraft had just made a devastating raid on Rabaul and invasion was expected there at any minute. Following the advice of his defence chiefs, Curtin had endorsed the abandonment of some 1400 relatively inexperienced Australian airmen and soldiers, as well as nurses who chose to stay, in Rabaul. There had been ample time to evacuate the Australians to safety but now they would have to face a powerful and cruel Japanese invasion force alone. Curtin from his youth had fought with all his energy against war. Now, as Australia’s war leader, the Rabaul decision tore at the very fibre of his lifetime beliefs and brought him great personal agony and tension. It was a decision that would come to plague him. Curtin’s colleagues had seen the symptoms before and were alarmed. A doctor in Melbourne had advised Curtin to rest. The prime minister’s first reaction was that this was utterly impossible. Everything was about to reach a terrible climax close to home in Australia’s mandated territory in the New Guinea islands.
On Wednesday 21 January 1942, Curtin’s war cabinet was meeting in the bluestone Victoria Barracks building in South Melbourne, which housed the nation’s Defence Headquarters, to deal with an endless stream of urgent and often alarming reportson Japanese victories and the threat to Australia’s north. Curtin had missed the previous day’s war cabinet meeting, which discussed, among other things, the evacuation of ‘surplus and non-essential’ civilians from coastal areas of Australia. At this time Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill in London was being difficult when it came to Britain supplying desperately needed reinforce- ments for the Far East (South-East Asia).
In recent weeks clashes via cable with Prime Minister Churchill had become ever more pronounced and acerbic. Curtin no longer couched his messages in diplomatic niceties because he rightly believed that stopping Japan was far from foremost in Churchill’s mind. Curtin engaged in a poisonous exchange of urgent and secret cables with Churchill, in an attempt to secure Britain’s promised reinforcement of the Far East, especially for the so-called fortress of Singapore, and to ensure that Australia had a say in the wider direction of war. Churchill and his ministers and defence chiefs were treating Curtin and his ministers as mere colonials whom they expected to heed British advice and direction, no matter how cavalier some of Churchill’s military adventures were, nor how flawed and dangerous to Australia’s national interest.
The war cabinet meeting agreed to tell Churchill that his plan for the coordination of the war against Japan was hopeless as far as Australia was concerned.
In the sound-proofed war cabinet room Curtin reluctantly gave in to medical advice and the urging of his close ministers and agreed to go home to the suburb of Cottesloe, north of Fremantle, Perth. Curtin long held a fear of flying and opted to take a slow train across the vastness of the Australian continent, taking all the precautions he could to remain in touch. The ministers promised to keep Curtin in constant communication, which in reality was barely possible across vast and empty stretches of the continent.
Curtin flatly refused to surrender the reins by appointing an acting prime minister. His deputy was the army minister Frank Forde, a loyal yet somewhat uninspiring colleague who was never a serious contender for the leadership. While Curtin was away, Forde would chair the war cabinet and the Advisory War Council, which included opposition members, and would remain in Melbourne with the defence chiefs at Victoria Barracks. The prime minister’s trip to Perth would be sold to the public as necessary for important defence consultations in Western Australia. Curtin would, in fact, have limited discussions with the army commander in Perth, but he could have done so by telephone from Canberra or Melbourne.
Curtin’s flight occurred at the most inopportune time imagi- nable for a war leader to abandon the helm of government. It underscored the state of Curtin’s mind and health, and how close Australia had come to losing a prime minister at the crucial hour. Every day an army officer in the top-secret war cabinet room would pull down a roller map to plot the latest Japanese advance. The map provided disturbing evidence of the threat facing Australia.
Just over a month earlier Curtin himself had warned all Australians to be perpetually prepared:
On guard against the possibility, at any hour without warning, of air raid or invasion . . .
John Curtin had a remarkable journey to become the nation’s war leader in 1941 during the Second World War. He had grown up in Victoria in poverty through the depression of the 1890s, when the poorest faced actual starvation in the slum suburbs of Melbourne. Those fortunate enough to have jobs often suffered appalling working conditions. Young Jack Curtin, as he was known for many years, attended one school after another in Victoria as his father, a former policeman, managed or worked in various country and city hotels. The family was in Melbourne when Jack turned fourteen in 1899 and began looking for work. For the next five years Curtin was unable to find permanent employment. He lived off part-time jobs and most of any pay he received went to his struggling Irish-born parents.
As a youth, Curtin became passionate about the plight of the poor and the unemployed. It was an era in which workers could be sacked for wanting to join a union or for asking for a wage rise. There was no payment for time off due to sickness, no or few annual holidays, and no compensation for accidents.
Around the turn of the century when Jack Curtin was fifteen, he was worldlier than many a Melbourne man. In his free time his retreat was the Melbourne Public Library, where he discovered the world of ideas, politics, history and the power of words. As a teenager Curtin began fulminating at the Yarra bank speakers’ forum about the poverty and injustice he had witnessed and the warmongering he had read about. In 1901 he joined the Political Labor Council, the forerunner of the Labor Party in Victoria, even before he had reached voting age.
Curtin eventually secured employment as a clerk with the Titan Manufacturing Company in South Melbourne in 1903, working the usual six long days each week. Life was difficult but he found time for enjoyment with the Victorian Socialists’ Party, then in the halcyon days of revolutionary socialism. Curtin loved the dances, picnics, rowing on the river, and silly games with the girls of the socialist movement. He played for the Brunswick Football Club and also the local cricket club. He began to attend socialist committee meetings, writing commentaries and giving Sunday night lectures.
In 1911 Curtin’s advocacy took a new direction He became secretary of the Timber Workers’ Union of Victoria, a role into which he threw himself, with frequent travel to remote timber camps and sawmills. He quickly made a name for himself as an innovative young unionist.
The man who would become John Curtin’s ally yet antagonist in the early years of the Second World War had an utterly different upbringing. Arriving at Blenheim Palace is a breathtaking experience. The birthplace of Winston Spencer Churchill in the Oxfordshire countryside is a majestic mansion and a beautiful estate crafted into the finest English country park. Blenheim Palace is the seat of the dukes of Marlborough, and Winston Churchill’s father was the second son of John, the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Churchill frequently stayed at Blenheim, especially as a boy, but it was never his permanent home.
Churchill’s relationship with his mother and father was loving, yet somewhat ambiguous:
My mother always seemed to me a fairy princess; a radiant being possessed of limitless riches and power. She shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly – but at a distance.
His father once accused Churchill, who was doing badly at school, of being a ‘social wastrel’. Churchill hated the harsh regime of school and performed poorly. He entered Harrow School, Middlesex, at twelve and spent four and a half years there, three in an army class, after which he gained entry to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He went to India with a cavalry commission in 1895 and won early fame, both as a soldier and a war correspondent. He covered the Cuban revolt against Spain in 1895 and then the British campaigns in India and the Sudan, and in South Africa during the Boer War, where he was a newspaper correspondent with an officer’s commission.
In 1901 Churchill became a Conservative member of the House of Commons, but he proved something of a radical among the Tories. In 1904, at the age of thirty, Churchill dramatically crossed the floor of parliament to sit as a member of the Liberal Party. The Liberals were elected to office the following year and Churchill was appointed under-secretary of state for the colo- nies and later became a member of the cabinet. In the summer of 1909 the German Kaiser asked Churchill to visit him for the second time to witness German manoeuvres. The Kaiser, wrote Churchill to his wife Clementine, was very friendly. More than anything Churchill was overwhelmed by the might of the German military:
Much as war attracts me and fascinates my mind with its tremendous situations – I feel more deeply every year – what vile and wicked folly and barbarism it all is.
In Melbourne, the horror of a coming war was a frequent topic of Jack Curtin’s speeches and writings in the Socialist Party. He spoke often of ‘the international war policy played by the international gang of capitalists’. When the First World War arrived on 28 July 1914, accompanied by pro-British flag-waving and patriotic parades in Australia, Curtin became one of Australia’s leading campaigners against military conscription of young men. At first there were plenty of Australian volunteers for the war. In 1914 the male population of Australia was less than three million, yet almost 400,000 Australian men volunteered to fight. At the time the Defence Act would not permit compul- sory service beyond the shores of Australia, but a threat to the ‘Mother Country’ was considered a threat to Australia. At the outset the recruiting stations were besieged. Only the fittest were accepted and many a despondent would-be soldier was turned away. Young men, especially boys from the bush with good riding skills who had never been far from home, joined city boys decked out in their uniforms for the coming grand adventure. Australian war historian Ernest Scott wrote that ‘enthusiasm is at boiling point’.
Curtin was confidently running for election as the Labor Party candidate for the federal Melbourne seat of Balaclava in the Australian parliament in September 1914, but the war with Germany, he thought, had changed everything: ‘Until the war tore like hell through Europe, we were making it [Balaclava] the most vital campaign in Australia – we had a continent wondering.’ In fact Curtin never stood a chance in the conservative seat, standing against the premier of Victoria, William Watt, who won easily. Curtin’s excessive drinking contributed to his defeat and his subsequent melancholy state. Curtin had gone missing one night before his major policy speech at the St Kilda Town Hall and had to be pulled together by friends before launching his campaign, in what was described as an alcoholic daze. His heavy drinking probably started when he became secretary of the Timber Workers’ Union, where union business was often discussed in a pub. Losing the election was a deep disappointment and Curtin’s drunkenness and stress increased. There was so much he had wanted to do and say as a member of the Australian parliament, and now his plans were dashed, partly by his own hand.
Curtin turned his attention towards the war with Germany and military conscription in Australia. He began sounding like a paci- fist, although he said he was not. Indeed, he described pacifism as ‘inherently fallacious’ because force had and would continue to ‘rule the world’. Curtin would never call for an end to Australians wishing to take up arms voluntarily, as he believed heartily in the defence of Australia. Nevertheless, he regarded war as a hateful and avoidable barbarism.
Australia’s share in the coming sacrifice would emerge as significantly disproportionate for a remote country with such a small population. An Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was assembled for overseas duty. One of Australia’s first moves was to send the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to seize German wireless stations in the south-west Pacific. Armed parties captured the German administrative centre of Rabaul, an action that cost the lives of six Australians. Within a few weeks most of German New Guinea, Bougainville and the Admiralty Islands had been occupied by Australia.
At the outbreak of the First World War the men recruited into the AIF were sent to Egypt to meet the threat the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) posed to British interests in the Middle East and to the Suez Canal. In London, Winston Churchill, then first lord of the Admiralty, came out in favour of an unlikely strategy to force a passage through the Dardanelles Strait, the narrow waterway in north-west Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, separating Europe at the Gallipoli peninsula from the mainland of Asia. Turkey had closed the strait to shipping. Once Turkish forts on the peninsula were captured, the plan was for the Royal Navy to sail north, link up with a Russian force in the Black Sea, and capture the Turkish capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Balkans would then join the British and French, open a new front and complete the encirclement of Germany.
Winston Churchill’s adventurous proposal in the Dardanelles would become an unmitigated disaster. At dawn on 25 April 1915, more than 16,000 Australians and New Zealanders landed on the peninsula from large rowboats and other small craft. They soon found themselves at a small bay to the south of the planned landing zone of Ari Burnu, now known as Anzac Cove, and under deadly fire from the high slopes above. The catastrophe began to unfold at 4.30 am.
In the months that followed the intended invasion became a series of brave yet futile attacks, bringing constant death and injury all around through bullet and shell, and, with poor food and putrefying corpses, widespread sickness. The Anzacs mostly clung to the rocky coastal hills and cliffs. It did not take long for Australia’s disaster to unfold publicly. In a letter made public, Australian correspondent Keith Murdoch (father of newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch) alerted the Australian prime minister, Andrew Fisher, to the growing calamity at Gallipoli:
It is undoubtedly one of the most terrible chapters in our history. Your fears have been justified.
At thirty Jack Curtin was a man driven by the appalling state of the world. Increasingly he saw the war as a capitalist plot fostered by arms manufacturers. In 1915, as the war escalated with killing on an unimaginable scale, he was serving his fifth year as secretary of the Amalgamated Timber Workers’ Union of Victoria. Curtin had thrown everything into his union role and had achieved much for the timber workers. But the union work and his electioneering had taken a toll, as did his heavy drinking. He wrote darkly in the winter of 1915 to friends about war and his own distress. He was at home at Brunswick in Melbourne. It was night, the fire had gone out and he sat alone writing under the light of a candle:
So I am cold and disturbed and planning the way seems more difficult than it used to be. I have looked at the clock and it ticked me no comfort and I have turned over one or two books in a sort of help me spirit and it is no good. Life at this point is dangerous.
Curtin wrote a confused letter on 6 July 1915, addressed simply to ‘Dear Friends’, lashing out at the world’s injustice and madness:
Ah! Yes! Capitalism is having its most splendid frolic and to the great carnival we are all welcomed and they who stay away are quietly brought along. Here instead of bats and marbles and dolls and swings for blue-eyed smiling gold-locks there is shriek of shrapnel and scream of pain, and their [sic] is the swish of bullets and the thud of falling corpses. Instead of happy days and songs reaching to the sky there is [sic] twenty million men locked in drunken blood-clasp at each other’s throat . . .
His bitterness was enhanced by the fact that he saw most Labor supporters accept the war as inevitable and necessary. Curtin’s friends knew he was headed for a mental and perhaps physical breakdown.
In October 1915, the diminutive and outspoken William Morris Hughes, known as Billy, took over as the Australian Labor Party prime minister from Andrew Fisher. Hughes was in favour of conscription to feed the insatiable British war machine and Curtin began organising rallies and making rousing speeches against conscription. In 1916 he was charged at Brunswick Court with having failed to enrol for basic military training at his local drill hall and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Under pressure, the government ordered that Curtin be released after only three days. He would soon write to his then girlfriend, Elsie Needham:
I am glad to have gone in. It nerves our hearts and steels us to the great cause.
But the hint of cowardice directed at those who didn’t enlist would have lodged in Curtin’s mind and agitated him.
With Churchill’s Gallipoli campaign turning into a disaster, mounting concerns surfaced in October 1915 during a meeting of the British Government’s Dardanelles Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Churchill himself broached the inevitable subject, as the minutes read:
. . . if it proved that we could not hold Gallipoli we must go, but he would be no party to our going unless it was proved that there was no other course.
Asquith seized the moment and commented that ‘details of evacuation should be thought out’ and evacuation from the Dardanelles was approved by the British Government the same month. Nothing whatsoever had been gained at Gallipoli but a lasting admiration for the combatants. In November 1915 Churchill was excluded from the Dardanelles Committee. Churchill tendered his resignation from the Asquith Government. He took the prime minister’s daughter and Churhill’s friend, Violet Bonham Carter, into his room, as she later related:
He . . . sat down on a chair – silent, despairing – as I have never seen him. He seemed to have no rebellion or even anger left. He . . . simply said, ‘I’m finished.’
Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, later wrote a biting commentary:
So, through Churchill’s excess of imagination, a layman’s igno- rance of artillery, and the fatal power of a young enthusiasm to convince older and more cautious brains, the tragedy of Gallipoli was born.
Clementine would later record her husband’s anguish:
The Dardanelles haunted him for the rest of his life. He always believed in it. When he left the Admiralty, he thought he was finished . . . I thought he would never get over the Dardanelles; I thought he would die of grief.
Yet Churchill never publicly admitted guilt. The failed Dardanelles campaign cost 28,150 Australian casualties, including 8709 deaths. New Zealand lost 2721 killed and 4752 wounded. France lost an estimated 10,000, India 1358 and Newfoundland 49. British troops suffered enormously, with 21,255 killed and 52,230 wounded. Turkey’s casualties were 86,692 killed and 164,617 wounded.
On 7 May 1916 Churchill re-entered the House of Commons. In March 1917 the British Government’s Dardanelles Commission inquiring into the military defeat released a report to parliament, but it was not published in full until after the war. The inquiry’s conclusion was that the difficulties of the Dardanelles operation had been much underestimated from the start. Winston Churchill, as first lord of the Admiralty, had been a key proponent of the operation, but he escaped the censure of the parliamentarians on the commission, some of whom were his friends. The report was an immediate stimulus to his political career. In July 1917, Churchill, then an ordi- nary member, was unexpectedly elevated by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to the position of minister for munitions. He was back in business as a war planner, although on a much tighter leash.
Public meetings in Australia for and against conscription were becoming rowdy and violent. Accusations of cowardice and treason flew against anyone opposing the war. John Curtin became the recipient of much public abuse, sometimes from returned soldiers attending his public meetings. But the grog and depression had him in a grip. He was admitted to a convalescent hospital at Lara near Geelong. Curtin’s old political mentor, federal parliamentarian Frank Anstey, on 2 July 1916, hoped Curtin would ‘stick it to the limit’:
Don’t hurry. Never mind what the others say. There are a few among the toilers of this State who would grieve to see you go down at the Pit and delighted to see you climb out reborn. And John, one last word; don’t hate yourself, despise yourself or be ashamed of yourself or ashamed to face others. There is no redemption that way. John drunk was a damned nuisance, but he was even a better man than thousands sober, and John sober is the Nestor [mythical Greek warrior] of them all.
As the carnage in Europe continued and Australia suffered heavily in battles like Pozières, Prime Minister Billy Hughes spoke of the war with Germany as a direct threat to Australia; giving support to ‘our boys’ became the national catch-cry. Hughes enthusiastically promised Britain ever greater numbers of Australian troops for the war machine. Australia, he declared, ‘could not leave her men at the front without trained reinforce- ments’. Hughes called a national referendum to introduce compulsory military conscription, but Curtin and his supporters won the referendum. Hughes then tried to introduce conscription regardless. The left wing of the Australian Labor Party strongly opposed conscription and Hughes’s relentless advocacy in favour of it would split the Labor Party. Hughes was expelled from the party and established the short-lived National Labor Party, which became known as the Nationalist Party.
Overseas the fighting went on, often in appalling weather and despite staggering losses, until November 1917. Finally, with the armies stuck in muddy fields churned up by the artillery fire, the bloody offensive came to a ragged close. The offensive was named after the village that had become the last objective – Passchendaele. Total casualties at Passchendaele were atrocious: about 275,000 British and Commonwealth and about 200,000 German.
The Commonwealth casualties included some 38,000 Australians and 5300 New Zealanders who were either killed, wounded or reported missing.
Curtin moved in and out of a haze of grog, conflict, stressful work and his usual anxiety. He desperately wanted a clean break from Melbourne. He left Port Phillip in February 1917 having secured the position of editor of a union-owned newspaper, the Westralian Worker, in Perth. He promised one of his benefactors, Labor parliamentarian Hugh Mahon, that he would ‘strive to justify that respect which has to do with my personal conduct’. The newspaper blossomed under Curtin’s editorship, which allowed him free range for his often strident and outspoken political views. He was a prolific columnist and his long essays attracted a strong readership.
On 21 April 1917, Curtin married Elsie Needham in the district registrar’s office in Leederville, Perth. They set up home at Cottesloe, near Fremantle. The two had met in Hobart in 1912. Elsie was the daughter of a socialist agitator and former Methodist pastor, Abraham Needham, who had taken a liking to the younger Curtin. Elsie had a strong interest in politics through her father and was considered to be a decent, intelligent woman, attending political meetings but having no serious political ambi- tions of her own. She was often referred to as ‘homely’ and was a strong, steadying influence on the firebrand activist. There was never a pretentious bone in her body.
The war slowly ground to an end with the capitulation of Germany. From a population of just 4.8 million almost 332,000 Australians had served overseas in the war. Of these 61,520 who served in Australian units were killed. Another 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. There was no record of the number of Australian men whose lives were irretrievably wrecked, while physically they appeared normal. At war’s end John Curtin, like so many others, had difficulty comprehending a calamity of such appalling magnitude:
History has no parallel to the destruction that has been occa-sioned. The toll demanded of life and limb; the price paid in anguish of spirit and bafflement of high hopes; the suffering; the terrific mortality of the actual combatants; the actual and poten- tial devitalising of civilisation itself, is too vast a computation for living men to make.
Curtin’s depression was never far from the surface. In 1919 he stood for federal election for the Labor Party in the conservative seat of Perth. He received a good deal of abuse from those objecting to his anti-conscription advocacy during the war. The election campaign was a disaster and he was soundly beaten, while the National Labor Party government of Prime Minister Hughes was triumphant.
At the time Curtin was also coping with the death of his father and the loss of his close friend, railways unionist Frank Hyett. Curtin suffered a nervous breakdown and he did not recover quickly. He took two weeks’ rest in the country town of Narrogin, south-east of Perth, but once home he still required several months’ more rest before resuming his busy schedule as editor of the Westralian Worker.
Elsie Curtin witnessed her husband’s decline:
I hoped that if he could turn all his energies into one channel it would be better for him. How right I was proved after the election campaign. The strain of electioneering while he still carried on his Worker [newspaper] job was too much. ‘Dad’ lost the election and his health. He developed neurasthenia and had to take six months’ complete rest.
Neurasthenia is an obsolete medical term used to describe a vague disorder marked by chronic and abnormal fatigue and moderate depression. Curtin veered between moods of high opti- mism and deep melancholy, according to wife Elsie:
He would wake up in the morning at peace with the world and I’d start my household chores with a light heart. By lunchtime I would be treating him with the blend of sympathy and ‘Come now, things aren’t as black as that’, which I learnt through the long months was the best mixture. He’d seem to improve for a while and I’d think he was really better. Then he’d slip back into despondency again.
Curtin made several attempts to take the train east, but on one occasion in 1920 he had to turn back after seeking medical advice at Kalgoorlie. The following year he pulled out of a union confer- ence in Brisbane. The Bulletin magazine reported that on doctor’s orders, Curtin had ‘eschewed politics for the present’ and reduced his literary output from twenty columns a week to fifteen. In 1922 Curtin was ill yet again. Prolonged public speaking and constant heavy smoking apparently affected his throat, and his doctor forbade him from addressing public meetings for a month.
Despite the restrictions on his life, and after his failure in 1925, Curtin was eventually elected to the House of Representatives on 17 November 1928, when he won the seat of Fremantle as an opposition Labor Party member during the period of the govern- ment of Prime Minister Stanley Bruce. Curtin had developed some respect for the workings of the League of Nations in solving international problems. He began to moderate some of his more radical political views. He believed in consultation and thought constant industrial action was of dubious advantage.
In 1929 Curtin failed in his bid to be elected to the cabinet of James Scullin. His history of drinking binges counted against him. He lost his seat of Fremantle in 1931 but regained it in 1934. When Scullin resigned as leader of the Labor Party the following year, Curtin was elected leader over the favourite, Frank Forde, by one vote.
The horror of a new world war became more likely when two important events occurred on 17 October 1934 – one in London and the other in Berlin. Both highlighted the deteriorating international situation for democracies. In Berlin, German cabinet ministers took an oath that Herr Adolf Hitler was to be the absolute ruler of Germany for life. In London for ‘naval conversations’, the commander of Japan’s 1st Air Fleet, Rear Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, announced that Japan had a ‘cut-and-dried plan’ to replace the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty system sponsored by the League of Nations that had restricted Japan to a quota of only three new capital warships to every five built each for Britain and the United States. Japanese militarists had big things in mind, not least a massive and modern expansion of the Japanese fleet, as Yamamoto wrote to a naval friend:
I sense the day might not be so distant when we shall have Britain and the United States kowtowing to us.
John Curtin, one of his party’s best orators and clear thinkers, had become an effective party leader in the House of Representatives. He was soon beset with challenges at home and abroad.
By 1937 Japan was on a campaign of military aggression in China, determined to expand her colonial empire just as the West had done. But on 5 October 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, looking to Japan, finally took a stand against what he termed ‘the present reign of terror and international lawlessness’:
Without declaration of war and without warning or justification of any kind, civilians, including women and children, are being ruthlessly murdered with bombs from the air . . . Nations are forming and taking sides in civil warfare in nations that have never done them any harm.
Japanese troops pursued the Chinese towards the capital city of Nanking, burning villages and towns on the way. By late November the Japanese were attacking Nanking, a city of half a million people, via three routes, murdering and raping as they went. American newsman Edgar Snow witnessed the fall of Nanking as Chinese attempted to escape through a narrow gate:
Scenes of utmost confusion ensued. Hundreds of people were machine-gunned by Japanese planes or drowned while trying to cross the river, hundreds more were caught in the bottleneck which developed at Hsiakuan gate, where bodies piled up four feet high . . .
Japanese officers allowed their men to slaughter civilians unchecked for six long weeks, as Snow reported:
Anything female between the ages of ten and seventy was raped. Discards were often bayoneted by drunken soldiers. Frequently mothers had to watch their babies beheaded, and then submit to raping . . .
In his mind’s eye John Curtin had visions of another terrible world war. In 1937, while sitting on the beach at Cottesloe, he told his daughter Elsie he had stopped wondering if Japan would ever invade Australia: ‘The only question to be answered now is when.’
On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies sat before a microphone and spoke words that filled many Australians listening on the wireless with dread. Germany had invaded Poland. Menzies said it was his ‘melancholy duty’ to inform listeners that Great Britain had declared war upon Germany ‘and that, as a result, Australia is also at war’. To Menzies, Great Britain going to war had triggered an automatic response from Australia, even though he had visited Nazi Germany in 1935, commenting:
The best guarantee of peace in Europe would be the concessions of some power and self-respect to Germany and the best guar- antee in the Far East a friendly alliance with Japan.
Menzies in 1938 had misjudged Hitler, believing, like many, that appeasement could provide a permanent solution to the crisis:
If we could persuade Germany that we were prepared to give her justice, we might drive out the evil spirit of suspicion and hatred.
Curtin had also dabbled in appeasement and had been most cautious about offending Germany and Japan. In 1935 he had made an isolationist speech, warning that it was sheer folly for Australia to become involved in European disputes: ‘Our business is to keep Australia aloof from the wars of the world.’
In the inter-war years Winston Churchill never wavered in sounding the alarm about the threatening military build-up and the aspirations of Nazi Germany. He correctly foreshadowed the increasing power and ruthlessness of Chancellor Adolf Hitler. On the other hand, by early May 1940, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had lost considerable support from his own party for his mishandling of the European crisis, his continual appease- ment of Hitler and the country’s lack of preparedness for war. It became all too much. Chamberlain called for Churchill on 10 May and intimated that Churchill should be prime minister as Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the House of Commons. Churchill was summoned before King George at Buckingham Palace and took over the leadership of Great Britain at its gravest hour. In his war histories, Churchill wrote that he went to bed at 3 am as the new prime minister conscious of a profound sense of relief:
At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from my ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated . . .
On 16 July 1940 Hitler issued a directive for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain. But first the Royal Air Force (RAF) had to be eliminated. Hitler ordered the German air force, the Luftwaffe, to ‘overpower the English Air Force’ by 15 September. The intention was to cut Britain’s coastal supply lines and draw the RAF’s fighters into battle over the Channel where they could be destroyed. Attacks on shipping were followed by raids on British radar installations and on RAF airfields in southern England.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had been able to make preparations. Churchill would later say that Dowding’s Fighter Command deserved the highest praise: ‘the generalship have shown an example of genius in the art of war’. Nevertheless, Dowding said events had startled the RAF:
The German arrival on the Channel surprised us. The enemy was only twenty miles away and we had to fight from airfields organised when the Rhine was the frontier.
Nearly 3000 RAF personnel would serve with British Fighter Command in the course of the Battle of Britain, of whom nearly 600 were from the British Dominions and from occupied European countries. Thirty-five Australians fighter pilots flew combat oper- ations during the Battle of Britain, of whom ten were killed in action. Flight Lieutenant Paterson Hughes from Cooma, New South Wales, shot down fifteen German aircraft and shared the destruction of three others. Hughes died when shooting down his fifteenth victim. Hughes was twenty-two when he died. Churchill famously said of the protectors of Britain, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so few.’
Britain was now fighting a war on many fronts, with the defeat of Hitler uppermost in Prime Minister Churchill’s mind. His disastrous Greek campaign resulted from Britain’s guarantee to support Greece if attacked by the Germans. But the Allied forces were vastly outnumbered. Australia and New Zealand, which provided most of the troops, were not involved in the planning of this campaign.
When German forces invaded Greece in April 1941 they faced Australian, Greek, British and New Zealand troops as part of a Churchill defence plan. Without adequate equipment or proper air cover the Allies were overwhelmed and forced to make a fighting withdrawal. Many were evacuated to Crete, where they faced a German airborne invasion. More than 600 Australians lost their lives in the Battle for Greece and Crete while some 5000 became prisoners of war.
After Greece and Crete, Churchill planned what he called ‘the Syrian adventure’. When the commander of the British forces, General Archibald Wavell, protested at such an ill-considered invasion, Churchill said Britain must not shrink from running ‘small scale military risks’. Churchill told parliament on 7 May that as painful as the Allied losses in Greece were, the Empire forces had much to be proud of and he would do the same thing again if necessary.
With a sheltered deep-water harbour, Tobruk on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Libya was long a well-fortified key Italian naval outpost. The Italian defence perimeter was attacked by the 6th Australian Division on the morning of 22 January 1941 and the town fell the next morning, resulting in 27,000 Italian prisoners and the capture of over 200 artillery pieces. Forty-nine Australians were killed. The 6th Division pressed on beyond Tobruk and the 9th Australian Division was moved into Libya in February to garrison territory captured by the 6th. But the Germans launched a major offensive and an Allied retreat towards Egypt commenced. The 9th Division fell back on Tobruk and was subsequently encir- cled. This began what became known as ‘the siege of Tobruk’, which lasted from April to December 1941 and ended only when the Germans called it off and withdrew. The following year, after all Australians had left, the Germans attacked Tobruk again in force and captured the stronghold from the British.
War with Japan was becoming ever more likely in the Australian spring of 1941. But Australia’s home defence was increasingly being compromised by the significant demands from Britain for Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen to fight in Europe, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Japan’s forces had been trained and tested in the country’s attacks on China from the mid-thirties onwards. Japan more recently had occupied the Vichy French colonies of northern Indo-China, and then southern Indo-China, in what now includes Vietnam. The Japanese also asserted their authority over the former French colonies of Cambodia and Laos. In 1941 the way was being paved for the occupation of Siam (now Thailand) and British Burma. But these were not the main prizes. Malaya (now part of the broader Malaysia) had huge supplies of rubber and tin. There was also plentiful oil on British Borneo. A south- ward thrust in Malaya through the rubber plantations and jungle could present Japan with the great prize of the British trading island of Singapore, long considered a fortress securing the seaways of South-East Asia. Occupation of Singapore would almost certainly lead to the capture of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and a vast stretch of scattered but strategically important islands of New Guinea and others to the south nearer to Australia, which was unprepared, underarmed and undermanned.
For decades Australia’s defence strategy had relied on the security of British interests in Asia, principally the big naval base at Singapore, which was long viewed as a sufficient deterrent against any potential enemy in the East. As the threat from Japan grew, Australia’s 2/20th Infantry Battalion had embarked for Singapore in February 1941. On arriving in Singapore they moved into south-west Malaya (now part of Malaysia). At the end of August the battalion redeployed to the port of Mersing on the east coast. Mersing was seen as a potential Japanese landing point. Additionally, battalions of the 27th Brigade had sailed to Singapore at the end of July 1941 and also had moved into Malaya to prepare for a possible Japanese attack.
Due to the difficulties in getting home to Western Australia from Canberra, Curtin often remained in the national capital between sitting sessions of parliament. In Canberra Elsie Curtin had few close friends and her husband was perpetually busy. Leaving her friends in Western Australia was ‘one of the most painful wrenches experienced in her life’. As time went on, and as Curtin’s political star rose, Elsie’s visits to join her husband in Canberra became less frequent.
Curtin greatly missed his wife and family living on the other side of the continent. When he did return home he took the train because of his fear of flying. A slow and tiring train journey of four days or more would often mean that when he got home, his stay would be brief before he made the long return journey, changing to as many as five or six trains because of the different rail gauges before reaching Canberra.
As opposition leader in 1941 John Curtin was under pres- sure from members of his own party to topple the government of Robert Menzies, given that the balance of power in the House of Representatives was held by two independents. Labor front- bencher Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt, who had come to parliament from the High Court bench, was especially keen on Curtin making a move and was in negotiation with the independents – and at one stage even Menzies himself – trying to arrange a national government that might include Labor. But Curtin wanted no joint national government like Britain’s and was in no hurry to try to form government. He was still trying to mend major splits within the Labor Party.
War news around the globe seemed to deteriorate by the day. Australians were away fighting in the air over Europe, in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa. As Japan aligned herself to the Axis powers, small Australian forces, mostly inadequately armed and supported, had been despatched to islands close to northern Australia. Militarily, it was a death sentence for many who would face far greater enemy numbers. The outlook was bleak and worrying by the end of September 1941. Curtin privately conceded his woes in a letter to his wife at this time.
He longed for his family, home life and a degree of normality, which – like so many Australians going to war – would become a thing of the past:
Saturday is your birthday and here at Canberra I am not able to arrange anything. But I wish with all my heart I was at home to share the day with you. May it be a happy day and may it have very many happy repetitions. Of course it is a timetable and records what we do not like to feel. I find I am growing old, as the song says. We cannot avoid what life brings. To me the finest occurrences have been you and the two children. I dreamed about [son] Jack last night. I’m afraid my nerves need a rest. And here crisis follows crisis and there is no spell at all. More than ever before my nature is crying out for a holiday from strife. What with Royal Commissions, debates in the House, the conflict and conferences in the caucus, and the too-neglected work of the War Council I find myself dragged into the commonplace and not able to attend to what would be worth doing.
But enough of complaint. Let me look at the credit side. And you alone have supplied that. I have had a kindly life. You have given me a deep well of content and met the urges of my nature completely. I have had supreme happiness in your love and loveliness. And no man has ever had more than that.
I cannot do more now as the Executive is waiting. We have the budget to consider and I am sick of millions for that and for this and everybody assuming no one should pay and that the thin air gives money and not oxygen. All my love and all my heart and all my gratitude for all you have been and are, the wife – the stout-hearted, sweet natured wife – of my manhood and the beloved of my soul.
Your loving husband, John xxxxxxxxxxxx
Excerpted from Battle for Australia by Bob Wurth. Copyright © 2013 by Bob Wurth.
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