Britain’s “impregnable fortress” surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. Churchill called it “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”; but in July 1942, five months after the fact, WSC said: “I have never made any predictions, except things like saying Singapore would hold out. What a fool and a knave I should have been to say it would fall.” Our 2007 Vancouver conference considered: just how “impregnable” was the “fortress”? Could it have been saved? What did Winston Churchill know, and when did he know it?
5. Reflections on the Australian Reality
by David Jablonsky
Col. Jablonsky, USA (ret.) was professor of National Security Affairs in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and is the author of two books on Churchill and grand strategy.
Churchill was consistent in his approach to British national interests. As to Australia he was less consistent. One historian commented: “Of the Far East he knew nothing. Australia was a very distant country, which produced some great fighting men, and some black swans for the pond at Chartwell, but it cannot be said that it otherwise excited his imagination or his interest.”
Much of the misunderstandings and false expectations over what Britain and Churchill could do to defend Australia were owed to the fact that initially in the war there was no clear sense of Australian national interests as distinct from those of Britain. This led to misplaced assumptions and unfulfilled expectations as the interests of the two countries began to diverge under the weight of war.
For Australia, the primary threat to its most vital national interests was Japan. Involvement in the European war could only further those national interests if the Imperial connection, which had left Australia ill prepared for war, could ensure Australian security once war began.
But given Britain’s disconnect in its global responsibilities, owing to the German existential threat, an inexorable prioritization of British interests began. The Middle East, Soviet Union, Indian Ocean and Burma-India theatre began to draw off resources even as the British perception of the possibility of a full-scale Japanese invasion of Australia diminished.
The inevitable reaction occurred. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin’s December 1941 declaration of his country’s new focus on the United States can be seen in the light of a recognition, however belated, of a small power’s national interests, and its trading the protection of one great power for another.
Which brings me to my final point—that the efforts of the Empire, and particularly the Dominions, were an essential part of Great Britain’s achieving her most vital goal: national survival.
The famous 1940 David Low cartoon, depicting a soldier standing alone on the beach with one arm raised defiantly to the sky and a caption reading, “Very Well, Alone,” really represents the soldiers of the Empire. As an example, it was not until the buildup to the Battle of Alamein in North Africa that the British Isles component of the Eighth Army outnumbered its troops from India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Palestine, East and West Africa and the national contingents from Poland, France and Greece. And recall that by 1945, the Indian Army numbered 2,500,000 men—the largest volunteer Army in history.
Recall also that Canada, in addition to agricultural, industrial and financial aid, provided over a million volunteers from a population base of only 11 million, and that 42,000 Canadians were killed. Or that New Zealand, with a population base of 1,700,000, sent 140,000 overseas, with over 11,000 killed. Last but certainly not least, Australia, with over one million serving in the armed forces, out of a 7,000,000 population base, ended with 30,000 dead in that conflict.
Then think about these words:
“Japan is at the other end of the world. She cannot menace our vital security in any way. She has no reason whatever to come into collision with us. She has every reason to avoid such a collision. The only sufficient cause which could draw us into a war with Japan would be if she invaded Australia. Does anybody imagine she is going to do so?….It is an absolute absurdity. Even if America stood inactive Japan would be ruined. She would never attempt it.”
—WSC to Stanley Baldwin, 15 December 1924
“As long as the British Navy is undefeated, and as long as we hold Singapore, no invasion of Australia or New Zealand by Japan is possible….Can one suppose that Japan, enjoying herself in the mastery of the Yellow Sea, would send afloat a conquering and colonising expedition to Australia? It is ludicrous. More than one hundred thousand men would be needed to make any impression upon Australian manhood….The great danger to the world at the present time still lies, not in the far east, not in the quarrels of the yellow peoples, but in the heart of Christendom and Europe.”
—WSC to Neville Chamberlain, 27 March 1939
“I regret this cost to our commitments elsewhere, but it was in our vital interests to do so as the Russians will shortly be engaged in mortal combat with our main enemy.”
—WSC, November 1942, on the transfer of air assets to the Soviet Union, quoted by Australian historian David Day, The Great Betrayal, 315.
“We refuse to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle must be treated as a subordinate segment of the general conflict….The Australian government therefore regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies’ fighting plan. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links with the United Kingdom.”
—Prime Minister John Curtin, 27 December 1942.
Signed statement in Australian newspapers
“We are doing our utmost in the mother country to meet living perils and onslaughts. We have sunk all Party differences and have universal compulsory service….I hope therefore you will be considerate in the judgment which you pass upon those to whom Australian lives and fortunes are so dear.”
—WSC to John Curtin, 14 January 1943
Curtin to WSC: “We make no apologies for our effort, or even for what you argue we are not doing. The various parts of the Empire, as you know, are differently situated, possess various resources and have their own peculiar problems.”
WSC to Curtin: “To try to be safe everywhere is to be strong nowhere.”
Curtin to WSC: “Just as you foresaw events in Europe, so we felt that we saw the trend of the Pacific situation more clearly than was realized in London.”
“I confess that in my mind the whole Japanese menace lay in a sinister twilight, compared with our other needs. My feeling was that if Japan attacked us the United States would come in. If the United States did not come in we had no means of defending the Dutch East Indies, or indeed our own Empire in the East. If, on the other hand, Japanese aggression drew in America I would be content to have it. On this I rested. Our priorities during 1941 stood: first, the defence of the Island, including the threat of invasion and the U-boat war, secondly, the struggle in the Middle East and Mediterranean, thirdly, after June, supplies to Soviet Russia, and, last of all, resistance to a Japanese assault.”
—WSC, The Grand Alliance, 1950
“The Australians’ claim that they had understood and foreseen the dangers in the Far East and from Japan better than I had done in London can only be judged in relation to the war as a whole. It was their duty to study their own position with concentrated attention. We had to try to think for all.”
—WSC, The Hinge of Fate, 1951