Diary of a Labour Man: 1917 - 1945

Full text Prime Minister




In Parliament.- On l0th December, 1942, the Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin) said:-

"The battle to drive the Japanese back over the Owen Stanley Range and out of the south-eastern part of New Guinea has been fought in one of the most difficult campaigning areas in the world. The terrain has been described by General MacArthur as `incredibly difficult' and presenting `almost insuperable complications in the maintenance of supply lines'. The Australian and United States forces have had to endure extreme hardship; in one of the worst tropical climates. In addition to the strain imposed by the nature of the country and climate, these troops have had to withstand the incidence of malaria, though every endeavour is made to minimize the risk of this illness. Finally, under conditions to which white men do not readily become inured, these troops have had to fight against no mean foe. Nevertheless, the Allied troops have fought tenaciously, gallantly and, most important of all, victoriously.

“I pay a tribute to these men and to their distinguished leaders, the Commander-in-Chief, South-west Pacific Area (General MacArthur), the Commander of the Allied Land Forces (General Sir Thomas Blamey), and the Commander of the Allied Air Forces (Lieutenant-General G. C. Kenney). To them, to the subordinate commanders and to the officers and men of the Australian and United States Forces, Australia owes a debt of gratitude.

“I have said on an earlier occasion that Port Moresby is a vital key-point in the defence of Australia against an attack from the northeast, where the main Japanese bases lie. Its possession by the enemy would open the way for a direct attack on the mainland of Australia. The landward defence line of Port Moresby is the Owen Stanley Range. The Japanese first made an effort to turn its left flank from Lae and Salamaua, but this was unsuccessful. They then launched a sea-borne attack against its rear, but this was repulsed by the Battle of the Coral Sea. A frontal attack was then attempted by way of Buna, Gona and Kokoda, but this had largely spent itself by the time it had reached Ioribaiwa. The next effort of the enemy was an attempt to turn the right flank by a surprise attack at Milne Bay, but this move had been anticipated and was frustrated.

“Provided the flank of our defence line in New Guinea is not turned by the southward advance of the Japanese in the other islands to the east of Australia, the Owen Stanley Range remains the front line defence of Eastern Australia.

“We have experienced fluctuating fortunes in the land campaign in New Guinea. In the early stages the fight went against us, and there were many criticisms of the commanders' conduct of the operations. The results provide a complete answer, but there are one or two aspects of the operations to which I will refer; firstly, to the operations at Milne Bay. Plans had been drawn up by the command for the establishment of a strongly defended base at Milne Bay long before the Japanese landed at Gona and Buna. The command had anticipated the Japanese attack on Milne Bay, and when it came we were ready. The Japanese evacuated such of their surviving forces as they could, while the remnants scattered in the jungle and have since been mopped up. The success of this operation lay in the absolute secrecy that was ensured in the movement of forces to this area. The Government was fully aware of the move. It was known also to members of the Advisory War Council.

“The second aspect is the counter-offensive against the Japanese. Prior to the launching of our attack from Ioribaiwa towards the end of September, 1942, we had marshalled considerable forces in New Guinea. Actually we had more than doubled the strength of the land forces that were there in the early stages of the campaign. There had also been a transformation in air strength amounting to multiplication of air forces and aerodromes. All of this was, of course, highly secret information. The command had drawn up plans for an outflanking movement against the Japanese, and bases were established on the north-eastern coast of New Guinea, to which American troops in considerable strength were transported by air. These troops attacked Buna from the right, while other American units joined up with Australian troops in a frontal assault. Concurrently with this, Australian forces attacked Gona.

“These plans had been formulated before the critics had voiced their opinions, and, while they were urging outflanking movements and the like, the command was pushing ahead with its preparations. As Mr. Churchill recently explained, it takes considerable time to marshal forces and supplies to mount an offensive. What may appear to be a period of inaction is really one of intense activity covered by a veil of secrecy.

“In actual fact, had two brigades of the 6th Division, Australian Imperial Force, not been diverted to the defence of Ceylon on their way home from the Middle East, the Commander-in-Chief would have had these additional resources of battle-trained troops for the defence of New Guinea. Australian troops were the only forces readily available to meet a critical situation in the defence of a vital base in the Indian Ocean. The Government readily agreed to the request and the Advisory War Council endorsed the decision. The full facts of the position could not be disclosed at the time without prejudicing our own interests and benefiting those of the enemy.

“I make these observations: It is a misrepresentation of the spirit of the Australian people and the Anzac tradition to cry out when things appear to be going against us. It is premature for critics to rush in and criticize a phase of an operation as though it were the whole campaign that was being decided. The Government has all the facts before it. If it is dissatisfied with the commanders it will take appropriate action. Unless, and until, that position arises it will place the fullest confidence in the commanders and the troops under them, and give them the utmost support against ill-informed or unwarranted criticism.

“After the Australian troops had pushed the Japanese out of Ioribaiwa, they continued their advance without making contact with the enemy for ten days. The difficulty of communications, which had so greatly hampered us in the early stages in maintaining supplies and reinforcements for the forward areas, also proved a stumbling block to the enemy. General MacArthur expressed the position in his communiqué of 8th October, 1942 -

The enemy, as we expected and anticipated, has discovered that his supply problems, aggravated by our constant air attacks, were impossible of immediate solution. His dislodgment at his farthest point of advance and the pursuit of his exhausted forces have been accomplished with practically no loss to our troops up to the present time. The same difficulties of terrain are now progressively slowing down the advance of our ground troops.

“The Japanese put up some resistance in the Templeton's Crossing-Eora Creek-Alola area, but this was overcome after stiff fighting. Kokoda was taken on 2nd November, 1942, with little or no opposition, but the enemy again endeavoured to halt our advance at Oivi, Gorari and Wairope. He was pushed out of these places and heavy losses were inflicted by Australian troops. I have just received advice from the Commander-in-Chief (General Douglas MacArthur) that Allied forces have completely occupied the Gona area and the Japanese are now pinned down in a narrow coastal strip in the Buna area. Allied air forces are maintaining continuous bombing and strafing attacks upon enemy ground troops and the enemy air base at Lae.

“The Japanese have made frequent attempts to land reinforcements. Many of them have been repulsed by Allied air forces, which have taken a heavy toll of enemy naval forces and shipping. It is known, however, that some attempts made under cover of darkness and in weather conditions unfavorable for the effective employment of our aircraft have been successful. The Japanese, operating in prepared defence positions, are resisting stubbornly, but Australian and American troops are gradually pressing home the attack.

“This operation has been notable for the manner in which it has been achieved. The original occupation of Gona and Buna was rendered possible because of Japanese control of the sea to the north of New Guinea. In the absence of Allied seapower in this region, our advance has been overland and by air. Now that we have aerodromes on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range, it remains to be seen whether the enemy is prepared to risk heavy losses against our land-based aircraft in an endeavour to re-establish himself again in this region.

“The Australian Army battle casualties in New Guinea, excluding Rabaul, to 1st December, 1942, were 2,190, of whom 640 were killed in action or died of wounds. The figures do not include the sick. I speak for the whole Parliament when I offer the tribute of the nation to those who gave their lives in its defence. The same gratitude is due to the wounded and sick.

“There has been increased enemy activity in Timor and Allied air forces have maintained bombing attacks on enemy-occupied areas in this island. Successful raids have been made on enemy aerodromes, supply installations and barracks at Dilli and enemy-occupied villages and also at Koepang.

“Our guerrilla forces in Timor have been doing bold and courageous work. Though the spotlight has been on New Guinea because of the larger forces engaged, the people of Australia should not overlook the importance of Timor as a base for operations against the north-west of Australia. Timor is the counterpart in the north-west to what New Guinea is in the north-east. Known Japanese dispositions and movements of their forces indicate that the enemy realizes this fact equally with ourselves. We must be prepared to repulse all air and sea-borne attacks against Australia from this quarter. When the time comes, it is equally important that we should be ready and able to eject the Japanese from their bases in this region as much as from New Guinea.

“The severe naval defeat inflicted by the American forces on the Japanese in the middle of November, 1942, frustrated a determined attempt to recapture Guadalcanal. Like the Coral Sea battle, it was a victory which had great significance for the security of Australia, and I expressed to the President the admiration and gratitude of the Australian people for the gallant deeds of the American forces.

“The Japanese have sought to exploit two lines of advance from bases at Rabaul and other centres in this region of the Pacific. One was against New Guinea, which has been several times frustrated in the attempted advance from Lae and Salamana, in the Coral Sea battle, at Milne Bay, and in the counter-offensive over the Owen Stanley Range. The other thrust has been the attempt to advance through the Solomons to islands in the Pacific in order to secure bases nearer to the American line of communication across the Pacific. This would also assist in isolating Australia and would turn the flank of our position in New Guinea.

“The importance of the Solomon Islands to the Japanese plan will be evident from the heavy price they are prepared to pay for the recapture of the footholds secured by the Americans. The enemy is, of course, still powerful, for he has naval, land and air forces of considerable strength. As he is a determined foe, we can expect that he will come again. The Americans have demonstrated a superiority on land, sea and in the air and a capacity to reinforce their forces at Guadalcanal which, it is hoped, are good omens for the ultimate result of the conflict in the South Pacific Area.

“In Libya, the Eight Army is now in contact with Rommel's forces near El Agheila. When plans were laid for the offensive against Rommel's position at El Alamein, it was recognized that it would be necessary to make a direct frontal assault on those positions, and that this might involve protracted fighting and heavy casualties. After twelve days of bitter combat, the German forces, who for once proved swifter than their Italian comrades in reaching the available transport, were in full flight, leaving the bulk of the Italians to their fate. The Australian 9th Division played an outstanding part in this battle, and Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt, in congratulatory messages to me, have both generously acknowledged the distinguished services rendered by the Australian troops.

“It will be recalled that Mr. Churchill announced that the total casualties sustained by the British and Allied forces were 13,600 officers and men. The 9th Division lost 2,740, of whom 620 were killed in action or died of wounds. To these men who have fought in distant countries for the defence of their homeland we pay the same tribute as we do to their comrades in arms who have defended their country in New Guinea and in other parts of the South-west Pacific Area.

“Following closely on the victory of the Eighth Army in Egypt, the Allied landings in French North Africa have exerted fresh pressure on the enemy. This new campaign has compelled Hitler to divert troops and aircraft to the defence of Bizerta and Tunis. It has also forced him to move into unoccupied France and has deprived him of his final hope of securing the French fleet for the Axis.

“Although not a second front in Europe, it has, in President Roosevelt's words, provided `effective second-front assistance for our heroic ally, Russia', and its effect in relieving pressure on the Russian front should be considerable.

“We look forward to the time when the Allied drives from east and west will achieve the final expulsion of the Axis from the African continent. When that is done, the United Nations will have fresh bases for offensive action against the enemy, and especially against Italy. As M. Stalin has said, the Allied campaign in Africa `demonstrates the growing might of the Allied armed forces and opens up a prospect of the disintegration of Italian and German coalition in the very near future '.

“The magnificent fight by the Russians is one of the inspiring things of this war. Attacked when the Germans were at the height of their military power and able to concentrate their forces on a single front, the Russians have heroically withstood tremendous enemy pressure through two bitter campaigns. They have suffered immense territorial losses, but the Russian armies were not destroyed. Hitler underestimated Russian powers of recuperation and the strength of Russia's reserves, and our gallant ally is, now striking back fiercely against the invader.

“Air activity on the western front continues. While the British heavy bombing raids have recently been directed more at Italy than formerly, Germany and German-occupied parts in France have received their share. New types of aircraft and new and heavier bombs up to 8,000 lb. in weight are being employed.

“American bombers are taking an ever-increasing part in raids over the Continent. The heavy raids on Genoa, Milan and Turin, which have been achieved with exceptionally low casualties on our side, are a foretaste of what Italy may expect when the occupation of the North African coastline is complete. Australian Empire Air Training Scheme squadrons are participating in these raids, while the Australian Sunderland squadron, based on Britain, is operating effectively for the protection of shipping and in offensive patrols against U-boats. Our fighter squadron in the Middle East has continued to add to its great reputation.

“Despite acute economic difficulties and supply problems, the Chinese people continue their resistance to the Japanese. In Central China, the Chinese armies have reoccupied the territory which was occupied by the Japanese in June and July. A notable feature of recent fighting has been the work of the American air force, which has attacked with success enemy aerodromes, troop concentrations and shipping. Attacks on shipping are particularly important in view of the increasing evidence of a Japanese shortage of shipping tonnage.

“The strategic position of Madagascar has always made it a matter of special interest to Australia that it should not be permitted to come under enemy control. The renewed military operations in the island, which were rendered necessary by the refusal of the local authorities to allow proper measures to be taken to deny the use of the island to the Axis, were successfully concluded early in November. The occupation by the Fighting French of Reunion, which lies between Madagascar and Mauritius, will further strengthen the position in the western Indian Ocean.

"Shipping continues to be a grave problem. While we look forward to a steady increase in the flow of new tonnage from the shipbuilding yards of the United Nations, it must be remembered, as Mr. Churchill has recently pointed out, that the U-boat war is not diminishing but growing. Moreover, the offensive phase of our strategy creates extremely heavy demands for sea transport.

“In our waters, there has been reduced submarine activity and the Australian and American naval forces in the South-west Pacific Area have been continuing their effective work. Enemy submarines have been active in the Indian Ocean and, as announced, surface raiders and supply ships have been sunk.

“Our shipping position is that, in addition to our increased wartime industrial requirements, we have had to divert ships from normal services to cope with increased military requirements. This has placed a severe strain on our limited transport facilities. The Government has had some success in its endeavours to secure additional shipping from overseas sources, and our own shipbuilding programme will be of material assistance, but the position is still acute.

“Australia has much to be thankful for. We have felt the impact of enemy bombs on a number of our northern towns and Sydney has been attacked, but we have been spared the horror of the devastation of war on our own soil. The victories won at Coral Sea, Midway Island and in the Solomons were of crucial importance to us. There should be throughout the whole continent a universal feeling of deep gratitude and thanksgiving for what we have so far been spared. Originally, Britain stood alone between German and the world. Later, the gallant Russian people withstood the full might of the German military machine. Recently, it has been American sea-power which has been the bulwark between Japan and Australia.

“The immunity from attack which we have enjoyed has enabled our war production programme to proceed unhindered. Our greatly improved defensive position has made it possible to relax in some measure the air raid precautions originally imposed, but constant vigilance and perfection of their training and preparations should be the aim of the Home Security Services. The production of war material of all kinds has greatly increased, so much so that it has now been thought desirable to set up in Australia machinery for the allocation of Australian munitions production similar to that which exists in the United Kingdom and the United States. This does not mean, of course, that there is a surplus of all classes of munitions in this country. It does indicate, however, that our output of many kinds of munitions is sufficiently large to justify the extension of Australian production of the pooling arrangements agreed upon between Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt in January, 1942, with respect to British and American production.

“In some items of munitions we are within measurable distance of fulfilling the whole of the needs of the Australian forces. But, as fast as one requirement is fulfilled, other demands arise and must be met. We are faced with problems associated with the re-allocation of productive capacity, and it will be necessary to divert our technical resources and skilled man-power from projects which have been fulfilled or whose completion is in sight, to other high priority projects. In doing this, the Government will be guided by the advice of its service and technical advisers, which will, of course, be related to the plan of operations for the South-west Pacific Area.

“The primary concern of the whole nation must be to supply the needs of our fighting men. This will be the essential consideration which will govern the allotment of man-power, including women, and use of our material and financial resources.

“As to the prospects for the future and the duration of the struggle, I would remind every Australian of the basis on which Mr. Churchill reached his conclusion that there is nothing to justify an optimistic view that the end is in sight.

“So much for the task of defeating Germany, but what about Japan? She, too, is master of vast territories with large populations and vital resources for the waging of war. Though she has suffered certain naval and air losses, her strength is still great. Like Germany, Japan prepared for this war for years and did not strike until she was ready to do so and considered the situation favorable for success. It should not be overlooked that we are fighting her at places vital to our own security and far removed from her own final ramparts of defence.

“We must realize that we are up against a powerful fighting machine. It is backed by a people whose training and discipline produce a national morale which willingly accepts the utmost sacrifice, including death itself, for the national cause. Such a race can be beaten only by actual physical defeat.

"We, therefore, must be prepared to make such sacrifices for victory as will enable us to match and overcome a foe so thoroughly trained to the needs of total war.

"This is the prescription for victory which I adjure all Australians to observe."

JCPML.  Records of the Commonwealth of Australia.  Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches by the Prime Minister. No. 47, 26 November - 8 December 1942.  JCPML00110/52