Robert Menzies is easily depicted as a failure as a war leader. Committed to imperial defence, he despatched the bulk of the Australian defence forces in 1939–40 to the war in Europe and the Mediterranean. He presided over the commitment of Australians to the disastrous campaign in Greece in 1941, and he failed to seriously challenge the British over their flawed Singapore strategy. John Curtin, in contrast, led a government that (only just) held its nerve when invasion threatened in early 1942. He then mobilised the Australian defence forces and economy to an unprecedented degree and led the nation to victory in the Pacific. Traditionally he is seen as a nationalist politician in his 'finest hour'. Yet the differences between the two men’s war leadership were not as great as is often assumed. Certainly Curtin confronted Churchill over the deployment of Australian forces returning from the Middle East in February 1942. But he was as deferential to Australia’s new ally, the United States, as was Menzies to Churchill. He did little to reshape Australia’s foreign-policy links with Britain. Curtin’s success owed much to his capacity to hold the Australian Labor Party together. He was also the beneficiary of an outstanding cabinet, particularly Ben Chifley and Dr HV Evatt - a team that Menzies, who lost three senior colleagues in an air crash near Canberra in August 1941, could not match. Finally, Curtin had the advantage - always important in democracies that hate to spend money on defence in peacetime - of not being in power when the war began.
Professor Joan Beaumont