‘We are at war with Japan’.
Prime Minister John Curtin, Sydney Morning Herald, 1941
In 1933 Colonel Vernon Sturdee, director of military operations and intelligence at Army Headquarters, warned that Japan would pose the major threat to Australian security.
‘the Japanese would act quickly, they would all be regulars, fully trained and equipped for the operations, and fanatics who like dying in battle, whilst our troops would consist mainly of civilians, hastily thrown together on mobilisation, with very little training, short of artillery and possibly of gun ammunition.’
Our most eminent military historian, Professor David Horner, wrote a damning indictment of our political leadership in his book ‘Crisis of Command’. According to Horner:
‘It is now generally agreed that the Australian defence policy between the wars and until the fall of Singapore was, at the best, naively optimistic, and at the worst, some might say, close to treason.’
The Japanese military were well prepared for their mission. For generations their national psyche had been conditioned by the State religion, Shinto, which inculcated respect for the Emperor, the Head of the Japanese family, and respect for one’s ancestors. All Japanese authorities – religious, educational, entertainment and the media – ceaselessly indoctrinated the population with the divinity of the Emperor and the divine nature of Japan’s expansionist role. To die for the Emperor on the field of battle was the most noble of all sacrifices.
Fanatical Kamikaze suicide pilots were an outcome of this extreme indoctrination.
The Japanese were thus a brutal occupier of foreign lands. Their invasion and occupation of China in 1937 was an omen of things to come. Civilian massacres, beheadings, public hangings and mass rape were committed against the Chinese population in the name of the Emperor. They did not subscribe to any conventions of war in their quest to expand their empire.
Despite this aggression Colonel Sturdee’s warning continued to go unheeded by Australia’s political leaders.
Our awakening came on the 7th December 1941 with Japan’s brazen attempt to sink the powerful United States Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu.
Australia’s political chooks had come home to roost.
Our gallant Australian Imperial Forces were engaged in Britain’s war against Nazi Germany in Europe, Africa and the Middle East and our Militia forces were stretched to the limit in meeting the demands of rapid mobilisation. Our only hope for stemming the Japanese advance lay with the British fortress in Singapore and small outposts in the South West Pacific.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was quickly followed by invasions of the Philippines, Thailand, Burma and the Malayan Peninsula. Their strategy was to create an Asia-Pacific Co-Prosperity Sphere which aimed to eliminate Australia by either capturing its industrial centres or isolating it as an effective base for United States forces.
Only the Australian 8th Division, with two brigades in Malaya and one split between Ambon, Timor and Rabaul, stood as our frontline defence against any advance towards Australia. History records they were soon overwhelmed by Japanese forces who quickly dispelled the myth surrounding the impregnability of the Singapore fortress.
The fall of Singapore which resulted in the capture of 20,000 of our troops sent shockwaves through the Australian community. For the first time Australians experienced the fear of imminent invasion. We faced the loss of our homes and our country and many turned to prayer as a last resort for their safety. Prime Minister Curtin declared the ‘Battle for Australia’ had begun.
Four days later Darwin was bombed. This was followed up with bombing raids across our northern cities from Port Headland and Broome to Townsville. The Japanese navy sank ships off the East and West Coast. Curtin paced the floor of his office every night wondering where the main attack would come from – via our northern cities, the West coast or the East coast.
A Japanese victory in the Battle of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait prepared the way for a successful invasion of the Dutch East Indies and landings on the north coast of New Guinea.
Although the South West Pacific was not the highest priority for America due to a secret agreement between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt to help Britain first, the forces allocated were sufficient to stall the Japanese offensive.
A Japanese invasion force steaming towards Port Moresby was thwarted in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and defeated in the Battle of Midway the following month. Japanese military planners were then forced to reconsider their plans of expansion and to concentrate their forces on consolidating the territory they had already captured.
These plans included an expansion of their positions in New Guinea with an advance across the Owen Stanley Ranges from the northern beach-heads at Buna and Gona.
The scene was set for a bitter campaign in some of the most formidable jungle terrain on the planet. Heroic young Australians fighting with rifle, bayonet, grenade and fist slipped and slithered, panted, plodded, sweated, bled, sickened, dropped and died in a sodden and crinkled hell of mountain and jungle and swamp before they turned the tide and forced the Japanese to retreat from the last line of defence at Ioribaiwa Ridge before recapturing Kokoda on 2nd November 1942.
British Field Marshall and former Australian Governor General, Sir William Slim of Burma, later remarked that we should never forget that it was the Australians who finally broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese with their victory at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail.
The tide of the Pacific War had turned but many battles were to be fought at Salamaua, Lae, Wewak, Nadzab. the Huon Peninsula, the Finisterre Ranges and Guadalcanal before the Japanese finally surrendered at Wewak on 15th August 1945.
Lest We Forget
References: Blood and Iron by Lex MacAuley