- Fogarty, Michael
- History - WW2
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This paper is by Mike Fogarty a former RAN officer and diplomat. In 2016, he completed an MA (Military History) at UNSW with ADFA.
The war in the Pacific was not conducted in the way Australia wished it to be…Australian politicians undoubtedly experienced some frustration at their inability to influence events in ways in which would produce the strategic policies they wanted.1 This mild understatement by John Gooch is yet symptomatic of conditions then. Australia’s policy options, as a junior yet not insignificant ally, were limited by the greater clout exercised by its major allies, Britain and America. Our national interests, as a loyal dominion, were subordinated to a higher call on Empire interests, viewed from Whitehall.
Australia’s political and military leaders had limited success influencing strategies which determined Australia’s contribution to WWII. Canberra had occasional wins, but any outcomes were conditioned by its subordinate status to the two major allied powers, the US and UK. Under the threat of Japanese invasion, Curtin withdrew the 6th and 7th AIF divisions from the Middle East, recalling them to defend Australia. Churchill acquiesced, for the 9th division stayed another year. Churchill’s plea to have two divisions diverted to Rangoon was rejected.
Australia, as a junior ally, was often relegated to a lower priority as more pressing strategies were applied, as the defeat of Nazi Germany and Italy firstly assumed a higher call on resources and personnel. Australia was later able to project its own offensives in New Guinea. Its army was often misused in ‘political’ campaigns, such as Bougainville, when Japanese troops might have been left to wither for want of replenishment. ‘London reached its decisions about Australia in the context of the wars in Europe and in the Far East. To Australian eyes those decisions were often unpalatable and on occasion unacceptable. They were, however, incontrovertible, for while broad strategic logic governed the wartime politics of Churchill’s government, the accompanying strategic calculus which both shaped and justified policy imposed upon Australia a subaltern status from which she could not escape.’2
Australian-Canadian bilateral military cooperation proposals in 1942 failed abysmally. Haycock advanced a useful case study, when the possibility of Canadian troops being sent to reinforce Australia was being considered. ‘For junior partners in a major war the lesson of alliance participation is that it is really impossible to make bilateral arrangements at lower levels without higher approval.’3Haycock noted that ‘…like Curtin, the tough-minded and often mercurial External Affairs minister (Herbert Evatt) knew that Australia’s immediate future would be determined not in London or in Ottawa but in Washington.’4
David Horner underscored that: ‘The story of Australia’s strategic and operational planning in 1943 is the story of six men – two American generals, two Australian generals and two Australian civilians.’5Horner refers to US Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Kenney. Generals Thomas Blamey and Edmund Herring led the Australians. The two Australian civilians were Curtin as PM and Frederick Shedden, the Secretary of Defence and the War Cabinet. Curtin deferred to MacArthur and the pervasive reach of a US command and control apparatus. Curtin and MacArthur both declared in June, 1943 that: ‘…the Japanese threat had been removed…he (Curtin) stated that the enemy could (not) now invade this country.’6
MacArthur triumphed, in supplanting Australia’s ownership of its strategic decision-making, using his own command team, who would apply it selectively to overly privilege US national interests at the expense of Australian policies. ‘The Australian war cabinet…was frustrated…whereby strategic matters were in the hands of General MacArthur.’7Horner’s conclusion attempts to create a linkage between a US usurpation of strategic decision-making in the Pacific war and our resultant alliance with the US under ANZUS and SEATO. ‘The echoes of this policy can be found in the reasons for committing Australian forces to overseas military operations (with the US) over the following sixty years (to 2004).’ His argument might have delineated why the US was suspicious in not backing Australia during the Confrontation dispute with Indonesia (1962-64). Hitherto, the US was not inclined to materially support the British in Malaya, from 1948-1960, which was facing a communist-backed insurgency, similarly inimical to wider US interests in Asia.
How did the other two individual services, the RAN and RAAF, react to an imposed overlay of strategic thinking, be it sourced from Washington or London? Goldrick inferred that the Admiralty sought to molest the RAN command structure. ‘Royle fought hard to prevent the premature advancement of Collins or Farncomb to the (HM Australian) command as replacements for Crutchley in 1944. His motives were good, but the political decision to have Collins installed as Commodore commanding the squadron in June 1944 was the correct one.’8In fairness, London felt that any RAN senior officers should not be promoted over RN officers if the former did not possess the requisite seniority and command experience over the latter. Goldrick accounts that: ‘The Australian Squadron did not integrate with the British Pacific Fleet but remained a part of the US 7th Fleet in the South-West Pacific Command.’9The RAN had interoperability with the British (Burma and in the NEI) and HMA warships fought with the USN off the Philippines and on to Japan.
The RAAF had its own problems with the RAF Bomber Command. Stephens offered that the RAAF heritage was compromised in WWII in that there were limited opportunities for its senior officers to be promoted in wartime. The author (Stephens), a former RAAF officer, has made his point, in concluding: ‘The time is long overdue for the men of the RAAF who fought in the great air battles over Germany and Italy during World War II to receive far more generous recognition of their extraordinary achievements and courage.’10At the time, Canberra had to accept the realities.
The Australian army had related difficulties, as Grey skilfully tells. His more salient points are summarised as follows: Singapore was indefensible with the available means. Blamey was subordinated to MacArthur and the former had limited access to Curtin. With droll understatement, Grey assessed that: ‘Japan’s entry into the war had dramatically altered Australia’s strategic circumstances.’11
Australia had a limited capacity to influence all strategies which governed its independent contribution to WWII. Britain and the US directed the higher strategy. Yet it is to their credit that Australian political and military leaders cooperated on strategic decision-making where events dictated that they should. It was not an optimal arrangement when sovereign national interests were subordinated to a higher realm. Australian strategic influence at high tables was another wartime casualty, but not fatally so, as the eventual outcomes delivered victory to all of the allies in 1945.
1 Gooch, John. The Politics of Strategy: Great Britain, Australia and the War against Japan, 1939-1945, War in History.Volume 10, No. 4, November, 2003, p. 445.
2 Gooch, ibid, pp. 446-447. Menzies could not challenge Churchill’s strategic consciousness.
3 Haycock, Ronald G. The ‘Myth’ of Imperial Defence: Australian-Canadian Bilateral Military Co-operation, 1942, War and Society, p. 80. Ottawa deflected any appeals, wisely excusing that Canada could not act unilaterally and that any major decisions needed to be determined by the US and UK.
4 Haycock, ibid, p. 73. While Haycock is repetitive in his argument, he has given it the right emphasis.
5 Horner, David. Strategy and Generalship: Strategic and Operational Planning for the 1943 Offensives, p. 24. This is a sound work which explains the personal and political dynamics of many.
6 Horner, ibid, p. 40.
7 Horner, ibid, p. 43.
8 Goldrick, James. World War II: The War against Japan, in David Stevens (Ed.) The RoyalAustralian Navy, p. 143. Figure 6.1 in chapter 6 details the complex command organisation from 1942-45, showing the respective lines of responsibility.
9 Goldrick, ibid, p. 149. The fathers of Stevens and Goldrick also served in RN cruisers off Burma.
10 Stephens, Alan. The Royal Australian Air Force, p. 107. While the author adopts a partisan case, one can appreciate the instincts which resourced his thinking.
11 Grey, Jeffrey. The Australian Army, see pp. 135, 138 and 134, in respective order, on his points made. Curtin authorised conscription, changing the Defence Act, to extend the boundaries of war service.
Goldrick, James. World War II: The War against Japan, Chapter 6, in David Stevens (Ed.),The RoyalAustralian Navy, A History, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001.
Gooch, John. The Politics of Strategy: Great Britain, Australia and the War against Japan, 1939-1945, War in History, Volume 10, No. 4, Oxford, November, 2003.
Grey, Jeffrey. The Australian Army, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001.
Haycock, Ronald G. The ‘Myth’ of Imperial Defence: Australian-Canadian Bilateral Military Co-operation, 1942, War and Society, Volume 2, No. 1, RMC, Duntroon, Canberra, May, 1984.
Horner, David. Strategy and Generalship: Strategic and Operational Planning for the 1943 Offensives. In: Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (Eds.), The Foundations of Victory: The Pacific War 1943-1944, The 2003 Chief of Army History Conference,Parts 1 and 2, Army History Unit, Canberra, 2004.
Stephens, Alan. Bomber Command, Chapter 5, The Royal Australian Air Force, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001.