317 Lord Cranborne, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Commonwealth Government

Cablegram 116 LONDON, 23 February 1941, 5.45 p.m.


Commonwealth Government's telegram No. 87 of 13th February. [1]

NAVAL DISPOSITIONS. Matter has been very carefully considered here, and following sets out our views:-

1. It is agreed that the South Western Pacific: area should be regarded as a whole, irrespective of station limits, but it is further considered that all Far East waters, including the South Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, must be considered together strategically.

2. This area again must be balanced in with the whole Empire war effort. Attacks by Germany in the Atlantic will certainly not be any the less. The threat in North Western Approaches both by air and submarine is expected to increase in Spring. Attacks on our home convoys have already been experienced; attacks by armed raiders in all Oceans must be expected to continue; indeed to increase with the co-operation of Germany and Japan.

The invariable threat to British Isles necessitates the holding of a certain number of forces in home waters. Our war effort in the Mediterranean is likely to increase.

3. The addition of Japan to our enemies would add additional threat both to our territory and to our trade from the East coast of Africa to the Pacific.

Inside this area an investigation has already been made with a view to reducing the amount of essential trade that must be kept running and it is essential that the following important trade routes and supply lines should be kept going:-Cape to Aden, Cape to Colombo, Colombo to Aden and Australia to Panama, Australia to Singapore, Australia to Cape and Panama. The trade, even after it has been reduced to a minimum, is so big that it will be out of the question to run it entirely by convoys and a certain amount of diverted routeing will have to be accepted.

4. Many of our troubles would be alleviated by stationing of P.B.Y.'s [2] or other long-distance aircraft on the trade routes.

In fact, however, the situation must be faced that only six P.B.Y.'s have so far been delivered, and that any delivery in quantity cannot be expected for several months.

5. The forces to be stationed in Indian Ocean and Far East cannot at present be substantially increased beyond those already there, except by the addition of one battle cruiser and aircraft carrier and by the return of Australian and New Zealand naval forces now serving overseas. However, from the moment that Japan enters the war, the situation in all Oceans will be carefully watched and an immediate re-distribution of forces will be made should threat to our communications in Pacific and Indian Oceans be relatively greater than that in the Atlantic.

A more precise statement of the total numbers and types of various vessels likely to be available in the whole area under discussion is being telegraphed to the Commander-in-Chief, China [3], and will be available at present Conference at Singapore as a basis for planning.

6. In the above circumstances it appears, viewing the theatre of war as a whole, and the total forces available for defence of various imperial interests concerned, that the disposition of Dominions forces proposed at the previous Conference might be regarded as slightly out of balance.

It is appreciated that at this Conference it was not possible to compare the relative strengths of forces in Australian and New Zealand waters and elsewhere, in the lack of information as to total forces which would be available. The information referred to in paragraph 5 should now allow this to be done. We should therefore be glad if the Commonwealth Government and New Zealand Government would authorize their Service advisers to re-examine naval dispositions (in consultation with the Naval Commander in Chief, China, and East Indies Stations [4]) in the light of information which will now be available with a view to producing plan for the best employment of combined naval forces in the whole area of the Indian Ocean, Far East, Australia and New Zealand waters.

7. Whilst situation would be alleviated by the entry of the United States into the war we cannot allow for this anyhow in our initial dispositions. Even should the United States come into the war, indications are that they will not station any forces in the Pacific, west of Hawaii, except for an Asiatic fleet. Their main Pacific fleet will be at Hawaii and a considerable . . . [5] will be directed towards stiffening our forces in the Atlantic and so relieving certain of our forces including capital ships for the Far East. [6]

1 Document 285.

2 Catalina PBY-5 flying boats.

3 Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton.

4 Vice Admiral R. Leatham.

5 Cipher group omitted.

6 The Navy Dept drafted a reply to this cablegram which read: 'As advised in my telegram No. 97 of 15th February, Commonwealth Government concur in re-examination of naval dispositions as suggested in paragraph 6 of your telegram 116. Necessary instructions have already been issued to Australian delegation to Singapore Conference.' The draft, which was to have been sent to Cranborne and repeated to the U.K. Commander-in-Chief in the Far East (Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham) was teleprinted to Sydney on 26 February 'for discussion with Acting Prime Minister [A. W. Fadden] before despatch'. It is not known whether the cablegram was finally sent. See teleprinter message D560 on file AA:A1608, AA27/1/1.

[AA:A1608, AA27/1/1]