456 War Cabinet Minute

Minute 1073 SYDNEY, 15 May 1941



(The Chiefs of Staff [2] were present for the discussion of this subject).

The following papers were considered [3]:-

(a) Report of the American-Dutch-British Conversations at Singapore, dated 27th April, 1941.

(b) Report of the British-Dutch Conversations at Singapore, dated 27th April.

(c) Report of the United States-British Staff Conversations at Washington dated 27th March.

(d) Memorandum dated 11th May from the Leader of the Australian Delegation to the Singapore Conference 1941 (Sir Ragnar Colvin) and report by the Australian Chiefs of Staff dated 14th May on the above papers.

MAIN FEATURES OF REPORTS 2. The Chief of the Naval Staff (Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin) outlined the main features of the reports, and gave his observations thereon.

The report of the American-Dutch-British Conversations embodied plans for the conduct of military operations in the Far East on the hypothesis of a war between Germany, Italy and Japan on the one hand, and the British Empire with its present allies and the United States of America on the other. The plans were based on the conclusions reached at the United States-British Conversations at Washington.

Plans for a war in the Far East on the basis of American neutrality were contained in the report of the British-Dutch conversations, which also cleared up outstanding points arising out of the Anglo-Dutch-Australian Conference of February, 1941.

The report of the United States-British Conversations set forth the general strategic principles which should guide the military collaboration of the United States and the British Commonwealth should the United States be compelled to resort to war.

3. During the discussion which took place on this subject,he expressed the following views in reply to enquiries made by the Minister for the Army [4]:-

(i) Invasion of Australia. In regard to the statement made in the report of the American-Dutch-British Conversations (paragraph 12) that attacks on Australia can be ruled out initially, the Chief of the Naval Staff stated the word 'attack' was intended to be used in the sense of invasion, which conforms with the basis accepted in previous reports of recent Singapore Conferences.

Provided that Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies should hold out, he was of opinion that, at the most, Australia might be subjected to intermittent bombardment from raiding cruisers and by a sharp cruiser-borne raid on vital areas, the raid in such instances consisting of not more than a force of 100 men or thereabouts.

(ii) Attack through New Caledonia. Sir Ragnar Colvin suggested that it was unlikely that New Caledonia would be occupied by Japanese forces if Singapore should hold out.

(iii) Battleship attack. He expressed the view that an attack on Australia by battleship was unlikely in view of the distance from Japanese bases and the danger to its lines of communication. Japan would also be unlikely to sacrifice one of its older battleships for the moral advantage of an attack on Sydney. Such an attack was possible but not probable, as Japan had no convenient docks or repair establishments even in the Caroline or Marshall Islands, and with Singapore and Borneo intact would be taking a big risk for very little gain.

(iv) Australia as source of supply to Malaya. It was suggested to the Chief of the Naval Staff that there might be good reason for Japan to attack Australia, as she was, in effect, the main source of supply to Malaya. The Chief of the Naval Staff agreed that, for this reason, such an attack might be given consideration by Japan, but nevertheless the risk was very great and if such an attack were contemplated, it would probably be made by an armed merchant cruiser.

(v) Australian Land Army in initial stage of war. In reply to the Minister for the Army, Admiral Colvin stated that a land army on the present basis contemplated by the Government would not be required in Australia in the initial stages of a war, except for training as a contingency against the fall of Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies.

(vi) Convoy System. The Chief of the Naval Staff agreed that the convoy system proposed in the report would slow up our trade in view of the time that would necessarily elapse between convoys, but nevertheless it would considerably aid the scheme for the protection of merchant ships, which would proceed in convoys of 12 to 14 per month.

UNITED STATES VIEWS 4. Note was taken of the principal United States views summarised in the report of Sir Ragnar Colvin, as follows:-

(a) Europe and the North American Atlantic Seaboard were the vital areas.

(b) Singapore, while very important, was not in the United States view absolutely vital, and its loss, while undesirable, could be accepted. This view was not accepted by the British Delegation at Washington.

(c) The United States intention was, while maintaining a Naval Force at Hawaii superior to the Japanese, and thus protecting the West American Seaboard and sea communications in the Pacific, to use its Navy principally in the Atlantic, and they would, if necessary, reinforce their Atlantic Fleet from their Pacific Fleet.

(d) They intended to use the United States Pacific Fleet to operate offensively against Japanese Mandated Islands, and Japanese sea communications, and to support British Naval Forces in the South Pacific.

(e) They did not intend to reinforce their Asiatic Fleet.

(f) They expected that the Philippine Islands would not be able to hold out very long against determined Japanese attack, and were anticipating being forced to withdraw from these islands.

(g) They were prepared to provide sufficient capital ships for the Atlantic and for Gibraltar as would permit the release from these areas of British capital ships for reinforcement of the Naval Forces in the Eastern theatre.

In regard to sub-paragraph (g), reference was made to War Cabinet Minute No. (1026) [5] regarding the proposed transfer of the major part of the American Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic, in which the need for the early reinforcement of Singapore was stressed (cablegram No. 269 of 4th May to Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs [6]).

DECISIONS OF WAR CABINET 5. War Cabinet were in agreement with the plans for military co- operation outlined in the above reports. The following observations and decisions were recorded on the aspects indicated hereunder:-

(a) Unified Strategic Command-Far Eastern Theatre. (Section V, A.D.B.; paragraphs 22 to 28 of B.D.) [7] The following arrangements for unified strategic command of naval and air forces operating in the Eastern Theatre were agreed to:-

(i) The British Commander-in-Chief China, will exercise unified strategical direction over all the Naval Forces of the Associated Powers in the Eastern Theatre (including Australia), except those employed on local defence or operating under the Commander-in- Chief, United States Asiatic Fleet. Part of the United States Asiatic Fleet will, however, come under the Commander-in-Chief, China, immediately, and the remainder under his strategic direction when Manila becomes untenable.

(ii) The Commander-in-Chief, Far East, is to exercise similar strategic direction of such Air Forces as the Associated Powers may make available. Insofar as Australia is concerned, the Air Forces available will not exceed two bomber squadrons, to be allotted to the Ambon-Timor area.

(Note: This was approved by War Cabinet in Minute No. (909) [8]).

(iii) Operational control will continue to be exercised by the various authorities as at present, except at Ambon, where a Combined Headquarters is to be formed (War Cabinet Minute No.

(986) [9]) and at Timor, where, as already agreed, land forces are to be under the control of an Australian Commander. It was noted that there is little possibility of strategic offensive action by land forces and a localised strategic policy is already established for land forces.

(iv) The above arrangements are subject to the right of any Government to withdraw or withhold its forces, provided that prior information of such intention is passed to the strategic Commander concerned.

The Chief of the General Staff stated that detailed arrangements in respect of command of troops at Ambon were being discussed with the Netherlands East Indies authorities, as authorised by War Cabinet in Minute No. (986), and he would submit a report to War Cabinet as soon as negotiations were completed.

(b) Initial Disposition of Naval Forces (Appendix 1, A.D.B. [10]) In the list of initial dispositions and functions of Naval Forces, one Australian 6-inch cruiser is shown as operating in North Australian waters to escort troop convoys to Ambon, Koepang and Singapore, and is then to be at the disposition of the Commander- in-Chief, China. This is a new commitment resulting from the stationing of Australian Military and Air Forces in the Netherlands East Indies, thus being outside the area of Australian Naval operational control. War Cabinet approved of this arrangement.

(c) U.S. Naval and Air Support (Paragraphs 42 and 71 (a), A.D.B.) The extent of the support to be afforded by the United States to British Naval and Air Forces south of the Equator is not defined in the report. It was noted that the United States Delegation had undertaken to make enquiries in this respect and that the matter had also been taken up through the Australian Naval Attache, Washington. [11]

(d) Reinforcement of Singapore. Note was taken of the view of the Commander-in-Chief, Far East [12], (referred to in paragraph 18 of Sir Ragnar Colvin's report) that the reinforcement of Malaya by land and air forces since October last had so materially strengthened their position that he was most optimistic as to the ability of Singapore to hold out, and to continue to operate as a Fleet Base.

Sir Ragnar Colvin stated that he understood that developments in Iraq had resulted in the diversion of forces otherwise available for Singapore.

1 Document 455.

2 Lt Gen V. A. H. Sturdee, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Burnett and Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin.

3 See AA: A2671, 135/1941, Supplement 1, Annexes A-E.

4 P. C. Spender.

5 In AA: A2673, vol. 6, 4 May 1941.

6 Lord Caldecote. Document 446.

7 See Document 455, note 5.

8 In AA: A2673, vol. 6, 22 March 1941.

9 In AA: A2673, vol. 6, 28 April 1941.

10 See Document 455, note 5.

11 Commander D. H. Harries. See Document 451.

12 Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham.

[AA: A2671, 135/1941]