237 Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr R. G. Casey, Minister to the United States

Cablegram 166 [1] CANBERRA, 29 December 1941

MOST IMMEDIATE MOST SECRET

I shall be glad if you will transmit the following to the Prime Minister of Great Britain [2]:-

BEGINS- With reference to Dominions Office Cablegram M. 476 [3] the summary of the appreciation of the Defence Committee of War Cabinet has been carefully considered by our Chiefs of Staff, who have furnished the undermentioned comments. [4]

2. In view of the opinions expressed on the concentration of a superior fleet, I am transmitting them forthwith for the urgent consideration of the President [5], yourself and your advisers, without awaiting their submission to War Cabinet tomorrow. [6] Whilst there may be obstacles to the immediate achievement of the course proposed, it would appear that a superior naval concentration should be aimed at as soon as possible:-

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS 1. The situation disclosed in this appreciation is most unsatisfactory.

2. In paragraph A.1, it is stated that limited United States naval support can be expected in the Atlantic where our mutual interests coincide and from the United States Asiatic Fleet but not elsewhere. In other words, the United States Pacific Fleet on which we had based great hopes is unable or unwilling to assist.

3. Again in paragraph A.3, it is stated that there is not one base which would be acceptable to both the United States and ourselves as affording sufficient protection to the interests of each at which our own and the United States forces equal or superior to the Japanese can be assembled. As the protection of the interests of both America and Great Britain is identical and depends solely on our regaining control of the sea by the defeat of the Japanese fleet, this statement is difficult to understand.

4. It is also stated that British Naval strategy is to ensure sea communications in the Atlantic first and in the Indian Ocean second, and that we intend to form a fleet of 9 capital ships and 4 carriers and base them in the Indian Ocean.

(Note: This fleet will be inferior to the naval forces which Japan could bring against it.) 5. In order to form this fleet, it will be necessary to withdraw certain capital ships from the Eastern Mediterranean and to take the remainder from the Home Fleet, on the assumption that the 'Gneisenau' and 'Scharnhorst' are out of action. No information is given about the cruisers and destroyers which are necessary to make up a well-balanced fleet, except that in paragraph A.4 it states that 'we ourselves cannot provide a balanced fleet at Singapore at once, and it is therefore unsound to send capital ships there at present'.

6. To sum up, therefore, the present situation is that we intend to base an unbalanced fleet in the Indian Ocean during the next two months, which will be inferior to the Japanese fleet, and during the period of formation we intend to use important portions of it, e.g., carriers (vide paragraph 15) in waters under Japanese naval and possibly air control.

7. No reason is given why the United States Pacific Fleet are unwilling to give any immediate assistance. In the American- British conversations (A.B.C.1) held in Washington in March, 1941, the coordination between our fleets was fully discussed, and one of the principal operations to be carried out by the United States Pacific Fleet was 'offensive actions against the Japanese Mandated Islands'. Since the attack on the American Fleet at Hawaii by the Japanese, however, the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington [7], has decided as follows:-

'Until the present situation in the Pacific Ocean becomes more favourable the Pacific Fleet cannot undertake the following tasks:-

(a) Supporting forces of associated powers in Far East area by diverting enemy strength from Malay barrier through denial and capture of possessions in Marshall Islands.

(b) Support British naval forces south of the Equator as far west as longitude 155 degrees E.

(c) Prepare to capture and establish control over Caroline and Marshall area.

On the other hand, he has assigned to the United States Pacific Fleet certain purely defensive tasks to the eastward of 180 degrees, such as:-

Protection of Sea Communications.

Supporting Army in defence of Hawaiian Coastal frontier.

Defence of certain Islands, such as Samoa, Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, Wake, etc.

8. The reason for the abovementioned change in policy is obviously due to the loss or damage of certain valuable ships.

9. It would therefore appear that if Great Britain were able to make good the damage done by replacing with her own ships those that have been put out of action, and were to raise the strength of the United States Pacific Fleet in capital ships and carriers so that it was decisively superior to the Japanese, the situation in the Pacific would again become more favourable, and an attack on the Japanese possessions in the Mandated Islands would again become possible, thus leading to a fleet action and, by the defeat of the Japanese Fleet, enable us to regain control of the sea.

Such offensive action will provide a more effective protection to Australia than the presence in the Indian Ocean of a British force inferior to the Japanese main fleet.

10. Our present intention of forming a separate fleet in the Indian Ocean is obviously unsound and must have been forced on us by the American attitude which is undoubtedly receiving close attention at Washington now. It is deliberately playing into the hands of the Japanese and may have the most serious consequences.

There appears to be nothing we can do other than to await the result of the present conversations or to recommend that an endeavour be made to re-establish confidence in the American Pacific Fleet by offering them adequate reinforcements of both capital ships and carriers at their selected base. (We shall benefit by the American contribution of cruisers and destroyers which are necessary for a balanced Fleet and which we cannot provide ourselves.) In so doing, we must accept a temporary reduction in naval protection to our interests in the Indian Ocean but we shall have formed a Fleet which is a match for the Japanese and taken the first step towards regaining control of the sea.

11. Observations upon the appreciation paragraph by paragraph Paragraphs A.1, 2, 3 and 4: Our views on these paragraphs have been stated in our general observations.

Paragraph A.5: We agree with what is stated but would point out that if the junction of a British Naval Force with the United States Pacific Fleet were effected in the manner already indicated, the British Force required would not be so large as to make it necessary to denude ourselves of Naval Forces in other important theatres of war.

Paragraph A.6: We think that the situation envisaged in the last sentence of this paragraph has already arisen as the Japanese have secured bases in Borneo from which attacks by land based aircraft can be launched. The security of escorted convoys to Singapore is therefore a matter of grave doubt. We do not think that the cover that could be provided by what air forces there are in Sumatra is adequate to ensure the protection of such convoys.

Paragraph A.7: No comment.

Paragraphs B.8, 9, 10, 11 and 12: We would again emphasize our view that it is unsound to divide and dissipate our Forces in an attempt to defend widely dispersed interests at the expense of making the most of our available strength by assembling an Allied Fleet that is superior to that of the Japanese with a view to forcing a decisive action upon the enemy. With such a Fleet, we could take the initiative and a decisive victory would render any enemy successes in the meantime worthless to him. Without such a Fleet, we must remain on the defensive and in grave danger of being defeated point by point. It appears to us that the policy outlined in these paragraphs is purely defensive and thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Paragraphs C.13 and 14: We are in complete agreement with these views.

Paragraph C.15: We disagree with these views and are of the opinion that it is vital for us to conserve our aircraft carriers for the main engagement with the enemy in which they will be invaluable. To assemble a balanced and decisively superior Fleet should be our main objective and if concentration upon doing this involves the risk of the temporary loss of subsidiary interests, such risks should be accepted.

Paragraph C.16: We agree with this paragraph.

Paragraph C.17: We would point out that the maintenance of the Sunda Straits route to Singapore is already endangered by the Japanese landings in South Borneo.

Paragraphs C.18 and 19: We agree with these paragraphs.

Paragraphs C.20, 21 and 22: No comment.

Paragraph C.23: We approve of the proposal to increase the scale of defence at Australian Naval Bases and would point out that, to achieve this, no better step could be taken than to expedite the delivery to Australia of the aircraft and tanks that have been on order in the United States for such a long time.

Paragraphs C.24, 25, 26 and 27: No comment.

Paragraphs C.28, 29, 30, 31 and 32: We assume that the reinforcements that are here enumerated are the maximum available and on this basis we are in agreement with what is proposed.

Paragraphs C.33 and 34: No comment.

Paragraph C.36: We agree with this contention.

Paragraph C.37: We would point out that the Southern Pacific air route here referred to includes Suva and Noumea.

Paragraphs D.38, 39, 40 and 41: We agree with the observations relating to Japan's courses of action and consider that the extent of these possible undertakings affords confirmation of our view that there must be a bold Allied move to deprive the enemy of the initiative.

CURTIN

MESSAGE ENDS.

1 Repeated to the N.Z. Prime Minister as no. 559 and to the High Commissioner in the United Kingdom as no. 8276 for communication to the U.K. Dominions Office.

2 Casey advised on 30 December that the cablegram had been forwarded to Winston Churchill, who was then in Canada. See cablegram 1238 on file AA: A981, War 33, attachment B.

3 Document 215.

4 The full report is on file AA: A2671, 445/1941.

5 Franklin D. Roosevelt. In cablegram 167 of 29 December (on the file cited in note 2) Dr H. V. Evatt, Minister for External Affairs, asked Casey to 'inform Churchill that, owing to doubt whether telegram M. 476 has been communicated to the President, and to fact references to American co-operation are not couched in suitable language, this message is not (repeat not) intended in the first instance to be communicated in full to the President'.

6 The views of the Chiefs of Staff were generally endorsed by War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council On 30 and 31 December, although War Cabinet decided that Australia's contribution to the Empire Air Training Scheme should be re-examined. See AA: A2673, vol. 9, minute 1632; AA:A2682, vol. 4, minute 633; and cablegrams 169 and 171 of 31 December to Casey (for Churchill) on file AA:

A3300, 101.

7 Admiral Ernest J. King.

[AA: A981, WAR 33, ATTACHMENT B]