342 Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister

Cablegram P44 LONDON, 18 February 1942

MOST IMMEDIATE FOR THE PRIME MINISTER MOST SECRET HIMSELF ALONE

In further explanation of my P.43 [1], your telegram 123 [2] and your telegram 127 [3] together with Wavell's cables which have been sent to you [4] were fully considered at the War Cabinet and British Defence Committee meetings held on Monday and at the Pacific War Council called tonight to deal specially with the whole strategic position in the Far East, Pacific and Indian Oceans in the light of recent developments.

(2) A memorandum on shipping difficulties arising in transporting reinforcements has been cabled by the Dominions Office. [5] The whole question of the means of making more shipping available is being still further examined very closely. The general attitude here is that every possible way of saving shipping space will be followed in order to make extra tonnage available for military purposes. This may include severer rationing.

(3) The deterioration of the situation consequent on the fall of Singapore and the Japanese capture of Sumatra aerodromes raised questions of immediate and ultimate strategy. On the question of how Japan would be finally beaten it was unanimously recognised that Australia and India must be considered as the main bases for operations against Japan herself irrespective of what Japan is doing elsewhere. Further, that the road for supplies to China must be kept open at all costs. Apart from the vital necessity of keeping China in the war, this was the only area in which land operations against Japan could be continued at present. Ultimately the Burma Road and China might be the route through which Japan could be directly attacked by air.

(4) The immediate issue was whether Java and the N.E.I. could or should be further reinforced to such a degree as to prevent their capture. On these aspects Wavell's and your own cables were carefully studied. Three issues arose:

(i) Whether Java should fight to the end. On this the Dutch said that they had always taken the offensive view and would fight on and must still defend Java to the uttermost. They felt that such fight would not only be beneficial from its moral and psychological standpoint but would give time to destroy effectively all resources that might be of advantage to the enemy.

I pointed out the aspect that there were in Java at the present time representatives of Australian, British, Dutch and American Forces. The presence of these forces co-operating with the Dutch in the defence of Java would emphasise the cohesion of allied forces despite our recent reverses.

(ii) Whether any further reinforcements should be sent into Java and especially whether Australian reinforcements already on the water should go. The answer was emphatically no to this as it was held to be too dangerous a proceeding and it might be impossible to land convoys and would only be uselessly wasting our manpower resources. To my mind the attitude of the Dutch Prime Minister [6] and his colleagues in this regard was magnificent in their readiness to do what was best in the ultimate interests of the whole fight even though their own country was really being left to its own resources.

(iii) What should be the ultimate disposition of reinforcements that would become available. It was pointed out that the position in Burma was extremely critical, that a division of well trained experienced Australian troops which actually was the only body of troops that could possibly get to Burma in time might be decisive in keeping Burma Road open, that this was all important from the point of view of maintaining the means of communication with China and would undoubtedly keep her in the fight and have a moral effect quite out of proportion to the number of troops actually being sent. It also would indicate that the Australians were taking the widest co-operative attitude towards the war. At the same time I pointed out the great peril of Australia, the urgent desire that our Government and people felt that our soldiers should be at hand to defend their native land, and received an assurance that they would be relieved as early as possible by other forces, almost certainly British. The exact date of this could not be definitely stated [as it was] [7] felt that the next British Division should also in the main go to reinforce this critical position. At the same time the Prime Ministers and the Chief of the Air Staff [9] assured me that arrangements were already in train for very substantial air reinforcements to this theatre of war [to which our soldiers] would be sent if the Australian Government agreed, and I stated that [1] would strongly recommend, as I am now doing, that you should concur in this arrangement for the time. I might say that nearly half of the Sixth Division is ready to embark and will go straight through to Australia, as [will] the remainder of the Division. Your request that ultimately the whole of the Australian Corps should return to Australia was adopted as a principle that would be followed as fast as it was practicable.

I hope that it will not be long before I am able to give you a reply to your cable 21 of 14th February. [10]

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1 Document 341.

2 See Document 336, note 3.

3 Document 336.

4 See cablegram 01157 of 14 February on file AA:A2671, 106/42, Appendix B, and U.K. Dominions Office cablegram 219 of 18 February on file AA:A816, 52/302/142. In cablegram P46 of 18 February (On file AA:A816, 52/302/142) Page requested Curtin to defer the decision about the destination of the 7th Division until he had studied cablegram 219, which had been delayed in transmission.

5 Cablegram 218 of 18 February (AA:A3195, 1942, 1.6234).

6 Dr P. S. Gerbrandy.

7 Words in square brackets have been corrected/inserted from the London copy on file AA:A2937, Far East position 1942.

8 Winston Churchill.

9 Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal.

10 Dispatched 13 February. Curtin requested information about Churchill's indication in Document 262, paragraph 4, that the United States would be willing to reinforce Australian home defence with 40 000 or 50 000 troops (on file AA:MP1217, Box 554, Defence of Australia-Appreciation of immediate danger of invasion in force-January 1942. Reinforcement of Home Defence Force by U.S.A. Troops).

[AA:A816, 52/302/142]