352 Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister

Cablegram 233 LONDON, 20 February 1942, 9.13 p.m.


Following for the Prime Minister from the Prime Minister. [1] (Begins):

I suppose you realise that your leading division [2], the head of which is sailing south of Colombo to N.E.I. at this moment in our scanty British and American shipping [(MOUNT VERNON)] [3], is the only force that can reach Rangoon in time to prevent its loss and the severance of communication with China. It can begin to disembark at Rangoon about 26th or 27th. There is nothing else in the world that can fill the gap.

2. We are all entirely in favour of all Australian troops returning home to defend their native soil, and we shall help their transportation in every way. But a vital war emergency cannot be ignored, and troops en route to other destinations must be ready to turn aside and take part in a battle. Every effort would be made to relieve this division at the earliest moment and send them on to Australia. I do not endorse the United States' request that you should send your other two divisions [4] to Burma. They will return home as fast as possible but this one is needed now, and is the only one that can possibly save the situation.

3. Pray read again your message No. JOHCU 21 [5] in which you said that the evacuation of Singapore would be 'an inexcusable betrayal'. Agreeably with your point of view we therefore [put] the 18th Division and other important reinforcements into Singapore instead of diverting them to Burma and ordered them to fight it out to the end. They were lost at Singapore and did not save it, whereas they could almost certainly have saved Rangoon. I take full responsibility with my colleagues on the Defence Committee for this decision; but you also bear a heavy share on account of your telegram No. JOHCU 21.

4. Your greatest support in this hour of peril must be drawn from the United States. They alone can bring into Australia the necessary troops and air forces and they appear ready to do so. As you know, the President [6] attaches supreme importance to keeping open the connection with China without which his bombing offensive against Japan cannot be started and also most grievous results may follow in Asia if China is cut off from all allied help.

5. I am quite sure that if you refuse to allow your troops to stop this gap who are actually passing and if in consequence the above [evils] affecting the whole course of the war follow, a very grave effect will be produced upon the President and the Washington circle on whom you are so largely dependent. See especially the inclination of the United States to move major naval forces from Hawaii into the Anzac area.

6. We must have an answer immediately, as the leading ships of the convoy will soon be steaming in the opposite direction from Rangoon and every day is a day lost. I trust therefore that for the sake of all interests, and above all your own interests, you will give most careful consideration to the case I have set before you. (Ends).

1 Winston Churchill.

2 7th Division.

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

4 6th and 9th Divisions.

5 Document 294.

6 Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[AA:A816, 52/302/142]