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

Cablegram 136 CANBERRA, 22 February 1942


For the Prime Minister [1] from the Prime Minister.

Reference your 233 and 235 . [2] I have received your rather strongly worded request at this late stage, though our wishes in regard to the disposition of the A.I.F. in the Pacific theatre have long been known to you and carried even further by your statement in the House of Commons. [3] Furthermore, Page [4] was furnished with lengthy statements on our viewpoint on 15th February (repeated to Dominions Office in No. 123), 17th February (repeated to Dominions Office in No. 127) and 19th February (two cablegrams). [5]

2. The proposal for additonal military assistance for Burma comes from the Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. Area. [6] Malaya, Singapore and Timor have been lost and the whole of the Netherlands East Indies will apparently be occupied shortly by the Japanese. The enemy, with superior sea and air power, has commenced raiding our territory in the north-west and also in the north-east from Rabaul. The Government made the maximum contribution of which it was capable in reinforcement of the A.B.D.A. Area. It originally sent a division less a brigade to Malaya with certain ancillary troops. A machine gun battalion and substantial reinforcements were later despatched. It also despatched forces to Ambon, Java and Dutch and Portuguese Timor.

Six squadrons of the Air Force were also sent to this area, together with two cruisers from the Royal Australian Navy.

3. It was suggested by you that two Australian divisions be transferred to the Pacific theatre [7] and this suggestion was later publicly expanded by you with the statement that no obstacle would be placed in the way of the A.I.F. returning to defend their homeland. [8] We agreed to the two divisions being located in Sumatra and Java and it was pointed out to Page in the cablegram of 15th February that should fortune still favour the Japanese this disposition would give a line of withdrawal to Australia for our forces.

4. With the situation having deteriorated to such an extent in the theatre of the A.B.D.A. Area with which we are closely associated and the Japanese also making a southward advance in the Anzac Area, the Government, in the light of the advice of its Chiefs of Staff as to the forces necessary to repel an attack on Australia, finds it most difficult to understand that it should be called upon to make a further contribution of forces to be located in the most distant part of the A.B.D.A. Area. Notwithstanding your statement that you do not agree with the request to send the other two divisions of the A.I.F. Corps to Burma [9], our advisers are concerned with Wavell's request for the Corps [10] and Dill's statement that the destination of the 6th and 9th Australian Divisions should be left open, as more troops might be badly needed in Burma. [11] Once one division became engaged it could not be left unsupported, and the indications are that the whole of the Corps might become committed to this region or there might be a recurrence of the experiences of the Greek and Malayan campaigns. Finally, in view of superior Japanese sea power and air power, it would appear to be a matter of some doubt as to whether this division can be landed in Burma and a matter for greater doubt whether it can be brought out as promised. With the fall of Singapore, Penang and Martaban, the Bay of Bengal is now vulnerable to what must be considered the superior sea and air power of Japan in that area. The movement of our forces to this theatre therefore is not considered a reasonable hazard of war, having regard to what has gone before, and its adverse results would have the gravest consequences on the morale of the Australian people. The Government therefore must adhere to its decision.

5. In regard to your statement that the 18th Division was diverted from Burma to Singapore because of message No. Johcu 21 [12], it is pointed out that the date of the latter was 23rd January, whereas in Winch No. 8 of 14th January [13] you informed me that one brigade of this division was due on 13th January and the remainder on 27th January.

6. We feel therefore, in view of the foregoing and the services the A.I.F. have rendered in the Middle East, that we have every right to expect them to be returned as soon as possible with adequate escorts to ensure their safe arrival.

7. We assure you, and desire you to so inform the President [14], who knows fully what we have done to help the common cause, that, if it were possible to divert our troops to Burma and India without imperilling our security in the judgment of our advisers, we should be pleased to agree to the diversion.


1 Winston Churchill.

2 Documents 352-3.

3 See Churchill's speech of 27 January in House of Commons, Parliamentary Debates, 5th series, vol. 377, col. 614.

4 Special Representative in the United Kingdom.

5 Documents 334, 336 and 345 and cablegram no. 29 of 19 February on file AA:A916, 52/ 302/142.

6 General Sir Archibald Wavell.

7 See U.K. Dominions Office cablegram 16 of 3 January (AA:A3195, 1942, 1.426).

8 See note 3.

9 See Document 352.

10 See cablegram 219 of 18 February on file AA:A816, 52/302/142.

11 See Document 346.

12 See Document 3 52. Cablegram Johcu 21 is published as Document 294.

13 AA:A3195, 1942,1.1624 It outlined the program of army and air reinforcements for Malaya. 14 Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[AA:A3196, 1942, 0.5403]