369 Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister

Cablegram 34[A] LONDON, 23 February 1942, 11.11 p.m.


The defence of Ceylon is being considered tonight by the War Cabinet which as reconstituted is itself handling major strategy questions. I anticipate that the conclusion will be imperative necessity for its immediate reinforcement by at least a division as I understand that both the Chiefs of Staff here and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington have agreed that this is essential.

As the Australian 7th Division is the only one available immediately we may again be faced with a request that it should be made available. Even if you are not, in view of your decision with regard to diversion to Burma, I suggest that we have to consider most seriously whether the division should not go to Ceylon temporarily. The defence of Rangoon and the keeping open of the Burma Road is important. The retention of the naval base at Trincomalee and mercantile facilities at Colombo and their denial to the Japanese appears to me vital.

Your Chiefs of Staff will however advise you on this.

As you may be faced with a new request to make the 7th Division available I am sending you a note which I drafted to clear my own mind when the question of its diversion to Burma first arose. As the same basic considerations are applicable to a diversion to Ceylon, although the points to be determined would have to be varied, I set it out for what it is worth:

I appreciate that in view of the Chiefs of Staff opinion that the home defence position is not satisfactory it is desirable that it should be strengthened by the immediate return to Australia of the 7th Division.

At the same time we have to realise that neither the return of this division nor the return of the 6th and 9th Divisions [as well] [1] can assure Australia's safety. Alone we cannot protect ourselves from Japan. Only with the assistance of the United Nations and by co-operation with them can we do so.

To establish this common front [and co-operation] the meeting between the President [2] and the Prime Minister [3] took place.

From this meeting in respect to the Pacific and Far East emerged the A.B.D.A., A.N.Z.A.C. and Pacific areas, the appointment of Wavell [4] and the establishment of Pacific Council in London and Chiefs of Staff Committee in Washington.

The object was to ensure the best utilisation of our united resources in accordance with agreed strategic plans for the common object of the defeat of the enemy.

Implied in all this was that while individual nations retained control over their own forces they would allow them to be employed in giving effect to strategic plans and would only exercise such control under exceptional circumstances.

In the present case the Pacific Council in London and the Chiefs of Staff Committee in Washington after full consideration of Wavell's recommendations have requested Australia to agree to the 7th Australian Division going to Burma.

Are the circumstances in the present case of such a character that Australia should exercise its power of control over its own troops and insist on their return to Australia? In determining this, the following points have to be considered:

(a) Australia's home defence position.

(b) Would the diversion of the division to Burma be likely to achieve the object of keeping the Burma Road open? (c) Could the division if it were forced to retire from Rangoon be maintained with supplies and munitions as an effective fighting unit cooperating with the Chinese? (d) Is there any danger of the Chinese in the event of further Japanese successes in Burma coming to terms with the Japanese and if so would the sending of the division substantially reduce this danger? (e) Have the fall of Singapore and Japanese successes in Sumatra so facilitated the entry of Japanese naval vessels into the Indian Ocean as to render the sending of the division to Rangoon an unduly hazardous enterprise? With regard to (b) and (e) I have not sufficient information to express an opinion. It must be presumed however that Wavell and the Chiefs of Staff both here and in Washington have weighed the possibilities under (b) and the risks under (e) in framing their recommendations.

With regard [to] (d) I am strongly of the opinion that there is a danger and that it would be substantially reduced by the sending of the division.

With regard to (c) as far as I can gather if it had to retire could not be maintained as an effective fighting unit for more than a limited period.

With regard to (a) the Americans have now offered to send a division to Australia early in March. [5] While this offer contemplates the possibility of either the 6th or 9th Australian Division going to India or Burma it is not conditional on it. It however assumes that Australia has agreed to the 7th Division going to Burma and it may well be that in the event of the 7th Division returning to Australia the United States Division will be diverted elsewhere, e.g. the Middle East. If the 7th Australian Division and the United States Division are alternatives the date of arrival in Australia would probably be two to three weeks in favour of the former. There is, of course, no comparison between the two but against the advantage of getting the Australian Division has to be offset the goodwill we would obtain by co- operating in regard to Burma. It is true that in their own [interests] the United Kingdom and the United States have got to help us. Illogical as it may be there is, however, a vast difference between the help given because of necessity and that afforded out of gratitude and good feeling.


1 Words in square brackets have been corrected/inserted from Bruce's copy on file AA:M100, February 1942.

2 Franklin D. Roosevelt.

3 Winston Churchill.

4 Allied Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. Area.

5 See Document 354.

[AA:A3195, 1942, 1.7066]