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

Cablegram P54 LONDON, 27 February 1942, 3.20 a.m.


A perusal of your cable of 26th February [1] makes me fear that you have either not received or not closely read the appreciation by Wavell [2] of 16th February and my explanatory telegrams [3] as in those there is contained a complete answer to your paragraphs 1 to 8.

2. In answer to paragraph 1 I am surprised to find that you could think that I have not consistently advocated the Australian point of view as furnished by you and understood by myself My own personal and family record establishe[s] beyond question that the security of Australia has always been my first consideration. My public advocacy during peace time of laying down of two [Australian] [4] battleships and building of a dock in Sydney, of the creation of permanent military forces as recommended by General Squires [5], of [the] bringing into Australia by my Government fourteen years ago of Sir John Salmond [6], whose recommendations are still the basis of organisation of our air force, and my public attitude with regard to the disposition of Australian forces in war time so that they could be readily available for Australia's own defence are well known to you. I need not speak of my devotion in the last five months to Australia's representation in the War Cabinet overseas.

3. The vital importance of Australia as a base for defence of the Empire and success against Japan was set out in Wavell's appreciation of 16th February as communicated to you in Dominions Office telegram 219 of 18th February vide paragraph 11 where he said 'Burma and. Australia are absolutely vital for the war against Japan. The loss of Java though severe blow from every point of view would not be vital. Efforts should not therefore be made to reinforce Java which might compromise defence of Burma or Australia.' Then in paragraph 13 ' It should be possible for American troops to provide reinforcements to Australia if required'. This appreciation formed the basis of all discussions at the Pacific War Council Meeting of 17th February. Their decision to use Australia and India as offensive bases was clearly stated in my paragraph 3 of P. 44 'On the question of how Japan would be finally beaten it was unanimously recognised that Australia and India must be preserved as the main bases for operations against Japan herself irrespective of what Japan is doing elsewhere'.

4. This principle has since always been accepted as the foundation of all resolutions of the Pacific War Council. To show how axiomatically it is still regarded I quote from the report of proceedings of the Pacific War Council of 24th February communicated to the Combined Chiefs of Staff Washington on 25th February: 'There was general agreement on the vital importance of securing Australia, India and Ceylon as bases for an eventual assumption of the offensive against Japan'.

5. You may take it therefore that my advocacy of Australia being preserved as a base for an offensive against Japan has been so successful as to place it beyond argument in Britain.

6. In answer to paragraphs 2, 3 and 4, on 17th February in my report of the Pacific War Council resolutions P. 43 paragraph 6 reads 'Australia should be told that the Australian Government's policy of taking the whole of their forces back into the Pacific area and to Australia would be accepted'. Paragraph 9 reads 'The remaining Australian division should go as fast as possible back into the Australian area. The leading elements of the 6th Australian Division already embarking and will go straight through to Australia'.

7. In cable P. 44 of 17th February paragraph 4, sub-paragraph 3 in reporting the discussions I telegraphed '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'. Also from the same sub-paragraph 'I might say that nearly half of the 6th 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'.

8. That this was accepted by the British Government is shown by your telegram to Churchill 136 of 22nd February [7] 'It was suggested by you that two Australian divisions be transferred to the Pacific theatre 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'. This makes it quite clear that both Great Britain and the whole of the Pacific War Council agree that the whole of the Australian forces should go back for the defence of their native land.

9. In dealing with these questions I made the fullest possible use of the information supplied in your telegram 24 of 15th February [8] and in my telegram P. 42 [9] I thanked you for your views and said that they would be most helpful.

10. With regard to paragraph 5 your reference to the recommendation of the Pacific Council for the diversion of the 7th Division to Burma without reservation is contrary to facts. I subscribed to this recommendation at the Pacific War Council for the diversion of the 7th Division on the receipt by the Prime Minister while the Pacific War Council was actually sitting of your telegram 127 of 17th February [10] which I regarded as instructions. Sub-paragraph 2 of paragraph 1 reads 'That if possible all Australian forces now under orders to transfer to the Far East from the Middle East should be diverted to Australia [...] they would prefer that all of these forces should be concentrated in Australia but are mindful of the fact that the strategic position of Burma may necessitate some reinforcement there until other troops are available from elsewhere'.

11. When the Pacific War Council was established I begged that sufficient notice would be given of meetings to permit of any instructions coming in from our Governments so that if possible firm decisions could be made in order to save time which geographical limitations as regards the position of the Combined Chiefs of Staff and the Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. area waste to such a degree. Accordingly Tuesday was fixed as a regular day of meeting and I took it for granted that this cable 127 which you asked me to see specially by your short cable 26 [11] was a definite instruction to give a recommendation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington on this point. If it is not what other meaning can it have? The view taken by all other members of the Pacific War Council coincided with my view that these were instructions but in order to make certain that there was no ambiguity the resolution of the Council contained in sub-paragraph 7 of paragraph 1 of P. 43 of 17th February was 'The Australian Government should be asked to agree that the 7th Australian Division already on the water should go to the most urgent spot at the moment, which is Burma. This [would be] done in conformity with the concluding sentence of paragraph 2 of your telegram 127 "Until other troops are available from elsewhere". These are the only troops that can reach Rangoon in time to make certain that the Burma Road will be kept open and thereby China kept in the fight. The position of this convoy makes it imperative that permission should be given to this course within 24 hours'.

Is not this the only course I could take? Surely your 127 meant that you left this question open for consideration by the Council and expected a recommendation which was sent to you. This is quite contrary to your statement in paragraph 5 of your telegram 33 as it is obvious that resolution 7 is a resolution with reservations.

12. With regard to your various points that are contained in paragraphs 4, 6 and 7 I wish to state that each of the telegrams 27, 28 and 29 [12] were brought to the notice of the Chiefs [s] of Staff immediately on receipt. Telegram 27 referred only to P. 43 and did not indicate that P. 44 which contained reasons for the recommendation had been considered. Further it was ascertained that Wavell's appreciation had not been forwarded as arranged.

This was made clear in P. 46 [13] which asked for reconsideration in the light of P. 44 and Wavell's appreciation. Telegram 28 made no reference to the fact that P.46 had been received, reference being only to P. 45 [14] which was only a short telegram asking for an urgent reply to P. 43. P. 47 was despatched in reply to point this out drawing attention to the American offer of one division to Australia stating that telegram 28 was being held secret until receipt of further advice. Telegram 29 again made no reference to the receipt of P. 46 or P. 47 but was treated as a final decision and communicated officially to the British Government on its receipt.

13. With regard to the actual diversion it is quite clear that this was not ordered till 36 hours after your telegram 29 had been communicated officially to Churchill. Churchill in his telegram 249 of 23rd February [15] to you as well as his letter to me takes full responsibility for this and indicates that it was taken without my knowledge and apologises for doing so. This almost makes me feel again as if my telegrams are not being carefully read. They are prepared carefully and deserve [this] consideration because I have practically spent 24 hours a day on this job during the last very anxious four or five weeks.

14. With regard to the second sentence of paragraph 9 you surely do not wish me to advocate [by cable] with your Government the importance of holding Australia. In regard to the first sentence the position of Ceylon to Australia is not analogous with that of Burma to Australia. Ceylon's position vis a vis Australia is comparable to that of the Burma Road to China. It is part of [its] life line. If you so desire I will set out in a subsequent cable my views on this aspect. I hope to demonstrate that the holding of Ceylon till naval superiority can be established by British and American forces will lessen the danger to our Australian convoys, will shorten appreciably the time in which a successful invasion of Australia can be attempted by Japan and will hold open what may well be during the next few months one of the most important lines of communication for long range aircraft to come to the assistance of Australia from America and Britain through Africa and the Indian Ocean. It may well be the only hope of maintaining direct air communication with Britain. Our troops have been forced to go to Ceylon to refuel in any case. They might by staying there for a month permit to land there also without danger British troops who are coming quickly to take their place and subsequent Australian troop ships to refuel on their way home.

15. The situation at Darwin obviously makes it impossible for these homecoming troops to be landed there. Before they can be available on the Eastern Coast nearly as much time will have elapsed as the promised American reinforcements would take to come across the Pacific. In the meantime battleships which are gradually becoming available in the Indian Ocean would be freed to participate in the escort of our British and Australian troops whose safety would be practically assured against great hazards of limited escort.

16. A leading reason why I have devoted so much thought and consideration to the establishment of cordial automatically working machinery of consultation on all planes between Australia and Britain has been [the] consciousness of the backward state of Australia's defences and the stupendous task she has to defend her continent with so few people. Even with many more people than we have at present in Australia reliance on outside help for machines of war such as special types of aeroplanes, tanks, etc., machine tools and equipment and raw materials not produced in Australia would be inevitable. In the scramble for priority in all these matters where every applicant for arms and ammunition can make a good case the maximum goodwill and [the] feeling that there will always be the utmost co-operation are tremendous assets. Therefore in consideration of the strategic value of Ceylon to Australia and Empire communications I hope that regard will also be paid to this aspect.

17 I am replying in detail to the points raised in paragraph 10.

18. Knowing you as I do and with your knowledge of my record and my views and of the [disinterested] service I have given you in London and your repeated thanks for it I am convinced that the statements in your telegram 33 of 26th February do not represent your personal views.


1 Document 374, which was received in London on 26 February.

2 Allied Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. Area until 25 February but now U.K. Commander-in-Chief, India. His appreciation was contained in U.K. Dominions Office cablegram 219 of 18 February on file AA:A816, 52/302/142.

3 Documents 341-2 (P43-4), 347 (P47) and 372-3.

4 Material in square brackets has been corrected/inserted from the London copy on file AA:A2937, Far East position 1942.

5 Maj Gen E. K. Squires, a British army officer, had been appointed Inspector-General of the Army in June 1938. His report on the development of the Army was presented to Parliament in March 1939. It reaffirmed the policy of giving priority to equipment and to measures intended to defend vital areas against attack, and advocated the division of Australia into four commands, which would deal directly with Army Headquarters. This division was implemented in October 1939.

6 Air Chief Marshal Sir John Salmond, Air Officer Commanding-in- Chief, Air Defence of Great Britain, had visited Australiain 1928 at the request of the Commonwealth Govt to make recommendations on the future development of the R.A.A.F.

7 Document 357.

8 Document 334.

9 Dispatched 17 February. On the file cited in note 2.

10 Document 336.

11 Corrected from the London copy on the file cited in note 4.

Cablegram 26 to Page repeated the text of the cablegram published as Document 336.

12 Documents 343, 345 and cablegram 29 of 19 February (on the file cited in note 2), which amplified the decision published in Document 345.

13 Dispatched A February. On the file cited in note 2. It requested Curtin to defer his final decision on the destination of the 7th Division until he had received the cablegram cited in note 2.

14 Dispatched 18 February. On the file cited in note 2.

15 Document 367.

[AA:A3195, 1942, 1.8581]