68 Mr A. W. Fadden, Prime Minister, to Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister

Cablegram 590 CANBERRA, 15 September 1941


1. Your telegrams Nos. 620 [1] and 621 [2] of 11th September have been most carefully considered and discussed with our advisers.

Vital considerations centred around two points: (1) concentration of Australian Imperial Force in one Corps under its own Commander who has a direct responsibility to the Commonwealth Government;

(2) necessity for relieving the garrison in view of decline in their powers to resist.

2. You will recollect that one (1) was laid down in telegram No.

91 of 9th March, 1940 [3] It is a fundamental measure of effective co-operation with Dominion Forces in the Empire Armies. It is a principle evolved during the last war not without some opposition.

It is vital to the Australian people to have concentrated control and direction of its expeditionary forces. We do not consider it unreasonable to expect that by this date effect would have been given to this principle. We had occasion to refer to the disposition of our troops and the importance we attached to their concentration in telegrams Nos. (?580) 76 of 8th November [4] and 237 of 18th April. [5] It was also emphasized personally to the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East [6] and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff [7] by the former Prime Minister. [8]

3. In regard to one (2) my telegram No. 584 of 5th September [9] outlines series of requests dating from 20th July [10] for relieving the Ninth Division and the following comments are made on General Auchinleck's telegram. [11]

(1) Naval risks. These are noted but in the absence of effective naval opposition in the Mediterranean or any contemplated naval operations this does not appear to be a sufficiently weighty reason.

(2) Air protection. General Officer Commanding Australian Imperial Force [12] advised early August that he had agreed to postpone relief one month to enable necessary air strength to be provided and this would also give longer hours of darkness. In view of increase in air strength and improved situation in Syria, Iraq and Iran this reason would not appear adequate.

(3) Moonless periods. Reasons noted.

(4) Availability of troops for relief. As it was anticipated originally that we would carry out offensive operations in the Western Desert at the same time that we met a German offensive in Syria for which considerable forces would have had to be allotted it is not seen how the defence of Syria can be prejudiced in view of forces available. Frankly the reasons against relief by other dominion troops are unconvincing.

(5) Undesirability of relief during latter half of October. It would appear possible to complete relief and install new garrison by assumed date of proposed offensive even if anticipated date is realized which it is understood is not generally the case in large-scale preparations. Reference to a sortie from Tobruk fills us with grave concern in view of advice we have had that the Ninth Division will be quite unfitted for such an operation, which will involve continuous and severe fighting.

(6) Decline in the physical powers of the troops. It is observed that the Commander-in-Chief states that although health and morale is very good, power of endurance is noticeably reduced. If the garrison cannot be relieved, it will be required to stand up to a total period of eight to nine months' continuous front-line service under conditions of great hardship, and trying climate. At the end of this time they are to carry out an offensive operation.

The proposal to reinforce the garrison with one battalion of heavy tanks appears to acknowledge decreasing power to [sic] garrison and to discount the difficulties of air and naval protection previously urged against movement of personnel only.

(7) Relief will prejudice the forthcoming offensive. We do not concur in the view that further operations are likely to be compromised in view of the time factor.

4. In view of the responsibilities reposed in the General Officer Commanding Australian Imperial Force and the advice tendered by him and the General Officer Commanding the 9th Division [13] which is supported by the Government's advisers here, I am bound to request that withdrawal of the 9th Division and reconcentration of the Australian Imperial Force be proceeded with. As pointed out in my telegram No. 584, any reverse suffered by the garrison of Tobruk in the light of the reports and requests that have been made over an extensive period would have far-reaching effects. We do not consider military considerations put forward by the Commander-in-Chief outweigh case for the relief of the garrison.

5. As intimated in my telegram No. 584 it was not intended to make any statement until withdrawal had been completed and reconcentration carried out. [14]


1 Document 64.

2 See Document 64, note 2.

3 Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol. III, Document 96.

4 This is an incorrect reference to cablegram 580 which was published as Document 194 in ibid., vol. IV.

5 ibid., vol. IV, Document 410.

6 Then General Sir Archibald Wavell.

7 General Sir John Dill.

8 R. G. Menzies. See Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937- 49, vol. IV, Document 413 9 Document 59.

10 Document 10.

11 See Document 64, note 2.

12 Lt Gen Sir Thomas Blamey. See his unnumbered cablegram of 9 August on file AA:A1608, E45/2/1, V.

13 Maj Gen L. J. Morshead.

14 Churchill replied on 15 September that orders had been given in accordance with the Commonwealth Govt's decision. See cablegram 630 in PRO: DO 114/114.

[PRO:DO 114/114]