84 Advisory War Council Minute 533

Extracts MELBOURNE, 16 October 1941


1. INTRODUCTION The Prime Minister [2], in welcoming Sir Robert Brooke Popham, expressed the Government's appreciation of the opportunity for discussion with him on the matters relating to the Far East which were of vital importance to Australia. He invited Sir Robert to give a review of the situation in the Far East in respect of- Foreign situation;

Strategical Position;

Military plans and preparedness.

2. STRATEGICAL POSITION Sir Robert Brooke-Popham said that the important aspect from the strategical point of view was that the whole area comprising Burma, Malaya, Netherlands East Indies, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines comprised one strategical area. The defence of one affected the others and this is now fully realised by the countries concerned.

U.S.A. is definitely out to defend the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies are fully determined to defend their own territory and to cooperate in the defence of Malaya, for which they would perhaps provide four squadrons. They had established forward aerodrome[s] and fuelling bases as far north as Borneo.

Japan complains of encirclement, but by her advances northward into Manchuria, westward into China and southward into Indo-China, she was encircling herself.

3. INCREASES IN THE STRENGTHS OF THE BRITISH FORCES IN THE FAR EAST The measures taken recently to increase the strength of the forces in the Far East were outlined as follows:-

(1) Malaya is growing from strength to strength. In the last six weeks another brigade had arrived from Australia and one from India. A further anti-tank regiment and A[nti-]A[ircraftj units were on the way from England.

The strength of the air forces was improving and there were now five single-seater fighter squadrons equipped with new aircraft.

There is a shortage of torpedo bombers, for which reliance was placed on Australian production of Beauforts.

(ii) Burma is being strengthened with a view to its being capable of defending itself on the land.

(iii) Hong Kong is being reinforced by two Canadian battalions, which will increase the strength from four to six battalions.

Following the strengthening of the military forces, another fighter squadron can now be sent to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and the Philippines form a pincers which could be brought into operation if Japan comes south.

(iv) Naval Forces. The strength had shown little improvement since February, but a strong force of capital ships was to be placed in the Indian Ocean by the beginning of next year.

4. JAPANESE OCCUPATION OF INDO-CHINA, STRENGTH OF FORCES AND INTENTIONS Sir Robert Brooke-Popham stated that all indications suggest that Japan had temporarily diverted her attention from the south to the north, as it is thought that Russia's preoccupation in the war with Germany presents an opportunity for action to rid Japan of the Russian threat from Vladivostock.

It would take some time for Japan to re-concentrate for a move southwards, and for the next three months she would not be able to undertake a large-scale attack in the south.

This gives us time to increase our defences and to perfect our plans.

Japan had about 35,000 troops in Indo-China which were required for occupation of the country. A larger force would be necessary for the invasion of Thailand. It was possible that Japan planned to invade Thailand and work down through the Kra Isthmus for an attack on Malaya, in conjunction with a sea-borne attack from Indo-China.

5. JAPANESE AIR STRENGTH In reply to Mr. McEwen [3], Sir Robert Brooke-Popham said that, while the Russian threat to Japan in the north remained, the maximum number of aircraft she could provide for operations in the south was about 500, not all of which were modern types. But her principal limitation in the south was the lack of adequate aerodromes, and she was taking steps to enlarge aerodromes in Indo-China.

The present limitations in regard to aerodromes restrict the availability of aircraft for operational use to 250. Our existing air forces could cope with any aircraft the Japanese could base on their present aerodromes during the next three months.

Our fighters were of the Buffalo type, which are superior to the Japanese and well suited for the work in Malaya, but there is a shortage of long-range bombers. A programme of expansion of air strength has been drawn up to match Japanese aerodrome expansion.

A specific schedule of deliveries had not yet been determined, but a definite number of aircraft has been promised by the United Kingdom authorities in 1942. This includes 170 additional fighter aircraft which would be an improvement on the Buffalo type. At the present time Japan had superiority in numbers, but not in quality.

[matter omitted]

8. DEFICIENCIES IN AIRCRAFT The Prime Minister referred to the expansion programme of 336 aircraft for Burma, Malaya and Borneo, adopted by the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff in April last, when the strength was 118 aircraft. It was stated then that it was unlikely that the programme would be completed by the end of this year. Sir Robert Brooke-Popham said that there were about 180 aircraft in hand at the present time.

Seven Catalina aircraft are on hand, but more are required. These aircraft are used for reconnaissance in the Indian Ocean. They are based on Ceylon and operate as far as the cast coast of Africa.

9. DEFICIENCIES GENERALLY The Prime Minister observed that the vital deficiencies which were indicated last April, when Mr. Menzies [4] was in England, appeared to be still outstanding. This was probably due to a general shortage and is linked up with the soundness or otherwise of the view as to whether Japan will move in the north before turning her attention again to the south.

Australia could only provide greater assistance in equipment at the expense of our forces in the Middle East and our commitments to New Zealand, Netherlands East Indies and United Kingdom. We have already supplied four squadrons, which is one-third of the air strength, in addition to military forces and equipment.

Sir Robert Brooke-Popham said that the supply of equipment shows steady and continuous improvement, but he expected a substantial increase in aircraft next year. He was at present working out a programme of requirements and would ask the United Kingdom for a definite schedule of deliveries.

The Prime Minister thought that the overtaking of arrears in equipment since last April had not been as effective as might have been hoped for. He was not unmindful of the volume of the demands on United Kingdom and the adjustments in programmes involved in meeting Russian requirements, but considered that the urgent needs of the Far East should be represented strongly to the United Kingdom authorities.

Sir Robert Brooke-Popham said that he had made all representations short of resigning. He felt that the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff were not neglecting the Far East and that probably they have made a fair allocation from the resources available.

The Prime Minister stated that important factors which should help to counter-balance deficiencies in equipment were the Canadian Government's interest in Hong Kong and the United States' decision to defend the Philippines.

10. THAI ATTITUDE TOWARDS JAPAN The infiltration of Japanese into Thailand is assisting our cause, as their conduct is resented by the Thailanders. Thailand, however, fears Japan and her attitude is largely influenced by our strength.

British assistance to Thailand in the form of material and air forces, although desirable, was not possible at present. Their main needs were air forces and anti-tank guns.

11. PORTUGUESE TIMOR-INFILTRATION BY JAPANESE AND THEIR INTENTIONS Japan has a Consulate at Dilli with a staff of sixteen. They have taken over the best house in Dilli for the purpose. If no counter- measures are taken, they will establish themselves at Dilli and perhaps stage a demonstration against the Consulate, to be followed by pressure on the Portuguese to allow the entry of two or three companies of Japanese troops.

Sir Robert Brooke-Popham suggested the following steps might be taken to counteract Japanese influence:-

(i) Establishment of an Australian Consulate at Dilli;

(ii) Development of oil concessions in Portuguese Timor and the despatch of Australian oil prospectors for the purpose;

(iii) Despatch of an Australian force to Koepang.

The Prime Minister read War Cabinet Minute No. (1401) [5] relating to the assistance to be provided by Australian forces in the defence of Portuguese Timor, and the representations to be made to the Dutch regarding the movement of Australian Army and Air units to Ambon and Koepang before the outbreak of hostilities with Japan.

The appointment of an Australian Consul was being considered by the Minister for External Affairs. [6]

In regard to oil concessions, Mr. McEwen suggested that enquiries be made as to the progress that has been achieved in the development of oil concessions in Portuguese Timor which were formerly held by an Australian concern, but were later taken over by British, Dutch and U.S.A. interests. He also suggested that consideration be given to the provision of economic aid to Portuguese Timor by undertaking the purchase of commodities, particularly coffee, on the lines of the assistance rendered to New Caledonia. The Minister for External Affairs intimated that consideration would be given to these matters.

12. SITUATION IN THE EVENT OF A JAPANESE ATTACK ON RUSSIA Sir Robert Brooke-Popham said that the United Kingdom Government had not at that date taken any definite decision on the action to be taken in the event of a Japanese attack on Russia. He did not think they would go to war with Japan without the aid of the United States, but he understood that advice on the United Kingdom attitude would shortly be furnished by the Dominions Office.

As to the nature of the military measures which might be taken, he thought the most effective course would be firstly to provide assistance to China to enable her to carry out attacks on Japanese communications and to strengthen her air forces. A project is in mind for helping China in both these directions, but many assumptions are involved and the position is too uncertain to define the circumstances under which air forces would be sent to China.

The United States could help by creating a diversion with an attack on Formosa. Militarily we were not in a position to attack Japan without the support of the United States.

As regards the defence of the Burma Road, U.S.A. were now making large shipments of equipment to Rangoon, and an American mission had been sent to China to report on the organisation of the road on the Chinese side of the frontier.

Sir Robert Brooke-Popham thought that Japan would not risk war with the British Empire and United States by attacking the Burma section of the road, but she would attack the Chinese section.

There were rumours of preparations by Japan for this move in the form of the provision of additional aerodromes and movements of troops.

13. MACHINERY FOR INTER-GOVERNMENTAL CONSULTATION IN THE EVENT OF JAPANESE AGGRESSION Since February last the A.D.B. conversations [7] had been concluded and as a result Commanders were now clear on the measures to be taken on the outbreak of hostilities, but the decision to take military action rests with the United Kingdom Government. Short of resisting an attack on British territory or shipping, he must await the instructions of the United Kingdom Government.

The Prime Minister read War Cabinet Minute No. (1402) [8], relating to the United Kingdom Government's proposals for expediting the machinery of inter-Governmental consultation in the event of a move by Japan necessitating active military counter- measures.

14. DEFENCE or HONG KONG Sir Robert Brooke-Popham said that the defence of Hong Kong had greatly improved as a result of the decision to provide two Canadian battalions. He would keep in mind a suggestion by Mr.

Spender [9] that Canada might be invited to send a brigade to Hong Kong and one to Malaya.

15. CONCLUSION The Prime Minister thanked Sir Robert Brooke-Popham for his informative discussion.

1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham.

2 John Curtin.

3 Country Party M.H.R. for Indi.

4 Then Prime Minister.

5 In AA : A2673, vol. 8, 15 October 1941. See also Document 85.

6 Dr H. V. Evatt.

7 See Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol. IV, Document 455, note 5.

8 In AA : A2673, vol. 8, 15 October 1941 See also Document 86.

9 United Australia Party M.H.R. for Warringah.

[AA : A2682, VOL. 3]