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167 Minutes of Staff Conference

Extract LONDON, 26 May 1944, 11.30 a.m.


PRESENT The Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, M.P., Prime Minister and Minister of Defence (in the Chair) The Rt. Hon. John Curtin, M.P., Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia The Rt. Hon. C. R. Attlee, M.P., Deputy Prime Minister The Rt. Hon. Oliver Lyttelton, M.P., Minister of Production Sir Frederick Shedden, Secretary of the War Cabinet, War Council and Department of Defence (Australia) Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles F. A. Portal, Chief of the Air Staff The Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden, M.P., Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs The Rt. Hon. Lord Leathers, Minister of War Transport General Sir Thomas Blamey, General Officer Commanding Australian Military Forces Field Marshal Sir Alan F. Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir Hastings L. Ismay, Office of the Minister of Defence

SECRETARIAT Major General L. C. Hollis Lieut.-Colonel D. Capel-Dunn

1. STRATEGY FOR THE WAR AGAINST JAPAN THE PRIME MINISTER said that, as Mr. Curtin was aware, discussions had been proceeding over many months on the best contribution that the British Empire could make in the operations for the overthrow of Japan. The plan which was outlined in the document that had been sent to Mr. Curtin [1] did not represent a compromise between conflicting points of view, but was a new project altogether. The Prime Minister said that his principal objection to the so-called 'Pacific' strategy had been that the long lines of communication would mean the expenditure of a formidable effort resulting in the end in only a small operational dividend. For long he had favoured an operation for the occupation of the tip of Sumatra with the object of securing air domination over Malaya and Siam. The present proposal dealt with a situation which was remote in the sense that it was unlikely that we would have many land or air forces available during this year. The sooner, however, we began to plan, the sooner could our operations begin. It was, in his view, essential that the British Empire as a whole should play an important part in the overthrow of Japan, so that the slur on our reputation that the earlier Japanese successes had inflicted should be wiped out.

MR. CURTIN said that he had not had time to consider the Chiefs of Staff proposal, and it would be quite impossible for him to express any firm opinion on it, or to offer any reasonable criticism. Neither was it possible for him, in the absence of any discussion with his colleagues in the Commonwealth Government, to commit himself to any changes in the Command arrangements in the South-West Pacific area. He referred to the history of those Command arrangements. First there had been the A.B.D.A. Command.

This had been arranged by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States, and the Australian Government had had no say in its creation nor in the instructions given. Subsequently, there had been established the Pacific War Councils in London and Washington. The London body had, to all extents and purposes, ceased to exist, and the Washington body was completely defunct. He, therefore, had had to deal with General MacArthur as an Allied Commander with Headquarters established in Australia. He feared that there was a danger of the gravest misunderstandings with the United States if Australian forces were taken away from General MacArthur's direct command and placed under a new Commander.

THE PRIME MINISTER said that he wished to make it quite clear that there was no intention whatever of submitting firm proposals that day. It was essential that these matters be fully discussed with the United States Chiefs of Staff, but it was also desirable that Mr. Curtin should know the way in which our minds were working. It was now 6 months since there had been any meeting between the British and American Chiefs of Staff, and it was essential that such a meeting should take place shortly. All that we were asking of the Australian Government at this stage was that they should help us to find out what base facilities existed, or could be developed, in Australia. Upon the result of this enquiry might well depend the shape our strategy took.

MR. CURTIN, reverting to the question of command, pointed out that the decision on this issue could not be taken without consideration of the past. There was a heritage of successful association and collaboration between the Australian Government and General MacArthur's Headquarters. That was a fact which was bound to influence the Australian attitude in this matter.

Mr. Curtin referred to the letter which he had addressed on 17th May to the Prime Minister [2], in which he had set out a number of questions upon which he would like to have answers for communication to his Government on his return. His principal requirement was a decision by the Combined Chiefs of Staff as to whether additional forces were ultimately to be sent to the Pacific or not. The Australia Government had to take decisions regarding the balance of their war effort, and upon the size of the forces likely to be based on Australia would depend the measures to be taken by the Australian Government for their supply and maintenance. He would like an expression of opinion regarding the desirability of Australia proceeding with such measures.

THE MINISTER OF PRODUCTION said that Mr. Curtin should know that we in this country should be able to give Australia relief in the production of primary munitions to almost any extent likely to be required. This should make available considerable Australian productive capacity in other directions.

SIR ALAN BROOKE pointed out that it was not proposed that all the forces sent from the European theatre to Australia should be maintained by Australia. On the question of command, he wished to make it clear that we were not suggesting an immediate change, but that since we hoped to build up to a substantial share in the operations in the Pacific war, we felt that we had the right to some say in the control of those operations. At present General MacArthur took his directions from the American Chiefs of Staff and we had no say whatsoever.

MR. CURTIN said that he understood that it was the wish of the United Kingdom Government to maintain imports from Australia at their present level, but not to increase them. There were interests in Australia which pressed for increased exports to the United Kingdom. He would like Lord Leathers' opinion on this matter.

THE MINISTER OF WAR TRANSPORT said that there were certain limitations, particularly as regards refrigerated ships, which made an increase of certain imports from Australia out of the question. He undertook to prepare a note for Mr. Curtin on the transport aspects of exports from Australia to this country.

SIR ANDREW CUNNINGHAM, at the request of Mr. Curtin, undertook to provide a note on the help in manning the naval units that we would like to have from Australia. He pointed out that towards the end of this year it was hoped to hand over to the Royal Australian Navy one aircraft carrier and two cruisers.

MR. CURTIN enquired regarding the transfer of R.A.A.F. squadrons back to Australia.

THE PRIME MINISTER said that he was most anxious to meet Mr.

Curtin's wishes in this matter, but it was not possible to give a firm undertaking at this stage, as much would depend upon the course events took in the OVERLORD [3] battle. Once we could see daylight, we would arrange the transfer according to Mr. Curtin's wishes.


(i) That the Prime Minister would send a reply to Mr. Curtin's letter of the 17th May, in the light of the above discussion and of the conference held at Chequers on 21st May [4], answering so far as possible the various questions set out therein, and including an indication of the line which His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom would like Mr. Curtin to take during his forthcoming discussions with the American Chiefs of Staff.

(ii) To invite the Minister of War Transport to prepare a note for Mr. Curtin on the transport aspects of the export trade from Australia to the United Kingdom.

(iii) To invite the First Sea Lord to prepare for Mr. Curtin a note on the return of Australian naval personnel serving overseas, and upon the possible assistance in the transfer of warships that the Admiralty might be able to afford to the Royal Australian Navy.

[matter omitted]

1 Presumably COS(44)442(0) dated 20 May. On file AA:A5954, box 5.

2 Document 153.

3 Code name for the Allied liberation of north-west Europe.

4 See Document 161.

[AA:A5954, BOX 5]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History