On Our Doorstep
When Australia faced the threat of invasion by the Japanese
Gosford, NSW: Allen & Unwin 2021
Paperback 416pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, March 2021
It is not easy to write a 350-page account of an event did not occur. Yet this is what Dr Collie has quite successfully done in this very readable book.
In the past, Australia has feared invasion by the French, Tsarist Russians and Chinese, and even by hordes of American gold-miners. However, it was only in 1920 that a review of Australia’s defences, by Admiral Viscount Jellicoe, that there was any appreciation of the likelihood of a war-like incursion by the troops of Imperial Japan, which a few years earlier, had been Britain’s ally in World War 1.
Admiral Jellicoe’s advice to the Australian Federal Government was that the country would have the protection of the Royal Navy’s Far Eastern Fleet, based on the soon-to-be-built and impregnable naval base of Singapore. Australia’s role would be to provide troops and aircraft to defend this base from an unlikely attack southward along the Malay Peninsula.
However, the finance to expand and modernise Australia’s defensive capacity was not available, due to restrictions resulting from the Great Depression of 1929, and which did not ease until 1938/39. Dr Collie describes the lethargic efforts of the Australian Government to modernise and expand its armed forces, despite the growing realisation that war was likely in Europe and probable in the Asia-Pacific Basin. Australians believed that, in the event of war with Japan, there would be the protective shield of the Royal Navy. Australia’s ‘Front Line’ would be in Malaya, defending the landward face of the great Singapore Naval Base. There would be a second line of defence in Papua New Guinea, and a stop-lie along the northern coast of Australia - roughly from Cairns to Broome and centred on the ‘frontier town’ of Darwin, that could be supplied only by sea rom the industrial south-east, or by trucks along a dirt road from a railhead a thousand miles south.
Garrisoned by one Brigade of the AIF and a few anti-aircraft guns, Darwin relied for air cover on thirteen lightly-armed ‘Wirraway’ training aircraft, eighteen ‘Hudson’ reconnaissance bombers and a few Catalina patrol flying-boats. The newly-arrived US Air Force squadron of P-40 Kittyhawks were mostly caught on the ground and destroyed in the first Japanese air raid. There is a good account of the disorder in Darwin during and after the first few raids, and of the evacuation of many non-military personnel. There were difficulties resulting from the conflicting directives from many uncoordinated civil and military authorities, few of whom come out, in this account, covered with credit.
On the mainland, Australia was reliant on a few primitive radar sets, a handful of reconnaissance aircraft, for early warnings of any Japanese movements towards Australia. In Chapter 8, ‘Watchers of the North’ the author gives excellent coverage to those who were among the ‘bravest of the brave’, the Coast Watchers who provided early warning of enemy air and sea movements in the arc from Broome to Rabaul and down to the Solomon Islands. He also gives a detailed cover of the work of the volunteer Surveillance Patrols of the mostly-aboriginal Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Units and the North Australia Observer Unit.
The Prime Minister, John Curtin, does receive full credit for his handling of the multitude of problems he faced in 1942 and 1943. Not least of these were the failure of the Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet to materialise - the two ships that did arrive were sunk by the Japanese Air Services on the December 1941. The Battle of the Java Sea, early in 1942, deprived Australia of much of its naval protection, as most of the RAN’s ships were operating under Royal Navy Command in the Mediterranean. Curtin’s plea to Winston Churchill for the release and return of two of the three Australian divisions serving in the Middle East was only just successful and agreed to with little grace by the British Prime Minister. A request for the transfer of RAAF aircrew, with fighter aircraft, was refused until much later in the war.
Dr Collie explains these problems as justifying Curtin’s decision to turn to the United States for men, equipment and supplies. The Prime Minister was successful - the American President included in the generous package one of the greatest of American generals - Douglas MacArthur, as well as far more materiel support than would ever have been supplied from Britain. [It is clear in the text that, if Australia had made a better attempt to achieve some measure of defence self-sufficiency in the period 1935-1939, these problems would have been less of an issue in 1942-1943].
The only actual attack, other than air raids on Darwin and other towns, was the incursion by three Japanese midget submarines on Sydney Harbour in May 1942. The description of this action shows the poor state of on-land communications around Australia’s major port and naval base, and the lack of competence at many levels of management and control in both civil and military organisations.
Also, the author gives a clear description of the semi-fictional ‘Brisbane Line Strategy’ attributed, perhaps wrongly, to General MacArthur, but never seriously intended to be the response to any invasion had there been one.
The ‘invasion’ that did occur was not by the Japanese. It was the 250,000-plus American servicemen who were at some stage based in Australia*, and who contributed so much to finally turning back the ‘invincible’ Japanese forces moving south, and who had been first turned back by Australian troops at Milne Bay and Kokoda, and by US and Australian seamen in the Coral Sea and off Midway Island.
* One American, recovering from dengue fever caught on Gaudalcanal Island, recuperated as a guest in our family home for about ten weeks.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this book available for review.