Winston Churchill - John Curtin disagreement on Australia

After Pearl Harbor, General Auchinleck British CiC Mediterranean and Middle East had been required to surrender some of his most experienced units to add weight to the skeletal British presence in the Far East. In addition, he had to cope with the unexpected withdrawal from his command of two battle-hardened Australian divisions. This irksome decision followed an acrimonious exchange of telegrams between the prime ministers of each country, in which arrogant imperialism in London was matched by aggressive insecurity in Canberra.

The row surfaced in late December when the Australian PM, John Curtin, complained to Roosevelt about the ‘utterly inadequate’ British reinforcements sent by Churchill to counter the Japanese in the Far East. On Boxing Day – while Churchill was preoccupied with his address to the US Congress – Curtin gave vent to his widely shared resentment against the old colonial master in a signed article for the Melbourne Herald . ‘We refuse to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle must be treated as a subordinate segment of the general conflict,’ he began, before putting the boot in with brutal precision. ‘Without any inhibitions of any kind,’ he avowed, ‘I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links with the United Kingdom.’

Churchill was furious but elected to react with pained concern. ‘Night and day’, he wrote on 3 January, ‘I am labouring here to make the best arrangements possible in your interests and for your safety.’ The truth was otherwise. With the exception of South Africa, represented in the person of his friend and ally Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Churchill rarely deigned to take cognisance of the disparate views held by the representatives of the Commonwealth, dominions and colonies. Though they provided the bulk of the British Imperial Army’s infantrymen in the Middle East, he rarely bothered to consult them on any matter of substance. Nor was Curtin mollified: his reputation, as much as Australia’s national interest, was at stake. He wanted his Australian boys out of the Middle East and back home to defend their own soil against the very real threat of an attack from Japan. When a stray secret telegram alerted Curtin to the fact that the Chiefs of Staff in London were contemplating the evacuation of Singapore, he wrote to Churchill, on 23 January, to reprove him for even considering an option which, he said, would be regarded as ‘an inexcusable betrayal’ in Australia. Three weeks later, following the fall of Singapore, relations between the two leaders deteriorated even further: Curtin’s truculence matching Churchill’s high-handedness.

With Burma reeling from a severe Japanese onslaught, Churchill cabled the Australian Prime Minister to inform him that the 1st Australian Division, which was then on its way home from Egypt, was required for the defence of Rangoon. ‘We are all entirely in favour of all Australian troops returning home to defend their native soil,’ he wrote with ill-disguised sarcasm. ‘But a vital war emergency cannot be ignored, and troops en route to other destinations must be ready to turn aside and take part in the battle.’ The tone was distinctly de haut en bas and the implication – that the Australians were anxious to scuttle home rather than fulfil their imperial duty – was unfortunate. Not content with that, he threatened that if Curtin refused to allow his troops to be thrown into the fray against the Japanese, it would have ‘a very grave effect upon the President and the Washington circle, on whom you are largely dependent’. He concluded brusquely by demanding ‘an answer immediately’. Assuming that Curtin would give way, Churchill sent orders that the convoy bearing the 1st Australian Division to Australia should be diverted to Rangoon. But Curtin did not yield. On 22 February, he insisted that it would be ‘quite impossible to reverse a decision which we made with the outmost care’. Taken aback by this revolt, Churchill cabled the Australian Prime Minister to express his dismay but, having no choice but to comply with the stated wishes of a sovereign ally, he ordered the Australian convoy to return to its original course. Just over a fortnight later, Rangoon fell – though whether Curtin’s stance affected the outcome is open to doubt; it is probable that the Australian contingent would have joined the melancholy throng who had to endure the cruelties imposed on Allied prisoners of war by their Japanese captors. More significantly, the incident illuminated the undercurrent of tension within the imperial family as each nation struggled to assert its own identity and interest in the febrile atmosphere of a global crisis: Auchinleck needed the Australians in the desert, Churchill required them in Burma, Curtin demanded their presence in Australia.

Destiny in Desert , The Road to El Alamein - Jonathan Dimbleby