With regard to Australia, the following was determined at Japan's Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference on 10 January 1942:

"Proceed with the Southern Operations, all the while blockading supply from Britain and the United States and strengthening the
pressure on Australia, ultimately with the aim to force Australia to be freed from the shackles of Britain and the United States."

Extract from "Senshi Sosho", the official Japanese history of the Pacific War 1941-45, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial and the Australia Japan Research Project (at page 69).



The term “Battle for Australia” describes the clash of Japanese and American strategic war aims with Australia as their focus that produced a series of great battles in 1942 across the northern approaches to Australia, including the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Kokoda Campaign, and the Guadalcanal Campaign.

The Battle for Australia in 1942-43 was a struggle never before envisaged in this country. It was a struggle that stretched the national resources of a large country with a very small population to the limit; it saw repeated bombing of mainland Australia by the Japanese; the shelling of Australian cities by Japanese submarines; the sinking of ships off our eastern coast by Japanese submarines; an attack by Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour; the invasion of sovereign Australian territory by the Japanese in Papua; and it caused most Australians to fear possible Japanese invasion from New Guinea.

Japan brings war to the Australian mainland. The merchant vessel Neptuna has been hit by a Japanese bomb in Darwin harbour during the first air raid on 19 February 1942. AWM 134955

The Australian Government proclaims national observance of Battle for Australia Day

Proclaimed by the Governor-General in June 2008, Battle for Australia Day is to be observed nationally on the first Wednesday in September of each year, and joins Anzac Day and Remembrance Day in the calendar of formal national commemorations in Australia. For this reason, it is important for Australians to appreciate the justification for observance of Battle for Australia Day.

Australia was confronted by a powerful enemy when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941

When the Japanese launched a devastating surprise attack on the anchored battleships of the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, new Australian Prime Minister John Curtin's response was partly relief that the immense industrial strength of the United States would be drawn into the Allied cause and partly concern that Australia was facing a war with Japan when it had little with which to defend itself against such a powerful enemy.

About thirty minutes before Japan's infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and in pursuance of its overall plan to seize British Malaya, British Borneo, the Philippines, and the resource-rich Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), a Japanese invasion force landed at Kota Bharu in northern Malaya in the early hours of 8 December 1941 (Singapore Time). The Japanese invasion of Malaya threatened a land attack on the Singapore naval base which successive Australian governments had thought to be an effective shield against Japanese military aggression. Curtin responded to the Japanese aggression by declaring war on Japan and he informed the Australian public that it was facing dark days.

At 12.20 pm on 8 December 1941, the Japanese struck at General MacArthur's airfields in the Philippines and destroyed half of American air power in the Far East on the ground. The famous American general had been informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor about half an hour after the attack and this information was received at about 3.00 am (Manila Time). At 5.30 am, MacArthur was ordered by Washington to retaliate against the Japanese but for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, he took no action to protect his airfields from attack or to retaliate with his heavy B-17 bombers against Japanese airfields in Formosa. By 15 December 1941, the surviving B-17 bombers had been withdrawn to Australia and American air power in the Philippines had ceased to exist.

Prime Minister Curtin finds Australia ill-prepared for war with Japan

John Curtin's concerns about the inadequacy of Australia's defences were well justified. Australia had quickly followed Britain in declaring war on Germany in September 1939, and the Menzies government had committed Australia's best military forces to serve under British command.

Australia's wartime Prime Minister John Curtin

Prime Minister John Curtin believed that Australia faced a grave threat from Japanese aggression until the Japanese were defeated in the Kokoda and Guadalcanal Campaigns in early 1943. His concern for Australia
was shared by the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Ernest J. King, who had only one operational carrier left at the end of 1942 with which to defend the northern approaches to Australia and the Solomons.

When Curtin took office as Australia’s Prime Minister in October 1941, he was well aware that Australia was ill-prepared for war if Japan chose to launch a war against the United States and seize the resource-rich colonial possessions of the British and Dutch in South-East Asia. Three well-trained Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF) divisions (the 6th, 7th and 9th) were fighting the Germans and Italians in North Africa and the collaborationist Vichi French in the Middle East. Two brigades of the 2nd AIF 8th Division were stationed in Singapore for its defence. The three battalions of the third 8th Division brigade were deployed across the northern approaches to Australia at Rabaul (Lark Force), Timor (Sparrow Force), and Ambon (Gull Force) in December 1941. Most of the 8th Division would be killed or captured by the Japanese in the first months of 1942.

When John Curtin responded to Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and Malaya by declaring war on Japan, the Australian army on its home soil comprised eight partially trained and poorly equipped militia divisions. The Royal Australian Air Force had 373 aircraft but none of these were front-line fighter aircraft. Australia's Wirraway trainers had been equipped with machine guns but they could only be target practice for the deadly Japanese Zero fighters. In December 1941, the Australian Navy was operating under the control of the British Admiralty and its two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and smaller warships were scattered between the Mediterranean Sea and Australia. To compound Curtin’s problems in mounting a defence against Japanese aggression, the Menzies government had agreed in December 1939 to provide Britain with 28,000 Australian trainee pilots and aircrew for service with the Royal Air Force under the Empire Air Training Scheme. While Australia's four 2nd AIF divisions were fighting overseas, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was building up the British Army to a figure of two million and keeping them in Britain. No British troops would fight beside Australian troops in the defence of Australia against Japan.

Faced with mobilizing Australians for a war that threatened their country, Prime Minister Curtin was alarmed by the complacency of many Australian civilians in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese invasion of Malaya. For many Australians who were not in uniform, or had no family members or friends fighting in North Africa and the Middle East, the war seemed to be so far away and their lives had not yet been significantly touched by wartime austerity. This compacency caused great concern to members of the Australian military who had served overseas and returned to Australia. Curtin attempted to shock Australians out of their complacency with posters of the kind below. It was not until the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19 February 1942 that many Australians awakened to the danger facing their country and responded to it.

Before the Japanese bombed Darwin and attacked Sydney Harbour, the Curtin government felt that it was necessary to shock Australians out of their complacency with posters such as this one.

Japanese military aggression reaches Australia's doorstep

Siam (now Thailand) surrendered to the Japanese on 9 December 1941, and the Japanese were able to launch an invasion of Burma through Siam. On 10 December 1941, the Japanese sank the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse off the northern coast of Malaya. The powerful Japanese Navy now exercised effective control over the northern approaches to Australia.

The Japanese invaded British Borneo on 15 December 1941 to gain access to rich oil supplies. The Japanese began their invasion of the Dutch East Indies at Tarakan in Borneo on 10 January 1942.

On 23 January 1942, five thousand elite Japanese troops stormed ashore at Rabaul on the island of New Britain in Australia's Territory of New Guinea League Mandate and quickly overwhelmed the small Australian garrison. Some Australian defenders of Rabaul escaped from New Britain to the New Guinea mainland, but most of the survivors of the initial invasion were either taken prisoner or slaughtered in the Tol Plantation massacre. The capture and occupation of New Britain by the Japanese was not an invasion of Australia under international law because the island was a League of Nations Mandate administered by Australia.

Despite courageous resistance, poorly equipped British, Australian and Indian troops were unable to halt the advance of Japanese troops down the Malayan peninsula towards the Singapore naval base that Australia had been repeatedly assured was "impregnable". Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. On the following day, Prime Minister John Curtin told Australians that the Battle for Australia was about to begin.

At the end of February 1942, despite courageous resistance against overwhelming odds by British, Australian, American and Dutch forces, the advance of Japanese military forces across South-East Asia towards Australia appeared unstoppable. On 9 March 1942, the Dutch surrendered the Dutch East Indies to the Japanese and only an 800 km (500 mile) stretch of the Timor Sea separated the Australian mainland from the Japanese invaders. In the Japanese parliament (the Diet), Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo had called on Australia to surrender to Japan in January and February 1942. With the surrender of the Dutch East Indies, Prime MInister Curtin had every reason to believe that Australia faced a grave danger of Japanese invasion. He had been promised a rescue fleet by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill if Australia was threatened by Japanese invasion but such a massive naval intervention by Britain to save Australia was not compatible with the Allied "Germany First" war strategy confirmed by Churchill and President Roosevelt at the Arcadia Conference.

The Arcadia Conference adopts a “Germany First” war strategy that denies any priority to Australia’s defence against Japan until Germany had been defeated

When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he was overjoyed. The United States must now join Britain and the Soviet Union (now Russia) in defeating Nazi Germany.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded President Roosevelt at the Arcadia Conference held in Washington in late December 1942 that Allied war strategy must
give top priority to defeating Germany and must relegate the defence of countries of the western Pacific, including Australia, to low priority until Germany had been defeated.

Before Pearl Harbor, there had been a secret agreement between the British and American governments that the defeat of Nazi Germany would remain the top priority of Allied war strategy even if Japan entered the war on the side of Germany and Italy. When he heard about the extent of the destruction in Hawaii, the loss of American lives, and the fierce anger of Americans over what they saw as a treacherous act committed without a declaration of war, Churchill became concerned that the demand of the American public for vengeance would force President Roosevelt to divert war resources away from the European theatre to fighting Japan in the Pacific. Churchill requested a meeting with President Roosevelt in Washington to confirm adherence to the “Germany First” war strategy. Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to the meeting with Churchill that was held in Washington in late December 1941 and designated the Arcadia Conference. When he went to Washington, Churchill’s priorities were defending Britain, support for the Soviet Union in its war with Germany, victory in North Africa to protect the Middle East oil wells, and defending India - the “Jewel in the Crown”. The western Pacific countries, including Australia, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies, were not included in Churchill’s war priorities at this time.

At the Arcadia Conference, Churchill pressed Roosevelt to continue to give the highest priority to defeating Nazi Germany despite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the anger of Americans. At Churchill's insistence, and with the support of the US Army, an agreement was reached at Arcadia that committed Britain and the United States to a "Germany First" Allied war strategy and relegated all of the Pacific region west of Hawaii to the status of a low priority theatre of war. That effectively reduced Australia, British Malaya (including Singapore), the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies to expendable status. The highly controversial nature of the Arcadia agreement required that it be kept secret from the American people. Those countries in the western Pacific affected by the Arcadia agreement, including Australia, would not be told of their relegation to low priority war status until Germany had been defeated.

By Late December 1941, Prime Minister Curtin had become convinced that Australia could not rely on Britain alone to ensure Australia’s survival in a war with Japan. In a famous message to the Australian people published in the Melbourne Herald newspaper on 27 December 1941, Curtin championed a more vigorous Pacific War strategy and declared: “I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom”. The Curtin declaration caused a sensation in London and also in Washington where Churchill and Roosevelt were engaged in relegating the defence of the western Pacific, including Australia, to low priority at the Arcadia Conference. Churchill was furious with Curtin because the declaration could be viewed as challenging the secret agreement he had won from Roosevelt and because he did not want the American people to become aware that the war with Japan had been relegated to low priority until Germany had been defeated.

Commander in Chief US Navy 1942 - Admiral Ernest J. King

Admiral King refused to accept the largely defensive role assigned to the US Navy in the Pacific War theatre by the Arcadia agreement. With the six aircraft carriers that missed destruction at Pearl Harbor,
and exploiting vague wording in the Arcadia agreement, he went on the offensive against Japan across the northern approaches to Australia. He lost three of his six carriers defending Australia in 1942.

Admiral King refuses to accept the passive role in the western Pacific assigned to the US Navy at the Arcadia Conference

The Americans were not obliged by treaty to defend Australia, but the Commander in Chief US Navy, Admiral Ernest J. King, believed that the United States should not allow Japan to seize or control Australia and the islands between Australia and Hawaii because the United States would need access to Australia and Guadalcanal as bases for a counter-offensive to free the Philippines from Japanese occupation. Admiral King's personal view that the US Navy should not adopt a passive role in the face of Japanese aggression in the Pacific squarely contradicted Churchill's "Germany First" Allied war strategy, and King could not raise it in front of Churchill at Arcadia. Without specifically mentioning Australia, King insisted that the vaguely worded Arcadia agreement include words that would allow the United States to defend areas in the Pacific that were necessary "to safeguard vital interests". The words "vital interests" were not defined, and King argued successfully for inclusion in the agreement of words that authorized the defence of "vantage points" from which a counter-offensive against Japan could be developed. Having set the stage for a clash of Japanese and American strategies, King moved to place US Marine and Army garrisons on key islands forming the chain between Australia and Hawaii. King also felt that he had given himself authority to defend Australia by placing his fleet carriers between the Japanese advance and Australia. An all out American defence of Australia that put all of America’s fleet aircraft carriers at risk would run counter to Churchill’s understanding of the Arcadia agreement but it almost certainly had President Roosevelt’s secret concurrence as a fomer Assistant Secretary to the US Navy with a long standing affection for that branch of the armed services.

"Operation FS" - The Japanese master plan to isolate and control Australia in 1942

In this context, the Battle for Australia should be viewed as a lengthy and bloody struggle in 1942-43 to prevent the Japanese achieving their Pacific War aims of controlling Australia, and preventing the United States aiding Australia and using Australia as a base for launching a counter-offensive against the Japanese military advance. The Japanese intended to achieve these strategic war aims by implementing a strategic master plan that bore the code reference "Operation FS" (shorthand for Fiji-Samoa). This plan involved isolating Australia from the United States, and American aid, by acquiring and fortifying a series of Japanese bases anchored on Port Moresby and stretching across the Pacific to Fiji and Samoa. Behind this steel barrier, Australia would be subjected to intensified blockade and bombing that was intended to produce its surrender to Japan. For their part, the Americans were determined to protect their access to Australia, its New Guinea territories, and the British Solomons in 1942, even at the risk of their six precious fleet carriers that had escaped the devastating Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Three of those carriers were lost by the Americans in 1942 preventing the Japanese achieving their plan to isolate and control Australia.

The Battle for Australia does not refer to planning by the Japanese Navy in 1942 to invade the Australian mainland

Planning in early 1942 by the Imperial Japanese Navy to invade the Australian mainland is not relevant to the Battle for Australia which describes the clash of Japanese and American strategic war aims in 1942 with Australia as their focus. Until March 1942, Japan’s Navy General Staff had pressed for invasion of northern coastal areas of the Australian mainland to establish Japanese bases and prevent the continent being used as a base by the United States to launch a counter-offensive against Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo

Japanese Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo believed in 1942 that it was unnecessary to expend twelve army divisions and the ships necessary to support a massive invasion of the Australian
mainland. General Tojo believed that Australia could be compelled to surrender to Japan by isolating it from American support (Operation FS), intensified blockade, and psychological warfare.

The Japanese generals were very conscious of the threat posed by Australia as an ally of the United States. Even before Pearl Harbor, the generals were willing to provide troops to seize the large islands of New Britain and New Ireland in Australia’s Territory of New Guinea League Mandate, but they believed that occupation of the vast Australian mainland would place an impossible manpower and logistical burden on the Japanese Army. The generals pressed for implementation of Operation FS to isolate and control Australia, and at a meeting of the Navy and Army Sections of Imperial General Headquarters on 4 March 1942, the Japanese Navy agreed to defer its invasion planning and to support implementation of Operation FS. On 11 March 1942, an Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference formally ratified implementation of Operation FS. Two days later, on 13 March 1942, Japan's most senior military officers General Sugiyama and Admiral Nagano presented the plan for Operation FS to Emperor Hirohito who approved it as commander-in-chief of Japan's military.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was initiated by the Japanese to implement Operation FS and opens the Battle for Australia.

The Japanese attempted to implement the first stage of Operation FS in early May 1942 by seizing the island of Tulagi in the British Solomons. A Japanese invasion fleet protected by two large fleet carriers then headed for Port Moresby in Australia's Territory of Papua, but this attempted seizure of Port Moresaby was defeated by a combined American and Australian naval force in the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May 1942). After Japan's massive naval defeat at the Battle of Midway (4-6 June 1942), the ambitious Operation FS was cancelled but its objectives directed against Australia were subsumed under Operation RE* (capture of Port Moresby by land attack) and Operation SN (capture of Guadalcanal in the Solomons). From Port Moresby, Japanese bombers could strike deeply into Queensland and Japanese submarines could more easily enforce a shipping blockade of Australia's east coast. From Guadalcanal, Japanese bombers could strike the vital Allied staging bases between Hawaii and Australia on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and New Caledonia.
* Operation RE replaced the original seaborne invasion of Port Moresby Operation MO that was blocked in the Battle of the Coral Sea. See: Senshi Sosho (Bullard translation at page 131).

Prime MInister Curtin mobilizes Australia for war with Japan

The army was quickly expanded in response to the rapid approach of Japanese armies towards Australia, and by August 1942, it had reached a strength of 450,000 men. This was too much of a drain on a country of little more than seven million people, and the Curtin government turned to Australian women to do work that had previously only been done by men in the military, factories, transport, and on the land. In defence factories, Australian women began to build military aircraft, such as the Beaufort Bomber, and assemble bombs and shells. Women were urged to volunteer for service in the women's branches of the armed services, including the Australian Army Medical Women's Service. They were also encouraged to replace men on the land by joining the "Land Army", and over 3,000 women did volunteer for civilian service on farms.

Over 50,000 Australian women responded to calls such as this one to serve their country in World War II. Picture- Australian War Memorial ARTV00332.

A nation at war to defend Australia

Our sailors, soldiers and airmen, and those of our allies, fought, and many died to defend Australia in Malaya, at Singapore, Rabaul, Timor, Ambon, Darwin, in the Battle of Sunda Strait, the crucial Battles of Coral Sea and Midway, and the bloody Kokoda and Guadalcanal Campaigns. Australian nurses often worked under very dangerous conditions tending to Australians fighting the Japanese, and some lost their lives doing so even when on hospital ships. The men of the Merchant Navy provided invaluable support and suffered heavy casualties, as did the often unsung heroes, the Australian Coastwatchers who risked their lives in Japanese-occupied New Guinea and the Solomons to provide vital inteligence. Hundreds of civilians died in the Japanese bombing of Darwin, Broome, and other northern towns.