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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 2



‘Australia could be saved in Papua and only in Papua’.

General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, Allied Forces, Southwest Pacific Area, 1942

The twenty-one years between the close of the First World War and the start of the Second World War were firstly a period of hope and ambition to advance the cause of peace followed by a period of steady decline into global war. The establishment of the League of Nations was followed by a succession of treaties and agreements designed to promote peace. In 1928, under the terms of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, countries including Australia, renounced war as an instrument of national policy. Earlier, under the terms of the agreement reached at the conference on naval disarmament held in Washington from November 1921 to January 1922, the five major naval powers, Britain, the United States, France, Italy and Japan, agreed to reduce and then fix the tonnage of their naval capital ships by a formula based on proportionality. At the same conference four major Pacific powers (the United States, Britain, Japan and France) agreed to respect the existing territorial boundaries in the Pacific and to limit fortifications and naval bases in their possessions. The Washington Naval Treaty was seen at the time as making a significant contribution to promoting peace in the Pacific.1 By a curious twist of history Australia’s contribution to the reduction in Britain’s fleet was the scuttling of HMAS Australia, the battlecruiser which had escorted the Australian military expedition to Rabaul in 1914.

Australia made its own contribution to the search for peace when, at the 1937 Imperial Conference in London, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, without forewarning the British Government, launched one of Australia’s few initiatives in inter-war diplomacy. He proposed the negotiation of a non-aggression pact in the Pacific to include Britain, Japan, and possibly the United States. Under the terms of the proposed agreement the signatories would renounce war as a means of achieving policy, accept the doctrine of non-aggression and put in place a process of ‘political collaboration’ to minimise the risk of countries turning to war.2 The idea gathered little support in London and Washington and lapsed when Japan invaded China. The search for permanent peace in Europe and elsewhere proved elusive and, as the 1930s progressed, hopes of disarmament and a peaceful resolution of disputes were replaced by a slow descent into war.

Over the course of the inter-war period Australia, although crippled economically by the Great Depression, also sought to identify its national defence interests and to provide for the security of the country. In doing so it placed Japan squarely at the centre of its fears and concerns. At the same time it also sought to articulate the place of Papua New Guinea in its national interests and strategic outlook.

The first post-war strategic assessments

On 9 September 1920, six years after the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force had occupied German New Guinea, and only a few months after having secured the territory as a mandate in the peace settlement, Prime Minister Hughes addressed the Parliament on Australia’s post-war defence policy and expenditure. Neville Meaney has described the speech as ‘masterly … perhaps the most comprehensive of all his speeches on defence and foreign policy in his eight years as Prime Minister’.3 Hughes did not speak of any direct threat to Australia, although he referred to the hostility felt by some towards the White Australia policy and the need for Australia to be prepared to defend that principle. Most significantly he told the Parliament that ‘as a result of the war the centre of gravity has again shifted. Between 1906 and 1920 the Pacific has assumed a new importance’. He reminded the Parliament that Australia not only had an obligation to defend 12,000 miles of coastline but that ‘we have taken over the control of huge islands in the Pacific involving new obligations and responsibilities’. Hughes then returned to the ideas put forward by Commander Thring and articulated by senior parliamentarians such as Sir George Reid in 1902 (later Prime Minister from August 1904 to July 1905) and Minister for Defence Senator George Pearce in 1910, to suggest a ‘forward defence’ policy for Australia. Hughes argued that ‘if they come here we shall do our best; but it is better that they should not come here at all … our lines of defence must be on the sea and in the air’. He outlined the structure of the post-war defence forces and concluded his speech by telling the Parliament that no matter the size of the effort and resources provided by the government, Australia’s defence relied on the protection of the Royal Navy and, as a consequence, Australia had to contribute to the naval defence of the Empire.4

Hughes delivered a follow-up speech on 7 April 1921 on the government’s approach to the Imperial Conference scheduled for June that year in London and the question on the agenda of the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty which, since 1902, had articulated the defence relations between Britain and Japan. In this speech he was less discreet in his comments about the perceived threat from Japan. He told the Parliament that Australia was ‘securely sheltered under the broad wing of the mighty British Navy’ and that Australia was a ‘nation only by the grace of God and the power of the British Empire’.5 However, Australia was faced with a direct threat from Asia. Australia stood:

within a few weeks’ sail of the great mass of the population of the world. We have boldly announced that we intend to retain this continent for ourselves and we have set up the banner of a White Australia. … How long would that banner fly unless behind it there were massed the legions of the Empire, or unless ringed about it there was the protection of the British Navy.6

Hughes repeated his earlier comment that ‘when we [Australia] speak of war and foreign policy we speak of foreign policy in relation to Pacific problems and of war as it may come out of the East’. Hughes concluded by noting that ‘we desire above all things to live in peace and friendship with Japan. It is utterly wrong for the Japanese people to think that because we have passed certain laws we regard them as our inferiors’. However, ‘we do not always invite our friends into our house’.7

The two speeches by Hughes, as well as his earlier comment in the House of Representatives when introducing the New Guinea Bill that a ‘great empire … has fallen to us’ when referring to the former German territory, reflected Hughes’s passionate belief that Australia’s national defence interest was strengthened by its possession of Papua and New Guinea and that its future security was bound up in developments in the Pacific and the potential threat posed by Japan.8 Hughes never wavered in his fear of Japan’s ambitions. In July 1920 he forwarded a letter through the Governor-General to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Viscount Milner, calling for consultations with Australia ‘before any commercial treaties giving rights to aliens in British possessions in the Pacific are entered into’. In Hughes’s terminology ‘aliens’ were either Japanese in particular or Asians in general. He argued that:

many British possessions in the Pacific are in positions having a strategic importance for the defence of the Commonwealth, as for instance the British Solomon Islands, which are as important in regard to the defence of the Commonwealth as the former German possessions to the north and west of them. Foreign powers … might seek to make use of the islands in times of peace in preparing their plans against the Commonwealth.9

Milner’s successor as Secretary of State, Winston Churchill, replied to Hughes nearly twelve months later and reassured him that Britain was not proposing to enter into any commercial treaties in the Pacific.10

Hughes’s letter to Milner and his earlier speeches in parliament were typical of his suspicions and phobias. He maintained these concerns throughout the inter-war period and became the first of a number of Australian politicians over the next fifty years to speak openly and forthrightly on the importance of Papua New Guinea to Australia. Much of the language used by his post-war successors, Dr Evatt, Percy Spender and Robert Menzies, can be traced back to Hughes.

The government’s assessments of Australia’s changed post-war security environment reflected the views of its senior advisers. Its senior civilian adviser, E. L. Piesse, Director of Military Intelligence from 1916 to 1919 and Head of the Pacific Branch in the Prime Minister’s Department from 1919 to 1923, produced a number of assessments of Australia’s strategic environment including the first, albeit crude, map identifying Australia’s immediate sphere of interest. The map was very similar to one given to Hughes while in New York in 1918 by a group of American scholars and clearly identified New Guinea as in Australia’s sphere of interest. Piesse placed importance on Australia maintaining a strong position in the Pacific. In a minute to the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department in December 1920 he recommended that if Britain decided to divest itself of its possessions in the Pacific, Australia’s interests would be furthered by its taking control of the British Protectorate of the Solomon Islands, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now known as Kiribati and Tuvalu) and the British half of the condominium covering the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). He also believed that Australia should secure control of the French-governed New Caledonia. He argued that the principal objective of Australian policy should be to ensure that these islands should not pass into the ‘hands of any power which might have aggressive designs against Australia’. He also argued that should the Dutch leave the Netherlands East Indies it was imperative that ‘they shall not pass into the hands of a power stronger than Holland’.11 Piesse fell out of favour with Hughes over the assessment of Japan’s intentions towards Australia but Hughes did not disagree with Piesse’s views of the importance of maintaining Australia’s role in the South Pacific.12

In January 1920 the six most senior members of the Australian defence establishment gathered in Melbourne to examine and report to the government on the defence of Australia. The six, under the chairmanship of Lt General Sir Harry G. Chauvel and including Lt General Sir John Monash, drafted a comprehensive strategic assessment of the world Australia now faced.13 They drew attention to the weakened state of a ‘majority of nations’ but did not hesitate to state that ‘the Empire of Japan remains … in the immediate future as the only potential and probable enemy’ of Australia. Australia’s ‘great natural resources’, sparsely settled population, extended coastline and the location of its industries and population on the coast made it ‘peculiarly vulnerable to attack’, while the maintenance of the White Australia policy was a potential casus belli. The report described Japan as ‘one of the nations whose resources and offensive capacity are both relatively and absolutely greater than in 1914’. It warned that Japan could attack without warning and take advantage of the delay in the Royal Navy deploying to the Pacific to secure its objectives. Australia had no choice but to assume that ‘any aggression against Australia will involve the whole of the British Empire’. The senior defence advisers concluded that the ‘ultimate fate of Australia [was] dependent upon the security of the Empire’s sea communications’.14

The strategic assessment acknowledged Australia’s newly acquired responsibility for New Guinea and noted that ‘should war come through some nations flouting the League, those territories will have to be defended and the Mandatory who has undertaken to administer will surely be the Power called upon to defend’. However, despite this reference, the newly acquired former German possessions did not otherwise feature in the assessment.


Map identifying Australia’s area of strategic interest presented to Prime Minister W. M. Hughes, 5 June 1918, in New York by a group of prominent American scholars headed by James Shotwell, later an adviser to President Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. Papers of William Morris Hughes, National Library of Australia, MS 1538, series 2 item 983.


E. L. Piesse, The Spheres of Influence of Australia and New Zealand, 6 November 1920. Courtesy National Archives of Australia. NAA: MP1049/1, 1920/0465.

Instead, as Meaney has commented, ‘in every respect the imperative driving the report and its recommendations was fear of Japan’.15 Emphasis was placed on the need to secure the Pacific Ocean and to protect the ability of Britain to deploy the Royal Navy. New Guinea figured only marginally in this plan.

A similar report from the highly influential Naval Board to the Minister for Defence in 1920 was equally blunt in its assessment of Japan’s ambitions.16 The Board identified Japan’s demand to be accorded a status equal to the Western powers, and in particular its objections to the White Australia policy, as driving it to adopt an aggressive military strategy similar to that pursued by Germany in 1914. The report asked ‘why does she (Japan) place a Rear Admiral as the Governor of her newly acquired groups of islands in the Pacific, why does she place Commanders and other Naval Officers as administrators of these Islands, and why does she discourage shipping of other countries from trading with these islands?’17 The Board recommended the maintenance of a strong naval force but also highlighted the critical role of the Royal Navy in defending Australia. It warned that ‘with the command of the sea lost, the end is near’. The report reinforced the assessments emerging in the defence community of the threats to Australia and the critical importance now given to the Pacific in those assessments.

The place of Papua New Guinea in post-war assessments

It was not until 1924 that the first post-war assessment to focus on Papua and New Guinea and the island chain across the northeast of Australia was presented to the government’s Council of Defence. It was a curious mix of views. In a paper entitled ‘Strategical Aspect’, the assessment identified the island chain stretching from New Guinea to New Caledonia and comprising the Bismarck Archipelago, Bougainville, Buka, the British Solomons, New Hebrides, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands as a ‘broken chain’ whose harbours represented their ‘most important strategic aspect’.18 The harbours were seen as ‘potential bases for operations against Australia’. At the same time the harbours of the Japanese mandate-controlled Caroline Islands, north of the Equator, formed a ‘natural stepping stone for operations to the South’.19 The military adviser who contributed to the report noted that ‘the seizure by the enemy of a safe harbour among the islands is an essential preliminary step … and it is likely that he will occupy suitable islands early in the war’. The wireless transmission station at Bita Paka near Rabaul in New Guinea was identified as the ‘key position which the enemy will endeavour to destroy at the outset’. The military adviser argued that Australia’s ‘objective must be defensive – to deny these harbours to the enemy as long as we can, and, therefore, to hinder him in their use, by guerrilla warfare from the hinterland’.20 The paper recommended the development of a mobile wireless transmission system and the formation of an intelligence gathering network to enable Australia to monitor enemy activity in the islands.

The strategic assessment was forwarded to the Council of Defence. A covering report, also by a military member of the Council’s sub-committee, argued that Australia’s approach to defensive measures in the islands should be guided by the following principles, in order of importance:

a.   the defence of any essential naval interests of our own which exist therein;

b.   the prevention of the seizure by the enemy of points which are likely to be of use to him in the prosecution of naval and/or military operations against Australia; and

c.   the general defence of the Islands considered as an object in itself.21

However, the military adviser then argued that ‘there [were] no essential naval interests of our own in the Islands’ and that the security of the wireless installations ‘though desirable’ was ‘not so essential as to justify the dispersion of force entailed at a time when the security of Australia itself [was] threatened’. Instead, any defence measure must be by local units. Moreover, the ‘enemy [had] such a wide choice of apparently suitable harbours that it would be quite impossible to attempt to defend them all. If one or two were defended then the enemy would select other harbours to occupy’.22 The military adviser agreed to the suggestion of establishing an intelligence or information-gathering service in the islands and supported additional local security around the Bita Paka wireless station, as well as the use of mobile wireless stations. The organisation of a volunteer force from among the European population in New Guinea was also endorsed, as was the military training of the native police force.

In 1926 officials incorporated sections of the 1924 report into the Commonwealth War Book. The War Book was a collection of contingency plans to meet an attack on Australia, as well as a list of responses to be taken by the government and the defence force following the outbreak of war. By including Papua and New Guinea in the contingency plans, officials were recognising its role in the defence of Australia and the need to establish its defence requirements. However, as an indication of the lack of urgency attached to Australia’s defence preparations in the 1920s, a copy of the War Book was not forwarded to Port Moresby and Rabaul for comment until 1930.

Australia’s pre-war and immediate post-war views on the need to secure German New Guinea and the island chain south of the Equator and the energy with which Hughes had pursued this issue in London and Paris might have suggested a pre-eminent role for both New Guinea and Papua, as well as the island chain, in Australian defence assessments. Hughes certainly believed so. However, the difficult economic position Australia faced in the post-war environment, the continuous reduction of the defence budget, the limitations on local defences inherent in the conditions of the mandate and the sheer scale of the preparations needed to defend the continent may explain its absence from the report prepared by Chauvel’s Committee and the less than clear assessment contained in the subsequent report to the Council of Defence. In addition, the faith placed in international attempts to promote disarmament seen in agreements such as that reached at the Washington naval conference may have contributed to an attitude of complacency and benign neglect towards defence preparedness.

Mark Turner has argued that Australia exhibited very little interest in Papua New Guinea in the inter-war years and, when an interest was shown, it was limited to Papua New Guinea’s role as an ‘inert shield’ to protect Australia from invasion.23 Hank Nelson has described Australia in this period as having ‘no immediate knowledge of, or emotional investment in, Eastern New Guinea … while Papua functioned on a pittance’.24 This was certainly the case but it may also reflect the emergence of a characteristic in Australia’s approach to Papua New Guinea: that Australia’s political leaders often attached more importance to the island in Australia’s defence than the military advisers. This was to become more evident in the post–Second World War period but it may help to explain the preoccupation of individuals such as Hughes and the passive approach of the government’s military advisers.

A period of drift

Australia’s defence preparations in Papua and New Guinea maintained a desultory pace as the 1930s progressed. The long-serving Lieutenant Governor of Papua based in Port Moresby, Sir Hubert Murray, responded to the contents of the War Book in April 1930 and advised that it was not possible to carry out many of the suggestions it contained.25 Murray drew attention to the fact that there were only two wireless transmission stations in Papua from which to transmit intelligence information, and once these had been overrun there was no electronic means available to communicate with Australia. He noted there was no artillery in Papua, hence it would be impossible to prevent an enemy landing, although it might be possible to harass and hamper any enemy after landing.26

For his part, Evan Wisdom, the Administrator of New Guinea based in Rabaul, suggested that the objectives of local defence measures should be the ‘maintenance of intelligence, compelling the diversion of as large a force of the enemy as possible thus … helping other theatres and inflicting as much damage on the enemy as possible with the minimum damage to our own small forces’.27 Wisdom also recommended an increase in the number of native police and that ‘special bush training’ be introduced.

In January 1933, in a letter to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, Wisdom forwarded under a covering letter a draft defence scheme for the Territory prepared by the Superintendent of Police, Lt Col Walstab. Walstab proposed that the defence of New Guinea and Papua should be considered as a whole with the town of Wau in Morobe District as its headquarters.28 He added that Port Moresby and Daru on the coast in the Torres Strait were not suitable as a headquarters as they were ‘possibly the most useful jumping off places for [an] attack on Australia’. In his covering letter Wisdom stressed the importance of developing the Air Force with a capacity to defend Australia and New Guinea. He told the Prime Minister that if the air defence of Australia were to be taken seriously, ‘we surely cannot afford to give away to an enemy such a valuable base as New Guinea. The defence of New Guinea becomes therefore a question of importance to the defence of Australia’. 29 Wisdom concluded his letter by supporting the assessment that ‘there must be one scheme for the defence of the whole of our New Guinea possessions under one command, not for the Mandated Territory alone’.30

The delay in despatching the original report to Port Moresby and Rabaul was matched by the slowness in attending to the replies from Murray in 1930 and Wisdom in 1933. Officials noted Murray’s comments but took no initiative until 1934 to review the papers in detail. The tardiness reflected the preoccupation of the Scullin and Lyons Governments with responding to the impact of the Great Depression and the collapse in government revenue.

The descent into war

In the decade following the departure of Hughes as Prime Minister in 1923, politicians were strangely silent on the question of Papua and New Guinea and its place in Australia’s strategic environment. There was no one with Hughes’s rhetorical flair, sense of drama (or melodrama) and colourful arguments and there were few who demonstrated the same passionate commitment to hold Papua and New Guinea.

It was not until the mid-1930s that Hughes had the opportunity again to express his views. In 1936 the Lyons Government was faced with the need to respond to Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland and calls from the German Führer, Adolf Hitler, and from others within Germany, for its former colonial possessions to be returned as a means of correcting the harshness of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty.31 David Bird has argued that Prime Minister Lyons was slow to reject the German suggestions and was possibly open-minded about their merit. The initiative in setting the government’s position therefore fell to Senator George Pearce, now Minister for External Affairs.32 On 13 March 1936 Pearce delivered what Bird has described as a ‘savage, comprehensive denunciation’ of Germany’s suggestion that New Guinea and Nauru be returned.33 He described Germany’s claims as having reached a state of ‘definite and openly-expressed demands … officially and unofficially’. Pearce rejected the arguments put forward by Germany and made clear that:

New Guinea, by virtue of its geographical position in relation to Australia, its natural harbours, its facilities for naval and military aircraft, is of considerable strategic value to Australia from a defence aspect, so long as the existing form of control and administration obtains. This value is emphasised by the fact that the territory is contiguous to … Papua … enabling [the] co-ordination of measures to be obtained in defence interests.34

Pearce concluded his statement by declaring ‘it is unthinkable that Australia should even consider the handing over of any territory’. Moreover, ‘every country is entitled to examine any international issue in the light of its own security and national interests and the inviolability and integrity of our Australian territories is as much one of the cardinal aims of our people as is the White Australia policy’.35 Officials reflected the views of Pearce when they warned the Lyons Government in briefings prepared for the 1937 Imperial Conference in London that ‘the return of New Guinea [to Germany] would bring Australia face to face with the conditions prior to 1914 but in an accentuated form owing to the development of the air arm’.36 German military bases in New Guinea ‘or by an allied Pacific power[,] would lead to a feeling of constant disquiet and insecurity’.37 Lyons and Richard Casey (Treasurer) told the Imperial Conference that the statement by Senator Pearce in 1936 remained government policy and that Australia would not agree to the return of the former German colonies in New Guinea and Nauru to Berlin’s control.38

Hughes shared Pearce’s strong objections. In response to a speech by Hitler at Bückeberg in October 1937 in which he demanded the return of Germany’s former colonies, Hughes (then Minister for External Affairs in the Lyons Government and visiting Rabaul) announced in June 1938 that ‘on this rock we have got our mandate … what we have we shall hold’. Later in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald he referred to the mandate as a ‘sacred trust’ and said that any return would be ‘cowardly and unjust’.39 Lyons finally made clear his view in November 1938 when he declared that ‘The Australian Government has no intention of handing New Guinea to Germany or anybody else’.40

Hughes continued to deploy colourful descriptions of New Guinea’s place in Australia’s security in speeches during 1939. He described the eastern half of the island as ‘like a mantel’ over Australia and that for ‘all practical purposes they were an integral part of Australia’.41 He responded to an article in the German Nazi newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter in April 1939, which claimed that Australia intended to exploit New Guinea, by arguing that ‘occupation of New Guinea by a potentially hostile power would be a dagger aimed at the heart of Australia’.42 Elsewhere he told the New Guinea Mining Association that ‘New Guinea is Australia’s frontier and it is fundamental to the defence of Australia that New Guinea should be held by the men and women of our race’.43

Apart from the colourful references by Hughes, Papua New Guinea did not figure prominently in the public statements by other ministers until the clear approach of war in 1939. In twenty-six speeches delivered on defence in the period 1933 to early 1939 by either Prime Minister Lyons or Defence Minister Sir Archdale Parkhill or his successor Brigadier Geoffrey Street there were very few references to the island of New Guinea and no mention of its role in Australia’s general strategic outlook. In one of the few exceptions, in a speech in December 1938, Street told the Parliament of both the government’s decision to increase the defence budget from £44,500,000 to £63,000,000 and its intention to establish a base at Port Moresby for mobile naval and air forces. He argued that the base, along with a similar base in Darwin and the British naval base in Singapore, could form an ‘archway’ across the north of Australia. This statement may represent one of the first references to the defence of Australia using the concept of a strategic arc across the north of the continent.44

The announcement by Street represented the tentative beginning of a reappraisal of Australia’s defence preparedness and assessment of its strategic environment. In contrast to the view of the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sir George Hyde, in 1937 that the ‘strategical importance of the Pacific Islands was not high’ and that ‘from the point of view of war-like operations, none of the islands are [sic] of very much value to us’, by December 1938 defence officials were beginning to adopt a different approach. Planners noted that ‘the time has come for greater security to be offered to Northern Australia and the Island Territories, thereby increasing the security of Australia as a whole’.45 They identified the need for a base with an anchorage capable of accommodating cruisers and supply ships, a suitable aerodrome and harbour which could be easily defended and an existing town and infrastructure to draw on. The officials nominated Port Moresby as the ideal location.

As an indication of the changing attitudes, twelve months later Lt General Ernest Squires, Chief of the General Staff, reminded the Defence Council that ‘Moresby [was] the most suitable place for any enemy base south of the Marshall and Caroline Islands. The importance of the harbour and port in enemy hands as a base for further operations would be considerable’.46 However, on this occasion the Council noted that the improvements suggested by General Squires were not necessary ‘at this juncture’ and that other harbours were considered of higher priority.47

With the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 and as the prospects loomed of a war in the Pacific, Australian defence planners dramatically sharpened their assessment of the place of Papua and New Guinea in Australia’s security environment. In February 1941 the Chiefs of Staff told Cabinet that:

The desirability of preventing the Japanese gaining a foothold across this line, i.e. New Guinea–New Hebrides–New Caledonia–Fiji, and thus making the passage of American reinforcements most hazardous, is a strong argument for the need for adequate naval and air forces in the area and the advisability of strengthening the defences of our existing ports and bases there.48

The focus on New Guinea and the surrounding islands was shared by knowledgeable civilian observers. Sir John Latham had served as an adviser to Hughes at the Paris Peace Conference, was Minister for External Affairs from 1932 to 1934 and had taken up Australia’s first diplomatic appointment to Tokyo in 1940. In August 1941 he warned Robert Menzies who had succeeded Earle Page as Prime Minister on 26 April 1939, to prepare for a ‘blitz invasion’ based on air power. He advised

our policy should … be to prevent either Japan or Germany … from becoming established in any of the islands near Australia. Australia can have only one policy towards any hostile power seeking to establish itself in the neighbouring islands. That policy is ‘keep out’. This must be absolute and not conditional. … any other policy will almost certainly be fatal to Australia in time.49

As the prospects of war in the Pacific increased, the Menzies Government faced pressure from the European settler community in New Guinea to annex the former German territory unilaterally. It rejected the calls. At the same time the government rejected calls from two members of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, who had visited Port Moresby, to annex New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in order to strengthen Australia’s defence preparedness.50 The government did take some measures to bolster the defences in New Guinea with Australia welcoming the decision in October 1941 by the then neutral United States to use Rabaul as a base for naval operations, despite recent severe volcanic activity. Australia also agreed to increase the defence fortifications in Rabaul and Port Moresby.

However, there remained at times a strangely detached and aloof air to the Menzies Government’s approach to the defence of Papua and New Guinea. In October 1939, shortly after the outbreak of war with Germany, the War Cabinet decided to ‘despatch a telegram to the Administrator of New Guinea requesting his views on the adequacy or otherwise of the present defence of New Guinea, on the basis of the existing war with Germany, and the Japanese remaining neutral’.51 On the one hand the government could be considered proactive in asking for guidance but on the other it was extremely late in the day to be posing such a fundamental question. (Five days later the War Cabinet also decided to explore the possibility of acquiring training aircraft from the Japanese!)52

War in the Pacific: The shield is raised

At the outbreak of war Australia had, as David Day has described, ‘a defence force in name only’.53 Peter Stanley, the former Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial and now the Head of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia, has dismissed such assessments, arguing instead that ‘there is an exaggerated perception … that Australia’s defences were “weak”’.54 Stanley has listed the strength of the Australian forces in detail and concluded that they were ‘more than enough to meet anything the Japanese could muster, especially in the vital and more vulnerable south-east’.55 As Stanley notes, the Lyons Government had increased the defence budget to £43 million in 1938 (a 40 per cent increase over the previous year) and had begun to acquire much-needed defence equipment. Neville Meaney is more perceptive in his assessment, acknowledging only that Lyons ‘spoke a new language’ and that the ‘emphasis was changing’.56

The Lyons Government had adopted its predecessor’s policy that Australia’s security was predicated on the assumption that the British naval base in Singapore would remain impregnable and that Britain would quickly deploy units of the Royal Navy to Singapore. As late as June 1939 Prime Minister Robert Menzies sought an assurance that Britain would deploy a fleet to Singapore ‘within the appropriate time capable of containing the Japanese fleet to a degree sufficient to prevent an act of aggression against Australia’.57 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain confirmed that Britain remained committed to the deployment, although he cautioned that the size of the fleet would depend on the circumstances at the time. He reassured Menzies that Britain’s intention was to prevent a ‘major operation against Australia, New Zealand or India … keep open our sea communications … to prevent the fall of Singapore’.58

The assumptions underlying Australia’s defence preparedness were shattered in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Japan’s subsequent march through Southeast Asia, including the Dutch East Indies, the sinking on 10 December 1941 of the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse sent by Britain to Singapore, the extensive bombing of Darwin and Japan’s assault on New Guinea and islands in the South Pacific, exposed Australia to attack and raised the prospect of possible invasion. The ‘Singapore Strategy … failed even before it was tested’.59 Australia’s wartime leaders grappled with the challenge of a collapsing military front to their north and the desperate need to recall Australian troops from the Middle East. It was in this period that the place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s strategic planning assumed unprecedented importance.

In late February 1942, following the fall of Rabaul, the Chiefs of Staff warned that with the prospect of an attack on Australia, ‘Port Moresby is most important to us as a strong position on the flank of enemy movements from either the Mandates or the Netherlands East Indies’.60 However, defences were inadequate and the alternatives were either to provide Port Moresby with an increased garrison or to accept that it was to be ‘regarded as indefensible and the present garrison withdrawn’. The second option was rejected. In a public broadcast in September 1942, John Curtin who had succeeded Arthur Fadden as Prime Minister on 7 October 1941, told the nation that Darwin and Port Moresby were the ‘Singapores of Australia’ and that if they fell Australia would be faced ‘with a bloody struggle on our own soil, a struggle in which we would be forced to fight grimly, city by city, village by village, until our fair land might become a blackened ruin’.61 Curtin repeated the warning in numerous broadcasts over the next few months.62 At the same time, General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander of the Australian Military Force and Commander Allied Land Forces, told the War Cabinet that ‘it was imperative to hold Port Moresby’ as while it was held ‘it was improbable that an attack could be made on Australia’.63 General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific, told a group of journalists that ‘Australia could be saved in Papua and only in Papua’.64

Historians such as Peter Stanley have argued persuasively that Japan did not intend or plan an invasion of Australia. Instead, it sought to isolate Australia by seizing Fiji, New Caledonia and the Solomons, as well as Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago. The aim was to neutralise Australia as a potential base for a United States-led counter-offensive.65 Stanley is emphatic in his dismissal of the claims made by Australian civilian and military leaders that Australia was soon to be invaded. He has described Curtin’s response as a ‘great overreaction’ and has presented a detailed, archives-based argument that there is no evidence that Japan planned to invade Australia or that the Papuan campaign was the beginning of a drive to invade Australia.66 He has noted that by April 1942, a select group of Australian political leaders, including Curtin and Blamey, knew through the interception of Japanese intelligence messages that an invasion was no longer under consideration. The invasion ‘crisis’ had ended with the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway.

The evidence Stanley has presented is compelling and he has also qualified his argument by accepting, but not overstating, that there was ‘an atmosphere of apprehension that permeated Australia in 1942’.67 Joan Beaumont, however, argues more convincingly that in 1942 in Australia there was ‘alarm, verging on near panic at the possibility of invasion’.68 Stanley concedes that the fear of invasion was a ‘reality of the mind rather than fact’ but dismisses at every turn the idea that Japan intended to invade Australia. He has no hesitation in conceding that the battles fought in Papua and New Guinea were brutal and deadly. He has noted that more Australians died in the broader Papuan campaign than in any other operation in the war.69 Beaumont is, however, more persuasive and Stanley may underestimate the fears held by the general population in Australia of the threat posed by Japan. He would nevertheless no doubt agree with Hank Nelson that ‘as a result of the war, New Guinea … entered Australian nationalism’.70

The bloody battle along the Kokoda Track and the defence of Port Moresby lasted until November 1942. By 1943, following the battles of the Coral Sea and Milne Bay, organised Japanese resistance in Papua had collapsed and the war had shifted to Lae, the north coast of the island and to Bougainville. In this period, as Mark Turner has described, ‘the inert shield [of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s defence] had sprung to life’.71 The scale and intensity of the fighting with 2165 Australians killed during the battle for Kokoda, the sheer proximity of the battlefields to mainland Australia, the threat posed by defeat and the relief at eventual success all combined to create a sense of oneness between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea was now ‘known, significant and evoked national and personal sentiment’ in the minds of those who had served, and the public and politicians who had supported them from home.72

This new bond had a particularly strong influence on Australia’s wartime political leaders who now fully accepted that the arc of islands to Australia’s north represented the most effective shield against invasion. Curtin and his Minister for External Affairs, Dr H. V. Evatt, firmly believed that Papua New Guinea was pivotal to Australia’s defence. In March 1943, in response to some early thinking in his department on post-war policy towards the region, Evatt noted that ‘the control or supervision of control over neighbouring territories will be vital to the future security of Australia as well as to other Pacific countries and we must have a full say in the determination of these questions’.73 Evatt told an audience in New York in April 1943 that ‘Australia will naturally regard as of crucial importance to its own security the arc of islands lying to the north and north-east of our continent … Australia will be vitally concerned as to who shall live in, develop and control these areas so vital to her security from aggression’.74

In January 1944 Curtin and Evatt attempted to confirm, in one of the first international agreements negotiated and entered into by Australia without British involvement, the description of Australia’s strategic environment. The Canberra or ANZAC Pact with New Zealand identified the two countries’ areas of security interests as a ‘zone of defence comprising the South-west and South Pacific areas … stretching through the arc of islands north and north-east of Australia to Western Samoa and the Cook Islands’.75 Curtin explained that:

The fundamental concept of the Australian Government is that the best defence of Australia and New Zealand is to be secured by a system of defence based on an island screen to the north of these Dominions. The purpose of such a system of defence is to preserve the strategic isolation of Australia and New Zealand, whose security is linked with that of the adjacent islands. In the hands of ourselves or a friendly power and adequately defended they are a bulwark to the defence of Australia and New Zealand and points of offensive action against an enemy. In possession of an enemy they are spring-boards for offensive action against our mainlands.76

The two countries agreed to ‘continuing consultation in all defence matters of mutual interest’ and increased planning and exchanges on defence issues in the Pacific.77 The ANZAC Pact had also called for an international conference of powers involved in the Southwest Pacific to discuss the problems of security, post-war development and native welfare in the islands. This was considered premature by Washington. London too was unimpressed by Canberra’s initiative. Once the proposed conference failed to materialise the Pact could not gather momentum and ceased to have an enduring significance. The ideas behind the Pact did, in time, however lead to the formation of the South Pacific Commission.

Curtin’s and Evatt’s views on the post-war security environment were shared by General Blamey, who endorsed and forwarded to Curtin an assessment prepared by the Army’s secret policy planning and assessment unit known as the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs under Col. Alf Conlon’s leadership.78 The unit had been charged by Blamey to examine policy options for the development of Papua and New Guinea across a wide spectrum of subjects, including defence. In a covering letter sent on 5 February 1944, Blamey told Curtin that:

Militarily, the operations in the Timor-Solomons arc have revealed, as though a screen had suddenly been removed, the world importance of these areas strategically. The chain of islands from Timor to the Solomons and New Caledonia is the forward base-area from which an Asiatic enemy can organise his forces to isolate or attack the Australian mainland, and the forward base-area from which Australian and Allied forces can attack his supply lines. … The battle for Australia can possibly be won by either side in the island-chain. … Australia would have learnt nothing from the sacrifices of the war if the world strategic importance of the whole New Guinea theatre had not become overwhelmingly obvious to the nation.79

Blamey’s description of Australia’s strategic environment suggested that the assessments that had first emerged in the works of Commander Hugh Thring before the First World War and later repeated by other military and civilian leaders had now become the orthodox view. A shield or arc across Australia’s north beginning in Malaya and extending to Solomon Islands was the accepted description of Australia’s immediate security environment.

Blamey’s views were shared by his political leaders. J. B. (Ben) Chifley, who had been sworn in as Prime Minister on 13 July 1945 following the death of John Curtin on 5 July, made clear to the Australian Parliament that the ‘Territory of New Guinea, in which so many of our men died in battle against the Japanese, is of such importance to the safety of this country that no agreement would be considered by us which restricted in any way our right to provide for the defence of New Guinea and consequently for the safety of Australia. We are permitted to plan and carry out measures directly relevant to the security of Australia itself ’.80 In the early negotiations over the establishment of the United Nations, Evatt secured for Australia a United Nations trusteeship over New Guinea. The terms of the trusteeship allowed for the administering authority to be responsible for the ‘peace, order, good government and defence of the Territory’. It could also ‘take all measures in the Territory which it considers desirable to provide for the defence of the Territory and for the maintenance of international peace and security’.81 The new arrangements removed the constraints imposed by the League of Nations and presented Australia with an obligation under international law to defend the Territory of New Guinea. The eastern half of the island of New Guinea, which Evatt described as a land ‘consecrated by the sacrifice of Australians in two World Wars’, was now Australia’s responsibility.82 In 1949 the United Nations agreed that both Papua and New Guinea could be administered jointly as one unit from an administrative headquarters in Port Moresby.

In the first comprehensive strategic assessment prepared following the end of the war by the Chiefs of Staff, an Australian ‘zone of strategic responsibility’ was identified with Singapore, North Borneo and Manus Island north of the New Guinea coastline clearly identified as its key points.83 The report also incorporated a line of bases from Singapore to Manus Island, New Ireland, Rabaul and eventually Fiji and referred to the need for an air base at Nadzab, near Lae. It accepted that Malaya was pivotal to the defence of Australia but acknowledged that New Guinea was of ‘particular importance’ to Australia’s strategic position. The Council of Defence endorsed the assessment in April 1948 but noted that the ‘vital question’ was whether ‘Australia has the resources to accept the responsibilities’ to maintain a defence presence in the area.84

This question quickly emerged as critical to defence planning when Australia examined the sustainability of Manus Island as a naval base. In March 1944 Manus Island had been occupied by the United States Air Force and had been used as a base in the final phase of the war against the Japanese. After the war the question arose as to whether the base should continue to be used by the United States. Evatt sought joint control and use by Australia and the United States but Washington would not agree. The United States Air Force withdrew in 1947–48. In 1948 the Australian defence force assessed it as ‘one of the essentials in the general strategy for the protection of the northern approaches to Australia’. In 1951 it was still seen as a ‘bastion’ in Australia’s defence.85 It was to remain as a useful asset and in 1962 the Menzies Government rejected calls by the Navy and its Minister, Senator John Gorton, for it to be closed.


The period 1919 to 1945 had witnessed the slow evolution of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s defence planning and assessments from an overlooked and neglected territory to one seen as pivotal. It was an uncomfortable journey. The rhetoric used at the Paris Peace Conference had suggested that the island would have an important place in Australia’s post-war strategic assessments. However, this did not immediately materialise. Australia’s defence planners were focused on the broader threat from Japan and allowed military preparations to be subsumed within Britain’s strategic plans. They placed a near total reliance on the building of a naval base at Singapore by Britain and the deployment of units of the British Navy in the event of war. Some basic contingency plans covering Papua and New Guinea had been developed in the inter-war years but these had a desultory air to them and were always secondary to the wider strategic objectives of maritime defence and the promise of support from the Royal Navy.

The events of 1941 to 1945 changed this outlook. Malaya, Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies had fallen, contrary to all hopes and expectations. The ‘shield’ was now deployed and the islands of New Guinea were seen as the final barrier to the Japanese advance into the South Pacific and invasion of Australia. The proximity and brutality of the fighting, captured on news reports shown in cinemas, alarmed Australians. Significantly, the battles in Papua and New Guinea had entered the psyche of Australia from the ordinary citizen to the defence planners and, most importantly, to members of the government and opposition. The fear generated by the Japanese attacks across New Guinea, the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, Solomon Islands and the Coral Sea, scarred a generation of Australian leaders and ensured that New Guinea would retain a significant place in Australia’s strategic environment.

A fear of Japan had pervaded Australia’s approach to New Guinea and the Pacific from the turn of the century. It had reached a crescendo in 1942. It had been extinguished in war but vestiges remained throughout the immediate post-war period. However, as Australia turned its attention to the challenges of post-war nation-building, a new country would emerge to unsettle Australia’s leaders.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt