About this record
This is the record of discussions and decisions of a meeting of the Australian War Cabinet held in Melbourne on 8 December 1941. Stamped 'MOST SECRET', the record includes the Cabinet's decisions on the naval, army and air force measures to be put in place now that Australia was at war with Japan. It also canvasses the strategic situation in Asia, the actions to be taken in the Australian region, the need to accelerate munitions production, the protection of shipping, and the possibility of Japanese attacks on Australia and its territories.
- This document records the War Cabinet's acceptance that a state of war existed with Japan (and accordingly, after the meeting concluded, Governor-General Lord Gowrie and Prime Minister John Curtin signed the proclamation of war). As set out in this record, the state of war was instigated by a message from the British Government and a cablegram that Japan had launched an invasion of the east coast of Malaya (part of the British Empire) only hours before.
- In spite of the fact that war with Japan had been predicted for some time, the record reveals that the three military services – the army, navy and air force – only had resources adequate to fight against an enemy as powerful as Japan within Australia's own geographic region. The army had some shortages, but was able to supply rifles to all the militia infantry being called up. There was a shortage of light machine guns.
- It is clear from the document that events were unfolding almost as the War Cabinet met, and Japan was striking with devastating effect. Its attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on the morning of 7 December 1941 Hawaiian time (the early morning hours of 8 December, Australian Eastern Standard Time), leaving the US naval base and fleet in ruins. Coordinated air and naval attacks had already occurred on US bases in the Philippines and on British territory in Malaya.
- By December 1941 Australia had already been at war with Germany for 27 months and, as repeatedly seen in the record, the new Curtin Labor government and Australia's military leadership immediately took advice on, and gave careful consideration to, existing commitments to Britain and the Empire. Most of Australia's experienced soldiers were fighting in the Middle East, most of its aircraft crew were overseas and its new pilots were training in Canada.
- The decisions to send Australian troops to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and to reinforce Port Moresby and Rabaul were part of the military strategy to use forward bases on nearby islands to defend Australia from Japanese attack, and hold the line until relief forces arrived. The strategy failed, with both Rabaul and Ambon captured in January 1942 and the fall of Singapore the following month, resulting in the capture or death of thousands of Australian service personnel.
- The record shows that the War Cabinet was briefed that carrier air attacks on Australia were unlikely 'in the early stages'. The immediate threat to Australia could be from Japanese armed merchant cruisers, which might already be in the South Pacific and a threat to Australian trade. Although escort ships were limited, the navy believed that they had sufficient resources to deal with the threat. However, Rabaul was thought to be vulnerable.
Learning resource text © Education Services Australia Limited and the National Archives of Australia 2010.