The Australian, which should know better, published on May 18 a major beat-up by Mark Day reviewing the non-story of the so-called “Brisbane Line” – the alleged plan to abandon north and west Australia in the event of a Japanese invasion in World War II and to greet the invaders with guerilla warfare and a “scorched earth” policy while the regular forces were concentrated to defend the heartland of the southeast.
A creative impression of the proposed “Brisbane line”.
Any stick is good enough to beat Robert Menzies, particularly in his first prime ministership from 1939 to mid-1941.
Day’s choice of words leaves no doubt he is trying to purvey this information as a scandal: “The reputed strategy of the wartime Menzies government to abandon most of Australia to the invaders … The Menzies government was accused [sic] of adopting a strategy to defend only the most populated southeast corner of Australia …” The loaded words “abandon” and “accused” say a great deal.
In fact, recently discovered documents outlining plans for a scorched-earth policy were apparently drawn up in 1942, months after Menzies had gone out of office and Australia had a Labor government under John Curtin.
They were contingency plans, which, it seems, were never officially adopted. The suggestions for guerilla tactics to harry the invaders were drawn up by one Harold Swain, not a soldier at all, but a NSW public servant in the Forestry Department with what seems to have been a hobbyist’s interest in guerilla warfare but no military standing. There is no evidence that the Army took his boy scout, Dad’s Army-like prescriptions for making Molotov cocktails and so forth seriously, probably preferring to leave such things to the professionals (though in fact some of his ideas might have been useful).
Further, a contingency plan to concentrate on defending the industrial and population centres of the southwest while evacuating the rest if possible, made good – inevitable – strategic sense. Plainly, Australia’s vast coastline and empty spaces could not be defended at every point. The soundest maxim of war is concentration of forces. In 1939 the German blitzkrieg had speared through Poland because the Poles had spread their forces thinly, trying to defend every point. Later in the war Hitler himself would make the same mistake, spreading the Wehrmacht thinly trying to defend the whole of Europe. To evacuate, or even “abandon” the north and west of Australia may well have been the only possible option.
It is worth repeating, however, that it was a contingency plan only, not a policy, and it is an army staff’s duty to prepare contingency plans. Far from being somehow disgraceful, it would have been disgraceful if such contingency plans had not been drawn up.
Despite Day’s breathless prose, there was no scandal. Day claims that Australia was in a state of panic because “Japanese minisubs shelled Sydney’s harbourside suburbs.”
I have news for Mr Day: Japanese “minisubs” never shelled anything; they had no guns.
If Day wants scandals from the latter part of World War II, I know of at least two, from the days when Manning Clark gleefully claimed that the allied troops (“those puffed-up, pigeon-chested men dressed in khaki” as he put it), were “chaff before the Japanese wind”.
One was the Curtin government’s behaviour in leaving about 1,500 men hopelessly exposed at Rabaul, instead of evacuating them to live and fight another day, with, for their air defence, 10 Wirraway training aircraft: slow, cumbersome and with just two machine-guns each. Their pilots, in a gesture of doomed heroism. took off and tried to engage the swarming Zeros before being shot out of the sky. Very few of the Rabaul garrison survived.
While the hopeless battle was raging, John Curtin decided it would be a good time for a holiday in Western Australia, and trundled in a leisurely way across the Nullarbor by steam train, out of touch with his military advisers.
Another real scandal of the time was the story of HMAS Yarra, placed in a situation it should never have been in, to fight a hopeless battle it should never have been required to fight. A Grimsby-class sloop, with three four-inch guns and a top speed of 16.5 knots, unable to fight or flee from any strong enemy on its own, it was almost useless as a warship and should never have been built.
In March 1942, it was assigned to escort a small convoy to Australia from the collapsing Dutch East Indies, when it was set upon by a Japanese force of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers. Despite the hopeless odds – one David against five Goliaths – in an attempt to give the convoy time to escape, the captain, Robert Rankin, made a fight of it. Yarra was, of course, quickly sunk. The Japanese left the survivors to perish in the sea. Thirteen were eventually rescued (efforts since then to obtain a VC or other high decoration for its Captain have met with a blank refusal, Yarra and its people receiving only a picayune, and in the circumstances, almost insulting “unit citation” recently).
If Mr Day wishes to rouse popular indignation, these causes are more substantial than the so-called “Brisbane line”.