Preparing for invasion
Prime Minister John Curtin led Australia through most of the war, and often had to battle with his own Australian Labor Party (ALP) over how the war should be fought. In 1942 he had to persuade them to support his plans to send conscripted troops overseas, something which the ALP had opposed for decades. Curtin realised that troops would have to fight throughout the Pacific to defend Australia.
Curtin also had difficulties with the leaders of the other nations that made up the Allied forces. As a small country, Australia never had the same authority as England and America, who were putting much larger armed forces into the War.
When Curtin brought Australian troops back from overseas to defend the Australian mainland in 1942, it was in opposition to the wishes of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wanted these troops to fight in Burma. Because Australia completely depended on American protection against the Japanese, Curtin often had to defer to General Douglas MacArthur, the American commander of Allied forces in the Pacific. He also had to maintain public support for the War at home:
We are, then, committed, heart and soul, to total warfare. How far, you may ask me, have we progressed along that road? I may answer you this way. Out of every ten men in Australia four are wholly engaged in war as members of the fighting forces or making the munition and equipment to fight with. The other six, besides feeding and clothing the whole ten and their families, have to produce the food and wool and metals which Britain needs for her very existence.
- John Curtin, 14 March 1942
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, John Curtin's speech to America, 14 March, 1942, viewed 15 February, 2010
Curtin also faced opposition from the powerful Communist Party of Australia, which controlled many trade unions. Russia had made a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. The Australian Communists followed Russia’s lead and opposed the war, until Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and invaded Russia in June 1941.
In the early years of the war, there were fears that the Australian mainland would come under direct attack. In cities as far south as Melbourne, people dug air raid shelters in their back yards and practised responding to gas attacks. Cities endured blackouts at night as a defence against bombing raids, which fortunately never came.
World War II reached Australian shores in 1942 after the Japanese captured the important base of Singapore. Days later, they launched an air raid on Darwin, killing 243 people. Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour in May 1942, firing torpedoes and sinking one ship, killing 21 sailors. By 1943, the direction of the war had changed. Japanese forces were being pushed back in the Pacific, and the threat of invasion had passed.
When two of the Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour were disabled, the crews committed suicide: in Japanese military tradition, it was considered extremely shameful to be captured alive. In 2007, after the discovery of the final submarine by divers, both countries came together for a ceremony to remember the Japanese and Australian crews.
Curtin was a popular leader: he asked Australians to make great sacrifices for the war effort, and did not hesitate to make the same sacrifices himself. He was often ill during World War II, mostly with heart disease, but forced himself to continue working. This effort exhausted him, and he died of a heart attack in July 1945, only months after the war ended in Europe. He did not live to see the Japanese surrender in August 1945.