This disparity was the reason why Australia was most reluctant to see the Anglo-Japanese alliance come to an end in 1921. It improved relations with the United States but the Americans would make no promises to defend Australia or any part of the British Empire in case of attack and so the Australians preferred to maintain the alliance with Japan at least until Australian military strength could be increased to a level that would give Japan pause should the “Land of the Rising Sun” turn hostile. This, however, was not to be and the alliance was terminated which necessitated Australia holding closely to Great Britain and the rest of the empire as the country would have to depend on the Royal Navy to be their shield against a possible Japanese attack. Later, anti-British elements in Australia would pour scorn on this policy but it was, putting history and sentiment aside, the only sensible thing for Australia to do. Thus, as concerned events in Europe, whatever action or inaction the British government took, they could count on Australia’s full support. When war broke out over the German invasion of Poland in 1939 there was no debate, if Britain was at war with Germany then Australia was as well.
Naturally, Australia was concerned about their own security given that Japan was part of the Axis but, in what turned out to be a major and costly mistake for Great Britain, the leadership in London assured Australia that there was no real danger of war with Japan. Australian forces were mobilized for action on the continent of Europe but the German conquest of France was so swift that the British had been forced to pull out before the Australians arrived. Still, their presence was felt soon enough as Australian pilots gave good service in the Battle of Britain and ships of the Royal Australian Navy scored several successes in the Mediterranean against the Italians. Australian troops first saw major action in the extremely successful Operation Compass in North Africa which drove the Italians out of Egypt and deep into Libya. Although often outnumbered, the Australians were backed up by British tanks and artillery that the Italians had no answer for and the Australian troops won a string of victories in North Africa in 1941. Their most important prize was the capture of the port city of Tobruk along with 25,000 Italian prisoners in January. But the British offensive was stopped and the situation changed dramatically with the arrival of the German “Afrika Korps” under General Erwin Rommel.
|Australians defending Tobruk|
Australian forces would serve with distinction throughout the North African campaign but, of course, by the end of 1941 there was a new and more immediate enemy to worry about when after the first week of December 1941 the Empire of Japan launched attacks on Hawaii, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia where many Australian troops were stationed. Because of the focus on the war in Europe, where the British were fighting for their lives, the British Empire was militarily weak in East Asia. To put it another way, they were focused on defending the front door from Germany and Italy when the back door was kicked in by Japan.
Still, despite having few forces available and being largely unprepared, Australian forces fought as hard as their countrymen in Europe and North Africa. In the swift and stunning onslaught by Japanese forces under General Yamashita in Malaysia it was the Australians who were brought in after the Indian forces were decimated on the Slim River. At Johor, with their backs to the wall of fortress Singapore, the hard-fighting Australians brought the Japanese to a halt, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. Unable to break the Australians, the Japanese were forced to flank them with an amphibious landing. Breaking through the Indian forces holding that line, the Australians finally had to pull back.
|Execution of an Australian POW|
In the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) Australian forces were sent to reinforce the small Dutch colonial army but it was an almost hopeless enterprise from the start. Japanese victories at sea meant that island garrisons were cut off and even if not defeated outright would have to surrender eventually. Yet, some did not as on Timor where the Australians waged a guerilla war against the Japanese for a year. Others who did surrender often met a grisly fate as over 300 Australian prisoners of war were massacred by the Japanese in a series of mass killings in February of 1942. Eventually, almost all of the East Indies fell to Japan and there was a massive buildup of military forces in Australia as fears grew of a Japanese attack.
|Training to defend the homeland|
Unlike the experience of those Australians serving in North Africa against the Germans and Italians, where a measure of chivalry still lingered, what those in the east were fighting was no “Gentleman’s War”. As American and Australian forces went on the offensive in New Guinea, more Australian forces were massacred after surrendering by the Japanese and, as a result, the Australians generally stopped giving any quarter to the enemy which, in any event, was often not requested anyway. After being defeated on Guadalcanal, Japanese forces began to pull back to New Guinea but Australian and American air power devastated their forces at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. It was one more step in the turning tide as American and Australian forces began driving the Japanese out of New Guinea, striking rapidly while bypassing stronger points that would wither away in isolation. From about the middle of 1943 onward it was the Australian and other Allied forces that were on the advance throughout New Guinea though the fighting was fierce and the conditions brutal for the troops on both sides.
|The bombing of Darwin|
Starting in 1944, the Australian military contribution to the war effort began to be downsized. For a country with so small a population, it was already trying to do too much and the British and American leadership agreed that Australia would be of more help putting more men back to work on the home front to support the war effort of the other Allies, particularly the United States, which had more than sufficient numbers of men and machines to carry on the fight. Still, the remaining Australian forces played an important part in re-taking New Guinea, liberating the Philippines and in such naval battles as Leyte Gulf which practically destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy as an effective fighting force forever. Australian personnel also played an important part in driving the Japanese out of the Dutch East Indies, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands. From the Greek islands and Libya to Iran to the Philippines, the Australians fought with equal tenacity all over the world. Australian military leaders were even organizing their contribution to the planned invasion of Japan which thankfully proved unnecessary. At the very end, as the Allies accepted the Japanese surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, it was General (later Field Marshal) Sir Thomas Blamey, victorious commander of several operations in the New Guinea campaign, who signed on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia.
|Blamey accepting Japan's surrender|