The Pacific: The Australian War Effort

On September 3, 1939, the country of Australia entered World War II more than two years before their American allies. Prime Minister Robert Menzies said:

Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement.

And with that, Australia was in. The Great Depression had hit Australia hard. Its forces were understaffed with only 3,000 men in their army. Their naval forces were more prepared but not by much. Their Air Force only had 246 planes and those were not very modern. The only country less prepared for war at the time was the United States.

The Australians would see action all over the globe as part of the allied forces. The Aussies aided the British in North Africa, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Italy and Croatia. The Australian Air Force also participated in the defense of Britain during the Battle of Britain. However, Australians aided the Americans and the British immensely and vice versa in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

1942 was the pivotal year for Australia. Japan’s advances in 1941 left only Hawaii, parts of Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand not taken.

The Japanese first attacked the Australian mainland on 19 February 1942 when they launched a devastating air raid on Darwin in the Northern Territory. Two weeks later, more aircraft attacked Broome in Western Australia killing about 70 people. By the end of September 1943, Japanese pilots had flown 97 air raids against towns and bases in northern Australia. On 31 May 1942, the war came to the east coast when three Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. In June 1942 a submarine lightly shelled the eastern suburbs in Sydney and then Newcastle. Japanese submarines also attacked coastal shipping, causing the loss of some 60 lives and 29,000 tons of shipping during the two months after the midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour.

That spring and summer, Australia planned for an invasion. There is some contention on whether the Japanese planned to invade. Some Japanese state their objective was not to invade but rather to isolate Australian shipping. Regardless of Japanese intent, the Australian took the threat to be real and began to put barbed wire along the beaches. Anti-aircraft guns were put in place near strategic targets along with searchlights.

In May of 1942, the US and Australian forces thwarted a Japanese advance toward Port Moresby in New Guinea. Strategically it was a victory for the allies as they did stop the Japanese advance, neither of the allied leaders were satisfied with the outcome of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The allies had cracked the Japanese code and had a carrier force supported by Australian cruisers and destroyers waiting to intercept the invaders. It was also the first battle in which neither naval force saw each other and used airplanes to carry out all offensive tactics.

That summer saw Japanese attacks along the east coast of Australia. Australians would repel any possible Japanese invasion on New Guinea along the Kokoda Track and Milne Bay. These first victories against the Japanese on land were all completed by the Aussies. That fall, the Australians would join US forces at Guadalcanal in the first major offensive against the Japanese. The resulting battle was a huge victory for the Allies.

Throughout the rest of the war, the Australian armed forces would fight along side British and American forces throughout the Pacific. At home, life for Australians was very similar to life at home in the United States. Items were rationed, war bonds were sold, people made due with what they could. Women and children and pitched in where they could.

Historically, Australians always get the shaft in American history books in their importance to the war effort in World War II. Besides providing one million men and women and an outlet for rest and relaxation for American Troops, the Australians provided much needed logistical support and intelligence on Japanese movements. The US used the Australian mainland as a place to maintain headquarters in the South Pacific – mainly General Douglas MacArthur. Throughout the war, MacArthur and Allied Intelligence were centered in Brisbane with over 2000 Australians coordinating intelligence. When the war ended Australia had suffered 40,000 dead. Lastly, Australian civilians also were casualties of the war as the Japanese conducted almost 100 air raids in 1942-43 alone. For such a small country in population, they played a major role in helping stop the Axis Powers.

For Further Reading

For further reading on places in the mini-series The Pacific:
Iwo Jima
Australian War Effort


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