Last week, I shared about helping my son out with his project about Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin. I also mentioned that I’d become so interested in that period in our history, that I just had to do a project of my own, resulting in a couple of posts for the blog. Otherwise, I knew I’d do his assignment for him and both he and his teacher would be after me. .
Here’s my previous post: WWII What I Learned From My Son’s Homework https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/australia-during-wwii-what-i-learned-from-my-sons-homework/
Thank you blog. You provided me with that much needed blank canvas to paint my own word portrait of Prime Minister John Curtin, whose selfless and passionate commitment to our country and our freedom, ultimately claimed his own life when he died in office.
This isn’t going to be some stuffy history essay but more of an informal portrait of the man I discovered.
John Curtin Becomes Prime Minister- 7th October, 1941.
On 7th October, 1941, John Curtin became our 14th Australian Prime Minister. Being new to the job, I’m sure he would have appreciated a few weeks to settle in before the proverbial @#$% hit the fan at full blast. After all, we all know what it’s like to start a new job. You’ve got to find the bathroom, the lunchroom and get to know a bunch of strangers. Naturally, you’d like to have enough time to get on top of all of that before you faced a major challenge.
However, when John Curtin came into office, Australia was already at war. Then, on the 7th December 1941 only 6 weeks into the job, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. A day later, the Pacific War was declared. His headaches didn’t get any better as the Japanese forces swept across the South Pacific and country after fell like tumbling dominoes . Australia was obviously facing a severe security threat and being “The Boss” he was at the helm. It was ultimately his job to save the country.
Yikes! What a job! I certainly wouldn’t want to be in his shoes! They were such big shoes that quite frankly, my feet would have been swimming laps.
The War in the Pacific
Although I studied Australian History at university, there are always gaps. You can’t know everything. Despite studying the Causes of the Russian Revolution twice and the same with the Causes of World War I, I never studied the actual course of either World War. Of course, I knew the big events and had heard family stories. However, the magnitude of what was going on only hit home once I drew up a time line of events for my son, which suddenly connected a disparate group of dots and formed a much more cohesive picture.
A damn scary picture if you, like my grandmother, were living in Brisbane in 1942!
I was also reminded over and over again that while it’s all very well looking at history through the benefit of hindsight, the person on the street had no crystal ball. They had no idea how the war would end or who would win and everything was pretty much hanging in the balance.
Defending Australia is still challenging with it’s vast coastline and comparatively low population. John Curtin was looking at defending a mainland coastline of 35,876 km with a population of only 7,180,736 and most of our troops were off fighting Hitler. The situation as dire.
Put simply, our entire defensive strategy rested on the British and their base in Singapore and while our focus was naturally on the Pacific War, Britain was wanting to beat Hitler first.
In a famous article in The Melbourne Herald on December 27, 1941, Mr Curtin insisted that Australia “refused to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle was a subordinate segment of the general conflict”. HV Evatt later reflected: “Certainly, Mr Curtin’s words, if read fairly, were in no sense critical of Britain; on the contrary, they merely stressed the principle that as Mr Churchill was resolved that Britain should never fall to the enemy, Mr Curtin was equally resolved that ~Australia shall not go”….The Courier Mail, 14th November, 1950 pg 2.
Before the Fall of Singapore, Australia looked to Britain for our national security. Like some desperate gambler placing all their chips on one number, Australia’s defense rested on Singapore and the bulk of our troops were over in the Middle East under Churchill. However, John Curtin realising this enormous risk, took Churchill on and brought the bulk of our troops home.
The fighting in Singapore lasted from 8 to 15 February 1942. It resulted in the capture of Singapore by the Japanese and the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history.About 85,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history.
Four days later, on 19 February, 1942 the Japanese substantially bombed Darwin. The Bombing of Darwin, also known as the Battle of Darwin, was both the first and the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia. On this day, 242 Japanese aircraft attacked ships in Darwin’s harbour and the town’s two airfields in an attempt to prevent the Allies from using them as bases to contest the invasions of Timor and Java. The town was only lightly defended and the Japanese inflicted heavy losses upon the Allied forces at little cost to themselves. The urban areas of Darwin also suffered some damage from the raids and there were a number of civilian casualties. The two raids killed at least 243 people and between 300 and 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk, and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.
The raids were the first and largest of almost 100 air raids against Australia during 1942–43.
While Britain’s approach to the two-pronged war was to beat Hitler first, in March 1942, Australia’s salvation came when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur, commander of US forces in the Philippines, to organise Pacific defense with Australia. Curtin agreed to Australian forces coming under the overall command of MacArthur and passed the responsibility for strategic decision-making onto MacArthur who was titled Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific. From MacArthur’s point of view this was a workable alliance – he told Curtin to ‘take care of the rear and I will handle the front’.
This was a dramatic shift in our defence strategy and a very gutsy and heroic move.
Yet, Curtin’s headaches continued.
On the night of 31 May – 1 June, three Japanese midget submarines, each with a two-member crew, entered Sydney Harbour, avoided the partially constructed Sydney Harbour anti-submarine boom net, and attempted to sink Allied warships. Two of the midget submarines were detected and attacked before they could successfully engage any Allied vessels, and the crews scuttled their boats and committed suicide. These submarines were later recovered by the Allies. The third submarine attempted to torpedo the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, but instead sank the converted ferry HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 sailors.
As history records, however, eventually the tide began to turn and the dominoes started to fall in our favour.
Yet, the stress of the war had taken a major toll on Prime Minister John Curtin. On 3 November 1944, after one of his rare breaks at his home in Perth, he suffered a major heart attack in Melbourne on the long train journey back to Canberra. When he was strong enough he was driven back to Canberra to complete his recovery. On 8 January 1945, he celebrated his 60th birthday at The Lodge. Although he returned to parliament in February, Curtin was by no means back to normal.
On 18 April 1945, he moved the parliament’s motion of condolence on the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. Soon after, severe lung congestion forced him back into hospital. Deputy Prime Minister Frank Forde was in San Francisco and Ben Chifley was acting Prime Minister. It fell to Chifley to announce the end of the war in Europe on 9 May 1945.
Curtin was released from hospital on 22 May. That day he was driven back to The Lodge, and he and Elsie Curtin strolled in the garden together for photographers. They then walked back into The Lodge together for the last time.
On 5 July, 1945 John Curtin died at The Lodge, just six weeks before the end of the war in the Pacific. That he didn’t live to see the end of the war in which he fought so hard, maybe not out in the trenches with “our boys” and the women who supported them as nurses etc but he gave his heart, his mind and this battle ultimately consumed him. Naturally, there were a multitude of tributes when he passed away and I’ve chosen to quote the one that best represents my thoughts:
“The Prime Minister saw his country through deadly invasion peril and sacrificed his health in his intense devotion to the national defence. He saw to it that literally everyone had a war job and the nation entered it’s national defence with the fervour and energy which characterise its activities in national causes.”
– The New York Herald Tribune.
What an incredible man and I’m so glad I took the time to get to know him better.