It seems an incontestable fact that in early 1942 many Australians feared a major attack from Japan. The basis of this fear lay chiefly in the rapid string of military successes Japan attained, following its opening gambit in December 1941, which brought the Second World War to Australia’s doorstep. The Japanese advance into Papua New Guinea placed the Australian state of Queensland squarely as part of Australia’s defensive front line. It was a role which the Australian Military High Command had studied in some depth and, in the case of Northern Command – which embraced the whole of Queensland as well as Papua New Guinea, an area designated the 8th Military District – a number of contingency plans had been considered for implementation in the event of an invasion.
While plans to combat invasion did exist their adequacy and Northern Command’s capacity to implement them was highly questionable. This article seeks to examine the defensive measures invoked in the 8th Military District with due reference to the overarching military strategy and political climate in which planning was undertaken.
Any assessment of the predicament in which civil and military authorities in Queensland were confronted during the 1941-43 period must necessarily look to the preceding years to place events in some context. Japan had long been held as the most likely aggressor to British interests in the Pacific and South-East Asian region. The outbreak of war with Germany and Germany’s friendly relations with Japan naturally increased apprehension about Japanese intentions. Australian and Allied military planners were hardly surprised by Japan’s opening attacks. The success of the tactics used and the weight of those attacks did, however, reveal a lack of preparedness and defective planning. The Australian Chiefs of Staff held little sway in shaping the strategic objectives of the British in the South-East Asian area – and, for the most part, concurred with them. Australia’s home defence, that is, the defence of Australian territories and mainland did fall under their direct control.
In a strategic appreciation dated 1 March 1941, Japan – specifically identified as the potential enemy – was considered capable of dispatching an initial invasion force of 70,000 troops (three divisions plus ancillary troops) which could be quickly reinforced by a further two divisions. Of this enemy force it was estimated that at least one brigade group and at most one division would operate against the 8th Military District.
To combat this threat Northern Command could field a force of one cavalry brigade, two field regiments plus one anti-tank regiment, two infantry brigades comprising nine battalions, ancillary troops and some small units for the defence of Thursday Island. These forces were roughly equivalent to a full division, incorporating approximately 9,000 men drawn from the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) and were responsible for defending an area measuring over one million square miles and flanked by a coastline in excess of one thousand miles.
In terms of static defence the Queensland coastline had seven batteries, two of which comprised only one gun and three of which guarded the harbour at Brisbane. No anti-aircraft guns were, at this stage, available to Northern Command – a point which was especially disturbing given the existence of a substantive Japanese fleet air arm. Three point seven inch anti-aircraft guns ordered from the United Kingdom did not begin to arrive until May 1942 and further delays ensued because placement platforms had not arrived. This lack of guns and their eventual placement highlighted the inherent weakness of Queensland’s defensive capacity. The entire coastal line of communications would be at the mercy of an enemy controlling the sea lanes to the north and east.
Queensland’s coastal defences were clearly inadequate to defend against any major invasion. Concern at the inadequacy of the defences had been expressed as early as February 1939 and soon after a general review of the Moreton Bay defences was undertaken. At that stage Lytton Fort had no armament, the battery Cowan Cowan on Moreton Island was isolated being a four hour sea journey from the mainland and liable to be quickly overrun should it be attacked. The Bribie Island battery was described as in ‘a primitive state’ one of the many deficiencies being that a sand dune had formed in front of the guns. By July 1940 the question of policy regarding Bribie Fort was considered urgent in view of the ‘present international situation’ but ‘also on account of the considerable expenditure’ involved, and, in May 1941 arrangements were being made to improve the defences of Townsville by upgrading the existing battery and establishing an additional battery with the replaced guns.
It was obvious to Australia’s military planners that they could not defend the whole of Queensland with the resources at hand. In April 1941, Brisbane was considered the main concentration point for the army and its defence was given the highest priority. Townsville and Rockhampton were accorded equal status as the second most important areas to defend, followed by Cairns, Maryborough and then listed as of equal importance were Bundaberg, Gladstone, Mackay, Bowen, Cooktown, Normanton and Burktown. The latter were areas which were all considered to require some troops to protect against minor landings. In the event of a successful Japanese landing it was considered essential to at least keep control of the inland roads and of the country west of the Dividing Ranges. The role of the VDC was plainly described by Edward Keating, a VDC member stationed at MacKay, ‘If the Japs had of landed, say at Sarina beach, we were supposed to rush there and delay ‘em, take a few pot shots at ‘em, get back to another position till the regular troops arrived there’.
These defensive arrangements were, of course, secret and withheld from the general public. It is doubtful whether many Australians at this point in time gave any real thought to war with Japan let alone the prospect of being direct targets of Japanese attack. Faith in British naval might and the invincibility of Singapore lulled many into a false sense of security. As well, the focus of Australian attention was centred on the African and Mediterranean theatres of war where the 6th, 7th and 9th Australian Divisions were engaged.
Reliant on the newspapers for the bulk of war information the Australian public was further deluded as to Japan’s military capacity by the publication of derogatory and biased reports. A striking example was an article by Norman Bartlett reassuringly titled, ‘Japan’s air force isn’t first-class’. Leading experts, he wrote, were not impressed by the qualities of Japanese pilots. This article appeared in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph on 7 December, 1941. The following day those unimpressive pilots struck a crippling blow to the US Navy at Pearl Harbour as Japan struck out at Malaya, the Philippines, Singapore and various islands in the central Pacific. Two days later the myth of British naval might was shattered when Japanese pilots sunk the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales off the Malayan coast. These military disasters all followed hard on Australia’s own national calamity, the loss of HMAS Sydney with 645 lives, forty two of whom were from Queensland.
Bartlett had sought to assure readers that Mitsubishi bombers, operating from Japan’s nearest base to Australia in the Caroline Islands, had a range of only 2,484 miles. The city of Sydney being 2,650 miles distant was therefore safe. This may have been some comfort to Sydneysiders but Queensland readers and those of northern New South Wales could draw little comfort from it. And what of Japanese aircraft carriers? They were not, noted Bartlett, rated highly by German observers! Rapid Japanese successes forced an equally rapid revision in Bartlett’s logic. In the 23 December edition of the Telegraph he provided a succinct account of Australia’s role if Singapore and the Dutch East Indies fell. His Christmas message to readers was ‘Do you still think it cannot happen here?’
Despite the scale of the Japanese attacks and the loss of British warships, the British chiefs of Staff still stood by their strategic appreciation of August 1940 and held Australia to be in no immediate danger of a large scale threat. Cruiser raids on shipping within Australian waters were considered the most likely Japanese option.
Queenslanders were, perhaps, beginning to wonder. Boxing Day saw a national address by the Prime minister, John Curtin. In a calculated Churchillian speech he called for ‘unstinted service, undaunted courage and unswerving determination’. He warned of further reverses and spoke of the certainty of the populace being bombed in the event of attack and called for national vigilance, particularly along coastal areas. No part of Australia was invulnerable, he declared and frankly stated ‘We have not the forces to guard all our people’. In making this statement Curtin, who had sat on the War Advisory Council as leader of the opposition, was acknowledging the sobering military appreciations of Australia’s Chiefs of Staff. They were words which could only have served to inflame people’s fears in North Queensland as to their vulnerability in the event of an invasion.
As early as March 1941 rumours were circulating in North Queensland that the north would be abandoned and that Australia’s first line of defence extended west from Maroochydore, a town fifty miles north of Brisbane. These concerns were raised by a northern journalist, George Groom who submitted an article to the State Publicity Censor for examination. In raising these concerns, Groom stated ‘The complete absence of any contradiction of these views…together with the general knowledge that recent major military exercises in the North have been based upon beach defence, with the ultimate withdrawal of the defending Australian troops, has accelerated the growth of the belief that Australia’s defence policy is based on the conception that North Queensland must be lost to any invading enemy’. Not surprisingly this passage, and others, was marked for deletion.
Groom was not to be dissuaded in his efforts to make public these concerns. In early April he acquired an interview with the then Acting prime minister, Mr. A. W. Fadden, and published his comments in an article in the Innisfail Sunday Australian on 6 April 1941. Fadden, himself a North Queenslander, described himself ‘profoundly shocked’ by the rumours and dismissed them as the malicious work of fifth columnists and called upon ‘northerners to disregard such damaging propaganda’. He concluded by stating ‘Australia’s defences through its navy, army and air force have been prepared strategically, and with full regard for any possible vulnerability of Queensland’. The extent of this regard was not elaborated on and masked the real strategic plans of Australia’s military. If Fadden’s words were meant to be an expression of confidence, Curtin’s Boxing Day address certainly rendered them null and void.
Curtin’s comments were designed to galvanize the national war effort and acted as a rallying cry for patriotic zealots. The editor of Brisbane’s Courier Mail used his editorial to regularly harangue readers, as did Sir Keith Murdoch in regular articles, of the necessity to mobilize for the defense of Australia, as well as the need to eradicate what they perceived as slackness in Australia’s commitment. Maps of the South West Pacific war zone were now a prominent feature in the newspapers and a constant reminder of the closeness of military operations to Queensland.
Perhaps the greatest pressure Northern Command experienced was the duress under which it came in the first quarter of 1942. It was during this period that public awareness of an immediate danger was awakened. Talk of potential fifth columnists again found expression in official circles. The targeted group in this instance was the Italian population in the north of the state and steps were taken toward their internment. At Chillagoe, a town situated approximately eighty miles west of Cairns, a VDC unit was raised specifically to counteract potentially dangerous communist activity in the area.
In more realistic terms, the actual evacuation of civilians from the northern and coastal areas of Queensland, albeit voluntary and commensurate with pre-existing military thought, was a sign that people felt endangered. Certainly the military planned defensive measures around invasion as a worst case scenario and civil authorities dutifully complied. To assist evacuation planning the State’s government conducted a census of the coastal belt on 31 January 1942 to determine how many people from those areas would require evacuation. Apart from those who had made their own decision to evacuate, organized evacuations began in the first week of February. State schools in the north and along the coastal areas were closed down until the threat of invasion was deemed to have passed. Recommendations, as well, were made for the removal of livestock from those areas. A consequence of these measures was that towns in the Atherton Tablelands were inundated with evacuees and existing accommodation proved inadequate for the sudden influx. Whether people feared actual invasion or simply air-attack is difficult to ascertain.
A public debate ensued as to the necessity of adopting a ‘scorched earth’ policy as well as the need to raise a ‘peoples’ or ‘guerilla’ army. Major-General Durrant, as G.O.C. Northern Command, found himself drawn into the debate when he felt obliged to respond to newspaper criticisms over the over-emphasis given to a ‘defensive spirit’ allegedly being instilled into the army through its training. These topics were being warmly discussed prior to the fall of Singapore. That disaster as well as the bombing of Darwin soon after prompted attention in Queensland, as it did throughout Australia, to be directed toward the urgent construction of air raid shelters and the acquisition of air raid precaution equipment.
Apprehension in Townsville was most acute. The city’s mayor was described as ‘jittery’ and had to be persuaded not to call a public meeting to discuss the town’s safety. The batteries defending the town were issued to fire on any aircraft not using the correct approach and friendly aircraft were, it appears, fired on. Nor did talk of scorched earth policies in the far north infuse residents with any confidence in the military’s ability to defend them. Precautionary measures for the protection and/or destruction of vital petrol stores throughout the state had, in fact, begun to be implemented in December 1941. Concern among some that the authorities did not intend to defend North Queensland resurfaced and found expressions in letters to the editor of the Courier Mail in late February 1942. Earlier military appreciations had certainly indicated that to be the case.
In the first week of March, the G.O.C in C of Home Forces, Lieutenant-General Iven MacKay, produced a report in which it was categorically stated that ‘under present conditions it is not proposed to defend N. QUEENSLAND except in TOWNSVILLE area’. It would be quite wrong to construe this statement as substantiating rumoured plans of a ‘Brisbane Line’. It does, however, show that fears held by some North Queenslanders as to the Army’s intentions were well founded. Clearly, given the limited resources on hand, the army’s defence of Queensland was a limited one in the initial phases of any successful enemy landing. Furthermore, it was a strategy which only reflected the expected role of the army which had been publicly expressed before the war. In 1938, the Army’s stated role was ‘to defend certain vital and vulnerable areas and localities against attacks on a relatively small scale, which may take place, with little or no warning, and secondly…expand, after initial mobilization, into an army strong enough to resist aggression on any larger scale’.
Conscious of the fact that any decision to abandon the north verged on a policy of despair, Major-General Durrant recommended the maintenance of a complete Infantry Brigade Group in North Queensland. As a further means of bolstering the defence of the north, Northern Command accelerated plans to raise a secret force or ‘Bushman’s Corps’ to operate in the inland areas and the north and far north-western portions of the state.
If there was a catalyst for heightening the invasion fears among Australians, it possibly came in the form of Major-General Gordon Bennett. Following his escape from Singapore, Bennett conducted a national broadcast on 8 March 1942, in which he was unequivocal in his assertion that Australia would be attacked as well as in his condemnation of passive defensive tactics which he argued condemned the defenders of Singapore. The following day the Courier Mail carried a report by Ralph Jordan, a war correspondent for the International Press, in which he asserted that a full scale Japanese attack would be launched against Australia by the month’s end and that the Queensland coast would be one of many targets. The Courier Mail’s editor joined the scaremongering and commenced his 10 March editorial with the heading ‘Get Ready to Fight’ and finished with a portion of Churchill’s ‘never surrender’ speech. The Federal Government, too, beat the war-drum issuing hasty instructions to civilians on how to handle occupants of Japanese airplanes should they be faced with such an emergency. The government also painted a grim picture through newspaper advertisements in which Australia was described as facing ‘her darkest hour’. Later in the month the G.O.C. Northern Command, following an inspection of the defences in North Queensland, warned of the need to be prepared for attack.
The fear of invasion fear dissipated almost as quickly as it had been aroused. The return of the Australian divisions from overseas service coupled with the arrival of American General MacArthur in March and American troops in April were all tangible boosts for a public concerned with the safety of Australia. American rhetoric, too, was a refreshing tonic for beleaguered spirits. General Brett’s recommendation for the establishment of airbases in Darwin, Townsville and Brisbane reflected an offensive plan. The ability to strike back rested first with the establishment of facilities to do so. Military successes to the north of Australia also helped morale although the Government was always quick to play down such success as any proof of Australia’s deliverance.
The public were, however, able to discern two different interpretations through the press about the security of Australia. The first was the government line which insisted Australia stood in ‘deadly peril’ of Japanese invasion. This was a view largely supported by newspaper editors. The second, derived from the special reports of special war correspondents (usually foreign) was that Australia was not in any imminent danger. These conflicting views sometimes appeared in the same edition.
Given the public debate of ‘peoples armies’ and the Government’s rhetoric is it possible to assess whether a genuine fear of invasion gripped Queenslanders, in particular, and other Australians generally? The Sunday Telegraph reported ‘[t]he male population of Brisbane seems phlegmatic regarding bombing raids, but the womenfolk are beginning to ask for a speedier evacuation to “over the Great Dividing Range”’. Reflections by some participants were certainly in accordance with the description ‘phlegmatic’. Joe Mulhall, who served aboard HMAS Hobart in the Battle of the Coral Sea, noted ‘it never occurred to us that maybe they were trying to invade Australia’. George Bromley, who served with the RAAF in Queensland, was similarly disposed. He didn’t feel any great fear of the Japanese invading Australia but just accepted the situation as he thought most servicemen did, although he thought civilians, particularly in Queensland, may have felt some apprehension.
It is quite likely that the civilian and military view, if not divergent, at least different. Servicemen with weapons in hand perhaps felt confident in their ability to resist. Civilians, denied that comfort, were consigned a more passive role and perhaps had more time to muse on the possibility of invasion. The public certainly participated in the digging of air raid trenches and in the implementation of air raid precaution (ARP) measures. Such activities were very much government driven and also pre-dated the declaration of war against Japan. As such they represented a mimicking (and sharing) of the British experience in the first instance and were then incorporated into the Home Defence against the Japanese menace. In Queensland plans for evacuation were well advanced as were the plans for evacuation as were the plans for the destruction of property. The fact that many families did choose to evacuate the designated threatened areas would suggest that a real fear did exist among the populace. It was not a fear that was able to be sustained much past the Coral Sea battle despite the Government’s insistence that the nation remained in grave danger. Coral Sea is popularly held as the battle which saved Australia. It certainly marked an end to Japan’s capacity to undertake an invasion. Following the battle the Queensland Times reported the NewYork Times as stating ‘that historians may place the definite turning point of the war in the Spring of this year’.
The unequivocal symbolic shift to the offensive came in July 1942 when MacArthur moved his headquarters from Melbourne to Brisbane. Military successes in the Coral Sea, at Midway and Milne Bay as well as the American bombing raids on Tokyo clearly signaled a diminishment in the threat to Australia. Worried by people’s optimism the editor of the Courier Mail saw the bombing of Townsville as an apt reminder of the nearness of the war and of the need to eradicate slackness in A.R.P procedures.
By the year’s end confidence in Queensland’s safety was reflected in the decision of the state government in November to reopen the state’s schools. Relations with U.S. troops also appeared to be deteriorating, both from a military and civilian viewpoint, as 1942 progressed. One might suggest that this was the result of the decreased threat of Japanese invasion which allowed people to become more aware of domestic concerns such as the infringement on their lives caused by the U.S. presence or ‘occupation’ as it was styled by some. The establishment of the Independent Company Training Centre at Cunungra – which was to incorporate the pre-existing Guerilla Warfare School of Foster, Victoria – might also be seen in a similar light. Its establishment in Queensland intimated a belief in the stability of the state as well as being a more practical area in which to conduct jungle training. Consideration was also being given for the use of Fraser Island as a training base for commando troops. From the beginning of 1943 Army policy clearly dictated offensive operations in New Guinea as representing the prime defence of Eastern Australia and expressed a need to review the roles of the Home Defence units. VDC units were in fact being relieved of coast watching duties toward the end of 1942 as the regular services became more established in Queensland.
On 18 June 1943 the Prime minister issued a public statement in which he declared the invasion threat to be over. His declaration was a response to mounting criticisms over his constant negative comments on the progress of the war. ‘Mine is not a belated realization’ he claimed, though it is hard to interpret it in any other manner. Irrespective of this, Northern command still continued to improve defensive measures and training. Work continued throughout the war on the strengthening of defensive positions throughout the state. Events such as the Japanese submarine attacks on Sydney and Newcastle in May and June 1942 were a proof of what could happen and prompted an immediate review of the defences of the Fitzroy and Calliope Rivers above Brisbane. Farther north at Cairns, however, it was not until 1944 that a submarine boom was put in place.
The reason for this continued defensive preparation was twofold. First, there was a need to put the vast array of military resources that were being accrued, particularly manpower, to some service. Second, the threat of invasion had revealed inherent weaknesses in Australia’s defensive capacity and it was sensible to improve such defects immediately. A third reason might well be added, that being, that the whole commitment of Australia to military tasks served a political end in that it provided a national focus to the good and one not without economic benefit.
For the defenders of Queensland, military service was largely one of training and routine with the actual Japanese assault limited to a small number of air attacks – three air raids, in late July 1942, against the mainland at Townsville, eight raids on Horn Island in which one soldier was killed, and one against Mossman where one child was wounded. Thursday Island, too, was subjected to some raids. Apart from the loss of one life, little damage was incurred. The last recorded raid against Northern Command occurred over Horn Island on 18 June 1943, the same day that Curtin declared that the Japanese could not now invade Australia.
To all intents and purposes, Northern Command was divested of the direct responsibility for the front line defence of Australia with the establishment of 1st Army in Queensland. Thereafter Northern Command came under direct field supervision of General Blamey. Although their defensive role essentially remained unchanged the gravity of the situation was much relieved. Even though Japan did not launch an invasion of Australia, Northern Command had performed an important role during the early months of 1942. They formed an essential part of Australia’s frontline and for the people in North Queensland; the VDC at least, represented the only visible form of defence apart from the rather inadequate fixed defences. Given the concerns being aired and the actual steps of evacuation that were implemented, the VDC’s presence was clearly not perceived as being one capable of withstanding any major landing and, indeed, its military role was meant to be only one of harassment. The capacity of Northern Command to mount a viable and effective defence against any actual major invasion belongs to the realm of conjecture. Certainly an effective scorched earth policy would likely have been invoked but beyond that most Queenslanders would be thankful that the real test was never encountered.
 Northern Command was commanded by Major-General James Murdoch Archer Durrant. C.M.G, D.S.O, A.M.F. Durrant had served in the First AIF, commanding the 13th Battalion during 1916-17.
 AWM 60, 228/41.
 AWM 60, 1232/41. See `appreciation dated 23 September 1941 for figures re VDC.
 AWM 60, 2938/42. Letter dated 5 June 1942 to HQ, QLD L of C Area. Sixteen guns were dispatched to Brisbane, eight to Townsville and four to Cairns.
 AWM 60, 93/41. Letter dated 28 february 1939 to HQ 1st District Base from Secretary to the Military Board.
 AWM 60, 148/40. Appreciation of the Situation, 28 June 1940.
 AWM 60, 93/41. Letter dated 17 July 1940, ref: 236/40 to the Secretary, Military Board from Major-General Commanding Northern Command; AWM 60, file: 531/41.
 AWM 60, 228A/41. Appreciation dated 21 April 1941, p. 6.
 AWM, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive S724, Interview with Edward Keating, conducted 4 September 1989, transcript, p. 9.
 Courier Mail, 1 December 1941.
 AWM 54, 243/5/34. Cablegram dated 13/12/41 rec’d 14/12/41, circular M. 454 to the Prime minister from the Sec. of State for the Dominions.
 Courier Mail, 27 December 1941.
 AWM 60, 66/1/56.
 Ibid., A copy of the article is contained in this file.
 AWM 54, 199/1/4.report of the G.O.C-in-C Home Forces to the Honourable The Minister of the Army, dated 19 January 1942.
 AWM 60, SU 186/42.
 Courier Mail, 28 January 1942; 20 February 1942.
 Courier Mail, 6 February 1942.
 Courier Mail, 19 February 1942.
 AWM 60, G40/1. Secret Report of Conference between military and civil authorities at Victoria Barracks, 25 January 1942.
 AWM 52, 4/19/9. Unit War Diary of the Townsville Fixed Defences, Heavy Artillery, March to April, 1942, entries, 1/3/42.
 AWM 60, 1339/41.
 Courier Mail, 25 February 1942, ‘From the editor’s mailbag’.
 AWM 54, 199/1/4. See report ‘Home Forces Exercise – Sydney 24-27 Feb’, p. 2, paragraph 9.
 Department of the Army, File 704/3/29, Subject: First Report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Military Forces, dated 16/12/1938. See press statement titled ‘Report of the Inspector-General of the Australian Military Forces.
 D. M. Horner, Crisis of Command: Australian Generalship and the Japanese Threat, 1941-1943, ANU Press, pp. 26-7, source cited as AWM 422/7/8, ‘Appreciation of the Situation’ by GOC Northern Command at Brisbane, 24 September 1941.
 AWM 60, 21/42 and 133/42.
 Courier Mail, 10 March 1942.
 Courier Mail, 10 March 1942; 27 March 1942.
 Courier Mail, 19 March 1942; D. H. Johnson, Torres Strait to Coral Sea: The Defence of North Queensland, p. 108.
 D. M. Horner, High Command, p. 195.
 Sunday Telegraph, 1 February 1942.
 AWM, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive S534, Interview with Joe Mulhall conducted 24 February 1989, transcript, p. 38.
 AWM, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive S711, Interview with George Bromley conducted 19 June 1989, transcript, pp. 13-14.
 Queensland Times, 12 May 1942.
 Courier Mail, 27 July 1942.
 AWM 54, 183/3/3.Contains comprehensive reports on the problems of civilian and military relations. See report titled ‘Public Relations Report, Qld L. of C. Area dated 15 September 1943.
 AWM 60, 9/923/42.
 AWM 60, 9/1524/43.
 AWM, Blamey personal papers, series 2, 3DRL 6643, 2/23.72. See report titled ‘Army Policy’ dated 3 January 1943.
 AWM 123, 405. See ‘Statement by the Prime Minister for Press’ dated 18 June 1943.
 AWM 60, 9/856/42.
 Statistics contained in booklet ‘Japanese Air Raids on Mainland Australia, 1942-44’ compiled by Ian Jenkins and held at the Australian War Memorial.
 AWM 60, 228/42. ‘Situation Report – Thursday Is. Sector’.