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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume III

Appendix II — Visit of Ministers from Dominions and of a Representative from India — AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND NAVAL DEFENCE (Winter 1939)

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Appendix II
Visit of Ministers from Dominions and of a Representative from India


Note by the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence

In accordance with the conclusions reached at the meeting between Ministers of the United Kingdom and of the Dominions, held at 4.30 p.m. on Monday, 20 November 1939, I circulate herewith a revised Memorandum on Australian and New Zealand Naval Defence. This Memorandum was approved by the United Kingdom War Cabinet at their meeting on 23 November, 1939, and should be considered as taking the place of the Memorandum previously circulated as Paper No. DMV (39) 3.1


Richmond Terrace, SW 1,
23 November 1939

Singapore is a fortress armed with five 15-inch guns and garrisoned by nearly 20,000 men. It could only be taken after a siege by an army of at least 50,000 men, who would have to be landed in the marshes and jungle of the Isthmus which connects it with the mainland. As Singapore is as far from Japan as Southampton is from New York, the operation of moving a Japanese army with all its troopships and maintaining it with men and munitions during a siege would be forlorn. Moreover, such a siege, which should last at least four or five months, would be liable to be interrupted if at any time Great Britain chose to send a superior fleet to the scene. In this case the besieging army would become prisoners of war. It is not considered possible that the Japanese, who are a prudent people and reserve their strength for the command of the Yellow Seas and China, in which they are fully occupied, would embark upon such a mad enterprise.

2. Even less likely is the invasion of Australia or New Zealand by Japan. To do this Japan would have to despatch and subsequently maintain a large army more than 3000 miles from home, with the possibility that at any time a British fleet would arrive to cut the communications; in which case all would be lost. Such an operation in its political aspects would certainly be resented by the United States, but as long as there are well-armed Australian and New Zealand military forces and a superior British fleet in being in any part of the world, it is needless to suppose that such an enterprise would be attempted.

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It is always possible that a long-range submarine or raiding cruiser might turn up and insult Australian or New Zealand shores by firing a few shells into some seaport city, or cause temporary inconvenience by disturbing the coastal trade. But Japan would hardly be likely to reap any result except resentment from such escapades.

3. The power of a predominant fleet is exercised simultaneously in all quarters of the globe in which it has bases. This is irrespective of the station it occupies at any given moment, provided that it is not permanently tied to that station. At the beginning of the present War, the Admiralty had to contemplate fighting Italy in the Mediterranean as well as Germany and the U-boats in the North Sea and the Atlantic. This was thought to be not beyond our strength. In these circumstances the first step obviously was to beat the Italians and recover the command of the Mediterranean. With the French Fleet, which is highly efficient and as strong as the Italian, this ought to have been achieved in a few months. Meanwhile, Singapore, even if it had been attacked, could have resisted. However, if the result in the Mediterranean had been long delayed, or the German and U-boat pressure had become too severe, the Admiralty could have closed the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and at the Suez Canal, and, sacrificing our important interests in that area, proceeded to the relief of Singapore, or, of course, a fortiori to the aid of Australia or New Zealand supposing either was the victim of a serious attack.

4. Now, however, that Italy is neutral and may even become a friend, the British Fleet has become again entirely mobile. Only a very few capital ships are needed in the North Sea to contain the small German Fleet and support the blockade from Scotland to Greenland. All the rest are now ranging freely about the oceans, either on convoy work, or hunting raiders. Although it is not at present within our power to place a superior battle fleet in the Home waters of Japan, it would be possible, if it were necessary, to place a squadron of battleships in the Far East sufficient to act as a major deterrent on Japanese action so far from home, or to send capital ships to Australian or New Zealand waters from the moment that the danger to either Singapore, Australia or New Zealand developed in a manner which made their protection a real and practical war need. The Admiralty accepts the full responsibility of defending Australia, New Zealand or Singapore from a Japanese attack on a large scale, and after containing the German heavy ships they have forces at their disposal for these essential purposes. The chief difficulty would arise from the stringency in destroyer strength; but this situation should improve as our building programmes develop and as the U-boat is mastered by our attack. It is, however, wise to use every vessel we possess to the highest possible advantage in the fighting area, and only to move them to other waters when the War moves thither. The Admiralty are, therefore, most grateful for the loyal and clairvoyant strategy which has to the uninstructed eye denuded Australia and New Zealand of naval force. In particular, the assistance of the Australian destroyers is of invaluable aid. But we wish to make it plain that we regard the defence of Australia and New Zealand, and of Singapore as a stepping stone to these two Dominions, as ranking next to the mastering of the principal fleet to which we are opposed, and that if the choice were presented of defending them against a serious attack, or sacrificing British interests in the Mediterranean, our duty to our kith and kin would take precedence.

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It seems very unlikely, however, that this bleak choice will arise during the next year or two, which is what we have to consider at the present time.

5. Hitherto this note has dealt only with the gravest issues of a major attack upon Singapore or a serious invasion of Australia or New Zealand. However, the question has been raised of an encroachment by Japan upon the Dutch Colonies in the East Indies, probably arising out of a German invasion of Holland, in which event it might be assumed that we should be involved in a state of war with Japan. It seems very unlikely that the United States would impassively watch the acquisition by Japan of naval bases west and south-west of the Philippines. Such an act of Japanese aggression would seriously compromise the whole American position in the Pacific, and it cannot be doubted that Japan would weigh this consideration with the utmost care before committing herself, having regard especially to the fact that she is already deeply entangled in China. The contingency must, therefore, be regarded as highly improbable, unless, of course, Great Britain and France are getting the worst of it, when many evils will descend upon us all.

However, should Japanese encroachment begin, or should Great Britain pass into a state of war with Japan, the Admiralty would make such preparatory dispositions as would enable them to offer timely resistance either to the serious attack upon Singapore or to the invasion of Australia and New Zealand. These dispositions would not necessarily take the form of stationing a fleet at Singapore, but would be of a character to enable the necessary concentrations to be made to the eastward in ample time to prevent a disaster. With our present limited forces we cannot afford to have any important portion of H.M. Fleet idle. All ships must play their part from day to day, and there are always the hazards of war to be faced, but the Admiralty can be trusted to make the appropriate dispositions to meet events as they emerge from imagination into reality.

6. Finally, it must be pointed out that we are now at the lowest point of our strength compared to Germany and Japan. As our new battleships now being built come into service, the relative position should steadily improve.

There are no naval grounds, therefore, always assuming that the United States is our friend, which should prevent the despatch of Australian and New Zealand armies to the decisive battlefields, where their name stands so high.

21 November 1939

1 On the naval defence of Australia.