Rupture?

The United States' entry into the war had been greeted by Churchill as the salvation of the Empire and he departed at once to visit his new coalition partner, undoubtedly primus inter pares. In his absence from London, and just a day after fighting had begun in the Pacific, Page had written to Canberra setting out the many deficiencies that he saw in the relationship with Britain.1 To rectify them he wanted to find a method that would allow Australian influence to be exerted as policy was being decided. This did not mean the creation of an Imperial War Cabinet but, instead, regular visits by special representatives who would stay for two or three months, attend the War Cabinet and support the high commissioner. In short they would 'come for a special job, get it done and get away'. Page also had strong opinions about the position of secretary of state for Dominion affairs. This should be one of Britain's most senior politicians, indeed, were it not for the fact that he already had so much to do, the prime minister would be the most obvious direct link with the Dominions. The clear inference, of course, was that Cranborne was not up to the job and should be replaced. Brooke-Popham, one of the many official British visitors to Australia during the latter half of 1941, had warned Whitehall of the growing need to make his hosts 'feel that we in England look upon them as definitely part of one Empire'.2 It was implied, somewhat prophetically, that were this not to happen there would be a risk of them 'slipping out'. This was now the danger as the Australian government insisted that better use be made of Page who, having heard that the Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk, had begun his own efforts to broaden his role.3 The authorities in Canberra were told the following year, by another Australian visitor, that all Page achieved during this period was to create 'a deplorable impression' and 'exerted little influence' in terms of wartime strategy. Nonetheless guarantees were secured that troops and planes would be diverted from the Middle East as well as an agreement that he would be given access to all of the facilities Curtin had requested.4

With mounting press comment in London about how Australia was reacting to the expanding war, there was again unease within Whitehall about the tone of some of Canberra's telegrams.5 Churchill was focused on his Washington meetings, but he was advised that recent messages were 'both critical and querulous' and contained 'demands and allegations made not on the basis of ascertained facts but on unspecified information and prior assumptions'.6 The atmosphere in London had grown extremely tense as 'the old gang' of Chamberlain supporters began to sense the prime minister was becoming politically vulnerable.7 As his deputy warned him, and as Cranborne and the DO had also long asked, calls for closer cooperation with Australia and the rest of the Dominions could no longer sensibly be resisted.8 On Boxing Day 1941, Australia's leader told Roosevelt and Churchill that the authorities in Canberra would be happy to accept an American commander in the Pacific. The following day, in a special 'New Year' article contributed to a leading Melbourne newspaper, Curtin went even further, writing that 'Australia looks to America, free of pangs as to our traditional links and kinship with the United Kingdom'.9 This was not the first time an Australian leader had referred to the Dominions' right to look beyond London for foreign policy guidance; Menzies had stated back in April 1939 that, where the Pacific was concerned, his government needed its own diplomatic contacts.10 The following year he had reiterated this view when asking Roosevelt to intervene directly in the Pacific and secure a peaceful resolution with Japan.11 The DO had ensured that these appeals received little media attention back in Britain but Curtin's new statement could not be so easily handled.12

To one contemporary commentator, the dissolution of the British Commonwealth was at hand.13 Cranborne's immediate advice following this latest development remained the same as it had always been, the Dominions would have to be given a weightier political role.14 The question of an Empire War Cabinet had again been raised in the House of Commons shortly after the Japanese attack in the Far East but the government had gone no further in response other than to say that this remained 'under constant consideration'. Having instructed Attlee to inform the War Cabinet of just how 'deeply shocked' Curtin's 'insulting speech' had left him, Churchill was not, however, in any mood for compromise. Travelling with Churchill, Sir Ian Jacob noted that although his companion had never really understood Far Eastern problems, throughout the war the Australian government had taken 'a narrow, selfish and at times craven view of events', in stark contrast to New Zealand.15 Much of his displeasure may well have been down to the fact that Curtin's decision to make his views known publicly had generated considerable press interest in Britain, exactly what the DO had been trying to avoid.16 The arrival of a report from Cross did little to improve the situation, the British high commissioner was downbeat about the Australian war effort handicapped as it was by a 'lack of political leadership, a shoddy and irresponsible press and a number of trade union leaders reaping a dirty harvest'. Machtig thought it all 'a desperate picture'; Cranborne noted that the report had been delayed as it had come by sea and hoped that Japan's entry into the war during the interim might have had some positive effect.17 Nevertheless, the situation in Canberra clearly left him dejected, the government there could do little other than 'squabble, grumble and blame others, in particular us'. And his mood was made all the worse, as he told Churchill, by the British public's obvious shock at the recent Australian outburst. Indeed so negative had the reaction been that he had asked the Ministry of Information to discourage further press speculation.18

On the final day of 1941, Sir Earle Page talked once more with Cranborne. During the preceding three weeks his focus had remained improving Australia's position and he had enjoyed some success. Discussions with senior British political figures had yielded promises that all FO papers, irrespective of their subject matter, would be made available for him to inspect. Perhaps emboldened by this agreement, the Australian now shared his thoughts on how the Anglo-Dominion alliance should operate in future, specifically in the first instance Britain's relationship with his own country.19 It was his view that ministers from the Dominions should join the Defence Committee, the Ministry of Supply and a man 'of considerable standing' should be embedded within the FO where they could view papers and put forward opinions. Cranborne was also left in little doubt, not for the first time by a visiting Australian, that he was much too junior and was not a suitable person to be the secretary of state. Page's considered opinion was that somebody who was a member of both the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee should fill the position, which in future would have to be 'regarded as second only to the Prime Minister'. In the face of such frank advice Cranborne remained affable, seeing 'some force' in the arguments.20 He even circulated recommendations to the FO that, as a first step, his Whitehall colleagues should appoint a representative, with the rank of under-secretary, to act as a liaison with the DO. This would be helpful not just for the Dominions but, as he rather caustically pointed out, it would also aid a department which was still often not consulted at the earliest stages.

The Dominions secretary also correctly assumed that Page would waste little time in sending his revised proposals to Canberra. The idea that Bruce should be made the permanent accredited representative was rejected by Curtin but London was informed that an Australian politician would be sent and it was expected that he would have the right to be heard in the War Cabinet.21 This prompted Cranborne to write directly to Eden to suggest, yet again, that the existing system needed to be changed.22 Within the FO the reaction was decidedly unenthusiastic, Victor Cavendish Bentinck being most notable for the patronising tone in which he referred to the alliance partners; Cranborne's proposals would achieve little other than 'please the Dominions'.23 This senior official also appeared worried that there was insufficient knowledge of 'the mentality' of the Dominion governments to allow the liaison role to function properly. One of his colleagues did, however, recognize that a clear problem existed in so much as the DO was a 'channel for the discussion of policy, the finished article', but 'does not take much hand in the processing of the raw material, in the formulation of policy'.24 As Cranborne had passionately argued now for some months, the proposed solution was to find a method to allow the Dominion leaders to put forward amendments at a much earlier stage. It was also understood that the issue had now assumed 'big proportions' and, hence, would need to be discussed with Churchill on his return from the United States.

The prime minister was, however, already fully occupied at this stage dealing with another Australian complaint. During his Washington discussions he had agreed with Roosevelt's proposal that General Wavell be appointed supreme commander of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) command area.25 The authorities in Canberra seemed relatively content with this until they learned that the defence of Australia and Papua New Guinea was not to be included. Curtin and his colleagues were left angered by what was felt to be the ignoring of the Dominion's security. This was not repeated across the Tasman, however, where the reaction of the public to the worsening local situation was noted by the high commissioner as having been 'remarkably calm'.26 As Batterbee told the DO, with some obvious sense of satisfaction, the greater distance of New Zealand from the Japanese menace could account for some of the difference. There was also 'a clear conscience', the knowledge that the authorities in Wellington had a war record beyond reproach which left no requirement 'to cover up their shortcomings by blaming other people'. From Canberra there came more angry telegrams, the net outcome being Curtin insisting that the Dominion be included within the new command area. Churchill offered soothing words about how he recognized Australia's interests but privately he remained dismissive of any criticism of his handling of the relationship with the authorities in Canberra. While recuperating from a mild stroke in Florida, his mood had been downright belligerent, highly critical of people of 'bad stock'.27 He would not agree to any change and asked for time to reconsider the scheme's detail. Casey had been told by Canberra that this request was far from ideal and would likely receive a 'very hostile' reaction if the military position worsened. The Australian representative in Washington nonetheless saw this as a good opportunity to again press London to accept greater Dominion representation.28

After his three-week absence, Churchill returned to Britain to more bad news. The garrison at Hong Kong had already long since surrendered. Successive chiefs of staff appreciations had outlined the inevitably of its loss in the event of any determined Japanese assault. Churchill had himself written to Ismay in January 1941 that there was 'not the slightest chance' that it could be held or even relieved—yet when the expected collapse came he still expressed surprise:

The worst thing that has happened is the collapse of the resistance of Hong Kong; although one knew it was a forlorn outpost, we expected that they would hold out on the fortified island for a good many weeks, possibly for several months, but now they seem on the verge of surrender after only a fortnight's struggle.29

While in Washington he had remained confident that Singapore would fare much better and be able to hold off a Japanese attack for as long as two months, but the information he received now suggested otherwise. He informed Curtin that, in his opinion, the loss of Malaya had been inevitable in light of the general war situation, but urged his counterpart not to become 'dismayed or get into recrimination', nor to doubt 'his loyalty to [both] Australia and New Zealand'.30 To his Cabinet he rejected the need for greater cooperation, arguing that it would not be possible until such time as the Australians had put to one side 'their Party feud and set up a National Government' and the sincerity of the prime minister's sensitivity towards his fellow Dominion leader was not difficult to spot.31 An obvious example was the Far Eastern Council which it had been agreed to establish, to 'focus and formulate views' in London before passing them on to Roosevelt. Canberra had not been informed of this decision in advance and heard two days after the authorities in Wellington. When official confirmation arrived it was not surprising therefore that this was critically received. Indeed the Advisory War Council quickly declared its unanimous disagreement with the proposal and instead requested that a Pacific Council be established in Washington.32

Cranborne's problems in Canberra were not restricted to the criticism coming from the Australian government. In a long and often venomous telegram sent to London, Cross had launched a sustained attack on the Australian leadership. Relations in the past had always been based on 'the assumption that the Commonwealth government shared the spirit of Imperial Partnership', but in recent weeks it had become obvious to him that this was no longer forthcoming. The former British minister believed that there was clear evidence showing 'abuse of the United Kingdom authorities'. He therefore urged the DO to help him gain better access to the Australian War Cabinet and to the messages it was sending to London as 'the time [had] come to collect all our weapons and to fight for British prestige'. The greatest alarm was reserved, however, for his final recommendation, that economic pressure be applied with a British refusal to undertake 'negotiations of a commercial or financial character'. The Dominions secretary was aghast, so much so that Cross was warned that to pursue such a line would not bring Australia closer but instead 'give further stimulus to their tendency to look to the United States'. Although he was sympathetic to his high commissioner's situation, Cranborne had already acknowledged privately that he had 'taken to lecturing Australian Ministers as if they were small and rather dirty boys'.33 Shortly after his arrival in Australia, Cross had written back to London that he was 'puzzled' by what he had found. In the intervening period he had endured a difficult time, particularly after the Labour Party had assumed power in Canberra. Much of the reason for this was an ill-advised public statement he had made in which he reminded his audience of Russia's communist heritage. In so doing even he would later recognize that he had tied 'a Tory label around [his] neck'. Duff Cooper had visited Canberra in December 1941 and been warned by no less a person than the governor-general that 'if you start wrong in Australia you can never get right again'; this was exactly what had happened to the high commissioner.34

Just four days after Churchill had returned to London following his Washington visit, Cranborne submitted two memoranda to the War Cabinet, both examining the issue of cooperation with the Dominions.35 In his first paper the warning was given that 'it would ... be a great and possibly disastrous mistake ... to underestimate the strength of the feeling arising in the Commonwealth [of Australia] on this question'. Making the danger worse in his view, there was also the potential that 'a rot which started in Australia might easily spread to other Dominions'. This was therefore a genuine crisis, 'an issue not merely of machinery, but even more of status', which could be averted only through wise statesmanship. Cranborne duly recommended, yet again, that if Australia wanted to attend the War Cabinet in London it should be granted this right, 'a gesture that would pay us a hundredfold'. The other Dominions should also be invited to attend although he thought they would probably decline such an offer.36 The caveat remained, however, that representatives would only be allowed to attend if they had authority to actually make decisions, a point upon which Churchill had been insistent.37 Even before the War Cabinet had seen these papers, King George VI had himself read both of them. The prime minister received warning that the British Empire's sovereign had been greatly 'alarmed at the feeling which appears to be growing in Australia'.38 In his almost immediate reply to the King's private secretary he now accepted that 'it would be foolish and vain to obstruct [Australian] wishes', offering an assurance that he had already heeded Curtin's requests.39 This news was welcomed at Buckingham Palace and it was made quite clear that the King would remain an interested observer of how the situation developed.40

A more generally sympathetic mood now spread throughout Whitehall. Even Cadogan, in trying to decide how to implement Page's earlier proposals, felt that it was time something should be done. With Eden's agreement, this would lead ultimately to the defunct DID gaining a renewed role.41 The only people who seemed less than pleased with the changes were the Dominion high commissioners. All of them doubted the merits of an Imperial War Cabinet and were even of the opinion that sending ministers to London was not practicable.42 Massey in particular wanted it stressed that Australia had assumed the driving role and 'that it was for other governments concerned to decide whether they wished to avail themselves of the facilities'.43 Curtin may still have wanted more but the proposals as they stood could already cause embarrassment for Mackenzie King in Ottawa. With Jordan still refusing to attend meetings with his counterparts because of his 'confirmed inferiority complex', Waterson concurred in his diary that 'it should not be made awkward for Governments not to accept the offer of Cabinet representation'.44 Privately he was more interested in the proposals as it appeared he saw another opportunity for enhancing his position, telling Smuts that there was 'no reason why the High Commissioner should not be nominated [as] accredited representative'.45 The South African leader's response was to send a reminder that, in his opinion, the Dominions' policy should simply be to offer Churchill 'wholehearted support in the immense dangers confronting us all'.46 There was still very little evidence of anything like this degree of support from Canberra and the proposed Far East Council, to be headed by the British government, had become a major source of irritation. New Zealand was also unhappy, Fraser advising that, although he was 'very sorry to worry' Churchill, his government could not accept any proposal which failed to give them 'direct and continuous' access to the United States.47 Only days before the government in Wellington had accepted that an American Admiral would be responsible for the conduct of naval operations in the waters surrounding New Zealand.48 Cranborne had been directly tasked to resolve the tension and he decided that Roosevelt had to be approached. The US leader was duly informed therefore that Australia and New Zealand both preferred a Pacific Council based in Washington.49 Relations had, however, taken a dramatic turn for the worse with a new telegram from Curtin. Menzies had assured the British public that no Australian leader would 'stand on any platform and attack Great Britain'.50 This new message carried with it the suggestion that an evacuation of Singapore would be seen by the Australian government as 'an inexcusable betrayal'.51 This explosive charge originated from a secret communication produced by the British prime minister which mooted the possible abandonment of Singapore. Intended for the three Chiefs of Staff it had inadvertently been shown to Page who had in turn passed it on to Curtin.52 Churchill's initial response was indignant, warning his Australian counterpart that he would 'make allowances for your anxiety and ... not allow such discourtesy to cloud my judgement or lessen my efforts on your behalf'.53 This note was eventually not sent, but its tone made clear the extent of the British leader's renewed anger. Others in Whitehall were equally upset with the recriminations. The Australian leader, a 'wretched second-rate man ... screaming for help', found himself castigated along with his countrymen who had 'suddenly woken up to the cold and hard fact that [Australia's] very existence as a white country depends not on herself but on protection from Great Britain'.54

Publicly the groundswell of opinion in favour of the need for changes to take place actually appeared to be considerable.55 A commentary published in The Round Table in February 1942 concluded that with the widening war, the Dominions secretary should now be a full member of the War Cabinet. The Times also carried an editorial endorsing a more significant role for the Dominions in formulating Imperial policy.56 At the same time accompanying the demands for the rapid agreement of 'improved machinery for consultation', somewhat fanciful calls began to again resurface lauding the merits of an Imperial War Conference.57 There were also vivid published accounts for British readers of how a Japanese invasion of Australia could be mounted.58 In one version, a heavy aerial bombardment would be followed by simultaneous landings at Darwin, Cairns and Townsville. In other accounts Brisbane and even Freemantle were mentioned as targets for 'Jap' paratroopers while the so-called 'Brisbane Line' became a cause célèbre as the focal point of concentration of defence in the vital south-east of the country. Plans existed for a 'scorched earth' policy if there was an actual invasion. Although the Japanese had actually decided that they would isolate Australia—and ignore New Zealand altogether—in the Antipodes the worst was assumed.

In the last week of January 1942 Churchill stood before the House of Commons to make a lengthy statement. This provided a detailed analysis of the war situation and formed part of a debate that parliament was told he considered as a vote of confidence in his leadership. He also took the opportunity presented by his speech to confirm that accredited representatives of any of the four Dominions would have the right to be heard in the War Cabinet.59 Waterson felt that the speech was 'a great performance'.60 So much so that the South African believed if he were now 'to change his Cabinet a bit', the prime minister's position could not be challenged. Churchill's announcement was, however, heartily condemned within sections of the British media, not because it was seen as going too far but, rather, that it did not go far enough. The conclusion was that the 'Commonwealth would still be ruled by Britain alone, just as Britain is ruled by Mr Churchill'. His actions threatened to 'wipe out a hundred and sixty years or so of constitutional progress and to hark back upon the traditions of George III and Lord North, who split the English-speaking world'. One correspondent called the proposals 'humiliating' while another saw them as 'slightly ungracious'.61 There had been an astonishing level of improvisation relied upon to make the alliance machinery work and this had 'manifestly failed'. The solution in this case was seen to be an 'Imperial Executive', one that answered to an 'Imperial Legislature' empowered to impose an Empire-wide tax to fund Imperial defence.62 This was accompanied by continuing political debate with Cranborne, speaking in the House of Lords in January 1942, confirming that it was intended to make some changes at the formative level, the lower level of consultation over matters of defence, foreign affairs and supply.63 Elibank understood Churchill's speech to mean that visiting prime ministers from the Dominions would no longer merely be invited to attend War Cabinet meetings but would automatically become members. He was corrected by the Dominions secretary, who told him that this membership would apply when the general conduct of the war was under discussion, allowing them to be involved in the formulation of policy. The War Cabinet was, however, responsible to the British Parliament of which they were not members.

The following day the message was formally repeated to each of the overseas Dominion governments along with the news that they were being invited to send service liaison officers to keep in contact with the chiefs of staff organization.64 The day before there had been further warnings in the British press from Curtin that with 'too many flowery words' from Whitehall, 'patience has limits'.65 The reaction to Churchill's speech among the Australian media had meanwhile been generally favourable, one newspaper describing it 'as a masterly political speech of a magnificent political fighter'.66 While the government in Canberra was still far from satisfied, after some further discussion it was agreed that with the right to representation secured, they would agree to the London-based council. Curtin believed that the calibre of the individual selected to press the Dominion's claims would be crucial, and in the first instance it would be the far from convincing Page.67 The Australian had spent the intervening weeks building a power-base. Among his supporters apparently was Ernest Bevin, who had provided 'the most stimulating and satisfactory talk [he] had with any Empire statesman since coming to Britain in the last twenty years'.68 The Minister of Labour had suggested to him that the FO should absorb the DO making it 'the second office in government' and offered to support 'a united Empire front'.

The position in Singapore was now unquestionably the coalition's focus and further deterioration was accompanied by a lengthy debate in the House of Lords. Running over two days, it was permeated by a sense of outrage that the coming debacle should have been allowed to happen.69 One commentator offered a typically Churchillian view: 'Clearly the defence of Singapore is not going to last much longer ... One feels terribly depressed—more depressed, I think, than after Dunkirk—to be beaten and humiliated in this way by Asiatics is almost more than a Victorian Englishman can bear!'70 The subsequent collapse of resistance in Malaya perhaps, therefore, brought with it a certain sense of release. Described by Curtin as 'Australia's Dunkirk', the well-documented defeat inflicted upon the garrison defending Singapore had a chilling effect throughout the Empire on public and political opinion alike.71 In the days following, Churchill found himself under great pressure to implement a major restructuring of his government and when he again faced an obviously hostile House of Commons he had already bowed to the inevitable.72 The series of changes that he announced were said to reflect the expanded nature of the war but it was clear that they were intended to help re-instil faltering confidence in the prime minister's ability to lead. Notable among them was the resignation of some formerly key figures such as Max Beaverbrook and Arthur Greenwood, the promotion of others including Oliver Lyttelton, and the overall reduction of the War Cabinet from nine to seven members.

Also included among the promotions was that of the Labour politician Sir Stafford Cripps, who had emerged as a favoured candidate to become Dominions secretary among certain of the high commissioners in London.73 Seen by Churchill as one of his most serious potential threats he instead became Lord Privy Seal and the Leader of the House.74 Attlee, in being confirmed officially as deputy prime minister, a role he had been effectively fulfilling for some time, was named as the new secretary of state for Dominion affairs.75 This decision marked the formal acceptance of everything that had been so passionately argued for by Cranborne and those senior members of the DO who had supported him throughout the previous 16 months. The now former minister, although apparently at one stage considered as the next possible foreign secretary, had once more been struck down by a bout of ill-health, and was instead offered the role of colonial secretary, which he gratefully accepted.76 His considerable achievements at the DO, a department into which he had breathed much needed spirit and confidence, would ensure that Bobbety would be long-remembered after his departure. It would be up to his successor to implement the changes he had sought to implement and help ensure that the Anglo-Dominion relationship prospered in the environment of an expanded global conflict. Unfortunately within the DO his replacement was seen to have neither the knowledge for his new role nor the interest, instead appearing to those who surrounded him as being 'somewhat aloof'.77

Despite the much enhanced role of the new Dominions secretary, the reaction from the high commissioners was much the same and similar to that which had been endured by Attlee's predecessors. He had greater seniority but both Bruce and Massey found him dull and taciturn, talking with him was like 'a conversation with a bronze Buddha except for the monosyllabic ejaculations which he utters occasionally'.78 Waterson was typically scornful: 'Went to the House to hear Attlee on the war situation. He treated [it] to an insulting meagre string of platitudes. The members were impatient and rather badly behaved like schoolboys when the headmaster is away and a weak under-master is temporarily in charge.' One DO civil servant told the South African that he now served under a secretary of state 'who would be ideally suited as an assistant manager of a bank in a small town in the south of England'. Bruce was so disgusted with the paucity of information still being distributed that the first week of March found him claiming to be on the point of resigning.79 To a man the Dominions' representatives were also unimpressed with the expanded War Cabinet which, in their eyes, had changed from being 'a joke' to 'a farce'.80 They were perhaps naive to expect more for, as one London journal pointed out to its readership, the changes in fact offered little that was new.81 This was the result of a 'species of arrogant negligence' for which the British prime minister was directly responsible meaning ultimately Britain would continue to rule the Commonwealth.

Militarily the situation was also showing little sign of improvement. The acrimonious dispute over whether Australian troops should be sent to Rangoon showed that the coalition was not pulling together in the face of the Japanese advance. It was a cause for extreme bitterness within the parliament in Canberra, and raised questions from the British high commissioner about who was in control, Curtin or Evatt.82 At Westminster Harold Nicolson could only lament that 'the whole Eastern Empire has gone. Australia has as good as gone. Poor little England. But I should not have minded all this so much if we had fought well.'83 This last point was difficult to counter. At the same time, while Singapore had now passed into enemy hands it continued to poison relations within the alliance. Numerous reports continued to be received in London about the conduct of Australian troops. Although these were largely considered as still being unofficial, many talked of Anzac troops deserting en masse, throwing away their guns, rushing ships at the Kippel Harbour and generally wandering the streets of Singapore Town drunk and stealing from the local populace. Among the many devastating charges was reference to the commonly used local nickname for them, 'daffodils', so named because they were 'beautiful to look at but yellow all through'. Reviewing these the DO was concerned that censorship would not prove enough to prevent such damaging accounts from gaining a much wider coverage: 'As these stories spread throughout the Empire, they will inevitably lower the opinion in the Empire of the Australians in general and Australian troops in particular. Whether or not they are true they can only be damaging to Anglo-Australian relations.' Nobody was passing judgement, as it was recognized that there was 'no disgrace to troops to be defeated by a superior force', and no attempt was made in these Whitehall reports to ignore the fact that some British and Indian troops had also broken in the face of the Japanese attacks. The issue was that the reports all spoke of Australian forces as having been the most defeatist and least reliable and should such assessments get out the result would almost certainly be that the already strained relations which existed would likely deteriorate. Particularly as in the coming months those who had been evacuated or lost family members would likely make themselves more vocal and it was feared it would not be long before they made the charge that 'if the Australians had held we should not have lost Singapore'.84

The concern was not misplaced and the mood in the House of Commons was an angry one:

A lot of bitter comment in the Smoking Room today about the Singapore disaster. It seems to have been a terribly bad show if only half of what one is told is true—bad leadership and no guts anywhere—the Australians appear to have behaved abominably, giving up the unequal battle and boarding ships in the harbour—I suppose this will all be kept secret to spare their feelings—at any rate such I am told is the reason why the Government is unwilling to have an enquiry—possibly Winston fears one too!85

Calls for a public investigation were avoided but General Wavell was asked to produce a detailed private report on events leading up to the surrender. As Machtig rather adroitly put it, the findings made 'certain reflections upon the Australian troops who took part' and there was little enthusiasm about letting Bruce read a copy. Attlee felt it was inevitable that the Australian high commissioner would find out and recommended it be shown to him but Churchill refused. If Bruce mentioned the report he was to be told that it had been withheld to avoid 'a controversy breaking out on such a point which would be injurious to Imperial sentiment'.86 This did not prevent the prime minister from also making a public statement in which he said he could not disclose the report as it would cause bad feeling and this was noted by the press in Canberra. Trying to defend the Australian position in an article written for the Daily Express in April 1942, Menzies told his British readership:

Most of us like a good grumble occasionally; few of us are real haters. It is true that whispered anti-British agitation of a poisonous kind is going on, and good British Australians, the vast majority are unhappy about it. But I am convinced that these things are superficial and temporary; a resounding British success in some theatre of war would clear them. They are not a deep rooted condition; they are a skin irritation—a sort of eczema of war. You must also remember a little bit of human nature—that it is in many ways desirable to argue with a fellow bigger than yourself. It builds you up, even if it does not pull him down.87

It would be many months before Cross could write back to London with a more encouraging report about the Australian attitude.88 The fact that the war had come to Australia's very doorstep probably had had the greatest impact on public awareness. On the morning of 19 February 1942 nearly 200 Japanese planes had bombed the town of Darwin and 242 civilians and military personnel had been killed. The raid only lasted 45 minutes but the harbour was devastated with 25 ships sunk or damaged, among them an American destroyer. Many of the townspeople thought it to be the start of an invasion and panic resulted. The town was abandoned as civilians and deserting military fled along the road south in what later became known as the 'Adelaide River Stakes'; by the following day it was estimated that no more than 500 people were left.89 A new sense of seriousness was made clear when the South Australian government finally decided to ban all horse-racing and close the betting shops. There would, as a result, be virtually no sport organized for public amusement in the state, the first within the Commonwealth to take such a 'draconian' step.90

Matters were not helped by the worsening situation in the Western Desert. Here British Commonwealth forces found themselves forced to retreat in the face of a determined attack by Rommel's Afrika Korps and renewed Imperial disaster and humiliation followed. On 21 June 1942, after a final assault that lasted less than a day the port of Tobruk surrendered; garrisoned by South African, British and Indian troops, 33,000 men were captured along with vast amounts of supplies and equipment. For Churchill it seemed the British Army's morale had crumbled and he would later describe Tobruk's loss as one of the heaviest blows of the entire war.91 For his wartime coalition government it also presaged a serious parliamentary challenge although, in due course, this was easily seen off. The military commander on the ground, who Churchill would ultimately hold personally accountable for the disaster, was Auchinleck, and he complained back to London in July 1942 that he was hampered by his inability to detach subordinate Dominion formations for their parent divisions. In a sign of their growing independence, Dominion commanders refused to allow units to fight as piecemeal formations. The British general understood this was down to past events and political necessities but it hindered his flexibility and he reportedly never felt comfortable with troops he could not rely on not being suddenly removed from the fight.92 His deputy during the fighting around El Alamein in June and July 1942 even concluded that if there been three British divisions present prior to Tobruk's defeat as opposed to a largely Dominion force, 'we would have done better than we did'.93 The Empire appeared on the verge of collapse and nobody seemed to know how this might be stopped.

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