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Kokoda: not a war winner

By Stephen Barton - posted Monday, 2 September 2002

Wars and battles, or rather their commemorations, bring out the best in MPs. They make grand speeches in the House about sacrifice and duty.

Kokoda is the current campaign of choice, and according to a procession of parliamentarians it was the battle that saved Australia. Bronwyn Bishop made a particularly moving speech. It was perhaps the most eloquent, displaying a deep understanding of the men of the AIF and Militia. However, her speech contained the same flaw found in those of her less erudite colleagues. For Bishop the Battle of Isurava was "in so many ways the most significant battle for Australia, because this was the first time that Australians fought alone on an Australian territory". This it seems, was our Battle of Britain, our finest hour.

There exists a mistaken belief that because Australian troops fought a battle close to home, seemingly alone, then this must be the most important battle. Paul Keating started the trend, visiting the Kokada Trail and proclaiming: "there can be no deeper spiritual basis to the meaning of the Australian nation that the blood that was spilled on this very knoll, this very plateau, in defence of the liberty of Australia." Don Watson observed that Keating did not have a deep understanding of history; therefore it is not surprising that he latched upon this as our finest hour. Never mind that we already had a finest hour in 1940, we had shared that one with the British Commonwealth and Empire, and Keating could never be comfortable with that.


That the campaign was important there can be no doubt. In recent years journalist Peter Lindsay and more particularly New South Wales MLC Charlie Lynn have provided a valuable service, highlighting the battles fought along the Kokoda Trail and the hardships faced by Australian troops. Australia faced real peril in 1942, and Australian troops, both AIF and Militia displayed amazing courage and fortitude. However, Australia’s future was not decided on that muddy trail. This was no Thermoplae.

Following America’s entry into the war, Britain and America correctly adopted a Germany first, Japan second strategy. Without consulting Australia, the two nations placed Australia into the United States sphere of responsibility. Curtin’s famous ‘look to America’ speech had no impact; the matter had been decided. The speech sounded cowardly to those who had been given responsibility for Australia’s defence.

The Allies, or the United Nations as they called themselves, had a world war to fight. With the advance of the Japanese, the stage upon which Australia focused had shrunk to the area immediately to the North. Those campaigns would not determine the outcome of the war. But to Curtin, events to Australia’s North dominated his every thought. The foreign policy documents of the day reveal a nervous Australian Prime Minister, running back and forth between Churchill and Roosevelt. At various times Curtin appeals to the British to pressure the Americans, then the Americans to pressure the British.

Churchill was rightly focused on the Middle East. He did make promises, like three squadrons of Spitfires, and two aircraft carriers for the Pacific, and to cut their losses in the Middle East go to Australia’s aid if she was invaded. Curtin did not understand that in allocating resources to Australia, Britain was taking resources away from her strategic areas of responsibility and giving them to the areas for which the United States now had responsibility. The responses of Churchill and Roosevelt are polite, but sometimes strained, perhaps annoyed that Curtin saw the South-west Pacific as the war’s centre of gravity.

Both Churchill and Roosevelt were alarmed at the withdrawal of the 9th AIF Division from the Middle East in late 1942. Roosevelt offered a US division from Hawaii, citing the shipping constraints of moving the Division back to Australia. (One cannot help wondering what impact the neutrality of Ireland, and the subsequent loss of her ports, had on shipping.) Though concerned, Churchill and Roosevelt acquiesced to Curtin’s request.

They knew, or at least suspected, that Australia was not to be invaded. She might be the victim of bombings or even a diversionary attack, but Japan could not hold her. The supply lines were long and overdrawn. Midway had severely reduced Japanese naval power, the US were in the Solomon Islands, with their forces landing in ever-increasing numbers in Australia, and the British were near Burma. Furthermore, Japanese troops were concentrated in China and Manchukuo. That it was near-run thing, there can be no doubt. But had parts of Australia fallen, then it was a question of holding on until the war in Europe was over. No matter what successes Australia may have had against the Japanese, if the war in the Middle East or Europe went badly, then Australia was lost. In this sense, the Battle of El Alamein and the Battle of Britain did more to save Australia.


Australia was involved in a World War; our survival was not guaranteed by battalion- or brigade-sized actions on a Trail in New Guinea, but by events often far from Australia’s shores and often out of our control. The Battle of Britain played an important part in convincing the American Government, Roosevelt in particular, that the British Empire and Commonwealth had no intention of going the way of France. The Battle bought time and breathing space. Had the Luftwuffe defeated the RAF in 1940, Australia would have faced an insecure and isolated future.

The Battle of El Alamein, in which the Australian 9th Division played a key role, ended Germany’s dream of capturing Cairo. Montgomery, commander of the 8th Army, effectively prevented the Germans from securing the oilfields of the Middle East. The writing of revisionists like Corelli Barnett notwithstanding, this battle was a key turning point in the war. As Monty’s biographer, Nigel Hamilton, convincingly argues, the British had showed their determination to fight and win, and as Rommel well knew, without the oil resources, the Germans had lost the war. It was now only a matter of time before the combined pressure of America, Russia and Britain would crush Germany. With the end of the beginning in the Middle East theatre, Japan’s days of expansion were numbered.

We like to think of ourselves battling it out alone, against the odds, our own defiant version of the Blitz. Except we weren’t really alone, and in contrast to the Blitz we weren’t quite as defiant as we would like to remember. Unlike our British cousins who, in Churchill’s words, like to be told the worst, news of Japanese bombings were kept from a nervous population. Cowardice, bravery, political opportunism, self-sacrifice and weakness were all present in Australia at that time. Contrary to myth, Curtin was not great man, he fell under Macarthur’s spell, and Australian troops did not move from New Guinea until mid-1945; there would be no more El Alameins or Tobruks.

However, Curtin was a good man, and there can be no doubting the importance of defeating the Japanese in New Guinea, it was not a question of saving Australia, it was one of holding and checking the Japanese advance. Many of the Militia were men who had no desire to fight Japanese or German expansion, that was for the AIF. But they did. What those battalions of men did is amazing enough, whether they wore the ribbons of the Desert War on their chests or were the chocolate soldiers of the Australian Military Force. They fought a determined enemy on Australia’s doorstep, outnumbered and in horrendous terrain; there is no need for the hyperbole that they saved Australia.

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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