Australian Defence Policy 1918-1938: The "Impregnable Singapore Bastion"

Between 1918 and 1938, defence spending was a low priority for Australian governments. This was possible because Britain had undertaken to defend Australia should a threat arise to British interests in East Asia. To this end, Britain had promised to construct an impregnable naval base at Singapore. When Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, and responded to criticism of its military aggression by withdrawing from the League of Nations in 1933, work on the Singapore naval base was accelerated.

With the development of long-range bombers and aircraft carriers during the 1930s, Australia's Army chiefs became concerned that too much reliance was being placed on Britain's Royal Navy and the Singapore naval base for Australia's defence. The concern of the Army chiefs was shared by Labor politician John Curtin, who was then in Opposition and unable to influence government policy. It took the Munich crisis in 1938 to prod the Australian government into some tentative questioning of its reliance on Singapore as an "impregnable bastion" for the defence of Australia.

British troops among the 130,000 Allied troops who surrendered to the Japanese
after Britains sham "Fortress Singapore" had been under siege for only seven days.

As a British Dominion, Australia automatically became involved in World War II when Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Despite questioning of the Singapore defence policy, nothing had been done by the Australian government to address the issue, and Australia's defences proved to be pitifully inadequate at the outbreak of World War II. Australia had no tanks, no modern field artillery, no modern machine guns, no modern wireless equipment, no Army motor transport, and no clothing for recruits to the armed services. However, it did have rifles and ammunition for its small permanent army. The Royal Australian Air Force had a total of 373 aircraft. Included in this number were fifty-three Hudson medium bombers. The rest were mostly obsolescent Wirraway trainers. Fortunately, the Royal Australian Navy had several warships on which to fly the nation's flag.

The raising of Australia's 2nd AIF

On the outbreak of World War II, the Menzies Government acted quickly to raise a Second Australian Imperial Force, or 2nd AIF, composed of volunteers for military service overseas. Four Australian infantry divisions, the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th, were raised between 28 September 1939 and 18 December 1940. On 29 November 1939, the Australian Government announced that the 6th Division of the 2nd AIF would be sent to the Middle East to aid Britain in its struggle against Germany and Italy as soon as its training was completed. Two additional divisions, the 7th and 9th, would later follow the 6th Division to the Middle East. Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey was appointed General Officer Commanding the 2nd AIF in the Middle East. Units of the 8th Division were sent to Malaya, Rabaul in New Guinea, and the chain of islands between them. These units of the 8th Division would all be lost in resisting Japan's drive towards Australia in 1942.

The Australian Government responds to the threat of Japanese aggression

While Britain was resisting the German onslaught in the great aerial conflict known as the Battle of Britain, the Japanese Imperial Government joined Germany and Italy in September 1940 in an alliance for world domination called the Tripartite Pact.

In October 1941, the Curtin Labor Government assumed office in Australia. With tensions rising between Japan and the United States over Japan's savage war of aggression against China, the Curtin government quickly took stock of Australia's defences. They were virtually non-existent. Most of the 2nd AIF troops were overseas fighting the Germans and Italians in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. The 8th Division was scattered across the northern approaches to Australia. Australia's Air Force was mostly in England serving beside the Royal Air Force in the defence of Britain. Australia's Navy was scattered around the world serving Britain's interests in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific operational theatres. The Australian Government recognised the increasing danger facing Australia from Japanese aggression and began to raise volunteer militia battalions for the defence of Australia. Although poorly equipped, those militia battalions were destined to play a vital role when Japan attacked Australia in January 1942.

The Australian response to the Japanese threat to Singapore

Despite assurances to successive Australian governments that the Singapore naval base was "impregnable", British defensive planning for Singapore had effectively not advanced from the era of World War I. Britain's so-called "impregnable bastion" at Singapore was a naval base in name only. There was no fleet stationed there, and it was defended only by a few squadrons of obsolete aircraft such as the Brewster Buffalo. The ten infantry brigades stationed in Malaya lacked heavy weapons, and in particular, were deficient in artillery and tanks. The powerful guns at Singapore naval base mostly faced the sea approaches to Singapore and the armour-piercing shells were useless to defend the island against air attack and Japanese troops advancing from the landward side. The British had made only minimal preparations to defend Singapore against an invasion by Japanese troops advancing from the landward side or against sustained air attacks launched from Japanese-occupied Indo-China or Japanese aircraft carriers. Despite giving continuing assurances to Australia that Singapore would be resolutely defended if the Japanese entered the war, the British had in fact consistently neglected its defences before the Japanese entered World War II, and continued to do so afterwards.

Japan appreciated the serious weaknesses in Singapore's defences, and about thirty minutes before its surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops began to land at Kota Bharu on the northern coast of British Malaya (now Malaysia). The Japanese quickly achieved air supremacy over Malaya and control of the surrounding seas. With that advantage, and employing classic flanking and encirclement tactics, elite jungle-trained Japanese troops advanced quickly down the Malayan peninsula towards Singapore.