Battle for Australia address, 2008
The Australian War Memorial hosted the Battle for Australia commemorative ceremony organised by the Battle for Australia Commemorative National Committee on 3 September 2008. This annual event commemorates the service and sacrifice of all those who served in defence of Australia in 1942 and 1943 during a period when our nation appeared to face its greatest peril.
The Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the Hon Alan Griffin MP announced on 26 June
2008, the proclamation by the
Governor-General of a Battle for Australia Day to be held on the first Wednesday of September each year.
Below is a transcript of the address given by the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP at the 2008 ceremony.
Today we gather to commemorate the Battle for Australia.
But before I begin I want to acknowledge our Australian Defence Force personnel who are currently serving in theatres abroad.
We have had news this morning that Australian forces serving in Afghanistan
have been engaged again in heavy fighting against the
This fighting has seen nine Australian troops injured, some seriously.
Our thoughts and our prayers are with our troops, with their families and their loved ones.
Today as we remember those who gave their all for this nation in the past, let us also remember those who continue to give their all for the nation today.
On this day, the 3rd of September, in 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies declared war on behalf of Australia on Germany.
On this day, the 3rd of September, in 1942, with John Curtin as Prime Minister, Australian and American forces were heavily engaged in the Battle of Milne Bay – a Battle that was soon to become the first defeat of Japanese forces on land and a turning point in the war in the Pacific.
The third of September therefore has particular significance in our nation's story.
For nearly a century now we have commemorated ANZAC Day as the great commemorative event to honour those who gave their all in war.
For nearly a century we have also celebrated Remembrance Day as the end of that bloodiest of wars.
But in the more than half a century since the end of the war that came to our own shores, we have yet to determine a day to commemorate those who came to the defence of Australia itself.
And today as a nation we settle that question.
For today, as a nation, for the first time we officially commemorate
the first Wednesday in September as the day to remember the Battle for Australia
following the official proclamation of this day by His Excellency the
Governor-General in June this year.
The day when we together with our American ally began to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.
The day when we honour specially those who gave their all in the defence of Australia itself.
We commemorate a time when our nation itself was under attack.
We commemorate a time when a young nation found its very survival at risk.
We commemorate a time when the Australian mainland and Australian cities were themselves under attack.
When one million Australians served in uniform to protect their country.
When a further six million Australians were mobilised.
When thousands, tens of thousands lost their lives in neighbouring nations, on the seas, in the air, and on Australian soil.
The bombing of Darwin.
The attack on Broome.
The Battle of the Coral Sea.
On the Kokoda Trail.
At the Battle of Milne Bay.
The Battle of Guadalcanal.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea.
The Battle of the Beachheads – at Buna, and Gona and Sanananda.
The death march at Sandakan.
And this bloody list goes on.
We know that some question whether there was indeed a Battle for Australia.
And yes, there's fertile ground for historical debate on the views of Curtin and Churchill, the plans of the Japanese Imperial Army and the Imperial Navy, and what might have happened had the Japanese advance not been stopped at Milne Bay and Imita Ridge.
But on this there can be no doubt:
Never in our history was our nation so threatened.
Never in our history was our future less certain.
Never in our history was our determination to defend ourselves so fully tested.
From the factories to the Volunteer Defence Corps, the air raid shelters and the barbed wire across the beaches.
We'll never know what success by the enemy might have meant for Australia – invasion, occupation or isolation.
But we know that Australian soldiers at Milne Bay brought those forces their first defeat on land in the entire Pacific war.
And we know it was from then that the course of the war began to change.
We struggle today to understand just how serious Australia's situation was in 1942.
The impregnable fortress of Singapore had fallen.
Over 15,000 Australians had become prisoners of war.
Prime Minister Curtin understood the threat.
On the day that Singapore fell, he warned:
“The fall of Singapore can only be described as Australia's Dunkirk ... [The] fall of Dunkirk initiated the battle for Britain. The fall of Singapore opens the Battle for Australia.”
So said Curtin. And Curtin added:
“What the battle for Britain required, so the battle for Australia requires. That meant service and struggle and complete devotion for Britons in the defence of Britain. It means the same thing for Australians for the defence of Australia.”
This was a battle that would involve all Australians.
A fight for survival itself.
The imminent threat was brought home just days later when Darwin was bombed.
Curtin described it as the first “physical contact of war within Australia”.
He called on Australians to:
“vow that this blow at Darwin and the loss it has involved and the suffering it has occasioned shall gird our loins and nerve our steel".
But the Japanese imperialist forces kept advancing.
Islands continued to fall.
The Americans withdrew from the Philippines.
The advance reached Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor.
As the southward march continued, the myth of the invincibility of the Japanese Imperial Forces grew.
In May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, American and Australian ships and our air forces fought side-by-side against a Japanese flotilla that was part of the strategy to take Port Moresby and isolate Australia from our allies.
There were losses on both sides, but Port Moresby never fell.
It was a sign of things to come.
When speaking in Parliament of the Battle of the Coral Sea, Prime Minister Curtin called on all Australians to join in the war effort. He said:
“Men are fighting for Australia today; those who are not fighting have no excuse for not working.”
This was for Australia, total war.
As Curtin had said to the Americans in March:
“out of every ten men in Australia, four are wholly engaged in war as members of the fighting forces or making the munition and equipment to fight with... The proportion is now growing every day. ”
As our men fought along the Kokoda Track, the men and women at home were hard at work in support.
As our airmen fought in the skies of the Pacific the population at home was devoted to production and the civil defence effort.
As our sailors sought to claw back control of the oceans the population at home continued to sign up for the war.
And then there came a day when the news from the frontline changed.
When the myth of the invincibility was stripped away from the advancing enemy forces – at the Battle of Milne Bay.
Both sides in the Pacific War recognised the importance of Milne Bay.
It offered a sheltered harbour on the south-eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.
Whoever controlled Milne Bay would have a strong position to defend Port Moresby and the waters around.
From 1942, the Allies developed airfields there.
But the advancing Japanese forces set their sights on Milne Bay too, as a crucial stepping stone to Port Moresby.
In August of 1942, they attacked at Milne Bay.
Their initial progress was rapid.
But when they reached the edge of the airfield, they were stopped.
Then they were then pushed back, pursued - and eventually they fled.
At Milne Bay, Australian and American soldiers – working side by side – proved they could stop the Japanese imperial forces.
The impact on morale was enormous.
After seeing Malaya, then Singapore and then a string of islands fall, the Allies had now seen their troops turn back the advancing army on land.
It was in every respect, a turning point.
And that is why we mark Battle for Australia Day on the first Wednesday of September, commemorating this great victory at Milne Bay.
There are many stories of bravery that can be told about Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen during the Battle for Australia.
I want to mention just one today.
In commemorating the Battle for Australia in the years ahead, the nation will have the chance to hear many, many more stories, and so they should.
The Royal Australian Air Force played a critical role in supporting the troops at Milne Bay.
At Milne Bay the RAAF's 76 Squadron was led by Keith ‘Bluey' Truscott.
Truscott was one of Australia's best-known flying aces during the Second World War.
Before the war he had been a well known Aussie Rules player.
He had played in Melbourne's 1939 Premiership team. We all make mistakes.
In fact he was nominated as one of the best on the ground and finished the match with two goals.
But like so many young Australians, then and since, he answered the call to arms.
He enlisted in the RAAF in 1940 and, after training, he joined the war in Britain.
In 1941 and 1942 he flew and fought over the skies of Europe.
And, by the time he returned to Australia in early 1942, he was a decorated hero who had destroyed at least 11 German aircraft over Europe.
Truscott deployed to Milne Bay with Number 76 Squadron in August 1942 – just before the Japanese landing.
And the Squadron flew out of Milne Bay throughout the conflict.
In terrible weather, on metal landing strips that were slippery and dangerous, the aircrews of 75 and 76 Squadrons flew “beyond the point of exhaustion” in support of the ground forces.
They flew so much and fired so many rounds in support of the ground forces that the barrels of the guns on their aircraft were worn smooth from the number of rounds that were fired.
The aircraft would land, refuel, re-arm and immediately take to the skies again – day after day after day.
Bluey Truscott, the other pilots and the ground crews showed the sort of dedication that was required to turn the tide in this great Battle for Australia.
Their commitment to the task was the equal of any unit throughout the war.
And to people like them and thousands more, we as a nation, owe a profound debt of gratitude.
There are many such heroes in the Battle for Australia.
Heroes of battle.
And heroes on the home front as well.
One of those was John Curtin.
Like Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was an outstanding leader of a democracy who rose to the occasion when he needed to serve the nation.
He poured himself out in the defence of our nation.
He drove himself to exhaustion and ultimately, of course, to an early death, just months before the war ended.
General Douglas Macarthur gave Curtin this remarkable tribute in 1945:
“He (Curtin) was one of the greatest wartime statesmen, and the preservation of Australia from invasion will be his immemorial monument.”
Today, we commemorate the spirit of Curtin and all of those who served in this nation's defence in the Pacific during our nation's darkest time.
Today, we carve a date in the nation's calendar – the first Wednesday of every September – to remember this Battle for Australia.
To remember a time when our nation was in peril.
And to remember those who answered the call of their nation and risked their lives to defend the nation.
British children learn their nation's finest hour was when their troops stood alone against Hitler in 1940.
And Americans learn that their Greatest Generation was the men who took Normandy in 1944 and Iwo Jima in 1945.
It's time all Australians knew more about 1942.
Every year we remember the events at Anzac Cove that are etched so deep in our national memory.
It's often said, at Gallipoli our nation was born.
But at the Battle for Australia, our nation stood up and confirmed that we as a nation, would endure.
And that's why we have come here today to remember Battle for Australia Day.
We remember that freedom is always purchased by sacrifice.
And that liberty can only be guaranteed by courage.
On Bluey Truscott's grave in the Perth War Cemetery are the following words:
“In loving memory of our darling Keith, his duty nobly done.”
Today we honour all those who served and sacrificed their lives in
the Battle for Australia, their duty was nobly done.