John Curtin John Curtin

John Curtin, 1941–45

In the early years of the Second World War John Curtin argued from the opposition benches against committing forces to Europe when Australia might itself be in danger. But he was for the most part supportive of the Menzies Government, agreeing to the dispatch of Australian troops to Singapore and crediting his opponent with having placed Australia in a good position to meet an attack should one eventuate.

John Curtin became prime minister in October 1941, just two months before Japan entered the war. Despite Menziess preparations for war, Curtin faced a desperate defence situation. He was advised that there was not a single division in the country that could repel an invasion, and that the Government would have to place its faith in Singapores ability to withstand an attack. It quickly became clear that Britain lacked the ability to fight the Japanese, and Curtin looked to America to provide the forces needed for the defence of Australia.

As the victorious Japanese forces moved southwards, Curtins disputes with Churchill intensified; there were heated exchanges when Churchill sought to divert the Australian divisions returning from the Middle East to Burma. Curtin insisted on their return to Australia. After the fall of Singapore he warned that the battle for Australia was beginning. The Japanese bombed Darwin just four days later.

Curtin was instrumental in unifying Australia in the first months of the Pacific War, exhorting the people to devote all their energies to securing the countrys safety. His own devotion to the war effort and the burden of leadership took a heavy toll on Curtins health. He was therefore greatly relieved at the arrival of the American general, Douglas MacArthur, in the first half of 1942. MacArthur promised to handle the strategic details of the war, allowing Curtin to concentrate on politics and the domestic front.

Curtin introduced conscription, but restricted the area to which conscripts could be sent. He led the Australian Labor Party to victory in the August 1943 election, and in April 1944 he sailed for America, where he sought Anglo-American agreement for Australia to shift the emphasis of its war effort from providing personnel to the production of food and other supplies. The stress of travel took a further toll on Curtin's health; he suffered a heart attack in November 1944, remaining in hospital for two months. He resumed his duties in early 1945, but following further illnesses, he died on 5 July 1945, six weeks before the end of the war.

Defence Portfolios

  • Minister for Defence, April 42–July 45

John Curtin in the Memorial's Collection

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Official Records
Official records are listed in the National Archives of Australia's RecordSearch database which contains descriptions of records at both the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial.

  • [Natives – Labour:] Project of importing Asiatic Labourers into SWPA. This file contains memos from General MacArthur to Australian PM (The Right Honourable John Curtin) proposing the importing of Asiatic labourers into the SWPA, 29 July 1943
    AWM54, 506/5/7

  • [RAAF – Administration:] Copy of a letter dated 16th January 1943 to Prime Minister Australia, John Curtin, from Douglas MacArthur, regarding powers and functions of Air Officers Commanding RAAF as portion of Allied Air Forces in SWPA [South-West Pacific Area]
    AWM54, 81/2/10

  • Secret statements on war situation: 1) Prime Minister's address to State Premiers, 3 Feb 1943; 2) Prime Minister's statement in secret session, 20 Feb 1942; Notes for Prime Minister on war situation, Feb 1942.
    AWM123, 157

Keywords: John Curtin, J Curtin, Curtin
Location: Australian War Memorial
Reference numbers: AWM54

Companion site to Australia's Prime Ministers maintained by the National Archives of Australia