"He's Coming South" - not

by Dr Peter Stanley, Principal Historian, Australian War Memorial

The Japanese submarine raid on Allied warships in Sydney Harbour is said to support the idea that Australia narrowly escaped invasion.

The invasion myth is one of the more persistent furphies of 1942. It is as durable as, say, the myths that Singapore's guns faced the wrong way, that John Curtin brought the AIF home to defend Australia, that the Brisbane line existed, or that the battles of the Coral Sea or Kokoda saved Australia from invasion.

The Sydney Harbour attack was not intended as the preliminary to a Japanese invasion. It was an unsuccessful attempt to divert Allied naval power from the decisive battle that was fought near Midway in the Pacific a week later.

It had nothing to do with an invasion plan because there was no invasion plan. The Japanese never planned to make Australia part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere.

In the euphoria of early 1942 some Japanese naval staff officers had floated the idea of pressing on from the Netherlands East Indies into northern Australia.

The suggestion prompted a heated debate among officers of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. The Army dismissed the idea as "gibberish". It could not spare troops from the war in China and the threat of a Soviet invasion of Manchuria. The Navy itself dismissed the idea, knowing that it could not spare the ships an invasion would need. There was no Japanese plan to invade Australia.

John Curtin and Douglas MacArthur knew of this outcome within a month or so. Curtin continued to warn of imminent invasion until mid-1943. He disregarded advice that invasion would not happen, though harping on the threat made good propaganda sense.

The submarine attack on Sydney gave the Curtin government a chance to say, "Told you so!", even though it had nothing to do with an actual threat to Australia.

In 1942 - 43 Australians were deluged with posters and advertisements representing invasion as likely. The most infamous was "He's Coming South", which was so alarmist that the Queensland government and the Town Clerk of Melbourne refused its release.

As a result, though, Australians largely still believe wartime propaganda that invasion was imminent. Reports of alleged landings are still current around northern Australia. People talk of "invasion money" and of maps in Japanese with arrows pointing south. In fact the money was printed for use in Britain's Pacific territories, and the maps are forgeries.

Curtin is hailed as the "Saviour of Australia". He saved Australia from a threat that was never real, and he knew it. Curtin was an inspiring leader, but he was also a good politician. He knew that banging the invasion drum did no harm, and that the Japanese threat served to motivate the nation.

But sixty years on we ought to break free of the invasion myth.