Remembering 1941 - 2001 History Conference

Strategy and Command in Australia's Campaigns of 1941

Professor David Horner
Strategic and Defence Studies Centre
Australian National University

Strategy and command are two closely entwined concepts. In simple terms, strategy is the plan or policy that the government pursues to achieve its war aims, or in time of peace, to achieve the aims of its security policy. In military staff colleges this is called national strategy. At a lower level, strategy is also the plan devised and implemented by the military to achieve the government's war aims. This is called military strategy.

Command, in the broadest sense, is the means by which the government's policies are implemented on the battlefield. It includes the commanders, but also the command structures and organisations that enable the commander to exercise his function. Without competent commanders and adequate command structures the government will not be able to implement its war strategies. It is therefore important that we have some understanding of the machinery for determining strategy in 1941 and the command structure for implementing it.

At the beginning of 1941 the top level strategic decision-making body in Australia was the War Cabinet. The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, chaired the War Cabinet, which included six other senior ministers, three of whom were the ministers for the Navy, Army and Air Force. A key figure was the secretary of the War Cabinet, Frederick Shedden who attended all the meetings. Shedden was Secretary to the Department of Defence and, as Menzies was also the Minister for Defence, he was well placed to ensure that the decisions of the War Cabinet were implemented efficiently. The three Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin, Lieutenant-General Vernon Sturdee, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Burnett, usually attended the War Cabinet to provide expert military advice. Only Sturdee was an Australian. Colvin and Burnett were British officers on loan.

Another important organisation was the Advisory War Council. This had been established in October 1940 and initially consisted of Menzies and four senior ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, John Curtin and four senior members of the Opposition. The Council had been set up to involve the Opposition in the determination of war strategy but had no executive authority. Its secretary was the ubiquitous Frederick Shedden. As with the War Cabinet, the three Chiefs of Staff attended to provide military advice.

During 1941 the government did not have a tight control over the Australian military forces that were charged with implementing its military strategy. Soon after the outbreak of the war most of the Navy's principal ships had been deployed overseas under the control of the British Admiralty. Similarly, some RAAF squadrons were deployed to Britain and the Middle East for service under British command. The Empire Air Training Scheme had also been established by which Australian aircrew were trained for service in British air force units, only some of which were later designated as RAAF units.

The situation with the Army was slightly different. The Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was raised specially for service overseas. But unlike the RAN's and RAAF's overseas units that generally operated separately under British command, the 2nd AIF had its own commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey. During 1940 the first divisions of the AIF were sent to the Middle East and Blamey accompanied them as the General Officer Commanding the AIF in the Middle East. Blamey and the formations of the AIF came under the operational control of the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell. But Blamey also had a charter from the Australian government, which required him to try to keep the units of the AIF together under Australian command. If Blamey thought that his formations were being used in an inappropriate manner he could refuse to allow them to be used and could appeal to the Australian government.

Blamey reported directly to the Minister for the Army and through him to the Australian government. He did not come directly under the Chief of the General Staff, who was charged with providing Blamey with trained men and materiel. As well as their responsibilities for advising the government and for raising training and sustaining the forces deployed overseas, the Australian Chiefs of Staff did have some operational responsibilities. They commanded their respective forces in Australia and its vicinity. Thus the Chief of Naval Staff was responsible for naval operations in the Australia station. And the chiefs were responsible for the defence of Australia.

The reason that the Australian government did not control the operations of its forces overseas was that they were deployed as part of the forces of the British Empire. The British government through the British War Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, exercised the strategic direction of those forces. Decisions of the British War Cabinet were implemented by the British Chiefs of Staff who in turn delegated operations around the world to a series of local commanders-in-chief. I have already mentioned Wavell, commander-in-chief Middle East. Similarly, naval operations in the Mediterranean came under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. The British government was supposed to consult the Australian government about war strategy, especially when it directly affected the deployment of Australian forces, but sometimes it failed to do so.

I am sorry if this explanation of command arrangements has been a little long-winded, but it really is necessary to understand the command structure if one is to appreciate the problems faced by Australia's political leaders and military commanders during 1941. For the remainder of this morning's presentation I am going to discuss briefly five important strategic issues concerning the Australian armed forces during 1941. These are: the threat from Japan, the Greek campaign, the Tobruk campaign, the Syrian campaign, and the defence of Australia. In each of these I will also be looking at the roles of the key commanders.

The Japanese Threat

Many critics of the Menzies government have claimed that it sent Australia's armed forces overseas in 1939 and 1940 without considering the Japanese threat. In fact the government was acutely aware of the threat, but made a considered decision that it could not stand back and fail to support Britain. By the end of 1940 it had therefore committed the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions to service in the Middle East and was considering sending the remaining division of the AIF, the 8th, to the Middle East.

In October 1940 Australian military leaders at a conference in Singapore learned that the British defences in Malaya were much weaker than they had been led to believe. This led to urgent discussions in the Advisory War Council and War Cabinet. The government decided to send the 22nd Brigade from the 8th Division to Malaya and it arrived in February 1941. Meanwhile the government sent a naval officer, Commander Burrell, to Washington as an observer at the high level discussions between Britain and the United States over the policy to be followed in the event of Japan entering the war. On 29 December 1940 he reported that the policy would be to defeat Germany and Italy first and then deal with Japan.

Concerned about Britain appearing to give a low priority to defence in the Far East, in January 1941 Menzies began an overseas visit to London. Accompanied by Shedden he visited the Middle East and arrived in London on 20 February. In London Menzies became involved in a series of issues such as the Greek campaign and command arrangements in the Middle East. When he could, he pressed the case for reinforcements for the Far East. But he received little encouragement.

Meanwhile, in Australia Curtin in the Advisory War Council was expressing further concern about the Japanese threat. The government therefore decided to retain the remainder of the 8th Division in Australia and the Far East. Eventually it was agreed that another brigade from the division plus divisional troops would go to Malaya. The commander of the 8th Division, Major-General Gordon Bennett, and his headquarters had arrived in Malaya in February. As commander of the AIF in Malaya his position was similar to Blamey's in the Middle East in that he had a charter to keep the Australian forces together under his command. So in the first half of 1941 the threat from Japan had already had a major influence over the deployment of Australian troops overseas. The reception that Menzies and Shedden had received in London had made them aware that Australia had to be more prepared to look after itself.

The Greek Campaign

The Greek campaign came hard on the heels of the successful campaign in the Western Desert between December 1940 and February 1941. During the Libyan campaign Blamey was content for the 6th Division to be placed under the command of the Western Desert Force and it conducted successful attacks on Bardia at the beginning on January and against Tobruk later in the month. It is interesting that the Australian government had not been consulted about the Bardia operation but at this stage was happy to leave the decision to undertake the campaign in British hands and for Blamey to decide on whether the 6th Division had an appropriate role. Major-General Iven Mackay, a citizen soldier who had commanded a brigade in the First World War, commanded the 6th Division very well.

There are several controversies surrounding the Greek campaign. While in the Middle East in February, Menzies had discussed future operations with Wavell, but apparently did not specifically approve the Greek campaign. Later, when Wavell told Blamey that he intended to deploy Australian forces to Greece he implied that Menzies had approved the deployment. In London, Menzies was given to understand that Wavell had discussed the deployment with Blamey who had agreed with it. Hence in the British War Cabinet Menzies, with considerable reservations, approved Australia's commitment to the campaign. Blamey learned his lesson, and never again failed to let the Australian government know his views on future operations, even when not asked or when the decision might appear to have been made already.

As for the force composition, Blamey was adamant that the 6th Division should be the first Australian formation into Greece. He was reluctant to commit the 7th Division because he did not want to give an operational opportunity to the commander of the division, Major-General John Lavarack. Blamey perhaps saw Lavarack as a rival for his position. Lavarack had been Chief of the General Staff for four years before the outbreak of war. Not for the first time, petty jealousies and rivalries were to have a direct effect on Australian Army operations. The 7th Division was never deployed to Greece as the campaign began before it could leave Palestine.

Blamey commanded the 1st Australian Corps, renamed the ANZAC Corps, during the Greek campaign. Some observers felt that he should have remained in Cairo where he could command all the AIF. Furthermore, Blamey's chief of staff, Brigadier Sydney Rowell, claimed that Blamey went to pieces as a commander during the withdrawal of the corps though Greece. Other observers thought Blamey performed very well. There seems no doubt that he showed excellent prescience in selecting the evacuation beaches even before the withdrawal was ordered. But he made a mistake in judgment when he included his son on the evacuation flight from Greece. Iven Mackay, GOC 6th Division in Greece, confirmed his reputation for coolness in a difficult situation.


While the Greek campaign was still unfolding the German commander in north Africa, General Erwin Rommel, began a counter offensive against the British forces in Libya that had been depleted by the deployments to Greece. The 9th Australian Division poorly trained and short of equipment was driven back to the port of Tobruk. Major-General Lavarack was sent to Tobruk to command the force there, which included the 9th Division, a brigade from the 7th Division and British troops.. After discussing the appointment with Blamey, Wavell decided to move Lavarack out of Tobruk and leave command there in the hands of the GOC 9th Division, Major-General Leslie Morshead, a citizen soldier who had commanded a battalion in the First World War.

Under Morshead's command the Tobruk garrison conducted an outstanding defensive campaign, blunting repeated attacks by Rommels' armoured forces. This campaign had a direct effect on the outcome of the war in the Middle East theatre. While Tobruk held out Rommel felt unable to launch a major attack into Egypt.
By July 1941 Blamey, now in Cairo as Deputy Commander-in-Chief Middle East as well as GOC AIF, was becoming increasingly concerned about the health of the Australian troops in the Tobruk garrison. Through force of circumstance his Australian forces had become scattered to the four winds and he was determined that they should be reconstituted as one force. There was a series of bitter showdowns between Blamey and the new British Commander-in-Chief Middle East, General Sir Claude Auchinlek. John Hetherington recorded that at one conference Auchinleck began by stating that Tobruk could not be relieved.

'Gentlemen', [said Blamey]. 'I think you don't understand the position. If I were a French or an American commander making this demand what would you say about it'.

'But your not', [replied Auchinleck].

'That is where you are wrong', [said Blamey]. 'Australia is an independent nation. She came into the War under certain definite agreements. Now, gentlemen, in the name of my Government, I demand the relief of these troops'.

This was a significant step in the development of Australian command. And the Australian government backed Blamey. It was the first really important difference between Churchill and the Australian government. Churchill never fully understood the reason for Blamey's and the Australian government's demands. He thought that it was due to Blamey's desire to throw his weight around and the Australian government's political difficulties. During this time Arthur Fadden succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister, and then forty days later he was succeeded by John Curtin who headed a new Labor government. Churchill failed to appreciate that the Australians might have different priorities to the British.

The Syrian Campaign

The Syrian campaign, that began in June 1941, was aimed at seizing control of Syria from the Vichy French forces that, it was thought, were about to allow access to the Germans. Unlike some of the other campaigns and operations, the Australian government was consulted before hand and in fact urged Churchill to begin the attack. While Blamey thought the operation was 'largely a gamble', he too was in favour of it.

Command arrangements were again worthy of comment. The campaign came under the GOC British Forces Palestine and Transjordan, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. After a certain stage, command of the campaign was to devolve to the Commander of the 1st Australian Corps. The main Australian force was the 7th Division under Major-General Lavarack. When the 1st Australian Corps took command of the campaign, Lavarack was to move up to command the corps and Brigadier Tubby Allen, commander of the 16th Brigade, was to be promoted to command the 7th Division. Brigadier Rowell, chief of staff of the corps, thought that this complicated arrangement was caused because Blamey was reluctant to hand over command of the corps (a position that he was still nominally holding) to his rival, Lavarack.

Whatever the truth of this allegation might be, Blamey exercised a positive role during the early stages in the campaign, soon after Lavarack took over the corps. Overall command still remained with Wilson. Blamey visited Wilson late one night and insisted on him immediately reinforcing the drive towards Damascus. The Syrian campaign posed real command problems for Lavarack as he had to juggle his forces to meet unexpected French counter-attacks. Lavarack's command was competent and successful. Major-General Allen also commanded his division successfully. He was a citizen soldier who had commanded a platoon, company and battalion in the First World War and a brigade in Libya and Greece.

The Defence of Australia

While the Australian divisions were conducting campaigns in Libya, Greece, Crete and Syria, the Australian government and its military advisers were becoming increasingly concerned for the security of Australia. On 22 June 1941 Germany attacked Russia and on 2 July Japan decided to strike south into southeast Asia. US codebreakers deciphered the Japanese cable traffic and their decision was soon known in Washington, London and Melbourne.

The Australian government had little capacity to react to this threat. It demanded that Britain send a naval force to the Far East. It sent the former Prime Minister, Earle Page to London to sit in the British War Cabinet. It withdrew several senior officers from the Middle East to bolster its home forces. Lieutenant-General Sir Iven Mackay - he had been knighted for his success in the Libyan campaign - became GOC-in-C Home Forces with the task of preparing the defence of Australia. Sydney Rowell returned to Australia as Deputy Chief of the General Staff. Reinforcements were sent to Rabaul and Port Moresby, and plans were prepared to deploy infantry battalions to Ambon and Timor. Two squadrons of Hudson general reconnaissance aircraft and two of Buffalo fighters were deployed to Malaya, while some RAN ships were recalled to the Australia station.

On the outbreak of war with Japan the RAAF aircraft in Malaya were very quickly involved in the fighting but the main operations concerning the Australians did not take place until January 1942. There were, however, fundamental changes in Australia's approach to command and strategy. For the first time, the Australian government had to make decision about strategy that related directly and immediately to the defence of Australia. The change in mood was underlined by Shedden after the War Cabinet meeting on 8 December, a few hours after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and Kota Bharu. He told Curtin that the information presented by the Service chiefs about their preparations was 'scrappy and meagre'. He thought that the government 'must press it home that this is a new war'.

While the War Cabinet would now make decisions on strategy that would be concerned directly with the defence of Australia, the three chiefs of staff would also be involved directly as operational commanders. For example, responsibility for operations in New Guinea, Ambon and Timor rested with Sturdee and Army headquarters in Melbourne, not with Allied commanders-in chief in Singapore or Cairo. Later, in January 1942, an Allied commander would be appointed in Java, and later still, in March 1942 General Douglas MacArthur would take command of the South West Pacific Area. But in December 1941, responsibility rested with the Australian chiefs.


Australia's forces in the Middle East had played key roles in four campaigns. Indeed without the presence of the AIF it is doubtful whether Britain could have conduced any of the campaigns successfully. As it was, the Greek campaign, including Crete, was not a success. Without the Australian and New Zealand Divisions it is difficult to see how Britain could have conducted the Greek campaign at all. The campaigns of 1941 were conducted in the imperial or British Commonwealth framework. They all came under a British Commander-in-Chief who received his instructions from London. The Australian government had only a limited capacity to influence these campaigns. The Japanese attack in December 1941 completely changed this calculus.

At the beginning of 1941 few Australian commanders or units had experience of active operations. Only the most senior commanders had experience from the First World War. By the end of 1941 three infantry divisions had been in operations. The commanders who had gained their experience in 1941 would play active roles in the battle for Australia in 1942.

In some respects Australia's campaigns of 1941 were the last conducted by the old British Empire. The campaigns of the remainder of the war were generally fought in the context of the grand coalition between Britain and the United States. After the shock of Pearl Harbor, sixty years ago today, the strategy of the war and its attendant command structures underwent fundamental changes. Thereafter, the United States was usually the principal partner in coalition operations that included British and Australian forces. In the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam and the Gulf War, the US dominated strategic-decision-making, just as Britain dominated imperial strategy up to 1941. The reality of these changes to strategic decision-making and to coalition leadership are still evident in Afghanistan today.