Hidden for 75 years, the top secret government documents outlining preparations for the event of a Japanese invasion of Australia in 1942 have finally been discovered. They reveal an extraordinarily comprehensive plan to thwart Japanese troops, and a population that would go to great lengths to avoid being enslaved. Sue Rosen who discovered these documents, reveals all below, and in her book, Scorched Earth.
Working as a contract historian/heritage consultant my working life, at times, can be tedious, as I trawl through boxes of unindexed files looking for something. At times I don’t even know what I’m looking for – I’ll only know it when I see it. That is, if I have sufficiently sated the research gods; if I have suffered enough. Perhaps I should do just one more box!
So it was, when in January 2012 in the Reading Room at State Records in Western Sydney that I had one of the very best of days when I opened Box 3/5944, Forestry Commission Registered Files, 1939-1945. I was looking for anything that might tell the story of the Murray River Red Gum Forests. The National Parks and Wildlife Service had taken control of the forests and wanted to interpret their history to park visitors through trails, signage and art. They wanted the whole story from Aboriginal times, through to European “discovery”, to pastoral occupation, and the timber industry.
Box 3/5944 contained nothing of relevance to that project, but what a show stopper it was – “Total War – Total Citizen Collaboration”. A Scorched Earth Policy to be enacted on Japanese Invasion. The language was urgent, blunt and imperative. The citizen will:
- plan an emergency retreat for his women and children
- note the presence of any suspicious alien stranger
- will locate and keep watch on any potential landings places
- arrange for emergency destruction of such of his goods as cannot be hidden or removed
- leave nothing moveable of use to the enemy.
Scorched Earth goes on and on with detailed instructions for every person and every occupation advising how to destroy machinery, tools, water supplies, food stocks, clothing, motor vehicles, jetties and bridges, and finally listing the Citizen Corps in which citizens were to enlist, to harry the enemy and assist the military from the safety of the bush and inland refuges.
It was not a defeatist policy, but counter offensive to defeat invasion. It provides a window into the strategic mindset and mood of 1942. Individuals may have been under orders to “stay put”, as in the case of the area from Newcastle to Port Kembla, or to strategically withdraw from the rural coast, while hindering the enemy every step of the way. It required the involvement of everyone, with the entire citizenry having a role to play, including as guerrillas with improvised weapons.
Looking back, 75 years later – knowing invasion didn’t happen – can lull us into thinking that at the time the threat wasn’t serious or taken seriously. Even though the Japanese were stopped (for the first time since their entry into the war) at the Battle of the Coral Sea and suffered their first defeat at the Battle of Midway, as late as November 1942 Harold Swain (the policy’s principal author) and military officers embarked on a regional tour to check on preparations – Scorched Earth planning was still being actively pursued, long past when we, in 2017, know the threat was on the wane. In fact, Prime Minister John Curtin, did not concede that Australia was free from the threat of invasion until 11 June 1943.
Scorched Earth immerses us in the mood of the time – the fear, the leap to action, with the organisation and competence truly awe inspiring. These documents do not need the intervention of an historian to “interpret’ their meaning – there is no sign of bureaucratise. This was a message to be relayed to the ordinary citizen, to everyone.
Welcome to 1942!
Hidden for 75 years, the top secret government documents outlining preparations for the event of a Japanese invasion of Australia in 1942 have finally been discovered. They reveal an extraordinarily comprehensive plan to thwart Japanese troops, and a population that would go to great lengths to avoid being enslaved.
In 1942 the threat of Japanese invasion hung over Australia. The men were away overseas, fighting on other fronts, and civilians were left unprotected at home. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese advance south, Prime Minister Curtin ordered state governments to prepare. From January 1942, a team frantically pulled together secret plans for...