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Wednesday, 2 September 2020
The Cenotaph, Martin Place
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we gather, the Gadigal people, and to all men and women who have served our nation. 

Today’s commemoration of the Battle for Australia is recent in our commemorative history, but singularly important, bringing to mind the critical war period for Australia between 1942 and 1945 which came to define Australia’s international and regional relationships in the aftermath of the war.

That period, 1942-1945, brought a significant change in Australia’s war effort.  In 1939, when then Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that Australia was at war it was because Great Britain had declared war upon [Germany], and that, as a result, Australia [was] also at war”.[1]   That was a commitment to the war that was being waged in Europe.

With Italy coming into the war on the side of Germany, Australian troops also became engaged in Europe, the Mediterranean and in North Africa when, on 8 December 1941, Prime Minister Curtin announced in a broadcast to the nation:

“Men and women of Australia, We are at war with Japan … My appeal to you is in the name of Australia, for Australia is the stake in this conflict.”[2]

Prime Minister Curtin had chosen his words carefully.  This was a distinct and different war.  As he told the nation a few weeks later:

“The war with Japan is not a phase of the struggle with the Axis powers but is a new war.”

Curtin knew that it was necessary for Australia to go on a war footing.  He warned that the following year would be “a year of immense change in Australian life”.

The Battle for Australia meant that Australia’s unswerving assistance to the war effort overseas had to take on an independent pivot; Curtin recognising that the new Pacific struggle [was] primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies’ fighting plan.”[3]

When Singapore fell on 16th February 1942, Prime Minister Curtin described it as “Australia’s Dunkirk”[4] which, he said “opens the Battle for Australia”[5] , the first occasion that that phrase was used. Three days later, Darwin was bombed with the loss of 270 lives[6] and the war against Japan was Australia’s reality for the next 3 1/2 years.  There were Japanese raids on our home soil and in our waters including on the night of 31 May – 1 June 1942, with the incursions of midget subs into Sydney Harbour with the loss of 21 sailors from HMAS Kuttabul.[7]  There was the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

Australian forces were fighting in Papua, New Guinea and Bougainville, in gruelling conditions  including in the Kokoda campaign,[8] and the Battles of Buna-Gona,[9] until the Japanese surrender in August 1945, bringing to a sad but grateful end  the ‘hard slog’[10] of the Bougainville campaign. [11

There are different views as to whether the fear that Japan intended to invade Australia was reasonable.  That is not the point now, and although historical accuracy is important, it was certainly not the point then.  As Dr Karl James, a military historian from the Australian War Memorial, has commented:

“Japanese intentions, of course, were not known to either American or Australian military commanders nor to the general public at the time. For most Australians, the threat of a Japanese invasion was real and imminent.”[12]

Indeed, in 1942, it would have been a dangerous game for Australians to second-guess the mind of an enemy.

The first Wednesday in September, the date chosen to commemorate the Battle for Australia marks the Battle of Milne Bay,[13] fought from 25 August to 7 September 1942, which was the first land victory over the Japanese.[14]  

Victory in Milne Bay was a critical turning point in the Pacific War.[15] A combined operation of Australian and US forces, Army and Airforce, this victory enabled the establishment of an Allied base, causing the Japanese, for the first time, to abandon their strategic objective of capturing Port Moresby.

In honouring our men and women who served across Navy, Army and Air Force, we also honour those who were vital links in their survival - the coastwatchers, nurses and medical and ambulance corps. We give thanks to our Allies and friends and Pacific neighbours who fought and served alongside us. From this Pacific War, we enjoy a depth and warmth of relationship that continues today.

Let us also remember those who constituted our home front – the science and industry sector who were charged with munitions-making,[16] and women who performed critical labour in these factories and in shipbuilding, in industry, and on the land.[17]

In thanking the Battle for Australia Association for its organisation of this important Commemoration Service, we remember those we fought against. In the value we place on each human life, we give commemoration its moral significance.[18]


[4] Commonwealth Government, Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches by the Prime Minister (the Hon. John Curtin), No. 19, 16 February 1942, p. 7.

Reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 1942

[5] Ibid

[6] With loss of 270 lives. 8 ships sunk in Darwin harbour.

[8] July - Nov 1942

[9] 16 Nov - 22 Jan 1943

[11] 1 Nov 1943 through to Japanese surrender August 1945

[13] 25 August - 7 September 1942

[16] By the middle of 1943 as the need for munitions increased, the number of government factories had risen 4 (early in 1940) to 39 of which 17 were devoted to making ammunition, 6 to explosives and filling, 5 to ordnance and shell and 11 to small arms and machine guns.  In the same period the number of annexes in commercial enterprises had increased from 24 to 213 

[17] By June 1943, the strength of the women’s services had grown to 18,210 in AWAS, 16,243 in WAAF, 1,408 in WRANS and 8,846 in Nursing Service.  In addition, the Women's Land Army and Auxiliary were 2,205 strong by end of September  in the same year.  Transfer of women to industry also grew and by June 1943 there were 190,000 women in direct war work including services and the total of occupied women was 840,000 made up of 44,700 in the services, 39,000 in government munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft work, 27,000 in transport and communications, 158,000 in commerce and industry and 55, 000 in the rural industry.

[18] Cecile Fabre, Professor of Philosophy, Oxford University, Author of Cosmopolitan Peace,-lest-we-forget/8809376

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