The curious case of the Brisbane line
An article kindly supplied by Nick Brazil, author, film maker and photographer.
Darwin under attack
1942 was one of the darkest years for Australia in World War Two. The northern port of Darwin had become a crucial staging post particularly for American Forces in the Pacific theatre of war. As a result, it was high on the Japanese “hit list”.
On 19th February, Darwin suffered the largest single attack by a foreign power in Australia’s history. Flying from carriers in the Coral Sea, 242 Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin. Official casualties were put at 236 killed and 320 wounded. Eleven vessels were sunk and 30 aircraft were destroyed. Appropriately, this raid would become known as “Australia’s Pearl Harbor.” At the time the Australians feared this was just a prelude to an all out Japanese invasion of their country.
It was against this backdrop that Eddie Ward, the Minister for Labour and National Service in John Curtin’s Labour Government made an explosive allegation. He claimed to have been told by a major working in The Secretary of Defence’s offices that the previous United Australia – Country Party (conservative) Government had proposed to abandon the Northern Territories in the event of a Japanese invasion.
Abandoning the Northern Territories
According to Ward, the plan was to pull back down the coast drawing up a defensive line just north of Brisbane. Here, Australia’s armed forces would make a stand protecting the country’s industrial heartland between Brisbane and Melbourne.
The picture Ward painted was of a wholesale abandonment of the population of Darwin and the Northern Territories. Not one for an understatement, the politician described the authors of the plan as “defeatist” and “treacherous”. This damning allegation appeared to be backed up by none other than General Douglas Macarthur who referred to the plan as “The Brisbane Line” at a press conference in March 1943.
The Brisbane line scandal
All members of the previous government including such luminaries as Robert Menzies vehemently denied Ward’s charges. But despite being unable to substantiate his allegations, Ward continued his attacks. When asked to provide proof, he alleged the files relating to the plan had been removed from the archives.
Inevitably, these allegations took their toll on Labor’s political opponents. It is believed that Labor’s substantial win in the 1943 Federal Elections was largely thanks to “The Brisbane Line Scandal” whipped up by Eddie Ward. Interestingly, he was demoted when the new Government was formed being given two basically toothless portfolios.
So, was it actually correct that Robert Menzies’ Government had been prepared to “sell out” the whole of Northern Australia to the invaders? In a word: No. The truth of the matter is that such a plan was submitted to the Australian Government by Lt General Iven Mackay GOC of the Australia’s Home Forces. But it was to John Curtin’s Labor Government of which Eddie Ward was a member not Menzies conservative one.
Defending the industrial heartland
Lt Gen MacKay’s plan was far more nuanced than the one envisaged by Ward. He proposed that the bulk of Australia’s armed forces would defend the country’s industrial heartland whilst a guerrilla war was fought against the invading Japanese in the Northern outback. Furthermore, the population of that area would not simply be abandoned, but selective evacuations would remove civilians from areas of potential conflict. In any event, Curtin’s government and The Australian War Cabinet rejected the idea.
In 1943, a Royal Commission was appointed by Prime Minister John Curtin to investigate whether the Menzies Government had formulated a plan for the abandonment of Northern Australia. The Commission concluded that no such plan ever existed and no files for such a plan had disappeared from the archives.
Ironically, a Japanese Invasion of Northern Australia was never on the cards and with good reason. The Imperial Japanese Government led by Prime Minister Tojo dismissed the idea. It concluded, no doubt correctly, that such an action would be a “step too far” stretching Japanese supply lines to breaking point. In this it was backed up by a significant proportion of the Japanese military leadership.
Did the Japanese land troops in Australia?
That does not mean to say the Japanese never landed troops on Australian soil. In the 1950s my late brother Henry worked on a cattle ranch near Port Hedland in the far north of Australia. One of his jobs was to shift the build up of sand at water wells for cattle. To do this, he would use a tractor with a front end loader. On one occasion, he uncovered the remains of a Japanese soldier.
The story of The Brisbane Line is a classic example of how a myth can become “fact” if repeated often enough. No doubt there are still people who believe there was a plan to let Northern Australia “go hang” in the event of an invasion and a conspiracy to cover it up. But that’s just human nature for you.
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