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- June 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 1942 in a book called HMAS, the first of an annual collection of articles and pictures compiled and distributed throughout WW II by the Australian War Memorial. The identity of the author is unknown.
Following on their first attack on Malaya, Hawaii, and the Philippines – made without any declaration of war, and taking the United States of America and Britain by surprise – the Japanese advance to the southward during the first three months of 1942 was rapid and comparatively unchecked. An initial advantage is always gained by the one who gets in the first blow, and in this case the blow had been a heavy one. At the time of the Japanese attack, the United States, though working up to a strong war production effort, was by no means at full production. Australia, the main secondary producing country in the South-West Pacific Area, could not compare with either the United States or Japan in secondary production, though she had made great and commendable advances since the outbreak of the war with Germany in 1939.
The war in Europe and the Middle East and Russia had made tremendous demands on British production, and also on American production for materials supplied to Britain under Lend-Lease. Britain had not only her own Home Front to supply – she had to start off from well-nigh scratch after the loss of all the equipment of the British Expeditionary Force in France – she had also main fronts to look after in Libya, Syria, Iran and Iraq, with potential fronts in India, Burma and Malaya, and Russia to supply with every ton of equipment that could be spared.
Australia, in common with the other Dominions, had given what help she could afford, with troops, with ships, and with equipment. But all the Democracies had a lot of leeway to make up on the start gamed by the Totalitarian Powers, all of which had been preparing for war for years before it began in 1939. The result had been that the fighting generally in the west had been a series of delaying campaigns, in which the Democracies were holding to what they could and gaining what time was possible to build up production. The most serious factor was shipping; British and Allied merchant ship losses vitally affecting Britain’s ability to reinforce her widely flung fronts as could have been desired.
Stationary aircraft carriers
The result was that the Democracies in the Eastern theatre were, at the time of Japan’s attack, in much the same position as they were in the Western theatre when war broke out with Germany. They were suffering from a shortage of vital equipment – more particularly of aircraft, especially of fighter aircraft. Hence the rapid initial advance by Japan, aided materially by her stepping stones of ‘stationary aircraft carriers’ supplied by the islands of Oceania to the east and the Malayan Archipelago to the west, through which her warships were able to operate with comparative immunity under air protection, which same air protection acted as additional artillery against the non-fighter-protected Allied ships operating in the same areas.
The time came, however, when much of the advantage of these ‘stationary aircraft carriers’ was lost to Japan; when her advance brought her to the limits of the Malayan barrier in the west and the Solomon Islands in the east, she was faced with more or less open seas in which her fleets would have to operate on more equal terms with those of her enemies, and her wholesale advance was stayed.
Influence of sea power
Undoubtedly the fleets opposed to her were greater than she had hoped to be the case. The Pearl Harbour blow, although a heavy one, was in no way decisive. It did not – despite her oft repeated claims – give her control of the Pacific, even of the Western Pacific; nor did the capture of Singapore give her control of the Indian Ocean. Her opening blows did, however, speed up American production, and spur Australia to greater efforts in her own defence. The old story of sea power and its influence on history was being told again, and Japan’s sea power, although sufficient to give her control of the Archipelago areas, was not enough to enable her to control the open oceans and cut the vital lines of communication linking her opponents. The reinforcement of the South-West Pacific Area began, and accelerated at an ever mounting pace.