Remembering the war in New Guinea - Were the Japanese going to invade?

Remembering the war in New Guinea
Were the Japanese going to invade Australia? (QnA)
Module name: Unknown theme (Japanese perspective)
This page was contributed by Mr Steve Bullard (Australian War Memorial)

On a recent anniversary of the raid on Sydney Harbour by Japanese midget submarines in May 1942, a prominent Sydney newspaper ran a hypothetical scenario depicting a successful wartime invasion of Australia by Japanese forces. Images of Mitsubishi Zeros flying over the Harbour Bridge and pitched battles in the streets of Sydney illustrated a fictional account of how the Japanese may have won the war in the Pacific. While it is often constructive to imagine such "what ifs" in history, it is essential to balance this with the evidence for the Japanese army and navy’s actual intentions towards Australia, and their capability to carry out any invasion plans.

The Japanese advance south in late 1941 and early 1942 occurred with a speed unimaginable to many Australians at the time. By mid-March 1942, the Japanese had swept through the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), Guam, New Ireland and New Britain, and had occupied areas of eastern New Guinea. For an Australian public constantly reminded of the threat of invasion from propaganda and politicians, the idea that the Japanese were "coming south" was as real as the bombs that fell over Darwin on 19 February 1942. In other words, the perceived threat of invasion was certainly real.

But did the Japanese actually intend to continue their southward march and invade the Australian mainland? Strategically, the Japanese had occupied areas of south-east Asia and the Netherlands East Indies to secure supplies of rubber, oil, and other natural resources. Further, it was essential to establish a stronghold at Rabaul both to protect the Japanese Naval base at Truk, and to provide a base to enforce a naval blockade between the US and Australia. However, the base at Rabaul and newly-established bases in New Guinea were threatened by a growing Allied presence at Port Moresby and from bases in Northern Australia. These, in turn, had to be neutralised for Japanese plans to succeed.

Buoyed by their initial successes, members of the Japanese Navy General Staff argued for an invasion of Australia during negotiations with their counterparts in the Army General Staff during February 1942. While the army agreed that the occupation of Australia would be desirable, they could not supply the ten divisions of troops and associated shipping estimated to accomplish the task. By early March, the argument was won by the army. It was decided to consolidate the occupied areas of the southern resource belt, to establish bases in the Pacific to blockade supply between Australia and the US, and to continue coastal raids on Australia to weaken the strength of Allied counter-offensives. Even at the peak of their successes, the Japanese did not have the capacity for an invasion of Australia, and did not undertake serious planning for such an operation.

Japanese successes did not continue unabated, with the Port Moresby invasion force turned back at the Coral Sea in May and the devastating loss at Midway in June. Anxiety over invasion in Australia, however, increased during 1942, particularly after the advance by the Japanese over the Kokoda Trail towards Port Moresby in July and August. By September, with the Allies increasingly controlling the air and sea in the area, and with the counter-offensive under way at Guadalcanal, even the Japanese task of consolidation was made considerably more difficult, and any thoughts of invasion were gone.

Printed on 06/28/2022 01:09:35 PM