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Turning the tide in the Pacific

1942: Australian troops return to fight in the Pacific

National Library of Australia obj-137175784
1900 2000
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Learning area


Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. How important was it for Australian Prime Minister John Curtin to disagree with Winston Churchill and override his wishes?

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that Curtin bringing the troops home in the Second World War is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

2. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>John Curtin</p>
National Library of Australia obj-136276333

In a snapshot

In February 1942 at the height of the Second World War, Singapore fell to Japan. The Japanese military then swept through southeast Asia and was preparing to invade the territories of Papua and New Guinea.

This led to an argument between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Australian Prime Minister John Curtin. Curtin believed some troops should be sent home to help defend Australia, while Churchill wanted the Australian troops to continue to fight in other parts of the world. In the end, Curtin brought the troops home. Shortly after these troops helped to stop the Japanese advance in the Territory of Papua.

John Curtin

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What did Prime Minister John Curtin do on 26 December 1941 and why was this important?

2. Where did Winston Churchill want to send the Australian 7th division troops in February 1942?

3. In which important battles did the 7th division troops fight once they were allowed to return to the Pacific?

Where did Australians fight in the early stages of the Second World War?

The early stages of the Second World War were fought in Europe and the Middle East, and the 20,000-strong volunteer Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF) was formed to fight overseas. The 2nd AIF fought through late 1940 and 1941 in the Western Desert in North Africa, Greece and the Syria–Lebanon campaign.

Research task


Use Google maps to locate Burma (or Myanmar as it is now called).

Google Maps

Who was John Curtin?

John Curtin became Prime Minister of a Labor government on 7 October 1941. Curtin had campaigned during the 1940 election that the ‘primary responsibility of any Australian Government was to ensure the security and integrity of its own soil and people before contributing to a common cause’.

<p>Envelope advertising a jigsaw puzzle titled ‘United for Victory’</p>

National Museum of Australia

<p>Envelope advertising a jigsaw puzzle titled ‘United for Victory’</p>
Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, London, 1941

Why was the war with Japan important?

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, which immediately led the United States and Great Britain to declare war on Japan. The next day Australia declared war on Japan, the first declaration of war Australia had ever made independently of Britain.

In his New Year’s message, given on the radio on 26 December 1941, Prime Minister Curtin announced that Australia would now align itself strongly with the United States of America. This clear move away from Great Britain greatly angered British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

On 15 February 1942 Singapore fell to Japanese forces. At the same time the Australian 7th Division was sailing from the Middle East back to the Pacific to help in the fight against Japan.

‘Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.’

Prime Minister John Curtin
John Curtin.

What happened when Curtin and Churchill clashed?

British Prime Minister Churchill argued that the 7th Division be sent to Burma as part of the British strategy to defend its colonies there. Curtin made it clear to Churchill that the Australian troops should immediately return to Australia. Churchill ignored Curtin and ordered that the troops be sent to Burma.

Finally, after some furious communications, Churchill backed down and allowed the ships to change course again to Australia. On 14 March 1942 Curtin gave a radio address to the people of the United States urging Americans to stand with Australia against the Japanese.

‘Australia is the last bastion between the west coast of America and the Japanese. If Australia goes, the Americas are wide open.’

Prime Minister John Curtin

Curtin’s decision as a defining moment

Soldiers from the Australian 7th Division were important in turning the tide against the Japanese advance. They fought in important battles at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail, in the Territory of Papua.

Curtin’s insistence on bringing troops back to Australia, rather than fighting in a distant part of the British Empire, was important in moving Australia’s primary foreign policy allegiances from Britain to the United States.


Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task


Do some research to find out why Burma was important to Great Britain, and why British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would want to divert Australian troops to defend it.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What did Prime Minister John Curtin do on 26 December 1941 and why was this important?

2. Where did Winston Churchill want to send the Australian 7th division troops in February 1942?

3. In which important battles did the 7th division troops fight once they were allowed to return to the Pacific?