Register Now!

Search Skwirk

Introduction

The Australian response to World War I was of jubilation - the chance for Australia to prove herself in battle. Young Australians rallied to the cause.

The announcement of World War II found none of the enthusiasm that characterised the announcement of war 25 years earlier. There was no singing and dancing in the streets. The mood was sombre. Australia had become involved in another war because of her status as a dominion of Britain; her foreign policy was tied to the mother country.
 
Despite initial reactions Australians found themselves rallying for a new cause once again. Young men and the unemployed joined the military when promised adventure. Women joined the war effort to support the troops abroad.
 
There was some discontent as pacifists and conscientious objectors disagreed with Australia's involvement, but the majority of Australians resigned themselves to participating in another war.
 
As Japanese power in the Pacific grew, the threat of an attack on the Australian mainland loomed.
 
Australia not only had to fulfil her duties as a member of the Commonwealth but also protect her own soil against what was thought to be imminent invasion.

Australia's response to escalating tension in Europe and Asia: ties to Britain

Australia suffered from the 'tyranny of distance'. She was a Commonwealth nation on the other side of the world from Britain. As a dominion of Britain (a member of the Commonwealth), Australia had the right to determine her own foreign policy. This right was granted in 1923. See image 1

Nevertheless, in terms of European foreign policy, Australia showed almost no independence until 1942. Australia was tied to Britain in many ways - military strategy, foreign policy, financial markets, judicial decisions, social prestige, educational standards and fine arts.
 
There were few groups of Australians who wanted independence from Britain. Problems in Europe with Hitler and the Nazis and Mussolini and fascism seemed a world away.
 
The majority of Australia's population in 1939 was of British or Irish stock.
 
Ralph Doig from the Premier's Department in Perth explained, 'At that stage, we were nearly all of direct British descent. The Royal Family still meant a great deal to everybody in Australia, and nobody thought of anything else other than being British; and there was no questioning those days that 95% of the people were intensely patriotic.
 
World War I really was no direct concern of Australia's but we were one of the first countries into it, and the same applied in World War II. We weren't under threat but everybody felt Britain's in it, and so we're in it as a matter of course.'
 
Australia supported British Prime Minister Chamberlain's policy of appeasement towards Hitler in the early 1930s. There was a concern that because Britain was so far away from Australia, she would be unable to defend Australia should a war break out in both Europe and the Pacific - therefore, Australia supported the policy of appeasement.
 
There was the concern in Australia of Japan's expansionist policies. The Australian government made no response when Japan invaded China in 1937. In November 1938, however, Australian waterside workers refused to load iron for Japan because it could be used for the war against China. These matters held little interest for Britain.
 
When the policy of appeasement failed and Hitler invaded Poland, Australia watched and waited with bated breath for Britain's next move.
 
If Britain declared war, Australia would have little choice but to comply. British support could mean the difference between invasion and defence of Australia should Japan turn her interests south. Australia entered World War II shortly after the invasion of Poland
 
In the days leading to the announcement of war, the mood in Australia was tense. Radio programmes were interrupted by special news broadcasts, newspapers issued special editions throughout the day, cinemas ran special newsflashes. Everyone was waiting for the inevitable.
 
Prime Minister Robert Menzies was visiting Europe when Hitler invaded Poland. Menzies cancelled his tour and returned to Melbourne to await news from Britain.
 
Despite Australia's independence in foreign policy, her moral duty as a dominion and member of the Commonwealth gave the government no authority to influence decisions that would involve Australians in the war. Menzies felt that Australians would rise to the occasion regardless of the outcome.
 
At 3:15am on Saturday, 2 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies broadcast a warning to the nation that the danger of war existed.
 
Australians were stunned. Sunday, 3 September 1939 was Father's Day. Church congregations became larger. There was a quiet mood of contemplation about the future. Races and football matches were held, but no one attended. Australians knew that the British government had delivered Hitler an ultimatum which would expire at 8 pm Australian Eastern time on Sunday.
 
The tyranny of distance reared its head once again. There was no international telephone. Government ministers and Australian people tuned their radios to hear news from Europe.
 
The External Affairs Department listened to the short wave radio hoping to hear breaking news.
 
Radio received instant news from Berlin, London and Paris - Britain and France had declared war on Germany.
 
Prime Minister Menzies received a telegram soon after from the British Admiralty requesting Australia's assistance in the war. At 9 pm on Sunday, 3 September, Prime Minister Menzies broadcast on national and commercial radio stations:

'Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that, in consequence of the persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war…
 
Great Britain and France, with the co-operation of the British Dominions, have struggled to avoid this tragedy…
 
But, in the result, their efforts have failed, and we are therefore, as a great family of nations, involved in a struggle which we must at all costs win, and which we believe in our hearts we will win. '

Initial reactions of Australians: not another war

A sombre mood prevailed.

At the Carl Thomas Club, a popular bar in Melbourne, the band stopped playing and tuned in to the radio to hear the news. At 9:30 pm the band sang the Australian national anthem 'God Save the King'.
 
In Melbourne, crowds of people gathered at Flinders Street railway station. There were no flags, demonstrations, singing or dancing. People held their newspapers and waited for the shock to pass. People were described as being grim faced, anxious, eager for news, but not confident or joyful. See image 2
 
There was the consensus among many Australians that Britain had done the right thing in declaring war against Germany. There was no united anti-war movement.
 
Older people in Australia remembered the terrors of World War I and faced World War II with renewed fears for the safety of loved ones. Margaret Maxwell was a schoolgirl in Swan Hill, Victoria.
 
She explained, 'I don't remember very much myself, but I can remember my parents and they were both in tears - that's what impressed me more than anything because they were so upset about it. But I was nine when the war started.'

Maurie Jones, a schoolboy in Perth, remembered the evening, 'We were coming back from the evening service at St Mary's in Leederville, in Perth. And people were rushing out of the doors, saying war has been declared and Mum got very upset. I was twelve, and my brother was fourteen. And Dad kept saying, "It's all right Kate, it'll be over long before the boys are of military age".
 
There were some groups of people, as in World War I, who contested Australia's involvement in the war.
 
Niall Brennan was a university student studying in Melbourne, 'We'd been fearing it for a long time and I remember the scene in our own drawing room at the time, in fact my cousin burst into tears. We listened to the smug voice of Robert Menzies saying that Britain was at war and therefore Australia was at war.
 
And my father jumped up like a firecracker and said, 'That's constitutionally wrong!' and of course he was proved right; that was one of the stupidest things the Menzies ever said. But it added to the tension in the room at the time. It was the end of possibly two or three years of fearing that there would be war, so when it came there was a certain amount of relief.'

These groups of people were few and had little influence over Australia's involvement in the war.

Later reactions: government plans and adventurous young adults

With Australia committed to the war, the Australian government made plans to improve the state of Australia's military forces. Australia's military forces had suffered from lack of maintenance after World War I. Soldiers had returned from war and sought work. Civilian militia formed, but training and discipline had suffered in peace time.

Watch the video on Australia trains for War
 
Menzies decided that a group of Australian soldiers would remain in Australia to protect against a homeland attack and introduced conscription for the defence of the Australian mainland. While he made no promises to Britain that Australian troops would be sent to Europe, Menzies took steps to increase the size of the army.
 
A new generation of Australians had grown up in peace. It was this generation which, after the initial shock of the announcement of war wore off, greeted the prospects of travel and adventure with enthusiasm. See image 3
 
Olga Masters was a young mother living on the New South Wales central coast. She said, 'the people were all standing about with their newspapers, shocked. The look on their faces seemed to say, 'What is happening? What is happening?' You felt like going up to them and talking about the situation. You felt an excitement too, you know. Perhaps it's not a good thing to confess, but all young people feel excitement when major change is about to take place. You forget about the death and destruction. The 1930s had been a grim, slow time for young people'.
 
On 15 September 1939, Prime Minister Menzies announced recruitment for Australian military divisions for service at home and abroad. Men rushed to enlist - the adventurous, the dutiful, the unemployed and the veterans. There emerged a social pressure to enlist.
 
Sandy Rayward was a sergeant in the Permanent Army stationed at Sydney. He said, 'I think it was high adventure: going to places we'd never seen before, the thought of the First World War and the high hopes and the great actions that were instilled in us in history, Gallipoli and the whole of France; and we couldn't get away quick enough actually. It was just to get over there and let 'em know how good we were, because we were all terribly sports minded and everybody knew how good we were at sports so we thought well, we can do just as well over there and have lots of fun as well'.
 
The sadness that accompanied the announcement of war quickly dissipated, and the Australians faced the war with confidence, pride, and the resolution to do their best for Britain and the Australian people.

Pop Quiz

The more you learn - the more you earn!
What are points?Earn up to points by getting 100% in this pop quiz!

Question 1/5

1. On what day was war declared?

Sunday 3 September 1939

Saturday 2 October 1939

Friday 1 October 1939

Sunday 7 December 1941

ToolBox