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Issue #1788      August 2, 2017

Book Review – Peter Mac

Scorched Earth

Australia’s forgotten scorched earth emergency plan

Our dominant impression of war concerns battles with opposing forces. However, historian Sue Rosen’s book Scorched Earth, Australia’s Secret Plan for Total War under Japanese Invasion in World War II, deals with another terrible outcome of war, the necessity to deny invading forces local resources by deliberately destroying the nation’s own infrastructure and goods during a fighting retreat.

At the outbreak of WW2, Australia’s military planners considered measures that would have to be taken to protect the nation’s crucial infrastructure and its prime means of transport and communication, in the event of enemy attack.

A 1940 report concluded that it would be possible for enemy aircraft to reduce Sydney’s beloved Harbour Bridge to a twisted mass of wreckage, completely blocking the western sector of the harbour. But it subsequently became clear that if we were invaded we might have to destroy the Bridge ourselves.

Australia’s declaration of war against Japan in December 1941 necessitated the preparation of contingency plans for resisting an invasion of the Australian mainland.

In January, 1942 the War Cabinet formulated a “scorched earth” policy.

The Curtin Labor government subsequently adopted a plan for implementation of that policy. Entitled the Scorched Earth Code, it involved the progressive destruction of not only Australia’s bridges, jetties and harbour installations, but also its energy, transport, communications and water supply facilities, food and livestock, shipping, vehicles, and anything else that would be of use to invading forces.

The Scorched Earth Code was based upon Total War – and Total Citizen Collaboration, a report written by EH F Swain, the NSW Forestry Commissioner, concerning defence against invasion. Both documents are reproduced in Rosen’s book.

In his report, Swain was not referring to collaboration with the enemy, but to collaboration between the military and civilians, as he observed: “... with the entire population mobilised as one army of essential war functioning, with every unit knowing his or her battle duty.”

His report made provisions not only for evacuation and denial of resources, but also for the involvement of civilians in guerrilla warfare, including the disabling of tanks with crowbars, the construction of bomb shelters and improvised landing fields in cleared bushland, the recognition of enemy aircraft, the training of children for military duties and many other matters.

The right person for the job

Biographer Peter Holsworh said of Swain that he “had an ego the size of the Melbourne Cricket ground ... His stoushes were legendary”.

But as Rosen notes, he was appointed chairman of the NSW State War Effort Coordination Committee, “... because of his force of character, his prodigious organisational ability and his passion for the cause of civil defence.”

Some influential people, including business leaders who had been involved in trade with Japan before the War, favoured coming to terms with the enemy rather than entering into combat, in the same way that British peer Lord Beaverbrook had advocated an accord between the Nazis and Britain.

But Swain adamantly opposed any idea of collaboration with the enemy. He had no illusions about the fate of the Australian people under Japanese imperial rule. His report cited the bitter experience of the citizens of Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and elsewhere. He also bluntly reminded readers of his report that the Japanese “will not forget the White Australia policy”.

Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin, as well as Broome and Townsville, on February 19, 1942. Although invasion of northern Australia was anticipated, military authorities believed that the main attacks and invasion would focus on the eastern seaboard, particularly in NSW, the location of the major industrial centres.

That belief was reinforced when Japanese submarines attacked Newcastle, Sydney and Port Kembla in May 1942.

For more than a year the nation teetered on the brink of enemy invasion, but the Japanese high command decided to tackle the Asian and Pacific Islands before striving for the highly prized but more difficult conquest of Australia.

In the event, the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, together with the land battles waged in Papua New Guinea and other nations to our north, forestalled the invasion of the Australian mainland. In June 1943 Prime Minister Curtin declared the risk of invasion had passed.

A worthwhile reflection

Sue Rosen’s book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of Australian history. Copies of the two documents on which the book is based were discovered accidentally by her during research into, of all things, the Murray River’s red gum forests. As she notes drily, “...it dawned on me that I had found buried treasure”.

The documents’ detailed proposals for the deliberate destruction of the nation’s material basis, which its people had laboured to create for generations, provide a chilling picture.

Australia has been largely spared the terrible destruction of war. But as a result most of us have no first-hand knowledge of the suffering and destruction of warfare – that is, apart from Indigenous Australians, those who have sought asylum from foreign wars, including those in which Australian military forces have been involved since WW2 – countries which without exception have not attacked us at any stage.

Rosen’s book is replete with wartime instructions for the destruction or concealment of industrial plant and equipment and other crucial items and materials. The text is often expressed in Swain’s endearingly idiosyncratic style, in which elaborate detail is interspersed with rhetorical flourishes.

In retrospect, his report has some unconscious irony. He noted that Sydney’s dams were remote from the city and not easily defended, but that the Botany wetlands contained 16 billion gallons of fresh water, enough to sustain the population for a three-year siege. However, since then industrial pollution has rendered the wetland water unfit for human consumption.

Rosen’s book contains wartime images that perpetuate a racist stereotype of Japanese people, but there are some interesting exceptions. Swain himself acknowledged the ingenuity, determination and resourcefulness of the German and Japanese forces.

An editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald, reproduced in the book, also noted that “[the Japanese] have unity. They have the spirit of self-sacrifice. They have good organisation, founded on hard work, attention to detail, and bold and original ideas. They have capable and courageous leaders, imbued with the offensive spirit.” But it added: “They are brave men, they are intelligent men, but they are no more than men. ... We can, and we will, beat the Japanese.”

The book also sheds a light on other aspects of WW2 which are now barely mentioned in the mass media coverage of the period, in particular the resistance of the Soviet people to fascist aggression.

Swain was caustically critical of Britain’s inadequate preparations for defence of its eastern empire, particularly in Singapore and Malaya. Those shortcomings arose not just from official dithering but also from Britain’s unwillingness to arm the Indigenous people because they might turn the guns on their colonial masters after they repelled the Japanese.

“Scorched earth” military tactics were used in the 1812 invasion of Russia by France, and in Russia and China during WW2.

Swain recognised that although those tactics were necessary, they would be much more limited in their application in Australia than they had been in Russia or China, because there was relatively little inland area for the population to retreat to before they encountered inhospitable territory.

Nevertheless, he expressed admiration for the battles fought in Russia and China, and praised the deliberate sacrifice of the Zhaporozhye dam by retreating Soviet forces as a means of denying German troops access to water, a crucial strategic factor in the field of battle.

His recognition of the importance of those theatres of war is significant. Since the end of WW1, the western film industry and the commercial mass media have consistently ignored the vast battles which were fought across Russia and China, and which largely determined the final outcome of the war. One of the few exceptions was Burt Lancaster’s extraordinary 1970s TV series, pointedly entitled The Unknown War.

In fact, the significance of WW2 in general is insufficiently recognised nowadays. Regarding WW1, John Menadue, former private secretary to Gough Whitlam, recently wrote acidly:

“Conservatives and militarists want us to cling to a disastrous imperial war. They encourage us to focus on how our soldiers fought, in order to avoid the central issue of why we fought.

“... Our history is littered with tragic military adventures, being led by the nose by either the UK or the US. And it goes on through the Boer War, the Sudan War, and more recently Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“... The most important and justified war in which we have fought as a nation was WW2, in defence of our own people and land. But WW2 is rated by the Australian War Memorial and so many others as of much less significance. WW1 is the Holy Grail.”

Sue Rosen’s fascinating book will help to correct that imbalance. Her brief commentary is incisive and informative, and the book is recommended reading.

Sue Rosen, Scorched Earth, Australia’s Secret Plan for Total War under Japanese Invasion in World War II, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2017.

Next article – “Evacuate Now”

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