A new book reveals government plans for the destruction of resources and the mobilisation of civilians in the event of a Japanese invasion in World War II, writes Michael Husek.
The Asia-Pacific, 1942—the midst of World War II. February 19, Japanese forces conduct the Darwin Bombing, the largest ever attack by a foreign power on mainland Australia. March 16, US General Douglas MacArthur arrives in Australia, having been forced to fully withdraw from the Philippines. May 31, Japanese submarines launch an attack on Sydney Harbour which, while unsuccessful, is the first time Sydney had been under attack in its history. From this backdrop, it seemed that in only a matter of months, if not weeks, Australia would be facing a direct invasion by Japanese forces.
A new book by historian Sue Rosen, Scorched Earth: Australia’s Secret Plan For Total War Under Japanese Invasion In World War II, shows that if Australian territory was occupied the government was prepared to take extreme measures to completely deny resources to Japanese forces. These plans are outlined in a newly discovered document, the Scorched Earth Code, which was not widely distributed or known, and quietly disappeared into archives after Australia was no longer under threat of invasion. Rosen has spent several years collecting the missing sections to reproduce the document.
As the Japanese expanded their empire, they plundered the resources of conquered territories and often used the local population as forced labour. To prevent this from happening in Australia, the federal government instructed the states to draft ‘Scorched Earth’ policies which would be implemented in the event of a Japanese invasion. One example is the NSW code, which was developed as a priority due to the state containing nearly half of the country’s population, its biggest harbour, and many of its most important resources. The code instructed that, before evacuating, citizens would first destroy all property that could aid the enemy war operations. From vehicles to clothes, from radios to maps, even from batteries to light bulbs, the enemy was to claim no aid from the possessions of ordinary citizens, or from our economic infrastructure.
For industries, such as factories and mines, destruction was to be carried out by the workers. In rural towns, plans were even made for local residents to bear the responsibility of destroying and disabling nearby infrastructure. Evacuated citizens were then to disperse into the bush where they would report to ‘Civil Collaboration Columns’.
One of the focuses of the book is the author of the NSW Scorched Earth Code, E. H. F. (Harold) Swain, who appears to have been a quintessential Australian larrikin with ‘an ego the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground’. He was selected to chair the Scorched Earth subcommittee because of his sheer ‘force of character’ and ‘prodigious organisational ability’. Swain was under no illusion as to what would be required should Australia have to fight for survival on its own terrain, claiming ‘This is TOTAL war!’
The first chapter of the code, which is by far the longest, describes the scenario where civilians would directly work with the army. Citizens would be directly involved in assisting the army through means such as digging bomb shelters, transporting food, acting as scouts and learning to identify ally and enemy aircraft. Able-bodied citizens would also perform subsidiary combat roles, including attacking exposed enemy forces with homemade hand grenades and Molotov cocktails and manning tank traps which, the code stipulated, could require the rather unsophisticated technique of jamming a crowbar into a tank as it passed.
Swain went so far as to draw comparisons with the tactics of the Chinese against the Japanese and the Russians against the Germans, each of whom had used scorched earth tactics to great effect, though at a terrible cost to civilians. The examples of China and Russia, however, were not entirely applicable, as Australia has far less inhabitable land into which people could retreat. Moreover, Swain identified a number of places it was simply unthinkable to give up, such as Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. These places would be fortified and, if under siege, would hold out until reinforcements arrived, being described by Swain as ‘our Leningrads and Moscows.’
The importance of the south-east is consistent with the idea of the highly controversial ‘Brisbane Line’. The Brisbane Line was a speculative theory of a defence policy that if we were to face a land invasion from the Japanese, the government would abandon the entire north, west and central parts of the country to concentrate the defence of the industrial and heavily populated south-east. The code, however, does not mention the Brisbane Line, and Swain’s belief that the south-east could not be given up does not indicate that other parts of the country would not be defended.
The drafting of the code was not the only decision demonstrating the extent to which the government regarded the Japanese as an existential threat. In early 1942, the government began ordering units of the Australian Imperial Force to return to Australia, and reinforced its military presence in New Guinea with units that included conscripted militia, despite the fact that militia were only supposed to be deployed domestically (the government circumvented this by defining New Guinea as part of Australia, as at this time it was an Australian territory).
In addition, membership of the domestic Volunteer Defence Corps was extended to men who worked in reserved occupations, and had thus previously been either exempt or prohibited from engaging in military service.
On reserved occupations, also known as essential services, there has been little discussion about their contribution to the war. The term refers to men employed in professions that were considered to be vital to the effective functioning of the country—including farming, mining, the police force, firefighting, teaching, public servants, engineers, power plant operators and workers in munitions production—and who thus should be dissuaded from joining the military.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, the government began compiling a preliminary list of reserved occupations which was published in 1940. However, the list was both limited and non-compulsory, thus when the impending Japanese threat pushed the government to immediately enlist over 100,000 men, Australia suddenly found itself facing a manpower shortage.
Therefore, in early 1942 the implementation of reserved occupations was changed. People who worked in the listed professions were essentially forbidden from joining the military, requiring the approval of the newly-created Manpower Directorate if they wished to leave their current employment. Moreover, the list was made far more comprehensive than before and underwent several revisions over the course of the war, with the number of listed professions having risen to around 19,000 by 1944.
While there is no definitive figure as to the total number of people covered under reserved occupations, it is likely similar to the UK levels, which in real terms for Australia would have been up to 700,000 people.
Of course the greatest accolades should always go to those who served in the military. However, the services and supplies provided by the reserved occupations were vital to the defence of Australia. Those in reserved occupations are worthy of greater acknowledgment, particularly considering there would have been some young men who wished to enlist in the military, but were forbidden from doing so and therefore served their country in other ways.
The bravery of those on the frontlines, supported by the work of the reserved occupations, prevented a truly terrifying scenario which would have brought unprecedented suffering upon the Australian people. The idea of total war on Australian soil, with our cities blockaded and suffering akin to the brutality of the Eastern Front, is a horrible thought.
Rather than the great prosperity Australia enjoyed in the post-war period through the capacity of our industry to meet the high-levels of international demand for exports, the country would have had to dedicate its resources to rebuilding its own domestic infrastructure. In this way, the economic development which served as the foundation of our wealth during the second half of the twentieth century would either have never occurred, or at best been set back for years.
Rosen’s book is a valuable insight into our nation’s psyche at the time of its greatest peril, despite the fact the Japanese would never be in a position to invade. This book is a fitting reminder of the gratitude we owe to those who made sacrifices to ensure Australia remained a free country. Liberty and prosperity cannot be taken for granted, and these plans for total war on Australian soil show that times will come when we who believe in freedom must be prepared to defend it against those who would take it away.