The Brisbane Line

For two generations,

many Australians believed that the Menzies war-time government planned to surrender parts of Australia to the Japanese without firing a shot. The forfeiture of land was to be above a line drawn just north of Brisbane and this information was disclosed to a stunned public by the Labor Party halfway through 1943. That year, the ALP won a landslide electoral victory, ostensibly on the strength of these revelations. Even today, older Australians point to tank traps and the like in various parts of northern Australia that they firmly believe are physical evidence of this non-existent Brisbane Line. This book tells the story behind the Brisbane Line controversy. That story is a tale of political deceit, manipulation, cowardice and betrayal by politicians on all sides for electoral gain, involving the shameless exploitation of public fears of Japanese invasion. It culminated in the callous scapegoating of innocent army officers whose only crime was their desire to defend their country in the most effective way possible. This is the reality behind one of the most enduring of Australian myths.

The Brisbane Line Controversy
By Paul Burns

Reviewed by Malcolm Kennedy

An Australian Minister for Defence once related to this reviewer that when he escorted foreign military personnel to Australia he took pains to show them how long it took to fly from our northern coast to the cities on our eastern coast. An enemy who landed in the north or west he noted would be exhausted and his vehicles worn out before they could attack the south-eastern boomerang in which our most productive primary, secondary and tertiary industries were located. The zone in which most Australians live.

My rejoinder that only a fool would invade Australia and attempt to cross the interior was not welcome, nor were my comments that any attempt to defeat Australia would fail unless it concentrated on the isolation and capture of the productive boomerang.

Paul Bums’ book on the Brisbane Line provides a fascinating account of similar strategic naivety running back through the Second to the First World Wars on how Australia might be best defended. Included are two recent themes made popular by Paul Dibb which have a long historical lineage. The tailoring of strategic assessments to budget requirements was first developed during World War One when military advisers claimed that any enemy would only make raids on Australia and that there would be adequate surge time to create the forces needed to defeat them.

The Japanese used the bombing of Darwin and other northern towns as a means of drawing off large military resources which could not be committed to the campaign in Papua and New Guinea. A Japanese invasion of Australia would not have been through a Perth or Darwin axis. These points could be essentially neutralized by minor attacks.

The focus of invasion would have been the south-eastern boomerang. We can ask the counterfactual question what would have happened if Japan had won the battles for Papua and the Solomon islands? In the event of a delayed response from the United States the Japanese would almost certainly have attempted to invade Australia. This would have been only possible if they were able to withdraw troops from China and find sufficient shipping to land the troops on the east coast. A successful lodgment would have extended their supply lines further and only in the event of a rapid rout of Australian forces could the invasion have been sustained.

Even in the event of Australia being denied the United States as a fixed aircraft carrier the island hopping and naval strategy could have been begun from New Zealand and the American Pacific territories. Japan’s defeat might have been delayed but it would still have occurred. If the Australian Government had refused to surrender and escaped to New Zealand the struggle would have been continued but most Australians would have learnt at first hand the brutality of Japanese occupation.

There are many ifs and buts in any possible counterfactual history of the Pacific war; however one thing that faced both Menzies and Curtin was that the neglect of Australia’s defence during the interwar years had left the nation ill-prepared to defeat the Japanese in Papua and New Guinea, let alone an invasion of Australia. Paul Burns has shown that, apart from the economic imperatives of the period, both sides of politics in Australia were responsible for our poor defences.

An important irony that he misses is the fact that Menzies’ dispatch of troops to the Middle East later gave Curtin highly trained and seasoned troops for the defence of Australia and that greater pre-war production of aircraft would have produced larger numbers which were inferior to those of the Japanese. The dynamic of war accelerates weapon development.

Burns’ study of the military and political dimensions of the ‘Brisbane Line’ controversy is thorough and may be the definitive study. The level of academic documentation is, perhaps, more than necessary in a book but the author correctly seeks to provide conclusive evidence. The story that emerges is one of political ‘cowardice, betrayal and deceit’ and actions that could have endangered Australia’s security.

Burns has vindicated war-time military leadership by showing that there was never a ‘Brisbane Line’ in the form proclaimed by Ward and others. The recognition that space would have to be given up for time and preparation was an obvious factor in planning not to try to defend every point in northern Australia. Given the equipment and troops available the defence of the whole of Australia’s coastline would have been both impossible and futile.

Blamey was always committed to the defence of Australia but this was moderated by the necessary strategy that assets of prime importance must receive the greatest defence and that until an attack was made remote areas did not warrant the deployment of forces. In the event of Japan breaking through to attack Australia it was possible to assume, with a high level of certainty, that the Japanese would not stage their attack over long distances but would seek to bring the battle to the most important parts of Australia.

The idea that parts of remote northern Australia would not be defended was a sensible view; however, this did not reckon with the use that might be made of such an idea by politicians prepared to do anything to gain power and prestige. Burns shows in detail that Menzies never had a ‘Brisbane Line’ plan and had never been given such a plan by his military advisers.

This did not stop the Labor party and the extreme left from using this as a charge that Menzies was a pro-fascist and had not bothered to develop Australia’s defence.

The use by Curtin and the Labor party of the ‘Brisbane Line’ myth as an electoral weapon was an act of overweening deceit, while the wartime use of the myth by Ward, when Australia was still under threat, was an act that bordered upon treason. Burns’ extended causal explanation for the durability of the myth is too inclusive. The public’s general strategic ignorance, military weakness and the loss of confidence in Britain provide an adequate explanation of why exploitation of the ‘Brisbane Line’ myth was so profound.