Landing first on the north-east coast of Malaya on 8 December 1941, Japanese troops took just 70 days to crush the British Empire forces in Malaya and Singapore, which was surrendered on 15 February 1942. The Japanese had already captured Rabaul, the capital of the Australian-controlled territory of New Guinea, on 23 January 1942, and early in February Australian and Dutch forces surrendered the island of Ambon in the Netherlands East Indies (modern Indonesia).
At midnight on 19-20 December 1941 the Japanese attacked the island of Timor. Australian and Dutch troops resisted the invasion but on 23 February more than 1000 men were forced to surrender. The Australian 2/2nd Independent Company, together with some men from the 2/40th Battalion and supporting troops, remained and fought a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese in Portuguese East Timor until the end of 1942.
In late February, the island of Java, seen by the Allies as vital to the war, was the scene of sea battles against the Japanese. On 28 February-1 March 1942, HMAS Perth was lost during the Battle of the Sunda Strait and during a brief land campaign on Java about 3,000 Australian soldiers were taken prisoner.
By the end of March 1942, the Japanese had conquered Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, most of the islands to the north and east of Papua New Guinea, and occupied the main coastal centres of Lae and Madang on the New Guinea mainland.
On 3 February 1942 Japanese aircraft attacked Port Moresby. Months of air battles above the town ensued. In May, in the Battle of the Coral Sea, a Japanese invasion fleet headed for Port Moresby but turned back in the face of an Australian-led naval group in the Jombard Passage and an unsuccessful air battle with an American aircraft carrier task force in the Coral Sea. Later, in August-September, the Japanese attempted to take Port Moresby by land over the Kokoda Track and by putting troops ashore at Milne Bay, being repulsed on both fronts.
The first real contact between Australian and Japanese troops was during the evening of 14-15 January 1942 at a wooden bridge west of Gemas in Malaya.
The Australians mounted a successful ambush at the bridge before withdrawing to link up with their main force for the larger battle at Gemas. By the afternoon of the next day, the Australian forces were pushed back. The 2/30th Battalion had lost 81 men killed, wounded or missing and there were an estimated 1,000 casualties to the 5th Japanese Division.
Australia turns to America
During the final days of December 1941, the newly appointed Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, was approached to provide a New Year message to be published in the Melbourne Herald. Amongst his controversial statements to the Australian people was the oft-quoted sentence:
'Without any inhibitions of any kind, I made it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.'
Curtin's suggestion that Australia should play a role with the United States in determining Pacific strategy upset both the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, as well as many Australian conservatives.
Once the Philippines fell to Japanese troops, Roosevelt decided that Australia would become the main American base in the south-west Pacific. Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur, former US commander in the Philippines, to travel to Melbourne to take command of the Allied forces in the area. Although Curtin was keen to share the military burden with the new Commander-in-Chief, South-West Pacific Area, he would not relinquish his government's control of the disposition of Australian forces. He also established the Prime Minister's War Conference to be a link between the Australian Government and MacArthur. The Conference members included MacArthur and Curtin and any other ministers deemed necessary for a particular discussion.
By early 1942, over 25,000 US troops unable to travel on to the Philippines had already arrived in Australia. Australians rallied to welcome their Allies, with the country providing food and accommodation as well as airfields and other resources for the increasing numbers of American service personnel arriving in the country.