The far east

Although the focus for Australia's defence for most of 1942 was the south-west Pacific Area, numerous Australians fought the Japanese in Burma and the Indian Ocean.

After invading Thailand and Malaya on 8 December 1941, Japanese forces advanced southward to Singapore and westward into Burma. A small number of Australians had been posted to Burma in 1941, including 45 officers and men of the 8th Division, Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Of these men, selected as members of a mission training Chinese guerrillas; all but three had gone to China as part of 'Tulip Force'. Of the three remaining in Burma, one of the men was killed and another was captured.

When Prime Minister John Curtin ordered the return to Australia of the 6th and 7th Divisions AIF from the Middle East, he only narrowly avoided losing the 7th Division in Burma. The Japanese continued advancing towards Rangoon and, without consulting the Australian Government, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill diverted the convoy carrying most of the 7th Division and ordered that it be landed in Burma. A war of words erupted, with Curtin refusing to permit the 7th Division to be landed in Burma, where it would almost certainly have been over-run, as it was needed for Australia's defence.

Curtin did permit part of the 6th Division to defend Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The island's naval base at Trincomalee was important to Australia, as a British fleet was based there and it was the principal refuelling point for convoys travelling between Australia and the Middle East and Europe. The 16th and 17th Brigades spent five months on Ceylon between March and August 1942, training and preparing defences. Trincomalee was attacked on 9 April 1942 by Japanese aircraft launched from aircraft carriers and several Australians flying Hurricanes flew in its defence, one of whom was killed and another died of wounds. Others flew in a low-level bombing attack against the enemy fleet in which nine Australians were shot down and killed.

Later that day, an Australian destroyer, HMAS Vampire, and the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes were sunk in the Bay of Bengal by enemy dive-bombers. Both ships were hit repeatedly and sank within minutes of the attack beginning. The Captain of Vampire, Commander William Moran and seven of his crew were lost together with more than 300 of the Hermes' crew.

The Royal Australian Navy maintained a presence in the Indian Ocean for the whole of 1942. At least 13 corvettes – all built in Australia – served with the British Eastern Fleet, sweeping for mines and hunting for submarines between Ceylon and the Red Sea. Some corvettes sailed down the east coast of Africa, where Australian destroyers, including HMA Ships Nizam and Quickmatch, hunted for German submarines attacking Allied convoys.

In Burma, Australians continued serving in British RAF squadrons for the rest of 1942. During that year the Japanese continued advancing against strong British and Indian resistance. At any one time, several hundred Australian airmen were serving in bomber, fighter, army cooperation, transport, reconnaissance and coastal patrol squadrons.

Allied airmen shot down in Burma had to contend with the hostile Burmese jungle as well as the possibility of capture by the Japanese. Their survival equipment included maps, rations, basic first aid kits, jungle knives and cotton flying helmets designed especially for the tropical climate.

During 1942-1943, when Squadron Leader 'Monty' Cotton DFC, was commanding officer of 17 Squadron RAF in Burma and India, pilots were issued with an escape kit, which included the kukri. Squadron Leader Cotton ordered that a fabric harness be made for his pilots to enable them to carry this equipment without it obstructing their movements in the cockpits of the Hurricane IIc fighter aircraft they flew.

The kukri could be used to hack a way through the jungle if the plane was forced to land or the pilot had to bale out. Many of the aircrews also carried a 'blood chit' or message, written in various Burmese languages. The message asked for assistance in escorting airmen to safety and offered a reward to anyone who did so.

Australians were scattered throughout more than 70 RAF squadrons in Burma. They flew fighters, bombers and transports More than 200 of them died there.

Last updated: 1 February 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), The far east, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 13 August 2022,
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