All in—The Australian homefront 1939-1945

...there will still be Australians fighting on Australian soil until the turning point be reached, and we will advance over blackened ruins, through blasted and fire-swept cities, across scorched plains, until we drive the enemy into the sea.

(Prime Minister John Curtin in a radio broadcast, 14 March 1942)

Despite, or maybe because of, their vivid memories of the horrors of the First World War, many Australians continued their day to day lives with little or no change during the early years of World War II. They battled with rising prices and unemployment but unless they had relatives serving overseas, they had not yet sensed any real danger.

By the middle of 1941 the war had started to hit home. The failure of the Greek campaign, the battle casualties and the indications that Japan might enter the war increased Australian feelings of vulnerability. Many factories had turned to war productions, from widgets to warships, and many civilians were engaged in voluntary work. In August Prime Minister Robert Menzies relinquished his position to Arthur Fadden, the leader of the Country Party, and in October the leader of the Labor Party, John Curtin, became the new Prime Minister. On 7/8 December 1941 Japan entered the war and Japanese forces began their advance.

In February 1942, many Australians thought that the Japanese would invade Australia. Anticipating enemy air attack, blackout restrictions were introduced and air raid warning instructions issued. Barbed wire was also strung across many east coast beaches.

To face this threat all Australians, men, women and children, were urged to put their backs into the war effort. Indeed, the adult population was mobilised for war. Women took new roles in essential industries working in what had previously been male-dominated areas. By the end of 1942, thousands of women had also joined the women's auxiliary services - the WAAAF (Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force), the AWAS (Australian Women's Army Service) and the WRANS (Women's Royal Australian Naval Service).

Other men and women joined voluntary organisations such as the Red Cross or they helped to erect and patrol coastal defences or spot aircraft and shipping. School children collected bottles, newspapers, old tyres or anything else that could be recycled for the war effort. There was an unprecedented demand for food and other products like cotton, not only for the troops overseas and the people at home, but also for the American troops who were starting to arrive in Australia in large numbers. In June 1942, rationing was introduced, and ration books were issued for food and clothing. Two months earlier, in April, the government had launched 'Austerity' war loans to raise money for the war effort. Everyone was encouraged to go 'all in' to support Australia and Australians at war.

This is a recruiting poster for the WAAAF, with an image of a uniformed WAAAF in the centre. The poster has the slogan 'Keep them flying! There's a job for you in the WAAAF' printed in red. In a grey box on the lower left, 'Apply at RAAF Recruiting Centre

Keep them flying! There's a job for you in the WAAAF, Walter Jardine poster, [Photolithograph on paper 24.8 x 31cm; image 23.4 x 29.8cm. AWM ARTV01114]

Three months: three Prime Ministers

Robert Menzies received his commission as Prime Minister on 26 April 1939, less than four months before he committed Australia to join Britain in the war against Germany. During the next 12 months he was confronted by splits in his own coalition (the United Australia Party and the Country Party) as well as political battles with the opposition Labor party. Despite his exclusion from much of Menzies' wartime decision-making, the Labor leader, John Curtin, tried to support Menzies as much as possible.

Menzies committed Australia to war on 3 September 1939, three days before Parliament returned from its recess. John Curtin was not consulted. In Menzies' view, Australian commitment to Britain was automatic. Despite the ideological splits within his own party, Curtin seemed prepared to accept many of the government's proposals, but maintained his opposition to an all-party national government, believing that the role of the opposition was important even during wartime.

In January 1941 Menzies travelled overseas leaving behind a divided United Australia Party (UAP) and a fractious and faction-ridden Labor party in a country in a state of war. Despite the political risk, Menzies was keen to travel to London to increase Australian involvement in British wartime decisions. He left Arthur Fadden, leader of the Country Party in his coalition government, to be the caretaker Prime Minister during the four months he was overseas.

The political unrest in both the UAP and the Country Party continued in Menzies' absence and not long after his return from overseas things came to a head. The disastrous Greek campaign in April-May 1941 together with the perception that Australia was ill-equipped for war had caused general disillusionment with his leadership. Keen to follow Britain's example, Menzies promoted the formation of an all-party national wartime government even offering to serve in such a government under Labor opposition leader John Curtin. Curtin declined his offer. Menzies, suspecting that Labor would win an election, preferred that his coalition government choose a new leader and made it a condition of his resignation that his successor was to be chosen by both the UAP and the Country Party. Thus the only nominee, Arthur Fadden, became the new leader of the coalition government.

The next day, on 29 August 1941, Menzies resigned his commission as Prime Minister. The same day he wrote a letter to John Curtin in which he said:

Your political opposition has been honourable and your personal friendship a pearl of great price.

Curtin replied:

On my part, I thank you for the consideration and courtesy which never once failed in your dealings with me.

[Menzies to Curtin and Curtin to Menzies, 29 August 1941, in Menzies family papers, quoted in Dark and Hurrying Days: Menzies' 1941 diary, edited by A W Martin and Patsy Hardy, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p.143]

But the new Prime Minister, aware of the tenuousness of the coalition government, did not even move into the Prime Minster's Lodge in Canberra. Just six weeks later, Fadden's government was forced to stand down when two independent politicians withdrew their support for his coalition. On 7 October 1941 the Labor party took over the government of Australia and John Curtin was sworn in as the new Prime Minister.

Curtin continued to serve for most of the rest of World War II, dying on 5 July 1945, just 3 weeks before the end of the war with Japan.

Keep your head down

Air Raid Precaution officials in conjunction with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade issued a series of air raid precaution instructions with accompanying photographs so that all Australians would be prepared for Japanese air attacks. This series of instructions was forwarded to daily and weekly newspapers for publication.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), All in—The Australian homefront 1939-1945, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 June 2024,
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