Emergency: home defence

What are you doing for Australia in her darkest hour?

In 1942, a famous advertisement featuring the Prime Minister John Curtin called on all Australians to assist in the war effort. Men, women and children were called upon to support and protect their homes from the enemy.

Anticipating Japanese air and submarine attacks, blackout restrictions were introduced and air raid warning instructions issued. Families dug air raid shelters in their backyards and barbed wire was strung across beaches.

Many men who were unable to enlist because of their age or their essential war occupations joined home defence organisations. Members of the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) and the Volunteer Air Observers Corps (VAOC) helped to erect and patrol coastal defences or spot aircraft and shipping. The National Emergency Services (NES) appointed air raid wardens. Their job was to monitor both air raid security and breaches of blackout regulations. In cities and towns around the country evacuation procedures were planned and practised.

Others joined the Naval Auxiliary patrol, a voluntary organisation attached to the Royal Australian Navy. Many of the volunteers provided their own vessels, from dinghies to luxury yachts, to patrol Sydney Harbour and coastal areas.

The possibility of Japanese invasion prompted the Australian Government to assume extraordinary wartime emergency powers. Prime Minister John Curtin was able to invoke defence powers under the Constitution which allowed the government broad, wartime authority and which gave Curtin probably the most power of any Australian Prime Minister.

Some political parties such as the Communist Party and the Australia First Movement were banned. More than 1000 conscientious objectors were prosecuted, and some of them were imprisoned.

The government also introduced strict censorship of the media. Information that could assist the enemy such as details of Allied troop movements or travel details of high ranking military personnel and politicians was carefully controlled. Similarly any information that might damage public morale such as explicit details of enemy attacks, Australian losses or even unexploded bombs on Australian soil was censored by local authorities on the instruction of the Chief Publicity Censor in Canberra.

The new levels of national security caused numbers of overseas-born Australians to be interned for the duration of the war: mainly Germans, Italians and Japanese. The Italians, the largest group of non-British background were interned when Italy entered the war in 1940. Later, as Italian involvement in the Axis forces diminished, many of the internees (and prisoners of war) were released to work on farms and in other civilian areas.

In December 1941, US servicemen and women started to arrive in Australia. They needed to be housed, fed and clothed and increased levels in both rural and industrial production were necessary to cater for them. They also brought a new and different English speaking culture to Australia. Thousands of Americans in the capital cities needed entertainment, bringing changes to existing opening hours in restaurants, hotels and clubs.

When it was realised that there would be thousands of black servicemen amongst the US personnel, the Advisory War council decided on 12 January 1942 that:

… no black American troops would be accepted in Australia since it could affect 'the maintenance of the White Australia policy in the post-war settlement'.

[David Day, John Curtin: a life, 1999, p 441]

However the Australians could not afford to offend the Americans and the Advisory War Council decision was overruled. Despite their misgivings, members of the Australian Government felt unable to stipulate conditions regarding:

'the admission of coloured troops to this country when such a course would emasculate the organisation of the American forces being sent to this region.'

[John Edwards, Curtin's Gift: Reinterpreting Australia's Greatest Prime Minister, 2005, p 24]

As a result, almost 1 million American service personnel, including about 100,000 African-Americans, passed through Australia during World War II.


Last updated: 7 October 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Emergency: home defence, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/resources/all-australian-homefront-1939-1945/emergency-home-defence
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