Skip to main content

The Territory in November 1941 – would Japan attack?

You are here

Events such as Remembrance Day and Anzac Day stirred the thoughts of Territory people in 1941 even more than they do today.

World War II started for Australians in 1939. The centre of events was in Europe, and Australian troops were sent there from the early days. Although the “phoney war” was an actuality, meaning few shots were fired for the rest of that year and in the first half of 1940, matters moved swiftly after that. 

Russia and Germany divided up Poland between them, and soon the Nazis were invading Norway, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Submarine warfare raged across the Atlantic.

In Australia thousands flocked to join the Empire Air Training Scheme; the forces mobilised their reserves and encouraged others to join, and some of the country was put on a war footing.

By 1941 the Battle of Britain had been fought, and the Royal Australian Navy fared well in actions in the Mediterranean, particularly in one fight between the cruiser HMAS Sydney and her attendant destroyers, and two Italian cruisers. The Bartolomeo Colleoni was sunk and the other cruiser fled.

By Remembrance Day 1941 there was only one matter on the minds of those in northern Australia.  That was: would Japan fight?  There had been rumblings between the new Pacific Power and the United States for months.

The USA, even though not involved in the war, was beset at home by pressure from those who wanted to come to the aid of “their British cousins” but also strongly, though less so, from those who wanted to stay out of European conflict. WWI had cost America thousands of lives, and many wanted no part of another fight. But even isolationists admitted the Japanese invasion of parts of China was too much.

To Darwin’s north were the British Empire base of Singapore, and Dutch possessions in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), comprising what is now much of Indonesia. Japan was eying both hungrily. Refugees would flee south to Australia, thought many, and they would be followed by Japanese forces.

The Northern Standard edition of Remembrance Day contained a front page article ominously headed “Churchill warns Japan.” The dynamic leader Winston Churchill, with his V for Victory salute and his perpetual cigars, was a unifying but fierce leader. Where would Japan strike? Would it be against the USA which might – only might – bring the Americans into the war? The editorial was headed “Peace or Breathing Space?” and went on:

Today is Armistice Day.
It cannot but remind us that 23 years ago people went mad with joy to know that the four years' trial and suffering were over.
They looked to a new era of peace and have been disappointed.

The Territory in 1941 began to make preparations for evacuation; defences were hastened, and people began to prepare for the worst.

Army News 6 Nov 1941. (Public domain)
Northern Standard 11 Nov 1941. (Public domain)
A graphic of Winston Churchill as used in WWII colour magazines. (British Library)