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National Observer Home > No. 59 - Summer 2004 > Articles

Treachery: the Communist Party and the Labor Party

Hal Colebatch

Two days after the outbreak of World War II the Australian Labor Party Executive passed a resolution, endorsed unanimously by Caucus, which was evidently intended to bring Hitler and the Panzer divisions pouring into Poland smartly to heel without the necessity of further exertion. It stated: "The Australian Labor Party affirms its traditional horror of war and its belief that international disputes should be settled by negotiation."1 Unfortunately, any heart-searching or second thoughts which this ringing declaration caused at Fuhrer Headquarters or the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht seems to have escaped the attention of historians.

The A.L.P. also demanded the immediate nationalisation of all essential raw materials, which presumably included wool, iron ore and coal, and certainly included gold-mines and B.H.P., and of factories and the rigid control of commodity prices. In case this happened to leave any aspect of the economy and defence production unruined, it also demanded the artificial pegging of interest rates and the readjustment of the monetary system so the national debt be kept as low as possible.2

The Australian Worker claimed Australia was at war only by reason of sentimental links to the British Empire and there were no sound reasons for drastic war precautions.3 A fortnight after the outbreak of war, Eddie Ward moved an amendment to the Defence Act guaranteeing against conscription for service beyond Australia. This was passed 46-41 in Parliament with the support of Government renegades. The Australian Worker, unlike Communist Party publications after 1941, continued to attack the defence-effort throughout the war, and doubtless gave much encouragement to strikers from 1939 to 1945. It has been said the editor, Henry Boote, deserved the ribbon of one of the higher orders of the Iron Cross round his neck from the Nazi Government and a rope round it from the Australian.

It may have been more than coincidence that the Australian Worker, hostile to the war-effort against Hitler and Nazism, had also long had an anti-Semitic strain — something, as indicated above, also notable in certain radical, Left and pro-Labour writers, politicians and intellectuals such as Henry Lawson, Frank Anstey and Manning Clark. Attacks by these on "moneybags", "Mr Fatman," "the money-power," etc., had anti-Semitic overtones, made obvious in publications such in Anstey’s pamphlet The Kingdom of Shylock.4 Despite this Boote is an icon of Labour history and referred to by some latter-day Labor figures in terms of reverence.

When the Menzies Government in May-June 1939 passed legislation to introduce a census and national register so that resources and man-power could be used properly, and to make it harder to evade military training, the A.C.T.U. wanted the Parliamentary Labor Party, which had opposed the Bill, to lead the unions in defying the law and refusing to comply. This was in the circumstances virtually sedition: had the Parliamentary Party obeyed the A.C.T.U., Australia would have become ungovernable. It could conceivably have led to open civil war, and effectively removed Australia from the fight against Hitler and Fascism altogether. The A.C.T.U. could not have picked an issue with greater practical potential to help Hitlerism. Curtin agreed to support the government's legislation and in the Labor Caucus strongly condemned the A.C.T.U.'s "policy of revolt to a law," but in a somewhat bizarre speech in Parliament implied that the national register was a violation of liberties comparable with Nazism itself: "It appears to be a little absurd for us to be asking the people of this country to defend democracy in remote parts of the world, while at the same time, we seek to sacrifice some of the fundamental principles of democracy here at home in the process."5

When Curtin proposed a voluntary register, sections of the union movement opposed even this. To make this episode even more bewildering, it happened before the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were still at daggers drawn, so this obstruction does not seem likely to have been the result of Soviet or Communist direction or influence.6 The only possible explanation seems to be a consciousness of trade union identity so narrow, fundamentalist and ideologically rigid, that it still saw "the bosses" — perhaps identified with British Capitalism or the perceived pro-British attitudes of people like Menzies and of the U.A.P. — as the supreme enemy, with Hitler the "enemy of my enemy" and even a sort of ally. Labor Left M.P. Maurice Blackburn made a grotesque and seditious speech which might have been written by Dr Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry in Berlin, apparently designed to give aid Hitler, claiming: "Those who have fresh in their memory things that were done in the years 1914 to 1918 cannot regard this legislation coolly and calmly. It will be used to deprive the people of their liberties."7

One of John Curtin's first statements after the outbreak of war, made on 10 September 1939, was that the Labor Party maintained its traditional opposition to conscription of manpower for service and that it opposed "sending troops and the consequent war-materials to Europe."8 The Federal President of the A.L.P. wrote on 25 September 1939, when the full power and ruthlessness of the Nazi Blitzkrieg had been amply demonstrated (Polish Uhlan cavalry in a gesture of doomed heroism had been charging formations of German armoured reconnaissance vehicles with lances), and Russia had joined in the invasion of Poland from the East, urging all good Australians to refuse to serve overseas and to remain in Australia, and to fight Nazism to the last British soldier, concluding:9

"Every man who leaves Australia to fight in Europe increases our national debt, reduces our capacity to defend Australia against possible foreign aggression, and also of our country to supply Great Britain with materials and goods she needs and which are essential to her success against the curse of Hitlerism."

On 25 October 1939, the Australian Worker published another attack on conscription for home defence.

Comrade T. Wright of the Communist Party Central Committee, later a Sydney Alderman, claimed that: "Discussion of the war should lead to a clear declaration of its imperialist character, the danger of it being turned against Soviet Russia and the desire of the workers for immediate peace." This formula of the war being somehow "switched" or "turned" against Russia was frequently used by communists and has been used since by Leftist historians such as Russell Ward, its plainly irrational nature notwithstanding. By 4 November 1939, there were about 8,000 men on strike on the Northern New South Wales coal-fields.

On 31 December, 1939, about 200 servicemen attacked a Communist rally in the Sydney Domain. They drowned out the speaker by singing the National Anthem. The Sydney Morning Herald the following day reported that: "When one of the communist speakers declared that the communists’ message was peace, the soldiers roared their disapproval and asked what the Russians were doing in Finland." The Sydney Morning Herald published photographs of the incident which showed the soldiers and sailors marching in ranks. Their faces in the photographs are grim and furious. Several were arrested. A letter in the Sydney Morning Herald of 3 January 1940, by A. de. R. Barclay, Secretary of the Sane Democracy League (a well-respected moderate political group which had published anti-fascist pamphlets before the war) said that he had several times heard Communist speakers abusing and provoking servicemen, calling them "five bob a day murderers," and "hired assassins".

There was another fight in the Domain between Communists and servicemen the following week, when the Communists erected banners reading "Oppose Sending Expeditionary Force". Communist speakers included Jim Healey of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, E. Thornton of the Federated Ironworkers, Lloyd Ross of the Australian Railways Union (later an anti-Communist and biographer of John Curtin) and A. Thompson of the Milk Carters’ Employees’ Union. It was reported that officers in uniform spoke to the servicemen and calmed them.

On 12 February 1940, it was reported that 30 soldiers and 10 sailors attacked a Communist rally at Yarra Bank after Communists had again called them "five bob a day murderers" and had spat on them. The same day there was a report from New Zealand of similar fighting in Auckland. On 15 February 1940, N.S.W. Miners’ Federation President C. Nelson said: "There will be a complete black-out at the mining fields. Every kind of labour will be withdrawn from the mines." On 13 March it was forecast that the silver, lead and zinc mines at Mt. Isa might have to close down for lack of coal. On 13 March it was also reported that a New Zealand wharf strike ended instantly when the government there took over the wharves. On 21 March it was reported that the N.S.W. coal-strike was supported by the N.S.W. Labour Council and the A.C.T.U.. On 28 March 200 men were dismissed from the B.H.P. steelworks at Newcastle because there was no coal and it was reported that a further 360 dismissals were expected imminently.

By 4 April 1940, about 35,000 men were reported to be idle as a result of coal-strikes. On 5 April 1940, Sydney watersiders at Woolloomooloo loading food for the A.I.F. troops in the Middle East went on strike for about a week, demanding extra "smoko" breaks. They remained on strike despite, or because of, the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway, marking the end of the so-called "phoney war."

The unprovoked Nazi invasions of Denmark and Norway shocked the world. Prime Minister Menzies said on 10 April 1940: "As far as Australia is concerned, this grim . . . savagery will harden our determination to see this war through and to drive the evil spirit out of Germany." But there was another strike threatened at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory. Further fighting was reported between servicemen and Communists at the Domain. At about the same time, on 16 April 1940, the N.S.W. Labor Party held a rally attacking conscription at the Town Hall. The Australian Railways Union was on strike, as were the coalfields and the munitions works at Deer Park. There was heavy fighting going on in Norway, with considerable losses on both sides, especially at sea, and news of the Naval battles at Narvik had reached Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald commented in a leader the next day:

"The ‘fellow-patriots’ of the Town Hall rally, as they styled one another, might have paused to reflect that they were able to meet and do verbal battle with the spectre of conscription only because the shield of the British Navy, now battered and blood-spattered, is held between them and the brute enemies of human freedom. It will not have escaped attention that some of the friends of Russia, that land of iron conscription, who were most prominent at the Easter Conference, were also most vocal at the Town Hall meeting" [emphasis added].

In fact, conscription for overseas service was a somewhat purely political and academic issue at that time as there were more volunteers than the training system could cope with.

Communist attacks on morale, defence preparations and national unity in general continued. The Communist Guardian in Melbourne claimed in 1940: "We publish facts about our troops in Egypt, amongst whom the Australian Communist Party is active and with good results. They, too, are infected with the anti-war spirit . . . their enemies are not the Italian or German soldiers but the capitalists."

The Communist national weekly Tribune claimed on 23 January 1940:

"Today the Communist International represents a great army of fighters, who fearlessly raise the slogan: ‘The enemy is in your own country’."

There were many more such publications. John Curtin and the Labor Party moderates appear to have been culpable in not addressing them, and it is likely they did not even read them. However Curtin would reap the consequences in the most terrible and personal way. The N.S.W. branch of the A.L.P. — the biggest and most powerful in Australia — voted by an overwhelming majority against conscription for home defence again at its Easter 1940 Conference, and claimed, "The Australian people have nothing to gain from a continuation of this war." It also adopted a "Hands Off Russia" resolution, indicating the degree of Communist penetration of mainstream A.L.P. policy and the difficulty of telling Communist and A.L.P. Left apart. This was at the time when Stalin, in accord with the treaty with the Nazis, had crushed and massacred the population of the Baltic republics and was trying to do the same to the Finns. The Soviet Union was delivering massive supplies of materials and munitions to Hitler. There were three Labour Parties in New South Wales, with the so-called Industrial Labour Party or State Labour party under very strong Communist influence, the Lang Australian Labor Party (Non-Communist) and the A.L.P. The Bulletin, now much more critical of Labor than in its early days, in the edition of 3 April 1940 published a full-page cartoon by Norman Lindsay showing "Red Strikes" and "Hands Off Russia" as a millstone round the neck of Labor as it entered the election campaign. Eddie Ward declared in Parliament in April 1940, that anyone who advocated sending Australian troops to fight Hitler was "guilty of a traitorous act".

Curtin claimed in Parliament on 18 April, 1940 in a statement apparently aimed at Ward and the Stalinist anti-anti-Nazis that "[A]ny man in Australia who professes an allegiance to a nation which is an enemy of Australia should be dealt with as such." He then, it might be said typically, temporised this with the comment which would in ordinary circumstances have been impeccable but which in this context simply weakened what he had just said: "[But we] must not enable attacks to be made on persons who are not guilty, or put the Government in a position to act like Hitler . . . No one should be able to say that this man or that man shall be put out of the way merely because someone says that he is a Communist." The combined effect of the two statements sounded like P. G. Wodehouse’s Clarence, Lord Emsworth, or perhaps a caricature of Neville Chamberlain at Munich.

About this time, and coinciding with the Corio by-election, Labor wanted a referendum on whether any further volunteers should be sent to reinforce the Australian troops already overseas. This was bizarre: without reinforcements the A.I.F. would be worn away by attrition and casualties and become ineffective and units would go into battle with ever-decreasing strength. It was a piece of military nonsense or worse; without reinforcements the A.I.F. Divisions would either have to be recalled or, in an attenuated state, they would eventually be massacred by enemies at full fighting strength. The effect on the morale of the troops could be expected to be quite disastrous — an outcome which those who proposed such a policy either did not care about because they had no empathy with the troops as human beings fighting a desperate, grinding war far from home, or else which they deliberately intended and sought to bring about. Further, any forced withdrawal in the face of an active enemy — such as this policy would have eventually made inevitable — is usually disastrous in terms of casualties. In October 1941, for purely political reasons the Government in Canberra had the Australian garrison withdrawn by sea from Tobruk in the midst of fighting and under air-attack, Australian and British lives being lost needlessly in the process. This was little short of the murder of Australian and British soldiers and sailors but no post-war inquiry into the incident was held. Furthermore, of course, to put such a proposal to referendum, whatever the result, would undermine the government's authority to act decisively and show it to be impotent.

The Australian forces then in the Middle East were in fact of very great importance in the war against Nazism and Fascism, yet, apart from the name of Tobruk (and that in association with its later siege rather than their role in its original capture) they have a notably small place in Australia's historical memory. After Dunkirk they formed a very significant part of Britain's only field army at a time — in 1940-41 — when that army was only about 50,000 men.

When Churchill is said to have cried out in desperation: "We must have a victory!" the Australians played the major role in that first victory, the Battle of Bardia, with 40,000 Italian prisoners taken and 400 guns captured.

Australian troops went on to play key roles in a quick succession of victories, including the first capture of Tobruk, with another 27,000 prisoners with guns and vehicles, and where, when the Italian flag was run down, an Australian slouch hat was hoisted in its place. Of the victory at Benghazi Barrie Pitt, a leading writer on World War II, commented: "Only the Australians . . . could have covered that awful ground in the time." In all this force, led by the British General Richard O’Connor, which never numbered more than 35,000 men and was very short of vehicles and other equipment, advanced 500 miles in 10 weeks, capturing more than 130,000 prisoners, nearly 400 tanks and 845 guns. These victories were a huge shot-in-the-arm of encouragement and hope for the Allies who until then had known nothing but defeat. It is bizarre that some latter-day historians and journalists, sometimes claiming to speak for a "new nationalism," have claimed or suggested that the achievements of the men of the A.I.F. and their contribution to freeing the world from a genocidal tyranny — when mentioned at all — are shameful evidence of an explicitly or implicitly disloyal government's readiness to fight "other people's wars", or of some pathological aggression in the Australian spirit.

• • •

With the German attack on Belgium opening the great Blitzkrieg in the West, Curtin stated: "The democratic countries of the world are starkly face to face with a fight for their very existence . . . democracy stands with its back to the wall . . . [this is the gravest danger] that Australia has yet faced." Yet the coal strike continued. When it finally finished, the day Holland surrendered, it had lasted ten weeks, directly involving about 23,000 mineworkers and countless thousands of others who had been made idle. The harm done to the war-effort was beyond calculation. The miners had solemnly pledged "Industrial peace during the war." Their leaders soon showed their attitude to such pledges was similar to Hitler’s. The months from May to September 1940, saw, in quick succession the British retreat to Dunkirk, Mussolini throwing Fascist Italy into the war against the reeling allies, the surrender of France and its partial joining of the Axis cause, the Battle of Britain and the first heavy bombing of London. It appeared Britain, the last hope of democracy’s survival in Europe, was on the verge of invasion and total national destruction. Britain had lost huge quantities of equipment in the retreat to Dunkirk and desperately needed all production. Invasion-beaches were patrolled by World War I armoured cars and some Army and Home Guard units did not even have rifles. British planners calculated that by straining every resource Britain might be able to build an Army of 55 divisions as against Germany’s army of about 200 divisions. In the previous year Britain had produced 13,400,000 tons of steel to Germany's 22,500,000 tons. In Australia coal, engineering and munitions unions went on strike. Following the fall of France, Menzies offered to confer with the A.C.T.U. to set up a Trade Union Advisory Panel. The A.C.T.U. response was to declare any member of the Advisory Panel persona non grata. In a recent book the anti-British polemicist David Day has actually condemned the Menzies cabinet for having decided, on 14 May 1940, to send Britain small-arms ammunition.

On 18 September 1940, with the invasion of Britain expected, and with Australian pilots fighting and dying in the Battle of Britain, 6,000 metal trades workers stopped work in munitions factories, a donation, one commentator remarked, of "6,000 days for Hitler". The same day there were strikes at Australian Iron and Steel at Port Kembla, at Amalgamated Engineering Ltd., and again at the Newcastle Collieries. There was also a threat of another strike at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory by the Explosives and Munitions Workers’ Federation. The following day there was a strike by 6,000 members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. This halted all work at Cockatoo Dockyard including naval ship construction. A week later there was a strike by 1,400 workers making Army uniforms at Alexandra Spinning Mills, plus another 4,000 munitions workers.

In October 1940, Fascist Italy invaded Greece. Ironworkers employed on the Australian waterfront refused to do ship repair work and served an ultimatum demanding increased pay and leave. There were also further coal strikes. In November 1940: Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador to Washington, said Britain had spent nearly all its gold and dollars. This spelt catastrophe at least as surely as did any defeat on the battlefield. There was a strike at the Commonwealth Steel Company's Waratah works at Newcastle, and 4,000 men were idle at Australian dockyards following a strike by 1,000 waterfront engineering union members. There was a strike at Cockatoo Naval Dockyard and at metallurgical works. Enemy mines were sinking ships in Australian waters.

News reached Australia of how the British armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay had engaged the German pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer to buy the convoy it was escorting time to escape and how it was sunk with few survivors. Perhaps inspired by this tale of steadfast heroism in the face of the enemy, crane-drivers at Cockatoo Dockyard voted to continue on strike. Doing his bit for national unity, Eddie Ward claimed senior members of the R.S.L. who urged the formation of a national government of all parties were Fifth Columnists.

In December 1940, workers making life-rafts for troop-ships went on strike at A.C.I. There were also 5,000 miners on the N.S.W. coalfields on strike. In January 1941, possibly to celebrate Australian troops’ key role in Battle of Bardia, the first major Allied victory, Australian merchant seamen went on strike on the ground that ships did not have paravanes, owing to other strikes, and despite an assurance they would proceed only along swept channels. There were also 1,100 men on strike at the Commonwealth Steel works at Waratah. Engineers at 40 metal trades shops in Sydney stopped work. On 7 January 1941, the N.S.W. Metal Trades Industry announced a complete ban on overtime by boilermakers, ironworkers and munitions workers unless the government agreed not to tax overtime wages. (Had the government given way on this demand, other unions wold obviously have demanded the same, leading to the permanent damaging of all war production.) Also in January 1941, Communists and pacifists were reported to be telephoning next-of-kin of casualties to demoralise them. On 19 January 1941 it was reported that the metal trades ban was extended to Victoria. On 25 January 1941 the Secretary of the Queensland Workers’ Union said the Left was breaking John Curtin’s heart. The Engineering strike spread further.

On 1 March 1941 the Miner's Federation again pledged full coal production in Australia while the war position was critical. On 4 March 1941, there was a go-slow by workers at the Footscray Munitions Factory which reduced the production of metal for shell and cartridge cases. On 5 March 1941 there were strikes by ironworkers at the munitions annex of Amalgamated Wireless Ltd, and another threatened strike at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory.

On 12 March 1941, John Curtin signed a statement by the bipartisan War Council on the desperate nature of war situation. Eddie Ward claimed in Parliament that it was a lie and a hoax to influence workers into accepting worse conditions and becoming less militant. The Boilermakers’ Federation said it was not interested in the development of a shipbuilding industry in Australia unless it had separate representation on the Shipbuilding Commission.

In April 1941, there were major German advances and victories over British and Australian forces in Greece and North Africa. Germans recaptured Bardia and Australian and other Imperial forces retreated towards Tobruk. There was plainly disaster for the Allies in Greece. Political leaders spoke of the desperate situation. There were major gas, coke and rail strikes in New South Wales and other States.

Curtin struggled to free himself from his own and his Party's ideological strait-jacket. As a member of the Advisory War Council he was meeting Menzies constantly on friendly terms and receiving high-level information on what was actually happening. Speaking in Parliament on 15 May 1940, Curtin paid tribute to Menzies’ work in gearing Australia for war, to his "sensible outlook", concern for national unity and "high considerations of patriotism". He also worked to manoeuvre the A.L.P. caucus gradually from its unilateralist anti-war and anti-defence position, though he and the other defence-minded members of the Party's leadership could only do this in a stealthy, gradualist way, with vague resolutions and ambiguous forms of words. Menzies would say in tribute to Curtin many years after his death: "He led his party out of a species of pacifism and isolationism which had marked it for many years".10

Curtin was, however, handicapped both by his own mind-set and his Party’s, the weight of its history including the First World War conscription split, and the isolation and parochialism of Australia in which a petty dispute over some detail of local working conditions or demarcation appeared — to senior party policy-makers and experienced professional politicians — to be more important than military defeat, the future of world civilisation, or the Molochs of the Nazi death-camps.

• • •

On 5 February, 1941, Curtin, meeting Menzies at the Advisory War Council, advised him in regard to strikes against the manufacturing of ships and of mine sweeping equipment, his advice being minuted as follows:11

"If it can be brought vividly home to the members of the unions engaged in such activities that the lack of ships and of degaussing and paravane equipment was causing the loss of lives of fellow-unionists in the Seamen’s Union, they would readily agree to forego their objections and make extreme efforts to remedy the situation to the best of their ability. The general public did not realise the danger that lay at their very doors. There was an urgent need for the general public to be shocked into a proper realisation of the position" [emphasis added].

This is one of the most extraordinary and revealing documents in Australian history. John Curtin, the leader of the Labor Party, a man with probably unparalleled knowledge of the trade union movement and one of Labor's best brains, was in effect telling the Prime Minister that at least parts of the trade union movement did not care if non-unionists died in the fight against Nazism or if that fight was prosecuted effectively. Only a perceived threat to the lives of "fellow unionists" might be expected to move them. The non-unionists whose lives were evidently regarded as worthless apparently included men and women in the fighting services and refugees, evacuees and other passengers the ships might be carrying, conscripts, members of their own class and perhaps of their own families.

Curtin was pointing to a mind-set that was extremely close to totalitarianism in the moral and intellectual sense in that it categorised perceived enemies — non-union members, including members of the armed forces who could not join unions even if they wanted to — as worthless sub-humans, as well as in the sense that it was militarily aiding the totalitarians. Further, Curtin was claiming the workers refusing to fit anti-mine gear to ships in wartime did not appreciate the consequences of their actions and needed to have them explained. What did he take them for? These were adults in skilled engineering trades, working in a marine environment. Could he or anyone else really have believed they did not know exactly what they were doing? Tens of thousands of Australia's young men were already away at war and that fact must have touched virtually every family. It appears he was trying to rationalise a situation ("they know not what they do") which he could not otherwise cope with emotionally or intellectually.

• • •

In 1913, already a man of 28, Curtin had made statements to the effect that unionists were "standard-bearers in a holy war".12 I suggest that by the time of his Prime Ministership Curtin had not fully escaped from this mind-set of fundamentalist union "identity" himself and his mind was stuck half in and half out of a mythology which prevented him fully perceiving what he was saying. For Curtin it would have been a torturing and tragic situation. Failure to escape fully the mind-set of trade union "identity politics" would, when he was Prime Minister, and despite his intelligence and good intentions, prevent him exercising more decisive leadership or supporting Australia's servicemen and women more effectively in what I have called Australia’s Secret War. One cannot properly recognise one's own mythology from the inside.

Curtin, I suggest, while partially — but only partially, when he found himself a national leader — escaping from the fundamentalist "identity politics" of trade unionism in which he had spent his life, was left caught in a state of literally fatal psychic conflict and anguish.

I have mentioned above a few of the innumerable strikes which occurred in the first part of the war. They were so many it is really impossible to cover more than a few. There was a strike at the Australian Iron and Steel Works at Port Kembla, the heart of Australia's war-production, over the fact that all employees were not allowed to take a meal-break at the same time, but rather had to take meal-breaks in shifts. This began in February 1940, and lasted about 10 weeks, taking in the Nazi conquest of Norway and Denmark and the launching of the Blitzkrieg against France. There was another strike involving ironworkers at Port Kembla later in the year over minor alterations to working conditions. The Federated Ironworkers’ Association at that time had Communist leadership.

An employee was dismissed at the Lithgow munitions works in November 1940, and 2,450 employees struck for a week. The dismissed employee was finally re-instated. This was after the British Army had lost huge quantities of munitions in the retreat to Dunkirk and the Australian Government was trying to re-supply Britain to help it resist Nazi invasion. Statistics relating to these and almost innumerable other strikes are recorded officially in the Commonwealth Year-Books, though they do not record the indirect consequences in other industries.

On 4 March 1941, it was reported that a go-slow by workers at the Footscray Munitions factory reduced production of metal for shell and cartridge cases by twenty per cent. Next day there was a strike by ironworkers at the Munitions Annex of Amalgamated Wireless Ltd. and threatened strikes at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory. On 7 March 1941 John Curtin said he and the War Council "agreed entirely" with Prime Minister Menzies on the threat to Australia developing with Japan in the Pacific. On 11 March 1941, the Boilermakers’ Federation of Australia said it "will not be interested in the development of shipbuilding in Australia" until represented on the Commonwealth Shipbuilding Commission. This was despite the fact that the Secretary of the Trades and Labour council, A. McAlpine, had already been appointed to the five-man commission to represent labour interests. By way of contrast in patriotic feeling, it was reported on 14 March 1941, that convicts at Bathurst Gaol tailoring department refused to accept overtime payments for making bandages for the army.

One of the worst periods from the point of view of national morale was early 1941, with the Australian and other Allied forces defeated in Greece and Crete and the Germans, recently landed in North Africa, dramatically turning the tide and pushing the allies back from Bardia and other bases that had been captured from the Italians with much celebration shortly before. The Royal Navy was suffering very heavy losses from air-attack in the Mediterranean. Dunkirk might be explained as an aberration, inevitable with the collapse of the Belgian and France Armies. But now there had been too many German victories, and no significant allied ones against the Germans. It was as if the victories against the Italians had all been for nothing. Also in early April 1941, after a relative lull in air-raids of several weeks the largest ever German air-raids on London and other British cities were launched, with thousands killed each night. At the time it looked as if this was, at last, serious preparation for a German invasion — and with much of the army Britain had been able to rebuild so far, including most of its armour, in the Mediterranean theatres. Reading newspapers of the day gives one a feeling for the spirit of what was going on behind the headlines. Britain had simply been fighting with its back to the wall and without hope for too long. Far more than at the time of the German conquest of Denmark, Norway and the West, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain or the first Blitz on London, there was an atmosphere of desperation and even talk of defeat. The British Empire was financially reaching the end of its tether and could only be helped by an enormous industrial effort. The battle of the Atlantic was in the balance and much of the new wartime Naval ship-building was not yet ready.

The Japanese were becoming more bellicose and menacing in the Pacific and war with Japan was being forecast more and more openly by political leaders. John Curtin, Acting Prime Minister Fadden, and Menzies in London all spoke of the desperate situation and the need to give the last ounce of resources to the struggle. But a strike in the coke and gas industries paralysed factories using gas in New South Wales, as well as hospitals which depended on gas for heat to sterilise surgical equipment and operating theatres.

On 7 April 1941, there were two stories side-by-side on the first news page of the Sydney Morning Herald. The first was headlined: "Germany Invades Greece and Yugoslavia." Australian forces were about to come up, for the first time, not against the poorly-motivated and badly-led and ill-equipped Italian forces, but against the Panzers and Stukas. The second was headlined: "Railway repair shops to strike. 2,000 men affected." Cross-heads on this second story dealt with gas strikes, rail strikes in New South Wales, and strikes by ironworkers in Victoria "engaged in the manufacture of machinery for ship-building". As a contribution to national unity, the Brisbane Trades and Labour Council announced that the combination of the colours red, white and blue would be banned from the Labour Day procession of 5 May because they were "Tory colours".

By 16 April 1941, the whole N.S.W. gas industry was on strike, directly involving about 3,000 men. This also directly affected munitions and iron and steel production. Gas was of course necessary for all manner of industrial processes. Two days later came the heaviest air-raid of the War on London and there were renewed fears of invasion, with Britain exhausted and rapidly becoming financially destitute. The Germans were advancing again in North Africa, and had captured Belgrade. In Greece the outnumbered Australia and other Imperial forces were being pushed into the sea. All this was being reported in detail in Australia and it was obvious the allies were involved in major military disasters. The N.S.W. Combined Unions Strike Committee had declared black all coke made at the Mortlake North Sydney works, and placed a ban on hospitals using it for sterilisers or to supply hot water for patients. On 22 April there were further major German victories reported in Greece. There was also a threat to extend gas strikes to munitions annexes and general engineering workshops.

On 27 April the German forces entered Athens. The last message from the Athens radio station picked up by the British Navy was: "Closing down for the last time, hoping for happier days. God be with you, and for you." British, Australian and New Zealand troops were withdrawn, under air-attack and with heavy losses, to Crete, where they would face another defeat. The Wehrmacht seemed all-conquering. The fact that the Imperial forces in North Africa and the Greek Army in Greece had previously defeated greatly superior numbers of Italians seemed only a bitter and futile irony. Yet there was a strike at war factories around the country in July 1941, over the arrest of two workers, Horace Ratcliffe and Max Thomas, for distributing seditious material. They claimed Communists had a duty not to support war production. In October the Labor Government under Curtin took over. Two months later Pearl Harbour was bombed. While this immediately exposed Australia to the Japanese threat, the fact that America was in the war changed the long-term prospect from inevitable final defeat (when Britain went broke) to inevitable final victory if the Allies maintained their will and resolution.

Following the German invasion of Russia labour leader and Curtin's former mentor Henry Boote in the Australian Worker criticised the Communist Party for suddenly supporting conscription. A revealing comment was made by E. Thornton, Communist General Secretary of the Ironworkers’ Union, at a trade union conference in May 1942. It was, he said, not a true test of union militancy to "have a go" at a Labor Government, and that: "Before Japan came into the war, men went on strike to cut the bosses’ throats. If they go on strike now, they are cutting their own throats."13

The inference appeared to be that previously the workers had been perfectly entitled morally to strike to damage the war effort against Nazi Germany, and to damage Australia’s efforts at defence and jeopardise the lives of Australian servicemen and women so long as Australia had a non-Labor government.

1. Lloyd Ross, John Curtin: A Biography (Macmillan Australia, Melbourne, 1977), page 15.

2. Ibid.

3. Australian Worker, 6 September 1939.

4. The last two volumes of Manning Clark's A History of Australia (Melbourne University Press), while denigrating Menzies and the war-effort against Hitler, are filled with references to "Shylocks," "people in black," conspiracies by international financiers and money-lenders, praise for the anti-Semitic writings of F. Anstey and denigration and racial stereotyping of individual Jews such as the First World War Australian Army Commander Sir John Monash, on whom, and on whose Jewishness, he dwells obsessively: See also Hal G. P. Colebatch, letters, Australia-Israel Review, December 1996, and February 1997, and article, "Manning Clark and Anti-Semitism," The Adelaide Review, February 1997.

5. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 160, 7 June, 1939, page 1381.

6. The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was so abrupt that when Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow no Swastika flags were available to bedeck the station. They had to be snatched from the set of the abruptly-cancelled anti-Nazi film Dr. Manlock.

7. Jim Hagan, The History of the A.C.T.U. (Longman Cheshire, 1981), page 176.

8. Frank Crowley, ed., Modern Australian History in Documents, Vol. II (Wren, Melbourne, 1973), page 7.

9. Ross, op. cit., page 184.

10. Sir Robert Menzies, Afternoon Light (Cassell, London, 1967), page 127.

11. Advisory War Council Minute No. 130.

12. Ross, op. cit., page 7.

13. "Trade Unionism", The Australian Encyclopaedia, Vol. IX (The Grolier Society of Australia, Sydney, 1965), page 10.

National Observer No. 59 - Summer 2004