A CEASELESS WATCH: AUSTRALIA’S THIRD-PARTY NAVAL DEFENSE, 1919 -1942

Reviewed by: PETER ASHLEY

This new work illustrates the compelling story of how the Royal Australian Navy confronted the requirement to base its post First World War defence planning around the previous security provided by a major naval power: initially that of Great Britain in the shape of the Royal Navy and later the United States, spanning the period, 1919-1942, leading up to the point of Australia’s greatest security crisis; the military threat posed by Japan until 1942. When it came to foreign policy and defence, the country’s starting point was not what it intended to do but what it was capable of, and that was limited by geography. Australia’s size and location were both a strength and weakness. They protected it from invasion but at the same time had held back its political development while it was necessary to have extensive long-distance trade links. This required a strong navy to ensure that the sea lanes were kept open while being isolated by great distances from its key allies: Great Britain and the USA.

Angus Britts is a historian who resides in Sydney, New South Wales. His first book, Neglected Skies: The Demise of British Naval Power in the Far East, 1922-42, was published by the Naval Institute Press. His major area of historical interest is British imperial naval defence and the Singapore strategy. His ground-breaking investigation of Japanese, British, American, and Australian naval planning in the lead up to the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 sheds new light on the Allies’ difficulties in responding to the threat posed by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and how Australia shifted its reliance on the Royal Navy to a new relationship with the USN.

Britts focuses on tracing the process of the alignment or divergence of differing strategic interests between Australia and Britain. Looking at the development of the ‘Singapore Strategy’, which utilised the British Fleet at Singapore to protect Australia’s interests, Britts lays out how the cornerstone for Australian defence planning was based on the continued assurances from successive British governments that they would honour their naval commitments should Australia eventually come under serious threat from Japanese aggression. The Australian-American defence relationship evolved at a later stage within the time frame in this work, but the varying interactions between both nations throughout the interwar years are likewise addressed, as is the foundation of their wartime relations.

Australia’s unique relationship with the UK began in April 1770 when Captain James Cook in HMS Endeavour dropped anchor in Botany Bay, a short distance south of Port Jackson, today’s Sydney. In the 19th century, Australia was primarily settled by men and women, often convicts, from the British Isles. Not surprisingly the countries loyalty to the home country was most evident in the 20th century at the time of the commencement of the two World Wars. Without hesitation Australia became Britain’s greatest ally serving across the world and making a significant contribution to the Allied victory. Australia’s close relationship is based on common values, culture, ties and geography to the UK. Australia’s military ties to America commenced in WWII when in May 1942, the single naval Battle of the Coral Sea cemented their relationship.

Following an introduction, the book includes 10 chapters and two short lists of maps and tables. A brief paragraph of acknowledgments and a page of a list of abbreviations precedes the introduction. Following on from the final chapter there are extensive endnotes, a full bibliography section and a comprehensive index. Although not in my area of particular interest, I would be happy to recommend it as a useful and interesting addition for those who study the period and Australia, at a most reasonable price.