Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett

The Streets of Melbourne

Returning to Australia after nearly two and a half years in countries like Burma and India, where enthusiasm for the war was non-existent, and China, where political disunity had dampened enthusiasm, and production in any case could not equal the will to fight, it was like coming from darkness into light to see what a free, independent people organised in its own defence, could do.

With memories of Chinese troops eating grass and roots, of fever-ridden British forces along the Indo-Burma border living on half-ration of bully-beef and biscuit; of starving Bengalese dying in the streets of Calcutta, one was tempted to utter the popular cliche, "They don't know there's a war on" at the sight of Melbourne's well-stocked shops and well-filled bars. But Australia did know there was a war on, and in proportion to her population and resources, had a record that was as good as, or better than, that of any of the Allied nations.

Because of her geographical position, she had been spared the suffering and destruction that had been the lot of the people of England and Europe, but that does not make her war contribution any the less impressive or valuable. Australian troops had fought with distinction in the Middle East, Greece and Malaya, and at the beginning of 1944 were still bearing the main brunt of the fighting in the South West Pacific area. In the streets of Melbourne, in those first days back in my native town, I saw few men that would have been capable of bearing a rifle or driving a tank. Women had taken over many formerly exclusively male functions on the railways, in the workshops, and were driving taxis, carrying mail-bags and generally releasing men for the Services wherever possible.

Statistics are bloodless things and an unsatisfactory media with which to sketch a picture of Australia's war effort; but having been away from the country during the war years, I must leave it to others to present the flesh and blood account of the deeds of Australia's armed forces, and the story of the country's switch over to war production. I must be content with presenting a few figures which will serve as the easiest basis for a comparison of Australia's war effort with that of other countries.

By the end of 1943, from a total population of 7,700,000, almost 1 in 8, or 913,000 men and women had enlisted in the armed forces, and 3 out of every 7, or 3,300,000 were at work. Of 2,830,000 men, aged 14 and over, 2,530,000 were either in the Services or at work; of whom 1,181,000 were in the armed services, or making munitions. From a total of 2,820,000 women aged 14 and over, 849,000 were working and 191,000 either in the defence forces or in war plants.

With greatly depleted labour supplies for the farms, Australia was called upon to feed at least 12,000,000 people, including American, Dutch and British Service personnel, stationed all over the Pacific.

The importance of Australian food supplies to American troops in the South West Pacific area is best indicated by figures for Reverse Lend-Lease up to January, 1945, and released at the time of writing. Against a total of 303,000,000 worth of Lend-Lease equipment received by Australia, 223,118,000 had been paid back, mainly in the form of food supplies. Australia by January, 1945, incidentally, was supplying greater value of goods per month to America than she was receiving under Lend-Lease.

As General MacArthur's forces increased in number, and more populated territory came under Allied administration, bringing more and more mouths to feed, demands on Australian food production increased, and the Government had been forced to release some personnel from the armed forces to work on the land.

Unfortunately in 1944, the pressure on Australia's food production was intensified by one of the worse series of natural disasters yet experienced in the country. Bush-fires in Victoria destroyed millions of acres of grass-land, and more than half the State's stud sheep, and widespread drought conditions in every State cut down Australia's wheat yield to one-third the pre-war figure, 53,000,000 bushels, compared to 155,369,000 in 1938-39. Tens of thousands of cattle died from lack of feed and water; tens of thousands more were slaughtered by their owners, rather than witness their sufferings as the parched grass disappeared entirely and creeks and water-holes dried up. Great herds of cattle were driven from the drought areas in an effort to bring them to grass and water, but most of them died en route. Millions of bushels of wheat were made available from the meagre harvest for cattle fodder, but enormous losses of stock continued.

With all the difficulties of labour shortage, bush-fires and drought, Australia maintained her food commitments to the troops and still had enough left over to feed her own population adequately.

The industrialisation of the country has been one of the most surprising features of Australia's war effort. New industries undreamed of before the war were created literally out of nothing. Ship-building yards, non-existent before 1939, have since turned out the fast Tribal class destroyers, equal to the best in the world's navies, as well as scores of corvettes, sloops, merchant-ships, patrol and transport craft. The new-born Australian aircraft industry has turned out thousands of aircraft for the R.A.A.F., including Beau-fighters, Mosquitos, Mustangs and more recently, Lancaster bombers. For the first two and a half years of the Pacific War, Australian shops carried out most of the repairs for the U.S. Army Air Force in the South West Pacific area. Tanks, armoured carriers, artillery and munitions of every description, were produced by local plants, either built or converted since the war began.

It is doubtful if any of the Allied peoples have turned back in taxes a higher proportion of their war-time earnings than Australians. It has become increasingly difficult for the munition makers to amass fabulous fortunes in this war. In keeping with the traditional enthusiasm for economic democracy that was to be expected from a Labour Administration, it has been the upper strata of income earners who have suffered most from taxation. The following table shows the different rates of taxation in Great Britain, U.S.A. and Australia, and emphasises the policy in Australia of making mainly the higher income groups pay for the war, especially as compared with the United States, where the emphasis is on the lower-salaried class. The assessment is that for personal exertion income of a single person without dependants:

10,000 8,155 6,802 2,269
5,000 3,530 2,777 1,138
1,000 355 338 211
500 137 129 100
350 75 67 70
250 37 35 48

After a glance at the official records of Australia's war job, it was obvious that Australians were working harder for less profit than ever before in their lives. With one person in eight out of every man, woman and child either in the armed services or having served with them, it was fatuous to judge by the still-high living standards that Australia "didn't know there was a war on."

If one multiplies the figures for Australian mobilisation and production by fifty times, and compares the result with the actual contribution of India to the war, one has some conception of what Britain has lost by having a colonial, unorganised, unenthusiastic India at her side. India, with a population fifty times as great as Australia, has contributed instead of one in eight, one person in two hundred to the armed forces and of the two million enlistments claimed, only a tiny proportion have seen combat duty. Colonial Burma, with a population twice that of Australia, but little incentive for self-defence, contributed virtually nothing to the Allied war effort.

Hampered as she was by the difficulties in free development of her industries imposed by British exporters in the pre-war years, Australia made immense strides when danger to the Empire over-shadowed questions of patent rights and exporting privileges. Restrictions that previously prevented the manufacture in Australia of machine tools and precision instruments before the war restrictions that are still holding back Indian industrialists were swept away when the Empire needed our production. There are now over 100 factories producing machine tools in Australia, compared with three in 1939. Nearly two hundred factories produce tools and gauges, as against two in 1939. Steel production at about 60% the cost of American steel had been stepped up by 150%. Had Australia been allowed to cultivate the natural wealth of her raw materials and develop her secondary industries before the war, her contribution to the defeat of Germany and Japan would have been even greater.

Watching Australian-made planes and tanks roll off the assembly lines it was impossible to think she would ever revert to the pre-war role of solely a market-gardener for the Empire. Her basic industries had come to stay, and with the defeat of Japan and the disruption of the latter's industries, Australia would be the only industrialised nation in South East Asia and the Western Pacific.

After three weeks in Australia it was time to push on to Pearl Harbour, from where I would operate with the U.S. Central Pacific Fleet as my share of "up-splitting" Pacific with my colleague, Henry Keys, who was going to follow the campaigns of General MacArthur.

In the South West Pacific the 1st Marine Division which had landed on Cape Gloucester on 26th December, 1943, in the first offensive action against the Japs in New Britain, were gradually enlarging their perimeter. In New Guinea the Australians having captured Finschhafen, were passing north along the coast towards Satelberg. While I was still waiting for my plane from Brisbane to Pearl Harbour in the first days of February, 1944, news came of the greatest offensive yet from the Central Pacific the invasion of the Marshall Islands by crack marine and army troops.

After many years of defeats and retreats it was exhilarating to be on my way to a theatre of victories and advances. It was exciting, too, to be able to participate in the war effort of the most highly industrialised country in the world a country where free people had organised to defend their way of life, and built up the most powerful navy the world had yet seen.