Cabinet Minute

Minute 194 MELBOURNE, 26 September 1939


The Minister for Defence [1] circulated a memorandum dealing with machinery for the higher direction of the war. It was agreed that the War Cabinet, which should include such Ministers as the Prime Minister should direct, together with such Ministers as from time to time were co-opted, should deal with all matters in relation to the conduct of the war other than matters of major policy. Matters of major policy should be determined by the full Cabinet. [2]


1 G.A. Street.

2 The memorandum is printed as an editorial attachment to this Document. After it was considered by Cabinet the Prime Minister minuted it as follows:

‘All matters other than major matters of general policy to be dealt with by War Cabinet Summaries of War Cabinet dealings to be made by P.M. at full Cabinet meetings Meetings of full Cabinet to be held at regular intervals not always in Melbourne i.e. Sydney or Canberra Robert G Menzies 26/9/1939’.


Cabinet Submission by Mr G.A. Street, Minister for Defence

MOST SECRET 28 August 1939


1. PREVIOUS CABINET APPROVAL During the Imperial Conference, 1937, discussions were held in London with Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, and Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, on the machinery for Higher Direction of War, and Cabinet decided in March, 1938, to adopt an organisation for Higher Direction similar to that contemplated in the United Kingdom, the latter being based on the experience of the Great War. The following were approved by Cabinet in principle, and a copy of the previous Cabinet Agenda is attached as Appendix ‘A’:-

(i) A War Cabinet for the direction of War Policy, the exact constitution and functions to be submitted to Cabinet during the Precautionary Stage of an emergency.

(ii) The Chiefs of Staff in their joint capacity as members of the Defence Committee to continue as an advisory body to the War Cabinet.

(iii) The Secretary, Department of Defence, by virtue of his position as Secretary to the Council of Defence, to become Secretary to the War Cabinet.

(iv) The decision in regard to new Departments to depend on the scope and nature of the war effort required.

(v) The question of representation in any Imperial. war organisation for higher direction to be noted as a matter for consideration at the outset of a war.

2. WAR CABINET It will be noted from Appendix ‘A’ that the previous submission to Cabinet proposed that, in view of the size of the Cabinet in Australia, a small War Cabinet should be constituted, to ensure quick decisions and the vigorous prosecution of the War Policy. As the Council of Defence is a purely advisory body, it could be transformed by creating the War Cabinet from the Ministers on the panel of the Council. According to the additional Departments found necessary, the membership could be reviewed, or provision made for co-opting other Ministers as required, the latter depending on the subjects dealt with and the Departments concerned. It is primarily a matter for the Prime Minister as to when the step for the formation of the War Cabinet should be taken and what its constitution should be.

3. CHIEFS OF STAFF COMMITTEE It will be observed from Appendix ‘A’ that emphasis is laid on the relationship between the Chiefs of Staff Committee on the one hand and the War Cabinet on the other, and the general lines of procedure that should be adopted. These may be summarised under the headings of:-

(a) Consultation by the War Cabinet with the Chiefs of Staff Committee in regard to operations.

(b) Attendance of the Chiefs of Staff at War Cabinet meetings whenever matters concerning or affecting the Navy, Army or Air Force are under discussion.

(c) The collective responsibility of the Chiefs of Staff.

4. WAR CABINET SECRETARIAT Attached as Appendix ‘B’ is a chart of organisation proposed for the War Cabinet Secretariat. It will be noted therefrom that certain officers in key positions in the Secretariat of the Defence Department and associated with the Council of Defence are allotted to the general secretarial duties, and associated with them are Liaison Officers from the other Commonwealth Departments.

AU Departments have an important part to play in co-operation with the Navy, Army and Air Force.

It will also be noted from the chart that the officers for the Secretariat of the Chiefs of Staff Committee are also drawn from the Defence Secretariat, and the Service Assistant Secretaries to the War Cabinet are also the joint Secretaries of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. This forms an important link on the Service side of these two bodies.

5. LOCATION OF MACHINERY FOR HIGHER DIRECTION As it has not yet been possible to transfer the Defence Department to Canberra, and as the Supply, Civil Aviation and Postal Departments are also located in Melbourne, the following important problems arise:-

(i) War Cabinet Meetings. If it were desired to hold these in Canberra owing to the need for Ministers being continuously there for Parliamentary sessions, General Cabinet meetings and departmental purposes, it would be necessary for the Chiefs of Staff and Secretary to travel to Canberra.

As the Chiefs of Staff would have to be in constant touch with their Boards and the Secretary, it would be convenient for meetings to be held in Melbourne when it is possible for Ministers to be in that city.

(ii) Administrative Liaison with other Departments. It is essential, in view of the location of the Defence Department in Melbourne, for the Liaison Officers from Canberra Departments to be located in Melbourne at the Secretariat of the Defence Department for liaison and to handle matters of a joint relation between the two Departments.

6. COMMUNICATION FACILITIES BETWEEN MELBOURNE, CANBERRA AND SYDNEY Facilities for speedy and secret communication between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney are essential.

A teleprinter system has been installed between Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, Defence Secretariat, Canberra, and the Prime Minister’s Department, Canberra. Approval was obtained at the time of the last crisis for the installation of the telephonic speech inversion system between Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, but owing to difficulties connected with perfecting the apparatus, the necessary sets were not shipped from London until 26th August.

For transport of Ministers and senior officials between Canberra and Melbourne, special flying arrangements might be necessary for urgent movements which do not fit in with the timetable of the air services. This could be decided by the demands of experience.

7. OFFICE ACCOMMODATION Provision has been made, if required, for an office for meetings of the War Cabinet on the Ministerial floor of the Defence Secretariat at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne. Space for the Liaison Officers from other Departments has been reserved in the new building, the completion of which is being hastened.

8. NEW DEPARTMENTS In Appendix ‘A’ it is provided that it is necessary to consider early in the war whether separate Departments are to be formed for any of the Services. Provision is also made in the War Book for consideration of the necessity for separate Departments such as National Service. The decision in all these cases will depend upon the scope and nature of the war effort required.

(i) Ministerial Direction of Defence Department. The higher administrative organisation of the Services in peace has been based on the requirements for war, to ensure easy division of the higher direction in an emergency, and to this end the Department has been organised in the following form:-

Secretariat Navy Branch Army Branch Air Force Branch.

The organisation of the Defence Department was reviewed by Sir Maurice Hankey during his visit to Australia in 1934, and, subject to the reconstitution of the Council of Defence, which was carried out, he considered the unified Defence Department was, for a Dominion, the ideal form of organisation. Such a Department has not been practicable in Britain, owing to the size of the three Services. Furthermore, to provide for the coordination which is effected in Australia under the one Minister, the Minister for Co- ordination of Defence was appointed some time ago.

The following conclusions in regard to higher administrative direction are to be noted:-

(i) It is imperative in any changes in the Defence Organisation for war purposes to provide for the vital aspect of co-ordination.

(ii) There are two alternatives in the maximum subdivision of the Defence Department in war:-

Firstly- (a) The War Cabinet and Secretariat for higher direction of Policy.

(b) Separate Departments for the Navy, Army and Air Force, with a Minister for each, and a Minister for Co-ordination; or Secondly- (c) The War Cabinet and Secretariat for higher direction of Policy.

(d) Assistant Ministers to be appointed to administer each Service, with co-ordination and Policy under the direction of the Minister for Defence.

(iii) Subdivision can of course be carried out to a lesser degree than in (b) or (d), provided of course that co-ordination is ensured as in (a) and (c).

(iv) Any subdivision of the Defence Department for war hinges in the first place on Ministerial direction-whether it should be two or more Ministers with a Minister for Co-ordination or one Minister for Defence with one or more Assistant Ministers.

Should any of the Services be entirely separated from the Defence Department, it is important that the Permanent Head of the new Department should be the Finance Member of the Board. The Finance Member is the highest paid civil officer in the Service Branches, and in Britain the Permanent Heads of the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry are members of the respective Service Boards.

They are also the Accounting Officers appointed by the Treasury to ensure financial order and regularity, and, by virtue of such responsibility, appear before the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons. Whilst our system is not exactly the same as that of Britain, it is important for the Government to ensure, if the existing responsibility of the Secretariat of the Defence Department for financial review is removed, that the financial control within any Service is reinforced as proposed.

If it should be decided to adopt the alternative course of appointing additional Assistant Ministers, and this might be preferable until it is seen how the situation develops, the administration of the Services could proceed on the lines of Boards dealing directly with Assistant Ministers on matters of general administration but through the Secretariat on the more important questions, including those of principle and policy, and on matters of inter-Service relations, where coordinated action is necessary.

(ii) Other Departments. The Australian proposals for the creation of new Government Departments in time of war correspond in principle to the system contemplated by the United Kingdom, but, in the latter case, the number of new Departments is likely to be large, owing to the magnitude of the effort in a major war and problems peculiar to Great Britain. It is probable that new Government Departments would be required in Britain for Man Power (National Service), Blockade, Information, Shipping Control and Food Control.

In regard to Australia, it might become necessary, should a grave situation develop necessitating a general mobilisation under Part IV of the Defence Act, to convert the Man Power Committee into a Department of National Service. It would appear that in the initial stages of a war it should be seen how the situation works out, and the need for the creation of additional Departments for all purposes can be determined in the light of experience.

9. EMPIRE WAR CABINET As advised by Sir Maurice Hankey in Appendix ‘A’, the arrangements for setting up an Imperial War Cabinet to co-ordinate the war effort of the United Kingdom, the Dominions and India are less definite than those for the higher control in the United Kingdom or in Australia. This is necessarily the case unless and until the Governments of the different members of the British Commonwealth respectively decide as to the extent of their co-operation.

Sir Maurice Hankey advised that the arrangement under which the High Commissioners of the Dominions attend meetings of the Committee of Imperial Defence appears to lend itself to extension from the outset of a major war in such manner and in such degree as the Governments of the Dominions may themselves decide in each case.

Sir Maurice Hankey has stated that the Australian plan of giving consideration to the question at the outset of a war, or preferably during the Precautionary Stage, appears to fit in well with the arrangements in the United Kingdom. It is suggested therefore, that until experience indicates the need for a further change, the present status of the High Commissioner is adequate for immediate purposes, and the practice of his attendance at meetings of the Committee of Imperial Defence and direct consultations with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom are sufficient.

10. SUMMARY The following are the matters for consideration and decision in the event of war arising:-

(i) War Cabinet. The need for creation and proposed constitution are noted, the initiative in this matter to be taken by the Prime Minister if and when he decides that action is necessary. (para.

2) (ii) Chiefs of Staff Committee. Setting up the Committee in accordance with the approval of [sic] principle and adoption of the procedure outlined. (para. 3) (iii) War Cabinet Secretariat. Endorsement in confirmation of earlier approval in principle and approval of detailed organisation as outlined in Appendix ‘B’. (para. 4) (iv) Location of Machinery for Higher Direction. The War Cabinet Secretariat and Departmental Liaison Officers to be located at the Defence Department, Melbourne, and the place of War Cabinet meetings to be decided in the light of experience, but when convenient to Ministers, meetings to be held in Melbourne. (para.

5) (v) Communications between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney.

Observations noted, and telephonic speech inversion system to be installed as soon as equipment becomes available. (para. 6) (vi) Office Accommodation. War Cabinet Secretariat and Departmental Liaison Officers to be located at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne. It is noted that a War Cabinet Room is also provided there. (para. 7) (vii) New Departments (a) Defence Department. Principles governing the organisation and higher direction of the Defence Department are noted, together with the necessity for providing for the vital aspect of co- ordination. These should be borne in mind in any changes from the existing organisation.

(b) Other Departments. The need for the formation of new Departments to be determined in the light of experience. (para. 8) (viii) Empire War Cabinet. Until experience indicates the need for a further change, the present status of the High Commissioner and procedure in connection with his attendance at Committee of Imperial Defence meetings and liaison with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should be continued. (para. 9)


A. The Higher Direction of War-Australian Government Machinery.

Cabinet approval of 18th March, 1938.

B. Defence Secretariat Organisation for War.

C. Chart of Government Machinery for Higher Direction of War.



1 Not printed (on file AA:A2671, 12/1939).


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