21 February 1942
How Australia changed the course of Burmese history
The Japanese were then approaching Rangoon from Moulmein and would soon cross the Sittang River. On 15 February, Singapore, Britain's "impregnable" fortress in the Far East, fell and 80,000 Allied troops were captured. On 19 February, the Australian town of Darwin was bombed by the Japanese. At the same time, two Divisions of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) - the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions were sailing east after successful operations against the Germans in North Africa and Syria. Winston Churchill, with the support of President Roosevelt, ordered the lead 7th Division (under General A.S. "Tubby" Allen") with 15,000 men to Burma to urgently reinforce the defence of Rangoon. Over an exchange of angry cables from 19 to 22 February, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin refused, believing the troops might be needed to defend Australia itself.The British 7th Armoured Brigade (the "Desert Rats") later arrived in Rangoon but it was too late. The Japanese took Pegu on 7 March, Rangoon was evacuated the same day.It was a defining moment in Australian history. It was also a critical juncture in Burmese history. What would have happened if the 7th Division had landed in Rangoon and, especially, what if the Japanese had been repelled? There would have been no Japanese occupation and the course of Burmese history would have been entirely different. The photograph shows (then) Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies reviewing the 7th Division in Palestine, several months before their possible deployment to Burma.