War Cabinet Room, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne

Response

While concealed within the bluestone walls of Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Road, and very much outside of the public domain, the War Cabinet Room is one of the most important places relating to Australia’s response to World War II. The decisions made here by some of our great political and military leaders would have a lasting impact on how this conflict shaped our country, both during and after the war.

Melbourne was the headquarters for Australia’s World War II response, with the War Cabinet Room at Victoria Barracks at its centre. Federal Parliament and decisions relating to the general running of the country were still carried out in Canberra, however everything to do with the war effort was run from Melbourne. This was where the Department of Defence, Army, Navy, and Air Force headquarters—and most importantly, the War Cabinet Room—were all located.

With Australia’s declaration of war on 4 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies wanted each of the defence forces to have greater autonomy and abolished the overarching Department of Defence to create a new structure. The Prime Minister himself was in charge of the new Department of Defence Co-ordination, and created a further two departments—Supply and Development and Civil Aviation—while each of the armed services became independent Departments. When John Curtin came to power in October 1941 he maintained this structure.

A black and white photograph of five men in suits sitting around a long wooden table. In front of the men are piles of paper documents. Inaugural meeting of the Australian War Cabinet, Victoria Barracks, 1939. Source: Australian War Memorial.

The War Cabinet Room was the strategic headquarters for the War Cabinet, which provided the primary direction of war policy, and was located on the first floor of A Block New Wing at Victoria Barracks. Established on 15 September 1939, the inaugural meeting of the War Cabinet was held on 27 September. The first iteration of the War Cabinet consisted of Prime Minister Robert Menzies and some of his most senior colleagues, including Defence Minister Geoffrey Street, Supply Minister Richard Casey, Commerce Information Minister Henry Gullett, and Attorney General William (Billy) Hughes. Members of the War Cabinet would change throughout the war, but the one constant was its secretary, Sir Frederick Shedden, Secretary of the Department of Defence.

A black and white photograph of six men in suits sitting around a circular wooden table. There are large piles of paper documents in front of the men and there is a microphone in the centre of the table. On the wall of the room are geographical maps. War Cabinet meeting under Prime Minister John Curtin, Victoria Barracks, 10 November 1943. Members of Commonwealth War Cabinet from left: The Right Honourable John Curtin (Prime Minister and Minister for Defence); Sir Frederick Shedden KCMG OBE (Secretary Department of Defence and Secretary to the War Cabinet); The Honourable J.B. (Ben) Chifley (Commonwealth Treasurer and Minister for Post War Reconstruction); The Honourable N.J.O. Makin (Minister for the Navy and Minister for Munitions); The Honourable A.S. Drakeford (Minister for Air and Civil Aviation); the Honourable J.J. Dedman (Minister in charge of War Organisation of Industry and Minister in Charge of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research). Source: Australian War Memorial.

Throughout the whole six years of the war the Prime Minister and other key ministers of the War Cabinet and their staff travelled back and forth between Melbourne and Canberra, often overnight, with many hundreds of classified documents. Agnes Hannan observes in Victoria Barracks Melbourne: a social history that the burden of this journey was largely borne by staff who “could often been seen struggling off the train at Melbourne or Canberra with between four and six steel-lined suitcases of classified material”.

The War Cabinet Room would be privy to all discussions of strategic importance throughout the war, and therefore needed to be specifically fitted out for this important role. The conference room on the first floor was extended to the south and great effort was taken to ensure that it was soundproof. This was achieved by placing a large layer of felt under the carpet in the rooms above, and by fitting soundproof windows above the two exiting soundproof access doors. The windows were also concealed with heavy dark brown curtains, which were fitted with wind baffles. A large oval polished table stood in the centre of the room. It was surrounded by upholstered chairs, and each chair space was provided with push button communication to minister’s staff, or a messenger. The table was also furnished with cigarette boxes and brass ashtrays. A map board and pull-down roller maps were all fitted with the ability to be securely locked away.

A colour photograph of a long wooden table surrounded by leather bound chairs. On the wall at the end of the room are several rollup geographical maps. The War Cabinet Room at Victoria Barracks, St Kilda Road, Melbourne, 2020.

Beyond the War Cabinet, subject matter experts would be summoned to meetings and included different industry leaders, the Service Chiefs of Staff from all Defence Services, and from 1942, US General Douglas MacArthur.

Menzies and Curtin had an impeccable working relationship throughout the war, which is reflected in the establishment of the Advisory War Council (AWC). While members of the War Cabinet changed during the war, it only ever included members of the governing party. The AWC was established in October 1940 and consisted of members of both political parties. Its formation was a compromise between Menzies and Curtin, as Curtin had declined Menzies’ offer to form a coalition government following his slim retention of power at the 1940 election. The AWC did not have executive powers, but helped to facilitate critical decisions, and the collaboration between the two political parties provided the public with a sense of reassurance. Following Curtin’s election in 1941, all unanimous AWC decisions were passed without being sent to the War Cabinet, and as a result, the bipartisan AWC also played a significant role in Australia’s war response. The War Cabinet Room also hosted meetings of the AWC.

A black and white photograph of six men in suits sitting on a row on at a wooden table with three men standing behind them. The table is covered with paper documents and two microphones can be seen. Inaugural meeting of bipartisan Advisory War Council under Prime Minister Menzies, 29 October 1940, Victoria Barracks. From left, seated: Mr Beasley (leader of the Non-Communist Labour party, Mr William (Billy) Hughes (Attorney-General and Minister for the Navy), Mr Robert Menzies (Prime Minister), Lord Gowrie (Governor General), Mr John Curtin (Leader of the Opposition), Mr Forde (Deputy Leader of the Opposition). Standing from left: Mr Makin (MHR), Mr Spender (Minister for the Army), and Mr Fadden (Treasurer). Source: State Library of Victoria. A black and white photograph of five men in suits sitting in a row at a wooden table. The man in the middle is signing a document as the other men look on.  Members of the Australian War Cabinet watch the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, signing the proclamation which declares that a state of war exists with the Japanese Empire, 9 December 1942. Source: Australian War Memorial.

The War Cabinet Room was host to many significant decisions throughout World War II. Australia’s declaration of war on Japan occurred in this room with the signing of the proclamation by Prime Minister John Curtin and Governor General, Lord Gowrie on 9 December 1941. In February 1942 the War Cabinet ignored British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s request for Australian troops to stay in the Middle East and instructed the Australian Imperial Forces on the War Cabinet Room 7th Division and elements of the AIF 6th Division to return to Australia. Churchill requested that these AIF troops be diverted to Burma to take part in the Battle of Rangoon. However, the War Cabinet declined his request and informed him that Australia had an obligation to save itself, and to focus on defending its shores from Japan. The War Cabinet made many other difficult decisions in the interests of maintaining Australia’s security, including sending relatively inexperienced militia to the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea, and heavy rationing for Australian citizens.

The casualties of war were many, and they included the Prime Minister, John Curtin. He worked tirelessly throughout the war and enacted many significant policies that would positively shape peacetime Australia. He died on 5 July 1945, in office, just 6 weeks before the surrender of Japan. He remains the only Prime Minister in Australian history to have faced military attacks on our soil, and the threat of invasion. He was ultimately replaced by Ben Chifley, who had served as Treasurer and Minister for Post War Construction under Curtin during the war. Curtin, Menzies and Chifley are considered among Australia’s greatest political leaders, and they all spent much of their time during the war years in the War Cabinet Room.

A black and white photograph of a casket placed at the centre of a hall in front of a statue of King George V. The casket is draped with an Australian flag and four men in military uniform with rifles stand at each point of the casket with their heads bowed in respect. Former Prime Minister John Curtin's casket lies in state in Kings Hall at (now Old) Parliament House, Canberra, 6 July 1945. Source: National Library of Australia.

Victoria Barracks was also the headquarters for General Sir Thomas Blamey during World War II. Blamey had an office at the Barracks while serving as Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces and, under US General Douglas MacArthur, as the Commander-in-Chief Allied Land Forces in the Pacific. Blamey served as a General in both World War I and World War II, and following the war was promoted to Field Marshall, the highest rank every achieved by an Australian. Blamey was a complex figure, greatly admired by some and despised by others. Some of his professional failings prompted one historian to write that he was "the foremost Australian General of World War II but he will never be remembered as the greatest."

A black and white photograph of a large group of men in military uniform standing around a desk. A microphone stands in front of one of the men. A man in a General’s uniform is sitting at the desk signing a piece of paper. General Blamey signs the Japanese surrender papers on behalf of Australia, on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945. General MacArthur, Supreme Commander, South West Pacific, stands to the far left. Source: State Library of Victoria. Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.