Australia in the 1940s


Summary of the decade

On 3 September 1939, prime minister Robert Menzies declared that Australia was at war:

Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that, in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement …

The Second World War brought about significant social, political and economic change for Australia. The federal government was united on a declaration of war against the Axis powers and mobilised troops to fight in Europe and North Africa. The only potential problem was the issue of conscription and training troops for the rigors of the war effort.

In the early 1940s, Australia found itself in danger of a Japanese invasion. Significant towns along the northern coast of Australia, particularly Darwin, were bombed, resulting in more than 200 deaths. On 7 December 1941, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was bombed by the Japanese, signalling the entry of the USA into the Second World War. Due to the presence of the US navy in the Pacific, prime minister John Curtain declared that it was to the USA that Australia must now turn for its security.

The fall of British-held Singapore in 1942 led to a reappraisal of Australia's reliance on Great Britain for its security. At the time, Great Britain was preoccupied with its own struggle for survival against Nazi Germany in Europe. In May and June 1942, the war was brought home to Australians on the east coast when three Japanese midget submarines were discovered in Sydney Harbour.

On the home front, the federal government imposed censorship and rationing, and directed all major resources to the war effort. As with the First World War, women entered the workforce to replace the men who enlisted in the military forces.

Post-war Australia was epitomised by housing shortages, strikes and government attempts to nationalise private banks while continuing rationing. These restrictions led to unrest and instability within the community. Post-war Australia also experienced the resettling of European war refugees through the assisted immigration program. The migrants were recruited to work on large public works programs such as the Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric Scheme, which was launched in 1949.

A snapshot of 1948

  • January
    • Employees working under the Federal Award System begin working a 40-hour week.

  • May
    • The Housing Commission in Melbourne holds its first ballot to allocate new homes for families of returned servicemen.

  • June
    • The federal government ends the rationing of meat and clothing.

  • August
    • The federal government's legislation to nationalise private banks is declared invalid by the High Court.

  • October
    • The first Australian Holden motor car comes off the assembly line and becomes a symbol of Australian prosperity.

  • December
    • Dr Herbert Vere Evatt (1894–1965), former minister for external affairs and attorney-general, is elected president of the General Assembly of the United Nations.


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