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Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction


In December 1944 a feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald warned of the enormous difficulties that would be encountered when the war in Europe and the Pacific came to an end. After World War I, it took more than a year to demobilise 167,000 men. The numbers were now far greater. Ships would have to bring back men from Britain, India and numerous Pacific Islands, and trains and motor transport would have to bring others from northern Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The first meeting of the Reconstruction Demobilisation Committee, chaired by Roland Wilson, was held on 18 June 1942. Its task was to prepare a plan and process for demobilisation, taking into account the location of forces, service requirements, needs of industry, the claims of individuals to release, the claims of munitions workers and other war workers, and social and economic considerations. Following discussions by a working committee, the Department of Labour and National Service drew up a document, 'Demobilisation for men', which summarised possible criteria for release, quotas, occupational priorities, the availability of employment and training, and the question of uniformity among the three services. Meanwhile, Sir Thomas Blamey approved a submission arguing that length of service should be the principal criterion for release, as in World War I, and proposing that a Department of Repatriation and Demobilisation, responsible to the Minister for Defence, be set up at the end of hostilities.

RAAF officers were critical of the army proposals and favoured the multiple criteria discussed by the Reconstruction Demobilisation Committee. The newly formed Department of Post War Reconstruction was also critical of the 'first in, first out' principle, suggesting that it was inappropriate considering that only a minority of servicemen were volunteers. On 14 April 1943 the War Cabinet set up a Standing Committee on Demobilisation which was chaired by either HC Coombs or PWE Curtin of the Department of Post War Reconstruction. It comprised representatives of the services, the Repatriation Commission, the Treasury, and the departments of Labour and National Service and Social Services. An Inter-Service Demobilisation Committee was also created which, at the insistence of Sir Frederick Shedden, reported to the Department of Post War Reconstruction rather than to the Defence Committee. The standing committee drew up a detailed demobilisation plan including individual priorities for release (a points system), the rate of dispersal (3000 servicemen a day, allotted proportionately between the services and states), and arrangements for dispersal centres. The points system, covering length of service, age and family responsibilities, would apply uniformly across the three services, but would not apply to key personnel needed to re-establish industry or to men who had been accepted for full-time training. JB Chifley presented the plan to the War Cabinet on 12 June and it was endorsed in principle.

In the following months there were consultations with the ACTU, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Manufactures, and the Returned and Services League (RSL). There was general agreement, but the RSL argued that personnel should be retained in the services until they were reinstated in their pre-war occupations or were accepted for training or employment. This was not acceptable to the services, recalling the problems of 1919 when unemployed troops lingered for months in camps and depots, and was rejected by the standing committee.

The standing committee made modifications to the plan and they were approved by the War Cabinet on 6 March 1945. The scheme allowed for personnel returning to their homes pending discharge rather than being kept in holding camps. The dispersal procedure entailed medical examinations, discharge, and re-establishment guidance. It envisaged a normal rate of dispersal of 3000 per day. In July 1945 Dedman was authorised to provide details of the plan to members of the services and the general public. Sites for dispersal centres were selected in each of the capital cities and funds were approved for the establishment of inter-service and civil re-establishment facilities at the centres. The War Commitments Committee recommended that at least 40,000 men suitable for employment in essential industries be released by the end of 1945.

Following the sudden cessation of hostilities on 15 August 1945, Coombs called together the standing committee and it recommended that general demobilisation commence on 1 October. On 17 August 1945 Chifley issued a public statement explaining the general plan and giving details of the points system. The following month Dedman recommended that in the first stage of demobilisation (October–December 1945) there should be 200,000 releases (135,000 from the army, 55,000 from the RAAF and 10,000 from the navy). General SG Savige was appointed Coordinator of Demobilisation and Dispersal with the task of ensuring that the decisions of the central committee were implemented consistently by the state controllers.

In October 1945 Frank Forde reported that the army was receiving about 1000 applications per week from parliamentarians seeking accelerated release for individuals on grounds not covered by the demobilisation plan. There were serious shipping problems and the Labor parliamentarian Allan Fraser predicted that it might take two years to bring back all the troops from the islands. On 29 October the Canberra Times deplored the control of 'the brass hats of the Army', resulting in a mere trickle of men being released to industry, and referred to 'the demobilisation fiasco'. There were criticisms of the points system and complaints about the effects of slow releases on public services and industries. However regular reports of discharge statistics and enthusiastic speeches by General Savige gradually allayed criticisms.

By early 1946 about 19,000 personnel were being released each week and by June 1946 the great majority of the forces had been demobilised. On 1 October 1945 the total strength of the Australian armed forces was 574,488, of whom 240,115 were serving outside Australia. By 31 December 134,783 had returned to Australia. The first stage of demobilisation ended on 31 January 1946, with 249,159 discharged, compared with the target of 200,000. The second and third stages also met or exceeded the targets. The fourth stage ended on 15 February 1947, with the discharge of the remaining men who had not volunteered for further service. In all, 510,852 men and 40,576 women were demobilised, reducing the forces to an interim strength of 60,133.

War Cabinet
Series: A2671
Planning for demobilisation, 12 June 1944 295/1944
Release of Service personnel for university study, 15 November 1944 512/1944
Release of Army personnel for coal mining industry, 21 November 1944 559/1944
Release of skilled trainees and servicemen, 9 January 1945 616/1944
Planning for demobilisation, 6 March 1945 77/1945
Statistical information on normal discharge from three Services, 1 May 1945 154/1945
Statistical information on normal discharge from three Services, 18 June 1945 232/1945
Demobilisation and re-establishment, 13 June 1945 258/1945
Demobilisation dispersal centres, 24 July 1945 318/1945
Progress report [on demobilisation], 19 September 1945 371/1945
Demobilisation: beginning of demobilisation, 17 August 1945 375/1945
Demobilisation: first stage, 19 September 1945 422/1945
Discharge of members of Forces: representation for accelerated discharge [Oct. 1945] 449/1945

Copies of many of the War Cabinet records can also be found in series A5954, the Shedden Collection.
Series: A2700
Demobilisation problems, 9 June 1942 247
Demobilisation and dispersal: administrative arrangements, 11 September 1945 934
Demobilisation: rate of discharge, 15 November 1945 994
Demobilisation: rate of discharge, 13 December 1945 994A
Demobilisation: occupational releases, 18 January 1946 994B
Demobilisation: occupational releases, 4 March 1946 994C
Third stage of demobilisation, 4 June 1946 994D
Fourth stage of demobilisation, 10 December 1946 994E
Demobilisation: transport of personnel from overseas to Australia, 21 November 1945 1004
Report on discharges to 23 February, 4 March 1946 1104
Department of Air
Series: A705
Medical aspects of demobilisation, 1945
Correspondence and minutes on medical procedures at discharge depots and personnel depots.
132/1/799 Pt 2
Series: A1196
Demobilisation: RAAF dispersal procedure, 1943–47
Correspondence and minutes on demobilisation planning and RAAF dispersal procedure.
Demobilisation: Ministry of Post War Reconstruction, 1942–47
Minutes, papers and correspondence of the Special Committee on Demobilisation (later the Reconstruction Demobilisation Committee), notes on demobilisation organisation and minutes of a conference on demobilisation (29 March 1943), chaired by HC Coombs. The correspondents include R Wilson, HC Coombs, PWE Curtin, MC Langslow, CES Gordon and WM Algie.
35/501/113 Pt 1
Central Demobilisation Committee: agenda and minutes, 1945
Agenda papers and minutes of meetings (May–October 1945) of the Central Demobilisation Committee, chaired by HC Coombs.
35/501/113 Pt 1A
Organisation, control, communication and procedure: dispersal centres, 1945–46
Correspondence and minutes on vocational guidance at demobilisation centres, rehabilitation of disabled cases, control and communication lines in dispersal centres, RAAF discharge squadrons, the Inter-Service Demobilisation Committee and formation of state demobilisation committees.
Demobilisation equipment arrangements: policy, 1945
Correspondence and minutes on disposal of stores and equipment, the return of units from the Pacific Islands, and formation of disposal sections.
46/501/259 Pt 2
Demobilisation of equipment: organisation policy, 1945
Correspondence concerning disposal of RAAF stores and equipment, and the establishment of equipment collection depots and detachments.
Department of External Territories
Series: A518
Demobilisation of ex-servicemen Papua New Guinea, 1945–47
Correspondence on the re-establishment of service personnel discharged in Papua New Guinea, the appointment of a representative of the Department of Post War Reconstruction in Port Moresby and the discharge of local soldiers. The correspondents include JR Halligan, RF Archer and FR Sinclair.
Department of Post War Reconstruction
Series: A9816
Technical staff for post-war planning, 1944–48 (2 parts)
Correspondence concerning the release from the army and other services of professional, technical and administrative staff needed for planning of post-war housing and public works. The correspondents include HC Coombs, Sir Harry Brown, JJ Dedman, FM Forde and W Funnell.
Series: MP513/1
History of demobilisation, 1945–46
Documents and minutes relating to The History of Demobilisation of the Australian Defence Forces at the Conclusion of Hostilities of the 1939–45 War, compiled by DI Glastonbury and published by the Department of Post War Reconstruction. The correspondents include AW Paul, DI Glastonbury, LF Crisp, L Ross, H Bland, E Toms and GF Wootten.
Department of the Army
Series: MP742/1

Civil staff correspondence files, army personnel files, and general correspondence on subjects such as administration, Army Medical and Dental Corps, discharge and discipline, equipment, intelligence, and the Japanese war crimes trials.
Demobilisation of Australian Army Medical Women's Service, 1945 21/4/388
Demobilisation dispersal centres, 1945 259/1/403
White Paper on demobilisation of Australian Defence Forces, 1945 284/1/305
Outlook plan for demobilisation of Australian Military Forces, 1945 284/1/325
Demobilisation of Australian Women's Army Service, 1945 339/1/631
Series: SP459/1

Files relating to the formation of Eastern Command and such matters as the administration of Victoria Barracks in Sydney, accounts, establishments, prisoners of war, medals, inspections, stores and transfers.
Bulletin on the progress of demobilisation and re-establishment, 1946 422/1/4580
Demobilisation Conference, 1945 442/1/1211
Minutes of New South Wales Demobilisation Committee, 1946–47 442/1/1284
Inter-Service Demobilisation Committee
Series: AWM 243

Minutes of meetings, drafts of the Outline Plan of Demobilisation, War Cabinet agenda, correspondence, memoranda and publications on all aspects of demobilisation, including demobilisation in World War I and in other countries.
Liaison: Great Britain: plans for demobilisation, 1944–46 (2 parts) 20
Inter-Service demobilisation machinery, 1943–44 700
Correspondence, 1943–46 (3 parts) 703
Committee meetings: minutes, 1943–45 704
Post-war repatriation of Australian prisoners of war, 1942–43 800
Navy Office
Series: B6121
Demobilisation of the RAN, 1945–57
Report by M Phillips, 'Demobilisation of the Royal Australian Navy'' covering demobilisation principles, signals and directives on demobilisation (1945–47), procedures in ships, naval establishments and discharge depots, finalisation of accounts, statistics on demobilisation (November 1945 – February 1947), and demobilisation committees.
Demobilisation planning, RAN, 1945–46
Documents including the outline plan (May 1945) of the Inter-Service Demobilisation Committee, a submission (21 June 1945) on RAN demobilisation planning, circular memoranda on demobilisation routine, the Parliamentary Paper (29 August 1945) on demobilisation of the Australian Defence Forces, and notes (September 1945) on demobilisation dispersal centres.

Files of the Navy Office created during World War II relating to training, demobilisation, re-establishment, rationing and volunteers.

Series: MP150/1
Demobilisation of ratings for service with Merchant Navy, 1944 535/203/235
Demobilisation of fighting forces of great interest to primary industries, 1944 535/203/248
Labour for coal mines being recruited from Navy upon demobilisation, 1944 535/203/271
Release of special officers for planning of post-war works, 1945–46 535/203/322
Demobilisation to be done in stages according to priority ratings, 1945 535/203/339
RAN demobilisation planning, 1945 582/201/1814
Prime Minister's Department
Series: A461
Repatriation: demobilisation, 1943–49
Correspondence on post-war re-establishment, the work of the New South Wales Reconstruction Advisory Committee, demobilisation plans in the United Kingdom, priorities in demobilisation, staffing of dispersal centres and resolutions of the RSL Congress. The correspondents include J Curtin, WJ McKell, JB Chifley, HC Coombs, Sir Frederick Shedden, W Funnell and GF Wootten.
Series: A571
Planning for demobilisation, 1944–47
Minutes to the Treasurer from GPN Watt, H Reeve and AC Joyce commenting on War Cabinet agenda and Cabinet agenda on planning for, and the progress of, demobilisation.
Sir Frederick Shedden
Series: A5954
Demobilisation of Australian Defence Forces, 1945–46
Prime Ministerial statements, War Cabinet agenda, correspondence, newspaper cuttings and a Parliamentary Paper on demobilisation (29 August 1945).
Planning for demobilisation, 1943–45
War Cabinet agenda, minutes of the Defence Committee, correspondence on the establishment of the Inter-Service Demobilisation Committee (October 1943), and the outline plan for the demobilisation of the Australian defence forces (February 1945). The correspondents include J Curtin, FM Forde, AS Drakeford, NJO Makin, AJ Wilson and WM Algie.
Strength and organisation of Interim Post War Forces: relation of demobilisation and shipping, 1945–46
War Cabinet agenda, minutes of the Defence Committee, Cabinet agenda, correspondence, minutes and newspaper cuttings on the return of forces from the Pacific Islands, the transport of personnel from overseas, shipping, and the projected strength of Australian military forces in 1945–46. The correspondents include FM Forde, AS Drakeford, JB Chifley, JA Beasley, Sir Frederick Shedden and FR Sinclair.
Press cuttings on demobilisation, 1945–47
Newspaper cuttings on Australian demobilisation, taken from Sydney and Melbourne newspapers.

Further reading

[D Glastonbury] History of demobilisation, National Archives of Australia: MP513/1, A743.

James, Karl, 'Soldiers to citizens', Wartime, no. 45, 2009, pp. 14–17.