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In 1939, Australia had not ratified the 1931 Westminster Statute, and so lacked an independent foreign policy. Menzies recognised this by saying in 1939, that as Britain was at war with Germany, so Australia was at war with Germany.

In 1942, after a change of government, Australia ratified the statute, backdated to 1939.

While Australia was obviously at war with Germany from 1939, "declaration of war" implies a formality and legality: when should we consider this formal and legal process to have happened? In 1939? In 1942?

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from Australia's War 1939 - 1945:

On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies announced that Australia was at war with Germany:

"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."

From speech made by Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies, 3 September 1939

A public announcement by one's duly elected Prime Minister seems definitive to me.

Update:
Australia's Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 explicitly states that five provisions of the Westminster Act (sections two, three, four, five, and six)

are adopted and the adoption shall have effect from the third day of September, One thousand nine hundred and thirty-nine.

Sections three and four of the Westminster Act bear on the question (my emphasis):

3. It is hereby declared and enacted that the Parliament of a Dominion has full power to make laws having extra-territorial operation.
4. No Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom passed after the commencement of this Act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to a Dominion as part of the law of that Dominion, unless it is expressly declared in that Act that that Dominion has requested, and consented to, the enactment thereof.

Given:

  • that the UK Declaration of War on Germany passed the House of Commons on Sep. 3, 1939; and
  • said date of passage is not after the commencement of this Act [effective date of Statute of Westminster 1931, being Sep. 3, 1939, as regards the Commonwealth of Australia],

it seems clear that the date of effect was deliberately chosen to ensure that Australia was legally in a formal state of declared war against Germany prior to the Westminster Adoption Act taking effect.
Update #2 This interpretation is reinforced by the signed declaration beneath the Act by the Clerk of the House of Representatives (my emphasis again):

I hereby certify that the above is a fair print of the Bill intituled "An Act to ... by adopting certain Sections of the Statute of Westminster 1931, as from the Commencement of the War between His Majesty the King and Germany", which has been passed ....

This combines to ensure that Menzie's broadcast declaration above (of Australia being at war with Nazi Germany) was not impeached by the retro-active application of the Westminster Adoption Act 1942.

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    @SamuelRussell: Did you check the url on that link? It is the official website of the Australian government for the history of Australian participation in WW2. If there is no controversy in Australia about when it officially entered a formal state of war with Germany, why do you think the issues is so difficult? – Pieter Geerkens Jan 28 '14 at 2:51
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    The Australian government famously enjoys losing history wars with the scholarly public. I see no reason to reverse a hundred and seventy years of scholarly convention in favour of a state's preferred narrative. – Samuel Russell Jan 28 '14 at 3:24
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    Now that's impressive, and impressive research and reasoning, and bounty worthy (as soon as this question goes eligible). Australia never declared war independently upon Germany, but became independent for foreign policy purposes already at war with Germany. – Samuel Russell Jan 28 '14 at 4:49
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Both.

The declaration in 1939 brought Australia, by virtue of its then status as a British dominion, into war with Germany.

Adoption of the statute of Westminster terminated Australia's status as a dominion and would have, by itself, resulted in the then newly independent Australia no longer being at war with Germany.

The backdated 1942 declaration brought the then independent nation of Australia into war with Germany.

  • "formal and legal" date of occurrence are always singular moments in time. That might as well be in the definition of a "formal and legal" moment in time, as the entire point of "formal and legal" is the removal of ambiguity. – Pieter Geerkens May 10 '18 at 12:13

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