Friday, January 16, 2009

Great Betrayals - populist historians reworking reality

Heard an interview with Dr Peter Stanley on the ABC, about his new book Invading Australia. The basic premis of his argument, is that Australia was never under threat of invasion, as the Japanese never had serious plans for an invasion. So he has issues with a commemoration day for a battle that 'saved' Australia.

Good on him.

This is the sort of issue that I came to know well when working (briefly) as a Research Assistant on a book of the experiences of Australian POW's of the Second World War. The author wanted to talk about prisoners of war of the Japanese, whereas my contacts at the RSL and other places were incandescent about the complete dismissal of the experiences of the thousands of men captured by the Italian's or Germans. It seems to be a constant of many modern Australian academics, that the first half of Australia's wartime experience can be discounted, while they focus on the dramas involved in a supposed direct threat to Australia.

Let us deal with these issues separately.

Australia's contribution to the world war as a whole cannot be written off in this fashion. Australian troops fought bravely and successfully, or bravely and unsuccessfully, in the Western Desert, Greece, Crete, Syria, and the advance through Libya and into Tunisia. Australian flyers were a mainstay of the fighter and tactical air force campaigns throughout the Middle East, as well as of the bombing campaign which was the main offensive against Germany for the majority of the war. The Australian Navy participated in patrol and convoy throughout the North and South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean, long before there was a threat from Japan. Like my RSL contacts, I am unhappy about the disinterest in this era shown by most modern Australian historian's - particularly those who apparently have political axes to grind.

I am not claiming that Dr Stanley is one of these, quite the opposite. My initial response is delight of someone else sees the fallacy of having a commemoration day from semi-mythical event.

We run the risk of repeating the myth-making that led to the idea that Australia as a nation was defined by the 'sacrifice' at Gallipoli. There are always been a couple of problems with this myth. The first is that it discounts the far more significant effects Australians had on war world history during the great War, particularly on the Western front. The second and more worrying one, is that the idea that Australians were sacrificed needlessly. The truth, of course, is that the British took more casualties on that campaign than the Australians did, with the French not far behind. Also, that the campaign was a genuinely a valiant attempt to get the conflict away from the meat grinder on the Western front. If the campaign had succeeded, it would rightly be lauded right along with other desperate and casualty riden, but ultimately successful invasions, such as D-day and Okinawa.

The entrenchment of this concept of failure and sacrifice, was most appallingly evident in a series of radio ads a few years ago. One old soldier, actually uttered the line "the brass hats, back in Whitehall, landed us on the wrong beach". It is appalling enough that the poor old soul actually believed that arriving on the wrong beach was the fault of someone 1000 miles away, rather than some junior naval officer trying to navigate in a row boat. (Like many modern Australian historians, he was apparently not aware that the much more technologically advanced American invasion of Omaha beach on D-Day arrived in the wrong place after merely crossing the English Channel, rather than the entire Mediterranean.) Far more appalling, is that the professional production team who put the radio spots together, apparently accepted this as fitting with their preconceptions about how the world worked.

It is, I suppose, a stirring thing to believe that your nation has shown its valour in appalling circumstances. It is certainly possible to see the attraction of such myth-making. However one should never forget that the real Australian contribution to modern world history was in its successes on the battlefield, rather than tales of woe or despair.

Dr Stanley argued cogently that the Japanese never had the intention, or indeed the capacity, to invade Australia. This was in fact the belief of all the world's political and military leaders at the time - with the possible exception of Australian politicians who had "lost it", or of a particular American General who were trying to boost his political importance. The Combined Chiefs of Staff felt that Australia was never seriously threatened. The British Chiefs of Staff constantly promised that if Japanese troops did actually invade, then divisions rounding South Africa on their way to the Middle East would be immediately dispatched (such as the ninth British Armoured division in April 1942); but they were equally certain that the Japanese would not attempt such an operation. The Australian Chiefs of Staff had to prepare as though an invasion of Australia was likely, that after all is the job, but they too were far more realistic than Prime Minister Curtin and his amateur government.

This range of perspectives has been ignored by all too many supposedly professional historians, aided and abetted by the sort of politicians who feel that making emotive claims will gain them temporary distraction from anything else that is annoying the voters. Thus both David Day and Paul Keating bang on with more myth-making, such as calling the collapse of Singapore in 1942 'a Great Betrayal'.

A few significant points about Singapore...
* All the Dominions and Colonies were supposed to contribute to Imperial Defence, and all failed to live up to their guarantees - notably Australia, where most parties cut defence expenditure throughout the interwar period (the ALP in particular undermined Imperial Defence to pursue Continental Defence, and then whinged about everyone else's failures later).
* Singapore was a naval base, not a fortress (politician speech not military description).
* Everyone in the concerned military and government services was kept continually aware that once war in Europe broke out, it was no longer promised that the main fleet would arrive in '90 days to Singapore', but 120 - later 180.
* Nonetheless within 120 days of the Japanese attack the British Eastern Fleet at Ceylon included 5 battleships and 3 aircraft carriers, with another 3 battleships and two aircraft carriers due before the 180 days were up (at this point the American Pacific fleet was 3 aircraft carriers and no battleships).
* While waiting for the fleets arrival it had become clear that Singapore would probably fall. Churchill suggested evacuation of Singapore, and Curtin refused to allow it. (Thus sacrificing not only the Australian and Indian troops who could have been withdrawn, but also extra British troops - the 18th division - who were foolishly committed after this decision. Any of those troops could claim that the real Great Betrayal was by Curtin's government not Churchill's.)

It is not quite as simple as noting that the British kept as many promises as were possible, and the Australians were not lily white. The truth of the matter is that all politicians in democratic societies are at the mercy of their parties and their voters. No political party in any western country has much to be proud of in the interwar period. Nor do voters.

What does need to be acknowledged though, is that modern myth-makers should avoid fantasies like 'Anzac Sacrifice', 'Great Betrayals' and 'Battles that Saved Australia'. The truth is imposing enough, without needing fantasy to drive implausible emotiveness.


  1. My godfather divorced his wife and she met and married a New Zealander. She died a couple of years ago. He at the age of 85 decided he wanted to do "the grand European tour" and he did. His final stop before sitting on a bum numbing flight back from London to Kiwiland was to travel at a very hot time of year to the war graves at Anzac.
    He was there and he lost friends there. To minimise this or be reductive about it is an insult IMO

  2. All personal loss is tragedy. Loss for political reason is no less so. Teh question remains as to whether that loss is justifiable, or 'for the greater good'. I believe that the wars against the Axis powers were a worthy cause, but that doesn't for a moment suggest that I think all the things governments have sacrificed their troops for in the last century are worthy.