Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Road to Singapore: The Myth of British Betrayal


The following is a book review that I did for the History Teachers Association of Australia in 2011. It was derived from an article I did for Quadrant magazine after hearing Augustine explain his thesis at a private history study group - Turks Head Club - in Melbourne. It supported concepts from my 1991 MA that had been too politically incorrect to publish at the time. This article was followed by more detailed articles on the concept that I published in Quadrant, and in the Canadian 'Dorchester Review'. It received a good deal of comment on American blogs at the time.

I have decided to give this brief version a run here because I suspect that one of my regular commentators is a victim of the myth... you know who you are...


The myth of a Great Betrayal by Britain during World War II has taken root in Australia, not just amongst parochial scholars, but also in the general population. Fortunately, an American scholar has produced a book (which includes excellent and readable selections for students), that demolishes the naive excuses and selective use of sources characterizing what he calls Australia’s ‘national myth’.
Augustine Meaher (IV)’s detailed analysis shows Australian interwar governments based their entire defence strategy on the fantasy that a naval base at Singapore (which they would not fund) could support a fleet (which they would not fund), so that Australia could pretty much ignore the need for any local defence. They pretended this regardless of many warnings from the British government and Admiralty that, even if a fleet were available, it might not arrive in time to prevent - at least - raids on Australian territory.
Meaher makes clear that Australia’s defence was not a matter of ‘somebody else’s problem’:
Australian governments ignored the Imperial defence requirement that the nation provide for its own local defence. Properly understood, Imperial defence would have allowed Australia to weather the turmoil of early 1942 much better.
As a result, when Churchill sensibly suggested evacuating Singapore well before the surrender, Curtin called the idea an ‘inexcusable betrayal’. The British 18th division was then sacrificed as a forlorn hope, and joined the Australian 8th and two Indian divisions in captivity. Who really ‘betrayed’ those troops?
Throughout 1942 British reinforcements for the Middle East, including armoured divisions, were designated for diversion to Australia if invasion really threatened. Britain also delivered the promised ‘main fleet to the Far East within six months’. By April 1942 the British Eastern Fleet of five battleships and three aircraft carriers was the biggest Allied fleet anywhere in the world (even without the other four battleships and two aircraft carriers en route). This assembly required the Royal Navy’s effective abandonment of the Mediterranean for several months (contributing to Rommel’s last advance to El Alamein). The British were hardly shirking on their promises.
The crux of Meaher’s argument is that Australian had small and poorly educated elites – social, political, military and industrial – who failed to understand Australian and Imperial defence needs. The result was what British General Montgomery-Massingberd described in 1935 as “a national characteristic of self complacency”.
Meaher sees the expediency of these political elites as the real betrayal. Whereas Australia had compulsory national service, and a powerful and expanding fleet before the Great War, the entire interwar period saw one defence cut back after another. All parties acquiesced, but Meaher points particularly to the Australian Labor Party, which did everything possible to reduce defence spending between the wars, and then embraced the excuse that Australia’s problems must be somebody else’s fault the moment Australia was threatened. Meaher comments:
The notions of betrayal that inform popular thinking about Australia in the Second World War do nothing to assist our understanding of the past or prepare for the future, based as they are on overly simplistic interpretations.

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