January marked fifty years since the passing of Winston Churchill. In commenting on the anniversary, Prime Minister Tony Abbott recalled what Sir Robert Menzies said at the funeral in 1965: ‘In the whole of recorded modern history, this was, I believe, the one occasion when one man, with one soaring imagination, with one fire burning in him, and with one unrivalled capacity for conveying it to others, won a crucial victory not only for the forces…but for the very spirit of human freedom’.
Like Menzies, Abbott reflected the conventional view of Churchill, praising his giving the world courage and hope ‘when civilisation hung in the balance’. But to a chap I once knew named Harry Wiggins, who fought in the 8th Division’s ill-fated Malayan campaign and was captured with his mates when Singapore fell, Churchill was merely the callous bastard who abandoned 130,000 Australian, British and Indian troops to their fate.
But without Churchill there would not have been three particularly pivotal events for Australia: the outbreak of World War I, the Gallipoli campaign and the fall of Singapore. While in none of these was Churchill’s central role worthy of our praise, let alone our veneration, each contributed in a huge way to making us the nation of today.
In August 1914, Australia automatically went to war against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey because the Mother Country declared war upon them. Yet Britain very nearly stayed neutral. That prospect didn’t sit with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill, who salivated at the prospect of a glorious war, and ached to let his mighty dreadnoughts loose upon Germany’s High Seas Fleet.
Indeed, reading Herbert Asquith’s letters telling his mistress about the British Cabinet’s debates it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Churchill wore down the pro-neutrality majority. His hyperactive enthusiasm therefore became instrumental in committing Britain to a long and horrible conflict, with Australia’s impassioned support ‘to the last man and the last shilling’. The cost of bowing to Churchill included 61,000 Australian lives, with hundreds of thousands more maimed, widowed and orphaned.
But the war itself was crucial to Australia first seeing itself as a new, confident nation. Of all the events of 1914-18, none became as identified with Australia’s national identity as the Gallipoli landings.It is almost impossible to imagine modern Australia without the Anzac legend; there would have been no Anzac Day without Churchill. In early 1915, Churchill lit upon the Royal Navy forcing the Dardanelles Straits to take Constantinople, knock Germany’s ally Turkey out of the war and ease German pressure on Russia.
Once again Churchill’s persistence won the day. After British battleships failed to force the Dardanelles Straits in February 1915, he pushed for an amphibious attack on Gallipoli that diverted the Anzac troops training in Egypt to join an Anglo-French force too small for the job. While it gave birth to a legend, the Dardanelles fiasco cost over 26,000 needless Australian dead and wounded. Every Anzac Day, when we repeat the sacred words ‘lest we forget’, we should recall who sent those boys to that rocky shore.
The Versailles treaty of 1919 not only ‘squeezed the German lemon till the pips squeaked’. By isolating Japan, it helped create decades of aggressive Japanese militarism, and so also led to Churchill’s role in the 1942 fall of Singapore.
Churchill’s Singapore story unfolded over almost two decades. In the 1920s, Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer and made two fateful decisions affecting Australia. The first was slashing British defence spending assuming the Empire faced no military threat for at least ten years, notwithstanding the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Italy, Germany and Japan. The second was that elaborate plans to build up Singapore as a regional naval base were starved of funds.
Against Australian and New Zealand objections, Britain’s original plans for Fortress Singapore were scaled down, and work on what was left dawdled through the 1920s and 1930s. The British battle fleet supposed to be based at Singapore never eventuated. When it counted most, Singapore truly was Malaya veteran Russell Braddon’s ‘naked island’.
When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 (ironically after a Gallipoli-like fiasco in Norway he again initiated), Churchill’s finest hour came as Britain was back to the wall against Hitler’s blitzkrieg. Strategically, he gambled Japan would not move against in South-East Asia while Britain was distracted, and was tragically wrong.
In 1940 and 1941, Churchill repeatedly assured Menzies, and subsequently Arthur Fadden and John Curtin, that Singapore was secure despite being garrisoned by forces of inferior numbers and quality. When, in late 1941, Japanese intentions became undeniable, the Singapore reinforcements provided – including the ill-fated battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, and the underprepared Australian 8th Division – proved too little, too late when a numerically-inferior Japanese army cycled down Malaya.
Losing Singapore not only condemned thousands of Australian prisoners of war to brutal captivity and death, it shattered our psychological as well as military dependence on Britain, and helped open Australia to America’s embrace. An imperial era that opened in January 1788 ended abruptly in February 1942.
The table on which the Singapore surrender was signed, now in the Australian War Memorial, bears silent witness to the price in blood and agony Australians paid for Churchill’s failed strategic gamble, and the moment when Australia was forced to make her independent way in the world, whether she liked it or not. Blood, toil, tears and sweat are indeed Churchill’s great legacies to Australia.
Fifty years on from Churchill’s death, Tony Abbott is right to honour his memory and actions as Britain’s wartime leader. He deserves the greatest honour for his resolve to stop Hitler when all else seemed lost. But Abbott also acknowledged that this remarkable Englishman, who never visited Australia, made mistakes. Perversely, it is not his heroic and charismatic leadership but some of his most crucial failings and mistakes that form Churchill’s greatest and lasting contribution to the Australian nation.
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