Chapter 9 - What the British are doing in this War

Posted in The Forgotten People

It would be useless to pretend that Australia is not in more acute danger today than she has ever been before. It is equally clear that, having regard to the rapid Japanese progress in the Far East and her great present superiority in the air and on the water, our own unaided defences are not all that we would desire.

In brief, we have reached a point where we must call upon ourselves for the last ounce of man power and material production, and when we are entitled to look also to Great Britain and to the United States for the greatest and quickest assistance within their power.

Tonight, I want to try to clear up any misconceptions that may arise from some of the circumstances attending our appeal to Great Britain.

The fact that we make such an appeal from Australia is quite sufficient to persuade some people that we are, by implication, criticizing the British for not having given us more help before. It is true that a small handful of people, some of them unfortunately very vocal, would like us to believe that Great Britain has let us down. It is equally true, as I am firmly persuaded, that the vast bulk - the overwhelming bulk - of Australians are utterly and soundly British, and that nothing is farther from their thoughts than to appear to be reproaching the Government or people of Great Britain at a crucial time like this.

But perhaps there may be a want of knowledge of what Great Britain is doing and an easy temptation to think that somebody else's interests have been preferred to our own. It is in an endeavour to correct this that I am going to say something to you about what the British have been doing in this war.

When I say it, please don't imagine that I am forgetting what Australians have been doing in this war. I am familiar with Australia's splendid war effort from the ground up, and nothing that I say tonight is to detract from the pride and gratitude which we all feel at the courage and self-sacrifice and enterprise of so many thousand of our own people.

But what of the British? It is not my object to make a rhetorical speech about their efforts. All I want to do is to state, almost curtly and in the baldest fashion, some of the things that we ought to remember when we approach them at this time. Great Britain had the courage to go to war and risk everything for a just cause at a time when she was still grievously ill-prepared, when she knew that her enemy was magnificently prepared, and when she knew that that enemy was within an hour's flight of her coasts.

The war opened in almost leisurely fashion, but before the middle of 1940 France had been invaded, and had utterly collapsed; so had half a dozen other countries, and every European port from Bordeaux to Bergen was in German hands. Italy rushed to the kill. The British Empire found itself practically alone in a struggle which, on the fall of France, had assumed a character never contemplated by the most gloomy.

At that dreadful hour - which those of us who were then charged with responsibility for government in this country are not likely to forget - the courage of Great Britain and the flaming spirit of her leader, Winston Churchill, were the defenders of the world and of its future. There was no hint of collapse. There was merely a renewed spirit of dedication.

Had Germany at that time thrown her aircraft and her troops across the Channel, who can say what losses might not have been suffered by the defenders - defenders most of whose modern mechanical equipment had been cast away at Dunkirk?

Before the end of 1940 the air invasion of Great Britain had begun. For eighteen months the men, women and children of that country have taken a battering unparalleled in human history. To their eternal honour they "have not winced or cried aloud".

But let us go farther. What have the armed forces of Great Britain been doing, and where have they been doing it?

Take the navy. It has for over two years sustained the Battle of the Atlantic under terrible difficulties, for every European port was a sally-port against it. Its customary bases in the south of Ireland were gone, and it had to meet a new and most efficient combined form of attack by aircraft and submarine and raiders in constant wireless communication. Its losses have been grievous.

It has largely fed and clothed and armed the people of Great Britain and has kept the supply ships moving day and night. It has controlled great areas of the Mediterranean under the most frightful difficulties. It has convoyed troops - hundreds of thousands of them, including many thousand of our own Australians - and has performed this vital work, I believe, without one casualty. Vastly reduced in relative power since the last war, it has been compelled to scatter its ships over the seven seas - wanted here, wanted there, always on duty - any one ship weeks or months at sea, its crews tired but of an indomitable spirit.

That is the kind of thing that the British navy has been doing at the cost of British lives - many thousands of them - and at the cost of the heavily burdened British taxpayer.

In the air the Royal Air Force, against prodigious odds, has not only saved Great Britain and thereby altered the fate of the British Empire in this war, but in a score of places has gone into action every day.

Many thousands of the flower of the young men of Great Britain have been swept out of existence in the skies.

True, in various theatres of war our armies have been short of air support, but can we honestly say that anybody can be blamed for this except ourselves who, in all our various portions of the British world, laid out our funds in procuring the comforts of life at a time when Germany was forgoing comfort and building up the greatest military power that the world has seen?

I repeat what I have said to you before - that no nation, even as great a nation as our own, can give Germany four or five years' start, and Japan more years' start, and then hope to deal with them both, wherever they may be, effectively in a couple of years.

Then take the British army. It has soldiers in the United Kingdom; some people think too many. But nobody who has been there recently will think them too many, with an enemy only a few miles away and a German army which today, after the Polish and French and Balkan and Russian campaigns, contains millions of men who are veterans of modern war.

The British soldiers are not only in the United Kingdom. They are in Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Egypt, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Burma, Singapore. This is an enormous dispersion for troops of so small a country, and it would not have been possible but for the fact that, before the war began the British people had introduced conscription at a time when public opinion in Australia was still, be it remembered, clinging to the notion even of a voluntary militia.

And what of Britain's economic effort? We are today acutely conscious of our own, and it is a great one. But the people of Great Britain have had imposed upon them enormous levies by the highest taxation known by any country in the world's history.

Their foreign investments, which made the small islands of Great Britain a rich country and enable forty million people to do the work of twice their number, have been disposed of for supplies in the United States, and have actually gone by operation of war in other countries.

The people of Great Britain have had their whole lives changed. They have been rationed for food and clothing. They have been living lean. Yet there has been no moan - no gloomy pondering upon a poorer future - but only a high-spirited resolve to hold the fort.

It is not possible in a few minutes to do more than give this bare outline, but if you can listen to it and think about it without profound emotion, then I confess I cannot.

When Australia asks Britain for help today she does not ask it of a country which has failed in its duty; she asks it of a country which has done and will do more than might have been expected of any race of men.

It is true that we are being grievously battered in the Far East, and that we shall be battered more before the tide turns. But we must remember that the grim tragedy of Pearl Harbour and the bitter stroke of ill-fortune in the Gulf of Siam, when our two battleships were sunk, altered within a few days of Japan's entry into this war the whole balance of Pacific sea power; and we must also remember that, so to speak, the whole foundation upon which Pacific strategy was based was blown away.

Such disasters cannot be repaired in a few days or a few weeks. It is not easy to assemble quickly from various parts of the world great battle fleets, with aircraft carriers.

Meanwhile, command of the sea has given to the Japanese a fluidity of movement, a capacity for bringing aircraft carriers to the attack, which have been the outstanding reasons for their spectacular successes.

That Great Britain and the United States will bring into this part of the world all the forces which can be mustered I do not doubt. That they may be able to do it promptly I most sincerely pray. But we add best to our own stature, not by contemplating the alleged shortcomings of others but by determining that whatever the British people have done anywhere in the world we can and shall do in Australia. We are fighting people, and we derive from one.

Whatever comes or goes before the final victory, real Australians will do no dishonour to the blood that is in them and to the example that has been set to them.

Additional Note
Some of the statements in this broadcast would be modified in the light of recent more happy events, but I have included it as a record of how things looked in February, 1942.

6 February, 1942