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  • Writer's pictureMichael Murphy

The Second World War and Australian National Identity

Australian soldiers on Eoribaiwa Ridge, Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea: Australian soldiers look over the jungle from Eoribaiwa Ridge during WWII. Image: Australian War Memorial

Australia’s memory of World War II has played a large role in the nations sense of identity. After 3 September 1939, Australia was once again a smaller nation in a global conflict. Through political, cultural, geographical and logistical issues, as well as the perceived threat of invasion, it would be forced to examine and re-evaluate its position on the world stage. Australian politicians and civilians began to look at the world in a global perspective, not just through the lens of an Imperial Dominion. While Australians may have been more aware of the world that surrounded it, the nation was also forced to re-evaluate those who protected it. A reliance on Great Britain as a guardian steadily changed to a view that America would provide Australia with security.

Australia emerged from the Second World War with a character that had developed from the early part of the twentieth century. The development of this character was aided by the continued memorialisation of the Australian soldier, and the promotion of the Anzac legend, which had begun during the First World War. Australians, while proud of their British heritage and Anzac tradition, had also seen the new era as a chance to stand on their own two feet.

The lessons learnt from the First World War and developments in technology leading up to the Second World War brought a different attitude amongst those that would volunteer, or be conscripted. Some, as in the RAAF, were seen as glamourous, while the conscripted Citizen Military Forces (CMF), or militia, were initially tainted with a brand of being second-rate. The fear of invasion during the years of 1942-1943 also had a dramatic impact on Australians during and after the war. The fall of Singapore fuelled apprehensions about Australia’s security, while famous defensive engagements such as Tobruk and those on the Kokoda Track enhanced the image of the Anzac and remained in the memories of Australians for decades.

Before examining how the memory of the Second World War contributed towards a sense of national identity for Australia, it is important to consider how Australians saw themselves prior to that conflict. Australia had been affected significantly by the First World War. Over 60,000 of its servicemen had been killed and many more returned home with wounds that would affect their day-to-day lives. It left the majority of Australians extremely reluctant to enter into another military conflict.

While this thought was a part of post First World War Australia, it is also true that the majority of Australians approached the Second World War with what could be described as Imperial enthusiasm once war had been declared. Many of the myths and legends that affected the mindset of Australians from 1939 and beyond, were born during the period of 1914-1918. The labelling of soldiers from the Second Australian Imperial Force (2ndAIF) as ‘big bronzed Aussies’ continued the mythology from the First World War. Furthermore, the Australian way of life, which was embodied by the notion of a hard-working and resourceful population, further developed a strong sense of being Australian in the years leading up to 1939. The majority of white Australians recognised their British ancestry and held strong links to it, but increasingly saw themselves as distinct from British people. This was not to say that Australians had forgotten or discarded their British ancestry, much of the sentiment around enlistment in World War II was based around assisting the British Empire, but the people certainly had a stronger sense of themselves as a nation than compared to the outbreak of war in 1914.

On 3 September 1939 Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced that as a result of Britain's declaration of war on Germany, Australia was also at war. As illustrated by the prime minister’s announcement, many Australians felt compelled to join Britain in conflict once again, but the rush to enlist was not as intense as was seen in August of 1914. One difference from 1914 was that Australians in September 1939 did not think that the war would end quickly. Moreover, there were examples of an identification as being Australian rather than British. This can be seen in efforts by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to keep their airmen together. This did not eventuate due to practical and logistical issues, but it illustrates the Australians desire to be seen as a separate force, despite Britain arguably expecting their absorption into the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Dr Mark Johnstone provides data in relation to enlistment in the 2nd AIF which suggests that the average Australian may have taken a more considered approach to joining up than their countrymen had in 1914. The age of a volunteer in 1939 ranged from twenty to thirty-five years of age, with most of those being single men. This may have been due to the lessons learnt from the horrors of the First World War. Furthermore, statistics from Johnstone suggests that Australian government authorities had also altered their approach to conflict, with many occupations being restricted from active service. The skills of the workers were deemed more valuable to society and the future production capabilities of the nation. While these points may appear insignificant when looked at individually, they collectively illustrate a growing national sentiment of independence from Britain that would develop further as the war continued.

When Japan entered the war in December of 1941, the focus of Australia’s war effort altered dramatically. The stance taken by the new Prime Minister, John Curtin, would help shape Australia’s identity for years to come. This was evident in his address to the nation on 8 December 1941, because of the way in which it differed from his predecessor’s speech in 1939. At that time, Robert Menzies had displayed his and the governments close ties to Britain by stating: “…Great Britain has declared war upon her (Germany), and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.” This choice of words was consistent with decades past, but after Japan attacked American and British territories in late 1941, Curtin addressed the nation in a different and more independent way: “Men and women of Australia, we are at war with Japan.”. Curtin goes on to explain the reasons why Australia is at war, before stating: “As a result, the Australian Government this afternoon took the necessary steps…”. This language is deliberately aimed at placing Australia’s declaration around the same time, but separate from Britain’s, and is an important juncture in Australia’s development as a nation.

Japanese air raid on Darwin
A bomb-damaged Darwin hospital with a large crater in the foreground after a Japanese air raid in 1942. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Politicians such as Deakin and Lyons had seen Asia as a threat to Australia long before the Second World War began, but as Japan advanced down the Malay Peninsula in January and February of 1942, that threat became all the more real. To counter this, David Horner argues that there was an initial sense of complacency within Australia after the early Japanese victories, as Singapore was seen as impregnable. When the British stronghold of Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942, followed by the bombing of Darwin, this sentiment changed and many Australians felt invasion was imminent.

Reports from the Australian-based American High Command predicted a land invasion at Darwin, as early as March 1942. During this time the actions of the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, would once again prove to be instrumental, not only in how Australia would fight the war, but how it would affect the nations memory of that period in time. Curtin, and many others, saw the need for Australian troops to return from the Northern Hemisphere. He also took the position that Australia would need to look to America for military protection during the war and in the decades after. He said this without wishing to diminishing the nations links to Britain, but that didn’t prevent him from engaging in strong communications with British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in defence of Australia’s strategic needs.

Curtin’s determination to bring Australian troops home to fight in the Pacific theatre, and his reluctance to have the 7th Division diverted to Burma, left an impression in regards to his statesmanship, and Australia’s willingness not to be dominated by Britain in political matters. Curtin’s contribution to Australia’s identity would be brought to the public attention many years later in 2008, when Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, described Curtin as: “…an outstanding leader of Democracy, who rose to the occasion when he needed to serve the nation.” Whether Australia was truly in danger of invasion during 1942-1943 is in many ways irrelevant to what was perceived at the time, and it was through Curtin’s actions to put Australia first that the nation gradually began to see itself as a country with its own identity.

The Battle of the Coral Sea, which culminated on 8 May 1942, was arguably one of the most significant moments of the Second World War. It stopped Japan’s attempt to land troops on the southern coast of New Guinea, and it secured the shipping lanes between the Solomon Islands and Australia. News of the victory was held back from the public for over a month, but its place of importance was not lost on the Australian public during the war, and in the decades after peace was declared. The impact of this battle on the Australian public can be illustrated by comments from contemporary Australians, Sir Eric Neal and historian Tom Frame. Neal stated that the Battle of the Coral Sea saved Australia from invasion, while Frame argued that 8 May should be the date in which Australia celebrates its national holiday. While these topics are debatable, it clearly displays how the memory of the Second World War has contributed to a sense of national identity in the contemporary era.

Despite the victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea, Curtin was still apprehensive about Australia’s security. By the middle of 1942, Japan had suffered losses, but in no way was it defeated, and Curtin and the Australian public remained concerned. The notion of Australian resilience that was heralded in the North African campaign at Tobruk would continue to be tested. Places such as Tobruk and then Kokoda would become synonymous with Australian courage, which in turn would be moulded into the Australian national identity. Horner argues, in Defending Australia 1942, that in terms of strategic importance, Kokoda is the most important battle Australians fought during the Second World War.

The memory of these place-names would be used to build a national identity that fitted into the Anzac legend, but was unique in its own right. Kokoda perhaps stands out as a place that modern society identifies with when remembering the Second World War. The exploits of the Citizen Military Force (CMF), also referred to as ‘Chocos’ fits neatly into the narrative of Australians being a nation of people who are resourceful and respond positively to adversity. The CMF were thrust into the New Guinea campaign out of necessity, and arrived in Port Moresby under questions in relation to their fighting capabilities, the most notable being their nicknames of ‘Chocos’, meaning chocolate soldiers who would melt in the heat of battle. The fight for Kokoda was seen as tactically pivotal in the South Pacific war, and the CMF’s courageous defence of the region until the 2ndAIF arrived brought a new sense of pride to the outfit and Australians as a whole. Today, Kokoda is spoken of in the same sort of terms as Gallipoli when Australians commemorate the people who have served and died for Australia. This use of memory in relation to an Australian historical event plays a large role in preserving the idea of a national identity distinct from other countries.

Australian’s memory of the Second World War is largely derived from specific moments that aid in lifting our status as a strong and independent country, but there are arguments that suggest Australia has always been reliant on other powers in one form or another. Historian David Day argues that Australia has a mentality of dependence, but with men such as H. V. Everett being appointed to roles as significant as the President of the United Nations General Assembly, it is clear that Australia was moving into a phase where it was seen as more globally important. David McLean places some balance to the debate on Australia’s strategic shift from Britain to America, by examining the difference between sentiment and interests. McLean argues that the public still had strong sentimental ties with Britain, while the government acted on the interests of the nation by pursuing the United States as a strategic partner.

Some historians have argued, with the benefit of hindsight, that Japan never intended to invade Australia, but evidence illustrates that during the period in question it was reasonable for Australian citizens and politicians to think that invasion was likely.

The history of the Second World War is passed onto younger Australians through literature and public speeches, such as those heard on days of commemoration. Those moments are made somewhat more relevant to the Australian memory because more often than not, the writers, speakers and educators have a closer link to that conflict through their parents and grandparents’ oral histories. These interactions have had a great influence on the Australian population’s memory of the Second World War and its sense of national identity.



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