2010 Vernon Parker Oration – Graham Freudenberg


“Winston Is Back” – Churchill & The Naval Empire

By Graham Freudenberg*

I deeply appreciate the honour of delivering the 2010 Vernon Parker Oration, and the opportunity to pay tribute to Vice Admiral Parker as a founder of the Australian Naval Institute, in this Centenary Year of the Royal Australian Navy.

I feared I had damaged my naval credentials irretrievably by a gross error about the battle of Savo Island in the Solomons in 1942, in the first edition of my book, Churchill and Australia. I ascribed Japanese success at Savo Island to aircraft from Rabaul.

Among several letters of correction, I received a most charming one from Lt. Commander Mackenzie Gregory of Melbourne, now aged 88. He had served on HMAS Australia when she was part of the expedition sent by Churchill to seize Dakar, West Africa, in September 1940. Dakar joined the long list of failed amphibious operations inspired by Winston Churchill.

Two years later, Commander Gregory was serving on HMAS Canberra in the Pacific. He records: When the Battle of Savo Island commenced at 0143 hours on August 9, 1942, as a 20-year-old Sub Lieutenant RAN, I was on HMAS Canberra’’s bridge as her officer-of-the-watch. On page 438, Graham Freudenberg reports that Japanese aircraft sank Canberra.

I can assure you that it was a Japanese surface naval force of six cruisers and one destroyer that did all the damage, plus a torpedo we picked up on our starboard side that emanated from our starboard escort destroyer USS Bagley. The Japanese force split in two to steam each side of the northern Sir Winston US cruisers and sink US ships Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria.

Japanese float planes illuminated the scene with flares, but did NOT sink any ships. About 0800 hours on August 9, US destroyers finally sank Canberra with shells and torpedoes.

The battle of Savo Island, an early reverse in the drawn-out Guadalcanal campaign, serves to remind us of the strength and tenacity of the Imperial Japanese Navy, even after Coral Sea and Midway.

I have called my address tonight – “Winston is Back”, with the sub-title “Churchill and the Naval Empire”.

“Winston is back”, of course, are the words of the famous signal flashed around the Royal Navy in September 1939, when Churchill was installed for a second time as First Lord of the Admiralty. Alas, Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert – the ultimate authority on all things Churchillian – can find no record that the signal was ever sent. But the story is too good not to be true. Just like the remark attributed to him, dismissive of the traditions of the Royal Navy.

“What are those traditions?” Churchill is supposed to have snarled at a group of admirals protesting some change he proposed in 1912; “Rum, sodomy and the lash”. Martin Gilbert states that Churchill denied having said it – but wished he had.

However, I use “Winston is Back” to make another point, about Churchill’s role in world history. I believe that the very rapid onset of the Cold War, barely a year after the Second World War, has obscured for the post-war generation the full menace Hitler and Nazism represented to our civilisation.

It is only since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union that the study of Hitler’s Germany has been undertaken free of Cold War pressures, priorities and polemics. And the picture that emerges is of systematic atrocity and pervasive evil far worse than even Churchill imagined. Thus, on the One Big Thing – that Nazism must be destroyed at all cost – Churchill was so superbly right, against such odds, that it far outweighs in the balance of history all his manifest blunders and human flaws.

And in my sub-title “Churchill and the Naval Empire”, I make another point: British Naval power was crucial to Churchill’s ability and credibility in standing out against Hitler in the year and a half that the Soviet Union was Hitler’s ally until June 1941, and the more than two years before the United States came into the war in December 1941.

In his 50-year close association with Australia, Churchill had many brushes with us, and one of the first was a naval matter. In 1906, Churchill became the British Liberal Government’s spokesman for colonial affairs in the House of Commons. At the beginning of 1908, he learned that Australia’s Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, wanted President Theodore Roosevelt to include Australia in the round-theworld voyage of his Great White Fleet – the first global show of strength of the US Navy. Because Australia then had no independent international existence or identity, Deakin had to ask the British Government to sponsor the invitation. Churchill tried to stop it.

He ordered his officials: “This ought to be discouraged in every way…”. It was, as Churchill saw it, an unwarranted assertion of Australian independence.

Churchill lost out on that one, and Deakin used the triumphant visit of the US Fleet to Sydney and Melbourne to make a pitch for an Australian navy of our own. “But for the British Navy, there would be no Australia”, Deakin said at a welcoming ceremony. “That does not mean that Australia should sit still under the shelter of the British Navy – those who say we should sit still are not worthy of the name of Briton. We can add to the squadrons in these seas from our own blood and intelligence something that will launch us on the beginning of a naval career, and may in time create a force which shall rank among the defences of the Empire.” Already, by 1908, the defence of Australia was being seen quite specifically in terms of a threat from Japan. Japan had stunned the world with the destruction of the Russian Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. Thus, in this little row over the Great White Fleet in 1908, all the elements were present in embryo of the disputes which were to test relations between Churchill and Australia in 1942: Australia’s defence role within the Empire, the Australian quest for a degree of independent policy, the tug of our relations between Britain and the United States, and differing perceptions of the threat from Japan.

Churchill never really changed and, as late as 1953, King George VI’s private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, would write: “Winston is incurably colonial minded”. As Robert Menzies was to tell the Australian Cabinet during his first Prime Ministership in 1941: “Winston’s trouble is that he cannot see dominions like Australia and Canada as separate entities”.

The British Prime Minister, H. H.

Asquith, appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1911, just as a new German Naval Law was intensifying the naval arms race between Britain and the German Empire. Inspecting the fleet at Portsmouth, a vision of the naval empire rose before him: On these ships, so vast in themselves, yet so small, so easily lost to sight on the surface of the waters, floated the might, majesty and dominion of the British Empire.

What, he conjectured, would happen if somehow this fleet were to be lost: The British Empire would dissolve like a dream; each isolated community struggling forward by itself; the central power of union broken; mighty provinces, whole empires in themselves, drifting hopelessly out of control, and falling prey to strangers; and Europe after one sudden convulsion passing within the iron grip and rule of the Teuton and of all that the Teutonic system meant. There would only be left far off across the Atlantic unarmed, unready, and as yet, uninstructed America to maintain, singlehanded, law and freedom any more.

Here, writing in 1920 about his fears in 1912, Churchill sketched his message to the world in 1940.

Churchill’s vision of an Empire wholly dependent upon the Navy translated into a very specific policy against the German challenge – concentration of the Fleet in Home waters, the North Atlantic and the North Sea. This was the doctrine laid down by Jacky Fisher, the dynamic prima donna who had created the Dreadnought navy. Churchill embraced the doctrine with his characteristic single-minded vigour at the expense of the Far East squadrons and even the Mediterranean. He remained unsympathetic towards Australia’s naval aspirations, and tried to keep our first flagship, HMAS Australia, in the Atlantic when she was commissioned in 1913.

It was Churchill who sent the signal around the world “Commence hostilities against Germany” on 5 August 1914. In accordance with the 1909 Agreement between the British and Australian Governments, the RAN came completely under Admiralty control, and Churchill exercised his authority to the uttermost. He even claimed credit for placing HMAS Sydney at the vital point in the Indian Ocean enabling it to destroy the German raider Emden. He certainly could claim credit for the superb organisation of the convoys which took the British Expeditionary Force to France and the Australian and New Zealand expeditionary force – the 1st A.I.F. and the Anzacs – to complete their training in Egypt, as he would write “without the loss of a man or a ship”.

And it was Churchill’s decision and drive – his “excess of imagination”, in the words of the Australian official war historian, Charles Bean – which took the Anzacs to Gallipoli in April 1915. I won’t here enter the enduring controversy over Churchill’s campaign to capture Constantinople by forcing the Dardanelles. I canvass it thoroughly in my book and spread the blame. I write: Asquith was the cleverest British Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Lord Kitchener (Secretary of State for War) was hailed as the greatest British soldier since the Duke of Wellington and Lord Fisher as the greatest British seaman since Nelson. Churchill became the greatest wartime Prime Minister in British history. Between them, they produced Gallipoli.

In 1919, after the temporary truce which ended the first ruinous round of Europe’s Thirty Years civil war, the Royal Navy was eager to restore its old imperial role as the guardian of a threeocean Empire. Admiral Lord Jellicoe – of whom Churchill had said in 1914, “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon” – was invited to Australia to advise on naval defence. Jellicoe advised bases at Sydney and Fremantle, and above all a strong naval base at Singapore.

Jellicoe wrote: “Singapore is the key to deterring the ambitions of Japan”.

Those ambitions were now vastly expanded by its acquisition of German colonial possessions north of the Equator and on the Chinese mainland, as a reward for wartime service as our ally, including the presence of the cruiser Ibuki in the 1914-15 Anzac convoys across the Indian Ocean. Thus originated the Singapore strategy which dominated imperial and Australian defence thinking between the wars.

Churchill always opposed the Singapore strategy. The British official war history records Churchill, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, saying to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1926: I do not believe that there is any danger to be apprehended from Japan, and I am convinced that the picture of Japan going mad and attacking us has no sure foundation whatever. If I had foreseen that the decision to develop a base at Singapore would be used as a gigantic excuse for building up armaments and that this country (Britain) would then be invited to pour out money with a view at the other end of the world, I would never have agreed to the development of the base.

More than anybody else, Churchill was responsible for the delays and downgrading in building the Singapore base. Admiral David Beatty wrote to his wife: “Winston has gone mad – economically mad, and no sacrifice is too great to achieve what in his shortsightedness is a panacea for all evils – take one shilling off the income tax”.

By the time the base was completed in 1938, its basic proposition – “Main Fleet to Singapore” – had been rendered an impossibility by the European situation created by the rise of Adolf Hitler.

From the beginning, Australian attitudes to the Singapore strategy mingled doubt, faith and hope.

When it was first mooted at the Imperial Conference of 1923, the Australian Prime Minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, told his Dominion colleagues: “While I am not quite as clear as I should like to be as to how the protection of Singapore is to be assured, I am clear on this point – that apparently it can be done”. That was more or less the Australian attitude for the next twenty years. The fact is that Australia sheltered under the Singapore strategy because we lacked the political will to offer an alternative.

All criticisms and explanations of Churchill’s attitude to Australian defence in 1941 and 1942 must take account of the fundamental fact of Australian unpreparedness. As Dr Robert O’Neill has written of the interwar years: “It is scarcely to Australia’s credit that it had preferred British reassurances at face value and to do so little of its own volition to exploit the defensive worth of its long approaches to its own shores.” On the eve of war in September 1939, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, brought Churchill out of the political wilderness and appointed him First Lord of the Admiralty. The handover of the RAN to the Admiralty was not as immediate as in 1914, but on 9 November 1939, for a second time, Churchill became ruler of the Australian navy. Menzies, then six months into his first, failed Prime Ministership, complained that Churchill was keeping his government in the dark over shipping arrangements and was treating Australia as a colony.

“We are represented as a government which knows less than the newspaper reporters”, he cabled Bruce, now Australian High Commissioner in London.

On 17 November 1939, Churchill sent Menzies a cable which was to be decisive in making Australian policy right up to Pearl Harbor, and many of our problems after it. He wrote: As long as the British Navy is undefeated, and as long as we hold Singapore, no invasion of Australia or New Zealand is possible ………..

but if the choice were presented of defending Australia against a serious attack, or sacrificing British interests in the Mediterranean, our duty to Australia would take precedence.

This reassurance was central to Australia’s decision to send the expeditionary force of the Second AIF to the Middle East – a decision pregnant with honour and danger for Australia.

Churchill’s promise took its most solemn form in August 1940. Now he spoke with all the authority of the Prime Minister who had galvanised Britain and Australia with his leadership after the Fall of France in June 1940. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, he cabled Menzies: If, however, contrary to prudence and self-interest, Japan set about invading Australia or New Zealand on a large scale, I have the explicit authority of the Cabinet to assure you that we should then cut our losses in the Mediterranean and sacrifice every interest, except only the defence and feeding of this Island, on which all depends, and would proceed in good time to your aid with a fleet able to give battle to any Japanese force which could be placed in Australian waters, and able to parry any invading force, or certainly, cut its communications with Japan.

In the light of actual events in the Pacific, this might all look somewhat fantastic. Yet no more fantastic, if we consider the grim realities of mid-1940, than Churchill’s defiance in the House of Commons on 18 June: The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire ……

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free ….. but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.

This is marvellous rhetoric but, 70 years on, I believe every word of it to be absolutely vindicated.

The Battle of Britain effectively ended the possibility of a German invasion. British sea power in the Channel and air power over the Channel remained intact. In October, Hitler shelved Operation Sea Lion – the invasion plan – never to be taken down. The planning for Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Russia – began in earnest in December 1940.

Hitler had only to convince his generals that it would not mean fighting on two fronts East and West. They were eager to be convinced, and it was easy for him to argue, not so much that Britain was finished, but that the conquest of the Soviet Union would deprive Churchill and Britain of their last hope – “her last prop on the continent”, as Hitler put it. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that Hitler’s strategic rationale for Barbarossa was to knock Britain out of the war.

I regard our decision to fight on after the Battle of Britain and before the invasion of Russia as even more important for the world than the decision to fight on after the Fall of France. If ever there was a time when Churchill and Britain could have exited the war decently and honourably, this was it. It would have involved no surrender, no parley, no deal. All that was required was that undefeated Britain, increasingly safe beneath the RAF, secure behind the Navy, successful against the Italians in North Africa, simply stop fighting. But a neutral Britain would have become, effectively, Hitler’s accomplice. So, for that matter, would have an increasingly isolationist America, as Hitler’s propaganda machine went to work to portray his attack on Russia as a Western crusade against communism.

When Hitler told his generals that the conquest of the Soviet Union would remove Britain’s last hope and prop, he was, of course, making a massive miscalculation of Churchill’s motivation. All Churchill’s hopes rested with the United States. This was his great Big Idea – to keep fighting until America came in. “I can see my way through”, he told his son Randolph.

“I will drag the United States into the war.” And the operative words were “Keep fighting”. This explains his ruthless order to destroy the French fleet in the harbour at Oran, Algeria. It explains his Middle East, North African and Mediterranean strategy – not just to hold on, but to keep fighting. It explains, if not justifies, the Greek debacle in which the Anzacs of the 6th Division and the New Zealanders played their notable but foredoomed role. The gallantry of the Mediterranean fleet under Cunningham – the RAN alongside the Royal Navy – insisting on the rescue of the Army from Greece and Crete is one of the imperishable actions in this sorry saga.

Historians commonly refer to Hitler’s invasion of Russia as his worst blunder or mistake. These are the wrong words. They overestimate his military rationality and underestimate his racial and ideological obsessions.

His whole policy had this fundamental aim: to seize the territories and enslave the people of Eastern Europe, as far as the Urals – the Lebensraum, the living space, for a purified master race – and to destroy what he called Bolshevism, which he invariably referred to as the Jewish international conspiracy.

Hitler was not a madman; he was a fanatic to the Nth degree, and these twin obsessions drove him on with ferocious single-mindedness. But this fanatic was in complete control of a highly educated and motivated people, and the world’s most effective fighting machine, all bent to his will and his purpose of enslavement and extermination.

Churchill, too, had his obsessions, but it is a measure of his greatness that he was able to put them aside in pursuit of the defeat of Hitler. When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, Churchill said: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons”. The joke masked the pain of giving up the two causes which had dominated his inter-war career. In 1919 he had tried desperately to organise an international crusade against the Russia revolution, “to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle”, as he put it. He had put himself in the political wilderness in the 1930s by his emotional and anachronistic opposition to any move towards self-government, Dominion status, or independence for India.

When both Hitler and Churchill spoke of the British Empire they both meant, first and last, India; and when Hitler offered his guarantees for the Empire, he meant India, not least against Russia’s age-old ambitions. The only thing Hitler wanted from Churchill was a free hand in Eastern Europe.

Most particularly, he never made it a condition of British neutrality that Britain give up its Navy. Yet, in the final analysis, it was the Navy which had enabled Churchill to choose between dealing with Hitler or fighting on against him. At the same time, American concerns about the navy and Atlantic security gave Churchill his strongest card with President Roosevelt.

The price of admiralty in the Atlantic was, of course, any remaining credibility of the Singapore strategy.

The idea of the Main Fleet to Singapore to deter Japan was always unrealistic; after the Fall of France it was sheer fantasy. Yet Churchill continued to issue his reassurances to Australia that, if Japan threatened, he would cut his losses and rescue the “kith and kin” in the Pacific.

Fundamentally, his reassurances rested on two propositions: (a) That Japan was unlikely to come into the war unless Britain was defeated; and when that became untenable; (b) That the US would come into the war, if Japan attacked.

Because of Pearl Harbor, this is now seen as inevitable, one of the grand certainties of history. Yet as late as a month before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt was still refusing to give guarantees to go to war even if Japan attacked Malaya, Singapore or the Dutch East Indies. Indeed, one of the toughest strands in American isolationism was opposition to anything that smacked of protecting or saving the Empire, or any European colonial possession. Churchill himself personified these American suspicions.

Desperate as he was for American aid, Churchill was reluctant to press Roosevelt ahead of American public opinion. He rebuffed Admiralty attempts to entice the US Navy to use Singapore as a base to reinforce the South-West Pacific. He wrote to the First Lord in February 1941: “Our object is to get the Americans into the war, and the proper strategic dispositions will soon emerge when they are up against reality.” A year later, after Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the US had done what two years of Churchillian eloquence and pleading and fighting had failed to achieve, he changed tone. “Ah, that was how we talked when I was wooing America.

Now we have them in the harem, we speak quite differently.” But it still remains a matter for conjecture whether the US would have come into the war if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor. “In all the war”, Churchill was to write in his war memoirs, “I never received a more direct shock”. He was referring to the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse off the Malayan coast two days after Pearl Harbor. Against the Admiralty’s strong opposition, he had sent them to Singapore, partly to meet his promises to Australia. They were without air cover because the carrier HMS Indomitable, intended to be part of Z Force, had run aground in the Caribbean. Churchill wrote: “As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me.

There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters, Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.” Two factors dominated Churchill’s wartime attitude to Australia and led him into mistakes and misjudgements.

First, he was desperately worried that the psychological shock of Pearl Harbor on the American people would divert the United States from the “Beat Hitler First” priority. Second was his inability, as Menzies had discovered in 1941, to accept that Australia had a separate identity or independence within the British Empire, or his concept of it. In my book, I add a third factor: Churchill’s lack of understanding of Australian party politics and his hostility to the Curtin Labor Government which had come into office in October 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, as a result of a vote in the House of Representatives where two independents held the balance of power.

Churchill’s prejudices meant lost opportunities for imperial cooperation, even after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942.

If Churchill had chosen to give due weight to Australia’s role, and had treated Australia as Britain’s fighting proxy and partner in the Pacific, he could have maintained the concept of Empire partnership. Instead, he chose confrontation with Curtin over our relations with the United States, insisting for as long as possible that Australia’s imperial duty lay in the Middle East. Even after El Alamein in November 1942, he still tried to hold on to the 9TH Australian Division for unspecified operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. He had continued to sneer at Australia’s turning to the United States, yet his own conduct had ensured that Australia would take the very course he professed to deplore. I should say here that John Curtin’s famous New Year’s Message – “Australia looks to America” – in 1941 was never intended to convey an abrupt turning away from Britain.

It was Churchill’s overheated reaction more than anything else that made it look like that. The surprising thing is how much Curtin and his Labor Government still thought and were willing to act in terms of Australia’s relationship with Britain and the Empire, of which Churchill himself remained the embodiment.

By 1944, there was a remarkable convergence between Churchill and Curtin in the most traditional of all strategic terms – their common desire for the return of the Royal Navy in strength to Far Eastern waters and the Pacific. Churchill’s over-riding aim was the restoration of British prestige and power in the “lost places of Empire”.

“What I feared most”, Churchill was to write, “was that the United States would say in after years ‘We came to your help in Europe and you left us alone to finish Japan’.” Curtin and Churchill were in complete agreement on one thing: that the best and quickest contribution Britain could make against Japan in the last stages of the war would be the Navy.

Curtin wrote to Churchill in July 1944 that he “had come to the conclusion that the best manner of ensuring the earliest and most effective association of British forces with those of the United States and Australia in the war against Japan would be to assign to General MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of the South- West Pacific, the British naval forces becoming available this year”. Sending the navy would be, Curtin wrote, “the most effective means of placing the Union Jack in the Pacific alongside the Australian and American flags”, and “would evoke great public enthusiasm in Australia and contribute greatly to the restoration of Empire prestige in the Far East”.

Churchill and the Royal Navy, however, now faced a new and formidable adversary – the Chief of the US Naval Staff, Admiral Ernest King, who detested the British Empire almost as much as the Japanese Empire. King’s daughter said of her father: “He is the most even-tempered man I know – he is always angry at everybody”. King’s real objection to the Royal Navy’s re-entry into the Pacific was his unwillingness to share the Central Pacific strategy against Japan with anybody – and that included the US Army and General MacArthur, in command of the American and Australian forces in the South-West Pacific Area. MacArthur himself told the British High Commissioner in Canberra: “It would be a great thing that an American general (himself) should sail into Manila on a British ship under the British flag”.

Indeed, King and Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific, tried to persuade Roosevelt to bypass the Philippines in the drive towards Japan, thus cutting MacArthur out of the main action. King was more successful in persuading Roosevelt to delay any decision to allow the British Navy to join the Pacific war in strength, however much Churchill argued, indeed begged for it. Long gone were the days of equality between the United States and Britain, when Churchill, in his historic wartime correspondence with Roosevelt, had signed himself “Former Naval Person”.

It all led to Leyte Gulf in October 1944. There is immense symbolism connected with the Battle of Leyte Gulf: the ultimate assertion of American naval power in the Pacific; for Japan, the end of the road that began at Pearl Harbor; the coming together of the two rival US strategies – MacArthur’s drive from Australia to return to the Philippines and the King-Nimitz-Halsey grand strategy of advance to Japan across the Central Pacific.

Symbolic, too, for the Royal Navy’s imperial role and Australia’s share in it. To me, there is something quite moving in the unspoken sentiment in Churchill’s telegram to Roosevelt congratulating him on the victory at Leyte Gulf. The message mingled pride and regret, with an undertone hinting at Churchill’s humiliation: “We are very glad to know”, Churchill wrote, “that one of His Majesty’s Australian cruiser squadrons had the honour of sharing in this memorable event”. Thus ended Churchill’s dream that the Royal Navy would restore British imperial prestige in the Pacific and the Far East. It was a far cry from his boast before the defeat of Hitler: “If I live, I will fling all we have into the Pacific”.

Not only Japanese and Churchillian dreams crashed in the flames of Leyte Gulf. In the first kamikaze attack on HMAS Australia, Commodore John Collins was badly wounded. Curtin told newsmen in Perth on 22 October 1944: “News came this morning that Collins is wounded in action. How badly noone knows. It may mean the end of our dream of an Australian Navy under an Australian-born Admiral.” However, more than the Fall of Singapore, more than the loss of Prince of Wales, Churchill’s failure to persuade Roosevelt to allow the Royal Navy to return in strength to the Pacific marks the end of the naval empire.

The surrender of Japan took place on board USS Missouri on 2 September 1945. You may permit me here to salute by brother-in-law, Stoker Leslie Victor Lawler, present on the corvette HMAS Pirie in Tokyo Bay. He died a few years ago of asbestosis, aged 77.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recognised that his condition was warcaused, as a result of his three years service in the asbestos-clad boiler room of HMAS Pirie.

The American victory in the Pacific was by no means the end of the British Empire, and it was certainly not the end of the Royal Navy. But it was the end of a long imperial era based on the worldwide reach of British sea power. The British revisionist historians – and they are mainly right-wing conservatives – complain that the price of destroying Nazism in Europe was the exhaustion of the Empire world-wide and its eventual demise. These critics imply that this price was too high, but this resentment is often a disguised form of anti-Americanism. It is true that the outcome for the British Empire was its supercession by American world power. Churchill always realised in his heart that this would be the price of victory. And whatever judgements we may make from time to time about the use of American power, few among us who survived the Cold War would think that the ascendancy of the United States was too high a price for the destruction of Hitlerism.

If Churchill had not kept fighting on in 1940 and 1941, there would have been no Lend-Lease, no El Alamein, no Operation Torch, no landings in Sicily and Italy, no D-Day, no liberation of Western Europe – and in all probability, no Stalingrad. The choice Churchill had to make was not about the continuance of the British Empire.

The alternative was the domination of the Nazi system throughout Europe and the protracted rule of organised and systematic criminality, of which the Holocaust itself would have been but a foretaste; and, at best, decades of a deadlocked struggle for mastery between Germany and the Soviet Union and their rival totalitarianisms, with consequences for our civilisation beyond imagination.

That this did not happen, I profoundly believe, is due to what Winston Churchill did – and did not do – in 1940 and 1941. He did not surrender; he did not deal; he did not despair. And whatever our Australian disputes with him, despite the justice of our criticisms of his attitudes and methods, Churchill’s stand led Australia to play a notable and honourable part in the struggle against what Churchill called “this monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime” and to play that part while facing a grievous threat to our own shores. So in the grand sweep of the history of the past 70 years, I say emphatically in 2010: “Winston is back”.

* Graham Freudenberg was the principal speech writer to the leadership of the Labor Party during 1961– 2005. Starting as Arthur Calwell’s press secretary in 1961, over the next 40 years he became the close confidante, adviser and speechwriter to Gough Whitlam; Bob Hawke and to NSW Premiers Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth and Bob Carr. He wrote nearly a thousand speeches, including the key policy speeches to open election campaigns. Many of his sentences became indelibly associated in the public mind with those who spoke them.

He is the author of the award winning political biography A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics (1977), the centenary history of the NSW Labor Party, Cause for Power (1991) and his autobiographical political memoir A Figure of Speech (2005). His magnum opus appeared in 2008. Churchill and Australia (2009) is a wide-ranging examination of the relationship between Winston Churchill and all the major actors on the Australian political stage from Alfred Deakin to John Curtin. It was this book which caused the ANI to request that Graham Freudenberg deliver the annual 2010 Vernon Parker Oration.


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