Red Ned Tudor Mysteries

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Anzac Day Myths and Reality

Lest We Forget

Good day all. I hope this latest missive finds you enjoying the bounties of robust health, having enjoyed a pleasant Easter with friend and family. Tomorrow as most Australians and New Zealander know is April 25, and I hope that all my readers will remember to take some time out and remember those killed or wounded in either this nation’s service or from where ever you happen to be reading this.

It has been a while since my last post, I fear I must plead that writing for novels has left me little time to write blogs. It’s a conundrum I now know all too well. As with every year that we step further away from the events that shaped the day of memorial in the Antipodes historians seek to review and explain those distant events to a contemporary community basking in decades of relative peace. While Australian forces still serve in conflicts like Afghanistan, our current commitment is nothing like the nation encompassing conflicts of the First and Second World War.

I was going to be discussing a few of the myths around the Gallipoli landings and Dardanelles campaign, however a recent news article caught my eye Diggers are Bludgers and I read with stunned disbelief how Anzac diggers were bludgers and thieves according to a NZ journalist. Now I’m not about to go all jingoistic and blindly patriotic over the cheap ranting of a second rate media hack who obviously couldn’t find his bum without a map and seems to account as history what some bloke told him in a pub after a few drinks. So I’ll leave that moron to stew in his own turd splattered reputation and talk about a single veteran I met and who gave me his non alcohol induced account.

I was buying a wood lathe off a gentleman in Melbourne back in 1993 and somehow the social chat lead to the revelation that he’d served in the 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Forces WWII). His unit was part of the 8th Division that was based in Singapore as a key component of the Imperial Far Eastern Defence. Now historians have shed an ocean of ink declaiming its inadequacy and failure to halt the Japanese assault in 1941. Though very few have ever pointed out from where the necessary forces and equipment to halt this overwhelming attack were to come from. But we will leave that problem aside for another article. This gentleman talked slowly and with feeling of his memories of the retreat down the Malay Peninsular one particular image stuck with him and to my view made him sadly bitter. He like the rest of his unit was watching other battalions move past in the retreat, he particular remembered a company of Indian soldiers led by an old moustachioed British officer marching at the front, a real Colonel Blimp character. The Aussie veteran looked at me with haunted eyes, shook his head and said that’s when he realized they were in for a hard time. He then went on to say that these old officers really didn’t understand what was going on and their troops couldn’t handle what was coming.

Now do I take this as a valid reminiscence or is it flavoured by the embedded cultural assumptions of the times, it is difficult to say but the gentlemen had tears of recalled grief when he told me. Who did he blame for the disaster, I asked? Well at that question he shook his head and recalled friends who didn’t survive the prison camps at Changi and the Burma Railway. Blame was not something he was interested in.

I forget which battalion he was in but I have studied the campaign and as is often the case disaster brings out the best and the worst in any army and unlike this stupid and shallow NZ journo I ask how long does one have to fight to be a considered brave or worthy, the entire war, all of a campaign, a month, a day, an hour or maybe even five minutes or less. I will give one example.

Malaya: Johore, Muar Area, Bakri. A two pounder Anti-Tank Gun of the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, 8th Australian Division, AIF, directed by VX38874 Sergeant (Sgt) en:Charles James Parsons, of Moonee Ponds, Vic, in action at a road block at en:Bakri on the Muar-Parit Sulong Road. In the background is a destroyed Japanese en:Type 95 Ha-Go Medium Tank. The Anti-Tank Gun was known as the rear gun because of its position in the defence layout of the area. Sgt Parsons was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his and his crew's part in destroying six of the nine Japanese tanks during this engagement. This photograph also appears as negative no 068592. 18th January 1942.

The following is the detail from the Austrlian War Memorial unit and campaign archive for this single event.

Japanese forces landed at Singora and Patani in Thailand, and Kota Bahru in northern Malaya, just before midnight on 7 December. By 15 January they had reached Muar River, in northern Johore. The area was defended by an inexperienced and poorly trained Indian brigade and the 2/29th and the 2/19th Battalions were sent to Muar as reinforcements. The 2/29th reached Bakri on 17 January and assumed defensive positions. The Japanese attacked the next day. The fighting was fierce but the battalion and the 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment destroyed several Japanese tanks. In the meantime, the 2/19th had arrived at Parit Sulong, south of Bakri, having fought its way through the Japanese beginning to encircle the 2/29th.

The 2/19th attacked along Muar Road on 19 January and held a vital crossroad long enough for the 2/29th and Indians units to withdrawal. However, the Japanese had already outflanked the 2/19th position and the Australians and Indians began to withdraw towards Parit Sulong the next morning. Constantly harried from the rear and the air, the force fought its way through a succession of Japanese roadblocks but was halted by strong positions around the bridge across the Simpang Kiri River at Parit Sulong. With its ammunition exhausted, casualties mounting, and no chance of relief, the combined Australian-Indian force struck out through the jungle for Yong Peng on the morning of 23 January. The forced had to leave their wounded behind - about 110 Australians and 40 Indians (described by a witness as a “maimed and bloodstained”). Almost all were massacred by the Japanese.

Two hundred and seventy-one men from the 2/19th reached the British lines at Yong Peng, but only 130 from the 2/29th made it.
Brief isn’t it, what it doesn’t say is how terrifying an armoured assault is, the rumble and clatter of the tank tracks the boom of their guns and the clatter of machinegun bullets as they sping off the gun shield or the tarmac road.  All the while the gunner sergeant is calling the range and the crew are re aligning the sights, every single instant a potential for death or serious injury from explosion or shot.  And it is hellishly hot, noisy with screams, orders and the constant clash of battle in the flanking jungle.  But still you have to stay and knock out those tanks or else.  The or else is a constant fear in the back of your mind, a slow urgent canker eating at your resolve and training.  If they break through you and your mates are dead no escape the tanks will chew up the battalion and the wounded at the aid posts.  So you stand by the gun sight load and fire almost an automaton except for the hindering fear that hovers over your shoulder.

You can get an idea from the photo of how close the Japanese tanks were when knocked out. So what is bravery? These soldiers had to withstand repeated attacks for hours then withdraw and in the end leave their wounded mates behind.

The following is an eyewitness account of the action

Soon the force at Muar was reinforced by the 2/29th and 2/19th Battalions and a troop of the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment. The commander of the anti-tank troop, Lieutenant Russell (Bill) McCure, received an unexpected welcome from Lieutenant-Colonel Robertson, the Commanding Officer of the 2/29th Battalion:
I have orders from the General that I should be accompanied by a troop of anti-tank guns, but as far as I am concerned, you’re not wanted. I don’t want you to interfere with us in any way. I don’t expect the Japanese to use tanks, so for my part you can go home.

Ignoring orders, McCure deployed his guns in the 2/29th’s position. Before long the brigade came under sustained enemy attack with the

A 2-pounder of the 13th Battery, 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment in action against Japanese tanks at Bakri on 18 January 1942. The forward tank has been set on fire while tanks on the other side of the road block, which is a felled tree, have been disabled. (AWM 40367)

artillery firing continuously, and on 18 January an enemy force with tanks approached the rear of the 2/29th’s main position, forward of Bakri. They were met by two anti-tank guns. When the first tanks were side-on to the foremost gun, its commander, Lance-Sergeant Clarrie Thornton, gave the order to fire.
‘We hit it and moved quickly on to the second tank. We got direct hits on both tanks, but we were firing armour piercing (A.P.) shells and they seemed to go straight through them.’ He called for high explosive rounds and McCure and his batman brought them forward. As McCure recalled: ‘Each time I dumped a container at their gun, I gave Clarrie a slap on the shoulder and urged him on. He was doing a great job and his crew seemed to be crazily enjoying the action, completely ignoring the danger of the battle raging on them.’ Although wounded, Thornton directed the fire from tank to tank. In an outstanding

Three tanks destroyed by Australian anti-tank gunners at Bakri on 18 January 1942. (AWM 11301)

display of coolness and courage the anti-tank gunners destroyed eight Japanese tanks and helped stop the attack.

Soon after the anti-tank battle Lieutenant-Colonel Robertson was severely wounded. He ‘summoned McCure, and the two men looked at each other in the gloom of the rubber trees. McCure erect and strong, Robertson crumpled on a stretcher’. ‘I’m so sorry that I acted as I did’, said Robertson, ‘Only for your persistence in defying my orders and positioning your guns where you did, there would have been wholesale slaughter’. Ten minutes later he was dead.

So are these average or less than average soldiers, as this NZ journo maintains? In fact for many of these soldiers this was their first action. This wasn’t any elite unit like the Brigade of Guards were this kind of stand and fight to the last attitude was the norm. As promised I’m not going to go all heart and flag, but I will point out that a free society where all are respected can provide quality volunteers, though only training not patriotism or familiarity with guns makes good soldiers. After that it is inspirational leadership, the bonds of friendship and self worth that helps a soldier survive the maelstrom of conflict. Unfortunately…

While a battle can last only a few minutes the tragedy of it can last a lifetime, those are the blokes I remember each day, they didn’t come back.

HMAS Vampire transporting wounded from Tobruk
I heard that from my Grandfather, Henry James House a survivor of Gallipoli and the trenches of the Western Front, he returned blinded in one eye and seriously wounded. From my partner’s father Donald Munro that scarring of mind and body lasted a lifetime blighting his life and that of his family. On rare occasions he spoke of the loss of his friends and shipmates on the HMAS Sydney sunk by the German Raider Kormorant, were he served before 1939, and on HMAS Vendetta which lead an amazingly charmed life through the battles of the Mediterranean. He did recall one very close friend lost, a radio operator on another vessel who continued to broadcast from his post as all through an air attack and even as the vessel sank. Anzac Day is not and never has been for the glorification of war, it is a day to remember those who served their families and their country by placing themselves in danger for the safety of all and those that didn’t return.


Bully Beef and Balderdash Some Myths of the AIF Examined and Debunked by Graham Wilson

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