Posted by: jkirkby8712 | February 21, 2012

Sunday, 19th February 2012 – remembering different aspects of World War II

Today, I finished reading the story of Tobruk, quite a mammoth task, although it almost came over as a novel by the time I got to the end. Interesting the way the author has taken this significant aspect of Australia’s military history from all sides of the various combatants, especially the personal stories of some of the central characters from the Australian and German forces.  From military records, personal correspondence, and so on, we are able to follow almost the individual lives of senior officers/leaders and/or the basic servicemen, and the effects of their involvement in the war, not just on themselves, but on their families and friends as well.

I don’t know who Michael McKernan is, but in 2006, he wrote a good review of Peter Fitzsimons’ story, and it follows, here, under the heading ‘The horrors of war told in short, sharp jabs’.  As McKernan  intimates in this review about Australians in general,  I was not terribly familiar with the broad history of Australia’s involvement in the North African components of World War II, nor did I have a great deal of knowledge about the fight for Tobruk, though of course, that knowledge would have been improved had I bothered to actually read something about the campaign.

‘Some years ago the Australian War Memorial republished the first volume of Gavin Long’s official history of Australia in World War II, To Benghazi. Looking in a good bookshop, I found it, not in Australian history, but in the travel section alongside all the Lonely Planets. My point? The North African campaign is not well-known in today’s Australia. Nor is history in general widely understood.

I think Peter FitzSimons accepts what lies behind both this story. He is in the business of telling the story of Australia, in this case the dramatic and remarkable campaign in the desert at Tobruk in 1941. But he doubts his readers can handle the long narratives that historians have foisted on them since Herodotus.

I know of no other writer like FitzSimons with the ability to tell the reader about battle. Make no mistake, that is a very hard thing to do. FitzSimons sifts and winnows his material, keeping his eye alert for a key character, and he tells the story of battle with intensity, clarity and magnificent drama. In this book, we do not reach the siege of Tobruk until page 264 and that is too long a wait, in my view. But then the book lifts off. The writer allows us to understand the objectives of the commanders, the achievements and difficulties of the men they command and, underpinning it always, the emotions of them all.

There are heroes. It is remarkable how FitzSimons is able to tell of battles that engage hundreds of thousands of men on both sides through the eyes of a handful of individuals and still make us believe we know the whole battle.

One of those individuals is Jack Edmondson, the first Australian awarded the Victoria Cross in WWII – posthumously. We know him in life and in war and we know the impact of his enlistment, service and death. Jack was an only son, closely bonded to his mother and FitzSimons shows us the cost of war through her sacrifice. It is gripping stuff.

FitzSimons writes that he wants his book, like his previous effort Kokoda, to which it is a companion, to have a “novel-like feel”. He is like a man who has heard a very good story and sidles up to you in a bar to let you hear it, too. And if he notices that your attention is starting to wander he’ll grab your arm with force to keep you concentrating’.

Well written, and I must agree that, like ‘Kokoda’ which I read around 12 months ago, this story did read as a form of novel, rather than a long-winded history book  –  don’t get me wrong, I like reading history, but yes, they generally can be long winded, and not a book you are likely to dive into every spare minute, and sit through the early hours of the morning engrossed therein!!  Meanwhile, I notice on the TV guide for next week that there is a late night movie on SBS – Tuesday night, a Czech film about a company of Czech soldiers who were involved in the battle for Tobruk. It sounds a fairly gruesome movie, but after reading the book written essentially from an Australian point of view, it might be interesting to see a ‘story’ from another side about that ‘battle’.

Another aspect of World War II was featured today – it was the 70th ‘anniversary’ of the Japanese bombing of Darwin, on the 19 February, 1942. There was a special ceremony up in Darwin this morning, televised on the ABC, which I decided to watch.  The bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942 was both the first and the largest single attack mounted by a foreign power against Australia. On this day, 242 Japanese aircraft attacked ships in Darwin’s harbour and the town’s two airfields in an attempt to prevent the Allies from using them as bases to contest the invasions of Timor and Java. The town was only lightly defended, and the Japanese inflicted heavy losses upon the Allied forces at little cost to themselves. The urban areas of Darwin also suffered some damage from the raids, and there were a number of civilian casualties.  This event is often called the “Pearl Harbor of Australia”. Although it was a less significant military target, a greater number of bombs were dropped on Darwin than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Australian government covered-up the bombing raids on Darwin believing its publication would represent a psychological blow to the Australian population. The raids were the first and largest of almost 100 air raids against Australia during 1942–43.  During her speech as part of this morning’s ceremony, Prime Minister Julia Gillard [who has quite a few things on her mind at present]  told an audience of more than 5000 that Darwin had endured much in both the 64 Japanese attacks on the town in 1942 and 1943 and again after being devastated by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. “The strength and resilience of Territorians has been remarkable,” she said. The Prime Minister also acknowledged the lack of national recognition of the Japanese raids of February 19, 1942, saying the gazetting of the day would help all Australians understand what had happened in Darwin. “The bombing of Darwin was a terrible day in a terrible war,” she said. “Now the whole country will know it too.” The crowd that gathered at Darwin’s cenotaph earlier heard Governor-General Quentin Bryce describe the day of the bombing as one of “immense significance” and one of the most important dates in Australia’s history”. “Since 1788 Australia had been a child of Britain, dependent on Mother Empire for protection,” Ms Bryce said. The crowd that gathered at Darwin’s cenotaph earlier heard Governor-General Quentin Bryce describe the day of the bombing as one of “immense significance” and one of the most important dates in Australia’s history”.  “Since 1788 Australia had been a child of Britain, dependent on Mother Empire for protection,” Ms Bryce said. “Suddenly, on that fateful day, we were forced to grow up. Australia was under attack and Britain couldn’t help us.” Ms Bryce said February 19, 1942, was also a day on which Australia realised its security rested on the cementing of an alliance with the United States and one that began the realisation that Australia needed to dramatically increase its population. Such realisation led to a new immigration policy that transformed Australia’s society and economy.

Well, with all those thoughts of a war-like nature occupying my mind at times today, it was a sharp contrast to begin my day with a few hours of classical music, generally of a rather relaxing and ‘peaceful’ style. Perhaps the one exception was my main piece of music this morning – Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana, composed in 1936. I guess it could only partially be described as ‘peaceful’ music, especially this morning’s version which was a Suite, especially arranged for a concert [brass] band, essentially  – performed by a group of musicians known as The Peabody Conservatory Wind Ensemble. An interesting history. The original score was subtitled ‘Profane songs for singers and vocal chorus with instruments and magical pictures’. The band arrangement however, was completely instrumental, with the vocal music having being fully incorporated into the band itself. Now Orff apparently derived the inspiration and texts for his score from the anthology of songs and poems written in medieval Latin,  German and French by goliards, vagrant scholars, vagabond poets, and wandering monks of seven hundred years. It contained approximately 200 poems and songs, both sacred and secular, with the manuscript ranging in style and content from earthly simplicity to sophisticated symbolism, from religious contemplation to unabashed worldliness. The music notes from later reviewers describe the texts as frank avowals of the earthly pleasures, such as eating, drinking, gambling, love-making, the beauty of life, and glorious springtime, etc, far-ranging indeed.  The opening and closing movements, all quite short, are probably the more familiar to listeners – the throbbing rhythms and battering-ram tunes, but the music also includes elements of chaste tenderness and heartfelt simplicity. In the absence of the vocal content, these latter elements come over as a beautiful contrast to the ‘heavier’ areas of the composition.

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