Saturday, December 20, 2014

Churchill grows on me

Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, was born 120 years ago today. His first term in office coincided with the start of the Second World War, and he chose to spend four months in London, in 1941, discussing strategy with Allied leaders. On returning to Australia his political position was so weakened that he was forced to resign. During his trip, however, he kept a diary which is, today, considered of great historical importance.

Menzies was born in Jeparit, Victoria, in the family grocery store, on 20 December 1894. His father became a member of the Victoria Parliament, and his uncle became a member of the federal House of Representatives. Robert studied at Grenville and Wesley Colleges, then then did law at Melbourne University. He was admitted to the Victorian Bar, and then to the High Court of Australia in 1918. After establishing his own practice, he soon became one of Melbourne’s leading lawyers. In 1920 he married Pattie Leckie, and they had three children.

Menzies was first appointed to Parliament in 1928, but resigned in a protest against rural employment subsidies. In 1932, he joined the United Australia Party (UAP), and two years later won the federal seat of Kooyong, becoming the party’s deputy leader. He served as Attorney General and Minister for Industry under Joseph Lyons, but when Lyons died suddenly, Menzies was elected by the UAP to take over as Prime Minister. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, he mobilised Australian troops. He spent the first half of 1941 in Britain discussing war strategy with Churchill and other leaders, but, by the time, he returned to Australia he had lost political support, and was forced to resign.

Subsequently, Menzies formed a new Liberal Party, which went on to win a general election in 1949. He then remained Prime Minister until 1966, winning a record seven consecutive elections. He presided over rapid industrial expansion, improved foreign policy links with the US, Japan and nations in Southeast Asia, a university building programme, and the development of Canberra as the nation’s capital. He was knighted in 1963. In retirement, he became Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, from 1967 to 1972, and published two volumes of memoirs. He died in 1978. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, National Archives of Australia or the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Menzies kept a diary record of his extended trip to London in 1941, the original of which is held by the National Library of Australia. The Library published the diary in 1993 under the title Dark and Hurrying Days. More recently, the Museum of Australian Democracy has set up a website to make the diary - which is divided up into themes such as ‘Travelling by air’, ‘The War Cabinet’, and ‘The Blitz’ - more freely available. According to the website, the diary is ‘a candid record of decision-making in foreign and military policy’, and includes Menzies’  doubts ‘over the leadership style of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’. There is no known equivalent in Australian political history, the website says, and ‘the diary would undoubtedly have been political dynamite if it had fallen into the wrong hands during the war’. Here are several extracts.

21 February 1941
‘Up to London. Snow still lying. First type of balloon barrage - silvery looking “blimps” a few thousand feet up. Not in rows, but singly or in small groups.

So to the Dorchester, where, on the 1st floor, I have the suite which was occupied by Wendell Willkie. As the building is modern and there are seven floors above me, it is considered as good as an air raid shelter. Curtains are closely drawn at sunset: the windows are coated with some anti-shatter mixture. Day raids have for the time [being] been practically discontinued, and the street traffic on the way to the Dept of Information (London University) and Australia House seemed almost normal.

So far I have seen only a few bombed places, including the house in Piccadilly where the Duke of York lived. Sandbags everywhere; barbed wire; the front (to the Mall) of Carlton House Terrace rather battered; King Charles at Charing Cross in a corrugated iron container; police in tin hats; not many people carrying their gas masks; AIR RAID SHELTER, or AIR RAID TRENCHES signs everywhere; windows bricked or boarded up. At Information Dept I have a guard of Honour of the Home Guard (who work in offices and do their stuff as guards so many nights a week!) and some Australians still left here

At Australia House, meet the whole staff and thank them for prompt and devoted work. This timely and much appreciated.’

22 February 1941
‘Winston is completely certain of America’s full help, of her participation in a Japanese war, and of Roosevelt’s passionate determination to stamp out the Nazi menace from the earth. Is he right? I cannot say. If the P.M. were a better listener and less disposed to dispense with all expert or local opinion, I might feel a little easier about it. But there’s no doubt about it; he’s a holy terror - I went to bed tired!’

2 March 1941
‘Churchill grows on me. He has an astonishing grasp of detail and, by daily contact with the service headquarters, knows of disposition and establishment quite accurately. But I still fear that (though experience of Supreme Office has clearly improved and steadied him) his real tyrant is the glittering phrase - so attractive to his mind that awkward facts may have to give way.

But this is the defect of his quality. Reasoning to a predetermined conclusion is mere advocacy; but it becomes something much better when the conclusion is that you are going to win a war, and that you’re damned if anything will stand in your way. Churchill’s course is set. There is no defeat in his heart.’

16 April 1941
‘Tonight the enemy is passing overhead. You can hear him. The search lights are operating – and the crack of the guns in the park opposite is deafening. To look out of window you switch out the lights and peep through the curtain. An eerie experience, the sky occasionally flashing like lightning with the explosion of the A.A. shells. London is so vast that the German bombers pass over it on their way to any of the Midland or Northern cities. But how many A.A. shells are fired per hit God only knows. While the uproar goes on the buses and taxis still rumble along Park Lane!

Later. I was wrong. They were not passing. 460 of them were attacking London, and a dozen large bombs fell within 100 yards of the Dorchester. It was a terrible experience. Invited up to the second floor for a drink with two elderly ladies (one of them John Lowther’s mother), we had scarcely sat down when a great explosion and blast shattered the windows of the room, blew the curtains in, split the door, and filled the room with acrid fumes. Twice the whole building seemed to bounce with the force of the concussion. Twice I visited the ground floor, and found it full of white-faced people. Tritton went out to escort a guest home, got into the blitz, had his taxi driver wounded and the wind-screen broken, and took the wheel himself!

The sky beyond the Palace was red with fire and smoke, the sky was flashing like lightning. It is a horrible sound to hear the whistle of a descending stick of bombs, any one of them capable of destroying a couple of five-storey houses, and to wonder for a split second if it is going to land on your windows!

Just before dawn, at about 5 a.m., Tritton, Landau and I went for a walk to see the damage. There were buildings down and great craters within 100 yards of the hotel on the side away from the park. In Brook Street buildings were blazing. A great plume of red smoke rose from Selfridge’s. Gas mains blazed in Piccadilly. The houses fronting the Green Park were red and roaring. There were craters and fallen masonry in the streets, and the fear of an unexploded bomb lurking around every corner. Wherever we walked, we crunched over acres of broken glass. This is the “new order”. How can it go on for years?’

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