President Update – 8 May 2020
Today marks 75 years since Victory in Europe was declared, marking the end of the European campaign of WWII.
Australian forces had once again shown their bravery and commitment and joined with allied forces across the world to defeat a great evil.
I invite you to view my video message in commemoration of this truly significant day.
As the number of veterans still living that fought in or remember WWII continue to dwindle, please join me in paying our respects for the service and sacrifice of so many.
Lest we forget.
A transcript of the video message can also be read below.
Acting State President
Today we remember the 75th anniversary of the end of the European war campaign of WWII. Known to many of us as Victory in Europe Day.
I wish to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are on, and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. I pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging.
75 years ago, the war in Europe ended with the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany. The German High Command signed the surrender on 7 May 1945, which took effect at midnight on 8–9 May 1945.
Our involvement in yet another war began on 3 September 1939 when Prime Minister Menzies said, “Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement. Great Britain and France, with the cooperation of the British Dominions, have struggled to avoid this tragedy. They have, as I firmly believe, been patient. They have kept the door of negotiation open. They have given no cause for aggression. But in the result, their efforts have failed, and we are therefore, as a great family of nations, involved in a struggle which we must at all costs win and which we believe in our hearts we will win.”
Only 21 years earlier our nation had ended its involvement in the Great War, the war to end all wars. However, now the world faced a new and evil threat.
Australians heard the call and enlisted to once again go to foreign lands to serve and fight. The majority of those who enlisted in these early years of the war served in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. However, many went and fought in Britain and Western Europe, following in the footsteps of many young Australians two decades before.
Australians had enlisted at a record number when they had heard of the swift and decisive victories of Nazi Germany and Italy in Europe. Britain itself was under attack. Many of our airmen had enlisted in the Royal Air Force and flew during the Battle of Britain. We also had troops in Britain to defend her from a possible German invasion. The Atlantic saw our navy and our air force take part in convoy and escorts to ensure the supply lines were kept open; often at the threat of being attacked by German Navy U-boats.
The importance of the European campaign was evident during the address by British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on 4 June 1940, where he said:
“We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing ground, we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight them in the hills; we shall never surrender …”
Back in Australia the war was coming closer, with Japan moving swiftly across Asia and the islands to our north. Unlike WWI, this war had presented many challenges to our leaders, especially Prime Minister John Curtin who demanded that the war against Japan be fought in the same way that the war against Germany was being fought.
Curtin feared for Australia and said, “Australia is the last bastion between the west coast of America and the Japanese. If Australia goes, the Americas are wide open.”
Curtin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had different strategic outlooks. The view at the time of both Churchill and the US President, Franklin D Roosevelt was for the war against Nazi Germany to be concluded first, before pivoting back against the Japanese in the Asian and Pacific theatres.
As the war progressed in Europe the Royal Australian Air Force contributed to all major strategic air offensives against Germany in the skies of Europe.
Our pilots in Bomber Command, Coastal and Fighter Commands had been trained through the Empire Air Training Scheme and were formed into Commonwealth squadrons. About 3,486 Australians attached to the Bomber Command were killed, and hundreds taken prisoner. Australians played a significant role in the major raids on Berlin and other German targets and Italy.
Australians had a significant presence in the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean theatres during those early years, with hostilities coming to an end by May 1943.
Australia was mainly focused on the Pacific theatre, however we still had many fighting or captured in Europe.
On D-Day, 6 June 1944, over 3,000 of our Australians landed on the beaches, flew planes or were stationed on ships. This was the largest seaborne landing in history.
The liberation of Europe had begun, and the European campaign would end just under one year later in May 1945. The defeat of Nazi Germany was welcomed; however, Australians were still involved in a brutal campaign in the Pacific and Asia as it fought with the Allies against Japan.
Almost 10,000 Australians died in the campaign against Germany and Italy. With over 5,000 from the Royal Australian Air Force being killed. Many more were wounded and about 8,000 would be held captive by the Germans.
The world would learn of the horror and evil committed by Nazi Germany. The persecution and genocide of European Jews and other minorities was devastating. Over 6million Jews were killed, along with millions of others. St Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic Priest who volunteered in a concentration camp to take the place of a man with a family said, “No one in the world can change truth. What we can do and should do is seek truth and to serve it where we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are these victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves defeated in our innermost personal selves?”
Australian Pilot Bob Mills of South Australia witnessed firsthand the brutality of these concentration camps and at the infamous Buchenwald camp said, “I actually witnessed those terribly emaciated corpses being fed into the ovens. It’s a sight I will never, ever forget.”
The last Australian to be killed in the European campaign was Private Lawrence Saywell. Private Saywell was captured in 1941 in Crete and would later escape in January 1945 and serve alongside the Czech resistance fighters. He would fight for four months against the Germans. Tragically, he was shot and wounded by a German soldier who was retreating at the time. Private Saywell died on 8 May 1945 – VE Day, and he was awarded the Czech Military Cross.
There were 20 Australians awarded a Victoria Cross during WWII. There were two awarded in the European campaign, being Western Europe and Britain. They were:
- Hughie Edwards, No. 105 Squadron RAF in Bremen, Germany 1941
- Ron Middleton, No. 149 Squadron RAF in Turin, Italy 1942
Rawdon or ‘Ron’ Middleton had been on a bombing mission in Italy and sustained damage to his Stirling bomber. He managed to fly back to England, allowed his crew to get out of the plane and then flew away from the houses to avoid crashing into them and slammed down into the sea. Part of the Victoria Cross citation for Flight Sergeant Rawdon Hume Middleton read:
“His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force.”
The war in Europe caused significant destruction and loss of life. Those Australians who served, fought and died did so in the spirit of the ANZACs. The values of mateship, humour, ingenuity, courage and endurance were forged at Gallipoli and were evident in those who served, fought and died in the air, on the seas and on land during the European campaign of WWII.
As the guns fell silent in Europe and the Nazi machine was forced to its knees, our soldiers, sailors and airmen returned to a nation that had seen war come to its shore.
Thankfully, the mass war machine unleashed during WWII has not been repeated to this day. We now face other threats and the threat of COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on our daily life. It has prevented us from gathering to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Victory in Europe. However, many of you at home watching this, you will never forget the sacrifices of those who fought and served in Europe.
Whilst some of us have been upset about being told to stay indoors and have had our movements restricted in daily life, let us not forget about those throughout Europe and Britain who endured large scale bombing and fighting. They could not roam the streets and play at a park. They could not go to the bar and drink a beer with their mates. For them, the experience of war, even as a young child, would change their lives forever.
Our nation during that time came together, everyone made sacrifices and together they rebuilt this great nation of ours. Please take time to reflect on those who fought and died during the European campaign. Let us never forget what this day means. It was a victory that was hard fought by so many.
Lest We Forget.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget.