Dam Busters and ‘Anzackery’ at the War Memorial

Jul 6, 2023
Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Treasuring old stuff and old stories is something the Australian War Memorial does a lot of. Recently, the Memorial made much of an artefact from the Dam Busters Raid of May 1943. The artefact was a model of a dam with surrounding countryside. The suggestion was that RAF Bomber Command had studied it or something similar as it prepared for the assault, codenamed Operation Chastise.

We don’t know whether the Russians had a similar toy to hand when they workshopped their destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine. That event a couple of weeks later gave extra poignancy to the Memorial’s publicity stunt.

The feelings the artefact aroused in Australian breasts today probably depended greatly on whether one had read The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill or seen the 1955 film with its stirring music and wonderful performance from Michael Redgrave as bouncing bomb inventor, Barnes Wallis. The Memorial knew what buttons to press.

The Memorial did not try to confuse us by quoting the later misgivings of the raid commander, Guy Gibson, or referring to the number of civilian casualties from the burst dam. We were given details though, as we always are, about the high casualty rate among Australian flyers with Bomber Command. Lest We Forget any one of them.

What was interesting to this observer, however, was how the War Memorial under pressure tends to fall back on the sort of puffery that it would have done in the 1950s, the 1960s or pretty much any decade since. As Phillip Adams once said of Australian television, ‘It is not so much twenty years of TV but the same year twenty times over’. Here it is, ‘Not so much eighty years of war stories, but the same stories eighty times over’.

That’s something of an Australian commemorative theme, indeed. First, we had over $500m spent on the Centenary of Anzac, more in absolute terms and per head of dead personnel than was spent by any other combatant country. And a good proportion of the total went on building new monuments or commemorative gardens to the Great War or on refurbishing old ones.

Then there was the Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux, technically a project of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs rather than the Memorial, but the folks at the Memorial certainly helped with advice and were probably envious of the high-tech kit put in place to tell the story – essentially the story of how much the victories on the Western Front were due to Aussie know-how and pluck. Recently, more money was voted to the Monash Centre to update the high-tech gimmickry, but it will still be the familiar story, with added gee-whiz factor.

I – and others associated with the Honest History website – regularly used the term ‘Anzackery’ for the highly emotional, often inaccurate versions of Great War and other military history wheeled out during the Centenary and since, particularly by the Memorial’s Director 2012-19, Dr Brendan Nelson, by successive Ministers for Veterans’ Affairs, by popular authors like Peter FitzSimons, Grantlee Keiza, and Roland Perry, by shockjocks, and by makers of television series and movies. We received occasional bollockings from Nelson and others, apparently because our criticism was seen as disloyal to the received view of Anzac. Nelson’s hand-picked successor, Matt Anderson, has been more polite.

That received view included a special place for Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG, to whom Dr Nelson and Kerry Stokes, the Memorial Council Chair and Roberts-Smith’s employer, effectively gave the status of War Memorial mascot. We have seen no sign of successor mascots, especially not from Dr Nelson, who took a promotion from his post-Directorship employer, Boeing, and moved to London after a brief stint as Council Chair when Stokes retired.

Nelson knew Boeing well for its habit of donating its small change (from its turnover of many billions annually) to the Memorial to pay for some of its exhibits. While he was Director, Nelson shilled for another arms manufacturer, Thales, but took no fee for that work. Good of him.

On departure from the Chair, Stokes handpassed to Nelson the oversight of the Memorial’s $550m (and counting) redevelopment project. That task now rests with the current Chair, Kim Beazley, a nice man for an ex-politician, but one who has the right to feel somewhat bewildered.

Some of Beazley’s bewilderment might flow from the conspicuous gap between his version of how the Memorial is in future to portray the Australian Frontier Wars – ‘substantial’ coverage – and the view that Memorial management has put to Senate Estimates, just seven per cent more floor space than in the Memorial prior to its redevelopment and that space to be shared in a ‘Pre-1914 Gallery’ with Australian expeditions to the New Zealand Wars, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War.

Lest We Forget indeed. It’s hard to forget the same old story.

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