They also served: why D-Day matters to Australia
Seventy years ago this week, the largest invasion force in history sailed towards the shores of Normandy in France. D-Day, June 6, 1944, has become one of the defining events of World War II. For many the overarching impression of D-Day is the horrific opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan, or the parachute drop into Normandy in the HBO series Band of Brothers.
For younger people, their introduction to what British prime minister Winston Churchill described as “much the greatest thing ... ever attempted” may come from games such as Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. Such media has mostly provided an American perspective, but more than a dozen nations – including Australia – were represented among the crews of some 6000 ships, 10,000 aircraft and the British, American and Canadian army groups involved in the operation.
Many might dismiss Australia’s contribution to the Normandy campaign as something of a token effort. But this does not do justice to the memory of those who served and those who died in the fighting. While the overall number of Australians was small in comparison with the millions mobilised in Europe, for a small nation they are not insignificant - especially considering that in the course of the war a total of 27,000 Australian airmen served in the European theatre.
World War II in Europe was not fought simply for balance-of-power politics. It was fought for bigger ideals, making the battle for Normandy and its commemoration important to Australia. It matters for the simple reason that Australia was a proactive participant in a coalition standing united against Hitler’s murderous and criminal regime, which rejected the most basic democratic and civil rights as well as the liberal ideals on which our society is founded.
We must remember, too, that an Allied victory over Nazi Germany was not preordained, but came at great cost. The Normandy commemoration, therefore, also matters because of the severe Australian casualties in Europe throughout World War II. Despite this, the experiences of these Australians have been overshadowed, particularly by the increased attention that is placed on the war fought in our own region at Kokoda and Darwin - battles that some have argued saved Australia.
Australia, it should be remembered, declared war on Germany over affairs in Europe. While many since that time may believe otherwise, in going to war Australia was not tricked, coerced, or blindly following Britain. Rather, Australians in 1939 followed affairs in Europe closely and were deeply concerned by Hitler’s aggression towards Germany’s neighbours. And Australia remained committed to the war in Europe - despite Japan’s entry into the war in our own region in 1941 - all the way to the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945.
As to the number of Australians involved in D-Day itself, it has long been established that about 3300 Australians participated in the landings. They included 2800 members of the Royal Australian Air Force (many serving with Royal Air Force squadrons), 500 members of the Royal Australian Navy (on attachment to the Royal Navy) and about 13 officers of the Australian Imperial Force (serving with the British Army).
But those figures consider only those involved in operations on June 6. The total number of Australians involved in the wider Normandy campaign, which lasted until the end of August, is much higher. Given the spread of Australians serving across different units an exact figure is hard to determine; airmen, for example, served in well over 200 separate RAF squadrons. We know that, as of July 1, 1944, there were some 14,000 Australian airmen in Britain; and as casualties mounted throughout the Normandy campaign, more and more of these men replaced the heavy losses sustained in operational squadrons.
As an example, of the 23 pilots with an Australian Spitfire squadron at the beginning of the invasion, 20 were no longer with the squadron by the end of September. In fact, during this period a total of 57 pilots had passed through the squadron, replacing pilots killed, missing, wounded, captured or “operationally tired”. Therefore, rather than considering the often-asked question, “How many Australians were involved on D-Day?”, the more pertinent question may be, “What was the overall cost in Australian lives?”
Losses for the RAAF were proportionally high, with almost 5500 Australian airmen killed in the air war over Europe. Indeed, the image of Australian airmen in the night skies above Berlin or Hamburg has obscured the severity of the air campaign in north-west Europe that supported the Allied ground forces in gaining a foothold in France in the summer of 1944. In fact June 1944, and the months encompassing the Normandy operations, represent the peak in RAAF casualties for the entire war. According to Commonwealth War Graves records, during the period of the Normandy campaign 1117 Australians were killed and buried in cemeteries or listed on memorials across western Europe and Britain.
Seventy years on it is clear that the prominence given to battles in New Guinea and a “battle for Australia” comes at the cost of the bigger picture. It remains a neglected fact that as many Australians were killed in combat operations against the Germans and Italians (9372) as against the Japanese (9520). The general lack of awareness of the diverse roles and experiences of Australians in Europe demonstrates how popular memory has been skewed.
Australia’s war in Europe in the tumultuous summer of 1944 was far from a token effort. Normandy was a major campaign for Australian military forces, and one of the most costly in terms of lives lost. The number of Australians killed in Europe during the Second World War reminds us that Australia played a role in a wider global struggle – not only to defeat Japanese militarism in our own region of Asia and the Pacific but also to defeat the evils of Nazism and Fascism in occupied Europe. On the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, we should remember them.
Dr Lachlan Grant is a historian at the Australian War Memorial. A version of this article appeared in the April issue (No. 66) of the Memorial’s magazine, Wartime and in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 2014.