Anzac mythology obscures reality

Media release: Thursday, 11 September 2008

Historian Dr Craig Stockings revealed how Anzac mythology can obscure the reality of Australian military history, in a lecture at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 16 September.

Dr Stockings is a lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy. He was awarded the National Archives' $10,000 Margaret George Award last year to widen his research into the largely neglected Battle of Bardia, which remains a mystery to many Australians today.

The lecture will reveal Dr Stockings' findings into what was Australia's first battle in World War II, on the Mediterranean coast of Libya in January 1941. He contends that preconceived Anzac-oriented ideas about the superiority of Australian soldiers have skewed history's view of the battle and he has set out to reveal the facts.

'I can understand the need for positive myths as wartime propaganda, and the colourful if dubious reports of wartime correspondents, but the longevity of such misinformation and the propensity by many subsequent authors to uncritically reproduce it is less forgivable,' he said.

The 3-day Battle of Bardia, where 16,000 Australians overcame 40,000 Italians, has been portrayed as a David and Goliath battle, with Australia winning against the odds. But Dr Stockings says that's just not true.

Interwar imagery of Australian battlefield superiority and invincible Aussie infantrymen arose out of Gallipoli and Flanders and was projected onto the first serious battle for Australians in World War II. The myth of cultural/military supremacy has also led many Australians to explain Italian ineffectiveness in ethnic, rather than objective, terms.

'The Australian win was nothing to do with innate ethnic or cultural differences as the myth has suggested for the last 60 years,' said Dr Stockings. 'On the eve of the battle, for example, the Australians were enjoying cream and pudding sent out in Comforts Fund parcels while many of their opponents had not been fed for three days. At every point of objective military comparison, the overwhelming advantage was with the attackers.

'One Australian officer wrote home that “our weapons are unbelievably superior to the enemy's”. It wasn't cultural. There were plenty of examples of individual Italian heroism and Australian failing. In many ways it was a testament to the Italians' courage that they stayed as long as they did under terrible conditions.'

Dr Stockings did much of his research on the Battle of Bardia at the National Archives which he describes as 'a bit of a treasure trove for military history'.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
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