New book: Australia’s War with France


Australia’s War with France
The campaign in Syria and Lebanon, 1941

By Richard James

Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $29.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781925520927

I must confess to having little knowledge of this campaign and judging from the remarks by the author, I’m not alone.

Australia and France were allies at the commencement of the Second World War but this changed somewhat after the Germans overran France. The new French Government, installed at Vichy, was answerable to Adolf Hitler.

Richard James travelled to Lebanon to discover why Australian troops from the 7th Division were engaged in a campaign in Lebanon and Syria against French Vichy troops.

Britain’s Winston Churchill was deeply concerned that Syria and Lebanon, still under the control of the French Vichy government, could soon fall into the hands of the Germans.

Urged on by the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle, British General Archibald Wavell was instructed to bring a swift resolution to the situation. Wavell’s forces were fully stretched at the time and so he turned to the Australian 7th Division to assist his British troops.

Unfortunately, nobody told the French Vichy troops and the Australians were soon involved in a bitter struggle against an army from a country they had helped defend only a generation earlier.

My father’s war records showed that he spent some time in Syria and Lebanon in mid 1941 and I had often wondered why. This intriguing and well researched book by Richard James now provides me with some answers. This is a very well written history of a little-known and overlooked conflict.


Ethics Under Fire: Challenges for the Australian Army


Ethics Under Fire: Challenges for the Australian Army

By Tom Frame, Albert Palazzo

Published by UNSW Press
RRP $39.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781742235493

This book is part of a series produced by the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS) – a UNSW Canberra Research Centre at ADFA with the expectation that titles will become standard reference works. It has a distinguished list of contributors. It aims to ask questions and raise issues that the Australian Army cannot ignore.

As Tom Frame puts it bluntly, the ‘decision to kill people and to destroy their homes demands a compelling and convincing explanation’ and yet he contends that even now, he is still not convinced that recruits or officer trainees are given an adequate grounding in the whole ethics enterprise.

Beginning with ‘Why Ethics Matter’, the book covers a range of topics including

  • ethics in multi-national peacekeeping;
  • ethics in special operations;
  • operating within an NGO;
  • the ethics of tactics and
  • the future battle space.

If it raises more questions than it answers, that may be regarded as a success for most importantly it aims to promote discussion and debate on this important topic.

Vietnam: New book examines Pacification in Phuoc Thuy, 1966–72


Destroy and Build
Pacification in Phuoc Thuy, 1966–72

Australian Army History Series

By Thomas Richardson
Published by Cambridge University Press
RRP $59.95 in hardback
ISBN 9781316995648

This book explores the conduct of ‘pacification’ in the Republic of Vietnam’s Phuoc Tuy province between 1966 and 1972.

In this context pacification means the defeat of the communist-led National Liberation Front insurgency while at the same time winning the allegiance of the populace to the government of the Republic, not just through military action but also by political, economic and social reform.

US leaders, says Richardson, understood the need for a stable indigenous government in South Vietnam that was not dependent on US military power.

In this book Richardson explores the 1st Australian Task Force’s (1ATF) implementation of this policy in Phuoc Tuy between 1966 and 1972.

He laments the lack of focus on pacification in earlier works, pointing to the dominance of veterans’ memoirs and accounts of individual engagements such as Long Tan among published works.

For all the efforts though, the sense of progress and sacrifice squandered after the withdrawal of 1ATF in late 1971 is ‘palpable’, Richardson writes.

Major Adrian Roberts, who had served with 1ATF in 1966, then with AATTV in Phuoc Tuy in 1972, told historian Ian McNeill that by April 1972 ‘things had simply gone back to what they had been like in 1966’.

But as Richardson concludes, success or failure is a matter of interpretation and degrees, set against the backdrop of a society increasingly divided between a wealthy and powerful minority and a poor, disenfranchised, largely rural majority.

In challenging the accepted narrative, Richardson’s detailed and thoughtful analysis exposes the challenges and wisdom of military intervention in an unfamiliar society.

I can’t help thinking that there are contemporary parallels that spring readily to mind. Where we will be left asking the question: what was it all for?

Have you heard of John Bolton? Remember ‘The Dish’?


Radio Astronomer: John Bolton and a New Window on the Universe

Peter Robertson

Published by New South
RRP $59.99 in hardback  *  ISBN 9781742235455

With this book, it proved too much temptation to flip straight to the chapter on the role of the Parkes radio telescope in the first moon walk (Apollo 11) and the drama of that day, so charmingly – and as it turns out accurately – captured in the film ‘The Dish’.

In the chapter ‘One Small Step’, Robertson details the space race that developed in the late 1950s and the role large tracking dishes would play in the ambitious space missions of the 1960s.

It was down to Director John Bolton’s meticulous planning that, when the designated receiving station – Goldstone in the US – could not provide the quality pictures NASA and the world’s TV audience expected, Parkes was able to step in.

John Bolton (1922-93) was the leading Australian astronomer of his generation, although he was born in Sheffield and educated at Cambridge.

After wartime service in the Royal Navy, he joined the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory. His early work led to the birth of a new field – extragalactic radio astronomy.

This is a well-researched biography of a man of significant achievement but whose name is largely unknown outside astronomy circles.

But it is much more than a biography – it charts the development of a field of scientific enquiry from its infancy and the contribution made by one outstanding individual.

NT Museum: New display at Defence of Darwin Experience


New display at Defence of Darwin Experience and launch of additional historic wartime sites on app.

The Defence of Darwin Experience has opened a new display telling the story of a World War II blockade runner.

SUNK: the story of the Don Isidro opened on Saturday 17 February.

Don Isidro was a medium-sized ship, 321 feet (97.8 metres) long with a registered gross tonnage of 3,200 tons (3,251 tonnes). Built in 1939 in Kiel, Germany, for the De La Rama Steamship Company, the vessel was chartered by the United States Army as a ‘blockade-runner’ to carry food and supplies to General Douglas MacArthur’s men who had retreated from the Japanese forces to the Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay.

On 12 February 1942, Don Isidro sailed from Jakarta and headed east along the top of northern Australia, hoping to remain undetected. On 18 February, she was spotted by a Japanese plane and attacked.

Heading for the relative safety of Darwin Harbour, the vessel was bombed and sunk on the 19 February 1942 off the Tiwi Islands by the Japanese strike force sent to bomb Darwin.

Today, the remains of Don Isidro lie in shallow water off Rinamatta Beach, half way between Cape Fourcroy and Cape Helvetius, on the Western side of Bathurst Island.

Marcus Schutenko, Director of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory said “The Don Isidro story is one of the lesser known stories of World War II in Darwin and deserves recognition. The display features original items from MAGNT’s collection recovered from the wreck of the Don Isidro before making it protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, making it illegal to disturb the site or remove material. Sunk: the story of the Don Isidro provides a rare opportunity for the public to see the objects.”

Coinciding with the opening of Sunk: the story of the Don Isidro, MAGNT is launching an enhanced Defence of Darwin Experience app.

The Northern Territory, and Darwin in particular, played a significant role in Australia’s defensive and offensive activities during World War II. There are a number of heritage sites within Darwin and along the Stuart Highway, all accessible by car, providing an informative and compelling self-guided tour of 16 historic wartime sites.

The Defence of Darwin Experience app provides interpretive information, photos and stories of these significant sites.The Defence of Darwin Experience app was first launched in 2012, with the initial sites primarily around Darwin; the enhanced app has seven new historic sites that includes the Adelaide River and Bathurst Island.

More information:


John Curtin’s War: Australia’s coming of age


John Curtin’s War

The coming of war in the Pacific, and reinventing Australia

By  John Edwards

Published by Viking (Penguin/Random House)
RRP $49.99 in hardback
ISBN 9780670073474

Curtin’s struggle for power against Joe Lyons and Bob Menzies, his dramatic use of that power when he took office in October 1941, and his determination to be heard in Washington and London as Australia came under threat from a hostile Japan, is a political epic unmatched in Australian history.

As Japan sank much of the Allied navy, advanced on the great British naval base at Singapore, and seized Australian territories in New Guinea, it fell to Curtin to take a stand against both Churchill and Roosevelt to place Australia’s interest at the forefront of his decisionmaking.

This was a turning point for Australia as a nation; a coming-of-age from dominion status to that of a nation fully prepared to chart its own course.

To me, Curtin’s decision-making turned out to be intensely personal. Although I was not born at the time, it was of real importance to my parents. The indecision about where the returning Australian troops from the Middle East would head saw my father kicking his heels in Ceylon for several months (confirmed by the details of his war records) while my mother, to whom he was engaged, believed that he was either dead or no longer interested in her, despite having kept up a loving correspondence during the time he was in the Middle East. It all ended happily – my father returned to Australia, and eventually did two stints in New Guinea. But my mother, no doubt wary of seeing him go off again, lured him to the altar at the end of 1943, before his New Guinea service. Had he and the 6th Div instead been sent to defend Burma, as some wanted, would he have survived?

Edwards portrays Curtin neither as hero nor villain but as the pivotal figure making his uncertain way between what Australia was, and what it would become.

This first volume of a planned two volume work makes a major contribution to Australian political biography.

As Edwards writes in his preface, he was not an imposing man, rather he was a man known for his sincerity, intelligence and reserve.

He was though undoubtedly the man Australia needed in its darkest hour.

Escape Artist: the Second World War of Johnny Peck


Escape Artist

The incredible Second World War of Johnny Peck

By Peter Monteath

Published by New South
RRP $29.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781742235509

In August 1941, an eighteen-year-old Australian soldier made his first prison break – an audacious night-time escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp in Crete. Astoundingly, this was only the first of many escapes. An infantryman in the 2/7 Battalion, Johnny Peck was first thrown into battle against Italian forces in the Western Desert. Campaigns against Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe in Greece and Crete followed.

When Crete fell to the Germans at the end of May 1941, Peck was trapped on the island with hundreds of other men. On the run, they depended on their wits, the kindness of strangers, and sheer good luck.

When Peck’s luck ran out, he was taken captive by the Germans, then the Italians. Later, after his release from a Piedmontese jail following the Italian Armistice of 1943, and at immense risk to his own life, Peck devoted himself to helping POWs cross the Alps to safety. Captured once more, Peck was sentenced to death and detained in Milan’s notorious, Gestapo-run San Vittore prison – until escaping again, this time into Switzerland.

Historian Peter Monteath has undertaken extensive research to piece together this remarkable story of a young Australian soldier who risked everything, not only for his own freedom, but to help others escape the vicious brutality of the Germans.

Australian readers may remember Peter Monteath’s 2011 book P.O.W. published by Pan Macmillan, ISBN 9781742610085

The Shipwreck Hunter – an extraordinary life story


The Shipwreck Hunter

A lifetime of extraordinary discovery in the deep seas

By David L Mearns

Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $32.99 in paperback  ISBN 9781760295219

David Mearns is a US-born marine scientist, researcher and deep-sea shipwreck hunter who has solved many deep sea mysteries involving shipwrecks. Australian readers may be familiar with his earlier book, The Search for the Sydney.

In this latest book, he details his life’s work in discovering some of the world’s most fascinating and elusive shipwrecks. Not only have his deep-water searches solved the enduring mystery of the fate of HMAS Sydney sunk off the Western Australian coast in 1941, but he has also discovered the final resting place of the mighty battlecruiser HMS Hood.

He writes too about his discovery of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur, sunk on 14 May 1943. Public interest in the discovery of Centaur’s final resting place had been sparked by his work in discovering the Sydney and the remains of the disguised German raider the Kormoran,  which was responsible for the loss of the Sydney.

He writes too about his role in locating commercial vessels that have unexpectedly sunk at sea, including the MV Lucona, which sank as a result of a criminal conspiracy. Udo Proksch, the mastermind, ended his days in prison, serving a life sentence.

The Shipwreck Hunter is a truly compelling story of his life and work on the high seas, focusing on some of his most intriguing discoveries. It details the extraordinary techniques used, the research, the painstaking historical detective work and the mid-ocean stamina and courage needed to find a wreck kilometres beneath the sea, as well as the moving human stories that lie behind each of these oceanic tragedies.

I’d thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with maritime interests.

To find out more about David Mearns, read this interview on the blog of the Australian National Maritime Museum – AT THIS LINK


Gimme Shelter: stories of survival from the frontline


Gimme Shelter

Stories of courage, endurance and survival from the frontline

By Paul Field 
Published by Echo Books
RRP $32.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781760404352

Haunted by their experiences at the frontline of conflict, 16 special Australians – including Vietnam veterans, peacekeepers, first responders and relatives – share their deeply personal and often hidden stories of the ultimate struggle – to return to physical and mental health and take their place in civilian life. But the legacy of war is long lasting and difficult to leave behind.

Among them is Paul Stewart, whose brother was one of five journalists killed in Balibo while covering the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Black Hawk helicopter crash survivor Gary Wilson, and Janny and Hugh Poate, whose son Robert was killed by one of the Afghanistan troops he was mentoring.

For John Bale, a retired army captain who served in Afghanistan where his friend Lieutenant Michael Fussell was killed in an explosion, the aftermath of war service led to him co-founding Soldier On, an organisation that supports those who have served to assist with their physical and mental health.

SOLDIER ON: Royalties earned from the sale of this book are being shared with Soldier On. Soldier On’s mission statement is to work side by side with those who have served and continue to serve our nation, and their families, to help secure their future. For more information go to


Billion Dollar Spy: A must-read story for espionage fans

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The Billion Dollar Spy
A true story of Cold War espionage and betrayal

By David E Hoffman
Published by Icon Books
Distributed by Allen & Unwin
RRP $29.99 in paperback  ISBN 9781785781971

NPR interview with author David E Hoffman can be accessed at this link

This book has been widely reviewed – and acclaimed – since its publication. It tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev who became one of the West’s most valuable spies. At enormous risk Tolkachev and his handlers conducted clandestine meetings across Moscow in the period 1977-1985, using spy cameras, props, and private codes to elude the KGB in its own backyard until a shocking betrayal led to his exposure and eventual execution.

As author David Hoffman reveals in a recent interview, the case had been secret for many years despite bits and pieces of information emerging. It was only the CIA’s decision to declassify more than 900 pages of the operational cables about how the operation was carried out that allowed the story to be told.

The lesson of the Tolkachev case, says Hoffman, is that ‘you can focus all you want on high-tech satellites, you can tap into people’s email, but in the end, despite all the changes in technology, having a great human source is absolutely invaluable’.

This is a riveting true story from the final years of the Cold War – a story that lets us see into the world of spycraft and espionage as it operated in the Cold War era. This is not a world for the faint hearted.

About the author: David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor at The Washington Post and a correspondent for PBS’ flagship investigative series, Frontline. He is the author of The Dead Hand (Icon, 2011), about the end of the Cold War arms race, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize.


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