Archive | November 2015

More insights into ASIO: Vol 2 of the Official History

ProtestYears_ASIO copy

The Protest Years
The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975
By John Blaxland
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $49.99 in hardback
ISBN 9781925266931

This is the companion volume to David Horner’s The Spy Catchers published in 2014. The first book covered the period 1949-1963, encompassing the Petrov defection. Now John Blaxland has taken up the story. Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and writes about military history, intelligence, security and Asia-Pacific affairs. His most recent book was The Australian Army: From Whitlam to Howard published by Cambridge.

This second book continues the story of Australia’s domestic intelligence organisation during the turbulent years from the end of the Menzies era to the downfall of the Whitlam government, a topic that has been much in the news of late.

It’s reassuring in the preface to read that the work is based on unfettered access to the files held in the ASIO archives, which is not to say that these are the only sources for the author.

As to topics, a quick check of the index reveals what we already know: the government’s and therefore ASIO’s, preoccupation with the activities of the Communist Party of Australia during the period.

For the first time the circumstances surrounding the alleged role of ASIO in the demise of the Whitlam Government are revealed, and the question of the CIA’s involvement in Australia is explored. The extraordinary background to the raid on ASIO headquarters in Melbourne by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, and Australia’s efforts at countering Soviet bloc espionage, as well as the sensitive intelligence activities in South Vietnam, are exposed.

This is indeed a ground-breaking political and social history of some of Australia’s most turbulent years as seen through the secret prism of ASIO. This is an important publishing milestone in Australian history, no doubt inspired in its inception by the substantial histories of MI5 and MI6 in Britain.


New book from Oxford: The War at Home


The War at Home:
Volume IV of the Centenary History of Australia and the Great War
By John Connor, Peter Stanley, Peter Yule
Published by Oxford University Press
RRP $59.95 in hardcover

This is the fourth book in the Centenary History of Australia and the Great War series from Oxford University Press. It has been funded through ‘the generosity and foresight of the Australian Army’ and supported as a project by successive Army chiefs. Well done.

As series editor Professor Jeffrey Grey writes, it is written for an ‘interested general audience’. Each of the authors has written a section:

John Connor on Politics

Peter Yule on the Economy

Peter Stanley on Society

These three sections are followed by bibliographic essays intended to point to the extensive body of literature on Australia and the Great War. It’s an interesting device which helps explain the background and context for each section.

The Society section is of great interest, particularly the section on anti-German feeling.

My own grandfather (he was Swiss, with a German name – my father changed it) was virtually forced to enlist, even though he was already married with six children. It was either that or internment. He was a cook but was never able to follow his profession again because of the injuries he suffered in the war. This was the price of demonstrating his loyalty.

This book, of all the volumes so far, engages my attention. I find it of great interest to understand how society functioned at home against the backdrop of a war taking place so far from our shores.

The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War Series:

Volume 1: Australia and the War in the Air – Available

Volume 2: The War with the Ottoman Empire – Available

Volume 3: The War with Germany – Available

Volume 5: The Australian Imperial Force – April 2016

Great Escape: Louise Williams tells the real story of her uncle (who wasn’t Steve McQueen)

GreatEscape_Williams copy

A True Story of the Great Escape
A young Australian POW in the most audacious breakout of World War II

By Louise Williams
Published by Allen & Unwin
$29.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781743313893

Just this week ABC’s Richard Fidler interviewed author Louise Williams about the book she has written on her uncle John Williams, the character loosely portrayed by Steve McQueen in the movie The Great Escape.

Here is the link to the interview – it’s certainly worth listening to:

The book – published very recently by Allen & Unwin – tells the story of young Australian fighter pilot John Williams DFC and how he became a POW in the notorious Stalag Luft III camp in Germany. John had joined the air force shortly before the outbreak of war and, in the larrikin tradition, led his squadron into air combat over the deserts of Libya and Egypt dressed in sandals and shorts.

John and his best mate Rusty Kierath were among the 76 POWs who tunnelled their way out of the supposedly escape-proof camp under the noses of their German guards. Their families never learned what really happened once the pair made it out into the forest.

John’s niece Louise Williams has pieced together his life, from his upbringing in a tight-knit family hit hard by the Depression, to his exploits in the air, and the many missing details of the tragic escape. It is a powerful and intimate story of one of the most dramatic episodes of World War II.

An amazing and ultimately sad story.

New book from Cambridge: The Search for Tactical Success in Vietnam


The Search for Tactical Success in Vietnam
An Analysis of Australian Task Force Combat Operations
Part of the Australian Army History Series
By Andrew Ross, Bob Hall, Amy Griffin
Published by Cambridge University Press
RRP $59.99 in hardcover
ISBN: 9781107098442

As the authors write in the introduction to this book:

“Counter-insurgency shows no sign of diminishing as a form of warfare ….. while insurgents use armed struggle and terrorism to further their political ends, combat will remain a prominent feature of counter-insurgency. The nature of combat in counter-insurgency also remains largely unchanged since Vietnam, especially for the insurgents. The military impact of the insurgent still rests primarily on the extensive use of light weapons and land mines. Insurgents still seek to immerse themselves in the civilian population ….”

Clearly, for future military leaders for which this book is largely written, knowledge of past campaigns can inform the present.

From 1966 to 1971 the First Australian Task Force was part of the counterinsurgency campaign in South Vietnam. Though considered a small component of the Free World effort in the war, these troops from Australia and New Zealand were in fact the best trained and prepared for counterinsurgency warfare. However, until now, their achievements have been largely overlooked by military historians.

The Search for Tactical Success in Vietnam sheds new light on this campaign by examining the thousands of small-scale battles that the First Australian Task Force was engaged in. The book draws on statistical, spatial and temporal analysis, as well as primary data, to present a unique study of the tactics and achievements of the First Australian Task Force in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam. Original maps throughout the text help to illustrate how the Task Force’s tactics were employed.

This book, no doubt, will become required reading for those with career ambitions in the ADF.

Spitfire pilot Henry Lacy Smith: his story

FPH cover N-J_16a

The latest issue of Flightpath (a quarterly magazine from the Yaffa stable) just came across my desk. It looks like editor Rob Fox has put together a terrific issue including reports of the Battle of Britain celebrations and a roundup of Airshows (international).

Delving deeper into the magazine, I came across the story ‘Recovering Lacy Smith and his Spitfire’, which includes some great photos of the recovery operation.

You’ll find this magazine on the newsstand now.


And then, of course, I remembered a book that is sitting on my review shelf:

On Laughter-Silvered Wings: A Biography of Henry Lacy Smith
By Alf Batchelder
ISBN: 9781925062120
Price: $18.00 in paperback
Published by the Air Power Development Centre –

Flight Lieutenant Henry Lacy Smith is an Australian World War II fighter pilot whose remains were discovered, still in his Mk. IX Spitfire, in the Orne Estuary in Normandy in 2010.

With the help of surviving relatives, Alf Batchelder has pieced together this young man’s life that ended prematurely in Normandy. The book includes some wonderfully evocative photos from his wartime life.

On 19 April 2011, Flight Lieutenant Smith was laid to rest in Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy. The wreck of his Spitfire is undergoing conservation for eventual display at the RAAF Museum, Point Cook.

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