Archive | February 2018

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

Billion Dollar Spy.indd

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.


Books catch up: Stealth Raiders, more myths of the AIF and the military & tropical medicine


Stealth Raiders
A few daring men in 1918

By Lucas Jordan
Published by Vintage
RRP $34.99 in paperback
ISBN 9780143786634

This book is adapted from Lucas Jordan’s PhD thesis, supervised by award-winning historians Professor Bill Gammage (ANU) and Dr Peter Stanley (UNSW), both of whom will be familiar names to readers of Australian history, military and non military.

This book tracks stealth raids, their evolution and their extreme effectiveness which turned the tide of battle on a number of occasions. They were a distinctly Australian phenomenon which relied on the bush skills and bush ‘ethos’ for success.

In 1918 a few daring low-ranking Australian infantrymen, alone among all the armies on the Western Front, initiated stealth raids without orders. These stealth raiders killed Germans, captured prisoners and advanced the line, sometimes by thousands of yards. They were held in high regard by other men of the lower ranks and were feared by the Germans facing them. Using their firsthand accounts, as well as official archives and private records, Lucas Jordan pieces their stories together.

The last word on this book should go to Bill Gammage: ‘Depressingly often we see books promoted as “the forgotten story” or “the untold story” yet Stealth Raiders tells such a story, of a few daring Australian infantry who . . . so demoralised their opponents that they feared to enter the line against them’.


Lessons Learned
The Australian Military & Tropical Medicine

By Geoffrey Grant Quail
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $34.99 in hard cover
ISBN 9781925520224

Geoffrey Grant Quail is certainly well qualified to write this book. In 2014 he was awarded a PhD from the University of Melbourne for his work on tropical disease and the Australian military. For many years, he was a senior consultant and Unit Head at Monash Medical Centre and held academic appointments at Melbourne and Monash universities for over fifty years. In 2014 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to Medical Education.

This book recognizes the efforts of both individuals and the Army’s Tropical Disease Research units since Federation in helping the Army succeed in the battle against tropical diseases. He urges governments to be cognizant of the past and appreciate the need for continuing army medical research so that the welfare of troops sent on deployment in the tropics is preserved and not seriously affected by familiar and emerging diseases.

My own late father could attest to the impacts of malaria (which he caught in New Guinea during WWII). A very debilitating disease.


Bully Beef & Balderdash Vol II
More myths of the AIF examined and debunked

By Graham Wilson
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $34.99 in hard cover
ISBN 9781925520323

The late Graham Wilson delighted in his self-appointed role as the AIF’s myth buster. Sadly he passed away on 17 April 2016 after battling pancreatic cancer for some years.

In this, his second and final volume of Bully Beef and Balderdash, he tackles another eight popularly accepted myths, exposing the ‘Water Wizard’ of Gallipoli who saved an army, dismissing the old adage that the ‘lions of the AIF’ were led by British ‘donkeys’, debunking the Gallipoli legends of the lost sword of Eureka and ‘Abdul the Terrible’, the Sultan’s champion marksman sent to dispose of AIF sniper Billy Sing, and unravelling a series of other long-standing fictions.

Finally, he turns his formidable forensic mind to the ‘lost’ seven minutes at The Nek, the early cessation of the artillery barrage which led to the slaughter of the Light Horsemen immortalised in Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli.

Wilson’s crusade to debunk such celebrated fictions was born of the conviction that these myths do very real damage to the history of the AIF. To demythologise this nation’s Great War military history, he argues, is to encourage Australians to view the AIF’s record on its own merits.

This book is a tribute to Graham Wilson’s extraordinary passion for truth and fact and his drive to set the historical record straight.

Hero or Deserter? New book examines Gordon Bennett and the defeat of Singapore


Hero or Deserter?

Gordon Bennett and the Tragic Defeat of the 8th Division

By Roger Maynard

Published by Ebury Press; Dist. By Penguin Random House

RRP $ 34.99 in paperback

ISBN 9780143783923

On 15th February 1942, senior officers of the Allied forces in Singapore agreed to a ceasefire with the Japanese.

After little more than 70 days of warfare the Allied forces were faced with the inevitability of surrender. More than 15,000 Australian men became prisoners of war.

But there is a story from these events that has divided opinion ever since – the escape of 8th division commander Major General Gordon Bennett.

As Maynard writes, the “events surrounding his departure and the fall of Singapore have tended to overshadow a courageous fighting force who have been much maligned over the years.”

Maynard has drawn on eye witness accounts and Bennett’s own detailed recollections to piece together the story of the fall of Singapore. What he also reveals is Bennett’s stated objective of escaping and that he had begun planning his escape days before the surrender.

Bennett was firm in his belief that he should not fall into Japanese hands and that his greater responsibility was to get back to Australia to warn the government of the danger the country faced.

After the war Bennett faced first a military inquiry and then a Royal Commission, neither of which found in his favour. Maynard has written an excellent account of events that made headlines at the time and divide opinion to this day.

This is an interesting book for readers wanting to read more about the defeat in Singapore. It’s clear that Bennett failed to court favour among his fellow officers – he had been promoted ‘in the field’. When he most needed their support he found it was not forthcoming.

NOTE: This period of the war is of particular interest to me – my uncle was a 17 year old prisoner of war in Changi. He survived and as I write this he is alive and well, approaching his 95th birthday. He will not speak about the war and who can blame him.


New book on the Cowra breakout


The Man Inside: The Bloodiest Outbreak

By Graham Apthorpe

Published by Big Sky Publishing

RRP $29.99 in paperback

ISBN 9781925520491

The breakout of over one thousand Japanese soldiers from the Cowra prisoner of war camp in August 1944 is well known to most older Australians.

The breakout resulted in the deaths of 234 prisoners and four Australian guards. What is perhaps not so well known is that the breakout had its genesis sixteen months earlier when LT Maseo Naka, a junior Japanese officer, escaped singlehandedly from the camp. Naka, unlike most of the inmates, was not content to see out the war in a POW camp.

He was riven with guilt and shame and thought constantly of escape or suicide. Naka’s freedom, however, was short-lived but the ease with which he managed to escape should have alerted the authorities to the shortcomings of the perimeter fence. Sadly this was not the case.

Naka was later court martialled for striking a prison guard.

Graham Apthorpe is the director of corporate services for Cowra Shire and, as noted by Professor Peter Stanley in his foreword, he has been largely responsible for Cowra’s efforts ‘to recall and reflect on its heritage from the Second World War’.

Graham Apthorpe’s account of the Cowra outbreak is outstanding. It deserves a wide readership.

New Book: Pompey Elliott at War – in his own words

PompeyElliottPompey Elliott at War
In his own words

By Ross McMullin

Published by Scribe
RRP $59.99 in hardback • ISBN 9781925322415

Ross McMullin returns to his favourite subject, Pompey Elliott, following his much awarded and applauded 2002 biography of Australia’s most famous fighting general.

In doing so he fulfils an ambition Elliott himself had expressed to publish a narrative based on his wartime letters and diaries but he died before he could complete the task.

Through his letters home and his diary entries Elliott writes evocatively of places he was seeing for the first time. There is a strong sense of connection with place as he writes of Cairo and its people, although in a way that would be seen as politically incorrect a hundred years on.

McMullin has successfully interspersed his own interpretation of events to assist readers with the context of the diary entries and letters.

Elliott counted himself fortunate to have been wounded early on during the landing at Gallipoli compared with the fate that befell many of his men. He later returned to Gallipoli until the successful withdrawal in late 1915. By mid 1916 he was bound for the Western Front.

So what can diaries and letters tell us of these events that later examination and interpretations by historians can’t? For one thing, we see well-known events unfold first hand. For another we hear the writer’s unconstrained opinions, such as Elliott’s opinion of General William Birdwood, describing his appointment as ‘the greatest possible misfortune for the Australian army that [we] were ever placed under his command’, despite his wife Kate advising him not to be so forthright. Yet history records that Birdwood was ‘loved and respected by those who served under him’. Elliott was, it seems, no diplomat.

It is a shock to discover that Elliott committed suicide at age 52, unable to shake off the after effects of war despite an apparently busy and successful post-war life.

Reading Elliott’s first hand first person accounts is to be offered a rare window into the past. Through his keen observations, we see the small inconsequential everyday things set against the backdrop of history-making events.

Organising the vast reservoir of material into a readable format can’t have been easy but McMullin has done an outstanding job. His good fortune is that Elliott himself was an engaging and articulate writer.

For readers interested in this seminal period in Australia’s military history, I think this book will be high on the list of ‘must haves’.

There is a series of forthcoming events at which Ross McMullin will speak about Pompey Elliott and his wartime exploits including

The Finest Thing Yet Done in the War: Pompey Elliott at Villers-Bretonneux

February 21, 2018 @ 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm

Pompey Elliot Memorial Hall 
403 Camberwell Road 
Camberwell, Vic Australia 

Further information:

The Smack Track: new book from Ian McPhedran

SmackTrackThe Smack Track
Inside the Navy’s War: chasing down drug smugglers, pirates and terrorists

by Ian McPhedran

Published by Harper Collins
RRP $32.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781460752920

Ian McPhedran is well known in defence circles through his extensive career in journalism, most recently as the national defence writer for News Corp Australia. In penning this book, he has relied on first hand experience.

He joined the guided missile frigate HMAS Darwin as she embarked on a two week Indian Ocean patrol between Tanzania and the Seychelles, the ship’s seventh and final Middle East deployment, in May 2016.

Prime targets for the operation were drugs and weapons smugglers on what Australian sailors have dubbed ‘the smack track’, hence the title of the book.

Australia is among thirty-one member nations of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) operating in three Combined Task Forces for counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and Gulf security. Within this group of nations, some focus only on counter-piracy rather than narcotics or weapons smuggling.

The issue of jurisdiction complicates matters. There is no scope to prosecute drug smugglers; their illicit cargo is simply confiscated and destroyed.

McPhedran recounts, in graphic detail, the discovery of a heroin haul from one interception with a street value of half a billion dollars. He photographed the packages neatly arranged on the ship’s flight deck.

McPhedran, as an eye-witness to the story he recounts, offers his readers a real insight into the RAN’s operations in the Gulf and the important role Australia is playing in targeting illicit activity on the high seas.

%d bloggers like this: