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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.


Badge, Boot, Button: The story of Australian uniforms


Badge, Boot, Button
The story of Australian uniforms

By Craig Wilcox

Published by NLA Publishing
RRP $44.99 in paperback • ISBN 9780642278937

Beautifully illustrated, Badge, Boot, Button traces the evolution of various civilian, corporate, sporting and military uniforms worn in Australia from 1788 through to the present.

Historian, Craig Wilcox, in conjunction with the National Library, has delved deep into the archives to assemble an amazing array of photographs, drawings, posters, postcards and magazines which richly illustrate the changing nature of uniforms.

Our British heritage dictated the first uniforms worn in Australia. The traditional ‘red coats’ were adopted by the Australian Army until common sense prevailed and they were replaced by a uniform more in tune with the new environment. Wilcox also traces the introduction of the slouch hat which was initially seen as resembling a bush hat but eventually won general acceptance.

Nurses, cricketers, surf lifesavers etc, all have been subjected to radical uniform changes. The evolution of tennis uniforms particularly the women’s, has been a revelation clearly illustrating the greater freedom afforded to women in later years. Likewise the uniforms worn by airline flight attendants. When Virgin Australia made the decision to change their business direction, so their uniforms were sharpened to reflect this change.

This is a highly entertaining book with something to capture the interest of the most discerning reader.

The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO 1975-1989


The Secret Cold War
The Official History of ASIO 1975-1989

By John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley

Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $49.99 in hard cover * ISBN 9781760293215

I know this book has been out a while but I’m still in catch up mode so I thought it is definitely worth airing on my blog. – Peter

This book is an inside account of Australia’s national security intelligence organisation as it grappled with continuing espionage and the rise of terrorist attacks during the years of the Fraser and Hawke governments.

This is the third volume of the Official History of ASIO – the first being The Spy Catchers and the second The Protest Years.

The basis of the work was that the authors were given full access to government records, with no censorship, which does not of course mean that full disclosure of ASIO information and techniques was permitted.

The expected topics of terrorism, subversion and espionage are covered in detail, as is the transition of the organisation under, first, the Fraser government and then the Hawke government.

The table of terrorist incidents on pp.336-337, including the assassination of the Turkish Consul-General in Sydney in December 1980, remind us that acts of terrorism are not recent innovations.

The admission in Chapter 19 that the Russian Intelligence Service succeeded in penetrating ASIO merely confirms decades of suspicion. Australian intelligence agencies were seen as a conduit to US and British operations.

Reading this book, I can’t help but agree with the authors in that the challenges of old “bear an uncanny resemblance to those of today”.

For Love of Country


For Love of Country
By Anthony Hill

Published by Viking/Penguin Random House
RRP $35.00 in paperback
ISBN 9780143799962

Author Anthony Hill writes that this story had its genesis in 2011 following an idea from Bob Sessions, then Publishing Director of Penguin Books Australia, for a work that looked at the long-term effects of the First World war on the returning servicemen and their loved ones but it was the particular tragedy of the Eddison soldier-settler family in the Second World War that caught his attention.

At the close of the First World War, and after surviving a gas attack on the Western Front, Captain Walter Eddison moved his family from war-ravaged Britain to start a new life in Australia. The Eddisons were offered ‘land fit for heroes’ under the Australian government’s soldier-settlement scheme, but the grim realities of life in the remote bush were not easy for a family used to the green pastures of England.

Walter and Marion made the best of their limited prospects, but as they raised their young family on the outskirts of the nation’s newly established capital Canberra, tensions were again simmering in Europe.

When the Second World War broke out, they were forced to confront their worst fears as their three sons headed back to the battlefields they’d tried so hard to leave behind.

Anthony Hill is an experienced storyteller across a number of genres. This has been a project requiring substantial research, resulting in an intimate portrait of a family who sacrificed almost everything for their country.

New book asks ‘Who Bombed the Hilton’?


Who Bombed The Hilton?
By Rachel Landers

Published by NewSouth Publishing
RRP $32.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781742233512

On the 13th February 1978 a bomb exploded in the back of a garbage truck outside the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, during the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM). Three people died as a result of this explosion – rubbish collectors, Alec Carter and William Favell and NSW Police Officer Paul Birmistriw; eleven others were injured. In response, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called out 1,500 Australian Army troops, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters to provide security for the CHOGRM conference. In the period following the bombing the powers of the security forces were expanded.

Despite the passing of nearly 40 years, trials and mistrials, appeals and acquittals, enquiries, inquests, investigations and conspiracy theories we still do not know “Who Bombed the Hilton?”

Dr Rachael Landers makes an impressive attempt to make sense of 400 boxes of documents stored in the NSW State Records Archives. She has crossed referenced her research with documents held in numerous other locations including the National Library and Australian Archives but has stuck to a promise she made to herself that she would “not trust the living” perhaps to the detriment of this book.

Landers draws no firm conclusions and fails to answer the question posed by the title of her book.

However “Who bombed the Hilton?” is a thought provoking, thoroughly researched, well written and sometime humorous account of a crime that saw Australia join the “bomb club”.

Guest blogger Kylie Leonard reviewed this book.

Note: This is not really military history which is the main focus of this blog, but every now and again we deviate from the theme for the interest of our readers.

Flying Kangaroo: Great untold stories of QANTAS


Flying Kangaroo: Great untold stories of QANTAS
By Jim Eames
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $29.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781760113551

This book is a departure from the usual fare of serious military history books that I write about for this blog.

QANTAS, of course, has played a pivotal role in the development of Australia and in lessening the tyranny of distance, a phrase added to the Australian lexicon by Geoffrey Blainey.

Author Jim Eames is well placed to write such a book, having been a press secretary to the Minister for Aviation and a former Director of Public Affairs for Qantas. He has lived and breathed aviation and has an insider’s knowledge of the airline. His insights make for an entertaining read.

It isn’t just a book of anecdotes although there are many of those. Stories that come to mind include the successful effort to smuggle Lady Diana Spencer out of Australia back to England immediately prior to her engagement to Prince Charles. The subterfuge needed to avoid press attention was worthy of a spy thriller.

Stories of Gough Whitlam as a VIP passenger bring a smile as does the story of how the famous line ‘QANTAS never crashes’ made it into the film Rain Man.

There are also stories of some of the great characters of the early days of QANTAS, the like of which we won’t see again in the modern corporate world of aviation.

Most of all, Eames tell a great yarn. I think this is great summer reading.

If you’re an aviation buff, you’ll probably think the same.

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.

For political junkies: The rise and fall of the Australian Democrats


The Rise and Fall of the Australian Democrats
An Eyewitness Account
By Bev Floyd

Published by Boolarong Press
RRP $29.95 in paperback
ISBN: 9781925046304

There may be some readers of this blog who do not remember the Australian Democrats or know about the influence they once exercised in the Senate. The party was started by disaffected Liberal Don Chipp in the 1970s.

Australian Democrats insider Bev Floyd has written an eye witness account of her time in the party, which included a stint as president of the Queensland Division. In researching the book, she interviewed many of the Australian Democrat Senators on the role they and the party played while they held the balance of power in the Senate. Notable names on the list of interviewees include Meg Lees, Cheryl Kernot, Andrew Bartlett and Aden Ridgeway.

My wife Judy spoke with Bev at Dymocks at Carindale recently and came away impressed with her passion to tell this important story in Australia’s political history.

It is available from the publisher’s website – link here – or from good bookstores.

Dangerous Games: Australia at the 1936 Olympics


Dangerous Games
Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics
By Larry Writer

Published by Allen & Unwin
AUD $32.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781743319383

A change of pace here with Dangerous Games – a new book about the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in which a team of 33 Australian athletes competed. Compared with today’s athletes, the team was poorly prepared with limited support – and politically naïve.

As Larry Writer says, this was the Olympics with a ‘rancid underbelly’ meant to demonstrate Aryan superiority except American athlete Jesse Owens rained on Hitler’s parade, so to speak. Writer describes the 100m men’s final in detail, ending with just one sentence: ‘Hitler and his party rose and left the arena.’ Jesse Owens had just run 10.3 seconds to equal the world and Olympic record and stunned the Fuhrer into silence.

This is indeed a tale of innocents abroad and a tale too of Olympic ideals subsumed by the tyranny of the Nazis. It was to be 1948 before the Olympics were held again.

New book: The Man who saved Smithy


The Man who saved Smithy
by Rick Searle
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $33.00 in paperback
ISBN 9781760113407

I got this book late last month from the publishers Allen & Unwin. I know this is not the usual military history fare, but it keeps popping up – this book featured in the latest editions of both Australian Flying and Flightpath magazines. (My wife Judy is publisher of both those magazines as well as Australian Defence Magazine.)

Steve Hitchen, the editor of Australian Flying, is full of praise for the book, especially as Steve attended the announcement by the Aviation Hall of Fame that P G Taylor, the man who is the subject of the book, is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.

As a fighter pilot during the First World War, Patrick Gordon ‘Bill’ Taylor was awarded the Military Cross and discovered a life-long passion for flight and air navigation. Returning to Australia after the war, he became a close friend of Charles Kingsford Smith; they went on to form an incredible flying partnership, setting records around the globe.

It was on a flight across the Tasman in Smithy’s famous Southern Cross that Taylor earned the Empire’s highest award for civilian bravery, the George Cross. With one engine out of action and another fast running out of oil, Taylor repeatedly climbed out of the cockpit to transfer oil to the stricken engine and keep the Southern Cross flying – all this while suspended over the sea in a howling slipstream.

After the deaths of his friends Charles Ulm and Kingsford Smith in separate accidents, Taylor became Australia’s greatest surviving aviator, pioneering vital new trans-oceanic air routes during the Second World War and receiving a knighthood in honour of his services to flight.

The Man Who Saved Smithy is a terrific read and clearly a book that’s going to appeal to a wide cross section of the aviation fraternity.

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