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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
A few daring men in 1918
By Lucas Jordan
Published by Vintage
RRP $34.99 in paperback
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’.
The Australian Military & Tropical Medicine
By Geoffrey Grant Quail
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $34.99 in hard cover
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
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?
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
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.
The Man Inside: The Bloodiest Outbreak
By Graham Apthorpe
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $29.99 in paperback
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.
The 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.
The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War (print)
Commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in 2018 with The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War. This five-book series, now available as an Oxford Value Bundle ($100 AUD), explores Australia’s role in the Great War from a range of fresh perspectives.
The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War Series includes five volumes, packaged together here:
16 Nov 2017