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The Rag Tag Fleet

The unknown story of the Australian men and boats that helped in the war in the Pacific

By Ian W. Shaw • Published by Hachette Australia

RRP $32.99 in paperback • ISBN 9780733637292

In an operation reminiscent of the little ships of Dunkirk, the Rag Tag Fleet tells the story of how a collection of hundreds of Australian fishing trawlers, boats and schooners played a vital role in transporting essential supplies for the US and Australain forces across the South-East Pacific from mid-1942.


The US Army Small Ships Section operation was the brainchild of two American brothers, Bruce & Sheridan Fahnestock in concert with the Australian boat builder, Jack Savage. Sailing under the US flag, these requisitioned craft were able to operate without appearing to be military vessels. And the flat-bottomed craft were able to operate in waters which were too shallow for other boats. This enabled them to unload stores directly onto the beach for example, when port facilities were not available.

But it was the men commanding and crewing these vessels that were the true heroes. Men aged under 18 or over 50, or those deemed unfit for service in the Australian forces. They frequently ran the gauntlet of Japanese aircraft and ships with many paying the ultimate sacrifice. However it was not until November 2009 that the brave Australians were finally recognised for their service.

Ian Shaw summed it up best when he described his story as “being a book about ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.


Abandoned and Sacrificed – The tragedy of the Montevideo Maru


By Kathryn Spurling

Published by New Holland • RRP $29.99 by paperback • ISBN 9781742579092

This is truly the forgotten story of a tragic event which was denied and ignored for decades by successive Australian governments.

The sinking of the Japanese requisitioned freighter, Montevideo Maru, by the US submarine Sturgeon, in 1942 resulted in the deaths of 1053 Australian civilians and Lark Force troops.


The Lark Force was raised in March 1941 and sent to Rabaul, New Britain to defend its strategically important harbour and airfield.

Unfortunately they were young, inexperienced, poorly equipped and untrained for the conditions and were inevitably overwhelmed by a superior Japanese force.

Australian soldiers, local volunteers and civilians were massacred by the Japanese with many of the survivors being crammed aboard the freighter. It left Rabaul for Japan on 22 June 1942 and was never seen again. The tales of the Australian soldiers who managed to escape into the mountains, some after being left for dead by the Japanese, are particularly harrowing.

Families in Australia were not informed of the tragedy that had befallen Rabaul and what followed was decades of official denial and subterfuge.

Kathryn Spurling does not hold back with her criticism of Australian Prime Ministers, particularly Robert Menzies who indicated that the matter should not be pursued because it might endanger trade with Japan.

Spurling had been approached to write this book by the Montevideo Association, but in doing so, to focus on the families and loved ones whose lives were impacted by the event.

Courage in the Skies – The untold story of Qantas in World War II


By Jim Eames

Published by Allen & Unwin

RRP $29.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781760293932

Courage in the Skies traces the story of Qantas in World War II, particularly in regard to the war with Japan.

With the RAAF undermanned and unprepared for a war in our region (Australia had already handed over our newly acquired Sunderland Flying Boats to Britain), Qantas was called upon to provide reconnaissance aircraft in the form of their Empire flying boats for surveillance duties around the Australian coastline.


In an attempt to redress the situation, the Australian Government arranged for the purchase of 19 Catalina flying boats from the United States in 1941. Qantas was prevailed upon to provide experienced aircrew to fly the aircraft back to Australia but none had ever piloted a Catalina. Eames graphically describes the trip and the difficulties they encountered.

Once war broke out with Japan, Qantas was heavily involved in evacuating Australian military personnel and civilians from Java and Singapore, running shuttle flights to Broome. One of these flights carried the AIF Commander, General Gordon Bennett, following his controversial escape from Singapore.

However, Qantas did not emerge unscathed from these high risk shuttle runs. Two Empire flying boats were shot down resulting in extensive loss of life. Qantas also suffered losses later in the war when operating search and rescue missions in New Guinea.

Another impressive and highly readable book from former Qantas senior executive, Jim Eames.


Guarding the Periphery: The Australian Army in Papua New Guinea, 1951-75

By Tristan Moss

Published by Cambridge University Press

RRP $59.95 in hardcover • ISBN 9781107195967

Published as part of the Australian Army History Series, Guarding the Periphery examines the role of the Australian Army units in Papua New Guinea from 1951, when the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR) was re-raised, until independence in 1975. The PIR was “first and foremost raised to defend Australia by guarding PNG, which was then the northernmost periphery of Australia’s territory”.


The period also coincided with increased tensions with Indonesia. Fearing that the PNG-Indonesia border could be subject to incursions similar to those encountered in Borneo, the Australian Government, in 1965, increased the strength of the PIR to two battalions.

Historian Tristan Moss, in his introduction, comments that “Scholarly work on the Australian Army in PNG is scarce and is limited to a handful of narrative regimental histories and theses”.

In writing this book, Moss has sought to correct this oversight.

He explores the operational, social and racial aspects of this unique force. In late 1967 the force contained 2,216 Papua New Guineans and 367 Australians and by 1972, the 2,800 PNG troops constituted one in ten regular soldiers in the Australian Army. And while some Australian soldiers found serving in PNG to be less than desirable, many found the experience of working with PNG troops to be richly rewarding.

Tristan Moss has crafted an invaluable history of an oft-forgotten chapter of the Australian Army.

The Silent Soldiers of Naours – Messages from beneath the Somme

By Donna and Michael Feichtner, Gilles Prileaux and Matthieu Beuvin

Published by New Holland • RRP $35.00 in hardcover • ISBN 9781742579719

Naours is a pretty little French village located a few miles from Vignacourt, the town where the photographic plates which formed the basis of the “Lost Diggers” photos were discovered. Vignacourt was used as a staging area for troops moving up to and back from the Somme battlefields and many Australia troops took the opportunity to visit the famous caves at Naours.


These medieval limestone caves were first used by local villages as a safe haven from marauding armies during the Middle Ages. They created an underground city comprising a labyrinth of tunnels with hundreds of individual chambers. Sealed off and forgotten, they were rediscovered at the end of the 19th Century and soon became a major tourist attraction.

But it was only after the discovery of the “Lost Diggers” collection that Giles Prileaux was alerted to the fact that an incredible collection of graffiti and inscriptions of nearly 3000 WW1 soldiers existed on the walls of the nearby Naours caves.

In a painstaking process, Australian authors Donna and Michael Feichtner and French archaeologists Gilles Prileaux and Matthieu Beuvin have matched signatures with the names and biographies of 46 of the Australian soldiers. Of the 46, 14 subsequently died on the battlefield while some were wounded in action and repatriated to Australia.

This beautifully illustrated book is a fitting memory to those who went to fight in a far-away land.

The Lightning Keepers – The AIF’s Alphabet Company in the Great War


The Lightning Keepers

The AIF’s Alphabet Company in the Great War

By Damien Finlayson

Published by Big Sky Publishing

RRP $34.99 in hardcover  ISBN 9781925520347

I must start by confessing to having never heard of the Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company or of their achievements in the Great War.

So this latest book from Damien Finlayson is one of great surprise and delight. It also continues the story from Finlayson’s previous book “Crumps and Camouflets” which traced the history of Australian tunnelling in the First World War.

For obvious reasons, the name proved too cumbersome for most diggers and so in unofficial circles it soon became known as the Alphabet Company.

Sent to France in May 1916, the company of 260 men soon proved its worth in its support of the frontline tunnelling companies.

Led by Major Victor Morse, the Alphabeticals arrived in France with an array of equipment designed to improve the conditions of the troops working underground. They operated and maintained water pumps, generators, ventilation fans, drilling equipment and other ingenious devices in extreme circumstances.

But it was not only the tunnelers who benefited from their expertise. The Alphabet Company installed many power plants for lighting headquarters dugouts throughout the Western Front.

This is the first account of the Alphabeticals and it is a credit to Finlayson that he has produced such a fine detailed history given that the unit’s original war diary was destroyed at the very end of the war.

The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau


The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau

How Australia’s signals-intelligence network helped win the Pacific War

By David Dufty
Published by Scribe
RRP $49.99 in hardcover
ISBN 9781925322187

Prior to the commencement of the Second World War, Australia had little expertise in signals intelligence and relied upon Britain for any relevant international intelligence. But with the outbreak of war with Germany and the impending entry of Japan, Australia was forced to ramp up its capabilities.

The result was the creation of the Central Bureau located in Brisbane and Melbourne. Its task was to monitor Japanese radio traffic and ultimately, break their codes. While this was achieved very early (an Australian, Eric Nave working with British intelligence in Singapore, actually cracked the Japanese air force code before Japan had entered the war), the Japanese, like all countries, changed their codes on a regular basis and so the work was ongoing.

David Dufty’s absorbing book reveals how Australia built a large sophisticated intelligence network from scratch and how their code-breakers played a vital role in the Battles of Midway, Milne Bay, the Coral Sea, Hollandia and Leyte. He introduces us to some fascinating characters such as Florence Violet McKenzie who founded the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corp, an organisation whose sole aim was to provide signals training for women.

And it was these women who eventually became the nucleus of the navy’s special signals workforce. A fascinating book.

Peter Stanley’s The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War


The Crying Years

Australia’s Great War

By Peter Stanley
Published by NLA Publishing
RRP $44.99 in paperback
ISBN 9780642279057

Not your usual examination of the Great War. Historian Peter Stanley collaborated with the National Library (NLA) to access elements of their collection from that period in time. Stanley believes that the Great War was much more than just the battles at Gallipoli or the Western Front and had far reaching effects on all Australians.

In this interview, published on the National Library’s website, Peter Stanley describes the birth of this book and the pleasure he found in researching little used archives of the National Library. LINK HERE FOR THE INTERVIEW.

Stanley believes that the material he has chosen illustrates that “the Great War meant many things for Australians: triumph and tragedy, unity and division, success and failure, loyalty and disloyalty, idealism, pragmatism, opportunism, principle, creative endeavour and many other aspects of humanity that emerge under the stress of extreme experience”.

Using a broad range of items from the NLA’s collection (cartoons, posters, photographs, leaflets, newspaper items etc), Stanley has woven a fascinating narrative around these images. The images illustrate how divided Australia became as the war progressed. He connects the war overseas (battles at Gallipoli, Fromelles, Passchendaele etc) with the equally bitter war at home over the referendum on conscription. The war “killed at least 60.000 men directly … and ruined the health and happiness of many more and brought division and bitterness lasting decades”.

This is a beautifully constructed book, written with sensitivity and accompanied by wonderful imagery.

Defusing IEDs: Painting the Sand


Painting the Sand
One man’s fight against the Taliban bomb-makers of Helmand

By Kim Hughes GC
Published by Simon & Schuster
RRP $32.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781471156717

I still remember enjoying the British TV series “Danger UXB” which followed the trials and tribulations of a team of British servicemen whose job it was to defuse unexploded ordnance in London during the Second World War. Well, fast forward to 2009 and in real life we have a British team of bomb disposal operators serving in Afghanistan, whose job was to defuse IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

And one of the experts in this field was Warrant Office Class 1 Kim Hughes, who, during a six month tour of duty in Helmand province, defused 119 IEDs despite, on many occasions, being subjected to Taliban ambushes.

The title of this book is apt as the humble paintbrush is a bomb disposal operators most treasured possessions. The paintbrush, used to dust the sand and grit off the IEDs, is described by Hughes as “a fundamental piece of our equipment in Afghanistan”.

But his most arduous day was 16 August 2009 when his team was called upon to clear a minefield where men lay dying.

He dismantled seven IEDs with his bare hands and, for his service and bravery that day, was awarded the George Cross Medal and his actions were described as “the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan”.

A truly amazing story of bravery and courage.



The Killing School
Inside the world’s deadliest sniper program

By Brandon Webb
Published by Quercus. Distributed by Hachette Australia
RRP $32.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781786487513

Brandon Webb, a SEAL sniper and combat veteran, was tasked with revamping the US Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) Scout/Sniper School, incorporating the latest advances in technology to create an entirely new course. In this absorbing book, Webb takes readers through every aspect of the elite training.

But don’t be lulled into thinking this is just another dry instructional manual. Webb’s opening sentence reads: “I have an unusual relationship with death … For me, the face of death is as familiar as the barista at my local coffee shop”. And this sets the stage for a journey following four elite special operation snipers as they move from childhood to battlefield missions, incorporating these techniques developed by Webb.

Webb uses the experiences of Rob Furlong, Jason Delgado and Nick Irving, all experts in their field, to illustrate how this training plays out in real-life combat. Irving, a US Army Ranger, is credited with 33 kills in a single three month tour in Afghanistan. Webb uses this statistic to reinforce his belief in the value of the elite sniper, “a single sniper can sow confusion and insecurity in the minds of thousands of enemy troops”.

The Killing School is a very revealing book.

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