New Books Roundup: Australia’s first military pilot, contemporary war reporting and an orphan of the First World War
Just trying to catch up on my book review bookshelf before it gets completely out of hand. Here are three recent titles that were in danger of getting overlooked, but shouldn’t be.
The High Life of Oswald Watt
Australia’s First Military Pilot
by Chris Clark
Published by & available from Big Sky Publishing
ISBN: 9781925275797 • $29.99 in paperback
This book has a well-credentialed author. Chris Clark graduated from the Royal Military College 1972 and served in the Australian Army Intelligence Corps until 1979. He then worked in various Commonwealth departments before completing a PhD at the Australian Defence Force Academy. From 2004, until he retired nine years later, he was RAAF Historian and Head of the Office of Air Force History.
Variously described as the ‘Father of the Flying Corps’ and ‘Father of Australian Aviation’, Oswald (“Toby”) Watt died in tragic circumstances shortly after the end of the First World War. He had become the Australian Army’s first qualified pilot in 1911, but spent the first 18 months of the war with the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire, before arranging a rare transfer to the Australian Imperial Force. Already an experienced combat pilot, he rose quickly through the ranks of the Australian Flying Corps, becoming a squadron leader and leading his unit at the battle of Cambrai, then commander of No 1 Training Wing with the senior AFC rank of lieutenant colonel.
This extensively researched book attempts to establish the true story of Watt’s life and achievements, and provide a proper basis for evaluating his place in Australian history.
Note: It was fascinating to learn that one of the most recent recipients of the Oswald Watt Gold Medal awarded for “A most brilliant performance in the air or the most notable contribution to aviation by an Australian or in Australia” was Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (ret’d) for his leadership in directing the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 as well as his work to recover Australian passenger remains from MH17 shot down over Ukraine.
The book was first published in 2002. As Anthony Hill writes in his introduction, he was touched by the heartfelt response to the first edition, which brought forward new sources of information. A Melbourne reader found old photographs in his late father’s album, one of which has been reproduced on the cover of this new edition.
A small boy, an orphan of the First World War, wanders into the Australian airmen’s mess in Germany, on Christmas Day in 1918. A strange boy, with an uncertain past, he became a mascot for the air squadron and was affectionately named ‘Young Digger’. This solitary boy was smuggled back to Australia by air mechanic Tim Tovell, a man who cared for the boy so much that he was determined, however risky, to provide Young Digger with a new family and a new life in a new country, far from home.
There is sadly no happy ending of a long, well lived life for Young Digger but this is nonetheless a heartwarming story of love and commitment.
Hack in a Flak Jacket
Wars, Riots and Revolutions – Dispatches from a Foreign Correspondent
Published by Hachette BUY HERE
$29.99 in paperback • ISBN 9780733638787
We tend to take reporting from contemporary war zones for granted as the images appear on our nightly news bulletins, beamed into our safe and peaceful homes in Australia. But it’s worthwhile taking a pause to understand the lengths to which foreign correspondents must go to bring us those stories.
For almost ten years Peter Stefanovic was Channel Nine’s foreign correspondent in Europe, the US, Africa and the Middle East. During that time he witnessed more than his fair share of death and destruction, and carried the burden of those images – all while putting his own personal safety very much in the firing line.
This is a thrilling and revealing account of a life lived on camera, delivering the news wherever it happens, whatever the risk.
The Dust of Uruzgan
By Fred Smith
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $32.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781760292218
This Afghanistan memoir by Fred Smith is not your normal military centric account of the recent conflict.
Smith was different. He was not a regular soldier but a diplomat employed by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT).
He was the first diplomat posted to southern Afghanistan and he was tasked with engaging with the local leaders and to make sense of the complex web of tribal and patronage networks that made things tick in Uruzgan province. In other words, he along with soldiers and representatives from the various countries involved in the province, had to convince the stakeholders to work together to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome.
Smith also tells his story in an easy-to-read laconic style but it is obvious that he retains great affection for the locals.
“We see Afghanistan as a ‘war’, but of course it’s a society. People there make decisions for reasons. My job was to understand these feelings”.
Besides being a diplomat, Smith is also an accomplished musician and while in Afghanistan he wrote several songs about the country and the nature of war. The collection was released as an album entitled “Dust of Uruzgan” and has been performed to much acclaim in front of audiences in both Australia and Afghanistan.
While the debate still goes on as to whether Australia’s involvement made a difference to the Afghan people, Smith is able to rattle off impressive statistics.
“By the time we left Uruzgan, we estimated there were 200 schools in the province, including 38 girls schools, 6 times more than there were in 2006”.
He lists many more in this most interesting journey by Smith.
High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
By Emma Sky
Published by Atlantic Books; Dist. by Allen & Unwin
RRP $39.99 in hardcover
As Emma Sky writes in the preface to this book, this memoir recounts her experiences in Iraq over more than a decade. It started when she responded to the British government’s request for volunteers to help rebuild the country after the fall of Sadam Hussein in 2003.
She initially found herself responsible for Kirkuk, trying to diffuse tensions between the different Iraqis scrambling to control the province. It continued through the Surge when she served as the political adviser to General Ray Odierno, goes through the drawdown of US troops and ends with the takeover of a third of Iraq by the Islamic State.
It is a tale, she says, of unintended consequences, both of President Bush’s efforts to impose democracy and of President Obama’s detachment; of action as well as non-action.
As Robin Yassin-Kassab writes in his review (The Guardian, 6/6/15)
In November 2013, Obama praised “a strong, prosperous, inclusive and democratic Iraq”. By July 2014, Islamic State had driven the Iraqi army out of Mosul and set about cleansing religious minorities from the north. The confused response has so far been led by Iranian-backed Shia militias. The US airforce is back in theatre – and until now failing miserably. The Unravelling is an indispensable tool for understanding the background to this failure.
With the present situation in the Middle East, the more we understand the background and how we arrived at the current instability, the better, in my opinion. Perhaps better understanding will prevent more misguided intervention, but perhaps it is too late for that.
This book is certainly worth reading if this is your sphere of interest. And particularly if this is your sphere of policy influence.
Historian Lynette Silver has uncovered notorious military fakes – ABC Conversations with Richard Fidler
Judy listened to this podcast this morning – she tells me it is fascinating. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone can construct a totally false war history for themselves and use that to gain public recognition.
Lynette Silver is certainly a wonderful sleuth when it comes to ferreting out long forgotten stories and discovering the truth about these matters.
The link below will take you to the podcast which is worth listening to. Lynette also has her own website where you can survey the full quantity of her work – http://www.lynettesilver.com
Better to Die than Live a Coward: My life with the Gurkhas
By Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu
Published by Little Brown; Dist. by Hachette
RRP $ 35.00 in paperback
In the summer of 2006, Colour-Sargeant Kailash Khebang’s platoon was sent to relieve and occupy a police compound in the town of Now Zad in Helmand. He was told to prepare for a forty-eight hour operation. In the end, he and his men were under siege for thirty-one days – one of the longest such sieges in the whole of the Afghan campaign.
Kailash Khebang, who describes himself as an ordinary hill boy from Nepal whose ambition was always to be a Gurkha, recalls the terrifying and exciting details of those thirty-one days – in which they killed an estimated one hundred Taliban fighters – and intersperses them with the story of his own life as a villager from the Himalayas. He grew up in a place without roads or electricity and didn’t see a car until he was fifteen.
Kailash’s descriptions of Gurkha training and rituals – including how to use the lethal Kukri knife, which he initially learned as a young boy – are fascinating.
By Nicholas Irving
With Gary Brozek
Published by NERO/Black Inc
RRP $29.99 in paperback
The imprint – Nero – which has published this book locally is part of the Black Inc group, making this book an unlikely bedfellow for Black Inc’s stock in trade of publishing Australia’s finest writers and poets.
This is the story of Nicholas Irving, and his journey from wayward Maryland kid to the 3rd Ranger Battalion’s deadliest Master Sniper. Irving delivers a gripping first-person account of his development as an expert assassin. Once deployed, his romanticised expectations of life at war are torn apart. Enduring extreme physical and mental conditions, he learns the true meaning of discipline and focus. This book dramatically lays bare the experiences of the sniper.
For more on this book, check out this article in The Daily Mail – link here.
Each ANZAC Day, I think of my father Frank (pictured) who served first in the Middle East and then in New Guinea. He told funny stories about his time in the Middle East (I have his photo album from that time) but fighting the Japanese on the Kokoda Track was much more challenging and demanding.
His story is a familiar one. He was only 19 when the war began in 1939. He was drawn to the Army initially as a means of employment – his Army records continue to record the lie of his birth date which he put back by two years (1918 instead of 1920) because he enlisted in the militia as early as 1936. Clearly he was pretending to be 18, instead of the 16 he actually was.
He was in transport and later Field Ambulance, mainly in the 2/1 Field Ambulance. He did some training on the Atherton Tableland. It was the war in New Guinea and his work recovering the bodies of the fallen that haunted him in his final years. Now we understand it as late onset PTSD.
It happened so often with men who, during the busy years of work, marriage, raising families and all that entails, could bury the brutal psychological experiences and think them forgotten, only to have the memories re-emerge when life was less busy and they had time to think. He passed away in 2004 aged 83.
My mother Doris was a young woman in Sydney during the war – she made uniforms – and recalled how the girls would put notes in the pockets and often the hopeful young men would come looking for the girls, who were clever enough to inspect the hopeful lad from the window before agreeing to meet them. If he wasn’t good looking, she said, they wouldn’t go out to meet him.
And then there is my Uncle Jacky, now in his 90s, who became a prisoner of war in Changi at the age of 17. He won’t speak of it and who can blame him.
I must go back a generation to the 1st Light Horse. My paternal grandfather with the German name of Herman Meisterhans volunteered for fear of internment (he was Swiss, though born in Altona, Germany). Having arrived in Australia as a migrant with an English wife in 1908, by the time he enlisted in June 1915 he already had 6 children. He arrived in the Suez in March 1917 as part of the 23rd reinforcement, was badly injured in the camp on 27 September 1918 when a detonator from an aerial ordnance exploded (accidentally). It was two months before he was off the dangerously ill list.
He returned to Australia in early 1919, but was in Liverpool Repatriation Hospital for months. He was never able to return to his profession of chef because of his injuries – he was a cook in the Army. Had he not survived, my father – the first of the children to be born on his return – would never have been born. Well, you can draw the conclusions.
My maternal grandfather Alfred Woodward enlisted late – July 1918 – possibly because he was in essential work, we believe, and was on board the troopship HMAT A7 ‘Medic’ which sailed from Sydney on 2/11/1918 only to be recalled and returned to Sydney, no doubt to the relief of all.
That’s just a snapshot of my own family’s experiences. I’m sure every family has similar stories, if only they know them.
It was my father who gave up the German name for an Anglicised version, just prior to marrying my mother at the end of 1943. He was not a model soldier – a typical Australian larrikin, often getting fined and yielding up proficiency pay – and going AWOL such as when he married my mother (absent for 5 days). I know it took him several years after the war before he could settle into a job and the routine of civilian life. I know that is a familiar story too.
Today we honour the contribution of all our men and women in uniform.
Lest we forget.