Reviews

My first book review was published in Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia in December 2002. More than a decade of book reviews! (Well, almost, as there was a big gap in the middle, while I threw myself wholeheartedly into my research.) A full list appears in the bibliography page but I have included a selection here, including the first one that started my reviewing ball rolling.

If you are interested in reading any of these books, contact Alexander Fax Booksellers. If the book is in stock, you can order securely, and if it is not, you can lodge a ‘want’. 

A True Story of the Great Escape. A young Australian POW in the most Audacious Breakout of WWII by Louise Williams

Allen & Unwin, September 2015, 284 pages ISBN: 9781743313893. 

First appeared on Aircrew Book Review 24 March 2016 http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2016/03/a-true-story-of-great-escape-louise.html.

The author of A True Story of the Great Escape is the niece of John Williams, one of five Australians killed on Hitler’s order after the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III. Little was known about John’s fate, other than the fact of his death, and Louise Williams has devoted much of her life to discovering exactly what happened.

Despite the author’s connection to John, this is not just his story, nor is it simply a retelling of the Great Escape from an Australian perspective. It follows the career of John’s friend and fellow escaper Reginald ‘Rusty’ Kierath. It encompasses those who were affected by John’s death, particularly his mother, Mildred. It also chronicles a family’s unresolved grief across half a century. Finally, it tells of Louise William’s journey to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of John’s life and death and provide closure for herself and her family.

Williams faced many challenges. Some of John’s letters were destroyed in storage, there are gaps in the chronology where no records or witnesses exist, and other participants who could have shed light are now dead. To overcome these obstacles, she had to look sideways and around. Supplementing extracts from John’s extant letters, family reminiscences, and official documents, Williams fleshes out the known with vivid genealogical surveys and explorations of his school ethos, his home suburb, surf life-saving and surf sports. John is thus placed within a social and historical framework which illuminates the scanty personal record.

Much of John’s Royal Air Force service is known. He excelled as a trainee pilot and was granted a pre-war short service commission. Instead of a posting to an operational squadron, he became an instructor. After transferring to the Western Desert, he gained experience in RAF squadrons before notching up a series of victories for 450 Squadron RAAF as one of its new flight commanders. He gained a reputation as an aggressive pilot and the culmination of his flying career came when he was promoted to commanding officer. The 23-year-old’s promising leadership stint, however, was cut short when he was shot down by one of his own men in October 1942 and taken prisoner. 

What is not known is why John embarked on the Great Escape and what happened in the moments before his death. These essential mysteries are at the heart of A True Story of the Great Escape. While the author knows that these final secrets will probably never be uncovered, she has provided some clues. Fellow escaper Bertram ‘Jimmy’ James, for example, shares what went on his mind before and during the escape, thus giving some hint to John’s thought processes. Perhaps the most telling clue, however, comes from John’s close-knit family life which is lovingly described (with no sign of rose-tinted glasses). Maintaining the familial link to her son, Mildred’s weekly letters reinforced that John was a much-loved and much-missed son and brother. John diligently wrote back, demonstrating that for him, too, the bonds had not slackened during his long absence.

Captivity is not an easy state but, for many, a continuing connection to home makes it bearable. Paradoxically, that closeness also makes incarceration unbearable and some yearn to go home. When that desire is enacted, the prisoner is willing to take any risk, as John did. But when risk leads to death, grief is more intense than if a beloved son had been lost in battle. There is honour in combat and solace in knowing that he had done his duty in contributing to the undoubted victory but, in breaching the Geneva Conventions which had provided surety of John’s safety, there had been nothing honourable about his murder. Mildred’s grief was bitter and intense. It was never assuaged, and percolated down to the next generation.

A True Story of the Great Escape is a saga of compelling sadness and keen tragedy. Even so, we recognise the joy of a life lived well and full, despite its brevity. Perhaps the central mysteries of John’s death can never be explained but through Williams’ poignant account we gain a firm sense of the man and can imagine why he participated in the Great Escape. Even if we don’t know exactly what happened in his last moments, this moving and well-illustrated story of discovery and the consequences of war leaves us in no doubt about its impact. 



A True Story of the Great Escape. A young Australian POW in the most Audacious Breakout of WWII by Louise Williams

Allen & Unwin, September 2015, 284 pages ISBN: 9781743313893. 

First appeared in Flightpath, February 2016. Volume 27, Number 3.

The author of A True Story of the Great Escape is the niece of John Williams, one of five Australians killed on Hitler’s order after the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III.

This is not simply a retelling of the Great Escape from an Australian perspective. Williams gives considerable attention to John Williams’ background, training and pre-war flying career. He excelled as a trainee pilot and was granted a pre-war short service commission. Instead of a posting to an operational squadron, he became an instructor. After transferring to the Western Desert, he gained experience in RAF squadrons before notching up a series of victories for 450 Squadron RAAF as one of its new flight commanders. He gained a reputation as an aggressive pilot and the culmination of his flying career came when he was promoted to commanding officer. The 23-year-old’s promising leadership stint, however, was cut short when he was shot down by one of his own men in October 1942 and taken prisoner.

John was sent to Stalag Luft III where he became involved in the escape organisation. He was in charge of the carpentry department and was responsible for acquiring bed slats used to shore up the three escape tunnels that were constructed for the ‘Great Escape’. Little was known about John’s life in camp, his rationale for joining in the escape effort or the specifics of his fate. Louise Williams has devoted much of her life to discovering exactly what happened and the result is a warm, compelling yet poignant account of the life and career of an Australian airman, and the events that led to his terrible death. 



  • Beyond Surrender. Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century.
    Beyond Surrender. Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century.
    Beyond Surrender. Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century.

Beyond Surrender. Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century. Joan Beaumont, Lachlan Grant and Aaron Pegram (editors)

Melbourne University Press (MUP Academic), ISBN: (Paperback) 9780522866209, ISBN: (E-Book) 9780522866216, ISBN: (Hardback) 9780522868784 

First appeared on Honest History website 25 November 2015

Beyond Surrender. Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century, edited by Joan Beaumont, Lachlan Grant and Aaron Pegram arose from a 2013 conference which challenged many of the entrenched assumptions of captivity. As well as illuminating unknown or forgotten aspects of the Australian prisoner of war story, the fourteen chapters burrow under the barbed wire to dissect long enshrined myths and their authors, ranging from early-mid to late career historians, also present a diverse Australian captivity experience.

As the editors acknowledge in ‘Remembering and rethinking captivity’, their perceptive introductory chapter to Beyond Surrender. Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century, Australian historiography and public attention have long concentrated on captives of the Japanese. While that has resulted in a significant reshaping of the ‘national collective memory’, an unfortunate consequence has been on-going neglect of prisoners from other wars. Although it includes four chapters dealing with Japanese imprisonment, Beyond Surrender redresses the imbalance by considering wartime confinement across a broad range of conflicts and theatres.

Such diversity emphasises the universality of captivity. For instance, Kate Ariotti’s powerful ‘“At present everything is making us most anxious”: Families of Australian prisoners in Turkey’ may focus on the relatives of Ottoman Empire prisoners, but their experiences also relate to next of kin from other conflicts: all waited, all endured agonies of the unknown, all tried to do whatever they could to alleviate the misery of their loved one, and many joined supportive networks. In his ‘“I hope you are not too ashamed of me”: Prisoners in the siege of Tobruk, 1941’, Karl James demonstrates that Allied and Italian prisoners shared similar emotions on capture and, regardless of nationality, some prisoners were treated with dignity and others were maltreated and humiliated.

A major theme of Beyond Surrender is how prisoners fit into Australia’s ‘national discourse about war’ and, in particular, into the Anzac legend. Prisoners of the Japanese were eventually embraced by it but there was continuing reluctance towards captives of the Reich because it was widely believed that they had suffered less than their counterparts in the Asia-Pacific theatre. As Seumas Spark highlights in his study of repatriates from Italy, this was partly because of their own agency. By sending home cheery letters and downplaying hardships, they fostered a breezy impression of camp life that was at odds with the fighting spirit of the Anzac legend. This is another example of universality as the same could be said of repatriates from Germany and those liberated from European camps.

In her detailed account of the decades-long attempt to provide adequate compensation to former prisoners of Japan, Christina Twomey shows that, while families, support organisations and, more recently, members of the public exhibited compassion towards former prisoners, the Australian government did not. The Prisoners of War Trust Fund, available to ex-prisoners of Japan and the Reich, treated many applicants with suspicion and even contempt, almost forcing them to beg for hardship assistance. After its closure, the government only offered genuine compensation to ex-prisoners of Japan after all costs had been measured, medical research had presented irrefutable results, and other nations had given due recognition. Prisoners of the Reich, however, were initially excluded because of the lingering belief that they had had an easier time. That delayed recognition indicated a significant change in public and civic compassion: as well as acknowledging trauma, there was no longer discrimination based on ‘degrees of suffering’. All prisoners of war are considered equal in Australian eyes and now take their rightful place in national memory and commemoration. 

A significant feature of Beyond Surrender is ‘myth busting’. In his ‘Behind the Colditz Myth. Australian Experiences of German Captivity in World War II’, Peter Monteath challenges fundamental misconceptions by focusing on the realities of incarceration for other ranks who were obliged to work. He also touches on the dangers presented by Nazi security and the harrowing ordeal of the forced march. Aaron Pegram demonstrates that the ‘Colditz Myth’ generalisations have been erroneously applied to Australian prisoners of Germany in the First World War and proves that the popular escape narrative is not representative of their experience. Jennifer Lawless challenges continuing perceptions of Ottoman cruelty to their captives which had been extrapolated from only a handful of sources.

While Lachlan Grant (who contributed two chapters to Beyond Surrender) looks at the reasons for and consequences of unrestricted submarine warfare and Jeffrey Grey contextualises captivity within the Korean War, people are at the heart of this collection. In her survey of the development of the Red Cross ideal and work of the Australian Red Cross, Melanie Oppenheimer emphasises the significant role the organisation played in ameliorating the impact of wartime confinement on prisoners and families. In giving voice to veterans of the Korean War through interview extracts, Jeffrey Grey provides a striking example of putting the person into the narrative. Lachlan Grant looks at prisoner interaction with the local population in ‘Breaking barriers: The diversity of prisoner-of-war camps in Japan and Australian contacts with Japanese civilians’ to reveal the effect of contact with civilians who similarly suffered deprivation and hardship in the end stages of the war. Beyond Surrender’s social dimension is further reinforced by several authors introducing their chapters with personal vignettes and quotes.

The central theme of the Japanese chapters is survival. In ‘Officers and men. Rank and survival on the Thai-Burma railway’, Joan Beaumont points out that while egalitarianism may be one of the fundamentals of the Anzac legend, there was nothing equal about the hardships endured by the prisoners of Japan and examines the factors that resulted in a significantly lower mortality rate for officers. In her case study of Changi, Lucy Robertson considers the Japanese requirement for officer prisoners to manage discipline within their own ranks including meting out punishments for looting, scrounging and trading to acquire food and other supplies. Although officer/men relations were severely damaged, strict adherence to discipline in hygiene and sanitation, for example, did maximise survival. In ‘Breaking barriers’, Lachlan Grant highlights the extremes in camp conditions throughout Japan and, interestingly, given Robertson’s attention to censure for pilfering and trading, points out that in American-dominated prison camps, Australians were thrown into a culture where theft was rife and capitalism was king.

Beyond Surrender challenges entrenched assumptions of captivity and illuminates unknown aspects of the Australian prisoner of war story. It is rich, nuanced and readable. Highly recommended.



  • Shot Down. A Secret Diary of One POW’s Long March to Freedom
    Shot Down. A Secret Diary of One POW’s Long March to Freedom
    Shot Down. A Secret Diary of One POW’s Long March to Freedom

Big Sky Publishing, June 2015. ISBN: 9781925275179. Appeared in Flightpath Volume 27, Number 2, November 2015 - January 2016.

Twenty-year-old Sergeant Alex Kerr had been operational with 115 Squadron RAF as a second pilot for less than a month when, on 10 May 1941, a night fighter attacked Wellington R1379 KO-B. The West Australian was seriously wounded, KO-B was mortally damaged, and the crew had to bale out.

After months in German hospitals, Kerr was incarcerated in Stalag IIIE, Kirchhain, then Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug, and Stalag 357, Thorn and later Fallingbostel. In the final months of the war, he trudged across Germany in the Long March. After narrowly escaping death when the column was strafed by Allied aircraft, he and a mate escaped to Allied lines and freedom.   

Based on his wartime diary, Shot Down includes enough training and operational details to satisfy any aviation enthusiast—his last op is sheer, nail-biting, storytelling magic. Kerr also recounts little known aspects of captivity in Europe. For example, at Stalag IIIE, he and 51 other prisoners tunnelled out of Kirchhain; he was on the run for 10 days. The breakout was the largest, most successful escape attempt to date, yet, surprisingly, little has been written about it. Kerr’s account is thus a valuable addition to escape literature and, because of Australian involvement, our military history. So too is his description of life in Stalag Luft III. Rather than the officer-centric focus of the usual Wooden Horse or Great Escape narratives, Kerr offers a rare NCO perspective of that famous prisoner of war camp.

Shot Down is a fascinating memoir, told with a uniquely Australian voice. Recommended. 



  • Shot Down. A Secret Diary of One POW’s Long March to Freedom.

Shot Down. A Secret Diary of One POW’s Long March to Freedom.

Big Sky Publishing, June 2015, ISBN: 9781925275179. This review originally appeared on Aircrew Book Review 27 October 2015  http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/shot-down-alex-kerr.html

Over the past decade or so, I’ve written about Australian pilots in the air war against Germany, exploring, among other things, how they coped in combat and with the after effects of battle. In some cases, their very identity was linked intrinsically to their capacity to fly and, indeed, for some, their need to fly was so strong they thought little of the cost. I began to wonder how they would manage when ‘wingless’, when they were taken out of operations not through combat injury but because they had been captured.

Even from the first day of the Second World War, Germany claimed airmen as prisoners of war. Australian airmen were a minority. Of the servicemen captured in Europe, 8,591 were Australians, and 1,476 of those were airmen serving in the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force. This equated to approximately seventeen per cent of Australian prisoners. Australian airmen were imprisoned throughout an extensive and ever-growing German prison network and many of those captured in Mediterranean and Middle East actions had previously been incarcerated in Italian camps. Each branch of the armed services managed its own facilities but, even after the Luftwaffe established its own camps, airmen were not confined exclusively in Luft camps. So it was for Sergeant Alex Kerr, a graduate of the Empire Air Training Scheme’s No. 1 Course, who was imprisoned by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe.

Twenty-year-old Alex had been operational with No. 115 Squadron as second pilot on a Wellington for less than a month when, on 10 May 1941, he and his British crew members were on their way home after a successful bombing run to Hamburg, one of Germany’s most fiercely defended targets.

With little warning, a night fighter announced its presence by firing on, and hitting, the rear turret. The pilot made every attempt to evade but the German fighter pilot fired again. Bullets ripped through fabric and metal and Alex was knocked backwards as he was hit. As the aircraft began to burn, as the fabric-covered Wellington was apt to do, he lay there, cursing the German pilot, and, for several seconds, knew the stark fear of the helpless.

Alex lost consciousness. When he awoke, his fear had gone, replaced by a ‘lulling, lethargic calm, a slowness of movement that could well be fatal in an emergency’, and so it would have been if Dave, the rear gunner who had amazingly survived the attentions of the night fighter, hadn’t shoved him out of the stricken aircraft, thus saving his life.

The West Australian’s injuries were so severe there had been talk of medical repatriation. After months in German hospitals, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp. He had had a relatively easy time of it in the hospitals, even quite enjoying the ‘gentle and friendly attitude’ of medical staff and fellow prisoners. He had even valued kindnesses from orderlies working behind the backs of German guards to acquire treats for the patients. But now, as Alex ‘saw barbed wire close up for the first time’ he ‘realised its grim purpose’. No chance of repatriation now. He was just a number.

Alex was incarcerated in Stalag IIIE, Kirchhain, then Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug, Stalag 357, Thorn and Stalag XIB, Fallingbostel. In the final months of the war, he trudged across Germany in the Long March. After narrowly escaping death when the column was strafed by Allied aircraft, he and a mate escaped to Allied lines and freedom. These are the bare bones of a fascinating memoir which, as indicated in the foreword, reveals a man of great resilience and integrity who demonstrated strength, courage and devotion to his mates.

I will just point out here that this memoir is an important addition to Australian military history. Not just because of some of the particular aspects, which I will touch on below, but because there are significantly fewer accounts by Australians taken prisoner by the Germans. For example, in a review article covering books written by or about Australian prisoners between 1980 and 1989, Hank Nelson listed 48 works. Of those, 40 related to prisoners of the Japanese, two dealt with prisoners of Japan and Germany, and six are about prisoners of Germany and Italy. In his 2002 survey of the ‘prisoner experience as literature’, Peter Stanley noted that of the 500+ books in the Australian War Memorial’s Australian prisoner of war catalogue, three-fifths deal with prisoners of the Japanese, prisoners of the Reich account for a third, and those relating to captives of the Italians take up less than a tenth of the shelf space. The proportions have barely changed. To its credit, Big Sky Publishing’s catalogue includes a number of prisoner of war accounts dealing with captivity in Germany.

But back to Alex. Largely based on the diary he kept during imprisonment, Shot Down is written in such a matter-of-fact style that the reader on occasion has to peer through the lines to the full emotion of living in close confinement without a release date in sight, where ‘wingless’ airmen could not contribute to the fighting war effort and were so isolated from credible sources of war news that they could only trust that the Allies would eventually prevail. It is hard to imagine just what being a prisoner of war meant, but I had a go at it, as I wanted to get a good look behind the lines that Alex did not write, and to hear what he did not quite say.

Imagine living in an environment where there was no silence, in such profound intimacy that every breath, every sniff or snort, every fart and stomach grumble, every nightmare, every mood swing, every shift on lumpy palliasse and bed board-deprived bunk, every surreptitious movement under threadbare blanket was heard by every other man in the overcrowded barrack. Even thoughts were not private because, after living in such close proximity, almost anyone could read them and so, the only real solitude was in the cooler. Just imagine the tension building as men from all walks tried to muddle along with people so different in personality that they probably wouldn’t have bothered knowing them in ‘real life’. Consider trying to be cheery, friendly and tolerant when all you wanted to do was wring the bloody neck of the bloke who spilt the last teaspoon of the communal store of sugar. Imagine having to fill your time with any sort of busy-work just so you wouldn’t go crazy with inactivity. It almost defeats me to picture it, and I am sure it would defeat me to live it.

Alex, however, was made of much sterner stuff than me and despite everything, fared so well that he gained from his experiences. He also demonstrates that community can exist in enforced communal living. Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this memoir that Alex portrays a balanced account of life in a German prisoner of war camp. Monotonous, with great deprivation, yes - if not for regular Red Cross parcels, the men would have starved on German rations - but to compensate, lifelong friendships developed and were nurtured, and the foundations of many future careers were laid. In addition, much was discovered about goodness, kindness and humanity, and evil, in enemy, friend and self.

Like many other camps, Stalag IIIE had some benevolent guards who treated their charges reasonably well along with its share of tyrants ‘who had maltreated us’. Indeed, ‘Stalag IIIE was a camp in which violence had earlier been used and prisoners have been bashed by guards and subjected to harsh treatment ordered by the commandant.’ And so, after they had left Kirchhain, when Alex and his fellow prisoners were asked the names of the Germans who had traded with them, they handed in a list which included only the names of those who had mistreated them, knowing full well that the malefactors would be punished severely. To Alex’s credit, he does not let himself off the hook by refraining to include a story where he and his friends, perhaps understandably, exact retribution, especially when it seems he is not entirely sorry for his part in the scheme: ‘In retrospect it is probable that most of us felt rather guilty about the result’. And here is one of the reasons I like this memoir so much. There is nothing pretentious or literary about it. It is simple and unassuming and Alex is honest and open.    

Counterbalancing the darker side of humanity is a story which reveals true kindness and highlights all that is good about the ‘brotherhood of man’. Harry Calvert, who was older than Alex, had developed a well-earned reputation as Stalag IIIE’s most successful trader. As Alex sat on his bed contemplating how to celebrate his 21st birthday, Harry poked his head in the door: ‘I heard it’s your birthday today’. There were no secrets in a prisoner of war camp. Alex confirmed that it was indeed his birthday. ‘Happy birthday, Aussie’, Harry said, as he placed a precious egg in Alex’s hand. It was the first egg the West Australian had seen for a year, and a gift from a man Alex had barely met, even within the close confines of a prison camp. It was a gesture of compassion and generosity he would never forget.

As well as revealing the positives and negatives of the human condition and how many adjust to life without liberty, Alex recounts little known aspects of captivity in Europe. For example, he and 51 other prisoners tunnelled out of Stalag IIIE. He was on the run for ten days. He never forgot that ‘feeling of triumph and excitement’ during that, and subsequent escape attempts. ‘It was an exhilarating feeling knowing you were winning a dangerous cat and mouse game with maybe a disastrous result if you lost. The adrenaline was coursing through your veins almost continuously.’ Alex was one of the last to be recaptured. Fifty-one of the escapees were returned to camp. But not Harry Calvert, Alex’s birthday benefactor. He was the only casualty, shot for no apparent reason.

The Great Kirchhain Breakout was the largest, most successful escape attempt to date, yet, surprisingly, little has been written about it. Alex’s account is thus more than just a wartime memoir. It is a valuable addition to escape literature and, because of Australian involvement, our military history. So too is his description of life in Stalag Luft III. Rather than the usual officer-centric escape focus of the prolific Wooden Horse or Great Escape narratives, Alex offers a rare NCO perspective of everyday life and friendship in that most famous of camps.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I am interested in how men cope in captivity, and I was concerned that perhaps Alex had not ultimately coped with four years of imprisonment. This wasn’t because Alex had confessed to it (quite the contrary as I will discuss below) but because of the lack of emotion in some parts, such as Harry Calvert’s death, and a dispassionate style which might indicate that nothing had touched him. But Alex had coped and did so remarkably well. His prison life was full of activity such as arts and crafts, sport and music. When the prison education system was established, he signed up. Not only did he relieve the monotony of camp existence through study, but he received the sort of education few Australian lads could ever dream of attaining. He received a Certificate in Social Science from Oxford University (he did so well in this that Oxford considered the standard he had achieved under camp conditions to be equivalent of that required for University Honours) and a Bachelor of Science and Economics degree from London University. If anything, the dispassionate style is a reflection of the fact that Alex felt that his prisoner of war years had not been overly harrowing; ‘they did not seem so important to me at the time’. Yes, Alex had managed well in captivity and there are a number of reasons for this.

At the beginning of the book, when he talks about his formative years, Alex tells of his inbuilt sense of optimism, how faced with new, unexpected experiences he just got on with it. For example, when he was pulled from school because his father’s income had suffered during the Depression, he ‘commiserated with Dad over his loss’, found a job post haste, enjoyed what it had to offer and ‘matured quickly and tasted many new facets of life … made new friends and tried my hand at a lot of new activities…’ Alex could have easily written that at the end of the book and it would have been equally as apt because that is exactly what he did in a succession of prisoner of war camps. He clearly made the most of his camp life and the new friendships it offered. Friends coped better in captivity. They shared food and memories and supported each other. But camaraderie was more than just a means of survival for Alex. He had a gift for friendship, both giving and receiving and his relationships with crewmembers and fellow prisoners lasted a lifetime and beyond. In many ways, this memoir is a testament to friendship.

Shot Down is also a testament to optimism and, looking back, Alex believed his inherent optimism enabled him ‘to bear the vicissitudes of incarceration with fortitude’. Alex would be too modest to claim it, but I think his fellow prisoners’ ability to cope with seemingly limitless confinement would have been enhanced by his natural buoyancy.

That Alex considered his prison experience not so much ‘traumatic but rather exciting and overall beneficial’ is another reason why he survived captivity. So too is his attitude. ‘I had taken a positive view of life and had been determined to take every opportunity while in camp to improve my lot in life’. Apart from planning for his future through education, he grew in self-confidence, assumed leadership roles and developed important life skills. Without doubt, he ‘weathered the storm well’ and ‘came out of prison thankful that my life had so miraculously been saved’. Indeed, Alex admits that being shot down and imprisoned were perhaps the best things to ever happen to him. He survived for one, whereas many from Bomber Command did not. The statistics of his own training group are particularly telling. Of the forty members of his course, only twelve men were alive at the end of hostilities, and nine of them had been prisoners of war. Fully aware of how fortunate he had been, after returning home he promised himself to ‘make the most of the reprieve I had been given. I would live every day to the fullest’. And he did. The former newspaper office boy went on to enjoy a career in academia, where he became a professor and ultimately Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Alex’s achievements and life attitude firmly demonstrate that his years spent in captivity were not wasted.

There is perhaps another reason why Alex coped so well in the post-war years. He may not have been entirely sorry for ‘dobbing’ in the cruel camp personnel but he bore no real grudge against those who acted with decency and later accepted the essential humanity of those of the enemy who, like him were just doing their wartime job. He may have cursed the Luftwaffe pilot who shot him down but Alex contacted him after the war and they corresponded. It is clear to me that there was a measure of reconciliation, given and accepted, in their exchange of letters and experiences. ‘I got a good feeling to get so friendly lines from a former adversary’, wrote the former night fighter. For Alex, along with reconciliation, came the answers to questions which had puzzled him for half a century.

Hard core aviation enthusiasts may turn away from this memoir because it is a largely an account of captivity. That would be a mistake. The book includes enough training and operational details to satisfy any aviation nut - Alex’s account of his last op is sheer, nail-biting, storytelling magic. Shot Down is also an incredibly rich life story that even offers a gentle lesson in making the most of difficult circumstances. It is also a significant addition to Australian military, aviation, and prisoner of war history. Uplifting and recommended. Read it.

 

 



  • Bearing Witness. The remarkable life of Charles Bean, Australia's greatest war correspondent.

Peter Rees. Allen & Unwin: Sydney, 2015. Appeared in online edition of Issue No. 197, July-August 2015 of the ADF Journal.

Charles Edwin Woodrow (CEW) Bean, the man who wrote six of the volumes of Australia’s Official History of the War of 1914–1918 and edited the other six, left a significant archive of writings. That archive, however, is so substantial that the casual enquirer could not hope to master even a small portion of it. Peter Rees has delved into the monumental accumulation of records (including 226 volumes of diaries) and mastered it to such an extent that in Bearing Witness: the remarkable life of Charles Bean, Australia’s greatest war correspondent he is able to get inside his subject’s head.

Not only that, Rees, whose career path mirrors Bean’s in many ways—he too moved from journalist to history writer—was able to draw on his own considerable experience to explain and interpret Bean’s. The result is that the reader feels as if he or she knows the subject intimately in this deeply-researched, well-written and utterly accessible biography.

With so much primary source material relating to Bean’s work as a war correspondent and official historian, the temptation would be to focus on that period of his life. It is testament to Rees and his publisher that they agreed not to curtail a discussion of Bean’s formative years because in this section the reader discovers the basis of Bean’s moral code which informs his writing practice and commitment to accurately bear witness. ‘Be truthful’, Bean’s mother exhorted the six-year old boy. Be ‘morally brave’. Be a ‘good, charitable man’. By describing the world of Bean’s childhood and youth, his family and influences, and his early accomplishments, the reader clearly sees Bean’s maturing intellectual honesty, his morality and his dogged pursuit of truthful reportage.

The trajectory of Bean’s career as war correspondent and historian is well known. There is no need to discuss it here. What perhaps is less known is the development of the personal philosophies which underpin his writings, especially the Official History. Rees discusses Bean’s perception of mateship, nationhood, and belief in the goodness of his fellow man. We discover how reporting the Great War, at the same time as gathering material for the future task of writing the official history, created conflicts with the military censors and even his own writing practice.

For instance, criticism was relegated to his war diaries/notebooks (‘it made you mad to think of the dull, stupid, cruel bungling that was mismanaging the medical arrangements’, for example) and the ‘bright side’ of the war was the foundation of his published newspaper despatches, which he referred to as ‘letters’. Taking only the diaries or despatches as source documents, Bean realised, would lead to a skewed appreciation of his war. ‘If ever it [his diary] were used it would have to be used most carefully.… I can’t write everything here as well as in my letters’. A useful warning to any historian: look at the entire body of evidence, rather than sources in isolation.

Bean may have edited the criticisms from his despatches and bowed to the strictures of censorship but Rees was not tempted to brush over the negative aspects of the war correspondent’s character. Late at night on 25 April 1915, a day that started well before dawn and saw the death of 101 men in the first wave of landings alone, the reader catches a rare glimpse of an insensitive Bean. Noisily constructing his own dugout, he bridled at the complaint of a neighbour, a no doubt exhausted signaller, who could not sleep from the racket Bean was making.

Rees also shows us that, on occasion, Bean failed to live up to his mother’s plea to be morally brave. After a raid in June 1916, where members of the 7th Brigade captured soldiers from a Prussian infantry regiment, Bean recorded that the Australians and their prisoners were caught in shellfire. One of the panicked Prussians struggled and could not be subdued. The Australians cut his throat. Two more prisoners ‘did not seem to understand what was required of them—at any rate they didn’t do instantly what was required of them—and were shot on the spot’. We can well understand why Bean the reporter would not include this incident (a potential war crime?) in the subsequent despatch home but should not Bean the historian have included it in the official history?

For the most part, however, Bean was morally brave in his reporting, struggles with the military, and history writing. Rees is also morally brave because it takes courage to portray all sides of a man who has long been lauded. Lucy Bean would have been just as proud of Rees and this warts-and-all, vices and virtues biography, as she was of her son.

If you want a history of the Gallipoli campaign or the battles on the Western Front, this book is not for you. If you want to discover more of the man who reported those battles and constructed the first detailed history of them, you could do no better than to read Bearing Witness. It is a well-rounded, revealing biography of Bean the man, reporter, historian and passionate advocate of Australian nationhood. Recommended. 



  • Australia and the War in the Air

Michael Molkentin. Oxford University Press: South Melbourne, 2014. Appeared in online edition of Issue No. 196, March-April 2015 of the ADF Journal.

Dr Michael Molkentin believes good commemoration involves more than the emotion and sentiment currently rife in works purporting to honour the Great War. It needs to begin and end with sound history: rigorously researched and well-written history, which does not claim to be definitive because ‘definitive’ often leads to intellectual stagnation. Above all, history has to be honest, even if the truth revealed is unpalatable.

Australia and the War in the Air, the first volume of the Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, passes Dr Molkentin’s tests. It is rigorously and broadly researched, drawing on private records as well as material from Australian, British, Canadian and German archives, including items not available over 90 years ago to the official historian, Frederick Cutlack. Pitched to a general, interested readership, this is exceptionally well written. It is tightly argued with no digression, and no padding or wasted words.

Much as it is tempting to say that this is the definitive work on Australia’s aviation experiences in the Great War, it is not—and Molkentin makes no such claims. Australia and the War in the Air only touches on the technical aspects of machinery and hardware and, while the author draws on the Australian airmen’s personal experiences to illustrate points, it is not about the men. Even so, Molkentin does not ignore their stories, finely blending them into the narrative. It is a technique he developed in Fire in the Sky (which is about the men) and again expertly deploys.

Australia and the War in the Air focuses on the strategic and operational aspects of air warfare, looking at the subjects from a number of different perspectives, such as policy, political organisation, leadership, training and logistics. Importantly, Molkentin ‘positions the air war’s modern Australian dimension in the imperial and operational contexts that define it’. This is perhaps where the truth is unpalatable.

It would be a natural tendency to think Australia played a key role in the Great War’s aerial arena given an ongoing, falsely-premised belief in the distinctiveness and independence of Australian Flying Corps (AFC) operations. Our involvement, however, was only small. But it was valuable. Indeed, Molkentin acknowledges that ‘although small in size, the breadth of Australian participation permits an evaluation of the role aviation played in the war; that is, the contribution it made to the empire’s effort to engage and destroy the armies of Germany and her allies’. He then expertly analyses and well illustrates that contribution including, for instance, a case study of the AFC’s 2nd and 4th Squadrons to highlight the significant part fighter aircraft played during the climactic battles of 1918.

Following a roughly chronological format, Molkentin covers the origins of Australian military aeronautics, including the foundation of military flying training at Point Cook; the evolution of Australian military aviation organisation and administration; recruitment and training of the AFC; and Western Front and desert operations. He stresses that Australian participation was not limited to the AFC and notes that many men joined the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service and later the Royal Air Force, which was formed in 1918 after the amalgamation of the other two.

Molkentin concludes with a commentary on the legacy of Australia’s wartime involvement, touching on the prevalence of Great War airmen in civil and military aviation in the interwar years, with a small cadre reaching the peak of their careers in the Second World War. Also of note is his careful discussion of air power which, as a concept, did not exist prior to the Great War, nor in the earliest stages of air warfare. Aeroplanes were there initially to supplement land forces. Accordingly, it is anachronistic to analyse the effectiveness or otherwise of air power in the war’s early stages. Appropriately, however, Molkentin shows the reader the gestation and evolution of the principles of air power.

Australia and the War in the Air has good maps, as well as an abundance of decent-sized photographs illustrating the text which Molkentin sourced from private hands and public archives, including many previously-unpublished ones from the Museum of Australian Army Flying’s collection. These photos are a credit to the museum and its volunteers who have done much diligent work to restore them. All in all, this is a quality production: case bound and stitched with appendices, index, endnotes and a bibliographic essay.

The latter is not usual but, as Series Editor Dr Jeffrey Grey explains, it was included to comment on the strengths, weaknesses and themes encompassed by the subject’s secondary literature. In a sense, this was not necessary as Molkentin deftly reveals his opinion about some of his secondary sources (for instance, he refers to Trenchard’s ‘enamoured biographer’ and A.J. Barker’s ‘classic’ account). I must admit I prefer bibliographies, as I treat them as handy source summaries from which I can springboard to further research. However, I enjoyed Molkentin’s discussion so won’t bemoan the absence of a traditional bibliography. ...

In his preface, Dr Molkentin doffed his hat to the work of former RAAF Historian Dr Chris Clark, and hoped that Australia and the War in the Air would prove a fitting prequel to Dr Clark’s The Third Brother (Allen & Unwin, 1991). It is more than a worthy prelude. This fine work is an important part of an historical and literary continuum of Australia’s Great War air studies, starting with Cutlack’s The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War 1914–1918 (Angus and Robertson, 1923 and reprints) and including both The Third Brother and Molkentin’s own Fire in the Sky (Allen & Unwin, 2010). Highly recommended.



  • Kokoda Air Strikes
    Kokoda Air Strikes
    Kokoda Air Strikes

Appeared in Issue No. 195 of the ADF Journal.

Dr Anthony Cooper’s second book, Darwin Spitfires: the real battle for Australia, well-deservedly received the Northern Territory Chief Minister’s NT History Book Award. Kokoda Air Strikes: Allied Air Forces in New Guinea, 1942, his third book and second dealing with aspects of the RAAF’s air war in the Second World War, also deserves accolades.

Here, Cooper casts a careful and occasionally—but understandably—cynical eye over the operations of the Allied air forces in the crucial New Guinea campaigns. He has taken on a formidable task. Rather than focus on specific topics, he offers a synopsis of existing Australian, Japanese and American research. Beginning with the conquest of Rabaul in January 1942, he presents the operations in the South West Pacific theatre—Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay and Guadalcanal—as a single air campaign.

Importantly, he takes it further and discusses the battle for New Guinea as part of a broader, interconnected land, air and sea campaign with significant contributions by both the RAAF and American air forces. He confidently acknowledges that some of his conclusions may be open to challenge and welcomes stimulating discussion.

In presenting a survey of significant operations within a campaign—and one of the best to my mind is the excellent ‘Losing Lae and Salamaua’ narrative—there is little place for individual stories. Indeed, the reader should not expect a human focus—the clue is in the title—and yet Cooper manages to include key vignettes which constantly reinforce the human cost of a campaign which had to contend with incomplete training, unsuitable aircraft and poorly set up and exposed airfields.

The opening story highlights the inadequacies and the sterling bravery of the men who carried out their duty despite exhaustion, sickness, poor morale and the possibility of capture and murder. Often, Cooper employs just the lightest touch in the briefest mention of a personal tribute to spotlight the legacy of continuing losses, such as Medical Officer Deane-Butcher’s recovery of Sergeant Richard Granville’s body from wreckage, and the Australian flag, woven by the women of Itikinumu Plantation, placed on his coffin.

Cooper presents a forthright and clearly articulated argument. If errors of judgment were made by commanders, he does not soft foot around them. He pulls no punches and thoroughly dissects their failures. This is a significant strength, as is his defence of commanders such as Lukis, Brett and Scanlon who have received unjust criticism by other commentators. As Cooper says, ‘Credit where credit’s due!’ and his reassessments are soundly based and utterly fair.

Another highpoint is the selection of photos. The author’s obvious commitment to sourcing high-quality photos, regardless of the cost, pays off. Rather than relegating them to a glossy photo block, which limits the number of inclusions, photos are incorporated into the text, thus illustrating the story they belong to. The high-resolution Australian War Memorial images allow for this. Poor-quality personal album pics would not have worked in this reader-friendly approach.

Complementing the 45 exceptionally well-chosen images are detailed captions which add more to the story and clearly demonstrate Cooper’s broad knowledge of every aspect of this campaign: men, machines, equipment and terrain. Indeed, the breadth of Cooper’s knowledge is impressive.

He ranges from aircraft specifications and ensuing strengths and limitations, through to pilots’ living conditions and inadequate kit, to tactics and strategy, and high-level machinations and international relations.

Readers will want to consult this remarkable history time and again and happily NewSouth Books have an eye for presentation. The book is stitch bound so will survive frequent and hardy reading, and is on good-quality paper. The only downside is that it is a big volume and some publishing compromises had to be made. The main casualty was the source notes. (Cooper wryly refers to the dispassionate ruthlessness involved in fitting a campaign this size into one not-overlarge book.)
Happily, there is a good index and Cooper has not overlooked the fact that many readers want to springboard to further reading from authoritative accounts such as this. He has put glossary and extensive endnotes on his website . Maps and a formation summary, however, maintain their place in the book.

Kokoda Air Strikes: Allied Air Forces in New Guinea, 1942 is highly detailed, finely argued and a stimulating read. It canvasses the source material well and, with such well-reasoned analysis, may well be considered the new de facto official history of Australia’s part in the New Guinea air campaign. Highly recommended.



Everyone knows the story of Bert Hinkler, the first to fly solo from England to Australia. Or they think they do. They certainly don’t know it in detail and many would be surprised at the extent of his complicated personal life. In Hustling Hinkler, Darryl Dymock reveals the life and career of the Australian aviation pioneer who had been captivated by flight from boyhood. Bert Hinkler built his first plane while still a teenager and he dedicated his life to flying and aerial adventure even at the expense of a proper job and financial security.

I am not particularly keen on ‘creative non-fiction’, where the narrator purports to know exactly what someone is doing and thinking, even when that is unknowable, such as during Hinkler’s last hours. Dymock’s prologue opens with this technique but the main work is more soundly based, drawing on a wide range of source material including Hinkler’s unpublished ‘Eighteen Years of Flying: dips into my diary’, and letters to his mother.

Dymock is selective with quotes, weaving them into the narrative rather than chunking them in, and they reveal much about Hinkler’s vibrant personality and humour, including his interesting turns of phrase and flexible spelling. Hustling Hinkler is pitched towards the broader reading public rather than the technically minded aviation enthusiast. The title, subtitle and back cover blurt ‘part adventure, part mystery and part tragedy ... the unforgettable story of Bert Hinkler’s astonishing life’ all attest to this. Nevertheless, Dymock’s research is transparent with decent endnotes and a thorough bibliography, demonstrating that popular history can be well grounded.

One chapter deals with Hinkler’s military service and Dymock highlights how his letters home are at odds with the mayhem of battle. Part of this belongs to the tradition of not worrying your people about the dangers of warfare. But it is partly because, to him, military service was the ends to the means of learning to fly and, even as an observer, he was closer to his goal and the prospect thrilled him. From observer to air gunner, and being awarded the Good Conduct Badge 1st Class and the Distinguished Service Medal for his part in sinking a German light cruiser. He had just about given up hope of qualifying for a pilot’s licence with the Royal Naval Air Service when he was recommended for pilot training. He received his wings in July 1918.

The bulk of this biography covers Hinkler’s flying achievements but Dymock does not write about Hinkler in isolation. He touches on the international brotherhood of the air which developed almost from the beginning of powered flight. He highlights the rapidly changing aviation world. Records fell almost as soon as they were made, better aircraft were constantly being developed, and new gimmicks were needed to maintain public interest.

Hinkler gained his fame for his first solo flight from England to Australia but failed to find a place in aviation the aviation industry despite public acclaim. His ambitions fell in the face of technological change and public fickleness as much as through his belief that he could walk into a position without formal qualifications or current industry experience. Dymock emphasises the fleeting nature of Hinkler’s fame, signified by the demise of ‘Ibis’, the monoplane he designed in 1930, which was abandoned and then languished for years before being scrapped in 1959, ‘without ceremony, and due recognition of its significant place in Bert Hinkler’s heart and history’.

Dymock has produced a competent, well-written, engaging and accessible biography, where the research has been seamlessly integrated. Too much technical detail can bamboozle and it is to Dymock’s credit that he never allows necessary explanations to affect his pacy narrative. Maps of the flights would have been helpful but Dymock has almost made up for their absence by including modern place names along with the 1920s/30s names. The selection of photos is good, if a little sparse, but perhaps this is explained by the fact that Hinkler’s fame and thus interest as a photographic subject only lasted five years.

I enjoyed Hustling Hinkler and recommend it as a ‘good read’ and sound biography.



  • Air Power Development Centre, Office of Air Force History, Canberra, 2013, Card covers 84 pages b&w photos, colour maps.
    Air Power Development Centre, Office of Air Force History, Canberra, 2013, Card covers 84 pages b&w photos, colour maps.
    Originally published by Aircrew Book Review

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was one of the landmark battles of Australia’s Pacific war. Running from 2–4 March 1943, it was critical to Allied success in the Second World War’s New Guinea campaign. Churchill considered the Battle ‘a striking testimony to the proper use of air power’. Douglas MacArthur described it as ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the South West Pacific. Lex McAulay described it as one of the war’s ‘great historical moments—a land battle fought at sea and won from the air’. For Australia it was much more. Victory in the Bismarck Sea finally eliminated any attempt by the Japanese to regain the initiative in New Guinea, and subsequently invade Australia.

Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the pivotal battle, the Department of Defence’s Air Power Development Centre has published this concise historical case study of the Battle. As you would expect from the Office of Air Force History’s then Deputy RAAF Historian and current Deputy Director Research, it is well written, soundly researched and firmly based on primary source documents, particularly those held in the Office of Air Force History’s research collection. Dr Gilbert draws on new material and reexamines existing evidence which accounts for some differences in interpretation between this and other descriptions of the Battle. Importantly, Dr Gilbert looks at plans and preparations from both the Allied and Japanese perspective and addresses technology, doctrine, training and intelligence in his discussion. Supplementing the 76 pages of text and eight page bibliography are many scarce American and Australian photos, colour artworks and maps.

After describing the course of the Battle, Dr Gilbert focuses on the significant outcomes and lessons learned, especially in relation to air power and effective cooperation between army and air force. He refrains from favouring the Australian contribution over that of American as he illustrates an effective coalition of Allied forces. He also compares losses, and studies the effects of the lost battle on Japanese strategy. As much as possible he lets the protagonists speak in their own words. A slim book, yes, but in his succinct account of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Dr Gilbert more than creditably covers all the salient points and offers even more to consider. For those who want to springboard to more detailed studies, he provides a suggested reading list in addition to his secondary source material.

Pilgrims cannot visit the site of the Battle and relatives cannot grieve the fallen in situ because an encounter between ships and aircraft leaves no visible traces. There are no monuments or dedicated memorials to the 15 minute battle which was a major turning point in Australia’s defence. In the centenary year of the Battle, Dr Gilbert has written a fitting tribute to the skill of the Australian and American men involved. Recommended. 

 



  • Allen & Unwin, April 2013, Card covers trade paperback size 424pp b&w plates. ISBN: 97817417520706
    Allen & Unwin, April 2013, Card covers trade paperback size 424pp b&w plates. ISBN: 97817417520706
    Originally published in Australian Defence Force Journal. Journal of the Australian Profession of Arms, Issue No. 191, 2013, online edition

In June 2012, the Bomber Command Memorial was dedicated in London. Those present witnessed 55,573 poppies tumbling from a Lancaster, one for every Bomber Command man killed during the war. Peter Rees mingled with the 106 Australian survivors who attended that significant and moving event. Just as the poppies symbolised the souls of those lost to Bomber Command operations, Lancaster Men. The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command represents the collective experiences of the Australians who fought, survived and died in the RAF’s bomber war.

Rollo Kingsford-Smith, Jack Davenport, Noel Eliot, Jim Rowland, Jack Mitchell, Mickey Martin, Alick Roberts, Blue Connelly, and Ted Pickerd are just a handful of the men who appear in this fine account. Peter follows the general course of the war and covers the full gamut of their wartime episodes. Pathfinders, Dambusters, Great Escapers are included and even Q for Queenie’s harbour bridge stunt gets a mention. He discusses the bombing of Dresden, long considered the darkest moment of the bombing campaign, and places it in a new perspective. He includes historical commentary where appropriate, but the personal stories are the heart of his book. Jack Mitchell’s story for instance, encapsulates the wartime experience of many. ‘I wonder if this [a stick he ‘planted’ on Tasmania’s Sugarloaf] will be here when I come home’. Some subjects, like Ted and Rollo appear and reappear during the course of the war. Others only appear once, illustrating one aspect of the vast Bomber Command experience.

Peter shows the readers how close these men became in their shared experience and commitment to bringing the war to the enemy. Their dedication to their fellow aircrew was exemplary. Take, for example Rawdon Middleton’s heroic last flight, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, or the dramatic night when Geoff Smith gave up his usual position of mid-upper gunner to a young chap on his first op. Now, there is a tale. When their Lancaster was hit, the new boy’s turret was put out of action and his leg was broken. Even so, he managed to crawl from the turret to beat out an oil fire with his helmet. Then he tried to make it to the pilot to tell him of the damage. He was found unconscious by the wireless operator. Geoff Smith, in the rear turret that night, had also been injured. His leg was shattered but he refused to leave his position; with the mid-upper gunner and turret out of commission, he was the Lanc’s only defence. In the cockpit, with instruments all but useless, the pilot skilfully evaded enemy AA and nursed the crippled bomber home. He was unable to make a normal landing because the bomb bay doors were wrecked; he had to belly land on a damaged undercarriage. If the selflessness of Geoff and the young mid-upper gunner were not enough, here is another incredible demonstration of the strong ties of this crew. The bomb aimer and the wireless operator lay down beside Geoff to protect him in case they crashed. The only blemish in this beautiful and remarkable testament to both courage and friendship is that the other gallant men in this crew are not named. That flaw aside, this is simple, restrained yet powerful storytelling at its best.

I had the pleasure of reading and commenting on an early draft of this book and was disappointed to hear that Peter’s original title, All the Fine Young Men, had been rejected by Allen & Unwin, who decided it should be called Lancaster Men. Catchier title perhaps, but this book is not only about those who flew the mighty Lanc. Peter’s fine men also flew Hampdens, Whitleys, Stirlings, Manchesters and Wellingtons. In excluding those who flew other aircraft from the title, the marketers have somehow diminished their experience.
If the marketers got it wrong, Peter certainly got it right. As demonstrated in The Other Anzacs: Nurses at War, 1914–1918 and Desert Boys. Australians at War from Beersheba to Tobruk and El Alamein, Peter is a natural story teller with a gift for dealing with multiple stories. He competently weaves them into a moving and dramatic narrative, all within the general chronology of the war. The text is supported by a good selection of photos, many supplied by the families of his key subjects, two decent maps, a useful index, notes and bibliography, and great cover art. I enjoyed this very much. It is unputdownable. A first-rate testament to all of Australia’s fine men who flew Stirlings, Wellingtons, Lancasters and the rest. Highly recommended.
 



  • New South, April 2013. ISBN: 9781742233574 x, 309 pp, b&w photos, notes, index, bibliography
    New South, April 2013. ISBN: 9781742233574 x, 309 pp, b&w photos, notes, index, bibliography
    Originally published in Australian Defence Force Journal. Journal of the Australian Profession of Arms, Issue No. 191, 2013, online edition

Air Disaster Canberra is divided into three sections, the political rise of the Anzac generation; the last flight of Hudson A16-97 on 13 August 1940; and an account of the destabilisation and destruction of Menzies government which led to John Curtin’s prime ministership in October 1941.

This is Andrew Tink’s third book; his first, William Charles Wentworth: Australia’s greatest native son, won ‘The Nib’ CAL Waverley Award for Literature and his gift for narrative is again apparent. A former member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, Andrew Tink’s parliamentary experience is evident as he expertly argues the political ramifications of the crash. I was particularly impressed by the word portraits of the ten men who died. He also brings his descriptive talents to those who appear briefly such as Jack Lang of the ‘rasping voice, snarling mouth

and flailing hands when he spoke ... [and] lower jaw like a steam shovel blade’, and Charles Hawker whose ‘limping gait and glass eye were powerful reminders of wartime sacrifice’.
Air Disaster Canberra touches on some significant side issues including the apparent mishandling of the evidence at the crash scene—careful treatment of the human remains would have left no doubt as to who was the pilot—and the foolhardiness of allowing so many key personnel to travel together. At its heart, however, are two arguments: that the crash of Hudson A16-97 and the deaths of all on board led directly to the change of government the following year, and that Jim Fairbairn had been at the controls.  

Fairbairn was a skilled pilot who had served with the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War. He had flown many different types of aircraft and brought a depth of personal flying experience and administrative ability and innovation to his ministerial portfolios. He believed his work would benefit from his knowledge of every aspect of aviation and so he wanted to fly as many different types of aircraft as possible, including the Hudson.

For the main part, Andrew Tink has assembled solid evidence to support his speculation about Fairbairn. I feel, however, that that of Herb Plenty, a fellow pilot of Bob Hitchcock who became a senior peace time air force officer, is less sound. Plenty claimed almost 70 years later that Hitchcock’s squadron leader had orally condoned Hitchcock allowing Fairbairn to have ‘a touch of the controls’. This information had been intimated to Plenty by the squadron leader at a post war social function. Plenty’s hearsay testimony aside, Andrew Tink considers many other factors which better support his argument.

For many years, Bob Hitchcock’s flying ability has been called into question, most notably by former RAAF Historian Chris Coulthard-Clark, in The Third Brother and Hitchcock’s near contemporaries, Richard Kingsland and Herb Plenty. In arguing that Fairbairn was at the controls, Andrew Tink provides evidence attesting to Hitchcock’s skill with the Hudson and number of incident-free hours flown in this type. I was very pleased to see this reappraisal of Hitchcok’s airmanship, after all many fine pilots took time to develop their skills. Pat Hughes, for instance, who was a year behind Hitchcock at Point Cook, was ranked 28th in his course and assessed as having no outstanding qualities.

Andrew Tink claims that it was reasonable for Fairbairn to take the risk of landing the Hudson and that he deserves his place in history as a respected ‘aviation hero, whose pioneering work, both before and during the war, helped to make flying safer for everyone’. I agree, but I am not comfortable that Andrew Tink fails to acknowledge that, if Fairbairn was at the controls, he was responsible for the deaths of nine men as well as his own. To me, Fairbairn’s hubris in believing he could do what RAAF pilots had to be properly trained to do and his selfishness in putting his own desires ahead of the safety of those nine men equates to Richard Hillary’s selfishness in wanting to fly again despite fire-mutilated hands that could, apparently, barely hold a knife and fork, with the ultimate consequence of his own death, and that of his radio-operator/navigator.

I might not agree with every aspect of his argument, but I was fascinated by Andrew Tink’s account of the demise of Hudson A16-97 and all on board. Ultimately, I was swayed by his reasoned speculation. I was entranced by his careful analysis of the consequences of the loss of three cabinet ministers. I firmly agree with his disappointment in the current state of Canberra’s memorial to the crash victims. But where Canberra fails to honour, Andrew Tink does not. He is to be congratulated for writing not only their tribute but in placing their death in a broader political context. Highly recommended.
 



  • Allen & Unwin, April 2013, Card covers trade paperback size 424pp b&w plates. ISBN: 97817417520706
    Allen & Unwin, April 2013, Card covers trade paperback size 424pp b&w plates. ISBN: 97817417520706
    Originally published in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. LIV, No. 2, June 2013

I first met Peter Rees in September 2010 at a book launch. He was accompanied by Ted Pickerd who, Peter told me, had served with Bomber Command. I was overawed as I spoke to Ted briefly about his experiences and pleased when Peter explained that Ted would feature in the account of Australians in Bomber Command that he was working on. Peter and I subsequently enjoyed sporadic email contact and he kept me posted on the progress of his work. Last year, I had the pleasure of reading and commenting on an early draft. If I was overawed by Ted’s experiences in our brief chat, I was overwhelmed when reading about them, as well as those of his Bomber Command compatriots, in Lancaster Men. The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command.

In this fine account, Peter follows the general course of the war, and includes the full gamut of wartime episodes: recruitment and training, crewing up, combat, flak and attack, bailing out, capture, injuries, death and return. The Pathfinders, Dambusters and Great Escapers are included. Even Q for Queenie’s harbour bridge stunt gets a mention. He discusses the bombing of Dresden, long considered the darkest moment of the bombing campaign, and places it in a new perspective. He includes historical commentary where appropriate, but the personal stories, such as those of Rollo Kingsford-Smith, Jack Davenport, Noel Eliot, Jim Rowland, Jack Mitchell, Mickey Martin, Alick Roberts, Blue Connelly, and Ted Pickerd, are the heart of his book.

As he demonstrated in The Other Anzacs: Nurses at War, 1914–1918 and Desert Boys. Australians at War from Beersheba to Tobruk and El Alamein, Peter is a natural story teller. When drawing together a large collection of stories, there is the risk that the multitude of individuals will be lost to the reader. Not here, or indeed in Peter’s other works. He skilfully inks in the pen portraits so the reader can instantly identify each man; he seamlessly blends their words into a moving and dramatic narrative.

The concept of duty is almost alien to us these days and yet Peter Rees’s 20-year-old (or thereabouts) heroes were firmly committed to participating in a far away war. The remarkable thing about this dedication is that, from almost the first day of training, through to their inclusion in 1000 aircraft bomber raids, powering through flak, searchlights, enemy fighters and even ‘friendly’ attack from the machines above them in the bomber stream, it is made clear that they are expendable. Somehow, those brave men accepted that expendability and the potential inevitability of a death which, other than in the privacy of their own thoughts and diaries, was treated blithely. Someone went for a Burton, someone had gone west, and in the case of Noel Eliot’s brother: ‘All killed—funeral at one-thirty this afternoon!’ It indeed says much about these men that, despite this prevailing attitude, they continued to climb into their mighty machines, even those like Alf Read who saw a Lancaster rear gunner hosed out of his turret. In their case, Aussie Hero is not a false accolade.

Rollo Kingsford-Smith reappears a number of times and, in a sense, becomes a key ‘commentator’ of the Bomber Command experience as we share his beliefs, thoughts, practices, grief at the loss of a friend, and the searing ignominy of ‘boomeranging’ from a bombing op when the electrics failed in the rear turret. He would have gone on if the turret itself or guns had failed but with the outside temperature below –40 degrees Celsius, the rear gunner was prone to frostbite and, within a few hours his efficiency would be suspect. The entire crew would be at risk if he could not defend them from attack. It was the right decision, but, as a leader who would grill any other pilot who made a similar decision, Rollo felt ashamed. ‘It took me a week before I could safely lift my head again’.

One of the strongest threads is that of comradeship, evident from the first moments of the crewing up process where men who had little in common created an instant bond. They effortless worked as a team during the long hours of each bombing operation, adhered to rigid flight discipline in the air, and enjoyed lighter moments in the mess. So strong was the bond that some men extended their own tour so they could fly one more time with their crew. Sometimes, it was literally their last flight. There was striking recognition of the dangers a Jewish crew member would face. When Eric Rosenfeld asked the RAF what he should do if captured by the Germans, he was told to tell them he was a British officer and a gentleman. It wasn’t good enough for Eric’s skipper, Noel Sanders. With typical Australian ingenuity, he organised a set of fake, Anglicised dog tags for his navigator to wear on ops. Just in case.

At 135,000 words Lancaster Men is perhaps a little longer than readers are used to these days but there is no sense that this has been overextended or padded. It has a well constructed, pacey narrative that never sags. The text is supported by a good selection of photos, many supplied by the families of Peter Rees’s key subjects, two decent maps, a useful index, notes and bibliography, and a great cover. There is only one flaw, to my mind. Peter’s original title was All the Fine Young Men. That was rejected by Allen & Unwin, who decided it should be called Lancaster Men. Catchier title perhaps, but Peter’s fine men also flew Hampdens, Whitleys, Stirlings, Manchesters and Wellingtons. In excluding those who flew other aircraft from the title, the marketers have somehow diminished their experience and resulted in at least one non-sale: one friend of a Stirling pilot refused to buy the book because he thought it only covered Lancaster aircrew.

Rollo Kingsford-Smith makes a telling point when he refers to the monotony of ops: dangerous they may be, but they are all the same. Go out, dodge flak, AA and defenders, drop the bombs and hope you get home again. Perhaps that is why, in the canon of aviation literature, there are relatively few bomber command memoirs and biographies, when compared with the constant action, fire-at-the-whites-of-their-eyes Fighter Command tales. In bringing together a multitude of smaller stories in this first class work, Peter Rees not only highlights the key experiences of the individuals, he illuminates the entire Australian experience in Bomber Command. This is a fine tribute. Highly recommended.



  • New South, April 2013. ISBN: 9781742233574 x, 309 pp, b&w photos, notes, index, bibliography
    New South, April 2013. ISBN: 9781742233574 x, 309 pp, b&w photos, notes, index, bibliography
    Originally published in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. LIV, No. 2, June 2013

When I first mentioned Air Disaster Canberra to my military aviation friends there was a ripple of excitement. We had all heard about the crash, we knew some of the aspects of the story from the RAAF perspective, we all had our own theories about Bob Hitchcock’s involvement in the incident, but we had virtually no knowledge of the political consequences. We anticipated a good read and I was not disappointed. Nor, for that matter, was anyone else I know who read this remarkable book.

Air Disaster Canberra is divided into three sections: the political rise of the Anzac generation which includes the military backgrounds of key politicians, essential for an understanding of the significance of the loss of their potential contribution to the prosecution of the war; the last flight of Hudson A16-97 on 13 August 1940; and an account of the destabilisation and destruction of the Menzies government which led to John Curtin’s prime ministership in October 1941.

At the heart of Air Disaster Canberra are two arguments. Firstly, that the crash directly led to the change of government the following year and, secondly, that Jim Fairbairn had been at the controls of the Hudson when it crashed. Andrew Tink presents a well constructed case, puts a tragic accident into its proper political perspective, and blends historical background seamlessly into a well written narrative.

Andrew Tink occasionally overdoes the block quotes—mainly those relating to the inquiry transcripts—but some are pertinent. For instance, Brudenell White’s words when he accepted his temporary wartime return to duty are poignant in light of what was to come: ‘I do not want to act to the detriment of any permanent staff officer, and as soon as my services are unnecessary I want to return to the farm’. I also found Menzies’ recollection of his reaction to the death of his colleagues moving: ‘Gullett was dead; Street was dead; Fairbairn was dead; the most scholarly and technically talented soldier in Australian history, Sir Brudenell White whom I had recalled from retirement ... was dead.’ Another was Sergeant Jo Gullett’s account of the cold, clinical way in which his senior officer (he was at a British tactical training school at the time) informed him of the death of his father: ‘I have a message from your General Blamey to say that I am to inform you that your father was killed in an air accident yesterday’. He then rattled off the arrangements to return to Australia, concluding with ‘You may overdraw your pay if you wish. I am sorry about this, sergeant. I think that is all.’ These are the exceptions that prove that sometimes block quotes are better than authorial recasting.

This is Andrew Tink’s third book; his first two were biography—William Charles Wentworth: Australia’s greatest native son won ‘The Nib’ CAL Waverley Award for Literature—and his biographical skills are again displayed here: he is a particularly talented portrait painter and the reader gains a clear sense of the ten men who died: the politicians, Brigadier Geoffrey Street, Minister for the Army and Repatriation; James Valentine Fairbairn, the Minister for Air and Civil Aviation; Sir Henry Gullett, vice-president of the Executive Council and Minister in charge of Scientific and Industrial Research; General Sir Cyril Brudenell White, who came out of retirement to take up the appointment of Chief of the General Staff; White’s staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Thornthwaite; Fairbairn’s private secretary, Richard Elford; and the four RAAF crew, the Hudson’s pilot Flight Lieutenant Robert Edward Hitchcock, Pilot Officer Richard Frederick Wiesener, Corporal John Frederick Palmer and Aircraftman Charles Joseph Crosdale.

Andrew Tink points out Fairbairn had offered Arthur Fadden, the assistant minister to the treasurer a seat on the Hudson. He later retracted the offer because it had only been made because he understood Dick Elford would be travelling by train. But then Elford decided to stay in Melbourne an extra night to celebrate his wedding anniversary and thus take the seat on the Hudson. Fadden travelled safely by train and went on to become a short term wartime prime minister and long serving post war treasurer. Dick Elford climbed into the Hudson and did not alight at Canberra. It is to Andrew Tink’s credit that he presents this tragic circumstance simply and lightly, with no weighing of a potential greater political good of the surviving politician against the loss of the 30 year old loyal husband and father of twin sons. 

For many years, Bob Hitchcock’s flying ability has been called into question, most notably by former RAAF Historian Chris Coulthard-Clark in The Third Brother and Hitchcock’s near contemporaries, Richard Kingsland and Herb Plenty. In arguing that Fairbairn was at the controls, Andrew Tink provides evidence attesting to Hitchcock’s skill with the Hudson and number of incident-free hours flown in this type. I was very pleased to see this reappraisal of Hitchcok’s airmanship, after all many fine pilots took time to develop their skills. Clive Caldwell, for one, admitted that he was not particularly good at flying when he started out, and Pat Hughes, who was a year behind Hitchcock at Point Cook, was ranked 28th in his course and assessed as having no outstanding qualities.

Andrew Tink claims that it was perfectly reasonable for Fairbairn to take the risk of landing the Hudson and that Fairbairn deserves his place in history as a respected ‘aviation hero, whose pioneering work, both before and during the war, helped to make flying safer for everyone’. I agree that Fairbairn should be remembered for his good work but I am not comfortable that Andrew Tink failed to acknowledge that if Fairbairn was at the controls, he was responsible for the deaths of nine men as well as his own. That aside, I was fascinated by Andrew Tink’s account of the demise of Hudson A16-97 and all on board. Ultimately, I was swayed by his reasoned speculation about Fairbairn and his careful analysis of the consequences of the loss of three cabinet ministers. I fully agree with his disappointment in the current state of the Canberra memorial to the crash’s victims. But where Canberra fails to honour, Air Disaster Canberra does not. This is a fine tribute to the men who died in the Hudson crash. Highly recommended.



  • Exisle Publishing, 2012, card covers, 224pp, b&w photos
    Exisle Publishing, 2012, card covers, 224pp, b&w photos
    Originally published in Australian Defence Force Journal. Journal of the Australian Profession of Arms, Issue No. 190, 2013

Dr Adam Claasen’s Dogfight. The Battle of Britain is one of the first titles in the Anzac Battles Series. Edited by Glyn Harper, the series is devised specifically for an Australian and New Zealand readership and focuses on the great military battles of the twentieth century in which Australians and New Zealanders participated. Dr Claasen was the right person to pen this worthy inclusion in the valuable series. As well as the author of Hitler’s Northern War: The Luftwaffe’s Ill-fated Campaign, 1940–1945 which did much to widen our understanding of the Third Reich’s way of war, he is a senior lecturer in modern history and international relations at New Zealand’s Massey University, specialising in the Second World War and the role of air power in military campaigns.
When Dr Claasen first embarked on his research into the Battle of Britain, he was asked the same question every researcher is asked when putting their foot into a pool that has been saturated by accounts from official, mainstream and niche publishers: ‘Do we need another book on the Battle of Britain?’. Happily, he was not put off by the implied negativity of such a query and realised he was in fact being asked, ‘What will you be offering that’s new?’. By separating the deeds of the Anzac airmen from those of their allies and stressing the important parts played by New Zealanders Keith Park and Archibald McIndoe, and then analysing their overall significance, Dr Claasen has indeed offered something new and valuable.
Before proceeding, I must say that Dr Claasen and I differ on some points. For instance, he accepts Dennis Newton’s tally of 37 Australian pilots and gunners participating in the Battle whereas I tend towards the Office of Air Force History’s ‘30 or so’ but if pushed accept the 32 acknowledged by the Battle of Britain Historical Society and the Battle of Britain Monument.
Disagreements over the totals are par for the course in Battle of Britain research—even official sources vary in participant totals—and they in no way detract from the importance of Dogfight. Dr Claasen is not distracted by the discrepancy debate. He highlights some of the problems with totals, acknowledges his debt to Australian Dennis Newton and New Zealander Errol Martyn, and simply gets on with the story.
Sadly for such an important book, there are some careless errors—Dr Claasen has been let down by his copy editor. For example, on page 142, Pat Hughes is referred to as a Sydneysider but on page 143 he is a Queenslander, and on page 37 the Blitzkrieg began on 19 May 1940 rather than the 10th. There are also a handful of errors of fact, such as Ken Holland’s graduation from Airspeed Aeronautical College on page 172 (he didn’t complete his course) and the odd occasions when some facts have been elided such as on page 176 where it is implied that Edmund Wimperis witnessed John Crossman’s crash. Wimperis was indeed painting nearby in the morning, but he had gone home before John’s last combat. He returned to his spot about half an hour after the crash. Dr Claasen has drawn on a variety of sources such as his own interviews and correspondence, airmen memoirs, and official records. These few errors of fact appear to have resulted from secondary sources rather than primary evidence. (I have been advised that some errors have been corrected for the first reprint.)
Dr Claasen follows the general Battle chronology but many of his sub-chapters are thematic. These changes in perspective—from action to analysis or discussion—are deftly handled. He wastes no words, doesn’t get bogged down with detail or thump the reader over the head with his opinions. Nor does he build up a story for dramatic impact. One of the best examples is when it finally hit Gordon Olive why he did not have a high kill rate. Dr Claasen leaves it to Gordon to convey the emotion of this episode, allowing the reader to gain the full poignant impact of a man acknowledging that he had to kill his former friends. Perfectly countering the tragic stories such as the death of Donald Cobden on his birthday, Dr Claasen liberally sprinkles Dogfight with humour, and Alan Deere’s ‘oxometer’ and John Gibson’s concern over the fate of his handmade shoes after his bale-out are two of the small joys of this book.
Storytelling aside, Dr Claasen has a gift for précis. His concise summary of the skills of the fighter aces is one of the best I have read and he ably presents the technical differences between the Spitfire and Hurricane so they are readily grasped by the lay reader. His analysis of why the bulk of Battle of Britain victories were at the hands of a small percentage of The Few is nothing short of brilliant. His approach to the complexities of killing in warfare and his discussion of morale are first rate.
Indeed, this is a first rate account of the Battle of Britain and the significant part played by the Australians and New Zealanders. Silly errors aside, I highly recommend Dogfight as both a good, accessible read and a fine research tool.

 

 



  • ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee (QLD) Incorporated 2002, folio card covers, 71pp, b&w photos
    ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee (QLD) Incorporated 2002, folio card covers, 71pp, b&w photos
    Originally published in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, December 2002

Digging for Diggers is designed for students and the first time researcher. It is a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to finding, interpreting and appreciating the stories of Australians who served in the Great War In his time, Hosken has trawled through over 300 files in search of information about our First World War heroes, and he has put that experience to good use. He helps to demystify official military language and shows the new researcher how to reveal a soldier’s wartime experiences from his official record.

Hosken starts off by presenting a detailed step-by-step guide to typical research tasks. Then, by using the records of John ‘Barney’ Hines aka ‘the Souvenir King’ as an example, Hosken walks the reader through a sample service record. He describes forms such as the Attestation Papers, Statement of Service, discharge details, and casualty form. To help interpret these forms, Hosken highlights items of interest that can reveal much about the subject or which can lead to further research and he provides an extensive list of common military abbreviations and medical classifications.

Hosken recognises that just interpreting the service record is not enough, and a new researcher has to come to grips with a lot of background information before a complete picture of their subject’s service can be revealed. He gives an overview of the structure and size of the AIF, and the organisation of the AIF infantry battalions, the Australian Light Horse camel corps, and the field artillery. He briefly describes trench warfare, the battles of the AIF divisions on the Western Front and place names in France and Belgium. He also provides a brief overview of bases in England, France and Egypt.

Hosken introduces the new researcher to public resources and provides advice about the time it takes to get records from government agencies and the information the researcher should have on hand when seeking advice from them. He has included a section on useful information and suggests other avenues the researcher might take to find information about their subject. He lists addresses for obtaining service details, honours and awards and reference books, and includes calendars for 191420.

Once the information gathering process has been completed, Hosken suggests ways the researcher can present the information so their subject’s story is not lost and remains accessible and relevant, for instance as a biography, diary, interview or illustrated story.

Overall, this book is an invaluable resource for the first time researcher and makes the task of discovering service details an easy and exciting task. As an educator who has introduced students to the thrill of researching a Great War soldier, Hosken has also included information that would be useful for teachers and students embarking on a class project. A worthwhile addition to the new researcher’s bookshelf.



  • Adam Claasen: Dogfight. The Battle of Britain Exisle Publishing, 2012, card covers, 224pp, b&w photos
    Adam Claasen: Dogfight. The Battle of Britain Exisle Publishing, 2012, card covers, 224pp, b&w photos
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol LIII, No. 4, December 2012)

Right at the beginning of this book, the publisher noted that every attempt had been made to ensure that names, dates and facts are correct. Sadly, this was not the case. I was annoyed by the mistakes. Not only typos, but errors of fact. I will admit I am a military history novice, and I bow to the superior knowledge of my colleagues, so it really makes me worry when I pick up errors!

Other things also annoyed me about this book. Firstly, the fact that the book is subtitled ‘Recollections of Australian Combat Fliers’ when two of those interviewed, the WWI representatives, were not pilots. Although their stories were interesting, Hayes had to work hard to justify their inclusion. Secondly, Hayes’ belaboured attempt to prove a link between the fictional adventures of Biggles and the reasons why some of the pilots joined the air force. Thirdly, the changes between style: shortish extracts arranged around themes, some tenuously illustrated, and long extracts where the pilots were given free reign to speak of their experiences. (Perhaps this aspect might have been sorted out in the normal process of authorial editing had not Hayes passed away suddenly earlier this year.) Fourthly, that in many instances, the interviewees’ stories were cut off when they became interesting, or pulled apart to illustrate a point. Finally, the lack of an index.

Twenty-four interviews with airmen, conducted by Wing Commander Ken Llewelyn, from WWI through to the present day were drawn on in varying degrees. Hayes explored the reasons for flying (the dreaded Biggles factor mentioned above); training experiences; the types of planes flown, fighters, bombers, flying boats; and the differences between WWII combat and later twentieth century techniques. I loved reading about the interviewee’s experiences, but the annoyances did intrude on my enjoyment: Black Jack Walker and Stuart Cameron might as well have been left out given they were mentioned only briefly; and entertaining accounts such as Marcel Dekyvere’s were rearranged and used to illustrated a number of different themes.

For me, the main strength of this book was when the interviewee’s story was uninterrupted, such as in Ron Guthrie’s chapter-length description of his final mission, capture, escape and recapture, and time as a POW of the North Koreans; the longer descriptions of bombing missions by Jack Davenport and Peter Coldham; and Tony Burcher’s description of his dambusting mission and later capture by the Germans. These segments had it all: action, fear, suspense, and were told by natural storytellers.

At the Canberra launch of this book, Ken Llewelyn commented that as the WWII aircrew grew older, the tall tales that regaled the eager listener at long, boozy lunches often turned to more honest accounts. This honesty shone through here clearly. The fear that the young pilots experienced in the face of danger; Bobby Gibbes’ admission that he felt apprehensive and ‘made a bit of a goat of myself’ on his first combat mission; Lionel Rackley who admitted that his flight commander was a ‘thorough bastard’; Marcel Dekyvere who wasn’t coy about his social life, ‘Come off it. Of course, we all had girlfriends….I had one in every port’ (particularly brave and honest when I recollect that he was married only shortly before leaving for overseas); and Harold Edward’s account of a potential grave (well, body) robbing incident involving Richthofen.

Many of these storytellers are true raconteurs. Their stories have vibrancy and immediacy. You can feel their fear on dangerous bombing missions when they know the odds of not returning. You can appreciate David Evans’ and Val Hancock’s support of past actions and policies even though they involved morally difficult circumstances. You feel for Bobby Gibbes who rose above his own lack of confidence. And you wonder how Australian political history would have changed if John Gorton had been one of the pilots of the 43 Hurricanes out of 51 destroyed over Singapore in the early days of January 1942.

Counterbalancing the drama of these stories is the humour, and this is another strength of this collection. Some of the highlights include Caldwell recalling the potential plight of the Russian about to be thrown in the midst of his Polish pilots; Lionel Rackley, lying beside a rail line after baling out from his plane and realising a train had pulled his harness off him, declaring ‘I’d had my nine lives’; and Ron Guthrie’s prison camp humour as he explains that ‘you had to be in the know as to when a chicken had been caught to get any of it because between 300 men it didn’t go very far.’ But the one that really cracked me up was Bill Simmonds’ recollection of one of his flights: ‘I radioed Moose, “Hey, do you realise where we are?” “Of course, we’re over [RAF] Celle.” “Well, how long have they been equipped with MiGs?” “Oh, my God!”’

There may have been a number of things that annoyed me about this book, but when I put it down, I found myself wanting more. Luckily, the transcripts are available from the Australian War Memorial and many of those interviewed here have penned their own recollections. As a taste of Australian experiences during twentieth century conflicts, this is worth reading. We should be grateful Ken Llewelyn recorded these interviews, thus preserving the voices and experiences of a small group of Australian aircrew.



  • Allen & Unwin August 2006, card covers 222pp, b&w plates
    Allen & Unwin August 2006, card covers 222pp, b&w plates
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, September 2006)

 …one of the most curious episodes in Australian history—the shooting down of a plane on the remote north coast of Western Australia during WWII; and the disappearance of a cache of diamonds worth tens of millions of dollars, many of which have never been found. Juliet Wills’ investigation reveals for the first time new details about this enduring mystery of a lost fortune. (Publicity blurb)

I was certainly interested in an update on this mystery as I had read with interest Tyler’s 1987 Flight of Diamonds. The Story of Broome’s War and the Carnot Bay Diamonds and Gary Disher’s beautifully written Past the Headlands which places the diamonds’ mystery in a literary (fictional) landscape. The Diamond Dakota Mystery is a quick read, well written and entertaining and I enjoyed it, despite Wills committing one of my most hated sins—that of incorporating conversation in a purportedly factual account where no one would have known what had been said, if anything (a sin that is, unfortunately, too often committed these days). Fortunately (for me, anyway) she does not use or abuse this technique too frequently.

Wills describes how the Dutch diamonds were sent out of Java as it fell to the Japanese (and in that description she indulged in the aforementioned sin) and quickly moved on to what happened to the escaping aircraft and their passengers. Although not end-noted, she draws on recollections and official records to describe the Japanese attack on Broome, summed up simply in her chapter title: Destruction. Although this account is brief, I was caught up in the military and human tragedy and was moved by the personal perspectives presented of, for instance, Sophie van Tour, in Catalina Y-59 who watched in horror as her daughter was shot in the eye by a strafing Zero and of young Catharina Komen-Blommert who watched her father crumble before her when he was killed. These and other stories where only sketched, but sketched effectively.

As the Zeroes flew victoriously away, the reader had no time to breathe a sigh of relief as Wills then embarked on the description of the attack on Captain Ivan Smirnoff’s escaping DC-3, which, unknown to captain and passengers, carried the Dutch diamonds. This attack, and the aftermath, is central to the story, and Wills deals with it in some detail, drawing on—one assumes from the bibliography—Smirnoff’s own account as well as police records.

The military history aspects of the book are confined to the first part. Part two deals with the search for the diamonds and piecing together the evidence of their whereabouts. Like any mystery novel, we meet and discover aspects of the protagonists, view the investigation and watch the clues come to light and participate in the trial. I must say I enjoyed this section (but I am always a sucker for a well-plotted crime novel). Like part one, this was well written and the bibliography indicates that it was drawn from court documents and personal accounts.

In many mysteries of this nature, you are never certain if you have the final solution—and there are still many rumours abounding about the Dakota Diamonds (or, as I have always known them, the Carnot Bay Diamonds) but I was satisfied at the end that we now know as much as we will ever know of this story. Allen & Unwin have categorised The Diamond Dakota Mystery as History/Adventure, and, under these terms, the book works well. It is well-written, well-paced and entertaining, and it is descriptive, dramatic and reads like an enjoyable adventure novel. 



  • Allen & Unwin October 2010, card covers 230pp+xxx, b&w plates
    Allen & Unwin October 2010, card covers 230pp+xxx, b&w plates
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol. LI, No. 4, December 2010)

I have read a few of Michael McKernan’s books. Not all, as some just don’t touch on my areas of interest. I loved All in!, dipped into Here is their Spirit, sobbed through This War Never Ends, was enamoured by The Valley, and considered myself dead privileged when our mutual publisher snuck me a look at the first six chapters of The Strength of a Nation. I then had to wait impatiently until it went to print before I could read the rest. I love Michael’s style. He writes with sympathy and empathy, he simply (but not simplistically) and vividly describes events, and his focus is people-centric. I will admit I have largely ignored the First World War but when I finished The Valley I asked our publisher what Michael was doing next. The reply was a short history of Gallipoli. I quickly sent a note off to Michael saying I was looking forward to that because I felt that his style, if nothing else, might be just what I needed to bring me to a broader First World War interest. I wasn’t wrong.

Gallipoli. A Short History places people centre stage and it succinctly describes events in a clear, accessible way. Michael had doubts about whether this book was needed: he points out that there are already hundreds of books written about Gallipoli (Bill Gammage, at the book’s launch, joked that this was the 451st!) with several million words between them, and Charles Bean was responsible for about 654,800 of them in his two volumes of The Story of Anzac. I would never have come to Gallipoli through Bean—too daunting—or even via the briefer (?!) offering by Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli with its 600-odd pages. Michael acknowledges that he is not writing for scholars. He is writing for people like me, those ‘in the early twenty-first century, most of whom probably have neither the time nor the patience for long and detailed books such as Charles Bean wrote.’ Although he does not state it, he also writes for those who prefer to follow the experiences of a handful of men throughout an account; men whose experiences deserve to be detailed in their own right but also as representatives of the many unknown or unknowable participants.

One of those unknown and unknowable is Jack Fothergill. Michael admits that the evidence is limited and that we can have no real knowledge of what Jack experienced but he has skilfully assembled the few facts of his life, drawn on his own extensive knowledge of Jack’s ‘life-and-times’, and sensitively asked questions to help the reader imaginatively construct Jack’s life. The result is a surprisingly rounded portrait of a man who was killed on Pine Ridge on 25 April 1915—the first day. In the scheme of things, Jack and the many others who died on that day, made little impact on the course of battle. But the impact on his family was publically and privately felt for many years after. Jack Fothergill is representative of all the other Gallipoli unknowns but Charlie Bean and Chaplain Bill McKenzie appear in their own right. Yes, Jack, Bill and Charlie, nicknames and diminutives which demonstrate Michael’s intimacy with these men, and which foster intimacy in the reader and stimulate real concern for what happens to them.

To me, Bill McKenzie’s story is the strongest. Bill felt that it was his personal responsibility to retrieve and bury those who had fallen, even when they had lain in the sun for days. He wrote graphically of his experiences and Michael uses his words well: ‘the smell was terrible. It turned me very sick’. ‘I have never had such a task and hope I never shall again’. But he did. After the war he spoke of how he was ‘completely unstrung and unnerved’ by what he had seen. ‘I had seen so many fine chaps killed...I had buried so many too’. He did so much for his men, both living and dead, that he was awarded the Military Cross for ‘distinguished services in the field’ and unverifiable rumour has it that he was thrice recommended for the Victoria Cross. So loved was he that 7000 people greeted him in Melbourne in early 1918 and, during the 1930s when he attended Anzac Day parades, his hand was often bleeding because every man marching wanted to shake it. His retirement in 1939 was quiet and relatively obscure and his death in 1947 was almost unheralded. Well, Michael has ensured that he is heralded now. (Michael was also instrumental in the donation of Bill McKenzie’s papers to the Australian War Memorial.)

It is often said that you can have no appreciation of Gallipoli and the fighting terrain unless you’ve been there. Many of Michael’s readers haven’t and he knows this, so he draws on his own experience leading battlefield tours and uses descriptions that we can appreciate. The Nek was ‘the size of two or three tennis courts, that’s how small the Nek was’ and yet it saw wave after wave of men rush forward in a futile charge. And afterwards? Michael describes it beautifully:

And now the battlefield fell silent, but for the cries of the wounded in no-man’s land as they settled slowly into the business of dying. Not a single one of them was rescued; they were all beyond help. You stand on that little patch of land today where 326 soldiers are buried, of whom only ten are identified. You weep for the madness of what was attempted and the gallantry of those who believed they must go where their duty took them. You feel anger welling up and you want to throttle the murdering bastard who thought up this attack or who pressed on with it knowing that it was utterly impossible. Or else you walk away silently and sorrowfully. I have seen visitors at the Nek responding to the story in both ways.

And if Michael had been looking over my shoulder as I read, he would have seen me wiping away tears of anger and grief. With such as Gallipoli, neither reader nor author can be dispassionate. But there lies Michael’s skill. He writes to elicit an emotional response but he does not lay on the purple.

I know little of Gallipoli so before turning the first page I asked someone who does what I should be looking out for in a history, even a short one. Our beloved editor told me that the campaign lasted eight months and its greatest success was the evacuation of Anzac and Sulva without casualties in December. He also told me that it saw three major periods of action which, in summary are:

  • The first week: landing and the consolidation

  • The Turkish offensive of 19 May and the truce to bury the dead which also saw Jacka awarded the first Australian VC for the First World War; General Bridges, the Australian commander, killed about this time; and the death of Simpson

  • The August offensive which included the Lone Pine diversion with seven Australian VCs; the charge at the Nek; and failure of the New Zealanders to take Chunuk Bair.

Gallipoli. A Short History is indeed short but Michael covers all of this, and covers it well. He offers two key opinions—that the assault on the Dardanelles was badly planned (it was ‘criminally awful’ as Michael phrased it in a recent radio interview) and that it was known that the campaign was unwinnable within fifteen hours or so after the Anzacs first went ashore. He also adheres to New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair’s rules for short history which call for, among other things, ‘an everyday intelligent explanation’ and an ‘easy, gently flowing’ style. Michael effortlessly moves between past and present to show how Gallipoli still resonates for the 21st century readers, especially as we approach its centenary.

Despite Michael’s initial doubts, there is definitely a place for the 451st history of Gallipoli. Especially when it is as well written and intelligently argued and explained as this and pitched so perfectly towards its target readership. But it is more than just a short history. It is a handbook of bad decision making and its consequences but, more importantly, it is a guide to the emotion of Anzac and the impact of Gallipoli on kith, kin, the twenty-first century reader and the battlefield visitor.



  • Allen & Unwin 2010, card covers trade paperback size 404pp, b&w plates
    Allen & Unwin 2010, card covers trade paperback size 404pp, b&w plates
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. LI, No. 4, December 2010 see also http://www.michaelmolkentin.com/reviews/)

I must declare my interest. Michael Molkentin and I share a publisher and in August 2008 Ian Bowring told me he was publishing an account of the Australian Flying Corps. I have done a bit of reading in my time about Australia’s growing civil aviation industry, the interwar RAAF and Australians in the Second World War. I was keen to discover more about their flying antecedents as well as the early flying days of those who had significant places in my Second World War research. So, when Ian mentioned Fire in the Sky, I was excited. Often, the anticipation is better than the event, but not in this case. Fire in the Sky surpassed my expectations.

Fire in the Sky is roughly divided into two sections: the Half Flight and 1 Squadron’s experiences in Mesopotamia, Egypt–Sinai and Palestine, and 2, 3 and 4 squadrons on the Western Front. In some respects it reads like a typical squadron history (despite the multi-squadron focus) and I will admit I find dry, operations-based accounts boring but when I flipped through to the bibliography, which includes Molkentin’s thesis ‘Culture, Class and Experience in the Australian Flying Corps’, I knew there would be a firm emphasis of the men of the flying corps, and not just their operations. And I was not disappointed. Rather than presenting a straight blow-by-blow, battle-by-battle history, Molkentin has skilfully woven personal experiences of airmen and ground crew into a readable and absorbing account of Australian Flying Corps operations, giving it a sound social history grounding.

Molkentin has drawn widely on public and private, published and unpublished sources. One of the standout stories is that of Owen Lewis. The reader first meets Lewis, a freshly minted observer, when 3 Squadron posted him to a British unit for training with an experienced pilot. It was a hectic time and Lewis and his pilot experienced enemy fire in five aerial combats; their aircraft was badly damaged during two of them. Within ten weeks, Lewis was among 3 Squadron’s veteran observers and about to embark on a fortnight’s leave. But Lewis did not make it to England. Drawing on Lewis’ brief diary, which abruptly ends the night before he was killed; his brother Athol’s diary; an interview in The 1418 Journal; and the published memoir of his younger brother, Brian, Molkentin movingly recreates from a number of perspectives Owen Lewis’ last day and the aftermath of his death. This is storytelling and social history at its best. But it is not a one off. Molkentin tells of Frank McNamara and his VC-winning rescue of Douglas Rutherford as well as the what-happens-next for both men (and especially Rutherford who was perceived as having the ‘unlucky habit of attracting trouble’), and unravels the mystery surrounding the death of Manfred von Richthofen. The Richthofen story is another standout story among many. Molkentin discusses the various who-got-the-Baron stories and draws his own conclusions regarding who did what. Even so, he indicates that readers and historians (as one admits) may sentimentally cling to long-held favoured explanations.

I am particularly interested in the notions of chivalry and the ‘knights of the air’ and how these concepts originated. Molkentin has unearthed some outstanding examples which left me wondering if both German and Australian pilots realised they were actually at war and not involved in some gentlemanly game. But sadly, the Richthofen episode shows all too clearly that chivalry was something practised by only a handful; there was little dignity or honour in the plundering of Richthofen’s body and possessions. And there was certainly nothing chivalrous in the actions of some of the scout pilots who, after the Armistice was declared, returned from a purported search for a missing squadron member with conspicuously empty bomb racks.

Molkentin relates the early flying careers of significant interwar and Second World War personalities such as Richard Williams, Harry Cobby, George Jones, Lawrence Wackett and Hudson Fysh, and also tells of those whose early promise, such as that of George Merz, was not realised. He recounts what I term ‘vagaries-of-war’ stories such as that of two of ‘Jasta Boelcke’s’ victims in the dying moments of the war. Arthur Palliser was one of 4 Squadron’s most experienced pilots and had survived four years of war, only to be killed in battle on 4 November 1918, one week before the Armistice. Palliser was due to return to Australia the next day and had told George Jones that ‘If I was only lucky enough to break my finger in the hangar door I would not be able to fly today’. On the same day, 23-year-old Charles Rhodes was shot down on his first patrol. Molkentin points out that he would not have even had time to learn the names of his fellow pilots.

Molkentin notes that just 880 officers and 2840 men served with the AFC during the war and, of those, only 410 pilots and 153 observers fought in battle. These 563 men were significantly fewer than those who enlisted in the AIF. So few that Les Carlyon did not even mention the AFC in the 700+ pages of his The Great War. And yet its contribution was significant. Its service spanned three continents and nearly every type of aerial operation during the Great War. As Molkentin points out ‘Australian airmen and mechanics were contributors to the pioneering days of aerial warfare in Mesopotamia and Egypt, when aeroplanes were still widely perceived as a reconnaissance arm only. They were there too in 1918, keen participants in the evolution of air power as a tool for gaining air superiority, bombing strategic targets and directly supporting ground operations.’ And of course, they regularly increased the victory tally, producing ‘aces’ and accounting for some of the earliest DFCs of the war.

Given the importance of its role, I wonder why the AFC has remained largely unsung since the 1923 publication (and subsequent reprints) of Cutlack’s The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War 19141918, the occasional memoir, the odd chapter in air force histories and the all too rare private diary. The publishers and contributors of Cross & Cockade and The 1418 Journal have done much to ensure that the AFC heritage is not lost but individual journals, as well as the unpublished manuscripts held in public institutions, are normally lost to or out of bounds of the general reader. Thankfully, Molkentin has vividly brought these stories and memories to a new generation and now re-establishes the significance of AFC involvement in the Great War. He notes parenthetically that, at 27, he is too old to be an AFC scout pilot. Readers should be pleased that he still has many writing years ahead of him, whether he turns his hand again to aviation history (and I for one certainly hope he does) or other aspects of Australian military history.



  • Pan Macmillan Australia 2011, card covers trade paperback size 523pp b&w and maps
    Pan Macmillan Australia 2011, card covers trade paperback size 523pp b&w and maps
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. LII, No. 4, December 2011)

Australians from every field of conflict in the Second World War found themselves as prisoners of the Reich. A handful of merchant seamen were captured but were far outweighed in numbers by aircrew and soldiers, some of whom were captured as early as the Battle of France.

In his outstanding account of Australian prisoners of the Reich, Peter Monteath claims the experiences of the 8400 Australians who returned from German captivity have long been overshadowed by the horrors of Japanese imprisonment. As he says in his introductory chapter ‘over weeks and months they melted quietly back into the ordinary civilian lives from which they had come—or so it seemed’. Certainly, the homecoming images of gaunt prisoners of the Japanese were harrowing and stark testament to an incredible inhumanity. In contrast, by the time the European prisoners arrived home most had regained some of their health, fitness and apparent vitality. The rigours of their imprisonment were largely hidden from view. As far as details of treatment are concerned, everyone knows of the brutality of Japanese prison camps, and a constant stream of mainstream publishing has kept these atrocities alive to readers. Again, in contrast, the majority of published accounts of European prisoners have been small runs of self-published efforts, off the radar for the general reader, so unable to counter a general perception that European prisoners had an easy time of it. But they didn’t. Some of the prisoners were forced to work in factories, down mines or on the land. Many suffered enormous privation and hardship. You only have to read Monteath’s accounts of the forced marches in the latter stages of the war or the physical brutality inflicted on some to realise how much. Some prisoners were repatriated and others tried to escape, a few successfully but some, including those of the Great Escape, tragically and cruelly paying with their lives.

Part of the blame for this perception perhaps can be laid at the feet of Hogan’s Heroes. Repeated ad nauseum and available on video and now DVD, this popular television series has left a sad impression in popular culture that the experience of European prisoners was a laugh, a lark, and that their keepers were bumbling incompetents.

Perhaps the Australian government also shared the general belief as prisoners of the Germans were excluded from the 2001 Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill which, on recognition of the hardship and suffering experienced, provided a one-off compensation payment to those interned as a prisoner of war by the Japanese in the Second World War. Happily, this ‘oversight’ was rectified in 2007. Interestingly, my friend Bill Rudd of the Victorian Branch of the Military Historical Society of Australia, himself a former prisoner and dedicated to researching the experiences of Australian and New Zealand prisoners who remained behind enemy lines (see his www.anzacpow.com website) tells me that, after a review in 1987 set up by Prime Minister Hawke, some Anzac European POWs—mainly airmen—received an ex-gratia payment of $10,000 for having been transferred from Geneva-supervised German prison camps to Nazi concentration camps. Up until that review, the Australian Government had steadfastly refused to recognise such transfers. I am getting off the track but it is important to note that Monteath is the first author Bill Rudd has come across that brings up the significant matter of reciprocity of Australian treatment to the German POW held in Australia, a vital point in Germany not involving itself in the ICRC Exchange of POW programs until late 1943.

The European prisoners had remarkable experiences of hardship. Perhaps if P.O.W had been published earlier, and their stories brought to a broader readership, Australian prisoners of the Reich might not have had to wait so long for their much-deserved compensation. Monteath’s deeply researched analysis of the German prisoner experience would have done much for their cause.

The first few chapters of P.O.W. give the impression that this is an intimate, personal account of the prisoner experience. Many former prisoners are introduced in quick succession—telling how they were captured—and the reader expects that at some point their stories will be taken up again and Monteath will eventually relate the ‘what happens next’. But for the majority this is not so. This is a narrative account of prisoner experiences and Monteath uses first-hand accounts to illustrate his overarching themes—Capture, Captivity, Liberation—and there is little place for detailed biography. At first flush this is disappointing as Monteath skilfully and quickly creates pen biographies so the reader is immediately engaged. However, it soon becomes apparent that Monteath has presented a detailed, competent narrative and analysis which, reflecting his academic background, makes use of official British and Commonwealth records as well as ones from German sources. He also points out the significance of the Nazi culture on the treatment of prisoners and the degradation of all enemies of the state.

Given my own interest in social military history I feel it is almost heresy to admit that in this case Monteath’s approach is more important than just telling the personal stories. And why? Because, incredibly, (as far as I can recall at least) nothing so detailed and all-encompassing on the German prisoner of war experience has been published previously in Australia: just one chapter in the official history of the air war in Europe (Herington: Air Power Over Europe) and assorted scattered accounts of various aspects of the experience. (New Zealand has been better served with an entire volume of their Second World War official history devoted to prisoners of German, Italian and Japanese forces ie Wynne Mason’s Prisoners of War.)

Peter Monteath is to be congratulated for rectifying this dearth of detailed, authoritative and analytical narratives. P.O.W. is an excellent book and will do much to bring the European prisoner experience out of the shadow to stand alongside that of the Japanese prisoners. P.O.W is readable, accessible and the analytical framework reflects sound research. This important book should become known as the official history of the Australian prisoners of the Reich.



  • Faber & Faber December 2011, hard cover dust wrapper. 362pp, b&w plates
    Faber & Faber December 2011, hard cover dust wrapper. 362pp, b&w plates
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol. LII, issue, No. 4, December 2011 and Allen & Unwin’s Military eNewsletter November–December 2011 http://mailcast3.atwww.com/em/message/email/view.php?id=843736&u=18037)

My ‘experience’ of the London’s grant hotels during the war has been restricted to images of the American war correspondents haunting the Dorchester during the Blitz but Matthew Sweet shows that that the Ritz, the Savoy, Claridges, the Dorchester and others of their ilk played host to many more interesting characters and stories. We read of those who (in perhaps my favourite passage):

presented the maintenance of their pre-war social lives as a form of war-work: they lunched for England, eating modestly in grand restaurants and tolerating the smallness of the omelettes to demonstrate that Hitler was too impotent a force to disrupt the social rituals of the West End.

But, as a serious counterpoint, we also read, for instance, of the sad life of the Yugoslav prince born at Claridges, in a suite declared Yugoslav territory for one night; we discover the tragic life and death of a woman who suffered the consequences of an ill-advised liaison; and we smile at the Savoy’s involvement in ‘the kitchen front’.

This is best sort of social history; Matthew Sweet has done the research. He has interviewed those who were there, trawled through recently declassified government files and previously unpublished letters, read the memoirs and dug up photographs. He reconstructs a lost world and makes it accessible through an easily readable style and witty (and wicked) turn of phrase. Every page reveals something previously hidden and there is much to delight in this thoroughly entertaining account of the staff, reds, royalties, traitors and others who took up residency, or politely worked in the background.

A note of warning. The cover, subtitle—The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels—and the back cover blurb—‘A gloriously witty, scandalous and eye-opening history of the aristocrats, spies, criminals and staff...’—give the impression that this is a light-hearted and light-on account of London’s great hotels during the Second World War. Don’t be mislead and put off. The West End Front is witty and there is plenty of scandal but, ultimately, it is a serious account of many unknown incidents of London’s grander home front.



  • Air Power Development Centre Publication 2010, card covers, 214pp, b&w photos
    Air Power Development Centre Publication 2010, card covers, 214pp, b&w photos
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. LIII, No. 1 March 2012 and http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/into-midst-of-things-sir-richard.html 7 May 2012)

The Royal Australian Air Force’s Office of Air Force History (OAFH) has a remarkable oral history program and has now produced a number of autobiographies under its auspices. The text of Into the Midst of Things derived from a series of interviews with Sir Richard and Lady Kingsland and was supplemented by Sir Richard’s records as well as extensive interviews conducted by the National Library of Australia. The raw material was then shaped into a captivating narrative by the RAAF Historian, Dr Chris Clark, and sensitively edited by Wing Commander Keith Brent, both ensuring Sir Richard’s distinctive voice is not lost.

Sir Richard had long resisted a biography and one of the reasons he was happy to become part of the OAFH’s oral history program was simply because it was the RAAF who was asking. He acknowledges the important place the RAAF held in his life and wartime career and even as a launching pad to his post-war career. Even so, in his prologue, Sir Richard makes it clear that this account does not include the ‘complete “me” to be put out for public scrutiny’. Not because he has anything to hide, or because he has failed to recognise his weaknesses, but because he did not necessarily want those failings ‘broadcast or highlighted for posterity’. And there the reader catches a first glimpse of Sir Richard’s sense of humour which makes reading this memoir-with-gaps such a delight.

Sir Richard Kingsland, AO, CBE, DFC, (né Julius Allen ‘Dick’ Cohen) has a distinguished place in the history of the RAAF, Australian defence and public administration. His air force career took him from a Point Cook cadet in 1935 to Group Captain within ten years. He saw service with 10 Squadron, was awarded the DFC as a young flight lieutenant in 1940 following a dangerous operation in Vichy-controlled Morocco, took over command of 11 Squadron and was director of RAAF intelligence in the latter stages of the war. He was clearly marked for greater things in the post-war air force but transferred to the public service in 1948 and pursued a career in the Department of Civil Aviation, then Air, and then Defence. In 1963 he was head of his department and he remained in charge of two large organisations for the next 18 years.

I like a certain amount of biographical topping and tailing, but I usually stop reading memoirs when they delve too much into the post-war career. I didn’t stop with this one. I continued to be fascinated. Interestingly, Sir Richard offers no false modesty regarding his flying career (he was a good pilot and acknowledges this) but he was very reluctant to give himself credit for anything else. A perfect example of this is when he tells of his Point Cook classmates. He admits that he found himself ‘associated with a group of “giants”...It seemed to me that they were the best specimens selected from a large number of young people from around Australia who had already acquitted themselves in a variety of ways’. And some of those continued to acquit themselves well such as Colin Hannah, later Sir Colin, air marshal, Chief of the Air Staff and governor of Queensland and Hughie Edwards who was awarded the Victoria Cross. With the benefit of hindsight, Sir Richard could confidently acknowledge that he was one of those giants. He may not admit it, but his ‘giantness’ shines through his achievements.

As I raced through his memoir I mused that Sir Richard was a closet thriller writer: he would often signpost exciting things to come, even before he had finished telling of something equally interesting. But this foreshadowing directly relates to Sir Richard’s preference for starting a story in the middle, revealing the before and after as he goes along. And hence the title, Into the Midst of Things. But the title could equally have been As Luck Would Have it. Sir Richard’s life is full of turning point episodes where, if his luck had run out, things would have turned out very differently indeed. I won’t list the many examples (starting with what if the RAAF hadn’t accepted the cadet application from someone who did not have any burning ambition to fly!) you can read them yourself but, interestingly ‘luck’ is a major theme of this memoir ‘How Shorthand led to the Air Force’, ‘My Career Stocks got a Lucky Break’, and ‘Dicing with Death at the Flemington Track’ (the image of what might have been the end of his life or at least flying career is incorporated into the front cover design). He even crossed the Atlantic in the ‘lucky’ Bayano. It is a shame that ‘amazing’ has been so overworked these days because there is a great deal in Sir Richard’s life which amazes the reader.

Into the Midst of Things is ‘unputdownable’. It is well-written, fast-moving, very well edited and when you want good description it is there. I love reading about the joy of flight and how our pilots responded to the thrill of being in control of their aircraft. Sir Richard’s account of his first solo flight is pure magic and I could see his wide grin as I read it. Sir Richard may have wanted to hide some aspects of his personality but he clearly reveals himself to be a man of warmth, charm, great humour with a wonderful capacity to make and keep friends. Brief encounters as a young man would result in life-long friendships. And yet, the warmth is counterbalanced by a certain dispassion; Sir Richard does not dwell on the emotion of an incident. He ‘tells it like it is’. And perhaps this ability to set aside the emotion is a key to his success in public administration and people management.

I don’t think it is too much to state that Into the Midst of Things is one of the best air force memoirs I have read in a long time. It reveals the person, it recounts interesting stories from an interesting flying career and, happily, it is well-produced and almost perfectly copyedited. I have two criticisms, however. OAFH obviously had access to Sir Richard’s personal photo albums, so I would have liked to have seen more photos. And, with a career that crossed the paths of so many other fliers and important people, I believe an index is essential. The price of the book is clearly subsidized so I think a little extra should be spent on these essentials. These minor criticisms aside, this is an enthralling must-have read for the aviation enthusiast and anyone else interested in Australian memoir.



  • (Published by Aircrew Book Review 30 September 2012 http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/don-charlwood-rip_30.html)
    (Published by Aircrew Book Review 30 September 2012 http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/don-charlwood-rip_30.html)
    (Published in Sbretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol. LIII, No. 2, June 2012; reprinted in AHSA Newsletter Vol. 28 No. 4, December 2012; and Aircrew Book Review http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/lost-without-trace-leon-kane-maguire.html)

The biennial RAAF Heritage Awards were established in 1987 to foster an interest in the history of service aviation and enhance RAAF records. Awards are given for outstanding achievements in literature and art, and assistance is given to those undertaking historical research. As well as a generous prize, the literary award includes publication of the winning manuscript. These memoirs, biographies and historical accounts have added considerably to Australian air force knowledge. Lost Without Trace, which won the 2010 award, is a welcome addition to the RAAF’s publication program.

Leon Kane-Maguire was one of Australia’s most respected scientists and, as well as over 175 scientific papers, he had written or co-written three RAAF squadron histories. He died in January 2011 and never saw his final work in print.

Lost Without Trace is a biography of Wilbur Wackett, son of Lawrence Wackett, who flew in the Australian Flying Corps during the Great War and founded the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. Wilbur followed his father’s footsteps into the air force and served with 2, 24, 75 and 31 squadrons. With 75 Squadron, he participated in the New Guinea air campaign during which he was shot down. Barefooted, he spent a month crossing Papua’s rugged terrain, avoiding capture, to return to his comrades at Port Moresby. In September 1944, 23 year-old Wilbur’s Beaufighter crashed in the Northern Territory. Evidence was later discovered that Wilbur and his navigator had survived, but there was no sign of what had become of them. The bulk of this biography deals with Wilbur’s background, training and RAAF service but the heart is his loss in September 1944 and the aftermath.

I enjoyed Lost Without Trace but I have one concern and one criticism which I will get out of the way so I can give the praise it deserves. Firstly, heritage manuscripts are supposed to be 55,000 words, although longer manuscripts may be considered. Lost Without Trace is just under 60,000 words (including standard preliminaries). With such a tight word limit an author must make hard decisions about what to include and what to omit; the ruling doctrine must be ‘if it does not specifically relate to the central subject, leave it out’. My concern is that Kane-Maguire did not make the best use of his word limit when he included large extracts from non-Wilbur material. For example, blocks of scene-setting recollections should have been pared to a few descriptive sentences, and a handful of survey paragraphs would have served better than the pages describing the fall of Rabaul when Wilbur—a recent posting to 24 Squadron—was in Townsville. My sole criticism is no fault of the author: it is the lack of an index. I believe an index is essential for any historical work.

And now to the praise. Kane-Maguire’s literary talents are obvious in Lost Without Trace. He had the support of Wilbur’s extended family and competently drew on their archives and other available source material. The text is well-written and sparkles with Wilbur’s letters and diary extracts. His whimsical sketches are a charming and enlightening addition. It is a shame Wilbur did not write more as there are large gaps in his diaries but they are largely filled by drawing on recollections and the historical record.

The danger in quoting letters in their entirety, as Kane-Maguire has done, is that the incidental can distract from the important. Where few contemporary witnesses remain, however, they become an essential gauge of personality and character. In including Wilbur’s letters almost unedited, Kane-Maguire has allowed Wilbur’s personality to shine through. His enthusiasm for his flying and RAAF work is vivid and I for one was glad to read of the exciting and mundane in his service career. Perhaps Wilbur’s account of his difficult trek across Papua could have been shortened but, penned shortly after his return to Australia, it is a significant document and through it the reader gains a clear impression of the hardship Wilbur—and other evaders, for that matter—endured during the long and dangerous walk home through Japanese territory.

I always find ‘last letters’ moving. With the benefit of hindsight, I cannot keep the knowledge of what-happens-next from my reading of them. And so it is with Wilbur’s. It is to his parents, and, as he congratulates them on their silver anniversary, he shows clearly the depth of his love for his young bride. He touches on the pride and love for his daughter who he will never see, and we feel his stoic sadness that he is missing out on her growing up. His joy in flying is briefly encapsulated when he proudly declares that ‘I have my own kite now and she’s a little honey.’ The final poignant request—‘do not worry about me I’ll be OK, and home again before you know where you are’—is heart wrenching. This is one letter that needed to be published in full.

Wilbur’s story resonates. He never returned home. His body was never found. We share the Wacketts’ pain, their frustration at the dearth of official information, Lawrence Wackett’s desperate attempts at string-pulling to find out more, and the ultimate despair of not knowing what happened. We grieve at the continuing loss for the Wackett family: the deaths of Wilbur’s daughter when she was only fourteen months old and his wife, Peggie, at a young age.

The Wackett family only learned in 1980, by chance, that Wilbur had survived the crash and Peggie, who died in 1956, never knew. We wonder at how vital grief-assuaging information and relics were not passed on when first discovered. In piecing together what happened to Wilbur after his September 1944 combat, Kane-Maguire has provided closure for Julie, Peggie’s daughter from her second marriage, and Wilbur’s extended family.

Leon Kane-Maguire’s posthumous literary gift is a fine biography and a fitting memorial to Wilbur.



  • (Published in Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol LIII, No. 4, December 2012)
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol LIII, No. 4, December 2012)
    (Published by Aircrew Book Review 30 September 2012 http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/don-charlwood-rip_30.html)

Many of you would have read Don Charlwood’s No Moon Tonight (1956) where, in a novelistic style, he tells of his experiences in Bomber Command. I consider that one of the best aviation books I’ve read. His 1991 book, Journeys into Night, is ‘up there’ in my ‘best ever’ list.

As with the earlier book, Journeys into Night is also thoughtfully and lyrically written but this reflects the maturity of someone who is looking back on the distant past. Like No Moon Tonight it deals with the young Charlwood’s experiences in his bomber squadron but it also follows closely the experiences and fates of his training comrades and members of his crew.

Charlwood uses extracts from his own diaries as well as the writings of his companions, so the reader is continually experiencing shifting perceptions: the fresh experience; the mature reflection. There is a strong bittersweet sentiment running through the account and the reader is constantly reminded that many will not return—there is almost a sense of a ‘countdown’. For example, ‘Two lads who sleep near me failed to return this morning’, he wrote to his young lass, ‘I woke when the rest came in and heard the news. I saw their belongings still in their places…It all happens so quietly that one does not realise that they have been victims of war’.

Alongside the sadness, there is an occasional flash of that unmistakable brand of Aussie humour and irreverence. Like the time, for instance, they encountered the Station Warrant Officer, a florid, elderly-looking man. He wore the ribbons of ‘14–‘18 and would oft declare that he didn’t believe in parachutes. Of course, the boys, knowing they may need to rely on theirs to save their lives, quickly realised he was a ‘wingless wonder’, and doubted he had ever been high enough to need one!

The humour was also poignantly apparent in times of danger, like when the MO was trying to convince them of the good sense of using oxygen during flight. The MO had an uphill battle as there was a degree of male braggadocio about this: real men could do with less oxygen, just as they could hold liquor better than the rest. It wasn’t until he provided them with a practical example of the effects of anoxia, that it all sunk in:

We were taken up to 28,000 feet, three of us with oxygen and three without. The three without all started well enough, but gradually became like drunks. Watching Harry work out simple division was excruciatingly funny…When his calculations reached the end of the page, Harry continued with supreme confidence down his trouser leg.

Then the MO asked Charlwood to feel his oxygen lead. Charlwood found it plugged in, but the Doc informed him he had actually been unconscious until Harry had connected him. It was a real wake up call.

If you can get your hands on this, it is well worth a read. Tinged with sadness and the inevitability of death, yes, but full of the joy of mateship and beautifully written. 



  • Exisle Publishing, 2012, card covers, 224pp, b&w photos
    Exisle Publishing, 2012, card covers, 224pp, b&w photos
    (Published in Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol LIII, No. 4, December 2012)

Few of the many Battle of Britain accounts already on the shelves deal with the contribution of Australians and New Zealanders, and yet the Antipodean contingent represented a quarter of the 574 Commonwealth and foreign allies’ pilots and gunners who made up roughly a fifth of the almost 3000 men who defended Britain during the world’s first air battle. And they were quality fighters. As Dr Adam Claasen points out, the Anzacs supplied nearly a third of the Battle’s top ten aces—Pat Hughes, Brian Carbury and Colin Gray—who accounted for close to 50 enemy aircraft before the Battle concluded. Indeed, the seven Kiwi aces accounted for nearly 40 per cent of all New Zealand claims, and the six Australian aces accounted for close to 60 per cent of theirs. Seventy-two years after the conclusion of the Battle, we now have a clear evaluation and analysis of the deeds of the Anzac airmen as well as those of New Zealanders Keith Park and Archibald McIndoe. And it has been worth the wait.

Dr Claasen and I differ on a number of points relating to Battle of Britain research. He accepts Dennis Newton’s tally of 37 Australian pilots and gunners participating in the Battle of Britain whereas I tend towards the Office of Air Force History’s ‘30 or so’. But disagreement is all part of the rich tapestry of Battle of Britain research—even official sources vary on the totals—and does not in any way detract from the importance of Dogfight. Indeed, Dr Claasen avoids the discrepancy debate. He acknowledges his debt to earlier work by Australian Dennis Newton and New Zealander Errol Martyn, highlights some of the problems with participant numbers, and gets on with his narrative.

Dogfight. The Battle of Britain is one of the first titles in the Anzac Battles Series. Edited by Glyn Harper, the series is devised specifically for an Australian and New Zealand readership and focuses on the great military battles of the twentieth century in which Australian and New Zealanders participated. Dr Claasen was the right person to pen this valuable addition to any Battle of Britain library. As well as the author of Hitler’s Northern War: The Luftwaffe’s Ill-fated Campaign, 1940–1945 which did much to widen our understanding of the Third Reich’s way of war, he is a senior lecturer in modern history and international relations at New Zealand’s Massey University, specialising in the Second World War and the role of air power in military campaigns.

Sadly, for such an important book, there are some careless errors—Dr Claasen has been let down by his copy editor. For example, on page 89 Dick Glyde is credited with a DSO when he was awarded the DFC; page 175 has John Crossman flying with 49 Squadron rather than 46; and the citation for his combat details in the page 216 endnote is John Curchin’s combat report. There are also a handful of errors of fact, such as the reference, on page 141, to Pat Hughes’ education at Fort Street High School at Haberfield. He lived at Haberfield, and the school was—and is—located at Petersham. There are also odd occasions when some facts have been elided such as, on page 53, the statement that Dick Glyde was denied admittance to the RAAF on medical grounds and so paid his own way to Britain where he joined the RAF. True on the surface, but he had actually commenced his RAAF cadetship before he was discharged on medical grounds in March 1934. A subsequent application was declined. Dr Claasen has drawn on a variety of sources such as his own interviews and correspondence, airmen memoirs, and official records. These few errors of fact appear to have resulted from secondary sources rather than primary evidence. (I have been advised that some errors have been corrected for the first reprint.)

Dr Claasen follows the general chronology of the battle but many of his sub-chapters are thematic. These changes in perspective—from action to analysis or discussion—are handled deftly. He has a gift for selecting just the right story such as Robert Spurdle’s first solo which is appropriately representative of every pilot. He wastes no words, doesn’t get bogged down with detail, does not thump the reader over the head with his opinions, and does not build up a story for dramatic impact. He recounts each episode in the airman’s career briefly and with little emotion. Take, for example the occasion when a man doing Gordon Olive a favour died tragically in flames. Dr Claasen quietly allows the reader to gain the full impact of a life cut short as a consequence of an act of kindness. He also has an eye for the humorous, and his account of Clifford Emeny’s little man against the RAF Goliath is a delight.

Dr Claasen’s discussion of life and death matters is finely balanced. In this thematic chapter, he deals with the tragedy of death, the senselessness of accidents, and puts the hedonism of the off-duty pilot in context as a mechanism to counter the rigours and stresses of battle. He also touches on the vagaries of war, for instance, contrasting the death of battle-hardened Dick Glyde with the survival of the barely experienced Clive Mayers on the same day. He sensitively deals with grief and George Gribble’s ‘Damn and blast this bloody war’ is the one curse that almost every airman who lost a close friend or comrade in battle must have uttered. Dr Claasen’s light touch is ever present. Just enough detail to convey the loss felt by those left behind, but never cloying and over done.

Storytelling aside, Dr Claasen has a gift for précis. His concise summary of Dowding’s system is one of the best I have read and he ably breaks down the complex, such as the mechanics of baling out, into easily digestible chunks. His analysis of the part played by the Antipodean contingent in the Battle is nothing short of brilliant.

Dr Claasen and I may not agree on the total number of Australians in the Battle of Britain but we agree on the significance of their contribution, along with that of their New Zealander colleagues-in-arms. This is an important work and Dr Claasen has offered something new and valuable in the Battle of Britain literary canon. Silly errors aside, I enjoyed it and learned much.