SPAR­ROW: A CHRON­I­CLE OF DE­FI­ANCE

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - BOOKS - WAR WIN­NER:

FI­NALLY, a no- punches- pulled, be­hind- thescenes ac­count of one of mil­i­tary his­tory's most de­fi­ant forces. When Sin­ga­pore fell to the Ja­panese in Fe­bru­ary 1942, it ap­peared lit­tle could be done to stop their con­quest of all of South- east Asia and the Pa­cific.

One af­ter another, Bri­tish and Al­lied out­posts were over­run or left be­hind to starve and ca­pit­u­late. When Al­lied morale was at its low­est point in 1942, Dar­win re­ceived the fol­low­ing mes­sage: “Force in­tact. Still fight­ing. “Badly need boots, qui­nine, money and Tommy- gun am­mu­ni­tion.”

That fa­mous mes­sage came from an im­pro­vised ra­dio called “Win­nie the War Win­ner” built by Spar­row Force, the Aus­tralian and Bri­tish force that de­fended Ti­mor in 1942.

Iso­lated for 60 days, they waged a guer­rilla cam­paign that held off Ja­pan's most suc­cess­ful forces. Win­ston Churchill ac­knowl­edged their grit with the words, “They alone did not sur­ren­der”.

Grant McLach­lan’s Spar­row: A Chron­i­cle of De­fi­ance doc­u­ments the his­tory of Spar­row Force. He uses the sub­ti­tle: “An epic ac­count of The Spar­rows – Bat­tle of Bri­tain gun­ners who de­fended Ti­mor as part of Spar­row Force in 1942.” In fact, it is much more.

Spar­row is a re­mark­able book, first for its size, more than 790 pages, sec­ond for the ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of in­for­ma­tion and ev­i­dence of re­search and third for its style.

The book is the au­thor's first and it is clearly a labour of love. The au­thor be­gins with an 18- page de­scrip­tion of his own jour­ney of dis­cov­ery about the re­search and writ­ing of the book. What set out as fam­ily his­tory re­search into the war ser­vice of the au­thor's grand­fa­ther grew into a re­mark­able study of the cre­ation of Spar­row Force, its epic bat­tles in early 1942 and a record of the fate of those who be­came pris­on­ers of the Ja­panese.

Pre­vi­ous au­thors have tack­led the sub­ject of the war on Ti­mor in 1942. Few men­tion the by Grant McLach­lan RRP $ 75.50 Bat­tle of Bri­tain hard­ened anti- air­craft bat­tery that was part of Spar­row Force and even fewer link the suf­fer­ing of those taken pris­oner on Ti­mor with the fight­ing they did be­fore they were cap­tured. Spar­row makes a mon­u­men­tal at­tempt to cover it all by fol­low­ing the au­thor's grand­par­ents from the out­break of war through to their re­union upon the grand­fa­ther's re­turn, which of­ten finds them in the mid­dle of many land­mark events of the war.

The au­thor has cho­sen to write the bulk of the text as if it is a first- per­son nar­ra­tive. It is not a style I am par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able with. I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by how my grand­par­ents formed their sen­tences and their use of words that had slipped from com­mon use by my gen­er­a­tion. I as­pired to copy this speech but never quite achieved it. For this rea­son, I won­der why the au­thor has cho­sen to recre­ate the di­a­logue of the char­ac­ters in his nar­ra­tive in such a way.

But for all of my con­cern about the style, oth­ers have found it en­gag­ing and treat it as a trans­la­tion from the mid- 20th cen­tury to the sec­ond decade of the 21st. The au­thor's re­search is ex­haus­tive and his in­ter­views with vet­er­ans ex­ten­sive, so he is well placed to de­scribe the events in de­tail and make ed­u­cated guesses about how those con­ver­sa­tions may have played out. That said, the story en­gages the reader much like a movie script, mak­ing it per­fect for big screen adap­ta­tion.

The nar­ra­tive is unique in that it tells par­al­lel sto­ries. When other au­thors have tack­led this sub­ject, they have di­vided the short bat­tle and long cap­tiv­ity of western Ti­mor group and the year- long guer­rilla war fought by the largely Western Aus­tralian in­de­pen­dent com­pany on east­ern Ti­mor into two ge­o­graph­i­cally spe­cific nar­ra­tives and told those sto­ries sep­a­rately. This au­thor has cho­sen a strictly chrono­log­i­cal ap­proach and so in the space of one para­graph, the reader is trans­ported from the de­scrip­tion of a dar­ing am­bush by a small band of guer­ril­las in the moun­tains of cen­tral east Ti­mor to an ac­count of the aus­tere, mo­not­o­nous, of­ten bru­tal ex­is­tence of cap­tured Bri­tish and Aus­tralian sol­diers be­ing used as slave labour­ers near Koepang. The story is es­pe­cially poignant as it in­volves the strug­gles of sol­diers’ wives help­ing the war ef­fort on the home front as they pon­der their hus­bands’ fate.

In the fi­nal sec­tion of the book, a 100- page col­lec­tion of chap­ters un­der the head­ing “Af­ter­math”, the au­thor shares his per­spec­tives on the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the Pa­cific War, the atomic bomb, the treat­ment of Al­lied pris­on­ers of war by the Ja­panese and the post- war war crimes tri­als. He fin­ishes with some fas­ci­nat­ing ob­ser­va­tions on the sta­tis­tics of the POW ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing World War II.

The book will have very wide ap­peal as it con­tains mind­bog­gling quan­ti­ties of in­for­ma­tion, from graphs, ta­bles, maps and nom­i­nal roles that any mil­i­tary his­to­rian with an in­ter­est in the sub­ject will find use­ful, as well as a nar­ra­tive of per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal dis­cov­ery to de­light the most avid ge­neal­o­gist, fam­ily his­to­rian or lover of a good story well told.

The web­site that ac­com­pa­nies the book ( www. spar­row­book. com) goes fur­ther by map­ping the events por­trayed and in­clud­ing an ex­ten­sive ar­chive of unique film footage, in­ter­view clips, im­ages and re­search links. Much of the re­mark­able di­a­logue in the story is ver­ba­tim to those in­ter­views.

Spar­row is a record of gal­lant sol­diers who did their job to the best of their abil­ity against over­whelm­ing odds and in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. For those who were cap­tured it is a story of en­durance, in­ge­nu­ity and mate­ship. When McLach­lan called it a chron­i­cle of de­fi­ance he could not have cho­sen a more apt ti­tle. It is a fit­ting trib­ute to a past gen­er­a­tion of war­riors from one of their de­scen­dants.

The fa­mous im­pro­vised ra­dio built by Spar­row Force that re­gained con­tact with Aus­tralia af­ter 60 days of iso­la­tion. Brad is an his­to­rian and ex­ec­u­tive man­ager of the AN­ZAC Me­mo­rial in Syd­ney. Any­one with rel­a­tives who were mem­bers of the 2/ 40 In­fantry Bat­tal­ion who wish to con­tact the au­thor can email grant@ klaut. co. uk

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