Lost Australians who must not be forgotten
n November 1941, a month after John Curtin became prime minister, The Sun newspaper in Sydney assessed how he was settling in. The article, by Alan Reid, was accompanied by a two-panel cartoon. In the first panel Curtin, resplendent in striped bathers, is about to plunge into a hole in the ice: “For six years he shivered on the brink.” In the second panel a smiling, confident Curtin looks out from the water, an approving penguin looking on: “Now he’s taken the plunge and his critics are amazed!”
In John Curtin’s War: Triumph and Decline, John Edwards reveals the scale of the challenge facing Curtin in those unnerving months from late 1941 through to the middle of 1942. This is the second volume of Edwards’s biography of Australia’s wartime leader.
The Labor leader was a political figure who had cut his teeth on the bread-and-butter issues of domestic politics. Suddenly he was in charge of a party he’d had to drag kicking and screaming to acknowledge the facts of international life and leading a nation under threat of Japanese invasion.
As Edwards shows, these were new circumstances for an Australian leader. Curtin was not only prime minister but “the only warlord Australia ever had”. The task was indeed immense, but in this absorbing study of high diplomatic and military strategy, Edwards demonstrates that Curtin was up to it.
He not only had to direct the war effort but also handle the wiles and whims of the imperious American general Douglas Macarthur, the arrogance and pomposity of British prime minister Winston Churchill, scallywags in his own party who were out to cause trouble and an opposition that at times preferred to support British policies in the Pacific War rather than those favoured by Curtin and US planners.
It is often forgotten that even after his dramatic “turn to America” of December 1941, it took some time for those US forces to arrive. With Britain focused on the Atlantic, there was a dangerous period, from late February to midMarch 1942, when Australia, lacking the armoury to defend itself adequately, truly was alone, the state it had so feared since the late 19th century. Perhaps the most persistent Japan entered World War II with the destruction of much of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The next year was one of serious peril for Australia: the lightning advances down the Malay Peninsula to the “impregnable” British fortress at Singapore and the sustained progress against American and Filipino forces on the Bataan Peninsula.
Australia, having put the bulk of its military to imperial defence in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, was vulnerable to Japanese assault. February was calamitous, with the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin.
Then prime minister John Curtin recalled Australian forces from the Middle East to defend the threatened homeland, raising the ire of British counterpart Winston Churchill, who endeavoured to divert the returning Australian forces to Burma. In such a scenario, they would have joined their comrades of the doomed Australian 8th Division captured in Singapore.
The fate of the 8th Division dominates our history of this dark time of military reversals and humiliations. Tom Gilling, in his outstanding book The Lost Battalions, chronicles the fate of two largely forgotten Australian fighting units under the command of Brigadier Arthur Blackburn — the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and the 2/2nd Pioneers — who were captured by superior Japanese forces on Java in early March 1942.
The Australians had arrived from the fight- ing in the mountains and deserts of Syria, where the Vichy French had been defeated, to face jungle warfare on Java. Despite the fact much of their kit had been left behind, “Blackforce” acquitted itself well, especially in the fighting around Leuwiliang.
At the time, the island of Java was the centrepiece of Dutch colonialism of the Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia. The Allied command was the ABDA (American-BritishDutch-Australian) Coalition. Given the British commander of Allied forces, General Archibald Wavell, had left, the Australians came under the effective command of the Dutch.
Dutch forces on Java constituted a colonial army of occupation. The troops were resented, even despised, by the locals. And like all armies of occupation, they were ineffective in wartime.
Gilling makes it clear the Australians committed to Java were there for reasons of imperial prestige. Australian Corps commander General John Lavarack, who also departed the island, was in no doubt, as Gilling records: Choosing not to say goodbye to Blackburn in person, Lavarack sent him a letter in which he professed to “deeply regret” having to leave Blackburn “stranded” on Java “with a mere handful of Australians”. Lavarack assured him he had done “everything possible to prevent your disembarkation” but said “General Wavell was determined to have you ashore … for reasons of prestige and morale”. For a soldier commanding a suicide mission, it wasn’t much of a send-off.
The Dutch surrender on March 7-8, 1942, proved deeply frustrating for the Australians who had not been defeated in battle. The campaign in Java had been close to a fiasco, with intelligence failures at the top of the list of military weaknesses. At one stage the Dutch reassured the Australians that there were no Japanese within 100 miles (160km) of their position. The Japanese attacked the next day.
Gilling illustrates this with a telling anecdote. The Dutch colonial military boasted to the Australians that they would fight “til the last man and the last bullet”.
“However,” he writes, “their reputation as flaky allies was confirmed, at least in Australian eyes, when a party of machine gunners entered Bandoeng ahead of the main force to make contact with Dutch army headquarters.” He quotes the battalion historian: “It was night by this time. Bandoeng was blacked out and, seeking directions, the party entered a big hotel to find Dutch officers in dress uniform dancing with ladies in evening dress. An officer who spoke reasonable English did not believe any Japanese were on the island, let alone that Australian troops had been in action!”
For the Australians, along with other Allied prisoners of war, the war was only just beginning. The core of Gilling’s compelling account is of Australian captivity, labouring on the Burma Railway and eventually in the coalmines of Japan. It is a story of unrelieved brutality by the Japanese and their abused Korean vassals, of disease and death, malnutrition and murder. It is also a story of unwavering courage and mateship on the part of the PoWs.
In this, the greatness of the captive Australian surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel EE “Weary” Dunlop, shines brilliantly. His unrivalled bravery in confronting the Japanese and protecting the sick is the stuff of legend and his reputation is underlined indelibly in this book.
Gilling’s reputation was originally based mainly on his early works of fiction, especially The Sooterkin and Dreamland. But in more recent years he has mastered the criminal milieu in the authoritative Smack Express: How Organised Crime Got Hooked on Drugs and the chilling Milat: Inside Australia’s Biggest Manhunt, a Detective’s Story.
Now he has made superb use of an Australian Army History Research Grant to afford us a
John Curtin with Group Captain HI Edwards on a 1944 visit to an Australian bomber station in northern England