Lost Aus­tralians who must not be for­got­ten

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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