Good Reading : October 2006
18 goodreading ı OCTOBER 2006 categorical about these patrols, which were certainly the highlight of his war, and I was amazed to find that the original operational reports of them are available online through the Australian War Museum website by reference to the battalion involved. For those with access to first-hand accounts, it is fascinating to find certain details – the Gurkha penchant for removing ears; the role of a Salvation Army padre in providing hot food – confirmed in the voluminous primary and secondary sources available.Let Enemies Beware:The History of the 2/15 Battalion by R Austin is based on operational diaries and memoirs of participants.Tobruk and El Alamein by Barto Maughan is a detailed and scholarly military history of these campaigns, while Alamein:The Australian Story by Mark Johnston and Peter Stanley focuses on the 9th division’s role in the Alamein campaign. Peter FitzSimons’s Tobruk is an example of the hybrid genre sometimes known as ‘faction’. Unlike some exponents of the genre, FitzSimons is at least up front about the method adopted. In the introductions to both Tobruk and Kokoda he has the decency to make clear that he feels free to make up some of what he writes (while not changing any known facts). A ‘novel-like feel’ is how he puts it.This reviewer would prefer the genres to not blend. Absent first-hand accounts (which of course have their own problems to do with self justification and hindsight), the question about what is in a past figure’s mind is best left to historical fiction. The other iconic campaign of the war for Australians is Kokoda. Again its fascination lies in the fact that it was a predominantly Australian operation.The Japanese never in fact had a chance of taking Port Moresby; had no intention of invading Australia; and were criminally neglected by a high command that had started to believe its own propaganda about ‘Japanese spirit’ (yamato damash- ii). But the campaign, particularly in its early stages, showed Australian troops performing both very well against the odds – in the case of the 39th battalion – and, in the case of the 53rd battalion, very poorly. Paul Ham’s Kokoda is highly readable, covers the campaign from both Japanese and Australian perspectives, and avoids mythologising. Peter Brune s Those Ragged Bloody Heroes focuses on the divergent experiences of the 39th and 53rd militia battalions.The contrast is revealing of the importance of leadership, training and equipment, and is a timely reminder that not all Australians are born soldiers. Brune’s The Spell Broken is about the little-known Milne Bay campaign in 1942 which was in fact the first significant defeat of the Japanese army in World War II. Also undeservedly forgotten are the post-Kokoda campaigns to clear the Japanese from central New Guinea. John Coates’s Bravery Above Blunder is a detailed military history of the Huon Peninsula campaign in 1943 and describes one of the largest-scale operations ever undertaken by Australian troops independently. Accounts of both the North African and New Guinea cam- paigns draw heavily on the contemporaneous reporting for the ABC of Chester Wilmot, the closest thing World War II produced to a CEW Bean. Many of Wilmot’s original broadcasts can be read in Chester Wilmot Reports by Neil Mcdonald. In Singapore in 1941, Australians got their first taste of major defeat since Gallipoli. Peter Thompson’s The Battle for Singapore is a balanced account of the greatest disaster to ever befall British or Australian armies. Hellfire by Cameron Forbes is a thoughtful treat- ment of the Malaya campaign and the subsequent experiences of captivity of Australian POWs. Unusually, Forbes makes an attempt to understand how the Japanese military code of bushido could be so perverted as to permit the Japanese army to commit war crimes with such sickening frequency. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the world that Australians fought to defend in North Africa and New Guinea in the 1940s has almost entirely disappeared.White Australia went in the late sixties; high tariffs in the seventies and eighties; the last bastion to fall was probably the industrial relations system despatched by the most recent amendments to the Workplace Relations Act. All of this terr itory is highly contested, as even a casual perusal of John Hirst’s Sense and Nonsense in Australian History would suggest. Recent history blends into jour- nalistic editorial, and a definitive history of the post-war period in Australia remains to be written.When it is it will certainly be worth a look. In Singapore in 1941, Australians got their first taste of major defeat since Gallipoli.