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The will to survive

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

Pacific 360: Australia’s Battle for Survival in World War II
By Roland Perry
Hachette, $50, pp 512
ISBN 9780733627040

Here is another great door-stopper of a book on Australia’s role in the Pacific in the second world war. The Duke of Wellington once warned a hopeful historian that he could never write an account of Waterloo. It was too complicated. If that is the case with a single 19th-century battle, the task here is of a different order of magnitude. The book is rich in detail, drawing on innumerable previous histories, but cannot make a coherent narrative: some details are over-elaborated, some omitted altogether.

An important positive aspect of the book is the author’s refusal to write a political tract: Curtin, Menzies, MacArthur, even Blamey (highly unlovable, though competent) are portrayed warts and all, but are also given credit for their achievements. They emerge as human beings rather than ideological heroes and villains. More attention could be given to the work of the War Council.

The book is apparently taken entirely from secondary sources, and there are a number of myths and errors repeated. We are informed on the fifth page that Churchill repeatedly claimed Australians came from ‘bad stock’. In fact, this claim’s only source is the memoirs of his (unethical) doctor, Lord Moran, who seems to have retailed an outburst by a desperately strained and weary man. In fact Churchill’s memoirs are full of praise for the Australians.

Perhaps the biggest omission is the 1944 Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference, at which Curtin and Churchill discussed the embryonic idea of a British Commonwealth nuclear force.

Churchill and Curtin, we are told, were both alcoholics. This is generally taken to mean someone so continually drunk as to be incapable of functioning, which applies to neither Churchill nor Curtin. The Japanese did not use Bren Guns. Was the 27th Brigade really ‘ravaged by disease and mental illness’?

Another myth is that the big guns at Singapore pointed the wrong way and were incapable of being trained to fire inland. An important part of the real problem was that they had only armour-piercing ammunition, which buried itself uselessly in the mud. (The question of who was responsible for this could have been usefully investigated.)

The fall of Singapore is attributed to ‘Churchill’s folly’ — and Churchill’s staff had indeed been negligent in not looking to its land defences. (Though since Churchill had become Prime Minister during the retreat to Dunkirk, it is understandable that the British government had had other things on its mind then, such as survival.) It might also be worth mentioning that Singapore did not have all-round defences because pre-war Australian governments had refused to contribute to the cost, and had done nothing since. Anyhow, it is debatable that Australia ever faced an existential threat once the Americans began arriving.

It is taken for granted here that the Japanese intended to invade Australia. This is typical of the simplistic manner in which complex and nuanced issues are dealt with. In fact, some sections of the Japanese Navy did want to invade, but the Army thought it was beyond its resources. Others, as the academic specialist Henry Frei has pointed out, wanted Australia reduced to a condition of ‘subservience’, so it could not be used as an American base. The claim that the British were ‘evicted from the Indian Ocean’ is more than doubtful. The Japanese sank some ships in a raid, but that is far short of ‘taking control’. After one raid, they never came back.

The main shortcoming of this book, like many populist Australian histories of the second world war, is that the author gives the impression that the Pacific War was the only war going on. The fact that the major allies decided to ‘beat Hitler first’ was, it is suggested, faintly ridiculous. In fact, it was important to beat Hitler first. Again, the loss of India would have been a disaster for Australia. Given that the Australian population suffered less than almost any other belligerent power, allied grand strategy gave Australians little to complain about.

The author sounds scornful of the fact that only seven Japanese planes were shot down in the raid on Darwin, ‘leaving 181 to fight again’. (Actually 242 took part in the raid.) However, it is worth remembering that the highly-trained Japanese carrier pilots were irreplaceable, and those seven missing, plus those lost when they continued on to attack British ships in the Indian Ocean, meant the Japanese were worn down by attrition by the time of the climactic Battle of Midway, where every plane would count.

Looking up ‘strikes’ in the index, one finds about half a page devoted to wharf strikes, and, earlier, about half a page on a coal strike. In fact the number of days directly lost to strikes — on wharves and in vital industries — was, according to the Commonwealth Yearbooks, something like six million (perhaps a grimly appropriate figure), with the number lost indirectly being a multiple of that. The Battle of Milne Bay, for example, was fought without heavy allied artillery because striking watersiders refused to load the guns. US aircraft being unloaded from ships were deliberately destroyed by watersiders, ship repairs were often sabotaged and under both Curtin and Menzies coal and other strikes had been continual — one reason the defences of Darwin were in a poor state when the Japanese struck, and probably a reason why John Curtin died prematurely. Curtin’s close friend and WA Labor Premier Philip Collier said, ‘They broke his heart, the strikers.’ All this is surely important enough to merit some attention in a book claiming to be comprehensive.

No one could disagree with the author’s portrayal of Labor MP Eddie Ward, skilfully sawing away at Curtin’s psychological vulnerabilities and virtually orchestrating the betrayal of Australian servicemen, as probably the most disgusting figure Australian politics has ever produced. It is an interesting detail that the dying Curtin asked for Robert Menzies to be one of his pallbearers.

The book is a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone seeking details of the Pacific War, but pinches of salt are needed.

Hal G.P. Colebatch’s latest book is The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly.

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