Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent
by Neil McDonald with Peter Brune
NewSouth Books, 2016, 493 pages, $49.99
Like many people, Chester Wilmot experienced a short period that defined who he was and determined the rest of his life. This period was the four years he spent as a war correspondent. However, there was a second unpleasant undercurrent that affected his work and his life: this was his dispute with the Australian Commander-in-Chief over what Wilmot saw as General Blamey’s misconduct, poor military judgment and political machinations for his own benefit.
Wilmot was in all the key places shaping the world through war and politics. He covered the Middle East, the Papua New Guinea campaign and then, for the BBC, the D-Day invasion and the final advances to victory in north-west Europe.
This review appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Wilmot’s position as a leading correspondent gave him access to all the key players, but through military restrictions and possibly the effects of his dispute with Blamey, he was for a while less critical of the mistakes and failures than he could have been. This is understandable as at some point he must have tired of writing reports that would not pass the censor’s red pencil. His personal correspondence increasingly reveals a divergence from the officially broadcast “glorious news”. These letters and notes formed the basis of a devastating exposé after he lost his Australian war correspondent’s accreditation. This accreditation had opened many doors so he was at times careful to appear more supportive of the “establishment” than he actually was, as that was where the real benefits were.
Neil McDonald (with the collaboration of Peter Brune) has written a most readable book that encapsulates the story of the war years at a strategic level, while providing a well-researched biography of Wilmot. The 493 pages provide two books in one.
I always like to read a short “epitaph” filling in what happened to the main characters after the story ends. The authors virtually terminate Valiant for Truth in two paragraphs on the death of Wilmot in a Comet aeroplane crash on January 10, 1954. It is a stunning finale and I was left echoing the words of a song: “Is that all there is?” The answer is “No”, but the reader is left with the task of researching other books and the internet to find the answer.
When following the story of Chester Wilmot’s early life one is drawn to the conclusion that he was a prisoner of fate and had little choice about becoming a war correspondent, should war occur. His upbringing was a normal one for a middle-class Australian youth in the end of times between the two great European wars. He was a brilliant student and an excellent debater. He fully participated in student life at Melbourne University and gained (I suspect with relative ease) honours in Law and History. Through his father’s work, Melbourne Grammar (where he was school captain) and Melbourne University, Chester gained a coterie of elite contacts who would later prove helpful in his journalistic career.
The key event that shaped his early life occurred when he was one of two students selected to represent Australian students on a world debating tour. This tour included Britain, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, China and the USA—a travelogue of the political hotspots around the world.
One of the delights in reading this book is the range of insights it provides into the political, social conditions and mindset of the pre-Second World War era. McDonald has told the story of the times woven around the world wanderings of Chester and his fellow debater. This tour greatly affected Chester’s view of the world and its political players. Closely observing Nazi Germany swayed his views to the Left as a means of opposing that tyranny, but as the Melbourne-born Australian commented, it also made him “ashamed to be an Englishman”.
Wilmot was rejected for enlistment in the AIF as he was in a reserved occupation. If he so desired, he could sit out the war in safety. Fortunately, the ABC took the opportunity to appoint him as their principal reporter for the Middle East theatre which, as events would have it, turned out to be an inspired choice.
Wilmot’s description of the troopship voyage to the Middle East could have been written by Hal Colebatch in his accounting of the organisation of Australian wharves and military shipping arrangements in his book Australia’s Secret War. Poor planning and chaos ruled the day, but this was a military secret that could not be reported.
Combining Wilmot’s adventures in following and recording the Australian battles in the Middle East and Greece, while simultaneously trying to paint the larger strategic picture, does not flow quite as well as the pre-war story. Wilmot did go right to the front but he never reported an “eyewitness” account if he had not actually witnessed the event. He could not be everywhere and his equipment was cumbersome, so his reporting at this time is rarely about the frontline fighting. There is nothing wrong with this and, given the predilection of today’s media to report “fake news”, it is admirable. Unfortunately, the result is that this part of the book is like a description of Saturday’s football match compiled by interviewing the spectators and players on Sunday.
For all Blamey’s faults—and there are many—it appears he opposed Churchill’s Greek sacrifice “for the sake of a political gesture”. However, it is also clear that when it came to the crunch Blamey’s egotistical desire to command an independent corps in a “glorious” campaign outweighed any arguments he presented objecting to the operation. McDonald gives a good summary of the debacle and Blamey’s failures—yet Blamey went on to higher command, much to the disgust of those who had observed his personal and operational shortcomings. Although this is a biography of Wilmot, the story of the comings and goings of Chester and his crew are added almost as postscript at the end of the chapter. It is fitting that his personal story is subordinated to the momentous events taking place. His escape from Greece via Crete was relatively uneventful, but for many Australians (and New Zealanders) Greece and Crete were where their war ended.
Chester’s concern led him to write a detailed analysis of the Greek campaign. His report confirms the logical conclusion that the whole venture was a foreseeable misadventure. By now he was no longer a simple war journalist, as he had developed a sound understanding of military affairs through a keen, logical observation of operations since his arrival in the Middle East. By applying his natural intelligence to the problem of military strategy, tactics and planning he was already superior to many of the politicians and commanders entrusted with the conduct of the war. Courageously, Wilmot took his analysis directly to Wavell, who accepted its truth, but rejected it for political reasons. When Blamey (below) heard about the report he was enraged.
As Rommel’s juggernaut threw back the over-extended British Army, plans were made to use the Australians to hold Tobruk and deny the Afrika Korps a forward logistics port to support an attack on Egypt. Blamey once more preferred to play politics and replaced General John Lavarack (a potential rival he did not like) with General Leslie Morshead. Note that today the Australian Army’s largest operational base in Townsville is named Lavarack Barracks, not Blamey Barracks.
Wilmot sailed from Alexandria to Tobruk to report on the siege. He shared the frontline dangers of the troops until, in another controversial decision, the weary Australians were withdrawn by sea in a difficult and dangerous evacuation that could have been catastrophic for both their replacements and themselves. This operation was undertaken at the insistence of the Australian government on Blamey’s recommendation.
Once more the Allied armies prepared to advance to attack Rommel. Wilmot, photographer Damien Parer, sound engineer Bill MacFarlane and Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, moved forward to record the event but were caught by German artillery. As Parer drove off from the target area Wilmot was wounded by shrapnel and had to be evacuated to a hospital in Cairo. While there he spent much productive time writing about the deficiencies he had observed. His truthful reports and letters endeared him to no one. He also investigated a shady profiteering contract directly involving Blamey. If character is the measure of a man, then the career of Thomas Blamey proves that having very little is no barrier to success. Before awkward questions could be raised, Wilmot was posted back to Australia.
Turning to the Pacific theatre, McDonald again explains the political and strategic military situation in uncompromising terms. Basically, the military situation was lamentable, with some of the least trained and most unsuitable battalions deployed to Port Moresby. The 8th Division was split up with isolated battalions located at strategic points (where they could be easily defeated) while the bulk of the division was sent to Singapore (where it was later captured). The Australian High Command remained more concerned with its own internal political preening than with preparing to fight a ruthless enemy.
In a bizarre incident before leaving Melbourne for Port Moresby, Wilmot was summoned to the offices of the legal firm where he had served his articles and warned against further investigating Blamey’s conduct or affairs.
Once in Papua in 1942, Wilmot, journalist Osmar White (at left with Wilmot in new Guinea) and Damien Parer moved forward across the Kokoda Track to the forward positions—and then back again as the 21st Brigade was forced to withdraw. Chapter 13 is worth the price of the book alone as Wilmot describes the “mud and the blood” fighting in the words of the soldiers involved. He also wrote an unsolicited report for General Rowell, which contained some errors but is still a very good analysis of the situation and events.
Many books have been written about the crisis resulting from the egotistical machinations of MacArthur, the double dealing of Blamey, the weakness of Curtin and the effect of all this on the combat troops fighting for their lives and Australia. McDonald does not waste time rehashing more than the essentials, but he opens a new window on events by focusing on Wilmot’s fight to clear Rowell’s name and have him restored to command. Curtin demurred with the comment that “we can’t afford to sack him [Blamey]”. In today’s terms Blamey was “too big to fail” no matter how bad he was, as the show must go on.
Wilmot produced a script on the campaign that placed the blame for the failures squarely on Blamey and sent it to Curtin in his role as Defence Minister. On his return to Port Moresby, Blamey sacked him and withdrew his accreditation. Telling the truth can be more dangerous than living with lies. Wilmot fought back with a detailed memo titled “Withdrawal of My Accreditation”. He won the argument but was only weakly supported by the ABC, as they did not believe they could contradict the government. How things have changed!
It took a great deal of political manoeuvring and ministerial intervention for the unaccredited Wilmot to be allowed to work on a documentary called Sons of the Anzacs, but this was a stopgap measure, as working in Sydney, far from the front line, was not what Chester wanted to do. The ever-vengeful Blamey planned to draft him into the Army, reputedly commenting, “A latrine unit is waiting.” Curtin supported Blamey, but both baulked when the threat of revealing Blamey’s corruption was used as blackmail to gain permission for Chester to transfer to the BBC to report on the invasion of Europe. Even then, Blamey wrote to the BBC to try to sabotage the appointment, but Chester’s old friend (and another blameless Blamey victim) General Rowell wrote a glowing report on Chester to the BBC.
He returned to the front and continued his broadcasts as the German Army was pushed back through France, Belgium and Holland. He was completely engrossed in his adventurous work almost to the exclusion of everything else. He was jolted back to reality by the news of the killing of Damien Parer by Japanese machine-gun fire on Peleliu.
In November 1944, Wilmot began planning his post-war career in England by signing a contract to write a book describing and analysing the war in north-western Europe. The Battle of the Bulge interrupted these considerations as Chester was sent once again to report on the last great battle on the Western Front. Wilmot was now an experienced soldier, albeit an unarmed one. On the night before D-Day he boarded a glider and arrived in France, behind the German lines, with the 6th Airborne Division. He was now reporting the war from beyond the front! His first report was broadcast just thirty-six hours later and told of the desperate fighting to secure and hold their position.
On June 12 he briefly returned to England to file his reports, then it was back to France and more controversy. He made some tapes of an interview with Field Marshal Montgomery, but they were embargoed to be broadcast at a later date. The tapes were broadcast just forty-eight hours later, resulting in Chester being sent back to London under escort. Fortunately, his original memo was found and he was exonerated—and naturally the famous guilty party went unpunished. He followed Montgomery’s 2nd Army to the German surrender on Luneburg Heath (which he broadcast live).
His contract with the BBC ended with the war, though he freelanced to cover the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Finally, he began seriously working on his monumental history, Struggle for Europe. Like many adventurers, Chester found it difficult to settle into the routine of normal life, resulting in strains in his marriage. His family returned to Australia for a year before returning to England to join him. Chester accepted another overseas assignment that included a visit to Sydney to report on the Queen’s Australian visit. His return flight tragically ended his life at the age of just forty-three.
Alistair Pope is a retired Australian Army officer