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The Man Who Bested Rommel (and Lionel Murphy)

An Unqualified Success: The Extraordinary Life of Allan Percy Fleming
by Peter Golding
Rosenberg Publishing, 2013, 344 pages, $34.95

Nearly seventy years have passed since the guns of the Second World War fell silent and its atom bombs were put back in their silos (ready in good serviceable shape in case they were needed again soon).

Between 1939 and 1945, the deeds of the Australian men and women waging the global struggle compiled what appears to be an inexhaustible data-bank of the experience of a nation at full wartime stretch. Nowadays, almost every month seems to be producing some fresh drawing on this great deposit, as some new volume is published, or as some new tale is told: the clash of great armies, the valour of small heroic groups like the crew of a single bomber, the fortitude and comradeship of tormented prisoners of war, the ribald gaiety of mates on leave—all shades of human feeling are there.

In the last few months, two particularly distinguished additions have been made to the corpus of Australian military literature. Colonel Graeme Sligo’s The Backroom Boys: Alfred Conlon and Army’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs 1942–46 (Big Sky Press) came out last October. Now we have Peter Golding’s An Unqualified Success: The Extraordinary Life of Allan Percy Fleming. The jacket front tells us that Fleming—distinctions by no means restricted to wartime—was in turn: personal prisoner of German Field Marshal Rommel; journalist; Australian parliamentary librarian; Australian national librarian; spymaster and anti-terrorist leader.

(Not all the products of this “data-bank” reach the class of these two outstanding books. There is also a steady flow of what I judge to be more the catchpenny journalism of, say, Peter FitzSimons’s Kokoda and Tobruk.)

For not one of his demanding responsibilities (let’s omit Rommel!) did Allan Fleming carry any academic qualification or recognised form of training or experience. I’m usually a bit cool towards “trick” titles, depending as they so often do on some dim pun or feeble forced metaphor. But “An Unqualified Success” is exactly right. Allan faced his heavy challenges with only his strong character, mother wit and shining integrity.

In 1967, one of the last official appointments in this world made by Prime Minister Harold Holt, before he slipped beneath the sea for ever, was the appointment of Allan Fleming to be parliamentary librarian. It was indeed a daring step, and Peter Golding gives a good and detailed account of all its twists and turns, performed in the famous Canberra political and bureaucratic snakepit theatre, to the music of axes grinding on all sides.

Allan, with no professional library training or experience, had been performing rather well overseas in Australia’s trade commissioner service. Prime ministerial fiat had whisked him home to create a distinctly superior library and reference service for the special needs of our Commonwealth senators and members of parliament. Such a large and complex structure remains for ever a work in progress, but when Allan moved on to further conquests there was no question that he left a successfully operating parliamentary library behind him.

It is worth adding one detail to Peter Golding’s account, because it so perfectly illustrates Fleming’s gift for firm executive action when he judged that to be needed. And needed it was, in the case of Labor Party grandee, Senator Lionel Murphy, later a judge of the High Court. I have no doubt about my facts, because Allan himself told me every lurid detail later, at one of our frequent private lunches at a favourite South Melbourne Italian restaurant in Clarendon Street, during his retirement.

Allan found that, on nights when parliament was sitting, Senator Murphy was regularly the cause of difficulties with the library staff on duty; to be fair, with half the staff. Nobody who got to know Lionel at all well could remain long unaware of his proclivity to treat the whole world as his saddling paddock: why should the parliamentary library be any different? One answer might be that the library was run by Allen Fleming.

The regular toleration of larrikin misbehaviour there would greatly have harmed the library’s eager-beaver plans and prospects, but simple discipline is not easily applied to an erring senior senator on his own ground. A formal complaint by the staff union, or a parliamentary question at question time would instantly have created the most harmful publicity; and a sinner as hardened as Lionel might not have been deterred even by that.

Without delay or fuss, amended staff rosters for night duty were prepared. Whenever the Senate was scheduled to sit at night, it just so happened that only male staff were on duty. Problem solved; no hurtful publicity; one more example of the firm executive grip of Allan Percy Fleming.

Allan’s father was a gripman on the cable trams, which were so long a picturesque and noisy presence in Melbourne’s Bourke Street. He had returned from the First World War a warrant officer, decorated with the Military Cross, an award usually reserved for commissioned officers. His marriage was a broken one, and the boy Allan spent part of his time with his mother’s people in the country, and part in Melbourne with his father’s. However much the strange arrangements must have hurt and puzzled the little boy, he managed to absorb the best offered by both. To the end of his life, one would hear him organising family expeditions to put down the blackberries on his deeply loved little property in the remote King Valley, or to go trout fishing there.

On the city side, his attendance at the highly respected Lee Street State School in Carlton drew him to the attention of its famous headmaster, William Empey, who swiftly grasped not only Allan’s present unhappy home life, but also the potential of his latent qualities. Empey’s general encouragement, and some particular help with school work, led Allan on to a scholarship under which he completed his secondary education, with distinction, at prestigious Scotch College.

The Second World War saw Allan, like his father, early into the army. He saw action in the Middle East with his 2/5 Infantry Battalion, and bitter fighting in Winston Churchill’s disastrous Greek campaign. Then, with the rank of captain, he was attached to a British specialist group which was developing and refining the scope and possibilities of “Army–Air Co-operation”—close tactical co-ordination of ground and air forces.

Alone and deep into the desert on “army–air” work, far ahead of our main forces, Allan and his mate Arch Molloy were surprised and surrounded by German tanks, captured and taken to Rommel’s tented headquarters among the sand dunes. The great man was intrigued by these Australians who had crossed the world to fight him, and had them paraded before him. What followed must be one of the oddest happenings of the war; in a colloquy between enemies in a terrible world struggle, one side was represented by its theatre supreme commander; the other side by two low-ranking officers who happened to be prisoners of war. Yet the atmosphere—the manners—of the occasion had had all the courtesy and civility of gentlemen conversing in their club.

“You Australians are great fighters,” conceded the field marshal, “but you will not win this war.”

Allan: “With respect, sir, I think we will win this war, because …”

And the discussion was lubricated by a glass of cold beer—Queensland beer.

Despite the differences—rank, nationality, language—courtesy ruled. Rommel did not impose harsh close confinement on his “guests”, as he called them, and in daylight hours they were free to roam the extensive camp area at will. This liberty they employed to steal a German light truck, and hide it behind some sandhills. Several more risky and furtive nocturnal expeditions with stolen jerry cans of petrol topped up the fuel tank. The means of escape were there—now for the opportunity.

Late one night, a long convoy of German transports, lights dimmed, rumbled past the camp, bound for German positions near the British front line at Tobruk. The two Australians raced for their getaway vehicle and, lights also dimmed, fell in as the convoy’s tail.

The wonder is not that they arrived at our forward positions, but that they survived. Turning up as they did, out of the desert darkness in an enemy vehicle, surely invited a lethal blast of “friendly fire”?

The British theatre supreme commander, Field Marshal Lord Alexander, was intrigued as Rommel had been by these maverick additions to strength, and likewise had them paraded for interview. And yes, you’ve guessed! There was a glass of cold beer—from Queensland.

Telling the story, Allan would sometimes pretend that on return to Australia, his first act had been to contact the brewery’s chairman of directors, to ensure that his sales manager was being properly rewarded for his continued conscientious coverage of a war-divided world market.

Then it was further soldiering in the Pacific war against Japan until peace and discharge, and a civilian career—chiefly in public service.

“Public service” in the wider and unpaid sense of “helping humanity” had always occupied much of Allan’s time. He was active in Legacy, and often helped troubled former comrades from his old battalion. He usually led them in their Anzac Day march in Brisbane. He fought for years to have retracted what he regarded as an unjust slur cast upon the battalion’s military honour by the redoubtable General George Vasey, but achieved only what he regarded disgustedly as a part amende; it rankled for his whole life.

I had no more valued friend in my life than Allan Fleming, nor Australia a more valuable citizen. As a retired publisher, I feel a curious vicarious pleasure that my old trade has recognised his worth, and (through the publishing house of Rosenberg) has made the book itself—strong, spacious, handsomely printed—a worthy memorial of a great life. Every Australian interested in our national character, and what we are worth in the world, should thank Peter Golding for the fascinating and moving story that he tells us so well.

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