World War II

The Treachery of the Unions in the Second World War

Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II
by Hal G.P. Colebatch
Quadrant Books, 2013, 340 pages, $44.95


The defence of the nation must always be high among the core responsibilities of a federal government. When we were at war and under the threat of invasion in the Second World War, the defence of the realm was obviously the government’s paramount duty. In Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II, Hal Colebatch reveals what was no doubt obvious to those brave Australian servicemen who were most affected: there were in Australia, from 1939 until 1945, powerful forces undermining our war effort.

The servicemen would also have been well aware that the Curtin government hardly provided the heroic leadership for which it is now so lavishly praised. (However, it is important to add that Curtin, although naive, was essentially a good and indeed noble man. He suffered terribly because of his inability to act to protect the armed forces in a way that Churchill, Roosevelt or indeed Menzies would have.) Supported by overwhelming evidence, Colebatch’s book demonstrates that the Curtin government failed to protect our soldiers, sailors and airmen from the traitors who inflicted enormous damage on them.

Strong and early action—a few examples of firmness, the use of martial law—would have stopped this insidious campaign. And it would have undoubtedly had the overwhelming support of the Australian people. But the Curtin government was too weak to prevent the injury, capture and death of significant numbers of servicemen—the direct consequences of this treachery.

The traitors went almost totally unpunished. They were able to maintain their anonymity within their union, and after the war, to profit from the peace which they had so diligently tried to thwart.

So why then is the Curtin government usually portrayed as if it were the Antipodean equivalent of Churchill’s? Why has the academy refused to let in daylight on this dark side of our wartime government? Only the academy can answer. They certainly have some explaining to do.

But more importantly, how can we ensure that in future hostilities, this serious breach of duty will not be repeated by some future government as weak and as fundamentally divided as Curtin’s was? What is essential now is for the Abbott government to appoint an inquiry to find the facts and to report on those measures which should be taken in any conflict in the future to ensure that our defences are not again seriously impaired as they were by government weakness and inaction during the Second World War. The government owes this not only to those who fought and died in the Second World War, but also to present and future generations who have reasonable expectations that a government will attend to its core duties.

Those who scoff and naively believe that peace is inevitable should remember that there can be no possible guarantee that this country will never again be threatened with invasion or that there will never again be enemy action on our territory. Federal governments must always be ready for this eventuality.

Unlike Britain, Australia was not governed during the war by a national government, a broad coalition of parties. Menzies proposed such a grand coalition both when he was in power early in the war and later when he was in opposition, but Labor always refused. When RSL leaders also called for a coalition, Labor’s left-wing leader Eddie Ward dismissed these men, who had served and fought for Australia, as “fifth columnists”.

To understand Ward’s extreme ideological position, Hal Colebatch reminds us that the historian Ross Fitzgerald concluded that Ward had actually coined the pejorative epithet, “five-bob-a-day murderers”. This term of abuse was used by waterside workers and others to jeer at Australian soldiers, especially in the earlier part of the war—that is, before Hitler invaded the territory of his former ally and their principal, the Soviet Union.

Hal Colebatch’s book raises many questions and offers possible answers. One is why such a grand coalition, clearly in the national interest, was so vehemently rejected by the Labor Party. The answer is obvious, and Hal Colebatch’s compendium of evidence corroborates this. This was because the left wing knew that Menzies and the United Australia Party would have not long tolerated the treachery that the waterside workers and others had initiated and maintained against our servicemen. As a coalition partner, Menzies would have put steel into the heart of the government. But that was never to be.

Why? It seems likely that Curtin remained extremely conscious of the First World War split in the Labor Party over conscription, which led to the Labor leader W.M. Hughes crossing the floor. Curtin did not wish to see a repeat, with the Left walking out of the party and the Right joining Menzies. A harsh conclusion cannot be avoided: Curtin placed greater value on maintaining the facade of unity in the Labor Party than in properly protecting our armed forces and nurses from treachery at home.

Little discussed today, and probably not touched on at all in the national curriculum, is the fact that communists and their left-wing allies in the Labor Party controlled crucial parts of the trade union movement. By the end of the Second World War communist elements constituted a majority on the Australian Council of Trade Unions, despite the fact that, as in other Anglosphere countries, the communists never had any significant electoral presence. The communists and their allies achieved their dominance of the unions through the rigging of elections and through the strong-arm tactics which they used to rule the unfortunate countries which fell under their sway. This hold was eventually broken in the 1950s by the Catholic-inspired anti-communist industrial groups movement led by B.A. Santamaria.

During and after the war, the Australian communists acted as the puppets of the Soviet Union led by the megalomaniac dictator Joseph Stalin. They were prepared to use their power in the unions to further Soviet foreign policy, knowing they could rely on the protection of the Labor Left both in parliament and in the government. Stalin and his communists were in many ways similar to Hitler and the Nazis. Above all, both were violently opposed to democracy. In the infamous 1939 MolotovRibbentrop Pact they formed an alliance which involved secret protocols in relation to their illicit ambitions in Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.

Stalin even tried to become the fourth member of the Axis with Germany, Italy and Japan, seeking to push their position in Turkey and down into India against the British. But Hitler had other plans. When Stalin was warned by the British that Hitler was planning to betray him, Stalin did not believe it and purged and liquidated anyone he suspected of holding similar fears and suspicions, including the high command of the Red Army. Hitler moved against the USSR in 1941, seizing most of Eastern Europe including lands formerly controlled by Stalian.

All this is crucial to an understanding of Australian politics and why the Curtin government failed to stop the secret war waged by traitors against our armed forces.

Both the rapprochement between Moscow and Berlin, and Hitler’s betrayal of Stalin, had immediate domestic effect in Australia. The Left reversed its opposition to the war with Nazi Germany. But what is often overlooked is that Stalin remained neutral in the war against Japanese aggression until a few days before the Japanese surrendered, invading Manchukuo, China, Inner Mongolia, Korea and certain Japanese islands, incorporating some of these into the USSR, setting up puppet states, or as in the case of China, giving arms and support to the local communist movement. Until then, Moscow seldom instructed its agents to get behind the Allied war effort in the Pacific, except on one memorable occasion reported in this book.

So the neutrality of the Soviets towards Japan may well explain the ambivalent attitude of the communist-controlled unions to the war against Japan. In any event, the fact that Japan had attacked Australian territory and treated Australian POWs with appalling brutality did not to stop the communist unions from undermining the war effort or Eddie Ward’s Left faction in the Labor caucus continuing to protect them and vehemently opposing the deployment of conscripts beyond our borders.

The absence of the conservatives in a national government did not mean that the Labor government was united. The Curtin government was an uneasy coalition between those who, like Curtin, genuinely wanted to win the war, and a powerful left wing intent on undermining that effort. The left wing was close to the Communist Party and probably contained some communists, although this was formally forbidden. The communists were little interested in the success of Australian military operations or indeed those of the United States, at least in the Pacific. Their agenda was to maintain and increase their political and trade union power in Australia. They seemed to believe that by extracting the maximum advantage for waterside workers, miners and others in protected industries, they would further that agenda. This powerful left-wing faction made Curtin’s life hell. He was reported to have been sometimes so upset that he left the caucus in tears. Curtin’s successor, Ben Chifley, blamed Curtin’s premature death in 1945 on Eddie Ward and, unsurprisingly, the strikers.

Curtin’s close friend, West Australian Labor Premier Philip Collier, later confirmed that Curtin was shocked and hurt by the unions. Curtin said: “Don’t they know the nation is fighting for its life? They don’t give a damn!” “They hurt him very much,” Collier said, “nearly worked him into his grave … They broke his heart, the strikers. And some of the men inside the party. Some of his own men.”

What was this fifth column doing? For the first time, Hal Colebatch reveals in great detail that between 1939 and 1945 nearly every major Australian warship was targeted by strikes, go-slows, sabotage and pillage.

After experiencing the treachery of waterside workers at Townsville, one trooper declared that “waterside workers were responsible for more hardships, shortages and deaths than the Japs”. He slammed them as “gutless traitors”, an assessment which was common among those who went off to war to defend the nation.

This treachery was not limited to the wharves. There were well over one million days lost in coal-mining strikes in 1940, which had a disastrous impact on electricity supplies. When the Soviet Union was invaded, the communists changed sides, declaring the war now to be a patriotic one. But there was still an extraordinary number of strikes in 1942, coinciding with the greatest threat of a Japanese invasion.

Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea was a crucial 1942 battle. As the Americans and Australians were attempting to move urgently-required equipment to the troops, the Sydney waterfront went on strike. When the industrial commission ordered everybody back to work, they laughed. They refused to comply even when the prime minister pleaded with them and reminded them that the Japanese were not far from Milne Bay. They went back only when the Soviet embassy intervened.

In the meantime, waterside workers at Townsville did what waterside workers were doing everywhere across the nation—using their position to claim extra money, allegedly because of the dangers involved in loading live ammunition or for some similar reason. When an American officer said he would load the ships with his own men and also, for good measure, throw the waterside workers into the harbour, work reluctantly recommenced. But the waterside workers were to have their revenge. When the troops arrived in New Guinea they found that all the accumulators on their radios had been stolen. How many soldiers died as a result of this treachery?

Not only did they steal food and beer meant for the troops, in Townsville they even raided the Comfort Funds boxes, small amounts of money from people who had saved their pennies for months. They left the accompanying notes from mothers and children for the soldiers to contemplate.

The soldiers could not help but notice that the waterside workers were paid at more than double the rate of the soldiers. Nor did they fail to notice that when the soldiers themselves loaded a ship, they did it far more efficiently than the waterside workers.

Pilfering was a way of life on the wharves, and the attitude of the waterside workers was that the war was not going to stop this practice. When the Americans inspected watersiders’ bags in Brisbane, they recovered a large number of cigarettes intended for the American troops. A strike followed, but the Americans would not agree to abandon the inspections. The waterside workers were eventually persuaded to go back to work.

As a vicious act of revenge, the wharfies wrecked four P-38 fighter planes. They just attached the lifting cranes to the planes without unbolting the planes from the decks. When the cranes lifted the planes, they were torn to pieces. Had martial law prevailed on the wharf, the wharfies would have received short shrift.

In another retaliatory incident in Adelaide, they were unloading Allison Aero Engines, letting the cargo drop on the concrete wall, which of course damaged the engines. Told to stop, the wharfies took no notice. The Americans fired a few bursts from their submachine guns, which quietened the wharfies for a while. Subsequently the Americans dropped stun grenades into the holds to quieten them.

When a radar station was being set up at Green Island near New Britain, it was found that all the valves for the radar sets had been stolen by waterside workers in Townsville. The radio station could not go on air as scheduled, just when a violent tropical storm caught a force of American dive bombers flying back from a raid on the Japanese base at Rabaul. The storm affected the aircraft’s compasses and they could not find their bearings. Sixteen of the eighteen aircraft were lost, with all thirty-two men on board. The view of the airmen at the location was that had the radar been available, the doomed aircraft could probably have been directed back to base.

In the meantime, strikes on the Darwin waterfront had become so frequent that the Americans demanded that soldiers load the ships. The government refused. Its policy was not to allow servicemen to be used until all local labour had been absorbed. It should have declared martial law and ordered the waterside workers to do their duty. The result of this dereliction of duty by the government meant that the port of Darwin was filled with ships waiting to be loaded when the Japanese attacked. There is no doubt that the communist waterside workers there can be held directly responsible for the scale of the resultant carnage when the Japanese bombed the city.

Colebatch’s book is replete with evidence of similar crimes which were left not only unpunished but unprosecuted. But his book is not only the history of the criminal campaign that ran the length of the war. The book also relates how this campaign was preceded by another serious dereliction of duty by the federal government. To an extent, this has been echoed by the actions of the Gillard and Rudd governments, in allowing the proportion of the GDP spent on defence to fall to levels not known since before the Second World War.

During the first half of the 1930s defence expenditure fell to less than 1 per cent of the national income, which was itself significantly reduced by the Depression. As Colebatch notes, the mood in the Labor Party was for disarmament, with an unrealistic reliance on international treaties and the League of Nations. They even closed the military and naval colleges at Duntroon and Jervis Bay. A number of warships, including a flotilla of “S”-class destroyers, were taken out to sea and sunk along with other ships. A gift of ships from the British government was rejected.

Both parties breathed a sigh of relief when Chamberlain announced the Munich agreement to appease Hitler, although the Left has rather successfully claimed that only Menzies was comforted. When it became obvious that Hitler would not be stopped, Menzies was the first to react with strength, risking his future political career. In early 1939 he resigned as Attorney-General in the Lyons government, in part because of the refusal of the government to introduce conscription to strengthen home defence. Lyons died shortly afterwards and Menzies succeeded him as prime minister a few months before the declaration of war.

Even with all the resources of the nation under its control a government can still fail in its duty to defend the nation. The only possible conclusion from this book is that the wartime Curtin government failed adequately to protect those who volunteered and even those they had conscripted to fight for and at times to die for their country. What is extraordinary is that until this book, there has been no serious attempt to publish the true story of this evil campaign against our armed forces.

These events are unique to Australia. Of those democracies who fought from the beginning to the end of the Second World War—almost all from the British Empire—there is no other example of such a long campaign of treachery and of its toleration by the government. Nor is this true of the United States which, although it came later into the war, was to become the leader of the West.

In writing this book Hal Colebatch has performed a singular service not only to honour the memory of those Australians who fought in the Second World War, but as a warning to this and future generations to ensure that governments pay attention to and fulfil their primary duty to the nation: defending Australia and protecting its soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses from both foreign and domestic enemies.

David Flint is the author with Jai Martinkovits of Give Us Back Our Country (Connor Court, 2013).

2 thoughts on “The Treachery of the Unions in the Second World War

  • X Jack Collins says:

    I’m a bit concerned that Mr Flint has not incorporated some of the evidence put forward in letters to the editor that have questioned the veracity of the tale of the missing squadron. I’m glad Mr Colebatch has thrown some light on this little covered but long harbored story of betrayal but I fear that even the merest slip up in research on one subject could render the whole story tainted with the accusation of being based on rumour and hearsay. This would be a shame for our future understanding of the extent of infiltration of our nation by forces opposed to our way of life in these dark days of our past.

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