This award is, of course, very gratifying. I won the WA Premier’s award for poetry a few years ago and so am looking forward to a clean sweep. My thanks are due especially to my wife, Alexandra, and my daughter, Katie Dunkley, for all their help and support, to Tony Thomas for all his work in promoting the book, spending his own money, and to Keith Windschuttle and Quadrant for having had the courage to publish it. Others who contributed, from the late West Australian Premier Sir Charles Court to a naval sick-berth attendant, are acknowledged in the book, and all most sincerely.
The heroes of the book are the ex-servicemen who came forward with their stories. I collected these at what was probably the last possible time, when ex-servicemen of World War II were still alive and able to give first-hand accounts.
I would not be so pretentious as to describe myself as “a naval historian”, a title which belongs to the likes of Admiral Mahan, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morrison, Professor Northcote Parkinson, and H.H. Archbold, but I do believe my book has shed some light on a dark aspect of Australian history, when some – not, of course, all – unions, largely maritime unions and coal-miners treacherously sabotaged the war effort and held the country to ransom in its hour of gravest peril. It is a pity the more senior officers had passed on when I began compiling material, but it does mean that those who came forward with their stories cannot be accused of class bias.
Since the book was published, more ex-servicemen have come forward with stories, including documentation of the role played by the Nazi German Abwehr in working with unions in the great coal strike that prevented Darwin’s defences and facilities being completed by 1942. It took almost as long – in some cases actually longer, to build a 750-ton corvette in Australia as it took to build a 35,000-ton US aircraft carrier. Every cruiser in Australia’s small navy was targeted for strikes or sabotage – a fact which seems to have escaped the notice of some of Australia’s politically-correct journalists and academics.
Vital war supplies, including aircraft, aero engines and radio and radar values wrecked and pilfered. Late in the war, ships operating in the islands were driven to fishing with depth-charges because ceaseless strikes caused supply-lines to break down. Sailors and soldiers had no ammunition for the same reason.
Late in 1941, an armed guard had to be placed in the cruiser Perth after 6-inch nails were found hammered into its electrical wiring. Possibly most obscene of all, There was even a strike which prevented Japanese POW camp survivors being unloaded from HMS Speaker in Sydney. The prose in which these stories are couched is sometimes rough-hewn but always sincere and sometimes deeply moving.
I do not believe one of the saboteurs, responsible for the deaths of Australian servicemen, served a day in jail. The UAP Government of 1939 to 1941 was too scared of promoting a general strike to rake them on, and the succeeding ALP government under the likes of Eddie Ward – who coined the name for Australian soldiers of “five bob a day murderers” — and Doctor Evatt sided with the strikers more or less openly. I argue that the strain of dealing with these endless strikes contributed to the early death of the noble-minded Prime Minister John Curtin, as some close to him, including his successor, Ben Chifley, implied at the time.
The second scandal this book more or less accidentally uncovered is the extent to which the left-leaning academic history industry, with all the time and resources at its disposal, has hardly touched this story and left it to a private citizen working in his own time.
When I searched the journals for articles on the subject of wartime strikes and sabotage affecting ships, both naval and merchant ships, munitions plants, coal mines and key industries, I found a blank space in the nation’s historical memory. It is of course very hard to prove a negative but this looks to me like a massive, tacit act of censorship, undertaken as an aspect of what have been called “the history wars.”
Yet during World War II, six-million working days were lost directly through strikes – a number some might think was gruesomely appropriate. The number lost indirectly is impossible to know precisely, but was a multiple of that. Among innumerable incidents, US aircraft being unloaded fort the defence of Australia when the Japanese tide of conquest was reaching its height, were deliberately wrecked by crane-drivers on the Adelaide wharves. The battle of Milne Bay was fought without heavy guns because crane drivers refused to load them unless paid quadruple time. As mentioned in the book, when I once raised the subject of wartime strikes and sabotage in a talk to a service club, none of the audience of mature, successful professional men had ever heard of it or believed it possible.
I hope the book will sound a warning to the future about the dangers of “identity politics”: people defining their identity as members of a particular group before their identity as Australians or, indeed, as human beings, and the dangers of caving in to thugs and bullies. George Santayana, of course, said, “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”