In his recent article assailing my book, Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II, after several hundred words of petulant abuse of Quadrant and, in particular, one of its contributors, Merv Bendle (the relevance of this to a critique of my work I am as unclear about as I am about the reference to the musical score of films), Professor Peter Stanley finally comes to my book. The essence of his critique appears to be that I did not write a different kind of book, such as he might have written, presumably lauding unionists’ support of the war effort.
As for his attacks on my literary style, I was not writing an academic thesis but working against the clock in my own time to get these reminiscences recorded while the witnesses were still alive. Otherwise he complains that the witness I quote cannot be checked: “Typically, Colebatch introduces a former World War II serviceman, whom he interviewed or corresponded with in the mid-1990s. The man recounts an incident where their (sic) ship or unit was supposedly impeded by industrial action …”
The word “supposedly” speaks volumes about Stanley’s polemical technique. It is obviously meant to suggest without actually saying so that the former soldier or sailor in question (including men of the calibre of Vice-Admiral Collins or Sir Charles Court) is bearing false witness. This is contemptible. He complains that the stories resemble one another. Of course they do! They corroborate one another, and it would be significant if they did not. He complains that I “quote great slabs of a letter or memoir.” This is because they are worth quoting. They are important historical documents. Had I not quoted them, this would also doubtless have been cause for complaint.
Misrepresentation of what I wrote appears to be one of his long suits: “Colebatch claims that, had wharfies been less tardy in loading 155mm guns destined for Milne Bay, the guns ‘could have destroyed the Japanese landing forces before they got ashore’ (p. 13).” First, I am simply quoting an independent witness, Major Butterworth, and second, I said that the guns “could probably” have sunk Japanese ships: “could” not “would.” This is quite reasonable, and the qualification is obvious. He claims: “The Japanese had landed ten days before this. Even if the wharfies had loaded the guns more speedily the guns could not possibly have reached Milne Bay and got into action before the end of the fighting, two days later, on 7 September. Simple chronology demolishes that argument.” In fact, according to my informants, Japanese ships were bombarding Milne Bay for many nights after their troops withdrew.
Next, Stanley claims, regarding the loading of the vessels for Timor, an incident documented in not just one but a number of eyewitness accounts: “Colebatch then makes a meal of the wirelesses used by Sparrow Force in Timor, offering pages of storytelling that turn out to be a fizzer. He claims that wharfies loading the ship that carried the 2/2nd Independent Company to Timor threw the troops’ wireless gear into the hold, damaging it.”
The words are not mine but those of an officer of the 2nd/2nd, Colin Doig, who was there and recalled it thus: “Valuable stores such as wireless sets were turfed into the hold as though they were lead ingots.” I did not say the wirelesses were damaged, but that inference is certainly possible. My words in the book are: “I do not know if there was a direct connection between the fact the watersiders were specifically reported … to have thrown radio sets into the hold and the fact that the commandos had no working radio after the Japanese attack.” And what, exactly, is a “fizzer?” Is the story of the 2nd/2nd false? Apart from a number of written accounts, a little of it is recounted in Damien Parer’s film “Sparrow Force: Men of Timor” available on YouTube.
Now we come to a real howler. According to Stanley: “[Colebatch] has a ‘Dutch’ commander at Dili, in Portuguese ‘East’ Timor” I am surprised Mr Stanley does not know the Dutch took over the defence of East Timor when the neutral Portuguese were reluctant to get involved. About 300 Dutch servicemen were killed. If other sources are unavailable he might consult Wikipedia. He goes on to say, “and the 2/2nd Independent Company was not disbanded after its Timor ordeal.” I did not say it was, I said “after subsequent fighting in New Guinea the unit was broken up.” This is correct.
He says I do not “joust” with any ALP figure “later than Paul Keating.” This is plain silly. Keating was the last Labor leader to play a vanguard role in the so-called history wars. I do not think Gillard or Rudd (perhaps to their credit) had anything significant to say in re-writing history, so why should I criticise or even mention them in a book like this?
My comments on Sandakan — that industrial trouble prevented a rescue of the prisoners going ahead — are both qualified by the word “apparently” and each is sourced. This is hardly a reckless assertion by me and I would welcome further investigation of the matter.
Stanley claims in what appears to be the Schwerpunkt of his argument: “[Colebatch] does not seem to confront the awkward fact that while the union was dominated by ‘Communists’, between 1941 and 1945 the Communist Party of Australia was “the leading war party”, whose officials strove to reduce industrial action and who supported more than most Australians the most vigorous prosecution of the war). While individual members of the union may well have lacked the ideological purity of their officials and may well have pilfered, struck and vandalised cargos, they were doing so in defiance of ‘the union’. Colebatch never grapples with this fundamental conundrum.”
This is a simplistic argument and simply false. I devote a chapter to dealing with “this awkward conundrum” and come up with several possible explanations, while suggesting none are complete in themselves. I frankly admit I am uncertain as to the answer. (Why scare-quotes around “Communists”, incidentally?).
First, the strikes did occur, whether led by Communists or members of the left-wing lumpenproletariat, between whom the difference was small. The official Commonwealth Year Book lists the number of working days lost – and in some industries these actually increased after Stalin changed sides in 1941.
Second, it does not take a very profound knowledge of World War II to know Stalin was not at war with Japan until the very end, and had nothing to lose by Australian Communists damaging the Pacific War effort. An important and scholarly US book, Stalin’s Secret Agents, by M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein, reminds us that Stalinist Russia was not at war with Japan until the very last few days after Hiroshima. Japanese ships were still coming and going out of Vladivostok through nearly all the war. Stalin did not necessarily want a quick and overwhelming allied victory in the Pacific until he had moved troops from Europe and was positioned to take a share of the spoils. There were many reasons for Australian Communists opposing or slowing the Pacific war-effort, ranging from sheer force of habit to a demonstration of strength vis-a-vis the Americans. Further, as I have pointed out several times, those involved may not have been CPA members. For someone so apparently fond of the word “nuanced” Mr Stanley shows a strange unawareness of this. I recommend him to Chapters 19 and 20 of my book.
Further to my book, incidentally, the press reported on January 18, 1945, that the president of the Queensland branch of the AWU denounced communist unionists who tried to obstruct the construction of a military aerodrome at Townsville. He was speaking to the AWU’s annual conference. He described how AWU members became involved in a brawl using pick handles as weapons in order to disperse the Communists and continue work. He also drew a direct connection he saw at the time as the important role the strip ultimately played in military operations in the north including, he said, the Battle of the Coral Sea. Townsville was probably Australia’s most strategically important airbase, being a staging-post for New Guinea and a base for projecting air-power all over the Western Pacific.
Stanley alleges: “He argues that an Australian trade unionist who, say, requested a toilet break or payment for night work was ‘a conscious accomplice to the Holocaust’” I said nothing of the sort. There is as great difference between requesting a toilet-break and refusing to manufacture life-rafts or mine-sweeping gear, a matter that well-known union-basher John Curtin raised before the War Council.
Stanley continues: “On p. 192 Colebatch regards as ‘grotesque’ that unionists at the Midland railway workshops in 1943 sought holiday pay to mark Anzac Day, a privilege many of us enjoy today.” Actually there is a certain difference: Australia today is not in the midst of a desperate war. He also claims I do not understand that many of the servicemen were themselves unionists: “He fails to recall that relatives of the unionists he decries also served.” In fact it is a point I made more than once.
Where he concedes my points, euphemism abounds: “John Collins did get annoyed at dockers who messed him about.” Messed him about indeed! They nearly caused the temporary or permanent loss of one on the most valuable ships in Australia’s small navy.
As for his claim that “the full story is yet to be told” I completely agree. It is an indictment of the Australian academic history industry that this important matter was allowed to slip out of Australia’s national conscience until, virtually at the last moment, I began collecting some first-hand accounts.
Hal Colebatch’s Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II, co-winner of the PM’s Literary Award for History, is published by Quadrant books and can be ordered here.