Gavin Long and the Official History of Australia in the War of 1939–1945

The official history of Australia’s involvement in the Second World War represents one of the longest and largest historical endeavours that Australia has ever seen. The enterprise began in January 1943 with the appointment of Gavin Long as General Editor. The 22 volumes, written by 14 authors, were published by the Australian War Memorial over a 25-year period between 1952 and 1977.

The Second World War official histories became part of a tradition of Australian official war writing that was established after the First World War by Australia’s first official war historian, Charles Bean. Gavin Long was appointed under Bean’s recommendation, and the two men were similar in background and temperament. Both were the sons of clergymen and, at different times, attended the same school, All Saints College in Bathurst. Both were journalists early in life and both were appointed official war correspondents, Bean in 1914 and Long in 1939. Both were eyewitnesses to the wars about which they later wrote. Long adopted many of Bean’s research and writing methods and he offered his authors the same firm but generous guidance that Bean’s colleagues enjoyed from him. And like Bean, Long would eventually write a one-volume summary of his war.

Long’s original plan for the Second World War official history was modified and expanded over a period of years. The recruitment of authors and the coordination of their work took up a great deal of Long’s time. Some potential authors declined offers of appointment; others were hampered by ill-health or other work commitments. Chester Wilmot, the great Australian war correspondent, was to write the Tobruk and El Alamein volume but died in a plane crash in January 1954 before he could begin work. Barton Maughan, who took his place, lived in Broken Hill, and archival records had to be shipped to him there. Allan Walker, the medical historian, wrote three volumes but ill health forced him to resign in 1956, leaving his fourth volume to be finished by others. Paul Hasluck’s political career and S.J. Butlin’s university commitments slowed progress on their home-front and war economy volumes.

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Second World War Official Historians
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The administrative arrangements governing the project were complex. A War History Committee, consisting of the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Interior, the Minister for External Affairs, and the Leader of the Opposition, approved the appointment of the historians. The scheme of volumes was approved by Cabinet. The Department of the Interior administered and financed the project and the Australian War Memorial acted as publisher. Long and his staff were located at first at the Memorial but soon had to move and were located in various places around Canberra. Gavin Long, Allan Walker, and the staff of assistants were salaried public servants; appointments, classifications, and other such matters were regulated by the Public Service Board, which was often unsympathetic to the changing needs of the project. All the other historians were appointed on contract. Every delay, every extension of a contract or request for more money, even requests for permission to work overtime, had to be laboriously explained and justified by Long.

Access to records was also a problem at times. The scale of Australia’s commitment to the Second World War was greater than with the First, and no part of society or the economy was untouched. The volume of records of potential use to the historians was therefore enormous. Military records eventually were controlled by the Australian War Memorial, under its Director, John Treloar. Treloar was as helpful as he could be, but long experience had made him unwilling to provide records until they had been sorted. His small staff had difficulty keeping up with the demands of the official historians, impatient for access. Matters were not helped by Treloar’s aloof demeanour and devotion to procedure. Copies of the records of Australia’s allies and enemies were obtained, only after much effort. The historians working on the civilian volumes had to grapple with government departments which, in some cases, were anxious to get rid of their old war records and did so without checking.

Gavin Long wrote three of the army volumes but retired in 1963, leaving the project in the hands of his assistant, Bill Sweeting. Long’s volumes did not have the epic qualities of Charles Bean’s work but he was a vivid writer and is generally regarded as the better historian. He introduced some innovations. While his planned volume on “General Defence Policy” did not go ahead, there was a much greater focus, under his leadership, on the domestic history of the war. D.P. Mellor’s volume on the role of science and industry, for instance, was the first major work on the history of Australian science and still stands as a major statement on science and the state in Australia.

Works such as this have been long out of print. The Memorial’s digitisation of Australia’s Second World War official histories brings the entire 22 volumes to a new and wider readership: an idea, we think, that Gavin Long would have enjoyed.

Anne-Marie Condé
Historian
Australian War Memorial