Volume VI: In their time of need: Australia’s overseas emergency relief operations, 1918–2010 (provisional title)

Australia was one of the first countries to respond to calls for assistance from the Indonesian Government after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. Personnel from the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Australian Federal Police (AFP), and other government agencies were among the thousands of Australians who were mobilised during the initial phase of the disaster relief effort to deliver and distribute food and medical supplies, provide emergency medical services, transport injured and homeless Indonesian nationals, and begin the arduous task of clearing debris and restoring essential services.

Volume VI of the official history will document this and other similar emergency relief operations. The book will focus on the overseas deployment of ADF personnel and assets for broadly humanitarian goals, generally in response to a call for assistance after a natural disaster or other non-conflict related emergency. The book will explore the underlying decisions taken at various levels to deploy Australia’s military forces on relief operations, trace the changing nature of the ADF’s emergency response, and document the personal experiences of those who served on these missions.

Australia has a long and proud record of providing relief and assistance. One of the earliest relief operations occurred in 1918, when HMAS Encounter transported medical supplies and personnel to Tonga and Fiji after an outbreak of influenza. The first overseas operation in more recent times involved transporting emergency food and medical supplies, and deploying army engineers for reconstruction, to Port Vila in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in January 1960, after the destruction caused to the island by a cyclone.

Since then, Australia has responded to numerous calls for international assistance after cyclones, earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, floods, and drought. While the majority of these operations have been to assist our Pacific neighbours, Australia has provided emergency relief further afield, including to Pakistan, Iran, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The operations have ranged from delivering emergency supplies by a single RAAF Hercules aircraft, to deploying thousands of personnel across the services.

The role and capacity of the ADF has changed significantly in the last few decades, in response to the changing nature of Australia’s strategic environment. While the defence of Australia and its interests remains primary, our military forces are increasingly deployed on operations with an international perspective, such as for peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. This volume will explore the responses to calls for emergency relief assistance in our region within this international context, examine how the changing capacity of the ADF has affected its ability to respond, and highlight the experiences of the men and women of the ADF, AFP, and other government organisations who have served on these missions.

Pakistan, 2005 Australian medics transport an injured local to an Australian Black Hawk helicopter, for transportation to a hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan, 2005 (ADF)

Author: Dr Steven Bullard

Dr Steve BullardDr Steve Bullard

Update: Steven is currently researching and writing chapters on the Australian response to the south Asia earthquake and tsunami of 2004.

Dr Steven Bullard is a graduate of the Australian National University. His PhD dissertation explored issues of nationalism and identity in Kyoto in the 1890s, the role of preservation and display of cultural artefacts, civic celebration, and the spread of modern technology through expositions.

In 1997 Steven joined the Military History Section as a senior research officer with the Australia–Japan Research Project (AJRP). As the project manager of the AJRP from 2002, he was involved with the design and compilation of the project's database and websites, and organised several international symposiums and workshops. Being a Japanese speaker, he has translated several seminar and symposium papers, and was successful in gaining a grant from the Japan Foundation to translate extracts from Japan’s official account of the Second World War. This was published in 2007 as Japanese army operations in the South-Pacific Area: New Guinea campaigns, 1942–1943. He also recently published Blankets on the wire: the Cowra breakout and its aftermath (2006).

In 2007 Steven was appointed a senior historian within the Memorial’s Military History Section, where his first task has been to write Volume V of the Official History of Peacekeeping, Humanitarian, and Post–Cold War Operations.

Further information:

Operation Sumatra Assist Australian Army Engineers take equipment ashore at Banda Aceh to support tsunami relief and reconstruction operations, 2005. Department of Defence 20050114ran8097690_190

ADF medical team in snowbound Kashmir Tsunami relief and reconstruction operations. Banda Aceh, 2005. Department of Defence 20050114ran8097690_195

ADF medical team in snowbound Kashmir An Australian Army Captain carries a critically ill child through earthquake rubble to a waiting helicopter for evacuation. Kashmir. 2005. Department of Defence 20051226adf8195319_035

ADF medical team in snowbound Kashmir Rigging a tent for the local school after storms and heavy snowfalls demolished temporary rooms. Kashmir. 2006. Department of Defence 20060103adf8195319_036

ADF takes medical help to remote Kanur Vaccinating a young boy, helped by his father, while other people of the village wait their turn. Kashmir, 2006. Department of Defence 20060122adf8195319_075

ADF takes medical help to remote Kanur Army Major amid earthquake devastation of the mountain village of Kanur. Kashmir, 2006. Department of Defence 20060122adf8195319_069