Issue 31 -- October 1997

Australian War Memorial


TOP ISSUE 31 CONTENTS ABBREVIATIONS JOURNAL HOME WEBSITE HOME

Please take advantage of our special ordering facility. These and many other military history publications can be obtained by contacting the Australian War Memorial Shop, GPO Box 345, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia. Telephone (02) 6243 4274 or Facsimile: (02) 6243 4396. E-mail: info@awm.gov.au. Mail orders welcome. Please note, quoted book prices are correct at time of printing but are subject to change without notice.


In Search of a maritime strategy: the maritime element in Australian defence planning since 1901
David Stevens (ed.)

Reluctant refuge: unaccompanied refugee and evacuee children in Australia, 1933-1945
Glen Palmer

My darling Mick: the life of Granville Ryrie 1865-1937
Pheobe Vincent

Lost ANZACs: the story of two brothers
Greg Kerr

A nation at war: Australian politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965-1975
Peter Edwards

Japan and Germany in the modern world
Bernd Martin

Hit my Smoke! Targeting the enemy in Vietnam
Chris Coulthard-Clark


Glen Palmer, Reluctant refuge: Unaccompanied refugee and evacuee children in Australia, 1933-1945, Kangaroo Press, East Roseville, NSW, 1997, pp. vi, 240, photographs, appendices, end notes, bibliography, index, rrp. $24.95, soft cover

Reviewed by BOBBIE OLIVER, Curtin University

One and a half million Jewish children died in the Holocaust. One of the messages of Reluctant refuge is that the total could have been fewer if nations had heeded the warnings and given children refuge. Britain admitted almost 10,000 European Jewish children just before the Second World War; in Australia - the "reluctant refuge" of the title - the Commonwealth government grudgingly took fewer than 50 non-British children. Palmer has made extensive use of interviews and personal photographs to tell the stories of these and the 577 British children who were evacuated to Australia.

Palmer's study is a useful contribution to the growing literature on child migration to Australia, with the Jewish children adding a significant dimension to what would otherwise be another study of British child migrants, even if temporary. A theme throughout is the difference in the Commonwealth government's attitudes to British evacuees on the one hand and Jewish refugees on the other, highlighted in chapter titles: "Who will take my child?" and "Unwanted gifts" contrasted with "Room and welcome". Palmer points out (p. 72) that it was Menzies' own intervention - by changing the wording of a cable from "children from Britain" to "British children" - that barred the entry of Jewish refugees who had arrived in Britain from Europe. Many Australian families wanted to take in non-British refugee children; one man even offered to take ten into his home as long as a "public-spirited woman volunteer" could be found to "matron them" (p. 73).

Much of the book is devoted to the experience of refugee and evacuee children arriving and settling down in Australia. While the 17 young refugees who arrived on the Orama in mid-1939 were lodged together in one institution as wards of the Jewish Welfare Society, the older Jewish boys from Poland were boarded with immigrant families in Carlton, which proved to be "a sound arrangement for parentless children of this age. The boys had each other, they were in a family environment, with families of similar backgrounds, and they were relatively independent" (p. 149). They appear to have been better off than some British evacuees who went to relatives who did not know that they were coming and did not really want them. For all, however, the end of the war brought either the agony of discovering that parents and siblings had perished in the Nazi death camps or the difficulty of reunion with families from whom they had grown apart. None of the Polish refugees ever saw his parents again; of the Germans, only one mother survived. Some refugees stayed in, or returned to, Australia; others went to USA or Israel. Most evacuees went back to Britain, but most of them had severe problems reassimilating.

Palmer has made little attempt to distinguish between Labor and non-Labor governments and policies. At one point Palmer talks of the "irony" of the difference between the pre- and post-war policies on Jewish immigration without stating that Calwell is a Minister the Chifley Labor Government, while the pre-war government was non-Labor. I should have liked to see a little more "scene setting" regarding policies and attitudes in the 1930s. That aside, the most significant contribution of this study is its examination of a shameful and little-known chapter in Australian history. In the present era, more and more civilians are involved in warfare, and it is well to reflect on the extent of war's impact on individual lives. The cost of warfare is far more extensive than direct military casualties and economic burdens. Books such as Reluctant refuge should be on the reading list of every military history course in Australian tertiary institutions.


David Stevens (ed.), In Search of a maritime strategy: the maritime element in Australian defence planning since 1901, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, 1997, pp. 252, index, maps, bibliography, soft cover, rrp $24

Reviewed by IAN McGIBBON, Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, New Zealand

As an island continent, large in size but small in population, Australia has traditionally faced difficult problems in determining its defence strategy. That its approach to defence should be dominated by its maritime environment has never been in dispute. Until recently, any threat to its physical integrity must have been seaborne; virtually all the trade upon which its economy depended had to travel long distances across the sea. Alliance, either formal or informal, with a great naval power has been the favoured means of overcoming the perceived deficiencies in Australia's naval and military capacity to deal with all possible contingencies involving its security. But such an approach inevitably introduces an element of tension between distant and local or regional requirements, and raises questions as to the appropriate focus of Australia's defence policy. The nature of Australia's maritime strategy has, in consequence, often been the subject of controversy during this century.

This book, a useful addition to the valuable series of Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence, is the product of a seminar which was held in Canberra in August 1996 to consider the maritime context of Australia's defence plans. It brings together the papers of eight of the participants, who included both historians and participants. A brief introduction is provided by the editor, David Stevens, and the papers are supplemented by an extensive selection of documents relating to Australian maritime defence this century.

The nature of maritime strategy generally is addressed by the eminent American naval and maritime historian John Hattendorf. He emphasises that maritime strategy is not merely about navies, and provides a useful definition of a maritime strategy: "the comprehensive direction of all aspects of national power to achieve specific policy goals in a specific situation by exercising some degree of control at sea" (p. 18). This provides a useful context for David Horner to draw attention to the significant role which Australia's military forces have played in home defence preparations, especially in the century leading up to the end of the Second World War. They were heavily involved in the construction and manning of coast defences, which provided protected havens for Australian commerce and naval forces. Although coast defences went into decline after the Second World War, he notes that "there is at present and must always be a heavy maritime element in Australian defence" (p. 42).

There follow a series of contributions which traverse the evolution of Australian naval policy in three separate periods - the First World War, between the wars, between the wars, and after the Second World War. Ian Cowman examines the emergence of the Royal Australian Navy, amidst visions of Australia becoming a major naval player in its own right. These visions faded as financial stringency became the order of the day, and their passing was symbolised by the scuttling of the battle cruiser HMAS Australia in 1924. David Stevens discusses the development of the RAN between the wars within the context of Imperial defence - "the only credible option" (p. 84) - and notes the resulting dependence of the RAN on the Royal Navy. Jeffrey Grey provides a succinct summary of the RAN's limited role in the forward defence strategy which dominated Australia's defence policy in the first two decades after the Second World War. As a counterpoint to these navally oriented papers, John McCarthy considers the complication for defence planning introduced by the steadily developing capability of air forces. Contemporary issues are covered by Stewart Woodman and Rear-Admiral C. J. Oxenbould, who bring practical experience to bear, Woodman having spent ten years in the strategic policy area of the Department of Defence and Oxenbould being, at the time of the seminar, the interim Commander, Australian Theatre.

The 75 pages of documents cover the period from 1901. The selection includes some interesting material from German and Japanese archival sources relating to possible action against Australian interests before the First World War and during the Second World War. This perspective from the "other side of the hill" provides a useful basis for evaluating the approach taken by Australian and British officers to protecting Australian interests. It indicates that Australian fears of enemy interference with their trade were certainly not groundless.

The book succeeds in its aim "to present readers with an initial guide to the evolution of maritime security priorities within the context of broader strategic thinking" (p. 4). The papers are generally well written and authoritative, and they provide a useful introduction to the issues underlying, and the evolution of, Australia's response to its maritime environment. It is to be hoped that it will stimulate further debate about this important question.


Greg Kerr, Lost ANZACs: the story of two brothers, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997, viii, pp. 256, illustrations, index, hard cover, RRP $39.95

Reviewed by CRAIG WILCOX, Sydney

Someone once calculated that a century must pass after a major war has ended before there is no one left who feels its effects. Not only do some soldiers live long - and I am writing this review this on the day of the state funeral given Ted Matthews, the last known survivor of the landing at ANZAC cove on 25 April 1915 - but war's wounds and death, its advancements and iniquities, all its pain and the pride affect whole families, not just soldiers themselves, and shape the lives of children and grandchildren. Cut adrift by time and temperament from the generation that fought the war, those descendants must make their own sense of the experience and its impact on them. Thus Greg Kerr, a young journalist, came to write Lost ANZACs, a personal history of his grandfather George and his great-uncle Hedley, two brothers who fought at Gallipoli in 1915 half a century before he was born.

The brothers enlisted in the AIF, though in different battalions and under different surnames, soon after the war began. Hedley waded ashore on 25 April with the job of cutting a path through barbed wire. He was dead before the day was over. George landed a month later and was wounded and captured during the failed August offensive. He spent the next three years a Turkish prisoner, passing the time perfecting his French and working on the Berlin to Baghdad railway, the planning of which in the years before the war was one of the reasons for its outbreak. Greg Kerr tells George and Hedley's stories largely through the words they put down in letters and diaries. The brothers were astute observers with strong views. Hedley, a serious-minded man and a citizen soldier before the war, mused deeply over discipline and training, recorded an early (March 1915) use of the word furphy to describe a rumour, and on the eve of battle wondered with tragic prescience whether "wire cutting is the first step to the next world". George, a more easy-going man with literary aspirations, assumed the task of describing all the discomforts and frustrations, including the sexual ones, of captivity during the Great War. Through his pen we glimpse some of the feelings of ordinary Turks and Germans, Russians and French, Australians and Englishmen waiting for a peace that seemed never to come and sensing a brotherhood that they must nevertheless restrain by allegiances to their motherlands. Hedley's and George's words will be valuable sources for scholars, especially those interested in the experience of prisoners of war.

Lost ANZACs is a personal history in a double sense. As well as telling the stories of the two brothers it also records a journey of discovery by one of us, Greg Kerr, to understand the two men and the war they fought. Over the course of the book Kerr tells us almost as much about himself as about George and Hedley, explaining what Gallipoli and his grandfather meant to him as a child, describing his own pilgrimage to Turkey in 1995 to follow in the two men's footsteps, musing frequently on Hedley's and George's emotions, and wondering how we might rise to the challenge of a mass disaster like Gallipoli. His tone is honest, humble and sometimes reverential, and his writing can reach grace and insight, notably when he sums up George's life at the close of the book.

But has Kerr explained his ancestors too much in our terms, and so discovered little more than what he already knew, or thought he knew, about his ancestors? It might have surprised George and Hedley to read of "the contradiction of the soldierly vocation and the spiritual life"; of the "hysterical" reaction with which Australians greeted the coming of war; that conscription into the AIF was the cause of "British militarists". Kerr's Australian soldiers are the intelligent, virile, pom-bashing larrikins which our film directors and popular writers tell us they were. His conception of British discipline and generalship is similarly derived. These easy stereotypes might make the ANZACs immediately recognisable to us, and they reassure anyone who still believes that an Australian identity still has to be carved out in opposition to supposed British traits. But they are also false stereotypes, and they make Lost ANZACs a far less profound meditation than it could have been. In the end, it is a book to be read more for George and Hedley's words than for those of their descendant.


Phoebe Vincent, My darling Mick: The life of Granville Ryrie 1865-1937, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1997, pp ix, 254, illustrations, index, soft cover, rrp $24.95

Reviewed by CRAIG WILCOX, Sydney

"Cut the cackle and let's get down to business." Thus did Sir Granville de Laune Ryrie, soldier-politician and Australia's blunt-mannered representative to the League of Nations, once address his fellow diplomats. He led a light horse brigade during the Great War according to the same principle, confronting the tactical problems before him with the aggressive common sense of an Australian bushman. "Steady, consistent success" was the result, an official historian judged - with the implied criticism that often lurks behind such balanced praise, for Ryrie showed little imaginative or intellectual flair for war. Still, the Great War might have ended sooner, or at least with fewer casualties, had there been more officers like Granville Ryrie.

The nature of Phoebe Vincent's My darling Mick, the first biography of Ryrie, is evoked by its title. The book is an affectionate account of Ryrie's life and character written around long extracts from his letters, almost all written to his "Darling Mick", as he called his wife, and lavishly illustrated with family photographs. What the book lacks in critical scholarship and sometimes in accuracy it makes up for in empathy, for Ryrie comes alive in a way he could never do in a conventional scholarly work. We see his powerful young body in the spruce dolman of a nineteenth-century volunteer cavalry officer, then his 16-stone middle-aged form - "the heaviest man in the light horse", went the joke - astride his horse Plain Bill during the Great War. His fluent, unaffected letters tell us how he won over the sceptical electors of Captains Flat by beating their toughest man in a boxing match, of his humble admiration for his soldiers on Gallipoli, and of his preference for Bungendore to Boulogne. Over the course of the book a vivid impression is formed of a robust family man much in love with his wife, a lover of empire who was aggressively Australian, a squatter's son who mixed easily with working men but could not stomach the state-enforced egalitarianism of the Labor party, and a soldier drawn to war for its excitement and physical release - and, perhaps, for fear that other men would think him less a man for not participating.

Vincent misses the chance to detail how Ryrie's military career began when his family raised a squadron of volunteer cavalry, a common act of patronage by wealthy Australians in the second half of the nineteenth century and the start to several distinguished Australian military careers. Nor does she recount the absorption of Cooma's infantry company into Ryrie's squadron in 1903. A consequence of increasing official confidence in the light horse and in Ryrie, the episode is interesting for the loud public resistance it provoked among many Cooma citizens, partly through distrust of Ryrie's comfortable origins. Vincent is generous, though, in her treatment of Ryrie's first experience of battle in the Boer war. Like most other Australians the young officer was first excited and then bored by the war, though he remained fascinated by the khaki pageant of the British empire in the field, from Kitchener and Cecil Rhodes down to "niggers of all sorts and sizes".

Ryrie's reputation on his return from South Africa as an "exceptionally good and capable" officer and "one of the few promising leaders of light horse in Australia" won him his brigade command soon after war began in 1914. He held it throughout the Great War, being neither promoted to lead a division nor sent home unfit or in disgrace. Harry Chauvel, his superior officer, appreciated his strengths but thought him unsuited for high command, and in any case officers who had been regular soldiers before the war, which necessarily often meant British officers, were almost always preferred for promotions. Ryrie's letters speak bitterly of "the miserable little dog Chauvel" who "panders and cringes to the Imperial staff" and "would try to jockey me out altogether if he could". Vincent is not the author to assess Ryrie's military ability, though she conjures up the personal differences between the fat, extroverted Ryrie and the thin, prim Chauvel that must have contributed to any tension between them. She also picks the ideal quote from Ryrie to justify his sometimes controversial indulgence of his light horsemen, a consequence of affection and patrician obligation which won the love of his men. "What of it?" Ryrie once replied when accused of being too lenient: "A father has to be a bit indulgent of his boys." He did not indulge everyone. When a Ghurkha sentry was murdered by some Egyptians who could not be tracked down, Ryrie had their village burnt in retaliation. It was a crime well in accord with the German army's policy of "frightfulness", a policy which the allies roundly condemned and which was one reason why they felt it so vital to win the Great War. It was also akin to the farm burning which had become a substitute for British strategy during the Boer War. But even here Vincent cannot bring herself to judge her hero harshly.

A sort of George Reid on horseback, Ryrie's laughable girth and playful buffoonery helped to conceal a sharp grasp of men, if not of situations, and made an old-fashioned officer and political conservative tolerable, even lovable, in a society and an army which claimed to distrust rank and reaction. My darling Mick is a warm introduction to the man and his now vanished society.


Peter Edwards, A nation at war: Australian politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965-1975, Allen and Unwin with the Australian War Memorial, 1997, ISBN 1 86448 282 6, pp. 460, rrp $59.95

Reviewed by ANTHONY SHORT

At one of the turning points in US involvement in the Vietnam War, Defense Secretary McNamara told President Johnson that the despatch of one thousand Australian troops would have a political effect out of all proportion to their numbers. Johnson had just been returned to the White House by the greatest margin recorded in any presidential election. In Australia exactly two years later, in November 1966, Prime Minister Holt gained, as Peter Edwards puts it, "the largest governing majority to that point in Australian political history: a bigger electoral victory at his first attempt than Menzies had ever achieved". Coincidence, but on one level, in Edwards' second, magisterial, volume in the Official history of Australia's involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts between 1948 and 1975, the US connection is almost overwhelming in its pervasiveness.

In the studied ambiguity of his title, Edwards writes from the inside about the attendant convulsions in Australian politics and society. On this, the second, level, an Australian reviewer could write from direct experience and more immediate knowledge, but for an outsider it is a fascinating and often moving account of the breakdown of a hitherto conformist society, or at least of a society in transition. From the hats and gloves, cufflinks and suits, approach of the early peace movements to the holy simplicity of "one side right, one side wrong" and the far Left's exaggerated hopes for an Australian revolution, it was obvious that the Vietnam war was radicalising Australian politics. Along the way, Edwards' descriptions of teach-ins, street demonstrations and vigorous police actions are vivid enough to make it all seem like last week. This book is so smooth to read that it easy to overlook the solid foundations and exemplary scholarship on which it is based.

At the domestic level Edwards must have seen and used practically everything that has been published. On particular issues and in particular cases, notably resistance to the National Service Act, he has used the invaluable supplement of government records to reveal fine-line distinctions, scrupulous definitions and the respect for principled objections to enlistment for the Vietnam war which marks a highly civil society. At the interface of foreign and domestic politics, perhaps it was a matter of conscience after all. How necessary and how immoral was the Vietnam war? How important was it for Australia to support the US in a less than immaculate cause? Perhaps it was the natural exuberance of Australian prime ministers which led Holt to commit himself to go all the way with LBJ and Gorton to go waltzing Matilda with Nixon. Perhaps there is another remarkable coincidence. Edwards writes of Holt: "In his first year of office he had no choice but to support the Vietnam commitment" and adds: "senior ministers and officials who were inclined to scoff at Holt's lack of diplomatic sophistication could offer him little constructive assistance in the dilemmas that the Government faced in late 1967" (pp. 174-45).In both cases one could say exactly the same of Johnson, and Edwards might have been describing Nixon when he writes that the dilemma which the Australian faced was in deciding "when to treat new and radical forms of protest as legitimate dissent and when to prohibit them by the use of legislation and law enforcement agencies" (p. 174).

In both cases one could say exactly the same of Johnson, and Edwards might have been describing Nixon when he writes that the dilemma which the Australian faced was in deciding "when to treat new and radical forms of protest as legitimate dissent and when to prohibit them by the use of legislation and law enforcemnt agencies" (p. 174).

Whether or not Australia was marching to the US tune Edward reckons that, when the tempo changed, the government missed a crucial opportunity to act independently and to "exert some influence over the politics of the region and to defuse some of the discontent at home". In Australia, perhaps, as well as in the US, by about 1968 the clear and present danger had receded; yet for some years the Australian government continued to rely on its traditional policies, even as their weaknesses became increasingly apparent (p. 189). It failed to develop a coherent new strategy, including the withdrawal of troops, especially conscripts, from Vietnam; and its "failure even to address the possibility of such an approach in 1968-69 deserves more criticism than the original commitment of 1965" (p. 349). As Edwards points out, and as the US Defense Secretary Clark Clifford revealed in 1969, there was enormous irony in the fact that the Clifford-Taylor mission to Australia in 1967 to drum up support for the war led Clifford at least to have second thoughts. As Edwards writes:

If the Australians had sent 300,000 troops overseas in the Second World War but were now so reluctant to send more than 7,000 to Vietnam, he thought, then perhaps the Americans had exaggerated the danger of a Communist victory in Vietnam (p. 156).

This observation is of a piece with the rest of a stimulating and satisfying account, written with sustained but fair-minded and courteous scepticism. Astute, authoritative and eminently readable as the book is, the only queries which occur to a British reviewer - chastened by the evidence of the less than honourable or honest role played by his own government - concern the actual presentation of the war in general in the Australian media and the source for one or two comments on the Whitlam government (pp. 328-9) - hardly a failing to outweigh even the superb index, let alone the text of this distinguished production.


Bernd Martin, Japan and Germany in the modern world, Providence/Oxford, Berghahn Books, 1995, index, pp. 304, rrp $24

Reviewed by JOHN A. MOSES, University of New England

Bernd Martin is a professor of modern history at the University of Freiburg, Germany. He has made a speciality of German relations with modern Japan, based on an exhaustive investigation of the Prussian and other German documentary record. This book presents his collected essays on the subject, and they make instructive reading for all Australians who are still trying to comprehend the peculiarities of Japanese imperialism and militarism. Indeed, this book rewards close study for the insights it brings not only into Prussian and German military-political culture (still largely misunderstood in this country), but also into the mind of the Japanese aristocratic, industrial and military elites. Martin wants to show how and why, as he puts it:

Up to the end of the German Reich in 1945, political power was always valued more highly than mercantile interests. This policy was readily adopted by Japan which had chosen Germany as its model. The Japanese pupil quickly learned from its German teacher not only how to provide home politics with a seemingly constitutional facade, but also how to be ruthless in foreign politics. The common development of both countries, Germany and Japan, that started in 1861, was based on the misguided Japanese belief in their special kinship (Wesensverwandtschaft) with Germany, and fitted well with German strategy of power politics. In the end, however, it proved fatal with both countries waging war on the rest of the world, and led to violence and defeat. (p. x)

Martin's work is characterised by the determination to tell the painful truth about the "fateful" relationship between a Prussianised Germany and Imperial Japan. The German contribution to the "restructuring of public life and institutions after the Prussian model" in Japan led to the foundations of the authoritarian state. This gained expression in the drafting of the Japanese constitution which enshrined the Prussian principle of not allowing the legislature control over the national budget. Here it is most instructive to learn how the Japanese consciously set out to emulate the Prussian model because it was felt that "German culture and education might help to spread loyalty and true patriotism among the Japanese and to counterbalance the all too many ultraliberalist tendencies'" (p. 35). In this way the initially much stronger US, British and French influence on Japan was displaced.

In the crucial sphere of military culture the Prussian model came inexorably to oust the previously adopted French system. This was done very consciously by the Japanese government in the 1880s. The intention was to reinforce the role of the army as the "school of the nation" and the guardian of the national entity centred on the Tenno. The Prussian model presented itself as ideal for this purpose, and a prominent Prussian staff officer (Major Jacob Meckel) was engaged in 1885 to train Japanese generals in the command of large military units. Although Meckel's tour of duty in Japan lasted only three years, his achievement in training some sixty of the highest-ranking officers in tactics, strategy and the organisation of the general staff meant that he, of all foreign advisers, left the deepest and longest-lasting impression on the modernisation of Japan. It was he who reinforced Japanese subservience to the Emperor by teaching his pupils that Prussian military success was a consequence of the unswerving loyalty to the king as supreme warlord.

In this way, "the Prussians of the Orient" gave priority to expansion and war over commercial prosperity and domestic social harmony. The Pacific war was the ultimate and most significant consequence of the German-Japanese cultural relationship. Bernd Martin has rendered Australian readers an immense service by enlightening us concisely and provocatively about what the adoption of Prussian political-military culture by Japan in the present century has meant. He concludes by pointing out that there were alternative scenarios for Imperial Japan in the Second World War, such as turning its land forces against the Soviet Union in collaboration with Nazi Germany. This, he writes, would have rid the world of communism; there would then have been no Pearl Harbor and no Pacific war. Either way, however, the world would have had to confront two predominant fascist powers. At some stage there would have had to be a reckoning with the democracies. The one that resulted in the defeat of 1945 led to the adoption, in both (West) Germany and Japan, of a liberal parliamentary political culture, and under this system they both have become remarkably successful commercial powers. They will automatically take a lead in the formation of the twenty-first century, but they will have to do it without dominating it.

Bernd Martin's book is an object lesson in how crucially political culture can function for good or ill, depending on the values which the elite of a country choose to adopt and foster.


Chris Coulthard-Clark, Hit my Smoke! Targeting the enemy in Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, Australia,1997, 199 pages; black & white photographs, four maps, no bibliography or index; recommended retail price: $ 19.95.

Reviewed by BARRY SUTHERLAND

Look around Australia’s airfields or airshows and you may see a diminutive and harmless looking aircraft, painted with United States Air Force (USAF) markings. It is known as the Cessna L-19, or O-1 Bird Dog. Few people would be aware that it was one of the aircraft types flown in the Vietnam War by Forward Air Controllers. These elite aviators often flew in the face of intense ground fire to direct air attacks on Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army ground forces fighting South Vietnamese, US, Australian and South Korean forces. Even fewer people would be aware that included among these FACs were pilots from the Royal Australian Air Force. Chris Coulthard-Clark’s book, Hit my Smoke!, lifts a veil surrounding the significant contribution made by the 36 highly decorated Australian airmen who served as FACs with USAF units in Vietnam from 1966 to 1971.

Written in a readable, conversational style, the book describes the recollections of the various Australian FACs seconded to work with USAF units. These recollections vary according to the areas in which the Australians served, ranging from the highly active regions next to the northern Demilitarised Zone, down to the Cambodian border. Many stories graphically illustrate the terror of ground forces in high intensity firefights and the way in which, in fear of being overwhelmed, they called for fire in immediate proximity. Flight Lieutenant Ray Mitchell describes a US ground commander, after requesting bombs and napalm to be placed 200 metres from his forces, shouting into his radio : "It’s bloody close. I’m being lifted off the ground by the explosions. I’m covered in mud and shit but keep it coming." Mitchell kept it coming.

Many of the stories acknowledge the skills not only of the aircrews from the US and the RAAF’s No 2 ‘Magpie’ Squadron flying missions, but also those of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF). Directing four VNAF Skyraider aircraft to place napalm 40 metres from friendly forces under intense attack, Flying Officer Leader Pete Condon watched in horror as the VNAF flight leader dropped his napalm canisters well above the normal release altitude. Transfixed by the tumbling canisters, and visualising the friendly forces being wiped out by fire which he had directed, Condon breathed an enormous sigh as the canisters struck right on the target. While directing a VNAF air attack on a Saigon building during the 1968 Tet campaign, Flight Lieutenant Pete Smith was asked by the VNAF flight leader whether he wanted the bomb on the front door or the back door! Wryly, Smith nominated the back door. He was amazed to see the bomb land exactly there.

Admiration and respect are expressed by the FACs also for the ‘grunts’ they support on the ground, a sentiment reciprocated by the ground forces, who were often saved from desperate situations by the FACs. One US soldier attempted to reward a FAC with his most valuable possession - a jar of preserved human ears. Admiration goes also to the US authorities who showed no reluctance in entrusting control of vast amounts of US fighting power to the Australians. Strangely, few thoughts are expressed about an enemy who continued to maintain commitment and fighting spirit in the face of the immense firepower projected from the air.

Some criticism is levelled at the US training and the military system, which sometimes posted inexperienced aviators into positions without adequate preparation. This often had disastrous outcomes. Australia had learnt well from the Korean War, in which some pilots posted to the RAAF’s 77 Squadron were sent home because of inadequate training and experience. In Vietnam, all the Australians posted to FAC positions were highly trained and experienced.

 While some recollections make light of tense situations, the danger experienced by the FACs cannot be disguised. Nor can their bravery. Losses in FAC units were high. Two Australians were shot down but survived. The first, Flight Lieutenant Gary Cooper, was shot down while on board a US Army command and control helicopter. He managed to save the survivors under intense enemy fire. Cooper's superiors sought to have him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, although this was prevented by US regulations. The book notes the controversy surrounding an alleged failure by Australian authorities to recognise adequately his deeds in this action. Also described is Flight Lieutenant Chris Langton’s survival after being shot down twice : first in his OV-10 Bronco and again in his rescue helicopter. Sadly, many of the FACs arrived back in Australia without fanfare. There was little interest in their valuable contribution or experiences.

 Apart from reflecting individual opinions, the book does not dwell on the rights or wrongs of the Vietnam War. Instead, it describes professional military aviators doing their job in accordance with government policy. Neither does the book dwell on an in-depth analysis of offensive air power or the future of forward air control. But many valuable insights still can be drawn by the serious student of air power, although they may be frustrated by the lack of an index. A common thread among most of the recollections is the reluctance by some US and even Australian ground units to exploit close air support, preferring instead a reliance on artillery. Units that used air power for close air support quickly recognised its value in winning battles and in saving lives.

 Hit my Smoke! redresses an important gap in recording the annals of Australians at war. It puts you in the cockpit and gives you some appreciation of what it was like to work with an allied nation, with all of its cultural differences, in the air and on the ground,. For those interested in military aviation or stories of human endeavour in the face of adversity, it provides excellent reading.

TOP ISSUE 31 CONTENTS ABBREVIATIONS JOURNAL HOME WEBSITE HOME