Issue 32 -- March 1999

Australian War Memorial


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.


Jeffrey Grey, Up top: the Royal Australian Navy and the south-east Asian conflicts, 1955-1972, Sydney, Allen and Unwin in Association with the Australian War Memorial, 1998, pp. 380, index, photographs, bibliography

Reviewed by EDWARD J. MAROLDA, Senior Historian, US Navy Historical Centre

The service of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the Vietnam War was comparable to that of the United States Navy. Without an enemy fleet to confront in the waters of south-east Asia, Australia and the US focused their military efforts against the communists ashore. Most of the fighting and dying occurred in the jungles of Indochina and in the air above it.

Nonetheless, as Jeffrey Grey demonstrates, naval forces made a significant contribution, afloat and ashore, during almost two decades of conflict in south-east Asia. Indeed, his regional focus is refreshing and long overdue in our study of this volatile period of contemporary history. The success of Australian and other Commonwealth forces of the Strategic Reserve against communist insurgents in Malaya and the frustration of President Sukarno’s ambitions can be credited with helping to bring political stability to the region even after the communist success in Indochina. This aspect of the regional struggle is not widely known, especially among US readers, so Dr. Grey’s work will be a significant boon to our understanding of the subject.

A major theme of Up top is the transition of Australian naval policy and strategy from a British Commonwealth focus on developments in Malaya and Indonesia to a US focus on communist encroachment in south-east Asia in general and Indochina in particular. There was a parallel evolution in the RAN from attachment to the traditions, operational approaches and equipment of the Royal Navy to those of the US Navy. This shift was symbolized by the deployment of HMAS Hobart for service with the US Seventh Fleet on the coastal patrol off Vietnam in 1967; it was one of several new, US-built RAN destroyers. Another theme is that, important as the RAN’s operations in Vietnam were, they were of secondary importance to those of the army--that in some ways the RAN was “little more than [a] handmaiden to the Army”. Only with the failure of the anti-communist effort in Indochina did government and navy leaders devote more attention and consequently more resources to the RAN for the defence of the sea and air approaches to Australia.

Despite the author’s caution that the work “does not pretend to be a comprehensive and detailed account” of the RAN’s involvement in the Malayan Emergency, confrontation with Indonesia and the Vietnam War, it will stand for many years as the history of the subject. Up top is the only volume that will treat the RAN in the eight-volume official history of the south-east Asian conflicts. Moreover, Dr. Grey has carried out his research in the most valuable primary records and secondary sources, not only in Australia (though regrettably not the records of the RAN that have been destroyed through bureaucratic decision) but in the US and the United Kingdom. The text is complemented with numerous maps, tables and photographs, a list of abbreviations, and especially useful appendixes which detail the RAN’s battle and non-battle casualties, honors and decorations, financial costs and other information.

This history places the RAN in its historical context, discusses the strategic rationale for its employment and provides significant detail on the activities of the surface ship, helicopter, clearance diving and other units that operated along the coasts of Malaya, Indonesia and Vietnam and ashore in the last. Grey’s coverage of combat operations in Vietnam is comprehensive, and it highlights the high regard that US sailors and soldiers had for their brave, skilled Aussie comrades. That both naval services could endure years of costly, gruelling, indecisive and ultimately unsuccessful combat operations in Vietnam without the frictions that had divided allies in past wars is testimony to the strength of the Australian-US connection and the commitment of both parties to the security of the region. As a historian of the “unlimited superlatives navy” (p. 162), I close by expressing the highest praise for Dr. Grey’s well-written and scholarly history, Up top.


Bridget Goodwin, Keen as mustard: Britain’s horrific chemical warfare experiments in Australia, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1998, pp. xviii, 361, photographs, appendices, end notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by ALBERT PALAZZO, School of History, Australian Defence Force Academy

Bridget Goodwin has followed up her successful film Keen as mustard with a book of the same title. Like the film, it is a powerful work which dramatically reveals the nature, extent, and purpose of the secret chemical warfare experiments which scientists conducted on Australian soldiers during the Second World War. Australian volunteers served as guinea pigs in chemical weapons trials, principally involving mustard gas, during which they received terrible burns and, in many cases, suffered permanent disabilities and an increased risk of life-threatening diseases. The rewards for their service were slight, however. Goodwin extends her story to include the callously indifferent treatment the survivors received from a series of post-war governments which preferred to deny the men medical care or disability pensions in order to avoid the embarrassing admission of Australia’s involvement in chemical warfare.

In fact, Goodwin sympathies lie too close to the victims of the experiments, and her judgement of the scientists’ lack of concern for them is overly harsh. Certainly the men were-ill informed and even misled as to the nature of the tests for which they volunteered, but the increased potency of mustard gas in tropical environments came as a surprise, and this finding was an important scientific, medical and military discovery. The expansion of the war in the Pacific to include mustard gas was a real possibility, and tests which would provide the army with information on how to use the weapon in the attack and how to treat its victims were, therefore, urgently required.

Keen as mustard, as the sub-title suggests, also prefers to blame the trials on Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States, and tries to portray the Australians as hapless victims of foreign experimenters. The scientists in charge of the trials were non-Australians, but they undertook the tests with the knowledge and approval of Australia’s political and military leaders. Australia might have been a very junior partner in the alliance, but it still had responsibility for the welfare of its soldiers. If a criticism is deserved it should be directed at the Australian army for not supervising the project adequately and for not ensuring the protection of its own troops.

Goodwin is on much surer ground when she examines the post-war treatment of the chemical test volunteers. Although not fully understood at the time, it is now known that mustard gas can have a systemic effect upon its victims, thus increasing the likelihood of their developing respiratory, epidermal and other conditions years later. Sworn to secrecy and denied access to their records, the volunteers found it extremely difficult to establish the legitimacy of their claims for disability pensions. For some, favourable awards would come too late.

The book also includes an important chapter on the female personnel who served in a technical or medical capacity during the tests. These women shared the same risks as the male scientists and were essential elements of the team, and it is just that their accomplishments should also be documented.

There are a few points which, given stronger editing, could have resulted in an even better book. The first two sections are too long and should have been combined into a single brief introductory chapter. Goodwin’s summary of the nature of chemical warfare and the state of the literature in her lengthy introduction lacks depth and skilled interpretation, and it does not relate sufficiently to the work’s objectives to warrant inclusion. Her expose on the tradition of scientific self-experimentation (chapter 1) could have been condensed to a brief outline. The reader must therefore wait until page 81 before the real story begins.

Keen as mustard is a well written, highly readable account of an episode in Australian history, and its deplorable aftermath, which had been forgotten for far too long. Its publication is welcome, and it is to be hoped that its message of government indifference and irresponsibility will reach the widest possible audience.


Frank Cain ed., Menzies in war and peace, Allen and Unwin in association with the Australian Defence Studies Centre, Canberra, 1997, pp. 179, index, paperback, rrp A$24.95

Reviewed by ANDREW LEE*

In this collection Frank Cain has assembled nine essays on aspects of Robert Menzies’ involvement in foreign affairs, including Australian policy towards "neutral" Japan, 1939-41; the departure of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961; attitudes to the changing Commonwealth of the late 1950s and early 1960s; the origins of Australia’s military intervention against Indonesia’s Confrontation with Malaysia and its absorption of west New Guinea (Irian Jaya); planning for global war with the Soviet Union as the underlying concern of policy in the early 1950s; de Gaulle’s never-realised proposal for a neutral zone in French Indochina; and Menzies’ imperial world view. Two arguments emerge: first, that the Menzies government’s cold war partisanship made it unable to respond to the energy of south-east Asian decolonisation as anything other than a military threat; secondly, that, while it was not a puppet of Britain and the United States, it placed too much faith in Australia’s relations with its great power allies.

The "imperial imagination", as Gregory Pemberton describes Menzies’ world view, features prominently, and it is brought into focus most sharply in David Goldsworthy’s essay on Menzies’ attitudes to the Commonwealth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Goldsworthy shows that right up to the departure of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, following the Sharpeville massacre, Menzies continued to hope that some means could be found of keeping this old, or "white", dominion in the Commonwealth. Fearing that a precedent had been set for punishing another old dominion for its white Australia policy, Menzies and his colleagues looked on with unease as British priorities continued to shift from the old dominions towards Europe and a post-colonial Commonwealth.

Other authors emphasise the importance of Europe and the Middle East in Commonwealth defence planning in the early years of the Cold War. David Lowe contends that, in assessing the influence of the Second World War experience, historians have placed too much emphasis on Menzies’ determination to avoid repeating the mistakes of appeasement. According to Lowe, Menzies was more apprehensive of the speed of the modern attack as demonstrated by the Nazi blitzkrieg and was concerned that Australia should prepare to resist a USSR that might advance across Europe and the Middle East even more quickly than German forces in 1939-40. Such was Menzies’ preoccupation with Europe that, two weeks after the outbreak of the Korean war, he could note in his diary:

            All these Asian adventures are diversions by the Russians

(a)  to contain substantial democratic forces

(b)  to create a psychology which will make countries like Australia unwilling to make commitments outside S[outh]. E[ast] Asia

(c)  to try out weapons and techniques first as in the Spanish civil war.

(diary, 10 July 1950, cited p. 46)

As usual with international relations, these studies concentrate on the formation of policy within government and bureaucracy. They are based on extensive research in official archives in Australia and overseas and draw on the latest secondary literature. The authors have shown great energy in chasing the paper trail of top-level decision making. But with a few exceptions, such as Gregory Pemberton’s brief discussion of the social background of Department of External Affairs cadets, little attention is paid to the domestic context of policy making.

It is also Pemberton who comments: "The post-Vietnam breed of foreign policy scholars and other commentators [have] tended to be uniformly critical of Menzies." (p. 155). The nine essays in this book largely bear out the truth of these remarks. Menzies in war and peace belongs in the tradition of "revisionism" in cold war studies. Its authors turn a critical eye on the West’s complicity in creating the dangerous and costly tensions of the Cold War. These essays are tinged with regret that the relatively neutralist and independent-minded policies followed by the Chifley government in the late 1940s were replaced by a hardline Cold War partisanship.

This is not to say that the contents of Menzies in war and peace are entirely predictable. Wayne Reynolds makes the important and original point that the Menzies government hoped that the UK would give Australia the secrets of atomic weaponry in gratitude for the testing grounds in South and Western Australia. But to this reviewer the most original chapter is that of Christopher Waters on Menzies’ attitude to a proposal advanced by President de Gaulle in the early 1960s to make Indochina a neutral zone. De Gaulle shared the Johnson administration’s assumption that without US support the South would quickly be defeated by the North, but he contended that a unified Vietnam would be influenced more by traditional hostility to China than by the Leninist ideology both regimes had acquired. What is interesting here is not the Menzies government’s predictable opposition so much as the plan itself, which has received little attention, at least in the English-language literature. For the most part, however, Waters’ fellow contributors provide new detail on more familiar topics, and the main value of Menzies in war and peace is to bring together in one reasonably-priced volume recent research which has previously appeared only in journal articles and monographs.

* Andrew Lee was formerly on the staff of the Historical Research Section, Australian War Memorial. He is now working as an adviser to Senator Chris Evans.