Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 36
Roger Donnelly, The Scheyville experience: the Officer Training Unit, Scheyville, 1965-1973, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2001, 302 pp., appendices, photographs, index, rrp $30
Reviewed by: HUGH SMITH, School of Politics, Australian Defence Force Academy
OTU Scheyville was established on 1 April 1965 to meet Army's need for officers arising from the National Service Scheme that had begun in 1964. It had taken a mere eight months from the concept to the first intake at Scheyville camp, located about 50 kilometres north-west of Sydney. The unit received some of the best and brightest conscripts (together with a proportion of regular soldiers), put them through a demanding and in some respects ruthless 22-week course, and turned out highly capable second lieutenants. Between 1965 and 1973 Scheyville produced 1,871 officers, of whom some 1,639 were National Servicemen. This compares with 1,287 officers from Portsea and 465 from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in the same period. The ending of National Service in 1972 did away with the need for the OTU.
In the same month that Scheyville opened, the government announced the commitment of a battalion to the war in Vietnam. Some 328 Scheyville graduates served in what has been called "a platoon commander's war", acquitting themselves admirably as Donnelly's book makes clear. Memories of Vietnam, including those of first contact with the enemy, are included, as well as an appendix with numerous citations for gallantry. Eight graduates died in the war. The war also meant that some members of the directing staff had recent combat experience and were able to speak with authority.
The book conveys well the atmosphere and the challenges encountered by the young men at Scheyville. All were volunteers for officer training and came from varied backgrounds. From Day One they were put under immense pressure and often had no time even to write home. Qualities to be developed included planning skills, good human relations, leadership and persistence. The syllabus (reproduced in the book) was crowded with everything a junior officer needed to know about running a platoon. It included a "CO's hour" which covered questions such as "Who should I marry? And why?" As in other institutions, course members became adept at beating the system-from going to sleep on parade to helping mates pass PT tests by distracting instructors. Unlike Duntroon and Portsea, trainees were considered mature enough to be allowed alcohol under strict conditions.
For some, the demands were too great and about 30 per cent did not complete the course (a rate similar to or better than comparable institutions overseas). Dismissal was a straightforward procedure-far simpler than in today's officer-producing institutions-and could happen overnight. There was some abuse of authority by directing staff (course members had little time or inclination for such practices) and punishments for petty infringements of discipline could be severe. But the first commandant, Brigadier Ian Geddes, was instrumental in creating an effective and far-sighted regime. Staff at all levels focused on the job to be done and worked extremely hard, supervising and reporting in detail on course members. They were often busy seven days a week, to the detriment of family life.
The graduates of Scheyville certainly made their contribution to the war in Vietnam and in other areas of the Army. But about 270 transferred to the regulars after their National Service, even though, like Portsea graduates, they were told they would never go beyond major. This produced some tensions, but Scheyville graduates were sooner or later accepted on their merits. At least thirteen rose to the rank of brigadier, and as of early 2002 three of these were still serving (two in the Australian Regular Army, one in the General Reserve). One had also become Commandant of RMC. Many Scheyville graduates also made their mark in civilian life, the best known being Jeff Kennett and Tim Fischer.
This book covers many aspects of the Scheyville experience in a detailed and insightful fashion. It contains much that is for the record, including a full nominal roll of staff and students and a history of the site, but also captures much of the human side of the unit, making good use of interviews with former students and staff. Though OTU Scheyville existed for only eight years-far less time than Duntroon, Portsea or the Defence Academy-its story is an interesting one. Donnelly's book is an engaging portrait of an institution that was, after all, a temporary expedient. But wise planning and hard work saw it play an important part in the history of the Australian Army.