When four Australian military officers boarded a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-47 in Darwin to fly across the Timor Sea to Sourabaya, near the eastern end of Java, they had little inkling what a historic journey they were making. It was September 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, in which all four had fought. Their leader, Brigadier Lewis Dyke, had commanded Timor Force, which accepted the Japanese surrender on Timor in 1945. Commander Henry Chesterman, a naval officer, had been decorated by the Americans for his role as a liaison officer in the Pacific, while RAAF pilot Squadron Leader Lou Spence had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Middle East and, sadly, would later be killed commanding a squadron in Korea. The fourth member of the party was another army officer, Major D.L. Campbell.

After such distinguished wartime careers, service in peacetime might have smacked of anti-climax. But now they were flying to the Netherlands East Indies to take up a posting as “military assistants” for the United Nations (UN), at a time when enormous hope was invested in that young organisation. The four officers may have shared the widespread optimism that the legacy of the war would be a new, more peaceable way of dealing with conflicts. What they could not have known is that, as the very first UN peacekeepers, they would be the start of a proud tradition for Australia and for the world.

There had been peacekeepers before the UN was formed. On several occasions in the 1920s and 1930s multinational military forces assisted as the League of Nations tried to sort out border disputes left over from the First World War. In particular, in 1935 a British, Dutch, Italian and Swedish force of more than 3,000 men maintained the peace in the Saar territory, on the border between France and Germany, as the population voted on whether to be reinstated as part of Germany. However, these precedents seem to have been largely forgotten when representatives of the Allied powers – members of an alliance which already called itself the “United Nations” – met in San Francisco in 1945 to design a successor organisation to the League of Nations. The delegates were near the end of a long and terrible war and remembered vividly the pre-war aggressions of Italy, Germany and Japan. The result was that the UN Charter focused on finding ways for member states to use diplomacy and, if need be, force, to repel a state that attacked another.

A meeting of the UN Consular Commission in Batavia, Indonesia, on 29 September 1947. The man with the pipe is the Australian Consul-General, Charles Eaton.
AWM P03531.003

In the event, the postwar world was not like that. The UN itself had a hand in setting in motion decolonisation, the great historical movement of the later twentieth century. In 1945 large parts of Asia and Africa were ruled by European states (and Japan) as colonies, snatched over the previous century or so and generally governed with little regard for the welfare of the local peoples. The League of Nations had had a system of “mandates” under which countries were authorised to rule a territory while promoting education and institutions that would allow it one day to be independent. Under the UN, these became “trusteeships”, such as that which gave Australia control of Papua New Guinea until its independence in 1975.

Today, there are no trusteeships left, and very few colonies. Some territories had independence more or less thrust upon them by exhausted colonial powers. In the late 1940s Britain gave India its independence (creating India, Pakistan and a disputed territory, Kashmir), and turned the problem
of Palestine, which it had held under a League of Nations mandate, over to the UN. Defeated Japan lost its colony of Korea. In other cases, territories fought for their independence: the Indonesian Republicans opposed the return of the Netherlands East Indies to the Dutch, while the Vietnamese began a long war against the French (and later the Americans). In the decades which followed, there were wars of “liberation” elsewhere in Asia and across much of Africa.

Believing in both decolonisation and the non-violent settlement of conflicts, the fledgling UN could not avoid getting involved. When serious fighting broke out between the Dutch and Indonesians in mid- 1947, the UN Security Council imposed a ceasefire and set up two diplomatic bodies to help negotiate a settlement. Australia’s representative on one of these, the Consular Commission, was Charles “Moth” Eaton, a colourful aviator who had flown in both world wars. When the Australian Department of External Affairs worried that the Dutch were not abiding by the ceasefire, Eaton suggested that the Consular Commission needed military assistants to monitor the situation on the ground. The call went out: Australia was the first to respond.

Thus it was that Brigadier Dyke and his colleagues found themselves despatched post-haste: they spent a night en route at Dutch-controlled Sourabaya, where Eaton joined them for a cocktail party with local Dutch military officers. Next day, they flew on to Batavia (later renamed Jakarta), where they were met by Dutch authorities and a bevy of press.

The following day, Sunday, 14 September 1947, the four observers flew to Jokjakarta, the capital of the Indonesian Republic, where they were entertained by President Sukarno and Premier Amir Sjarifuddin. For the next two weeks they separated into pairs and toured the areas of fighting, Dyke and Spence on the Indonesian side, Chesterman and Campbell in Dutch-held areas.

A road perched high above the Indus valley in Kashmir that was used by UN observers in 1965.
AWM P05689.044

The Australians were pessimistic about the possibility of making the ceasefire work, noting, “As each party to the dispute is using a different set of rules, it is certain that no umpire can function effectively.” Nevertheless, the UN persisted and observers from other nations soon arrived. At a conference early the following year, all the observers shared what they had learnt about this type of operation. They agreed that it was important, for the sake of neutrality, to work in mixed-nationality teams, each team responsible for a sector of the ceasefire line. Observers were reminded that they represented the UN, not their own countries, and that they had no power to give orders. Instead, they must bring parties together “through the use of initiative, a sense of fair play, ingenuity and common sense”. Thus were principles born which have underlain UN peacekeeping ever since.

But while they had no formal power over the warring parties – apart from the ability to report impartially on what they were doing – observers had an important job in trying to prevent local disputes and fighting flaring into a new outbreak of conflict.

They acted as liaison between the two sides, using their negotiating skills and powers of persuasion to try to pull them back from the brink. And in Indonesia, unlike some of the other places in which the UN has been involved, they were rewarded with success, as they saw the country gain its independence in December 1949 and helped monitor the demobilisation of Dutch forces. After Indonesia, the UN used military observers in Palestine, Kashmir, Korea and many other places. Following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Lester Pearson, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, proposed a much more substantial UN force to act as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. In the Congo, in the early 1960s, an even larger UN force got drawn into fighting in a civil war. Although that was a setback that left the UN considerably more cautious than before, in recent decades UN missions have grown steadily larger and more complex. Peacekeeping is no longer a matter simply of keeping peace or maintaining security. Increasingly, peacekeepers attempt to assist refugees, rebuild institutions of justice and democracy, carry out de-mining, and undertake many other functions designed to give societies the chance to live in peace.

As for Australia, 14 September 1947 was only the start. Every day since then there have been Australian peacekeepers in the field, in more than 50 different operations in most parts of the world; 14 September is now recognised as Australian Peacekeepers’ Day and the government recently announced that there is to be a memorial to Australian peacekeepers on Anzac Parade in Canberra. Soon there will be an official history of Australian peacekeeping, as well as a new peacekeeping exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. And in September 2007, the Memorial will mark the 60th anniversary of Australian peacekeeping with an important conference. Speakers will include several former peacekeepers and the four authors writing volumes of the official history, as well as academics and other experts in the field.

The 60th anniversary comes at a time when Australian peacekeeping has been overshadowed by non-peacekeeping operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While significant regional engagements continue in East Timor and Solomon Islands, elsewhere there are small groups of Australian peacekeepers in the Middle East (in Israel, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon), Cyprus and the Sudan. Peacekeeping is certainly no panacea: it began as a bandaid solution and in many ways remains that. Peacekeepers can rarely #8220;solve” a problem. Indeed, as an editorialist in The Australian wrote a quarter of a century ago: “Crossword puzzles have solutions. Long, complicated, bitter national and religious problems do not. All one can hope for is an improvement here and an improvement there and a willingness to talk rather than to fight.”

An improvement here and an improvement there is often all that peacekeepers can bring; but it is still better than turning our backs on the problems of the world.

Donating to the Memorial

The Memorial is steadily expanding its collection of documents, photographs and memorabilia relating to peacekeeping, and is always keen to hear from peacekeepers who have material to donate. Former peacekeepers are also invited to register with the official history team if they have documents relating to their peacekeeping service or would be willing to be interviewed. (Resources only allow a sample of peacekeepers to be interviewed.)


Register with the peacekeeping official history:

Additional information


Dr Peter Londey is author of Other people’s wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping (2004) and one of the authors of the forthcoming official history of Australian peacekeeping.