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Simplistic approach proves devil is in the details of war

19 January 2013 1,632 views One Comment

Simplistic approach proves devil is in the details of war

AS with many of Roland Perry’s previous works, which include biographies of Keith Miller, Donald Bradman and John Monash, ‘Pacific 360’ creates general interest in Australian history. However this book, while well written, is often simplistic in a way that seems not fully to appreciate the nuances involved in the Pacific War.
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The subtitle, ‘Australia’s Battle for Survival in World War II’, alerts readers to Perry’s main contention: that in 1942 our nation faced the threat of Japanese invasion. Yet while he does mention disputes in the Japanese High Command between the navy (which wanted to invade) and the military (which argued it was logistically too difficult), Perry insists a “Battle for Australia” was fought in 1942.

This claim is not based on real evidence. The fact is that early in 1942 the Japanese high command rejected the idea of invading Australia. Two of our finest historians, David Horner and Peter Stanley, have persuasively punctured the invasion myth, drawing on Japanese records.

As Perry concedes, as early as March 26, 1942, American general Douglas MacArthur told a meeting of the Advisory War Council in Canberra: “It is doubtful whether the Japanese will undertake an invasion of Australia. The spoils don’t warrant the risk.” By June that year MacArthur was even more certain, stating that the “defensive position of Australia was now assured”.

Elsewhere Perry claims Australian prime minister John Curtin and his British counterpart Winston Churchill were alcoholics who suffered from depression. Certainly both wartime leaders did battle with the black dog. However there are some important differences between the two: while Curtin (like Bob Hawke after him) stopped drinking while he was PM until he died in office on July 5, 1945, Churchill did not reduce his booze consumption one iota. Moreover, I am inclined to think Churchill was a heavy drinker rather than an alcoholic. Curtin, on the other hand, was clearly an alcoholic who had to quit drinking to function as a political leader.

While conceding Curtin’s marriage to his loyal wife Elsie (who stayed at the family home in Perth) was stable, twice in this book Perry claims the PM had extramarital relationships, primarily with Belle Southwell, who ran Canberra’s Kurrajong Hotel, a five-minute walk from Parliament House. Yet Perry provides no evidence to support such a claim. In his 1999 book ‘John Curtin: A Life’, David Day writes: “It cannot be certain whether Curtin’s relationship with Belle also had a sexual side.” The truth is that we just don’t know.

Also there is nothing new in Perry’s so-called revelations, trumpeted in the media, about a depressed and anxious Curtin disappearing on Mount Ainslie on Saturday, February 21, 1942, and reappearing the next morning, about eight hours later; or in the fact messages were placed on the screens of Canberra cinemas asking for help in finding the prime minister. All of this is documented in Day’s biography.

‘Pacific 360’ also suffers from some sloppy proofing. For example, the surname of the American serviceman Edward Joseph Leonski (also known as the Brownout Strangler) is spelled Leonski and Leonsky on the same page. Convicted of the murder of three women in Melbourne, Leonski was hanged at Pentridge Prison on November 9, 1942.

Of a number of fine photographs in this book, two stand out. The first is of the bombing of Darwin, the second of a shelled house in Sydney’s Bellevue Hill. The latter is captioned: “(O)ne of the results of the Japanese midget submarine raid in Sydney Harbour in 1942.” This isn’t quite accurate. The shelling wasn’t carried out by any of the three midget submarines but by the Japanese mother submarine.

Although it is not mentioned here, apart from causing some general alarm in Sydney, a side effect of the attack was a drop in property prices in Bellevue Hill and surrounding suburbs as some residents fled to the Blue Mountains.

Pacific 360: Australia’s Battle For Survival In World War II
By Roland Perry
Hachette Australia, 500pp, $50 (hb)

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and author of 35 books.

The Weekend Australian January 19 -20, 2013, Review pp 24-25

One Comment »

  • James Prior said:

    ON no, not another scare about a Japanese invasion of Australia!

    Roland Perry’s ‘Pacific 360 : Australia’s Battle for Survival in World War 11′, reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald (Review, January 19-20) is surely pushing a difficult barrow. I thought Peter Stanley and David Horner had well and truly established the Japanese high command had decided that there would be no invasion of Australia.

    According to Fitzgerald, “despite a lack of real evidence, Perry insists a ‘Battle for Australia’ was fought in 1942.” Whether or not Japan planned to invade, perhaps the most significant development of the Pacific War was John Curtin’s refusal to buckle to Winston Churchill’s reluctance to return Australian troops from the Middle East to participate in the defence of Australia. While Churchill enlisted Franklin Roosevelt to lean on Curtin. the Australian prime minister alone fought and won that battle. No other Australian politician at that time, with the possible exception of Ben Chifley, could have been so resolute.

    James Prior, Sylvania Waters, NSW

    The Weekend Australian, February 2-3, 2013, Review p 3.