The last quarter of 2018 was largely taken up with settling in after we moved apartments in September, and by the after effects of knee replacement surgery in late November. Fortunately, recovery from the operation was well-enough advanced five weeks later to enable us to join extended family in Darwin for Christmas—even allowing for the wet season being recognised as the worst time of year to be playing tourist up north! Our visit also offered the welcome prospect of catching up again with good friends Bob Watt (the grandson of the subject of my 2016 book The high life of Oswald Watt) and his wife Alison.
Bombing of Darwin 1942
Although heat and high humidity provided great incentives to avoid going out anywhere during the daytime, we were genuinely glad to have had the opportunity to visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service tourist facility on Stokes Hill Wharf on Darwin Harbour—and not solely because it has air conditioning! Opened in a pristine modern building in 2016, the facility provides visitors with historical tributes not only to the RFDS but also the first Japanese bombing raids inflicted upon northern Australia on 19 February 1942. The latter is so appropriate because the Stokes Hill wharf was one of the primary targets of the two raids that day.
The technology used for the museum’s dual displays is truly impressive and engaging. Visitors get to view well-crafted and informative halographic presentations on both the RFDS and the bombing raids; stand on a viewing platform around a video floor to take in a birdseye view of the Japanese attack unfolding over the harbour below (with sound and other special effects used to enhance the experience), at the same time as ground-level imagery of the attack is projected onto a glass window opposite; and don special headsets to experience an immersive virtual reality program that leaves the viewer feeling they are actually there as the attack develops around them.
My particular interest in the first Darwin air raids (there were more than 60 over the subsequent 21 months) was initially sparked by once reading that Air Vice-Marshal Richards Williams, former chief of Australia’s air force, happened to be in town when the Japanese attack occurred. Having arrived only the night before on a flying boat from London, where he had been heading the RAAF’s Overseas Headquarters, Williams was actually standing outside the Darwin Hotel on the esplanade waiting for a car to collect him at 10.00 am to take him out to the RAAF base at Winnellie, where a landplane would be waiting to take him to Townsville.
As Williams recounted in his 1977 autobiography, These are Facts (p.289), he had only just begun his vigil for his car when he noticed men from an anti-aircraft battery located across the road from the hotel running towards their guns. No air raid siren had sounded, so he assumed they were about to carry out some drill. He reached into his luggage for an 8mm movie camera that he was carrying, hoping to get some pictures. It was then that his attention was drawn to the large formation of aircraft overhead, approaching from the south at about 15,000 feet, and he saw the ‘glint of the sun on bombs as they fell away from the aircraft.’ Williams wrote: ‘I exposed some film in an endeavour to photograph the attacking aircraft but … the result is [emphasis added] not very clear.’
Williams’ narrative continued: ‘It was about this time that the air raid warning sounded and I turned my camera on to the anti-aircraft guns in the hope of getting a picture of the first shot fired in the defence of Australia.’ Unfortunately the gun crews took so long that Williams thought he would run out of film, but eventually he got his shot. When single-seater fighters began strafing the battery with machine-guns, he took cover in a concrete gutter near the hotel, which was not attacked. Later he took a taxi to the RAAF station and joined the base commander in checking for damage sustained in the attack. While there, the airbase became the main focus of attack by a second wave of Japanese aircraft, and Williams was obliged to again take shelter in the nearest slit trench he could find.
It is not widely known that the officer described in later decades as the “Father” of the RAAF had actually experienced the devastating first attacks on Darwin, and I have often wondered what became of his film footage of this pivotal moment in Australian history. If the film survived, it would have been quite a coup to have some of its frames incorporated into the displays of the city’s newest must-visit museum.
Centenary of England-to-Australia air race 1919
The other wonderful opportunity that came our way while visiting Darwin was the chance to view reminders of the historic flight by the Smith brothers (Ross and Keith) from England to Australia in 1919. When the Smiths’ converted Vickers Vimy bomber touched down at Darwin on 10 December (when the town of about 2000 people was also in the grip of the wet season!), they and the two mechanics who had kept the aircraft in the air qualified for a £10,000 prize posted by the Australian government for the first Australians to achieve this feat. A century later, preparations are in hand to commemorate the Smiths’ epic achievement with a variety of special events later in 2019.
Visitors these days will have no trouble finding the memorial cairn along the East Point Road at Fannie Bay, opposite the junction with Ross Smith Avenue, which commemorates the Smith brothers’ remarkable 27-day flight from Hounslow in west London. Although close to where their feat concluded, it is however not immediately apparent that the old Parap airstrip actually lay some distance away, behind where the old Fannie Bay gaol still stands. Few people (Darwin residents included) realise that there is even a separate marker commemorating the exact point where the Vickers Vimy touched down—located further east still, in a vacant block along Giles Street. We only found it because Bob Watt was on hand to show us what was even for him a relatively recent discovery.
As a former RAAF Historian, I was perhaps more impressed with the subsidiary pioneering effort by two military pilots from Point Cook, outside Melbourne, who undertook the first transcontinental flight across Australia in support of the Smith brothers’ expected arrival. Because no established route then existed to bring air travellers from Darwin to the then national capital at Melbourne, Captain Henry Wrigley and Sergeant Arthur Murphy were dispatched in a small two-seater BE2E training machine to survey an inland route to Darwin through western New South Wales and Queensland. Their equally epic flight also took 27 days, and concluded two days after the Vimy’s arrival. Hopefully the commemorations later this year will not overlook the significance of Wrigley and Murphy’s achievement.
Wrigley’s BE2E (right) parked alongside the Smith brothers’ Vickers Vimy at Darwin, Dec 1919.
Perhaps the last word on the magnitude of the Smith brothers’ achievement in 1919 can be found in the saga that unfolded the following year, when attempts were made to emulate it with a trail-blazing flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. This time it was the London Times newspaper which sponsored the competition with a £10,000 prize for whichever pilot first achieved the goal. The attempt was made by two South African aviators with First World War experience, including Lieutenant Colonel H. A. (“Pierre”) van Ryneveld who would become famous as the “Father” of the South African Air Force (matching “Dickie” Williams’ later status in the RAAF).
Ryneveld and his co-pilot took off in February 1920, also in a converted Vickers Vimy. After they crashed their machine in Egypt the RAF at Heliopolis ‘loaned’ them another Vimy, which they duly crashed at Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), forcing them to borrow an Airco DH9 single-engine ex-bomber to eventually complete the flight. Although disqualified as winners of the Times’ prize, the South African government nonetheless promptly awarded the two flyers £5000 apiece—and knighted them both to match the recognition accorded to the Smith brothers.
Interestingly, van Ryneveld also featured in the Oswald Watt story, because it was his flight of the Royal Flying Corps’ No 17 Squadron at Suez that Watt’s flight of No 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, was sent from Heliopolis to replace in June 1916.
Visiting friends in Bali
In August we took up an invitation to visit friends who live half the year in Melbourne and the rest at their home in the coastal community of Suraberata, a two-hour drive north-west of Denpasar. A little worryingly, our arrival (booked months before) occurred four days after an earthquake devastated the island of Lombok, which is located close enough to Bali that our friends experienced a frightening shock which sent them rushing outdoors.
Fortunately there were no repeat tremors on Bali during our visit, or right up until two days after our departure to return to Melbourne. Then, on 23 August, our friends experienced a magnitude 5 jolt which had its epicentre in the Bali Strait just 50 kilometers due south of Suraberata. Luckily, the small size of the quake meant there was no tsunami to follow—although our friends did not get this news until an hour after the event.
Hearing how unprepared were the people of central Sulawesi for the tsunami that struck after a 7.5 magnitude quake on 28 September, reportedly because sensor instruments which form part of the country’s warning system had been inoperable since 2012, it becomes understandable why communities in Indonesia suffer so badly during the many natural disasters which afflict this unstable region.
Lasseter movie premiere
On 23 September my recently completed documentary The truth about Lasseter was screened for the enjoyment of a group of friends in the town of Meredith, situated midway between Geelong and Ballarat. The audience were all history buffs—mostly members of the local history group—with a keen interest in the fact that Lewis Lasseter (of “Lasseter’s Reef” fame) originally hailed from the Meredith district, having been born at Bamganie, a little to the west of town.
Because the famous (or infamous) 1930 Central Australia Gold Exploration expedition was organised and sent from Sydney, there has been a widespread perception ever since that that city was central to Lasseter’s personal story. In reality, many periods in Lasseter’s life up until 1924 were played out in and around Melbourne, and various other localities across the State of Victoria—a fact which made Melbourne an ideal base for retracing Lasseter’s life story.
It was quite a thrill to see the response of viewers of the movie in Meredith, since there is no opportunity of seeing the reaction of family and friends to whom I have sent copies to view in their own good time. I never expected the documentary to be described as ‘wonderful’, ‘exceptional’ or ‘beautifully presented’. And I took it as a special compliment that history group members, being researchers themselves, felt ‘amazed at the incredible amount of information and documentation … uncovered as you peeled back the true story of Lasseter. Not quite the heroic boy from Bamganie we had thought.’
While I am delighted that the story which I have long considered the Australian public deserves to be told is finally circulating, even if on a limited basis, it is sad to think that preference will still be given in the future—as in the past—to marketing and publicising books devoted to perpetuating a phoney and thoroughly undeserving piece of Australian folklore.
Goodbye New Quay
After a solid 12 months of trying to change the aspects that spoilt our experience of living at New Quay in Melbourne’s Docklands district, we reluctantly took the decision to move out of the apartment that has been home for the past two years. At the end of September we moved across to the other side of Victoria Harbour, to an apartment at Yarra’s Edge that is no less scenic but without the problems we finally found unbearable. Hopefully here I will find the freedom to get on with the projects I envisaged for “retirement”.
Apart from events in early April that were mentioned in the previous newsletter, not much of special interest has happened in the past three months in regard to historical writings and related activities. The item below would have been deserving of more attention had we not been absent from Australia during May, on a European holiday booked in the middle of last year.
Yarram marks Australia’s first military operational flight
On 26 May an unusual and interesting ceremony took place at Yarram in South Gippsland, situated close to the western end of the Ninety Mile Beach, recalling the occasion when the town played host to the first operational flights in Australia’s history that were carried out with warlike intent. These were sea patrols in April-May 1918, during the last year of World War I, to detect the presence in coastal waters off south-eastern Australia of German ships, submarines or aircraft. The flights undertaken by the army detachment sent from Point Cook flying school, outside Melbourne, were matched by a similar party sent to Bega in southern New South Wales, although the Bega detachment started later and ended sooner than at Yarram.
To commemorate the centenary of Australia’s entry into the realm of maritime reconnaissance from the air, students at the Yarram Secondary College had been working for two years on a half-sized model of the British-built FE2b two-seater pusher-powered biplane that was flown over Bass Strait by the Yarram detachment. Two days earlier the fruits of the students’ handiwork—five metres long and constructed in steel, hardwood and fibreglass (in preference to the original aircraft’s wood and canvas)—had been mounted on a tall pylon in Yarram Memorial Park, ready for its official unveiling.
Left: The FE2b preparing to leave Yarram on patrol, with Capt. Frank McNamara in the pilot’s seat at rear. The observer/gunner was Warrant Officer Roy Hendy; right: Yarram’s replica of a FE2b now on display in Memorial Park.
The unveiling ceremony itself seems to have given rise to the usual journalistic misunderstandings and misconceptions about the events of 1918. Contrary to popular belief, the air patrols were not needed to deal with activities of the German raider Wolf. That vessel had already passed through Australian and New Zealand waters the previous year, and was long gone. It was publicity generated by German boasts about the success of Wolf’s mission that triggered a flood of reports to the Commonwealth’s department of defence, alleging all manner of further suspicious activity in coastal waters, which really compelled defence authorities at act. Public alarm verging on mass hysteria could not be ignored.
Anybody interested in the true details of what lay behind the Yarram and Bega air deployments will find the situation fully explained in the biography of Captain Frank McNamara, VC (the pilot of the Yarram detachment) that I wrote 20 years ago, and also a Pathfinder bulletin that I wrote for the RAAF’s Air Power Development Centre back in October 2006, which is accessible online. Although I had been informed by friends with local connections about the Yarram project and planning for unveiling the replica, and provided what information I had about the episode by these same means, it seems the organisers didn’t feel the need to get in touch.
The truth about Lasseter
In a piece of news from the last days of July, we are delighted to be able to report the completion of the video documentary on the mysterious life and career of Australian gold-seeker “Harold” Lasseter (1880-1931) which my brother and I commenced making in March last year. After production stalled for six months, while I became involved in efforts to sort out and resolve problems that had arisen in the Owners Corporation of the residential apartment complex where we live in Melbourne, it was a relief to finally have time to give the project a final push towards completion.
With a running length of an hour and 48 minutes, the video provides a definitive account of Lasseter’s life (so far as that is humanly possible given the multiple fabrications and misleading versions that the man told about himself), before turning attention to a more interpretive analysis of what he must have thought he was doing in signing on during 1930 to guide an expedition into Central Australia in hopes of finding gold.
The decision to make a home movie was inspired by the realisation that Australian publishing has sunk to a state where there is little point in independent scholars bothering to write historical books, because these do not get into print unless authors are prepared to self-publish. It is not my intention to market my “Truth about Lasseter” DVD for commercial sale, rather I will be giving it away to family and friends, and placing a few copies in libraries and other strategic repositories.
Anybody else with a particular interest in the subject is welcome to request a copy, which I will happily supply for the cost of burning to disc, plus postage. Please apply via this website.
National Vietnam Veterans Museum
On 21 February I had the privilege of travelling down to Phillip Island, situated in Western Port Bay east of Melbourne, to visit the Vietnam veterans museum next to the airfield on the main road onto the island. The trip was made in company with retired Colonel Marcus Fielding, president of Military History & Heritage Victoria, and another MHHV member Brent Taylor. While Marcus busied himself with a meeting of the museum’s board, Brent and I had a couple of hours to explore what we both agreed is a surprisingly good interpretation of Australia’s experience of what was (until Afghanistan) our country’s longest war. (For Brent’s take on the NVVM, see his account published at http://www.mhhv.org.au/?p=6455.)
Now in existence for nearly 25 years, the museum was independently created and is entirely run by volunteers. It contains an impressive array of artefacts and audio visual displays, all designed to honour and explain the veteran experience of the Vietnam War (1962-1975). Included are not just the sort of items to be expected from individual soldiers (uniforms, bits of kit, medals, letters), but very large items of military hardware like a Centurion tank, an armoured personnel carrier, artillery—and even aircraft!
Although Phillip Island might seem an out-of-the-way and even slightly outlandish location for such a serious and dedicated tribute to our Vietnam veterans, it is well worth a visit. The admission prices ($15 adult; $10 children 5-15 years, under 5 free) are also very reasonable for a museum that entirely sustains itself without official support or subsidy.*
[* Postscript: On 18 May the Federal Minister for Health and Member for Flinders (Victoria), Greg Hunt, announced a grant of $5 million in federal government funding for the National Vietnam Veterans Museum. This is understood to mark the beginning of a five-year $35 million project to secure the future of the museum on Phillip Island.]
“Masters of War” conference
On 14 April Military History & Heritage Victoria held a conference at the Camberwell RSL hall to mark the centenary of the last year of the First World War, or the Great War of 1914-1918. Late last year I was asked to be a speaker at the conference, on the topic of the air war, but in January this was changed by a request to deliver the keynote address to introduce the conference theme of “Masters of War”.
By all accounts the event was rated a huge success, probably the best MHHV conference so far—so I was told, as I am only a new member of MHHV! Certainly it was well attended, with nearly every seat filled in the Pompey Elliott Memorial Hall at Camberwell. I don’t claim that my role had anything to do with that outcome, since—as so often seems to be the case—the weeks leading up to the conference coincided with a particularly frantic and chaotic period in domestic affairs involving early elections in the owners corporation of the complex where we live (four consecutive nights of AGMs), along with preparations for a wedding in early May and an impending overseas holiday.
Oswald Watt’s war medals
April proved to be a busy month, because three days after the MHHV conference I drove to Point Cook, on the western shore of Port Phillip Bay, just below Altona, to visit the RAAF Museum. In the car with me were Bob Watt, the grandson of Oswald Watt (the subject of my 2016 book The High Life of Oswald Watt), his wife Alison, and Bob’s step-brother, Charlie Farquharson. Bob and Alison had come from Darwin to visit Melbourne with a special mission in mind.
Ever since the timely rediscovery of Oswald Watt’s medals from the First World War ahead of the book launch at Canberra 18 months ago (see the October 2016 issue of this Newsletter), Bob had been pondering what to do with the medals and some other items of memorabilia that he had in his possession. Added to this were more Oswald Watt letters and other documents which step-brother Charlie had turned up in recent months. After much deliberation, he decided he wanted to donate all this material to the RAAF Museum at Point Cook.
Since I have known Dave Gardner, the director of the museum, for nearly 30 years, I offered to take Bob down to Point Cook to make the introductions and facilitate the hand-over of the medals. A very enjoyable day was spent at the museum, with Bob and Alison feted by Dave and his curator, and the Chief of Staff of Air Force Training Group at nearby Laverton. Included was an opportunity to watch an interactive flying display by one of the museum’s heritage aircraft. The museum has promised to put the Watt medals on display in the near future, to recognise the war service of one of the Australian Flying Corps’ most important leaders.
At RAAF Museum, Point Cook, 17 April. From right: Dave Gardner, Alison and Bob Watt, author
Olof Johansson rehabilitated
In November last year I was delighted to receive a copy of a book from Sweden to which I had contributed a chapter about my maternal grandfather, Olof Emanuel Johanson (or Johansson to give the usual Swedish spelling). The 2000-word essay appeared in a volume of local history of the community around the town of Markaryds in Småland, southern Sweden, where grandfather Olof spent the last years of his life before he died in 1955. The book was the 25th in a series published regularly since 1990, but will be the last numbered volume to appear until the local history group receives enough material to publish again.
My piece, titled “Olofs Resväska” (Olof’s suitcase), told the story of the visit my brother and I made to Sweden in 2014 to find our grandfather’s grave, and explained what prompted the writing of the book about the thirty or so years that Olof spent in Australia from 1914 until about 1948. Having discovered that no-one in Sweden today knew very much at all about Olof, or his involvement in the extraordinary “Lasseter’s reef” tale about a mythical gold find in central Australia, it seemed especially appropriate that the people of Markaryd community should at last be finding out the story of one of their countrymen who lived in obscurity among them.
“The High Life of Oswald Watt” repackaged
New edition of Oswald Watt biography
My 2016 biography “The High Life of Oswald Watt” was republished at the end of November by one of Britain’s leading military history publishers, Pen & Sword Books, and is now available in hardback for £20.00 (plus postage). The new edition has been retitled “Combat over the Trenches: Oswald Watt Aviation Pioneer”, a move no doubt intended to enhance its appeal in the UK’s highly competitive militaria market. While I hope the change is a success, the new title might mislead some buyers into thinking the book is exclusively (or primarily) about “Toby” Watt’s flying service in World War I. My original choice of title was meant to reflect the attention I also gave to researching his pre-war life among the social elite in Britain and Australia, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the many myths and misunderstandings about his colourful career. It is also a considerable disappointment that the publisher allowed the misspelling of the author’s name as “Clarke” on not just the dustjacket, but also the title page!
For people in Australia who are interested in obtaining copies, the book can still be found on the website of Sydney publisher Big Sky Publishing (go to http://www.bigskypublishing.com.au/Books/Military/The-High-Life-of-Oswald-Watt/1148/productview.aspx), but readers in England or Europe may find it easier and cheaper to obtain the Pen and Sword edition – check out https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Combat-Over-the-Trenches-Hardback/p/14054.
Vale Jacques Uljee (1935-2018)
On 7 January we were sitting in the airline lounge at Los Angeles, waiting for our flight home after our Caribbean and Panama Canal cruise, when we received news that our dear friend Jacques passed away earlier that day. For the past 16 years we have visited Banora Point, on the southern end of the Gold Coast, to spend Christmas and other significant occasions such as birthdays in company with Jacques and his partner, so it was with immense sadness that I agreed to speak at a private service held in his memory on 20 January.
It was also sad to reflect on the fact that the last time we saw Jacques was when we spent a weekend last August filming a segment of the Lasseter documentary at Tabulam, New South Wales. I still vividly remember the delight in Jacques’ eyes as he explored the antique furnishings and décor of Stannum House, a restored Victorian-era mansion in Tenterfield where we had breakfast after staying with other friends in the town. Everybody who knew Jacques will remember his love of nice things and eye for quality art, silver, ceramics and glassware. Farewell, old friend. Banora Point will never mean the same for us without you.
Talk to Military History & Heritage Victoria
On 16 August I presented to a seminar at the Camberwell RSL in Melbourne, organised as part of the MHHV’s military history speaker program. The talk drew on my biography of Lieutenant Colonel Oswald Watt (The High Life of Oswald Watt, 2016) and dealt with Watt’s colourful status as a legend of the Australian Flying Corps in World War I.
The occasion was a useful and (I hope) entertaining opportunity to explain why it was important for Oswald Watt’s story to be told, and what drew my attention to him in the first place. This was background that would help my listeners (and readers) understand the approach that I took with a book, which—when I began the project—was conceived with a wider readership in mind than the military audience that I have usually addressed in past years, so much so that it was not even planned as a conventional military biography. An edited text of the talk has been posted on the MHHV website; it can be found at www.mhhv.org.au/?p=6025.
More recently I have heard from the Sydney publisher of The High Life of Oswald Watt (Big Sky Publishing) that the book has been picked up by one of Britain’s biggest specialist publishers of military history and militaria and will soon be republished for a larger and broader market.
New book on Charles Bean’s legacy as official historian
A month later, on 17 September, I was fortunate to find myself in Canberra and able to attend the launch of another book for which I was a contributing author. This was actually a collection of papers that were presented at a conference held at the Australian Defence Force Academy in July 2016, focused on the legacy left by C. E. W. Bean on Australian military history generally and official history in particular.
Fittingly, the launch was held at the old Tuggeranong Homestead in the south of Canberra, which just happened to be where Bean and his official history team worked on the first couple of volumes of the official history of Australia in the First World War during the years 1919-1925. The speaker for the launch was respected political journalist and editor Michelle Grattan, who appeared to know as much about Bean and his contribution to Australian journalism and history as anybody else present that day.
My contribution to the book is a chapter describing my experience as author of a volume of official history on Australia’s air involvement in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1975. When invited to contribute to the conference, I was asked to tell the ‘back story’ of my role as an official historian: how I came to be appointed to the task, then cover a range of matters such as sources, resources, access and security clearance, before finally touching on the reception that my volume received from readers. In filling this brief I also took the opportunity to offer some reflections on the influence that Charles Bean could be said to have had on how I approached my author’s role.
The book, titled Charles Bean: Man, Myth, Legacy, was edited by Peter Stanley and published by NewSouth Publishing (the publishing arm of the University of New South Wales in Sydney).
Most of July was taken up with recovering from an arthroscopy operation in late June, aimed at cleaning up the aftermath of a torn knee cartilege suffered two years ago. This episode—as much as the poor weather usually experienced across Victoria during winter—set back shooting for the video documentary my brother and I have been working on, although with recent improvements on both fronts we now have about half the story wrapped up and completed. Another big development arose in late August, however, after I volunteered for a role in the owners corporation that manages the residential apartment complex where we live in Docklands. Quite unexpectedly, this initially turned into an unpaid full-time job for myself and everybody else elected to the various committees involved, although things are now gradually assuming a more reasonable level and I anticipate being able to resume work on my various history projects at a more normal pace.
Lasseter: the movie
Finding that I still have plenty to say on the subject of “Harry” Lasseter, earlier this year I explored the idea of writing another book that would present final conclusions about the existence of his fabled gold reef in Central Australia. It didn’t take long to realise the futility of such an enterprise, given the current state of the publishing business in Australia following the transformation wrought by the Internet and imminent government changes to copyright protection. It seems that these days the only people able to get historical work into print using mainstream publishing houses are ex-journalists able to call on their mates in the industry to help promote their offerings, and institution-based academics who can (and are expected to) virtually give away their titles without regard to getting fair return on the time and effort involved in writing them. Of course, independent scholars also have the option of self-publishing or turning to small presses using print-on-demand, joining a number of well-established writers who have opted to become “hybrid authors”, but for most there can’t be any expectation of making money—or even recovering costs.
These considerations prompted a decision to focus on putting together what I have to say on the Lasseter legend as a documentary home movie. Initially, at least. If that generates enough interest in the revellations to be made about Lasseter, then a book can surely follow. For the most part, the project already begun merely entails carrying around a video camera while I conduct the research phase by wearing out some shoe leather while retracing Lasseter’s steps. As it happens, Melbourne is actually a very convenient point from which to begin such an effort, because it is surprising how much of the Lasseter story played out in and around that city, rather than Sydney as is generally supposed. Since April, field trips have been made to places such as Meredith, Colac and Corner Inlet in Gippsland, and myriad places in between, as well as Sydney and Canberra. There are other trips planned, before the project can be wound up hopefully later this year. The DVD that results is not intended for commercial release, but if it achieves its purpose should hopefully lead to something more that will finally end the undeserved aura of mystery surrounding the Lasseter story.
Sweden rediscovers Grandfather Olof
In mid-June I was contacted by a lady from Markaryd in south-west Sweden, which is a town of about 4000 people not far from where my maternal grandfather Olof Johanson lies buried in the churchyard cemetery at Traryd. She was interested in my 2015 book on Olof’s life and wanted to include something about it in a volume she was helping to put together, comprising stories about life and people in Markaryd municipality in the early part of last century. This volume would be the latest in a local history series that have been produced annually since 1990. I was pleased to send her an article describing the nearly 30 years that my grandfather spent in Australia and explaining his connection with Markaryd municipality in the last years of his life—written in English, of course (since my Swedish is non-existent), and which my contact undertook to translate for publication.
Considering that Olof had no connection with Markaryd until he returned to Sweden from Australia in about 1948, and he spent the remaining seven or so years before he died as an invalid cared for by his sister, there is a high probability that no-one alive in the municipality today will have heard of him before. There is quite a nice buzz goes with the thought that the community in which Olof lived his final years will at last be discovering something of the fairly amazing story attached to his time in Australia, especially his connection with the Lasseter mystery.
Left: our only memory of the main street of Markaryd, 6 May 2014; right: the Municipal House (just visible in left rear of the previous image).
75th Anniversary of the Coral Sea battle
There were high expectations ahead of this year’s commemoration of the May 1942 battle of the Coral Sea, after the American-Australian Association planned a special event aboard the decommissioned World War II US aircraft carrier Intrepid which is moored in New York harbour as a floating museum. The attendance of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a speaker at the gala dinner forming part of the celebrations was expected to provide the setting for the first face-to-face meeting between him and US President Donald Trump—an occasion itself not without significance after the frosty start to their personal relationship following a famous phonecall in January. In the event, the meeting did go as planned, although barely, after Trump delayed his departure from Washington for three hours (waiting for the Republican-dominated Congress to kill off a key piece of legislation initiated by Trump’s predecessor). Inevitably there was much less time available for the meeting of the two leaders than originally planned.
Investing past historical events with political significance and symbolism never envisaged or intended at the time they were happening is a practice with long precedence. Australia and New Zealand have been jointly extolling for many years the significance of the Anzac experience a century ago, as a metaphor for a relationship they might wish had existed even when it palpably didn’t. As I gently tried to point out in the comment piece I was asked to write for the Australian Financial Review (29-30 April 2017), the same applied to the Australian-American relationship in 1942. In the months leading up to May, there were occasions when force commanders of both nations demonstrated jealousy and distrust of each other, and even during the course of the Coral Sea and subsequent battles there were moments when the behaviour on display was not what might have been expected of two allies operating seamlessly together.
That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with politicians glossing over or ignoring inconvenient aspects while focussing on broader or overarching themes. But as I also tried to point out during an interview on ABC radio on 1 May, when it comes to the Australian-American alliance we should expect our political leaders to keep their eye firmly fixed on our national interest in dealing with a leader in Washington as mercurial and unpredictable as Donald Trump. A shared perspective of the historical past provides no justification for blindly signing on to projects that seek to make America ‘great again’ but actually work against Australia’s national standing or long-term interests.
Memorial unveiling at Rushworth
On 20 March I attended a special commemorative event in the central Victorian town of Rushworth to honour the memory of two distinguished senior officers of the Royal Australian Air Force who served through the Second World War. The first was Air Vice-Marshal Frank McNamara, who had the distinction of being the only Australian airman of the First World War to win the Victoria Cross—appropriately enough on 20 March 1917. The other was Air Marshal Sir George Jones, who led the RAAF for a record of ten unbroken years as Chief of the Air Staff—from 1942 until 1952.
Both men were born and raised in Rushworth, in fact they attended the local school in the first decade after Federation. Not that this piece of common background counted for much during their later air force careers, when there was actually as much rivalry as comraderie on display. Jones later recounted with glee how he pipped McNamara in passing the entrance examination for RAF staff college in 1928, and shortly after the Second World War ended it was Jones who selected McNamara for premature retirement to make way for younger officers whose wartime records warranted early promotion in the postwar service.
The invitation to be present for the unveiling of bust statues of the two air marshals at the town’s war memorial was a great personal satisfaction to me. As was afterwards explained over lunch, Rushworth’s organisers of the event had initially experienced great difficulty in locating historical information and background about McNamara—until they discovered the existence of my book McNamara, VC: a hero’s dilemma, published by the air force in 1997 after it won the 1996 RAAF Heritage Award for Literature. It was especially gratifying that acknowledgement was made of the extent to which it was drawn upon in preparing the program for the event.
Sculptures of McNamara (left) and Jones (right) at the Rushworth War Memorial.
The Shadow Men
Publication is scheduled for sometime in April of the book The Shadow Men, edited by Craig Stockings and John Connor—two former colleagues in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The publisher’s blurb for the book reads as follows:
Australian military history is full of heroes – big names that loom large in the public memory of the nation’s wartime experiences, like Monash, Chauvel, Jacka and Blamey. There is no question that these famous figures of the Australian Army are important, but their story is not the story. There are also the individuals who shaped the history of the Australian Army in the 20th century, as intellectuals, strategists and administrators, but are largely invisible in popular memory. The Shadow Men brings together some of Australia’s best military historians to shed light on ten of these men and to bring their achievements and influence into the foreground.
My contribution is two chapters on Major-General Sir William Bridges and Major-General Gordon Legge, who both warrant inclusion for their pre-World War I roles in organising, training and administering the Commonwealth Military Forces. Their careers were sufficiently important in shaping the forces’ development that I had been prompted to undertake full biographies of these two generals, published in 1979 and 1988 respectively, so it was particularly pleasing to see images of both among the five portraits featured on the front cover of the new book.
Biography Footnotes is the occasional newsletter from the National Centre of Biography at the Australian National University which produces the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In August 2016 it published an item describing the process that is undertaken to determine the cause of death for all subjects of ADB entries aged under 75, and gave an interesting summary of the ‘large variety of ways in which people died’. While death certificates were ‘generally grim documents’, it was noted, occasionally there were ones that—whether intentionally or not—struck a note of humour, such as for one man who gorged himself to heart failure by over-eating at a café in Sydney.
This prompted me to write to the Footnotes editor with the following story:
Thanks for the interesting item in Issue 16 explaining the policy followed in respect of ‘Causes of death in NCB Websites’, and especially the humorous note on which the article ended. That brought to mind my reaction on first seeing a quirky 1999 Australian comedy film called “Siam Sunset”, which was directed by John Polson who has become better known in recent years for organising the annual Tropfest short film festival.
There is a moment about ten minutes from the end of the movie where the drug-dealer boyfriend of the fugitive heroine catches up with Grace and her new love in an Outback motel and suffers a harrowing demise when—in extremely rapid succession—he is bitten by a deadly snake, bashes headlong into a wall, ricochets into the rotating blade of a ceiling fan and slices his head open, falls backwards and impales his skull on the protruding prong of a coat or hat rack fixed to the wall, then collapses onto a bed (still impaled on the rack) whereupon his outflung arm breaks a bedside lamp and he is electrocuted. I realised I had been involved too long with the ADB when the question that instantly came to mind was: ‘What would have been the cause of death recorded in that case?’
Despite the grisly segment just described, the film was better than it sounds and deserved more success than it appears to have received. Perhaps the ADB could utilise it as a training aid for intending contributors?
My note drew a response from the editor that she would like to publish it in the next edition of Footnotes, but when that issue duly appeared in March this year that idea had evidently been overtaken by more worthy inclusions. For that reason I thought would share my story by the present means. If you want to view the segment from Siam Sunset itself, you can view it below. Just crank the time bar up to around 1.17.40.
Still more inquiries about “Sandy”
Amazingly, the story of Sandy (Major General William Bridges’ favourite charger – see my blog post from 13 Sep. 2016) is still alive and kicking. In October last year I was contacted by New Zealand author Maria Gill, who is writing a children’s illustrated book about animals of the first and second world wars. She was looking for some more information about Sandy, to amplify claims that he was the only horse sent from Australia to World War I that made it back home afterwards.
No sooner had I finished providing what information I thought might assist Maria than I discovered I had two other items of interest lying unnoticed in records brought from Canberra following last year’s move to Melbourne. One of these, a 1981 article written for the long defunct magazine Australasian POST, detailed correspondence that passed between the British War Office and the AIF’s Administrative Headquarters in Horseferry Road, London, during the early months of 1918.
There it was definitely stated that Sandy had sailed with the 1st Australian Division from Melbourne on the same ship as Bridges in October 1914. That at least cleared up uncertainty over whether Bridges and Sandy were acquainted before leaving Australia, or whether their association dated only from the AIF’s stay in Egypt before departing for Gallipoli.
The second relevant find was a CD containing copies of images included among records held by the Royal Military College of Canada, at Kingston, Ontario (which Bridges had attended as a cadet in 1877-79). At some stage a collection of Bridges’ personal photos had found their way into Kingston’s possession and when copies of these were provided to Australia’s RMC in 2006 a former archivist at Duntroon had consulted me about them – something I had entirely forgotten about for the past ten years.
What was particularly interesting was a notation scribbled on the back of one image that is already in the Australian War Memorial’s collection as P05290.001. The notation, which is identifiably in Bridges’ own handwriting, reads: ‘Sandy – Taken at Mena Egypt. Just alongside my tent. Jany 1915’. Not only do we have more information about when and where the photo was taken, but there is now clear evidence of Bridges’ personal connection to the horse.
An equally important find among the Kingston photos is an image listed as showing Bridges sitting atop a horse supposedly known as “Pasha”. Although the picture is undated, Bridges is dressed in civilian attire and the background is definitely more typically Australian than anything resembling a location in Egypt. Since other photos in the AWM’s collection (J02136 and J02154) record that Bridges had a second charger in Egypt, a black horse named “Pascha”, it can now be safely concluded that this animal, too, was in Bridges’ possession before he left Australia at the head of the 1st Division in 1914.
Perhaps Pascha was the big, spirited mount that – according to Charles Bean’s 1957 account in Two Men I Knew (pp. 23-24) – Bridges was riding through Mena camp early in 1915 when the horse tripped and fell. As the horse struggled to get up again, Bridges’ foot became stuck in the stirrup – placing the general at risk of being dragged if the animal panicked and bolted. The situation was saved by a quick-witted aide who leapt from his own mount and grabbed the bridle of the general’s horse to steady it until Bridges’ foot was disentangled. Perhaps it was this episode that accounts for the later description applied to Sandy, claiming that he was General Bridges’ ‘favourite’ charger.
Other Australian horses in Egypt
Overlapping with Maria’s queries was a separate enquiry from a Cairo-based correspondent for the New York Times named Diaa Hadid, who wanted to talk about ‘the horses of WW1’. He was working on a story about the miserable fortunes of the horses that Egyptians offer for tourist rides around the pyramids. As someone who was himself raised in Canberra, Diaa was particularly interested in a suggestion by an Australian animal-rights activist in Cairo who believes that many of the horses in the Giza area descend from Australian and British horses left behind after World War I.
The activist named Jill Barton runs a free clinic for the ‘battered’ pyramid horses, continuing the work begun by English woman Dorothy Brooke in the early 1930s, before she went on to establish a global charity to ease animal suffering. It was Brooke’s firm belief that some hundreds of horses were sold off to locals by the British Army in Egypt after World War I, including Australian walers that had been handed over to the British before the AIF left the Middle East to come home in 1919.
The long-held tradition that Australian lighthorsemen shot their mounts in preference to selling them into Egyptian ownership probably did not prevent Australian blood lines remaining in evidence among Cairo’s tourist horses. Jill Barton, for one, remains convinced that many horses in the Giza area still reflect features of both Waler and Clydesdale breeds. Diaa Hadid’s very moving story was published in the New York Times on 2 Nov. 2016 and can be found at
Harry Lasseter rides again
Debunking yet another well-entrenched tradition would have seemed in order when I was contacted last July by a producer for a British television travel program planning a story on the folklore fable of Lasseter’s Reef. Having heard that Olof’s Suitcase was the latest piece of the Lasseter puzzle to have emerged, the production team developing the show wanted to touch base with me before coming to Australia in September to record their planned episode.
The angle that the segment would be taking became pretty obvious when the producer let slip that they had been talking to two Sydney men who headed off into Central Australia in 2012 convinced that they had unlocked the mystery of the reef’s location using Google Earth!! Naturally once I made it clear that I personally had no faith that the reef ever existed except in the deluded mind of Harry Lasseter, I was under no illusion about how useful I would be to the program’s planners. So it was no surprise when September came and went without further contact from the show’s producers.
No doubt they found other “experts” who were more compliant with the goal of keeping the myth of Lasseter’s reef alive in popular memory. They need have gone no further than journalist Warren Brown’s 2015 offering Lasseter’s Gold, with its front page assertion that ‘It’ (the reef presumably) is ‘out there somewhere’. Hullooo folks, no it’s not, because it never existed! More likely it’s about time someone wrote a book providing the truth about “Harry” Lasseter – real name Lewis Hubert Lasseter. Only trouble is that no serious book serving such a purpose would ever get the same publicity as anything written by the many journalists posing as historians in this country.
Revising the Australian Intelligence Corps history
Since moving into our new home last August, I have been steadily working through the research notes that survived the cull associated with the transfer from Canberra to Melbourne at the start of the year. It was quite a surprise to discover how much material I had collected following publication in 1976 of my first book, The Citizen General Staff: the Australian Intelligence Corps 1907-1914. Clearly, the time had come for either doing something with it all, or throwing it out. Hence the last months of 2016 were spent in producing an updated version, to be published as an e-Book only. Keep an eye out for details that will appear elsewhere on the website shortly.
Bean Conference at ADFA
As mentioned in the previous newsletter, on 29-30 July I was involved with the conference convened by the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, focused on the legacy of Australia’s first official war histrorian, Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean (1879-1968). Early in the year I had been asked to prepare a short paper about my experience of working on a volume of official history, and at the time this seemed a very simple task.
In the event the timing proved to be unfortunate, as the conference ended up falling in the middle of a hugely tumultuous period—just days before we were due to move into our Melbourne apartment. Although it was a successful event, the conference was also overshadowed by the death of an esteemed colleague shortly before its start (see blog post for 17 August). All the papers from this conference are due to be published in 2017.
Launch of Oswald Watt biography
On 16 September my new book The High Life of Oswad Watt was launched at the Royal Military College in Canberra, which still awards a prize to graduating officers that is named in Oswald Watt’s honour. The Ambassador of France to Australia, H.E. Christophe Lecourtier, performed the launch by recalling the unique connection Oswald Watt forged between the two nations through his service with the French Army’s flying corps during the first two years of the First World War.
After the launch (from left): French Ambassador, author, Bob Watt
The evening was made even more special by the presence of Oswald Watt’s only living descendant, grandson Mr Robert Oswald (“Bob”) Watt, aged 78, who travelled from Darwin with his wife Alison to attend, and also members of a group known as The Friends of Wivenhoe, who are custodians of the historic house outside Camden which Oswald Watt owned during the period 1905-10. An unexpected connection was also noticed on the night, when it was realised that the publisher, Big Sky Publishing, has its offices at Newport on Sydney’s northern beaches—one beach around from where Oswald Watt drowned in 1921!
A surprise find, just in time
The week before the book launch I received a special request from Bob Watt. In a conversation some months previously we had established that Oswald Watt’s war medals were not in the Australian War Memorial as Bob had hitherto believed. Bob’s step-mother had always given him to understand that it was her intention to donate the medals there, and since we knew that a collection of OW’s letters and postcards from 1914-15 were definitely in the Memorial’s possession, but not the medals, Bob could not understand what could have happened to them.
It was only while phoning around the extended family circle to let everyone know about the book launch that Bob learnt that his step-brother living in Melbourne had the medals. Charlie Farquharson received them on his mother’s death in 2004 and had held onto them ever since with the intention of eventually handing them on to Bob, for him to decide where they should go. Having finally found where the medals were, Bob asked that I obtain the medals from Charlie and bring them to Canberra for the launch. Consequently Bob was able to display this unique group for the first time in decades.
Oswald Watt’s war medals: OBE (Military Division), French Legion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre (with two palms and two stars)
An American mystery
Meeting up with Charlie Farquharson also provided a golden opportunity to solve a riddle that had been puzzling me while researching The High Life of Oswald Watt. How was it that an album of OW’s wartime photographs dating from the years 1914-15 (when he was serving with the French Army’s flying corps) is in a library collection at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma in the United States?
According to the library’s records, the album had been purchased from Tavistock Books late in 2008. The obvious explanation I could think of was that the album had come up for sale when the person holding them had perhaps died or decided to realise an asset. One possibility I thought of was that the well-known aviation historian Wing Commander Keith Isaacs might have formerly had the album in his possession before his death in January 2005. References in his 1971 book Military Aircraft of Australia 1909-1918 left no doubt that Isaacs had sighted the Watt album at some stage, but there was nothing to suggest that he owned it when his collection was broken up and sold off after his death.
The only other possibility that occurred to me was that Margery Watt (formerly Farquharson) had kept the French album and the medals—even while donating OW’s letters and postcards to the War Memorial—and that it was the sons of her former marriage who had put the album up for sale. However, when I put the question to Charlie Farquharson he was as puzzled as I was. He knew nothing about an album. So the mystery remains unsolved…
The first six months of this year has been almost entirely taken up with relocating from Canberra to Melbourne. From the moment we got word last December that the move was happening, it became a full-on job to sort and pack by the start of March, then sell up in the city that has been my place of residence for the best part of 45 years and find a new place to live in what is my home state. We don’t expect the process will be fully finished until early August—probably beyond in some aspects.
A home for the Suitcase
Our apartment is located on the edge of the Melbourne CBD, so I am looking forward to making the State Library of Victoria my ‘second home’ when I need to conduct research, instead of the National Library. It is especially pleasing to report that the entrance area in our new place provides the ideal space to finally put Olof’s suitcase on permanent display.
Why you are reading this
Until the move anyone wanting to make professional contact with me was able to find my profile on the website of the Australian Defence Force Academy where I was a Visiting Fellow for more than a decade. Because there would be little opportunity to actively contribute to ADFA after moving to Melbourne, I felt obliged to relinquish my link to that institution back in February. But a number of enquiries have continued to be relayed from there since then—showing that there is still a need for me to maintain an online presence.
While no longer calling Canberra ‘home’, there has been no escaping the national capital entirely. I had to go back in April to attend interview for a position on the writing team being assembled at the Australian War Memorial for the next official history of Australian involvement in military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor. Unfortunately my move to Melbourne proved an obstacle too difficult for the Memorial to overcome, so my attention is now back on the project that I have been scoping to become my next book. At least the brief time spent in Canberra made it possible to do an interview for Radio 2XXFM on Aboriginal service in the armed forces for Anzac Day.
Two more visits back to Canberra are already in the program for the rest of the year. First, there is a two-day ADFA conference on the legacy of Charles Bean (Australia’s first official war historian) at the end of July, at which I have been asked to speak. Then, in September, there will be a launch of my new book The high life of Oswald Watt. The precise date and venue of the launch have yet to be announced but the book is definitely scheduled for release and sale from the start of the month.
Talks in Foster
On 5 April I travelled to Foster in Gippsland to give two talks to local community groups. The first presentation was to book club members interested in hearing what Olof’s Suitcase was about, how the book came to be written, and why I wrote it in the form that I did. That evening there was a second talk to a packed meeting of the Foster & District Historical Society on the subject of Lewis Hubert Lasseter. The Lasseter name has a treasured association with the Gippsland region, but the talk I gave was intended to demonstrate that everything now known about Lasseter’s life, movements and activities prove that his claim early last century to have discovered a fabulously rich gold reef in Central Australia can only be pure fabrication.
It would be fair to say that not everyone present was persuaded, some preferring to cling to the view that Lasseter was a visionary and misunderstood genius. It is, of course, precisely because people choose to ignore the fact that the golden idol has feet of clay that the story of Lasseter’s Reef continues to have currency today and probably will into the future.