SpyFuchs cover

By Mike Rossiter

Reviewed by Kevin Rickard

It was just before dawn in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 when a bright flash filled the pre-dawn with a penetrating daylight.  Next there was a huge shock wave as a great purplish column rose up into the sky, then there was a blast, duller than thunder.  The first atomic bomb explosion had just occurred.  Project Manhattan had succeeded.  The atomic arms race had begun and with it the Cold War.


Among the onlookers at the Los Alamos explosion was a brilliant German mathematician and theoretical physicist, Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, DSc(Edin), PhD(Bristol).  Fuchs and his theoretical physics colleagues had calculated the exact shape and size of the assembly on top of the tower for the release of the energy in the atoms of plutonium such that a huge explosion would result.

This was all the expression of the science of nuclear physics.  A science barely 50 years old and based on the pioneering work on radiation and the structure of atoms by the New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, England and Madame Marie Curie in Paris, France.

Fuchs was a refugee from Nazi Germany where he had studied mathematics at the universities of Leipzig and Kiel.  There he became involved in student politics and joined the German Communist Party (KPD).  He eventually fled Germany, spent time in Paris, where he met his future wife, Grete Keilson, and found his way to Britain in 1933.  There, as a refugee, he was treated most kindly be British Academia.

Fuchs subsequently worked on British atomic research activities and was selected to be a member of the British team in New York working on the Manhattan Project.  There he began passing information about the atomic project to his handler, Harry Gold, who then passed this crucial information onto Soviet Russia.  Fuchs continued with similar espionage activities on his  return to Britain.   Ultimately, even secrets regarding the development of the hydrogen bomb, were passed on to the Soviets.  Dr. Klaus Fuchs was involved in espionage for the Soviets for more than a decade in both Britain and the U.S.  He could justifiable be called ‘the spy who changed the world’.

Mike Rossiter’s book on Fuchs is a gripping story of betrayal, intrigue, security service ineptitude and a confession, which eventually led to the final conviction of Fuchs at the Old Bailey.  Truth, however, is stranger than fiction and the account of Fuchs’ life and activities may be likened to a story penned by the Cold War storyteller, John le Carre.


Fuchs was born in Russelsheim in the Duchy of Hesse in December 1911, the son of a Lutheran pastor.  He grew up in Germany during the turmoil of the First World War.  In Britain he gained his PhD in Physics for a thesis on “Why the Resistance of a Wire Changes with Alterations in Electrical Current”.  He had become involved with Matrix Algebra to explain probabilities and the behaviour of sub-atomic particles.  He was also involved in studies of the theories of Quantum Mechanics and received a Doctorate in Science from the University of Edinburgh.

His application for British citizenship was dealt with in a rather unfortunate and haphazard manner but he did receive support from the British Academic Assistance Council.  It was probably at this time when he really slipped through the net.  He was granted British citizenship in August 1942 and signed the official Secrets Act but soon after was in contact with the Soviet Embassy in Britain.

At the university of Birmingham he worked on the “tube alloys” program, the British pseudonym for their atomic bomb research project. At Columbia University in New York, Fuchs worked on gaseous diffusion as a means of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project.  By 1944 he was in the theoretical division at Los Alamos.  Fuchs’ area of expertise was theory related to imploding the fissionable core of the plutonium bomb.  The bombs that killed 80,00 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 people in Nagasaki were created by nuclear fission – or splitting the atom!  With Hans Bethe, Fuchs began work on bombs caused by nuclear fusion where the nucleus of atoms of light elements like hydrogen and helium were joined together.  Then it was on to the classical super bomb using deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, – thus the hydrogen bomb.  One way or another Fuchs passed most of these secrets on to the Russians through Gold in New York, who was executed in Sing Sing prison in 1953.  Fuchs insisted that these atomic secrets be on the desk of the Soviet Atomic Agency “Enormoz” within a few days of the US reception.  This was achieved through the help of the notorious NKGB Head, Laventry Beria.

It is not surprising that when Truman was in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 and told Stalin the uranium 235 fuelled “Little Boy” would be ready for use against Japan, the Russian dictator showed no particular interest.  Fuchs’ treachery had forewarned him.  Fuchs attitude all along was, the more useful he was to Britain, the more valuable he was to the Soviet Union.


The pursuit of Fuchs by MI5 displays much about the inertia and lassitude of the British security agencies.  One agent, Michael Serpell, had produced a well-organized case against Fuchs but this report was conveniently ‘shelved’.  Serpell was shunted to a colonial posting and nothing further was heard.  An authority at Harwell said “the advantages gained to Harwell through the ability of Dr. Fuchs outweigh his slight security risk”!

By late 1949 Fuchs was well and truly under suspicion.  The police was following him and agents of MI5 were on the case, especially ‘Jim’ Skardon who met Sir John Cockcroft at Harwell.  Soon after Cockcroft advised Fuchs that he would need to leave Harwell.  Fuchs toyed with Skardon and others because of their lack of facts about his clandestine activities.

It was not MI5 that finally uncovered the extent of Fuchs’ betrayal but Fuchs himself when he confessed to his lover, Emma Skinner, the wife of a colleague.  Fuchs’ definitive confession took place at the War Office in Whitehall in the presence of an MI5 technical expert in January 1950.  MI5 legal advisers believed there was a case to answer!  Accordingly security services requested the Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, to forward the relevant documents to the Director of Public Prosecutions.


Fuchs trial was held at the Old Bailey in February 1950 presided over by a rather vindictive Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard.  Fuchs pleaded guilty.  Finally Goddard, in sentencing Fuchs, mentioned he was lucky not be fund guilty of treason which carried the death penalty.  Instead Fuchs was found guilty of betrayal of political asylum, of national secrets and the work of many other scientists.  Goddard passed a sentence of 14 years imprisonment on Fuchs with a non-parole period of 9 years.

Fuchs left Stafford prison in June 1959 and flew to Schonfield in East Germany.  He married Greta Keilson, his lover from Paris days.  But he was always under the suspicion of the Stasi.  Nevertheless, he became a privileged member of the German Communist Party and eventually the Director of the East German Atomic Research Institute in Dresden.  He died in Germany in 1988, aged 76 years.  It is ironic that considerable information about Fuchs’ story in MI5 and FBI files relating to Fuchs still remains heavily censored.  By 1955, the US had over 2000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had about 200 and Britain just a few.  Nations were stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.  In 1955 the bespectacled boffin, Fuchs was behind bars, serving 14 years and sewing mailbags.

Rossiter’s book contains much information of both an historical and technical nature and follows one scientist’s progress along with his acts of betrayal and utter contempt for those who generously helped him.  The story answers many of the questions about Fuchs, the shy, notorious man who spied for Russia.  Perhaps the chronological details of the tale could have been better marshaled but the book is written in a presentable style about events which took place during the tumultuous years from the defeat of Hitler and the Nazis to the start of the Cold War.


The Coast Watchers

The Coast Watchers:

Behind enemy lines; the men who saved the Pacific

Book review by Jerry Lattin


the coast watchers - cover shot

Lindsay, Patrick: The Coast Watchers: Behind enemy lines; the men who saved the Pacific. William Heinemann (London) 2010; Random House Australia. 416 pp; $34.95 (paperback).


The Coast Watchers were an organised force established in the 1920s to observe and report shipping and aircraft movements visible from the coast. Its members were recruited initially from expatriate private citizens and government officials mainly in what are now PNG and Solomon Islands – then under colonial rule by Australia and UK respectively.  With the beginning of World War II, the force went on a war footing; members were given ‘protective’ military rank, and measures were put in place for them to be supported by local labour and police.

When Japan entered the war, and subsequently occupied parts of the area, the Coast Watchers became the stuff of legend. Many operated for months behind enemy lines, isolated and invisible, maintaining a flow of useful — sometimes vital — intelligence, rescuing stranded allied airmen and distressed mariners, and helping to evacuate non-combatants. Their influence on the Pacific war was considerable.

The achievements of the Coast Watchers are well recorded in official histories, and are known in outline by most people with an interest in the Pacific war. But strangely, general accounts of their achievements are recounted in only two published historical works: The Coast Watchers by Eric Feldt (1946), and Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons (1977) by Walter Lord. The first of these is a general history of the organisation written by the man who largely created it, and ran it for much of the war. It is therefore unquestionably an authoritative and comprehensive history, but hardly an objective one. Walter Lord, an American popular historian, later produced a book narrower in scope than Feldt’s, confined to activities in Solomons. It is well written, entertaining and interesting. Both these works are available second hand.

Other existing works on the Coast Watchers, numbering a handful, are mostly personal memoirs, and deal with small fragments of a big picture. Most of them are now virtually unobtainable.

Patrick Lindsay’s work is therefore a most welcome and timely addition to the relatively scarce published material available on the topic. It is reasonably comprehensive, and while it breaks no new ground, it is more than a regurgitation of material already written. It sets the scene well, paints colourful pictures of characters, and devotes several opening chapters to establishing the strategic context in which events occurred.

Feldt, a graduate of the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC), had been in the first college intake in 1913. He served at sea in WW I and made Lieutenant before resigning in 1920. He joined the Australian administration in New Guinea and acquitted himself well, rising to the rank of District Officer. In April 1939, recognising that war was likely, Feldt transferred back to the RAN’s Emergency List of Officers. In August 1939, a month before war was declared, he was approached by a former RANC classmate, Lieutenant Commander R B M Long, then Director of Naval Intelligence, to revamp the existing Coast Watching organisation and put it on a war footing. Feldt jumped at the task; by September he was travelling through the islands by all available means, assessing the members of the organisation and recruiting new ones. As his deputy, he later took on board yet another classmate from the RANC: Lieutenant Hugh Mackenzie, who had been invalided out of the RAN with poor eyesight, and also worked in New Guinea as a planter. Mackenzie’s first assignment was as Naval Intelligence Officer to Lark Force, the army garrison on its way to Rabaul — and more of that later.

Essential to the organisation’s proper functioning were decent radio communications. The only practical radio option available for the task was high frequency, also known as short-wave.  Feldt gave his Coast Watchers the AWA 3B teleradio. It was robust, and its communications performance was adequate. But it was bulky. It was driven by car batteries, that had to be re-charged on a petrol-driven charger. The set itself was three one-man loads; its back-up of batteries, charger, petrol supplies, antenna equipment and necessary spares boosted its carrier requirements to between 12 and 16 men. Coast Watchers didn’t travel light.

The book describes very adequately the key elements of the war in which Coast Watchers played a part.

These included the evacuation of the defeated Australian garrison at Rabaul in January 1942, in which a Coast Watcher, Keith McCarthy, and two army officers with the Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU — Papua and New Guinea were now under military rule) organised the escape routes and brought to safety about 450 men of the original 1400-strong force. Among the successful evacuees was Hugh Mackenzie, their Naval Intelligence Officer and Feldt’s deputy. (Virtually all of the rest never survived the war, though most were lost when their POW ship, SS Montevideo Maru, was sunk by a USN submarine.)

During the first six months of the Japanese occupation, several Coast Watchers were captured in New Ireland and New Britain. Despite their ‘protective’ military rank, nearly all were executed; only two survived the war. Execution was not confined to Coast Watchers, it was a fate met by civilians too, including missionaries — some of them from neutral countries — who stayed at their posts tending their flock. But as the war grew older, Coast Watchers became smarter. They practiced much tighter communications procedures, disguised their positions better, and were prepared to move at a moment’s notice. Few more were caught.

Central to any Coast Watcher’s history were the services rendered by Jack Read in northern Bougainville, and Paul Mason in the south. The US Marines on Guadalcanal had no carrier-based air cover, with only their P38s at Henderson Field for air defence. Japanese land forces were all around them and were reinforced almost every night; the American logistic chain was fragile and infrequent. Japanese land-based bombers were within easy range. Read and Mason between them were able to give precise details of nearly every incoming raid, in time to get the P38s airborne and high, and AA stood-to. This crucial intelligence served the Marines for several critical months, but was achieved only by Read and Mason playing cat-and-mouse to remain ahead of their pursuers. They were never caught

Hugh Mackenzie also played a key role on Guadalcanal. Several Coast Watchers were actually on the island but well beyond the Henderson perimeter. They provided accurate and timely information on enemy troop, shipping and aircraft movements that helped ensure the security of the lodgement. Their activities and radio traffic were co-ordinated by Mackenzie under his famous radio callsign KEN.

Lindsay tells these and other stories well, illuminating them from several sides and adding colour to the characters. Naturally he had to be selective in what minor events and anecdotes he included, and he missed a few that this reviewer would have thought appropriate for inclusion — but that’s just a personal view.

The author also declined a chance to break new ground. The later editions of Feldt’s book describe the second phase of the Coast Watchers’ war, when some of them became guerrillas — mainly on Bougainville and New Britain. The fact that the guerrillas took over 5400 enemy lives for the loss of only 47 Coast Watchers and support staff speaks for itself. Tellingly, Feldt commented that the necessity of pursuing these operations was debatable, since the remaining Japanese were cut off and isolated. Lindsay chose not to re-open the ethical issue raised by Feldt, though he does deal with the guerrillas.


The book is well illustrated with black-and-white photographs, mostly new to this reviewer. All maps are grouped together at the front of the book. They are generally adequate, bar one: Mason’s escape-and-evasion activities on Bougainville took him from one end of the island to the other, and are described in detail in the text. But it’s impossible to recreate them from the highly-simplified map provided of the island. Locations mentioned in the text could have been included on the map; better still, show Mason’s track. Mason’s is a gripping story, and deserved better treatment.

This book is a new release that re-tells a slice of history in fresh language and will re-awaken interest in the impressive achievements of Commander Eric Feldt OBE RAN and his team. It is highly recommended to readers with an interest in RAN history and the history of the Pacific war.











HMAS ARMIDALE – A Survivor’s Account

Armidale ‘42:

A survivor’s account

Book review by Jerry Lattin


armidale 42 -- cover image

Col Madigan, Jan Senbergs, Don Watson. Armidale ‘42: A survivor’s account. Macmillan Art Publishing, South Yarra. 1999. 69 pp; RRP $33.00.


This book falls into no recognisable literary category, and comprises elements of formal history, personal wartime reminiscence, and theme-based graphic art. It nevertheless delivers, verbally and pictorially, a unique, vivid and personal view of the events leading up to a small Royal Australian Navy action in World War 2, the action itself, and its aftermath.


The definitive story of the sinking of HMAS Armidale near Timor in 1942 was told in Frank B Walker’s Armidalethe ship that had to die (Kingfsher Press, NSW, 1990). The Madigan/Senbergs/Watson work adds a new dimension to that conventional history, embellishing the tragedy with images that enter the soul. Drawn from a fragment of war, its essence is memory and imagination.


Armidale ‘42 opens with an essay by Don Watson which recreates the historical and strategic setting in which the drama unfolded, and describes dispassionately the events themselves. Those events are adequately covered in more detail in Brian Swan’s two-part article on the sinking of HMAS Armidale, which begins on page 19 of this issue, so will not be summarised here. Suffice to say that Watson’s essay is vivid, thought-provoking, and beautifully written—as one would expect from a master wordsmith.The essay is followed by the text of a brief address given by Col Madigan – himself an Armidale survivor – at a1998 celebration in Darwin for the 56th anniversary of Armidale’s launching. It reads almost like poetry, but his better contribution comes later.


The Armidale Drawings by Jan Senbergs (executed in pastel and acrylic wash on paper, and purchased by the Australian War Memorial) are preceded by the artist’s explanation of their genesis in an unrelated professional collaboration between himself and Madigan. The drawings themselves—11 including the frontispiece, all sparing in the use of colour—are vivid, impressionistic, stylised, filled with life and death, hope and hopelessness. They portray recognisable key events in the action and its consequences.


Notwithstanding the excellence of Watson’s introduction and the Senbergs drawings, the heart of this book lies in Col Madigan’s major contribution, titled The Armidale diary. Written mainly in the third person, the diary is a reflective ramble through a 1988 reunion in Armidale NSW. Old shipmates meet again; they share memories, recall horrors, and reminisce about lost comrades. The narrative flicks back and forth between 1942 and 1988, and few readers will encounter a more moving depiction of what it was like to be sunk by air attack and to survive in an open boat at sea for over a week. (Madigan survived  in the whaler and was rescued nine days after the sinking.) Subdued criticism of the dilatory attempts to locate and rescue survivors is implied rather than expressed. As a bonus, Madigan’s story is illustrated by his own drawings, which admirably complement those of Senbergs. His lightly-limned pen-and-ink vignettes illuminate his narrative brilliantly.


Australia has a long tradition of sponsoring ‘War Artists’, including some of the nation’s finest painters. Their work stems from life on active service, often in the battle itself, and has an authenticity and immediacy that gives it historical authority.  In this book, the pictorial contributions from Senbergs and Madigan extend the boundaries of that tradition: Madigan’s sketches are from memory of events that occurred decades before; and those of Senbergs go even further:  his work derives from imagination, intuition and research; and from the oral and verbal depictions of others.  For this reviewer, at least, it worked.


The book is tied together by a short essay by art historian Jenny Zimmer entitled  Remembering and imagining. Zimmer’s piece puts into context the imaginative work of Senbergs, and links it to the contributions of the other two authors. She  ties the Senbergs drawings to Théodore Géricault’s massive 1819 painting The Raft from the Medusa, drawn from a similar incident – which inspired one of Madigan’s sketches.


Armidale ‘42: A survivor’s account unashamedly appeals to the emotions. It is nevertheless a work of integrity that illustrates with word, brush and pen the consequences of war at sea against superior air power.


Col Madigan, barely out of his teens in 1942, became a successful architect. The work of Jan Senbergs is represented in the National Gallery, in all state art galleries, and several international collections. Don Watson was speech writer for Paul Keating among many other achievements.


The book’s production is high quality. Its 250mm x 240mm format may be inconvenient for some bookshelves, but was probably dictated in part by the dimensions of the Senbergs drawings. The drawings are printed separately and pasted in—a nice extra quality touch. An index is neither provided nor needed.


The publisher is Macmillan Art Publishing—so clearly the Macmillan Group regards this as an art book, not a history book. Macmillan AP assures us that the book is available on order, (ISBN 9780958574365 may be helpful for readers wishing to order) because interested buyers are unlikely to find copies on the shelves of Australian bookshops. The reason is that the main artwork (The Armidale Drawings) is lovingly stuck in by hand in small runs, only when required. Overseas, Amazon has both new and second-hand editions available in the $45 – $55 range. The rather-high second-hand price (which makes Macmillan AP’s new price look like a steal) no doubt reflects the book’s comparative rarity.




The Path of Infinite Sorrow

BOOK REVIEW: The path of infinite sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track


by Fred Lane


Collie C. and H. Marutani. The path of infinite sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest. 2009. 291 pp plus, maps, footnotes, references, index and 16 pp of photos. $28 to $35 paperback

(This review was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September 2010.)


Three score and more years on, the gut-wrenching wartime Kokoda Track tragedy remains vivid in the minds of those of both sides who were there, and many others who were spared the fighting. This book, by historian-researcher Hajime Marutani and television producer Craig Collie is a compilation of unit records, diaries and personal stories of Japanese, Australian and other soldiers who fought there. This is the first book to present the coherent story in the words of  Japanese participants.


Errors and brilliance

Examples of errors and of brilliance were common, in both sides. Brilliant commanders were summarily relieved in the field, by both sides. Others should have been, but were not. Armchair strategists did not understand the terrain nor why some battles were won or lost.


Malaria, dysentry and other diseases and accidents felled more soldiers than bullets, even with the jungle-savvy Japanese. The environment and excellent layered Japanese defence towards the end of the New Guinea campaign frustrated high commands, including Douglas MacArthur, ensconced safely in Brisbane, and Thomas Blamey, chafing in Moresby.


Did the brutal environment predispose brutal human behaviour? “For the troops, it had been a descent into hell in a deceptively majestic land,” say the authors eloquently, of the six-month campaign.


The 20-chapter book starts with a description of the terrible Japanese conditions on Ioribaiwa Ridge, overlooking Port Moresby. The next three chapters go back to describe the Japanese political and military history that led into the 1941-45 Pacific War. The last eight include descriptions of the tenacious post-Kokoda mop-up fighting, including American contributions, around Buna, Gona and other Japanese New Guinea bases.


South Seas Force

The South Seas Force, then a 2000-strong element of the Japanese 17th Army, is the prime Japanese force of interest. It started landing at Gona on the northern coast of New Guinea in the evening of 21 July 1942, under the command of Major General Tomitaro Horii. Initially ordered to capture Kokoda and explore the feasibility of an overland approach to Port Moresby, the sortie was suddenly upgraded in Rabaul by a blow-in gung-ho officer with good political connections and a great Malaya record, Lieutenant Colonel Tsuji. The task transformed into a reinforced spearhead attack on Port Moresby, with a traditional  Japanese “left hook” from Milne Bay. Tsuji did not have the authority to make such an order, but the decision was not reversed at 17th Army Headquarters, Rabaul, when the ruse was discovered some weeks later, “because of the possibility of having to re-reverse it in a few weeks”.


After a punishing fighting march across the Owen Stanleys, the Japanese reached Ioribaiwa Ridge, 42 kilometres from Port Moresby and within sight of the Gulf of Papua by 16 September 1942. The four- to six-week fight over 160 kilometres of unforgiving terrain and intermittent strong opposition is described in graphic detail. Only 1500 of the eventual 6000 Japanese troops who set out were in any condition to fight. Even then, survivors were starving and exhausted. Some companies of 180 had only 50 or 60 fit men, many of whom had to act as stretcher bearers for their own sick and wounded.


Other, much greater, events interacted with the fate of the South Seas Force. Between 4 and 7 June American carrier aircraft destroyed the cream of the Japanese carrier navy at Midway and turned back the Midway Island invasion fleet.


Milne Bay

The Japanese invaded Milne Bay on 25 August, but were defeated and pushed out within a fortnight. Their Guadalcanal toehold was also being seriously challenged by American Marines. Importantly, the extended Japanese supply line was proving vulnerable to Allied aircraft and submarine interdiction.


The Japanese expected little opposition to their Milne Bay landing. Instead, there were 5000 infantry and 4000 others dug in and waiting, including two RAAF squadrons of P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bombers. Of 1940 Japanese Marines landed on 25 August 1942, only 1320 were evacuated a fortnight later. Of those, 310 were wounded.


Sir William Slim quote

Field Marshall Sir William Slim, in a widely cited quote (McDonald and Brune, 1999) said, “Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we. Some of us may forget that of all the Allies it was the Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember”. Although the Milne Bay action is described  in refreshing and accurate detail, Slim’s statement was not mentioned in this Kokoda book.


Then, as Guadalcanal operations drained more and more support from Rabaul, Horii’s South Seas Force was ordered to withdraw, back over the punishing Owen Stanleys, to the original targets, Isurava and Kokoda.



The authors refer to the appellation “chockos” given to the poorly trained B Company of the Australian 39th Battalion, Civilian Militia, whose average age was only 18 years. They were so poorly equipped that all they had to dig in with were bayonets, bully beef tins and helmets. They were the first to be thrown into the defence of Kokoda and the Owen Stanleys, before better-trained and war-hardened AIF soldiers could be rushed back from the Middle East (at Curtin’s insistence and to Churchill’s chagrin). Even these professional soldiers found it hard going. At Isorava, directly after Kokoda, the Militia had retired to the rear, but determined Japanese attacks on 29 August pushed back even the fresh AIF 2/14th Battalion.


“Chocko” was certainly a derogative term at the time, but perhaps not so much because they were regarded as “chocolate soldiers”, as the authors attest, but, in the PC-speak of the times, because of the single-band chocolate-coloured rough texture puggaree on their slouch hats. The AIF pugaree was made of lighter-colored finer woven multi-layered khaki material.


Wharfies to soldiers

After working the Port Moresby wharves for months, B Company of the 39th Battalion Militia suddenly kitted up and tramped across the Owen Stanleys to be thrown virtually immediately into battle. Despite facing well-trained professional Japanese soldiers skilled in jungle warfare and particularly adept at outflanking strongpoints, these part-time soldiers acquitted themselves well. Finally, the staged withdrawals of the AIF’s 2/14 and 2/16 Battalions of the Seventh Division, achieved one desired effect. Exhaustion, starvation, sickness, low ammunition and long supply lines were now Japanese worries.


As we have seen in more recent times, guided tourist “Track” excursions can have fatal results even for fit adult males with abundant medical precautions and support. In 1942, soldiers not only negotiated this same terrible terrain, but in appalling weather. They moved to a life or death timetable and prepared for life or death firefights every few days. In the Owen Stanleys, the soldiers of both sides could rely only on what they carried on their own shoulders.


By September 1942, many of the Japanese at Ioribaiwa were close to death. Boots, clothing and equipment were rotting. By the time they staggered back to Kokoda, two thirds had a serious thiamine deficiency and related beriberi with impaired strength, restricted mobility, reduced mental capacity and night-blindness. The Gona field hospital had 500 beds but more than 2000 patients. Cannibalism was not uncommon. “Troops were reduced to a primal level, such were the inhuman conditions,” in which Kokoda battles were waged, assert the authors. The diaries, unit records and personal recollections all strongly support this statement.


Army Support

Despite some heroic and effective efforts, poor air/ground cooperation led to a number of errors, ranging from supply drops falling into enemy hands to bombing own troops. Honed and sustained chiefly by the American Marines, the early days of modern Close Support systems can be seen developing from the Kokoda Track experience.  The lessons were there for those who would listen. Unfortunately, many of these lessons had to be painfully re-learned in Korea.


Apt title

The path of infinite sorrow is aptly titled. This ultimately sad tale  is nevertheless very easy to read. Importantly, for the first time, this book describes Kokoda in the words of the Japanese who fought there.


The text is well supported by 16 maps, 41 photographs, a dozen or so pages of footnotes, a comprehensive index and an impressive bibliography.




HMAS SYDNEY – Australia’s Greatest Naval Tragedy

Book review by Kevin Rickard

Frame,T. HMAS Sydney, Australia’s greatest naval tragedy. Hachette Australia: Sydney. 2008. pp. 412 rrp.$34.99.

In the afternoon of 19 November 1941, two large ships sighted one another for the first time off the coast Western Australia. Within an hour, after a ferocious battle, both ships would be mortally wounded; by morning, both had sunk. One of the ships was the RAN Leander-class light cruiser HMAS Sydney, lost with all hands, 645 men. The other was the German auxiliary cruiser, Kormoran; Crippled by Sydney’s gunfire, she was scuttled. Of Kormoran’s 399 crew, 318 survived.

The Australian Prime Minister, Mr. John Curtin, officially announced the loss of HMAS Sydney some nine days after the event on the afternoon of 30 November 1941. It was a major blow to Australian morale and military capability. Her crew represented 30 per cent of the RAN’s war time’s casualties.

Perhaps the most striking and humbling aspect of Bishop Tom Frame’s book, HMAS Sydney, is the list of names of the officers and men lost in the action. To read through this list of names, from CAPT Joseph Burnett to Salvatore Zammitt, the Canteen Manager, brings home the terrible tragedy of the event. VADM Russ Shalders writes “if you only read one book on this tragic event in Australian naval history and want all the facts and theories presented in a balanced way, Tom Frame’s book is for you”.


The Right Rev. Assoc. Professor Tom Frame is an Australian Anglican Bishop, historian, academic, author and social commentator. He is a graduate of the RAN College at HMAS Creswell.

Frame sets the stage superbly for the battle by detailing the history of the two ships before their ill-fated meeting. Sydney had covered herself with glory during operations in the Mediterranean under the command of CAPT John Collins RAN. She served as a key element of the seventh cruiser squadron of ADML Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean fleet. In the battle of Cape Spada CAPT Collins displayed great initiative and tenacity in pursuing the Italian light cruisers Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni. Sydney‘s action sank the latter and severely damaged the former. During this time Sydney also provided convoy escorts, attacked Italian land bases, provided anti submarine protection, and carried military equipment for the allied base in Crete. She successfully took part in the battle of Calabria and operated as an integral part of the British fleet. In January 1941 she was ordered home, and arrived in Sydney Cove to a justly-deserved heroes’ welcome and a Freedom-of-Entry March into the city of Sydney in February 1941.

Sydney spent the early months of 1941 on escort and patrol duties in the Indian Ocean. On 15 May 1941 CAPT Collins RAN handed over command to Captain Joseph Burnett, RAN.

Collins, and Burnett were both graduates of the first entry to the Naval College in 1913. Burnett, who had come from Navy Office to take command of Sydney, was regarded as an active and industrious thinker, an accomplished sportsman and athlete. He possessed an attractive personality, an engaging demeanor, was easily liked, and was generous and compassionate.

The characteristics of Joseph Burnett, the gentleman, were in stark contrast to those of his final opponent, Korvetten Kapitan Theodor Detmers. This man by all reports appears to have been a ruthless, scheming, opportunistic Nazi pirate of the high seas.

The Kormoran was a Kriegsmarine merchant raider. Originally the passenger vessel Steiermark, she was the largest merchant raider operated by Germany during World War 11, mounting six 150mm (5.9 inch) guns, plus two 37 mm guns and five 20 mm cannon. She was also equipped with six torpedo tubes, two twin tubes on the upper deck and a single underwater tube on each side.Before encountering  Sydney, she had enjoyed considerable success in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. She had attacked eight vessels in the Atlantic and three in the Indian Ocean while being at sea for almost a year. Her crew was tough, confident and battle-hardened. In late 1941 her intention was to mine shipping routes off the coast of Western Australia especially near Cape Leeuwin and Fremantle. However, wireless signals alerted her to the presence of HMAS Canberra so she decided to sail north and mine Shark Bay.

Detmers was the youngest man to command a German merchant raider. By the time he engaged Sydney he had sunk some 80,000 tonnes of shipping and had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class. Utterly ambitious, Detmers was determined to achieve the 100,000 tonne target and receive the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He was a ferocious and formidable opponent for the less battle-hardened CAPT Joseph Burnett of the Sydney.

In an attempt to analyse ‘what happened’ in the action between Sydney and Kormoran, Frame tries to piece together evidence based on the interrogation of the German survivors, including Detmers.

According to Detmers the cruiser seemed completely unaware of Kormoran‘s true identity, partly because of deliberate and confusing signal traffic between the two ships. At 1730, with the cruiser “somewhat more than a mile away” Kormoran revealed her identity. Striking the Dutch flag and hoisting the German ensign took six seconds. The raider then slowly turned to 260 degrees to improve her torpedo shot. Kormoran‘s first and second (gun) salvoes fell short but salvoes three, four and five struck the cruiser’s bridge and the director. Kormoran‘s anti-aircraft and starboard 37 mm guns then directed accurate fire into the cruiser’s bridge, her torpedo tube space and Walrus aircraft. It was not until Kormoran‘s fifth salvo that the cruiser returned fire from X turret. Turrets A and B did not fire, and two or three salvoes from Y turret passed over the raider. Kormoran was hit on her funnel and in the engine rooms. Kormoran fired her first pattern of torpedoes at the cruiser after the eighth or ninth salvo. At least one of the torpedoes struck under the cruiser’s forecastle and the bow was almost submerged by the blast. The cruiser then crossed the wake of the raider which was fired upon by the cruiser’s after turrets and a pattern of four torpedoes that passed astern of the raider.

Around 1745 the cruiser was burning fiercely abaft the bridge. She was proceeding south at slow speed and would sink soon after. Detmers ordered “cease fire” at 1825; Kormoran‘s engine room was badly damaged and scuttling action began. The fierce action had lasted less than an hour. The mortal damage to Sydney probably occurred within the first three to four minutes of the engagement. The command team of the Sydney were almost certainly killed by Kormoran’s third to fifth salvoes.

There is speculation within the text as to why Sydney came so close to Kormoran. Perhaps this was a tactic approved by the captain of Sydney in consultation with the command team. Maybe firing on Kormoran was delayed because she could have been transporting allied prisoners of war.

In the latter half of the book Frame carefully analyses and dissects a number of books, controversies and events which occurred in the years following the sinking of Sydney. In the “Post Mortem” chapter an Admiralty instruction on tactics advised “that commanding officers underestimate the offensive power of raiders!” In the chapter “Genesis of Controversy” VADM Sir John Collins wrote “that Sydney was lost because she failed to observe prudent tactics” and “a vessel’s description agreeing with her name is no guarantee that she is not a raider”. Frame also deals rather critically with writings by Jones, Montgomery and Gill. The possible role of a Japanese submarine in the sinking of Sydney is also dismissed on very logical grounds.

Attention is given to the finding of the carley float and its consequent forensic analysis by the Australian War Memorial. There was no absolute proof the float came from Sydney. The body in the carley float (originally buried on Christmas Island) could not be precisely identified but the Commonwealth agrees that the man probably came from from Sydney. The remains were interred in the nearest Commonwealth war cemetery near Geraldton.

A Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) was convened in August 1997 with broad terms of reference. A recommendation was that no one group ‘owned Sydney. The committee said Australia should “move beyond animosity and antagonism” in relation to the Sydney mystery.

The last chapter of the book deals with the finding of the wreck of Sydney by American David Mearns and the search ship SV Geosounder. He used a deep-water towed side-scan sonar for location purposes and later a remotely operated vehicle to photograph and view the wreck. His activities were part funded by the Finding Sydney Foundation and part supported by Commonwealth and some State governments.

The finding of the wreck of Kormoran was announced by the Foundation on 12 March 2008. Just five days later the wreck of Sydney was found in 2468 metres of water. The wreck is now observed as a war grave.

Soon afterwards, the government announced that Terence Cole QC would head a commission of enquiry into the loss of Sydney and report to the Chief of the Defence Force. ACML Houston admitted the enquiry would take some time since twenty three kilometres of documents had to be examined. The enquiry made little sense to Frame. He thought it was pointless. and elected not to make a submission to the enquiry. Instead, he suggested that the wreck should be examined by experts so as to draw some conclusions about the conduct of the engagement.

AB Bill Pitt, crew member of Sydney writing to his mother in Melbourne in 1941, said “I do not think I will be home for my birthday. I am beginning to feel old at 21”. Six weeks later Bill Pitt and every other man on board Sydney was dead.

Frame’s book is a scholarly and comprehensive work on HMAS Sydney from beginning to end. Frame, an objective and thorough historian, writes about a matter which is precious to the RAN and is a subject of emotional feeling in the Australian community. This book is compulsive reading and stands as a fitting memorial to all those 645 officers and men who gave their lives for this Australia.

hmas sydney book cover



Descent into chaos

Descent into chaos

book review by Kevin Rickard
chaosfwRashid, A. Descent into chaos. Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2008. pp 477, RRP $65.

More than a century ago the contest between the empires of Britain and Tsarist Russia for supremacy in Central Asia was a subtle conflict of spies and diplomats – rather than open war between their armies. The prize then, as it is today, was Afghanistan. As the world’s front line of terrorism, Afghanistan is a very dangerous place – a place in which the Australian military is currently involved. The protagonists are the Taliban, al Qaeda, Pakistan and the NATO-led international security force predominantly led by the US military, but with Australia and other nations playing a part.

Compelling, challenging

In his compelling but challenging and at times controversial book, Descent into chaos, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid meticulously analyses the Afghanistan and Central Asian conflicts, recounts their recent history and background and strongly suggests that the war against Islamist extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The mid-2009 humanitarian crisis and military confrontation with the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, predicted by an Australian counter-terrorist consultant for the Obama White House and pre-empted in Rashid’s book, now presents a real and present threat to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in Islamabad. In accord with this notion, Rashid’s chapter on “al Qaeda’s bolt hole” maintains that FATA (Federally Administered Territorial Areas) in Pakistan had become “terrorism central”. They provide training and manpower for the insurgency in Afghanistan and thus push forward the Talibanisation of the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP), while guarding the sanctuaries of al Qaeda for international terrorist training. Almost all latter-day al Qaeda plots around the world had FATA connections, from the 9/11 Twin Towers in New York, the London Underground and the Madrid train killings to the Bali bombing.

Australia commits

The Australian government recently announced an increase in the Australian military commitment in Afghanistan. At that time there were 1090 Australian military personnel in Afghanistan participating in Operation Slipper – Australia’s contribution to the NATO-led international security assistance force fighting international terrorism in Afghanistan. All this is within the context of the US-led coalition against terrorism in the broader Middle East. Accordingly, Rashid’s book could be said to be modern Central Asian and Australian history in the making. As such, the book provides a valuable understanding of the reasons for Australian deployment in Afghanistan.


Central Asia

The location for the analysis in Rashid’s book is Central Asia: the five independent but dictator-led states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and, to some extent, Iran. He maintains that years after the 9/11 attack in 2001, the US-led war on terrorism has produced a far more unstable world. The US invasion of two Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of dollars, armies of security guards and new technology have so far failed to contain the original Islamist organisation while the al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, is now a global inspirational figure and still at large.

Military regime

Pakistan’s military regime led by President Pervez Musharref has also undergone a bloody meltdown. In 2007 he suspended the constitution, sacked the senior judiciary, imprisoned 1200 lawyers and muzzled the media. Musharref’s plunge from hero to villain was compounded by the assassination of the larger than life Opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007. Rashid claims the future of the US, NATO and the European Union are at stake in Central Asia. How can NATO survive if the Taliban is not defeated in Afghanistan or if bin Laden remains at large?


Al Qaeda leader Osama-bin-Laden (left) and Pervez Musharref, Pakistan President 1999-2008.

At least the Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, was elected by a democratic Loya Jurga that mobilised a national response and, in so doing, resisted the influence of the hitherto all powerful billionaire war lords. But there is an international hesitancy to commit to a cause perceived by many as led by US incompetence, incoherence and complicated strategies.

For instance, there is a perseption that Bush, on election, thought the Taliban were an all-girls “Pop group”. In Pakistan the threat is more much more concrete and palpable. Pakistan has a nuclear armed military and an intelligence system that has promoted Islamic extremism as an intrinsic part of Pakistan’s foreign policy for nearly four decades.

Military buildup

Ninety per cent of the $10 billion in aid that the US has provided to Pakistan since 9/11 has gone to the military, rather than to national development. Pakistan with a population of 175 million is the sixth largest country in the world and its society is riddled with deep ethnic, social and economic fissures. The Pakistan Army, particularly through the agency of its very own but sinister Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), has backed the Taliban and encouraged thousands of youngsters, especially through the proliferation of madrassas (12,000 in Pakistan) teaching Islamic extremism, to fight and die for the Taliban.


Four horsemen? George W. Bush President USA 2001-2009 (left above) and Dick Cheney, Vice President 2001-2009.
Donald Rumsfeld Secretary of Defence 2001-2006 (left below) and Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence 2001-2005.


“Marshall Plan”

The ISI also mobilised Pakistani terrorists to fight in the Kashmir insurgency against India, before despatching them to Afghanistan. Ending the “failing state” syndrome in Central Asia would require nothing less than a Western-led “Marshall Plan” for the region. However, G.W. Bush, aided and abetted by Rumsfeld, maintained that US troops are not to be used for nation building.

Three disturbing themes run through the book. First is the evil, sinister and two-faced behaviour of Musharref in his nefarious dealings with the US and his duplicitous arrangements with the ISI and the Pakistan army. The second is the absolute resistance of the Bush administration, particularly the “neocons” Rumsfeld, Chaney and Wolfowitz, to prevent any attempt at nation building in Central Asia: “it is either their way or the highway.” To some extent the neocons were the classic imperialists who use 9/11 to exempt themselves from American and international law. The third theme relates to the amount of money the US has lavished and wasted on this part of the world. In 2008 the US Defence budget, with a 1.37 million strong defence force, reached $647 billion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were expected to cost more than $l trillion.

Bush steps down

The Bush era ended in 2008 and Rashid argues cogently that America is shattered, the US army is overstretched and broken, US credibility is compromised and the world is a far more dangerous place. There are full blown insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan and al Qaeda has expanded around the world, very much funded by the drug trade of opium and heroin. Rashid calls it “drugs and thugs.” These drugs are derived from the poppy fields of Central Asia. The poppy provides opium, which is readily converted to heroin. The value of the Afghanistan opium crop in 2006 was $3.6 billion – all used to fund the Taliban and al Qaeda. In 2008 alone the US allocated $780 million to counter narcotics in Central Asia. PM Blair warned Karzai he would not deploy British troops to Helmand Province unless Karzai’s “friends” in the poppy fields were removed.


This is a well researched, multi-referenced, factual and stimulating book. It is to some extent a detailed, concentrated and challenging book, but at the same time it is a rewarding one. Muslim nomenclature is ever present but it is an informative book to read. Having read it, one has a more realistic appreciation of the challenges facing the Western world, particularly the US, NATO and the European Union. Australia is very much involved in all this although our current contribution, including 10 Army deaths and one action that resulted in an Australian Victoria Cross, does not rate a mention in Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into chaos.

Iraq War

Running the war in Iraq

book review by Kevin Rickard



Molan, J. Running the war in Iraq.Harper Collins Publishers: Pymble. 2008. pp.358, $32.99. (Seen at $3.99 on some remainder tables.)


Australian Major General Jim Molan’s service in Iraq, outwitting a dangerous enemy and reporting exactly what it takes to fight and defeat violent extremism, are precisely portrayed in his book Running the War in Iraq.

Be flexible

Following a request to Australia from US General John Abizaid, Commanding General of US Central Command, for a Chief of Operations of Coalition Forces in Iraq, General Molan, AO was sent there to fulfil this role. General Peter Cosgrove, AC, CDF at the time, warned General Molan to be flexible and prepare to be “Assistant to the Deputy or Deputy to the Assistant”.

Despite publicised statements and attendant guidance from the Prime Minister and Defence Minister at the time, General Molan arrived in the Green Zone in Baghdad, to be met with the question from US Lt. Gen. Ric Sanchez “What do you think you can contribute?” Sanchez was polite and correct, but finding General Molan an interesting job was not a Sanchez priority right then.

Complex war environment

Molan soon realised he was not about to be given the job he was sent to do in Iraq by General Peter Cosgrove. In a very complex war environment Molan decided to adopt responsibility for the protection of Iraq infrastructure. This huge task involved the maintenance of flow of oil, electricity and the railway system.

He needed to prevent the insurgents’ extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that damaged the electricity grid, destroyed oil pipelines and compromised the flow of benzene by road throughout the country. Twenty bombs per day exploded against Coalition Forces and a soldier was killed by these bombs every second day. If Molan were to be successful, Iraqi morale would be improved and the Coalition would be able “to keep some of the lights on for some of the time”.

Insurgent enemy

The insurgent enemy was a complex group comprising Sunni Arabs, Islamic extremists, hardened criminals, militias, including Shiite factions, and terrorists linked to al Qaeda. It was suggested that insurgent infrastructure sabotage activity in Iraq grew at ten times the speed of that of the IRA in Northern Ireland. Molan fought the battle rather successfully for his full year in Iraq and ensured some power supply.

Further challenges in the military career of Molan occurred with the arrival in Iraq of the new military Chief, four star General George Casey, Jr, and the new US Ambassador, John Negroponte. Molan was to find Casey inspirational. Casey asked Molan whether he would be his Chief of Staff for Strategic Operations of the recently formed Multi-National Force Iraq (MNFI). This meant, in effect, “running the war in Iraq”.

Paper force of 300,000

Molan had a headquarters staff of 315 and an MNF of 175,000 troops, supplemented with 125,000 Iraqi Security Forces. Casey’s suggestion to Molan was to “fight your way to the election”.  The first ever democratic election was to be held in Iraq in January 2005. At first, the Chief of Staff task appeared to be an overwhelming responsibility for Molan, who admits he did not understand the language of US Intelligence and was fast learning the concept of “targeting”. He did carry a rifle everywhere and had a bodyguard of 12 tough SAS soldiers. Molan’s convoy was ambushed twice, once on “Route Irish”, but after a gun fight was rescued each time. The bodyguard later advised him, “Boss, when we get you away from the bad guys we might let you fire a shot or two”

Second battle for Fallujah

General Molan was now occupied with two major strategic missions. The first was to plan and coordinate the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004. The second was to plan and coordinate the election planned for January 2005. These two interlocking missions were in addition to the onerous tasks of the coordination and planning of the day-to-day military conflicts and tactics of MNFI in an intense and unforgiving war environment.

There were daily Battle Update Assessments (BUA) and Centron Component Commanders Brief (CCCB) by state-of-the-art communication systems. Molan was very much to the forefront of all of this activity.

Bleak city of 300,000

Fallujah, adjacent to Baghdad, on the banks of the Euphrates, is a bleak city, five kilometres square with a population of 300,000. It was also a hotbed of insurgency networks and headquarters of Zarqawi. Accordingly, a process of “shaping targets” began. “Time sensitive targets” were “taken out” and it was decided Fallujah would not be a “three block war” but a conventional urban operation.  The US “Force Flow” system was utilised by Casey for this battle. Apart from ground force control, Molan was able to utilise considerable strike air power and surveillance with “drones”, simultaneously delineating targets to ground commanders and airborne pilots. Accordingly, there was no misunderstanding about target selection. Molan’s priority weapon was the 500-pound bomb dropped with deadly accuracy. By November 2004, the second battle for Fallujah was heading for success.

The election

Molan could now turn his attention to the election. For this there was a UN timetable and a very human justification. There was a counter-philosophy prevalent among the Iraqis of “you vote, you die”. It was thought the oppressed Shiites would vote, but the Sunni were an unknown quantity.

Eventually Molan took control of the Interim Election Committee Iraq (IECI) to support election logistics. He also assumed responsibility for the security of 5,200 polling stations on Election Day, 30 January, 2005. The ultimate success of the election changed the strategic calculations and the landscape of Iraq for the better.

Soldier diplomat

As Molan left Iraq, Ambassador Negroponte said Molan excelled as a soldier diplomat. General Casey awarded Molan the US Legion of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious services as Chief of Staff”. In Australia, Molan received the Distinguished Service Cross in the 2006 New Years Honours List. One of Molan’s most prized possessions is Ballot Paper No. 00000009 for the Iraqi election given to him  by the Iraqi people.

Jim Molan makes two crucial points: 1. “Do not get involved in a counter insurgency unless you intend to win,” (p. 331) and 2. “There is a need for both consistent and agreed counter insurgency policy and strategy, and infinite flexibility in tactics” (p.334). These Iraq lessons would seem to apply equally to current operations in Aghanistan.

Challenging comments

There are some challenging comments in the book’s epilogue. One is that Molan should have been replaced by another Australian General. The second is that our professional military system is not preparing senior officers to be competent joint operational “field” commanders. Finally, Molan mentions that, at the time of writing, the US had lost 4000 soldiers killed in Iraq and 28,000 wounded and that the Iraq war would cost the US $2 trillion if it runs for 10 years. But the campaign plan in Iraq is part of the long term battle against terrorism.

This is a cleverly constructed and well-written book with clear explanations of a raft of military scenarios taking place in a current 21st century war. If you have an opinion about the war in Iraq, then you will obtain valuable insight into that war and profit from reading this book. You will also be able to appreciate the contribution of one distinguished Australian to the eventual independence of a very troubled Iraq.