A man of intelligence

A man of intelligence

book review by Kevin A. Rickard

Pfennigwerth, I. A man of intelligence: The life of Captain Eric Nave, Australian codebreaker extraordinary. Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd: Dural. 2006.  304pp., 18 pp. of plates, illustrations and maps. $29.95 paperback.

A man of intelligence is the biography of an enterprising and successful Australian Japanese code breaker, CAPT Theodore Eric Nave OBE RN ret. The book is written by CAPT Ian Pfennigwerth RAN ret, a communicator and a previous captain of HMAS Perth and Director of Naval Intelligence.

Lad from Adelaide

The story tells in some detail how a lad from Adelaide with intelligence, ambition, diligent application and considerable good fortune carved his own special niche in the arcane world of codebreaking. It portrays and explores Nave’s entire career, especially during the period between WW I and WW II, when Nave served at sea on the China Station as an RN officer. While posted to the RN cruisers HMS Kent or Hawkins and visits to Hong Kong or Shanghai, Nave was able to intercept signals from the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

Plain language

At first he decrypted those IJN signals emanating from Nanjing, Shanghai and Tianjing that were in plain language, but later because of his skill both at cryptanalysis and the Japanese language he was able to break the IJN codes. He was thus able to decipher numerous important signals from the Japanese fleet.

The above events coincided with the time when the Japanese were brutally invading parts of China. The Naval duplicity of the Japanese at this time in their dealings with the British and the United States was calculated and eventually lethal, especially to the Americans at Pearl Harbor. This was due to the secret build up of the IJN Far East Fleet in contravention of the Washington Naval Treaty.

Through Nave’s special cryptanalysis and language skills much vital information about the Japanese fleet was forwarded to the Admiralty in London from the China Station.

This is an intriguing part of the Nave story. While serving in the Far East Combined Bureau, Nave and British Intelligence had access to high level Japanese information via the powerful British intercept station on Stonecutters Island off Hong Kong. In this context there is reference to a book called Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill lured Roosevelt into World War II, co-authored by James Rushbridger and Eric Nave. Pfennigwerth contends that certain statements by Nave have been mischievously transformed by Rushbridger. Further, the allegations that the British, and by inference Nave, were aware of plans to strike Pearl Harbor are conjecture by Rushbridger.

Japanese language skills

Nave developed an amazing ability to comprehend and speak Japanese. He had been sent by the RAN to Japan to study Japanese in 1921, in part due to his own suggestion. In the city of Hakone near Mt  Fuji he immersed himself in Japanese life for two years. He obtained a deep understanding of the Japanese language, Japanese customs and bushido. He occasionally reported to the British Embassy in Tokyo where he readily passed examinations in Japanese and liaised with British Naval officers and civil servants who were later to become valuable and influential friends when he was in Britain.

After several years on the China Station with the RN, he contracted tropical sprue, a debilitating malabsorption state that necessitated his return to Australia in the early ’40s. But he had much more to offer. Initially this was with Frumel, the Fleet radio unit in Melbourne. Here he clashed with a difficult USN officer. That officer’s and the American mindset at the time, was actually typified in a statement attributed to General MacArthur in a discussion with Prime Minister Curtin that “the US building up forces in the Commonwealth is not so much from an interest in Australia but rather from its utility as a base from which to hit Japan”.

Nave worked with the Australian Army in Central Bureau in Brisbane from 1942-45, essentially operating as a member of MacArthur’s staff. He was then involved with the first Signals Intelligence Bureau and the development of the Defence Signals Organisation in Melbourne.

After finally leaving the RN in which his commission had been gazetted in London in 1930, 13 years after joining the RAN, Nave was involved in the very beginnings of ASIO. Nave was Head of Section C, responsible for the policies and standards of ASIO’s personal vetting. Accordingly, he had much to do with the security of both the first Royal Tour of Australia in 1954 and the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He also became peripherally involved in the infamous Petrov affair during the Menzies era.

42 years service

After 42 years of Government service, Nave retired in 1959. But he still had much to offer. He went on to become the National President of the Naval Association. Here he was influential in the concept of Navy Week and Navy Day on October 4, the anniversary of the entry of the First Australian Fleet into Sydney Harbour in 1913.

So the book follows the career of an intelligent young man who joined the RAN in 1917 as a Midshipman Paymaster. The RAN almost missed him. He was initially informed that he had failed the RAN entrance exam in history, his strongest subject. But, after the timely intervention of an Australian Senator, at the request of Nave’s father, Nave was told the following day, he had passed the examination for entry to the RAN with access to a permanent commission.

The manuscript is rather technical in parts, regarding cryptography and signals. However this is all swept up within the background of the fascinating historical events of the ’30s and ’40s in South-East Asia and Australia’s war with Japan. All these events had great relevance to the subsequent destiny of Australia.


Jutland, 1916

Jutland book cover

Jutland 1916

 Book review by Fred Lane
Steel, N. and P. Hart. Jutland 1916: Death in the grey wastes. Cassell: London, 2003. 439pp. Photographs and Maps. Paperback $19.75.

The biggest naval battle since Trafalgar in 1805 was the 1916 Battle of Jutland. Fought during 31 May and the early hours of 1 June, between no less than 250 warships, it pitted two brilliant admirals against each other: ADML Sir John Jellicoe and VADM Reinhard Scheer.

The latter’s fast scouting group of five battlecruisers under VADM Franz Hipper crucially outperformed Jellicoe’s equivalent, four Queen Elizabeth class battlecruisers under VADM Sir David Beatty. In one sense it was fortunate that the British could read German navy cyphers but the failure of a small number of critical communications from the Admiralty to Jellicoe in the strategic sense, and from Beatty to Jellicoe in the tactical sense, led to a less than satisfactory British outcome.

The Kaiserliche Marine entered WW I with fewer heavy units than the RN, but they hoped to lure small elements of the Grand Fleet into traps that would in time lead to numerical equivalency.

The build-up and battle are eloquently described by Steel and Hart. Sheer’s near major success is attributed, in part, to operational and tactical shorcomings in the British fleet, especially with Beatty’s Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron.

Ample warnings of gunnery, communications and armour deficiencies were demonstrated at the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915. These warnings, however, were chiefly ignored. Both the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine planned North Sea sweeps around May and June 1916. This was known to the Admiralty, but they delayed passing this important enemy intelligence to Jellicoe.

At Jutland, Beatty was correctly deployed ahead of Jellicoe’s main fleet when he ran into Hipper’s ships. The enemy smartly and correctly retreated towards their main body, enticing Beatty to follow. This, plus a Beatty-ordered “turn in succession” instead of a “turn together” contributed to the loss of two RN battlecruisers. His own ship, HMS Lion, was only saved by the heroic action of a mortally wounded turret officer who flooded his magazine. Then, Beatty’s signals, such as “Enemy bearing SE” were of little help to Jellicoe when he had no idea of Beatty’s whereabouts.

Superior fleet handling

Finally, the German ships were generally handled in a superior manner. Scheer’s brilliant “Turn about together” manoeuvre, when his T was crossed, had never been used in war before, but it saved the German fleet from a severe mauling. The British lost 14 ships and 6094 men at Jutland. The German losses were 11 ships and 2551 men. Both sides reported heavy damage to many units.

Victory was claimed by both sides. In fact, although they might well claim a tactical victory on the simple grounds of ships and men lost, the Kaiserliche Marine never again challenged the Royal Navy in a fleet action. Therefore the RN had very good grounds to claim a strategic victory.

Hard Jacka

Hard Jacka

Hard Jacka cover

 Book review by Kevin Rickard

Lawriwsky, M. Hard Jacka: The story of a Gallipoli legend. Mira Books: Chatswood, 2007. 421 pp. 16 pp of plates, illustrations, maps.

General Peter Cosgrove, in his introduction to Michael Lawriwsky’s book, Hard Jacka, mentions that in the Australian Army’s pantheon of men there is none more inspirational, none more courageous than Captain Albert Jacka, VC, MC and Bar. In this sensitively crafted story of Jacka and his mates as well as the “heads”, we learn much, not only about the incredible bravery of Jacka and his many battle skills, but also of his clashes with authority.

The latter was at first with Lt Col Dare, the battalion commander who would not recommend Sgt Major Jacka for officer training, and later, clashes of Captain Jacka with Brigadier Charles Brand about tactical matters during fighting on the Somme. There is no doubt about the bravery of Jacka, but the details of these disputes provide insight into the character, fortitude and ambition of the man.

The fictionalised words attributed to Jacka and his contemporaries by Lawriwsky come from much meticulous research by the author, whilst their context and reality bring Jacka and his friends to life in the mind of the reader.

L/Cpl Jacka won his Victoria Cross at Courtney’s Post, Gallipoli, on 19 May 1915, in the darkness of those fatal trench systems in hand-to-hand fighting with the Turks. Jacka was assisted in his extraordinary exploits by Privates Poliness and De Araugo and Lt Crabbe. This VC was presented to Jacka by the then Prince of Wales during a luncheon at Buckingham Palace in 1916 with five other Australian recipients.


Many thought Lt Jacka’s extraordinary heroism on the ridge at Poziers in the Somme deserved a bar to his VC. His deeds there appear to have been understated by Dare and an MC was the result. At Poziers Jacka, leading the fifth platoon of the fourteenth battalion, withstood a ferocious German bombardment and, although seriously wounded, led a bayonet charge to capture the position. His brother, Bill Jacka thought he would not survive his wounds but he did so, at the Third London General Hospital, once more to return to the battles at the Somme.

At Bullecourt he won a bar to his MC, which was presented to him in the field by Sir William Birdwood in May 1917. At Polygon Wood in 1917 Capt. Jacka took effective command of the fourteenth battalion in the field, perhaps deserving another VC, but his role in that victory was unrewarded.

In between reading about the legendary and heroic deeds of Albert Jacka and also of his special attribute for the assessment of the enemy in conflict, we read also about the feelings, fears and reactions of many of Jacka’s friends, some of whom were to be tragically and heroically killed in the mindless slaughter. We read about such men as Capt. Ted Rule, Capt. ‘Lofty’ Williamson, Sgt ‘Curly’ Croft, Padre Andrew Gillison, Maj. Percy Black and Capt. Harry Murray. The story of his proven friend, Lt Harold Wanliss, of whom much was expected politically, carries much pathos. He fell in love and was betrothed to Jean Campbell while on leave in Scotland. Wanliss was later killed in action before he could wed Jean.

Mayor of St Kilda

Jacka survived the war, returned to Victoria, entered local politics and became the Mayor of St Kilda. He died in January 1932 at the Caulfield Military Hospital at the early age of 39 from complications of his many war wounds. “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old; we will remember them.”

Hard Jacka is an extraordinary account of a great Australian hero, well written and a great, but sad, pleasure to read.

Soviet-USA relations: 1917-20

 Russia leaves the war: Soviet-American relations

Book review by Fred Lane

Kennan, G.F. (1956) Soviet-American relations, 1917-1920: Volume 1, Russia leaves the war. Princeton University Press: Princeton. Paperback version (available used from US$3, Barnes and Noble) 544 pp including index, maps and photos.

This old learned treatise smacks of bygone-era literary devices but it is well worth a re-read in this post-Cold War period. The second chapter includes character analyses in florid Dickensian “best of times and worst of times” style, but this might well be apt because USA Secretary of State Lansing correctly predicted a Bolshevik “Terror” exceeding that of the French Revolution (p 156). Set in the 1917 to 1920 period, but chiefly between November 1917 and March 1918, this Volume 1 describes how the Russian Bolsheviks and the hard- line USA capitalists drew their respective lines in the sand.

Volume 2, not reviewed here, describes some of the immediate aftermath, like the rag-tag military interventions by British, American, Czechoslovak, Japanese and other armed forces that ranged widely from Murmansk to Siberia.

George Kennan is eminently qualified to discuss these events. He was an American Foreign Service Officer for 27 years, a specialist in Russian affairs and an ambassador to the USSR in 1952. After his retirement in 1953, he joined Princeton University, becoming a Professor in the Institute for Advanced Study. This book won a Pulitzer Prize for History.

The Americans supported the February 1917 revolution and its Kerensky Provisional Government through rapid formal recognition and substantial loan allocations. President Wilson praised the revolution when he asked Congress to declare war against Germany on 2 April. However, the November 1917 revolution, instigated by a tiny Bolshevik splinter group, caught nearly everyone by surprise. It threw the professional diplomatic corps and their masters into a virtual catatonic shock.

On the one hand, Americans applauded the end of an autocracy in early 1917, just as they had rid themselves of their British overlords in 1776. On the other hand, they were grossly affronted by the Bolsheviks taking democracy too far later that year, for instance by declaring a unilateral “no reparations, no annexations” armistice in the middle of a major war that America had just entered, never mind the reign of terror.

The American ambassador’s job in 1917 was not easy. Petrograd (St Petersburg/Leningrad), Moscow and other major Russian cities were awash in 1917 with American special interest groups, including the Red Cross and the YMCA. They perhaps had little to do other than to get in each other’s way, meddle in official matters and pretend they had special links to the President or some other senior American bureaucrat. For instance, the American Red Cross Commission, initially under Frank G. Billings, William Boyce Thompson and Raymond Robins, arrived with a host of doctors and nurses holding US Army commissions (“40 officers but no privates”), yet the Russians had surplus medical personnel. They were tolerated because they brought scarce medical supplies with them.

Daily contact

Robins maintained almost daily contact with Trotsky, initially without his ambassador’s knowledge, during critical periods when embassy channels were deliberately closed awaiting “head office” decisions. Similarly, the Stevens Railway Mission “was accepted only for the sake of the railway supplies which, it was hoped, would come with it.” Finally, the “most pretentious of all”, the special goodwill Root Mission “… had little effect other than to burden with a series of onerous social engagements the harried ministers of the Provisional Government, already involved in a life-and-death battle against the forces of disintegration” (p.21).

Governor David R FrancisAgainst this background, the American embassy, under a recently-appointed elderly ex-Middle West businessman, Governor David R. Francis (left), operated very much in the shadow of the elegant French, British and other Petrograd embassies with their grand retinues and intimate contacts at all the higher levels of Russian society. The cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking, poker-playing American ambassador contrasted strongly with the polished multi-lingual professional diplomats of his major allies. He also ran foul of intra-embassy intrigues and at a busy time even had to fight a recall conspiracy initiated by self-styled “Presidential representative” Edgar Sisson, a fast-talking dilettante facilitator attached to the Root Mission.

The architect of much of this turmoil was Petrograd-based Bolshevik Foreign Minister Leon Trotsky, who pushed forward an armistice with Germany and neutralised international efforts to influence outcomes adverse to his cause. Under the guise of “open diplomacy”, he selectively published top-secret treaties, contradictory confidential statements made by foreign nations and even blatant forgeries.

Craftily seeming to accede to a strongly expressed American wish to hold German troops on the Russian Front, instead of releasing them to fight Americans in France, Trotsky inserted a clause into the armistice agreement that halted German troop transfers “which had not already been ordered or begun” at the time of signing the treaty. Germany ensured all troop transfer orders were written well before any pen hit the Armistice paper. Picking his targets carefully, Trotsky displayed a fine sense of diplomatic manipulation by marginalising the opposition and ultimately defeating the Allies’ diplomats in detail on all major points, including eventual official recognition for his government.

International intrigues Britain, France, America and Germany all jostled for influence with the numerous anti-Bolshevik factions, particularly in Murmansk, the Caucasus and Romania, but “Washington’s decisions (were) based on information which was almost invariably ill-founded and out-of-date; in these circumstances, the United States Government contrived to restrict itself to limited and discreet commitments,” Kennan grudgingly admits (p.190).

Murder, thuggery, forgery and intimidation characterised the Bolsheviks’ grab for power, especially around the time of the Petrograd Constituent Assembly in February 1918. They used armed sailors, ostensibly as protective sentries, to intimidate delegates. Only Germany had the courage and power to confront them, as they did after the failure of the first Brest-Litovsk armistice talks, about the same time. Trotsky’s bullying “no war, no peace” gambit got the reward it deserved, as Germany simply snapped up more Russian territory, thank you.

Leadership theories

Sociological “society-makes-the-leader” sophistry theories find little support here. Without overtly addressing the issue, time and again Kennan shows how strong and ruthless individuals shaped history and influenced social structures for generations. The comparatively weak or vacillating found themselves dead or steamrollered. Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro would agree. This is yet another example of how political power really grows out of the barrel of a gun and the ruthlessness of the gun-holder.

The Great War

The Great War


Book review by Kevin Rickard

Carlyon, L. The Great War. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty. Ltd.: Sydney, 2006. 863 pp., $39.95 (ABC Shop).

This is a meticulously researched, elegantly told account of the battles, actions and ‘God forsaken fights’ in which the five Divisions of the AIF were involved in Belgium and France in World War I.

Les Carlyon had previously written Gallipoli. This book, The Great War, perhaps surpasses even Gallipoli in the expanse and magnitude of the battles detailed and analysed. It is in three parts, covering the activities of the AIF in the years 1916-1918. A number of poignant photographs add to the impact of this work.

To those of us who had family members in the first AIF in Belgium and France between 1916 and 1918, the book is a must read. Actions of relatives, Divisions, Brigades or Battalions can often be recognised in this saga with much sadness and grief but also with enormous pride.

The book details the tragic loss of life and casualties suffered by the AIF during the Somme offensive. We read especially of the Australian participation in such battles as those at Fromelles, Pozieres, Mouquete Farm, Bullecourt, Ypres, Menin Road, Villers Bretonneaux, Amiens, Mont St. Quentin and Passchendaele. We also read the portrayal and, what might now be considered, the ineptitude of many of the British commanders and generals that led to the tragic death of Australians, New Zealanders, British as well as Canadian and South African soldiers. The deaths and casualty figures speak for themselves. Some 61,700 Australians did not come home – two thirds of them lie along a line that stretches from Villers Bretonneaux to Passchendaele. The wounded ran to 150,000.

Victoria Crosses

Details are given of the remarkable heroism under fire of many Australian Victoria Cross winners, some of whom also won the Military Cross or the Military Medal. We become familiar with the Australian origins of these extraordinary warriors, their roots in Australia and their family circumstances. Such men as Albert Jacka, Fred Tubb, Harry Murray, Donovan Joynt and Joe Maxwell are but a few.

Through the book we read of the activities of generals with the AIF like Birdwood, Rosenthal and Gellibrand and how the Australian troops appeared to be responsive to LGEN Sir William Birdwood. There are stories about the legendary Pompey Elliott – the brigadier often seen in the front lines with his men but who unfortunately and to his everlasting disappointment, was not given a Division. Towards the end of the book we are told of the great skill and intellectual ability of Monash and the steadfastness of his newly formed Australian Corps and its commanders.

Douglas Haig

There is a continuous analysis throughout the book of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig who, although well qualified, was perceived as aloof and heartless. There are also references to the doubtful capacity of General Sir Hubert Gough, who was eventually replaced as the Field Commander. There is much fascination in the interaction between the politicians (the suits), like Asquith and Lloyd George and the senior generals — Field Marshall Haig and Field Marshall Lord Kitchener. Both of the latter are represented as remote from the Front Line.

In the midst of all of the above, there is an account of the Australian debate on Conscription, thought necessary by the Australian Government of the day to replace the rapidly diminishing Australian Divisions at the behest of the British Government. The Home front adversaries were Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the fearless advocate for the ‘No’ case in the referendum, Dr Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne at that time. The ‘No’ case won, the possibility of conscription was defeated. There is a detailed analysis of the results, which illustrate the surprising spread of the referendum votes.

In the end, the extraordinary Australian Corps under the leadership of General Sir John Monash fought the main adversary, the Germans, in the later battles of 1918. The Australian Corps broke through the Hindenburgh Line, which led to the eventual defeat of Germany.

The achievements of the Australians in World War I were truly extraordinary. It is impossible not to feel immensely proud of our men of the First AIF and of our heritage. We can also be most grateful to Les Carlyon for putting this amazing story before us in such a readable, personable and fascinating fashion.


Tlingit book cover

The Tlingits, of the north west coast

book review by Fred Lane

Hancock, D. Tlingit: Their art and culture. Hancock House Publishers: Surrey. 2003. Paperback, 94 pp. US$11.95.

Nearly all those who completed Sociology 101 in the past 50 years will be familiar with the ground-breaking work of Franz Boas (Boaz) investigating the complex anthropology of the Kwakiutl and other indigenous people of the north-west USA and Canada.

For the first time, Boas conducted a thorough investigation into baffling ceremonies such as potlatch where, contrary to the worldwide “wealth is good” and “market forces” economic theories, whole tribes gave away or even destroyed their assets. The economists eventually concluded, rather weakly, that the chiefs traded wealth for enhanced social standing, or “face”.

Boas reported that as well as overtly destroying or giving away property, potlatch ceremonies were important trans-tribal and even trans-national opportunities for the recitation of family histories, recognition of genealogies, offerings to ancestors, ceremonial dances and the transfer or confirmation of titles and possessions. What has become of these bold seafaring traders today? Do they still observe potlatch? Are they still a matrilineal and highly stratified society?

Potlatch vs tax assessors

Government officials of the USA and Canada, naturally, could see little benefit from potlatch. The tax accountants, especially, could not understand how people could save for years, only to give everything away, or even destroy valuable property. Indian Agents, missionaries and other zealots actively discouraged potlatch between about 1884 and 1950. This was correlated with the wholesale decimation of North-west Coast Indian populations by measles, smallpox and other epidemics.

The big questions are not easily answered. There have been dozens of books on the culture published over the past 20 years or so. (Google: Tlinglit – books.) One of the better ones is David Hancock’s very popular paperback.

Confirmed by this reviewer’s recent visit to the area, nowadays the indigenous people are virtually indistinguishable from their white counterparts. Of about 15,000 Alaskan natives today, Hancock says, more than half are Tlingits (p. 4). However, “Most of the people have some Russian, English, Irish, Norwegian or other blood in their veins,” (p. 8).

The Indians no longer practice potlatch and their shamans are gone, as well as their slaves. Small cultural centres remain, where the old skills and some of the traditions are taught, but they are oriented towards the tourist trade, in the form of museums and other displays. The dying pillow has been thoroughly smoothed, as some might say; or perhaps not.


Kan, S. Memory eternal: Tlingit culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through two centuries. University of Washington Press: Seattle. 1999.

The 13th night

13th night book cover

 F-III crash aftermath

McNess, J. The thirteenth night: A mother’s story of the life and death of her son.  Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle, 2003. 319 pp. $24.95 paperback.

This is a poignant story written by a mother who raised a difficult but beautiful child, proud to see him join the RAAF Academy, qualify as a pilot, pass out top in nearly all his courses, achieve his life-long ambition of flying an F-111, but crash at night under moderately difficult conditions. The author claims that a possibly inefficient accident investigation and clean up process preceded years of institutionalised political and legal duckshoving due to “lack of backbone” in senior RAAF officers.

Flight Lieutenant Jeremy McNess and his navigator Flight Lieutenant Mark Cairns-Cowan crashed in their F-111 while performing a moderately difficult Terrain Following Radar (TFR) simulated toss-bomb attack on the meatworks at Guyra, NSW, about 7:16 pm, Monday 13 September, 1993. The RAAF claim the cause was primarily a loss of situational awareness (read pilot error), but acknowledge the remote possibility of a number of other factors.

The first two-thirds of the book is devoted to McNess’s birth and development into a fine young RAAF officer. As a baby and child, he displayed a number of the florid signs of mild autism, a very serious and usually chronic disorder that afflicts chiefly males born to high-achieving parents, such as his mother and father. The interventions employed by the family were straight out of modern cognitive-behavioural textbooks, whether they knew it or not, and they seem to have succeeded, though no mention is made of any formal autism or similar diagnosis. This said, even though the behaviour features so prominently in the early stages of the book, it is abundantly clear that the mental and social retardation that frequently goes with autistic behaviour never affected McNess in his adult life and the disorder almost certainly played no part whatsoever in the accident.

The remaining third describes a post-accident process that left the mother and some parts of the family feeling alone and suffering badly. Of course no mother is quick to accept that such a brilliant son could commit “pilot error”. On the other hand, there appear to be a series of less than optimum performances by the RAAF, not the least of which were the body parts found at the crash site by McNess’s widow during each of two visits there weeks after the crash. Oddly, there was no Board of Inquiry or Coroner Inquest.

 “Knot of anger”

It must be acknowledged that mothers and fathers, however committed, must remain secondary to spouses when processing next-of-kin issues, but there has to be a better approach than a perceived wall of aggressive silence to everyone but the widow. Simply talking over the accident, time and time again, for instance with a RAAF chaplain, would certainly have assisted the mother’s grieving process. Predictably, talking it through over a couple of days with Air Marshal Les Fisher, Chief of Air Force, nearly four years later, allowed “the knot of anger” to “begin to soften”, as the mother claimed.

The author discusses important crewing and night flying continuity issues, but these are probably irrelevant. Strangely, neither she nor the RAAF, in the letters she quotes, make any mention of the usually mandatory simulator training that might have some bearing. An entirely different perspective might be considered had their been no simulator training whatsoever by either of this crew in recent months.

Some eyewitnesses claim that the aircraft was on fire or dumping fluid before it hit, but this also seems never to have been explored systematically by the RAAF, according to the author. However, in one aspect, catastrophic fire in the air or airframe failure after, say, a birdstrike, could have been irrelevant. Had there been an emergency like that, short of a birdstrike that rendered the aircrew senseless, competent aircrew such as McNess and Cairns-Cowan almost certainly would have ejected their cockpit capsule. It is also almost certain that these issues would have been explained to the author by such an experienced and compassionate a pilot as Les Fisher.

Pelican birdstrikePelican birdstrike

A simple birdstrike can do a lot of damage to an aircraft travelling at attack speeds.This RAAF F111 collided head on with a pelican, 11 April 2008, during a practice bomb run. The impact virtually destroyed the nose cone and severely damaged one engine to the extent that it could deliver only partial power. Had the bird struck a millisecond later, it might well have penetrated the cockpit.