The Battle of Brisbane: Australia and the Yanks at War

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Nov 14, 2012 No Comments ›› admin

Robert Macklin’s Speech at the Maritime Museum for the Sydney event of the book One False Move

Thank you very much Alexander for those very generous words. I do appreciate them. Thank you also Vicki and your very remarkable team, Diane Osmond and her crew, including my old friend Bill Richards who returned briefly from retirement to help organise the event today. And thank you to the Museum Members for permitting us to join you in today’s celebration.

My subject is Bravery in War, Peace and Politics.

I first encountered bravery as a teenager during a shark alarm.

When the bell rang at Mooloolaba beach onQueensland’sSunshineCoast, scores of us skipped on water to get out of the surf. But one man was left behind, out beyond the third or fourth breaker. His wife, a woman in her 50s, ran from the beach into the shallows crying out to him. Then she turned back. ‘He’s deaf,’ she shouted. ‘He didn’t hear.’

The shark’s fin rose to the surface. It was between her and her husband. She didn’t care. She ran into the sea towards him.

For a few seconds we were transfixed, then my friend John Cohen said, ‘C’mon Rob’ and started running into the surf. I followed; I caught him up. We reached the woman. The water was up to our thighs. The fin had disappeared. The deaf man still bounced around in distant, blissful ignorance. His wife was now hysterical.

Johnny said, ‘You take her back,’ and started toward the deaf man. It was a moment of decision. I could have said, ‘No, I’ll go for him.’ I almost did. The words actually formed in the brain and rose in my throat. Had I uttered them I might well have prevailed. I was the better swimmer; Johnny was better with women; already he had the bedside manner that would later make him an eminent Queensland surgeon.

But I didn’t. I said, ‘Okay,’ and he headed off, while I gently wrestled her back into the shallows and to her family on the beach.

By then the deaf man had noticed his aloneness, figured the reason and met Johnny halfway. The fin never reappeared.

Strangers on the beach told us how brave we were and we responded with due modesty. But later, remembering that moment of decision, I became deeply troubled. It set me thinking about bravery in all its many forms. I returned to it time and again, especially at night. And I strongly suspect it underlay my decision many years later to explore the life and times of the man who many believe was Australia’s bravest front line soldier, Albert Jacka.

‘Bert’ Jacka was the first Australian to win the Victoria Cross in the hell that was Anzac. When the Turks mounted their massive counter-attack on the night of the 19th of May, 1915, Jacka was entrenched at Courtney’s post. Behind and beneath him on the precipitous slope was the field Headquarters of his commander, Colonel John Monash.

With their brass bands blaring, shells screaming and machine guns spitting fire, the Turks attacked in wave after wave all along the line. The Anzacs were well dug in and the Turkish bodies piled up ahead of the trenches. But at Courtney’s Post there was a break-through. A dozen Turks reached the Australian line and occupied the forward trench. If they forced an opening, their reinforcements would pour down on Monash and split the Anzac defences. The Australians would be routed. Hardly a man would be left alive.

Lance Corporal Jacka fought back. He pinned them in the trench with rifle fire and called for reinforcements. When they arrived he struggled down his line then pressed forward up a communications trench, climbed out and cut across to the Turkish intruders. He leapt in amongst them, shot five with his rifle, bayoneted two others and three ran for their lives.

He held the line. The counter-attack stalled. The danger passed.  But that was just the beginning of Jacka’s war. On the Western Front as he rose from the ranks he became a legendary figure. The official war historian, Charles Bean later wrote, ‘Everyone who knows the facts, knows that Jacka earned the Victoria Cross three times.’

However, the British military commanders denied him those additional honours because by then Captain Jacka had revealed a different brand of courage. He did the unthinkable. He challenged their authority by demanding that those above show the same level of competence that he required of the men beneath him. And when they were not up to the task he told them so in plain Aussie digger terms.

They never forgave him. Even today there is a strain in the military establishment that denigrates and defames him despite his extraordinary efforts after the war when he became Lord Mayor of St Kilda. In that role during the Great Depression he literally worked himself to death on behalf of his mates and their families. That was bravery of a different order.

When writing my next book, Bravest, in which I explored the deeds of many of our Victoria Cross winners, I realised the dilemma that a man like Jacka personifies. For while the military glorifies individuals with the supreme accolade of the VC, they fear the fierce individualism that so often makes the brave deed possible.

‘Bravery’ has its place, but only when directed against the enemy, never the powers that be, never the chain of command…no matter how foolish or incompetent they might be. And it works. In the madness of war, discipline carries the day.

The feats of men like Jacka and most recently the three VC winners in Afghanistanare no less admirable because they occurred in the wild, adrenalin-charged excitement of the battlefield. They are genuine heroes. But when that restricted military concept of bravery within the team spills over into civilian life, it becomes problematic. The pressure to conform to ‘superiors’ up the chain of command is ingrained in many vital elements of society. And without the brave dissenting voice, harmful and even tragic consequences are inevitable, whether in politics, science, public service or private enterprise. It takes true courage to buck the system when so often the spoils go to the yes men and those prepared to accept unquestioningly the received wisdom of their elders.

Corruption in police forces, for example, is endemic around the world and power from above combines with bogus ‘team spirit’ to silence the whistle blower. The pressure to join in corrupt practices – or even just to turn a blind eye – is invariably physical as well as psychological. The men and women who make a stand face years of persecution and personal attack. That order of bravery is as admirable as a feat of valour on the battlefield yet it is rarely acknowledged and never adequately rewarded.

In other endeavours the pressure to conform is more subtle but just as debilitating. In science, progress has been retarded time and again because the leaders in a field have resisted innovation and dissent because to do otherwise would be to call their own proud achievements into question. And since they are influential in determining who gets the grants and the promotions it takes moral courage of a high order to confront the received wisdom.

In the field of public policy, I was first exposed to its serious social costs in my mid-twenties as press secretary and the only male member on the staff of the Deputy Prime Minister and Country Party leader, John McEwen.

A powerfully imposing figure, McEwen’s protectionist policies had been an important factor in our post-war industrial development but by the mid-1960s they were strangling the economy. His officers in the Department of Trade and Industry knew in their hearts that change was desperately needed, yet they either kept silent or (more often) outdid each other in pandering to the Minister’s predilections.

I was present in the inner circle when one day a rising star from the department whom I had known from schooldays in Brisbane dared to do a Jacka and say the unsayable. As he made his case for free trade in the Minister’s office the tension rose from palpable to almost unbearable. McEwen let him speak without interruption, though the Minister’s beetling brows were pure eloquence. When the heretic finished, there was a long silence before McEwen thanked him and I ushered him out. We never saw him again. It took a change of government – five wasted years – before the policy was overturned.

His name, incidentally, was Maxmore Wilton. And during the Howard years, as Alexander will recall, he spread his own brand of fear among his public service underlings; I rather doubt that he would have listened as politely as did Sir John McEwen to the heretics who dared to cross his path. It was for good reason that they nicknamed him Max the Axe.

Since my time with Sir John, during which he was Prime Minister following Harold Holt’s fateful swim at Cheviot Beach, I have retained a close interest in Federal politics and bravery in that field is as beautiful as it is rare. We are all familiar, I’m sure, with the look of awful fright that comes over Jim Hacker’s face in the Yes Minister series when Sir Humphrey responds to some ministerial initiative with those fateful words: “That would be very courageous, Minister.’

The truth is, that by its nature, politics does not lend itself to acts of conspicuous individual bravery. It is a team sport with millions of spectators in the stands fairly evenly divided between the teams. The one essential is that the players on both sides keep firing the ball at the other team’s goal. And the spectators are clever judges of quality, particularly so since television has provided them with close-ups of the players.

In 2008 I wrote the definitive biography – to that time – of the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. So I was totally engrossed two years later when the spectators saw him drop the ball, turn tail and run when he abandoned action against what he had called ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’. Their reaction was instantaneous. Almost from that moment, his Prime Ministership was doomed.

But acts of individual bravery are not unknown. One that comes readily to mind is John McEwen’s determination in 1955 to negotiate the Australia-Japan Trade Agreement, only 10 years after the Japanese had bombed our northern coastline and committed appalling atrocities against our Prisoners of War. He faced sustained and powerful opposition in the Government Party Room – and every member of the Opposition Labor Party voted against it – but he persisted because he knew that theBritish Empirewas at an end; the time had come to turn our attention to our own region. And in doing so he laid the foundation forAustralia’s growth and prosperity in the decades ahead.

Harold Holt showed great courage against opposition within his Cabinet in ending the White Australia policy.

Bill Hayden showed remarkable individual moral courage and self-sacrifice when he stood down in favour of Bob Hawke at a time when – as he famously said – a drover’s dog could have won the election and delivered him the highest post in the land.

And though it is unfashionable to say so, I believe that history will recognise the political courage of the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard for pursuing a sensible Emissions Trading Scheme that will have great benefits forAustralia’s future. Certainly it stands in stark contrast to her opponent’s abandonment of the policy that John Howard and Alexander Downer took to the 2007 election.

Moral courage is to be found many other professions and vocations as well as in our daily lives.

Having begun my working life as a journalist, I’m especially drawn to the extraordinary heroism of those in this oft’ reviled vocation – men and women alike – who put their lives on the line. War correspondents are obvious examples, particularly in these days of IED’s and suicide bombers. But there is a higher level of gallantry in the war against official tyranny and two examples stand out: Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist shot to death in her Moscow apartment block in 2006 after continually exposing the brutality of President Vladimir Putin, and the much lesser known Lasantha Wickra-manatunga of Sri Lanka.

Anna had been arrested by the military and subjected to a mock execution, poisoned, beaten and threatened repeatedly with torture and death; yet she continued to expose official corruption until Putin’s goons shot her in her apartment elevator. Lasantha was the editor of the influential Sunday Leader in Colombo for 15 years until he was murdered by the henchmen of the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse.

Ironically, Lasantha and his team of reporters had exposed the corruption that destroyed the standing of the previous government and brought his killers to power. But as Rajapakse outdid his predecessor in debauching the country’s governance, Lasantha took his stand. Weeks before his murder, he penned a letter to be published in The Leader after his death. ‘No other profession,’ he wrote, ‘calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us will be killed before The Sunday Leader is laid to rest. But however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.’

They are stirring words in a grand and terrible gesture – humbling to those of us who toil in more stable vineyards. And they stand in stark contrast to other members of the craft, particularly inBritain, who have debauched their own professional standards in serving the interests of their proprietors, notably our own Rupert Murdoch.

But the bravery we celebrate today encompasses both its moral and physical aspects and it coalesced in the persons of four very different characters. Stuart Mould, the Sydney architect who lived a comfortable life in Mosman, who sailed his 24-foot skiff out there on the harbour at weekends, who married into an even wealthier family and could look forward to a delightful, if somewhat uneventful, continuation of that idyllic life until he reached the seer and yellow.

Hugh Syme, the charming, handsome playboy of the famous Melbourne newspaper family who went game fishing with the celebrated American author, Zane Grey; who drove racing cars under an assumed name; and who played the field among the debutantes and socialites around the Australian seaboard.

George Gosse, the latest in a long line of a truly distinguished South Australian family, whose grandfather had been the first European to discover and name Ayres Rock, whose father had been a hero in the Great War before his tragic death and whose mother, sadly, had taken her own life. George and his sisterNanwere raised by their grandmother and a maiden Aunt, but life rested lightly on young George’s shoulders and almost from the time he could hold a spanner he became obsessed with matters mechanical.

Finally, Leon Verdi Goldsworthy, the son of a Broken Hill miner who contracted diphtheria aged five and was pronounced dead by his nurse, but who recovered and despite his small stature became immensely strong. Leon, who would graduate from the Adelaide School of Mines (of the mineral variety) but then abandon that world and find an unlikely vocation as the West Australian manager of the Neon Electric Light Company where – most remarkably- he would remain for his entire working life. Leon, who becameAustralia’s most decorated naval officer.

They would come to call themselves The Terrible Four. And though they could hardly have been more different from each other, they shared a bond like no other quartet in Australia’s military history. Separately and together they exhibited first the moral courage to travel to Britain and confront the Nazi juggernaut, but once there to volunteer for the most hazardous duty in the entire Second World War.

They were members of a very small band and during the five years of hostilities no fewer than 75 of their friends and colleagues would be killed in action, blown to pieces by a single false move when attempting to defuse one of Hitler’s monstrous secret weapons. They rarely attended funerals, for as one of their mates said, there was nothing left to bury. But they were conscious of the death toll every day they climbed into the car or on to the boat that would take them to a new and potentially final task. For they knew that the technique that defused the explosive yesterday might well detonate it today. They knew that the Nazis had placed booby traps in the mines designed specifically to kill them. There was even one occasion when the enemy bombers had dropped mines around their headquarters atPortsmouthin a concentrated attempt to eliminate them.

They carried out their work, first in Britain’s cities as the parachute mines floated down to settle in the most awkward and inconvenient places; in the great public buildings, in the suburbs, the frozen fields and the ports and wharves dotted around Britain’s coast line. Then in the months and years to follow they sought them out beneath the sea. They invented the diving suits and the techniques to render them safe in the shallows and in the deep. And they returned to their task day after day, month after month, until the last of the monsters was defanged and defused and victory was assured. That is bravery beyond compare.

Their lives and deeds obsessed my every waking moment for two years and took me across the world in pursuit of their stories. And I confess that having completed my task I no longer return in the dark watches of the night to that teenage decision with the Mooloolaba shark. Somehow, it seems, there’s nothing more to be said.

But before I leave you I must thank my publisher, Matthew Kelly at Hachette. Matthew is here today. He is the head of non-fiction publishing but he has taken a personal interest in One False Move and I have to say that throughout the process, all his moves have been in the right direction.

I thank my wife Wendy and our sons Rob and Ben who have given me wonderful support. Thanks also to the extraordinarily helpful people at Sea Power, the Australian Navy’s classified research facility tucked away inCanberrawhere they gladly opened the files for me and got me started on my quest.

I thank the families of the four heroes who have travelled many miles to be here today. They entrusted me with their memories and with the memoirs and letters the men had written during the war and the years immediately afterwards. These allowed me to bring the whole story to life and to take the reader on a journey – walking, kneeling, standing and even swimming beside them as they wrestled with the latest version of a magnetic, acoustic or photo-electric mechanism that could detonate the massive explosion. And in those truly terrifying moments when they heard the fuse start to run in the mine they were delousing, and they had only 23 seconds to find some kind of shelter…and their legs refused to cooperate.

But my most profound thanks must go to the men themselves, and not just to them but to all the men and women who fought in that most fundamental and momentous conflict in human history. For as I researched the work, more and more deeply I came to appreciate just how vital that struggle had been. If I might quote a paragraph from the book, ‘Nothing in a thousand years of civilisation had prepared the world for the rise of Adolf Hitler and his hypnotic power over the German people. Not until the battle was joined did it become clear that it was a struggle to the death; that Hitler and his vile coterie were intent on the destruction of science, of art, of freedom and of truth itself. And not until the end, when the few remaining live skeletons staggered from the Nazi death camps, did we begin to realise just how pivotal in human history the fight had been. But even now, more than 70 years later, we still don’t appreciate how close we came to defeat.’

Ladies and gentlemen, we look back now and our victory seems inevitable. But at the time it wasn’t so. Europe was crushed;Americawas equivocal;Britainwas isolated and being squeezed to death. And the secret weapon, the invisible garrotte around England’s throat, was this terrible invention, these mines that formed an explosive barrier around her lifelines of supply.

A small team of brave men fought back. And at their core was this magnificent group of Australian volunteers, small in number but large in heart. Unfortunately, they have all since died and cannot know that their story has at last been told.  But at least we can have the satisfaction of knowing that they have not gone unacknowledged.  It is my fond hope that the book we celebrate today allows us, the generation who reaped the rewards of their struggle, to say a heartfelt thank you.

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