Bobbie Oliver on Australia’s Secret War by Hal Colebatch

Book Review: Hal Colebatch, Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II (Quadrant Books, Sydney, 2013), 340pp, $44.95 hard back.

By Bobbie Oliver

I have always regarded with some scepticism books whose titles include words such as ‘Secret’ or ‘Untold’, because they bear the connotation that someone has deliberately obscured the truth, sometimes for generations, and that only now has an erstwhile investigator managed to uncover it. This is certainly Hal Colebatch’s premise; he asserts that trade unions deliberately sabotaged the war effort, and that this fact has been erased from the record by ‘pro-Labor historians and writers’ (5). What is less clear is the evidence. In the Introduction, Colebatch makes a series of assertions including: that a shipload of returned POWs could not be disembarked immediately after their arrival at Sydney because of a 36-hour strike by waterside workers (‘wharfies’); that wharfies at Townsville stole the valves from radar sets bound for New Britain and because of this 16 aircraft were lost in a storm, killing 32 airmen; that wharfies in Adelaide ‘deliberately wrecked’ American aircraft engines, and that strikes ‘were a major factor in the premature death of Prime Minister John Curtin’.

Left: Trade Unionists marching in John Curtin's funeral procession. Curtin University Library. Right: The PM lying in State. 110359 Australian War Memorial.
Trade Unionists marching in John Curtin’s funeral procession. Curtin University Library.

So let’s examine how ‘secret’ were strikes in Australia during the war, or whether post-war histories ‘deliberately’ failed to record them; what evidence Colebatch provides for his assertions, and whether he proves that unionists sabotaged ‘our’ troops in World War II. It is also appropriate to consider whether Colebatch’s overt enmity against unionists (especially coal miners and wharfies) has roots in his family history, instigating allegations of bias not dissimilar to those he levels against historians of a different political persuasion than himself. Colebatch omits to mention that his father (also Hal Colebatch) resigned from the Premiership because he mishandled the Fremantle wharf crisis in May 1919 in which one man died, others (both wharfies and police) were injured and Colebatch himself was showered with missiles. Given Colebatch’s obvious hero worship of his father (182-8), it is impossible to imagine that he was not profoundly influenced by stories of the perfidy of villainous wharfies.

In State
Curtin’s memorial service. King’s Hall, Parliament House. 110539 Australian War Memorial.

Were industrial strikes concealed from the public during the war? A survey of Trove uncovered some reference to wartime strikes. In May 1943 Sydney wharfies went on strike because they were required to work with 6-man rather than 8-man crews in the hold. Sydney wharfies disobeyed their executive and went on strike in 1944 because they objected to working on Anzac Day. Fremantle wharfies struck for 3 weeks in May 1945 – by which time the war was almost over. The remaining wharfies’ strikes post dated the war and were in protest against Dutch ships loading weapons to assist the colonial rule re-establish itself in Indonesia. Inevitably, these strikes disrupted shipping and may well have delayed the repatriation of soldiers from the islands – but that was not their aim. If, as Colebatch claims, ‘these episodes were not apparently considered shameful by all watersiders and other strikers but on the contrary have been recounted by some as matters of pride’, one would expect to find evidence of this in histories such as Margo Beasley’s Wharfies. There was, indeed, industrial trouble in Sydney, which brought forth the censure of Secretary Jim Healy who warned the wharfies that they could lose preference and their exemption from war service if disputes continued (122).

In Chapter 3, Colebatch cites Paul Hasluck on ‘industrial troubles’ at Darwin and claims that this contributed to the 243 deaths in the Japanese bombing. Whatever ‘troubles’ occurred, they do not feature in Hasluck’s index, with only six separate references to ‘industrial disputes’, almost all of which were in the NSW coalfields. Hasluck, whose approach was far more objective than Colebatch’s, showed that industrial disputes (which peaked at an average of 64,535 days lost per week under the Fadden administration) had been drastically reduced under the Curtin government (averaging 10,610 days lost per week in 1942/43). Hasluck stated (vol. 2, 252): ‘This improvement was achieved by regulations far more stringent than would have been thought possible in the early years of the war’. But it also succeeded because the government placed responsibility for disputes on both management and workers and fined owners and managers who closed mines because of disputes.

Both Hasluck’s research and the newspapers of the time indicate that the epicentre of industrial unrest was NSW, and that most stoppages occurred in the coal fields and on the Sydney wharves. Andrew Reeves has shown, for example, that no strikes occurred in Wonthaggi during the period. So why was NSW so turbulent compared with the rest of Australia? Rather than asking this question, Colebatch tars all union labour with the same brush and continues to make unsubstantiated statements including that delays at Darwin may have contributed to surrender of the British forces at Singapore! (83). Curiously, if there were as many strikes during wartime as Colebatch suggests, and which he accuses ‘pro-Labor historians’ as editing out of history (in a tirade covering chapters 17 and 18), one wonders why Hasluck (certainly no pro-Labor historian) did not go into more detail about them.

Almost all of the material provided by Colebatch is anecdotal, and furthermore it is untraceable. More than 60 pages (out of a book of 350pp) comprise extensive quotes from sources with such obscure references as ‘Letter, 20 June 1996’ and ‘Interviews, July 2001’. The book contains no bibliography; no list of interviews, showing place, date, name of interviewee and interviewer as is standard historical practice (even when pseudonyms are used), nor any indication of where or whether any of the documents cited as ‘letters’ have been retained. So, on the one hand, we have an account by a wharfie (undoubtedly biased in favour of the union) published in a traceable journal; on the other, letters and interviews with returned servicemen who may well have believed the truth of all that they told Dr Colebatch – but on what did they base this belief? What evidence did Harlan have, for example, for claiming Townsville wharfies had stolen the accumulators from wireless sets (62)? The post-World War II newspapers published many complaining letters, including one citing a ‘Goulburn lad’ who claimed that soldiers in Weewak were on ‘half rations’ because Sydney wharfies were striking for a 40 hour week. Mr Forde, the Minister for the Army, denied that this was the case (Argus 17/10/45). Whom does one believe? If I were undertaking this research, I would access the Cabinet papers (as Hasluck did). They are readily available and would present a more accurate picture of what was actually happening. As far as I can ascertain, given the absence of a Bibliography, no Cabinet or other government departmental correspondence files have been cited anywhere in this book.

Colebatch’s claim that the AEU deliberately fomented a strike at the Midland Government Railway Workshops in 1942 (based on the account of an engineer named McEntee) is a complete fabrication. The vast body of interviews and material yielded by the Midland Workshops History Project (of which I was Chief Investigator) indicated major strikes occurred in the Workshops only in 1921, 1952 and 1978 – not during either of the World Wars. McEntee’s account of refusing to ‘go slow’ and provoking a strike is straight out of the movie I’m Alright, Jack.

With regard to one of the book’s more offensive assertions that striking unionists were responsible for John Curtin’s death, the chapter ‘Killing John Curtin’ either recycles well-known information such as Curtin’s battles with Eddie Ward, or depends upon hearsay. What were the pressures on Curtin? Firstly, he inherited a party that had suffered three splits in two decades – including when Joe Lyons ‘ratted’ on the ALP (a fact Colebatch deigns to mention) and became leader of the United Australia Party. The ALP’s NSW Branch did give Curtin much grief, but he succeeded in healing the breach with the Langites. He did not believe Australia should be involved in European wars – not because he was an ‘appeaser’ as suggested by Colebatch but because he had lived through the appalling waste and devastation of World War I and witnessed its effect on the working classes. His introduction of welfare measures in 1942 is evidence of his determination to avoid a similar situation post war. When Australia was threatened, he did something that Menzies would probably not have done. He demanded the return of Australia’s troops to defend Australia. Nor did Curtin profit from selling pig iron to the Japanese immediately prior to the war – another fact neglected by Colebatch when he defends Menzies’ ‘record’ of opposing Nazi Germany and Japan. Colebatch’s claim that if Menzies had not introduced conscription in 1939, Australia would have been undefended when Japanese forces landed in New Guinea begs the question: ‘Why were our trained troops sent to North Africa and sacrificed in Churchill’s pointless Greek campaign so that we had to depend on young, largely untrained militiamen?’

Curtin suffered from bouts of depression, combined with self-doubt. Much has been made of his inability to sleep while the 6th and 7th divisions were on the sea. He felt personal grief when he learned of the deaths of sailors in kamikaze attacks (Day, 554). But the most likely cause of death was a heart attack, combined with pneumonia or pleurisy and/or a condition related to his extremely heavy smoking habit. Others – including Chifley – suggested the ‘vicious, inaccurate attacks of the metropolitan press’ killed him (Crisp, 221-2), or that his anxiety over the return of the AIF contributed; the latter claim Colebatch dismisses on the grounds that he objects to Day’s opinion of Britain and its attitude to Australia during the war and cannot therefore agree with Day about anything (221).

Darwin Harbour mural “pays tribute to all the waterside workers and seafarers who lost their lives at stokes hill wharf” on the first bombing of Darwin, 19 February 1942 (Source: Inside History).
Darwin Harbour mural “pays tribute to all the waterside workers and seafarers who lost their lives at stokes hill wharf” on the first bombing of Darwin, 19 February 1942 (Source: Inside History).

While there were undoubtedly elements in society who used the war situation to their benefit, these were not all members of the Communist Party or left wing unions. It is worth remembering, after all, that ship owners were stopped only by the actions of the Curtin government from raking in vast profits of a scale that World War I yielded. In reality (as Lenore Layman showed in her study of manpowered workers) most railway workers, wharfies, seamen, miners and munitions workers knuckled down and did as much for the war effort as service personnel. They endured long hours, poor pay and poor conditions. And some died, including at least 20 wharf labourers in the first bombing of Darwin (AWM records). Additionally, they had to put up with the stigma of being accused of ‘slacking’ and ‘cowardice’ and (unlike soldiers, sailors and airmen) got no recognition or benefits resulting from their service when peace came. To accuse such men of sabotage is manifestly unjust as well as stretching the truth.

Macintyre (History Wars, 11) states that ‘Historians reach judgements by consideration of the issues, examination of the evidence, weighing of the arguments …. [T]he inquiry has to be conducted by the procedures of historical scholarship: the relevant literature has to be discussed, the relevant evidence assembled, assessed and set in context, its interpretation justified. These are the procedures that guide the historian. They make it possible for other historians to test the validity of the conclusions, to distinguish history that has warrant from accounts of the past that lack it.’ Such an approach is entirely absent in Australia’s Secret War; it bears no hallmarks of a scholarly, well-argued historical investigation and for this, in my opinion, there is only one suitable place for it – the rubbish bin.



Citation: Bobbie Oliver, “Review of Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II”, Recorder, no. 284, November 2015, 4-6.

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