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Australia’s Secret War

24 July 2014 No Comment

Review of AUSTRALIA’S SECRET WAR: HOW UNIONS SABOTAGED OUR TROOPS IN WORLD WAR II BY HAL COLEBATCH
QUADRANT BOOKS
H/B, 2013, RRP $44.95 ISBN 9780980677874

It is useful to be reminded that, as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, signed on 21 August 1939, Hitler and Stalin were allies. This meant that, at that time, Australian Communists loyal to Moscow were obliged to support the German war machine.

As Hal G P Colebatch points out, in his provocative new book ‘Australia’s Secret War’, this arrangement lasted until Hitler invaded Russia on 22 June 1941. From then on, all members of the Communist Party of Australia and all militant communists in the trade union movement were supposed to actively support the Allied cause. But this, he argued, did not apply to all communist trade unionists, especially members of the Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers’ Union.

In this well-produced and copiously referenced book, Colebatch is at least half right. Until the Soviet Union entered the war in June 1941 communists were totally opposed to the war, and the waterside workers in particular were resentful about the tough way they had been treated by their bosses during the 1930s Depression.

After June 1941, some leading Western Australian communist union leaders like Paddy Troy in Fremantle, were heart and soul behind the Allied war effort, and did what they could to stop loafing and sabotage at the docks. But other communist unionists, in Townsville for example, remained utterly bloody-minded and seem to have been as bad as they are portrayed in ‘Australia’s Secret War’.

However, to me it is doubtful that these militant workers were obeying orders from Moscow. Essentially, it was the sheer inability of wharf labourers and other communist unionists to rise above their own grievances and their ingrained sense that the capitalist world was against them. Hence, many communist controlled unions often did not co-operate with the war effort. As Colebatch explains, this ranged from employing deliberate go-slow tactics (what communists and anarcho-syndicalists called “letting the old man in) to constant refusals to work at all until their demands for substantial “danger money, itself several times more than the soldiers’ five shillings a day, were met.

All in all, it was not a pretty story.

As Colebatch documents in detail, even after June 1941 it was not always the case that Australian communists wholeheartedly supported the Allied war effort. To put it mildly, throughout the whole of World War 11, there was little love lost between wharfies and Australian and American soldiers, sailors, and aircraftmen. At a number of ports around Australia, waterside workers in particular went on strike and/or sabotaged military operations , even during the most desperate periods of the war.

Colebatch also makes it clear that John Curtin’s militant Minister for Labour and National Service, the East Sydney-based firebrand Eddie Ward, did virtually nothing to curb the excesses of communists in industries on which our war effort relied. This especially applied to strikes on the waterfront as well as in our coalmines.

Subtitled “How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War 11, ‘Australia’s Secret War’ draws on a broad range of sources. These include official and unofficial documents about the war from archival materials, to scores of letters and first-person interviews between the author and Australian and American ex-servicemen.

Colebatch’s fundamental thesis is that what he calls “the secret war was a conflict that may have cost the lives of many Australian and allied servicemen and women. Indeed, in a key chapter, entitled “Killing John Curtin, he argues that striking trade unionists and militants in the NSW branch of the Labor Party, such as Ward and future federal leader Dr H. Evatt, may have eventually cost the life of the 60 year old John Curtin , our teetotal, wartime Labor prime minister who died, ill and exhausted, on 5 July 1945.

However, what certainly seems indisputable is that, as an alcoholic who had stopped drinking entirely, Prime Minister Curtin was prone to attacks of nervous anxiety , which may have exacerbated his stress.

For the record, the Hal G P Colebatch who wrote this often disturbing book is not the same person as the distinguished West Australian political scientist Dr Hal Kempley Colebatch.

‘Annals Australasia” 23 July 2014. This review appeared first in ‘The Sydney Institute Quarterly’, February 2014.

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