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Three book reviews

30 November 2014 464 views No Comment

David Horner, The Spy Catchers. The Official History of ASIO, Volume 1, 1949 , 1963, Allen & Unwin: Sydney, 2014, pp 710, $59.99;

Val Noone and Rachel Naughton (eds), Daniel Mannix: His Legacy, Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission: Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, 2014, pp 178, $20;

Ann Moyal, A Woman Of Influence: Science, Men & History, University of Western Australia Press, 2014, pp 201, $34.99


In 1943 the United States Army’s Signal Intelligence Service began intercepting and then decrypting Soviet cable traffic between KGB headquarters in Moscow and KGB officers around the world.

Codenamed ‘Venona’, this top-secret operation disclosed the existence of a significant spy ring in Australia in the 1940s, some of which centred on employees of federal Labor’s Dr HV Evatt’s Department of External Affairs and its then Secretary Dr John Burton. At the very least, all this compelling evidence of Soviet espionage was damaging Australia’s national security and our relationship with our allies, especially Great Britain and America.

Although the existence and importance of the Venona program was only confirmed by the release of the intercepts by the US National Security Agency in 1996, for years it had been used covertly to prove that there were Australian citizens who were spying for the Soviet Union and who had been passing on top secret information via the head of the Australian spy ring, Australian Communist Party official, Walter Seddon Clayton , codenamed ‘Klod’.

Indeed, as David Horner demonstrates, it was the Venona intercepts that led to the formation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in March 1949.

This finely researched and often understated first volume of its official history explains in detail why and how ASIO was formed. It also describes and illuminates what was arguably ASIO’s greatest triumph , the defection of the Soviet diplomat and KGB agent Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia in April 1954. In the process, it confirms that much of the information provided by the Petrovs was corroborated by the Venona decrypts. Not surprisingly, in April 1954 the Soviets closed their embassy in Canberra.

After detailing the reopening of the Soviet Embassy in June 1959, David Horner’s massive 710 page book ends with the expulsion in February 1963 of the Embassy’s First Secretary, the highly placed intelligence operative Ivan Skripov.

Throughout this fascinating history of ASIO, which is to be the first of a three volume work, Horner also details many other activities of our nations spy catchers that have up to now never been revealed.

Throughout the period covered by this volume, and well beyond, Wally Clayton steadfastly denied that he was ever involved in espionage or that he had any connection with the Soviet Embassy.

However as Horner points out, although it only came to light in 2010, in 1993 Clayton confessed to Laurie Aarons, the long-serving National Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), that he had indeed passed highly classified information to the Soviet Embassy. Moreover two years before David Horner and Desmond Ball’s coauthored ‘Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network’ was published in 1998, Professor Ball had confronted the ninety year old Clayton, with copies of the Venona transcripts. At that time Clayton readily admitted that he was Klod, quipping with a smile: “It was an awful name they gave me, wasn’t it?

Clayton’s admission was confirmed to me by his wife Peace Joy Clayton (nee Gowland) when I interviewed her in Newcastle four days after Walter Clayton died aged 91 on October 22, 1997.

In an interview published on November 15, 1997 in Brisbane’s ‘Courier-Mail’ (then edited by Chris Mitchell, now editor-in-chief of ‘The Australian’), Mrs Clayton confided to me that, to escape intense ASIO scrutiny, she and her husband had planned to defect to the Soviet Union some time after the 1954,55 Royal Commission on Espionage – which is analysed in considerable detail in volume one of ‘The Spy Catchers.’ In fact, the Clayton’s plan to live permanently in the Soviet Union was only thwarted when, in April 1957, the Liberal/Country Party government of Robert Gordon Menzies withdrew their passports.

The reality is that Clayton remained in hiding until he made a surprise appearance at the Petrov royal commission’s hearings. Although Horner doesn’t mention it, ASIO and state and federal police had unsuccessfully scoured the country for ‘Klod’, even though, from time to time, he and Peace had nevertheless managed to get together in the bush on the NSW south coast.

It seems clear from what has so far appeared in ‘The Spy Catchers’ that ASIO’s long-term head, Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, distrusted both Dr Evatt and especially Dr Burton whom he regarded as being a ‘Fellow Traveller’ (i.e. a communist sympathizer), if not an actual member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

While the jury may still be out on the status of Dr Burton (as it is on whether or not MI5’s Roger Hollis was a Soviet double agent), it is manifestly obvious that Dr Evatt was far too erratic and unstable to be a spy.

Likewise it still remains unclear if the son of well-known communist novelist Katharine Susannah Prichard (codename ‘Academician’), Ric Throssell (an External Affairs officer codename ‘Ferro’) actually supplied any information to the Russians. The same ambiguity applies to Detective Sergeant Alfred Hughes of the NSW Police (codename ‘Ben’).

However it is indisputable that Ian Milner (‘Bur’) and Jim Hill (‘Tourist’) both of who were employed in External Affairs in the 1940s, and also Frances Bernie (‘Sister’) who had worked as Evatt’s typist, were an integral part of Walter Clayton’s network of espionage in Australia in the 1940s. It is also clear that, until he left Australia, the TASS representative Feydor Nosov (cover name ‘Technician’) had been the person identified by Venona as the Russian journalist in intimate contact with ‘Klod’.

Occasionally in this volume, Horner admits to considerable problems facing ASIO when it came to matters of national security and the evaluation of information supplied by its scores of agents and informers. Hence while the actual identity of agents had to be respected, it is clear that, under the cover of secrecy, there could always be what Horner terms “mean-spirited persons who for vindictive and malicious reasons inform against those they do not like. Moreover, even though their information may not have been true, it often could have had the appearance of truth, which meant that grave injustices were sometimes done to people, especially on the left of politics, about whom such adverse intelligence had been supplied.

As Horner concludes, there is little doubt that ASIO under Spry had a manifestly conservative bent. In practice this meant that the agency concentrated most of its activities on uncovering individuals who were either members of, or sympathetic to, the Communist Party of Australia. Thus right wing supporters were not given anything like the same attention as supposed communists and fellow travellers.

While this book is primarily about the people who staffed ASIO, I find it somewhat surprising that in his Preface, Horner states that “ASIO’s officers were, and are, normal, dedicated Australians. This point of view is reinforced in the book’s Conclusion where Horner claims that the overwhelming majority of those who worked for ASIO were “honourable, everyday Australians.

If there is one thing that comes through loud and clear about all those men and women who worked tirelessly and often obsessionally to protect our national (and sometimes international) security is that they were far from being ‘normal’ or ‘everyday!’


In the year that volume 1 of ASIO’s official history finishes, Melbourne’s controversial, long-serving Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix died on 6 November 1963 , the day after that year’s Melbourne Cup. He was aged 99 years and eight months.

Born in County Cork Ireland in 1864, educated for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth where he became professor of philosophy, then of moral theology, and ultimately at the age of thirty-nine its President, Dr Mannix arrived in Australia in March 1913 where he was somewhat radicalized by being parish priest of the working-class St Mary’s, West Melbourne from 1913 to 1917. After Archbishop Thomas Carr died after a battle with cancer, Mannix became the third Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne – from 1917 to 1963.

During this time, as a loyal son of Ireland who exercised considerable power in his adopted land, Mannix was arguably the most influential, and yet divisive, churchman in Australia.

In Daniel Mannix: His Legacy twelve writers , 10 from Australia, 2 from Ireland , offer fresh and often insightful views of Mannix’s religious and political activities and about his influence. The contributions from Irish scholars are a detailed piece re-assessing Mannix’s impact on Ireland by Dermot Keogh, Professor Emeritus of History, University College Cork and an article by Dublin-based Patrick Mannix (seemingly no direct relation) that in particular discusses the alliance between Mannix and his friend, the republican politician Eamon de Valera, who became President of Ireland.

Victorian-based writers Patrick Morgan and Brian Costar offer sometimes contrasting summaries of Mannix’s fifty years in Melbourne. Yet both agree that his very public, and ultimately successful, clashes with Prime Minister W.H. (‘Billy’) Hughes in 1916 and especially in 1917 – against the introduction of military conscription IN AUSTRALIA – gave the Archbishop a national profile. Hence Mannix became a hero to many Catholics and a baleful figure to others, especially Protestants , some of whom demonized him as ‘that firebrand Mannix’ and ‘the Mad Dog from Maynooth.’

The tall, gaunt, Irish-born prelate with his distinctively searching eyes was regularly contrasted in cartoons and the press with Billy Hughes , short, Welsh and pugnacious – who was widely known as the “Little Digger.

A number of contributions to this well-produced and helpfully illustrated book point out that in the late 1940s and especially in the 1950s and early 1960s Mannix helped foment acute political divisions in Australia, especially in Victoria. He did this by strongly supporting anticommunist industrial groups in our trade union movement and especially by backing B.A. (Bob) Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement , commonly known as the ‘Movement’. He then wholeheartedly supported the largely Catholic Democratic Labor Party , of whom Santamaria was never a member – and whose preferences for years kept the ALP out of office.

In his fascinating chapter, Professor Costar maintains “the Movement had no compunction about penetrating the ALP branch structure by recruiting potential members from among Catholic parishioners. This was, he argues, “a successful if dangerous tactic and was based on the methods of the Communist Party.

While some scholars still dispute this, in his memoirs Santamaria explained: “My thought was that the battles to defeat communist power in the labour movement …should essentially be one of cadre against cadre, cell against cell, fraction against fraction. Mannix himself agreed. In an ABCTV interview with Gerald Lyons in 1962 – a year before he died – the Archbishop said: “ I don’t know any way of fighting communism except by their own methods. However Mannix added: “Ban them? I don’t agree. Fight them in the open.

What all scholars agree about , including Gabrielle McMullen in this book – is that, throughout his long reign as Archbishop of Melbourne, Mannix was a great believer in the value of education and a strong and persistent advocate of the manifest advantages of Catholics in Australia taking what he termed “their proper place in the Universities.

One of the highlights of Daniel Mannix: His Legacy is an article about why, and in what manner, the Archbishop lived in his large but essentially austere home of Raheen. This well written piece is by Brenda Niall – whose biography of Mannix is due to be published next year.

Each morning from his turreted redbrick mansion in Kew, almost always wearing a silk top hat, carrying a cane, and with coins, including sixpences, in his pocket to give to children and to the poor, Mannix walked to his workplace at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. In the afternoon, he strolled back home. It is a sign of the times that, as far as we know, the Archbishop was never accosted on his walks and that no urchins ever threw stones or apples to try and dislodge his hat!

As David Schutz points out in his fascinating chapter about the controversy concerning the huge Catholic Eucharistic procession in Melbourne in 1934 which was held on Sunday , supposedly a day of rest -, Mannix could be quite rigid in rejecting overtures from other prominent churchmen. This included those from the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Frederick Head, who died in 1941 and who had unsuccessfully requested that the controversial Catholic prelate come to meet him.

That Mannix’s refusal to Head’s request was not unusual is demonstrated by the fact that Mannix almost never went out to socialize, or to dine. Instead, numerous people came to visit him at Raheen, although as far as we know, this did not include the Anglican Archbishop!

With guests at his home, Mannix’s usual practice was not to speak, but to listen. Intriguingly, at Raheen Mannix never used the telephone. According to Dr Niall, all messages came through his housekeeper.

Moreover living in Kew afforded Mannix a number of wealthy Catholic neighbors, most notably his friend and admirer, the well-known “entrepreneur, racing buff and gambling identity, John Wren who featured heavily in Frank Hardy’s notorious 1950 novel ‘Power Without Glory.’ So too did Mannix , under the thinly disguised title of Archbishop Daniel Malone. As Elizabeth Malcolm makes clear in chapter five of this fascinating book, Hardy’s description of Mannixs’ striking physical appearance started thus: “He was an Irishman. He was tall, slim, and sharp featured …with high cheek bones. Hardy added: “He carried himself erect, with dignity. Only the closest scrutiny of his eyes would have disturbed the observer. At first sight, they were mischievous and twinkling, deepset beneath black projecting eyebrows …but they were ill-matched. The left eye seemed to be half closed, giving a vague air of slyness and cunning to an otherwise even-featured, intellectual and frank countenance.

Throughout his fifty years in Melbourne, whether they revered or distrusted him, or felt a mixture of both, Mannixs’ physical distinctiveness was a gift to caricaturists throughout the nation.

But if there is any ambiguity about Mannix’s legacy in Australia, it seems undeniable that the most fundamental fact about the Catholic Archbishop is what Edmund Campion terms “his Irishry. As Dermot Keogh reminds us, shortly after Daniel Mannix died in 1963, Irish President Eamon de Valera praised his long service to his native land, saying that for over five decades Mannix had been “for this nation (of Ireland) a stronghold, a redoubt that was never surrendered or taken.


First a disclaimer. In the late 1970s, when Ann Moyal and I worked at Brisbane’s Griffith University , she as director of the Science Policy Research Centre, me as lecturer in Humanities , we had a close friend in common, the physicist Professor Robert Segall. More recently, Dr Moyal and I were members of the judging panel for the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award’s , in the dual categories of Non-Fiction and Australian History. For the record, to work with her was a challenge and a pleasure.

Born in 1926, and a graduate of Sydney University, Moyal is an outstanding independent scholar and arguably the preeminent historian of Australian science and of technology. A former academic, in 1995 Dr Moyal , who for decades has been a highly productive writer and researcher – founded the vibrant and sometimes influential Independent Scholars Association of Australia.

‘A Woman Of Influence’ is Moyal’s fifteenth book. It is also her second memoir, following on from the brilliantly autobiographical account of working for four years in London in the mid 1950s as personal research assistant to the eminent media baron and manqué historian, Lord Beaverbrook. When they first met, Moyal was twenty-seven, he seventy-five.

‘Breakfast with Beaverbrook: Memoirs of an Independent Woman’ was received with acclaim in England and Australia when it released in hardback in 1995 and then republished as a paperback in 1996.

Subtitled ‘Science, Men & History’, Moyal’s current offering , the finely honed A Woman Of Influence – is an intimate account of Moyal’s sometimes complex, often fulfilling personal relationships, of her battle with cancer of the kidney, and also a description of her passionate and intriguing life in letters and of the mind. Moyal also writes movingly of her friendships, including those with Dymphna and Manning Clark, who introduced her to the prolific yet underestimated expatriate, the Melbourne-born writer Alan Morehead (1910-1983) who in the late 1930s had become a foreign correspondent for Beaverbrook’s ‘Daily Express.’ As it happens, in my twenties, Morehead’s ‘Gallipoli’, ‘The White Nile’, ‘The Blue Nile’, and especially ‘The Fatal Impact’ (an account of the invasion of the South Pacific from 1767 to1840) were four of my favourite works of generalist history.

Indeed, as Moyal confides, one of her most significant monographs is the biographical ‘Alan Morehead: A Rediscovery’- published by the National Library of Australia in 2005. Although relatively brief, in my opinion it is as important as Moyal’s massive two-volume account of the correspondence of Australia’s pioneer geologist, the Rev W.B. Clarke, ‘The Web of Science’ published the year before. Indeed, in terms of quality, Moyal’s monograph on Morehead is on a par with her signature book, ‘Platypus.’

Subtitled ‘The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World’, this marvelous work attracted lively interest when it was first published in 2001 and even more so when a new and updated edition appeared in 2010.

As well as dealing with her own life as a thrice married, childless, writer-researcher with a considerable gift for love and friendship, in A Woman of Influence Moyal contemplates Australia’s social and political future and also grapples with mortality as she approaches her own demise. The latter, Moyal suggests, is best approached via a motto of the late octogenarian New South Wales based artist Margaret Olley – “Hurry Last Days!

It is pleasing to report that, like the irrepressible Olley, Moyal steadfastly rejects Goethe’s bleak reflection on advancing old age. “We look back on our life, Goethe wrote, “as a thing of broken pieces, because our mistakes and failures are always the first to strike us, and outweigh in our imagination what we have accomplished and attained.

While the above approach seemed to characterize the latter years of the late Bob Santamaria, the still very much alive Ann Moyal thinks not! Instead, she takes good note of the thoughts of British author Diana Athill who at the age of 90, in ‘Somewhere Towards the End’, summarized her attitude to old age thus: “Regret little, and resist despondency!

Although the feisty and energetic Moyal confides that she is aware of “the failures and the abortive and wasted efforts that litter some of her past, she very much regards her current time of self-scrutiny and historical reflection as a strong reason for gratitude and celebration.

Thinking about what has happened in and to our nation since she returned from Britain at the end of 1958 to help the eminent historian Sir Keith Hancock at the Australian National University found the ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ (whose eighteen volumes are now a jewel in the crown of historical scholarship), Moyal maintains that many positive changes have taken place in women’s role in science and also in the study and compass of Australian history.

While there still remains a long way ahead to achieving sexual equality in employment and elsewhere, it seems hard to dispute the fact that Australia’s universities are no longer so male-dominated, Anglo-Celtic and elitist as when Moyal graduated from Sydney University in 1947 with a first class honours degree in history.

From my perspective, Australia is indeed fortunate to boast of such a truly independent thinker, who, as this powerful memoir makes abundantly clear, often worked (and works) against the grain.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books. These include his memoir MY NAME IS ROSS: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY (NewSouth Books: Sydney) which is available as an e-book and a talking book; the co-authored biographies ALAN (“THE RED FOX) REID and AUSTEN TAYSHUS: MERCHANT OF MENACE; and the co-authored political/sexual satire ‘FOOLS’ PARADISE: LIFE IN AN ALTERED STATE.

Professor Fitzgerald is currently co-writing ‘A DOZEN SOVIET SPYS DOWN UNDER? – to be published by Connor Court in Melbourne.

‘Sydney Institute Quarterly’, December 2014.

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