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On 20 March 1939 the Burns Philp ship MV Macdhui docked at Port Moresby in the Australian territory of Papua. On board was the 13th Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery. Commanded by Major Kenneth Chalmers, the battery had been raised from permanent gunners in Sydney and had the task of installing and operating two 6-inch coast guns at Paga Point, Port Moresby. Less than four months earlier, on 6 December 1938, the Minister for Defence, Geoffrey Street, as part of a series of measures to strengthen Australian defences after the Munich crisis, had announced funding for the development of Port Moresby as ‘a base for mobile naval and air forces’.
After Australian military forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1972, it seemed that Australian forces would never again serve overseas on warlike operations unless the nation was under direct threat. Yet just nineteen years later the Australian Government committed forces across the globe to the Gulf War. Why did the Australian Government decide to make this commitment, and what impact did it have on future Australian military operations? The issue of strategy and command continued to be paramount.
The great nineteenth-century Prussian general Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, ‘The Elder’, once declared that no operations plan survives contact with the enemy. But no one has suggested – least of all Moltke – that an army or a commander contemplating a military operation should have no plan. The same can be said about previous experience of war. A new war is likely to have such a different shape and character from the previous one that previous experience might be found to be of no value or, indeed, even misleading. Army commanders are often accused of preparing for the past war rather than the future one. But no one has suggested that previous wartime experience is not valuable in an army about to embark on a new war.
Late in the morning of Sunday 2 August 1914, following the receipt of various warnings from London that war was imminent, the Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, met senior army officers in Melbourne to discuss ‘arrangements for putting the precautionary stage into operation’. The officers explained the plans, and immediately orders were issued for the first stage of mobilisation. The orders went out to the permanent gunners of the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery, as well as the permanent engineers, to man the defended ports at Thursday Island, Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, Albany and Fremantle.
Australia entered the Second World War with considerable experience of coalition warfare, mainly based on the events of the First World War. Reflecting its recent history as a group of separate British colonies, by the First World War the new nation had not developed a foreign service and had little capacity for independent strategic decision-making. The Australian Government learned that its troops had landed at Gallipoli four days after the event; it had not even been advised, let alone consulted. By the last year of the war, however, the Australian Prime Minister was sitting in the Imperial War Cabinet, although this was not a permanent arrangement. Similarly, at the operational level, the formations of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) became part of the wider Empire’s military forces and were deployed and employed by British commanders, who rarely consulted the senior Australian commanders. But by the last year of the war senior Australian commanders had learned to scrutinise the plans of their British superiors. Coalition warfare is therefore essentially about strategy and command.
Ultimately, strategy is decided by the government, which might or might not accept the views of its military advisers. In Australia, during February 1941 there were a number of remarkable meetings of the Advisory War Council and of the War Cabinet that resulted in a change in attitude towards the threat from Japan, and soon after to a change in Australian strategy. This is not to suggest that the magnitude of the Japanese threat had not previously been realised. Indeed, in December 1940 the Australian Government had offered to send a brigade to Malaya, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies had decided to visit London to press for reinforcements for the Far East. But the meetings in February saw a heightening of the concern about Japan and, more particularly, revealed a greater role for the non-government members of the Advisory War Council. The council had been formed the previous year to involve members of the Opposition in the management of the Australian war effort.
On 18 September 1999 an Australian naval task group consisting of the Australian frigates HMA Ships Adelaide and Anzac, the heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk, the landing craft HMA Ships Balikpapan, Brunei and Labuan, the supply ship HMAS Success, the New Zealand frigate HMNZS Te Kaha and the British frigate HMS Glasgow sailed from Darwin harbour. At dawn on 20 September Anzac and Success joined the frigate Darwin, already stationed off the coast of East Timor, to patrol the waters off the capital, Dili, and secure the harbour. Then at 7 a.m. five RAAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft landed at Dili’s Komoro airfield carrying Australian and New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) troopers and the leading elements of Headquarters 3rd Brigade, who secured the airport and established contact with elements of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) to ensure their cooperation. A British Gurkha company was also among the early group of soldiers. So the first troops of the multinational force known as the International Force East Timor, or INTERFET, arrived in East Timor.
It was inevitable that the commanders of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) would be learning on the job. This was not just because the nature of the war could not have been anticipated and proved an overwhelming challenge for the commanders of all the armies involved; it was also because at the outbreak of the First World War the Australian Army was still in its infancy and relied heavily on the British Army for its ideas and direction. As Australia was a member of the British Empire, the AIF operated as part of the British Army. Further, the Australian forces were deployed by the British high command without consulting the Australian Government, and the commander of the AIF did not believe that it was his role to become involved in higher level questions of strategy. Even at the lower operational levels, senior Australian commanders were not willing, at first, to challenge the orders issued by their British superiors. Much of this would change during the war.
Australian higher command in the Korean War is not just a matter of esoteric interest. Rather, from the time of the First World War, higher command arrangements have been a crucial element during most of Australia’s military commitments. They have been both a means by which the Australian Government has exercised its sovereignty and an expression of the degree to which Australia has been able to have that sovereignty recognised. The command arrangements in the Korean War were to have ramifications that have continued through to the present. This chapter discusses those higher command arrangements and then focuses on Brigadier John Wilton’s command of the 28th British Commonwealth Brigade.
Australia’s war effort during the last two years of the Second World War has been the subject of considerable criticism, much of it ill-informed. Some historians have claimed that the operations in Bougainville and New Guinea were part of an ‘unnecessary war’. The British historian Sir Max Hastings went further when he claimed that ‘as the war advanced, grateful as were the Allies for Australia’s huge contribution towards feeding their soldiers, there was sourness about the limited contribution by this country of seven million people’. According to Hastings, the Australians were ‘bludgers’, claiming, for example, that the government cut the army’s size by 22 per cent because of the ‘unpopularity of military service’.
An effective command structure for Australian Defence Force (ADF) operations is one of the most important requirements for the defence of Australia and its interests. Civilian strategic analysts sometimes dismiss their military colleagues’ apparent obsession with command. In their view, issues of international relations, strategic and defence policy, force development and budgets are the heart of strategic analysis. But command is fundamental to a military organisation. Put simply, it is the means by which the government’s wishes are translated into military outcomes. As the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Vice-Admiral Russ Shalders, put it in 2005, the number 1 outcome for the ADF, as endorsed by the government, is the conduct of operations.
The brilliantly successful but nonetheless hard-fought and bloody campaign in New Guinea in 1943 received considerable publicity at the time and has been the subject of a series of historical accounts over the succeeding decades. The story of the development of Australian strategy in the context of Allied strategy during this period has, however, received less attention. But no military campaign is conducted in a political and strategic vacuum. The New Guinea campaign was the outcome of strategic decisions by American and British political and military leaders made in conferences on the other side of the world. The nature of Australia’s contribution was determined, within Allied strategy, by political and military leaders meeting far to the south in Canberra and Brisbane. This chapter examines Australia’s role in trying to influence Allied strategy and how it decided its own strategy in 1943.
For more than half a century I have been researching and writing about Australian military history, defence policy and intelligence. My first major article, written while I was a cadet at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1969, was on General William Sherman’s command during the Atlanta campaign in the United States Civil War. Since then I have written or edited thirty-five books and almost a hundred journal articles or book chapters. In these, my primary focus has been on two inter-related issues: strategy and command.
The Australian Army’s commitment to the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1972 had much in common with its commitments to previous wars. Again the issues of strategy and command were important. In the Boer War, the two world wars, Korea, Malaya and Malaysia, Australian Army formations and units came under the operational control of an allied commander. Australia had little say over the higher strategic direction of the war or indeed over the strategy employed within each theatre of war. The main exception to that pattern was in the South-West Pacific Area between 1942 and 1944 when the Allied commander-in-chief, General Douglas MacArthur, was based in Australia and discussed his strategic plans with the Australian Government, although ultimate direction came from the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington. Furthermore, the Commander of the Allied Land Forces, General Sir Thomas Blamey, had a measure of independence in determining how and where the units of the Australian Army would fight.