Voices from the air, p.1

Voices from the Air, page 1


Voices from the Air

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Voices from the Air


  To the families of the ABC war correspondents

  To Gillian and Emma


  ‘I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea that only voices out of the air can reach them.’

  King George V, Christmas Empire broadcast, 1932






  1 Beginnings

  2 These Ingenious Instruments – Mobile Recording Units

  3 Out of a Quiet Harbour into a Heavy Sea – The Middle East Field Unit

  4 War on the Horizon – Australia

  5 Malaya and the Fall of Singapore

  6 The Home Front – Australia

  7 Back from the Unknown – Timor

  8 Done Soon and Damn Soon – Port Moresby

  9 Simply As I Saw It – Kokoda

  10 They Went Through Hell – The Battle of the Beachheads

  11 The Other Side of the Mountains – New Guinea 1943

  12 Along the Coast – New Guinea 1944

  13 This is the Thing that’s Going to Get Me – The Philippines

  14 A Question of Necessity – New Guinea 1945

  15 Three Pieces for Oboe – Borneo

  16 Most Profuse and Frequent – Singapore

  17 Surrender

  18 A Mess of Ugliness – Rabaul

  19 War Crimes


  Resources and Acknowledgements



  Photos Section

  About the Author



  In the 1920s and 30s, radio was a revolutionary phenomenon in a troubled world – it defied the endless gulfs of distance, crossed impassable borders and spoke to people and nations with the profound impact and compelling intimacy of the human voice.

  The title Voices from the Air reflects something of the seemingly miraculous reach of radio in the years before the Second World War, when it was breaking down the isolation of Australians within their own vast land and connecting them with the wider world.

  With the coming of war, radio was on the frontlines and the air waves carried the voices of war correspondents and the sounds of the distant battlefield into Australian homes. The reports of a new breed of radio correspondents heard from the white noise and the static brought a powerful immediacy to the stories of the war.

  The original scripts and letters written in the field by this group of ABC war correspondents were my starting point almost two decades ago, when I was searching the ABC Archives for some connection to my own experience as an ABC foreign correspondent: who were the earliest ABC correspondents and what challenges had they faced? The documents from the Second World War were a rich source of information and in 2004 I included some of them in an exhibition about the ABC’s foreign correspondents, but it was the barest sketch of the work and lives of the first ABC war correspondents.

  The correspondents’ scripts tell part of the tale. They are more than just the first draft of history: they tell the story of reporting from the war zone. Mistakes are roughly overtyped and corrected by hand, the blue pencil of the military censor scores through lines and paragraphs, and official red-ink stamps decorate the sheets. Each is a chart of the correspondents’ thinking, the construction of each story, and the filter of censorship . . . and it suggests that there is a story to be told beyond the reports themselves.

  The letters and diaries in the archives tell a more personal tale of the correspondents caught up in the extraordinary events of that time, and shed more light on the men themselves, as well as on the devastating events they reported.

  In writing their stories, I have mostly not tried to adjust for the sometimes narrow view of eye-witness reports or contemporaneous letters. Reporters in the field frequently had incomplete information, or were unaware of the broader conduct of the war. As events developed, their first reports were often updated in the ongoing coverage, or through the revisions of later scholarship, but I have used their reports and letters largely as they were filed, broadcast or written at the time. This is a series of snapshots. It is not a military history, and does not cover all of the Second World War, only some of the key campaigns reported by ABC correspondents. Similarly, it deals with the issues that arose for ABC correspondents but it is not a history of war reporting.

  I have used edited extracts from their original reports or transcripts and these have also been edited for grammatical purposes, much as the sub-editor or producer would have done before broadcast. In the case of some cables or telegraph messages, the telegraph language has been edited for meaning and sense. But as much as possible I have used the correspondents’ own words, from their despatches, scripts, letters and diaries, to tell the story of their work in the field.


  On a cold Boxing Day morning in 1940, ABC war correspondent Chester Wilmot was eating a bully beef breakfast with Australian soldiers on a wind-swept plateau outside the Libyan town of Bardia. Huddled around the winter fires, it was a long way from the warmth of the Australian summer and the comfort of family and friends left behind only a few months earlier. At the time, Australians had yet to fight a battle in the Second World War – the battle for Bardia, would be the first for the soldiers and for Wilmot as correspondent.

  Wilmot’s reporting from Bardia and in the year that followed was ground-breaking, and as it mapped the dusty roads and trackless desert of the warfronts of the Middle East and North Africa, it charted a path for other ABC correspondents to follow. In all, thirteen war correspondents would report for the ABC over the next five years, and their experiences and those of the men who worked with them, are part of the story of Australia’s war.

  As Wilmot camped with the soldiers outside Bardia that Boxing Day, Australians back home in Sydney were flocking to the premiere of the film Forty Thousand Horsemen, which immortalised the First World War cavalry charge by the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba in Palestine. A little more than two decades since the last ‘war to end all wars’ and Australians were once again at war in the Middle East.

  In this war, more than half a million Australians would fight on foreign battlefields. They fought far from home in North Africa and the Middle East, in the Mediterranean, in Greece and with the RAF in Europe. When the war brought the threat of invasion to Australia’s shores, they fought in Malaya, in the ‘green hell’ of New Guinea, on the beaches and hinterlands of the Pacific theatre, on the seas and in the air and against direct attacks on the Australian coast.

  News from the Allied warfronts, and the stories of Australians at war, far and near, were of vital interest for families and everyone at home. In the First World War newspapers had been the only source of news and information but now radio was a part of Australian daily life. By 1941 there were more than a million licensed radios for the population of seven million, delivering news with an immediacy unmatched by the newspapers.

  The war was a coming of age for the young national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and it led to the creation in 1947 of an independent ABC news service. However, while newspapers drew on a long history of war correspondents, the ABC – and radio – had no such tradition at the outbreak of the war. The ABC had a limited news service, a small but growing team of journalists recruited from newspapers and only a few ‘Talks’ (current affairs and features) broadcasters working in the field. There was no role of broadcast journalist or reporter experienced or equipped to cover a war.

  The thirteen ABC war correspondents who reported from the battlefields overseas were: Chester Wilmot, Haydon Lennard, D
udley Leggett, Bill Marien, Peter Hemery, Henry Stokes, Raymond Paull, Fred Simpson, Frank Legg, John Hinde, John Elliott, John Thompson and Talbot Duckmanton. They were generally either newspaper journalists working in the new field of radio news, or broadcasters. They developed skills suited to the demands of radio reporting, which included transitioning from the written to the spoken word, from reporting designed to be read on the page to that destined to be heard,1 and the art of descriptive, factual voice reports. They honed these skills in their despatches and stories of Australians at war, and in the process, they helped to shape the role of the broadcast reporter and the development of an ABC news service that became, and remains, a strong and trusted voice for Australians.

  Working closely with the thirteen reporters were five other men. Lawrence Cecil led the first field unit in the Middle East, and the technicians Bill MacFarlane and Len Edwards were the sound recording magicians on the frontlines with the reporters. (Another technician, Leo Gallwey, and an engineer, RJ Boyle, also travelled with the field unit in the Middle East. As they did not play as large a role in reporting from the field and there is less known about their work, it has not been possible to cover them in any detail in this book.)

  ABC war correspondents covered two roles with specific accreditations: correspondents and observers. Correspondents reported news and filed immediate despatches, while observers were attached to ABC mobile field units that created recordings of reports from the warfronts, actuality (recordings of the actual sounds) of war, and interviews with Australians at the frontline. War correspondents were journalists from the News department and observers were broadcasters from the Talks department. (The technicians who operated the recording equipment were also accredited as observers.) In the Pacific war the roles sometimes overlapped: the journalists recorded voice reports, actuality and interviews and the broadcasters filed news despatches. The distinction mattered little to the audience and they are all regarded generally as war correspondents, and are described as such in this book.

  In reporting from the frontlines, war correspondents took many of the same risks as the soldiers whose stories they were reporting. Some of the ABC correspondents were injured, many suffered from illnesses such as malaria, dysentery or dengue fever that would affect their health in the years to follow, and there was one ultimate casualty during the war itself: the correspondent, John Elliott, was killed while reporting one of the final campaigns.

  All accredited correspondents wore uniforms with their own shoulder tabs or badges and were effectively under military authority. Military Public Relations controlled travel in the war zones but even so, the war correspondents’ movement with the troops and their access to the battlefield was extraordinary by the standards of today. Their letters and diaries show that almost all of them on occasion carried a weapon in the field, against all regulations and conventions of war, but in keeping with a general expectation of correspondents living and travelling with the troops in such close proximity to combat.

  Every despatch and story, whether from General Headquarters or from the field, was censored. The military regulations for press accompanying a force in the field acknowledged the inevitable tension between correspondents and the military: ‘The essence of successful warfare is secrecy. The essence of successful journalism is publicity.’2 There was universal acceptance of the need for censorship, but at times war correspondents fell foul of the censors or disputed onerous restrictions.

  Reporting was based on information from official and unofficial military briefings and the communiqués released at GHQ, the correspondents’ own eye-witness accounts and newsgathering, and interviews with the troops. An element of soft propaganda, patriotic language and stereotypically racial or even racist characterisations of the enemy coloured some reporting but this was generally unremarkable at the time and in a war that posed a very real threat to Australia itself. Reporting was not only about informing the public: the correspondents also had a role in supporting public morale – something that was widely understood.

  The graphic carnage of the battlefield was tempered in much of the reporting, however the repeated, commonplace exposure to violent death challenged the resilience and descriptive skills of the correspondents who reported it. Common themes were the courage of the Diggers and individual stories that humanised and illuminated the bigger story.

  The ABC teams in the field in Australia and overseas were also pushing the boundaries of recording technology. Travelling with cumbersome recording equipment and recording the sounds of battle added a layer of difficulty to the challenges and risks of reporting the war. The radio mechanics or technicians, Bill MacFarlane and Len Edwards, developed a genius for trouble-shooting and recording under conditions from sand storms to monsoonal rain to the thunder and shrapnel of artillery fire. However, technology and communications often determined the successes and failures of the ABC war correspondents as much as their own reporting skills. Communications by telegram, cable, shortwave, radiotelephone and airmail were frequently unreliable, sometimes nightmarish and occasionally heartbreaking.

  The wartime experiences of the eighteen men who covered the battlefields for the ABC are the stories of the first Australian war correspondents of the broadcast era. Both women and men have covered war and conflict for the ABC since then, but at the time there were no women accredited as ABC war correspondents reporting from the field.

  The War Correspondents

  The commentator and broadcaster Chester Wilmot became the ABC’s first war correspondent. He reported from the battlefields of the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, and New Guinea, including the Kokoda campaign.

  Lawrence Cecil was a radio producer and actor who headed the first ABC field unit, working with Chester Wilmot from the end of 1940 until the beginning of 1942.

  Bill MacFarlane operated the sound recording equipment for the first ABC field unit with Chester Wilmot and Lawrence Cecil. He went on to work with Wilmot and many of the other ABC correspondents in the Pacific war.

  Leo Gallwey made some recordings with Chester Wilmot in the Middle East and many recordings with Lawrence Cecil. RJ Boyle was the engineer operating the ABC radio receiving station in Gaza. (Gallwey was often working on base at Gaza with Boyle and their roles receive passing mention here.)

  The first ABC newsman to become a war correspondent was Haydon Lennard. He reported from New Guinea and other areas of the Pacific and South East Asia theatres, and covered the liberation of Singapore.

  Henry Stokes was a former news agency journalist who covered Malaya and Singapore for the ABC and the BBC and escaped Singapore just before the island fell to the Japanese.

  The first bombing of the Australian mainland at Darwin was reported by Peter Hemery. Hemery spent considerable time as a war correspondent in the Top End of Australia and later in New Guinea.

  A former newspaper journalist, Bill Marien reported for the ABC from mainland Australia, the Japanese-occupied island of Timor, and covered many of the key battles of the New Guinea campaign.

  Dudley Leggett was a broadcaster and supervisor of ABC field units as a war correspondent in Australia and New Guinea. He covered the final stages of the Kokoda campaign.

  John Hinde was one of the earliest ABC war correspondents reporting from GHQ (General Headquarters). He covered campaigns in New Guinea and was with MacArthur’s force for the invasion of the Philippines.

  No other ABC correspondent spent as much time with Australian troops in the field in the last two years of the war as Fred Simpson. Simpson’s reporting included the campaigns in New Guinea and Borneo and the occupation of post-war Japan.

  Frank Legg was a popular ABC broadcaster who fought in North Africa and then returned to the field as a war correspondent in the Pacific war. He reported from New Guinea, Borneo, the Philippines and covered the Japanese surrender in 1945.

  The technician Len Edwards followed Bill MacFarlane into the field where he worked with the reporters covering the war. He was on the frontlin
es of the Pacific war and adapted recording equipment to work in the demanding conditions of the battlefield.

  An ABC news journalist who served as an Army Education officer, Raymond Paull became a war correspondent during the New Guinea campaign. His reporting included the landings on the coast of Dutch New Guinea.

  A former champion boxer and sports journalist, John Elliott served in the army in North Africa and joined the ranks of ABC war correspondents in 1944. He reported from the Philippines and Borneo, where he was killed at Balikpapan in 1945, the first ABC correspondent to die in the field.

  John Thompson was a poet and broadcaster who became a war correspondent in time to cover the surrender of the Japanese forces at Rabaul. He went on to report on the postwar political upheaval in Indonesia.

  Talbot Duckmanton was the last ABC war correspondent appointed in the Second World War. He reported on the first Australian trials of Japanese war criminals at Morotai.

  Chapter 1


  When the ABC was created as Australia’s national broadcaster in 1932, radio’s ability to deliver voices from the air was still a modern marvel, little more than a decade old.

  The wireless revolution was a wondrous technical sleight of hand that had wiped away the poles and wires of the telegraph: ‘The wire telegraph is a kind of very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and he is meowing in Los Angeles. Radio operates in exactly the same way, except there is no cat.’1 More than anything, radio was the ‘magic medium’ of communication in which sound and the human voice were delivered, instantly, to a mass audience.

  In the years immediately following the launch of the ABC in 1932, music dominated the commission’s radio broadcasts, and information programs such as talks, specialist programs and news took up only about a quarter of the air time.2 However, in the times of crisis and war of the 1930s and 40s, radio communicated immediately and directly with a public thirsty for information, it was an essential source of news, and it brought the sounds and voices of the great and terrible events and human dramas of the time into millions of homes.

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