Australia in the War of 1939–1945

Australia in the War of 1939–1945
Author Gavin Long (general editor) and twelve other principal authors
Country Australia
Language English
Subject Military history of Australia in World War II
Genre Military history
Publisher Australian War Memorial
Publication date
Preceded by Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918
Followed by Australia in the Korean War 1950–53

Australia in the War of 1939–1945 is a 22-volume official history series covering Australia's involvement in the Second World War. The series was published by the Australian War Memorial between 1952 and 1977. Most volumes in the series were edited by Gavin Long, who also wrote three volumes in the series and the summary volume The Six Year War.

In contrast to the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, this series has a greater focus on the war's impact upon domestic events, including volumes on operations of the Australian Government and contributions made by Australian industry and science. In addition, Australia in the War of 1939–1945 includes a series on the history of the Australian military's medical services, and the problems encountered by these services, during the war.


Gavin Long in Lae, New Guinea in July 1944 while attached to the headquarters of New Guinea Force

In April 1943 the Australian War Cabinet decided that plans should be made to write an official history of Australia's involvement in World War II.[1] Gavin Long was appointed the general editor of the prospective series on the recommendation of C.E.W. Bean, the editor of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, in January 1943[2] and presented a provisional plan of the series to the War Cabinet which approved it in July 1943.[1] At this time it was envisioned that the series would consist of 14 volumes, each of about 500 pages.[3] Long's provisional plan stated that the series' purpose was:[4]

a. to crystallise the facts once and for all for any subsequent use
b. to establish a story that will carry conviction in other countries
c. to satisfy the men who took part that the history is an adequate memorial of their efforts and sacrifices.
Gavin Long, 1944

The War Cabinet approved a revised plan shortly after the end of the war and after further refinements in 1950 it was decided that the series would comprise 22 volumes.[1] These works mainly covered the operations of the Australian military, and the only technical volumes covered the medical services. Sub-series covering domestic politics and the war economy were also included. Some senior officers had advocated for volumes covering military logistics and administration, but without success.[5] Long proposed a volume on Australia's strategic policies, including negotiations with the British and United States governments, but this was not authorised by the Australian government on the grounds that it could be detrimental to postwar policy.[6] In 1982 the Australian War Memorial jointly published David Horner's book High Command. Australia and Allied Strategy 1939–1945 which was marketed as being "the book which Prime Minister John Curtin directed the official historian not to write".[7]

Writing the series

Gavin Long selected the authors of the series, and these appointments were approved by a government committee. Long required that the authors have "some or all of three positive qualifications: experience of the events, proved ability to write lucidly and engagingly, [and] training as a historian". It was also decided that authors would not be able to write on topics in which they had played a leading part during the war.[1] Selecting and engaging authors took up much of Long's time, and some potential authors declined offers of appointment. A replacement author for Chester Wilmot's volume on the Siege of Tobruk and Battle of El Alamein also had to be found in 1954 after he was killed in a plane crash.[2] Once selected by Long, authors were confirmed by a committee comprising the Prime Minister, two or three other ministers and the Leader of the Opposition. Long and the general editor of the medical series were salaried and the other authors signed contracts to complete their work within a specified time frame and were paid in instalments as parts of their work were delivered.[1] Of the 13 principal authors, five were academics and five were journalists.[8] The official historians were supported by salaried research assistants who were members of the Australian Public Service and the project was administered by the Department of the Interior.[2]

A group photo of the authors of Australia in the War of 1939–1945 in 1954. Chester Wilmot died later in the year and was replaced by Barton Maughan.

While the series was funded by the Australian Government, the authors were free to write on all topics other than technical secrets which were classified at the time and were not otherwise censored.[9] In line with a request by the US and British governments, the official historians in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US were not given access to Ultra intelligence gained from decrypting German codes. The vetting process for the volumes in the various series also sought to ensure that they did not disclose that German codes had been broken, as this was still classified at the time.[10] Long may have not even been informed that German or Japanese codes had been broken.[11] The authors were given unrestricted access to all other official records, and the Army, Navy and Air series were mainly based on these records and the hundreds of interviews Long had conducted with Australian military personnel during the war.[12] German, Italian and Japanese records were also used to provide information on the enemies the Australian military fought.[13] Draft chapters were sent for comment to the official historians in Britain, New Zealand and the United States.[14]

The series was written to be read by a general audience. It aimed to provide the general populace with a comprehensive account of Australia's role in the war, including coverage of the 'home front' and industrial and medical aspects of the war.[9] The series also had a nationalistic motivation, which was in line with Long's goal of it ensuring that Australia's role was not overshadowed by that of Britain and the United States. Long believed that this motivation was shared by the official historians for the other Dominion countries.[15]

The 22 volumes were published by the Australian War Memorial between 1952 and 1977, with most books being completed and released in the 1950s and early 1960s.[16] The publishing company Collins began a project to print the series with new introductions by modern scholars in the 1980s after the University of Queensland Press reprinted the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. This project was terminated after the first three volumes in the Army series and both volumes in the Navy series were reprinted, however.[17]


The 22 volumes in Australia in the War of 1939–1945 were organised into five series. Gavin Long edited the Army, Navy, Air and Civil series and Allan Seymour Walker edited the Medical series and wrote most of the volumes on this topic. The series also included a concise history of Australia's role in the war, which was written by Long and titled The Six Years War.[18]

Series 1 – Army

Series 2 – Navy

G. Hermon Gill wrote both the volumes in the series on the Royal Australian Navy's activities. Gill was a journalist who had served in the RAN's Naval Intelligence Division and Naval Historical Records section during the war. He was more successful than most of the other authors in placing his subject in the global context in which it operated, though on occasions he exaggerated the RAN's importance in Australia's war effort. The two volumes in the naval series were published in 1957 and 1969.[19]

Gill's account of the battle between HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran in November 1941 has been criticised by some authors who view it as being part of an official cover-up. Gill, however, reached his conclusions independently and without censorship and his account of the battle is generally considered to have been as accurate as possible given that little evidence was available on the events which led to Sydney being sunk with the loss of her entire crew.[20] Nevertheless, naval historian and Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force Tom Frame has argued that while Gill "was a man of integrity" and not influenced by the Navy, his account of the battle is "bad history" as it is contradictory and "went beyond the reliable and corroborated evidence which was available to him".[21]

Series 3 – Air

The Air series covers the operations of the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, including the experiences of the thousands of members of the RAAF who were trained through the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) and served with the British Royal Air Force. The series was written by three authors. Douglas Gillison was regarded as Australia's leading aviation journalist and served in the RAAF during the war,[22] George Odgers was also a journalist who had served in both the Army and Air Force[23] and John Herrington was a trained historian who had served in RAF and RAAF maritime patrol squadrons.[24][25]

While George Odgers' volume covered only RAAF operations against Japan, the other two authors of the Air series, and particularly John Herington, faced the challenge of covering the diverse experiences of the EATS graduates who served in over 500 British squadrons. Herington's solution to this challenge was to write a comprehensive short history of British air warfare, with a focus on the small number of Australian squadrons and the main activities of Australian personnel in RAF units.[13] Gillison and Herington also wrote about how EATS operated and its implications for Australia. Herington's account of EATS is generally considered superior to that provided by Gillison, whose account is regarded as relatively uncritical of the scheme.[22][25]

Series 4 – Civil

Long considered the inclusion of Ernest Scott's volume on Australia during the War to be an "unorthodox characteristic" of Bean's series, but by the time Long started planning the Second World War series there was no doubt that volumes on the "Home front" would be included. Like Scott's volume, these took the longest to write. The first, Paul Hasluck's The Government and the People, 1939–1941 appeared in 1952, but Hasluck was elected to as the member for Curtin at the 1949 election, and served as a cabinet minister until 1969. His ministerial duties delayed the second volume, which was not published until after Hasluck became the Governor-General. Hasluck's ability to provide an unbiased account when he was a Liberal politician did not escape critical comment, but historians tend to judge his work as "fair and accurate". In the end, Hasluck's biases tended to be personal rather than partisan. He admired John Curtin as a fellow Western Australian and Robert Menzies as a fellow Liberal. Most notably, Hasluck clung to his belief in parliamentary democracy despite its near demise during the war.[26][27]

The economic volumes by Sydney Butlin suffered a similar fate, as after the first volume appeared in 1955, Butlin became increasing involved in administration at the University of Sydney. The second volume, co-authored with Boris Schedvin, finally appeared shortly before his death in 1977.[28] The other volume of the series, David Mellor's The Role of Science and Industry was the most unusual volume of all, and still stands unique in Australian official war histories in its subject. However Mellor was criticised for hewing too closely to the views of his sources, particularly Major General John O'Brien, the Deputy Master General of the Ordnance.[29]

Series 5 – Medical

C.E.W. Bean (left), Gavin Long (centre) and Allan S. Walker (right) discuss a manuscript in the Australian War Memorial's library in 1945

Allan S. Walker was a pathology specialist who served with Australian Army medical units in both world wars and taught at the University of Sydney. He declined Long's initial invitation to write the Medical series in 1944, but accepted it after Long's second choice, Rupert Downes, was killed in 1945. While Downes had intended to engage a number of specialist authors, Walker regarded this a being impractical and wrote the series himself. Walker wrote the first three volumes and completed much of the work for the final volume before ill-health forced him to resign in 1956 and the book was completed by other writers.[30] The five chapters on the experiences of women in the Army Medical Services in Volume IV are significant as they cover the first time large numbers of female members of the Australian military had been posted overseas.[31] The medical volumes were written primarily for the benefit of practitioners of military medicine, but have a wider appeal as they contain military detail not found in other volumes. The books proved relatively popular, and were reprinted in the years after publication.[32]

The Six Years War

The Six Years War was Gavin Long's short history of Australia's role in World War II. In 1943 Long proposed producing a short history of Australia's role in the war as soon as possible after the war ended. This did not eventuate, however, and The Six Years War was the second last volume to be published. Long began work on the book in 1945 and continued on it throughout the official history project.[33] The Six Years War is "derived almost entirely" from the work of the 13 authors of the official history series, and these authors drafted substantial parts of the book.[18] While Long completed the book's manuscript in 1967, its publication was delayed until 1973 while the second volumes in the Navy and Civil series were completed. As a result, Long did not live to see the book published as he died in October 1968.[34]


Australia in the War of 1939–1945 had less of an impact on later Australian histories of World War II than the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 has had on histories of World War I. The series has been criticised as lacking the authority of Bean's work and some of the volumes on campaigns are regarded as over-detailed. The volumes dealing with government and politics and the war economy remain dominant in their fields, however. Bean's history has also out-sold the World War II series.[35] While Gavin Long's achievement has not received the same degree of recognition as C.E.W. Bean's, both series are generally seen has having created an important tradition for Australian official histories which includes high standards of accuracy, comprehensiveness and literary skill.[36]

The lack of footnotes to the official documents and other primary sources consulted by the official historians were identified as a shortcoming of the series by some reviewers. For instance, in a generally positive review of Royal Australian Air Force, 1939–1942 James C. Olson stated that "Although the author had access to official documents and obviously made extensive use of them, he seldom cites documentary sources- a serious shortcoming, particularly in the absence of a bibliography".[37] Similarly, USAAF official historian Robert F. Futrell noted in his review of Air War Against Japan 1943–1945 that "While the author acknowledges the official collection of the RAAF War History Section as his principal source, the volume contains no bibliography, or essay on sources, and footnote citations are unusually sparse. This lack of exact documentation reduces the value of the history to serious military scholars, who may well wish to evaluate the author's facts in terms of their source".[38] The next official military history series commissioned by the Australian Government, Australia in the Korean War 1950–53 (published between 1981 and 1985), included footnotes to primary sources.[39]

The level of detail in the series was also considered excessive by some reviewers. While British official historian Stephen Roskill regarded Royal Australian Navy, 1942–1945 as being "well written, excellently illustrated and produced, and provided with a good index", he also stated that it was "perhaps too detailed for the general reader".[40] In his unfavorable review of The Final Campaigns Louis Morton, who wrote a volume in the official history of the US Army in World War II, judged that "even the student of military affairs and of World War II will find this meticulous account of operations that had little bearing on the final outcome far too detailed".[41] In 1992, Australian historian Peter Stanley suggested the The New Guinea Offensives' length and highly detailed narrative may have contributed to the fighting in New Guinea during 1943 and 1944 being little known amongst the general public and neglected by other historians.[42]

While much has been written on C.E.W. Bean and the other authors of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, there has to date been little research published on how Australia in the War of 1939–1945 was written and the experiences of Long and the other authors.[31]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Long (1970). "The History of Australia in World War II". Official Histories. Essays and bibliographies from around the world. p. 76.
  2. 1 2 3 Condé, Anne-Marie. "Gavin Long and the Official History of Australia in the War of 1939–1945". Archived from the original on 25 July 2008. Retrieved 17 August 2008.
  3. Long (1944), p 95
  4. Long (1944), p 96
  5. Grey (2008), p. 457
  6. Edwards (2003). "Continuity and Change in the Australian Official History Tradition". The last word? Essays on official history in the United States and British Commonwealth. p. 75. OCLC 129244.
  7. Horner (1982). High Command. Australia and Allied Strategy 1939–1945. Dust jacket. ISBN 0-86861-076-3. OCLC 9464416.
  8. Ramsey, Alan (22 April 2006). "A mateship that spoke volumes". Opinion. The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 29 July 2008. Retrieved 26 August 2008.
  9. 1 2 Edwards (2003), p. 71
  10. Kahn (2010), pp. 1235–1237
  11. Horner (2016), p. 75
  12. Long (1970). "The History of Australia in World War II". Official Histories. Essays and bibliographies from around the world. pp. 76–77.
  13. 1 2 Long (1970). "The History of Australia in World War II". Official Histories. Essays and bibliographies from around the world. p. 77.
  14. Long (1970). "The History of Australia in World War II". Official Histories. Essays and bibliographies from around the world. p. 78.
  15. Edwards (2003), p. 72
  16. "Official histories: Second World War". Australian War Memorial. Archived from the original on 2 October 2008. Retrieved 29 October 2008.
  17. Edwards (2000). "Australian Official War Histories 1970–1994". Official Military Historical Offices and Sources. Volume II: The Western Hemisphere and Pacific Rim. p. 8.
  18. 1 2 Long (1973). The Six Years War. A Concise History of Australia in the 1939–1945 War. p. xiii.
  19. Dennis; et al. (1995). "Gill, (George) Hermon". The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. p. 268. ISBN 0-19-553227-9.
  20. Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (1999). The loss of HMAS Sydney. pp. 5–7.
  21. Frame (1993). HMAS Sydney. Loss and Controversy. pp. 152–157. ISBN 0-340-58468-8.
  22. 1 2 Dennis; et al. (1995). "Gillison, Douglas Napier". The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. pp. 268–269. ISBN 0-19-553227-9.
  23. Veitch, Harriet (31 March 2008). "The last keeper of the flame". Obituaries. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 26 August 2008.
  24. Clark, W. R. (1996). "Herington, John (1916–1967)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 11 September 2008.
  25. 1 2 Dennis; et al. (1995). "Herington, John". The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. p. 289. ISBN 0-19-553227-9.
  26. Edwards (2003), p. 76
  27. Dennis; et al. (1995). "Hasluck, Paul". The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. p. 288. ISBN 0-19-553227-9.
  28. Schedvin, C. B. (1993). "Butlin, Sydney James Christopher Lyon (Syd) (1910–1977)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
  29. Dennis; et al. (1995). "Mellor, David". The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. pp. 389–390. ISBN 0-19-553227-9.
  30. Gandevia, Bryan, G. L. McDonald (1990). "Walker, Allan Seymour (1887–1958)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 7 September 2008.
  31. 1 2 Nelson. "Report on historical sources on Australia and Japan at war in Papua and New Guinea, 1942–45". Retrieved 6 September 2008.
  32. Dennis; et al. (1995). "Walker, Allan Seymour". The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. pp. 626–627. ISBN 0-19-553227-9.
  33. Maclean (1993). A Guide to the Records of Gavin Long. p. 71. ISBN 0-642-19681-8.
  34. Herring, Edmund (1973). "Foreword". In Gavin Long. The Six Years War. A Concise History of Australia in the 1939–1945 War. p. v.
  35. Beaumont (1996). "Introduction". Australia's War, 1939–1945. p. 7.
  36. Edwards (2000). "Australian Official War Histories 1970–1994". Official Military Historical Offices and Sources. Volume II: The Western Hemisphere and Pacific Rim. p. 7.
  37. Olson, James C. (August 1963). "Royal Australian Air Force, 1939–1942. By Douglas Gillison". Pacific Historical Review. 32 (3): 327–328. doi:10.2307/4492212.
  38. Futrell, Robert F. (Summer 1959). "Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series Three: Air, Volume II: Air War Against Japan 1943–1945. By George Odgers". Military Affairs. 23 (3): 108–109. doi:10.2307/1985512.
  39. Edwards (2003), p. 74
  40. Roskill, Stephen (July 1970). "Royal Australian Navy, 1942–1945". International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944– ). 42 (3): 621–22.
  41. Morton, Louis (July 1964). "Australia in the War of 1939–1945 by Gavin Long". The American Historical Review. 69 (4): 1071–1072. doi:10.2307/1842972.
  42. Stanley (1993), p. 5


Further reading

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/3/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.