Chester Wilmot’s War

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

It was 1942 and in the jungles of New Guinea Australian soldiers were battling their way along the Kokoda Track.

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Right by their side was Australian journalist Chester Wilmot, bringing the war back home for ABC radio.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: Coming back is a line of troops who have just been relieved after a month’s fighting near Kokoda. They are tired, muddy and unshaven. They’re only kids of 19 and 20, but they’ve done a grand job and earned their rest. There are wounded too.

We’ve been passing them in ones or twos for several hours. They must be going through hell on this track, especially those with leg wounds.

Some of the best reports of the war came from Chester Wilmot, regarded as one of the finest war correspondents of all time.

PETER FITZSIMONS, AUTHOR ‘KOKODA”: I do think, how is it that this guy’s name doesn’t resonate more? This is a guy that is absolutely a world-class reporter, and yet somehow his name has been lost for decades. I think it’s now coming back into vogue, and it should.

Chester Wilmot became lost to the Australian memory when he was forced into a kind of exile – punishment for waging his own war on the military’s top brass.

PETER FITZSIMONS: He was not a mere observer through the binoculars from a distance, saying what happened, which is the normal role I suppose, of a lot of war correspondents, not getting involved at all.

At Kokoda he observed what was happening, he observed the tactics and strategies that were being persued, the equipment which they were using, and came to the conclusion it just wasn’t good enough, that the Australian soldiers had to be better supported, and, rather then simply putting his information out there, he actually wanted to get involved in the political struggle, really to get rid of Blamey.

In the middle of the war, Chester Wilmot took on General Thomas Blamey, the commander-in-chief, and most powerful man in the Australian military. As revenge, Blamey sought to destroy his career.

PROFESSOR DAVID HORNER, BIOGRAPHER OF GENERAL THOMAS BLAMEY: You’ve got to remember this is a full-scale war on here. Blamey is concerned with fighting a world war and lives of Australians are at stake, policy decisions need to be made, and what he doesn’t need is somebody trying to undermine his authority as commander-in-chief.

MERIEL WILMOT BROWN, CHESTER WILMOT’S COUSIN: He was essentially a very honest man and he saw the Australian troops being betrayed by this man who was incompetent, a venal man in very way. And I think it was.. he had enormous respect for the Australia fighting man, and he felt they were being betrayed.

NEWSREEL: To the 2nd AIF came the raw material of an army.

In 1940 Australia was preparing for war. So too was the 29-year-old relatively inexperienced journalist, Chester Wilmot.

NEIL McDONALD, BIOGRAPHER OF CHESTER WILMOT: He had done some journalistic work before, mainly sports reporting, but I think it was the historian’s training that was so important – these were historical events, here were participants, ask them what happened, and put it down. I think also important, he had done cricket matches, and following a sporting event is a very good training for following a battle.

Wilmot’s first major battlefield was in the Middle East, including the now-famous battles of Tobruk.

PETER FITZSIMONS: I suppose in the course of researching Tobruk I’ve read all sorts of people, you know, you do your research – what it was like in Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, what it was like in North Africa – none of them are as good as Wilmot.

More than 50 years later, author and historian Peter FitzSimons is writing a book on Tobruk, and relying heavily on the reports of Chester Wilmot.

PETER FITZSIMONS: And there’s wonderful writing from Wilmot, where at 1:00 in the morning he talks about the slow rumble of trucks getting into place, and looking around and you can see the dim fires where the cooks are getting ready to get the breakfast for the guys who are about to go in. And you’re right there with him.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: As soon as the moon rose about 1:30 on the night of the battle, I set out by car to drive round the Australian lines on the south-eastern front. At most of the units the men were still sleeping in their shallow trenches, but the cooks were already busy preparing a hot meal for them. They had dug small trenches to hide their fires and stews simmered in huge dixies at every camp.

The night itself was amazingly still and clear, occasionally a short burst of machine-gun fire or the roar of an odd gun reminded me that I was at the front and from time to time I could hear the rumble of motor lorries and tanks which were moving up to the assembly areas behind the start line.

It was in the Middle East that Chester Wilmot formulated his distinctive approach to journalism, an approach that would later get him in trouble. He began not just reporting on the war, but critiquing it. One example of this was when Chester Wilmot used a trip back to Australia – where he couldn’t be subject to military censorship – to report on problems with Allied tanks, and suggest improvements.

NEIL McDONALD: He was making these sort of suggestions, which clearly had to have come from tank officers. This was not taken very well at all. In fact, he was banned form reporting on the desert war for about two months as a result of this, and that came directly from Sir Thomas Blamey.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: In one of the wards, General Sir Thomas Blamey talks to some of the wounded.

This was just a precursor for the more serious confrontation to come between General Blamey and the precocious young reporter.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: By July 1942 the Japs have tightened their grip on the Solomons, New Britain and the coast of Australian New Guinea.

The launch of the war in the Pacific took Chester Wilmot to a new battle front.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: In August, they carry their attack into the Owen Stanleys, heading for Moresby.

NEIL McDONALD: He arrived just about the time when everything went sky-high.

In September 1942 Wilmot joined the beleaguered 39th Battalion on the Kokoda Track as they fell back in the face of the Japanese onslaught. He reported home a piece called ‘And our troops were forced to withdraw.”

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: From the valley now comes more machine-gun fire and the bursts strike staccato notes as they echo up the valley in the still night air. They sound much nearer than they are but maybe they’re nearer than we think, you never know in the forest just where they are but we’ve got patrols out all round just in case. Slowly we see our hopes fade as the clouds come down and shield the enemy. Things are still going his way. He got in first, he has the numbers, and now he’s getting little breaks like this. But he’s still paying for every yard he advances. He’s still being fought all the way by men who hate withdrawing and refuse to admit defeat.

According to his biographer, Chester Wilmot realised that Australian soldiers were being let down by their high command.

NEIL McDONALD: From the beginning, it was clearly a complete foul-up. They didn’t have the right uniforms, the troops had not been properly trained, nobody knew anything about jungle fighting, the 7th Division, where these battalions came from, had been in Queensland for far too long, they had no reconnaissance in depth of the Kokoda Track. So he was critical from the very beginning.

They didn’t have trenching tools to be able to dig in. And he mentions all of this in his reports. And in the broadcasts, some of which were censored, he was very critical from the beginning, and he was allowed to be critical by New Guinea force headquarters, but it was bitterly resented at land forces headquarters, Blamey’s HQ, largely because many of the mistakes were theirs, they were logistical mistakes that started at the top.

Neil MacDonald has uncovered the original script of one of Wilmot’s censored reports. The fact that this never made it to air is not surprising. It says that Australian troops were dying unnecessarily.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: We must feel proud of the men who fought so gallantly to halt the Japanese in the Owen Stanley Range, but the fight was costly. Once again it was a case of sending a boy on a man’s errand. Once again the enemy got in first with his attack.

But by this time the damage had been done, a chance had been lost, and because of this I felt bitter as I stood on that spur of the Owen Stanley Range looking down the treetops in the valley that leads to Kokoda.

I was bitter for I knew that somewhere under those treetops there were unnecessary Australian graves.

The censor’s pen made short work of the provocative claim that young men were dying unnecessarily. With the campaign struggling, General Blamey came to New Guinea and sacked the general in charge on the ground. Wilmot viewed the sacked general as an excellent leader, struggling under the incompetent Blamey. It was the last straw for Wilmot, who decided to take an extraordinary step.

One Sunday afternoon in late 1942, he arrived at Parliament House in Canberra. He’d come to see the Prime Minister, John Curtin. A first-hand account of what happened at that meeting comes from Professor J.D.B. Miller, who, back then, was a 19-year-old working for the ABC at Parliament House.

PROFESSOR J.D.B. MILLER: I was in the newsroom in Canberra, I think perhaps it was a Sunday afternoon. There was no-one else there. Chester turned up looking very angry and distressed. He’d been to see the Prime Minister, to tell him what he thought were Blamey’s wickednesses and the Prime Minister, Curtin, had given him a very good hearing but had said, “Look, there’s only two things we can do with Blamey. We must either back him or sack him, and we can’t sack him – it would be so bad for morale here in Australia. So everything you say may be right, but we’ve got to back him.”

REPORTER: What was Chester’s reaction to this conversation with the PM, as he told you?

PROFESSOR J.D.B. MILLER: He was very disappointed and distressed and he couldn’t see what to do next.

VOICE OVER RADIO: Fear laps the shores of Australia. Anxious days would seem lighter in retrospect but they were anxious days.

For Chester Wilmot to take his complaints about Blamey to the Prime Minister at a time of national crisis was amazing.

VOICE OVER RADIO: Bombs rain on Darwin, a devastating raid shatters the town…

PROFESSOR J.D.B. MILLER: Censorship was present at every point of journalism, and it was so widely felt to be necessary. The most common phrase used when this was discussed was, ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?” And that would excuse almost any coercive or harsh action which the government seemed to be taking.

I was shocked by the whole episode, it was so unlike what I was used to and I was full of admiration for the way he was trying to stick up for what he regarded as right.

Shortly after Wilmot’s trip to Canberra, General Blamey stripped him of his official accreditation, effectively ending his career as a frontline reporter. Chester Wilmot was relegated to reporting on the Anzac Day march in Sydney, instead of from the front line. The reason given for his disaccreditation was that he was undermining the position of the commander-in-chief.

NEIL McDONALD: I think the position of Sir Thomas Blamey should have been undermined. He was a corrupt, drunken incompetent, he had some reasonable qualities – he was a reasonable staff officer. He wasn’t as bad, as Ralf Hoor used to say, that he was Monash’s pot-bellied clerk, he wasn’t quite that bad, but he was a man whose lack of judgment resulted in the deaths of many, many Australians.

General Blamey’s biographer says it’s not fair to blame all the mistakes of the New Guinea campaign on the Australian military leader.

PROFESSOR DAVID HORNER: There certainly were flaws in the New Guinea campaign and Blamey is at fault for a good number of them but the commander-in-chief in the South Pacific area, General Douglas MacArthur, the American commander, is also at fault. A lot of it revolves around not accepting intelligence assessments that the Japanese were going to advance in New Guinea, assessments about the capacity of the Japanese to do it, and decisions made not to reinforce New Guinea in the first half of 1942. So Blamey has to bear a share of that.

To say that Blamey is incompetent is one of these easy throwaway lines. You have to remember he was our top military commander for the full six years of the war, he was concerned with the broad sweep of army activities, advising the government on high policy, organising the army, commanding certain campaigns. He must have had some competence to do that.

Professor Horner says perhaps Chester Wilmot wasn’t the expert he thought he was.

PROFESSOR DAVID HORNER: He certainly had valid concerns as an observer, to see that things were not right in New Guinea. Whether he is in a position to make a broad sweeping judgment of the whole lot, as a journalist, is not always…not necessarily the case.

Did he have full access to all the information? Does he know what’s happening in other theatres? Does he know what other pressures are on the government or on the commanders for deployment of troops? Probably not.

And if an accredited journalist comes in and the first thing he writes is that the commander who has given me access is hopeless, how do you think that commander would react?

NEIL McDONALD: I think it comes back to the role of a journalist in a democracy. After all, it’s our people, blood and treasure that is used, it is not the private domain of the military, and when the military are, as they were, making mistakes, and ignoring the best advice that they were getting from their own people then someone has to step in, and in this case it was Chester Wilmot. And it sounds awfully modern, doesn’t it?

According to Neil Macdonald, Blamey’s vendetta against Wilmot continued even after he was disaccredited. The then-head of the ABC, Sir Charles Moses, had to find an escape for him.

NEIL McDONALD: They had heard rumours that Blamey was going to use the Manpower Act to get him back into the army. As Moses said to me, a latrine unit was waiting. So he cabled the BBC, who’d been quite anxious to get Mr Wilmot, ‘Wilmot available,” and they immediately said, “Yes, we’d like him to come across to the BBC and join our war report team.”

REPORTER: So this was essentially to stop him being enlisted?

NEIL McDONALD: That’s right.

Despite apparent attempts by Blamey to stop this, Chester went on to work for the BBC. On D-day he actually landed with British troops in a glider at Normandy.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: With grinding brakes and creaking timbers, we jolted, lurched and landed in northern France early this morning. The glider in which I travelled came off better then most. The bottom of the nose was battered in, the wings and tail assembly were slashed here and there but she came to rest on her three wheels, even though she had mown down five stout posts that came in her path and although we virtually crash-landed in a ploughed field.

Chester Wilmot remained in Britain after the war, working for the BBC, becoming a high-profile radio and television reporter.

CHESTER WILMOT: I put my questions to him through his own interpreter. The message that you want to leave…

Here’s he’s interviewing Yugoslavia’s’s General Tito. His fame grew when he wrote ‘Struggle For Europe’, an account of the war that is still regarded as one of the best there is.

In 1954, while coming back from a story, Chester Wilmot boarded an ill-fated Comet airliner that crashed in the Mediterranean. At the age of 42, Chester Wilmot was dead.

NEIL McDONALD: His wife was at the airport, and remembered to her dying day the fact that when they took the sign that the Comet was to land off the noticeboard, and the young daughter walked down the street, and crying out as they went back, “My father was Chester Wilmot, he was a famous, famous man,” and that was the end. And it was one of the great tragedies of Australian history, because he was going to do the official history of Tobruk and the Western Desert.

A memorial service was held in London. His cousin Meriel was there.

MERIEL WILMOT BROWN: I remember the… I’ve got a copy of that service but I remember the quotation from it, on the front of the service paper. ‘And all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.” I thought it was a lovely statement. I’m hoping that this program that you’re doing will remind Australians of a very great Australian who has not been well-known there. I suppose it was because he left there before the end of the war that he faded into other people’s memories at that stage.

REPORTER: What do you think his legacy is?

PETER FITZSIMONS: His legacy is that his work lives on and writers like me, and there’ll be plenty of other writers after me that will write about Kokoda, and there’ll be plenty of writers coming after me that will write about Tobruk.

All of us we look to the foundation stone work of the guy who was actually on the ground at the time, putting it all together, was Chester Wilmot.

VOICE OF CHESTER WILMOT: Even though they’ve been forced back, they’re determined, cheerful and remarkably unconcerned. You can drive men like this back, but you can’t conquer them. Nothing tests troops as much as a withdrawal and they’re standing this test. But neither they nor you want any more talk about “glorious withdrawals”. That’s why I’ve tried to tell this story simply as I saw it.