Australia’s Secret Army
The story of the Coast Watchers,
the unsung heroes of Australia’s Armed forces
during World War II
Sydney, NSW: Hachette, 2022
Paperback 352pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, December 2022
The story of the 'Bravest of the Brave", is not a cliche when referring to the Coast Watchers who maintained surveillance over Japanese naval and military activities in the South-West Pacific and South Pacific Areas of Operations before and during World War 2. It would take a lengthier and much more detailed work than this. Michael Veitch has written mainly about the founders of this remarkable and strategically invaluable group, and of some of the men who worked with them. They did this at great risk to their personal safety, and with only limited resources, contributing greatly to the Allies' successes in the long and arduous campaign fought between early 1942 and 1945.
It tells the story of the gallant few Coastwatchers who operated in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. Usually they operated alone or with the help of a handful expatriate planters, merchants and Civil Service officers, and local indigenous people, some of whom were members of the various island Police Services. All of them were volunteers and were at risk of discovery if betrayed by local people who collaborated with the Japanese, or by prisoners who were unable to resist the brutal interrogation of the Japanese forces.
The poor stated of preparedness in Australia during the pre-war period, 1935-1941, and from after Pearl Harbor to the end of hostilities is highlighted. This is a tale of a lack of planning by the civil governments, civil authorities and naval and military commanders and planning staff. Many proved to be incompetence, obstructive and unwilling to accept that civilians or hastily-recruited volunteer officers could provide any useful contribution to Australia's defence in wartime. That their significant contribution to the Allied victories in the Pacific Theatre was made despite this indifference, and despite a lack of support and resources, is to the credit of the Coastwatchers leaders - men like Eric Feldt, Walter Brooksbank, Rupert Long, Donald Kennedy and Reg Evans - and so many others cast in the same unbreakable mould.
Although the Coastwatchers were not fully appreciated by the Australian military higher command, the senior Americans in the Pacific area were aware of their contribution. Veitch ends his story with an account of the meeting between Coastwatcher Paul Mason and US Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, Commander of the South Pacific Area and the US Third Fleet. Mason, waiting in an anteroom to be interviewed, stood up when Admiral Halsey entered the room. Halsey motioned to Mason to be seated, saying, ‘When I'm in the room with you, Mr Mason, I'll be the one doing the standing.’, because Halsey knew the value and valour of the Coastwatchers, all of whom had his earned respect and admiration.
It is on this note that Michael Veitch ends his account. It is a highly readable account of the wartime activities of this group of exceptionally competent and brave men. If there is any criticism of this book, it is that it is, perhaps, too short - there are many other stories that could be told of devotion to duty under appallingly difficult and dangerous conditions by selfless men who were truly among 'the bravest of the brave'.
Fortunately. there is a bibliography of 27 books covering the service careers of many of the Coastwatchers, who served Australia so valiantly, often for little reward. This is an excellent start-point for a deeper study of their work. Mr Veitch has made a very readable and enthralling contribution to our understanding of the lives of these very brave men.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.