War, Sacrifice and the Search for Justice
Ian W Shaw
Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2023
Paperback 336pp RRP: $32.99
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, August 2023
To the families and friends of those who go to war and fail to return, to be reported as missing may be almost as bad as the certainty of death itself. Ian Shaw has written about one case out of thousands, but a case where ’missing’ becomes ‘a prisoner of war’ whose whereabouts are unknown.
This is a very Australian story. The subject, Daryl Maxwell Sproule, is the third son of Irene McDevitt and Albert Sproule and the book begins by describing the early days of the McDevitt family in southern Tasmania. Daryl was a gifted musician who graduated in law at the University of Tasmania in 1939 and was also an excellent footballer, whose exploits on the field are covered in some detail.
In 1940 Daryl, who had volunteered for the RAAF at the beginning of the war, was posted to South Australia for flying training and then to RAAF Point Cook with 21 (City of Melbourne) Squadron flying Wirraway aircraft. The squadron then moved to Malaya with two Hudson squadrons and was based on Singapore Island as the RAAF’s contribution to the air defence of Malaya. The passion of Australian servicemen for Australian Rules football continued and matches were arranged between the 2/9th Field Ambulance team, representing the Australian Army and the combined RAAF team led by Daryl Sproule for the ‘Champions of the East”. This sporting interlude was ended by the Japanese invasion on the morning of 8 December 1941.
By this time 21 Squadron’s obsolete Wirraways had been replaced by the not-much-better American Buffalos, but these were slow and no match for Japanese Zero fighters. The defence of Malaya relied on the striking power of the air force with the army being deployed to defend the airfields. This plan rapidly collapsed when the defending British Blenheim light bombers and the Australian Buffalos were quickly destroyed – often on the ground - by more modern Japanese aircraft and the airfields then abandoned. Ian Shaw provides a good description of this chaotic situation as their aircraft were destroyed and they were forced back to Singapore and eventually evacuated by sea.
Back in Australia Daryl was confirmed as a flight lieutenant and posted to No 77 Squadron RAAF flying the new American Kittyhawk fighters. The squadron moved to Papua where it was based near Milne Bay and then on Goodenough Island from where strikes were carried out against the Japanese in New Britain. On 2 August 1943 newly-promoted Squadron Leader Sproule, on his first day in command, led his squadron on a sweep along the southern coast of New Britain where his aircraft was damaged and successfully ditched close to the beach. Daryl was seen to leave the aircraft and walk ashore into the jungle. At this point he was reported missing, but I must leave the last half of the book so as not to be a spoiler for the reader.
Ian Shaw has taken the case of a missing Australian squadron leader and turned it into a readable combination of family history, Australian Rules football, the air war against Japan, the home front and the consequences of going “missing”. There is a bibliography and extensive end notes. While all the information provided is interesting, I would have preferred that some of the early family history and details of the home front had been removed and the book shortened. That said, the descriptions of the fighting are well researched, and the second half of the book maintained my interest to the end.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.