Soldiers and Aliens
Men in the Australian Army’s Employment Companies
during World War II
Carlton, VIC: Melbourne University Press, 2022
Paperback 352pp RRP $39.99
Reviewer: Mike O’Brien, May 2022
Melbourne University Press is a publisher that can be relied on to present a well-constructed book. This is no exception. What’s more, the book discusses an important subject, one not dealt with comprehensively elsewhere. It does so in a straightforward and lucid way.
June Factor is the daughter of an alien, once an enemy alien, so declared in the Second World War. She is a practising social historian.
At the outset of that war there were many people in Australia of German and Italian origin. During the conflict that group was added, such as those unfortunates transported here on the Dunera. Initially all were treated with caution and suspicion – war arouses and magnifies suspicion. However, many of these enemy aliens were refugees – another pejorative term – fleeing fascist regimes. Not all were Jewish, though this group had excellent reasons to seek asylum. So, to take an example, was a German Jewish refugee an enemy? Simply answered, no! Was a naturalised person of Italian or German extraction and alien or an enemy alien? ‘True’ enemy aliens needed to be interned – did all aliens? – What about other non-naturalised foreigners?
As the war progressed it became evident that ‘friendly’ aliens could and should make a positive contribution to the national effort. They were formed into Army Employment Companies (sometimes termed Labour Companies). These companies were uniformed, unarmed and served only in Australia. They were officered by non-alien soldiers, but the non-commissioned officers were chosen from the ‘alien’ ranks. They received army pay. Their officers were not all the best the military had. They were a labour force, lashing, loading and unloading warlike stores, but not supposed to take the job of civilians. They were free to move within the wider community subject to the normal Army disciplines and requirements. They were subject to scrutiny by the not-always-competent security services.
The employment companies contributed significantly to the war effort. They suffered unjust criticism from segments of the community, vocal elements of whom were ant-semitic and racist. General MacArthur found them of particular use in setting up his Small Ships flotilla, paying them more in his service.
This fascinating and important book, among other issues, examines the setting-up of these companies, their work and leisure, the politics and religious issues and their post-war fate (perhaps disposal might be a better description). It’s a great read, and tells us much about a nation at war, not all of it pleasant.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.