- Thomson, Max
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1989 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Few things bugged wartime Australians more than censorship.
When it came to news from the far-flung battlefronts where Australians in thousands were involved in the fighting, the lack of knowledge as to what really was taking place was the hardest of all for the civilian population to endure in those times of such uncertainty.
For they were times when families of servicemen and women dreaded the knock on the door that could bring bad tidings, and the hatred of seeing long casualty lists published day after day.
From the early days of the war authorities clamped down censorship control of news through the Department of Information, working with liaison officers from the various services.
‘Passed by the Censor’, ‘Approved by the Publicity Censorship Liaison Officers’ and a variety of versions of such approvals and authorisations were offset by the cautioning purple stamp with the words ‘Approved As Amended’. Subject to ‘Publicity Censorship — Naval Intelligence Division, Melbourne’ and its counterparts in the other services.
War correspondents battled sizzling heat of North African desert campaigns with the AIF, saw first-hand the drama of the Tobruk ‘Ferry Run’ as RAN ships struggled to get supplies into beleaguered Tobruk. They flew missions with RAAF bombers in North Africa and deep into enemy territory over Europe. They covered some of the war’s most notable sea battles.
Later war correspondents earned an enviable reputation alongside Australian forces in the mud, slush and jungle of Pacific warfronts. They saw the sheer awfulness of the Japanese kamikaze suicide bombers purposely self-destructing onto warships such as HMAS AUSTRALIA in the Philippines.
Ace cameramen like Damien Parer, killed in action at Pelelieu, won immortality with graphic film coverage of battle scenes. But war correspondents and their managements battled eternally with officialdom. Most of the clashes with authority centred around a growing tendency, as the war progressed, for tight censorship not merely on security aspects of news reporting but on the more vexed question of comment and its relationship to national morale and national reputation.
When General Macarthur set up his South-West Pacific Headquarters Command, many a war correspondent engaged in another battle — to ensure that Australians were given credit and recognition for the part they were playing especially during the early days of the New Guinea war.
Australians traditionally have always been somewhat sceptical of authority. People wondered how accurate were official casualty figures? How honest were reports of naval engagements, ship sinkings off our Australian coastline by enemy submarines, casualty reports from land battles or claims of enemy aircraft destroyed and our own losses in aerial warfare? What was the true position at Darwin where the Japanese had launched the first of some 60 attacks against our northern outpost? What had really happened to HMAS SYDNEY? What was the story behind rumours filtering through, about something called: ‘The Brisbane Line’?
Those and a myriad other questions were pondered.
Those who sent despatches from the theatres of war did their utmost in terms of obligation and sheer commonsense to ensure no information was included which could in any way help the enemy.
Yet the swooping hand of the censor wielding his thick crayon, frequently cut a swathe through efforts to report what they could of the war’s progress to people back home. There were occasions when despatches tended to look more like pianola rolls.
Censorship of personal, private mail was even harder to take. Letters to husbands, fiances, relatives and friends were all open to censorship; as were letters back to Australia from servicemen and women. Equally, navy, army and air force officers hated the task of having to plough through letters penned by men they commanded to relatives back home, as they fulfilled to varying degrees of earnestness, the requirement of initial service censorship.
Yet despite the best officialdom could do, it could not beat the renowned Australian ‘bush telegraph’. It worked at its best in World War 2. One of the best examples was provided by the return of the 9th Division AIF, from the Middle East to take up the fight in the Pacific against the Japanese who were poised to invade Australia. Despite the tightest security over ship and troop movements, when QUEEN MARY, AQUITANIA and ISLE DE FRANCE carrying the 9th Division arrived off Sydney,, vantage points were jam-packed with people anxious to see the great liners and the men of the renowned battle-hardened AIF division.
The entire spectrum of censorship seemed to be summed up so succinctly by one enterprising Australian ‘Digger’ in Borneo at war’s end when he held up a grubby length of old canvas on which was emblazoned the dramatic words: ‘UNCENSORED: JAPANESE SURRENDER’.
In the year after the war, books flowed endlessly from publishing houses and from official and unofficial historians anxious to tell the full, true story of what had transpired in six years of global conflict.
Analysis of so many of those accounts means so much in terms of our national history as Australia crosses the threshold to begin its third century of recorded achievement.