Dolphin Books

The price of war — plus the odd tin of bickies

Tony Stephens

At key moments during World War II Tom Mead kept a close eye on Canberra’s decision makers.

War can be ridiculous, particularly in hindsight, but for the Australian Government to have paid the British Government for the fares of Australian soldiers bound for the Middle .East to help Britain during World War II might take the ridiculous cake. Or the biscuit, because it seems that the British also charged for biscuits eaten by the Australians on the way.

The revelation comes from Tom Mead, a former journalist and politician, in a new book of memoirs, Breaking The News. The book reflects, above all, time passing.

Mead was a journalist in Canberra during the war when Prime Minister John Curtin would often hold two press conferences a day. Prime ministerial media conferences are rare today. Australia did not have television in Curtin’s day and radio reporters were rare in Canberra. So Curtin would hold a conference for the afternoon newspapers around midday and one for the morning papers in the evening.

Curtin’s concern for the safety of Australian men serving overseas is well known. He died at 60, a few weeks before the war ended, and it is generally believed that the war killed him, although his daughter, Elsie Macleod, blames his death, at least partly, on his smoking. Frank Green, Clerk of the House, told how he once dropped in on The Lodge after midnight only to find the Prime Minister standing alone in the moonlight.

Green: “Anything wrong?”
Curtin: “Can’t sleep.”
Green: “Can you tell me why?”
Curtin, after a minute’s silence: “How can I sleep while our transports are in the Indian Ocean with the Japanese submarines looking for them?”

Curtin did not go to bed until the transports reached Freemantle several days later.

The Prime Minister had said: “There is no part of the British Empire more steadfast in loyalty to the British way of living and British institutions than Australia. Our loyalty to His Majesty the King goes to the very core of our national life.”

Yet Mead says that Curtin was becoming dissatisfied with the lack of response from Britain to Australia’s plight, facing invasion almost defenceless at home and with frontline Australian troops in the Middle East while Japanese troops were landing in New Guinea.

Mead days that Curtin told reporters at a midday conference: “Now, I’m going to tell you something off the record for the guidance of you and your editors. I’m going to bring the Sixth Division back from the Middle East. Britain insists on holding our forces to defend the Middle East, but Japanese armies are swarming south and we need our divisions here to defend us. I’m going to bring them home.”

The Prime Minister added: “You know, I’m pretty disgusted with their attitude. We’ve sent four divisions away to help Britain and they’ve charged us about £80 a head for their fares to the Middle East. Not only that. They’ve charged us for every tin of biscuits eaten on the way.”

Mead witnessed other historic moments. General Douglas MacArthur told a wartime dinner in Canberra: “We shall win or we shall die and to this end I pledge you the full resources of all the mighty power of my country and all the blood of my countrymen.”

MacArthur then sat in the House of Representatives while the “well oiled” Rowley James kept interjecting before being removed from the chamber. “If the men of Australia fight as well as they argue,” the Allied commander said, “we are certain of victory.”

Mead also reviewd classical music concerts for The Daily Telegraph. Returning to the office on the night of June 13, 1951 from a Musica Viva concert at the Sydney Conservatorium, Mead founf the Telegraph in turmoil. Opposition Leader and former Prime Minister Ben Chifley had died in his room at the Kurrajong Hotel, Canberra, where the bathroom he shared with other guests was down the hall. Prime Miniser Bob Menzies broke the news, with tears in his eyes, at the jubilee ball marking the 50th Aniversary of Federation: “It is my very sorrowful duty… he was a great friend of mine and yours and a fine Australian… the festivities of tonight should end… there will be no more music…”

The Telegraph did not have a prepared obituary. Mead wrote one. Then he wrote his concert review, for the second edition. Mead offers some interesting insights into the Telegraph.

He says Frank (later Sir Frank) Packer often examined such things as reporters’ expense accounts and attendance at cadet classes. Asking cadet Ron Perry why he had missed shorthand classes, the boss was told: “Because it interferes with my drinking time.” Perry was sacked, although Packer later relented.

Packer also complained that Jack Simpson, industrial reporter, was claiming £2 for having bought drinks for union officials at the Trades Hall Hotel: “What’s this two quid for entertainment? Two bob a week is enough.” Mead, then chief of staff who was to hold the Legislative Assembly seat of Hurstville for the Liberal Party from 1965 to 1976, became known as Two Bob Tommy at the Pub.

Sydney Morning Herald, September 1, 1998