Reviewed by Ian Lipke
A review by Neville Taylor in http://www.rusivic.org.au/hero-or-deserter (Aug 2017) sets the scene of General Gordon Bennett’s world in the turmoil of 1942 Malaysia.
In circumstances that no divisional commander would wish upon himself, Bennett was faced with having one of his three infantry brigades being split and moved to West Timor (Sparrow Force), Rabaul (Lark Force) and Ambon (Gull Force). He then had to confront the Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula with no British contingency plans, defensive preparations, or air sea cover. The Division fought valiantly at Gemencheh-Gemas and Muar but had to fall back to the island of Singapore. Here the area of responsibility was so large that the troops were unable to defend the mangrove coastline because they were spread far too thinly…These events resulted in the Division being regarded as ‘a failure’ – which to this day it has had to wear from some quarters. The description of conditions in POW camps and the workforces does not pull any punches, but emphasises the camaraderie and stoic approach of the Australians during their incarceration.
Roger Maynard’s Hero or Deserter is both the story of Gordon Bennett and an analysis of a decision he made when commanding the Eighth Division of the Australian Imperial Forces in the defence of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula in 1942. The author has unearthed a mountain of material and has then put the question in the title to his readers.
Much of Maynard’s book is devoted to giving us a living picture of the man named Gordon Bennett. We note the vividness of the picture’s many faces and discover the comprehensiveness of the reporting of the actions of the 8th Division. We have to marvel at the stoicism of the Australian soldier, we laugh at his jokes as the bullets and the grenades whiz around him, and we admire his fighting spirit, his loyalty to his comrades, as he realizes, although he cannot put it in words, that the “brass” had failed him in tactics and defence.
Most military historians can summon up the details of the defence and subsequent surrender of Singapore in World War 2. They will need no reminders that the fighting was fierce, and that the Japanese had no conception of just how valiantly the Australian soldier will fight to preserve what is his. The episode where the Australians were given the task of burning the local currency and their subsequent card playing with huge sums was new (and highly entertaining) to me.
However, the details of Bennett’s ‘escape’ are not as well documented. The decision to leave his men is partly explained by the type of man that Bennett was. Driven by ambition, Gordon Bennett served with distinction as a citizen soldier in the First World War, demobilising from active service with the rank of General at age 32. Returning to work as an accountant he remained in the citizen army and, at age 26, led the 2nd Australian Division.
One of Bennett’s faults was his irascibility, his harsh comments about the shortcomings of the military and the Army’s senior leaders were never muted. With the onset of World War 2 Bennett found himself isolated from a high command. At age 52 he felt he had much to offer but his public criticism and aggressive attitude had not endeared him to senior staff. His most vocal critic, General Sir Cyril White, Chief of the General Staff, had the misfortune to be killed in a plane crash, thus creating a vacancy to which Gordon Bennett was appointed. As vocal as White had been, but much more subtle, General Thomas Blamey’s criticism of his rival did much to steer the direction of the two enquiries into Bennett’s decision to leave Singapore, and his men, without approval of his Commanding Officer.
Maynard has much to say about the Malaysian campaign. In particular, he presents a balanced view of the 8th Division and the situations that the soldiers faced while their leaders were negotiating a surrender to the Japanese. I was astounded to read that the Japanese were contemplating withdrawal from the peninsula because the Australians would not ‘give up’ and they were quickly running out of bullets.
One of the strengths of the book lies in the interviews with men who were present at this moment in history. Their contributions give a personal touch to a story that is about envy, ambition and the settling of scores. Maynard covers Bennett’s escape from Singapore in some detail, but it is the subsequent events that drive the story from this point on.
There is an air of inevitability as to the course of events once the Army enquiry and subsequent Royal Commission get underway. Blind Freddie would know that the dice were loaded and Bennett’s reputation ruined. The only point of interest is the careful analysis of Tom Fry whose knowledge of the law revealed that the Bennett verdict might well have been unsustainable.
I was reminded of the view that there is the law and there is justice. Justice for Gordon Bennett came when the rank and file, not the officers, endorsed his escape and showed the high regard in which they held him. The degree of personal animosity and the cultivation of ego are well displayed to the detriment of Bennett’s enemies, while the definitive statement of support for Gordon Bennett came when the whole community flocked to his funeral.
Maynard has written a very sound book that anyone interested in military matters should read. Others who have no such interest should read it as a reinforcer of the futility of war, and a descriptor of the depths that human beings will invest their energies in, when pursuing power.
By Roger Maynard
Penguin Random House