Previous issues
Contact Us

Winter 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Articles

Who Killed John Curtin?

Hal G. P. Colebatch

When I began studying John Curtin several years ago I thought him a decent man but an overrated political figure, who, as Australia's Prime Minister in World War II after October, 1941, simply took on a task that was beyond him.

I now also believe Curtin was the tragic victim of his own struggles to free himself from "identity" politics.

He was also the victim of mental torture and anguish imposed on him by others, in particular perhaps Eddie Ward, Member for East Sydney and Minister for Labour and National Service in the Curtin Government during much of the most desperate period of the war. Whether or not this was at some level of consciousness deliberate on Ward's part is another matter.

I believe much of the responsibility for the death not only of Curtin, but also for the deaths of Australian servicemen, must also lie with certain militant unions and the leadership and policies which they accepted.

There were two main thrusts to the psychological pressure on Curtin: the question of conscription, which has received some attention from historians, and the wartime strikes, go/slows, sabotage and wrecking, which have not.

Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941. A few months before this Hitler had invaded Russia, and in Australia the Communist Party ("the C.P.A."), which had been opposing the war-effort, was now officially supporting it. However, Commonwealth Year Books, Unit War Diaries and other records, as well as a great body of anecdotal evidence, show strikes, stoppages, go-slows and sabotage on the coalfields, on the wharves, and in other industries did not stop with the C.P.A.'s change of heart and in many instances increased.

This suggests that these strikes etc. were not the work of the C.P.A. leadership, but rather of the militant part of the A.L.P.. The strikes were not rigorously opposed, or were even apparently given tacit encouragement, by Ward and others who possibly saw the war as an opportunity to break capitalism.

To give a few instances of the innumerable strikes, go/slows, etc. which occurred after July 1941, H.M.A.S. Sydney fell in with the Kormoran in November 1941, because a seamen's strike had delayed the ship it was convoying, the Zealandia (Curtin, perhaps unjustly, blamed Sydney’s loss on himself for not settling this earlier).

The 2nd/2nd Commandos embarking at Darwin for Timor in December 1941, had their delicate radios thrown into the ship's holds by watersiders who were annoyed their beer had not been unloaded.

They were written off after the Japanese invaded and if they had not been able to steal enough batteries and parts from the enemy to build another radio ("Winnie the War-Winner", now in the National War Memorial) they would have perished.

The departure of Sister Vivian Bullwinkle and other personnel of 2/13th Australian General Hospital aboard the hospital ship Wanganella to Malaya before the Japanese attack was disrupted when watersiders refused to load supplies and equipment. Early in 1942 others struck against unloading bombs, shells and munitions being hastily returned to Australia from the Middle East and sent from Britain despite the fact they were unfused.

On the Adelaide and Brisbane wharves U.S. aircraft and aero-engines were deliberately smashed. At Adelaide U.S. Servicemen fired tommy-guns and dropped stun-grenades on the lumpers who were deliberately dropping aero-engines from slings. At Brisbane aircraft to be unloaded were ripped apart by wharfies in revenge for American military police inspecting their lunch-kits for stolen cigarettes.

As the S.S. Tasman ferried troops from Townsville to New Guinea in early July, late July and early August 1942, a period when the whole Australian position in New Guinea was desperate, there were waterside strikes that delayed the loading not once but on every occasion. At the end of the war strikers prevented Australian servicemen repatriated from Japanese prison camps being disembarked from H.M.S. Speaker.

• • •

Although the entry by Japan and America into the war brought Australia into perceived danger of invasion, it also meant, once the great crisis was past by late 1942, that Allied victory was, given sufficient determination, merely a matter of time. By 1943 "post-war reconstruction" was being confidently set up. Thus, much of Curtin's Prime Ministership should actually have been less personally stressful than was the earlier war Prime Ministership, from 1939 to mid-1941, of Robert Menzies, when the British Empire was fighting alone against Hitler and when final defeat seemed inevitable because Britain was fast running out of money and resources. Menzies, too, endured actual heavy bombing when thousands were killed in London during the blitz.

Why then was Curtin destroyed by the job, while Menzies bounced back to lead Australia for many more years and lived to a ripe old age? Certainly Curtin and Menzies were differently constituted, but was there an explanation beyond that?

I suggest Curtin saw his "identity" as a trade unionist. This put him in an agonising psychological conflict when confronted by the conscription issue and by the apparently endless crises of wartime strikes.

Militant unionist Eddie Ward, as Minister for Labour and National Service, began by granting striking watersiders at Darwin virtually everything they wanted — making further strikes and ambit claims in all militant unions certain. It was said that for Ward the only war that existed was the class-war, and, despite the threat of the Japanese advance, vital sections of Australian production, and indeed Australia's very ability to move troops, were threatened and paralysed by thousands of strikes on the coalfields, the waterfront and in other strategically vital sectors. Nearly six million working days were lost by strikes during the war. Some coal-strike leaders were prosecuted, but I have not heard that any striking watersiders ever were — even those who deliberately struck to deny Australian troops supplies and equipment during major battles.

A leader in the Northam Advertiser, written by its founder and former proprietor, veteran Liberal politician Sir Hal Colebatch, who was my father, stated, when John Curtin visited Western Australia on 24 January 1942:

"[A]s far as his political opponents are concerned . . . criticism has been tempered by a recognition of Mr. Curtin's difficulties. The Left wing of Labour is fairly strongly represented in Cabinet and none outside the Ministerial circle know the extent to which Mr. Curtin's moderating influence has kept that element in check. The strain imposed by the duties and responsibilities of leadership is at all times acute: in extremities like this it is enough to tax the resources of the strongest man. Western Australia's welcome to her first Prime Minister will be accompanied by a very earnest wish that he may be endowed with a continuance of the health and strength necessary to the task."

Colebatch, despite being a political opponent of Curtin’s, had known him well for many years and worked with him (most of Colebatch's periods totalling about 10 years as West Australian Agent-General had been under State Labor Governments despite his having been a Liberal or Nationalist State Minister, Premier and Senator). He knew Curtin’s highly-strung and vulnerable nature. He appears to have been going as far as he could in warning — given considerations of wartime morale, the need for National unity and the journalistic conventions of the day — that dealing with the militants could be such a strain for Curtin as to threaten his physical health.

• • •

A few weeks later the battle of Milne Bay was fought. The Australians had no heavy guns because a wharf strike at Townsville had prevented them from being loaded in time. When the crane-drivers demanded quadruple time to load them U.S. servicemen finally shot the locks off the cranes and loaded them themselves onto a slow old tramp-steamer, the West Cactus, but the main convoy had sailed and the guns arrived too late. Australian soldiers reported that anti-aircraft gun-barrels without mountings were stacked on the beach at Milne Bay for the same reason. Given that the Japanese force attacking Milne Bay numbered only about 2,500 and the Allied defenders, mainly Australian with some U.S. air support, numbered about 9,000, allied casualties were high. It seems certain that with heavy gun support they would have been lower and the Japanese attacking force might have been destroyed before it landed.

Repairs to H.M.A.S. Hobart, Australia's last modern cruiser, after torpedoing in 1943, were delayed by walkouts so Hobart was out of action for more than a year.

Radar Station 317 at Green Island could not go on air during a crucial operation because at Townsville the radar valves had been removed. Eighteen U.S. two-seater Vultee Vengeance bombers returning from a raid on Rabaul became lost in a tropical storm and the crews of 16 of them perished. James Ahearn, an R.A.A.F. servicemen at Green Island wrote:

"Had No. 317 been on air it was possible the doomed aircraft could have been guided back to base. The grief was compounded by the fact that had it not been for the greed and corruption on the Australian waterfront such lives would not have been needlessly lost."

R.A.A.F. Sergeant H. T. Tolhurst, who had opened the box marked "Radio valves handle with care" and found it empty, commented:

"We believed that had we been on air it was possible that we could have guided those doomed aircraft back . . . All of the personnel keenly felt the loss of those . . . young lives. Our feelings were not helped by the scorn of the U.S. Air Force personnel who became aware of the reasons . . . and who tainted us with the contempt they held."

I have collected files on innumerable other cases showing that during World War II what amounted to a hidden war against Australia's own war-effort and servicemen and women was going on.

• • •

Ward, meanwhile, was a leader of the group blocking Curtin's wishes to bring in conscription for overseas service beyond New Guinea. Curtin said bitterly: "A man could be sent to Darwin to be bombed but could not be sent to Timor to stop Darwin being bombed."

Ward had declared in Parliament in April 1940, that anyone who advocated sending Australian troops overseas was "guilty of a traitorous act".

In the Bulletin of 6 January 1943, Norman Lindsay drew a cruel cartoon of a hunched, cringing Curtin begging humbly to be allowed to address the A.L.P. Conference on the subject of conscription, which in fact was not cartoonist’s licence but a depiction of exactly what happened: the Prime Minister was physically kept outside, being shown who was boss, until Conference deigned to admit him.

Curtin is said to have wept when Ward shouted at him that he was "putting young men into the slaughterhouse, although 30 years ago you wouldn’t go into it yourself!" If Ward was deliberately setting out to destroy Curtin, he could hardly have adopted better tactics.

Curtin told his United Australia Party predecessor as Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, shortly after this that his health was "only fair" and that he was suffering from a skin-condition, evidently psoriasis, which again had a psychological cause.

On 28 March 1943, Curtin walked out of a Caucus meeting when Arthur Calwell, another hard-line anti-conscriptionist, suggested that like many previous Labor leaders Curtin might defect to the other side of politics. Apparently this suggestion of "treason" to the movement in which he had spent his life was more than Curtin could bear: yet it was a gibe he could have shrugged off as meaningless abuse if it had not somehow touched a nerve and threatened his identity.

Ward, apparently pushing Curtin’s psychological buttons with considerable skill so as to cause him maximum distress, told him officially as a Minister on 12 April 1942, that to use the National Security (Manpower) Regulations to conscript miners and other strikers would be "a serious breach of faith with the trade union movement and from the point of view of the Labour movement fundamentally wrong", and claimed such actions would "curtail trade union liberties". Any question of a serious breach of faith with the fighting servicemen and women, with the prisoners in Japanese hands, or with Australia's allies did not, for Ward, arise.

Again, Ward told Curtin imperiously in regard to a coal-strike that: "Your release to the press of a statement . . . did not help in making the difficulties any less."

Curtin's physiological and psychological vulnerability was well-known by his Cabinet colleagues. In 1941 there had been opposition to the idea of his becoming Prime Minister because of "minor illnesses, thought to be nervous in origin, which had a habit of attacking him whenever heavy political weather arrived". Once, Chifley arrived in Canberra late at night to find a note from Curtin imploring him to come to the Lodge whatever the hour as he was "spiritually bankrupt"1. Chifley said anxiously: "[He] goes home and broods all night."

The strikes were putting him in a situation in one sense literally nightmarish as in the type of nightmare in which one runs and runs and never gets anywhere, every action slowed down and frustrated, but in another sense nightmarish because they came not from Australia's foreign enemies or even the political interests he had opposed but from the very movement to which he had devoted his life and with which he had deeply identified himself: from the source of his own "identity", at the very moment when he was trying to lead and speak "in the name of Australia".

His comments on the coal-strikers suggest a man grappling with something he simply could not fathom. After months of trying to settle one coal-strike after another, he made a bizarre claim that the leaders of the latest strike were miners who were also occupied as "taxi-drivers, starting-price bookmakers, billiard-room proprietors, dog trainers and the like." He said:

"The interruption to the services resulting from the strike did not produce one single reform that could not have been effected or was not being effected in other ways. At the same time it entirely dislocated vital aspects of the war effort of Australia and delayed important work connected with munitions, docks and other industries and constituted one of the incidents in a series of weaknesses all of which means that the man who actually goes short is not the man in Sydney but the man fighting for Sydney on the battlefront."

On 23 February 1944, when the war had been going four and a half years, Curtin delivered the second-reading speech of the Coal-Production (War-Time) Bill which would allow the government to take over mines. He claimed that to fail to do so would be to abdicate the functions of government and that:

"[R]egardless of who has been at fault, the nation itself will now take what action is necessary to cut this Gordian knot, and will itself become responsible for the production of the coal it needs."

Two weeks later he claimed despairingly:

"The miners not only refuse to respect the wishes and policy of the Government, but they also refuse to respect and heed the advice of their leaders . . . Stoppages . . . do not arise out of the normal disputes that unions have with employers over claims for improved conditions, for higher pay. Frankly, I do not know the basic cause which produces this state of mind." [emphasis added]

While not explaining "this state of mind," another view of it is given in a book by a former member of the Seamen's Union, George Stewart's The Leveller (Creative Research, Perth, 1979).

Stewart was a Union delegate aboard the steamship Time in 1943. He recounts with evident pride a series of major and damaging strikes over the most trivial matters, apparently entered into in order to be revenged on the hated "owners", while betraying a complete awareness of the seriousness of the military position and of the consequences of these strikes on the war effort.

He claims the ship Macedon was tied up for 11 days because the crew did not get marmalade jam. Apparently they had not been drawing it for some months (possibly in order to provoke a strike when no more was issued?). Further:

"The union instructed all crews on Australian Articles to draw all rations they were entitled to, and what was not used was to be dumped at sea. This . . . was carried out to the letter." [emphasis added].

Another stop-work meeting resolved that members of the Seamen's Union would not work on any ship unless "the company supplies us with a hot press for keeping our meals warm."

The S.S. Time sailed in February 1943, taking, among other things, high-octane fuel for the British and Australian Spitfires then based at Darwin to defend it against further Japanese air attacks. As Stewart recounts it:

"In Townsville we decided not to sail unless the company gave us an ice-box with ice from the ship's freezer [The Captain "borrowed" one], so we sailed with our dangerous and precious cargo, badly needed by the Spitfire Squadron at Darwin."

Two seamen on the Time found eight cases of creme de menthe among the cargo. Stewart claims (in the face of much evidence to the contrary from other sources, from which it is evident that stealing was continuous and systematic), that the maritime unions had a strict prohibition against stealing supplies from the troops, but a meeting of the seamen and firemen of the ship decided that this was the property of "some selfish officer with a pull somewhere" and on the basis of this assumption it was consumed without further qualms of conscience on the part of any concerned.

A curious incident now occurred, which appeared to jolt briefly and temporarily the seamen's sense of identity as a minority entitled to take whatever revenge on the world they might. On arriving at Darwin, Stewart and the other seamen encountered the men of the 2nd/2nd Independent Company, just evacuated from Timor:

"About this time the remnants of an A.I.F. Independent company had been rescued from Timor. We assisted in a small way and gave most of our fresh meat, vegetables, milk, tobacco and goodwill. But what could you say to walking skeletons, with dysentery so bad that watery shit ran down their legs as they walked, their big eyes that looked into your soul? Sores, scabs and war. Our hardships seemed like a Christmas holiday with a faint smell of petrol thrown in. I’ve wondered since what has happened to these heroic men and how did the nation repay them?"

We are not left long in doubt as to how part at least of the nation repaid them, for immediately after recounting this anecdote, and with apparently no sense of incongruity, Stewart follows this with the tale of yet another strike, one seriously damaging to the national economy and the war-effort, apparently precipitated immediately after by a few men on the Time. At Lucinda Point in Queensland, when loading sugar after leaving Darwin, the men stopped work because firemen were asked to work the boilers without a trimmer. The ship was held up a month, the entire port was tied up, and about 180 watersiders and other port-workers were idle, as Stewart put it, "in the darkest years of the war in Australia . . ." He continued: "We had fun ashore ... the war was not so bad after all."

In a private letter of 19 September 1944, Curtin described sadness and depression, whose causes he said he did not know, but adding: "I was not trained to be a war lord. Yet fate pushed on me at least the appearance of being one."

He repeatedly claimed he did not know how to get striking coal-miners back to work, did not know what motivated them to strike, and did not know how more coal could be dug. Nor was the government taking effective action against the ceaseless waterside, transport and other strategic strikes, especially not, one might say, with Eddie Ward as Minister for Labour and National Service and later for Transport.

Curtin, psychologically stuck, seemed to have felt that if he took strong action to get coal dug he would be betraying his own identity as a unionist, and rationalised that it could not be done. Chifley, a down-to-earth former engine-driver, would as Prime Minister after Curtin's death solve the problem quite simply by putting the Army in to do the job.

According to Kim E. Beazley, an academic and later leader of the Labor Party, Curtin on 25 February 1943 complained to Gilbert and Sullivan star Ivan Menzies (whom Curtin had direct a Moral Rearmament play at Parliament) about "stabs in the back" from Labor. 2

• • •

Curtin was suffering from heart-trouble and high blood pressure — hypertension — a condition caused partially or entirely by, and certainly exacerbated by, stress and for which at the time there were no effective treatments like beta-blockers and calcium-blockers.

Curtin's biographer Lloyd Ross recounts the exhausted man's words to one group of striking watersiders:

"I’m fed up. I can’t satisfy you. I grant you conditions you have been demanding for years - and that I have always regarded as your right. I can’t satisfy you. What will satisfy you? There's a war on."

A common impression among Australian servicemen at the time was that Ward's conciliatory attitude to watersiders, coal-miners and other militant unionists was encouraging strikes in strategic industries. As one ex-serviceman wrote to me:

"This will show how the influence of the lousy communists such as the rat Eddie Ward and Dr. Evatt affected our fighting men. I was in Aitape, Dutch New Guinea — from memory it was May or June 1944 — when all food supplies from Australia ceased. For some 10 days we were issues with K rations which were basically dehydrated survival rations in a tin."

The following letter in my collection (received after I published a request in some papers for anecdotes) is typical of a mountain more:

"Two of our companies were cut off at a small flat-topped hill named Kateka in New Guinea. As Company Quartermaster Master Sergeant of "A" company I had taken a small party of men from Scarlet Beach to resupply the lads. We were escorted by an armed party with Owen Guns.

On our way back we were ambushed by the Japs and one of our N.C.O.s was killed. We returned to the hill and had to stay that night. The Japs attacked several times. My brother was shot in the mouth but was able to walk back with us next day.

The lads were using hundreds of rounds of small arms ammo. And stores were running low.

We had orders next day to go easy with the ammo. That we had to do as the wharfies at Sydney were refusing to load any on the ships.

You can imagine what we would have done to the wharfies had we been given the chance — the Japs would have been second priority.

It would be interesting to know what the government did about these strikes . . .".

A book of verses by Private Frank Lothian of the 2/11th Infantry Battalion, A Digger Writes Home, apparently widely circulated among soldiers at the time, contained the following:

"You strike for higher wages
At a time when things are crook;
Have you forgotten all the Aussies
That died to hold Tobruk?

They talk of their Fifth Columnists,
And saboteurs, too.
Every time we hear the terms
We always think of you.

We've heard supplies won't be along,
We only want to know;
Then we heard you were on strike again,
Our supplies have failed to go.

So for every young Australian
Who dies upon The Trail
The Jap only accounts for half
The rest goes in your mail."

Curtin by this time was visibly failing in health and strength. In October 1944, Curtin, then in Perth, was found apparently weeping after having been told that H.M.A.S. Australia had been damaged by Kamikases with many casualties. His breathing continued to be laboured and he had a heart-attack a few days after. He told one friend, "I’ll never really be strong again."

Future Liberal politician and Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck, then a young public servant, saw him a little later at the Hotel Canberra. Curtin thought mistakenly that Hasluck had been drinking and spoke to him strangely on "the need for sacrifice and self-denial and personal austerity . . . you must promise me". This sounds not like the behaviour of a man suffering from purely physical illness but a man in psychic conflict and indeed Hasluck attributed it to "the personal strain that he was feeling".

That strain should not have been caused by the immediate war-situation, as by that time the war was plainly won. Curtin's strange speech sounds like a man whose identity was profoundly threatened looking to regain or reaffirm that identity through some purification process.

Curtin described himself shortly before he died as "too tired to live". This also sounds like the result of long-drawn psychic torture. The contrast is obvious between Curtin and leaders like Churchill, Menzies and Chifley, in their different ways more phlegmatic and less liable to be personally wounded by political attacks.

Curtin never regained health and died on 5 July 1945, at the age of 60.

Less than a fortnight after Curtin’s death, Chifley made an extraordinary speech in Lithgow which has been recorded in Professor Crisp's biography of Chifley but which has been notably ignored by some other historians of the period:

"I deeply regret the trials that were imposed on Jack Curtin, not only by the rank and file of the Labour Movement, but by some of those closely associated with him. These made heavy demands on his strength . . . It was easy to hurt Jack Curtin and he had to withstand barbs not only from without but also from within the party . . . [He was] too fine a gentleman for politics. He was too good to be mixed up with the feuds and personal animosities that go with politics. The blitz of the press never hurt him as much as the barbs of the people with whom he was associated."

Chifley could hardly — without precipitating not only a fratricidal split in the Labor Party and the Government but a grave national crisis — have gone further in blaming Ward and Ward's colleagues as well as the strikers for Curtin's death.

Lloyd Ross, on the penultimate page of his classic biography of Curtin (Ross knew Curtin well, came up through the Labour tradition and was himself, with Laurie Short, in the thick of the fight to wrest the Ironworkers’ Union from Communist direction), says:

"Attacks from non-Labour he could stand, not the criticism that came from within the movement. Such attacks, especially from those who had known him for a long time, troubled and tormented him to a degree that is almost beyond understanding in an experienced politician."

Ross correctly identifies the psychic puzzle here: Curtin was an experienced politician, a tough man who had spent his life in political in-fighting. Why did he not simply write off the likes of Ward and Boote as quasi-Fifth-Columnists?

Ross reports his last talk — shortly before he died — with former W.A. Labor Premier Philip Collier, a close political colleague for many years. According to Collier:

"Curtin was shocked at the outlook of unions in New South Wales towards the war. ‘Their damnable attitude,’ he called it, and added in a burst of anger: ‘Don’t they know the nation is fighting for its life? They don’t care a damn!’"

Collier commented: "They hurt him very much, nearly worked him into his grave. Men in the Party, mostly from New South Wales, caused him terrible worry." To others he also showed his despair at what was happening inside the Party and among the workers, "They broke his heart, the strikers. And some of the men inside the Party. Some of his own men."

Can one see in John Curtin something of the tragedy of King Lear who put his love and trust in the wrong people and grew wandering and psychically shattered? Sir Hal Colebatch's and the Northam Advertiser’s warning had been precient, but given in vain.

1 L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, A Biography (Longmans, London, 1961), page 214.

2 Kim E. Beazley, "John Curtin," in The Greats (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1986), page 233.

National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003