Book Review: Scorched Earth, edited by Sue Rosen

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1942, World War WII. Japan is securing a tight stronghold in the Far East, with the direct threat to Australia increasing with the bombing of Darwin in February and Broome in March.

On 10 March 1942, a story in the Sydney Morning Herald announced the Army had been given full authority to implement a Scorched Earth policy to deny an invading force any resources which could benefit it, in collaboration with the civilian population.

It thankfully never came to be executed.

Yet the policy, obliquely referred to in that news story disappeared until historian Sue Rosen, working on a project involving a forestry subject came across a file that had nothing to with forests, but war. It was written by NSW Forestry Commissioner E H F Swain.

Further digging led Rosen to uncover an entire and complete secret policy developed by Swain for NSW. The Curtin government ensured all States developed a code pertinent to their circumstances.

Rosen’s staggering research is one of the most incredible documentations of National and State bodies convening to develop a secret war-time time plan in a year when odds of invasion were highly probable in the minds of many.

The plan is published as Rosen found it, the font rekeyed, original styling maintained and presented in original order.

Yes, you are holding very real, previously secret documents in your hand as you turn pages outlining the inner workings and attitudes of another political era, another Australia to ponder.

Scorched Earth is one of those works of history prompting new questions in respect of known scholarly history of WWII to date. It reveals much about how our National government perceived the strategic and economic value of the eastern seaboard, as opposed to the west and southern regions. It offers deeper food for thought on the matter of the importance of American forces presence in Australia, with the bulk of Australia’s military overseas at war.

The depth of policy detail covered comprises a complete picture of how government prioritised resources and population spread in the context of war. Scorched Earth policy, more properly referred to as Denial of Resources to The Enemy policy, also offers a fascinating insight into the national psyche of the time through the strident voice of its author, Swain.

Swain’s tone of voice and language is emphatically hung to patriotism, redolent with morale raising propaganda phrases, supporting the policy with numerous recent examples of Japanese invasion and occupation of Borneo, Singapore and China. He is unflinchingly merciless and unrelenting page to page, no matter how great or small the detail.

Of great significance in this book’s content is the remarkable reorganisation of Australian civil society, envisaged as a nationally co-opted resistance fighting force, alongside the Army, effecting denial of resources to the enemy, evacuating resources for military use and evacuation of civilians in stages from outer areas and city areas in case of impending direct invasion.

The sheer breadth of logistical detail documented across civilian and industry resources is given in terms of numbers and modes of effective destruction for everything from tools to wharves. It’s astounding. Additional to that is instruction on destroying access ways to the enemy during evacuation to the bush and setting up camouflaged, defendable camps.

It is a policy as Swain describes it, of “total war!” which initial development took a mere six weeks after the bombing of Darwin.

Reviewed by David O’Brien
Twitter: @DavidOBupstART

Rating out of 10:  10

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2017
RRP:  $32.99

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Astonishing

Rosen’s staggering research is one of the most incredible documentations of National and State bodies convening to develop a secret war-time time plan.

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