CHAIRMAN, CHIEFS OF STAFF COMMITTEE
(Before reading this section my article on Defence in the Australian Encyclopaedia (1977) should be read for general background information)
I was appointed C.C.O.S. with effect from 19 May 1966 when my predecessor Air Marshal Sir Frederick Scherger completed his term of appointment. In Defence and Service circles it had always been assumed that I would be his successor because: I was the senior (by date of appointment) of the three service chiefs; under the rotation system it was the Army's turn to fill the appointment; it was considered I had wider and longer experience and had achieved success in the Command, operational, administrative and planning fields; neither of the other two chiefs was considered to have better qualifications or to be more suitable for the post. Moreover, the Vietnam war was at its height and, although the Navy and Air Force played ,essential parts in supporting the actions of the ground force, this was a war in which the ground forces played the predominant role and it was essential the C.C.A.S. have considerable knowledge of, and experience in, revolutionary warfare strategy and techniques as practised by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces. I was therefore greatly surprised one day towards the end of 1965 when the minister for the Army (Forbes) rang me and told me that a decision on the replacement for Scherger had been deferred by the P.M. (Menzies). Forbes further told me that I should not assume that I would eventually be appointed because the P.M. and some other ministers were pushing the claims of the C.N.S. (McNicoll) for the post. No decision on the appointment of C.C.O.S. had been made by the end of 1965. Then in early January 1966 the then Minister of Defence (Shane Paltridge) died suddenly of cancer after a short illness. I understand that Paltridge favoured my appointment but no formal recommendation had been submitted to Cabinet.
The P.M. then apparently decided to defer a decision until after the new Minister of Defence (Fairhall) had had sufficient time in office to make a recommendation to Cabinet. The decision had still not been made in mid April when I departed for a routine two weeks visit to Vietnam. When I returned from that visit I learnt that a decision had been made a few days before my return and I was informed that an announcement would be made of my appointment immediately.
(Note: Sir Robert Menzies retired on 26 January 1966 and was succeeded by Harold Holt as P.M.)
Helen told me on my return that the first news she had of the decision was a phone call from John Gorton (a future P.M.) who had been so pleased that he had phoned her immediately after the Cabinet meeting at which the decision was made.
This delayed decision had meant that no firm recommendation or decision had yet been made on who was to be my successor as C.C.S. Some months previously I had told Fraser that I would recommend Daly as my successor and he agreed so there was a minimum of delay in having his appointment approved. Despite this, Daly had to move to Canberra at short notice and the same applied to his successor as G.O.C. E. Command (Harrison who two years later was appointed as Governor of S.A.)
If McNicoll had been appointed C.C.O.S. instead of me I think the Navy would have had to make an unexpected and even more hurried reshuffle of their senior officers.
Before taking over as C.C.O.S. I had only met Fairhall a few times and therefore we hardly knew each other.
Subsequently we achieved a friendly and satisfactory working relationship which was fortunate because the relationship had to stand many stresses and strains in the later years, particularly when the Secretary of the Defence Department (Hicks), vacated that office and was appointed High Commissioner to N.Z. in 1967. Hicks was succeeded by Sir Henry Bland. I will tell that story later in this diary.
In 1966 the organisation of the Department of Defence was still totally unsuited to the requirements of the post World War II era. Some marginal improvements had been made in 1958 after the Morshead Committee of Inquiry, but basic fundamental defects still remained. The department was therefore not discharging its function effectively or efficiently. There were delays, frustration, duplication of effort and misunderstanding.
In 1958 the C.O.S. had supported the principal recommendations of the Morshead Committee which had recommended the abolition of the single service departments and creation of a unified Department of Defence. These recommendations had been supported by the then Chiefs of Staff Committee. However, the government of the day had rejected them but had given directions that the desired results should be achieved by Ministerial direction and administrative action. No changes in legislation or regulations were made.
Later in 1965 the C.O.S. Committee (when I was C.G.S.) recommended a far-reaching examination of the whole organisation. Nothing had eventuated from this by the time I became C.C.O.S. in 1966 and I then resolved to reactivate the question and try and achieve progress during my period of office. Consequently in September 1967 I sent the Minister of Defence (Fairhall) a paper containing my views and recommendations. There was some progress of a minor nature during the next two years but decisions were not made on the fundamental issues. Fairhall was replaced as Minister of Defence at the end of 1969 by Malcolm Fraser, the present P.M. So in January 1970 I sent him the same views and proposals plus some proposals for immediate short-term changes for immediate improvements which were consistent with the longer term objective of a unified Department of Defence. Some minor improvements resulted but by the time I retired in November 1970 the fundamental decisions had not yet been made.
After 1970 1 continued my interest but was unable to do anything positive -- until 1972 when the opposition shadow minister for Defence, Lance Barnard, announced that if the Labour Party was elected in December 1972 it would create a unified Defence Department etc. Subsequently I encountered Barnard by chance at a function we were both attending and, in conversation, the question of Defence organisation arose and I told him that I had very positive views on the subject which I would be glad to put to him on a mutually convenient occasion. He welcomed my offer. Consequently, a few weeks prior to the election we and had a long conversation on the subject of the organisation of the Defence group of departments and how to get it done quickly. At his request I prepared and sent him some notes on my proposals.
The Labour Party won the election in early December 1972 and Barnard was appointed not only Minister for Defence but also minister for the other four departments in the Defence group, i.e. Navy, Army, Air and Supply. On 19 December 1972 he issued a statement on reorganisation of the Defence group of departments and I was very gratified to read therein that he had decided to take immediate action on the reorganisation and even at that early stage he had made decisions on the more important specific proposals I had made to him in November 1972 prior to the elections. The remainder of my proposals would have to await the report of the Secretary, Department of Defence (Tange) who had been directed to have the study on reorganisation carried out. I had recommended such a study.
Eventually, at the end of 1973, the Secretary's report was made and its recommendations were approved by the government. Since then the necessary legislative action has been taken to give statutory authority where it was needed in place of ministerial directions of administrative decisions.
Although I do not agree with some of the details of the new central Defence administration and staffing which has resulted from the reorganisation, I believe that the fundamental principles and basic framework are sound and will meet the requirement. If there are defects in the central staffing it will become evident and they could be quickly rectified. Such defects would be apparent more quickly in time of Defence Emergency or war than under peacetime conditions.
On the whole, I am well pleased with the success of the resolve I made in 1966 to do all 1 could to bring about a Defence organisation suitable for modern requirements. Since 1970 I have watched developments with amused satisfaction. The action I took in 1972 to advise Barnard was, I believe, in the National interest. It was apolitical and did not influence the elections in December 1972. Nor has the question of Defence organisation been a party political matter since then. In fact, I was surprised that the Defence Reorganisation Act 1975 was passed by Parliament quickly with little debate and opposition from either the government or opposition parties.
I have referred earlier to my relationship with various ministers of Defence, namely, Paltridge, Fairhall, Fraser so I shall now refer briefly to the various Secretaries of the Department of Defence with whom I worked. All these men, as Permanent Heads, had tremendous power prior to 1975. They could block or delay indefinitely any proposal from the Navy, Army or Air Force which required approval front the Minister of Defence. Yet the Service Ministers, Chiefs of Staff, and Service Boards were vested, under the Defence Act, with the responsibility for the administration and command of their respective services.
When I became C.C.O.S.C. in 1966 Sir Edwin Hicks was the Secretary of the Defence Department. He had previously been Secretary, Department of Air, until 1957 when he succeeded Sir Frederick Snedden. He had been a member of the Morshead Committee, which in 1958 had recommended the unification of the three Service Departments with the Defence Department. By 1966 he had been nearly ten years in the job and was tired and frustrated and was hoping for a transfer to a less onerous job. My relationship with him was very good, 1 had of course known him for a number of years. He was well aware of my views on the necessity for Defence reorganisation but was not prepared to lend his active support to a course which had been previously rejected. Moreover, he was in the process of coping with a new Minister (Fairhall) and neither of them wished to "rock the boat" at that stage. During the years 1966 and 1967 we managed to obtain government approval to the five year Defence programme concept and some much needed new weapons and equipment for all three services were obtained or ordered. (No major new items have been obtained since 1967). At the end of 1967 Hicks was appointed Australian High Commissioner to N.Z. and Sir Henry Bland was appointed to replace him.
Bland had been Secretary of the Department of Labour and National Service since 1952 and was more than ready for a change and eager to deal with the challenge posed by his new job. He was an experienced administrator and well versed in interdepartmental matters and the political aspects of running a department and dealing with ministers. He was a hard worker with a great capacity for getting things done -- providing it was something he wanted done. He had yet to learn that the Defence and Service Departments worked in a very different manner to a normal "civil" department of the government. He was used to being the only "boss" in his department and initially tried to ensure that this would be the case in the Department of Defence. He came to the job with many preconceived ideas, many of which were erroneous, and many delays occurred until he became "educated" on matters relating to the Armed Forces.
Because he liked controlling everything himself, he tended to intrude into military matters and this was to result in many differences with myself as Chairman of the C.O.S.C. However, despite these differences our personal relationships were friendly and close. During his time as Secretary we managed to get a number of important projects approved by the government, e.g. The Joint Services Staff College, The Joint Intelligence Organisation, The Joint Cadet College (A.D.F.A.) etc. However. he cleverly ensured that he would be included in the line of control to these organisations.
Early in his period as Secretary he became intimately involved, and interested in, the introduction of Cost Effective systems to be used in selection of new weapons and equipment etc. These systems had long been in use in U.S.A., having been introduced by McNamara, but by this time had been put into perspective as a useful tool, along with others. My military colleagues in U.S.A. used to tell me that their proposals had been studied and analysed to death by civilian analysts in the Department of Defence who had no interest, or responsibility, in getting the required new weapons and equipment to the troops. A classic example of this was the F-111 bomber which was the result of studies ordered by McNamara to provide a basic light bomber aircraft which would meet requirements of both the Navy and Air Force, whose operational requirements were quite different. When the aircraft was produced it proved to be unsuitable for operating from aircraft carriers which was what the Navy wanted it for! The aircraft is an excellent one for the air force and has proved itself, but it would have been better and less expensive and available earlier had its design not incorporated features required by U.S. Navy but not by U.S.A.F.
Anyway, Bland was so enthusiastic about cost effectiveness as a concept, which incidentally was new to him, that he pressed on with introducing a full scale system in the Department of Defence and ignored the lessons of the U.S. experience. The net result was that for the two years or so that he was Secretary there was a great deal of study and analysis but no significant orders of new weapons or equipment were processed. One of the victims during this period was the light destroyer required for the Navy. Originally proposed by the Navy to meet a much-needed requirement, this destroyer was to be Australian made. Each destroyer would have only one major weapons system and one major role, i.e. either anti-submarine or anti-aircraft, plus a gun and helicopter so that both versions would have a capability as patrol boats. These light destroyers would have been low cost and three of them could have been built for the cost of the much larger multi-role destroyers already in the Navy. By this time the project had been analysed and studied for several years by Bland and his C/E experts. The project was no closer to finalisation because Bland and Co. kept suggesting that the new ships should have more versatility and have a multi-role capability. This meant, of course, that a much bigger (and expensive) ship would have to be designed, i.e. the multi-purpose destroyer whose use for patrol purposes would be uneconomic and in any case we could not afford to build enough of them to do the job. It was not until 1976 that the government decided to order two U.S. built multi-purpose destroyers. in 1977 it was decided that orders would be placed in Australian ship yards for an unspecified number of patrol boats of British design.
So, nine years had been lost and still the best answer to the problem had not been provided for! I should add here that within each of the Navy, Army and Air Force new projects are carefully evaluated by service officers with operational experience before the projects are put forward for approval and included in the Defence programme. The primary purpose of the defence approval is to ensure that the new weapons etc. are required to meet approved Defence policy and strategy on a joint service basis (i.e. the same war at the same place and time).
The above can be considered as only a very brief reference to a vital and complex matter. Bland initially deferred discussing with me the question of Defence reorganisation on the grounds that he needed time to study the existing system before making up his mind as to what was needed. This was fair enough then, but even by two years later he had not had a full-scale discussion of the matter with me. By this time he had learnt a great deal, but still had a great deal to learn. Bland had no experience as a serviceman during World War II or thereafter. Moreover, his experience as a civilian (public service) had been in other than Defence fields. However, we had achieved some progress in establishing the Joint Staff, J.I.O., Joint Staff College, which have been referred to earlier. By the end of 1959 Bland had decided to resign, partly for reasons of ill-health, and partly for family reasons -- his wife had never been happy in Canberra after being up-rooted from her home in Melbourne in 1967. In fairness to Bland, I must say he genuinely believed what he was doing was in the best interests of Australian Defence and was pro the Services. He certainly caused a shake-up and caused a great deal of rethinking and tidying up to take place. Despite our differences, I liked him and was sorry to see him go, and became even sorrier when his successor, Sir Arthur Tange, took over and showed his true colours.
Tange had formerly been Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and had then been posted to India as Australian High Commissioner. He was still there at the time he was recalled to become Secretary, Department of Defence. Like Bland, he had never had any military service nor served as a civilian in the Department of Defence. His main contact with Defence matters had been when as Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs, he was a member of the Defence Committee. (The Defence Committee consisted of the Secretaries of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Treasury, Supply and Prime Minister's Departments plus the C.O.S. Committee.) He had a reputation in political circles for being a good administrator. This view was not shared by his colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs, nor subsequently by those officials and service officers who had to work with him in the Department of Defence. I cannot recall him initiating anything in that Department. He was more of an analyst and critic and often very hasty in his judgments. He was rude and abrasive, and soon became very unpopular in the Department of Defence. Being a clever, intelligent, articulate man himself, he despised those less endowed with these attributes than himself. These, of course, included most of the service officers with whom he came in contact. As an experienced diplomat, if he had chosen to achieve his ends by diplomacy instead of autocratic methods, he would have had more chance of success.
Fortunately for me, I had less than a year to go before retirement at the time Tange arrived in the Department of Defence. Needless to say, 1 made no headway with him with my proposals for Defence reorganisation. However, I managed to get to discuss a draft which defined the relative responsibilities of the Secretary and the Chairman C.O.S.C. After my departure this document was finalised, and then approved by the Minister of Defence. However, when I retired, I did not abandon my efforts to achieve a more effective Defence organisation. As recounted earlier in this journal, this was eventually achieved in 1976. It was with ironic pleasure I watched from afar the process by which Tange was directed to prepare and submit for approval a detailed plan for implementation of the basic proposals which I had put forward originally in 1967 and which both Bland and Tange had refused to discuss with me.
It is also inevitable and ironic that, in the future, Tange will be credited with bringing about the reorganisation! At the time of writing (1977), Tange has been Secretary, Defence, for eight years -- an impressive length of time. As I left the scene at the end of 1970, I cannot comment on his performance but I am wondering how long he will last. Fraser was already minister of Defence when Tange arrived in Defence and it was not long before differences and clashes of personality and points of view became apparent. Now Fraser is P.M., I'm wondering what relationships between him and Tange are like.
Throughout my period as C.C.O.S.C. the Vietnam war continued and watching and studying the situation there and being the link in Canberra between the government and the Commander of our Force in Vietnam was a constant and onerous task. Before our force was committed, I had gone to Vietnam and negotiated with the U.S. Command in Vietnam a "Military Working Agreement" providing for the policy for employment of the force and its op. command and its area(s) of deployment, provision of combat and logistic support etc. I had also negotiated with the Vietnam Military Command, as necessary. All these matters were embodied in a Directive to the Australian Force Commander which was approved by the Minister of Defence on behalf of the Australian Government. It was then my responsibility to ensure that the Australian Force Command acted in accordance with the directive and to provide him with all possible support and assistance in my power and guidance, where necessary. From the reports made to me by the Force Command I kept the Australian government informed about the situation and operations of our force. Should a matter arise which was not covered by the Directive, it would be for me to get a decision from the government. I must record that the Australian government behaved very correctly and did not attempt in any way to interfere with the tactical operational employment of the Australian force in Vietnam. In this we were more fortunate than the U.S Military Command in Vietnam who were constantly plagued by political interference from Washington in tactical military matters. Of course, any change in the size and composition and cost of the Australian force in Vietnam (AFV), and its logistic support from Australia, was rightly a matter for the government to be concerned with. These occurred on a number of occasions and after discussion in the Defence Committee a report and recommendations were submitted to Cabinet for decision. In this way the Cabinet received the necessary advice containing political and economic views, as well as military views.
At the time of my retirement in November 1970 the question of reducing our force commitment in Vietnam was still under close consideration.
Further details of my close connection with Vietnam are contained in the separate folder labelled "Vietnam Notes". However, I wish now to mention some points not covered in these notes.
As recorded earlier, I had first visited Vietnam in 1962 at the conclusion of my appointment as C.M.P.O. of S.E.A.T.O. Thereafter I visited Vietnam at least twice every year until I retired. In this way I was able to see at first hand the changing political and military situation in Vietnam and keep in touch with the Vietnamese and U.S. military leaders and make personal contact with the Australian commanders and troops in the field. These latter contacts were of the greatest importance to me as well as to the Australians in Vietnam. Although I have earlier said that we were not subject to political interference in military operational matters, there were a few occasions when there was criticism well after the event in a few cases. The most noteworthy of these was by the then Minister of Defence, Malcolm Fraser, who on one occasion visited Vietnam with me. After discussion in Saigon we had planned to visit our Task Force at Nui Dat together. Unfortunately, I could not go to Nui Dat with him because my negotiations with the Vietnamese Command were not complete and I was due to leave Saigon next day for a S.E.A.T.O. meeting elsewhere and Fraser also had to leave for New York. So Fraser went to a briefing by the Task Force Command without me. When he returned late that evening he was in an excited state and accused me of misrepresenting to him the situation in Phuc Tuy Province. He had obviously misunderstood the briefing and formed wrong conclusions about the very complex situation in the province. He then proceeded to criticise an operational deployment out of Phuc Tuy province of part of our Task Force a year earlier at the time of the Tet offensive and alleged that this had caused a deterioration in the situation in the province. This was not true. Although I gave him sound logical military reasons for the deployment (which were covered by the directive) I could not convince him he was wrong. Because of lack of military knowledge and experience he could not understand. Also he was suspicious by nature and once his suspicions were aroused, he remained suspicious thereafter. This was most unfortunate because it adversely affected all our relationships thereafter even on matters not related to Vietnam. (Note: Clearly the T.F. Commander must have given Fraser an unbalanced briefing. Subsequently when I spoke to this Commander, he admitted this was the case.)
On another occasion after the decision had been made to reduce our force, Fraser criticised the Army by leaks to the press, for planning to reduce the Civic Action programme. This was not justified and unfair and inaccurate. The facts of the matter were that confidential instructions were given that no new Civic Actions plans which could not be completed before the planned date of the reduction of the T.F., were to be commenced. (See press cuttings)
In a conflict, especially an undeclared war such as in Vietnam, each side seeks to impose its will on the other. This is done by force combined with psychological war. Psychological war aims to weaken the morale of the opponents' troops in the field and also to weaken the will to win of the government and civil population. The North Vietnamese were very good at psychological war, particularly that aspect aimed at the government and people of U.S.A. and especially on the university campuses.
In Vietnam there was no censorship or control of the media reporters on the Allied side, however the opposite was the case on the North Vietnamese side who exploited the situation and undoubtedly their propaganda was widely used by the media in U.S.A. (See also Vietnam notes). So, we saw during the years from 1964 onward a gradual erosion of the will to win on the part of the government and people of U.S.A. The same occurred in Australia but not to the same extent. In my opinion the psychological war success of the North Vietnamese was one of the major factors leading to the Allied failure to win the war in Vietnam.
As C.C.O.S. I became the Australian Military Adviser in the S.E.A.T.O. As mentioned previously, this entailed attending meetings of the Military Advisers Group every six months. Every alternative meeting was held in Bangkok and the other meeting was held in the territory of each member Nation in turn. So during my five years as C.C.O.S.C. I again visited U.S.A., the Philippines, New Zealand. The frequent visits to Bangkok suited me well because I could visit Vietnam also either en route to. or from, Bangkok.
Before concluding this section I must pay a tribute to the Australian Defence Forces who, although very small in number, by 1970 had become one of the best professional forces in the world. All three services had a hard core of officers and senior N.C.O.s who had seen active service in Korea, Malaysia, Borneo and Vietnam, and their expertise and achievements were admired and respected by our Allies. During the post World War II years they had had to cope with successive reorganisations and two N.S. Training Schemes and at the same time maintain our operational commitments overseas. This imposed very severe demands on the hard core of professional officers and N.C.O.s. I'm proud to say that the forces responded willingly, cheerfully and competently with all demands made upon them whether in their primary role or in assisting the civil authorities to deal with emergencies such as bushfires, floods and hurricanes. it should be noted also that these men were often separated from their families by the exigencies of the service and there was much turbulence in their family life generally.
In March 1970 I visited U.S.A. as the official guest of the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (General Wheeler). The invitation also included Helen. A jet aircraft was placed at our disposal for the duration of our visit which included most bases and installations of Joint Service interest. From the moment we landed at San Francisco our hectic 10 day itinerary commenced. Included in the itinerary were: Las Vegas (Flll training base) -- Colorado Springs (Air Defence Cmd HQ) S.A.C.H.Q. (Strategy Air Command), Nebraska - Cape Kennedy Mississippi Fort Bragg N. Carolina (Airborne Forces Cmd) (Naval HQ) Norfolk Virginia -- Washington D.C. (The Pentagon). These were all one or two night stops. The normal procedure would be for the Cmd to meet me to take me away for briefings and to see the more important items and installations of military interest. Helen was taken away and well looked after by the ladies (wives) of the senior officers of the base. We all joined up together for dinner at night. On arrival at the military airport at Washington D.C. we transferred to one of the President's helicopters and were flown direct to the Pentagon where a guard of honour greeted me with full military honours. General Westmoreland, who by this time had become Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, met me on behalf of General Wheeler. I later had long discussions with General Wheeler and his senior staff. Whilst in Washington we were house guests of the Wheelers.
On conclusion of the Washington visit, we flew to New York for a two day rest period after which we commenced our return journey by Qantas. In October 1970 I attended a S.E.A.T.O. meeting in Honolulu and I had decided to pay a farewell visit to N.Z. on my return journey to Australia so we stopped off in Wellington and I paid my farewells to the N.Z. C.O.S. Whilst there we were house guests of the Hicks (Australian High Commissioner). Whilst there I received a phone call from Malcolm Fraser asking me, after I had retired, to be a member of the Kerr Committee which was to examine, report and make recommendations on the pay and conditions of service of the Defence Forces. I had previously decided that if invited to do this, I would decline. I felt I needed six months rest after retirement; also I wanted to interest myself in a part time civilian occupation. I knew that this Committee would take at least two years on its task, and if I was tied up with it, it would preclude my being able to accept offers of civilian employment which might come my way. Fraser was surprised and annoyed when I turned down his offer. I think, in his usual impatient way, he had intended to make an immediate announcement about the Kerr Committee. On the phone he extracted from me a promise to think the matter over for a few days and to see him on my return from N.Z. When I eventually saw him he exerted his considerable powers of persuasion and flattery to get me to accept. He put it to me that no-one was in a position to do the job as well as I could and that I owed it to the Defence Forces to see that the Kerr Committee fully understood their case etc. etc. Eventually I accepted with the proviso that I would not join the Committee until I had had three months leave after retirement.
My last two months in office were very busy and I brought as many as possible of my minor, but important, projects to their final stage. In fact, I was so busy that I neglected to retrieve from the office copies of a variety of letters and papers 1 had personally prepared. These would have been of much value in assisting my memory in the writing of this journal.
At midday on my last day in office, 22 November 1970, my colleagues of the C.O.S. Committee arranged a farewell parade in my honour -- the honour guard included a contingent from each of the three services. In addition, the R.A.A.F. staged a fly past with their usual impeccable timing over the parade. So ended forty-four years in uniform!
General Sir John Wilton Home Page