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By Major (Retrd) Jim Truscott
As soon as I heard that this book was on the streets, I was eager to read it. I found the title to be fascinating, having attained the rank of Major in my first career! Moreover, I am a guerrilla warfare exponent and I had meet many of the Operation Semut Operatives and some of their indigenous guerrillas who feature in the book. Twenty-five years ago, I had retraced their bloody and muddy footsteps for three months in the jungles and along the rivers of Borneo, and I had studied Major Tom Harrisson, the chief protagonist of Semut I, in great depth. I am pleased to say that even with my extensive background and knowledge, I learnt many new things, especially with the author’s focus on post-Armistice battle actions and his objective assessments of the egocentric Major Tom Harrisson. While it is now 75 years since Special Operations Australia (SOA) conducted its most successful operation throughout the course of the Second World War, the author has provided a refreshing review of events, and he has re-ignited much debate over the legacy of Operation Semut!
The first half of the book is in the vein of a boy’s own adventure, and as if Tom Harrisson was in charge of almost everything, with his dispersed Western Operatives and indigenous guerrillas running amok behind the Japanese lines in support of the 7th Division’s and the 9th Division’s amphibious landings! I had studied all of these brave, arduous and head-hunting stories before, but for those readers who have not, they will find it enthralling reading.
Interestingly the book also provides a lot of new focus on Major Tom Harrisson’s actions post Armistice, where he rightfully rose to the occasion, although by then his vexed reputation had already been framed. I had long forgotten that Harrisson wanted to stay on after the war to rebuild Borneo, and this fact explains at lot about his post Armistice battle actions against the marauding Japanese troops who did not surrender for some two months.
I was intrigued about Harrisson’s stated claim that Operation Semut provided 80% of the intelligence for the 9th Division. I had not heard of this assertion before and this serious claim needs authentication. While the author makes some tactical intelligence assessment, I am yet to see any detailed assessment of the intelligence provided by Semut to support the 7th Division and the 9th Division prior to their coastal landings, and if it made any difference, strategically or operationally before, during or after.
It would be interesting to read the initial orders that the Headquarters of the Services Reconnaissance Department gave to all of the Semut party leaders, to see what they said about intelligence gathering, but these most secret records, many of them shredded just after the war, probably no longer exist. There are far too many accounts about Operation Semut with a focus on the Japanese body count as opposed to what Harrisson says himself about their primary intelligence mission.
Many of the Semut Operatives and their indigenous guerrillas with blowpipes and parangs clearly had as much, if not more body count impact on the Japanese than the entire 9th Division, much to the chagrin of the AIF. However far too many past accounts link Operation Semut to guerrilla warfare offensive operations than they should. The linkage should be to intelligence gathering in denied and flank areas, success or otherwise. The operational summaries that still exist today quite clearly state that Semut’s objective, as approved by General Headquarters, was to collect intelligence ahead of the coastal landings, but conclude that its greatest impact was in the re-establishment of political control by the British.
The author makes some assessment of Harrisson’s many eccentricities, but it omits any discussion of his tactical employment, knowledge and skill. This ability is the crux in war fighting, and it needs to be assessed. In retrospect some military historians would say that he was just a grand reconnaissance cum fighting patrol master in tactical terms. Some researchers of anthropology would remark on his ability to establish an underground resistance organization in stone age circumstances. Some academics in geo-political affairs may laud his rogue and tactical decision to also operate in Dutch territory, with far reaching post-war strategic impacts for Holland, Indonesia, Australia and Britain.
This book re-emphasizes to me that Major Tom Harrisson was a problematic field commander with very limited military experience compared with most of the men under his command. It was incredible that the Headquarters of the Service Reconnaissance Department left such an eccentric anthropological boffin in charge of the Operation Semut I grouping. Surely, they must have known something about his lack of practical field leadership? Maybe it was a pompous British obsession, and I regret not having asked one of the key Group Commanders in the Headquarters of the Services Reconnaissance Department before he died, why this was so. My thinking remains very much aligned with the chapter devoted by the author to an assessment of Oz v Brit.
This book must be compulsory reading for the current generation of intelligence and guerrilla warfare Operatives, the headquarters responsible for their selection, training and execution, and the political masters who may need to employ such covert and irregular warfare methods against future enemies, before, during and after obvious military conflict. The book also lays down an academic challenge to other researchers to eke out whether the Headquarters of the Services Reconnaissance Department and Operation Semut truly achieved the mission assigned by General Headquarters.