1941 • Six-foot cat

For background on Alan Wood, see the Singapore episode.

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Captain Alan Wood of Military Intelligence, in his mother’s backyard in Killara NSW, in 1941

Coming down the side path, picking up the scents of a finished midday dinner, Bill finds Alan lounging on an ingenious contraption he has thrown together, part cane lounge, part mattress, part umbrella, part writing table. Pleasantries exchanged, Bill throws his briefcase down, removes his coat, his work day done. [RED, page 189]

Alan Wood, who has been in the midst of war for eighteen months, first as an anti-aircraft gunner in the London Blitz, then in General Staff Intelligence “somewhere in the Middle East”, suddenly finds himself at a loose end, and possibly out of a job.

We know certain details of this episode because of his mother’s letters, which have been in the Mitchell archives for more than forty years, waiting for someone to read them.

Alan and Bill’s mother Madeline Wood was writing eight- to twelve-page letters once a week to her relatives in Australia, New Zealand and England at this time. (Alan had shown her how to use carbon paper between the sheets to make multiple copies.)

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There’s a witness to all this. A third one in the garden. Her fountain pen held just above the sheet, composing Thursday’s letter to New Zealand, Madeline listens and observes, takes notes, enjoys an argument she chooses not to interrupt. [RED, page 190]

Madeline Wood’s correspondence (from the 1890s to the 1960s) reflects the interests of a member of the National Council of Women, a supporter of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and an independent-minded socialist, whose letters are shrewdly observant, at times passionate, often witty and always (her word) “forthright”. They form the bulk of the Wood Family Papers, Mitchell Library.

[Alan and Bill] found brotherhood in a useful common enemy of preposterous old fools, the British brass hats, the officer class, the Blimps, there being no fools greater than the men whose time has passed, who must be taken down, the old for young, the dim for bright, the fathers for their sons. [RED, page 196]

Colonel Horatio Blimp was a satirical invention by the cartoonist David Low. Blimp represented old-school (Great War) attitudes: the popularity of this cartoon suggests how out-of-touch the Conservatives’ thinking was at the start of this very different war.

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Colonel Blimp also held views on the unemployed, Hitler and the embarrassment of finding, in 1941, that Russia was on Britain’s side. (Cartoons by David Low in the London Evening Standard, before and during the war)

In this war of Blimps and Bodgers, what Alan wants is this—and the more he talks about it, the more sense it makes for Bill: “I want a citizen army. I want an amateur army like the legions of the young Napoleon, or the militia of George Washington, or Cromwell’s Ironsides.” … No more parades, pointless drills and spit-and-polish—all of which is done to crush initiative. Instead he’ll have small units of pure self-reliance. Take responsibility, privates. Be your own officers. Learn to act when out of earshot of the sergeant. [RED, page 196]

This notion was widely held; the need for an army of self-reliant guerrilla-style units was proposed by a range of commentators and politicians, both in Australia and the UK. More on this idea of a “People’s Army”, which rather worried Curtin’s Labor government in Canberra, is in the episode “Guerrillas in Killara” (p. 199).

Alan’s career in Intelligence was ended because of his book Bless ’em AllAt the same time, his brother Bill became a “person of interest” for Australia’s Security service, also because of this book.

Alan won’t look up. Looks at his boots instead. A cool wind passes over him. He’s been wondering, or at least he started worrying this morning, why he hasn’t heard from General Staff Intelligence. There’s been nothing since the episode in Singapore. [RED, page 197]

Two weeks after this episode, Alan “went off by ’plane to Melbourne,” Madeline writes, “to try to see Mr Menzies, Sir Keith Murdoch and other ‘blokes’. He has rung me up from the Menzies Hotel each evening. He loves ‘splashing round’ with his legacy—’planes, and expensive hotel, … much to Bill’s amazement …”. (Madeline to Fred Wood, 24 July 1941). In a later letter, she writes that while in Melbourne Alan met “Senator Foll [H. S. Foll, Minister for the Interior 1939–41], Spender [Army Minister], Sir Keith Murdoch [owner of the Melbourne Herald and other papers] and MacMahon Ball [Controller of Short Wave Broadcasts, precursor to Radio Australia] … He failed to catch Menzies. I wish I could pass on some of [Al’s] stories.”

Alan has no instructions from British Army GHQ for the next four months, so he has no idea whether he is still attached to UK military intelligence. He is not told why he is being ignored by the British military. “He says that perhaps they objected to the critical tone of the report he submitted,” Madeline writes, “and are waiting to find him some innocuous job.” By “report” she apparently means the Bless ’em All manuscript; there is no other mention of a formal report. Madeline surmises that Alan’s “power of criticism of those in authority … did not make him a persona grata with [the War Office in London].” (Madeline to Fred Wood, 23 October 1941)

At the start of October Alan returned by boat to London. His mother saw him off: “a dismal business, a deserted wharf, with a constable at the gates”. (Madeline to Fred Wood, 2 October 1941) In London Alan learned that he had been dismissed from his Intelligence position because of the manuscript seized in Singapore, as his cousin Jean Mackay explains years later: “[Alan] said he had been asked to resign from Intelligence as it had been discovered he was the author of Bless ’em All. Nothing would have been said had he remained a private, but the fat was in the fire when [the manuscript] was discovered to be the work of an officer …. After that he became a war correspondent ….” (Jean Mackay to Jonathan Wood, 12 January 1969). Alan’s publisher, Fredric Warburg, writes that “[Alan’s] friends advised him to deny the authorship if questioned, but he determined bravely to face the music, and the court-martial if the need arose. It never did. Wisely the powers-that-be behaved with discretion …”. (Fredric Warburg, All Authors are Equal, Hutchinson, 1973, p. 19)

This same manuscript led to Australian Security’s starting a file on Alan’s brother Bill Wood. So it was that two men were accused by two security agencies in two separate countries of committing the same crime. ASIO has no file on Alan Wood, while Bill Wood’s file, in which he is supposed to have written the manuscript of Bless ’em All, continued for a further 500 pages.