Historian, Writer, Commentator, Consultant.

Tarakan: An Australian Tragedy

Posted by on Jan 18, 2012 in Books | 0 comments

Tarakan coverTarakan: An Australian Tragedy (Allen & Unwin, 1997)

In 1994 I was given the job of curating the exhibition intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which became 1945: War & Peace. In embarking on this project I put it to the Memorial’s management that if I was to present an exhibition dealing largely with the war in the Pacific it might be handy to at least have a quick look at where it had been fought. I was allowed to make a ten-day visit. Realising that I could go to Borneo or Papua New Guinea but not both I tossed a coin. Borneo won, and in July 1994 I made a circuit of Borneo, taking in Labuan, Kota Kinabalu, Kundasang, Balikpapan and Tarakan. I spent a day or two in each place, seeking out the places in which Australians had served in 1945 and t eh surviving reminders of or memorials to them. Though I had formerly been uninterested in visiting south-east Asia (preferring to visit Britain and India when I had been able) I found this encounter immensely stimulating.

On my return I published an article on my visits to the battlefields (‘Sniffing the ground’, published in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial) and was invited to give a paper at the Chief of Army’s 1994 conference. In writing what became ‘An Oboe concerto’ especially found that I wanted to write more about Borneo. I soon settled on Tarakan, which had been represented as a waste of time, effort and lives.

This turned into Tarakan: an Australian Tragedy. I researched the book half in work time and half in my own, and largely wrote it in the evenings after my daughters (babies or toddlers) had gone to bed. It entailed a two-week research visit to the United States in 1995, the first of half-a-dozen times that I benefited from the largesse of the Army History Unit’s Research Grants Scheme. (At about this time AHU began to assume the major patronage of research in the field of Australian military history.)

By happy chance, just when I looked for a publisher Ian Bowring had just taken over the role of publisher responsible for Allen & Unwin’s military history list, and he accepted the book more-or-less sight unseen, the first of several productive partnerships with A&U.

Researching Tarakan entailed returning to the island for intensive field work, the first real expression of my growing conviction that effective operational military history depends partly upon thorough field work. My A Stout Pair of Boots articulates this philosophy, one that I’ve followed through several books – notably White MutinyAlamein,Quinn’s Post and Men of Mont St Quentin. Although Tarakan followed research for my PhD it was my first major piece of work in Australian military history. I enjoyed the research immensely, and felt even more strongly than I had in writing White Mutiny that I was seriously engaging with the evidence, partly because I found that I was contesting a view of the Australian campaigns in 1945 that was in danger of becoming an orthodoxy. (I mean the view that the campaigns in the islands were ‘unnecessary’.) I recall very clearly that it was the experience of working with American records that convinced me that the argument that the Borneo campaigns of 1945 were unnecessary was fundamentally flawed. It later seemed to be so, because the war ended so suddenly; but no one (not even Douglas MacArthur) could have seen this at the time they were planned and executed. This made the Tarakan campaign (the first and most costly of the three Borneo operations) a tragedy; hence the title.

Tarakan has been out of print on paper for years, but I still receive letters from the children of those who served on the island, both thanking me for recording the campaign in which a loved one served, sometimes taking issue with me for allegedly being unfair to the RAAF. (Its units in the Oboe 1 landings in May 1945 were chronically ill-prepared, certainly compared to the AIF, and the records made that abundantly clear.) I have also advised several families who have travelled to Borneo to seek out the places where loved ones served or died, which has been very satisfying.


‘This is an impressive book. I was helped considerably by being able to attend its launching at the Australian War Memorial, and to see the considerable interest and approval that the author enjoyed from those [Tarakan veterans] who had assisted the book’s preparation’
Hugh Collis, Stand To, Feb-March 1998

‘ … a scholarly work most thoroughly researched … sensitively written …’
Major General Gordon Maitland, United Service, 1997

‘ … a notable work, learned, detailed and absorbing. He tells the story of the fighting – the main theme of the work – in convincingly vivid detail’
A.J. Sweeting, Journal of the Canberra and District Historical Society, 1997

‘ … a tough subject is tackled with insight and knowledge … This book is a fitting history of people involved in one of the final operations of the Second World War’
Graeme Faragher, The War Cry, 16 August 1997

‘This is a powerful book. Stanley’s facility for juxtaposing the reality of events on Tarakan Island with reports of conferences at headquarters and discussions in war cabinet underlines his capacity both to understand the strategy and to clarify and explain the battle at a tactical level. At the same time he examines with a gentle humanity its impact on the participants.’
Paul Macpherson, Archives and Manuscripts, Vol. 26, No. 1


You can buy Tarakan as an e-book here.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>