Civil-control-of-the-military: What might have happened if General Brudenell White had survived the August 1940 Canberra air crash?

Former NSW politician Andrew Tink's new book on repercussions of the August 1940 air crash in Canberra ("Air Disaster Canberra: The Plane Crash that Destroyed a Government", New South, Sydney, 2013, 308pp., $A45.00), concentrates on the political ramifications of Prime-Minister Menzies losing three of his senior Cabinet ministers and closest political supporters within the United Australia Party. But the longer-term and more enduring detrimental effect was surely the death in the same crash of the universally respected Army Chief, General Cyril Brudenell White. If White had survived, the whole modern history of the strategic-level, politico-military relationship in Australia, and of real rather than often nominal joint-Service command of our defence force, is likely to have been quite different. Particularly in being less difficult structurally; being free of so many aberrations and misunderstandings constitutionally, professionally and culturally; being reformed decades earlier and more effectively than it eventually has been; and evolving much more in conformity with the tried and tested Westminster-System conventions and institutional processes practised sucessfully elsewhere.

 

Letter to The Canberra Times
Monday, 08 April 2013
(published Monday, 14 April 2013 

Surely the real “what if” exercise of the August 1940 air crash in Canberra ("Compelling probe", Panorama book reviews, April 6, p25) was not the short-term effects on the subsequent collapse of the first Menzies Government through losing three key ministers.

If the highly respected General Cyril Brudenell White had instead lived to remain Chief of the General Staff, it is likely that the Service Chiefs would have correctly remained the principal professional advisers to the War Cabinet on military strategic matters — as occurred in every other Westminster system.

Rather than the resulting hybrid practice of Australia’s leaders coming to depend improperly on a foreign supreme commander (Douglas MacArthur) and an arch bureaucratic manipulator with no military experience (Sir Frederick Shedden), with the result ministers too often neglected Australia’s sovereign strategic interests during coalition warfare.

While General Vernon Sturdee — as the only Australian of the three Service Chiefs in early 1942 — ably functioned as a quasi-CDF when it was most needed as politicians on all sides panicked, Brudenell White would have been even better placed to bed in a proper strategic-level, politico-military interface.

Moreover, the later mistaken appointment of  General Thomas Blamey as commander-in-chief (but only for the Army) would not have further delayed effective joint strategic command of our defence force, its testing in war and the swift post-war evolution that occurred in comparable countries. [Blamey was not able to function effectively as both the Army's senior operational commander and as a strategic-level adviser to the government].

Instead Australia sat out reform during the 1950s and 1960s and then, alone in the Western world, combined the Service departments before instituting joint strategic command of its defence force.

It even took a further 11 years from 1973 before we instituted rudimentary joint command and a further seven before we had a CDF with real command authority and a joint headquarters able to exercise it.

Many bad bureaucratic, political and military habits have kept mutating in the interim.

Chiefly because of institutional, cultural and legislative gaps in systematic civil control of the military — and over the ever-burgeoning Public Service and uniformed Defence bureaucracy — by the Ministers who are alone meant to exercise such civil control constitutionally.

Back to Letters: 2013
Australia Defence Association Logo