Bravo Zulu: Honours and Awards to Australian Naval People, Volume 1: 1900-1974

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Bravo Zulu: Honours and Awards to Australian Naval People, Volume 1: 1900-1974. By Ian Pfennigwerth. Echo Books, Geelong, 2016.
Reviewed by Tom Frame*
THERE is a custom among some retired officers I have met to invite visitors to their home to take a book from their personal library as a memento. Several have also confided that it helps to reduce the deceased estate that their family will need to disperse in due course. I intend to embrace this custom if and when I reach the age of 70. But Ian Pfennigwerth’s magisterial ‘Bravo Zulu: Honours and Awards to Australian Naval People, Volume 1: 1900-1974’ will not be on the shelf. It will be hidden from view. This is a book I intend to keep because it will come in handy again and again quite apart from being a delight to read.

The first thing that readers will observe about this book is its size. ‘Bravo Zulu’ is quite literally a brick and I understand that the projected second volume is just as big. With illustrations (some in colour), maps, tables, reference notes and an index, it runs to 775 pages sensibly contained within a hard cover depicting the destroyer HMAS ‘Tobruk’ at speed in 1950. And for those without any experience of naval parlance, the title is the two letters (Bravo and Zulu) designated in the Allied Naval Signal Book to communicate ‘Well Done’.

The second thing the reader notices is the book’s format; this is not a traditional reference book with the names and citations simply reproduced alongside a commentary on the origins and criteria of the award. This book tells the story of the Colonial Naval Forces, the Commonwealth Naval Forces and the Royal Australian Navy and weaves the honours and awards received by Australian naval personnel from the Australian government and Allied governments into a fast flowing narrative. Notably, there is mention of honours and awards received in peacetime, including civilian bravery awards, and the inclusion of this information is most welcome. Quite apart from the blurred line between war and peace, a good deal of the RAN’s success in combat operations was a consequence of energetic and enlightened peacetime service among unheralded officers and sailors.

When the research for this volume commenced in 2009, Ian Pfennigwerth and his research partner David Ruffin did not imagine the task of collating and commenting on the honours and awards earned by Australians would prove to be so difficult or demanding. They are both retired senior naval officers well acquainted with the complexities naval administration and are well connected within the naval historical community. But as Ian explains, he was obliged to rely on hundreds of people to open doors and archives, to provide introductions and insights, and to make connections between places, people and events that defied quick and easy explanation.

The first chapter very helpfully explains the Imperial (British) honours and awards systems, the significance of certain orders and particular decorations, the means by which an individual was recommended and the process by which they eventually received it. I learned a great deal from this chapter alone including the lament, and it was to become a regular one, that Australian personnel (including officers) received fewer honours and awards to their Royal Navy counterparts. Captain James Foley noting in a memorandum for the Naval Board in 1932 that this ‘fact’ had been ‘the subject of much adverse comment’. The book also reveals the inconsistency with which foreign awards were treated by both the Commonwealth Government and the Naval Board.

The subsequent chapters are arranged chronically. The first two chapters cover the period to 1939 and are described as forty ‘interesting’ years marked by upheaval and uncertainty. From the remnants of a tired colonial flotilla to a battle-ready fleet, Australian naval personnel distinguished themselves in ways that I had not previously known. The creativity and the courage of those who developed new tactics or imperilled their own lives to save a person in need is simply inspiring. Having read punishment returns from a number of ships during and after the Great War and noting that some uniformed people were capable of the lowest deeds, including theft from shipmates and animal cruelty, it is a necessary corrective to discover that sailors were also capable of the most noble deeds.

After chapter three which details the honours and awards system that operated between 1939 and 1974 (when Imperial awards was replaced by the Australian honours system), the next four chapters cover the Second World War. Naturally given the duration of the conflict and the number of personnel in naval uniform (the Ran’s peak strength was 39,600), these chapters represent the bulk of the narrative. The story is told by theatre and this makes sense as it gives the operations of individual RAN ships a coherence that is often lost when they are tracked and assessed separately. One of the things that struck me about the way wartime service was recognised was the inconsistency. Although the book contains only the nub of why an individual was singled out for praise in the form of an honour or award, it seems that some service in some ships in some situations was more likely to be observed and recognised. This is not to suggest that there was deliberate favouritism or intentional collusion (although it was impossible for approving authorities to be objective when relying on written accounts rather than eye-witness testimonies) but that many deserving acts went either unnoticed or were inadequately recognised. For the greatest part, recipients were usually surprised and always delighted with their honour or award while the empty-handed simply went on with their work.

Chapter nine – ‘Testing Times, 1946 to 1965’ – was of greatest personal interest as my own research and writing has concentrated on the period 1955 to 1969. These years cover the serious decline of the RAN in the late 1950s (and a series of accidents climaxing with the 1964 Melbourne-Voyager collision that suggested to some in the parliament and the press that the Navy’s professional standards were deteriorating) to highly effective performance in complex naval operations in Vietnamese waters and the Mekong Delta, and in the air and along the coastline of South Vietnam. While the book very ably depicts the RAN’s involvement in the Indonesian ‘Confrontation’, it also foregrounds important pioneering work in signals technology, weapons engineering, personnel management and command organisation. The Navy might have struggled with obsolete equipment and the difficulty of acquiring modern replacements but its people used their ingenuity and their refusal to concede defeat to effectively nurse the Navy through what Ian Pfennigwerth rightly calls ‘testing times’. The final two chapters cover the Vietnam Conflict and the ‘End of Forward Defence 1966-74’ with the release of the 1976 Defence White Paper.

‘Bravo Zulu’ features 2075 individual stories. When drafting this review I decided to avoid mentioning any individual to avoid any hint of bias. Naturally, I was most drawn to the people with whom I served in the Navy, people I met and interviewed during research projects and those whose service I found evocative when a young cadet-midshipman at the Naval College. While managing not to focus on any officer or sailor, I want to mention Jennifer Purtell. Her father was lost at sea in HMAS ‘Parramatta’. Aged seven and accompanied by her mother, she was presented with his Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) at HMAS ‘Rushcutter’ in April 1943. The picture of the medal presentation is incredibly moving. Wearing her ‘Sunday best’ including ankle socks and dark shoes with her fair hair in pigtails, I thought: how might she have felt in receiving her dad’s DSM? Proud and pained, I would imagine. She could not be expected to understand why the war was necessary or why her father had been taken from her. The nation could not give her father back but it could recognise the significance of what he had done. I hope the medal and what it signified brought her some comfort and consolation as the years passed.

‘Bravo Zulu’ is a terrific book that I hope every library in Australia will acquire as a reference text. The production values are generous. The page layout is pleasing to the eye and the illustrative material is first-class. Echo Books is to be warmly commended on a handsome volume. In sum, this is a highly personalised history of the RAN and an invaluable compendium that will serve students and scholars in need of an elusive fact or a form of words to detail an action or to describe a person. The naval historical community owes a great debt of thanks to Ian Pfennigwerth and his team, a debt that will be enlarged as we eagerly await the appearance of volume 2.

8Tom Frame is the Director at the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, UNSW Canberra

Volume 1 of Bravo Zulu is available from Echo Books in both Hardcover (ISBN 9780994491183) and Paperback (ISBN 9780994491190) editions.
https://www.echobooks.com.au/bravo_zulu
Volume 2 will take the story to 2014 and is planned for publication in 2017.

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