By Martin Hadlow
Media International Australia
No. 150 — February 2014
Radio broadcasting has played an important role as a medium of information, news and entertainment for Australian military personnel in wartime and conflict situations. However, while many nations have comprehensive units tasked to the full-time provision of broadcasting services, such as the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) in the United States and the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) in the United Kingdom, Australia has relied on more ad hoc measures. As contingencies have required, the Australian military has introduced radio broadcasting elements into its table of organisation, the most comprehensive having been the Australian Army Amenities Service (AAAS) during World War II. Now, in a new technological era, perhaps specialised radio for troops will fade completely from the agenda.
Historical documentation extensively records the exploits of war correspondents and the often difficult professional relationship between journalists and the military in conflict zones. From questions over ‘embedding’ to direct censorship and the massaging of information by military public relations specialists, the debate over press freedom in wartime has been a long-standing one. However, the subject of the preparation and delivery by the military itself of information and news material for its own active service personnel is a research road less travelled, with the primary literature in the field mostly being brief asides in unit histories, or nostalgic ‘I was there’ memoirs by returned veterans.
Radio communication, in all its forms, has long been a field of huge importance to the military, and one that it has sought to harness to strategic advantage. In fact, the first offensive military action undertaken by Australia against Germany in World War I and made, conversely, by Germany on Australia both related solely to the disruption of communications through the destruction of wireless telegraph installations.
Britain (and its Empire) declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and, within a month, an Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force had fought a successful battle in German-controlled New Guinea in the South-West Pacific to disable the German South Seas Wireless Company installation at Bita Paka, near Rabaul (McKenzie, 1941: 64). Partly as a strategic response, on 9 November 1914 a raiding party came ashore from the German cruiser Emden on Cocos Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, and destroyed the wireless and cable transmission station, felling the radio mast and smashing the Marconi equipment with heavy axes (Bean, 1941: 107). These actions clearly acknowledged the importance of wireless as a vital means of modern technology and communication in warfare.
Wireless telegraphy, and later wireless telephony, were as crucial to the military in the trenches of the Western Front as they were to the observation aircraft spotting and directing artillery fire from above and to the wireless detection of Zeppelins on their bombing raids on England (Dunlap, 1930: 68). Although the then Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes, made a pioneering radio transmission from the United Kingdom to Australia in 1918 following a visit to the troops on the Western Front, radio broadcasting as a medium of mass communication was invented too late to play a part in the dissemination of information and entertainment in World War I (Australian DX News, 2013: 27). While the first broadcast of voice and music is attributed to Reginald Fessenden in 1906, radio as an everyday, domestic communication technology had not entered the popular public domain by war’s end in 1918 – and, in fact, only took hold in the 1920s (Dunlap, 1930: 52).
During World War I, Australian service personnel away from home and fighting on foreign shores were mostly informed through the print media. Official newspapers, such as Gallipoli’s Peninsula Press, and informal soldier news-sheets, like Dinkum Oil and the Western Front’s Wipers Times, were popular vehicles of communication, while personal letters from home and ‘word of mouth’ among soldiers probably constituted the most regular form of interpersonal communication. Early cinematography, albeit in rudimentary form, had been established and was becoming a more formidable medium with, on the homefront, Australasian Gazette cinema newsreels supporting military recruitment drives. Concerts and other stage performances were another staple of entertainment for the forces serving abroad. Still photography was taking on importance, and many Australian soldiers documented their experiences of trench life with Bullet Kodak (‘hits the mark every time’) cameras, while official Army photographers were also active.
World War II (1939–45) dawned in a new technological era, and brought an enhanced audio-visual dimension – especially in terms of both radio broadcasting and cinema – to the ways the armed forces informed and entertained servicemen and women. Recognising the importance of providing a mobilised military force with comprehensive access to information and entertainment, the Australian Army developed a cinema section and produced training and documentary films, known as ‘visual education’ (SALT, 1941: 30). From the outset of the war, the Official Photographic Unit was active, with Damien Parer (later to win an Academy Award for his 1943 documentary Kokoda Frontline) sailing with the first convoy of the Australian Second AIF to the Middle East in 1940. Within weeks of the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, the Australian government received a request from the United Kingdom to help counter German radio propaganda and Prime Minister Robert Menzies inaugurated a government-controlled shortwave overseas service, originally named Australia Calling and later Radio Australia, on 20 December 1939. ‘The time has come for Australia to speak for herself,’ he said (Thomas, 1980: 113).
Meanwhile, at the ABC, the Talks Department developed a field unit that was assigned to travel to the Middle East with the second convoy of soldiers in early 1940. On board the ships, it produced an actuality radio series called At Sea with the AIF, although for security reasons the programs were not broadcast in Australia until after the contingents had safely reached their destination in Palestine (Inglis, 1983: 85). In the Middle East, the ABC established studios and transmitters at Gaza and also provided printed news material for soldiers by monitoring and transcribing material from shortwave broadcasts from Radio Australia. At the 2nd AIF’s Middle East Headquarters Base Area Camp at Gaza Ridge, known as Kilo 89, the Army itself developed a small station for troops, which broadcast recitals, musical recordings and relays of BBC and ABC news, while soldiers were also assigned to broadcast through the Palestine Mandate station, Jerusalem Radio (Tilbrook, 1989: 151).
Following the entry of the United States into the war in late 1941 and the arrival in Australia of thousands of American service personnel during 1942, the US Office of War Information (OWI) ‘richly provided’ the ABC and commercial radio stations in Australia with free transcriptions of American entertainment programs (Inglis, 1983: 111). In some instances, such as with ABC station 4QR in Brisbane, the Special Services Office of General MacArthur’s Headquarters made available announcers and programs for regular broadcasts for US troops (Peterson, n.d.). Via shortwave, the OWI also beamed feature programs into Australia, including RAAF Voices, a program that carried messages from Australian airmen training in the United States (Potter, 2012: 136).
Returning to Australia in 1943 from active service with the Army in New Guinea, the ABC’s General Manager, (Sir) Charles Moses, was told by Prime Minister John Curtin that radio programs for Australian troops included ‘too much talking and too much serious music’ (Inglis, 1983: 112). Moses informed his senior executives of his personal experiences of servicemen gathered around radios in huts and canteens, and said entertainment of the ‘widest possible appeal’ was required. A Forces Programme began on 5 July 1943, and Army Chief General Sir Thomas Blamey complimented the ABC on what he saw as a ‘fast moving’ program ‘which would do much towards maintaining that freshness of mind which is so necessary for the efficiency of the Army’ (Inglis, 1983: 112). The Forces Programme was broadcast nationally six days a week from 6.30–8.00 p.m. and the ABC even offered a first prize of five guineas (5 pounds, 5 shillings) for ‘helpful criticisms and suggestions’ to enliven the program (Army News, 1943: 4). Apart from ABC and commercial radio broadcasts to troops, small closed-circuit radio stations were operated by soldier patients in some convalescent medical facilities, such as St John Hall Heidelberg Military Hospital in Melbourne.
The huge build-up of Allied military forces in Papua brought about the need for the establishment of a joint radio operation, 9PA, in Port Moresby. Officially opened by General Douglas MacArthur and Lt. Col. Charles Moses on 24 February 1944, the medium-wave station, operating on 1250 kHz, had both Australian Army (Captain R. Wood) and US Army (Captain E.L. Tidwell) management. As the US military moved northwards into the New Guinea region and beyond, 9PA became solely operated by Australia as 9AA (the call-sign standing for Australian Army) (Peterson, n.d.).
While the Americans established their Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) Jungle Network (New Guinea) and Mosquito Network (South-West Pacific Area) stations (Hadlow, 2009: 75) to provide news and entertainment, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) began broadcasting from its major air bases at Milne Bay (The Voice of the Islands) in Papua and Madang in New Guinea. In late 1944, the Australian Minister for the Army, Senator James Fraser, committed the government to the establishment of ‘twenty-one transportable radio stations’, which were ‘to provide entertainment for all soldiers in advanced operational areas’ (Army News, 27 December 1944: 3). Three stations were intended to be in service by the middle of January, with all to be on air by the beginning of May 1945 (Army News, 27 December 1944: 3). By March 1945, the Australian press was reporting that the first stations were ‘expected to be operational in a week’ (Sunday Times, Perth, 18 March 1945: 15). It was noted that while twelve of the stations’ ‘10 watt outfits’ could be moved from place to place ‘in an hour or two’, the larger stations, which were ‘of 200 watts and a range of 400 miles’, could be transported in 48 hours (1945: 15). The newspaper also noted that sporting programs would be popular, but specifically pointed out that ‘No propaganda will be broadcast’ (1945: 15).
The Australian Army Amenities Service (AAAS) was put in charge of broadcasting, and developed the small, stand-alone radio stations in areas of Australia Army operations in New Guinea such as at Torokina (9AC), Lae (9AB), Jacquinot Bay (9AE), Rabaul (9AO) and Wewak (9AJ) (Carty, 2011: 82–3). Each station, equipped with a record library, microphones, turntables and a transmitter, was operated by a team of Australian Army announcers and technicians. As the Pacific conflict moved north into South-East Asia, radio services were extended to Borneo (9AF Labuan), Sabah (9AO Jesselton) and Morotai (9AD). An unofficial station, 7KM, was developed by an Army Signals Unit in Balikpapan, but was superseded by the AAAS station 9AG (Peterson, n.d.). An additional radio outlet, 5DR, was constructed in Darwin in the Northern Territory to cater for the huge logistical bases being established there, while the AAAS also developed mobile broadcasting units (such as 9AO). To ensure that service personnel could access signals from both AAAS stations and Radio Australia, more than 20,000 broadcast radio receivers (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia type C17020), designed specifically for tropical conditions, were produced and distributed (Mellor, 1958: 494).
In 1946, with Japan having surrendered, the Australian military indicated that the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) would establish an AAAS station, ‘probably in April, 1946 with the call sign 9AT’. It was to have a standard library of 4500 recordings and a special collection of BBC transcriptions (SALT, 1946: 48). The station, based in Kure, Japan, shared a frequency (1450 kHz) with US AFRS station WLKS.
While the United States continued to operate Far East Network (FEN) outlets of the AFRS in Japan for decades to come, the AAAS closed operations and reopened in the Korean War (1950–53). It did so under the aegis of a combined Radio Commonwealth station operated by and for Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand armed forces. It was established near the Imjin River, close to the truce line with North Korea.
During the Malayan Emergency (1948–60), the RAAF No. 2 Construction Squadron, building an airfield at Butterworth near Penang in Malaysia, established in 1956 a radio system using turntables and amplifiers linked into the camp’s Tannoy loudspeakers. The British security authorities in the area then demanded that the 24-hour ‘pop music’ broadcasts cease. However, such was the discontent expressed from both within and outside the camp (where the music had also been enjoyed by local civilians) that the transmissions continued (Lewin, 2009). On 1 August 1960, a low-powered medium-wave station, RAAF Radio Butterworth (RRB), was authorised to go on the air, superseding the loudspeaker system. RRB’s The Voice of the Royal Australian Air Force in Malaysia was on air through the period of Confrontation (1963–66), and continued broadcasting on 1445 kHz from 6.00 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, until it closed 27 years later at midnight on 31 December 1987 (Hadlow, 1988).
In the Vietnam conflict (1962–72), the Army’s 1st Australian Logistic Support Group (1ALSG) developed (in 1966) its own low-powered news and entertainment station, Radio DJ Vietnam, at its base at Vung Tau, Phuoc Thuy Province in South Vietnam. The transmitter ‘was connected to the telephone wires which ran through 1ALSG, giving it very good coverage’ (AWM, n.d.). The station broadcast audio-tapes of popular music received from Australia, as well as sports and news broadcasts relayed from Radio Australia. Australian troops were also able to access home news via shortwave from the same source and through regular transmissions of Australian material prepared by the Australian military in Saigon, which were then carried through the American Forces Vietnam Network. Radio Australia’s popular Vietnam Forces Show would play musical requests for servicemen and women from friends and family at home (Laugesen, 2012: 256). However, to better cater for the interests of Australian personnel – both military and in civilian roles – from 1969 to 1972, the Australian Army operated its own official Australian Forces Radio Vietnam (AFRV) service on a medium-wave frequency of 1040 kHz from its main base at Vung Tau. The station was staffed by both full-time Army personnel and volunteer announcers. Not to be outdone, in 1970 a radio technician with the RAAF 2 Squadron at the Phan Rang airbase in South Vietnam designed and built an unofficial station (Radio Phan Rang), which transmitted music and news on 833 kHz for the Canberra bomber crews based there (Marks, 2011: 7). AFRV facilities were dismantled when Australia’s commitment in Vietnam ceased in 1972, with some equipment and parts of the gramophone record and tape collection being sent to RAAF Radio Butterworth in Malaysia.
In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the ABC’s Radio Australia commenced a daily two-hour program of messages and entertainment for Australians held hostage by the Iraqi regime. When the service ceased some months later, despite the presence of Royal Australian Navy personnel in the region, the ABC became embroiled in a major political debate over the role of Australian media in such situations. The Defence Minister threatened to cut Radio Australia’s budget ‘if it did not broadcast personal messages to Australian servicemen and women serving in the Gulf War’ (Hodge, 1995: 153). Radio Australia’s management stressed its need for impartiality and not to become a military mouthpiece. Radio Australia resisted government intervention until, as a compromise and under sufferance, it later broadcast, outside usual transmission hours, a program produced by the Royal Australian Navy for sailors in the Gulf (1995: 155). Later there were reports of international transmissions on shortwave single side-band frequencies of programming through the RAN’s own communication station near Canberra.
In the 2014 environment of social media and digital mobile technology, shortwave broadcasting has almost had its day, with even Radio Australia drastically cutting its services. Satellite delivery of signals for in-country FM retransmission is now Radio Australia’s favoured mode to reach target audiences. Medium-wave radio transmissions have also become less effective as the internet delivers a huge range of signals and listening opportunities, especially for a younger audience, via telephones and other mobile computing devices. Thus the Australian Defence Force could construct its own targeted programming for instant delivery via the internet to ships at sea or soldiers assigned abroad. Given that Australia has no major, fully equipped, on-shore military bases beyond its own borders (apart from temporary outposts in operational areas), it is probable that the use of radio broadcasting to reach Australia’s military forces in both war and peace is an era that has passed.
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Martin Hadlow is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Queensland.