A commemorative ceremony at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) on Sydney’s Darling Harbour in September marked another milestone for former The Land rural journo, Ian McPhedran.
The occasion was a special service to commemorate the heroic World War II raid on Singapore Harbour by Allied commandos in the unassuming former fishing trawler, Krait.
And following the service, attended by a crowd of bemedalled former and serving commandos and navy types, the director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendon Nelson, launched a book telling the story of that daring 1943 raid, and of the craft that amazingly survived it.
Entitled The Mighty Krait, the book was the seventh – all on defence-related topics - to make it into print from the former rural reporter’s bountiful keyboard. Well known to many 1980s readers of The Land, Ian joined the company (then Rural Press) in 1982 following an earlier stint in public affairs with BHP, as Central West regional reporter based in Canowindra.
Moving later to Bathurst, and later still to Adelong from where he covered the south, Ian earned a reputation with readers and bosses alike as a fast learner and a skilled and prolific writer. Recognised as future editor material, he was brought to the company’s North Richmond headquarters as The Land chief of staff, before moving to Melbourne as editor of the company’s Victorian masthead, Stock and Land.
It was in that capacity that he became something of a folk hero among his peers for daring – in defiance of unwritten Rural Press tradition - to write a pre-election editorial advocating a vote for the Labor Party. The fact that he received an earful from on high (the more so because Paul Keating did in fact take Labor to victory at that 1991 election!), was not, however, his reason for resigning soon afterwards.
Rather, it was that despite his competence at reporting on country shows, sheep sales and crop yields, his abiding interest since boyhood had been the military, and all things connected thereto. Ian explained at the book launch how, as a boy of 12 growing up in Bowral, he had been given the job of mowing the lawn for a friend of his father’s, the former war correspondent and author Colin McKie.
After the mowing was done, he would be treated to a glass of lemonade in the old journo’s study, the walls of which were festooned with framed front pages of his articles, while McKie regaled him with stories of his wartime exploits.
One of the most memorable of these was the story of Operation Jaywick, the codename for the successful September 1943 attack on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour, involving the Krait. McKie had written a book about this operation, entitled The Heroes, which was published in 1960, but that was nearly 60 years ago.
With the 75th anniversary of the event looming, Ian and his publishers 18 months ago saw the need for a new book, partly to introduce later generations to the story of the raid, but also to chronicle the subsequent career of Krait up to its present status as a star exhibit at the ANMM.
The book traces the planning of the raid in the dark days of 1943 following the fall of Singapore, the assembling and training of the crew of 14 commandos, the fortuitous purloining and fitting-out of the vessel, and the “ripping yarn” of the raid itself. That took place on the night of September 26, when six face-blackened commandos armed with limpet mines paddled canoes into Singapore harbour and sank or disabled seven unsuspecting Japanese ships.
The initial 37,000-tonne estimate of the displaced shipping tonnage was later revised down to 26,000t, but that was still more than was sunk by any Royal Australian Navy warship during the war. Perhaps more telling than the material loss of shipping was the psychological impact of the raid on the hitherto invincible Japanese, who had thought Singapore under the Rising Sun impregnable.
Later chapters of the book tell of the Krait’s nail-biting, enemy-dodging voyage back to Australia, the disastrous follow-up Operation Rimau raid a year later that cost six of the original (italics) Krait (close italics) commandos their lives, and the vessel’s subsequent war service and post-war disappearance before being “rediscovered” and repatriated to Australia for restoration.
The successful launch of The Mighty Krait is just another phase in Ian McPhedran’s smooth transition from rural reporter to defence roundsman to military author.
His first book, The Amazing SAS, published in 2005, was (and remains) a national best-seller, and seven books later, his eighth is nearing completion.
After leaving Rural Press in 1991, Ian freelanced for a year before following his instinct and joining The Canberra Times as a writer on defence and foreign affairs policy.
This specialisation led to his appointment in 1998 as national defence writer with News Limited, and in due course the company’s group national bureau chief in the Canberra Press Gallery.
In 1999 he won a coveted Walkley award for best news story of the year for his coverage of the Collins Class submarine fiasco.
Further afield, his work has taken him to most of the world’s recent hotspots including Somalia, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Papua-New Guinea, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands.
Looking back on the much-changed subject matter of his writing – from wheatfields to warfare – Ian says the common denominator throughout has been the “people factor”.
“At the end of the day we are telling stories about people, whether they are ‘cockies’ from Crookwell or generals running armies and fighting wars,” he said.
“The fact that many soldiers come from rural backgrounds meant that I found it quite easy to relate to them and to understand their thinking.
“I look back on my days in the bush with great fondness.”
- 'The Mighty Krait', by Ian McPhedran, is published in paperback by Harper Collins. 244pp. Illustrated. $35.