Hero or Deserter? by Roger Maynard is a history book by a non-historian about Gordon Bennett, the controversial Australian general who abandoned his troops at the end of the Singapore campaign to make his way back to Australia. Though over 350 pages long, the book has large type and generous spacing, so is not as in-depth as one might at first suspect. Moreover, it seems lightly researched. The Singapore campaign--Britain's worst military defeat in World War II--has been exhaustively studied, yet the bibliography is only two pages long. Bennett also seems to have done at least a small amount of archival research (the Bennett papers), and pads his book with the accounts of a handful of nonagenarian veterans of the Singapore campaign, accounts that may perhaps be interesting in their own right but are almost completely irrelevant to the issue of Gordon Bennett.
The book includes an extremely brief account of Bennett's early life, followed by an extended look into Bennett during the Singapore campaign--well, an extended section, anyway. The level of detail of the Malayan/Singapore campaign is extremely light and Maynard largely substitutes his veterans' reminiscences for any actual account of the campaign. If you didn't come into this book knowing anything about the campaign, you won't leave knowing anything more. It will not even be clear to the reader exactly what the 8th Australian Infantry Division (the unit that Bennett commanded) did during the campaign or how well it really performed--much less whether or not Bennett had any particular competence as a commander.
What Maynard does successfully convey, at least, is what a toxic, overbearing, and insanely ambitious man Gordon Bennett was. Bennett was the sort of person who would undermine any commander in pursuit of his own ambition, who would criticize each and every decision made by others, yet always have an excuse for his own shortcomings. He was also full of grandiose plans of the "give me an entire army and I will defeat the Japanese for you," which he ceaselessly promoted.
Maynard, oddly enough, never truly comes down on one side or the other of the "hero or deserter" question, though this does not mean he is judicious. Earlier in the book he seems to set up Bennett as a deserter, or someone who is about to become one, but once the account follows Bennett back to Australia, the tone of the book abruptly changes, pitting the heroic Bennett against the Australian staff officers who somehow all had it in for Bennett and could not abide him succeeding. Maynard seems to fail to understand how any Australian officers could think Bennett unfit without their having an ulterior motive.
The last section details the investigations into Bennett's actions and his own defense, but like some of the investigations themselves, falls prey to an overlegalism without addressing the key issue: should Bennett have, without informing his superior officer, abruptly handed his command over to a subordinate and abandoned all of his men to his fate while he went back to Australia to seek another high command? Note that Bennett never encouraged others to escape, never used his authority to set up an escape committee to help others escape or anything of the sort. He thought only of himself, with the shallow excuse that he had important knowledge to impart about how to fight the Japanese--an excuse that ignores the fact that the Allies were still fighting the Japanese in Burma and the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines and that he was hardly the only person with any knowledge.
I should finish with an observation that Maynard's knowledge of World War II itself does not seem all that strong. Several times he refers to the Japanese Guard Division as some sort of crack unit, when in fact it was inexperienced. He also refers to the natives of the Dutch East Indies whom he avers suffered for years under Japanese occupation--when in fact the Japanese occupation there was the lightest and most benign anywhere, as the Japanese essentially threw of the Dutch colonial rulers and prepared the Indonesians for independence, even raising and training an army by the end of the war (which promptly started an uprising after the war when the Dutch tried to return).
I cannot recommend this book.
- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: EBURY AUSTRALIA (28 August 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0143783920
- ISBN-13: 978-0143783923
- Product Dimensions: 3 x 15.2 x 22.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 540 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 195,966 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)