1901-1968 | Victoria & NSW | War correspondent, editor & historian
Long was a respected arts critic, reporter and sub-editor before becoming a war correspondent and then – on the recommendation of Charles Bean – general editor of the official history of Australia in World War Two. It was Australia’s largest history project, involving 14 authors and 22 volumes published over a 25-year period to 1977. Long attracted wide praise for the three volumes he wrote and the way he guided and encouraged the other 13 authors. The work laid the foundations for future historians. Many of the chapters in Long’s three volumes were published in newspapers around the country.
On 22 June 1926, C.E.W. Bean, then hard at work on his official history of Australia in the war of 1914-18, typed a short letter to 25-year-old Gavin Long who had just secured a junior reporter’s job at The Argus newspaper in Melbourne.
“You will like the Argus and I wish you all possible success,” he wrote. “Personally, I shall always be interested in your progress. I am quite sure that you could not have chosen a career more useful to your cobbers and your country.”
These words of encouragement from Charles Bean marked the beginning of a 40-year professional association which would profoundly influence Gavin Long’s career as journalist, editor and historian.
In an uncanny fashion Gavin Long’s working life would mirror that of the man he regarded as his mentor. Following in Charles Bean’s footsteps, Long would make his mark in journalism at The Sydney Morning Herald. Like Bean, he would write authoritative articles about the defence of Australia in the years leading up to a world war, become a leading AIF war correspondent and spend the latter part of his working life as Australia’s official war historian.
Gavin Merrick Long was born at Foster, Victoria on 31 May 1901, the eldest of six children. His father, George Merrick Long, was a prominent Anglican bishop who served briefly as an army chaplain on the Western Front in 1918 before being appointed director of education for the AIF, organising vocational training courses for thousands of Australian soldiers at the war’s end.
Long was educated at All Saint’s College, Bathurst and Sydney University graduating with a B.A. in 1922 and Dip. Ed in 1925. After a short teaching stint at The King’s School, Parramatta, he spent nine months working in the migration office at Australia House in London before returning to Sydney and deciding to pursue a career in journalism. Beginning at the Daily Guardian he soon transferred to The Argus where he worked as a general reporter. In July 1931 he joined The Sydney Morning Herald as a senior sub-editor and also wrote film and theatre reviews.
Long developed a keen interest in defence matters and after becoming the Herald’s chief overseas cable sub in 1936 and began to double as the paper’s defence correspondent—the first SMH journalist to hold such a position in peacetime. In a series of columns and Herald leaders published in 1937-38 he warned repeatedly about the parlous state of Australia’s defences and the need for greater self-reliance. “I think I was pretty sure war was coming and in particular what it would be like in the Far East,’’ Long recalled in an interview with The Canberra Times in 1968.
In 1938, Long travelled to Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies accompanying the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie. Long held strong views about the vulnerability of Britain’s naval base at Singapore predicting correctly that it would be taken from the landward side. “So far as Australia is concerned however,” he wrote in a dispatch to the Herald, “there seems to be good grounds for doubt whether Singapore, with or without a fleet, offers a guarantee of safety.”
In the lead-up to war, Long stressed the urgent requirement to bolster the strength of both the RAN and the RAAF. The navy, he noted, was weaker in surface platforms than the RAN had been in 1914 while the air force “couldn’t be regarded as an adequate deterrent to a possible attacker well-equipped with aircraft carriers.” The army could have done little to “counter the landing of hostile raiding parties of even a few hundred men.”
On 22 October 1938, three weeks after the Munich crisis, Long received a fateful summons from R.A.G. “Rags” Henderson, general manager of the Herald. “Henderson, seen in the morning, tells me I am to go to London. Pictures me doing some outside work in London and Europe, mentions defence and aviation,’’ Long recorded in his diary.
In late 1939, Long became an accredited correspondent with the British forces, reporting from France on the “phoney war” and, early in 1940, going on a North Sea patrol with the Royal Navy. In May 1940, as the Germans overran France and Belgium, he witnessed the chaos of the retreat to Dunkirk. After the fall of France, Long spent weeks in London enduring the blitz before been sent by the Herald to Egypt where he covered the AIF’s 6th Division in Libya and Greece.
As a war reporter, Long’s dispatches may have lacked the vivid battlefield description and telling anecdotes provided by two of Australia’s finest war correspondents, Chester Wilmot and Alan Moorehead, who also reported from Egypt and Libya. His typed manuscript, “The Sixth Division in Action,” completed in 1941, remained unpublished. But Long’s ability to grasp in clear prose the strategic dimensions of a military campaign would soon be recognised.
Recalled home after the ill-fated Greek campaign in May 1941, Long focused on Australia’s preparations for war in the Pacific, including the urgent requirement for intensive, sustained combat training of the army. Ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he surveyed the unfolding strategic threat to Australia posed by Japan’s southward advance, correctly predicting the fall of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. “We should put whole war under American direction but command must be established in Australia, the only place with the right degree both of remoteness and equidistance,” he noted in his diary.
As a war correspondent and the Herald’s special defence writer, Long reported from New Guinea and from northern Australia. The legend of the Australia soldier as a “wild, undisciplined fighting man who owes his success to some innate instinct for war dies hard,” he wrote in 1943, adding that the lion’s share of the fighting in New Guinea had been done by Australian veterans “with three or four long, uncomfortable campaigns behind them.”
On 15 February 1943 John Curtin, acting on Charles Bean’s recommendation, announced that Long would be appointed Australia’s official war historian. This monumental assignment would fully occupy Long for the next twenty years as both historian and editor. Not only did he oversee the writing and publication of twenty-two volumes on Australian in the War of 1939-45 he also wrote three of the army volumes himself (To Benghazi, Greece, Crete and Syria and The Final Campaigns). “As much as I could from 1943 until the war ended I went back and forth to the front, living at various headquarters with infantry units, doing a great deal of interviewing about recent and not-so-recent actions,’’ Long recalled.
After the war was over, Long dedicated himself to the production of the official history and the painstaking task of dealing with fourteen other authors besides his own massive writing assignment. Shy by nature, his loyalty, generosity of spirit, inexhaustible patience and sense of humour kept his more wayward contributors on track. By the time he decided to step down as general editor in March 1963, the official history was near completion. Two other books by Long, MacArthur as Military Commander and The Six Years War—a concise history of Australia’s role in WW2 - were published after his death.
Compared with Charles Bean’s work on WW1 Long’s own official history has been largely overlooked by historians. He still awaits his biographer. But his fellow writers co-opted for the production of the official history were unanimous in their praise of Long as general editor. Paul Hasluck acknowledged that it was Long who set the overall standard and, in the preface to volume 2 of The Government and the People, paid a fine tribute to him as both contributor and collaborator.
“This work owes much to his patience, forbearance, and encouragement. Even more richly I remember the friendship of a resolute and a gentle man—one of the nobler Australians of my generation, one who had the courage, honour and understanding, and one who could put up with anything except a lowering of the standard,” Hasluck wrote.
Gavin Long died of lung cancer on 10 October 1968 at his home in Canberra. He was 67. His old friend and mentor, Charles Bean, had died at Concord hospital in Sydney just six weeks earlier, aged 88.
Patrick Walters has had a life-long interest in Australia’s military history and was the Sydney Morning Herald’s defence correspondent for four years in the mid-1980s. He is currently executive editor of The Strategist at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Gavin Long (third from left) with colleagues Reg Glennie, Chester Wilmot, Captain Eric H Wilson and John Hetherington at the press camp near Lakoudi, Crete in 1941.
Gavin Long with Australia's official WW1 historian Charles Bean.
Long, Gavin Merrick (1901-1968), A.J. Sweeting, Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 15, Melbourne University Press, 2000
The Last Word: Essays on Official History in the United States and British Commonwealth, Jeffrey Grey (ed.), Westport CT, 2003
The Six Years War – A Concise History of Australia in the 1939-1945 War, Gavin Long, Australian War Memorial, 1973