An interesting, if dry, exploration of a little-known aspect of Australia’s military history.
In the waning months of World War II in 1945, the Australian Imperial Forces’ landings in Borneo were supported by groups of guerrilla fighters. Known as Operation Semut, it consisted of three groups.
Kill the Major tells the story of this operation, mostly through the activities of Semut 1, under the command of British Major Tom Harrisson. An arrogant, brilliant, and frustrating man, Harrisson was in equal parts revered and hated by his men, several of whom at one time harboured dreams of killing him: hence the book’s title. Yet as Malone points out, it is partly a testament to Harrisson’s leadership that all 42 of the men under his command returned alive to Australia.
Malone paints a detailed and fascinating portrait of warfare at its blurrier edges. Much of Semut’s activities took place after the Japanese surrender, while some of their companies were still roaming at large around Sarawak and British North Borneo. Many Japanese commanders refused to believe the surrender, or simply took matters into their own hands. Although not regarded as a militarily important, they were causing havoc for the local people, many of whom had helped the Allied Forces and deserved their protection. For many of the guerrilla fighters, battling their own issues with dysentery, ulcers and lack of food, the rulebook of war had to be thrown out.
This is certainly an impressive work of research. Malone calls on military records, oral history, and archival material, and pulls them together in a way which is readable. He is clearly a good writer, but far from a great one. He has some annoying habits, like constantly putting slang expressions in parentheses. The book’s structure is basically chronological, but jumps thematically at times, breaking the reading experience. Overall, there is a lack of true narrative sense. Malone gives us an interesting collection of facts, nicely presented, but missed an opportunity to truly tell the incredible story which is hiding somewhere in these pages.
Of great interest to Australian military history buffs, ex-services personnel, and those who have travelled to the amazing island of Borneo, Kill the Major could have been more marketable as a general work of history with a stronger editorial hand.
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Distributed by: For Pity Sake Publishing
Released: July 2020
- Visit Paul Malone’s website