No Ribbons or Medals
In the middle of World War Two when the enemy was at the gate and Australia's leaders were preparing for an invasion, one of the country's senior security officers was summonsed to appear before a judge at a secret hearing. The security officer had been summonsed to answer charges of the Australian Army's commander-in-chief, General Blamey, that the security officer had been seen wearing ribbons and medals he was not entitled to, that he no longer had the confidence of our American allies and he used women of doubtful character for agents.
The security officer was a lieutenant colonel in charge of Military Intelligence in Northern Command. His area of responsibility extended right across northern Australia. He worked closely with the US Army's General Macarthur's headquarters in Brisbane and was primarily responsible for the security of the Port of Brisbane which was then one of the world's busiest ports providing support for the Allied campaign to reclaim the islands to Australia's north from the Japanese.
The security officer was Robert (Bob) Frederick Bird Wake. His son Val Wake describes his father in his book No Ribbons or Medals: the story of 'Hereward' an Australian counter espionage officer in the following way.
" My father was a jovial sort of bloke, an incorrigible raconteur who enjoyed a joke even at his own expense. There was no pomposity about him, although he did tend to round his vowels when talking on the telephone. He was an unlikely looking spymaster, or agent master as ASIO likes to call them. A large man with a well-cultivated corporation, I always remember the story he told about his secret mission to Singapore just before the Japanese occupation. The Qantas people had to off-load two passengers to accommodate Colonel Wake who had a priority military booking. In those days they used to weigh people before they boarded: the weight of the payload was seen as a critical factor for a safe flight."
Bob Wake was cleared of all the charges made against him by General Blamey but he lost his rank of lieutenant colonel and his reputation as a spymaster was sullied, even after he died.
Val Wake had always wanted to tell his father's story. While working in London he was told by his mother that there were academic researchers visiting the house who were interested in seeing Bob Wake's private papers. Bob died in 1974. He had left behind a rough draft for a book with a working title: Australia the pawn in the Pacific. There was also a number of books and typewritten notes and a work diary. Val suspected that other people had gone through his father's papers and removed some of his documents. He knew that during his father's working life he always kept a diary but there was only one diary left. That diary was for 1948 when arrangements were being made to form the Australian Security Intelligence Organization ( ASIO) for which Bob Wake was a founding director.
Val asked his mother to be careful about giving information to visiting researchers. He not only wanted to keep the material for his own project but he was also doubtful about his mother's knowledge and ability to explain her husband's work. Bob Wake rarely talked about his work at home. It was, when all said and done, an official secret.
When Val returned to Australia in 1996 he was surprised by the number of books in circulation with references to his father. Some of the references were factually incorrect and all of them portrayed a man who Val Wake did not recognise as his father. There were allegations of dishonesty, blackmailing and incompetency. Val was not sure about blackmailing and incompetency but he did know that his father was scrupulously honest when handling public money. The suggestion circulated by ASIO that his father was fiddling the agents' fund to feather his own nest was clearly not the case. His father rarely had any money. Bob's wife Betty was forced to go out and work because Bob was unable to give her enough money to pay the household bills.
Val's growing sense of anger and need to set the record straight spurred him on a paper trail to the official archive offices in Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne. In Canberra he also visited ASIO headquarters where he finally got access to his father's personal file that proved a gold mine for other researchers because once Val got ASIO to release the file the information was available to anyone who was interested.
The writing of Bob Wake's story was difficult. Val realised that he had to tread a narrow path and avoid any special pleading. He had to stick to the facts as he knew them and report them in detail. This accounts for the core chapter of the book where he uses the transcript of evidence given by Bob Wake's boss, Brigadier Bill Simpson, during the court hearing before Mr Justice Geoffrey Reed. None of this transcript had appeared in any other book about Bob Wake and was clear evidence that the charges against him were false.
When Val Wake's book was published by Jacobyte in 2003 his mother was disappointed by the title. As far as Betty Wake was concerned it implied some criticism of her husband. Val explained that it was a direct rebuttal of the Commander-in-Chief's charge about wearing ribbons and medals he was not entitled to. On reflection Val Wake now thinks that the title is more a comment on the intelligence community in Australia. The irony is that Bob Wake, as a result of his service during World War Two, was entitled to wear ribbons and medals but he never claimed them.
In 2006 Val Wake claimed his father's medals and they are held in the family strongbox.
copies of No Ribbons or Medals: the story of 'Hereward' an Australian counter espionage officer can be bought by contacting Digital Print Australia