Books, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction

Michael Veitch: from TV clown to war historian

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Michael Veitch is on a publicity tour for his new book 44 Days: 75 Squadron and the Fight for Australia (Hachette Australia) and despite the fact this is his sixth book telling rip-roaring tales of Australian history, interviewers still can’t separate Veitch the writer from Veitch the TV comic.

“There’s a lot of curiosity and a slight indignation from some interviewers who are like, ‘You’re a comedy guy and I’ve read your book — and it’s not very funny’,” Veitch tells Daily Review.

44 Days tells the largely untold story of the RAAF 75 Squadron whose pilots defended Port Moresby in their Kittyhawk fighters from relentless Japanese attack in a heroic 44-day battle in March and April 1942.

True, Veitch did come to fame through his work in the on television sketch shows D-Generation and Fast Forward where his observational humour and gift for mimicry made him a comedy mainstay for more than 20 years, but the last decade has seen him emerge as a writer of particular talent.

44 Days is his fourth book which tells stories of Australian pilots in World War II following publication of Heroes of the Skies, Fly and Flak. He has also written two books about Bass Strait history.

“I’m a storyteller,” he says simply. In addition to meticulous research, hundreds of hours of one on one interviews with pilots, and the writing of little known stories of war, Veitch is in demand as a speaker at RSL clubs. He has also adapted the stories he has gathered for his stage show, Flak, that regularly tours Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s a one-man show where I play five old men — there are a couple of laughs.”

Veitch has discovered the current Ancestry.com generation has a thirst for connecting with their forebears, which accounts for the popularity of both his books and talks.

“After the shows I sign books and people tell me stories of their parents and grandparents. There’s a lot of regret about lost parents.”

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But Veitch didn’t wait until middle age to become fascinated with history. He’s the first to admit that when he was an arts student at Melbourne University in the 1980s he was a “young fogey” who could trip off the names of famous battles and rare aircraft. He could also do a mean Colonel Klink impersonation.

So where did this fascination with World War II come from given neither his father nor uncles served in war?

“Model planes.” Veitch was one of those obsessive kids who could patiently and meticulously apply glue to tiny bits of plastic to create scale models of aircraft and warships that conjured history in their own bedrooms.

“When I was 13 I made a model of a famous Lancaster bomber – you can still get the kit – and I was dragged along to a dinner dance by my parents. There was an old man at the table who had been a navigator on a Lancaster and I talked to him all evening and he later showed me some log books.”

Both Veitch’s parents were journalists and his sister Kate Veitch is a novelist, so his career in comedy could be seen to be a detour on the path to his true vocation, although he is still in demand as a performer.

“My father used to say that ‘you’re a writer like me’. I always knew I could write but I didn’t know what to write.”

His first book Flak came about accidentally after his old school friend, the journalist Peter Wilmoth was writing the biography of actor and war pilot Bud Tingwell. Wilmoth asked Veitch to explain to him some of technical details about WWII aircraft and this prompted the idea of Veitch using his knowledge to interview former pilots about their experiences. The rest is literally history.

Veitch’s sixth book 44 Days was suggested by the son of a pilot in the RAAF 75 Squadron who came up to chat to him after he had given a talk at an RSL club. Veitch knew of the air battle over Port Moresby, but only vaguely. The pilot’s son, Peter Tucker the son of Arthur Tucker, suggested he write a book on the episode and later presented Veitch with a box of cassette tapes of Arthur talking about his war experiences.

These raw source materials were augmented by Veitch’s discovery of a sound archive at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra that held the accounts of 75 Squadron pilots that had been recorded in the 1980s.

“So I was able to quote from these men who are long dead.”

The story of the 44-day battle in New Guinea sounds pure Hollywood material, if one dared to imagine a Hollywood movie in in which none of the heroes were American.

As Veitch explains it, the might, skill and superior equipment of the Japanese found an unlikely and formidable opponent in the 75 Squadron who were made up of barely trained Australian airmen.

The ‘hero’ of the tale is the real-life Squadron leader John Jackson from Queensland who Veitch describes as an ‘anti-hero’.

“He’s such a wonderful figure because he’s such an atypical fighter and leader. He was old – about 35 – he was tubby, balding, had poor eyesight and by the time he got to the war he was already a bit worn out. But he was a tough, compassionate leader who had no sense of fear. He was a magnet for the young men he led who thought they had no chance against the tiny and nimble Japanese Zero aircraft.”

44 Days: 75 Squadron and the Fight for Australia (Hachette Australia) is out now. You can buy it here.

4 responses to “Michael Veitch: from TV clown to war historian

  1. Veitch is a great author who is making these stories accessible, but for 75SQN in particular he is merely standing on the shoulders of giants. Geoffrey Robertson (the barrister and author) hosted a TV special of the same name on the ABC back in the early 90s telling the same story of the epic air defence of Port Moresby. It is certainly not an unknown chapter in Australian military history.

  2. May I just point out, Ken, that it was a one hour documentary which went to air once on Anzac Day in 2002 and again exactly a year later in 2003. It was never screened again, and it was never sold in ABC Stores, and was only available through ABC sales – who would burn individual copies of DVD’s for the better part of $100 each, even a decade ago.

    Also, even its director/producer: David Salter freely admitted that (all up) there were quite a number of errors, oversights, exaggerations, and inaccuracies. Nor was this matter of its containing mistakes etc. denied by Geoffrey Robertson, nor was it denied by his (once 75 Squadron WWII pilot) father – who having been instrumental in getting it made, was very disappointed that this had unfortunately occurred – due to its having been hurried through, as an Anzac Day Special.

    A prerecorded statement was later made by Geoffrey Robertson about all this, which was shown at the 75 Squadron reunion for VP Day in Canberra in 2005, summarising the key points which needed addressing, ie. acknowledging the need for certain specific corrections; and just reiterating other things somewhat more clearly. Back at around that time, or a little earlier, TV personality & journalist: Jeff Watson had made a documentary about the Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk, in which he did mention both Darwin and Milne Bay – but did not include even one single word about Port Moresby. That same tendency to completely overlook Port Moresby has never ceased to be the case in the voice-over of television commentators on Anzac Day, by and large, either.

    Michael Veitch has said – and does most definitely do so in his new book – that there’s only (really) been that one [‘flash in the pan’/ I’m calling it..] television documentary and a couple of very good scholarly books devoted to the subject – but none of those other books are EXCLUSIVELY devoted to the subject!

    This latest book is ( in my opinion) a wonderful record, and very readable account, of a pivotal event in Australia’s military history and is one that’s very much overdue as a prominent release – and one which will now tend to both reach, and register with, a much larger number of people than anything else has previously.

  3. I meant 1992 & 1993 (of course) in my response to Ken, as to when the Geoffrey Robertson documentary was first broadcast – my apologies for that!

  4. Michael is not just an excellent author but his reading (and acting) in Fly has been a great experience for me.He has recorded the bravery and courage of truly great men.
    His ability to get beside some of the airmen and crew, survivors of WW2 is truly inspirational and a wonderfully dedicated work. The accounts of events have been handled with dedication and understanding. The history contained in this work is so important and Michael has done Australia a great service.

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