Inside Story

Military mosaic

Books | A former diplomat tells the story of the “talented cross-section” of Fiji’s youth who enlisted in the British Army in 1962

Graeme Dobell 15 April 2019 998 words

Culture shock: Apakuki Nanovo, Vosa Cama, Sunia Matakitoga and Sakiusa Vocetaki with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps training battalion at Blackdown Barracks in Surrey in February 1962. A. Nanovo

212 soldiers for the Queen: Fijians in the British Army 1961–1997
By David Tough | Echo Books | $29.95 | 390 pages

Books about soldiering can be written from the trenches or the generals’ chateau. The foxhole/barracks category deals with the life and fights of individual soldiers, while the general’s genre sweeps across battles and strategy and the fate of nations.

Former Australian diplomat David Tough writes mainly from the former perspective in this account of the 212 Fijians — 200 men and twelve women — who enlisted in the British Army in November 1961. For much of his book he tracks the careers of “the 212,” as they became known in Fiji. Then, towards the end of this training-to-trenches narrative, he veers to the big picture, writing about Fiji’s first military coups, in 1987, and the involvement of some of the ex-soldiers as either supporters or opponents.

As an Australian diplomat in Suva from 1989 to 1992 — “the most interesting three years of my working life” — Tough was on the spot as Fiji dealt with the consequences of the coups. Then and now, Fiji confronts the reality that the military is a powerful tribe that claims a unique right to oversee national politics.

In his early weeks in Suva, Tough met the first of many of the 212, quickly realising that “they were a remarkable group” who would have been “a talented cross-section of colonial Fiji’s youth” in 1961. Almost all of them had served out the period they enlisted for, and “about a third of the men extended their service for up to twenty-two years or more before returning to Fiji, remaining in the UK, or settling elsewhere.”

Tough decided to write a composite biography. His mosaic of individuals stretches from Fiji to Britain, covering service on the fringes of fading empire, in Borneo during confrontation with Indonesia, in Northern Ireland, with NATO and during the Falklands war.

The story starts in 1961, when the British army was struggling to find volunteers after the abolition of national service in Britain. Recruiting teams were sent to three colonies, Jamaica, the Seychelles and Fiji. In Fiji, British racial attitudes bumped into local racial sensitivities. The governor of Fiji told the recruiters to get a balance of “60 per cent Fijian, 30 per cent Indian and 10 per cent part-European,” and the racial mix of the 200 men conformed to this formula. Back in Britain, the thinking was that no unit should ever have more than 2 per cent “coloured” soldiers.

Remarkable group: the twelve young female British Army recruits and their chaperone — from left, Tausia Cakauyawa, Vaciseva Tabua, Lily Pirie, Doreen Petersen, Munivai Aisake, Edwina Eyre, Vicki Grant, Frieda (guide/chaperone), Fane Sivoki, Emma Heffernan, Louisa Peckham, Betty Foster and Laurel Bentley — photographed in Sydney, en route to London. Betty Foster

The director of the Women’s Royal Army Corps, brigadier dame Jean Rivett-Drake, made a failed attempt to prevent any Fijian women being recruited. She called for more information about the “position and status” of women in the colonies, “and in particular their customs with regard to marriage.” She worried that Fijians would be “jet black and woolly haired” and would “present considerably more problems to us than the coffee-coloured Seychellois.” Three of the women were discharged to marry or return to Fiji within a year of arriving in England, but the remainder served their full six years.

When the recruits reached England, they were bothered as much by cold and the class system as by racism. The winter of 1962–63 was the coldest in a century, and the weather, says Tough, was an “extreme culture shock.” Few of the Fijians “recall racist attitudes within the army itself during their service”; barracks banter was that if rations ran short, Fijians could exploit their cannibal heritage and munch on a mate. The Fijians represented the army at almost every sport possible, although, as one journalist noted, “they did less well at qualifying for good conduct medals.”

Many of the soldiers returned to Fiji in the mid 1980s. Several of the men were “ardent supporters” of the 1987 coups mounted by colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, Tough writes, while others “were equally strong objectors. The divide remains.”

One of the returnees, Sam Pillay, entered parliament at the 1987 election, representing an Indian communal seat in the new coalition government. He was sitting in parliament when Colonel Rabuka entered the chamber with a group of “balaclava-clad soldiers brandishing automatic weapons.” Pillay “briefly considered trying to disarm the soldier standing close behind him but quickly realised the foolishness of such thoughts.” Fiji as coup-coup land was born.

The longest-serving of the 212, Joe Tuwai, who retired from the British army in 1997, was one of those who decried Fiji’s new “coup mentality.” Tuwai said the model Rabuka established for a Fijian soldier rests on the idea that “one does what one feels is right” because a coup will be followed by a decree waiving charges of mutiny or treason.

Tough puts his mosaic together by structuring the book in two halves: the first nine chapters tell the story of the 212 from 1961 until the 1987 coups, while ten following chapters trace individual careers serving as gunners, sappers, signallers and infantry, or in the Special Air Service, transport, ordinance, skilled trades or armour (“a third class ride in a tank is better than a first class walk in the infantry”).

Individual warrior stories abound. Seven of the Fijians served with the elite SAS, most winning medals for bravery or distinguished service. The MBE citation for Fred Marafono, who served twenty-one years in the SAS, referred to his “legendary” status as a visual tracker and his contribution to anti-terrorist techniques and jungle warfare.

After he left special forces, Marafona had a second career as a mercenary. “Three months short of Fred’s sixty-ninth birthday,” reports Tough, “an SAS officer involved in rescue operations in Sierra Leone was surprised and delighted when he boarded a Sierra Leone gunship to be greeted by Fred as the door gunner.”

While some of 212 followed the warrior life, others found God and left the army to become ministers. Such are the many colours in a mosaic made up of individual soldiers. •