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George James Odgers (1916–2008)

by Harriet Veitch

Chronicling a war can take longer than the war itself. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 took 12 volumes, 6 authors and 22 years to finish. Australia in the War of 1939-1945 took 22 volumes, 14 authors and 25 years.

George Odgers, soldier, journalist, war historian and author of Volume 2 of the Air Force section of the World War II history, was the last of the men who wrote that second mighty history. His part of it, Air War Against Japan, 1943-1945, covered the work of the RAAF in the Pacific from April 1943 until the end of the war.

George James Odgers, who has died aged 91, was born in Perth, the youngest of eight children of Thomas and Sarah Odgers, and the first to be born in a hospital. The other children were born on the goldfields, where Thomas worked as an engine driver.

The family struggled financially, particularly during the Depression, and it was only with the support of his older siblings and through his own resourcefulness that George was educated, initially at Perth Boys High School and later at the universities of Western Australia and Melbourne, where he completed a master of arts. Odgers paid his way through university by working in the gold mines of Kalgoorlie during his holidays, an experience he never forgot.

He started work as a journalist with the Argus in Melbourne in 1940, before enlisting later that year. After some training for an RAAF air crew role, he was ruled out on medical grounds so joined the AIF and served with the army in New Guinea and Borneo. When World War II finished, he managed to join the RAAF at last and served in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam, finally as a group captain.

Odgers maintained his career as a journalist and met Elizabeth Garrod at a social event. They were married in 1954. When the Argus closed in 1956 he was unemployed for just one day before being hired by its former editor, Colin Bednall, to join the news production team at GTV 9 in Melbourne.

His job was to put the daily television news bulletin together and to produce a news feature, Focus, on Sundays. The lure of print journalism proved strong, however, and in 1960 he moved to the Age as a special writer. In 1965 he became head of public relations for the Department of Air and in 1975 head of historical studies for the Defence Department.

He had been appointed as an official war historian to write his volume soon after the end of World War II. It turned out to be just one of his many books documenting the story of the Australian armed services from the 1880s on.

The first book published, in 1952, was a history of the Korean War, Across the Parallel. This was followed by his official volume in 1957, The Royal Australian Air Force (1965), The Golden Years (1971) and Mission Vietnam (1974).

In 1981 Odgers retired from the Defence Department, but it was a retirement in name only. Illustrated histories of the Australian Navy (1982), Air Force (1984) and Army (1988) followed. He was 78 in 1994 when Diggers was published. It was a two-volume history of Australian involvement in 11 wars from the Sudan in 1885 to the First Gulf War.

Two years ago, Alan Ramsey wrote in the Herald of the "keepers of the flame", the academics and journalists who wrote the 22 volumes. At the time, Odgers was the last of the 14 authors who remained alive. Now he too is gone, but the official history remains as a testament to them all, or as Ramsey wrote, "just the most remarkable and lucid record of this country's 1939-45 war years".

Odgers' last work, Mr Double Seven, was a biography of Squadron Leader Dick Cresswell, the first operational commander of 77 Squadron, the first Australian pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in night combat over Australia, the first Australian to go faster than the speed of sound and the first RAAF commander to lead jet aircraft into battle.

Cresswell was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, a US Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal.

Cresswell's is a remarkable story, but there are many more in Odgers' books — stories of courage, death, insubordination, retreat, disaster, conquest, victory and above all, sacrifice. Odgers was driven by a desire to ensure that these stories would not be forgotten. Two months before he died, Mr Double Seven found a publisher. It will be launched a few weeks after what would have been the author's 92nd birthday.

George Odgers is survived by his brother Tom, 93, sister Daphne, 95, his wife Elizabeth, sons Stephen and Kendall and five grandchildren.

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Citation details

Harriet Veitch, 'Odgers, George James (1916–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

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