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McKie, Ronald Cecil (1909–1991)

by Cheryl Taylor

This article was published online in 2014

Ronald McKie, by John Tanner, 1963

Ronald McKie, by John Tanner, 1963

National Archives of Australia, A1501:A4418/​1

Ronald Cecil Hamlyn McKie (1909-1991), author and journalist, was born on 11 December 1909 at Toowoomba, Queensland, second of three sons of Queensland-born parents Allan McKie, bank accountant, and his wife Nesta May, née Brown. The family was living at Ascot, Brisbane, in 1914 but spent most of the war years at Bundaberg, where Allan managed the local branch of the Bank of New South Wales. Ronald attended Bundaberg State High School for one year, and then, the family having moved to the capital, Brisbane Grammar School. In 1930-31 he studied at the University of Queensland.

At the end of a four-year cadetship with the Brisbane Daily Mail, McKie was one of 250 employees laid off when the Mail merged with the Courier late in 1933. He sailed steerage to Melbourne and shared a room at Richmond with an English actor friend, at last finding employment with the Sun News-Pictorial and the Age. After a sojourn in Canberra, he joined the Sydney Telegraph, where Brian Penton encouraged his efforts to write fiction. McKie was sacked after (Sir) Frank Packer bought the Telegraph. In 1936 he joined the Sydney Morning Herald.

Between 1937 and 1939, he worked for the Straits Times in Singapore. He later recalled that Singapore and Malaya were ‘more than a new place’; they were ‘an awakening, a violent awareness of different peoples with different histories, customs and religions’ (McKie 1988, 64). Paid off with other Australian journalists following the declaration of war in Europe, he travelled through Japanese-occupied northern China and briefly visited Tokyo.

On 5 January 1940 McKie married Anne Catherine Lindsay, a fashion designer, at the residence of the officiating Congregational minister in North Sydney. He returned to work with the Sydney Morning Herald, but soon joined Penton’s team as a feature writer for the Daily Telegraph. Following the Japanese occupation of Singapore, he quickly published his first book, This Was Singapore (1942). On 14 May 1943 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a gunner, but was discharged on 4 February 1944, being required for an essential occupation.

Accredited as an Australian war correspondent to cover the India-Burma (Myanmar) theatre, McKie reported the halting of Japanese forces at Kohima and Myitkyina and the American construction of the Ledo Road. In 1945 he reported the closing phases of the European war from Athens, Salonika, and Rome. He entered Bologna with the II Polish Corps and viewed the corpses of Mussolini and other Fascists at the Milan crematorium. In Oslo he attended Vidkun Quisling’s preliminary trial. He interviewed a member of Goebbels’ staff, the reporter Inger Haberzettel, in Berlin, and observed Truman and Churchill on tour. He reported the Potsdam Conference before returning via Paris and London to Sydney on Christmas Eve.

Post-war, McKie returned to writing feature articles and editorials for the Daily Telegraph, a position he held until 1960. His reports from the war zone had been printed in the Argus in 1945, and feature articles on other topics appeared sporadically in the late 1940s in the Sunday Times (Perth). In 1952, as the first Australian recipient of the United States Department of State’s Smith-Mundt fellowship, he wrote for a newspaper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and toured eastern America. From 1957 to 1960, he wrote prolifically as a staff reporter for the Australian Women’s Weekly, while also contributing occasionally to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin, the Australian Monthly, and regional newspapers.

McKie drew on his experience as a war correspondent in three books. In 1953 he published Proud Echo, narrating the brave last fight of HMAS Perth and USS Houston in the 1942 battle of the Sunda Strait. Proud Echo sold well, but was less popular than The Heroes (1960), which told the story of secret Australian and British sea raids, codenamed Jaywick and Rimau, mounted against Japanese-held Singapore in 1943 and 1944. In 1980 he published the autobiographical Echoes from Forgotten Wars.

Earlier, four books had expanded McKie’s coverage of South-East Asia: Malaysia in Focus (1963), The Company of Animals (1965), Bali (1969), and Singapore (1972). He fulfilled his lifelong ambition for success as a fiction writer when The Mango Tree, a highly descriptive novel that drew on his Bundaberg boyhood, won the 1974 Miles Franklin award and was a joint winner of the Barbara Ramsden award. In 1977 it was made into a film. His second novel, The Crushing (1977), also set in a Queensland sugar town, followed; a third, Bitter Bread, based on his experiences in Depression Melbourne, appeared in 1978. In 1988 McKie published his autobiography, We Have No Dreaming. The following year the British-Australian television series of The Heroes was released, followed in 1991 by the telemovie The Heroes II: The Return.

One of the first writers to envisage Australia as a South-East Asian nation, McKie wrote that ‘Asia was not the “Far East”, a concept we had inherited from our Anglo-Saxon past, but rather our “Near North”’ (1988, 65). He cultivated a military officer appearance, with an air-force moustache. Fundamentally, he was a thoughtful, observant, creative, and gentle man. Survived by his son, he died on 8 May 1991 at Canterbury, Victoria, six days after the death of his wife, and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • McKie, Ronald. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 6 November 1975. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • McKie, Ronald. We Have No Dreaming. Sydney: Collins, 1988
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘A Writer Who Witnessed Our Darkest Hours.’ 11 May 1991, 24.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cheryl Taylor, 'McKie, Ronald Cecil (1909–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckie-ronald-cecil-15568/text26780, published online 2014, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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