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Monson, Ronald Austin (1905–1973)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Ronald Austin Monson (1905-1973), journalist and war correspondent, was born on 21 February 1905 at Kookynie, Western Australia, third child of John Christian Monsen (d.1916), a fireman from New Zealand, and his Victorian-born wife Laura Tomsey, née Creech. Moving to Perth about 1913, the family changed its surname to 'Monson' as 'Monsen' seemed too German. After her husband died of wounds while serving in World War I, Laura operated a boarding house. Ron attended Perth Modern School and the University of Western Australia (B.A., 1928). He became a cadet on the West Australian in 1925 and was city roundsman by 1928.

In September 1928 Monson and E. A. Cooke set out to trek through Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo. When Cooke withdrew, Monson was joined by another Australian, J. H. Wilson; they reached Cairo in December 1929. Monson's reports were cabled to the West Australian. His account of physical endurance, British colonialism and an attempt to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro appeared as Across Africa on Foot (London, 1931).

At St Mary's Anglican Church, West Perth, on 11 June 1932 Monson married Stella McLaren. He lived as an inmate of the Harvey unemployment camp to write about the conditions there and he also covered the riots at Kalgoorlie for the West Australian. In 1934 he travelled to England with the State's secessionist delegation. Joining the London Daily Telegraph that year, he reported on a diver's descent to the wreck of the Lusitania. In 1937 he covered the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War, sending back stories about Japanese atrocities and the fall of Nanking (Nanying). He flew to Sydney in 1938 to report on the opening of the Empire flying-boat service.

In October 1939 Monson went to the French front, representing the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Melbourne Argus and some English newspapers, including the Daily Express. He described the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Blitz on London, and supported Kenneth Slessor's complaints about delays in cable transmissions to Australia. Monson's account of the Greek campaign (April 1941) for the British Ministry of Information led him to publish The Battle of Greece (Melbourne, 1941). In May 1941 he was mentioned in dispatches for swimming across the Euphrates River under Iraqi fire to rescue a wounded British soldier. Slessor persuaded him in March 1943 that he was more valuable as a propagandist than a soldier. Monson next reported from Burma, and then from Alexandria, Egypt.

Despite being dubbed the 'Prince of Press Adventurers', Monson wished that the war would soon be won so that he could rejoin his family. He covered the Normandy landings on D-Day (6 June 1944). In 1945 he accompanied a medical team which entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany; he was devastated by what he saw, and punched the first German he encountered. Anxious that his two sons should grow up in Australia, he became a top feature writer on the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, Sydney. His boys' escapades inspired a column, 'Bringing up Father'. Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall and slim in build, with brown hair, blue eyes and a moustache, Monson was a 'good rough and tumble bloke'. While he could be somewhat dour, he had a larrikin sense of humour and a thirst for adventure.

A 'battlefront correspondent by choice and conviction', Monson covered the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, asserting that the government's support of the partition of Palestine threatened to create an unfriendly barrier of Muslims between Australia and Britain. In articles from Indonesia and Malaya he urged Western powers to 'put food in the empty bowls of Asia' to halt communist expansion. Returning from the early stage of the Korean War, he reminded the United Nations that it could, if necessary, use the atom bomb on Chinese bases. Late in 1951 in Cairo he was attacked by a mob who thought that he was a British spy. He returned to Egypt in 1956 to report on the Suez crisis. In 1958, when war correspondents were included for the first time among the dead commemorated on Remembrance Day, he was chosen to lay the wreath at Sydney's Cenotaph. One Anzac Day, a drunk declared that Monson was a 'phoney': 'No man alive could have accumulated that mass of campaign ribbons'.

Although Monson contributed editorials, features and book reviews to the Telegraphs, he had been downgraded by 1967. In 1969 he was appointed publications officer at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Forced into retirement by a stroke in 1972, he died of congestive cardiac failure on 29 April 1973 at Canberra Hospital and was cremated; his wife and sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • T. C. Bridges and H. H. Tiltman, Recent Heroes of Modern Adventure (Lond, 1932)
  • C. Semmler (ed), The War Diaries of Kenneth Slessor (Brisb, 1985)
  • D. Horne, Confessions of a New Boy (Melb, 1985)
  • C. Semmler (ed), The War Despatches of Kenneth Slessor (Brisb, 1987)
  • Newspaper News, 1 Nov 1939, 1 June 1951, 1 Jan 1952
  • West Australian, 17 July 1928, 30 Apr 1973
  • Cape Times, 23 Dec 1929
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 6 May 1973
  • series 1838/1, item 1520/4/12, A2908/15, item S170/3, part 1, A5954/1, item 1979/91 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Monson papers, PR89/152 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'Monson, Ronald Austin (1905–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/monson-ronald-austin-11149/text19859, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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