Battle for ‘Blood and Guts’: Son’s fight to raise the Red Duster in honour of POW dad
John Randall is fighting to have the Red Ensign recognised as Australia’s official national flag. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)
To some Australians, questioning the national flag around Anzac Day borders on sacrilegious, but a far north Queensland man believes the wrong flag is flying during our annual commemorations.
Seventy-year-old John Randall is the son of a World War II digger, Private Jack Randall, who was a prisoner-of-war for almost four years at the notorious Changi prison camp.
Mr Randall said his father was proud to serve under the Red Ensign, and was furious when then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies decreed in 1954 that the official national flag would be the blue version we fly today.
“He said, ‘he’s got no right to change this flag! We fought under this flag!'” Mr Randall recalled his father saying.
The red ensign flies out the front of John Randall’s home in Cairns. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)
Although he was only seven years old at the time, Mr Randall remembers the radio announcement vividly because it interrupted the football broadcast which his mother was listening to intently.
“[Dad] nearly smashed the radio and poor old mum said, ‘I can’t listen to Collingwood’.
“He said, ‘bugger Collingwood, Marge — this is our national flag! A lot of good men, women and boys died under this flag’.”
Red or Blue? Questions raised about the flag we hoist
The Blue Ensign did not become Australia’s official national flag until 1954, following the passing of the Flags Act of 1953.
Before then, the Union Jack was senior to the Australian flags designed in the early 1900s, but the Red Ensign was, according to AusFlag, commonly flown as a “de facto civil flag”.
Red Ensigns are depicted in this painting of Federal Parliament’s opening in 1927. (Supplied: diggerhistory.info)
It featured heavily in military recruitment campaigns and was secretly kept by Australian prisoners in Changi, as well as being flown at battlefields in Gallipoli and France during World War I.
Photographic collections from the Australian War Memorial show both flags, along with the Union Jack, were used during the First and Second World Wars and up to the Korean War.
During that period the Blue Ensign was used by the government and Navy, while the Red Ensign was the official flag of merchant ships.
The Australian flag’s colour was officially changed from red to blue in 1954, a “captain’s call” by Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies which coincided with a visit from Queen Elizabeth II.
Benjamin Jones, from Australian National University’s School of History, believes the Australian public should have been consulted.
“In short, flags are not mentioned in the constitution, so Menzies was free to do as he wanted, provided he had the numbers, which he did,” Dr Jones said.
“Legally it was all above board, but morally you’d think the Australian people should have been consulted on a major decision like that.”
Mr Randall believes the colour switch was inspired by an anti-communist agenda.
“He didn’t like red so he changed it to the blue, thinking we’re all commos … what a lot of rot!”
A passage from Menzies’ 1967 memoir, Afternoon Light, seems to bear this theory out:
“In the year of my birth 1894 — Queen Victoria was on the throne of the United Kingdom and Ireland and the Dominions and Colonies beyond the Seas … For us, the maps of the world were patterned with great areas of red, at a time when red was a respectable colour.”
PM’s response to flag status just not cricket
During his three-decade fight to have the Red Ensign — known to diggers as “The Red Duster” or the “Blood and Guts” — recognised, Mr Randall has petitioned prime ministers past and present.
He wrote to Malcolm Turnbull’s office via local MP Warren Entsch three weeks ago requesting clarity around the Red Ensign’s status but is yet to receive a response from the Prime Minister, who was once a director of Ausflag.
Mr Randall queried why the Prime Minister can weigh in on debate about our national cricket team, but not our national flag.
“[The cricketers] tampered with a red ball, and he says they’re cheats,” Mr Randall said.
“[The government] has tampered with ‘The Red Duster’, the red ensign, our official flag for 154 years!”
Despite being disappointed with the result of his campaign so far, Mr Randall said he has no plans to let the matter drop.
“Dad said to me, ‘son, fight it to the day you die’,” Mr Randall said.
“I said, ‘Dad I’ll have this flag put up. It’s got to be flown in respect of the men and women that died under it.
“Forget the politics and think of the young men and women who fought and died under that flag.
“Fly the flag and be proud of it.”