John Bertram
Archive number: 118
Preferred name: Jack
Date interviewed: 14 May, 2003

Served with:

2/1st Pioneer Battalion
John Bertram 0118


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Tape 01


Good Afternoon Jack.
Please to meet you.
Pleased to meet you too. I’d like to start off our interview by asking you where you were born and where you grew up?
I was born in a place called Maldon, Victoria about 30 miles south of


Bendigo. A gold mining town, my grandparents or my grandfather was a gold miner and my mother and the rest of her family were all born in Maldon. I born there in 1915 as my mother was staying there with her mother while my father was away overseas. So I was born at Maldon,


I stayed there until 1920 when we moved to Sydney, my father of course. And we settled down at a place called Campsie, a suburb of Sydney and I grew up in that area and where I served my apprenticeship well there until I got married and then I moved to Belmore. And I’ve lived around that area most of my young


life. I live from, I was about 26 or 27 and I’d been married of course and we moved to Bankstown for a few months and then we bought a place in Belmore. I


stayed in Belmore until 1960 when I moved up to Newcastle, I worked for the Technical College that was the reason why I was moved they wanted me to work up here. So I moved here in 1960 and have lived here ever since.
You mentioned your father was away when you were growing up as a young child.


Was he in the war?
Yes. My father as I have told you earlier came across from Australia when the Australian Fleet was being formed in 1910 from, he was in South Africa with the English navy, he was discharged in Sydney and became what they called a reservist in the new Australian navy.


At the outbreak of the First World War they formed a Australian Expedition Force [ANMEF – Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force] I think they called it they went up and captured the German possessions in the Pacific, New Guinea, Solomons and a few of the other islands. My father went up with the navy contingent and they captured this


place called the Bitapaka just outside Rabaul where a big German wireless station was. They came back to Australia in February 1915 and they discharged that unit but most of them joined up into the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] or the Australian navy and they


formed various units of course, but the main unit that they formed with the sailors that had been up in New Guinea was called the Naval Bridging Train its purpose was to build piers and so on, so as they could unload ships and so on. Originally the British Naval Division from France was very busy making duckboards and things


because of the hazardous nature of the ground. Well they were to go to England and help them, but Gallipoli along and they went to Gallipoli. That was in August they went to Gallipoli because they had been training back here in Melbourne. And after Gallipoli their unit was sent down to the Suez Canal


and that unit staged the first mutiny in the Australian navy. The army was supposed to the pay the naval reservists and so on because they were part of the AIF. But apparently a paymaster didn’t think they should get the money, so he never paid them. So after they came out from Gallipoli they moved down to Egypt and of course they had no money, they couldn’t go on leave.


So they refused to work until they were paid. It could have had serious consequences except one of the brigadiers in charge, happen to investigated it himself and found out why and it was more or less didn’t enter into official records. They were the first mutineers in the Australian navy and they spent there fours years until


1917 ferrying troops and so on across the Suez Canal and they also had an expedition up the coast of Palestine supporting the troops. Until 1917, I’m not sure which date they were asked if they wanted to join the AIF


or discharge. My father was 35 at that time so he and several others opted for a discharge and they came back to Australia towards the end of 1917. Well he of course joined my mother in Victoria and I don’t know very much about that period, then I was 3 or 4 year old. And I do remember growing up in Campsie though,


I was nine year old and I remember my Dad going off to work and he was killed at work, he was rigging lifts, being an ex-sailor he used to work rigging the scaffolding and so on for lifts. And the scaffolding gave way and he and several others fell down to the bottom of a lift well and he was killed.


Mum was left to bring up my twin brother and my young sister who was four years younger than us. Also at that time Legacy found out about us and I became a junior legatee, I’m still interested in that you see, I did a wonderful job there.
Did you manage to talk to your father?
Oh yes, yes, I can remember him taking us


swimming at Brighton Le Sands at that time, I can remember that and showing us what to do. Oh yes we spoke quite a bit I can remember that period, but then of course he just disappeared from our life then.
I was wondering if you managed to talk to him about his service days?
No, I know nothing of his service. I sort of pick it up from several old navy mates of his


and reading a book, forgot the name of the book, about the Naval Bridging Trains experiences and I can sort of form an opinion from that.
Jack can you tell me how old you were and when you enlisted?
I was 23 when I enlisted. I tried to join up just after war


started in 1939, but I was working for the Railway at the time, and so they called them a protected industry and you weren’t allowed enlist. But in 1941, no 1940 when the Dunkirk happened they gave us permission if we wished to.


And of course quite a lot of us enlisted from the railway. And I joined up at the Victoria Barracks and I was put out to Belmore Drill Hall, because there were so many enlisting at that time, there were thousands, were as they had been struggling a little over the last 3 or 4 months prior to that to get recruits. But once Dunkirk came, they were


overwhelmed with recruits and the camps couldn’t fit them in. So all the various drill halls became places of training, and I went to Belmore and we used to come home each night and go back each day, they called us cut lunch commandos. Because we us to take a cut lunch with us. And that continued from June til September


and they’d finished Wallgrove camp in Sydney and most of the drill halls around Sydney sent their [(UNCLEAR)] to Wallgrove to be formed into units. And I know we got to Wallgrove about 1 o’clock in the daytime from all the various areas and we formed up in a huge parade ground and the RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] held his stick up and like…


this side two paces to the right. Right o, about turn march off, there were collections from Campsie, Belmore, Manly, Randwick all over Sydney and they were marched off. And we came to new camps and things at Wallgrove and we said what are they and we said you are first reinforcements for the pioneers, and we said whatever’s a pioneer? And they said well there a specialist troops,


they are used as engineers when they want engineers, or infantry when they want infantry. I think they call them combat engineers now, they called us pioneers. They were formed in the First World War, there was a battalion to each division and they became part of that division. The Second World War they became corps troops and were spread around wherever


they were needed. At some of the stages there were a couple of pioneer battalions to your divisions other stages the division operated without them. Depending on what the need was. We found out the engineer part of business was digging roads and filling in potholes and all that sort of business but they also taught us how to use explosives and things like that. The infantry was of course straight out infantry.


So we thought it’s a funny sort of unit but any rate, we stayed with them this was in September, towards the end of September, and then they called a lot of names out and told us we’re going on final leave. So we had a weeks leave and then we joined the pioneers battalion at Dubbo. I’d only marched there a couple of weeks earlier before they went on leave and we


were there for a night or so, getting kitted up because out in the drill hall all we had was our uniform to go to work each day and nothing else. So we had to be all kitted up and then we left by train, went down to Sydney and boarded the boat known as the Joanne Derwitt. That was A, B, C and Headquarters Company and Don


Company went down to Melbourne and joined the Nieuw Amsterdam I think it was , Dutch boat much the same size as Joanne Derwitt, with lots of other troops and then we sailed for the Middle East. We didn’t know where we were going then, though we had a fair idea. And we went via Perth and then Colombo. Colombo we had three days leave there and they formed


a huge convoy of ships, all went across the Indian Ocean to Port Said and we continued on and went up the Suez Canal and landed at a place called Kantara in the middle of the night and came off the ship down to gangplank and they gave us a couple of eggs and little eggs and a roll,


I think it was and that was to be our breakfast on the train. And we travelled all night on that train up through what was then Palestine till we came to a place called Jewels about 30 miles south of Jerusalem and we stayed there, this would have been October and we stayed there until December. December


we boarded the train again and went down to Egypt to a place called Amiriya, just outside Alexandria and the 6th Divvy [Division] in the main time had just taken Bardia and were investing Tobruk, so we were told we were going to join the 6th Division. Well we had no weapons and that so


they were rapidly giving us Brens and so on and we’d never fired a Bren before and so we got kitted up. I think it was a Bren for each platoon and a Boyes anti-tank rifle. My company which was A Company at the time boarded a ship one morning at Alexandria known as the Sollum, an Egyptian coast


guard vessel and as strange as it might be the Sollum went to the Port of Sollum and Tobruk fell whilst we were on route to Sollum and we were taken off in barges at Sollum because only a small wharfage there and scattered around and the might of the battalion had arrived at the same time via


lorries, so we were all together as a Battalion at Sollum. What really interested us at Sollum was the fact that there were thousands of Italian troops all down the banks, lining the banks, and whenever you’d go past you’d hear Aqua, Aqua, they were so thirsty. Well we left them the next day and headed


off to join the 6th Division at Tobruk. Well we passed Bardia which had been taken a few days previously, and came to Tobruk and it had only been captured a day or so before. It was still all rather disorganised and they gave our Battalion the job of preparing roads and broken culverts and things so as the transport could go. And the 6th


Divvy had in the meantime had preceded on ad taken Derna. So we followed through with the 6th right through Derna, Benghazi and then to El-Agheila and by that time our battalion was spread out all the way from Tobruk to El-Agheila doing roadwork and another job was reclothing all the lorries that had been left abandoned, there were thousands of them. And


my company went to Derna first; we had a couple of weeks at Derna, which is a beautiful harbour township. You come out of the desert and go way down the escarpment, beautiful palm trees and Italian villas that was, I think it must have been administration pre-war because there was a big municipal offices


and under that, it was two storeys they’d run the lorries and things into a big yard at the back of it. So we camped there for a week or so, just getting odds and ends together at Derna , fixing things up and making ready for our Headquarters to come up. Moved our headquarters to Derna. We then went to a place called Wadi el Cuff, which is up in the mountains,


you come to what they call the Jebel Achdar Mountains. I think Jebel means Mountain, but they’re quite a lovely spot and at pre-war there had been lot of Italian settlements there, very nice place. Also I noticed there was a town that the Italians had been excavating called Cirene, its mentioned in the Bible. That was very interesting


but we only had half of day there, I would have liked to have stayed there, but we went on to this Wadi el cuff which was a big wadi or gully, they call their gullies ‘wadis’ over there and there had been a big bridge destroyed and we were given the job of repairing that bridge. And that was the first time I’d ever seen tubular


scaffolding used. Out here in Australia at the time we use-to-use 6 be 4 joists of timber, but this was this tubular scaffolding, very heavy stuff though not like the aluminium ones we have here. But found it good to be able to use the scaffolding to put things up. So we made the bridge, repaired the bridge completely with this tubular scaffolding and two weeks later we blew it up.


But from Wadi el cuff to a nice town called Barce, it was a lovely centre of Italian settlements, they had courts. But high across the plain we coming down out of the mountain then were these Italian farms and nice to see across the plain, and


we only just went through there we didn’t stop there long. And we camped just outside Benghazi and we saw three German planes coming over, I’d never seen German planes before and they said oh their German they’ve got a cross on them. And then they told us the Germans had landed in Tripoli


and next day we were told to go back to Derna, where our battalion headquarters were. Well we went to Derna and all of a sudden before we got the chance to continue, a stream of traffic going through Derna and we wondered when we’d be joining it because we had heard then that we were in retreat. And after a Don R [Despatch Rider] came up to our


headquarters and told us we had to head westward where they were all coming from and blow up the bridge, so that was the Wadi Cuff. So away we went up there and when we got there it had already been blown so we didn’t have to blow it up. So we went south then from Wadi el cuff to a place called Giovanni Berta. It was an Italian town, lovely. Well it had been a lovely town


it was all deserted at that time and we joined quite a few of our battalion there, they were forming up there, not all of them a lot of them were still in Derna and had made there way, and there was a group in Tobruk getting the defences all ready. They hadn’t left Tobruk they had been there all the time and so we went back across the desert for all night long


and about half the next day we came into Tobruk. And our captain said, “I’ll have to find out where we’re going just stay here,” so we stayed on a little patch and about an hour he came back and he said. And we said, “Where are we off to?” And he said, “We’re stopping” and that’s when we knew we had to stay there. And we were put of preparing the defences then not that those old Italian


trenches had been a bit knocked around our rubble and stuff had to clean them out. Then we were putting trenches between the Italian trenches, which were about 500 yards apart. And we’d only dig down about 2 feet because of the rock and put a sandbag on top. They were very awkward to stay in because you couldn’t if you’re in


when they were firing or anything you couldn’t put your head up in the daytime, you just had to lay there in the sun, which was very boring and to give ourselves shelter and that we used to dig a little slit trench off the slit trench about 6 ft long and cover that in and that’s where we used to sleep in there, a little annex off the trench. And now and again it your were


lucky the trench had been made from an old Italian artillery placement so they were good because they had been properly prepared. But in the main the slip trenches were terrible things to be staying in because you’d lay all day and of course you’d work all night, very boring, very hot and we couldn’t have a wash, so we were pestered with fleas and flies. If you were lucky


none of the lice bothered us like it did in the First World War with the soldier. We never had any lousy outbreaks, just fleas and flies in the main. And always thirsty, we didn’t get a very big water ration and that was chlorinated to make sure that it was pure so it didn’t taste the best. You learnt to


exist on that. At night time the rations would come up, you’d have a dixie of it might be bully beef and veggies or M and V - meat and vegetables and sometimes you’d have sweets and so on, so it wasn’t too bad and then a big dixie of tea, it was all one, it was all milked and sugared, and some of them didn’t like milk and a lot


didn’t like sugar, but you learnt to live with it because after all you’d go thirst otherwise. We moved around to various places, in addition to the trenches they built, they fortified them with barbwire so as make them better than fences, we reckon the Moreson was trying to become AWL [Absent Without Leave],


barbwire. And in front of them we would put vines, although they were pretty defence proof to a point and round the concrete ones in the main perimeter they also had wire barrier around. Some parts the wire barrier was a continuous fence other parts it was only around the


main trench. And they’d be mines in front of that. All the forward base, they were a zigzag, they’d be one forward, one back, one forward, one back around the perimeter – 137 of them. And the ones in the front they’d have an anti tank trench around, so you’d have the anti tank trench,


the barb wire, you’d have your mines so they were fairly well fortified. Because the Italians had the exact position of them all, because they had the original maps. We had some captured maps, I’ve got one down at the …. I should have brought that up, Tobruk’s clubhouse down there; I can go and get tomorrow morning for you. And


that shows the position of all the trenches and that there’s all the co-ordinates and so on, the latitude and the longitudes. So they had the exact plane drop to use and they used to have very good artillery. Of course the planes knew where to drop the bombs, but I think in the main the planes were more interested in bombing the harbour and Tobruk, then worrying about these


trenches all the way around, unless they put on an attack then the bombers would come over the Blitzkrieg type followed by the tanks, then followed by the infantry. They tried that on the 14th of April, I think it was. They broke through and Morshead [Leslie Morshead, Australian major general] said to tell the infantry to


stay put not to go back or try to attack the tanks and they ran into quite a lot of our artillery and they hadn’t struck that before, they’re swirling around to go out and they were tormenting the tanks trying to come in. So that was a failure. [(UNCLEAR) – probably referring to Corporal J H Edmondson, 2/17th Bn] got his VC [Victoria Cross] at that one. A couple of nights later, the Italians had a drive along on our western perimeter,


there’s a hill 209 they went through, they got repulsed our troops saw them forming up and attacked first and then in May, April the 30th they put on a really big attack, they broke through 14 of our trenches, the pace, the fortified pace


captured 14 of them from S7 to R7 and they drove a wedge into, we call it ‘The Salient’ up until they reached the Blue Line, the front line was called the Red Line, the secondary line was called the Blue Line. They put a very good mine field in front of all the secondary defences and the tanks couldn’t get through them so they swung around


went eastward and out through R7 but we never took those trenches that they’d taken from some Italian one’s back, we took two or three, R8, R10 but I don’t say we really took them, we reoccupied them because they didn’t have


sufficient troops to man them all. R8 stood out for a long while, for another day and night, they had a terrible time and they put flamethrowers up on the tanks and burnt them out with that. So they had R7 – S7. Our pioneer’s were in R8, 9 and 10 that’s how I know that they weren’t occupied because


we occupied them. But other troops tried to take other trenches but they’d already been occupied and they weren’t in the race. We were lucky we got into these trenches just before they came back. They came back I think it was May the fourth, no that was when it finished, it would be about May the first.


They broke through, 30th and the 1st and we were around a bit at a place called Pilastrino, we were on the Blue Line, so they sent us in to see what we could do and they told us that they didn’t think 8, 9 and 10 were occupied, but to see if we could take them, but if they were occupied see if we could get them back. They must have done that to other troops too.


And that was our first offensive fight of the war. I’d never fired a rifle up until this time. And so that was where I first officially fired the rifle. But we, I went to R8 and we settled in, it had been left by our troops leaving it when the tanks came and we must have only been in it for a


little while then we heard a lot of talk and there was a troop of Germans coming over, all our fellows fired on them and after a bit of crossfire, they retreated. So we were very lucky they hadn’t occupied that just before we did, but that was my first offensive fight during the war, luckily.
Were you frightened?
Oh yes, my word,


I thought if I don’t shot them, he’s going to shot me. But your just standing there you got to do it. It’s like swimming, you get stuck, and you just swim. I think we were all very frightened, I don’t think there were any heroic fellows. But you sort of get used to it though, you know even though its bang, bang all the time you get used to it. But the fighting


died down after the 4th of May and we stayed there for another 10 or 12 days I’m not sure which, and we were relieved by the 2/15th Infantry. We went back to the blue then. I went to various places from these places sometimes in the front and sometimes in the Blue Line and occasionally right back out


of fighting which was good. In the back areas you could walk around, wander around, that was around Tobruk. There was a lot of spare land there, if you, you didn’t wander around in groups though, because that would attract attention. Because an odd man could possibly 7 or 8 miles away didn’t attract that much attention. But if they saw a group marching you’d get artillery fire at you.


But I was never in Tobruk itself, until last year when I went there. But I was around the waterfront a fair bit but never in the township. We stayed there from April the 9th I think we got back into Tobruk and stayed there until just after September. October we went back to


Palestine and we were told one night that we were going to go back so we were moved back into an area not far from the harbour where we could easily be transported onto ships. We all went to different ships; I went onto an English Destroyer known as the Griffin not just me alone, but the group of us,


but it had lots of hulls, and its decking and on the side because it had been in Crete several months earlier and never been repaired. But we got aboard there about 12, they could only stay for about half an hour, they had to get in and out, it might have been a little longer than half hour, but not much because they had to get back


past Bardia and Sollum before daybreak. Because they’d be discovered by the enemy and so they had to get in. While we were getting in they’re unloading the other side, they were very good. And first thing we did, we were taken down to the petty officers’ mess, I think it was and we were given a table to sleep, but we


found there was a shower alongside so. I never remember coming out of Tobruk because we wouldn’t have been allowed up on deck anyhow, I remember we all showering there busily for a while. It was all salt water, but it was lovely. And we got back to Alexandria about half past 11, 12 o’clock the next day. And they took us to Amiriya again


we landed there about 6 and then we boarded the train at night and finished up at Palestine. The only thing I remember about that train trip, we got into big empty compartments like the luggage trains, or truck all covered and everything, but we could smell bitumen. In the morning we had a look we’d been laying in soft bitumen, they’d been carrying bitumen so we were a bit


of a mess. But we landed back not far from Julis, a place called Hill 69 and we moved in there and stayed there until March, 1942.
So just to finish off your story in Tobruk, How long were you in Tobruk all together?


went in on the 9th of April and we came out towards the end of September, I think it might have been the 30th of September or the 1st of October. About 6 or 7 months. The one battalion stayed the whole lot, the 2/13th they were unlucky there, their ship got sunk and they


had to go out on it. But we were lucky, we went back all right, no bother.
Did you then return to Camp Julis in Palestine?
Yeah Camp Julis or really Hill 69 is alongside Julis. And while we were there the 2/2nd Pioneers parked along side us, they’d been up in Syria and then


on the other side the 2/3rd Pioneers newly arrived from Australia camped.
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 02


Jack, I’d like to take up your story again, you were just telling us that you left Tobruk and went via Alexandria back to Palestine and Camp Julis. Can you tell me about the leave that you received?
Had three days leave and we went up to Haifa, most interesting and


whilst we were there a Israeli invites us out to his settlement, so we had a day and a night there that was very interesting, seeing the way they look after their crops and so on. They really make the land bloom there, because formerly where he was down towards Lake Tiberius had


been just marsh land, and there used to be a lot of Malaria there, and they making it crops, like vegetable crops they had some orange trees, but in the main this settlement was sowing vegetable crops for the Haifa markets I suppose. Very interesting, they different types of Israelii settlements


some are self controlled by the President others are run more or less on a business line and they’re paid wages and that. But the one where we were they were all contributing, they weren’t getting wages, but they were looked after, they were housed and feed and so on and all the profits and so on went back into the settlement.


I believe that’s still continuing to this day over in Palestine, in Israel. Israel was separated from Palestine it was all Palestine when we were there and various portions of it were known as Israeli settlements and some of the towns were Israelii towns and there’s quite a bit of animosity between the Palestinians and


the Israelites. A lot of the Israelis coming there then had been refugee from Germany, but I never struck from Russian, which happened later on. But they were mainly refugees from Germany and some that had been there for quite a while. Had arrived from various….but they weren’t refugees they had arrived from various


communities in Europe and they were very happy with their situations, because they were looking forward to establishing a home land, because that was all in abeyance because of the war situation. I think they have done, or had done a marvellous job with the facilities available. What we saw


there it was really very good, a credit to them all but of course you’ve got the animosity between the different religions which is a shame, they should all learn to live together in peace and harmony and they wouldn’t have any wars.
And after your leave I understand that then you were on a boat again to come back to Australia?
That is correct, yes. We


saw the Japanese had came into the war and we just didn’t know what was going on, but we did know that their ships were leaving from Palestine, Australian troops, the British troops we didn’t know much about because we were sort of a settlement of Australians. But we knew several were going, the 6th had left and the 7th was starting to go


and in March they told us we were going and the 2/3rd Pioneers had just arrived and were staying, it was a bit silly sending them all over there, then sending us back. So we packed up and sometime in March or early April it must have been early April,


we were trucked down to Port Said and we boarded a huge ocean liner an American one known as USS West Point, tied up to the wharf, it had only just been built as an answer to the Queen Mary it was a steamship America at 45,000


tonnes and it had such good speed that it came out unescorted from Suez to Australia. And we had seen the Japanese advancing down to Australia and we gee we will soon be free Australians like so many other troops, free Australians, it look as though Australia would be going. And in the meantime the 6th Division was milling around


in the Indian Ocean not sure it they were going to Burma or not and then some of the 7th Division was doing the same while Curtin [John Curtin Prime Minister of Australia] and Churchill [Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom] were arguing what to do. Eventually we got on this ship and away we went and thirteen days and we were back in Australia. Unescorted, just going, big ship it had a lot of troops on, we went down about 2 or 3


decks where we were camped, but of course it had been a passenger liner so we weren’t in hulls, we were in cabins and it had taken a lot of British Troops from South Africa across to Singapore, when Singapore fell and they had to leave in a hurry and so a lot of the anti aircraft


guns and so on was still aboard from the British, it had been left there. They just put the troops off and away they went because the troops were being dispersed, they couldn’t wait and fill them up with troops. And it came straight across to Suez where it picked us up from one of the ports there and we just boarded and came back to Australia. The only thing was when it left Singapore


it hadn’t had time to put on supplies. So we had two meals and day, it was beans. You had beans in the morning and beans the last thing at night. And we used to go round singing Yippee Yi o Ki ah, but they didn’t have any other it was just the beans and of course they had to give them to us I suppose. There were so many troops the Mess line would wind


down three or four floors to where you were and eventually you’d go and get your ration and away you’d go. It was a happy ship, we didn’t know where we were going until we were at sea and then they told us we were going back to Australia. And we thought, I hope we don’t see Japs there. But we pulled in to Fremantle and dropped our West… we had some West Aussie boys with us and they were given leave and we carried on


to Adelaide where we disembarked and we were taken up to…. I forget the name of the place, about 20 mile out of Adelaide and we were told we’d be there for a while unloading ships, because a lot of ships came down from Singapore. So we
Did you go to Whyalla?
No it wasn’t Whyalla, it was


Stanford or something like that you’d know it, was it Stanford or Salisbury or some name like that, its only about 20 mile out of Adelaide and the 18th Brigade had arrived before us they were the 7th Division and they fostered us in, they had our tents up for us, but we spent, it must have been March we left, because it took 13 days back, because we spent most of April


unloading ships down Adelaide. We’d be taken down there in trucks and unload these ships, a lot of the ships from not only Singapore but Java and all that were there and being unloaded. We were told we could send a telegram home to our people to let them know that we were in Australia and we’d see them sometime,


but a lot of us had anticipated that and we’d been on the telephone, they knew we were home. But I met some fellows there that had pulled into Java on the way and they had left before some of the other ones and a lot of not a lot the 2/2nd Pioneers and the 2/2nd [actually 2/3rd] Machine Gunners too and some ASC [Army Service Corps]


they were left in Java, they became prisoners of war. But we came back through there and then one day we were told we were going home on 7 days leave, so that was good we boarded the trains and I don’t know they were very lax with their spy operations because the telephone was so handy, it wasn’t as free as it is today because there’s only a


phone up at every corner now and again and only so many private phones but it was a good means of communication. And I’d phone my brother he was at the depot of the navy down in Flinders. Told him I was coming through on such and such a train and Melbourne, my


aunt was there to meet me she knew I was coming and several of her friends I knew there, they all met us, you couldn’t go through, so you just talked through the barrier and we had to wait and let the Sydney Limited go at half past five and we came through on the slow train, anyway we got as far as the station before Albury and we pulled in for a meal there


and I was walking along the platform and there were a heap of sailors and I hear Jack, Jack, it was my brother Jim and he had special leave to go home because I was coming and so he was a petty officer and he had a group he was taken over to Sydney and he’d arranged to come also so he said to one of the fellows your in charge


and he came home with me on the troop train which was very good. He’d been on the half past five which we’d had let go, because he didn’t know when we’d be coming, he knew I was heading home, but when he saw all these fellows with the triangular patch Pioneers, he said are these Pioneers, so he found me and I took him up to my CO and said can Jim could come home with? Oh Yes. Hop aboard. So


when we got to Central, we let people know that we were coming and there was my girlfriend, she was my girlfriend then, my sister all waving up there on the platform. And they knew where I was because of this sailor cap in amongst the…. And so it was very nice leave, we had seven days leave and I got married in that time.


I’d been engaged before I went away. And went home saw Mum and had a very nice three or four days then we headed off to Ingleburn where we had to assemble after our leave, then we went straight up to Brisbane, out to place called Torval Point, opposite Bribie Island where we were building


a commando camp, because we were building these sort of things around while we were waiting to see what would happen. Well we were there from May til August 4 months doing roadworks and building camps around


that area. And then…
Is this 1942 now?
1942 Yes I’m sorry. And we boarded a ship to go to we didn’t know where and all the battalions couldn’t fit on this ship it was only our Don Company and I was with them, I’d left A Company


and went to Don Company, I had more or less shot through and got came back and was put into ……I was there 3 or 4 months and I, my brother was getting married, he rang up to see if I could go with him to come and see his wedding and our CO said Oh, no we’re likely to go any day, I cant let you have leave. I said I’d like to go to my brothers wedding,


and he said it can’t be done. I said O.K. At Torval Point there’s lots at Bribie Island, there’s a bridge there now, we’d see the ferry come up each day from Brisbane and go back and so I said to the fellows in the tent, my brother Jims being married in three or four days, I’m going to see if I can go down and see him and they said we’re coming too so the whole tent. We saw the oyster growers


there and they loaded us across to get the ferry and away we went. Well my tent mates they were only suppose to have a night out in Brisbane and a mate of mine who was an English boy that was in the AI [Army Intelligence], he joined up. I’d taken him home on leave when I went on leave. And he said I’m coming with you to Sydney, as he said how are we going to get there. I said, I don’t know watching the roads of course and when we were going up the


Brisbane River there was a big ship in being loaded or unloaded we didn’t know and I said to one of the crew, “What freight’s that?” And he told us, that brought down the last of the refugees from the islands, he said. “It’s going down to Sydney for a refit.” “Oh,” I said, “that sounds good.” So I rang Burns Phillip I think is was and asked if I could book a passage down to Sydney, because I couldn’t get of the trains, they were


booked out and he said, “Oh yes, he said what’s your name?” And I said Mr Bertram and Mr Simmons and he said O.K, I didn’t say private or anything like that. And he said, “Go down to the wharf,” he told me the number of wharf and he said, “Get the man on the gate to ring Mr So-and-So, he’s the purser, he’ll see if he can book you on, we can’t do


anything about it.” So I went down and rang the fellow and he said, “Oh yes, come aboard, I’ll see you in the morning, for your fares” he said. “You can go, but we can’t tell you when we’re going,” he said we might be here for a few days, and I thought ‘Oh gosh’, so I tried it out anyway to see if we could go. So we went aboard and it was all closed up because there were only a few refugees left


that were going down to Sydney and we were look after, they gave us a cabin, and they said, “We’re not going till 10 o’clock, so you can go ashore for a couple of hours if you like.” And I said, “Oh no, we’ll stay put,” so that’s when I knew when we were going. And I got down to Sydney about a day and a half later and I went to my brothers wedding and I rang the MP’s [Military Police] then somewhere two soldiers were AWL,


so they sent a truck out and picked us up, so I got back to the battalion just as they were on the show down ready to embark on the boat to go to New Guinea, so I just managed in time, otherwise it could possibly been desertion. Anyhow I was a sergeant then and he demoted me then to private


and he said, “Don’t do this ever again.” And I said, “I wont do, I’ve only got one brother.” Anyway we sailed up to, that’s when I went to Don Company, and that went on one boat know as the Anshun, the rest of the battalion went, I forget the name of the boat they went on, we said in convoy, a few ships up and down through the Barrier Reef up until we got


to New Guinea then our ship headed off east the others kept onto Moresby and we went into Milne Bay. Well the Japs were fighting when we went in and we kept to the Southern side of Milne Bay and we parked at the deck a place called Gili Gili and we all got off and we were


brought just on the beach, we were told to make ourselves comfortable, to lay flat on that until we were going and night came and the Japanese Cruiser and Destroyer came in and they shelled the Anshun and they sunk her. So it was lucky that we were off her. And we stayed at Milne Bay for; it was 6 months, till December 1942.


And I was tired of building roads and that so I transferred to 2/5th Field Regiment and artillery was in it, it was hard to get transferred by I told our CO [Commanding Officer], that I would, I was fed up with digging and I’d dig but only if he’d stand and watch me. Any rate he gave


permission to transfer so I got into the 2/5th Field Regiment and a few days later that sailed for Moresby. At Moresby, I’d bumped the rest of the Pioneers, they were working in a quarry, much harder than we’d been at Milne Bay and they were, said pity we hadn’t got a transfer, they wont let us transfer. Any rate


they had sent out a call for people to help form the Papuan Infantry Battalion, it had already been formed with 2 Company’s but they were going to make a Battalion of it and a lot of the pioneers had volunteered and went into a Papuan Infantry Battalion, and I thought gee that sounds good. So I saw our artillery man and told him, could I get a transfer and he said oh all right, so he was pretty good.


And I joined the Papuan Infantry Battalion then and that was quite good, very interesting. We formerly we went to a place called Bisiatabu which is up behind the Rouna Falls at Moresby and we were learning to talk to the natives and train them, because a lot of them were just bush kanakas they used to call them, a lot of them had been brought over from the Solomons and from


New Ireland and so on as carriers for the Japanese and they had deserted when they had got into the scrub here and they’d come across, there must have been about 40 or 50 of them. So we had these ‘Buka Boys’ [possibly a reference to Buka Island off the northern tip of the Solomons chain] we used to call them, they’re the blackest of the black, a lot of the Papuans are more of an olivey brown but the Bukas, the Solomon Islanders and some of the


New Ireland, they’re the real jet black, and we’d called the Bukas, Black. And so we more or less had all New Guinean natives and Solomon Islanders, and they formed, B Company had a tough time over at the Kokoda Track at this time and they reformed that with a lot of the troops that we were training and we went with them. And we


went over, just, we joined the 18th Brigade. They used fossette the out to different units for reconnaissance and we stayed there until Bundall fell and then we went along with I think it was the 3rd Division I’m not sure, Militia helping them and they went through to


Salamaua, after Salamaua we went across to Lae. Up behind Lae, Wau we were at and we were working around there for a while until September of the reconnaissance and then one day our CO left us, a captain, and he said, “I’ve got to go to conference down at Lae” I think it was, no not Lae, back to


Moresby he had to go and he came back and he said, “There’s going to be a big landing in a couple of days time,” he said, “I’ve got to fire a ferry pistol at such-and-such a time, if its all safe to land.” So that was we were at Dumpu, what is known as Dumpu Aerodrome later, we were camped there and everything was good, there was no opposition, the Japs [Japanese] were busy looking after Lae, they weren’t


worrying about this back area. And so he fired it and along came the airborne troops, the natives said, “Carvader, Carvader, Lookie, Lookie,” and I said, “Yeah I’m looking and I haven’t seen them either.” And there were all these paratroops coming down. And I stayed with the 7th Divvy and there was the 41st American Division landed with those. The 7th Divvy came over the land by


plane and they landed at various points around Lae and came down and joined the paratroopers. And 2/2nd Pioneers which had been reformed there were a lot of the reinforcements from the 2/1st formed that, so we knew a lot of them. We were with the 2/2nd for a little while and we went through the Markham Valley. The Markham


goes like that and the Ramu goes the other way, so we followed the Ramu up to Shaggy Ridge and I forget the name of the place, but about another 20 mile onwards the fighting ceased and the Japs retreated back over the Sepik over to the Wewak area. But all that area there is where the Ramu


and the Sepik run into the sea its just a huge swampy area, its goes for about 30 or 40 miles it’s a terrible place to be in. But that was where we were ‘recceing’ [conducting reconnaissance] around for quite a while and then, it must be ‘43, ‘44. It must be ‘44 by this time, we when back to Bisiatabu for a rest and so on and


they had leave down home, first leave I’d had since New Guinea and when I came back the battalion, the company had more of less formed working company had been brought back to Moresby and they went back up to the Ramu Valley to work around Wewak and that area. Well we were there for,


must have been September 44, we came out again then, back to Bisiatabu and they were reforming the battalions and they were taking all the New Guinea boys out of the Papuan Infantry and replacing them with Paps [Papuans] and they were forming a couple of battalions, they had formed one already, they were forming a couple more for the Papuans,


for the Pacific Island Regiment, that was late 44 early 45. I came back from leave and they said, “You’re going up to,” not Dumpu…I forget the name of the fort, but they’ve got a big training battalion up there and you can go up and train the boys as they come in


you know for the new regiment and, “Oh” I said, “That doesn’t sound real exciting,” and so I came back on the boat with some planters of New Guinea. They were going back to get their plantations back in order, and one of them was going back to a rubber plantation about 30 miles west of Moresby and so I ask, they were asking for


anybody who knew how to handle natives to go back and help them get the plantations still. They told me all this on the boat, so when I got back to Moresby I asked for a transfer to the Production Control Board as it was called and I said I emphasized 30 I turned and they we quite happy to get rid of some of the older fellows because there were a lot of young fellows


coming up from training and that in their early twenties so I suppose it was logical to transfer us to something where we wouldn’t be any bother. And I went out to a rubber plantation known as Canaseeya, a place called Gully Reach was the name of the place, a beautiful place, the planter was there that I had met on the boat, he made me welcome and he


showed me all the rigmarole of running the plantation and then he went to another one to get it going, they were getting them all in order. It consisted of first of all clearing the trees and rubbish that had grown up over the years and then the tappers would go through and tap their trees, collect the rubber, they took it back, the had a factory where it was put into big tanks;


about 12 foot long by about 4 foot wide by about a foot deep. I think it was ascetic acid we used to add into so much rubber latex and I think it was ascetic acid and that would cause it to coagulate and be long rubbery strips, well then that would possibly be there for a day or two and then it was lifted out they had slides


all along the tanks where you put it in and you’d get this long slab and then they put this into a roll and roll it out, out to about 12 feet long and then they’d take it and put into a smokehouse and smoke it. And they would when it had been smoked fold it up into bales of about 100 pounds and sent it back. I learnt all that and that was quite interesting. It’s interesting watching them tap rubber.


And that’s where I finished the war. So it was quite a nice way to finish the war. What I found so nice about it was, that you were given a little residence to live in and they had, some of them had silk sheets, but a lot of them had gone rotten and so on and we had a cook boy and a hunt boy and they looked after the place. All we had to do was watch the boys work. So it was quite a nice


way to finish the war.
Do you remember receiving news?
Beg your pardon?
Do you remember receiving the news, when the war had finished?
Yes, yes I was out, I came back, I think at about 10 o’clock for a cup of tea or something and the boy at the house who could speak English said, “Tell, Tell the war is finished, it is finished,” so I


tuned into the news and heard all about it, it was quite good. And so I rang up, we got the phone and I said, “When are we going home?” And I was on my home in a week. I was very lucky because there weren’t a great many being discharged around that area so the transport, not for the troops up in the islands of course, there’re so many thousands of them they had to wait their turn to come back.


I was back in Australia, towards the end of September and I was discharged in October. It was quite good, very exciting, but I was lucky too I went to the May Barracks in Moresby the main troops were and they secured me a


place on a short Sunderland flying boat so I got on that one morning and off we went and landed in Cairns and got some petrol there and went onto to Brisbane where we stayed over night, then onto Sydney. It was pouring rain and all I had on was my shorts and shirt and it was cold. And then I caught the tram, the trams went from


Rose Bay out to where was it Marrickville Depot, got leave passes and so on and was told to report to the Barracks in Sydney on such and such a day. And I went there and they hadn’t really worked out the discharge procedures so, I was one of the early ones and


I got through there in no time and officers were shaking hands and thanking you. There was a major from my old Pioneer Battalion so it was nice to see him and just got my discharge then. I’d never had malaria all the time I had been in New Guinea but I think I had about 3 months long service leave or something they call it so, I went shopping


and when I got home with my wife and I got malaria and I finished up at hospital. The first time I’d ever had it, because I knocked off taking the Atebrin [antimalarial drug] I suppose. Because we used to take that regularly and I always kept it up and I got this malaria. It was awful. Now I must have looked a lot younger that what I was, because the nurse said you’re not thirty she said, why on the earth would you tell me that for


that’s my age. Thirty or thirty one.
And you were married, so you were obviously very please to get back to your wife?
Oh my word. She had been very sick, she’d been in the AAMWS [Australian Army Medical Women’s Service] and she was on the boat to go up to New Guinea and


they found out that she was married, so she was taken off. She abused me for that, and I said, “Well you would marry me when I came back.” But she had very tonic asthmatic and she was up in Queensland and the place they were at was rather damp, they camped on a River in a tent and it sort of upset her. And she got discharged Medical Unfit in 44.


But she had bronchitis the rest of her life, it was pretty bad, it must have really affected her.
Did you have difficulty adjusting to Civilian Life?
A little bit at times, because particularly after New Guinea you were more or less your own boss, you belonged to a unit, but you were operating with might be a couple of Europeans


and the rest natives. And you were out independent type of business. If you wanted anything you just helped yourself, but because you couldn’t just go and help yourself in civvy [civilian] life. It didn’t take me that long though, because I was anxious to settle down. It was strange at times to have to go to work each day and come home, and of course that didn’t for


about 3 months. It was quite good.
Where did you go to work?
I went back to the railway that was another good thing for the Railway. They paid my wages while I was away. If I got a privates pay, they paid the difference. And so it wasn’t much of an incentive to go for a promotion unless you wanted to. Unless you got up to say a lieutenant


captain then you sort of get what you were getting in civilian life. But as far as sergeant or corporal or that, you were just losing money and doing extra work. So it wasn’t a great incentive. But it was very good of the Railway though to make the pay, not only the railway, but many firms made the fellows pay up. It took a while settling down at work,


‘cause I was a painter and one of reasons that I joined up was to get away from the monotonousness, you paint a railway carriage, then the next day you would start on another one and it generally it used to take, depending on what you had to do with it, generally a fortnight to paint a carriage, until it bothered you and then you’d move onto another one and so, I could see this continuous carriage after carriage for the rest of my life and I thought Ohhh,


and war broke out, you know, of course the patriotic business, but what it was, big adventure and get away from this painting carriages all the time, that was one of the reasons I joined up. And of course when you used to see these poor refugees coming out from Germany and that and talking to them, you’d think what a rotten thing. And of course when he cut across and knock the British out of


[(UNCLEAR)] we thought oh he’ll be out here next. So I think that was one of the big incentives that made people join. But I think the main incentive for most fellows was to get away, we’d never travelled overseas, that was unusual for anybody to travel overseas, because there was no. There were planes flying, but they didn’t fly overseas like they do now and its like getting a bus or a tram its not quite an


adventure. It used to take about, about 4 or 5 days to get to England, I might be a little wrong there, but I think it was about a 4 or 5 day trip to England and so I think that was one of the big incentives, a sense of adventure. Because we were all young, I was 24, I should have got over it, but it was good.
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 03


O.K Jack, I’d like to take up pretty much where we left off last tape where you were talking again about around the time you enlisted. I’m just curious about if you’d never considered joining the navy and following in your fathers footsteps?
Yes, yes.
You had?
Yes, I consider the navy, air force and army. Air force was a long wait, and I thought gee they mightn’t let go when I get permission


there, because they had given us permission. The navy was a wait too, so I thought oh well it’s the army. So that’s why I went to the army.
So you didn’t have any particular preference?
I didn’t have any choice, no. My brother had been trying to get into the navy he eventually succeeded. And I thought oh no it’s a long wait. So that’s why I went for the army. It was just more or less instant enlistment


Where did your brother serve?
He served on HMAS Australia and he served all around the Solomons, he didn’t go over to Mediterranean with them because he wasn’t allowed to join because he was a blacksmith, and a reserved occupation and he didn’t get in the navy until towards the end of 1941.


So he didn’t join, he went on some coastal ships first, but when he was down Flinders, they found he’s a Blacksmith they didn’t want to let him go. Because Blacksmiths are hard to get at that time, they’re rather important I suppose industrially and he served on some coastal ships, mainly cable layers around Sydney, Newcastle and Melbourne, I


think and then he joined the Australia and around the Solomons with them. And around New Guinea, he told me that they’d been shelling where we were at times. We didn’t know till later when we compared and then he went up to the Philippines, his ship got badly hit there and had a trip over to England


while they had it repaired. So it was quite a big, damage done to the Aussie.
And he survived the war?
Yes he survived the war; he’s unfortunately in a nursing home now down at Croydon Park. He’s got dementia, its not war caused though, its just old age; he’s an old fellow.
You’ve talk about a couple of things that prompted you


to enlist. What significance did the events at Dunkirk play for you?
Quite a lot, ‘cause I realised that they could overrun all those countries in Europe, more or less readily it looked to be. Especially if their [(UNCLEAR)] then they’d upset the whole of the British Army and the French army, ‘cause it looked like they were going over into Britain. I think we were more patriotic in those days


then we are now. You know Britain was Britain the Empire. We’ve lost the Empire feeling now. But I think we were more patriotic and I thought gosh they’d be out here in no time. But that was I think that was one of the reasons we did, I think it was patriotism concerned, but we wouldn’t admit it but I think it was quite a bit to do with it.
Is that the patriotism you mean towards the mother country?
Yes, towards the


mother country. But of course then too, we were only 6 million population and we’re 19 million now and most fellows who walked around with they had either English or Scottish or Irish parents or one parent or grandparents, they all sort of stemmed back from there. We didn’t have the migration like we had post war where we had big flocks of


Europeans coming out. We always have had Italians in the majority, they were a big lot. But of course also there was the White Australia Policy that had to have European stock that was very strong in those days too. But they didn’t have a bar of anyone from the Islands or anything like that or Chinese, they weren’t very thrilled with Chinese. It’s surprising when you


look back how strong that anti-black feeling or White Australia Policy was.
And of course your father had come from England as well?
That’s right yes, and my grandparents on Mother’s side, one was English the other was Australian, but her parents were English, so we’re all sort of English strain.
When you joined


did you have dreams of going over and fighting on English soil or protecting English soil?
No, no you just joined up to go wherever you we placed. I know fellows joined up with me, they never left Australia, and they’re very bitter about it. ‘Cause I think that’s where the returned soldiers were wrong they should have made it open to all soldiers. Too big a division they caused.


There’s lots of fellow you know that never left Australia. That’s what they joined up for, to leave Australia; you can’t blame them for staying in Australia. Like my brother if he hadn’t been fortunate that some ship wanted a blacksmith, he would have served his time out in the Flinders Base down in Victoria. He might have just as well been working at the Gasworks


where he served his time as a blacksmith instead of down at Flinders Island.
You mentioned you were working on the railways. What job were you doing exactly?
Carriage painting and sign writing. Bit of variety now and again, your different type of carriage, but in the main it was all the same. In those days the carriages were painted in two colours, a colour they call Russ


at the top, that’s a green colour and red for the bottom. They changed in later years to make it all one colour. But I served my time in pre-war and that and it was over, too kind.
So you weren’t too sad to leave the railway?
Oh, no, no that’s one of the reasons too after the war when I went back to the railway, I thought painting carriages again you know,


paintings one job wherever you are, but when your painting houses and things you do get a bit of variety. And sign writing you get quite a bit of variety. But just general painting it’s just like a lot of jobs they get very monotonous when you’re doing it day after day.
Did you do any painting during your service?
Yes, I at Derna they wanted some signs put on some


places round about, so they knew I was a sign writer. I wasn’t in the army as a sign writer but they asked me to put different quarters, officers’ quarters, and men’s quarters and that place Derna I was telling you about we were getting ready for a Battalion Headquarters to move in and so I put officers in one part that’s where they were and then I put ‘Gentlemen’ on


where the men went, I did it for fun really and they didn’t notice for a few days and then they said, “Hey Jack you haven’t put the Ors [Other Ranks] up.” “Yeah, ‘Gentlemen’.” “No” he said, “You’ve got ‘Officers’ and ‘Gentlemen’.” They always call you to order as officers and gentlemen, so I thought that was OR’s, I knew what he was doing, he said, “Can you alter it?” And I said, “No, I’ve got no more paint.” And he laughed and let it go. You get


good officers too you know.
Can I ask when you first met your wife?
Yes, in 1931 when I was fifteen, we used to live just down the street from one another. I never met her again then until I was just on 20, that was 1936,


cause she’d grown and I’d grown and we used to go around in quite a group. Young people for dances and things, it’s a bit different now days they don’t seem to do it. But we used to go round in groups to dances and picnics and so on, younger sets we used to call them. And she was one of these younger sets and we sort of went round together, not romantically or anything just going around,


and eventually I got to like here and that’s how we became engaged on her 25th Birthday. She’s two years younger than me. No we had a great time together.
Bear with me, I’m just doing some maths, then, so you were engaged before you went away to war?
Yes, she was 21, 19,


18, 1939 she was engaged. 18.
Were you still living at home at that time?
Yes, yes I lived at home. Even when came back we had about 6 months at home before we went out on our own. My Mum was a widow we used to, it made it a bit hard sometimes, I got engaged and I lose Mum because the was no, there was a widows pension but it was very


poultry and you weren’t allowed to earn more that I think it was 17 and 6 a week. That makes it a bit awkward I know because its change. And you were allowed to earn 2 pound a week, but the basic wage was 4 pound something, so you were under the basic wage, and of course my brother and I we used to help that way to. And of course when you got married you couldn’t do those things so that was a little bit of a worry to me


at times when I was young. But we got over it all right, my Mum was a very good Mum and a very good wife, I’m very very fortunate.
Am I right in thinking that your brother was actually your twin?
Yes, both born on the same day at the same place.
And you had another sister, is that right?
Yes, a sister, and she’s four years younger us? She joined the air force she was a


wireless telegrapher she was up in Cairns and that’s another thing I used to think by gees these public security aren’t very good because we pulled into Bowen to get coal on the ship I was in the Anshun and I just rang up my sister in, she was either Cairns or


Townsville, Townsville, I rang her up and I said, “How are you Gret? She said, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m in Bowen” and I thought now that’s stupid to say that could have been anybody and I think they were very lax there, I used to go along, but I didn’t worry, ‘cause it stopped me. And I rang here and she said, “When are you leaving?” And I said, “I don’t know, we’re waiting on coal,” and we pulled into Townsville, but I never got ashore


there. So I never saw here until I came to home on leave. She married an air force fellow he was a wireless air gunner.
And when did she join the services?
She joined if was after…. she’d be about the end of 43 I’d say, but it’s just a guess


though… about 43.
So you were definitely the first to enlist.
Yes, I was the first.
How did the rest of your family take your enlistment?
Oh they didn’t mind, they thought it was good. They were a bit disappointed I’d be going away though. I never had any obstructions that way, or anybody saying you don’t want to join up let the other fellow do it, none of that of all. It seemed different


more patriotic I suppose they all felt o.k.
Even your mother?
Yes yes she did. I felt sorry for her. Yes she supported me in whatever I did.
Did you get a send off when you left?
Yes, I got a send off from all the locals and so on and


the railway workshop gave me a nice send off too, the manager came down and had a few words to say and so on, it was quite good.
When you first went off to your training, the initial place was?
Belmore, Belmore Drill Hall, that’s between Campsie and Lakemba just a


normal drill hall, just the same there must have been about 200 in each drill hall and that’s at a conservative guess. ‘Cause I know about 200 in our, they had us all line up that was Wallgrove.
So initially that wasn’t too far to go?
Oh no it was just a bus trip from home. It would be like going from here to Broadmeadows.
How long did the drill last


From June till towards the end of September, about 3 months. I think that was possibly the best drill we ever had, because we had Militia troops joining us and they weren’t allowed to enlist because they would train them. And they really killed us, they were good, I think I learnt more there then whenever I joined the battalion. Because we


had exercises because there were a lot of paddocks around Belmore around that time and once I remember we had a bombing raid. The lieutenant, the training lieutenant was a ex World War I fellow and he put us through the air force precautions the same as they were in the First World War, well we wouldn’t have lasted 3 minutes we found out later, but he’d blow


his whistle, “Aircraft left,” rifles up and, “Aircraft right,” so they said we wouldn’t last long. That’s how they used to do it in World War I. They bombed us with flour bombs, to keep us going, I think for a bit of amusement as well as a bit of relief from ordinary training. But they were good they put us through a lot of infantry drill, which we never got in the battalion.


But we never had any firing a rifle or anything like that because most of them had been sent over to England, they lost them all at Dunkirk. We used to drill with pick handles, and we used to reckon we shot down those planes with our pick handle. But no, most of them went across to England all the


rifles and so on. I never got at rifle until I was boarding the boat, they gave us one then. And then of course I mentioned earlier we got our Brens and Boyes anti-tank guns just prior to leaving Amiriya Training Camp. That was another good thing the Italians did for us, they left us heaps of equipment, signalling equipment, wirelesses and so on


and we reckon they were no good because you could only get Italian music on it. But they were good and their switchboards were quite good for the signalling and also their artillery was good because they had stacks of ammunition everywhere and rifles. I think their rifles, I always thought their breeder gun which is a side clip machine Bren was superior to the


Bren, because the fellow said, “No, no, it doesn’t fire like a Bren you can put two bullets in the one hole” and I said, “Who wants to shoot a man with two bullets?” The breeder [(UNCLEAR)], which is good, but the Bren was so accurate. So I think that was a mistake and also with the Bren, I don’t know what they do now, I know they’ve got a lot different, you used to have to load it by hand with a curved magazine and you had to put


…we had rim loaded so each rim had to be just in front of the previous one otherwise they would jam whereas their breeder they haven’t got a rim on, it’s a little groover, out and they came in cartridges of about 20 and you just push the cartridge in like that and pull it out and your rifle, breeder’s loaded. Which I think should have been adopted for the Bren, but of course they possibly couldn’t do it.


And I think that had a lot of advantages over the Bren, it wasn’t as accurate, but when there’s gooks coming at you, you don’t, you got to shatter your fire around a bit. We had breeders and when we went into Tobruk we had our Bren gun and then one day they brought up some guns with a


round barrel, Tommy guns [Thompson sub machine guns] and we wanted to know were the violin case were with them. But what we didn’t like about the Tommy gun, either it fired a 45 round ammunition, which made it about half as heavy again, the ammuntion as the .303. So when you get say 2, 50 rounds of .303 bandolier around your gear you’ve got


quite a weight, well if you had 45’s around you’d be terrible weight to carry. And I think that the smaller bore up to a limited of course was just as effective as the .303. The Japanese had a … smaller than ours and that was effective enough. The Italians were smaller.


O.K. Jack if I can take you back to your training time you just said while you were drill training it was close by so you could return home of an evening?
When you went onto Wallgrove Camp, was that a more distant training camp?
Yes that was about 30 miles from home, and we’d only go home if ever we got leave there. So it meant it was a good hour


or so in the train to get home from there. But if was a definite army camp.
Was it a large barracks?
It was mainly tents at the time, they did eventually become barracks, but when we were there they were all tents. But the cooking facilities, the kitchens were all solid buildings, but where the men slept were all tents.


Did you have to pitch your own tent?
No, they were already pitched for us when we went there, which was good. We never pitched tents until we were in Palestine and when we arrived there in October, that’s right October, there were a lot of troops following us and we had to


put up enough tents for a whole brigade, that’s three battalions and so we learnt how to put tents up. They were what they called EPIPs [English pattern, Indian product] you used to call them, they were Indian tents and I think they’d hold about 12 men. They’re a nice size, they’re a nice tent and the fly and tent were all in, the tent itself and the fly were all together and


there was air space between, they were quite good. And you could, the sides were detachable you could open them up, if it were a hot day. They were very good tents. But take a bit of putting up of course.
How did they compare to the tents you were in at Wallgrove?
Oh much better. The one’s at Wallgrove were smaller tents and they’d hold about 8 men. And of course you’d hop up and hit your head on the roof whereas you could stand


up in these EPIs [EPIPs] and you could walk around without hitting the tent top.
What was the impression out of living at Wallgrove?
I liked it, I was used to camping, I used to belong to the scouts and it was quite good except that of course we were away from home and you couldn’t just do as you liked. They give us leave generally night, one night into


Liverpool which was, not Liverpool it’d be Parramatta which was about 7 miles away, but that was only night leave though, and weekends if you were lucky you’d get leave and if you weren’t lucky you’d have to stay in camp.
What would you do on a weekend in camp then?
Just play cards or talk, tho visitors could come up too. We would often have visitors of a Sunday up there


coming up.
Did your family come up to visit?
Yes, they would come, yes and friends and so on, quite a big day, visitor day. On Saturday used to be like a 6-day week or 5 and a half-day week I suppose, you didn’t do much on Saturday afternoon except play football or cricket or something like that. They used have cricket and football teams.
Did you keenly get involved in that?
Not very


much, I’ve never been a cricketer or a footballer. I’d often be called on to take part, and I’d play, but I was never in the team. I used to go along sometimes just to fill in.
Did you quickly make mates in training, did you make friends quickly?
Oh yes, fairly quickly, because they were all like us looking for somebody to talk to. I remember we had only been there


was a couple of weeks when we were told we were going on final leave and that’s when some of them realized it was pretty earnest, they were going and some of them were a bit scared, Oh I tell you, but most of us were glad that we would be getting away.
Had you enlisted with any close friends?
Ah, one fellow, he’s in Tobruk now, he got killed over there.
So he was with you throughout the whole training?


Yes, yes, Garry Edwards. That’s one of the reasons I went back to Tobruk last year, to have a look at his grave, I’ve got the photo of it there. I buried him, he got killed just alongside of me and I buried him later that night just behind RH [RHQ – Regimental Headquarters] it was, and we marked it of course and then after the war they lifted all the graves and a lot of the Tobruk graves weren’t


buried in Tobruk cemetery, they were buried at Knightsbridge, which is about 12 miles outside Tobruk. At Knightsbridge they buried quite a lot of troops forward of Tobruk, from Benghazi brought them all there and buried them. Same as El Alamein they brought the people in from the desert and buried them there. But Tobruk, mainly people are in Tobruk,


but not all Tobruk people because a lot of the Tobruk people were buried at Knightsbridge just outside Tobruk.
You spoke to us earlier how you were allotted into the pioneer battalion. Well, I’m curious about the type of training specific to that battalion you received. You talked about learning about explosives?
Yes, about mines,


laying mines, explosives and we had to have lessons in them. We had lessons on bridge building, putting pontoons out and all that type of thing, like the engineers do. We followed fairly rigorously the engineer training, but then again, we might get a week or so on infantry training. It wasn’t real satisfactory because in Infantry


training, should you going to be an Infanteer its gotta be full time infanteering and engineering there’s lots of little problems pop up that you should know about. We were lucky our sergeant was an engineer with Marrickville council so he knew all about explosives so he was good. But it could have been the fellow that just had to read a book, well that’s a bit dangerous. Putting


a detonator in the piece of stick of ‘gelly’ [gelignite].
So you were receiving half and half training?
Half and half yes, Then of course if they ran out of ideas they’d take you route marching. That was the true I think of a lot happened when the officers couldn’t be bothered or the sergeant couldn’t be bothered training you, you know I’ve gotta get you individually bayonet fighting and he’s gotta watch


and of course that gets boring when he goes through 30 men. So we used to go for a route march, you often used to think ‘Oh he’s fed up with training’.
So you did receive some training in using weaponry, bayoneting and shooting a rifle?
Oh yes, when we were day boarding, we had one rifle to a platoon; they used to hand it around. And they’d show you how to load it, and clean it and so on. And it


had to be hand around to each one individually, which took up a lot of time. Where as if you had your own you’d do it with the corporal who was instructing you. So it was a bit of a draw back that way. Because I suppose they had to do the best they had.
Did you feel a preference for one or the other?
No, no I just more or less soldiering on you know and you just kept doing. I was never very happy with


explosives, I thought I’d see what the ‘back of Bourke’ [‘back of beyond’ or ‘middle of nowhere’; he thought he would blow himself up] looks like, but as long as you handle them with care and that, it’s all right.
You mentioned just before about sticking detonators into sticks of gelignite? Could you tell me more about being trained in that and what you went through?
Yes, Well first they would show you sticks of gelly, explained what it was for, and how it would go off and so on, not only gelignite, but dynamite and so on. And


never go digging a hole in with a metal object because you could create a spark, you had to use a wooden plug and then with your detonators, it was about as half as long as your finger, there’s a little tapper up the top where you put the fuse in, and you crimp that, you don’t crimp it with your teeth as you see them do in the pictures, you crimp it with a pair of pliers and you always make sure to keep that there you know,


otherwise going through this action on dummies along and make sure we got in the right place. And they’d come along and inspect which was very good. When you insert the detonator in the plug to have a wooden thing or a pencil is good, and then put it in and just squeeze it gently together. Then you go and put it where you want it.
What was the dummy? What was it made


Just a piece of metal. Just a cartilage, what it’s name, ah detonator casing and you’d use that. It might have sand or something in but it wouldn’t have explosives when you were practising. When it was for real you have to have the real thing, but you would have done it so often, you’d have check everything before you did it.
Did you ever train using live


Yeah, oh yes. You’d have these dummy runs and then you’d go out on the real thing. Let some off and blow some stumps up or something like that.
Tree stumps you mean?
Yes tree stumps or a rock.
Did you enjoy this part of it?
It was all right, it was interesting.
Were you taught or told


how you would use this in a battle situation?
Oh, how many sticks to use…?
No sorry, I mean what was the purpose of learning to use explosives? What were you going to be blowing up?
When you’re digging roads and things, you come across rocks and you’ve gotta get rid of them and especially when you’re going up hills


and you want to put siding, you want to take down about a foot or so, if your going to dig it out with a pick, its going to take you some time. But if you can just drill a hole and put the explosive down, away goes half the cliff. And that was the advantage. We found it very convenient when we were on that Wadi el cuff [Wadi Cuff] I tell you about. We were remaking some of the roads there and there were a lot of rocks to get out of the way. Well we had


plenty of supply of explosives that the Italians had left for us. Those were the explosives, but the mines you had to screw the detonator in. You’d have a model mine, wooden ones; you know we wouldn’t be using the live things. But when you got on the live things you knew they were live and you knew what precautions to take.
How would these


mines be laid?
Generally you lay them two say about 3 foot apart, and one about 18 inches from the other. But after a while they became so disorganised that there were just mines everywhere. That’s the trouble when you’re getting rid of them.
Would they be buried?
Yeah, all buried. They way you did,


night time if you tried to get a passage through a mine field, you’d walk, they don’t now, but we used to walk around with a bayonet and feel with your hand and find a mine, you’d go around carefully with your bayonet, then lift it out and unscrew the detonator underneath. Then you would put the detonators to one side and put the mines to one side, you never put them together.


We got out about 6 mines, then we would put them in a bag and carry them back.
Would the mines; could they possibly detonate without the detonator?
No, unless hit them hard, between a clamp or something. You see what happens the detonator comes down and the little cap makes an explosion and that sends the whole mine off.


There are different ways though, we struck the Italian ones first, they were about a yard wide and they bury them in the road and they’ve got like a lid on with two blades and when the something goes on heavy, pushes this lid down and the blades cut the wire and it springs out and sets the detonator off. They had lots of them, and that the first mines we struck, in action.


Also they had one they’d clamp onto a post like that and had little wires sticking out running along the barbwire and you’d go clipping the barbwire and next thing a big explosion, because they were spring loaded, they’d spring. They were the Italian ones, they were pretty good mines. But the length of them was a bit you know prohibiting


I suppose, the round ones were much easier to handle and that seems to be the general fact then. Another thing you’d clear a mine field and you’d put the mines down about 4 or 6 inches, they might put some down about a foot lower and you clear the top lot and there were still mines there. Well after the trucks and so on going through they’d dig the thing down and sometimes a week or two after


the mine field had been cleared a truck would go up or a wheel would fly off the truck because they’d hit a mine. They’re dangerous thing as you can see over the years the people that have been left with thousands of mines to clear. Now they have of course, a gadget you can, electrically you know where a mine is but, we used to feel with a bayonet around. Another thing the mine lays like that and they might


put a little wire up, out onto a peg and you go creeping around with your bayonets, you spring it and up goes the mine. I’m lucky that I never had any accidents like that, but I know fellows that did. Another thing they did in Tobruk, they used to drop cans of peaches or a thermos flask or fountain


pens, and you’d pick them up, they were like a fountain like that and you’d go like that and bang. Tommy Wallace one of my friends up here, he lost his hand that way, he’s picked up a fountain pen. And also with the tin of fruit, that’s filled with grease and that’s got big ball bearings in it and the


end of it’s loaded with explosives and they’d drop them and the heat melts the wax and you’d pick it up and the ball hits ‘cause the explosion. Quite a few of them dropped. Of course you mightn’t think, you see ‘Oh fruit’. So they had lots of ways with mines. They weren’t mines they were booby traps and the idea of a lot of mines,


especially the small anti personnel mines was not to kill you, but to wound you severely, because a wounded man takes 3 or 4 to take him back. Whereas a killed, dead man, he’s dead he can stay there. So it’s better to severely wound a man, it sounds awful but it is better to severely wound a man than to kill him. That used to be quite a…not an argument but a discussion… when you see someone coming do you shoot him in the


stomach or do you shoot him in the head. Because if you shoot him in the stomach he possibly gotta be carried back and if you’re on patrol you can’t afford to send men back with one of your mates and on the other hand you’re not going to leave your mate out there on his own. So its better to wound a man severely than kill him, because if he’s severely wounded he’ll die later anyhow


despite of his attention.
So from what I understand as well as learning to lay mines yourself, it would be your job to clear them?
Clear them, oh yes. Because If you don’t, the engineers this is mainly them, the Pioneers didn’t do too much of it, but we did a bit of it. That’s one of their main jobs to clear a mine through, and when they clear it they put a tape, so you know where it’s cleared. So if the enemy a bit of


head of you, they’d often move a tape, if they’ve you know got time, lots of little lurks they get up to.
Lots of yes, very ingenious way to bring down your enemy. Incredible.
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 04


Ok. Jack, we’ve just been talking about the types of explosives you had to gain a knowledge of while at training, you also mention that you were trained in as well as destructive devices, construction. What sort of things would you have to make or build?
Well, bridges. There’s the army had what you call Bailey Bridges


and there is a way they go together, well its better to have men that know what order they go in than starting and, ‘how do I work this out?’ Work it out’ and say that you’ve possibly built a bailey bridge and then pull it down again and somebody else would build it again. And those types of things.
What’s this particular bridge made of?
Steel. Not RSJ [special type of steel]


you know ordinary steel. You’d also make timber bridges, not actually bridges, but ramps and so on to put on, and you would say you shouldn’t need an instruction for that, but you would be surprised at people who have never had any physical work to do, how little they know about using ordinary tools. And of course, the funny thing that used to make us laugh


was using a shovel, grate, break and pull, grate break and pull, you push it down and a normal person would just swoosh. All those little things, there’s just a right and wrong method of using them.
What were the uses for the different bridges you built?
What were the uses?
What was one of the wooden bridges used for?


Across tank traps. They, when the tanks, they’d dig tank traps, some of them are 4 and 6 feet deep without a bridge they would just go down and just stop there. So they would have to put a quick bridge in. They had little bridge piers made of timber and you knew which way they went in then you put the decking on for it to get across.
And they would hold the weight of a tank across it?


Yes. They’d hold the tank all right. Of course though when you get the real bigger ones of course you’d have to get other methods to build the tank bridges and so on. But that’s when you have a forward attack or something, you put these down.
Do you need to have a sip of water?


Sorry about that.
That’s o.k. And what uses would the bigger steel bridges you build be put to?
Oh well, road works and that where we’d go to carry traffic. When they blow a bridge, they more or less destroy it, you’ve got to get the traffic moving there as quickly as possible, so


you generally construct a single lane bridge across first and improve on that as you go. But you sort of have to get the traffic moving as fast as possible. And these bridges, not only Bailey Bridges, there are quite a few types of them and I suppose its 60 years since I was building them, they’ve improved on them still further now. But that is one of the main things is to keep the army moving along.


You’d construct these piers and then the decking and away we go.
You called them Bailey Bridges is that right?
Bailey. That’s after the man who invented them [Donald C. Bailey, British wartime engineer]. They were about the only bridges of steel and timber they didn’t have anything else. And of course you would try and make do with what local materials were there, you


use them. I know in New Guinea we used to often chopped down a few trees and stretch them across, but that’s only sort of common sense. People got to know what to do.
You also mentioned pontoons I think?
Pontoons, that’s right that’s for floating them into places. And they would anchor them and you’d put decking on top of them. Although you could construct them out of


oil drums or they often had, I didn’t see this but I have heard they have them that you can pump them up, ‘cause that wouldn’t be for heavy traffic tho, but lots were made, pontoons were made out of oil drum. Because in our army we used to have, everything more or less was carried in 5 gallon cans and things and of course


as they went up oil drums 40 gallons and so on, and they were ready material for that type of work. Well they’d have to be moored together and chained so they didn’t drift apart and put the decking on them. And then of course you can’t just have that floating on the stream; you’ve got to allow a ramp down into it and a ramp off it. You’ve got to think of all those things when you’re,


that’s what the Pioneers and engineers were trained in. That’s what you call engineering work.
You said that they would have to be anchored down?
Oh yes, anchored down.
How would that be done?
Whatever, you tried, if there were trees handy or drive stakes in or big rocks. Hold big rocks down. It was best to have a thick stake than a big rock, because rocks can roll particularly when they get


zigzagging type traffic going across there. So it’s best to have stakes or something of that nature. A fixed appliance for it.
How would the stakes be fixed to the say the oil drum?
By, the oil drum has about an inch or so steel above it, you’d put a hole in there and then wire it on. The wire might be a heavier cable on


to it and wire a heavier one to that.
And the stake would have to be driven down into the bed of?
Bed of the river, yes. A lot of things to, in New Guinea I noticed that it would be just a nice flat stream and come back in 2 or 3 hours later and it would be a raging torrent, many many bridges got swept away that way. But you couldn’t do all


those eventualities but you had to be aware that they could happen.
I was just thinking then that this sound like a very complicated and in some cases ingenious task where you really had to adapt yourselves to what’s available and there must have been cases where the unforeseen or the terrain works against you. And you presume you are working to a very tight


schedule. What method, what strategies did you have to work around problems?
I suppose the experience of. It’s good if you had ex-civilian engineers with you, they were aware of lots of these things but of course people that never had any of it was quite a job. Another thing that we did a couple of times in


Libya, lots and lots of old lorries left around and we’d drag them in and use them as for supports for bridges and so on. Because they were a terrific lot, you’d try and use what’s available as far as possible.
In what ways would either the terrain or the materials you used how would they work against you?


What problems did you come up against?
In the desert, in the desert proper, where it’s all sand you can’t do much at all there because it’s shifting all the time. But a lot of what we call desert is what we call Scree it’s a mixture of rock and sand and you could gather up these rocks and build piles and that for them.


But of course in the desert where you had to get over shifting sands the only way they found to do it was to have mats, metal mats put down in front of the lorries, slow job and they’d put some down drive the lorries on get the one’s behind it was more or less slower than walking across but that’s how they bridge the sand dunes and so on.


And Rommel [Erwin Rommel German general] used to use that quite a bit, because he used to think well they wont be fortifying down there and he used to come around, there was a British Tank Corps which was very famous the 7th Armoured Division, they operated a terrific lot in the desert and they’d go miles over impenetrable desert but that was the method they would use.


It was a slow old job but they’d often pop up somewhere where they’re not expected. And the Germans too would pop up where they’re not expected.
And what about some of the terrain in New Guinea?
New Guinea, that was awful, there was always mud and more mud and where we built roads, I’ve seen 3 and 4 layers of coconut palms


crisscrossed to build up the road. So that was one way, but of course I believe the government was liable for each coconut palm, that might only have been a yarn, cut down they had to replace to the firm that owned them. That might only have been a yarn. But that’s what we used to do, because coconut palms are good to cut down and good to use, nice and round.


Lots of the trees were not as suitable because there not the nice round shape. So you’d see a lot of palms used for road building. Of course that wouldn’t last long either out there because they rot very quickly, but they would do our job I suppose for 3 or 4 months and we’d be right. They use a lot of coral for road building purposes too. A lot of the rivers


and that have a coral metal sort of bed and they’d scrape that up and use that for road building purposes. And I remember a scoop going along in the river scooping all the thing up. It was a bit strange too when the Australians were up there they were using the scoop and behind the tractor or a lorry


and the Americans came along with a big 12 yard scoop and just take the whole lot just walk out they were really equipped, but of course you couldn’t take them everywhere either, but you could take a scoop. So some cases our method was better but it looked awful to see them to take 4 or 5 lorry loads out in one go and we had to fill it up with the scoop, right up to where they called a chinaman and tip it into the lorry or shovel it on,


a big difference between that. Of course the Chinese have done that for years, haven’t they, they still do it to Nancowa to overcome any difficulties.
You were in the army for over 5 years, for quite a long time. Did you find the technology and the methods you were using were updated during that time?
Oh yes, yes I


use to now and again, particularly weapons we first of all, we had the rifle and the Bren Gun was the only LMG [light machine gun] we had and then of course I mentioned we had the Tommy Gun, I thought that was a bit of a drawback, too heavy. But they used to update them that way. And when we came back to Australia they had the Owen gun, which was a big improvement on the British Sten [machine gun], they’ve improved on


it and it was a really good gun.
Also in the sense of your Engineering work and tasks. Were there improvements in your lot?
No, I didn’t notice a great deal there. They still seem to be using the same methods but of course. Another thing too, we were more or less out here by the Americans and they’d just bring in their gear and we didn’t worry. No


I don’t think the Australian improved very much, but of course they may have with the British and that where they’d have to improve. But the American had all the gear and they’d bring it in. And so we really didn’t have to update there. We built a lot of roads by our methods until the Yanks came along and they made us look silly.
You’ve described during your training time some very


physical and, I’m presuming, dangerous work that you had to preform. Were there ever any accidents?
Yes, we had a fellow killed when his gelignite exploded, that was one case, and he was an experienced man too. He was in the Permanent Army pre-war in Engineers; he was a warrant officer and he


was preparing some explosives for a bridge building exercise they were doing, but I don’t know what happened but it went off and killed him. So there were accidents, ever though the experience men were doing it. And another man a lieutenant he was very good on explosives but he finished up with his hand blown off, so you can’t be too careful.
Were these at Wallgrove?


no that was later on in the Pioneers. No I never had any accidents at Wallgrove, we were still more or less on the rookie stage at that stage.
Did you have any apprehension, in training with these sorts of materials?
Oh yes, I didn’t like them at all. I’d rather somebody else did the job. I always careful to make sure I followed the procedures each the time. Its like throwing hand grenades,


you don’t pull the pin out, you pull the grenade from the pin, ‘cause if anything happens you can push it in again. If you pull the pin out you’ve got to look for it and you want to, you’ve gotta hang onto this grenade. If you pull a grenade out the lever spins up unless you hold it with your hand, so what you do you hold the grenade you put the pin on there pull it out and you’ve got your grenade there


and if something happens, you don’t want to throw it you can just put the pin back, but if you just throw your pin away and still got your grenade in your hand you’re a bit up hill.
To say the least.
Like little things like that you know like that you learn like that.
By the end of your training did you feel well practiced?
Oh yes, I felt that I would be all right. I’d never fired a rifle or anything like that, but I knew how to


and when we first went into Libya there was tons and tons of Italian ammo [ammunition] and everything laying around, so we soon learned how to fire rifles and things. Their grenades that had a little, we used to call them money boxes, a bit different to ours, its got a little ball in it and the explosive in the other part and you’d throw it and the heavy ball pulls it down and explodes it.


We were throwing them for a while and we learnt how to do it. But then again one of our fellows had damage to his head it was a rocket grenade, a little bit different. I don’t know what happened he was fooling with it and it went off and blinded him. So you can’t be too careful with those sorts of things. And I was always so


wary of them. And I think that’s a good thing to be. But the other hand is you can get frightened of them, fear them and not used them when you should.
Did you ever suffer any wounding or damaging from any of the materials you were using?
No, I never. I was lucky. The only damage that I got to myself was gravel rash. I was on


the top of a trench putting some wires down for the sigs [signalmen], feeding them down and a shell burst just behind me and blew the whole top of the trench in and I got all the gravel all over me, gravel rash. That was it the only damage I suffered during the war, I was very lucky.
Where did that happened?
At Tobruk. I could do Morse [code], and I was in the Infantry not in the signals and they were


looking for extra signals and they found I could do Morse so they pitched me over to the signals for a while and one night a place called the Figtree, you’ll see it in the photo, there was a Battalion Headquarters in a big trench that went right along. And we had our wires coming in over the trench down to a signal office just below. And I was just coming on duty about 6 at


night and it had all been blown away so I helped prepare it of course. And we’re running around getting wires and putting them down, well I was standing at the trench or sitting and they were bringing me the wires and I was handing them down and a shell burst about 50 yards in front of me and I didn’t take notice of that then another one burst just behind me and I thought dash, he might be bracketing


and I heard, where we were you could hear the gun fired and the shell would come. And I heard these two pops and then I dropped just as it hit, they thought I had been blown in, but I’d hadn’t I’d dropped and because it put all the concrete and everything all down on top of me and I had all gravel rash right down there. I was very lucky; if I had stayed there I might have got more than gravel rash.


Well we had to find another place then to put our signal wires because we knew they had that under observations. It must have been for them to send three shells at me. ‘Cause normally we’d say, We used to reckon it cost 25 pound a shell, so we’d say, “Well that’s 75 pounds worth gone.” But whether that was right or not I don’t know. But that’s what we used to say, “Oh that 25 pound gone, another 25 pound gone, and that’s a


big one that, a 50 pounder,” a fifty pound cache. Those were the sorts of things we used to talk about.
So did you actually feel like the target they were shooting at, because of the work you were doing?
Yeah I did, I tried, I was putting in sig wires and there must a been, what they call a ‘Pipman’ watching because they knew that was the headquarters because they used to use the same headquarters when they had it and he must have been watching me, saw these group of fellows


feeding wires down and he went, “Ah seen something ah.” The first one was a ranging shot, that was 50 years in front of me the next one was he shortened his range and it came behind me, so the next one he’d be right that’s what they call bracket. I was lucky I heard that pop and hopped down at the same time. Because I could have been so engrossed and not thinking of it to you know.
But you were thinking


of it?
Yes, my word, but that was the nearest I ever got to being hurt, so I was very lucky.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that you were thinking of it. I’m wondering how you concentrate on doing a job, any job, when you know that someone’s trying to find a range?
Yeah that’s right. Well I didn’t realise until the second one had gone behind me, and he must have fired as I


dropped. I wasn’t far from where they were because we could hear them, you know the cartridge going off to fire the shell. I was the luckiest ever there. Covered both ears.
Beside the fact of concentrating so much on your job, how does it affect you


otherwise? Doing work like this that’s obviously seen as a target?
You have to be more careful. I don’t think I ever worried real bad, I must have worried a lot, but not that bad. I think you sort of grow used to it after awhile. If you’d have been just a fresh man then, you might have packed it up. Of course we


got initiated gradually with 6th Divvy was pushing through quite good, no, not, we never had any opposition the forward troops did, but we were always following up in the rear. I suppose that we sort gradually got used to it. If you had been just straight in and fighting against that you would feel very scared. We were scared; I was never as I told you


there [(UNCLEAR)] they can all shoot. I was always glad to get off a ship, whenever we went on a ship I was always glad to get off, you hear of so many of them going down. I never saw any go down, but I’d hear of them and read of them. I thought all that sea and nowhere to go.


After experiencing a close call like that, would it play on your mind again every time you did a job?
I don’t think so; I just sort watch myself in future. Don’t go sitting on obvious spots or if you’re doing obvious jobs make sure that it is in a safe place. I don’t think that it really


upset me.
You’ve just talked about ships as something else that did worry you, I’d just like to talk then about your trip overseas? Was this your first venture away from home?
Yes, Yes it was really good. I liked going around


and that, and I’d never even thought of ships going down when we first left and we went round to Perth, it was a bit rough going across the Great Australian Bight and one of our fellows got killed falling down the hatch at night time and that was just a normal seafaring accident and so we thought we’ll have to be careful you know getting down ladders of a night, ‘cause we


were in hulls then, not like in cabins like we were in on the West Point and you’d down a ladder to your floor in the hold and go along to where you slept.
You were sleeping in the hold of the ship.
Yeah, they’d have a about three tiers I think the one we were in and they come out quite you know a long way out and they had railing around and everything. But to go from


one decking to the next you went down a ladder and this fellow must have lost his grip and fell and got killed. They never found him till morning you know he must have just fallen through the night, down there.
Were you ever seasick onboard?
No, I was lucky I never got seasick. I was very, very lucky. I was sorry for those fellows that were though; I tell you they were sick, I could feel it.


I was lucky I wasn’t in such real stormy storms I suppose. But there were quite a few sick when we left Sydney in the Heads, but that was just a rolling roll and I didn’t mind that. But the Great Australian Bight was a bit rolling, but that didn’t worry me. I know some were sick though and missed their meals.
What were meals like on board?


Reasonable, army meals, you’d get a good meal now and again, others not so hot, but they did vary them. Oh no, no complaints that way. If you could accept that West Point where we had beans all the time that was a bit putting off. I’ve never eaten beans since, not pork and beans and that. Funny too, we went to Milne Bay, just after


the fighting finished there. Some fellow had blown up the stores, must had thought the Japs were going to get it, and we had bean for about 3 or 4 days afterwards. They just seemed to haunt me those beans. I didn’t mind Bully Beef and that, but beans for every meal is a bit off.
You mentioned that your ship pulled into Perth. Did you have some time there?
We had about 4 hours leave there. That


was the last leave we had in Australia. Quite good, the Perth people made us welcome there was various comfort fund places where you could call in and have a meal. And there was a hall for dancing at the… I think it was a Church of England they had a Church of England hall, they had supper and that on for us. You had to get on such and such a train to get home.


I think there were about 3 that missed the ship. But in the main they were all aboard because they didn’t want to be left, miss going overseas.
So at this time it was still an adventure?
Still an adventure, yes. And then when we went to Colombo that was really an adventure, because we had never seen natives before, not in such a proportion as there. Because you know white. And


they were interesting seeing them sweeping streets with millet broom business, swishing it this way and that way and then we noticed the fellows loading the cargo, with all bare meat on their bare shoulders, up into the hold. And the way they were worked, you know, one down and one up all the way, a lot to what we’ve been used to. Then of course the beggars


in the streets. We weren’t to used to having beggars begging all the time. Colombo was a very pretty spot, very nice. We had three days there.
Did you find it interesting seeing these new places?
Oh yes, I like them all. I enjoyed Colombo. I was lucky, I met two or three fellows, they were young fellows and they


were working on tea plantations up at Candi and oh they gave me a great time. I went up in their car to Candi and saw the tea plantations and then they brought me down in time to get the boat back to ship, it was quite good. And then one afternoon we were there they had the races on and we were all invited and what interested me was after each race the horses had kicked


up all the loose turf and their were gangs going around and replanting it all along. And I said, “Gosh they wouldn’t do that down in Australia.” All that seemed very interesting.
It certainly sounds like you were well hosted everywhere you pulled into?
We were yes, they really looked after us.
What were spirits like on the ship?
Quite good, we were quite happy. We


had our own band, the Pioneers, they were a very good band and every night for about an hour they would play selections on the ship for us. And it was a Dutch ship and one of their theme songs the Dutch was ‘Windmills Turning’ and every night it would open up with, “Windmill Turning, hearts are yearning”


and that real nice. Oh the Dutch treated us well too, the Dutch crew and it was very enjoyable. Except the sleeping quarters weren’t all it could be, but we put up with that.
The Pioneer having their own band, was that a common thing?
Not really I think we were the only Pioneers that had a band, but we were very fortunate, one of the officers


must have had a lot of money because they purchased sets of drums and things and I think a couple of fellows bought their clarinets and things so they formed a band and I think we had a comforts fund that purchased the rest, so we had quite a good band. Big thing to when you’re out route marching and you get about 5 miles from home and the band strikes up and


helps you along.
You arrived in the Middle East and you said you went to Camp Julis in Palestine. Were you doing more training there?
Yeah more training there yes, we had a fair amount of training, but it was interrupted with putting up tents and things for incoming troops. But we had a fair amount of training there. We had a lot of route marching because they


reckon we were a bit soft after the ship.
They might have been right?
Besides erecting all the tents was it training in the same line as you’d received in Australia?
Yes, just the same.
So almost refreshing?
Refreshing yes, and we saw our Bren gun for the first time there. They had a couple on loan and they used to take them around to the different


companies and show you how they fire and what to do and all this sort of business. We’d all have a turn, it was quite good.
So you got to practice firing it?
No, I never fired at anything until live firing on May the 4th at Tobruk, officially. I’d fired a lot of Italian guns and in civilian life I’d fired rifles and things like .22’s.


So you had some experience with weaponry before?
Only, not trained or anything. Just out shooting rabbits and things. A shotgun you know and that type of business. My uncle was fairly good he used to show me what to do, he had a farm and he used to let us fire and shot goannas and all that sort of business.
This was when you were quite


About 12 or 13. He had a big farm down in Victoria and I used to go down school holidays.
So when it came to handling a rifle you felt fairly comfortable?
Oh yes, fairly comfortable. I knew the parts and where the bullets went in and came out and all that sort of thing.
What about even when you were training imagining that using these rifles you weren’t going to be shooting at rabbits


or goannas, but at other people?
Well you thought well it’s them or us isn’t it. If you don’t shoot them they’ll shoot you. And you’ve gotta learn to shoot straight because if you missed the of course that gives them a better shot. Oh no I don’t think that entered my head very much. It was just the fact that I’ve gotta learn to use this rifle properly.


‘Cause what I found with the .303 different to the .22, was you could half cock it, your not suppose to but you could fire quicker than putting a safety catch on. So instead of pulling your bolt right back you’ve just got half cocked. That’s dangerous because you could just jar it and it would go off because it would just spring back and fire.


But you did this anyway?
Not really. But I know some used to do it.
Before we get to the times when you’ve moved into Libya, I’d just like to know what else you did or learnt in Palestine or even when you were stationed in Egypt?
We didn’t learn much in


Egypt except we were given the Brens and we sort of brushed up of them quite a bit and the Boyes anti-tank too. But beyond that we didn’t do a great deal. All the normal training you know fall in and go for a march and back again. They didn’t have any organised field exercises


or anything like that.
Was it all still enjoyable?
Well, I’d say more interesting than enjoyable, it was a new life. Egypt is far different to Palestine. Palestine we feel was half civilised with all the European civilisation there. In Egypt it was all Egyptians,


‘Gyppos’ we called them, Arab style of living, it’s quite a bit different to our style of living. ‘Cause that was all interesting to.
Did it feel anymore serious the training you were doing?
Oh yes, yes, we knew we would be in soon because the 6th Divvy was battling then, when we went there and we knew we’d be with them any time. So we knew it would be for real.


By this time you’ve, I mean it’s over 6 months since you enlisted. Did you feel keyed up or wound up to spring into action?
Oh, I think more or less. But wondering what’s it going to be like more than anything else, because we knew it was getting closer. But I don’t think it made a big difference to us we sort of shirked one


another the same and went around just the same together. But I don’t think it had a big psychological effect on us at all.
Did you feel ready for what you were about to do?
Oh yeah, I thought we could give as good as we would get. I think we all felt we were trained.
And confident?
Yeah confident,


and of course with the 6th Divvy doing so well in their initial stages, well that was a great boost to us all. I thought well gee it’s not too bad. They were lucky the Italians their heart wasn’t in it, they weren’t all that way tho, a lot of them had been conscripted and a lot of them had been conscripted from their farms in Libya and of course they’re thinking of their


family at home. And so they weren’t in it, but of course you struck their troop that were fascist or keen for the fascist they were really ready to fight and they did fight, but because the Italians got a bad name by the way they surrendered that you can’t blame they really but it was a disservice to the Italians generally because they did some wonderful deeds


for Italy like they sunk that battleship in the harbour at Alexandria and another place they sunk another battleship to with their submarines and their planes were good.
We’ll certainly be talking more about your involvement with the Italians tomorrow.
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 05


Morning Jack, how are you today?
Very well, thanks Kathy [interviewer], same to you.
I’d like to start off if I may this morning by just asking you about growing up as a twin?
Oh, yes we got on very well together; generally, we had our little arguments and so on. Generally we were very close and I felt very fortunate to have somebody my own age to go around with. It


seemed at times though at school and that you’d get picked on by a group of children, they’d have a go at the twins and of course we’d have to have a go back. And of course that’s past history now, but its always interesting. Always more or less fun, we’d be playing together one day and might be fighting the next. Same as children everywhere. I always had my brother with me and we got on quite well together.


After school we used to do odd jobs, running messages and my brother I remember, we were about 12 or so, had a job in a grocer’s shop and it was a little bit different in those days, because the sugar had to be weighed up, the biscuits were sold by the pound instead of just going and taking them off the shelf and of course a lot of preparation in the background.


The grocer had to weigh out all the sugar, package it, the same as biscuits and so on. That used to be my brothers job generally after school; weighing up sugar or weighing up biscuits. And now and again I would give him a spell and go in the shop too. Well the grocer didn’t know there were two of us. And I know Jim came home one day, real annoyed, I’d eaten too many biscuits so


it had it’s funny points. We got on well together. We played sport together, we always weren’t really sporty minded, but we played on the same cricket team, same footy team and generally grew up as a very close couple, my brother and I. When we got older of course we went around with groups


of young people. Sometimes he’d have a girlfriend, sometimes I would have, but we never had any twin girlfriends they were always just odd ones round and about. We lived a normal life as a family, but I always had my brother with me as a constant companion and we practically did everything together.
When you enlisted did you


feel a sense of separation?
I did a little bit, yes, I felt like I was going one way. But we had separated at that time because Jim was working at the blacksmith at one firm and I was working as a painter in the railway. So we used to only see one another of a night time and not during the day. Weekends we’d get around together and I did miss him for a while with the complete separation, and I missed my sister too,


family. Because I realized that when I joined up that we would all be separated. You know I sort of went along with it. And when I went away, my brother was very interested and we used to correspond fairly regularly and then of course he joined the navy. We used to, I’d write to him in his navy


Establishment and he’d write to me at the Pioneers and we’d exchange notes and things. Because you couldn’t say too much because of the censorship problem. But we used to exchange good correspondence with one another and with the family. It was all right you could have a shot at the officers in the letters, they always censored your letters and you could criticize


them and they couldn’t come back at you, except cut it out of course, but you’d knew they’d do that anyway. But that was the kind, I suppose it was a bit childish, but we all used to say what a crook [bad] time we were having and so on because of an officer or NCO [non-commissioned officer] or so on because you’d know that would be chopped out, but they’d always get the message that way. A bit childish but it happened, not only with me but the troops


generally would put in a little bit about the unit or about the officers they didn’t like and so on. I know I got taken up to the captain one day and he said, “Bertram your letters are very offensive” and I said, “I don’t think my brother finds them that way at all.” And he said, “I’m not talking about your brother you know” and I said, “You’re not supposed to know what’s in the letters, you’re just looking for


censorship writings.” But he got the message, he moved me from the job I was doing onto another job. But he let me know that he wasn’t pleased with it though. Which I suppose was the right thing to do.
Could you describe what your biggest complaint was?
I suppose I might of had a chip on my shoulder, I


dislike this officers’ privilege; I thought we’re all in the army together, why should they have extra privileges that we don’t. For instance, they always had a car to drive into town for leave and all that whereas we couldn’t go in because we had no transport and I thought that was a bit over the odds. And then they all ate together and I always thought that we should all mess together not have special messes for officers


and special messes for men, we’re all in the army together. I still feel that. That was my biggest chip on the shoulder I suppose, about the two ranks and the army, not only army, navy it was British tradition of course, the upper and lower class and the upper class were always officers, the lower class very seldom got very far in the officer’s status in the


British Army. They did a little better in the Australian Army, but I felt it was too much of that class distinction, I’ve always felt that way, I suppose it’s just my nature, I feel we’re all equal, we’re all fighting for the same cause and we should be treated equally and on leave I feel that, I was very annoyed in Tel Aviv and so on, there were these shops for officers only


and just as well, they were more expensive than the others, but I felt that was wrong. I believe they tried to introduce it into Sydney, but it didn’t get very far, the public wouldn’t agree to it. So there was never any ‘officers only’ in Australia. Of course they were always, you knew which one to go away from because of the cost, because the private on 6 shillings a day


couldn’t go spending up like a man on, lieutenants, on I think about 23 shillings a day, quite a big gap. And that sort of did separate them that way, but I do feel it was an insult to Australians to want to put up ‘officers only’. Because we were all in the services together, fighting for the same ‘cause. Because that’s the general system I believe, in many armies, officers only.


American didn’t appear to be so much that way. Their officer and men seemed to mix together much more freely on leave than what we did. So that’s about the biggest gripe I have over the army. Otherwise I definitely agree that if you have a corporal tells you to do something, you should do it without question, if you didn’t like


doing it you could complain afterwards but do the thing first, because you have to have somebody in charge and at work you don’t object and the boss tells you to do something you do it, but if it wrong you might say to him I don’t think that’s the right way but you still do it, and then when its wrong, of course he’d have to take the blame for it. Same in the army, the officers, and the NCOs and so ons they’d have to give the orders and the other ranks would have to abide


by it. And the officers themselves too they have to abide by what the colonel tells them and he’d have to do what he was told by the brigadier otherwise you wouldn’t have an army at all, you must have somebody in charge, but I feel that there’s a human aspect that should be considered also, rather than just we’re the boss and you’re here to work for us. That’s just my opinion though; a lot of people


would disagree over that.
Were there some officers that you respected more others?
Oh yeah, some of them felt like they were real mates, they were officers on parade and so on, they conducted themselves off parade too but they’d always talk to you and say, “G’day Jack” and so on and you could say, “Hello Tom,” but not on parade, but some of them though, would be Mr So-and-


So and Major So-and-So, and that’s right on parade, at work and all that. But off duty I feel that that should be relaxed a lot more than what it was in some respects. It depended on the officers themselves.
And how did you find the chain of command in the 2/1st Pioneers?
That was quite good. We were lucky, we had several


senior officer s had risen from their ranks in the First World War and of course they knew all these problems too and they treated us real well. For instance, I know our colonel was a man about 6 ft [foot] 2 [inches], a big fellow and we had a aborigine fellow about 22, he was a nice young fellow and he thought, there was an inspection going on


just to see if we had our tents right and the colonel happen to be talking with the officers just outside and the Aborigine boy thought that he said something about the Ace of Spades [a black suit in a deck of cards], well he came out with his fists wanting to fight the colonel and the colonel wondered what had happened and he said, “You called me the ‘Ace of Spades’” he said, “And I didn’t like it.” And the Colonel said I’m sorry and he told him what he was talking about, and he apologised to the fellow so. Lots


of colonels would have said, ‘be on your way’ or something, ‘you cant’ do that to me’. But, he was respected, he was a disciplinarian too [(UNCLEAR)], but you could go and have a yarn [talk] to him. You’d get paraded if you have to have a yarn to an officer, you’d state your reason and you’d get paraded and then you could have a talk. But he would talk like this, two human beings together, not an officer and a


private. That was, most of our officers were that way, a couple of officers they weren’t First World War, but they felt they’d risen in rank and you had to do as you were told all the time, well they never got on too well with the troops. In the main the Pioneer officers are well respected and well liked. As time went on lots of the other


ranks rose to officer status and they were always looked on well, by the troops, because they knew how they’d risen up. Some of them took a bit of adjusting being officers for a while but they soon got around to being officers, because being an officer amongst all your mates is a bit hard at times. But that happened on parade and so on or on duties, but


off duty they were human beings again. That’s been my biggest gripe I suppose every since, or even before I joined the army I knew you’d skite that type of treatment, that you’d just sort of put up with it.
Do you recall any instances where you felt like an officer was throwing his stripes around so to speak?


Oh yes I understand, Oh sure, well the thing is we had to do a…we were digging drains, like making a roadway with drains off it and he would say, “C’mon do this and do that,” well we were just a real go slow movement, instead of finishing say a days work in a day it dragged on to a week. But it really tormented us to, hit the pick


in ground and looked around see if nobody around, you’d just stop. And if they were coming you’d ... well they sort of got rid of that fellow because they could see what was going on. But that happened, and you couldn’t, you couldn’t be unwilling worker, and you wouldn’t get much out of unwilling workers, they’ve got a have a will to work. And there were little ways you could show your displeasure rather than abusing


an officer, you show him in other ways.
And that the story you’ve just described of going slow, why would you want to go slow?
Well because he just wanted us to work harder all the time. “C’mon” he used to say, and I thought ‘I’ll show him’. In contrary, I suppose it’s human nature. Of


course, it would depend on what you were doing, if it was something important you wouldn’t even consider it but lots of cases we felt what are we here doing drains for day after day. Milne Bay we worked seven days a week and we’d have I think a day off a month ‘cause that was urgent there, and they didn’t mind that because they knew that had to build all these things. But its hard work in the rain,


and we’d keep going in the rain and all, just digging roads and that type of business. That’s one reason why I had to get out of the Pioneers this constant labouring work. What also sort of tormented us there was a corps known as a Civil Construction Corps, they were civilians and they used to come and do certain


works. Well they worked on peace time conditions where they knock off, they were just working, they were working 7 days a week but they were getting overtime and so on for the different things on roadwork’s. And we thought well why can’t they do like us too and they’d have the days off, or if they worked they’d get paid for it. And they sort of resented


then a little bit and the civilians. Not so much in the islands because we only saw them once in the Islands. But I believe in the Northern Territory and so on there was quite a distinction between the CCF and the army. Well they were only doing what they’d do normally of course. They felt that they should get some recompense too for doing the same work


for the days of week. But that was a big cause for people wishing to leave Pioneers because of the work, 7 days a week. And the Infantry they’d often be put on to help us too but they wouldn’t be on it constantly day after day. But we were, it made a lot of people put their back up against the Pioneers and


also my Company went to Milne Bay, that was Don Company. A, B and C Company and Headquarters went to Moresby. Well just at the finish of the Kokoda Trail they ‘d been up on the Ioribaiwa Ridge, they came back and they were put in a Quarry, quarrying stones, that was a seven-day a week


job. That was very hard work there and that made a lot of discontent for the Pioneers and that’s why they were always trying to get transfers, and it wasn’t until they wanted volunteers for the Papuan Infantry Battalion that they were allowed to transfer and there was quite a mass exodus to the Papuan Infantry Battalion. That’s why when I came to


Moresby, on talking to them I was so happy to switch over to them, but only because it was a new experience. But also I had quite a few mates had switched over so that very good. The quarry, they’d work 3 shifts a day, 7 days a week going all the time. And when there was an air raid on,


of course work ceased. And that was the only decent break they had, if there was an air raid on. It was hard work quarrying stone, but it was necessary work, but I feel that rather than just leave one battalion there month after month, they were there about 6 months on that job. That they should have been rotated with other units, say after say a month, another unit go in because it was hard work


and it was not what the troops signed up for. They were all volunteers and another little argument was that they were all volunteers and yet there’s all conscripts in the Militia, they did a great job tho, but that was just one little thing that used to hurt them. The conscripts would be coming up there then 11th Division, 3rd Division and the 5th Division I think it was


and doing a lot of training there, which was necessary but they’d only train 5 days a week and have the weekend off or Saturday afternoon and Sunday, whereas the Pioneers kept working, that was a source of complaint. Why do we have to keep working when these fellows that wouldn’t join up, were forced into are getting all these privileges. It was possible unfair in lots of way, but that’s


what a lot of them felt. Luckily I never went to Moresby to go in the quarry, we found the roads at Milne Bay were bad enough. They worked night and day on the quarry, it was a big job. They needed the stone because they were building the aerodromes around Moresby, but prior to the Pioneers going in the quarry,


there’re were gangs of natives working there and a lot of them were the nucleus of the Papuan Infantry Battalion. So there was sort of an affinity between the Pioneers and the Papuan Infantry. That didn’t obtain right through of course though because lots of troops from other Battalions and so on formed the core of the Papuan Infantry and also the


Pacific Islands Regiment at a later stage.
Can I just ask you, did you ever down tools?
No, no we never had a mutineer, oh no, no we worked very slow though. But no we couldn’t do that because that would be the worst


thing out, just deliberately disobey an order. We often did disobey orders, but not seriously. One of the funniest things was getting 28 days CB – confined to barracks, that meant that you never had any leave, and of course that was one of the common punishments the fellows might have had an


argument with the CO or with a corporal or something being paraded and he gets 28 CB. Of course he would just continue on just the same, but he had 28 day CB recorded against him. In training when we were in the camp, or back in Australia you get 28 day CB means you didn’t have any leave for a month, you couldn’t go out weekends, you’d be


doing jobs around the camp. It was a punishment when things are a lot easier, but when you are doing a particular job, it wasn’t much of a punishment, just a nuisance and marked on you record of course. They’re all recorded in you pay book, how many days CB or whatever, they’d fine you possibly 5 pound or 10 pound depending on the events. And that was a lot of


money for a private on 6 shillings a day. So that was the deterrent rather than the CB.
Do you need a sip of water?
Yes I will have one thanks, great idea.


You mentioned there was an occasion, or maybe more than one occasion when you would go slow. Where was that? Could you describe to me the events?
Well the main one was Milne Bay and we never really had cause to go slow in the Middle East, we always seemed to be doing what we were doing and so on,


and we weren’t overworked. But Milne Bay we felt we were being worked too much being a Pioneer Battalion we thought well we’re as good as the others we should have similar conditions, but 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month was a bit too much and that’s about the only time we all did the go slow movements, We didn’t say, “C’mon we’re going go slow,”


you just sort know what you were doing, because otherwise you could be cast as the leader of a mutineer, we never had a fellow in charge you just know. It used to bore me, we had about a yard of dirt to move and shovel away, and it took me nearly all day, as soon as anyone was coming and you’d work and when they were gone you’d just wait. It used to bore us as much as the people who was trying to get us to


work. I think that sort of attitude led to the fact that they woke up that we were getting a bit browned off [fed up] and they relieved them at the end of June I think it was, June 1942. But of course I’d left the Pioneers then and it didn’t worry me. But I know that they were all taken off that, but I don’t


know who took over from them tho. But I know the Americans had a lot of equipment there at that time, but we’re mostly pick and shovel and drilling. I told you about that gelignite, drilling holes and blowing rock off places, and that was common. You’d drill a long row of holes and then load it up with there and at a certain time everybody was told to get


away and they’d blow the rock or they might leave it until the end of the shift. And then before the shift comes on they’d blow the rock. They’d move that rock and the next shift would drill holes again. We were luckier than the 8th Division they used to hammer and tap and drill


these hole for Gelignite on that Burma Road. They had it much worse than us, and of course they couldn’t go slow they’d get the whip or a hit over the head with a piece of timber, so they couldn’t have go slow tactics. I’m sure that they would adopt quite a lot of the things that we used to adopt, to slow things up.


And how did you find your general working conditions in the Middle East?
They were quite good, we didn’t mind them. They’re a bit outmoded on today’s standard but of course that was the standard that general work was carried out in civilian life. For instance if the PMG [Post Master General] wanted to put or electricity wanted to put a cable


along the street, it would be all pick and shovel work, now days they have a trench digger goes along and they follow with the cable. It was the same practise, when we were in the army it was just the same as in civilian life; just the same practices came, because we didn’t have the machinery. But there was quite a lot more pick and shovel work in the days when I was growing up than there is now on construction work.


Now days its so much machinery taken over.
The name Pioneers suggest that you are generally out in front, paving the wave. But from what you have told us, it seems to me that the Pioneers are actually following behind


quite often?
That right, preparation and so on. With the Pioneers, I think they got the name from what they call a Pioneer Platoon in an Infantry Battalion in 1916. They found that infantry were wasting too much time digging holes


and trench work those sort of engineering jobs, so they decided they would form a Pioneer Battalion. They got the idea from the century before, where the troops in India formed pioneers to do road building and so on like that and to keep them as


Infantry when needed. So that was where the idea of Pioneer came from. But the word Pioneer, I not sure actually where it came from but in an Infantry Battalion and I suppose in a Artillery Regiment there was a platoon know as a pioneer platoon and their job was to look after the hygiene of the troops, they’d dig latrines and


fill the toilets and so on and they’d have to empty them and so on. Well the Pioneers always had a very bad name when you say, “Pioneers, oh they’re the ‘so-and-so kickers’.” That’s where the pioneer’s term came from. But in 1916 with the amount of digging and so on they formed a Pioneer


battalion for each division. They formed 5 Pioneer battalions. The Second World War they decided they’d keep them separate from the divisions and form corps troops so they could attach them wherever needed so the first one they were with this particular division, the Second [World] War they were corps troops


and we were attached to the 6th Division first then later on we were 7th Division then up in New Guinea there was some of us attached to 7th, some attached to 11th Militia Division. And the 2/2nd Pioneers they attached to the 7th when they went through Syria, the sailed to the home


in March 43, because they landed in Java, not to their choice because they joined the 8th Division then and the 2/3rd Pioneer they were the one’s that should have been attached to the 8th Division when they went to Malaya but for some reason they were sent to the Middle East, which was good for them. Now they were attached to the 9th Division when we came back home


they were attached to the 9th Division, they fought at El Alamein with the 9th Division, and they came back to Australia and they went up to New Guinea with the 9th then up to Borneo, so they were more or less attached to the 9th Division. But prior to that, the first couple of years of the war when they formed they were attached as Corps Troops up and around the Northern Territory and so they weren’t attached to any Divisions


for the first couple of years of their livelihood. The 2/4th Pioneers was formed later in the war and they were attached to the 9th Division also when they went up to Borneo, they had left Darwin earlier when Java was being threatened and they were on their way to Java when their


convoy was attacked and they had to put back to Darwin, so their first time they were really with a Division was with the 9th up in Borneo. So the 9th Division had 2 battalions, 3rd and 4th. The 6th Division went to Wewak, Wewak area in 45 they relieved the Americans there and they didn’t have any Pioneers with them


there so the 2/1st and the 2/2nd were attached to the 7th Division when they went up to Borneo and they finished the war with the 7th Division. So they were scattered around through all the Divisions. But that was the idea of making corps troop of them, same as with the Artillery Corps and Machine Gunners and so on, they get attached around to different Divisions.


But I’m not sure where the term Pioneer came from, I’ll have to try and find that out.
You have an amazing recollection of the detail of each of the Pioneers attachments and postings?
Oh yeah, just since I’ve come back I suppose.
Has it been, do you think that it is important


for the Pioneers to keep track of each of?
Oh yes, I think so yes. We’re very fortunate, we get a quarterly magazine from…. we’ve got a Pioneers Association and they have a very good secretary. He’s been secretary ever since we were formed way back in 46, 47 and he’s got a good wife too she’s much the same as him. We reckon she should have been a Pioneer, but


that keep us posted with different items and so on. And I think that sort of keeps your memory and we have a reunion every year down Sydney and I think speaking to fellows you sort of revive all memories and even tho, I went to the Papuan Infantry Battalion, but so did some of the Pioneers as I said, and they had an association,


but it didn’t last very long after the war and so we sorted of kept very close together, the fellows that were in the PIB [Papuan Infantry Battalion] with me and also in the Pioneer Association. And we get a fair roll up we had 38 at our reunion last Anzac Day, but we have combined with the 2/2nd Pioneers so that makes it more way


to get memories of what went on. And also when the 2/2nd were taken prisoner in Java there was only about 2 platoons in transport that came back to Australia. They were lucky, they weren’t landed in Java so they reformed the 2/2nd Pioneers and most of the people that reformed it were reinforcements for


the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Pioneers and quite a few of our officers went across to the reformed 2/2nd Pioneers so we have a fairly close affiliation. The 2/3rd we haven’t as much an affiliation but we meet them fairly often. We asked them to join us to but years ago they said no we’re going our own way but they’ve dwindled now. So we’ve got really 2 Battalions


to draw on for reminiscences and reunions and so on. And every Battalion is feeling it now your lucky to get 12, 14 at a Battalion reunion now, but we had 34 on Anzac Day which was very good.
And how many men were there in your 2/1st Pioneers?
Approximately 1000.


That’s an approximate figure, in an Infantry Battalion. An Infantry Battalion has approximately 800, but I think in the infantry there’s 8 in the section, in a Pioneer Battalion there’s 10 to a section. So that makes 32 a platoon against 24 and when it adds up its about a 1000 men for a Pioneer


Well now we’ve just come to the end of our tape. So I think we might pause there.
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 06


Jack I’d just like to go back to your time in North Africa and bring up some things you mentioned yesterday. Doing your work there you talked about the physical duties you would have to preform, some of which were digging trenches can you tell me when and why you were doing that in that particular campaign?


Yes, Of course whether we were infantry or Pioneers, they were all digging trenches at that time because there was about 30 odd miles of trenching to be done. And of course the Pioneers of course were engaged all the time on that, whereas the Infantry would dig their own trenches, and man them and then they might go onto infantry work. Well we were kept as an engineering unit for the


first month or so in Tobruk, digging trenches and we didn’t mind digging trenches there because we knew how necessary they were.
Why were they so necessary?
Well, yes we had the


first trenches courtesy of the Italians, but to make them more effective we put slip trenches between them, because for 500 metres between trenches is a bit much to look after from there. So we put slip trenches between the forward posts and also we established a Blue Line or defensive


line approximately for about 500 metres through a kilometre or so behind that, depending on the terrain. The only thing with the slip trenches we only had picks and shovels and we struck rock after 18 inches or so through the sand turned to rock and we couldn’t go through. So they were never more


2 to 3 foot deep, 3 foot at the very deepest. And we fixed this up by putting sandbags on the top. But you couldn’t stand up in them in the daytime because you would be in full view. Depending on just where you were on the perimeter you wouldn’t stand up during the day you’d just lay in the trench all day, which was very very boring.
When you talk about a forward


post, and establishing a forward post, how is that done?
We didn’t establish many forward posts because we relied on the perimeter accept where they put this salient, in a wedge, into it. That was approximately a mile and a half wide, and we would


go forward about 100 yards at night and start digging trenches, this was night time because you had to be careful too, you didn’t go hitting too hard and making too much noise. And when you had it dug, you’d creep forward and have that. And that’s how they gradually got quite a lot of that salient back. It was a risky job, I remember


one night we were helping our 8th Platoon, I was 7, dig a forward post, we were a carrying party for them, they were forward digging it. When your digging it you’d have to have, well in your platoon you’d have a section out scouting around to see that there was no enemy coming along and the workers would be digging the trench


and the other platoon would be carrying the gear, barb wire, ammunition and things like that down. And I remember one night we were carrying party we had steel stakes across our shoulders, we had a couple of coils of barbwire. Barbwire starting off we had what was called Danet wire it’s about a yard diameter and


it stretches out concertina wise and you put that down with spikes in it. You put two of them down and one on top. That was temporary until you’d established stakes and the posts with the barbwire along. It was very effective, but the thing was though the way they used to counter that, the fellow would throw himself down and lay it down and another one and they would walk through it. A bit hectic


but that was their idea of going through it. We were carrying this barbwire down and one of the patrols said don’t go any further there’s an enemy patrol coming, so we laid down, silly us carrying this barbwire we’d left our rifles back in the trench because carrying wire


and a rifle was very awkward and we weren’t suppose to do it. And we said what are we going to hit them with, they come through and they were firing at our forward ones that were digging the trench when we lay down. Luckily they didn’t come past our way, we would have had to attack them with the posts I suppose, we felt very silly not having arms and the enemy coming along.
How would you


actually carry the wire?
Thread all the Danet wire with the posts and carry it on our shoulders. If we were putting ordinary barbwire up that’s in ordinary rolls, you’d thread all them on the posts, you might put 3 or 4 on and carry them on your shoulder.
And the wire itself was the perimeter?
Yes, well each line, the perimeter line, the first one, the Red


Line, that had barbwire out in front of it and then the second, the Blue Line that also had barbwire. You’d make it actually the same; you’d have barbwire and mines to protect it. The main perimeter had been prepared the week or so before when they knew that we were in retreat; they started to get it ready and most of the wire along there


was fixed posts and the lines of barbwire with the mines in front of them. And of course then the tank traps also they had to get across, quite a bit of manoeuvring to get though all these defences. And in the Blue Line we didn’t go for digging tank traps it would have been too labour intensive we wouldn’t have been in the race,


the main tank traps we had were already dug by the Italians years before with possibly with machinery. Because they went down in some cases 4 to 6 foot deep and about 6 to 8 feet wide, they were quite substantial. They didn’t go in a continuous line right around the perimeter, only on the flattish ground where tanks would come.


They were very good, but each Italian trench was protected by a tank trap around its individual perimeter. So you’d have a post with a tank trap around it, with barbwire around that with mines around that and five hundred yards away you’d have another post. Well we improved by putting the


slip trenches in between also. But the layout of the trenches at 500 yards apart, the Italian ones and about 200 yards behind was another post in the middle of them. So you had about 250 yards between posts, and that was the layout all around. The forward post had the tank traps around them; the intermediate one’s they didn’t


have a tank trap round. And we of course put slip trenches between them and also the Northumberland Fusilier Section, that’s an English machine gun battalion; they’d have trenches at strategic spots put around near us also. Because we had a machine gun platoon as does all infantry, but of course this was a whole


Battalion of them and they were farmed out wherever needed. They were put around strategic posts and they’d be sort of sometimes incorporated in the Blue Line, sometimes they’d have a little post either forward or behind the Blue Line. Wherever the terrain gave them an advantage; they’d put a post. It was undulating ground; you’d disperse with flattish ground, so there were good spots for defence


and other spots good for attacking forces. The General and so on in charge, that’s what they’d be aware of them. One of the things, the big drawback with Tobruk, was the fact that the whole of the Tobruk area and the perimeter to the township was well known and well mapped


by the Italians years before. And so they could bring down artillery fire wherever they wanted to because they had the range more or less exactly. So it was a good help to them.
Did you have a similar resource? Did you have maps?
We used captured Italian maps printed in 1936 of the whole of Tobruk.


Gee I should have went down last night and got that. I have a map down in our Gallipoli Legion that where we meet, of one of those maps that shows all the positions. But it’s overprinted with English because our troops used it, 6th Division used it when they went into Tobruk and of course the 9th Division used it while they were occupying Tobruk. Well mapped.


How far was it between the Red and Blue Lines?
It ranged between about 500 meters up to a kilo [kilometre] and a half depending just where it was needed most. It varied backward and forwards. But mostly it was about a kilo and a half from the


main line. They said there was a Green Line, but we never saw it, but that was the tanks we had, they reckon they were the Green Line. They used to patrol around when they weren’t in action all the front on regular patrols about another mile or two behind us again. Because we were 8 miles out to the perimeter from Tobruk.
From the, that’s to the Blue Line?
To the Red


The Red Line?
About 8 miles from the township of Tobruk, the big semicircle. And the Blue Line of course I said was about 500 to a kilometre and a half from the Red Line.
And the Green Line would be closer to the township again?
Yes, closer to the township. That was more or less a patrolled area rather than an established line. It was called a Green Line. They had the


Green, Blue and the Red Line.
In between the Red and Blue Lines, would that territory be mined?
Yeah it would be mined in spots. Because we didn’t mine it continuous, it would take a terrific lot of mines. But it was also there would be little forward post would be manned, you might just have a post here with just a couple of men in a post watching, might be a couple of old broken down tanks or something there,


you could did a hole under them and that would make a good post. Or it might have been one of those towers I showed you, did I show the towers that the Italians built, I may not have. But the Italians built lots of lookout towers right around out of timber and they had sail cloth or some sort of hessain or something up on top, the idea was to look out from up there and look over. They weren’t very popular places,


but they were scattered haphazardly around the perimeter also.
Would you need to keep detailed maps of where mines had been laid?
Yes, we suppose to where they were. It got out of hand after a while because if you captured an area the Germans or the Italians would have laid their mines too. So we dispersed with ours so, you, wasn’t always sure if you were in


a minefield. It was a bit awkward there. We had a general marking to know where the mines were, but of course it could creep either way. Or it could even be all pulled up. Somebody helped themselves to it, to put it somewhere else. So we could never be sure where the mines were.
Did anybody ever get caught or caught out in a Australian


Yes, I know, we saw a fellow one-day or one night, it was early night, because he wouldn’t have been walking around. He was walking around right in the middle of the minefield and of course we said, “Hang on, Hang on mate you’re right in the middle of a minefield,” so he just stood there until one of our fellow went through and brought him out.


Oh that happened to us with a minefield. We were driving, we were being relieve we went back to an area just behind the blue line and our truck just turned around and the next thing a terrific explosion, a whole wheel disappear on the front, it had hit a mine, they’d been an uncollected mine there, it must have laid there for months really, so there’s


always that hazard there.
The fellow that had to be retrieved from the middle of the minefield, how was that physically done? Would you have to leave a trail behind you to know the way to get back out again?
Well they would use little pegs and you could look through and see where it was and you could see where he was, and you’d go through. Generally they were made straight it didn’t zigzag everywhere, but it depends if it was an old minefield and you were fixing it up, but they were marked,


but you had to know where to look for the marks. Same as the Germans and the Italians they’d marked their minefields too. But as the war went on, of course as we captured ground and recapture ground, mines were lifted and laid again. And I mentioned yesterday sometimes the mines went down about 9 or 10 inches below ground and sometimes they’d


go down about 2 feet and lay about a foot lower and lay another mine. Well you’d clear the minefield and they would be still others. So you were never sure with minefields. They are surer now, because they have the metal detectors but we had to go around manually sorting them out.
You mentioned a little earlier about a salient that was driven in a wedge.


Can you explain the salient to me a little more?
Yes, There were 137 trenches the Italians left around the main perimeter. Well they were numbered from S... I don’t how they got their numbering system because it was very haphazard, but from the, in the west round


from S Post right round to R Post, from R Post it continued round to Z Post and from Z Post went through to the Sea. I don’t know why they had Z, S and R, but there were 137 of them. Well when they broke through, they broke through at S7 heading towards the township of Tobruk which


was northwest of where they broke through and then they went further along to R7 which would be 14 posts because 7of S and 7of R7 and they broke through again in a north-westerly direction a sort of a wedge. And they succeeded at first they went right through right up to the


Blue Line, but then they ran into a big mine field we planted and the tanks couldn’t get through so they turned around and went back out again. But the trenches they’d captured of course they were occupied, that went on for four days, that battle there, so it wasn’t just a continuous straight in. And we were on the Blue


Line at present, and that was when we first went into action at Infantry, that was the 2nd of May. And we were told to reoccupy 8, 9 and 10 well we went down, that was my platoon got as far as R10 and that was unoccupied that was made our headquarters and


we were heading for R8, which was an intermediate one, which was the one that our platoon had to occupy and we were halted, we had to lay down because they said there was a big tank battle going on down there, don’t go down that way for a while. So we just went to ground and laid there for the rest of the day and the tank, it was quite a tank battle going on and then


at night we went forward and we found that the trench was unoccupied, so we were lucky. And we only just got into it, it was about two in the morning, it was during the nighttime and there was another group coming to occupy it to, they were the enemy. They mustn’t have had enough troops initially to occupy all the trenches. So that’s where we had our first


fight, they didn’t come to close luckily and they retreated and that, so we had R8. That was an experience. We’d occupied it and a tank just about 50 yards from us, it was a British tank coming out of action, he was in a hurry firing backwards, he was being bombarded with artillery shell, he was in a


bad way. And they hit him and it started to catch on fire and a fellow staggered out of the drivers seat on the ground and then the hatch went up and a fellow climbed out of that, he was in a bad way, we could see it about 50 yards away and then another shell hit the tank right on the turret and nobody else got out. Well those 2 fellows


were on the ground and they waving around so we went out and brought them in but one fellow was badly shot around, he died a few minutes later, the other fellow lingered on and we evacuated him about 4 in the morning. I don’t know what happened to him but I don’t think he survived he was in a bad way too. Terrible thing to see this tank and the fellows scrambling out.


That was a bad experience to us because it had been going on all the time but the first time we been had initially engaged in it.
You said this was a major tank battle, what were the sounds of that battle from where you were?
Oh it was noise, all noise. What amazed me was we were walking up and there were white hot


bullets going past, or anti tank as they were armour pieced ‘cause they glow red, you’d see them coming through and traces and its like a big sound of bees it was a buzz, buzz and shells burst every now and again, you’d go to ground and up again and on again and eventually we got where we had to go. We were very lucky we didn’t have anybody hit, going up there but I thought the place would be littered with dead people all these bullets flying around,


but luckily they must have been too high for them.
And you mentioned earlier, I believe this was when you first fired your rifle?
Yes, that’s right. That’s when we occupied the trench and we saw these fellows and we were firing at them, I don’t know whether I hit anybody but I fired. That was the first time I officially fired my rifle.
And what was that experience like?
Well I thought at long last. Because we had been


pestering our officer in charge, when are we going to get some rifle practise? Because we missed out on rifle practice back in Australia on the range, we missed out in Julis we had to take, each battalion had to take its turn at the rifle butts and one of our fellows went but our company never went to rifle practise, so a lot of them hadn’t fired a rifle before. But on our way up


to the desert with the 6th Divvy there was so much Italian gear laying around that we all had rifles firing them to get the idea so, we had plenty of experience, not plenty but experience there on firing rifles and aiming and so on because we had little butts of our own where we could put a target up and practice. That was sort of unofficial practise. But that was worthwhile.


You said that you spent some time during the battle in one of the trenches, R8 was it?
R8, That’s the one we occupied, but R10 we were camped around the outside of it. That’s where our headquarters was.
Were you fearful for your life?
Oh yes, [(UNCLEAR)] wish we could get in that trench over there instead of laying out here.
So you felt exposed somewhat?


Yes, felt very exposed.
Where was the tank battle happening in relation to you?
It varied from about 100 yards to half a mile. It was all around. As long as no tanks came running over us, I’d run over it. We were lucky we were out of the main tank battle area. But it was quite an exciting thing to watch as long as you been


comfortable watching it.
Did that last just the one day?
That had been going on for a couple of days. Not just continuous tanks, tanks and tanks, but there be a bit of a lull and a couple of tanks would come around chasing one another and then they’d disappear somewhere and another couple would come over, quite exciting really.
Did that experience


stay with you? Or did that colour the rest of your combat experience?
Yeah I thought gee you know, you gotta be lucky. Because you could be, like us, we were ‘outers’, the main battle zone and yet get caught with a bullet or shelling, because there was a lot of shelling going on, firing everywhere. I think we were very fortunate there must have been millions and


millions of bullets and shells and not hit anything, the way they were flying around.
Did you feel any past very close?
Oh yes, you could hear them. You see with a machine gun or rifle you fire and it goes on a curve trajectory, but if you have it say set for 800 yards and you were laying down at about 200 yards it would go over your head, that’s why so much that we could hear was going over


our heads in a curved direction. And also when it hits the ground they don’t all hit it the one spot its quite a what they call a beaten zone where they all land well if your not in that rifle or machine guns beaten zone they’ll be landing all around you, but if they move a little that way they’ll be right on you. But bullets don’t go straight


they go in curved trajectory. Whereas on a short, I suppose a man about 20, 30 feet away well it’s practically straight there but over 800 yards it’s got a curve. That’s why you put your sights up and down when you’re aiming. Aiming at the target, it might be say 300 yards and you just set your sights


so as you raise you rifle to counteract that and that’s how they get their range and so on.
This zone that you talk about, could you actually see where the bullets were falling?
Oh yes you’d see little puffs of dust coming up.
Could you tell if it was moving closer or further away from you?
Oh yeah you’d see them all around you.
What could you do, could you then just move away from it yourself?
No, you’d just have to stay put, and hope that they ran out of ammo or something.


If you get up… You might be laying down and they might be just missing you but if you get up getting into their trajectory. But at nighttime of course you didn’t see the puffs of dust, you just heard the ‘Buzz, Buzz, Buzz’.
Did you ever experience conditions like that again?
Oh yes, often.


Not laying out in the open, but in the trenches they’d be coming all around you all the time. Banging into the sandbags or just going behind you. Or a shell would burst a little further up and knock all the bags and everything up in a big cloud of dust and stones and so on. But as long as you weren’t in that area you were all right.
Would you take


notice of them or would you just become a bit blasé?
You sort of become a bit blasé as you say, yes. I think everybody there knew that they weren’t going to be hit, it was the other fellow was going to be hit, that was the sort of attitude you had. Oh it’s not mine, you soon go on with ‘they can’t hit me’, it was just a sort of an attitude you had in the back of your mind. But I think most


of them were that way, ‘oh I’m not going to get hit’, and ‘I’ll come through this war all right’. Then of course you often doubted whether you were right or wrong. When the bombs came down from the plane, you could hear them coming, you’d see them coming, and they might go somewhere and you only hope that none of them come close to. They make quite a big


splash as they land. But I think you’re very very fortunate if you don’t get hit. So many bullets and that flying around, and shells and things it seems impossible everybody’s not wiped out. But they’re not, so there must be a terrible lot of misses.
Was there ever a time that you did feel one had your name on it, so to speak?


No, no, I just more or less said, ‘well I’m going to get through’, I didn’t feel that. Not that’s a close call. Up in the island’s a bit different, that was all open warfare there. In the islands you’d just hear piss and know somebody spotted you know and you’d get down somewhere. Or a machine gun would go and cut all the greenery away and you could watch that


too. Just a little different warfare there you’re more closer than the desert. The desert the artillery would keep going and you’d sort of keep advancing from the Jungle if you had your artillery with you that would keep going to and you would some, but you couldn’t always see the enemy and they couldn’t see you until you were in amongst them.
In the conditions


you described earlier about the tank battle. I imagine you adrenaline must have been racing?
Oh yeah it was.
Did you get any sleep that night?
No, no we had to go on and occupy the trench. So I think later in the next day we drifted off. We were so keyed up that you know [(UNCLEAR)] didn’t know whether it was finished or when it would finish. Because it went on for four days,


but I think we did sleep in between times. I don’t think it was much of a sleep.
Was that a common occurrence when you’d go for long stretches without sleep?
Not with me. But with some soldiers it did. I seem to get my sleep, but I know some were days on end. Or in Crete they must have had a terrible time there, they went for nearly a week continuous battle.


Of course we weren’t straight out infantry we were put in when we were needed as infantry, but I’d say that some of the Infantry would experience days and days of sleeplessness. Same on the warships, they go for days without sleep, trying to get some sleep.


Can you describe for me, you’ve talked about the trenches and the wire perimeters around Tobruk. Can you, did you use or come across the Sangers?
The Sangers?
The concreted enclosures the Italians had built there? Did you ever use those yourselves?
Oh yes, we were R8 was a concreted one that was good when we got in there. And then we


went… after we came out of that we were then Infantry, we were used as Infantry for the rest of the time, we occupied. R8 first, then we went to, oh that’s right after R8 we had 10 or twelve days there, we were taken out and we were allowed half a days swim, that was good that was the first leave we’d had since


we’d came back from the drive. That was about towards the end of May. And we were given a half a days swim down at beach hospital, which was back towards Tobruk. That was the first time we’d had a wash, a decent wash but that was very nice, it was a lovely little beach and away from all the action everything was just like a beach. We called it


the nudist beach, they were all in the nude swimming and that was good. Well after we left there oh we went down into back into Blue Line to a place called Fort Pilastrino that was about, that was only about 500 kilometres from the Red Line, that was a fairly close area there and then we went to a concrete Sanger or


post over at R27 I think it was, getting around onto what they called the Bardia Road. The road coming from Bardia we use to call the Bardia Road and the road going to Derna, which was the other way, was the Derna Road. That’s rather that saying going West or East you’d say around on the Bardia Road or around on the Derna Road. That was interesting


there, we had this nice sangar to live in and we used to patrol at night, well out about half a mile we had a listening post that we used to man and that had a section in. It was just a small dirt trench there and the Italians used to often attack that because it used to look over


the road that came around the perimeter and you could let the artillery know when there’s a convoy coming and they’d shell it. Well the purpose of it was to have, we had an artillery observer with us, he’d direct the fire and that was we were sort of protecting him. Now that was attacked several times by Italians, not while I was in, but while we were in that other post and we’d sort of have to give them covering fire.


They never took it, but I believe that it had changed hands several times before we went there. And it was a sort of a very very dicey place, because it would change hands. The Italians fought fairly well there, they’re wanting to capture it.
You also mentioned yesterday, Hill 209?
209, yes. That was south


west of R8 practically around near S10 and that was about 20 or 30 yards inside the perimeter post and it was a good lookout for later. Germans captured that in this drive when they put the salient in and


we never retook it. That was quite a very good observation post, because with binoculars you could look right into the township of Tobruk from the top of it. So it was really good for them. And just a bit to the east of it again towards the perimeter post was an old Turkish fort. When the Turks occupied


Libya apparently Tobruk used to be attacked by marauding Bedouins and those type of, so these were put in for protecting them and the remains of them were there. And they were handy for people to lay in and look out for observation and so on. But we never retook that either. But it was very interesting old fort, it was mainly just big heaps


of stone, but we were never in that area. We could see R at 200 from where we were at 209; we could see that all right of course we were never on top of it till I went back last year.
Well at that point we might pause there and change another tape.
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 07


Well I might continue your story of life in the trenches if I may? So I’m wondering, how could you live when you were in the trenches?
Well, we’d sleep on and off through the day, and of course all the action


took place at night, in the trenches. Further back in Tobruk they carried on as usual as long as they didn’t bunch up in groups. Like a normal man could wander around or a spare lorry could go around unless somebody thought they’d like to have a shot at him but if you saw three or four lorries well they were bound to get fired at, so it was well under observation, but further up


on the trenches depending on the area you were at you couldn’t get up out of the trench at all. Further to the north of us in the first of the S trenches was a little better because there’s a huge wadi between them and the enemy and they could more or less wander around a bit there as long as they didn’t get in groups because the Infantry on


the other side, they could possibly do the same too. But artillery was the main worry for those people. That’s why they wouldn’t bunch up, but you could wander along to the next trench and have a talk, but you couldn’t in a lot of the other areas, we just laid there all day. Nighttime came round about; I think it got dark about 9 o’clock at night and the lorries


would come up and bring our rations up, some times the lorries could come right up to your trench other times they had to go to a pick up point and working parties would go and pick up your rations. Well they consisted of a hot meal and also dessert and they would give you a tin of bully beef amongst three and


a packet of biscuit each. That was your rations for the next day, you could eat them whenever you liked. And water; there was a pint a day, not quite a litre for each man. You didn’t always get a pint because sometimes the cooks would want more water and that was heavy chlorinated so disease and so on. And that was a trouble making that last sometimes if you’re under the


sun all day, you’d get very thirsty and you’d soon drink your litre. You got into the habit of just having a little sip and then not having anymore for a long while. That was the biggest trouble there. We slept; we put little dugouts into a side of the slip trenches where we used to cover over with boards or whatever we could find and sandbags


and that’s where we would sleep otherwise we were out in the sun all day. It was pretty warm, about 110 Fahrenheit I think was about the average up to 120, not 110 Fahrenheit, 110 Centigrade, pretty hot at any rate. And we’d sleep there all day, around about 9 as I said the rations would come up, there was a general quite right round the perimeter at that time, because the enemy were


being fed also. But you’d rarely hear a shot fired at that time. We’d get up and stretch our legs and get something to eat. The enemy had just as tough as time as we did, because they couldn’t get up and wander around in the daytime either, ‘cause they were under observations. So it wasn’t the best of places to be in and what they used to do normally. They’d have you


in the Red Line for possibly 2 weeks, then you’d go in the Blue Line for another two weeks, then if the situation was all right you might have a little break for a couple of days in the back line somewhere. That’s taking over into the plain and just relax over there. Generally you found that you were in the Blue Line, then the Red Line, then the Blue Line then the Red Line and so on.


You got variety that way. But the days were the worst, laying all day, it was very monotonous. Sometimes of course if your trenches were built that way you could get in a group of 3 or 4 and have a game of cards, but mostly you couldn’t in the Blue Line. In the front line, in the Italian places you could wander around freely all the time, because it was


down about 8 feet the trench and they had these big bunkers to sleep in. They weren’t popular though because they weren’t ventilated and it was very dark in there. A long the trenches it was all right. In the, where the machine gun posts at the end you could often sit around there, as long as you didn’t stand up and play cards or have a talk.


But in the slip trenches themselves you just laid all day, slept or watch the sun go past.
And you mentioned you occupied R10 like your headquarters?
R8, we occupied that. And got shelled every now and again while we were in there. A couple of little things happened while I


was there. One day a huge sandstorm came, they used to come regularly, Khamsins they were called and they would blow possibly just for an hour or two, sometimes for a day or so, you just wouldn’t know. But you’d see them start just a fine eddy of dust and they’d get stronger and stronger and the visibility went down to about 10 or 20 feet,


it was like that for a while and you couldn’t do anything then or you did was lay down and put your blanket over your head to keep the dust off you. When they finished you’d see the fellows throwing the dust up out of the trench and the same over the other side you’d see the enemy throwing the dust out so they’re having the same trouble as us. Well one day the sandstorm was gradually lifting and our lookout said, Hey there’s


some fellows coming and there were 4 fellows walking 2 in between 2 others. The outside ones both had rifles and they were Germans and the 2 inside ones were Australians, oh 1 Australian, 1 British but we didn’t know it at the time. And they were heading straight for our trench, they didn’t know it was our trench, of course they were taking the prisoners back to their line anyway they got close to us and one of our fellows


got a bit impatient and he gets up with him bayonet and races at them and the Germans saw and ran off. There was never a shot fired at them. Sometimes with that sand our Bren would be clogged up, so it might have been our Bren was clogged up with sand, but nothing fired and away went the Germans and the other two fellows raced over and hopped into our trench.
Have some water.


Sorry about that. They hopped into our trench and one of them was one of our drivers, a Pioneer driver and the other man was an officer from Tank Corps, he had a tank guarding us behind R8 and he wasn’t with that tank, but


he had been referring with our CO about movements of tanks and the driver was taking him back to the lines. But as they were started off the sandstorm started up and he said to the officer, “Have we got any free French here?” The officer said, “No.” He said, “Well we just passed some.” And he said, “I don’t think so.” And the next thing they were surrounded with Germans. They’d driven in the salient


off the path into German lines. Lucky he didn’t go into mines or anything. Well the Germans captured them that was early morning, they had them there all day. They gave them a meal round about dinnertime just to… I think they had Bully Beef or something like that, not much more than we did. But they treated them well. But as the


sandstorm started to die down two guards took them, they were going to take them back to the German lines. And of course they lost their way and wandered into our section, so we regained our prisoners. That was one little incident in R8. And another day we saw a fellow rolling, rolling, rolling down the hill towards us, he was rolling as fast as anything and


we didn’t know who he was, he was coming from our way, anyway he hopped in and he was English soldier, he was artillery, he was an officer and he said I thought that was the best way to get here. He rolled….it was all open air, I thought it was a silly way. But he made it all right. We had a couple of little experiences in R8. We had a couple


of tentative attacks on our post while we were there but the first one must have only been a reconnaissance patrol, they went away as soon as we fired at them. The second one was a night or so later they thought they were going to take us, they came and put on an attack, not a real concerted one, it must have been just a spare platoon and they


were driven off without much trouble. But a little later, two of our fellows were on patrol, having a look to see where the enemy were and we heard a lot of firing and they never came back and it wasn’t until after the war. We found one was a prisoner of war and the other one had been killed there. So it was, you’d never know what was going to happen.


But they were the only casualties we had it R8. Oh I’m sorry no, there was another one, a fellow got killed one night, just looking around he got killed, somebody must have spotted him and hit him with a rifle. But they were the three casualties we had at R8. One prisoner of war and two killed.
And how many


men were there in R8?
Ah thirty, our platoon. It was just a little bit uncomfortable, it would have been better to have about 20 odd but of course we had 30 so we fitted in. But it wasn’t uncomfortable to us, because far better there than in those slip trenches. But it was a little bit packed with 30 men in there.
Can you describe the length


and width of R8?
Yes, it was about 40 feet long, it started off with a round weapon pit about 3 foot deep, that would have been built primarily for either a anti tank gun or a machine gun and leading off from that were steps going down to the bottom of the trench


and we walked along the trenches for about 6 or 8 feet and there were firing steps up and we came to a bunker, a big concrete bunker we went in through the door and went along for about another 10 or 12 feet, it was about 4 feet wide about 10 or 12 feet long and we came out and there was a little


alcove with a sort of office where the officer had his quarters, he’d sleep there and had a little bench to work on and also a firing step just above where he was. It was open after you came out of the bunker. Then the trench went along it was zigzag, it wasn’t straight, it was zigzag fashion and up the firing steps and we came to a small


machine gunning placement and then it went further along and it finished with firing positions for Infantry. So there was the big anti tank placement at one end, feeding to a bunker where you could sleep in if you wished to, leading out of that was a little


alcove with an officers writing desk and so on which he used and then further on was Infantry positions. But they all varied and they weren’t all the same, but that was the general layout of them, but they varied according to the terrain. Further up along the end of the perimeter,


where it branch into the sea, they consisted of a circular hole where you went down and there were trenches along looking out over the valley. It was on the side of a valley or wadi and there were firing positions to fire out across the enemy. The only way possibly they could have taken those, would have been to drop


bombs down the entrance holes or do as they did with R7 and attack them with flamethrowers. Which would be a horrible death for the poor fellows in there. But they were quite comfortable positions there, comparatively speaking. They didn’t have barbwire down in front of them, just a couple of strands, not to the extent that the others did. Because a wadi was so steep


you’d never have tanks down there, they would be able to manage or trucks or anything like that. And any enemy coming there I would have to fight all the way up the hill. We then thought it was too steep but when we went to New Guinea we found that there were much steeper hills.


It doesn’t sound particularly comfortable?
No, it doesn’t.
Are you all right?
Sorry about that.
That’s all right. You take your time.


How wide was the trench?
Wide would be about 3 feet wide those built ones, about 3 feet wide. They were quite good defensive positions, they took quite a bit of getting to them. But of course one of the ways they used to capture them was to put


a tank at either end, and fire down or down into the trenches, along the trenches. They were zigzag of course, but of course they’d soon upset the holders of the trench there to have bullets zipping along the trenches, because they’d just zip backwards and forwards across the concrete walls. But they were pretty good; I cannot really understand how they were so successful


in taking the whole 14 of them that they did. But of course when the 6th Divvy attacked them, they had to attack through them and later on when they attacked again and took Tobruk they came through the trenches just the same, they possibly learnt through past experiences. Because I’d say they would support themselves with the air force keep bombing and


bombing keeping their heads down until they got close. ‘Cause those bombs are terrible things.
When you were in R8 was your main worry from air strike or from Tanks?
Mainly from tanks rather than from the air. When that battle was on the aeroplanes were very active over


the front lines for a while and then they seem to be more of less concentrating on the artillery behinds us and the township. ‘Cause artillery was a good target for bombs and so on. Infantry wasn’t so good for bombs it’s was better for machine gunning from the air. I know there was a bit of that. In the main, I’d say the


main danger from us was the artillery, the machine gun fire and the infantry fire. I never saw any, I was lucky I suppose, bayonet to bayonet fighting, a lot of it went on, but not in our sections, which I was very thankful for. That’s a terrible fate to have to endure.


You mentioned that water was in short supply and you couldn’t shower. How did you manage with going to the toilet?
You’d mainly wait till nighttime and you’d go out and dig a little hole in the ground. That was one of the disadvantages of the main expensive places the Italians built, no toilets in there. But


you’d go out and dig a little hole and come back. But if in the trench you were laying there, you’d hang on to Bully Beef tins and when you’d finished you’d throw them out. It was rather primitive but I suppose they were so used to it. It would be funny having toilets out in the desert wouldn’t it? So that was one of the things that was a bit of a nuisance to people.


And I understand that the slip trenches were much smaller? Can you describe a slip trench?
The main slip trench wouldn’t be more than 3 feet deep and it would have possibly one or two layers of sandbags on top to increase the height. They weren’t as wide as the concrete ones; they were just about 2 foot


wide, enough for you to crawl along, they weren’t continuous. Each section would make their own little area of slip trench, there’d be a little gap and another one and they used to be staggered also similar to the Red Line, two in front then in between them one in between, so they were zigzag type of business.


Then one could support the other. You would have to make a wider area, if you had a machine gun, you’d have to dig a bit round pit to put the machine gun in. The Brens we used to use more of less as rifles, like the same position we wouldn’t go digging special positions for them.


But now and again you would have, what they call a crawl trench, connecting one of your slip trenches to another trench, in case of messages and things, well they weren’t very deep, they’d go down about 2 feet, as far as possible and then they’d crawl across, but they were more or less for communications. Mostly we were shouting out to one another across,


rather than sending a messenger across. As we mentioned before, sleeping was the main problem through the day with the sun shining and so on. But they weren’t real comfortable spots to be in, but you sort of like everything else grow to live


with them and eventually you’d put up with it. Night was great relief to get out and stretch your legs and walk around.
You’re awake all night and trying to sleep by day?
That’s right. Nighttime was given over to working or working patrols, we didn’t do much, what they call fighting or reconnaissance patrols from the Blue Line,


that was left to the Red Line. It was mainly you’d be either improving your own position or improving some other position or making a new position. I mentioned we gradually crept forward in that salient and gradually reclaimed quite a bit of it. Some was open fighting to reclaim it


other were just gradual creeping forward all the time to take it. The fighting patrol that I mentioned and the reconnaissance patrols, generally from the front line when you’d have a area in front of you, you’d study it all day and something might be suspicious, something might something


digging going on somewhere, so they would send a patrol over to investigate that at night, you’d go up and see what was going on, if you were reconnaissance you wouldn’t attack. But it might only be just 2 or 3 of you just to see what’s going on. And then you’d come back and report and keep an eye on them if they were preparing positions, you’d wait until they were well advanced then you’d,


they’d put a fighting patrol out to just discourage them, not actually to take the position unless it was in the salient, if it was in the front line you didn’t want to take anything out in your front at all, because you were well protected where you were. You might go along and destroy the position. One stage there, there were Italians digging


what looked like artillery pits and we kept an eye on them for a while and when it was nearly finished we attacked them and took them prisoners, but generally you didn’t go fighting patrols just for the sake of fighting patrols, you were more for reconnaissance or to discourage them from building artillery things and things like that. It depended on what was needed.


Every night you’d have a standing patrol. You’d have a sentry would walk from your end of the line up to the next line and then he’d walk back, just patrolling to see that it was all right. You’d also have a listening post out in front of your trenches where a man would lay up


in a little trench if possible, if not just on the ground. Just checking to see that everything’s all right, no patrols coming or anything like that. Now if you were lucky you had a telephone, if you were unlucky you just had to sort of arranged signals with your hand, but you were about 30,40 feet out from your own troops and you could sort of wave like that and people would watch and they’d wave back.


With these standing patrols, so as you knew that the other fellow was on his way or had been back, he used to leave a little mark on the end of there and he’d leave a little mark. Some of them, they used to call them love and kisses, you know a cross or a heart you know. One sort had a heart and the other had a kiss and you’d put your little heart that was more or less to let them know you’d been there.


When you went out on patrol you would count the paces you took, it might take 800 paces, it there was a star you could watch the star, beautiful the night sky, you’d watch your star and 200 to that and of course you’d move on to if you laid up, and then if you’d been out 200 yards, 200 yards that way and then 200 back and you’d count


them just to make sure you didn’t miss your posse. And generally a couple of fellows one in the front, one in the back used to count and then you’d just check to see. But that was important because you might overshoot your mark and keep walking to an enemy position. But there were little ways where we guided one an other and listening post wasn’t too bad but now and again all


troops in forward trenches have what they call fixed lines, machines guns fixed on a line, it might be heading straight for the enemy’s front line or something, prominent spot that you know they using and every now and again you just fired the machine gun. Just every so often, it wasn’t regular every 3 or 4 minutes; you might go an hour and not fire


and next thing you would fire again. There were quite a few fixed lines like that you had to watch and you got to know them because you’d see the bullets going down with the tracer and you’d hear them, they were known as fixed lines. The enemy and our troops had fixed lines to fire upon. Well if you were on patrol you dodged those fixed lines


if you had to cross them you’d wait until the machine gun had fired, stop and then you’d go across, coming back you’d do the same thing. Otherwise you’d get caught in your fixed lines. I spoke to you just a little minute ago with the trajectory of bullets, for someone only firing at 200 yards, not a very high trajectory


but if they’re firing at greater distances say 800 yards there’s quite a curve. So if you knew where the curvature was you could watch when you walked under, but that’s a bit risky. Not only is the fixed line firing often another machine gun might have a go to or a rifle but if you think you see something you’d had shot. It wasn’t the best of places.


Another little job we had was, an aeroplane had been brought down in what we call no man’s land it hadn’t dropped its bombs, so the powers of be wanted a look at what the bomb was like, so they said they were going to send a bomb expert up with us to


dismantle it and bring it back. And would we take him out and retrieve a bomb for them. So we had a stretcher to carry the bomb on and away we went, there was about 6 of us I think and the bomb man, he hadn’t been out in no man’s land before so he was a bit wary and we went along to the plane we got the bomb, he fiddled around and we got the bomb out, it was about,


it would be just on 3 foot long and about 9 to 10 inches wide. Because they had been using new ones and they wanted to check on their unexploded bombs. So we loaded it on the stretcher and away we went back and carried our bomb with us. So that was another little unusual job we had. They didn’t want us to try and take it


out, because they knew we didn’t know anything about taking bombs from planes or delousing them as they called it. So they gave us an expert that came out with us and took the bomb back, I never heard what happened whether it was a new type bomb or what. But those sort of little things used to crop up and you’d have these unusual jobs.
And what’s no man’s land?
No man’s land is the area


between the enemy and the good, goodies, us. They used to call that no man’s land. But as Morshead said we want the Australians always to control no man’s land. So he made us patrol regular every night, whether there’s anything out again on your front or not, we had our regular patrols. The German and Italians weren’t as fussy about


patrolling as we were, but we always had a very good idea of what they were up to by our patrolling. And I think it paid off, by knowing that. That was always on if you didn’t have any set job to do, go out on patrol.
And was there ever occasions when men were


killed above trenches and you had to retrieve them?
Oh yes, yes, you had to go out and bring men in. You’d see them laying out there, poor fellows, go out and bring them in. It wasn’t always the stretcher bearers went out, though they were game they’d go out and bring them in. Because they weren’t armed, they’d go out and bring the wounded men in. Also on patrol if a fellow got wounded,


it depended just what you were doing, whether you brought him back or left him there. Because if you had an important job on, that job was more important than the man and you sort of had to decide, it was a bit hard tho. I never had to luckily. But generally they’d bring them back if possible or they’d go back and pick them up later when the patrol came in. I know one of our fellows got MM [Military Medal] for doing that. His


mate got hit out on patrol and he left him there and when the patrol came back he went out and brought him in.
What sort of medical supplies did you have in your trench?
Not bad, we had a big shell dressing for normal it you got wounded you’d put this shell dressing on


and we had sticky tape for small cuts and so on. But in the main the ordinary soldier didn’t carry many medical supplies, you’d carry a shell dressing or you might have a couple of bandaid type of dressing that would be all he would take. The stretcher-bearer would have a bigger supply of normal first aids dressings similar to what a


man at the football match would carry in first aid.
What type of hat were you wearing?
We had tin hats on in Tobruk, but in the Jungle we tossed them away, they were a nuisance, we used to wear the Slouch Hat. But in the desert we all wore tin hats, you’d sort of get used to them. They were a little bit heavier


than normal hats, but you didn’t notice it after awhile. I believe the tin hats we had were not very useful, they’ve designed better quality one’s now that do protect you from shrapnel. Whereas a bullet will go through a tin hat, but the tin hat being steel of course slows the bullet a bit, so many a man’s been saved by his


tin hat.
And am I to understand that your life in the trenches and in the trench system at Tobruk was the reason that you were dubbed the rats?
Yes, that is correct yes. There was Lord William Joyce [William Joyce broadcast under the pseudonym Lord Haw Haw] I think was his name, he was a renegade British citizen,


very strongly persistent kind and he used to broadcast over the Berlin radio. And he broadcast to Australians in Tobruk one night and he said, “There you are” he said, “Your living like rats, your living in holes like rats, you’ll die like rats.” ‘Oh god we’re being called rats now’. So they sort of adopted the term as ‘Rats’


and its sort of kept ever since. There is a distinction between the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ and the 7th Armoured Division which were known as the ‘Desert Rats’, a lot of people don’t realized there were two lots of rats in the desert. The Desert Rats, they were there since 1936 and they’d called their unit the Desert Rats because they were


going all around the deserts and they had an insignia of a Jerboa that’s a desert rat, a form of rat that lives in the desert, and so they called themselves the Desert Rats. They were most famous because when the first drive against the Italians took place in company with the 4th Indian Division they attacked the Italians and drove them back


to Sollum and then they attacked them at Sollum and the 6th Divvy took over from the 4th Indian Division then who went across to Abyssinia to help fight the Italians there. And they were with the 6th Divvy right through to El Agheila and they chased all the Italians back and they stayed in the desert until the desert campaign


finished in 1943 and then they went across to Italy, and then across to……they were taken out of Italy, and were on the Second Front and they went through to Berlin. That’s how they got a great name.
But you belonged to the others?
We’re the rats; they’re the Desert Rats. We’re the Rats of Tobruk. They thought that


was a great joke being called rats.
Oh just someone calling us rats. The Australian humour I suppose. But he used to often broadcast about things He’d say, “C’mon Aussies you gonna get a pasting tonight, they’re going to send over so-and-so, and so-and-so planes, you’ll want to look out.” And sure enough over come the planes. But that


was sort of a daily or nightly occurrence, all the planes coming over; there was generally planes in the sky. But a lot of people said, “Where’s our air force?” But they were doing a great job at harassing the Axis armies and they couldn’t. They lasted for …it might have been 2 weeks in Tobruk,


when they were there……
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 08


Jack can you tell me why you’re proud of your Rat of Tobruk heritage?
Oh yes, I think it’s lovely to be given a nickname, especially an unusual nickname like that, by the enemy. And we sort of became very proud of it, to be Rats and want to be all sorts of rats and so on. Yeah I am proud, and


its good to meet fellows, and say, “Are you a Rat?” “Yeah I was a Rat.” And say, “Where were you in?” “Oh no, you wasn’t a Rat.” So it apparently got a good name and I think it lived on from Gallipoli, those fellows at Gallipoli made a great name for Australians and it sort of took the same place in the Second World War. I think that’s one of the reason for we’re basking in Gallipoli’s


name rather than our own, I think. I think that it sort of tied us in a little bit with the name the Gallipoli fellows earned for themselves. But it was nothing like Gallipoli that I could see. And Gallipoli was a slaughter; we never struck those conditions where you would have whole sections of men just mowed down as you go ahead.


I think they had learnt a lot from that First World War where they put men in, in mass and expecting to lose them. I think we were much more fortunate because it was nothing like Gallipoli and I think the terrain they had to fight over up those steep hills, we had nothing like that. We just had to sit there and take it whereas they had to take it


and were slaughtered those poor fellows. So we are very proud to be called Rats.
Was it almost like a backhanded compliment?
That’s what I’d say; I was trying to think of. Yes, a backhanded compliment that would be right. They were wondering how the Aussie would go in the Second World War. 6th Divvy proved it tho, they went well and


then of course we had so many reverses. Greece was failing, Crete was failing and yet we still hung on, so I feel that the fact that they did hang on till the end, help make their name synonymous with hanging on not just giving in. I feel that while we were there nobody ever thought they’d be giving in, we all thought we’d be marching out of


Tobruk. Even though we were glad to be relieved when our time came, there was always the little feeling well we’d been cheated; we should have marched out of here. Luckily the 2/13th Battalion did drive out of Tobruk, which was very good for them. But we felt more or less that we were letting the side down by being pulled out, and


we’d have…. I don’t think there was any urge to be relieved, I think it was more a political stunt rather than, because they said we were all worn out and so on, but we felt quite healthy there. We’d lost a bit of weight but we’d got used to the tucker and I feel that we’d have been, I don’t say good because it was a terrific battle when they broke out,


but it would have been nice to have been driven out by lorries from Tobruk, rather than sneaking out in the middle of the night in the warship.
Why do you say that it was a political stunt?
Menzies [Robert Menzies] I think it was at the time. Was the Prime Minister at the time, wanted Australian troops more or


less back in Australia, particularly after we had lost a division in Greece, and he thought oh gosh they’re still leaving them there I think its about time they got relieved. I think that was the main reason behind it rather than trying to gain political gain. I think it was just the fact that ‘Hey Mr Menzies got us out’. I feel that was one of the reasons for the fact that we were withdrawn. Because what


I have seen of the records of the times, they said the Australians are sick and dispirited and hungry. And I thought we were none of those sorts of things. So they decided they would replace us. But of course, Greece they didn’t want the same thing to happen, that had happened in the First World War, where the Australians were just push in haphazardly here and there.


They wanted the Australians to fight as a combined force not as remnants here and there. Unfortunately of course that did happen right up until we came back to Australian and they thought, even so with the Americans they didn’t used the Aussies as the Aussies would have liked to been used. They were sort of just left as garrison troops and that hurt quite a bit


in places. So I think that was sort of the feeling behind, pulling us out of Tobruk to try and get the Aussie’s all together and not leave them where they can put the English troops anywhere and just leave us any old where to fill in the gaps. So I think that was a lot behind the thinking. But I don’t think anybody was sick and dispirited in Tobruk, they were just wishing it would soon


finish and I feel that they would have all like to have given driven out of Tobruk rather than being spirited out in ones and twos. They took a Brigade out first, the 18th Brigade, they were 7th Division and they took them out and relieved them with a Polish Brigade and then they started to take the troops out in different Battalions not that there was a whole group and eventually of course at the end of


October, early November all the Australians except the 2/13th had been taken out of Tobruk. And I feel that, no generally speaking they’d have rather had stayed and finished the job off that they started.
Even in what surely I imagine were fairly trying conditions did being branded a rat, and


all of the Australians there as rats, did that help to bond you together and stave of any fatigue?
I think so, I think that was more of a bonding as you say, a bonding term than a derogatory term, we took it as such. It’s just the way you look at it. We thought this is great we’re all rats.
From what I read, I understand that General or Field Marshal Rommel was


had a begrudging respect for these Rats. What was your impression of him and his German forces there?
We thought they were wonderful troops, they didn’t act like the fascist troops, if they took prisoners they treated them well, I know they were fascist troops, but Rommel, appeared to be, give everybody a fair go. And he had a great name amongst both the


Allied troops and the Axis troops. There was a order came out the army, in no way are you to refer to the enemy as Rommel’s troops you refer to them as the Axis. Because they thought well Rommel’s being a real hero status amongst the Allies as well as his own troops. There was a definite directive came out


not to refer to them as Rommels we were to refer to them as the Axis are coming or the Axis troops not the Rommel’s troops.
How did it come about that he gained this status even amongst the Allied troops?
He was such a brilliant General I think, he devised way of advancing and he took risks. A lot of thing that were sort of military unsound at the time, they paid off.


And that gave him a great respect amongst the his own troops, because if you’re a winner your on top, if you’re a loser you sort of lose favour. Some of our Australian Generals, or Allied Generals were being replaced like pawns on a board; they were being moved backwards and forwards, which I feel


was a bit wrong of Churchill, because I feel they were doing their best and I feel they would have still kept on doing their best. And there was another little sore point; people felt that Morshead should have taken charge of the Allied forces at El Alamein, rather than bringing in British generals all the time. Because Montgomery [Bernard Montgomery, British Field Marshal]


when he took over was junior to Morshead and there was quite a bit of not argument but discussion that Morshead should be the man. Because he was a good man, he was a good tactician too, the same as Rommel. Rommel would look for a weak point and then attack with all his troops. Another point


too he knew how to use his armour. He used to say you British are silly you concentrate all your armour in one place and we can destroy it. But he used to just send a Division and then he’d send another Division somewhere else. When we sent all our Tanks in as one group he could line up his 88 guns, which it turned out to be a good artillery


piece against them and destroy them. And we lost a terrific lot of tanks in the early stages until they woke up to this strategy. I think there was a whole…. don’t know whether they call them a battalion or brigade or something of tanks wiped out. About a hundred of them in one go, well that’s a big loss. That seemed to be common in the early stages


of the…. and when he was advancing after he took Tobruk and that he just seem to be unstoppable. Just as well he didn’t take Tobruk the first time, I think he would have been unstoppable because there was nothing between him and the Suez when he sort of was pulled up at the Egyptian Frontier and


Tobruk held. If he’d had Tobruk then he’d have had all the supplies needed to keep going. But of course he had outrun his supply line too, about a thousand odd miles to bring the gear up from where he started. Whereas if he had Tobruk to give him his provisions he would have been much better. Which he proved when he did take Tobruk.


When he Tobruk in June 1942, there was a big build up of Allied supplies there. They were building up to chase him out of Africa all together. And he got in first, and we had a terrific build up of stores and petrol and everything when he took Tobruk. So it helped him quite a lot in his


campaign. The British did put a commando raid into Tobruk just after he took it, but it was unsuccessful. They realised the importance of Tobruk.
You mentioned before that a Polish Division had arrived to reinforce Tobruk, were you there at that time when they arrived?
Yes, they came in alongside us. And the 18th Brigade had went out, because when


they go out, the battalion goes out and generally it takes about 3 days to replace a division and the battalion came in. Well these fellow came up to these fellows, and one of our fellows said there’s a lot of Germans up there, we said why and he said you should hear them talk. And any rate we found out they were the Polish Brigade. They had been escaped from Poland after Poland was overrun and they were in Russia.


hey didn’t have much of a time in Russia, but they were still together. And they came down through Russia through what was Mesopotamia then, Iraq and trained in Palestine and they came up. Well for the first time they’d seen the Germans in combat since they’d left their homeland, and they were most excited. They fired off their limit of supplies of


shells in one night, they were really thrilled up with being able to see the Germans. But they came along and one fellow had a violin and he used to play tunes to us all night. I was in a good position then, I was in a place called the Fig Tree, I’d been put in the signals for a while and he was with the Polish signallers, he was over with us learning the ropes. He


could speak a little bit of English and he had his violin with him. But I remember the Poles coming in, they did a great job.
Could many speak English, how was the communication between?
No, not very many. We had odd ones. I was on the switchboard and the Poles were on our left and the Indians, there was an Indian battalion there in the


Northwest corner. That was waddies, like was in the southeast corner. Where the lines finished and they defended that all the time till the siege. Well they relieved them also but while I was on the switchboard, I had the Indians on our left, we were in the middle and I had the Poles on the right. So we had some funny conversations going through at times. But the Indians could speak English, but


not the real English as I knew it, but a bit of a broken…. and then of course the Poles spoke broken English too. So it was a bit queer on the switchboard.
I was going to ask if you had other nationalities fighting there with you?
Yes the Australian get a lot of praise because they held Tobruk, but they were only two thirds of the troops there. There were British troops


and these Indians troops, I think there were 14,000 maybe give or take a few or not and Australians and about 7,000 British troops and Indian troops. And our main artillery was all English, we had a few Australian artillery organizations, but in the main it was British. The


machine gunners were the Northumberland Fusiliers and we had the 4th Indian dismounted Cavalry Battalion helping us. So about 7,000 other troops besides the 14,000 Australian troops.
Did you regard the all as equal Allies?
Oh, yes, yes all the same. We didn’t


sort of have any colour bar or any distinction of the Poms [British] and the Aussies and the Indians, they all did their job. We were always thankful to because the tanks were all English tanks and they did a great job. And of course the Northumberland Fusiliers they were really wonderful. All in all they were very good. The Indians were good because we never mixed them much because they


kept their sector all through the siege. But they did a good job. They often had little battles going on over that area.
And what of the navy doing, its spud run into Tobruk, how did you regard?
Spud runners [supply runs], they were very good; they never got the praise that they should have got, because Tobruk would have fallen very quickly without them. They used to come in on moonless


nights, when the moon was up of course they wouldn’t come near the place. So you would have about two thirds of a month with supplies coming in and of course that depended to on some nights you can get many ships in because not only did they have to get into Tobruk, they had to sail back to Mersa Matruh or Alexandria for stores.


And they had to make sure they were well clear of Bardia, Sollum and some of those places along there before daybreak. Because otherwise the submarines would be onto them or the Axis air force they’d be onto them. So it was a bit dicey they’d have to come in and go out again all in about half an hour, so when


they’re coming in they’d have troops put all the stuff on decks as much as possible, they might be unloading one side and loading the other. When we went aboard we were coming in one side and they were pushing all the gear off the other side. It was pretty hectic tho. And up the anchor and out they went again as soon as they were loaded. A lot of the loading and


unloading was done onto wrecked ships. That wasn’t when we went on, but if they were on the unloading and taking a few casualties and that back, they’d possibly pull up into a wrecked ship and unload them all on there and then of course we had, forgot what they call it whether it was a, a unit that used to operate … Oh it was the railway transport, railway, we had a railway


unit and they were sea transport in Tobruk and they used to unload the stores and load them on, they’d take lighters around picking up the stores through the day or night when they’d been unloaded through the night. And they had quite a risky job too. Not only did the naval ships come up with supplies for us, there were a lot of odds and ends. I don’t know how many


lighters or barges came up from Mersa Matruh, it used to take them, I think two days. They’d go so far and pull into the coast. And hug the coast all day and then carry on at night. I forget how many, I think they might have been about 30 they had at the start and they were all sunk eventually. But they did a great job. I saw the Ladybird sunk


one day, that was a British ship, that had been on the China Run in the rivers, and it had a big gun on it and when it would fire, it would shoot the Ladybird back and they used to pull on a mud bank and they used to fire and it would shoot them off. Well that went, I saw that the day we went for our swim,


May we were going back, air raid on, this was in the daytime Ladybird came in at night and sort of was going back the next night, she was sort of hugging with all the wrecks and they must have spotted it and they were attacking her, I saw it go down with all the bombs on it and it still fired. And it went down in a very shallow spot because that was one of its advantages, you could run it on the shallows and


all the front end went down and left the stern sticking up. So that was used as anti tank gun for the rest of the siege there so the Ladybird firing.
And what brought it down exactly?
Bombs, bombs from the air.
From planes?
Planes, they dive-bombed it. It came straight down and fly out.
Can you describe for me, your leaving from Tobruk?


One night, we were told we were going out of Tobruk. The next day we were taken by lorry down near the Harbour and put on a flat and told to lay there all day and we’d be taken away at night. It wasn’t a bad little spot there, we just sort of laid there, and while we were there some troops


came up and introduced themselves and said we’re relieving you, we came in last night. And they were telling us all about coming in and that. So that was good, and we said, “Who are you?” And they said, “We’re the London Queens” and we said, “Oh no, we don’t want you,” and they said, “Oh well you have…” They’d been taken prisoner in Syria and released at the end of it. And they came up, they were not a bad mob, they were a rifle crowd and we talked to them all day, where we were


they were camped with us there. And when night time came they were taken away somewhere and as we got dark we were taken down to the wharf and we lined up on the wharf of Tobruk and sure enough around about Midnight in came the Griffin I was in, others of our Battalion were taken out by lighters to wrecks where they were taken off


by lighter onto ships that came in, there were about four ships came in and we went aboard the Griffin and as we went aboard they were unloading the other side and our section was sent down below. As we came in you filed down and down and we went to what was known as the petty officers’ Mess and we were put in the kitchen, there what seems as a kitchen and we made ourselves comfy


there and we were only there for about 5 or 10 minutes and we found a shower alongside, so we were all having showers and as you came out of Tobruk, you could feel the ship start up, we were showering. So I remember leaving Tobruk under a shower. We laid down for the night there and I noticed lots of bullet holes in the side of the plate of the


ship, they’d come right through, you could see through it. And the sailor said, “We got that in Crete,” they hadn’t had time to fix it up yet. So it was a good job that it didn’t get to rough. It would have been wet. Anyway we went along and went past the Bardia and we joined a big convoy, they’d been up shelling Sollum, we didn’t see them shelling but we joined that convoy, went back with the


convoy and landed into Alexandria about twelvish or one o’clock in the daytime and we were taken then by lorry out to Amiriya where we’d originally landed from Palestine. And we were put aboard big trucks at night, covered in cattle trucks and the smelt a bit


tarry any rate we didn’t notice until morning but all the flooring of the truck had been carrying bitumen and that was all spilt all over it and we laid in tar. So we looked pretty grubby when we got to Palestine. But that’s how we left Tobruk.
Was the Griffin a British ship?
Yeah, a British ship. HMS [His Majesty’s Ship] Griffin, a destroyer. Another boat that some of our


battalion came in was the Abdeer, a mine layer, a very fast mine layer, but that go sunk on one of its trips up to Tobruk later on. I don’t know if that was the one going to pick up the 2/13th but that’s what happened to them. Their ship was sunk and it must have been the Abdeer could take a battalion that’s what it would have been. Whereas


there were a couple of battalions going out when we went out and our company went out in the Griffin the rest of the battalion went out in the Abdeer.
Was Tobruk under fire when you were leaving?
Yes, not particularly because they wouldn’t have been working because it was all dark. But planes would come over every now and again through the night just dropping bombs because they knew that we were


loading and unloading during the dark. And they have the positions of the wharves, that’s what they’d more of less go for, rather than the open harbour and you’d be unlucky if you got hit.
Just trying to get a picture of the scene as you were leaving, you said that you almost regretted having left Tobruk or being forced to leave Tobruk. It’s midnight,


I guess the odd flash of bomb exploding, it sounds like an emotive scene?
Yes it was that. Yes we were going, running away, well it felt like it. A farewell. But luckily no bombs came down near us and anything like that. We just came away nicely.
Did you leave any other members of your battalion at Tobruk at the time?
No, no they


all came out. The whole battalion came out as a whole. And we were together again at Amiriya when we all went there. We all went up on the same train back to Palestine.
So you hadn’t left any mates behind?
No, no they all came.
Still, was there some part of you being left behind?
It felt a little bit that way, yes. I thought I’d like to see the finish. That was my opinion I


felt that we had sort of unfinished business. Of course it was possibly the best thing, I might be still there.
Once you arrived back in Palestine, what were you immediately requested to do?
Well, we fostered into tents, we arrived there about 10 o’clock in the morning. They had a battalion parade, and all they did; they


paraded us and said we had 24 hours free and easy. We could just do, as we liked. Amuse ourselves so we sort of get around and look at our tent. And also when you go up to a battle area you put all your kit bags into a store and you only have your big main pack and your little side pack, so we were retrieving them during the day and going through them and having a wash and so on,


clean clothes all that sort of business. It was quite nice to be there.
So you didn’t head out of the camp to find entertainment.
No, no I was quite happy there. Oh well, unless you had transport, there wasn’t much point of heading out of camp, because there were only other camps all around you. Just like going from one tent city to another tent city. So there wasn’t much to see. But they started to give


us leave, I think the next day of free and easy, the day after they were sending us on leave, those who want to. And kitting up first, making sure we had decent clothes, a lot of them had worn out and so on. And then we started to go on leave.
Did you have much kit left after the time you had in Tobruk?
Not a great deal, I had shirts and shorts and some grubby old underwear,


that’s about all.
Was it a relief to get there, to not be under siege?
Oh yes, very good. Walking around. That was a big experience at Alexandria when we landed and at Ammeria, we could walk around all day, it was quite good. And talk to people and so on. ‘Cause that was a big relief.
Did you know that you were to be returned to Australia?
No, we didn’t know


until, until we landed back there in October, and of course Japan came into the war in December. So we more or less thought we would be staying there to go back to the desert to chase the Axis out of the place. We didn’t really know much about our plans, but that’s what we more or


less thought would happen. And just when we got back into Palestine there was a big British Battleship lost in the Mediterranean, Ramillies I think I’m not sure of the name. That got torpedoed so that was a big loss. Then Japan came in the war, we didn’t know what would happen then. We didn’t expect Japan to go down


so quickly but as the war , wore on and Japan started to get more and more victorious, they thought oh, oh we’ll be going over there to India. India, Burma that seem to be our main idea where we would be going. Because some of the troops that had been in Tobruk, English troops


went across to Burma. And we thought, well we’d known that and we thought well, we’ll possibly go over to Burma. That’s before Japan had came into the war, when they did we thought we’d most possibly go to Burma or down to Singapore. ‘Cause they started to send troops away in December. What happen was they were running round and round the Indian Ocean because there was controversy


whether they should come back to Australia, go to Singapore or go to Burma. Between the Australian and the British governments and these ships were round and round I believe around in the Indian Ocean and up round, they were headed for Burma and next thing they about turn and headed south and landed in Ceylon. That was some of the 6th Divvy. Others


kept going down to Australia, well some of the 7th Divvy got caught up in this turmoil, that was in February, March and that’s why some went and landed in Java and we were lucky we left in March, and they had more or less made up their minds then, we came down straight to Australia.
Where were you actually when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor?
I was in


camp at Julis. And I thought Oh gosh, what a terrible thing to do. But then of course we thought, they wont last long, those Japs, those little fellows, but they were pretty good. And when the two battleships were sunk, that was terrible, the Renown [Repulse] and the Prince of Wales, wasn’t it, that was a huge ship, but of course they didn’t have the air


power to support them. That was a similar thing that happened with the Italian navy at Taranto, a British navy attacked the Italian fleet and their air force destroyed them in the harbour, and I believe the Japanese used that battle there as their plans for Pearl Harbour.


I’ve only heard that, I don’t know whether it’s right or not. But they seemed to be going ahead and unstoppable when we start to set off for we didn’t know where, well we thought most likely go Java or somewhere and stop them there. It looked like that’s where they don’t have a big confrontation to see if they could stop the Japs. But we got onto this big American


Warship, beautiful, oh not warship, well it was a warship then but it had been a pleasure steamer, 45,000 tonnes and we set off, well we didn’t know where, but when we got aboard a notice came around, you’re all heading for Australia. And we all ‘hooray’. And that’s when we found out then and 13 days later we’re landing at Port Adelaide.
So initially you didn’t perceive


the Japanese as a threat to Australia?
No, not initially we thought, oh they’ll run out of steam but they didn’t. We thought they’ll be held in Java, but of course Java fell very quickly. No we didn’t think they’d be right down to Australia for a while.
Were you aware of the political tooing and froing over where Australian troops should be sent?
No, no we didn’t know that. We just knew that


the 6th Divvy had gone, and it got to the 7th Divvy had gone and we most likely be going then after. We didn’t know where they had gone or anything else. We just knew we would be on the move somewhere.
What was the feeling to leave the Middle East after such a long time there?
Not bad, just another adventure to see some other place. We liked the Middle East though, where we were was very nice, Palestine.


Egypt wasn’t so hot, because we didn’t see much of Egypt either we were just taken by train to a staging camp and then taken away from that staging camp each time. So we didn’t see a great deal of Egypt. Some of the boys had a days leave in Alexandria but I was unlucky enough not to.
How did you spend your last weeks in Palestine?


I had three days leave to a place outside Haifa, a settlement and we came back and they told us we were getting ready to move. So we just sort of pack up the camp, and got issued with stuff. We thought we’d be getting issued with tropical gear or that was the rumour, but we never got issued with anything we just packed up and left.


We left, our transport drove down to Port Said, through the Sinai Desert but we went down by train to Kantara and we got on another train at Kantara went along the Suez Canal along to Port Said. We passed a lot of


German troops just before we pulled into the camp at Port Said. There was a big camping area out where all the troops were assembled and there was a big group of Germans that we had to go through slowly and they were singing out, “Hurry up Aussie, Hurry up Aussie” and they knew where we were off to I suppose. We didn’t we didn’t know what


we were up to then. When we went aboard this ship of course they announced we were going the Australia.
Which I’m sure was a great thing to hear?
That’s right.
Well that sounds like a good point for us to pause for another tape.
Interviewee: John Bertram Archive ID 0118 Tape 09


Before we move on to your time back in Australia, then New Guinea I’d just like to finish off your Tobruk story by perhaps asking you if I may what do you think is your perhaps saddest moment at Tobruk?
Excuse me.


Sorry about that.
Your saddest moment?
Losing a mate of mind. That’s the reason why I was very thrilled to go back there last year, he got killed beside me and we buried him, myself and a couple of others, just behind our trench in a little bit of a wadi business alongside us.


He was buried in Knightsbridge Cemetery after the war, and I went to see him. Because I joined up with him and that was the saddest moment. Those war cemetery’s are very sad when you go back because they’re all boys, some are twenty some are twenty one,


some of them were older 26, 27 but all in their younger days and to think that they’ve laid there for over 60 years, its very sad.
And what, can you describe the day that you had to bury your mate?
It was the nighttime and he’d been killed earlier


in the night, so we said we’d bury him because to take a dead man back took 3 or 4 out of your trench, so we used to bury them unless we had a ration truck handy to take them back. Used to bury them nearby and so we dug a small trench and put him in


and wrapped his overcoat around him and we just buried him. One of our mates, he wasn’t a religious man; I don’t think he had any religion in him, and he said we ought to give him a prayer, so we said a prayer for him. That was my saddest moment. I was glad when I went


back to be able to trace his grave again, it was quite a nice grave the War Graves Commission has done a wonderful job over there. Quite easy to trace anybody, they have the records and they have them at every cemetery, if you want to know somebody in Knightsbridge, where I went, you just see the attendant there, they have the book and you go through and you can find them. It’s the same in the Tobruk cemetery they found


quite a few of our names for us very quickly. It’s very commendable for what they have done, with the war graves.
Do you think it was a just war?
No war is just. But I think it was a necessary war because of a


Dictator like Hitler and Mussolini would have joined him walking over people and they would have continued the same out here and to those type of people there’s only one type of people, that’s their people, they have no consideration for other people’s, other religions or other colours. They’re just the bosses and they want that to stay that way.


That’s what their ideology was just the supreme race to rule the world. And they would have ruled the world. I think it was justified, no war is justified of course but I think it was necessary. But I really think, but of course it was hard to say at the time, but I really think he should have been stopped earlier than when


Britain stepped in, to protect Poland and so on. That’s why I was pleased when the United Nations came into being it seemed to have a lot more power than the League of Nations and to be more popular to everybody. But then again a little while later we go dead against it. Which I feel it was very unjust. It may have


taken longer, but I think they would have arrived at the same conclusion as the United States and our government unfortunately. But I think it was the wrong decision acting on our own, but that’s only my own opinion. I’d say the same thing attained in the Second World War when Hitler was walking through countries, he should have been stopped then but of course there was no


treaty to do it. Well the same thing of course is in China and that, where they have the dictators. China appears to be coming out of it all right. I think they will eventually get into a more democratic style of life. Korea


unfortunately is a very dictatorship. And I feel that we should all combine to stop these small people taking control of things and to be more tolerant to everybody. We’re all equal and we should do our best to make sure that we are equal in everything in speech, in food, in living quarters, in everything, all equal


and look after the ones that are less endowed than what we are. Neighbours to all.
Well, I understand that you arrived back in Australia and disembarked at Port Adelaide.
Port Adelaide yes.
And eventually


got back to Sydney?
Got back to Sydney, yes. I had a weeks leave then, and I married my wife and then we went straight up to Queensland after that weeks leave and it was the so call Brisbane line we were working on, it didn’t feel it was the Brisbane line, but apparently the rumour was that, it was only a rumour that Australia was going to


let the northern part of Queensland go and defend Australia from North of Brisbane, just outside Brisbane. That was the general rumour around, because as I said Japan appeared to be unstoppable, she was knocking on the door of the Islands to the north of us and it was only a matter of time when she possibly, we


thought so would invade Australia, because she was just consolidating in Japan and all her great gains of the Pacific and the East Indies and so on. A wonderful prize there she had oil, which had stopped her for a long while and of course America had stop a lot of supplies to oil a few years previously to her. So she was out for all she could get while she could. And of


course we went up to Brisbane, we didn’t know all these things at the time. I don’t think we worried over much because we were all young and our Battalion went to a place called Torval point opposite Bribie Island where we were busily engaged in making a big camp, a training camp it was to be and also making a road from Torval Point through


to not Caloundra, Caboolture I think was the name of the town there, its still there. That was quite an interesting time but of course we’d thought, bring us up here to dig, we’ve just had a weeks leave, but still we kept going because the things were serious and around us were mainly 7th Division. 9th Division had been left behind in


Palestine. And some elements of the 6th Division, most of them were headed north for the Islands and we followed a couple of months later and our Battalion was split in two, owing to transport and the ship I was on headed for Milne Bay,


the rest of the battalion headed for Moresby. Well whist we were en route to Milne Bay, we called into Bowen for coal and we waited there three days, and whilst we were there fighting broke out at Milne Bay. The Japs had landed there, we didn’t know until we got to Milne Bay and so we continued on and we went into


Sorry I can I just stop you for a minute, would you like to wipe your eye?
I’m sorry.
Not that’s all right I thought it might just annoy you.
I’m crying, I’ve got a weak gland there it doesn’t let the tear duct go down, every now and again the doctor got to clear that.
That’s better.
Can I just ask you about the fighting that broke out in Milne Bay,


did you see any of that action yourself?
Yes, well we missed the initial action, when the Japs came along there. When we got nearly there, the HMAS Arunta who had been our convoy up there, we were the only ships in it. They said, “Hooray fellows; best of luck, you’re going into Milne Bay.” We’d heard there was fighting on at Milne Bay, but we didn’t know where we were until then


and so we got into Milne Bay about 9 o’clock in the morning and we kept on to the southern shore because the fighting was on the Northern shore. Milne Bay is quite a big bay it goes in for about 20 miles. Lovely big area, no wonder the Japs wanted it, for their ships. And we pulled into a wharf up at the end of Milne Bay


a place called Gili Gili that was the name of it and we disembarked. And during the time we had been on our trip from Australia, the Aussies had taken over and pushed the Japanese back. The night before we got there, there had been a big battle across the half completed airstrip,


where they’d, Australians had retreated and they were condemned for retreating, but Brigadier Clowes he knew what he was doing, he’d formed a big defensive line there and the Japs came ahead, thinking they were walking through and they suffered their first defeat of the war there. There were 98 of them I think killed; they tried to storm across this airstrip. We


didn’t know that until we landed at Milne Bay, Gili Gili, but we heard when we were landing that they had a good victory the night before. And then we were unloaded and taken to positions along the shore where we were told to just stay put, until we found out what we were to do. And we camped there that night. Well about 11 o’clock


big search lights came over the shore and there were ships out in the bay, and next thing they started firing at us. But they were really firing at the Anshun more than the wharf. The Anshun being the name of our boat. Just 100 yards a stern was the Australian Hospital Ship, The Manunda I think it was called, they shone it all over,


they didn’t attacked that, which we thought was good. But they bombed us or shelled us for quite a while, and then the lights went out and away they went. And a few minutes later there’s some fellows come wandering into our camp, they were a rear guard we’d left on the Manunda to look after our stores, because we were going to unload it the next day. And they said they sunk us, they’ve sunk the ship and they swam


ashore so they were lucky. It killed a few fellows, but it sunk the ship at the wharf. Luckily it fell out from the wharf and left a passage through which they used to use to unload ships afterwards. But the ship was sunk and it had all our stores on and also luckily for us all our equipment for digging road. Picks and shovels


and so on. But we, next day of course we heard all this and we were then broken up, we were only a company, we were broken up into sections and sent to the various Battalions fighting the Japs. Well Japs were in retreat then because of the terrific defeat they’d the night before. There were only 2000 of them we found out, because you don’t know that


when they’re there. And they, the object of the shelling was to cover the retreat of the Japs on barges, they were taking them off, we didn’t know that of course. I went up with the 61st Militia Battalion and we were doing some patrol through the jungle looking from Japs and we


never got right up to the front line, but we never found any Japs either it was just patrolling. Which was all new to us, all this thick jungle after the desert. But that went on for a couple of days and then the fighting ceased, there because the Japs had gone or had been taken prisoner. So I never really saw any Japs in that first action. But I can say I was there. So we wandered around and we


were all assembled again as our companies, we’d been out with patrols with different battalions and they told us we had to dig roads. So that was our function in Milne Bay until Christmas time. That was September til Christmas, digging road and bridges, and making bridges and things. And that’s where I got a bit tired of digging roads and bridges. That was interesting though because


it was a funny old road that was real bog, big swamps and we’d have to cut the trees down. About 3 layers of trees and then fill in up with crushed coral or crushed rock, whatever we could find and then form a road that way. And little bridges too, you’d make a nice little bridge on a creek and next thing


it would be a swollen river and away would go the bridge, so we had to learn all those things. They were commended for the work they did in Milne Bay, it was hard work. From Milne Bay I went to Moresby, where I joined the Papuan Infantry Battalion and went back to being


mainly infantry, no engineering. But then again it was a little bit different, Infantry was mainly patrolling and sections would be allocated to the different divisions or brigades, they needed they for reconnaissance, so it was very interesting because you’d be miles ahead of people and wireless


them back if there were any Japs or no Japs or any signs of Japs and all that type of business. And places you’d find lots of Japs you’d keep clear of them but you’d let them know they were there. But it was quite interesting and I never actually engaged in any battles except individuals, ones you might find a couple of Japanese and there might be a bit of firing going on. But no


attacks or anything like that. Or nor were we ever attacked. It was just more mainly reconnaissance and letting people know what was going on. One place, Nassau Bay, after Buna fell there was a drive on the northern coast of Papua towards Sandananda, which is just near Lae. Where they were using


us a provisioning point and we had to give them information on that. Well about 14 mile I think it is, east of Salamaua is Nassau Bay and Americans had decided they’d land troops there one night so we were told to make the reconnaissance for them, it wasn’t only our


platoon, it was other reconnaissance too but we were with them making the reconnaissance around the area and we were told the Americans were landing at such and such at time and could we shine the lights to guide them in. We had two lights one for each end of the beach, where they were landing, it was not a bad little landing beach it wasn’t very slushy, they could land their barges


and walk on fairly solid ground. That’s what they were looking for. Well the hour came and it was pretty rough weather, and we shone the torches and shortly thereafter in came the barges of the yanks. It was good but when they landed they were all a medical group and so they were going to set up a medical store and we said you cant set it up here, there are all Japs all around this area. But


they said the combat troops were too rough on them and they put back, so we had these medical people with us, we didn’t put up tents or anything because that would have been a dead give away. Any rate the yanks came in the next night with a bit of opposition from a cliff we knew there was a machine gun placement, we had told them. But not my


company, but A Company PIB they put on an attack and silenced that machine gun as soon as it started up, so they were all ready for it when it did. They landed more or less without incident at Nassau Bay which gave them quite a bit of country rather than going through the bushes, they had been doing pushing the Japs back and from there they headed on to Salamaua.


Which they attacked, gee when was Lae, 1943 the attack went on in Lae, but before that happened after Salamaua fell, our company which was B Company had been sent up to what was called the Markham Valley, the valley where the Markham


River flows. And we were stationed round a gold mining town of Wau and there was an airstrip there, it was on the side of a hill, it was a pretty risky airstrip for a plane to go up and down. You’d come down and off and if he was going to land he’d keep going he go off over the cliff. But that was our headquarters and from there we did a lot of reconnaissance


down into Lae, which was about 22 miles from Wau and up the Ramu Valley, ah the Markham Valley and we were more or less confined to a place which became to Dumpu Airstrip. It was quite a good place for an airstrip and we checked all the hostile troops and so there.


Excuse me…. One day the CO went to Moresby to find out his instructions and came back said he had to fire a pistol that night, ah that next morning and there’d be a big air landing, well sure enough he fires the pistol


a little latter a reconnaissance plane flew over and away it went. Shortly after along came a big fleet of planes and all parachutes coming out of them, it was the Americans dropping parachutes, it was very good. There was some Australians dropped with them with Artillery pieces, I’m not sure which unit they were.
Can I just take you back one-step, if I may, to Port Moresby where you joined up with


the Papuan Infantry Battalion. How did you actually get physically from Port Moresby up to Buna?
We flew up. We flew up from Moresby and landed I think it was called Popendetta its an airstrip about 15 miles northwest of, no southwest of Buna, if I went northwest I’d be in the sea.


And we walked from there through, about 100 miles eventually up to Lae from Salamaua yeah from there. It was quite a walk, but you didn’t do it overnight it took us maybe weeks or maybe a couple of months. I know it took us a long while, but we were doing reconnaissance on the way too.
And can you tell me


a bit about the Papuan Infantry Battalion. Who was in it?
They were Major Watson was the commander of it. He formed it in early 1940 when the war broke out and he was opposed because the planters said we don’t want to arm the natives and teach them how to use weapons. But he was allowed to form a Company of them, which was A Company


and Major Watson himself was a coconut planter up in Rabaul. But any rate he was given command of this Papuan Infantry. And they did initial Infantry training and so on and they were composed of mainly Papuans. That’s are, you have Papuan New Guinea and British New Guinea


which they had taken from the Germans in the First World War. And he trained them, well then they were put into a quarry, working on the quarry, which the Pioneers relieved from later on. I didn’t know anything about this at the time, well then A Company they formed B Company. Then Japan was going to


then looked like coming and landing in New Guinea anytime. They’d landed in Rabaul and captured Rabaul and so Major Watson and A Company and B Company were doing reconnaissance all along the northern area of British New Guinea from Salamaua to past Buna down to Popondetta and in March


1943, there was a patrol of A company PIB on the beach, walking along and there was a boat pulled in, a airplane, a seaplane and one of the fellows got out and came ashore and they saw they were Japs and they fired on them and I heard they were the first Japs in New Guinea,


they reported back and of course it was taken seriously, and that’s when the Japs started to land in New Guinea. So A Company was with 39th Infantry Battalion they had one company of them, they were Militia and they met the Japs at their first landing. There were so many Japs they didn’t have much of a chance, Japs landed


around Buna, Gona and so on and they sort of spread and some awful atrocities they committed on people that had stayed. There were some Nuns, they weren’t nuns, they were Church of England I think, medical ladies they just raped and killed them. But that’s when the drive over the Kokoda Trail started, and the


A Company fought back with the 39th Battalion, they were hopelessly outnumbered and they fought back over the Kokoda Trail right back to the Ioribaiwa Ridge where they stopped them. But in the meantime B Company were out around the Northern west of Buna and Gona they stayed there reporting back


on reconnaissance and so on and they stayed there all through the campaign when the Japs went over the Ranges and they were there when the Aussies had chased them back into Buna. Because it’s a big country, there’s a couple of hundred miles and of course they knew the country they could scatter around. A lot of their initial officers of the PIB were ex-New Guinea planters and so on, so they knew


the country and knew the boys. When the Japanese landed at Buna they bought hundreds of natives from New Island, Solomon Island and so on for carriers for them. Well they carried so far and then they’d desert into the bush, it was a strange bush to them but they were quite used to living in the land. And when the Japanese were beaten


at Gona and Buna and embarked on their ships again, all the natives were given a job with ANGF - Australian and New Guinea Forces, a lot became carriers, a lot were given the option of joining the PIB which they did so we had a big contingent of other natives besides Papuans and that’s when I came


interested in it, when they were advertising for NCOs to go and look after them, so that’s how I became to be in the PIB.
And how did you find being in the battalion along side Papuans?
All right, but then again there’s that class distinction, they were natives and we were whites and some of the planters were very strict on that rule, you


couldn’t give them any credit for anything, you’ve got to take it all. Well that sort of got us offside with some officers, not only me but others too. As far as working with them, we worked on all right they had their separation to, they ate separate to us and everything else, because they ate native foods but when there’s only 3 or 4 of us together we all ate as a team.


I never saw any difference with eating with as a team. I know I was often chipped for talking to the natives. Well I said they’re human they’re the same as me, they’re doing they’re job. And a lot were only young boys, there were some that were only 15 years old and that, they were doing they’re job. No I never had any trouble with the natives, they all learnt to respect me and I never sort of disrespected them, they all respected me, we


all treated one another equally. And I found them very helpful, particularly learning the language, because it was very strange. Of course they found Pidgin English rather strange too because they’d been coming from villages where they only learnt, spoke their own language. And of course we found Pidgin English rather strange too. I’ve nearly forgotten all my Pidgin English now its seems funny, saying some of the


terms. But the are very descriptive, its descriptive language. Like if a fellow wanted to open a tin and he only wanted a tin opener from me and he said, “Taberda” (That’s master), Taberda they used to call us, “Me likem something you walk, walk, walk about a long tin all right, soon you ope im, he walk, walk, walk, you ope im” and I said, “Oh you show me then” and he got out a tin


opener, Oh I said a tin opener. Another time of course I call a saw, ‘pull em me come push em me go brother blong ackis brotherlongaxe’. All that sort of business, it takes a bit of getting used to, when then speak it as their just normal language, but when there’s a group of your speaking it all the time it becomes just the same as speaking ordinary English. And I know when I come home at times I used to


talk to my wife in Pidgin not thinking and she’d say, “Cut it out. Husbands speak English.” But you do get those things I suppose it’s the same in any language you sort of revert back to them.
Of your time in New Guinea, what do you think is your strongest memory?
Oh I think


getting in a canoe going down a nice river for miles and miles and looking at the beautiful scenery and that was beautiful. But that was good because the river was good and the canoe was nice and comfy, but of course it change so quickly and become a torrent and you wouldn’t want to be in a canoe then. But that was nice and I often think back there and coming down this river and running into


a bit of swamp and out into the sea, that was very nice, but there’s hundreds of little creeks and things, they’re rivers really when they get flowing, running down through the countryside like that and when your strolling around the countryside like you don’t have a map or anything you look to see the way the rivers and creeks are flowing ‘cause that gives you an idea where the coastline is. And


that’s very important, because some rivers they divert around other one and go the other way, but generally you can get a direction of the coastline and you see the sun, when its not overcast you can get a fair idea of where you are. So that’s how we used to travel like that type of business. When you’re in a strange country if you didn’t have a compass, if you look and see a creek


over there and you’d see the sun, and that’s north and you’d say now that tree over there, that’s in line with it and I’ll head for that and then I’ll take another sight, well you look at the tree that you’ve just left and you then head and you look back and say Ah. That’s you point that’s how we used to fix it. But you sort of get accustomed to that. And it’s good when you’ve got a compass but the


compass at times what with iron ore in some of the mountains there it would just spin round and round. So that’s the way you used to have to go. And against that it was often overcast for days on end and you couldn’t see ahead of you, so you’d have to watch what you were doing.
And can I ask you what did you think of the war in New Guinea?
The war? I think the Japs made


a big mistake going into New Guinea. I think it might have been better to have, of course they couldn’t have done it or they’d have landed in Queensland or Northern Territory, but post war reading I think they wouldn’t have had the material to advance a couple of thousand miles across country to the cities and so on. They’d have had to come further down Brisbane or Sydney


and attack there rather than up north where we expected them too. So I think they had that in mind when they were Island hopping but of course I don’t think the Japanese knew it would be so easy to gain so much territory as they did gain. So it’s faults on both sides. But I think they really made a mistake fiddling around with New Guinea and Solomon Islands and so on.


But against that of course, they’re good ports for our ships too. I’m no strategist.
We’re coming to the end of our session, is there anything you would like to say as a final word?
I think I’ve spoken enough. I have my own ideas but wether they’re sociable for you know this type of


interview, I don’t know if its right or not , or whether I should speak then because after all your asking my impressions of what happened during the war , not what I think or like to be. The main thing I would say is right through history wars always taught us it’s wrong it not right to try and get your views over by using a


male fist, I think you should argue with a person and get their viewpoint and argue backwards and forwards and gradually come to a decent opinion.
I feel like I’ve got so many questions I still haven’t asked you , but I know we’re coming to the end of the tape, perhaps in closing then, you could tell me, I understand you received an OAM,


Order of Australia Medal, were you proud to receive that medal?
I was very thrilled to receive it, yes I was very happy. I feel I must have been lucky to have been singled out because many people working with me, did just exactly the same job. I possibly spread my efforts over other fields, like my days in the Red Cross, Legacy,


Return Soldiers, Masons and the Church so I had quite a few avenues to work through. But I’m mainly concerned in Welfare work, because I think we should look after those worse off than what we are. Any more?
That’s a very good place to stop. Thank you.


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