I learnt then the value of books and reading. This stays with you all your life, because you’re in those formative years where you’re putting down your foundations for yourself. I also learnt how to respect seniors, because everyone there was senior to me, and therefore you showed respect to them and you got consideration back, there is no doubt about that. Generation gap or something, I have never come up against.
I regard the whole of that farming experience as a very important part of my life. I came back to Perth, I hung around for a while, my Dad meanwhile had gone up to Laverton, of all places. He had got a job as a yardman on a gold mine.
At that stage, I began to scratch my head and think, “Now, what is my Dad doing up there as a yardman on a gold mine?” Well, the fact is that the trade that he had just got too much for his physical health, plus the fact that out there, on the gold fields, he probably thought he would be in better health. There was a dairy out from Laverton, it sounds funny these when I mention it to people from the gold fields, and they say, “A dairy?”
These days, all the milk comes in cartons in freezer trucks, but in those days – This dairy was out from Laverton, and the fellow there wanted a roustabout, someone to help him. Well, I could milk the cows, I could ride a horse and my Dad suggested that I go up there and take on the job. I got there by applying at some office in Perth. I don’t know what it was, but they paid my rail fare and I had to pay them back
at five shillings a week, to get up there. The chappie that ran the dairy was an old soldier – when I say an old soldier, gosh, I was only sixteen, so he was not exactly old, but he had been in the First War. He was out on this dairy with his wife and two young children, pre-school age, and this was another thing that intrigued me, the dairy,
the gold mine and everything else was on a cattle station owned by someone else, and I could never work out how you could have all these things on someone else’s property, because in Perth, you had a quarter acre block and that was yours. But up there everyone else was swarming over this cattle station. We used to get up in the morning at three o’clock and milk these cows, we had about thirty cows I suppose, and then we would harness up the horse and put it
in the milk cart and we would go around delivering milk amongst the workers from this Lancefield Gold Mine. There were no streets anywhere near it, the fellows, mainly Yugoslavs and Italian, put up timber-framed hessian shacks, white-washed them, that was their place. You had to go from one to the other and wind your way down through the scrub to get to these places to deliver the milk.
And this was rather intriguing because I thought, “Now this is going to be a real problem. They’ve all got foreign names and it’s going to be a bit awkward for me to remember all this,” so I started to recite it off the way I learnt poetry. I got a fellow’s name and between him and the next one I would repeat it, and I got the next one’s name. At the end of the week, I said to the boss, “I think I can handle this on my own now.”
He said, “Get out.” He said, “It’s going to take you weeks to learn all these names.” I said, “Well, listen to this,” and I recited all the names and the quantities off to him, and he said, “Cripes, you’ll do me.” He said, “Righto, on your way.” So here I was at sixteen on a milk cart and a horse delivering milk around to all these places. And when I got back the boss said, “Ah ha, but how did you know where they were?” I said, “That was easy.” Smack the horse on the rump and tell him to get up and he would stop outside their place and I would just go in and get a billy can,
I only hoped that was the right place. From there, we used to go into Laverton and deliver around Laverton itself, where there were streets. Then you would make your way back to the dairy. When I pulled up there the boss said, “Did you have any trouble?” “No, no trouble – Oh, just one spot.” I said, “As we were coming out of town, we came to the pub and the horse swung up against the hotel wall and I couldn’t move him. He just wouldn’t move.” And the boss said,
“Well, keep that quiet.” He said, “Next time just get off the cart and walk around the building and get back in and he’ll be right.” Apparently the boss used to pull in there and have half a dozen beers before he came back from the dairy, and he didn’t want his wife to know about it. This I did and we had no trouble from there onwards.
The little hut I had was a bush one, that’s all, it was just a piece of hessian wrapped around some ginwood gum post stuck in the ground and white-washed over, it had a galvanised iron roof and a little bit of a bow lean-to out the back and a washbasin and a stand, the old kerosene tin wooden case there – and I felt on top of the world. I was on my own, I was doing well. Meanwhile –
The boss’s wife was putting on a bit of a show, because her kids are growing up and she didn’t want them growing up in the bush country around the outskirts of Laverton and beyond, she wanted to move down to Kalgoorlie. She goes down to Kalgoorlie on a holiday with the two children, and when I came in from the milk run, one of the boss’s mates had come in. Now he was one of these lean, muscled, sinewed characters that roams
around out the gold fields. His job was as a tank builder. And between the two of them, during the course of the next week, they cut down the boss’s overland tourer which is the standard thing, like that Dodge with the canvas top and wooden wheels, and made a utility out of it. This intrigued me a bit, why they had to do that, but they did this. The boss’s wife came back from Kalgoorlie and about a week after that
I came back from the milk run and all the family furniture, such as they had, was stacked on this utility, and I said, “What’s going on?” The boss said, “We’re going to do a moonlight flit to Kalgoorlie. When it gets dark tonight we’re going off to Kalgoorlie. I could get a job in the mines or something there.” The owner of the dairy lived in Laverton, so he said “When you get to his place tell him
that we’ve gone and work it out from there.” I thought, “All right, I can’t do much about this.” So anyway, off he goes about eight o’clock that night. The next morning I do the milk round, and I pull into the station owner’s house, and he comes out and says, “I suppose you’re going to tell me your boss has done a moonlight flit?” I thought, “How the hell did he know that? They only went last night.” I had to run this dairy for a fortnight all on my own.
I was sixteen and had about thirty cows to milk and two horses. I had to do all the milking, load it in the cart, and do all the deliveries around the area, and then clean the place up when I got back, until one of his sons came in from an out-station and took over the dairy. Well then, I was out of work again. Fortunately, I got a job as a dishwasher and a spud peeler at the mines boarding house.
I was there for six months, and that again was quite an intriguing job.
What does a timekeeper do?
Well, you’ve got a squad of men, maybe thirty men, and some men might not be there that day, and not only that, they’d be on different jobs, and that particular job, the head office wanted to know how much it cost to do that job, which was a section of the overall picture, so you had to keep control of your job numbers, where men were working, who was there, who wasn’t there, and generally just keep the figures right for that particular area.
This you passed onto the accountants in the head office and they worked on it from there, the accountants and the architectural draftsmen. Things went up and down, this gets now back to 1939. It is interesting to note that during the construction of Pearce Aerodrome, they had to shut the job down because it was all under water. We had a very wet winter.
We couldn’t do any work. There was no planes could land – Mind you, they never had anything. They had three or four Avro Ansons, a Hawker Demon and some Avro trainers. Other than that, there was nothing on the aerodrome at all, which was our frontline, of course. When the war broke out, in September, 1939, there was a Vickers Walrus climbing down out
of the sky and landed there, and we thought that was an appropriate sort of a thing. It was a sea plane. “The way this aerodrome is at the moment, that’s about all you can put on it.” The job shut down, I was out of work. During all this period, I had joined the Cameron Highlanders of Western Australia. I was one of the original members of the Cameron Highlanders of Western Australia.
that was our quarters. Each company had its particular tent line, and it got down to platoons within the company. Our horse lines were well away from the main body of the men, for several reasons. One is they reckoned that transport drivers and horses breed flies and they didn’t want us too close to the rest of the troop. When they went on activities, which sometimes meant they had to go from one
spot to the other on the island, they might camp out for a couple of days, we had to transport their gear, see that it was there, plus the fact that if they went on patrol we would have to be with them with our horses, with our limbers and the guns. This part, you all took part in the military activities, generally. Meal times? We all had our cook house, we had the usual tent-like mess huts.
We were fed fairly well, there was no problems there. Generally, it was just like a great big wonderful time with men and horses and activity. There is no other way, really to describe it. It did have its influence in as much that the officer commanding the Cameron Highlanders was a Lieutenant Colonel Louch. And his 2IC [Second in Command] was a Major Sandover.
Well, when the war broke out, the lieutenant colonel was made the commanding officer of the 2/11th Battalion, promoted to the rank of colonel. Major Sandover also enlisted with him. There was a big mob came out of the Cameron Highlanders that went with them. So yes, I went with them, for several reasons. I felt it was the right thing to do. My Dad and all his mates had been soldiers
for the Empire, and the Empire was threatened, and worse than that, the Motherland was in trouble and you just had to be there to do the right thing. This is how we had been educated and taught in those days, that Australia was subordinate to England in all our thinking. It took me a long while to wake up to all of this, but I’m a very staunch Australian character now.
We joined the AIF and we were sent to – we were in northern for a few days, we were sent across to the eastern states to be with the rest of the AIF over there for training purposes. Came back to the west for a brief period of a few weeks, plus a bit of leave, and then we were all crowded aboard a troop ship called the Vasser.
the Bitter Lakes where we anchored for a day. I think we all went overboard there and had a good swim. We finished up at El Kantara which was a base in the First War, a big base, and there we were fed well, we had a good meal there, and then, to use the army phraseology, we entrained and we went up into Palestine. Our particular battalion was camped at a spot called
Kilo 89, which is about seven or eight out from Gaza, north of Gaza. The tents were all set up, there were buildings there, cookhouse, mess hut, store room, quartermasters stores, headquarters building and so on, they were already there. Apparently those little set ups were right along Palestine and we occupied the lot. When I say we, the 6th Division.
We occupied the whole lot, and our particular camp was down at Kilo 89. Occasionally, when we got leave, we would go into Gaza, which was a little town, quite a peaceful place. It was quite a comfortable little place. It sounds silly now in 2004 when you read about it, but it was a comfortable little place. There was a bit of humour there, too, because the Arabs apparently objected to the British occupation
of their country, and there was fear that if we took – we couldn’t go in unarmed because we might be attacked. Now, if we took a rifle with us and we were attacked, they would be armed with our rifle, therefore you would have to leave the bolt in camp, which meant that you were walking around with a rifle slung over your shoulder, on leave this is, by the way, with no bolt in it. Of course, you were a great joke amongst the Arabs, they could see that.
That was one of the bits of red tape that went on, which was quite humorous. Another one, again the Arabs were very clever burglars. The rifles were all chained up either to the tent posts or in the tents, in the night, or during the day I think they were up the quartermaster’s store. We were on guard duty around the camp,
we were armed with pick handles, because there was a danger that if you were an individual guard you could be overpowered and they could take your weapon and therefore you were armed with a pick handle. This is the way things were at that particular time. We treated the Arabs as levels, well shook the Arabs a bit, too, because they’d never had this sort of treatment, and when we used to sit down and have a yarn with them they could hardly appreciate a lot of this, because they had always been belted, bashed and pushed aside
by British occupying forces. We got on quite well with them, in the towns, wherever we went, we never had any trouble with the Arabs. Of course, you get into the big cities like Cairo, Alexandria, the blokes would get drunk, they’d flake out and the street marauders would go through their pockets and all that sort of thing. This would happen, yes, but the average desert character, we got on well with them.
and then they’re backed up and so on, but in reverse theoretically you’ve got the enemy coming at you, they must be overpowering you and or you wouldn’t be retreating. You have someone make a stand and someone comes back through their lines, that front line then does whatever damage it can and retreats, and that leaves the line behind them. It’s complicated because everything is going back, your transport, everything, all your supply lines, it’s all retreating. Whereas when you’re
going forward, you’re going forward, “She’s right, mate,” one is leap-frogging the other going forwards. There is a difference. A much more complicated thing is withdrawing, especially if you’re in the face of the enemy. Of course, when we got up into Greece it all paid off. The other exercises would be night exercises – I’ll just go back a little. Meals would be brought up in the vehicles.
When you’re training in desert warfare, okay, twenty miles is a good sort of a hike if you’re training, but it’s not very far in a vehicle, so when I say we got a hot meal at the end of the day, at twenty miles the vehicles might have to come up and bring up your meal, which is not a great thing for a vehicle to do, but quite a lot to do when you’re practicing desert warfare. Also night manoeuvres were another thing, because you would have to go on your compass bearing. When I say, ‘you,’
mainly the officers in charge of the companies would be on compass bearings to take up different positions, and you had to keep your men together, it’s pitch black, there’s no street lights, you’re out in the desert, it’s dark, and you have to be in control and it’s good training in that aspect that it teaches you how to control men and it teaches men how to keep in contact with each other and carry out the tasks, whatever they were,
which has been allocated to him. Desert warfare is entirely different. It’s just like ships on the ocean, you’ve got space to manoeuvre, you’ve got areas to cover, it’s not as though you were dug in, so it is an entirely different type of warfare, I think.
and telephone exchange. We never had radios, they were something that we had heard of, but we never come across them. The Rifle companies, they were equipped with their Bren guns and support equipment. We did have a Vickers gun platoon within the battalion, and not every company had Vickers guns, but there was a platoon within the battalion
which had Vickers guns. I think the theory is, then, if a company needed the services of a Vickers gun, okay, there it was. You would have several Vickers guns, they would be spread around the battalion, because the Vickers gun is a hell of a deadly machine when it gets moving, and it gets firing. so you wouldn’t have three or four of them to a company, regularly, but you might need them spasmodically, which is a good thing.
We were still short of signalling equipment, rather cable, that had to be rolled up every time when we went on an exercise, which was a problem, it meant extra effort. We might have used a Lucas lamp at night now and then, but it was all too slow. You see, again, desert warfare you are moving, you don’t have time to sit down and read Morse code from a lamp, theoretically anyway.
So you have got to have your telephone, the company commander can pick up the phone and talk to the colonel and there it is. Well, in the old days you’d write out a message, give it to the signaller, he would send it on the Lucas lamp, he would write it down and give it to someone, the runner – in the desert you have got to move quick. It took the whole British Army two years damn near to wake up to all this and get it functioning that way.
Was there a shortage of cable?
Yes, I would say there was, there was a shortage of every damn thing. You have got to remember that ever since the 1914/18 War we had been disarming, and everything was cut down, there was no need for any defence work, and suddenly it all happens, and we have got to organise a division of men. This is my theory, they got everything they could out of the ordnance stores and handed it around,
and cable was not in abundance, there was a quantity for every battalion, but it was not a big deal, mind you. I may have made it sound as though it was a big deal, but it is just one of those things we had to go through. Sometimes some of our manoeuvres were quite – well, they had their funny points. I can recollect clearly getting back to Australia, we were learning how to use a party line, and on a party line there could be
about five of you on the one length of cable. For example, your battalion’s dug in the frontline as per the 1914–18 War. We got out at night and this sergeant of ours would say, “Now, you put down a pin here, you run the cable out and you put a T in there, two men put a T in there. And then you go further on, they take the cable on, and two men put a T in there.” This was going on and he was standing back at the first one.
Well, the first telephone would be teed in and back would come a very crude message as to what you can do, you see. “Who said that?” The next one would go down and they would get the same message, “Get stuffed!” And after about four times the sergeant said, “I will have you all put on a charge!” And he would go racing up this cable. Well, the last fellow had sent down the Morse code message GB, which was ‘reel down and close in,’ which he had no authority to do, and the sergeant’s going out roaring, and it’s all coming back in again,
well, you can imagine that sort of thing happening amongst a bunch of recruits and beginners. But we got over that attitude, we realised that war could be serious at some stage.
We moved up at night, and we had a corporal who had also been in the First War, how much of it, I don’t know, it must have been the latter end. Anyway, we had to dig in, we were told to dig in, so we dug slit trenches and we dug in, we laid out cables to the forward companies, and the corporal came crawling over to my slit trench, this is after we had dug in,
“Now in the morning there is going to be the biggest artillery barrage in history.” He said, “I’ve seen some in my day, and I want to see this one. You wake me up at five to four, will you?” “OK, Lou. So at five to four I crawl across and wake him up, “Lou, it’s five to four, mate.” “Righto.” So we both crawled back to my slit trench where the telephone exchange was, this was at battalion headquarters. At four o’clock this barrage opens up.
Well, we’re sitting there, looking to the front, or rather sitting there and looking to the rear, I should say, because that’s where the artillery is, always behind the infantry. But we can’t see a thing, we can hear it, we can feel the ground shaking, can’t see anything. We turned around and looked the other way and there was the artillery about fifteen mile ahead of us, and we were the reserve battalion and the reserve brigade, and we were about fifteen mile behind the artillery lines, and we had been crawling around and whispering to each other all night.
And Lou said, “Bloody hell, here we are crawling around in the dark, whispering.” We were told to move forward, and I picked up all my gear, and I will never forget the advance at the Battle of Bardia. I had a telephone, telephone exchange, I had two few flags, I had tripod with a Lucas lamp, I had another tripod with a heliograph.
I was just a mass of signalling gear with two feet underneath and a tin hat on top, and they could have hit me with a anti-tank gun and it wouldn’t have hurt me, it would have bounced off. So we go forward and get through the barbed wire and the battle is just about all over by then, because our other battalions within the division had penetrated the wire and spread out and overtaken the place. We did get into a bit of action the next day, but it was nothing really serious.
and then further back you have your advanced dressing station, and they usually rush you back to wherever, there’s usually a hospital from there, that’s when things are going well. We laid where we were until it got dark, and then we moved back and climbed back up the escarpment, and then it started to rain. We were parked up against a brick wall, back up near where the fort was now.
One of the characters from the signal platoon comes wondering out there laying cable. He said, “I thought you’d be out this way somewhere.” Well, this joker had been a bushman up on the cattle stations, and he had that uncanny instinct that those type of blokes had, he just wandered out with a bit of cable, “I’ll find them.” He came right to us. So we got back to battalion headquarters and I got my company commander then, having a yarn with the colonel.
Then we had to move up a bit further, which meant disconnecting the cable and get moving up to near the road, where this wall joined the road. I thought this character had come along the road and come down the wall, but he hadn’t. He just walked straight across this way. Well, when I got up there, of course, there’s no telephone cable. Well, my mate and I spent the next hour and a half looking around out there for this cable. And in the meanwhile the Italians are tossing
a shell over, occasionally, just to keep us quiet. That was a very miserable night, it was raining like hell, all the time. The area where we were searching for this cable was mud, and of course, an artillery would come over now and again, and you would dive into the mud. It became quite a nasty night.
We eventually found this cable and got connected up.
it didn’t mean a thing. A fellow would be looking out, he would bang on the truck, “Right! Here they are! Out!” You’d get out and spread over the country as far as you could and flatten yourself and just hope that you were going to survive this one. Stukas would usually, if they were a bridge for example, they would form a circle around the bridge, fly around and circle above it, and then the front one, or the leader, would just dive, drop his bombs and up again.
By the time that bomb had gone off, the next one is on his way down. And they kept up such a continuous form of attack that it was damn hard to get up and have a go at them. As far as a convoy went, well they would go along the road dropping bombs, endeavouring to wreck trucks, and then they’d come back and machine gun beside the roadway, looking for troops and so on. But each one of their bombs had a whistle attachment
to the fins, which reached a horrendous crescendo as that bomb came down, and the sound would blanket out that whole area so you really didn’t know where a bomb was going to go. They also had similar whistles on the aircraft themselves, which increased as they dived, this was a nerve-wracking experience, plus the fact, again, that we knew we were on our own, we weren’t going to get no help from no air force whatsoever.
And gradually we worked our way back down through Greece. And at Brallos Pass, we had to make a stand, that was our task there, to hold the Germans up until about 9pm at night, and we lost a few men there. We also had lost a signaler attached to one of the forward companies. It was on a forward slope,
and there was a line coming from battalion headquarters down to two companies on a T junction, and they lost contact with battalion headquarters during the mortar fire, which was rather heavy. So the signaller went out and repaired the cable under heavy fire and dashed back, and the damned line was dead again. So out he goes again. He was a chap named Ray Kennedy, he repaired the line as he told me later,
not according to the manual, dated 1918, but he tied her up and dashed back to his slit trench, and that established communications again, and they managed to form a line of defence between the two companies. They did their job, they held the enemy off, which was exhausted as much as we were. Under the cover of – near the end of the twilight,
they started to retreat, the Germans staged a big attack. Tearing up the slope one of the boys jumped over a little hillock and hid there, and his mate joined him. When they stood up to go again, his offsider was hit with a burst of machine gun fire and he was badly wounded. He couldn’t pick him up, he was about 6’2” tall, and he was under danger of being captured himself. He just had to leave him.
We found out later that this particular signalmen Dan Smith had been picked up by the Germans and taken to a hospital in Athens, after it was all over, and he eventually died there. Ray got the military medal for his activity in that particular battle.
and as soon as it was daylight over come the bombers and we were bombed for eight hours all the way across to Crete. It was quite an experience there, in as much as we were told to keep below decks, but the boys had a guts full of this and they got the Brens guns out and strapped the tripods to the railing of the boat and mounted their Bren guns. We had the ship ringed with Bren guns and we brought down quite a few planes purely with Bren gun fire.
We got a message from the navy saying, “Well done,” which is a marvellous thing from the navy, because they don’t waste words. That is what we did, we fought all the way across. And even when we got out of the ships in the harbour there at Souda Bay – there was another big air raid then, we scattered like hell.
And that was another funny thing. Souda Bay is not like it is now, there was quite a bit of scrub around, too. And after it’s all over there’s the company commander looking for his mob, and he’s singing out, “Sergeant Major Curtis!” I will never forget that. “Sergeant Major Curtis!” And over one side of the hill you hear, “Sir!” And over this side you a voice say, “Come and get your Freddo Frog!” Anyway, the boys all got together, we moved up
through to Georgiopolis, and finished up taking a position at Retimo, or the other side of Retimo, up in the olives there overlooking the airstrip. General Freiberg came around and addressed the troops, he told us exactly what was going to happen. “You’re going to be attacked by paratroopers. Be prepared.” And all this sort of thing. The campaign was, at the far end of the island, down at Khania was the main airport,
such as it was, everything was very basic then, mind you. We had an airstrip at Retimo, roughly halfway along the island. The German idea was that they were going to attack the main aerodrome and drop troops at this airstrip where we were and attack from the rear. We had our battalion, the 2/8th Battalion, on the right flank and we had a Greek regiment in the middle, and we had dug in
the olive groves overlooking this airstrip, the area between our olive groves and hillocks overlooking this airstrip. There was a flat area between our olive groves on the – the hillocks, I suppose would be the best way to – they weren’t big hills, overlooking the airstrip which was on a stretch of flat country going from the base of the hillocks down to the ocean. We laid there quietly for a week or so, or the best part of a month, I think. Things got very tough then, we had very little gear, clothing was bad,
everyone was cold, food was terrible, you scrounged around. I know at one stage there, as part of our meal, we got two pineapple cubes per man, which was not exactly a lavish meal, plus your potatoes and so on. We had a four gallon tin that the cook did all the cooking in. At this stage, we had coalesced
into a little group, we had our own cook, as a platoon we had our own cook, we got them and he cooked them. We had a four gallon kerosene tin which was standard, and we used to throw our ration of bully beef in, and whatever we could scrounge, and cook it all up in there, and that would be the meal. We were dug in under olive trees overlooking the airstrip. We had a Bren gun. My offsider, he was very keen on this Bren gun,
he was a good Bren gunner, too, by the way. The paratroopers came in about half past four in the afternoon. They came out, you could see them coming, these big troop carriers, I wouldn’t say how many – about twenty five at a time in a sort of a squadron. They were up the coast to our left and then turned around and came back and started to drop these paratroopers over the airstrip area,
and it was quite a nasty battle there. The 2/8th Battalion on our right got stuck into them first, firing into the planes as they were approaching, then as paratroopers were coming down, well of course, there was quite a lot of cleaning up there from where we were. At one stage, the 2/8th fire forced a group of these troop carriers up a little high, their chappies jumped out
and the next lot flew through them. And it finished up going back to sea with paratroops hanging on wing tips and tail planes, and it was rather grim there. To the best of my knowledge, they dropped about two thousand paratroopers there then, about half past four in the afternoon, and by nine o’clock that night there was about five hundred of them left in a village
where we couldn’t get to during the course of the day. They dug in and fortified this village and we lost about twenty eight men trying to get there during the course of the next week. Again, because firstly we had bugger all equipment and we had absolutely no air force. We were dive bombed, strafed, machine gunned. As soon as you started to move towards this village you were machine gunned, because they had planes over all the time.
They had contact with their aeroplanes, too, which didn’t help much. We attacked them for a week, we, the battalion did. Eventually the Germans overwhelmed the fellows down at the far end of island, around Khania, again that is best referred to from history books than my words.
But the fellows in the village were reinforced then with motor cycle platoons, plus I understand a bit of artillery and tanks, and the island capitulated. We weren’t overrun, our position, we were just told the island has capitulated, it’s every man for itself. This, of course, has disgusted me ever since then, because
in the Prisoner of War Association we’ve got – well, we had hundreds of fellows from Singapore who were captured because the island capitulated. We were captured, five hundred more men from our battalion because the island capitulated. You weren’t taken in battle, you weren’t overwhelmed, the island has capitulated. Dear old Mother England decided, “Oh, can’t do any more there, so – ” So there it was.
We had some advantage in as much that they were not really aware of how many there were in the foothills, and as soon as they started to come in, well, the game was on. There were some men, I understand, who were actually down in the ocean having a swim when the paratroopers came over, and they grabbed their rifles and they were fighting right then and there before they were killed. We lost a lot of men, of course. But that was the situation. We had the top hand while they were trying to land and regroup.
Once they had landed, we had the whole advantage there, because from their point of view, I know now, that they lost a lot of men in the planes, who were shot by our blokes, they had to throw them out to get out themselves, and then once they had landed they had to regroup. We damaged a lot of planes, of course.
I know Jesse Varvell, my offsider, with his Bren gun, he took a few chunks off the engine of a troop carrier. I got into trouble, we had a boys anti-tank rifle which fired a .5 inch armour-piercing shell, it was just like a big rifle with a stand on the front of it, it must have been nearly six foot long, I don’t know, it was a big thing. I hooked this up into a tree
and took a sight on a plane and pulled the trigger. The boys cheered, but I don’t know whether I hit anything, because I finished up flat on my back about six foot away from the recoil of this rifle. Plus the fact that I had the platoon commander going crook up at me then because I had used up half of the platoons anti tank ammunition by firing one lousy shot. This is the conditions we were working under. There was that problem there. And I know after the paratroopers had landed,
I think it was the next day, things in front of us had simmered down, but there was still this battle on there. But there must have been other paratroopers around because I was standing up out of a slit trench, there was three of us standing there, and there was just a hissing noise, it wasn’t like the crackle of a rifle fire or machine gun, I think they were spent bullets. But anyway, the corporal unfortunately copped the lot.
He dropped to the ground screaming like hell, holding his guts, and we flew into slit trenches. And then the officer, Lieutenant Miller said to me, “Cover me, I’ll go out and get him.” So he crawled out there and dragged Thommo, on his back, into this slit trench, and Ray Kennedy, the chappie I mentioned earlier, he raced off to get the medical officer who
gave him a shot of morphine, which quietened him down, then they took him away. Well, he died about two days later for several reasons. The 2/7th Field Ambulance had an advanced dressing station under some olive trees out in the bloody open, they had nothing, and they had wounded men lined up there, Germans and our blokes, all laying around there, they had no gear, they couldn’t operate, they couldn’t do a damn thing.
And of course with Tom, I guess, he just died of gangrene. That’s just my interpretation, which could be wrong, but there he was, shot to hell in the stomach, and they couldn’t do a thing for him.
Where my mate and I were, we were inside a great big olive tree, and there was exploding bullets all around us, and the company commander that we were attached to, said, “Get back! Pull back to battalion headquarters,” which we did do. And there one of the officers, he said, “The island has capitulated. It’s every man for himself.” He said, “I’m going up over the mountains.” Well, behind where we were, if you know Crete at all,
there’s a razorback of mountains right down the centre of it, so we took off over the mountains. We were guided over there by an old Greek civilian who showed us all the goat tracks, and we finished up on a beach on the other side of the island. There would be about six hundred of us there, I suppose, eventually. We hung out there for a week, trusting that the navy was going to pick us up, they always got us out of strife, the navy.
You could rely on them, but it wasn’t on this time. Eventually a German officer, with an interpreter, strolled into the place. He said, “Well, we’ve got mortars up there, we’ve got machine guns up there.” He said, “And we’ve got some more trench mortars up there. Now, if you blokes want to fight you can have it, but if you want to give in, the island has capitulated. We will be back in two hours and await your decision.” There wasn’t much you could do, you were surrounded by enemy
who were heavily armed. Eventually he came back with a whole stack of guards, we were lined up, counted, marched off. It was as simple as that.
and wire mesh fences, machine gun posts everywhere. It must have covered fifteen or twenty acres, it could have been more than that, but these enclosures were much smaller. Usually there was a barrack with the enclosure around it, which meant that they could put anyone in the barrack, they were separate. For example, they had Russians on one side of the camp, but we were on the other side.
The camp administration, this is not the German administration, they got the NCOs, and so on, to act as administrators within the camp, and the next day we were taken to a barracks, like an office barrack. The French chaps there, they had hundreds of Frenchmen around of course, they registered us, we were then recorded with the International Red Cross.
We were then taken into big shower rooms, as big as our house, we were stripped and showered. Oh, first all our hair was cut off, which was a good thing, because when we showered we realised we had filth a quarter of an inch thick all over your skull, you had to scrape that all off. I remember standing there laughing at each other, how skinny we were, because all your bones and knees and everything were so obvious.
We had a good hot shower and then we were issued with clean uniforms, but these uniforms were parts of uniforms of every nation that Germany had conquered. They had been cleaned, they had been deloused and cleaned, but I know I had a pair of wooden clogs, I had a pair of Polish pants and I had a French jacket, and some other type of head gear. You looked like characters out of a comedy, but at least we were clean and we were feeling a lot better, even the first day.
Then, I think, within a day after we got a Red Cross parcel between four men, and we started to pick up from that moment onwards.
We had a little blacksmith, we had an electrical fitter, and we just fiddled away the day, mainly making keys and things to escape out of the prison camp. There was others in a machine shop where they had a couple of lathes, but none of us did very much. But a group of the boys were in the yard, put it that way. There was piles of blue metal
and such like, and stuff to be mixed to make tar. Their job was handling all this. They had quite an interesting job, mixing stuff, or carting it on four wheel electrical driven trolleys, something like front end loaders and so on. It was quite an interesting little setup there. One chap was the gardener for the director, he was growing vegetables for the director. But the people of Munich are remarkable people,
they’re the finest people I met in all my life, actually. They really took to us. The day that we were taken to this place, the Germans just looked at us, and we thought, “Yeah, we’re bloody British, you’re German, all right.” But the next day they came in and they brought in food off their ration cards, because they never realised men could look so bloody awful. We thought it was hostility, but it wasn’t, it was just shock. We grew quite well. And of course,
as we got our Red Cross parcels on a regular basis, which was one parcel a fortnight, well you would muck in with someone else so the two of you would have a parcel between you every week. We would whack out a few things to these Germans and we become quite matey, actually. But there was rackets developed, of course. Tea for example. We used to get two ounces of tea – let me start again. We had one group working in a rubbish tip,
and they just about refurbished the camp with pots and pans and so on. We had a teapot, similar to a teapot, a beautiful thing, with seraphims on it and carvings. So you get your two ounces of tea in your Red Cross parcel, it’s stuck over with a little label on the end. You steam the label off and you tip the tea into a jar and you put the container packet in another jar, then you make tea with that.
You don’t throw the tea leaves out, you leave it there until the pot gets nearly full, then you dry it out in a dish and put it back in the packet and stick it down and then you sell that for a kilo of sugar, you see. And this is the sort of racket that went on. That’s just one of them.
They didn’t get smart that the tea was pretty weak?
There was that much of it done that we suspect that it was going off to somewhere else, probably the hierarchy. And anyone who did complain, we said, “Oh England, kaput.” “Ja, ja, ja.” They were quite happy with that. That was one of the lurks. I had a job. I had a row with the chappie in the fitting shop where I was, and I got a job on one of the wagons.
When they had mixed the tar to a consistency where it could be put on the road, they had to get out to the roads. Now they had a type of vehicle, four wheeled trailer, it had a firebox underneath, and from the wheels was driven a chain driver which drove a paddle inside that kept the tar moving, and they had a fire box underneath. They had two of those behind a tractor. And someone had to be on one of these, according to the law, in case it broke away and they had to stop it with the brake.
And me and my mate used to get on these, early in the morning, and we would go all around Munich, have a wonderful time around Munich, with the gangs who were working on the roads. We wouldn’t see our guard until it was time to go home at the end of the day. There was quite a few funny acts there. For example, we weren’t allowed to have German money, that wasn’t legal. There was one group, from another camp, working on a strip of roadway,
they had been there about a month, and we came from our depot to deliver this bitumen for them. And there was an underground toilet just nearby which they had to make use of. Now in this underground toilet, there was a delightful old frau, who used to charge five pence to use the toilet. But we didn’t have any money, so we had to sign a book to prove it was being used and make her job worthwhile.
And once when we went out there, I went down into this toilet and over to this book with this dear old frau, and she finished up shaking her finger under my nose. “And nichsmeer Winston Churchill or the Ned Kelly,” she said. And there was page after page of Winston Churchill and Ned Kelly written in her book, and she had taken the time to – there was this other episode that I was telling you about, or glossed over earlier.
The offsider, he worked out where the house of ill fame was, he must have had an instinct for this sort of thing, I don’t know. And we bribed the tractor driver to have a breakdown outside this place. Now it was wintertime in Munich, and snow every-damn-where. And we were dressed in long johns and thick singlet – I forget to mention. In due course we were completely re-equipped with English uniform and the clothing.
We had warm winter clothing, we had a battle dress, we had thick woollen socks, we had English army boots, even had overcoats. So from that point of view, we did all right. Anyway, when we were out on the wagon we had blue overalls on, as well, over our battle dress. So we bribed this tractor driver, he breaks down simply by turning the gas bottles off. He climbs under his tractor with a spanner and bangs away, gives us the nod.
Well, we get out of our wagons and see two big doors. And there’s was a big lounge room. And just inside the door was a counter, I suppose there was a till there in the early days, I don’t know. And over the far side, there is half a dozen blokes from the German army Afrika Korps talking to half a dozen of the women. I said to my mate, “Let’s get out of here. I thought they would all be in the front line.” “No,” he said, “hang in.”
So we stood by this counter, near the door, to get out in a hurry, and two of these blokes come over and they looked us up and down. We had been in Munich about eighteen months now and we could speak the language a bit. They looked us up and down. “You’re not German?” “No, we’re not German.” “And you’re not Dutch?” “No.” “Well, what are you?” Now that starts a fight in any brothel, I can tell you. “We’re bloody Australians.” “Oh, Australians!”
And here they are – “Now, have you been in Tobruk?” “We took Tobruk, mate. We took Tobruk from the Italians.” “Oh, the Italians.” So here’s one, he puts his finger in his mouth and he draws the outline of Tobruk defences. He says, “We were there. Where were you?” And I said, “We weren’t dug in there. We took Tobruk from the Italians.” “Oh, the Italians.” And then we started discussing the virtue of the Italian soldier, as a mate.
It’s hard, but here we were, there’s the Germans and us blokes discussing this in a German house of ill fame. Finally he says, “You want women?” “Well, that’s what we come in for, more or less, mate.” He said, “A blonde or brunette?” Well, my mate laughed. This German said, “What’s funny?” He said, “Jesus mate, we haven’t seen a women for two years. We don’t give a damn what colour they are.”
They put their thumb up for one, and that’s two. Two of these girls come over – I won’t go into all the details. Later on coming down the stairs, these two blokes over there, “Good?” “Yes, thank you.” My mate said, “Well, what did you give her?” I said, “I gave her tea, ounces of tea, and got five marks change.” He said, “Yeah, so did I.” So we got back in our little wagons and off we go. But that was Munich for you.
in fact, there were several Germans there said to me, “What the hell are we fighting each other for? You and I are getting along all right. We’re not scrapping. We’re working in harmony with each other.” But what can you say? You can’t say, “Look, mate. There’s this bastard Hitler,” because they weren’t allowed to say that themselves. People don’t realise the power that that man had, because no one could argue with him, he was a dictator, his word was law, and if you went against it, he had the blokes that would back him,
and they’d just destroy you. So you had to bow to it all the way. Again, as I said to you earlier, I couldn’t very well say to him, “There’s this Treaty of Versailles, mate,” and carry on from there. There was another incident in Munich – I’m telling you all the humorous things because Munich was a good place to be. It didn’t last forever. But gradually over
a period, I got to establish contact with a German girl, who was a charming girl, and in due course we were going to be moved across to Poland to work in the coal mines. The chap who used to go down to our camp at lunch time, to get a billy can of soup for our lunch, he said, “They’re packing up, they’re moving. Everyone’s leaving.”
I said, “Oh, bulldust.” He said, “No, they’re all going. We’re going tomorrow.” Cripes, I thought, “How am I going to tell this girl?” I knew where she lived, it was just in a block of flats in the top left hand corner, sewing like hell. So I shot through. I scrambled over the fence and hid in a forest nearby a bowling green, of a forest, they had indoor bowling, and waited until everyone had gone.
Of course there was a lot of fun and games amongst the boys in the counting, moving around, trying to confuse the guards, but eventually it was realised that I had escaped and this was bad business. They were marched back to the camp, I saw them go through the forest. I stood then on the corner where I knew this lass came home, and it was snowing like hell, and there was this little old lady looking at me through the window. I thought, “I can’t stand here all day. I must have missed her, I’ll go and knock on the door.’
One of our chaps had been planning an escape, but of course this move frustrated that, so he leant me his Tyrolean hat to wear a disguise this afternoon around the town, while I was trying to find this lass. So I go and knock on the door when I worked out where she lived, and her mother opened the door, a short dumpy woman, and I asked her if Ellen was home.
Well, Ellen suddenly appears, “Oh, it’s my Australian! Come on in!” She puts her arms around me and Mum puts her arms around me and they take me into the kitchen, sit me down, open up a bottle, a small bottle of beer, and here I am yapping away with these two women. And after awhile there is a sound at the front door, and her Mum flies out of the kitchen. I said to Ellen, “Who is this?” “Oh, that’s Dad.” “Oh cripes, I thought he would be up the Russian front.” In comes Dad, a big bloke and shakes me hand. “Oh, sit down. This war is bloody awful.”
Here I am with this family until about nine o’clock at night, I had a meal with them, we’re yarning over every damn thing. Well, I’ve got to go back to camp anyway. I bid them all farewell, and Mum hands me back my little Tyrolean hat. And I tramp back to the camp. And inside the camp there’s all the guards going around and around the camp shining all these torches on the shuttered up windows and all the doors. The German guard barracks
were inside the compound, inside the barbed wire. I couldn’t get in the place, I didn’t know what to do. So I finished up shaking the gate, and the German sergeant major came out and said, “Yes?” I had blue overalls on and the Tyrolean hat. I said, “I’m one of the prisoners of war, I’m just coming home. Can I get bed and breakfast in there?” And he opens the gate and bows and says, “Welcome home. Into the guard house.”
Well, they take me into the guard house, into the commandant’s office, and our British interpreter is there, too. “You’re back?” “Yes, I’m back.” “Name and number?” I give them my name and number and he opens a drawer and I think, ‘Oh this is it, rubber truncheons. He drags out a bit of paper and scrapes it off. “Right. Take him away.” So on the way back I said to our English chap, “What’s going to happen to me, do you reckon?” “Oh nothing.” I said, “Come on, there is bound to be some reprisal for this.”
He said “No, there was about fifteen of you love birds shot through, during the afternoon, and the commandant has been worried, he should call out the police the Gestapo to round you all up. But I convinced him that you would all be back by morning.” So he wrote out a list of who was missing and he said that if we weren’t all back he was going to tell the Gestapo that our sergeant major had assisted in the mass escape
and he would probably be shot. There was only one bloke missing. By the time I got back all the rest had come in, there was still one bloke missing and they knew where he was, so they sent a couple of guards down to get him. And that was the end of that episode. Nothing ever came of it. So, as I say, that was Munich, that was Bavaria. The funny thing about Bavaria and Germany. The Bavarians had no time for the people up north. The people up north reckoned they were going to win the war, but the Bavarians didn’t care very much.
And the Austrians had no time for either of them. There was a very strict division amongst the nationalities. Anyway, we were taken to a railway siding, which was elevated above the common level, placed in carriages, which was much more nicer than we had been used to, they were sit up carriages.
And you won’t believe this, but around that station area there would be about two to three hundred Germans come to see us off. So we were taken then right across then to Lamsdorf Stalag 13B, which was similar to Munich, and from there we were sent out to smaller camps to work in the coal mines in Poland.
Do you remember your arrival?
Oh yes, that was no trouble. You see, we were pretty docile by this time, in as much as we realised where the hell are you going to go if you do shoot through? You were going to get caught eventually, one way or another. So escapes were common down in Munich, the Germans regarded that as the eastern sport. You were entitled to escape, if you wished, that was your duty. But over in Poland, they had different ideas again.
Things were different altogether because there was a lot of underground movement in Poland and you weren’t allowed out. The barracks were similar, except they were a bit better for winter conditions because we were out in that flat country, and gosh it got cold there. There were three barracks, about five hundred men, and we were on shift. You would do three weeks day shift and three weeks night shift. So you could have your mate there, but you wouldn’t see him for three weeks at a time.
We were taken underground and worked on the coal face, shovelling coal. It started off that way. I had never seen so much coal in all my life as in Upper Silesia, it’s just hundreds of metres deep. You can’t imagine it. They put a drive down and then from the sides of that drive they put in more.
They would take all the coal out of a drive and then block it up, fill it up, throw water and sand in, the water would flow off, the sand would stay. And they would go a bit further down, do the same again, and then they would take out the piece in the middle. You have no idea of how much coal came out of that place. We started off, there was a coal face, it must have been about a hundred meters long, with a conveyor belt beside it, and they blew the face, and then the idea was
to shovel the coal onto the conveyor belt. And there was a German on the other side, raving and ranting, up and down, shouting at everyone. This was our introduction to it. But by the magic of the Red Cross parcels, etc, etc – I finished up, I used to go down and hang my lamp on a post just near where the motor was that drove the conveyor belt. When he blew a whistle I pressed the button
and that started the conveyor belt, and when he blew the whistle at the end of the shift I pressed the other one and that stopped it. I wrote several plays sitting down around that post. It was just one of those things you could do. Not everyone got away with it like that, but I was rather fortunate.
I must admit, a lot of it you get from your bush poems and you put them into a play form, which gives them a bit of atmosphere – other incidents there? Well, to give you an idea how things were in Poland, they took us chaps down the pit earlier than the rest, and I was sitting down with a Polish shift boss, one day,
waiting for the men to come up and start work. And there was a Pole came up and gave the shift boss a bit of paper, and the bloke read it and he ranted and raved and pointed down there and so on. The bloke looked very down cast and away he went. And I said, “What’s all that about?” In our language. And he said, “Well, he’s got a piece of paper from a doctor to say he has got to be put on light duties.” He says, “The German say there’s fifteen men down there, and for every man there has got to be about five wagons of coal come out,
about two ton in a wagon. “Now,” he says, “if I put him on, the quota is going to be down, what do you think they will do?” I said, “They’ll probably be crook at you.” He said, “No, they’ll take my wife and kids, take them away.” And that was the system they were working under. You got the feel, after awhile, the Germans weren’t such a nice mob after all. It depended entirely where you were. Back in the camp, I was
the President of the camp’s entertainment committee, and we had a secretary as well. We could get plays from England through the Red Cross and we could put on plays. We were paid in token money, originally, for our services in the mine, but the place that printed it got bombed out, so we were paid in German money to us then, which was of no damn value to us, we were in this camp. But with it, we could give it to the guards –
We got paid in German money, and with this we could hire costumes from the local town to put on a decent sort of a play when we had the script. We finished up with quite a whack of money. Well now, we lived this way for two and a half years, roughly. Then the Russians put on this big drive in 1944 towards Berlin, and we were right in the road.
Mid winter. So they just upped the lot of us and marched us out the gate. And the secretary said, “Well, look, we’ve got this roll of money. What are going to do with it? Give it back to the boys?” I said, “No, we’ll split it in half and we’ll buy something for the boys along the way. You take half, I’ll take half.” I had a big roll of German money, like this, because there was nothing – this march went on for three months. We marched right across Europe. We went
over the Czechoslovakian Alps, hotly pursued by the Russians, but there was over a million men on the move across Europe, at that time. We finished up back down at Regensburg, not far from Munich, if you’ve got a motor car. We just lived on what we could scrounge. We all had a Red Cross parcel each, but that was used up in due course. We lived in barns, cowsheds,
a few nights we slept out in the bloody open, in the snow. It was just one very bad experience. We were pushed along. You get a whole stack of men in a barn like that at night – as you walked along, for example, the snow would stick to your boot. Now the heat of your foot and the movement of your boot would melt that snow, so your boot became saturated and your sock became saturated and you were squelching along in it.
At the end of the day you would take them off, wring your socks out, pour the water out of your boot, bury it in the straw underneath you to try and keep it warm. The next morning you had to belt your sock up against a post to loosen it up, you had an 8th of an inch of ice inside your boot to start your day off. And this went on for three months, and that was just one of the things. There was no washing, there was no cleaning. Whatever we walked out of that camp in we were still wearing at the end of three months.
We just lost weight, we went down hill of course –
We had one or two taken away because of frostbite in their feet – This is peculiar thing about it, and I met up with them in England later on, they were taken to hospital and they’re feet were treated. They weren’t inhumane, it was just the situation the whole army was in. The Russians were following up behind us. We finished up down near Regensburg where we were camped in a big barn once,
one night – for several days, actually. There was a road up the top, it was on the end of a big slope, there was a road up the top, a gravel road coming down, and our German guard commander said, “Look, we’re going to leave you here for a few days. Don’t go out of the barn. The fellows coming back are nasty blokes. They’ll set fire to the barn if they feel like it.” We sat there for a few days. And after awhile one of the blokes said “There’s a lot of tanks going along
up the top of that road there.” He said, “I think they’re Russian tanks, they have all got stars on them.” One bloke said, “Well, what colour’s the stars?” He said, “They’re white.” “Oh,” he said, “They’re Americans. They must be Americans.” So our sergeant major, in charge, trying to exercise authority, he said, “No, sit here for another day, fellows. We can hang here for a day. Just watch it.” Well, later in that day, down this gravel road came three American Jeeps, loaded with fellows,
and they fanned out, fellows jumped out with Tommy guns and everything. And one of the Americans got two white stripes on his hat, I didn’t know what he was at that time, he looks in, throws the door open. “OK, fellows! You’re all free!” We all looked at him and said, “Where have you been?” He said, “Bloody hell, where are you blokes from?” “We are Australians.” He said, “Australians. I’ve been there, nice place.
OK, just take it easy for a day or so, will you? We’ll be back.” They all got back in their Jeeps and shot through. Instead of waving little Union Jacks and cheering, we were waiting for him just inside the door, we said, “Where have you been?” “Oh,” he said, “we had a bit of trouble along the way.” So we did that, and then we were free. We split up into little groups, we wandered off here, there and everywhere.
I went down to a village there to do some work for the Germans. What happened there, the Americans sent a fellow back and asked could anyone speak the language – digressing again, my mate Jesse had a violin. Don’t ask me how he got it, but he had a violin, and it was in a wooden case, it was on his back. I followed it for three months right across Poland. At nights he used to play a few tunes on this violin in the barn,
which was always acceptable. So the Americans wanted to know if someone could do some interpreting down the village for them, so I go down there, and this bloke down there, he said, “All I want you to do is tell the boss here that we’re not going to rape the women and burn the village. We just want to set up a signal station in the school.” “Oh, no trouble.” And they give me a whole stack of K-rations [US rations] for this, all marked ‘morning,’ breakfast units. When I get back, I’m looking for Jesse and I can’t find him.
Someone said, “I think he’s gone around the back of the barn there.” I go around the back of the barn, and through this snow, there’s two feet going over the snow. And I go up there, and down in a hollow, Jesse is sitting there, he has got a fire going, and somehow he’s got a chicken in this billy can, boiling away, and he’s playing his violin. I go over to him and said, “Look, what I’ve got! Breakfast units!” He looks at them, “You can’t eat them.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, its bloody dinner time.”
I said, “I’m not worried about that.” He said, “Well, I bloody am. There’s your bloody dinner in there?” And that’s the first argument we had in four years, over this chicken in this billy can. We got together in small groups, we eventually made our way to Regensburg. The Americans said, “Get to Regensburg Aerodrome. That’s where they’re flying you out from.”
Another stage we commandeered a tractor and a wagon and loaded that up with the boys, but we eventually finished up there. The Red Cross parcels met us somehow. We got a Red Cross parcel. That was a funny thing, we would go into a little café in one of the villages, and the woman there is horrified, there’s half a dozen prisoners of war loose inside her café. And when she found out that all we really wanted to do was for her to cook some of the food for us, then that was different. Then we made her sit down and have some food with us.
And she couldn’t believe all this, because they had heard such terrible tales. We finished up at this aerodrome, which I suspect was one of Willy Messerschmitt’s depots, because they had quite a big factory there and a big kitchen for the workers. Now the Germans are very fond of soup, and they had big vats for making soup, stainless steel, and so we filled them up with water and broke up some furniture and lit it underneath and warmed it up.
And we all had a beaut bonza bath each, and then we washed our clothes in it, and then we sat out on the tarmac in the nuddy, with our clothes spread over the cement until they dried, and it really was a most enjoyable time. And, most of all, important to me, I found in an office a fountain pen and some ink and some paper and I could start to write again. I thought, “This is great.” In due course, a flock of US Dakota aeroplanes
came out of the sky, somewhere – Oh, the Poms who were administering us characters said, “Get in groups of twenty and write out the names in duplicate. One for the pilot and one for the other end,” something like this. In come the Dakotas. So we stroll over. I’m in charge of twenty men, not because I’ve got any authority, I just happened to have a pen and paper that could write names. I had this piece of paper to the Yank, who incidentally gave me a stick of chewing gum, and he said, “What’s this?” I said, “A list of the names of the men.”
“We don’t want paper, we want the men! Get in!” So we all got in. We finished up in Brussels that night and taken to a military camp there which had been set up for us, it was in an army barracks, a solid job. And we get out of this truck, twenty of us, a bunch of blokes who’ve come in on this aircraft flight, and there’s a Pommy corporal.
“Righto, now, get into line! Straighten up!” We looked at him and thought, “What the hell is all this about?” “Come on! Shake it up!” So we shook it up, we got into line, that suited him anyway. But we’d had nothing like this for four years. He gave us a lecture on Brussels. “Now you’re all in groups of twenty and you’ll all be here in the morning. You can go out the gate, but I want you all here at nine o’clock in the morning. One man missing from a group, that group stops, that’s it.”
So, OK. I’ve still got the two lists of paper in my pocket. This German money, I was telling you about, I found I could change it to Belgian money, a bigger roll. We could go into Brussels, and we are there on the day the Germans turned it in. It was on VE Day [Victory in Europe Day]. And the town was packed, there was people going around and around the streets. There was a Grenadier Guards band marching around, and everyone’s following that.
I get up an ornamental lamp post to see what’s going on, I had lost Jesse somehow in the crowd, and there’s gorgeous creatures coming along there, and I waved to them and they waved to me, “Come and join us!” Well, who I am to fight this? It’s three to one. So I slid down this pole and I’ve got a girl on each arm, and after we’ve been marching around for awhile, I said “Where can we get a drink?” “Oh, I don’t know if you’ll get one, the place is crowded.”
So we tried this café, we go into a café. I said to this bloke, “I want a table.” “I haven’t got a table.” They all speak English, I don’t know why but they do. So I’ve got this roll of notes, you see. “Well, I’m the last of the great Australian cattle-station owners and I’m in Brussels on VE night, and I want to buy drinks for everybody.” All right, they found me a table and I’m buying drinks everywhere. The real joke of it all is that one of our fellows had been on a cattle station,
he did have a group of photos of the work around the cattle station and the homestead, and in Munich we’d all had a print of these made for each of us, because we were all cattle station owners. I’m showing these around. And one of these girls said, “Well, what’s an Australian doing here on VE night?” “Oh, we’re everywhere, just like we were in the First War. All over the place.” She says, “No, I think you’ve been a prisoner of war.” I said, “Yes, actually I have. The last three months we’ve been sleeping in cow sheds and barns.”
She said “Oh, while you’ve been sleeping in cowsheds and barns and I’ve been sleeping in my comfortable bed at home – “You don’t have to be smart to work out what the next question was. So she said, “Yes, all right. You can come home to my place.” It was eleven o’clock at night, I didn’t want to rush things, but I thought it was getting a bit late. We get out to her place in a bus, and she gets in first and tells Mum and Dad they’ve got a visitor. She takes me upstairs
and opens the door and there’s a lovely bedroom there. And she says, “This is my brother’s bedroom, he’s in hospital with appendicitis. You’ll find pyjamas under the pillow and I will see you in the morning.” Well, I looked around. The carpet was all beautiful, lace curtains, lovely bed, clean pyjamas. I didn’t give a damn where she slept, I never had it so good. She woke me up next morning and away we go, and it’s Sunday and there is no conveyances anywhere, there’s no transport,
and I’m getting a bit worried about this because it’s getting a bit late. I get a lift in an – American Jeep. She guides this fellow, he has a cigar in his mouth and he’s chatting away all the time. It was a hell of a journey, I thought. And we come around the corner of these barracks, and there is one truck with nineteen men standing in the back of it. And later on when I wrote to this girl, and she wrote back, and she said,
“The last I saw of you, you were hanging over the back of the truck and all your friends were hitting you. What were they hitting you for?” Well, I held them up for half an hour, they didn’t know where I was, and I was the bloke in charge. We go out to the airport, and this airport at Brussels, there is Avro Lancasters parked everywhere, oh, all over the place. I’d never seen anything like this. So we were taken in a truck out to the end of the airstrip.
You might believe this, what I’m going to tell you now, but it’s dinkum. There’s an army issue table there, on army issue trestles, there’s an army issue form there with an army issue Pommy corporal and a lieutenant from Sandhurst Military Academy, brass polished, everything set to perfection and stiff as a ramrod. I wander over and I’ve got this bit of paper. “What’s that?” “A list of names.” “A list of names – what?” I said, “The blokes, over there.”
He said, “The list of names, sir!” “Oh yeah, sir.” And he takes this list as though it’s filthy, he looks at me as though I am a bit of rubbish that has blown across the aerodrome and lobbed at his feet somehow. He says, “That plane over there.” We go over there and this plane is manned by an Australian crew, of all things, and they called it the Ham Crammed Spam Special. They had a ginger headed pilot, and he made us most welcome. We get into this plane
and I’m just under the turret gunner, sitting on a projection, where the bombs fit underneath. They trundled her out the end of the airstrip and give her the gun. And I’m looking towards the tail, the tail comes up, it goes a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right, up in the air, down. I thought, “This doesn’t look quite right to me.” Then all hell breaks loose. What actually happened, the wheel come off the bloody thing and the pilot wound the other wheel up,
switched on the fire extinguishers and sat her down. There we were skidding along, we were actually airborne in an Avro Lancaster and he sits her down on this tarmac. She screamed and bounced and thumped around, and filled up with dust. Eventually it stops. The rear gunner gets out and he’s trying to open the door, and the buckle side of this thing. The pilot is chucking blokes out the top. “Get out of here as quick as you can fellows!” We’re big bronzed Anzacs. “She’s right, skip.”
Well, as we said this, the fellow opened the door on the side and we’re sitting in a pool of petrol. It went out to the wing tips, right down to the tail and there’s four motors smoking in the middle of this. We smashed our way through there. Talking to the crew, I said to the pilot, “That wasn’t exactly a nice thing to do, was it?” He said, “We can’t help having a little joke now and then.” We were put in another truck, taken back to the end of this airstrip. And I wander over to this bloke.
“Sir!” Responding to training. I had twenty men hanging on this. “Group twenty, corporal.” “Sir, they’ve gone.” He looked at me and said, “You’ve gone.” I said, “See that heap – smoking away at the end of the airstrip? We’ve just come out of that.” And I don’t know to this day if he was joking or not, but he says, “You can’t do that! What about my books?”
Well, being a polite Australian, I told him what he could do with his books, and got the boys back in the truck and we went back to the hangar where the Aussies were, and we were having a great old time there, drinking their beer and what have you, because they’re still celebrating VE Day. And in comes a bloke with a row of rings up his arm, I don’t know what he was, because there was no air force when we were in the army. He asks what we were doing there, and I told him the sad tale, and he said, “We’ll get you out of here,” he said, “straight away.
Not that we don’t like your company. I just want to conserve our beer.” He got us out within twenty minutes. That was just getting out of Europe, it was quite an experience.
weren’t part of the underground, they were just workers, and they didn’t want anything to do with it, because belonging to the underground meant death, for sure. There was a lot of them that had families which they wished to preserve and protect. However, it did have a spin off. As I said, you wouldn’t see your mate for three weeks, but you do a bit of bargaining underground. There was one fellow who brought up a kilo of sugar, into the camp, smuggled into the camp.
You did that by simply having it in your dixie, and when they give you a body search you held your arms out. They never thought to look in the dixie. And he puts a note on this, ‘One spoonful per cup, or else you will become a victim of the Claw.’ And he drew a horrible bloody claw. Well, then, someone else wrote a note to his mate, ‘Don’t do this, or that, or you become a victim of The Claw.’ Well, it got down underground, and on one of the cement walls one of the blokes with his lamp,
‘Twenty wagons per man today or you will become a victim of The Claw.’ Well, the Poles got onto this, there is a secret society springing up amongst the prisoners. Oh, it’s terrible, reported it to the Germans. And we were all lined up on our day off, and in came a German colonel with an interpreter, and he made a brilliant speech, “We’re all soldiers. We mustn’t loose our sense of pride in what we are doing,” etc, etc.
“And we’ve found out there is a secret society sprung up amongst you. Now step forward all those who are victims of the Claw.” We had been locked up for four years, and the whole parade dissolves in laughter, and he could never work out what the joke was. But that’s how the influence of the Poles, they were terror – stricken of everything that was going on round them, yes. There were fellows where we were, big men, they had nothing on them
as far as flesh goes. And we were told, they would be going home from work, and suddenly the street would be blocked off, and all the men would be swept up and taken out to Auschwitz and systematically ill-treated. This fellow had been put in a cell where he couldn’t stand up, and there would be about three inches of water in the cell as well. And there he was kept in pitch darkness, not just him, quite a few of them, for a week or so.
That was just to keep the mob down, stop the civilian population lifting their head up. You get that sort of thing going on, you toe the line, all right. Because meanwhile your wife and kids don’t know what has happened. You’ve vanished. You could have been killed, for all they know.
They regarded it as your duty to escape if you could. We had one fellow in our working party, at the asphalt work, named Alfred Passfield, who eventually wrote a book called The Escape Artist. He escaped that many times he became a real headache to the Germans, and I believe he got the Military Medal for being a bloody nuisance as a prisoner of war. I’ve got his book there, in my bookcase. Alf was a timber man,
come from down south, and he knew how to live on his own. He was rugged. And he told some very funny tales after the war. For example, he had a beard, a ginger beard, and he grew it down to his chest, and he used to round his shoulders and hobble around, and the Germans used to think, “Poor old fellow.” And they’d give him all the light jobs. And gradually he accumulated some gear and stuff, and he took off from Munich and he was heading for Switzerland.
And got to the stage, he reckoned, where he could see the lights of Switzerland in the distance. And he was passing through a village where there was a Hitler Youth Movement rally on, and there was push bikes everywhere. So he swiped a push bike, from what I can gather, and he was boring through a village with his beard flowing over his shoulder, and the local cop thought, “This isn’t right.” So he pulled him up. And that was just one of the episodes that Alf tried.
I did hear of a Frenchman, too, who just had ordinary overalls on and he had a pot of white paint and a pot of black paint, and he was painting all the kilometre stones, heading in the direction of Switzerland, but he ran out of paint. Another fellow was driving a cow in the same direction, but he couldn’t find food for the cow and it died of starvation, so he lost out there. There were things like that.
But escaping from Munich, not from Moosburg Stalag. It was chicken feed, you could just walk away. As I say, I was out in Munich all day, around the streets. You could mix, as I’ve explained. But when you got over to Poland that was a different story, because you were in an occupied country, and things were different, entirely.
where I was, all the Germans used to go down to their canteen for lunch. And I found that next door there was a door that needed a key, and you could go through that, unlock another door and you were out on the street. That was the theory of it, but it wasn’t that way, it meant she was inside the building, if you follow me. I worked it out that way. Also, in the camps where we were, the Germans had a long passageway –
You had a barrack, entrance here, it had rooms off there, there and there, and at the end of the passage was a doorway. And some of the boys wanted to go out at night, so we worked out a key to unlock this door – at night they used to bring the guards inside the camp and they patrolled around in pairs. Well, they talked all the times, the Germans, and you would just wait until they’d go past and you would unlock the door and step out and lock it again
and you were outside the barrack. All you had to do was get under the wire. The way we did that, we had Saturdays – Saturdays and Sundays in Munich were free, so we used to play Snakes & Ladders. You’d get outside, fairly close to the fence, and you’d play Snakes & Ladders, but you would have about thirty men around, cheering like hell. Someone would throw a six, “Hooray!” And they’d be all cheering like blazes.
And the guards would come and have a look and work out what you were doing, mad Englishmen, you know. Well, when they’d wander off, you would snip the restraining wire at the bottom of the fence and you would pin it down with a couple of pins that I’d made in this workshop. Then at night, when they’d got out, they would shoot under there, just because the guards were inside, over the other side of the camp, they would shoot under that and go into town for the night and come back in again, and back inside the barrack.
Well, the Germans felt that some of the boys – I don’t think they woke up that the boys were actually going out, at this stage, but they decided they wanted to fix those doors at the end. So they drove a bar through and they had a big piece of metal that came up and dropped in a slot, with a lock on it, which meant that when that when the boys went out that night they just had to duck their head as they went under this bit of bar, because the door opened the other way. The Germans, again, woke up to that and they drilled a hole through the bar
and put a bolt through, so the boys had to hide outside. They’d hide outside, get up in the roof of the toilets, or the washhouse, and stay there. Inside the barracks, when the evening camp was on, we had to line up inside the passage, and as they passed they counted you and you’d break off and go into your room. Well then, we found that the wooden ceilings we had were panels, about a metre square.
You’d prise one of them loose and you could tear along the roof and drop down in the end room and come out and be counted. So when the boys wanted to go out at night, you would arrange it for two or three to nip along and drop down and be counted at the end of the day. This went on quite well, for quite some time. Some smart alec overdid it once and there was about five men too many, they couldn’t work out how that happened. And later they found these pins holding the wire down, that blew that. But it was quite a good experiment, that.
to Australia. It was staffed by Australian military personnel, who had done quite a bit of service, most of them were well decorated, they had been in it. And this apparently, I gathered, was a bit of a reward for services rendered, and they were administering this – process of getting men in, equipping them with uniforms and sending them home.
I had a particular mate as a teenager who was in the 2/28th Battalion, he had grown up more or less as my brother, and he had been captured in Tobruk, he was one of the ‘Rats Of Tobruk.’ Well, we met up again at Eastbourne, he and I, and we were as thick as thieves, and we started conniving and thinking there – A funny thing again, military discipline – Let’s go back a bit. The day we got into Eastbourne, we were taken to a big house
which had been commandeered, because all that area had been evacuated, the army had taken over these big houses, there was billets and so on, and there was camp stretchers spread all around the floor in these big rooms. We were given a parcel each which had pyjamas, shaving gear, soap, towel and a little dressing gown with slippers, and I thought, “Oh, this is all right.” This was about six o’clock at night. So we all had a shower and we got into our pyjamas
and we were sitting around there, smoking and yarning, and thinking how good it all was. And a bloke who had come in earlier in the day, he comes bursting into the place, and he said, “Down the bottom of the hill there’s a town, and it’s got a dance hall in it and it’s full of sheilas and they all speak English.” Well, gosh, we hadn’t spoken to a sheila in English for years. So we put on these uniforms that we had walked across Europe in, you can imagine what they were like, filthy and dirty and so on, but that’s all we had.
And about twenty of us go down this hill to the town, a place called the Wintergarden, and the dance hall was in the basement of this building. It would cover, oh, about four acres I suppose, the dance hall. All around it was beer bars and sandwich bars and tables and chairs. But we didn’t know it at the time, but we go there. The girl in the ticket office wouldn’t take any money from us, probably because she thought
we might wreck the joint, because you can imagine what we looked like. And as you go into this dance hall, there’s like semi-circular platform, and three or four steps going down to the dance floor. Well, we stood on this platform, bunched together, because we had been bunched together for four years. This was protection, we didn’t know what the hell to do. And there’s this beautiful sight that I just described to you. And as we’re standing there, suddenly there’s movement and all the girls got up and come across and took our hands
and took us back to the tables and sat us down, because they knew we were coming. And that’s a moment I still get emotional about it, because it was just such a wonderful experience to know that you belong somewhere, at last. This was quite good. And of course that became a regular spot, the dance hall.
It’s got my regimental number on the back of it and everything. I wore it, I never had to take it off once, yet other blokes had them snatched off them straight away. Anyway, I phoned Aunty, and then I go back to get in the queue and up comes the sergeant major. “Where have you been?” “Oh, I just went to phone my aunty, tell her I was here.” “You were absent without leave.” I thought, “Jesus, hang on, mate.” Anyway, he gave me quite a dressing down because you can’t do that, here in the army.
Well, being ex-POW, so discipline is something you fought all the way. I had to get on the end of the queue, that’s where I first met my ginger headed mate from the 2/28th Battalion. He said, “If it had been me, I would have put you on a bloody charge, too.” We were equipped with uniforms, and I stayed there for a few days, so did my mate. As I say, we did a bit of conniving.
He found out that they needed transport drivers, well, he reckoned he was a good transport driver because he used to ride horses on the station, and I was a signaller, so I got a job on the telephone exchange in this – what we called Number 3 Transit Camp. All the troops were eventually gone, so they were looking for telephone exchange operators at Australian Army Headquarters, in a nice hotel down on the waterfront, so I got that job.
We had six men to man this hotel. You come in the doorway, there’s a big lobby, desks everywhere where all the captains, lieutenants and rubber stamp merchants sat, to process the men, and then around the corner there was a little room with a telephone exchange was. You can imagine the hotel and that is where the telephone exchange was. There was six of us to man that twenty-four hours a day.
Well, we worked out that if you did it in twelve hour shifts you could vanish for days on end, no-one knew where you were. So this we did, quite often. My mate got a job as a transport driver for one of the officers there, and we managed to stay in England for three months before we left there. It was quite an experience. All sorts of funny things happened there, I’m talking about the good times now, of course, which you remember more than the bad times.
My wife, I will tell you how I met my wife. I was set up there. She had a very attractive sister who was out in the middle of this floor, jitterbugging around, and I had never seen anything like this before in my life, so I thought, “I’ve got to get to know her.” So I asked her for a dance, and while we were doing my interpretation of the Fox Trot, or whatever it was, prattling away, “You should meet my sister,” she said. “Why?” “Hates Australians, she hates them.”
Well, I can tell you now, fifty-four years and two daughters and six grandkids and six great grandkids, I’m still trying to convince her that we’re a pretty good mob of blokes. I still reckon I was set up. On this telephone exchange one night – well, by eight o’clock at night there would be no business, and we used to sleep beside it with the buzzer on. And the damn phone goes mad, it’s my wife’s sister, she’s on the loose with a bunch of air force characters around the town and they’d missed the last train. Five of them were billeted around the town
and she still had one left, and can I help them at all. “Yeah, I’ve got a bed upstairs, up on the seventh floor. Bring him in, I’ll sneak him up there,” because the place is dead. no one around. So in he comes. I said, “When you pull up, does he know the Morse code?” She said, “Oh, yes.” I said, “Well, tell him to sound Vic Eddy [Morse code call signal], knock on the door. Vic Eddy.” Well, they pull up in a clapped out old heap of tin and they blast Vic Eddy on a claxon horn just to let people know they’d arrived.
I sneak him and take him up to my room. Next morning, on comes my relief, and I get my breakfast eating gear, I go and have breakfast, come back. The fellow says, “Quiet night?” I said, “Oh, yes.” And oh geez, I’ve got that bloke upstairs, what am I gong to do? Because all the majors, colonels and captains and whatever are in with their rubber stamps in this lobby, I’ve got this bloke upstairs and the lift doesn’t work, you had to come down the stairs. So I go and shake him, “Come on. I have got to get you out of here,
and I don’t know how we’re going to go about it. We’ll just have to see what happens.” So we wind our way down the steps and when we get to the last flight of steps, before we go round the corner, I said, “Look, it is full of bloody officers. You shouldn’t really be in here, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. But the door is straight in front of the end of the stairway. Okay?” “Yes, leave it to me.” He straightens up his tie and his uniform, tilts his cap right, you know, walks around the corner and just stands there.
And I said, “Jesus, we’re gone now.” And one of the officers spots him and yells out, “Attention!” And everyone jumps to attention, and he walks right through the middle, tosses a salute. I’ve got a wing commander under my care for the night. And we go straight through that door and I never come back for two days, and by that time they had forgotten all about it. That was just one of the funny things that happened. We met up with my wife and she had a girlfriend
and my mate finished up marrying this girlfriend, and my wife and I still get together. She came out to Australia. They still go out together, and this is – what, sixty years now. So there’s a lot of good things like that.
so it wasn’t exactly the best of bikes, but it suited us. He had an old Ariel. I pick up Eileen one night. My mate had been accepted by his future wife, so I said, “I think I might propose tonight. I’ll think about it. So I got Eileen on the pillion on this bike and we go up to Beachy Head, we park the bike by the roadside, and we just wander up the slope a bit.
And I’m sitting there trying to think up a bit of courage, this was a big moment, and didn’t know exactly what to do. And I can hear a bloody motor bike coming up the hill. I thought, “Oh no.” Eileen said, “Yeah, I can hear it, too.” And they pull up beside my bike and this silly hen comes racing up the slope. “Has he asked you yet? Has he asked you yet?” She said, “Asked what?” So I said, “Well, the idea was, I was going to ask you if you’d think of marrying me.”
Anyway, she said, “I will have to think about this.” And that’s what she did, but eventually it came off. So, anyway, eventually we agreed. But I said, “Look, I’ve been locked up for a long while. I think I had better go home first and sort all this out.”
Which was a logical thing to do, but not very wise, because naturally the girls thought, “Oh, another bloody soldier come and gone,” sort of thing. It was fourteen months before she managed to get out, and when she came out here, I think there was something like thirty brides in the cabin when she came out here as well. It was a very rugged set up, but anyway, she did come out here and we were married in Perth.
What did you do during that time you were apart?
Back home, I realised that I was going to get married and I had to do something about a living, so I went back to the firm that I had been working for as a junior worker. Part of the scheme was they had to take me back, being an ex- serviceman, that was the law of the land, and under the post-war Reconstruction Scheme I could learn a trade, having been employed in that work before the war.
Of course a two year apprenticeship, and it was not exactly accepted by the unions, they were against this, but nevertheless, it was a right. In my ignorance, I wanted to be a boiler maker. A boiler maker in structural steelworks is not making boilers, he’s marking out the steel and shaping it up for welders and so on to put together, or rivet it. But no, the boiler makers wouldn’t have me doing that
because I wasn’t doing boiling making work in the war. I asked them, how about an electric welder’s apprenticeship. So they said, “Well, that wouldn’t apply there, would it?” Well, fortunately, I was working with welders in Munich, so a couple of my mates wrote out statutory declarations to that effect, and I got an apprenticeship as an arc welder, or a boilermaker’s welder, as they call them.
So when the wife came out, we were obliged to be married within three weeks, under the conditions she came out in, and I was working then as a boilermaker welder, at the time. So we more or less got on our feet from there.
It had been converted into a troop ship. There was eighteen of us Australians they were left that they had rounded up in England to send home, and we had one of these mess tables, I had explained earlier, with eighteen men in it. The rest of the whole ship was empty. We get to the Suez Canal and they fill it up with Kiwis, who are going home from North Africa, and we come in for a lot of ribbing just being the only eighteen Australians there.
They’d ask us, “What do you think of the New Zealand mutton, and the New Zealand butter?” All this. We came right down past the coast, and I was listening to the grand final of the football that year, and we finished up in New Zealand. They took us right past Western Australia, all the way round to New Zealand, unloaded these Kiwis and then we went back to Sydney. We had a lot of air force personnel on board the ship, the Royal Australian Air Force.
And incidentally, when we got on the ship the first thing you do is boat drill. You are issued with a life jacket which you hang onto all the time. They sound this boat drill, and I’m boring along the deck, around a corner, and I smack into an air force bloke and put him on his arse, and I’m sitting on mine, too. And it’s this ginger headed pilot from this Lancaster that had crashed in Brussels. He said, “Look where you’re going, soldier.” I said, “Look, if you’re on this bloody boat, mate,
and they sound any alarms, I’m not looking around for anybody. I’m just going.” And then he recognised me, of course, and it was quite a reunion. We finished up from New Zealand back in Sydney, and that was a lovely entry there, because all these air force blokes were stacked all over the boat. We had a wonderful welcome there. There was a drive through Sydney, at lunchtime, and then the brass come on the ship and said,
“You Queenslanders? Train going in a couple of hours, get on that.” Allocated to everyone, “You West Australians, pick up your gear and move down the wharf. There’s a ship moving out this afternoon to Fremantle.” Well, we bucked about this, we had a captain and a lieutenant with us, there was only five of us West Australians. We said, “Sir, we’ve been on this thing six weeks. Now come on, give us a bit of leave.” They bucked and we got four days leave.
I shot down to Newcastle where I’ve got some friends there. Little points that I’ve forgotten as I go along – when we were camped in Greta, in New South Wales, a mate of I got leave into Newcastle on a Sunday, where nothing ever happened in those days, and we met up with three girls there, and they showed us all round Newcastle. That evening we took them to tea, and when our train left we put them in taxis and sent them home. When we got back we wrote and thanked them,
and they wrote to us. Well, now we don’t write any more, we just pick the phone up and have a yarn, and we’re still the best of friends. And this started way back then. It was great. So when I got this leave in Sydney, on my way home, I went straight down to Newcastle, of course, to be with these girls, who had written to us all through the war. They had joined the Red Cross, told where my Mum where I was before the army could tell her. They knew where I was. They did all these wonderful things.
Then we get back to Sydney, we’re in Sydney Showground, and the chappie there said, “We’ve got some fellows coming from Japan prisoner of war camps. We could do with a bit of a hand to get them from the bus onto the train. Can you give us a hand?” “Oh yeah.” We’d been three months in England on good food, we’d had a six week voyage home, we were pretty right, she’s right. We go up to Central Railway station,
and these buses pull up, and these skeletons come out of the door of these buses. They step down these steps and finish on their knees on the bloody dirt there. We had to pick them and take them to the train and put them in a bed, it was a train full of sleeping carriages. That was a very nasty experience, that. We had our gear, we were going to Melbourne on the same train. We tried to talk to them,
but they talked out the side of their mouths, and they just looked around before they said anything. They had a very rough time.
Did you have any difficulties adjusting, or re-acclimatising?
I didn’t think so at the time, but when I look back, God yes, I was in a hell of a mess. And things that I did that were just so – disorientated. I won’t say they were bad, but they were irregular and wrong. For example, they had a scheme where you could build your house under the war Service Land Scheme. I had a block of land in Bayswater, a quarter of an acre block.
And when we married, the wife and I went to Manjimup for awhile, then that job cut out, we had two kids by then, two real young ones. One had just been born, actually. That job wasn’t suitable so we were going to come back to Perth. We couldn’t come back to where my Mum was because she had a couple of boarders in there, who had emigrated from England, a couple of young fellows. Whom we still see, by the way. So my brother in law,
he had finished his house, so we moved in there, and so did my other sister. So there was this house that he built for him and his wife and his kids, there was him in it with his wife and two kids, there was Eileen and I with our two kids, and there was my other sister with her two kids, all in one house. And we lived that way for about thirteen to fifteen months. But gradually it dawned on me this was not the right thing, I had better do something.
Well, I got a permit to build this house on the block. What you did, you worked weekends, and as you progressed, so they gave you progress payments. But I put up a ten by twenty cement brick garage on this block, and we lived in that for two years while I built this house. When I look back, of course, I really should have got stuck into this house and rallied men around and got it done, but I didn’t, I fiddled around and I mucked about.
And material was hard to get, for one thing. My brother in laws were both builders, both carpenters. And I gave them the job of doing a job, well, they were going to do it with cement with a travelling mould. Then the cement dried out and we got the floor height, so we were going to build a timber framed asbestos house, the asbestos dried up. So I got a brick house. Well, then, I had to get a brickie. Brickies were as scarce as hell.
And we got a brickie who might turn up, might not, it depended on whether he got full the night before. And this went on for two years, and how my wife stuck to me I don’t know, probably because she couldn’t get home. But I did have a bad time. The same as at work. As you know with welding, you’ve got a hood over your head, and you’d be working away there, and all the things that you’d been through were crowding in on you all the time.
And that’s where I got my first bit of post war counselling from the foreman. I’d take this hood off, sit down, shake my head and take a few deep breaths, and he would come up and say, “Get on with the bloody job, will you? You’re not paid to sit on your arse all day.” And that was my post war counselling.
So I went back to night school. I finished up being a job coster and timekeeper in a engineering firm, but I went from one job to another. I did earn my living as a welder for several years, and I got a job as a travelling salesman for agricultural machinery, while I’m building this house. And I would go away for a fortnight at a time, and I would be home for a weekend. Meanwhile my wife has got two kids in this ten by twenty bloody shed, and I’m way out in the countryside.
I didn’t think right. Probably because during the POW life, I used to think, “Well, who are the backbone of Australia?” The agriculture community was then, therefore I’m going to be of service to the agricultural community. Well, the agricultural community gets on all right without my help, I should have thought of number one all the time. And so I fiddled around and moved from one job to another without any stability,
until I went to night school and I finished up being a job coster and timekeeper in an engineering firm. Well, that was good. But the last eleven years of my life were the most productive. I finished up being the purchasing and expediting officer for a firm at Subiaco, and we were dealing with American firms that supplied material for the iron ore business up north,
and I had to keep control of that stuff until it was delivered. I had my own typist, my own secretary, my own little office. Those were the last years. I still see the typist, the secretary and the old managing director, I still see them regularly, all of them. It’s really only since I retired that I’ve really lined myself up properly, I feel.
But becoming involved with ex-service units and other commitments, and schools, I’m associated with a school as a mentor for kids that are a bit off the beam up there. And I have also, in my capacity in the Prisoner of War Association, I have managed to get our memorial in Kings Park, at the Subiaco end, that has been adopted by Mount Rawley Senior High School,
and we’re going to spend $32,000 to bring it up in the next six months, so when we fade away, there is something they can look up to in their mature adult life, and we trust show their kids. These things all sort of get you out of the smallness of yourself, and you expand without being aware of it. That’s the way things are. And as I say, I’m off to Ballarat later this coming week
to be at the commemoration service of that memorial there. Well, the WA Ex-POW Association insisted that I go, and they have paid my fare there and back, which I thought was very uplifting. It shows that you are leading the way that people want to be, and they think something of you.
How difficult was it finding out about a lot of your friends? Because I mean you were isolated in prison camps, so you didn’t have a lot of contact between, you know, who’s where, who’s lived, who’s died. So when did you get bombarded by this information?
It was really gradual, I suppose. Things like, “Oh, remember Gus?” “Yeah. He was in the navy.” “Well, he went down with the Sydney.” And you think, “Oh, gee, tough Gus.” Because we had seen so much death and destruction that you didn’t grieve deeply about someone going, it was bloody tough luck. You did miss some of your mates, when you got back that had gone.
But just say, “I can’t do anything about it.” So you’ve just got to get on with it, get on with the business of living. But it was, from a national point of view, it was really appalling, the number of men, the warm bodies, that just disappeared from Australia. This hurts immensely, still, that men could ever be treated like it. It is horrendous. You’ve really got to read about it to understand,
and mix with the men who did it. It’s something that you will never, ever forgive or forget, no matter what the do-gooders say. I realise Japan is necessary for our existence, they got all our iron ore, but they realise they don’t have to conquer this country. They can buy it. And we will gladly sell it to them. But we’ve got no alternative because if you want this country to develop, we haven’t got the money, it has got to come from overseas.
Again, there is old blokes like me still belly-aching, well, we don’t really fit into the modern society, in that respect. You have just got to say, “Well, we hate their guts – “ It sounds silly, me being a European ex-prisoner of war, but it was my country and my mates that they were treating like mongrel dogs. So you have just got to accept things the way they are and say the new generation is not going to take
all our hatred with them, into the future. Which is probably a good thing. But that is the experiences we had. And I’m talking about this attitude towards Japs, and yet I’ve said what good blokes the Germans are. So you get all mixed up with Europeans and Asians and Japanese, and the different attitudes that the different nations had. I saw a lot of good in the Germans, but by crikey, there was a lot of rotten things in them, too.
So you accept things as they are, and you get on with the business of living.
to help him out, more than anything else. Well then, he passed away, and then I was the secretary for a while. The process of attrition wore us down that much that it looked as though we were not even going to be able to form an executive committee. And one of the chaps said, “Well, look, I am going to nominate you for President.”
I said, “Well, I couldn’t do anything like that. I know nothing about it.” He said, “No, I’m going to nominate you. We’ll see what will happen.” He nominated me and I was accepted and suddenly, without me realising, blokes were coming around and making themselves available to run this show. Mind you, our wives, too, were amongst us. Our secretary is one of the chap’s wives, and our treasurer, she’s one of the wives, and our social committee are women.
So it’s all sort of fitted in, and it has just happened to flow along nicely. We have accumulated this $32,000, we’re also still battling with the government about the money they paid the Japanese prisoners of war without – I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but they paid all the Japanese prisoners of war and their widows and the civilians captured by the Japanese
$25,000 each, and just drew the line between the European prisoners of war, including the air force, and we reckon they were discriminating between prisoners of war and so on, and anyway, we’re still battling with them.