Charles Howell
Archive number: 1606
Date interviewed: 15 March, 2004

Served with:

18th Brigade
2/12th Battalion

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Charles Howell 1606

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Transcript

Tape 01

01:00:38:00

Thank you, Mr Howell, for being involved in the archive project. What I wanted to ask you to do first of all is just give me a very brief summary of the major events in your life from the time you were born up until now.
I was born on the 17th of

01:01:00:00

the 12th, 1915, in a place called Wee Waa in the northwest of New South Wales. My father had horse teams out there before the days of motor lorries and he sold that, then he came into Wee Waa and he bought a business, and everything in Wee Waa in them days was made of cypress pine. A fire started and wiped the whole block out. So we left there and came to a place

01:01:30:00

called Ebden. It’s near Ravensworth. It’s just out Singleton in New South Wales. He went onto a dairy farm there. He ran into a drought and he was surviving that and a plague of grasshoppers came through and wiped him out again. So from there we went back where our ancestor, he was granted land

01:02:00:00

at Cedar Creek just between Cessnock and Wollombi. That was the sole Sydney Road. He had three brothers there, so we stopped there and Dad farmed and cut timber and so forth, and eventually moved into Cessnock. And there was eight in our family,

01:02:30:00

four girls, four boys, and by this time we were coming into the Depression, which people hadn’t been through, one just wouldn’t understand how bad it was. Very little to eat. I think Mother went hungry a lot of times so as we could eat. But still we survived. Went to school, left at fourteen.

01:03:00:00

Had to leave because Dad was cutting mine timber and I had to go out and help him. So from there that finished. When I was seventeen I got three weeks’ work. I suppose you’d call it work for the dole in them days, and then I started bike riding. I was bike riding for a couple of years and I had a buster [accident],

01:03:30:00

and I damaged my knee, and after hospital my mother said I better go out to Granny’s out at Wee Waa. So I went out there. I done some work. I picked up a bit of work out there, saved what I could, and I had a brother in Brisbane and I had a brother in Tully in North Queensland. So I went over

01:04:00:00

to Brisbane and my brother said, “It’s no good going back south, there’s no work down there. You better go up north up to the Tully, up to the other brother,” which I did, and that was in 1933. I had my eighteenth birthday up in the Tully. 1934, I started cane cutting at a place we used to call Lower Tully,

01:04:30:00

and there, I cut three years there and then we decided that we’d go to Cairns, which we did, and we were lucky enough, we call them runs, like in the cane. So we were lucky enough, we got one of the best runs up in the north for growing cane. It was on the Barron flats, beautiful

01:05:00:00

big cane and everything, and our contract was we had to cut and load, shift rails across, was ten ton a day which is a lot of hard work. We used to start in the morning at six and knock off about half past ten. You wouldn’t go back out until about two o’clock and work through to six, on account of the heat in the middle of the day up there.

01:05:30:00

So I was there until the war broke out. When the war finished I hadn’t been home to see my people for six years then. So I thought I better slip down and see them first before I enlisted, so I came back to Cessnock for a while and I went back and I enlisted in June 1940.

01:06:00:00

We came back down into Brisbane, down to Enoggera, that was the army camp where we did our training. They had a hill there, I don’t know how many times we attacked it. We knew every blade of grass on it. Anyway, it was quite good and we got to know our mates, and I just

01:06:30:00

couldn’t tell you what date it was when they put us on the train and we came down to Sydney then, onto ferries and out into the Harbour, and there was the most magnificent boat in the world, the Queen Mary, and of course we went aboard. It was beautiful. The big thing is when you’re sailing out and they’re all singing these songs, you know, A Different Home,

01:07:00:00

your old heart starts to beat a bit but after that you settle down. We went over then to Perth, where we took on more troops, Western Australians. The Queen Mary was a very fast boat. I think from memory somewhere around twenty-eight knots it used to run. It wouldn’t go in convoy because nothing could keep up with her,

01:07:30:00

because she used to go by herself and then she could zigzag backwards and forwards and that, and the raiders couldn’t catch her. We went on then to Trincomalee in Ceylon and we trans-shipped there onto a smaller boat to go to the Middle East.
What were the main places

01:08:00:00

of your wartime experience?
Of the wartime?
Where did you go during the war? If you could give me a summary of where that was.
Do you want that now?
Just very briefly, and we’ll go back and talk about it in detail.
Well, we went through the Suez. We landed at Haifa. We came down, we trained at Palestine, went up to Egypt, over to Greece,

01:08:30:00

picked up some coming out of Greece and they put us onto Crete. I came off a hospital ship, then back to Palestine, back up to Egypt and up to Tobruk.
And where did you go after Tobruk?
After Tobruk when they pulled us out, we had a little, we had a few months’

01:09:00:00

spell. Then they took us up to the Lebanon and Aleppo up on the Turkey-Syrian border, and in them days they weren’t too sure if the Turks were going to come against us or not. So right on the border it’s very mountainous and all the tunnels, they had it all bored and ready to dynamite it, all ready to blow.

01:09:30:00

But where I was, there was a big viaduct, we called it big, over the Big O Gorge [?] and it was all stacked with dynamite underneath and the rails were wrapped in cotton wool and ready, all ready to blow, as I said, if the Turks should come in against us, and

01:10:00:00

I was lucky there. I was camped with two engineers. It was their responsibility to press the button. Of course by this time it’s Christmas and it was snowing, and of course we hadn’t been out in the desert that long and it was cold. One of the main features was the big nails in our boots used to freeze and your feet were always

01:10:30:00

cold. Of course the food wasn’t too plentiful either. But it was very pretty sitting right up over the mountains over, right over looking down into Turkey.
And what did you do after leaving Syria?
What did I do?
Yeah.
Do you want me to go back?
What we’ll do is, we’ll go back and we’ll talk about your wartime experience in detail,

01:11:00:00

but if you could just tell me what you did after Syria? I understand you came home and went to elsewhere in the war. If you could just say where that was?
I just can’t pick you up properly.
OK. When, we will go back and talk in detail about what happened during the war, but if you could just tell me where else you went after you left Syria? I understand you came home –
Yes, I see.
– and then you went elsewhere.

01:11:30:00

When we got to the Lebanons and up to the Lebanons to Aleppo, except for being a rifleman there one day, they said, “Anyone want to do a first aid course?” And I put my hand up, I said, “Yes, I’ll do a first aid course,” and then I said, “Will we go back to our company?” They said, “No,

01:12:00:00

you’ll become stretcher bearers.” So I got stretcher bearers. I’ve got my little card there to say what I was, and then we came back down in a cattle track it was, but they’d been cleaned, back back down through Beirut by rail, Palestine, back to the Suez and then we got on,

01:12:30:00

they loaded us onto a boat there, a magnificent, another beautiful boat. It was the Nieuw Amsterdam, a Dutch boat. It had been to South Africa and had just loaded up with fresh food and everything and they, so that’s something we hadn’t had for quite a while and it was lovely. And they wouldn’t let us do any guard duties or anything. They said, “No, it’s our boat. We run it as we

01:13:00:00

want to.” So we just laid around the deck, and then we went to Bombay, and this was the time when Curtin and the English, Churchill was arguing they wanted us to go to Burma and Curtin said, “No, they’re coming home.” So we laid off Bombay for a week and of course Curtin finished up getting his own way, and then they took

01:13:30:00

us down to Colombo which is Ceylon, Sri Lanka now, and we transhipped into smaller boats and we went out and we had the Ramillies. I just don’t know if it was a battle ship or a battle cruiser. I think she must’ve been a battle cruiser. It was big and guns poking up everywhere, and they took us almost back to South Africa,

01:14:00:00

down the coast, back along the Roaring Fifties right down the bottom end. I tell you what, it was rough, and back up into Perth. Of course there were raiders in the Indian Ocean. From there they bought us around to Adelaide where we trans-shipped. They put us in a camp at Sandy Creek in South Australia. We were there for a while,

01:14:30:00

and they brought us up to Tenterfield in northwest of New South Wales. From there we went to Somerset. From there they sent us, they put us on the old Anshun and took us to Milne Bay. It was a filthy ship. Of course after Milne Bay there was took in our battalion, the 2/12th,

01:15:00:00

we went to Goodenough Island and while we were on Goodenough Island I got crook. I started to spit up a bit of blood and the doctor thought I had TB [tuberculosis]. So there was a lugger going back with sick and that on it. He said, “Well, you can go back and look after them,” and he thought, “Well, I won’t see him again.” Of course I saw him later, and when I got back there

01:15:30:00

in hospital after a while it cleared up. In the meantime our brigade had moved over and they went through Buna, Oro Bay, that was the big campaign then. I rejoined the unit on Sanananda and after Sanananda we came home. I can

01:16:00:00

say more about that after. Then we went up to the Finisterre [Ranges], the Shaggy Ridge, where we got the mountain gun and we came home again and had a bit of leave, a week’s leave. There weren’t ever too liberal, and then we went up to Morotai where we transhipped into landing barges to

01:16:30:00

take us over to Balikpapan in Borneo. We were there when it finished.
Could you tell me very briefly what you did after the war? Just in a few minutes, just tell me what jobs you did, what job you did immediately after the war and just bring us up to date to where you are now, just very briefly?
Well, after discharge in December ’45, by then I

01:17:00:00

was in a pretty bad way with the nerves. You couldn’t get it out of your mind. I was very restless. I had various work. I just couldn’t settle down, and that’s where I met Joy, my wife, and then I’ll tell you more about that, and finished up I went to Sydney and I was working there

01:17:30:00

on the wharves. I had a brother there on the wharf and he got me there, and stopped there for a while. I came back to the Lake, Lake Macquarie. Before I came to the Lake Macquarie I met my other wife, not this one. My other wife died of a heart attack, and we got married and I was married for forty-five years when she had the heart attack.

01:18:00:00

I worked in the mines, I was driving a machine, and I was in the mines when I retired.
Mr Howell, thank you. What I’m going to do now is go back and talk to you about your childhood and ask you to explain what it was like growing up in Wee Waa. What did you used to do as a young boy?
As a

01:18:30:00

young boy? Well, as I said, we were in the Depression and very little, well, you didn’t have any money. Mum and Dad, they were struggling, you know, with eight in the family in them days. It was very, very hard. So we just in them days, not like today

01:19:00:00

where you go out, where you could go out and play. We had a lot of bush, go out in the bush, and there were a couple of dams there where the mines used to get their water from. I was forbidden to swim in it, but that didn’t matter, we did. And there once I was, a tree had fell out over the dam. So of course, me, I climbed out over it and slipped and twisted

01:19:30:00

my knee. I couldn’t walk, so they had to get ambulance and take me. I went into hospital for three weeks. Yes, they were days I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through again. You had nothing, you had very poor clothes. It was, but in one way we, I don’t know what you’d

01:20:00:00

say. We had plenty of company because everyone was the same, and you had to go out and play or you had to go out in the bush. You did different little things, because as you get older, bike riding and of course I used to, I took dancing and I danced a lot later on.
What did

01:20:30:00

you use to do for food during the Depression? What did your family do for food?
As I said, Dad had horse teams and he had the dairy farm, and when he came to Cessnock at Cedar Creek he shared a farm with one of his brothers and he cut timber in the mountains, and

01:21:00:00

of course Mum was home with all the kids. We survived.
What kind of food did you eat as a child?
Food, well it was pretty scarce in them days. You could go down and get a side of lamb. You wouldn’t get lamb in them days like, well, we couldn’t anyway. You’d get a side of mutton and that was the big bone because you get the full

01:21:30:00

side and Dad would cut it up and brine some and so forth. Of course no refrigeration or anything in them days. Of course he had a big vegetable garden at home too. He had a few ducks and fowls up the back. We survived alright.
Did you go to school?
I went to, I had to leave when I was sixteen and I wasn’t a very bright

01:22:00:00

pupil, I don’t think. I used to play up too much.
You’ve mentioned that you went cane cutting in North Queensland. Can you tell me what that was like?
Well, cane cutting in the north in them days was, as I said, we had to cut load and move rails across, like ten ton, and of course the heat.

01:22:30:00

Of course after the first twelve months you acclimatise to it and you don’t take much notice of it. It was recognised then as one of the hardest works you could get. Hardest work because you cut, as we say, all green cane. They wouldn’t let you burn it. The only time we ever got a burn was towards the end of the season when the rats,

01:23:00:00

when the cane was only small pockets here and there and the rats, and the cane was in little bits and pieces and all the rats got down and chewed it and done all their business there and Wheel’s disease. So that’s when they had to burn then. It was hard, but we were only young and fit.
What kind of living arrangements

01:23:30:00

did you have, what kind of accommodation?
Well, we always cut, my brother and I, in big gangs. We’d have eight or nine cutters and a cook, and all farmers in them days had barracks. So we’d have the barracks, he’d hire a cook and he had to supply us with our three meals, two smokos

01:24:00:00

and I think it was round about twenty-six shillings in them days for a week, and he had to be a pretty good cook too, otherwise they’d sack him and get someone else, yeah.
And what kind of equipment were you using to cut the cane?
You only used a cane knife. It was so long, very

01:24:30:00

sharp though. You could almost shave with it. You had to, because in them days you’d have to cut the cane very low level with the ground, otherwise the old cocky would come along and be scratching around to see if you were high or not, and you had to cut the top off and you laid it as you cut. You made it what you think you could lift in bundles, and

01:25:00:00

of course you had to lift it to load it onto the cane trucks they brought in. It was hard work.
What kind of other men were doing that work with you at the time?
[UNCLEAR] Queensland in them days, in the Tully we could sign on, I think it was ninety-five per cent British, five per cent

01:25:30:00

Italian. Further up the coast near Innisfail and Ingham they could sign on all Italians. So you had your sign on. You had your, like the ganger, and then he had, the ganger and eight men. Well, he’d sign with the farmers. He had

01:26:00:00

so many farms that he knew. They’d estimate you could do, we mostly started in the second week of June and we’d like to cut out about November because it got too hot.
You mentioned that there were percentages of British and migrants, was that a particular rule at the time?

01:26:30:00

Oh yes, that was right through the north. I think it was down south too. I’m just not sure, but I think it was. Different areas, you had different areas. Where we were was the Tully, and then you went up to a place, Silkwood, Innisfail, and so on right up to Cairns and up to Mossman. They had their groups,

01:27:00:00

and a lot of them might’ve had a little bit of difference in their percentage, but around Tully it was very strict.
Was that a union rule? A union rule?
Union. We were very strong, AWU [Australian Workers’ Union]. Yes, you had to be in the union

01:27:30:00

otherwise no job. We always liked the unions because that’s the only protection we had. Otherwise the old farmers and that, they’d exploit you, but not while were in the AWU. Of course, in them days the AWU was one of the big unions in Queensland. I think it almost governed Queensland.

01:28:00:00

What was Tully like in those days?
Tully in those days, of course being eighteen and being young, was a very wild town. You realise that when the cane started the rest of Australia was just coming out of the Depression and people had come from everywhere, all over Australia looking for work and you just didn’t know

01:28:30:00

who they were. You knew his name and that was about it. He might’ve said, “I come from Perth or Adelaide or Melbourne somewhere,” but you didn’t just know who he was, his background I’m talking about. But it was very very wild. What they used to, most of them do, you’d work five days straight and then up till lunchtime on Saturday, that’s five and a half days, and

01:29:00:00

of course then you’d go to town. You had your check in your pocket, you had a few beers. In my case as I said, I used to do a lot of dancing. If there was a dance on I’d dance. And in Tully there once they had, these two blokes pulled their guns out and had a bit of a go shooting at one another. That’s how bad it was.
Funny, it was Sunday morning, down at a place called Euramo, they had an Irish gang, all Irishmen. Irish cook, everyone was Irish, and they’d come into the Tully and one of the publicans was Pat and Mick Mullins. They had one of the first hotels there, and of course Pat and Mick, they were Irish. Sunday morning

01:30:00:00

all the Irishmen had to go to church. As soon as church was over he’d come back, he’d go across to where the freezers were or where they used to make the ice and he’d roll a keg across the road and you could do what you liked then, but they had to go to church first.
You mentioned that you did a lot of dancing, what kind of dancing was it?
Well, I

01:30:30:00

used to do mostly, I never ballroom competition. I only did it for pleasure. More or less like ballroom dancing, but up in Cairns there, ’38, before the war started we’d finished, because we had the baths there.

01:31:00:00

We used to do a lot of swimming and I met this chappy and he was running a dancing school and he’d won the Queensland ballroom dancing, but in them days you had to be six foot to be in the Australian competition and he wasn’t. He was a bit too short. And he said he got us then to, he’d put his class through

01:31:30:00

their steps and then he’d get us to partner them and I learned a lot of dancing through him. If ever there was a dance anywhere I was there.
Where were the dances in those days?
Where? Well, in Cairns in them days nearly everywhere you went had a good hall. Not like today now, they close,

01:32:00:00

they’re all closed down, but in them days everyone had a hall. Up in Cairns they had the Kit-Kat, not the big one in Sydney. They had the Aquatic Club and then they had another big one which had no fans or anything. They had big

01:32:30:00

bunkers swinging in the roof backward and forward to stir the air up and it was, but it was beautiful. We used to, some night, once in a while I should say they would say, “We’re having a cream night.” So you’d have your creams on, your silk shirt and everything, tie, and everyone looked the same. It was beautiful, not like today.
What did Cairns

01:33:00:00

look like in those days?
Cairns to me in them days was beautiful. I love Cairns, I still do. I didn’t go back. It was only a small place in them days. If it was in the off season when we weren’t working we used to go down to the wharves and we used to do a bit of fishing and we had traps we put over

01:33:30:00

and get prawns and crabs, all kinds of things like that. And then once in a while a tourist boat would come in, a lot of people from down south. I think it started from under, from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and carry on, and they’d bring these people up and they’d have a holiday up there. We had nothing to do with us, but

01:34:00:00

Cairns, and to have a beer in Cairns, I thought Cairns beer was one of the best beers in the world. It was beautiful. But still there they had no refrigeration. They’d come in of a morning, they’d put a keg up on the counter and pull it straight off the wood. Eleven o’clock at night, I think it was about eleven or ten or eleven o’clock they’d close it down. What’s left

01:34:30:00

in the keg they’d take away and put a fresh keg in. But I love Cairns.
What was the climate like for you at that time?
Well, it’s like everywhere else, you acclimatise. When you first go up there it’s hot, you can hardly breathe, but then after a while, when your blood

01:35:00:00

thins out, you acclimatise. It’s just like being anywhere else, it’s lovely. Of course, you don’t get any cold weather. If we had, what would I say? If the temperature dropped a little bit it would be fairly cold for up there, well, down here would be say a nice spring day, the difference.
What would you do during the wet season when the cane cutting

01:35:30:00

had finished?
Well, there’s no work, the same as everywhere else. But sometimes we had a friend and he had a motor lorry and he might get some work for it. People mightn’t realise Cairns is only about, I’ll go back to the old measurement, about three feet above sea level

01:36:00:00

and nearly all Cairns after you leave just on the beach and go back, is all filled in, and he might get a contract to fill a block in because he had his sandpits and so forth and all shovels in them days too. No machines, and you’d pick up a bit of work like that. But we had too, we had a sustenance.

01:36:30:00

I think it was sixpence in the pound we used to pay and that entitled us to about seventeen weeks, a pretty good weekly thing. We could survive.
Who was paying you that? Who paid you that?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I could answer that, if it was a government. More than likely

01:37:00:00

it was the state. But we paid sixpence in the pound into it.
Do you remember how much you were being paid to cut cane?
I forget the rate of pay. It wasn’t much. I think it was only around about six shilling a ton, I think, or something. We had to cut ten ton. You couldn’t cut

01:37:30:00

more or less. But I mean to say, a couple of ton either way it wouldn’t matter, but they knew, well you get to know the weight of how much acres of cane. You know by looking at it. You get used to it, it runs say thirty ton to the acre or forty ton to the acre, then they’d, so many rows and so on and so on and they’d work it out and that’s what you’d do.
When you

01:38:00:00

were living in Cairns, did you go out swimming on the reef? Did people do that?
Beach?
On the Barrier Reef. Did people do that?
I didn’t from Cairns. From the Tully we used to. We used to go out some Saturdays after we finished. We’d go to the Lower Tully and a bloke had a boat there and we’d go out onto the reef.

01:38:30:00

And another year I changed gangs and we went down to Ingham, sorry, Cardwell, and we went out onto the reef and stopped overnight on the reef and came back. You wonder, why I say, in them days the little coastal boats would come up the coast

01:39:00:00

with produce. They’d stop at Cardwell, the [UNCLEAR] launch, a good sized launch it was, it would come out and they’d load, say, fuel or potatoes or something, whatever they had, I just couldn’t tell you now, and he’d take them into Cardwell and it would move up to Dunk Island and the boat would come out from the Hull River to the Lower Tully and go out there. I’ll tell you,

01:39:30:00

on Dunk Island in 1934 no one lived on it. The only people, Bamburgh and his wife had a house there but they were both buried down the gully. They had a big cairn and a monument there and it was a beautiful island. There was nothing on it. You’d go out, huge big oysters and pigeons in the trees and everything. It was lovely, but

01:40:00:00

today Dunk Island, I’ve been back there and it’s nothing.
The landscape of north Queensland at that time, what kind of houses and architecture was there in Cairns especially?
Well, Cairns and nearly all Queensland right down to Brisbane was built on stilts and that’s for the cold weather.

01:40:30:00

And of course up in the north too it would be, I said cold weather, for the hot weather. And up in the north too it would be for ventilation because in the Tully we had 244 inches of rain there one year, and you get that over about four or five month in the monsoon season.

01:41:00:00

So they had to be up high, otherwise you get the mould and everything, and cool too. But nearly everything up there was built high. In Cairns there was a few scattering of houses just on ordinary peers, but the majority of them was up on stilts.
What was the sign,

01:41:30:00

shall I stop? Yeah, OK. We’re just going to change the tape, Mr Howell. We’re just going to change the tape over.
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 02

02:00:34:00

How did you travel from New South Wales to Queensland?
Well, there was only one way, oh, to Queensland, to Brisbane, by rail. Yes, I said before I had a little bit of work out in Wee Waa and I saved my money and had enough to come across to Brisbane. Yes, by rail.

02:01:00:00

You didn’t have buses or anything in them days.
Were there any other men travelling from New South Wales up to Queensland looking for work?
Now, are we only going to Brisbane or further up?
Further up as well.
Further. Why I ask this was you’ve got realise as I said before, it was in Depression and there were a lot of chaps were

02:01:30:00

carrying, we used to say humping their bluey, and they used to hop on a goods train, get under tarpaulins and go up, and of course all the big places like Rockhampton and them, the police would come down and anyone on it they’d pull them off and give them a day or a couple of days in the old boover [?] and then they’d be pushed or sent back again.

02:02:00:00

If you had the money and paid your fare there was no problem. As I said, I had a brother in Cairns, in Brisbane, a brother in Tully and the brother in Brisbane, he paid my fare, so I just sat back and went up. It was three days and three nights in the train in them days. You paid your own food and everything.
While you were cane cutting what sort of work

02:02:30:00

were your brothers doing?
Well, I only had the one brother up there. The other brother was in Brisbane. He was cutting, we would cut together. We both worked in the same gang.
And how was the rest of the family surviving back in Wee Waa?
Where, in up Cairns?
No, your family that you’d left in Wee Waa?
Out at Wee Waa, I only had a

02:03:00:00

grandmother out there, and I think he had two or three sons out there then, like Mum’s brothers and sisters. Grandfather Whitten, he had what they used to call in them days a little selection. Of course he had a windmill and he grew beautiful things, grapes and that. And

02:03:30:00

the rest of the country, it could be as barren as one thing, until they discovered that Wee Waa is sitting on a sea of water. That’s why they’ve got the cotton out there now. Of course in them days all they had to do was have windmills, but he grew beautiful stuff.
Can you explain what having a selection meant?
Well, a selection is, I suppose today they’d say

02:04:00:00

we’ve got a couple of acres, five acres or something like that. Well, that’s what it was, just a small, I just couldn’t tell you what he had. He might’ve had eighty, he might’ve had a couple of acres of ground there and he used to farm that. See, Grandfather Whitten was a shearer in the old hand-clipping days and he’d clip his hundred and hang his shears up. He wouldn’t clip anymore.

02:04:30:00

And they’re an old family too. They came from, I can’t go back that far, too far, but they moved up from Goulburn up to Wee Waa and that’s where he did his shearing and so forth.
Were all of your family farmers?
Actually, I’d say all Dad’s brothers bar one, yes. The one, he had three brothers on

02:05:00:00

this property that was granted to the, it was the father before him, the grandfather before him. He came out here as an Australian soldier, as a redcoat, and he got this land and it was split up between the three. I don’t know why Dad didn’t get any. I think he might’ve had the wanderlust like us. That’s why he went to Wee Waa.

02:05:30:00

Can you explain what that wanderlust meant?
Itchy feet, can’t stop still. You always want to move on. I don’t know just what it means. Say you were some place, you’d stop there, you might work there and then you get the urge, I’ll go somewhere else. Of course in them days they had no ties.

02:06:00:00

You’d just please yourself.
And how much of that wanderlust was in the other men who were cane cutters?
Well, I think I mentioned before they came from all over Australia. When the season started in June, they’d lob there up before June because if they cut the year before they’d have their own gang, but they’d come from,

02:06:30:00

I worked with blokes from Adelaide, Melbourne, Tasmania. There’s no work down there, see. There was work, they knew they had their work in Cairns in the cane industry when it started. But then a lot of the blokes when we finished in November, quite a few went up into the Gulf country, like tin scratching, as

02:07:00:00

we say, looking for tin or gold. Others would come down to Rockhampton and go out to the Dawson Valley, where they used to grow a lot of corn, and they’d pick that. You know, you just wandered about whatever was going.
Would you describe it as a good life?
Good?
Good life?
I think a life like that, when you’re

02:07:30:00

about eighteen, nineteen, was a beautiful life. You were free. Like, what I mean was, you had no worries, you had no ties. All my people was down in Cessnock and I was up in Queensland, so I mean you moved around. I think it was a great life. Unfortunately you get older and it finishes.

02:08:00:00

What were the families like who owned the cane farms?
Well, the biggest part of them would be Italian. Some were Spaniards. Of course they had Australians too, but on the norm it wasn’t a bad life. We were very friendly with one farmer, and he was Italian, and a

02:08:30:00

northern Italian. He was very fair and a very big man, and him and his family were wonderful people. As a matter of fact I got into trouble because I stuck up for him on the other side when I was away. He said, “You’re an Italian lover.” I said, but I had to steer because he was. He was a champion bloke.
What sort of contact and experiences

02:09:00:00

did you have with that family?
It’s only like most. A working, it was cutting. We didn’t have much. It was our ganger, he had all the contact with the farmer.
How did you get to know this man that you thought so fondly of?
The ganger?
The Italian?
Well, we cut down near

02:09:30:00

his farm and as I said before, there were all barracks. Every farmer had barracks for the gangs to come in, and one off season the brother and his wife and his child and myself, I was with them, they stopped in the barracks for a season, for the off season, and Vic Sant’Elena [?] was his name, lived just across the road and it was very, very good,

02:10:00:00

and Vic would be, if they had, of course if Italians, if they have a party it goes all night. There’s always a big table laden with food and they sing and carry on, you know, with an accordion and that. And Vic wouldn’t have one without he asked the brother and I. We’d go over

02:10:30:00

and Vic wouldn’t leave us. Of course there were other Italians there and not everyone was real friendly because, on account of the percentage of, as I said, ninety-five per cent Australians and five per cent would sign on for cane cutting, and Vic would never leave us. We’d be there and we’d just enjoy the party with him. Of course the sister-in-law and

02:11:00:00

the daughter, they could come across to his wife and he had a couple in the family, proper boys and that. I went back about fourteen, fifteen years ago and I went out to them and I met one of the sons and I just missed his mother, but Vic had died by then, the father.
You mentioned

02:11:30:00

that there were people cutting cane who came from very different backgrounds, how did all of those different people get on?
See, during the Depression there was no work, as you know, and these people had come up. You wouldn’t even know where they’d come from. There was one bloke we worked with,

02:12:00:00

in about 1934, I’d say it would be. He came from Melbourne. Of course they used to say this and say that and we used to take them with a grain of salt as the saying is, and I think he left Melbourne just a couple of steps in front of the police. This happened in a lot of cases. To get away they’d come north. They’d have the money and they’d come north.

02:12:30:00

And he was a pretty tough cookie, this young bloke.
Why?
His attitude to people, you know. He wasn’t, like, a docile type of bloke. I think he’d fight at the drop of a hat and so forth.
What sort of fighting was there? What sort of fighting was there amongst the men?
It was only

02:13:00:00

fist fighting. Mostly they’d, Sunday they’d get a few too many beers in them and they’d all start to have a fight. Didn’t take much to stir them up at that age, you know. As I said, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, all young and rearing to go. And not everyone danced, they were just, they’d put their time in and go and have a fight with someone until the police came along

02:13:30:00

and might lumber [arrest] one or two of them. That was around the Tully, it was a pretty wild place.
What would they fight over?
Nothing. No, they didn’t need an excuse.
How much drinking was there?
A fair bit among the young ones, because in them days going back, you know like back in the

02:14:00:00

’30s, early ’40s, there wasn’t much doing to occupy them.
How much did the Italians mix with people who weren’t Italians?
Link?
Mix.
Mix. Mostly they kept to

02:14:30:00

themselves. They had their groups. The Spaniards had their little group and, as I say, one farmer would put a party on and it might be three or four weeks or a month, another one would put, of course he’d invite all the other Italians there and then the other would put on a party. There was one,

02:15:00:00

one farmer down the Lower Tully, I think it was his son getting married. His wife was coming out by proxy from Italy and the brother and I, Vic Sant’Elena, he asked us to come down and we went down to the wedding. Very nice, because an Italian wedding is something that not everyone has been to. It’s lovely.

02:15:30:00

What of their Italian customs were visible at that wedding?
I don’t know if I could answer that, because it’s too long ago.
Did it seem like a different wedding to you?
Yes. They’ve got a different ritual and so forth and everything.

02:16:00:00

Of course when they have anything like that, as I said before, they’ve got heaps and heaps of food. They might kill half a dozen or a dozen fowls. They might kill a young calf or something and it’s all cooked with a lot of garlic. It was beautiful.
What did you know about Europe

02:16:30:00

at that time?
Europe, Europe? All I knew about Europe was what I read, what was on the atlas. We knew nothing, no. It was all just another part of the world, that’s all.
Can you remember how you found out that there was a conflict brewing

02:17:00:00

in Europe, that the war was coming?
It was on later, as far as I know, in ’39 that it looked like going to war. Of course you always heard what Hitler was doing. What he was going from one country and taking another country and another country, and it was published and everyone knew

02:17:30:00

it was inevitable. It had to happen, because once he took France, England had to come into it.
How did you first hear about Hitler?
I think, if I remember the 3rd of September was a Saturday night and I was in Cairns when they said

02:18:00:00

England’s just declared war on Germany. I think it was the 3rd of September.
Was there a cinema in Cairns?
Cinema. Every town that had a few houses had a cinema. A picture show, we used to call them in them days, yes. And biggest part of them, you didn’t have ordinary chairs like they have today. They had nearly all deck

02:18:30:00

chairs. You just laid back in a deck chair and watched the screen. It was all black and white silent pictures.
What sort of pictures would you watch?
Well, we had all the great actresses, you know. Actually you’d watch any picture that was on, like especially a musical or things like that. Of course when we were younger

02:19:00:00

before that we used to have old Tom Mix and all them going back, the silent days.
And where was the picture theatre that you would go to?
Where?
In Tully.
In the Tully? Tully was mostly a main, one street, not very long either and then it went left and right like a T up the top, and it was right down the bottom.

02:19:30:00

Down the bottom, it was the first place on the left hand side going up and a pretty big place. Of course down further they had like a showground there, and the mill, the sugar mill was just over on the right.
When would you go to the pictures?
With us blokes we’d only go, if there wasn’t a dance on we’d go Saturday nights.

02:20:00:00

On Sunday we’d be in town.
And what contact did you have with girls at that time?
Only through dancing. If you were, say, a fair dancer, you could always get a dance. If you trod on everyone’s toes you wouldn’t.

02:20:30:00

So how would you get to dance with a girl?
Well, in them days too, you walked and it would be pouring rain and as you know, up in the north it can rain. And the girls would come in their evening frocks and you’d be dressed up in a suit and everything because if you didn’t come half the time you’d never get out.

02:21:00:00

You had to go, and so you walked everywhere. Eventually I did get a bike later on.
Did you watch newsreels when you were at the pictures?
They weren’t the, all they had was, they had a newsreel. Then sometimes they’d just flash something

02:21:30:00

onto the screen, and plenty of ads [advertisements] of course. Of course the newsreels in them days, I mean, you might watch something happen in Brisbane. It might be weeks after before you’d get it up in the Tully. You didn’t have communications much.
So how did you get your news? How did you know what was

02:22:00:00

happening in the world?
We had a wireless, through the wireless. Had no tellies or nothing, it was only the wireless. They’d broadcast it.
What did you listen to on the wireless?
Well, in them days your wireless was

02:22:30:00

on nearly all day. Anything, you’d switch on and if it was something you wanted to listen to, you’d listen. If there wasn’t, then you just wouldn’t. I don’t know. Of course you never missed the news, always had the news on. When we were in the barracks cutting we never had a wireless. You could go all the week and you wouldn’t hear, you wouldn’t know what was going on in the world.

02:23:00:00

What sort of discussions were men having about the war that was coming?
God, I don’t know. Look, I don’t think it was ever discussed. It was up to the individual. A lot of them never enlisted. They may have after I did, but a lot of them never. It was up to the individual

02:23:30:00

to please himself.
So what thoughts did you have about enlisting before war broke out?
Well, I don’t know if I had much. As I said, I hadn’t been home for six years and I came home and when I went back, I don’t know, just one Saturday I said, I was in town after, as soon as the war, no, before we started cutting

02:24:00:00

I said, “I’m going down to enlist,” and that was it. I just didn’t have much thought about it. I just thought, “Oh well, you do these things when you’re young.”
Why did you enlist?
Why? I don’t know. I just enlisted. I didn’t have any, of course you’d

02:24:30:00

been hearing about Hitler all the time. What he was doing, taking all the one country next, all this caper, and I think that does influence you. You think, “Well, it’s time I went.” So you just went down and enlisted.
And at that time that war was declared, how were people treating the Italians?
Well,

02:25:00:00

after the, but not at that time, but later on they put a lot in compounds, because they might’ve just opened their mouth too much, said Mussolini was a good bloke or something and it was heard. The authorities would put them in a compound. This bloke I said was a champion bloke, Vic Sant’Elena,

02:25:30:00

he must’ve opened his mouth once and said that Mussolini was a good fellow and all this caper so he put in three years behind wire just for that. Not that he wouldn’t do anything, sabotage or anything like that, but he said it and the

02:26:00:00

authorities found out. Someone would’ve reported him anyway and they put him behind the wire for two or three years.
What level of trust was there amongst men for Italians?
In the Tully we didn’t have much to do with them because, I mean ninety-five

02:26:30:00

per cent Australian, five per cent Italian, we didn’t ever work with any Italians. We had none in the gangs. So actually we didn’t know any. And the farmers, as I said, were very friendly with Vic Sant’Elena.

02:27:00:00

Where did you go on the day you enlisted?
I just went and enlisted in Cairns. Went and signed on and I think it was the day after they said, “Come on,” and they put us on a train and sent us down to Brisbane.
What did the place look like in Cairns where you enlisted? What was it?
That’d be a hard one. I just can’t think.

02:27:30:00

I think it was just like a vacant room or something where the army had set up. Of course there was no such thing as a computer or anything like that. They just had to write everything down, your history, any scars and so forth, what you had for identification, the colour of your eyes.
How many men were there enlisting

02:28:00:00

at that time that day?
This particular time there’d only be twenty or thirty of us because Cairns covered a pretty big area. Cairns, they had to come down from up along the coast, up at Mossman, up the Daintree River, and then they went inland up into the Gulf country. They’d all come down to Cairns. Because each one, each

02:28:30:00

town, Townsville, they’d go out along the west, out to Ewarton, out Mount Isa and all that area, and Rockhampton went further down. But each town had their own, like big towns, like towns, like, as I said, you’d enlist. Little towns didn’t have it, you had to come down.
What did you take with you when you enlisted? What personal belongings

02:29:00:00

did you take?
Well I was lucky, I had a port [portmanteau]. I’ll tell you the reason why, and you took, you went down in your civilian clothes and you took all like your personal things. A lot of the boys that were stuck in the Gulf and that doing it hard, they might have what they possessed in a sugar bag or something like that.

02:29:30:00

As I said before, times were hard. A lot of them didn’t have work and I think a lot of them, I’m not taking anything away from them, but a lot of them I think enlisted to get a good meal and clothes. But we were lucky because we were cane cutting.
What was it like, then, to leave the cane cutting behind?

02:30:00:00

It’s not hard to leave behind, because it’s that bloomin’ hard. No, it’s just something, you just go from one to the other, just like changing jobs, changing work, you know. You went to one office to another office or something like that.
But what sort of work did you think the army

02:30:30:00

might be?
That is something you didn’t know, and I don’t think you wanted to know at that stage. You knew that you’d be going overseas, over to the Middle East in them days. I think you more or less, may I say, like an adventure, you want to be in it. Of course as far as

02:31:00:00

getting killed or anything like that, you never thought about them things.
What did you think the Middle East was like, in your head before you went what did you imagine it to be like?
Well, there again, the Middle East was only a place on the map on the atlas. You had no

02:31:30:00

idea, not back in them days. Like today you see it on the telly, all places, but in them days you only had the atlas so you had no idea. Not the faintest idea what it was like. If, some of them might’ve knew some of the world, the First World War diggers that fought there, some of the light brigade [light horse], but I didn’t know anyone.

02:32:00:00

Although I did have a mate, he was a First World War digger but he wasn’t in Palestine. He was more likely over in France. But no, you had no idea, not the faintest.
What did your friends tell you about the First World War?
He wouldn’t say, he never spoke about it, no. Some of the funny things that happened he might mention, you know.

02:32:30:00

No, they’re like everyone else, something you don’t talk about.
What happened after the day you enlisted?
Nothing, actually. You just waited then. Of course, we hadn’t started work. We were, it was just before we started that

02:33:00:00

I enlisted and, pardon me, no, no, nothing much.
Where did you sleep that night, the first night you enlisted?
No, no, no. We came home, went back to where we lived. It was a few days before we came south on the train. Yes, you didn’t just walk

02:33:30:00

in and enlist at ten o’clock and go into barracks or anything like that. No, you were still in civilian clothes and all that. You just went home and they’d give you a date to be, what time to be on the train.
And what did you do in those few days before you travelled on the train?
What I always did, I suppose. If a dance was on, I’d dance.

02:34:00:00

If not, we’d go and do a bit of fishing. Of course, I did a lot of swimming too. We had the baths. I used to do a lot of swimming.
Can you tell me about the place you went to where you first started training?
Yeah. We came down to Brisbane out to a place, the army camp was Enoggera, and that was, I

02:34:30:00

think it was built for the First World War diggers and they did their training there. It had all the barracks and the parade ground and the rifle range there and everything else, and it was pretty hard for us. They give you, in them days it was a chaff bag with a little bit of straw in it and you slept on the floor, and

02:35:00:00

the food wasn’t too bad, I suppose, for them days. You had to do your share of what we used to call spud peeling, peeling the potatoes or doing a little bit around the place. But mostly you trained and you marched, route marches, and you had to use the bayonet training and rifle ranges and all that. You did it all.

02:35:30:00

Of course once you got your inoculation, that made you very sick, but you didn’t get many days off in the army.
Can you tell me about how they trained you to use a gun?
Well, mostly there’s only the rifle range. They’d take you out on the rifle range, because

02:36:00:00

we had the 303’s, the First War diggers’ guns, and your rifle on the rifle range, and apart from that they had things set up where you do a bit of bayonet practise. Mostly then you had your drill doing salute arms and drive you mad. But still it all had to be done, to drill it into you.

02:36:30:00

Can you tell me about what the discipline was like at that training?
Discipline, they’re always pretty tough in the army, and nearly all the instructors were First War blokes, diggers, and they’d have sergeant’s stripes, SSMs [squadron sergeant major] and so forth, and we, they were

02:37:00:00

the instructors. And we had, there was only three, maybe more, we had more, a few of our blokes that were made sergeants. See, they might’ve had before, they might’ve been in the militia [Citizens Military Forces] and then when

02:37:30:00

they enlisted they give them stripes straight away on account of their background, and some of them stopped behind when the others went overseas, the first lot. They stayed behind and they became, like, instructors because as soon as they got up to a certain thing they made lieutenants out of them.
What experience had you had using a gun?

02:38:00:00

Using a gun? Very little. Only mostly on training. Tobruk, we had a Bren gun [light machine gun]. Later on when they made me a stretcher bearer we didn’t carry guns.
What did the compound look like where you

02:38:30:00

being trained?
The army training camp was for the First World War diggers. It was quite big and in and out, you just had a gate and someone on guard. You had to have a leave pass to go out and so forth, but

02:39:00:00

weren’t fenced in with barbed wire or anything like that.
And can you tell me about what the local town looked like?
It’s a suburb, Enoggera’s a suburb, one of the outer suburbs in them days of Brisbane. We didn’t have far to walk before we were able to get a tram into Brisbane. It was quite nice in them days because, as I said, it was on the outer suburbs.

02:39:30:00

What would you do during your leave time?
You’d only get day leave. Go into Brisbane, you know, or if we were lucky enough to get overnight we’d go to a dance. That was my favourite pastime. You’d meet all the boys, maybe, at one of the hotels, you’d have a few

02:40:00:00

beers with them.
What was the food like that they were giving you in the army then?
In them days there in Brisbane in the army camps it wasn’t too bad because they could get it and they got plenty of it. It was later on when it got hard, but there in Brisbane, no, there was plenty. You didn’t have any, it was

02:40:30:00

like hard food. You didn’t get any savouries or anything like that. It was just a straight out hard meal.
How long did you train in Enoggera for?
We were there for about three months.
OK.
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 03

03:00:31:00

OK, Mr Howell, we were talking about the camp in Brisbane that you were in. I wanted to ask you, were you told at that stage where you were going?
No. You mean before we went away? No. Right through the army career they never tell you what’s

03:01:00:00

ahead of you or where you’re going or anything like that. They just come along and pack up and you’re gone. So of course we knew we’d be going to the Middle East, because New Guinea hadn’t started or anything like that. The Japs [Japanese] hadn’t been into the war or anything. We knew we’d be going over there. We could’ve went to the Middle East. Actually, the

03:01:30:00

brigade went to England. They went to England and I didn’t enlist until the end of ’40 in June, and they went over there. I think it was just a holiday and they came back. I joined them in the Middle East. They had their full complement of men when they went away, see.

03:02:00:00

You mentioned an inoculation you were given?
Yeah.
What was that for?
Before you went overseas they inoculated for smallpox on the arm. They give it a scratch with something, a needle or something like that. Then they put like the smallpox and it’s an inoculation

03:02:30:00

against it. Apparently it’s pretty rife over there in other parts of the world, and your arm would come up in great big sores and blisters and everything came out into sores. But then when it was cleaned up you still had the scar. The scar is there until the day you die.
At this stage had you been placed in a division? Were you given your division at this

03:03:00:00

point?
No. I didn’t go, the 7th, 9th was in Tobruk.
Can you tell me about leaving Brisbane on your way to the war?
Well, we only, when we left Brisbane they just put us on the passenger train. We went straight down to Sydney.

03:03:30:00

I think it was Rose Bay or White Bay, one of those, and then onto the ferry and then out to the Queen Mary. We didn’t stop anywhere.
Do you remember the train journey from Brisbane to Sydney?
Well, the only thing would be that it

03:04:00:00

was just a troop train. There was only troops aboard, just an ordinary train. No special train or nothing, just an ordinary train but it only had troops aboard. So I don’t know if we had the right of way or anything like that on the railways. They didn’t stop that much. They only stopped at different places where they’d have a meal.
Did you sleep on

03:04:30:00

that train?
Not that I know of. Troopers don’t get much sleep. They mostly pack them in.
Could you explain what the Queen Mary looked like?
Outside, inside?
Both.
It was a – of course, it was the best ship

03:05:00:00

in the world when it was built. It was before the Queen, before the Lizzie [Queen Elizabeth II] was built. She weighed, I think, 84,000 tons, made her the biggest ship in the world. She was made in them days, when they built it it was made between England and New York. Of course the top end of the Atlantic, which is cold,

03:05:30:00

and of course when she came down here into our climate it was a different story. But when you went aboard the Mary, of course she had big promenade decks and decks out the front, decks out the back. Not like today, when all around the promenade they had deck chairs and the swimming pool used to be below decks out of the cold weather up in

03:06:00:00

the Atlantic, and of course she hadn’t been touched. She was still a passenger liner and it was magnificent. The dining rooms were, I suppose we sat in chairs that millionaires had sat in and all this, in them days as the saying goes. It was really beautiful. The lounge rooms were something out of this world. Big lounges and tapestry and so forth.

03:06:30:00

And the staircase, big huge staircase going up. It was a beautiful ship. Some of the boys, they were lucky, they had cabins. But I was, and a few of the others, we were down around about the water line. Well down below the decks, the upper decks, and

03:07:00:00

from when we left and went over to Fremantle and that she would be good weather wise because you were down south, but then when we started to go up towards the equator she was hot. It was hot, because as I said no air conditioning or anything in them days, and I was just going to pause

03:07:30:00

Their food was, you know, good, reasonable, but not a great amount of it on account of the amount of soldiers aboard, but we found out if you went down to the cookhouse after and give the old cook two shillings, you’d get a plate of

03:08:00:00

loin chops or something like that. You soon wake up to these things when you’re in the army. You scrounge around. It was good, supplemented the meals, very good. As I said, she was a beautiful boat. She didn’t rock or roll or anything like that, and the swimming pool, you could go down, I think you had two swimming pools below decks and you

03:08:30:00

could cool off. And sometimes, not every day but once in a while on the back deck, they’d open the bar up. Now, people haven’t tasted beer as worse as what they had. The beer would’ve been loaded in England and I just don’t know where she’d been. She’d been in America somewhere, then she came out to Australia.

03:09:00:00

They didn’t open the bar up until we were getting up around the equator. I think it was the heat and that. So they’d just bring the beer up out of the hold, put it on tap. Of course we didn’t have any glasses or anything. You only had your dixies [mess tins] and they’d pour it into the dixies. It was absolutely terrible. I’d never tasted anything worse.

03:09:30:00

Of course you only had one or two. You couldn’t drink any more. Terrible stuff. I didn’t like getting off, pardon me. I didn’t like getting off.
Was there a farewell from Sydney? Was there a farewell for the ship from Sydney?
No. You don’t get any farewells or fanfares or anything like that. You just went, only one

03:10:00:00

would be someone that had a craft, a launch or something and they’d come out and wave you goodbye. No, you didn’t get anything they get today. The same as when you came home. You came in the back door and no one’d even know you were home.
What were the sleeping conditions like on board the Queen Mary? Where did you sleep?
I slept on the

03:10:30:00

floor down below around about the waterline. Some, as I said, some of the boys were lucky enough, they got cabins. But I was amongst one of the unlucky ones, I missed out on that. We just had to sleep on the floor. All you could do was throw a blanket down, she was that hot. You couldn’t open the portholes. The

03:11:00:00

portholes were all blacked out and everything. You couldn’t strike a light or anything. Of a night if you did go up on deck anyone that smoked couldn’t strike a match or anything like that. She was running on a blackout.
What did you have with you at that stage? What was in your pack?
Only army stuff, only army, because when you enlist and went down to Enoggera in Brisbane,

03:11:30:00

you had to send all your civilian clothes home, and all you’d have would be your army change of clothes, toothbrush, shaving gear.
What was your army issued uniform?
Yes, we had the full uniform

03:12:00:00

and shorts and shirt, that’s all, hat, socks, shoes. Yeah, they didn’t overdo it.
What would you do to pass the time on the ship?
Well, on the Mary I used to do a lot of swimming in the swimming pool. Later on, on the troopers

03:12:30:00

we played bridge and things like that, but on the Mary we did a lot of swimming, you know. If you wasn’t doing guard or doing something you’d go down and have a swim, but it didn’t take us that long, I just can’t tell you how long, to go up to Ceylon where we trans-shipped.
Could you tell me about

03:13:00:00

your first impressions of arriving in Ceylon? Your first impressions of arriving in Ceylon?
The harbour in Ceylon, Trincomalee, the name of it, and when she went in it was very narrow. Now the Mary is a big ship and she drags a lot of water, and you could almost touch the leaves on

03:13:30:00

the trees as she went in. When she went in she opened up and they reckoned they could’ve anchored the British Fleet in there. It was a beautiful big harbour, magnificent, and as soon as you land, as soon as we got there we started unloading onto the smaller boats.
What was that port like?

03:14:00:00

The?
The port, what did you see on land?
Trincomalee, it was only a port. There were no houses that we could see or anything. It was just all bush all around. It was a big huge harbour. As I said, they could anchor the, that’s what they said, they could anchor the British Fleet in there and it’s only a narrow entrance to it. It was

03:14:30:00

beautiful in there, peaceful and everything else.
Did you go ashore?
No. There’s no places to go ashore, no. No, there was, as I said, there was nothing there, and in the harbour like that they get the jungle almost right down to the water’s edge. No, they were too busy getting us off and getting us onto the other boat.
So which

03:15:00:00

boat did you move to and where did you go from there?
The one I went on was a proper trooper. The English had it built when they used to ferry their troops from England to India, then they’d first bring them back. So she was built for as a proper trooper.

03:15:30:00

Dilwara was the name of it. She had, I can tell you more about that later, but going over you had all your mess tables out and of a night above the mess table you’d lower your bunk down, like hammocks, and that’s where you slept. And of course daytime came and up went

03:16:00:00

your hammocks and had a big mess room. [UNCLEAR] wasn’t too bad then, not as bad as some of them we were on.
What was your first stop on board that boat?
Well, when we left Trincomalee, see, I’ll just go back. They wouldn’t take the Mary any further than Ceylon because there were

03:16:30:00

raiders in the Indian Ocean. It was alright to send the Mary back for us to go on. But then we went up Port Said, we went though the Suez, right through the Suez. That’s an experience. Into the Mediterranean, we came around to Haifa in Palestine and that’s where we disembarked. Then they took us in motor lorries down to an army camp.

03:17:00:00

You told me going through the Suez was an experience?
Yeah.
What was that like?
Of course on your right you had like the Sinai Desert, huge big sand dunes. Along the shore of course they had like a road and different buildings and so forth, and then at Al Qantara, that’s

03:17:30:00

where the railway line crosses, like you don’t cross on a railway. The railway stops and they cross and put barges. They went across. I can tell you more about that as I come to it later. And when we went up into the lake, got a big lake between Al Qantara and Port Said, a big lake there, and you went straight through

03:18:00:00

that, go around and you come up the Mediterranean to Haifa.
What were your first impressions of coming into Haifa?
Well, it’s a bit hard to say. You didn’t know what to expect. There were plenty of big oil tanks. They used to get oil from

03:18:30:00

there in them days, and a hill behind it. I don’t know. You get mixed feelings about it because you really don’t know. You’ve never ever seen or heard, or a postcard or anything about it, so it’s something brand new to you. We were just more or less pleased too to get off the boat.
What did the local people look like?

03:19:00:00

In them days, pardon me, in them days of course all Arabs. Of course they dressed different to they do today. They had their pants, you know, the men wear all the

03:19:30:00

crutch and all of that come down to the knees and so forth. It was queer. I know some of the boys passed some rude remarks about them. No, they were entirely different people. Of course everyone to us, no one knew their names or anything, and everyone, if you wanted to speak to one he was named George, everyone. “Hey George,” or George this, George that, everything was George.

03:20:00:00

No, he was alright, the old Arab. He’d put it over you and if you could put it over him, fair enough, they’d accept it. But we used to have to watch them because they’d pinch your rifle or anything at all.
Was there any trade going on between the locals and the soldiers who’d just arrived?
Trade?
As in selling?
There was,

03:20:30:00

they didn’t have anything to trade with. The only thing that we ever traded with, if we went for a route march or like with training, and you could bet your socks you wouldn’t see an Arab about, as soon as we stopped there’d be one with a big bag of oranges. And Jaffa orange in them days, were recognised over there as one of the world’s best oranges, because they used to export them to Europe, England and them countries.

03:21:00:00

They’re a nice big beautiful orange, but I think our Washington Navel would beat them. I’m not biased, but I think so. But they had these kids with these bags and they’d pull up and for about threepence or something like that. You’d get quite a few of them, which were very refreshing out there with very little water, the dust, hot, heat, everything.

03:21:30:00

So can you explain what you did on that first day once you’d landed, once you’d come into port?
Well, where we landed they put us onto lorries and we came down to a camp what was the 6th Divvy [Division]. The 6th Divvy had already moved up into Egypt, at Beit Jirja, they called it. It was the old 6th Divvy. For once we didn’t have to build

03:22:00:00

a camp. And that country over there, people that hadn’t been there wouldn’t realise, it’s that old, that there’s no trees, packed hard, and if we had a game of football or something you’d knock some skin off. It would fester straight away. The ground was that way.

03:22:30:00

It was hard. We weren’t allowed to drink the water. They had to supply water, it was chlorinated and all that caper.
Can you describe the look of the camp to me, what the camp looked like?
It was just an ordinary camp. No barracks or anything, all tents all laid

03:23:00:00

out in rows like regimental, the same with the army, and of course they had a cookhouse and things like that. It was just as I said, that was the 6th Divvy, and it was all laid out nicely. They had a parade ground, of course.
What did the surrounding landscape looked like?
I don’t know if they had any.

03:23:30:00

As I said, no trees. It was barren. I’d just like to say this, when we went for a route march and we went towards the coast, the old trenches were still there from the Light Horse when they fought the Germans through there during

03:24:00:00

the First World War, and you could still pick up a bit of shrapnel and that was still laying there. It was a bit eerie, it makes the old blokes, and then the other way out but just plain barren country.
So while you were at the camp what kinds of things did you do? What kinds of things did you do when you were at the camp?

03:24:30:00

We might have a game of football, a game of cards. We had, I think you’d get a day leave into Tel Aviv once in while. I think it might’ve been about that time, it would’ve been about that time, I had one night overnight leave

03:25:00:00

and I stopped there. It was quite good, because Tel Aviv is right on the coast.
What was Tel Aviv like?
I was waiting for this one. All the other towns or cities, or what you call them, Jerusalem and all those others, Gaza, and all that are real old places, walled in and everything, terrible,

03:25:30:00

old places. But Tel Aviv was more or less new and it was built differently and there were a few trees and shrubs and so forth and it was right on the coast. And right on the coast on the beach we had Australia House where you could sit there and get a cold beer and have a look out to the ocean and so froth. Now, on the beach there were two passenger liners.

03:26:00:00

Now how they got there was that when Hitler started to kick the Jews out of Europe, or the Jews had to get out, I still never found out where they came from. I’d say they must’ve come around from Denmark or somewhere, they’d come right down, because no country would let them land. They had nowhere to go. They were right at the end of the line. So what they’d done, they just stood off Tel Aviv and

03:26:30:00

revved their motors up and drove their boats up onto the beach because they had to land. That was the Jews, and up until then, I don’t know, there might’ve been some, they would’ve been there before. It was nearly all Arab country.
Did you see where the Jews were living who had come

03:27:00:00

on shore from those passenger ships?
Did I?
Did you see where they were living?
That’s what I say, what I said. We’ve got no idea where they came from. They could’ve come from Denmark or Sweden, anywhere. I think they came right down through the Channel and into the Mediterranean. I don’t know, I can’t say, but I think it would have to be because no country

03:27:30:00

would allow them. Italy wouldn’t allow them to land, in Greece or anything, Turkey or anything. So I’d say they’d have to come from up there, and no country would allow them. As I said, Tel Aviv was the end of the line for them, so they just drove her up.
What did you do while you were on

03:28:00:00

leave in Tel Aviv?
There’s nothing much to do. Of course we had Australia House, we had pictures and all the pictures there were like silent, I think they were silent. No, they had to be talking pictures themself, down one side would be Arabic. The other side would be

03:28:30:00

like Jewish, and across the bottom there was something else which would be printed, but the main one would be speak English. Yes, we had, go to the pictures, go to the camp, tea, café and have coffee at Australia House. It was only more or less just a break to get away from the camp. You’d stop overnight,

03:29:00:00

that’s if you had overnight leave. One overnight leave I did have, I stopped at a hotel and in the room there was another soldier and I’d just hung my clothes up at the foot of the bed and when I got up in the morning this other soldier had gone and I had five shillings in my pocket and it was gone too.

03:29:30:00

He’d pinched it, and that was my fare back to camp. So I must’ve thumbed a ride back or something. I got back anyway. The only time I ever lost anything, and by another soldier, that’s what annoyed me.
How long were you in camp for?
We wasn’t there

03:30:00:00

that long. It could’ve been six week or something like that, two months, before we moved up into Egypt.
Could you tell me about that, about that journey into Egypt?
You go by train. I can tell you more about the trains later. But when we went by train and after you leave Gaza, of course you’re in

03:30:30:00

Sinai Desert. It’s huge, all the pure sand, and the railway line goes through it and we were going along and I looked out the window and there’s an oasis there, palm trees and water and everything. It wasn’t very big, because the sands were starting to creep in on it, but something that you see in picture books and things like that. We went through the Sinai,

03:31:00:00

and just before we got to the crossing you look out the window and all I could see was the superstructure of a boat. How in the hell would that get there, out in the middle of the desert? Temporarily it had got in the Canal, she was passing through the Canal, and at the crossing was the name Al Qantara. We got off the train there

03:31:30:00

then, and of course all the money lenders would be there. You had to watch them very carefully otherwise they’d take you down. You’d change your money from Palestine into Egypt, Gyppo money. And then another town on the other side and I’ve got no idea what it’s like now, and she pulled up there, the train, and as soon as you pull up the Arabs are waiting. They’ve got their baskets of fruit

03:32:00:00

and mostly grapes. They were beautiful grapes. Of course it’s hot and dry, they were sweet and lovely. They’d be trying to sell you grapes, but the trick was just as the train started to move some of the boys would be up in the carriage. Of course you had no platforms over there, it’s all ground level. Some of the boys would be up the front and sing out, “George,

03:32:30:00

whisky,” and of course George would pull out a bottle and put his basket down. He’d run along and they had no chance of taking it, buying it because they knew it would be only cold tea or something like that. Of course once George put his basket down and run, someone would take a step down and just pick his basket up. Old George would look around, he’d wave his arms, yeah. But as I said, if you put it

03:33:00:00

over him he’d accept it because he’d put it over you. Anyway we went up and we went, he goes through the Nile Valley which is beautiful. Corn growing there six and eight foot high and green as green. It was beautiful, and they had their wells with the old donkey going around and around pumping the water up and it was beautiful.

03:33:30:00

And going the other end, going into Egypt way they said the sand was starting to creep in on it. Just a wall of sand, green, beautiful, then just a wall of sand. On account of the storms and that the sand was starting to creep in, and you cross over the Nile and after you cross over the Nile up a bit, you turned left,

03:34:00:00

or the railway turns left and goes to Cairo and the other one turns right and you go to Alexandria. Well, we went right and there’s a camp there. Now, the brigade or the battalion was at a place there called Ikingi Mariut, but they were full so we had to make this other camp. They had this other camp there,

03:34:30:00

and when you got a sandstorm, you had this town of tents, the sand would build up around the tent and everything. It’s a wonder we didn’t all finish up with lungs full of sand, it was terrible. Down at the old cookhouse, they’d bring a corn bag full and they’d dump it down, it sounded like rocks. It was meat, all frozen. Of course they boiled everything, and didn’t

03:35:00:00

have a very nice taste either. And across the road from us was the English soldiers, so when we were finished a meal, some of them would come across with their dixies, “Have you got anything left over?” If there was they’d give it to them, because all they were getting was a bit of bread with, dry bread and a dob of jam. They

03:35:30:00

weren’t fed very well at all. So they used to give it to them.
How did you cope with the heat and the sand, the sandstorms?
I don’t know. You’ve just got to put up with it, you know. It’s something, it’s a part of life.
What would you do when a sandstorm was coming?
You’d be in the tent. You’d be in the tent and close it up

03:36:00:00

and wait until it blew over. If you go outside you couldn’t see in the sand, and blowing up around the tent, and oh no.
How long were you at that camp in Alexandria for?
Not a great amount of time. Not a great amount of time. I’ve got a photo there, does that show it?
We might have a look at the photo

03:36:30:00

a bit later.
Yeah.
What kind of things were you doing in camp at Alexandria?
You’d only do a little bit of training. You couldn’t do much there because it was, they talk about a desert, no trees, nothing, just hard ground. We did get, I think I got a day’s leave into Alexandria later on. I just can’t think. Must’ve played cards

03:37:00:00

or done something, God knows. It’s too long ago.
Do you remember your leave time in Alexandria? Do you remember what you did in Alexandria?
Well, Alexandria’s on the coast and it had a beautiful big harbour where a lot of the French Fleet, when the French tossed it in, had brought their fleet down and they anchored it in Alexandria, because Alexandria had

03:37:30:00

that and then on the other she had the Nile River. It was pretty good, and we, this photo, there’s five of us, we all had a garry, you know. A garry was a horse and buggy on four wheels, to drive around the city to have a look at different things, what was on, and not far away was their tannery works

03:38:00:00

where they used to tan, I suppose, the hides. Talk about on the nose, it was strong. But we, and it was there we were going along in the main, in the city itself, and an Arab came along, “Bottle of whisky, George, bottle of whisky?” And one of the boys, I don’t know why, I still don’t know why, he must’ve given him a few zackers [sixpences] for it, and

03:38:30:00

because when he took the top and tasted it, it was tea. He chased the Arab and got his money back. They say, they put it over you, fair enough, but you put it over them and they accepted it. But in the photo there, I think there was five of us, and I’m the only one left of the five. It’s a monument in one of the parks in Alexandria.

03:39:00:00

The city of Alexandria, what did it look like in terms of the buildings? What did the buildings look like?
Well, Alexandria, any of those places you don’t go out the back blocks. You were warned not to go out around. You were mostly like inside the city, which is quite alright. They had good buildings and

03:39:30:00

a park and good roads. Of course they had the harbour there where I suppose, when there’s no war on they’d have ships coming in from the Mediterranean and all this because you had Port Said, the mouth of the Suez is just down the road a bit. No, it was quite pleasant there, but you don’t go to the outer suburbs.

03:40:00:00

Well, we were warned not to go.
What were some of the men doing, what were some of the other soldiers doing when they were on leave?
We’d all hang together, because the old saying, there’s safety in numbers. It was only a day leave. We just had a day leave in

03:40:30:00

to have a look around the city and which we did. You’d go to a café or something and have a meal and then get a truck back.
What were the cafes like?
Toilets. Well, they were there and the same as in Europe, a lot of them around the

03:41:00:00

Arab countries in them days out of the cities, I don’t think they had such things. I think that’s why the ground was so rotten, you know. I don’t think they had them, but from what I can remember there was over there they only had the one set. Men and women used the one set. In Greece, which I’ll come to later, a bit different. But very, very,

03:41:30:00

well as far as I know we never ever seen an Arab or anyone else in one. I’ll tell you what they do have, they’ve got over there the steam baths. You’d go and have a, like big hot boxes there and you could go there and sit there and get all your pores clean and dirt out of you. It was lovely.
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 04

04:00:32:00

Mr Howell, I’ll just ask you some more about Alexandria. You mentioned that you were told not to go to the back blocks, what were some of the dangers?
Well, this applies to all the places. It don’t matter where you went in Syria or Palestine or Egypt or where, we were only told like

04:01:00:00

around the central part because if you wandered off down there they could, say three or four of them or a gang could, a lot of them were very nasty people. They’d stick a knife in you or do anything, but we never had any problem because we always went, always a few of us,

04:01:30:00

and we didn’t venture like down amongst them people. I had an experience, no, that’s later, yes, coming over at Colombo of getting out of step. You just didn’t do it.
What happened in Colombo when you got out of step?
After we trans-shipped they took us

04:02:00:00

up to Colombo. Of course after the trip over they gave us, it wouldn’t be a day’s leave. They’d just give us a bit of leave to go I think to stretch our legs and so forth, and they told us at Colombo, the harbour, and then they had a big huge park in Colombo, the township, and down on the left the said,

04:02:30:00

I think it’s Savage Island they called it, “Don’t go down there. It’s out of bounds.” Of course the first thing we do, we get a garry, a rickshaw it was, a few of us, and down we go. And you know sooner get down there than the Arabs start to collect around you. “Come on, get out, quick,” and we got out quick.

04:03:00:00

They gang up on you and we don’t, when we go ashore like that we don’t carry any weapons.
What were the locals after, what did they want?
They’d roll you, bash you up, take any money or anything you had. More than likely take your clothes or boots too. They liked boots. Yes, it was not a good place to be.
Did you have anything to

04:03:30:00

do with the British in Alexandria, any British troops?
No, no. Not, I don’t think at any time. They were camped beside us when were on leave. No, the five of us, we always stuck together.
Who were the other, can you explain to me who the other men were in your group of

04:04:00:00

five?
Yes. We’ve got a photo there of them. If I remember them on the photo, first one, we never ever knew his first name, we always called him Trapper, Trapper Barnsley. He enlisted in Mount Mulligan up in Peninsula, up the Gulf country. I think there was Vince Kelly or little Vince.

04:04:30:00

Well, to us he was an old man then. I suppose more than likely he was forty-odd or fifty, and Tommy Gaston. Tommy was part Aboriginal. Tommy used to fight like, no one would fight him at the finish under his own weight. He came from Bowen, north Queensland, and then there was Arthur Cousins.

04:05:00:00

He came from Queensland. He was an Englishman, been here a long while though. He died later on of malaria, and myself. There’s a monument there, I’ve got a photo of it there.
How close were you as a group?
Like all soldiers, you get very close. You seem to

04:05:30:00

pick out your mates, people who suit you and you get very close because you know what, well, actually you didn’t know at that stage what’s ahead of you. So you just go everywhere together.
You mentioned that you were close to

04:06:00:00

Tommy, who was an Aborigine. How was he treated by other men in the army?
With all the respect in the world, he was only part, only had a bit in him. No, he had every respect and the respect of everyone. Tommy was a champion bloke. I couldn’t speak more highly of him, and a good soldier too.
What were you being prepared for? What sort of

04:06:30:00

campaign were you being prepared for while you were in the desert?
At this stage we just did basic training. That’s all. With us, as I said, our battalion, like the 2/12th was without a full complement of men. That’s why they took us up. We went up for a reason

04:07:00:00

though, but we didn’t do any special training. We just did our ordinary training, because from there we were heading for Greece.
What fighting was going on in the desert while you were training?
Well, the 6th Divvy had pushed the Italians right back. That’s where they got hundreds of Italians as prisoners of war. I suppose you’ve seen photos of it,

04:07:30:00

and so forth, and they pushed them back right up Benghazi, past Benghazi through Tobruk and they built, I’ll come to that later. They got up as far as Benghazi and then from Benghazi, the 9th, they came. The 9th Division then came in and took over and the 6th came back because they’d done their bit.

04:08:00:00

They were relieved, and then unfortunately the 2/9th, Rommel and his mob come in, the Germans, and they started to push the 9th back, and why, I still don’t know why, the Italians before built Tobruk as a fortress. They had big

04:08:30:00

pill boxes under ground. Not all the way, but in places. They had a big tank trap built like a big drain and the second line was a fence to stop the tanks. So more or less built that way, and they built a big wire cage and they said that was to put the Australians in when they captured them, yeah.
What contact did you have at that time with any

04:09:00:00

men from the 6th Divvy who’d fought?
Well, as I say, the 6th Divvy came out then and they moved them over to Greece and we went over to reinforce the 6th Divvy.
So what were you told about what you would be doing in Greece?
I think I said

04:09:30:00

before, they don’t tell you anything. You’ve got no idea. We didn’t even know where we were going. They don’t tell you anything. All they do is put you on the boat.
So can you explain to me then leaving Africa for Greece?
Well, we left in convoy. I just can’t tell you how many ships were in the convoy. And I often thought of this, I

04:10:00:00

think it was around about lunch time or in the afternoon, and we left Alexandria, all in convoy lined up one behind the other, and they spotted an Italian plane up looking around. So they kept going and as soon as it got dark they turned the convoy around and went back to Alexandria and they brought the fleet out and lined the fleet up, the

04:10:30:00

British Fleet, Australian boats, British, and they were in convoy. Of course out steams the Italian boats, they were going to give this convoy hell. Instead of that they ran into the fleet and the fleet chased them and sunk nearly all their boats, chased them back to Italy. I think it broke the back of the Italian Fleet. Once that happened we just turned around and went over to Greece, no trouble. We landed at

04:11:00:00

Athens.
What did the sea look like on the way over?
I could only see water, the Mediterranean. Nothing else.
Was it calm?
Oh yes. Mostly the Med is pretty calm down that end anyway. No, it’s mostly clam. We used to play cards, we used to play cards for cigarettes, Woodbines, Pommy cigarettes

04:11:30:00

and you know. Of course you weren’t on it that long. It didn’t take long, a couple of days to go from Alexandria to Athens.
And what happened once you got to Athens?
They took us out to a camp, a place called Daphne. I know it’s a funny name for camp base, but it was Daphne, and it was amongst the pine trees. It was beautiful there

04:12:00:00

after being over the other side and that. They had plenty of water and everything, and we had a tent and everything like to sleep in. And they came along one day and they said, “Pack all your kit bags and everything,” and they marched us down, “All you need is your rifle and your small pack,” which you hung on the side of your webbing with your

04:12:30:00

personal things in. They said, “Go down the side of the road,” marched us down. They said, “There’ll be trucks along shortly to pick you up,” and take us up and join the division. So we waited there and waited. We waited nearly all day and they didn’t turn up. But apparently the evacuation was started. Just previous to this, between Greece

04:13:00:00

and the Australians they had the Italians beat, almost beat. Of course when Germany came in it made it different. They couldn’t withstand the might of the Germans, and we were in Camp Daphne the night Germany declared, and they came over and they bombed hell out of the harbour. They sunk boats and blew the installations. They blew it to

04:13:30:00

pieces. So next day they got all us blokes and went down to help clean up a bit and it was a mess. Things everywhere, and we were sitting down, it must’ve been lunch time or something. We were sitting on the wharf and there was a smaller boat tied up beside the wharf and all of a sudden it rose up out of the water and apparently

04:14:00:00

they’d laid a mine and it had drifted onto the boat and blew it up out of the water and sunk it. Of course we scarpered, we run. But nearly all the old wharf was sagging with what the Germans had done to it. Anyway, we did what we could and went back to camp.
In Athens, when you arrived in Athens, in what way did it seem like a city that was about to be invaded?

04:14:30:00

No, I said when we first landed there it was good. Everything was nice and calm and everything, because as I said, between the Greeks and the Australians, they had the Italians beat, practically, so there was no need to worry. It was only when the Germans came in that the trouble started, they started to push them back.
So how did you know that things were changing

04:15:00:00

in Greece?
You know that. We know that, they tell you they’re starting to get pushed back. The Greeks were very nice. There again they had a lot of these hot boxes. You’d go in there and have up to your neck in a hot box and beautiful, hot. Beer, they had a lot of German lager if you want German lager,

04:15:30:00

and they had a big square there where you went to the underground and we used to all just hang around there. We had a special café there where we used to all go and have a coffee, or you’d have a coffee or a beer. They’d always have a few radishes or something. Of course, it was a very poor country. You could buy a bottle of their wine over there for almost, I think I bought a bottle of French champagne for a shilling.

04:16:00:00

I mean, it’s very poor. But nearly all import, they didn’t have much to export. I’m talking about them days. No, I liked Greece, the people were very nice.
What did you like about the people?
Well, a lot of them were just normal people like us,

04:16:30:00

you know. There was one bloke there, we were going along and someone told us about, I don’t know what it was, something down a bit of a lane and we were going down there and a bloke said, “Have you got any tea, Aussie?” And we stopped and went over. He was a Greek that was in America. He was a shoemaker and he’d come back

04:17:00:00

home. Of course the war started and he couldn’t get out, and we used to go down there and talk to him a lot.
How were the conditions in your camp in Greece different to the desert?
Travelling?
How were the conditions in the camp in Greece different to the desert?
The?
The camp conditions, how were they different in Greece?

04:17:30:00

People?
The camp where you stayed?
See, it’s on the other side of the Mediterranean, climate-wise and everything else. It was beautiful, and later on of course there was snow and that when we were on Crete, but when we were in Athens –

04:18:00:00

You mentioned that you went down to the port. Can you explain exactly what the Germans had done to that port?
Well, as I said, they blew it to pieces. They sank ships, all the installation, the wharves, the warehouses and everything was all flattened and there was heaps of,

04:18:30:00

I think it was Turkish, Turkish or Greek money floating about, heaps of it. Then someone said it’s no good because it’s only been, because England printed all their money and it wasn’t stamped or signed by the President of the country. They said, “It’s no good, just leave it. It’s only paper.” Some of the boys were a bit smart, they grabbed some and put it over some of the jewellery, hand it over because they weren’t aware that it wasn’t so.

04:19:00:00

But still, no, it was, they really did wreck Athens, the harbour. That’s where I just said they blew the boat up.
What did you have in your camp to protect you from enemy aircraft?
We didn’t have anything. We were just under the pine trees because it was only a staging camp. You went there for a while.

04:19:30:00

I suppose the 6th Divvy was there, I just don’t know. They might’ve, I think they did, and then they’d move up to the front line. It was only a staging camp, just something you passed through either way going up or back.
How far away was the front line from that camp?
Well, I couldn’t tell you how far by miles or anything, but Athens as you know, is roughly about

04:20:00:00

the middle of Greece and I suppose the front line would be up towards the border. I think it was Turkish on one, and Albania and that on the other side.
What contact did you have with men coming back from the front line?
Actually we had none because the evacuation was on,

04:20:30:00

and when the evacuation started, like, they told us the trucks would be there to get out. We got one truck and some of us on board and we went into Athens looking for blokes that were in there to get them on the truck to get them out, and we

04:21:00:00

done that. And then they took off because we had to go right down to the bottom end, right down to the south of Athens. I’ll tell you what, it’s a hairy old trip there at night time. You’re going around the roads that cut into the cliffs and you look over the side, and we were all in blackout. The lights only had little blackout lights on. I tell you what,

04:21:30:00

you were lucky to get there. Anyway, we got down right to the very end where the evacuation was going on. I think it took us from one day to some time the next day before we got down there, and we had to wait until night time then for the boats to come in for the evacuation. The trucks, they run them up under the olive

04:22:00:00

trees and knocked the oil out of the motors and just revved the motors up then until they seized up so they’d be no good then to the Germans. They didn’t burn them because if they’d have burned them the Germans would’ve seen the smoke and started bombing. So we left them there and the evacuation started after dark. Big barges, they had barges there to take you out to the, there were three boats standing out

04:22:30:00

and you just climbed aboard the barges, they’d tow them out and you went onto the other boats. That was, say, it was all done after dark. During the day you hid underneath trees, under the olive trees and that in case Germans came over. I got onto a boat called the Costa Rica, three

04:23:00:00

boats, and we went all day, and all day the Germans were over trying to sink us. Half past two in the afternoon, I’ve got it wrote down there, that they dropped a bomb and it landed right on the, or just missed the tail end of the boat and went off underneath and blew the floats off underneath. She stopped and she started to fill up with water.

04:23:30:00

By then we hadn’t had a meal for a couple of days and we’d been sitting, I was just sitting down in the queue waiting to get to the cookhouse to get a bit of something to eat and I just got it when the bomb went off. Anyway, I took it down and then again we were down in the hold of the boat and you could hear the water coming in. I just started

04:24:00:00

to pick the knife and fork up. I had the collapsible ones they used to carry, and the lights went out and they said, “All hands on deck.” So that finished the meal. So you climbed up and you could feel it starting to tip a little bit, only the water on one side. She was started to tip and one destroyer was picking some up out of the water and the other destroyer came

04:24:30:00

in beside us. Two destroyers came up on us, and when you come up, I should’ve mentioned this, when you come up from below decks to come up, the other two boats you could see them just disappearing over the horizon. I tell you what, it’s not a very good feeling to know you’ve been left. Of course they won’t stop because when they stop they become a sitting duck. But these two destroyers must’ve been close and handy. They whipped in and the one

04:25:00:00

I got onto, when it comes right in, the boat was tipping over and you stood, you waited and when the boats opened up then they came together. When they came together that’s when you jumped. You jumped onto the destroyer. If you’d have missed you’d have been mincemeat. You’d have went down between the two of them. Anyway, we got onto the – I just can’t think of the name of destroyer. When they got everyone

04:25:30:00

and the other boat was loaded they started to go and leave, but they tell me after they went back and sunk her, the boat. It would’ve sunk normally but I think they didn’t want the Germans to know that they’d got one. And one of the officers came down, they said, “Now, all sit down on deck. We’re going to clap some speed on. We’ve got to get over to

04:26:00:00

Crete and back down to the south of Greece again to cover the evacuation again,” that next night. So that’s when they just dumped, run into Crete, dumped us off and they went again, and that’s how we got onto Crete.
Can you describe what the noise is like on a ship when it’s sinking?
Well, actually I was only on the one.

04:26:30:00

This one, you don’t hear anything because it’s all sealed off underneath, but you could hear the water, like, coming in, and part two is as soon as they’ve hit all the crew got up and jumped overboard. They must’ve been soldiers, we didn’t know, but they thought that

04:27:00:00

once the water hit the boilers you’d blow the boilers, the boilers would blow up. But it didn’t happen. But there’s, no, actually I don’t remember any noise, just the water gushing into it.
Where did this ship come from?
I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t even tell you what nationality or where it was registered. Apparently it was one that had been around that part of the Mediterranean.

04:27:30:00

It might’ve been doing the Grecian Islands or doing something like that. I wouldn’t have a clue. It must’ve been down in Alexandria, down there somewhere.
What did it look like as a ship?
Yes, it was like just passenger liners, just normal for that time, but getting back older, a lot older, because they didn’t have the waterproof

04:28:00:00

doors and so forth that the boats have got now.
I just want to go back to the evacuation from Greece? What was the feeling like amongst the men once you were told that you had to evacuate?
There again, it’s something that, well, put it this way, you don’t know what’s ahead of you. You know

04:28:30:00

that you’re getting out and how you’re getting out you don’t know. You don’t know anything like that. But something you knew, you knew you were getting, I mean you’ve got no, what would I say? No fear or anything like that because you didn’t know what was going to happen.
What were you told?
Just that the evacuation was on. That’s all, that’s all they tell you. We were getting out.
How did you know where to go or where to hide?

04:29:00:00

That was, they’d been evacuating for a day or two before we got out. So they knew where they were going, right down to the bottom end of Greece.
Can you tell me about when you were hiding under the trees?
That’s only normal, like

04:29:30:00

mostly olive trees they are, and see, the Germans, they came in very, very low at times. If they’d seen us there in uniform, well, they’d have bombed us. So we had to get down low and hide so they Germans couldn’t see us. Because as I said, if they’d had seen us they would’ve started bombing.

04:30:00:00

How large was the group that you were evacuating?
How hard?
How large was the group that you were evacuating with?
It would be thousands, thousands. There’d be 6th Divvy, there’d be us, God knows who, everyone. The division had been made up, you’ve got a transport mob, you’ve got an anti-tank mob, you’ve got all different parts and bits and pieces, so you wouldn’t even know but it

04:30:30:00

was big. Well, there were three ships and the three ships were packed so there was a lot on it.
What did you see of the locals while you were evacuating?
Well, you don’t, see, when we went into Athens to pick up any stragglers, like, that were in town, the Greeks were very cut up.

04:31:00:00

They stood beside the road and, “Wasn’t Britain going to give us our liberty,” and this, you know. Well, nothing we could do. They were very cut up that they knew it was and we were getting out because they knew the Germans would overrun them.
What do you think they expected from the Germans?
Well, I couldn’t

04:31:30:00

answer that. I don’t know. Well, they may have heard of some of the atrocities the Germans had committed. I don’t know, and they committed some terrible things. I don’t know. I’m not talking about the German soldier, I’m talking about the population.
How prepared and

04:32:00:00

well equipped did the German Army and Luftwaffe [German Air Force] seem?
The Germans were well equipped. The Australians weren’t. They were well equipped. They had a big air force behind them, they had everything. They had well kitted out soldiers, they had everything. While the 6th Divvy, they would come out of the desert, they wouldn’t have much more than their rifles and machine guns.

04:32:30:00

They didn’t have much, but I tell you what, they accounted for themselves well. I had an old mate went through it.
What did he tell you about fighting in Greece?
There again, I don’t think it was ever mentioned. We never talk about it.
So given that you say the 6th Divvy was under-equipped, what

04:33:00:00

thoughts do you have now then about that campaign in Greece and how it was planned?
Well, see, you only fight with what equipment you’ve got. The Greece Campaign was we thing, we say it was another mistake.

04:33:30:00

It would’ve been alright if Germany hadn’t have come into it. They would’ve, Greece wouldn’t have been invaded, but when the Germans came in then they just took Greece, and once they had Greece that was another open port to the Middle East to the other side of the Med like Tobruk and Alexandria and Palestine

04:34:00:00

or anywhere along there. That would give them the harbour, not the harbour. Didn’t give them the harbour because they couldn’t get ships in there but it gave them the aerodromes and things like that.
Why do you think the Allies underestimated the power of the German tanks and the equipment that they had available?
As I said,

04:34:30:00

I think it was just a mistake. It was a mistake, no doubt about that, was a mistake. As I said, the Italians, because the Italians, they, I don’t know much about what they think or what they do, but they’re a very poor type of soldier, and more, I’ll tell you about that after. But,

04:35:00:00

I don’t know, it would be hard to explain.
In what way do you think the fighting with the Italians in the desert affected what people expected from the Germans? You mentioned that the Italian was a poor soldier, did the army expect that the Germans would be the same?
No, no, no, no, no.

04:35:30:00

See, you still had, they knew about the First World War, the German was a good soldier. So they knew, they expected, but it’s the equipment they had. They had plenty of equipment against, say, the 6th Divvy didn’t have rifles and machine guns. So you just can’t do much about it.

04:36:00:00

Did you know at the time that you were under-equipped?
Well, you know that, you know that. See, we would go, as I said, we were lined up to go up and all we had was a rifle and a few rounds of ammunition. So I think it speaks for itself here, well under-equipped.
How organised was the evacuation?

04:36:30:00

I say excellent, I give them full credit because they got everyone out. It was, I give them credit for that, it was good. Destroyers and that risked their own boats and everything to cover the evacuations from the evacuation point. It was good.
How noisy was the enemy aircraft while you

04:37:00:00

were trying to get out of the harbour?
They didn’t get any, what, when they were sinking the harbour, sinking Port Piraeus? You could hear them because when you get the dive-bombers up high, then he comes down, you can hear him screaming and you could hear the bombs coming off and everything, and we knew that they were down over the harbour

04:37:30:00

to sink any boats, any ships. I call them boats, I shouldn’t, call them all ships that was in there.
So what happened once you got back onto the destroyer?
Well, as I said, we just, she just run us into,

04:38:00:00

onto Greece, onto Crete, Souda Bay I think, S-U-T-U-N, I think was the name of it. They had a wharf there, that’s about all. Had a big aerodrome there on Crete, and as far as I know they had a hospital there. I don’t know if that was there then or they built it after.
How did Crete look different to Greece?

04:38:30:00

Well, Crete, the part where we landed was very hilly and there were very few buildings. It was nearly all hills and just a road and that going up into the hills. It was very, I suppose you would say in peacetime, picturesque, you

04:39:00:00

know, very nice.
What army facilities were there? What facilities were there for the army there apart from the aerodrome?
None, I think at this stage that we weren’t supposed to be there. See, we were heading back to Palestine or Egypt, so when we got sunk we got onto the destroyer. The destroyer

04:39:30:00

had to dump us in the first place they could, which is Crete, because they had to be back to southern Greece that night to cover the evacuation again. So as far as I know there was nothing.
What did you know of where you were and how you would survive?
Well, that’s something again you don’t know. All they said was, “Just make your way back up into the hills.”

04:40:00:00

We had no one, no officer or nothing. Just make your way up, which you did. We still hadn’t had anything to eat either. Made our way up into the hills and it must’ve been getting, it was, it was half past two when the bomb hit. Of course all the evacuation onto the destroyer and that, it was getting late in the afternoon and we made our way

04:40:30:00

back up into the hills and of course you didn’t know half the blokes, just a mob of soldiers, and for some reason, I don’t know why, we came across a lot of tents wrapped up. They hadn’t been opened. So we stopped there and we undone them and we crawled in between them and amongst them because it was getting cold, and of course we slept pretty well that night.

04:41:00:00

At least we were warm, and so sometime the next day someone came along and said, “You’ve got to make your way down to the beach.” So we went down to the beach and they said, “Stop here.” So we waited and waited there and there was a little township there and we went over and we thought, “We’re bound to get something to eat here,” and all we could get was cheese

04:41:30:00

and it was goat’s cheese and I can’t stand goat’s cheese. I tasted it and I couldn’t eat it, as hungry as I was. Anyway, no one came near us so we scooped out some holes in the sand and laid in that all night and let the breeze blow over us. The next day, then, they came along and we went down and there was a –
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 05

05:00:32:00

Mr Howell, you were talking about being in the village in Crete where you’d dug a hole to sleep in the night. What did you do the next morning when you woke up?
The next day somebody came along and said, took us down and there’s this creek that runs right back up in the mountains

05:01:00:00

and right up in the valley you could still see a bit of snow, so it wasn’t real warm around there, and I think it was the 2/2nd Battalion of the 6th Divvy or part of was there. They said, “You can join them,” which we did, ’cause they had an old cook pot going and it was all M and V. I don’t know if you ever ate M and V,

05:01:30:00

meat and vegetable, terrible smell, but still this was the first food we were having and it was alright, but after a while you got that sick of it. Food was very, very scarce, and they had the old olive trees there which is all that country, a lot of the country anyway,

05:02:00:00

and it was old and the old olives. The trees were old and the ground where they’d been scratching around, they’d sowed a bit of wheat or something in it and it was as rough as rough. So they gave us one blanket between three of us. It was alright when it was your turn in the middle, you had a bloke either

05:02:30:00

side of you, but when you were on the outside it wasn’t too good, cold. It was cold. As I said, there was still a little bit of snow up in the tops. The trouble was you went and got a bucket of water out of the creek and you stripped off and soaked yourself all over and to get the soap off you dived into the creek and straight out again. When you came out you were red,

05:03:00:00

you were all cold. God, it was cold. After a while I got crook in the chest. I got it again later on, but this time I got crook. Later on, before that, they put a blanket to three and then they came along and they gave us two blankets between three, and I think

05:03:30:00

that made me like crook in the chest. Later on, up in the islands I started to spit a bit of blood and that, but over there I was crook, so the doctor said, “No good you stopping here,” so they sent me down to the hospital. It was the best thing they ever did, and they didn’t know either. It was some disease, something you picked up along the road. But

05:04:00:00

I wasn’t there that long. At least you were getting a bed and something to eat and under shelter.
Whereabouts was the hospital?
I think it was down towards the aerodrome at Souda Bay, S-U-T-U-N, I think, Sutton Bay, I think. It was down there, and we were only there a few days and the hospital ship came in

05:04:30:00

and then we got word to say they’re vacating the hospital because they knew Germany was coming in. So we all, they got us all and we went aboard the hospital ship. We took off out to the, just moved a bit, I think just as we were going out the Germans were parachuting in onto the aerodrome.

05:05:00:00

Once we got out in the Med a bit one of the German planes came down. He was almost water level, looking in the port hole, because on a hospital ship you’re not supposed to wear a uniform. You’re supposed to be in pyjamas. Of course we had all uniforms on. I don’t know if he’d seen someone or what happened, but it wasn’t long after that we had two destroyers come up on either side of us, a hospital ship, and

05:05:30:00

the Germans came over and started to bomb to sink the ship and they missed. They just loaded a string of bombs right up beside her. Of course the destroyers were keeping them off. Just laying there you could hear the Bofors guns [anti-aircraft guns] going. They knew they were up high. Then you could hear the pom-poms [small rapid-firing guns] going. You knew they were up high. They came down in their dive, they were warning you that they’d dropped their bombs. Anyway,

05:06:00:00

they missed us. Of course once they missed us and the boat got going again and we got away, it was getting out of their range and we went back and landed at Haifa back into hospital.
What kind of other patients were on board that ship?
A lot of them would be like, a lot of it is malnutrition I think. No food, the cold weather and at this stage

05:06:30:00

I don’t think you had too many casualties. You might’ve had some somewhere, like off the boats. Mostly it was diseases that you pick up. Like in my case I had a bad chest, you know. After they evacuated the hospital there was nothing there then.

05:07:00:00

Did you know at that stage what was happening on Crete?
No, not really. Not really, but you knew that something was going to happen because we had very very few fighters, planes. I think it finished up none, I think they all went back to

05:07:30:00

Egypt. Of course when the parachutists came over we didn’t have anything. A rotten old song there about it, we didn’t have a plane. The Germans had that, the only, the boys with the rifles and machine guns could machine gun paratroopers as they came in. That’s the only defence, otherwise they only brought in, I think it was the first time we ever used them,

05:08:00:00

the big planes were towing like big gliders, and the gliders had the German troops in, the ground troops. Of course they’d come down and land along the strips, and the others came in by parachutes. As I said, we were getting out of range of them by then.

05:08:30:00

But Tracker Barnsley, on that photo, he was there but he never got out of Crete. He stopped there. We just don’t know what happened to him, but he got killed.
You mentioned there was a song?
I haven’t got it now. I think my son’s got it. I gave him a lot of my things.

05:09:00:00

“Here I sit on the Isle of Crete, bludging on my blistered feet.” That’s about all I can remember.
When you landed in Haifa where did you go from there? Am I not speaking loud enough? Is that better at this level?

05:09:30:00

Can you hear me now?
I think this thing’s playing up.
Can you hear me now?
Yes.
OK. When you landed in Haifa where did you go from there?
Haifa. We had to go back to hospital because they didn’t know what diseases or anything we had or anything. Of course

05:10:00:00

like everything else, once they put you, you get some good food and clean clothes and everything you recover, and from there the cycle started again to get back into Egypt, then up to Tobruk.
Could you tell me how you came to be at Tobruk?
Yes. We went up the,

05:10:30:00

I’m trying to think of the name of the destroyer. I met one of the blokes who was on it. The Rats of Tobruk, we had a get-together up at Nambucca, up the coast. I mentioned the boat and he said he was on it, so he must’ve been on the boat. You go up by destroyer, because there was no other way in or out. You had

05:11:00:00

to only go by water because it was the siege, you know. Anyway, they used to like to get into Tobruk Harbour around about midnight because it was all mined. They only had a passage in and on the heads just before you go in

05:11:30:00

was the Italian, I think it was a battlecruiser, a big thing just sitting up on the rock where they run her aground, and inside the harbour they reckon there’s something like sixty-four ships sunk, run up along the beach and that in there. So they only had a narrow passage that wasn’t mined into the wharf. Of course once they got in there it was go go go. They never stopped. Off you went,

05:12:00:00

and they must’ve only bring food and ammunition up. It’s off, and then any wounded and everything else they load and they get back out again. They lost two destroyers up there, one the Waterhen and the other Ladybird. The Waterhen was sunk in the harbour. Although she was sitting on the bottom, her superstructure up top

05:12:30:00

was still out and they had a Bofors gun sat on it, and the Waterhen, she was sunk out at sea. And it wasn’t so long ago when the Italian pilot that sunk it wrote to the Rats of Tobruk with a letter to say he was sorry and how he felt about looking down and seeing all these men in the water and everything like that.

05:13:00:00

But going back, when the ship, when you get into the harbour, around as I said, around about midnight, something like that, one o’clock or something, the Italians down over the back towards Bardia, they had a big naval gun on rails in a cave, and they used to wheel it out and take it back in. So about that time they’d know when the boat was coming in

05:13:30:00

and they’d open up and you could hear it. I tell you what, it’s eerie. This is the introduction you get. But they had a big air raid shelter cut into the cliffs, so you’d get in there until they’d finish. But we were lucky, all the artillery went over the back and then they came down and the next day I think, or no, that night, they came down and they

05:14:00:00

take you into Tobruk a bit, away from the harbour. The next day they say, “You go back,” because we were the 2/12th. We joined the 2/12th Battalion, C Company.
How long had the siege been going for when you arrived? How long had the siege been going for?
It had been going for four months, I’d say, at a rough guess. Yeah, and our battalion was one

05:14:30:00

of the first ones. They went up while the 9th Divvy was still coming back and the 18th was there and the 9th came out, came back, and that’s when they formed up the siege.
So when you were told you were going to Tobruk, what were you told about what to expect?
Nothing much, I don’t think. You knew

05:15:00:00

Tobruk was on, you know, it was there, what was going on, but as I said, the army don’t tell you anything. You soon learn for yourself anyway.
So you were pointed out where to go, where was it that you were housed or where was it where you slept?
Where we slept? Well, at this stage

05:15:30:00

the 2/12th Battalion was back in the second line of defence. You do a turn up the front and then they come back to the second line, you rest, back up, like this. And we were on the second line of defence and we had a little, about a six by four hole and about eighteen inches deep dug, sand bags around it, and a bit of

05:16:00:00

scrap stuff, anything you could get to put over the top to keep the sun out. You’d put one blanket only on the floor and that was your home for two, you know, you had a mate. That’s where you, you only had a pair of shorts on in the day time. You’d be laying there and you could see the dust settling on your stomach and you could write your name on it. We only had a pint

05:16:30:00

of water. Your water bottle was hanging up, you weren’t game to drink it. Water was a big problem there. You wouldn’t have a shave until your beard got that way, it would be full of sand and itchy. Every razor blade you could scrounge around you kept, because it took about four or five razor blades to get your beard off because it was full of sand and you only had a little tobacco tin,

05:17:00:00

you know, just a small one with water and that’s all you could afford to use and you’d try and lather that up to make it soft, and that’s how you tried to get shaved. But that was only once in a while when your beard got full of sand, and of course you never washed. You put your towel out at night and the dew would dampen it and you’d wipe your face over.

05:17:30:00

It was a pretty hard life.
What did you do during the day?
Well, the destroyers would come in and they brought ammunition and that in. They’d take us down, this is when you’re back on second line of defence. You’d go down and they’d bring the

05:18:00:00

ammunition up. In Tobruk there are a lot of little caves and we had to stack all the shells up in these caves ’cause the Germans couldn’t see them and couldn’t bomb them. You done your share of work there. I think only once the time I was there we went down

05:18:30:00

to the little harbour there and you just take your boots off and walk in, and that’s how you washed our clothes. Of course you’d just walk out and put your boots on and you’re dry in five minutes.
What was it like at night time?
I can tell you a bit more about that. Night time was very peaceful.

05:19:00:00

Very peaceful. Of course the old saying is, the sands of the desert grow cold, and they grow cold too. Of course we were about so much ground, like below ground that much that it wasn’t too bad. You could put up with it.

05:19:30:00

But food was another problem. In the afternoon a truck would come up from the harbour. They had a bit of a cookhouse down there and they’d get the bully beef and they’d warm it up and they had rice or some prunes in. They’d put your beef in one, prunes in the other and you walked the road, I suppose

05:20:00:00

about forty or fifty yards, and by the time you got back there your prunes had a colour of yellow on it, you know, the dust. Of course you didn’t worry about it. It helped at times because when you had your bully beef, the rice, it didn’t look very well because there were weevils in it that long.

05:20:30:00

Plenty of them too. You didn’t look. They taste alright cooked up, but you had to eat it because there was nothing else. The only other time if you like in the day had a tin of bully you ate that. But when you broke the seal you made sure the seal when it opened was facing the other way because there’d be a big string of fat

05:21:00:00

come out. You’d always eat a tin of bully. We were allowed army biscuits. I think they were kept over from the First World War. They were that hard, but they were very nourishing. They were good.
You said water was a problem?
Water was a problem, yes.
Where were the supplies coming from?
The water? It was all chlorinated.

05:21:30:00

I think they had, there was, I don’t know what you’d call it. Be like a well, but it would be a natural one, and there was another one up further we where we were later, up on the front line behind us. It was just a big hole like that on the top

05:22:00:00

and then it opened out underneath and it used to drip. They had a bucket there with a rope on it and you lowered that down and bring a bit of water up, and I picked up, I don’t know otherwise because it was all chlorinated and brought up by a truck. When we were up on the front in day time and things were quiet you could go and get a bucket, you could fill your water bottle up. It was better.

05:22:30:00

What were you doing during that time in terms of the defence of Tobruk? What were you doing to defend Tobruk? What did you have to do on a daily basis?
When you were back there was nothing, only like stacking ammunition. We were free to walk around and have a look.

05:23:00:00

They had, there was a fort there, Fort Palestino, they called it, I think it was, and just past there they had the big Italian ammunition dump. So you’d go down there and mooch about and have a look. You couldn’t go far but you could, daytime while it was quiet you could, you know. There

05:23:30:00

was nothing much to do. You couldn’t even take a walk down and say, “I’m going down for a swim,” or anything. You had to be not too far away from your lines in case something did happen.
How did you pass the time during those quiet times?
That’s all, just walk around or, if you didn’t want to do that you just laid down.

05:24:00:00

We didn’t have any picture shows or anything like that.
What was happening with the enemy at the time when you were there? What were they doing?
The British Army and the German Army, they mostly clash on dark or early in the morning.

05:24:30:00

So during the day it wasn’t too bad. Either side might drop a few shells over, but during the day, no, it wasn’t too bad. Why I said the afternoon, when you’re back

05:25:00:00

the Germans nearly every afternoon they’d come over late in the afternoon. When the sun was low down in the west you wouldn’t see them, you wouldn’t hear them until they were there and they’d come over high up and then the Stukas [dive bombers] would go in straight down in the harbour, bombing the harbour or any

05:25:30:00

ack-ack [anti-aircraft] guns, high velocity guns and so forth, and this one afternoon, of course we were sitting on the side of our little dugout watching them. The show goes on. You could see the dye coming into the dive and the Bofors guns were following them down, you know. Then we were sitting there this particular day and just out the front there were like little blobs of dirt,

05:26:00:00

sand. Of course we just slid down straight underground again, and then he dropped his bomb. He came out of the sun behind us and he seen us and he machine gunned. Lucky he was a bad gunner. He missed it and he dropped a bomb just in front of us, which it didn’t hurt us because we were underground. Only one bloke got hurt and it blew his knee out of joint, the concussion off the bomb.

05:26:30:00

That’s how it went.
When you were underground and a bomb did land nearby what was the reverberation and noise like?
You’re safe as a bank, because the concussion off it just goes over the top of you. I

05:27:00:00

didn’t worry. It would worry you, though, if one landed in with you. No, no.
How long were you at Tobruk for?
I was only there a couple of months. See, as I said, we went to Greece. The brigade was at

05:27:30:00

Ikingi [Mariut] in Egypt and they went up to Tobruk and we were still in Greece and Crete before we cam back out and then we could, after we got out of hospital, we went up then.
Could you explain how you left Tobruk?
How we left? Yeah. What about in Tobruk? Before that?
Well, you’ve just been explaining

05:28:00:00

what you were doing.
Well no, that was only when you were back, when you were up.
Right.
We were up on what they call the right of the Derna Road, that’s heading up towards Benghazi, going up that way. The Italians had built these big underground, I don’t know if you’d call it a pillbox or not but it was down underground

05:28:30:00

and it was all covered over and either end they had the big gun pits where you’d fix your Bren guns on crossfire. One would go that way, one would go that way and the next bloke would do the same, so you’d cover yourself out the front with machine guns. It was nice and cool down below. The only problem was the fleas, full of fleas,

05:29:00:00

so you laid there and scratched. Of a night, all British Army, don’t matter, I think in any part of the world of a night, always what we called stand-to because, as I say, they reckon that is time when they reckon the body is of low ebb, especially in the morning, and that’s when you’re liable for attack. So

05:29:30:00

they’d get two or three, only two or three at a time, they’d go out. You’d have a gap in the wire, it was all barbed wire, and you went out into no man’s land and you laid down and you laid there all night. You had your uniform on and your pockets stuffed with hand grenades and things like that, and you laid down

05:30:00:00

and anything moving you could skyline, and there were little tufts of grass there and I said to my mate one night, “See anything?” He said, “I can see thousands of them.” The grass, you know, because if you watch anything long enough it’ll move. You know damn well it can’t, but it will. You think it does. So then we could hear the Italians building something. I think they were building a sanger.

05:30:30:00

We call them sangers. They’d get the rocks and build up around and they’d cover it over. We had one just behind us where the artillery spotter, he used to lay there all day in this heat with binoculars to see any movement. If he’d seen any movement he’d just phone back to the twenty-five pounders then to show our artillery and they could shell them. Anyway,

05:31:00:00

they could hear these Italians and they said, “We’ve got to go out and shift them, or we’ve got to do something.” We had a lieutenant, Mike Steddy, a champion bloke, came from the Gulf country, and he could walk around in the desert, because to walk around in the desert you get lost easy because you haven’t got your landmarks, and he’d walk around no trouble. So he took us out, halfway out

05:31:30:00

he said, “Look, there’s a landmine.” You could see where the landmines were put down, so you picked your way through. We went out and the old Italians, I still can’t understand them. I don’t know why. They were there laughing and talking. I don’t know if they had a bottle of wine or what it was, but they were laughing and talking. We were standing on top of them. Of course all we did was, you know, just threw

05:32:00:00

a few hand grenades in, a machine gun and that. Of course as soon as you do that hell breaks loose. They open up with everything, mortars and artillery, machine guns, everything, and I made my way back. I got almost back there and I thought, the landmines. I’d walked straight through them. I’d never do it again. Someone guided my steps that night.

05:32:30:00

And we got back and I had a mate wounded. He had punctures in his stomach. Anyway, that was, I don’t know still, something was in the mine, how I walked through a minefield because the way they’re planted it’s hard to do without you could see them. It’s hard to get through them and I just walked straight through them just like walking down George Street in Sydney.

05:33:00:00

So someone guided my steps.
How often would you rotate from the back to the front in Tobruk?
It would only be forty or fifty yards. It was luck. But I tell you, some nights you’d be on guard in your little gun pits and you’d be sitting there. It would be

05:33:30:00

peaceful, the lovely stars would be out, you’d be dreaming of home and thinking about things, and then all of a sudden hell would break loose again. You knew we had the Indians on our right flank? They’d be out on amongst them. That’s what they say, when the sands of the desert grow cold, by jeez they do grow cold.
You mentioned the Indians, could you explain what they were

05:34:00:00

like?
They were the Ghurkhas [Nepalese troops in British service], were they? Ghurkhas? Yes, yeah, a good fighter. They didn’t like apparently, I don’t know much about them. They wouldn’t come back and rest. They stopped in the line all the time because they didn’t being back, they didn’t like the bombing and that. And I think the Italians or the Germans knew that and they used to

05:34:30:00

lower their artillery and that and they’d shoot into the Indian lines. Of course they were well dug in. It didn’t hurt them that much. But they’d be out, as I say, the desert would be peaceful and the stars would be out and all hell would break loose.

05:35:00:00

They’d get out there with their knives they reckon. I don’t know about the truth of it.
What were there uniforms like?
Their uniform was something like what you see on telly from memory. You know, all khaki and they wore a turban, yeah. But I’m nearly

05:35:30:00

sure I’m right in saying this, they didn’t like being back on account of the bombing. They stopped in, yeah. We didn’t have anything to do with them. They had their sector, we had our sector.
Were there other nationalities with you at that time as well?
Later on. There were some

05:36:00:00

English artillery and that. I don’t think from memory there were any soldiers, like, artillery and things like that. Then later on when we came out, were ready to come out, the South Africans came in and took our place. Because after the 9th Divvy and that pulled out, then I’m just, wonder who took it all?

05:36:30:00

The 9th Divvy was, some of the 9th Divvy was still there and the South Africans and the Germans, Rommel and his mob, pushed them out of Tobruk and that’s when they came back and they formed up in Egypt. That was the big, Alamein, that was a big campaign. Of course we had nothing to do with that, it was the 9th Division.

05:37:00:00

We were on our way home when that started.
Were you aware when you were in Tobruk of how vital it was? Were you aware of how vital Tobruk was to the allies when you were there?
How, what was that?
Were you aware, did you know how vital Tobruk was?
Well, it was vital this way, that it stopped the Germans’ and Italians’

05:37:30:00

advance from coming down. Of course they wanted to get Cairo and Alexandria and wanted to get Egypt, and that would give them control of the Mediterranean down that end. Because we had the navy and everything was down there. And they got word to say we had to hold Tobruk, which they did. They stopped their advance, and as soon as they got, like the

05:38:00:00

South Africans and them got pushed out the Germans followed them right down and looked like taking Cairo and Alexandria, but the 9th Division was there again with the support troops, and they stopped them again and pushed them back again.
Did you know at the time, yourself, how important it was that you hold Tobruk?

05:38:30:00

Well, as I said, I wasn’t there. But what I’ve read and heard it was, it stopped the Germans’ advance into Egypt. So it was important, very important.
Could you tell me how you left Tobruk?
Yeah, we came out on a destroyer. They say there’s only one way in and one way out,

05:39:00:00

and that’s by destroyers. Now we left, we went on, I just couldn’t tell you the name of it. I think it was a British destroyer and took us back to Alexandria.
And where did you go from there?
Back into Palestine. That’s where we had the camp and we camped there and we did route marches and we rested.

05:39:30:00

I just can’t think of the name of it but it was down near Gaza and one day they took us for a bit of route march and we went out towards the coast. It wasn’t too far, and then coming along and in front you could see all these gum trees. What the hell are gum trees out

05:40:00:00

here? And when we got up there it was the war cemetery from the First World War. It was well looked after, yeah, very peaceful for them.
How did that make you feel to see the gum trees?
Well, it’s a good question because something you wouldn’t expect over there. You know, going

05:40:30:00

along, because the gum tree is associated with Australia. Of course you couldn’t see anything down low, you’d only just seen the tops and everything. It was a marvellous feeling. Then of course as I said, when you get up there and see what it was, but it was well kept, beautiful. And as strange as it may seem they,

05:41:00:00

at a certain time, it was getting on towards Christmas, October, November, it could have been early, end of, early November, something like that, the red poppies were growing. The red poppies of Flanders, you know, from France, the same, and they were growing there. I don’t know how. I had one pressed and I had it in, I just don’t know what happened to it, a sister

05:41:30:00

got it or not. But I had one pressed to bring home and I had it when I got home, but I don’t know what happened to it, and we were there resting and they took us up to, up into Syria. I never told you –
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 06

06:00:32:00

Mr Howell, before we go on I just wanted to ask you one more question about Tobruk. It’s such a famous battle, it’s part of Australian folklore, really, now. Why do you think the Allies were so successful in defending Tobruk?

06:01:00:00

Well, our fortifications were good. Germans did break through a few times, like with tanks, but they were over, this is before I got there, I was up in Greece, what the boys said, they did break through but thy managed to push them back. I think it was just determination.

06:01:30:00

Not because I was in the army, but the Australians are pretty good soldiers. It takes a lot to beat him. They proved that in the First World War. So is the Germans, but they just couldn’t, I don’t know.

06:02:00:00

When were you aware that you were being called Rats?
I suppose, I don’t know if you’ve heard, there was a British, I think a bloke, man, he was a German sympathiser because he lived in Germany. He used to broadcast their propaganda in English, and it was him

06:02:30:00

that christened the Rats of Tobruk because you live like rats. You live down a hole, and all this caper on, “Surrender and do all this, we’ll give you a better life and all this.” And it was Haw Haw, that was the name they gave him. He was the one that called us the Rats.
So what did you think when you were called, when

06:03:00:00

you heard?
I wear their ribbon and I wear it with pride. I’m quite happy to be one. As a matter of fact I’m proud to be one, and all Rats are the same I’d say, what they endured and so forth, you know.
OK,

06:03:30:00

can I just ask you about some of your impressions of Gaza? We were talking about that before lunch.
Yeah.
Can you elaborate on
We, I’ll say I, I don’t think from memory I was ever in Gaza. We were camped next to it. Dimra was the name of the camp I was trying to

06:04:00:00

think of, and that’s why you could walk past Gaza. The war cemetery is there. So I really can’t comment on in Gaza itself. But if it’s like any of the other walled cities it would be pretty rough. There was just off Gaza,

06:04:30:00

when we went over there in ’40 Palestine was more or less still the same as it had been for thousands of years. Just off where we had the camp there was a mukhtar we used to call him, the old mukhtar. He had a place there and it was all walled in, big high wall, mud walls, and everyone got in there like, all his family, his four or five or six wives, his donkeys and fowls.

06:05:00:00

Everything he had, his kids, all in that little village, and that’s how he lived, and to divide some of his property off they only had prickly pear. So we were having a march one day and here’s the big fat old mukhtar laying back and he had all his wives there peeling prickly pears for him and he was gorging himself with them. And just down out from,

06:05:30:00

he had grapevines and the grapes were beautiful. We pinched a few off him. They wasn’t staked, they were just laying there because the ground was like concrete. How they grow I just don’t know. I don’t remember a drop of rain at any time. There must be a certain moisture in the soil because they grow their little wheat, it’s only so high, and onions and a few things like that.
How did he get

06:06:00:00

the name mukhtar?
Well, I think that was the name for them in them days. Of course they wouldn’t be there now. I suppose since they called it Israel they’ve more than likely been bulldozed or something like that, but in them days it was the old mukhtar, he was the, him and his wives, his wives and families, and when they, they had

06:06:30:00

just like a crooked stick and it had a little steel shoe on it. That was their plough. They could only scratch the top of the ground. They’d have a donkey or a cow or something hooked up to one side and the donkey the other side and that’s how they ploughed. They just broke the surface to plant their things. And their wheat was only so high, as I said,

06:07:00:00

only short and stubby and the women, of course the women did all the work. Women was over there, was only to work and raise children. They had no social life. Of course they harvest the wheat, and this other place, it was there somewhere. I just can’t put my mind on it. It was just a mud house or what it was, but what they used to do, bring

06:07:30:00

the wheat in and of course the ground, as I said, was hard as concrete, and they’d put it all in a heap. Then they’d have the old donkey and a little sledge and he’d walk round and round and round and break it all up, you know, to practically dust. And when they done that, we were watching, they had a fork and they used to get forks and throw it up in the air the wind would carry the dust away and the wheat would fall and that’s how they separated the wheat from the husk.

06:08:00:00

As I say, they’re going back thousands of years, I suppose they still lived there.
How did it compare to the farming in Australia?
There’s no comparison. No comparison at all, because out here, see, we had the rain, and we have grass and wheat. We have everything, animals and everything. Over there they had nothing. It was just a bare

06:08:30:00

ground. The weeds wouldn’t grow.
After Dimra where did you travel to?
Well, after Dimra we were heading north. I went up through, I didn’t tell you about Jerusalem.
Please do.
I had, more than likely, a night’s leave, yeah,

06:09:00:00

a couple of days. Australia House was like a big V and Australia House was in the V and just past Australia House that’s where their Wailing Wall is, and just past that again is where they had the gates to the Old City. And one day I was by myself so I went down through the old gates and I

06:09:30:00

wouldn’t go any further. I said, “No, not by myself,” and I came back and I went for a walk. I came up the other way and they were building up some kind of a building. Now this is how far back they go. They had these big slabs of concrete, I’m sorry, big slabs of sandstone all in the rough as it was mined and they

06:10:00:00

had them everywhere and every one had an Arab sitting there and he had a bucket of water, heap of sand and a flat stone and the stone was harder than the sandstone, and he’d sit there and he’d just rub it and rub it and rub it and wear the sandstone down until they’re quite, and when he’s finished they were absolutely perfect, and that’s how they built them and that’s how they’d been building for thousands of years, because

06:10:30:00

I just don’t know, I think Jerusalem is built on a lot of sandstone, so they must’ve had a quarry somewhere where they quarried it and brought it there.
How did you feel about being exposed to all these different cultures and ways of life?
Well, as I was going to say before, what a marvellous it would be, and a rich country too, if they could only have peace, because there’s that much to see

06:11:00:00

there. All these old ancient, I’ll tell you a bit more later on. We didn’t get to Bethlehem, but they pointed out where it was up on the hill as we went past, and all these old places. You know what I mean? That’s steeped in history, and it would all, say, tourists all over the world would go there to see it. The same as

06:11:30:00

Egypt, that’s got the pyramids, and people flock there.
You joined the army for adventure, did you feel like you were getting your money’s worth?
Well, at that stage see, I’d been into Greece, Crete and in Tobruk and I knew all about the war. We knew what was going on and we were heading now past Jerusalem going up,

06:12:00:00

we were heading up to Turkey, the Turkey-Syrian border because we didn’t know if the Turks were going to come in against or not. No, we had no illusions about that. I knew what war was about and I knew I wasn’t there for a good time.
When do you think that impact really set in for you?
Well, after when we first landed or just went over there,

06:12:30:00

went over to Palestine. You know you’re there for a purpose.
Can you tell me about Syria?
We left after, went up past Jerusalem into where the Dead Sea is. We went around the Dead Sea and all that country up there is still the same, no trees, nothing,

06:13:00:00

barren. And down one end, the Mediterranean end, down that way, there was an oasis. It was beautiful, you know, the palms. Of course water’s everything after you come out of the desert. But the Dead Sea was there, we went around it and from there we headed up to Damascus. That’s another walled city all built in around a wall. And

06:13:30:00

I don’t know why, if we only pulled up for one day to stretch our legs, I think it must’ve been because we could walk in and we had a look just around a little bit of Damascus. They had a big place, a huge place there and they were all sitting around making jewellery, beating silver, and what they made was beautiful. I suppose they’d been making it for donkey’s years, and then I walked just a

06:14:00:00

little bit further and here’s an old bloke, he had a big white beard down to his chest, his hair was snow white and he’d sitting there at his loom. I suppose he was there and his father and his father and his father going way back was at the same place. It was a little old place, sitting there doing his tapestry. Another thing you’ve got to remember these

06:14:30:00

days, or in them days, I suppose it could’ve been proved now, I just don’t know, hygiene is not existent. If a child can reach the age of about three they reckon it’s got a good chance of living. It’s only pollution, hygiene and so forth. It still sticks in the mind, I don’t mean it as offensive or

06:15:00:00

anything like that. As we were walking up past near where this old bloke was with his loom, there was a child there, she was just crawling. I don’t know if it was a girl or a boy to be honest with you, and apparently it had dirtied itself and there were 3,000 flies around it, just swarming around it. So you see how a child had so harsh a life, and another thing, I suppose only just a few

06:15:30:00

yards or down the road a bit, if they’d have killed a goat they’d just hang him up. No gauze or nothing around it. It would be just hanging there and flies would be crawling over it, see. Dysentery and that was a big part I think. The young ones didn’t have much chance.
How did the men maintain their hygiene levels while

06:16:00:00

living in such – ?
Well, they’d be just one of the lucky ones, I think, that survived their childhood. Once they could survive that they were right.
But how did you men in the army maintain your – ?
Oh, us. That’s a good question. Of course we had, like when we had these camps, we had everything. Had everything spot on, like there were latrines and canteen. We had everything.

06:16:30:00

But when we were on the move, well, I suppose the country was wide open, and from there, from Damascus we went up into the Lebanon. Now this is very interesting, to me it is, there was a ruin and it was like the ruin went up into like a

06:17:00:00

gully, all flat and then came back out again and in there was this ruin and there was a column still standing. Most of them had fell but a lot of them were still standing and they were very high and they were marble, and I guarantee they were as smooth as a gun barrel would be inside. On the top there the Corinthian decorations.

06:17:30:00

I only read not so long ago where this marble, the only place where they could’ve got it from was Italy. Now, how would they get the marble from Italy over, because the Lebanon is in a great big valley. How they’d get it there I wouldn’t know.

06:18:00:00

And last Anzac Day I got a cab and there was a young Lebanese driver and I mentioned I was over the Middle East and so forth. He said, “I’m a Lebanese.” I said, “You would’ve been there to Ras Baalbek?” That’s the ruin. “Yes,” he said, “I know it well. I lived around that area,” and he said, “Apart from the columns,” he said, “They’re stone

06:18:30:00

blocks, blocks of stone there that big and heavy and square,” he said, “Even with today’s cranes and that I don’t think they could shift them.” So how did these people do it. I firmly believed that the people before us that lived on this earth were far advanced than we were. There’s other proofs too. How would they get that?

06:19:00:00

Of course now too they reckon that once the Mediterranean was only shallow and they could’ve brought it overland, because not so long ago, just out on the mouth of the Nile, not at the mouth, but out in the Mediterranean they found the first lighthouse in the world. It’s laying there all in pieces under the water and they said it was

06:19:30:00

on the mouth of the Nile of course, but it’s out in the Mediterranean and they knew it would only be on a headland. So the Nile, don’t know whether it was the Ice Age or what rose the water. There are quite a lot of things. And then from there we went, we camped up at, in the Lebanons. I think we had a week or a fortnight there, did a bit of training and of course which they always do, and we moved up and I can’t tell you the name

06:20:00:00

of the place, just before you get to Aleppo which is up on the border. I think it was the French, or the Vichy French I should say, barracks, definitely barracks. They had the huts and parade ground and all walled in, and we seemed to be doing, no leave of course in them places, and we were just doing guarding, sitting around and so forth.

06:20:30:00

And they said, “Anyone wants to do,” this is the 2/12th Battalion, “Anyone wants to do a first aid course?” I said, “Yes, I’ll do that.” So over we go, sit on the ground and they tell us we do this and do that, and showed us a few bandages. Then they gave us a bag of syringes and some morphine and so forth and they said, “Now you’re stretcher bearers.”

06:21:00:00

I’ve still got the card there, the first aid, where they were supposed to protect you and if you were taken prisoner you could work, like, in a hospital or things like that. And we were there and then we moved up into Aleppo. Now Aleppo is a big place, beautiful too. They had a lot of German features up in there because up on the hill there’s a big German barracks that they built

06:21:30:00

after the First World War there, and we went up there. And the layout too of Aleppo was nice, a few trees and so forth there. What we were there for, the railway line before the war, they said you could get on the train in Cairo in Egypt, they’d put the carriages on a punt across the Canal,

06:22:00:00

you’d go up through Palestine, Syria, through the mountains. Now we were up in the mountains and there were a lot of tunnels and a big bridge, a big viaduct built by the Germans, and we were there to guard it and looking down over it you were looking down into Turkey. Of course all these tunnels and the tunnels were all bored with holes and full of dynamite and gelignite and everything,

06:22:30:00

all ready to be blown if the Turks should come against us. And the bridge was, all around the pylons was packed with gelignite and the rails and the big structures were all packed with gunpowder and they were ready to blow the whole lot if they came in, and we were there to guard it. While we were there Christmas came on. It snowed,

06:23:00:00

cold.
Christmas of what year, Mr Howell?
It would be Christmas, ’41, yeah, ’41.
How did you celebrate Christmas?
Well you don’t, you don’t celebrate. You’ve got nothing to celebrate for or with. It’s just another day. All the pine trees and that around about were all laden with snow and that. It looked really beautiful, but

06:23:30:00

it wasn’t much good to us because our army boots all had big nails in and they used to freeze and of course your feet were always cold. But I was lucky, a lot of the blokes that were guarding the tunnels, they just slept beside the railway lines out in the cold and snow and that. But being a stretcher bearer, there were two engineers there,

06:24:00:00

it was their job to blow these things up. They had a tent there and they said, “You can go in and stop with them,” because I had to be on call if anything happened. We had a little drum there and we could light a fire and keep it warm. I don’t know where they got it, they must’ve had a dish or something and you put a bit of water in it to have a wash of a morning. It was warm. As soon as you threw

06:24:30:00

it out and hit the ground it was ice, you know, cold, and they had planks on two drums to sleep on, so it wasn’t too bad there. But the old Arabs, he’d come down and bring little bags of tree roots and that for the fires and he always wanted socks, “Socka, socka, socka,” all the time he wanted. And you could run out of socks,

06:25:00:00

and then we said, “Kerosene?” “Oh yes, kerosene.” So after a while we woke up to them. They’d three parts fill the kerosene with water and put a bit of kerosene on top. Poor old Arab, away, happy, and the next thing he’d go, “No kerosene, no kerosene.” As I say, if you put it over him he was happy, but he’d put it over you too if he could.

06:25:30:00

On there was right out on a point. Turkey was directly down below it and there was a big fort, I suppose built by the Germans too, and of course headquarters was there and apparently someone must’ve shot a goat and they cooked it. You could smell it. I’ve had some, I could smell it in Turkey, strong. I couldn’t eat it, terrible.

06:26:00:00

Food was very light on too, but it wasn’t too bad. And after that they brought us back down onto the flat country, down where the road from Syria crossed into Turkey. It was quite pleasant there. We camped in a school. Of course the schools over there have got all marble floors, a bit cold of a night, but they had a great big

06:26:30:00

steam house. When you went in they had a big long wooden like beds and you took your clothes off and you went through, like, an air lock, two doors, one door and then you closed it, and the floor in there was like a little well with Condy’s crystals in and you washed feet before you went into these.

06:27:00:00

You just went in there and sat there and it was lovely, hot, and they had there if you wanted it, they had a place on the side where you could just lay there and he’d scrub you, soap and hot water and that. You’d do that, then you’d go and sit down and your perspiration again, and you did the same thing when you went out. You went out through, out these two doors, but when you got outside they’d give you

06:27:30:00

a lovely white cloak like a dressing gown and you’d lay on these tables until your temperature came back down to natural level. It was good.
How did it, where was I up to? How often were you able to go to those steam houses?
That’s a good,

06:28:00:00

I just don’t know. I suppose half hour, three quarters of an hour. You could stop there as long as you liked if you want because it was beautiful, because the places we were in water was always a problem. I mean, you didn’t wash, like change your clothes or anything, once in a blue moon.

06:28:30:00

So these places were a good blessing to get in there. Anyway, you want to carry on down? After that we stayed there, we got on a train but this time no carriages, it was just like cattle trucks type of thing, but they’d been all cleaned and everything. They took us

06:29:00:00

down past Beirut. We never stopped, Beirut, Palestine, back to the Suez, across the Suez, then down to, not Port Said, down the other end of the Suez, and where this beautiful ship was waiting and so we went

06:29:30:00

onto it. It was the Nieuw Amsterdam, it was a Dutch boat. It was only reasonably new when the war finished and the Dutch got out with it, and it had just been down to South Africa and was loaded up with all fresh food and everything. Anyway, when she was loaded, of course all their whoppers. “Well, we’ll post our guards

06:30:00:00

and so forth there,” and that was the first thing they’d think of, and one of the petty officers said, “There’ll be no guards on this ship. This is our ship and we run it.” So we just laid back on deck and had good food and it was heaven until we then went over, of course, to Bombay.
What were you told about where you were going and why you were leaving the Middle East?
They don’t tell you anything. They don’t tell you.

06:30:30:00

They just put you on a truck or a train or a ship and away you go.
Were there rumours amongst the men about where you were going?
We didn’t call them rumours, we used to call them furphies. Everyone had a furphy, yeah, yeah. We’re going somewhere, we’re going somewhere. Of course when we got to Bombay that was the big argument, Curtin and Churchill.

06:31:00:00

We tied up there for a week. They took our uniforms off us and kit bags and of course Churchill wanted us to go to Burma. Curtin said, “No, they’re coming home.” So they argued backwards and forwards. Anyway, eventually Curtin won, so from there we went back to Colombo in Ceylon. We transhipped into smaller boats. Once again I got on the

06:31:30:00

Dilwara. I was lucky, then being a stretcher bearer I got a cabin. It was when we left Colombo, the Ramillies, it’s a big English, I think it was a battlecruiser. It’s a lot bigger than the

06:32:00:00

destroyers and things like that. They had the battlecruiser, then the battleship. And it was big, you ought to have seen the armaments on it. A big thing, used to wallow in the sea, and it escorted us out. During the night I think it left us and there were three ships in our convoy, only small. We were told after that we went almost back to Africa, down the African coast,

06:32:30:00

down to the Roaring Forties, then back along there and came up into Fremantle because there were raiders in the Indian Ocean and they weren’t that far south. It was cold and rough. You could see right back underneath the ships when they lifted up out of the waves. and I spent a lot of time on deck. It was good.
When you stopped in

06:33:00:00

Bombay and Colombo, what did you know about what the Japanese were doing in the Pacific? At what point in the war was that?
Well I don’t think we knew too much until we came home. We were tied up there for a week because as I say, they don’t tell you. It’s your place to do or die.

06:33:30:00

The reason, don’t ask for a reason why. No, I don’t think they said. We knew we were coming home, but yes, it was December. Yes, they had, the Japs had declared war. I had a brother in Malaya. I knew it

06:34:00:00

was ’42 and it was Christmas ’42. No, Milne Bay was ’42. Come home, must’ve come home early in ’41 and came home, and then from, we didn’t know.
Can you recall hearing about the bombing of Pearl Harbour?
I just can’t think.

06:34:30:00

We more than likely did because we used to get a little magazine. I’ve got one there, the Salt they used to call it. They’d have bits and pieces. More than likely we did because they took Singapore. I knew I had a brother there.

06:35:00:00

We were pleased to get home but we didn’t know what was ahead of us after we got home.
Can you remember what some of the furphies were at that time?
You mention it and they’d have one for it, don’t matter what. We’re going to get leave, or we’re going to so and so, or we’re going to get this, we’re going to get that. It’s all furphies.

06:35:30:00

I think what they used to say, some of them would be sitting on the toilet and they’d think of something and they’d say that.
Where did you arrive first when you were back in Australia?
We pulled in in Perth. I don’t know why, but we did. We might’ve had blokes from Western Australia but I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone disembarked. I think we were just

06:36:00:00

there and Wootten, he was our chief. He went ashore there at, I don’t know why. I think it might’ve been too for supplies, because we were only small boats and we’d been at sea for, I think, something like six weeks getting home so they more than likely came in for water and supplies.
What did it mean to be seeing Australian

06:36:30:00

soil again?
Well, it’s a marvellous feeling and we got there, they allowed us, we could send a telegram then home to say that we’d arrived. They wouldn’t say where or anything, just to say that we arrived back in Australia. That’s all you could say. Of course,

06:37:00:00

once you get near anything like that you could write a letter and get someone to post it for you.
What did your telegram say and who did you send it to?
Well, they’d only allow you to say that you arrived back. You can’t say where or anything about it, just that I arrived back in Australia. As I said, after we got back to South Australia you could post a

06:37:30:00

letter.
Who did you send your telegram to?
My mother, oh yes.
What correspondence had you had with family while you were away all that time?
Well, it wasn’t very good, going from what they said. I suppose I’d be too, because when the Greece Campaign was on they said we thought you were gone because we hadn’t heard from you for

06:38:00:00

six months. All of a sudden a letter popped up from over there. After that I think, you know, of course in the islands different again, you couldn’t do it, but over there you could write a letter, well-censored of course. Would it be too late to go

06:38:30:00

back to Tobruk? I failed to mention that, it’s only short, I won’t be long.
That’s alright.
Padre [chaplain], of course he’s Salvation Army, Padre McIlvene [?], he had a little old gramophone and he used to sneak around at night and he had, if he could get some toilet paper

06:39:00:00

you could write home on, and he used to sneak around the front line and he’d have these and he’d have this hymn. I’ve got the hymn there too. It was more or less ours, we classed it as ours. And Padre, he was the First War, he was in the First War too, and marvellous, and after it was all finished every Anzac Day in

06:39:30:00

Sydney he’d come and he’d march with us. He’d march first with the First [World War] diggers and then he’d march with us. He became a sir, he got knighted, he went up to a major and then he got knighted and it wasn’t a great time after that that he passed away, and a great loss to us.
How important was the padre in a siege like that?
I think the Salvation Army is entirely

06:40:00:00

different to any others. They’re more down to earth, you know, you can talk to them. They couldn’t comfort, there wasn’t much, you know what I mean? But you knew he was there. He’d go around with his little gramophone and he’d play a tune, pretty scratchy and then he’d, as I say, he had these little bits of toilet

06:40:30:00

paper that you could write home on it. We had no writing paper or anything like that. Anyway, that’s Padre. Where are we?
We might stop and change tapes there.
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 07

07:00:33:00

Mr Howell, you were talking about arriving home in Australia. How long were you in Perth for?
We only pulled up there for, I think it was two days. The Brigadier Wootten, he became Major General later on, but he was like the 18th Brigade and he went ashore,

07:01:00:00

but I just don’t know. He wouldn’t tell you anyway what he went ashore for, but I think why, it was more for supplies because I think, I’m nearly sure they said it was something like six weeks for us to get home. So only small boats, they’d be running down on water and foodstuff.
Were you allowed to go ashore in Perth?
They

07:01:30:00

did stop it. Yes, I did have one day. You go from Fremantle, you had to get a train up to Perth in them days and all you could do is just walk around have a good meal and that and was ready to get the train back again. You didn’t see much of it.
Where did you go from Perth?

07:02:00:00

Then we went around to South Australia, Adelaide there where the docks are. I just don’t know exactly there, and Adelaide and we transhipped there and they took us inland to a place, Sandy Creek. It’s up past Gawler in Adelaide. There’s very little there, of course, like everything

07:02:30:00

else. We had to put our own tents up and your latrines were all out in the open. It was cold too, because it was, must’ve been just coming onto the autumn or something because we were never flush with blankets or anything else. But it was good there because we used to,

07:03:00:00

what they did was, of a day for exercise they’d do a route march and they said they set the compasses on, a little town there. Of course you went down there where they grew all the wines and there’s a hotel

07:03:30:00

there. They’d stop and you’d have a beer or whatever. But every day you set your compass another way.
Did you have leave at this time?
Leave? Yeah, I had, no, it wasn’t. It was one day leave in Adelaide and of course I went to a dance there.

07:04:00:00

Missed the last train home, didn’t get home until the next day, so it cost me £5 for not getting the train home. Our lieutenant, I went over with him and he wanted to forget about it, but this sergeant, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t forget, no, “You’ve got to be charged, you’ve got to be charged. You can’t go out, you’ve got to be charged.”

07:04:30:00

So they charged me and it cost me £5. I was only getting two [shillings] and six [pence]. He were on, I’ll tell you, when we first enlisted we were on five bob a day, five shillings. I kept two and six, and two and six I put in the bank. Of course when we were overseas they gave us six, give us another shilling and made it six shillings a day.

07:05:00:00

So we never had too much to play around with.
Could you tell me about that dance that you went to in Adelaide? What kind of music was being played at this dance?
Beautiful music. They all had, well, you danced to foxtrot, quicksteps, waltzes and that, you know. It’s nice, slow, and

07:05:30:00

the music, you can follow the music. You can dance to it, like it had, almost tell you what to do, and they always had someone that could sing a good song, you know. Of course old Bing Crosby and all those were all the rage in them days. Was beautiful. But dancing in them days, you held

07:06:00:00

the person, held the girl and you danced and the floors were all waxed and fast. You’d fall over. I did fall over once in Brisbane and I couldn’t get up. Every time I tried to get out my feet shot out from underneath me. I had to crawl over and I was still, the floors were that fast to dance with, but a big part of my life was dancing.
Did they have orchestras?
Yeah,

07:06:30:00

yes. They all good orchestras in them days. We’ve still got tapes of some of the world’s best orchestras for them times, yeah.
The girls that you were dancing with in Adelaide, what did they wear?
Back in the times they wore

07:07:00:00

ordinary dresses and so forth. It wasn’t a ball or anything, it was just ordinary dresses. The miniskirts and all that hadn’t been in. No, they just wore ordinary dresses.
Were the soldiers popular with the girls?
Well, sometimes you

07:07:30:00

got on alright with them. I think a lot of the mothers and had got onto the girls, “Have nothing to do with soldiers because they pass on and you’ll never see them again,” and all this caper, which was true. But some girls were quite friendly, you know, you could go out and have a coffee or have something with them, take them home if you were lucky. Anyway, I

07:08:00:00

missed the train and I had to get the train in the morning back up. £5, still I grieve over that. I never forgive the sergeant, I never ever. Still do and he’s dead. I still call him all kind of things.
Were there some girls who wanted to marry soldiers?
Never. I’m talking about myself. I

07:08:30:00

always said when I enlisted I’d never marry while the war was on. I didn’t want to come home, say if you lost a leg, or arm or eye or something, and you were crippled. I wouldn’t have asked anyone to look after me, so I said I’d never marry anyone, which I didn’t.
Were there girls who wanted to marry soldiers?
There were heaps of them, heaps of

07:09:00:00

them. See, a lot of the girls, they thought, “Well, he’s a soldier, we could marry him.” Some of them married two or three times, they tell me. I just don’t know the truth of it, but they tell me, and I believe it, because he’s a soldier, he’s going away, he could get killed and she’d get the pension, and all this caper went on. Or she’d get, like, while he’s away she’d get, I don’t know what you call it,

07:09:30:00

a pension, I suppose from the government and all this, yeah. A lot of them, I suppose, wouldn’t but a lot did. I know some of our blokes did. Of course after they came home and that, that’s a different story because they wouldn’t like to have been playing around with someone else while he’s away and something else, I don’t.
What did the soldiers think about, what did the soldiers think of girls

07:10:00:00

who did that, who married for the pension?
I don’t know. I don’t know, I can’t speak for someone else. I can only speak for myself, I knew how I felt.
How was that?
You asked me how I felt? I felt as I said, I didn’t want to come home as I say with a leg or an arm or an eye or some

07:10:30:00

disability to ask anyone to look after me, so I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t marry anyone, no.
How long were you at Sandy Creek for?
We were only there, I suppose, a month or six weeks and then they moved us from there up into Tenterfield up in the north west of, on the New England I should say, of New South Wales. Then again they just, through some tents in the paddock

07:11:00:00

which they always did to us. Make your own tent, put your own tents up and make your own camp and everything, and we were there. There was a lot of rabbits there, so we used to go out and we’d see a burrow and we’d dig a burrow out and get the rabbits because there were no traps or anything, and they’d be cooked, you know, change of diet. But it was cold there that time of the year.

07:11:30:00

Then we moved from there up into near the Somerset Dam in southern Queensland. It’s inland, south west, it’s a big dam. It was almost complete when we were there because where we were camped they tell me later on it became underwater. There’s no place there for leave. This lieutenant I mentioned about there in Tobruk, came from

07:12:00:00

up in the Gulf country, he got married there. I still remember Mike being married, and about three months after he was dead. So he didn’t have much of a married life. Somerset was, we had, I think they said there was a hundred mile march there one day from there, went up

07:12:30:00

through the back country somewhere to Kingaroy. Never again. I was a stretcher bearer. They said the truck was carrying all the cooking utensils and food and everything, “You ride on the truck,” and when I got there I had big dishes with Condy’s crystals in for the troops to bathe their feet. That’s why we had to go ahead

07:13:00:00

of the troops. So we did that march. There was no leave, I don’t think, because there was no place to go to. Oh yes, into Somerset, there was a little bit. I forget, it was that long ago now, I forget.
Why did the troops have to bathe their feet in Condy’s crystals?
Well, if you

07:13:30:00

march for all day, all day and days on end and your socks get a bit on the nose and your feet get sore, blistered, get all kinds of things. So Condy’s crystals, it kills any germs or anything like that. No, they had to have their feet –

07:14:00:00

Did you see your family at any stage when you were at home?
No. Up to this stage, Tenterfield, Tenterfield, they opened their hearts up and they gave us a week’s leave after we came home. From there we came back from Tenterfield and we moved into Queensland, and from there

07:14:30:00

we, they put us on the boat, on the old Dilwara for Milne Bay.
When you were at home for that week’s leave did your family talk about what life had been like in Australia while you were away?
Not really, not really. We don’t talk about it, and of course in them days,

07:15:00:00

there was plenty of work and plenty of everything so they were alright. Of course they were very, very worried. So was I, because I never expected to see them alive again. And the brother who was taken prisoner in Singapore, he was worried about that.
How long was your brother prisoner in Singapore

07:15:30:00

for?
Three years. They were taken for three years.
Did they know that’s what had happened to him?
We knew he was taken a prisoner, like his division, the 8th Division was taken prisoners. Of course they didn’t know for a long, long while if he was still alive or not, but eventually they got word to say that he was still alive.

07:16:00:00

He was, Jack was a big man. He weighed mostly around the seventeen stone. A lot bigger man than I am, you know, and when they finished he was down to about seven stone. When he got back he said he wouldn’t have lasted much longer, but they got him out. We were up in Borneo and we never ever talked about it. When

07:16:30:00

I met him we shook hands and he said, “It took youse a long while,” and I said, “Yes,” and that’s the only words we ever spoke.
Which POW [prisoner of war] camp was he held in?
I think he was in Changi. Of course I don’t know where else, he could’ve been on the railway up there or somewhere else they had. I know when they got him out he was in Changi because they brought them all back to Changi from other

07:17:00:00

areas when they knew they were getting beat. So I just don’t know where, if he did, as I said, we never talked about it.
Were you reunited with him in Australia or overseas?
Live?
Were you reunited with him
No, no, no. No, I was back in Civilian Street. I’d been

07:17:30:00

discharged and everything because all those blokes, as you say, as I say, he was seventeen stone and he was down to about seven. He was only skin and bone and they wouldn’t let anyone, any of them, it happened to us after. They hospitalised them, put them in hospital, treated all their diseases and fattened them up, give them good food and clothes and so

07:18:00:00

forth until they think they’re ready to come back into civilian life, and it was quite a while after before I met him, because he was like me, pardon me, he was like me, he enlisted in Queensland too, and of course when he came home his wife was up there and he went there for a while before he came down to Cessnock where Mum and Dad lived.
Could you tell me about the journey to Milne Bay?

07:18:30:00

Milne Bay. Well, after they took us from Somerset Dam Camp they loaded us on to our boat. I’ve got photos of it there, the old Anshun. She was a filthy thing, and on the way over the toilets were right

07:19:00:00

on the side of the boat and opposite the door of the toilets was the cookhouse. Of course nearly everyone finished up getting dysentery. So then they closed the toilets down, and what they done, you know the big painters’ plank, they lashed them over the back of the boat and you had to use them as a toilet. It was a filthy old thing. But it went over and

07:19:30:00

later on the Japs sunk it in Milne Bay. But it was a float, not now, but they refloated it later and she was brought back. They brought her back into commission.
When you arrived at Milne Bay what did you see there when you first arrived?
Coconut trees. Milne Bay in them days

07:20:00:00

was only coconut trees, the roads were only like a mud track where the trucks used to go. You’d be over your ankles in mud, and they had the fighter strip, a place that they called Gili Gili just up from Milne Bay. Gili Gili was the little bay, and up from there they had the fighter strip, the fighter planes.

07:20:30:00

Then they marched us up, way up past, as far as you could go up the back there was a creek or river, call it what you like, and they said, “There you are, you’ve got to make a tent here,” and it was terrible. It never stopped raining, rained and rained and rained. So a few of us, we went and got four forks off a tree and poked them into the ground and we put other timbers over and we made a little camp up off the

07:21:00:00

ground. Put our tent over it. At least we weren’t sleeping in the wet. Up where we were, when we heard when the Japs were on their way down, and they shifted us again.
Why had you been sent to Milne Bay?
Why? Well, put it this way,

07:21:30:00

if Milne Bay, if they hadn’t have won Milne Bay battle Australia would’ve fell to the Japs and it was very, very important. It was vital that we hold Milne Bay because Milne Bay is a big harbour, like a lot of other places and that’s what they wanted it, as a base. If they had’ve got a base they would’ve chopped Moresby off and they had

07:22:00:00

nothing to stop them, Australia. And that was one of the reasons why they brought us home, the 18th Brigade. They brought us home, we went up there. Of course with us as they said, we were seasoned, seasoned battle, seasoned troops. But the militia, they were there. Unfortunate, they got

07:22:30:00

chopped about. They had to get out and come back and so forth. We got a lot of them later on.
So the militia had been there before you arrived?
Who?
The militia had been there?
Yes. See, they had the militia. I think they were in Rabaul and they had them in different areas coming down the coast, on the east coast of New Guinea. Of course they had no chance against the Japanese.

07:23:00:00

They had no chance at all. The Japs used to annihilate them, and Milne Bay was their last and they, and we were brought back, right back to Gili Gili then, just behind, and the Japs landed and they got in amongst the militia and the militia couldn’t hold them and they got pushed back and pushed back and they lost

07:23:30:00

a lot, and eventually those that lived got back to where we were. And before this they’d built another airstrip there, what they called Turnbull Strip. There’s photos there of it. It wasn’t meshed over or anything, it was just clear. All the militia and

07:24:00:00

anyone else they could gather they formed up on the other side, one side of the strip, and they gathered everything they could gather like mortars, every machine gun they could, all kinds, anything that would fire. The artillery was ready to come in and that night the Japs came down and they began to

07:24:30:00

cross over and if they had’ve crossed over they would’ve took. The next morning, I think it was, pardon me, I think there was nearly ninety-four dead Japs there, and the Japs went back because we broke their back, you know, broke the biggest part of them and then we went. Oh before that, I’ll tell you, it was in a book

07:25:00:00

written up in Queensland later, now I mean. When they brought us down from up the back, down past the airstrip to Gili Gili we were all sitting around waiting for orders to move up towards where the action was going on. We were all sitting down and Sergeant Doug Scott, was his name,

07:25:30:00

he said, we had a box of hand-grenades there. He said, “We’ll clean these hand-grenades and get the grease out of them and we’ll get a faster strike.” Because they were only four second strikes, only four seconds before you pull the pin and it went off which was too long. They changed it to three later on, and he said, “Charlie, you sit there, undo the base plate, pull the pin and let it strike.”

07:26:00:00

Of course there was no fuse in them, they were still in the box. That was my job. The bloke next to him, he said he’ll turn the grease out of them, clean the grease, and the bloke next to him, he put them back in, put the piston back in. And Tom, being the sergeant, he said, “I’ll put the detonator in,” and I’m sitting there and we’re all yakking and talking and pulling the pin and it’s going around and then he

07:26:30:00

finished one and put it in the box. You wouldn’t want to know, I picked it up and pulled the pin. We were all sitting around it and it started to smoke. Well I could’ve won any Olympics for speed, the same as everyone else. We scattered. We couldn’t throw it because there were too many troops about. I got down behind a palm tree and we were waiting for it to go off in four seconds. One

07:27:00:00

of the officers had his valise there, all his sleeping bag and all this, and it chopped it to threads. We lost a couple of hand-grenades or something. But that was just something that happened. Nothing was said about it, but it’s not in this book. In another book they published up where the sergeant mentioned the fact that I pulled the pin on it. Yeah, anyway, we got,

07:27:30:00

next morning when they crossed over and all these dead Japs and that. It was the 18th, no, the 12th Battalion, it was the 12th Battalion. D Company led, they were first. A Company was behind them. B Company was behind them and we were C Company behind them. We brought up the rear.

07:28:00:00

So we pushed on up to, then there was a mission up there, what they called KB, KB Mission. But we couldn’t get that far. We got again, a river, thereabout the Gama River, and B Company was ahead of us, they were on one side and we were on the other. And that’s the first mistake we ever made. We were still back in the desert. We

07:28:30:00

put blokes out in the front of us, just out in the jungle the other side of the road as a listening post for Japs, and we couldn’t get them back. The Japs got them. But we only did that once, but it was unfortunate. They reckon there were over a hundred Japs, but we settled down as I said before, that

07:29:00:00

all British armies, Australian Army, any army, always stand to coming on dark and before daylight. So we were all standing to when the Japs, they didn’t know we were there, they just walked into us. They came up the road, they weren’t ready for us. They had their rifles slung and all this. Of course they waited for them to come up and they got into them. I think they killed over a hundred Japs that night.

07:29:30:00

But what happened was, there was one, only one in all our times up there got into our line, and for some time or other the Gama River flowed one way and it changed course and went down another way. Of course where it was flowing there was a dint in the road like that, and we had a bloke wounded. He was moaning

07:30:00:00

and groaning and making a noise and I was there trying to dress him and as I was doing this, pitch dark. You don’t strike any matches or any lights or anything. I couldn’t find, and as I did, Tom McCauley, one of the other sergeants, he walked past and as he walked past a Jap was standing there and drove the bayonet into his back. But Tom was a big bloke, used to do a bit of

07:30:30:00

wrestling and everything. He swung around and grabbed the Jap, got him down on the ground. Of course somebody went over then, we had Thompson machine guns we then, we brought home from the Middle East and they give him a burst and he went to his ancestors. But if he hadn’t have I think I wouldn’t have been here today to tell the story. I think he was coming, I knew there’d be someone there with the bloke that was wounded, and I couldn’t find where

07:31:00:00

he was wounded. All I knew there was blood all over his head. You feel in, you know, you use your fingers. You got into the wound and everything. I couldn’t find a wound where he was bleeding, so I just wrapped a field dressing around him, give him a good shot of morphine which you don’t know if you’ve got a full syringe, half a syringe or anything, nothing because it was dark and you just put your syringe into the

07:31:30:00

bottle. Anyway, we got him to send him back. I met Tom McCauley after in Queensland and he said, “You’re a poor bloody old sergeant, you didn’t even know where the man was wounded.” I said, “How would I know in the dark, you couldn’t see.” I knew he had blood all over his head, and what happened was they got him back to hospital

07:32:00:00

and by the time they cleaned him up and everything they couldn’t find any wound on him. Apparently they sat him up on the side of the bed and he coughed and blood came up, shot out of his chest. He was shot through the chest. Of course he was bringing up the blood. As I said, pitch dark, you wouldn’t know. You didn’t have any light or anything, and all the way through it was night time. It was all the same, you only felt for it, you

07:32:30:00

found it, you put a red dressing on and you brought him back behind. After you got him out of the front you brought him back and he stopped there until carriers came up the next day and they’d take him back to where the doctor was and he would have a look. If it wasn’t bleeding he wouldn’t touch him, he’d just put a tag on him to say where he was wounded and had a dose of morphine and so forth, and then the

07:33:00:00

carries would take him. He’d go back and eventually he’d get back to hospital.
What equipment did you have with you to treat the wounded?
In the front line you don’t have any. All you have is dressings. Like it’s a big field pad, a big pad, and big long, like, bandages coming off them, and no matter where the wound was you put the field dressing into it,

07:33:30:00

and the bandage you tied around it. We had nothing to treat anyone, because then we’d give them, as I said, a good shot of morphine. A wounded person can carry more morphine than anyone else. So it didn’t matter if we give them a full syringe, half a syringe. Later on we pumped a bloke up with morphine and it didn’t hurt him.

07:34:00:00

First line, like in the front line you don’t have time. You go out if he’s got hit and you just grabbed him, threw him on a stretcher and brought him back a bit and we didn’t even have a doctor. We were the doctors. And you dressed him and laid him down until the carriers came up to pick him up. He could’ve been wounded in the afternoon or the night and he’d lay

07:34:30:00

there until the next day. Not like today. And I don’t think in my memory that we ever lost anyone. Once they went back they went to hospital, hospital ships and home and so forth.
You mentioned that the doctors only touched the wounds that were bleeding, why was that?
Well, he couldn’t do anything either. He had no equipment.

07:35:00:00

All a doctor would have, he might have to do a bit of stitching or something like that, but he would, if the wound was bleeding then he’d redress it and find out why, where it was coming from. It’s hard to say, it could’ve come from any part of the body. He could be shot in any part of the body, but if there

07:35:30:00

was no bleeding what’s the good of touching it, because he couldn’t do anything. As long as it wasn’t bleeding you left it until he got back to hospital. He wrote, he had tags. He’d put on it like where the wound was and he had so much morphine, all this. Only once, later on, just before we could dress him,

07:36:00:00

a bloke shot through the body and I seen him put a few stitches into his back to stop the bleeding there, but that’s the only time. In the front line you don’t have time to worry about people.
What were the stretchers that you were using?
We had the old wooden stretchers. Not like the nice light aluminium ones they’ve got today. They were pretty heavy,

07:36:30:00

and they had to be built pretty strong too because they got rough treatment up there. They could be wet, they could be anything, you know. We lost a lot of stretcher bearers. Per ratio we lose more stretcher bearers than we would ordinary soldiers, like front line, because we only had four

07:37:00:00

stretcher bearers to a company, and a company I think was around about 120 strong. We had one at Milne Bay went through, we stopped the night at KB Mission and it rained. After the Gama River we moved up the next day up into KB Mission and the full battalion was

07:37:30:00

there and we stopped the night. So under the coconut tree they’ve got a butt, you know, up above the ground a little bit. I don’t know who it was now, him and I, we sat there. He sat on one side and he sat on the other. We had a ground cape and tin hats, and rain, it poured. Then you could feel the water seeping up around your bottom. You dare

07:38:00:00

not move in them places. It don’t matter what, ‘cause our own blokes would shoot you, which they’d done before at the Gama River. They moved and one bloke shot them because you don’t know the difference in the dark. So the rain had come up and then it stopped raining, and it was going down. Then it would rain again and up it came, what a miserable night. The next day we, C Company,

07:38:30:00

we took the lead then and we moved on and we came to, see, up there too, the jungle grows nearly right to the water’s edge. Very few little beaches, especially like in Milne Bay. So there was this little beach and a river, an ideal place for us to pull up. So we pulled up

07:39:00:00

and formed our perimeter, the blokes that were front line. We had the beach then. Of course we were always in the middle in case we got called out. If were in the front line and someone got called out it would leave a gap and a Jap could come through it, so they kept us back, and our corporal

07:39:30:00

stretcher bearer, Jackie, be from Tasmania, he, during the night it was, he must’ve had the call of nature and he went down to the beach and he walked along the beach a little bit and just as he undone his clothes and sat down one of the boys went bang. How we ever missed him I don’t know. I struck him later on in

07:40:00:00

Sydney. He said he don’t know how he missed him, but he did. That’s how trigger happy they get. The only ones that could move around a bit, and we let them know who we were, was us.
What protection did the stretcher bearers have?
We relied on someone else. If we had a wounded bloke, say, outside our perimeter and we couldn’t get him out until, say, we couldn’t.

07:40:30:00

Sometimes you’d try and get him in the daytime. Sometimes you’d have to leave him there until dark, and I had one little bloke up there if we had to go and get a bloke, he was the first one there with his Tommy gun [Thompson submachine gun] to cover us, and we’d go out and get him and bring him in. We never carried [weapons], when we were back in Australia they’d give us a rifle but when we went away they just

07:41:00:00

took it off us or we left it somewhere. You can’t carry rifles or anything like that. Carried a medical kit and stretcher and things like that. We had to rely on.
How difficult was it to manoeuvre in the jungle? We’ll change the tape now.
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 08

08:00:31:00

This little place where we stopped, we moved on next day because our company, C Company, we were leading the attack and we ran into a nest of Japanese machine guns and we all got pegged down, and there were three of us laying there, stretcher bearer in front of me, there was me and another bloke, and the machine gun was

08:01:00:00

cutting the leaves off just above our heads. We weren’t game to move, but what happened was one of the bullets must’ve hit a limb or something and ricocheted down and went into the top of the neck area of one of the stretcher bearers and went down inside. Impossible to do anything. We took him back but it’s impossible. Even if you had a good,

08:01:30:00

AGH [Australian General Hospital], good doctors or something. They couldn’t do anything because he’d bleed to death inside, and it was there while we were there our sister battalion then came through us and they ran into this next, and French, that’s where he got his VC [Victoria Cross]. He’d taken this machine gun nest, and they pushed on then further on and then they found Squadron

08:02:00:00

Leader Turnbull. He crashed and they found his plane. He was still in it, and we went further on with the 9th Battalion leading and we stopped again for the night. But that particular, this night we were camped near the water and we

08:02:30:00

heard this destroyer coming. You could hear the noise of them, and he got down and he put the lights on, big searchlight, and the old Anshun was there and he sunk it, and then the Manunda, that was the hospital ship. He put it on her and there she was, a great big white ship with the red cross on it and luckily they didn’t touch her. But when they were coming back they put the searchlight on the

08:03:00:00

jungle like, on the edge, and they put it where we were and there must’ve been someone standing up and then they fired but they couldn’t get low enough. They fired into the trees. We lost one bloke, it nearly tore his back off. Another bloke, Herbie Ryan from Cairns, they finished up they had to take his foot off. I got a little bit of shrapnel in the foot, in the boot I should say, but it didn’t

08:03:30:00

hurt me. And we heard then that instead of landing troops, we thought they were landing troops, but they were taking them off. Anyway, that night they had a big battle up further, the 9th. The next day they called for stretcher bearers and we had to go forward, and we were that tired. We hadn’t slept for days and days and very little food. So two of us had to go forward,

08:04:00:00

but when we got up there where they were they were, they’d collected their wounded and that’s where they found the militia blokes, hands tied behind their back and bayoneted to death. Their fingers cut off where the Japs had tortured them and all this. Anyway, I still don’t know where it came from, they was a little boat there. It must’ve been

08:04:30:00

one of the Japs’, like a big rowing boat. So they loaded all their wounded and that into there and took them back that way. The mate and I, we had to make our way back to our own lines and the corporal stretcher bearer said, “Look, we’ve got to put you in the front tonight. We’ve got too big a gap. We’ve got not enough men,” because we were getting well down

08:05:00:00

on men then and I said, “God, we can’t keep,” “Doesn’t matter, you’ve got to stop there.” Which we did, but they started to take us back and we had to walk back, and on the way back one of the boys were carrying a stretcher and he fell over and he couldn’t get up, he was that tired, you know, and everything. We had

08:05:30:00

to lift him up. Anyway, we made it back, but after we got back they had tents and that waiting for us and we got a bit of food and change of clothes, because you hadn’t changed your clothes for weeks, especially us blokes too, because we had a lot of blood on us and you’re wet, you could smell it. And your feet, when you took your boats off you could see the blood coming through your skin. It was pretty rough going.

08:06:00:00

How did the front in the jungle, how was that different to the front line in the desert?
Well, in the desert in Tobruk I think the perimeter was something like thirty miles, say, from the Mediterranean you go out and it comes back to the Mediterranean. In Tobruk it wouldn’t be any bigger than around this block of ground that this building is sitting

08:06:30:00

on. Very close, because you only had 120 men and of course there it’s all jungle and you only had a track. All the fighting was on a very narrow tack. You had the track, jungle and then the ocean. Of course off the track you couldn’t get through it, it was that thick. So all the fighting was done like that, and we were lucky too, we had a bloke,

08:07:00:00

the air force, I must mention Bluey. Bluey Truscott was his name. When things wasn’t looking too good for Milne Bay he was ordered to take his squadron back to Moresby and operate from there, but Bluey said no. He said, “While I’ve got Australian troops in front of me we’re stopping here,” and we’re pleased he did too because the Japs were sending quite a few barge loads of marines down for reinforcement

08:07:30:00

and Bluey and his squadron got amongst them, sunk most of them but one got away for Goodenough Island. But Bluey later on, he put himself into the ocean, you know, mucking about, you know. He was a wild bloke, lairising [behaving foolishly I suppose you’d say, and he went into the ocean. But we’ve got a lot to thank for.
Can you

08:08:00:00

explain, Mr Howell, exactly how the stretcher bearer works in that confined front line in the jungle? Where would you stand and when would you move?
Well, we were, as I said, you had your front line but they always kept us behind, just behind the line because if we were in the front line and someone got wounded and we had to go out you’d leave a gap, a gap there, and the Japs could, if they knew, they could

08:08:30:00

sneak through there and they’d come in behind us. So with us blokes they kept us just behind the front line. When we had to go and get someone we could go out through, some one would come in with their machine gun and cover us and we’d go out and get the bloke and bring him back because when you went out to get a bloke you didn’t know if a Jap was waiting there. Of course if he knew the bloke was there he knew someone would come to him, or not. That’s the risk you took.

08:09:00:00

How did you know if someone was wounded?
They’d sing out. They’d just sing out, “Stretcher bearers,” and we knew then we’d have to go and get them.
What were the Japanese skills of camouflage like?
They wore all dark green. You’ve got to remember too, they reckon they were,

08:09:30:00

what would you call it? They were superior to anyone else. See, they had such victories right up from Japan, right down through Borneo, New Britain, right through. They had nothing to stop them.
What thoughts did you have of the enemy when you saw those militia who

08:10:00:00

had been bayoneted?
It’s terrible, I mean to say when you see. Don’t matter if he didn’t belong to your mob or our brigade or anything. I mean, they were Australian soldiers. You don’t have good thoughts. I think when, everyone said then, “We’ll never take them prisoner.” We did get a couple later on, but they said they would never take one

08:10:30:00

because of the atrocities that they done.
What thoughts did you have about being taken prisoner?
What thoughts? Well, I always carried a webbing, like two pouches and a webbing and belt and so forth, and I always had one hand grenade in there and in the other one I had a packet of army biscuits we used to nibble at night, and I don’t know, I still

08:11:00:00

often wonder if I had the guts to blow myself up or not, but I, it, because I knew what had happened. I was protected through the Geneva Conference under Red Cross, it didn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t have trusted them, but I always carried that hand grenade.
How did you know that those atrocities to the prisoners of war of the Japanese?

08:11:30:00

We’d see them, I’d say we’d seen them. We’d seen them. We called them the militia. It wasn’t like AIF [Australian Imperial Force], like we were. They were a militia battalion, they’d done their work, they were good. But they hadn’t met the Japs, they didn’t know how they fought. We’d been

08:12:00:00

in the desert and we knew what it was all about and how to go about it. But these poor, they’d have, say, a platoon up front and then you’d come back and they’d have another one and they were stretched right out. Well, the Japs would, a platoon was nothing to them. They’d come in behind them, they’d do the same thing and they’d just work their way done. They could wipe them all out, but they couldn’t do that with us because we had troops behind

08:12:30:00

us following us up all the time.
What was the role of the fuzzy wuzzies [indigenous Papua New Guineans] at this time?
The fuzzy wuzzies used to bring up, when they’d come up they would bring up some food, ammunition. When they went back they carried our wounded back. That’s where they got the name of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.

08:13:00:00

They were like the carriers. Food and ammunition up and wounded back.
And who organised them? Who would cooperate with them?
That was all done behind us. I wouldn’t have a clue, would not have a clue. But we met one here, met two not so long ago from Milne Bay. We had a Milne Bay day in Sydney and we went down to it and there were two there and they carried Australian

08:13:30:00

ribbons, which they were entitled to. But who organised I just don’t know. I couldn’t answer that.
How would you communicate with them?
Well, with us we had no communication with them because we wouldn’t even see them. Pardon me. They’d come in, bring in what they had and go out again. Because the

08:14:00:00

front line, you don’t take your eyes off the front either. What goes on behind you weren’t even interested in.
How did you feel about the physical surroundings you were in?
It was terrible, terrible. As I say, you only had a narrow strip and all jungle, and a road, a little road between KB Mission. They had another one further up.

08:14:30:00

It was like deep wheel tracks from the trucks and that, you know, and mud. Terrible. That’s where these two, you see in the pictures there, where the two Japanese small tanks landed. They got into the wheel tracks and got bogged. But very harsh surroundings, very, very harsh,

08:15:00:00

terrible.
How prepared do you think you were for those jungle conditions given you’d been in the desert?
Actually, we weren’t. All they did was, I just forget now if khaki and green came in then or after, but we just had our clothes that we wore in the desert. As a matter of fact we brought home with us our Thompson machine guns

08:15:30:00

we used in the desert and they weren’t much good up there. They changed it later on. They were a forty-five, very good in the desert. I lost a mate over one of them. But up there in all the wet and everything one jammed. It jammed on him and he couldn’t fire, so, but in the desert where it was dry and you kept

08:16:00:00

a slide and if that was always kept clean where the recoil, there were good. They’d stop anything, but if that got, like up there, got wet and a bit of dirt where it couldn’t be looked after they just jammed. So they changed them and took them off us and we got the others then.

08:16:30:00

And what about disease in the jungle, what was the disease like?
Mostly malaria. Later on, just a bit further on I’ll tell you about diseases. But around Milne Bay it was mostly like malaria. Of course we hadn’t been there long and our feet and that were mostly the trouble, but of course, as I

08:17:00:00

said, once you get back and get some good socks and a better clothes and dry and that, these things clear up pretty good.
Can you describe what was happening to your feet?
Well, as they said in the book, yes, it’s in this one, Milne Bay. After a week or two of your feet being in water and wet all the time, you know, your hands if you’ve been doing washing up, how soft and wrinkly they get? Well, you can imagine how your feet

08:17:30:00

would be if you hadn’t had your boots off. You weren’t game to take them off, and so there was socks and that, the blood would like come to the surface and you had to walk on them, of course, and it wasn’t very pleasant. But like everything else, when you get back and get some dry clothes and that they cleared up. But as far as diseases go, Milne Bay and a bit further on

08:18:00:00

was mostly malaria.
How did it seem that the Japanese were coping with their conditions?
I wouldn’t know. We wouldn’t know, we wouldn’t know. It was our job to destroy them, not to worry about what they got.
When you encountered them did they seem malnourished?
Yes, they were well fed. Of course their diet was rice. As you know, that’s their big diet

08:18:30:00

and we got heaps of it later on. Oh yes, they were alright. We wasn’t too bad in that because we had our bully beef and you could always eat a tin of bully beef.
What experience did you have encountering Japanese POWs?
We didn’t have any. One or two later on. I’ll come to that later.

08:19:00:00

But as prisoners of war, we never held any until the war finished and they threw it in. We did get a couple earlier. I’ll tell you about it later.
So where did you go to after Milne Bay?
Well, we went to Goodenough Island. Off the east coast of New Guinea there’s Milne Bay, Ferguson Island and Normanby, three nice islands, and

08:19:30:00

the one barge that got away from Bluey Truscott got amongst the others. They landed on Goodenough Island. Of course over the back they had an airstrip and so it was our job then, they wanted the 2/12th to go up, we had to go and shift them. So three battalions, three companies, 9th,

08:20:00:00

10th. A, B and D Company, they went off on the destroyer, on the Arunta, it was practically a new destroyer in them days, and we went up on the old Stuart. It was one of the old destroyers, and the idea was the three companies were to go inland and come around the back, the back of them, and come in that way.

08:20:30:00

Our job was to go up, come to a certain place and stop and if the patrol companies that drove them down wanted to come our way, it was our place to stop them. And by the way, on the way up too, I was under a temperature of 103 [Fahrenheit] because I was full of malaria. It didn’t make any difference. And they creep into

08:21:00:00

this, it’s a bit eerie too, you creep onto this island and it’s all jungle, jungle right to the water. You didn’t know who or what was there, and the destroyer said, “Now, no smoking, no noise, no lights, nothing.” So the old Stuart, she creeps in. She gets into a certain thing and she drops her anchor. I guarantee you could hear it a hundred miles away. Anyway, we landed and we go down the track towards where

08:21:30:00

we were supposed to go and we stopped where we were supposed to go, and the next thing we were being attacked by the Japs. We lost a few there. That’s where the mate was lost, his machine gun jammed. The other three that were supposed to come in, they got bushed or they come to a cliff and couldn’t get over it. So the,

08:22:00:00

it would be after the battle, after the Japs went back, it must’ve been coming on night and in the meantime we had one of the blokes, he got shot through the thighs, which is terrible because you can’t do anything about them, and he was on one side of the track and we were on the other and the machine gun was firing down between us so we just had to wait. He was moaning and groaning and cursing us

08:22:30:00

to get him. But it was suicide because they had the machine gun firing down the middle. Anyway, they stopped and went. We went and got him and the captain said, “We’re going back. If the launches are there we’ll all go. Not some. We all go or we all stop.” Anyway, we were lucky. There were enough there, we all got

08:23:00:00

aboard. You can imagine on board with all his thighs shot. I don’t know how much morphine we pumped into him but the doctor said, “It won’t hurt him.” With the movement of the boat his bones would grating and we didn’t have splints. Anyway, they get him back and that night the Japs left. The next

08:23:30:00

morning they came back over and they went through the kunai grass and that and they found a Jap hiding in there and we got him and they took him back and they tied him up. He poked his eyes out and chewed his tongue and all this and of course you go bad up there pretty quick in the heat, the tropics. They finished up they had to shoot him. But Mud Bay, they called the place. It was rather nice, you know.

08:24:00:00

It was a village of natives there and they used to bring down sweet potatoes, paw paws and that. It was good. One of our blokes shot a young girl there. They see someone moving through the grass, the kunai, and they sung out for her to stop and she run and they shot her. She survived,

08:24:30:00

and then we went down and got her and brought her in. Holy Moses, they’re on the nose. Of course the old had the grass skirts and they tell me the old one they leave on until it falls off and they just put the other one over it, you know. We had to dress her up. Just what happened and where she got to I don’t know. That’s where I

08:25:00:00

started to bring up a bit of blood there, cough blood, and I saw the doctor and went over and he said, “We’ve got a lugger going back with malaria cases and so forth on board.” He said, “You can go and look after them,” and he said to some of the others, “We won’t see him again.” He thought I had TB. But we got back to Milne Bay and I went to hospital and after a while it cleared up.

08:25:30:00

In the meantime, over the Christmas period, while Goodenough Island they had this airstrip, the Japs had an airstrip, and opposite there was Buna, Sanananda and this is where the next action. So they had to go and get them as they could and use it for an airstrip. They’d moved on up to Buna and them places then and then after I went up. Buna and Sanananda, they were on the track

08:26:00:00

they call the Sanananda. But I got there, and I was there at the finish when they finished, and we got another four or five Japs there. They were dead beat. They had nothing.
Can you explain that, like what was the state of the Japanese in Buna and Sanananda?
I don’t know. I mean they were,

08:26:30:00

well, I suppose like malnutrition, I suppose, you know. Very, very harsh, the rain and the mud and no sleep and all this. They were only skeletons too. They threw it in. They thought, with the Jap, he would give himself up to the Americans but he wouldn’t give himself up to the Australians. They though we were Yankee. They thought, they’d

08:27:00:00

been drilled that way that much that Australians would eat them and do all kinds of things to them, and this is true. When they found out we were Australians they threw their hands in the air and they thought we were everything. Anyway, it finished that campaign, and when it finished they moved us down onto the beach and the little beaches are very narrow, full of sand, and you had to be very careful where you walked because all the sand was

08:27:30:00

fly blown where Japs used to bury their dead. And that’s where we camped and there was a little dugout there with a shelter over it and I said, “That’s mine.” Someone else got in, two or three got in, and right in front of that was a dead Jap, half in and half out of the water. In daytime we could cover him over but at night time when the tide came in and went out and he was uncovered, jeez, he was on the nose.
Was he lying down or in – ?
He was dead.

08:28:00:00

He was rotten.
Wedged in the sand?
In the sand at the edge of the water, and out of a bit over 3,000 men there was only, I think there was ninety-two left by then, and what was left, a lot of them, this’ll be the diseases. A lot of them, they broke out in something, I don’t know whatever. It’s like a ringworm but I don’t

08:28:30:00

know what it was. They couldn’t tell us what it was. It was a disease they’d picked up. I think it was only like filth and malnutrition. Some of them, what they had to sleep in was terrible.
Can you explain what you were sleeping in?
Sleeping? You didn’t sleep, you just sat up against a tree or something

08:29:00:00

like that, raining like one thing. Water would be up around your feet. Just before it finished we got one bloke hit and wounded in the day time and we couldn’t get him because we thought the Japs would be waiting for us, you see. So we had to wait until dark came on and we went and got him. He was laying in water all day and when we went and got him and brought him back a bit, and

08:29:30:00

we should’ve kept him there overnight ourselves. But I said to my mate, I said, “Look, if we don’t get him back to our doctor,” Dr Sampson, I said, “he’ll be dead by morning.” Just laying in the rain. So I said, “Come on, we’ll take the risk of going back.” So we put him on the stretcher. Of course we made plenty of noise too and sung out who we were and when we got back they said, “Youse are bloody mad,” excuse the language, but we

08:30:00:00

shouldn’t have done it. We said, “He’d have been dead by morning if we hadn’t have took him back.” There was a little bit of high ground there, and the padre, and he still goes around today, he’s ninety-two, and Dr, they had two half tents they used to put together and they’d sleep in there. So we got him back and padre got out and we put him in and

08:30:30:00

Dr Sampson, he cuddled up to him all night to give him a bit of body warmth and next day, I think that’s where he stitched his back up a bit. After that you never hear any more about them. Wouldn’t even know where they went, but as far as I know we didn’t lose anyone. Today, God, if they’re out there and a drop of rain went on them they’d die. They’d think it was terrible. They

08:31:00:00

wouldn’t know what these blokes went through.
Was it apparent at that time that the Japanese were beaten in PNG [Papua New Guinea]? Did it seem to you at that time that the Japanese were beaten by the Allies?
Not at that stage. They’d been pushed back. The Owen Stanley Range, Milne Bay, Buna, Sanananda, which was one of their big bases to hop onto Goodenough

08:31:30:00

Island. Come around into Goodenough Island, then Moresby, then Australia. It was a big base. Going by what you read about it it’s one of the big battles in the islands. As I said, we went over 3,000 strong as a brigade and I think there was about 94 there when they finished. Of course we had like killed, wounded, sick,

08:32:00:00

and they flew us back over to Moresby to come home. But Dame Enid Lyons, she was the Prime Minister’s wife of Australia, she must’ve heard about it and she said, “Oh, don’t bring them back here. They’re full of diseases,” which we were. He said, “Leave them up there.” It was in all the papers. So they

08:32:30:00

took us, at Moresby they took us up into the highlands up on top of the mountain. I think it must’ve been where the Owen Stanleys started and it was beautiful because it was up high and they gave us clothes and food and everything and a lot of the diseases cleaned up once you do that. It’s only like malnutrition and filth.
Mr Howell, what did you think about General

08:33:00:00

MacArthur at that time while you were in New Guinea and some of his comments?
MacArthur, you wouldn’t put it on tape what I thought of him. MacArthur, no Australian was any good to MacArthur. Some of his commanders wrote Australians up as the best fighters. As for MacArthur himself, Australia was no

08:33:30:00

good, and he carried this right through the war too. And yet it was us that first defeated them.
Were you in Papua when he made that speech where he called the Australians cowards?
I don’t think so. I don’t know, because after Sanananda we came home. We had a holiday. Had a holiday? I should say rest and we went back up then to the

08:34:00:00

Finisterre Ranges.
What were the impressions among the troops about MacArthur while you were fighting in Papua?
They didn’t have much time for him. They didn’t have much time for him. They still don’t have. They’ll never forgive him because he praised the Americans at Buna, and at Buna they were sitting on the fence. They were sitting there for three weeks and wouldn’t even go against the Japs.

08:34:30:00

Of course the 18th Brigade, they came in. I wasn’t with them, that’s when I was back in hospital. And they said, “We’ll take this in three days,” which they done, but by jeez they paid the price, and then one of their commanders said he’d never seen anyone fight like them. Yet MacArthur said, he said nothing because all he wanted was America,

08:35:00:00

and these Yanks were sitting there for three weeks. If you don’t fire, we won’t fire, you know, kind of thing. We’ve got no time for him.
What contact did you have with American troops, say, in Moresby?
No, none. We didn’t. Of course after that the only contact we had later on when we went from Morotai to Balikpapan in Borneo.

08:35:30:00

We went on LSTs [landing ship, tank], landing barges. Of course they were manned by Americans.
How long did you have back in Australia before you went to Borneo?
They only give us a few months. We went and done Shaggy Ridge after. That’s up in the Finisterre. The Japs were up there on top of the mountain. They had a small mountain gun. I’ve got a picture of it, only small.

08:36:00:00

Why, this is MacArthur again. Of course I found out later on. I asked one of our top blokes. He was knighted, Sir Tom Daley, I said, “Why in the hell did we have to go and get that gun?” They could’ve fired away there for twelve months and wouldn’t hit anyone. There was nothing there to fire at. He said, “It was on the flight path.” Of course further down the Ramu Valley the Yanks had a big air base and it was their flight when they were going over to do

08:36:30:00

Rabaul and New Britain and all those places, and MacArthur wanted them shifted. I don’t know why, I still don’t know they had the gun there. Anyway, we relieved a mob that was there and there were all razorback hills, you know. It’s was like one man fronts the lot of them, so they couldn’t go that way. So what happened, they dug a track right around the base and in behind the Japs.

08:37:00:00

That’s where we went, the 2/12th, and we actually got in behind the Japs and they didn’t know we were there. But all told I think between dead and wounded we lost forty people. That’s where I almost, I don’t know, still don’t know how it happened, but I nearly met my Waterloo there. A mate got shot and shot through the spleen. I knew

08:37:30:00

there was nothing, no good taking back to a doctor or anything because there was nothing you could do about it, impossible. And I’m sitting there waiting for him to die and we thought the Jap was over there, and there was a little tree and I’m sitting side on to him and there was a sniper and he had a go and I don’t know how he missed me, but he did. The ears popped and the eyes bulged, the concussion of the bullet going past, it was that close.

08:38:00:00

Anyway, I ducked out of the road and they turned the gun around where they were shooting that way, firing that one, and they fired it around and hit the tree he was in and shook him out, yeah. So then they just kept on chasing the Japs and they finished that. After that they brought us back. After there we were up in the mountains. They brought us back

08:38:30:00

down to the floor of the valley, down to the floor of the Ramu Valley. I got malaria again and they had what they called a hospital. They had a few sticks in the ground with forks and a bit of kunai grass over the top, and a few poles with chaff bags on it. At least it was something, and I had the malaria, and while I was there they came around and they were taking names. I said, “What

08:39:00:00

are you taking names?” They said, “We’re going to evacuate the hospital.” Of course the show had finished, you see. “Oh, that will be good. I’ll go back to Lae.” “No, you won’t, you’re not going back. All we’re doing is taking the young blokes back.” So us older blokes, we had to stop there. Anyway, we stopped there and eventually they flew us out, flew us home again and up to the, pardon me,

08:39:30:00

that’s Kurai [?Kuranda] in north Queensland, there was a camp there and that’s where we did our training and that’s where I had two stripes and I lost two stripes, and to take two stripes off you they gave me a court martial and took my stripes because they just can’t walk up and take them off you. I did a bit of punishment for it. It cost me a lot of money that, it cost me three stripes.
What

08:40:00:00

was the reason for the court martial, what happened?
Well, I had a sister in Cessnock. She was going to get married. She wrote up and said, “I’d like you to be best man for me.” I said, “Alright.” So I wrote out an application for compassionate leave and they said, “No, we’re not going to give it to you.”

08:40:30:00

This was getting on for over five years in the army. We weren’t going anywhere at the particular time. I said, “Bugger this,” so I shot through and I went down to Townsville and got a Yankee plane. I wouldn’t go near an Australian plane because they’d put you in. A Yankee transporter, went down to Brisbane, down to Sydney, came home and was best man for the sister, and I stopped

08:41:00:00

home for a while and when I went back, of course I was charged with being AWL, absent without leave, yeah. And they took my stripes off me and gave them to someone else and he became a sergeant. Anyway –
We might stop there and change the tape.
Interviewee: Charles Howell Archive ID 1606 Tape 09

09:00:32:00

Mr Howell, you said that you were court martialled for being absent without leave, what did the court martial entail? What did you have to do for the court martial?
That’s when they wouldn’t give me leave and I went down to Cessnock to be best man for my sister’s wedding.
What was the process of the court martial? Was it a hearing?

09:01:00:00

Oh yes, yes. They had the officers there and so forth, you know what I mean, all lined up. Of course then they come over and they take the stripes off your arm and they give you a sentence. Of course by then as I said, a bit over five years I had been in, so I wasn’t worried too much. I knew they wouldn’t shoot me.

09:01:30:00

But it did cost me a lot of money because they gave the other stripe to someone else and they got the three. Anyway, those things are water under the bridge.
How long were you in North Queensland for before you went elsewhere?
I just couldn’t say exactly. We were there a while.

09:02:00:00

See, after the Finisterre, like Shaggy Ridge they call it to get the mountain gun, we came down to Brisbane, a camp out of Brisbane. Don’t ask me the name of it. I just can’t think of it, and that’s where I got leave from there. Of course they got big hearted again, I got a week’s leave, but I got a little bit cunning there because

09:02:30:00

being a Queenslander, and I knew Brisbane extra well, and they wanted guards to look after the camp while everyone else went on leave, and I said, “That’ll do me.” Of course we put in the biggest part of our time in Brisbane on leave, and I think we had three weeks. Then when the others came back we went on leave. So I had a bit of a break

09:03:00:00

there. Then we went back up onto the Tableland, up to Kurai. There’s a monument up there now that the 18th Brigade was camped here.
What were you doing at this time while you were in camp at North Queensland? What were you doing while you were in camp at North Queensland?
All you’d do is, most of them, not me,

09:03:30:00

all they did route marches, walking, some stupid thing out in the bush, you’d have to go and attack it. They had a range there where they taught. Of course just now we were getting a lot of the young blokes coming back in. See, all the old blokes were out, and we got a lot of young blokes in and they had one special place

09:04:00:00

where you could advance under artillery, the twenty-five pounders, and it taught them what they’d get used of it. You’d go so far and stop and they’d be in touch with the artillery and they had range and lay a barge in front of you. When they lifted that you’d move up and they’d lay another one. It taught them how to work under artillery

09:04:30:00

and all this caper. Of course they played football. By this time we had a lot of Victorians because they played Australian Rules, and everyone else, we always played Rugby League. Used to be a pretty, not a fierce turnout, but it was good.
And when

09:05:00:00

did you go to Borneo?
I suppose it would be around about July, August when they brought us down off the Tableland to Townsville and we went on the ships there, and we went on one of the old Victory boats that the Yanks built.

09:05:30:00

They’d roll in a bath tub. They never stopped, cranky old things they were. Down in the hold, and we went in that up to Morotai. It’s an island up near Borneo, and we trans-shipped there. This was a terrible place, all mud, rain, you know again, and between trucks and people walking you were over your boot

09:06:00:00

tops in mud and everything and while there was a jumping place off for Borneo. So they took us down and we went onto the landing barges, the big barges, and underneath the barge inside they had these small little landing craft and we set off, convoy. We had American ships and everything up there then.

09:06:30:00

Australian ships, and when we got over in Balikpapan they had a big oil refinery there and all the pipes came down from the oil wells and down to the refinery, and then they had all these big petrol tanks. Instead of petrol

09:07:00:00

it was oil all out along there. There were heaps of them, and of course when we came the Japs burnt all these tanks. They were all on fire, you know, smoke, and they burnt for days. But you’ve got to give the old Yank his due. He made sure there was no one in front of him when you landed. They had like

09:07:30:00

rocket gun launches, a boat, and it would come in and there would be great heaps of rockets. They’d start at the water’s edge and they’d lift up and they’d go a bit further, and anything, I don’t think a rat could live there. They just cleaned it out for us. So we got out to get into these landing barges and they were just like a small tank, you know how the tracks, and took us in and landed,

09:08:00:00

and the one I was in we got half up the beach and he dropped his tail get out and someone said, “Move up a bit further, you’re out in the sea.” Of course he hit the gunner and up, we all spewed out the back into the ocean. It tossed us all out. And they pushed on and it was pretty easy. So later on because the Yanks, they’d bomb anything. They even bombed us.

09:08:30:00

What they had was all coloured strips and that was laid out just behind the front line and anything in front of that they could bomb. But you wouldn’t want to know, they got wet and the Yanks laid them out along the beach. Of course we’d gone well ahead, and

09:09:00:00

we were, of course you get used of them and when you see them unload the bomb you get an idea if they’re coming your way or somewhere else. You get used to them, and I thought, “These blokes are coming our way,” and just near a little place there was a little dugout and I crouched in there like a rat. I think we lost a few, a couple. One bloke got his knee blown out. Another bloke had half his face blown off.

09:09:30:00

It was the second time in all my time as a stretcher bearer that we had to walk away and leave someone. He was, actually he was dead but we couldn’t take him. The doctor came down with the jeep and he could only take so many, to pick up our wounded and this bloke was there. He was shot all around the head and he said, “What do you think?”

09:10:00:00

And I said, “We’ve got to leave him,” and I tell you what, it’s hard to walk away and leave an Australian soldier, but we had to. We couldn’t do anything about it, and we had to push on up. It wasn’t long after that that they dropped the bomb in Japan. Of course they tossed it in.

09:10:30:00

Do you remember being told that that had happened? Do you remember hearing about when the bomb was dropped?
We heard after that they’d dropped it because what was going to happen before, when we, see Borneo, Balikpapan

09:11:00:00

was one of the first places the Japs took because they had to have the oil to refuel their armour. It was one of the first places, and so when they took it we still don’t know if they were going to send us to Malaya, like to help Singapore to get them out, or we were going straight to Japan to invade Japan.

09:11:30:00

We still don’t know. But while we were there when it finished they came around and they gave you points for how long you were in, and I had a lot of points. But what they did was, blokes who were married with kiddies and that, they sent them first. That’s fair enough, and

09:12:00:00

while we were there waiting they came around and they said they wanted blokes to go to Japan as the Occupation Forces. They came and they said, “We’ll give you three stripes to go and look after them.” I said, “No, I’m going back home.” So my old mate and I, we waited there for a few months before a boat came in, a ship I should call it, came in and brought us home.

09:12:30:00

I got discharged in December 1945.
So those couple of months while you were in Borneo waiting to go home, what did you do?
They were alright there. Once there Gracie Fields, the great singer from England, she came there and some of the others and put on a nice concert and they had open air

09:13:00:00

pictures and you could wander around the place. Of course, like any soldier, you’d sticky beak, do things you shouldn’t do. Apparently all the natives, I don’t know if they pulled their places down or the Japs pulled them down because they’d only be very

09:13:30:00

flimsy types of thing, but what they’d done, anything they had they buried and trod on the soil until it was hard. You didn’t know there was anything there. Some of them would go around, me included, and you’re walking and you pick up the sand, and whatever they had was there.
So what was it that you were finding?
Wasn’t much. They

09:14:00:00

might have a couple of glasses or, of course they had nothing. Might have a couple of glasses or something else and they were buried there for when it was over to keep away from the Japs. That’s all. It wasn’t worth the trouble, but you had something to do, so you’d just poke around. We built ourselves another little, get up off the dirt because we were only sleeping on the dirt,

09:14:30:00

and got ourselves up off the ground. No, Bali was, of course at least never got the rain that New Guinea got. That was good.
Can you tell me about the concert that Gracie Fields gave?
Well, old Gracie at that time was getting well on in years

09:15:00:00

and her old legs were getting a bit stiff, you know, to give a little dance and so forth. We had a big heap of, a lot of troops there and they used to clap and roar out, and it was very very nice to see her because everyone had heard about Gracie and some of the songs, the British songs that she used to sing

09:15:30:00

during the war and that, and she sang them there and it was great. But it was only the once and then she moved on to some other theatre of war where there was troops. Morotai, I suppose or somewhere else.
Can you remember what songs she sang?
Not now I couldn’t. No, I couldn’t now, no, but it would be some of the old wartime songs. Everyone would’ve

09:16:00:00

known her.
And did you know much about the atomic bomb?
No, no. We didn’t hear anything. Later on they told us, and then they dropped the other one. They said how it wiped out the whole place. A terrible thing, but as we said at the particular time, they should’ve dropped

09:16:30:00

more because no one had any time for the Japanese because of what they’d done to everyone. But later on the boys that went over there said civilians, they were alright. They were not too bad people. It was the Imperial Army that was doing the trouble. See, they were taught all this rubbish, and

09:17:00:00

all this rubbish that it was an honour to die for your country and never to be taken a prisoner, and all this. But the people themselves, some of the blokes from after the occupation, my mate from here, he went over and he said they had a pretty good time there for a while, you know, pretty free, and of course like everything else in the army, they started to get a bit too regimental.

09:17:30:00

Young officers coming in that only came in after the war and that, and they polished buttons and everything had to be polished and all this, and when all this started the mate said, “Well, I’m going home.”
What was your journey home like?
We thought it was

09:18:00:00

great. I forget the name of the boat. Anyway, we left there and any other time you always travelled blacked out. No lights, not even a cigarette light, but going home you’re well let up and everything and we called into Milne Bay and I was astounded the change. When we were there there was nothing, there was only

09:18:30:00

jungle, and there’d been the bigger part of it cleaned, and big warehouses and that. All done by the Yanks of course. Could I go back to there for a minute?
Sure.
I meant to tell you this. After the show was over, like after the action was over, they brought us back to Gili Gili, back where we had the tents and everything and we dressed in clean clothes and so forth.

09:19:00:00

The Americans had took over from Bluey Truscott on the fighter planes and this particular, he must’ve been, he was standing around or something and this Yank fighter took off and when he took off he knew he was in trouble. He could tell by the sound of his motor. You learn all these things, and he went up and he come around and he cut off the tops of the palm

09:19:30:00

trees. He came down through the palms and you wouldn’t believe it, but in the tent there we had Captain Ivy and Charlie Groves. Captain Ivy was the I [intelligence] captain. Charlie Groves was his lieutenant. I went overseas with Charlie, and the plane landed on the tent, and the biggest part we found of them was a hand. Chopped him up, you know, the propellers.

09:20:00:00

It was terrible. All they found, I took a bag over and I picked bits and pieces up, and how they knew it was Captain Ivy’s because he had a ring on it and people knew what ring it was. I’d forgotten about it.
So on the journey home, you said to the boat was no longer blacked out. How different was it

09:20:30:00

on that ship coming home?
Pretty good. Heading in the right direction. It was good. We didn’t call in at Moresby, I don’t think. I don’t think so. I think we came to Milne Bay and home, and up to Townsville, onto a trooper

09:21:00:00

and yes, I think I got discharged in Brisbane.
What were the troops doing on the boat coming home?
Mostly we played a lot of bridge. We learned to play it. I’ve got there a book, the hands are wrote out how to play it

09:21:30:00

and so forth. Bridge and, pardon me, I’ve got a bit of a, I poked around. I suppose I played bingo and things. I just forget. I know we didn’t have to do any guard or anything, so we just lazed around and it was quite pleasant. I knew we were heading in the right direction. It’s a big relief to

09:22:00:00

know that you were going home, and when we got word to say it was over up in Borneo, up in Balikpapan, you just don’t know how relieved it was.
Were there celebrations in Borneo? Did you celebrate in Borneo, the end of the war?
A parade?
Did you celebrate the end of the war in Borneo?
We had nothing to celebrate with.

09:22:30:00

Where we were they brought us down then towards the coast and they built a compound there and had quite a few Japs in there that surrendered. When it finished they were told to lay down their arms, and we used to, of a morning we’d go down. I think we done a roll call and inspected some of the Japs to see

09:23:00:00

the health conditions. So we were doing that, I went down and there was a Jap officer. He had all his things there, you know, travelled in style, and I was going through it and he had, of course we had to use open blade razors and I took the razor off him and didn’t he play up. “No, it’s mine.” He wasn’t allowed to have it.

09:23:30:00

I took it. But we used to go down of a morning and as you say or I say, a lot of them could write English. A lot of them couldn’t spell it, but they could write it for some reason or other. I suppose it was taught that way in school. What happened to them after I just don’t know, I just don’t know. I think we then, after a while

09:24:00:00

someone else took over and we went back up to where we were camped before. But the Japs then, they knew it was finished and they were pretty docile. You had no trouble with them. We still had towers, like, with machine guns in if they played up, but they was alright.
What were your thoughts when you

09:24:30:00

were dealing with the Japanese in that camp at the end of the war?
When the war finished?
Yeah.
That’s a big question, like in one way you were that thankful that it was over. You didn’t have much thought, we hated the Japs,

09:25:00:00

don’t ever get, you know, you always hated from Milne Bay to see what they done there, the atrocities, and we hated them. Of course when it was finished you were just, they go that way and we go that way, and you still didn’t like them but it was a great relief.
When you came home, what was the first thing you did

09:25:30:00

after the war?
I think the first thing I did I went to the tailors, because in them days nearly all our clothes were tailor made. I went to Newcastle and had two suits made, tailor made, because I done a lot, as I said, a lot of dancing. And you get your

09:26:00:00

pumps, shoes and everything and that was where I met Joy, at a dance. She was an excellent dancer. We got on well together. We had a bit of a dispute, she went that way and I went that way and I didn’t meet her until forty-seven years after. My other wife had died of a heart attack and here I am,

09:26:30:00

and enjoying every minute of it.
What impact did the war have on you in those first years?
Terrible, terrible. See, your nerves have gone, you’re shot to pieces, your nerves. Finished? All day, I think that was Joy opening something.

09:27:00:00

And your thoughts were there. It doesn’t matter what you were doing. If you woke up at night your thoughts were up there. And all this week, now the last two weeks I’ve been the same. My mind’s gone back. It will take me a while to get over this because it’s still there. So, and your nerves is shot. It took quite a while to get

09:27:30:00

over. You couldn’t settle down. You went to one job to work, you stopped there a while and you went somewhere else. You went down to Wollongong and you went back to Sydney and you came back to Lake Macquarie, back to Sydney. It’s hard. People wouldn’t realise what it was like because I always say, it’s just the

09:28:00:00

same as if you’ve got a young calf or something and they put the brand, hot brand on him to brand him, it’s the same thing. It’s branded into your brain and you never get rid of it. It’s still there, but you don’t think about it. But this will start it all over again, not as bad, not as bad. Just sometimes, you know, it starts. Mostly at night when you go to bed. Quiet, you’re reading,

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you’re reading a book and you’re up there somewhere.
What kind of symptoms do you get when it’s bringing it back?
No, I don’t think you get any actually like. Not visible. Of course it’s here, then you think about it. You don’t, I mean you don’t

09:29:00:00

talk about it. You don’t [UNCLEAR]. You’re just there if it’s quiet. Your brain goes back to it and you think about it. Could go back to the Middle East, could go back to Tobruk, could go back, the other night I went I think from Sydney right back through Greece, Crete, Tobruk before I could go to sleep.

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You just can’t help these things. Last night I said, “I’ll have a good sleep tonight,” because I took a sleeping pill and I had a good night. I’ll have a week or a fortnight or something and eventually it will fade away. Not altogether, it will never do that. But not all the time, you don’t think about it.
How did you cope with that when you came back?

09:30:00:00

Did friends who’d been through the war, did they help?
You don’t talk about it, never even mentioned it. You just chin down and that’s where it stops. People wouldn’t even know I’d been away. You know, you don’t talk about it because if you do it only comes back

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to you, so you try to forget it. I’ve got mates that, the day they got discharged they didn’t want to know their mates. They’d been mates for five or six years. They didn’t want to know them. They just wanted to wipe a clean slate. I went up to Innisfail years later and went and seen a mate there, and I said, “Where’s,” I forget his name at the moment. He had a

09:31:00:00

caravan park at Innisfail, and he said, “He goes up to the RSL [Returned and Services League],” and so I went up to the RSL and I asked where he was. They said, “That’s him over there.” He didn’t want to know me, and the same as Ned Maxwell, he lives up at, Ned was one of the originals of the battalion. Ned said he doesn’t even want to know me, and not only him but there’d be thousands like him.

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When it finished that was it.
How important is Anzac Day to you?
Very important. I haven’t missed many. They’re very important. I went down last year and I done the march, but unfortunately I’m not going this year. I couldn’t do it, the old legs wouldn’t carry me. I’ve

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wrote down, Joy wrote for me to tell them that I won’t be down. Time has come when I just can’t do these things. But Anzac Day is the most important day of the year to me because, as I said, I enlisted in North Queensland and there’s not many of us down this way, and we used to gather there.

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As a matter of fact, one of the old mates I’ve known God knows how long, he, only a few months ago he went for a walk. He could barely walk, and a four wheel hit him and killed him. So last Anzac Day I think there was four Rats there out of what used to be a heap. There were only four of us, and the next year

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there’ll be only two because the old mate got killed and I won’t be there. So what’s going to happen, like a lot of other things, I think eventually they’ll have to wind up or amalgamate with someone else. We did with the First War diggers. They got down to about three or four of the same numbers, like the 9th, 10th and 12th in the First War diggers and we

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took them in and they marched with us or had our reunion and so forth. But eventually, of course, they all passed on, and I think the same thing is going to happen with us. I think we’ll have to amalgamate with some of the 9th Division or something.
Having been through the Second World War what are your thoughts on war?

09:34:00:00

I don’t know, I don’t know. I think it’s something, not our here, but over there it was something that had to happen. I just finished a book and if you read it, what the German people done to the Jews worse than what the Japs ever done, and

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because Hitler was, he was taking all Europe and he was going to take all over there. He’d have finished up damn near taking the world. But then of course when the Americans came in and they got food and ammunition into Britain. They got there themselves. The big thing that helped them was radar. The Americans had big fleets

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of submarines and they’d get them out on their convoys, and of course all the boats were old and they were very slow and they were sitting ducks and they used to sink them all. But then when Britain got radar, and someone, I just can’t think who it was, suggested that when the convoy is approaching England they put an aircraft carrier

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out there that could scour around the seas, which they did. Of course as soon as they saw a submarine they could sink it. They’d drop their bombs on it. Then the convoys were starting to get though. See, at night time a submarine could be out charging its batteries and a plane fly over, pod him. Of course that wiped the submarines out.

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Then they started to push Germany back. I’ve said this before too, when we were there, after Greece I think it was, and because the Germans were in Greece and they wanted the Middle East, they wanted to control the Middle East and I suppose the oil wells and that there. But when Russia came into it that changed them. They had to go back and fight against

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the Russians. I think that’s the only thing that saved the Middle East from being in German hands.
How do you think Australia changed because of its involvement in the war?
I don’t think we changed that much then. Later on it did. Later on it did, when we started to bring a lot of ,

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see, they brought in a lot of English people and European people. I think it changed our culture, like the culture of Australia a lot. No, it was a big difference. Until that happened I think we just went our merry way.
What has been the work that you’ve done since the war? What’s been your main

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profession?
A bit of everything. As I said, I’d work here for a while and then go somewhere. I worked on the wharves, I worked down in Wollongong when they were building the BHP [Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited]. I worked in the BHP for two days, I think, in Newcastle. I couldn’t stand the noise. I worked in a couple of mines around the Newcastle area because I had a brother in it, and I finished up, I went back

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to Sydney and working around there, different jobs. You couldn’t settle down. You just couldn’t settle down. The old mind and the body just wouldn’t settle down. You just went there and I don’t know, you got, not only me, a lot of them. That’s how it affected me. I had

09:38:30:00

mates there, they just couldn’t cope at all and they got on the grog and they became alcoholics. They just couldn’t cope. So it affected people like us all in different ways. Some of them went on to become wealthy people. You know, they came on to have a business and things like that.

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It all depends on the nature. But Australia, it didn’t change until later on as far as I’m concerned.
Mr Howell, thank you very much for being involved in our archive project.
It’s been a pleasure. I just didn’t know how I was going to handle this. It was very nice talking to you. The only thing I’m a bit sorry about is these things didn’t happen years ago.
So are we. Thank you

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very much.

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