Eric Watts
Archive number: 1720
Preferred name: Killer
Date interviewed: 18 March, 2004

Served with:

2/12th Field Regiment
2/11th Regiment

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Eric Watts 1720

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Transcript

Tape 01

01:00:31:00

Okay, rolling. So Eric, whereabouts did you grow up?
I grew up in Victoria. I was born in Leonora in Western Australia, and my parents took me east when I was three months old. My father having done a course at the School of Mines, an electrical course at the School of Mines. And he was driving

01:01:00:00

the tram between Leonora and the Sons of Gwalia mine. Anyway, that terminated, and I was three months old when they took me east again. And I was brought up in a little country town called Euroa, it’s well known because Ned Kelly robbed a bank in Euroa. And the first job I got after leaving

01:01:30:00

my mother’s apron strings was in Jerilderie in New South Wales, southern New South Wales, and Ned Kelly also robbed a bank there.
Ned Kelly was a busy man.
Yes. He was a bushranger of course, and well known in history. I started and finished school in Euroa.
How big was the school there?
It was only a higher elementary school, it went up to

01:02:00:00

Year 12, and I went right through and got my intermediate and so on. And then, that was in the height of the Depression, 1934, and I got a job, which were very scarce in those days, with a local shop there, a draper’s shop, which I didn’t like very much. But my father thought it best I grab it when I could, because of the

01:02:30:00

state of the country at the time. Euroa was about 2,000 people in those days, and it hasn’t grown much. I worked in this shop, and then I later decided I would accept a job which was offered to me in Jerilderie with a big firm over there, that had numerous branches. It was called A. Miller and Co, and I

01:03:00:00

was in charge of one of their departments there, and that was in 1937. And I worked there for two years, and oddly enough, I met my, the girl who was to be my wife there. And then in 1939 I was at home and on holidays, and my father

01:03:30:00

said he’d been talking to a friend of his who was a brigadier in the army. And this brigadier had told my friend that the intelligence had indicated that there was a war coming, and Germany was building up its armaments and so on. And if he had a son, he’d put him into the army in the early stages. My father told me this,

01:04:00:00

and strangely enough about a week later there was an advertisement in the press seeking recruits to go down to join the army, the permanent army. Go down to Queenscliff out of Melbourne, which is on the point of, the bay there, go onto the coastal guns, big guns that were there, to guard the entrance to the port.

01:04:30:00

So I put in for this, for this, to be a recruit and there were 130 in it, and they wanted 30. And I got, I was one of the 30, I think the brigadier might have put a word in somebody’s ear, because how I got in, I don’t know, but anyway, I was one of the 30. I went down to Queenscliff then and became a recruit,

01:05:00:00

this is 1939. Shortly after that, the war started. And I did the usual recruit training and it was very, very strict in those days, and I became a gunner on the six-inch coastal gun. I was posted across to the other side of the bay, to Point Nepean

01:05:30:00

after I’d done my first three months, and there I, together with a lot of others, we did more extensive training. Until in April 1940, the CO [Commanding Officer] of the Coastal Defences, Lieutenant Colonel Goodwin, held a parade in Queenscliff of all the soldiers, cooks, bottle-washers and everybody. And he informed us that

01:06:00:00

he had been asked to form a medium regiment to go into the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] and go to the Middle East. Or, at that stage of course he didn’t tell us that, but that was the intention. And he wanted us, being trained soldiers, it was a volunteer situation and he wanted us to join up and go with him and join his regiment. And he said, “All those happy

01:06:30:00

to do this, take one pace forward,” and I was one of 85% who did so. And we went then out to Puckapunyal in, the camp in Victoria, and trained on these World War 1 60-pounders which the militia were using, there was quite a few militia fellows also joined up. And that was on May the 17th when we first went to Puckapunyal, and

01:07:00:00

we trained there on, in the cold and it was bitterly cold until the October. And then we were informed at another parade by the same CO, that the guns, 60-pounders that we were to get to go overseas with had been lost at Dunkirk, and therefore

01:07:30:00

we were, we would not be, we would be going overseas, but we would not be on 60-pounders, we would be not a medium regiment, but a field regiment, and they are smaller guns, 25-pounders. And if you want to hear a little interesting thing that happened while we were at training there, my mother and father lived up at Euroa, which was only 30 miles away from Puckapunyal.

01:08:00:00

And another fellow and I, we were a bit sick and tired of the boredom of the camp and so on, we decided we’d go AWL [Absent Without Leave]. And I was a two-striper then, bombardier they were called, so we put our kitbags in our beds and shot through up to Euroa and had a beautiful dinner with my parents and so on. And strange as it may seem…

01:08:30:00

All right. You’re doing really well with what, you know, you’re rushing through in an overview of what you’ve done.
Yes, am I going too quickly?
Keep on that track, and then we can just start back to the beginning and go into far more detail.
Oh well, the, the funny bits we can do later.
You can do later, yep.
Oh, that’s okay then.
Keep going with a bit of the overview.
I’ll, I’ve got quite a few,

01:09:00:00

you know, quite interesting details.
Oh yes, we’ll come back for the details.
Right, okay. Well, anyway. Are we on again?
Yes.
Will I finish that story?
You may as well finish that story.
Yeah, anyway, it so happened there was a fire in the camp that night, and everybody had to turn out of their huts and stand outside and

01:09:30:00

be checked off and everything. And they find these two fellows are asleep in the beds, and then the fellow goes, the officer gave it a bit of a prod and it turned out to be my kitbag. Anyway, of course we went up on a charge, and we went before the major in charge, and he gave us a reprimand, quite a severe reprimand, for going AWL. Anyway that was a bit of bad luck on our part,

01:10:00:00

but it was worth it for the meal my mother turned on. Anyway, October, and the 60-pounders had been lost at Dunkirk, they’d had to abandon those. And we were now to be a field regiment and we were to be part of 9th Division, one of the field regiments for the 9th Division. So that meant an alteration, and it was good for

01:10:30:00

me, being a bombardier, I was promoted to sergeant. So although we had no guns, it was October, and in the November we then caught the train, and went across to Adelaide, and we boarded the ship called the Stratheden, one of the Stratheden, one of the Strath lines, there were quite a few of them. And

01:11:00:00

we then sailed from Adelaide to, we thought we’d be going to the Middle East, we were never told of course, they wouldn’t tell you these things. And being a sergeant, I had a beautiful cabin with another bloke, I think it was better than what the officers had onboard the Stratheden, because this was its last trip before it was converted into a troopship. And it was to carry a hell of a lot more

01:11:30:00

soldiers in future than what it had on, it even had stewardesses and that sort of thing onboard, and a nice swimming pool just outside our cabin. So we started the trip across to the Middle East, and pulled in at Perth and it so happened that our, excuse me, our

01:12:00:00

convoy escorts were the Canberra, the ship the Canberra and the Perth. And there was there was talk of a German raider being out in the Indian Ocean and therefore they kept us in Perth, they weren’t prepared to take the risk. In any case, the Perth and the Canberra went out, off out into the Indian Ocean, trying to find this raider. And we had a week in Perth, well, you can imagine, we had our last

01:12:30:00

time in Australia, we had a wonderful time, because every second day we had leave and it was very, very good, and the Perth people just opened their homes to us. Anyway, back we go to the boat and we sail off to the Middle East. We called in at Colombo, as it was, what is now Sri Lanka,

01:13:00:00

and we had a couple of days leave there. And then we went on to the Suez Canal, up through the Suez Canal to Kantara, where we were, where we stopped and it was our first sight of natives and, as we called them, Arabs, wogs, wogs. And they were very,

01:13:30:00

very different to Australians, I can assure you. Camels and all the rest of it, so it was an eye-opener for us. We caught the train then, and went to a camp called Kostina in Palestine. And this was to be our camp for some months. We still had no guns, of course, and

01:14:00:00

we did a lot of training such as route marches and map reading and all sorts of lectures, and also a lot of drill. It was a nice camp Kostina, it had a theatre there, and it wasn’t far from Tel Aviv, which was a very attractive place to go to, to have a bit of leave.

01:14:30:00

So my mate and I, we went on leave and we met, while we were there, a couple of girls who were schoolteachers. But they didn’t want to be seen with Australian soldiers, because some of them used to get drunk, and they didn’t advertise our army too well, I can assure you. And these, well, were very

01:15:00:00

classy type of girls, you see. But they took us around and gave us a good look at Tel Aviv while we were on leave, and we really enjoyed their company. And from then on we wrote to them, and while we went into action and so on. Kostina was a very fertile

01:15:30:00

sort of an area, and the citrus grown there were very, very…You’ve heard of Jaffa oranges, well, that’s where they came from, Jaffa was a suburb of Tel Aviv. And we used to be very, we got quite friendly with the Jewish people who had their farms nearby to our camps, and they loved us to go and visit them.
We can get into more of

01:16:00:00

that detail a bit later on. How much longer until you actually end up in Tobruk?
Oh, not very long. Well, I’m glad you’re stopping me, because I don’t want to waft on.
We can, yes, we’ll go back for the detail of that.
Yeah, all right. Well, it’s, I was just sort of giving you the terrain and that sort of thing. Anyway, all of a sudden we are told we’re to

01:16:30:00

strike camp and that we were moving. And the train came along and we, some went by road in the trucks that we had, which weren’t many. And some, the rest of the body, the main body of the regiment, went on the train. There is an incident, which I’ll tell you later, which happened on the train across. We went across to,

01:17:00:00

the Suez Canal and crossed over through Cairo and up to Alexandria, which is quite a big city in North Africa. And there we went into a camp called El Majab, and there was sandstorms, there was, there was dust storms, and we had to put these tents up,

01:17:30:00

and it was a terrible place, just sand and nothing else really. And we got walking outside the tent, you could walk 50 yards and you wouldn’t be able to find your way back, that’s how bad it was. But there was plenty of beer, and we knew there was something on, because we, they were rationing out the beer, but we were enjoying that part of it. And we were waiting, and waiting to

01:18:00:00

go into action, it was obvious that’s what we were, although we weren’t told, we were there ready to go. And the cancellations, there must have been about half a dozen cancellations, “Oh no, can’t go today, something, there’s no transport available.” We were to go by road, but then that was cancelled. Anyway, finally one night we were taken to the wharf, and the destroyer called the Waterhen

01:18:30:00

took, we were loaded onto the Waterhen and off we went. Now, it was an uneventful trip up to Tobruk, we had to…I’ll have to have a…We had to get there so that we were out of range, we weren’t in range for the German Stukas [dive bombers], and therefore

01:19:00:00

they went in there in the dark, of course, so they couldn’t be spotted by the Stukas. And we were offloaded, the piers had been all destroyed by bombing in Tobruk, and we were offloaded and, sort of, more or less thrown off with all our gear and the rest of it, cause the destroyer had to offload its food, ammunition,

01:19:30:00

weapons and that sort of thing,, and soldiers and get out before, get back towards Marsa Matruh before the Stukas got them. So they had to get out of range of the Stukas, and that’s why it was a very quick action that they took. We got into trucks and we went to a place called, I can’t remember, the wadi [dry stream bed] anyway,

01:20:00:00

and the next day we were issued with our guns, which were old World War 1 60-pounders. And they were a very good weapon, actually, but they were breaking down continually, we had five of them, and we needed five because, we needed five to keep four, which is a troop, you know.
We can talk more about, you know, the capacity and the artillery a little bit

01:20:30:00

later on. I’m just thinking maybe we should just go back, right, to a bit more of the beginning. I want to know a little bit about the Depression, and how that affected your family?
Oh, I see, yes. Well, my father was an electrician, as I have told you, and in the town he was the main man that produced the electricity, or

01:21:00:00

in charge of the electricity there. So he had a good job, so we were fairly fortunate as a family in that respect. But it was pretty tough, because there was no such thing as the dole, they were giving people food vouchers and that sort of thing, as I remember, in those days. And also an interesting thing which I should tell you is that I became the

01:21:30:00

Scoutmaster. And from being the Scoutmaster, I learnt a lot that helped me in the army. And…
How old were you when you were a Scoutmaster?
I was 18, yes, that’s right. But because, I, there was leadership involved too, as you can well imagine. I even took contingents to three jamborees

01:22:00:00

during the time I was Scoutmaster in Euroa.
Why did you join the Scouts in the first place?
Well, I just felt that it was something that appealed to me, being in the Scouts and learning all about the cooking and knots and the principles that Baden-Powell had brought out over, you know, for the Scouts movement, were very good. And

01:22:30:00

we were a very, we weren’t a church-y family, but we went to church every Sunday and the church, the priest who was the Scoutmaster, and then he decided to give it away, and of course he asked me to take it over, and that’s how I became the Scoutmaster.
How many people in your family, Eric?
I have three sisters and myself, and I’m the eldest.

01:23:00:00

And so that was Euroa. And as I pointed out, I got this job offered to me in this shop, which I’ve already told you about.
Just rewinding you a little bit there. When you were a kid, so this is, you know, before you were in high school, did you have any duties around the house that you had to…?
Oh yes.
Like what?
Yes, I was just,

01:23:30:00

I know I used to, always had to sweep the gutter, that was my job. And if I didn’t get it, my father was very, he was very annoyed. And also running messages, that sort of thing. And my three sisters, fighting with them a bit too, happens in all families.
Did you grow any of your own sorts of food?
Yes, my Dad had a pretty good garden, really, vegetables,

01:24:00:00

He was a great one for vegetables. And I can remember Mother, the rabbits, a fellow selling rabbits used to come around. So while I was there, I had a pretty good youth, because a couple of my mates were out on farms, and they used to go and live in the town for a, while

01:24:30:00

they were at school, and then go home of a weekend. And they used, I used to, they used to take me home and we used to do a lot of rabbiting, and we’d use ferrets and dogs.
You used to use ferrets?
Yes, put the ferret in and put the net over the outlet of the burrow, burrows, and out he’d come, straight into the net, and there we are, we’ve got another rabbit. And also snakes, there’s a lot of snakes

01:25:00:00

around. It was nothing for me to run into a snake and kill it, I killed many snakes in those days. And another thing, our father was very good, we had a little, an old Morris car, it was in the ’20s. And every Sunday he used to take us for a drive somewhere, up into the hills and that sort of thing. So I had a very good childhood.
What sort of things did you enjoy about school?

01:25:30:00

Oh well, I wasn’t the best sportsman in the world, but I enjoyed the, we used to do, for instance, what they called ‘sloyd’, which is another word for woodwork, that was a subject I liked.
Did you say ‘sloyd’?
‘Sloyd’, yes, that was the subject. It’s another word for woodwork.
I’ve never heard of it before.
No, I bet. Anyway, they were the sort of,

01:26:00:00

I didn’t mind going to school, no. This is when I was in the higher grades, of course. And of course we had a dramatic club in the church, which I joined, and also started to play tennis there at the church, had a church tennis club, that they used to play pennants in a,

01:26:30:00

in the surrounding district, go out to various small locations.
What sort of plays did you put on as part of the dramatic school?
Oh, we’d also had the minstrels where you blackened your face and singing and that sort of thing. And we put on, you know, well-known plays, I can’t remember the names of them now. But we went to, we used to take these plays to surrounding districts

01:27:00:00

too, because there wasn’t much entertainment in those days. They used to have balls, like the bachelors’ ball and the hospital ball, they were in the local hall. And this was after I’d finished school, of course, and all the young blokes used to go. And you didn’t have to take a partner like you do these days, all the young blokes used to go along

01:27:30:00

and the girls would go along. And they’d sit around the hall and so they, they were good, the dances.
Did you like a bit of dancing, Eric?
Well, I still do, yes, I still do. I go a couple of times a week now, old time. That was another part of my life that

01:28:00:00

is still with me.
That’s nice.
Yes.
What sort of subjects did you like in school?
I always did fairly well at maths, and this helped me when I became an artillery member. The maths that I’d learnt, I felt, were of assistance. I hated French and I got terrible marks in French, and I remember the woman who was the teacher, she called me into her room and she paid out on me, she said I

01:28:30:00

had to improve in French, but I didn’t like that. And I didn’t like the history, you know, like where you had to… In those days, you had to learn dates and, you know, about King John and all that, that didn’t appeal to me at all. There was a lot of reading in it, and I wasn’t very good at reading up and studying wasn’t…But anyway, I managed to get through the exams.

01:29:00:00

Is that covering it all right?
Yes, that’s good. When you left school, can you tell me a little bit about the job that you did?
Yes. Well this was a job in a draper’s shop where they sold shirts and that sort of thing. And in those days, a person got good service from the local people, shopkeeper. You could get your, whatever

01:29:30:00

you bought, delivered. And I had a pushbike and I used to deliver them, I knew everybody that lived in the town and that was another of my jobs, and sweeping out in front of the footpath, this sort of thing. And I had to keep, you know, the shirts and clothes in good order, you know, make sure there was no dust around and that sort of thing. So it wasn’t, but I didn’t like it,

01:30:00:00

didn’t like it.
Did you have to get a job because of the Depression?
That’s right, yes, yes.
And how old were you at this point?
I’m 18 at this point, yes. I left school when I was 16, and I worked there for about two years, three years.
Were you still living at home?
I was still living at home, yes. Talking about the balls, I can remember Mother,

01:30:30:00

my mother always saying, “Eric, you’re to look after the girls, make sure you get them home.” So I used to have to walk my girls home, didn’t have cars in those days, walk the girls home and if I got on to some girl that, you know, was a bit keen on, she’d have to walk home with me, and then I’d walk her home, so…
A lot of walking for a good cause.
Yes, well, we had, cars weren’t,

01:31:00:00

and pubs weren’t a thing of, you know, that people were interested in. Except, you know, the few that used to go into the pub next door to the hall, but I didn’t drink, so…
What did you do after you left the job, for a couple of years, ’cause still mid to late ’30s, is it?
Yes, at this stage it’s, thirty, 1937.

01:31:30:00

Well, then I got a job up at Jerilderie, you see, and I was a bit older, and strangely enough, I boarded in one of the hotels up there, and I was a non-drinker, so I wasn’t much good to the publican. But I used to pay 32 [shillings] and six [pence] [this seems quite high] as it was in those days, a week board. And I then started to go out with a girl,

01:32:00:00

who was to, later to become my wife, for a couple of years there. Then we parted and I had another girlfriend there, so…But then along comes the war, and of course, I, I went up to Queenscliff.
Just with the boarding situation, did you get meals as part of the…?
Oh yes, this is all in the 32 and six, the meals. You’d only get a meal in the morning

01:32:30:00

and at night, you had to buy a sandwich of a lunchtime, of course. But it was a little country town and everybody knew everything that was happening, and…
And what was your job there again?
I was working in a department, Manchester I think it was, Manchester department of this big store, which was the biggest store in the town. They also had another store in Deniliquin,

01:33:00:00

which was 50 odd miles away, and one in Victoria as well.

01:33:30:00

So what was your actual job, I know you were…?
Behind the counter and selling materials and, again, I didn’t like it very much. I would rather have been outside, but things were still pretty tough. And in Jerilderie, there were big stations right throughout there, and I would have

01:34:00:00

loved to have got a job on one of the sheep stations. But of course, I had no experience, and…
I’d think that sheep stations would perhaps pay less than the kind of job you had?
They would have, yes, they would have, no doubt. But I would have wanted to be out in the open air, and…So that was Jerilderie, and I, as I say, I left there and went home on

01:34:30:00

final leave, and…Oh, I went down to the Queenscliff first of all, and then when final leave came, I went from being a soldier down there on final leave. And the girl that I was keen about in Jerilderie, or in, we were very good mates, she came down while I was on final leave, for

01:35:00:00

a week too, and stayed at my place.
Just rewinding you a bit there, Eric. What was going on, as far as you were concerned in Europe, around the time that you were in Jerilderie, working the Manchester department?
Yes, well, in, it was really just, the pre-war time when Germany, we didn’t know much about what was going on there.

01:35:30:00

And then it was, Germany was building up, Hitler had caused, he had, he had the power. He was doing a lot for the German people, mind you, and, with the Volkswagen, and everybody had work there, that’s why he was able to get the people behind him, to have this war, you see. Anyway, that’s an aside. But…

01:36:00:00

When did you actually start thinking about signing up then?
Well, it wasn’t until my father got this from his friend, the brigadier, that I thought, well, if there’s a war coming, I’d better be in it as soon as possible. And it worked out that the war for me was a lot better than if I’d started with no knowledge at all, and joined up like all the other blokes did, but I’d

01:36:30:00

had that experience down at Queenscliff, on the guns.
So can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing in Queenscliff?
Yes, well, yes, the day started pretty early, and of course you had to, you had a Reveille at…One of the sergeants knocked on the door, and you had to jump out of bed and start the day, about

01:37:00:00

6.30 in the morning, and you’d have a parade. Then you’d have a foot drill, or you’d have a run, go for a run first thing before breakfast. Go back and then prepare yourself and have breakfast, and then you’d do, after breakfast you’d do training on the guns. Or foot drill.
What’s that?
Well, left turn, right turn and marching and this is

01:37:30:00

where you build a team, all doing the same thing, you see. And this is, been right through the British Army, the, and it still exists, the foot drill side of it. In other words, you work as a team, which is essential in the army. And then…
What sort of facilities did you have?
Oh, very good, yes, very, it was a beautiful old, it was an old fort, Queenscliff, and it even had a moat around it,

01:38:00:00

that’ll tell you, it was built back in the 1800s, it was a lovely old fort. And we used to get leave of course, and some of the ships used to come down the, the paddle ships used to come across to Queenscliff, which was a tourist town really.
Is it on the ocean?
On the bay, it was, it was inside Port Phillip Bay,

01:38:30:00

Queenscliff. A nice town, and very, very, had a military background for years and years. And there’d be all these girls come on the steamers too, and we’d go down and meet them and that sort of thing. Anyway, that was our, the leave, but other than that we made our own fun really, in the fort there.

01:39:00:00

They had good facilities, they had billiards tables, and although we were only gunners we were still looked after, well fed.
What sort of things did you learn as part of gunnery?
Well, you’d learn how to sight the gun, and that was done through angles, and they had instruments there which enabled you to sight the gun

01:39:30:00

and work the gun that way. And then they had an elevation thing, which you worked out how to get the range of the gun, by this dial sight, which you were able to, give you the range that the gun went on. And we used to have to watch all the guns, at this stage, of course, the war was on. All the ships that were coming

01:40:00:00

in, identify them.
So you were trained to identify different types of ships?
Yes, that’s right, yes, yes. Actually, a pilot went out for all the big passenger ships, and it brought the ship in, because of the channels in the Port Phillip Harbour itself, he had to guide the ship through the channels.

01:40:30:00

But there were no events really, in the way of warlike events, that happened there.
That’s all right. Just wondering, what was the food like at Queenscliff?
Well, the food was quite good, really, and also at Point Nepean. We got a fair bit of leave too, we weren’t expected, probably every second night we’d have some sort of

01:41:00:00

work to do, and…
Like what?
Well, map reading or lectures on all sorts of things.
What would the lectures be about?
Well, we even had a lecture on reproduction, mind you. Well, I suppose that was all part of a person’s education, because it wasn’t treated in school very much in those days. Oh we’d

01:41:30:00

have lectures on the gun and the parts of the gun, and there’d be a screen which, or a table with the parts of the gun there also, so we knew a fair bit about the coastal guns. And then it’s all stopped, because off we go up to Puckapunyal to join the AIF, which of course we did.
Interviewee: Eric Watts Archive ID 1720 Tape 02

02:00:37:00

What was the daily routine of training?
In Tobruk, or in…?
No, your initial training.
Well, the, lots of drill, we had lots of drill, route marches, we went on quite a few route marches,

02:01:00:00

this is from Queenscliff and Point Nepean. And also actual gun drill on the guns itself, that would be a daily occurrence teaching the recruits, we had sergeants who were teaching us. We had to learn all about the ammunition, we had to learn all about, all the ammunition were in concrete tunnels, because they were 60 pounds,

02:01:30:00

that’s how heavy they were. And we learned what comprised a shell and how it went off and all that sort of stuff.
Can you maybe go in to some detail and share it with us?
Yes, well, I can. The shell, of course, is sent on its way with a bag of cordite, which is an explosive. And the shell goes in first, into the gun,

02:02:00:00

and it is rammed by two people, ram the shell into the breech of the gun. The shell has copper driving bands around on it, and they are soft. Therefore, when it goes into the shell, there is the rifling of the, it’s like a, when you

02:02:30:00

fire a gun, the rifling sends the bullet that way, you know, on. And the same applies with artillery, the soft part of, the copper driving band bites into the rifling and, so that it remains solid. Then you put the bag of ink explosives in, then you close the breech, with a big long lever, the

02:03:00:00

breech is closed. Then the layer, while you’re doing this, he’s laying, as it should be, getting the line of sight, as it were, and the elevation all adjusted, so that the shell will land in the place that you want it to. To work out where that place is, I’ll tell you later, because we have artillery boards, we had those in the desert,

02:03:30:00

artillery boards which pinpointed the targets, you see. And from that, we’d be able to work out, adjust the guns so that they were on the target. And then he’d pull the trigger, when the order came to fire, the order was given, fire, he’d pull this. The 60-pounders had a lanyard which was about six feet long, and the

02:04:00:00

number one, which I was, all the time that we were. You’d put the lanyard in, so that, I would stand a little bit away and pull that lanyard, and that’s how you fired the 60-pounder. The 25-pounder you just, there was a trigger there, it was a much smaller gun, it was only 25 pound, as against 60 pound.
You’ve just mentioned that you were the number one.
Yes.
How many other members of the crew were there, and what were their roles?

02:04:30:00

In the coastal guns, or the, in Tobruk, say…
Well, just on these guns that you were describing?
Oh well, the 60-pounders had a crew of ten, but we never, ever had ten because we were always short of fellows. Of that ten, there was the number one, he was the sergeant, there was the layer, and there was the ammunition numbers

02:05:00:00

that brought in the ammunition. And there was the fellow that put, number one pulled the lanyard, there were two blokes that jammed, pushed the shell into the breech, and then the rest were bringing the ammunition forward, you see. But we were lucky to have eight, we had six most of the time, so they had to work a bit harder.

02:05:30:00

So what would the number one do between firing the cannon?
Well, he would just supervise the layer and wait for orders, he would receive orders from what they called the GPO, Gun Position Officer, that was, he was, he controlled four guns, and he would give the order to fire. And he received

02:06:00:00

the orders and interpreted them, and the layer would then adjust his instrument, dial sight, so that the correction was made, you see, if you know what I mean. Because there was somebody at the other end, an officer, who was seeing the fall of the round, and he would then correct it, so that it got onto the target.

02:06:30:00

And there was also what they called predicted fire, where you worked out exactly how the elements were to affect the shell in its flight, and you would then fire onto targets, without any being, we did this of a night, we would fire onto a, with this, what they called predicted fire.

02:07:00:00

Where it was all worked out by maps and logarithms and other means, so that you got an accurate, you could convey what was on the artillery board to the guns. And as well as that he, as I say, he was in charge and he made sure that the ammunition numbers were bringing

02:07:30:00

the ammunition up, and there was sufficient ammunition for, it was a big task, you had to get your ammunition into the gun pit. We always had our guns protected by either digging gun pits to put, protect the gun and ourselves, or building in Tobruk, where it was so, the ground was so rocky, and there was just sand on the top of all these rocks and everything. We were not able to dig, so we built

02:08:00:00

a wall around our gun in case shells were, landed near us.
I’ll just quickly ask you, what did you do once your training was completed?
Well, it was always necessary to train your troops on, not only the

02:08:30:00

gun itself, but on the layout of the enemy, if you could, if you had map. You’d have talks with your own gun crew and also, matters of man management, if you know what I mean. It was the number one’s responsibility, he had to know

02:09:00:00

every one of his blokes and every little bit about him, because you had to get the best out of them. And some men you had to coax and some men you had to drive, it was a continual…We were always improving our gun positions, because as sure as hell just when you got your gun positions nice, it’d be time to move, because the enemy would have pinpointed you, and you had to move to another spot.

02:09:30:00

So we were busy building gun pits and building slit trenches to protect yourself. Slit trench would be about six feet long and about that wide, and you’d sleep in these, because often the Germans would put down concentrations of a night, shell you of a night. Well, if you were in your, below the level

02:10:00:00

of the ground, you were pretty right, you had to land one in it, in your slit trench to be wiped out. So it was essential that you had your own personal slit trench.
Not very comforting to know that you’re going to be shelled throughout the night when you’re trying to sleep?
No, oh well, that’s right, that was all part of the deal, you were, you snatched a sleep. Sometimes you got so used to it,

02:10:30:00

except when you were being actually fired upon, your unit, your sub-unit or your four guns were being fired on, but if they were firing on infantry next door or something or nearby you got used to it and you’d sleep through that. It wasn’t directly at you.
Just before we talk about your overseas service, where were you posted from training, what was your

02:11:00:00

first posting?
Oh well, we were, we went up to Puckapunyal and we did our training there. And then we were divided up into troops, batteries and regiments, so there was three batteries to a regiment, and there were two troops to each

02:11:30:00

battery. So that meant there were six troops in all, and they, that meant 24 guns in the whole regiment, and you were posted to one of those troops, you see. As a sergeant I was, the gunners remained constant, but I, any of us sergeants could have been sent somewhere else. Also, I was lucky in that

02:12:00:00

when people went from the regiment went to schools or into hospital and that sort of thing, if it happened to be a warrant officer, the commanding officer had the power to promote somebody else while that person was away. And I got promoted three times up to warrant officer, and then when the fellow came back, I went back to sergeant, because he went back to his old job, see. So there was postings like that,

02:12:30:00

that I was put, I got extra pay of course, it was all right.
Before you went overseas, weren’t you in coastal work?
Yes, yes, yes, I was in the coastal guns then, yeah.
What was the daily routine of working on the coastal guns?
Well, there again, it was the foot drill and gun drill on the guns themselves. Learning all about the gun

02:13:00:00

itself, lectures on how to identify a target, and lectures on how you found your target from what I call predicted fire. It was fairly simple really, except that you also had to, when the shell is going through the

02:13:30:00

air, if it’s a hot day for instance, the air is rarer and the gun can go further, the shell can go further. Therefore, they used to send up balloons, the meteorological people, and we got that data and the meteor would tell you, the effect the balloon had, they, they traced this balloon with a telescope,

02:14:00:00

so they could tell what the atmosphere was, where the wind was and things like that, which all affected the flight of a shell, as you can understand. On a heavy day, for instance, when the atmosphere is heavier, the shell receives more resistance and wouldn’t go as far, if you can follow what I mean. These are the things that we were taught, too. And we were also taught how to operate the

02:14:30:00

artillery board, which was the board which, what they call, acts, well, the acts doesn’t mean anything to you. Where the, they used to operate and find out exactly the direction or the bearing on which the gun had to be pointed, if you, if that means anything to you.

02:15:00:00

Yes, it does, I’m following it.
Yeah. So this is all things that we were taught. Broadly, the officers had to, had more technical knowledge, they had to, they had to go into it further, and we had what they call a command post, where all this is worked out technically by the officers.
This is all while you’re on the coastal guns?

02:15:30:00

Yes, and also when we were in the desert.
I imagine there’s probably some differences to working.
Oh yes.
So if we just concentrate specifically on what you were doing, and how you were operating while you were on the coastal guns. And then when we talk about the desert and Tobruk, perhaps then you can compare and contrast and explain the differences.
Yes, well, one was a fixed gun,

02:16:00:00

which was a concrete, in a concrete emplacement.
This is in the coastal?
In the coastal guns, yes, a concrete emplacement which, and it remained static, and it could traverse in a wide arc, so that it could cover the entrance to the Port Phillip Bay, and also fire out to sea,

02:16:30:00

it couldn’t fire at the entrance, because it wouldn’t go down far enough, there was not enough depression, you see, the gun could not be depressed enough. But you got, you were able to fire out to sea.
What kind of range?
Oh you’d be, with a coastal gun, you’d fire, let me think. I’m thinking in terms of yards now, I would say the coastal guns would fire about

02:17:00:00

20,000 yards, which is 15 miles.
That’s pretty good range.
Yeah, the 60-pounders would fire 15,000 miles, oh, 15,000 yards, the 60-pounders. If it was a fine day and, as I say, the meteor showed that the wind was in your favour, and the

02:17:30:00

rarity of the atmosphere, all this sort of thing came into it, but if it was predicted fire, they’d fire 15,000 yards, which is, what, 12 miles.
What was the, how were you rostered while you were in the coastal guns on watch?
Oh yes, you’d just be on watch on the guns, that’s all, there wouldn’t be any likelihood of enemy attack or anything, but you just had to, you were on picket

02:18:00:00

duty as they called, you just had to make sure nobody, it was a fort, they couldn’t get in anyway, but they didn’t. It was a fairly relaxed sort of a thing, in the desert it was completely different because you had to be prepared to fire at any time, during the night and that sort of thing, you had to keep people awake.
Can you describe the watch system you had on the coastal guns?
Yes.

02:18:30:00

Well, it was just a sort of a picket that sort of, one bloke would be on for two hours and then he’d be off for four, and then someone, there’d be three fellows that would do it and then he’d come back on again, you see, you would do that as a roster. But in the desert, of course, you had, to be

02:19:00:00

ready to receive orders that you were to fire, so they had somebody who was awake on the telephones or the wirelesses, and somebody that was awake at the guns, and you were on for two hours and off for four. You’d go and wake somebody else, and they’d take your place.
Just while we’re still in Australia, how long were you on the coastal guns for, Eric?

02:19:30:00

Nine months, yes.
And that was further training and regular watch?
Yes, that’s right. Yeah, that’s right.
Were you anticipating going overseas?
Yes, well it wasn’t until the CO… Oh, prior to that, yes, the war had come and we were there training and we didn’t know what our future was, whether

02:20:00:00

we were going to stay as coastal gunners, or it depended on the course of the war. Well, it so happened Australia was going to send a force overseas, so we were the obvious people, trained and strictly trained, we were trained 24 hours a day, you know. Whereas the militia fellows, they only went to a parade once a week, and went to a camp

02:20:30:00

once a year, and bivouacs and that sort of thing. But we were on duty all the time.
So were you looking forward to the opportunity to go overseas?
Well, yes, we were, and that’s why he got an 85% result when he asked all those who would volunteer to take one pace forward. And that’s why the CO got a lot of very good trained soldiers into his, into his

02:21:00:00

regiment from the word go.
And what about the 15% who didn’t take that step forward?
Oh well, they decided that they didn’t want to do it, I don’t know what happened to them. A lot of them probably got postings here in Australia as instructors. But, you know, we sort of lost track of them.
How did you regard them when they didn’t take the…?
Well, that’s a

02:21:30:00

good question. We were surprised, we thought 85 wasn’t as good as it should have been. But there you are, everybody has their own personal reasons for doing things.
So did you join another regiment once you took that step?
Yes, well, we went up to Puckapunyal and trained

02:22:00:00

on the 60-pounders up there. And we then, when they lost those guns in Dunkirk, at Dunkirk, they converted us, our unit, into a 25-pounder, which was more guns, and smaller.
This is once you were overseas?
No, just prior to going overseas, but we didn’t have the guns. And then we went overseas, we didn’t have them either,

02:22:30:00

this in 1940, we arrived just before Christmas in 1940, and of course the armament, they couldn’t get the guns, couldn’t build the guns in any number in those days, not enough numbers for us, anyway.
Just before your arrival, what was your voyage over there like?
Well it was good, we had, we were on the

02:23:00:00

Stratheden and there was the Queen Mary and, which was a very big ship, it, it was already a troopship, it held about 2,000 fellows, New Zealanders, on the Queen Mary. And there was the Orion and one other ship, I can’t remember the name of it now. And we were escorted over by the Perth and the Canberra, the Perth was a destroyer [actually a cruiser] and the Canberra was a cruiser. And

02:23:30:00

they were alongside us all the time, and we kept…
Zigzagging.
Zigzagging, you see, so that we would be a pretty hard target. But we were safely there, we weren’t allowed to smoke, no lights or anything like that. But out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it was pretty, we were going fairly fast, but we couldn’t keep up with the Queen Mary, so it had to

02:24:00:00

hold, had to go a bit slower to keep within the convoy setup.
What were the conditions like onboard the Stratheden?
Well, they were very good on the Stratheden, and we had fairly good food. And we did a lot of what they call PT, physical training. We had sergeants specially allocated who were, we did all these exercises and

02:24:30:00

that sort of thing to keep ourselves fit. Other that that, we had a lot of time to ourselves.
How did you spend that time?
Oh, reading, swimming, there was a nice pool just outside our cabin. And…
Who did you share your cabin with?
Another sergeant, he,

02:25:00:00

his name was, I can’t remember now.
That’s okay. How many troops were onboard?
I would say about, I would say about a thousand.
So space was…?
Oh yes, space was all right. I think as a tourist ship it was able to take that many, but I would suppose there was a thousand, our complete regiment was

02:25:30:00

onboard. And we had lectures again on all sorts of things, and, but there was a lot of time to relax, and a lot of fellows were seasick.
How about yourself?
I wasn’t seasick, I was very lucky, oh, some of the blokes, they were terrible, they were green, and they just could not…and they’d sleep on the deck to get a bit of

02:26:00:00

fresh air, and oh crikey, they were a mess. But I was lucky.
Was there any alcohol on board?
No, oh yes there was, there was no beer, but there was gin. And being a sergeant, we were allowed to have the, go to the sergeant’s mess, which was good. And we used to have gin and that sort of thing.
It sounds very civilised.
Yes, it was, yes, but no beer.

02:26:30:00

You couldn’t have had beer, you’d have had fights and everything among the blokes.
How did the rest of the troops feel about the sergeants, in the sergeants’ mess, having gin?
Well, they knew it from our time in camp, although they had a wet canteen in camp, and they used to drink it out of the, drink the beer out of the, what they called the Lady Blameys, and they were half a beer bottle with a red wire

02:27:00:00

put round it, and cut off, so that the bottom half of the, didn’t have glasses but you got your beer handed to you in these, what they called these Lady Blameys.
I just want to ask you quickly about that, would that leave sharp edges on the glass when you took the top off?
Oh no, they filed those down, they were all right.
’Cause they’d make a pretty decent mug, wouldn’t they?
Yes, they did.
A good 650 mls.
Yes, that’s right.

02:27:30:00

We, we used to do a bit of drinking, but I was in the sergeant’s mess, I was lucky, we had glasses.
Had you drunk much gin in the past?
No, I didn’t drink until I joined the army, which was age 23.
Cause gin’s a fairly stiff drop.
Yes, well, it was too expensive, you didn’t have the money to drink much.
So there was no one too crook on gin?
No, no, you didn’t have the money.

02:28:00:00

There was, if I remember rightly, they used to play a lot of cards, the blokes used to play cards too, in the day time when there was time off, you know.
Two-up?
No, there was very little Two-up, that happened when we got up to New Guinea later, and the two-up schools there, they were big.
Okay. So it was a

02:28:30:00

very comfortable voyage?
Yes, it was a quite good voyage, we went to Colombo and we had two days off, and the blokes went out to what they call the Galle Face Hotel, I remember the name of it well. It was a little bit out of Colombo, and a lot of them got drunk, I didn’t, I wasn’t inclined that way. But some of them

02:29:00:00

misbehaved themselves and got taken back to the ship and so on. But one of the big thing that caused a stir in Colombo was, the British there were of course very class conscious and everything, and they, the gharries, the fellows that used to pull the gharries along, you’ve seen them in the, up in Asia and everything, they pull these gharries along with two

02:29:30:00

soldiers in them. And they decided that they’d take over from the bloke who was doing, doing the pulling. And of course, in the eyes of the English that was terrible, they had to keep them under the thumb. And here was Australian soldiers doing what they, you know, what they were. In order to keep them under the thumb, you couldn’t let them do things like that. Pull the gharries along.

02:30:00:00

Any other kinds of strife that the Australians got into in Colombo?
Oh no, there was a couple of them got pretty drunk. Oh, the other ship was the Strathnaver, that’s right, that I couldn’t remember, the Strathnaver and the Stratheden. And they got drunk and they missed the boat, the ferry that was taking them out to the ship which was out a little bit, it wasn’t at the wharf.

02:30:30:00

And they went out, and got somebody to take them out, I suppose they bribed somebody to take, in a dinghy or something to take them to their boat, because they’d missed the ferry. And we were given strict times that the ferry was to go back to our boat. Anyway, they went to their ship and they went up to find their room, and they couldn’t find it. And all of a sudden it was evident that they were on the Strathnaver and not the Stratheden, so

02:31:00:00

they climbed down the rope ladders that they had over the side of the ship and get into another dinghy to take them to our ship, which was the correct one.
What about women, were there plenty of women ashore?
Oh yeah, you know, there was too many of us to worry about that.
Prostitution?
Beg yours?
Was there prostitution?
Oh yes, I suppose, we were given

02:31:30:00

plenty of lectures about VD [venereal disease] and everything. Because as you know, in the First War, that was very, very, they had a lot of casualties through that. But some of the blokes, I suppose, I don’t know many that went to the brothels, but there’d be sure to be brothels there.
Were you being lectured much about what to expect when you arrived in…?
Yes, we were, we were.
What were you being told about where you were going?
Well,

02:32:00:00

by this time, of course, we knew we were going to the Middle East, and we were told about the, we were given lectures on the Egyptian people and the Arabs and their ways and their customs and what we had to do to respect their customs, and what we could and couldn’t do. We were given talks on those before we ever got there.

02:32:30:00

Any warnings about the local people?
Oh yes, we were told that we were not to belittle them or anything like that. And we were told that they’d be trying to charge us twice for what they, what was the correct price for a taxi for instance. And everything that you went to buy, and there was a lot of marcasite bracelets and brooches and that

02:33:00:00

sort of thing, you always beat them down to about half what they wanted when they, when they first asked you, and they pester you. And then of course there was a lot of beggars there, “Baksheesh” was, meant. “Give me a gift,” baksheesh was what they used to sit there in the streets, you know, begging, there was a lot of that done.
Just before we

02:33:30:00

go into more detail, whereabouts did you land?
We’d landed at Kantara, the port in the Suez Canal, there we saw our first wogs and Egyptians.
What was your first encounter with them like?
Oh the educated, they weren’t educated or anything,

02:34:00:00

they were peasants and they were so, they had no, a life of, so different to ours. I mean, they used to lounge around, there wasn’t much work done, they were happy people, we found they, the Egyptians were happy. But they’d live with, on their wits, and there were plenty of merchants and shops and that sort of thing, but there was plenty that just

02:34:30:00

lounged around all day.
Were there any thieves amongst them?
Oh yes, yes, they’d pinch the eye out of your head.
What were some of the scams they had to remove your valuables from you?
Well, you know, pickpockets, there was plenty of those. Once in Palestine, we used to put our rifles, the,

02:35:00:00

rifles were attached to the post, the centre post of the tent. They got in one night while, some of them got in one night while the fellows were asleep and actually pinched the rifles, that’s how good they were, very quiet, you know, they could, they were stealth.
What happened when you landed at Kantara?
Oh well, then we caught the train across to our camp, which was Kostina.
What was the train ride like?

02:35:30:00

Oh, you know, it wasn’t the best.
What were the conditions like on board?
The rain carriage, the rail carriage was not the best.
What were the conditions like on board?
Well, they were pretty basic really, the toilets were pretty terrible.
What about room, was there much room?
Well, we were fairly, I think there was a seat for everybody, I don’t think,

02:36:00:00

they’d at least have a seat. But it was interesting, because you were in a new country and we went through all these, what they call, wog villages and mud huts and kids running around with flies in their eyes. And you know, they were, their standard of living was so much less than what we’d been used to.
I’ve heard the wheels in those trains were reported to have been square?
Yes, that’s right, they weren’t the best. But still,

02:36:30:00

they weren’t that bad, and you were in a new, you don’t worry about that when you’re in a new land and you’ve just got there, you’re interested to see what it’s all like.
What was the morale like amongst the troops?
Oh, the morale was fairly good at this stage. But I would have to say that as we continued with all these route marches, and…and you can understand at this stage, things are not going too well for Britain, France

02:37:00:00

has been overrun and the desert, the desert had gone all right except, the Australians had forced back, Wavell’s forces had forced all the Italians back to Benghazi. But at the stage we were sent up to Tobruk, of course, Rommel, the German general whom you might have heard of, he was

02:37:30:00

probably the best German general, he was highly regarded by Hitler. And he had, he had landed with his Afrika Korps at Tripoli, and therefore he was forming an army and he formed it pretty quickly, and he had tanks and, you know, he was quite a force, the Afrika Korps, that had

02:38:00:00

happened right to the west. And we were in Palestine, where we had no guns, route marching and hearing lectures and everything, and we felt we’d like to get up where the rest of the Australians were, up near Benghazi where they pushed the Germans, the Italians right back. So we, morale was starting to flag at this stage.

02:38:30:00

What was it that led to your morale to flag?
The fact that we wanted to get into action. We’d been trained as an artillery regiment, we had no guns and we felt we were being wasted, if you can get what I mean. Whereas the 6th Division and part of the 9th Division were up towards Benghazi, and Rommel

02:39:00:00

had arrived, and they were now fighting a withdrawal, because he had tanks superior to ours. You can imagine in 1941 what a, what we had in the way of tanks, compared with, he’d captured the whole of Europe with tanks, mainly, his blitzkrieg type war.

02:39:30:00

You can imagine our desire to get stuck into it, what we’d gone there for.
What were you hoping to do, given the fact that you were short of weapons and…?
Well we didn’t know, we thought, some of us were of the opinion they might convert us into infantry, but we hadn’t been trained as infantry. Training in artillery was quite technical, and it would have been a shame if we couldn’t have carried

02:40:00:00

out our role. But we just waited and…
And you were doing more training in Palestine?
Yes, more training.
Was it mostly…?
And we were pretty fit. We were…
You obviously weren’t doing any artillery training, though?
No, no, we weren’t doing any, we had no guns, no artillery training. So then, of course, up we go to Alexandria, and we get onboard the Waterhen, and

02:40:30:00

we’re shipped up to Tobruk.
Before you arrived at Tobruk, did you have any leave in Alexandria?
No, we didn’t, because we had to be ready to go when they could afford a ship to take us. That’s what we were doing there, waiting.
Where were you waiting?
We had plenty of grog, we were waiting there for a boat, for

02:41:00:00

a ship to take us.
Were you waiting on the wharf?
No, no, we were waiting in this camp where all these sandstorms were, a tented camp, 12 by 12 tents, and we were getting a bit impatient too. But the cancellations that happened, oh, you know, we’d all be ready to go and then, oh, it’s cancelled, wait till the next day and get ready again, and it would be cancelled.
I imagine there would have been a few unsettled troops?

02:41:30:00

Yeah, there were.
Was there any chiacking [teasing] or mischief?
Oh no, no, I can’t remember any fights or anything. A few of them got lost in the sandstorm, they were, they wouldn’t, their beer that they went to get, they wouldn’t have got it or something.
That’s the end of the tape there, so before I ask you another question…
Interviewee: Eric Watts Archive ID 1720 Tape 03

03:00:31:00

Well, we were in Tobruk weren’t we, when…
You were getting on the Waterhen.
Waterhen, yes, and we used our tin hats as pillows and we slept on the deck. We just didn’t know much about what was likely happen at this stage.
How did the sailors on the Waterhen treat you?
Oh, very well, oh, very well, and it was,

03:01:00:00

they were doing a marvellous job. And without the navy, there wouldn’t have been a Tobruk. They brought in all our supplies and all our reinforcements, our food and that sort of thing. And took out, when they left of a night, all our wounded, and also

03:01:30:00

anybody that, all of the people who weren’t required, and at one stage there early on, there was a lot of non-fighting forces that were evacuated. So at this stage, at, the most number of Australians that were there was 14,000 and the whole of the fortress comprised of about 26,000 troops.

03:02:00:00

Just getting back to the Waterhen, what were the facilities like on board?
Oh, they were cramped, because as you can imagine they’ve got their crew and then all their, all these soldiers are there on it. So we were cramped, but we got a meal. I can’t remember exactly what the meal was like, but they looked after us well. And of course,

03:02:30:00

they let us know when we were getting close, to be on, that it was possible that we could be attacked. But not by Stukas, the German dive bombers are called Stukas, but there could have been German ships around or Italian ships around at that stage. But anyway, we got in quite safely, and as I say, there was no pier, they just pulled up alongside

03:03:00:00

a sunken ship, and we got off our ship, well, we were thrown off, more or less, because they had to get us off, there was no dilly-dallying, they had to get everything off and out on their way back to Alexandria or Marsa Matruh in those days.
Did you have to contribute to any sort of a watch duty?
No, no, that was all done by the sailors. No, we just had to be there and have a sleep if we could, or,

03:03:30:00

and that’s what we did, if we could sleep, on the deck most of us.
What are you told about where you’re going?
Oh, at this stage we knew we were going into Tobruk, we’d been told back in Alexandria. And we didn’t know much more than that, really.
Was there any sort of lecture you got about the land, or…?
No,

03:04:00:00

at this stage we hadn’t, we were just left to find that out for ourselves, because it’s a very harsh sort of country, with desert and…
What were you told about the desert?
Well, we were told, you know, the how much different it was from what we were used to in Australia.

03:04:30:00

In my opinion, it’s the best place in the world to have a war, the desert. There’s no towns that you’re, well, there were a few towns, but what I mean, there’s no fertile country there. There’s, it’s very poor type country, the harsh and unyielding country, and you can see your enemies, because

03:05:00:00

there was, although there weren’t any high hills, you could usually find a high area, a high hill that could use for an observation post, an OP. And so much different to the jungle, where you can’t see your enemy, and you’re battling to move, it was easy to move in the desert, because it was pretty rough,

03:05:30:00

on vehicles and guns and everything.
What, immediately, did you do after you got off the Waterhen?
Well, then we went to a place and were given a meal, got on a truck, and it was in the middle of the night, and boy oh boy, was it, I’ll never forget. It was so rough, the, there was no roads, we went across the desert with all the stones and

03:06:00:00

rock outcrops and whatnot, it was really a rough trip, we got a meal at a little sort of staging place there. And next day we had a sleep.
Sorry, what sort of trucks were you on?
Oh, we were on, oh, I can’t remember really, but they were our own vehicles that belonged to, that had been allocated to the regiment. We didn’t get many, once we

03:06:30:00

put our guns down, there was not all that much need for trucks, except to perhaps bring up ammunition. And the infantry, of course, wanted a meal of a night, that’s the time they had a meal, was at night, because they couldn’t poke their heads up out of their slit trenches during the day or they were fired at. But we had a few trucks, far less than the establishment for an artillery regiment.

03:07:00:00

And where did you end up after being transported on the truck?
Well, we had to then select our gun positions and that was done by the officers. And we brought in our 60-pounders, if I remember rightly, I can’t remember whether they were there or we brought them in, but I think we did bring them in and deploy them and then start

03:07:30:00

digging gun pits. And we did not sleep until we’d finished digging, first of all ourselves, our slit trenches for ourselves, to protect ourselves, so that in the event of shelling we had a hole to jump into. The next thing was to protect the gun, and the ground was so rocky underneath, there was sand on the top like any other desert, but when you got down six inches there were these rocks,

03:08:00:00

these huge rocks, which caused us to require the engineers at times, but we just built walls of stones, we went and collected stones from everywhere, about the size of a football or even bigger, heaped them one on top of the other until you got them about that high, right around your gun pit. And that gave us protection, we called them ‘sangers’,

03:08:30:00

these protection, also for sleeping purposes too sometimes, you couldn’t get down to dig a gun pit, dig a slit trench.
You couldn’t get down?
You couldn’t get down into the earth, because of the rock underneath. So you built a little sanger, as they say, with all the rocks that were around, there was plenty of rocks around to form this wall that protected yourself.

03:09:00:00

Although mostly fellows got down with their own personal slit trenches far enough by sheer effort. But we weren’t allowed to sleep until we had dug our slit trench for ourselves, and a gun pit, or built the wall around it.
The word ‘sanger’, is that a, some sort of an Arabic…?
Yeah, I think it is, I don’t know exactly.

03:09:30:00

Oh, I’m just, you know, just curious. So what was the next thing that happened to you after you’ve…?
Well, then we, the next day, we had a shooting task so we hadn’t had any sleep, it might have been the third day, the day we arrived and then we built gun pits and slit trenches the next day, and I think on the third day we were given a task to fire. So

03:10:00:00

we did that, we fired on the enemy, I can’t remember what exactly it was, 60 years ago.
Just do your best.
But we fired on either the enemy’s ammunition dumps or crossroads, and I just can’t remember exactly what it is. But we started firing our guns on the third day.
How would you get the information about where the enemy is?
Oh well, this would be

03:10:30:00

from maps and from the infantry. Now when I talk about Tobruk, I, the whole defence of Tobruk relied on the infantry. The infantry is the fellow that is hand to hand with the enemy, the artillery is there as a support role, and the infanteers were magnificent. And they would go out of a night on patrols, this was every

03:11:00:00

night they went out, they were sent out by their COs, their Commanding Officers. And Morshead, General Morshead, who was the commander of Tobruk, he adopted an aggressive defence. He said, “Well, we’ve just got to keep them on their toes,” and that’s what he did. He kept, sent out patrols to find out where things were,

03:11:30:00

in what they called No Man’s Land and further out. And every night the infantry went out, and that’s how they would find out where…and observation, by observation too, there were parts that were hilly, little parts that, where, which could be used for observation posts, so you could tell. And also,

03:12:00:00

by going out at night, the infantry would find out where the congregation, the concentration of troops were.
Did you have any telephone communication with anybody?
Yes, we did, the communication was to our own headquarters, that’s the regimental headquarters, and the communication was between our own troop. Now, four guns is a troop,

03:12:30:00

and there are two troops to a battery, so we had communication back to the battery headquarters, and the communication from the battery headquarters to the regimental headquarters. But most of our tasks were given to us by RHQ, Regimental Headquarters, and we were given tasks to fire through telephone linkage.

03:13:00:00

Did communications ever get…?
Yes, get destroyed, yes. When shells were fired, the line which just lay on top of the ground was, the line was continually cut, so that you’d lose communications. So the signallers in the unit, they were a special group of fellows whose job on earth was to

03:13:30:00

keep the communications open, and they used to have to go out and mend this break in the wire. And they were brave fellows, I tell you, because they’d go out and they’d in the middle of a shelling and that sort of thing, and they’d have to do the job they had to do and get back as soon as they can.
What can you generally see in front of you?

03:14:00:00

Desert, just nothing, although as I say there were, it was slightly undulating and there were no trees. There was one tree, that was called the fig tree, and that’s where patrols going out of a night would get their bearings from, the tree and from the stars, they were trained, this was one of the things they were

03:14:30:00

trained in. And often they went out and followed a line along, one of our cables, one of our telephone lines, until that finished up at the artillery place, that would get them that far, and then from there they’d go out on a bearing. In other words, they’d work out a bearing they had to keep on, and the officer would walk on that bearing all the time,

03:15:00:00

if you can understand what I mean, so that’s how they would get direction. But they were wonderful, they were the best patrol soldiers, infantry, that we had.
Did you have much contact with those fellows?
No, we didn’t really down at the gun positions, because they were all up forward on the perimeter. I’ve got a map here,

03:15:30:00

I don’t know whether I can show you.
That’s all right.
But you can visualise the sea on one side, and all these perimeter boxes, posts as they were, there were, there were, oh, 50 or something, they were all numbered A, B, C, S7 and S5, they all had their numbers. And they were built by the Italians before we ever got there,

03:16:00:00

how the 6th Division managed to capture Tobruk is amazing. Because that they, the Italians didn’t have the heart in the war, Mussolini had forced them into it, and they weren’t very good infantry soldiers, they were good artillery soldiers. And they had their own guns, which I’ll talk to you about later, we also used later.

03:16:30:00

Anyway, the five 60-pounders that we are now concerned with, because I was a sergeant in charge of one of those. They were, at the early stages, one of the main weapons to fire a long distance. The British had three regiments there, they were on 25-pounders which was a very, very good gun in the Second

03:17:00:00

World War. And the British, the English 104 RHA it was called, Royal Horse Artillery, they were there, they had been there when we got there, and they had been responsible for knocking out the tanks that had broken through. Anyway, that’s another story which I, doesn’t actually concern me.

03:17:30:00

But the, our infantry were wonderful.
What did you think of the Brits?
Oh they were great. I thought the Brits were the greatest of all.
Why?
They just, I don’t know why, but it was part of their makeup, whether it was the fact they were trained so well, but they were brave. And we found that

03:18:00:00

all the time, at Alamein, which you’ll hear from me later, where they, they were vitally concerned, good soldiers, well trained. And their artillerymen were very, very good. And the 25-pounder had the ability to knock out tanks, it was an anti-tank role, and that gun was…

03:18:30:00

Here I am getting onto guns, do you want me to do that?
Yeah, do.
That 25-pounder was a, the second best gun in the desert, the German 88, that’s 88 millimetres, was the best. Because they mounted those on trucks, oh, on tanks, they used them in a field role, you know, firing at the

03:19:00:00

enemy troops and enemy concentrations. Anti-aircraft, anti-tank and field, they were a very good gun. Ours did not have the anti-aircraft role, they, we were able to fire at concentrations and tanks with the 25-pounder.
Is it harder to operate a 60-pounder than a 25

03:19:30:00

pounder?
Yes.
Why’s that?
Because of the size of it. The 25-pounder you could get up to, with ten rounds a minute, I think, was intense fire, that’s one every six seconds. With the 60-pounder, two every minute was about all we could do, two rounds every minute. Because of the weight, and because

03:20:00:00

of the need to push the gun into, push the shell into the breech, that sort of thing.
How many fellows does it take to do that?
Well, the crew of a 60-pounder was, in the books was ten, but we

03:20:30:00

mostly had eight or six, six to eight, but we were able to do it with that many. Because of that ten, half a dozen of them were ammunition numbers, you know, that brought forward the ammunition. Because, as you can appreciate, 60 pound is a pretty heavy shell to bring forward.
Where do you store all these shells?
Oh, in the gun pit, they were stored and protected as well as we could, by rocks and so on,

03:21:00:00

and, but not all of them were in there. There again, we had to dig them in, into the sand, into the ground, so that they wouldn’t be, you know, if they explode.
Yes, because that’s a worrying thing, isn’t it?
Yes.
And any stray, stray fire.
Yes, that’s right, yes.
How often would you get armament

03:21:30:00

deliveries?
Well, I’m finding it hard to remember this. I suppose ammunition was brought forward to us every about two or three days.
So it was pretty regular.
Yes, but we became, we were limited to ten rounds of a day, because the destroyers just couldn’t bring in ammunition that we wanted. And once we’d used all of the

03:22:00:00

ammunition that had been there when we arrived, we were then limited to ten rounds a day, because of the difficulty of the destroyers bringing them in, and then getting them to our gun positions, and the weight of them, and that sort of thing.
Tell me about how you’d get fed.

03:22:30:00

Oh well, we lived on, by what they lived on gun crew cooking, and we, our food was mainly bully beef, you’ve seen them in the supermarkets, corned beef. Tins of corned beef and M&V, meat and vegetables, tins of meat and vegetable. And then we had these

03:23:00:00

hard biscuits, that was our, that was what we lived on. But the big difficulty was water, where, when we first went into the position at Tobruk, we were given a water bottle full of water a day, that was all we could, we were given a day. Now, that had to cope with everything, the CO insisted

03:23:30:00

that from the point of view of morale, we had to shave every second day.
Morale?
Morale, yeah.
Sorry, being a girl, I’m not…?
Well once you’ve had a shave, you feel better, if you know what I mean, it lifts your morale. It’s the same as when you have a wash, you feel better.
Thanks, Julian [interviewer].

03:24:00:00

But I’m afraid that wasn’t carried out as much as it should be, but they were the orders, that we were to shave every second day, and the CO had a point there. But out of a water bottle full of water, which was a bit over a pint, about a pint of water, we would strip off

03:24:30:00

in the desert and with half a cup of water, it’s amazing how you can wash yourself.
How do you do that?
Well, with a, cloth, wash all the vital parts, under the arms and everything, everywhere else where it was important to wash. Because the water that we were getting, the salt in our bodies was coming out, and I was particularly one,

03:25:00:00

who used to sweat a lot, and you’d get these streaks of, like an Aboriginal corroborree of, that would be salt coming out of your body. And you had to replace that, and that’s where the water was necessary. So it’s amazing what you can do with a water bottle full of water. And I’ll tell you a story later about the Germans and the Italians and water. It’ll come in

03:25:30:00

later on.
Okay.
But that was one of our main problems, and when we went near a water point, the water was very brackish, but we still had to drink it. Although it wasn’t, it didn’t taste the best, we drank this water. And as far as washing was concerned, if we got anywhere near the sea, we used to dive in

03:26:00:00

and have a decent swim. Now that was great when we could get near the sea. But actually we weren’t, we were some miles from the sea, but on the odd occasion you had some particular job to do and you went near the sea it was great to dive in and have a decent old clean-up. Then we had, towards the finish, we were living on these bully beef and

03:26:30:00

M&V, and towards the finish of our time, the last month or so, we were getting fresh meat bought in once a week. And also we used to have tins of peaches, you know, tins of peaches and you’d get one of those for each gun crew,

03:27:00:00

so that you’d have to dole out a piece to, if you had eight blokes, you wouldn’t get too many pieces more than a couple of pieces, but still it was very nice. We, I had a bloke on my gun, he was bought up in an orphanage, and he, Bombardier Curran was his name, and he, what he could do with bully beef was amazing. He could boil it, he could fry it, he could roast it and everything, and he

03:27:30:00

became our cook. And we relieved him of other duties so that he could cook it. And he did very well with bully beef. It was far better than eating it straight out of the tin. Boy oh boy, it used to, in the hot sun, it used to just sort of melt in front of you, but you had to eat something. But that, they were, that was one of the big drawbacks we had about Tobruk, one of the big

03:28:00:00

things we had to suffer a lot.
Can you describe some of the defences and operations that you had there?
Yes. We used to annoy the enemy by providing harassing fire when we’d take one 60-pounder and pull it out of the gun pit, and take it away of a night,

03:28:30:00

or sometimes even two guns and put it in another place, so that if the enemy, if the Germans had pinpointed our gun position and we opened up, he would then fire back at us, of course. But at night we would take these guns out, or one gun, and we’d put in harassing fire on a well-known

03:29:00:00

crossroad, and we’d fire one. There was no sort of regular pattern with firing one. We’d alternate the shells that we sent over and then we’d come back and have our gun in the next morning. So that was what was called harassing fire. We would also fire in support of the infantry, because at the other end of the telephone line was

03:29:30:00

the OP Officer, and he was the, he was there to direct the fire of our artillery, and if he wanted 60-pounders of support for infantry he would call upon us and we would fire. He would then direct the fire on a concentration, if it was infantry or trucks or whatever it might be.
Where is the

03:30:00:00

front line in relation to where you’ve just been talking about?
Oh, on the north side was the sea. And if you can imagine, around the sea, I’ve got a map there to show you, are all these posts, all these infantry posts. Well that

03:30:30:00

enabled us to… Nearby to the infantry, we would send an officer, an OP Officer, an Observation Post Officer, and he would set up his phone line back to the guns and everything and he would communicate with the guns to call for fire. And that’s how we used to help the infantry. Or we might have to fire on

03:31:00:00

a known ammunition dump, or a suspected ammunition dump, or a concentration of vehicles or something. And that was our job in life, to assist the infantry by harassing them. And a 60-pounder shell, when it bursts, it had a decent sort of a burst and it would make a decent hole. Also, there was

03:31:30:00

one particular gun the Germans had in one particular area outside the perimeter as it was, that’s what I’m explaining to you, about perimeter, with all these infantry posts. And it was called Bardia Bill, and it used to fire on the harbour of a day and night, because the harbour was right alongside the workshops

03:32:00:00

where they used to repair and tanks and the guns and everything. And they used to fire, it was a building in the Tobruk township, as was the hospital. Although the hospital was a little further away, well marked with the red cross, and in accordance with the Geneva Convention that was not bombed, although it was at times. Some of the Stukas forget about the Geneva Convention,

03:32:30:00

some of the pilots. Anyway, the Bardia Bill used to fire and, a very big gun, and we were never able to find out what it was, but we think it was a big French naval gun, and it would open up and it would do a lot of damage in the harbour area while they were trying to unload the troops and everything. That’s why the, they wanted to get out in a big hurry.

03:33:00:00

And our job, being the biggest gun they had there, the 60-pounder, the moment this Bardia Bill opened up, we were to fire on where we thought he was, and we must have been close, because we used to stop him. He used to stop once we put a few rounds at him. The thing that we were lacking was air observation, and that’s what the Germans

03:33:30:00

had, we had no planes of our own whatsoever, no fighter planes to shoot down the Stukas. The Stukas were shot down by the anti-aircraft that was there, the anti-aircraft guns, they were brave fellows too, they kept firing while the bombers were coming down and everything. They had a wall around them too, they were protected, or a gun pit.

03:34:00:00

But we had no air support at all. Had we had a, an air photographs, we might have been able to locate Bardia Bill, but we didn’t.
Sounds like it was a bit of a game really?
Yes, it was. For what we did, our particular troop, our officer, Captain Fital,

03:34:30:00

he got awarded the MBE [Member of the British Empire] after the Tobruk, no, during the Tobruk siege. It was known as a siege, 142 days we were, we were besieged, we couldn’t get out unless we fought our way out. And Morshead, who was the commander of the garrison, he was told that he was to stay there for two months,

03:35:00:00

we stayed there for five, so we did our job. And we were evacuated, which is another story, we were evacuated in the October.
Just, you mentioned…
I won’t.
Yes, we’ll get there.
That’s another phase, yes.
We’ll get there. Just wondering what your command was like?
You mean as far as

03:35:30:00

from the top men down?
Yes.
Well, there was the Fortress Headquarters, which was General Morshead, an Australian general. And he was in charge of the 24,000 that were there, of which about 9,000 were British and other troops, there were Indians there too, the Sikhs, an Indian company were in there, and British

03:36:00:00

machine gunners were there. But we were 14,000 Australians and 9,000, so that completed the, the complete fortress. And the artillery was a fair, oh, sorry, I’m getting, getting away from the point. You wanted to know about the command. Well, there’s the fortress commander and then there was the

03:36:30:00

9th Division, Australian division and the British troops. They had their own commander too, but they were mainly artillerymen, a lieutenant, Brigadier Thompson was in charge of them, and there were three or four regiments, I’m not sure which, three I think, three regiments of 25-pounders. And so that was their part of

03:37:00:00

it, it all came under Morshead. And our 9th Division, which comprised three brigades, four brigades, sorry, one brigade was on loan to us from the 7th Division, so they came directly under Morshead too. And then the brigade, they were infantry and the artillery, which came, there were three, there was,

03:37:30:00

normally there was three regiments in a division, but in this case we were the only field regiment in Tobruk. Now, do you want me to tell you about the Italian guns?
Yes, sure.
Well, while we’re talking about our role in Tobruk. Here we were,

03:38:00:00

an artillery regiment put into Tobruk with no guns, with not enough guns, all there were were five 60-pounders and there were also some howitzers, an 18-pounder and they were all First World War, too. So we had to find, our CO said, “Well, we’ve got to find a role.” And the Italians, when they had surrendered Tobruk, had left behind a lot of

03:38:30:00

Italian First World War guns that they had been using. And all their ammunition was in the caves, had been left behind in the caves. As I said before, they surrendered in thousands, the Italians, great columns of them, threw up their hands and surrendered to the 6th Division when they captured Tobruk. But they left behind these guns and this ammunition, so our CO said, “Right-o, we’ll get

03:39:00:00

these guns and we’ll fire them back at Rommel.” He also had the same sort of guns, firing them at us, that’s the ironical part. But it was found that a lot of the shells didn’t go off, and we, when they fired at us, and the shell hit the ground, it didn’t explode. And that was caused in the,

03:39:30:00

in Czechoslovakia, the Resistance, a lot of the factories were manned by Resistance people who were anti-Hitler, and they used to fiddle around with the little fuse in the shell which caused it to explode. And therefore that became a blind, when it reached the other end, it just landed in the

03:40:00:00

sand. Well, a lot of those shells, probably about a third of the shells that we fired, were blind. And the same when they were fired them, they were blind. I can distinctly remember these shells that used to come screaming across, and you’d hear them go ‘thump’ into the, into the sand, and nothing would happen. But, so we had 75-millimetre, 149-millimetre

03:40:30:00

Italian guns, 75-millimetre and later we had the 105, all those guns were First World War, and they were terrible, but we had to, we lost a lot of fellows through the shell, bursting at the muzzle. And you know, it was a hazardous business, but I suppose three quarters of our

03:41:00:00

unit, were firing these used, firing these guns. But they did play a role. The 75-millimetres turned out to be the best of all the others. But we, sometimes when a shell is fired the barrel goes back, you’ve seen the recoil, what they call the recoil when the shell, the, sorry, when the barrel goes back with the force of the shell

03:41:30:00

going out. Sometimes they’d go back before the trigger was pulled, and we lost a couple of blokes killed by that, too.
Gee.
Too, yeah. So it was a hazardous business and it was something that we didn’t relish at all, we would have liked to have had 25-pounders like the British forces in there.
I’ll just pause you there, because I know we’re coming to the end of the tape.
Interviewee: Eric Watts Archive ID 1720 Tape 04

04:00:35:00

Just maybe get a bit of an overview of Tobruk, probably home in and ask you some more specific questions. Can you describe the landscape there in the garrison?
Yes, it was, all along the sea, there were deep wadis, what they call wadis. Now a wadi is a sort of a

04:01:00:00

valley, and that’s where the wadi used to run down into the sea, ’cause it used to rain a lot, we weren’t there in the rainy season. But there was a series of wadis all the way along the beach, the sea. The, from then there was sort of steps, you might call them, or

04:01:30:00

sort of different height of land, I’d call them steps or what’s the other word, I can’t think.
Plateaus or ridges?
Yes, yes, that’s right, plateaus and lots of ridges and that, but unfortunately around the perimeter there weren’t much in the way of wadis, or

04:02:00:00

these high areas, high parts of the country. But it was very, very harsh, there was just stones, stones everywhere, you know, quite large-sized stones, as big as a basketball and bigger. It was very harsh sort of country. As I said before, it’s the best place to have a

04:02:30:00

war, because there’s no fertile land there at all. And the Italians had built these defences which were very, they consisted of a concrete pillbox. But, and then they was running off to a sort of, sleeping areas. In front of these pillbox

04:03:00:00

things, the posts, was a tank ditch to stop the tanks from getting in, but they’d, the tanks, the German tanks had managed to get through those all right, either filled them in, you know, filled in an area so that they could have a road to go across. Or some other means, but they managed to get their tanks across the ditch. And outside that

04:03:30:00

was the wire, the barbed wire, so it was pretty difficult to break into Tobruk, but the 6th Division did it because, as I said before, the Italians were very ready to surrender.
What was on the front line, or the perimeter, in terms of Australian Infantry?
Oh well, there would be about, every post was about 150 yards apart

04:04:00:00

or 200 yards apart and they would be, there would have been, up there at any one time, I suppose there would have been on the whole perimeter, and it was completely manned by Australian infantry, I don’t know, I suppose about five infantry battalions.

04:04:30:00

And each battalion consisted of about 700 men, but not all of those were frontline men, so I’d say work on 500, so that’ll give you an idea of how many infantry there were.
Were they dug in trenches?
No, they had these pillboxes. But then, I haven’t talked about this. Rommel put in an attack on the 11th of

04:05:00:00

April, and he used tanks and the tanks were followed by infantry, and he broke through the other perimeter, our fellows had to pull back, he was just too strong, and his weapons and tanks were just, no way we could combat them. But the infantry further back in their slit trenches, they waited and the German tanks went on

04:05:30:00

through, and then the, they ran into the, our anti-tank guns and our dug-in tanks, and the 25-pounders, mainly the 25-pounders, and they knocked out 17 of his tanks. And when they passed over the infantry slit trenches, our infantry got up and tackled their, their Infantry, and they

04:06:00:00

decided they weren’t to be in it, and they got on their way, went back again. So that was quite a, a wonderful effort by our infantry and by our 25-pounders and anti-tank guns.
How long did that battle last?
I think it lasted a full day, I just can’t

04:06:30:00

be sure.
Where was that in relationship to your position?
Well, it was forward of our position, I suppose it would have been about five miles in front of our position, we would have been about five miles back from the front line with our guns. But we were not there then, when this salient, we hadn’t arrived in Tobruk at that stage.
Was that the only salient?
Yes, that was the only salient, but then our

04:07:00:00

infanteers built, it was, I’d like to be able to show you the…
I’ve got a pretty good imagination if you can describe it.
Yeah, yeah. Well, our troops dug in on the salient as it came around, and then there was this sort of lump which is the salient, where he pushed his way in. And, but he wasn’t able to take the

04:07:30:00

ones on the side, the pillboxes or posts on the side of the salient. And we put in a couple of attacks to capture S, S7 and R10 I think it was, was the two posts that they badly wanted,

04:08:00:00

Morshead badly wanted to capture those back again, but they cost a lot of casualties. And in the end they got into them, but the Germans counterattacked and they took them back again. But I think we lost, I think we had about 83 blokes killed trying to do that, something like that. Or, I’ve got it written down here, but they were heavy casualties. But

04:08:30:00

had it not been for knocking out the tanks, that was the thing that caused Rommel to pull back his tanks and abandon the idea. He made other attacks on the salient, but he still wasn’t able to have enough strength or be able to defeat our infantry to get his tanks through and go straight up to the township of Tobruk.

04:09:00:00

Why do you think he had chosen that spot, was there a weakness there?
Yes, well, he would have his intelligence, and intelligence would have told him that was the weakest spot, and maybe the tank ditch enabled him to do whatever he’d done to cross the tank ditch. I don’t know, I, we were back, as I say, five miles, but

04:09:30:00

it was a very good effort and that salient existed right through the siege, Rommel was never able to get enough strength to do it. Mind you, he’s also got a force on the Egyptian border, because the British were preparing Operation Battleaxe, which was to relieve Tobruk, and he had to keep a force

04:10:00:00

further to the east on the Egyptian border there. So he had his hands full, Rommel.
He was short of numbers, perhaps?
And he couldn’t get the reinforcements through, because the ships from, coming from Italy across to the North African coast were being continually sunk. And the air force in, on Malta, the island of Malta,

04:10:30:00

was an island between Italy and the North African coast that, the air force were located there, and he lost a lot of shipping trying to bring supplies and reinforcements across. Had he been able to capture Tobruk, and that was his aim because it had a good port there, and had he been able to capture that from the 9th Division and the

04:11:00:00

British that were in there, he’d have been, he would have had shorter lines of communication. As it was, he had to land his troops at Benghazi which was some hundreds of miles further to the east. But Tobruk was a thorn in his side.
Just specifically I’d like to describe your gun position.
Yes, well…
Just the

04:11:30:00

immediate area where you were positioned.
Yes, the four guns here, the fifth one, it was not, excuse me, it was not dug in, because we only used it, the parts of it, we, to keep the others going, they’d break down continually. And there’s another story which I’ll tell you later about me taking my gun into the town to be

04:12:00:00

repaired.
Is that Tobruk?
Yes.
Right.
So that this salient was this, was very well defended, and it enabled the forces to hold on.
Just, can you describe physically, though, your position?
Oh well, there would be four guns there, they’d be staggered, one would be there, one forward,

04:12:30:00

so that one shell, or one bomb, we were bombed as well, of course, there was Stukas, one bomb if you got them all in a line, it would knock them all out, maybe. But by having them staggered, you were better protected against bombing and shelling. And we’d have, they’d be about 50 yards apart, I suppose, so the

04:13:00:00

frontage of the troop would be 150 yards.
Were you on a ridge or promontory?
No, we were on the flat, there was no ridge there, we were out on the flat. And then behind the guns would be the command post, and that would be dug in, or as I’ve pointed out before, a wall built around it, I can’t remember now, whether we had a

04:13:30:00

wall or it was dug in, and that was where the technical side of the operation existed. The artillery boards that were used by these specialists to find out the angle that the gun should be at, and the elevation. And from maps, all the mapping, maps were there and so on. That would be the layout really. And then there was

04:14:00:00

slit trenches all behind all the guns, you know. You can imagine blokes coming out of the ground in the morning, out of their holes, having slept there all night.
What was your daily routine there?
Oh well, mainly maintenance on the gun.
What time would you get up in the morning?
Oh, about seven, I suppose.
Would that be first light?

04:14:30:00

No, a bit after first light I’d say, I can’t remember exactly.
And what would you do when you rose from your slit trench?
Well, then you’d have a, the ablutions would go on, you know, you’d clean yourself up and…
Did you have a latrine nearby?
Oh no, oh, the latrine, no. We used to have a, we did have a latrine further down which was a hole in the ground which had been dug, of course.

04:15:00:00

And we had a sort of a primitive type of thing that you could sit, sort of sit on to do your job there.
Did you have loo [toilet] paper?
Oh yes, we had plenty of that, there was always plenty of toilet paper, yes. And, but with the infantry, they just used jam tins

04:15:30:00

in their slit trenches. If they’d have got up out of their slit trenches during the daytime, they’d have been shot at. And the same as the Germans, they had to, the Germans and Italians, when I say Germans all the time there was a lot of Italians there too, they had the same problem. And at night, the rations would come up in a truck, and they’d have their meal, hot meal,

04:16:00:00

the infantry and they’d do their ablutions, do their maintenance of themselves, at night.
Just after you’ve done your ablutions in the morning, would you put a billy on and brew up the tea?
Oh yes, yes, that’d be before you did your ablutions, that was the first thing. Now this is another thing.
Would you talk about the night’s sleep you had?
Oh yes, you’d…
What would morning banter be like?

04:16:30:00

Oh, not much, there wouldn’t be much banter about it, we were, we didn’t have all that much to talk about unless our mail had come through or something, we used to get mail fairly regularly, bought up by the destroyer. And we’d always have a cup of tea, we lived on, I told you about the bully beef and everything, but the black tea, it’s certainly a drug, tea is a drug. And it used to give us

04:17:00:00

a lift. And we’d never have milk in it because that would weaken the effect, we’d have sugar, we were pretty well off for sugar. So we’d boil the billy, that would be the first thing, that would be in the gun pit, we’d all gather round in the gun pit, boil the billy, have a cup of black tea. And then, you know, perhaps some bully beef or something, that’s about all it was.
And what would

04:17:30:00

be the plan for the day, would you discuss, or brief yourselves for the day, or…?
Well, usually the officer would come around to each gun and point out anything of particular interest that we should know about. And also we had a wireless that kept us informed about what was going on in the world, we were, we managed to

04:18:00:00

scrounge a wireless, we’d get the BBC [British Broadcasting Corportaion] News, that’s about all. So we knew things, we knew how things were going, to a degree. The wireless wasn’t much good, we only had our own wirelesses for communication between the guns and the OP, and they weren’t much good either, the wirelesses, I can tell you. So we relied heavily on the

04:18:30:00

telephone and the wires that ran along the surface of the ground.
Would you have any intelligence about what was going to happen that day in terms of enemy activity?
No, usually it came, it usually came from the OP, when I say OP that’s the Observation Post. The first thing in the morning was the time when we used to do a bit of firing actually, because the

04:19:00:00

artillery officer would see the Germans getting out of their slit trenches and put down a few rounds. First thing in the morning, they’d be shaking their blankets and, you know, sort of doing the normal things that you would when you got up out of bed. But, and that was the time when we used to…first light was the time when everybody had to stand to, because

04:19:30:00

that was, in war, warfare through the ages, first light has been the time when often attacks go in, because people are, they can see their targets and people, you know, the other side are not as alert as, having slept, that sort of thing.
What

04:20:00:00

range were you from the German positions?
Five miles, I think, would be about what we would be, about five or six miles, that’s in yards about 10,000 yards, I suppose.
What was at the, what were the German positions?
Well, I never ever saw them, not being an infanteer, but, and I was always at the gun position.

04:20:30:00

I did, at Alamein go up to the OP, and, but that was, that’s another story.
But did they have artillery similar to the artillery you were manning, trained on your positions, or…?
Oh yes, they had, the German artillery and the Italian artillery was…Some of our gun positions were absolutely saturated with fire at times, and there may, we used to

04:21:00:00

see it happening on others, and you’d think, “Oh gosh, they’re going to be wiped out.” And you’d hear about two blokes that’d been killed or something because they were all in their slit trenches. And as I said before, you had to, almost had to get a direct hit on the slit trench, which is that wide and six foot long. So they survived, amazingly enough. And as I said, the blinds that wouldn’t go off, they all came

04:21:30:00

over too. But the shriek of a shell going through the air is enough to scare you off, but you get used to it, it’s like everything else, you got used to it. And also sometimes you could tell if you were being fired at, because the sound of the German gun or an Italian gun being fired, you could tell, you learnt to tell by that,

04:22:00:00

that it was coming to, if it was coming at you, strangely enough.
You just train your ear to…?
Yes, that’s right, yes.
What was the fear, what did you fear most?
Well, shelling was what we, if we were going to get killed, we were going to get killed by shelling or bombing.
Was your position ever heavily shelled?
Oh yes, oh yes, we got shelled quite

04:22:30:00

often, ’cause they’d have loved to have knocked out the big guns, when they fired on concentrations of trucks and so on a 60-pounder would make a big blast.
So you were a prime target?
Yes, that’s right, we were, and we got, we didn’t get strafed very much from the air. The,

04:23:00:00

we had over one thousand raids on Tobruk during the five months we were there, over one thousand, a lot of those were directed at the harbour, of course. But a lot of it was directed at troops and concentrations of trucks and that sort of thing, and guns.
Was your position heavily attacked from the air?
No, we, strangely enough, I think the

04:23:30:00

fact that we were well dug in, I think maybe, well, not exactly dug in, we had these walls around us made of stone, maybe they didn’t think it was worthwhile, they had to almost get a direct…I don’t know, but we didn’t get all that many bombing raids on us, it was mainly shelling.
You must have witnessed a lot of air raids?
Oh yes,

04:24:00:00

we saw them all.
What would you do during an air raid when they were bombing another position to yours?
Well, we just watched them.
That must have been an unusual…?
Yes, well, everybody was ordered to have their rifles alongside them, and if they were, could fire on the dive bombers with their .303s, that was, we weren’t going to sit there. If they were coming at us, but it was no good if they were

04:24:30:00

bombing another position, you just sat there and hoped.
Maybe say a quiet prayer?
Yes, that’s right. But the…
Can I just also ask you, then, how frequently were you shelled from those artillery, German artillery positions?
How frequently?
Just…
Oh, I suppose about, sometimes it would be twice a

04:25:00:00

day, and then there’d be a spell of about five days, we wouldn’t get any shelling. And then it would, it was just hard to sort of tell, when they were coming. But once one had landed, you know. And sometimes we were actually firing the gun when we were being shelled, at the same time, because we had to do something about it, so we’d be in the

04:25:30:00

gun pit, but we were lucky enough never to have a shell land in a gun pit, although at Alamein we did.
I’m, I don’t know, I’m surprised then that over those five months your position was never destroyed?
No, it’s just amazing, but you, it’s amazing the amount of, number of shells it takes to kill one man,

04:26:00:00

because a, especially if he’s dug in. If he’s in an attack or something it’s different altogether, and that’s where at Alamein, which I’ll talk about later, the shelling was terrible.
Just wondering if there’s any other questions I should possibly ask about

04:26:30:00

Tobruk before I ask when and why you were finally evacuated?
Yes, well, do you want to turn that off a shake.
I’ll just pause for a moment.
I’ll just have a look here. Into Tobruk township, to the workshop in there, to have it repaired. The recuperator, it wasn’t coming back to the firing position, it had to be overhauled. And I’m going along this road, there were

04:27:00:00

bitumen roads right through, right throughout the fortress area. And I’m sitting in the front, being a sergeant, and all my gun crew are in the back of the vehicle, the towing vehicle. And I saw this plane coming towards us, I knew it would have to be a German one, it wouldn’t have been more than 60 feet above the ground, and I thought, “Oh crikey, we’re going to cop it here.” It was no good me ordering the blokes or stopping or anything,

04:27:30:00

we didn’t have time. It was just about 60 feet above the ground, and it was following the road. And I thought, “He’s going to strafe hell out of us,” so we just prayed. And I saw these great two black crosses on the wings as it went over, it did not fire anything at us, and we can only think that it had run out of ammunition, and it had got down

04:28:00:00

low so the anti-aircraft couldn’t attack it, and there it was coming towards us, and he must have been out of ammunition, imagine the great big gun in a towing vehicle, he’d have strafed hell out of us with his machine gun, I think it was a Heinkel, German plane. A bit further along.
Sorry, you didn’t put up any 303 fire, or…?
No, we didn’t have time, we did not have time.

04:28:30:00

You can imagine, he’s coming towards us, you’ve just got to sit there and wait. So, that was, that was a bit fortuitous. We get along to another, to a bit further along, almost into the town, and there’s a military policeman directing us around this crossroad. And right in the middle of the crossroad, there’s this great big hole there, obviously one of the Stukas had landed a

04:29:00:00

bomb right in the centre. I said, “By crikey,” I said, “That was a close, that was a good shot, he’s got right in the middle of these crossroads.” And this military policeman said, “Ron Barassi got killed here this morning.” You’ve heard of Ron Barassi [Australian Rules football player and coach]? That was his father. Yes, so that’s a little aside.
That’s curious.
I’ve written to Ron, and

04:29:30:00

received a letter back about that.
What were the parts that you were having repaired for your gun?
Oh, that was the recuperator, when the gun fires, the recoil, the whole barrel goes back. And then the recuperator, it’s hydraulic, the recuperator gradually brings it back, that’s why we can only fire two rounds as against, six or twelve, ten, I forget, with a 25-pounder.

04:30:00:00

It gradually brings the barrel back to its firing position again. But there is another, I was talking to you about the salient. And R6 and R10, when they attacked that particular post, and there was a padre, he’s the religious, he’s the chaplain, every unit

04:30:30:00

has a padre, they’re called padres, not chaplains. And he is rather famous, because after this attack on, I’m not sure whether it was S7 or R10, but in the salient, when Morshead wanted us to get this, these two posts back again. And

04:31:00:00

they put in this pretty heavy attack, two battalions, not a complete battalion but the platoons involved had a pretty, made a pretty successful attack on this, but they lost, I think, 83 fellows were killed. And this padre in a truck, he stood on the top of the truck

04:31:30:00

with a Red Cross flag and drove up, right to where the action had taken place, there was a slight lull in the proceedings. And the Germans stopped firing and we stopped firing. And they got out, and they even put, got some fellows to come along with anti-tank, not anti-tank,

04:32:00:00

detectors, mine detectors and they made a track through, very quickly for the vehicle to come right up, these are the Germans. And they came forward from where their positions were, and they swapped cigarettes and they had a drink, you know, a drink of water and had a bit of a talk and everything. And they brought in all their,

04:32:30:00

their dead and the wounded and everything. We brought in all ours, and they brought in all theirs, they took all their casualties back and we did the same. And that was the sort of German we were fighting against, it made you feel that, you know, there was some good fellows amongst the enemy as well. And after a while, after everyone had been evacuated

04:33:00:00

off the thing, it was on again, they fired a flare or gave some sort of a sign, and everybody opened up on everybody else again. But that was a, quite a thing that showed you.
It sort of stands out as unusual example for conduct of war?
Yes, that’s right. It could never have happened with the Japanese, I can tell you.
No, I don’t suspect so.
Yes. So they weren’t the Nazis,

04:33:30:00

Rommel’s fellows seemed to be a different type of German altogether.
You mentioned earlier, Eric, that a number of your fellows were killed just operating the gun.
Yes.
It must have, I really don’t know how to describe it in terms of how you would have felt emotionally about it.
Oh well, yes.
Frustration would have been an understatement.
Yes, well, they were very

04:34:00:00

emotionally affected of course, a lot of our fellows. On the gun crew, you can imagine, one was the sergeant, it burst at the muzzle and the sergeant, he was, he always stood to one side, he copped it all, his name was Downing and he was killed, and the fellows were quite upset, of course I understand.
You mentioned also the recoil

04:34:30:00

killed a couple of fellows.
Yes, that’s right, that did also. But the worst thing that we…
What would have led to one of those fellows being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Oh, nothing, he was just doing his job, and it just so happened that…
He made an error?
No, he didn’t make an error, it was just the gun, the gun was faulty. But we had one terrible, just before we were leaving Tobruk actually.

04:35:00:00

A warrant officer, and I think it was ten men in a truck, they’d been up to the forward posts and they were on their way back. And there was a spotting plane, a German spotting plane in the air at the time, and it directed a concentration

04:35:30:00

of shells onto this vehicle as it was travelling along the road, and one landed in the back of the truck, the whole lot were killed, the ten of them. And these were, I remember going to the funeral which they had. But the, they had the cemetery by the way at Tobruk which the engineers had built, and so we lost ten men in the, on the one go, the one occasion.

04:36:00:00

One was a warrant officer, highly regarded, so that was the saddest day we had while we were in Tobruk, to lose that many.
Did you have a ceremony for each of the men that you lost?
Oh, it was a bulk ceremony, I mean.
Sorry, I don’t mean with regards to that incident, I mean with the other incidents where, that you mentioned earlier?
No, no, there was no…
No ceremonies for them.
If the padre, the padre was nearby, but he,

04:36:30:00

the padre, was all over. You can imagine in a 36, it was a 30-mile perimeter, so it was a big area that we were protecting. And so he couldn’t be in all places, and we were scattered all over the place, so it wasn’t possible to, often wasn’t possible. But where possible they were taken to the cemetery and buried there.
For each of those men that were buried at the cemetery,

04:37:00:00

was there a ceremony, and would you attend?
Yes, yes, I attended the one when the ten were killed. But we had one other occasion when we were being shelled and we all got into a cave that was on the side of a wadi. Now a wadi was a hill and there was this cave in the side of it. And we all got into it,

04:37:30:00

I suppose there would have been 20 of us in this cave, and a shell burst at the, a German shell, or Italian, burst at the entrance to this cave. And do you know that it killed two, and they were sitting right at the back, right at the back of this cave. One was a sergeant, Sergeant Nash. How in the world the piece of shrapnel got, didn’t, all those pieces of shrapnel didn’t get anybody at the entrance,

04:38:00:00

but got these two blokes that were at the back, it was amazing. Anyway, there’s a saying that if your name’s on it, you’ll cop it. So the name was on it for poor old Sergeant Nash.
Eric, when one of your mates’ life is taken next to you or nearby or in front of you, what is your response?
You’re devastated for a while, you know, you’ve been with this fellow for

04:38:30:00

years. We joined up in 1940, and here it is, 18 months later or something, and you got pretty close to them. ’Cause the troops were mainly connected to the one sub-unit right through.
What would be your physical response, would you have to go and retrieve your

04:39:00:00

mate or…?
Well, yes, that would be the first thing you would do, yes, and the, we had every, we had fellows trained in first aid, of course. And although the Regimental Aid Post was some distance away, you’d have the, one of the fellows trained as a medico, trained on the medical side of it.

04:39:30:00

And he would get to work and see what he could do. We had quite a few wounded and they would be evacuated by truck, they’d ring through and get a truck sent and go to the hospital.
I suppose you’d also have to focus on what you were doing, and maintain…
Oh yes, that’s right, yes. You could only do that after you’d finished your task. And you had to still man the guns.

04:40:00:00

He would be taken to the command post or somewhere safe, but, especially if he was wounded of course. But then you didn’t know whether he was dead, until you took him to the…and sometimes they weren’t dead, they died afterwards.
So the most important thing was to keep the gun firing?
Yes, oh, you had to carry out your task, yes.

04:40:30:00

Well, you’d do it with a reduced gun crew.
It must take incredible endurance.
Well, we were young and we were fit and we were able to do it, the tasks we were given were not beyond us. And we had reliefs, you know, I mean, even though, sometimes there’d only be five on the

04:41:00:00

gun and the others would be having a sleep, we’d manage, we knew we could manage and we were trained that way that we could manage, with a lesser gun crew.
I think, on that note, perhaps we’ll change tapes.
Interviewee: Eric Watts Archive ID 1720 Tape 05

05:00:31:00

You were evacuated out of Tobruk, can you tell me how that played?
How that transpired. Well, we were, one of the big problems in Tobruk was the little animals, fleas, lice and those sort of things. They used to get into the rice, for instance, and the rice would

05:01:00:00

be full of droppings of various animals. So we’d have to pick those out, because we wanted the rice to eat. But the fleas and the lice and the like, scorpions, they had to be watched and, well, everything that crawled, I think, was in Tobruk, in amongst the sand and the stuff the

05:01:30:00

Italians had left behind, which they left a lot of behind. That was one of the things. I got lice here on my body and so on, that was quite a problem, yeah. Anyway, I didn’t suffer from desert sores and that was one of the main things that the fellows were getting, desert sores and their health was depreciating, as you can, as you can appreciate, with the rations

05:02:00:00

we had and so on, and the lack of water. And the health people reported to Blamey, who was the head army bloke in the Middle East, General Blamey that, you know, he felt that our health was such that we should be evacuated. So that’s what, I won’t go into why and how we came to be evacuated, but it was a big argument between

05:02:30:00

Curtin and Churchill, and eventually Curtin won, and he was the Prime Minister here. And we were brought out. Personally, but of course I was at the blunt end, I wasn’t in the infantry, I reckon we could have stayed there for longer. However, we’d done our job and they were going to relieve us, they decided to relieve us. So we were brought out on destroyers,

05:03:00:00

I came out on the HMS [His Majesty’s Ship] Jackal, and the same way as we came in. And they had to avoid the moonlit nights, because the Stukas were now very active on any moonlit nights because they could see their targets. And we were brought out, and it was a very big operation as you can imagine,

05:03:30:00

bringing about all but one battalion, which was about 700 men, were brought out on boats every night. And they were replaced by the 144th, sorry, the 40th British Infantry Division and the Polish. The Poles came in prior to us leaving, we were one of the last to leave,

05:04:00:00

we left in October, the end of September and the Poles came in and we fostered them in and told them all about the guns and they were already artillerymen, so they had to be told how to go about things in the desert.
Could they speak English?
Some of them could, yes. And they had a big hatred of Hitler. And where we were limited to ten rounds a gun, they just couldn’t stand that,

05:04:30:00

they couldn’t bear that, they had to be firing, firing. Anyway.
They were a problem because they wanted to keep firing?
Yeah, they were, they really wanted to get stuck into it all the time, which you had to, you couldn’t do, because you had to remember the supply problem, you see. The last battalion that was to come, was the 2/13th, a New South Wales battalion,

05:05:00:00

and it got down to the wharf on the night that it was to come out, and it turned out the destroyer who, which was to bring them out had been sunk and the survivors of the sinking were on another ship, which was not able to come into the harbour and pick them up. They had to, they saved, I think, most of the crew. The same with the Waterhen

05:05:30:00

that I was on, when it was returning to Tobruk it was sunk also. But fortunately there was a British battle, warship nearby, I think it was a destroyer, and every one of the people on the Waterhen was saved. They started to tow it for a little way towards Marsa Matruh, but it had already been sunk by a bomb. But it was sinking, and they had to

05:06:00:00

allow it to sink, but they saved every person that was on the Waterhen. Anyway, they couldn’t get in to pick up the 2/13th, so they remained there, and this was the end of October. And there was no navy ships who could bring them out, so they stayed there until the 10th of December,

05:06:30:00

and then they were relieved, and they took part in another action, which I don’t know anything about.
And what ship were you on?
I was on the Jackal coming out.
Right.
HMS Jackal.
Where were you heading?
To Marsa Matruh, no, Alexandria, I’m sorry.
Is this some leave as well that you’ve got accrued?
Yes, yes,

05:07:00:00

we had leave. And our stomachs were such that we couldn’t eat anything like a decent meal, because we would bring it up straight away, because our stomach had contracted because of the small amount of food and so on, and the same with beer. We were given two bottles of beer when we got off the wharf and so on, we got into a staging camp, two bottles of beer each, oh, these

05:07:30:00

fellows liked it, most of them could only drink one and then their bodies couldn’t take it.
So they were really cheap drunks?
Well, that’s right, and it was some days before they were able to both eat and drink. And then we had vehicles ready to take us to Cairo and then we came back to Palestine, I think it was on a train,

05:08:00:00

in those…
Were you doing any sightseeing while you were there?
No, no, we didn’t.
Just resting.
Well, yes, resting and getting drunk and.
It’s all about beer, really, is what you’re saying.
Beer, yes. But the Arab women used to carry jars of water on their heads, and they looked beautiful because we hadn’t seen a woman for five months, they looked beautiful.

05:08:30:00

So what did you do about that?
Oh, well, I don’t know, I didn’t do anything, you couldn’t do much, they were very protected.
Protected.
And other blokes didn’t get time to visit the houses of ill fame [brothels], we were just there for a couple of days.
So you went to Cairo then, did you say?
Then to Cairo, and then by train from Cairo

05:09:00:00

to…We finished up back at Kostina, the camp we were in in the first place, and there we settled down to, you know, rehabilitate ourselves and recover and start training again. By this time we had received a complete regiment of 25-pounder guns, and that was a great joy to us,

05:09:30:00

so we started to do gun drill again on the 25-pounders. And it was something that gave the whole unit a lift, the fact that we had these terrific guns, which were now belonging to the 2/12th Field Regiment. We were there and we had quite a bit of leave, and

05:10:00:00

we went into Jerusalem, of course, and up to Haifa, Haifa was a very attractive city in, which is now Israel, of course, and Palestine. And then word came through in the January that we were to move to Lebanon. Lebanon is a country north of Palestine, and it was thought that

05:10:30:00

maybe the Turks…because Germany, by this time were very, very, they’re established everywhere and the Russian front, they’re doing all right, at this stage they’re doing all right, but that changed on the Russian front. And they thought Turkey may agree to go in on Germany’s side. So they were building these, this is what we were doing as well, building these

05:11:00:00

enforcements and establishing a solid line north on the south side of Turkey in case Turkey did come in, but Turkey didn’t. And so we were in the Lebanon, and there again we were, we did a lot of training on the 25-pounders, it, we were gradually physically building ourselves up again.
Did you have

05:11:30:00

better food?
Oh yes, yes.
So you were actually well taken care of.
Well taken care of, our cooks got on the job again and we had a fair bit of leave, and the natives, the people of Lebanon were a gentle sort of a, an Arab type country, they talked Arab, they spoke Arabic mostly. But they used to come round the camp, the women used to come round the camp looking for our washing,

05:12:00:00

and they, they’d come every morning and, the girls from the families that lived in the nearby villages come round and pick up our washing, our shirts and so on. And when they brought them back they always had a flower in there, that was a sign of friendship. And we’d give them, when we possibly could, we’d give them a tin of bully beef, because they were short of food. ’Cause the Vichy French had been through there

05:12:30:00

and they’d been ill-treated, so they were very fond of us because we were kind to them, you see. And we got very friendly and we were invited into their, up into their villages, especially of a Sunday you’d go up there. We couldn’t speak their language, but they all had olive trees and two-room

05:13:00:00

house. They lived in one room and the animals were in the next, and the animals were very precious to them, and they tended these olive trees and so on, but they loved us to come. And we, my mate and I went and had a few meals with them of a Sunday and that, but it was too sort of oily, the food, the olive oil, and we just couldn’t take to the food much.

05:13:30:00

But we, and then we’d hike back to the camp. A lot of the others were drinking the arrack, arrack was a type of a drink where if you tipped water into it, it turns a milky colour. There’s a, is vodka like that, I think it might be.
I think it’s ouzo.
Ouzo, that’s it, ouzo, yes. So a lot of the blokes got on the ouzo. And there was all these

05:14:00:00

terraces, it was a beautiful country, the Lebanon, with all the terraces, that’s the word I was after, terraced. With all the trees, and as you looked at a mountain you’d see all this beautiful terracing. And at the top of the mountain there was snow, so a lot of fellows, when they had leave, went up to the snow. So we were there from, oh, and the interesting

05:14:30:00

thing here was that we were camped at a place, Jdaide, J-D-A-I-D-E, it was a monastery. And the priests had all left so we took over the monastery, and that’s where the officers had their quarters and all the officers, all the offices, all the administration was done. All the troops, including myself, were in tents

05:15:00:00

in the general area around the monastery. And we had football matches, and we did a lot of training and we were getting fit again. The next thing that happened was, oh, some of us went on leave into Tripoli, and also we had to provide a picket, not exactly a guard, but a picket in the town. Some of the blokes

05:15:30:00

started to have fights with the locals and were, and went to the brothels and so on and played up, so we had these pickets on the brothels. But I had some leave and went down to Beirut, and that was a very nice city, had a university there. My mate and I, we had about three or four days down there, it was very nice,

05:16:00:00

on the beach. And we also did some anti-tank practice with our 25-pounders, firing out to sea.
In Beirut?
No, this was in, near our camp now.
Oh, right.
Beirut was just where I had the leave. So we were, we became a bit proficient at anti-tank shooting. The word came through

05:16:30:00

finally, when we, we were there from early January until the beginning of June, so we had quite a long time there. And word came through that we were to pack up everything, we had to, there was a top secret move on. We had to take all the signs of Australia, that indicated Australia

05:17:00:00

on all the trucks, on all the, had to cover them all over. We had to keep our hats hidden, because we were the only ones that had the khaki felt hats, you know, turned up at the side. And we were to move, and we moved in the night, and we moved up to Baalbek. Baalbek was an old ruins with beautiful columns, and on a back road we went down to

05:17:30:00

Palestine again, and all on our way through, across the Sinai Desert. Some went by train, but mostly it was from Palestine, mostly it was in our vehicles with our guns. The idea was, there was fifth column activity in both Palestine and Egypt, especially in Egypt, a lot of pro-German people there.

05:18:00:00

And we wanted to be kept secret that we were on, we were moving, we all thought we might have been going home. But we got a big shock, because we kept on going through Cairo, and everywhere the kids were singing out, “Oh, good old Australia, Australia,” you know, they were clapping, so the top secret business had failed, our trying to disguise everything. Because one of

05:18:30:00

the factors was that we were the only troops in the Middle East who wore tan shoes, tan boots, everybody else had black boots. And they saw the black, the tan shoes, of course, tan. So anyway, that move turned out to be successful, and what had happened, Rommel had, with this Afrika Korps, had

05:19:00:00

beaten the Allies back again from Benghazi, this is the second time this had happened. They had captured Tobruk, Rommel had captured Tobruk, which was held by the South African Division and a whole lot of British units, had captured Tobruk in 24 hours, we held it for five months and Rommel got it in 24 hours. So,

05:19:30:00

and the retreat was on, with withdrawal was on, and we get to Cairo and the roads from Cairo to Alexandria, it was absolutely chock-a-block with guns and vehicles and everything that would move from the 8th Army on the retreat, and we’re the only ones, the Pommy soldiers were singing out, “You’re going the wrong way,

05:20:00:00

Aussie, you’re going the wrong way.” Anyway, we were on our way up the desert again, and 70 miles from Alexandria General Auchinleck had formed a defence line to stop Rommel. Because, as you can appreciate, Rommel had long lines of communication all the way now from Benghazi and Tobruk,

05:20:30:00

and he was weakened at the point where his forward columns were, he was weak. He didn’t have all that many troops, he didn’t have all that many tanks, and that gave Auchinleck a chance to establish a defence line, of which the 9th Division formed. They were the ones that set up the defences between the sea and the Qattara Depression, which

05:21:00:00

he couldn’t get past because that was a sort of swamp area with, his tanks would never negotiate through the Qattara depression.
How did it make you feel when you found out that Tobruk had been overrun?
Oh, we were devastated, we couldn’t understand why the, Tobruk had been taken, you know, so quickly.

05:21:30:00

A normal, it wasn’t as if Rommel had all that many, he had probably a slightly bigger force than he had around Tobruk, but to think they gave it up so readily.
Who do you blame?
Well, you can only blame the Generals and, if they’d established a defence like Morshead did, General Morshead, they might have stopped him.

05:22:00:00

But no, I don’t think they had the heart in it, you know. Anyway, that’s what happened. And of course, now he can use the port and everything, the port of Tobruk. But still he was being badly affected by the sinking of his ships coming from Italy, even though it was shorter from Italy to Tobruk than it was to Italy to Benghazi, and the air force,

05:22:30:00

the navy was sinking the ships, only one out of three of his ships got there. So his supplies were badly depleted, and his troops were pretty well exhausted too, as you can appreciate. So.
Where are you heading now?
We’re at Alamein, El Alamein. El means town, El Alamein. There’s a station there, and

05:23:00:00

it’s about the size of this ordinary, about as big as this room, the station, but it’s a station on the railway there, you see. And the north side is the sea, then the railway line and the road and then all the defences were established across there by the 9th Division. And we went into action at night,

05:23:30:00

and the infantry put in some attacks straight away as soon as they got there, because they wanted to take advantage of how weak and how few troops Rommel had. And, but even then we lost quite a few blokes, it wasn’t easy. And Tel el Eisa was another station

05:24:00:00

where they fought too, it had a big sort of a cutting through it and so on, and Tel el Eisa station was a good place to defend. And the units went in and the 2/24th, which was a Victorian unit, it got cut around pretty badly. And we were giving, we went straight into action at night

05:24:30:00

with the 25-pounders, dug them in, the same old procedures we did in Tobruk, this time we could dig ourselves in, we didn’t have to make the walls around them.
Were you confident you were in a better position than the Germans?
We didn’t know, really. All we knew was that we were there, and we were told to stand, to stop him, Rommel was to be stopped, come what may. Because what he wanted was to get through to Egypt and through, across the Sinai desert to the

05:25:00:00

oil wells in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, that, he was running short of petrol. And he had the Germans, the offensive in Russia and everything, so you can imagine, he wanted petrol badly, so we had to stop him. Auchinleck was the general, and personally I thought he was a pretty good general, I thought, think he did a pretty good job

05:25:30:00

with that defence line at, at Alamein, but didn’t take long for Churchill to give him the sack. And the next thing we see, is a slight, prominent-nosed General called General Montgomery, he was sent out and that was in August.

05:26:00:00

And in the meantime, of course, Auchinleck had sent our troops on a lot of missions trying to let the Germans know we were pretty strong, and that we were, that he was not going to get past. And the artillery at this stage, instead of having one Australian field regiment,

05:26:30:00

now we had three Australian field regiments, because the complete division is there at Alamein. And also, gradually the 8th Army is building up its strength, having experienced this terrible withdrawal from Benghazi, it’s building up. And Montgomery is getting ships going round the south of Africa,

05:27:00:00

and with reinforcements and armaments and there was planes, we had air superiority and the whole thing was so different to Tobruk. We had bombers, fighters and Montgomery was gradually building up his forces, and that was in August.
Was that an exciting thing to be part of?
Oh yes,

05:27:30:00

everybody was quite confident at this stage, because we used to see what we called the football, the football teams. There’d be Boston Bombers, we were on the coast side, the 9th Division was on the coast side, because they were facing the 164th German Division. And there were 18 bombers flying with their bombs out on our south

05:28:00:00

side, you could hear the 18 bombers dropping their bombs on Rommel’s rear areas and troops and everything. On the sea side, out to sea was the 18 bombers on their way back, so it was around, round the clock thing. We, it was gradually built up so that we were quite confident.
So just from what you were observing at the time, you felt confident that

05:28:30:00

you were going to…?
Oh yes, we felt that there was no doubt that we were going to be part of a big battle, and Montgomery let us know that too. He indicated that he was going to wait, Churchill was. Churchill wanted something to give the British people to raise their morale, he wanted a victory. And he kept

05:29:00:00

trying to persuade Montgomery to attack, but Montgomery was a very astute general, and he wasn’t going to until he was very, very strong. And he was, as the weeks went past, this was from July through to October, and during that time, we did a lot of firing with our 25-pounders, and he made an

05:29:30:00

attack on the 30th of August, and tried to skirt round, this is how, he tried to out-flank the infantry, skirt round with these tanks. But our tanks could see what was happening, and they wiped out a lot of his tanks and that weakened him again, so he abandoned that idea. And Rommel, you know, was

05:30:00:00

doing the best he could with the soldiers he had and the equipment he had, and he was running out of petrol for his tanks, diesel and so on.
Were you getting a lot of encouragement from Churchill and Montgomery?
Well, Montgomery came around to our gun positions, and he wore an Australian hat because that would be, you know, that would make us feel that he was,

05:30:30:00

he looked terrible in it, only Australians can wear a turned up, fur felt hat.
Didn’t work.
Didn’t work, no. He had all these badges on it, and he looked, I reckoned he looked real terrible.
Peanut.
Peanut’s the word, yes. But he did, he came around and he was on the ball, he had his, by this time he’d formed into Corps.

05:31:00:00

There was 30 Corps and the other one was 130 Corps, I think, so it’s a very big force he’s gradually building up.
Are you aware of this happening at the time?
Oh yes, yes, yes. But we were still well involved, he was still making attacks where he possibly could, and

05:31:30:00

we lost a lot of fellows at Alamein, I think over a thousand were killed with the battle and the three months that we were there, three months plus. But there were periods when we had dust storms and so on, and both sides had a week or so of inactivity, so that they could

05:32:00:00

catch their breath, as it were.
How would dust storms make your life difficult?
Oh well, the dust got into everything, and the flies. That was another thing in Tobruk, the flies, crikey, you had to, have a, one of your mates to brush the flies away while you held your dixie and, that’s how it was. And the flies were pretty bad at El Alamein too.

05:32:30:00

Were you getting reasonably good food and supplies at Alamein?
Yes, the food was quite good at this stage, yes, we had no complaints about the food.
How would it arrive to you?
Usually it would usually come up in hot boxes, they were, you know, boxes about that, like that, and the food would be kept in those. At one stage we were doing our own

05:33:00:00

cooking, the gun crew cooking too. But we had adequate food, and this bloke that, Curran, who was the cook, he was shining again as the bully beef man. And our food was better than the English troops’.
Really.
Yeah, the English troops, they came across and they had, they had

05:33:30:00

a sort of a package for their, for their lunch this day. And they were doing some sort of reconnaissance and they stopped at our gun position and opened up their lunch, and it was bread and jam and cheese, cheese on the jam, ever tried that, it’s quite nice. Bread and jam and cheese, and that was their lunch, so we used to sneak them into our

05:34:00:00

queue at the cookhouse whenever we could, they reckoned that was great if they could get a nice hot meal in our position. So at this stage, of course, some of the units are getting depleted and there was a whole lot, some reinforcements were

05:34:30:00

sent across to 9th Division from Australia and that boosted our regiment, who’d lost a few fellows, quite a few.
How relentless was the action?
Oh, it was pretty relentless, it was pretty relentless, you were fighting a German who had never. Oh, he also had the Italians with him, but

05:35:00:00

they had to sort of bolster the Italians, the Ariete Division, Rommel had to send Germans into each unit to give it a boost and make it fight, if you see what I mean. They weren’t all that good infanteers, they were still good artillerymen, but… Oh no, we, we stopped that attack on the 30th of,

05:35:30:00

when I say we, I mean the whole. There were, I’ll tell you this when we come to the actual battle itself. So at this stage, it’s a sort of a quiet period, it’s a stagnant period, because both sides are trying to build up. Rommel is trying to build up his strength and get what reinforcements he could get across through Italy and so on.

05:36:00:00

And we were getting, we got our reinforcements and building up with the tanks, the Sherman tank came into its own there, that was a very good tank. And the planes, we had bombers, very active and fighters. We used to sit and watch the dogfights with the fighters fighting each other, the German Messerschmitts and

05:36:30:00

our fellows were on Kittyhawks and Hurricanes. And one day in front of our gun position, we see this, it was one of ours, it was coming down and he was getting lower and lower. And he, we could see he was either wounded or something wrong with the plane, anyway, and he couldn’t get his undercarriage down.

05:37:00:00

And this pilot he, well, only a couple of hundred yards in front of our gun position when we saw all this, he came down and he got his tail down and he dragged the plane till, and then just plonked it down, took the pace off the landing, and then plonked it down. Of course we ran over to see him and see he was all right, we knew it was one of ours. He couldn’t have cared less, he said, “Have you got a cigarette?’, he’d

05:37:30:00

just lost a plane, but that’s what they were like.
What was actually wrong with the plane, was it…?
Anyway, it turned out that he couldn’t get the undercarriage down, and they’d, the, it was, run out of fuel really. It was a combination of he couldn’t see himself with enough fuel to get back to the airstrip, so he just, and he

05:38:00:00

had no undercarriage, so he just plonked it down in front of our guns. But oh yeah, he was, couldn’t have cared less. But he wasn’t wounded or anything, he was all right, but he cost them a plane. And then there were lots of occasions. For instance, I went out with a patrol one day, and we came across a tank which had,

05:38:30:00

shortly before we’d arrived had been burnt out, and there was a dead German officer lying on the ground outside his tank. And he had a lovely Luger pistol, so I thought, “That’ll do me for a souvenir.” So I grabbed it from him, and I got it all the way back to Australia, to be honest, wasn’t supposed to, with all the kit inspections and everything, you weren’t allowed to bring weapons like that. I got it back to Australia.
You weren’t frightened of anything like that being booby-trapped?
No, no, no. Oh, that was another thing about Tobruk too, the booby traps they dropped. You know, they looked like thermos flask bombs, you’d pick them up and they’d explode in your hands, there were a lot of those in Tobruk. And they made them, anything that looked like that, we, the order

05:39:30:00

came out, you were not to touch. One of our sergeants gave one of them a kick before he knew what it was all about, and he damaged all his leg, his leg was full of shrapnel and he had to go back from Tobruk, back to Marsa Matruh, and by train then to hospital, that’s how bad he was. And they did a lot of that, and then of course they, I told you about the

05:40:00:00

surrender documents, they dropped those and it says, the documents say, this is in Tobruk. “Come forward,” the last para, “come forward, show white flags and you’ll be out of danger,” and it talked about, you know, bombers, England will be driven out of the Mediterranean and all the rest of it. So Morshead thought, oh well, we’d better get back to them,

05:40:30:00

but send a message saying we can’t show white flags, because we haven’t got any water to wash them, so that was his answer to that.
Can you just, for a second, you know, hold up the piece of paper for us and just explain what it is again?
Oh yes, this says…
It says, “After Crete disaster, Anzac troops are now being ruthlessly sacrificed by England in Tobruk and Syria,” Syrian war was on at the same time. “Turkey has concluded a pact of friendship with Germany. England will shortly be driven out of the Mediterranean. Offensive from Egypt to relieve you totally smashed.” Well, it was too. “You cannot escape.

05:41:30:00

Our dive bombers are waiting to sink your transports. Think of your future and the people at home. Come forward now, show white flags and you’ll be out of danger,” and then a big surrender.
How did you react to?
Oh, that was a joke, waste of time. No, our blokes wouldn’t fall for that sort of thing. And of course the officers got right onto the soldiers and said, “You’ve got to

05:42:00:00

take no notice of that.”
Interviewee: Eric Watts Archive ID 1720 Tape 06

06:00:33:00

Can you describe blow for blow the battle that you participated in at El Alamein?
Yes, I’m just about ready to come to that now. You see, we’re in August, sorry, September, and as I said it’s a quiet period coming up, while each side is building up its, ’cause

06:01:00:00

obviously…
What was your daily routine during that period?
Oh well, similar to what it was in Tobruk. The guns, we did a lot more firing because we had plenty of ammunition, whereas in Tobruk we only had ten rounds a day for the most of the time. We were constantly providing harassing fire, firing on crossroads and known dumps,

06:01:30:00

and we had the plane taking photographs going overhead all the time. Our own plane which we never ever had in Tobruk. And they were able to pinpoint any assembly of trucks or so on and give us the location, so we were kept very busy in those days. And of course ammunition was in big supply, most of it

06:02:00:00

came from Australia too, by the way.
Can you describe your position?
I was, at this stage I was a warrant officer, and I was in charge, I was the go-between between the officers of the troop and the men, and I was in charge of all four guns at this stage. And I had to run rosters for this, that and the other

06:02:30:00

thing, and send troops, send vehicles away on reconnaissances, send vehicles away to get water if they could, and, you know, lots of sort of administrative work then, whereas I was away from the gun. But I had had my turn, this is coming up to the big battle. I had had my turn as the number one on the gun and we fired a lot of, fired a lot at night, too.

06:03:00:00

And the worm had certainly turned. But that’s about what I was doing, and I was the go-between, the blokes and the officers and I had to put out certain instructions and see that they were obeyed and so on, you were a Sergeant Major when you’re a WO2 [Warrant Officer Second Class],

06:03:30:00

but a Troop Sergeant Major.
So can you describe each of those gun positions, how they were arranged in their defensive position?
Oh yes, they were, we were some distance apart at this stage, and we were in communication, a lot better communication than we had, between ourselves and our other troops.

06:04:00:00

But we still had the problem of line communication, telephones, to the forward OPs. But we also did quite a bit of, not me, but the officers did, they became FOOs, which means Forward Observation Officer, and when there was an attack put in, the artillery

06:04:30:00

officer would go with the troops. And when they ran into a problem he would be able to bring down fire on the enemy where it was required, because he was with the infantry, he could see what was going on and he could see where artillery was required.
How far were you positioned from the ridge?
From the Germans?

06:05:00:00

Well, I suppose we’d be, there again, we moved a lot, and we moved back at one stage. When these Germans, on the 30th of August when he made his attack, our High Command woke up straight away what he was on about, and they sent us back to sort of, to where he may happen to get to, but he didn’t make it. And that was on the road, back about

06:05:30:00

some miles, I can’t remember the name, it was an Arab name. But we went, we dug in there and got ourselves all set in case he got through, so we were moving quite a bit.
How many times would you have moved throughout the battle there?
Oh, I suppose about half a dozen times.
From what I understand there’s a fair bit of preparation that goes into setting up your defences.
Oh yes, that’s right, digging gun pits is

06:06:00:00

the main thing, you had to protect yourself and, and the guns. There’s one incident I don’t know whether you want me to include that in the incidents, but…will I do that, or…?
Well, maybe we can put it into chron… Sorry, chronological order, the incidents that all took place throughout the battle at El Alamein.
Yeah, well, this incident took place when we were, we had our guns well

06:06:30:00

forward, we weren’t…
Is this at the beginning of the battle?
No, on the, this is in the middle of July.
Well, if I can interrupt, why don’t we just begin with the beginning of the battle..
Oh, I see.
…and progressively go through it in chronological order, and then you can tell us incident by incident how the battle unfolded and what your movements were.
Well…
Would that be a clearer way of doing things?
Yes, I can only tell you the artillery side of it.
Yes, well, that’s all I’m interested in.
Yeah, the infantry I know because

06:07:00:00

having reading all about it afterwards.
We’re just interested in your movements and your experiences.
Yeah, of course.
Just talk us through it, blow for blow, like you did.
Yes. There were 835 field guns, and about another 100 or so larger guns firing, 155 millimetres, and they were called medium guns, and as well as that,

06:07:30:00

the navy out to sea were. And this is on the 23rd of October 1942, and everybody, all the plans were that the infantry would move behind, what they call a barrage, and a barrage of artillery is where you have your fire 200 yards in front of the

06:08:00:00

infantry, the idea being to knock out anything that’s there. And then after, what they consider a minute or two minutes or whatever it is, they take the traverse that 200 yards, or a hundred yards, they lift the fire and back another 200 yards. And all the time, of course, they’re devastating any enemy in the way. And that is called a barrage, and we had to plan

06:08:30:00

all these barrages prior to the 23rd of October.
How did you plan them?
Oh well, I wasn’t involved because this was an officer’s job, and he and his staff, he had a staff of what they call ACCTS [Australian Camp Commando Training Squadron]. These worked out, this is all, as you can appreciate, predicted fire,

06:09:00:00

there was no observation at all, it was all worked out prior, taking into consideration all the factors that might affect the shell. So that it was very scientific, very technical, and this was done over sometime prior to the actual attack. And I was warrant officer, I wasn’t, I was just keeping my eye on the troops and that sort of thing, it was a quiet period at this

06:09:30:00

stage. And also, I had been required to go each night up to the, where the infantry were, and with a team of men and dig a hole and put all the ammunition in there, in this hole and then come back before first light. Because that, when we move forward, which we

06:10:00:00

expected to do, we would have the ammunition there where we had it marked and so on, ready for us in this hole, and there it was. Instead of having to cart it and wait for trucks to bring it up and so on, there it was.
So effectively supply dumps, were they?
Yes, supply dumps, but dug into the ground so that they couldn’t be affected by fire.
So how did the battle

06:10:30:00

open and what were your movements?
Oh well, the battle opened, prior to the battle Montgomery had arranged that there would be dummy trucks made and he had them all made, and put, this is some weeks before the actual battle. Dummy trucks, which at the time of the, when the battle was due, the dummy trucks would be

06:11:00:00

taken away and the tanks would be put there, or vehicles would be put there, depending on where it was. The reason being the planes photographing, taking photos of the area wouldn’t see any difference, and would not know that there was anything coming from that point of view. So all these dummy trucks were made out of

06:11:30:00

three ply and they got a big supply of that, but from the air they looked like trucks. And also Montgomery built, had built a pipeline, and he had the engineers building a pipeline down to the south where, south, towards the south, some distance. And he had these fellows working, well, these fellows were all photographed by the German planes

06:12:00:00

as they were building this pipeline. Now that was to give the, it was a dummy pipeline, it was, I don’t know what it was made of, anything other than pipes. It was to give the Germans the impression that we were going to put, our attack was going to come in from the south. But in actual fact, Montgomery had decided the attack was to go in in the north, where the 9th Division were. And so that

06:12:30:00

we, Montgomery was a general that made everybody know what was going on. He took the risk on fellows being captured and having to be beaten up or something, but they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t expose this to the enemy, to the Germans. So that was one of this ideas. The other was, the

06:13:00:00

anti-aircraft gun fired rounds in the direction the, you can imagine the, I talked about fellows being lost in the desert. Anti-aircraft fire was, with bullets, tracer, tracer every third or fourth, that’s what they used to get direction, tracer bullets which you can see in the night. But he just had them firing tracer in the line that he wanted the infantry to go, and they just had to get behind this line,

06:13:30:00

this line of tracer bullets that were being fired in the air. That was another way of keeping the right direction. But one of the big problems was the minefields. And there was a bad mistake made by somebody, I don’t know who it was, but they

06:14:00:00

underestimated the number of minefields and the size of them. The Germans had laid thousands of mines, so when it, the idea was the attack was to go in on the right side by the 9th Division. Next to the 9th Division was the 51st Highland Division, that was a Scottish unit, which incidentally we had fostered in when they arrived, we’d

06:14:30:00

this was another job we had to do, was to teach them desert warfare, they’d come over from Scotland, the 51st Highland Division. Then there was the New Zealanders, South Africans. South Africans, New Zealanders and then the British tanks were all on the south side. And the idea was, the plan of the attack was that the attack would go in on the north, and then the 9th Division

06:15:00:00

was to do a right hand swing towards the coast and try and bottle up 164th in that area there, but that was a very, very vicious battle. And they lost a lot of fellows. So this is only the outline, I wasn’t involved in this, I was just back at the gun

06:15:30:00

position at this stage. And when these, nearly a thousand at twenty to ten on the 23rd of October, when the word “Fire” came, the whole lot of guns opened up at the one time. You can just imagine what it was like, it was, the noise and the dust and, here they fired, this was heavy concentrations on the German

06:16:00:00

positions that they knew. Before they ever started the barrage idea of the fellows moving forward they fired for a quarter of an hour, belting hell out of the concentrations wherever the British infantry were, they were getting. And the air force was in on the deal too, they were dropping bombs, they were really softening him up.

06:16:30:00

So we just sat back and watched this until it was time for us to provide this barrage. And then I had to make sure that my four guns were all ready to go and waiting the officers’ word to fire, and then lifting their fire, and the technical blokes in the command post, they were advising the officer when to lift and that sort of thing.

06:17:00:00

And the gun layers would lift the sights so that the shells would land another 200 yards and the infantry would fire through, that’s how barrage works. And that happened, and there was, this was the 23rd, and there was a lot of very fierce fighting went on.
How long did you sustain that barrage and how far did you lift it?
Oh well, I don’t know the exact, I can’t remember the exact distance it was now, nor can I remember

06:17:30:00

how long it lasted, but it lasted a fair while as I remember it.
Just thereabouts?
Oh, I suppose the barrage would have lasted about an hour, this is only a guess really, it would be about an hour. The trouble was, when the infantry reached their objective, we

06:18:00:00

of course lifted the fire. And the Germans, a good soldier, he’d immediately counterattack, and there was some awful slaughter went on. Officers tell me, I wasn’t there, officers that were there up in the OP, the following day, said they drove up in all these trucks and all the fellows got out, and all of a sudden down comes the artillery, and it cut them to ribbons. You can imagine

06:18:30:00

with three regiments, you could call on three regiments, and each one had 24 guns, and they’d fire six rounds at least a minute. During the night of this barrage, I remember looking out along the line of guns, and they were, the barrels were white hot with the heat, they were just shining in the dark, white, you could see all these guns, so that will tell you how many rounds we fired.

06:19:00:00

One would think nobody would live through that, but they did.
How did you spend that evening?
Oh well, you know, just making sure everything was going all right, and it seemed to be all right. We, sometimes the infantry couldn’t keep up with the barrage, that was another thing, they’d suffer a few casualties and try and get wounded blokes back and that sort of thing, and

06:19:30:00

they couldn’t do the 200 yards in the time they were allotted. And the barrage would lift of course, and then they’d be a bit further behind, this was a problem, another problem, it’s very hard to follow a barrage in. But it was slaughter.
I imagine you were exhausted at the end of that day?
Oh yes, we, well we didn’t get to bed, I mean, there was too much work, our fire

06:20:00:00

was required constantly by the infantry, they didn’t sleep for about three days. And they got to, to Tel el Eisa and that’s the other station and various other points of where they could sort of build a defence. And often they took over the defences of the Germans who’d left.
You mentioned that you moved

06:20:30:00

your position a number of times.
Yes.
Can you maybe give me an indication of what movements you made forward and back?
Well, they were, they were moved forward if I remember rightly. We were moved forward a couple of times, and we were flat out digging gun pits and getting ourselves in, we’d be three or four days there, then we’d move again.

06:21:00:00

And it was all in response to the orders given by the OP Officer, where he wanted fire and sometimes we had to move to be in a better position to use our fire than had we stayed in the original spot.
You mentioned that you moved both forward and back?
Yeah, well,

06:21:30:00

I can’t remember us moving back much. We moved to one side. Our, the 9th Division was opposite the crack German division, the 164th Infantry Division of the German Afrika Korps. And they had to, we

06:22:00:00

had to move to get our guns in a position to give them another barrage, you see, at a later stage, this was all planned prior. So we moved to the side, if I remember rightly, then.
Were you receiving much feedback from what was happening?
Oh yes, whenever we, whenever it was possible. There was a lot of times we didn’t know exactly

06:22:30:00

what was going on. The OP Officer was the only one who could tell us what was happening and he was too absorbed in his job to be able to report back to us, so we just had to do what we were told, and you rely heavily on that. We had a couple of our officers got Military Crosses through jobs they had done and so on. So that was

06:23:00:00

the big Alamein battle.
Just where and how far forward of your position were the OP officers usually positioned?
Oh, I would say 5,000 yards.
So how close would they be to the barrage?
Oh, well they were in a position, a lot of them were moving with the infantry, you see, so that they were on the move with the infantry. And if the infantry got

06:23:30:00

held up they brought down fire on the, and that’s what we were required to do. Some troops were required to provide concentrations of fire when they ran into trouble, when the infantry ran into trouble.
They sound like they were fairly courageous?
Oh, courage, yes, yeah, absolutely. The 2/48th, they had very heavy casualties, that’s a South Australian battalion, and that’s a battalion

06:24:00:00

that won in the Second World War, four VCs [Victoria Crosses], just the battalion.
Just with regards to those OP Officers, what lines of communications did they have?
Well, they had wirelesses in a lot of cases, but wireless was never as reliable as the phone and the line. But you can imagine our signallers repairing the line, which was

06:24:30:00

cut by shellfire, continually cut, they were out all the time, those blokes deserve VCs themselves.
You must have had the opportunity to talk to some of those signallers and OP Officers?
Yes, yes, yes. They, especially when the counterattacks came, like I said, those trucks, the fellows were quite moved, because they just, the artillery just flattened them, you’ve seen these

06:25:00:00

pictures of the First World War when they just slaughtered them, well, that’s what was happening there, too. It was incredible, they were moved, they were…’cause there was a certain allegiance, allegiance is not the word, right word, respect for the Germans. And war is a terrible thing, when you witness killing like that, but

06:25:30:00

It’s war.
You mentioned that a shell landed in your gun pit at Alamein?
Yes, I’ll tell you that. The CO had told me, the CO of our unit had told me that he would be sending me, at the end of the battle, to what they call an OCTU, an Officer Cadet Training Unit. And he wanted me to get a bit of

06:26:00:00

experience up at the OP, because that was the main job of the officers. So he said for me to go up to a certain, to a particular OP, and this was all relayed to me by my troop commander from the CO, so I went up, a truck took me up there, and I stayed up there for three days. On the night of the third day I got, an urgent call came through to say that Sergeant

06:26:30:00

Watts, I’m back as a sergeant now, I was a warrant officer earlier and I was, at this stage I’m a sergeant. “The Germans had landed an 88 shell in his gun pit,” and one was killed and a few wounded. Well, that rocked me completely, so…
How do you mean it rocked you?
Well, I was devastated that my gun crew had been more or less wiped out. So I said to the officer, “I want to go back

06:27:00:00

to my gun position, that’s where I should be.” He said, I said, “Can I have permission?” he gave me permission, so I ran back. And I suppose it’d be about 4,000 yards, oh, less than that, about 3,000 yards, and I’m utterly devastated about it, and I just ran and I just about…

06:27:30:00

All of a sudden there’s a British soldier pulled me up with his rifle and he said, “What are you doing?” I think he thought I was a German or something. I said, “I’m running back to the, my gun position, a shell has landed in the gun pit.” He said, “Do you realise you’ve just run through a minefield?” so there you are, luck. So anyway I got back to the gun, and the fellow who had collected most of the blast,

06:28:00:00

had I been there would have been standing, would have been, he was laying the gun, I would have been standing just a few feet away from him. But anyway.
Can you perhaps describe what you saw when you got there?
Well, the gun pit was a mess of course. I had to wait for first light to see what had happened, really.
What had happened?
Oh well, the, it had sort of

06:28:30:00

shot away a lot of the. The gun was okay, it had punctured the tyre if I remember rightly, I can’t remember exactly what it was. But it was quite devastating. And then, I think, of the six in the gun crew, I think there were only three, so the other two. The bloke that was killed took

06:29:00:00

most of the blast and the other two were wounded.
Were they still there when you arrived?
No, they’d evacuated them, they got out of it all right, they were all right, they, it wasn’t serious wounds. So I just went about my job as the number one again and wrote to his widow and, we all wrote to his widow back here in Australia. And

06:29:30:00

as did the CO and everybody whenever anybody was killed.
Did you receive replacements?
No, oh yes, we got replacements straight away.
Were they men that you knew already?
No, no, they were reinforcements who had been trained, by the way, they were good fellows.
How did you welcome them into your gun pit?
Oh well, you give them a big welcome, and it was my job then as the number one to find out all about them, ’cause

06:30:00:00

our Troop Commander said we had to know every little bit about the fellows’ personality and all that sort of stuff, as I explained earlier.
How long was it before you commenced the next barrage with your new crew?
Oh, I can’t remember exactly, Julian, I can’t remember what happened after that, that was just one incident that…
I’m just curious, because they’re interesting circumstances to be thrown together with a couple of strangers.
Oh,

06:30:30:00

it would have been a matter of, probably the next day, I would say. I think our gun was such that the artificer was able to fix it up so that it would fire again. Because when the shell burst, it burst, the shell, the blast blew away from the gun, rather than into it, if you know what I mean.

06:31:00:00

So you literally spent that time before your next barrage learning about each other?
Oh yes, and you wouldn’t learn much, but you could, these young blokes, they’d been well trained, they fitted in straight away without any problem. Yes, they’re all dead now, there’s only myself and one other that’s left, you know, he lives in Melbourne. But…
Do you keep in contact?
Oh yes, very close.

06:31:30:00

Returning to the battle.
Yes.
What lay ahead for you?
Well then, of course that was the 23rd of October, Julian, and this fighting, very, very severe fighting went on until about the 2nd of November. And Montgomery is gradually

06:32:00:00

realising that Rommel has weakened to the extent that he could bring his tanks in. So he brought his tanks in, and he cleared most of the minefields at this stage, and he brought his tanks in against Rommel, and Rommel just had to turn and flee. And he left all the Italians without any transport,

06:32:30:00

and they all surrendered, there were hundreds and thousands of them, hundreds of them surrendered, they didn’t have any transport. And we sort of overran all their positions and the Australians at that stage were, had ceased to become a fighting force, and the, General Montgomery had decided that there was no way we could do any more. And we were

06:33:00:00

sort of a week or two, just in the, where the battle had taken place, cleaning up and recovering and getting everything set again. But I had been sent off, as the CO had said, to this Officer’s School in a place called Acre, an old biblical town just outside Haifa. And at this school, there were all

06:33:30:00

fellows who had been recommended for a commission, and there were British, Australians, New Zealanders, Rhodesians, South Africans, it was a real League of Nations there. And I was there to start the course, the course went through, that was the section of the course where you learned to be, what the infantry does.

06:34:00:00

It was all on tactics and that sort of thing, as well as that, you had to show leadership qualities, you had to give talks, you had to give instructional lectures and cope with situations where they put up with you, what an officer would have to do. After six weeks, I was sent from them, from there,

06:34:30:00

over to, back to Egypt, this is from Palestine, Haifa back to Egypt. Because the Special to Arm as they called it, that was the artillery path that I had to learn also, not only learn but be tested for. That was a, a two months course, at a place called Almazar, an artillery school there. And

06:35:00:00

another fellow and I, we were sent there, having done the infantry part we were then sent across to Almazar, and we started the artillery part. We’d only done two weeks when word came through that we both had to report back to our units, that we were moving, and that was our move back to Australia. And…
How did you welcome that news?
Well, I welcomed it, but

06:35:30:00

it was to prove a bit unfortunate for me, because when I got back I had to do the artillery part of the course again. I’d done the infantry part, they accepted that, so when we went up to North Queensland the CO sent me down to the School of Artillery at Holsworthy just out of Sydney and I completed the artillery course

06:36:00:00

then, that was in September ’43, I then became a lieutenant.
I just might rewind you a bit there Eric. Before you went to do the officers’ training, before you were commissioned, when you were moving forward on the battlefield at El Alamein what did you observe out there?
Well, we didn’t move forward much, we just moved within, we didn’t move, I never did any work with the artillery, with the infantry.
You didn’t do any of their

06:36:30:00

cleaning up the battle site?
Oh yes, yes, yes.
What did you observe and what was the clean up?
Oh well, there was tanks, wrecked tanks and trucks and the battlefield, you can imagine, it was a complete and utter mess. But it was only there for about one day and I had to move then, over to, word came through for me to move over to Palestine.
That’s just it, Eric, I can’t really imagine the battlefield.

06:37:00:00

Well, that’s right.
It must be an incredible sight of devastation.
Oh yes, all the bodies were by this time accounted for and, but absolute devastation, trucks and tanks were still burning, tanks were still burning, the rubber in the tanks. But all the bodies had been disposed of by this time, and

06:37:30:00

a lot of them, of course, were buried on the site there, but they were later, through the War Graves Commission, removed and put into the El Alamein Cemetery. Which is very well kept, I went back there two years ago, not two years ago, 18 months ago for the 60th Anniversary of the El Alamein, I went back and it’s very well kept,

06:38:00:00

the cemetery there. And I was able to find the grave of Rumberg, you know, who was the bloke on my gun.
We’ll probably ask you a bit about that visit towards the end of the interview.
Yeah, right-o.
What kind of cleanup was there with regards to all the debris, tanks, trucks as you’ve mentioned?
Well, as I say, I was only there a day, and they were there for about a week at least, I think, if I remember rightly, I can’t, not being there, I can’t

06:38:30:00

remember the exact time. But they were, they had, all the troops were sort of recovering and they didn’t have to do much work, they were, the infantry fellows were, they were recovering, they were lying down, they were having a spell, they were exhausted.
Were the fires being extinguished, etc?
Oh yes, well. No, I think most of them, they just allowed to burn out, they were.

06:39:00:00

The Arabs, of course, would, would pick up a lot of, they used to make these trinkets and no doubt, anything of a copper nature or brass and everything, they’d extract it from tanks and vehicles and everything, and… Of course, the brass in the… When you fired the 25-pounder you put the shell in first and rammed it, the number one had to ram it with a rammer about that long, as I

06:39:30:00

explained to you earlier, so that it went into the breech properly, and then you closed. Then you put in a brass cartridge, which was full of the explosives, which sent the shell on its way. And you had to put that in, and then it had a detonator at the end, and that’s how you fired that, and it exploded and out went the shell, that’s briefly how a gun works.
So the Arabs were

06:40:00:00

crawling around the desert?
Oh yes, they were around everywhere, if I remember rightly, yes.
Scavenging for anything?
Yes, ’cause they, they. As an aside I remember doing a shoot, well not me, because I wasn’t an officer, but the officers were doing a shoot at a place called, in Egypt, called Asluge, and

06:40:30:00

this was a practice shoot. And when they fired the shell it would land and they’d correct it and so on, but from behind the dunes were all these black dressed Arab women, would rush out almost before the shell would land, to get the copper which was on the driving band, you know. I spoke to you about the copper driving band, because they made these trinkets out of that.

06:41:00:00

It didn’t worry them, they got behind the dunes until the shells were fired, it’s a wonder we didn’t kill some of them at this practice shoot.
Well, perhaps you can go into a little bit more detail about, where did you say you went when you were commissioned to do the Officer Training School?
Oh, I went down to Holsworthy.
No, while you were still in North Africa?
Oh yes.

06:41:30:00

The Officer Cadet Training School at Acre, the biblical town. And as I say, we were tested to, although our CO had recommended us to become officers, they still gave you a test to see that you, that they considered that you were suitable.
What kind of test?
Well, you’d have to give talks, your public speaking would have been…
Interviewee: Eric Watts Archive ID 1720 Tape 07

07:00:37:00

Before we leave the Middle East, the number of casualties, which will tell you the enormity of the El Alamein battle, it was nothing compared with the Russian Front, I might add. The, in the El Alamein battle,

07:01:00:00

the, there was, on our side, the Allies’ side, there was 13,560 casualties, 13,560. The Australian casualties were 2,694, of which 1,010, I think, were killed. So you, now, that’ll tell you the cost.
It’s a lot.
Yes, it’s a lot. But

07:01:30:00

when you think about the Kokoda Trail, that’s about as many as they lost on the Kokoda Track.
So just going back to your officers’ training in North Africa, you were just saying that it was, they were just judging if you were, obviously, officer material.
Yes.
How did you feel you were going at the time?
You didn’t get any idea really, it was very hard to…I thought I, what I had to write an essay, and

07:02:00:00

then I had to talk on a subject that they gave me, and then I had to talk on a subject I selected myself. Then I had a situation where they had a mock-up of an area on the ground, and they posed a certain situation, and I had to work out

07:02:30:00

what I would do to overcome or attack or whatever it might have been, whatever I’d been given to do. In other words, they were making sure you knew what you were about, and was able to make decisions. Because an officer, his big job is to make decisions. Now if he makes the wrong decision, it doesn’t matter. Well, it matters, but

07:03:00:00

if he makes no decision, it’s, he loses marks. But, and then of course there was the usual in charge of a group of men on parade, and that sort of thing, you’re testing your man management.
Were you staying in some sort of a barracks there?
Oh yes, a very nice barracks there. As I say, there was a lot of countries had sent people there.

07:03:30:00

The thing was, to be a, to get a commission in the field, and some NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and, were given commissions through the general in charge in the field, and they were just uplifted to officer rank. But that didn’t happen to me.
So eventually how did you go with your results?

07:04:00:00

Oh, all right, yes, I don’t know all the, the idea wasn’t to, I can’t remember 60 years ago, I can’t remember whether they actually had a Dux of the class or what, or, all I know that I had passed the infantry section of it, and I had to go to the artillery section. Then I had to come back here and be sent down from Queensland to finish

07:04:30:00

that.
Right, so that’s how you got back to Australia, so…
Yes, well, when I got back. Do you want to know…?
What was the trip back like?
Oh, it was not nearly as nice as going over.
What sort of digs were you on?
Well, it was on the Ile de France, a French cruiser, no, a French pleasure ship, which held about, oh about, over 2,000 men, so you were pretty cramped.

07:05:00:00

And the smell wasn’t the best in, so you can imagine, ships have always got a certain smell about them, but this one, that’s what I can remember, and you couldn’t, no lights at night, and it was very hot at night and humid and so on. And we stopped at the Maldives to, we didn’t know where we were, stopped at the Maldives to re-fuel, and then got back to

07:05:30:00

Fremantle, and…
Did you have any mates on board with you from your North African…?
Oh yes, oh yes, still had the same blokes, except those that had been wounded and evacuated, and those that had been killed, still had them, oh yes.
How much excitement was there that you’d actually be returning home?
Oh, the fellows were very relieved. Mind you, I will say this, when we were in the Lebanon

07:06:00:00

a lot of the fellows were anxious because of the Japanese threat. You can imagine at this stage in 1942, the Japanese are, landed in New Guinea, and here we are all these thousands of miles over there. The 6th and 7th Divisions had been sent back, Churchill wanted us to be sent to Burma, because of the Burma campaign,

07:06:30:00

but Curtin said no, and he won, that the Japanese threat was too serious for us not to go back to Australia. But you can imagine how difficult it was to, having fought in the desert where you can see wide open spaces. And then all of a sudden you’re fighting in the jungle where you can’t see from here to the television in front of you, and there could be a Japanese

07:07:00:00

there and you wouldn’t see him. Anyway, that’s how it all happened, we soon adapted.
How did you, how were you greeted when you returned back?
Well, I was greeted, I went to see my mother at Euroa again, and I went to see my, the lady friend I had had in Jerilderie, and I proposed to her. And she accepted, and that

07:07:30:00

was a very exciting moment for me.
Great.
We had three weeks’ disembarkation leave. I spent one week with my parents, then I went down to Melbourne where she was, went and saw her, of course, and proposed to her, and we were to get married, we had a week for her to get married. Is this of interest, I suppose?
Yes.
A week for her to get ready, she didn’t have enough coupons

07:08:00:00

to get a white dress, there she is, oh, you can’t see it, there’s a photo.
We’ll have a look when we take the screen down.
But she looked very nice.
Good.
And the photo, and the following week we got married, and we had a week’s honeymoon, and then I went back up to North Queensland again. So…
Had you been corresponding the whole time that you were in?
Oh yes, that was the sealer, when

07:08:30:00

she wrote these loving letters to me while I was away, that lifted my morale. And I got other letters from other women too, but they didn’t mean as much to me.
That’s very funny. So where did you go for your honeymoon?
To Albury, from Melbourne to Albury, that’s about 200 miles on the train,

07:09:00:00

and that was the honeymoon.
Did you have any idea what was next on the agenda for you?
Well, I only knew that our unit was up in Queensland, and that we were going to be trained to, into a jungle division, a jungle regiment. Where we were, where we were using big guns and

07:09:30:00

used to big guns, and used to wide open spaces, now we were, you know, in a jungle situation, which is entirely different. And fighting an enemy who is anything but noble like the Germans.
Did you go to Officer Training School to do the artillery version?
Yes, I did.
When did that happen?
That happened in the June of 1943,

07:10:00:00

and I…
Was that immediately after your honeymoon, or…?
Oh no, this was, no, we got back on the. I got married on the 13th of March ’43, and this is in the June ’43, so a few months had elapsed, and I’d been up at Atherton out of Cairns, beautiful spot.
Well, tell me about it, because this is the training, isn’t it, the jungle…?
This is the training, yeah.

07:10:30:00

We were training, and the complete division was there and we were, we hadn’t been issued with our guns yet, most of the guns were being used up in New Guinea at that time. And I don’t think there was enough to go around, but we were doing route marches and so on, and we were sort of settling in to

07:11:00:00

a lovely Australian environment where there was a river right alongside our camp, and we’d get out of bed and go on parade at 6.30 in the morning. And then we’d have to run down to the river, keeping ourselves fit, that would be about a mile, I suppose. And this beautiful fast-flowing river, we’d just strip off and get in and have a swim, it was pretty cold too, I tell you,

07:11:30:00

coming down from the mountains, we were up high in the mountains, anyway. And one bloke lost his teeth and it was flowing so much that he kept chasing his fangs down the, over the rocks and everything, finally about half a mile down, he managed to catch up with them. But they, we had

07:12:00:00

a few amenities there and there was two-up and there was, you know, people were writing letters home and sort of settling into camp life again.
What sort of things were they teaching you as part of jungle warfare?
Oh well, close contact with the enemy, of course, is one of the things. And also, instead of rifles,

07:12:30:00

they had in those days the Owen gun, which was an automatic gun and it was a light little machine gun. But it only had to fire about 50 yards was as far as it needed to fire, because you were always closer, or as close as that to the enemy, so you didn’t have to have a 303 which would fire 3,000 yards. There was another thing we had to learn,

07:13:00:00

close contact fighting, and we’d, they’d have dummies that would shoot out from behind a tree or something, and they had strings and everything. They taught us, as we went through the jungle, this thing would, you’d have to fire at it straight away, that sort of thing. It was to represent a Jap [Japanese]. And there was a

07:13:30:00

lot of that sort of thing done.
What were you told about the Japanese?
Oh, they were pretty terrible, pretty terrible people. And really, there was probably no need. Oh, I suppose there was a need, I don’t know, anyway, but the higher command said there was a need for us to keep fighting

07:14:00:00

them. But MacArthur had, who was all the Americans, American divisions that were here, he’d gone on up to the Philippines and, where he’d left a few years earlier. But we were still in action against the Japanese who remained in New Guinea.

07:14:30:00

Did you have the same sort of confidence about winning as you had say, in Tobruk?
Yes, I think so. There was one point here too that I’ve forgotten to tell you, and that is that the system that they brought in in those days was that officers who had had active experience in action in the Middle East

07:15:00:00

would go to units which hadn’t had experience. And also Blamey, which was a wrong concept in my view with Australian troops, said that an officer shouldn’t go back to his own unit because he was familiar with all the blokes and it would be harder to keep discipline, and that was wrong with Australian troops, so wrong. So I got posted to the 2/11th.

07:15:30:00

After a short time up in the Atherton Tablelands, I got posted to the 2/11th Field Regiment, which hadn’t been in action, and it was in Darwin. So I had to catch the train and go, come down, and I had a week with my wife and sneaked a week somehow or other, I don’t know how I did it, through these staging camps anyway. And another bloke and I

07:16:00:00

went all the way on the, on the buses and train, train from Adelaide to Alice Springs, then semi-trailers through to Adelaide, to Darwin, this was after the bombing of course, this was now 1943. And I came in there as an officer who’d fought in Tobruk and I was accepted pretty well, but

07:16:30:00

I missed all my mates a lot from my regiment, and I wasn’t as happy as I could have been had I gone back to my unit. But still I found that they were good blokes, they were all just as good. And after a while, after they got to know me and I got to know them, we were as thick as thieves again.
And what were you actually doing in Darwin?
Well, they were doing exercises again with a 25-pounder,

07:17:00:00

and they were part of the force which was to stop any Japanese landing which might happen in the north of Australia. And we did exercises at a spot which was 46 miles south of Darwin, they called it the 46-mile camp, and we were in tented camps there. And we used to,

07:17:30:00

you know, operate our 25-pounders there and go out on exercises, this unit had never been in action, and it should have been, because it was a very good unit. And it was beautiful weather up, if you go to, up in the Northern Territory and Darwin, that’s the time to go, between, say, June and September, the nights are cool

07:18:00:00

and the days are beautiful and we played a lot of basketball and we played cards of a night, and it was good. Anyway, I was, I had left the 2/12th Field Regiment and I was now with the 2/11th, and a short time after that, a small ship, I can’t remember the name of it, it took us across to New Guinea from Darwin. And…
So you didn’t really spend a lot of time in Darwin?
No,

07:18:30:00

didn’t spend much time in Darwin, no.
At what point did you actually do the Officer Training School completion?
Oh before that, I was now an officer.
Right.
Yes, I did that when I first went back to Queensland, I was sent. I had a couple of months there, and I was sent down to do the course at Holsworthy, out of Sydney. And my wife came up, and she was very pregnant, I might add, and

07:19:00:00

she came up and stayed in, with some relatives and I was able to see her of a weekend and that was great. So there we go. And then I go up to Darwin, and then we catch this ship and go across to New Guinea.
What sort of a ship were you on?
Oh, it was a horrible little steamer, I can’t remember, it wasn’t a

07:19:30:00

war vessel, it was like a trawler or something, if I remember rightly. Anyway, I just can’t remember.
That’s all right.
And we were at Lae, L-A-E, that’s on the north coast of New Guinea, and again we hadn’t gone into action, so we’re doing exercises still.
At this point do you feel like you’re prepared to go into action, with

07:20:00:00

the training that you’ve got?
No, I don’t think we were, and, but we were getting used to the environment and we’d, see training in Darwin is so much different to training in New Guinea, where you’re, you know, you can’t see in front of you very far, sort of thing. Anyway, I fitted into the unit all right

07:20:30:00

up there. And eventually I, a couple of months went past and I was told that my mother was in a very bad way back in Euroa, back where I lived, and it was unlikely that she would live.
Is this in the mail?
I can’t remember how I was told now, I think it came through by telephone or something. Anyway, I was given compassionate leave,

07:21:00:00

so I went by ship down to Brisbane and then by train down to Euroa, and I got there a week before she died, so I was lucky from that point of view. So then I was a couple of weeks there, you know, after the death, with my sisters and father and so on. And then it was necessary for me to go back, so

07:21:30:00

back I go.
How did you feel about going back?
I wasn’t too happy at all, no, I wasn’t very happy at all, but still. I made it last as long as I could. At the staging camp in Sydney, I was able to get a few days there that I, without being sent on. Somehow or other all the troop trains were full, and I was a bit lucky, and I met a mate in Brisbane who kept me off the draft a couple of times

07:22:00:00

there, and I was about a week in Brisbane, staying with an aunt there. But finally I got back to Townsville and onto the ship and back over to New Guinea. So by this time we were nearly into 1945, and I’m starting to get a bit war weary now, and the death of my mother hadn’t helped much.

07:22:30:00

And so the next thing, we’re ordered to go across to Bougainville. Now Bougainville is an island in the Solomons and there are supposed to be about 30,000 Japs there. So we go across on this, again it was a little tug or, it was bigger than a tug, but it was sort of a

07:23:00:00

Trawler-type ship.
Approximately how many of you fellows are on this ship?
Oh, I suppose there would have been about 200, so we were a bit cramped, but I just can’t remember how many exactly.
That’s all right.
But while we were going across there, I’m playing cards out on the deck with three other officers, and all of a sudden there’s a cry goes up, “Man overboard.”

07:23:30:00

So this officer that I’m playing cards with, he was nearest to the side of the boat, jumped up, looked out, saw the bloke that was in the water, dived over the side and went and rescued him and held him until the ship, which had to go up around, and this fellow had decided he’d rather commit suicide than go into action. And that’s why he’d gone overboard,

07:24:00:00

it wasn’t an accident we found out afterwards. Anyway he, the ship took a long time to turn around, anyway, he kept him, he kept him afloat there, oh well, we threw what’s her names over to him, lifebelts and what have you.
Had this fellow gone a bit troppo [crazy]?
Yes, he’d gone a bit troppo, troppo’s the word I think, too.
I think I’d rather take my chances in a jungle than in the ocean.
Yes, that’s right,

07:24:30:00

anyway, no, he was, I don’t know what sort of a private life he had or anything. Anyway, that’s just an aside, but this officer did a great job, I reckon. We get over, go over to Bougainville and our guns come across, and here we are ready for action for the first time in the war, the 2/11th, amazingly enough.
Can you describe where you’re camped in Bougainville?

07:25:00:00

No, I can’t, I can’t remember that bit of it. I know that we moved down south, because the Japanese were halfway down the island, and Torokina’s in the north. But we did move down with all our guns and equipment and everything in trucks and everything all loaded up, and we went down there and established a camp.

07:25:30:00

And then we went into action.
Can you describe that process of going into action?
Oh yes, we, the roads were terrible because it rained every day, every day it rained. And everything was mud and the roads were just a mud quagmire, they were, finally we deployed the guns and

07:26:00:00

our gun position was all pinpointed on all the maps and what have you.
Were you kitted out with anything to protect you from the rain or the climate and environment?
Yeah, well, we had a jungle gear instead of khaki drill, and we had groundsheets. And we, being an officer I had a stretcher, so I was up above the ground, but

07:26:30:00

the tents weren’t too bad, they kept the troops kept fairly waterproof. And from there I got to know the fellows better, and we engaged in quite a few shoots, other officers at OPs, but now it was my turn to become an officer up at the OP. And I went out with a patrol

07:27:00:00

this particular day, and I had a signaller and one other, because we had to carry this wire, roll of wire, and I had to, I had a wireless as well. But half the time, because of the terrain, you couldn’t, the wireless were ineffective, so that’s why you had the wire back to your guns. And this particular day

07:27:30:00

we had one of the natives with us, and they were very adept at smelling or knowing where the Japanese were. And this boy as they were known as, the boy, he told us that the Japanese had a market garden, “Him along,” the way they used to speak pidgin English, which we got to learn, “Him along the track so far, Japan man.” They were always known

07:28:00:00

as Japan man. Anyway, the officer in charge of the infantry patrol decided to have an attack on it, so we all, we made the attack and I went in with my wireless and left the signaller bloke back, because I couldn’t carry the roll of wire in too. So I was going to use my wireless, but when we got there the Japs had gone. But what I did find there was, it was an OP, an Observation Post,

07:28:30:00

and in the Observation Post was a bag of slide rules. Do you know what a slide rule is, Julian? Do you know, you’d know too, I guess. Slide rulers are calculations, an instrument for calculating, used a lot in artillery.
Right.
There’s a bag of these beautiful brass Japanese slide rules, and I thought, “Now, they’ve left these behind or something,

07:29:00:00

they must have got out in a hurry.” So I took one as a souvenir, it was a heavy damn thing too, but I managed to get it back to Australia.
You’re the only person we’ve ever talked to who’s managed to souvenir a slide rule.
Yes, I would be, and a Luger pistol. But the slide rule was in my garage for 30 years, I think, and I found it all tarnished and everything,

07:29:30:00

one day when I was poking around in the garage, and I thought, “That’s stupid, me having this when it’s a war souvenir for the War Museum.” So I write to the War Museum saying I’ve had it, I’ve got it, and if they wanted it, I’d post it up to them. I get a letter back saying, “We are not interested in souvenirs of this sort,” I was amazed. “Thank you for your interest,” and so on, it was,

07:30:00:00

it staggered me, that they wouldn’t want. Because I went to the War Museum and there was never ever a slide rule there, it was what artillery, all artillery units in the world use, slide rules.
Oh well, the logic of various army museums can never be figured, I think.
No that’s right, yes. So anyway, Bougainville and

07:30:30:00

the Japanese were starving there, and we, they were looking for food all the time. And we used to put booby traps around our gun positions, because, and these booby traps consisted of a jam tin and a grenade with the pin pulled out of it, put in the jam tin, and a string rope tied on,

07:31:00:00

’cause they used to operate at night, the Japs would be looking for food at night, to a tree or something. And the idea was that the Jap would rub against the rope, which was about that high from the ground, rub against it, and out would come the grenade and it was all set to go of course, four seconds later it would explode, you see. So we used to protect our

07:31:30:00

gun positions with this sort of thing.
Did they go off?
Oh, they would go off, yes, we never experienced any Japs that set them off, but we set these traps every night. And then I did another FOO job, with the 57/60th Battalion, and they were doing a skirting operation, the whole battalion,

07:32:00:00

off the Buin Road, which was a main road going south in the Solomons, right through the jungle, and they wanted to trap a whole lot of Japanese. If they cut off the road at such and such a point, they would pocket the Japanese that were in the area of the road, and they wouldn’t have been able to get further south, you see. And they couldn’t go north, because that’s where our troops

07:32:30:00

were. And we were out for 14 days, and I had dysentery, and boy was I sick. And I, the Medical Officer who was with us, he used to give me about 20 tablets every day, oh God. Anyway, the interesting thing about this is, we finally do this skirting movement after all these days, and we reach the Buin Road, and I’m with the leading platoon, being the

07:33:00:00

artillery representative, in case they want artillery fire in a hurry. And this, the forward scouts as they tell, pass the word back, that there’s five Japanese coming down the Buin Road towards us. And he said they’re unarmed, they haven’t got any arms. It turned out that they were part of the Medical Corps, and this secret move,

07:33:30:00

if we’d have killed them or anything they would never have reached the destination and they would have known that something was wrong. So the officer said, “Well, we’ll wait until they get past,” but they elected to stop and have a cigarette, right within a few yards of the forward scout, and they were sitting there yabbering away. And here, they’re holding up a complete battalion of troops right through the jungle,

07:34:00:00

who were waiting to form the ambush on the road, and they’re medical people without any arms, it was ridiculous, really. But we didn’t want to let it be known, and it would have been known, because they wouldn’t have reached their destination and they’d have known something was wrong. So we waited until they moved on, and then they formed an ambush. But it turned out, that it wasn’t

07:34:30:00

very successful, the number of Japanese that were in this pocket were a lot less than we anticipated.
Can you step me through what happened when you actually engaged the Japanese in this pocket?
Oh well, yes, they took up positions undercover as best they could, behind logs or behind the little hill or something or other, it was pretty hill and behind a mound or something. And they

07:35:00:00

all got into set positions with their machine guns and so on and grenades, and ready for Japanese that came along. Well, when the Japs did come along they didn’t need any artillery fire, they cleaned them up because they were just a small party. And to have brought down artillery fire would have really let the cat out of the bag. So once we got established

07:35:30:00

they were able to clean up any small parties of Japs that did come along the road, if you can follow what I mean.
Sure. Are there any sort of conflicts in that time that come to your mind?
There was one which didn’t concern me, but we lost our CO over this, he was out on a reconnaissance

07:36:00:00

with some other officers, ready for an attack which was to take place. And as he, he’s walking, I’ve only been told this, hearsay, I’ve only been told this. He’s walking past a soldier in a slit trench, and the soldier said, “I wouldn’t go down that way, sir, if I were you, we think there could be Japs down there.”

07:36:30:00

And this CO of ours took no notice of him, he kept walking, and next minute he tripped over, he tripped on a landmine or something, rope with a landmine, similar to what we had, blew himself to smithereens, that was our CO gone.
Gee.
And another couple of members of the unit were also wounded.
You were, you were mentioning before that you were planning

07:37:00:00

an ambush, can you describe the procedure to put an ambush into play?
Yes, well the, if it’s a platoon he would have three sections, and he would place one section, he would survey the area and make sure that each section of his platoon, which is about eight men, can support the others. And

07:37:30:00

he would have the corporal in charge of that section deploy his men so that they can see the Buin Road and have an arc of fire with their rifles or with their machine guns. And he’d do the same with this section, and then he’d probably have one section maybe in reserve, so that they’re mutually supporting each other,

07:38:00:00

that was the whole strength of infantry tactics. You’ve got to have, and your weapons, such as Bren guns which have a high rate of fire and a long range, whereas an Owen gun only fired a short distance, the Bren gun was a better weapon as a machine gun. And then there was also mortars, mortars are the ones there, where you dropped the mortar

07:38:30:00

down, shell in the muzzle of the mortar, and when it drops down it fires out again, you see. Well, mortars were part of the platoon’s weapons too. And then of course there were grenades, every soldier had grenades, and this, the officer would make sure he had his weapons correctly placed, and with the right sections of his platoon,

07:39:00:00

he’d have them properly deployed so that they could see what they wanted to see.
How did working in the jungle compare with being in the desert?
The main worry about the jungle was not so much the abilities of the Japanese as a soldier, but

07:39:30:00

malaria and a lot of scrub typhus, and serious, serious health problems that you could get in the jungle, that you couldn’t, you didn’t get in the desert. It’s a healthier place to live in the desert, to fight a war. And a lot of those young fellows, they just had to keep fighting, and they’re

07:40:00:00

running a temperature and they’re very, very sick, but they had to keep going. And those fellows on the Kokoda Track, by crikey I’m glad I wasn’t there, they deserve all the praise they can get, because they saved Australia. And the desert, of course, is, you have the ability to be able to see, you can see your enemy when he’s hundreds of yards

07:40:30:00

away. In the jungle you’ve got to, it’s more stressful when you’re going out on patrols, you’ve got to have a forward scout, somebody up the front. Now that kid that’s up the front with his machine gun, he’s got to be able to tell when you’re going to, when you’re running into a Japanese ambush or something like that. And then you had a special drill, as soon as you ran into an ambush you’d spread out on each side

07:41:00:00

and that sort of thing, that was all part of the training for jungle warfare, close contact all the time, more, you’re under strain.
Did you do any forward scouting?
No, oh no, these were all infantry. The kids, the, most of the kids that I saw as forward scouts were aged about 18 or 19, and they came from farms where they went out rabbiting a lot.

07:41:30:00

And they had a special skill in being able to, any movement or anything, they, they were adept at, you know, being suspicious of anything like that, that’s why they were good as forward scouts. Some of them wanted to be forward scouts, because they’d rather put the fate of themselves in their own hands than somebody else’s.
That’s a

07:42:00:00

good way to work it.
Interviewee: Eric Watts Archive ID 1720 Tape 08

08:00:33:00

So what further contact did you have with the Japs while you were in Bougainville, Eric?
Oh, not much, other than I saw a lot of prisoners of war.
Did you?
Yes, well, when I say a lot, the Japanese, if he makes himself a prisoner is ostracised, he’s, it’s

08:01:00:00

a shameful thing to do, not with our army.
How were the prisoners of war handled, where did you see them?
I saw them at Torokina and also in, they were marched back in Bougainville, I didn’t see any in New Guinea. There weren’t all that many

08:01:30:00

that surrendered, really. And when the war finished, there must have been a lot, whether they lived in the jungle there at Bougainville, how they got back to Japan, of course, we’ll never know, but…
What experiences, or further experiences did you have in Bougainville before they surrendered?
Ah, well, I did this, these two patrols,

08:02:00:00

and then I was destined to go out a third time, because they decided to, the, I think, I forget which unit it was now, it might have been the 42nd, I was an FOO with the 42nd, and they were to cross the Hari River, sorry, the Hari River, I think that was the name of the river, anyway, it was a fast flowing river.

08:02:30:00

And they knew there were a lot of Japs on the other side, and they wanted to, again, set up some sort of an ambush to trap them, I can’t remember the actual details. Although there was a lot of planning went into this operation, again I forget the name of the operation. And this was to take place, the crossing of the Hari River. And I was to be, it was my,

08:03:00:00

I was rostered to be the FOO, provide the artillery support, and I had a signaller and one other and a batman [officer’s servant]. And we did numerous sort of models they had on the river, and they were made up by the Intelligence Officer in the brigade and so on, ready for, to explain

08:03:30:00

how you got there and what was to happen. And they were to send these fellows that were good swimmers, across the river with a rope and tie it onto a tree on the other side so that the rest of the unit could work its way across by hanging onto the rope, with all their heavy gear on the, on their backs and everything. That was to, all planned, how it was to happen, what time, and

08:04:00:00

it was destined to go on the 10th of August 1945. And would you believe, they dropped the atomic bomb on the 6th and the 9th, and on the, just before the second atomic bomb the word came through to my unit, Operation So-on was cancelled, and I was very pleased. Because it would have been a bit hairy, crossing with the leading troops, with a rope and

08:04:30:00

a wireless set and all the rest on my back, and a rifle, you never carried a Bren gun because if you were an officer, because you were a target. The officer carried exactly the same as the troops, because if they could see you were an officer, of course, they would do their best to exterminate you. This was in particular with the Germans.

08:05:00:00

And so that operation was cancelled, and it was then that the war was over, I think they dropped the second atomic bomb on the 9th or something, the Americans.
What news did you receive about the atomic bombs?
Well, there you are, that was another thing. We just,

08:05:30:00

either they put out a special sort of a leaflet about this, saying that the atomic bomb had been dropped, and the, the Allies were now negotiating an unconditional surrender. And you would remember that Mac Sheen went up to Saigon [Singapore?] to cut the cables, do you remember him telling you that?

08:06:00:00

And bring it up, bring up the length, it’s in the Maritime Museum in, at Fremantle. Well, he forced the Japanese to abandon the cable, that was useless, and they went on the air. So then they were able to decode everything that was between Singapore and Saigon, and they were able to follow

08:06:30:00

exactly what was happening in the Japanese hierarchy about the conditions of the surrender and all this sort of stuff. He got a DSO [Distinguished Service Order] for that.
It’s an incredible feat. So what did you know about atomic weaponry?
Oh, I didn’t know anything, no, we didn’t, we weren’t told that they had been experimenting with these at all.
Were you

08:07:00:00

curious about the size of those explosions?
Yeah, yes, it was good news to us, good news to us, by crikey. We were getting a little war weary at that stage, I’d joined the army in, as I told you, 1939, and here it was 1945,

08:07:30:00

August ’45, and I was just about had enough, you know, I was getting tired. And it was just delightful news and we were playing basketball back at the unit when the word came through, that this operation was cancelled. And the next thing is that the war’s over and you’re not to shoot any more Japanese

08:08:00:00

and take them all in as prisoners and this sort of stuff.
So what remained for you to do in Bougainville now that the war was over?
Well, they brought in a system, the Army and the Government brought in a system that all those who had served for five years in the army or the air Force or the navy, any

08:08:30:00

merchant, any of those, and had had two years overseas service, would be bought back to Australia first, at once. And I came into that category, so I went to a camp on the beach there for about a fortnight, before I was taken by the Taroona back to Townsville.
How did you spend that fortnight?
Swimming and drinking

08:09:00:00

beer and playing cards, and I was very, pretty happy at that stage, I knew I was getting back to my wife and family.
After…
I’d had a daughter.
After being in the thick of the action, that must have been an incredibly relaxing time?
Oh yes, it was, it was a great, great experience for those fellows, for all of them. And as I say, I suppose

08:09:30:00

there was a lot like me that were starting to get a bit tired.
Did you discuss that with each other?
Oh yes, yes, we’d say, “Oh, you know, I’ve just about had enough of this,” but what could you do, you just had to…you’d put up with it and obey the orders and hope that the war was going to finish soon. It was a very anxious time waiting to get

08:10:00:00

home, the days couldn’t come quickly enough.
Did you discuss your plans for coming home?
Oh yes, yes, I just can’t remember how many of us came on the ship back to Townsville, but I stayed in the army.
When did you make the decision to stay in the army?
Well, when I got back to Melbourne and met

08:10:30:00

up with my wife again, we were discussing what I would do, and at that time an approach was made to officers who’d have active experience, would they stay on in the regular Army to train the CMF, which was the Citizen Military Forces, which were coming in for,

08:11:00:00

the Government to decide they’d go in for three months in those days, excuse me. So I was a senior lieutenant by this time and knew that a captaincy was not far away, and I was more or less assured that I would get a captaincy if I stayed on. So we decided that I would stay on, and a captain’s pay was pretty good

08:11:30:00

in the regular army, and that’s what I did. And I didn’t get posted until, it was 1950, I think, before they started the National Service training. So in the meantime I had a job as a staff officer down at Victoria Barracks or Southern Command in Melbourne, and I was concerned with, I was called the

08:12:00:00

Staff Captain Disposables. And I was concerned with the selling of all the camps, the huts, the toilets, the cisterns, the kitchen and everything, by liaison with the Disposables Commission selling up the camps that they’d taken over, there was quite a few in Victoria that they’d taken over from,

08:12:30:00

I don’t think it was private land, probably Crown Land, especially in Seymour and those sort of places. But there was one at Darley and up near Beechworth there was a camp. So that’s what I did, I had a staff sergeant and one other private, and I worked in a nice, soft, cushy job for a couple of years,

08:13:00:00

that was about ’48. And then they started to form the CMF, and I was then posted as the adjutant, the adjutant is sort of the executive officer, of one of the Citizen Military Force Units, in an armoured regiment. So then I had to learn from artillery, I had to learn all about tanks and armour. And they sent me up to a school, up, again up at Puckapunyal, I was away from home

08:13:30:00

a lot, and it wasn’t pleasing me or my wife, she didn’t want to be an army wife. And in 1947 another daughter arrived, so here I am with two daughters, and she’s living down in Melbourne and I’m up at Puckapunyal doing these courses, and anyway, to cut a long story short, I, I put in for a job as a staff officer again,

08:14:00:00

down at Southern Command, and I managed to get it. So I was then back as a staff officer, I could walk to work, that’s how closely I lived. And, but in the army, when you’re in the regular army you very seldom seem to get a posting that lasts more than two years, and again I didn’t, it was two years, and they posted me then up as a company commander

08:14:30:00

to Puckapunyal again to train the National Servicemen. They came in 1950, I think it was, and the Korean War was on then. And I went up to Puckapunyal, I think it was late ’50, and I was a company commander up there, and I got home of a weekend. But I didn’t always get home, if there was a draft coming in of National Servicemen you

08:15:00:00

couldn’t get home, the army had first call on you, that was the way they worked. So I’d have to ring my wife and say, “Look, I can’t get home.” In the end it, we got quite cheesed off with this, and my son was born in 1950, so she’s got three children and I’m up at Puckapunyal training these young kids that come in for three months. It was a very satisfying job though, I wish they had it

08:15:30:00

now, it would do a lot of good for a lot of kids that need it.
What satisfaction did you gain from that?
Well, the way those kids came in, into camp, they were cheeky, knew everything and didn’t want to be in the army and we had to knock them into shape.
How would you do that?
Well, with foot drill and discipline and they went in and they fired the rifle

08:16:00:00

on the range. They fired the Bren gun on the range, they threw two grenades each and they fired the 25-pounder, I had the artillery company. And when they had done all that, they were a lot confident, they were, and they did a hell of a lot of route marches and drill. And they had, were highly competitive, one platoon against the other, and they wanted to win and they fitted in, most of those kids, they were

08:16:30:00

good. And when they marched out they were a different lad altogether, confident and, you know, sensible, I reckon. Anyway in 1954 I decided that, with my wife, that I’d get out of the regular army. I loved, I liked the army a lot, so I transferred

08:17:00:00

over to, myself to the CMF as a captain.
Just before we do move on, you mentioned that you think we should have a National Service scheme today?
Yes, if the country could afford it, it would be the best thing ever, yes.
Would you like to expand on that?
Well, yes, as I’ve just said, they came in, and, as a lot of the kids would these days. And when they’d had

08:17:30:00

three months strict discipline, army living and looking after themselves and drill, drill galore, they got a lot of drill and cleaning their boots and turning themselves out absolutely immaculately. Living in clean quarters and doing all these things, like I said, with the Bren gun and so on. They

08:18:00:00

started to enjoy it, the kids, and we did a lot of route marches and they came home, they were tired, I tell you, and they dropped into bed and that was it. And they finished up, I think most of them liked their National Service. They brought it in later, of course, prior to the Vietnam War, as you know, as you probably know.
Well, you were mentioning the CMF.
Yes, so then I was, joined

08:18:30:00

the CMF and I was posted to the, I was posted to the 10th Medium Regiment, excuse me, at Dandenong in Victoria, and I was the battery captain there for a couple of years. And then, you know, we had a parade one night a week and we had a bivouac

08:19:00:00

once every month, weekend bivouac, go away in our trucks and these were big guns that we had. 15, I can’t remember the size, 155-millimetre equivalent, anyway. And we went out on exercises around the Dandenong area and…
What kind of exercises?
Oh well, deploying the guns,

08:19:30:00

and then, not actually firing, because you had to go up to Puckapunyal to do the firing. But we’d deploy the guns and get them into action, and then the technical side of it would be exercise too. And I enjoyed it, and these, they were mostly volunteers, although they did have to do it, the National Servicemen

08:20:00:00

had to do so long in the reserve, I can’t remember the actual details of it.
Can you describe then the, the major differences between the two schemes, between the National Service scheme and CMF?
No, because I don’t know anything about the National Service scheme that came in prior to Vietnam, I only know the CMF, which was, they came in for three months. Anyway,

08:20:30:00

the government saw fit to abandon that idea.
How did you feel about that decision?
Well, I then got promoted to Major at Dandenong and I became the battery commander there for a couple of years. And we used to go up to Puckapunyal to camp and that sort of thing, and then, I was two

08:21:00:00

years of battery commander and then I got posted to the Command and Staff Training Unit, where I gave lectures on staff duties in the army. And I suppose I would have been there a couple of years in Melbourne, we used to get these officers who were going for promotion would come in, and I’d give them a talk on staff

08:21:30:00

duties. And, which is writing proper military letters and orders and appreciation and all that sort of stuff. And, by this time it’s 1960 and, oh, it was later than that, it was about 1963. My wife developed a brain

08:22:00:00

tumour and I gave the, I resigned from the army in view of that, we had three children, and she was confined to bed and hospital and she died early in 1964. So then I was left with three children and the army was second priority to me by a long shot. And that was the finish of

08:22:30:00

my army career, but I had 24 years.
How did you go about raising your children by yourself?
Oh well, they were raised at this stage.
How old were they?
Well, when she died there was one 20, one 17 and one 14, the boy was 14. So I set about, and I got myself another job in the public service with the SGIO [State Government Insurance Office], over in

08:23:00:00

Melbourne.
Change of career.
Change of career, that’s where I stayed until I retired 18 years later.
Did you become a member of the RSL [Returned and Services League]?

08:23:30:00

Oh yes, I was a member of the RSL in Caulfield, Victoria, in Melbourne. And, but I joined the Caulfield Central RSL and I had to wait two years to be accepted.
Why?
That was the biggest RSL in Melbourne.
Why did you have to join the waiting list?
Because they had a waiting list, there was so many, all the blokes finishing with their service life wanted to be in the RSL.

08:24:00:00

In that particular branch?
In that particular branch, but finally…
Why was that such a popular branch?
Oh well, it had everything, it had a cricket section, a tennis section and a bowls, well, not until after did they have the bowls, and I’m a keen bowler, as you can see up there. And I used to enjoy the fellowship with the blokes. We’d fight the war again every night, or over a few beers or something.
When you say you’d fight the war again, what kind of discussions did you share?
Oh well, you know, the various things that had happened while we were in the army, both in standing camps and in action.

08:25:00:00

You’d, there was all sorts of discussions on everybody, and…
So you’d relive moments?
We didn’t find conversation very difficult at all.
Did you relive moments?
Oh yes, there was a lot of lies told too, I might add. Who was the biggest liar at times.
Did you ever contemplate how the war

08:25:30:00

might have been won if something had of been done that wasn’t done, or…?
Oh yes, that came up too, but…
Does anything stand out to you now, anything that you think might have had made a major impact on the outcome of the war had it turned out differently?
Maybe the atomic bomb could have been dropped earlier, that was one thing. But I think that,

08:26:00:00

from an Australian point of view, to have fought on in New Guinea, and this has been borne out by history too. It was only MacArthur and Blamey and the Government fell for the three card trick by keeping those fellows, and we lost hundreds and hundreds of young blokes because they continued to fight the Japanese who were starving, and who were not going to

08:26:30:00

make any progress anywhere. I don’t know the reasons for it, but I do believe that that’s when, from an Australian point of view, they should have finished before they lost all those fellows. See, they landed at Tarakan and they landed at Balikpapan, and they fought in Borneo, and MacArthur with his

08:27:00:00

forces had gone on, the next thing was landing on the mainland of Japan. And all these, they were all left to starve, which, which would have been a good idea.
We were talking earlier about the CMF, what do you think of the way that the militia were regarded in, in that time. Chocco [chocolate] soldiers, I think, was a term that’s

08:27:30:00

sometimes used?
Oh, that was during the war. Yeah, they were regarded as chocco, because they weren’t volunteers. But at, towards the end of the war, I think there was only a very small proportion of them that were not volunteers. But the militia battalion, the 39th Battalion, have you heard of them?
They were the first battalion in New Guinea, weren’t they?
Yes, they were. They were all

08:28:00:00

militia boys, they hadn’t volunteered, they were sent over there through the National Service, National Service scheme. And they fought magnificently and they were the first to meet the Japs that came from Gona, and they were led by Brigadier Potts, who’s a West Australian. And Blamey sacked him, which was absolutely terrible

08:28:30:00

how he was treated, and another West Australian called Honner, who was their CO, he was a brilliant soldier Honner, they’re all dead now, of course. But from my own point of view, I mean, it’s all very well to say I’m pleased I went away to the war, but I am, because I came back. But when I think back of it,

08:29:00:00

most of my mates think, “Well, I wouldn’t have missed it for quids,” they’ve come back, that’s the thing.
How do you think the war changed you as a person?
Well it taught me a lot, yeah. And all my friends are service related, all of them, I’ve hardly got anybody that isn’t one of the Rats or in Legacy. I’ve been the President of Legacy, and I’m, I just associate with

08:29:30:00

blokes. I belong to a bowling club round here, but it’s not the same as being in the Legacy or the Rats or anything. The Rats have just about, the Rats of Tobruk have just about folded, well, they have folded, but they’re nearly all died out now. I’m the fittest of the lot of them.
How do you think the war actually changed you as an individual?

08:30:00:00

Well, it taught me to overcome difficulties. The fact that we were able to do, with those old First World War guns what we did in our regiment, is a lesson to us and everybody. And we just overcame them.
Did that help

08:30:30:00

you through adversity later in life?
Yes, oh, I think so, yes I think so Julian. I think that deep down would have helped me cope with problems that I’ve had, not that I’ve had all that many.
Not too many situations adverse as war, I don’t imagine.
No, that’s right, no Julian, you’re right.

08:31:00:00

The Australian soldier is a, is second to none as an infantry soldier, I think. Maybe the German would be the next, and be very close to the Australian, as an infantry soldier I’m speaking of. But that was my experience, and there’s a bond

08:31:30:00

that exists amongst ex-servicemen that you don’t get anywhere else in life. You don’t get it in the church, you don’t get it in any other organisation of a peaceful nature, because the bond that exists between servicemen, you had to depend on them for your life, and you don’t get that in civil life, do you? If you’re doing an attack or something,

08:32:00:00

you know you’ve got a fellow there who’s giving you support, as I said these platoons that support each other. You know that he’s going to support you, and you finish up with a certain love for him, and all the rest of them. It’s something unique, doesn’t exist anywhere else in life, I found.
So you call that mateship?
Yes, that’s

08:32:30:00

mateship.
What about humour?
Oh well, means a very, funny things that have happened in my army experience.
How important was that humour to you?
Oh well, you know, it was very important, you

08:33:00:00

know, it helped you keep on going. And if you had a packet of cigarettes in the army, in Tobruk or somewhere, and your mate didn’t have any, half of it was his, for sure.

08:33:30:00

Just going to ask you, with regards to humour, what do you think of the Australian sense of humour?
Oh again, it’s unique, especially in difficult situations.
Do you think that Australia’s sense of humour,

08:34:00:00

is born from overcoming the odds, and…?
Oh yes, I suppose it’s, it’s our forebears too, you’ve got to think of the pioneers that came out here, and the difficulties that they overcame. The people that came in boats from England, Captain Cook and all these people, crikey,

08:34:30:00

what characters they were.
It seems as though our character was born from hardship, doesn’t it?
Yeah, that’s right.
What do you think of Anzac Day?
Oh I think it’s very necessary. I’m not altogether happy about children being

08:35:00:00

in the units. I would rather the children were marched in the Anzac Day parade after their father’s unit, so that, not alongside their father, I think that sort of takes away a bit of the dignity away from it. It’s still, we’re still to the stage where we won’t have an Anzac Day in another 30

08:35:30:00

years, I don’t think, unless there’s another war or something. But, and then perhaps the kids could march. Now with the Rats, for instance, the Rats of Tobruk, we’ve got the Christchurch Grammar School, which is conducting a memorial service for the Rats of Tobruk every year, and they do everything. They provide the speaker, the MC [Master of Ceremonies], the chairs, the program,

08:36:00:00

the invitations. And the invitations often include the governor, and last year the governor came along and we Rats were only there as part of the audience, because we’re not able to run it any longer ourselves. But they’ve taken it, and they’re going to, and that’s going to make history. I reckon Australian history was always

08:36:30:00

neglected. And even after the Second World War you’d ask kids, you know, kids about 15, 16, “Have you heard of Tobruk?” and they’ve never heard of Tobruk, ’cause they haven’t been taught Australian history in school.
How does that make a Rat feel?
Well,

08:37:00:00

we’re disappointed that they aren’t taught it in school, because it is history, it’s the same as the Magna Carta or the, any of those. Gallipoli was, is remembered, most people remember Gallipoli because it’s, it was the first time that Australian troops had. Well, it wasn’t the first time, but I mean they did a

08:37:30:00

great job there, even though they had to pull out and so on. But then again it’s, war has a lot of good parts, sides to it, I suppose. Medically, all the medical operations that were done and the use of penicillin was,

08:38:00:00

under adverse conditions, how those doctors on the Burma Railway for instance, how they got those fellows who were still living, continue to live.
Is there anything that you’d like to pass on to younger generations and perhaps future generations of Australians about your service and your experiences

08:38:30:00

during World War 11?
Yes, well, all I can say is that from my experience, I’m, I’ve got, I appreciate the fact that I went to war, and I appreciate the fact that I was in the army, and I appreciate my friends. And I again refer to this bond that exists, where your life depends on somebody, it doesn’t exist anywhere else. And therefore, that,

08:39:00:00

you keep that bond going right throughout your life, that’s why in Legacy, we look after the dependants of ex-Servicemen who have died. Now, there are not many children from the Second World War that we look after, they’re all 18 and older, but we’ve still got widows, there’s 9,000 widows on our books in Western Australia. And

08:39:30:00

we, we’ve given the torch by the fellow who’s either been killed in war, or died from war causes or has just died, to look after his family, and therefore we look after the widow. We have very active organisation there. And if any kids are

08:40:00:00

Legacy kids, I think that they should think about giving something back to Legacy, and we’ve got a good organisation going called the Companions of Legacy, which helps Legacy out. Go and work, do a widow’s garden, or go and talk to her, or, there’s not many kids now.
But it’s a great legacy that you have left.
Yes.

08:40:30:00

I’d just like to, in the closing moments of the interview, I’d just like to thank you, Eric for spending the day with us.
Yeah, well.
Sharing your experiences with us.
Thank you, Julian, I hope that you both have enjoyed me talking a lot of lies. Mostly fact.
Oh, we appreciate what you’ve shared with us today, and glad that you have decided to declare it and share it with future generations.
Yes, that’s,

08:41:00:00

thank you very much, Julian.

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