Archive number: 1732
Date interviewed: 26 March, 2004
1/30th East Anglians Regiment
You are listening to the interview audio
If I could ask you to give me that summary
that we talked about, about your life?
Okay well I was born in Sydney at 1935 but at the age of three and a half the family moved to Melbourne where my father was offered a job in Melbourne. And so I grew up in Melbourne and regarded myself as a Melbournian. Went to school at Park Street Primary School, Spring Road Central School in Malvern, I had my last four years at Melbourne Grammar. Then in ‘53 entered the Royal Military College of Duntroon in Canberra and graduated
there in, end of ‘56, commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps and was posted to 1st Armoured Regiment at Puckapunyal, which is an army camp about sixty miles north of Melbourne. And then had about two and a half years there, went to Malaya for a year and came back to Puckapunyal again for another couple of years and then was posted, as a member of the Australian
Army Training Team [AATTV – Australian Army Training Team Vietnam] and went off to Vietnam in 1962, in the middle of ‘62. Came back from Vietnam in December ‘63 and was posted to Wacol in Queensland, Wacol’s an army camp just west of Brisbane and then had about a year there. Posted back to Puckapunyal to raise an Armoured Squadron, the APC [Armoured Personnel Carrier] Squadron, and
went back to Vietnam in May ‘66 and came back from Vietnam in February ‘67. Went back to Puckapunyal again for a couple of years at the armoured centre then was posted to Canada to attend the Canadian Army Staff College for a year then was posted back to Canberra and started quite a few of my years in
Army Headquarters and in Canberra. So in Canberra I had a posting as major and then promoted to lieutenant colonel into another branch, an operations branch for two years then posted to Holsworthy as the CO [Commanding Officer] of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Holsworthy is close to Sydney. Two years there and then back to Canberra to attend Joint Chiefs of Staff College for six months
then back into Army Headquarters, or then it was called Army Office I should say, part of the Department of Defence, and had about two and a half years there as the Leopard Tank Project Manager. Then promoted to colonel and had three years in another job in material branch and then had a years language training in Thai and was posted Bangkok for two years
as the Australian Defence Attaché for Thailand and Burma. Then came back from Bangkok in, beginning of '85 and had my last four years in the Natural Disasters Organisations in Canberra, it’s also part of the Department of Defence. And left the army in, retired in, or resigned in February ‘89 and came up here to Nambucca Valley to become a nut
farmer. And we’ve been here ever since and that’s it virtually.
Perfect thank you.
Had it written down here.
You mentioned that your family moved from Sydney to Melbourne because of your father’s work, what sort of work did he do?
My father was, actually he was a gem cutter and then sort of became a, he was almost a diamond expert and he was posted to,
sent I should say to Melbourne as Manager of Gaunts, Gaunts was a jewellers in Melbourne in the Royal Arcade. No longer there, Gaunts was taken over by Prouds in about the early ‘50s and then Edmonds merged with Prouds and became Edmonds Holdings. He did his training with Claremont’s in London,
he’s a Londoner, and came out to Australia in about 1909 with a brother who went to Brisbane, Dad went to Sydney. Lived in Sydney, went to the First World War, joined up in 1915 and served with the 53rd Battalion and came back to Sydney, married my mother in 1925, Mum was
about twelve years younger than Dad and so they lived in Sydney until they moved to Melbourne. I think my mother took a bit of adjustment to get used to Melbourne, found it different to Sydney, but I’m a Melbournian that’s for sure.
Are you aware of what she found so different about Melbourne?
I think when she arrived she just found people weren’t quite as friendly,
but that was the first couple of years. And it was very difficult to get a house, housing was very short, this is 1938 and we had to rent a house and I know my mother said she had real trouble getting a house when she said there’s three children, people didn’t want to rent to families with children, so that was a bit of a struggle.
But Melbourne is nice spot, so is Sydney.
What were the difficulties associated with the housing shortage in Melbourne?
It just seemed to be short of housing, I can’t really remember that. But Mum certainly spoke to a lot of real estate agents and I remember her saying, there was a shop next to Malvern railway station and she was Mrs Allway and she
didn’t tell Mr Allway there was three children. Anyhow she must have impressed Mr Allway so we were shown a couple of houses and eventually we saw this house and signed up and then Mum said, “Oh by the way I forgot to tell you I’ve two 2 daughters and a son.” Anyway we were in the house so it was okay.
And what memories do you have of that first house you lived in?
Oh it was, it was a pleasant house
I think your memories are of your boyhood of how life has changed, I mean how you could play in the street, there were few cars and we’d play cricket against the lamp post and there’d be ten kids in the street, nowadays you just can’t do that sort of thing. It was very much the baker’s horse and the garbage man had a horse, everything was horse-drawn. And of course it was during the war so things were pretty
quiet and restricted, but I have happy memories of school days and the Malvern gardens and playing sport.
Can you describe what the Malvern gardens looked like?
Oh the Malvern gardens on High Street and there only quite small gardens but a very pleasant oasis in Malvern and we used to go fishing for yabbies
in the pond there, never got many. And during the war they dug trenches through the gardens and I remember being dragged out from class one year, it must have been when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor and the trenches were dug in '42 and we all had to come out of our classroom and go into the gardens and go into this dirty muddy trench. We all got very dirty shoes and socks that sort of thing, sitting there, actually there
were puddles of water in the trench and we all thought this is terrible, I have a clear memory of that. So that was war time.
Can you remember other wartime preparations?
Not really. Dad had been to the First World War and wasn’t involved in the Second World War so we had no anxiety as families would have had, that had sons or fathers away at the war. So you might say our home life was a bit happier from that point of view compared with a lot of other families.
One of my friends down the street, his elder brother was in Changi, he was in the 8th Division so that was a constant worry to the Kerr family that would he survive the Japanese imprisonment. And a few other boys at school had their fathers in the war so you were aware of it all the time. And I was a choir boy at our local church, St George’s in Malvern, and there were always sad things there
happening in the church, the church seemed to be full of little old ladies dressed in black, no men around hardly in the church. It was quite a solemn time even though as a boy you don’t worry about these things, everything Spitfires and sort of thing, cops and robbers. But there was a background to the war. Actually I remember we used to have a little bag around our necks, which had some
cotton wool and the door jamb, you know the rubber door jamb like a wedge, and we were told that if you’re out in the open and bombs were falling, you’d lie in the gutter stuff the cotton wool in your ears and put this wedge between your teeth. So Mum made this little bag, sounds ridiculous but I mean, so on my way to school I’d be looking at the gutter saying am I going to lie in a dirty ditch there. But that was what we did.
Teachers at school , most of the young able men were at war so a lot of your teachers were a bit older, or young women of course. In fact there was a teacher at Spring Road, Ms Dumfey and when you’re about eleven or twelve anybody over the age of twenty is probably about sixty or eighty years of age. I remember I met Ms Dumfey at my mother’s funeral years later and she said, “Oh you don’t remember me Robert,
but I’m Ms Dumfey.” and I looked at her in amazement because she didn’t seem to be much older than I was. But my memory of her was she must have been at least seventy-five or something like that, isn’t that terrible. No, Malvern was quite a happy place. My mother used to go to the Malvern Town Hall where the ladies would be up there knitting balaclavas and knitting woollen jumpers and thick socks and in our local church hall
they were sort of plaiting camouflage nets. So from school I’d often go and meet Mum up in the town hall and sit amongst all these ladies until we went home, and watching them sew up shirts and things, amazing sort of industry, not very efficient frankly or anything. I got some very good pullovers and thick socks in later years when I was a cadet in Canberra which was freezing, which I was very grateful for.
So they’re my memories of the war years. I can remember going into a friend’s place on the way back from school the day the D Day invasion was announced, and I remember we sat down and looked at the newspaper showing D Day, 6th June 1944, so that was quite a bit event. But the significant historical things like the Coral Sea Battle and Midway which were probably the critical turning
points for the defence of Australia, I can’t remember those, that was in ’42 and I can’t remember those particularly.
How did people follow the fortunes or the war, of their family members, how did people know what was happening in the war?
I don’t think they did,
the, I never really looked at this particularly but I don’t think they did. I mean I’ve got there in the bookcase the one hundred and fifty years of the Herald Sun which shows front pages, and I sometimes flick back to that during the war years. So you were entirely reliant on the newspapers but people didn’t get many letters, not from prison camps that’s for sure. The Red Cross had no input into
the Japanese administration, I don’t think. So you never heard, you never knew what was going on. And it probably would be no different to the First World War in many ways when you just got casual telegrams under the door and the telegram boy would leave the house before the widow fainted you might say, on reading the telegram. We’ve got a telegram here
which came back from my grandfather to my grandmother saying one of his brothers killed, their son killed or missing, and another cousin had lost an eye, one telegram. So it was horrific really, quite different to my generation, like Malaya and Vietnam, where there’s telephone and TV right behind you
almost in the battle field, quite the reverse. The war was bought into your living room as we say. In fact [South Vietnam] President Ngo Dinh Diem made this quite prophetic remark, that this war will be lost in the living room of America because they were getting this war in their living room every night. So just different, people had to line up and look at the casualty lists
and…. just terrible.
Where would the casualty list be posted?
Well I guess they were just posted outside the newspapers, this is in the First World War, in the Second World War certainly if casualties occurred in a unit then the telegram would go back, it would get back to you probably in a few days, I can’t tell you the timing. So the next of kin would be informed,
but other people would hear of the death of other people, reading the casualty lists and things. But if you were a prisoner of war you just probably didn’t know, had no idea, I haven’t really studied that. I don’t know what the Germans did about people that died, but very few people died in German POW [Prisoner of War] camps, I think very few. A fair few Australians, but of course we lost about seven and a half thousand I think died in Malaya
in the Burma Railway POWs.
Can you recall what the sense was in Melbourne- I know it might have been different in Sydney – in terms of the threat to Australia from the Japanese and how that affected the climate?
No I can’t, no I think I was just too young for that and just can’t.
Did your family prepare for air raids?
We blacked out the house, the whole suburb was blacked out and I remember
Mr Stevenson who lived a couple of doors up from us was the ARP or the Air Raid Protection warden in the street and so he had a couple of stirrup pumps and occasionally we’d get out there and we’d practice putting out an incendiary bomb. We’d have a piece of newspaper and a bit of petrol and put it in the middle of the road and put a match to it and we’d all rush out with buckets and little stirrup pumps and pump away and put it out. So I can remember that was real good fun, we thought. We were blacked out and it was
dark at night, difficult getting around the place, you didn’t go out much at night in those days. But there was no television either.
Did you have a wireless at home?
Had a radio yes, I used to listen to the radio, wireless, it was a wireless in those days, not radio, wireless. So you listened to the news regularly and various commentators. But I can’t remember too much about that either frankly.
Was there a picture theatre in Malvern?
Yes there was, there were three picture theatres, the 'Victory' and the 'Embassy' in Glenferrie road and the 'New Malvern' at the other end of Glenferrie Road, so you’d go off and go to the movies and see the news reels. I think the first film I can remember seeing actually was Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, a great film really made an impression on you, just the sheer comic
business of Charlie Chaplin taking for one of those roles, that’s one of the first films I think I can remember seeing. You’d go to the movies for sixpence at a matinee on a Saturday afternoon. So the movies were very important really, they were a great source of information, the news reels and the travel logs and things. And you always saw two films, you’d have the news reel then a film then interval then you’d have
some travelogue and then the second film and then you’d stand up for God Save the King and you’d go home, so just different.
Would you go with your parents or your friends?
Well bit of both, bit of both, at night parents, Saturday afternoon with all the kids around the place. I don’t know whether they have matinees these days do they? I mean the afternoon was just a riot of kids and the theatre owner must’ve hated it,
couple of hundred screaming kids of all ages. And because you had the Lone Ranger series and some horrifying thing, my sister she had to take me out because I was scared, something on the Gargoyle, I thought it was pretty scary things my elder sister had to take me out. So movies were quite
What about sport?
Sport, well at school you know you played cricket and football and athletics. So you played a lot of sport really, it interests me these days that the children often don’t seem to play quite as much sport as we did when I was a boy.
You know all the teachers would turn out and we’d trip off to the Malvern Oval or we used to spend our Friday afternoons down at the Taronga Oval playing football and cricket, no we played quite a bit of sport. Big playgrounds, so you were always kicking a football or throwing a ball or doing something, keeping yourself occupied in the playground. And yeah my secondary years,
my father had been a rower and I was too small to row in a eight [8-person crew] so I became a cox [coxswain], I coxed several crews. And then as a cox you used to have first use of sculls, so I’d scull as a single, and this is on the Yarra [River] and then I rowed in [school] house fours [4-person crews] in
the inter house competitions. In the inter school competition I coxed a couple of 8s. I was at Melbourne Grammar and I started off on the ninth crew and as a cox you had to challenge the cox in the crew ahead of you. So you’d actually challenge the cox in the eighth crew, you see. And so if your challenge was accepted by the captain of the boats you’d be allowed two weeks to prove that you were a better cox than the other guy. So I worked my way up to the
sixth crew and I didn’t even bother challenging the blokes ahead of me because they were better coxes than I was and more experienced. We won the Head of the River [championship] for the sixth crew in ’51 would have been, on the Yarra [River]. Good fun rowing on the Yarra because they had lots of bends and things so it was a cox’s river cause you had to use currents, depending on the tide and it was much more interesting than coxing on the Barwon
[River] which was sort of a lake and dead, the water was dead there was no tidal movement. So then I coxed the third 8 in ’52 but we didn’t win that, we didn’t win it, our stroke, he was a good fellow but he just didn’t have enough fire in the belly to get us up. Rowing is a great sport, marvellous sport, one of the best sports. But anyway joined the army we had
no rowing; it’s a bit of a pity actually, we had quite a few blokes who had rowed at school and we could have had a couple of eights, but there was no lake, actually there was no lake in those days, we would have had to row somewhere else.
What’s particularly special about rowing?
Well it’s a team sport and you’ve got eight blokes in a boat and it’s very much eight crew working together and
so you’re very conscious of timing, balance, and you’re very conscious of the amount of effort people are putting in. It’s a hard sport, but it very much is a team sport as opposed to maybe track work where you running individual and different to say football where your playing as a team, but this is sort of eight men working as one.
So to see an eight at speed, with full power on the oars, it’s a great sight you’ve got to appreciate it, and to cox a crew, the feeling in the boat was quite tremendous, the power in the boat. Had some funny stories, coxing on the Yarra, very funny. Our coach, we had a coach on a bike and he fell,
didn’t look where he was going and he rode into the river one day, bike and all, and sometimes he’d use foul language and I remember sort of watching a couple of dear old ladies, when he got out with this bike and all dripping wet, using foul language and two old ladies knitting either side of the Yarra River, quite shocked. We’d gone down the river and I hadn’t heard any noise so I looked around and couldn’t see him so I slowed the boat down, the crew down and looked around and I saw this figure coming out so
we had to back up. But it was great fun. On Saturdays we’d row all day in the morning we’d take our bottle of milk, some tomatoes, steak and often we’d row up the Yarra and make a fire and cook our steak and then we’d come back down the river. By that stage on Saturday afternoon the Yarra would be full of eights and so you’d challenge everybody that you could see.
You’d see an eight ahead and they’d slow down for you to catch up, you’d catch up to them and then the coxes would look at each other and we’d sort of tap the boat and off we’d go and we’d just race probably for a hundred yards or so. They may be a much better boat than we were so they’d beat us but, or we may be better than them but we were only school boys so usually the men, it was all the men, the men would come out from Mercantile Banks, Richmond Rowing Club, Melbourne Rowing Club, they’d all be on the river on Saturdays. Then on other Saturdays
there’d be races and so we sometimes would be in those races. It was great fun really was.
Is that rowing culture in Melbourne more or less prominent now than when you were at school?
I hope it is. The boat sheds are still there, and it’s in Sydney as well. In Grafton they’ve got rowing on the Clarence, there’s a rowing club up there. I think it is yes, and of course we’ve won some Olympic medals with the rowers,
done very well and this year I hope, I think our eight we’ve got a new eight and the ‘Awesome Foursome’ [Australian rowers] are absolutely awesome, they’re really brilliant rowers. So it’s a great sport, great fun.
While you’re actually rowing are there people talking to each other?
No there’s a feeling in the boat
The boat had to be balanced, you had lighter weight blokes up the front in the bow, bow two and four and sort of four, five, six, seven we used to call them the powerhouse of the boat; your heaviest boys, or heaviest men would be in there and five, six and seven particularly. And your stroke number eight, that’s the bloke closest to the cox, he had to have lots of guts and he would be a lighter person but he would accept the rhythm
of the boat and the timing, the number of strokes you’re doing to the minute. So you can row at a slow timing, slow pace but with a lot of power on the oar, or you can row at a high rating, higher pace but with less power on the oar. And as a cox I would see all the puddles made by the oars so I could always tell if three wasn’t putting enough power on his oar,
so I’d give him a bellow, say right three more weight three, that sort of thing. So you could tell these things quite easily after a while.
What sort of discussions were there in your family home about your father’s World War I experience?
Not a great deal, I think it’s the characteristic of serviceman from the World Wars that they don’t talk much,
it was always the funny stories, never the serious things. So I never ever, even in the army got to the stage of talking serious things with Dad about tactics or things like that. When my father died, I was in Malaya, I was about twenty-five
and at that stage of my life I wish I had’ve asked my father a lot more questions about things. But no you don’t find serviceman from that era talking to their families much at all, I mean there was a lot of horror and they didn’t want to relive it, they wanted to put it out of their minds. They’d talk among themselves of course when they met up with their old mates, but in
the family at home I can’t remember Dad every discussing any of the horror of war. Because my mother’s family, she had her eldest brother killed in the First World War and two of her uncles. Mum never spoke about it much at all, put it out of her mind
and behind them. So I think I can understand that, I’m a bit the same way. Things come up to prod your memory every now and again but you try to put a lot of it out of your mind. You always put the bad things out of your mind don’t you? You think of the stupid things and the funny things, I think that’s human nature, that’s how we survive isn’t it? That’s how people do survive in horrific conditions by putting their minds somewhere
quiet, somewhere else. And I think that’s how some of the POWs get through; they’re able to take their mind elsewhere, surviving incredible hardships in captivity. They say in some way, for example say Buddhists can, or people practicing yoga can do this, and of course people of great Christian faith can do this. So they can have a
detached mind which helps the body to cope with the physical reality of imprisonment. So I can’t think of any sort of World War I or World War II serviceman that I’ve met that have spoken willing about the war. I remember hearing one story about a Light Horseman from the First World War who would only talk about his horse and his horses. His daughter said,
“Dad never spoke about the war except he always talked about the nags, the neddies, the horses he had.” I can understand that.
Do you think service people have become more adept at communicating their war time experiences?
Perhaps, I just think probably people, oh maybe they ask them more these days,
perhaps yes, I wouldn’t say were any better communicators these days then we were years ago, I think probably were more spectators, I think probably years ago people were better communicators in many ways. Someone else will have to study that, you’ll want a psychiatrist to study that.
Tell me about religion, what sort of religious upbringing did you have?
Well we were Church of England, your C of E, Christmas
and Easter, as they say. But I think, my mother was quite a devout Christian, my eldest sister is, so we went to church regularly. You didn’t go to church, you were taken as children but in those days I thought nothing of it. I think the only thing father said he'd like me to do was to become a choir boy. So I became a choir boy
in St George’s Church in Malvern and it was a pretty funny choir, it was during the war and we had about six or seven boys and our dear old organists, pretty grumpy old organ, lovely church but the organ needed a good rework. And only a couple of young men in the choir, a couple of ladies, and we had no choirmaster, the Vicar Joe Tyson was our sort of choirmaster. But my father
had been a choir boy in St Martin’s in the Fields in London with his brothers, and I must say I think every boy should be a choir boy, it’s sad that today you see no boys singing except probably the private schools. Here in Macksville, Nambucca Heads I check carefully every time I see the children sing, all girls, no boys. Now in my days
we thought the girls couldn’t sing for nuts, only the boys could sing, so in the primary school the boys would be there and the girls, and we’d always out sing the girls, much better at everything. So go back to your question. we were, when I say a Christian family, we went to church. The church played quite a bit part in our community life, when we arrived in Malvern from Sydney I remember my mother
walking around checking out all the Anglican churches and she suddenly discovered St George’s and so that became our church, my sister still worships there. So it’s different these days, nowadays people don’t go to church, the whole thing has changed. I found in the army that even church parades aren’t compulsory and I know in Vietnam I thought that
the squadron was often working apart from each other, so the one time I could get all of them together in one group often was to call a church parade. So if you were going out on a longer operation, then often we’d have a couple of days back in the Task Force Base area preparing the vehicles and just checking over everything, but I would get the padre to come along and have a church parade. I thought it was
In fact I knew that a lot probably wouldn’t want to go to church parade so I said, “It’s not compulsory but those that don’t go to church we want to fill all those sandbags.” you see. I remember the first church we had there would have been about 6 diehards filling sandbags and the next church parade everybody went to church, I lent on them a bit. But to me it was a case of getting them altogether, the bonding is important in a
combat unit and of course the troops were often detached and didn’t see each other. And it was also a time when they could get together and be alone with their thoughts and have other thoughts put upon them by the padre. So I told the padre I didn’t want any sort of lessons on women and grog and this, give us a bit of sort of straight theology which will take their minds out of this place. They were quite good church parades. Actually I had one officer,
David Watts from Adelaide, and Dave was an organist; I think he’d been one of the assistant organists in St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide. And our padre, the Anglican padre had a little organ in a suit case about that big and that wide , and you sort of folded legs down and you sat down and pumped away and so actually on Christmas Eve,
I’m getting ahead of myself here, but Christmas Eve in 1966 there was to be a three days' truce, this almost sounds like the Boer War. But a three day truce with the VC [Viet Cong] and so we were going to have Christmas off and Boxing Day off and another day off. So I said to the padre I wouldn’t mind having a carol service, so he said, “Great.” And he came along and produced a card with a nine
carols and nine lessons. So I got the squadron sergeant major to dish them out to the soldiers to read. And there was a small hut in the rubber plantation which had been taken over as a bit of a chapel; it was an open ended hut so that was our sort of chapel. So on Christmas Eve we had this nine lesson carol service and it went off very well. And they all got drunk for the first time because up until then I’d rationed
the beer at night. So that was funny. So my Dad was a vestry on the church and was a sidesman, so we went regularly to church and we still go regularly to church here, I’m in the church choir here. I think having some belief is important,
the biggest problem is that if people have no belief in anything at all, and I think one of the problems these days, this is getting terribly philosophical, but I mean people that don’t have any belief in anything except probably material things and we don’t really look at the philosophical issues of life at all. You really get a bit appalled at the ‘prawns on the barbie’ [barbecue] and that sort of attitude to life.
I don’t think Australian culture’s moved along far enough yet to look at these things. I don’t think in schools we teach nearly enough about comparative religions, I don’t think this is very important and should be done more so people should understand the worlds of religions. I mean if we understood more about the Islamic world there’d be far less of the problem we have today. Same with Judaism and then you’ve got all the other religions,
you’ve got 1.1 billion Indians. People don’t understand Hinduism, I don’t really understand it, all these strange gods they’ve got, and yet really one could say, well, there is probably only one God it just takes different forms, you can argue around this. So I think it’s a big thing in the world today, it should be a big thing in the world today but it’s not, it’s not taught
and so you go to a church service or to a baptism these days and people are coming into church to get their child baptised but they haven’t got a clue what it’s all about, they’re just getting their ‘ticket punched' [making certain] and their photograph taken and that’s it. They come in and you never see them again so something’s missing. My generation kids went to church, not everybody, but a lot more did, these days no, so what’s the world coming to?
I just don’t think we understand the meaning of life as much as we should. And the world seems to be coming more and more chaotic, doesn’t it? It seems to me you wonder really what will happen. Like at the moment it is just so confused, I’m not sure I’m an expert on this at all.
No, it’s interesting
aren’t too many experts. But you can say that Australia is not a Christian country, the United Nations does not recognise Australia as a Christian country, they recognise America as a Christian country and it’s always, “God help America.” and what have you, but we are not, I think people think we are.
It’s a source of ridicule in Australia isn’t it?
It probably is, yes it probably is yes, I mean people they get married in churches these days
it’s more people are being married outside churches…
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 02
I wanted to ask you what your father actually did in the First World War?
Well he was a Lieutenant Subaltern in the 53rd Battalion and he enlisted in 1915, May, and he went to an Officer Training Unit
and was commissioned as lieutenant and then started off as a reinforcement. And he served, I really can’t tell you too much about the battle he fought in, he was in a big battle and he was almost got wiped out by a big shell which actually, it’s extraordinary , it took the corner off his map case,
put a gouge in his compass, it was sitting on his side and blew him about fifty yards away and he was picked up by another officer. Severely concussed but didn’t get a scratch on him. Dad was slightly asthmatic and I think that’s from living in London frankly, because two of his brothers were bad
asthmatics, that’s one of the reason I think why he came to Australia. He was gassed slightly and I think it was the end of his gassing he was able to escape from France and ended up at a training battalion for the last few months of the war in 1918. I never got down and talked to him in detail about what he did.
There’s a book called the Whale Oil Guards which is the story of the 53rd Battalion and I have to get that book just to read about what the battalion did in more detail. The whale oil thing, they used to be given whale oil to rub on their feet to stop trench foot, because their feet were always wet and damp and evidently they were told to do a guard of honour for somebody so they rubbed whale oil on their tin hats you see, just to make them shine.
And from that day on they got the name of the Whale Oil Guards. But I can’t really tell you a great deal about what Dad did, I feel bad about, in fact that’s when we leave our nut farming I’ll be doing a bit of research on that to find these things out. I guess in one way I was a bit involved with your own military business to get around to doing it, before this interview I’ve been digging around and looking at a few things
and I must go and look at this in detail, what he did. I probably know a bit more about my mother’s family because I’ve got the book on the shelf about the 48th Battalion and I know a little bit more about them. But as I said, Dad didn’t speak about these things much. My godfather, Albert Jackson, Bert Jackson he was
a great mate of my father’s in the war obviously, and I think years ago I got more out of Uncle Jacko, out of Bert what happened about my father than my Dad ever told me. But now I can’t, I don’t know enough so I’ll have to go up to Central Army Records and get a copy of a few things and just have a look at it, try and put his war time experiences into reality.
When you were at Melbourne Grammar were you always interested in joining the army?
Yes I don’t think I could really give a exact explanation as to why I joined the army. At one stage of the game I thought I might join the navy cause my favourite uncle, my mother’s twin brother was in the Merchant Marine and he’d been a midshipman in the First World War, in fact
all the brothers were away at the war. But to get into the navy in those days a midshipman, at Flinders Naval Depot Academy you had to have studied Australian history which I’d never done at school. So anyway I wasn’t sure about wanting to join the navy at the age of thirteen anyhow, my parents weren’t too keen on it, so that lapsed. At school I was in the school cadets and I did have ideas of wanting to go on the land and be a farmer, that appealed to me
but there again the place to go to was sort of Hawkesbury Agriculture College and so while we looked at that we were suddenly told we had to be living in New South Wales or to have been resident for 6 months before you applied to join. So that left us out in the dark. Dookie [Agricultural College] was in Victoria but for some reason my father was told, “Look that’s not a good place to send your son.”
So that sort of lapsed, but in the back of my mind I suppose to be in the army and so I applied for Duntroon [Military College] and got in.
What was it about the armed forces generally that appealed to you at that age?
It was going to be different, I had little desire to
work in an office, basically I didn’t think I wanted to be in a bank, or a lawyer. I remember my mother took me to, I think it was Arsenal House in Collins Street, to do a series of IQ [Intelligence Quotient] tests and things to see your career plan, and I sort of came out of that
and the bloke said, “You could look at the law or medicine, chemistry.” because I’d been doing chemistry and I wasn’t the greatest student, that’s for sure. I think something just twigged [realised] that the army was a bit different, a bit adventurous and I think in those days we were
concerned with the idea of service to some degree, and it sounds extraordinary in this day and age, but that was a tangible sort of factor in one’s makeup. I think it applies to all of the cadets in RMC [Royal Military College] in those years there was something about doing something which was in your background to making up your decision
to apply for the army. But it also seemed like a great life, the services are really a great institution you can say, more of a noble institution, this sounds crazy to some people when you say, “Yeah, but you kill people.” but that’s not it at all. You do join the service for slightly noble reasons; it’s not a profit and loss thing,
you don’t make money in the services. But in my youth that wasn’t a thing particularly you just thought about what you do, not how much money, whether you’d become a millionaire or something. The army is really a great institution in many ways; you meet some very fine people. I’m talking about a democracy,
not talking about totalitarian army. So one can be very proud, I think, of the history of the Australian Army and the Defence Forces. In the wars we had sort of a volunteer force, but also in between the wars when the defence of the countries in the hands of fewer people who do continue the defence capabilities often against significant political and economic
restraints, which is natural in a democracy. I thought I’d always like to look upon the army as, from that point of view that it was a noble cause. Defending one’s country and protecting the state is one of the highest causes really in existence, if you can’t defend your own state your own country
then really , your civilisation will fall apart. And historically that’s true so, well you could go back to if the Japanese had invaded Australia and there was a fair chance they could have, Australia would be a different place, absolutely. And I think we were pretty lucky that that didn’t happen. So all those reasons, but really
if anybody says, “Why did you join the army?” Oh, that’s a terrible question I can’t give you an answer, and I still really can’t give you one. Would I do it again? Hard to say. I think you, the world, changes everything changes, first if you do it again you might get shot first day, bring your life to a sticky end, so you’d have to think about that. But one would like to say, “Yes, probably you’d certainly think about doing
it again.” you would. But I wouldn’t mind doing other things too.
What was the process of getting into Duntroon?
You had two days of testing. Went to Royal Park, there was an army place at Royal Park near the Zoo,
I remember you could keep hearing the lions roar all the time, which is quite extraordinary. And you just did these series of intelligence tests, oh had an awful lot, and then you had incredible number of interviews from various people asking all sorts of questions. And at the end of that two day period then you went before a selection board and the commandant of the college and
a few other people sat on the selection board and the interview took about an hour and a bit, if I remember. So it was quite a lengthy period, quite a lengthy process and then you were told a couple of months later. So you felt as though you’d been through the hoops a bit. Later on, I don’t know whether they are still doing this, but they actually gave us series of physical tests, things you used to do in the boy scouts, “There’s six of you here, a length of rope and a pole with an iron bar.
That clothes line there represents electric fence, get this lot over the fence.” We did nothing like that, it was more sort of mental test and psychological assessments. I don’t know if RMC are doing it these days, probably not I don’t know, it sounds pretty stupid to me. But it was interesting going through all these tests people asked you all sorts of questions. ….
What kinds of questions were being asked?
remember, you know what, “What you do? How you like school? How you get on with people?” I was in the boy scouts and so I remember I spoke a lot about scouting and hiking and things we did, spoke about a lot of sport. Then you were asked about political things which frankly you didn’t know much about and about current affairs, so they were interested in what you knew about the world.
This is 1952 and the world was becoming a pretty difficult place in those days, Korean War was going on, Indochina was high. So they wanted to know, did you have a wide interest in things so that certainly put you back a bit. But it was just a lot of questions, I can’t remember now except at the end of the day,
the first day I was bit of a nervous wreck almost, I’d never been spoken to for so long and asked so many questions in my whole life.
Could you explain what it was like at Duntroon especially in those first few weeks?
Well it was so different, there was a military environment and so you were up at 6.15 in the morning and turned the lights out at quarter past ten at night. I guess in some ways for our generation
it wasn’t that difficult, I’m anticipating a question for this, because in those days I went to a school where discipline was pretty strict, you had to have your hair cut, you couldn’t put your hands in your pockets and shoes had to be clean, be neat and tidy. And if you had something, did something wrong a school prefect would come along and you’d have to write up the school rules,
so it was pretty strict. I was in the school cadets for two years, I’d been a boy scout so you were used to the hardship and thing. So you didn’t find RMC that difficult and your mind set didn’t find it that difficult. I think probably young blokes these days who have had such a carefree existence going into the military would find it much, much harder. I mean our generation was
far more brow beaten, you might say, and obedient and kept in place and in line, speak when your spoken to. So in some ways RMC didn’t come as a great culture shock. But all of a sudden you were very, very busy, we had 6 weeks of virtual recruit training and that was quite physically tiring. You also went through the period of what was termed
‘bastardisation’ [initiation], you may have heard that term, but it meant that your senior class men would get on you and ask you questions and try and convert you from an idle civilian to sort of a military staff cadet, smart soldier. And my memories of that were not that painful at all, you knew exactly what the system was going to be and I thought that the attitude and the conduct of the senior cadets to us generally was good. Some
of them you didn’t like at all, you thought they were so and sos and you’d quickly pick that guy out, and say, “I don’t like you at all.” But it was pretty good, in our class, later on course there was some pretty terrible stories about bastardisation at RMC, I don’t know whether you know about them, but things did change and it was bad, they did terrible things. For example in my day nobody ever mucked up your room except on a very
few occasions, didn’t happen to me but if somebody was so and so right up there, then he might get a bucket of water under his door you see. But later on a few terrible things were happening at RMC and things got really bad, there were a couple of enquiries. But we had this most marvellous initiation which was done by the class senior to us and it was quite an incredible initiation. We were running around in our jock straps actually and on our shoulder blades we had our
number painted I remember and on our buttocks we had DD, Department of Defence in raven oil. And some, actually more sadistic bloke got some glue, cause they were putting new tiles in the cadets’ mess and stuck it on our chest and put a hand full of gravel there, so that was pretty sadistic. But then we were blindfolded, we were and we were taken up to the gymnasium, we went through all these obstacles
and one of them for example was you had to kneel down on a wire mat and they stuck a ring on your finger you see and they said, “Do you wish to be married to the corps of staff cadets?” and you said, “Yes.” and they rang a damn telephone generator which put a shock through your finger, so you jumped. Another one was, “We now have to brand you with your number.” and they lifted up your jolly blindfold and there was a red hot bayonet sitting in a fire, this thing, they put it to your cheek and it was
hot all right and they said, “Right bend over this might hurt a bit cadet, grit your teeth.” So you grit you teeth and then they slapped a piece of ice on your bottom, it all sounds a bit stupid but it was really well done. And we got dunked in a couple of filthy puddles of water. Probably the best one was we had to climb this rope, up this ladder onto a platform, climb another ladder, “Right put your hand up now.”
and that’s the top of the gymnasium you see, and you knew you’d gone up. “So right now cadet when we say jump we want you to jump as far as you can, and if you don’t jump far enough you’ll miss the net. So on the count of three jump!” So we were led to the edge, feel the edge, 1, 2 3 and you jumped like mad, and you jumped about two inches onto another board. So it was this sort of thing.
It was a very good initiation, lasted about an hour and a half I think and at the end of that all the senior class came in and shook you by the hand and said, “Welcome to the College.” it was quite an emotional thing. But it was a brilliant initiation, I must admit. We all went through it without any sort of hassle if I remember. So that was the first six weeks and at the same time
we were doing a lot of drill, a lot of rifle work, shooting, field craft, a lot of basic, learning to become a basic soldier. And of course we had some very good instructors, excellent warrant officers, most of them had been to Korea, some of them had World War II experience. So you were being tutored by the army’s experts and you were always aware of that. And RMC is a great institution and you were aware of that,
you were aware that you were part of it, there’s a historical context to the place. You adapted as quick as you could and you adapted because you wanted to be part of it, you wanted to be part of the scene.
What was your accommodation like at RMC?
Well the two 2 years it was appalling, the RMC had some very fine accommodation which had been built in
about the 1920s, 1930s; but in 1953 when I arrived there, there were about two hundred and sixty Cadets and two of the companies were in old War World II sixty foot sheds. In fact it seems that for the first fifteen years of my life I spent all my life living in tin sheds or out in the bush under a bit of tent, or next to a tank. So my first two years was in this
terrible tin shed, had a room to yourself and they were cold, and Canberra was a cold place. And you had a 6 x 4 mat, pretty hard mat but that didn’t worry you and 5 army grey blankets that were as thick and as heavy as lead. And I had a little radiator which you almost couldn’t warm your hands on, so you froze and at times you would be in bed
with your flannel pyjamas, your tracksuit on and I never did, but sometimes the cadets said they put their rug over the top, so you’re like a sandwich, the meat in a sandwich. The accommodation was pretty poor, the hot water service was an old coke boiler which the hot water would run out pretty quickly, and of course the senior cadets had priority on the hot water as you can well imagine. So you were lucky if you got a tepid shower most of the
time. Then in the next two years they built new accommodation, what they called the Anzac Block, so we moved into a brand new brick two storey building, far more comfortable and designed as a cadets' room, so it was better. The accommodation did vary, that’s for sure, but you survived, no problem.
Could you tell me what your daily routine would be like from the very moment you got up in the morning?
Well we were up at 6.15 and then breakfast a 7 o’clock. In the first two years we had to walk up several hundred yards to get to breakfast, then breakfast would finish, you would get away from breakfast as soon as you could because as junior cadet you had to sweep, do menial tasks, sweep the corridors and sweep your room and then be on parade on the parade ground at 8 o’clock. And so you were up there, down again, back up to the parade ground and so you had no time.
Eight o’clock parade, then an inspection, at 8.30 classes commenced, was it 8.30 or 8.20 classes commended? Forty minute periods, about two periods before morning tea, a couple of more periods to lunch and then about three periods in the afternoon. That’s what we called civil work, when you’re in a classroom. The same timings applied when you were doing field work and you were out in the training areas. Tuesday and Thursdays,
the last two periods were taken as sport and on Saturday we would start with two hours of ceremonial drill and the rest of the morning would be free until lunch time. Then on Saturday afternoon there was always sport. Saturday evenings were your own time and Sunday was your own time. You weren’t allowed any leave during the week unless you applied for special leave, Saturday
night you were allowed out till, I think it was 1 o’clock in the morning. Sunday, I think, till about midnight, or might have been lights out at 10.15. But you were really locked into this institution, a bit monastic you might say. In fact the place was known as 'clink', we used to call it clink because it was like being in jail. No cars. First class were allowed to have cars
at the last few weeks of their existence. Now of course they’ve got cars and it’s just so different, so different. The food certainly was not good, the food was just appalling which actually is somewhat of an indictment on, you might say, the staff of the college in those days. And I think about the middle of our first year the cadet who was the president
of the cadets’ mess somehow got in touch with the major in charge of catering in Sydney, at Eastern Command, and all of a sudden he arrived on the scene with a WO1 caterer, with the sergeant, a cook, to go right through the whole system for the cadets’ mess. What was happening was the cooks there were helping themselves to the food and feeding some of the family, so actually
it was quite a bit of a scandal you might say. And this particular cadet we thought, “Goodness, he might get discharged for not doing the right thing, not going through the proper authorities.” But from then on our food improved quite dramatically, but then it fell away again, but it never got down to as bad as it was in the first 6 months, which was quite appalling.
What was so bad about the food, could you explain?
Well there just wasn’t enough of it. And we weren’t getting any fruit
and thinking back this was quite appalling because as an officer, one of your first jobs is to supervise your soldiers' welfare. We were always concerned about the food, the quality of the food, the quantity of the food in your men’s mess. And in a good unit this receives top priority, you can go to some armed units and it’s not top priority and the soldiers aren’t living as well as they should.
It was interesting in our last year we did three weeks at Canungra just before we graduated and Canungra’s just a tented camp and we were living in tents and eating in a marque there, and the first thing we noticed we had just fantastic food. And we said, “Goodness this is fantastic!” We were eating steak and stacks of food, couldn’t believe it and we said, “Golly there must be some special ration scale while you’re training at Canungra.” And
I remember these words from Lieutenant Colonel George Warfe, who was our renowned jungle fighter from the Second World War. He said, “No, no you’re getting the full mainland ration scale entitlement.” and we said, “Golly wow!” and see that was a lesson, he said, “Any of the cooks here caught stealing food, we give them a tin of bully beef and drive them fifty miles into the jungle, to walk back.” That was his story. I don’t know if they ever did. But that was an objective lesson, we were seeing the full amount of food that
we were entitled to. So as I said that’s a bit of an indictment on RMC, and the administration, which wouldn’t go down too well, but that stuck in my mind.
What were you eating at RMC?
Beg your pardon?
What were you eating at RMC?
Oh just meat and vegetables, everything. But there were two jams; there was this melon and lemon jam which we swore the army must’ve bought
by the forty gallon drum and it was known as ‘slime’ and I remember we got a New Zealand officer who came in, who’d been a cadet there years ago, and he said, “Good grief we’ve still got slime.” And the other jam was a sort of gooseberry jam, a red jam and it was pretty terrible stuff and it had the revolting name of ‘ape’s arm pit’; isn’t that terrible!
So it was: not enough food, not enough protein. And when you’re a young bloke and you’re doing a lot of physical work you need a lot of energy, so I think we were probably a bit underweight, we were quite skinny to say the least.
You talked about the civil training you did there in classrooms, could you explain what it was that you were actually learning?
Well you did a lot of what you call basic school work; we had English and Maths, Economics. And then later on we went into more, something like Geography, and you did a sort of geopol, a geographical and political history, and you were doing an arts course virtually, with a bent towards
the political and world affairs. At the same time other cadets that were doing engineering, either civil engineering or electrical and mechanical engineering, they actually then spent a year after graduation, did a fifth year at a university, either Sydney or Melbourne, to get their degree. So it was a mixture of military and civilian.
I think my feelings were initially that I was a bit disappointed, that it was a bit too much like school in some ways. In fact thinking back, we did not do nearly enough, I thought strategic thinking lessons.
But in those days, I’m talking 1953, that’s what eight years after the World War II we had brilliant instructors for most of the military subjects. On the academic side we had some professors who could teach the basic English and Mathematics and Economics. But we didn’t have any sort of intellectuals who had studied world affairs
and I think this was disappointing. In fact I had cause to think about this, a couple of years later, when I got to Malaya and I was attached to a British Infantry Battalion and I was talking to some Sandhurst [British military college] graduates. My own contemporaries, they’d done two years at Sandhurst and they suddenly came out with lots of teachings that they’d had from some of the academics there. So I thought, we just didn’t have those people
in Australia, we had no military histories, I mean the history of World War II was being written at that point in time, it was coming out in later years. But for example nobody really gave us a concept for the defence of Australia; nobody ever taught us I’m sure, the Japanese plans for invasion for the South Pacific or New Guinea or Australia. I don’t think anybody had a chance to sit down and really study this,
they’d never been into Japan to look at the history. So that was disappointing and I felt in some ways we didn’t do some of the subjects that should have been important, we should’ve done more politics I think, we should’ve done more study of bureaucracy, these things you learnt sometimes the hard way in later years. So I think I’m right in that criticism. RMC
was certainly a bit of a cultural desert, it was pretty uninteresting at times, it wasn’t too much fun and games. For example there was no RMC choir, and here you’ve got two hundred and sixty men and there was no choir. And there could have been other clubs which could have been stretched a bit more, it was pretty hard and intense
but I think there could have been more imagination in some of the curriculum. I was talking to a couple of class mates who live in the area last year and we were saying that we were disappointed that whilst we were there between 1953, '56, we didn’t meet and hear enough from some of our World War II leaders. Australia had so many generals and commanders
that had done very clever and brilliant things in the war. Thinking back it would have been brilliant to have them come along and give us more lectures, or to sit down and just talk, particularly with the senior class in groups of ten or twelve, and just talk to a general in command of a brigade here or a division here. And we had some visiting lecturers, we used to have one a month, Bob Menzies was Prime Minister came along and gave us a talk. We had the Israeli Ambassador
come along and give us a talk because Israel was just being formed then; and we had a general from Korea come along, and we had a staff officer from Korea come along and talk. But there was a wealth of other Australian commanders and soldiers which could’ve come and given us their experiences. This was disappointing; I just think we missed out on getting some of this
knowledge, this first hand experience of things. And that doesn’t make sense to me really; you’re too busy learning just to do what’s on the curriculum. But at a place like RMC we were there for four years, you’d have to have your mind expanded as much as possible. Now of course RMC is down to twelve months or eighteen months and warfare is more complicated indeed, it’s so much more intense
and fast, and there’s so much more technology that makes it even more difficult to do these things. But you do feel as though you’ve got to round out your military education, because later on you go to Staff College, that’s twelve months of study. At Joint Service of Staff College, which you do, you look at higher political things, economical things, social things. So you do it then, but it did strike me at RMC you certainly
would’ve liked to have learnt more about your people that had gone before you, who had so much probably to pass on. For example people who had been prisoners of war how do you mentally cope with that? You think of the likes of [Colonel Edward] ‘Weary’ Dunlop, I mean you would have loved to hear a lecture from ‘Weary’ Dunlop about his experience as a surgeon in Burma [POW camp].
did you know yourself at that time about world affairs, particularly Communism?
Not a great deal, not a great deal really. We had a very good lecturer for GPH [geographical and political history], he was a young chap called Davies and this was a new subject at RMC, I don’t think it was even being taught in any university at that stage of the game in Australia. And it struck
me that really he was almost just one lesson ahead of us, he had no text book, we had no text book but he gave us copious notes and we’d be writing like fury during each lesson. But he I think did a brilliant job in putting these world affairs before us. I was left handed and so I was not a very fast writer and my writing deteriorated to an
indescribable scrawl, I think it ruined my writing for years, and I threw my notes away because I don’t know if afterwards I’d be able to work out what I’d written, but I wish I had of kept them. But we had no text book on this and so one can be eternally grateful to this lecturer for the work he did in presenting this to us. So we looked at world Communism and he did a great job. So we learnt, well that was in our last year, last
year the 1st Class or our fourth year there as cadets. But you didn’t do as much reading as you would like to have done, there’s an excellent library at RMC, but really you just were too tired, I was too tired to spend too much time in it, and you didn’t have enough study periods. It was interesting that eventually in about the late 1960s
the curriculum at RMC was changed and it was recognised by the University of New South Wales to make it a degree awarding facility. Prior to that they believed that our curriculum wasn’t of university standard because we had too many other things to do, and we didn’t have enough time to study. I don’t think was the basis of their rationale, however they did convince the University of New South Wales that, “Yes,
we can award a Degree of Arts, Military Arts.” it was called, and so that was done. Now to do that I think that the military side of the curriculum had to be shrunk again and cut back a bit. For example, we had only three or four weeks leave at Christmas time, about a week in May a week in September and that was it, and this is not good enough. A university student must be able to have three months off at Christmas time and
just to go and do other things. We were back at college being cadets, so there was no long leave, so that wasn’t good enough the university wouldn’t accept that.
What were you taught about leadership at Duntroon?
Well the, that’s a difficult question. Leadership really was one of the big
things and we had talks on leadership; but I just can’t think of any series of lectures where we really looked at leadership in great detail. We would study campaigns and you would look at the commanders, but to look at leadership in
psychological terms I don’t think there again that was topic which we covered that well. No I don’t think we covered it, intellectually as we should’ve. I think that was something that was a bit lacking, leadership had to sort of rub off on you a little bit. Cause the leadership side is obviously
a major thing in war and leaders are made, not really born. Warfare is far too complex an issue these days. Some people look like born leaders and some don’t, some are and that’s it. But generally in my opinion leaders are made, it’s part of training people. To be in a military profession or to be in any other profession,
a surgeon these days, or even as in the legal profession, you have people that lead the profession don’t they? They have a characteristic which, with their wisdom and experience, they can lead other people by their thinking, by their actions. So leadership, I don’t think it was taught probably as well as it could be. I’m going to be a little bit here again critical of the
constructively critical of the curriculum…
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 03
Was it apparent at Duntroon that there were certain people who were groomed for leadership positions, or were more suited to it?
Yes there were, I mean you looked at all the cadets and some of them impressed you immediately, just by their physical
statue and their demeanour and their conduct as being very fine fellows. As a young cadet in those first few weeks, immediately some of the cadets in the senior class they were men, you felt like a school boy still. But they were men and were just most impressive and you thought, “Goodness, I want to become a bit like them.” So they were very good role models being set, but
I think in the army the system just filters you out in the end, and so by your ability and by your motivation and your ego, your ambitions all play a part. A bit of luck can play a part of course. But the army does filter you over the years,
that’s an important factor. As you get up the chain in rank hopefully you are the right person to be there. The ‘Peter Principle’ [that people are promoted above their competency] does take effect in some way but very rarely thank goodness. So the services do, because you are there for a time, a long time,
you are being reported on, you are under supervision and correction of superiors. Then you are learning, you are being led, you are being shown, there’s also good examples so it’s quite different to the civilian world, quite different to civilian. Certainly as an officer you are always concerned with your own
ability and your own attribute as a leader, that’s very much part of leading men. And every job you get can be different, is different, you can be in an administrative environment which is quite different, and then you can be in a training environment, where the priorities are different. And then of course you can go into a combat unit where really there are a lot of stresses placed on everybody and that’s where
it is the most important. So it is probably one of the most vital issues in maintaining the morale of an army and its efficiency. An army must be well equipped, it must be well trained, it must be well motivated and it must be well led, if you’ve got those four attributes in an army – then you’ve got a good army.
And if any one of those attributes is lacking, then you haven’t got a good army and, cause all those attributes in a bureaucracy have to be backed up by strong government and by the nation itself. And that’s not simple; it’s not simple these days. But in the army you live in your own little world and civilians don’t understand you, they don’t quite understand you and we know
that and it doesn’t bother us particularly. But the leadership part of it is just so important so the army does filter people out; some people are brilliant at doing quite unusual things. I mean the army needs people of a scientific bent; you might say an introverted research bent, it needs people that are happy doing things with things,
it needs people who are happy doing things with people. So it’s got a quite diverse range of activities so from that point of view you’re not all gung-ho people waving the flag or waving a sword. The army’s warfare is so complicated these days that it seems that these other aspects are more important than the soldier in the field. But of course
as we see every time in the end it is the soldier with his rifle on the streets of Iraq or in the jungle in Vietnam, who is the most important person. And that’s forgotten about, soldering is so technical and difficult these days and you’ve got to change the mindset of people.
The days of, for example, the Australian bushman who lived in the outback with his horse, extraordinarily self reliant looking after himself, feeding himself, maintaining his horse while he rode boundary fences, wouldn’t see another human being for weeks having to find water. That sort of individual you easily make him into a Light Horseman in the First World War,
perfect, could ride a horse, any horse, and look after it. All you had to do was give him a rifle, and he may have had a rifle, teach him to shoot, his eye sight would be excellent, he would be used to picking out a couple of cows that you know are five hundred yards away, and round them up. So he had all the right attributes, the living hard life. Nowadays of course, you’re having to take a young bloke who
watches television, doesn’t play much sport, loves the beach but isn’t very fit and convert him into a man who’s got to go out and do awful things and live a very hard life in the jungle or under twenty-four hour constant sort of anxiety about someone blowing him up in Iraq. So it’s enormous transformation and so the army has to adapt
and recognise this thing of changing a person from a civilian, a carefree civilian into a fighting machine, it sounds a bit stupid in some ways, but a combat soldier. This is not a easy things these days, not an easy thing at all.
So what sort of preparation was there among the cadets or the seniors at Duntroon in terms of
contact later on in the army, with men who hadn’t had that sort of military training?
Oh well there was a lot, for example in our last year at RMC we had two weeks at a National Service Training battalion. See the first lot of National Service Training started in 1951 or 52 when Korea started and world affairs was going for the worst and it ran till, was it the 60s I think? So all of us
had an introduction to training national serviceman. Blokes off the street, eighteen years of age, three months full time sort of service and then four and a half years or so in the CMF [Citizens’ Military Force], the Army Reserve. Many of the cadets graduating from RMC went to a National Service Training Battalion for a couple of years. I didn’t. I went to an armoured regiment. But then through your career you’re dealing with young soldiers and training them up to be
regular trained soldiers, so it’s part of your life all the time. There’s an enormous dynamic in the army, it’s changing all the time. I was quite amazed at this, leave an office job in Canberra and take over command of a 2nd Cavalry Regiment, that was in 1974. And of course we had pulled out of Vietnam in about 1972, this National Service Scheme had stopped in 1972, that was the National Service scheme that started in
1965.It had stopped in '72 under the Labor Government. And so the army was suddenly reduced from forty four thousand to about twenty six thousand again, and we were undermanned, so I was about sixty or seventy soldiers I think, under strength. So all of a sudden I got posted about forty-five soldiers who had come straight from a recruit training battalion and I had them come straight into the regiment, at Basic Armoured Corps Training.
And I took it upon myself to interview all these soldiers in pairs with their squadron commander just to see what they were like. Most of them were about seventeen and a half to eighteen years of age, because the army was taking recruits at seventeen you see. And they were very young and I just found I really had to adjust to their mind, what they were thinking and what their life was. There were a couple of older soldiers there, but most of them were very young and so we
had to start again. The sausage machine had to start again. Now I had a lot of NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] of course who had been in Vietnam and they’d been in the army for six, nine, twelve years. But then I had this great influx of these very young soldiers. So this is different again, so the army is continually renewing itself, you don’t want an army of fifty year olds. In Canada I was quite surprised in some of the
units we visited there to see a lot of corporals and some of them in their late thirties. I thought, “Crumbs, our corporals are usually in their early twenties and that’s the way you want them to be.” But I went to a couple of armoured units and there were all these quite elderly people as corporals, “Goodness, I would have pensioned you off!” I mean they were very capable but it just seemed, it didn’t seem quite as vital and as vigorous as I thought they should be. So
the army has changed and that’s part of the problem of the army, you just have to keep turning over the system. And people leave of course, a lot of people join the army and say they don’t like it, they leave after three years, they leave after five years and that’s a tremendous drain. It’s a drain in the navy and the air force too because at the moment our defence forces are so small. I mean the army has about twenty-six thousand men or something at the moment. I joined in
1953, the army was about twenty-three thousand, no twenty-five thousand men, about that time. In those days Australia’s population was less than nine million, now we’ve got nineteen million and the army’s the same size. And in fact today I think our army reserve is smaller than it was in 1953.In '53 we had a lot of people that had done National Service Training. I don’t know what our Army Reserve is now, but I think it’s probably less than thirty thousand. So our Regular Defence Force is down to about sixty thousand
which is tiny, tiny.
How did your parents feel about you joining the armed forces?
I think my father was quite happy, my mother was not happy. She’d lost her eldest brother and some uncles and things so she wasn’t happy, but that was it. Every time I went away my mother was obviously worried but, most parents would be like that I think.
How did your
background in cadets at grammar school compare to the other people you were studying with?
Oh we were pretty similar background. In those days most schools had cadet corps you see, Cadets were quite in vogue, everybody thought the cadet school program was very good – so we all had rifles, had this huge 303 rifle and took it home. We’d go rifle shooting along
in winter, down at Williamstown Rifle Range most Saturday mornings, we’d shoot with cadets and then in the afternoon we’d stay. Melbourne Grammar formed it’s own rifle club, so we’d shoot in the afternoon with all the adults. And whereas the morning shooting was over open sights, service sights, but in the afternoon we had peep sights and we’d watch the brilliant shots, and Percy
Pavey was one of Victoria’s best shots and he won several Queen’s Medals [for rifle shooting]. So we’d stand behind these experts watching them shoot, how they breathed, so most of the cadets at RMC had been school cadets, so we had some military training so we were half way, not half way there, but we’d started you might say. The RSM didn’t think so, he thought we were a pretty sloppy lot.
We had a brilliant RSM at RMC, Warrant Officer First Class Geoffrey Watson known as 'Fango' and he was really one of the Australian Army’s best RSMs, excellent at drill and a great character and a very fine man into the bargain. But in our first year we prepared for a Trooping of the Colour when the Queen visited Australia in 1954, in February, her first visit to Australia.
And we trooped the colour; we got new colours [flags]. Her father who was then the Duke of York presented colours to RMC in 1927, and in 1954 Queen Elizabeth came out and so we had a big parade for that. And so we spent a lot of hours on that parade ground marching up and down in slow and quick time for the parade in February 1954. And she opened Parliament, so we had a couple of weeks of rigid, very busy ceremonial
work. Which is good. I expect that sort of thing in the army and I think it’s good for all soldiers, even though they say it’s a pain, but good for soldiers to do ceremonial work, it’s part of the act I think.
What were the particular characteristics of 'Fango' that impressed you?
He had all the quips and antidotes and demeanour of a proper Regimental Sergeant Major. He’d had about six months
I think at the Guards Training Depot in England, and so he had lots of funny things. His personal drill was excellent and he had the leadership capability of having you on the parade ground at the end of the day, and you might have had a full day of military training
and physically you were very tired, you’d been doing field craft or other training, you had probably an hour or two in the gymnasium and you were dirty and suddenly you’d come on the parade ground for the last period of the day to drill. And you’d get rid of all your web equipment and stuff and put your belt on with your bayonet and scabbard and grab your rifle and on parade ground. So
it was a transformation to being really regimental and doing quite intense drill. Now he knew we were exhausted and tired and probably couldn’t have cared less about being on the parade ground, but he could, and I don’t think I’m romancing it, he could just get you going. You’d certainly be working very hard with him but he had the ability to get you going. I always thought that was an excellent
attribute that he could do that. Other drill instructors just couldn’t do it, they just couldn’t do it, they’d irritate you, he’d irritate them probably too, but he had that skill. We could talk on for hours about Fango Watson, some of the funny things that happened with him, but he was an excellent, excellent regimental sergeant major. And the quality of the drill at arms, he was very high, very high.
I don’t think I’ve ever sort of seen it, he set a standard for us all to do later on, so when I was CO2 Cav [Second in Command of a cavalry battalion] I thought the regiment should troop the colour, they’d never done it before so we worked up to trooping the colour and in 1974 it would have been, on our regimental birthday, we trooped the colour, we trooped the guidons [banners for cavalry units], we had guidons in armoured units.
And I must admit he was in the back of my mind all the time, about words of command and doing things. Very impressive, Fango Watson. One of the several people in my military career that made an impact.
Can you explain to me what the profile is for the RSM?
the hardest thing, he has to be, have an imposing manner, he must have a good voice, he must be excellent at drill so he can demonstrate, he must understand the drill text book. He must of course know all the fine points about guard procedure,
change in the guard, drill and ceremonial, he must be able to understand band music, have a feel for that. But he must also understand the mind of a soldier so he can at times encourage, at times abuse, so he gets the best out of the soldiers on parade. So you can see a good RSM in action and
within minutes almost pick up that that man’s good at his job, and he maybe a so and so, “But my word, he’s great!” Other RSMs are just not as good, they just haven’t got the knack. I don’t think I can explain it more than that, you’ve got to see them really, you’ve got to see them in action. Within our army our sergeants and
the warrant officers are so important, they’re one of the things which have made the Australian Army really so important, because they come up the hard way, so do the officers, but they come up the hard way. If you look at the First World War the reason why our army had such a terrific reputation was really all the officers had been privates, corporals, sergeants, subalterns. So when the platoon commander was killed the sergeant took over
and if the sergeant was good enough, which he probably was, he became the acting platoon commander then he’d be commissioned in the field to be a lieutenant and they might send him off to an officers’ school for a few weeks to give him a few more ideas about orders and drills and tactics. But he’d come up the hard way, it’s quite different to a young officer going through, you might say an officer training and then coming straight into the field to lead his men in battle, he hadn’t had the experience. So
our WOs and sergeants, they’re such a vital backbone to the army, they are the most important, because as an officer they are your subordinate and invariably saying, “Look Sergeant fix that bloke, fix that man he can’t do that.” and so you may talk to him but often the sergeant will, or at least the corporal will go and do it. So the quality of your NCOs is so important, that’s the backbone of
the army there’s no doubt about that. I mean there’s a very famous saying by Field Marshall Sir William Slim that there are no bad battalions. there are only bad officers, and that’s exactly so. But to have a good unit you must look towards the selection and quality and training of your NCOs. Your life is misery if you haven’t got good NCOs.
And they require so much attention to selecting them and training and encouraging them, very important.
How did the practical training at Duntroon evolve and change from cadetship through to your final year?
Well in the first few years you’re doing elementary things where as in the last year you’re working up
more to doing more advance field work and tactics. Your studies are becoming more involved; you’re looking at all aspects of an army in peace and in war. And you’re doing more advanced academic studies, as I said in geography, politics, economic geography, and they’re training you up to be a platoon commander.
That was what you were meant to be at the end of it, you could command a platoon of men in battle. So it just gradually got harder and more involved and up the sort of leadership scale. But the aim obviously was to produce a lieutenant that was capable of commanding a platoon in battle. So it was a progression in all things. You went from firing a rifle and using a bayonet and firing a pistol
to firing a tank, a fifty tonne tank and learning. Yes we’d fire the tank in our last year, but it was a very preliminary thing, when I joined the armoured corps of course you went into detail at Armoured Corps Training. So it evolved, the four years it could have been cut to three and of course during the
war time years RMC did cut from four years to three years to two years because of the pressure of producing officers during war. But four years was the initial period when RMC was established in 1911. In a few years time RMC will have its centenary in 2011, so it’s one of Australia’s oldest institutions in many ways. I and I think quite a few of us were disappointed when RMC
lost it’s sort of premier position as an officer training and NAAFI [Navy Army Air Force Institute] was created by [Prime Minister] Malcolm Fraser and the Fraser Government and so NAAFI is a combined college of army, navy, air force. But I think some of us thought that was a bit of a pity it’s putting RMC second grade you see and I think that’s a disappointing really, I don’t think that that stage you want to mix army, navy and air force, it’s a waste of time frankly, I don’t think it will be
as good as they thought it might be, time will tell, but I may be quite wrong. I thought it was a pity that RMC lost its primacy you might say in the military world.
In terms of what career you were going to have once you graduated, how were decisions made about those career channels?
Through the years at RMC you developed an idea of what corps you’d like to go into, going into infantry or artillery, and I had a preference for the armoured corps. So you did let it be known to officers that armoured corps was definitely among your wishes and in my office I’ve still got my little toy Centurion tank which I bought fifty years ago, stuck it up in a bookshelf in my room you see. And
when you had a lesson on armour you’d always ask a lot of questions. So it was towards the end of the third year in second class that the preference came out, and there were many anxious moments as to whether you would get the corps of your choice. Fortunately I did, but there were several officers that didn’t, they were sort of put into another
corps. Some a few years later changed back to their preferred corps and the army allowed them to do that. And no so you worked out you’d like to be an infantry man or go into artillery or engineers or service corps and you put your hand up and put your bit of paper in, had to write down your reasons for doing it. But it was an anxious few months till the corps selections came out.
By the time you arrived there for your last year in first class you knew what corps you were going into, so you could start polishing up your armoured corps cap badge, dusting off the Centurion tank on your bookshelf.
What attracted you to the Armoured Corps?
Bit of glamour I suppose,
I’d done enough walking; my grandfather was in the Boer War as a Light Horseman. I can’t ride a horse but I thought that was pretty good. Oh the armoured corps a great corps, it’s technically very interesting. I thought if I put infantry I might get infantry first, so I remember putting down armour,
artillery, infantry on my first three choices. So that’s how I picked armour.
And how were you notified?
I think the list came out on the notice board and there you were, simple as that. The army believes in notice boards, you must read, I’m a compulsive notice board reader. If I go to some place I go over and I read it instinctively, just to make sure my names not on it, something about reporting here or there. Oh no
very important notice boards, absolutely. The British Army had an excellent system called the Daily Detail and I picked this up when I was in the battalion in Malaya and so I ran my own squadron on the Daily Detail. Every soldier had to read the Daily Detail before he left work at the end of the day. And you ran the whole administration – so if you wanted somebody to report
to the dental post or to come and see somebody else or to go somewhere, his name would be there. And so the Daily Detail would be put together by the squadron clerk at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, he’d run around with his clipboard to all the officers and ring up various people and say, “Anything for the Daily Detail.” and that would all go on, and that’s how you ran the squadron. So you’re a compulsive notice board reader, don’t you read notice boards?
I do actually I find them
You learn a lot about places from the notice board, how tidy they are with stupid notices.
So you actually received notice about your preferences at the end of your third year is that correct?
I think so yes, actually it may have been at the beginning of the last year, look my memories hazy.
So how did that impact in terms of your training and what you were learning, how did that impact?
Oh well it did impact on the fact that in your last year you did specialisation
so all the armoured graduates, four of us went off for a day of the week and we went down to the armoured wing at RMC and we were learning about gunnery. The artillery men all went off to the artillery park and got behind 25 pounders [cannons], and the infantry went off and did things, carrying rifles and walking around the place. So every corps, the service corps people went off and did instruction with the service corps
instructors, ordnance, don’t ask me about the mechanical engineers or the engineers. So we all did at least a day or two of specialisation in the armoured corps. So really by the time I left RMC I think I was reasonably well qualified tank gunner, we’d done a lot of tank gunnery. There was an armoured corps officer who was a British officer actually on the staff at RMC, and we had two armoured corps warrant officers
and they instructed us in tank gunnery. And there was one tank at RMC, it’s never worked, it broke down all the time, but we could still get into the turret and, yes so that’s how we started doing. And then we had a week at Puckapunyal in about August and at the armoured centre and we did more tank gunnery there.
Can you explain what’s actually involved in tank gunnery?
Well a tank has a crew of four. It has a driver, an operator who’s also the loader, and a gunner who sights the gun and a crew commander. And the tanks are about fifty tonnes of steel, they have a big engine, make a lot of noise and dust and it’s a complex piece of machinery, it’s like a ship you might say.
The tank of course is designed to go across country; all sorts of rough country, to cross ditches and go up steep things and down slopes. And course the purpose of the tank is to deliver fire power, it has a large gun and that’s designed to knock out other tanks or to fire supporting fire to help our own troops or to knock out enemy soldiers. So the gunner really
as we all say, he’s the most neglected man in peace time but the most vital man in war time. So you never forget that. The Gunner has to sit in a little enclosure like this, and in the Centurion this was the Travis handle, the elevation handle. And the Centurion tank had a stabilisation system so that the tank could be going along but the gun would still stay level and the tank
could be doing that, but the gun was still pointed at the target. So this requires an enormous amount of skill, not only from the gunner of course, who has to sort of maintain the target in what we call his sight picture, he’s looking through with one eye, very good sight but the tank’s bouncing up and down and he’s got to keep his eye pressed against that pad there. And the crew commander and the
driver play enormous part as well, life’s misery with a lousy driver. We only qualify people that reach a certain standard to be tank drivers, but it’s amazing some of them are brilliant and some aren’t quite so good. But when the gun is to the front of the tank and you may be in operations or firing, the driver is closed down, so the driver’s dropped down below the front of the tank, he’s looking through two little vision blocks. Very limited
vision so the crew commander, who has to play a big part in telling the driver what the ground is like ahead of him. If it’s smooth ground no problem, but if you’re negotiating a couple of obstacles on the way to where you’re going, it can be very difficult. The driver may not see the obstacles and suddenly he drops you into a ditch three foot deep and you bang your head, break your teeth, and everybody swears, you can do yourself physical harm.
So the crew commander’s important, in fact the crew commander is a very important person and the training of crew commanders is one of the vital roles in the armoured corps. The crew commander of the armoured vehicle, whether it’s a tank or an APC or some sort of a cavalry unit, is the man, he’s like the forward scout, he’s the man up front with the bayonet,
with the riffle. So the selection of training crew commanders takes a lot of time, most crew commanders have been gunners, they have to understand the gunnery because gunnery is quite involved and complex. But he also has to be very clever at being able to look at the ground, look at where he’s going, identify the routes he should take,
keeping in mind enemy action that may be taken against him. The route he’s going to take to get to there, he may do this and cross over there, he’s then got to instruct the gunner to where the gun should be pointed. It might be an arc, so the gun will just watch an arc while the crew commander’s looking all around of course. The crew commander then is giving order to the driver, orders to the gunner
and at the same time using his own eyes. The crew commander is hopefully opened up so he’s looking out above, if he’s closed down also and looking through vision blocks it’s very difficult indeed, very difficult. So it’s not a simple business, it’s all designed to get fire power quickly onto a target if it occurs, if you’re fired upon then you must get fire back. Now a tank is part of a troop and there’s three tanks in a troop so the four tanks
are supporting each other. Tactically you may launch one tank off or two tanks off and they’re supported by two tanks behind, so this is a team game again. But being able to read the ground and second guess where the enemy might be, this is very much part of experience factor of soldiers, that people learn. It’s different for tanks to APCs or to cavalry, all different roles,
different employment. But the tank is the weapon in the armoured corps which can play a decisive part in winning a battle; it’s a hard hitting big fire power, so it’s very important.
What sort of tank technology were you training with in that last year?
It was the Centurion and the Centurion was literally a World War II tank and very
good design for a tank, it was modelled on the Cromwell tank which is about a 1940s model tank. Then the first model of Centurion came out in about 1945 I think it was, it saw little or no action in the Second World War actually, it had a seventeen pounder gun and then it changed after the war to a twenty pounder gun with a Mark 3 Centurion
and so it was well to do with technology, it was also a model a bit on the German Panther tank. What made it a good tank was probably in its protection; most of the ammunition was stored under the floor and you had a twenty round bin at the front left hand side of the tank behind the glassy part, which is the thickest armour and behind a water tank. And you had four ready rounds
standing upright in the turret. It was quite a good tank from the point of view if you’re struck by enemy fire, which thankfully never happened to me, or to a few of us actually. I say this in comparison to some of the Russian tanks like a T54 tank which had a necklace standing up around you. So and it
made the tank very vulnerable to being hit by an armour piercing round. If you’ve seen pictures of the Israeli War in 1967 or the Iraq wars, you see a lot T54’s or an Iraq T72s with the turrets just blown a hundred yards away and the whole tank’s just disintegrated. That was quite an old model tank, we took them to Vietnam
and they did quite well there, even though mechanically they weren’t the most reliable tank. Their suspensions system was with suspension strapped on the side of the hull so if you hit a mine you could just literally unbolt the whole suspension unit, repair the links in the track, take that suspension unit off and put another one on and off you went again. The American tanks had trudgeon bars which went
right across the bottom of the tank. If they hit a mine often the hull would be buckled, but it would destroy all the suspension so it meant the whole tank had to have a major refit. We found in Vietnam with the mines there we could get the tank back in action comparatively quickly, so it was an improvement. The Americans were quite impressed definitely. Stories I’ve heard that when they saw mine damage to one of our Centurions how quickly we repaired the tank and got it back in business. Anyhow mines get bigger and bigger
of course and they do big damage. Now of course we’ve got different tanks and we’re looking at probably buying the M1 Abram tank, I heard on the news a couple of weeks ago, which is a very expensive tank and far more complex tank.
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 04
Bob you mentioned that you went to Canungra while you were still at Duntroon, can you explain what training you were doing there?
We did three weeks with Battle Wing and this was virtually infantry work for jungle warfare. Canungra was very important during the Second World War for operations in New Guinea and it closed down. It started up in 1955
and it started up with a Colonel Serong as the commandant and Lieutenant Colonel George Warfe who was quite a famous commando officer from the Second World War, famous for his operations in New Guinea, he became the Chief Instructor of Battle Wing. So it was three weeks of intensive infantry training in jungle warfare. It was very hard,
very interesting. The instructors there were very experienced infantry officers from World War II and it was some of the best training I think we’d had. At RMC the training was very good but this really suddenly came home to us, this was getting close to what you could expect. At that time our army was very much orientated towards jungle warfare; we had a battalion in
Malaya and everything was jungle. So it was very important, the training was excellent, we were very fit cadets of course so we were able to stand the physical rigour of it. But the whole training, the way it was put across was also very instructive. They had a very good system of using a demonstration platoon, and we saw some quite brilliant demonstration
and this was very useful to us later on. But the whole system of the weapon training, the map reading, navigation skills, the tactics, it all was very well put across and it was very good training. And militarily very sound practice, very sound practice indeed.
What was different about jungle warfare?
Well the thing in jungle you just can’t see anything,
we say the range of a weapon in the jungle is as far as you could see. So one of the main characteristics is the enemy can be literally as close as you to me, until you suddenly see him, or until he suddenly fires upon you. And so all the problems, like for example commander control, you may be in a patrol of a section of men, men four, five yards apart,
but the minute there’s a contact you hit the ground and you can’t see a jolly soul. But of course in open country you can probably see the soldier next to you, or either side of you. So one aspect of training for jungle warfare was you had to have tremendous confidence in everybody else that you knew, what they were doing and that they would do it. So just the sheer lack of visibility was one thing, it means from the point of view
of supporting arms fire is very restricted, whereas in open warfare you can have all sorts of people sitting a hundred yards behind you, firing in your support. But in the jungle you just can’t see a hundred yards ahead of you, you can’t see fifty yards ahead of you. So it’s very difficult to have as much supporting fire as you like. If you want to bring in artillery fire to support you that’s very difficult, in open country again you can bring artillery fire in close to you, but in jungle you’ve got
trees maybe a hundred of feet above you and you’ve got the problems of the shell hitting the tree above you and exploding over you and not exploding over the enemy. Knowing where you are, map reading is so much more difficult and often the maps are difficult, lot of maps are made from air photography and all the air photographs have got a pattern of the canopy of the trees and you can’t see all the contours. So jungle warfare is different, it’s difficult,
some people prefer it cause you’re not so visible, your not so vulnerable. So it’s here again depends on people’s skill and experience, it certainly was different for the armoured corps. You can’t use tanks in the jungle too often, tanks were sort of a secondary thing, but still very important. So our training at JTC [Jungle Training Centre] really put a bit of icing on the cake, put a bit of finish on the polishing, polished us up
and all of us felt a lot more confident at the end of our three weeks at Canungra that. Yes, we could go and do what we had to do. So it was very valuable training. So the Canungra training has now moved to Innisfail up in Northern Queensland but the army still regards it as being very important. Our neighbours, the countryside, well a third of Australia’s tropical
and certainly in places like New Guinea, Indonesia, Timor it’s mainly a jungle environment.
When you left Duntroon where did you go?
I went to Puckapunyal, which is just north of Melbourne, I went to the armoured centre to start with, where we did about twelve weeks of training in the armoured corps, we learnt how to drive a tank, to fire the gun and to work on the radio sets. And after about three months at the armoured school I was posted to First Armoured Regiment
and, in fact all the armoured graduates were, the four of us, and we became troop leaders in squadrons and ended up having, actually three tanks under my dizzy command and twelve Soldiers. The first year was spent virtually in the field, learning to be part of a tank squadron, and doing squadron training, did some regimental training, so it was quite noisy, dirty and dusty.
What we expected it to be, so the second year I became the Regimental Intelligence Officer and they had other jobs like Unit Compensation Officer, Unit Resettlement Officer, lots of other sort of, had all these other odd jobs. That was interesting, slightly cleaner occupation than being in a dirty old tank all the time. I had some interesting soldiers,
in the armoured regiment in those days we had quite a few British Army soldiers, cause when our army decided to get Centurion tanks they sought soldiers from the Royal Armoured Corps in the UK and so we had some British soldiers. And I had two British soldiers, two corporals, one a Corporal Horden who’d been actually he’d been the gunner in a flame throwing tank in Europe in the Second World War, he had some
horrific stories to tell me at times. And another lance corporal who’d also been in the Armoured Corps and just served towards the end of the Second World War. My gunner was a Polish Trooper, Zigman Szchepkowski, had to learn all the names see. But we called him Sid, but old Szchepkowski had been a teenager in the Polish underground
during the Second World War, escaped to England and joined the Polish Armoured Brigade and went back to Europe after D Day with the Polish Armoured Brigade. Then stayed in the brigade and migrated to England, I think, and became part of the British army and went to Malaya and then joined the Australian Army. So he was as blind as a bat this old Sid was, and he used to have the magnification thing screwed up like this, but a very interesting bloke;
must have been about twelve years older than I was. But funny stories, it gave you an insight into him as a teenager growing up in war, being as a boy of fourteen fighting the Germans, as a civilian in the underground in Poland. And it made you think, met his wife who was Polish, lovely person. Sid ended up being in Club Motor Insurance
running the accident investigation team in Melbourne. But, because I remember I went in there, and my Sergeant, Sergeant Mick Lindsay ended up being in the RACV [Royal Automobile Club of Victoria] as well you see. And I went looking for these two one day in Melbourne and I said, “Is Mr Lindsay here?” “Oh yeah, Mick he’s over there.” and then, “Mr Szczepkowski?” “Who?”
“Mr Szczepkowski he’s a Pole.” “Oh, no one by that name.” I said, “Is there a Sid?” and they said, they used some other name; they had some other nickname for him. Anyway I went up to see Sid and there he was sitting in a big office and big desk there, he’s passed away now, a few years ago, but that was interesting.
At what point did you go to Malaya?
Went to Malaya in 1959, I went there as an infantry subaltern with an Australian infantry captain, two of us went
and it was an exchange posting between the British army and the Australian Army, two British officers came back here and we went to Malaya. And we went to 17 Ghurkha Division. 28 Commonwealth Brigade was part of that and that and had a British Battalion, Australian Battalion, New Zealand Battalion, but we went to the Loyals, which is the British Battalion. Which was very interesting and I didn’t mind being an infantry platoon commander. It was,
here again, an interesting phase of your life to see another army to work with different people, speaking the same language almost. It was during the Emergency [Communist Insurgency], towards the end of the Emergency so we were chasing the Communist terrorists. I was stationed in Ipoh which is up towards the northern end of Malaya. So we spent a lot of time in the jungle, for about either twelve or fourteen days, fourteen days in
and six or seven days out, back in camp. So did a lot of walking, didn’t see any terrorists, might have scared a couple one night, but most of the Communists were up in Thailand, the emergency was almost at an end. And our aim was to push them up against the Thai border and try and eliminate them. So it was very good infantry work,
the British Army was different to our army, you might say it’s an older army. The company commanders were all experienced Second World War men, I think they all had Military Crosses. But the Loyals came from Lancashire, they’re a North Country battalion and we saw them towards the end of their second year, they left in December, we got there in about June.
So they were at the end of their tour and very competent, very practical and here again met some very interesting officers, met some brilliant NCOs. But it was hard work, not too much fun. But Malaya was interesting of course, I’d never been overseas before and Malaya was very much a tropical country, the big Orient, smells of all different shades of the spectrum you might say.
And my platoon of soldiers were a good bunch, mixture of regular soldiers and also national servicemen. But they were quite happy to take me on as a colonial so to speak, and had no troubles there. So you learned a lot.
That issue of having a mixture of national service and regular, how did that
You wouldn’t have known who was who really, rather like our army, you wouldn’t have known unless you spoke to them and asked them. I couldn’t remember who was who really in my platoon. My signaller was a ex merchant marine signalman, he’s been trained at the Marconi School of Wireless. There you used to use Morse code
you couldn’t talk in the jungle, so you’d signal by Morse code. He was a brilliant signalman, he should have been in a sig platoon but he preferred to be out in the jungle. They were a mixture of people, the British Army stopped National Service [conscription] at the end of 1959 when I went there and they lost a lot of soldiers, had to go back and do a big recruiting drive to bring the army back up to strength.
So, no they were good soldiers, they far preferred to be in the jungle than out in camp. It was pretty boring, you did a lot of patrolling, a lot of walking up and down very steep hills. You ate rice and had to cook for yourself in the jungle, so it was pretty tough. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so fit in my life
coming out, after a couple of months there. But as a platoon commander you are entirely by yourself for that 14 days, so it was great experience for an officer to have his own area of operations. Have about 6 to 8 maps square and you had to do your own patrol program over that 8 map squares, and you were looking for the terrorists all the time, you were looking for any camps or if they were passing through,
just trying to eliminate the Communist terrorists. So it was very, very sort of detailed, boring you might say soldiering.
How would you as a leader work out where you were going to patrol next?
Well the ops [operations] officer in the battalion told you your area
and the number of map squares you had depended on, whether they thought you were going to an area where there could be people moving through, or you may find food caches or little gardens. Because the food control program was the main way that the emergency was operated, you stopped the enemy getting food. So if you were in an area where you thought couriers
or the enemy might be moving, then you were probably given a smaller area. But if you were in an area which was unlikely, then you’d be given a bigger area. But it was up to the platoon commander to work out his patrol plan before he went, you then submitted that to the operations officer who’d say, “Yes that’s fine, that will do.” And then you’d put into play over the next fortnight or so, you’d patrol these various areas. And all the time you were looking for tracks, in the platoon I had,
you had Iban trackers from Sarawak who were expert at tracking in the jungle. You had one or two dogs, a tracker dog, Labrador dog and a patrol dog who were German Shepherds, and I would then divide the platoon up into three patrols, had three sections and I’d have two sections out each day doing one of these patrols, going out in the morning and coming in at night. If we thought something was worthwhile,
I’d put an ambush on a certain place and we had ambushes overnight. If you had a contact, literally the enemy would vanish, the Communists would vanish and your job was to chase them as far as you could. When you’re on patrol all you had was a water bottle, small pouch which would be a couple of Mars Bars [chocolates] and a packet of raisins, very light. I carried a shotgun so that in an emergency, the rules of Geneva didn’t
apply. I had a Remington shotgun with about six inches cut off the barrel and I carried about a dozen rounds of shotgun ammunition. But the aim was you ran and chased the enemy, because they’d just vanish like that in front of you. So you’d have two patrols out and one section would be resting in the base camp and defending the base camp, not that you were worried about being attacked there, but resting. It was very tiring; you’d find that after about ten to twelve days the soldiers just lost a bit of
vitality. They were still very fit and had bags of reserve left, no doubt about that, but it just was routine and not terribly exciting. So there’s a limit to how long you can leave people in the jungle. Where you’re living in a canvas stretcher under a sheet of tarpaulin. When it rain it rains cats and dogs [heavily].We used to build our stretchers off the ground about that high with a bit of plastic on top
because the normal ground sheet was far too small so you used to have a big sheet of green plastic. And you couldn’t be on the ground, you’d just get saturated, even up high the water would bounce up off the ground and spray you. So you lived in one set of clothes. If you could, if you weren’t in an ambush, you’d take them off and hang them on a stick, they were filthy stinking, you have no idea of the smell, you smelt like a pole cat,
whatever a pole cat smells like. And you put on your second set of greens and sleep in them, by the end of a fortnight they were pretty damp too. But up in the top of the mountains in Ipoh in winter months, when I say the winter months towards Christmas time, it got quite cool so you’d be shivering a bit and you slept in, well I had some parachute silk. The actual equipment was pretty primitive.
You had a light woollen blanket but that was hopeless so, we would get supply parachutes, our supplies came in by parachutes, and the platoon would divide up the parachute and we’d each cut out about three panels, which you weren’t supposed to do, you were suppose to return the damn things, but nobody did, quite expensive parachutes, these are nylon. And then you’d cut them up and get the local Indian tailor to sew them up into a bag, I’ve still got my bag there. So you had four
layers and if it was cold you'd sleep in between the two layers above and below. So it was pretty tiring and you noticed the platoon would get a bit lethargic at the end. If there was a contact [with the enemy] well everybody would wake up straight away and off you went. I learnt that there was a limit how long you could leave people on operations in that, in the jungle.
You mentioned patrols, could you walk me through what actually happens
on a patrol?
Well in Malaya nothing much happened at all, you would have a five or six man patrol and they’d have to follow the route I gave them and I would often use a fan system of patrolling so that each patrol would go out in a certain compass bearing, turn left and walk, turn right and then come back again. I
did this to make sure that the patrol were doing their job, some patrols would go a couple of hundred yards up the track and sit down and have a smoke all day and then come back in again, “Saw nothing, Sir.” So you had to make sure that they had to go out the five hundred yards and they should then discover tracks two days old, which was the patrol you sent out two days before and so
if they didn’t report tracks two days old, you knew maybe they didn’t go up. I had one section commander that I was a bit suspicious about, so I’d take him with me, I’d go with his section. But normally that was not a problem. Patrolling, you’d be moving along very quietly, not talking, all hand signals and primarily you were looking at the ground in front,
looking for footprints, tracks and things. Didn’t use the dog, you had to keep using the dogs to keep them interested otherwise the dogs lost their skill. But the dog would go out two days out of three, but if you did find a track then you’d put the dog onto the track, that was important. So a couple of times we’d find a track and
the dog would, if the track was old, meaning the footprints were old, the sense had gone and it wasn’t much use to you. Oh sorry, that was it, it was nothing terribly exciting at all, it was sheer concentration, slow movement, you were looking for things all the time, you were looking for anything which might indicate that somebody had been there before. If you were working close to a cultivated area
or coastal township where you could have contacts between the terrorists and civilians, then you were looking for letter boxes, the Communists terrorists used letters, a letter box, maybe just a hole in a bamboo stick somewhere, or post or something, or under a rock. You were certainly looking for caches of food so you had to be very observant. In the primary jungle there wasn’t much,
nothing to see at all frankly, you were looking to see if people had been there. The whole network of the emergency for the enemy, for the Communist terrorists, was based on groups of terrorists working in a particular area in each state and they were linked by couriers. But because of the action of the security forces, the army and the police force, the couriers were almost being eliminated. So it was very difficult for the
headquarters of the Malayan Communist Party, which by then they’d been in southern Thailand since about 1952, it was almost impossible for them to know what was happening anywhere else in Malaya. So virtually it was running right down, security forces were on top of it.
What did you know about how the Communists were armed?
From ones who were killed or captured, their weaponry
was pretty primitive, there was 303 rifles, American carbines, lot of old shotguns, they were very poorly armed, very poorly armed indeed, they didn’t have too many automatic weapons at all, they would have had some Tommy guns, but very poorly armed. Had a few grenades, nothing for example like the Viet Cong in Vietnam which were well armed.
No you weren’t worried about a firefight, early on in 1948–49 when it started. There were several major attacks on police stations in Malaya and some big fire fights occurred. But they gradually lost their ammunition, they had large caches of weapons and ammunition in Thailand, which they’d put up there, but the security forces
in Malaya just couldn’t get their hands on weapons. One of the aims of all their ambushes, apart from sort of killing the security forces, or the local police or whoever, was to get weapons and ammunition, capture them from the soldiers and any enemy they might have killed. But they weren’t doing too much of that.
What differences did you find between the Australian Army and the British soldiers that you were leading?
I suppose there wouldn’t have been too much difference. I think that there’s more of a free and easy nature in the Australian Army between all ranks, there’s more joking around, you might say. We can joke among each other and take the mickey out of [tease] each other. In the British Army it was more strict,
much more strict, and the officer certainly maintained a little bit more aloofness I think, I’d say that. For example, for my first operation I said to the sergeant, “Look I’ll be over at where it was at 2 o’clock and I’ll brief the platoon.” you see and he said, “Oh!” I said, “Anything wrong?” He said, “Oh, I usually do that, Sir.” So the
sergeant would brief the platoon and the officer would just turn up and get on the truck and off they go. I said, “Well look I think I’ll do it, because it gives me a chance to meet the platoon again and they can hear my voice and what I’m saying.” “Oh yeah sure.” so he had no problem with it. So then they took my platoon sergeant away from me, they thought obviously I didn’t need him, so I lost my platoon sergeant, Sergeant McGratin, who was a very fine bloke, he was ex-S Squadron and the battalion grabbed him for other jobs, much to my
chagrin because I would have liked to have had him with me. The soldiers were more reserved with me, the British soldiers, whereas I kept thinking with your Australian Army soldiers they’d have a go at you, “Oh what are you doing that for, Sir, come on.” this sort of thing. I don’t think that ever happened to me in Malaya. Didn’t worry me at all, but that didn’t happen. And
actually the Loyals went back, and this is where it’s a bit stricter, the Loyals went back in December back to Germany and we stayed on and took up with a new battalion, which was the 1st Battalion of the 30 East Anglians Regiment. They were a combination of the Essex Battalion and the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Battalion. Now the British army was coming down in size a bit and they were amalgamating battalions, and this was not a happy amalgamation, the Essex didn’t like the Beds and Harts you see and
there was a lot of fighting, physical fighting in the battalion. British Army said, “Look we’ll send this lot off to Malaya on operation, and that will mould them altogether and they’ll become one big happy family.” Well that didn’t happen at all, and some very nasty incidents happened with the East Anglicans and because national service had stopped. The British army were recruiting as fast as they could, but frankly, they weren’t recruiting from the jails. Certainly some local male content got up before
the local judge, he was offered in some case, “Well you can have three months' inside, lad, or you can have three months at Her Majesty’s pleasure in the army.” So some of them would take three years in the army, and so we really had some very undesirable people, and they weren’t pleasant at all. So straight away I noticed a much stronger line of discipline with the NCOs with the men, far more than
with the Loyals who were a bit more relaxed with their soldiers. So that was interesting to see, two quite different battalions. And the company commanders were all very capable again, in both battalions, but I liked the soldiers in the Loyals quite well, but I really would have turned my back on a couple of blokes in the East Anglicans. We had, well this isn’t that important, but there was a punch-up between
some of the East Anglicans and an Australian soldier; and they almost kicked one of our blokes to death in a bar in Ipoh , and we almost had to stop the Australian company marching down the road to beat up the British fellows. So they almost had an international incident, but that was stopped. And then some of these East Anglicans started on a few of the taxi drivers, they wouldn’t pay them or pay half the thing. So the Special Branch of the local Malayan
police came out and gave each of the companies a lecture on Chinese secret societies and Chinese criminals. And they bought out a big board with all of these, what do you call them, knuckle dusters and knives and skewers. They said, “Look, don’t punch up any taxi drivers or you may end up in a ditch cause these taxi drivers belong to some sort of union or secret society and you may find that you’ll be in trouble.”
So that quietened these guys down a bit, but we had quite a few incidents with the local police. Here’s two of us, two Australian officers with this lot you see, so we were certainly being very careful. But I did notice quite a difference with the way the sergeants and the CSMs [Company Sergeant Majors] handled the soldiers, they had to be leaned on a bit. And I had one incident when I was orderly officer. One corporal got drunk,
and had to throw him in the clink, in the cells, in the guard room. Along came the junior warrant officer to quieten him down, but I’ve never heard such language and such, it was terrible. I can see why the British had the lash years ago, in some ways. Australian soldiers are different, the English soldier is
With those incidents going on with the local police becoming involved, how did that impact on the welcome that the troops had in Malaya?
The Malayans wanted the British out, the British were a colonial power and the whole emergency got going really after the Second World War. I mean the Japanese drove the British out of Malaya, they
drove them out of Indonesia, they drove them out of Dutch East Indies, they drove them out of Burma, out of the French Indo China. And even before the Second World War the British were persona non grata and there was trouble in Malaya, I think the Malayan Communist Party started in about 1930, and so the Malayans were a subjected race. And of course this didn’t impact on me
as an Australian really, who probably regarded that Asians were not quite the same as us. We are unwittingly racists, without knowing. But so even when we were there in 1959 when I got there, the first thing that made an impact on me, apart from the smells and all this and the different people, went to the movies one night and everybody smoked in the
movie house which was different you could hardly see the screen from the smoke. But at the end of it, on comes God Save the Queen, everybody stood up, not everybody – we stood up, myself and the British officers and you suddenly realised that we were the only few people standing up in the theatre. And in front of us were a lot of Chinese that looked at us, none of the Chinese stood up, none of the Malays stood up, some of the Indians stood
up and I thought, “This is different. What a disloyal unpatriotic bunch of people these are.” But you know the mind started to tick over and you realise that this is not God’s Queen and country at all, these are Malayans and they don’t want to see it. So it was called the emergency but it was a war of independence for the Malayans, mainly headed by the main Communist Party. So I think every time the British battalion came in,
or the Australians for that matter, we were like an occupying power. Having said that, I mean world Communism was putting a stamp on the world which people didn’t want and they wanted democracy, and so the political will of the people in Malaya was, “We want to be free, we don’t want to be Communists either, we want to be free.” So certainly in the late ‘50s Malaya was told, “Independence will come.”
and in 1960, I think, they got self government, Merdeka Day was freedom day in the middle of 1960 I think it was, yeah I forget exactly how much self Government they got them but Tunku Abdul Rahmnan became the first prime minister. So their independence was coming, their freedom was coming but still you still had the British army staying there
as part of the SEATO [South East Asian Treaty Organisation] force against Chinese Communists coming out of China through Thailand. And so the British forces withdrew from the north out of the emergency and went into other camps and then they were based at Singapore as part of the SEATO Reserve, I’m not sure if you’re aware of the SEATO situation, but that was all part of combating Chinese Communism which is a much bigger threat.
Having come from Australia what was your knowledge about the debate about Communism
in Australia on the local political scene?
Well the local political scene really was the strikes and the fact that the Communists were trying to take over Australia and the waterfront was in disarray. I joined the armoured regiment I think the year before the regiment had been moved to Melbourne to unload goods on the waterfront, because the waterside workers were on strike. So you were obviously aware of
the world Communism, the Iron Curtain had come down in Europe, you were aware of the Berlin Blockade, the Cold War had well and truly started, you had the Korean War, you had the Indo China War, so Communism was the big threat. The world was divided into two parts, them and us. Added to that of course, you had the nuclear threat. So the world was a pretty unhappy place,
just a different world in the late 1950s and 60s. We went to Malaya supporting the British government to remove the Communists out of Malaya, that of course was to help the British get back into the economy. I mean the British, forty per cent of their export earnings were coming out of Malaya, Malayan rubber, Malayan tin, they didn’t want to give up Malaya
after the Second World War. These things only impact on you in later years, but after the war the Dutch got out of Indonesia and gave it it’s independence, the British got out of Burma, then of course partition occurred in India, and they left India. The Americans got out of the Philippines but that left Malaya and French Indo-
China. Both wanted the economic potential of the two countries. Now there’s big money, big money, all the rubber plantation owners came back into Malaya, so the Malayans who thought they had fought, had fought alongside the British against the Japanese thinking they would get their independence, didn’t get it.
Were you aware of
that political manoeuvring at the time when you were sent to Malaya?
No I wasn’t. One’s briefing for Malaya was bad, it was non existent you just knew you were going to an emergency, we were fighting the Communists and it was very much an infantry type of a situation. The historical context was not given to you really at all, it
was to certain degree still a big British colony and the Brits are in charge and, well, we go along with them. I wasn’t really that aware of it until I was reading books, reading books about the emergency and you got an awareness. And you got an awareness by having your hair cut by, I used to go to the barber, great Indian barber
superb barbers Indians. But the way they treated you, it was bit wrong, it’s terribly differential, and even though he was much easier with Australian officers, I went to the same place with a couple of British officers and the way they treated British officers was quite different again, you see. But I wasn’t aware of the political and social background
I wasn’t aware of Asian politics, Asian inhibitions, the Asians what they wanted for themselves. I was pretty ignorant really, there’s no doubt about it. As I said not standing up for God Save the Queen I thought, “Goodness this is terrible, but different.” I’m not sure I answered that question at all well.
The world is different
and I don’t think we as Australians, we are so insulated, we just don’t have an appreciation for this at all, we still think that our values are important. And of course we don’t understand other people at all, we like to think we do, but we don’t.
Australia at that time did it have an understanding of Asia in that way of the politics of Asia?
I don’t think so; I don’t think our politicians did. Later on in Vietnam I remember
Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes had been the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Menzies government. He came to visit us in about 1962 in the civil training unit when it was up at Vietnam and I’d never met Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes before, but I knew he was very able and very senior parliamentarian and he sat down with us, the Australians…
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 05
But for the first time in my life I think I sat down informally with an Australia politician who quickly asked us questions and told us things, which showed he had a very wide grasp of Asian affairs.
He’d met many of the leaders in Asia; he had been a very able First World War soldier so he had the military experience. But that made an impression on me, that there were so many things you still didn’t know about Asia and what they were thinking and how they thought. So you realised how, in many ways, you were probably quite capable at what you were supposed to be doing in the military but you just didn’t have
a grasp for the wider nature of the operational area you were in. And that was quite important, that was important in Malaya.
Did you have a sense on how that might impact your operations at the time?
No not really no, the operation’s quite different, but when you’re looking at the aspirations of the people you’re supposedly in his country, it’s very important. And I don’t think, I didn’t really have any idea of the political aspirations of the Malays,
even though they were a multi racial society, what they had in mind, we were just out there to find the Communists and eliminate the Communist terrorists. It’s only in later years that you read back into things and think about things you realise that you could have been better informed, it wouldn’t have made any difference to what you were doing frankly, because once you were in a military situation, it’s like fighting a fire, if there’s a fire burning the fire brigade have got to put the fire out before you start worrying about anything else. That’s
exactly the situation in the war. If you’ve got an enemy which is trying to kill you, or to trying to destroy the country, you must eliminate that problem first. So that was our job, our job wasn’t to fight the political battle to look at developing a democratic state of Malaya, that’s not the soldier’s job; it’s the politician’s job to do that. And I’ll tell you one story about Malaya. It involved a tiger cub. Towards
the end of the Loyals' tour the whole battalion was put up on the Thai boarder and they were then going to hand over to the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. So we, being the Australian speaking Englishmen, so to speak, Ian McLean and myself, this infantry captain and I were put up in the forward CP [Command Post] near the Thai border During this operation which lasted about three weeks the tracker team, one
of its soldiers became very ill, he kept passing out and had a high temperature, it turned out he had rheumatic fever. So anyhow and the first day in they’d shot a tigress, it had a cub; picked the cub up and put it in the bag and took it along with them. I took a doctor in to try and diagnose what this soldier had. It was very thick jungle and helicopters were pretty limited in those days and no winches, so we had to carry him out. So I ended up bringing this tiger out
and had this tiger cub for a couple of weeks in a cage and, which he escaped from. When we got back to camp in Ipoh, as the battalion was packing up to go to Germany, I had this jolly animal in my room for two weeks. So it was funny circumstances having this tiger cub as a pet in my room. It went off to a zoo in England, flown off by KLM [Dutch airline] as a cat, so
we took it down to Kula Lumpur and put it on a aeroplane to go to England. But that was an interesting little interlude having this tiger cub, beautiful little animals, and I’d play games with it at night, take it for walks at night, it was funny. Its mother was longer than that table, when I took the doctor in with a small patrol I had to follow the tracks of the tracker team who were up near the Thai boarder, and after about the first couple of hours
of walking this terrible smell, of course we found the tiger who had been shot. And the tiger had been eating a bear which was really in a stage of advanced decomposition. Seeing this tiger, I’ll never forget the size of the animal, it was huge, massive animal.
How common was it on patrol to encounter that sort of wildlife?
Oh pretty uncommon thing, goodness you were worried about elephants, the odd elephant
and elephants, an elephant, a couple, yes one Ghurkha subaltern got killed by an elephant, a rogue elephant. Nobody got killed by a tiger, though a tiger did maul a New Zealand soldier in previous years, I heard. But elephants were a worry because you didn’t have the fire power to knock an elephant down; you wanted an elephant gun not a military bullet.
So if you became upon elephant tracks you were always a bit jittery. One patrol we were trying to get through this belt of palm trees, which is almost impenetrable, spiky palm so we had to go around it, and as we were going around it there’s this track right through the middle of it, which was elephant track. Why the hell the elephant bothered going through it I’m hanged if I know but it did, in the middle of it was a big wallow hole.
So he must have known there was water there and they’d come and wallow in it every few weeks to get the insects and things off them. So I debated with the Iban [tribesmen] whether we should go through here and he was a bit apprehensive, but I said, “We’ll go through it.” and I said, “How long they come?” “Oh maybe every two, three weeks.” So we got up this track and he couldn’t work out how long the elephant had been there, when he’d been there last. In the middle of it there’s this great hole, big as this room here
stinking mud and there was a dropping of an elephant, and his , eyes lit up and I said, “How long that?” and he said, “Oh it’s about two weeks.” The elephant wasn’t to been seen thank goodness. But the elephant can move, like if an elephant attacks you, you went up hill, you never went down hill because the elephant would go down like on a toboggan, and it would outrun you. But you had a bit of a chance if you went up hill. If you were on the flat you had a problem.
So your one night out in the middle of the night there was an ear piercing screech and literally my hair went up on the back of my head and I could feel the whole platoon sitting up around me in the pitch dark, and it was some sort of jungle cat. There’s a jungle cat there and we must have come close to where it wanted to go, and it just let out this blood curdling scream and left, thank goodness.
But I know one of the sentries out there almost had a heart attack because he was close to it, he must’ve smelt the sentry. So that was interesting, yeah.
What was the visibility like in the Malayan jungle?
Oh at times very little, in the primary jungle it’s not too bad, the primary jungle has very tall trees, very high canopy which cuts the sun out, so there’s no much growing underneath. Sometimes you could see for twenty or thirty yards, that’s in primary jungle. But in secondary jungle it’s just impenetrable stuff
like walking through a rhododendron bush you might say, terrible, oh unbelievably bad stuff, unpleasant.
You mentioned that that was your first time overseas, what would you do while you were on leave?
Well on leave, when you were out of the jungle you had certain things you had to do with your platoon, you had to have a game of football, you were taken down to Lumet, which is on the west coast, on the beach side so I’d take the whole platoon down there for two days and we’d sleep on the beach
and swim, used to be more worried about sea snakes, lot of sea snakes in the waters there, so you were always worried about sea damn snakes. And then you’d have a couple of days, three days, four days when a soldier could just be on leave. I joined the Ipoh Swimming club so I’d go along there and swim whenever I could in the afternoon. But otherwise you were happy to lie down in your bunk and read a book and do nothing. Had a few
trips down to Singapore. When I got there I did three weeks at the Jungle Warfare School in Johore, when I first got to Malaya before I joined the battalion, that was a bit like Canungra again but it was more towards emergency and chasing terrorists. So saw a bit of Singapore, never really got to KL [Kuala Lumpur], went to Penang, I was invited by the Australian pilots at
the air force base near Penang went there for the annual RAF [Royal Air Force] ball, saw Penang, had a couple of days in Penang. And we became quite friendly with the helicopter pilots which were sort of taking us around the place, so invited to Penang once to stay with them. But otherwise you stayed in Ipoh, didn’t play too much sport apart from the soccer game with your platoon, I
couldn’t really play much soccer, but they were all expert soccer players and they used to make me full back. But you had enough exercise walking around in the jungle.
What sort of air cover did you have?
Well we had air support which dropped our rations in by parachute but, and there were bombers at the Butterworth [Air Base, Malaya] but we never had any air support. But your rations came in every six, seven days by parachute
and that was always a bit of a hit or miss affair. Getting rations through trees it’s rather difficult, so you had to try and find a bit of a hole in the canopy or even cut a couple of big trees down, that made a lot of noise and if the enemy are around of course it gave the game away. So you’d try and find a bit of a hole in a canopy or you’d got to a ridge line and try and find a bit of space. Then you had a
ground marker balloon and you had some chemicals and some water and you put these chemicals into a bag and they produce hydrogen gas and then fill this big balloon, quite a massive orange balloon, which would then gently go up through the canopy so it was above the trees. And the aircraft would come along and see your balloon and drop the rations, hopefully on the balloon. But not always, hopefully sometimes you’d have rations
stuck up in trees. In fact Malaya is still littered with parachutes in trees with rations hanging off them that you couldn’t get down. So on one occasion they sent me to get some supplies in. I must have been short, they sent me some explosives in and I had to blown some trees down, which is quite exciting. But luckily RMC had given me good basic training in the handling of explosives. So you’d bore a two inch hole into the side of this huge tree,
the tree may be this big, and you’d bore the holes in like that, you’d push in plastic explosive and a detonator and then some more plastic explosives. And then everybody would clear off, and you’d have an escape route away from, hopefully, where the tree would fall and you’d even take precautions of cutting that with your machete to make sure there weren’t any vines you could trip over. And then you would light the safety fuse
which would give you at least thirty-five seconds to get right away and hopefully the tree would fall where you wanted it to, thankfully it did with me, more my luck than good management. But they’re huge trees and when they come down, some of them are rotten, you’re not sure if they’re rotten and they can fall in another direction and there’s all sorts of vines and things so the tree would not fall exactly where you wanted it. But blow me down, one particular tree I felled it and the ruddy parachute, which was on an out hanging
branch looking beautifully deployed, just sort of drifted away and hooked up on another tree so it’s still there. Our mail would be dropped in by a light aircraft like an Auster aircraft, like a little Cessna, and it would come in a bag with a long orange or red streamer on it. And it would fly in, find your balloon and hopefully drop it right down your throat. But on one occasion you know
we just couldn’t find our mail, so I bought the whole platoon up to find the mail. The platoon had to carry the rations away, but I had the platoon down the bottom of the hill because these things can come down and people can get injured. So you only have a small group in the drop zone and so somebody might get injured from a package coming down through the trees. And you had a whole platoon beating the jungle trying to find our mail, but we never found it,
that was annoying. Several letters from girlfriends, they’re still rotting out in the jungle somewhere, didn’t do much for your romance I don’t think, so that was funny as well.
In terms of the training that you received say in Canungra can you comment on how prepared you were for that jungle?
You were very well trained for jungle warfare
and the three weeks I had at a special Jungle School in Malaya in Johore, which was purely for the job in Malaya, was also excellent. Run mainly by Ghurkha officers, there were a couple of Australian NCOs there, couple of sergeants who I met later on in other years. But it was also very good training, so by the time you hit your platoon I was, though I was pretty good, quite confident doing the job.
Probably even more so than the British officers because their background was not jungle, they’d never been to a place like Canungra before. When the East Anglians came I was given the job of running two week cadre courses for British NCOs coming straight from the United Kingdom into the battalion in Ipoh and they had no jungle experience, so I had two weeks to give these NCOs some knowledge of jungle warfare. And so I ran a little
course of my own in the various ambush drills, navigation of course, so that was interesting. But it was quite a shock to the system for them, coming straight from English winter into the Malayan heat and grappling with this thing. But personally, no, any Australian going to Malaya having been through Canungra was very well trained, no problem at all, so the Australian
battalion had a very good reputation, very efficient.
What were you told about the enemy?
Well they were Communists, they were mainly Chinese, primarily Chinese, politically they were against the government, they wanted to take over the government and that was bad for the government, bad for the British government. And that they had to be eliminated and no one had too much trouble with that. It was only later
on when you look at the ideology of socialism versus Communism and self determination that you realise maybe, well perhaps in Malaya, if the British had’ve gone back in there and said, “Look, we’re going to give you self government in five years time, or something, or even ten years time and it will be a gradual process of you taking over the country.” this might not have happened. If they had’ve had elections and elected their own assembly and been allowed
to develop their own democracy. The British obviously wanted the economic welfare of Malaya, but I’ve never read any particular thesis on this; but it would have interested me to know whether it would have saved the British government an awful lot of money. They could have kept their involvement and ownership of probably the plantations and things to some degree with a sort of shareholding thing, I don’t know, I’ve never
read a thesis on this, I’m sure it’s been done.
What were you told about the level of their expertise as soldiers and what equipment they had available?
The British Army?
No the enemy, the Communists?
Well we knew that they had very limited weaponry, very limited weaponry, they had weapons which had been dropped into them during the war. When the British army was going to come back into Malaya in 1945 and they’d fought
their way back into Burma and there was going to be an amphibious sweep coming out of India, right along the west coast of Malaya. Now during the war the British used the Malayan Communists, who formed what they called the Malayan People’s Anti Japanese Army. They were all the main Communist party who, when Russia came into the war on the side of the allies, and the Communists instead of being against the British government suddenly became on the side of British government, so they formed the Malayan People’s Anti Japanese Army. And they were in the jungle fighting the
Japanese and so the British were pouring in supplies from India, air dropping weapons and landing stuff by submarine and they had a force called Force 136 who were British officers which came in from India to sort of liaise and work with and train the Malayan people, the Chinese Communists there, the Malayans and Chinese there. And they bought in radio sets for liaison with the south eastern
command in India. So a lot of weapons were dropped into the jungle by the British. Now the Communists knowing in the end that probably the British would do the dirty on [betray] them and wouldn’t give them their independence, they stashed a lot these weapons away. At the end of the war they gave up a lot of weapons but they had a lot stashed away knowing that probably their plan for freedom and democracy would fall apart, which it did, and the British would come back and establish control.
So they had a lot of weapons, but they were still bolt action rifles, Tommy guns, I don’t think they had to many Bren guns, light automatic weapons, they didn’t really have mortars, they had hand grenades. But it was limited, they had explosives because they were blowing up train lines and things. But it was fairly limited, fairly limited. The amount of ammunition we carried
was quite small. When the 4th Battalion went into Borneo in 1954 with Malaya Confrontation, all of a sudden they’re fighting Indonesians, you know the battalions found they had to carry four times the amount of ammunition they were carrying in Malaya, because all of a sudden they were getting into fire fights with regular forces who had lots of ammunition, so you had to do a lot of shooting back. So while I was there you weren’t worried about the amount of fire power the Communists were going to deliver at you,
no, otherwise I might of changed my shotgun for a rifle.
So what was the major issue then in terms of confronting the enemy?
Well the major issue was just literally eliminating the Communist terrorists. They were assassinating rubber plantations, they were killing policeman, killing the soldiers of course, and they were trying to take over the country.
But there I think at one stage probably about eighty thousand soldiers against probably about five thousand, so the security forces we called them had overwhelming majority. The British brought in a Lieutenant General Briggs in about 1950 and he did a plan, the first major plan to combat the emergency and
his plan was primarily to control the food supply. And to control the food supply you had to control the population, so they started resettling people into what they called new villages. It meant you got all the Chinese people from the local village in the countryside and you physically moved them into like a concentration camp. And then their movement was controlled, if they were out working as tappers in the paddy field or in the rubber plantation they could only take enough food for lunch, they couldn’t take six pounds of
rice and leave it behind a rubber tree for the terrorist to come and pick it up and take it back in the jungle. So very quickly the terrorists started to starve and there’s no food in the jungle, so they did try to have their own little gardens and grow vegetables in the jungle, but you could spot these from the air so part of our patrolling was to try and find these little market gardens, vegetable gardens. We had aircraft flying around looking for holes in the canopy and if you saw a hole in the canopy, you’d look and you think you could see vegetables
growing. You’d make a note of it and then that grid reference would be given to the Local War Executive Council in the state or the district, and you’d plan an operation to put a patrol in to watch that jolly vegetables garden, small patrol, watch the vegetables growing. And when you reckon they were prime for eating then you’d probably move in a like a platoon or something and you’d try and surround it
and get them when they came along. It was a cat and mouse game, cat and mouse game.
Can you explain how the War Council works?
There’s about nine states in Malaya and each state had what they called a State War Executive Committee. Within each state there were districts and each district has its own War Executive Committee. So all of the operational activity was
planned from the highest level and so you co-ordinated every action. You co-ordinated between what the military would do, what the Police Field Force would do, what the normal sort of Police would do, what the local Medical Teams would do, any Social Welfare Teams would do, even the people spraying for malaria, spraying DDT you’d control them. And it was highly centralised and that’s
what made the war effort ver,y very efficient in many ways. So for example if you were given information by an informer about CTs [Communist Terrorists] using a certain track or something then a lot of activity would go into sort of trying to assess the reliability of the informer, the reliability of his information, and they’d analyse all the intelligence work of things that have happened before. And then it would be decided
what will we do about it? when do we think they might use this track again? will we ambush it with a big patrol? will we put a company around the area or a battalion around the area? So in the end they’d decided on the best way to probably try and see if you’d catch these five or six guys for example, moving again. And they’d work out okay we’ll put a platoon ambush in and we’ll put it there. And so then they’d say, “Well who will we give this platoon ambush to, will we give it to the Loyals
or the Australians or the New Zealanders, who do we think is going to be the best at this? “If it was in the Australian area, well they did get it. But you became very aware that you couldn’t foul up on this information, if you made a muck of this ambush you’d never get any more information again, they’d give it to somebody else. So you really had to do a good job. So then you maybe put an ambush in on this particular track and nothing would happen, you’d be there for three weeks and getting eaten alive by mosquitos, you couldn’t move
and nothing would happen, or you’d have success.
The different nationalities, was it considered that they had different skills that would be suitable for those different missions or operations that you just described?
Well I think the Australian soldier, is that what you mean? And the New Zealander and the British soldier they were very competent, the more experience they got,
they were very competent. The intelligence information that you had on the enemy was vital, so the Malays – you had Royal Malaya Regiment with a few battalions, you had Federation Regiments, the Malaya Regiments were purely ethic Malay, the Federation Regiments were a mixture of Chinese, Malay and Indian, interesting. They had battalions and they had engineer regiments
and armoured car squadrons. There was a very big police field force, so it was Malayan Police, but they called them field force, so they were like infantry and they had roles in the jungle. So this great mass of people, virtually the Europeans, to use that term, we did most of the work in the deep jungle. And
I think that the command preferred to probably put the Europeans where they thought the enemy would be, as we would be a bit more ruthless in going after them. But otherwise I mean they were doing the same job, but no certainly in the deep jungle they used the Australians and the British and the New Zealanders. But
at the Jungle Warfare school I had my first contact with Ghurkhas. The exercise enemy at the school were Ghurkhas, and oh boy they were very fast soldiers. The commandant was a Ghurkha, 2/7th Ghurkha Battalion, very competent soldiers. A funny little story was, I arrived two days late for the course and on the third day
of the course they had an ambush, we’ve got a MT [Motor Transport] ambush where you drive along in trucks, along the jungle track and you’re ambushed. And for this exercise they had a scout car, a funny old sort of scout car with an open top and two Bren guns, with some sort of crazy sort of handlebar, and you fired the guns by firing two bicycle brakes, I’d never seen such thing in my life. And this vehicle was rather like an early model of our Mark I Ferret [armoured patrol car] car but it had the wheels
so you were looking like that, and steering it like that, you see. Anyway the driver was a Ghurkha. I don’t speak any Ghurkha and he doesn’t speak much English, so you have a system in the armoured corps of controlling the driver by patting him on the left shoulder to go left, right shoulder to go right, on the head to stop, tap him in the middle of the back to speed up, you see. So I got into the scout car and this guy looks at me blankly and I look at him a bit blankly and I said, “Do you understand all
the terms of driver advance, driver stop, driver left, right?” He just looked at me like, “What do you mean?” So I said, “Do you understand that if I pat you on the shoulder.” and he got really shaken. So anyhow off we went, I got him to get going and there were about four trucks and the scout car with these two guns at the back. So the scout car would come up and engage the enemy. We got nowhere near it, it was a very greasy track and this guy couldn’t drive for nothing and so we ended up in the ditch in the car.
So by the time the ambush occurred and we got there, all the fighting was over and I arrived well after the scene of the crime. But I’ll never forget this Ghurkha driver, he was terrible.
What were your impressions of the Ghurkhas and their fighting for the Empire, and their belief in that?
Well the Ghurkhas are extremely loyal mercenaries, they are excellent soldiers, but to
them the regiment is the thing. I’m not an expert on Ghurkhas at all, but the Ghurkhas are recruited from Nepal and I don’t know when the British army started doing it, but way back in the 19th century. They don’t get paid as much obviously, but they become a soldier, if you’re a Nepalese that was almost a pinnacle of success. And so to get into the army
was great, great reward, they were immensely loyal to their officers and to their battalion and regiment and they fought incredibly bravely. They haven’t got the initiative and the self motivation you might say that you expect from an Australian soldier and which you encourage in the Australian soldier, but I’d be very happy to command Ghurkhas. But I had to make sure they knew the training, the orders
for driving a vehicle, they weren’t very good drivers, they weren’t very good with mechanical things. To teach them to gear change they’d sit them on the ground with a broomstick and two bricks and all the trucks had crash gear boxes, so to change gears it was that sort of thing, and there occurred an accident with a Ghurkha driver turning a truck over a hill and several Australian soldiers were killed. And so
from that day on the Australian battalion said, “Look we will not accept Ghurkha drivers.” So it was pretty sad, but they’re brilliant soldiers, very fast, they’re good shots, funny sense of humour and there’s a tremendous military tradition, I think there’s only one battalion of Ghurkhas left in the British army now. There were ten regiments and they raised
many battalions, after partition and when the British got out of India, five of the Ghurkha regiments went to the Indian army and five stayed in the British Army. So Malaya had the 1st, 2nd, 6th, 9th and 10th and the others had gone to the Indian army. And so they were great fun, so they were great soldiers, very quick through the jungle like the only people that were quicker were the Fijians.
I heard a story that the Fijians had a battalion in Malaya early on and they were paid by the British Government, so it was a way of making money for the Fijian economy. But earlier on, evidently the Second in Command of the Fijian battalion was shot and the battalion really went a bit crazy. Anyhow they said there was nobody faster through the jungle than a Fijian soldier, he just vroomed through the jungle. And so I was told, right or wrongly that the terrorists shortly after
that stopped ambushing any Fijian patrol because they knew they could be run down. I think that’s the story I’m telling you, I think it’s true, I can well believe it’s true. But certainly trying to chase a Ghurkha through the jungle – forget it, he’s vanished, vanished before you.
How long was your tour in Malaya?
About eleven months, I was there for a year, sadly my father died, after eleven months.
I was flown back, they said, “Look we’ll fly you back and not return.” which made sense, so had eleven months. So it was a very interesting time, I enjoyed it, great experience, good soldiering.
How did you evolve as a soldier?
I hope I came back a much better soldier, learning a lot about the jungle and having had a great experience. I shouldn’t probably use the word an 'adventure' but it almost
was more an adventure, there was no heavy fighting obviously, so you didn’t have the casualties of war which made it a bit different. So it was good, it was good, probably you couldn’t get any better training frankly, any better training. I would have been quite happy to have been attached to say one of the British Army cavalry units which were there, we had some Australian officers from the Armoured Corps attached to them and they had a good time.
But they were mainly bound to the road, up and down the roads, and they didn’t have this jungle experience which I quite enjoyed, which was very valuable.
How did you become aware of the conflict in Vietnam?
Well actually the first awareness would you believe was back in 1954 in the second year as a cadet
and one evening we all were at study, we used to study between half past 7 and 9.30 in our rooms. The word went around our block that first class were going to graduate in two weeks time, I think it was, and go to Indo China. And this would have been February or March and that stage of the game the war in Indo China was coming to a conclusion, you know the battle for Dien Bien Phu, was raging which came to an end in May ‘54. And so that went round the block like electricity,
at breakfast time in the morning, “It’s a big furphy [rumour] forget it you’ll see.” but that was the first thing about Indo China. Interesting enough at school we had a lecture from a Professor McMahon Ball who was regarded as being a bit pink [Communist] evidently in Australia, but he gave us a talk on Communism and on
Indo China. Not so much on the war, Indo China, I knew nothing about it, I didn’t know much about Malaya apart from we had Australian soldiers in Malaya during the World War. But it was in 1962 when our government decided to, at the request of the South Vietnamese government, to send some instructors to Vietnam that we decided to send thirty
instructors, about ten officers and about twenty senior NCOs. And that happened in about May and all of a sudden I was at home and the phone rang on Sunday afternoon about 2 o’clock and the 2IC [Second in Command] of the armoured school where I was posted said, “How would you like to go to Vietnam with that bunch of thirty?. No, he said, “How would you like to go overseas with a bunch of thirty
people?” and it was in the headlines about it the day before, and I said, “Sure, yeah absolutely.” So I was asked if I would volunteer, so I said, “Absolutely, Sir.” “Okay well be ready to go in two weeks’ time.” So it turned out to be about four weeks' time I think, but from that point on one started to read up on Indo China and so you read as much as you could. And we went off for two weeks to the School
of Military Intelligence which was then at Middle Head in Sydney and we did part of what they called the Foreign Army’s Course, which is all about the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Army. Not too much on the Viet Minh, we did another week at Canungra just to refresh ourselves on jungle warfare. But during those three weeks we read as much as we could lay our hands on
books like ‘Street Without Joy’ and ‘Hell In A Very Small Place’ which was about the battle of Dien Bien Phu. I discovered in the library in the bookshelves in the officers mess a couple of good books on Indo China, surprisingly, I don’t know how they got there. And I started to frequent the international book shop in Elizabeth Street in Melbourne which is run by the Communists
and we were told that ASIO [Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation] is watching everybody that goes in and out of that shop. So I sort of went there and made sure they got my photograph from the café across the road in Elizabeth Street. And so we were buying books, selected works by Mao Zedong [Chinese leader] and General Giap’s [Vietnamese general] book on People’s War, People’s Army, which had just come out, you see. Really those books didn’t do too much for you.
In fact somebody said Mao Zedong was rather amused with all the westerners reading his selected works, “What on earth use would that be?” he said. But anyway we read them but didn’t make much sense of them. General’s Giap’s book was good. Anyway we got into Indo China as quick as we could and while we were there you tried to read what you could. But did some extensive reading for the few weeks before we went there.
I’ve heard from Korean
veterans that before they went they were told that the North Koreans and the Chinese forces were peasants with bad equipment. How had that sort of intelligence about the enemy changed by the time you were training for Vietnam?
I think it was a simple lesson of the battle of Dien Bien Phu and no matter what you said about peasants in rubber thongs and short pants and
wheeling bicycles with ammunition and guns, they fought a major war against a very professional French Army and won it. Anybody that said, “You’re up against a bunch of peasants.” is just out of their mind. So I think we all went to Vietnam fully aware that this was a big war with big consequences, and whilst it may be at the early stages of the guerrilla war, it was a counter insurgency sort of situation.
You knew that the Viet Minh was running a big army, had the support of China and Russia and this was not like Malaya. Tactically at the minor level every skill you learnt in Malaya was very useful, but you suddenly knew you’d be up against companies, battalions, regimental size forces, and there was going to be a big war, and of course that’s exactly what happened. So I know that
your question’s an interesting one because I mean in the army, in the ‘60s when Vietnam first started, you’d run into officers who hadn’t been to Vietnam and didn’t know much about it, you realised that they had no, they still thought we were fighting like the battalion was in Malaya or the battalion was in Indonesia. And Indonesia was a different scale of activity, operational intensity to Malaya. There was still a lot of ignorance in our army even in the mid ‘60s when I was preparing the squadron
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 06
What were you were doing between coming back from Malaya and going to Vietnam, just the first time round?
From Malaya I came back as the adjutant of the Armoured School in Puckapunyal and I had a year there and then a year in the Driving and Servicing Wing, and I was being lined up to be adjutant of
an army reserve for CMF Regiment in Wangaratta, and I was single. And I spoke to the adjutant at the EC and he said, “That’s the last place you want to come to, Wangaratta, unless you’re married.” So when I was asked, “Would I like to go to Wangaratta?” I said, “No, Sir I don’t want to go there.” And of course in the army you never ask anybody what they want to do you, just tell them that’s what they’re going to do and get their reaction afterwards. So to cut a long story short I didn’t go to Wangaratta but I was going to be posted as the range officer at Maralinga and I’d actually
been to Maralinga on a course a year or so before, so I didn’t mind that at all because central Australia is quite an interesting spot, would have been for about a year. It was only a month or so after being told this that the phone call came on a Sunday afternoon saying, “Would you like to go to the place, we’re sending thirty advisors.” and I said, “Absolutely Sir.” and I went off to Vietnam. So those two years after Malaya were just fairly
routine soldiering as an adjutant and as an instructor in the Armoured School.
When that phone call came through, were you told specifically that you were going to Vietnam?
The word Vietnam I don’t think was used, it was for some stupid reason, it was the 2IC of the Armoured School at Rangley. But it had been in the paper a few days beforehand, or maybe two days beforehand, so obviously the army had been preparing and they had a shortlist of people they thought they would want to send.
So when the figure of thirty was mentioned on the telephone being highly confidential supposedly I said, “Yes.” I got back the next day on Monday back to work and I was told a bit more about it and started to pack up my gear and started thinking about something else. Quite exciting really, I was a bit bored with where I was.
What were you told about the job that you would be doing in Vietnam?
it was difficult to define the whole job. We were told that we were going to be working as advisors on training. And I think the word was we were all jungle experts you see, so having been to Malaya, that obviously put me in the list for that. But we weren’t quite sure what the advisory role meant, obviously you’re going to give people advice and this is
a bit different to the sort of normal army command system. So we didn’t know too much about it, we didn’t know where we were going in Vietnam or to whom we were going to be attached. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later when we were at Canungra, just the week before we left, that we were told that we were going to be broken up into various groups and roughly what those groups were doing. So I was told I was going to a Civil Guard Training Centre, ten
of us went there, four officers and six WOs and sergeants. The training centre was training civil guardsman who were in company strength later on they were called Regional Forces and they were under the command of the Province Chief and they were a lesser level below the army. The army was the Army of the Republic of Vietnam – ARVN was the acronym – and these blokes were sort of
civil guard or Regional Force, or 'boyan' [phonetic], as they were called in Vietnamese. So we had some idea but we had little idea of what the place was going to be like, and how it would relate, and who the Vietnamese were and what we were doing. We were also told of course that we were going as part of the American advisory effort. It was the Military Assistance and Advisory Command Vietnam [MAACV] that we were under the command of the Americans.
So the Americans came first and Vietnamese, second, you might say. But we didn’t know too much; frankly it was all a new challenge.
You did some intelligence training back in Australia before you left, what was that about?
Well the army was running, I think it was a four week course at the School of Military Intelligence at Middle Head in Sydney and it was one of the courses.
You studied the Russian Army, the Chinese Army and I guess a few other armies. So for us as we were leaving in a hurry they put on a potted course, reduced to I think two weeks and it primarily dealt with the Chinese Army and as much as the Viet Minh or the North Vietnamese Army we knew about. So it was very much a sort of briefing course, instructional course, we also had a couple of lessons on being a prisoner of war,
interrogations procedures, that’s all I can remember really. But it was a very valuable time to obviously learn up on Indo China, look at the map to see where things were to start with, there wasn’t too much, there was very little immediate information coming out of Vietnam at that stage of the game. I think we saw some American movie dealing with advisors who had been there a few years before,
but it wasn’t very instructive, I don’t think.
What did you know of that time of America’s involvement in Vietnam?
I think all we knew was that America had advisors in the country after the Geneva Accords in 1954, I think the Americans first arrived there as advisors, a very small number probably less than a hundred, I’m not sure,
in about 1956. And then when the Front for Liberation of South Vietnam [National Liberation Front – NLF] started in about 1959, I think more advisors went in there. But it wasn’t really until [President] Kennedy made his announcement, I think it was the end of 1961, that, “There will be no step back in Vietnam.” that the Americans started to get away and they put over a couple of thousand Americans. When we first got there I think
there was less than eight thousand Americans in South Vietnam. For example up our way, we were in Hue which is the capital of Thu Tin Province, the province to the north of us Quong Tri province which is just on the border with North Vietnam had just two Americans there. But the Americans started sending over advisors just before Christmas in 1961 and they were recruited in a devil of a hurry, some of them were, we
had one chap at our place who said, “I was going on leave, leave was cancelled. I was told to pack my bags and go to some camp in California. Next minute I was on an aeroplane across the Sinai.” So they left in a hurry and they had little training at all. So we didn’t know too much about the Americans and they didn’t know too much about anything frankly.
You mentioned that you read in the newspaper a few days before that before you got the phone
call, what was the general reception in Australia at the time to the news that we were sending advisors?
I don’t think it had much impact really on the population of Australia, it sort of stirred the military world a bit and the armoured world obviously, but I don’t think politically or amongst the general population it meant much at all. It was only thirty people and where’s Vietnam? People didn’t really know where Vietnam was, so I think it had little impact at all.
Could you tell me about your first impressions of flying into Vietnam?
We were a little bit hung over because we flew from Singapore to Saigon in a Pan AM 707 and we were told we had to leave Singapore in civilian clothes. So we trooped onto the aeroplane carrying slouch hats hanging from our arm and we had our uniforms which had all been very well starched in the laundries of
Singapore. We had a week in Singapore before we left for Saigon, and if you’ve ever tried changing in a 707 toilet into starched jungle greens so we could arrive looking soldierly in Saigon, it’s very difficult. But the worst problem we got on board and were all very thirsty and we said, “Do you have a beer?” “No we don’t serve beer, would you like a drink?” But a beer is not a drink to the Americans, a drink is something else, hard spirits.
So we ended up having about three martinis and I’ve never had a martini in my life so I must admit we arrived slightly happier than we would have normally. So my three martinis is about my limit, I think. So we arrived in Saigon and to be quite honest to answer your question we all arrived with a bit of a smile on our face and I think one of our warrant officers gravely saluted a private soldier and shook hands with the general because he wasn’t quite sure who was who. Vietnam was fine.
We arrived there and we were met and we were obviously a novelty to the Americans and everybody else. We had a reception the next night held by our Defence Attaché Colonel Oxley in Saigon. We met various people. We had briefings all day Saturday, the reception that night. After this reception we went off to the Hotel Caravelle in Saigon
and that weekend a French cruiser had come into Saigon and it was the first time any French troops had been back in Vietnam since they left in 1954 and so all the French expat[riate] community came out of the woodwork and they were all in the Caravelle. And so we met this charming Vietnamese lady, at the reception who took us along to the Caravelle, three of us and
it was atmospheric in this big concert hall in the hotel, because they had a couple of French singers. And one of them was sort of an Edith Piaf songstress and there were French people weeping all around, it was quite extraordinary. So there was quite an atmosphere in Vietnam; it was different to Malaya, I can’t explain it but it was just different, particularly this French night in this hotel. You said, “Boy, this is different!” and the Vietnamese were
a bit different. The next day we had more briefings with the Americans, all fairly intense and then on the Monday morning we split up into our various groups and twenty of us got in an old Dakota DC3 and flew up all the way to Hue.
You mentioned that you were told to wear civilian clothes from Singapore, why was that?
I think it was the Singapore Government didn’t want soldiers leaving their territory to go and invade
some other territory, simple as that, that was what it was all about, didn’t make sense to us.
And the week that you had in Singapore what was that about?
The week in Singapore was to get some tropical kit, we had a couple of days, went back to the Jungle Warfare Centre at Johore and we had a couple of days familiarisation there, which really we didn’t need any of this frankly. I think probably to some degree they weren’t ready for us
in Saigon, so we killed a couple of days in Singapore. I can’t remember what else we did there actually, no I can’t remember, not a great deal. We may have had some briefings but I don’t think so, we had to change money into piastres that caused a bit of excitement at Change Alley there, because the people had piastres by the suitcase load and nobody wanted them and suddenly these Australians come along and said we want some piastres and they had all the money lenders running around like a flea in a fit
rushing home to get their suitcases full of piastres. No it was a pretty quiet week in Singapore.
You mentioned when you arrived in Vietnam you had briefings with the Americans; could you tell me about those first briefings and what was said?
Well the briefings were just virtually about the situation as it was then, how the Americans saw the insurgency, they
thought it would progress and what their aims were, and particularly what the aim of the advisory effort was. We had a briefing on general dispositions of who was where and what they were doing, and how we were going to fit into that. And they also briefed us on the aid program which they had going into South Vietnam, there was quite a significant aid program in terms of military material and food all going into the Vietnamese government. And that took a fair bit of time,
the Americans love their briefings and so I think a lot of it does tend to wash over your head a bit. We met General Timmies who was a commander of a MAACV who was a very interesting sort of fellow, he danced up and down, very enthusiastic, and he was so enthusiastic you probably spent more time watching his enthusiasm than what he was saying to you. He was a great fellow but he came up later on, we saw him about a month later and he was a bit quieter then,
but a very able American officer. And we thought he was on the right track.
So what was the American view on the insurgency at that time as told to you?
I think the Americans thought that the war was controllable and winnable at that stage of the game. I think some of us had thought
about that. We were aware that the emergency in Malaya took twelve years and Malaya was a vastly different sort of operation to Vietnam, Malaya was almost easily controllable in many ways. Vietnam was just different, you have huge long borders with Cambodia and Laos and North Vietnam .You just couldn’t close the borders. The whole population was up against you, mainly the
Chinese. And you still had the aftermath of the major war, the Indo China War against the French. So the unknowns were huge and we did think that the Americans just didn’t realise what they were up against. I can honestly say that I think with Admiral Felt who was a Commander USS Specific Forces in Hawaii; I think he said a couple of years
later in ‘65, he used this term ‘home by Christmas’ and I hate that term, should never be used, ‘home by Christmas’. That was after they started to pour in regular forces to Vietnam in early 1965. But in ‘62 I think they thought that with American aid, and know how, and get up and go, they’d turn this whole operation around and get behind the army and they’ll be right.
We just weren’t too sure, they certainly were, it wasn’t said then but when we got up to where I was stationed the comments from our American counterparts were bordering on derogatory about anything Vietnam and the Vietnam armed forces, similarly about the French. And we found we had a better background with South East Asia and
probably a bit more feeling for the situation that what they had. So we thought they were wrong there. When we arrived that weekend, in July in 62, at the same time a team of five people arrived from Malaya and they’d been sent over by the British Government to help the South Vietnamese Government, that’s the British Government working out of Malaya. And it consisted of five experts, counter insurgency experts from the British Government
Sir Robert Thompson, I think he was knighted afterwards, a Richard Noon, Robert Thompson was the director of operations in Malaya, Richard Noon was the Protector of Aborigines, and there was a Colonel Hindmarsh who was a psychological warfare expert from the British army and two others whose names I forget. But we met them at this cocktail party of our defence attaché and we all knew about Thompson, so we
latched onto him and his thoughts were, “We’re here for six months, let’s see what we can do.” Six months later I was in Hue just by chance and met Colonel Hindmarsh and they were just about to leave and go back to Singapore and I said, “Well how have your six months been, what do you think?” and he said he was not sure that they’d achieved much frankly or that they’d influenced the Americans much. So I don’t think the Americans thought it was going to be such a long war, I don’t think
so, we just didn’t know enough about it, but we just weren’t as optimistic in our humble way.
You mentioned you were speaking to some of the Americans and they said that they’d been rushed off?
Yes they had, yes.
What kind of perception did you have about their level of preparedness for the role that they were playing?
Well we didn’t think they were anywhere near prepared as we were, you know we were, we were rushed off too you might say, but we did have more of a focus towards South East Asia, some of us had been to Malaya for argument sake,
and we had excellent Korean veterans, WOs and sergeants with us who had been to Korea. But I think just living closer to Asia; I think we had a bit more understanding. The American Army at that stage of the game was almost primarily heading towards European defence, the Russians, in NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]. But the fact that these blokes had literally been told to go home and pack a suitcase and get on a plane and come here,
some of them were pretty cheesed off [angry] to say the least. They didn’t know much, they certainly I thought had a very poor attitude towards the Vietnamese, Asians, I guess it’s the same with the Chinese, you know anybody that’s not a white faced person. And also we thought some of their military skills were a bit lacking, they just had no knowledge of jungle warfare or counter insurgency warfare. And so they were nice blokes, not to be critical
but we don’t think they were up to the job as well as we were, even though we’d been rushed to leave as well. But we got on well with them.
How did the relationship between your team and the Americans actually work? Were you under their command?
We arrived at the Civil Guard Training Centre there were about thirty Americans there, and about ten of us Australians. When
we arrived they released a few other Americans, we had about twenty of them and ten of us. No problem with mixing together, we were very much listening to what they were saying, they’d been there for six months before we had and so we soaked up what they had to tell us. They were running all the organisational training, we were working in what we called committees, like a wing or a department and so I had a Negro captain, a fellow by the name of Bart Seabrook was my superior, he was a captain and I was a captain. And he wasn’t a bad bloke,
fine bloke, but I don’t think he knew as much as I did and I don’t say in any superior way, but he didn’t. And so we worked with them for about the first four to five months and then that group of officers that were in charge of the committees left, and they went off for their final six months, to go to ARVN units, and we took over the committees, the
co-ordination and planning of the instruction, so it became more of an Australian show then. The lieutenant colonel in charge of us was an American advisor and he stayed in command, but certainly it developed an Australian flavour at that stage of the game. We made quite a few changes, we thought some of the instruction was being used was not appropriate for the civil guard. The Civil Guard Company was three platoons and a headquarters
and a weapons platoon, about one hundred and twenty men, and they were employed as a mobile provincial force, some of them manned outposts, but they were not meant to go and fight main force enemy, that was the army’s job. But at that time in 1962 the Viet Cong were getting themselves organised and they were certainly not talking to many of the army units, they were a tough nut but they were certainly concentrating on the Civil Guard
and the local village defenders. So we were getting six, seven or eight Civil Guard Companies come through us every twelve weeks on a training cycle and some of them had been through some quite heavy fighting, most of them were not well trained, some of them hardly trained at all. And you really felt pretty sorry for these fellows out fighting for their lives and they’d had limited training in anything. But they were conscripted,
put into a unit and sent off, and the policy was really they sent you as a soldier not, if you lived in the Sydney they’d send you to Brisbane and bring the Sydney guy to Brisbane. They couldn’t go home, so they couldn’t be confused by home problems. It was pretty tough life. So with the training the program we just thought that many of the subjects we were teaching were not appropriate for the area that they were operating in,
nor was some of the methods of instruction appropriate. There was a lot of mass instruction where people sit on a huge rug, like one hundred men watching a gun being operated or how you work a gun, it doesn’t work. So we made quite a few changes to the program and we spoke with our senior advisor about this and he nodded his agreement, he thought we made sense. So then we put it to the Vietnamese and they were quite happy,
they had similar reservations about some of the programs, but because they were under the Americans themselves and depended on America aid they didn’t really want be too critical of what they were doing, they said we should do this and that and they agreed, so we made quite a few dramatic changes. I guess the funny story was a couple of months after we’d made these changes and were happily working on the new program a
officer came in from America, posted into South Vietnam, and he was going to be posted to Saigon to the Civil Guard Training Directorate. And he asked when he arrived could he go and see some of the training centres. So he arrived and told us who he was and, “Oh right, well, look this is the PLI [instructions] and we’ve made these changes here.” He said, “Oh that’s great.” and went back to Saigon and said, “Oh look the Aussies up there are doing this
this and that, they don’t like that, they’re doing this.” A few weeks later we got the biggest rocket [criticism] through the mail saying, “How dare you change the PLI, go back and do the PLI which you were authorised to do!” so we got a hell of a shock because we hadn’t thought about telling anybody. We told our senior advisor, he didn’t say, “We’d better get permission from higher command.” so we were a bit embarrassed. So then we went off to the fellow Vietnamese and said, “Look we’ve got a blast [criticism] from the south, we can’t do this.” we didn’t want to change.
So we had Lieutenant Dan who was a Vietnamese officer, he was an older officer, he had obviously been passed over for promotion because he wasn’t politically correct or something, so he made a mistake somewhere. But he was a very switched on intelligent officer, very capable and he said, “Well we don’t want to make the changes, so look
we won’t make any changes, we’ll just keep going as we are, but I’ll keep this old PLI there and if anybody comes in, there it is.” but we were using the one over here. I still laugh when I think of that all the time, so we went on doing what we wanted to do and nobody came back from Saigon and said, “Look why do you want to make these changes, why don’t you want to do swamp warfare, and why don’t you want to do mountainous warfare?” which was out of there, why don’t you want to do barrier mine field
instructions? These guys couldn’t lay a barrier mine field and they weren’t in mountains, and hanging from ropes in mountains, they weren’t going through swamps up to their neck; it was pretty wet in Vietnam. So we just removed those things, I had sort of fourteen periods of bayonet training and that was just a waste of time, so I cut it to three periods, the bayonet training was a lot of valley work so I used to go through, the Vietnamese didn’t strike me as being bayonet fighters.
So most of the time was spent teaching them to shoot straight, spend another period, spending eleven periods having to shoot than having eleven periods with the bayonet. But nobody came back and said, “Look why do you want to change?” so didn’t, we were advising the Vietnamese we thought, not the Americans.
Could you just explain how the set up worked in terms of where you were and where the Vietnamese came from, who you were training?
Geographically we were north of Hue, Hue is the old ancient capital of Hanan where all the kings used to reside, lovely city, went back there last year, and we were about twenty kilometres to the north west of the place, just off Highway 1 and Highway 1 was known as the Street Without Joy, you may have heard that term, and the Civil Guard Training Centre had been going for I think about six months before we arrived there, it was just a bunch of bamboo
huts with rice thatch on top. We lived about four hundred yards away in a special compound behind barbed wire, brick buildings and fibro roofs, we had showers, we were all separate. At night we would have a Civil Guard platoon would come and guard us but one of us would stay awake every night to make sure they were awake. We had, as I say, between seven and nine Civil Guard Companies numbering about one hundred men every three months.
So it was quite a major production line, the instructors there were army instructors, they used ARVN instructors for the Civil Guard and they used civil guard instructors to teach the division defenders of the Self Defence Corps. So the instructors were a mixed bag, the ones I had were generally very good, they had a lot of combat experience, some of them were
recovering from quite savage wounds and they were using this posting as an instructor as convalescence and I was quite shattered to see some of the wounds on some of them, shrapnel wounds. And a few of them were still a bit traumatised from what they had been doing. But they were good instructors. Our training area was just to the west of the camp with
a backdrop of quite a high feature, flat country
We’d been there a couple of months and a cyclone hit Quong Tri. We think we were on the southern edge of the eye of the cyclone, monstrous wind and rain, blew all the glass out of all the windows in our compound because the bloke had put the window frames
in back to front, you know you had the putty on one side and little beading on the other, he’d put it in the wrong way, so he had the putty on the inside and the wind just blew the pane straight out. But we were in our sort of mess hall looking across the paddy field to the training depot, and huts were just disintegrating. Visually picture a bamboo hut with this heavy rice thatch which would have been sodden with water, just
pong! as though you put a bomb in it. So we had to take a month off to re-build the camp, blew the top off the jolly kitchen, pretty basic kitchen anyhow. So that sort of thing happened and in Vietnam if a cyclone happens there’s no SES [State Emergency Service] you can ring up, there’s no great disaster relief team to come in, you just get on with life. Whole place was flooded, snakes everywhere, so that put us back a bit, the Vietnamese just got on with it, they’d dug holes in the ground, filled them up with
mud, tossed in rice straw and made mud bricks. And you’d have a wall with split bamboo and you plaster this with rice straw on top and make a mud wall, adobe, is that the word?- like an adobe wall. They lived in a long house with a long bamboo platform to sleep on.
It was pretty primitive for them, they came, whilst we were training people from the north, about the four northern provinces, a lot of them came from the southern end of South Vietnam and some of them hadn’t seen their families for ages, so it was all pretty grim. They had two uniforms, one that they wore until it fell off their back almost and some of them were walking around in rags, the other uniform was kept for best, they weren’t to wear it but if
they had a big parade or guard of honour they’d put on their good uniform, have the guard of honour or the parade, take it off and put the rags back on again. They were all underfed, suffering from rickets, I sort of, there was an assault course so I said, “We’ll give them some assault training.” but that was a waste of time to, they just weren’t athletic, they can’t sprint,
they can’t pick up their knees, they can jog for miles at a time. And they weren’t good at throwing themselves over walls or climbing ropes and you didn’t expect this to happen anyhow frankly. So I sort of suggested we remove that from their training. But I’ll never forget the first time I said okay to this sergeant, he was a PT [physical training] instructor, he said, “Oh we’d better give them some warming up exercises before we put them over the obstacle course.” and I said, “Listen, do this and that.” He knew what to do,
anyway they all touched their toes and there was crack crack and I said, “What’s that?” and it was all their bones just cracking, and it’s the most uncanny sound so I said, “We’d better stop that.” And we put them over a few obstacles but their heart wasn’t in it, they weren’t strong enough, didn’t have enough energy. Later on I spoke to the American Army doctor in Hue and I told him about this cracking, he said, “Oh yes because they’ve all got rickets, vitamin deficiency”
I said, “Of course.” not enough protein, not enough vitamins. So actually I did find out that they were supposed to be getting a package of vitamins in their big rice cauldron, because rice cooks in great big laundry tubs like this you see, like a big wok, they’d put half a bag of rice and fill it up with water and stir it with a wooden paddle and then shovel the stuff out for their lunch, dinner and breakfast. And into that they were supposed to put this package of orange crystals which was supposed to be a sort of vitamin
supplement, don’t know what it was but I was able to track that down, that was obviously being siphoned off by somebody and being sold on the black market. So I was able to track that down and get it dumped into the rice, but I don’t think it did any damn good at all. Their diet seemed to be fish heads, the rest of the fish went into cans which was sold at export, but there seemed to always be head and a tail; I never saw a body of the fish anywhere in any of their soup. Pretty miserable vegetables,
oh maybe once a week they got a bit of meat, which I could recognise as meat. So their diet was pretty rough. The regular soldiers in ARVN ate a bit better, but there again not much better, not enough protein, not enough goods were in the vegetables, no fruit, even though Vietnam of course was a very sort of fertile country, it just wasn’t available, the war effort had slowed down a lot of the rural production. In fact it was astonishing going back last year,
just to see everybody in the country, side acres of green rice paddock and flourishing plantations and people all over the place. Whereas when we were there before, obviously anybody and everybody in the country side was Viet Cong and you shouldn’t be there. So the country’s just transformed at the moment, couldn’t recognise it almost.
You mentioned that when you changed the program of what you were doing that there was
resistance from the Americans, what kind of say did the South Vietnamese have in what was being given in terms of training?
Well they, in the situation of the civil guards, I think they would just accept what the Americans said to do. As I said they were very dependent on American Aid so they weren’t about to say, “Look were not going to do that, go away.” But
there was a reluctance, I mean the Vietnamese did not like being advised, I mean I wouldn’t want to be advised by Vietnamese or Americans, so you can imagine it’s no fun being under the thumb or advice of somebody who you may not like. And the Americans in some ways were a bit heavy handed, weren’t very subtle. I think we had a better
easier outgoing approach, I used to use the term ‘softly softly catchee monkey’ is always the way to go. And they didn’t have as much empathy for the Vietnamese, they were very critical, but the Vietnamese they were in a cleft stick and they couldn’t alienate the Americans so they had to sort of go along with most of it. I think when we came along and we said we think this is better militarily
they said, “Yeah so do we, so let’s do it.” So they were happy that we were sort of in charge and they’ll do it our way cause they liked our way, simple as that. In the ARVN units, l operationally as an advisor I wasn’t an advisor in an ARVN unit but I went along and observed several units and I could see that at many times the advisor had little influence at all,
he wasn’t commanding the unit and the Vietnamese would still be fighting the battle their way, and of course this was the nub of the problem – the Americans wanted to win the war for them and you had to let them fight their war. But [US President Richard] Nixon I think, shortly after became president in about what 1968 said, “We’ve got to Vietnamise the war.” what a stupid thing it was, a Vietnam War but he said, “You’ve got to put the war back under Vietnamese control.”
And in our Training Team history there’s a very good quote from Lawrence, that’s Lawrence of Arabia, back in the First World War who says, “Remember, we are here to help them win the war, not win the war for them.” So that was part of our code you might say, as an advisor in the training team. So you didn’t have much control over them operationally. The Yanks, the Americans had access to
air power and artillery, and that was one of the biggest advantages to having an American advisor, he had his own radio communicators, his own radio set, and he could bring in air support, which was under the control of the Americans and not the Vietnamese, or most of it was. So the Vietnamese, it was hard for them, they didn’t want anybody telling them how to win the war, but they had to have the logistics and the material support.
And of course later on, you had about five hundred and fifty thousand Americans in country, massive number of Americans, unbelievable.
You mentioned that the Americans didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for the Vietnamese, in what way or what kinds of things were being said that showed that?
I don’t want to make a big issue of this; actually we may not be much better in some ways, but attitudes
to Asians, you had the words nogs, slopes, things like that. And they’re bad terms, I think that’s just not right, it’s a derogative term and it shows you really believe they are inferior people. This is just wrong; you must have more respect for people. And I mean some of these Vietnamese soldiers had far more combat experience
than the Americans probably had in their life, some of these people had been fighting against the French to start with, or with the French, and they’d been fighting for several years before we arrived there. Straightaway you’re trying to assess the man’s military experience and his military knowledge and then his military abilities as an instructor or whatever. But there was
several times when the wrong things were said, and you could see the Vietnamese recoil, you know he just clammed up inside and it was bad. But look, the same things are happening, on TV in Afghanistan was it last year, the Americans launched their first big operations against the Taliban and there was a very illuminating interview between
a young buck sergeant, a 3three striper from Texas somewhere, talking to a reporter. And this is a fresh faced young Texan said, “Oh we’ve been told that these enemy are not very well educated and they’re not very good and pretty primitive people.” Anyway this American operation was a total disaster as it turned out; they’d warned the Afghan people on their side, who told the Taliban
and they were just waiting for them so…
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 07
You mentioned that the US had a different opinion of the conflict, or the seriousness of the conflict, how did you interpret the Vietnamese opinion about the war to be?
They all certainly hoped it would be over but I don’t think they knew,
they had no idea, they knew better than anybody else what the conflict could lead into. The country had been divided into two parts, north and south and in 1954 under the Geneva Agreement those in the south that wanted to go to the north could go north, and those in the north that wanted to go south could go south. So you had almost a million people came from the north to the south and you had, I think the figure was about a hundred thousand went from the south
to the north. But in the south many of the Communist cadres stayed there of course because the whole plan was that they wanted to unify the country and make it Communist, that was Ho Chi Minh’s plan. But I think the Vietnamese didn’t know what could happen, but they obviously thought when the Americans came in, started to give them aid, and I’m sure that they thought when you’ve got half a million American soldiers there fighting,
the war was winnable. And frankly the war was winnable, but I guess I’ve never studied this close enough to work out what could have been done, I mean there was a massive bombing of the north, there was massive bombing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail the secret bombing that Nixon agreed to, and authorised. But so the Vietnamese thought that the war was winnable and certainly after the Tet Offensive in 1968 the
resolve of the South Vietnamese people strengthened dramatically. The Tet Offensive, whilst it was a political success, in America they thought, “This is the end, we still can’t beat these people, let’s get out of Vietnam.” But actually in the country as you may have heard the Viet Cong lost the Tet Offensive, they had all their local Viet Cong cadres in South Vietnam almost wiped out. And many of the North Vietnamese troops
were wiped out. So the Tet Offensive strengthened the resolve of the people in the south dramatically, and they knew they didn’t want Communism, the cruelty and the barbarity and the assassination during Tet and by the northerners was horrific in a way, they assassinated families, buried women and children alive and this, when this came out that really sickened everybody. And so the Vietnamese were sort of going to really fight. When we were
there, it was obvious that Ho Chi Minh, Uncle Ho was still a great favourite but after the Tet Offensive, and this is after I left, the Vietnamese thought, “No we’re going to fight to win this war and to maintain our own freedom and independence from the north.” So the war was lost in America, not lost in Vietnam. On the battlefield the war was being won, there’s no doubt about that, but as soon as Nixon
took over and he wanted to Vietnamese the war and his comment, “We want peace with honour.” and started talks with the North Vietnamese behind the backs of the South Vietnamese who were not privy to these talks, this is Kissinger [US Secretary of State] and his mates in Paris [Peace Talks between US, North Vietnam]. Then once the Americans started of pull out, so Nixon
would probably get re-elected and the general dislike and hatred of the war in Vietnam, in America the opposition politically was just diabolical for the Vietnamese. So the war was lost in America you might say, probably lost in Australia too, because the anti Vietnam, anti war sentiment in Australia was pretty intense too. So the Vietnamese, their fate was almost sealed once the
secret talks started with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in Paris. And then when Nixon got re-election and there’s no doubt I think Nixon would have bombed North Vietnam ‘back to the Stone Age’, but Congress said no, Congress said, “No, we’re not going to put any more money into Vietnam.” So
to a war which was sort of costing the Americans something like, I’m guessing now, but let’s say billions a year, billons of dollars a year. I’ve got this figure of three hundred million a day, it came down to like thirty million a day and even less. So the South Vietnamese were starved of ammunition, fuel, apart from the fact that they had no American fighting troops there.
And Nixon got himself re-elected of course on, ‘peace with honour getting out of Vietnam’, but he said, “If the North Vietnamese attack again, we’ll be back with a vengeance.” but of course up came the Watergate [scandal]. You aware of Watergate? What happened with Nixon being threatened with impeachment, so Watergate came in, so he lost, he had to fight for his political life as President,
and then he lost over Watergate. So the South Vietnamese had not been in any of the talks, I’m right in saying the terms of the ceasefire were that the Americans would leave South Vietnam, but it left all the North Vietnamese in place in South Vietnam, so all the North Vietnamese troops were in South Vietnam and nobody said, “No all your northerners have got to go back to North Vietnam and
then we’ll have elections or something.” they stayed there. And of course the North Vietnamese said, “No we’ve got none of our troops in South Vietnam, they’re all the locals who are against the government.” which is nonsense you see. I think Kissinger made the remark that, “Look a brigade of Marines could capture Hanoi because all their army’s in the south.” Here again I haven’t really studied this detail, but it was just an awful, to me, betrayal of the South Vietnamese. You don’t
feel too good about this in many ways, even though I guess I can say now that I’m happy that the country’s unified and you think back to the end of the war when, if the French had gone back into Indo China differently there may not have been a war. But the French wanted to take it back over, or the economic interest there, and they had to fight to get back into the country, it was a division
from Malaya which was sent to Saigon to take over control of the place. Ho Chi Minh, leading the Viet Minh at the end of the war, declared Vietnam to be a republic on the steps of Parliament House in Hanoi. He declared Vietnam a free country but the French came back in again and talks broke down by about 1947 or 48, the war had started again. The French sent a cruiser
and shelled Haiphong Harbour. But it just strikes me again that the French could have gone back in there and said offered independence and still kept their economic interests, and this war wouldn’t have happened. But you’ve got to remember that in 1947, ‘48, ‘49, ‘50 the whole Cold War between east and west and was zooming up, Russia was a major force. Europe was divided, the Korean War had started, were fighting the Chinese,
Malaya was going of course; there were problems in the Philippines. So the whole world again was at each other’s throats, but the seeds of the wars lay in the colonial empires that were there to start with.
After being in Malaya, what were your impressions of Saigon in terms of that French colonial influence as opposed to the British influence?
Oh it was a charming city Saigon, lovely city, lovely French architecture, wide streets,
very attractive. It had more character than Singapore or even Malaya, more character. Boulevards and the trees and things, there’s a street in Saigon which was known as the Street of Flowers, so in the morning in the season for flowers it would be lined with flowers, all flower sellers. It’s not there now, I went looking for it last year and it’s not there,
it’s a great pity. But for some reason, I don’t know why it isn’t, but lovely French colonial architecture there, which at the moment is all being painted up and scrubbed up and it looks great. So that was lovely, Saigon was known as the Paris of the East, Bangkok is the Venice of the East, that’s right but Saigon was the Paris of the East.
What impact did French colonialism have on Vietnamese culture and the society at that time?
Excellent bakers, fantastic pastries, good cooking, great combination there. In the architecture, certainly in westernising Vietnam, the French brought in a Romanised script to start with instead of characters, a French priest did that
in the middle of the nineteenth Century, that was significant. But I think the Vietnamese adapted quickly in many ways to the French language, the French took them to France for higher level education and you met some very clever and interesting Vietnamese. You know a doctor in the 4th Armoured Cav that I met spoke perfect French and perfect English, and he’d
trained as a surgeon in France. Here he was living out in the scrub, in the middle of the jungle, fighting the war, so he was interesting. So it really rubbed off, I think more of the French culture rubbed off in the Vietnamese but the Vietnamese did not lose their own poetry or the literature or their own special way of life, but they certainly adapted to things French. I guess French culture is pretty good, I don’t know much about it but it was pretty good, it was great.
What sort of social activities would
you participate in Saigon?
Oh not much at all really, you lived really in the military world. We didn’t get to Saigon much at all and when we did you couldn’t do too much sight seeing apart from in Saigon, the countryside was a bit too vulnerable, you couldn’t go drifting off out there, unless you were in a military sort of environment. So we’d try
and have the odd swim at the swimming pool, didn’t do too much of that. You’d eat and drink, we used to go to a bar, we had four Australians in Saigon and they discovered a bar run by a very attractive Chinese/Vietnamese or Vietnamese/Chinese woman, very attractive indeed, in probably about
her early forties called Helene, and so we used to drink at her bar. And her bar was different because it had a few bar girls there but it wasn’t full of Americans, no Americans there at all and the bar girls didn’t pester you to buy Saigon Tea [watered down drink] or whatever, so you could have a nice cold beer there. So that was our watering hole in Saigon and we’d go there. But otherwise we found
a particular Vietnamese restaurant called the Bong Lai, which I went and looked for but is not there now, but had very good food and there was what you called taxi singers who would sing, they’d come along to each night club sing three songs into the taxi and then go off and sing another three songs, probably the same three songs. So that was the night life. Oh I should say about Helene’s bar, before
I went off to Bangkok as an attaché I was reading up on the heroin trade, being obviously in the Golden Triangle, so got a book called the Politics of Heroin in South East Asia written by a Canadian. And I’m reading this book and the Americans sent a CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] operator from the Philippines to Saigon in the middle ‘60s to try and track down the heroin business, which was becoming bad amongst the American serviceman in Vietnam.
And I suddenly read, “And I discovered at the centre of the heroin traffic was being run by a café being run by a very bosomy Vietnamese woman.’ That’s Helene you see, he didn’t mention her name. And I thought, “Blow me down, here we are providing, we were providing a suitable cover for this lady.” We were there one night and suddenly out from behind the beaded curtain this rather savvy Frenchman stuck his head out
and he had a pretty tacky looking off white singlet on, cigarette coming out of his mouth. He stuck his head out and looked us with a pretty sneering sort of look, didn’t really look at us and went back inside. I said, “Who’s that Helene?” “Oh don’t worry about him.” but he wasn’t a Frenchman he was a Corsican, and it was the Corsicans that were running the heroin traffic from Saigon, or large part of the organisation. And if you go back into the history of heroin trade
it started in Corsica, back at the turn of the century, so he was Corsican. So Helene who was also reputed to be, who had been a mistress of General Delat, one of the commanders of the French Forces in the Indo China War. I’m sure she’s living the high life in Paris at the moment, she wouldn’t have fallen when Saigon fell, she would have gone. But she was a very interesting woman in more ways than one.
Anyhow I thought. “We’ve been sitting up there, drinking at the bar providing a perfect cover for illicit heroin trade.” The heroin trade evidently got very bad in Saigon; I don’t know if it affected the Australian troops, I think I can honestly say that none of my blokes there had anything to do with heroin, because it’s a nasty thing to get into your defence forces. But I think a little 35mm
film holder sort of thing, I think you could get it full of high quality heroin for I think about twenty-five dollars American in the mid to late ‘60s. So it was bad, and a lot of it was being run by some of the senior Vietnamese officers and I think the CIA might have been involved. There were so many behind the scene things going on in Vietnam you just never knew,
the left hand never knew that the right hand was even there, let alone what it was doing, so many different groups, think tanks and organisations all having a part in the war effort. That was different to Malaya where as in Malaya nobody moved a finger, moved a soldier until it had direction from the highest level. In Vietnam you had all sorts of organisations running around the place, all thinking they were winning the war, all often paying the same informer, an
informer might be informing three different agencies, telling them all the same thing, “Oh must be good because your guy said my guy said…..”It’s all wrong but the three of them get the same bit of advice and they think it’s all good value, and the informer gets lots of money. So that’s an enormous study in itself, just to see who was there.
How were informers recruited?
I don’t really know, we had nothing to do with that. We had a couple of Australian officers who were doing this sort of business and I heard these
odd stories from them. One officer I know quite well had about fifty thousand piastres in a suitcase under his bed, he didn’t know where to put it, but that was to pay off people, gave them money, the money was unlimited.
You mentioned that the countryside was particularly vulnerable at that time; can you recall particular incidents that occurred that were indicative of that?
No see in 1962, 63 when the first Team were there
it was pretty quiet. I didn’t see much combat at all when I was attached to the 1st ARVN Cav near Saigon; saw some combat, got into several fire fights. But we were in a training environment, so it was quite different. But there were attacks happening all around the country, little niggling attacks, the Viet Cong would go into a village
and they’d probably heavy the local inhabitants and get them to do things. And if for example it didn’t work out they might come back two weeks later and shoot the headman, that was their standard tactic, they’d shoot the headman. Then two months later they might come along and shoot his replacement, they were shooting schoolteachers, anything which broke up the normal functioning of the democracy.
So that was their tactic, but they’d also attack military units, try and wipe them out obviously, they’d blow up bridges, they’d ambush street columns. I had a very instructive briefing when I was attached to the ARVN armoured cavalry squadron, working
just north of Saigon and we stopped on route 13 from Saigon and he described to me about where a big ambush had occurred about four months before. It was a classic Vietnam ambush but the ambush ended up blowing up a bus and causing enormous casualties to school kids on the way to school and civilians and things. And whether they meant to blow up the bus or not I don’t know, but whether the bloke that had the explosive
charge just did the wrong thing, got scared. But there were some savage things going on and there were some big fights going on in the Delta area, south of Saigon. So up our way there’d be the odd ambush. Hiep Khahn where we were located, I left just before Christmas in 1963 and in about May 64 they closed it down and moved because they were worried about the security, they thought
probably the place might be attacked, which was a pity because I thought we were doing a good military training job there. So we were, we moved around fairly freely, often just two of us in a jeep, but you were always very vigilant, always had a gun. Initially when I first got there the American I was taking over
from was teaching English in Hue, all part of teach the Vietnamese English and he said, “When do you want to take this over?” I said, “Oh I’ll take it over.” interesting. So I went with him several evenings into Hue and we’d leave at about three in the afternoon and get back just before last light, before it got dark. And I thought the American textbook on teaching English was just appalling. Anyhow I thought I’d do it, good fun meet the Vietnamese. Anyway we had to stop that because they were worried about security.
And anyhow then along came some Caribou pilots who were living in our compound and three of them and me decided we’d get some French lessons from French lady in Hue at the university there. Unfortunately a couple of weeks later the Caribou pilots got transferred to the south so here was myself, so I had an arrangement with a Madam Kham who was French, the wife of a French professor of mathematics in Hue University, she’d teach
me, what was it twenty piastres for an hour’s lesson, using the Alliance France book you see, to speak French. But I did that for a couple of months but I just suddenly, was getting a twitchy feeling between my shoulder blades driving back by myself so I thought.” I’d better give that away too.” So you just couldn’t take risks, but I never got ambushed there as an advisor, so it was okay.
So in that role as advisor at the training facility
can you explain what the specific milestones, objectives were and who they were fulfilled in that first tour there?
Well the aim of the training centre was to train Civil Guard companies for operations. At that time, and that meant sort of defending an outpost, doing limited patrolling, not engaging in set piece
attacks, that was any army’s job but they were mainly of a defensive nature, defending villages, defending bridges, vital installations. So the defensive techniques were important, being able to dig in, protect themselves against mortar fire, small arms fire and at the same time shoot back, control their own fire, use machine guns, set mines and booby traps, clear mines and booby traps. So
it was a fairly limited objective in a way they weren’t being trained to carry out battalion size attacks. But otherwise much of the training we gave them was what you’d give any soldier, to do most of the tasks which were having to be done by any of the soldiers at any level in Vietnam. So it was quite sophisticated training in many ways, and the important thing we thought was to improve their self esteem, to improve
their confidence, many of them just weren’t confident. Handling explosives makes people very twitchy and this was not being done well at all, I thought. So when we changed the PLI I plucked out of the subjects I was responsible for, total of periods, it came to
about thirty-two, and I suggested to the Vietnamese, “Look we should try and specialise during this time and split the squad, which is a section of about ten men up into say four groups, one to do map reading and navigation, one to do mines and booby traps and one to go on medical and first aid and evacuation of casualties, and the last one to do communications.” The platoon had three squads
or three sections and so it meant that the platoon commanders, the platoon sergeants, the squad leader and his 2IC they all did map reading and navigation, thirty-two periods of it. We picked out likely looking blokes who were, two or three of them per squad and they would do mines and booby traps. Now then when you had a company of three platoons, three squads that gave you what, nine
sections and say two from each section gave you a class of about eighteen. So instead of a hundred men sitting down to see how to set a booby trap or something, you had just eighteen men and then we split them into groups of six or seven so you’d have six or seven men all grouped around doing something with one instructor, as you can see much better, much more hands on. And the confidence of the student to handle things was much better because he had hands on, he was doing, re-doing it, doing it blindfolded, doing it at night,
so the Vietnamese, they knew this too but their hands were a bit tied until we came along and made these changes. But so the students' confidence increased dramatically, map reading, you know they could do much better map reading. The medical people, we could give them much better medical training, strapping bandages on each other, lifting casualties, wounded, various ways with the body and stretchers
and things. So that worked well, I was quite pleased with myself that that worked quite well. But particularly with mines and demolitions which are nasty things, it takes a bit of confidence, experience to handle those things.
How long would the training last?
Twelve weeks. When we first got there the last week was taken up with a
preparation of a big parade, and they used to have lots of firepower displays, and they had assault course displays, then a big final parade and all the local dignitaries used to come out. We thought this was a terrible waste of time frankly, we thought it was a week wasted, you don’t need all this show business stuff, so we cut it back to a simple parade at the end. Here again with the Vietnamese they thought that was okay too. We tried
as much as possible to do an assessment of the company that came in, some companies were much better than others, some of their officers were much better than others. What we would have liked to have done, and we probably could have got around to doing this maybe in 1964, was to have taken all of the officers and the senior NCOs and given them a week, at least a week of leadership officer, NCO training, just by themselves to build
up their self esteem and their confidence in giving orders, reading maps, doing tactical exercises without having to worry about their soldiers. And we thought that would have been a major thing to do but we just never got around to getting that done, we all thought that would have been just some icing on the cake to their efficiency. Because the leadership in the command schools were not that good
in many of them, some of the company commanders were pretty poor.
You mentioned that you left at the end of 1963?
Had the training of the Civil Guard wound up at that stage?
Oh no it kept going until about May and then they shifted the advisors and gave them different, or the Australian advisors and gave them different jobs. And to be honest I’m not quite sure where the Civil Guard Training
went to, I think it probably went closer to Da Nang, they moved closer to town in Da Nang, down in the south. They certainly had a training centre down there and I think it kept going so it may have been expanded to take over the load from Hiep Khahn
Can you explain what happened to you then, once you left there?
I came back to Australia and had a couple of weeks leave and was posted to Queensland as 2IC of an Anti Tank Squadron. A little squadron in Waycol, terrible camp,
back in a tin shed again. It was quite a busy year; we had lots of exercises, Tin Can Bay and places down in Singleton. From the armoured corps point of view I learnt a lot about anti tank warfare, which was good. But I was there for about what, fifteen, sixteen months before I was told to go to Puckapunyal again and raise a squadron there.
I should say this before, one thing that was interesting that I was in Vietnam you know still in November 63 when [US President John] Kennedy was assassinated, the 2nd November I think it was ‘63. President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated and two weeks later, Kennedy was. So Diem was falling out with the Buddhists particularly in Vietnam and he was certainly
persona non grata in Hue, he made one trip to Hue when we were, actually another officer and myself were driving out to meet somebody at the airport south of Hue and the streets were being lined with people, actually they was being forced to line the street but they all turned their backs on the road, turned their backs so they wouldn’t look at the President of Vietnam. And the police were going around saying, “Face the road, face the road.” Anyhow Diem was assassinated and really
the reaction of the Vietnamese was not that significant, but two weeks later when Kennedy was assassinated, that really impacted on the Vietnamese, they just couldn’t believe that the leader of the United States would be assassinated. So that was a pretty nasty reaction amongst the Vietnamese.
So when you left Vietnam, what expectations or predication did you have about the conflict?
that the chances were South Vietnam would remain free so to speak, and I certainly thought that when the build up occurred in early ‘65, that the war would be won.
Did you anticipate that you would be going back when you left there?
Not particularly no, I didn’t really think about it much,
no you just do what you’re told.
So can you tell me more about what your role was in Queensland in terms of the anti tank?
I was 2IC of a squadron, you were responsible for administration, it was only a very small squadron, what five officers about seventy soldiers. We had 106mm recoilless weapons and your role was to knock out tanks, it’s a major war role, nothing to do with
insurgency particularly. So we were still practicing to defend Australia and do things like that. Actually we did do one interesting thing, we had forty soldiers from Papua New Guinea to come down to be trained, use the 106 and this was in 1964, the first year I was there. And that was at the height of 'confrontation' with Indonesia, Indonesia with Malaysia, and they were concerned
that Indonesian patrol boats might attack Vanimo and Wewak on the north coast of New Guinea, because the Indonesians had received from Russia some very fast modern patrol boats, missile firing patrol boats. So they thought what have we got to hit these patrol boats with should they attack Vanimo and Wewak? So we’ll hit them with a 106, which was the most useless weapon, quite hopeless. So anyhow we had to teach these blokes to fire the 106 and that was funny because
two of the lots, we had ten men, one from Lae, one from Wewak and one from [Port] Moresby, ten from each area you see. And they didn’t speak the same dialect, it’s extraordinary that there’s four hundred dialects in PNG [Papua New Guinea], and some of them couldn’t even speak pidgin. So we had people to do all the interpreting for them. But that was funny teaching these blokes the 106
and I said to my blokes I said, “Look these fellows are good soldiers.” because I’d seen them in 1954 as a cadet because they did a guard on honour for the opening of parliament when the Queen came, and they were crackerjack at drill you see. That’s with roman sandals and shorts and what have you, and fuzzy hair. Anyhow I said, “Look these blokes are good soldiers.” and I was the 2IC, but I said to the OC I said, “Look I think we should try
and integrate the blokes.” I said, “So in the mess hall we should mix them up.” We had about forty soldiers eating in the mess, because the others were married and living out. I said, “Let’s just mix them up; I don’t know what their table manners are going to be like, but let’s mix them up.” So my blokes agreed, so we had a couple of Papuans and a couple of Australians. And it worked well really, they thought all these knives and forks were pretty funny because they were used to using a spoon or a fork. And they weren’t too sure about our
rations, but we had some integration. But after about the third week I said, “You can go back and sit where you like.” So they divided, but quite happily. But I was also arranging the social program so the first week in, we had two of them, two of our blokes, it was a buddy system so we’ll take them into town. They said, “Look we’ll take them for a drink in a bar, take them up to the
top of the City Hall which is the highest building in Brisbane those days, take them up in that elevators, lifts you see, take them to a big shopping centre, buy them a milkshake. And they weren’t paid much; all our blokes went along with this, so we took them shopping and things like that. They’d giggle, we’d take them for a ride on a tram you see, Brisbane still had trams if I remember in those days, so that was funny, it was interesting.
What did you notice about the political climate when you returned
to Australia in regard to the Vietnam?
Vietnam was just a non event politically, non event, that’s in 1963, ‘64. See there only used to be about thirty Australians there, towards the end of ‘64 I think the Team, the second Team was also thirty, but then I think they built it up from about thirty to seventy and then it got up to about a hundred a year later, so at the most it had about a hundred in team and overall, over the whole ten years
of the Vietnam conflict that we were involved in there was about 999 Australians served in the Training Team. But coming back to Australia where’s Vietnam? I gave a couple of lectures and had to keep telling people where the place was and what it was all about, what were you doing, so ignorance is bliss really. A bit different to when I came back in 1967 then of course things were starting to change.
The National Service scheme had started so we were just taking fellows off the street at twenty years of age and into the army and off to Vietnam, so the climate changed dramatically then, as you can imagine.
Can you tell me about how and when and the circumstances of being notified to raise a squadron to take to Vietnam?
Well I was in Wacol and I was told I was going to be promoted to major
and to raise a squadron, APC Squadron in Puckapunyal starting on the 1st of July. They sent me back to the Armoured School in about was it May to do a driver course so I could drive the vehicle and learn a bit about it. And so I had about a month there and on the 1st of July I they put a major’s crown on my shoulder and looked at the paper to see how much extra money I was going to be getting, which is very important. And before that because I had a week up my sleeve I
went skiing for a week at Perisher, because I couldn’t do anything else, but then I had the problem of really working out where the hell I was going to go, they were raising the squadron but sort of nobody gave me any accommodation. So I was under the auspices of the chief instructor of the Armoured School who was quite horrified when I came along and said, “Look Sir, there’s the raising instruction, you’re also supposed to be giving me some accommodation.” He said, “Where?” I said, “I don’t know.” Anyhow the solved the problem by moving a squadron from
Puckapunyal to Sydney, now I don’t know why they didn’t raise us in Sydney and leave the squadron that was in Puckapunyal, but you know, greater minds have these things worked out. So they moved to Sydney and I took over their accommodation. So there I was with a piece of paper and me sitting down at a chair by myself with no officers anywhere, so that was the beginning of it. Things did improve a little bit, but not much for a while.
What does raising a squadron mean, what does it involve?
It just means you are forming a squadron, forming a body of men with a military purpose and a military capability. National Service started on the 1st July 65, the day the squadron was raised. So in three months time I was going to get some soldiers from the first march out of National Service, and then in December I’d get some more and I was told that. I was told I was going to get about twelve sergeants and twenty-four corporals, I didn’t get any
of those. So we started very slowly, at that time there was a group, there were ten APCs and about was it fourteen soldiers I think in Vietnam, and they’d gone over there in May ‘65, just a couple of months before with
the 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment who were attached to 173 Brigade in Bien Hoa, so we put a battalion in May ‘65. And actually I was an umpire in an exercise I had in May, just before they left, in Australia before they left. And on the driver’s course I did, a lot of the soldiers that were going there were on that same drivers' course, and so that group in Vietnam became really my group, but they were under command
in Vietnam, but they became part of my squadron you might say on paper. And in September they decided to increase the detachment there by another six vehicles and I had to provide another twelve men and I hardly had any men of my own, so I had to have a few more people posted into me, regular soldiers which I then sent straight away to Vietnam. So the army at that time was going through an enormous expansion and it was under great strain.
They were raising in Puckapunyal the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion which was training about eleven hundred men, eleven hundred recruits and that required an enormous amount of man power for instructors and administration. They were expanding the 1st Recruit Training at Wagga to double its size and capacity and they formed the 3rd Training Battalion
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 08
Now you got up to the point where you were talking about Singleton, you were about to talk about the numbers in the army?
Yes well the army was expanding fast and this was imposing a tremendous strain on the Regular Army, that every three months twenty-one hundred National Serviceman were inducted into the army for recruit training. So after twelve months we had what an extra eight thousand, four hundred and after two years we had sixteen thousand, two hundred, so the army jumped from about
twenty-seven thousand to forty-four thousand. And this really strained the army dramatically so we were running out of officers at the regimental level; we were running out of senior NCOs and corporals. Now we started Skyville and we started training National Serviceman as officers and ran a very good course there. It was not a mobilisation of the nation which you would have in a World War,
but it was a big expansion. It was very instructive to me just to see how the army would handle this, and it’s a lesson, it’s probably one of the biggest lessons you have to see how an army can expand quickly at a time of defence emergency. Now this was not a defence emergency, this was just sending a couple of battalions to Vietnam. It wasn’t, we weren’t up against Japanese threat or invasion by anybody else. But it just showed most of us just how difficult
it is to do it, not simple. And it shows how much the army has to rely on its professional soldiers to provide the nucleus of knowledge and ability and to sort of allow to expand.
What was your view on National Service?
At that point in time I just accepted it, I wasn’t that aware, it wasn’t made aware to us I think of the
rationale behind why we had to go to Vietnam in those numbers and why we had to have National Serviceman. The New Zealanders didn’t, they only had a battalion but they just did it with regular soldiers. And here again I don’t know whether anybody’s written a paper, to say whether we couldn’t have recruited more regular soldiers and probably given them more money to entice people to join the army.
Thinking back to have conscription, or sort of selective conscription, at a time when Australia certainly didn’t face any immediate threat to its defence of security does seem a bit extraordinary. However I just accepted it. I didn’t have time to think what’s going on here, is this a good idea, none of us did. We just got on with the problem of training soldiers for war. But you look back now
in retrospect, was this really necessary?. And I think to some way, we were still bearing a bit of unfortunate legacy of that situation about conscripting people, didn’t happen in the First World War it only happened in the Second World War, and we were able to bring militia units and send them overseas.
What legacy do you think remains?
I think there’s still a bitterness against the Vietnam War, that people just look at the Vietnam War and say it was a stupid war and we shouldn’t have sent Australians there. They forget the wider picture of why the devil we were there in the first place, and the fact that west and east were fighting, looking at a confrontation about two ideologies, you know democracy or totalitarianism. So
that’s the wider picture and in Vietnam certainly the feel was that the Vietnamese could run over all of South East Asia and if they were aided by the Chinese then they would be moving into the North Eastern Provinces of Thailand. They talk about the domino effect but I think people just
will always look at the Vietnam War, many of them from the point of view that my son was sent off to war, may not have come back. But that was wrong and then of course they were just against the Vietnam War, suddenly people started saying it was a civil war, no one should have been there, we should have let them solve their own problems. But the world was a different place in ‘62, it was just a different place
and it’s hard to rationalise these things out these days, you just went along with what you were told to do at that time. I’m not sure that our high defence thinking was, I’m sure was quite appropriate and quite wise, but whether it was, whether our political thinking was that wise I’m not sure.
So you’re at Puckapunyal and you were raising a squadron, could you explain what type of men came into your
Well I got a selection of regular soldiers, some of which I knew, but my main strength was coming from the National Serviceman so I got fifty- three national serviceman from the first intake and I think it was about thirty-seven from the second and they were great blokes, good fellows. You’re always concerned with time, the efficiency of your training
is dependant on many things but the amount of time you’ve got is obviously critical. And with this group in Vietnam I assumed that in twelve months time they’d come back to Australia and they’d be replaced so there was a complete APC troop that I had to provide. So to do that I was planning on raising two troops, one to send and one as reinforcements for any other emergency. But no one, I didn’t know at that stage of the game that we were going to not send, you know we were going to increase
to a Task Force and we were going to send a whole APC Squadron and another two battalions, not just onw battalion so the force was triple in size. So it took me by surprise a bit when I suddenly found that out behind, in a back door comment one night. I was really worried about time and I sat down and worked out criteria for the people I wanted and I said, “Well look I want people that can drive a vehicle to start with
I don’t want to have to teach people the road rules and how to drive a vehicle.” even though they had to drive a tank thing, different to driving a car. I wanted people that wanted to go to Vietnam, that was the first question, “Do you want to go to Vietnam? If selected, are you happy to go?” That’s the first question the second question was, “Can you drive a vehicle?” The next question, I wanted SG3+ which is a higher educational
qualification, the highest educational qualification you had for another rank for a soldier, so I wanted that, in other words I wanted brighter soldiers to be honest. They all had to be able to swim fifty metres in clothes because an amphibious vehicle, for safety you’ve got to be able to swim in clothes. I had a couple of other criteria. So I went down and spoke to the captain running the Psychology Unit at the National Service Battalion, I said, “Listen I’d like
my blokes to pass these tests, fill this criteria.” He said, “Oh great.” This is before computers, of course, but they interviewed every soldier and had all their particulars on cards. So I don’t think anybody had asked him to use all this information they had bursting out of their filing cabinets. They were tickled pink [delighted] that I had said, “Let’s use some of this information.” So I got blokes that wanted to go to Vietnam, could drive, blah blah. Actually I went back and rang him up about a week later and said, “Listen I want
a pianist, a trumpet player.” because I wanted to have a squadron band. I got a couple of motorcyclists, got to have a motorcycle on the establishment, he said, “Sorry draw the line that that.” But anyhow the blokes I got they were good, they were really good, I think that it was the Department of Labour and National Service in those days running the National Service Selection Scheme, and I think they really picked some brilliant twenty year olds for the first couple of
intakes. So the blokes I got were very bright and you had to capitalise on that ability. So I had a very enthusiastic bunch of young officers and NCOs and I said, “Look these guys are clever and when they come in we’ve got to be really on our best behaviour, we’ve got to show that were professional soldiers.” and I used to say this to some lance corporals and corporals, “You’ve really got to show, don’t try.” excuse the word, “But don’t try and bullshit your way through, they’ll see through that
in two seconds flat, just do it properly let them follow you as a role model.” And so that worked well.
What did you train them in?
Trained them in the role of the APC Squadron, the APC Squadron stands for Armoured Personnel Carrier squadron and the role of an APC squadron is to give armoured mobility to infantry. You’ve got armour plate, you travel in a tin box and you move, and so
you use it in mobile warfare, mechanised warfare, and so you can move close to the enemy and have protection from their small arms fire, have protection from their artillery or mortar fire, deposit the infantry close to the objective and they all jump out and capture the enemy, that’s the theory of it. So armoured mobility to the infantry is the role, now I knew that would be the main role but we’d also be doing more cavalry things as well, like doing patrols by
ourselves. I saw how the 1137 were being used by the Vietnamese, so I had a good idea of how they could be used. So we’d have a sort of an unwritten cavalry role doing patrols by ourselves along roads and in more open terrain like rubber plantations. So I tried broaden the spectrum of the training requirement. Actually I got no direct for this, that’s a bit of a story because
I had an establishment saying what the organisation was going to be, but I had nothing else; I didn’t have an equipment table telling me what equipment I could have. But more importantly I didn’t have a training directive and so not having the equipment table I couldn’t even get a rifle, this sounds stupid, very stupid, but I couldn’t draw any stores. Luckily the commander of the Puckapunyal area was an ordnance officer and he said, “This is crazy.” this is part of the army being so stretched and busy
they’d almost forgotten about me and the little squadron, you see. So he arranged for me to get certain essential stores, so I didn’t get my equipment table until I got to Vietnam about a month later. All of my issues came just through ordnance approval not through general staff approval. And I said, “Look I’ve just been told I haven’t got a training directive.” so I’d been challenged by a staff officer in Melbourne saying, “You can’t have any
ammunition.” he says, “Well, you’d better write it.” So I went back to my office and sat down and started writing my own training directive. So after about three goes at it, he reckoned it looked pretty good, he was an ordnance officer, not even a combat arms officer and he looked okay. So we sent it off you see and it must of satisfied the power that be, it vanished into the paperwork of the army never to be seen again, nobody came back and said, “You’re not going to do this, you can’t do that, you should be doing that.” so that was funny. But it was also funny that about, after I’d sent it in and a couple of months later
the 7th Battalion was being raised in September 65, just down the road in Puckapunyal and the 2IC of the battalion rang me up, actually he’s just living across the road here, he said, “Can I have a copy of your training directive?” And then about a week after that Bill Rogers who was raising the Field Ambulance rang up and said, “Can I have a copy of your training
directive?” so that will show you how stretched the army was. I should have been given complete direction really you’re going to train, do this and this. I didn’t mind, I knew what I had to do but really I should have been probably told and that would have given me authority to do other things.
How long was it before these men were actually in Vietnam?
Well the first lot arrived with me in September, joined the army in the 1st July and they would have been in Vietnam some in April, so
about 10 months.
And where were they fighting?
Where were they? Well we moved into Phuoc Tuy province which is south east of Saigon. And the army decided that it would take a new operational area and the Americans agreed to this so they gave us Phuoc Tuy province. And it was planned to establish a Task Force Base near a hill
called Nui Dat which was north of the provincial capital. It was in a rubber plantation, very close to a village called Long Phuoc which was full of Viet Cong and so the was a bit different to the Americans’ idea that we, our army said, “Look we’ll put the Task Force almost smack in the middle of the area and then we’ll move outwards and pacify the area.” Whereas many of the American operations
were working from a safe base in a very safe area and then flying quite some distance into an operational area, spending two or three weeks there and then getting out of it. But we had a different policy. We decided we wanted to move into the area and really dominate the area and push the enemy out of it and also get control of the civil population. So it’s an interesting discussion of what was right and what was wrong, but anyhow that’s what we did.
So on a day to day, basis what were you doing?
On a day to day basis for the first few months we were trying to get control of the area. One of the first things the Task Force did was actually to destroy Long Phuoc village, which is pretty sad. The two Battalions and I had two ACP troops and I gave one to each battalion and so 3 Troop went off to help, that’s with thirteen APCs, went off to help
6 Battalion who’s task was the unhappy task of just destroying a village, knocking down houses and burning them and putting the population back into town, not the way to win hearts and minds of the people. But we felt it had to be done because they were just too close to our base. So then for the first, and so in the squadron I spent a lot of time
just doing runs up and down the roads making a presence, supporting the infantry on patrols, dropping them off into areas, picking them up and bringing them back. There was intensive patrolling going on right around, right around from the Task Force base to eliminate the Viet Cong from the area. And up until we arrived there the local VC Battalion, D445 was its number, had really had an
unfettered run of the whole area. So for us, arriving in the area obviously there had to be a big conflict between the two of us. A lot of intensive patrolling going on and we were establishing the base, at the same time an air strip was being built in the base; we were astride almost a provincial route running north to south from Wen Lok. So we built a road, a new road outside our Task Force perimeter
to get the civilians out, away from the base. We were helping some of the local villagers to the north to allow them to come to town, they just couldn’t get to town because of VC, enemy wouldn’t allow them to come to town, so we opened the road and they could come safely to town, so the economy got moving again. The first couple of months, in fact not the whole time the infantry, the armour were
just flat out, you worked seven days a week, you’d be out on patrol, in ambush, it’s a seven day a week twenty-four hour business soldiering and that’s the circumstances.
You mentioned the destruction of the village and the need to move the civilians away, what kind of relationship was there at the time with the VC and the villages?
Well it was very close, within every village you would have a large number of Viet Cong living in the village,
just normally helping in the fields. But at other times they’d go off maybe for several weeks and form up a new platoon or sections and they’d do some activity against the government, and then they’d come back and merge into the population, it was that sort of war. So our aim was to stop them moving freely in the field. But we also tried to get them out of the villages, to do that we were doing cordons and search of the village,
so we put a cordon around the village and then we would laboriously and methodically go through and interview everybody in the village. And we had Vietnamese intelligence people there to tell us whether this guy is suspect or this guy is Viet Cong, and poor guy off he’d go to jail, never to been seen again. So it was a very tedious process but they were under your nose, literally under your nose.
We had an operational area, to the south of it was the responsibility of the province, the Vietnamese Provincial Colonel Dat, and he asked our Task Force Commander whether he could have my squadron for a couple of days to carry his provincial battalion and ARVN battalion to do some operations, just to the south of our operational area. And so we went off in the morning and by 10ten
o’clock we spotted some Viet Cong and we’d captured about twelve of them, killed a couple. Then we went to town for lunch, had a nice lunch, came back in the afternoon, drove up close to the village and there’s a group of about 30 people working in the paddy fields. And one of the Vietnamese said, “VC.” Viet Cong, so we
just rounded them up literally, and pulled another 8eight just like that, so they were under your noses. But certainly the Task Force job was more into the jungle, but in the cultivated areas close to the town we left that to the Vietnamese, we were working in the jungle areas in the thick country.
What kind of misinformation, or was there misinformation about who was VC sympathiser and who wasn’t?
Yes was there any misinformation, I mean was it difficult to gauge?
It was, it was very difficult to gauge, because in some families you’d have one member of the family fighting for the government and another member of the family, brothers in the Viet Cong. And you had this terrible situation of by day government troops would come into a village telling them to watch out for the Viet Cong and do this and do that, night time in would come the Viet Cong.
And so digging them out of the local population was so difficult indeed, so difficult. Almost you might say an impossible task. In operations with my squadron with me in command, having had this operation with Colonel Dat and he was sitting on my carrier you see, he was very tickled pink with this operation, we picked up people from his front door, and so I was sort of a good chap.
He had a sergeant interrogator in the Intelligence Corps and this guy was an evil looking bloke, he looked to me more like a Korean, he was quite thick set in the neck and the shoulders, didn’t look like a Vietnamese at all, pretty slim. Anyhow I would borrow him and if we were out in an area where anybody that was there was Viet Cong and you’re almost entitled to shoot him,
but if we apprehended some of these people, this guy would finger them straight away. I said, “Look if they’re innocent give them a rocket and a warning and say, “Don’t come here again, cause next time you mightn’t be so lucky we might be shooting you and send them off.” But he could pick a Viet Cong just like that and so I think you could say that if there was a bit of a weakness in our operations in the Task Force initially, we were too
much in the jungle where the Viet Cong were not, they were still moving around in the open areas. And we were looking for them in the middle of the shrubbery. And we also probably could have done with some local expertise for identification. But the attitude was, “We don’t want any Vietnamese in our base, for our own security.” And after a while we got a few interpreters but I think we may
could have been more efficient if we had had more Vietnamese with us. The language problem was a barrier, but we could have been a bit more efficient in the recognition and identification. But that was the terrible thing about the war in Vietnam, people were being pushed and pulled by the enemy, by the government, by us, by anybody else, and trying to recognise them. So the aim was to get them safe, disengage them from the enemy presence and influence
and let them live a safe life. And of course we did manage to do this very well in the Task Force; we just kept pushing out and pushing out. I think the Americans somehow weren’t too happy with us, they preferred the big battle, lots of casualties. They had this terrible thing called body count, which was a hideous thing and I’m glad to hear a couple of our generals said, “We don’t believe in the body count philosophy, no we want to win the war not just kill people.” But I think they were critical
of us, that we were not going for the big bang you might say, we were just slowly, slowly moving out. What they called the ink blot system, an ink blot spreads out and you spread out and secure the area, keep pushing people away and the people inside the ink blotters are safe, to speak. We had one big battle in August near the village of Long Tan and that certainly took us by surprise.,
The [North Vietnamese] 275 Regiment came in from the east and I’m not quite sure if anybody knows exactly how many there were, but certainly was a figure in excess of a thousand Viet Cong came, so there was D455 and 275 Regiment, and that was a very savage battle in an afternoon on the 18th of August which involved D Company of 6RAR, you may have heard about that. Fortunately we won the day
and I think we lost about seventeen soldiers, one of my crew commanders died of wounds afterwards. But we killed about two hundred and fifty Viet Cong which was a big victory.
So your squadron was involved in that?
No it wasn’t, I was told to send off 1 troop, so I sent off 3 Troop who had been working with 6RAR and which really
worried me because this was obviously a big battle. It started about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the reason I mentioned Little Patty and Col Joye [entertainers] to you was because that afternoon, would you believe, oh the previous night we’d been mortared, the base had been mortared.
Your base had been mortared?
Yes at Nui Dat, the whole Task Force base had been mortared from the east. And the reason why D Company was out there was they’d found the base plate from where the mortars were firing, and they were firing at the time trying to find out where the enemy were.
But the next day there was a concert party with Little Patty and ‘Col Joye and the Joye Boys’ and so the bulk of the task force that weren’t involved were watching a concert, I think it might have been the second concert we had. Anyhow at about 3.15 I think it was, Little Patty’s singing away and the guns started firing, I think the first laugh
occurred when Little Patty jumped with fright as the artillery went over the top of her head. What the hell we had, I don’t know if she was seventeen or eighteen, but what she was doing there, whoever selected her, it just seemed stupid to have a young girl in this area. I think she was terrified out of her wits, not surprisingly. Anyhow the diggers thought it was pretty funny. But there was obviously something serious going on, so I switched onto the artillery [radio] net and the artillery net used to give you the quick information
about what was happening where. And I knew where 6RAR were, so I switched onto the 6RAR Battalion net and I could hear their battalion quarters and I could just hear slight noise coming out of D Company ‘call sign 4’ over to the west as it was. So by the rate of intense fire coming from our batteries I knew that this was no small engagement. So I called the squadron back into the area and called an orders group
in about fifteen minutes, and put them on fifteen minutes notice to move and raced up to see the brigadier. Actually I got there to find the command post empty if I remember, wasn’t a soul there, where the hell is everybody should be fighting the battle? So I’m rushing over to a tent which was the Fire Control Co-ordination Centre where they were controlling the artillery fire and sure enough all the command staff are in there. And I said, “Where’s the brigadier?” because I wanted
to know what he wanted me to do. He said, “I want to send a troop to 6RAR.” so I said, “I’ve got that message but I want to talk to the brigadier.” But he wasn’t there and he said, “Try his tent.” so I went trying to find his tent so I found his tent and the brigadier was sitting in there not looking happy at all. So it wasn’t until years later when I read the history of the war that I found out that the Task Force Headquarters had known
that 275 Regiment was marching towards us for about ten days, and our radio intercept troop which can pick out where radio transmitters are, had been tracking this particular transmitter right towards us for about ten days. And they knew it was the radio belonging to the headquarters of 275 Regiment. Anyhow we’d sent out of lots of patrols, couldn’t find a soul, couldn’t find a soul.
Anyhow obviously they were on our doorstep and D Company ran into them and so it was a big battle, but the brigadier wasn’t too happy, all his chickens had come home to roost.
You mentioned you lost one of your men in that battle?
Yes, I lost a Corporal Peter Clements. 3 Troop were driving the vehicles that went over there in 65 with the 1st Troop and their vehicles were a bit, I’ll use the word
clapped out. We had to repair a lot of them and put new tracks on them. And the radio sets weren’t the best so the troop, I gave the troop commander a section of carriers from another troop but this section didn’t have gun shields and I hate to say this, but poor old Clements was shot with a bullet, you know ran up the front of the carrier and he was shot through the chest and then died about ten days later. But
I didn’t have any gun shields, I tried to get gun shields before I left Australia and I had a plan to get them but I was told no, you can’t do that, and so that makes me very angry.
Is that your first, the first casualty that you had experienced?
No I had couple of casualties about the first week from enemy artillery fire,
actually no probably from our own artillery fire, this was an accident, an infantry soldier was killed and one of my crew commanders was badly wounded and another crew commander was just wounded slightly, so we patched him up and he stayed in country. Then about, oh about three weeks later I had a soldier die as a result of an accidental discharge
and that’s always very grim, so he was the first death and Clements was the second death, so it was bad.
As someone in charge of a squadron when casualties and deaths occur, how does that impact on you personally?
Oh the battle
casualties are one thing, they can impact worse on you if you’ve made a mistake and, as a result of your mistake because that’s something that is always in the back of your mind as a commander, you don’t want to make a mistake. But when you have a thing like an accidental discharge that’s terrible, because it means it’s careless or stupidity in handling a weapon,
and that just to me is lack of training. And in the army there’s always a seasoning period when soldiers just get familiar with having live ammunition and having live weapons in their hand all the time and handling grenades or handling explosives. And there’s a seasoning in just riding
an armoured vehicles, you bang your head, you jam your fingers in hatches, you skin your knee. But after a couple of weeks you’re riding with the vehicle and it’s like getting saddle sore, you get used to the horse or the navy gets sea legs. Weapon safety is a thing which is so important. What had happened in the task force there had been several deaths and casualties from people’s weapons going off accidentally
and I think mine might have been the last for a while; and I remember the Brigadier saying, “Oh sorry Bob I thought you were going to be the only unit that wouldn’t have one.” So that’s upsetting, and it’s upsetting for everybody else too, because they’ve lost a mate, these blokes have now known each other for eleven months and so all of a sudden he’s dead, he’s gone. The body’s whisked away quickly; it’s not like being maybe in
New Guinea where you had to bury the guy in the ground or carry him out, we had helicopters that would just take the body away or the injured person away. This particular man was taken away to the hospital in Vung Tau and they operated on him. But the bullet was in the head, and it was no hope. Had a very good surgeon there but he had no hope, I spoke to him later on. So with Clements who got shot, actually the enemy machine gunner was a very brave man, he sort of stitched the fire up the front of the carrier and hit the crew commander.
Drivers were told to run over people, so the driver just ran his left track over the machine gunner, killed him. But Clements dropped to the bottom and we got him away in a helicopter and operated on very expertly, but he died of ulceration of the
stomach and that’s difficult, especially with a battle casualty, you’ve got all sorts of toxins and impurities getting into the body and the high velocity round does awful damage, tissue damage. So a stomach wound is still a nasty wound to get, particular from a high velocity round. You know [US President Ronald] Reagan got shot. But that was from a pistol, the Pope got shot, the Pope took a long while to get out
because his surgeons weren’t as good evidently, but Reagan got over it fairly quickly. Here again in war you suddenly are looking for surgeons that have expertise in battle casualties, and we didn’t have any in Australia in 1965, ‘66. This chap who we had in the task force or in the hospital in Vung Tau, if
the story’s right and I was told later on he was in England doing some post graduate training on his way back to Australia, I think on a ship, but he’d had war time experience in Africa I think in Angola or somewhere, just out of his own volition. He was in the army reserve, CMF and so the army suddenly sent him a telegram saying will you be the surgeon for our hospital, so
I think from a ship he said, “Yes, I will.” Got him to Australia, gave him another uniform and sent him off to Vietnam. So it brings up the need for preparedness in all aspects of war, not just training people to fight, your casualty evacuation, your hospitals, they’re vital to keep people alive. Certainly in Vietnam where, if you were wounded literally within thirty minutes on an average you were on an operating table being
operated on. If you got knocked down on the corner of Pitt and George Street, just in Australia you know, within half an hour, we hoped you’d be in an emergency section.
How prepared was Australia for the Vietnam War, how prepared were the troops once they got there?
Oh I think when we got there we were as well trained, well as well trained as you’d
expect because they worked well. The Battle of Long Tan, the infantry there fought very bravely indeed, it was a classic encounter battle with roughly about eighty-five, ninety men facing a force of thousand plus, who were charging up. What saved them of course was we had three field batteries firing a lot of artillery right on top of them, and the gunners saved the day. The company commander was a very able officer, the battery commander was a very able officer, he was a New Zealander,
but actually he was two classes ahead of me at RMC. If he had of been wounded, or his radio set had packed up, our company would have been wiped out, no doubt about it, so the artillery was brilliant. The training there was good, it was very good. The exception is, I’m just going to mention, is that as I mentioned the role of the APC squadron was to give armoured mobility to the infantry. Now my biggest problem was, I was saying, “Look I’m doing my own training,
but when do I get to train with the 2nd Infantry Battalions, that’s my job to give them mobility and they know nothing about APCs.” And that wasn’t done, it wasn’t done. Going into the battlefield to the relief of D Company at the Long Tan battle, my troop going in there, I thought that for such a big attack that the enemy will
put some sort of a blocking force on the route that we would take, it was pretty obvious which way we would come from the Task Force base to get to the battle area. And I was positive the enemy would have some sort of delaying force there which would delay my troop and if it got delayed then D Company would not be rescued so to speak. And so I was, won’t use the word 'arguing' but saying to the brigadier, “Look Sir,
if this troop are held up then they’ll just never get through.” That’s why I was saying I’ve got twenty-seven carriers here to go, and we just sent ten – only actually seven – had to fight their way through a company circling around the back of D Company. However when the troop arrived with a company on board, A Company, the enemy
just disappeared, they’d had enough, they took enormous casualties. But that was literally at last light and so they arrived literally in the nick on time, nick of time. If I had been able to go straight away, say at 4 o’clock, I could have been there, this is all hindsight conjecture, but could have been there by half past four and would have saved some of our blokes. Plus we could have chased the enemy way back across the province, because it was pretty open country where
the battle was taking place. So that worried me. We broke several military axioms of too little too late and we have a saying, “Never use armour in penny packets.” All I was sending was a penny packet, instead of the squadron. But the thing is the task force at that time was so spread we had a couple of companies, the other battalion up in Binh Ba, about 11 kilometres to the north. I had five of my carriers up there so the Task Force
was terribly spread and we were very vulnerable and so it really transpired that even though we’d done intensive patrolling and we thought we had the area pretty clear, the enemy had come in with a major force and we didn’t know about it. We couldn’t find them even though we were looking across that route they were coming in. So that was a lesson, but we won, we breathed a big sigh of relief. But as far as I’m concerned we were very lucky, very lucky indeed. The enemy
could always move and concentrate, the Viet Minh could concentrate very fast on the battle field, they moved very quickly, and we could see that even with the ARVN battalion which I’d seen before as an advisor, and with the battalion in which we took out with my squadron. Anyway, going in with 3 Troop to the relief of D Company, we had a few contretemps with the company we were carrying because we’d done no training for this sort of situation with the infantry. That
was bad, that should never have happened………………..
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 09
But the point I’m making about the lack of training with the infantry, before I went to Vietnam that to me was one of the most serious deficiencies in our training, and it really had its effect with the relief going into the rescue of D Company, it could have been chaotic. To explain a bit further, the troop going in were engaged by a 57 mm recoilless, anti tank weapon.
Luckily for us the rounds hit a rubber tree and missed the carrier, but had one of those carriers been knocked out then almost that troop would have come to a dead stop. They probably could have knocked another carrier out, and we would not have got through to D Company, and also the troop would have been fighting for its life then. The thing was, the sight on the 57 [cannon] was fogged over, so the enemy soldier couldn’t really sight the jolly
thing correctly, isn’t that extraordinary? But the company on board would have had to get out, form a formation and then fight and defend themselves. We had not done that in any training. As I was doing my own training program and time was running out, as I said, I had to get national serviceman from the second intake arriving with me in December and then train them to drive vehicles
and to fire guns and do all the armour work. That took virtually about 10 weeks. And that’s before I even started my own troop training and squadron training, this is all part of raising a squadron from scratch. So I was in, so I had a program running out to virtually the end of July and I had no idea when we’d be actually going to Vietnam, we weren’t told that till about April, I don’t think. But I wanted to know really what they required of infantry
armour training. So I went off to Holsworthy in middle of January in 66 to see an officer, to see a senior officer there who, I thought, would be the person who would organise this. And I must admit that it is one of the sort of worst interviews I’ve had in my career, trying to get the point across to this officer about what I had to do
to finish my training, before I could get to infantry. But then anyhow what about the infantry training, and I could see he really paid no attention to my jolly training program, I don’t think he’s even aware that I even existed, I hate to say this. He was planning an exercise for one of the battalions to go to Vietnam, and it was going to be in the Gospers area and he said
“I want you on exercise.” and that just threw me because I hadn’t planned for that, for three weeks away to get to Gospers in New South Wales and get back to Puckapunyal and it would have been a month out of my training program, I just couldn’t afford it. And it was an exercise, and you don’t get much training done on an exercise, you don’t get the proper basic training done, so I really was beside myself what I was going to do. And
it’s extraordinary how these things happen, but I had been an enemy umpire a year before, early 1965 in the same area for 1RAR before they went to Vietnam, and Gospers area is very mountainous and it’s not suitable for armoured vehicles at all, and I said, “Well I can’t think of a worse place for armoured training than in Gosper mountain.” and he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Sir, look Gospers is mountainous, it’s
infantry training, armour can’t work there.” I said, “Not armour like mine, that are not even trained.” and I should have added that I had no radio sets in my vehicles, and so I couldn’t even talk between vehicles and anybody else. And more importantly in the vehicles I had no inter communications arrangement. Now in an armoured vehicle it makes a lot of noise so we had headphones and microphones and the commander can talk to the driver and he can talk to the gunner, and you need to do this because of the noise, you can’t shout at people, so we did a lot of our training by having to shout to the driver.
And that was bad, the radio sets had not arrived, we had brand new ones. Anyhow I made this mistake of saying, “Can’t think of a worse place for armoured than Gospers.” He said, “What do you know about that, what do you know about Gospers?” I said, “Sir I was an umpire on exercise in May last year and I walked all over Gospers with 1RAR and it’s a hopeless place for armour, and it’s a damn dangerous when they’ve got untrained soldiers with no radio sets, no IC.”
And I think I then got through to him, so that solved the problem of me having to go on this exercise. But still nothing happened with arranging for any infantry armour training, my plan was that they would fly down to Mangalore near Seymour, a company at a time. I had arranged accommodation for them in Puckapunyal in a barrack block and I had a program which I put before them for a 6 day training exercise with my APCs, a troop for a company and
I’d even arranged to borrow tanks from the armoured regiment so they could work with tanks. As far as I knew we may get tanks from the Vietnamese or tanks from the Americans. So I had quite a good sound scheme, anyhow, none of that came to fruition at all. And that to me is gross negligence on the part of the higher command, that we were not trained for that, that’s bad news.
In regard to casualties – when you’re the commander of a squadron,
what sort of contact are you obliged to have, or do you have, with the families of men who have been killed?
Well the system I think was as good as you could expect. I can talk about a death that the information went back to army headquarters in Canberra. Depending on where the family was, it could be out in the country or a capital
city, then the command headquarters, say in Sydney, would have an officer go out with a padre to go to the home and tell the next of kin. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it didn’t, I think sometimes they would try and, if it was a soldier and he’d left from a married quarter in a base then he was probably known, and his neighbours would be known. So they’d line
up neighbours, you can imagine from a battalion leaving from Holsworthy, that all the wives are still there, so the whole camp was living on their nerves a bit about their husbands being overseas, this is the regular soldiers, of course. But in the case of national service, which was spread all over the community, a bit different. They’d certainly try and arrive on the doorstep with the padre and give as much help, but it’s just a terrible thing, terrible thing.
There’s no way to do it really, you just try and ease the suffering as possible, but there’s no way of easing it.
Did you have personal contact with families of men you had lost?
Well yes. When I came back in ‘67 it so happened that I spent a couple of days in Saigon when I left the squadron and handed
over to my successor. A few days after that, I think about five days after I left the squadron, a troop was involved in a contact and a carrier was destroyed by, I think it was a 75mm recoilless weapon which blew a big hole in the front of the carrier, killed the driver and killed the crew commander. It so happened that the driver of the vehicle, I had him for three months as my driver, I used to get new
soldiers coming in, I’d have them for thre months as my driver; then I’d send them out to a troop. So I’d been back in Australia for a couple of weeks on leave and I went off to a funeral, met all the family in their living room and that was pretty tough. I guess I was a bit jittery myself and it was hard to sort of transport yourself from Vietnam in the battlefields and then come back into civilian, in a Melbourne suburb, and go off to the crematorium and go off to a service. Boy I
had to hold onto myself there, it’s difficult. But that’s what soldiering is all about, the family are there and it’s pretty emotional.
Can you talk to me about the role of the padre in Vietnam?
His main role was to provide spiritual guidance, but he was more a non combatant sort of comforter really, and we wanted his wisdom, to be a person to talk to a non officer type person. So that was his role.
I think I might’ve mentioned before, I had him for church parades. We had three padres there. So they played a very big part, they played a big part on getting around and talking to the soldiers and sensing their moral sense, if a soldier had a problem cause soldiers would talk to the padres, not all of them. Some would seek the padre out,
I can’t remember any of my blokes sort of having psychological problems and seeking the padre, or at least I hope I didn’t have any cause I can’t remember any. But that was a very important part so you always welcomed the padre to come along, sit down and have a meal with the Diggers, and get to know them and talk to them just to see how they were feeling. And then you’d pick the padre’s brain and say how do things seem to you,
see what he thought about your squadron, are the fellows happy, and so they played a very important role there, all over the place. In the navy the padre’s had no rank and they say my rank is the rank of the person I’m talking to, so if he’s talking an admiral he’s an admiral padre, if he’s talking to a able seaman, he’s an able seaman. But our padres were ranked, but so in some ways I thought the
navy system had some merit, but that was a very important job, getting around talking to the soldiers and being someone they could talk to, if need be.
Can you comment on how important or how big a part women and booze were in the culture?
Of the soldiers well
we were fairly reasonable squadron in some ways, when we got there, there were no sort of recreational facilities available in Vung Tau which was sort of a leave area. The recreation centre hadn’t been built so my blokes and
I think most of the people in the first Task Force hardly got to Vung Tau at all, they were getting down there for a day, I’d send a carrier with a Land Rover and they’d go and have a day in Vung Tau, go into the bar get on the slops [beer] and I don’t know what else they might do, I didn’t ask particularly. But that was it; I didn’t have any nasty diseases to my knowledge,
I sort of made sure I had proper protection and I had to be like the father confessor. I was unmarried so I wasn’t an aggro [aggressive] father or husband. But they had a few talkings to [reprimands] from me; they went on R&R [Rest and Recreation] which is out of country to Taipei, to Hong Kong and Bangkok.
But it was a tough life that was about six days for their R&R, that’s all the rest of the time they were soldiering. The soldiers in Saigon or in Vung Tau, off duty they could go to the bars, it was a different world but for those of in the Task Force area at night it was lights out. We’d have some movies at night but I’d always make the squadron stand to
and man their weapon pits. This is if we’re back in base camp and they’d stand there manning their guns, dark, switch on for what we called night routine and I’d vary it between five minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes just to settle them down, little form of discipline. Then I’d say, “Right, stand too, condition green.” The movie, if we had a movie, we had a projector and you could get movies, would start in ten minutes time, so we’d all go to the movie.
The beer ration, had no beer for a couple of months until we got our first barbed wire fence up; huge barbed wire fence I put up. I think I had more barbed wire around the squadron than the rest of the Task Force put together. But when we left the area there was no one there except a few that stayed behind, like cooks and things. So when the fence went up I said, “Right, one can of beer, second fence two cans of beer.” and I limited it to that for quite a few months, and it was American beer which is a bit less alcohol
content than Australia beer. And so we had a few drunks, but we knew about them and you controlled them with your NCOs, so it never bothered me. I’m dealing with the grog thing, on operations there’s no grog of course, but being armoured vehicles we had to be resupplied with fuel every three or four days, depending on how much we were moving.
And so that required bringing in a couple of Chinook helicopters with huge bladder bags with about four hundred gallons underneath them, and we’d fly in an Iroquois helicopter with a pump and hoses, and so for a couple of hours there’s a hell of a lot of noise of helicopters coming and going and motors running, pumps going. And at the same time I’d fly in a small helicopter, a sand bag for each troop which had their beer or soft drink ration, so within each troop we knew each soldier who would drink beer, some would
still drink soft drink, so we’d have a 3 Troop sandbag which would have beer and soft drink and that would be in a cold box in the tent with some ice. And as soon as we said we’d be refuelling at this grid reference at a certain time in would come the SQMS [squadron quartermaster] in one of his little helicopters, he’d bring the mail in, bring all the sandbags in and we’d have a beer. And then the war would start again in a couple of hours' time, we’d drift off into the shrubbery. But we occasionally had Americans with us
and they have no grog at all in the field and they thought it was fantastic having beer in the bush. But they had a marijuana problem and a heroin problem, marijuana problem bad, here again I’d like to say that I don’t think, marijuana certainly wasn’t a problem in the 1st Task Force and I don’t think it was probably a problem in later Task Forces, but it was a big problem with some of the Americans, so I’ve read about. So having a beer
in the bush was a bit of a relaxing thing, make a bit of noise and chat and talk, while you were refuelling vehicles and helicopters were coming and going.
What evidence was there at the time of the drug problems amongst the US forces?
Well I didn’t know much about it. I think it developed more in the later ‘60s but drugs for a combat soldier are just a nightmare, you can’t afford to have soldiers in a weapon pit at night who are spaced out on marijuana,
or maybe who are shooting up heroin somewhere, it’s just not on, it’s frightening.
In your opinion are there particular aspects of the culture of the US military that allowed those sorts of problems to arise?
Well the military didn’t allow it, they recognised it as a massive problem too, but it’s like the drug science all around the world, you just can’t control it, what do you do about it, education is one thing but
you just can’t control it. I don’t know the Americans have a war on drugs, but they’ve lost it, it’s never going to work and I guess we’ve got the same problem in Australia, we don’t call it a war on drugs but I don’t think we’ve got any solution to it. The government doesn’t like injecting rooms, personally I think that the injecting rooms are an excellent idea; least you get the guy coming in and you know who he is and you can save him from overdosing and hopefully you can get him on some sort of path of recovery.
I don’t know what the army’s policy on drugs is at the moment but we, if you have a problem with drugs the soldier had to go, he had to go. I think that’s what happening now. But it was something which was not in my experience and all I can say is I’m very thankful that I don’t think I had a problem.
What sort of contact were you having with US Forces?
In the task force with the Australia Task Force, very little. We had
Battery A of the 2/ 35th Artillery which had six, M109 115 Howitzers, looked like a large tank with a very big gun and another Battery of the 1/83rd, anyway they had two 8 inch guns and two 175 guns. The 8 inch gun is a big gun one of the most accurate guns in the world you can adjust to fire within twenty-five metres on the ground.
And the 175 gun has a range of about thirty thousand yards, so we were using that to shoot and harass the enemy at very long range. Otherwise we had little to do with them on operations. But the first Christmas we had there, we were all having a day back in base, no war for three days. Anyway we went
to war on Boxing Day again, down south, but Christmas Day, the tradition is the officers serve the men rounds, what we call rounds of gun fire in bed in the morning, which is just rum and milk or just rum, so we got around and tottered around with our rum to give the fellows their rum rations. And then for lunch we served the men their lunch, we wait on the men. Anyhow went into the marquee,
we had a 7 Section marquee on Christmas Day, and I’d been talking to the cooks, poor old cooks had to still do the cooking, but the sergeants, some of the sergeants were doing the carving. So I walked into the mess tent with my two plates of food and there’s about twenty Americans there, they’d all come up from the Battery, the 155 Battery they’d been invited up by my blokes, so oh great, we were feeding about twenty-five, thirty
people more than we thought. So that was good, we had good relations but operationally in the field, no. We did have an interesting visit from the 11th Army Cavalry Regiment who came into the country and were going to work to our north, well to our north, and one day I was asked to receive a party of three or four for an eleven day ACR who, “Wanted to talk
to you the armoured fellow, to see about how you used armour.” And it turned out about three helicopters arrived with about twenty on board, but they were just sort of keen to know how did we work and would a 113 [artillery piece] work in a rubber plantation, so that was pretty funny question I thought. So we sent a few off with a 113 with some of our drivers to sort of zip them in and out of rubber trees to show it doesn’t work, it sounded like the silliest thing to me, I couldn’t believe it. So we
didn’t have much to do with them at all, we had our own operational area, we were dependent on their logistics a lot of course, but in fact when we got there initially we had problems with the blower shaft in our diesel engines and the blower shaft wasn’t strong enough and if you got stuck in mud and the engine was working at high revolution the blower shaft would snap, the engine stopped. And I couldn’t get blower shafts through our own Australian supply
so I used to send my SQMS and somebody else up the road by helicopter near Bien Hoa where the Americans had a huge vehicle graveyard of broken down vehicles, and they’d go up there with any Australian beer, a couple of slouch hats, things to swap, and they’d send a couple of vehicle mechanics and we’d leap into the vehicles and start taking blower shafts, which they were quite happy for us to take. But after a couple of months they suddenly
realised that they wanted the blower shafts for themselves, and other parts, so we stopped getting blower shafts. But luckily then they modified the blower shaft so we didn’t have that problem, but those things happened.
How would you conduct repairs or?
We had our vehicle mechanics and the 113 is a tin box, aluminium steel box with a pretty reliable engine and you could lift the entire engine and transmission
out of the vehicle and put another one back in again, so you could do an engine, a power pack as we called it, change, oh within about an hour, if I remember correctly. But you had damage from mines, ran over mines and that would blow road wheels off and blow the track off so we always carried a couple of spare road wheels and spare links of track. And a couple of times we had to tow vehicles,
we had a recovery vehicle, a 113, with a large crane and we’d send it into the operation where the casualty was and lift the vehicle up and more quickly do the repair. So vehicle casualty and repair is as important as much as the man, so in the armoured corps if you have a vehicle casualty, it is as important you might say as having a personnel casualty. So we became quite adept
at that, but the availability of the spare parts was important, naturally, and I took as many spare parts to Vietnam as I could, but when the troop came down from Bien Hoa to join us at Nui Dat when we were forming there they were in such a bad way we literally used up all our spare parts up overnight, just repairing their vehicles and making them fully serviceable again. And we were dependent on the monthly shipments coming up from Australia on a couple of Australian merchant ships,
which is pretty good but spare parts were always a problem.
How common were mines in the area you were conducing most of your operations?
Well in the first year with the Task Force, mines were not a big problem, they were becoming a problem and in later years they were a massive problem. I guess I was fortunate that whilst we had some mine damage we didn’t have any horrific casualties, we missed some big mines –
the mines that the Viet Cong used were mostly electrically detonated so they would take a bomb or a shell which they’d dug out of the ground, remove the fuse, put in an electric detonator, bury the thing in the middle of the road, or by the road, and then run back some electric wires, hundred yards to fifty yards. Wait for the vehicle to come along and as it drove over the top of the spot, hit the button on the battery and blow the thing up. So
they were what we called command detonated mines and there pretty horrific things. The first mines were quite simple you might say, anti tank mines which were pressure mines, you ran over the top and the pressure caused it to explode, and so we ran over a few of those and we started putting a couple of boxes of rations under the drivers’ seat for protection. And then we sandbagged the carrier
with sandbags to give us extra mine protection and then a couple of years after I left they decided to armour the base, so they put a thick slab of aluminium armour plate right along the bottom of the carrier for extra armour protection. But in the big mine it would just blow the carrier over on its side, so mines were probably the most terrifying thing. You’d feel your toes creeping in your boots occasionally in an area
where you just thought, “Oh what’s that on the road there?” But initially when we were making our presence felt in the Task Force you couldn’t sit back and tippy- toe [creep] the place so we, as an armoured unit we had to roar up and down the road and make our presence felt, unsettle the enemy in the area. They now know they had armoured vehicles
which could arrive on their doorstep very quickly at high speed, and so therefore that was another problem for them. So you couldn’t tippy-toe around the area, you’d go out and you’d never come back on the same track you went out on cause the Viet Cong are quite expert, use that crossing the next time you wanted to use that crossing you’d probably find some mines had been laid right in the middle of the track area. So you tried to use another area and you wouldn’t use the same
crossing. So mines were a bad problem, bad problem.
At this stage in the war what were your impressions of the Viet Cong in terms of their expertise?
Well their expertise I don’t think was that great. The problem with them was finding them, they sort of had the initiative on where they were going to be and
we didn’t find them too well. As regards to their military proficiency, they were very brave and quite well led and motivated fighters, there’s no doubt about that, they were very brave. I mean the Battle of Long Tan they were really sacrificed, appalling to my thinking. But if you got them in a
fixed engagement then we were really well on top of them, we had artillery, we had probably better weapons, better command and control, better communications and we had better training. There the Viet Cong soldier didn’t have very good training and I don’t think many of them were very good, as good as shots as they should have been. They had an excellent weapon, the AK47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, it’s a fantastic
weapon and they had an awful lot of firepower, they had some very good machine guns and mortars. But they had to be a mobile enemy which had to hit run, and most of the time they were working in smaller groups and so we could counter that just by having artillery fire to support us. But there were many savage encounters so they were an enemy to be
respected, that’s for sure, you didn’t take them lightly.
Were those encounters happening in jungle or in more open battle fields?
Well certainly happening in jungle and open areas, some in town in the Tet Offensive after I left there the Viet Cong came right into Bien Hoa was savage street fighting. No one in the Task Force had been trained to fight house to house fighting so
that was very difficult phase for the Task Force in February 68 when they suddenly found they were back in Bien Hoa provincial capital and the Viet Cong were in the houses, all over the place, trying to eliminate them from the houses. So they were a brave and strong enemy and as the years went by of course they got stronger and stronger. But I was here in 1967, 68,
we thought we had their measure, we did have their measure we pushed them away, pushed them away. But that would never stop you from hitting a mine or being in an ambush. To some degree they left us alone and we found that they were working to our south and we picked up one report that said the Australians are going east and west, in our operational area and so
we’ll go north and south, so they went to the north of us and to the south of us, so they were going to areas where we were not. Anyhow then the Task Force operation area was expanded for that and we kept going further and further afield.
Can you explain what the nature of the jungle patrol was?
Well mainly infantry patrols which were just designed to find the enemy, seek them out and neutralise them or destroy them. To find his
bases, to find where he may be living, one particular operation we just found a cache of about forty tonnes of rice and it took us two days to shift this rice out by helicopter, and it had been carefully stashed around in the jungle after the harvest, so forty tonnes of rice is a lot of rice.
The infantry were doing, we’d call it saturation patrolling, always patrolling, always patrolling so the battalions would be out for weeks at a time, it was a tough move, it was in the armoured corps in my squadron life was a little bit easier, we weren’t walking around carrying three water bottles and a lot of ammunition and belts of ammunition, we were riding around you might say in comfort.
And we had better water on board but we were still out and about, you weren’t back in a comfortable bed, you were lying on the ground or what have you, so it was a tough life, but you had to dominate the area and just keep the enemy on the move and preferably keep him away, not let him come in to affect the civilian population. So
that’s the nature of counter revolutionary warfare. It’s just on and on if you can imagine just being out in the bush everyday of the week, week on end, with a pack on your back sleeping on the ground every night, getting water from streams, eating out of ration packs for week on, month on, year on that’s what the combat soldier was doing.
So how do you
measure success then?
Well the Task Force operations were successful in the fact that the enemy, Viet Cong, was virtually eliminated from our area of operations. So in military terms we believe we’d done our job, that might sound a bit vague I suppose, but it meant that the civilian population
could lead more of a normal life, we hoped we removed most of the Viet Cong out of the villages, you were never quite sure of that but certainly you’d eliminate much of the influence they had. And so schools could start and people could live more of a normal life, people could travel up and down the roads with their produce and go to market. We took over
looking after a kindergarten in Bien Hoa and so I’d send a soldier down there, couple of soldiers with an APC down there, a couple to do the work and one to be on his guard while they painted fences and things like that. We got some of the schools from the Red Cross to send us over toothbrushes and things and toothpaste and writing pads and pencils so we’d take these down to the kindergarten. It was run by a couple of Catholic nuns.
And so we had a civic action in helping the local community, but I found it demystified the stress level in the Tet Offensive, they had to go and shoot the place to pieces because the Viet Cong had got into the kindergarten, the children weren’t there but they had to shoot them all, some of the paint work was done, all the work we’d done and shoot it to pieces. So really the nature of the Australian operations I think I’m quite right in saying was quite successful.
We removed the Viet Cong influence from our area of operations.
And what was the time frame for that, how long did that take?
Well certainly when I left in 1967 we were still doing that, but after the battle at Long Tan in August, certainly the enemy didn’t move into the area again with any major force. I can’t work out for the life of me what the enemy plan was at Long Tan and I don’t
think anybody knows what it was., I’m not even quite sure the enemy knew, but they really mucked it up. Well when that happened I think that was a big impression, we’d caused enormous casualties and they then decided they wouldn’t take us on again, so we were up against small groups of enemy which we thought we had them under control. We still kept doing search operations to try and get the Viet Cong influence from the villages, to get them away from the civil population. And
that of course was the most difficult thing, because you just didn’t know really, hard to say who they were at times. Even though we’d interrogate them with Vietnamese who knew, there was registration so they had to have their ID cards and things so, but no I think that’s how we knew, the enemy activity diminished, got lower and lower. So in '67, I think by the end of '67 the place was, you might say much more secure.
But after I left the Tet Offensive in 1968 was a big shock, that was a major offensive which the Viet Cong launched quite brilliantly in many ways, they had troops in Saigon, Hue, all the major capital cities attacking big American bases, they got into Baria and they took everybody by surprise. But it was a failure from their point of view, they over-stretched themselves
and they lost a lot of casualties. And so I think I mentioned before, it may have been a political victory seemingly in America, a political victory for them in America because the Americans thought, “We’ll never win the war.” and really the mood changed in America from 1968. But tactically and almost strategically it was a defeat, a big defeat for the Viet Cong because they lost a lot of casualties, they wiped out a lot of their local
cadres, who were the local gorillas who knew the ground, and they were wiped out.
When you returned to Australia at the end of 1967, was that on leave?
Yes I had a lot of leave. I had about 9nine weeks leave so I took about four weeks leave.
Can you describe what it’s like to try and
acclimatise to being back in Australia so suddenly?
It’s, yeah it is difficult. When I went home my mother was living in Melbourne so I went home and I think I spent about just two weeks at home almost doing nothing, state of limbo you might say. I mentioned that funeral I had to go to, one of my soldiers which was pretty grim, that sort of set me back a bit you might say. But
then I went on a bit of a trip, so I got in my car and drove around the south coast and ended up, went fishing. I went out with some bloke from Bermagui in his little boat and got seasick, but caught some big snapper, so from then on I thought I’d fish in the lakes where I’m not going to get seasick, so I had a few weeks doing that. I would have gone up probably to the Barrier Reef but it was cyclone season time
so I stayed in the south coast. So that was okay, then I went back to work, went back to the armoured centre and I was suddenly back at work again, hard at work. It’s certainly different for a regular soldier, the problem with Vietnam with the national serviceman who came in for two years, and they went back and were home just like that. And I think the army was
quite remiss in it seemed, to my knowledge it had no demobilisation procedure. But I think that they should have had some system for bringing them back and probably putting them back in the barracks for a couple of weeks at least, maybe three weeks, slowing them down, giving them some psychological assistance and
working on their self esteem. And going back over the war and what the war was all about, because they came back into a community which was anti Vietnam, nobody wanted to know soldiers, there was no welcome home march, there was one welcome home march for 1RAR [Royal Australian Regiment] in 1966 and the CO marching down George Street had cans of red paint thrown over him by someone in the crowd. So there
were no more welcome home marches…
Interviewee: Robert Hagerty Archive ID 1732 Tape 10
What do you think the army could have done in terms of their adjustment to civilian life again?
To my knowledge there was no specific demobilisation scheme, now personally I just came back and I’d written to my mother saying
“I expect to be home in a few weeks’ time.” but I deliberately didn’t give her a date, I didn’t know it myself. I ended up arriving and on the front door and here I am . But having come back from Malaya and Vietnam before coming back home wasn’t a big deal, but with the national serviceman it was a big deal, it was two years of their brand new life. And many of them had been through traumatic
experiences and no matter who it is, I don’t think it was recognised in those days that you wanted some sort of traumatic stress. What do they call it now, post traumatic stress treatment [disorder]? For road accidents and policeman and SES people are put through it. The army was so busy and I have some sympathy with the organisation, it was so busy it was
bringing more people in and had to get rid of the other people so they were happy I think to see them go, go home, bring in the next lot of national serviceman. But I think it was not good, I think that somebody didn’t think about the fact that, “Look we’ve just got to switch these guys off a bit, get them back to normal, get them back to being a civilian and a human beings from what they’ve done.” Undoubtedly some of them had been under enormous stress and because they came back into an environment
of their home life where their son’s in Vietnam and the neighbours wouldn’t want to talk to his parents probably, or they thought his son was a monster, and that was the environment to which many of them came. I mean there’s stories of I think one RSL [Returned and Services League] Club somewhere in Australia refusing to allow the body of a national serviceman killed in Vietnam to be buried in the RSL part of the cemetery. I’m not even sure the RSL handled this very well, and boy! I might be taken to the cleaners [in trouble] for that remark. So I would have seen
that probably they had a couple of weeks back in barracks, they would have done a bit of drill and ceremony and soldiering, but they would have been debriefed and given some psychological assessment and some help. And certainly they would have been briefed on the fact that, “You’re going into a society which is anti-war, people are probably going to say nasty things to you, they won’t want to talk to you. However be aware that you’ve done a good job, you’ve done what the government wanted you to do.”
And give them some sort of ability to counter this almost aggression, opposition.
What personal contact did you have with the Anti Vietnam War movement?
Almost none, none. Initially when the squadron was being formed way back I remember I was getting letters from the Save Our Sons Movement [anti-war protest group], I don’t know whether you’ve heard about them. So I’d pass them on to the padre,
that was it. But actually in 1965 the community was not anti the war in Vietnam, it was not anti the war in Vietnam initially.
The Save Our Sons movement, I understand was against conscription, what kinds of letters were you getting from those mothers?
Mostly they were sort of older women, I don’t think there were any mothers, particularly,
they were older women and many of them, I don’t think what they were saying didn’t make too much sense. You knew the feeling they had and you could identify with the feeling they had, but they never presented both sides of the coin, you’d expect them to look at the other side like the army had to do. And they just came to me as the squadron commander; they weren’t addressed to me personally.
I think the padre took care of that and frankly they’d write back to these people evidently. I did have one letter, the padre came to me one day and he said, “Read this!” and it was a letter from the parents of one of my soldiers and the story was that they were British people, they’d lost two children in the Blitz
during the war in London, and migrated to Australia. They’d obviously had a child that was born in 1945 or something, twenty years of age in '65 called up for National Service, and they were terrified of losing their son in Vietnam. I said, “Oh goodness.” you see so.
I think it was before Christmas 1965, anyhow at that stage of the game I hadn’t sort of warned anybody for Vietnam particularly, I knew they were all volunteers for Vietnam but I hadn’t actually said, “Right who’s going?” So I said to the padre, “Look okay, would you please check this story out: is it real? Are the facts correct about this family and losing two son’s in the Blitz?” and it was evidently correct.
He was a great soldier this bloke, so I spoke to his troop commander and we had a discussion and I just slipped his name off onto a reserve list, so he didn’t go, never told him why, didn’t want to do that of course but he didn’t go. And there were quite a few soldiers who didn’t go with us in the squadron, and they were disappointed, so he wasn’t the only one. But not for one second did I even
know that he’d been taken off, nor did we tell his parents, we wrote back probably a pretty hard letter to his parents saying.” I’m sorry, thanks for the letter but….”
When there were the moratorium marches in Australia in 1970 and 71, what were your feelings then?
In the ‘60s, I almost missed the ‘60s, it was meant to be a permissive society and I missed all of that, I didn’t have any fun at all
because I had half of it in Malaya, and a year in Wacol, which was pretty busy, then a year and a half in Vietnam and then came back and had two and a half years at the armoured centre, at the tactics wing, and that was very busy, just very busy training people for the armoured corps to go to Vietnam. And then I went to Canada in the middle of 1969 to Staff College so I just missed
the ‘60s, it was all Malaya, Vietnam, army training, I missed the Beatles [pop music group] and all that sort of business, I think I’m owed a decade somewhere. So I remember I came back from Vietnam the second time and I was taking a girlfriend to dinner in Melbourne and we were walking down Collins Street to the Town Hall, if you know Melbourne, heading off to
Number One Swanston Street, restaurant in Swanston Street. Anyhow there’s a fellow on a soap box ranting and raving and I said, “What’s going on?” and they were anti Vietnam. And I said listen to this, there was a crowd of about fifty people and they were shouting and I said what they were saying was nonsense and wrong and I started saying to my girlfriend, “I think I’m going to give these people a piece of my mind,
listen to me for a second instead….” I said, “No let’s go and have dinner instead.” so we went and had dinner. But you know these were university students and they were just really way out in what they were saying, way out.
Can you remember what they were saying?
No it was all nonsense and it was so stupid, but I remember thinking, “Good heavens, surely the government can handle the war effort in Vietnam and the government policy to stop this sort of business.”
They were saying a lot of things that were just wrong about what Australians were doing, what the war was doing and people were shooting women and children and butchers, it was just wrong they didn’t have any idea about what was happening in South Vietnam or in South East Asia and I thought, “Oh let’s go and have dinner.” But I thought at the same time, “Why isn’t the government handling this
better from the government policy point of view?” and I can’t remember really what the government was saying in those days. Television was ruling the roost and television was a disaster and the government was trying to anti the anti Vietnam thing, they weren’t coming out with more the positive side of it, what was happening in Vietnam and the bad things that the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong were doing.
I think I’m right in saying this, but honestly the army was so busy and I was so busy I was just flat out training other people; I was working every week of the year, no weekends off sometimes. I’d finish one course on a Friday and I’d spend the rest of the weekend preparing for the next course which was marching in on the Sunday night, and they’d start on Monday morning. And I had as much field time in Puckapunyal as I almost
had in Vietnam, “What the hell am I doing here?”
When you were in Vietnam the second time, did you have much contact with the South Vietnamese Army or the Civil Guards who you’d been involved in training?
No, not at much at all. It was interesting, we had a couple of operations with the provincial battalion with the Province Chief leading them on, and that was very good, that was excellent for the squadron
because they got to see Vietnamese. I had my previous tour with Vietnamese all the time I was working with them everyday of the week. But, and in briefing the squadron before I left, it was handy that I’d been to Vietnam before so I felt like I was able to brief the squadron well on Vietnam historically, on the war, on the people, the religion and things like that. Now, and actually that wasn’t coming from the army I was able to give it, thank goodness. So
I said to them one day, “Just think of yourself as being bought up in a mud hut with a dirt floor and you work in the rice plantation with your family planting rice and reaping rice and you go to school which has a dirt floor and a little black board this big and you’ve got no books and your just repeating things off the black board and that’s your life.” And I said, “Look there’s certain
things you will not use in my presence: the word ‘Nog’ or ‘Slope’, these are Vietnamese, call them ‘locals’, call them ARVN [, call them Civil Guard or call them Vietnamese soldiers, but don’t do that, you cannot denigrate these people like that.” So what was excellent was when we had this first operation with the battalion they were very efficient
and we’d been taking our own infantry out who are also very efficient but the Vietnamese were good in other ways so I was very pleased to see my blokes react quite favourably to the Vietnamese, so that was good. I felt as though they were understanding the Vietnamese and that was important. I never, I don’t think I ever had any trouble with my blokes, but I gave them a talking to before we left.
What was that joint operation that you did?
It was a simple two day operation in an area which was not in our task force area but was in the Provincial Chief’s area of responsibility and he had a battalion and several Civil Guard Companies to control that area. But he wanted to be a bit more bold and he thought could I use the Australian cavalry, APC Squadron, so he spoke to my Task Force Commander and he said, “Yeah sure you can have the APCs for 2 days.” so off we went. And we were actually
quite successful in military terms of who we captured and things, had lunch on the first day in Dac To. I know that sounds silly, had our war in the morning, went off to lunch, we pull up at Dac To which is quite a big town you see and pull up at the best restaurant, well I didn’t know it was the best restaurant and Colonel Dat gets out and goes in and shouts something and everybody just cleared out the restaurant. And the owner comes out and throws a beautiful lace tablecloth
over the table and we sat down to a sumptuous lunch. 2 o’clock, all my diggers were having their sea rations on the main street and I’m having this great lunch with the province chief. A superb lace tablecloth over the normal tin tablecloth you get in China, 2 o’clock went back to war and we found a few more VC and shot a couple more, went home that night, spoke to the Task Force Commander and said, “Off again tomorrow.”
He wouldn’t believe me. This sounds stupid, I don’t want to make it sound too stupid but all of a sudden my soldiers had Vietnamese on their carriers who they saw doing a good job and it was very important, all of a sudden just like that they changed their opinion of the Vietnamese and I’d been working on this from my own experience before we left. So I was very pleased that happened in about the second month we were there.
you just give me a description of what it’s like to be in a carrier, in a armoured vehicle, what does it look like?
Very noisy, very noisy it vibrates a lot particularly if you’re on a road, but just noisy. You’ve got headphones on and you’ve got radio transmission coming in and it’s cluttered, you may have a lot of infantry on board so there’s not much room. I stood up in the cargo hatch at the back to control things, I had a crew commander behind the gun.
But it’s not the most comfortable way to travel no, and you go down and up hills and through mud and you may go through rivers and things. Very dusty in the dry season, when it rains you get wet because you can’t close down, so it’s just not the way to travel, but it’s probably better than walking and carrying a 30 pound pack on your back. So you’re a little bit privileged you might say, you can have a thermos with hot tea in it, I’d always make a thermos of tea in the morning so we’d stop and have a tea out of my
vacuum flask which had been to a few wars, still sitting in the cupboard up there. So I’m giving a funny answer but that’s what it is. Tanks are even worse, tanks are pretty uncomfortable, very hot, lot of heavy work in doing the maintenance, adjusting tracks, refuelling, cleaning the air cleaners, there’s a lot of heavy lifting you’ve got to lift transmission covers to get at air cleaners and they take a gallon of oil, so it’s just a lot of work to maintain, keep a
tank going. Particularly in dusty conditions, so looking after a tank is hard work and it’s hard to drive it, hard. Oh that’s the Centurion which is my experience but the Leopard tank which we have now is a automatic transmission and it’s a much better kettle of fish [situation], far more reliable, much less maintenance to do. So things are improving you might say, but it’s hard yakka [work] and heavy work and you’ve got to make sure you don’t jam your fingers and trip over things.
How many men could the carrier hold?
It could hold a crew of 2 and it could take 10 Infantry man, 5 down each side. So the full APC Squadron which numbered about 203 men, I only had about two-thirds of a squadron, could carry a complete infantry battalion, less some of its echelon people. So a troop of 13 carriers would carry a Rifle Company, so you had 4 troops, APC troops, you’d have a supporting
company troop which could carry the anti tank platoon, Assault Pioneer Platoon and we also had a supporting arms troop which could carry some engineers and carry some artillery. So it’s a very comprehensive organisation, so I had sort of about two-thirds of a squadron, I had 3 troops and some are supporting arms troop and some are support company troop. This is all the organisational stuff, you got to look at a chart but that’s who I had. I had a, unfortunately I had only about a quarter of the LAD,
the LAD stands for Light Aid Detachment which is all your mechanics, and I should have had a LAD, a full one for the squadron. There was about 40 men and I only had 10 and I should have had a captain and a WO1 [Warrant Officer 1st Class]. But all I had was a sergeant which annoyed me, I wanted to take my RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] who’s a WO1 who was a very experienced mechanic, very experience on armoured vehicles, but I wasn’t allowed to so that annoyed me. These things annoy you when you know you should have things
but we were short of people and so you went without. But it’s not good, I had a squadron, there was only myself and a lieutenant on the squadron headquarters, I had no 2IC, I had no technical officer, I had a sort of intelligence officer, so I was a bit niggled [angry] at the end and the squadron that followed me had 5 Officers an OC, a major a 2 captains and 2 lieutenants so anyhow that’s the way
it goes. And the LAD went from 10 to 33 or something.
The base where you were, can you just describe the conditions for the men and for you,of the living conditions?
The living conditions in the base area weren’t too bad, you had 2 men to a 14 x 14 tent, so the living wasn’t too bad. Before we left, because we had carriers, I jammed
as much stuff as I could into the back of the carriers, so I actually got some tent boards and put in the back of the carriers and so I had some tent boards. We had a 7 section marquee for men to eat in, had 4 good cooks and we put up a bit of a temporary kitchen so we ate as well as we could. So the food wasn’t too bad back in base. The, as the
months went by, we had a sort of galvanised iron double A frame building put up as a men’s day room where they could have a beer and we put a bar in there. But at night, back in base, they had their tent to live in, we might watch a movie out in the open air, if it wasn’t raining of course and the situation allowed it, they’d have a beer and then go to bed, that’s it.
So they’d sleep as much as they could. Out on operations when it got dark for us we would go into a night security sort of situation and it was pretty quiet, you were alert, sentries on vehicles, other people would be sleeping. So it’s a sort of a constant thing, constant vigilance. Back in base camp it wasn’t more, it was more relaxing you might say but not too much relaxing. I arranged
a 40 gallon drum for each troop for a bush shower. You put it on it’s side, had a sort of a funnel at this end and a little pipe coming out of this end. So you’d fill up the 40 gallon drum and we had a sort of a gasoline heater thing which heated the water up. And so we had showers,
a bucket shower which is a great invention, about this big and a it hold about a couple of gallons of water and had a rose and you screwed it for the water to come out and screwed it to turn off. And so back in base the blokes would put a bucket of cold water into this end of the 40 gallon drum and a bucket of hot water would come out the other end you see, so they had hot showers. And that was something which I did before I left, I think we had the first hot showers in the task force,
so we were as comfortable as we could be.
I might come back to Australia now and you were training, were you training men to go to Vietnam when you came back?
Yes, yes, at that stage of the game about a year after I got back we sent a tank squadron to Vietnam and so I was conducting a lot of training for crew commanders and both for APCs and tanks.
A crew commander does about 12 weeks' training, he does certain amount of driving and servicing again, he does a lot of gunnery and he would come to me for 4 weeks' tactical training. And commanding a tank or an APC is a hands on thing, so I gave them as much experience in the field as possible which meant I had to be out in the field, and as much shooting as possible. And I started shooting at night which I found that they weren’t almost
doing any shooting at night. And so I got the tanks firing at night and various practices and things. I started a special sort of battle run for a single tank, a battle run is where you move a tank across country for say 6 or 7 thousand kilometres over various hills; and on each hill you’d have a sort of a tactical exercise for them, like a enemy target or you’d get them to shoot at something. And so I had a battle run for single tank and I’d have
12 students. I could run about 7 or 8 or 9 battle runs starting at first light in the morning and finishing at dark in the afternoon. And as the students progressed and in the last week I’d pick the best students and I’d put the best 8 or 9 through a battle run. So that was busy work, busy work. I’d have 4 tanks with 3 crew commanders in each one, one crew commanding at a time, 4 drivers from the staff
and they’d form a troop. And with the APCs I’d have similar number of crew commanders and they’d form an APC troop and off we’d go again, so a lot of work on the range. So it was almost like a sausage machine, at the same time I was running courses for officers, the young officers were doing the same thing and I ran 3 young officer courses. And I was running courses for the Army Reserve as well,
so the whole army was flat out in the '60s.
What were your thoughts when the decision was made to bring Australian troops back from Vietnam?
I was rather disgusted really. I just thought that it was quite wrong pulling out of South Vietnam. And one didn’t know really what had happened,
you just didn’t know what had gone on, whether it be the American foreign policy or the Kissinger talks, you found that out afterwards. But for America to go in there and for us to go in there and then to leave, I thought was bad, it was bad. And of course after the Americans pulled out then the war did deteriorate
and the Vietnamese Higher Command knew it was hopeless; and a lot abandoned ship, and a lot of people criticized them, but really what else could they do? They were running out of ammunition and didn’t have the gunfire power, the shells to fire. And I think the North Vietnamese thought it would take them probably 2 years to conquer the South, they did it I think in about 50 days
which amazed them. And that seemed terrible too that the South Vietnamese should just pack it in [surrender], you see. But that’s not entirely true, there are certain accounts that they fought extremely bravely and to the last man and the last bullet, some of the Vietnamese unit. Or they fought to the last round then threw their gun away and had no more ammunition. So I just thought it was just terrible to go in there and
say, “We’re going to save you.” and then leave them, leave them to the North Vietnamese.
In hindsight what do you think about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War?
I think we did the right thing from the point of view of going in. The history in 1962, the decision was correct,
we thought that anything could happen in South East Asia. And that South Vietnam could collapse and if that collapsed then Cambodia and Laos would go. And of course they already had sizeable Communist elements in the Laos, the Khmer Rouge were already there. And then the 11 North East States of Thailand, which were
vulnerable, south of the Mekong. And of course, China and Russia were strong and they were aiding these forces. So I think that the decision was correct to go in there, I have no qualms with that, I just have qualms with the way the war was fought and the way it was ended. My feelings when I got back to
Hue last year on this holiday, I went to Hue where I’d spent almost a year and a half and it was just a bit of sadness, happiness to see the place, it looked great, everyone was, the place was bustling, but sadness that I’d been up there doing this and really it had almost been for nought. And many of the South Vietnamese who I got to know very well probably had perished in the Tet Offensive because in 68,
they had these assassination lists in Hue before the Tet Offensive and they killed thousands in Hue, shocking atrocities. That was sad to think these people had been and gone, but then we pulled out, it was just wrong to me, you shouldn’t do that, either you stay out of the war altogether and you don’t go in there with promises and great expectations then
you leave them to their own resources. I mean the fact that the North Vietnamese took the South so quickly in one way meant that Cambodia you might say was saved. I the North Vietnamese had of taken 2 years to conquer the south then they would have militarily and emotionally and in every other aspect been exhausted. And of course Pol Pot [Cambodian leader] was running
rampant in Cambodia, killing hundreds and thousand of people and he was stupid enough to confront the Vietnamese, so the Vietnamese moved in and invaded Cambodia and kicked Pol Pot out. So you might say we saved Cambodia, which is under Chinese influence, from going to a fate worst than death. The Vietnamese wouldn’t have been strong enough, they just couldn’t have put up with Cambodia and Pol Pot,
they would have had to just let Pol Pot do his thing. So something was made happen to Cambodia’s advantage, but of course Laos still went the way of the Communists.
In general terms in what way should the war have been fought differently?
Certainly the Americans should not have pulled out. I think that
they had underestimated the power of the North Vietnamese at the start, both politically and militarily, and I think that there should have been more political efforts made early on, I think the Americans thought they were going to win the war, “No problem, we’ll just beat them.” So I think that the nature, the ideological nature and the political nature of the war should
have been recognised and more effort should have gone in to peaceful co-existence before that. The Americans undoubtedly had the fire power literally to destroy North Vietnam and they didn’t do that particularly, they destroyed the Ho Chi Minhh trail and many Cambodians and Laotians, which was appalling. But I think that they just
found that the war was such a war of attrition then they lost the war at home. The world power of the American people just failed, and so it was talked about getting out, and once the talk of getting out was on then that emboldened the North Vietnamese and so the writing was on the
wall . I’ve no solution I’ve got no magical sort of solution to how the war could have been fought. I do think that the Americans should have Vietnamized the war far earlier, they should’ve got with the Vietnamese more and bought up their fire power, their military strength and operation capabilities much more
to get them to do more of the fighting, to help them in every way. I certainly would have, I think that should have been done because it was quite crazy and I think in '68 when the Vietnamisation program came on, and you said, “What the hell’s going on? It is the Vietnamese, it’s the war of the Vietnamese, not the American’s war.” but it was an American war of course. It’s known as the American War. Going back there last year nobody had heard of
the Australians, they didn’t even know we were there, it was the Americans, but we weren’t there.
What’s your view on the situation in Iraq and have there been lessons that have been learnt from Vietnam?
Well I just think that the Americans
in some ways have made the same mistakes again, they completely underestimated the Iraqi situation. I think the Americans used the term they were going to ‘decapitate the hierarchy’, being Saddam and all his henchman. And I think they then assumed that once they’d done that they’d be welcome as brothers in arms and heroes. But the Americans just didn’t realise that, I mean while Saddam was hated so are the Americans hated equally.
I don’t think they just understood that, the American foreign policy with its relationship with Palestine and Israel has gone right through the Islamic world, and so they weren’t prepared for that, they weren’t prepared for what they’d do after the war. It’s exactly like the first Iraq War; they had no idea what they’d do after the first Iraq war, they didn’t even know how they’d organise a surrender documents. So they just didn’t have plans and even the Pentagon will
admit this, they had no plans for what they’d do after they won the war. And of course wining the peace is far more important than wining the war. So they just didn’t know what they were up against, I’m sure they just didn’t appreciate the dislike the hatred of the American nation in Iraq. As it is in Iran and almost all the Middle East countries because of the support the Americans give the Israelis who
have got more weapons of mass destruction than Saddam would ever dream of in Israel. And they still haven’t solved the Palestine Israeli question and until that’s done you’ll never sort the Middle East out.
What do you think the Australian military learned from it’s Vietnam experience?
How to fight in Vietnam between '62 and '72. We learnt a lot of wrong lessons. We were fighting a counter insurgency operation
which for us was pretty simple, we weren’t being attacked by enemy aircraft, we were not being shelled by enemy artillery, we weren’t up against really major forces most of the time. So it was a war of the time, the next war will be different, so you can’t say we learnt a lot of Vietnam. We obviously did, but I mean another war will be in another place and
it will be different again, against a different background. When I went to 2 Cavalry Regiment as CO in '74 I had to go back to basics and look at a cavalry regiment and look at it’s roles and tasks, and to do things which I thought were important for the defence of Australia. And this was different again to what we were doing in Vietnam. So it’s different, it’s different and people say we learnt a lot in Vietnam, oh yes we did but is much of it much use now? Probably not,
probably not, no.
Was the Vietnam War experience for the Australian Military, a unique experience?
Oh it certainly was, because we had a regular army for the first time after the Second World War, and we suddenly found a small army had to expand and take on a big task. And
that was significant, it was significant again actually in 1972 when we came back and the national serviceman all went home and the army suddenly overnight lost 16,000 soldiers. You might say we became a fully regular army again. And the '70s I think in many ways our army didn’t get to grips with really what we were going to do, our new concepts. I think the '70s to a large degree were wasted in our conceptual thinking in the Australian Army.
We got some good equipment but I don’t think that some of the high level thinking was too good at all, I won’t go into that. No, Vietnam certainly was a major impact, but I put it into a compartment, and I’ll put the Malayan experience into a compartment, Borneo, Vietnam, Rwanda,
the Iraq wars, they’re all different. An army has to live today, an army lives to fight a war today, or at least tomorrow at the latest. So that’s why you need to have a good army big enough, to expand to start with but is so well trained and adaptable that it can
do whatever is required of it. At the moment the army seems to be concentrating on terrorist training, an army can do that, hopefully the army will not become a anti terrorist army, it won’t forget the bigger picture, it will be disastrous if we do because these skills are lost, you lose skills. Actually the classic here is we had an aircraft carrier in the navy and we got rid of it.
We thought we were going to get another one but we didn’t. So our navy almost has no naval aviation capability at all, we had a 805 Squadron that flew Sky Hawks off the [HMAS] Melbourne aircraft carrier and I got them to work a lot with me when I was 2 Cav because I wanted air support. We did a lot of interesting things, which I’d never done before and I wanted to do. We’ve lost that, now it would take years to get a naval air arm back up again. People
keep saying, “We don’t want tanks.” In 1972 after the Vietnam War we were trying to get a tank to replace the Centurion and we were told by all the public servants, “Tanks are like battle ships, forget it, they’re dinosaurs.” Anyway the Armoured Corps kept pressing and in the end the Government made us do a study for the use of armour and the study came out on the side of needing a tank. So if you lose some of these basic military
skills. which really are at the core of an Army’s capability, it’s bad. We can’t become a peace keeping army and only worry about peace keeping, we can’t become an army which is purely worried about terrorist blowing up a bus in the middle of George Street or, heaven forbid an underground railway explosion which is the worst thing that can happen. The army has to help out on things like that but an army must train for war, don’t ask me
what war, what sort of war or where or when, but you must keep an army in existence. If you want an analogy why do we have a fire brigade, has your house burnt down recently? You pay insurance what for a house that’s not going to burn down. But I’m sure you’d always want a Fire Brigade just like we want a Police Force. So the defence of the state is important and you must have Defence Forces to defend your state.
Does that sound like a good recruiting thing?
It sounds like a good place to end the interview, thank you very much for today.
Okay right, thank you both.