Mr Widdows, thank you for being involved in the archive project, the first thing I’d like you to do, if you can, is give a very brief summary of your life, just to give us an idea of when you were born and what’s happened since.
I was born on the 7th April 1918 at the Trinefort [Essendon] Hospital. It’s in Holmes Road, Moonee Ponds, which is Victoria of course. I started school at Ascot Vale West State School, at the age of five years of age. I left in 1932. Started work at a company called William L. Buckland in Franklin Street, Melbourne. 12 and sixpence a week. That was in the Depression,
just more or less the start of it, then I went to a company called Stuart and Company which offered a little bit more money and then in 1936 I went to Biddiscombe in Footscray, a trainee shipping clerk. 1935 I joined the cadets in the militia, then when I turned 18 I joined the militia as a gunner.
As well as working I went to night school to try and further my education, Stotts Business College. The 14th of May 1940 I joined the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] and what was called in the 2/2nd Medium Regiment. In October the name was changed to the 2/12th Regiment. We left for the Middle East in November, arrived at Constantine in Palestine
at the 18th December. In March I went together with forty other gunners and officers, we went to a place called Al-Tal Al-Kabeer Egypt. Our job then was to ferry trucks and equipment from Port Said back to Al-Tal Al-Kabeer. Al-Tal Al-Kabeer is about half way between Port Said and Cairo. We did this for about a week and then they called
for volunteers to take some equipment up the desert. Everybody volunteered so they put the names in the hat and I was one of the lucky ones to be drawn out. We loaded some, went to the Massawa Caves in Egypt, loaded the trucks with, five trucks, with ammunition, artillery ammunition and small arms ammunition to go with the 6th
Division over to Greece. And loaded those the port of Alexandria and picked up some medical equipment from the railway station at Alex [Alexandria] which we then sailed forth to Tobruk. We spent the first night at Mersa Matruh next day we moved on again, one of the trucks broke down. I was driving the last truck and they handed me the MT [motor transport] fitter.
So we stopped to fix up that truck. Perky Smith, the MT Fitter affected, the repairs got it back on the track. I packed up and tried to follow the convoy. Unfortunately they were diverted at the Tobruk at the time the Germans were coming down at that time round about west of Derna.
back and talk in detail about your getting to Tobruk. Would you be able to outline just briefly what your war time service was?
Yes I served in Tobruk, El Alamein, amphibious operation Lae, Finschhafen, Chalberg the CO [commanding officer] and then we did the amphibious operation at Labuan and British North Borneo. And then the war finished in August and I left the unit in
What did your father do for a job?
He was – I don’t know what he was doing during the war years, but later he was a draftsman and an accountant by trade, by qualifications, and then he was secretary of Thomas Evans. They were tent manufacturers in canvas goods, had a few agencies such as Ratner Safes and Drizabone [clothing manufacturer]. Equipment like weather equipment.
family holidays down to Frankston which in those days was a little seaside resort, not a suburb as it is now. We used to have races around the block and my sisters played basketball and rounders and I played cricket and football. We both went to the same, went to the same church, St Paul’s Ascot Vale. I think the whole family sang in the church at one particular stage.
Including my mother my father was the choirmaster in the St John’s Toorak.
infants and we were taught to, the old style handwriting up and down, the broad strokes on the way down the light strokes on the way up and copy book style. I started I guess joined the school band in the forth grade. Started off on the trumpet and then finished up on the B flat bass. But apparently wasn’t very good at that because
finished up as a kettle drummer. Then I played football and cricket from the forth grade upwards. I captained the school in cricket and football, a very, very happy school we went a few premierships in the football and cricket. Then I guess 1932 I started work.
How old were you when you left school?
Thirteen and half. Those days as I said before, the depression years it was very, very hard living and with my mother and father working and my mother looking after five children although he had a fairly reasonable job it was still a fairly tough life, so being the eldest I thought well, and there was high school two buses and the train away,
so the best thing was to get a job and go to night school which is what I did.
What memories do you have of the Depression?
People didn’t get paid during the depression, they had to do a little bit of work for the council and they got chits where they could hand the chits in for vegetables meat and groceries. Token system, no cash which is completely different from today. And there was sort of mateship and
friendship the unemployed areas formed football teams and they played against one another and I remember once I had an operation and had my tonsils removed and I had two weeks off from work and the last week I played with the unemployment side of Ascot Vale football which was very, a bit of a hectic memory because they all just thumped about because they were all not much older than I was.
until my brother got a bit older and he joined me at the age four or five and then we moved from there in 1939 to Combermere Street, Essendon. And that was larger quite a bit larger block of land with a couple of garages and once again another sleep out, that was
my room which I didn’t spend much time in, because I was away on service with the militia for a month in early, late ’39 then for three months there was a call up in early ‘39 then in May I joined the RAAF, straight from the militia. Retained at Puckapunyal.
statements and invoices and placing them in envelopes, sealing the envelopes or they the letters were sealed and the envelopes were left tucked in because it was cheaper postal rates in those days. Then the next day you would stamp the envelopes and put the stamps in a stamp book, total them up – you were also in charge of the petty cash and took the
receipts, the money the travellers paid in and you showed them a receipt for their cash sales. You had your cash sales book and your stamp book and you ran message, long messages you had to bike or they gave you tickets which were the equivalent of a penny ha’penny to ride the cable tram down to the post office which was on the corner of Bourke Street
and Elizabeth Street or go to the late fee box, we used to work Saturday mornings in those days as well, half past eight to half past twelve. My jobs was to always take the late fee post to the ship going across to Tasmania because William Bucklands had a branch opposite Launceston. And I think the name of the ship was Taroona and you placed the mail in the late fee box on the gangway
it was collected by the ship’s officer before it sailed and hopefully it was delivered at the other end.
So could you just explain what kind of company it was?
W.L. Buckland, they were a spare parts for motor vehicles, bicycles, they had a battery agency which was USL, they had the Michelin Tyre agency from France. Later on
they venture into the radio market with small receivers and larger upright models and they had a I think they could run seven or eight travellers on the modo, in the spare parts business, two in the cycle business and one on the radio business. Used to travel the whole of Victoria and the suburbs of course.
Stuart and Company, they were the agents for Camregal [BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) Regal] motorcycles and they supplied the police force in that day with Camregal twin engine jet motored motorcycles and side cars. When I went to work at Metters KFB where we were classified as sanitary engineers they made baths basins sinks in cast iron also enamelled them
pots and pans, electric stoves, electric and gas heaters. Gas coppers, fuel coppers, fuel stoves and also the nickelling and the chrome works and they built a great large morning
configuration where they moulded the baths and basins sinks and then they were taken across to the sanding shop where they were sand blasted. Then they went to the fettler shop where they were fettled and then they went to the enamelling shop and my first job was costing clerk where I used to go up to the tally room and tally the baths and
with each of them the basins, stove fronts anything pertaining to cast iron and I’d have to do a quota every day, then you’d have to find out what the scrap metal was and what it weighed and enter that before it went to the costing department and then it was costed up.
WR Buckland because I got thirty-one and sixpence at Stuarts doing a job at the counter and I did some book work and also on the floor on a Friday night assisting with selling of motorbikes which was quite interesting. And I applied for a position with Mitter Skaer Pier which was at Footscray and seem to be lots of opportunities, a very
large firm and the job there was, I was doing accountancy at night school at the time and fitted in with the costing department fitted in with the type of schooling I was doing the night school which gave me good experience. Accountancy work at night school.
Could you explain where the dances were?
The dances on the Thursday night they were at Martini Ballroom near the Moonee Ponds Railway Station. Later on we used to gravitate to Saturday night to the Town Hall at Moonee Ponds, Essendon Town Hall and then we got some mode of transport and if somebody had a car we’d go to the Catholic dances. Catholic Churches always had dances on a Sunday night
even as far as Reservoir and places, Princess Hall and places like that with probably five, eight mile away from Ascot Vale.
they were my main two cricket hero’s. Even when Don Bradman came along he wasn’t Ponsford and Woodfull. And in the football of course a guy called Dickie Reynolds from Essendon. Before Dickie there was a guy called Keith Forbes, Norman Beckton and a few of the names I recall. The present captain of Essendon now
his grandfather played for Essendon, by the name of Hird [Alan T. Hird, grandfather of James Hird].
pick you know- mainly football or the cricketers. Even collecting the English cricketers, Australian cricketers, test cricketers that is. Soccer players from England, Rugby players from Australia and England, everyone collected them, also stamps the collecting was a very, very popular in those days.
Did you collect cigarette cards?
Yes, yes I collected cigarette cards, I had a very big collection of stamps too, overseas stamps. My mother when I was away used to visit the Heidelberg hospital, the troops there had come back from overseas or the islands
senior football team were in the unit and we were in the Ascot Vale, Erskineville district but the unit that we joined was in Windsor which was in Argyle Street, St Kilda because the senior players went there, us juniors went there and we formed a lot of friendships there. So much that when
we were in the militia services in 19, early ’40 we were asked if we could combine and join another unit and the originals in that 2/12th were from the militia unit and also from the forth at Queenscliff where about thirty five members, a fortress joined the unit.
but all his brother’s and my sisters married into the Maritime Services, Merchant Navy or they Royal Navy. My brother, one went down in a submarine and another cousin of mine went down in the Jervis Bay and all his my nephews over in England and cousins they all served in
the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy. I guess that had a bearing on joining the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] but then I think lot of it came from militia training. And all the friends joining the same unit as we trained together in the militia, we trained together in the army.
no aircraft like it is today. You didn’t hear apart from the radio, read it in the paper possibly the next morning but radios weren’t very strong and powerful in those days, no television of course, but I guess people more or less wondered
what was going to happen. I guess as it went on and they called for the AIF to be formed, a lot more people thought about it. Firstly it seemed to be, when the 6th Division went away, they went to the desert went to Palestine or rather to Egypt. And then it wasn’t until France fell I think the impact
was felt mainly in Australia. That’s when I think many people, like myself, decided it was time to join the AIF. When most of us from the militia did join the permanent army and the people from the country and the suburbs flocked down to the enrolment areas, that would be about early may ’40.
because we’re, well when war broke out, that time at night I thought about it but as we met with our mates in the militia, we decided we would go, and most of us decided we would go together and there was talk then in the militia camp that they would form a unit that’s why a lot of us didn’t join early. We’d rather go as a group together into our own unit,
where we’d trained together, we knew each other.
So where about were you training with the militia at this time?
At the Argyle Street Drill Hall on week nights, but each year we had a camp at Seymour which for a duration of two years, sorry two, two weeks, two years it’s long while. Then later on when the war broke out we went
signed some papers there saying we were happy to enlist and then from the militia into the AIF. We then were told to report to the Caulfield Racecourse where we went through a strict medical examination went home that night and were told to report back the next day which we did we were issued with some other things that didn’t fit and ah given up some blankets
and told to go to the horse stalls where we got a couple of bales of hay and spread them out in the horse stalls, one blanket on top of the hay and one blanket to sleep on top of that and put it over you. It was in May and pretty cold too in Melbourne. We were there for about six or seven days and we went to the Argyle street Drill Hall
and we took some tractors, click track tractors, hooked them onto six sixty pounders artillery guns, and we towed them from the Argyle Street to High Street St Kilda, down the old High Street round St Kilda Junction
along the road right into the city, diverted to Swanston Street and up around Bouverie Street to Elizabeth Street and up Elizabeth Street to the Hay Market from the Hay Market along Grand Parade [Royal Parade] through Parkville to Sydney Road Brunswick
where the cable trams run through, electric trams then. We had a lot of difficulty there because the sixty pounder was very large gun and the tractor was very large and there were cars parked on the side of the road and trams going, we had to pull up to let the trams through. Took us many, many hours to get through to Coburg. But one memory, took an opportunity
for the girls in Woolworth’s and Coles [supermarkets] to stop work, they came out the front and gave us a wave and a cheer. The Woolworth and Coles at Brunswick and also at Coburg. We arrived at Broadmeadows at about six o’clock that night, stayed the night there in the tents, left early in the morning from Broadmeadows and drove up the Hume Highway. We were doing up to three and a half
four miles per hour before we came to Kilmore just outside Kilmore we stopped outside a church hall where we met a group from an officer and another gunner a panel van, not a panel van, a utility with some hot food and we slept in the church hall all that night, started up again the next morning and eventually reached Puckapunyal about –
there was a mess call sounded that night, which was about six o’clock. And we were a very tired group of people after sitting on a tractor for three days.
they were iron shod of course, about four feet in diameter, maybe five feet in diameter, they were fourteen eighteen vintage I mean they were very, very old equipment. We had a buffer recuperation system where the artillery piece itself would be about eight to nine feet long the projectile which was the shell weighed sixty pound
the trailer itself was possibly about nine foot long maybe ten with an eye hook that was hooked onto a tractor. I can give you the weight of that next break if you like. I’ve got it all recorded. That’s about all. Travelling was only about three and a half, because
of the condition of the wheels. I mean you couldn’t travel more than about three and a half four kilometres an hours. And the boys I think they tend to think they’d all fall to pieces.
civilians, given that you were transferring these massive guns, what were their levels of curiosity?
Oh they were very interested, amazement one of amazement, think that these things come out of the archives I think. But they gave you a clap and a cheer, various did, yep.
twenty-five pounders, field guns, you have a crew of six, there’s the sergeant a bombardier, number three is a qualified, he lays the gun. In the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] his qualification was group three which entitled him to three shillings extra a day, group two, two shillings, group one, one shilling. That was the only group on the guns,
group three, the bombardier got basically on five and sixpence the bombardier, same as a gun layer, the sergeant in those days was ten and sixpence I think, a day. The gun layer job was to lay the gun, he received the orders from the command post, which was set up before the four or six guns in the troop depending upon when the
what the formation of the artillery was at that time. In the command post would be a gun position officer, an ack [anti aircraft] and some sigs [signals]. Coming from the gun position would be the OPO [observation post officer] which was with the forward troops or an observation post is where the original orders came from. An OPO would range on the targets either by field glasses,
optics which he had a bearing to, and then would shoot one gun at an estimated range, estimated direction which he had given in degrees of minutes, he would then give the order to the GPO [gun position officer] and command post on the gun position. They’d fire four or six guns on that line. The axe in the gun position command post
would immediate on the artillery board transpose all the orders onto the sheet and record wind positions and temperature and then produce a final angle of sight and final prediction of range of things and those orders were to be transferred to the gun sergeant who would pass them onto the gun layer who would lay the gun or the dial sight and the ranges were
down below, swing the gun on the target and then when the gun was ready and the order was given by the GPO to fire the gun sergeant would say fire and the gun would fire. The OPO then had the position observation post, would correct the angle of shot back to the un- position, then relay the orders back to the guns, that’s briefly the sequence
of how you fire a gun, hope that’s lucid.
So what does the bombardier do?
Bombardier is the second in charge to the sergeant and they generally make sure that the ammunition is correct before it goes to the ammunition numbers. He generally takes the job off number six, number one is the sergeant, number two is on the bridge, they go and close the bridge, three the gun layer, four and five ammo [ammunition] numbers,
six the final ammo number who checks Q settings, the artillery shell comes in on a twenty-five pounder, ‘117’, ‘119’ and a ‘223’ which is set for fuse for a head burst and their job is to correct and make sure that the right avenues and the right charges are used. There are four charges, charge one, charge two, charge three and super.
out, didn’t wear a shirt lot of the times, pair of shirts, boots no socks, sometimes a steel helmet, no head things. We were told to, when the young sergeants would fire, you’d open your mouth and the sound was supposed to come through your ears out your mouth or through the mouth and out your ears. No ear muffs or ear protection. That’s why most of the artillery have a pension for deafness, that’s why I’m a bit hard of hearing.
but seeing there were, there should have been sixteen guns and there were only six guns or seven not quite sure, each battery had to take turns training on the guns. And there weren’t enough equipment there were only three drag ropes, so you needed to two drag ropes for each gun so you had to imagine there was a drag rope there and there were a lot of missing things like hand spikes and had to make
there were no very few vehicles and at one stage to get an idea of a troop being employed as a troop movement, everybody had a little ticket with a number and a vehicle on and they toddled along with that vehicle and had to go where the map showed you to go and if you had a vehicle you had to take a gun
or the observation officer had to go with a GPO officer or the troop leader had to go with his vehicle and the cigs and the axe where they had to go actually the full troop deployment was represented by people moving around with small carts indicating the vehicle number.
regiment there would be a medium regiment close to eight hundred, more than eight hundred, there was the 2/2nd Heavy Regiment there was the 2/8th Regiment with it’s headquarters, the other battery was Tasmania, there was ah
engineers, heavy duty battalions, I guess there could be up to three thousand maybe more troops. Later the camp was, the camp was in its infancy then but later on they expanded it and I don’t know what the full total training there is.
Had you had mates or people in the neighbourhood who had already sailed as part of six giving?
Mates in the unit. Knew some people from Ascot Vale who had gone, unfortunately they were chaps who were unemployed and they joined because I guess it was something to do, couldn’t get a job so they joined. Not a great number, I knew another chap who was a very highly qualified lawyer who joined but not a great number.
Most of us who joined the militia were waiting to be called up for their own individual group or unit.
We were the ‘concrete gunners’ we called the people from the fort, they were, they were the ‘piers’ we used to call them, they were the top men, the knew everything and even coming from the militia you had to listen to them. The poor old enlisted guy, we felt sorry for him because he was in between the militia and the concrete gunners and they came from farms and they were lawyers, accountants,
salesmen, real estate agents, you name it, from all walks of life, graziers, jackeroos and you know, very quality person.
they trained in the fort, they did a run from Queenscliff to Point Lonsdale every Monday, PT [physical training] parade on the football ground and a march through Queenscliff once week with the big band, it was called a salience parade in Queenscliff. But they were all generally a person six-one [height in feet and inches], six-two,
very well built and very fine specimen of a person. A lot of them had come from the militia and got into permanent army. But you’d advertise for men in the permanent army and generally if there was say one hundred and twenty applicants there’s only be twenty or thirty they selected each year. Really high, the standard was very, very high.
there were these great specimens of men that were well trained, what was the mood like, anticipating going away for these campaigns?
Very good. Everyone mixed in well in these units, very, very, you could see it was going to be a good unit from the early days. Everybody combined and became a unit and we had a very good CO
took part in the 14-18 War, he was one of the first ashore in Gallipoli and he was shot down over the Gallipoli line in the neck after doing the artillery shoot with a POW [prisoner of war] from the gangs but he was the CO of the fortress up at Queenscliff. Very, very strong disciplinarian but a very, very fair-minded person and he built in with the unit a very good sense of responsibility
and even before we sailed there were people weeded out that were more or less square holes in round pegs, round holes in square pegs or visa versa, you know.
position, very responsible. If you made an error and it wasn’t corrected by the gun sergeant you could cause casualties and amongst your own troops. So that’s the type that had to be very accurate. And other parts of the artillery, the GPOX AC [gun position officer assistant] which were mainly very, very highly qualified and they dealt with directors and map boards and working in
logarithms and slide rule things of that nature. Even the sigs, good on wireless, stenography, wireless telephony Morse code. I mean the average labourer he’d be able to you know, if he had a good mind he could make a good gunman person and any ammunition number
very good, good digging and cruise bits and but you have to have a reasonable amount of intelligence like for sigs and necks [?UNCLEAR] and number threes.
eighteen inches above the ground which went to about two feet above below the surface of the ground level, sand bags all around the outside filled with the soil inside the gun pit and then a net placed over the top and then you dug side pits so you could shelter against the environment if you weren’t firing then you dug your own doha [?UNCLEAR], which was probably about six
feet deep with sandbags on top and a curtain or bracken in front to stop the bomb blast thing coming in.
using sixty pounders. 2/12th Regiment was designed to use eighteen pounders which were the only equipment apart from 4.5 [inch calibre] howitzers we used in Australia at that period in time. We borrowed some, we were loaned rather some eighteen pounders from the 2/8th Field Regiment to do it, quick training on them when we came back from final leave –
that was in November some time, towards the end of November, but strange enough we never fired an eighteen pounder. Although we fired five sixty pounders.
What were your living conditions like in Puckapunyal?
Pretty raw really, issued with a palliasse, which was a hessian bag and you I think it was three men to one bale of straw. You had the bale of straw and you filled the palliasse – it was a mattress – and you put a blanket on top of that, rather two other blankets
Training was a lot of route marches, many route marches, rifle drill, squad drill but in the main route marches, when we had more tanks bought we had operations of troop movements through the countryside, even bivouacs [camps] out at night time, treks through the Strzelecki Ranges, camping out at night under canvas or in the trucks.
Or under the trucks, generally about three or four days in duration.
about the air force because we knew of their capabilities. But mainly we had a lot of lectures on health, on the field, in action, out of action, health on leave, not mixing to quickly with the local population, being very careful about who you went with and things like that.
Then you had to follow it up with a, go to a green light area, sorry a blue light, blue light area. But then you were told you were on the dangers with the wood alcohol which was in Palestine was called Arak which was very similar to the one thing which was of course ouzo [spirit], grappa [wine] and
the ones in Turkey, which like the ones in Palestine were very clear, when you put water in them in it became like a milky substance. The Arabs make it with heating an orange. Orange in one hand and the raw Arak in the other in a glass, its funny the glass is about this big, like a very small liqueur glass. That was more frequent, the troops enjoyed that mainly, in Lebanon and
Syria where they were known as the RAF, everybody was on the RAF, they were called. The Royal Air Force but the Royal Arak Fiends. That was arak [spirit], not to be confused with the August part of the Royal Australian Air Force.
the hotel in Flinders Street, at an old hotel, it’s now gone, it was down the road from where Chloe [nude painting] is, at the Flinders Hotel [Young and Jackson’s]. Corner of Flinders Street they called it, Flinders and Elizabeth Street. But we’d have a few drinks and then go around walk around Melbourne and go home to our families or go to a dance that night.
But the week went very quickly. We generally used to meet up every day together as a group. Pretty hard when you’d had it together as a unit, even though it was just six months that we’d been, just to stay away from each other. You form that mateship and bond.
Who were your mates that you had formed close bonds with?
Terry Arist [?UNCLEAR], Teddy Burge, Lal Mathews, Snowy Waite, Ken Waite,
Ernie Jacobs, Jimmy Harris, ‘Bonehead’ Gibbs – Frank Gibbs, Dinny Ryan, Bill Scott, Bert Nugent, Jake Blackman, who ever you want!
You had the right to two, that’s all. But I started going with a girlfriend on my first leave. It was one that my family we grew up together went to school together, played pool with her brothers, played cricket with the brothers, basketball with the brothers, she played basketball with my sisters, rounders with my sisters.
We went to the same church sort of business, went dancing together, but it wasn’t until the leave when I came back from the Middle East that, we went out once that’s all.
which is a railway station near Seymour off the main line, and we’d train there getting on the train and so many compartments, which they told us we’d all just move straight off the platform into the train. The train would go to Melbourne and when the train eventually came in it came in back to front so utter confusion reigned.
Cause the carriages were wrong and everyone had to move around, get in a carriage. So we went to Melbourne and when we got to Melbourne we shipped onto another train and trained to Adelaide, Port Adelaide. We travelled through the night got to Port Adelaide, think it was about some time in the morning.
At Port Adelaide we drew up on the wharf there on the harbour, where the Stratheden was boarded. We then had demarcation numbers and because my number was 8252VX I was on first page and consequently we went down and we were told to board the ship, it was on the boarding ticket. And I was
down there early and waited for the others to come on board and we set sail at night from Port Adelaide and then the bite, we caught up with the Strathmore, which had loaded troops in Sydney and the Orion which had loaded troops in Melbourne, sailed from Port Melbourne an the Polish
ship called the Pretoria which had come from New Zealand with Kiwis [New Zealanders], a mixture of Maoris and other New Zealand troops. And we all then went down to Fremantle. At Fremantle we were in the ‘roaders’, they called them and we were moved into Fremantle because at that time when the ship had been sunk in the Indian
ocean and one of the navy officers was detailed to. was posted with the convoy out to the ship. They held the ship in Fremantle until they got the all clear that there were no radar, German radar in the Indian Ocean. So we were fortunate enough to get a weeks leave in Fremantle, not a complete week but we came back to the ship every night and we had a route march in the morning then
from one o’clock we had leave in Fremantle which was very enjoyable, a lot of us got invited home to other people in Fremantle and we enjoyed ourselves.
with an overhead tram system bus system, tram lines with the electric lines up top. Similar to what, they’ve got them in Geneva now and actually it was a very good system. And these ran between Fremantle and Perth. But Fremantle itself was mainly a shipping port,
very, very small township. Different to what it is now. Perth was where we all congregated and went to, Perth was only a very small town compared with Melbourne or Sydney in those days.
You mentioned training in Puckapunyal, what kind of equipment did you have there, were you well equipped?
Originally there weren’t enough rifles to go around so there pick handles. That’s the handle of a pick, used to slap palms with that and things like that. And there were also horse troves there, what the
And what was the atmosphere like in Freo [Fremantle] in that time?
Very, very happy, everybody seemed very content with life, there was no, no sort of lights out or anything like that, no war restrictions at all
boats or whatever they called them, came out and they surrounded the ships, four ships and they were, they would throw ropes up and if you wanted something you would throw cash down and they’d send the things up if you wanted them. Although sharks were circling the ship at the time, they’d still dive off the side, some of these natives.
But we went ashore up about half an hour, we grabbed some leave and we went ashore by barge and taken the Galle Face Queen, which is opposite the Galle Face Hotel, and once again three of us were very fortunate we walking along the street and an old Rolls Royce [automobile], I wouldn’t say old, say 1932,
with a driver, a chauffeur and a woman in the back and it sort of stopped and the driver couldn’t get it going so we three of us pushed it and it started and the woman got the driver to come out and he was a British soldier and she happened to be the wife of the commander of the Colombo garrison, the British, she took us home to her
place and met her home and she had these natives with this pukka pukka leaf, I think they called it, the fans, these big broad fans that they moved to circulate the air. We had morning tea there and for the rest of the day she put the driver and the car at out disposal. He took us up to Kandy and we surprised a group of officers who had come out of a
taxi, two taxis and we were, got out of this Rolls Royce, we were only three gunners at the time and he showed us around Kandy, went back to Kandy, and we visited a mosque and then he took us to a bazaar and then he took us back to the green where we had the foreman and we met up with the others and went back to the ship.
it was a very good day in Colombo.
Could you describe your impressions of going in to the bazaar [market]?
Oh the smells and the very exotic smells and strange smells I guess, but very enlightening, the wares on offer, seeing them work on jewellery, sort of beating metal,
all over the, you’d have to be very careful otherwise, you’d have a red stain on you. They didn’t, they didn’t care though. Also it was the first time I’d seen cigarettes sold, what they call a stick sale, where you buy cigarettes one at a time, from a box of cigarettes and they’d sell them to the natives. I don’t know what the price was but one
at a time. That was interesting.
menu, we had various sittings, the gunners, the sergeants and the officers, all sittings. And you had fruit juice, quite a change from Puckapunyal choice of about three fruit juices. Tea with or without milk, coffee with or without milk, brown sugar, white sugar, choice of fresh fruit
all types of cereals, scrambled eggs, fresh, boiled eggs, fried eggs, poached eggs, toast, white or brown toast, bread, butter margarine, strawberry jam, plum jam, marmalade, honey,
even vegemite. That gives you an idea of the meal situation, all meals were the same. Fabulous. But we spent most of the time at night time on deck, until the lascars came around and washed the deck and you knew it was time to pick up your bed and go down to the D deck where our hammocks were.
But that was the last voyage the Stratheden made of that type of troop shit, went back to Britain after that and was outfitted a real troop ship. But a very good ship.
How did you pass the time on the ship?
You got exercises, boxing events, the game, what do they call it, quoits, quite a lot of quoits. Quite a lot of time in quoits, quite a
lot of time I spent in physical exercise, PT, in the boxing tournaments, marching around, cause you had to wear sand shoes because the decking was still the original timber deck, everybody wore sandshoes to protect the deck, it didn’t become an iron deck until they moved it back to, after they took it to the
What had the ship been used for before the war?
Cruises. All the P & O [Pacific and Orient] line. Stratheden, Strathaird, Strathnaver and the Strathallan, well known cruise ships and they were very, very comfortable.
very mixed I guess. I guess we more or less educated to it by leaving Melbourne on the train then going because we had, we had possibly twenty-four hours I guess nearly to think about it on the train, that we were eventually going to leave Australia. And when we got onto the ship there was a bit of excitement --
exploration, finding out about what things were on the ship. And then when we got into the bight, don’t know whether you know the bight, next to the Bay of Biscay, are two of the most roughest you can experience. Even though it was blue seas getting into the Bot the Bot still had a little bit of turbulence so unfortunately quite a number of the troops had to go over the side
and do the normal thing. But things settled down. but that was possibly caused by when the wet canteen opened the beer hadn’t been chilled and the beer was a bit warm or so. I think that helped the sea sickness part as well. But gradually people settled down to life aboard the ship and particularly the Stratheden because I think the distance.
which didn’t eventuate, into the gulf and into the, can’t think of the name, man made, the Suez Canal yep. We anchored in the Suez Canal off Ismailiyah which is on the Egyptian side
then we transported the barges, went over to Kantara which was railhead, got onto these horse containers where there was forty-four hommes, or fourteen horses. That’s fourteen men or fourteen horses. We travelled to Beit Jirja,
which is in Palestine. We transported then by truck to Qastina, also in Palestine, that was where our first camp in Palestine was. That was I think we arrived at two o’clock in the morning and we travelled in the open trucks about three maybe three and a half hours to Qastina and that was our
introduction to Palestine. Qastina.
Palestine, conditions, more or less a lay day then to settle in. Each of these EPIP [English Patent, Indian Pattern] tents had a cane made bed around about six by six feet might have been thirty inches which the palliasse put on top because when it rained in Palestine, it really rained. A lot of the camps had been
made built with the tents and set up with the tents, the trenches around the tents hadn’t been probably dug, so that was the first duty to dig appropriate trenches around the tents to take the water duck ports across the entrance of tents so that the water flew out down the channels because the mud and puddles just stuck to your boots and you were walking about two or three feet higher than you normally would.
And what was your role at Palestine, what were you told to do?
Route marches because we didn’t have any equipment. Route marches, picket duty which is in-line picket, in case the Arabs came along and stole your boots, and an outline picket which was a regimental guard. Then followed a period of small arms training
and rifle drill. There weren’t enough rifles to go around so you drew your rifle from the army each time you needed it. And group marches over paddocks and sometimes through the olive groves and orange groves which was very, very helpful because you were able to take a few oranges off the trees as you went past.
take a few home and eat some on the track, grapefruit were another fruit, but all and all with training, mainly route marches. Some sand hills we went over and later on we got some leave to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, some of them went to settlements, some of the settlements they
are, one settlement was a trial marriage settlement, but ah you lived together for twelve months and if you felt that it was a goer you got married. Otherwise that was the end you went back to your home settlement. And the other one which was nick-named the love colony. You could live there but you didn’t have to get married. But all and all these settlements
Kibbutzes they were called, they all produced some type of merchandise like they grew wheat or barley, olive groves, orange groves, grapefruit, they ran vegetable patches potatoes. The thing is about the Jewish
settlements is that how they expanded which is different from the Arabs, there was very little development to their land and it was left to the Jews to develop their land and as these villages sprung up they became more self sufficient. They had developed a barter system, sometimes they didn’t use any money at all these just used a barter system, where they traded goods and one set of goods
goes for another set of goods.
and I guess they must have got building materials from somewhere because they also had houses. And back behind this new part of the village there was an older established village. And they had little industries like cottage industries, like photographers and interpreters, secretarial duties and things like that.
But even in the new part of the village they established a café and the troops used to go over there, they were welcome over there, a lot of friendships developed between the local inhabitants and us. It was never out of bounds and they used to have little dances and things like that which we would have a look at. But of course we had our own open-air cinema down the road which we used to frequent. On the odd occasions
there was a concert group, a Jewish concert group came along and they played us what you could call classical jazz like the Flight of the Bumble Bee and things of that nature, not real high class classics but things most people could understand, they were very good musicians.
The camp itself could you explain how that was set up there were tents and
Yes there were EPIP tents, there was a timber mess hall, timber sergeants’ mess, timber officers’ mess, at [UNCLEAR Qastina] camp we had timber, treated timber like a red ochre treatment on the pine board.
the deathly part of Jerusalem was that everyone walking around the streets had three stripes up. First duty you did when you went on leave if you weren’t a sergeant or an officer is you went to the little tailor in the hotel you were staying at and he used to sew three stripes on your shirt, because to actually go anywhere in Jerusalem, practically everything was out of bounds, to the troops. They were in-bounds to sergeants and in-bounds to officers, but very, very few
cafes or restaurants available for the troops, so consequently everybody had three stripes sewn onto their arm. On the way back they were cross stitched from the sleeves. Very hard to find a private or a gunner walking around. But mainly they visited restaurants and there were a few interesting ones there, run by Polish Jews. French,
Russian, all with different accents you know. But they could speak, most of them spoke a broken English and they could [UNCLEAR]. And then we were starting to learn a smattering of Arabic as well, not too much Hebrew language but a smattering of Arabic.
can’t think of eight, but nine ten. They used to have a word, like saying eighteen it used to be arbaat or some name like that which meant instead of fourteen, four would be fourteen instead of fourteen in Arabic.
Not very well, I can’t think about it, but ah no but maleesh was never mind, imshi was sort of give way, and ana miskin I have no money, inta rani, he’s a rich man. shufti, show me,
sekina is knife, wallad was boy, bint was girl, it’ll come back to me sometime.
So precisely what were you told about women and diseases?
Well there was dangers of disease and that the Egyptians they suffered a lot with the sexual disease, with the gonorrhoea and the other one that effects the eyes. See a lot of them with weeping eyes which was all part and parcel of the disease. And they warned people about the possibilities
of contracting these diseases.
were always advertised by word of mouth. I guess passed on down from the 6th Division down to 7th and 9th and but there was also in Cairo that goes back to the First World War that had been printed in the books and was called the main one in Cairo, was I think it was called
Sister Street. The main one in the 141 was the Berko, then there was, became known as the Berko. Top of the Berko was number 99 so when they played Housie Housie when 99 came out it was top of the Berko so ‘housie housie’, it’s like bingo, where you play with numbers,
fill them in on the sheets. 66 clickety click, number 1 is Kelley’s eye, number 9 is doctor’s orders, that’s just someone that went to hospital and your bowels weren’t working. The doctors used to give you a horrible green tablet called, which everyone named it a number 9 it was supposed to give you dysentery.
So did people play this game in the desert?
Not very many just a few, it was part of the in the huts, somebody used to set up a hut and then there were YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association] hut and a lot of the gear in the huts was subsidised by the association, by the parents of the troops overseas. We had a very, very strong association. And the wives, not the wives, the mothers, fathers
used to run things and there was a fund which gave us an amount of money and we just had to send to the CO. And he administered in Preston, so Constantine in the hut. We were able to buy a piano and we had about half a dozen guys who could play the piano, very good pianist, writing paper and got a few radios and later on we got
primuses [stoves] for the tents and things like that, all coming from money from the parents association in Melbourne. What we eventually made these huts supplied by the wives and the Salvation Army made them very beautiful, it was a centre where movies were. You know played games, card games, two operatives, generally outside somewhere, not in the lines, away from the officers.
all the white stone from the area and every building was white stone. And the streets had only been down twenty-five years, they were very new. Very clean actually, the comparison with next door in the old city of Haifa, or Jaffa as they called it, that’s the name of the oranges, Jaffa oranges, that’s also the port of Tel Aviv,
but that was very, very old Arabic and very old buildings and very narrow streets on cobbled stones. Everything going down the gutters outside the buildings, no, very little hygiene at all. Whereas Tel Aviv had sewerage plants and things like that. Up to date restaurants and you name it.
Sight seeing around the, bearing in mind we only had two days off and sometimes three. By the time you’d travelled and, but alright, always time to fill in. By visiting, theatres, cinemas, most of them were in Arabic or in Hebrew,
you watched the picture if you wanted to. But there was Hebrew meeting places, also the mosque that was there and there was also a concert occasionally on where you know there orchestras played and you could go there. It was
reasonably priced, but generally between going to a restaurant, having some wine which you didn’t get in camp and having steak cooked by someone else instead of your own cooks. And vegies [vegetables] which, we always found something to do. Tel Aviv is also on the ocean, the Mediterranean
you couldn’t find a better place for swimming as that. That was as good as Clovelly, the Med [Mediterranean].
first war. Instead of adding meat they added soy beans but you couldn’t taste the difference between the soy beans and the meat. And they cooked like sausages and they fried and they tasted like sausages. Apparently they are very healthy but they were quite a change in the diet. But I believe it was there were two chaps, the ‘14-’18 [First World War] war started and they never looked back.
I’m told that the original, two guys are still there now. Probably it’s been privatised, it’s probably a massive company now. Global company.
while we were in Constantine in January ’41. January ’41 that’s correct, and they moved up and then around about February, towards the end of February we knew that we were going up to the desert because the night division was started, that’s was formed partially in
October in 1940. A lot of the troops came from the 7th, 8th Division who were already over there in Syria, very few I think only 1 Battalion actually formed, that was the 32nd Battalion, that were originally night division and consequently when the 18th Brigade which was in England came to the Middle East
in late December, early January, we knew that we were going up because they also bought with them the 25th Brigade I think it was called at the time. And they became the 31st, 32nd, 31st, 32nd, and 33rd Divisions. The 32nd was attached to the 9th Division, 13th, 15th and 17th Battalions
from 7th Division, 20th Brigade, they became 9th Division, 23rd, 24th and 48th Battalions from the 8th Division became the 26th Brigade night division, 32nd Battalion, it was already night division together with the 28th and 48th Battalion,
we tried 8th Division, they became 9th Division. And the other division on 7th and 8th became 8th Division and went to Singapore and Malaya.
Mr Widdows, were you able to play sport while you were in the desert?
Yes, Puckapunyal we had football, every regiment had a football team. And a cricket team, that carried on right through my army time for six years.
So where would you actually play cricket when you were in the desert?
You made a pitch and Palestine we had a pitch and the compass fund supplied us with wickets and bats and balls, footballs, every unit, a lot of the units had there own football fields, some of them pretty had rock and things.
two troops to a battery, two batteries to a regiment, three batteries to a regiment, later on, three batteries original. The British army changed the whole series, first of all they started off with four troops and two batteries, one regiment. Then it became four troops
in two batteries and six guns in each troop, making twenty four guns to a regiment. Then they made it three, two troops to one battery and three batteries to a regiment. Same number of guns, more troops and more batteries. So consequently you had more cricket teams and football teams.
little black and white dog, half starved when we got him and we took him up, we got him in Palestine in Constantine, took him up to stay with us in Lebanon, we were in Lebanon at Jdaide where the camp was, he travelled with the, one leg had bruises all over it, training manoeuvres then he went to Egypt with us
he went into action at El Alamein with us but unfortunately he went missing at the third day at El Alamein think the noise got to him, upset his mental balance I think. So the last we saw of ‘Pisser’, that was his nick-name, his name actually, because he never stopped pissing near you. He must have had a secret supply of water I think.
because I, there was a group of us, forty of us went to a place called Tel el Kebir. We were there that’s when we moved up to the desert. What I have heard is that they received the unit, received orders to move to Egypt, some went by train some went by truck to a place called Amiriya and then they went to another place further
in to the west, Ikingi Mariut and that’s where the regiments stayed most of the time I was in Egypt, but I never, never there, Ikingi Mariut.
From when you were in Palestine?
Well I left Palestine at the end of March and we had a week in Al-Tal Al-Kabeer where we ferried trucks from Port Said to Al-Tal Al-Kabeer, then they we drew, they wanted seven people to take five trucks up to Benghazi up to the desert, everybody volunteered in the group
I was in but we only needed seven and we put the names in the hat and whoever drew the short stick, and seven names came out and I was one of them. The first time there we went to the Massawa Caves where the artillery stored shells and ammunition charges, loaded the trucks up with ammunition to be taken to the wharf at Alex
for transhipment to Greece and then we went to the railway station at Alex and picked up ammo equipment for the 7/11th Field Ambulance to take to Benghazi. On the way to Benghazi we stayed the first night at Mersa Matruh, next morning there was camps
in, there was a very bad desert storm you could only see your, during the night this was, sorry, even in moonlight you can’t see your hand, more than twelve inches in front. But in the morning that cleared and we moved to the west again, but after fifty miles one of the trucks broke down I think, the number three truck in the convoy, I was driving number five and I had the MT fitter with me
and he fixed the truck up with his, by the time he fixed the truck up, the drive got under way, by the time Peggy Smith, the MT fitter packed all his gear and he had quite a bit of gear into the truck and we got our truck organised and went on the road, unbeknown to us the rest of the convoy had been turned into Tobruk. So somebody had forgot to tell them that
another truck coming along. So they had packed up and went to where the 2/11th and (UNCLEAR) were. We went on our way and I guess we got about twenty, max [maximum] twenty-five miles east of Derna when I came across a group of Australians on the side of the road and they were the first pioneers, a company, so I said get in here and we decided to bed down with them that night, which we did
and had an evening meal with them and at about two o’clock in the morning I woke up and heard the sound of gunfire and rifle fire down towards south. So I got up and went looking for the in-line picket and asked for the officer. He said, “That’s the Indian army on manoeuvres, don’t worry about that.” I said, “OK,” and went back to bed and in the morning we had breakfast with them
we had it about seven-thirty and went west again towards Derna. Before we got to the Derna Pass we came to some artillery, British artillery built into the side of the road with six twenty-five pounders. They in turn were firing and I went over to the GPO to find out what was going on and he said well
this is the rear guard action, he said the thirteenth battalion are up ahead of us, he said he could see them firing and before in front of those people are the Germans guard, a vanguard. Which suggests to you get back to Tobruk. We promptly did. So we got back on the main road travelling, past them, on our own,
until we came about sixty, seventy miles and then trucks started to come all past in the desert and that was the commencement of the first vanguard in Antica. And we got back into Tobruk on the 7th of April and I remember that because it was my birthday. And we went through Tobruk, there were guards on the gate past and towards the fortress part,
after about a mile and a half saw one of the trucks, very similar to ours on the top of an escarpment. So I took a bit of a punt and I followed the track to the escarpment and down, onto the escarpment which was overlooking the airfield at the time and came across the 2/11th Battalion and Ermera which is where the other guys were. We thought maybe they’d been in the bag [killed], they thought maybe we were in the bag.
We actually had a reunion together and everybody was OK.
Those Australian pioneers that you saw, where had they come from?
They had been in Tobruk, they’d been up with the 6th Division. They’d fought in Tobruk and also up to Derna and then up to Tobruk and then further up to towards Benghazi with the 6th Division. But they were on the move back but the forward elements were still further up, but they didn’t tell us they were the retreat. What we only met them at the,
they possibly thought we knew. You see the actual, we found out later, this firing at the Germans when we were south was actually the battle of Achille, where the German troops came down inland and they were cutting off the 20th Brigade coming down on the coastal section.
church. A whole number of buildings in white stone, mainly white stone, quite a number of buildings which were like a big open garage which had been taken over by the work shops who had come up to Tobruk following the 6th Division up and they had established work shops there. The hospital was run by the 2/4th AGH [Australian General Hospital] and
the nurses had been taken out, mainly male orderlies and doctors, the church was still being used, there were some barracks somewhere I believe, forts, coastal forts on either side of the harbour. And a few shops and houses, that’s about all.
In terms of it’s size what could you compare it to in Australia?
Size in those days. You know, Welshpool in Victoria, where that bloke used to go from Tasmania sometimes, like that. But not that particular type of harbour but a bigger church and probably
a population of about a thousand, I guess, you know Tobruk in it’s civil time.
What were the locals doing when you arrived?
Sennussi [Libyan tribe], they were, they were in the shops but they were mainly in the desert. I don’t think any of the shops were operating when we got there. Probably operating when the 6th did for a little while, and then I think they would have been told by the town
and I don’t think it was 1 Battalion then, but I thought then it was beginning to be a siege. And then I think it was promulgated a few days after, that we would hold it for two or three weeks. Then it was gradually two months and then there was a Morse sent that said we would hold it until they surrender and we’ll go out, we’ll fight our way out.
So that’s when it all happened.
eating areas, sleeping areas. They were distanced probably about four hundred yards or maybe less or more between each post but there was a series right around from coast line to coast line from the west, the point from the central, the centre of Tobruk to the outer circle I think would have been about seven
miles. And if you can imagine a circumference running right around an outer circle to the road going east to Derna, sorry the town, Bardia, in the east. From Bardia road then to the coast to the Scrag Wadi [?UNCLEAR Wadi Audi?], which was a big deterrent in its own and it had
man made dug-outs in it, when I say man made dugs, dug outs and things with fixed lines and anti tank guns there.
Can you explain what a wadi is for someone that doesn’t know?
A wadi is a dried out water course, sometime like a deep gully, the waddies over there range from about very steep, probably about thirty/forty feet maximum, thirty feet,
up when they operated out on the field like with a blood bath. That’s was then we they didn’t have any sterilising fluid, they’d just cut the veins, operate, get the strap out then stitch up again with a blood bath, we’d hold the blankets while the doctors did this. This was two or three days and then they had a lot of shelling by the enemy but ah
there was a bit of a lull there and we went to staging camp where we were given a bayonet and told we were going to the twenty third battalion, who’d been knocked about that night, their band was going up also. But just at that time we were, an officer came from the 51st Field Regiment, an artillery regiment, and wanted to know if there were any Australian gunners there, which we approved
and said yes so we went to this field artillery regiment, 51st Field Regiment, twenty-five pounders. We stayed with them for a week and together with another four from the 7 Medium Regiment, seven of us and about twelve from the 51st Regiment we formed a section of
sixty pounders, which we fired from a point called Point Palestrino, which is about half way between the town and the red line. We had two guns pits taken there and fired from there, otherwise we took the two guns up to the forward infantry posts where we fired fifty rounds from each gun at the
enemy airfield at, gun positions or the enemy airfield, I’ll think of that later.
the noise was like of the advancing German army?
The shots were fired you know but nothing very, not a great amount of noise because there weren’t too many weapons, it was mainly a probing feel. But it wasn’t until we were attacked by this small group, a section of the 17th Battalion I think it was the morning of the tenth, eleventh that you knew there was something going on because of the consistency
What were your impressions of the British at Tobruk?
Excellent, yeah. There is a big, there’s a firm friendship that exists today between the British artillery and the Australian, the Australian forces in Tobruk, because it’s felt without them, the British artillery
east Derna and the west. So consequently everything had to come in, by ship, the wounded went out by ship and the reinforcements came in by ship, right throughout siege. Ammunition came in by ships, food came in, there was also another group called the Small Ships Flotilla they were small types of slips and that guy called Peter Palmer was captained one of those, they bought a lot of small
equipment in and ammunition and foodstuffs in.
A very, very secure, and by that I mean even telegraph poles on the roof and sandbags above that, even though they were full of fleas and scorpions and you know, rats, you’d still go there because they were very, very strongly built. Dug out or fox hole or bunk hole, you call it what you like.
in as much detail as you can, the first action you experienced at Tobruk. What you were firing at and what enemy fire you experienced?
The first action, yes through to the 51st Field Regiment. We were doing cattle factory fire there, which means that you are firing at the opposing enemy artillery and
also firing at the German strong points and also a point there where the German troops were advancing on the Australian infantry. That was what we understood from the GPO officer. But that was mainly harassing fire which was on targets, or just keeping the enemy awake. But when we moved to third position with the two sixty pounders,
we were mainly firing on direct targets and the name of the airport was Aladdin, which was about ten or twelve miles from Tobruk and by moving the fifty pounder up to the front line we could concentrate on the, at Aladdin on the north east.
What sort of presence, aerial presence was there of the Luftwaffe [German Air Force]?
Very, very strong, continually being dive bombed by the stickers, and they’re high up planes, what I call ‘88s [Junker Stuka 88 dive bomber], plus supported by Messerschmitt 109s. Who also on the cessation of bombing came in with the machine gun firing, over the trenches and that.
very good anti aircraft, light aircraft, one battery of Australian which were very good, two regiments of British fighter planes. But the whole artillery component in Tobruk was mainly British with the Exception of some batteries of anti Jack from the third, 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment of Australia, two of them were in Tobruk and
the others came in from Achille, they fought the rear guard action out at Achille. The other battery was at Mersa Matruh I believe. The Royal Horse Artillery they supplied a regiment of artillery, eighty tanks, my own regiment didn’t come in as a whole until during May, they came in piecemeal through battery by battery. Don Troop [D Troop] then
Ack Troop [A Troop] and then Beer Troop [B Troop], Charlie Troop [C Troop] then Eddie and Freddy Troop [E and F Troop]. But at the same time the end of the 32nd Battalion came in, their regiment were in their entirety, but without equipment.
What sort of casualties were the artillery gunners suffering at Tobruk?
Some got more than others, some of the British field regiments got horrific casualties, suffered horrific casualties, because they’re mainly, 1 RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] they were at several tank battles fighting as an anti-tank and they were firing at say a hundred yards direct at tanks who were firing direct at them. Some of their guns were knocked out complete with their gun crews, but we in Australia, we didn’t have that equipment in the
12th Regiment to fight anti-tank, anti-tank, that probably comes up later because we had all antiquated parts from some antiquated Italian, Australian, English equipment we used also antiquated Italian equipment.
Can you explain to me what happened?
Well the whole troops were, this was later on, when was this? Probably early June late May, early June, we’d been pinpointing where the guns were, and we’d fired quite a number of rounds into this position and we’d been shelled back after a few days
we got more shelling back and we got bombed. And the day we suffered the casualties was we’d had a heavy concentrate, we’d fired heavy concentrations and the heavy concentrations fired back at us. Guns like shells landed on the RAP [Regimental Aid Post] where the corporal RAP was killed and his RAP was blown up that was Richmond A Post,
the command post suffered several hits, another gun crew was hit and suffered several hits, number two suffered a casualty, number three gun had the wheel gun blown off it, no casualties and number four gun I think missed, but a lot of close shots around it. It was over a period of about an hour, shelling.
no mosquitos fortunately, but scorpions in the ground, rats, dust in the camp scene so, and you existed on half a bottle of water, a day. That was for cleaning to shave to wash to put something to make a cup of tea, have a drink.
How did that effect your physical condition?
We lost a lot of weight but, I think, but if you took your ascorbic tablets apart from breaking out in what’s called dreaded sores, worse when a fly got in there infect them, they were nick-named rock sores they
felt hat or a tin hat, with a pair of shorts, no underpants, and a pair of boots, no socks, because the socks and the underpants would create perspiration and that would lead to tinea and stuff like that whereas the shorts even though they were called Bombay Bloomers there was a fair amount of air circulating, and your top, the perspiration
dried off the top, and the socks, your feet were pretty dry without socks. So that was the gear.
tank or something in the opposing area, then go for a registration, send a number of rounds at that, then if you saw any movement by troops from that, bring that fire there, which you actually never knew when the enemy were going to actually fire at you, unless of course you were in the lead or attacking yourself. Being in the pit party in the artillery, or the leading infantry or in a Bren gun carrier or a tank or anything like that.
But troops behind like artillery position I never knew. Unless of course they fired themselves they would expect return fire coming back at you.
“Aussies, the Yanks [Americans] are in Darwin, you’re here, the Yanks are with your girlfriends in Australia, come out and surrender and you’ll be repatriated back home,” or, it turned out they were what you call air drops but nobody took any notice of them. More I think they want returns, I don’t know why they were interested in Tobruk. But they were very valuable as souvenirs later on.
And there was always Lord Haw Haw [German propaganda broadcaster in English], like exhorting Australian troops that they were surrounded and put their hands up and surrender, nothing would ever come of it, just one of those things I guess, you learnt to live with it. Same with the flies and scorpions and things and the dust.
Mr Widdows, I just want to clarify something with you, when you were talking about the attacks you were doing on the airport were you actually in Tobruk at that point?
That’s the time we sued to, with those two sixty pounders we got them at Palestino which is a point on the map in Tobruk, it was an old fort there. But we used to take these two sixty pounders up
How different was it using those guns?
Those two sixty pounders, they are very, they were modified from the ones we had back in Australia. They were probably the ones they used in France, probably of a, the piece they used themselves, that’s the barrel, probably 1918 vintage,
Number three is the gun layer, number one is the gun sergeant, on a sixty pounder number two is the bridge, works the bridge, number three lays the gun, number four rams the shell home, number five puts the cartridge in,
And when you’re in the pits in Tobruk when you’re in the trench there in the protection, how did it work with the gun, how was the set-up?
Well you fired the gun in the pit but when you had to lay down or stand easy they called it, generally you went back to, once you’d cleaned all the cartridges you made the gun pit ready for action next time you just cleaned up around the pit
and if you had a, try to think of it, the gadget you put a pricker in. I mentioned it before. We didn’t have one of those, we had a probably a some round tin with some
fat or something in it, with a little cord and it became a heater, although we had another one which was especially prepared with the methylated spirits in it which you lit and put a dixie [pot] on top. Heat that up. But the other way you put a dixie on with some biscuits on and put some water in and make a sort of a mash or porridge out of it. Otherwise you’d cook a bully beef, heat it up
and a beef stew, came in a tin, heat that up so and put a billy on a stand too and just heat that up. Wasn’t very, very, wouldn’t call it French deserts though!
the food was never ever, never over-supplied with food. Because it was same as with ammunition, artillery ammunition, all the twenty-five pounders, the twenty-five pounders, were on rations because limited numbers begun and this would allay a bad situation, because depending upon how much the storage could get in.
Where as we and twelve regiment being equipped with lot of troops were equipped with Italian equipment, we’d use the all the equipment left in, left in Tobruk, there was quite a bit of that, so consequently the troops in 12th Regiment would use Italian equipment that a lot of us were firing, or a lot of the work. So food was rationed depending
on income from the ships.
around the dial sites. Same as the range they were all in metric whereas Australian measurements were all in imperial yards, so consequently we all had to be chance, what’s the word, transformed back
into Italian measurement back into English or imperial measurement. And our CO who was a fairly good mathematician together with some other officers who were also amongst the leading observation act people, they were able to come up with a converted race table and convert a table to adjust all back from the English metrics and back to the
from the Italian metric system back to the Australian imperial system which made the gun laying and everything a little bit easier. But still had the mills and the other measurement on their dial sign, but at least we knew where we were going. And their range tables and things like that we were able to convert. You get the elevation on the 75mm [calibre] guns, cause they
were mainly 75 mountain guns. We had to dig the trail in, that’s the tail of the gun, the pit was six feet down at the back and two foot six the platform where the wheels were. So consequently you had one leg bent when you were working the gun and to do that to get the extra elevation to fire the projectile further. Other wise you were limited to a more or less flat range. To get to the targets
we wanted to, that was the way, with the conversions, because the Italian guns we had more angle of depression and angle of elevation. So all that had to be worked out. We had a very good CO fortunately.
tree or any fixed thing object that was sharp defining object, so you get the hair of the guns, the dial sign fixed on that perfectly, you could even lay a rear on special, I forget the terminology now but each gun we’d have a pair on each gun and one gun person
would run out with them and we had numbers on those to correspond through the dial site so you had two number fours and you would lay on that, that was where you would register your ‘0’, so any orders you got back they write two, four, six degrees you would put that two forward then move the dial back onto that aiming point. Back or rear whatever one you were using. Night time you’d use the conceal light which you laid back onto which is on the aiming post with
the ones I was referring to before. or there could be an aiming post in the rear, as long as it was fixed, guns have been known to lay on the north star which doesn’t move very quickly, but that all had to come from the command post, the gun position, in turn the orders and on an opposition gun or the enemy, came from the OP [observation post] pit
which in turn was relayed back to the gun position, where the gun was.
So how many gun crews would there be?
One crew to a gun, four guns to a troop. The latest figures, four troops to a, sorry, four guns to a troop, two troops to a battery, three batteries to a regiment. That’s twenty four guns to a regiment.
you see, then you hear the bang and you hear the whistle and the noise but with the 88 [calibre gun], there’d be the flash the bang on your end and then their bang. Very high trajectory and very fast trajectory. I forget what the measurement was. It was measured
so many yards per second but it’s very, very, very good gun.
How far away was the enemy firing from?
Depending on the size of the equipment, the 88 would be, the 88 could be behind the infantry or well back. Because the 88 was used as an anti-aircraft gun, also as an anti tank gun, three way usage and very, very good, it was very similar to
our three point seven anti-aircraft gun, but the anti-aircraft gun was three point seven but for some unknown reason was never used three ways, could have been a very damaging weapon. It was used by our battery once in Borneo to, when we were on Labuan to bombard the British, North Borneo. But to my knowledge it was never used in the desert.
But going with the medium artillery was possibly about five hundred a thousand yards behind the infantry. And the heavy artillery another thousand yards behind that.
What was the atmosphere like at Tobruk being at this siege?
What amongst the troops? Oh mateship, that was the best way to describe it. Didn’t matter whether you were infantry, AFC [Australian Flying Corps] or engineer, artillery, tanks or whatever, you were in Tobruk, you were what Rommel described, rats in little holes. That’s where the name rats came from
and a rat was a rat regardless what branch of the service he was in. He was a mate.
chemistry of a person and the make-up. Some when they came in they were very emotional right from the start, you could see that they were not going to be able to stand up that they were going to have to be evacuated. Unfortunately that was a problem in their case, and they were,
but it wasn’t that they were frightened or scared, it was just that their – you could either take it or you couldn’t take it or with the group you could take it. Everybody is different I don’t think. I don’t think anybody really knows until the actual breaking point takes a part and unfortunately, or fortunately I didn’t suffer breaking point and none of my friends did but we did have friends that did,
and to what degree, or what there was no timing, no timing when you can tell that will happen to a person. Just happened.
Some signs would be some people turn grey very quickly, yep, we had a chap in Komodo he went grey in a matter of a week I think it was. It was only a matter of two or three days before he was taken out. I think it’s
very hard to describe because we’d be, getting bomb happy we described it. Sheer fact is person acting strangely they’d be, just indicates, a difference from what the person is normally and some could pick it some couldn’t. Just, you know your mates, you study with the gun crew.
I think it became easier for a gun sergeant to do it because you live with your crew all the time and you know when someone was becoming effected and there was a change of attitude and you watched that. I was fortunate I think in that.
What kinds of signs would the sergeant the gun sergeant look out for?
Any change in the persons method of, way he spoke or even the way he walked or, the way he acted, a slight noise and he got upset, slight noise or he’d rustle his leg, or he went like that or you see the shakes
and difference in, any slight difference in a person. It’s just something that happens and you think did he do that before or not and you think back and can’t remember and it happens again, and you say, “Gotta watch him,” you know. Things like that.
oh about five and a half months I guess. Only five months, yeah, early October. April, May, June, July August, September, six months yeah.
that was in early August I think, the 51st Regiment, there was a feeling that some of the Australian troops would be released. To what degree was not known, but then the next month, September, more troops went out. And then we sort of realised that this was a period when 9th Division were being relieved.
And I think I was one of the last out of our group which was 30th October.
And the other thing was that, we’d seen it so far why couldn’t we see it to the end, bearing in mind we thought and we were sure the Brits [British] would have power, and the South Africans and the Kiwis, that came up and relieved us. But also a sense of relief, like I say, mixed emotions.
But it was very good to get back to Alex and get some fresh water and stand under a shower for about half an hour.
As soon as you got on board there was porky-pies [British], there were other Australians with me from, with us, from other units, but the British sailors just put us down on the deck, put your thing son and bought us a cup of hot cocoa straight away. And as we wanted a hot cup of cocoa they kept bringing it all the way back to Alexandria. They just kept moving amongst us
in the, at the Italian part of Africa down Abyssinia, Eritrea, where there group of India – where the division of Indians, and they fought their way up from Olear [?UNCLEAR], to back to up Aisle [?UNCLEAR], and they left their gear at Alex. That means their trucks and
their weapons. And we left all our weapons and things in Tobruk and it was swap, we left them the greatest assortment of clapped out artillery and trucks anyone would ever seen in their life and we inherited all this relatively new twenty-five pounders, Humber scout cars, quad vehicles, four ton trucks,
complete field regiment of artillery equipment. We were the first artillery equipment regiment in Australia I think to have all that equipment. it wasn’t very long before it started to be taken off us. But at least we had it for a while, very good feeling, we felt very sorry for the friends back there, back in Tobruk.
And what were you told that you would be doing at this point?
Reinforcing, re-training, and back to Palestine. Which we did we left Alexandria, went back across the Sinai to the regiment of Conroy, got back to Palestine about two days later I think. Might have been three. We went to a place like, I think it was
Hell ninety five I think they called it. For a couple of weeks and then we went back to Constantine where we started from. After being there for a couple of months we went to Lebanon where we took over form the 7th Division which went back to Australia. And then we became the garrison, 9th Division became the ninth army garrison of Syria and Lebanon in case the Turks
coming down from close to Germany, came through Turkey. We built fortifications there and trained in mobile warfare, anti tank shoots and until Tobruk fell and then we were called back to the desert. So we left.
I might just ask you about being based in Lebanon before, what was that place like where you were?
Beirut, Lebanon was very, very friendly, we were in little village called, it ran off Jdaide, it was on a track that ran from Tripoli through Zghorta on the way to the Cedars which is a top snow resort in the Lebanons, for the Lebanese.
About half way up there past Zghorta, there’s a little township called Jdaide where there’s a monastery run by the, not the Marist, anyway another order, and brown habit, and that was made our regimental headquarters. they were still doing their thing at the time they were moving around in the monastery.
Regimental head quarters there was the CO and his assistants the adjutant, sig [signal] officer, and the guard up was outside but the troops were in sort of an open area near an orchard and in a village called Zghorta. Jdaide was only about two hundred yards from Zghorta.
That was where we had the guns and the park and the tents and we carried out our regimental duties. And the local people used to come down every morning wanting to know if they could do washing and things like that. Which the troops used to give them and they’d take it away. A tin of bully beef would get the tents washing done and they became quite friendly and you’d get invited up to their village for a
meal, they’d charge you. It was equivalent currency there was the Australian pound there were twenty-five English shillings, no twenty-five Australian shillings to an English pound. There was an Egyptian
pound at the same time. Two and seven pence was the Syrian piastre, I think they called it, and one hundred mill to the piastre, but that was equal to two and seven pence. All the meals they supplied to you, a bottle of beer or a meal was one and seven pence Australian if you got two it was two times that, you know.
That was the basis they used their charging fees on so it was reasonable.
What was your unit’s role in Lebanon?
First of all we started to dig this massive fortress, gun fortress, which was going to be concreted in on the top, with a aperture so you could fire at I think a hundred and sixty degrees, with an elevation
of quite a bit, came to be a very strongly fortified line and then they realised this we weren’t training so they employed some Arab labour to do it and then they realised they had to put guards on the labourers because they were taking all the cement back to their village and iron sheeting and all that and we were busy out that way and then they, we had to put guards
in there so troops had to take it in turns for the training. We did anti-tank shoots and brigade manoeuvres, battalion manoeuvres, getting ready for full scale divisional manoeuvres in the desert.
and maybe French rule and now they were under the sort of British army rule and they quite enjoyed it. But amazing with the children, even the five, six year olds, they could speak a good smattering of English, Arabic, a little Hebrew, French and a little bit of Turkish, it had all been handed down. They had a very good education system there.
in Tripoli. But we had leave to Tripoli and leave to Beirut. Leave to Damascus, I didn’t take leave to Damascus but went to Beirut on two occasions. Beirut was a lovely city. And the thing about Beirut you could walk down the street and frequently hear English spoke. It was the only city in the Middle East you could do that.
there was an American university based in Beirut, which was right in the city of Beirut and the students basically learnt English there and had been doing so for many years. Consequently English language was spoken on the streets of Beirut. But the people were friendly and it was the restaurants were mainly predominantly French, there was a French
presence there for many years. Wine, probably more wine drunk than beer. Until the Australians got there, but over all I think everyone enjoyed their leave in Beirut and once again you could go swimming in the Mediterranean.
traumatic, and we thought well they’ll get to Tobruk, there was a division of South Africans there and some other allied troops and they were thirty thousand troops I think and they were well stocked with ammunition, well stocked with supplies, it was a big depot. We thought well at least they will hold them up there but it fell in one and a half days. And that was the greatest shock to everybody I think, we were just, well we were just sort of numb for
about it took probably an hour and a half for it to sink in, you know the longest siege in British history. The whole place collapsed in a day and a half. We had the same fortifications there when we were there. Same Italian red line the same, secondary and third line and better artillery, more modern artillery,
heavier stuff you know, more tanks, unbelievable, but still then you just had to get used to it. So then we thought well we didn’t have problem to wait for you. But the strange thing was when we broke camp when we were in Lebanon, in Jdaide, we headed north up towards the Turkish border,
we were told no fur felt, they were Australian hats all the badges had to come off, we had to hide our tan boots because everybody else, the South Africans the Kiwis, the British wore black boots but the Australians wore tan boots, but when we were going the kids around the camps were saying, “The Aussie go bomb bomb.” And we’d say no just manoeuvres be back next week, “No bomb bomb.”
They knew, or they purported to know, that we would not be coming back to that camp. We went north, or rather we turned south down a little back south, outside Damascus straight down through the desert, then cut back in to the Sinai and then went through the Sinai to this
side of the canal, cross the canal to Cairo and we stayed in a camp there near the pyramids and the next night we went up to Amiriya, through Amiriya. When they got half way through the road from the pyramids to Amiriya we started to
meet all the other troops coming down. they were all the air force squadrons, all their, their mechanics and things like that from the squadron, not the pilots. But all the people, the cooks and rear echelons they called it. The rear echelons of battalions, regiments AFC groups and went a lot further than –
Mr Widdows, can you tell me how or when you heard about Japan entering the war?
Japan. December the 7th 1941, yep. We had just got out of Tobruk and we were sitting at a, oh about a month or so, sitting and a chap came over with the news.
I guess what I’m saying is –
I think the major problem was when the 8th Army collapsed all of a sudden not the 8th Army, the 8th Division, in Malaysia, because what we’d heard, I don’t know whether they were right or wrong, but there was one brigade there, and they didn’t seem to be very well organised and all of a sudden they collapsed and we were worried I guess
about what way things were going to go there, but ah I think at the same time we’re also concerned about how the war in the desert was going to go, because after Tobruk collapsed which had been pretty much a victory for us, although it was a siege, we couldn’t reconcile with the fact that we lost so quickly and what was going on
but we were quite happy to be where we were at the time and I guess we realised we would be called upon to get back up the desert, which I don’t think any body sort of worried about that.
So can you tell me about the campaign at El Alamein and your preparations and how you incorporated into working with the 8th Army.
We moved up on the, remember it was the 7th of July I think it was, from Al Shamma, which was just a little bit west from Amiriya which was where we were camped outside Alexandria. Together with the 26th Brigade
we mounted an attack on the Italians and Germans and went for about three or four days and the 8th Army advanced quite substantially around Tel el Eisa and there were high points there but one of the main thing coming out of it was capturing the forward German signals group
which were more or less tuning into all the radio talk of the 8th Army and then informing Rommel what was going on. And not only did they get to capture the group but they also got the code books and things like that, which were very beneficial to the 8th Army. Intelligence group.
but I think at about fourteen sixteen days there were attacks put in and counter attacks and after a period of time it more or less settled down with the 8th Army gaining a little bit of ground but not too much and for a period about two, two and a half months it became more or less static, with artillery exchanges
until the Germans advanced on the southern front. That was when Rommel put in an attack near the Qatarra depression to come in behind the 8th Army which was badly moored and Germany got badly defeated.
So where were you in proximity to that Qatarra depression?
We were, the Qatarra depression ran across in the frontage, the depression was on the left in the south and the sea was on the north and more or less, not a straight line but I think it was about thirty miles across from sea to the depression and that formed the base of the defence line for the 8th Army.
actual battle line worked at El Alamein, who was in front of you and what was behind you?
Oh this was the main battle oh, actually shall we say there were three battles at El Alamein. One was when the 8th Army advanced with the 9th Division, that was the one in July. Second battle was the one when the Germans advanced near the Qatarra depression across Alanopa the third and final battle
was one on the twenty-third of October and the preparation for that for the artilleries part was we went right forward early in the night time two nights before, dug in and we went back, came up the next night completed the digging with ammunition pits and the ammunition had come up prior to that as well under the cover of darkness, the whole thing was shut down with nets over the top and that was
well in front of where our forward lines were, the 8th Army forward lines. When the battle started at twenty minutes to ten or nineteen hours, sorry, twenty one forty hours, that was mainly an artillery, artillery not a barrage but a pot shot
every gun, nearly a thousand guns firing on known German artillery positions, known German strong points mortars, machine guns and strong posts, that finished that twenty one fifty five and for five minutes there was stillness and at twenty two hundred hours
the infantry started. The combined artillery put down a barrage in front of the infantry which went on – a creeping barrage went on and on until two thirty in the morning and they’d been advancing, took most of their points they had to take, there were a couple they missed out on but according to the information we got back a very successful
advance, 51st on the 9th Division left, also advanced, but struck a couple of bad points as well. There were quite a number of unchartered mine fields which held up the advance to a certain degree and the South Africans and the Kiwis further over to the left, that whole front went forward.
and wasn’t till about another ten days later that we had to move the guns, you see we were firing very close early but they had arranged from about fourteen thousand odd yards and being that much in front of the infantry when they went through us, every two three thousand yards they gained we still had another ten thousand yards to fire.
But the whole movement came to a not more or less a halt but a general change in direction when the infantry then went towards the coast. To try and get behind the German forward troops and then we were firing more or less straight in a line like that instead of on a broad front.
command, were you a separate unit or were you incorp – ?
In control of the thirtieth call, yeah. It went well with Montgomery [English general] being in charge and the command of the 30th I think was not quite sure so I better not say, I think it was Horricks. But everything went through the chain of command OK,
but what we’ve learnt after , where we called fire, Rommel, having trouble on the northern front which was the core front where the infantry was attacking, more or less a crumbling operation there, he was diverting the German troops to counteract the Australian and the 51st Island Division attack,
therefore they had more German troops and Italian and more enemy troops than down the line. What Montgomery was trying to do was to draw the German troops and the whole of Rommel’s force onto the Australians and the 51st Island Division so that then he could effect attack break through in the south which eventually did happen. We didn’t see super charge or only saw the result of it.
Where were you sleeping during these?
In the gun bed. Or in the surrounds. We were more or less ready to answer any calls to follow infantry. All the targets on all possible counter attacks were all registered before the battle. They were all code named, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and that the Germans came to a certain area and that was in the code frame of say Melbourne,
What sense did you have at the time that the campaign in the desert was all coming down to this, that this was critical?
Very, very I guess it wasn’t until, lets put it this way, we were all very confident
the whole desert feeling and sense of that we were on the right track then Montgomery took over and made certain statements. Up until that time under Auchinleck there was a general feeling not of despair but there was, “just can’t seem to get it right.” And then when Montgomery came, he said certain orders and changed the
people, the whole morale just grew and grew, particularly when he explained what every unit and every division had to do, “and this is what we are going to do to get on with victory,” and that’s when the morale went up and everyone became, sure we’re going to win regardless what Rommel did. We’re going to be there and it’s going to be the end of the Africa call, which actually happened.
Can you explain how those orders worked, would he speak to all the troops or would those orders come down via the
Came down via the generals. Spoke to COs and groups you know, all the COs of the 9th Div, all the COs of the 51st, explaining the whole battle plan, everybody even the private soldier knew what he had to do. With that well illustrated what we were expected to do and what we had to do.
presence of combat was there, at the time?
Of the air force, the allies had control there, more or less, very strong air force, the allied air force, very well lead and very capable pilots, both fighter and bomber.
What did the crumbling plan mean and how did that effect the artillery?
Well that means that you attack, attack, attack, wear down, pulverise the area, send tanks in
So was there any relief in your attacks, did you stop at all, how consistent was it?
Consistent all the time, yep very consistent. The guns more or less fired most of the time, there were only short breaks and on about probably the tenth or eleventh day we got a little bit of relief from
No I think it was the plan was to try and attack at night to try and get the better of the Germans and then have the daylight for picking off the counter attacks which you could do with the artillery and the air force came into being then because they would know exactly, the artillery were putting down smoke shells, the air defence, the airport, the aircraft would know where to drop their bombs
where as at night time the air force wouldn’t know where they were. Cause everything is dark and all they see is a lot of flashing lights from guns from both sides and they wouldn’t know where the infantry were. So I assume that was why we advanced at night time. So we had the benefit of the aircraft attacks or defence in the day time.
have about being taken a prisoner of war of the Germans?
Well nobody, I don’t think, wanted to be taken a POW. But I guess if you can’t get anywhere, you can’t do anything and you’re out of ammunition, there’s only one thing to do.
But ah, we still retain friendships with the Africa Korps. We’ll be meeting some of them again next November. In a place called Frankfurt. I’ve been to three re-unions with Africa Korps people. I still correspond with half a dozen, same with the 8th Army they have a terrific rapport with the Africa Korps, they go every year to
Rommel’s gravesite and I’ve been there on two occasions, we pay our respects. And there is a service at his grave side and his son speaks and talks about the glad that the allies beat Germany because they came back to a normal way of life, that’s the son of Rommel.
Can you tell me about how you met the Africa Korps soldiers when you first came into contact with them?
A lot in ’92 on a reunion back to Tobruk and El Alamein. I was actually in a group and the interpreter from the Africa Korps, why picked me I don’t know but came over and asked me that their general wanted to speak to our general, Major General John Broadbank and I knew that General Broadbank had been
out on a recce trying to get through to the salient area in Tobruk and was having a bit of a rest and I tried to stall him. I spoke to a Colonel Pike and told him what was going on and finally three or four hours later we met up with some of the Germans Colonel Zimmerman, General Zimmerman and General Broadbank had a discussion in English and German and then we decided we’d spoken enough we’d go back
both the Germans and ourselves would go back and have another beer, so but we’ve been fairly friendly over there ever since.
Hit the bottle over the years I think and I guess people just realised they were doing what they had to do. And we were doing what we had to do, therefore I think after the war, just grew this fond friendship. It was strange, only, to my knowledge, only three groups still keep together.
One is the Burma group and the Africa Korps and the 8th Army. There is nothing, naturally there wouldn’t be anything with Japanese people, their army, but with the even the few Italians go to the Africa Korps gathering. Not a great number.
Tripoli and took Tripoli and then they. We were out of all that we were the withdrawn after the battle of El Alamein. We went back to, we were in El Alamein for about two weeks after the battle and then we went back to Palestine and had a very large long division march past, Alexander, General Alexander who was the twelfth British army and
he made a very brilliant speech praising the 9th Division and his closing words, I’ll always remember that, “under my command for the Australian 9th Division.” Remember that for the rest of my life. And he wished us well wherever we went and about a month after that we came back to Australia. Back in March, no end of February, I think,
we went got leave on the 1st of march back to Victoria Melbourne.
Did you have an opportunity to celebrate when you were in Alexandria?
No we were at the camp, we got two bottles of beer that night. First night back, we were happy I don’t think anybody drunk the two bottles the first night cause it was, this was after Tobruk of course. I think being without beer for so long and being on water restrictions , you couldn’t take liquid,
you couldn’t cope with it, take it easy drink plenty of water I think, and a few more beers and things like that.
I think the noise of the artillery and the bombs and things like that just too much for his little brain just went running around, probably got killed. I think if he could have he would have got back. Cause he loved everybody in the unit or the troops rather. And he was ell though of but, no, I think it was the noise that got to him. He had a bit of
fox terrier in him, fox terrier, I don’t know whether you know, cracker night, they go berserk. Guess that’s what happened to poor old Pisser.
So after El Alamein what did you do in Alexandria?
We didn’t stay in Alexandria very long at all, only about three or four days, then we went back to Palestine and then, this is after El Alamein? Yeah. Then we went to ah, had this ceremony parade and a few weeks after that we caught the, got on board the Ile de France, we stayed at Mombasa
and we went to somewhere I think in the Maldives, take on fuel, water, then we went to Perth, Fremantle rather on the over-night to Fremantle one ship stayed there General Moors had got off . He met every ship that went to every port in Australia, Melbourne to Sydney, got a wonderful welcome.
What were your impressions of him as a man?
Tremendous man, tremendous man, tremendous leader he was always, when he could, up the front line with the troops and you know makes sure that they knew he was sharing their hardships as well.
I might ask you just going back to Melbourne you said there was a march through Melbourne. Could you explain what that was like?
Oh it was terrific reception. It was packed with people it was crowded everywhere when you went down Swanston Street and we went down and turned down another street come back. The street was packed must have been thousands and thousands of people, wonderful reception. We found out later they launched a War Bond Appeal, and that was part of the deal. Anyway they gave us a very wonderful welcome.
Did you talk about the war very much?
No, not very much no, we, it wasn’t necessary I don’t think. I think they had followed everything and they had kept in touch because both my mother worked for the unit association with the parents back here in Australia, cause the colonel used to write and tell them what the unit was doing
Had you received much news from home while you been/
Yes always, yep. Always, everybody used to wait for mail and things like that. Most people, most the troops got good mail. There were a few Dear Johns [letter to inform that a relationship is over], but you know that happens everywhere I guess.
If I could talk to you about the training you did on that Atherton Tablelands?
yep, we went from one type of warfare to another, which we’d been involved in open warfare and went to a sort of jungle warfare where you had to even marching on route marches you had to cut through the undergrowth to get through and there were certain vines which had sort of thorns on them
which clung to your body or clothing, there were leeches in the undergrowth in the water and you had to use a cigarette to get them on the tail and they’d drop off. Generally they were full of blood. They go from a very, very tiny thing to a great bloated thing about that long, fully all blood. But the best way to get rid of them, if you pulled them off you left a scab
and that could be infected so you’d get a cigarette, light a cigarette on the end of them and they just dropped off. But it was entirely different type of war, we did training mainly in the rainforest up at northern Queensland. Had ear drops supplied by air from, by with food or supplies and some close range shooting which
the artillery had to be careful because with the descent of the shot it could clip a tree or branch and for all the surround troops they had to take that into calculation.
Having fought in the desert and being faced with this very different type of warfare, what were the challenges that you needed to address to over-come the differences?
As well as keeping dry I think mainly and keeping the ammunition dry, clearing a path for the guns if there was tree in the way. For instance after landing in Lae, you got in there
and you couldn’t fire because of the trees or the plantations. You had to chop the trees down to get a field of fire. Also the problem of crossing the rivers which were pretty full flood. Quite a few troops form the infantry were lost crossing rivers. But it was entirely different warfare altogether , but you just had to adapt. Lot more close shooting, with the outfits probably fifty
yards from the enemy. And ah, bring the fire very close need for accurate gun laying, but you know,
to fire for the infantry, to protect them or to knock out a strong post, a machine gun nest or one of their pieces of artillery, shelling various Japanese areas where they were resisting. Basically that’s, and shelling land cells
until the 7th Division came down to valley, and they were the first troops into Lae and beat the 9th Division by about half an hour I think.
carrying troops down by rope ladders or they come out of the mouth of the LST on barges. Come up into the waves to go into the beach. And then on it’s just hard slog with the infantry, going onto shore and getting advancing, getting areas under control and then the artillery comes in, engineers come in
with the artillery to look for mines and things. Matter training all that.
bull-dozers as well to get through the swamps if you could or the engineers would lay a track and you would try to get the guns through that. But each person wouldn’t carry that much gear, not the artillery, the infantry would, you’d have to carry some ammunition for the guns. That would be generally carried on the trailer of the tray of the field piece of the gun, on
top of the, where the platform was, on there, some had limbers.
So once you landed in Lae, what did you have to do from there?
When through this jungle to get there, to get this gun position, but then after Lae fell we had weeks off and then we went to Finschhafen, another amphibious operation. We landed on the beach there and we got into the jungle again and we got to an airfield, an old airfield
where we were able to put the guns and we were able to stay there most of the time and cover the whole complete action of Lae and then moved to another area , a plantation where we could shoot right around. Because artillery didn’t have to do much movement until we had to move to on the way up to CO which was on the Huon Peninsula.
Whereabouts did you have to get the gun to?
Well first of all we had to get the gun into a small plantation there. Everybody had to get their guns in, but that’s, but that’s the individual hardship for every troop, they all had to find a place where they could put the gun, four guns, then had to clear a path to be able to fire the guns then to be able to move the guns, had to be able to find the tracks and be able to move the guns along the tracks. Unfortunately
because after they got over the first couple of rivers , they could cover Lae from where they were. And then just fire from there, go for the whole complete semi-circle.
So what were you firing at, at this stage?
One of the FPO set, Japanese strong points or guns, machine gun posts, or where ever the OPO, observation officer found a target, he would then direct the guns on.
You mentioned that one of the most worrying things was that there was clearance for the guns. Did it occur that there were casualties amongst the troops because of the guns?
It did on some occasions, yes, but not so much because of the clearance , it was because of the situation of the infantry and where the Japanese were, in the tall trees. Sometimes you allowed for the tallest tree and a round
and it was touch and go for along while and there was a lot of close shooting artillery protecting the infantry. Finschhafen fell fairly early. But there was, it was the troops around Jevivanang [?] and those other areas where they were very hotly disputed by the Japanese. They had a lot more troops there,
and MacArthur had all the information indicated. And all the American intelligence was very, very bad.
What did you know about the status of the Japanese at that point, how the Japanese were going at that point?
Well they were still, they had been thrown back at Kokoda, they’d been thrown back at Milne Bay, actually everybody was very confident, we’d taken Lae.
There was something going on at Rabaul, but no, we were quite happy apart form the little bit of trouble we had at Finschhafen. Took a long while to get reinforcements. But some, the high command, the Blameys [Australian general] and the MacArthurs [American general] had their problems.
They said they couldn’t supply shipping to get the shipping to get the troops out, been well recorded by various historians.
So when you are on the ground and you know there are not enough men, how does that change the way?
Doesn’t change it, it just makes you angry and more or less determined that you will win. Just a, just a very, very hard campaign that shouldn’t have happened. Could
Could you explain what the scene was like on the ground?
The scene, well you didn’t have any actual scene because you were in the jungle. Between the infantry fighting was going on between say fifteen and twenty yards, you’re in the jungle, and when a head popped up you took a shot. And when one of our guys put their head up at the wrong time he was shot at. That’s it.
We’d have an observation officer with them, living with them. He would take his register and he would bring down the fire, very close shooting, possibly twenty-five yards, fifty yards wait for our own troops or the Japanese. That was all done by the OPO troop which would be an OPO,
hack and sig, might be two or three sigs, with a line.
So I’ve been told, I wasn’t with the infantry. But that’s one of their methods of protection. We were just, the guns men, each gun would have somebody awake in the night. And would make sure the either guy in the other pit was awake, with a gun. Nothing ever got bad and you could hear the outfits when, well one gun crew,
one troop was firing over another troop , the Japanese advancing on them because they’d counter attacked around the back so we were firing at them with sights with the twenty-five pounder, the charge one, and that was just around Sattelberg before Sattelberg was taken. When Sattelberg was taken it made a world of difference because troops in the infantry could then advance across against the ridge, through Wareo
and they already had Pabu Hill, which we then went up the coast after about two weeks, fighting there. And right through to Sio and then we were pulled out of Sio and back to Australia. Then the [UNCLEAR] trained and more training and more reinforcement. Then we went to
Labuan – or Labuan and across to British Borneo.
In terms of the tactics that you had to use in the jungle to move the guns around and to move forward, how did that work, compared to the desert?
Well in the desert you were a set piece you had gun tractors, either quads or forwards,
but in the jungle you had to work on the premise that you couldn’t have one standing vehicle you had to have multitudes of vehicles, ranging from jeeps, sometimes a jeep could tow, if you had a track narrow enough for a jeep to go you could pull a gun with a jeep otherwise you pulled it with man power. And sometimes you had a bulldozer you could use, sometimes you had a gun sector you could use. It was, you had to have the ability to have the right equipment
at the right time, to move the weapon. Otherwise it had to be done by man power.
What sort of rations did you have at this point?
Mainly bully beef and biscuits, sometimes dry rations, what they termed beef that you could soak in water. Sometimes there was potato powder, egg powder, but mainly bully beef.
What kind of illnesses did men get?
Dengue fever, scrotitis, malaria BT [benign tertian], cerebral malaria, which was a bad one, scrub typhus was a bad one. That’s about, malaria mainly, the bulk of the troops.
So you came back to Australia and you were in Ravenshoe, what were you doing there?
We trained for about twelve months there because they had an idea, the Americans, that they might need us at the Philippines. The two Australian divisions, but they decided then were going OK and they didn’t need us so we went back to jungle warfare
Could you explain about Ravenshoe, what the set up at Ravenshoe was?
Ravenshoe had more or less a complete jungle, there were gum trees and undergrowth, been established by the 7th Division I think. But it made it very, very boring,
before the guns could get set up and the OP [observation post] troops went forward with the British troops. But as soon as they went forward into the troops, the four point two mortars weren’t required. I think it was more open warfare than closed warfare. You could use vehicles off the beach, we went ashore in navigators which are tracked amphibious vehicles, right up on the beach and then we
unloaded the guns from the elevators and then hooked on the tractors and went straight in there. Then we just used the tractors all the way to the edge of the airport and then we could cover the whole of the island from there. But when we got to British Borneo we had to use the river to transport the guns because once again we were back into true jungle.
Mr Widdows can you explain where you travelled to from Australia in preparation for the landings at Labuan and Borneo?
We stayed at Morotai and we were placed outside the perimeter, there were about eight hundred Japs [Japanese] there but the Yanks, you had to, to go into the perimeter, every point
Why did you feel like poor cousins?
Well the, they were living inside and we were living outside on the perimeter on bully beef and that. We were living in tents, in the jungle, you know primitive conditions, showers,
And what sort of movies did you watch?
All the, ones at that time, I can’t remember now, Betty Harlow was it, Sonya Sands, that era, too long ago.
On Morotai what sort of modifications did you have to make to your landing equipment and your artillery?
Nothing, we were ready, the only thing we were waiting on was the twenty-five pounders. We didn’t get the twenty-five pounders so we were going to use the American mountain guns. So we were completely trained really, only waiting for suitable tides and suitable
So what sort of craft do you travel on from Morotai to Labuan?
LSD [landing ship, dock], that’s a big one and the Alligators [landing vehicle] are packed in there and when it’s time to join the waves the LSD lets the big front down at sea and you drive them off with the tracks, hit the water and it engages, the Yank driving the Alligator,
Can you explain the barrage?
That’s from the navy ships, yeah. Just a group of cruisers and destroyers firing on the land, just where you are going to land, in the landing area, just to make sure that all the strong posts near there are washed out.
people that direct the barges in on the beach and you have people where the artillery training who direct the barrage on the beach, and they’re in radio contact with all the ships to a master, the top ship and they cease fire and they all cease fire, that’s it, then you’re dependent on a land call from
the shore to the ship. So if you want further fire directed or by that time the landed artillery probably are enough to cope with the problem. So you don’t need the navy anymore, they can go home.
probably pretty well. But it wasn’t well defended until we got to it, we’d taken all the island apart from the pocket, the position they called the pocket, where all the Japs were all gathered there, it was a bit like a small football field, but with caves and well dug in, took a lot of artillery a lot of air
strikes to drive them out. But eventually it was captured, without too much loss of life.
bad landing was at Tarakan which the 26th Brigade had, on the island of Tarakan where they struck bit of a swell but also they went in on the, all the beach photographs had been taken on a high tide and they went in on a lower tide and all these defences didn’t show in the high tide but they showed when the barges went in.
Some got impaled on those, really, you know it was reasonable depth of water.
at the airstrip, what sort of enemy fire was there, where did it come from?
Only retreating infantry and mortar fire, that’s all, but it was taken very quickly I think, on the first day, day plus twelve hours.
required to move over to Borneo and cleaned out the pocket and then we fired across to the straight there to Borneo. One battalion went over there and the other battalion followed. Then we went over by barge and then it was so dense there that we used the river to transport the guns up. So the barge would pull into a bank, we’d move the guns off the, onto the bank and into a firing position, clear a
path of fire and that’d be it. Until we got to the township of Beaufort, and then we’d clear an arc of fire, and we stayed there outside the township until the war finished, that was all. The whole of Borneo was a fairly easy simple campaign for us. There were a couple of bad spots that’s all.
family situation. Whether your brother had been in the 8th Div or something like that, then there might have been some reaction. But I never heard of any. There was one thing I did hear of, I think it was right but, apparently when they were shipping some Japanese POW over the Padas River [?], the barge either pulled away early, or some Japs tried to
jump off and two or three Japs were killed there. Who was at fault I wouldn’t know.
What did the cages look like?
Well you’ve seen a POW compound, with high fences and wire around the top, with century boxes all round. You seem them, those German ones, same like that sort of thing. With a guard house outside
And what sort of conditions were the Japanese in?
most of them weren’t in bad condition at all, the ones we dropped in, because I’d been living in the high country, they were different from the New Guinea Japanese because towards the beginning the new Guinea Japanese were pretty,
pretty sick, they were run down and very thin, but these were pretty well in pretty good condition. Borneo was a pretty good country, lots of vegetables and things like that. They could raid the peoples farms and vegetables strips and yams were plentiful, and there were chickens running around and they knocked off a few chickens so,
they did reasonably well, they were in pretty good condition when we took charge of them.
Given that there were really strict rules about surrendering why do you think they were so compliant at that stage?
Well I think it had been explained to them what had happened and the Japanese had capitulated, so I guess they realised, what could they do? Surrender, I don’t know, I fail to understand the Japanese mind.
So where were you, what were you doing specifically in Borneo when you heard about the atomic bombing, that Japan had surrendered?
We were just, still fighting a war. The Japanese troops in East Borneo, Papua New Guinea, in the mountains, hills and we were trying to get them
So what happened then to you?
So because I was single although I was original, it all went on the points system and married people got privileges which I guess was right, but I didn’t get, I think it was the end of November,
spent time on Morotai, no it was end of October, spent some time in Morotai and then we came home on the Kanimbla, lovely trip on the Kanimbla. Got ah, called on Brisbane, got taken off there and then we went to a camp and went down, travelled by train to Melbourne. Discharged in December at Camp Bell which were the old Royal Park.
So what did you do once you got to Brisbane did you have an opportunity to celebrate the end of the war?
Yeah we went on leave, we were given leave, went to the hotel had a few beers, went to the pictures that night. Came back and next morning we got on a train and went out, that was it.
Well I went to along to the medical officer at Royal Park and any complaints, told him about my hearing, and he said, “Well that’s normal,” told him about the pains in my stomach, “That’s normal, you’ve had six years in the army.” But he said, “You can go and have some tests,” so gave me some tests, but they didn’t find anything out because they didn’t have the right equipment. I found out later on that I had ulcers and they’ve
Did you have a girlfriend at this stage?
Not properly, I was never engaged, but I had one before I joined and we parted friendly and took out one when I came back from Middle East just for once I think and we renewed it when I came back from the islands, went out a few times then we
started going out when I came back from the war.
What were those first few months like after the war?
I think they were alright if you kept yourself active. I got straight back into cricket and work and resumed other activities, that was about it. We had a re-union a get-together from the unit, but basically we just, took twelve months to settle down properly I guess,
the only ones I knew who had hardships were the ones that had marital problems and that was in our unit. I guess there were others that had them but didn’t talk about them. Because the unit came from all over Victoria. They were scattered from the south to Gippsland
to the west, pretty big area, although Victoria is a pretty small state compared with others. I guess you know some people had them but didn’t want to talk about them. Some died relatively young, there might have been a reason, they kept everything to themselves, just build the pressure up inside, who knows?
What does Anzac day mean to you?
it means remembrance to the people, not only passed on in service but passed on since. Renewing again with mates who make a special effort to come in from the country, or inter-state. That’s on World War II. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been to Gallipoli and I’ve seen the situation there you also think about Gallipoli and France I’ve been through a number of cemeteries in France.
you go overseas, I guess that’s their job. They got to be willing to do it, if not they can always get out. The ones I’ve spoken to who have come back they’re quite happy. From the gulf war, haven’t spoken to anybody, spoken a lot form Vietnam from the Gulf War in ’91, but I haven’t met anybody back from the recent thing.