Archive number: 1799
Preferred name: Ken
Date interviewed: 15 April, 2004
9th Division Signals
B Corps Signals
You are listening to the interview audio
If you’d like to give us just a brief introductory statement of your life story starting from when you were born?
I was born at a suburb of Newcastle called Wallsend, which is in New South Wales, on the First of November 1917. My early education was at a local school called Plattsburg.
Then I went to Maitland Boys’ High School. Completed my education to the 4th year. In those days we called it Intermediate. I don’t know what’s it’s called now, but it was the 3rd year of high school. And then I left school. This was the Depression time and jobs were very hard to get. So for a while I worked in a factory. And then my father who was in the Regular Army at the same time, stationed at the camp at Rutherford near Maitland, was transferred back to Sydney near Liverpool.
I moved down there. I had various odd jobs before I joined the Regular Army myself and I joined that in 1937. My father and grandfather were both in the Regular Army. My grandfather served in the Boer War. My father served in the Second World War and my grandfather served in the Second World War and they both remained in the Regular Army. So I surmised there’s a sort of family
interest anyway in the Regular Army and I joined the Regular Army. I think 1936 I joined up.
You said your grandfather served in the Second World War? Not the First World War?
Ah, First World War. I’m sorry. Thank you. Yes, you’re right, First World War. Yes, he retired in 1934. My father was in the Second World War. So we had continuous service through the wars from the Boer War to the Second World War.
So I joined the Regular Army and I was stationed in Sydney after I did my initial training. And then I volunteered for the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] when the war started but because we were Regular Army they wouldn’t allow us to join. And then in May 1940 I was called into the adjutant’s office and told there was a vacancy in
6th Division Signals as a warrant officer – I was a sergeant at this time – and was I still interested? I said, “Yes.” Well that was on the Friday. He said, “Report out to Victoria Barracks for enlistment on the Monday,” which I did. I joined up, had two days with their unit and then left my wife on the Wednesday and embarked on the Friday and sailed on the Saturday. I don’t think there’d be too many in the AIF that weren’t in the AIF and then within a week were sailing. Anyhow that’s part of
history. We sailed for the Middle East with the second part of the 6th Division Signals. But because Italy came into the war, they wouldn’t risk the big ships, the Queen Mary and other large ships on the convoy, so they diverted us to England. So we were in England for six months. And then we were reclassified as 9th Division Signals. They formed the 9th Division in September of that year based on the troops that were in England and the remainder would have come from
Australia. So we were fully equipped in England and my job was to get the unit equipped. More of that later I guess. So after six months in England we returned to the Middle East and then in a very quick time we were back up in the desert and into Tobruk, served in Tobruk throughout the siege and then back to Palestine into Syria. A little time in Syria and then
back to El Alamein. Served in Alamein right through the campaigns there, the two major campaigns, then back home. We were sent to the Atherton Tablelands and trained in jungle warfare, which was something different to what we’d been doing. And then I was with the unit when we went over there to Lae and Finschhafen and campaigned through the Huon Peninsula area up through New Guinea. I then returned to Australia and did officer training. Commission.
I returned to 9th Division Signals as a lieutenant in one of the field regiment sigs [signals] sections and they were training them to go to Borneo but, before they went to Borneo, I was reposted to Bougainville to B Corps Signals in Bougainville, where I served until the end of the war. And again, although I had the points to come home somebody decided that having been Regular Army, that I was transferred to Rabaul.
So I did a long stint up there too. Returned to Australia to attend the School of Signals and then was retained as an instructor. I then joined the staff of the Director of Signals. And after a while I was sent overseas for two years training, eighteen months in Germany and six months in England at the School of Signals in England. Came back and served in various staff appointments in
Sydney and Melbourne and I was retired in 1964. After I left the army, I had a very small time with what they call the Hospitals and Charities Commission of that time, which was a body that was controlling the hospitals and the charities as the name implies. I wasn’t very happy there and I suddenly got a job with BHP [Broken Hill Proprietary] in the Property Department. I remained with BHP until
I retired. And after I retired, I still retained an interest in the army and I got involved with the handicapped area. I was there for a long time with Alkira, which is the centre for intellectually handicapped in Box Hill, president and so on there. That’s a brief run-down.
So I had two careers I suppose you could say: Regular Army career, if you include the AIF period, because it was continuous service; and then I went over there to BHP and did about seventeen years there.
We’ll move back towards your youth. If you could firstly tell us about your parents’ backgrounds please? Your mum and your dad?
My father was in the Regular Army. He was an engineer,
Royal Australian Engineers. His skills were carpentry. He was a carpenter. And he was in charge of the camp at Rutherford. In other words, he maintained that and had it ready for CMF [Citizens’ Military Force] camps when they came in each annual camp. So he was up there for some time, I can’t remember the exact figures, before moving to Liverpool where he had a similar job
maintaining the camp at Liverpool. During the war, he had various jobs. I know he was down at Cowra building the accommodation for the prisoners of war there. He moved around a bit. He served throughout his whole career in the army. My mother was just a housewife. In that sense, when I say just, she was a housewife. She had no occupation.
They didn’t go to work in those days. I had a pretty happy life. I had one brother, that’s all. He didn’t join the army but he became an electrician, served with BHP and went to Mount Isa and did different jobs up there. Our life was based around the military.
What about your religious upbringing? Did you have much of a religious education?
Well as much as we had in those days. Went to Sunday School.
The problem was, where the camp was at Maitland we were about three miles out of the town. So we were reasonably isolated because we didn’t have much transport. We had to catch a local bus, which only ran twice a day sort of thing, so that I didn’t go to much religious education at that time. But when I’d visit my grandparents I used to always go to the Sunday School there. So I had a religious upbringing without
being over religious. We were Methodist so I suppose you could say we had a Methodist upbringing. Which is a pretty sober sort of one. But I used to go to church in Maitland. When I got older I’d meet my mates and we’d go to church of a Sunday night. But no, not a serious religious upbringing just a general one.
You wouldn’t consider yourself as (UNCLEAR elective) or anything?
No just a general one. I’m not a religious person.
Australia had a rather small permanent military establishment in both wars. How long did he serve? From what time to what time?
Who my grandfather?
Well he was in England. My grandfather was in Gallipoli but my father served in England.
But he was in the Australian Permanent Army, your father?
Yeah but he joined the AIF. He transferred to the AIF. You had to volunteer. They were all volunteers, same
as I did. I was Regular Army. I had to volunteer for that AIF and be accepted by them. It wasn’t just automatic. As I said earlier, when the war started I volunteered for the AIF but they wouldn’t allow us to go because they considered the job ht we were doing was important enough not to let us go. If I might add, at that time Sydney was installing defences around North and South Head of Sydney Harbour and down at Cape Banks, which is to the
south of Sydney. And they were installing 9.2-inch guns, which are very big guns. And I was in the group that was providing the communications; installing communications for these guns. But I suppose I was a pretty important job at that time. And that’s why they wouldn’t let us go.
With you father’s career though, did he remain in the
Permanent Army even in the Second World War as well?
Well they joined the AIF. Yes, they stayed in the…
This is the Second World War, your father? So he was in the Permanent Army still at that stage?
So he wasn’t in the VDC [Volunteer Defence Corps]?
No, no, no… Regular Army.
What rank did he rise up to?
He was a warrant officer class 1. My grandfather was a major when he retired. He was on Gallipoli.
Got some notes there. Once he was mentioned in one of the commander’s things. He served in the Boer War as well. He had quite a long career.
Now your grandfather, was he with the Australian contingent in the Boer War?
Yes. I can’t tell you what unit, I don’t know. But obviously it was probably the New South Wales contingent. He was living in New South Wales.
New South Wales unit. I can’t tell you.
And your father’s war service in the First World War? Which theatres did he serve in?
He served in England and France. Yeah, that was all. And then he came back to Australia.
He was an infantryman I take it?
No, engineer. Grandfather and my father both Royal Australian Engineers, sappers as they called them.
How did that influence your upbringing?
Well as I said earlier it rubs off on you. Because you’re living in a military atmosphere I guess. Also, it’s a point to remember although it’s not a predominant factor, is that it was the time of difficulty getting jobs. It was the Depression. And the army was a secure job and I liked the thought of it. And it was pretty selective
in that time. You had to apply and have a medical and be selected. It wasn’t just a matter of going along and joining up. You had to be selected from a group that went along. I suppose there might have been about thirty that went down and did our recruit training in the whole of Australia when I went down. They’d just started to enlarge the permanent force. They were called Permanent Relief Force in those days not Regular Army as it is now and they were from all over Australia. There was about thirty, I guess went down to Queenscliff to do our training.
And at the end of the course you were posted throughout Australia. I was posted back to Sydney. Then I got into the signals. There was no regular signals corps in the Australian Army; you were part of the engineers. We were part of the engineers originally. We were thrown off by them when they became a separate corps. So within the 2/40th Company
Royal Australian Engineers, we had the signals component and I became what they called a signal mechanist sergeant in the signal component although I was engineers. That was while we were training and did the installations, the signals side of the communications for these 9.2 guns, which were being installed.
Did your father ever talk about his experiences in the war? Or your grandfather?
No. Same as I don’t talk much about it
either. No, you don’t talk much about it.
Why do you think your father and grandfather didn’t talk about it?
I can’t answer that. I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t show enough interest. I don’t know.
Did you ever ask?
I don’t know whether I did or not. I can’t remember. It’s a long, long time ago. No I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. I won’t fake an answer.
So Anzac Day, I trust, would be a rather important
event in your family? In the 1930s, that would have been quite a big event as well.
Yes. But there weren’t places where they had big marches. We didn’t live in Sydney. But Dad didn’t march and I didn’t march of course. I’ve marched in Melbourne since the Second World War and maintained interest. Last year my son and grandson marched with us. Which was
quite a thrill for them and for me. they were quite impressed by the parade. And my grandson made a comment, which I thought was interesting. He felt like an impostor when he was marching along there, getting the applause from the people. I said to him: “What they’re cheering is not you. It’s the medals you’re wearing; of your grandfather’s.” And that sort of helped him to appreciate the day. But he was most impressed by the march. So that’s interesting, that a young
person, he’s seventeen… a young person’s view of the march. And my son who has never shown a great interest in the army, he was most impressed with the march too. The whole atmosphere and everything. It was good for them to come along.
Was Empire an important concept to you and your family at that time?
Yes it was. Yes. See in our day, England was the Mother country. And all your
education, your publicity was directed to England. America didn’t feature very much at all. All your history was English history. You could rattle off who the kings were and the Magna Carta. And when England was in trouble our thoughts immediately were to help them. And I think that was a general conception. It certainly was mine. If England was in trouble then we should go and help them. And the Empire was a good thing
that seemed to handle the problems very well, unlike some of these situations now where they just leave them to their own trouble and then you get all this fighting between the various tribes or whatever it might be, the factions within the country. But no, Empire was something we were brought up to respect and I certainly did, and it certainly influenced my decision to go to the AIF. If England was in trouble then they needed us and it was a simple as that.
At school how important were these concepts? Were they constantly drilled into you?
I wouldn’t say they were drilled into us but it was part of your education. And the kids now, because of television and everything, they know more about American history then English history and in Australia they don’t teach Australian history at all. So when I talk to my grandchildren about some Australian aspect of history, they don’t know anything about it. Ask them something about the
battle of something-or-other in America and they can give you the information because it’s all television. But not having television in our day, you had to depend on your education and your books, and it was directed towards the Empire and all it achieved and the history of England was a part of our history. And
our education was based on that, yeah. That’s what they taught and we accepted it. The other thing you’ve got to remember, we were isolated in Australia. You didn’t have radio and all those sorts of things, early days I’m talking about. You had to depend on your newspapers. And people didn’t travel and you’d depend on what you read. And we were closely affiliated with
England, the history, because we were taught it. And I believe it was right. So that when the war started there was a natural reaction that you’d want to help. And that’s why volunteers were pretty good early in the piece and right through I think.
Can you tell us about your education and schooling?
The schools you went to and what sort of system?
Oh, gee. You’re pressing the button hard now. That’s a long time ago. I went to a primary school at Plattsburg. That’s only a small school in Wallsend. And when my father was posted to Rutherford I went to the local primary school in Maitland and then to the high school, Maitland
Boys’ High School. Oh, it was a general one. I did languages and I don’t know that I can explain much about it. In those days it was a standard education. Always regarded high school as a stepping-stone to the better occupations and you aimed to go to high school. A lot of people didn’t. You’d go to the technical colleges and learn trades. But the general concept was if you wanted to
sort of get into the business world or something like that or a profession or public service, you’d need a high school education, and I guess that’s why I went in that area. I was hoping to get into that area. That’s about all I can say. Just a general education. A couple of languages, Latin and French, and the usual sciences. Standard education at that time.
How did the Depression affect your family?
not quite as bad as a lot of people because my father being in the Regular Army, he had a regular job. The pay wasn’t terribly high but at least he had an income. And being on the camp in Rutherford, he had a house, what they called the quarters in those days. He lived there. But it wasn’t easy. Money was tight. The camp was thrown open actually to people who were unemployed, to
try to give them housing. And the main buildings in the camp were galvanised iron long buildings, which were the stores when the CMF came into camp. The CMF themselves would be under canvas. And they allowed them to come in and live there. No, it was tight everywhere. Didn’t have much money but we got by. Dad was never unemployed so we always had some income, so it didn’t affect us
quite as bad. But on a personal basis it was very hard to get a job when I left school. I finished up in a factory for a while at Maitland. When I went to Liverpool, it was extremely hard to get a job. I went around various factories and anywhere you could get a job. I had a mate who had a small vineyard and I managed to get a few days’ work over there. So it was tough and it was a bit demoralising when you couldn’t get in work. And in those days there was no
social security assistance. No money. Your parents had to keep you. So it wasn’t easy. So it was very hard to get a job. I rode a pushbike all around Parramatta trying to get any job but they were extremely hard to get. Very demoralising. So when I joined the army, I was very happy. That was the tail end of the Depression I guess. And in those days,
once you enlisted, unless you did something wrong, you were in there for life. Nowadays of course they’re on set periods. In those days it was like the Public Service, you were in until you retired. So having had a tough time in the Depression and having an opportunity of being in the Regular Army and having a job that you had for life and income was very satisfying after having a tough time,
yeah. That’s about my sum-up of the Depression. Not quite as bad as some families but reasonably tough just the same.
Where did you live at the time? Was it Maitland?
At the time of the Depression? At Rutherford the military camp. It’s near Maitland; about three miles out of Maitland, and then I was back down in Liverpool, which was a big camp. It’s not now. But Liverpool was a big camp where the
CMF used to go into camp and so on. It was just across the river from the railway station.
Was that area affected by the Depression badly? Could you see a lot of sustenance workers or swagmen?
Certainly did at Rutherford. Used to see them coming along the tracks with their swags on their backs. And as I said, the camp was thrown open to people that had no home. We had whole families there, children and all. It was very, very primitive conditions they were living in. It was just a big
hut and open sort of stoves where they had to cook. It wasn’t a very good atmosphere but at least it was somewhere where they could go. They found it rather depressing though, not getting a job and nothing happening, just there. Used to play cricket all day or something like that just to try and amuse themselves. It must have been a very despondent time for them. But you’d see the swaggies going along
that road all the time. Yes. I think they used to get some handout of money or coupons or something for food but not very much. Life was pretty tough for those people. Fortunately we weren’t as badly off because we had some income coming in all the time even though pay had been reduced a bit in those days because of the Depression. But
you had a regular income and that was important.
It’s been described in a book called ‘The Broken Years’, the Depression years. Would you agree with that? That’s how it affected people around that you knew, to some extent?
I think it would have broken up families because it was so despairing. Rightly or wrongly, certainly in those days, it was the expected role of the male
to make the income and maintain his family. Well, they just couldn’t get a job and I think they became very despondent in these conditions. You can’t get a job and you try everywhere and you’re knocked back. You’re poorly clothed because you’re really dependant upon handouts. Your whole psychological approach to life is different. It must have imposed problems on the families.
The wives trying to get by with very little money for food or handouts and so on. The whole atmosphere was very, very difficult. People don’t know it now. My granddaughter said to me one day, she was having a tough job getting a job, “You don’t know what it’s like grandpa, when you can’t get a job.” Well of course that gave me an opportunity to open up a bit and tell her how life was in our days when you couldn’t get a job and you didn’t get any
sustenance from the Government like they do now. No, it was a tough time. Very tough. And I was very pleased when I joined the Regular Army and had a regular income. And I enjoyed the army life. I really did. I have no regrets about having joined the Regular Army. Right throughout my career I had good jobs and I enjoyed it.
How old were you when you joined the army?
I was nineteen I think.
And how old were you when you left school?
Seventeen I think; sixteen or seventeen.
So what year are we talking about when you joined up?
1936. Or was it ’37? Oh gosh I don’t know.
So it was at least a couple of years minimum before the war started?
Yes, about two years. You mean when I joined the army? Yes about two years. They had the emergency when we were mobilised and sent up to Newcastle to man the defences of Newcastle the year before the actual war started. When Hitler was causing trouble in Europe and they thought there might have been trouble here, we were mobilised and sent up to Newcastle. That would be the year before; that would be ’36.
I must have joined before that then. Somewhere about that roughly.
You said you were looking for jobs when you were seventeen. That’s quite an unusual age for people to be leaving school at that time. You said you went to high school?
I went to high school, yes. I did 4th Year, which is one before VCE [Victorian Certificate of Education]. I don’t know what they call it these days.
It would be Year 11, wouldn’t it? Ten would it? I’m not sure. Oh, I’d had enough of education. I wasn’t very brilliant at school and thought it was time to get out. My father got me a job in a little factory in Maitland. It was a factory that produced bee-keeping equipment and I went there until I went back to Liverpool. That’s
when I found it very hard to get a job, in Liverpool. But in those days you would be prepared to take anything, anything at all. As I said earlier, family got no income from the government and you’re a seventeen-year-older and you’ve got no income, it’s hard to get any job at all. Anything to get you a pound in those days, or a shilling.
Even in the late ‘30’s?
Until basically the war started?
Yes. That’s why a lot of people joined the AIF.
They didn’t have a good job at the end of the Depression and it was an outlet for them. Also, you’ve got to remember, people had never travelled. Shipboard travel made it impossible really on a couple of grounds. One is the time factor: it took a month to go to England by boat and a month home. Plus the cost. So people never travelled. Not like now, where young people say they can fly to England and have a couple of weeks there. So it was an exciting
prospect to see a foreign country. So that was another aspect why people joined it. And those other aspects I mentioned. There were three or four factors involved in it. But that was the primary one: it was a chance to see an overseas country. A lot of us had never had the chance and thought, “Oh, this is beaut.” You never thought of getting killed or anything like that.
That was just a side issue. You didn’t think of that.
It’s interesting that you say that because having had your parents’ generation go through a very, very bloody war that no one actually thought that there may be a possible chance of dying? No one gave great thought to that?
You don’t think of that. If you did, you’d never go.
I think also I felt that if I was a Regular Army person and there was a war that I should go. I’m not trying to ego myself or anything, I’m just stating the fact of what I believed. And I believed that we needed to go and help England. They were in trouble and we needed to go. That was my philosophy of life.
You’re saying it was a sense of duty for you?
Yes. Also I’d been training as a soldier and I thought
I should contribute if they wanted me. I volunteered and that’s all I could do if they wouldn’t let me go, until this other opportunity came along, which I grasped with two hands. I don’t know, that was my attitude anyway. That’s how it should be.
And before you joined the army were you involved in the militia in any way?
Yes I was in the militia.
I was with 2 Division Signals at Moore Park in Sydney, down behind Victoria Barracks. I used to travel in from Liverpool once a week whatever night it was. I think it was Monday but I couldn’t be sure. Yeah. I was in there for about eighteen months and that might have helped when I joined the army too, having had that. I can’t tell you why if you’re going to ask me why did I join it. I don’t know why. And I don’t know why I joined Signals. There must have been some reason.
Whether one of my mates might have been in it or something. I can’t remember. But I did have eighteen months before I transferred to the Regular Army.
What we would term as the Reserves now, did that militia at that time provide accommodation and food at certain periods of training?
Oh you went into camp.
When you went into camp?
Yes, you had a week in camp.
And you had weekend bivouacs. You’d go in for a week and only Saturday and Sunday. It might entail going out and having practice on a rifle range or something like that. Much the same as it is now. They go into camp once a year and they do weekend bivouacs periodically. I don’t think it’s changed. Yes we did that. And I was in signals so we did signals work, based on the divisional structure.
Would you say a lot of people joined up out of necessity, because of the Depression?
Yes, I believe a lot did.
The militia, that is?
No, the Regular Army. AIF, sorry.
Before the war started there were quite a few people who were in the militia?
I don’t know. It was just an interest. You got a small payment for it too. But oh, look it was a different attitude in those days.
It was a thing to join the army and help throughout the country and so on.
So the chaps on sustenance, would they be likely to be in the militia? Obviously it gave certain advantages; food, things to do…
Oh, you wouldn’t get much, say. You were only doing it in camp. No I don’t think it would have affected many that way. Getting back to the worst of the Depression, a lot of them had to leave home to
try and get a job. They would just track around because they might get an odd job at an orchard or something like that. A few pounds. A little bit of money. You’d have to track around trying to find day-to-day jobs so they wouldn’t be able to join the CMF anyway, because they were mobile in a sense. They had to look for wherever work was.
And this was commonplace? That people had to travel?
Yes. Not a lot of people. Some had to.
Talking about the area where we were anyway. And see, if they couldn’t pay rent on the houses they would have to go into the camps like we were throwing open. The camps were open to them to go and live as a family group.
Can you tell us about the permanent army at that time and the training you received before the war started?
Yes. It wasn’t a very big force.
As I mentioned there was no Signals. So we joined the RAE [Royal Australian Engineers] and we were sent to Queenscliff for six months’ training, at the Queenscliff Barracks where the Staff College used to be. There’s another group there now. And we did engineer training: how to make trenches and man the defence electric lights.
Across the [Port Phillip] bay, there are defence electric lights, big lights, which are there to shine on any shipping that was going in or out and have them identify themselves. The guns were associated with the lights so that if there was any trouble the guns were there. We used to do training on those. Go and sit in those for hours in the cold, manning these lights. Used to do that in Sydney as well when we went up to Sydney. That was part of our training. We used to go across
from Queenscliff across to Point Nepean. We had barracks over at Point Nepean. They’ve been demolished now. And there was an engine room there where they provided the power for the lights. Big kerosene-driven engines. Single cylinder. Big things that used to go ‘chunk-a-chunk, chunk-a-chunk’. That’s the rate they worked at. So we did six months training in Queenscliff. Pretty solid
training. We were pretty fit. We were young fellas. And you had to do certificates of education in the army to get certain levels of promotion, so we did some of those courses, did examinations, and then at the end of that we were posted to various states. I was posted back to Sydney to Chowder Bay, which is near George’s Heights.
The engineers had water transport in those days and I was posted up there, and that’s where we got into the signals part and were involved in the installation of the communications for the 9.2 guns that were being installed around Sydney for defence.
How big was the establishment all up? The permanent army before the war?
I couldn’t tell you. It wasn’t much.
1,000 or something like that?
Oh, something like that. It wasn’t very big.
I suppose we had about one hundred in Chowder Bay. Artillery had a few more. They had more areas, working with the guns. At Queenscliff there were guns there and North Head and South Head, Cape Banks and there were some in Queensland. But it was starting to grow at that time because of all the trouble starting in Europe. I think they realised that had to get a force here to be available if
When did you start to realise that there was a likelihood of war in Europe?
Well, there was plenty of publicity in the paper. The media was telling us. And by this time there was radio so we were getting the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] transmissions. We were aware of what the
situation was. And also the year before the war started we mobilised, so we knew there was something going to happen. I think we were pretty well aware of the situation.
So it was of no surprise to you when the declaration took place?
No, I think it was inevitable. Left it too late I think. Should have stopped him earlier, when you read all the history.
Interviewee: Kenneth Pantlin Archive ID 1799 Tape 02
Can you tell us what happened to you when war was declared? Where were you that particular day?
I remember very well. It was a Friday night and I was living in the barracks at that time – I wasn’t married – living in the barracks provided for us at George’s Heights. And I was out shopping for Friday night
when the radio of some shop or store broadcast the Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies’ speech. I remember it well when he declared war – about 9 o’clock I think, something like that, it might have been eight – and knew that was going to change the world. Change Australia anyway.
Did you think at that time even remotely that there was a possibility of reverting to a World War I type scenario
of trench warfare and high casualties?
No I don’t think so. I think we’d all hoped they’d learned their lessons from the First World War. You know, that trench warfare and that carnage and the conditions that they fought under and everything. I think that everybody hoped that that wouldn’t happen again. You’ve got to remember too that the war had become very mobile and even the German
attacks on the countries which they occupied, it was all blitzkrieg tactics. Mobility and that was the answer to everything, and you couldn’t visualise them going back to static warfare like they had in the First World War, because the whole thinking, the whole training was directed towards mobility. The aircraft had improved
so much from the First World War. That was very primitive. So that was another aspect that you had, but that would tend to make you think that they wouldn’t go back to that type of warfare. No I don’t think there was any thought that it would go back to those types of conditions.
What were the changes in training or regimes that were passed
on from the First World War that led you to believe that war would be more mobile?
Well the equipment was directed towards mobility.
Well you had radio, which gave you greater flexibility in movement. We were still in the horses stage when I was in the CMF. When you were putting out cable, you still had horse-drawn vehicles.
Mainly we were still dependent upon horses. We hadn’t progressed very far in the mechanical transport. There was some but not very much. See, my training in the Regular Army was more based on static defences around Sydney. We were training in how to install the equipment so we weren’t getting into divisional training of mobility. Now the AIF, I don’t know,
I’ve got no knowledge of how they trained. Probably some of your earlier interviews would have told you, when they went to Puckapunyal or something. Because as I told you, I never trained with the unit before they went overseas. I was only on when there became a vacancy for a warrant officer regimental quartermaster sergeant and my other mate as RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major]. We both went, and we didn’t train with the unit at all. Monday I enlisted, Tuesday and Wednesday was getting kitted,
and I saw my family for the last time Wednesday night and we embarked on Friday. So I never trained. When we went to England it was a complete reorganisation because we were a big enough force to be a divisional signals. And they formed what they called Austral Force and we were Signals Austral Force, and units had to throw off people into infantry and so on to make up infantry battalions. So there was a reorganisation
in England. And we had a defence role in England as part of the defence of England. And when we arrived it was just about the time of Dunkirk.
And Austral Force was created as a composite formation in England?
From the troops that went as the Second Flight of 6th Division Signals. Yes. Instead of having three battalions, I think they only had two. See in a division you’ve got nine battalions, sorry three brigades, nine battalions, and they only had two
brigades and six battalions. And some of the units had surplus people, such as signals had extra. They had to become infantry. Say, ASC [Army Service Corps] had to throw off some to infantry and build up a small force.
Basically within a short period of war being declared you joined up for the AIF?
I volunteered as soon as the war started but it was May of 1940 before I was taken into the AIF.
So throughout the war there was always a permanent army
as well as an AIF and a CMF? Was there three structures?
I suppose there was.
So the AIF wasn’t regular. It was only designed for overseas….
Overseas service yes. There was the militia too, you know, because they fought in Kokoda Trail. I’m a little bit vague on it because I was overseas nearly all the time. I had nearly four-and-a-half years overseas all up.
So I’m not quite sure what the structures were in Australia but you still had militia because the militia fought in the Kokoda Trail and some other places. So they didn’t volunteer for overseas service. I can’t answer that.
Can you describe to us what wartime Australia was like? You spent roughly six months in Australia
before the AIF, when you were accepted. What was the activity like in Sydney for instance?
You spent quite a bit of time there didn’t you?
In Sydney, yes, at Chowder Bay, yeah. I can’t recollect very much. My life seemed to be pretty normal being in the army
doing these jobs in North and South Head and so on. We had a role to play and we were doing it. I still went home for weekends and saw my girlfriend. I don’t know, I can’t tell you. Other than that it seemed a pretty normal life for a regular soldier. It didn’t change much for us. We were still doing the same things.
So the war hadn’t really seeped into Australia?
In the sense of an understanding of…
No, I don’t think it really did. There were no coupons and rationing at that stage. That didn’t come until later. I think that’s when it really hit people that life was getting tough and they had rationing, you know, you couldn’t go down to the store and buy a pound of steak or something, you had to get coupons for it. I think it hit them later. Again I don’t know when, because I was overseas. You’ve got to remember I was overseas for three years and ten months.
A lot of changes in Australia happened while I was overseas. So I don’t know. All I knew was from letters from home that life was a bit tougher and things like that. But a lot of the real impositions caused by the war weren’t in before I went away. They were just settling down I think.
Can you tell us about your voyage on the Queen Mary?
Well I told
you it was very sudden, and very impressive because she hadn’t been stripped out at that time. Later on it carried a whole division of Americans across the Atlantic; that’s about twenty thousand people. When we went to England she hadn’t been stripped. So all the normal facilities we had: the swimming pool, Turkish Baths and nice heating conditions and there was no hard
life on board. It was a very good life. The only thing that they did run a bit short on to a degree was food, because she was almost up the Red Sea before Italy was coming into the war and causing trouble around the Red Sea area and they wouldn’t risk these big ships up there. So they had to divert us around to Cape Town. So food was getting a little bit tight and we replenished it in Cape Town.
And the convoy went off…it was quite a big convoy. I can’t remember how many ships but it was probably about ten, heavily escorted of course with the Queen Mary. And the Aquitania was another big one. But as we approached England, I remember, we got word that there were some submarines in the area and we saw some debris on the water. And the skipper of the Queen Mary decided he was going to go on his own. He reckoned he was faster than the convoy was going with the zigzagging.
And he took off on his own and left the convoy. So we got into Greenock in Scotland ahead of the rest of the convoy. So that was quite interesting.
And he was zigzagging?
Oh he would have had to zigzag, oh yes. But he was very fast, the Queen Mary. It was faster than the convoy. It was continually doing this and you’ve got the destroyers going up and down like dogs mustering sheep, protecting us. But other than that, life was very good on board. As I said,
it hadn’t been stripped and conditions were much the same as when it was in normal service.
Did the Queen Mary actually stop in any ports on the way to the Red Sea area?
We stopped at Fremantle, then we went to Durban and Cape Town. They replenished fuel and food. Then we went from there to Greenock in Scotland. So that was the only place that we stopped at.
But you were in the Red Sea when the…?
near the Red Sea. Not quite to the Red Sea but near it. Italy started fighting down the edge of the Red Sea and they wouldn’t risk up there.
Yeah, in the general area along there and they wouldn’t risk the ships up there because it’s a relatively narrow sea and they wouldn’t have manoeuvrability. And with aircraft based on land nearby they wouldn’t risk it. If you lost the Queen Mary and the Aquitania, two big ships
like that, it would be a terrible blow because she carried an enormous number of troops during the war, the Queen Mary. We didn’t have many on board. I don’t know the number but there weren’t very many compared to later on. The whole American division, twenty thousand, used to work on a hot seat basis: a third on deck, a third asleep and a third somewhere else. That’s how they used to work it. It’s only four days you see.
And we left in May and we didn’t get up there until June. About a month I suppose. A big difference, the time.
So how many people were on this voyage on the Queen Mary?
I said I don’t know. I can’t remember. There wouldn’t have been that many compared to later on. I don’t know. I couldn’t guess even, but compared to what it carried later very, very few. As I said, we had very good living conditions and the whole atmosphere
was much the same as it was on a tour. The officers were in beautiful staterooms. And she wasn’t stripped you see. Because later on they stripped it all and they covered in the decks and put bunks and things on the decks. Well none of that was in place when we got on board. No it was good.
What was your rank at this stage?
I was a warrant officer class 2, a regimental quartermaster sergeant. I was responsible
for what you call quartermaster duties: supplies, equipment and that sort of thing. Rationing. Didn’t have to do much on the boat because everything was provided by the ship of course.
How long was the actual voyage?
About a month. 4th of the 5th to the 17th of June; so that’s a little over a month
isn’t it? About six weeks.
So what would you do for entertainment for six weeks?
They formed concert parties. There were boxing contests. Troops used to play two-up a lot, things they weren’t supposed to do but they did. A lot of them made a lot of money out of it too. The one’s who organised it.
Well the signals had a role. They used to help on the communications with the ship up on the bridge. Otherwise just train to keep fit. Get a bit bored. But it was all new to us the trip overseas and it was interesting.
I’ve heard stories that there were actually people thrown overboard?
Never heard of that. There was a bit of trouble in Cape Town. I remember that. They went ashore for leave. There was one place where we had Aboriginal soldiers and they were refused entry to a pub because of the local rules. I think that about wrecked that pub, threw things off the balcony, and that was one of the worst incidents. But that’s just one of the things that happened.
They took offence at the locals not respecting the Aboriginal soldier. No, I’ve never heard of that one.
Did you visit Durban as
well? Was it Durban or Cape Town that you visited?
Both. They moved from Durban around to Cape Town.
Tell us about the stopover in South Africa. What was it like?
Oh, we were given leave but I can’t remember much. We just had a look around the town. That’s about all. I can’t remember detail. I know it was all of us getting to a stage where we’d have to send troops back into Durban to round up the ones that hadn’t come back and then when some would come back they were sent to
round…it was sort of a vicious circle to some degree. I’m exaggerating a bit. But a lot of them had to be rounded up. You see we’d been about three weeks or more without getting any shore leave or things like that, so they kicked their heels up a bit when they got ashore a lot of the soldiers, particularly some of the infantry blokes. They’re pretty tough boys. There was a bit of rounding up to be done.
So the Australian Infantry had quite a reputation I hear?
Oh, tough boys.
In what way? Can you elaborate more on that?
Oh, just tough. Good fighters. Don’t like discipline very much. And that’s it. They’re just tough boys. A lot of them came from stockmen and farmers and that sort of thing so they were pretty tough in themselves. They were fit. You’ve got to remember too,
I only joined a week before we went away. Some of these fellas had been in the army for oh, I don’t know, months and months doing pretty vigorous training so they were pretty fit the whole lot of them. Oh, that was all. They were pretty tough and they proved that throughout the war. Infantry in Tobruk and El Alamein, they were pretty tough. Good soldiers.
I’d like to find out more about this brawl in Cape Town.
Oh, that’s all that I can tell you. That’s all I remember.
It was just the apartheid thing that was on and our fellas took offence at the locals abusing our Aboriginals going in for a drink. Well, these were soldiers as far as they were concerned. They were their mates and they didn’t like that.
So the white Australian soldiers were also equally incensed by this?
Were you there at the time?
No but I heard about it. I was probably back on board. I behaved
myself. Warrant officer, you’ve got to.
Were you given any anti-vice duties as such?
No. No, I didn’t get any of those jobs. Being a warrant officer, you don’t get those jobs.
So from Cape Town it was a trip to Scotland was it?
Yeah, Greenock in Scotland, a port up there. We disembarked. Trucked by train down to Salisbury Plain to a place called Tidworth,
where we were under tentage in camps there. Tidworth was, or I suppose still is, a military town, a garrison town. Soldiers have been there throughout ages and a lot of training for troops. So we were in tents there and we did a bit of training there. Quite all right.
Got stirred up a few times. You’d get the air alarms and a few bombs would drop. And it was all new to us, yeah. Hadn’t struck this sort of thing before. The alarm would go, you’d dive into a trench, you’d hear some bombs thud somewhere and you’d get clear and you’d go back. And this might go on three or four times a night. It was all new. But we were down there for I don’t know how long, I suppose
about June to before Christmas, about five months. Then the whole division was moved to Colchester. Adopted the role of defence in that area, which is East Anglia. And we were in a garrison town to Colchester so we were in houses there. That was very good. It was nice accommodation. We were there over Christmas and we left in February
back to the Middle East. So we had the reverse trip then. Back to Cape Town and up the Suez Canal.
I actually want to hear more about England for now. What knowledge did you have of the war at that stage? That France had been over-run basically?
Oh we were kept up to date with what…we had radios and there were newspapers. We were quite aware of what was going on
and we were kept informed on a military basis of what was happening. See, we had a role to play in the southern part of England when we were camped at Tidworth. We were the reserve sort of division. If there was an invasion, we’d have a role to play down in that area, and the same thing when we went to Colchester. That was part of the defence of that area, which is closest to Europe. That little kink around East Anglia before it goes up the Thames River there.
So they had a role to play although they were never called upon to do it. They were the reserve force in case of the invasion. Of course at that time the invasion was still being considered as a possibility. So you had to ready, on call. Still had some leave but you had to be on call as a general basis. I’m not aware of the overall tactics and strategic planning that went on because I wasn’t at that level,
but I’m quite sure there would have been a quite definite and defined role to play if the invasion had come, in both areas. Fortunately it didn’t happen. The infantry and signals did a lot of training together. But my particular job was to outfit the unit. I was the quartermaster sergeant.
And what they did in England, from the force that was in England that was a small fighting force, not a divisional strength and they were going to build it up. They formed the 9th Division in September in 1940 and they were going to build it up from Australian reinforcements. All the equipment for the full division signals and the rest of the division were supplied in England. Because
we didn’t have enough in Australia and we would have had to get it in the Middle East when we arrived. So rather than that, they gave it to us in England. So my particular role was getting the unit up to strength with all its equipment. I used to have over there go down to the ordnance depot to collect radio sets and cable and all the associated things so that we took it all to the Middle East with us. So I had a pretty busy job going to the ordnance stores and collecting
stores and getting it all packed and all the things that went with that and getting it ready for the trip. So I didn’t get involved in too much day-to-day training of the unit and I can’t tell you a lot about that but they did do a lot of training. My job was more administrative. They had what they call an equipment table, which listed everything you had to have. Well we had to build it up to that full strength; every section, every troop and so on.
Did you have much interaction with the English people? Chances to visit London or anything like that?
Oh yeah. Yes. We had leave and went up to Blackpool and then visited my relations up there. And a couple of times I was in London. I was in London…at that time was the heaviest bombing they had in London. And that was the most
terrible experience I’ve ever had in my life. You just can’t explain to someone who hasn’t been through it. It was terrible. And then you get out the next morning and you see half the area demolished and buildings that were there the night before are gone. It’s a terrible thing. So yes, I was in London and I had some leave up north. Sorry, there was one move we made. We were taken to Amesbury,
which is near Stonehenge and our headquarters were in Amesbury Abbey there before we went to Colchester. But that was only a location move. The rest of the unit was around Tidworth. See divisional signals moved with the divisional headquarters and the headquarters of 9th Division Sigs was with Headquarters 9th Division. Our units were out with the different brigades and field regiments and so on. Signals has units which are part of
the division signals out with the regiments, out with the brigades and anti-tank and so on. So some of those you don’t see very often because they’re out and they move with those units. But the headquarters that controls all these and works with communications for the commander is always with the headquarters at 9th Division. So when 9th Division moved into Amesbury Abbey, we moved into that. A nice old abbey there right near Stonehenge. So my role was principally
equipping the unit and I didn’t get involved in too much day-to-day training. That kept me pretty busy. And we had to get ready for the shipping and get it marked and so on; when we got to the Middle East distribute it out to the units that had come from Australia to make up our full force of divisional strength.
Now at the time you were in England you were anticipating German invasion?
This is like when the Dunkirk withdrawal was taking place? Can you tell us the sort of feeling? What was going on?
Oh preparedness that’s all. Every soldier can’t do much. You knew it could happen so you just get ready. Your commander tells you what you’ll have to do if it happens but that’s all. You just wait. There’s nothing you can do.
What about morale?
Morale was good.
Nothing wrong with Australian morale.
They weren’t intimidated by the defeat of the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] from Dunkirk in France?
No. No. The English are pretty resilient people. They got over that and Prime Minister Winston Churchill was great. He rallied the people. No, there were no thoughts. You just think about what will happen you know. Throw them back or whatever. But no, I don’t think there was any loss of morale.
Australians don’t lose their morale very easily. They’re pretty resilient people, same as the Brits [British].
Was the Australian camp in Salisbury Plains at that time?
So just a massive tent city sort of thing?
Did the Germans attack that area?
Oh some of them were bombed. Not concentrated bombing. You get night plane come over and
drop bombs. Some of the camps had them dropped and they’d come along and strafe them. I think we had one fella shot in the bottom or something like that. But isolated rather than concentrated attacks, just the odd plane. See, they were concentrating on the cities. They considered that they would break the morale, the will of England to fight by bombing the cities, so they concentrated on places like
Coventry – London got bombed every night – and the ports. But we were only a small village and you wouldn’t justify…there were probably camps all over England. Oh they’d concentrate on airstrips too. That was more effective than strafing our little camps. Every so often, they sent one over just to remind you there was a war on. So we never had any real bombing of our
camps. Odd strafing and you’d hear them bomb somewhere else close. But London and the cities were the ones that copped it all. Absolutely unbearable. How the people existed I don’t know. I don’t know.
You were actually there at the time a bombing took place?
Yes, at that time it was the biggest attack on London and it was a shocker. It really was. All night we had anti-aircraft guns and the bombs dropping and the planes roaring. You can’t explain if you haven’t been there. It was
just unbearable. I don’t know how the people put up with it every night. And they’d go down to the Underground [railway system] not knowing what they’d find when they’d come up the next morning. I mean they might find the house gone or the whole street gone. Gee, how those people put up with it I don’t know. I really don’t. They’re a marvellous people when you think of that. I don’t know how they are now but in those days, terrific.
And we were welcomed of course being Australians. We were very popular in England. And the fact that we’d come over to help them was a great morale booster. When we came from Greenock down to Tidworth by train the crowd were waving to us and welcoming us. And everywhere you went, you were made welcome by the people. Australians rate very high, I’m talking about those days, I don’t know how it is now.
So I know Australians being there was a great morale booster to the people. To know that Australia had come over to help them. The fact that it was coincidence rather than planned was probably never told to them, because we should have gone to the Middle East and been fighting in the Middle East. But never mind, the people welcomed us.
It was good. Everywhere you went you were made most welcome. It was a great atmosphere.
Was this the sort of hospitality where people would ask you into their houses and give you meals and things like that?
Oh I guess on some occasions. You’d go out for leave and people would talk to you and
you’d sit down and have a beer in a pub or a cup of coffee in a restaurant or whatever we had in those days. They’d come along and chat to you. They’d like to know about Australia and would say, “We’re pleased to see you here.” That’s just the atmosphere of welcoming. A lot of the fellas went to homes. Yes, I went to some of them. People would invite you out and have a meal with them, particularly when we were at Colchester. We lived in the town there. You see at Tidworth, we were in a camp under canvas, and it was a garrison town so there were lots off troops and things
marching around all the time. But in Colchester we were billeted in actual houses so we were more within the community there and it was Christmas time too so that might have helped. But we had a closer association with the people in Colchester and we got on very well. Yes you’d go home for meals and see them in the theatre or shopping or in church. But it was very good.
Did this bolster morale, seeing what was taking place in London and Coventry, the bombing raids? You could probably hear them from where you were.
Oh no. You could hear the planes going over. We were a fair way away from London.
What about Coventry?
That’s further away still. That’s up. We weren’t that close that you could hear the bombing but you could hear the planes going over continuously
and of course the RAF [Royal Air Force] going the other way. Nighttime, there was continuous noise of planes. And yes, they did bomb little places. They’d send a few planes over and bomb a few villages to make them aware there was a war on. But at the time the German policy was to try to break the spirit of England by bombing their cities out of existence. But it didn’t work. And he had to change this policy and
attack the ports and airstrips and so on. No, we couldn’t hear a lot of it but you’d continuously hear planes and you’d hear bombs dropped. But nothing like in London where it was concentrated and Coventry and those places where they just about wiped out the place.
What took place after England? Can you walk us through the process from leaving England back to North Africa?
Yes. We embarked again up in
Scotland and came around South Africa back to the Middle East. We landed at the southern end of the Suez Canal, Port Said, and we were camped for about a week on the edge of the Suez Canal, in tents. And then we were moved up to Palestine. We went up one night sitting in
cattle trucks. No comfort. Up to Palestine, which is an overnight trip. We got up there at one day and they sent us back again. So we came all the way back again. And they started our trip up the Western Desert because at this time the Allied retreat had started. Germany had come into North Africa and suddenly they wanted 9th Division there. It was going to be a leisurely changeover from 6th Division,
further up at Bardia and those places. They suddenly decided they wanted us up there. Now at this time our equipment was still on the ship. We hadn’t got it. And we went up and our unit was stationed at El Agheila, which I think from memory, and I’m only guessing, was something like ten miles or ten kilometres west of Tobruk.
Is that where the first firefight took place between the Germans?
No. It might have been in the first run up but not in the second. It was a point. And we were camped there. And we could see these troops streaming back down the road. And we were there out on our own. And I was trying to get our equipment up from the ship. And we had very little transport. We had to try and use any Italian trucks we could find – big
trucks with solid tyres and rough old things – to try and get our equipment up from the canal area, which is quite a long way. I can’t tell you offhand but it’s quite a long way. And then we were only there a few days and we got the order to withdraw to Tobruk. Most of our equipment was still on the ship. As I said we could see all these troops streaming back and we’re stuck out there on our own wondering
what’s going on. The order came to withdraw so we all went in. And I was sent back to our camp to make sure everything was vacated from it. And I got back in the perimeter at 4 o’clock and they closed it shortly after that, at about 8 o’clock I think, so there weren’t too many in there after me. So we finished up in Tobruk with most of our equipment still on the ship. Never got it. And that’s
one of the marvellous things that happened in Tobruk: the improvisation that went on by necessity, because we had no equipment. Improvised with whatever the Italians left in there, cable, and we had hardly any radios. So that was a very rapid change from what was planned. And the other thing was that we had never met up to train with the troops that came from Australia. So suddenly you had a group from England
and a group from Australia, suddenly there in Tobruk, and they’d never been together as a fighting force.
How did you find yourself acclimatising before you got thrown into Tobruk? Into the desert? How did you find North Africa?
Well after the cold of England, we’d left in February, which is still cold. It had been snowing in England and there had been blackouts. No lights in England. And then suddenly
we get to Cape Town with plenty of street lights and lights and cars and things like that. It was wonderful that sensation. Then of course we got up the desert and you’ve gone from an extreme cold to hot. Yeah, quite a change. Had to change our dress to shorts and that’s why half of us get skin cancer now because we weren’t told about skin cancer. We ran around in shorts and nothing up top. A big change,
but we adapted.
At this point were you aware of this soldier called Rommel?
Oh yes. We knew he was there. Respected him because he was a good fighting soldier. We knew he was leading the German force because he came over with the Africa Korps. And that was the reason for the sudden change because
they didn’t expect the Germans to come over as they did. And they’re a pretty good fighting force. Very competent having been through all the European fighting and been successful. Never had an adverse result there. Won everything. And pushed them back. They were good fighters. No, we were very aware of Rommel and his capabilities. But also we had confidence in our own commanders. Morshead. He was pretty
clear on what was going to happen at Tobruk and he laid down the plan and it had to be followed and it was. I had confidence in him.
Interviewee: Kenneth Pantlin Archive ID 1799 Tape 03
So when you arrived at Tobruk what was your initial reaction to the place?
Well a lot of confusion because as I say there were all these troops fleeing back from forward and suddenly we’ re in Tobruk and the perimeter is closed and you realise you’re in a siege situation. What’s going to happen after that? Plus the fact that we had so little equipment. As I told you, it was still on the ship.
I don’t know what happened to that. Eventually I suppose it went into ordnance in Egypt because that’s where the big ordnance stores were at that time. So it was a question of improvising with whatever you could get. Tobruk was mainly line communications. We didn’t have many radios. And also at that time the commanders weren’t terribly confident of radios. Plus the fact with the perimeter distance so
short I think they feared that we could be overheard by the Germans with their radio interception units. So they tended to rely on line. So fortunately there was a fair bit of Italian cable, so signals set up a ladder sort of system of cable throughout the place so if that one was knocked out they’d have an alternative route which they could go around. So it was a question of improvising and
settling in. We had no tent s to live in. We lived in a hole in the ground. It was a pretty primitive way of living and of course you thought the future was pretty uncertain. Of course the Germans had been so successful that behind in your mind all the time was the fact that maybe they’d over-run the place because they’d been so successful. But fortunately it settled down. And thanks to the infantry they kept them out. Our unit wasn’t on the perimeter.
As I told you earlier, the headquarters of signals is always with the headquarters of the division and that was in the escarpment, which was about half way between the town and the perimeter, the blue line of the perimeter. And they were in a cave in the side of the thing and they had their headquarters in that. And our unit was about half a mile away, just out in the open desert. In fact our headquarters of our unit was down in an
old well, an old storage well for grain. So we used to go down a ladder to it. So we used to be underground most of the time with our unit headquarters operating there. So it was a question of settling down and hoping for the best I guess, and it turned out for the best fortunately, thanks to the infantry.
Before you arrived, what were you expecting from the battle zone?
Where in Tobruk?
I don’t think we had much time to think of anything. All you had to do was withdraw into the place and go where we were told to go. When I say there was confusion, I don’t mean there was confusion they didn’t know what they were doing but there was a lot of activity, movement, as you’d expect because they’d come down, there were only a couple of roads into Tobruk. You’d come down the road which was the one they’d mainly come into and that would be closed I think around 8 or 9 o’clock at night. So there was a lot of organised
confusion, if that’s not too Irish. Where people, unit s had to go to their allocated place. It was controlled. It all worked out well. It was amazing that they did so well. As I said earlier, our unit had never been together. Suddenly they’re together and in a fighting situation. Some of the officers had never seen their troops before because the ones from Australia were in Palestine when we arrived and we only went up there overnight. Then come
back out and away we went up into the desert. So we never had the chance to get to know them so it was rather remarkable that the fighting efficiency of the unit was so good, taking into account all those problems.
Was that a lot to do with training and preparation?
No. Well, yes partly. A lot of it always depends on how well you train. How good your officers are and so on.
But I think it comes back to the old initiative of Australians. They’ve got a job to do they work it out between them. They knew the situation was difficult so you’ve just got to settle down and do it. We had to get the communications out to units that were out on the perimeter and quickly. So we quickly got to work and did it. It was just a question of knuckling down to the job and doing what we were told to do
the best way we could as quickly as possible. Realising the situation was rather perilous in the overall picture as we know it, with the German Afrika Korps coming down, a great success, and suddenly we’re surrounded by them and the fierce fighting on the perimeter, which we knew about. There was a daily newspaper after a while in which you got to know what was going on. No, I think
it was just a question of accepting the situation, believing what the commanders were doing was right and doing what they told us to do, and settling down and doing it. Australians are very innovative. I found that when I was attached to the British Army. Our fellas win hands down on using their initiative.
Where do you think this initiative comes from culturally?
I think it goes back
to our early days, convict days and all these sort of days, where people had to start off with very limited facilities and conditions from the First Fleet onwards. I know that’s going back a long way. But if you continue that through there was improvisation right from the start. They had to start off with nothing and build and you get the settlers and the squatters and they had to work from nothing and settle the land. And that’s why I think
they had the initiative right through and it’s just developed through our culture. And that’s why to a degree in the Australian Army that there’s a certain lack of discipline. I think that come back from the days of the old convicts: didn’t like the jailers and so on and so forth. Our lack of discipline is one, which is based on respect. An officer has to get the respect of his troops.
If he gets the respect of his troops and he accepts that he’s not going to get a salute every time he passes and that sort of thing, they’ll stick by him and carry him right through. But he’s got to earn their respect and I think that’s part of our culture. It’s come right through from those early days, I believe. The days of t he early pioneers that had to battle so hard and improvise. And they just carried it on. That’s what I think.
Do you think our isolation has a lot to do with it?
Yes, well as I said, it goes back to those early days when they
had to do with what they had. When you remember stories from England or if you read the early histories, sometimes they had to go to South Africa to get food, to get grain and so on. They had to improvise and put up with it because distance was a problem. Distance has always been a problem in Australia in my view. We never travelled overseas because it was just too far. You couldn’t afford a month to travel and a month to come back,
apart from the cost involved. So people never travelled. And the isolation has brought that on, yeah. I think so.
You were talking about respect and gaining it. How did you personally gain respect of the people under you?
Treat them as an equal. Expect them to respect your rank because rank carries certain authority. But
authority doesn’t go without being earned. I mean you’re an officer, you’ve got a couple of pips, that gives you a certain authority of things, but if you just rely on it you wont get anywhere. You’ve got to remember that they’re all soldiers, they’re all human and you’ve got to work with them. So it’s a question on ensuring that they respect you in the role
you have to play on their behalf and if you haven’t got that… So many officers I’ve seen come through and just think because they’re a captain or whatever can bark orders and people, Australian soldiers, will obey them just for that. They might obey them but it will be done very reluctantly. Eventually that officer won’t last. He’ll get the axe because he hasn’t got the respect. Respect’s not easy to earn. How you earn it
is not easy. Everyone is different I suppose but I always worked on the basis that they’re the same as you. It only happens that you’ve got a pip on your shoulder and they haven’t. But that’s what you’ve got to do I find, and I worked that through when I left the army and went into civil life in the same way.
So you can be friends with the people…?
Oh, you’ve got to be friends. It’s got to be friends with respect.
I mean you’ve got to mix with them but you’ve got to be able to let them see that on occasions you’ve got to be able to pull rank and they’ve got to accept that. But those occasions have got to be fairly rare. You’ve got to get them to do what you want them to do willingly. Explain to them what’s happening. Make sure they know what’s happening and they understand what’s happening and then you’ll get the result. But if you just come in and start giving orders left, right and centre I find that doesn’t work.
Different to the British Army. Now when I was attached to the British Army, you’ve got to explain everything to them right down to the last ‘t’ sort of thing and they depend so much on sergeants. That’s why sergeants have so much authority in the British Army sort of compared to ours. Ours has authority too but the Brits they depend on the sergeant all the time. Now I found occasions when I was over there, I’d have a radio station out and it wouldn’t be working, and I’d go out and the operator would be sitting there – this was
after the war – waiting for the sergeant to come along and correct it. Now if that had been an Australian fellow he would have had a nail or a bit of wire or something. He would have been trying to get through. He wouldn’t just sit there and that was the difference. I found that many times. And that gets back to what we were saying earlier; the initiative of the Australians. And getting back to respect, that’s how I think you do it. I’m not being egotistical, don’t get me wrong,
but I always found that I got on well with the troops because I respected them and I think hopefully they respected me. But they realised that I was in a position where I had to give orders and they were in a position where they had to receive orders on occasions. But it works out if you’ve got the right attitude. It all comes back to an attitude of respect I think.
It sounds like communication and how you communicate is very important?
It is. Keep then informed, yeah. I quite agree.
And it applies in civil life. When I worked at BHP I had staff under me, well I applied the same principles and attitude there. We got on well together. They respected my position, that I was a senior person but there was never any argument about that. It was just common respect between us. It worked out well.
When you were coming to Tobruk were you
informed that Tobruk was important and what was happening there?
I can’t remember that detail. But I rather expect we would because there was a port and it had to be defended. I’m sure we would have known about that because right from the start the importance of Tobruk was well established by everyone. I think that everyone knew that if the port was lost, it would make the German approach to Egypt so much easier because it would cut down
their lines of supply by hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. That was what eventually caused the bother. Their lines of communication were too long and that’s what brought the Afrika Korps to a halt really, the lines of communication. You’ve always got to make sure you’ve got enough support in your lines of communication to keep your force going. When you get tanks and they consume an enormous amount of petrol and oil and supplies,
it’s a major job. And you’ve got to remember that there’s only one road down there too, from Derna and those places. One sealed road. And if you got off it into the desert it wasn’t too good. It was possible to go in certain vehicles but basically you had to stick to the road with the vehicles. So that limited it. Yes, so it was very important and I think we knew. I would say so.
You’ve got to remember the 6th Division had gone through about six months before and we were well aware of the tactical importance of the different places they captured on the way through. And without being absolutely certain I’m pretty sure that we would have been aware of the importance of Tobruk. Certainly it was made very clear to us once we were inside the perimeter. Morshead made sure that everybody knew it had to be held. That was his clear instruction.
And there wasn’t to be any further withdrawals or anything like that within the perimeter. The perimeter they worked on was basically the one the Italians had, although the Australians did improve it. It was just a barren rocky area and it was a series of posts around the perimeter, which I think from memory was about 30 kilometres or something. So it was pretty soon told us that it had to be held.
You were talking about Morshead. Can you describe what you thought about him and what the troops around him thought about him?
He soon made his presence felt. He soon made it quite clear that he was going to control the battles, the situation in there; that we were going over there to hold it. He clearly laid down what the policy would be
and the tactics would be, and they had to be followed. He made that very clear. He was a very hard man. They called him ‘Ming the Merciless’. But he had to have that. We talked earlier about dictators and you’ve got to have that type of fellow that lays down what he wants and he’s got to be, in inverted commas, ‘ruthless’ to make sure that it will go that way. You can’t deviate from the plan and he had laid down his plan and made that quite clear,
that it had to be followed right through. So everybody had the respect of him. We had great confidence in him. Nobody ever thought Tobruk would fall while he was there and his other commanders. If he had anyone that didn’t match his requirements he’d dump them, no matter what rank they were, and there were some senior officers that got the axe from there and El Alamein because they didn’t match up. And particularly some junior officers that came from
Australia that didn’t match up. He was ruthless in that way if that’s the right word. I don’t know whether ruthless is the right word. I think that might be exaggerating it a bit. But he was very firm and he had the respect of everyone. Great confidence in him. Great confidence. He made himself known to the troops, which is another good thing, as Montgomery did later on. It’s a great trait that commanders have got to have. They’ve got to make sure that the troops know who their commanders are.
No good hiding behind a caravan some hundreds of miles back and never seeing them. You won’t get their confidence that way.
How did he make himself known? What would he do?
Oh, he’d go around and talk to people, and just put out competent instructions to people, how things were going. Make sure he knew what was going on in the skirmishes around the perimeter. Just generally that way.
Did he address the troops himself?
No. Not to my knowledge. See, it wasn’t a situation where you could do that really, because you had the perimeter and that was fighting all the time, and they were very busy. And he had enough on his plate. No, I don’t think it was suitable. He made himself known through the media, if you can use that term. We had the Tobruk Truth every day. We knew what was going on.
And he would pass on information through the commanders I guess. We knew what was going on all the time. He had the confidence of the troops and it gets back to that: the confidence of your commanders. He was a good commander.
Do you think to some extent a myth built around him through the papers and so on?
A myth? No. No, I don’t think it was a myth. I think the papers were true.
He was a successful commander, as I keep repeating. He made people do what they had to do. He didn’t accept any mediocrity or anything like that. If they didn’t measure up they’d go and that’s the only way you can run an army. Montgomery was the same. Anyone that’s successful. You can’t pitter-pat around [take a soft approach].
You’ve got to be firm. But you’ve got to let troops know what you’re doing. No, I don’t think there was a myth around him. He was very successful and he proved that not only in Tobruk but El Alamein and then New Guinea when he was up there. He was a corps commander up there. No he was a good soldier.
What are your thoughts on Montgomery?
He was like a breath of fresh air. That’s been written many times but he was. At El Alamein when we’d had some reverses and things weren’t going well,
morale was very low. There’d been a couple of commanders of the army; one was killed and a couple of changes were made and they didn’t seem to match up. Then Montgomery came and he was like a breath of fresh air. He did come and speak to all the troops. He came out to groups of units, spoke to them, told them what was going to happen, exactly explained what the tactics were and what the strategy was.
Spoke to them all, answered questions and made his presence known. He aired such confidence that you knew what was going to happen would happen. And before El Alamein every soldier was told exactly how that battle was going to be fought right to the time. Every soldier! If you had to cook or whatever, everyone was informed of what was going to happen at that battle, exactly. And it turned out exactly,
not quite exactly, he had a couple of changes but basically the principles that he laid down were followed. No, he was great. He was pretty tough too in his own way. Firm. But the soldiers liked him because he spoke to them and they saw him. As I told you earlier, they need to be seen by their troops and known by their troops to get a bit of confidence. He was a breath of fresh air after the morale was
down a bit. Not necessarily the Australians but the whole force, the whole of the 8th Army, was down a bit. They’d had a few disasters and things. And he set out to improve that and he did. Very much so.
Did he have a similar respect as Morshead?
Well, they were a bit different because in the division it’s closer to us. Whereas Montgomery was the
army commander, he was aloof and his strategy was talking about corps and things like that. It was much wider. So it was a different sort of respect I guess. We were closer to Morshead because he was our own commander. He controlled 9th Division. He controlled us whereas we were only one part of the thing controlled by Montgomery. He had the army and Lord knows how many thousands and
thousands of troops. I think it was about three corps, imagine how many divisions and so on when you take all the allies. So it was a different level of attitude and respect but the respect was there in a different way. We knew we were depending on Morshead to control our actions and what we had to do, and the detailed plans, whereas Montgomery would be dealing in the whole picture.
So it was a bit different. But the same sort of thing applied I think but in a different way. It was more intimate with our own commander whereas he’s a bit further back dealing with the overall thing and we’re only one little segment of that overall plan. But we knew what was going on. That was the good thing.
And what about Blamey?
Oh, we didn’t get much contact
with Blamey. He was back at headquarters. You never knew much about him except he’d come around and visit you or something. I think he battled for our troops as best he could but he had a lot of problems. The Australian force was only a small one in the Middle East. And in the South Pacific he was battling the Yanks [Americans] all the time. We talked earlier of the arrogance of the Yanks and how they go on. And he was battling very hard for them.
The Americans wanted the Australians in the South Pacific to have a secondary role and Blamey wanted them to have a more important role, and that was where some of the conflict was. Of course, you can’t beat MacArthur, he’s the overall commander so the Yanks got all the credits and the Australians got the bollocking but didn’t get much credit. So I can’t tell you much about Blamey because he was not very close to us.
Not very close at all.
At the time, did the troops respect him at all?
Oh, to the troops he was just a name. He was just a general; he wasn’t close to us. Morshead was close because to use the term he was our boss, but Blamey was way back at headquarters fighting the battles on that level. They never got close to him. He was just a name really, to them. They’d read about
Blamey being somewhere or doing something but nothing really close, no.
Do you think that’s why there’s some resentment towards him? Because he didn’t have that communication with the troops?
It’s very difficult to answer that. No, I don’t think he was resented by the troops. He just wasn’t respected to the same extent say as Morshead or the other commanders because he wasn’t close to the troops.
It’s a bit like, I suppose, the chairman of BHP down talking about an employee. He’s just up in the upper levels somewhere, you never see him. You might read about him in the reports or something. Whereas you get your own general manager that you’re dealing with, you know him and you know his ways, but the other fella is something that’s aloof. And I think that’s why with Blamey, he was just looking after us as head of the Australian Army
but he was an aloof sort of person who was out of your area of thinking and so on. That’s all I could say on that. I don’t know. I don’t think the troops had any particular feeling. When you talk of infantry and so on, they might have had different views but no, I didn’t.
At Tobruk, did it feel like an Australian war or an English war?
What was the feeling in the make-up of the forces there?
It was principally Australian but there was great respect for the British artillery and tanks while they were there. The tanks didn’t last long but the only artillery was the British artillery. Sorry, when I say that, there was one field regiment that came in later on and the ack-ack [anti-aircraft], which was around the port. The rest of the artillery was provided by the
Brits. The Royal something Artillery, RA, and they were magnificent, absolutely magnificent. But the bulk of the fighting was done by the Australians. Wholly the battalions. They covered the perimeter. But the Brits did the artillery and they were magnificent. The tanks were British, while they were there. They didn’t last very long. They got knocked out. But there was great respect for the artillery, great respect,
and the anti-aircraft around the port, apart from the Australian light ack-ack. There was heavy ack-ack by the British artillery as well. No there was great respect. And I think they respected the Australians too because the tactics often depended upon the artillery. The tactics were to let the tanks go through, often, and then attack the infantry afterwards. Well that had never happened to the Germans before and they were totally
shocked by this. And often they were firing over open sights at the tanks, the artillery. So there was great respect. Same as there was great respect for the navy. If it hadn’t been for the navy, Tobruk couldn’t have lasted. But that’s another story.
The Royal Navy?
Um. RAN [Royal Australian Navy] principally. The destroyers, the Australian ones, were doing the run from Alexandria with our supplies and taking the wounded and bringing in reinforcements and so on, and they had to come in while it was dark.
Some nights they only had twenty minutes to come in and unload and get out. And the other thing you’ve got to remember with that navy is that being such a recognised route from point A to B, from Alexandria to Tobruk, and knowing that they had to get in under darkness, it wasn’t very hard for the Germans to work out what time they’d be coming along that route into Tobruk. So they didn’t have much option in the timings,
they copped a lot of heavy aircraft activity bombing them on the way up and the way back, because they could work out exactly where they were going to be. Yeah, they did a marvellous job.
Do you think the Australian involvement in Tobruk is fully valued?
For example, there was a documentary on Rommel recently and the Australians weren’t
mentioned at all.
Oh yes. Do you mean by Australians or overseas?
Just generally of the English population and so on.
You mean overseas. I think the Australians are aware of it. I don’t know about the Brits, probably not very much. I’m not sure about England but they’re certainly respected in Australia. You say you’re one of the Rats of Tobruk and you’ve got some little standing
in the group. I don’t know. Wouldn’t much for the Yanks. They probably wouldn’t know where Tobruk was anyway.
Do you find it surprising that in a documentary like that, it doesn’t even mention Australia at all?
No, because it’s a British series. You find countries tend to underplay anything
they’re not involved in themselves. You look at some of the Yank documentaries; other countries don’t get much of a mention in those. And I guess it’s the same thing with the Brits. They’ve got to play up their own part of it all and yet, if it hadn’t been for Tobruk, I suggest it would have been a quite different outcome to the campaign in the Middle East. They would have over-run Egypt pretty quickly I think and perhaps even got around to the oil fields and Lord knows what would have happened. That was their aim: to capture and get the
oil fields and with Germany coming in the other way in a pincer movement it could have changed the war. Perhaps that’s exaggerating a bit, but I don’t think so. It was a thorn in his side, which he admitted in his writings. He tried to capture it because he knew the importance of it. Getting back over there your question, I can’t say. Other countries always underplay other people’s involvement in the particular thing
they're dealing with.
When you arrived in Tobruk, the Italians, how good a job did they do of fortifying the place?
Well the Tobruk defences were based on the Italian defences. They’d provided a perimeter with two sort of
boundaries. There was the red line and the blue line. The red line was a whole lot of sangers [bunkers], which were just round holes and they’re separated by some distance into firing capacity between them all. So the Australians went into those and improved them considerably. and they based their defence on those.
And there wasn’t much in the town. There wasn’t much left in the town, just a few buildings, the hospital. A few ships had been bombed so the harbour was pretty difficult to manoeuvre in. That’s why the navy had to be careful coming in. There were ships sunk there. I wouldn’t like to comment too much on the infantry side because I wasn’t involved in the infantry but I do know that the whole defence was based on the
original Italian defences. I think it was supplemented and improved by us because that was the basis of the defence and that’s what Morshead laid down, had to be held at all cost – and when they got in a bit near one of the segments there and it was held throughout the whole operation. So I can’t help you much on that one.
Do you know what
hardware the Italians left behind? And what supplies?
What type of hardware do you mean?
Guns and so on. Communications.
Oh, they left a few old ones but basically not much. Some of the infantry formed what they called a ‘bush artillery’, which is improvised Italian things. But they had to be very careful that they didn’t blow up and kill themselves. We got quite a lot of cable and maybe a few radio sets, not too many, principally the cable we used
in the signals. The defence communications system was based on cable not so much on radio. There was a heavy wireless, which was for corps signals from headquarters; that had the communications back to army headquarters at Cairo. And that was at army headquarters. But no, apart from a few telephones and things like that left behind, there wasn’t a great deal.
But we had to improvise with what was there because we had no way of getting other stuff in, as I told you. Ours was still back on the ship somewhere.
When you arrived and the commanders higher up knew that the guns were left on the ship or whenever, did they instigate training of the Italian guns?
No, I don’t think so. They relied on the Brit’s artillery.
It was only the infantry that improvised these things. They were pretty dangerous in a way because Italian stuff was never very good. No, they didn’t.
So again it would have been a lot of Australian improvisation?
Yeah. That's right. Put a French letter [condom] over a relay in a telephone or something to keep the dust out, things like that.
Dust was a terrible thing in Tobruk. You’ve probably heard this. You’d get three days of it and you would night time be able to see from here to that back door and I’m not exaggerating. Even where we were, you’d have to try and follow the cable in the ground to find where you were going. You just couldn’t see. It would be three days like that. Just so intense you couldn’t see. And that was one of the reasons why Rommel got into strife in his attacks and helped us a bit in Tobruk. One of
these sandstorms came up after we withdrew into Tobruk and gave a little bit of relief in a sense that it gave a bit of time to get established there. So in a way that was a great help to defences. It gave a little time, three days or whatever the sandstorm lasted for, to get in and stop Rommel, because visibility, as they say, was nil. Terrible.
What about the feeling of it?
Feeling of what?
Of the sandstorm hitting you and so on? Was that bearable or what?
Oh, well you could hardly breathe. You had to put a handkerchief across you nose and we had what they call anti-gas goggles, which were provided for anti-gas things, just like big glasses, which covered over your eyes and it was close-fitting your eyes and forehead. And you’d put those on otherwise it just cut you to pieces almost. You couldn’t drive anywhere or anything like that. Virtually
immobilised the place for three days. But you’d get these regularly. Just unbearable.
When Rommel had the sandstorm and it gave you time to regroup and so on, were you in the sandstorm as well as Rommel?
Oh no, it was the whole area.
So how difficult was it to regroup in a sandstorm?
Oh, gee, now you’re asking something difficult. You’ve got to
remember that the headquarters was in this cave so they were out of it a bit. And our little thing was down a hole in the ground, an old grain thing, so we were down there some of the time. But you just didn’t do anything really for a couple of days. It cut out the air force too. They couldn’t do much bombing or anything like that. There’d be some shelling because you don’t need direct sight for that. But it would virtually stop things for a couple of days.
It was so dense, the sand. Terrible.
So was it more of a time to rest and recuperate waiting for the next assault?
You’re talking about infantry now. I wasn’t in that area of assaulting.
Waiting for the assault from Rommel.
Oh, yes. We knew that he was going to attack so you were waiting and wondering. You always had that thought in your mind. What if he breaks through? What will happen? You’ve got to be honest about this.
It wasn’t that your morale was low. I don’t mean that you were despondent or anything like that, but the thought ran through your mind, “Well I wonder if he’ll break through,” because he’d been so successful up until this time. You wonder what will happen if he breaks through, what will happen to us? Will we be able to get out? Or will we fight on or what? Just the thoughts that ran through your mind that was all, yeah. But don’t get me wrong; morale wasn’t low. Everyone was very confident that we’d stay.
But when you think of these things you analyse them a bit and what would happen if he breaks in?
Rommel to that point hasn’t been defeated and yet you have supreme confidence in Morshead and yet you’re about to go into battle?
Australian confidence that’s all. You’ve got to have confidence in your commanders. But
Australians are a confident people I think. We do things, have a go at things where I find other countries don’t actually do in my experience. They’re not as adventurous. I think it goes back to our early days when they had to be adventurous and do things, which had to be improvised or whatever, to get by with the particular situation of that time. I just think that was the same thing there. Confidence, improvisation and
that was it.
Do you think it was a bit of the underdog spirit as well?
I don’t think we ever regarded ourselves as underdogs. Equal. Australians respect the Afrika Korps because they fought well, they fought fairly, and there was a great respect for Rommel because he was a successful general, he led from the front, and there were never any atrocities or anything like that
with his troops if he captured any of our people or any of the Brits. There was a sort of respect. I think he had respect for the Australians too from what I’ve read too. But I think they got an awful shock when they got to Tobruk. They thought that they would just over-ride and go through, and the tactics of the Australians were to allow the tanks through and then when the infantry followed up – the Australians didn’t fire on them, they just waited until they got through
and then they got into the Germans. That had never happened to them before: to suddenly find that they’re being opposed and beaten, and it affected their morale. Some of them couldn’t believe it was happening from what I’ve read. They couldn’t believe that this suddenly-overpowering successful organisation was suddenly stopped by Australians. They didn’t even know I don’t think.
Interviewee: Kenneth Pantlin Archive ID 1799 Tape 04
What was the feeling or the thoughts about the Italian troops?
I had no real direct contact with them so I find that a bit difficult to answer. The general consensus was they weren’t very good. Their heart wasn’t in it very much. You could see that with a couple of Australian soldiers with hundreds
of prisoners of war and they’d just trail along. I don’t think their heart was in the war. They weren’t very good and that’s basically why the 6th Division went through so easily compared to when the Germans came into it. They were tougher fighters. But I can only give hearsay on it and what I’ve read and seen photographs of, but personally I can’t give you any specific experience with them at all. I don’t think their heart was in it.
From the set-up that they already had there and the Australians took so easily and yet the Australians were able to use most of that set-up to defend the Germans.
As I said, I don’t think their heart was in it. It was a garrison town. They lived a life of luxury, particularly the officers from what I’ve read and what I saw. They lived in the town and had nice homes and plenty of food and plenty of grog,
and it was a nice idyllic existence. Nice temperature. They weren’t very good fighters. I think it was just like a holiday resort and that’s why I think they didn’t offer much opposition when the 6th Division went through. Tobruk was primarily Germans against Australians. There weren’t too many Italians there. I think the Germans had the same view of the ability of the Italians,
that they’d rather not have them there, rather than depend on them, because they could be let down. And that happened to a little degree in El Alamein. But I think in Tobruk the Germans agreed with that and the Italians got left to themselves. They looked after it all. I don’t think their heart was in it. They were poor soldiers. A lot of them were forced to serve.
Conscripts. And that’s what it is; their heart wasn’t in it. They were all right having an easy time on the coast, swimming and enjoying life, but as soon as the hard fighting comes, no, no good.
Do you know if they retreated or if they were captured or what happened to them initially?
Which time were you talking about? There were three attacks on Tobruk.
When they were first overtaken,
the Italians at Tobruk.
6th Division? Oh I think they were captured. Captured by the hundreds. Yeah, they didn’t put up any opposition. 6th Division went through them very easily. There wasn’t much opposition at all. That’s why the run-up to Bardia and so on was relatively easy. There wasn’t any hard fighting at all. It’s a different thing fighting the
Germans to fighting the Italians ,or was a different situation because the Germans were hard fighters and they had been through the battles in Europe and were battle experienced, so they knew what they were doing. They were full of confidence. Whereas the Italians if they could give up, it was the easy way out. Be a prisoner. Look at when they came to Australia, they settled into the communities, the farms etcetera like that, and became part of the population
whereever they were, the community and just enjoyed life. They preferred that to fighting. I think that sums them up pretty well.
They must have thought their luck had changed when they were sent down here.
That's right. Australia, it was marvellous. Well, even England, they were allowed to roam around because their heart wasn’t in it so they’d abide by the rules and they were given a lot of latitude because the authorities knew they wouldn’t do anything silly. They’d follow the rules and that’s what they used to do. Very
easygoing soldiers. They’re a very easygoing race. They take life very simply and very easily.
Did you hear of experiences with Italian artillery guns and shell and so on happening while you were there?
See when we were in Tobruk, it was nearly all Germans. There weren’t many Italians if any there.
They had a long-range gun called ‘Bardia Bill’, I think it was called, which was on the Bardia Road. It was some distance from the town but it was within range of the guns. And it used to fire indiscriminately and every so often. That was a big gun fired into Tobruk itself. But I don’t think the Italians had much to do around there at all. All Germans.
The guns that the Italians left behind that Australians and so on took over, accidents and so on with those?
inside the perimeter? Well again only from knowledge of what I’ve read. They were pretty primitive and they’d have to be very careful using them, fitting them up themselves. Oh, you’d put in the shell and get behind some protection and pull the lever and hope that it would go off without blowing out or something. Yeah, just improvised artillery weapon, that’s all it was. Just improvised. But it did something I suppose.
Can you describe
what you go through when you’re under fire?
Well you’re in the ground most times. You’re in a hole and just hope for the best. There’s nothing much you can do. They say if you can hear the one coming you’re all right, it’s not going to hit you. It’s the one you don’t hear. Well, you never hear anyway because it hits you. Where we were, we only got sporadic shelling and bombing.
But you never could tell when. That’s how it was. You see we were half way between the town of Tobruk and the perimeter. We weren’t in close proximity to the perimeter where all the main fighting by the infantry was. So we only copped some of the loose firing or just the aircraft wanting to stir us up. The Stukas were the worst. That was worse than shells. I suppose you have hear about the Stuka; how
they dive almost vertically and they’ve got these horrible whistling gadgets in the wings. And as they came down and that speed increased so did this terrifying noise. And when you heard them coming you knew there was going to be something pretty close. It was rather unsettling to say the least and, you get three or four of those diving around you, it’s very unsettling. You just hope for the best. Hope they don’t hit you. But you get in your hole in the ground. That’s all you can do. Nothing much
else. The other thing that was a bit of a worry, they used over there drop little sort of a hand-grenade; a little red gadget about that size. Probably about four or five inches by four inches diameter. They’d drop those indiscriminately during the night. You'd have to watch you didn’t stand on one of those or kick it otherwise you'd lose your leg or something. But that was about the main thing. You’d dive into a hole and just hope for the best. That was all you could do. There’s nothing you can do as a
person: just hope for the best, hope they miss you and pass on and hit something else or somebody else.
Do you feel sort of helpless in that situation?
You do. You know the most helpless feeling, if I can divert for a moment, was in the landing at Lae. We were in LSTs [Landing Ship Tanks], which is a large craft, and we were under attack when we were going out there and we were all sent down below. And they closed off the
bulkheads to segregate the ship in case it was hit; only one portion would get the water in. And I think that was the worst experience because you’re under there, you can hear all the noise, you can hear all the thumping of the guns up top and bombs dropping around you but you’re helpless in there because you can’t see what’s going on. I think if you were on land, you could at least to some degree see what’s going on and to some degree that helps you. But when you’re confined like that was
I always imagine what it must be like in a submarine. You’re so confined and you’re depending on what’s happening outside and you’ve got no control over it. You’ve got no control of any bombing but when you’re confined like that and you can hear it all and you’re wondering whether the next one’s going to be the one that hits you.
The LST to the right of us got bombed and it sank but we got through. Shells pierced the wall of the LST but we didn’t get any casualties. But it’s very unsettling. That was the
worst experience. Confined like that, because you weren’t used to it. Yeah. It’s unpleasant. The other thing is night time and you hear a plane droning away over the top and you wonder where he’s going to drop them. You don’t know. You’re hoping at least it’s not you.
Does the helplessness make it easier or harder to get through this situation?
It’s very hard to relate to it now because we were young, it was the atmosphere you were in, it was wartime and so on and I guess you just accept it as part of the business. You got a hole, you got into it and that was it. You were trained to go in there when it started. You felt helpless because you had no way of responding to it. You couldn’t fire back at it. It was useless firing a rifle, a revolver. So you just sort of had to take it and hope it got over quickly and wait
until the next one. But there was nothing you could do personally. But yes, I suppose your answer would be you are helpless because you’ve got no means of reacting over there it. If you’re in a situation where you can do something personally, react to it and do something well, that’s a different situation. You feel you have got some control over the business. But in a bombing or a shelling or anything like that where you’ve got no control over it, you’re totally at the mercy of whatever happens. But
wartime you’re indoctrinated into this sort of thing because it’s everyday life. It’s not like now where it would be an unusual thing if there was something blown up. Whenever you read of it in the papers, it’s an isolated incident. But that was every day life. You’ve got to remember that’s what we were in and it happened every day. So you knew it was going to happen tomorrow night and the next night or tomorrow or sometime. And you knew you’d be shelled. And in Tobruk we were there for over six months. You knew it was going over there happen every day and every night,
some type of shelling and bombing. So I guess in a way you sort of accept it as part of the way of living.
How long was it before you became desensitised to it?
I can’t answer that. I can’t remember. But I suppose you did it straightaway. You’ve got to remember you’re trained for that. It’s part of your training. It’s not as though you’re suddenly thrust into it without being prepared to it in some way. Don’t ask me what the training was because I can’t
remember, but we would have been prepared for it. You get talks and that sort of thing. You’ve got to remember it’s part of your life. It wasn’t like you’re suddenly going into Tobruk tomorrow, where it was foreign to you, you hadn’t been doing it before. See we were in England, where there was shelling and bombing in England. It had become part of your life. You got used to it like everything else.
How would you compare the shelling in
England to your experience at Tobruk?
Well they were different. It was mainly aircraft. There was no artillery shelling, not where we were anyway. It was just isolated bombing runs, like you get. But in Tobruk, where we were it was just isolated and constant interruption to life. There was no pattern to it. You weren’t going to say, “At 2o’clock, we’re going to get a shelling,” or, “At 4o’clock in the morning, the plane’s going to
come over.” You never knew. You used to have to be prepared for it. So it was part of your life. It’s hard to relate to it now because it’s so foreign to the way we live. But we’d been a fair while in the army and been through a few things and it was part of every day life. You accepted it and you adjusted to it and trusted to luck.
Did you see people around you who didn’t cope so
No, not particularly. I’ve got to emphasise that I wasn’t at the front line. Infantry you get more of that because they’re in close proximity and they’re having hand-to-hand fighting. They’ve got their mates beside them being knocked off or killed or injured or whatever, or taken prisoner. They’re the ones that have got this reaction. But where we were, we had very few casualties, and if they were, they were an odd, minor casualty. So ours was a little bit different life
to the infantry. I’d have to say no. We didn’t have anyone because our life wasn’t as stressful as the infantry where they had it all the time and terrible, primitive conditions on the perimeter, which you’ve probably heard from the soldiers that were there. So ours was a little bit different to that. The answer to that is no, I didn’t see anyone.
You didn’t see infantry guys coming from the front lines back?
No. They were all out in the perimeter. They didn’t come back where we were.
They just brought them back a bit further from where they had the rest of the thing. They were in the lines most of the time.
What about the injured and so on?
We didn’t see those. They’d be back to the hospital in Tobruk by ambulance and if they were serious enough they’d be shipped out pretty quickly by the destroyers of a night time. If it was anything really serious that they couldn’t handle in Tobruk, then they'd have to send them out. So we wouldn’t see that.
There was a hospital in there that functioned throughout the siege. They sent out the seriously wounded all the time. Brought in reinforcements where necessary and where they were needed.
At the time did you understand what the guys right up the front were going through?
Oh yes. We knew what was going on. We knew when there was an attack by the Germans.
And a couple of times they broke through the perimeter into the salient, where the main battle was, and they held that for a while until our blokes pushed them back. Oh, yes we knew. Later on there was an attempt to relieve us from Egypt, from Cairo area, and we knew that was coming up. It fizzled out. They couldn’t get to us. So that was a disappointment. We’d been there some four or five months or so and life was getting a bit monotonous
and tedious, so we were hoping the break-through might come to relieve us but it didn’t happen. You had this feeling all the time, when is it going to end? There didn’t seem to be an end to it. We were besieged and the Germans were there and they'd attack our fellas and patrols at night time, and it was one of those defensive positions. We couldn’t break out. We didn’t have a strong enough force to break out. So we knew
we had to stay there until we’d be relieved. They’re the thoughts that run through your mind. And I’m not saying it’s a lack of morale or anything like that. We’d just think about things. You had time to do that. You just wonder how long you’re going to be there and how long it can go on, because life wasn’t very easy. Rations were poor and there was no entertainment. There was nothing. You just had to amuse yourself. For us, the infantry was the same; they were fighting in these
holes and they’d be there all day. They couldn’t be relieved during the day. They had to stay there. Flies and heat and so on. Very difficult for them. It wasn’t a very pleasant place to be. So the thought ran through your mind, “How long am I going to be here?” You’d been there six months and then the word came through we were being relieved by sea. And that was a great feeling.
At one point did it become boring almost?
Well it had to be because there’s nothing to do. You could go down and have a swim occasionally.
You could be taken down and have a swim. But you had to be mighty careful then if the planes came over and strafed you while you were in the water. Water was very limited. I think it was a gallon a day for everything; for cooking, trucks, washing and everything. So that wasn’t much. And the rations all tinned rations. I think we had fresh food maybe three times the whole time we were there. So the whole set-up tended to be boring. There’s no entertainment or anything like that.
Yes, life was boring. For the infantry it would be active, boring because they were pretty busy all the time. They were doing patrols and that sort of thing. But for outside interests and things you might expect in normal circumstances, we could perhaps have leave for a day and relax and recuperate, no, there’s nothing like that. You were there and that was it. You lived in the ground. You had a hole in the ground. There was no tent or anything. You were living in very primitive conditions,
so it wasn’t easy. It was a tough time really.
What were the rations like?
Well it was all tinned. They were ample but again monotonous because of the limited variety. It was all English tinned food. It was not the best. You got a lot of what you call M & V, which is meat and vegetables, and baked beans and similar sort of stew things and things like that. Plenty of tinned beef, bully beef.
The cooks would try and vary it a bit but very hard to do so. And the odd time that fresh food came in like meat or something, I think it was three times at the most, maybe even twice. But never got any beer or anything like that. Life wasn’t very pleasant. Pretty boring.
Were you well supplied?
Oh yes, there was ample food, ample without being overboard. There wasn’t much variety. It all had to
be brought in by sea. So it was only what they could carry on the destroyers. There was no cargo ships came in. Couldn’t risk them because they wouldn’t last long. So they used the destroyers, which came up from Alexandria and set times to be in Tobruk. They had to be into the port and out of the port in darkness, so that determined the time that they could have to unload stores. And again that determined how much they could carry, to get off in the time. Plus
onload any sick people or any people that were surplus and were going out, whatever. So in one night that’s only about twenty minutes. It was all dependent upon that. How much food they could get in by ship. They couldn’t bring it in by land. There was no outside contact by land at all. It was all done by sea by the Australian navy and the destroyers that did it.
Were the Germans able to stop
any supplies by sea?
Only to the extent that I told you; that they knew the timings of the craft coming up was determined by the time they could be in darkness. So it wasn’t very hard for them to calculate what time they were going to leave Alexandria and what time they'd be on the way. So they used to give them plenty of attention coming up and there was the odd ship lost but most of it got through all right. They had to be quick to unload it. They had to have people on the wharfs ready to unload it as smartly as possible.
And alternatively load stuff on that was going out; seriously injured people or wounded. It was a very hectic time while they came in. As I said earlier too, there were a number of ships in the port that had been sunk. So navigation wasn’t easy either, particularly in the darkness. The navy did a wonderful job. Couldn’t have existed without them. We had no aircraft support after the first week or
two. The few that were there were shot down or they withdrew them. So we had no real air cover. So it was pretty open go for the German aircraft in their sorties on the garrison as a whole. So they didn’t have much opposition. Anti-aircraft guns. A very good box barrage was set up in Tobruk harbour and town by these heavy anti-aircraft guns that I mentioned earlier, the British. Plus the light anti-aircraft,
which we had. One regiment. They set up a box over the town. So that made it difficult for the German planes to get through. They’d have to drop their bombs further away and hope they hit. But the accuracy wasn’t that good because of that. The box barrage was very effective over the port and the town itself. As soon as they knew there was aircraft coming. They got warning because of the perimeter. They could tell when the aircraft were coming in so they were all ready for them. So that’s what happened.
No, but the rationing was ample. Pretty boring. There wasn’t much variety. But like everything electricity we had to put up with it.
You mentioned you could go swimming and so on. Was that in the Mediterranean?
Yes, one of the little beaches around the port. The port went in quite a distance, I can’t remember, but maybe a kilometre or something, and there were little beaches around there. Well, you could go down there in a small group,
maybe one hundred or something like that. You could go down and you might get a swim and freshen up, with salt water, naturally. Other than just freshen you up, it didn’t do much good for you. Didn’t get any fresh-water showers or anything like that. There was a pumping station, which distilled the water for every-day use. We had a water truck, which would pick up the water. Each unit had one that would go to them and get the water. That would be one of my jobs, to get that done. And you’d distribute that to the cookhouse and the soldiers.
That’s how it worked. But that was very strictly controlled.
Were there water pools scattered around that you could swim in?
No. Only the beaches. There was nothing in Tobruk itself other than the bay. Around Tobruk itself there wasn’t much space between Tobruk and the perimeter. So you were really confined to a little area around the
port itself, a little beach or something there. Wouldn’t be the Mediterranean though.
Did you find that people who went swimming it helped them cope with what was going on? They used it as a relaxation technique or something like that?
No it was just something to do. Freshen you up. Because any washing you did was in a tin hat or in your dixie or something and you'd sponge yourself. That was all you could do because you didn’t have any
fresh water. So it was just a means of freshening yourself up a bit and a bit of a change to splash around in the water and have a bit of fun and wash each other I guess at the time. A bit of relaxing. That was the nearest thing you got to a holiday or a break. It wasn’t a great thing but I suppose at the time it was something to do.
To a few of them, swimming gave them a way to get out of the situation?
Oh, yes. I quite agree with that. And it would be much better for the infantry. I keep emphasising that I wasn’t involved like the infantry were in that area which was under constant action pretty well all the time. They would appreciate it because it would be a wonderful break for them to get right away from everything and to some degree to have security, whereas on the perimeter they’re living all the time under attack or expecting an attack or something like that. But to get down there at the water and
for whatever time it took to relax and have a splash around, I would understand that to be a very, very good thing for them and they would have appreciated it. I agree with whoever made that comment.
Being there you have all the sounds of the planes and the bombs and the artillery.
Do the sounds start to play with your mind?
Oh no. Not to us
anyway. No. It was just part of life. It was just part of the business like your job, there’s certain things you’ve got to do and they’re part of it. It probably doesn’t worry you. You know you’ve got to do it and away you go. It’s part of the routine. And that was how it was with us, I guess. It was part
of life, part of being there. You didn’t enjoy it because it was spasmodic and you never knew when it was going to happen but that’s what you’re there for. You’re a soldier and that’s what you’ve got to do.
Being of higher rank, did you have to help people through that? The people under you? What would you tell them about what was going on?
Well, yes I guess.
Well a lot of it came through the newspaper, the Daily Tobruk, which was a summary of the news. I’ve got a copy of one here. But that was printed and you knew what was going on. And being in signals some of the fellas could get radios and listen to something that’s overseas and listen to some of the broadcasts. But our fellows were pretty easy-going.
Signals, you’re in a position to know a lot of what’s going on. Working up at headquarters and you’ve got the command nets where the commander is issuing instructions out to his other battalions and brigade commanders and artillery commanders, and you’re getting the feedback of information coming back. So often the average signalman is a lot more aware of what is going on than some of the infantry, say, that mightn’t be seeing the overall picture.
A lot of our fellas, and we’d learn from them. We knew a lot about what was going on. In the signals you do know a lot about what’s going on, plus you can interpret things by the messages that are going through, the quantity of messages, and you can analyse things in your mind and say, “Well there’s something going to happen soon, there’s a lot of signals going through,” or, “There’s a lot going out in that direction, there must be something happening or going to happen out there.” So a lot of our fellows were in a much better
position to know what was going on than certain other units. You get one of the supply units, ration delivery, they wouldn’t know much what’s going on compared to our fellows. So, no, we didn’t have to tell them much. We picked up information from the newspaper and talking amongst ourselves and passing on what they’d heard. You always get someone who gets all the inside information being at the headquarters was near a lot more of what was going on.
How do you feel about
being in the channels of communication and hearing what’s happening?
I’m not sure what you mean by the question.
Do you feel privileged or do you feel lucky that you’re knowing? Do you feel more a part of it?
I think you feel more a part of it. I suppose in a way you’re privileged but you’re carrying a responsibility that you don’t pass it on unnecessarily, and not start rumours or something like that. But it’s part of the communication philosophy that
you’re in the position of knowing what’s going on, so therefore you’ve got to be very circumspect about it all and be careful of what you do and say, particularly if you’re in a community. In Tobruk there was no one else there so I suppose it wasn’t quite the same in that respect as it would be in Iraq for now, where you’ve got community there where you have to careful what you say and what you pass on. But there were only our own troops in Tobruk. So any
information you passed to each other, that’s as far as it went. There were no spies while we were in Tobruk. No Arabs or anything there. They’d all disappeared. It was only our own soldiers.
What about the security situation? Were they afraid at all Australians informing Germans or something like that? Would you have to go through a vetting stage to be in
No. Well usually they get someone with…a lot of them came from the old Postmaster General’s Department. In those days, it was nearly all Morse code and the Postmaster Generals used to do this with all their telegrams and all this sort of thing, so a lot of those came into the army into signals. So they had
this knowledge of transmitting. And most of our communication in Tobruk was by line, as I mentioned, and they had what they call a Fuller phone, which was signal message: ‘dee-dah, dee-dah’, Morse code. So they were all pretty skilled with that. And that’s where they came from mainly. Also some of those that showed an aptitude before they left Australia would have gone to signal training and learnt the Morse code and got up to speed, so that by the time they came to the units they were pretty skilled. Same with the wireless operators: they would have been trained
in handling the communications for the commander or whatever.
They weren’t worried at all about Australians turning onto the Nazi side or anything like that?
Oh, they were too busy. You were busy all the time. Your job is to provide the communications for the commander and you’ve got to be ready for him and passing messages on, so you don’t sit there twiddling the dial. No, you don’t do that. There are units, which are intercept units, whose job is to
intercept the German or the enemy transmissions, and they were in Tobruk. The Germans had them. They used to pick up our transmissions. That’s why I said some of the commanders weren’t very happy with radio communications. They didn’t have much confidence in them. It was very early in the war – this changed later. And they used mainly line, which they could get on the telephone, like we are, if they didn’t want to send a written message, which was transferred to Morse code.
But each of them had their own intercept units, which would be intercepting the communications that were going on, and the intelligence people would have to analyse that and from it they can deduce a lot of things. A build up of communication probably means there’s something going to happen; preparing for an attack or something like that. And then they can analyse this and they do so. It’s a very interesting unit:
signals, communications. You’re in everything. And it’s a very good job.
Did you have to learn codes or did you just transmit in basic Morse code?
Oh no, there were codes. A lot of it was by standard Morse code. Just plain language they called it because there wouldn’t be much chance of picking that up in the area there unless they were very close to the enemy, where they could overhear. The normal
transmissions within Tobruk they wouldn’t have been able to pick up much of that if any. So some of it was in Morse code but anything that was really secret would be transferred into a code by our cipher people. We had a cipher section who dealt with cipher and decipher: encipher and decipher. For instance, the heavy wireless that we had working back to Cairo, anything that went there would be in code for obvious reasons. Being a high powered transmitter,
the Germans would pick that up and it would have to be in code otherwise they’d know everything that was going on.
It sounds like a very technical job.
Yes, it’s a technical job. It’s a technical unit like the engineers. It’s classified as a technical unit. It’s a very important one, so much so that in the current organisation of the army, now, the idea used to be that they built the organisations around
the fighting force and provided the communication to suit it. Now, they provide the communications the commander wants and build the force around it. So in the recent reductions, I’m talking about the last four years or so, where there have been cuts in lots of the units, signals have expanded because the commanders now have got to get information so quick. I was told in the First World War information could be acted upon within about a week. That was all right.
In the Second World War it was a matter of a day or two. Now it’s down to hours or even less because they can pin-point the enemy and they’ve got to get the aircraft or whatever action against that spot immediately. So it’s speeded up. And the commander now realises without adequate and very quick communication he’s at a great deficiency in his operations. So everything now is built around the
Corps of Signals in Australia and in communication in general, and the rest of the army’s built around it to meet the needs of the commander. But they realise now that they must have good communications and everything’s built around that. Speed. Speed’s the answer now. I’d be lost in the army now. I go out quite a bit to the School of Signals. I have some interest out there. I don’t know what they’re talking about now. It’s so fast and speedy. Everything now is different. Principle’s the same,
just the method of doing it has changed. There’s an officers’ course out at the School of Signals every year. They come out of the college at Canberra and they come down and do a three-month course at the School of Signals orient them to signals. And they decided a couple of years ago at our instigation really, our division, our signals association, that the soldiers should learn about the wartime World War II units and the
campaigns and things. And I go out there each year. We have a syndicate and we prepare a talk on the operation of 9th Division Signals, so I’ve been in contact with them a bit out there. I’ve kept up to date a bit with what’s going on. But how it’s changed from our day when the fighting force was the main thing and the communication was built around it. Now it’s the communications the commander wants and they’ve built the fighting force around it. You’ve got the
point soldier now in the infantry that carries communication straight to the commander. It doesn’t go through his CO [Commanding Officer] to his unit and his brigade and so on, which would take ‘x' minutes or an hour. Now it goes direct to him. And the commander now he has his artillery bloke there and he says, “This is the story from the point bloke, such-and-such happening,” and he tells his artillery bloke or the air force and bang, straight on over there it. That’s a big change. It all depends on communications.
At the time in Tobruk what were you thinking: it can’t get better than this, Morse code? What were you thinking about the technology of the time?
Well that was advanced to us. When we started off, we had World War I stuff; flags and basic Morse code things as they improved. The Fuller phone was a telephone and a Morse code thing and that was a big advance. The radios were hefty and big but it was a big improvement on what they’d had and as the war progressed so did the
improvements of all the equipment. They got smaller and better. Nothing like they’ve got now. But it was marvellous to us. When I joined the army, when I went to Queensland, we were training on World War I equipment and it was marvellous when we got the new stuff. Same as you blokes now: you’ve got a computer, next week it will be something better than what you’ve got now.
On distilling the water and purifying the water. How
difficult a job is that to do?
It was an engineers unit that did it. I don’t know. Same as they’ve got on ships. They just distil the salt water. They remove the salt. And you get water that’s clear and drinkable and useable. That’s all it is, just a machine. But of course the quantity that would have been required for 20,000 or whatever it was, or 14,000 that was in Tobruk, you would have needed a big pumping station so that’s why it was restricted to only
about a gallon a day per person, which is not much when you think about it.
So there was a shortage of water really?
It depends on what you mean by shortage. You got your ration and if you regard that as being inadequate, yes. If you feel that it was enough to do the job, yes it was all right. And that was all you were going to get anyway. So your question’s a bit hard to answer specifically because it depends on what you mean by the question.
There was adequate water but there wasn’t sufficient to waste or to use indiscriminately. You had to watch it very closely and you were rationed by the number of troops, which you had in your unit, that’s how much water you got. You couldn’t go down and take a big truck down and fill it up and use that for a hundred soldiers. If that was the quantity for a thousand it had to be used for a thousand troops. They’re only figures, not accurate figures. But that’s the sort of thing. You only got
what you were entitled to like your rations.
Was there a problem with dehydration?
Not that I’m aware of. I don’t remember any specific problems. You got enough to have a cup of tea with your lunch and meals. No, I don’t know of any particular problems. Again getting back to the old question, it’s all you got and you had to make it work, so you didn’t waste it. You drank a drink of
water when you needed it and if you didn’t drink it all you didn’t throw it away.
Interviewee: Kenneth Pantlin Archive ID 1799 Tape 05
Can you tell us about the day you actually left Tobruk?
Memory’s not very good. We went out by night and we just had the orders to be down there by a certain time, maybe 10o’clock at night, and we just waited at the wharves. And we got on little pontoons out to the destroyer, sat on the deck of the destroyer and then when it was loaded, all in darkness, it pulled out and just headed for Alexandria quick as they could go.
As fast as they could go. We were attacked on the way back. Our ship personally wasn’t damaged or hit or anything like that. But some of the others, not actually on the night we went out, were lost. Some of the soldiers were washed overboard. But ours was a pretty uneventful run. We just sat on the deck and watched…
Washed overboard. They were on deck. We all sat on deck. We didn’t go below on the destroyer.
How did they get washed overboard?
Oh, well, the ship
turning and might have been a bomb nearby. I’ve read this. I don’t know it personally. Could have been a bomb nearby and the water thrown up by the bomb landing in the water.
How big is the actual town of Tobruk? Was it a small one?
Oh yes, not very small. It was just white buildings. I can’t recollect exactly or compare it to something here but it was only small, a colonial town, a base for the military.
That’s all that was there. There was nothing else. There was no industry or anything like that. It was just a defence town, which the Italians had set up.
Could the Germans actually bombard the town area?
Oh yes. It was in bombing range.
In the harbour?
With artillery that is?
Yes or by aircraft. But bombing and they used to shell. It was only a few kilometres out, the perimeter. That’s why they had to come in of a night time, they couldn’t risk the ships.
There was no manoeuvrable area in the port because of the sunken ships so the navy had to get in and out very quickly. Straight in, load quickly and smartly and out again, because any time they could be shelled. And as I said earlier the Germans were pretty astute. They knew what times the ships would be in there under darkness. It wasn’t hard to calculate when they’d be coming in and going out.
So what would happen at night time
when the ships would come? Would they still shell at night?
Could be. Intense activity on the loading, in and out smartly, quick as they could unload and load and then out. Didn’t hang around. No talks to the boys or anything like that. It was load it up and out. No, ours was uneventful. We were told to go down at a certain time and boarded and back to Alexandria.
How long was the actual journey?
I can’t recollect to be specific. I suppose it would have been six hours or something like that. I could be quite wrong on that. I can’t remember. Most of it was in daylight, I know that.
There must have been considerable tension on your departure.
From our troops?
Yeah. Just the ones leaving. Yourself included.
Oh there was pleasure.
Pleasure getting out of the place and just hoping that nothing would happen to stop you from getting out; that the ship wasn’t hit or something. You’ve got to remember that we were there for six or seven months under pretty unpleasant conditions and the thought of getting out, back to ‘civilisation’ was a wonderful thought, and that’s all you wanted to do. Now, one of the battalions came down and for some reason the destroyer didn’t come up and they had to stay there.
That was the only infantry battalion in the division that ended up staying there longer than the main division and they didn’t get out until later on. Imagine the disappointment for those fellas. They marched down all ready to go and said, “No, you have to go back,” and back into the fighting again. No, it was sheer pleasure and anticipation of getting out of the place and back to normal living and having a shower and decent food and things like that. It was a wonderful feeling.
That was the only feeling you had. You weren’t sorry to leave it.
So Alexandria was the place they unloaded all the troops?
They unloaded and I can’t remember from there on, but we finished up back in Palestine. Back to the unit lines there in Palestine at a place Julis. I can’t remember the actually procedure but there was only one rail route and I’m pretty sure we must have gone by rail, which wasn’t a very pleasant trip either. As I said before, we went by cattle trucks and I’m sure they had square wheels.
But it was great to get back up there to Palestine, where there were plenty of oranges and fresh fruit and decent meals and anybody bit of leave and things like that. To get back to normal habitation it was wonderful.
What was Alexandria like and Cairo?
I can’t remember. I had a holiday in Cairo at one stage and again I can’t remember where I got it from. I was commissioned by this time, I must have been. No, I wasn’t commissioned. Anyway the Royal Signals had a
houseboat in Cairo and we could go down and holiday there. So I went there for a few days and looked around the usual things in Cairo. But that’s my only knowledge of it. I can’t remember anything else. Those things don’t stick in your mind. They’re not very important in life. How you got from point A to point B; somebody told you to get on the train or to get off the train. No I can’t tell you much about that.
Can you tell us about your interaction with the civilian populations of
Palestine and Egypt? What was your interpretation?
What? Of their reaction over there to us or…
…general or what?
Well your reaction to them firstly. And how they responded to that?
We got on all right with them. They did some of the work around the camp and when you went on holidays you were quite welcome. We went to Tel Aviv and those places. There were army clubs you could go to. There were no problems.
None at all. Not in those days. No. We got on well with them. You didn’t get a great deal of leave; you were busy training and so on, and we weren’t in Palestine very long before we were sent up to Syria and again very intense training up there. We went into a new sort of training up there from what we’d had in Tobruk.
How long were you actually in Palestine for?
I can’t be specific but it wasn’t long.
Estimate, that’s all.
I can’t remember.
A couple of months was it?
Could have been. I can’t remember exactly but the whole division was moved up to Syria. 7th Division was pulled out and we went up to take over, and they did a lot of retraining. There was a new type of formation fighting that came out. What they called box training and they used to train up on the plains north of Damascus. Had a lot of time spent up there, learning the new way
of fighting, which didn’t prove useful anyway. When we finished up at El Alamein, it was quite different again. Anyway, that’s the time we spent training. We were in Syria up there, mainly as a garrison force because the Free French had been defeated by the 7th Division – not the Free French, the Vichy French. So we were more an occupying force there. And we stayed there until we went up to El Alamein.
What sort of duties does an
occupying force do?
Nothing. Just be there.
Man guard points?
No, no, no. We’d just sit in the barracks and training, that was all. No, the war was all over. The population were quite happy. They had their independence again. No, there was none of that manning points, none of that. Nothing like it is now. Different feeling in the areas in those days. When you won a war, you won it. Not like now with all the
insurgents and whatnot. No, it was mainly used as a training base. We were in barracks. We took over the French barracks and lived in the barracks while we were there, a place called Tripoli where we were. You went to courses. I did a couple of courses while I was up there. All training.
It sounds like a good way to unwind from Tobruk?
Yes. Yes it was. It was a break. And I think everyone needed it too. Everyone suffered a bit, when I say suffer I don’t mean that strictly by the meaning of the word, but we were run-down, we’d had a pretty tough time, so it was a good chance to recuperate.
Did you find differences in the
way the civilian population behaved, just generally, with the Australians or to the military presence in Egypt, Palestine, Syria?
No. Remember that Egypt had been mainly militarised by Britain for a long, long time and they were used over their military presence there. And Palestine, of course they were dependent really on the forces being there. That was a
base and they made a lot of money out of it being there, rationing and so on and so forth, and they just accepted the forces being there. You’ve got to remember too that the war had been going for a long time in Europe and in the Middle East there had been a lot of fighting and so on. I think the people just accepted that was part of life and the Australians got on quite well with them. There was never any friction, any trouble that I’m aware of. We didn’t find any.
No we got on all right. We were accepted by them and we accepted them.
There was a problem with the Arab population to some extent.
Well, in Palestine. There was some friction.
Well I can only speak from my own personal knowledge. We had no friction where we were. I used to go across to the Arab village and I had meals with the villagers there.
I was invited over to one of the weddings there and we went over and had the evening with them: the entertainment and ate with them and so on. That’s my personal experience of it. We had no friction at all. We had no trouble with them.
What was the wedding like?
Well, an Arab wedding. We all sat around. If you’ve ever seen a huge bowl of rice with sheep’s eyes in it, you’ve got to look at that and try and think either you’ve got to eat it or how are you going to get out of it.
Dancing girls with belly dancing and all that sort of thing. It was quite an experience but a funny night. As I say, eating rice and seeing sheep’s eyes looking up at you is not the most attractive dish to contemplate eating.
How did you get out of it?
I can’t remember but I bet I didn’t eat the eyes. Probably spooned up some rice. Got by that way. And then when we were in Syria we used to have some of the people there
that would work around the barracks and I went around one night with one of the families and had an evening meal with one of the families. And they were Arabs, Syrian Arabs, and no problem. Got on quite well together. Now I’m only speaking of my personal experience. You’ve probably got different stories from infantry that might be in a different environment. We were in the towns and they might have had quite different experiences, which I won’t dispute in any way at all. And I can only
tell you what I personally found.
I was also told that Australian soldiers, their guns were quite often stolen by Arabs. Did you hear anything about that or experience anything like that?
I’ve never experienced it. Arabs are great thieves. They’ll thieve anything if they get the opportunity.
What do you mean? Can you give an example to us?
I can’t but they’ll thieve anything if they get the opportunity. They’ll pinch it. You read any books.
I can’t tell you an experience. I haven’t got a personal experience of it but I know from what I’ve read, that’s one of their traditions; the good thieves. So it wouldn’t surprise me if they pinched a rifle if they had the opportunity. But I personally have had no experience like that. But I won’t argue if somebody said they did, if one of your other interviews said it happened, as long as they haven’t exaggerated something, with memory getting a bit false.
Did this happen to your friends?
The thieving? The Arabs that would steal from soldiers?
Never happened with me. I said so.
Not you, but your soldier friends?
I don’t know of anything stolen. I’m just talking from reputation and what I’ve read happened. No. Maybe we were a different type. I don’t know.
Signal people are usually pretty well educated, a good type of person. Infantry people tend to be more tough soldiers, usually from working environments and you may get a different approach to life that way – and that applies these days. Communications people are a higher grade, when they’re selecting them for recruits and so on, because of
the role they’ve got to play. You don’t find the signals fighting hand to hand because they’re not trained to do that. You’ve got the infantry for that and they’re tough boys because that’s how they’re trained and brought up. You’ve probably interviewed a lot of infantry blokes and got quite a different story to what I’m telling you. That’s why I emphasise that the units are different. Infantry’s quite different to signals and engineers is another fighting force too. They’re good ones.
So you’re saying that there is a different culture to each segment of the army?
Yeah. I think there is, because of the role they play. It’s a different role.
Does this also reflect on not only their role, but their standards of education and class background?
To a degree. If you generalise I’d say yes, but not specifically.
Now I at one stage was posted to a signals unit and there was a sergeant there and he was a very wealthy and well-educated grazier but he didn’t want any more responsibility. He could have been an officer or anything but he didn’t want to. Now he was a very highly educated fellow and yet he was filling what you could term a minor role in the army. But that’s what he wanted. He was quite happy to do that. He was doing what he wanted to do and he didn’t want to take on the responsibility and so on. So
I think there are categories and I think there was during the war. Infantry’s a different type of fella to, say, signals or ASC or gunner. Gunner’s another different type because their role is different. The infantry’s personal man to man, whereas gunners is long distance fighting. He doesn’t see so much of the hand-to-hand and death that way and signals rarely did, particularly where I
was. Out at the brigades, they were a bit closer to it and were involved in more of it and could have seen some of that. But where I was, it wasn’t the case. You’ve got to be a bit brutal in the infantry if you want to exist because it’s either you or the other fellow. But if you’re sending a signal on Morse code and it’s going ten miles away to where the action is, you’re not at risk. You might get a bomb on you or something. But not like the infantryman. It’s hand-to-hand and his life depends on how quick
he can beat the other fellow.
Did you find that you could relate to the infantry? Or was that a difficulty coming from a different segment of the army?
No. You’re all soldiers. I think they respected that you had a role and they had a role. Where I was, we never had much to do with the battalions because they were out further in the fighting area and we were a bit back near headquarters. I’m talking about me personally and the people I worked with. Our signals only went down as far
as brigade, if you understand the organisation. 9th Division Signals or Signal Corps only went down as far as the brigade. Now the infantry in the battalions had their own signallers, had their own signal platoon, so our communications went down to headquarters of the battalion. So we were back a bit. For the Divisional Commander, that’s Morshead,
out to his brigadiers of the brigades and his artillery and those type of units, and we had them at brigade who worked down to the battalions. That’s as far as we went, battalion headquarters.
Did you hold any political views about the war?
No. I accepted that we had to help England, as I said earlier. That it was a
role I thought we should play as Australians and I was quite prepared to do my part. I had no thoughts other than I should enlist and help. No I had no political views. Didn’t matter. Gets back to doing what you’re told and relying on the people in control to do the things with the right decisions, whether it was the Liberals or Labor or whatever. Anyway, as a regular soldier, one of the things that I was taught was that I had no political views.
You were there to serve whomever was in government. That’s the role of the regular army. So you tend not to be political. I did anyway.
After doing some occupation work in Syria, you were sent to El Alamein?
Can you tell us what happened there, through your experience?
Well it was done again at fairly short notice. We went by vehicle, we had our
own vehicles, so we went by vehicle, and one of the funny things, you’ve probably heard this story before, everything had to be disguised; that we were Australians going up there. All our unit badges and any identification of the unit had to be removed. And the one thing that stood out, and the locals soon woke up to it, was that we were the only army that wore brown boots. So they soon knew the Australians were going up there, even though they tried to keep it secret. So that was an
over…it was overlooked by the intelligence people. That we’d be readily identified even though they went to great pains to hide the fact that 9th Division was going up there. See, 9th Division by this time had a pretty good reputation from Tobruk. I think they wanted to hide the fact that they were going up and becoming part of the 8th Army at El Alamein, so we went up by road and took up position and joined the 8th Army force. And that was shortly afterwards
when Montgomery took over and we’ve discussed that earlier. Again, we just provided the communications. There was more radio by this time than line. It was a change because we had much more better equipment and there were more radios available. The commanders had greater confidence in it. And there was more radio used than there was in Tobruk. So we just did our normal role there, nothing spectacular or anything in particular that I can recollect
that justifies any comments. There were two battles of course. There was the earlier one around July and then the main battle in October, which was a ferocious thing, which our infantry up in the 24th Battalion finished up almost decimated, the whole battalion. And if it hadn’t been for the fighting by the Australian battalions on the coast that forced the break-out, that changed the whole battle.
And Montgomery swung them around. And there were some night changes and they fought their way out. And then the tanks went through and that was it, because it was the Australian 9th Division battalions that did the hard slogging. But it was a whole hard fight. It was a slogging battle and Montgomery told everyone that’s what it would be. Exactly as he told the troops it would be, it was. It was a slogging match.
Before Montgomery was actually put into action,
why should he be any different to any other generals?
Just his personality.
What was different to the other generals?
Well, I thought I went through all that earlier.
I’m not talking about his personality here. I’m talking about the way he’d approach soldiers in reference to other leaders.
Well, they were remote. These are things I emphasised earlier. They were more remote. He came down and spoke to all the troops,
every one of them. Not every one of them individually but as a group. He made himself known over there to them and explained what was going to happen. So everybody knew and it turned out exactly as he forecast. That’s how you instil confidence, by telling everyone and making sure it works, and that was the difference with him. I said earlier, he was like a breath of fresh air that went through the place. We’d never had this before to this extent, particularly the 8th Army. They’d had so many commanders
and things hadn’t worked out very well for them. The morale in general, not of the 9thDivision, but the army in general wasn’t very good, but he realised that and he resurrected the whole attitude. He was a very good commander in that way.
So you were there for the final battle? For the push? What was your role in this?
Yes. My particular one? Very limited. I was RSM of
the unit by this time and my job was just general discipline, and I didn’t provide any communications, I was an administrative role. To make sure the unit ticked over and that’s all I did. Nothing spectacular. Can’t give you any interesting anecdotes or anything like that. We knew when the battle was going to commence. We were told it was going to start at the time. I think it was [2200 hours]. We all stood on a ridge and watched it. And all of a sudden the
earth shook and all these guns for as far as you could see opened up and blazed away and that was the start of the battle. Went for ten days.
Can you tell us about the barrage itself?
Well that’s all I know, what we watched and heard. It just went on for about twenty minutes continuous. Hundreds of guns just firing. The infantry could tell you more about that than I could because they would have followed it through. They had to move forward when the barrage
moved forward. But we could only observe it from where we were, behind it all. I can’t give you much interesting anecdotes or stuff because we weren’t involved in any of that hand-to-hand fighting. Communications don’t do that. But we knew it was started and we knew what was going to happen. We’d been told the battle plan and we followed it. It was a very well thought out campaign
with a lot of camouflage that went on beforehand. They had fake tanks and things like that to upset the enemy, make them think something was going to happen that didn’t happen. All sorts of that sort of thing that were done. It was a marvellous campaign.
How far was the divisional signals headquarters from the actual front itself?
Oh, I can’t answer that. I can’t remember. A reasonable distance back. Five kilometres or something I suppose.
Were you ever susceptible
to artillery bombardment?
Yeah, divisional headquarters.
Not at El Alamein. We didn’t strike any of it, no. I think they were taken up with more of the infantry forward. Probing each other. I think they were more occupied doing that than worrying about us.
So you never had any near misses?
Not that I can remember. There might have been some but I can’t remember them. Too long ago. Those details I can’t remember.
Can you tell us about the German air presence
around El Alamein?
No, I can’t remember. I honestly can’t remember. Sorry. It was probably there I suppose but I can’t remember. No, I can’t add over there that. Sorry.
How well considered were they, generally speaking?
The German air force, Luftwaffe?
Well they were terrifying with those Stuka bombers. They frightened everyone because of the noise they made, as I said earlier, and you get three or four of those screaming down at you. And the noise was just piercing and unbearable and you knew it was going to be somewhere near you. So yeah, I suppose you feared them. But there wasn’t constant bombing. Not like in London where you’re getting these huge armadas
of planes coming over and just bombing indiscriminately and demolishing whole areas. Nothing like that. Not to my knowledge anyway. So El Alamein was just another six months or so. But it was better conditions than Tobruk because we had better food and I used to occasionally be able to go down to Cairo and buy some decent food like melons and
fresh fruit and things like that and get them up to the troops. But we were living in the ground again. There were no tents. Primitive living. Another horrible thing was, every so often when the wind was blowing in the direction from the canal, it would bring up all the mosquitoes. And of course you were on the ground, sleeping underground. They’d get in the low part and you’d get eaten alive by mosquitoes. It would drive you mad.
How did you cope and deal with mosquitoes?
Nothing you could do. They’d be gone the next
day when the wind had changed. It was only when the wind was blowing from the canal. It would blow them up from there. Didn’t happen very often. But boy, when it did it was terrible. We had a hole in the ground and that’s where we slept for security, for bombing or shelling or anything like that. You were protected to some degree unless it was a direct hit.
So you’d have to cover your body no doubt?
Oh, we had shirts. That’s all you could do.
Tie them up at the wrist.
Were you wearing shorts in the desert at that stage?
We had shorts, yeah. We had shorts in Tobruk. We must have had long pants as well I suppose because you used to get cold nights. Desert’s warm during the day but cold at night. You’d get cold at Tobruk of a night time. We probably had our thick jackets as well. I’m sure we did because I’ve seen pictures of the infantry with them on. Yeah, we must have had them
up with us. But mainly it was shorts during the day.
What were the other problems you faced? Other insects?
Oh, flies. You get flies everywhere; flies in Tobruk, flies there. You just get them everywhere. They’re no different. It was only occasionally we got these mosquitoes, when the wind was blowing up from the canal, which wasn’t very often.
No, life was all right there.
Were snakes and scorpions a problem?
There may have been scorpions around, yeah, the odd scorpion. You had to watch those. They’d get down in your pit too because being under the ground they’d tend to go down there. But I don’t remember any great problem with them. But they were there.
What precautions could you take before you’d go to bed or things like that?
Just shake your blanket. Have a look.
Hope for the best. That’s all you could do. What else can you do? Nothing much else you can do. You seem to be looking for problems in all this. That was part of life. It didn’t worry you. You don’t seem to understand how life was. You just accepted it. Those things didn’t worry you. That’s different to what other people have told
you I suppose. Well, it depends where you were. Again I emphasise I’m not giving it to you from an infantry point of view. It was quite different to whatever infantrymen have told you. I’m quite sure of that because they lived under extremely difficult conditions. They were in hand-to-hand fighting situations and their living conditions were horrible. We weren’t. We were further back and life was a bit easier back there. Our life wasn’t that hard compared to the infantry.
They had it tough and they wouldn’t be able to move sometimes. We could get up in the night and shake our blankets. But an infantry bloke up forward, he wouldn’t be game to get up of a night time. He might be shot. It was a different life. I’m not disputing what some of the infantry might have told you. Not in any way at all. I can only tell you as we had it. But you seem surprised at our
laid back attitude to it all. But that’s how it was with us anyway.
Once the Battle of El Alamein started, were you expecting certain victory against the Germans?
Yes, because we’d been told the whole battle plan. Again, getting back to confidence. We knew what was going to happen and we were sure it was. And up until then, the earlier battles that Montgomery had fought had gone according to plan and we had no reason to doubt that it would
turn out the same way. He said it would be a hard slog and the infantry would have heavy casualties. And it was, very hard. It was a probing battle. Both the Germans and the 8th Army were probing for weakness in the other and they were constantly moving their units to try and get a weakness. And that’s where Montgomery suddenly switched the attack to the coastal area where the 9th Division were, and through there.
And that really changed the Battle of El Alamein as I said earlier. Our infantry there fought themselves to a standstill and I think it was the 23rd or 24th Battalion, they had one truckload that came out of the battle. That was all there was of the whole unit. Terrible casualties they had. But we didn’t get involved in that.
So being in the divisional headquarters you might be around the areas where the
casualty clearing stations or regimental aid posts or hospitals were?
No. Regimental aid posts were forward in the battalions. And CCS [Casualty Clearing Station] is the next one back – that would be about brigade level. We’d be further back still, so we were a fair way back.
Did you visit any of the hospitals?
No. Most of our fellas had good health and we didn’t have casualties.
I’m giving you a different story to what you’ve had from other people. See, I was at headquarters. We had signals out with battalions and brigades. They were in the fighting sometimes. They were in the thick of things and you’ve probably got the stories from their point of view and it’s probably different to what I’m telling you. But we were at headquarters. Headquarters has got to be in a reasonably secure position because you wouldn’t want the commander there
and his senior staff being subject to attack or bombing. So you want them in a reasonably secure position so that you can control the fighting. Otherwise, what’s the use of having it?
Were you ever considering transferring to a fighting unit?
No. I’d been in signals my whole army career. I couldn’t see any reason to change. No.
How did you view the fighting units? You were obviously acutely aware of the dangers involved.
I didn’t want to be in the infantry if that’s the question you’re leading up to.
Whether it be infantry or any fighting unit?
No, I’d rather not be. There was less danger of being killed where we were in signals than there was in the fighting units, the artillery or the battalions. Less chance. No,
I had no desire to get into the hand-to-hand fighting. Not my make up.
Why do you say that?
Just not my make up.
What do you mean by not your make up?
Well, I couldn’t do that sort of thing, I don’t think.
For what reason do you mean? Is it political, religious?
No it’s not political or religious. I don’t know that I could kill a person, that’s all. Hand-to-hand.
I suppose if the occasion arose and it was him or me I would. But it’s like everything else. You look at things remotely. It’s different in the personal situation where it was you or him. Well, I guess you would view things differently and that’s what the infantry do. It’s him or you. If you falter, you’re gone. And you can’t have any compunction about killing a person if it gets to that situation.
But I would find it extremely difficult to kill a person. That’s part of my make up I suppose.
You speak subjectively here in that sense?
Well, that’s how I am. I don’t like death. I don’t like killing. And communications allowed me to do my bit without getting in that situation where I’d have to kill somebody. If I’d had to, I guess I would have.
I’m reminiscing now of something sixty years ago when I was young and I probably had a different view. If the occasion had arisen, I’m quite sure I would have done. But it never arose and I’m thankful for that.
How would you have dealt with that? That could have happened at that time, you wouldn’t have known.
No. I don’t know how I would have reacted.
I assume because I was trained that way that I would have reacted the right way. In other words, I would have taken the appropriate action and shot, killed or whatever I had to do if it had arisen. I’m quite sure I would have. But as a desire, I wouldn’t want to be in that position. And communications allowed me to do all that. Still do my part, an important part in the army.
I’m sure I would have if I’d had to. Later on, I commanded an artillery regiment signals troop for a while but it was only in training. It wasn’t in action. And in Bougainville we had to go up into Jap [Japanese] territory sometimes. We had to be prepared. I guess I was young; I would have reacted in the right way. Can only assume I would have. But it never arose. So it’s pure conjecture. Pure
supposition what I would do.
How did you view the German soldiers?
How did I view them?
The Germans as an enemy?
Well you were taught to hate them because they were your enemy. You had to beat them and that was all. It was as simple as that. Your propaganda was directed to them. You were told all the bad things about them.
Did you hate them?
Generalisation, yes, because they were fighting us. If they’d over-run us in Tobruk, they would have done so and Lord knows where we would have finished up. So we didn’t have any great love for them. Great respect but no love.
I’ve heard some soldiers from the North Africa Campaign describe it as a war without hate.
Yeah. I think there was respect both sides.
And you read that in any wartime book by both sides. There’s respect. See, the war in the Middle East in the desert was a war between soldiers only. You’ve got no civilians involved. And in that way, I guess it was a bit unique, that it was man to man, army to army and no civilians. You weren’t bombing cities and things like you were in Europe. And all they did to France and that sort of thing.
There were no civilians involved at El Alamein or Tobruk and in that regard I guess it was a bit different. It was only them against them. And I think that was why that feeling was generated, because it was just the two armies together and I think they learned to respect each other’s abilities to fight. And it was hard fighting by the infantry. And you’ll get some of those views expressed more by the infantry than by signals at headquarters, because we weren’t in close contact with them.
Whereas down in the infantry you had people dealing virtually face-to-face with them in many cases.
Interviewee: Kenneth Pantlin Archive ID 1799 Tape 06
How would you compare the battles of Tobruk and El Alamein?
It’s a bit hard to answer that question. Communications is different that way. We’re not involved in the battles. We’re only providing the communications and the communications themselves don’t vary very much. The type of communication did vary because in Tobruk it was mainly landline or
telephone, whereas in El Alamein it was more radio. Radio had become more useable. The commanders had better confidence in them. They were better made and all these factors, which helped, so that whilst you used line as a backup, radio became the primary source. Now that was the difference between the two from a communication point of view. And the battle thing, I can’t
compare those except what I’ve read and I don’t think it would be very fair to do that because we’re talking about personal things. The principles were the same but the methods of doing it were different. And again it was different when we got up in the jungle because the conditions again were different in New Guinea to what it was at El Alamein and Tobruk. You have to adapt, providing the same principles all the time with the equipment that’s been provided to suit the terrain and conditions you’re fighting under.
Just to summarise very quickly the question you asked is that Tobruk was a static campaign, there wasn’t a lot of movement. The perimeter was static and everything was permanent. Whereas El Alamein was fluid movement. Montgomery moved his troops and battalions and things around to probe and your communications had to be adapted to suit. Radio is better for that,
because line takes time to lay and you’ve got to roll it up afterwards, whereas radio, as you appreciate, is just a matter of moving the set and you’re still through. So that was the main changes that we saw as divisional signals, between El Alamein and Tobruk.
So there was much more for you to do at El Alamein?
No. Exactly the same. You’ve got the same, what they call nets, the same communications set-up no matter where you are.
But you had to be more modern and mobile?
Yeah. Depending on the circumstances and in that one it had to be more mobile. And radio is more adaptable to that type of requirement. Line takes time to lay if you’re talking about kilometres long; takes a while to lay and then it can be damaged. You’ve got to repair it or you’ve got to put what they call a ladder system so that if it is knocked out communication will go around it or the signal will go around it, whereas radio is more flexible. You’ve only got to
twiddle a dial and you can change with one frequency with the other and change things quickly.
So by El Alamein they’re becoming more confident with the radios and willing to use them?
Oh yes. That's right. Much more radio used. The sets were better too, getting a bit smaller. They were still big compared to today but much better.
Were these valve sets?
Yes. All valve in those days. They didn’t have transistors. They came later on.
What about the actual communication traffic that would go through? How did they compare from Tobruk to El Alamein and the orders that were being given and so on?
That’s a difficult question to answer specifically. I don’t know. There would have been a lot more because there was more activity in El Alamein than there was in Tobruk. As I said earlier, it was a static set-up there. There wasn’t any movement other than the relief of the battalions. But basically
there wasn’t any movement. You had the static set-up and that’s what it was, whereas El Alamein there was movement. They moved battalions and divisions and so on around, so there was more movement, so there would have been more communications. We started to use Don Rs, despatch riders in Tobruk too. That was another means he had because the distances weren’t very great, so that the actual radio was limited. There was a fair bit of Morse code
communication and dispatch riders, and it went the other way at El Alamein. There was more radio than dispatch riders and line.
Through the communications and so on could you tell us if the orders….
What they were like… if they were panicked or controlled. Could you tell by the orders if things were going right or wrong?
I couldn’t answer that because I wasn’t involved in the signals office and directly know the method. You could tell the activity going on by the amount of messages going through and if a situation was getting a bit desperate. A battalion commander for instance, and he wanted to get the information back to the brigade, or the brigade back to division headquarters
that the situation was getting a bit desperate or they wanted reinforcements or they wanted to do something. Well then naturally your communication system would build up, either radio or Morse or both. But if it was something desperate, they’d probably get on the radio and speak direct to the commanders. The commanders liked to speak by this time direct to their other commanders, and you get the personal story. So there would be a build-up of communication
in certain situations that became a bit desperate. But normal pattern wouldn’t vary very much. In Tobruk it wouldn’t vary very much unless there was an assault by the Germans. When they pushed into the area. Well, there would have been a lot of communication going on then, I guess, to pull up our artillery. See the infantry would be pulling up artillery support. Well, you'd need a lot of communication then. Directing them. But the artillery have a
forward observation officer that goes forward with the battalions and gives the directions to the artillery. When the commander says he wants shelling on a certain spot, he’s responsible for passing on these directions and details to the artillery to convert into the range and distance and all that sort of thing. So yeah, it would build up. You could tell by the amount of
communication that was going through what was happening in certain areas. But I don’t know if panic is the right word or any word like that. I suppose there’d be times when there’d be a lot of apprehension by the commanders. They get into a situation where they are surrounded or something and they’ve got to call up the artillery, or they get a bit agitated and want some results pretty quickly. Well, you’d get a lot of movement in the communications side
How often would these desperate moments happen? Daily? Weekly?
Oh, that depends on the circumstances. You can’t answer that. Not even as a generalisation.
Was it a frequent occurrence or what?
Well it depends. You see, in Tobruk a lot of days there was nothing; just patrolling. And then there would be an assault by the Germans; then there’d be a lot. That might take a couple of days. Australians would have to push them back and there’d be a lot of communication going on at that time.
But there’d be days when there’d be very little traffic at all, same with El Alamein. See, if things are quiet… They’re not doing hand-to-hand fighting all the time. They get involved in a skirmish or a battle when it’s necessary. The commander wants some information from the other side so they have to send out patrols and all that sort of thing. Well that’s got to be fed back information. I can’t answer that
question in any way really. It just entirely depends upon the circumstances at the time and what was happening. That’s all I could say.
How would you compare Tobruk and El Alamein on the terrain and on the actual sounds of battle and so on?
Oh terrains exactly the same: bare, no
trees, harsh, not even a shrub or anything like that. In Tobruk, I think there were two trees. El Alamein was just sand, the sea on one side and the Qattara Depression on the other end, which was impassable. So you had a boundary each end, which determined the front line. And that’s where they wrestled each other and fought to get this thrust through where they thought they could get a weakness. And
all the time they were probing until the big time came. I guess the shelling and all that was much the same. It was perhaps more limited in Tobruk because we were in a small boundary, whereas the other way there was 80 kilometres of front, was it? Or something like that. I’ve forgotten the exact distance. So it was more dispersed. It wasn’t as concentrated as Tobruk. And they knew everything in there was a target. Where El Alamein was a bit different. So that’s about it.
By the time you reached
El Alamein, did the unit become tighter after your experiences in Tobruk?
Oh, they did in Tobruk. They did a marvellous job. All units. Not only signals. The same thing with the battalions, they got reinforcements they’d never been with before, and we had officers that came that had never seen their troops. Or there might have been a mixture in the troop, which was part from England and part from Australia, and they all merged very well and
did the job. It was quite, I think, miraculous in a way, that they were able to stand up to that assault by the Germans so quickly where they had no chance to get organised really. And a great deal of that commendation must go to the commander that rallied and got everything going so quickly and got his trenches in place and so on. It was absolutely marvellous that they did.
Normally with troops, you spend months training together and learning to know your troops; the officer has to know his troops, their little idiosyncrasies. But you had no time for that. It had to be done very quickly. El Alamein of course they’d all right had all that time in Tobruk where they’d got to know each other. And then we had more reinforcements coming from Australia. There was a bit of a feeling that the ones from Australia didn’t know as much as the ones that had been in England and in Tobruk,
but that’s a natural sort of reaction I guess. There was nothing vindictive about it. It was just one of those pride things, you know, “We’ve been in Tobruk and you’ve still got to learn it all.” You got on all right. I don’t mean there was any friction or anything, it was just one of those little feelings that was there. And I think the reinforcements for a while felt a little inferior, if that’s the right word, coming with these soldiers that had already had
this experience. It was just one of those things.
Would the guys with the experience be like big brothers helping them?
Oh yes. There was no friction. I suppose it came down over their pride. Ego. That we’ve already had six months in Tobruk and you’re coming here as a reinforcement. You’ve got to learn to be as good as us. You didn’t say these things. And the soldiers from Australia thought, “Oh, I’m a reo [reinforcement] and these boys have been through it all and
I’ve got to try and be as good as them. And I’ve got to learn.” Just one of those funny little things. There was no friction or anything like that. I suppose a question of pride and ego over there to some degree and the need for the reinforcement to feel that he’s got to prove himself, and that’s not a bad attitude to have either I think. But they helped each other there’s no question about that. No question at all.
Probably after the first battle together all that goes out the window anyway.
They’re all experienced.
That's right. Yeah. Then the next lot that come, they’re the same. It goes on and on. When we got back to Australia and the reinforcements came to go to Japan, you had these fellows that had been through El Alamein and so on, they all felt they were pretty good, and some of those had been reinforcements before. But that’s how it was. That would apply anywhere I think.
As the whole unit experiences more battles and confrontations, do they just become a better unit together and know what they’re
doing and so on?
Oh that comes with experience. Yeah. Experience is the best teacher you’ve got. You can try and teach as much as you like but until you do it, that’s when you learn how good you are. And you only learn by experience. Doing the actual things, the actual job. And they soon learnt quickly, yes. You’ve got to remember that they’d had a lot of experience in England, Tobruk some of them and El Alamein. And by this time they had a long, long time in the
action conditions. So they got pretty good at their job. I’m talking about signals. And the infantry would be the same. They get very good at their game.
Previously you said in Tobruk it got monotonous and boring. Was that the same case in El Alamein?
Yes, much the same. Although you did get a few concert parties that would come up and behind the lines they'd do a bit of a concert. Radios were more frequent then.
But there was no leave or anything like that. It was pretty, not grim conditions, but you didn’t have much alternative to life. But then you knew you were there for a big purpose. You knew there was a battle looming and you had to be there, that was all. I keep coming back to it all the time; it was part of life. And it didn’t worry you. People these days would probably think it was terrible to be there but it didn’t worry us because we were brought up on it and that was
part of the job.
You said there were concert parties. Could you tell us about those?
No, I can’t remember. But occasionally they’d come up.
Would it be performers from Australia coming along or…?
Oh, they could have been from anywhere. The Brits had a lot of them. What did they call them? Not NAAFI [Navy Army Air Force Institute] …anyway I can’t remember. They’d come out, get a truck and get up on the back of the truck and sing a few songs or dance or whatever. Very limited.
Just a bit of a break for the troops. Could have been some Australians. I’m sure there were but I don’t remember any detail.
It was just something in the Bob Hope tradition?
Yes, something like that. Yes, the Yanks did a lot of it. They introduced a lot of those things to our forces. They soon woke up that we needed this sort of thing. The Yanks went more for that sort of thing. No, I’m sure they did but I can’t give you details. I don’t remember.
Do you remember they helped morale type of things and gave you a break?
Oh, they would. It gave you a break. When you’ve got nothing to do anything’s a break. It’s seeing
someone in civilian clothes, maybe a female singing or dancing, you know, a bit provocative in a dress. And you think it’s wonderful. You haven’t seen one for a long time. So yes, it’s a break. Good for morale.
How long were you in El Alamein for?
From when we went up in June until October, I think it was, something like that. I can’t tell you the exact months. We went up before the first battle, which was in July, and we were there after
El Alamein, which was in October. We pulled out shortly after that. Went back to Palestine, as it was, then we came home not long after that. There were plenty of rumours floating around about coming home and that sort of thing. Subsequent writings that Churchill didn’t want them to come home. He wanted them to stay there. But the Australian Prime Minister John Curtin stuck out against Churchill and said they had to come home.
So we were brought home.
Were you married at this point?
I was married three months before I went away, yeah. And I was away for two years and ten months before I got home the first time, which is a long time.
How tough was that? To just be newly married and away for a long…?
Very hard. I think it was harder for wives and the families than for us, because we knew what was going on. Unlike present days when everything’s on television when it’s happening and they
know just what’s going on. In those days they had to depend on what was in the paper or on the radio. Censorship was pretty strict. So all they knew was that 9th Division was in Tobruk or something. They wouldn’t know what was going on and they’d always fear the worst. They never knew when we moved around. And any letters you wrote were heavily censored. They knew we were in Tobruk. That was public knowledge; 9th Division was in Tobruk. So you were able to say you were in Tobruk but that’s
as far as you could go. You couldn’t give any detail of actions or what was happening, any movements or something like that. They were all supposing the worst things were happening. So I always think it was much worse than us because we knew what was happening but they didn’t. They were only assuming or supposing the circumstances that were there because of all the information they got in the paper, which was always pretty vague and often well after the event in the Middle East.
It wasn’t straightaway, whereas these days, you know, you see it happening at the moment it’s on.
How were the letters censored?
The officer had to censor it. The other rank had to hand his letter unopened to the officer and he had to go through it and read it and delete anything, cut it out, any reference to any security matter. And he had to sign in the top hand right corner that he had censored it. Censor
was a pretty wide term. They read them but didn’t read them, you know. They just skimmed through to see there was no information being provided. But I don’t think they ever delved the personal details that the soldier might have been writing. But that’s how it was. Every letter had to be censored by the officer.
How did the soldiers feel about this?
Part of life again. I keep coming back to this all the time.
I’m just saying that these things were accepted because that was part of life. You accepted these things because that’s how it was. That was life. And people these days can’t understand how we could put up with it. But what was the alternative? We had none. The rules were you had to have it censored and signed so you just did it. It was no good bucking the system
The only way you could buck the system was not write a letter and that wouldn’t be any good.
Do you know if soldiers changed what they would have written because they knew it was going through the censor?
No, I don’t think they would. I can’t answer that because I don’t know. But it never worried me what I wrote because I don’t think the officer…he scanned the letter rather than read it. And you’d quickly pick up something if it was an operational matter.
You'd know. You’d pick that up but you wouldn’t digest the personal things that the fella writes to his wife or family or something. No, I don’t think they worried about it. They wrote what they wanted to write. And I think most of them were aware that you couldn’t write anything that had any operational value. Then they would nighttime put it in. Might be the odd one that would say, “I went to Tripoli,” or something, when he shouldn’t have said Tripoli. So they’d just cut out Tripoli. So when it got home it
would say; I went to -(gesticulates) . And they wouldn’t know where he’d gone. He'd never know it was cut out. You never went back and told the soldier, it just went on. But you never had much trouble because I think they all accepted that it was necessary because of the operational conditions. You couldn’t give information away.
Was it different for you being married before you went to war? Were there a lot of
single guys around or were they all married? What was the composition like?
There was a mixture. I think everybody wanted to get home. They didn’t like leaving families. Particularly when you’ve only been married three months like I was and you went somewhere quickly. Like I told you, I went within a week. Really we had no time to think about it even. I was told on the Friday. The last time I had leave was on the Wednesday. I didn’t see the wife after that
because they closed the camp until we embarked. And I didn’t see her for two years and ten months afterwards.
Do you know what she thought about you going so quickly?
You better ask her that. I don’t think she was too pleased. But again, I think she accepted that I was a regular soldier and I had a role to play. It was just part of life again. When you’re married to a soldier you’ve got to accept the
limitations and all these sorts of things that go with that career. No good bucking it and saying, “He shouldn’t go,” or something. What annoyed me a bit when East Timor was on, one of these navy boys as soon as he knew he was going to East Timor said he wouldn’t go. Now, how can you enlist in the navy and at the last minute, you’re too frightened to go to East Timor? That’s just a personal view. No, she accepted it and there was nothing much
you could do. I’d volunteered and I’d been accepted so I had to go. I’m quite sure I would have preferred it to have been a little longer to have a chance to assimilate to what it meant, because it happened so quickly that we didn’t quite realise what it meant. But she handled it well. She’s a soldier’s wife.
She knew what she was getting herself into?
Oh yes. She knew. Part of the job.
So when you leave El Alamein, did you come straight back to Australia?
No, we went back to Palestine for a short time. Again I can’t remember how long. Might have been a couple of months. Not very long. And we embarked and came back home. Embarked in Port Said and then disembarked in Sydney, where we were taken to Ingleburn Camp and we were given leave, a week or so, I can’t remember exactly,
but about that time. And then we went back to Ingleburn and then back up to the Atherton Tablelands. I think we were at Ravenshoe, the camp where we were, and we were up there again for some time.
How long between coming home and going up to… how much leave did you get in Australia?
I can’t remember exactly but it could have been two weeks something like that. It wouldn’t have been an extended one.
What was it like coming home?
Marvellous. Get home and see your family after that long time. And of course they'd expect you to go through all these privations and imagine you fighting hand-to-hand and all that sort of thing, imagining what life was like. It was wonderful to get home and see them all. It was great. Even though it was only for a couple of weeks and we were back up at Queensland, which was just as far away as the Middle East virtually. I was fortunate that I
was sent down to a couple of schools. I schooled in Melbourne, where my wife was able to come down and stay in Melbourne while I did the PMG [Postmaster General’s Department] course, so that was a bit of a break. That helped. Other than that we were up there all the time and then we were off to New Guinea.
Did it feel a bit strange being away so long, coming home and then being sent off, you knew you were going again?
Oh no. We knew it was going over there happen. The war in the Pacific had really escalated by this time.
And the Japs were coming down so we knew that we’d be thrown into it somewhere. And we knew later on we were going to Lae and we had extended training periods in jungle warfare because we’d never done it. All our previous experience had been open warfare in Tobruk and El Alamein, which was quite different to what was coming up in the jungle. We had to change our whole attitude, communications and personal health. The whole thing
was changed. Back to confined spaces with the jungle.
Before we get there. When you got back, how did the family feel that you came back after so long and you had to take off so quickly again?
Well they were just pleased to have me. Pleased to get any little crumb you could get.
Well, they were disappointed you had to go again but they had to face facts. They knew it was going to happen. Life was different in those days. The whole attitude to life was different because you knew it was controlled by operations and you know you had to go where they were going to be. We knew we were going to be up in the South Pacific somewhere, probably New Guinea. Because that’s how the war was shaping up and the way they were going. So we knew we’d
have to go up and train in the Atherton Tablelands where you’ve got jungle conditions, which we’d never had before.
At what time in the war did you start to understand that Australia was directly under threat? Was it in the Middle East?
Oh, yes. In the Middle East. That’s why we were pleased to come home, because we wanted to be back in Australia because if there was going to be some threat to Australia as there was developing, we wanted to come home, so we were very pleased – apart from meeting the family and all that. That was the first
criteria I guess. We were very happy about getting home to see the family again after nearly three years, which is a mighty long time in anyone’s language. But then you knew that we were going to be involved in Australia somewhere or somehow or other. So we knew we’d only be a short time up in Queensland. Yeah. We were aware of it all.
Do you remember specifically when you… it’s becoming really bad in Australia?
I can’t remember. But we got the newspapers over
there and the army produced a newspaper, I think it was daily. So all these events and the current operations throughout the war in different theatres was in there. So we knew what was going on. Oh, yeah. We were acquainted with what was going on. I don’t think it was not known.
So you get up to Atherton Tablelands and they start jungle training. Can you tell us the differences and the specifics of jungle training compared
to what you’ve experienced before?
Well, again, I’ve got to speak from communications. It’s entirely different because you’ve got a confined area with jungle conditions, which is very, very thick, and it’s very difficult to get radio transmissions through dense jungle area, and that was a major problem. Line was very difficult to put down because you’ve got only tracks. And if you put line
down along tracks the Japs can easily wait and sniper off the soldiers laying the line or cut the line and when they come along to repair it, get them. It was an entirely different war. Also your conditions; everything was wet, damp, mildewy whereas in the desert it was dry. I did mention the need to cover some of your relays and some of the equipment to keep the dust out, but up in New Guinea it was a question of dampness and that plays
up very much with relays and communication equipment. Once it gets in, dampness, you can have troubles. And they did develop equipment, which was better to restrict the difficulties with that. So that was one thing you had to learn. You were wet all the time. Conditions were very unpleasant. You had to watch malaria. Your
food was again limited to what you could carry almost, particularly early in the piece. Very poor rations. But it improved later on. So you had to adapt to all these sort of things. Different dress because you had to get into jungle outfits. But it was quite a contrast to open warfare where we didn’t have any difficulties with the confined space you get in the jungle. And terrible conditions
really. Jungle warfare’s not very pleasant at all and even worse for infantry because they were so close to the enemy. And you know, they could hide and do all sorts of… Again, we were back a bit so we didn’t get so involved in that sort of thing. But you never knew when the Japs were going to bowl up somewhere. But that’s getting away from the training. Yeah. It was a complete change in training and you had to adapt to new equipment, which was provided, which had been modified and developed to suit the conditions.
Had to be pack stuff you could carry, rather than in the desert you could have a vehicle carry it around. Everything had to be just about carried on their backs. So it was all quite a different training you had to go through. You had to get the troops to learn how to do it all. Try and get communication in these difficult conditions. It wasn’t easy. Constantly wet. Never dry.
How would you rate the training at Atherton Tablelands
compared to what it was really like?
You mean the conditions eventually in action compared to what the training was? You could only train for eventualities as you foresee them. And they never ever turn out that way. You’re always going to get something, no matter how you think things through, that you didn’t anticipate. See, you get all sorts of problems when they were landing off the landing craft. Wouldn’t get it close enough and the fella with all this weight on his back would get off and sink. This particularly
applied to the infantry and the artillery and so on. Heavy packs. A lot of fellas went down like that. A fella with a machine gun on his back and he steps off the boat in deep water, down he goes. He's got no hope, so those are the sort of things. I’m talking infantry more than signals. You can plan and hope but something happens like that, the boat didn’t get in close enough, the landing craft didn’t get in close enough or in some cases the American fella wasn’t game enough to get in close enough.
These sorts of things. So as much as you can it worked out all right. But you got to adapt when you get into the position of what you thought was going over there happen didn’t happen. Yeah, unforeseen. You can only plan for things as you foresee them. There will always be an eventuality that will turn up that you didn’t anticipate or is worse than you planned.
Something went wrong.
But the actual conditions at the Atherton Tablelands, the jungle land there, was that comparable at all?
Oh, no. Much more dense in New Guinea where we were – very dense – and as I said, you’re always wet. It’s thick in Atherton Tablelands and in some of those areas. But they were good training areas but they weren’t as bad as New Guinea. It was very, very dense there. And some
of those landing areas, the beaches were very narrow, when you were landing and you had to press inland. Talking about infantry mainly now. They didn’t have those similar conditions. And you had the Japs ashore of course, which was another difficulty. Training around the Atherton Tablelands, there were no Japs waiting to have a pop at you or something. So it’s always hard to get people to accept reality
when you’re training. After a while they get a bit bored with it. You know, you’re marching and you keep fit and you do this but after a while it becomes boring no matter how you try and make it interesting. And then they get into the action, they get the real McCoy and they’ve got to respond to it. You can only hope they will.
Did they have war games or anything like that?
Oh yeah, training. Not so much in communication. We provided the same communications no matter what. But the
infantry did. Yeah, they did all sorts of training. We did landings, practiced landings with landing craft north of Cairns and at Mission Beach. We used to do a lot of training from landing craft because we’d never had done any of that. See, all about us in the Middle East was land operations. We had never done any landings from ships, having to
establish bridgeheads and things like that. So we had to do our training there and the Yanks were here by that time with their landing craft and so on. So we had to train that way. So we did a lot of that north of Cairns. Learning how to get our Jeeps and things onto boats and get them off. From fanning out and setting up our communications. So that was a big part of the training yes.
What did you think when you were training to do those landings? Did you think this is going to be a bit dicey?
Well, it was new to us all. We weren’t looking forward to it because, as I said earlier, you’ve got the enemy on the shore. They’re opposed landings. They’re not just where you land and wander ashore and do whatever you want to do. Particularly for the infantry, they had opposed landings. So you knew things were going to be pretty tough. And we’d heard and read about the capabilities of the Japanese soldiers, particularly jungle soldiers. They were pretty good. They
put up with terrible privations, which some of us weren’t too happy with. But they would put up with it. And so you approached all of that with apprehension because it was new and something different. And as I said, no matter how much you train, nothing like the real thing. You’re going ashore with a few bullets whistling around and aircraft bombing or something it’s different to practicing on a nice beach north of Cairns.
What were they telling you about the Japanese fighting machine before you
They were very capable, very innovative, could melt into the jungle and you wouldn’t see them. They put up with pretty primitive living conditions and fighting conditions. I think they surprised earlier in the piece, most of the armies they opposed down through Burma and Singapore and Kokoda. And again it was a marvellous feat for our troops that held them back at Kokoda.
That was about the first time they’d been held up too. So it was two occasions when the enemy had been defeated for the first time by Australians. One was Tobruk and the Kokoda Trail.
Previously you mentioned the word adapt. Was adaptation part of the training? Did they encourage or talk about it? Or was it just intuition on the soldiers’ part?
I think it was intuition. You try and anticipate the things that might arise. As I said, no matter how much you anticipate there’ll always be something that will crop up that you hadn’t foreseen. Something gets wet or I don’t know. Again you had to keep all the relays dry because dampness would affect them. These were some of the problems that you got up there that we hadn’t had before. But they did try and
anticipate those in training. But again the conditions up there were pretty bad. The infantry up there were having to cross rivers that were in flood, which they didn’t know. And another part, intelligence said there was only a few hundred Japanese there and it turned out there was a division there. Things like that. It was terribly difficult to predict. I’m talking about mainly the infantry. They were the backbone. They were the hard ones. So it was a pretty difficult life in the jungle. It’s
so confining. You can’t see any distance. And you’re wet all the time. It’s not very good. I’d rather have the Western Desert any day. At least you were dry and you knew where the enemy were and it was open and it was man-to-man sort of thing rather than the jungle. Not good.
In training did the instructors encourage individual responsibility?
Oh, yes. That’s always…always tried to induct them to that way of thinking.
You’ve got to think for yourself. Again, as I said many times, it seemed to be a characteristic in Australia that you can do that. I mentioned earlier my experience when I was attached to the British Army, that they don’t seem to have that same adaptability and initiative that our soldiers have.
How would they encourage that individuality in a soldier?
Oh, well you might set up a situation and say to them,
“Well, what would you do?” That’s about all you could do. Try and foresee or plan a circumstance that would need a reaction from the soldier or signalman or whatever he is. And say, “Now here you are. What are you going to do? No good waiting for the corporal or the sergeant. What would you do?” And see what he does. That’s where you can tell if he's got much initiative or how he'd go in action later on. Whether he was a fella
that you could rely on to try and solve a problem or whether he'd just sit back and give in to it. That’s the sort of thing that you would do. Try and create that initiative to foresee problems and how would you handle it and how would they handle it? Make them think a bit.
And through that they would end up giving the soldier confidence in himself?
Yes. Of course , yes. That’s the idea of it because you never know when your senior bloke’s going to be knocked out.
I mean it’s no good having the dig [digger] relying on the corporal to tell him what to do all the time because the corporal might get knocked out within the first five minutes and the soldier has got to have the initiative to take over. Now if you read that book that I mentioned earlier to you, Bravery above Blunder, you’ll read some of the things that happened like that. That’s an outstanding book of how soldiers had to step in and take over when the circumstances changed and they lost a leader
or something. It’s a wonderful book. And that’s entirely what I’ve been saying.
How long were you at Atherton Tablelands before you left?
I’ll tell you, just a minute. I embarked for Lae…
Interviewee: Kenneth Pantlin Archive ID 1799 Tape 07
So being in the signals was your jungle training different to that of the infantry? What were you taught exactly at the Atherton Tablelands specifically as a divisional signalman?
By this time, I was with a Field Regiment Sigs Section, so my training was directed towards supply and
communication for the army artillery regiment. So we did a lot of physical training to get fit because we knew the jungle conditions were going to be tough. We did a lot of marching and training with the communications that were normally provided between the headquarters of the regiment and out to the batteries. So that’s a generalisation and that’s all I can remember. I can’t give you any specifics of what we did but it would have been providing radio and line communications and
making sure they worked. And they’d be simulating the conditions when the arty [artillery] would be operating, and they’d be doing their training and we had to fit in with them. In other words, the arty would be doing their battery training and setting up the guns and moving and we’d have to fit in with what they were doing, so signals were providing communications for the field regiment. It was a bit different to down at headquarters. I was commissioned by this time. So it was a different role; you were providing something for the artillery.
And whatever they do, you provide the communications for them.
What was your rank at this stage?
Lieutenant. I’d been commissioned, yeah. But that’s basically what it was. Normally providing radio and setting up the radio. And if you moved, then setting it up again and getting communications going and learning how to pass messages, cipher, how quickly you could set up, speed, all the time trying to get things done as quickly as possible. Defensive positions; how to
camouflage. That was important. Things like that.
What was your armament?
I had a revolver. The soldiers had a 303 weapon. We didn’t have any machine guns or anything like that.
Who were the headquarters guard?
Sorry? Headquarter guards? I’m not with you.
Were you still doing divisional signals at this stage?
Divisional signals, but part
of it. The Field Regiment Sigs Section was part of 9th Division Signals. The signals within the artillery regiment provided the communications for the artillery from the headquarters of the regiment down to each battery. You’ve got three batteries. Then there was communications from the headquarters of the regiment back to divisional headquarters, to artillery headquarters. So we provided all of those. So whereas before I was talking about working for the headquarters commander of the division, down to his brigades and the field regiments, I’ve gone down
one step now and I’m within the artillery regiment, from the headquarters of the regiment down to his three batteries and from the battery back to the headquarters of the artillery. So it was the same role but a slightly different level.
What did you find the problems were with training in the Atherton Tablelands? Doing this type of signalling work, communications
I can’t remember. I don’t think there was any great problem. We just had to adapt to the different conditions. You were closed in and distance was different. In the desert you get long distances because there’s no problems with trees or confined conditions whereas suddenly you’re in this confined area, with jungle conditions where your radio doesn’t penetrate dense conditions very much, like the
jungle or heavily treed areas. You run into trouble, the radios we had in those days.
So that was quite a problem?
Oh yeah. They had little radios in their packs on their backs.
So how did you surmount that problem? What could you do? This is, mind you, in training. You found this out it training didn’t you?
Well, yeah we knew it was a condition. We were simulating
the jungle conditions around Atherton. Some of that country’s pretty dense up there. And we were just trying to simulate it, that’s all you can do.
How accurate was the simulation to the real thing?
Never the same because it’s much more dense. Rivers, which were very swift flowing and fast. And the conditions were very different. In that sense it’s much more restricted. And
the jungle conditions were very dense. They had a lot of trouble getting radio through. Had to use line a bit. But again, as I mentioned earlier, the difficulty of line is that you had to go along paths, which were easily used by the Japanese to ambush our linesmen or whatever. It was a great problem. It wasn’t easy in jungle conditions.
So this was quite a problem for signals?
And transportation of the equipment was the difficulty too. See, you had no vehicles really. You had a few Jeeps. But most of it had to be carried, even charging equipment. See, you’ve got to charge your batteries. Even that was difficult to carry and set up. No, it was very difficult. I can’t remember any more than that. It was too long ago.
How long did your training last for?
What? In the Atherton Tablelands? I can’t remember. Quite a few months because we had re-training, we got a few reinforcements so they had to be assimilated into the units and become accustomed to their unit officers and
staff and so on. A few months. I can’t remember exactly. But quite a long while because you’re doing all this landing I mentioned earlier too. Landing craft. That was all new to us. We’d never been involved in that before.
Can you please tell us about the amphibious landing operations that you’d undertaken in Queensland?
Well, we did a lot north of Cairns. Mission Beach, I think it was called. It’s a nice sandy beach. They had their LSTs, which are quite a big ship and the front opens up
and you go off. Then there’s a small landing craft, which carries I suppose twenty or so, twenty-five. And then the front drops down. And they get in closer to shore. We practiced in all those, constantly going on and off just to get the hang of it all, and carrying your equipment or if there’s a Jeep, getting it off and setting it up and moving inland quickly. And then we went eventually up to Milne Bay, when we first went to Japan. And we did major exercises at
Milne Bay, divisional exercises in which we had all these LSTs and craft and landed the whole division and settled down into a sort of an operational battle order. And did landings there. And that was the major lead up to the landing at Lae, Lae and Finschhafen. That was the last big one that we did. But we did a number, I can’t remember how many, around Cairns. And that was all very, very new to us. We’d never done any of that before.
What were the difficulties with amphibious
Well I think I ran through them all. You’ve got a beachhead and you’re landing an opposed landing to start with. You’ve got to get across this usually narrow beach with heavy jungle conditions almost on the edge of the beach or on the edge of the beach. And you’ve got to get in quickly and move into your positions. That was the main thing you had to do. Get off the beach quickly.
So what sort of equipment would you have to have as a signalman?
There were a few Jeeps we had. They’re the main things. And batteries. Charging motor to charge the batteries. They’re the sort of things you had to get to shore.
So you'd have to keep these obviously from getting wet?
What sort of precautions would you take for that?
Well if everything was done right, you landed on the beach. The front dropped and you were on sand. So that was all right. But you get these occasions that I mentioned earlier when something happened.
The boat doesn’t go in far enough and the fella gets off and he goes straight down. That was infantry. Happened to a lot of the infantry that way. Some of those American coxswains weren’t very brave. A bit of fighting and they would want to land somewhere different. And often it was in deeper water. And that’s personally happened. I know a person that was involved in one of those and they
threatened to shoot him if he didn’t put the company in at the proper landing place. So the Yanks weren’t too brave. Sorry, we’re getting digressed now. But if it went right, you landed on the beach and the front came down and you got in quickly.
So what sort of things were you told about the Japanese? What were you told to look out for etcetera?
I can’t remember
specifically but we were all very aware of their capabilities. How they could merge into the jungle. They could live under very difficult conditions. I went through this earlier. I can only repeat those sorts of things. We knew they were a very difficult opponent, good fighter, very difficult to dislodge.
Did you have a different view of the Japanese to the Germans?
Oh I think so. Well see, they were two different types of fighting.
enemy you were fighting how did you view the Japanese?
Well, we’d heard some terrible things about the Japanese and I think that coloured our view, the propaganda we got. You were encouraged to dislike them. And we’d heard some of the things they’d done to our prisoners of war and that had coloured our outlook on them. We didn’t have much time for them really and I don’t think there was any respect for them.
Respect as a fighter but no respect as a person or as a race because of the way they treated some of our prisoners of war and what they did to them in Singapore; our nurses and all that sort of thing. And our soldiers didn’t like that. We didn’t like that either.
So your first posting was to Milne Bay?
No. We weren’t posted to Milne Bay. We did training in Milne Bay.
It was the final seaborne assault before we went to Lae and Finschhafen. We were involved in the campaign at Lae, Finschhafen, in that area of New Guinea. It was called the Huon Peninsula. It’s up towards Rabaul. There’s a sort of a kink in New Guinea. Up that way.
So your first landing was at Milne Bay? The first active combat? Can you walk us through what happened the day it
started, this landing operation, from your point of view?
I can’t. I know as we were going up and we were in the LSTs and we were attacked going there. One of the LSTs on the right was sunk and we were heavily bombarded from the air. And we were beneath decks, which was very unpleasant. But I can’t have any particular recollections of it being too difficult when we landed and went to the headquarters area. By this time the
infantry had been in ashore and made an enclave where it was protected. So when we went in the infantry had captured that area. So we didn’t get any hand-to-hand fighting when we got ashore. Because you’ve got to remember we were at divisional headquarters.
What wave did you come in? Was it one of the last waves?
I don’t know. I can’t remember. There was probably half a dozen
LSTs but I can’t remember the order in which we came in or anything like that. But we wouldn’t have gone in until the area had been consolidated by the infantry, before the 9th Division commander would come in.
Who was the 9th Division commander at that stage?
It was Wootten. Morshead would have been promoted to lieutenant general. He was a corps commander and Wootten who was a brigade commander in 9th Division earlier he was promoted to major general.
He was a huge fella. He was fat. How he stood up in the jungle I don’t know. But he was a good commander. Not as good as Morshead I don’t think. He never had the charisma of Morshead. No, that’s not right. He was all right. He was a good general but he just wasn’t as good as Morshead. The troops didn’t think as much of him as Morshead. I’m a bit vague on that. It’s too long ago. I can’t remember the details. But we went ashore all right,
set up our headquarters and away we went, and then gradually moved up the coast. I wasn’t commissioned by this time, sorry. It was next time back. I went up past Finschhafen then I was withdrawn and sent back to Australia to do an officer’s course – I’ve jumped myself a bit too much – and then I was sent back and did a course. Then I was posted back to 9th Division and that’s when I was with the signal regiment and they were getting ready to go to Borneo. I’m sorry I jumped myself there.
So in the Lae operation what did you see of the battle itself?
None. It was all further out from us and you can’t see anything in the jungle. You can’t see a hundred yards or so. That’s all you see. And the infantry were well ahead of that. They had all their battle area and the perimeter set up.
So what was your specific job in this case?
Can you tell us what you did once you got off the LST?
Well I was RSM by this time and fully administrative. Set up sentries, setting up, well again just making sure everything was right. It’s generally an administrative role. That’s all it was. Mainly putting up pickets and making sure that they were on duty of a night time and that the fences were protected and so on with the people that are on duty. And that’s
generally it. Not terribly exciting I’m afraid.
What problems did you encounter? What were the difficulties encountered in RSM duties at Lae?
Sometimes you’d find one of your soldiers would do a silly thing, like we had one shot by one of our sentries because he got up in the night. And there were strict instructions that you didn’t get up in the night. If you wanted to have a pee, well it was bad luck. You either peed where you were or you hung on. He got up and he was shot. Killed by our sentry because you had no second choices. That’s the
sort of thing you had to be wary of and try and teach the soldiers that they had to do what they were told because of the danger. You didn’t know whether the Japs had infiltrated through. They were very good at that, the Japs. They could infiltrate through and they were so quiet and you had to be very wary. So you didn’t run any risks. You didn’t move at night time. You could get wet to the skin and you wouldn’t move. You couldn’t afford to. Even the area where we were, which wasn’t in close
contact with the enemy. But they could infiltrate through the jungle and you wouldn’t know they were there. So that’s the sort of thing you had to be wary of. Make sure that the troops did what they were told to do and not do something foolhardy like this fellow did. It was unfortunate but it was his own fault.
So Japanese infiltration or snipers, were they a problem with your operation?
No. But you had to be wary of it
because we were back a bit from the front line but you had to be wary that it could happen at times. So of a night time you were very alert and, as I said before, you didn’t argue, sentries shot first then asked questions. You couldn’t afford to wait otherwise you'd find you'd gone yourself. So you had to be careful of a night time and during the day too but particularly night time, because the Japs were so good at infiltrating quietly through the jungle and you wouldn’t hear them or see
them until it would happen.
Did you lose many men?
Well we lost that fellow. Oh we lost a few in the brigades, yes. Brigade Sigs, which is part of 9th Division Sigs, they lost quite a few because they were in contact with the Japanese a lot and having to put line out. A very good friend of mine, he was an officer in the brigade section; they lost troops, yeah. You never knew where the Japs were, that was the trouble.
But no, our casualties were pretty light. I can’t remember any specific ones other than the one I just mentioned. I left them just after Finschhafen to come back to Australia and do the OCTU [Officer Cadet Training Unit] and the unit went a bit further on to a place called Sio then they were withdrawn to Australia. Back to the Tablelands and did more training before preparing to go to Borneo because by this time they'd pushed the Japs out of New Guinea, or further around the coast to the north.
So you were sent back to Australia for further training?
To do a course.
What would the course involve?
The aim was to become commissioned. What they call Officer Cadet Training Unit. You'd train a few months in the and then you'd qualify as a lieutenant, then you were sent to the School of Signals to do three months extended signal training, advanced signal training as an officer, and that was at Bonegilla. I said I was with the field regiment when
I wasn’t. I was with headquarters of signals. This time I was with the 2/7th Field Regular Sigs Section. And that’s training them to go to Borneo. Now by this time they'd had experience in jungle conditions and Borneo was similar but not quite as dense as the jungles in New Guinea, so we were training for those conditions. And then before they went to Borneo I was transferred to Bougainville to B Corps Signals,
a corps signals over there, so I left the 9th Division then and I didn’t rejoin them. They went to Borneo and finished the war up there and came back and were discharged, the unit as whole. But I went to Bougainville. I was on there for quite some time and the war ended while I was there and the unit was packed up and came home. But I wasn’t allowed to come home. I was sent to Rabaul, I think I said earlier. I was up there for some time,
looking after prisoners of war mainly.
Was that after the war?
Yeah, the war ended while I was in Bougainville.
Can you tell us the problems of jungle life? What sort of personal…?
Malaria. Wet conditions. You’re always wet. You
were supposed to take what they call an Atebrin tablet every day and that had to be done under supervision. As RSM that was one of my jobs; to make sure that everyone in the headquarters took an Atebrin. But even though that was supposed to stop malaria, I finished up with malaria. I took a tablet religiously every day as I was told and I still ended up with some terrible bouts of malaria later on. You were perpetually wet. You only had a bit of a cape to cover yourself. And what we’d do of a night time, we’d put banana
leaves over the top in a sort of…put your blanket and try over there make a hammock sort of thing with the banana leaf over the top to keep the water off you. But you wouldn’t be game to move at night. If something happened or you wanted to go somewhere, you wouldn’t move. So it was pretty difficult the conditions there. They weren’t pleasant. You were always wet. Food was all right. They kept food up to us pretty well, although it was a bit monotonous until we got the Americans involved a bit
and they improved the rations. But they were all right compared to what we had. But we had nothing of the conditions in the Kokoda Trail and some of those terrible areas and some of the stuff the infantry put up with. No, it wasn’t too bad.
What about quinine? Did you have that sort of medication?
No. We took this Atebrin every day. That was what was laid down. That was supposed to stop malaria.
Scrub typhus I understand was also another one?
Oh, it could have been yes. I don’t know of any particular thing. I couldn’t comment on that. The Atebrin turned you yellow.
When you'd come back from Australia, you could always tell someone who’d been in New Guinea because their flesh was yellow. I took some time to get rid of it. But you still got malaria. I had two really severe attacks.
So if you’re RSM, you had to administer these Atebrin or make sure people took it? Did people try to avoid taking the Atebrin?
Oh, no. They knew it was for their own benefit. You didn’t want to get malaria. So
there was no problem. It was part of the regulation that you had to make sure they took them that was all.
Was alcohol a part of…?
There was no alcohol. No, I don’t know of any alcohol in New Guinea.
What about Jungle Juice?
You mean Jungle Juice? Make it themselves? Oh I suppose that some of the digs did. I don’t know. I don’t know what they’d make it out of though. Some of the diggers might have. But I don’t know of any.
Never tried it?
No thank you.
I wouldn’t try that sort of thing. No. You’ve probably got some stories from the others, they may have. But no, we didn’t.
It had a notorious reputation.
Oh, sent you silly they reckoned. Made out of all sorts of funny things. Battery acid or something. All sorts of weird stuff. But I don’t know. I suppose some of them did.
When you’re a senior person you don’t always know what goes on in the ranks. I’ve learnt a lot since the war talking at reunions of what happened that I never knew happened in the unit but funny things did. So it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them did make it.
Like what sort of funny things are you referring?
You don’t have to mention any names.
I’m not going to mention any names. I’m not going to mention incidents either. But just little incidents that never got to
our ears despite the discipline. There might have been somebody going on leave and the other fellas covering for them and things like that that I never knew about or we never knew about. The diggers controlled themselves. I’m not going to go into it now. But that did happen down there and we never knew about it. So they might have made Jungle Juice. I don’t know.
Were there times you had to discipline people being an RSM?
Oh, I suppose there was. Again I can’t remember specific occasions.
I suppose there was.
Any particular severe ones?
Oh, look I can’t remember. It was too long ago. Those things didn’t worry me. They’re gone in the past and I don’t want to reflect on those sorts of thing. So those questions are too direct and I can’t give you an answer. I can’t remember. And I’ve never worried about remembering them. They’re not important. Not in my life anyway.
Did you ever encounter people who
found it unable to cope with…
The conditions and battle and operations and whatever?
Again I can’t recollect it. There may have been, I don’t know. See, some of your questions are more directed to infantry that were in very difficult and stressful conditions. In our communication area, it wasn’t quite as bad. We weren’t on man-to-man conditions
and fighting hand-to-hand and snipers and all that, so our life was a little bit easier. So that some of these questions that you are asking, my answers are a bit vague because they’re not so pertinent to my area where I was. So I’m not trying to be vague or evasive, but I just don’t remember them happening because our conditions weren’t such that would create… There was stress definitely but not to the extent that you’re going to have someone break down. Whereas the infantry, where they’re under constant
fighting and sniping and everything, there would be those situations where people would break down because of the conditions they were operating under. But we didn’t quite have it that way.
What kind of stresses did you face?
Oh, just the normal things I’ve mentioned to you. You had to wary of the Japanese. You had to be on your guard all the time and you never knew whether one had infiltrated. And that was the sort of thing that we had. But we weren’t in direct contact all the time. I keep emphasising that. It changes our outlook from what you’ve
been given from infantry and so on. It would be different. I suppose you could say from us we had a bit of an easy life I suppose in a way compared to the infantry; that would be true. We didn’t have the risks of death that they had. We didn’t have the hand-to-hand fighting, the sniping that they would be under for twenty-four hours a day, virtually. We didn’t have those sorts of things. So our conditions weren’t quite as bad. When you’re operating a radio you’re in a secure position. A commander wants his radio somewhere he can rely on it.
He doesn’t want it to be somewhere they can be blown up or operators killed unnecessarily and he loses communication. It’s such a vital role, communications. That’s why it’s that way.
By this stage there would have been a fair amount of new recruits and new officers?
Oh, yes, they came and went. Some of them scrubbed up, some didn’t.
How did that affect relations between NCOs [Non-commissioned Officers]
like sergeants and above?
No problems providing that the officer accepted the knowledge that his sergeants had. Some of them had been very, very experienced. I think I mentioned earlier, those that didn’t do this didn’t last long.
What do you mean by didn’t last long?
Well they got reposted. They were no good. They might be all right in the classroom but you get into action and when you’re handling troops, very experienced troops, you’ve
got to be very careful how you handle them. It’s no good being bombastic or pulling rank as we say, it doesn’t work, and those who tried to do that sort of thing were soon reposted, got rid of. The 9th Division had a very high reputation to maintain and right from every level they did that. If the officers or soldiers or the NCO didn’t match up they got rid of them. Didn’t happen too often but often happened with officers.
The ones that it did, the ones that it happened to, how did the officers behave towards the troops? What sort of things would they do that would lead to this sort of problem?
As I said, because they didn’t use the knowledge of their sergeants and so on that had battle experience and knew the problems and how to overcome them. They come in thinking they know everything; theory only and theory will never beat practice. Practical knowledge will
beat theoretical knowledge any day of the week, no matter what you might suggest, and this is where they fell short. Some of them when they got under fire were frightened. I know a couple of signal officers that went to water as soon as they were in action and they were sent home, reposted. Unless you matched up, you were gone, and that’s the simple answer to it.
Did you ever encounter cowardice?
Personally no. But I’ve known of occasions. Senior officers and they stayed in the regular army and became senior officers in the AIF, very senior. But that’s how it was. They were Duntroon Military College cadets that came up and just didn’t match up.
What type of incidents are we talking about? In battle or…?
Oh, cowardice. When they went ashore they just went to water and didn’t control the troops and the operations.
Sergeant had to take over. No names, no pack drill but I know that for a fact of a couple of them. Others just didn’t measure up. They might have been all right in the classroom but when they got in action, they just didn’t measure up. They just didn’t have whatever those things are that are required to be a good officer in action. They didn’t have it. And it’s not until you can get into action that you can find out these things.
How did these chaps get promoted to senior…?
Oh well, they came back and being from Duntroon
they got on.
Through networks, you’re saying?
Yeah. Peacetime you don’t get those problems, cowardice and so on.
What about desertion?
There was none. Again you see, we weren’t under the stresses of the others where you get in battalions. I can appreciate that some fellas would get so stressful under the conditions that just something would give.
I’m trying to ask general questions
because it may not directly apply in the sense of the type of stress that was on your unit as to the infantry. But the infantry’s really quite different to the angle I’m trying to approach you. It’s not to say that desertion can’t happen to signals units either. That’s why I’m asking.
Well, you take the overseas areas where we were in operations, where would you go if you deserted? I don’t know what other stories you’ve got from other people that might have deserted.
But where would you go? There’s nowhere to go in New Guinea. There was nowhere to go at El Alamein unless you could get back to Cairo or somewhere. There was nowhere in Tobruk you could go, so I don’t think desertion was a terribly good option. I could understand somebody getting so stressed that something gives and they’ve got to get out of the operations because it’s become too much. The brain goes or something goes, or they’ve had too much.
I know of an incident, I wasn’t involved but my friend was the officer. They had to put a line out and they'd lost a couple of sigs going out to repair the line and he said to one of his troop, “Righto Bill, you’ve got to take it out.” He said, “I’m sorry boss, I’m not going. I’ve been through so much now that I just can’t face going out there where there are Japanese snipers,” and so on. And that was a case. I don’t know what you'd call that, but he still
had his marbles and everything, but he’d just had enough. He’d been through a couple of campaigns and he just couldn’t go on any more. He couldn’t face that danger. He'd had enough. So that sort of thing could happen – and it happened with a sig troop out with the brigade and that’s an example I know for a fact. But I haven’t personally been involved with anyone like that and I don’t know of anyone that deserted. Some, when you went back to Australia,
they might have deserted and gone on leave and not come back but that’s a different situation. I assume you were meaning in operations. Is that what you meant?
In operations and AWL [Absent Without Leave] as well.
Oh, AWL is a different story. I don’t know of any particulars. It was too long ago. But I could understand that happening. They got home and been through a couple of campaigns and want to give it away and don’t go back. But not in operations, I don’t recollect anybody doing it. As I said, where would they go?
What was morale like in your unit at this stage of the war?
Well it was good. We were a pretty good fighting force. We were very efficient and we’d gone through a couple of successful campaigns. Never been beaten in a battle. And morale was good. 9th Division was the only division in the war that was never defeated in action. I don’t know whether you knew that or not, but that’s a fact. They went through four battles and nine campaigns and never been beaten. So the morale was high.
They had high standards, which they wished to maintain. And they did. It was a very proud unit, division, and that filtered down to all levels. They were very proud of their results. When you’re successful that breeds people to be very proud.
What were the other operations that you served in?
Yeah. You were at Lae.
Well I went through them. There was Tobruk,
talking in the islands here.
Lae, Finschhafen and then I was in Bougainville, then I was in Rabaul. I didn’t go to Borneo. I was over in the other side at Bougainville.
Can you tell us about your experience at Finschhafen?
Well, Finschhafen and Lae’s the same thing, you know, there just two little places along the same campaign. No there’s no difference to what I’ve just said. We were inland.
So they weren’t two separate landings?
No it wasn’t a landing. We landed at Lae. Finschhafen was another battle. There was a
port at Finschhafen, so it was a supply base later on. No, it was two separate operations but one campaign to clear them from that area. No, we landed at Lae and it was inland and moved up the coast northeast and so on, there wasn’t another landing. Only did the one landing. Borneo the others did. But I only did the one. And when I went to Bougainville we went by plane, so, no, only the one landing.
When you went to Bougainville this was at what point in the war?
It was probably about three or four months I suppose before the war ended. It might have been a bit more because it was before the Borneo campaign and that’s where the war ended when 9th Division was in Borneo and Tarakan and those places. So it could have been six months maybe, yeah, probably six months.
And I was Corps Signals then. That was one level back from brigade. Corps Signals was the next level, higher level, and we operated out of a place called Torokina. And we were doing line communications up through the jungle, through the hills down south where the operations were. The infantry were operating down further south. By this time, I was in the maintenance section. I was looking after all the equipment. Maintaining equipment.
And when the war ended, shortly thereafter the war ended, the unit packed up and came home and I went to Rabaul.
Were you aware of the situation in Bougainville at the time? What was taking place before the war ended?
Oh, yes, there was fighting there. A lot of Americans there. They were handling the port mainly and they pulled out when the Australians came up over there and took over.
This is Torokina?
Torokina was the
town or the port, yes. That’s about half way up the island of Bougainville and the fighting was down south and north and through the hills there. But the Yanks pulled out shortly after we were there and the Australians finished the campaign there and the war ended there. Well I was based in Torokina, which is quite an active place.
There was a bit more to do there. There was a small town, I suppose you'd call it. By this time it had built up. The Yanks make themselves very comfortable when they go to a place, so there were plenty of nice tents and facilities and so on. We were talking about the Yanks earlier, that they were very arrogant and so on. When you get them individually, they’re not bad. I got to know a few of them there, had meals with them. And when they left Torokina they weren’t allowed to
leave any Jeeps or radio sets or cable because the Americans claim it was cheaper to send them direct from America by Liberty ships to Manila or wherever they were going rather than send the ships down to Torokina and pick up second-hand goods and take them up wherever they’re going. So what the Yanks did when they were going, they told us where they were dumping all the stuff. So we were able to reclaim a lot of it. They were very good that way. They weren’t supposed to tell us or do anything about it. They were
supposed to dump it all and get rid of it but they did tell us where they had put it. So after they had gone, we went along and got a few Jeeps and cable and radio sets and things, which were a bit of a help.
Where were they dumping it?
Oh, in the jungle somewhere there. Some of the things they pushed over the cliff, which we couldn’t do anything about. But they didn’t take it with them.
They wouldn’t offer it to the Australian Army?
They weren’t allowed. But that’s how they got around it, because they weren’t bad individually.
That’s just a bypass.
Being a part of the 9th Division you would have also been aware of the tensions. 9th Division had a particular dislike for the American soldiers, when they hear the stories of what they were doing in Australia especially.
Oh, there was some fighting. I have no personal knowledge, only what I’ve read; that there were some scraps, yes.
I think that was pretty prevalent. The Yanks come over here with plenty of money and some of the girls fell for it and so on, and there was a couple of scraps between the soldiers, American and Australian, particularly up in the North Coast somewhere. A railway station or something, there was a big fight there. Oh, yes. It was just aversion to that sort of thing, seeing them getting the girls and whatnot. That’s not too good. Troops don’t like it. We never had
a great deal to do with the Yanks apart from they provided the landing ships and the landing craft. Our campaigns were in the 8th Army, there were no Yanks there, there was none in Tobruk and there was none in New Guinea, apart from the watercraft; they supplied the watercraft for us. So we didn’t have, in operations, virtually nothing to do with the Yanks. We were on our own all the time.
But getting back, you’re on a personal nature back in Australia, oh yeah. I think that was general from what I’ve read.
Interviewee: Kenneth Pantlin Archive ID 1799 Tape 08
When did your first trip to New Guinea finish and you return to Australia?
Can I look at my notes? I embarked for Lae on the 21st of February 1945 and came back on the 5th of April 1946. So that’s a year and two months. I was up there
the first time in Lae, Finschhafen.
So you came back after the war had finished? So everything was wrapped up then?
No, wait a minute. That can’t be right. No, that’s not right. I’m sorry.
So when you did come back…
From New Guinea?
Yes. Was the war in New Guinea wrapping up? What stage was it at?
When I came back to got to OCTU, I left them at Finschhafen. They went
up the coast, which would take another four months, I’d say, to a place called Sio where they were withdrawn and relieved by another Australian division. I’m not sure which one it was. 11th Division I think but I wouldn’t be sure. And then the unit came back to Australia and then started to train and prepare for Borneo. By this time, I was back in Australia at the OCTU. So I did the OCTU and the training at the School of Sigs,
and then I went back to the 2/7th Field Regiment back on the Tablelands. So the interval of time then, I can’t give you the exact figures. But the OCTU and the School of Signals advance course was six months. So work something out on that probably.
But the fighting in New Guinea was under control was it?
Well they were pushing them back right around the point around New Guinea. Past Sio the other unit took over. The bulk of the fighting had been completed.
Kokoda Trail was all over. And we, 9th Division had cleared up the coast and that was where the major Japanese force was. They gradually forced them around to Madang and that was about the end of it up there. That was the finish of New Guinea. They were still in Bougainville but New Guinea was just about cleared by this time.
In New Guinea were you mixing with militia over there?
What were the views on the militia?
that's a good question. I don’t know if I can reflect on it very much. I think we admired what they did in Kokoda Trail. There was that sort of attitude of chocos [chocolate soldiers] because they didn’t enlist in the AIF; that they were sort of another grade of soldiers. That’s about the only thoughts I’ve got on them. We never mixed with them. We never fought with them. Never had any real contact with them in an operational
sense. So I’d have to skip that answer I think because I can’t give any comment. There was that general feeling that they were chocos and if they wanted to fight they should have joined the AIF.
But once they were in the fight they suddenly gained respect?
Yes they did at the Kokoda Trail. Yes, that’s right. They did a good job. There was always a feeling I guess that they were in some way a little inferior to the AIF fighting troops that had been through
a lot of campaigns and were very experienced. Not all troops naturally but as a general observation, you’ve got very experienced divisional units that were very successful. So there was that sort of feeling; a little bit superior to them.
Did you know that the militia really respected the AIF? And when they came to New Guinea it was a big deal for them?
I don’t know.
I couldn’t comment.
You didn’t feel that at the time?
I can’t remember whether…we were too busy looking after our own things. I don’t think we had any feeling for the militia. Everyone was doing their job and that’s what it was. We weren’t involved with them so, no, it didn’t matter to us really. If we’d have been fighting beside them or we had some training with them or something, we would have had an attitude and would be able to give an opinion. But we were never with them. So I think it’s a…
I can’t remember any particular thoughts on it. I don’t know that there were any adverse thoughts. I think if there had been something or some particular circumstance or occasion that might have coloured the thinking, I would have remembered it. But I can’t remember anything that swayed our views one way or the other. Other than that general view that we were a bit superior to them.
When you returned you were split from 9th Division or the whole division came back?
From New Guinea? Well I
came back earlier because I went to the course. But the division came back as a whole to the Tablelands. And there again they started getting up to full strength and generally getting their health back and generally preparing for Borneo, which was to be another landing. I suppose different in a way. It wasn’t the same as the landing at Lae, which was a big amphibious operation. The Borneo one
was in larger ships and they went ashore in lighters and that sort of thing. A bit different from my readings of it. I wasn’t there. So there was training back on the Tablelands. Same area.
Was that by choice you came back for the course?
No. No, I was offered a commission. So yes, I came back. No choice. You’re told.
And when you actually came back, was it a chance to see family and friends or you went straight into the course?
Oh, I probably saw them
as I came through Sydney. The OCTU was in hills out at Adelaide. What’s the name of the place? Anyway, doesn’t matter. The camp was out, some twenty miles or so, of Adelaide and we were six months there. And then we came back to Bonegilla to do the three months course, my wife came down and stayed in Albury, so we were able to see each other a bit there. She had a little flat in Albury and I
could go in and see her occasionally when there was free time in the course but that was the only time I saw her. Back up to the Tablelands again and then across to… I think I must have had about four-and-a-half years overseas. A hell of a lot of time I was overseas. I didn’t see much of the family.
What did the course involve?
The one that you came back to?
The OCTU? Well that was basically infantry training and officer training. How to be an officer and all the different
infantry things mainly. And then if you qualified on that you became a lieutenant. And then you went over to your particular arm to do specialised advanced training. I went to the School of Signals to do advanced training on signal communication subjects at an officer’s level. So that was a six months course, the two of them. Three months each.
How did you feel moving up through the ranks?
Oh, I welcomed it. I was a professional
soldier so it was a career movement, which would help me in the future I hoped so it was part of advancement, yes. I think I deserved it. I did a lot of time overseas and that sort of thing. And I think I was due for it. And I stayed on and got further promotion in the regular army afterwards. So I must have been all right. I sound a bit egotistical
there. I’m not really. Just trying to say the facts. No I welcomed the opportunity. Well, becoming an officer was a nice step up in life.
It probably feels like a bit of a just reward after your time away and so on?
Yeah. I said that. Without being egotistical, and I don’t want that impression to be given in any way, I thought I deserved it. I think I was a good officer when I
became an officer. And I think it was subsequently proved when I was in after, life in the regular army.
So after the courses you were sent back to Atherton Tablelands?
With 9th Division?
As part of 9th Division with the Field Regiment Sigs Section, which I mentioned earlier was an artillery regiment, and we were to provide communications for the artillery regiment, which is the next level down from where I was before at headquarters of the division and divisional signals. It was out and you lived with the artillery
How did it feel going back to your group?
Oh, no particular feeling. Just part of life. That’s how it was to me. Just a part of life in those days. Yes, I welcomed going back. I was very proud of 9th Division and being part of 9th Division and what it achieved during the different campaigns. And I was very proud to go back and to get a regiment signal section.
I was disappointed when I was transferred to Bougainville because I would have liked to stay with them right through. But it wasn’t to be so I finished up over there. But no, I welcomed going back over there it. I was very pleased. Very proud to be part of 9th Division.
So you trained over there to go to Borneo?
The unit was, yes.
And then you were told that you were going elsewhere?
I was transferred to Bougainville, yeah. What they call B Corps Signals. The next level up
after division. You’ve got brigade, division, corps and army. So corps was in the middle there; next level up. The communication was a heavier type of communication radio and so on because you were working further back to major formations. It was a different set-up.
Before you left 9th Division and you were in Australia, do you think they were fully appreciated for what they were doing and what they had done?
9th Division? Oh, I think so. By this time we had the first medal, which was given to the 9th Division for fighting in Africa, and wearing that medal you got a lot of respect every where, public and other soldiers, because to have been through the Middle East campaigns sort of puts you a little bit different to the other people. And in those days medals were rare. They weren’t
handed out quite as easily as they are now, so it was a recognition. And I think that was accepted by the public. And you got the recognition for it. Yeah.
Was it recognised in the media and newspapers of that day?
I reckoned it was yes. We got a very good welcome home. I think there was a parade through the streets, if I remember rightly, or something like that. No, there was good recognition and welcome home. See, you’ve got to remember that
they'd been a very successful division. It was one of the few successful ones. There was Tobruk and El Alamein and coming home from all that, they came back with a pretty good record. And it was recognised by the press and everyone. And I think it was understood and accepted by the public that it was a good fighting force.
So what was it like going to Bougainville and your arrival there?
It was fly over, which was a new way of going, in a flying boat, which I’d never been in before. And landed there. And the conditions were great. The Yanks had been there, and as I said earlier they put themselves up very comfortably. Nice big square tents with nice floors in it and comfortable beds to sleep on and all this sort of thing. Nice mess for you with good food. Life was good there. There was still danger
with Japs but they got pushed down further south right away from where we were. The higher you go in the organisation the further you are away from the fighting. And Corps is a long, long way from the fighting. And they’re usually in the base place with a fair bit of comfort. So life was pretty good. Nice life there. We worked hard. We were laying cables up in the mountains and things like that. A new way of laying cable, which I learnt. We were pretty busy. And I was in charge of the maintenance and that was pretty busy, keeping everything. But it was a good life.
A bit of nightlife, I mean entertainment nightlife. You know, movies and things like that, which made life pretty good for everybody there. Mightn’t have been quite so good for the soldiers, the infantry fighting further out against the Japs but it wasn’t bad for us.
Was that the best conditions you’d experienced so far?
Oh yes, by far. I remember a couple of trips to some of the islands north or Bougainville on communication business, where
the Yanks had been and oh, lovely places on the water’s edge and good food. The Yanks could look after themselves. You’d go to have a meal with the Yanks, as I did occasionally, there’d be good Australian steaks there, which we never had. They know how to live. No bully beef. There were steaks and all good food. Never mind. That’s part of the business. No, life was pretty good there. It was the best part of the period I’d
been in the army.
Did their soldiers know what they were doing? The Americans?
I’m not clear in the question.
Were they good soldiers?
Well I gave some examples of the coxswains on the boats. Some of them weren’t very good. They were all right collectively, where they’ve got plenty of ammunition, but not much good as individual fighters I found. But individually they weren’t bad blokes. I went and talked to them
and so on. They were all right. It’s when they get together they seem to get this arrogance and bombastic attitude to life. If you can get a bloke just talking like you and I, then they’re just like you and I. I got on quite well with some that I met there. They were quite good people to chat with and go and have a meal, and they’d come up to our place and have a meal individually. But as soon as you get a group together, oh, they’re the bottoms. They try to outdo each other. Anyway, no, we got on all right with them there. They weren’t
there that long. They pulled out. And they were mainly doing tasks around the port. They left soon after we were there. So we were on our own. But we took over all their accommodation, which was quite good.
Do you think that the American soldiers have that ability that the Australians have of adapting and intuition and individual responsibility?
I find that hard to give a critical view on because I was never with them in operations.
And I think it would be a bit unfair for me to comment. I don’t mind commenting on where I had dealings with people, such as I did with the Brits when I was in Germany and so on, but I had no dealings with them directly. I’ve only dealt with them when we were on craft and that was a different situation. So, if you don’t mind, I can’t give you a view on that. It wouldn’t be fair.
What was the terrain like in
Bougainville compared to New Guinea and so on?
Well, once you got out of port of Torokina, which was a fair sized area base, they were just jungle conditions very similar to New Guinea. Pretty thick. There’s a spine down the centre of it, which is quite high and mountainous, and the jungle itself was very similar. Fast flowing rivers, short rivers, very swift flowing, which were always difficult to cross,
particularly when the operations are on. Trying to cross them. But where we were in the port, it was a flat area just like a small town. Nice roads, good conditions, good accommodation and so on. But overall the conditions outside that were very similar to New Guinea.
Did the locals in Bougainville help out in any way?
There was only
natives. We didn’t have a deal to do with them. We might have had more to do with the soldiers down in the sharp end. But no, we didn’t have much to do with them at all. We looked after ourselves and our own supporting units that we didn’t need to call on them. We didn’t have to use them as bearers or help out injured or wounded, no. We didn’t have them involved in that sort of thing. They might have further down. I don’t know.
Were they used at all for
intelligence, say their knowledge of the areas and so on?
Probably they did. But I don’t know. I wasn’t involved so I can’t comment. I’m sure they would have because they'd be part of the landscape as far as everyone was concerned. And it would be very easy to get information from them and for them to get information for you because they were on our side. So I’m quite sure it did happen, without being able to be specific about it or give you any examples. But I’m quite sure it would have been done, same as they did in New Guinea. They used a lot of those. They had the
ANGAU [Australian New Guinea Administration Unit] and they employed the natives as bearers and to gather information about the Japanese positions in the villages and so on and so forth, and they did a lot of good. And I’m quite sure something similar would have happened in Bougainville, without being specific and knowing.
Under what circumstances did you leave Bougainville?
Well the unit packed up and went home.
Then I thought I’d be coming home. In those days you had to get points. Once you got a certain number of points, you were released from the army and sent back to Australia and discharged. And I had more than enough points. I thought I was coming home with the unit and then I suddenly get this message from the army saying, “Sorry mate, off to Rabaul.” So I had to go up to Rabaul and I was posted to 11th Infantry Brigade Sigs Section again. Back to a sigs section, which was stationed just west of
Rabaul. I can’t recollect the exact distance but I suppose it would have been about ten miles out of the town, on the water’s edge, near the Japanese prisoner of war camp where the Japanese were. And our role mainly was to look after them and bring them in for working parties during the day and take them back at night. There was never any trouble with them. They’re pretty docile once they get their orders. They didn’t cause any great trouble. You’d only send three or four of your troops out to bring back
a hundred or so workmen. And they’d work around the place as carpenters or builders and they’d build us huts and things. They were no trouble. They accept discipline. And when they were told that the war was over and they had to do this and they did it. So that was just an interesting little period of my career up there. We didn’t do much communication-wise because the operation had finished and we were doing just an administrative role. Mainly
looking after this Japanese camp.
Was this before or after the war had finished?
This is after the war finished some time. It finished while I was in Bougainville. And then after that we packed up the unit and sent them home. So it was six months or so after, maybe.
What was it like hearing what had happened in Japan with the atomic bombs and the war being over and so on?
Well I was in Bougainville and of course
it was a great relief to know that it was over. And we knew that we were coming home soon – in vague terms soon. So it was just a sense of glad it was all over. I don’t think we were terribly concerned about the ramifications of the dropping of the bomb. I think it was just part of the war had to be finished and that was the way they decided it would be done. I think in my own view that it probably saved a lot of American lives. If they’d tried to invade Japan, it would have been extremely
difficult because people fight very hard for their own country. Finding that in Iraq now. So although there was a heavy loss to Japanese life, I think it would have been a heavy loss to the invasion force, whatever it was. Americans primarily. So I don’t think there was a great feeling of ill feeling about it. It was one of those things that ended the war. We hadn’t, I don’t think, by that time had all the ramifications of
what followed the bombing. You know, all of the illness and that that followed. We didn’t know about that at the time. As far as we were concerned, the area was flattened but that was no more than Dresden being flattened or London being bombed the way they were. So that was my view anyway. I think everyone was just glad it was over. If that was one way of achieving it well, that was good from our point of view, because we could get home and back to normal life.
When you first heard that one bomb annihilated one city, could you comprehend that?
You’re asking me to think back very hard now. Probably not. But at the same time, some of us had seen what had happened in London and seen pictures of what had happened in Europe and Berlin and those places, and they were pretty well flattened. When I was stationed with the British Army in 1951 – 1953, there was still damage
around in Germany. There would be a bit of façade at the front but nothing at the back. The damage in some of those cities was extensive. Not as bad as Japan. So you were conditioned in a way to this heavy damage to cities. So it probably didn’t quite sink in to the full extent of what happened in Nagasaki and those places. But I think we were conditioned to this sort of thing happening. So probably, and I’m only saying probably, the thoughts were
that it wasn’t as bad as later on when people were told and thought about what the ramifications were for the damage that was caused. That’s about the only comment I could make on that.
From your recollection that must have been a surprise that it was one bomb that…?
Oh, yes. You would. But again I say we’d seen so much damage in Europe that it wasn’t so bad. It’s hard for people now I suppose to relate to it. But when you’d been through it and seen London
and those places, to a degree it was damage and destroying cities so it wasn’t unexpected that it was so bad. It probably didn’t sink in. The extent of it probably didn’t sink in until some time later. As far as we were concerned it was the end of the war and that was all that mattered. And if that was the way
that accelerated the end of the war then that was good. And only payback for what had happened in some of the other places.
How did you celebrate when the war was actually over?
We had a bit of a party in the mess, dinner and that sort of thing. That’s about all. It was just so much pleasure that it was over. Probably had a few drinks I suppose. We were in Bougainville. As I said, life was pretty good there and we used to get some drink. Not that we were heavy drinkers but
there was an issue of drink, a whisky or a beer or something. So probably we had an official dinner to celebrate it that way. Glad it was all over. Just the feeling of pleasure that it was all finished. And getting home soon. That was the main thought in everyone’s mind. Be home soon. Didn’t work out in my case but we were hopeful.
After all those years involved was there a sense of relief and maybe a bit of an anticlimax when it is all over?
There’s relief. I don’t know whether anticlimax is the right word. There’s the anticipation of getting back to normal life as I mentioned earlier. That was the only thought in everyone’s mind. It’s all over; we’ve done the job. Let’s get home as quickly as we can get and get back to our normal life. That was all everyone’s thoughts were. No different to anyone. There was no great exultation that we’d won. There was no sort of, you know, that sort of thing, up in the islands where we were. More in the
cities here from what I’ve read, people in the street dancing and all that sort of thing. I think to the soldiers it was just satisfaction the job was done and it was all over and soon we’d be home. That was all the thoughts were. Just those. Different to the cities here where they went mad and I can understand that. The families going to see their loved ones home. Just another stage in the life too. Back to normal again. You had what, four or five years out of your life, living a life quite
different to what you'd been accustomed to. And you'd been adjusted to that and accustomed to that for four or five years, and again you get another change. Now you’ve got to go back to your normal life. And I suppose some of the people found that a bit difficult, to go back from ‘the excitement of war’ and comradeship and all these sorts of things and suddenly go back to ‘humdrum, normal life’. A lot of people wouldn’t have been so pleased. Some of them I guess would liked to have
How upset were you that you didn’t get to come home you had to go off?
Oh, apart from being extremely disappointed, there was nothing you could do. Go tot do what you’re told. You knew it had to end eventually. But it was indeterminate time that was the factor that was a worry. You didn’t know how long. If they'd said, “You’re going up there for a month.” Well that would have been good, because you would have known a month. But when you go up and you don’t know when you’re coming home. It was
only because I got sent back to attend a course at the School of Signals that I came back. Otherwise, I would have been up there longer because the unit was there for some time afterwards. I’m not sure how long but they remained there I suppose until all the prisoners of war were sent home. That would have been some time afterwards. So I was lucky to be sent back to a course. It was a regular army course that I was sent back to at the School of Sigs, so that was a help.
With the Japanese POWs what kind of physical
shape were they in?
Oh, they were reasonable. They were the ones around Rabaul. I don’t think they'd been involved in too much fighting, like they were in the jungle of New Guinea and so on, where they'd been emaciated and no too good health-wise. They were pretty good. Didn’t see any problems with them.
At this point in time, did you know what had been happening in Japanese POW Camps?
The Allied prisoners of war
camps, you mean? Controlled by the Japs.
No the Japanese camps during the war, with the allies…
Yeah, you’re talking about the ones that were captured in say, Singapore. Oh yes, we knew what had happened to them.
Did that breed a bit of animosity towards them?
Yes it did. That’s what I said earlier in one of the earlier discussions about it. We knew the way they treated their prisoners of war and that’s why they weren’t held in much respect or regard because of the way
they did those sorts of things. And it was just quite inhuman what they did in many of the cases. And that’s why compared to, say, the German soldiers, there was no respect for the Japanese.
So when you have them as POWs does that animosity present itself?
No, it wasn’t animosity, but there was no regard for them. They were just
people. Enemy soldiers that you had no regard for. You didn’t respect them. There was no respect for them. That’s all it was. You told them to do things and that was it. They were just workers. People. There was no respect for them.
Did you think the Japanese were expecting harsher treatment?
I don’t know personally. I can’t remember ever discussing it with them. I don’t think I ever did. I can only relate to what I’ve read, that a Japanese prisoner of war is regarded as the lowest in life because they’re taught never to become a prisoner. They’re supposed to get killed rather than captured. So in their own way of life, they didn’t have much standing in the community.
So would imagine their own respect wasn’t very high either because they were prisoners of war. But because they’re told that they’ve got to throw down their arms and do what they’re told, being that type of person, they did it without any problems. So we didn’t have any problems with them. Although they themselves probably thought that they were not regarded very highly in their own community because they’d been prisoners instead of being killed. It didn’t affect their outlook.
They just did what they were told. There was no problem discipline-wise as I said earlier. But that’s how it was in Rabaul.
And then you finally get home. What is that like; coming home after the war’s finished?
Well I came down to the school. And I don’t know how long the course was there, probably a month or a couple of months or something.
So you still didn’t get a chance to go to…
My wife came down to stay, down at Balcombe – that’s where the school was in those days – and my wife came and stayed in Mornington so I was able to see her. So life got back to normal. And then from there I was posted to jobs in Melbourne on the staff. I was kept on at the School of Signals as an instructor for a year or so, eighteen months or something, and my wife stayed down there and lived at Mornington. Then I was posted to the
headquarters of signals. The Director of Signals is the headquarters of signals in the Regular Army. I was posted up there on a staff job, so my wife was able to come up and we lived in Melbourne. Then I was sent overseas for two years training, selected for overseas training, and I was part of the British Army for two years. But that carried on. So after the war ended and I came back from Rabaul, there was school, Melbourne and a period of time there on the staff. And I did most of my army
career after the war in staff jobs, administrative staff jobs.
So at this time you were looking at the army as a lifelong career?
Oh yes. I started that and became Interim Army and just continued on. Just continuous service from when I enlisted in 1937 to when I retired in 1964 - 27 years. Just continuous.
What rank did you finally end on?
I was a major and retired with rank of lieutenant
colonel. I was a captain when I was sent overseas and I was promoted to major while I was overseas and then filled various major positions in Headquarters Eastern Command in Sydney at Victoria Barracks, training there. And I was 2IC [Second in Command] of the Army Headquarters Signals Regiment, which is the regiment in Melbourne. Then I commanded a CMF unit in Ivanhoe for a while. Then back on the staff again in
what they call the quartering, looking after accommodation in married quarters and all that sort of thing at the Army Headquarters then at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne where I finished up. I was in charge of accommodation and billeting in Tasmania and Victoria when I retired. But mainly what they call staff jobs.
Does it get easier as you go up the ranks or harder?
Well, depends on who you’ve got working for you I suppose. No, it gets easier. You grow with the job like everything else and if you didn’t justify promotion you wouldn’t have got it. So you can only assume that you’re capable of doing the job and you got promoted if you did the job well enough. It would depend on your staff. How good they were. And I guess that comes back to your own leadership and training. But no. I didn’t
find any difficulty. I enjoyed the two years in the British Army because you were dealing with big forces there in Germany. And as I said earlier, Russia was still stirring the pot a bit. So there were big exercises and things on a big major scale. You’re dealing with the Yanks and the French and Belgians and everything in exercises, and big-time, much bigger than we had out here. And then I was sent to the School of Signals in Kettering in Northern England. And that was quite a good period too. A very
good part of my life, those couple of years.
Could you compare what army life is like during wartime and army life out of wartime?
Well, yes. Peacetime, it’s a job. Wartime it’s not. It’s a career and you just do day-to-day work. You go to work at 9 o’clock or whatever it is and finish at 5 o’clock. Well that wouldn’t happen in wartime. You’re on duty twenty-four hours a day. And you never
knew what was going to happen tomorrow or tonight. Things can change rapidly. You get posted to different jobs in wartime. You get promoted or you get your staff changed, your troops changed and you’re constantly variation all the time. Whereas in peacetime it’s much slower and you know that if you’re in a job you’re there for two years, all things being equal, two years. And you can almost plan or know how your career’s planned for you
and the jobs you’ll get. Just like a day-to-day job.
Do you think some in the military or the military itself need to have wars for its existence basically?
I’m going to answer that in an oblique way. At the present time, we’ve got a lot of troops up in northern Queensland and all they’re doing is training. They go down to their training areas on the
coast and they do some landings and they do all this. After a time that becomes boring. It’s as I was saying earlier, you can train people and it’s not until the bullets start whistling and things like that, you get the real thing that it’s all part of what it’s all about. But when you’re training you get bored and after a while troops and everyone, “Oh, another one of these, another one we’ve got to do.” They go through the motions, partaking but in some enthusiasm.
So I think they need to have something which is an encouragement over there then, such as East Timor or where they’ve gone to Bougainville recently or maybe Iraq, where they’ve got something to bite on, to put their training to test and also to see how they match up themselves. They’ve gone through all this training and tried things out and now the thought is in their mind, “Now how will I go in the real thing?” And the real thing is
different to training, as I’ve mentioned. So to get back to your question, I don’t think it does any harm if you can get some minor engagements going, such as East Timor, and they went to Bougainville recently and sorted that out. It’s surprising how many areas we’ve got troops involved in at the moment. I think you’d be quite surprised if you knew how many places that we’ve got. I know in signals,
we've got at least six or eight detachments around the world, in the Sahara Desert and all sort of funny places. But it’s great training for them and I suppose in a way it’s a bit exciting for them to get away and do something practical rather than exercises. Now, every year signals go up to the Northern Territory and they do exercises up there. But I’m quite sure that becomes boring after a while because you’re doing the same things with a certain amount of pressure but nothing like the pressure of being
in operations and engaging with the enemy. And that’s what it’s all about anyway, joining the army. So the long answer to your question, I think it doesn’t do any harm. I wouldn’t like to see it in a major engagement. But I think it’s good training to get into the practical sides of operations as distinct from continual training, which becomes boring after a while. And once you get boredom in, things can happen, which shouldn’t happen.
As being someone who reached the higher ranks, do you think that boredom also
happens in the higher ranks with leading generals and so on?
No I don’t think so, because they’ve all got something to do. They’re always planning something. The more high you go, the more planning you’ve got to do. You’re thinking ahead all the time, of new exercises and you’re planning those. Whereas the poor old dig, all he does is tomorrow we’ve got to do so-and-so and next week we’re going up to do this exercise in the Northern Territory. That’s about the limit of what they go. Or they go off to do a course on something. But the more senior you are, you’re
planning things all the time. You’re well ahead in your thinking. Got to think well ahead all the time.
While you were in the army during the 1950s, how big was the Communist threat?
Well I was in British Army of the Rhine in 1951, 1953 and it was very strong. Russia was still causing trouble. They had the Berlin Airlift at that time. And there was great concern that they would invade the British Army of the Rhine,
which extended all over Germany, and there was great concern that they would attack. And there were plans….and being in communications we used to go on exercises very regularly. And each of them were staged right back to the Rhine River. So it didn’t take that much thinking to know that if things happened this was where we’d go the first stage and then there and so on. And our communications were built up accordingly and planned accordingly. So Russia was at that time that I was in Europe, and I don’t know what it was like back in
Australia, it was a very strong apprehension about what they might do. The Berlin Airlift was a success and something that the Russians didn’t think the Allies would be able to do, which they did: supply Berlin from the air, which was inconceivable in the view of a lot of people. But it was always there, the thought that the Russians would invade, yeah.
1950s, did you think this Cold War would last as long as it did?
No, I never thought I’d see the end of the Berlin Wall. Same as you can’t see an end to Iraq. But I suppose there will be an end to it. No. You didn’t think it would ever end. It was going to go on forever. You could never imagine the Russians changing as they did.
Do you miss the army life?
Yes I do. Although I always have a philosophy when you do change
or do something, you’ve got to make it work. It’s no good looking back. I got involved in the job at BHP and I enjoyed that very much. And I was quite happy there.