Dennis Williams
Archive number: 1912
Date interviewed: 07 May, 2004

Served with:

2/3rd Battalion
16th Brigade
6th Division
Dennis Williams 1912


Any access that you make of this website is undertaken at your own risk

You are listening to the interview audio


Tape 01


Now Dennis, remember what I asked you about trying to provide us with a bit of a summary?
Got you.
Off you go.
Well I was born on the 5th of February 1918 in Wales, United Kingdom, but I’m not of Welsh blood. My parents were both migrants into Wales, because there was work in the coal areas in the early years


of the 20th Century, late 19th Century, and rural depression in Somerset just across the road. So they met there and married and had four sons, of which I was the eldest. Then the depression in the coal industry after the First World War was pretty severe, and my parents migrated in 1925 with four children and five pounds, and came to New South Wales,


and went to the coal mining area in the Newcastle area, a place called Kurri Kurri. And unfortunately the depression had followed them, so my father never really had consistent work, so we were pretty poor all the time. Then when the Great Depression came, he was out of work for years, and we had times pretty hard. But once again, you know, community effort, we kept one another alive and we got through it, and I was


enabled to go to school, primary school in Kurri, and I went to Maitland Boys High School, which in those days was one of the very few high schools offering a sort of a copy of a classical education, and I went right through there, matriculated. Couldn’t go to the university obviously, no money, so I took a teachers college scholarship and I went to New England, Armidale Teachers College,


and graduated as a teacher in 1937. And I had my first job up in the bush, outside Kyogle in the McPherson Ranges in a little dairy farming district that you had to ride a horse to get into, which was an education all in itself. I stayed there for a year, and in the second year I was offered a job as music teacher at Canberra High School, which was


an ascent from the sublime to the ridiculous of the little small school, I’d been in before. And I was there when the war started in 1939, in September. Joined the army immediately on the first intake. I got a commission before we left Australia, went to the Middle East, served through the Middle East campaigns up in the desert in Syria.


Then we were to Ceylon, back to Australia, over the Owen Stanleys in that first great campaign, and a long period of rehabilitation after that, because the brigade had been destroyed. Then I went to, I was picked out as one of a group to go to India, as guests of the Indian Army, and spent four months or so there. Back, and we picked up a WRAN [Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service] officer


in Colombo, on the way back to Australia, whom I married when we got back to Australia, and then we had, I think one weekend’s honeymoon, and then I went back off to New Guinea for the last part of the war. And I was in New Guinea, up in the Sepik [River] when the war actually stopped. Got discharged, took up my work as a teacher, went to Armidale so that I could do a university degree, which I did,


and I finished up with a Master of Arts with Honours from the University of Sydney. Then pursued an ordinary career, Subject Master, Deputy Headmaster, Headmaster and I was a Headmaster for thirteen years. Finished at Maclean High School, that was my second and last appointment, up on the North Coast. Settled, stayed there after I retired, until my wife’s health meant we had to leave the house we lived in,


and we came to here, to the retirement village and that was five and a half years ago. My wife died, she became very ill and died almost exactly a year ago now, and I’ve lived here alone for the last year, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Thank you Dennis that was an excellent summary. Now as I promised, we’ll go right back to the start again, and draw it out in more detail.


What was the nature of your family’s involvement in the coal business?
My father, he was a farm boy in Somerset, and he was one of nine brothers, and there was no work for any, not one of them was able to stay in the quite beautiful area they were brought up in, a village called Cannington in Somerset. Three, I think went to London, a couple went to Yorkshire, one joined the regular army and died of


cholera in India, and I think four of them went to Wales, three of them, four went to Wales. And my father was fifteen when he had to go on his own, he was grown up and had to leave, so he became a coalminer at the age of fifteen. And my mother was the daughter of a rather unsatisfactory man who was a very fine stonemason and musician, but he drank,


and so they were always in some sort of poverty. My parents got married there and stayed married for the next sixty odd years. But the coalmining industry started to, well it was booming, of course, up until the First World War, because the Royal Navy at that stage, mostly ran on coal and the only coal that they would accept was South Wales coal, where it is


especially good steaming coal. But then after the war, we had the ridiculous business of reparations from Germany, and my father often used to tell me, he went down to the, with another group of course, down to the docks at Cardiff and watched a boat load of German coal being unloaded onto the, on the docks in Cardiff. So coals to Newcastle was a very real and bitter experience for them and there was a real depression in the


coal industry. Because the Royal Navy turned to, and most other ships turned to oil, and so coal became a drag on the market. By 1925 things were very hard indeed, there was no such thing as the welfare we have, so he took the plunge and his older brother had already gone to Australia, New South Wales, so he went with his family, and another brother followed afterwards. So there were three of the families


all living in this area in Kurri. And as I think I said, he ran into another depression there, so, and then the Great Depression in which times were very hard indeed. How my mother kept food on the table for four great hungry sons, and the man, I’ll never know, but she did somehow or other. And somehow or other, they managed to keep me at school. Well, keep all of us at school, but I was the only one that went right through to


matriculation, to Leaving Certificate, the others left after the Intermediate Certificate, and got various jobs. They’re all, we’re all alive still, and I have to wait until, they say I’ve got to stick around until I’m 87, so that we can all be octogenarians together. But that was how we actually got to Australia, and that’s been my parentage, particularly


they became good Australians and never had any yearning to go back and live in England.
Because of your father’s service in the coal industry, was he protected from serving in the First World War?
Yes, he was a protected industry, so he never actually served in the First World War.
It must have been quite difficult for your parents during those days in Kurri Kurri, when there wasn’t much money to be had?


Well, we were fortunate in a way, that just before the lock-out or the great strike put everybody out of work for the next years, Father decided he’d pay a few pounds for a block of land on the outskirts of the town. And with the help of a friend of his who was a builder and timber supplier, they ran up the framework,


the man subsidised him, I think it was a matter of two hundred pounds, and built what was a fairly basic sort of house. And we gradually improved on it afterwards, but at least when the worst of the Depression came, and a lot of people who were renting houses, which was common in those days, were evicted, we had a roof over our heads.


For example, in 1938, my first job, only for a month, was at Cessnock, a little primary school on the outskirts of Cessnock. And more than half the children in that school came from what we call a bag humpy town which had been built. You know what a bag humpy is? Bush poles cut out, and old corn bags opened up and spread


across, with any odd bits of tin you could scrounge from galvanised iron or any kind of material at all from the dumps, and then whitewashed, and that’s what they had to live in. They had to create their own sort of sewerage arrangement, well it wasn’t sewerage, lavatory arrangements and carry water in buckets to use, and that sort of thing. The extraordinary thing was that the children who came from


there were indistinguishable from the children of people who lived in ordinary houses. And there was a kind of morale, high morale and sense of pride among those people, as though they wouldn’t haul their flag down, so they lived decent, good lives. For example, the insides of these things, all these little humpies, were all lined with old Women’s Weekly [magazine] things, so they were the most colourful wallpaper you ever saw in your life.


And little bits of gardens laid out around them, with paths lined with whitewashed stones and things like that, in the humpy town. So you talk about the Depression, but it the people weren’t hanging about being hopeless, they were doing their utmost to preserve themselves until the Depression passed. And that’s the background that I actually came from, and in those days,


the way up out of that, sort of cycle of comparative poverty, was nearly always to get a teachers’ college scholarship and become a teacher. So a very big proportion of fellows my age, some of whom in other circumstances, they would have been captains of industry or lawyers and doctors and whatever, because the opportunities are there, became teachers. And some very, very fine


men, who mostly stuck to the profession didn’t try something else afterwards, when times were easier. So that, in theory, I was one of a group who were disadvantaged but in actual fact, except for the fact that there were no luxuries and whatever we wore and whatever we eat was pretty basic, I felt on an equal footing with anybody


else that ever had the same sort of education that I did.
What did you father do for work?
He was a coalminer, he started off as what they call on the coalface, digging coal. But then he injured his back in an accident, and wasn’t able to do that, he became what they call a shiftman. Which meant that he was the one, when they opened up a seam, he was one of the group that had to go and timber it up, sorry there’s


no point in gesturing, build a kind of a timber frame work within the coalmine. In those days, there were no mechanical things, it was all pick and shovel work, so that people picked it and shovelled it out, shovelled it onto skips that were pulled by little pit ponies up to the shaft, coal taken up to the top and then disposed of up there. One of the biggest mines, Richmond Main, I think had more than


a thousand workers, and this again, I quote my father because I took no interest in the coalmining industry. He said that he went and looked at, in later years, at an open cut mine that employed thirty men, and lifted in the day, twice as much coal as those thousand men had done from this great mine, called Richmond Main near Kurri Kurri. And that industry died,


the big industry with all sorts of underground coal mines, that died, but it became replaced with a much smaller and more cost efficient industry, that it still is at the moment.
And your dad had pretty much full time work throughout those early years?
Oh well, it was, in those days, strict union things, it was last on, first off. And he was, we were in one of the last waves


of migrants that came and got a job, so that if there was ever a dispute or if any particular mine didn’t have any orders and wanted to lay off people for a week or two, he was one of the first to get laid off. So really, the poor fellow, nearly all his life he was a kind of a, casual worker. But somehow or other he managed to raise his family alright. But he would have been a


lot more prosperous if he’d got into the industry a bit earlier and had been more or less, as his older brother had, who had pretty well consistent work, except for the big Depression, the big, yeah, the big lock-out, I think it was five, six years.
Did your mother do anything to bring in a little bit of money?
No, women didn’t do that in those days. Except my Father, he had a friend who was a professional


poultry farmer, and he got the know-how from him. So he ran in our backyard a minor poultry farm, in which we used to collect eggs, I think it was sixpence a dozen it used to be, to sell to the Egg Board. And my Mother used to get the older fowls, non-laying fowls and they’d sell them, she used to pluck and clean them, and sell them for two and sixpence


each, having been plucked and cleaned. But her job, as it was for working class people in those days, was to keep the family going. It was a man’s job to bring in the money, and a women’s job to run the home.
What about you kids, did you do anything for pocket money?
Well actually I don’t think, I worked on a milk run for a little while and I was, oh quite small, I don’t think I was twelve.


But if there was any odd jobs going that could earn two shillings, there was a man with a family wanted a job and not kids. So that a lot of young fellows, fourteen and fifteen, hit the road and jumped the rattler [jumped on a train], which is a phrase you might know. They got on the coal wagons and get off, and move up to some area, and then try and look for a bit of work, travel like swaggies, you know. And chop


somebody’s wood, or get a few days work on a dairy farm for half a crown and their feed, and that sort of stuff. But my parents, some other reckoned they wouldn’t let me do that unless it was absolutely desperate, so I stayed at home and helped a bit with the poultry farm. That was about the only thing that I ever did, of any financial help to the family.
So what did you do for fun?
Oh well,


my father put together an old bike together out of bits and pieces, an old push bike, and that actually worked. And I had two very good friends, and my own family used to go out every weekend, we never hung about the house, we were out in the bush. We used to walk miles and go to the swimming hole, and then of course there were always concerts, and


made up, you know, people make up concerts and dances, well I was a bit young for dances in those days. But we made our own fun, I think I learnt to play cards, people used to come around to our house and play rummy and cards, never played for money, or poker or bridge, 500 was about the thing. And crib, the 15-2,


15-4, like a kind of litany, I never heard of anybody playing crib since. And our house was a bit of a debating society, everybody was a communist in those days of course, and you can’t, I mean there was no shame attached to being a communist then, because communism was the hope of the working man in those days, until its ugly face became a bit obvious, a bit more obvious later on.


And so we made, made our own fun, and of course, always Church played a fairly big part in our life, but I was the only one who persisted with it. My brothers, when they graduated from Sunday school, abandoned the Church and I don’t think they’ve been inside one since, except to go to a wedding, or something.
How was that communism manifested?
Oh well they used to get propaganda,


of course it was fairly well organised. There were dedicated communists, and because they were active people, active communists, they all held the executive positions in the unions, and they used to get these, they’re pathetic really when you come to think of it, these propaganda things of the Soviet Union. Heroic looking working men, and the Stakanovites, if you remember, there was a man called Stakanov who apparently was able to do more work in a


day than anybody else, so he was held up as the ideal of the working man. And we had all the, the idea that privilege and class had all been swept away, every man was equal before the law and equal in opportunity, to go to the university or anything else, which was only a dream for a lot of working class people in our society. They said in Russia it was


going to be a reality, and of course it was only very gradually that the grim reality of what communism actually implied in Russia, actually became available. But I think most of them were very loyal. But when things changed after the Second World War, the more prominent communists became capitalists by setting up their own little businesses or running shops


and all that sort of thing, and were very good at it. We had a friend, young man called Ross, a Scotsman and he was a very dedicated communist, his child, his first child was called Karl Marx Ross, that’s what he was. And I met him when he was a young man actually in the militia after the war, and he’d dropped the Marx, but he was still Karl Ross, but he’d long. And he and his father, well he’d never known anything about communism, and his father had left it a long way behind him,


so they became absorbed into the mainstream. But I think in the unionism, in the union movement, there’s even still, after all these years, a kind of a nostalgia for the brave days when they were going to win the revolution, they were always talking about when the revolution comes. And you know, we’d all have strawberry and jam in the worker’s paradise, strawberry jam in the worker’s paradise. And if you didn’t like strawberry jam, you bloody well had to eat it, because that was what you got in the worker’s paradise, you know.


What sort of industrial unrest do you recall from your childhood?
Well in that, the Government, there was a great deal of unrest as you can imagine, especially a lot of hot heads in the coal mining areas. Because you forget people out of work in an ordinary kind of community, some are in work and some are out work,


and it was generally one can help the other. But in the coal mining area, everybody was out of work so nobody, well they did of course, as my father used to say, “It’s only the poor that help the poor.” And I remember there was a big thing, a mine called Rothbury out of Kurri, that had actually hired non-union labour, and a whole lot of, the men went out there one day to


well to confront these non-unionist labourists, and the threat was there of violence. And they were advancing in a very menacing sort of way on the thing, and the police, there was a police, small number of police and they pulled their weapons out and told the people to halt, or they’d fire. And they didn’t halt, so they fired and hit one young man and killed him. And I think he’s still,


I think he’s still a martyr, and his grave. Well for years and years, I know his grave used to be visited every year on the anniversary of Rothbury. And the Government set up flying squads, and they’d suddenly appear in Kurri on their motorbikes, down the main street. And an order had been made, there was to be no grouping of more than three people in any one place. If they saw half a dozen men standing, talking together, they’d pull up, out would come their batons,


and they’d, we were, if the men couldn’t run away fast enough, they’d get them and give them a good whacking and disperse them in that particular way. So, it was a, for a while there, a very dodgy sort of arrangement. And I was up the street one day, as a young boy, and saw one of these incidents with this flying. They didn’t call them flying squads, but that’s what they were, there was some other name they had for them.


But they were real and they operated, and there was always a simmering thing underneath the surface. There could be a violent uprising against the government, the government were genuinely worried and scared about it, as they were in England at that particular time. I remember because Churchill called the troops out, and all sorts of things.
So it sounds like at some points, there was a atmosphere of insurrection and tension?
Yes, but


my Father was never part of that, he was an old fashioned socialist who never went for communism, and he was certainly the most peaceful and pacific man I’ve ever know, so he never involved himself with any of that, he stood back from all that, he said it was all nonsense. So, but he had to walk very carefully, because you only have to


get into an argument with some of these hotheads, and you’d find that your family was being intimidated, your wife being insulted and spat on in the market, and things like that. And children victimised at school. So, but nothing like that happened to us, but we knew of other families that did, so my father was like above, he walked very delicately, and we got through. I don’t think he ever had an enemy in his life, he was very


well respected and well loved man he was, all his working life.
Well let’s speak about your school days at Kurri Public, what were they like?
Much, once again, I had absolutely no trouble at school, I was a good scholar, and I never got into fights. I do remember though, when I just turned seven, so I forget what class, the lowest class in primary school


I think, when we came to Australia. And I had that, what is really quite beautiful speech of South Wales, beautifully rounded vowels. And some stupid teacher seized upon me, because the idea is that the Australian accent was culturally unacceptable, was the general idea in those days. And so what you ought to speak, try to speak,


was like a cultivated Englishman. And so I was taken around the classes to read, to show them how English actually should be spoke. After school, I got a bit of a pushing around from some of the, from some of the rougher sort of blokes, who weren’t going to be told how they ought to speak, so I developed an Australian accent pretty quickly, and I never had any more trouble after that. And it was just,


school was fairly bleak, it was a bleak looking sort of place with no amenities, and that continued for a long time, public education. Even the high school I went to, half the high school, it was a great high school, but half of it was broken down old wooden, we used to call them portables, but they weren’t very portable. But any school in New South Wales, it didn’t matter where it was, was very much the same. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen some of those dreary old


public schools, most of them have been tarted up and rebuilt, and that sort of stuff. But if teachers were dedicated, and I received as good an education in primary school, as the richest kid in the state, I would say, as we all did. And I qualify, when, in that area, because it’s an industrial, well you know, closely settled area, that when you finish sixth class, you had to do an examination, they called it a Qualifying Certificate, the QC.


And the best of those from the area were allowed to go to Maitland High School, and I fortunately got into that band. And the next band, say from Kurri where I lived went to Cessnock Intermediate High School. Another lot, the next lot would go to the Tech, what they called a Technical School, yes, Technical School, well that’s what they did, you know.


For three years, they learnt practical things like woodwork and metalwork and all those sort of things in Maitland. And the bottom lot, stayed in what they called super primary in Kurri, seventh and eighth class which was a kind of a poor man’s first and second year high school course, in Kurri itself. And I went to Maitland High School, and as I say, it was one of the very few, I think in those days when I went there, 1930, there were


only half a dozen country high schools in the state, and it was one of them. And we used to play, we played rugby union of course at school in those days. We could only play Newcastle High School and a couple of local teams that played around the area there. But no, it was a fine school and I matriculated, as I say, once again. We were a fairly


recognisable mob, the Kurri mob they used to call us, because we weren’t as well dressed, and we had a kind of pride in being known as the rough necks of the school. We never, never aspired to wearing the school uniform, it was too expensive and that. But we had our own thing. I had a kind of a following as a bit of a rebel,


we never did anything very much except annoy the sports master, who was made responsible for general morale by doing things that a dignified high school boy shouldn’t do. That they should stand around or go and kick footballs, but we played ‘saddle me nag’, and sometimes we even played marbles, just to annoy Mr Henley the sports master. But the


headmaster used to barely tolerate us. I remember it was in 1941, my younger brother was coming through school. They had a thing where they wanted to know, you know, morale and the war effort, any boys that had older brothers serving in the forces. So my young brother said his brother was Dennis, and the headmaster, “Ah yes, ah yes, I remember him, what’s he doing now?”


“Oh he’s a captain in the army.” And the headmaster said, “He’s a what?” He couldn’t get his mind around the fact that I was an officer in the, in the army and responsible for discipline. But it was a, I got through very happily and matriculated, not as well as I should have, but I wasn’t a very good student. Got a teachers’ college scholarship out of it, and nobody could have done better anywhere else, a fortunate life.


What’s saddle me nag?
Oh, you’ve never heard, oh well, it was a fairly rough sort of a game. It used to start, and you had to go up against a fence, and a fellow would be, with his head against the fence. And other fellows would be over, gripping him round the hips to make a kind of, five or six fellows, and then you had to throw your hat,


cady, a hat was a cady in those days, cady’s on or cady’s off. You had to throw your hat and then you had to leap in a kind of a leap frog, and leap frog up as far as you could, to grab your hat, you know, and hold it in the same thing. Which was a, the blokes who were being the nag, you know, the horses’ back, you could get knocked around a bit, and somebody digged their heels into you, or land on a


sensitive part of your back. I think somebody, it was strictly forbidden in the school, because somebody might get injured. Because that’s why it became a regular thing down the backyard of the school, we used to do that. So it was a fairly rough way of putting in recess time or lunchtime. It’s interesting, I don’t suppose anybody has played saddle me nag for fifty years, I suppose.
I’m sure the insurance companies would have something to do with that.
Oh yes, they would nowadays.
And what


sort of discipline and punishment was there in the school?
Well the intractable people, the cane was an option. But in fact, not only did I never get the cane, and I don’t think senior boys ever did. I mean, and I never actually saw anybody caned, so discipline was no problem. There was never, never anything like these, what you find in schools these


days, louts and all, people like that never got to Maitland High School anyway. So, you had to be of a certain level of academic attainment before you got in the place, and yeah. Whether there was any discipline problems in the lower grade schools, I don’t know, but certainly not. It was fairly strict and I think the threat of corporal punishment was there if you


really did step over. Although some of us were used to, did silly things, we never did anything that was contrary to good order and discipline. But I used to get detention a fair bit, of course that’s relevant too. Because my train didn’t used to go, leave until half past four from the local railway station. So the time between half past three when you finished


school and half past four, was an hour to fill in. So if you were on detention, there was one of the, one of the masters there who was an Englishman and he’d been a warrant officer in the old British Army, and he loved drill, you see. So we used to get in there, and his idea of running a detention squad, very wisely was drill. And it became, some of us were fairly regulars, and I got to like it. In actual fact, in the hour, whether I was on detention or not, I used to go and join the drill squad, so I


could form fours and on the halls on the left form platoon, quite complicated military manoeuvres and do that. And as I say, shun and unshun in the proper way, and hold your shoulders and what are the things in your trousers for except to put your thumbs on them, when you are standing to attention, all that sort of stuff. So when I actually got in the army, because I could do that and drill a squad, that’s when I first became


an NCO [non commissioned officer], purely on the basis of what I’d learned on the detention squad at high school.
You mentioned before that there was a, the teacher’s scholarship, or the teachers’ college scholarship was quite an institution for getting out?
Getting out of the sort of lower echelons of the working class. Well what happens, you’ve got your tuition completely free of course. But you’ve got…. fifty pounds a year was the scholarship.


And when you had to pay, there were no live-in colleges for boys, there were for girls, you had to pay twenty five shillings a week board. So that, allowing for the fact that you lived free at home for the holidays, you could, we worked it out that your fifty pounds a year, was able to pay your board, and I think we had two and sixpence a week, left over for drink and


riotous living. Well you paid, we used to have a school, a college dance every Saturday night, which various people used to play the piano and stuff, just for the dance. And you took your girl and yourself for six pence, that cost you a shilling, and some of us even started to smoke cheap cigarettes at the time, you could buy a packet of cigarettes for sixpence, and that’s how we lived. I never tasted liquor or any of that sort of thing,


it was outside of my budget. Well, I was eighteen and nineteen, I was seventeen when I finished school. So those two years, eighteen and nineteen were two of the most wonderful years I ever had. First time I ever had a girlfriend, because mine was a boys’ high school, and I never had any sisters or cousins, so I never met a girl really until I went to teachers’ college, and then spent two years making up for lost time. And it was a very


good education that we had rounded up, to prepare you for a job. One of my lecturers, a dear fellow became a very good friend, he said, “You know, you’re missionaries, you’re going out, you’re all going, you’re not going out into cities, you’re all going out into the bush. And you’re going to bring a little bit of civilisation to a group of really underprivileged country children who will have nothing else, except you to


depend on, to show them there are better things, there are more things in life than just getting up in the morning and milking the cows, and working again, working your guts out until its your turn to work full time on the farm when you’re fourteen.” And that’s how we looked on ourselves in those days, it was a very idealistic sort of community.
And was this training to be primary or high school?
Primary. You couldn’t be a high school teacher, unless you had a university degree. And of course, as there were


so very few high schools, there weren’t very many of those, so it wasn’t a problem. It was only after the war when the number of high schools exploded, that they had a bit of trouble manning high schools. There was quite a lot of high schools that had, they had to take teachers that weren’t degree, that’s why after the war I decided to carry on, I couldn’t think of what else to do, anyway, be a teacher. And I liked being a teacher. So I did this university course,


and became a graduate after the war, and then stayed teaching in high school.
What did your parents think of you getting that scholarship?
They were very proud indeed. I was, you know, the white hope of the side [the hope of the family], which embarrassed me very much, because I knew I was very far from being the white hope of anybody’s side. But in those days, it pleased. One of my big troubles in those early years, the


expectations were unrealistic, and then an embarrassment to me. First of all, I was supposed to be a musician, I used to play the violin, and they thought I was much better than I was, and I knew in my heart I was only a very ordinary sort of violin player. And then they thought I was going to be a writer, which would have been all very well, I’ve always been able to write, but I had nothing to write about, I had no, the urge or the capacity to create,


creative urge wasn’t there, or the thought. So the nearest thing was teacher.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 02


Dennis, what syllabus were you taught in Armidale?
It was very practical, aimed at creating teachers who would know how to teach and how to work in a classroom, and go straight out. That was abandoned much later, and I used to be very irritated with a headmaster, having students thrust onto me, who had,


or young teacher, sent to my staff who had no conception at all, they’d been given what was, they called an education although that was a bit of a misnomer in some cases, too. But in those days, Armidale Teachers’ College was a leader in the field. We had a bit of, things like we had to learn psychology and basic


physiology and all that sort of stuff. Because as a teacher, you were out in the bush, you were expected to, if there was an emergency, you had to cope with it in some way or another, cause you were the only educated bloke in the district and all that sort of stuff. Yeah, I know it’s difficult for people of your age to understand that, what rural Australia was like, no amenities whatsoever. But we were also, and this was the most valuable part, well in high school we learnt purely academic, in a high


school, in my high school anyway. Purely academic sort of us altogether was English, History, French, Latin, Maths 1, Maths 2, Physics, Chemistry and that was it. So there was no cultural, artistic or manual things whatsoever. So we were expected, when we went to teach in primary school, to be able to introduce primary school to the music, art, and all these other things. And so


we had a fairly extensive course not only practical art which I was hopeless at, but the appreciation of art. And it so happened that at Armidale High School there, by the generosity of a man called Hinton, and nobody realised at the time, was the best Australian art gallery in the country, and it always remained so. So I became very familiar with all the very best Australian artists of that day and loved it.


Then we learnt woodwork and crafts, which I’d never done in all my life before, and as I say, things like, very elementary I suppose, psychology and physiology and those sorts of things, to prepare us for being. And we had to learn the techniques of basic arithmetic because most of us had been doing high school mathematics,


and how do you teach kids to count, and do their times table and do long division and all that sort of stuff, so we had to go through that sort of thing again. But by and large, it was an extremely successful curriculum which should have never been abandoned the way it has been. Well of course, there’s no such thing as a teachers’ college now. You’re supposed to learn any teaching techniques on the job, when you actually go to a, go into a school, so your first twelve months as a teacher in the


school, you’re probably a dead loss to the, to the profession as such, until you learn a lot of things, the hard way, when you could have been taught them, as we were, as part of it, you know. How to keep a roll, how to mark a roll and all that sort of stuff, we learnt those things, which nowadays they don’t learn, and it’s very difficult to teach. So yes, it was a very practical, very enjoyable course in town. Music of course,


we’d never had music at school, that’s. I’d always been interested in music, that was a revelation to me, singing in the choir and learning to read music, and appreciation of music from listening to music and that sort of stuff, that was a very important part of it.
What history were you taught, to teach?
Mostly, there was a basic course in Australian


history, which was covered by a little book called “The Byunus Scot[?], A History of Australia.” which I found a copy a couple of years ago just before I came down here. All my books, as you can see, I’ve got a few here and a few in the bedroom in there, but I used to have thousands of books, but I had to get rid of them all and it was probably one that got caught. But basic, nothing to do with Aborigines, we didn’t know they,


all we did was the First Fleet and the early convict days, and then crossing the Blue Mountains and then the great explorers, Sturt and Stewart and all those fellows, and Oxley. And the opening up of Australia, the beginnings of the great industries like sheep industry and wheat industry, and that was about it. You only ever learnt that as a part time thing in high school, up to third year, otherwise


it was British history. So by the time I’d finished high school, I knew a great deal about British history, and very little about anything to do with Australia and Australian history. And that was the same thing, we had history courses. They were beginning to think that Australian history should play a bigger part in the lives of Australian children,


than it then did. Regarding ourselves as merely outposts of Britain, was kind of, ought to be less important than understanding of ourselves as a community of our own. See, when I went to the war, my designation, my card said that I was British, I was British from Australia. And that’s what I always thought of myself, I


thought I was a British person who happened to also be an Australian. A very different attitude from today. So that was the kind of attitude that we had, that was 1936 and 1937.
Can you tell us about your first posting as a teacher?
Yes. 1938, there’d been a change for many years through the Depression, they


trained very few teachers, because they didn’t have the money. And then suddenly they found they were short of teachers, so my particular, the year before mine, I think they’d only taken twenty two students into Armidale High School. And I think my particular year, was a turning year, 1936, ’36, that’s right, 1936, I think there were well


over fifty, sixty something students in there. And I’ve forgotten what the question was now?
I want to hear about your first school?
Oh first school. And a lot of them in the earlier days had to wait up to six months, sometimes twelve months on the dole, or trying to get casual jobs and running around shooting rabbits before they actually got a job. But my particular lot, we all got jobs straight away. My first job, I’d been bought up in Kurri, I


was appointed to this, I mentioned it earlier on, to a little primary school on the outskirts of Cessnock. And it was a very interesting time, and I learnt a great deal, I had a very sympathetic headmaster who became a good friend for years. I used to visit him, he’d been an old digger from the First War. And the,


do I need to repeat this? That half the pupils in this little school, came from a bag humpy town. People had been evicted from their houses in Cessnock because they couldn’t pay the rent, and so literally evicted, out on the street, with their few miserable possessions. I was mentioning that as an example of sort of social history, that these


were people who were really deprived, and they were without, lived just outside the town, cut poles out of the bush and rigged up a rig, and from old corn bags that you could open up and make a, sorry, better not gesture.
That’s fine.
Opened up corn bags and draped them over these things, and with bits of galvanised iron that they’d scrounge from the dump, they made little houses. And they were very proud of them,


they used to whitewash them and whitewash was cheap, you used to buy it as a powder, mix it up and then slosh it on, and you could keep it white if you did it every now and then. The more coats you put on, the more weatherproof it was, and you used to line the inside with the insides of old colour magazines, you know, old Women’s Weekly and things like that, and so it was a very colourful, and they took pride in it. And their children, they were, clothes were


well worn but they were always clean, always properly ironed, and their behaviour was exceptional, and some of them were very good children and very good pupils indeed. Who I think, I heard afterwards, a lot of them did very well in life, so that they weren’t, they didn’t become delinquents because they were deprived. But that was an experience that stuck with me and made a very great impression on me.


What kind of impression?
The impression that people, you can’t put them in categories and you can’t say that people with a great amount of wealth are better or happier, than people who have got no wealth at all. And there’s a pride in ordinary people that won’t be put down by circumstances. That lived in raw hope that things would get better and they’d be able to work and live a


more dignified outer life, but they made the best of what they did, what they had, and took a pleasure and a pride in what they did. So that’s a, for an ordinary careless young man, that’s a very great lesson to learn early in your life. And I had a sort of respect for my class there was third class kids, what were they, seven years old. And they were wonderful kids, but I only stayed there a month.


Can you tell us what it’s like to step in front of a class for the very first time? I would have been terrified.
Well you see, once again at the teachers’ college, we used to have what they call practice teaching. So that very early in the piece you were introduced to this. And I can distinctly remember my first thing, it was down at a little two teacher school just outside of Armidale. And they used to be in two parts, a young woman had


the first, second and third classes, and the headmaster, the man, he had fourth, fifth and sixth class. And the impression you got that this was a very good school when you walked in, because little schools like that, and one teacher schools proliferated all over the country. Because communications were such that it was better to put up or have a little school where the kids roundabout could go to it, rather


than elaborate bus systems like they have now. So all those schools were pretty well disappear, those sort of things. But anyway, we got there and observed the first couple of days, just watched, and I was stuck with the lower lot. And I don’t know who dreamed it up, but they told me I had to give a lesson about Shakespeare. And I went home, boarding house,


and I thought what the hell can I….? I talked to little kids,of course the subject matter was no problem, because Shakespeare has always been a passion of mine since I was a very young boy at school. But you know, how to go about it and what to include. But anyway, I dodged up a lesson which included some of the songs


from some of the plays, “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.” things like that, and I could sing. So I give this lesson about some of the brighter bits of the stories of a couple of the Shakespeare plays, and some of the songs that he produced. And linger a bit over some of the lovely words, and even though I suppose little kids couldn’t understand much, you could explain it. And that was my first lesson, and that was when I first realised I liked being a teacher. I had


no problem facing a class then or after that, it was just something that came naturally, I had no trouble with it at all. Some of my friends were terrified, they were very stiff for a start. Although, being all intelligent people they all got used to it and made their own arrangements, but I never had that sort of problem.
And after Cessnock for a month, tell us


about the next place?
Well I got a telegram which said, “Report immediately to Tullenbah, via Afterley, via Kyogle.” And I showed this to the staff at the little school, and two vias, they said, I wonder where, cause you know, they were all experienced people, some of them had served in small schools, so we went scrambling for a map.


And looking to try and find it, we found Afterley, but no mention at all of Tullenbah, so anyway, I caught the train, got up to Kyogle Railway Station and got off, and there was a taxi driver, and I said, “I want to go to Tullenbah.” “God.” he said, “What for?” That was a good introduction; morale was starting to drift a bit by this time. He said, “I can take you there, but it’ll cost you


nearly two quid.” which was nearly a week’s wages. And if I’d known of course, I could have stayed at the hotel for half that and caught the cream truck that went out once a week to pick up the cream, but I didn’t know that. But anyway, the taxi driver stowed me aboard, and said, “The road’s pretty crook.” I said, “Oh well.” And we were driving along, and I said, “Yes, it is a bit rough, isn’t it?” He gave me a look,


he said, “This is the bit they fixed up and done.” and he was quite right. Because all it was for most of the way, and certainly after Afterley where it went up over a mountain ridge, and down the other side, was just a track, really a horse track. The, once a week this cream truck rattled and jostled its way down. But otherwise, if you wanted to get in and out, there used to be a mail truck that used to go everyday to Afterley,


and if you wanted to catch it to go to into Kyogle, you had to ride a horse over the, over the ridge through the bush, and down into Afterley. So I landed at this forlorn looking, broken down, unpainted house, and a rather slatterly looking woman appeared, and I said, “Mrs Piggot?” “Yeah.” Well I introduced myself, and paid the taxi driver and off he went.


And she said, “We’ve been expecting you.” And I said, “Well, here I am.” and she showed me my room, which was a bit of the side veranda, curtained off with a bit of hessian, and with a bed in it and that was it, that was, no wardrobe or anything at all, just a bed. Oh and that’s right, there was an old wooden chair in there too, and that was my room. And


the man of the house came in and introduced ourselves, he was a much brighter specimen, he became a very good friend, Arthur Piggot, he was the farmer, but his wife, the dumbest and most basic sort of human being I’ve ever struck in all my life. Oh she was a good producer, she finished up having nine kids eventually but she only had, at that stage, I think, Noelly the baby, he was only the fourth, so all the rest of them happened after my


time. So I said, “Where’s the school?” and he looked just vaguely, he said, “I’ll show you.” So we walked up past the pig pens and that’s another thing, I’d always thought of pigs as being nice white things with curly tails. And these were great ferocious looking things, that acted and looked like tigers, you know. One day a calf had died, and he chucked the carcass over into the, and they tore into it,


exactly like tigers tearing this thing to pieces. And he said, “You want to be careful of them, by the way.” he said, “They’re pretty savage, those.” a couple of big boars. Anyway just past those, there was a shed, you know, a typical shed you found on an old farmhouse made of slabs with a tin roof. And with an old double sort of door, and went in and had a dirt floor. And


nothing inside, at least they’d swept it out and that sort of stuff, but that was the school. He said, “We got a note saying there was some furniture on the way, it should be in Kyogle Station, and we’ll get the truck to bring it out.” you know. So we waited, and it was only two or three days and I made the acquaintance of my pupils, twelve of them.


But it happened to be thirteen, because one of the Piggott’s little boys, he was four, he wouldn’t stay at home, if his brother and sister, they were going to go to school, he wanted to go to school, too, and he kicked up a fuss, and I said, “Let him come if he likes, it won’t do any harm.” He was a good little boy and he learned to read and all that stuff. The furniture duly came, it was a long thing that you probably have heard of that but never seen one, long desk at which four kids could sit. And I had to screw them all


up, and the benches that they sat on, long benches that they sat on, and so we started. And that began a year of one of the most quick and educational experiences I ever had, because this was my first experience of rural Australia. And this was a completely isolated community, no electricity, no water supply, nothing like that, they lit oil lamps and water came out of a


tank. And absolutely no sort of things happened, nothing happened, no community life much at all, except in the horse world, they used to be very interested in horses and anything to do, and I gradually found that there was a kind of social life, but it moved at a very different pace to what anybody is used to in towns or cities.


And I learnt, very quickly learnt to ride a horse and they were very kind, they let me use one of their old horses, a pretty good old beast, he was a good walker, Mac they used to call him. He had a head like a bullock, but he did me and they lent me a saddle, and so I was equipped, and I learnt to crack a whip. And for a tennis match on a Saturday, I learned to ride seven or eight or ten miles


over the mountain with somebody, for a tennis match against Afterley. And all those sort of things and I started to read and got myself into Kyogle and bought myself a second hand table so I could do, it was made of cedar it had been shockingly abused, and I bought it for five shillings, I think. So I spent some of my time sandpapering it down, and it


was going to be a project, you know, to restore this to its former glory. And I read, and I said we had a P&C [Parents and Citizens] meeting of course, there was only four families so I asked them to come, and we got a lamp up in the school, and we sat around solemnly. And I was madly trying to think what you did at a P&C meeting, because I’d never attended one in my life and didn’t know what you did. Anyway, they were all


quite keen, so I said it would be nice if we could raise some money and buy a bit of sporting equipment, you know, perhaps a, the girls could play too, a cricket bat and some stumps and that sort of stuff, and we could at least have cricket and play that. They said, “Yeah, that would be a great idea.” but they said, “Oh we could make a cricket club of our own.” so the P&C meeting turned into the ways and means of


making a cricket pitch. And I think Karen was with me, only a few months ago when visiting Kyogle, we went out to Tullenbah to have a look, and went looking for the old cricket pitch was a paddock now, overgrown with weeds and we had to hunt around for quarter of an hour and finally found it. And there it was, the cricket pitch we’d made, it took us weeks to make it, but it was as good as new.


It was wonderful concrete, you could land a Boeing 747 on it, of course the concrete was about a foot thick, you know, which was. But anyway, as I say, we got a club together and we actually played Afterley across the road and some other mob that came that year. And the cricket club, I subsequently found, lasted a few years. Then the population of Tullenbah declined, the dairy industry


faded away, and there’s nobody lives there, or there’s a couple of people live there, I think they live on the dole, I don’t think they do anything much. But the farms, the farms have gone, it’s a very sad looking sort of place these days, and the old paddock and the cricket pitch, are overgrown. But I got to like all those people and I became a part of their community, it was pretty good, considering they had a profound contempt for townies, for a start. And I think I managed to win their,


particularly with the cricket pitch that did it, because schoolies were always people with soft hands that couldn’t do anything practical, you know. And I had blisters on my hands along with the best of them digging it out, so they accepted me as part of their community. And I was, I don’t know whether I was looking forward to it, because it was a fairly limiting sort of a life, and a very lonely kind of life, too, really. Nobody my age that I had anything in common with. And


I was looking forward with some trepidation to spending three years there, which was usually the sort of thing. But on the September holidays, I got out and went to Sydney. And it was a fortnight, but then I spent a week with. And I was going down Pitt Street, and a bloke suddenly put his hand, I wasn’t looking much where I was going, put his hand on my chest and said, “I forgot about you.” and it was a music lecturer


I’d had at teacher’s college, who became a very good friend, his name was Campbell Howard. And he’d been appointed as Deputy Director of Music at the Department of Education, Deputy to a legendary old figure called Treharne. Treharne, yeah, that’s right. And a fiat had gone forth that there would be music taught in high schools. Which was all very well except that there were no trained music teachers,


and were would they get one anyway. And he said, I learned this subsequently, but he said, “Where are you now?” so I told him up in the bush. He said, “How would you like to teach music in the high school?” I said, “I cant’ do that, I’m not trained to do that, I don’t know anything, I can’t play the piano.” He said, “Oh no, you can play the violin and you can sing.” he said, “Would you like to give it a go?” I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll try anything once.” He said,


“Right next year, Canberra High School, how about that?” So I had to go back to Tullenbah and tell them the news that I was only going to be there one more term, and they’d get somebody after me. And packed my box and off I went, and so at the beginning of the next year, that’s 1939, I fronted up in Canberra. Of course Canberra was only a small town in those days, and there was no


high school. There was a Canberra Grammar School, one for boys and another one for girls, and there was an intermediate high school at, the big primary school at Telopea Park, which was one of the earlier suburbs that actually got built, you know. Of course, Canberra in those days was just little clumps of houses, that eventually became great suburbs, the ones you know now. It was mostly bush with beautiful roads set out on a very complex


road plan. And so I started work, and they were building a new high school, brand new white stucco place, we moved into it in, I think it was May. So there I was in a quite, to my terms, lavishly equipped, it wouldn’t be held that much these days, teaching music which, no high school wanted in those days, they thought it was an intrusion. Because music meant


merely a period a week teaching them to sing or something like that, that’s all it was. And so the headmaster couldn’t provide enough periods to fill my day, so what they finished up doing was leaving me three days at Canberra, and two days at Queanbeyan, to teach music, singing. And that was alright, we had a good choir, we won a competition and it was a revelation after being stuck up in the bush. Of course, Canberra even in those days, was the most marvellous place


to live that I’ve ever struck, and still have. Whatever you wanted to do, there were always highly enthusiastic and intelligent people who wanted to do it as well. So I belonged to a church choir, a good big excellent church choir. I belonged to a male voice choir, I was in a drama group that was, you know, highly enthusiastic and run by one of those intense women that seems to get to run these things.


And I think she’d been some kind of a semi-professional actress herself before she got this other job and took this business on. And we were actually preparing, we did one play in that early year, and we were rehearsing another one, to be, take place in November, and of course, Mr Hitler put a finish to that eventually. And she was going to write to the Prime Minister to insist that


my ill-advised action in joining the action, could be deferred surely, until this play had gone on the boards. She never got a reply. And I played in a hockey competition, I couldn’t play football, I used to play football a bit but I wasn’t good enough to get in the competition there, but I played hockey. So I, you know, ran around with a few girls and started to learn to play the piano, marvellous life. But as I say,


I was in Sydney in the September that year, holidays, September holidays, and was at my old music teacher’s place at a sort of a party. And Mr. Menzies [Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia], announced, I think it was about nine o’clock that night, that Great Britain was at war with Germany, of course we’d been following with great trepidation for years, the progress of Hitler. And if I’d known how to do it, or had any


money, I would have gone off to Spain to fight against the fascists, but I didn’t know how, so I didn’t do anything about that, but at least this was home grown, and I was determined to join the army straight away. I was a bit frustrated, I went back to Canberra, but of course Mr. Menzies hadn’t made up his mind yet, what was going to happen. And he didn’t actually announce until the 10th of September, that there was going to be an expeditionary force,


that, the Australian Army, that is the militia, wasn’t going to be mobilised at all, that was going to stay, and they would raise a special force of one division to go and fight in Europe with the British Army. That’s what the idea was to start. And so it wasn’t until after the tenth that they opened the recruiting offices, and I think I was their first customer


in as soon as they opened the thing in Civic Centre in a little office, with a dumb looking lance corporal there manning it. And so, I think it was about the 11th of the 12th, whatever the day was. And I went in and said I wanted to join the army. And this corporal said, “Do you want to join the militia or this new force they’re talking about?” I said, “I want to join the new force.”


He pulled out a sheet of paper, name, and you know, age, occupation, and I said, “I’m a teacher.” He said, “Oh, I think that’s a reserved occupation.” I said, “No, no, no, I’m a music teacher, that’s different.” So he wrote it down, and I was in. And, but we had to wait, he said, “You’ll get called up in due course.” and so I went


and told the headmaster who was a rather pompous sort of bloke. His name has just eluded me, but in his youth, he’d been a geologist from the university, he was a geologist and taught physics and stuff, and he’d been with Mawson in the Antarctic. You know, courage and fortitude were our watch word. But he was a nice man, you know, a bit pompous, quite a fine looking, big fellow. And I told him I joined the army.


And he looked at me down from his great height, and said, “And did you request permission for this?” I said, “No, I never thought about it.” “You should have you know, you should have.” then he placed his hand on my shoulder and he said, “But my boy, I think you have done the right thing.” I said, “Thank you very much, Sir.” and toddled off. But the summons came on the


23rd of October, I had to report the following day on the 24th, at some particular place to be inducted. So we went and had some kind of a travesty of a medical examination, by a half drunk looking doctor, I don’t know where he could have served. He might have been in the army anyway, but there he was, gave us a cursory examination. There were twenty of us who turned up that day. One chap,


a couple of years older than me, but was in the civil service, but all the rest were working men. And well one fellow had one eye he couldn’t see out of, you see. So right-o, and of course he would have not been accepted if they’d picked this up, so he had a technique. So they said, “Right-o, cover your left eye.” so he covered his left eye and read it off.


“Right-o, now cover your right eye.” so he did the same, changed hands and covered the same eye up and read it off again, and he stayed in, for the next five years in the army, he got in. And so they did a bit of this and lined us up and actually gave us a number. And of course Swedie Norswen, a great big dumb Swede, who you know, stayed in, he was my hut mate later on,


he got his number wrong, and he gave them my number. And oh, did I have trouble convincing him that he had the wrong number, and that this was mine, but anyway. Well we were told to bring two cut lunches, and by this time, it was late in the morning, and they said, “Alright, you can go now and report to the station at five o’clock this afternoon, you’ll be picked up in the train.” And they gave us,


I think they gave us a few shillings spending money or something, and of course as I say, the typical Australian, you know where they went. They headed straight off to the pub, and that’s where they stayed all afternoon. And I must say, they rolled up in various stages of inebriation, but they all got there. And nobody saw us off, I think one or two of them had a relation, but most of them were sort of itinerant workers and stuff, that didn’t have family in Canberra anyway.


And I certainly didn’t have any family and neither did Frank, the other chap that we made friends, we were the only two sober ones, the chap that was the civil servant. And we got on this train that already had a fairly large number of semi-drunken fellows on there, celebrating on their way to Sydney, we picked them all up all the way to Sydney. And it was a very bedraggled looking


lot that early next morning, we landed at, at Liverpool and hangovers regardless and we tumbled out of the train. And they hollered and roared and got us into some kind of a column, and marched us into a, half a mile or so to the barracks.
What did you take in with you, personal items?
A suitcase, one suitcase. And we were all in civilian clothes, oh underwear


and personal things, you know, another suit or whatever it was, cause we certainly didn’t know, that’s all, one suitcase was all we had. Some of them didn’t, some of them just rolled up in what they had, they didn’t have a suitcase. I’ll tell you that when we come to it later on, when we talk about the actual formation of the battalion. So we marched in, and there’s all the fellows that had got there a day earlier, yesterday and the day before. “You’ll


be sorry mate, you’re in the army now.” and we marched in and they numbered us up and stuck us in great long huts, and gave us a palliasse. Do you know what a palliasse is? A few bundles of straw and told to stuff your palliasse with straw, dump it in one spot in one of these long huts and there you were. You used your boots, you wrapped your boots up in a jumper or something, and that was your pillow. And the palliasse


and you got a blanket, and that was it. And I was a bit intimidated to know that these huts had been left over from the First World War, and they’d been a pretty wild lot in the First World War that had gone into this. And there were bayonet holes, they used to have fun when they came back to huts after being out on the tiles [out on the drink], punching their bayonets through the galvanised iron that was the roofs of the huts, just above your head level, there were half a dozen


bayonet holes which didn’t fill you with a great deal of confidence. But it was alright and we spent a, spent a fortnight there, learning to shun and the unshun, and as I think I said earlier on, things that I knew from my days at detention at school.
Can you describe what’s to shun?
To shun and unshun. I’m sorry, that’s an old army. To shun means come to attention, which you snapped at it and picked your boot up in a particular way and stamped it down. And to unshun


of course, is to stand at ease. I’m sorry.
No, it’s good to hear all this.
Those phrases sort of come unbidden to the mouth, that’s why we used to call it drill, shunning and unshunning. But the fellows were, some were pretty rough lot, you know, all sorts, and they were rougher than they normally would, because they reckoned this was great. They were joining the army and they were casting the restraints of civil life behind them. They felt it


was there bounden duty to be tough guys and to drink, you know, and do things they shouldn’t do, full of high spirits. But they loved the drill and stuff, we did it all day, and there were militia sergeants and militia officers that were doing it to us. And anyway, at the end of a fortnight, they said, “Right, this is your recruit training, now you’re going to join your battalions.” And


that’ll be in the newly formed camp at Ingleburn, which was, I think it was six miles from there to Ingleburn, I think that’s what it was. And one bloke said, “How are we going to get there?” And the bloke said, “You’re going to march there.” And the fellow said, “March there? Six miles. You expect blokes to walk six miles?” And in their innocence, they didn’t know that in a few months time, they’d be walking thirty six miles.


Because we’d been filled with the stories that the infantry would be all trucked, you’d never march anywhere, you’d always have a truck to take you there, it was like, better than having a horse and that sort of stuff. The sad truth was that infantry was exactly the same as it had been in the First World War, and anywhere we wanted to go within twenty miles, you had to jolly well march there.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 03


Dennis, the 6th Division and the 16th Brigade in particular, had a bit of a rough neck reputation. What sort of men were you in there with?
A very mixed.
Sorry, we’ll start again.
A very mixed bag, actually. There were particularly among officers, we didn’t get troops from the militia much, we got some but not very many came across. A good few officers, and of course


they really were the making of, it would have been impossible to create a battalion without them. Because despite the story that Australians don’t need training or discipline, just give him a rifle and he’ll beat the world, that sort of stuff is one of those stupid conventions that people still carry on with. But they came from all walks, there was a story that they were all. Well, of course, Mr Eddie Ward [Labor politician] called us ‘five bob a day murderers’,


and ‘economic conscripts’, and I suppose there were a good many fellows that joined the army because they didn’t have any jobs, the Depression was still there, but there were clerks and teachers and odd fellows from all sorts of walks of life. But basically what you’d expect, the basic one of the battalion was very ordinary working men.


There were one or two villains that sneaked in, and one of them, well I’d better not say his name because he might have some relations somewhere, really was a very bad hat.
Sorry. You were saying one of the characters was a bit of a bad.
Oh there were two or three of those, but they got rid of most of them. They only joined with no serious intention of going to the war, and they were weeded out fairly quickly. So it


was a good cross section of Australian, of male life, I suppose, under which naturally, as you would expect, most of them were ordinary working men. I mean they used to play up and so on, and do anti-social things on leave and that sort of stuff, but nothing as bad as some of the stories we got from the First World War. As a matter of fact, I reckon our fellows were particularly


well behaved and never got into any serious trouble, and we never had any troubles in that particular way, with discipline or anything else.
At what point Dennis was, were you being considered for a commission?
Oh well, that’s what I don’t know, not quite sure. But it was, oh we, we actually moved into, from what you call it, camp, that Liverpool training


camp, we moved up and actually formed the battalion early in November, 2nd or 3rd of November, something like that. And they were, I’ll never forget the first parade, somebody rounded us all up, and some fellows, a group of us who’d come up from Liverpool, were more or less, well after a fortnight after intensive drill and stuff, we vaguely looked like soldiers. And other


fellows had been drifting in, actually into Ingleburn itself, and this parade that lined up, there must have been, at that stage at least eight hundred, yes, probably that. As the battalion filled up, a battalion in those days was nearly a thousand men, nine hundred roughly. And one fellow turned up with a pair of bell-bottom blue, navy blue trousers, a pair of dancing pumps, and an athletic singlet, and


that’s all the field equipment he could find, and he was there. But then they pushed and roared and hollered and got us more or less into a couple of lines, lines that vaguely looked like an army parade. And then the colonel appeared. Now the colonel was a very special character, his name was Vivian Theophilus England, he’d been in the 12th Light Horse in the First World War, and he’d


been in that famous charge at Beersheba. Then he’d joined the Royal Flying Corps and was made a second lieutenant and he survived the rest of the war as that. After the war, he took a keen interest in the militia and commanded a battalion of the militia, through the inter-war years. And he was selected to actually command


a battalion in this new AIF [Australian Imperial Force], he volunteered for that. He was a big tall, great big fellow, six foot two, six foot three, magnificent looking man, he was in his forties then, so he wasn’t as sylph-like slim as he was when he was twenty. But beautifully dressed, he had a marvellous looking uniform, with riding breeches and riding boots, you know, the long boots, the proper thing. And he was a superb horseman too; you’d expect that, being in the Light Horse. And anyway,


he came on this quite spirited horse, and appeared on the parade, and we were sure he did this deliberately, he made the horse curvette and prance around, while he controlled it and so on, with a firm hand. So when the show was finished and the horse had settled down, we all gave him a rousing thing of applause, which he, he professed to be annoyed about, but in actual fact, I think he was absolutely delighted, he was


quite a showman in lots of way. Anyway, we were broken up, this unlikely looking lot were broken up into companies and platoons, and in those days, it was three infantry companies, A Company, B Company and C Company, and Headquarters Company, and while we were actually in Ingleburn, they changed the pattern to fit the old British Army, and made an


extra infantry company, to make four infantry companies. Well, I was part of a platoon that was handed over to a tall, very handsome man, called Philip Parbury, who was a member of the family who ran Lysaghts. And he actually was an executive of Lysaghts even before the war, he was a man in his middle twenties, I suppose, who turned out to be a very distinguished officer indeed. But at that particular stage, he’d been given a


commission, didn’t know anything at all about, you know, the things that made a platoon tick. So he used to have a little book, and of course, the first thing he had to do, he lined this unlucky looking mob, and he didn’t know anything about drill. So the first thing you had to teach a platoon was drill, you know, which was always in any army. He said, “Has anybody here


had any experience with drill?” and there was a bit of a silence, and my mate who was next to me said, “You could do that stuff.” So I said, “Me.” and put my hand up. He said, “Good, what’s your name?” And, “Right well.” he said, “Get this squad of formed men, and do some simple things like


right turn, left turn and forming fours.” I said, “Yes Sir.” and proceeded to do it, because I knew how to do it. And he was very impressed indeed that this young fellow could be able to captain and drill the squad, so I was made an acting corporal on the spot, which was confirmed a few days later, so I was a corporal almost as soon as the battalion was formed. And it was only a week or two later,


we were successfully surmounting that, and he was learning very rapidly what a platoon commander had to do, so I became sergeant. And another, they told you they made D company, Don company, as it’s called, an officer had to be made to command it, to make its new platoon, so people were


drawn from other places to make up this new company and platoon. And it needed a company sergeant major, warrant officer, so I got the job. And on actual fact, I was actually awarded a warrant, but I don’t know what happened to the piece of paper, but I had a warrant as a warrant officer. But then, once again, it seemed only a few weeks, must have been only a


few weeks, because there wasn’t all that much time and the colonel called me in. And I went in with great trepidation, because he was a rather big, intimidating looking fellow, the old colonel. So he said, he read out my name, he said, “How old are you?” I said, “Twenty one, sir.” And he looked at me, and he said, “I don’t want any bloody lies.” he said, “For a start, this stuff about altering.” I said, “I am twenty one.” caused I looked about seventeen at that stage, innocent looking young fellow.


So he accepted that, and he said, “I’ve decided to give you a commission. You can go into Kitchener’s, which are in…..” I think they were in Pitt Street, “Which is my tailors, tell them I sent you, and I want you to have a good uniform, I will not have officers in my battalion who are scruffy looking.” With my mouth open, I sort of stood there, he said, “Well that’s all, go on, get on with it.” So I marched off, fortunately I remember to salute and about turn and


get out. So I went into Kitchener’s, got myself measured for a uniform, and I reported with my ordinary things, and he gave me, either he or somebody gave me a couple of pips to put on my shoulder, and he said, “Report to the officers’ mess at so and so a time.” So I reported and I was welcomed into the officers’ mess, and made a blue in the first time. The colonel


ceremonially bought me my first drink and then, when that was consumed, I said, “Would you like another drink, Sir?” And I was taken aside and told that you never ask the colonel if he would like another drink, because that might indicate that he’d already had some, and you know, you were querying him for too many drinks. And I thought, God. So you ask him if he’d like a drink, not another drink. So my first lesson in officers’ mess etiquette. They gave me


a platoon in B Company, and I had to start learning because this was a dizzying ascent up through the, up through the ranks and I think it was the 12th of December that I was actually commissioned. So I, my three, two of three platoons were run by hard-bitten fellows who had been in the militia, and one of them had been,


one of the soldiers, most of them in the platoon had been gold miners at West Wyalong. As I say, a pretty hard bitten lot. But I got on well with them, and I had a pretty good old sergeant, Sergeant Smith, he became a friend for the rest of the war, and we proceeded to teach one another things. And I depended very heavily on these two sergeants, because they’d been in the militia for some years. So that I had enough sense to learn from them,


let them do things like instructing on bayonet fighting, which I’d only ever read about in books and never actually seen. And we pressed and one of the, well disadvantages of being the newest officer in the Australian Army, is that we had a parade in Sydney, the 16th Brigade went into parade, you know, a final


march, and I had to stay home and look after the shop, while everybody else went off to the march, which I suppose, I didn’t mind very much. But I would have loved to have been there and done that. And come to think of it, I think I missed nearly every march that everybody ever had, because for some reason or other, I was in hospital or doing something else instead. And then on the 10th of January, we were taken off and put on ships, and


once again, I was left with a small group of people, to clean up the lines. Well of course you’ve never seen anything ever like it, because everybody had come in with all sorts of civilian gear that they carted in, and of course, when they left they weren’t allowed to take any of that. So they hadn’t had time to take it home to their loved ones, so the barrack room things were a complete shambles, messes of clothes and personal equipment and stuff left all over the place. And so we worked like slaves, pretty well around the


clock, for nearly twenty four hours, to get it into some sort of order, and really we got to the stage, where we didn’t have enough dumpster things to put the gear in, but we cleaned it up. Scrambled on board the ship just before she sailed, and we sailed out through the Heads on the 10th of January 1940. And as one old soldier said as we cleared the heads, “Well, you’re all ex-servicemen now, all you’ve got to do is get home again.” so we sailed off into the wild blue yonder, and we left Australia.


Prior, in those two or three months that you’d had in camp, what did you think you would be doing?
Oh well, we assumed, see. Well the received wisdom in there, that we were going to England to fight on the Western Front, in other words to take up the First World War where they’d knocked off in 1918, and just carry on, you know.. Because our thinking didn’t look forward to that, and I don’t know that the British Army had much different idea either, they were just going to go to


France and fight the Germans. And the idea was, we learnt that we were going to be sent to Palestine which was a nice handy place where we would be trained. And then when we were sufficiently trained, we would hop on the ship and go around to England and become part of the British Army, that was our idea. But of course, things moved along fairly rapidly, and the thinking in Australia moved from only having one division, they said well, we’ll have two divisions


and they started raising the 7th Division. When we got, it was the 16th Brigade, we were there on our own, the 17th Brigade from Victoria was slower at getting organised than us. Well sorry, the powers that be took longer to get them equipped than whatever they called equipped, and put them together and put them on a ship. When we got to Palestine, which was


soon after my birthday, I think it was about the 12th of February we landed in Palestine, my birthday was the 5th of February, so I turned twenty two on the ship. We were taken to camps down what is now the Gaza Strip. Gaza was the headquarters and we had the villages up and down, up the coast, Duras, Arafan, Destineed and places like that. And then we had to,


we were sort of sponsored in by the Black Watch, the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch, and we got some of their second hand clapped out old vehicles. And they put up the EPIP [European Purpose, Indian Pattern] tents for us, and then we did the same a month or two later for the 17th Brigade, when they come. So there was the 16th and 17th Brigades in Palestine.
Can I just ask you a couple more questions before we get quite that far ahead?
That far ahead.


Prior to leaving Australia I know you’d had plenty of drill practice, but what sort of tactical and combat training had you had?
Oh probably the very basic stuff. Of a platoon for example, “There’s an enemy machine gun post up there, right-o. So you’re going to attack it.” So one section moves to the left and


pins it down with fire, while the other two sections, coming from the right and the centre, moved up and bravely assaulted it from the front, and took it. Which, you know, it a fairly simple sort of, and basically it’s a standard operation, that’s how a platoon does work in the long run. But really, practically no tactical


training whatsoever, it continued to be what you call section training. In other words, our three sections with the platoon operate together, and learning the ordinary basics of. We spent, for example, one night we had to go out on a route march sort of manoeuvre, and we camped the night. And nothing else, except we carried a blanket with us,


and we just sort of camped under the stars for the night. Weather wasn’t too bad, not too cold, it was just like being in the boy scouts, which some of us had done, gone and camped for the night in the bush. I myself with two friends, we’d ridden our pushbikes from Kurri, then to Maitland and up to Port Macquarie, on what was the Pacific Highway, but no car on it, so it was a rough old ride up there. And we camped on the


way, camped on the beach at Port Macquarie for I think three days and three nights, and rode our way back. So that was a fairly common sort of thing that young fellows did in those days, so it was, just, well the pleasure and so on, of being on a camping holiday, that particular stage. You just had to hump a rifle with you, as well as your ordinary camping gear. So it was the very simplest


and most, to get us used to the idea being an army formation, that’s really what it was. So that we knew who we were, and when we got to Palestine, we could get down to the serious business of actually learning tactics, and how to move and how to maintain yourself, and all the things that goes to make you a soldier.
Now what about you, what officer training had you had?
None at all. I’d been taken out of the ranks with no


experience and made an officer, in the hope that eventually I might learn from osmosis from seeing other fellows operate. But I got the impression, that some of the young officers, although they’d been in the militia, they didn’t know much more about it than I did, which couldn’t have been very hard to know more than I did. But when we got to Palestine, I and a couple of others, we were, several of the young officers. The British had a


place called Sarafan, they had a tactical, basic tactical. Not tactical, weapons training school, really it was, training in simple tactics, and on weapons training, and particularly the Bren gun. And we were introduced to webbing stuff for the first time which was quite intimidating, because for the first time, it took hours to work out how to put it all together.


But that was very valuable, because it meant that a bloke like me was able to go back to his platoon, back in the battalion, and know more about how to use the Bren gun and the basic military tactics, than the men did themselves. Because that was always a bit of a trouble that happened in the early days, for a young officer to get to know more than the troops did, so that you could exercise some kind of authority and leadership. But that was,


and I never went to a tactical school till after Tobruk. And as I said they sent me off to a British Army thing outside Cairo, and I missed out on the Greek campaign, which I didn’t appreciate much at all at that stage. Actually, the Greek campaign was so short and disastrous, that they’d gone and come back before I’d finished the tactical school. I met them on the wharves coming home again.
Do you think that your


working class background was an advantage in dealing with men in the lower ranks?
I don’t think my working class, I suppose it sounds very snobbish, but in my secret life, I never thought of myself as being a working class person, I always wanted to think. When I joined the army, I had an idea that eventually I might like to, I would qualify and become a


commissioned officer, because all the reading and World War One stories I’d done as a boy, were always about officers and their gallantries and so forth. And I thought of myself in those days as an officer, and I never really cultivated the broad Australian accent, and so I didn’t speak like a member of the, what was in those days the working class. And I sort of had the


rather pathetic delusion that my school, and the schooling that I’d had, fitted me for higher things, rather than being labouring men. So that, I think I thought of myself as being probably unjustifiably, but I thought of myself as being officer class, even from the early days. As I say that sounds dreadfully snobbish, but it’s the truth.
Never the less, you probably still had more of an affinity with?


Oh, I understand working men very well, I always have. Because I came from that and I’ve never been ashamed of it, and I’ve never tried to conceal it, you know, I never tried to give the impression that I was a Duke’s son in disguise or anything of that nature. As a matter of fact I caught myself saying to the doctor only the other day, he suspected that in my old age, I’ve developed a slight touch of asthma. And I remember saying, “Oh that’s a middle class disease and I only ever get


working class things like flat feet and that sort of stuff.” And most of the men that I was dealing with, most of the blokes in my platoon and so on, most of them and I shared a private soldiers hut with, in Liverpool in the earliest days. So, some of those blokes, there was one as a matter of fact, at the very end of the war, after the bomb had dropped. I had a look around and I think there were only about six of us,


we used to call ourselves originals, the blokes that had walked in in October 1939. And he’d been in the same hut as me, and I remember saying to him, “I thought you’d given it away George?” And he said, “I did, but I couldn’t find anybody to take it, so I’m still here.” And so some of them have always been friends, some of those fellows that I joined up with in the early


days. And in fact, I didn’t really appreciate it enough at the time, but they were rather proud of me. The fact that, you know, I was the same bloke, joined up the same as they did, that I’d been hoiked out and made an officer and they thought, “Well he’s one of our lot.” So that I represented them in lots of way, and it was an idea that any….. And I think that was probably the object of the exercise, that any man could, in the army, if he did his job properly and had the right attitude,


could become an officer and could become anything he wanted to be within the army, within his capacity.
Did you, it sounds like a hurried departure, did you get any leave before you embarked?
Oh yes, we had a few days and I, I went home of course, and took a lot of my civilian gear home and left it at home. And it was all carefully kept for me till the end of the war. Of course it wasn’t much


use to me at the end of the war, my dinner suit and a nice new sports jacket that I’d bought in 1939, with my marvellous wages of three pounds twelve a week or something like that. In Canberra, you got ten shillings a week for going to Canberra, because it was a more expensive place. But normal wages would have been about two pound thirteen and something, with the extra ten shillings, it would put me over the three pounds mark. But I went home and my mother,


as I said, my father was a gentle and a pacifist man, and would never have dreamed of upbraiding me or anything like that. But my mother was full of, she was red-haired with a temper that goes with it, very combative. I used to say that if Goliath, in full war panoply had appeared at our front gate with evil intent, she’d have grabbed the poker off the stove and rushed down to fight him.


Because her family was sacred to her. And she didn’t believe in wars, she said that anybody that makes war could go and fight it himself. And she didn’t see why any of her family should go and fight a war, and I’d let the side down by being stupid enough to go and join the army. So she, she came back from that extreme position eventually. Actually war with pride, they used to give women who had a son in the army, a little badge to wear, you know, a mother and that sort of thing. She used to be rather critical


of women who had sons and weren’t able to wear the badge, that they had a son actually at the war. And of course eventually three of her sons were in the service, the fourth was too young to get in the army, and so she got used to it, got very proud of it, as a matter of fact.
What was the voyage out like?
Marvellous. We were on, most of our particular battalion was on a liner called the Orcades, which was


still on its peacetime, it had just been grabbed off the peacetime run, and sent to be a troop ship. And they very hastily sort of made the bows of it into things for soldiers, but the officers were, we, instead of one to a cabin, there was at least two to a cabin, we had first class cabins, and the first class dining saloon still had waiters in their white coats, and the menu. And for a country


boy who’d been brought up fairly had, it was a complete and utter revelation that for the first time I’d seen how the beautiful people live, you know. Finding my way through this menu, and having wine, I’d never tasted wine in my life before then. And then, it was a pattern of life that I can assure you, you very quickly get used to, and I thought I was born for this. So, for that month we were on the ship,


I was an officer and a gentleman, living the life of Riley [having a wonderful time]. Marvellous. We used to have to do some vaguely, go and meet the platoon and get them up and give them lectures, and do what limited kind of, bits of training that you could do on the deck. But basically you just had to lie around and be a first class passenger, which was very nice indeed.
What about the stop in Colombo?
Oh well, of course the soldiers.


They tried to avoid that business of turning vast numbers of undisciplined Australians lose on the place and have them tear the place apart. But they didn’t, actually what they started, they took my, I was going to lead with my platoon, and I was supposed to be responsible for them. Where I went, they went and where they went, I went. And we did that all morning, we went around, you know, and saw sights and went on there.


But around about lunchtime, the fellows said, “Hey Sir, the boys want to go off and do something, is that alright with you?” they were indicating that whether it was alright with me or not, they were going to go anyway. So I sort of said, I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll meet you at such and such a place.” And they went away and they were doing things like, what do you call it, those rickshaw things, and


putting the driver in the actual rickshaw and then a couple of them pulling it around, having races which horrified the British, you know, letting the side down, who didn’t preserve the dignity of Europeans in the face of the natives. But the natives didn’t mind, especially as the troops all spent whatever money they had on souvenirs and things. And they all came to say, we never lost anybody,


nobody ever got into a punch-up, it was just a bit of high spirits that they got on with. And they came back, and the shops in Colombo must have cleared out their total stock of wooden elephants. And of course, some were quite small, some came back with a bloody great elephant that he could hardly carry under his arm. So I always said the wake of the ship between Colombo and Aden was littered with elephants that had been chucked


overboard because they couldn’t handle it anymore. Though it was a very nice, I think we were there for a couple of days, it was a very nice interlude. The second day I was there, once again being the junior lieutenant, it’s not all roses being the junior lieutenant, I had to be at the ship to get all the stragglers back. And so, they all came back, we never lost one, they all straggled back to get onboard some of them the worse for drink


and what else they’d been up to, I’m not quite sure. But that was it. So we’d seen life for the first time. Oh that’s right. We’d, been on the Orcades, it had given me as I told you, a taste of the high life. So a couple of fellows and I, who were just country lads and unsophisticated as I was, we went for dinner at the Galle Face hotel, and we’ll have a bottle of wine. So we’re thinking French vintages and


this sort of stuff. And went and got the wine list and we picked something out which was a, I think it was a French name, but anyway it turned up. The label on the bottle was from Ye Olde Crusty Cellars in Sydney, I suppose it was Australian wine, but we were thinking that we were entering into European culture, and I gathered afterwards, that most of the wines sold in Colombo even in those days,


came from Australia, that it was one of our main outlets. So my first indicator, then it was back to good old Australia with the ye olde country cellars. But then we took off over to the Suez Canal and the Middle East, we didn’t stop at Aden, so I never saw Aden, we just marched straight up the canal.
What were your first impressions of the Middle East?
Well, it looked, going up the canal,


and it was much like I had anticipated, except it seemed a lot smaller than I expected. I mean this ten thousand ton liner, which isn’t a very big ship by today’s standards, but it seemed to fill up the whole canal, you could throw a biscuit on either side onto the side. And there seemed to be forever, just this formless, completely empty desert, not a thing growing. And you’d have sworn that there’d never been a human being there for the last hundred


years. Except occasionally you’d see an Arab in his dirty white robe, sitting on the side with apparently nothing to do. And where he’d come from, and where he was going to go, we couldn’t imagine, until we landed up at Kantara. And that of course that’s one of the traditional crossing places of the channel, right from biblical times. That’s where invading armies come in, in one direction or the other, used to cross the, well


it wasn’t the canal in those days, but it was the, sort of narrow stretch of swampy character, that people used to go. But it was a major crossing place, and I think it was the 12th of February, something like that when we actually landed there. And it looked like a howling wilderness, southern Palestine, and northern Egypt, the same. And we were quite


astonished, we got on a train, and of course little Arab boys by the side of the tracks, whenever it stopped, singing “Eggs-a-cook.” boiled eggs. Little, as you can imagine, the kind of hens they had. And they were even littler boys, “Baksheesh.” and that’s where we first heard the word, and it became a common one. And of course we all had a hangover, well the officers did anyhow,


because we’d had a monstrous party on board to celebrate getting there and getting off. And some of them looked at it with a very jaundiced eye on the world in general, and this howling sort of wilderness didn’t please them at all. But we said we would get used to it, and we did. That is where we went up to, what is now the Gaza Strip, and found the tents waiting for us. And the water was one


pipe that came down, and something had happened to the showers, and I think there was only a couple of outlets and pretty cold water, and it was pretty cold at that time of year. Of course, the colonel, I was having a shower on the first day, and next to him, I was, he said, “You’d better get used to this, this is only a slight hardening up, you’ve got to be a lot harder than this if you’re going to be a real soldier.” and yes sir, and we did.


And that’s how we landed in Palestine.
The colonel must have been intrigued to be back there again?
After all that, yeah. We never talked to him about it, but we knew, everybody knew it was history and he’d been in the Light Horse in that part. And of course the famous charge of Beersheba was only, you could have driven in a truck in half an hour from where we were, Beersheba was one of the towns along the way. But he never said anything about it


So what were you doing in this camp, as far as preparation and training?
Oh well, it was right from the very beginning that we got down to it, and we, internally, within the battalion the officers were given pretty good instruction by you know, senior major and sometimes the colonel about what


tactics were, and what we had to be doing. And the troops had to be taught to, and of course the officers had to learn how to teach them, to keep their rifles in good order. That was not as easy a task as you like, because the, you know, the average Australian doesn’t take to being a bit regimented. And when you got him out on parade in the morning and inspected his rifle, and looked down and he obviously he hadn’t cleaned it that morning. Then you had to make a bit of a performance and


kick up a fuss. “Corporal.” “Sir.” “This man in your section has got a dirty rifle, why is that?” And he would very quickly say, “I don’t know Sir, but I’ll look into it.” That sort of thing. And how to keep their kit and how to make their bed properly, because that’s all part of teaching themselves to handle themselves and to take pride in their own appearance


and that sort of stuff. And they turned out to be very good at that, and they really took to field exercises and stuff, like ducks to water. And the old business about walking six miles very quickly was a fond memory. Because we used to, later on in Palestine, in the later weeks, months really, we used to go on battalion exercises, or brigade exercises, because we’d trained up to that level.


And we’d exercise, you know, fight mock battles for three days, and finish up twenty, twenty five miles, not kilometres, miles from camp. And they’d say, “Right, the exercise is finished, pack up and walk home.” Well I remember one, because there was something going on in this exercise, you know, if it’s night time, you’d have to be out on patrol, and in the daytime you’d be darting about, assaulting perfectly innocent hills and


you’d imagine the enemy and all that sort of stuff. Then to set off in the middle of the night and say the exercise is finished and you had to walk home. And I can remember one, we were marching and the corporals, I had to be out in front, you see. And these three corporals, and their sections behind them, and the bloke said we knew, we were talking about it afterwards. And they said, “We knew you were asleep because at one stage, you were weaving all over the road,


obviously marching in your sleep.” And it’s easy for troops, troops can do it, because you’ve got a bloke in front of you, and a bloke behind you, and a bloke that side and a bloke that side. So you can be walking, you can be absolutely fast asleep, but you can be still marching, almost in your sleep. But when you’re out the front on your own, you’ve got nobody to sort of bump into to keep you up. So I was walking twice the distance, by weaving along. This is only odd times. Anyway, we finished walking to camp, we dismissed the troops, and you wouldn’t believe it you


know, how fit they were at this time, that inside twenty minutes, they were horsing around, wrestling and jumping about the place, you know, ordinary horseplay. And we saw them all better, went up to the officers’ mess and then proceeded to drink until dawn, or until breakfast time, then had breakfast, and carried on with the next day’s the ordinary things at work. It was a glorious feeling


to be as fit as any young man could possibly be in those circumstances.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 04


Dennis, prior to arriving in Palestine, how much training had you had with real weapons?
None at all. Well we had rifles, old things left over from the First World War, and we had actually had been to Anzac range, well we’d fired them once. We hadn’t seen a Bren gun, which was supposed to be the standard infantry weapon, cause they didn’t have any to give us. We had a few old Lewis guns left over from the First World War, and as I say,


we fired, I think, ten rounds each on the range, on Anzac range, that we’d walked to and back, that was before we left Australia. Because of the shortage of ammunition and stuff, we didn’t get all that much training with live ammunition even while we were in Palestine. Because, hardly any fighting, we only got Bren guns pretty late in the piece in Palestine. And we had them,


but the Bren gunners, well, of course we all had to learn how to fire and pull a Bren gun to pieces and put it together again. And the blokes who’d been trained as specialists, had to do it blindfolded, and all that sort of stuff. But we did very little by firing. As a matter of fact, excuse me, on the eve of the battle of the Battle of Bardia, they were told to test the weapons, and half the Bren guns wouldn’t work. Because


when you’re training and doing the mechanism without actually firing it, tiny little bits of metal, sort of become, if you bang something, a tiny sliver of metal will accumulate at the end. And of course with those sorts of weapons, it’s got to be absolutely done. So there was a frantic thing, the armourer, every battalion had an armourer, whose specialist job was to keep the arms. He was working all


night, making sure that these Bren guns would actually fire when we went into battle in another day’s time. So we were very short of those sorts of things. And as I say, some fellows, I’m sure, went through pretty well the whole of the war with still the same 30 year old rifle that they started with, it was the same brand. And most of our armaments, except for the Bren gun, were about, almost exactly the same as they’d used in the First World War. And artillery men, had to get used,


they had to train on a few old eighteen pounders from the First World War, until they got the standard weapon, the twenty five pounders, not long before we went into action. That was the artillery people, and the same thing with mortars, which is an infantryman’s artillery. We got very little chance to actually fire them with live ammunition, because live ammunition was so short, and we were told not to waste it, and weren’t allowed to spend it.


So it was, for our lot, it was a fairly ad hoc sort of an operation, in which I suppose never were we ever fully equipped with the latest kind of weapons. See even in New Guinea, the Owen gun had been invented, and probably the best small arms sub machine gun in any part of the war. It was very reluctantly


taken up by the army, but over the Owen Stanleys, in our brigade, I was the only one who had one. And I used to take it and demonstrate it to the troops, and say, “Now very shortly we’re all going to get one of these.” you see, it was a beautiful little weapon. But they finished still lumping their great .303 rifles, with a clip of magazine of five and single shot bolt action rifles. And I don’t know to what extent, even later on, the infantry actually


got any of these Owen guns. Because late when I rejoined the battalion, we certainly didn’t have them in 1943. And then I rejoined the battalion after I came back from India, they still didn’t have them. So it must have been that other people had them, and not us. We were always short of equipment, so we had to depend on manpower. And as I say, fortunately the circumstances of


war were different, but as far as what we had, we were very little better than what we had in 1918. Except for the Bren gun when we finally got it, which was an excellent little weapon. Very good, but we only had one per platoon, and no sub machine guns. But we did have, they had a few of tommy guns, you know, the American gangster things, but they were hopeless. They were no good in any kind of rough circumstances, they used to break down all the time.


And we even had a, I don’t think we took Lewis guns into action, we discarded those. But they were a kind of a funny looking sub machine gun, they developed in 1917, 1918. And that was what the militia had as their standard weapon, we had to train with those in the early days of the war and throw them away when we, when we finally got Bren guns.
What kind of training then did you do with these early weapons?


Oh well, learning to. You see a weapon is not a thing you say, right I’ll get one, and it looks like these things you see on the television, the American horses, and British things too, weird looking things. And they seem to, they never have to learn how to use them, they seem to have them. But in actual fact the very handling of them, and what they will do in the circumstance you use them. And of course, I would


say, that in any army these days, soldiers would have a lot of training in actually firing the things, and we had very little of that. And so that, you know, the best way of training a bloke to use a rifle, so becomes an extension of himself. And what I used to liken, what we did whenever we could was to go out to a place like a quarry, and have a few tin cans, and we used to have a competition, a


fellow with his rifle, and see if he could make the tin can jump, with every shot and that sort of stuff. And that’s the best kind of possible training you can get, because then, you’re not shooting at targets when you’re in the war, you’re shooting at moving human beings, and there’s a great deal of difference between shooting at a human being, it was a lot more elusive than a target, that sits up and waits for you to shoot at it. Which a man never, very seldom does. And so you’ve got to prepared for the


fact, you try and say, like later things I saw in the Korean War. I saw a picture of the Korean War, an American sergeant, he wasn’t looking at what he was doing, he had a machine gun and he must have sprayed two thousand rounds, just doing that, just spraying it without, he wasn’t even looking where he was aiming it. We had to say try and make every bullet count, because you’re only carrying fifty rounds on you, and when they run out, we’ve got to get some more up to you, so don’t waste them,


shoot at something, not just fire your rifle. And that’s what we had to try and do without much ammunition, but make every soldier feel that his rifle was an extension of himself. The idea that you went to sleep with it, when you went to sleep, you had it down, actually as a bed mate. Not much of a substitute for a nice girl, but still that was the best that you could do. So you had it and you kept the dirt out of it and you looked after it,


and you oiled it. Some fellows never developed that sort of thing, but most fellows did, they got a feel for their rifle as a very precious thing. Fortunately, it is probably the best general purpose rifle that’s ever been made under those circumstances, the .303 [Lee Enfield] rifle. It’d fire after anything, you could abuse it in the most shocking way, and it would still fire. But of course, it hasn’t got anything like the power, or the


hitting power of the modern weapons. Though an army equipped with .303 rifles would be blown away, practically, by modern armaments. Well I don’t know, cause they use so many bullets, unless they had a, they couldn’t possibly carry all they use on their backs, and they’ve got to be, if they’re in any type of a tight situation, they’ve got to be a very elaborate system of refurbishing their, their rifle,


their weapon.
When you slept with the weapons beside you, were they loaded?
No, no, no. You always unloaded your rifle say if you came into a camp, you never carried a loaded rifle around the camp. But you always had your ammunition and your rifle used to have the magazine, with ten rounds in it that you fed in, and you’d fire them one at a time, so you could fire. And of course,


the British Army went in, particularly our fellows, well of course we didn’t have that length of training of the professional British Army. But at one stage in 1914, 1915, a company of regular army British soldiers, held up a German advance, because they swore the Germans felt that they were armed with machine guns, which would have been murder to walk against. Because the rapid fire these fellows were able to do, their training, made it,


fifteen or twenty of them, made it feel as if, sound as if there were machine guns going, not just ordinary rifles. So that was what, that’s what we were aiming at always. So if we could get a, we’d never achieved that kind of expertise, I don’t think. And I often used to say the standard of musketry in our Australian Army was appalling. I used to rage at my fellows sometimes, “You couldn’t hit a barn door if you were inside the barn!” you know. But, of course we never had enough


practice at actually shooting, that was the whole point. We should have had lots, lots and lots more. Lots of the fellows who’d been country blokes were naturals, because they’d been shooting rabbits and stuff, could handle a rifle, small rifle anyway, it was second nature to them. But the average town bloke who’d never seen a rifle, never handled a rifle before, never quite got that expertise in being able to pick a moving target off as well as anything else.


It would depend on mass fire, rather than aimed fire. And you’d better not tell too many of the old soldiers that, because they would scream blue murder, because they all thought they were absolutely bloody marvellous at shooting, but they weren’t.
How then would you rate the Australian Army, from your experience, compared, in equipment compared with the other armies?
Oh well, depending


on circumstances, I don’t think we were ever as well equipped, because it was always an emergency, there were always more people to equip than they had equipment for. And of course, I used to accuse, I had friends who were in ordnance, that they had lovely lots of things in great big tin sheds, you know, lovely lots of weapons. And they wouldn’t let the infantry have them, because the infantry would break them. And so, probably that’s a canard, but that’s what we


often used to feel. That there were things hidden away somewhere that we were never allowed to use, because they’d like to keep them in reserve or something. These fellows used to like to count them once a week, or do whatever they did, instead of letting us get at them where we’d lose them or break them or throw them away or do something. But basically I suppose in, most of the operations we had,


we were as well equipped as the British Army, as anybody else. Not until later in the war until we saw some Americans, and they seemed to have a proliferation of gear and all sorts, which made us a bit discontented with what we had. And they used to use it and throw it away, and didn’t care to them. They’d lose a Jeep and wouldn’t care. If any of ours lost a Jeep, for example, well there’d be a parliamentary inquiry and court martials, and God


knows what. But it did teach us to, at least to, at least conserve what we had and make use of it, cause you mightn’t get anything more afterwards, more to replace it.
How long were you training there in Palestine?
We got there in February, and I think we left in October. How long is that? Six months.
Eight months.
Eight months. A long time. And we got


to the stage where we were doing at least brigade manoeuvres, and we were, without actually engaging in any combat, we were probably by that stage, as well trained as you could get a body of men of that nature. Except for being able to use and fire the actual weapons, because you, as I say, the need to conserve ammunition


was such, that it was in comparatively short supply, that we weren’t allowed to use. But apart from that, the knowledge and understanding and the use of tactics, we were a fairly highly trained group. And from there, we moved into Egypt and we continued, and we did divisional training there. And so, it’s a fairly large scale exercise, because there’s thirty thousand men of various forms, and co-ordinating and


getting around things. And so by the time we moved up into the desert, which was again, December I think, we, we were, the 16th Brigade, the 16th Brigade, oh I think the 6th Division altogether, was formed. Because the 16th and 17th Brigades,


they caught up to us in training eventually, because the 17th Brigade was much, was formed later than us. But then our 18th Brigade, which was supposed to go on that ship, it got to England. So the 18th Brigade actually were the only Australians soldiers that landed in England, but it was during the period of the phoney war. So they didn’t do much except run around and train. And eventually they got them back to us in the Middle East, but they never


rejoined us, and our third brigade was made up of a few bits and pieces, and became the 19th Brigade, which became a very notable brigade indeed, as they caught up. So we went up the desert as a division, and fought as a division, and engaged in what has been very unsung, a couple of set piece battles, but some of the biggest battles


that were actually fought in the Second World War by our forces. Because a lot of the Australian Army, unfortunately were, by the exigency of the service, were used in bits and pieces, rather than in whole divisions, that was the idea. Well they should have been done, and actually worked together as an Australian Division, with a unified Australian command. We can talk about that a bit later when we come on about it. But that was one of the


unfortunate things about the Australian participation in the Second World War. It wasn’t like in the First World War, the Australian Corps was commanded by one very distinguished general, and was able to make a real mark, and become known as probably the most efficient army corps in the whole of the British Army. But we never had that chance, we never fought as a combined Australian Army at all,


we were just bits and pieces.
What effect do you think that had on morale?
Well it did. It doesn’t do much for morale when you’re sort of chased here and there. But I suppose when you, if you’re working, you’re really, your spiritual home in the army is your battalion. And if your battalion is together, well in actual fact it doesn’t matter who you’re fighting with, or who you’re fighting against. But it does


take away from your general feeling. For example in the British Army, the 8th Army had a tremendous corporate morale, and to be part of the 8th Army was a source of great pride in the British Army, long after the 8th army had almost ceased to exist. You see, as I say, we were denied that, and I think eventually it had a probably, a poor effect.


It didn’t contribute anyway to a feeling that Australian forces were being treated seriously enough as a combined, and as a serious national force. But that was always my impression, anyway. And later on, it really was bad feeling between the AIF and the militia, as such, that it was a matter of


some concern. And, because the AIF sort of despised the militia because they hadn’t been, hadn’t volunteered for overseas service, and were conscripted. Of course, in the AIF it was a purely voluntary army. And resentment on the part of the militia, because they felt that the AIF were a bunch of snobs, and they weren’t any better than the militia anyway. So it was bad,


but two groups of what should have been one unified Australian Army, were suspicious and contemptuous of each other in a way, it was very poor. But of course, in the middle of the war, they started a lot of these militia units had been officially, men had actually volunteered to be in the


AIF. And for example, the 3rd Battalion, which was a militia battalion in the old organization, was merged, the remains of them merged with the remains of our battalion, and they became 2/3rd Battalion, they merged quite successfully, and some of their men, and even a few of their officers. There was resentment for a start, choccos [chocolate soldiers] they used to call the militia people, but a couple of them became quite distinguished officers in our battalion.


And it showed that if enough of that had been done earlier, I think the Australian Army would have been a better and more effective force, and been able to make a mark, even against the contempt of General Macarthur and the Americans generally, for the Australian forces. He had no time for Australians whatsoever, he hated them.


And that didn’t help the feelings of. I’m getting ahead of myself. But later in the war, we Australians had the feeling that we were being given tasks that were dangerous and difficult and caused a lot of casualties, but had nothing to do with the progress of the war. A lot of our troops had been bottling up or chasing


Japanese in New Guinea, could quite well have been left behind, and mopped up much later on, when we could have been in the major forefront of the war, pushing the Japanese back to their homeland, that sort of thing.
How did the terrain differ in Egypt from that which you’d trained on in Palestine?
Oh very little. Well, you see,


Palestine is a very small country and there’s stuff around Gaza where we did most of our training, by the way, was mildly hilly and some of, a lot of it very flat, no, very few trees on it. A lot of it was marginal ploughed country that raised crops. And that’s where we did Palestine training. We were in the hills around Hebron a little bit, familiar


to people, Hebron is a place where there’s a lot of conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, or Palestinians, they’re not Arabs really. It was a fairly easy transition when we got to Egypt, to the comparatively flat. See we didn’t get into the sand dunes, Sahara country, the Northern Africa we had is mostly just stony, reasonably flat desert, just


millions of miles of sweet Fanny Adams [nothing], as they used to say. Where tactics were essentially, even up at division, and corps and army level were comparatively simple, because there was not much terrain, the terrain was all very much the same. And it was just a question of the difference, the creation of surprise and who was,


you know, there was only two sorts, the quick and the dead, and if you weren’t quick, you were dead. So it was stuff that we very quickly got used to. Except of course, our main battles in North Africa weren’t the wide ranging stuff, ours were two big set piece battles where we had to take a very heavily defended fortress, two of them, Bardia and Tobruk. And it was another fort brigade that moved


right up to Benghazi, and then very quickly moved out again when the German forces came. Cause they were scattered very thinly. And then that startedwhat they used to call the Benghazi Handicap, you know. The Germans would chase them a few hundred miles down, and then somehow they’d run out of petrol or run out of steam, and then the British would chase them back again. So it was up and down two or three times up and down, that’s before we left. And then the


final, which our 9th Division took part in the great battle of El Alamein, which was the beginning of the retreat of the German Army, and being followed up by 8th Army.
I’m going to take you back.
Which we weren’t a part of that, we were never a part of that. .
You said earlier today to Matt [interviewer], that you were going to go and fight in France.
When did that change?
Mr Mussolini. Well


you see, we hardly heard about the campaign in France until it was over. I mean the thing didn’t take so long, but we suddenly woke up to the fact that instead of being merely a staging post, the Middle East was now a major strategic part of what would have to be the, well eventually, the Allied, but in that case, purely British, because we were all on our own, the French had collapsed in France. And any idea,


the British Army had been kicked out of Europe anyway, left most of its resources behind. So factories had to create more weapons and things for them, and they had to be retrained, and new armies formed, so that they could take up the battle. The idea being that they would land back on the continent and take up the war where they’d left it. But in the meantime, we were stuck over in the Middle East and we had to,


and it became a very strategic point, because if the Germans could capture the [Suez] Canal, that of course would have been a great tactical and strategic victory for them. And they would have been in the position to exploit the oil in the Middle East. And so from being, as I say,


a peaceful outpost where troops could train in peace, it became a major focus. And one of the minor miracles of the war at that stage, was that somehow or other, they managed to hang onto it, despite the disasters that sort of fell upon the armies, from being half prepared and taking on jobs that they could and being outnumbered in every way. I think you’d say the adventure in Greece was doomed from the start,


because the British forces had no air force.
Let’s start with your first conflict after Egypt.
Where did you go from there?
Well after we’d finished in Egypt, the Italians were ordered to advance into Egypt. See they were in Libya, they were protected there, and they’d created these two great fortresses, Bardia and Tobruk. And using those as a firm


base, they advanced into Egypt, up at a place called Mersa Matruh and Sollum, places like that. And then the very small British Army that was available there, stemmed there, fought them and pushed them back. So General Wavell took the opportunity, he was a great man; he was a very fine general.


The only real infantry that he had at his disposal was the 6th Division, Australian division. And so, they had other regiments and things, there was some, naturally, because they fought a bit of a war. But with this division as his main, this Australian division as his main base infantry force, he had some tanks, 7th Hussars, they were a very famous regiment, they became even more famous, but his tanks were not very


exciting in those early days, and it was very difficult to replace them. But they were a considerable force. And people don’t recognise it, they had what they called infantry tank, the I-tank, which fired only a two pound gun. So it was neither very big, nor very powerful by modern, later standards, but in those days it was the best tank in the Middle East,


better than anything the Italians had, and actually better than anything the Germans had at that particular point. But there was that few of them, and they used to wear them out getting them from one place to another, and not fighting with them. You know, because those tractor vehicles, they look marvellous, they’re like racehorses, they’re very impressive, but they’re very delicate, too. And so the idea of having a vast fleet of what you call tank


transporters, well you stuck the tank on and drove it two hundred miles, and then took it off and it went and fought. The poor old tank had to go trundling nearly two hundred miles, so by the time it got to the battle, it was half worn out. But still they did make, even the few they had, they did make a very significant contribution. But, so our division, General Wavell made up the idea he would chase the Italians out of Egypt, nobody


drew a line in the sand, it was hard to know if you were in Egypt or Libya, it all looks the same up there. So he did that, and the British forces cleared the path up until the way to Bardia was open. We came up, actually by train as far as Mersa Matruh, and then by trucks to the bottom of a place, we called at, called Halfaya Pass, we called it Hellfire Pass. Because in Northern Africa was a great plateau, and from the


sea, where the flat, you have to walk up. A bit like Australia, we get used to very low, in Australia we’ve only got very low hills and plateaus and that sort of thing, this was just a plateau. And I remember we marched up, and it was winter time. Of course by this time it was, I can’t remember the dates actually, the 12th of December, something like that. Absolutely bitterly,


I’ve never struck such cold in my life, even when we were in the snow later on, it wasn’t as cold as that, blowing up out of the Sahara. And we marched up Hellfire Pass, and there were greatcoats had been left on the trucks, each platoon had a fifteen hundred weight truck that carried its gear. And we got up the top and we’d been sweating, and then we got up the place where we had to invest outside the fortress at Bardia, and I thought


I was going to die with the cold, I remember all the troops hunting for the truck. Anyway, finally turned up in the early hours of the morning, and we got our greatcoats off and that was it. And then we invested, so we were out in the desert we invested, while they made a plan to assault it. This was a major, what they call a major set piece battle. And it meant that against a well defended and well prepared fortress, which there were concrete


gun placements, barbed wire, anti tank ditches and that sort of thing. And somehow an infantry force with just men, and was backed up with artillery had to bust this stuff and get into it, and take it. Now that’s the sort of thing that we complained about in the First World War, where ordinary soldiers were sent up against emplacements with thousands of machine guns, and just got mowed down in their thousands.


And this was the sort of thing, it had to be very meticulous planning, and our divisional commander, he was a rather austere man, General McKay, Ivan McKay, very good. Well he’d been Captain McKay who’d captured Lone Pine at Gallipoli, which was a very famous. In fact, he’d been in his youth a notable warrior, so he was a soldier


first and last, been a schoolmaster actually, between the wars. He’d created this plan and that’s what we did. We invested it, and the plan was made where we would break the wire, and we would get in among the forts, and then we’d just subdue them. And it took three days, and that’s exactly what we did. My battalion, our brigade, and the two in the middle, 17th Brigade on the right and 19th Brigade in reserve to come in and what they called ‘exploit’.


But when we got in and made a bridgehead, inside the wire, they’d come through and then fan out and go and capture the things inside the fortress. Because the fortress was miles long, it wasn’t just a little castle or anything like that, it was a wired and concrete emplacements that stretched for miles around the perimeter, with all sorts of defended positions within it. So when you busted the original wire, you still


had this series of defended positions that you still had to take. So we had to as a brigade, we had to break the wire and make a bridgehead, and in this one, I think it was the first, no, 1st Battalion I think, had to bust the wire and the 2nd Battalion come in, and we were the 3rd Battalion,


we had to go through this bridgehead and then go straight through towards the little fortress town of Bardia itself, and so that’s what we did. And we had ten percent casualties I suppose, I forget, roughly ten percent casualties, we had something like eight ninety were killed, and proportionate number were wounded on the way.


And we had to march across this two thousand yards after the initial perimeter, we had to go across this completely flat area, with machine gun positions and artillery positions lined up, hammering away with everything they had, and we just had to walk into it, the way they’d, exactly the way they’d done in the First World War, only not so close. And so we had to go and take one Italian position after the other, and


sometimes the troops got a bit irritable, because they’d fire like hell, until you got close, and then they’d stand up and put their hands up, or wave a white flag. So you just got to the stage where you were clenching your teeth and ready to get into them with a bayonet, and then they’d give up. But they created a lot of damage beforehand. But some, they talk about the Italians being a pushover, but there was some very severe fighting took place, especially down one place where the 17th Brigade had to go


in, it was very heavily defended. They suffered tremendous casualties. But we and the, my company, C Company, we had the honour of assaulting the fortress of Bardia by itself. The colonel who had shot, he had his little carrier. Do you know what a Bren carrier is? Well it’s a little track vehicle


with thin sides and an open top. And you know, people used to think of it as a tank, but it wasn’t a tank, you could fire. I mean the metal, it wasn’t much better than an old Plymouth motor car, 1936, but it had a track and it, very flexible on things, so he had one of those. And he drove up to watch while we spread out, and we proceeded to assault the town. It could have been very dodgy if the troops had withdrawn and if


they put up a stern resistance, we would have had tremendous trouble. But in actual fact, once again, as we were approaching the walls, there’d been a bit of sporadic firing, and an Italian gentleman came out waving his arms very frantically, indicating that firing had stopped and that any fighting troops had cleared off. And so we actually got into the little town and we captured it on our own. The legend went around that we had


looted it. Well, I suppose some fellows picked up things and one thing and another, I don’t know what they did, but if they did, they threw them away again immediately, you couldn’t carry anything away from there. So the old canard about we looted Bardia was absolute nonsense, because I was in there myself. And, so we pulled out of the town, cleared it of any remaining troops, and there’d been, they’d had, of course they’d had


women in there, I assume just an ordinary brothel of some description, but where the girls went, I’m not sure, but they weren’t there when we came. But there was evidence, of course, that they had been there. Women, of course, medics rooms and all that sort of stuff. And then we pulled back out of there, camped overnight so that Bardia took about three days for us to secure it all together.


That was, I think that was the second day that we actually took the town itself. Meanwhile the other brigades had been doing the moving on, mopping up and capturing, the resistance crumbled after that first day and a half, two days. Really after the first day, the resistance crumbled, it was a matter of mopping it up.
What was it like being under fire for the first time?


strange. You get sort of anaesthetised, the excitement and the adrenalin of actually being in action, and you know, the noise, the artillery banging away all the time, machine guns. And I can distinctly remember, the Italians fortunately for us, I mean it would have been murder if, they were hammering


away with the machine guns, but a lot they were firing high. And by the time we got there, it felt like flocks of, sounded like massive herds of bees buzzing, with the bullets flying over and the occasional shell landing in amongst us. And I remember one landed in my platoon, and why the fellow wasn’t blown to bits I don’t know, one of my troops in my platoon. He fell into the hole it made, and there was


still the red hot metal from the shell at the bottom of the hole, he fell into it. And he landed on his backside on this hot metal, so he burnt his trousers and his backside at the same time, made a hell of a din. Came screaming out, clutching his bottom as he climbed out of the thing, but he was very lucky, I mean lots of other fellows got very badly wounded.


But I remember distinctly, we said this two thousand yards, which was a long way, walking straight into this, you couldn’t do anything else except walk. And as a matter of fact, I talked to an Italian officer later that we captured, he said, the Italians, of course, they’re an emotional kind of people, and in the circumstance can be very brave indeed. But they weren’t, he said, what really bugged them was seeing, and we were rigged up in


Bardia with overcoats and a leather jerkin, so we looked about twice the size against the cold, vicious cold. And we were so loaded up, like carrying all our weapons and gear and stuff, so we couldn’t have been charging about much. So he said this relentless walking, he said, they were firing with everything they had, and one would drop here and one would drop there, but these lines of these weird looking troops moving on,


and he said it broke their morale. So that in actual fact, by not doing anything, by just walking there, we created an effect that we didn’t know about, and hardly realised. But I can remember as we were walking, you know when you’re walking into a cold wind, you tend to put your shoulder down and put your head down, and I found myself doing that, because the bullets, not all of them went upstairs, were whipping around. I got the heel shot off


my boot
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 05


Dennis, you had about two thousand yards to advance up to the position at Bardia.
That must have been quite a test to keep the men going as a young officer?
Well, it’s once again, training and kind of battle discipline. And I, of course, I’ve never led British soldiers into


action, so I don’t know. But I think it’s part, to do something, every Australian soldier feels that he’s a very significant unit. So to advance with a platoon, once we’d arrange where we were going and what we were doing, and the platoons separated out in the usual positions in our command, I didn’t really have to do anything. That, they all


knew what they had to do, and so they did it. And I don’t think even the section commanders had to exercise any personality or power or authority, just to keep the blokes going, because that’s what they had to do, and that’s what they did. When a man dropped, we never even stop, because the stretcher bearer, we knew we had to keep moving. And if you started stopping every time a man got hit, well the platoon would disintegrate, and the whole


momentum of the attack would be lost. That was the same throughout the whole of the battalion, well I’m only talking about my battalion, but that’s what we did, we just keep pushing on. And there were other things that I wasn’t particularly concerned with, there was a desperate thing when half a dozen Italian tanks came out.
But you weren’t there?
I wasn’t particularly there. I, as a matter of fact, pulled up at one stage and went back to look for company headquarters,


myself, and found this episode with the tanks had just taken place, when a good friend of mine heroically tried to stop half a dozen tanks with those ridiculous anti-tank rifles, and had got shot for his pains. And a notable Corporal Pickett had turned up with his, once again, quite ridiculous anti-tank gun, a thing that you towed behind you and you had to swing around, and like point it, point the bum of the operation at the enemy,


and he shot up the lot, I think he shot five out of the six tanks with his anti-tank gun, things like that went on. But as I say, I personally, we’d passed that stage and they came out after we’d passed that. But we were spread over a fair area.
As you went forward, were the men being vocal in any way?
No. We had too much to do for a start, nobody shouted or screamed or roared or did anything like that. Later on, in the next battle when


we took Tobruk, that was a bit of a different, you know, we were in more close order thing, because we broke the wire.
Oh, we’ll get to Tobruk in a minute. Had you done anything to reduce your obviousness as an officer, as far as uniform or equipment?
Not specifically. Most of us wore ordinary battle dress, you know, the ordinary battle dress. The only really distinguishing marks of an officer there were your stars on your shoulders, which weren’t very, you had to be within three yards


to notice that anyway. So there was none of that business of the old British Army, you know, an officer dressed up in white britches and shiny boots and special, what do you call it, jacket. It was a perfectly obvious target for a sharpshooter. No, our officers looked pretty much the same as anybody else.
Do you think the fact that the battalion was green as far as battle goes,


was an advantage?
I’ve often thought about that. I think we fought a lot of battles large and small after Bardia. But I think the freshness, that this was the first time, the sort of high adrenalin and the fact that we were sort of proving ourselves to ourselves, made us far more dashing,


than probably we were ever later on, when we became old soldiers. Somebody used the phrase, I remember writing that by the time we’d finished in the Middle East, a couple of years there, we thought of ourselves as pretty well, professional warriors. But we didn’t think like civilians in uniforms any more, we were soldiers, and that’s what it was, and we could hardly imagine ourselves being anything different, and that applied to all ranks, everybody right up through the,


the whole of the battalion, I would say.
And you said you had your boot heel clipped off?
Yes, when I was wearing my greatcoat, I got a couple of holes in my greatcoat too, so I had a couple of near misses. But I never got touched.
Did you feel those hits at the time?
No. Well I knew there was something wrong with my boot. I found that well after we finished there,


and I scrounged around and found a pair of Italian boots, they used to have boots, odd looking things, like untreated, untanned leather or something, things you couldn’t polish. But they served me very well, until the end of the campaign, til I could get a pair of proper boots from the Q store [Quartermaster’s store] again. But a lot of the fellows, we were pretty scruffy by that time, our uniforms were worn out, and we were always very slow


in getting new uniforms and things like that, it was always a bit difficult.
What were your impressions of the Italians you captured?
Very few. A few officers tended to be arrogant and, as if they despised us for being barbarians, which I suppose we looked like, and sometimes acted and spoke like. But the ordinary Italian charming fellows,


I remember, it was after Tobruk, not after Bardia, after Tobruk, I was put in charge of a little, one little compound with I think, oh a thousand men in there. Just on a bit of desert, and we decided to build a bit of a cookhouse. And so everybody hopped in and they were very excellent workmen in stone, and we build a cookhouse out of untreated stone.


And had singing, of course, if you get a dozen Italians, you can get a bit of a choir going. And so we used to sing songs. And they taught me one in Italian, that old thing, I forget, singing in French, “Ton nari de mer pera basonya se.” “Ton nari da mer pere cal salunya se, dal


cormeo.” And I knew it in French, and I’ve forgotten it in English, but they taught it to me in Italian. So that’s the kind of, it was quite charming, and completely uninterested in warfare. Although, you know, everybody said they were a pushover, and in a sense they were too, but a lot of them, well we had a lot of casualties to prove it. They’d fired their rifles anyway.
What sort of souvenir gathering was done by the men?
Oh they collect all sorts of bloody things,


helmets and bayonets and all bits, they threw them all away again later. There was a bit of scrounging went on. And I think one gang found a hospital and found its safe, and there was lots of lira in there, you see. And they were throwing this stuff around like, what do you call it, monopoly money, and somebody said, “Hey, cut it out, that stuff’s legal tender in Cairo.” So they very quickly came and scooped up


all they could find, and I think a lot of them made quite a few bob and hit the, stored it up and when they next got leave in Cairo, they were able to hit the bright spots like millionaires, but I never got any of that.
What was morale like after Bardia?
Oh terrific really. See this was probably the first real victory


of British arms. From the beginning of the war up til then, the British Army had been well, you know, hadn’t scored a victory. Except for the minor British thing down at Sollum, which was quite good, but it wasn’t, wasn’t a big operation. And here was a set piece operation, and there was even talk that in Australia, they were going to have Bardia Day as an alternative to Anzac Day, you know, high feeling at that time.


But later on, Bardia sort of sank into the obscurity of the forgotten, and I suppose there wouldn’t be one in a thousand Australians who have ever heard of Bardia now. It was a famous victory when it happened.
Now you can’t have had long to re-gather yourselves before you were pushed further on?
That’s right. I forget how many weeks it was, but it wasn’t much. We were pushed up to the next, to invest the next fortress which was


Tobruk. And of course the ones we hadn’t captured, had escaped up the thing, and they’d got themselves in Tobruk. So Tobruk was pretty well defended, and its defensive plan was pretty similar to Bardia, so the tactics were pretty similar, to invest it, bust the wire, you know, make a bridge


head inside the wire, then exploit afterwards and go through. And in a lot of ways, it was a tougher nut to crack, because the Italians had learned. And my claim to fame when I was running that first platoon, that first patrol and sort of marching across the desert and then ducking in and out of the anti-tank ditch and measuring the wire and all that sort of stuff, was hardly possible because they’d got the idea that they’d planted


anti-personnel mines all along the front. Cause they had no intention of patrolling themselves, so they stayed inside their perimeters and put these things. And I was supposed to take the first patrol again, but for some reason they changed their minds, and another young man called Harry Bamford, a very good young officer, he took the patrol out and ran into this stuff, didn’t know, so he got very badly wounded, his leg shattered, and.


So that he, that was the end, effective war as far as he was concerned. He stayed in the army for a long time doing other things, but he lived the rest of his life, I think he’s dead now, with this shattered leg that he had. And there were several others were, I think one or two killed, and several others wounded, running into those. And then after that, the engineers had to come in and unsung as they always are, and clear paths through these anti-mines, so that when we assaulted it, we could go through these


passageways through the mines. Which became sort of commonplace later in the war, but that was the first time we’d come up against it. I was sent, well I was allowed to go over, and find this 7th Armoured Div [Division], and see if I could get a ride in a tank to go and have a look at the perimeter, at this wire, for this patrol I was to take, that I didn’t take. But I was finally told to get lost by this squadron commander, but we talked him around, the young fellow,


the lieutenant, he had a tank. So I had my first ride in a, it was a light tank, it had a machine gun next to the driver, that’s all it was, it was just a glorified tin can. But he took us fairly close up to the wire until they got at us with the artillery, and chased us off. But it wasn’t an all that wonderful look, but at least we got a look, a fair look at the, the wire perimeter thing, before we were hunted.


It didn’t add much to the knowledge or the gaiety of nations, but still it was an interesting exercise. Got to know very charming men, and lovely fellows.
So what was the plan for your battalion company platoon on the night?
Well the order was reversed for Tobruk. We, in my battalion,


we had to break the wire and the others had to. See in Bardia, we were the third, we came in and exploited after someone else broke the wire and went through. We had to take fort, post fifty seven to bust the wire, get in, consolidate that and then the others came through.
What were you using to break the wire?
The engineers made what they called, oh God, I can’t think of it.


Bangalore torpedoes, yes. A long piece of pipe stuffed with explosive and shoved under the wire, and you set it off. I don’t think you struck matches and lit a fuse, but they did something with it, set it off and then they blew a gap in the wire. And once again, you see the engineers were working ahead of the infantry all the time, those were, we had


to come, follow their work and bust through. So my friend Alan Murchison and I, there were three separate torpedoes had to go up, and my platoon, we were going to be opposite one, and his was opposite another, so we were having bets to see who would be first inside the, inside the perimeter. And that’s where that thing, you read about, I was in an anti-tank ditch with my lot, I wasn’t going to be beaten.


So I heard the bangs go, and I thought I counted to three, but apparently it was only to two. And my particular bang hadn’t gone up yet, and I was starting to climb out of the trench and I was hollering to the fellows to come, and they all started, including the battalion commander, hollering at me to come back, which fortunately I did. And then I scrambled back in, and then the balloon went up, the Bangalore torpedo, and we charged just helter skelter, headlong through the wire. And it was always alleged, and I maintained


with Alan, who was my best friend, that I beat him in there, because he caught his trousers on the wire and it held him up for a couple of seconds while he disentangled himself, so I got in the wire first. And then we proceeded to do what we had to do, and get around and shoot up the fort, it was a bit of a shambles in there, it always is, when you’re doing something at night time.
So you maintain that you were the first man through the wire?
I was, it was my private thing that I was the first man through the wire at Tobruk. Now there were probably a hundred and fifty fellows who would


deny that and say they were, or somebody they knew was. But I won’t have any money on it, but that’s my private little, bit of pride in myself, that I was the first in there.
Was it dark while you were doing this?
Oh, black as the inside of a cow, yes, that’s right.
How do you find your way up the start line in those circumstances, without getting lost?
Well, blokes with a, one bloke with a compass and somebody else, same as I did with the original patrol. One bloke with a compass, other people


counting things, and, counting paces, and you just get there until somebody shoots at you, and then you know you’re there then. And that’s the way it went. But we had an artillery barrage that covered any noise. Well when you think about it, a couple of field regiments pounding away with rapid fire, and onto the, under the wire, and no Italian, anybody, German, or Swiss


would have kept his head down and his concrete emplacement very firmly while that was going on. It’s only when it stops that you know there’s something and you can bob your head up and start fighting again, that’s what the Germans did in the First World War. They used to survive enormous barrages, but they stayed well underground while it was on, and then bobbed up and got stuck into it, when the shelling stopped. And that was the idea, but some of the Italians were a bit slow thinking about coming up, so our fellows were,


went and sort of dug them out, yelled at them to come out with their hands up, “Manny alto.” that was the one Italian phrase, which means hands up, I suppose, manny alto. And so, it was run across the battle field, “Manny alto, you bastard, come out of there.” And if they didn’t chuck a grenade down, that of course was mayhem, that was successful, that worked. And the battalions went through and we proceeded to do pretty much the same thing in Tobruk, as we’d


done in Bardia, and captured.
You said earlier on, that when you went through the wire at Tobruk, people were screaming and yelling.
Oh yeah. Pent up excitement, and you were not so heavily laden up in Tobruk, we didn’t wear the greatcoats and the jerkins at that stage, so we were much more mobile. And anyway, we weren’t going to march a couple of miles, we were only going to go a hundred yards from the ditch into the, into the fortresses.


Can you describe the posts that you….?
Well they were, they were mostly underground, and they were concrete emplacements, with machine guns and things on the top. Weren’t very obvious on the top, because well, it was quite sound, you had it fairly close to the thing. And in fact, our troops used them quite extensively in the siege of Tobruk, when they were the defenders of Tobruk, and they found these very good.


But of course they had to have ordinary, just holes in the ground between those Italian emplacements, because they were dealing with an experienced enemy, and they had to use those. But they, and they were not encouraged to get down, they only used them on the surface, they weren’t encouraged to go down and live in the underground bunkers that are a trap for young players. Because once a bloke gets down there, he finds it difficult to get his head up, when there’s shooting going on. But that’s what they were,


just concrete emplacements with sleeping quarters and all sorts of things underneath, with a little firing platform on top, still surrounded by concrete, that they could fire from. Which, if they’d been well defended, they would have been very formidable indeed. But the artillery barrage and the nearness of troops hollering down their ears, meant that they weren’t as well defended as they should have been, and


it was comparatively easy to overcome them, and mop them up.
How did you go about rooting them out of those positions?
Well the same thing, hollering down to get up, and mostly they did. Or the same old business, chuck a grenade down, if there was nobody coming up. So that, if there was nobody coming up, either they were going to stay down there or there was nobody there anyway, they’d got up and run away or something beforehand. So it wasn’t consciously murdering fellows who’d given up, we never did that.


But the Italians drove us pretty close to it sometimes, by this tactic I told you about, firing like hell until you got close to them, and then putting their hands up. So you were sort of, you had to say, “Good morning Charlie, nice to meet you.” and that was it…
In the case where you’ve got your men charging through the wire and the blood is very much up, how do you keep a grip on them from doing that sort of over reaction?
Well, it’s only


by staying within shouting distance, there’s no pattern for that sort of thing. And they knew, once again, it’s a question of what they knew, they didn’t have to go very far from these particular posts, so that’s where we were, and that’s what we did. And a couple of times, a couple of platoons ran into one another, fortunately nobody shot one another up. Because in the dark, it was very easy, you could miss your own target by a few yards, and you were hunting,


hunting around for the target. I ran into Sergeant Bell’s platoon, I think at one stage. We were both trying to find our own particular thing, and we ran into one another. So we did mutual courtesies and departed, and we found our posts and cleaned it up, and so did he eventually. But.
Mutual courtesies, Dennis?
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” you know. And I remember, I think it got recorded too, “Well, it’s all right Sergeant,


I put it down to excessive zeal.” the fact that he was going to shoot my platoon up, instead of the Italians.
How do you feel about the fact that 6th Div’s capture of Tobruk is almost forgotten about, compared to 9th Div’s defence of it?
Well, time marches on, and it was, as I say once again. It was a


big deal at that particular time, but it never captured the imagination for some reason or other, of the troops at home. And nobody realised really, what a big deal it was, it was just a couple of incidents in that quite remarkable advance from the Egyptian border up to Benghazi. You know, of one infantry division with a 7th Armoured Div and a few British units attached.


And of course by the time, there was elements of the 19th Brigade that got to Benghazi, as soon as a, they were on a roll in, they didn’t allow the Italians to stop and regroup in any way. So they were on a roll just chasing them until, eventually, logistics indicated they had to stop at Benghazi, and then they were full of themselves and thought it was a great idea, which it was.


But then Germans came into the business with a much better sort of organised force, and chased our fellows out of it.
What about, I know that this cuts much further forward. What about later on when you found out that Tobruk had been almost given away, ultimately?
Well, people used to talk about Tobruk, and my thing was, well yes. We took it of course, and we just left it to you fellows to hang onto.


And of course, we were a bit put out in the second phase of the war when Tobruk was captured by the Germans, but it was never made much of. But you’re quite right, that it never captured anybody’s imagination, and people’s imagination were captured by this hotch-potch collection of units, that later became the 9th Division, were able to hold out against the Germans for a long time.
In those first couple


of battles, Bardia and Tobruk, what did you see of injured and dead men, particularly Australians, and how did it affect you?
Oddly enough, in the battle context. If I suppose, it had been, we’d got down and we’d had to actually fight among dead bodies and not able to do anything about them because of the pressure of warfare, I suppose it might have affected us more. But in actual fact, we all were, in


those battles, we were always on the move, so the stretcher bearers and those things got rid of the wounded and the dead very quickly, so that wasn’t a problem. We knew there were dead there, of course, and in the middle of battle, they were lying about and there was nothing much you could do about it. Even the wounded some days, you gave them a bit of first aid, and hope the stretcher bearers would be along pretty quickly, which they usually were. They did a, unsung sort of people, they were the band mostly, the stretcher bearers, and


you know, they were in the middle of the battle, not shooting rifles but picking up casualties, that’s what they’d do, and doing it very well.
By the way, were you carrying a rifle or pistol in these battles?
Mostly, I didn’t carry a rifle, I thought it was an encumbrance, I was never going to use it, I just had a pistol. But I always reckoned my role was not to be firing rifles, but seeing that other blokes fired theirs. And a pistol is only for show anyway, because


nobody can hit anything at ten yards with the rotten thing, I discovered that several times. The things you see in the pictures where fellows at fifty yards drop somebody, like a log at fifty yards with a pistol, is just fantasy, it never happens. The only way with a pistol is to get up to a bloke and practically shove it into his stomach, and fire the thing then. Well later on in Syria, this happened, in a little


dust-up that we had on the way up to Meiss Ej Jabal. A bloke, he was an officer appeared, you know, one of these night time scuffles. And he appeared in front of me with a pistol, and he fired at me and I fired at him and we both missed, and then he disappeared, I didn’t seem him, but somebody might have got him. But that’s the accuracy of a pistol, only for show.
How long were you in Tobruk for,


you personally?
Well, I was a bit vague about that, I think we were there for two or three weeks. I can’t, I think when I try to look back to think about some of these things, the thing that strikes me is the ponderous way that the whole thing worked. That it seemed to take you weeks to get somewhere, and then weeks and the months, and there’s no wonder that six years drifted by. Because it took so dashed long for any particular operation to get underway. Even when they talk about


colossal emergencies, getting our troops back, it took months to get our troops back from the Middle East, back to Australia. And the impression we had at the time, is somebody blew the whistle and we scrambled onboard ships and we were back home in a fortnight, but it wasn’t so, that didn’t happen. So I think it was a few weeks, and then it was from there, that I got a few days leave, travelled down and got some leave, and then told to report to


this tactical school. And while I was away, they got the word that they had to go to Greece, and so they off, they upped sticks from Tobruk, and as they were, shoved on a boat, and off they were, off in Greece.
Why were you sent to the tactical school?
I’ve never been able to work that out. I think the colonel, I was a sort of a favourite son, you know, he’d given me a commission in the first place, and


I always thought he was marvellous and he sort of, I think he just looked over my career, thought it would be a good thing for me to do. It was a kind of a, what he was doing was a great favour, sending me on this thing, he didn’t have any idea we were going to be marched off to Greece, or he wouldn’t have sent me. But once I was there, I was there, and they went without me, and I always resented that.
Why did you resent


missing out on Greece?
Once again, we got the idea it was a desperate venture that had a possibility of success, but not a very great probability. And it was something we were going to do as a division again, and it was painted to us as one of the very necessary operations that would help to keep the Germans


away from the vital installations of the Middle East. And it was only, I don’t think General Wavell himself had much faith in it, as a ploy, but he was told by the War Cabinet in Britain that he had to do it. Because somehow or other, Britain had to keep faith with the Greeks, because of their support further on, and we wouldn’t be seen to abandon them. Because they’d seen the Italians off already, but there was no chance that they could see the Germans off.


And with our division, it might just tip the balance and hold the Germans back. But they didn’t allow for the fact that we had no air support. And the most dreadful, I used to get very annoyed with our blokes, the most dreadful things they used to say about the RAF [Royal Air Force]. “The cowardly RAF had left them for dead with no air cover.” Those poor devils, there was a whole squadron of Gloucester Gladiators, would you believe it, left almost the same as the things they’d had in 1918, up against


Messerschmits. And ever one, they went up, they didn’t dog it all, and every one got shot down. And so we had absolutely no air cover whatsoever, because there wasn’t any there to have.
What did you think of the higher leadership in the Middle East/North Africa campaign?
Well for some reason, although he was a very austere sort of a fellow who didn’t like Australians one bit, all of a sudden out of,


it must have percolated down from there, we had a very great respect for General Wavell. And I think quite unfairly, nobody had any respect for General Blamey. But as he didn’t exercise any, you know, he was never given any chance for any tactical leadership. I mean a brilliant tactical officer, but for some reason the troops didn’t like him. And I think some of his personal habits, he used to drink too much and things like that.


He was an odd looking little fellow, he’d let himself get very fat, got fat and he looked, didn’t look impressive. And with troops, they get their likes and dislikes very easily and its hard to shake them from it. But that was really, there was a General O’Connor, an Englishman who caught the imagination of people. He was supposed to be an up and coming star, and he was, but he


got captured in the Benghazi Handicap and so never played any further part in the war. But otherwise, I don’t think anybody had any particular complaints about them, because we won the blessed campaign, you know, so it must have been alright. And quite grudgingly, they thought that our own divisional commander who was a very austere and not particularly welcoming sort of man, didn’t make himself popular, they had a very great respect for him, General McKay.


How do you think the tactical school prepared you better for leadership?
I don’t think, I nearly got kicked out of it, I created a real blue [fuss], part of my ongoing thing. I was, we were there, we were doing something in the morning and I had a glass of beer with my lunch, one glass of beer. But then we went into a hot tin big shed, a lot of us,


and we were going to be addressed by the commandant of the school, Colonel Cameron of the Cameron Highlanders, who was second only to God in his own opinion, you know, an arrogant sort of fellow. And he expected, a bit like General Montgomery later, for people to hang on his word. Anyway, I was listening to him droning on about something or other, and it didn’t interest me much, and then I heard this loud roaring voice, said, “See that man is sent back to his regiment.” and I thought gee, somebody’s done something wrong.


And I looked around and people were looking at me, I’d nodded off, and sort of with my head down and I’d gone to sleep in his lecture, of course, you can imagine what he thought of that. The English major who had charge of my particular squad, had to work overtime to soothe the old boy down, and convince him that I really wasn’t a bad, poor bastard, and it would be a dreadful thing to send me back to my regiment, and I stayed on. But I don’t remember learning very much of anything of any


particular use, perhaps because of the attitude I brought to it, and the fact that I didn’t want to be there in the first place. It was alright.
And what news did you have during this time, about what was going on in Greece and Crete?
None at all, we didn’t know, none of us knew anything was going on, until we heard that they were clearing off. And of course, you know the old business about General Blamey knew it was going to be a disaster, and he went on, with what people thought at the time was a bit of a holiday thing, looking around


the beaches. What he was doing was sussing out the beaches for another Dunkirk. And so that when word came that we had to try and, they had to try and get us off, it was another Dunkirk, the beaches were there already waiting for us, people knew where to go. Which probably saved many thousands of blokes being put in the bag.
So from that tactical school, where did you go to?
Well I,


it’s a bit vague, it could only be a few days, I think there was some kind of. The brigade had left behind some kind of baggage and things, and I put in, I think it was only about a week there, and then we knew then, word had filtered around that there was going to be a disaster, and they were going to get out anyway. So I was down at the wharf waiting for them to get back and they did. And it was quite surprising, after this really


desperate struggle and all the equipment had been thrown away, the officers, my friends on this boat came, all dressed up in their drinking suits, you know, their best uniform. Because they had to throw away everything except what they stood up in, and they said they might as well stand up in their best uniform, and throw the old rags they’d been wearing, overboard. So they looked the smartest looking lot of refugees you ever saw in your life, these few officers. And so they landed back, and we went into camp.
When you say you were down at the wharves, where?


Oh, I can’t exactly remember, near Alexandria, I think that’s where that particular lot came in. But why I knew it was them on it, or whether it was just on spec that I happened to get down there, because I had nothing else to do and I was hanging around waiting for them to came back, and that’s where they were, they came in.
What did your brother officers tell you of what had been going on?
Well of course, I had to live this down for a long time, the fact that I’d been enjoying myself in Egypt,


while they’d been doing it tough. And that’s something I had to wear for the next twelve months, in that one. “Where were you?” you know, and then they’d be on about when we were coming through Larissa and all this stuff, and I was out of that, I had to sit and listen while they boasted around among themselves. Hard times.
And then you were sent back?
Well, as a battalion. Actually, our battalion


and the 5th Battalion were two battalions that got off lightest in Greece, we didn’t lose that many men. A few got to Crete, but some of them got to Crete, but a lot of them got away. And but the 2/1st Battalion had suffered pretty badly, they’d lost you know, most of the, most of the battalion, one way or another, either captured or killed in Crete. And we had to send a lot of our soldiers, who didn’t like the idea much, into boost


up the numbers in the 2/1st. You know, they were told, you’re all in the same brigade, blah, blah, blah. But they, one or two of them never really accepted it for the rest of the war. And then joined the Battalion Association, instead of joining the 2/1st Battalion which they served with for most of the war anyway at the end of it, they wanted to join the 2/3rd Battalion. It’s that kind of loyalty comes in, soldiers to their original unit. But it means that with the very fewest numbers of


reinforcements, we were able to, we were able to field a recognisable battalion, better than almost anybody in the brigade or the division.
Now after the highs of Bardia and Tobruk, had Greece caused a problem with morale, being so?
Oddly enough it didn’t seem to. They were all very proud of what they’d done, and they didn’t seem to think of it as being a humiliating defeat. They knew they’d been rolled over by a war machine, which they had no possible chance of having any


success with the numbers and the equipment they had, tanks and all that sort of thing. So, and I think the Greece thing, was one of the highlights. Having served in Greece, we were actually, the Greeks actually gave them a medal. So that’s another one I missed out on, all my friends were getting a Greek medal, and I didn’t get one, because I didn’t go there. But no, it was kind of a talking point and a boasting point, really,


for little groups for the rest of the war. You know when old soldiers get together and they start to reminisce, Greece was always a very vivid sort of memory in their minds, that they took a perverse kind of pride in being hoofed out of, hoofed out, didn’t seem to them to be a humiliating thing at all. They lived to fight and come again.
Where was the battalion moved up to for refit, then?
Oh no,


stayed pretty well where we were in the camp. I’m not sure it wasn’t still Amaria camp again, near Alexandria, but we weren’t there very long. I know the colonel was Jimmy Lamb at that time, he’d taken over, he’d been the 2IC [second in command], he’d taken over from Colonel England. He called me, he used to try and copy the old colonel by making, be a tough guy and issuing


commands. He caught me one day and he said, “The band is in a bad way, it’s had a lot of casualties and stuff. I want you to get the band going, and I want to hear it next week, Monday.” So I rounded up what was left of the band, and the old bandmaster, and I had great fun with them, conducting the band there for a while, until Alan Murchison who was then the company commander.


And he said, “Hey, you’re not a band master, you’re a soldier.” and he fronted the colonel and told him he wanted me back, and let the band get on with it by themselves, which they’d do better than with me there, anyway. After I’d pulled a few strings, got all the fellows together, so I became 2IC of the company again.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 06


What company was it, that you were 2IC of?
C Company, which was my old company that I’d been platoon commander in. Alan Murchison, he’d been platoon commander and then 2IC, under John Abbott. And then he became company commander, John Abbott disappeared, I don’t know where he went, and I was his 2IC, still a lieutenant, mind you.
At what point did the battalion move back up into Palestine and Syria?


I wrote down some, just need my glasses. Greece was from 18th March to 27th of April. I think it was probably June, June,


yes, that’s right. Long gap, that’s what I say, some of these times, it was June before we went up into. And the idea of that was, I don’t think the 7th Division could muster a full division, I think they only had two brigades. And anyway, it wasn’t serious, they didn’t worry much about that, because they didn’t anticipate there’d be any resistance. They were told to march in columns of three with felt hats turned up at the side, with the band playing. And the French would


say ‘Hooray’, and welcome them in. But they got welcomed with a bit of crossfire and that was the end of that, that was heading up the coast towards Beirut. And then, as I think you know, the 2/5th Battalion from the 17th Brigade, and our battalion from the 16th Brigade, were sent as a kind of reserve, for a start, for the force that were heading up towards Beirut. And we didn’t play any part


in the fighting, we were just following them up. And then, a situation developed over on the Damascus Front, it was a hell of shambles over there. Units going in all directions, there were Free French, and of course the Vichy French wearing identical uniforms, there was a bit of French cavalry on both sides wearing, some of whom had been in the same unit. Some Free French and some Vichy French, sculling about, and you didn’t know which was which until


somebody started shooting, one way or the other.
So so where were you?
We were still over on the, we had to, oh spend most of the day it took to drive over. And we joined up with our lot on the group that were heading towards Damascus. Because we were the freshest, they’d been, they’d had some pretty severe dusting up, the rest of the battalion. And so we were picked on, and we had a fair few casualties, because the


companies were all well under-strength. And we were auditioned off to go and attack this stronghold called Meiss Ej Jabal. And of course, since then, doing a lot of study of the Bible and stuff, I’ve convinced myself that’s the place where Jesus had the transfiguration experience,


of the three Disciples, is exactly the point of Meiss Ej Jabal, it fits the, under the little hill of Hermon and an elevated place, it was only really a foothill, a spur running out from Mount Hermon. But it covered the whole of the Damascus plain, and the French had used it as an artillery thing. And they were actually, we were led to understand they had a whole battalion on it. And with one company,


and an understrength one at that time, we were supposed to assault this at night. And if you have any idea of what a night attack is, especially after scaling around mountains, it’s a disaster. And we got separated, but the sheer audacity of it, the French assumed that the whole brigade was assaulting, and they cleared off. And so Alan Murchison, with about less than about thirty, forty blokes captured the thing. And then I with my little seven odd strong people,


got up the next morning and another group of stragglers, so we had about forty blokes on it.
Why were you separated? You were left out of battle?
Well it’s the same old thing. We had assaulted up with two platoons and then a reserve. Well the reserve was me and six privates, you know. And we kept plodding up and we couldn’t hear anything, there was a wind blowing, we didn’t hear any


shooting, so we just kept plodding up. And suddenly we got fired on by a very rapid fire machine gun in an emplacement that we couldn’t get at, and I had a bit of a look at. I shouted in my best French to tell them to lay down their arms, “Je de be ver arms, le ent er on!”[phonetic] And the only answer they gave to that was two machine guns then opened up. So we had a bit of a conference and we decided we were probably on the wrong


track, because the battalion couldn’t have gone up past these and left, I mean the company, couldn’t have gone up and left these, so we were on the wrong spur or something. So we decided to go back down the bottom of the hill and start again in the morning, this was only a couple of hours until daylight. And sure enough that was what had happened. So we collected some more water and stuff, and off we went back up and joined them in the early hours of the morning on the top of the hill. And by then of course, the French had woken up,


that they’d been tricked off the hill, and they were determined to take it back again. And they kept firing and lobbing artillery shells which were uncomfortably close, and they had snipers posted at strategic points around the place, that made it very difficult for us to move in around there. And one, I poked my head round a rock, and a sniper was waiting, and he fired, it must have gone within an inch of my eyes, straight across like that and hit the rock. And my face was all scattered with rock chips.


Looked as if I’d had the measles or something. And so we got stuck up there, and then a white flag appeared with one of our captured troops, with a note saying, “You are completely surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered. Unless you surrender by four o’clock this afternoon, you will be blasted from the hill.” And Alan Murchison, he was the company commander, and when in a situation,


he used to adopt a rather pompous tone. He was only a young man, he was only twenty three or something, he was a bit older than me, a year, or six months older than me, a year older than me. He said, “I have no instructions which allow me to do such a thing, and if you want to have this hill, you’ll have to come and get it.” Sent the poor bloke with the white flag back, and then they talked. I used to say to people,


when people talk in the Bible about when the Israeli troops were going to cross to Jordan, they made the sun stand still so they could all get across before the end of daylight, you see. And I said that’s perfectly reasonable. Because this was in June, it must have damn well been the longest day of the year anyway, but it’s the longest days that’s ever been in centuries, I reckon, we were up there. It must have been, we determined, we had a conference this day and saw them off, and we did.


Every time they came, we saw them off, but we were running out of ammunition. Alan said we’d wait till dark, then we’d get out, we’d sneak our way out if we had to, we’d fight our way out if we couldn’t sneak out. And so we had to put up with it all day being shelled and machine gunned. And the night time came, of course


our blokes were scattered around, and told to come in. And I don’t know whose fault it was, but I’ve often felt dreadfully guilty, because it might have been my fault. One little section with an officer, didn’t get the message, I thought they had, but they didn’t. We collected them all together, and we had a British sergeant, Sergeant Mountjoy and a few British soldiers, who were the clumsiest footed people I’ve ever struck in all my life. Just as well there weren’t any tin cans


around, because they would have kicked every one. And in a retreat, the commander always comes last, so we were clearing out of this hill. I went first, the second in command was Alan Murchison, the company guy, he brought up the rear. So I had to weave my way down this, we didn’t know where we were going, we just had to get off that hill. And we could hear the French on either side, hear the cavalry and hear the horses and we could hear


men talking. And we sneaked down, picked fortuitously our way between them and got out right down the hill and onto the plain, took us all night. And we were wondering what the hell we were going to do when the dawn broke, because we’d be out exposed to the Vichy French who now, the rest of our forces had withdrawn and left us on the top of this hill for dead, you know. And we found a, you could hardly


call them caves, a bit of overhanging rock that made a sort of a cave in there, so we all bundled in there and it was very effective. So we could see the French cavalry scouring round the place, there was a hell of commotion up on the top of the hill, because the French had decided to attack, and there was nothing there to stop them except for this half a dozen men. They got caught and they got captured, and their young officer,


Bill Hildebrand his name was, he got killed, which was a sad blow to us. Somehow or other we should have been able to prevent that, but that’s past praying for. And then we stayed down under this cave arrangement all day, we had a couple of wounded we had to carry and help. At night, we once again had a conference and decided


that back towards the south was the way to go. And as soon as it was dark, we set off. And of course, we hadn’t thought that our being left up there caused great consternation in the battalion and the whole brigade, that we’d been left up there. My friend John McDonald had been sent as liaison officer to the British brigade headquarters, actually it was a British brigade we were attached to this time, shows you the


sort of shambles it was around the place. And the brigadier, he was a terribly nice bloke, he said, “McDonald, I’m afraid we’ve got very bad news. Those chaps of yours up on Jebelmazaar, the place has been retaken and I’m afraid you’ve got to write them off, they’ve either all been killed or taken prisoner. Accept my condolences for this.” Old John he was


a funny bloke, he told me about it afterwards. He said, “I sat there and I could have bloody well cried, I sat there, and I nearly did.” And then he said, “Oh don’t you worry Sir, they’ll be right, old Murch and Dennis, they’ve got out of worse places than that, they’ll be right, they’ll be along.” And the colonel, the brigadier, he sort of understandingly patted him on the shoulder, you know, a bit of natural bravado in sorrow. And anyway,


the night time came, we kept plodding along and suddenly, “Who goes there?” in English. So we said, “C Company.” and there was a hell of a bloody commotion with the sentry bloke, “It’s bloody C Company, they’ve turned up!” If there had been any enemies they would have been a sitting duck target, they all came pouring out, and there we were, bedraggled looking mob, C Company, and we’d only lost a couple of blokes in all this palaver. And the word filtered through,


and old John McDonald said, he heard about it and he said, “Well I just said, well I told you, didn’t I Sir that they’d turn up, and they have turned up, haven’t they?” So we turned up and joined the battalion, and we finally finished up we captured Damascus anyway. That, and then we were sent back after that, back to the coastal thing and we were on a fort around the, in the hills,


around Merdjayoun, and that’s the place where Mr. [Sir Roden] Cutler got his VC [Victoria Cross]in that fight. So they were fighting down and we were up in the hills circling around them, which was a dodgy arrangement too.
Can I just ask a couple of questions?
You said much earlier in the day that when you first joined up the army, you thought that you’d be going off to France to start World War 1, part two?
That’s right.
Now suddenly you’re fighting against the French, what feelings did you have about that?


Well, we were a bit aggrieved and we were very annoyed with the French, because we thought they were a lot of two-timing bastards that were neither one thing nor the other. If they’d put up half the kind of show against the German they put up against us, they wouldn’t have got mopped up the way they did in France. And our subsequent experience with the Vichy French officers anyway there, sort of confirmed that, they were an arrogant


lot that despised us quite obviously. And we wouldn’t relent and have a friendly attitude towards, they kept themselves to themselves until they were chuffed off and I don’t know whether they were taken back to Germany or went back to France. But they fought us, but it was tough going, they were good troops, some of them were the. One incident, just about this


time we were coming back onto the coastal front, a French foreign legionnaire dressed in their typical uniform turned up, a big tall fellow he was. And somebody said he was surrendering, you see, somebody said, “Who are you?” He said, his name was McIntosh,


and he said, “I’m coming in here because I will not fight against my own men.” He was a Scotsman who’d been in the French Foreign Legion, he’d been stuck there. So the first opportunity, he fought naturally, but he came over and joined our lot. What subsequently happened to him I don’t know. But our fellows nearly fell over, this typical French fellow speaking in tongues, a good Scots tongue it was,


“I will not fight against my own men.”
What did you have to do in the Battle of Damascus?
Oh well, we didn’t do particularly much because it was. Well it was, no, it was our carriers and another company that actually. They went and they actually occupied Damascus, the front up there collapsed and the French cleared off or surrendered. So our fellows went in and captured Damascus, which was a bit of a history


place, we only saw on the television the other night, [T.E.] Lawrence came in from the desert and captured it in 1917.
Were you involved in that action?
No, we were following along, it wasn’t really an action, there was no shooting. But no I wasn’t, we were sort of in reserve there.
When you went up that hill there at Meiss Ej Jabal, the company sounded if it was very, very understrength.
It was.
Why was that?


and casualties, we had a lot of casualties. And I’ve never known, sort of how many. And some of our fellows in the confusion, in a previous battle, had been captured, one officer and a few troops and you know, the usual fall-out. And it was ferocious weather the heat was terrific and I think fellows had fallen by the wayside and were wounded and one thing and another. So two companies, I think


B company and C company together, didn’t make up a full company altogether. So Murchison commanded the two companies.
After the Vichy French had capitulated in Syria, how did life settle down then?
Well actually, it settled down for a long time when I think in retrospect. Because then we collected all our odd bods, and


wounded discharge and that sort of stuff. And we were billeted up in one of the villages up the side of the hill in Lebanon. Which incidentally is one of the most gorgeous places on earth. I remember we got up there, winding road that seemed to go right up the side of a precipice, you know, and little white villages stuck up. And we were in this one, and you looked up, and some poet talked about the blue Mediterranean coiling like a snake underneath him, and that’s exactly what it looked like.


And I used to think, “This is paradise on earth!” and I even thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful after the war to come and live in a gorgeous little place like this, in a white painted house on the side, and let the rest of the world go by.” And it was an awful tragedy that Lebanon became a disaster area, when it should have been one of the most, could have been one of the most delightful places on earth. But we stayed in this billets and didn’t train much, and fiddled about. And the biggest problem was to


keep the troops amused. So we had to go through training exercises, and I remember a beach, I was acting company commander at that stage. I used to get them for an hour in the afternoon, and read them poetry, and particularly [Rudyard] Kipling’s soldier poetry,


you know. And for a start, they looked at one another, and thought, “The poor buggar’s gone completely mad now, we’ve got another psycho case on us.” But they got to like it after a while, and they used to make requests, what about that one, and that one. So for several weeks, they became acquainted with the soldier poetry of Rudyard Kipling which I, I’ve still got the copy up there somewhere, that I had there. A big bulky copy of all Kipling’s poetry,


that sort of thing. Then, it seemed the German menace died down a bit, but then they got an idea that the Germans would come anyway, when they got the time. They developed a marvellous scheme whereby in these foothill things on the road the Germans would take if they were coming down there, they would develop a series of


forts on tops of hills, where troops would remain there. And when the Germans would pass through, we, or the troops that were in there, would sally forth from these like medieval knights and come and fall upon the rear of the Germans as they came, and create mayhem. And it was a brilliant idea, but it would have lasted about five minutes before they would have had their arses shot off. But,


I was then again given the task, I had my own platoon, two hundred labourers from the sweepings of Damascus would come out each day in trucks, and we were to build a road up to the top of one of these particular hills, so that the fort could be built, you see. And we were doing alright, you see, the fellows got to like it, it was good labouring work and they liked that, and the challenge of cutting a road with picks and shovels


up, and working, making a sort of gradient that a truck could eventually go up, we were making good progress up there. And a Druze sheikh had his house in the valley just close by there, so it was on his land really that we were doing this really, so I went over as soon as we got there one morning, made myself known, had coffee with him, he was a nice old gentleman. And we made do with a mixture


of my awful French and a few words of English that he had, and he gave me coffee and we used to talk, and I got into the habit of every day or so going over to see him and have a cup of coffee with him. But anyway, a colonel of the engineers turned up one day, “What the hell do you think you fellows are doing here?” I said, “We’re making a road up to the top, up there for the fort.” He said, “Where’s the


engineer soldier that I sent here to do this operation?” I said, “Oh there is a fellow, a nice young fellow too, he’s hanging about here.” He said, “What do you mean, you’re supposed to be merely supplying labour, and he’s supposed to direct the operation.” private soldier, you see. “Oh, my colonel told me to take charge of it and to get the job done.” So he stamped


off, and he said, “I’ll see about that.” But anyway, by the time we had another colonel, he and I didn’t get on very well, but at least he backed me up in that much, and he saw this other bloke off, so we kept on building the road. And then the snow started to fall and that was the end of it. As far as I know, the road is still three quarters built up to the top of the hill, and has never been occupied. Because we had to get back and then we had an encampment in the


hills area, and we got twelve feet of snow up in the Syrian foothills. So that a tent, an ordinary sized tent, there’d only be that much showing above the top.
What sort of leave did you get during all these months?
Well a couple of times, not very much, but occasionally we did get some leave. I remember going and thinking what a gracious, nice town Beirut was, a sort of a French provincial


town, and you used to get quite a decent meal, French of course, in a café. And they used to sell vin de ware, wine of the country in beer bottles, Australian beer bottles that were going begging. So you used to be able to buy a beer bottle full of wine for a shilling, it wasn’t bad, I didn’t know anything about wine in those days, but it seemed alright to me, a potable brew.
I believe you also went to Jerusalem?
Oh that was earlier on when we


were in Palestine.
That was before?
That was before, that was in our first time in 1940.
Did you have leave in Damascus?
No, I never got leave. We were, by this time, it was a long way from Damascus, it was on the other side, the other side coming down through, coming down towards the coast from Beirut.
Do you recall hearing of the Japanese entry into the war, while you were over there?
Yes. Well we didn’t


hear about the Japanese first, what, that the first thing that we did hear was the, well yes, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. And of course, I’d been thinking for a long time, “Well how the hell were we going to get out of this situation?” There we were, all on our own and the British with obviously limited money resources, they’d run out of money and out of men. The Germans seemed an invincible war machine would roll over us and crush us one day. And there seemed to be a recurring series of miracles that


we were getting away with it. First of all the RAF in 1940, then the navy all through holding them off. And I remember saying to one of the chaps, “Well we’ve won the war, the Americans are going to be in it.” I said, “It might take a long time and a lot of blood, but we’ve won the war, the Germans can’t fight this.” and that was a fairly true observation. But then we started, it never occurred to us that they’d try to drag us back to Australia, because we, as I say,


looked upon ourselves as more or less, as professional and everything. And the war, as far as we saw it, was against Germany and the whole of the militia army there anyway, could handle any kind of Japanese threat. So all this palaver about Mr. Curtin [John Curtin, Prime Minster of Australia] and Mr. Churchill [Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of UK] having great slanging matches, and Mr. Curtin demanding that all Australian troops were returned to Australia immediately for the defence of Australia. And we resented it to be quite frank, we thought it was unnecessary; our job was there to fight the Germans.


But we all got swept up, and we realised it was inevitable, and once again, your first memory is that as soon as we heard about it, we marched down, got on ships and came back to Australia. But it took months, one way and another. And our particular brigade, we weren’t in this business about the 7th Division being caught in a convoy and Churchill ordering them to go up to Burma against Mr. Curtin’s express things. And Mr. Curtin sending


the message saying they weren’t to go to Burma at all, they had to come back to Australia, all that business. Some did, some troops did land over there, and got put into bags by the Japanese after two years in the Middle East. But we went to Ceylon, because Ceylon was supposed to be the next thing to fall, and we tried to prevent it. And two brigades, 16th and 17th, we in bits and pieces, landed in Ceylon and we stayed there for four months.
What did you get up to while you were there?
Well, it was a,


we were, came straight out of the desert and straight out of the snow in Syria, still six feet of snow everywhere, and landed in Ceylon in the tropics, and the quite foolish decision by the…. The CO [Commanding Officer] we had then was a strange fellow, always wanting to strike attitudes and stuff, and make himself out to be a tough guy, tough guy with words anyway. And he ordered, the minute the blokes


got off the, he ordered a route march. And in ferocious tropical heat, he was running around abusing fellows that dropped out, you know. By this time I’d changed by deed, they sent me off as a brigade liaison officer, and that’s where I stayed for quite a while. Which was a job which meant that brigade headquarters had to keep in


touch with the battalions, and take messages, important messages between two. Tell the battalion commanders what the CO, what the brigadier was thinking, and all that sort of stuff. So I wasn’t on that route march but my friends were, it was dreadful. The CO ran around abusing fellows, saying you know, “When your body runs out, you’ve got to march on your


heart.” and that sort of thing. But anyway, that was a passing thing, we sort of got used to the conditions and we trained again, marching and weapons. But we were anticipating the Japs, arriving. But for once, and they were going to come too, people said there was no serious intent, but there was. They sent a taskforce with an aircraft carrier and you know, accompanying ships to land there. And they


sent the planes over to bomb Colombo, you know, to soften it up, but by some miracle, I don’t know how, there was a squadron of Spitfires there at the time.
Did you see anything of that air engagement?
My word we did, we stood out and watched the whole damn thing, planes screaming around and the Spitfire shot, I think every one of the planes out of the sky. And one came fishtailing down, a Japanese thing, and landed in a paddy field


only a couple of hundred yards from where we were standing. And he just forcibly went straight in, and as far as I know he’s still there, because he disappeared beneath the mud of the paddy field, and that’s where he went.
The whole aircraft disappeared?
The whole aircraft just phooft, straight into this paddy field, and then just a pinch, you see the tail gradually disappearing underneath the swamp as it was.
You must have thought it was quite a show for you?
Oh we were, it was terrific, you know, we were.


cheering them on. It was a bit like watching, I imagine, watching that last great September the 15th battle in England, you know, the last great battle before the Germans gave away trying to, daylight bombing of RAF situations. But on a small scale it was very good. After that, the threat disappeared, it seemed as if the Japs weren’t going to bother, so as I say, we were there for four months.


And same old routine, back to training and we tried to do some jungle warfare training, because there was plenty of jungle around, we had to get used to entirely different conditions. The clean hardness of the desert, we yearned for that, because a tropical place. Well for example, in the first couple of days we were on a march and a glorious brilliant, beautiful green grass by


the side, you can go and stand on it or sit down, and immediately you were smothered in leeches. And every time you come back from an exercise, they used to be able to get in through the lace holes of your boots. And when you took your boot off, your boot was half full of blood, you know, disgusting things, blokes didn’t like that. And various other nasties in the bush, but we never ran into any cobras. And the people were


nice and friendly and we got used to the idea of their singing, was very graceful, beautifully graceful Ceylonese women. And when we did get a leave and among the English, European women, they all looked so big, big footed and clumsy in comparison. Small boned, very graceful people and well mannered and charming


people, we got on very well with them, there were never any bad incidents with the civilian population in Ceylon, that I know about.
Did the battalion manage to replenish its stock of carved wooden elephants, whilst in Ceylon?
No, I think they’d learned their lesson about carved wooden elephants. But what other kind of smaller bits of cheap-jack jewellery. Well as a matter of fact, I fell for one, I bought myself a pair of, two sapphire, Ceylon was always well known for


sapphire mines, you know, sapphires, and gave them to a girl. I don’t know where they are now, whether she’s still got them, or her grandchildren have got them or where they are. They didn’t get me anywhere, so that’s all by the way. Then the word went out that we had to get back to Australia in a hurry, because a great crisis had developed. The Japanese, having landed in New Guinea, had


advanced, and had come up over the Owen Stanleys [ranges] by the track, and were sitting above [Port] Moresby, and looked in all ways, ready to swoop down on Moresby and capture it, which was a very serious business indeed.
What did you know about New Guinea at that time?
Not a single thing. And we weren’t prepared for it in anyway. We landed there, actually we’d been in Ceylon, we still had our Middle East gear, you know, shorts and that sort


of stuff. And we were supposed to be given leave and once again, I missed out a bit. Because I was commander, as brigade liaison officer, I had to see the whole of the brigade off on various places on leave, on trains, and I was made into a, what do you call it, train officer, and I had to. The trains would hold so many troops and I had to get the numbers of troops and see


that they got on, as their commander.
This was back in Sydney, is it?
This is back in Melbourne.
In Melbourne.
At Seymour camp. And once again, we copped it. We’d come out of tropical Ceylon into Victoria in the middle of winter. And oh God, Seymour, Seymour is an abomination of desolation at the best of the time. But we had one pleasant experience. All through the Middle East, we’d never had a, hardly ever had a decent drop of beer,


there used to be an occasional boatload of Australian beer came, when you got half a bottle or a bottle between three men or something like that. And there was a group of us were on this train detail and we were in camp at Seymour. And they had to go out somewhere doing something, and they said to me, “Well you’re supposed to be liaison officer, what about organising us a bit of beer.” And of course, the legend among the troops in those days, the Victorian


beer was the best beer in the world, much better than anything in Australia. So I said, alright, so I had a utility think, a fifteen hundred weight truck, and I went poking round in Seymour. And I passed a backyard that had beer barrels in it, so I went in, there was a bloke pushing around, and I said, “Would there be any chance of getting a barrel of beer?” sort of


expecting a, either a tirade of abuse or ironic laughter, that sort of stuff. “Yes, what would you like, Fosters or Abbots Lager?” Well of course, Abbots Lager, by all the beer drinking troops, regarded with reverence, you know, you practically had to cross yourself before you drank it. Well I said, “Abbots Lager would be very nice.” And he said, “Oh, you’d want a pump, where are you, up at the camp?” I said, “Yes.” Oh so he got me loaded onto the truck with everything, and I got it back and got it unloaded, and was sitting there with


the thing all set up. And the blokes came in tired and cranky, cold and miserable, and they said, “Well did you get any beer?” “Well, as a matter of fact I did, I got a drop of Abbots Lager.” And I showed them the kit, and they all looked at it, and I think there was a dozen of us, and we sat around and I think we killed the keg that night, a celebration back to Australia, Abbots Lager.


I think there was a bit left over for the next day, the hair of the dog. And that was one of the nicer experiences we’d had in twelve months, I suppose.
How did you feel about not getting any leave yourself?
Oh, as a matter of fact, I did. But I only got two days, and I went over to see my parents in Kurri, but then we were ordered to report to Greta camp, which was quite close to Kurri, so it was easy for me to get


from Kurri over to there, and we all gathered there. And one of the little incidents, well everybody was very cranky indeed because after over two years in the Middle East and stuff, they thought they’d earned a bit of leave, and they probably didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. So it was a very disgruntled lot of people that gathered at Greta camp. And we discovered there, do you remember the gentleman who,


his name was. Oh dear me. The chap who cut the ribbon [at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge] when the Premier at the time.
De Groot?
De Groot, major, he was Major de Groot, and he was camp major, that was the job he had. And a couple of the more fiery young officers, they heard that this bloke was there and they’d had a few too many, and they were pretty disgruntled anyway. And so they were


making a bit of noise, kicking up a bit of fuss, and Major de Groot rather arrogantly came around to tell them they were behaving very badly and to shut up. So they seized him, and they chucked him into the nearest pond. Oh God, there were blokes going to be court martialled and Lord knows what. The brigadier came and said, “The sooner we get out of here the better.” So fortunately, the word came and we all bundled ourselves onto trucks and went down to the ship and leaving Major de Groot and the court martial behind, and we never heard anymore about it.


And then we were chuffed off up to Moresby in anything that could float. I remember the boat I got on, it was an old copra boat, and oh it stank to high heaven. And it had a list on it, you know, like a bloke with one leg shorter than the other, a permanent list, and it was a swarming mass of cockroaches and I’m sure there were rats down below. So everybody crowded onto the top deck, and that’s where we spent. Where were we?


I think we took off from Townsville, we got on trains and got as far as Townsville. Until it dropped us in Moresby, and I’ve never been gladder to see the end of a voyage up through what people now pay thousands of dollars to go to, up through the Whitsunday Passage and all that sort of stuff. And we landed in Moresby. And that disappointed me, because I expected to see another tropical paradise, and Moresby looks exactly the same as Townsville. It’s dry and got gum trees and things around it, and it’s a horrible looking area.


And we were there about, well we no sooner got off the ship, than we were marched up to Koitaki, which was up there, which was the starting point. And General MacArthur emerged while we were passing through there, on the way up towards the Owen Stanley Track, to tell us, “The eyes of the world are upon you.” And the blokes


looked at him, nobody responded except some sotto voce but loud enough to be heard, one of them said, “You can get stuffed too, mate.” And off we went up the track, leaving General Macarthur behind.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 07


Dennis, what preparation had you had to face jungle warfare?
None at all. We landed in Ceylon hardly aware that there was such a thing. And that was the first indication we had. And in actual fact, it wasn’t really, even that wasn’t really much preparation for the reality when we got to New Guinea. So we were, in fact, immediately, and we were still in our


Middle East gear by the way, still in our khaki shorts and stuff, we had no Atebrin, no, what do you call it, Quinine, which was the only known suppressant of malaria in those days or anything. Nothing at all. The supply train situation was completely inadequate to support any kind of an army on the way up. It was a one person front, the climatic conditions


were appalling, and so we learnt very rapidly. And from having been in places where divisions and even corps, which is a collection of divisions had moved up and down the Middle East and so on, we were in a place where the war was fought on a series of ridges that were very narrow, and very often, a one or two man front.


So when we were advancing across, you weren’t having five hundred men moving in unison at the front, you were only two men, first and second scout. And the trouble was, that when we were in really close contact with the Japanese, that when you bump into them, the first bloke inevitably got shot. So it was a kind of lottery for who would have to


go out and take up the front running. And there’d be a, not another lottery but a fairly carefully worked out place that a forward scout had a certain number, an hour or two hours to do, and then he was replaced. So everybody had a go at it, and it was a bad luck if you were a forward scout when you actually bumped into the Japanese and, at a range of about five yards, he couldn’t miss, so he shot you. And then of course the whole business would go into action, and


we’d sort of surround him and throw hand grenades and shoot, until either he was dead or he ran away to fight again. Then you took up the march and so on, and that was jungle warfare, that was pretty well what it was down to. And it was the, do you remember that book they wrote, the, no it wasn’t, it was a thing by an English commando chap, he said the jungle is neutral, he’d skulled around


in the Burmese jungle and he survived it. And I thought about that, the jungle was neutral, the men of both sides were there, who accommodate themselves to the jungle, and it was as cruel and hard to both sides, as to one side, as it was to the other. But yes, that’s jungle warfare.
What did you think about suddenly being placed in the position of having a different enemy all together?


it’s funny with our fellows. Of course, the Japanese had developed a reputation very quickly as being almost supernatural fighters, they’d cleaned up everybody that they had attacked. And they conquered the whole of the eastern portion of the British Empire in one hit, without any serious opposition. And so what our fellows used to say, if we could only get them in the


open, we’d clean them up in no time. And we understood, after the war we heard that the Japanese were saying, if we could only get these bloody Australians out in the open, we’d clean them up in no time, it’s very difficult in these, very restricted things. Because the Japanese Army had been trained, and had practiced in China, which has vast quantities, so they’d moved by divisions and corps and so on, they’d been at since 1931. So the Japanese Army was very


well trained and battle hardened and seasoned, but in those particular conditions, jungle warfare was really almost as new to them, except they’d anticipated and had trained their fellows, as it was to us. When they came down through Malaya and that sort of stuff, they came through territory that foolishly the British Army had declared impassable. And as they proved, there’s no such thing as an impassable area, somebody will always pass it if he is determined enough and is


prepared enough. So that was it, and our fellows found that they could match the Japanese at anything. And one thing they really were very good at, they had a very good discipline and ability to move by night. And what their tactics were, they knew we were pushing them back, it was to hold us up as much as they can, they knew they couldn’t advance again, because we were pressing them.


And they had a seventy five millimetre gun, which was a kind of an old mountain gun that you could take to pieces. And you know, you stuck a pole down through the barrel butt, and a couple of, I don’t think they, up there, I don’t think they had any natives to do that sort of work for them, they had to do it themselves. But they could fire that gun. Of course, firing along a narrow track like that, every time they fired it, they practically hit somebody,


which was a bit intimidating. But at night time, if they decided they were going to pull back, they were able to dismantle that gun, get it back, pull themselves out of positions, and in some cases they were only ten of fifteen yards away from our own blokes, and we’d never hear them. And in the morning, we used to have a little ritual, this was all the way up and down the hills over the Owen Stanleys, cause it was a track.


The mountains run lengthwise down the country, and we were moving sideways. So we weren’t moving along ridges as much, we were up and down, and up and down, and that sort of thing. And going downhills like that, is nearly worse than going up them, because your knees tremble and so on. We had a ritual each morning, when we were in contact with the Japanese, you know, we’d open up at dawn with a fusillade,


blast for a minute or so, firing into where we thought they were positioned, just like that. And then they used to fire back. So then we used to settle down for the routine of the day, that is probing around their flanks, and getting them to the stage where they reckoned that very shortly, they’d be cut off, and we could get in behind them, and they used to clear off. And if one morning they didn’t reply, the old brigadier, he was a, some of the company, battalion commanders were a bit


cautious, and they’d say, “My dear man, you know they’ve gone, now get up and get on with it.” And so the old brigadier, if they didn’t reply, up you got and march off, and they’d never, never fail, they never let us down once. In other words, they didn’t refuse to fire and then catch our blokes coming, they weren’t subtle enough for that for some reason or another. And that’s how the campaign went, up and down. But the


conditions and the privations and that, were something absolutely shocking. And we were losing men from battle casualties, because inevitably when you’re fighting as close as that, a lot of people were getting hit. And then they started to fall with malaria, and then they started, when we got over the worst of the mountains, with scrub typhus. Until we finally, anyway, pushed over the mountains and


down onto the plains at a place called Poppendatta, and then it was flat, running to the coast. And at that stage, we reckoned we had them on the run, we were overrunning their posts, we were going so fast, coming out of the hills, that we caught several of their posts by surprise and killed them. Because none of our troops by this stage, they had such a fanatical and ferocious hatred of the Japanese because they


ate some of our fellows, and our fellows never got over that.
From your brigade?
Yes. Well, it was the 2/2nd Battalion right back at Ower’s Corner that was fairly, at oh what was the name of it, one of the first battles we had, anyway. And we overran it, and found that, you know, our fellows mutilated with things cut from them, cookings pots with flesh in them, that sort of stuff, and that’s what they did.


Men driven can become beasts if they’re pushed hard enough, and if the conditions are bad enough, they can look and act like beasts. So it was very difficult to get a prisoner, they were always saying, “You’ve got to try and get a prisoner.” But if somebody would actually catch some bloke who was sick or caught him unawares, and took him as a prisoner, they could


hardly ever get him back to there, because somebody would bob up and shoot him, while they were trying to get him back to the lines to interrogate him. That happened time and time again. So the war there, there was nothing very gentlemanly about it, like there might have been in the war in the Middle East, or might have been in Europe. It was war to the death, and


you had to be prepared for that. I remember my son, Christopher, who’s a couple of years older than Karen, he was an executive in the bank, and he was put in charge of a Japanese operation, and lived in Japan for five years, he was married then. And he used to write and sent home pictures of a party for young Japanese blokes of his own particular level, his own age, and their wives.


And there they were, and I wrote back and said, you know, “It’s extraordinary that there you are entertaining these glossy young men and their ladies.” I said, “It’s quite possible that their fathers and I struggled like beasts in the mud and through the degradation of the filthy blood and mud up in the Owen Stanleys, and here you are friends, and entertaining them.” And I’ve


often thought that since, too. But to take up the story. Oh by the way, all through this time I was still brigade liaison officer, and it was a more important job there than it had even been, because we had no wireless communications, we had some very primitive and heavy wireless sets that never worked, so we just chucked them over the gorge. So any communication with the battalions had to be done by person. So I was on the go all the


time, up and down, visiting the battalions, giving them news because we did have bearers with one radio, and they used to get news on it, and stuff on it, and brigade headquarters. So they used to be looking forward to my visits, so they’d find out what was going on. From about half way over, it kept becoming more rumours that a force of American soldiers would be coming to join up with us. But they never appeared.


So Williams’ mythical Yanks, became a part of our life over the thing, that these Yanks never appeared. Except that they did, right at the very end, right up when we were near the coast, which was another story altogether. But that’s what I did, all through that time, and it was a very worthwhile job, and I tried to do it to the best of my ability. But I was always a bit, at that stage, I always wanted to get back to the


battalion, but I was never allowed to, until the end of that campaign.
Can I ask you about that, how did you feel about being separated from the battalion like that?
Not very well at all, I resented it very bitterly. In fact, it was made a bit better by the fact that I was always in touch with the battalion, I mean, a brigade is a fairly close knit thing, and as I say, I was always up, every day or every second day, I would be visiting some forward companies,


or back to the battalion headquarters, or up to the 2nd Battalion and the 1st Battalion, and that sort of thing. So I was in touch with them all the time, though it wasn’t as bad as if I’d been separated all together. Because by that time in the war, my battalion was home for all of us. A lot of us, I was never, when we got leave, I didn’t like it all that much.


I spent a lot of time, if I went home to Kurri, there was nobody I knew there after I’d greeted my parents. It was a desolate and dreary place you could possibly imagine. I used to clear off to Sydney, but all you could do there was get down to the Australia Hotel in the bar and drink, and hope you’d meet some blokes, and take the odd girl out, and I was always relieved to go back to the battalion. Because when I got back to the battalion, I was home. And this went on, and as I say, after six years at the end of the war,


I didn’t want to the war to stop, it was a strange new and quite frightening world outside, that I had no knowledge of. We’d lost track, and lots of us felt that way. Our battalion was our home and our mother and our father and everything else, and took the place of wives, families, friends, brothers and sisters and everything else. And although they probably wouldn’t admit it, a lot of fellows felt the same way, but they


felt secure in the battalion.
The different kind of warfare that you fought against the Japanese, what did that do to your nerves?
Well, it’s hard to explain the horrors of the physical condition we were in, the mud and the filth and the stench, and the sheer starvation. Because this plight,


no possible way could you feed a battalion on a few New Guinea natives carrying what they could carry on their backs up and down this thing. And so we used to have to depend on what they called ‘biscuit bombers’, DC-3’s coming across, and if they could find a relatively open spot, they used to just chuck the stuff out, so that most of it was damaged and broken on the way down, anyway. But teams would go out and rescue it,


bring it in, and whatever they had was divided up and there used to be fierce arguments sometimes, soldiers will argue about anything. It was their way of passing the time. I think my lot, well I say my lot, they seemed to be able to argue more than anybody else. And I remember some fierce arguments that lasted for two days, over whether Glaxo [powdered milk]was better than the other kind of milk


product, that we used to get, it was ghastly stuff that you feed to babies. And eat it, because you’d eat anything. And I remember one time there when it was particularly bad, when we were about three quarters of the way across, and no supplies had come through. And I found, walking with somebody else, we were between sort of minor battles. And found a


stunted group of bananas that were hardly formed, tiny little, hard as rocks. But we took those and managed to make a little bit of a fire and toasted them, and ate them, and that’s all we had, those things for nearly two and a half days, we hadn’t had any rations of any description. And if you got wounded it was a horrible business. If you could walk, well somebody would help you, and those, it was quite true,


that dreadfully sentimental version of the New Guinea natives that we had with us, Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, makes your skin crawl with embarrassment anybody using a phrase like that, but it was absolutely true. And they were a tender and caring as any nurse, and the fellows, the badly wounded chaps, there’d be four or six of them on a stretcher made out of two poles and a blanket,


and they’d be carrying, they probably would have to carry this for three days, up and down over the, before they got to a place, Myola, Lake Myola, it was a flat area, where they’d set up some kind of a CCS [Casualty Clearing Station]. And sometimes they were able to fly a couple of fellows out from, or at least keep them there until they were more transportable back to the lines. And everybody, most people


suffered from dysentery, which is the most debilitating thing you can imagine, because we drank water straight out of the streams. And as somebody pointed out, upstream forever there’s a native village somewhere, and they only use, they use the stream as a latrine, they even built their houses on the edge. So that even this pure looking water coming out of the wilds of New Guinea, there was


faecal matter in there, which causes not only dysentery but other diseases as well. So that’s another thing we had to put up with. And of course, malaria started to bite and you weren’t allowed to be evacuated because you had malaria, you had to keep going. Until such time as you went raving mad or fell down on your face in the mud, and they had to do something about it, you know.
I’ve never had malaria, what, what


stage does it actually get to, where it gets so bad, what happens to you?
First of all, you get a raging temperature, very high temperature. And one of common manifestations is, you start to shake. And you know, then you become semi-delirious and go through actual fainting fits, and this


keeps happening, and you sweat so badly, and somehow or other, a very offensive smell emanates from the body, I suppose it’s the unhealthy sweating and that sort of stuff that gives that out. And gradually you get weaker, and in some cases of course, it can end in death. In other cases, you have this and it passes off, if you get proper medicines it’ll


pass off. And then you’ll feel not so badly for a while, and then it’ll come again. Oddly enough, I was probably the healthiest man in the brigade right up until the end, because I never got malaria there, or at least didn’t ever show it. It wasn’t until I got out of New Guinea, that I came down with a particularly virulent form, I nearly died with it. It’s what they called malignant pericardial


malaria, it’s supposed to hit you very badly, but it doesn’t recur. But it hit me very badly and it did recur, because they learnt a lot about, they didn’t know much about malaria before that. And even worse than malaria was scrub typhus, a little mite used to come out of the bush and bite people. And it literally, once it got a hold, it used to turn men into like animals, they lost control, they lost


control of their bodily functions, and just, they were always completely soiled with faeces and stuff. And then they got terrific temperatures and mostly died. And when I finally got back into hospital at Moresby, I watched two of my friends, they got them back alright, but there they were, with all the


attention which was possible in Moresby at that time, and they just died. And so we lost lots of men like that, and we lost lots from casualties, too. The brigade, the worst part of it was right towards the end, we thought we would be able to walk straight through. I started to tell you that we, we were moving fast, and then we ran into a very strong series of roadblocks


across the track. And we were well down in numbers by this time, but the blokes by and large, you know, there were enough still on their feet and doing pretty well, and we thought we’d clean them up in no time, but in fact we didn’t. And so we wrestled around in this bloody swamp for days and ran into weeks, until finally out of the two thousand two hundred


men, I think it was that had started in my brigade, 16th Brigade, started across, I think there were a hundred and fifty left standing. And they were all mad with malaria, until they finally pulled them out in the early months of 1943, all this took place between September, September 1942 when we started off up the track. And January 1943, when they dragged us, well,


not me, because I’ve never, never ceased to be ashamed of it. But as I say, I was fit, always running about doing my job, and we were in the middle of a battle, you know what we call a battle, it would be very small scale, compared to something that we had before. But it was a battle nevertheless, because we were trained to dig these well dug-in Japs out of this place. And suddenly from being


the fittest man, I got a dreadful pain in the stomach, and I didn’t dare go near the doctor, because he was in a paddock there, with dead and dying all around him, trying to do his best for them. And there was a surgical team a couple of hundred yards down the track, with an operating table made out of bush poles and kerosene lamp and a tarpaulin stuck up over the bush poles, that was their operating theatre.


And a few days before a shell had landed on them and blown them to kingdom come. And this other team had only flown in two or three days before, but they’d had no sleep, because they were going twenty four hours a day, working on the casualties. But finally, towards the end of the day, the fighting died down, and I found the doc and he was out on his feet. And I said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got this frightful pain.”


and he said, “Where?” I said, you know, there, and I’m hunched over with this pain. And he sort of looked at me and he poked me in the belly and I yelled, and he said, “Oh, that’s acute appendix.” and wrote out a tag and hung it around my neck, he said, “Join the queue.” I joined the queue lined up for his surgical team, I got to the thing and the surgeon said, “Right-o, next.” and I came up and he looked at


me, “Acute appendix.” he said, “I haven’t done one of those for a couple of years, fix him up corporal.” And the corporal’s fixing up, lay me, stripped me off of the filth I was wearing, the clothes I was wearing, so I was naked, sloshed a bit of methylated spirits around on me, got a rag with some ether on it, plonked it over my face, and I woke up and they’d operated on me for appendicitis.


And the surgeon saw me afterwards, and he said, “Pretty acute, just as well you got to me in time, it was rather bad, but you’ll be alright.” But for years afterwards, if I ever went anywhere for an examination to a doctor, they’d look me over and say, “What the hell is that?” And I’d say, “That’s my appendix operation.” It was about that long, and these days, an appendix operation is about an inch, isn’t it, that you can hardly see. And actually, some years later I had to get it opened up, because lesions had


developed. But anyway, I got back to Poppendata and there was another story, once again, a casualty clearing station which is as near to hell as I can possibly imagine, dead and dying blokes, orderlies, I don’t know where they came from, but they were a disgrace. I was stuck in a tent for a start, with about eight others,


and there was one bloke died one morning and they never came, nobody ever came near the place, so they never got him out of their, until the following morning, he lay there dead all day amongst us. He was still on a stretcher, this only the second day, and they dragged me up to the edge of the airstrip with other, these were battle casualties, not appendixes, but they were pretty bad. A couple of American boys and couple of our own.


Near realised everybody had gone, we were all along on the edge of the airstrip, under this little bit of bashir they called it. And it was cause the Zeros were around, they used to come around now and again and shoot up the aerodrome. We thought we were going to get it because there was nothing else for them to shoot. But for some reason, they were over the other side, their attention. So when they had all gone, an orderly came back, and he didn’t apologise for having left us, he just shot through to find


somewhere out of harm’s way, and left us all there for dead. I remember one of the, he looked, he looked only about seventeen, one of the American kids, he’d had his leg, they’d amputated the bottom part of his leg. And while we were there waiting for the Zeros to come, he’d started to whimper. And the rest of us weren’t feeling all that bright, but in cheering him up and telling him it would be alright, it raised everybody else’s morale, so we all got him through that


particular crisis anyway.
How long. I’ve got a couple of questions. How long were you convalescing for?
From the? Well, on the third day, the DC3 came in, they said he’ll be coming, I found out who he was. He was a big Yank who’d fly a DC3, and he’d come in to the area, and he’d fill her up with wounded, and he’d fly her out to Moresby, see. But that depended on circumstances, cause the flat area, if it rains too much,


it was just a swamp. So there’d be, “Oh he won’t get in today.” but this particular day, she was a swampy looking thing, he circled the strip twice, and he seemed to come around and he was, the aircraft sort of picked itself up with its shoulders, and down he put her, and the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen. It was just a great mass of spray, you couldn’t see the aircraft, all you could see was the spray he made as he ran along, but he got her down,


and he reckoned he’d get her up again. So this same orderly came along and said, “They’ve got all the stretcher cases they can, but if you’re a walking wounded, you can get on.” I said, “I’m a walking wounded, give me a hand.” So as I was, with a little bit of dirty blanket around me, stark naked of course, because they’d taken all my clothes away. And all I had was my pack and my pistol, that’s right,


the little haversack was there, and the pistol I carried, was an Italian pistol that I had acquired up in the desert, a very nice little Beretta. Anyway, got on the plane and we started off and then a few minutes I said to the, the orderly came around, I said “What the hell is he doing, flying in around the.” he was flying in around the hills, following the line of the trees pretty much.


He said, “Oh, that’s because of the Zeros, they hang about all the time, and if he got up any further, they’d have him. But they can’t get him while he’s down there, because if they dive on him, they wont’ be able to pull out in time, and they’ll crash into the hillside.” And that’s what he was doing every day of his bloody life, this pilot. Imperturbable big bloke he was, and it took us four months to walk over, and thirty five minutes to ride back, and they landed us in Moresby. And I remember being shocked when I looked out and seeing men


sun bronzed, standing up straight. Because all the blokes I’d seen, we looked like death with ghastly sort of pallor and stooped over with, being, we’d been sick for so long, well most of them had been sick for so long, I wasn’t as bad as most of them. And we looked a pitiful collection, to see on their faces a mixture of pity and disgust when they got us out, because we were a very unappealing lot.


We stank and we looked horrible and smelt horrible and they got us out, and they got us into the hospital at Moresby and cleaned us up a bit. And that’s where I said, I saw a couple of these friends of mine that had this scrub typhus, they were there and died, in a week I was practically running around, I convalesced very quickly.
How did you recover from the horror and trauma?
Horror and trauma didn’t. Well


I suppose it must have had some effect, but it was only. I think men are probably, unless in these day and age they are encouraged to be, to find horror and trauma, especially if they can get a bit of money out of it. But in those days, you just got on with it. And it was only the physical things, the malaria hit me very badly, and I never really recovered from it during the war, I was only half a man for the rest of the war.


It took, altogether, I think it took me ten years after the war, before I finally felt that I was, you know, a real man again, strong. I was married and had three little kids and doing a job and I’ve never looked back from that time. My doctors depended on me, if there had been many of their patients like me, they would have starved to death, cause I never had anything wrong, I’ve never had illnesses or anything like that. So I’ve recovered from that remarkably well,


and I’m still batting on.
When you were in the Owen Stanley Ranges, I’m trying to get a picture of how you moved around. How many were in the group, that you covered the track with?
Well, you still worked on your, on the basic units of a section, which was say a corporal and seven or eight men, it should be, should be eight or nine men, or there was never more than six, we were always under strength. And then


three of those making up a platoon, and a platoon was about as much as you could get on to move along, and there came some places where the ridge got a bit wider, and you could get more men. And the whole idea, of course, what you had to do when you, the Japanese dug holes, defensive holes, and there they could hold you up, you see. And there was no point in trying to rush up to them, because a) you couldn’t rush very fast, and b) they’d pick you off as soon as you got there. So the idea is


to either get a mortar or something or hand grenades, and sneak up and lob hand grenades into their positions. Or, and, at the same time, try and get down off the side of the ridge and move around them, far enough around them, so you could get around, and come up behind them and catch them in the rear. And so that was, that was sort of standard tactics, that’s what you were doing all the time. And as I say, it was only very small number of men in action at any one particular time. Except in


some cases where the, sort of, the countryside mightn’t be so fierce, and you could get twenty or thirty men at a phase to move forward, and engage their defensive positions all the time. But it was all the time, you were never fighting people in, you were always digging them out of defensive positions. It got a bit wearying at times, because we took more casualties than they did. Because


you know, they might kill twenty of ours, while we were digging three of them out of these defensive positions. And unless they were told to, made organised withdrawals which they had to some times, they just stayed there until they died, there was no. They never ran away, let me put it that way. They either withdrew in an orderly fashion according to orders, or they stayed there and died. So in other words, the fighting got fairly fundamental, at that stage,


and pretty brutal.
At night, how did you manage your sleeping situation?
You lay down in the mud and slept. Each of us carried half a blanket which was always sodden, but you don’t really, if you’ve been camping, you’ll know that a wet blanket can be quite warm. Did you know that? Yeah. So that’s what we did. If you tried to dig


a trench for example, it very rapidly filled with water. So if it was necessary for fighting purposes, you were lying in water, and you didn’t dig a trench or anything to sleep in, you just lay down on the ground as you were. There, of course, in New Guinea, they only have two seasons, they have a wet season and they have a dry season. And in the dry season it rains every day, and in the wet season, it rains all day.


And that’s about what you were, so you were sodden from all your, you were never not wet, unless you were right in the, up in the hills you were cold and wet at night. And if you were a bit further down, you were stinking hot and wet during the days, but that’s what it was, you were wet. And some, we looked like nothing, I don’t suppose any soldiers have looked like it before, but I had a friend, who had a bad case of dysentery, but he was one of


those fellows that never gave up on anything. And he shed his trousers because they’d been soiled so often that he couldn’t possibly keep them clean. So he marched with his boots, no socks of course, and his shirt and his pack, so he looked like some weird caricature of a medieval warrior, with nothing but his shirt tails. And that’s how he marched for, oh several weeks,


until somehow or other, he scrounged another pair of trousers, but they didn’t do him much good either. Because as I said, he was mad with malaria for a start, and had this ghastly dysentery. But he never stopped, he was a man and a half, Bruce McDougall his name was, he’s Karen’s godfather.
Did you ever engage in hand to hand combat?
Oh yes.


Me personally in the Owen Stanleys, no, only in Syria once with the hand to hand stuff. Hand to hand stuff in our war, was never as frequent as a lot of people like to make out it was. Cause really, by the time you get hand to hand, the issue of the battle was probably well known. There was only, after Meiss Ej Jabal at one stage, that we decided to use a particular spot as a starting point for assault up the hill.


And the French decided to use the same spot as a starting point to attack us down the hill. And we met there unknown to each other, and there was a dust up. It could have only been for a couple of minutes, but we saw them off, but there was some real hand to hand stuff there, bayonets and Lord knows what, but we saw them off, and we used it. But in, there was in a couple of places, a place the Eora Creek, there was some real hand to hand stuff there, with my battalion, I wasn’t in it,


at that stage, I found them shortly, I came up to them shortly afterwards. But they, that was a notable success, because they’d broke what had been a very determined Japanese resistance at a place called Eora Creek, that led to our brigadier being unfairly sacked by General MacArthur and being replaced. Because MacArthur felt that the Australians were lying down on the job, and not progressing as fast as they should.


And if he could have got around some of those fellows, they would have given him something he hadn’t bargained for.
What did you think of the, “Rabbits who run” speech [speech by General Blamey to Australian troops at Koitaki]?
I don’t know about that.
That was MacArthur was it, talking about Australian soldiers running away from the enemy, was it? That sounds fairly typical, he had no idea what fighting was like, he never went anywhere within a hundred miles of.


And he hated Australians.
How did that get communicated to you?
That he hated Australians.
Oh perfectly obvious. The way he spoke, he referred always to, “One of those low Australian officers.” when talking about the senior officers. “Australians don’t seem to be interested in fighting the enemy, all they want to do is beat up our boys in the back areas.” comments like that, that filtered through.


And it was part of his own arrogance, and the fact that he didn’t know anything about warfare, and hadn’t seen warfare first hand, anyway. Blamey did, I’ll say that about him, but Macarthur didn’t.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 08


At what stage did you stop being a company 2IC, and become a brigade liaison officer?
That was in the last few weeks in Syria before we moved to Ceylon. So actually, we were in Ceylon before I did my first job as a brigade liaison officer, that was arranged just as we were leaving


What does a brigade liaison officer do?
He liaises, and his headquarters. Of course some of us language purists used to try and say there’s no such word as liaise, but it became a word because it was used, and it was much better than saying make liaison with. What it is, actually, they’re lineal descendents from Napoleon’s


gallopers. If you remember Napoleon used to have his gallopers who used to carry his orders to various parts of the battlefield, or go and find units that he had lost sight of, and see what they were doing, and put them in the picture about the major things, so they were coming and going all the time. Well, a brigade liaison officer is there to be at the brigadier’s behest and to keep him in touch with the various battalions,


and to be able to give him a report on things that sometimes the battalion commanders either didn’t want to tell the brigadier, or hoped he wouldn’t find out. And so where you had to walk fairly delicately, because you were dealing with rather touchy battalion commanders, who thought you were some kind of a spy and tried to keep things from you, and you had a brigadier who wanted to know. And he said,


“If I only wanted to know what the colonels tell me, I can ring them up on the telephone.” He said, “I want you to go and talk to them, and tell me what the feeling is.” And that was particularly the case over the Owen Stanleys, that was where I suppose I really felt, over that whole campaign that my job there was worthwhile, and I felt it was a real consolation not to be in the battalion, because I was able to do what I thought was this


very important job.
So what sort of information would be being sought and given?
How they, how they’re standing up, what the troops are saying, what their morale obviously is. What the colonel’s state of mind is, is he calm and confident, is he touchy and not quite on top of the job, that sort of thing. And you can see for a junior officer, it would be giving information


like that to a senior officer and only slightly less senior officers, calls upon. Well I think you’d have to be aware of what you were doing, and have a particular brigadier. And unfortunately, the brigadier we had at that time, was a very fine man, he went mad with malaria towards the end of the campaign, but at least he was there right till the very end. And as I say, an outstanding…..


Well he had a pair of MCs [Military Crosses] from the First World War, and was a distinguished soldier whichever way you look at it, so it was a pleasure to work with him.
You must have expended a lot of energy walking up and down.
Well just as well, as I say, I was very fit and the malaria and dysentery hadn’t got me, at that stage. So that most other fellows were feeling the weight of that. But I was on the go all the time, I was


like a greyhound dog, thin but active. And that helped me do the job better than otherwise I probably would have been able to do it, because I only collapsed right at the very end of the campaign and was carted out. And then after the appendicitis, it was relatively nothing, I recovered from that in no time. But I was still recovering from that when the malaria hit me, and I was very sick indeed.
How much


of a hindrance was the mud along the track?
Well a fair bit because it was a track that really was just a dirt track along the ridges and up and down the thing. But it had been trodden on by two armies going backwards and forwards twice, so that it was, didn’t have a chance to settle down, it was rained on all the time. So you were


not, not like say in Flanders where you might disappear in the mud, and well soldiers did, sort of fall over and get trodden into the mud and stay there. But you’re all slogging through this filthy sort of mud. And you can imagine, as I say, two armies who’d been defecating over it, backwards and forwards over the place, it wasn’t a very tasty sort of strip of country. But as far as hindering


the military operation, not a great deal, it was just hard getting through, that’s all. Well to walk anyway was difficult and in that sort of slop and mud and that sort of stuff, it just made it more difficult again. And so you were dragging the chain with your, and stretching your physical resistance right to it’s, it tested right to the very end of their possible resources.


And it really found out some. We had a few fellows in my battalion who had been considerable athletes, who had played really top class football. And I think nearly every one of them, at some stage or another, conked out on the thing with old knee injuries and that sort of stuff, that comes against a footballer. But a bloke like me who’d never been good enough at football to ever get anything, just kept going, because I never had any old injuries to come up and bite me.


So it was a very testing, physically a very testing time and circumstance, and that’s complimenting it, in lots of way.
Did you ever witness cases where there were men who just couldn’t go on any more?
Oh yes. A lot of time a fellow would just collapse in the mud on the track, and just couldn’t go. So they had to drag him out and get him, help him back to wherever it was. And of course the existence of the service meant that


he stayed, say in Lake Myola, he stayed in a so-called CCS there for a few days until he sort of recovered a bit, and then they’d sent him back, and he’d have another go. I think most of them seemed to managed that way to get through, until such time as they either really collapsed from illness, real illness, you know, or got wounded.
What about instances of


what was then called battle fatigue?
Never heard of it, Americans only suffered from that. We didn’t have that. The standard treatment for that was like it was in the First World War, give you another nine pills and tell you to clear your bowels out and that’ll do you good, and get back on the job again. So we didn’t have battle fatigue.
What did you see of militia units up there?
Not, we didn’t see anything about them at all. We only, well, we knew them in passing, we


heard this notorious dreadful 53rd Battalion, where the other units were as bad as that. But it sort of hardened the kind of contempt our fellows had, which in many cases was unfair, because some of the units were very good, and did a very good job, you know. It was not long after that, that they realised that this splitting, have two armies,


and both, calling them both Australian armies and entirely separate, one the AIF and one the AMF [Australian Military Forces], was detrimental to morale, and they started the process of amalgamating them. And that was what started to happen and did happen for the rest of the war. I think I told you, we absorbed the 3rd Militia Battalion into our battalion, with no detrimental effect that I was able to see.
Why didn’t you wear socks?
Well it was impossible to wear


socks. In some cases, a lot of soldiers never wore socks, even in the western desert. Because, well, you can’t wash socks. If you did manage to wash them, you couldn’t dry them. And so up in New Guinea, when you’re sloshing about in water all the time, the socks were actually a real disability, so nobody wore socks. Because your


shoes were just pulp anyway, and in some cases they disintegrated, and it wasn’t a very easy matter to get another pair of boots up in the Owen Stanleys, when you couldn’t get food, so quite a lot of fellows walked in bare feet for most of the operation. So socks were a forgotten luxury that were packed with your gear back in the Q [Quartermaster’s store], in the, what did they call those stores that kept your luggage stored? Back in Australia somewhere,


full of socks that had been lovingly knitted by mothers and their aunts and all their friends, you had to wait until you got back to city civilisation before you could wear them again. But certainly not up there.
You mentioned in the last tape that Japanese prisoners were hard to get back, because somebody would pop up and shoot them. From which side would people pop up and shoot them? Their own men or our men?
Oh our men. I remember at one stage,


there was a couple of blokes, they were given the job, and they tried to do it conscientiously too, to bring a prisoner. They caught this bloke, and I don’t think he was all that sick, but they got him, they pounced on him, you know, when he wasn’t expecting it, and they managed to grab him before he committed suicide or did something desperate. Or they’d have had to shoot him because he was resisting. And they got him nearly back to headquarters, and it was a cook.


A cook looked up and saw these two fellows bringing this prisoner back, and he just gave a yell, picked up his rifle and lashed out and shot the bloke before they could stop him, between these two fellows, just shot him dead. So they just took him off and buried him and let it go at that. I don’t think anything happened to the cook, he wasn’t charged with murder. But that was the


thing it developed to. In other words, that was a war crime if ever you saw one, but war crimes against the Japanese didn’t seem to matter very much in those days. The deep-seated hatred, and I used to be asked why did they hate the Japanese with such venom? And I’d say, “Well why does an ordinary person hate a snake, that’s because they’re afraid of it, people are afraid of snakes?” And the Japanese with their


success and their atrocities that we heard about, and probably, I don’t think from what we know about it, the stories were very exaggerated and particularly about things they’d done to women in their advances down through Malaya and that sort of stuff. It meant that we had that deep rooted fear that you feel for some monstrous, venomous animal, and that the only good Japanese was a dead Japanese. And


so many people felt that, that nobody took much notice of the fact that this was not only bad discipline, that you could not only get a man back for interrogation, but they were actually crimes against humanity also, but we denied the Japanese the definition of humanity. So that was the situation, but we managed to get a few back later on,


and that sort of stuff, by carefully guarding them. But you had to watch it, because they were pretty fanatical, and if you got them when they were pretty sick they’d try and commit suicide if they couldn’t get away.
In your knowledge and experience, was it uncommon for Japanese prisoners to be even taken in the first place?
Oh yes. It seemed unnatural, a bit like the Ghurkhas that I was with over in India.


They’re pretty dumb little blokes, their platoon commander said, they had the same problem, that you couldn’t get a prisoner. I was there when he was telling his troops, he was talking in Ghurkhali, but he told me what he was telling them. And he was hammering home, “You’ve got to get the prisoner!” And they’d look at him with that look, and say, “Why, why do we have to have a prisoner?” “Well,


because the colonel wants to see a prisoner, you’ve got to get a prisoner and we’ve got to take him, you’ve got to bring him to me.” “And then you’ll chop his head off?” “No, no, no, the colonel wants to see him, and we’ve got to bring him back and we’ve got to show him to the colonel.” “Then the colonel will chop his head off?” And so the bloke gave up, “Yeah sure, the colonel will chop his head off.” That was the only way he could try and convince these little men, that they had to take a Japanese prisoner, because all they’d do is just, either chop


his head clean off, or rip his guts out, and that’s the only way they knew how to treat a Japanese prisoner. So our blokes were pretty well part of the mainstream of feeling about the Japanese, they brought it on their own heads. Atrocities were nothing in their book, they committed them with monotonous regularity, they didn’t know any other way to, as far as I can see, know any other way to conduct warfare.


actions of the brigade, of the brigade and your old battalion did you see, when you were on the Owen Stanley campaign?
At a place called Eora Creek, that we were held up and the perpetual small scale battles there and the Japanese making good casualties with that


seventy five mill. gun. And the dreadful case that I didn’t mention, we had three inch mortars, which are very awkward things to lug up and down mountains. Ever seen a three inch mortar? You know, stands, it’s a pretty big thing. And the bombs are fairly heavy things to cart, so we didn’t cart very many, and then at a place they dropped, they have, sort of cartridges


attached to them. And they dropped these things out of the DC3, and the first time we wanted to use them at Eora Creek, the team got it and trained it, and bunged the bomb in, and the whole thing blew up and blew the team to smithereens. And actually that, we took all sorts of precautions and only had bombs that were carried up, but they discovered it wasn’t the bombs,


it was the little firing mechanisms. So we lost two three inch mortars and their crews before we got one to fire properly. And that was a pretty desperate sort of a case. And then it was my own battalion and I was up close when it happened, got the job up on the left flank. The colonel, acting colonel at that stage, Hutchinson, Major Hutchinson, he lined the


troops up into a line, and blew smartly through the jungle, and overran our positions, and turned their flanks. That means they couldn’t hold the position they were holding down on the creek, so they pulled out. And that was a signal of victory, because they brought it back a long time before they could find another good position, so we had to chase them along there, to a place called Oivi, where there was another little battle like that.


At what point in that progress, all the way, I guess all the way up to Sanananda, at what point were you evacuated back?
We were at Sanananda for weeks. I was evacuated I think, I’ve forgotten the date, but only about a week before the end. And the brigade was shot, we were only going through the motions at that stage, a lot of what we were trying to do was ineffective, there weren’t enough left, and the fellows were all sick and mad with malaria,


and they finally got pulled out. I only beat them out by, it might have been two weeks, but not by very much.
What do you think about the way the brigade was more or less expended on that campaign?
Well, the point is, we’d had a rollup and we’d got over the hills, and it was a general thing, and we thought ourselves, and I think the powers that be thought. That we were there, it would have


taken a long time to get another brigade up, fresh one to come in and take their place, to finish off this last little bit to the sea. There were other units, including the 18th Brigade along the coast, who could have done, and they finally had to do the mopping up there. But this was helped by the fact that, this thinking was helped by the fact that an understrength American brigade, they call a, a brigade is a regiment in.


But there was a two battalion, there should be a, the same as an English or Australian brigade, a three battalion. This Colonel Tomlinson had, two battalions and one full strength battalion and one somewhat understrength battalion, but that was his force. But they thought these fresh American troops would tip the balance and would be able to get through. But they weren’t able. I was sent as liaison officer into the colonel’s


headquarters. I got to like the men there, the old colonel himself, he was as brave as a lion, but he had no military capacity whatsoever, you know, he was an old cavalry bloke, he was great at chasing Indians in the 19th century around the western plains and that sort of stuff. But he had no idea about tactics or anything else, his men were green, his two battalion commanders had absolutely no idea at what they were doing.


I used to, well I used to dine out after the war on the stories of their ineptitude and their self deception, and the fact that they lost a lot of men, but to no purpose. And they didn’t make the slightest impact on the outcome of the war whatsoever, on the outcome of that particular campaign whatsoever, they were just. Excuse me, I can’t think of another phrase,


they were pissed up against a wall, just ordinary men who were sacrificed because they hadn’t been properly trained and they didn’t know what they were about.
Can you give us an example of that ineptitude?
Yes. When they first arrived there, they, the brigadier said to me, he said, “I’ve had a message that the Americans are coming in, they’re coming in such a such a track.” which links to the main track half a mile down the road. He said, “I’m going down, come with me.” So,


I went down and the brigadier was a tall, dignified sort of fellow. And where he had a tin hat was festooned, it was sort of supposed to be camouflaged with some, what had started off as being green mosquito netting. Well by this time, it looked like nothing on God’s earth, it looked like some kind of demented birds nest, an inverted birds nest. So he cut a rather comical figure with his tin hat, and he was aware of it, he used to play on it a bit,


he was quite humorous. And we got to the place, and we stood there for half an hour, and then sort of the bushes parted and a little man in a soup bowl helmet pulled over his head, came out. And he recognised the brigadier’s rank, so he saluted very smartly, and said, “Major Barnes, Sir.” of the 126 United States Regiment. And the colonel said, and he put on his best English accent, “Well you’re


very welcome indeed, and we welcome you, and we look forward to co-operating with you and we hope we can bring this to a very good conclusion.” And he said, “Thank you, sir.” And he said, “Williams here will show you.” you know, “Where the situ is, and put you in, and he’ll keep you in touch with me at all times, so I’ll say goodbye.” “Well” he said, “Colonel, we sure have walked a long way, and we ain’t burnt no party yet, so the boys are all raring to go.” And, “I’m glad to hear it”


and off he went, you see. And so they file out, they were good looking young fellows, tall, not like our blokes, buggered, they were in pretty. Because they’d walked off their fat, puppy fat, getting there and they looked pretty good. And I thought oh good, we’re going to get some action here. And then the commander I think, Colonel Tomlinson, he came out and he greeted me quite effusively. And we got to where


they’d laid out a place where they could, sort of thing….. And I told him where we were and what we were doing and that sort of stuff, and what we were up against. And I said, “What are your immediate plans, Colonel?” He said, “Well, I guess we’ll attack.” I said, “When?” He said, “Nothing like now is there, we’ll attack.”


And if you know anything about it, a brigade attack is a fairly complex military business, and there are orders and plans and contingencies, and maps that have to, sketch maps and all that sort of stuff. So I gallop back to our brigadier, and I said, “He’s going to attack.” And the Colonel said, “That’s very nice indeed, when?” I said, “Right away.” He said, “Tell me more.”


I said, “Well, he’s going to send one lot round to the left and one lot round to the right, and he’s going to squeeze them in, and that’ll get rid of them.” “Dear me.” the brigadier said, “That will be very interesting.” So sure enough, the old colonel got his men together, and made a rousing speech about these Australians and done very well, and they’d lost so many casualties and they couldn’t finish the job, so we’re going to finish the job.


“And Betke, you’ll take the battalion around to the left, and I want you to keep in touch with your radio, and when you get to this particular point, when you’re behind the roadblock, you’ll radio me, and Bond, you move around to the right and be ready to follow up on the success when they squeeze them.” So I galloped back to the brigadier and told him the plan, and as I say, the old brigadier was half mad with malaria by this time,


so he regarded it as the greatest joke of all time. But anyway, Major Betke who was commanding this battalion, he moved off to the left alright, and he, oh it must have been nine o’clock in the morning, perhaps ten by this time, by the time they’d come, and they disappeared off, you see. They reckoned, he reckoned, oh he should do that in a couple of hours, but I knew better than that, because I knew the terrain and it took you an hour sometimes to go a


mile in that country, in scrub and swamp. But anyway, then no word from them. The poor old colonel is pacing up and down, “I should have heard from them.” And anyway, they got a message through on the radio, and he calculated he was in such and such a place where he was in behind the enemy. And he was waiting to hear from the other battalion so they could commence their operations. So off


I trotted to the brigadier again. He said, “I think that sounds fairly unlikely.” I said, “Well, that’s what he reckons.” But the major didn’t know where he was, because nobody knew where they were in that scrub. So we teamed up an idea where we’d get a fix on them, and we took from two separate points, we organised over the radio, backwards and forwards, all in and out, and it actually worked for once. That he’d fire a Verey [flare] pistol, and our two people


at a particular time, would take bearings on it, and by getting the angles, they’d make a fix, you see. So we did that and I looked at it, and I trotted off to the brigadier and he didn’t believe it, and the old colonel said, “It must be wrong, it must be wrong, son, they can’t possibly be there.” So the people agreed to do the whole operation again, fired the Verey pistol, take the thing, the same


result came up. And they were about two hundred yards from where they’d started. And it appeared they’d walked all these hours and all these swamps through, and they’d come around in a circle alright, but they’d finished up almost where they started. And I’ll pay for this, the little fellow called Captain Boyce, he was their intelligence officer. “Well son, if they’re there, there’s only one way to find out, colonel.” and he picked up his tin hat and he


dived off into the scrub. He came back about half an hour later, he said, “That’s where they are alright.” and that’s where they were. And that was the pattern, they kept sending groups and, groups would land up without their officers, and we found. And the old colonel he was raging around like a lion, you know, kicking privates in the bum and telling them to get up where their platoon was, because “The war is up that a way, don’t hang about in here!” And it just


finished up as a complete and utter shambles. It was my friend, after I got carted out, my friend Bruce McDougall, he had the job, my job for a couple of weeks, and he was more forthright than I am, and he just told them, they were hopeless, untrained lot of, and he told that to the American general. And they tried to smarten them up, but I don’t think the 126 Regiment of the 32 US Div, I don’t think there were any particular commendations, they just vanished into the mist, having achieved


nothing. That’s one example of their ineptitude.
Do you feel that it was the American soldiers, or the American officers that were the problem?
Americans, a whole pattern of Americans, who didn’t think that training was necessary. I’ve often said that their idea of training was going to see a John Wayne movie, and then swagger around imaging that they were world beaters. And because they were Yanks, that the Japanese would sort of, collapse in a stricken


heap at their approach, and they found out it wasn’t quite like that. And they were shocked and horrified but they had no training in any kind of tactics or military procedures, as far as I could see. And their officers, some of, I say some of the officers I thought were very fine fellows. One Lieutenant Johnson, he was an imperturbable southerner, he was alright, he did things. But one


swallow didn’t make a summer out of a disastrous regiment of that nature.
Tell us how the trip to India came about?
Well, I’m not quite sure how it came about, but I know I was on, I’d gone back to the battalion after all this. I had a short spell as, I was division liaison officer, but I wasn’t very happy with that, and I don’t think


they were very happy with me, so we were glad to separate, it was only a short time, and I went back to the battalion as a company clerk.
What company?
C Company, my old company. And I, you know, we were training and putting the battalion together in these long horrible months up in the Atherton Tablelands, it must have been a year. Anyway, it was September 1944, we’d been doing a lot of, and we nearly went back


to New Guinea in the middle of all that, but we never did.
How was the morale after so long of doing nothing?
Never was quite the same, but the whole hard core of what we used to call the old originals were there and it kept the battalion together. And some of our recruits weren’t much quality, but what can you expect after five years of war? And this hard core


when it finally came, they suffered very badly in the last campaign at Wewak, because they were carrying the weight of the whole battalion operation. And some of the younger troops they had to work with weren’t as keen about the war as they had been. But not bad, not bad. I mean they did the job and did it very well, but it was a pointless job. But earlier, I was on leave and


this business came around about nominating somebody to be part of this, and it had to be one infantry officer from 6th Division, at least anyway. And there were so many artillery officers and an engineer and all that sort of stuff. It was my mate Bruce McDougall who was talking to the colonel when this came up, he said, “Oh, I might send old Dennis, he’d like that, he’d be good at that.” sort of thing. And they couldn’t think of anybody


any better, so my name went forward, this is as far as I know it. Your idea about somebody else had been nominated and got wounded or something, I don’t know anything about that. But anyway, I reported back from leave and they said I had to go and see major somebody or other at the depot, you know, in the showground. “What for?” And I couldn’t imagine that I’d been having a


sort of gay run around the park with a group of ladies, of which his wife was one of them. And I thought holy smoke, I hope I’m not going to be pistols for two when I meet this bloke. He turned out to be a very charming, a very nice man, nothing of that at all. He said, “You’ve got to report to Melbourne and you’re going on some kind of a jaunt to India.” I said, “That sounds great.” so that’s all he could tell me, he didn’t know anymore about it.


So I got my leave pass, got on the train and went to Melbourne, and sure enough, they told us. That the story was a group of Indian Army officers, British officers in the Indian Army, had been sent over earlier on to a 9th Division group in New Guinea, to see what Australians were doing about jungle warfare tactics. And they were very impressed with the reception they


got and what they saw. And they went back, and loud in their praises of, because they were just put to join Australian units, and naturally were with them on a full time basis and in whatever actions were going and that sort of thing, and they appreciated it. And so the Indian Army sort of retaliated by issuing an invitation to a group of Australian officers, I think it was twenty, to come


at the invitation of the Indian Army. And we thought we were going to be the same thing, we were just going to be attached to units in the Indian Army, and do the fighting for whatever length of time it was. But we found we were going to do that too, and we did it, but that was a minor portion of the thing. What really we were there, we were treated as honoured as guests, and given a five star tourist view of India, and the Indian Army that was unrepeatable


cause the Raj collapsed shortly after that. And so I’m one of the last persons to see the Raj in action, and we were in places like up in the northwest frontier, through Fort, what is it, Jamrood, the ones that they used in the ‘Lives of the Bengal Lancer’. And up to, the what do you call it, Ninetytal[?], and Darradoon, the headquarters of the


Ghurkha groups. Went to Darjeeling and saw Kanchenjunga in all its glorious beauty out of the window. And went to Calcutta, we went to Bombay, we went to Madras and we went to Utagamoond. And we went to the Palace of the Rajah of Mysore and looked through all his gorgeous apartments, and even because there was nobody in residence at that time, they showed us through the harem


and the stables with magnificent horses, Irish Hunters. I’ve never seen one like that; I’ve never seen a horse like it before in my life or since. And you know, I stayed at the vice royal palace for two nights and dined at the vice royal table. And in the meantime, we got in and the army, got up at Kalahart and what’s the other big battle, I’ve


forgot. And it stopped the final Japanese advance into India, anyway and then they started on the track down to Mandalay, and that’s where we went with them. And very similar, a bit slower than our stuff in Owen Stanleys, except that the country wasn’t so bad. And they were able to move in larger formations and that sort of stuff. And the landing at Akiab on the other coast, which did


enough to convince us that we weren’t complete drones and tourists, that we actually saw the war. We’d done some, at the Akiab, it was supposed to be a famous battle there, and it was going to be a combined operation sort of thing, and landing craft. And they scrounged up, they managed to scrounge up some landing craft and I was with a battalion of Punjabi Muslim men at that time. And the


English company commander said, “Do you know anything about that landing craft stuff?” And I said, “Oh yes, we did extensive training on that while we at.” He said, “How do you got about it?” so he got all his officers, and I gave them a bit of a lecture and a rundown of how you run combined, how you loaded a thing and how you unloaded. And I absolutely, I made quite sure and it was some, he looked about sixteen, he was in the Royal


Indian Navy, he was the driver of our particular one. I said, “Make sure that when we’re getting close to the other side, he gives it the gun and runs it up on the beach, and then flops the front down, and we can all rush out.” Because we really did expect to find stiff opposition, tough and go sort of thing. Until we got three quarters of the way across, and a canoe thing came out and a gentleman in a bright striped blazer sitting the back, got up


and yelled and hollered and said that the Japanese had gone, and please don’t blow up the place. So that, one of the blokes said, “You never know, we started this operation, so we’ll finish it.” So off we went and anyway, the bloke hammered into this Indian kid that he had to run it up the beach, so what did the Indian kid do, he lost his nerve at the last minute, and he cut the engine when we were still, I suppose about ten or fifteen yards from the shore. And the front went down


and the troops, up to their necks in. Well fortunately nobody was drowned, the water wasn’t quite deep enough, cause they would have drowned with all their packs and stuff on. So we straggled ashore, and I said if there had been any Japs there, they’d have potted us like rabbits on the way up. But the Japs really had gone. So that was the famous landing at Akiab that got in the newspapers as a great victory.
What were your impressions of the Indian troops?
Indian troops themselves,


excellent, wonderful troops. Great army, and I met General Slim on the way down, and he was there. He had a West African division, that was absolutely hopeless. It wasn’t that the troops were potentially good, but the officers were dreadful, they were just, I think they’d been ordinary planters and civilians, that sort of stuff, who’d been given a commission and sent over. And they had, they had no military


capacity whatsoever, and weren’t particularly interested in learning anything. And so they dawdled along at a gentle pace as well as they could, and tried not to get into trouble. But there was a, I don’t think I ran into a British, they were all Indian, they were all Indian Army all this particular lot, there was no British regiments amongst these. But.
What about the leadership?
Oh good, British officers, and they


were most of them were professionals, still. There had been wartime only, some officers, but they picked it up. But no, they were very professional, good lot. I always had, of course I’d seen the Indian Army over in the western desert, and they were jolly good troops. They were good.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 09


How did it come about that you left India then?
Well time was up and we had to go home. So we gathered and we were split into two, and ten went on one boat and ten went on the other boat. And fortunately we, there was another serependitious matter, we got on a Norwegian ship, that had been a very beautiful example of boat building,


and the crew was special too, all tall blonde handsome men. And the second in command was the first mate, should have had his captain’s rank on another ship, but of course, Norway being overrun by the Germans, so this ship had got away from them and joined the British, and so they kept their ship’s company exactly as it was. So it was a highly professional and very efficient,


and men of, I think, very good character and they seemed a bit up market really, for ordinary sailor men, but that’s an impression we had of these Norwegian blokes. But the captain was a very philosophical bloke, he said the ship before us had been torpedoed and lost with all hands.


and I said, “What about submarines and stuff?” and he said, “We can run fast, we can outrun them.” And I think we were two days out, and we came into where we were sitting around doing something. And he said, “Would you like gentlemen to see my fireworks?” We said, “Oh yes, Captain.” So we all trooped up and he pointed up, I’ve never seen anything like that. Because the boilers had needed a cleaning or whatever it was, or needed new gaskets or whatever they do. There was a flame,


thirty feet high coming out of the funnel, that you could have seen from sixty miles away. So any Japanese submarine anywhere within fifty miles could have seen this and converged on us. But the old captain was quite imperturbable, he said, “Unless one is directly in front, we can out run it, so do not let us worry, it has served us well so far, so we will be alright.” And anyway, so we rolled down to Colombo, and you know,


did the usual thing, very, only accommodation for twelve, I think it was, and there were ten of us, so there was a spare cabin. Best sort of cargo ship, passenger accommodation, I don’t know whether they still have it, can you still get accommodation on a cargo ship to go between places, there? I don’t know, but anyway, it was excellent. And we thought we’d earned it, after our privations of the war, going back. Anyway, we pulled into Colombo,


and we’re hanging over the side on the rails, and a boat came out and it had a naval officer and a woman, a WRAN officer, who you recognised from that tiddly hat they used to wear, marvellous sort of hat. That. That was the ancestor of all these womens’ forces hats they have these days, you know. Tall, blonde girl and of course,


the lads were all interested and hanging over the rail watching. And she had to come up a sort of a ladder to come on the place, under this concentrated gaze of a whole lot of lustful Australians. And we thought the naval officer was coming too, but he was only seeing her off and putting her on the ship. So there she was, one woman on a one, a ship with an entirely male


thing and ten Australian officer passengers. And they all, as they felt was their due right, they all had a test of her virtue and in the long run, I was the one that got the ball, because I made a rod for my own back of course, up in the bow of the ship going through the tropics and singing love songs under the moonlight


you know, a man only has himself to blame for that sort of thing. When we got back to Sydney, we got married and the word went out, so that I had to go back, I had to rejoin the battalion, I don’t know why the urgency, I don’t know why at that stage of things. Because the campaign was well under way, and I probably couldn’t have got there in time to make much of an impact on it anyway, but we had a weekend, sort of thing, and then I went off to New Guinea.


But the Wewak campaign as we called it, was pretty well over by the time I got there, I took up my job as the company commander. And we were up after the major battles, we had to engage in chasing down odd Japanese units, and we climbed up the mountains and looking down over the Sepik, and we should have left. What should have happened is that those odd Japanese units should have been left there to rot,


they wouldn’t have caused any trouble. But politics meant that they had to say that the Australian forces were engaged in this type of warfare and doing that sort of thing. So we were up there, and the next day we were going to have to advance. And there was a post there, for what I knew about the Japanese, by this time was considerable, that the forward scout would get shot. And I somehow tried to work out a scheme of doing it, so that wasn’t the inevitable,


because the distance wasn’t too great. You see, it’s a lottery, if you’re going to say you’re going to be marching for two hours or something, and you can say you change the forward scout every half an hour, there’s a possibility that you know, it’s, anybody could draw the short straw. But in this case, they were only less than two hundred yards down the track, so somebody was going to get shot in very short order. And I was agonising about this, how I’d work it. And a message came over the telephone,


“Don’t advance, don’t do anything, don’t advance tomorrow, get further instructions later.” So that was a reprieve. There were rumours going around about the war, and it came over the blower that the Americans had dropped a bloody great bomb on Japan, and we were to sit and hold our water and wait for developments. And sure enough, a couple of days later, they said they’d


dropped another ruddy great bomb. And shortly after that, word came over the wire that it’s all over, the Japanese have tossed it in. And you know, we saw pictures later on of wildly cheering crowds in Piccadilly Circus and also in Sydney and stuff, and we sat up there after six years, and I went around the said to the blokes, “Well it’s all over, they tossed it in.”


And there was no excitement, no feeling of elation or anything at all, we’d been at it so long, that the end seemed an anti-climax. So we left the Japs where they were, and clambered back down the hill, and sat around by the beach at Wewak and waited for the organization to start getting the troops home again. And that’s what happened. And in dribs and drabs,


of course I discovered it was a diabolical plot, amongst some of my dear fellow officers in my brigade. That they would all skun off and organise that they’d have me left to command what was left of the battalion, while they cleared off home, you see. So I went down and nosed around the wharf, and I found the bloke that I knew who had to fill out the form,


who was going to get on one ship. And I said, “Can you put my name on that list?” and he said, “Yes, no trouble.” So he put my name on the list and I didn’t tell anybody. So I said, “When is she going?” and he said, “The day after tomorrow.” So on that morning, I had my pack all packed and my suitcase, no I didn’t have a suitcase, I had my kit bag and my back pack. And I said, walked in and said, “Well I’m on such and such a thing.” and signed whatever had to be signed, and left them with their mouths open, and I went and got on the ship and left them


all to it. But they followed me then, and in the matter of a week or two, but I wasn’t going to be diddled like that. So I got home and reported and in a very few days, 24th of October, no 16th of October, I got formally discharged and became a civilian again.
How was it to be a civilian again?
Very, I felt completely out of water, I felt like a boy going into a new job for the first time.


I felt more intimidated than I had as a young man when I had gone up and taken my first job, and that sort of stuff. And I was married and was responsible for a wife, and she’d got herself out of the Royal Navy, which was no trouble, they just told her to clear off, and she had seventeen pounds owing to her, and that’s what she left with. No clothes and nothing at all, because she’d been in uniform for five years, so I was nearly in the same boat. So there we were, like a pair of innocents,


facing an unknown future. I had a pretty shrewd idea of the kind of money I was going to earn as a teacher, which was pretty inadequate, cause wages were terrible at that stage. But couldn’t find anywhere to live in Sydney, we used up most of our money living in boarding houses, and I couldn’t find a flat. And finally went off to, I’d been in Armidale and there was a new university college there, and I thought that’ll do me, we’ll go to Armidale on spec, and we’ll stay in a pub,


and I’ll take a job up there. And I could have asked for anything, they said, “Anywhere you want to go, if you’re happy about that, you can go there. You can go back to Canberra if you want to.” but I made enquiries, and the accommodation situation was worse there than it was in Sydney. And so that’s how we got to Armidale, and after a few weeks we managed to rent a house. And I started at the university, and


that was it, that was the beginning of my post-war academic career, and my teaching career. Which went on uninterrupted for God knows how many years, I’ve forgotten now.
What did you learn during your six years of service, that made you a better teacher?
Nothing. Except a greater knowledge of men and things and recognition


that things are not always what they are, seem, and that a man is responsible for his own destiny. And to be able to wrestle with problems and think that perhaps if you establish contact with good friends, they stand by you and that good and loyal friends are probably the best thing that you can have. And


of well, a pride in myself, I joined the war, I proved myself that I’m a man, I faced danger and deprivation and all that sort of thing and hadn’t buckled under, so anything that life throws at me from here on, I can cope with . And that’s what I learned from the war, and I suppose it’s kept me in good stead, and still is. And I’ve accumulated a lot of anecdotes which bored everybody stiff for the next thirty years or so. And we had a family,


and they all came in a bit of a rush, my wife used to be embarrassed when the bishop would say, “And how are the little children now dear?” “One, two and three.” She was always profoundly embarrassed with that and you know, the old yarn about, we had them one, two and three and then she discovered what had caused it. So that old yarn which she didn’t think was very funny in the first place. And that’s how we went. They were all born in Armidale,


they all went to school, they started school in Narrabri and they all finished school in Kyogle. I was subject, English master to Narrabri and Deputy Headmaster at Kyogle. And they all left school for one way or another, Karen off to the Conservatorium and Christopher into a job and Leslie to go nursing. And so we, for the first time, we went to Albury, with just ourselves,


and kids coming home for leave. Spent three years there, and my wife didn’t like it, so she wanted to go back up the north coast way, so I took Maclean and stayed there for the next twenty years. Thirty years, yes, thirty years, ten years of teaching and twenty years of retirement before we came here.
When did you get involved in Anzac Day?
I never took much notice, I used to, I only


went to Sydney once to go to the march on Anzac Day. But otherwise, when I was in Narrabri, I became the President of the RSL [Returned and Services League] sub branch, which was a pretty tough assignment, because they were a tough lot of diggers [soldiers] and contentious, always squabbling amongst themselves. That was a tough job, I had that for two or three years. I sort of got a bit


bored with Anzac Day. The sheer and utter baloney that used to be talked, the stuff they still go on with, about imperishable heroism and all that sort of stuff, it gave me the screaming willies, so I used to stay away from there. But then when I became more deeply involved in the church and became a lay reader, parsons became increasingly


reluctant to handle Anzac Day services, because they felt, you know, the new breed had never been to the war and didn’t know anything about it, and were embarrassed by it. So I found myself taking a lot of Anzac Day services and old soldiers meetings, and that sort of stuff. But otherwise, Anzac Day’s never been very big on my agenda.
Did you ever have, or have you ever had,


images or events, experiences that you’ve found difficult to shake?
Used to have for a while, late in the war, and for a while afterwards. In the smell of a swamp, or that sort of jungle smell,


sometimes used to bring on a kind of panic attack, where I felt that I had to, I couldn’t stay there, I ran sort of blindly like somebody pursued by a fury, out of that area. I remember I was training up in the Atherton Tablelands, so that was after the Owen Stanleys. And I was in there, one of these things, I was sussing out an area for jungle warfare firing


stuff, fighting within. There used to be little patches of jungle left that hadn’t been cleared. And they were real jungle, that had been the whole area once, but had been cleared. And I was in this particular patch and this feeling came over me, and I remember I just ran and fortunately I was by myself, so I was spared the shame of having anybody see it. And suddenly burst out into the open, and stood a couple of a minutes to be able to recover myself.


And even today if I get in, after rain, if I get in among bush and I get that swampy smell, I get that feeling of horror. And I used to have nightmares about it for a while, but I don’t get nightmares about that now. The main nightmare I get now is the old familiar one of trying to get somewhere and not being able to get there.


And it takes different forms, but it’s all the same old nightmare, that’s all. But the war doesn’t worry me anymore, except as I say, the smell of the jungle, which I. So I’ll never go, would never go as a tourist or anywhere where you go and admire the beautiful jungle, because I don’t admire the beautiful jungle. But that’s the only effect it had on me, I think. Probably manifested in my attitudes to all sorts of things….


psychological damage or trauma, but I never let it get to me, and I don’t think it was obvious to everybody else. I survived that, anyway. And that’s why I have no patience at all with this business about somebody goes and spends three weeks in a military unit somewhere and doesn’t do very much, and then starts wanting compensation of half a million dollars because of the dreadful trauma that he had. I think it’s


corporate national greed, or somehow weakening of fibre of the manhood of the nation, and I find it difficult to believe that can be the case. I think it’s just a lot of this battle fatigue and trauma and that sort of stuff, is merely a cynical attempt to exploit a situation to get money out of it. And that’s politically incorrect if you like, that’s what it is.
You mentioned just before about being


a tourist, have you ever visited any of the places?
I would have liked to have gone up the desert. The desert laid its hand on me as it does lots of men that have been there. By the time I’d left the Middle East, if somebody had said to me to pursue your life, you’ve got to spend the rest of your life, except for periods of rest in the desert, I would have said right. That happens to


It has happened to men, Englishmen who’ve been out in those sorts of places. But nowhere else, I didn’t want to go back to. Well, I would have liked to have gone back to the Lebanon, it was absolutely beautiful, and I would have liked to have gone and seen it in peace. But it never had any peace after the war, anyway, it’s one of the horror places of the world, which is a dreadful thing. And I would have liked to have gone back to Palestine,


and look at the holy places, with more patience and more time than I had as a young man, who was looking more for pleasure than being instructed in it. But it’s not a place you’d want to go these days, and I don’t want to go anywhere else, so I’ve never left Australia since the war.
It’s been said that the ‘39’ers


lost their youth?
Yes, yes. I went to the war aged twenty one, but a very young, unsophisticated twenty one. I realise now that any kid of eighteen is a lot more sophisticated these days, than I was at twenty one. And I came back a man, there were too many experiences under my belt, so those years of carefree


being a young man, you know, earning a wage and doing pleasant things and running after girls and doing all that sort of things, the glory of being a young man until you settle down and enter the blessed state of matrimony, but I lost all that, it was all gone. And I think men of my generation, I think every single one of them thought that. But the Australia we came back to was a


an alien country that we had to get used to. And we’d missed the best part of our young lives in those six years. Six years is a long time for young men. It’s a long time for anybody, I suppose, but six years when you’re a comparatively old man can slide away and you don’t even see them going. But when you’re twenty one, six years, I was twenty seven and a very sick and sort of broken up bloke of twenty seven, anyway.


Although I couldn’t be too bad because I did a university course and did well at it, and got promotion in my job, so it was probably just an attitude or a feeling that I had, rather than a reality. But it did take ten years, I suppose it was well into the 1950’s before I recovered from the malaria, and felt strong again. And I used to think sometimes that I felt younger when I was forty, than I had when I was twenty five. And it was true, I did feel younger than when I was


twenty five. But, so what, it’s an experience, you have to go through it, and you go through it, and I’ve never been sorry that I did it. Because I think it gave me a sense that for once in my life, and that happened to a lot of fellows, who after the war they sank into obscurity, they had ordinary routine jobs of various sorts at various levels. And that’s why they stick to Anzac Day and the RSL and stuff, because they remember a time


when they were personages, and they did something that was really significant and important in the world, even if they played a very small part in it. And that’s why so many of them cling to their old ideas of, you know, reliving the war and being proud of their service, and spend the rest of their lives exaggerating the importance of the contribution they made to the war, we’re all subject to that.


when in fact, you know, you were probably a very insignificant part of it, but you felt that whatever you were doing, was significant. And I’ve always felt sorry for men that haven’t had some defining time or experience in their career, that has given them that. So they go from childhood to youth to manhood, without ever really being able to


test themselves as a man. I don’t mean things like physical things like playing football, but know whether they’ve really got the mental resources to face difficulties and dangers and overcome them, to prove themselves. Not that I’d wish anybody to go to a war again, I wouldn’t ask anybody to go through that six years again, but having done it, I’m glad I did it,


and proud of having done it, what’s more.
Throughout the day we’ve talked a bit about your enjoyment of the company of women. How did you cope for those six years without women in your life?
Well, it is a fact you know, that you think of men who are used to women. And by the way, it’s a different,


these days, you’re used to the idea that any fellow that’s reached the age of sixteen and hasn’t had sexual experience is somehow retarded, and that its commonplace. And girls at a very young age have a sexual experience, so having sex is a thing they do before they’re really mature enough to understand what they were doing. But in our day, that wasn’t so. It used to be commonplace among us


that all men want to, but no girl wants to. And that somehow or other, girls traded their sexuality for the security and whatever else goes with marriage. And the idea that you had sex with a girl before you married, was complete anathema, and none of us did. So I had no sexual experience whatsoever when I was twenty one and went to the war, so I wasn’t missing anything


in any respect, you can’t miss what you haven’t had. And in any case, when you’re in a situation like that, when you don’t see any women, the urge sort of dies down, and you learn to live without it. Of course, I know lots of fellows over in the Middle East, what they did was visited brothels and prostitutes. But


I don’t think any of the fellows that I was really friendly with, that never occurred. If we went on leave, that was the last thing we would have thought of. I’m sure the troops used to do it, but I couldn’t see myself ever doing that, I would have been too fastidious or something about it. So that when I got married at the age of twenty seven, I was a pure virgin.


Well I’ve never said that before, it’s a question that has never arisen, but I can’t imagine, some of my contemporaries would have looked at me as though I was some kind of a freak, but that’s not the case. And I think lots of men, it never cropped up because men never talked about that, and never indulged with his mates in bawdy talk, because that’s the thing they did. And relate a pocketful of


stories about their sexual context, conquests, and that sort of thing. But in my case anyway, that’s how I got through it, and that’s how it was.
You also talked earlier today about how the battalion was your.
Absolutely. Did you enjoy reunions later?
No. I was always too far, reunions


always took place in Sydney, and as a matter of fact the first reunion that I actually attended, was when I came here. Because they had one, oh, a couple in Sydney and I managed to travel to that, although I was getting a bit old even for that. But they used to have one in that fish café in Woy Woy, and they were, that was going to be an annual event until some blokes complained that they didn’t like fish, so that was


discontinued, so they have it in Sydney somewhere, so I don’t go. So it was only a couple of times here that I had the opportunity, and oh, I don’t know. It seemed the heartiness and so on was artificial, because blokes you hadn’t seen for twenty five years, it was difficult to remember what they were like and what the attitude we had to one another was like. Our paths had gone in all sorts of different ways, and I talked


a lot of course, as I always do. Had a lot of hearty laughter about old stories, but I never really felt all that committed to it. And I’d rather remember as they were, rather than recapture with aging fellows, whose lives had moved in such different paths as mine, that we had very little in common. Nothing in common except half remembered acquaintances during the war, that’s all. So I’ve never been very


keen on reunions.
Earlier in the day you said that when you first signed up for war, that King and country was as much a part of what you were fighting for, as Australia.
And obviously that that changed over time, between the two countries the relationship changed.
It’s always been a sadness to me. I feel always that I’m British, not because I was actually born in that country, because that was the way I was brought up.


I was brought up to feel that I was British, and that being Australian was a proud part of being the British community. And this, especially yapping leftie journalists, whom I detest with the utmost fibre of my being, are trying to create a rift and talk about Britain as a foreign country. Britain has never been, and will never be a foreign country.


So that’s one aspect of modern Australian life that I tend to regret to some extent. But stupid, not stupid, Mr, ex-Prime Minister, Labor Prime Minister, what’s his name, his wife left?
[Paul] Keating.
Mr. Keating, going on about we have to consider ourselves as Asians. There is no way I would consider myself an Asian, and I don’t know any other Anglo Saxon in Australia,


that ever really could bring himself to consider himself an Asian. Because it’s not natural, and we’re always Anglo Saxon or Irish or whatever else comes out of Britain. And as far as, unless, of course, the country develops in all the increasing population will always be Asian, we’ll be a minority in this country that we used to consider ours. And I’m glad in a way that I won’t be alive to see that. So,


yes, write me down as someone who had no trouble with regarding the King as the embodiment of the spirit of the British nation, which I was glad to lend my little bit of weight to fight for. Because it represented the best in what I considered in the modern world, despite its imperfections. It showed the way in decency and


respect for other people’s feelings, and for democracy. I think it was, and Britain played a bigger, it was punching over its weight for a hundred years, at a time which it was the leading nation in Europe, the whole of the 19th century. And I’ve been proud of that, yeah.
This tape is going to be watched in many years to come


by Australians. If you had a message for upcoming generations about serving one’s country, what would it be?
Well JF Kennedy produced that cliché about, “Don’t think what your country can do for you, think what you can do for your country.” And I think one’s country is an extension of one’s self.


It’s an extension of a kind of family, and it’s our hope for strength in a kind of super family relationship in a hostile world. And that, well, can I quote another one. “Be that a man with soul so dead, who never to himself was said. This is my own, my native land, whose


heart is ne’er within him burned, returning from a foreign strand.” and so on. That one’s country has a hold on one’s heart, always. And to be over cynical about it and saying that this nation is only a means for me to get something I want more wealth out of it. And I’m concerned only what I can get out of it, and I’ll put nothing into it that I’m not forced to. It means that that man has got a,


a soul that is already in ashes, because he is nothing strong to hold on to, except his own selfishness and greed. And that’s what a, and I don’t care whether it’s a Serb talking about Serbia, or a German talking about Germany, or an Australian talking about Australia. And I feel that about Australia, but always felt that it’s part of a wider community in which people like us,


share common ideas and ideals, and that’s why I consider myself as a British Australian.
Dennis do you have anything else that you haven’t told us today that you’d like to have on the record, about your experience in the war?
Only one thing perhaps. It might have been implicit in what I


talked about. The war gave me a large family, as a battalion. And it’s something I always think that men from so many different walks of life, so many different attitudes to social things. There were people that were Communist sympathisers, I suppose, and there were people who were ardent trade unionists. There were people who believed in,


there were farmers who believed in free enterprise and all that sort of stuff. There were blokes from poor backgrounds, and people from more affluent backgrounds. But they all served together, and they all served one purpose. And I’ve never lost the feeling of oneness with all those blokes. And there are times, for example, Alan Murchison, my best friend


during the war. There were times there would be ten, fifteen years go by, and we wouldn’t talk to each other. But when we met, we’d take up a conversation as naturally as if we’d never been separated for more than a weekend. And I have that with four or five, half a dozen probably, dear friends, and a larger wider friends, but not quite as close, not as intimate as those few little group of friends. One of them lives in a retirement village


over there now, I see him every now and again, I go and call in, he hasn’t worn as well as I have, he was a little boy at school when I was a big boy. And he knew me, and I didn’t know him. And he happened to join my battalion and he became a doctor after the war, and so on. And our paths have moved in different places, but we always have that same relationship. And oddly enough, although he occupied a, I suppose being a doctor, a more affluent lifestyle, we moved in different circles


and that, and he always has that bit of difference towards a) a bloke that was an older boy at school, and b) was an officer while he was a private soldier. But we had that relationships that’s irreplaceable, and those kind of things that the war meant to me, and sweetened what could have been a very damaging and divisive kind of experience.


I’m sure this experience is common to nearly everybody who served, particularly in a fighting unit. And that causes, sometimes call the Anzac spirit or the spirit of Anzac Day, the feeling that you were part of a great brotherhood. That’s a wonderful thing. And I think that just about sums it up, as far as I can see. War, some parts of it you’d like to forget, other parts you wouldn’t,


you would dare not forget, because it’s part of what you are, what you’ve become and what you’ve been made.
Thank you very much.
Interviewee: Dennis Williams Archive ID 1912 Tape 10


There’s no need to apologise. The most dangerous thing you can be doing in a infantry battalion is to be a junior officer.
The casualty rate is pretty horrendous.
That’s right.
Why do you think you lived through it?
Luck, that’s all, sheer luck. As a matter of fact, our officer casualties were, I thought, extraordinarily low,


because we never had that experience of a battalion going into action, and coming out with three out of every four officers shot dead. And that was partly because of the way we, well partly the way we dressed and the way we acted. That silly business that the British Army officer had of making himself look conspicuous and going over the top, carrying a walking stick, meant he automatically made himself a target, and nearly always got shot.


And in the, I remember in the Indian Army, there was a standard joke among the Ghurkhas. The Ghurkhas were all little men, and for some obscure reason, the officers there always seemed to be very tall men, so the difference was sometimes quite ridiculous. And one chap overheard a warrant officer talking to a new recruit, and said you know, what to do in action, and particularly don’t go and stand


near a saab, because that’s the most dangerous place on a battle field. But in my case, sheer and utter luck, I never got actually wounded at all.
Getting through six years of war without being wounded, is extraordinary.
Yes. A few of us did it.
As an officer, what is it like to send men to do things that you know will get them killed?
Well I think that


under any circumstances, that’s the hardest thing a man can do. And I was telling you about this business of sending out the forward scouts, and it’s a dreadful responsibility and one that some men can’t take. Can’t do, so they don’t become very effective officers, because that’s in the back of their minds all the time, and they don’t want to, they can’t bear the responsibility of having other men put into situations and so on. Well I had a friend like that, and he used to


put himself in danger, and he was another one of these blokes, he was in a more dangerous situation, because he used to deliberately go and put himself into situations as an officer, where he needn’t have done it at all, merely to show kind of leadership. And I think, particularly towards the end, he started, he was a magnificent soldier and I think he felt that his nerve was starting to go, and the only thing he could do was to go and put himself


deliberately in danger, to prove to himself that his nerve was still holding. But no, you’re quite right. That is the worst part of being an officer, a lot of privileges in being an officer. But that responsibility, that you were responsible for the lives of, as a lieutenant and a very young man, you’re responsible for thirty young men. Then you become a company commander or a battalion commander, and of course it increases exponentially,


but that’s what a soldier has to learn to do, and that’s what a general has to be able to institute a thing, say that I know there will be a thing where there are ten thousand men killed in this operation, and still keep his nerve, and keep his eye on the main thing, as to what the thing is all about. Not to fall into a stricken heap because he’s responsible for deaths.
Nevertheless, a general doesn’t know the faces and the men he’s sending to their death, you as a platoon lieutenant would.
You know all the faces


and they’re blokes you’ve talked to and shared with and joked with, and sometimes you’ve argued with, and sometimes you’ve been on bad relations because you’ve given them unpopular orders and all that sort of stuff. Which all binds you very close together. And it’s…. well if you can’t do that, you might as well turn your commission in and go and be a private soldier again. And I know a bloke who was well educated,


competent and I’m sure he would have made it as an officer, but he refused ever to take any kind of promotion, he remained as a private soldier, for this very reason. He said, “As a private soldier, I’m free of any of that sense of being responsible for the lives of other blokes.” And that’s how he served through the war, and he survived. But he was happy with his performance. And I said to him once, “Didn’t you ever feel that you were selling yourself short?”


“Oh no, it never crossed my mind, war is a temporary medium, there’s always plenty of mugs who want to go and be officers, and throw their weight around. So I wasn’t missed and I managed to, I served to my own satisfaction, and that was it.” So I suppose there was more than one like that. Even if you’re a junior NCO [Non Commissioned Officer], you’re still going to be responsible as a corporal with seven or eight men. It’s not really,


it’s only difference by degree, not in kind, of a company commander with a hundred and twenty men that he’s responsible for and has to send into places. So once you take any kind of promotion where you put yourself in command of other people, that’s the main thing you’ve got to face, that one day you’re going to have to give an order. Most blokes start out saying I wont’ send anybody anywhere that I’m not going to go myself, but you can’t always do that. Sometimes you have to send people,


and not lead them. And successful leaders are blokes who can do that, and reconcile that to themselves. And not let it zap at their self confidence at all, because inevitably if you’re giving orders over a period of years, some of them are going to be fairly disastrous. And there are some people who agonise over it and say, “If I’d only done this, or only done that, this disaster wouldn’t have occurred, and so and so wouldn’t have been killed.”


If you do too much of that, you just go mad and shoot yourself, but that’s what you’ve got to come to terms with. And that’s the obverse side of being an officer, yes.
Do you still dwell on some of the decisions you made?
No, put the war behind me, as far as I’m concerned. A randomness like this, is merely reliving it in general terms. I don’t,


I don’t even feel resentment about sometimes when I felt that I was treated unfairly. But as for regretting any decisions, I don’t think any decisions I ever made were all that very important that they created any waves or impeded or advanced the cause very much at all. As a junior officer, I was very much a small cog


in a very large machine, and I did the job to my best of my ability and go on with it from there on, and never put it behind me and never worried about it, I’ve never regretted it at all.
What makes a good officer?
Well as far as warfare is concerned, you’ve got to have a level of personal bravery, because if you’re timid and if you fall to pieces at very real dangers, you’re no use to anybody. And so


if a bloke is going to be an officer, he’s got to be able at times of great personal danger, to be able to keep his head and give his orders, do his leadership and trust that he will come out at the other side. We don’t like talking about, nobody likes talking about some people are braver than others, but it’s a fact that some people are brave men, being exactly what I’ve said there. Being able to function and at times


in circumstances of extreme danger, and function effectively. Even though your mind is screaming that you’re terrified that something’s going to happen, and you just get on and do your job and hope you come out the other side. And not thinking about coming out the other side, but merely doing what you have to do now. So that’s the first thing. And the second thing is to take a pride and a joy in leading other people. If you can’t,


if you’re always somebody that has to be told what to do and you’re always following somebody else’s lead, and there are some very fine people that do that sort of thing, they’re natural followers. And there are other people are natural leaders. As far as I was concerned, when I decided to resume teaching after the war, and I was a mature person, I decided that I wanted to be a headmaster of a high school,


and that was in my capacity, I thought that was a job I could do, I didn’t want to progress into administrative work because I knew I wasn’t much good at administrative work, I found that out about myself during the war. So to be pleased with and to want to do leadership and lead other people and show them an example, that’s another thing that an officer has to learn how to do. And eventually,


to once again, if it’s possible, to achieve higher rank and be able to do it graciously, and to be able to , be effective and make a really effective contribution to whatever the circumstances you’re doing, circumstances you’re in and whatever job has to be done. And those are the qualities in my mind,


firmness of character and firmness of mind and to be able to take, make a decision, even if its an unpopular one and stick to it and see it through, those are the qualities that make an officer.
You talked about how bravery is really a function of what you do when you’re frightened.
What’s the most frightened you can remember being in the war?
In the big battles in the early part,


it was too exciting and you were filled with adrenaline that you forgot to be frightened, until the thing was over. So I can’t say really that in those desert things I was really frightened. Yes, I think in New Guinea when


I had to stay at one stage, on the track above Eora Creek and the gun was firing, and as I say, everytime he fired it, he fired it down the track and it hit somebody because. And I had to be there, I was doing a job checking movements of troops and one thing and another. And that was a cold business, having to stand there,


and be shot at, and not being able to do anything about it. I couldn’t charge anybody, couldn’t shoot the rag, couldn’t raise any kind of adrenaline going, just stand there and wait with a strong possibility, that because I had to stay there, I couldn’t dive even ten yards over and find a slit trench when I thought something was happening. I just had to stand there, and that was the biggest probably test of ordinary personal courage that I ever had to undergo. And I don’t want to undergo it again,


it’s not a nice time.
Did you ever see instances during your war service, where men’s courage failed them? I’m not asking for names.
Yes. I led a group in Syria, when things were half the company. And the company commander, who was Alan Murchison,


told me to take a group and clear a certain area and occupy a certain place and I took fellows. And there were riflemen picking away at us, and we had to get up from behind the rocks where we were, and charge this. And two of them, I had to go and personally dig them out and make them come, because it’s the same old business. You had to cold bloodedly get up without any of the


noise and glamour with other fellows with them, and just move on forward. But I’ll say this about them, they followed me, so we went, we actually did it. But if I hadn’t actually gone over and actually talked to them and seen them and dug them out, they would have stayed there and they would have hated themselves for the rest of their lives, because they’d been cowards and given it away. They finished up doing the job,


and they’re probably beating their chests at RSL reunions, and saying how they won the war, as well as anyone else.
What did you say to them to encourage them?
I said, “We’re going to have to go there, if you’re going to stay here and not come, you know how you’re going to be branded by all the other fellows, don’t you?” So you’d better get off, and there’s only a small chance you’re going to get


hit anyway, so come on, get on with it.” so they came, that’s all.
One last question I’ll ask you, because as an educator for some many years, you’re bound to have an opinion. How do you think education has changed over the decades since you became involved in it?
Changed considerably, there are different philosophies about it, different ways of actually teaching,


and different techniques that have become fashionable. You might have seen in the newspapers the other day, there’s a great hoo-haa going on about teaching reading, where teachers’ unions have become committed to one form of what they call whole word learning, which goes against what we were taught about how to use words and putting words together and phonics and so on, and that’s for the better.


And I deplore the fact that people can leave high school and actually study, start to go to university, but are unable to put a coherent paragraph together, or even a sentence together in ordinary plain English. So our teaching in our, and our unwillingness to demand hard and unpopular types of works for kids, everything’s got to be made easy and


fun. And a lot of the most effective education isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but it’s something that’s got to be done if you’re going to make a solution and its character breeding. And we’re breeding a race of people that if at first you don’t succeed, quit. And I deplore that, and I think it goes through many, many different strands of different education. And university courses have been dumbed down to a large extent.


You can get a BA [Bachelor of Arts degree] scrambled, not having studied anything really worthwhile and at any kind of depth, but you still have what used to be, a very great distinction, a degree from a recognised university. And every tertiary institution is now a university, which has reduced the prestige of the great universities to the point that they’ve only become vocational


training factories, that’s all. I wish you hadn’t asked me that.
Then I do have one more question which we’ve forgotten to ask you. For what action or actions were you awarded the Mentioned in Dispatches?
Well they don’t spell it out, but it was a brigadier that put me in for that for, what I told you the job was. Keeping him in touch with battalions and


doing it reasonably effectively, and consistently throughout the whole of the campaign. And it’s not the kind of thing for which you are given one of the gallantry awards, which is always for some immediate act of personal gallantry. But having done a job over a period which was difficult and sometimes dangerous, but did it reasonably well. And I’m fairly satisfied with myself that I


probably earned that, I’m quite pleased to have been Mentioned in Dispatches. Not a very well regarded or highly thought of award, but you know, I had a friend who has been Mentioned in Dispatches four or five times I think, but he, for jobs he did, and a very good soldier indeed. But he was never in the position where they could give him an MC [Military Cross] for example, for some specific personal action. So


it can be a very rewarding reward, that’s the way I feel about it.
Alright Dennis, I think we’ll leave it at that.
Well, thank you.


0 Comments You must to sign in to add a comment Add a comment