Can you give us a brief introduction please of your life story starting from where you were born till after the war?
My name, James Holbrook, I was born at Northcote, Victoria. At an early age I shifted to Black Rock south of Melbourne, sent to school at the Black Rock State School until I was
nine or ten. My father at that stage got a job on the Tankerton Jetty at French Island, so I went to the French Island, it was a one room school, and after 12 months there shifted back to Black Rock and then went to the Brighton Tech until the age of 14. Left at 14 and we shifted to Warracknabeal, that was in
1934 I think. Didn’t go to school in [Warracknabeal]. I had bits of jobs in there and got bits of jobs as a box boy at the local grocer shop. Stayed there until I was 18, enlisted, moved into camp, enlisted at the Caulfield Racecourse,
was drafted to the Albury Showgrounds. My brother claimed me seeing that he was five years older than me, moved to Balcombe and in September 1940 sailed for overseas. Had initial training in Palestine, was drafted into the engineers in Palestine, moved up to the desert in January,
January 1941, done various jobs on the roads seeing I was in the engineers. Went as far as Benghazi and then Rommel landed and we were chased back to Tobruk, stayed there for the next 166 days or something like, and then we were relieved in Tobruk
by the South Africans and went from there to Syria. Stayed in Syria until June and we were recalled to El Alamein, the Battle of Alamein there with the 8th Army, and after that I think, yes, in March 1943 sailed for
home. Done a bit of training in the, what do they call it, the Tablelands, Queensland Tablelands, went from there to New Guinea. Stayed in New Guinea for about 12 months and went to Milne Bay, Buna, Finschhafen, Lae and then back home,
and then after a while I think they, I don’t know just what happened there. At any rate, I was made B-class and then after a while discharged from the army in 1945 and went back to Warracknabeal, couldn’t seem to settle down
and had various jobs there. Then shifted Melbourne, got a job with the Defence Department. I stayed there for over 20 years and medically unfit, so I think it was because of my service. So I was pensioned out of that and then
retired at what, 58 I think. 58, retired at 58, and then, oh now, went to, yeah, played around and then the wife, the family all grew up and left home and the wife,
we’d been married 54 years, she passed on and then I was at a real loose end, so I went caravanning around Victoria and I thought, oh well, Melbourne’s no good to me, so I shifted up to Numurkah, met this, my present partner who I knew 60 years ago and we settled down.
After, where did you move to from Northcote?
Went down to Black Rock at a very early age and I started school at Black Rock, at the Black Rock State School, ‘36, ‘39, I can still remember that, Alkaringa Crescent. I don’t know whether it’s still there though,
in England and I think he was a bit of a roamer because he’d always mentioned New Zealand and Tasmania and that’s about all I know about them. In the early ‘30s father was a bricklayer. Of course in the early
‘30s in Melbourne work was very, very scarce and he got the offer of this build a chimney up at Warracknabeal. That’s how we come to shift up there and we used to, I know the father, I used to help him at times when there was a bit too much work for him and he used to go
move around the mallee and the Wimmera there building these chimneys and doing various brick work, and that’s about all.
Was your father Presbyterian at all?
No, no. I don’t think he was anything, Dad. Pop, I don’t think, he wasn’t very church-minded at all, but Mum was.
So your mum would encourage you to go to church on Sunday?
Yes, yes, she was very, very strong churchy was Mum, but oh no, we, oh yes, I used to go to, in Warrack there I used to go to bible class and the young men’s society
Did your father by any chance serve in the First World War?
No, no. No, he was medically unfit. He, but apart from that my brother, he, there was only the two of us, my brother enlisted. Like we both enlisted together but he was five years older than me and that was the only reason why they let me go, because when he
Yeah, well he never ever married. I know that much about him, but he was a bit of a, well as I say, he came back a bit of a wreck. He seemed to be not very stable when he came. I didn’t know him before he went, but he, oh no, he was very good. He was very good to us especially a bachelor there and boys.
And your father got a job there?
Yes. He was with the ports and harbours and they were building the Tankerton Jetty down there. It was Western Port Bay, it’s got a very, the tide, there’s a great variance in the high and low tide down there, so they had to build this jetty well out.
What was French Island like to live in?
Very, very barren see in those days it was fed by ferry from Stony Point. I think the ferry used to come over twice a week. There were no cars on the island. You had to, as a matter of fact I went back to, to a back tour of [previous] school [members] down there. I’ve got a thingo
up there. That was 1929. That’s right, I remember, it’s in the thingo up there. 1929, I went to school at French Island.
history in general whether it be French Island or the war specifically.
I don’t know. I don’t think they were very big on history in those days. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, that was about all, just the basics, no fancy education there. I left school at 14. Well, you had to in those days.
until I finished Brighton Tech school. Used to ride the bike from Black Rock to Brighton, that was, stayed there and then as I said, we, Dad got the offer of this chimney building up in the mallee there, so we moved up to Warracknabeal, so that’s where I stayed for what, the next 25 years.
And the kids got, I had to think of the kids coming along then because there was very, very little in Warrack for kids. So we shifted to Melbourne, out to Box Hill and we stayed there for the next 43 years and that was it.
The government gave you them as well?
Yeah. We’d go up to, there was nothing in Black Rock, so we’d go to Sandringham to the pictures there, but as I said, there was all the families in the same boat. Well, the majority of families, not all of them.
There’s always a way, but we, as kids, used to live on the beaches down there because Black Rock, was lovely beaches down there and of course they weren’t crowded. I bet they’re crowded these days, but oh no, all in all, well, we survived, put it that way.
in the baker’s shop for a while. That was all night work in those days. You’d work all night and try and sleep during the day. Trying to sleep up in Warrack in temperature of always around the, what would it be, in the 30s and that.
So I didn’t last too long, but then I got a job at Taylors, a great local grocer there, as a box boy and I stayed there for about four years I think. It might’ve been longer, and I enlisted from there. That covered that. I didn’t mind that because Taylors, our house was just at the back of the shop,
so I only had from here down to the end of the street to walk to work.
Yes, so you didn’t get paid much but what you had got paid, you gave some to the family?
Yes, yes. I don’t know just how much, but if you wanted something you just paid it off, you know, a shilling a week or something.
No, no. I meant by religion. Was it mainly like Protestant?
Oh yes, mostly in those days, yeah. Yes, there was, each one had their little church. There was the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. Doesn’t matter how small the place was, whether it was only one room, they all
what was it, the CYMS, that was it, Catholic Young Men’s Society. They had a cricket side there and they, oh no, we used to play sport with them. I can always remember a Catholic priest up there, he was always the cricket umpire, Father Roper, yeah.
Oh no, as a matter of fact, what was it they used to have, what did they call it? Minister’s fraternal, no, what was it? At any rate they used to, they had a sort of little meeting of their own with all the church leaders. They’d all pull together,
you know, for a community effort up at the cemetery or something like that. I don’t know, there was
Personally, I think there was too much emphasis put onto it. It doesn’t worry, in fact two of mine, they’ve both married or Peter, the boy, he married a Catholic lass and they’re quite happy. They’ve got two lovely kids, and Janice, he
married, she married a German boy and they’re of the Catholic faith. No worries there. In fact the two grandkids, they go to Christian school up in Buderim, or there’s only one going there now. Scott’s too old,
going to university down here, but I suppose the university here has, I don’t know how they work down here. They have Catholic universities?
where was it? Wail I think, Wail, but they, oh no, you’d talk to them. Personally, I thought they were too hard on them even in those days. See, they were banned from pubs and all there. They couldn’t go in and get a drink, but
Was there a lot of racism towards Aborigines in those days?
I don’t say there was racism. I know soon after the war, the football, they’d play football. We’d go off, you know, we’d have shots at them, tell them they should be wearing
You mentioned Sustenance, if your father was on Sustenance, did he also have to do some work for that?
Yes. I think the Shrine in Melbourne that was built by, what do they call them? Dole labour that was in those days. They used to do roads and what was another one? I think a lot, a lot
You mentioned flaps before?
Flaps, well that’s the sheep, yes, my Mum used to be able to do marvellous with those flaps. I suppose it’s all cheap sausages and things, you know,
school more than anything, but I didn’t get that far. I just done the three years and that went to two years and that was it, you know, there was tradies there. They’d go to like plumbing or engineering or carpentry, but those, they were there because the, because they were
apprenticed to carpenters or plumbers.
Remember, 3rd September 1939, didn’t it start. It was, a Sunday, I always remember that. I’d been to church and after church they used to always have community singing around at the old picture theatre, so we went around there. So church at seven o’clock, out at eight, went around there and around about nine o’clock the lights
went on and someone came out and announced war had been declared, and then everything went downhill there. There was nothing stopping them, stopping the German army early in the piece.
What made you decide to join up?
Well my brother had joined. He was 23 I think, yes, he was 23. He had joined and of course I pestered the folks to let me go and at last they relented provided we stayed together, and we were lucky enough. Although when I first enlisted at Caulfield, brother Jack, he was sent to Balcombe and I was sent to Albury.
or posters or any other material at the time sort of talking about the war or trying to get people to join up?
Oh yes, yeah. Well they didn’t, early in the piece they didn’t seem to press, you know, none of these great posters coming out there, “Your Country Needs You”. Those that wanted to go just went and that’s all there was to it, but I
what the atmosphere was like in the first few months of the war? Were you and your mates, were you all quite keen on joining up?
Yes, some did. Some of them did join. I knew it was a waste of time me trying to join, I knew the folks wouldn’t let me on my own. It was only because my brother went, that was the only reason why I was allowed to go.
See, you had to get permission if you were under 21, proof of age of course. A lot of them put there, but when Italy came into the war, gosh, if they had one leg they’d take them. It didn’t matter what age, although some of them, early in the piece some of them must’ve told some whoppers because when I got in the army there were some old blokes in there. Not too many young ones but there were some old
fellows. There were some First World War fellows, they must’ve doctored their age around a bit. I got down to Balcombe there was a Mick Bourke. He had two decorations from the First [World] War, so he couldn’t have been any chicken, and a fellow by the name of West. He was another old bloke, he had a string of ribbons.
They must’ve told some lies to get there.
whatever Britain done well that must be right. It’d be like the, well I think they did (UNCLEAR) in a bit of a way they were saying just like the First World War, “Australia to the rescue”, but oh no, I don’t ever
remember any great posters. I know when we came back from the Middle East, that was in, they used to have recruiting drives then. That was when Japan was knocking on the door. They were having recruiting drives in Melbourne, but early in the piece I don’t ever remember.
All right. Well tell us about your enlistment. What was the actual process?
Oh, you just filled out your application form. After a while it came back, you had to report to the Warracknabeal Town Hall or shire hall and Doctor Greer, he was there to meet us, had a medical examination
and I think there’s, must’ve been, I think there were about 12 or 14 or something in the group I was in, and then after a while if you got over that hurdle, that was a very low hurdle, that one, and then you got called down to Melbourne, or I had to report to Caulfield.
That’s where you went through the proper medical and took the oath, and then you were issued with a uniform and away you went.
you didn’t go to Balcombe straight away?
No, no. Some went to Balcombe, but I was, I was in a trainload that went up to Albury Showgrounds, same, and
now that’s an officer, that’s the kitchen, that’s where you sleep. You went for like a boot march, which wasn’t very, being all new chums it wasn’t very big either, not with the heavy boots, and then when we got to Balcombe, Balcombe camp in those days was the 17th ITB,
the 17th Infantry Training Battalion. That was the 17th Brigade, that was the, now who was, that was the 6th, 5th and 7th Battalion, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Battalion. That’s right, there were four battalions. Four battalions to a brigade and we were the reinforcements to those battalions. That’s how we got away so early.
I didn’t get a rifle or anything until I got to Balcombe and then I was only in camp for about six weeks in Balcombe before I was on, I must’ve been the roughest recruit they ever had.
but he was a good footballer. Oh yes, we used to do things together, but there was the age difference, like he was five years older, so when I was 14, well he was 19 and of course he was knocking around with different, they didn’t want anything to do with any 14 year old brats.
Well tell me about Balcombe then. What were the conditions like there?
Oh just, now conditions Balcombe. Well, that’s where the serious training started down there. In Balcombe there we had huts, like they were galvanised iron huts.
Yeah, well Balcombe army camp, a series of huts, galvanised iron huts that held 24 I think, 24 to a hut. That was it. Slept on the floor of course.
And this is the middle of winter when you went down there, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it was the middle of winter, right on the beach. It was a bit chilly, not as bad as the fellows at Williamstown though. Some of them went to Williamstown. They must’ve frozen down there, yeah. Yes, I always remember Balcombe, they had the heating was a,
what do they call those stoves? Pot-belly stoves, little fellows like that, they’d get red hot and they’d all cluster around and you’d get nice and warm in the front and the back would be freezing, yeah. Stupid things they were. Actually that’s where I met Jean down there because her uncle, Bert Bickford, he
was in the hut and her husband to be, Ted, Ted Casely, he was in the hut too. Like we didn’t know all this. Bert was one of those that must’ve told bloody whoppers for his age too, because he must’ve been well in his 40s in those days, and how he got in, but he sort of took me under his wing. He looked after me and
Jean used to, her and her family used to come down to visit Bert, Uncle Bert, and of course we all knocked around together. That’s the photo up there. All knock around together and she finished up marrying Ted. Ted was a bit older, well he was quite a bit older really. He was eight or nine years older and of course a young fellow like me,
They had their hands full with Jean.
Probably, but I still don’t know what happened to Bert. Like you’d reckon, we enlisted together, we sailed together, like in the same convoy, but then,
very, very, see, where we all got split up, we went over, went over as a battalion but due to the army organisation when we got over to Palestine they wanted reinforcement for the 6th Division and that’s what we actually went over for.
Of course when they got their required number of reinforcements to bring their battalions up to strength, there was all this mob left over, and so they formed an engineer battalion or engineer company and that’s where I finished up, and the brother finished up and this Cocky finished up, and the others, they all joined their battalion
and they went to Greece and Crete and all over the place and we just went up the desert then, and that was it.
Don’t remember there was, butts there. I don’t think I fired a, I don’t think I fired a rifle until they, but we used to do bayonet training and all that, unarmed combat and that down there, and route marches over the sand dunes and well, the basic infantry training.
Where did you go when you had leave?
We’d go into Melbourne. Go to Melbourne, meet Jean in there, a mob of us, we’d go to a dance or something or go to the pictures. But we weren’t down there that long. See, this was in July and we sailed in September, so it’s only a matter of weeks,
so much, not in Melbourne. It would be, I remember going to the old, no, it was the Glacier, still called the Glaciarium, it was roller skating I think at the, as I say we didn’t have that much time in Balcombe. It was only a matter of two or three weeks and
Okay, can you tell us with the lead up to the Second World War, were you expecting things to, a war to take place? What did you know about it, the tensions that were happening?
That would be prior to September ’39. Well, that’s where, 12 months before I think it all
started and when, I think Chamberlain was the Prime Minister then and he was, Hitler was, what was he? He was marching into war, taking over Austria and all the rest of it, and I think Chamberlain stalled things off for 12 months until it got, until it got beyond
What did you know about Hitler before the war? I mean a lot of Australians thought he was doing good for Germany.
Well, he was, he put Germany, see, Germany must’ve been in an awful mess there after the First World War, and of course I think
Theatre, community singing and they stopped it part way through and I’m not so sure now if they didn’t sort of put the, put Menzies’ announcement over the PA [Public Address] system, the loudspeakers, he declared war, around about nine o’clock at
night, Sunday night, 3rd September.
’42, I think when the Japs came in.
Yeah, I think that might’ve been it, yeah. Oh no, it was just every - the brother joined up, so I wanted
was the theme of your discussion with him?
Say we’d have to go and I think we were looking for a bit of a change and it would certainly be a bit of a change from life in Warrack, well it was too. Friend of mine, like Joe Eaton, Cocky, he was about the same age as me, a bit older but of course he
wanted to be in it and he was in the militia. They had a camp in Warrack, I think the something or other light horse or something, whatever it was, and he was in that. I’ve got photos of him there in his light horse uniform. Of course, he wanted to give the militia away and join the real thing. So we, the three of us,
away we went and that was it. Oh no, I don’t think there was any great chest thumping or anything like that. It was just a bit of an adventure.
pretty close. I thought well, if he’s going I want to go. Of course the folks, they weren’t too keen on me going. They reckoned I was too young. Then they finally gave way ‘cause I don’t think Jack would’ve felt too comfortable going knowing I wanted to be with him. I don’t think he
would’ve been too comfortable going on his own and not me, but any rate I’m glad we did it, otherwise we wouldn’t have been together. As it was we were together all the time.
once you got into uniform? Was there a certain prestige attached to it?
That’s a good question. I don’t think so because once you got home there you got out of uniform, but everyone, it was like in Numurkah here, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in uniform or out of uniform, they all know that you’re in the army or in the police force. I don’t think so, well
So you’re lucky your dad didn’t have a farm?
True, true. Although Joe got away, although Joe had some brothers, so he was the youngest of, see he was the only one out of his family. I think there was what, four brothers or something there.
was, there was other fellows coming down from Beulah and Hopetoun and that. We went down on the morning train, picked up at Warrack and Murtoa along the way. Of course we all, by the time we got to Caulfield there was quite a number of us and they just marched us from the station over
to the Caulfield Racecourse just across the road and then we took our, had a station there and that was it.
in there. We started off in the infantry and got thrust into the, I dare say anyone were more or less trained, like say for instance, anyone working at a post office, telegraphist there, they’d go into the signallers or anyone working in a hospital, they’d go into the medical,
but we weren’t trained for anything, so it didn’t matter.
that lot at Albury, they finished, that I think was the start of the Bandiana Camp. They went from there to Bandiana and they got sorted out into different battalions. Well it was like us. See, we marched down to Balcombe, taken overseas,
shaken around a bit and then we dropped into the engineers. See, they didn’t know back here what they wanted over there. So when we got over some of them went to the battalions, brought them up to strength, and the surplus they were put into engineers or transport.
Be careful or I’ll have to get the whip out. Tell us about the training in Albury. What did you do, what was it like?
Albury? Only thing I can remember, oh, we used to march every day because there was nothing else to do. We didn’t have any side arms or anything, no rifles. Probably attended lectures, got
He was a First World War fellow and he had this khaki uniform with leggings. He was an old light horse fellow, a real old bloke, or I thought he was. Nice old bloke he was, but well, they were sort of caught on the hop.
They didn’t have, Australia didn’t have such a big permanent army at the time, not a training mob. Well not specialised recruit training. All they had to do was use the First World War methods of training. Well of course that was all right up
to a point, but when it came to small arms and stuff like that it was different. They found out later that wasn’t up to the modern day. The same as if we went into the army now, the blessed arms training would be far, far different to what it was in our day.
What sort of things did they say in the lectures?
Oh, about how to, gas thingos, you know, blow in the whistles and that and how to put the gas mask on. Very little, they didn’t go into great detail with the gas, not that I, well I don’t remember because it was never ever used.
But oh no, that sums the training. I always remember it, at Balcombe they’d take you for marches there occasionally with the gas mask, you know, gas masks on and we had a,
we had a fanatically fit officer down there who was Joshua, Bob Joshua, and he was fit. Gas masks on and then he’d step it out over the sand dunes at Balcombe and Mount Maratha. Yeah, Bob Joshua, he was fit, and he was no chicken either.
that was about all. Then there was, the needles and especially before we went overseas you’d be lining up for the needles and blood tests and what have you. Actually, it was very, very, very ordinary and mundane things until we got over to
the Middle East. That’s when things started in earnest of course.
yeah, Christiaan Huygens. How big? Oh, I don’t know, about, a Dutch ship. There was the Christiaan Huygens, Slomat, New Holland and there was another one. I don’t recall what that was, but I think there was four ships in the convoy, but they weren’t very big. Only about what, 9,000 or 10,000
tons. They were only sort of cruise ships. It was a Dutch convoy. They took us, we stopped at Fremantle and we stopped at Ceylon and then up the Canal, stopped at Kantara and that was it.
And what was the Indian Ocean like to sail from Fremantle to Ceylon?
I don’t, I can remember, I can remember the Bight going around to Fremantle or the size of the waves there, but the Indian Ocean doesn’t, that doesn’t stick out much, so that must’ve been very plain.
As you got further north it must’ve got a lot warmer. How did you cope with the heat?
It wasn’t that, going across the Indian Ocean it wasn’t that different to home here, the heat. New Guinea, going up there was a different matter, but going across it was all right, it wasn’t that bad.
but then you couldn’t get near there because the Red Caps, that was the British provos, they’d soon hunt you, but they were there. Like some of the troops, they got caught even when they stopped off at places. They’d be into it.
That happens today, so that hasn’t changed much. Yeah.
So most of the troops preferred not to use them?
Yeah, I think so. They just went to the, there was the, I dunno whether they were registered brothels or just condoned brothels but there was always a, like at Alexandria, Cairo, they all, the places, they had their
Boxing was another favourite past time, and then there was, pictures. Like they’d have old films there, but usually concert parties, you know, they’d just volunteer concert parties. They’d get up and they’d entertain. There were some good, some shocking.
But reading, do a lot of reading.
aluminium dixie and they’d fill that up and boy was the beer terrible out of those, hot, but there was a way of doing it, and of course gambling and where there’s a mob of fellows there’s going to be gambling. The only game I think, the only legitimate game the army allowed was the old housie housie, bingo.
No one wanted that, so there was crown and anchor, there was two-up.
Did you have a flutter yourself?
Oh, very little. I never got enough cash for that, goodness gracious, what, we were on five shillings a day. That’s 50 cents a day. You can’t play, you can’t do too much on that, not even in those days. Five bob a day.
but when it came around with the free issues I pounced on them. If I didn’t use them somebody else did. Chocolates, that’s about all, well, you had to buy your own, like you got an issue of razor blades but it was still not enough, not enough for you to clear off and leave though. You
weren’t getting that much.
So getting on a ship and going to the Middle East must’ve been pretty exciting?
Oh yeah, going across the other side of the world, well it was for anyone in those days. It’s a different matter now. You jump on a plane and you’re on the other side of the world the next morning. If you feel inclined you could have two breakfasts, it all depends which way you go.
So when you arrived at Palestine what was your impression of that?
Beit Jirja, yeah, well that was, Palestine. Palestine intrigued us because it was all orange groves there. It was very fertile there, and then we had a chance when we were in Palestine, had a chance to go to Jerusalem and places like that, Gaza.
What sort of training did you do there?
Real, you know, unarmed combat training, rifle drill, the marching, everything connected with infantry training.
and of course the plan pushed up into Egypt. What had happened, the Italian army had pushed down into Egypt, then the British decided they’d push them right back again and they wanted the Australians, and of course the 6th Division was earmarked to go up, well then, they had
to bring their battalions up to strength. Of course that’s what we were for, that’s what we were sent over for, was to bring them up to strength, but then when this all started over there they found that they were still based on the First World War, which was four battalions to a brigade. They found that was far too cumbersome due to, it was all right in France where
they where, everything was all in a heap, but over there the distance was too long, so they chopped them down to three battalions, so they had to form another division. Of course they had more men for the 6th Division than they knew what to do with. They sent the 6th Division up and what was left was turned into the 9th. So they had to have all their, what
would you call, all their other units helping the infantry. Well, that’s where the engineers came in, so they formed a field company and that was what I was in. They used to just come along and all right, you go up to your battalion, you to the left, you join the engineers.
then what had happened, the base of the engineering unit that I was to join, they’d been in England and they came out from England and were in Egypt, where, Amiriya I think. At any rate we were sent up to them. That was at Christmas 1940 we joined the 13th Field
Company then, and then it turned out that we joined the 13th Field Company and they went, they followed the 6th Division up into the desert. When the 6th Division got as far as Benghazi they were sent back, only we stayed there then. We stayed, that’s how we come to, I think Tobruk
in the push up there, Tobruk fell on the 22nd, I looked that up, and we went into Tobruk on the 26th, four days later.
there was no huts there. There was the tents, I think were six or eight to a tent. I’m not sure, but they were the bell tents, they were the round tents, you used to sleep with your feet into the centre. I think there were six. I’m not sure. Yeah, they were quite comfortable, well,
as camp life goes. I’ve had better, I have had worse, but I think we had palliasses there too, palliasses with straw. I’m not sure on that one. It didn’t matter much. Food must’ve been all right. Mostly sausages - Spinney sausages, he was the local supplier,
What about when you went to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, what did you do then?
Drank, I suppose. You know, they’d go to nightclubs and that, have a look around the, especially in Jerusalem, there was plenty to see in the old city there.
a look. There’s a funny thing, going down they’ve got the manger. I take it all with a grain of salt, but I suppose it’s fair, but you go down narrow stairs, narrow brick stairs like that, you know, and you’ve got a candle in one hand and there’s millions of people that have been down there. All the wax has got onto the steps there, on the
rock steps. Of course us in our hobnail boots, we’re there, you go boong. The steps were only very narrow. You only go down in single file, but you know, things like that, and the Wailing Wall.
Right, now did you go to the markets at all?
I don’t remember. They couldn’t have been very impressive. Anyway, it was no good us buying anything. We used to buy souvenirs of course and send them home, but there was, markets everywhere. Everywhere there was more than a dozen troops, every time a truck stopped someone would bob up selling something. One of
So what sort of things did you buy as souvenirs?
Cushion covers. I remember cushion covers. They were, oh, postcards, you know with your photo on them or something like that. All little trinkets, you know, they, but the usual souvenirs that they sell at, well you go down to Melbourne, you buy them. You go into the
$2 shop, you know, all that.
as kids. Had these nice poppies. They were a beautiful poppy, but we weren’t there that long before we went up to Egypt and then that was excitement, or very boring with a few, broken by some excitement for the next,
what was that? No, the next 10 months at any rate. Then we went from, where did we go from there? From
You were in Palestine. Tell us more about Palestine, your interaction with the people there? Did you get much chance?
Only the tradespeople, like we didn’t have a common language. Like Palestinians, they didn’t speak and English and we didn’t speak any Arabic so it didn’t,
Which area of Palestine, were you stationed?
I was at Beit Jirja, that’s where all the staging camps were, along there. But we went for leave in Tel Aviv and Jaffa and I daresay they had their red light districts, but they were all, see, Palestine in those days was a British protectorate. There was British police there
What were the Aussies like compared to the British provos?
Well, the British provos are just like police, like police force, and see, the Australian provos they were just volunteers like us, you know, for the duration of the war. But the British troops, they’d signed on for 10 or 20 years and of course then they had to elect to go into the military police.
professionals. See, whereas the Australian provos, they, you joined up for the duration of the war. All right, they’d go into the provos. A lot of them went into the provos because they went in with two stripes. Corporals straight off, military police, so they were quite happy, and then there was the regimental police. That was the battalion
police but they had a job to do. They used to escort prisoners, bring up the ammunition and probably the pay and stuff, but that’s all the regimental police did.
that was all. Wasn’t too many of them. I don’t remember too many British troops. They were more, they weren’t army, they’d be police. Yeah, they’d be police. Civilian police just like the police are here ‘cause Palestine was a British protectorate.
They controlled Palestine. But yeah, that’s about all I think there.
were you preparing for after that? What took place after that, after Palestine?
Well, we went up to Egypt and that’s when they, while all this was going on the Italian army was coming down from Libya or [Cyrenaica] there in those days and they pushed right through to Egypt. They finished up in Sidi Barrani I think, and that’s when the 6th Division went up the, the original
6th, went up and pushed them back and by that time the reinforcements were all sorted out, and I finished up instead of joining the 6th Division I joined the engineers and we went up, we followed them up there, fixing up the roads and what have you. We didn’t have much to do in the
6th Division advance. Then we finished them right - we followed them up to Benghazi.
and then we stayed in Benghazi for, must’ve been February, March. Yeah, that’s right. I remember one particular bridge there we spent a long time rebuilding. Like what it done, the Italians when they retreated they blew up all the bridges, which is the only natural thing
to do, and of course not too many roads there. So we had to make, we had to be quick and lively and fix up the bridges, but that was all right, and mend the roads, but then when Rommel landed at Tripoli there, that’s when the fun started, really started.
All right, tell us what, you would’ve marched through Tobruk. What did Tobruk look like once the Aussies had taken it over from the Italians?
What was it? A hell of a mess. I was just reading that last night in here, ‘cause we were there, what, two days, two days after it fell, the engineers, and of course we stayed a while in Tobruk because we had
to restore the water points and those sort of things being engineers. The harbour was in a hell of a mess. There were sunken ships everywhere and after we got that and more troops came in, we pushed on up to Derna, and then Benghazi, but by that time the
6th Division had gone. They’d all come back and went over, and then in the, while all that was going on, while we were around Barce and Benghazi rebuilding the bridges and patching up the aerodrome and that, Rommel landed further along the coast or he landed at Tripoli and of course
out there, but then the Germans they were there. They were already there. What happened, Rommel was using his European tactics, you know, where he went around in a circle, and of course what we didn’t know is that he’d already taken Mekili and we were heading out there. That was a Foreign Legion fort out in the desert a bit, and of course when we got there or near it, we didn’t get there,
the Pommies were coming towards us, you know, saying, “They’re coming, they’re coming”. I always remember. “Who’s coming?” “The Germans are coming”. So boy, we about turned, we shot there and then we raced for Tobruk. He hadn’t been there but he was around it. We didn’t know this, and of course we went straight through Tobruk and ran smack bang into him on the other side around Sollum there.
And of course he chased us back to Tobruk again and that’s when it all, that’s when the siege started. That was Good Friday, 1941, April 11th. I remember that. That was our home for the next 166 days we stayed there.
but the Huns in the Stukas, they were the boys. I remember that one you were looking at - that water tower. I went there. Early in the piece we were out there laying mines and if you read in one of those books there where it was the minefield that stopped the Germans getting in there. Any rate, we were all, like the 13th Field Company, we were out there
laying these mines there and these Stukas came over and I had a navy blue sweater on. Not a khaki one like they were issued with over there. This was a navy blue one that I had issued in Melbourne here, and of course with the navy blue sweater it stood out like a neon sign, and I can still hear this Stuka coming down and I could see the little
spurts of dirt coming up just in front of my nose. I didn’t think a man could dig into rock, but by hell I did that day. Any rate, he finished up, Rommel, he finished up taking the water tower but when he pushed on he ran into all these mines and that’s what crippled him. He didn’t get into Tobruk.
Oh yes, big blond boys, big fellows. Yes. We were out, no, that was at Alamein, that’s another story. But we could hear them, like we done most of our work of a night, the engineers, because they
Jack, he was out in a party. I don’t know whether it was him that set it off or one of the infantry, but any rate, one of them set it off and he was, he didn’t cop the lot of it but he copped quite a bit of it, him and a few others. These jumping jacks, they used to be in the ground and then they’d jump up and then explode.
tin. You know, I’m looking around for something. They were only about that round, a bit bigger than, there they are, about a five pound jam tin, and they had an explosive that blew them out of the ground and another explosive in them that scattered the stuff as soon as they got up. Yes, they were pretty dangerous those things.
some details about the German infantry you came across.
No, well they were like us. You know, there were only pockets of them. They didn’t march in, I would say they were pretty well the same as what we were, but I don’t think there was that many infantry there. They were just, they were used for everything over there, the Panzers, they were used in, you know, on
tanks and armoured cars ‘cause they didn’t have infantry as such. The same as we did, they didn’t march in columns or anything. They were quick moving. They’d have, I should imagine they would’ve had so many to a vehicle and that’s how they were able to sort of encircle them. That was, actually that was
the first time that Tobruk, was the first time that Rommel had been held. Prior to that he’d got away with everything. It was the first time he’d, and I don’t think he liked it, the old boy. You’ll read it in that book.
was Tripoli. See, when he couldn’t get into Tobruk, the next one was Alexandria. Of course that’s how Alamein came about because he was knocking on the doors of Alex. See, Alamein’s only 70 odd miles or something from Alex and once he got Alex it was goodnight nurse.
And what held him up there was Tobruk. He couldn’t get past there. He did eventually but by then it was too late.
the, well the living conditions for a start. They weren’t the sweetest but then everyone had that. Mines were the greatest bugbear because the German mines, they were very clever and then you had to find out how they worked and then of course being an ordinary sapper
we couldn’t find out ourselves. They had to be - someone had to bring one in for them to study it. Once we got over that we were all right, but we used to, the infantry would go out on patrols but their main worry, their main thing was to get prisoners and of course they’d have to take engineers with them in case they
struck some of these anti-personnel mines. That’s where we used to take our turn. Like, I went out a few times. Well, I said the brother went out, he got wounded. Others went out, they weren’t so lucky. Some of them, quite a few of them got killed, but we used to live with the infantry for a week at a time. I don’t know how those poor coots put up with it because we had a week and then we’d go back down to the
beach, but they’d have to stay there all the time. We didn’t do too bad really. Old Harold, if you ever get talking to Harold, he’ll be able to tell you.
Better not be bully beef and biscuits.
Well that was how it was, bully beef and biscuits, and the army biscuits, did they ever tell you about them? A square biscuit as hard, they were like a tile, they were about as hard as a tile. The only way you could eat them was to soak them for about 24 hours. No, it was. They broke more blessed teeth those things. And the bully beef,
well, you can’t do much with bully beef. By variation we’d get goldfish - fish and tomato sauce, you know, herrings and tomato sauce, plain herrings. Goldfish - we used to call them.
Yeah, that’s all. See, one thing about Tobruk, early in the piece there were a lot of Italian rations left there. There was a food dump there. We used to raid that until they threatened to shoot us ‘cause they had to hoard that, and if it wasn’t for the navy, see, the navy used to bring it in. They’d bring supplies in of a night but destroyers,
they could only carry a certain amount and then they’d take the wounded out and bring fresh troops in, but they couldn’t carry that much, but then they couldn’t do that all the time because a full moon, full moon for a week, it was just like daylight, so they couldn’t come in. And then as I was saying before, they had a bird’s-eye view of all of Tobruk from the water
tower and of course they had, their long-range guns could reach anywhere in Tobruk. Of course if they could see any activity they’d bring the long-range guns on. So the only reason they could do was bring in of a night and trust the luck that they didn’t do any haphazard shelling, but what they used to do there, the destroyers, they’d bring in the rations and they’d dump it
on one of the wrecks. They’d fill up one of the wrecks and get out as quick as possible. So they could get back to, not right back to Alexandria, but get out of the range of Tobruk there before daylight. And then what they’d do, they’d send the troops out in lighters.
I had it a couple of times, and unload it during the day onto lighters and bring it into shore. No one ever wanted that job. As I said, he had open slather on to the harbour and even if he couldn’t see you he used to just drop shells every now and again and you never knew when one was coming. Then there was the air-raids of course.
Were they just a couple of planes here and there sort of thing or more significant air-raids?
There were decent air-raids. They’d keep you on your toes, or if they happened to see a bit of activity they’d come over in a mob because they had a big airfield at Derna, which is just along the coast and once they got that there was activity going on in the harbour, that was it.
That was headquarters, wasn’t it?
Oh yes, it was wall underground, the navy that was all underground there. The hospital was there, it was a stupid place to have the hospital, and then next door to the hospital they had the blessed workshops.
Is that the one with the mining, you put the mines?
Yeah, that was it, that was the start of it. Of course they came in that night, they came in that night and they took the water tower, The Salient, that was the hill there and pushed all the Australians back and then they brought the tanks in but that’s when the tanks got caught in the
minefield. It was just, what he used to do, the tanks would come in and behind the tanks was the infantry. As the tanks went past the infantry would close in on, and the Australians, the infantry of the Australians, they were too good for them. They, where the tank traps were, the tanks would go over them
and they’d drop down into the tank traps and as soon as the tanks went past the Australian infantry were up and they were into them, and they in turn would bottle up the tanks that had gone through. You’ve got to remember that Salient was about, I think was about 12 or 14 miles out of the harbour, like it was well out.
But they could still see.
But I wouldn’t be at all surprised with them because they never ever said much. Oh no, then towards the finish there I got, there’s a medal up there from the Polish. The Poles took over. We came under, what was left, like all the time they were, when I say all the time, from about
July on I think, no, it might’ve been, yeah, about July on, they were taking troops out and they were bringing Polish troops back in, and it got to a stage there, there was more Polish troops than Australian. We came under the Polish Army. Colin’s [Interviewer] there, if he stands up he can see the Polish medal there.
They were all right. Up on the wall there, see it. No, up, see them up there? Yeah, the one on, no, not that one, the one on, the medal on the, you can lift that down. Yeah, yes, well that’s the Polish medal.
I suppose gonorrhoea was a problem in North Africa?
Well yes, but if there’s no females around, there’s no gonorrhoea. Unless, they used to always, they used to always say those sort of diseases, the ordinary troops, they contracted in the traditional
What were the things - were there any diseases at all, I mean outside the STDs, [Sexually Transmitted Diseases] which are, anything peculiar to North Africa?
No. I think there were some fevers, you know, there was sand-fly fever and all that, but I never ever got it. The worst thing that happened to me there was I pulled a
How did you get rid of the fleas?
Just take your blanket out, shook it and that’s about all, but they were in the sand, so they were always there, but they were, but, what else was another one?
Okay, I’d like to take you back a little bit now, back to Egypt, is it Hoki Mariut?
Ikingi Mariut. I, well, write it as you pronounce it I think. It’ll probably be wrong.
And you were allowed to lay them wherever you wanted?
Oh no, they were laid to a pattern and, as a matter of fact this could be interesting too. Over in, well this is in 1992, notices, they’ve got notices all along the main road there, “Beware of Mines”, “Minefield”. They’re still there. No one
knows where they are, and you walk over there at your own risk now. It’s a wonder they haven’t all gone off but I suppose they covered over, uncovered, covered over, uncovered with the shifting sands, but they’ve got them, “Danger Area”, out there.
That’s shown up on that map there. Usually in front of the infantry it was done. Like the infantry had, they had their trenches, especially in Tobruk because the defences were already dug there. The Italians had fortified the place years before and all the Australians had to do was go and clean them out and use them again, and the engineers, we put up barbed wire in front of
them and then beyond the barbed wire the minefield, and that was to protect them, and that was our job.
mine, he went out. That’s how they discovered they were there and someone brought back a live one, and then some bright spark, they examined it and found out a way how to delouse it and that was passed down, so we knew what to do, and all it was just a bit of bent wire, that was all. Like I was showing you on that thing there, you just slide it through.
So for the benefit of those who couldn’t see what you showed me before, can you describe the process of delousing a mine?
Now it all depends what sort of mine. Some of them had a flash cap on them, but as soon as the plugs are dropped you set the flash cap off. That in turn would explode the detonator, which in turn would explode the main charge.
The idea was to take the flash cap out and then it didn’t matter even if it was activated. There was no flash cap there to send the next charge off. There was no harm done. That’s all there was to it, and the other anti-personnel mines, they
were, you’d come along and you’d walk on them, walk on the three pronged ones, you walk on them and that would activate the charge underneath, and all that we had to do was go and put a pin in them to stop it going down. That’s all it was, was that. Like it’s easier said than done of course, but that’s all that had to be done there.
They came up, I had one there. Wait a minute, it’s no good showing you if it’s not on the, but any rate there were three prongs sticking up and you’d stand on it and that would activate the mine underground which in turn would jump up and then explode, and our job was to find these three prongs, follow, and just underneath the three prongs there was
Oh yes, Jack Gardiner, he was one. I don’t know whether my brother stood on one, but a lot of them, a lot of them. If they didn’t then the infantry did, but there was another sort of mine that just dropped from aeroplanes there. Like they were an anti-personnel mine, thermos bombs they used to call them. They were like a thermos bottle and they’d float down to the ground
and once they’re on the ground and touched, up they’d go. I think there’s quite a few Australian soldiers walking around with their toes off and fingers off through playing with those. They’d see it and give it a kick and up it would go, or they’d pick it up and up it would go. They were anti-personnel mines, nasty little things.
the bombs, these thermos bombs, they were dropped by planes. They’d come over of a night and just throw them around the place, and of course, people would come along and happen to see it there, looked like a thermos, and pounce on it and that was it. Once they rattled they were gone, just an anti-personnel one.
mines, did you ever see any of those detonate?
Well, there was one big land mine there I know I can remember in Tobruk Harbour, and I didn’t see it go off actually, but I did see it like after it was dropped. It must’ve been lowered by parachute, a big land mine. It was a huge thing and it fell by the side of the road there, you know, lowered down by parachute but they detonated it somehow.
and bridge work. Some of us, like not, see, allocated, you know, one to a water point and some to maintain, had to keep the water open in Tobruk because there was very little water there. They did have a bore I think, but,
then they had a distillery going there. They used to distil it out of seawater but we had nothing to do with that, you know. At any rate all the water they got out of that was harmless. There was a water point down near our camp there, Wadi, I just forget the name.
They were all busy as bees there. I think the first thing in Tobruk there was, the first job was to go out and make good
the fortress, the strong hold, you know. They were all filled with sand and all the rest of it. So we had to go out and clean, well, they were tank traps and things like that. Morshead, that was actually on the way back, but going up there the main thing was patching the roads. That’s the thing I can remember.
there they had a big dump there. There was road maintenance, like a big road maintenance depot there with drums of bitumen there, and that’s what we done - we went out and patched the road, we got that ready. Where was another place? Oh, up beyond Tobruk, that’s right. They had a road maintenance plant, you know.
I don’t know what they call them. All that we had to do there was just to go and get it, go and get the stuff and take it out on the roads and just fill up the holes. I don’t know how long it lasted mind you, but it was good enough.
sitting back and looking at it. Of course when we came back from Benghazi there, Morshead, he made sure everyone was working. The infantry was out manning the perimeter and then the rest were all working busy as bees.
Because the, you couldn’t do much digging there, because the ground, the sand only went down about a foot or 18 inches or so and then you struck rock. Of course that wasn’t much help.
But altogether, even 50 years later the place hadn’t changed. The tank traps and trenches, they all got full of sand of course. I’ve got some photos there, but there it is.
mine work, did you enjoy that? Delousing mines and setting mines?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t like it one little bit because they were starting to get, it was getting that way that some of the mines, the other side they were just as cunning, as you’d delouse one, they probably had
pulled the trip wire and let the hammer go down and I brought it back and what had happened, the detonator had been put in upside down and there was a hole right in the end of the detonator, went right into it. There was no flash cap. A flash cap would’ve sent it off, but how it didn’t go off I don’t know. Well, thank goodness it didn’t.
I’m still here because it didn’t. It would’ve shortened my breathing time quite a bit I’d say.
siege, is it? Not like the Siege of Mafeking. They were completely surrounded with no food. But at least we could get a bit of food, and then there was, what was the other place, Berlin wasn’t it? The Berlin airlift where they couldn’t get food there but they supplied them from air, from the air. See, they, well they’re not quite
sieges, are they, when you can supply? But without the navy we’d never have lasted. That goes without saying ‘cause they managed to bring supply and ammunition.
by all accounts, that was founded by Lord Haw-Haw. He was a, what was his name, Joyce I think, Joyce. He was an Englishman. He must’ve been a bright old Englishman for all that. Anyway, he joined the propaganda team over in Germany and he used to broadcast at night. We used to look forward to that too because you’d get a good laugh, but he knew everything that was
going on, and we got, and he was saying, “You Rats of Tobruk”, he says, “You’re caught like rats in a trap”, you know. And of course they pounced on that. The infantry, they all pounced on that. They reckoned that was good, the Rats of Tobruk, but he didn’t know at the time it’d still be going.
I think he, I think he didn’t commit suicide. I think he was condemned to death, wasn’t he, Joyce? Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Lord Haw-Haw any rate. ‘Cause they got that way and they dropped that leaflet over there. That’s one of the leaflets they dropped. They wanted us to surrender. Caught like rats in a trap. That’s how that came about.
See, we’d go out one night and we’d clear a track through for the infantry to go and then they’d come back and by the next night, the track, they couldn’t stay out there all night. By the time we came back the, by the time the infantry came back there, there’d be more, there’d be more booby traps put there. So it was a, there always had to be sappers out there. Not
necessarily the same ones. We used to just take it in turns and work with different battalions.
Given the process you described before of finding the mines and delousing them, how did you do that at night?
By feel. You see you got to know the mine. You knew as soon as you went in you felt the three prongs, well you knew where it, you knew the make up of it, so
you just felt down until you felt the little hole through the, through the, what was it called, the stem, the stalk or whatever, and just put a bit of wire in and that stopped it going down then. ‘Cause that was the main mine they used. I don’t know how the Germans got on delousing our mines. I suppose they did.
But any rate, you see the tank mines they were big ones. They were about that round and of course as the tanks went over the pressure would send them off and to blow the tracks off and the wheels off cars or trucks or anything like that. They’d disable them at any rate. They couldn’t move.
that was just off a primus. I must’ve had a too big a bucket on the primus or something and got it hot and it was only just balanced there and I must’ve knocked it and it just spilled all over me. They just sort of, I went down to the RAP. They just wrapped me in, smothered me in ointment but nothing serious. Well serious like blistered and all the rest of it, but I soon got over
that. That was, apart from, that was about the worst thing that happened to me apart from the usual wog sores.
and once you get into the salt water that kept everything pretty clean. All in all, provided you weren’t hit with anything, your health was pretty good. But as I said, the Polish brigade came in towards, in
August, they started to come in in August, that’s right.
How did you find the Polish?
Very good. You couldn’t understand them of course but that didn’t matter. They were there, they were all on the one side. We were all on the same side, but boy, they must’ve had a rough old, they must’ve had a rough old go during the war, that mob,
So he was in Tobruk as well?
No, no. Some of the Poles were. At the Polish club, no, he was at the, what was the ghetto there? Wait a minute, the
have to be, well be mutual agreement over some things. They couldn’t all, you couldn’t fight all day that’s for sure. Well it’s the same like when people are thrown together for any length of time. Joe Eaton and I, Cocky, we shared the same hole there for all the time we were in Tobruk,
unless we were working of a night. In fact there was a fellow by the name of Merv Sheriff, a Queenslander, good old Merv, dead and gone.
What was particular about the coffee?
Well, it didn’t taste like coffee, put it that way, but everything had a peculiar taste there. See, there was no fresh vegetables or anything. We used to get vitamin C tablets. We used to take one of these tablets a day. That was our vegies.
As you said, there wasn’t much water, there wasn’t any beer, what did you do for liquid?
The water, you had to boil it up because it was that chlorinated you couldn’t drink it. You’d boil it up and just let it settle and it was passable, but you got used to it.
old English Christmas, snow everywhere. That’s right, I went to hospital then, that’s right. I came out in tinea all over me.
I don’t know what brought it on because - anyway I had it all over me it was. Put me in hospital at Lebanon in Cedars. In fact I think I had Christmas, but any rate we were up in Lebanon and then we went from there to Tripoli.
That’s where we went into the oil refinery barracks in Tripoli. We, no, we didn’t maintain them but we were sort of guarding. That was good there because we could go into Tripoli or down to Beirut. It was quite a good break there, and that’s, oh, we went down to Haifa to a bridging school down there
and then that brought us into, we must’ve put about six months there, because I know in June we were all getting bored out of our wits there because it was so boring, nothing to do and then we got this call to Alamein, and that was in early, that was in June.
That’s right. That was in June. We hit Alamein and that’s when the fun really did start.
Yes, tell us about El Alamein and your experience there?
Yeah, well plenty of dogfights, Alamein, carting mines. That’s the 9th July we started to mine at Alamein. I can remember that and I think around about the 10th,
must’ve been a couple of days later, that’s when the Germans came down. They were hell bent for Alexandria and the Australians were there and they held them at Alamein. It’s history from then on. They held Alamein until the 23rd October I think or 24rd October, that’s when the Battle of Alamein
started. Rommel was held there, that’s what stumped him. That’s when Montgomery came and took over then.
Alamein, Arthur Keeley, Jock Broadford, Roy Costello, Eric Smith, quite a few went there. Oh yes, she was really hot stuff there. In fact there was another one, Keith Christie’s brother, what was his name? I didn’t know him but he was the 23rd, 24th Battalion.
He died of wounds there. But that was I think the really turning point of the whole war, was Alamein.
up barbed wire, that was it, along the road there and a patrol came along and this Jock Broadford, the pair of us there was stretching out a piece of wire and I remember Jock saying, “Infantry patrol”, and they said, “Yes”, and with that they let fly with everything, you know, Tommy guns and they got old Jock but
the rest of us, we all ducked, we all went in all directions, but I think they just happened to concentrate on Jock. He was the closest.
Oh yeah. Well the infantry, when the infantry went out they used to always have an engineer with them in case they found a minefield, and then they, the engineers had to be there to open the barbed wire and let them back in. Always wondered how that infantry
were able to read those compasses and they’d go out and they’d come back to the exact spot. They were good, yeah they were very good.
February. That’s right. They had the usual big parade over there with the Duke of Gloucester and all the rest of it, and then we came back, and when did we come back, in February? February ’43, that’s right, and we stayed
here for a while and then went up to New Guinea.
They were fighting in New Guinea?
The 6th were in New Guinea, or the 7th in New Guinea. See, New Guinea absorbed a lot of troops there, a lot of different places, but up in New Guinea I only went to,
came back from Egypt. Tell us about the voyage back to Australia.
Oh, that was on the [HMS] Queen Mary, so there’s nothing to say there. If you knew the Queen Mary, well it was bigger than Numurkah. So you was, you didn’t call anywhere, you just went down, nothing to do. That was most boring,
the 2nd Pioneers I think they lost a lot. They went into some place and then the Japs just closed the harbour on them. I don’t know where that was. Oh yes, there were some decent old mistakes made.
Once the Japanese were thrown out of New Guinea, well that was the finish, well, for them, what with the, I think early in the piece down near, when they were fighting out from Moresby, I think that was the 6th Div. That’s what saved it.
I didn’t know too much what was going on there. Only what little bit I was in, that was all.
Which infantry unit were you attached to?
We were attached to a lot of them, 15th, 17th, 13th, 24th, 28th, whatever.
When you went to Sydney can you tell me about the Americans soldiers you came across there?
I don’t remember them in Sydney. I didn’t get to Sydney. When I say I didn’t get to Sydney, I passed through it, but that’s all. I wasn’t stationed there, never. Same as Brisbane, I wasn’t, I didn’t get into Brisbane much. I’d come down to Brisbane on leave,
But that’s all. See, we went straight from here on leave, after we finished leave up to North Queensland and then we came from North Queensland down to the coast and done our amphibious training at Trinity Beach just outside of Cairns and our landing practise for New Guinea, and then after that we went up to
New Guinea. It was a sort of rushed job.
Between Aussies and Yanks?
Yeah. Sometimes I think the Yanks used to scrap amongst themselves because I always remember in Brisbane there, their MPs, [Military Police] the Yankee MPs, they used to have a big night-stick. Ooh, it was about that long. They used to have it tied around their wrist like that and they’d be swinging like that.
Two and three Yanks coming along, you know, skylarking they must’ve only been youngsters. One had his tie undone. As he walked past, dong, he just hit him right there to show him that he had his tie undone. I think the Yankee MPs must’ve had them all bluffed. Boy, did he, tied his tie, might’ve been in his
pocket, you know. It intrigued me the way with this night-stick as he was walking along swinging the thing and he just went dong. Never said anything.
out on manoeuvres of a night and he’d come in, he’d come over and he’d poke his head over the trench and they’d all go off crook at him, you know, get out, because they couldn’t see him, he was that black of a night, and he’d take it all in good part.
in those days there was no, they just had the one bridge across the Brisbane River. There was no, the train never ever like never went into Brisbane, the southern train. It would come from Sydney and it would stop at South Brisbane and the black Americans, they weren’t allowed over the river. They weren’t allowed over the river into
Brisbane proper. They had, all that they were allowed, their recreation was on the south side.
‘Cause you would’ve known obviously it’s because they’re black and white, that sort of stuff?
Yeah, well of course there’s no blood even lost over there now, but they accept them now, but in those days it was a real contrast between the white Americans and black Americans.
no, I don’t think so. Well they’re all accepted now. Well, they’ve got to. They’ve got high-ranking black officers. I don’t think the Australian blacks have ever reached that level out here with the whites, but over in America, the blacks on the social
scale they’re way up there with the white. Not all of them but some of them.
Well, we’d just come from the desert and it was totally different, totally different to what we’d had, but then even the training at the Atherton Tablelands that was far different to what we struck in New Guinea too. Like New Guinea, it gave us an idea, put it that way, what to expect when we got to New Guinea.
palms chopped off at the roots, devastated. It was, well you could imagine the shelling that went on there, but our main job up in New Guinea was on the roads, corduroy roads. They used to, well, had to work bloody hard up there because as I say it was so wet, and every road was just a swamp.
We had to cut down trees and put down corduroy on the roads and as fast as you would put it down it would sink. Yeah, that was
What was the Japanese resistance like when you came on the beach?
It was a bit there, but it wasn’t, by the time we got there we followed the infantry in there because there was no mines, no barbed wire or anything there. All our main thingo there, the engineers, was to
They’d come in from Nadzab and they’d more or less taken the place by the time we got there. They’d done a, came from Nadzab, they had a parachute drop over there, the 7th Division, and they came in from there and we came in along the coast, but I think if, history will probably tell you that the 7th Div got
there first. So all that we more or less had to was just mop up and fix up the roads, so that they could consolidate around the place, and that was it.
Send them to high heaven I can tell you.
There was [stanis] weed that was the vine. You couldn’t get through it, it would wrap itself around you, I know, and it had prickles on it. It was lantana, wasn’t it, lantana?
home grog. I don’t know whether that might’ve sent them troppo, but I don’t ever, like I know of people, especially in our unit. Their nerves packed up, well naturally it would, but I don’t ever remember anyone ever tearing up and down there committing hari-kari there with a big sword or anything, but I daresay they were there ‘cause some were under more strain than others of course,
but I don’t recollect any
She died, oh, when did she die, ’44? That’s right, and Dad was on his, own and he was failing in health. My brother was married, Jack, and he shifted to Melbourne I think, and so I put in to get out. That’s right, to get home and look after pop.
I think that’s how it went.
So how did you return to Australia?
I came back with the unit. I came, the unit there, they, I think later on they went over to Tarakan but by that time I was more or less out and that’s all there was to it, and then after the war I went and looked after pop for about
10 years I think. Might’ve been 10, might’ve been a bit longer. Wait, ’45? No, it must’ve been about 10, and then shifted to Melbourne and got a job with the Defence Department and stayed there for 20 odd years and then got pensioned out of there. I think everything was starting to catch up with me, and
then I lost the wife, that was at 54 years. The kids were all married and cleared off. So I was just pottering around Melbourne there on my own. I had a caravan, so I went touring around Victoria, went back to Warracknabeal and must’ve been a bad time of the year there, very dry, wasn’t very impressed
and so continued touring around. Went up to Broady at Euroa and came to Numurkah, and then thought oh well, I think the Caselys came from, like Ted I was in the army with, that’s down at Balcombe, and I knew he’d passed away. So looked down the phone book and sure enough
there was a Casely there and on the off chance I rang, and here’s the result, we’re still here. That was what? That’s three years ago. Yeah. So there you are, so I’m well dug in up here. Do not want to leave either, growing tomatoes, yeah. So there’s the
but by the time I left there I had three kids there and there was no future in Warrack, not unless the parents owned some flourishing business there or a big farm, so I was quite happy to shift to Melbourne and that was it, but then I went back to Warrack and had a look, took the caravan back. I did have bright prospects of
returning to Warrack but not so good. The wife was born there, so had her cremated and took her ashes back there and she’s with her sister and her parents and her grandmother and grandfather, so she’s back to where she started, so quite happy about that one. My folks are there so I go over
go out outback Queensland, you know, out to Longreach and Winton and those sort of places, it was beaut, and New South Wales, the back of Bourke, St George and, I still reckon that’s beaut.
photos after it and the things that went on there, and you stand up in the spot and there’s a big illustration in front and it points out just where the plane came over, and God, you look at it and you look at the real place. You look at this illustration and then you look at
the actual hills was and you can, I swear you can see the planes coming over.
When they hummed and hahed about it he dropped another one and by hell, that put a stop to it. If there’s a real last resort. If they can find some other answer to stop them, so I suppose you can blame Japan for that. They should’ve seen it coming. They should’ve seen it coming and said, “Right.”
Well it was either, put it this way, it was either them or us, but any rate there are plenty of worse things going on in the world today.
something, but it certainly undermined Britain, there’s no doubt about that. Britain’s colonies have just been dropping off one by one by one, and strangely enough the places where Britain’s walked out of, they’re in a bigger mess than ever. There’s
Africa, there’s India there’s New Guinea. Name them all, where Britain, well, there’s Palestine.
trouble is the world’s getting too small, yes, it’s been overpopulated, that’s the trouble. God, I remember during the war at Cairo you had to, the pyramids were miles out or seemed to be. Well 50 years later when we went over there, Cairo’s touching the pyramids. See, Cairo was just, I think it’s
every eight years it doubles its population. That’s shocking you know.
Did you feel a part of the Anzac tradition?
I think so, yes. Yes, well they, some of them likened Tobruk to Gallipoli although the maximum loss of life of course there was no comparison, but the, they
and Tobruk in a way was a great victory.
As it turned out, that’s what I say, Tobruk was a cause. Gallipoli wasn’t. See, they, personally I reckon Tobruk, that hurried up the war for the simple reason Hitler couldn’t get oil, he was prepared to come down through Turkey, Syria,
It doesn’t matter where you, I found that out in the army, it doesn’t matter where you are, you’re going to get pushed around by experts, that’s for sure. It’s probably the lesser of so many evils. Why they want a republic out here has got me beat. They keep saying we’ve got to have an Australian head of state. Well as I can gather they’ve had an Australian head
of state for years, that’s governor general.
But the Queen’s our head of state?
Yeah but just, in name only, or I suppose the governor general is. What does he do? He does nothing, but he’s still the head of Australia, so there’s the Australian. But I still reckon, I still reckon once you bring an Australian into it
you’re going to have infighting. While you’ve got Liz [Queen] over there, well no one’s going to take a great deal of notice of her at any rate, so let her there and she go around and wave to them and the rest of it, but she’s doing more good than harm. I reckon they’re asking for trouble. Look at all the bloody bally-hoo that goes on in America with the
election of a president. Goodness gracious, that must cost millions.
I suppose it was the same in the First World War. What were the Australians doing over in France getting the daylights belted out of them, although I think Australia was more tied to the British Empire then, than what it is now, they had more to fight for. They were looked after by the British Empire. See, they’re more or less independent now.
I still reckon they could do worse ‘cause they’re just there in name only. As long as it doesn’t cost us too much dough. Well it costs us a damned sight more, a president, so what.
The family that up there now, look at that after all these years. That’s Jean’s father’s, medals there, see, still there, still there. Oh no, if you’re, you’ve got to look back as well as look forward I think.
Did you write to her often?
Oh yeah, oh yes, I think there were a lot of letters there. Tobruk there, you’d go days and days or even weeks with nothing and then all of a sudden they’d come in, you know. Then you’d have some fun sorting the letters out. As I said,
There were recreational, I remember up in Queensland there we went down to Gordonvale on a bridging, a bridging school down on the Mulgrave, Mulgrave River, on the pontoon bridges. You know, we used to spend more time swimming and fishing, and fishing there, the idea of fishing
in those days, especially with sappers there, was dropping gelignite into the water and getting the fish that way. Not very sporting, I know but. Even Tobruk had its moments. We’d get time off and like every week or so to have a good bath, we’d go down the beach.
We’d just sleep on the sand for a couple of days. Someone would bring down some rations and that was all right.
I think we all tried to get out towards the finish. There were all sorts of excuses. You know, very hard to say. If there was any, I don’t know of anyone that had their discharge papers stamped or something, you know, dishonourably discharged.
I bet there would be some, some there. They were just like straight out rogues or something and the army didn’t want them. Everyone that I knew they all got an honourable discharge like that one up there.
Well, you say that there was many times?
Well, there must’ve been many times. People, what do they call it? Beyond the call of duty, yeah, but what is the call of duty? I remember old Joe Oatley,
and it was very good. It was more or less subsidised. It was, and a party of us went. The government sponsored. We had Senator Ray I think he was Minister for the Army [Defence] at the time. He was there, and who else was there? Oh, when we got over to Egypt there was the ambassador there.
He welcomed us and looked after us, and then I think general, what was his name? General Broadbent, yeah, it was General Broadbent. He was the boss of the trip, but no, very good. Was [El Alamein] Revisited, they called it, but we went up to Tobruk, you know, followed the thing right through, but things were very touchy there because
that was soon after the Lockerbie bombing. Remember there when that plane fell out of the air, and of course Libya and Gadaffi, they were on the nose. Of course, when we got to the Libyan border there we got into the compound there in the coach and there was Gadaffi’s troops there, you know, marched around us and they collected our passports and they
escorted us for the rest of the trip. Very good though they looked after us and gave us a medal there, I don’t know where it is. I think it’s in the box there somewhere.
and strangely enough at Alamein there there’s all the “Beware of Mines”, even the minefields are still there. But when we got to Alamein was surprising because the Hill of Jesus that the Australians took early in July there, the Germans have got their war memorial right on top of it and the most enormous thing you’ve ever seen, and the same in
Tobruk. In the prime place of Tobruk overlooking the harbour is the German war memorial. It’s built like a ruddy great castle. See, what the Germans, they didn’t have cemeteries. They haven’t got any war cemeteries there. All their dead, they went around and collected them and they buried them all in the one place and they put all their names on this wall in this great
fortress they’ve got, but it’s the prime place in Tobruk. The Australians, they haven’t got anything at all. They’ve got a bit of an entrance into the Australian War Memorial but that’s all.
Did you find this upsetting?
Not really, not really, but it made us a bit bloody, well upset, it made us a bit wild. Same at Alamein, there was this big, this big monument, and the Italian memorial
goes for about four or five acres. Great marble thing they’ve got. The Australian one would fit in this room. In fact two of them would fit in this room. Not even, no, I won’t. Shocking, you know, Australians played such a main part in it
and yet they’re underrated. It makes you think who won it. Well it does. When you got there and have a look at this Italian and German monument at Alamein.
I am, no, I was crooked on it. The British monument there, they’ve got an elaborate war cemetery but the Australians are part of that too, but this German and Italian monument in Alamein and the German moment in Tobruk there, especially it was held by it. You’d think, although I met some
of the German soldiers. They sent out a contingent from Germany there. I’d like to show you the photos of them. They were characters you know, they were nice fellows because they were another generation.