up as children. We had wide open country, we had magnificent views. We had, school holidays we had tennis, swim, great afternoon tea parties, very happy tennis tournaments. We played in the local village cricket team, for annual matches, Flinders played visitors.
As a family, again, we all got on incredibly well. There was great discipline, which was absolutely essential in a large family. And there’s a saying just out on the wall here, one of my mother’s favourite sayings, “Don’t put it down dear, put it away”. So tidiness and discipline were very much a part of our growing days. We all had chores,
cleaning brass taps of which there were numerous numbers of them. Cutting buffalo lawns with a hand pushed mower, and that was a hell of a job. And even worse and more tedious was trimming the edges with hand held shears, used on other occasions for shearing sheep. We always had, were fortunate in having staff in those
days. The most conspicuous, most significant at home would have been a Welsh couple. She - a very large lady with very, again very strict Welshing discipline. The husband, a tiny little man, he used to follow her around, I think very much under the thumb, was Johns, but
he was a nice bloke. And he milked the cows and cut the wood and most of his time was spent in a somewhat largish garden. I suppose two or three acres and the property is known as The Rest. It’s quite a well known property in Flinders. And the current owners, the current owner, Mrs. Robert Boynton,
and she just loves the place, she lives there on her own. She’s maintained the garden in a very charming condition and it’s always a pleasure to be there. Just a fortnight ago, she had a dinner party for about twenty to celebrate twenty years of occupation of The Rest. So to all of us as children, it was a very happy place in which to do our growing up years.
The place itself was small, well it was a farm, about one hundred and fifty acres. Commercially, it yielded a modest return, that’s all I can say, modest. But it did provide us with a great never ending source of
agricultural products, carrots, potatoes, [bunning], [?] ochre and beans and peas. And the majority of those were not consumed at The Rest but distributed to various friends around the place. We always had plenty of fish. In those days you could go down to the local pier and buy it from
Mrs. Myall Chinchey, a very prominent, very round lady. Who, she always had a smile, always had a fish. And crayfish then were not only beautiful but quite totally inexpensive. We always had two pigs, they were of a great interest to my Dad, they were well looked after, but
we had the terrible job of cleaning the pigs’ sty. Nobody has been able to convince me yet that a pig is a clean animal, in fact it’s anything but. We hosed it down and brushed it out, when it came to the killing each year, that again was an interesting experience. My Dad didn’t like killing at all, but the neighbours used to undertake the terrible task. Knock the pig on the head and do other
things to end it’s life. Then it would be chopped up, then we had pork pies, beautiful pork pies. I’ve never had anything like them. And in the process of curing the bacon, my Dad spent a lot of time on that every day. It was a question of rubbing the bacon with sugar and coat it in vinegar and that would go on for several
weeks as would, similar treatment with the hams. Then there was a smoking process, you had a special little house called a smoke house. And the bacon and portions of pig would be hanging up in the roof, and that process again, would take three or four weeks. Then the produce after smoking would hang on hooks in the kitchen,
a very old fashioned kitchen. But it was a great sight to see them up there. Then the ham would be packed away in saw dust. One ham would be for Christmas day, another would be eaten on New Year’s Day and the other two hams would be given away to friends close by. And the bacon was the most superb bacon I’ve ever had in my life. And I wish someone could learn how
to go back to those ancient processes of just rubbing and sugaring and vinegaring.
They had a master and occasionally he’d have an assistance from a Mrs. Florence Daily. Again, they were happy days. We saluted the flag every Monday morning, we gave allegiance to the Queen. It was a good school and the school master in that area was a very highly regarded citizen. And the leaders we
had were in fact, leaders in the community. They played in the local football teams and took part in all community activities. And they taught us to hold a straight bat at cricket and how to kick a football. They were generally, they were happy days yet there was good discipline. I can recall one occasion when, in a some what impish mood, I was singing “Land of Hope and
Glory” and there was a lady, a young lady at the desk immediately in front of me and I had a pin and I stuck it in the lady’s bottom and she let out an unholy yell, “He did it.” And so he was then sent to the shelter shed, a place of ultimate teacher retribution and took six of the best. But we had, that was the kind of, I had no hard feelings against that master at
that time, he was just really doing his job. He explained why he was doing it, gave me, and said, you know, “Did it hurt?” And of course, no it didn’t hurt. Of course it, jolly well did but you never let on. That was an expression of one’s manliness so.
Most of my brothers and sisters had all been to private schools. But this was during the depression and the education budget was exhausted and so my youngest brother and I went to, we were sent to the school for, to Frankston High School, for financial reasons. And again, I think it was a good school. It was a fairly small
school compared with today’s vast numbers. I think there was only about four hundred or so, four hundred and twenty odd people I think. Which gave great opportunity for those of us who were interested in leadership roles. It gave us a great opportunity for us to participate in prefects, house captain, school captains or those
kind of roles. It also gave us great opportunity in the sporting field. We had, spent an enormous amount of time at sport. We had good leadership and we were encouraged. We had good teachers. I can remember the mathematics, again it was a fairly easy process in those days thanks to good presentation and good control. I had my first
inklings of interest in the classics. We had a wonderful English mistress and Shakespeare to me was always a joy, it has been ever since. But there were some of my peers, I must say, thought Shakespeare was the absolute end, and what I waste of time, didn’t understand it. I have nothing but admiration for the Bard, I think it’s still,
well I can’t read now, but I enjoyed reading him as did my father in-law, who was also a great Shakespearian. And we used to have discussions about Shakespeare, about his plays, and we occasionally used to do some readings. So that school to me, provided for me a good basic knowledge of the fundamentals, certainly for me, maths, physics,
English, history, geography for the career I wanted to take in engineering. But again, it was a question of, I matriculated, not brilliantly, I wasn’t a brilliant student by any means but I happened to win the Citizenship Award, I wasn’t dux of the school, but I was up there somewhere. And
I felt that the staff there, they served us well as students, it was a happy school. And sporting opportunities were really great. I think I was invited out of sixteen to play in the Frankston Senior Cricket Eleven. I don’t think I fulfilled the expectations the selectors had of me,
but I quite enjoyed it. And the same with football, I was invited to play with the Frankston seconds, playing with men about twice my size, but enjoyed it. So we had wonderful opportunities.
well. My sisters, again, they were at private school and they’ve gone out of existence now. My sisters went to, the eldest two went to a school called Cromarty, which you’ve probably never heard of. And it specialised, I think, in the social graces for ladies learning how to live and behave like
ladies. They had such people as Dame Mella (UNCLEAR) was one of the students there in my sister’s time. And the youngest one ended up at Wrighton Girls School where her granddaughter just had her senior years there. So they had privileges, which we didn’t have.
Better laboratories, better buildings, but people, I don’t know, I was very happy in my school days.
I didn’t make many close friends but had some good friends there. One, a couple of distinction, one ran the standard newspaper company publication. Another one, Don
Charlwood became quite a significant author, he wrote one of the very best books I read about the air force called No Moon Tonight. He was a navigator in Lancaster bombers and served, passed through thirty operations. We met in London one time during the war, when, if crews successfully
returned from ten flights, that was about it at that time, the losses were horrific. And he wrote a book to give a view point of what he called, from the lower mountains. Plenty of books have been written from the Everest Peaks, but he wanted to give the views of a low ranking member
of the crew. Which he did, he just captured the atmosphere of briefing and the trauma of returning home and seeing the empty beds in the dormitory and knowing that you would never see those people again. With the cloths piled up in little heaps. But he carried on as a professional author, he’s written several books. And some of the earliest settlers
out here, The Settlers Under Sail, was one of his and another one, a television series based on The Green Years. So apart from that, he and another very good friend I had, I suppose my best friend there, was one Granville Rug, who helped me along to university and studied architecture
and became one of the first commissioners of the National Development Commission in Canberra. And he was a great footballer, a great athlete and a great bloke. And we shared the study in Queens College for a while.
factors influencing that decision. First one I suppose you could say was genetic, on my maternal side there were engineers. The second I would perhaps describe as theatrical because when my father was, one time, president of the local shire he was visited quite frequently by the
shire engineer, one George Brown. (UNCLEAR) and he came up to the family property, The Rest, in a 1923 model Dodge. He would put on a large broad brim, he was a little man, wear a large broad brim felt hat, he would grab a brief case, get out of the car and bang the door shut and walk manfully up to the front door and knock on the door. And I remember saying to my Dad, “Who is
he?” “Oh, he’s a civil engineer.” So I was pretty impressed with all this. And the third factor, I suppose, as a small boy I was absolutely intrigued seeing pictures of Sydney Harbour Bridge as it was being built and I just went over the picture and I’d want to see it. And as those great cantilever spans ultimately came together, that was to
me, there was nothing else I wanted to do but be a civil engineer.
I’d like to talk a little bit more about your father and his work.
Well, he spent his early life at sea serving on clippers. And as a matter of fact, there’s a ship, a model ship in the room next door which he was influential in his courting days with my mother. And so the ship
was actually hand carved by one of his fellow seamen and presented to Dad who in turn presented it to Mother. And it’s been admired so much and my youngest son, who is now fifty three, he used to stand in front of this jolly ship for hours and Mother was so impressed that
she left it for Peter until he should have a house of his own. But he’s had a house of his own for a long time now, but he said the ship really belongs to Flinders, that’s where it ought to be. So that’s where it is, still in our house and we are still caring for it and it will ultimately end up in his house, I think. But he still might have an interest in living out here, who knows. And so
he was, when he married, he left the sea and then came down here in 1912 and one of my eldest sisters hadn’t been well, she had some kind of lung problem and the medical advice, they thought the rural environment would be appropriate,
and it was. They bought a farm up in, a farm called Midford, up in Main Creek Road. Then actually moved down with my grandmother, down to The Rest, where he spent his time running the property there. Just a small property, which I mentioned earlier in the interview.
But he was very civic minded and was very active in a whole range of community activities. The church and the golf club and the sporting oval and the Masonic Lodge and the Progress Association
(UNCLEAR) Park Reserve. You know, a host of community involvements and a host of community activities. The family income that was derived most from, the farm contributed a little but not very much, from property. Involved in the first land sales in Melbourne in 1838 and they bought at that time, they owned the corner of
Little Collins and Queens Street, and other property too. That was the source of the family income for many, many years. Sadly it was sold early after the war, as was the property, The Rest,
because during those six years of war - Dad had died just before the war - the place was run down and Mother and my younger sister were living in the place at that time and they tried getting married couples to come in, but it never worked out. One would get on the grog or the other one would run off with someone else’s spouse.
It was very difficult to get people and the maintenance was so, it was worrying her, although she was really a country lady. She decided to sell and go to the city. Single blokes of land on that property now are bringing in a couple of million dollars. So commercially a great mistake but it at least gave Mother the satisfaction, she didn’t have to worry about any, she didn’t have to worry about anything. Except she always missed
the country, but she was near the family living in the city. But still very much a country lady. But she was involved in everything that was going on down here at the same time.
It was a very intense course but I enjoyed it from the very first day. But at that time I was very lucky to be able to, we paid full fees, we were required, it was still the Depression in 1933 when I went up to the university. It was very much touch and go as to whether the family could afford it. But Sir John McFarlane was the chancellor at the time. He used to visit down here
and Dad used to know him moderately well. And anyway, he called and invited Sir John to discuss the situation and it was a day - I knew it was going to be an important discussion because the whisky decanter came out, and an oak barrel with bands around it with some special biscuits, it was all part of the scene. And so my
future was being discussed that day. And I can remember Dad, when he came out, Sir John left to go home, I said, “Well Dad, what’s happened?” He said, “Well, Sir John summed it up this way”, he said, “Look Holland, this Depression’s got to end sometime and when it does the community will need engineers, so if you
can possible find the funds I recommend you send the boy up to university.” So Dad found the funds but it was a struggle, as it was with a majority of students at that time. To be at university at all was an extremely great privilege. And we still had to pay full fees, I’ve forgotten what they were. But anyway, university
were happy days. My first day, I’ll never forget. The dean of engineering was one Professor Curnow, called Crunch Curnow. A long distinguished gentleman with a long white flowing beard and first lecture he came into the classroom with a slide rule, you probably have never seen one. It was about twelve feet long, and the things he did with that slide rule, it convinced of two things, a) that he had a wonderful sense
of humour and b) that he was a distinguished scholar. And so he had us eating out of his hand from the very first day. So university days, for me, were very happy days. And as it was, I think for most of us, there was only one cow in the entire engineering school. There were only twenty four students went up to study civil engineering, now there are hundreds
of various places all round the country side. And so we were indeed privileged.
war. We felt that, I know as far as I was personally concerned, I was aware of victims of gas attacking in World War I and the horror of that, the prospect of that was just, it was enormous. I think it would be fair to say that there was a common feeling that that was the greatest
fear that we had, when we went to war, was gas. If a bullet went right through you, you didn’t want it to happen, but - or being incapacitated in some other way, there was a greater fear of that than death.
After you graduated, where did you work?
Well again, jobs were still pretty jolly scarce, there was still a depression in ’36. So I went to the Commonwealth Oil Refineries. And I was fortunate enough to get a position there, I had, it was probably though cricket that I got the position. I had been,
in my final year of civil engineering, I’d got through all the subjects except the hydraulic engineering part two, which I had only received nine marks out of a hundred, and the reason for that was it was based on a project called “The Yarrawonga Weir”. And the occasion, there was an expedition to the weir and anyone, that
particular couple of days I happened to be play cricket. And I thought, they won’t ask a question about that anyway. The first part of that Hydraulic Engineering Part Two carried only ten marks, which I could answer quite well. And the rest, the other ninety were devoted to Yarrawonga Weir about which I knew nothing,
absolutely nothing. So I went along to see the dean and see if I could get a facility pass. And he said, “No way can I give you a facility pass for [ninety] percent for the second paper, first paper did all right, you’ll have to do a sub, you shouldn’t have any trouble with that.” And so he said, “Look, in the meantime Commonwealth Oil Refinery are looking for an engineer to do work
on the Glen Davis, student engineer, for Glen Davis oil development, to show oil deposits. So, if you like, I’ll ring the chief engineer straight away.” Which he did, so I had an interview with the chief engineer, a very good bloke, and he said he’d call me in, this was before Christmas, he’d call me in
early January and nothing happened and I was getting a bit worried because there weren’t too many other jobs around. Then I had a call and he said, “Look Holland, that job at Glen Davis, they’re not going ahead with the project, it’s been deferred.” So my hope sank through the floor, that’s the end of that. But he said, “Look, I wonder if you’d be interested in a permanent job with Commonwealth Oil Refineries?”
And I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. Because I also had a friend who was working there and he was very happy there, and so I was offered a job, permanent job at the Commonwealth Oil Refineries, which I was very grateful.
were poles apart. In the real world one was dealing with real things that had commercial significance. And of course, they had functional significance. And so, but I had, I think I had a natural feeling for behaviour
of materials, shapes, sizes, textures and the machines. And so I think I adapted fairly comfortably. And was given an interesting project to do, to build a pipe line from Laverton to Spotswood, designed it and
built it. And like most graduates coming out at that time, the old dyed in the wool general foreman didn’t think too much of us, but the foreman called Hanky. We really later, became quite good friends, but one felt you were always under test about practical issues. One such example, we reached the stage of the pipe line,
it was to cross the street near the Newport Railway gates. And it was, I went down to, they’d just done an excavation of a trench and I went down on a Saturday morning to see the progress of the work and I had gone to a lot of trouble preparing a detailed plan showing where the precise location of all the services,
you know, a dimension plan. And I’d issued that to the general foreman, Hanky. And I got down there on the Saturday morning and he said, “Mr. Holland” - there was no Jack or Bill in those days, you know, we were professional people, we were mister – “Mr. Holland”, he said, “What are we going to with this?” He said, “There’s something here that looks like a cable of some description.” And
I said, “Look foreman Hanky, I’ve given you a drawing showing exactly where all the services are, you know, sewerage, water and telephone.” And I said, “It must be dead, so cut it off and get on with the job.” So he cut it off and we’d chopped off all the telephone subscribers in Williamstown. And he never let me forget that. But anyway, we later became quite good friends. But no,
we, it was very good experience for young people, a young person.
were qualified and experienced. I worked for one, one of those periods during Christmas ’37, sorry, Christmas ’34 with Victorian Railways Newport workshops. And I learnt a lot there, just getting practical experience, learning how to use drilling machines and planing machines and shaping machines
and slotting machines and lathes and I found that was of very great value later on when we were deciding something, to know what you decide was capable of being built. So that was really great experience. Another year with what was then, County Roads (UNCLEAR) and they had me for the first two or three weeks using what was called a mini mitter. It’s a device
for planning, balancing cut and fill, doing road construction. That was just simply repetitive stuff and I wasn’t very happy about that. And anyway, a former Queens College engineer, a bridge engineer, I said, “Look Mr. O’Donnell, isn’t there any chance of getting out on some bridges? I want to see something practical. I’ve managed that blasted mini mitter, I can do that in my dreams.”
So he said, “All right, I think that’s a fair question.” So then I had a series of work on a series of bridges and developed a great love, I’ve always had it as a small boy, as you know, as I mentioned earlier. So I was actually working on bridges for, and that again was very valuable experience to see pile drivers in action, to see concrete casting in action,
to see the use of cranes in action. And so it was a great, wonderful feeling.
and that he would establish the first School of Military Engineering. To which he invited twelve people, mainly graduate engineers from various parts of Australia. That school was established, first of all, in December, ’39, so I was a member of it. There were twelve of us,
today there are three of us. One who has serious polymyalgia, the other, he was a POW [Prisoner of War] captured in Crete, and the other one (UNCLEAR) had a stroke, he was captured in
Singapore and served on the Burma Railway, so did the other one.
So I’d had quite a bit of experience, even though, and that was rather fortuitous that the Commonwealth Oil Refineries decided to build a terminal in Hobart. And the project manager appointed was a Mr. Jock Webb who was about two or three years senior to me
at university. And then he decided to get married and went off to Japan and had an extended honeymoon. And so I was put in as acting project manager and nearly lost my job quite early in the piece. I had instructions to report to the Hadleys Hotel. It was a very nice old
hotel in Hobart. And these were my instructions from my chief engineer – (a) engage labour force to remove all rubbish from the site, and that was instruction (a). Instruction (b) investigate and advise on foundations required for all major structures. So
I did as I was bid. And the first people we employed were from, on the recommendation of one of his, Baldwin’s engineers, friends from First World War. So got these people together and started removing the rubbish and found that the rubbish just went down and down and down, and we found that, we went along to the local
council and found that we were building on what had previously been a rubbish dump for the city of Hobart. Then I went to the mines department and found that there was a layer of basalt about 35 feet below the surface. And so I put my first report in to the engineering chief, with reference to instruction (a) if we remove all rubbish from the site,
we well end up with five acres of water, average depth, 35 feet. So instruction (b) essential that all major structures be supported on end bearing piles founded on the basalt 35 feet down. A couple of days later I was called to Melbourne. He said, “Holland, I have great difficulty holding your job.” I said, “But why sir?” He said, “Well, it’s that report you wrote.” I said, “But
sir, those are the facts, that’s true.” He said, “Well, they might be the facts, but you weren’t very tactful, weren’t you aware that Mr. Robin Pugh, our general manager’s been working for five years to acquire that site and to be told he’d bought a rubbish dump didn’t please him at all. And I’ll show you what he thinks of you.” He opened up, I can see it now in bold red writing – “Impertinent young pup, what does he know
about this?” So Baldwin later said, “Look I accept what you’ve done is correct, we’ll just go ahead and we’ll plan accordingly.” Which he did. And then Jock Webb, the project manager, he decided to take a further period of his honeymoon, so they gave me this responsibility at 24.
And it was a wonderful experience to be responsible for that entire terminal, including working with a tanker berth, for tankers to come in. All these bulk oil tanks and pipe lines and pumps and distribution buildings and so I had that quite early, that was before the war.
which was really wonderful going at that time. And I also learnt a lot about leadership with that experience. Because the project was going so well that it was due for completion at Christmas and by November, it was going so well that I thought I wouldn’t work quite so hard and I eased
up a bit and spent some time playing some golf and cricket. And then I found that as soon as I eased up, the entire project eased up, so I had to revert to proper, down on site at half past seven in the morning and then there, all day till five o’clock at night. So it was jolly good experience from man management point of view. If you lead,
you’ve got to lead from the front, you’ve got to be seen.
rifle drill, lectures on tactics. And I can remember, that same Major McGillicutty, that first lecture of tactics, I remember how he summed it up on one occasion. He said, “If Gentlemen, you’ve made a military appreciation and have decided that the enemy has only
three possible avenues for attack, you may rest assured he will always find a fourth.” How true that was, Singapore of course, being a prime example.
Cairo and with the object of then going through the Balkans. Anyway, so my first appointment, strangely enough, was as a liaison officer between British troop headquarters, which were in Cairo, and 6th Division Headquarters in the Delta,
that is west of Alexandria. And I used to spend about three days in Cairo and four days in the 6th Div [Division] Engineer Headquarters. So I was building these defences. Then, well Val who was then GOC [General Officer Commanding]
in that part of the world decided that it was time to attack and with the seven armour division and started moving along the north part of Africa, through Egypt to Libya. And had to push the Italians back to [Sidi Barrani].
Then 6th Division, we were them moved up the desert to join the 7th Armoured Division for the attack on Bardia. And our role up there, well role, first of all, water was in a very short supply and we were down to one quart per man per day for everything.
And one of my first jobs up there was to having been in oil companies was to build a pipeline. It was the most Heath Robinson [crazily built] pipeline ever built by anyone anywhere in the world, I would claim. Because I had to build it from any kind of material I could scrounge from anywhere. And the idea was to barge water in from Alexandria to a place called Sollum then build
a pipeline up the escarpment up to the front line. And the pipeline consisted of fibre light, cast iron steel concrete. A most strange looking, strangest pipeline ever. And joints were quite of made, not having proper joining material, just blobs of concrete over the particular,
it might have been a change of diameter from twelve inch to six inch. Anyway, we built it and got water through it. And the Italians used to shell it every day and sometimes they’d hit it and we’d have to go out and repair it again. It was there that I had my first fatality. And that was, it was interesting.
A young man of about 24, the same age as me, oh no, I was a bit more then, I was 26. Anyway, he, I didn’t have any hard feelings against those Italian gunners, they were just doing the job they were directed to do, but it firmed my resolve, in the future to do anything I could
do, do get this jolly war over, I would do to the best of my ability. Just firmed my resolve somehow. Anyway, we got the water through.
one time, oh, a few years ago now, but one competitor organisation in the construction industry, at firm called Transfield, I had occasion to see the managing director, an Italian, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, a delightful man. And we had
some business to do, he’s a great philanthropist and very fond of art, and he had a great gallery for both photographic arts and sculptors. Anyhow, he has in the middle of it a little office suite where he conducts business with people whom he likes. Anyway, we finished our business and he said, “John, you must have some wine.” Well, I didn’t really want wine in the middle of the
afternoon but out of courtesy I did. He had an interest in a vineyard, he had an interest all over the place. I said, “Franco” - we were having our wine - I said, “How was it you came to Australia?” He said, “Well, John”, he said, “It was like this”, he said, “I had studied civil engineering at the University of Rome and then I decided I’d like a military career and I went through the military academy and I became
an engineer officer in the Italian army.” I said, “Well, you might have served under (UNCLEAR).” He said, “I did.” I said, “You might have even been in Libya.” He said, “I was in Libya.” I said, “You might have even been in Bardia.” He said, “I was in Bardia.” I said, “Franco, what was your job in Bardia and where was it?” He said, “Oh, I was laying the mine fields and building
the anti-tank ditches and the barbed wire and the pill boxes.” and, he said, “Up near Fort Capuzzo.” I said, “Oh, Franco that’s very interesting as it was my job to blow them up.” He said, “Good God.” And we shook hands. “You will come to dinner, we will fight the war all over again.” he said, “I have my old maps.” And we did. Fascinating experience, but I thought, you know, the utter futility of war. Here’s a thoroughly decent bloke
and at one time we were trying to kill each other.
very proud indeed. And I’ve been critical of the engineer curriculum, there’s not enough emphasis given, in my book, never has been given to some of the great achievers of the past. It brings more life to the profession. But they say to do all the things you want for the course
would add another year to it. I say, so be it, we’ll have better engineers, better rounded people. But Monash, of course, was the great. And you’ve probably heard of the Monash Awards, have you? They’re just coming into being which are meant to be the Australian version of the Rhodes scholarship.
She was still in first class passenger carrying capabilities. And I was shown a cabin, I had the privilege of meeting with one, who later became Sir John Overall, the first Chairman of the Australian National Development Commission and who also became the first CO [Commanding Officer] of the Australian parachute regiment.
And so we had great comfort on the Aquitania, and life was rather good. We arrived at Bombay, this was my first time outside Australia, I might add, and the plan there was to change into a small ship, the Orcades. They didn’t want to risk the Aquitania as we approach more war like waters.
So we changed ship at Bombay.
on the way I was absolutely appalled with the poverty and the stench and the dirt in Bombay, this was a great shock coming from pristine Melbourne or Sydney to this environment. And there was a woman carrying a dead baby in her arms seeking support, financial support.
And it was nauseating almost to me. And our host turned around in his car and said, “You know, I know exactly how you’re feeling right now”, we felt the same way, but it’s just part of the scene, everyone has to rationalise the situation and if one can’t accept living under these conditions, the best thing you can do is go home. He’d been a regular, you see, serving in Bombay,
regular army. And the rationalisation is really simple that life is a jolly sight better for the average person in this part of the world because of our presence than if we weren’t here. So we are making a positive, Britain is making a great positive contribution to the colonisation of India. So that was a shock. But then we sailed up
the, we had a trouble free run across from Bombay, a trouble free run up to the Red Sea where we disembarked at Port Suez. There was only just one air-raid warning, the system was innocuous as far as we were concerned, nothing really happened, didn’t see anything fall out of the sky. So we arrived there without any
But it was a great experience. And I’ll never forget, practically after every lunchtime the officers had their, and I suppose there were a couple of hundred officers on board, and we occupied the main saloon. There were two sittings for lunch
and every day after lunch there was a young man, I’ve forgotten his name now, and he’d move in to the, this bridge saloon. There would be absolute silence would descend, but prior to his arrival there’d be a great hubbub and noise and talk and chatter. He’d move over to the piano
and sat down and would play music that was mood music. It was music appropriate for a young man going off to the war, about which they knew nothing. And somehow, such sensitivity and selected such music that it was a wonderful experience. I was very envious of a young man who could do that,
day after day and a change of all this clubber and noise and chatter to absolute silence as soon as he walked into the room.
to, as a matter of fact we met at [El Kantara] by some representatives from 6th Division. And that was interesting too. We were first out of the train and had our first experience with a gulli-gulli man, the Egyptian slight of hand people. And they were absolutely brilliant, I had great admiration for them, still have, they were very, very skilled
with the old thimble and the pea trick and those kind of things. And then the post cards sellers, I can remember, this officer who met us had been there for some, he went over with the advance party and knew the ways of the Egyptians by then. And they all sold little trinkets and merchandise and filthy pictures. And on one occasion
as we arrived one of these gentlemen with a whole basket full of pornographic pictures, he came up, and they always promoted you one rank up so, “Monsieur, captain, you like to buy the filthy picture?” And here we were, we were just young fresh faced and didn’t know what a filthy picture was even. And I remember this rather mature officer, a captain, who was
rather impressed when I turned around to the gentleman selling the postcards and says “Take them away George, they’re not filthy enough.” So he thought there’s maturity from these kids, and we were kids really. And then up to Gaza, yes.
we were laying at that time, it was a geometrical pattern, we had military maps and you would just mark on that map a strip and so the mine fields could develop into, you could be at depth of, I suppose I’m guessing now, a hundred feet of mines. And steps right along the
perimeter of the defensive scheme, barb wire entanglements, of course and anti-tank ditches, ditches that are meant to stop the, to impede the progress of tanks.
fundamental because as I say they were down to one quart per man per day, and so water was absolutely critical. Then our role then was to breach enemy defences, so that our tanks and infantry could get through into the heart of Bardia. So it involved us in
going out on patrols at night, going into the enemy defences. Measuring up the anti-tank ditches and analysing the type of mine that we happened to come across and devising how to delouse those mines. Then the location of enemy,
identifying the location of enemy pill boxes for, you know machine gun attack, and then breaching the barb wire. So on the day just preceding the launch of the attack our role really can be summarised as saying, creating gaps in the enemy defences, so that the infantry and armament could get through.
So we went out and picked up the mines, deloused the mines, put markers down either side of tracks for the infantry and tanks to take, got into the tank ditches and blew up the tank ditches with methods that we had, that I described, perhaps earlier in this interview. Then
we did that, and we did a trial with the 7th Armoured Division prior to the attack. We tried out our system of drilling in holes into the side and using explosives.
only needed short sections of it. And then the traditional, blowing the wire gaps, the traditional, what’s called the Bangalore torpedo, which is a tube of explosives which you press through, push through under the wire, explode it and it creates gaps in the wire. In the actual event everything worked
very well but we were so naïve that at that time, I’d never seen tracer bullets, I’d never seen a tracer bullet fired before. And anyway, we were working on this, blowing up the tank ditch, preparation for it and there were streams of white things just whizzing buy and then I realised that
it was, it was tracer ammunition. I’d heard about it but never seen it. They were rotten shots anyway. So I got my troops (UNCLEAR), in the trench “Chaps get down, keep undercover you can complete your task here without any worry at all”. And they did.
The first time you were fired upon, can you recall what that sensation was like?
Well, the first time would be the shelling with the battalion we were building the pipeline, that was the first time. Well, they were dropping all round the place but most of them were missing by a mile. We only had that one fatality, they weren’t very accurate. So you felt,
you know, if there’s an attack on you get down and find some shelter, which you could in a depression or, it wasn’t really all that disturbing as long as one didn’t land right on you. And I suppose, what was interesting, I suppose when first of all, when the attack first started our artillery didn’t have the right range
and they were dropping, some of them would drop short, as they call them. Going the same way as we were and dropping, that wasn’t such a worry, I think it was the early ones coming from the other side, coming the other way.
But we didn’t have, well the patrols that I went on were, as a matter of fact, it was not very wise. We had, the first one was just three officers and two sergeants, and that was not a good thing to do. We were too vulnerable. And we could have achieved the same result with
two, we could have achieved the same result. Or perhaps three. You’re just exposing, unnecessarily exposing, but I think our OC felt at the time, you know, that he wanted to be sure of this and we might have to fight our way in, which we didn’t. We got in quite comfortably.
and we were - after the first attack, the first day, potentially we had to build. Our role was virtually over when we got the infantry attacks through the city. But we had prepared POW [Prisoner of War] pens in barb wire. And
the first morning after we had some thousand Italians in one of these pens. And we were camped right along, just on the other side of the fence and our cook was preparing breakfast when all of a sudden there was a stirring in amongst the prisoners and an Italian came
rushing over to the fence and he said to our cook, “Mr. Simpson, Mr. Simpson get me out of this place please, I do not like this war, you remember me, Antonio Ferassio, I was a preacher in Townsville.” I’m not quite sure
of that name now, but the incident certainly took place.
But we were on the fringe of some quite good, you know, around Derna some Italian, some of Mussolini’s developments. And they were really quite impressive. But at that time, I suppose, we played a lot of sport, any kind of game at all. There was
cricket and football and even soccer, we tried at the time. Played a, we thought we were becoming reasonably competent until we played a Wellington bomber squadron, and they killed us, and so we weren’t nearly as competent as we thought we might have been.
the desert is a good place in which to have it. You see, we were doing very little damage to private property. There was very little, oh, there was some damage in places like Tobruk and the port was bombed and damaged to some extent, but you felt, we’re not damaging - civilians really didn’t come into it.
The only time they did, well we would meet in the strangest places in the desert and turned up with eggs, which were always very welcome. So it was, you’d say, “Ekkas, ekkas.” And eggs would be produced. They would just appear out of the sand dunes sometimes when we were miles out from anywhere. But so, our impression was that
our losses at that time were reasonable, not unexpected. So, I can remember having a discussion about that with the chaps. Although we were dusty and dirty and there’s not much water to drink, if we have to have a war, this is the kind of place to have it.
And I still think that way.
was the longest stay we had anywhere, we might have been there for three or four weeks, at which, as I say, we played a lot of sport. Interrupted by one long reconnaissance journey into a place called Mechili to determine whether there was a short route for the 7th
Armoured Division to take through to Benghazi, and there was. So that was interesting, going straight out a couple of hundred miles into the, just straight into the desert. But it was, there was a
period of waiting, what’s going to happen next? There was this great apprehension. Rommel had just arrived, but we were never engaged with Rommel. The 9th Division took over from us, but we didn’t get any further than Benghazi. Then we were called back to, we met the
9th Division at (UNCLEAR), as they were going up we were going back in preparation for going to Greece. And we had a great party, they had some beer to drink, the 9th Division, and we were very glad to see them.
dust storms, of which there were several of course, and you couldn’t see more than five or six feet in front. And anyhow, one of my friends who was also in that first School of Military Engineering, he was with the 6th Division but we had a great (UNCLEAR) party with this beer, and he was quite a mathematician. And we both, there was nothing to write on,
so we were both solving differential equations in the dust on the floor of the tent. Anyway, by three o’clock in the morning the beer had run out and we’d solved our differential equations then it came time to go back to our respective lines. We got outside, you just couldn’t see at all and it was dark and this dust storm, he wanted to go in one direction,
I wanted to go in another. So in the end we stood back to back and he marched off, ultimately he must have got home, and I marched off, I got home to where I wanted to go. We didn’t see each other again until after the war. He was captured in Crete.
One aspect of this campaign which I’m wondering if you could comment on, is the fact that the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] got to Benghazi in great haste, I mean, the success, your success had been remarkable, and as I understand it, a lot of people felt that they could easily go on to Tripoli,
but that didn’t happen. Can you tell us about those decisions and how you felt about them at the time and perhaps later when maybe in hindsight you knew more things?
Well, we could have gone onto Tripoli, I believe, if Rommel hadn’t been there. By that time Rommel had arrived, and see, 9th Division took over from us
week, I think to Greece under the advance party, going over to Greece. By which time, of course, the Germans had still not declared war on Greece, at that time. But the Greeks were being threatened on the Albanian frontier from, by the Italians who were have a pretty bad time.
When the decision was made that, there had been much discussion of this decision, whether that was the right policy or whether it wasn’t, I don’t know. But we, at some time were regarded as being sacrificial lambs, but the rationale for the decision what that Russia was about to come into the war
and not quite ready. And a campaign in Greece was diverted and German armour, German fire power for a few weeks. They allegedly gave them, the Russians, another six weeks of preparation. So that was the rationale as it was explained to us.
Whether it was right or wrong, who knows? It was probably right. So we were, I was in the advance party into Greece and we were a party of six merchant ships and about, I don’t know how many, perhaps half a dozen
destroyers in the escort. And we planned that we’d leave Alexandria about four o’clock in the afternoon which would give us, as we expected then, a free run till darkness came and then we’d have at least a night to travel without any intervention by the German
Stukas and Messerschmitts. But how wrong we were. Of course, the place, Alexandria, was full of 5th Columnists and of course, they probably seen a ship at anchor, the message would get to the German air force. And we were only about an hour out, I suppose, when the first raid occurred. And so we were bombed heavily that night.
But I must say that the OC ship was the CO of the 2/11th Battalion, a great tactician and a great soldier, and his name I can’t remember. I never saw him again after that trip. But he organised us, the troops on
board, I suppose there might have been two hundred on board, and we all had, we had quite a few Bren guns and we had Bren guns all around the top deck. There was an Oerlikon gun on the stern and an Oerlikon gun on the bow and navy all round in the waters around about. And our CO
or OC, it was called the OC ship, he gave one demonstration of controlled fire power and we had every third bullet as a tracer, and so we had time and again your control fire until the Stuka comes
with his siren screaming, coming out of the sky and dive bombing. Till we saw this stream of fire just going out, it was really most impressive, and time and time again they would just veer off and wouldn’t come through it. But enough did get through, we were, the nearest things to us was -
it lifted the stern, a bomb that did get through lifted the stern out of the water, the engines and propellers were buzzing, but the greatest concern of that was it spilt the evening meal. It was a kind of a soup or a stew being prepared on the deck and it went skinning down the deck and we had very little to eat that night. Anyway, we,
I think all the ships were hit or damaged. That night nothing went down. And then the next day they started again early in the morning, just wave after wave of bombers and strafing and there were - two ships were on fire and went down
and in spite of the navy putting up a really good, you know, a really great display, a great fight. And then the next morning we were just about to arrive at Piraeus, a port in Greece, and we were up on deck and all of a sudden, looking down, there were two lines of bubbles, went past out bow. And there was a young
naval officer there who said, “Don’t worry chappies, they both missed.” These were torpedoes having a go at us.
the main body of troops, I think one of the most emotional experiences of my life was as we moved out of Athens to go to the front, the road was strewn with people and they were just throwing flowers, heaps of flowers onto the trucks of the troops as we moved out up to the front.
And so we went straight up to, what was then, we went up through Larissa, Collum Park, Trikala up to, almost up to the Italian border, where we immediately met up with the German armour. They had about, I think they had about twenty divisions.
I’ve heard these figures are somewhat flexible, but they had, including three panzer divisions. We had one Australian division, one New Zealand division and a few British regiments. They had the air full of Messerschmitts and Stukas, we had six Hurricanes to defend us. Of course, they didn’t last very long, sadly. But nothing,
we were just absolutely overwhelmed.
withdraw, start withdrawal as soon as we got up there. And there was a standard [Brallos] Pass, famous scene battles of history centuries ago. And that was a good defensive position. So our role again, as engineers, was to do demolition,
blowing up bridges and ammunition dumps and railway lines. We didn’t get time to lay many mine fields. Some of the other sections, companies might have. My company certainly didn’t. But we were very active on demolitions. And one railway bridge
south of [Brallos], we’d been advised that the last train had come through, and so we headed, it was quite a big bridge, and we headed, my troops - the ammunition truck actually on the railway track. And we had people up
in the steel truss ready, up in the girders, they were placing charges and setting the wires and fortunately we hadn’t got the detonators in. When all of a sudden someone said, “Hey, there’s a train coming around the corner.” And here was a great train coming, so I said, “Right chaps, get back the ammunition truck off if you can, if you’ve got time, and chaps, down on the ground.”
And anyway, the chaps got down from their elevated position. And the train came through, didn’t quite get the ammunition truck off, full of explosives, and she was just hit but she didn’t blow up. But she was badly damaged, we later had to abandon it. But if it had been five minutes later
the bridge would have gone, the train would have gone full of refugees and they would have gone. So it was a pretty interesting one.
And next charge would be what they call a pressure charge right across the middle of the bridge, but that would obstruct traffic, so we couldn’t do that. But there happened to be a Greek ammunition dump, ammunition explosive dump, just around the corner, which we were going to blow up anyway, and the 2/11th Battalion, the same battalion that I talked about on
the troop ship. So the infantry were getting a bit jittery, wanted something to do, so I decided, all right the way we’ll blow this bridge now, we’ll pack under the haunches, it was an arch bridge, under each of the haunches, we will stack that with so much explosives that the whole thing will certainly go. And we got the infantry as a carrying party, and how much explosive
we had there, I don’t know but it was an enormous amount. And anyway, we were using ammunition for tamping these charges round about. And it was a custom to hand over for the firing of bridge so that they’d be co-ordinated properly, in groups of about six. And this one came under the 56th Company Royal Engineers.
We’d prepared it and they were going to hand over to them to blow. And the Lieutenant Hood, great bloke, who won an MC [Military Cross] posthumously, and he had this one, this bridge to blow and he was killed that night. The next day I saw one of his sergeants and I said, “Sergeant, how did
that reinforced concrete bridge, how did that blow?” He said, “Well sir”, you know we had these dynamo exploders, he said, “Well sir, I took hold of the bloody handle, sir and pressed it down sir and there was a hell of a bloody row, and when I looked around the bloody bridge wasn’t there and neither was bloody hill.”
So it worked. That was our main role, destroying those, anything that could be of use to the enemy. And then we went. The withdrawal, it was decided to withdraw completely on, I think that might have been about Anzac Day, precise dates I don’t remember.
And then we headed south to cross the Corinth Canal, down to the Peloponnesian Peninsular to a place called Kalamata. And we had instructions to be, we were bivouacked all day under olive trees, they were great protection,
planes didn’t spot us, didn’t worry us much at all there. And then we were to be out at the end of a rickety little jetty at midnight, and so we were out on the jetty at midnight and sure enough a Royal Navy destroyer, the [HMS] Hero came along beside. And a very young commander threw a line off the bow and a line off the stern,
which I though might have pulled over the little jetty, it was such a rickety affair. And this young, he was a two and a half ringer but he looked very young, we only looked in his mid twenties, and a loud hailer from the bridge, “Righto chappies, come on board now will you?” With all the aplomb in the world as if he was taking us for a ride up the Thames in a ferry. So we then,
he put his foot on the accelerator and took us out to a regular troop ship, it was still nicely fitted out, and thing called the Dilwara. And we got my troops to bed and then I got, I’m ashamed to say but I was just so exhausted, I hadn’t had much sleep at all, I was filthy dirty and shown
to this beautifully clean cabin with white sheets, but I was so exhausted, I took off my boots and my jacket and didn’t even have a shower or a wash and just got into these beautiful sheets in the filthy dirty condition. Anyway, I was so exhausted, when I woke up in the morning we’d already been through three air-raids and I hadn’t heard a thing, not one.
So we then had arrived off Crete at Suda Bay and we arrived, we were very late getting off Greece and
quite a new one, I didn’t personally blow it but somebody else did. But to see it, I’ve seen it in its pristine state and then to see it as a heap of wreckage, you know, it left a horrible sinking feeling. What a terrible waste, what a disaster that something as beautiful as that should
be destroyed. But that’s war. And it was the logical thing to do, it was on a critical route, so it had to go. But the Germans didn’t attack Athens, there was some sense of sensitivity and control there obviously being exercised. Because when I was actually on the Acropolis
that night, it’s such a wonderful building. The Parthenon we had studied in architectural history in the engineering course, and I remember being so impressed by what I heard, learned then, then I just hoped that it would survive and it did.
And then when we were pulled out of Crete and Greece, we re-equipped back to Gaza or Hill 69, I think it was, re-equipped and I thought the troops took that incredibly well, that we lived to fight another day. And I can remember the army newspaper at the time,
published, I think it was Headlies Invictus. “Out of the night that covers me, black as a pit from pole to pole, I think of what the Gods maybe, for my incomparable soul, in the foul clutches of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud, under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbound, it matters not how straight the gait, how childhood punishment the scroll,
for I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” That went over very, very well in the army newspaper.
an interview with one up in the north part of Greece. But I didn’t know, when I say I’m sure, I think I was interviewing a 5th Columnist, which I thought about it later, I didn’t know I was at the time. This particular bloke was dressed in British Army uniform
and asked some question which I thought later were, I wanted to be helpful, but I was suspicious and I thought that the questions he asked me later on, what units were so-and-so or where they were. But he just seemed quite a decent kind of bloke. But I just became a bit hesitant
after the questions went on and on, so I didn’t, I don’t think he got much out of me.
I remember troops were spread about quite a bit, you know some lost their, got remote from their battalions. (UNCLEAR) two members of 2/21st Battalion, they became
astray, went astray and were holed up on the edge of a little Greek village and they knew that the Germans had occupied the village. Anyhow, they only had enough food for a couple of days and then they were running short and knowing that a lot of the Greeks, most of the Greeks were very friendly and wanted to help.
And these two, they just felt, they were desperate, they just had to have food and happened to approach a little farmhouse. And so they approached this farm house and they tossed a coin to see who should go and knock on the door and the other one would cover the situation with his rifle, and a dirty old Greek came to the door and the
soldier said, he didn’t know much Greek, but there were a few fundamentals that we all picked up, you know, “How are you?” “Good morning”. And anyhow, he looked into the room when the door was opened and there were some rather dirty looking people sitting at
a table eating eggs and bacon. He couldn’t hold himself any longer, he didn’t know enough Greek to ask for food, so he said what they used to do in the desert “Ekas, ekas, ekas” and one of the old dirty Greeks sitting at the table – “Ekas be buggered, who the hell are you?” “We’re from the 2/22nd Battalion.” So he got some eggs and bacon.
And it was a question of what was going to happen next, was really more important. Were we going to land in Crete or weren’t we, because we were late in the piece. And it just so happened that I also had two brothers and we were all within a few yards of each other and didn’t know it at the time. But my brother Trev, who was a captain with
2/7th Battalion and his ship, the Costa Rica, it was sunk at its moorings at Suda Bay and a lot of them went into the water including Trev, but they all got out, they all survived. And I had another brother, Brick, who’s now 93,
and he was with the 2/2nd Field Regiment, artillery. And they had taken up, they’d landed a couple of days before and they’d taken up position as infantry because they didn’t have any guns with them, they were all spiked back in Greece. And Trev who was with the 2/7th Battalion, after he got out of the water he was wet and soggy and very cold and happened to be
going up to the front line when he passed brother Brick in the 2nd Regiment. And Brick saw Trev looking pretty miserable, so he gave him a spare jumper that he had, he just gave him that as he went by up to the front. Anyway, they both got out and went on to fight another day. And I was
comfortably on my, well it wasn’t comfortable. A decision had to be made as to, it was the last day of Crete and we arrived late, whether there was going to be a withdrawal or not. And we were just a, sitting target there most of that day for, you know, German Stuka practice.
so that again in itself was very good experience and it gave me an opportunity also to get to know more people, to asses their capabilities. I found out, it was quite a revelation, there were some senior officers who, in my opinion, shouldn’t have been senior officers. And there were others, you know, juniors who were showing enormous potential.
So that again, was great experience in man management skills. So I enjoyed that. Played a lot of squash there at the French club and swam a lot in the lake. The water was so dense you felt you could just swim on forever without
any trouble at all. I’m not the greatest swimmer, but in that lake with that salty water, I went so far out one night that one of the local fellows, a sergeant was really worried, he thought, the boss has gone. But the boss came back.
relief on December 7th 1941, when Pearl Harbour, after Pearl Harbour, we knew then exactly where the Americans were and would be, we had an ally that we really wanted. And that came as a great relief to many of us, and I’ve been forever grateful for the American contribution they made to not only
Europe but the Pacific. And when people denigrate the American performance I vehemently critical of their role. Their marine division, the first time I came across them in Guadalcanal, the Solomon’s, they
did a magnificent job. And the Coral Sea battles, well who knows how many Japs would have come down to Australia had there not been the Coral Sea battle.
You reckon you could swim the last two hundred miles?
Well I reckoned I could get there somehow, how I don’t know. But anyway, that’s the feeling I had. And we landed at Perth without any trouble. Then we went around to Adelaide, disembarked in Adelaide. And my fiancé, how she ever got across to Adelaide
at that time, I don’t know, but she did. And you know, things were pretty grim, that was May ’42. The Japs knocking at the door and we didn’t know whether we were going straight to Darwin, and at one stage we didn’t know whether we were going to Java, we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a period of great uncertainty, that era.
Where were you when you heard about the fall of Singapore?
Oh, that was later, where was I then? At the School of Military Engineering in Casula at that time. Anyway, we arrived in Adelaide and a friend who was friendly with the
Bishop of St. Peters Cathedral, and he said to my then fiancé, he said, “Well look”, the plans were roughly put into place to be married at my old university college chapel. And he said, “Look, you might only get two or three days leave, why don’t you get married tomorrow?”
When my fiancé, she’d waited a couple of years and so why not. And he said, “I can arrange that for you through the lady chaplain at St. Peters Cathedral.” So the wedding guests, they were all army officers and their fiancés or friends or wives and we had about sixteen,
sixteen wedding guests. And the old Louis, a famous South Australian hotel, they say, hand out Louis, he used to be a great one for the tips. And he would organise the wedding reception, which he did, so we married the next day.
It’s a coincidence, I’m sure, but, you know, the war situation was pretty grim and I’d introduced an exercise in a salt river crossing and introduced realism into it, to give troops a feeling of what it was going to be like under fire.
And we had Bren guns firing into banks, we had explosive, gun cotton slabs being exploded to simulate artillery, and we had all kinds of obstacles these troops had to go through. And it made a lot of noise, and then they had to swim this river, make out of their ground sheet a little canoe and put your rifle and things in
and push it, swim across the river with it. And anyhow, it was alleged that my activities activated some of the air-raid warning systems on the east coast of New South Wales. And so anyway, I’m sure it’s a coincidence, not because of that but
two or three days later, on parade, I was called to, I’d been promoted to the rank of captain then, but I was recalled to Melbourne to report to the engineering chief. And I went in with some trepidation, thinking about my newly acquired, recently acquired rank was, mightn’t be staying with me for very long. Anyway, admit the, his [CI Chief Instructor]
and he said, “John, the chief wants to see you.” So I thought I was going to be sacked or something. And anyhow, I saluted very smartly and General Sir Clive Steel said, “Morning John, now a tour, you’re going to be seconded to SOE for six months, you’re going to leave on Monday for England
and what’s more, you’re going to be promoted to major too.” So I could have fallen through the floor. I didn’t know what SOE was. And I said, “What is SOE?” And he said, “Well I don’t know much about it either.” But he said, “They’re going to establish this for subversive operations activities in Australia for - follow the pattern of SOE, Subversive Operation Executive
in UK.” And so I had to go and report then to a Colonel Mott up in the main road. And that was an interesting experience. Oh, that’s right, and there were two sentries at the gate with bayonets fixed and I thought, what’s this all
about. And anyhow, I had a pass and I marched in and a Sergeant Samson sitting in the hall said, “The colonel wants to see you sir.” So I went up to see the colonel and saluted smartly and he said, “Holland, you’ll be leaving on Monday for United Kingdom and
you’ll be seconded to SOE for six months to learn every aspect of subversive operations.” He said, “Before you go, you’ll take a special oath to not repeat a word about SOE or SOA [Special Operations Australia] to anyone including your own wife and family.
So you’ll sign that now or you’ll be dismissed from this service, you won’t be required in this service.” So I signed that oath, I took a new oath and read it and signed it. And he said, “Sergeant Samson, have your tickets ready, you can pick them up as you go out,
and you can report back to me in six months times in this office.” There was not a stick of furniture in it except his desk and two chairs, it was eerie. So I was wondering what I was getting myself in, well I didn’t get myself into it. Most of the people that turned out in special force were volunteers and so I
was directed to be, they wanted someone who had actually mines and demolition experience. And I suppose, someone regarded as expendable.
No, I was the only one at that time, there were others sent later. So I was sent to train with twelve Czechs, twelve French, twelve Norwegians and twelve Brits, and I was one of the Brits, one of the twelve. And the role was to
study all aspects of those subversive operations, which are sabotage, development of resistance forces amongst indigenous populations and on occasions to gather intelligence for orthodox operations. So the trip over to do that, that was interesting.
I’d only flown about once before in my life, and that was on a DC2 [Douglas] going to Perth. Started off on a Liberator bomber from Amberley in Queensland, heavily laden, we had to take off. I was sitting in the bomb bay, on the catwalk in the bomb bay
and hoped they didn’t pull the wrong lever, then up to Lae and then from Lae to Guadalcanal, from Guadalcanal to the New Hebrides, a new airfield called Bland de Keyack [?], and we were just, we’d landed and refuelled and we were just about on the taxi way taking off,
ready to take off, and the front nose wheel gave way and down she came in a cloud of smoke, but we all got out, it didn’t go on fire. And I spent a week then waiting to get a flight through, but included in the lot on that plane was Admiral Nimitz, the Commander of the US 7th Fleet in the Pacific, at that time. And I wasn’t
really a poker player, but we played quite a lot of poker to fill in the time. He got out after a couple of days, he was all right with his rank. But the planes were just full of marines going back home on leave. Anyway, I hitchhiked with a US bomber, a B26, through Ellis Island to
Honolulu. And in Honolulu I was to report to Hickham Field, that was a great place to call, I’d never been there before, but I had my papers, my papers were fairly urgent papers, and I could get out, couldn’t get a plane out to San Francisco. And so I complained and they said, “Well, you’d better see colonel”,
I’ve forgotten his name now, colonel so-and-so who is in charge of transport up at Diamond Head, the headquarters. So I called in to see the colonel and I said, “Look colonel, these are my papers, they have a degree of urgency for me to first of all to
call at the Pentagon and then proceed to England.” And he said, “Major, how dare you criticise my decisions, I’ll decide when you go, when you leave this place, you won’t go before a minute before or a minute after, if you’ve got any complaints I suggest you see the British Consul.” Todd, that was the name. I said, “Well that’s
exactly what I’ll do.” So I went to the British Consul, and they said, “Oh we’ve had trouble with that fellow Todd before, he’s a damn nuisance.” He said, “Do you think your government would be prepared to pay for you to go first class fare on the (UNCLEAR) [Boeing] clipper to San Francisco?” I said, “Consul, I’m sure they would.” That night I was on a Boeing clipper, and it took seventeen hours at that time, but it had bunk
kind of bed to sleep in and all first class accommodation. It was so unreal. I was fairly happy in Honolulu but I still felt I had a duty to get on the trip.
in the air training scheme in Canada, I met him in London in 1942 in December, the first and only time I met him. And we had lunch at the Dorchester, then he was killed a year later on a raid over Mattersburg [?]. And the other one, the wing commander, he was killed in a Mosquito
bombing raid over Norway at a place called Abscoll [?]. So she was very service oriented and wanted to try to be a part of it herself. But she ended up, instead of driving aeroplanes she ended up driving a truck for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and was also at that time, a specialist as
an orthoptist and used to carry out tests, working with eye specialists, for aspiring young pilots. Some needed a correction of various aspects of eye sight.
my special operations one. I had some engineer duties. Had to do a liaison visit to a place called Fort Belvoir in Virginia, which was a US Engineer Training School. And there I learnt to speak in front of a big crowd. I was asked, I was talking to the Americans about
experiences in Greece and the desert, about mines and demolitions. And I was asked one day if I would mind saying a few words to a few of the boys. So I said, “I’ll be very happy to do that.” Thinking, a few of the boys might be 30 or 40. And a great hall adjacent to the mess, I was led in
and there in front of me were a thousand faces. And it was quite a shock. But anyway, I told them a few stories and got them laughing, well a couple I’ve told you today. And had them on side, and they were very interested and a very impressive lot of people. So then when we finished that duty, on the way to England, had the crossing of the Atlantic in the [HMS] Queen Elizabeth,
and that was without incident, although ships were going down in the Atlantic very rapidly, very frequently, at that time. But the three big ships, the Aquitania, the [HMS] Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, altogether, they shifted a million people across the Atlantic during the war, and didn’t lose one
person. I think the Queen Mary was torpedoed once in the bow, but repaired and went back on her duty. We were, the ships, we were escorted out of New York for about two hundred miles, then they relied on their own speed, a zig zag pattern, which made it difficult for submarines to get the proper alignment.
No, that was quite surprising. And that was not the practice at the time, they convoys were only going into port at the other end at Greenock. And we landed at Greenock and we didn’t have one incident on that trip, but certainly did on another one. And I knew things were pretty difficult food wise in the UK, and we disembarked at Greenock
then went into Glasgow Station for a troop train to London. And anyway, we were held up and decided we would have lunch before we start out. Lunch was bread and cheese sandwiches. Then the day went on, the evening went by, another announcement, a further delay, “We will be having
the evening meal before we take off.” Bread and cheese sandwiches. Then did take off in due course and called at Carlisle on the way down and had supper. Bread and cheese sandwiches. And then the next morning I arrived in London, I was met by an officer from the Australian military mission, who said, “Now look Major, we’ve got a busy program for you today, I
suggest we just go and have breakfast in the station here at Paddington, and then go about our business.” And breakfast, believe it or not, was bread and cheese sandwiches. All of this was fairly tough, but in fact it wasn’t as bad as that at all. Later on I was (UNCLEAR) for about a week in London at SOE headquarters.
Not domicile there, but working with SOE headquarters, being briefed on the various things I was going to do. And we stayed at a place called London House, which was an establishment for tertiary students studying in London from the Commonwealth, but it had been taken over then as an officers’ club. And that was all very comfortable. And then
Christmas Day I had in London and joined the air force, they have a favourite watering pub called The Codgers off Flinders Lane, near Australia House. That’s where I met a lot of the air force, this chap Charwood, I mentioned earlier, he can remember meeting me, I honestly,
we just, met very briefly anyway. But they were a great bunch of people, and looking around you knew that only very few of them would ever survive. That was rather worrying in a way, to know that such fine looking people would never have a proper life. But anyway, then we went up to Scotland
at a place called Arisaig, where we had a mixture of, I mentioned earlier, Norwegians, Czechs, French and Brits. And that’s one time in my life, when I came out of there, I can say I was reasonably fit. We did some climbing, kayaking, weapon training, pistol shooting, unarmed combat,
breaking and entry. There were really a wonderful lot of people, all volunteers.
it would cover really most aspects of SOE operations, so I was to be exposed to every kind of operation they had, and the technicalities that went with it. And particularly, the technicalities, that was, I guess my principle concern. So, but it included, you know, weaponry and
development of special devices for attacking tanks or aeroplanes or limpeting, kayaking, we did all those kind of things in the field at this place called Arisaig. But we never knew each other’s surnames. We only knew Christian names for security reasons. So how many of those people
came through the war, I don’t know, but I know a lot didn’t. But they were all volunteers and really splendid people.
it was kind of, some of it was based on some realistic exercises, you know crossing streams and climbing mountains and living in the cold and living in, unfortunately we would have liked to have lived in the heat but there wasn’t any. We paddled boats for miles and miles, we went
on route marches, we climbed mountains, we did pistol shooting every morning for about half an hour in the basement, and surprisingly became quite good at hitting a moving target, you can do that with surprising accuracy after a few weeks of doing the same thing day in day out. We did unarmed combat,
you found yourself wrestling with French or Czechs or somebody. So weapon training was quite a big part of that and physical fitness was a big part of it and living outdoors was a big part of it. And we got so fit you could virtually run up the side of a house.
Well, they had a particular house you could run up, there were things you just grabbed as you went up. Then after that the twelve of us were invited to go down to the 6th Airborne Division for parachute training. We qualified down there as paratroops.
Then we went to an intelligence school and learnt the arts of deception, intelligence gathering, communications and creation of false identities
and the printing of false passports and the printing of phoney currency.
for, oh, and small launches that used to go across the channel. And at that time I was there, they were preparing for raids, US raids on the northwest Africa. The first American landing, the first American division landed there under General Clark, I think it was. They were preparing for that. But I didn’t go on any raid across the channel.
Anyway, then came home. And that was interesting, crossing the Atlantic again in the Queen Elizabeth again, a journey expected to take five days. On the fifth morning I got up to go on deck expecting to see the sky line of New York and suddenly felt terribly cold, freezing
cold. And I look around, I couldn’t see the sky line of New York at all, couldn’t see a building at all. But there were icebergs everywhere. Found we were up north of Iceland and the German U-boats at that time were hunting in what they call wolf packs, of about eight submarines. And they were really after us. And it was strange
again, all this beauty, all these icebergs everywhere, lovely sea, the sea was a lovely colour, yet lurking beneath the surface was a few tinned fish trying to send up to the bottom. Anyway, in the end we came down the coast of Greenland and
we were running short of fuel, so the skipper had to make a dash for it and dashed for Newfoundland. And we got into St. John, Newfoundland, but instead of five days it was ten. And there were very few people on board going that way but going the other way, the first trip over, those ships were taking a complete American division at one time, 16,000 people on board.
And the troops were sleeping, what they call hot bunks, two people per bunk, one would have it for eight hours and another eight hours and so on. But we did all right as officers. There were still four majors in a single berth cabin, which took a bit of fitting in, but we got there. So anyway, back
here, back to Australia with a flight across the Pacific in a Liberator. In those days the flying was, very few navigational aids, they did have radar, but if you struck a storm you just had to fly through it, and so there were some fairly bouncy trips at parts of that. But anyway, we got here and
I reported back to Domain Road, see the Colonel Mott. And Colonel Mott had gone, and so a mystery, where, why, I didn’t know then and don’t know now. But he was replaced by one Colonel Chapman Walker who evidently did a very good job as a leader at Dunkirk, he’d been in Europe.
Then was chosen to head up this SOA operation, which later became known as SRD, Services Reconnaissance Department and Z Special, which was known, it’s not with the operating arm it was an administrative unit just tying together the various elements, which served in Z Special. And so
for administrative purposes, although the common perception is that it was the operating arm, but it wasn’t.
opposition in some quarters, which carried right through, some of them. And the same thing from the navy, the navy were very much against it early in the piece. Mainly, not on principle so much as they didn’t, the resources they had they needed and were reluctant to make them available to us. Their assessment with a cost benefit analysis, would mitigate against
us, but the whole thing - the navy changed their attitude very significantly after a mock raid carried out by our people on naval ships in Townsville Harbour. An operation called Moskeel, and led by my number two, a chap called Professor
Carey from Hobart. And he organised this attack on the navy and they penetrated the defensive barriers into the harbour and attached limpets to about six of Her Majesty’s Royal Australian Naval vessels. And so after that the navy realised,
you know, there was no escape. Also, coupled with the fact, the navy were very conscious of the raid by Italian frogmen, successfully, on the battle ship, the Queen Elizabeth in Alexandria Harbour, on one occasion. So those things added together changed navel support from being opposed to being supportive.
knew anything about any operation were people who had some specific relationship with it, some responsibility. So it was not widely talked about. But the directorate were, of course, they were informed. And the directorate, the organisation structure, really, it was somewhat fluid, but for most of its time there was a directorate with the
commandant, that was Chapman Walker. There was a director of operations and planning, a Major Jock Campbell from the King’s [Own] Scottish [Borderers]. There was a director of intelligence, he was a naval officer. There was a director of training, he was an infantry
officer. There was a director of communications who was again, an army officer. And there was me, as director of technological services. So we formed a directorate, we would be all informed about, well most things that went on. But there was some things that even I didn’t know about, there were
So they paddled into Townsville Harbour in their kayaks, which were, and Townsville Harbour was mined?
Townsville Harbour had defences, I think they had a net for small submarines and they were able to get around or through that, and then attached their limpets to these ships. And limpetry was part of the technology with which we trained out people. Well, the people that
were destined to carry out that kind of operation. It was a simple technique, but with the limpets being an explosive charge on the end of a rod, but the important aspect of the technique was to, it was a magnetic attachment that lowered down on the rod gently, so that it didn’t make a clanking sound
on the side of the ship. That was the art really in limpetry. Then of course, you’d have a time delay for detonation.
What happened to Carey after this raid, because I should imagine it caused some consternation?
Oh it did. Oh, he went on doing good things. But it certainly untied the shackles with the navy. We had very good support from the navy after that particular event. But he was quite, again, a naval parachutist and he was
also a, what’s the word, he was a geologist, my profession of speleology, cave dwelling and he developed techniques for living in caves in, particularly, limestone country and devised methods for
light weight ladders that could be flung down a cave and with parachute silk cords for ladder and duralumin rungs. And he’d roll up a pretty long ladder in a very short space, so it could be dropped with parachuting equipment.
But we had to have our operations approved again, by the director of military intelligence and Blamey himself took a great interest in all those operations which were undertaken. In total, I think about eighty one operations were in fact carried out. But we had, as the directorate,
we had to make a risk benefit analysis for each operation that came up. Some were quite hair brained, others were quite brilliant, a lot of them very brave, a lot of them very political. For instance, the operations in Borneo were very, the objectives there were twofold, one was to carry out operations, which would
benefit the establishment of a British presence there immediately after the war. Borneo had been very much part of the Commonwealth at that time, and the second role there was to develop a resistance organisation in areas where the natives were not only friendly, but very - really welcomed us. They’d had a very bad time with the Japanese. And so they cooperated
very well, particularly the Dyaks in particular. So that was kind of a political motive and then the third objective was gathering intelligence from behind enemy lines.
And on one occasion I went over there and called for volunteers. Told them what our objectives were and what kind of operations and spoke to these people for about half an hour and called for volunteers. And names were shooting up all over the place because, the point was there was no role for the
parachute regiment in the foreseeable future at that time. So quite a lot came from there. Then again, a similar situation with the Australian armoured regiment in Western Australia. Again they were well trained, well disciplined and itching to participate somewhere. And we had a lot of volunteers
came from there too. So they were two of our principle sources. And then the message got around about the raid on Singapore Harbour, the (UNCLEAR) raid. That did get a bit of publicity and a lot of people just turned up and wanted to join. So that’s how most of them came. But they were all volunteers with the exception
of me, and I was just pitch forked into it.
prepared to take on these unorthodox tasks, where themselves, were rather unorthodox people. And some you would say were temperamental, all of them were brave, all of them were prepared to take a risk, but some of them could have what I would regard
as personality tantrums, that was always possible and it did happen. Then again, I suppose, we were talking about personal relationships, and again, they were very complex relationships between, say, Australians and MacArthur’s
staff. Between Chapman Walker, who was very, very English in his ways, and came from a fairly aristocratic, comfortable kind of life style, perhaps didn’t go over too well with the rougher ordinary Australians like, some of the Australians, I’m going to say like one,
but I won’t. And it probably wasn’t easy for him early in the piece having his, because there were other Australians who felt, look I could do that job better. There was always that, I suppose, there were people that could even say they could do your job better than you do it.
So they were difficult, some of them. And occasionally, although my formal role was director of technological services, I was called upon because of the general knowledge that I had of the people that I knew, being born here, brought up
here, I was called on at times to go and talk to certain people to persuade somebody to, if it was an aircraft or a Catalina or a Liberator, get it from the navy, similar kinds, if we wanted particular help. So I suppose an Australian talking to an Australian
in a senior place has a, really, a better chance of success than perhaps an American or a Brit. That’s with some people, but others are a very easy relationship. I was very happy with some of the allied intelligent bureau people, I got on really quite well, the Americans, didn’t have any trouble at all, had great regard for them.
one time there was a problem in Darwin, there was an operation in Darwin, in Timor, not going well and I was sent up under the command of a British officer, and I was sent up to
sort out some of the problems. Some of the operatives were, well they were gay, happy, strong young men and playful and they needed a little discipline, and they got it, and we ended up quite happily. So there were those kind of occasions that, you know, troops just
behave in a rambunctious manner.
What sort of criteria do you use to assess the success of an operation?
Well, the sabotage is quite physical evidence. In Singapore Harbour six ships were actually sunk and there would be photographs to support that success. The intelligence, well the raid, for instance,
landing on Lombok Strait, the task was to determine the strengths of the enemy position, what defensive equipment they had. Well the information brought out, brought to life, was very useful information, so a success. The landings in [Sarawek] and the development of the resistance organisation
there, where I think, we developed a force which included training and supply and about, just under 2,000 people, Dyaks, and they knocked off about 1,500 Japanese and harassed the
enemy on various occasions, a success.
I’m sure he wouldn’t say it unless he had a lot of evidence to support that kind of statement. But no, our operations were, I would say that operations such as the Jaywick raid in Singapore Harbour, the psychological impact which that made on the Japanese, I don’t know how you could measure it, it would have been great loss of face to think
that this major port could be penetrated by a small group of people. The loss of shipping was 40,000 tons, that was worthwhile, but I think the psychological impact would have been greater. So that would have played a very important role. And I think, again, the contributions in Borneo, again, were, it’s a valuable contribution
to the war, there’s no question about that. But to think that, I don’t think the war would have ended any sooner because of the success we had in Borneo. It would have contributed but I think it was brought about by the dropping of those two big bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And we were all delighted when it happened. But I do know that, you know, at the end of the war we had a splendid well trained brave group of young people who were prepared to take very significant risks in the belief that their contributions would be
of extreme value to winning the war. And I still hold that opinion that they were, they were really a great bunch of people.
And I also found that, I was sent overseas in 1944, again, do you remember the Australian Army had the practice of sending observers over to Europe to study various aspects of warfare in Europe. And I was sent over as the observer for special operations
and met a lot of people and spent some time in Europe. Met some of the operatives, in particular the French and had talks with, again, the Supreme Headquarters in Brussels and I came to the conclusion from a technological point of view, we were really -
our technical devices and equipment were really state of the art, we were really right up top and did quite a lot of things which were quite new, which were more relevant to our area. For instance, converting a rotor aircraft to, for parachute
jumping. That was again one of our tasks that came under my wing. I found the, they had different problems in Europe - they were not so much technical. Again, all the technical devices and equipment seemed to work well, but their problems were getting access to targets and
reprisals by the enemy on innocent villages. So they had a different set of problems from we had out here. But technically, we were as well advanced as anywhere.
involved in hazardous activities or subversive campaigns, they were all just seemed to be trained to take those, accept those circumstances of which they were confronted. And none of them needed counselling or having any psychological
problems. And I believe, in Vietnam, I believe it’s different, so I don’t know enough about it, I can’t comment. But a lot of us old soldiers of my generation, I think we seemed to have a different attitude. We didn’t like war but we had to put up with the challengers, which we were confronted and expected to
meet those challengers in a strong and manly way.
when I lost my first bloke, I think I told you earlier, that it just firmed my resolution to do what I had to do and do it as well as I could. And I can’t say that I was, I’d like to think I wasn’t stressed, you know, you’ve
concern for the safety of the people for whom I was responsible, but I don’t know whether I let that be stressful. Or am I splitting words there, stressful and concern.
But we did send people back from the Middle East who, it was called anxiety neurosis, and there were some of those people who just could not take more. I didn’t criticise them, but they were not psychologically able to adjust to
I was a director and spoke vehemently against it because of what I’d read from various books and so on, it’s crazy thing to go back to the same destination where you’ve achieved a success, achieved a previous success, because they’ll be on the look out for you, waiting for you,
for sure. And of course, that’s what happened this time with Rimau. But the higher commander said the operation was to go on. So my voice, it wasn’t the only one I might add, it was opposed to it. But we had to make those decisions, yes. Well, every operation was considered on a risk benefit
basis, a risk benefit analysis.
And the role was there were three main objectives of that operation, of the operation in Borneo, a group called the Semut Operations, as a group. And they, the objectives were first of all to ensure and establish a British presence in
Borneo when the war was over. It was obviously, it had very commercial significance with Shell and I suppose timber in particular. And the British Colonial Service was well established there, and the next objective was to develop a
resistance organisation behind, to operate behind enemy lines. And the third objective was to gather intelligence for more orthodox landings at Balikpapan and Tarakan
where 9th Division landed and in Balikpapan where the 7th Division landed. So those are the objectives. And we had leaders for that operation, principally there was a chap called Harrison who had
been in that area before the war, so he had local knowledge and could speak the language. It was he who assembled the Dyaks, organised to bring in other operatives from Australia to train them in warfare, particularly the art of ambush
and he was then supported by, well we built that force up mainly with the Dyaks who were head hunters. And there was many stories told about them, but they’d received brutal treatment from the Japanese during the
period, early periods of the Japanese occupation. And the story has it that on one occasion, to seek retribution, they persuaded, I think it was supposed to be 23 attractive young ladies to take off their cloths and swim in an
adjacent lake, which they allegedly did. And the Japanese not being aware thought, ah hah, we’re going to have some fun and games here. And rushed down to the water’s edge, and on the way, they were not aware that an ambush had been laid for them. The Japs were all shot, or executed. And that night
they took, I think it was 23 heads, to the celebration dinner. And our people had to, in spite of intense feelings of nausea, had to attend this ceremony where the heads were actually on display. But anyway, they put up with it. And the Dyaks were
great people, and of course they had this famous blow pipe which they could pick off a target, well I think it had to be fairly close, you know, thirty or forty yards, but with great accuracy could knock off the Japanese. So that series of operations and support by another series called the, based on a series of small ships called
The Black Snake and the Rattle Snake and some other snake. And they had the ability to penetrate the rivers and from the east side of Borneo. And they were the Semut series of ops. And they again had that role of arming, ambushing and
supplying and training these troops. So there was quite a good book on that subject, on the Semut Operations
came out as a planning officer originally from UK, he’d been with SOE over there. And he came out and did a very good job as I think strengthened the planning side of it very significantly. And then of course, the other one was Campbell, he was
director of operations, and he had a very significant role, from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. The challengers they met apart from the Japanese, were first of all mountainous terrain, some of the mountains, I’ve forgotten the name now, was about fourteen thousand feet.
Flying around that in a Liberator trying to find, often shrouded in mist, and trying to find dropping zones, which were safe, that was really quite a challenge. And we lost, I think two Liberators on those particular operations.
open water for a Cat to come in and land. And so the supply situation, the supply chain was greatly strengthened when that was available. So they were tough operators. And scrub typhus was another constant challenge. And so the medical side was,
again, always a problem. But I think in total, the figure I mentioned earlier about, I think it was the best part of 2,000 Japanese, were killed, 1,800 to 2,000. We had a force of about 1,500 including about 30 operatives from Australia. There were about thirty natives
killed and about, and we didn’t lose any white Australians in that series of operations.
or were able to get these small river boats, the Snake-series of boats, they brought out quite a few. A lot found their way out of Balikpapan, some came out by normal air services from, well from Balikpapan. But how many were in there at the end, I don’t know.
My last appointment was, actually, as OC of - all the technical side had well and truly finished. I was commander of group D Operations, which was going to be operations in Sumatra and the Celebes and Morotai, not Morotai,
what’s the islands further south? And at that time transport was readily available, I could call on submarines, Catalinas, motor torpedo boats for what we wanted. In some ways, it was a bit of a disappointment the war was over, because we had at last had access for transport, which had been a bugbear throughout the entire history
Falcon. And the plan was to attack on the one night, instead of going on the Rimau Operation, to attack on the one night thirteen ports around the south west Pacific, and to attack them all simultaneously on the one night. We got as far as having
preliminary approval for it, we had the equipment, we had the trained people and we were ready to go when it was cancelled by higher command on the grounds that there was going to be a final push north and all available transport was going to be concentrated in
other activities. That was a great disappointment to us but it possibly could have been the right decision, no one will ever know. And at that stage it may not have been necessary anyway, the war would have ended without Falcon. But it was very disappointing to
people that had trained so assiduously and prepared to risk their lives, and it would have been a very exciting kind of operation to be part of.
for access to submarines, Catalinas and to surface craft which I knew I could rely on, which would be available specifically for operations, which I was responsible. Instead of this having to, when each
new operation cropped up, having to go and beg for the transport which was fundamental to our success. But that was one of the biggest problems. The second one, I would have in my staff appointments, I would have appointed
people who had the personal qualities to develop very close relationships with the Americans and senior members of the orthodox forces.
as in orthodox warfare, there are, you know, there are triumphs, there are disasters. There are brilliant successes and there are gross mistakes which we made and lives have been lost. And so it was
in Special Operations, there were mistakes and there were loses in human life. Again, there were also successes. But how you can really balance the two, I don’t know. If you’re having a continuous stream of losses, then of course, you chop that kind of operation out all together. And on the other hand, if you’re having a string of success, you
support the success. But I do know that at the end of the war in Z Special Unit, they were a great group of courageous young men who were prepared to offer their, risk their lives for these incredible challengers.
I’m just thinking, it sounds, you talked about having to, you know, get up at three in the morning and get on a plane and go somewhere, it sounds like exhausting and stressful work.
I’d say demanding, yes, but I always tried to keep fit. You had to be fit. And you might be off to, say, a school where you established at Cairns and another school at Fraser Island, and you’d be paddling kayaks around for
what seemed like miles, it probably wasn’t, but we certainly went for some quite long paddles. And I think you had to be fit to, I think, to command respect from the people you were working with. Not had to be, wanted to be.
You mentioned establishing schools, training schools at
Fraser Island and Cairns, I’m interested if you can reflect on the arc of your experience of the war beginning with yourself as a student at the engineering school, then moving to becoming a teacher at the British School of Engineering in the Middle East and then being responsible for establishing the schools?
What was important to you in terms of training and pedagogical practice, if I can put it in those terms?
Well, in view of the kind of operations, which we were associated, physical fitness was very, a fundamental requirement, we just had to have fit
people. Again we needed disciplined people, we needed people who could withstand a rigorous challenge, and so we challenged them with these schools, with these long journeys in kayaks and mountaineering and
overcoming obstacles, again, training in weaponry was important and training in demolitions, training in mines, perhaps laying mines and mine fields. And communications, again,
was a vital part of the training process.
my approach was quite authoritarian, I suppose. I’d say, “Now look chaps, this is what we’re going to do, whether you like it or not. Now if anyone’s got any objections, let me hear them now, but I’m doing it for this and this and this reason, this is the way we’ll approach this particular problem. If anyone’s got a better way,
let him speak up.” That was my style, and it seemed to go over quite well. And I always believed in always introducing some humour somewhere along the line, keeping people laughing, if people laugh, they’re happy, if they’re happy, they’ll absorb.
and then you would think about what you’re going to do after the war. And I conceived the idea of forming an engineering construction group, had that idea in the Western Desert, and thought I could staff it, the plan envisaged staffing it with proven young engineer officers as executives and NCOs,
Non Commissioned Officers, as foremen, general foremen. That was the plan and it was ultimately implemented. And not only did we have members of the Royal Australian Engineers but service people such as the company secretary was a radio officer on HMAS Australia. And one of our early project managers was a former fighter pilot.
But they were trained proven people and that gave us a wonderful start in commercial life.
at that time we were really inviting people and it was once said, which wasn’t quite true, but it was said around the town, you’re wasting your time applying for a job with John Holland unless you have a first class honours degree, a commission of services and you played cricket. Well, I really wasn’t
quite like that. But we did find enough, we had enough contacts in those early days for (UNCLEAR) servicemen, they practically all were, but no, if I found someone who was a competent engineer and had the other qualities, we had quite a lot of course. And some of them didn’t even play cricket.
and the two officers senior to me were both killed during the war. And so I knew they’d be short of staff, senior staff and the third reason was I felt I didn’t have, six years and I had no commercial skills or experience whatsoever. So I wanted to get those experiences from COR [Commonwealth Oil Refineries] and I [wanted] to give
too. Return some of the support that I had had. So that delayed that till 1949 when we first started, that was the year I chose to establish John Holland. And I went along before hand to sound out, to get some advice from people I respected
including Major General Sir Clive Steel, told him what I thought of doing and Sir Clive, his reply was, “What the bloody hell are you waiting for my boy, get out there and get cracking.” I only wanted his advice but also had wonderful support. And the opportunities just flowed in, we had a wonderful run. And throughout industry and throughout public service again,
so many of the people in senior places had served in Royal Australian Engineers, so we had very good contacts. Sir Clive also gave an appreciation dinner early after the war to say thank you to officers who had served with him. And said, “There are some people that say one should never do business with friends”. With that
statement, I heartily disagree. There are friends who are best sources of contact. By all means do business with friend but for God’s sake, never let them down.” Which is very good advice of course. And he knew, and projects, I didn’t ask for any help, but came our way. And you obviously just bend over backwards to ensure that they were successful.
when a somewhat rambunctious general foreman, on a rigging project, had an altercation with a rigger and they were both in the wrong and the rambunctious foreman knocked the rigger off a stay
on a major cable structure, and he fell to the ground. But they were both former service people, I suppose. One was a former navy rigger and the general foreman, he was an army type, but a very forthright bloke who -
I think his action caused a certain amount of displeasure with our client. But apart from that, no, they worked together incredibly well.
produce unshakable friendships, I made so many friends in the services, that it was important to me and my family to enjoy those associations. And it’s very interesting now, people like Joe Jopling from the 2/2nd Field Company Association, for so many of those members of that association, their entire
social lives have been planned around that, the people that met in that association. Whereas, those of us in a more senior, the executive group of the community, we have, you know, other opportunities for wider associations. And it was important for me from a sporting point of view too, we played a series of cricket matches for about 25 or
30 years, between engineers, artillery and infantry. And we developed a team called The Glorious International Sappers and we went to England and played a series of matches against Royal Engineers in England. Three test matches, won one, lost one, drew one. And then played so many social so called, this was social too really, at
Oxford University and the founder of the air force. So we’ve had wonderful associations with those service people. But of that lot there are now only two of us left out of all that lot. They’ve been dying pretty rapidly in all services. So it has been enormously
socially attractive and very much acceptable to our respective families.
which I had, my academic performance was pretty ordinary but it looked as if my qualifications were favourable, that I could have gained a place, in which I would have loved to have done. So the war deprived me of that. I didn’t see that great place till I’d been whizzing through it, but never had a close look at things like
King’s College Chapel, that wonderful fan place, the (UNCLEAR) in the ceiling. I did spend a weekend there during the war, but would have loved to have gone back there, been a student there. So that was a (UNCLEAR). The man management skills that one required during the war, were of great assistance to me
in leading a company. The contacts that were made during that war were again very, made a positive contribution to the success of the JH Group in creating opportunities. The overcoming of challengers which were imposed during the war,
it’s certainly a great boost to confidence, and you feel that you can cope with anything that comes, you feel you can cope with it. So the negative, and of course, the other negative of course was the hardship to
my family, my mother and brothers and sisters, and of course, to my wife and her family. The anguish that they had was a great negative. And I think they had more. The mystery and the uncertainty, you know, whether they’d be a telephone call or a message at any time, they had six years
of that. And my association, exposed to hazards, really hazards, hot hazards would be only a fraction of the six years. So I was probably, might have been playing cricket somewhere and they think I’m probably being shot at. Of course, if there was any action from 6th Division they assumed that we’d be in it. I suppose we were, but
so, I’ve forgotten what you were going to ask me now. I think, what is the balance? Well put it this way, I certainly don’t want another war. War to me is abhorrent
and I thought that when Australian troops went into Timor, I had a grandson that was older then than I was when I first set out to the Middle East. And I was very concerned that might spread near towards Indonesia, which I wouldn’t want. And I don’t want it, don’t like it
in spite of the, I suppose, the positive advantages which it brought my way.
about things, that you had to hide certain parts of your activity from scrutiny by other people, do you think that had any effect on your emotional make up?
I don’t think so. I think I was able to just turn it off. The same as I always had a philosophy in commercial life, that if there was a problem, and there were a few problems on the way I can assure you, that I felt that as long as I had done what I felt I should have done, I could turn it off and sleep at night.
And if you couldn’t do that, you shouldn’t be in this kind of business I’ve been in. So I was able to turn that off or I’d put that away in a compartment somewhere and open the door at an appropriate time. My grandchildren are now quite interested in what went on.
I’m rather glad about. Which I think I might have mentioned, perhaps not in this interview, but I was kind of propelled into history, I was always interested in history, but I don’t regard myself as an historian. But then when I became involved I thought, what a pity so many people are missing so much by not being aware of so much
fascinating history that we have. In fact I’m going next, I think, the Queen’s Birthday weekend, going over to Sydney for an historical occasion, the bicentenary of the completion of Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia. There’s a day on the harbour, and I’m invited because of
my association with the Flinders bicentenary functions, the bicentenary of his birth in ’74. And so I think there is a greater awareness, not only of military history, I was looking along the, as we went to the Anzac march the other day, I was - one thing that impressed me
was the number of dark skinned people along the track, and I thought that was great. Showing how we’re integrated, there’s an integration process into a true multi-national society is very much with us. These people again are Australians and they’re now interested in military history or they wouldn’t be there. And lots of children there.
I don’t like them in the march, but I like them being there. They bugger up the march, the march is not really a march but a shuffle. But I understand the spirit, and I want to encourage them to come. But I’d like little enclaves of children. But yes, I think there is a much greater awareness.
Do you think that there is any danger in the way that Anzac is made alive by speakers, politicians?
Well I don’t know the politicians closely enough. Of course, there are very few politicians who are ex-servicemen, particularly World War II. I suppose I don’t know any World War II, there might be. But I don’t think
they really have that much influence. But I think that the commemoration services at Anzac Cove, well I haven’t been there, I’ve only been passed it, I haven’t actually landed properly. That’s most impressive. I like the dawn
service which is run in Melbourne with Tony Charlton, who is absolutely brilliant. And the spirit about that, you can feel it as you march along the street, there is definitely a great respect, I think, for those who served in World War II and now Vietnam.
are more interested perhaps that your children were in the period as much as in your own experiences. If you’re talking to them about the war, do you feel it’s important to paint a full picture? I mean, do you tell them the highs and the lows or do you give them an edited version?
It’s an edited version, I don’t want to emphasise the horrors of war, I don’t want them to visualise some of the scenes of devastation of which I became well aware. I want them to
visualise a world, well the world that we envisaged when we graduated in 1936. Now whether it was the idealism of youth or the amount of red wine we had that night which we weren’t accustomed, but the consensus was about, several disciplines, a few of us from the same university college,
had a celebratory dinner. And the consensus was that by the time we reached sixty and people graduating from other universities around the world reached sixty, that most of the problems of the world would be solved. There’d be shelter, they’d be peace, they’d be security, they’d be plenty for everyone. Well, we had that ideal that night,
now all those people, those that I can remember anyway, that were there, all held responsible positions and have been positive contributors yet the world’s in this terrible mess that we’re in today. It’s rather sad, but I think one still has to have, it’s sad if one can’t have ideals to achieve.
And so it’s, I suppose manifested in my case, I suppose, in, after we became established, first of all with the Legacy, I was looking after, I had about five families to look after. Four of them charming and competent, one an absolute horror. And
would ring me up at all kinds of hours and that worried my wife greatly, she said, “You know, you’re spending more time with Mrs. Irvine’s family than you are with your own.” So that was probably true. But Legacy, again, is a wonderful organisation and it does give care. And in the engineering world, I suppose, I
was the founding president of the Civil Engineering Contracted Association and became a life member of that, served with it for some years. And the institution of engineers, I became a winner of the award called, the highest award the
institution gives, the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Award. And the Melbourne University Medal, associated with that for many years. Then I became involved with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust
as a foundation member of what was called the Operation G. And this was a group of citizens who were invited to prepare for the appeal when Sir Winston died, to take advantage of the euphoria of the moment.
became Victorian chairman and national director and still am a patron of that, it still goes on, a very happy association, a great lot of people. And the Queen Elizabeth Trust, I was a foundation member of that and became the joint chairman and then I was a so called distinguished life member, they had a classification,
and that’s now amalgamated with, it was a trust established for a finite period of 25 years originally, and it was doing so well it was decided that, as distinct, Churchill was a trust in perpetuity, then decided there should be an amalgamation with the Australian Foundation of Youth.
And that foundation is now worth about 50 million, and still very active, and I’m a patron of that. The Churchill Trust is also worth, it went from about 5 million to 50 million and sends about 50 people overseas each year. Then became involved in Matthew Flinders
bicentenary of his birth, and that lead to other historical activities such as a series based on wrecks on the south coast, the focal point being the wreck of the Lockhart. I was chairman of that and then chairman of La Trobe, the birth of La Trobe in ’75. Then Marcus
Clark, CJ Dennis, we had various functions to celebrate those occasions or commemorations. And they were run through an organisation known as the History Advisory Council of Victoria, the purpose of which were to identify significant historical events and make recommendations
to the premier as to which ones ought to be celebrated or commemorated, and how, when, where and by whom and what it would cost. And we did a series of those until a change of government with Mr. Cain came into office and he decided it would run through
one of the government departments because they didn’t need support of private enterprise, but they’ve hardly done anything ever since, which is a pity. So many major events have gone by virtually unnoticed, which is a pity. And then on the medical side, I became involved with I was on the board of Melbourne hospital, Royal Melbourne Hospital for about 16
years. And then caught up with the founding president of The National Stroke Foundation, doing a stroke research and treatment. Then the Mental Health Foundation, the Bone Marrow Donor Institute
She’s a wonderful girl. She started doing, demonstrating her sense of compassion when she was at school somewhere north of Melbourne, where she used to share her lunch with kids that didn’t have a proper lunch. And at twenty-three she was on the streets of Calcutta with Mother Theresa. And a couple of years later she was in Brooklyn giving, assisting with the
lives of HIV [Human Immunodeficiency Virus] infected babes of single mothers. She was caught up in a gun battle over there, she wasn’t the target, but she and a friend happened to be crossing a particular bridge and two gangs were having pot shots at each other. And so at an interview for Dunlop Memorial Award, I asked her,
“Were you at all nervous, Moira?” “Oh, no, Sir John, I wasn’t at all nervous, my friend and I, we knew God would look after us because we’re doing good things.” That’s the wonderful faith that she’s got. And she’d established a home for children up at Kilmore. Land donated by Rotary and a lot of work done by Rotary. And they bring in children from
overseas, from third world countries who need medical treatment, which is not available in their home cities, in the home country. Brings them out, organises medical treatment.
there’s no doubt, there’s a marked difference in attitude to patriotism amongst my generation and probably yours and those that who are younger still. But I don’t think that, generally, we are a very patriotic nation. And I think it’s a pity. We have something which we should be terribly proud and we should be telling the world that we’re proud of what
we’ve got and the part we want to play in our world. I was never so impressed with patriotism, when on one occasion travelling around the Baltic, we called int, the ship, to a place called Gdynia in Poland and we struck a festival day the next day. Now everything around about was grey and drab and dreary, including the weather,
but on this great day of celebration, practically every second window, there was a Polish flag and you could feel that sense of patriotism that existed. They didn’t have much to celebrate at all right at that time, this would be about twenty, twenty-five years ago. But the sense of patriotism. And I can remember, on an Intourist bus,
there was a very articulate young conductor on this bus and he was asked a question by an American, he said, “I say, is there any improvement in the standard of living for the average Pole?” To which this young man made a reply. He was most articulate chemical engineer
and he said, “Well not really sir, but if we can be freed of the influence of our Russian masters, we could live well, but all our productive efforts are going into Russian munitions.” He said, “We’re a country which has, we have timber, we have iron ore, we have coal, we have a tremendous will to survive and create.” That was almost verbatim
of what he said that day. If the wrong people had heard that remark he would have been chuffed off to Siberia or shot before he got there. But that sense of pride, it just did come through. And I’d like to see a greater sense of pride in our nation.
One last thing. You’ve mentioned a few times about the fact that you didn’t feel a need to talk about the war in its aftermath, then you had other things to do and you didn’t really want to revisit those things. We’ve spent a whole day today, going over this material, do you feel
that there is now a reason to talk about these things, do you feel more reconciled about these things or do you feel it’s important?
Well, yes I do feel it’s important. I just wonder why it’s taken so long to get round to doing this. The people like myself are pretty ancient citizens and I feel it should have been done earlier than this. But it’s nice to have
I’ve mentioned this today coming up with some of my friends and they say, “But why the hell wasn’t this done before?” You know, I think we are willing to talk more now, well I’m sure that’s right, it’s partly our fault I suppose, that we would talk, but now we will talk. There’s a friend of ours just along the corner here, Roger Kempton, who died about two years ago. And his
family said he wouldn’t talk until about six weeks before he died, then he wouldn’t stop talking, he just wants to, he’d been bottling it all up, and then it all came out. He was a fighter pilot, a squadron leader. And tells a very good story about, he was a great cricketer too, I might add and a delightful bloke. But anyway, he was with a Kittyhawk squadron and they got caught up with some
Japanese Zeros and he said this day, the Zero was normally a much better fighter plane than the Kittyhawk, but this day the numbers were on his side and they knocked half a dozen Zeros out of the sky and on the way back, flying to Port Moresby, he looked down and saw a cricket ground and so thought there was enough room
and so landed his Kittyhawk on the ground and said, “Look there’s a game just about to place, would you like to stay for a while?” So he stayed for a couple of hours and enjoyed some cricket then hopped into his Kittyhawk and flew back to Moresby.
I like to thank you for your time today. I’d also like to give you a chance to say anything you’d like to say about the project or about your experience.
Well I knew you couldn’t tap it all, but you did incredibly well. And I was very happy to speak about it, and I really do believe that a proper set of archives is certainly in the national interest and I would be one to know that that information is there, to me would give me great satisfaction. So I shall
be (UNCLEAR), probably too frequently, but thank you for the courtesy you’ve extended me by inviting me to participate today and I wish you well for the completion of a truly worthwhile national project.