William Robertson
Archive number: 2336
Preferred name: Bill
Date interviewed: 18 August, 2004

Served with:

8th Battalion
6th Division
HQ 7 Division
51/50 Division British Army

Other images:

William Robertson 2336


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Tape 01


Thank you for joining us and sharing your story with the archive. I’d just like to ask at the beginning if you could give me a summary of your service details.
Yes certainly. I enlisted in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] in October 1939


and after interviewing the CO [Commanding Officer] of 2/8th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Mitchell, I joined that battalion as a platoon commander a few weeks later and proceeded to Puckapunyal where the battalion was being formed as part of the 17th Brigade,


AIF. We trained in Puckapunyal throughout the rest of the year and into the new year and eventually disembarked for Palestine on the, let me see,


in April 1940. I’d been promoted to captain in March ’40 and was second in command of one of the companies. We went to the Middle East in the Nero and disembarked a month later in June at El Kantara [Suez Canal, Egypt] and went up by train to Julis where we were, this is


one of the camps along up north of Palestine and we stayed there and trained there for some time. This time the division was reorganised and the brigades were made three battalion brigades instead of four and we were transferred to the 19th Brigade and moved then down to Kilo


89 Camp which was another camp in Palestine. We continued training there throughout the rest of the year and until I think it was about May when we moved to Egypt and finally…


well it wasn’t May it was much later than that we moved to Egypt, continued our training there. At that stage it was divisional training. The first time the division had got together it was about December of the year. We continued there until the Western Desert campaign began.


Our brigade was then moved down to Mersa Matruh and then on up to Sollum and engaged in the battle for Bardia followed by the capture of Tobruk. In Tobruk during that battle I was wounded


and returned first of all to Egypt then to Jerusalem and finally rejoined the battalion in Egypt after they’d returned from their western desert campaigns. Is this what you want, the way you want it?
Yes, exactly.


Because it’s really not as easy as this. Then I rejoined the battalion and went to Greece. On rejoining the battalion I was promoted to company commander and commanded C Company of the battalion throughout the Greek and Crete campaigns. In Greece


we were engaged in a number of operations but particularly up on the northern border in the battle of Vevi – captured the defence of the Vevi Pass. Finally left Greece at Kalamata on the last night the ships had come out and the ship


I was on sunk. My company was on it and sunk and picked up by the destroyers and taken to Crete, where we were involved in the Crete operation until, again the last night. Then came out of Sfakia and back to Egypt. Shortly after I arrived in, rejoined the battalion,


because of course the battalion had been broken up and only three companies had gone to Crete, the rest of the battalion had gone straight back to Egypt. From there I was appointed as staff captain A learner. That was a learner’s position on the headquarters of 6th Division. I was there for a little while up there again


near Tel Aviv. Then proceeded to go to the AIF staff school in Palestine, leaving that I was appointed a G2 Liaison with the 1st Corps in Syria, headquarters of the 1st Corps. That was after the fighting had stopped.


My job there was particularly being liaison officer with the 1st French Corps. Then in February ’42 we embarked and returned to Australia. Arriving in


Australia I was appointed to Headquarters 1st Army as a G1 Liaison and promoted to lieutenant-colonel. With the 1st Army Headquarters until August ’42 and during that time I was attached and detached from headquarters


and established the 1st Army during a staff school in Brisbane as chief instructor and was in that position throughout the first course. In August ’42 until October ’42 I was a student at the Australian Staff College, Senior Wing which was then in Duntroon. In October


’42 I was moved to New Guinea, headquarters New Guinea force where I was again appointed GS01 Liaison for a short time and soon after that I took the place of Colonel Harrison, who was the G1 operations, and occupied that position during the rest of


the year and into March 1943. During that time I was involved in the campaigns up on the north coast around Buna and Cape Endaiadere and at Wau in the operations in that area.


In March ’43 I was posted as GS01 at the Headquarters of the 7th Division which was then reforming on the tablelands above Cairns to prepare for further operations in New Guinea. We were then with the 9th


Division. We then mounted the operation to capture Lae and proceed up the Markham Valley and the Ramu Valley until in February 1944 I was withdrawn to be included in a group of officers going to Europe


to take part in the operations against the Germans in France, take part in the D-Day landings. I was then appointed G1 of a British Division, the 50th Division. Having landed in Normandy with the 51st Division I was


appointed a few weeks afterwards to be due on operations of the 50th British Division, which was an extremely interesting appointment in that we were in the infantry element of the breakout from Normandy itself with the Guards Armoured Division, the 11th Armoured Division and I stayed in that position throughout the rest of the campaign in France and Belgium and up into the


Netherlands as far as Arnhem. At the end of the year – that was the end of ’45 – in December ’45 the division was withdrawn from Europe and back to the United Kingdom and I then was finished my secondment to the British Army


and transferred back to the Australian Army as GS01 at Australian Military Army Representatives Staff at Australia House. I reigned in that position until I returned to Australia in 1947, March 1947 when I retired from the


AIF the following month.
Thank you very much.
Well that wasn’t very clear was it?
That was great. What did you do after you left the AIF?
I went into industry and I was the manager in the steel works in Port Kembla and then I rejoined the public service and I was in that until I finally retired when I was 65.


Did you get married along the way?
Yes I got married in England when I went back to the headquarters in London. I got married to a lady that I’d met before and she was my wife until she died a few years ago.
And children?
Yes I’ve got two children. A son and a daughter.
When were they born?
Well my son


was born during the war because I inherited him if you like, but he became my full son and my daughter was born in Melbourne in August 1951.
If I may Bill I’d like to go back your…
That wasn’t very good


now you see.
It was fine.
It wasn’t. You cut these things won’t you when you’re editing?
When someone uses the tape.
They will cut that out. You see it pre-empts a lot of what I was going to say. [pause] in 2nd February 1917 and I spent all


of my childhood in Melbourne. I went to school at Melbourne Grammar. It was when I was at school that I got commissioned as a cadet lieutenant and when I left school in 1936 to go to the university in England my commission was converted to militia commission.


Before we talk about your commission can I ask you a bit about what was the suburb you were born in?
I was born in South Yarra, which you know is quite near the city.
What was it like then?
That’s a very strange question to ask me because it was like anything else. I was brought up a boy. I


had an elder sister and my father was in the army. He’d been in the army in the South African War and stayed on in the army and remained in the army right through until he retired in 1932.
When I ask you what was South Yarra like, I’m wondering was it as populated as it is now?
Oh yes I suppose


it was, very much so. It was very much the same as it is now and I’ve lived in South Yarra most of my life until I came to Canberra.
What was your home like?
It was a very nice house in Murphy Street, quite a big house and then we moved into various flats also in South Yarra.
That home in Murphy Street you said had quite a few rooms.
Oh yes but I mean you can’t…


I was only a small boy when I was there.
So when you moved into the flats, how old were you?
Well I was about six, I think. That was just before I went to school which was just down the road from where we lived.
Whereabouts did you play?
Mostly at school when I went there. I mostly played around the garden with other children in


the gardens around.
Who were those other children?
Oh well they’re all dead now. Yes they were just friends and friends of my family, children of the friends of my family. Later on boys that I met at school, because Melbourne Grammar School was a big school I went right through it from being in the preparatory


school at Wardhurst and then on to the senior school and I went right through. I was a prefect. I rowed in the crew and I played football and cricket and learnt a bit.
When you were young how did you get around?
We got around on the tram I think largely. My father had a car but we didn’t use that very


much but I went by tram and I was taken here and there by tram. In those days you had some cabs as well, which we used from time to time.
Did you have a bicycle?
Yes I had a bicycle, yes I certainly did. I rode everywhere on a bicycle, but that was later when I got a bit older.


You mentioned your father was in the army. What kind of character was he?
He was a very fine man indeed. He was a colonel in the army the whole of my remembrance of him. He was Director Remounts throughout the First World War and was not allowed to join his friends in the AIF because he was in such an important position


that he was responsible for providing all the horses not only for our own army, but a great many for the British Army and Indian and even for the French Army. Although he repeatedly asked to be allowed to go to the war he was refused at all times, and that really upset him rather a lot. That was the way it went and he remained as director of remounts until he retired in 1962.


He was fairly much in the army for a career then?
Oh yes very much so. He’d been to the South African War [Boer War, 1899-1902] and when he got back to Australia, shortly after he got back his father died and he then went back into the Commonwealth Army as it was then. He was in South Africa in the Victorian detachments.


You said he was a fine man. Was he a strict father?
Well I don’t think so, not particularly. I never had any trouble, we never really got into any too serious trouble with him, no. He was a very nice easygoing chap who looked after us all very well.
You didn’t get into serious trouble. What was the little bits of trouble?


Well some of my friends got into serious trouble whatever they did. I was allowed to do more or less what I wanted to do.
You had a lot of freedom?
Oh sure, yes absolutely, perhaps too much. I had plenty of freedom all my life.
Did he share any of his war experiences with you?
No not a great deal. I was always interested in the army and sometimes he used to talk a bit


about it, but not very much. I was more, as I say, I joined the school cadets in 1931 and went right through the ranks of lance corporal, corporal, sergeant and finally I got my commission with them and it was a great part of my interest was the army and the military.


Of course I had many relations had been in the first war and I was very conscious of what went on. This had an effect when I decided to join the AIF.
What about your mother?
She was an extremely nice woman with lots of sisters who spread out around the world. I had my grandmother. I didn’t have any grandfathers –


they’d all died before I came around, but I had a very nice old grandmother. She was ninety six when she died. As I say my mother was an extremely nice woman.
Did your grandmother live near you?
No she lived in Toorak. So we used to go and call on her for lunch on Sundays and she was very nice to me.
When your father was at work in the army what was your mother doing?


Well she was looking after the house as far as I know. We did have a little assistance in the house but she was housekeeper and she ran the house and she enjoyed a social life.
What did she do in that social life?
Well she did all the things that people normally do – went and had tea parties and parties in return. In those days it was very much that sort of thing.
Did she play bridge or belong to a tennis club?
No she didn’t do


any of those things.
Was your mother strict?
No not at all. She was rather like my father. They were all, I got along well with all of them all the time.
How did your parents meet?
Well I don’t know really. They moved in the same sort of social circles and I imagined that they just met that way.


Did you have any brothers or sisters?
Yes I had a sister who was ten years older than I am.
That’s quite an age gap?
It was a big age gap, yes it was a big age gap. She was born before the war of course and I was born, I think that was the last gasp if you like. She was very good to me as a little boy because being the


elder sister she did a lot of looking after when I was quite young.
I was going to ask what your relationship was like?
Yeah sure, very good. She only died a few years ago. She was ninety six when she died.
You went to school at Melbourne Grammar. Was this during the Depression years?
Oh sure it was. Yes.


The Depression was on all the time I was around then and didn’t really finish, I don’t know that it really finished before the war. At one stage my father had to go on half pay because of the Depression.
How did that affect the household?
It didn’t really affect the household a great deal I don’t think. Not that I was conscious of anyway.


What signs could you see in the community around you that the Depression was on?
We had police strike and things like that. There was all sorts of trouble of that kind. Otherwise I wasn’t really conscious of it. It didn’t impinge on my life. It might have impinged a great deal on my father’s life, didn’t impinge on mine.
Did they protect you from…?


Well I don’t know that they consciously protected me from anything. I was not aware too much of those things in those days.
What was the police strike?
That was a part of history. I couldn’t tell you all the story of the police strike, but there was a police strike in Melbourne and then they called out to volunteer police and it was all rather unpleasant.


Although I didn’t see anything of it, it was all in the city.
Do you remember when the strike was called?
Hardly, I was very young.
This was at a time when a lot of fresh produce was brought to people’s homes?
Oh yeah sure. Everything was brought to the house. Chinese green grocer used to


come around with a horse and cart and he’d always have lots of greens and fruit and we bought fruit from him and my mother used to order from the grocer down in South Yarra the things she needed. The butcher delivered whatever she needed too. Every morning of course the milkman came.
How was the milk delivered?
Well it was delivered out of churns


into your own billy can. It wasn’t in bottles in those days. It was just like that and then my mother brought it in and the first thing you did you boiled it so it wouldn’t go off because there was no refrigeration – just cool-safes and ice-boxes.
Where did the ice come from for the ice-box?
From the ice man


who brought it around in a cart and horse. Blocks of ice and we’d put that in the ice-box. There aren’t many ice-boxes around these days.
Did the newspaper get delivered?
Oh yes. All that was organised.
Was there a wireless in your home?
Not then at all when I was very small.


We had a wireless when I got into my young teens I suppose.
You said that you used to play a lot with your friends. Did you have any hobbies or interests?
Well I had my real hobby was collecting model soldiers and having


great battles with my friends with these things on the floor. That’s more part of my upbringing.
How big were they?
They were quite small – about an inch and half high at the most. Just little. They used to call them lead soldiers in those days.
Were they painted or did you paint?
Yes, oh no they were all painted, it was a very popular game,


thing to do. A lot of people had them and you could buy all sorts of uniforms they had. My father used to occasionally buy me boxes. They came in boxes of ten or twelve. They were very acceptable gifts and then there were model trains, Hornby trains and things like that.
What armies would you be able to buy?


You could buy any sort of army that you wanted. It was after the first war so you had all the British regiments I suppose and they had all the cavalry regiments and gunners and you had some enemy too in grey clothes.
Did you know who that enemy was?
Sure I did.
Who were the enemy with those little soldiers?
Well they were Germans


of course. This was as I said after the first war. But mind you when we played the game your opponent soldiers were the enemy and they might have been from the guards or the highlanders as indeed yours were. It was fairly rare to have a whole army of Germans. You couldn’t, nobody would have done that or want that, you want to have your own people.


Did you ever when you were playing these games capture of your friend’s army?
Oh you did that and knocked them over with little cannonballs that you had. You had cannons and some used to fire with matches and some used to fire a little lead shot and the very expensive ones used to have springs and the whole thing was quite, sometimes even knocked the heads off your friend’s soldiers or


equally knock the heads off yours. You’d have to repair that with a match with a bit of glue. It was all good fun.
How do you mean you repaired it with a match?
Because they were hollow you’d put the match down and the head you’d put one end of the match in the head and the other end in the bottom and a bit of glue so that fixed him up.


This is after the First World War and a lot of history came out of that war. Were you seeing a lot of ex-soldiers around?
Well yes there were a lot of ex-soldiers around of course and there were also a number of films too. I suppose I was a little bit older, about fourteen or fifteen, and there were whole series of films about


the war which were very, they were more or less documentary films that were shown at one particular cinema in Melbourne. I used to go to these and take great interest in them.
What do you remember from those films?
Well it’s hard to say what you remember from them. They dealt with the Mons campaign and the Somme and one thing and another like that. I can remember those


and they were very much the sort of things you see now when occasionally they show a documentary of re-photographing of the first war. Of course the War Memorial, the collection is now in the War Memorial, was in Melbourne in the exhibition building. That’s where it was all started. I used to visit that a lot just to see what was going on. In fact the dioramas that you can see now over here in


the War Memorial are exactly the same ones that I saw as a boy of ten or fourteen.
When you saw these films did they spur questions and interests?
Well I suppose they did. I can’t really remember what they spurred, but they did spur a lot of interest in military matters I suppose. I used to ask my father things about it because he hadn’t actually been to the war himself.


He didn’t really have a great deal to say, but other people did, other relatives.
Do you think that affected your father – that he didn’t actually get to go to war?
No I don’t, well it didn’t affect him in any way. He was a sensible man all the time. He understood why he wasn’t allowed to go. No it didn’t affect him at all. He stayed on


in the army afterwards.
You said that you could see ex-diggers around…
Well obviously you could because you could tell by their little badges and their coats and things that they all wore then. Indeed we wore them after in the Second World War for a short time, similar ones. Then they,


everyone knew that everybody had been to the war. You couldn’t walk down the street and say, “There’s an ex-soldier,” or not, because you wouldn’t know. Unless he was walking on a crutch or one leg missing you’d realise he perhaps went to the war, but then perhaps he’d been in a motor accident.
Could you see any physical scars?


No I didn’t, I don’t remember that. It was just something that was part of life. When you’re a small boy like that you, it was not, some of my friends’ fathers had been rather upset by the war – maybe I knew something like that was going on. It didn’t affect me and none of my family were affected like that by the war.
You didn’t have any other relatives go?


Oh sure I had lots of relatives go. Oh yes lots of my cousins and various uncles had gone. Cousins really because my father had one brother and he was in the army too but he hadn’t gone to the war. He’d been in the South African War and he was in the coastal defences so he was in the same boat as my father.


You said your friends’ fathers had gone?
Some yes many of my friends fathers had gone. Everybody’s fathers had gone to the war. It was pretty exceptional to not go in those days.
Did you see any effects the war had on them?
Well no I didn’t really notice any effects because I wasn’t at that age conscious of those sort of things.


No, no I don’t think I, it was just part of life. Just took it as it comes.
Anzac Day did you…?
Yes we always used to go and stand and watch the Anzac Day parades and things like that, I can remember those. They were quite big in those days of course, much the same as they are now except nowadays there’s hardly any ex-soldiers in them because there aren’t


too many around.
Melbourne Grammar – you were quite successful there?
Sure, I was perfectly successful yes. I went through the school and did the right things.
You were prefect?
Yes. I was a prefect eventually.
What responsibilities came with being a prefect?
Well in those days you had responsibilities; making certain


that discipline was followed. One thing and another like that. That’s what prefects are about aren’t they?
What was your uniform?
A dark blue uniform with a jacket with a badge on the pocket. A cap with a badge on the front of it. As you progressed in the school the colour of the badge changed from being white to silver, then to gold and then when you were a prefect you got a much bigger badge


on your pocket.
When you were out and about did you have to correct the boys’ uniform?
Well I think we probably did, yes they were much stricter in those days than they are now. Of course they hardly ever wear uniforms I don’t think. If you saw a boy without a cap he was severely reprimanded.
What was that reprimand?


It depended. We as prefects even had the powers of beating the boys with a cane if necessary, but that was something you, I don’t think I ever did it. I might have done once but never, it wasn’t something you did. Some prefects did.
Academically what subjects were you enjoying?
Well I really enjoyed science in the end because that’s what I went on to do.


I enjoyed, I can’t say that I enjoyed school. I mean I enjoyed school very much but the academic part of it I was not very… I did all the subjects that you normally do; English, French, Latin, geography, history, chemistry, physics, mathematics, all these things.
What part of school did you enjoy?


I enjoyed rowing very much and rowed twice in the first crew and I rowed in the second crew. I rowed the whole time I was at school and when I went to the senior school…they didn’t have rowing at Wardhurst which was a junior school. When I got to the senior school I rowed because my father had rowed and my grandfather had rowed and my father was very keen on rowing.


Did your father and grandfather also go to Melbourne Grammar?
No, they both went to Geelong Grammar actually. Both of them went to Oxford University and both of them went to the same college as I did. I was the third generation there. I didn’t go to the Geelong Grammar school because I think that is where the Depression had a bit of an effect in that it would have been much more expensive for me to be sent to Geelong


than to stay at home and go as a day boy to Melbourne Grammar school. So I think if you ask what effect the Depression had that was certainly one of them.
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 02


We were talking about your rowing at Melbourne Grammar. Where did you row?
On the Yarra.
What was the Yarra like then?
Well the same it is today.
I’m sure it wasn’t as developed?
Well there weren’t so many buildings around no. The rowing course where we rowed is much the same as it was then. We


rowed up from Princes Bridge up the river beyond Anderson Street and then some days we rowed down beyond Princes Bridge, basically it was in that area.
Were there major regattas?
Oh yes every year there was a school regatta and there was what they called Henley in Melbourne which is


a big regatta where all the universities and rowing clubs as such took part. Living in South Yarra of course I was just, I used to go down there, it was quite easy for me. We had our boat shed down near Princes Bridge. After school we used to walk across there and I’d walk home from there. At that stage we lived at Anderson Street


which is just, comes down beside the Botanic Gardens.
After Melbourne Grammar you went to Oxford.
Exactly yes. In 1936.
Was that a scholarship?
No it wasn’t a scholarship. I just went on my steam. As I said my father had been at Oxford and my grandfather had been at


Oxford too. I had various uncles and cousins had been and I just, I went to the same college in fact that my father and grandfather had gone to, and I had a lot of other friends from school who went at the same time. There were a lot of Australians there.
How old were you when you left for Oxford?


Well I suppose I was nineteen, eighteen or nineteen.
Do you remember leaving Melbourne?
Sure, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went on a ship with my father and mother and they went over at the same time and by then my father had retired so they went over, we all went on the ship. It was a great experience for me, wonderful experience. When we arrived in Tilbury we were met by


an uncle, one of my uncles who lived in England on my mother’s side. We went into London and that was a great experience going past all the places that I’d read about in novels and I had a thoroughly good time.
What were those places?
Oh well you know – you went up to the city and you went past the bank and you went up past Fleet Street and


all these name places that you’d been reading about in books all your life, all your conscious life anyway at that stage.
What did you think of London?
Oh wonderful place. I thoroughly enjoyed London. I lived there since and before I hadn’t lived there before I went to Oxford but I subsequently lived there a lot over the years.
What were your first impressions?


My first impressions were of a great place, we thoroughly enjoyed it. We had a nice flat. We used to go around and go to restaurants, out to lunch and dinner it was very pleasant.
Where was the flat?
It was in Mayfair, again the subject of which had been in books I’d read before, just off Curzon Street.


How many flats were there in that building?
I can’t remember, not very many. There were two or three. It was quite a small block of flats. It was knocked down during the war by bombs so it’s not there anymore, but I remember it quite well.
What was the flat like?
Well it was normal flat. We had a sitting room, and several bedrooms and kitchen. All the normal things you expect in a flat. Just as the same as you do here now.


What time of the year did you arrive in London?
Well I think it must have been about August or something like that because the university year starts in October. So I was there for a couple of months before I went up to Oxford.
Was it warm when you arrived?


Yes. I don’t remember it being cold.
What were your first impressions of Oxford?
Oh well I’d been brought up with Oxford. I’d read a lot of books about it and I’d been brought up and knew exactly what to expect and my father had talked a lot about his time at Oxford and other relatives so I was really quite accustomed to the idea. I


went into college and was given a nice room and shared a bathroom, no bathrooms. It had a bedroom and big sitting room and it overlooked the quadrangle in the middle of the college. My college was an old one. It had been established in 1600 and it was a very nice place.


Still is, but much larger now.
When you say your college…?
Well Oxford is made up of colleges. I suppose here they call them residents or college. It’s not like Australian universities. There aren’t any people that have come in from outside – they’re all in the college community. So there were twenty colleges of this kind, each


self-contained institution within the university as such. You did a lot of your study in the college and you did a lot outside.
What study did you do outside the college?
Well you went to lectures outside the college in various lecture places. You did all your laboratory work, as I was doing science, that was done in the complexes of laboratories that were around. They’re all still there now. I go to Oxford quite frequently


now because my daughter lives quite close and I still maintain a close contact with my old college and so I go there quite frequently so I’ve seen the changes over the years. When I went my year would have only been, undergraduates, about twenty of us, but now of course, and the whole college comparatively was relatively small. It wouldn’t


have been more than a hundred and fifty undergraduates altogether. That would be the years before, the three years before I came and my year. But now they are much bigger and in my day the actual physical college was just one reasonably compact complex and now it is a much bigger.


They’ve built a lot on to it and a lot around it and have many more graduates. We had, only a few, what they called Dons, which were Fellows of the college that ran the place and did a lot of teaching both inside and outside the college. So it was a very different place to what it is now. A much, I would like it more, I think now I wouldn’t like it as much only because it’s a


much bigger place. When I was at Oxford it was, the traffic wasn’t too bad. You could park a car. Very few undergraduates had a car. I did have a car, I think, in my second year and from then onwards. It was a small car that I bought for twenty-five pounds. So, I was pretty unique. Well not unique – there were plenty around


but not that many. In fact traffic was much less than it is now. It is an impossible place to park. Mostly we rode bicycles around the university.
Was it co-ed? [co-educational]
No it wasn’t. They had separate women colleges absolutely separate and


nowadays all colleges have got women residents as well as men and that’s another big change. Apart from that we had girlfriends and we enjoyed ourselves. They used to come into college, you were allowed to have people into college until midnight and then after that they had to get out. That applied to both men and women – anyone who wasn’t living at the college.


You had to be in by midnight too. If you weren’t in by midnight you had to find a way in if you were to go how to get in otherwise you were let in from the door by the porter and you were before the bursar or the dean or whoever might be responsible for discipline.
How would you get in after midnight?
Well there was a way in through a building, a


builders yard. It was adjacent to the college at the back and you could find your way over the wall there, if you were clever.
What about getting into your room? Was it locked?
No, no your room was alright, once you got inside the wall. It’s a walled thing right around like a little fortress. Once you got inside the wall you could go anywhere you liked, at any time of the night or day so you didn’t have to worry about that.


How did you find your English peers?
Well I found them much the same as I found my own Australian peers. I had a lot of English friends and I had a lot of Australian friends at various colleges, at the other colleges and we all got on well together. My college was not one of the very smart ones.


We had all sorts, very nice group of people there, but they were not necessarily like some of the colleges were very snooty, but our college was very pleasant and friendly.
How many Australians were in your college?
I think I was the only one. There were some South Africans or Rhodesians if you like. They were South Africans, Indians, and one


Japanese and the rest were all English boys. It was a good experience.
With so few undergraduates was it difficult to get in?
Well I think my father had been in touch with them several years before and of course I had to pass the right exams to get in which I did successfully


at Melbourne Grammar. In those days you had to have one foreign language and one modern language plus English and I think nothing else really. Those were about the compulsory things you had to have. So you could have either Greek or Latin and I had Latin, French, German, anything more or less.


These are the years leading up the war. Being in the UK could you see any signs of war?
Oh yes definitely. I was there the whole time. From 1937 onwards there was a great realisation I think that the war was undoubtedly going to come, but after the First World War British Army forces to a large extent had been run down


and they were very short so they had to try and re-establish themselves and during my time at Oxford there was a great, particularly during 1937 really I suppose, ’38,’39, they were reorganising the army and the air force and they were expanding the air force and building airfields all around, particularly around Oxford there were airfields being built. Later


on nearer the…when the war started from 1938 onwards it definitely had an atmosphere the place was getting ready for war and this was one of the things that I had, as I mentioned earlier got my commission at school and when I went to Oxford I tried to join the Oxford University Officer Training Corps,


but they refused to have me because I was already a commissioned officer. So I was, I then saw my uncle who was a regular officer, in fact a colonel of the sea force and he said I could join them as a reserve officer and it was in. I was all geared up to do some big manoeuvres with them in


1938 and then they had to cancel this because of the war. So I was very conscious of what was going on then and of course closer to the beginning of the war we were issued with gas masks and everybody was building sort of bomb shelters in the garden and they were digging up trenches throughout Hyde Park. The whole


atmosphere had become, was getting prepared for war. You see that was when [British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain went over and saw Adolf Hitler and came back, waved the piece of paper, and nobody believed him for a moment. [Chamberlain favoured a policy of appeasement towards Hitler and returned promising “Peace in our time”.]
Was your uncle a part of the British Army?
Yes he had been all his life. He was a regular soldier.


He was on mother’s side and he actually married one of my mother’s sisters and he’d been in the British Army, he was in the Seaforth Highlanders and had been out to Australia. That’s where he met my aunt. And then he was on duty in India for a good many years and then back in England when I arrived.


So you joined was it the British Army?
I was an Australian army officer, but seconded to them yes, but of course I didn’t do any day-to-day training. I was only able to do this because I was to join them for the big manoeuvres that they were having on Salisbury Plain


that year, but it packed up because they felt they had to stop that sort of business and get on preparing themselves for the war. I could have stayed with that unit and had I done so and gone to France I would have probably ended up in a German prisoner of war camp. They were, many of them were captured in a place called St Valerie during the first part of the war.


A lot of my friends at Oxford, Australian and British, all joined the various units and I could have stayed on in England and joined the army and get on with the business. I felt that I’d really like to return to Australia and see my family before I went to the war. There was never any doubt that I’d go to the war – it was a foregone conclusion. It never occurred to me that I


wouldn’t. A lot of young people ask me these days, “Why did you go the war?” and so on and so forth. I say, “Well it was just that I wouldn’t have not gone to the war because of my whole background and the background of my upbringing and everything else,” but I did want to join the AIF. Not that I had anything against being in the British Army or indeed many of my friends joined the air force and were most successful.


Some went into the navy. I just felt that I’d like to come back to Australia and see the family and that’s what I did. As it happens of course when I arrived in England first because I was on the Australian Army Reserve of Officers I checked in with the army staff at Australia House so that they knew I was in England. And then when I wanted to return which was after the beginning of the war, because


I was still there when war was declared, I of course couldn’t get a passage. It was very hard to get on to a ship to come back to Australia. So I went and saw my friends in Australia House and they organised a return passage for me and because I was a Reserve of Officers I was given an order from them to return to Australia for duty with the AIF. That’s how I got out of England so quickly


at the beginning of the war. War was declared on the 3rd September 1939 and I left just towards the end of September.
That buildup of the war in the UK, were there any air-raid drills?
Drills, oh yes. All that sort of thing went on and as I said everybody had been issued with a gas mask in a little box. Once war had been declared you were


required to carry that around with you while you were, you know, they were very afraid of a gas attack and as the war progressed they gave up that idea and nobody bothered.
What do you remember of war actually being declared? Where were you?
Well I was probably in Oxford I think. I just remember the same as all the people here would remember.


War was declared. Chamberlain said he would and give the Germans an ultimatum and when the time was up he said, “We are at war with Germany.” Just the same as [Australian Prime Minister Robert] Menzies announced the same thing here.
You were watching quite keenly the movements of the Germans?
Well everybody was watching very keenly, yes, there was a lot of war talk and the papers were full of


all sorts of things and moving around in Europe. There was no doubt about it really.
Did you know then that Australia would also be a part of the war?
Well I just assumed that which was a correct assumption wasn’t it. I assumed it. I didn’t know it for certain, but I assumed it because we were part of the British Empire. We were a dominion at that stage.


I just presumed as in the First World War that we’d go to war if Britain went to war.
When you came home to see your family how did your parents react to you wanting to join?
They were, there was never any question of this and it just didn’t arise. There was no argument about it. I just told them and that was that, that was good.


I think if I had said, “I don’t want to go the war,” I wouldn’t have been regarded very highly, because at that stage everybody was. When I got back, which was about the end of October – I left in September. It was about a month on the way.


As I said I think I joined the AIF on the 10th October 1939. I enlisted and I had an introduction to Colonel Mitchell who was forming the 2/8th Battalion and I went and interviewed him and he said, “Subject to a satisfactory medical examination I’ll offer you a job as Platoon Commander in the battalion that I’m forming.” He’d been CO [Commanding Officer] of the 8th Battalion in the first war as well.


One of the things they did was a very good thing to do – all the COs of the infantry battalions to a large extent were people who had held the same sort of positions in the first war and therefore had some experience of it. They stayed with their battalions until we were in Palestine and so on and they gradually progressed either upwards


or outwards. That was the way it went and it was a good thing because they had the experience and they were able to pass their experiences on to the battalions that they were forming.
What were your impressions of the other enlistees?
Well they were mostly officers who had been in the CMF [Citizens Military Forces] one way or another or something of that kind.


Some of them had been in the first war. Three of them had been in the first war. They were all people with some military experience. I’m talking about the officers now. Troops just came in from everywhere. You see that because of the constitution we were not able to


have a standing army in Australia which could operate overseas so just as in the First World War we had to create one to enable us to go overseas. So that’s why the AIF and there was a quite considerable Citizens Military Force in Australia, very considerable, but they were not able to just draw on this unit by unit which is what a lot of them would


have liked to have happened. So say you’d been in the 14th Battalion in Melbourne in the CMF. The unit and the chaps in it would have liked the 14th Battalion to be moved over to the AIF, but they couldn’t do this so they had to start from scratch. So, the soldiers of the AIF came from volunteers, it was all volunteer army.


They either had to volunteer, if they had CMF training that was good, if they hadn’t well then they just came in off the streets or out in the country or from wherever and started from scratch.
What were those troops like?
Well they were a very good bunch of Australians. Some of them were pretty wild and woolly. They came from all walks of life and they


were really wonderful soldiers. Trained eventually into a very substantial force.
What unit did you want to go into within the 2/8th Battalion?
It was a unit of infantry and I was one of the platoon commanders in it so it was an infantry unit. I originally


first of all when I first got back I had a cousin who was a very senior officer in the army and he suggested that I join, they were forming a thing called the ‘Cavalry Regiment’. Each division had a cavalry regiment. Later it changed its name. They were not horse regiments, they were armoured regiments or going to be armoured regiments and


I thought that might be good. But in the end the opportunity arose to meet Colonel Mitchell and he offered me the job so I went in to the infantry. Mind you all my military experience, such as it was at that time, had been infantry and I’d always taken a great interest in it and read all the books and


got the manuals. In fact I spent my time on the ship coming back to Australia studying the field service regulations and the various drill manuals and so on so I brought myself up-to-date to a large extent. Which was very useful.
What was it about infantry that appealed to you?
I wouldn’t be able to tell you that. It was all just the army.


I wouldn’t have minded going into anything else, but it was… it didn’t necessarily appeal to me, it was just that’s the way the cookie crumbled and ended up as infantry officer right through as I say the western desert, Greece, Crete and then I became by that stage I became


a staff officer and from then on in divisions or corps headquarters.
As platoon commander did you undergo any training with your platoon?
Oh sure I did all the time. I mean when we were at Puckapunyal I went, I was transferred for a time to the tactical school there and I did a course in tactics and that sort of thing.


That was in Seymour [Victoria] which is just near Puckapunyal as you might know. Then I came back to my, and I was responsible for training my platoon and running the training of the platoon. Teaching them to shoot. We started off from scratch, right from the very beginning – parade ground drill and field drill and learning


to shoot and to throw grenades and do all the things infantry are supposed to do. So it was the whole bit which after all I had gone through myself through my years in the cadet corps followed by what I’d done and this course which I did which was the Junior Officer’s


Tactical School I think it was called in Seymour. I suppose the course lasted for about a month or something like that. We were taught a lot about infantry tactics and company level tactics. I had a responsibility for looking after the welfare of the platoon which was about thirty


chaps in those days I suppose. I had three sections of, three or four sections, that varied during the war, with corporals in command of them a platoon sergeant. So we did the whole bit of looking after a platoon which was a part of a company. A company was three platoons or four platoons, depending on the


organisation and they had company commander and a 2 IC [Second In Command] and a commander of that and he had a company sergeant-major and a company quartermaster sergeant. So the company was a small unit, the platoon section was the smallest unit of an infantry battalion and there was a platoon and then there was a company and then there was the whole battalion which consisted of four companies and plus


a headquarters with companies with mortars and that sort of thing and machine guns.
The men in your platoon, how quickly were they grasping military life?
Some were quite experienced already, some were just raw recruits and as I say this was the beginning so we had to take them right from the very beginning. Later on of course


reinforcements were trained elsewhere and they came and joined the battalion as basically trained soldiers but we had to do the basic training right from scratch.
Were there any young soldiers at that time who stood out in your mind?
I guess there were all sorts, yeah. Some were very good and some were not so good. Ones that were very good had a bit more training and became corporals or lance corporals.


So it was all pretty orderly stuff.
Did you ever have to dismiss any men?
Oh not me personally no. We had some troublemakers but not very many.
How did you discipline the troublemakers?
I don’t think I remember how I disciplined. I don’t think I ever had responsibility of doing that as platoon


commander. It just happened.
You were promoted to captain quite early in March?
Yes I was.
What responsibilities came with being captain?
Then I became second in command of a company. A company had a company commander and a second command


and I was the second command of a company so I did have responsibilities to assist with the training of the company and to do a certain amount of administrative work in the company as such as opposed to the battalion. The company as I said was made up of three or four platoons and so we had five officers in the company.


At this stage what were you preparing the soldiers for?
We were preparing the soldiers to go to war.
But where?
I don’t know whether we knew where we were going, but I think we almost certainly thought we were going to the Middle East as indeed the AIF had in the First World War. Basically I don’t think we really knew, I’m sure we didn’t know


exactly where we were going to go, but we were preparing and at that stage of course it was a general preparation anyway wherever you’d have gone you’d have done the same things.
You said earlier that there were some World War I officers?
Yes there were two or three officers in the battalion that had been in the First World War. Then they’d subsequently been in CMF Units,


militia units as well. So yes there were three altogether.
Were they influential at all about the training that would be needed for the Middle East?
I suppose they were. Well they were like all the officers had, see most of the officers in fact all the officers had been in the CMF,


well they had militia training and had been for a good many years in one way and another and came to us from various units. I think that’s right. I don’t think these particular ones, they had some great old soldier stories, but whether you believed them or not is another matter. That was all. I don’t think there was anything in particular.


Did you pull on their wisdom?
Oh not greatly I don’t suppose. The CO of course had a lot of wisdom as it were. He knew what he was doing and he knew about war a bit because as I said he commanded the 8th Battalion in the First World War. He came with a lot of traditions that we had to graft


onto the new 2/8th Battalion.
As 2 I-C were you aware of being posted to the Middle East?
Well not until, I don’t think we were told we were going to the Middle East until we were on the ships more or less. I don’t know. I really can’t remember what my consciousness of where we were going to go.


Did you have pre-embarkation leave?
Yes we did. We had just before we left, just before Christmas we had pre-embarkation leave and the division or certainly the brigade had a great parade in Melbourne. We marched through Melbourne the 17th Brigade, it was the 17th Brigade in those days. The 8th Battalion, the 5th, 6th, 7th


and 8th Battalions were a part of the 17th Brigade and of course there were a lot of odd divisional troops that Victoria had. The Victorian lot marched through Melbourne – that was just before Christmas. Then we had Christmas leave in Melbourne not for very long, a few days, we came back and then a few months later in February we


embarked at Melbourne for the Middle East. We went down from Puckapunyal by train to Melbourne to the docks and put on these ships and the ships gathered together and then we sailed around to Perth and Fremantle where were formed into a convoy with a naval escort and then sailed on to Kantara in the Suez


Canal, it was just halfway up the Suez Canal and there we disembarked.
What was the mood like on the ship?
Oh it was great. We were particularly fortunate in the ship that we were on called the Dunera was a British troop ship which had been built specially to take troops out to India and it was quite new and the facilities on the ship were very good because


they were arranged for doing what we were doing. They were shipping soldiers and so there was lots of deck space for exercising and training and lots of troop accommodation was very good. The officer accommodation was very good. It was all arranged. Some of the other ships were all basically just passenger ships which had been requisitioned to do the job. We were very


fortunate we had for ourselves and one other unit I think on the ship and a few odd small units.
Were there any lectures on the ship?
Oh yes our training all through the voyage went on just as it did on land except we did it on the ship. We did all the same sort of training and


the officers had lectures and discussions and that sort of thing.
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 03


You were just travelling on the Dunera over to the Middle East. Where did you arrive in the Middle East?
We arrived, you’ve got the date there, I’ve got the date here, we arrived in May. We left Australia in April


and arrived in May at Kantara which is halfway up the Suez Canal on the right hand side going up. We disembarked there and a troop train and went up to Palestine and in Palestine


the British Army had prepared a whole series of camps all up the coast of Palestine from the south Gaza, which is now in the news, right up to Tel Aviv. There was a whole series, half a dozen camps which had been prepared by British Army and were occupied by housekeeper force so that when we


moved in the tents were there and all the equipment was there, kitchens were ready and the loos were dug and the whole places were prepared there was battalion level camps.
This was Camp Julis?
Yes there was one at Julis where we first went to, then as I said later not so much later on we moved


south towards Gaza where Kilo 89 Camp was. It was a big camp. That was when the brigade was reorganised, because they formed four brigades to a division. Previously there had only been three and so we, a new brigade was made which was the 19th


Brigade and that was assembling at the Kilo 89 Camp around Gaza and that was where Brigadier H.C.H. Robertson took command of that. Before that we’d had Brigadier S.G. Savige had been the commander of the 17th Brigade. So you now had the 16th, 17th and 19th. Of course a lot of troops had gone straight to England –


those ships had gone around the other way so there was a bit of a muddle up. The whole British Army had done the same thing. They’d brought the brigades down from four battalions to three and so we took with us, we formed into the 19th Brigade and the 8th Battalion and the 4th Battalion


and the 11th Battalion so that it was reorganisation. So the 5th and the 6th and the 7th stayed with the 17th Brigade. We were the new brigade that had been formed out of the spare battalions of the other three.
How well supplied were you?
We were pretty short of weapons. We still


had mostly First World War rifles. Of course we had those all the way through anyway. We had Lewis guns instead of the brand new ones and there was quite a shortage of these things generally. I think we had a full complement of Lewis guns and we had Thompson submachine guns, which were clumsy sorts of things. They didn’t last long. They didn’t stay


in service very long. They were too heavy and they fired short of ammunition. We were very short of vehicles otherwise we had everything we needed. Blankets, food – all that was OK. Uniforms, there was no problem about that. The artillery regiments were equipped with old twenty five pounders and not modern ones and


we had a few machine guns, not a full quota I don’t think and with mortars. We had to train with this shortage of things. We had to cope with it.
How did you cope?
Well we had to cope with it by simply sharing them around a bit. As I said it was pretty out of date


equipment mostly and subsequently it was replaced. It wasn’t really until we got to Egypt that we finally got our full quota of war equipment in the way of vehicles and Bren guns and so on, although I think we must have had some Brens because we did some training on them before.


What sort of training were you able to do at Kilo 89?
At that stage we were still doing company and battalion training. We hadn’t done any sort of brigade training until we went down to Kilo 89 and we did some training with other battalions of the brigade. It was very interesting to be


training down there near Gaza amongst the relics of the First World War. All the Turkish defences were around and we went to Beersheba for training exercises around there. It was all very inspiring to anyone who had thought about the First World War or read about it – which a lot of us had. I had particularly – I’d brought away a book on the


Palestine Campaign, in fact I was reading that at the time. Still got it somewhere. It was battalion level training and then into occasionally brigade training. There was such a lot to do we just went on doing it and preparing ourselves and getting ready.
How prepared did you feel?
I think we were quite


prepared as a matter of fact in the end. We then went down to Egypt I think just before, or just after the battalions came into the war and when we went to a place called Amiriya in Egypt which was quite


near Alexandria, that part of Egypt. There that was the first time the division, 6th Division, had really got together or brigades and we were the last brigade to leave Palestine so I just can’t quite remember exactly when it was. I have it in my notes somewhere. And we formed the division and carried out some divisional exercises there.


I must say one had a certain feeling of confidence. Mind you everyone was on edge and wanting to get into the battle because the war had really started there for us. The British and Indian Army together had carried out those first desert campaigns and captured the passes up to


where they had defeated the Italians and we’d seen pictures of the hundreds of Italian prisoners of war. It had been a pretty impressive operation as far as we were concerned. Our division was, we knew we were ready to go to war and everybody wanted to get on with it. So eventually


I think around about Christmas time we started to move down into the western desert. Two brigades moved the 16th and the 17th Brigades moved down there and we followed shortly afterwards. We went down by train to Mersa Matruh. We disembarked from the train, I think we camped there for a night or two and then


taken up by truck to the very steep dusty road that went up the escarpment into Libya, into Cyrenaica really, and at Sollum and then we proceeded from there to move to a position outside Bardia which was the next objective of the western desert campaign. Then we took up a position just outside Bardia


with some little way away from it but it was our first experience as it were being in the front line and we had to proceed to conduct ourselves as an infantry battalion would in a defensive and stand to at six in the morning and stand down at dusk and carry out all the procedures of a defensive position.


We were generally out of range although I seem to remember we were shelled once or twice there, but then that was outside Bardia. That was to be the first of our campaigns – the capture of the fortress of Bardia where the Italians were pretty well entrenched. That was to be done by the


16th and 17th Brigades and we were in reserve there, the 19th Brigade was in reserve to carry on the battle when we went to Tobruk. As it happened when the battle started which was about… I’ll just look at these notes I’ve got here because it’s quite important to get the dates right.


I think it was about January 3rd?
I think it was. January 3rd you’re absolutely right. The battle started there and first of all the 16th Brigade reached… the defences were an anti-tank ditch right around this very large fortress area and with barbed wire. Along it were a series of posts where the Italians had fortified the fences.


16th Brigade breached it and the 16th and 17th Brigades went through. 16th I think went towards the right and the 17th went towards the left and then we didn’t go through until later on because as a reserve brigade we were not called upon until at one stage the 16th Brigade got into some trouble and we were brought in on their right to go down amongst


a number of waddies that led down to the sea. We didn’t do very much fighting there. We captured a lot of Italians because these waddies were full of their administrative troops and they gave up the war pretty easily and they came out down out of these waddies and we chased them out and we took hundreds and hundreds of prisoners of war


including a general. I was, as a second command of a company I haven’t got any direct responsibilities for fighting the companies so I detailed off to take the general back the brigade headquarters. He came out with his staff and a small staff car and he had officers with him and a car so eventually the CO directed me to take him back


to the brigade headquarters. So we all piled into this little car – the general and his chief of staff and his driver and myself. You wouldn’t have done it if you’d thought about it but I did. We just drove until we found the brigade headquarters.
This was an Italian general?
An Italian general yeah.
Did he speak English?
I think his chief of staff did and he was a very nice chap. They were all very chatty and very pleasant.


I sat down there in the back with them and we drove back to where the brigade headquarters was and I handed him over to Brigadier Robertson and then I marched, walked back. By this time it was quite dark and I had to find the battalion and I walked back and found my way back. They didn’t have a car to drive me back. So that was quite an interesting start to the war as


far as I was concerned.
What struck you about that incident?
I don’t think anything struck me much, it was just one of those things that happened. I felt I was quite pleased to have the chance of doing it, because otherwise it was just fairly dull stuff going down these waddies. I think in fact in Bardia we only lost three of our people, we had three casualties


I think. There was hardly any fighting on our front. The next day we did move further in and down into a big waddy much nearer to Bardia itself, nearer to the town. We did have a certain amount of fighting there, but as I say we only lost three people.
What sort of resistance did the Italians put up?
Well there


wasn’t a great deal of resistance with them. The other brigade struck considerable resistance but we ourselves because we were in the reserve really didn’t, only dealing with one small part of it we didn’t have any particular problems. The battalion at that stage had been under the command I think of the 16th Brigade and then we reverted to General


Robertson’s command and I think the whole brigade came into play then. Then of course the essence, the speed was supposed to be the thing we had to follow so the battles of Bardia only took a couple of days I think and we had to prepare to move on


to Tobruk and being the reserve brigade I think we went first down this road about fifty miles and took up a position outside the Tobruk defences. Well again much the same thing happened while although we were closer, not too far away from the actual defences there.


At one stage the attack was supposed to take place very, very quickly but because a lot of the tanks supporting us and a lot of ammunition had to be brought forward, some of the tanks had to be repaired after the Bardia episode. In fact the battle for Tobruk didn’t really start for a few days after the time it was


expected to start.
But you rushed over there?
We rushed over there and we took up position and we were subject to occasional shelling, but otherwise not much. At some stage during that time I was detailed off to do a reconnaissance of the ditch on behalf of the Brigade Commander. I was told I was to report to him so I did and told me what to


do and I was a small party. During the night we did a reconnaissance right down to the ditch and the wire. Actually I think we had to measure the ditch or something of that kind. We struck a certain amount of trouble there. I think any firing that took place against us was just machine guns firing on fixed lines and all we had to do


was lie down and wait until it stopped and we could move on. At one stage a couple of track vehicles, I don’t know what they were, came quite close to us and they stopped and I could hear the officers getting out and having a talk. They were Italians and then they drove on. We could just see them in the night. There was no light or anything so really


couldn’t do anything about it.
What sort of tanks were these?
Well I don’t know what sort. They were Italian track vehicles of some sort. They were probably just cruising around and they just stopped near us. We’d taken a telephone line in with us. There was no other communications.
Can you just tell me, you were set up on the outer defensive position?


This patrol that I did went in and out and reported back to the brigadier that night I think and told him what we’d seen and what happened. I didn’t keep a diary of any of these matters. I got an account of that particular episode because later on in the war I wrote to my family about it and I told them and that’s one


of the few letters that I’ve got that I wrote that had anything of interest in it. So we didn’t take a position in there – we just went in and had taken a look around and reported what we had seen and conditions were. We got far enough in we could hear the Italians talking on their posts or the wire where we went, but they didn’t see us or hear us and any firing was as


I say that took place was a bit distracting at the time was over our heads. We just laid down, waited for it to stop. It was ordinary defensive fire that these, sort of typical of what happens in these situations. So nothing very exciting there. We went back to our battalion position.
Where was the battalion position?


It was as I said on the outside, well back from the perimeter and then before the attack we moved forward a bit and nearer and then when the attack came again I think the 16th Brigade breached the defences and we went in through behind them and we were given objectives of some road


junction well into the fort and we made our way there under fire. From time to time a certain amount of shelling. We were well dispersed, we advanced no particular problems until we got nearer to our objective which we discovered was pretty heavily fortified with battalion tanks that had been dug in.


So we were held up by their machine guns and we then called for artillery support which we were hoping to get which would have covered our advances into the tank area because there were about twenty of them or so dug in around this road junction. Unfortunately before the artillery could be brought to bear on our


objective the company on my right – I was with C Company still, I was still second in command – but the company on our right, D Company, they began to advance which was quite the wrong thing for them to have done because that meant that we could not have the artillery support that we were hoping for. So my company commander had no alternative but to join in and


go forward. That’s when we got into a terrible lot of trouble with these tanks and the only anti-tank equipment we had were Boyes rifles which, although they were quite effective against the Italian tanks they were no good against the German ones we met later on. Even they were very small as far as a tank was concerned. It was just


a matter of going in best we could and trying to clear out the people in the tanks, which was done largely just by hand – open up the lids and drop the grenade in or something of that kind. In the meantime we lost a tremendous lot of people, well we lost a lot of people there. At one stage I felt I was in a very bad position because I


suddenly looked up and I had two machine guns and a tank pointing directly at me, and I was about twenty yards away I suppose. They followed me around, but for some reason or other the gunner never pulled the trigger, thank god. I then got in near the tank and with a Boyes rifle with me we blew a hole in the side of the tank and I got my pistol in and fired a few rounds inside and that brought them out the top very quickly. That was fine and it was OK.


I moved on a little bit and then we came under very heavy Italian fire again and I was, an Italian shell landed quite close to me and blew me up into the air and I came down with a bang. I was out to it. The next I knew…
I’d like to talk you about you getting wounded…
That’s what I’m coming to.


But before I do I’d like to spend a little more time about that incident where you fired your revolver onto a tank
In to it yes.
Was it easy?
No but we had these Boyes rifles which were anti-tank rifles and they fired quite a strong bullet. It would go through the steel side of the tank so that you had a bit of a hole in the tank and you could put the pistol through and pull


the trigger and inside, I imagine the bullets went around like that [with hand indicates ricochet] and the chaps would decide that this is not for them. They were going to give up anyway, but this was just enough incentive to get out and get there hands up in the air and get back and join their pals on the way to Egypt.
When you were facing the barrel of the tank…
What did I think?
What was going through your head?
Well I thought, “This is the end of me,” but luckily the


chap never pulled the trigger or his gun jammed, I don’t know. He must have been a soft-hearted Italian. He didn’t want to kill me.
Do you remember being frightened?
Well I suppose I was frightened, I don’t remember. It all happens in a flash of time and things go through your mind but I thought I’d had my chips at that stage, in one way or another. They got their revenge a few minutes later


when I was blown up.
It’s interesting that you could get physically close enough to the tanks.
Oh yes, well that’s right. That’s how we had to deal with all of them one way or another. Sometimes people were killed by getting on top of the tank and trying to prise open the lid and deal with it that way, so it


was a pretty slow process. Then they started to surrender and they opened up themselves and got out and we were able to move on. At least I imagine we moved on because they weren’t there when I woke up.
So how effective were your grenades?
Oh they were very effective once you got them inside the tank. There was nothing very effective about, they didn’t open the tank up, you just had to physically


get into the tank through the door or something or other otherwise there would have been no way to get into them at all because we didn’t have anti-tank guns as such – we had these Boyes rifles which I say were not very effective but they did go through the Italian armour.
The troops were happy to get up on top of a tank?
I don’t know that they were happy but they did.


It sounds quite frightening?
It was quite frightening I think, yes. They had to, somebody had to do it didn’t they? Couldn’t just lie there and there was no other way to go about it. I didn’t discover until after I got back and joined the battalion after all this episode had gone on that my company commander had in fact been killed there.


I’d been wounded and most of the officers in the company had been wounded and a number of the sergeants and… or killed. It was a pretty disastrous operation.
Quite a lot of casualties?
Had to be done. Yes. Particularly in C Company.
The moment that you got blown off your feet by an Italian shell.


It was an Italian shell or something landed close to me. I can see the thing coming down to the ground. I think it was a small shell – they have smallish guns – and poof I went up in the air and bang down on the ground. It was quite a while after that I came to and there I was lying on the ground with a number of my chaps around me, who’d also been wounded and some of them


much worse than me. I couldn’t see out of one eye because I had a bit of shell in the eye. I was bleeding here and there, I couldn’t move at all. Somebody had in the traditional way shoved a rifle in the ground beside me with the bayonet down that was a sign for the stretcher-bearers to pick somebody up. That had been done and I could see the rifle and the sounds of the battle had moved on


considerably in the distance and must have been quite a long time afterwards and a bird came around tweeting in the air and sat on the top of the rifle beside me. I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t get up and I really couldn’t move in fact so I didn’t know what had happened. I suppose I was in some sort of shock. One of my chaps was


not so far away and he was terribly badly wounded and wanting water and there was nothing I could do to get to him and there were various others around too. I wasn’t there alone. I was not very conscious of what was going on.
Do you remember hearing the sound of the blast?
Sure yeah. It was all momentary – it was poof and off you went. I don’t know


if I flew or was just knocked over or whether was physically thrown through the air. I was dealt with quite effectively that way. Then eventually the stretcher-bearers came along and picked us all up and took us back to the RAP [Regimental Aid Post] where we were lying on stretchers on the ground and the CO came to inspect the wounded, which was


typical of the COs of those days. And he came to the tent and the doctor was with him, a friend of mine an Italian doctor, and he stood at the end of my stretcher and he said, “I don’t think he’s going to live you know but we’ll send him back,” to casualty clearing station. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn't talk. I could hardly see and I thought, “My god that’s a great start isn’t


it. I must be pretty crook.” As it was they picked me up eventually and put me in an ambulance for the casualty clearing station where they put me onto an operating table which was warm and gave me a cup of hot tea and started to take bits of things out of me. Then bandaged me up and put me back in an ambulance and I was taken down a very rough road to Mersa Matruh


where they put me on an ambulance ship and we sailed off to Alexandria.
So what did it do to your morale when you heard that comment?
Well he wasn’t very encouraging I tell you that.
Did you think you were done for?
Well I didn’t know if I was done for or not, bleeding here and there. So as I say


I couldn’t see out of one eye. They fixed that up when we got to the CCS [Casualty Clearing Station] they took that bit out so that was better. I gradually recovered there. They didn’t say whether I was going to live any further and they didn’t fix me up. I was then more or less OK. I couldn’t move very much but they carried me away.


It was a great experience then because I was taken by ambulance hospital ship, I think it was called the Dorchester the ship was called or the Devonshire, one of those, and taken down to Alexandria where I was transferred to the British hospital there.
Were you on a stretcher the whole time?
Yes, but in the ship I was in a bunk. They had to move me by stretcher everywhere. I wasn’t a walking wounded by any means.


Taken down into the hospital, which was very nice hospital indeed. We had a British naval staff. The nurses were all naval people and very nice little nurses.
This is the 5th British General Hospital?
Yes the 5th British General Hospital that’s right, and I was kept there for a few days or a week and they patched me up and they took


bits out of me and I was in a bed next to an Australian officer who subsequently became our family doctor. I hadn’t known him before, a nice chap John Ray and we got chatting. I don’t something wrong with him too. I don’t whether he’d been knocked over or what, but he was there and then I was there for a couple of weeks


I suppose.
I understand that you had a gruesome incident with a British doctor fishing for bits in your leg?
That was in Jerusalem when we, I went then from Alexandria up to Jerusalem by train I think, by hospital train this time and we got into this hospital


which was a 60 something hospital in Jerusalem and there they proceeded to take more bits out of me. By that time I was more or less mobile. I could move around and they started to operate on my hand and it was terribly painful so I said, “Here give me that thing.” It was a scalpel and it was in this hand and still there


a bit of it, and I started to fiddle around with it and it was too much for the nurse and she fainted on the spot to see anyone operating on themselves like that. It was not really an operation. The doctor didn’t mind – he was watching what I was doing. It was easier for me. It was less painful if I could do it myself. That was a small thing. I gradually recovered.


I think I was there for a couple of weeks in Jerusalem and gradually became mobile. As it turned out my wounds were really very superficial and although they did cause a lot of bleeding there were no really big pieces in me. I wasn’t a serious case, there was nothing they really had to do – they didn’t have to dig down into my innards to get bits out. It was just a superficial job.


So this was shrapnel?
Shrapnel bits of metal yeah. I’ve still got a few floating around every now and again and they come to the surface. Then I was fit there and able to leave an ordinary life.
Did you have any problems with your eye?
No not at all. Once they took the piece out again which was quite a small bit and done at the casualty clearing station I never had any trouble with that again.


You were lucky.
I was very lucky indeed. I was expecting to, I was extremely lucky in the whole thing. My war could have finished there and then there was no doubt about that. I was just lucky. I looked much worse than I was. I wouldn’t say that I was unlucky – I’d say that I was lucky indeed. I found it very interesting sent back along the


CCS. I’d read about this – how they take wounded off the battlefield. It was quite an experience to go through.
What stays with you when you think about that?
Well I remember what I’ve just told you about it. Travelling down in the hospital ship and travelling up to Jerusalem in the train. Both hospitals that they had were very nice and


good staff and nice people who looked after us well, very well indeed. Then I got over my wounds in Jerusalem and was sent to the 19th Training Battalion, which was… each brigade had its own depot battalions but up in Palestine they had the 19th


Training Battalion and I went back there. I stayed there for several weeks assisting in the training. This is where the reinforcements came to before they grafted out to the battalions. All the time I was there my battalion was down in the western desert dealing and I didn’t rejoin it until just before we went to Greece.


I rejoined it down at Amiriyah I think. Came back to Egypt and there they were forming up and tidying up and getting ready to go on the next excursion to Greece.
Did you feel physically fit when you rejoined?
I must have been physically fit, sure.
Did you have to go through a medical before they’d let you back?
I’m sure they did that. I’m sure that happened to me probably before


I left the hospital in Jerusalem. I was passed as fit for service. Mind you I was very, very fit. I’d been to the university, I’d trained very hard. I rowed all the time at Oxford and I was an extremely fit young man, so I could stand up to these things pretty easily. I’d led a pretty fit life.
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 04


Bill you mentioned earlier that of course you didn’t realise at the time that you were wounded but when you rejoined the 2/8th Battalion you found out that your previous company commander had been killed?
Yes that’s right Captain Campbell, very nice chap had been killed in the same


engagement that I’d been wounded in. I learnt that when I got back to the battalion and I learnt also that I was then company commander of the same company. So that I had command of the company now for the next phase of the operation which happened a bit later because we embarked for Greece at the end of March


’41. We arrived in Piraeus on the 3rd April.
Had the battalion been reinforced?
Yes they’d been reinforced and re-equipped and lots of new faces there as far as I was concerned. I was only with the battalion before we embarked for about a week or two weeks, it was quite a short time. I don’t really remember much about what we were doing.


Do you remember what the mood was like?
Yes they were all pretty chirpy. They’d all done pretty well after Tobruk, they’d been successful in their operations further on and they were all pretty chirpy I think yeah. We’d lost a lot of people. I thought we’d lost a lot because it was my company that lost most


of the officers and all the sergeants so that they were a new gang which I joined as company commander to a large extent.
How did you settle into that role?
I settled in alright. It didn’t come a surprise, well it came as a surprise to me but I’d be quite accustomed to it, I wasn’t concerned


about it.
What were your orders that you received next?
Well the battalion then was ordered to Greece and as I say we embarked I think on 31st March, I can’t remember the name of the ship that we were on. We were there and we had other units on the ship. Quite a short trip across because we arrived on the


3rd April. It must have been only a couple of days on the way. I can’t remember any details about that trip, but I do remember arriving in Piraeus, the port of Athens, which is in the newspapers today or this week. We disembarked and taken by vehicle, by truck to a camp a place called Delphi, which is just beyond, just


outside Athens. We could see down into the city from there and it was a delightful place – a lovely green valley with wooded hills around us. It was such a contrast to the desert where we’d left. It was a really delightful place. When we arrived there we were basically given a bit of leave and so we went into Athens.


The troops were given leave in small parties and went into Athens and had a couple of days in Athens. Mind you I can’t remember if it is one day or two days but I certainly remember visiting the hotel the Grand Britannia. Also we went to a nightclub and then back to the battalion and we were there for a few days just before we were finally put on the


train and moved to right up to the northern borders of Greece. That was for the troops a very uncomfortable trip. It was a very long trip because they were travelling in cattle trucks as it were. Railways in Greece in those days were very rudimentary. Officers had little ordinary carriages but the troops were in the cattle


trucks and a very slow journey up through the mountains. It was very cold and very slow. We went first to a place called Veroia where the 16th Brigade had been established and we had been there to reinforce them but we hardly had any time there. We just turned, hardly had a night, we arrived in the early hours of the


morning. There was snow on the ground and there was no shelter or anything of that kind and we looked around there and in my company area there was a tent that I went and looked at and examined inside. I found boxes of Thompson sub-machine guns and ammunition, but no people there.


While I was looking at all of this a young British guards officer came in and he was the chap who occupied the tent and he was part of the British special operations group that were helping to arm the guerrillas in northern Greece. He was very nice and we had a chat and he gave me a bottle of whisky – Johnnie Walker, which was nice. He had a case of whisky. That was something anyway.


Then we were ordered almost immediately to, again in trucks, and moved further into Greece to a pass called Vevi [Battle of Vevi Pass]. That was a long journey and the troops had not had any sleep. We’d had a meal I suppose when we arrived, but nothing else. It was a long cold journey. Then eventually we had to get out of the trucks and march the last


ten miles to a small village which was just short of the pass, about five or six miles short of the pass and we spent the next night there, again without any shelter and there was snow. We arrived in the late evening and we spent the night there lying in the snow. Then the next morning we did the final march to


the pass which was five or six miles away.
Did you have enough equipment and clothing?
Well we had our greatcoats and I suppose we had a few blankets at that stage, yes we had blankets at that stage of proceedings but we had no tents.
What were you using for food?


We had rations brought up to us. Our own quartermasters and cooks were there with us and they had the rations and so we did have enough for meals. We then marched on the next morning to the pass, which was interesting because it was a real pass through – there were hills


on both sides of the pass. The 8th Battalion was to be located on the right hand side of the pass. The 2/4 Battalion which was with us also because this was the 19th Brigade were on the left hand side of the pass and they were up on fairly high mountains towards the left and we were up on the hill to the right of the pass. And then the pass itself there was a British battalion


the Rangers, which was the battalion of the 1st Armoured Brigade which were also in Greece and they were holding the mouth of the pass and we went up on the hills to the right and the 2/4 on the left. It was quite a climb. It was a long climb up. I suppose it was about a thousand metres high


or a thousand feet in those days.
Was there a track?
There was only a goat track up the hill so we had to manhandle all the equipment up as best we could. When I got to the top before the troops I could look down across the plain on the other side and below our particular position was the village itself, a little


Greek village, and away in the distance you could see Monastir which was then in Yugoslavia. This was the border between Yugoslavia and northern Greece and you could see right through and it was sunny with a sweeping plain beyond. Then I could see,


eventually see columns of Germans coming down through in the distance and in fact there were some New Zealand armoured cars I think [27th NZ (Machine Gun) Battalion] and they went out engaged them. I don’t know where they went to after that, they disappeared. They were there. They carried out some sort of attack against them. A long way away, you could


hardly see it. Then the course of the day we got the troops up and we started to set up our position and it was very near impossible to dig. It was all stone and rocks. It was a terrible place. There was snow about and it was pretty cold. We could only get up what we could carry up. It was very little. We brought up blankets and ammunition


and equipment and what we needed and established a defensive position across the top of the ridge there. Then as the evening grew on I think the Germans appeared down in the village below, been a certain amount of fighting further left to the left where they’d engaged with some British units that had gone out to battle.


Then we saw this German starting to come down to the village below. During the night they patrolled up to us and we had engaged them and using a subterfuge they’d actually taken one of my forward sections by saying they were British and talking to them as Australians they took a couple of prisoners,


wounded one of our chaps. We were involved in the battle almost straight away in one way or another. There were German patrols coming up and it wasn’t a very satisfactory position because you couldn’t get proper supporting fire between


platoon positions and section positions. We were very thinly stretched out on the ground. We had the D Company on our left which was closer to the pass itself and then there was C Company and on our right were A and B but they were further up another ridge up further. Beyond them were the Greek Dodecanese Regiment


right on the far left. So that was our position and then the next night it had started to snow very heavily and this would have been the 10th April I think, quite a short time after we’d arrived in Greece.
Did you have any communications?
Well only communications we had were telephones. This is one of the great problems of our army


in those days – we didn’t have wirelesses at all. Telephones only. So telephones from battalion headquarters which was at the bottom of the hill on the track up to these positions. So we had a telephone down to them and we had telephones between companies and other companies but not between ourselves and platoons because


they were, any orders had to be sent by runner. We were very short of communications. That was really one of the great problems that you couldn’t control what was going on very well, apart from what you could see.
Did it worry you when you got word that you’d lost a forward section?
Yes. It obviously did. Next morning we just had to


find out whether Germans were still inside our perimeter by patrolling around between the platoons. There were no Germans but it had been snowing all through the night and there was a very heavy snow and fog on the top and we couldn’t see very much. When that cleared we could see further down into the village itself and there were German tanks, armoured vehicles of some sort.


A lot of infantry milling around down there which the artillery engaged. That helped them for a while. They finally tried to make another attack up there and we had to hold that off which we did successfully in the course of that day. It was quite a lot of mortars and we were being shelled and it was really quite


a problem this defence because of course we were so badly prepared and we couldn’t dig any defensive position. We could only build stone sangers [shelter against sand, snow] as you call them with our hands the best we could. There was no way you could dig into the ground.
Were there any other features that you could use as cover?
No not really. There were just some bushes and things of that kind. It was pretty


barren on the top of these hills as far as I can remember. From there it was just the best we could do. So then the course of the next night the Germans attacked and we again lost one of our section which had been in my company had been captured. An officer had been killed. One of the platoon


officers had been killed. We had quite a big battle there. Then the following morning again it had snowed at night. We hadn’t been able to get up the track any food. We probably hadn’t had a hot meal up there. We brought up some sort of food in the boxes we had, insulated boxes. There was nothing very much.


It was not very satisfactory situation and of course that day I had another platoon from A Company, which is on our right, was sent to me to support me and we carried out a counter-attack, which was quite successful and got the Germans off the hill again. The young sergeant who


was in command of that platoon at the time he got a DCM [Distinguished Conduct Medal] for what he did there. It was a very successful counter-attack, which was good. We were then, the company, was called down to our battalion headquarters to get orders because it was decided that the brigade was going to withdraw that night from these


positions back to further back and trucks were going to pick us up. When we went down to the battalion headquarters and we were talking at our conference we realised that the Rangers were actually pulling out of the pass itself and moving back along the road and I think this was because there was confusion about orders. Obviously they thought that was the time they were to withdraw and they were doing it.


The unfortunate thing about that was that apart from leaving the pass undefended was that the communications between our battalion and brigade headquarters and the battalion on the left all passed through the pass. They’d just left the plugs out in the exchange. So communications were completely lost in the brigade. Anyway we went straight back up to the,


it was quite clear we were going to have to withdraw. We didn’t really expect the trucks would get there because by that time German tanks had moved in through the pass and were coming around behind us as well. Mind you the whole time this was going on there was a great battle going on on the top of the ridge where the Germans had come up from below. The


Dodecanese Regiment had also been ordered to move back and they were going back behind us, we could see them moving across behind us. One of the reasons we were supposed to hold the pass until after dark that night was to give them time to go back. It was quite obvious we couldn’t hold it once we got back to the top of the ridge. There was no way we were going to defeat the Germans there because they were swarming up the hill with


tanks and the whole top of the hills, they were operating right along.
So the tanks had enough road?
Well the slope wasn’t that great on that side. They could get armoured vehicles, whether they were real tanks or armoured vehicles but the infantry came up arriving on them and we couldn’t deal with them. The Boyes rifle was the only thing we had


anti-tank equipment – it was absolutely useless against German tanks. Might have dealt with Italians alright but it didn’t deal with the Germans. Then D Company Commander on my left and I decided we just had to withdraw back down to the, which was our other companies on the left were doing. Anyway withdrew.


So we withdrew down onto the plain by which time the Germans had come through and we were under fire from the rear as it were and there was only one thing we could do – we had to disperse widely and move back across the plain which was quite successful, but we lost a lot of people. A lot of wounded along the way and on the


top of the hill killed of course and indeed some were captured later on. One of my platoon commanders was captured down the bottom of the hill when he got there. He was a bit inclined not to expose himself to the dangers of fire and he remained there and he was taken. We eventually moved back and by the evening, late evening


we’d established a sort of defensive position on the next ridge further back.
What was the procedure for claiming the dead?
Well there was no real procedure when you were withdrawing like that. There was no way we could get the wounded down from the top, absolutely no way. It was literally steep goat tracks that we were going down.


Some may have got down and our doctor was down on the ground and he’d collected a lot of wounded and he got a military cross for the way he handled the casualties there and got them back to the next defensive position. That was a very brave thing to do and he was a wonderful little man.


So this was Hitler’s SS Division?
Yes we’d taken two the night before we’d taken two prisoners and identified them as coming from the Adolf Hitler Division of the SS which was the 1st SS they called themselves, so we knew we were up against really highly trained German soldiers.


We did pretty well to hold on as long as we can. Had the Rangers not pulled out, but I’m absolutely certain they did it because of confusion of orders. Brigade headquarters was a little far back and communications had been broken. Of course when we got back there was no way I could communicate with the CO because all the telephones had gone. Our


telephones were cut in the fighting on the top so there was no way I could get any order nor my colleague on left, his company was in the same sort of condition so we moved back.
Who gave the order to?
Nobody gave the order apart from well I just gave the order for C Company to move back and he gave orders for D Company.


A and B on our right had done the same and they were just moving back to assemble down below and move back to the next position. So it was a withdrawal. You wouldn’t have thought it was a withdrawal – it was pretty disrupted sort of retreat operation and we lost a lot of weapons, well we lost everything that was too heavy to carry down the slopes.


All our blankets and all that sort of stuff was discarded up there. I lost my, I’d had my sleeping roll and carried up with me the night before. I still had my bottle of whisky which I hadn’t even opened, I had that in it so I took a grenade and pulled the pin out and put the grenade in the end of my sleeping roll and


hoped that a German would be inquisitive enough to look in and get his head blown up. I had enough time to think about that, but I was very sorry to have missed my beautiful bottle of Johnnie Walker. I couldn’t take it down. I couldn’t take anything with me. We just had our personal weapons and any heavier weapons had to be left behind. Our Brens were taken of course and we had some two inch mortars,


but our main mortars were down below. The headquarters company had those. Then we just, I think a lot of, it was said that the troops threw away a lot of their weapons and some officer had directed them to discard their weapons to get away. That might have happened. I don’t know who did it and if it was ever discovered that.


I think they did throw away a lot of weapons and that always happens. The majority of them didn’t – they brought their rifles back and such ammunition that they could carry and a few Brens. We did our withdrawal and we were under fire a good deal of the time, but it wasn’t very effective because it was coming from quite a long way away. The New Zealand Machine Gun Company had set up


themselves in a little village down on the plain and they were very effective to give us some sort of cover from the Germans. They eventually got overrun themselves so we pottered away onto the next ridge where we took up a position. This was evening by now getting a bit dark and we’d marched


back from there to another place not so far away, about five miles back. Then we waited there for a little while and then finally we went to a third junction where we got picked up by trucks. We had no food or anything like that. Until we got to our first, second position back and then we


did get some sort of a meal that had been brought up. We slowly reorganised ourselves and a lot of stragglers came straggling back. The whole battalion was spread out across this plain retreating back on this next position and the Germans who got up where the rangers had been they were being able to fire down from


the left and others had fired from the right so we were really under a lot of fire from the enemy on the way back.
I would like to talk to you about the counter-attack during that campaign?
Yes that was at that time, that was in the morning


before the conference that I talked about before we went down. It was a very successful operation.
You did receive a citation for that effort.
Yes I did.
Could you tell us a bit more detail about that?
Well it’s hard to know. I can’t really remember too much of the detail of it. We just got on with the job and we drove the Germans back off the position


there. That’s why I was happy enough to go down to the conference. It was when I was down there that they came back. They re-attacked the positions and we had all the company commanders down there. I supposed my 2 I-C was up on the top directing operations, in fact I’m sure he was.


It’s interesting to reflect back when you did have that victory of reclaiming some ground that had been lost, were you thinking that you would be able to defend the position?
Oh yes that’s why we did it. We thought we’d get them off the top of the hill and we did successfully do that. They retreated back and then they came back with a counter-attack of their own and that was then the business. I don’t


remember too much detail about because it was all a pretty confused picture at the time. So it’s not very clear in my mind what was going on. One of my platoon commanders also got a military cross out of that operation. So the battalion was well decorated. As I said the doctor got one, I got one and


my platoon commander got one. Don’t forget these troops were terribly tired – they’d been through the western desert campaign, they were really not all that fit when they arrived in Greece and then we had this long cold journey finally up to this position without hardly any sleep, certainly no sleep in the train because


it was rocking around. They were completely exhausted up there and then the climb up in the snow was suddenly so different to what we’d experienced in the western desert and they were not in very good shape. They did very well with what they had. There was a lot of criticism about this, but then


afterwards our Brigade Commander George Vasey was very critical. He’d thought that everybody had cleared out and not done the right thing. I had an opportunity when we got back when we got to Crete he was our Brigade Commander there and he came and we had a long talk about this operation and I think that he changed his mind greatly after


he learnt what was really going on on the ground. His headquarters is quite a way back, he couldn’t see what was going on. His staff captain came and visited us and brigade major was around. He was rather out of touch and his communications had gone so nobody could ring him up and say this is what’s happening.


So he had a different view of this.
You say that it’s very confusing and it’s difficult to remember because things get blurred with time, but was it just a case of being outnumbered?
Oh sure there’s no doubt about that. I mean it was a German division against two battalions. We were very outnumbered because they had the tanks and a lot of artillery. Our artillery at that stage was not, couldn’t be


very effective because they couldn’t support us directly at the top of the hill.
You had no air support?
No air support at all. The Germans didn’t have any air support then either. Let’s face it there was later in the Greek campaign the air force came into play, but on this particular occasion we didn’t have any worries about aeroplanes. But we had worries about their artillery and their tanks and infantry. There were a lot


of them they were a very experienced German division at that.
Those couple of German prisoners that were taken, were there any intelligence?
Well I guess there was, they were just sent back. One of them was wounded I know that and they were just sent back to the intelligence officer. No doubt he did whatever is necessary and sent back to a prisoner of


war camp, I don’t know what happened to them. We really were about the first people to strike the Germans in the Greek campaign I think. I think that attack 16th Brigade, which was further on at this stage, but later on of course we had lots of engagements with them.
You were picked up and trucked to the
To the Aliakmon River?


That’s right. We went to that position, they were forming a defence position along the line of the Aliakmon River which was further back and the remnants of the 4th Battalion or the remnants of the 8th Battalion because we’d lost quite a lot of people by then. Went with that and we established a defensive position then we were on the wrong side of the river and it was the right side to do it but


from our point of view it was on the wrong side because we had this fast flowing and wide river flowing behind us and so we were on the left of the line, the New Zealanders were on the right further around. It was quite a big defensive position that had been established there as a rear guard position. Not that I realised at the time but we were already just moving


back to get out of Greece. It wasn’t apparent to us and it wasn’t apparent for quite a while after that. Eventually it became the situation we had to move out of that and to do that we had to cross the river. There was no way they could get any bridging equipment down on to this deep river which is right down in the hills, so the engineers – we had an engineer field company near us –


and they built a wooden bridge over the river with whatever local materials they could find, chopped down trees and all the rest of it. We could just walk and go back over that. We could only take the equipment that we had with us. Any other equipment that couldn’t be carried had to be left behind there too. So that was the next break in the thing and then we were


faced with a long steep climb up the hills on the other side, very slippery goat track up the other side to the top where there were vehicles waiting to take us to the next defensive position. We proceeded to that eventually. We didn’t have any trouble with the Germans in those places and then we took up a position,


I can’t remember the name of the place particularly. It was a bit further back from where we were, quite a way back.
You got Brallos Pass?
Well yes that was the next position. We went to this intermediate position which was being formed there to cover the main road coming back to the main forces were coming down, they cover


the main road and then from there we were moved back to the Brallos Pass where a new line of defence was being established. That’s when we came under air attack because we had to move back during the day along a main road and the Stukas [Junkers Stuka Ju-87 dive bombers] came in and bombed us. They weren’t really effective. They burnt one or two vehicles. We were always


having to stop and disperse into the countryside – it was pretty open sort of country.
How fatigued were you by now?
Everybody was very tired indeed because all this had been a very exhausting experience without too much in the way of sleep or food. We eventually got to Brallos and we took up a position on the


left of the main force, but as I say we were attacked all the way by Stukas and we didn’t lose very many people. A few people were killed and wounded and several trucks were set on fire. We got back alright and we took up our positions in a tree area which


gave us good cover from the Germans who were still flying over with reconnaissance planes and bombing certain parts of the front up there, not our particular area, it wasn’t too bad. This was the position that was to be held until the end of time. There was no, we weren’t aware that we weren’t going to go back any further.


It was a very strong position and it could have been held for quite a while I think, but by that time of course there were half a dozen German divisions coming down from various parts. They’d driven in the troops were on the left and they’d come past us so it was really pretty obvious. Actually it


was when we were there that the decision was finally made that the whole expeditionary force would be withdrawn from Greece and that was the last actual line of defence that we took up – the battalion.
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 05


You were saying the decision came to withdraw from Greece?
It came as a bit of a surprise to us. We didn’t know at our level that anything like that was going on and I don’t think the brigadier did either. He gave us a real pep talk at Brallos and said, “This is where we’re going to stay and we bloody well stayed there and that was that.” He was a very direct fellow. So we didn’t


really know and we arrived in Brallos I think about the 18th of April and it wasn’t, by the 23rd it wasn’t very, we ourselves hadn’t been attacked in Brallos as I said a lot of German aircraft and a lot of fighting going on down the bottom part of the hill but we ourselves in reserve on the top left we didn’t have any


particular fighting. It was at Brallos that we were joined by the last of the battalions of the brigade – the 11th Battalion turned up there, just arrived from Egypt. They’d been held back in Egypt for some reason or other when we came across to Greece so we the brigade only had the two battalions – the 8th and the 4th. We were joined by the 11th who were fresh from


their spot in Cairo no doubt. They were all ready to go but of course it was too late. Most of the 7th Division was supposed to go and they never appeared at all. So the Germans were against one Australian division, one New Zealand division and British division. There might have been a bit more than a division of Brits but


they had tanks and a lot of infantry. It wasn’t a very even fight. I’m sure the Germans at that stage would have had at least ten divisions in Greece and two of them were mountain divisions, very trained and practiced at fighting in the mountains. So it was a pretty uneven battle, but still we took our positions at Brallos and it wasn’t until the 23rd


we were told that we would have to withdraw and that’s when we knew that final withdrawal from Greece was going to take place. I think probably during the night of the 23rd we started off in a convoy of trucks and certainly the 8th Battalion, I think the 7th may have been with us, the 4th rather may have been with us,


so we withdrew back to, eventually, Kalamata which is on the west coast of Greece.
How did you feel about withdrawing?
It didn’t have any impression on me. I thought it was about time. I’d realised that we should never have been there by then. It was purely a political decision, it was not a military decision.


Nobody really wanted to go to Greece. There was very little we could do although I’m told we held up the attack on Russia by some days. Possibly yes possibly not. Certainly against the Russian oil fields in the south, or Romanian oil fields really. We got there and got into this convoy of trucks and moved out and the mountain road seemed to go on


forever. We were of course driving with very little light and very slow progress. A lot of stopping, there was a lot of congestion on the road. I remember at one stage the convoy stopped for quite a long time and it seemed to be longer than usual and I got out and walked down to the front of where the first


truck had stopped and the driver had gone sound asleep and all the other trucks had gone disappeared over the horizon. So that was quite a shock and a tense moment so we got moving again and it was alright and we followed the road until we got to a junction and then there was great quandary as to which way to go. For some reason or other the military police that were supposed to be directing the traffic had disappeared so we didn’t, it was a toss up – you could


go right or go left. We went down the right road thank goodness and eventually caught up with the convoy. It was a pretty scary trip that.
Were there a lot of civilians?
There were a lot of civilians on the road, not particularly on that road I don’t think. They were going down the main road straight into Athens. We were going around outside. We were going eventually to the Corinth Canal to cross the Corinth Canal


which we did early in the morning. That was quite an interesting to me because I had no idea of what it is – a really deep cut in the rocks and very narrow. You could see the canal right down below us. So we went on from there and eventually arrived at this place called Kalamata, which is where all the olives come from.


I still have Kalamata olives all the time in the house. There we just had to camp amongst the olive groves and conceal ourselves as much as possible and we stayed there thoughout the day preparing to evacuate from through the Kalamata port which is a very small, tiny quay really, down the bottom of the hills.


A dirt track down to it. We were there, it was pretty well organised.
Were you given any rations or…?
Oh yes. Well we had rations and we had yes that was alright. I probably think we were on half rations. We’d have bully beef and that wonderful stuff M and V [meat and veg, vegetables]


and that was great eating and biscuits. We didn’t have any hot food there. We spent the day hiding amongst the bushes with the German aircraft keep flying over – mostly reconnaissance aircraft but there wasn’t any bombing there. Late in the afternoon we got the order that we would be


withdrawing and we were issued with instructions and what to do with the trucks and what we could take. We could only take what we could carry in the way of weapons and ammunition and that sort of thing. We formed up into various groups and they had some fairly good control over the way down to the beach here so we didn’t have any particular problems getting down to the beach.


The battalion at this stage was reduced to about four hundred and fifty I should think or sixty over. It was quite small – we’d lost a lot of people in Greece and so we formed up. Eventually well after dark when the convoy came in we could see the lights of the ships coming in. We were


directed to go down to the quay and we marched down to the sand dunes and the cliffs were really narrow small track and down to the quay and the small town of Kalamata and we lined up there. The battalion was all together there on the quay. When we finally got there two companies – my company and


D Company of infantry and the headquarters company were directed onto one barge and we went out to this ship Costa Rica which was an old Dutch coastal ship I suppose. The rest of the battalion, the headquarters of the battalion and the A Company and B Company they went in another party to the City of London. So


the battalion was divided then into two ships. We hung around until, the convoy had to be under away and away clear of the Greek coast before dawn. I suppose we left at about two o’clock in the morning or something of that kind so that we were well out and away from Greece when dawn broke, because that was when the navy


expected that the German air attacks would start because they had been bombing the ships all the time around there. Sure enough just as the light was coming up the first of the Stukas arrived over our convoy. That was not so bad because we had every machine gun, we had a machine gun battalion on the ship,


certainly in a company of it and we had our own guns and Bren guns and all these had been assembled on the top deck together with as much ammunition as we could find. The ship itself had two small anti-aircraft guns on the top so all of that was well organised and well ready for the Germans. When they came they got


a huge supply of small arms ammunition directed at them and of course we had, the navy had anti-aircraft guns on their ships and we had a lot of naval ships there, four or five destroyers and some others. All the other ships were armed in the same way we were so it was and we struggled on through out the day.
Were any German planes hit?
Oh yes quite a lot were hit, one way or another. I think a total of seven were shot down


altogether in that part of the war. They were fairly constantly over us coming in waves but they were Stukas mostly – very noisy and rather frightening planes but not all that effective.
Whereabouts were you on the ship?
I was actually in a cabin down below. I wasn’t involved in up on the deck because there was no point in being there. It was all being


handled by the machine gunners and they knew exactly what to do. I think I went up and down and around the place a bit. In fact I was down below. Then at about half past three I suppose what we thought was the last of the German aircraft, they seemed to die down a lot and everything settled down and then one


single plane down out of the sun and dropped a bomb which landed about eight feet or so just to the stern of our ship. Well that was enough for a poor old Dutch ship, pretty ancient anyway. It stopped the engine to start with and then it sprung a lot of the plates and we started to take water at a pretty rapid rate. The ship started to sink. Well that was


alright. The alarms were given and all the troops were properly drilled to line on the decks and stay there and they did that and those that couldn’t get on the open decks, apart from the top deck which was reserved for the gunners, had to stand around in the corridors below and wait their turn to come up. We had three destroyers with us


and they came in alongside and went as close as they could to our ships and had the troops jump overboard and swing down ropes onto the decks of the destroyers and as one filled up the other one came alongside. In that way we were all successfully evacuated from the ship. The last troops to leave were the gunners and the ship’s officers were the last of that.


By the time they came down onto the deck of the destroyer the decks were almost level so they could walk straight across.
Were any men lost in that?
No. Not a soul was lost on that ship. The navy were absolutely wonderful. As we got on to our destroyer to go to Crete we saw the rest of the battalion going over the horizon in the City of London,


going to Alexandria as we later found out. As I say there we were in the destroyers and after a few hours of steaming we were into Suda Bay in Crete. That was quite a sight – it had been bombed constantly for days and you soon saw why the captains of the destroyers didn’t want


to hang around there much so we evacuated very quickly onto a dock and they went off because the bay was full of sunken ships and two ships were on fire, oil tankers I suppose something of that kind. They were burning so it was a pretty desolate sight.
What was the sight on shore?
That was pretty desolate too. There you were – you landed on


a strange island. We had just what we could carry, not very much. The troops had grate coats, we had our weapons with us, or most of them and that was about all. Eventually somebody came and we mustered the battalion into order. We had two infantry companies or bits of them and the headquarters company and bits of that, that included the band and people like that.


The carrier crews had been left behind but we had some of the crews. We had our headquarters company and the commander was a major, quite senior major in the battalion, Major Arthur Keyes, and he took command of


the battalion for what we were. We called ourselves a battalion – we were only two infantry companies.
Well how many men is that?
Well actually I think there were about three hundred of us on that ship, about three hundred and the rest were all on the City of London. Not more than three hundred and we branched off, guides came down to collect us and we went off into


the olive groves just inland from a little town called Suda which was the port of the main city of Crete, Canea. So we just went into the olive groves and set up camp the best we could, scrounged around for a bit of food. People didn’t have a great deal of equipment, troops didn’t have


their eating utensils, mess tins and so on had been lost in one way or another and so they had to eat tins of fish. Tinned food was available. We went down scrounging around the depots. The thing about Crete was it was being developed as a main base and there was a big depot there with buildings and we were parked just


not far away from that. There were a great many stray troops about – Palestinians, Cypriots and people of that kind that had been brought to, not really trained soldiers in any way. They were managing the base unloading ships and that sort of thing. So they were all about, it was pretty congested with those sort of people.


Anyway we stayed there, I think probably, about twenty-four hours. Then we went further down the island towards Retimo. We were of course on the north coast of Crete and then up beyond [UNCLEAR] was the airfield [at Maleme] and so to the east west


was a place called [UNCLEAR]. General Vasey had command of both those places and he was brigade, sorry a general later. We were in his command so we went down towards them. We didn’t go to Retimo – the 4th Battalion were in Retimo and beyond were other troops – Australian troops, British troops and


Greeks. We and the 7th Battalion, by this time the 7th Battalion had joined us, and we went to a place further down the coast where we again established in the olive groves and near what was called Georgeoupolis, which was a sort of by and we were there for quite a long time.


And we had, because of course we arrived on the 26th April, 27th it was because we embarked from Greece on the night of the 26th and so we were there a couple of days later and there our role was to establish some sort of coastal defences


because by that time it had been realised or they had information that the Germans were going to attack Crete but part of the attack would have been naval, sea-borne attack mostly reinforcing an airborne attack which they expected to have to be attacking the airfields.
Were you able to re-supply ammunitions or weapons by this stage?
Yes by that stage yes we were. What equipment we didn’t have we


got there. There was plenty of that on the island because the place had been a base so we were re-equipped with any weapons that had been missing and we were equipped with proper, more blankets and that sort of thing. We had the basic elements of living.


We had amongst our headquarters company the cooks and the quartermasters department and they managed to get the food together so we were alright like that after we’d got there a couple of days. The first two days we just had to scrounge for what could be found. It wasn’t all that good. We stayed there until the main attack took place on the 20th May.


How was the morale of the men?
The morale was alright, it was very good I think. They all realised that you just have to pull together and get over it. There’s no great deal. I think everybody was quite happy about it.
Were you carrying a lot of wounded men with you?
No we didn’t have any wounded men. There was a hospital on Crete and I think anybody that had been wounded or was sick


was shipped off to that. No they’d either been evacuated out of Greece or left behind. A lot of them were left behind at various stages because they couldn’t handle it so it was that time in the Greek story some of the medical people did a wonderful job looking after the wounded. They were left in hospitals and the Germans by and large


took care of them and didn’t interrupt it too much. We on Crete, all those people who landed with us were all quite OK and capable. We might have had some sick people there that were shipped off to the hospital, but we had our doctor I think he was with, in fact I’m sure he was with us. I’ve got a photograph of all the


officers that were in Crete. So we stayed there until the main attack which started on the 20th and really as far was I’m concerned I always think of Crete in three phases. The first phase was this phase that we’re talking about where we were just preparing to defend the place. There was a whole New Zealand division were there, three brigades of New Zealanders were there. They’d been evacuated from


Greece to Crete. There was a brigade of British troops. They had a large number of anti-aircraft guns and gunners, but very little artillery because we’d lost all our guns in Greece and evacuated any, the artillery regiments. So there were a couple of Australian artillery regiments there but they didn’t have any


guns or there were no guns to spare on the island and this was one of the great problems – with such a shortage of artillery if we were to defend the place. Eventually they did send some weapons from Egypt but they were mostly, some of them were old American guns, first war style, some eighteen-pounders and there were a few Italian guns that had been captured in the desert.


It was a real hotchpotch and all the different ammunition so that our artillery support was very limited which became a great problem when the attack came on. There were some tanks but very few tanks in Crete at the time. There was a British light tank regiment I think, but nothing much. We managed to get re-equipped…


our carrier platoon with a couple of carriers that they were able to salvage from one of these sunken ships, so we did have three or four carriers. You know carriers are semi-armoured little transport to carry Bren gun crews into action. They’re not really armoured but they’re quite satisfactory when you’re fighting infantry


fighting. We were re-equipped with those. We had a few mortars, things like that but nothing very much. So as I said I think I always view Crete with three phases: the first phase was what we’re talking about now to the time of the attack and then there was the attack on the 20th, which we didn’t see the air attack because we were further down the coast


and we were waiting for the sea-borne attack which the intelligence people had known would come after the airborne to reinforce them. In the event, on the day, word reached us that the navy had got amongst the German ships and dispersed the force altogether and sunk a great many of them


at considerable cost to our own navy I might add. They’d been quite successful in frustrating the German sea-borne effort and that never really occurred.
The airborne attack – you could see none of it from where you were?
Not really from where we were because we were quite a long way, I mean we could see the aeroplanes over the top and we could hear them bombing but we couldn’t actually see too much of that. Very soon afterwards we did because


later on the afternoon of the 20th the 8th Battalion was taken and moved up towards Canea and a part of the reserve the New Zealanders who were fighting up on the coast around the Maleme airport. Maleme was an airfield, or so called – it was very rudimentary – which was up about ten miles further up the coast


from Canea. We came into Canea but you could see, then we could see the paratroops landing and there were several waves of them all through the day and there was a lot of fighting and they had a very rough time, the Germans, and they brought in a lot of glider troops as well, brought in and they landed on the airfield or around


the airfield and they were all pretty heavily mauled so we didn’t actually engage in any fighting there. We took up a position between the hills and the capital and when I talk about the capital in those days it was a tiny little place, sort of Greek town. We took up our position there and we held that for about twenty-four hours. We weren’t attacked at all. There was no way we could attack the Germans – we were in reserve.


Then about twenty-four hours later, when we went there first we came under command of a British general who, General Weston, who was an anti-aircraft gunner actually, but he was in command of the Canea sector and New Zealanders up around, further up. Of course General Bernard Freyberg [a New Zealander] was there – he’d taken command of


the whole island. He’d been landed in Crete from Greece and he was in command of the New Zealand division so he was in overall command of the operations in Crete at that time. General Weston was in Canea and Brigadier Vasey was with the troops down in Retimo and that way.


The next day or the day after he was moved up to take command and brought the 7th Battalion with him and we then had the 8th, 7th, we had the 2nd Greek Battalion and he then moved us forward some thousand yards I suppose


or a couple of miles in other words forward from where we were and in that position we did have some contact with the Germans and we were patrolling carefully and occasionally came into contact with little groups which we’d have a bit of a fight, it was hardly fighting. The real fighting was going on all around the airport with mostly the


New Zealanders who were there in not a great strength because they were all on half strength like we were. They’d lost a lot of troops. I mean you call them brigades but each brigade was no more than a couple of battalions in size, in terms of people. We stayed there and then that was all through the 20th and 23rd around about that by which time


the Germans had secured the airport for themselves and were bringing in quite large numbers of airborne troops and so the battle was becoming very intense. This was the second phase of the operation really because it was all this fighting around Maleme and Canea and there was some fighting going on in


Retimo and Heraklion although we didn’t know anything about that because the German plan was to land in three places, airborne troops in three places in [UNCLEAR] Retimo area and they both had little airfields and the main attack was around Canea and Maleme airfield in that area. We were then


engaged in a lot of fighting when we moved forward there. By that time the Germans were getting, really getting control and by that stage they had control of the airfield itself and the New Zealanders were being pushed back and more attacks around Canea, there had been German attacks there. They’d finally


looked as though they were going to break through and so we were holding an important position which we did hold until it was realised that we were going to be outflanked if we didn’t pull back a little further. Before that my company engaged in quite a substantial little operation. It was a place that we called the Castle. Point of fact is


it was a rather rocky little hill not too far away and there were Germans there who could fire down on our positions and we launched a company attack on this position. It wasn’t very successful. The Germans were so well concealed we couldn’t winkle them out at all. Eventually it was decided to call that off. We lost a few people, not many.


We killed quite a lot of Germans and it was decided then that the situation on our right was getting so much worse that we would have to draw back and we were ordered to draw back to a line called, that became known as Street 42, I think, which was in fact sort of in the base area but


about the place where we bivouacked when we first came ashore. There we formed up with, our 8th Battalion was on the right, we were on the right protecting a road junction, a main road into Canea beyond. Then there was the 7th Battalion and there were two New Zealand Battalions and the Greeks were on the far end.


That was a good position to be in. We were protecting the port of Canea itself where a ship was coming in to land some more troops and some eight tons of stores were to land and our job was to hold the position until they could get them ashore. When we were in that position there General Freyberg called on us and came


to visit the unit and inspected us and talked to us. I’ve a photograph of him doing that too. Shortly after that happened the German attack, we could see about four hundred Germans coming down towards this position and they were starting to loot the stores out of the various stores houses up there


and this gave us a great opportunity. 7th Battalion and one of the New Zealand Battalion, or two of them I think, mounted a counter-attack to drive them out. This was most successful, terrified them. One of the Maori battalions, they were frightening soldiers and the 7th weren’t much better and they scared the life out of the Germans. They killed a lot – about a hundred or so, but the rest just


packed up and ran and disappeared and we didn’t see them again.
The stores that they were looting, were they allied stores?
Well yes they were because this is part of the base area and there were some stores there that had been landed there long before. That’s when I was mentioning the Cypriots and Palestinians, they were just unarmed troops they were.


Vasey and General Freyberg both recognised that both these people should be got out of Crete and when very soon after we arrived in Crete they both and independently sent messages to Cairo. In the case of Vasey to General Blamey and in case of General Freyberg to General Weybourne requesting ships come and take these people away because they were just getting in the way of the whole


thing, there was nothing they could do
They were unarmed?
They were unarmed and uncontrolled and very few officers and they were just quite out of control. They were eating up such stores that they could rummage around the place and really getting in the way.
How many were there?
Well I think there were some thousand, I think if I remember rightly there were about ten thousand altogether originally. They did get rid of some but not very many. Finally


when we got to our final destination there were still about six thousand plus a lot of small bits of other units that had lost their officers and people like searchlight companies and practically non-competent units and they all just cleared off and tried to get down on some beach on the other side of the island and they were all there when we arrived back.


They were a terrible nuisance there. Then we really, this is a point I think about the 25th or 26th May I’m talking about now, that we were holding this position along the 42nd Street as they called it and we were in danger of being outflanked by the troops coming down through the mountains on the left,


Germans coming around on our left. The situation was getting quite critical – there was tremendous confusion of command, communications were practically non-existent and there was a very strange command set up with General Weston and the New Zealand brigadiers all having their own little interests and


it was really quite a confused situation and quite dangerous. So General Freyberg had to withdraw back a little way and I was out of communication with him, I think he was out of communication with Cairo at that stage too. The whole thing was in a really pretty serious way. So General Vasey


and the New Zealand brigadiers two of them got together and they made a decision that they were going to start to withdraw and organise ourselves into a rear-guard force and after this German attack that we repulsed, they never came back and we were able to disengage from that position after dark. There were no trucks, we just had to do this on foot and we


withdrew and arranged that we would withdraw up the road towards Sfakia.
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 06


I think we got to the stage where we were still deployed along this 42nd Street, the night was falling and we were being outflanked by Germans coming down through mountains on our left and so Brigadier Vasey and the New Zealand Brigadiers got together and decided that we would disengage from


that position and some troops would go straight back along the road to Sfakia and would form a rear guard of the 2/8th Battalion, 19th Brigade and a couple of battalions of New Zealanders.
At an officer level did you agree with the withdrawal at this time?
Oh yes I think


I probably did, I certainly did. There was no way in the world that we were going to beat the Germans then because we didn’t have the capacity to do it, quite honestly, and we were outnumbered and outgunned. The whole thing was a real mess. It was always going to be unless they’d been able to bring in more a lot more troops. We


had very little air support. We did see occasionally, the air force had to withdraw back to Egypt, and we once or twice the RAF [Royal Air Force] came over bombing or strafing. There were no aircraft in Crete at all left. They’d taken them all back, very wisely, back to England so that we had no air cover, whereas the Germans had


bags of it all the time. They had the control of the airfield and they were to bring in any troops that they wanted to and at that stage they could bring them in by sea but I don’t think they did. I think they’d given up that idea – they had them just coming in by air. I think they got a terrible mauling and they were very, it was touch and go at one stage whether they


would or wouldn’t pack up and clear out. But they didn’t so we’d now reached the stage where we had to do it ourselves. I’m told that was the last really big airborne operation that the Germans did in the war. They got such a terrible going over in Crete they decided not to use paratroops anymore for that purpose.


That’s another story and I don’t know much about that .
What sort of evacuation was it?
What we did we planned that we’d form a rear guard of the 19th Battalion and a couple of the New Zealand battalions and we fell back to various positions along the road to Sfakia, leapfrogging back. Some would stay and hold a position


and the others would move back and hold the position and so on back through the mountains. It was tremendously mountainous there. We went finally, the final position up on the little top of the mountain overlooking this tiny village of Sfakia and it’s very small port. To get there we did have several engagements with the


Germans. They followed fairly fast after, starting on the next day. We ourselves had an engagement with a group of motorcyclists came around and we were able to, from our position, to see them and fire on them and they cleared off and they didn’t come back a while and then we moved back again to another position and


finally we took up a final position on the hills overlooking the sea at the end. The 8th Battalion were holding up a particular waddy that went down on the left and the 7th Battalion and the New Zealanders were across the other side. We held a half moon


position overlooking, looking down towards the east from where we were in the mountains. We did there have several engagements with the Germans. The first of these was when we went into this position we had left behind us several tanks


and we sent down two of our carriers to support them and they had a big engagement with the Germans. They were there to cover the engineers who were blowing the road, blowing cavities in the road to stop the Germans using the road. Mind you all the time we were withdrawing so was the population. There was tremendous confusion on the roads. A lot of civilians were coming along


and of course a lot of soldiers, stragglers who either deserted their units or lost them or lost everything and were trying to do what they could to get to the beach and get out of the country. So there was quite a problem. At one stage a large number of Italian prisoners of war came and they were sent down the road.


They wanted to get away from us, so they were sent to the Germans in the hope that they would confuse them as much as we were being confused. Whether they did or not I don’t know. Our final position, as I said, we had quite an engagement with the Germans.
As company commander what was your challenge at this point?
Well my challenge was to control the company within the orders that


were given to me by our battalion commander who at that time was Major Keyes and he’d directed what my company should do and D Company should do and so on and he himself was under Brigadier Vasey’s command, who commanded the whole position there.


The last reserve position.
Did you have any difficult decisions to make?
Oh no I don’t think I had any difficult decisions to make. I just had to dispose of our troops in the best possible way to hold the position. I don’t think anything that I couldn’t manage. It was just that we had a task to do and that’s


what we did. So we stayed there until, we held on with a lot of pressure from the Germans at that stage and they were coming around, we were afraid that they would get down onto the beach behind us, but they didn’t succeed in doing that at that stage. Then the evacuation started and there was some


considerable confusion then with all these odd people milling around trying to get, the situation was fairly well controlled until the fighting troops had got down, or some of them. Unfortunately the 7th Battalion which was also part of the rear guard couldn’t get through this mob of people on this very narrow track and they finally didn’t make it, or some of


them didn’t. Some companies did but some didn’t. When we got down on the docks we were still together, the remains of us. Actually there were only two hundred and three left at that stage. We had got down there and we were evacuated on the Phoebe which was anti-aircraft cruiser, came in and there were a couple of


barges there to take us out, landing craft took us out to the ship and we were OK.
Was this at nighttime?
Oh yes absolutely all at night. The night of the 31st and 1st June I think. We sailed quietly away to Egypt, Alexandria.


Was there an incident of a boat sinking?
No that was the well I think the navy had lost a lot of ships in this evacuation. We weren’t present when any happened. I think you’re thinking about the boat that we traveled on from Greece to Crete. That was sunk, the Costa Rica. In this particular action we were not involved in anything like that, but a lot of the


navy were, in fact the navy took a tremendous beating over all these evacuations and they lost an enormous amount of ships. There were a lot of great stories about people who commandeered small craft and made their own to Egypt. That was something I wasn’t involved in thank goodness.
So you were able to sail?


Oh yes we sailed quite comfortably away and of course he was a great pleasure to get on to this big naval ship because there we could gets cups of tea and buns and what have you because we hadn’t had anything much to eat for several days. So there we are back in Egypt early in June


about a month after we left.
Were you under fire at all?
No we weren’t actually physically bombed as far as I remember we didn’t have any bombing on the way across to Alexandria. That all took place around the other side of the island where they were trying to evacuate troops from Retimo and Heraklion, there were ships sunk there.


They had to go across another little port further down. We went to Sfakia because there were really three roads across Crete; one across the area we were in and one from Retimo and one from [UNCLEAR], but they were just goat tracks. In fact the road that we were on you wouldn’t call it a road. It was a main road a few miles in and then after that it just became a dirty track and finally ended up


becoming a sort of goat track. I’ll never forget the troops were very tired and exhausted and it was a real strain.
You must have been losing weight?
That’s right. I’d found a piece of chocolate, very dark chocolate, Cretan chocolate I suppose it was and I


gnawed on that all the way over. Mind you it was part used when I got it first. That didn’t worry me. I can’t quite remember where I found it but it was sitting there somewhere and it looked good and I picked it up and that was that. That’s what I ate on my way across. Pretty unhygienic. I wouldn’t do it now.
What was your sense of relief when you got on that ship?


Of course you had a great sense of relief because you could have well not have got on. One of the sad things, really sad things was that when we were in that final position our quartermaster who was a very nice chap who’d been a captain quartermaster who just disappeared way back. He came out of the bushes and said to Keyes, “Can you take me with you?”


and he said, “No way you find your own way home. We’re not going to have you. You deserted us and now you can go on finding your own way.” This was very upsetting for some of us. I mean it was quite the right thing to do. Why should we, this chap had cleared out, I don’t know what happened. I supposed he was taken prisoner. He never appeared again.


It was really rather sad. The other sad thing that happened on that whole evacuation was coming out of Greece when we were being picked up by the destroyers a band as I mentioned was with us and we had a very highly prized bugle which had been with the 8th Battalion throughout the first war and it was very highly prized this relic. And


the chap who’s responsible for that threw it down onto the destroyer deck to somebody there and while he climbed down the rope, but of course when he got on the destroyer it was never found again. It had been liberated by the sailors or somebody. We never found that beautiful bugle. That was a bad blow to the morale of the battalion. These


little things had happened. So we’re back in Egypt now. The battalion was reforming up at a place called Rafah which is again in the news now. When we were there it


was a tiny Arab village just near Gaza. It was on the edge of the Sinai desert and just a small place and that was where the battalion was encamped and reforming and those of us that had been in Crete went there and joined the rest of them. We were there for a couple of weeks I suppose. We were engaged in patrolling out into the desert from


Rafah on camels. I’ve some photographs of the 2/8th camel patrol. Of course at this stage the battle of El Alamein had not taken place and war was still going on in the western desert and of course in Syria too.


I don’t know what they were looking for. I didn’t stay with the battalion long. After that I was sent to the headquarters of the 6th Division as a staff captain A learner. That was up near, not so far from Tel Aviv –


the headquarters. I went up there and joined that and I didn’t like that work much but still it was something to do.
Why didn’t you like it?
Well it’s all to do with personnel and legal matters. I don’t know why they thought I’d be good at that, and I wasn’t terribly good.


I was only there for I can’t remember how long but not that long and I was sent to the AIF Junior Staff School that was in Palestine where I caught up with my friend who’d actually got me my


ticket to leave England in the first place, Reggie Pollard, who was then a lieutenant-colonel and in charge of the Junior Staff College at a place called La Trune and I did a course there which was about six weeks or something. At the end of that I was promoted to major and transferred to the 1st Corps Headquarters


which by that time was in Syria, having the war by then concluded in Syria so I didn’t see any of the actual fighting but I went up to where the headquarters was and I had the position of… I was G2 Liaison as a major and my main responsibility was liaising with 1st French Corps


who had their headquarters in Beirut.
Can I just ask you a question? When you ran into Reggie Pollard did you have a chance to do any socialising at that time?
No, but we’d done a bit of socialising when I was on 6th Div [Division] Headquarters. We used to, one of the other officers and I, he was a great friend of mine, we used to go every weekend up to


Tel Aviv and have a really good dinner and things like that. We didn’t have a bad time. So we didn’t do any other socialising I don’t think at that stage. We did some socialising when we got to Alayh, which is on the hills just behind Beirut and of course we had a wonderful time in Beirut and we got to know lots of


people and parties. As far as we were concerned the war was on and we were just there in a defensive position, because it was expected that the Germans might try to come down through Syria to relieve the Germans in the western desert but that didn’t come out. The other thing that I


did in Syria, I was responsible for the formation of an Australian Ski Battalion, because there in the winter the land in between the two mountains that go up the centre of Syria of course was all under snow. During the summer that area was covered by a British cavalry regiment on horses.


They were the only horsed regiment in the area. That was their responsibility, they patrolled the area. When the winter came there was nobody there so it was decided to establish an Australian Ski Battalion because the French had ski battalions there and they had a barracks up there at the Cedars – ski battalion barracks. So we collected together a number of Australians who were good skiers or who had skiing experience


and we had a very high quality British instructor who had skied for Great Britain before the war and some established and well trained Australian skiers. My job was to get this thing together and get the equipment and I was given carte blanche to go down into Beirut and buy as many skis as I could, which I did, to


the fury of the Q branch. That was what I was told to do and that’s what I did. The French destroyed all their skis on ski trips up there. They left the barracks but didn’t leave any skis behind. So we put together a group of them. I don’t know how many we finally got together, some hundreds of Australian skiers and they went up there and trained.
Do you think in hindsight that helped boost morale a bit?
Of course it would, yes. I’m sure it did, yes it was


great fun. They had a great time they had lots for the short time it lasted through the winter. I used to ski down from my mess to my office down the hill. I’ve pictures of that too. We had a very good time there. A bit of relief.


It was from there that I was finally withdrawn from corps headquarters back to Australia. We went, I can’t remember the date offhand, we went down to Suez and we withdrew back to Australia. I was sent down to Cairo with a small


convoy to collect… when we withdrew our divisions from the 6th and the 7th Division from the Middle East the British ensured, part of the agreement was that we would take with us a full kit of stores. I was sent down to Cairo to GHQ [General Headquarters]


to collect the last of the war stores that were to equip the 6th and the 7th Divisions. I took those down to Suez and they went to the units and wherever they were they didn’t embark from there, now I can’t remember. That was my last chore in the Middle East.
Before you left the Middle East, do your remember if you received news about Japan entering the war?


I think I must have. I can’t remember when Japan came into the war, what the date was.
December ’41.
Oh yes I remember. I left the Middle East later than that. When did I leave? February ’42.
I’m just wondering if you remember?
I probably was aware of it yes. I just can’t remember now what I knew about it. That was obviously the reason we were being brought back to


Australia because Australia had three divisions over there and it wasn’t a very good situation back in Australia then. Certainly when we arrived back we found the situation wasn’t too good here and had to set about reorganising a whole lot of things.
What was your first task when you got back?
As I said I was in the 1st Corps Headquarters and


when I got back to Australia we were converted to what they called the 1st Army Headquarters and we were all sent up to Toowoomba where we set up the army headquarters. General Lavarack was in command of the corps and he came up to 1st Army Headquarters commander. We formed the staff of the 1st Army up there in Toowoomba


and tried to get together a tremendous lot of units from all over Australia and lots of them were designated to us as the 1st Army. When you went to see them it ended up they had hardly any soldiers or any trucks or you had a division that didn’t have any vehicles to move them. They were just pieces of paper, they had them on paper.


Were still good CMF Divisions around the place and some of them were the 1st Army and some of them were elsewhere. So it was our task to get the thing reorganised a bit. I said I was by that stage the senior liaison officer in the 1st Army Headquarters. We had a


number of our officers I knew very well there.
You were promoted?
I was promoted to Major Lieutenant-Colonel. I was G1 Liaison there. I did a fair bit of travelling in that capacity.
What were your constraints or challenges at this time?
Well I don’t know whether you call them


challenges or just getting on with the job. I knew what we were trying to do and I was doing my best to do it. So it’s not like that you didn’t have challenges that you might have now, but it was just a job to do.
After your time at Toowoomba you went down to Brisbane?
Yes. As I said when


I was in this position – G1 Liaison, General Berryman who was the chief of staff of 1st Army and he’d come to the conclusion that there was a great shortage of staff officers around, junior staff officers, captains and majors. So they decided although there was some sort of staff school being established in Duntroon


at the time they decided to established their own 1st Army staff school to train captains and brigade majors and that sort of thing. I was designated to go down and establish this school and I went to a convent in Brisbane and I can’t remember the name of the place but we took over this


big convent and I got several officers around me to be instructors and we started from scratch. Actually I was the chief instructor of the first course. We ran a course before I finally left to go to the new staff college that was established in Duntroon, which had two wings. They had new staff college, the senior wing that I was in and


the junior wing. I went on the first course of the senior wing.
Did you enjoy instructing?
Oh sure yes well I was quite happy doing that. Yes I did. It was the organisation of it too, getting the instructors together and getting a syllabus out. We followed very much the same course that I’d done in… which I suppose is why I was sent – because I’d done that course


in Palestine. I had the papers with me so I was able to reproduce to a large extent there in Brisbane. We did all the things that you do in these staff colleges, training and it was quite successful. In fact very successful. Don’t know how long


it went on after I left it. It was quite some time.
This is right at the formation days of Duntroon?
Well no not really. Duntroon had been formed before the war, after the first war. It was much the same as it is now in the way of buildings. It was not nearly as big as it is now.


They were no longer training young officers there. Two staff schools were established there. I think there may have been cadets around I don’t remember them. There may have been, must have been. That was quite a long course. I think I was there for almost six months, if I remember rightly.
Yes you were there until August ’42.


Yes August ’42 from March or April. That was a very good course, a very interesting course. There weren’t very many of us on it – about ten or twelve officers training. A lot of the instructors were people I knew from the Middle East.


It was very good. I hadn’t quite finished the course when a telegram arrived from army headquarters to say that I’d been posted urgently to New Guinea and so I went, it was about a week before the end of the course, I was taken away from Duntroon and went straight up to Port Moresby


and once again I’d got myself into the A branch because I went there as AAG [Assistant Adjutant General]. That was the end of the A branch and I was to take over from a chap who was there. I didn’t relish this at all but alright that was what I was to do and I did. I hardly got into the job, I’d been over there a


couple of weeks I suppose and was transferred to become G1 liaison again and then I was only in that job for about a week and then I took over as G1 operations at New Guinea Force Headquarters. It was a much more interesting job.
Just for the record and for future generations can you clarify and describe the GS01 liaison job?
You were a


senior officer who could be sent anywhere to do anything to find out anything. Some of my visits were quite interesting – I was sent down to Buna or Cape Endaiadere where the war was going on because we had very little information about, this may have been a little bit later,


from an American division fighting down there but nobody knew what they were doing. The commander at that stage was General Herring. He just wanted to find out what was going on so the liaison officer was sent down to their… to talk to the American general. When I found him he didn’t know much more about what was going on


than we did. I reported this back plus my experiences there, which were quite a tale, but other people have written about this and eventually he got the sack, because they were just not doing anything at all. Their communications had been lost and they were in an awful mess. So that was the sort of thing I did. On other occasions I


went up to Wau, I was taken up to Wau by General Berryman, because they were in some trouble up there. The brigadier his brigade major had gone off and got himself lost so I went up there with General Berryman, A – to find out what was going on and


B – too I was left behind to help up there for a while until this poor chap had found his way out of the bush. Those were the sort of things a liaison officer does. I told you what I did in Syria – you’re sort of an odd job man.
To begin with when you first went to New Guinea you were based in Moresby.
Yes in Moresby and eventually the


advanced headquarters was set up in Popondetta and I moved over with that because that was nearer the action at that stage. Kokoda battles were just towards the end when I went there. They were down on the plain or in the swamps at the other end, the 7th Division and of course General Vasey was there and he was division commander. So the real Kokoda business


was over when I came up so I didn’t see anything of that.
Were you involved in any of the Kokoda planning?
No because as I say this was all finished before I came. I was only involved when I went to Popondetta because it was there that I became the operations G1 and we were


involved in the operation of such planning that needed to be done – operational matters in relation to the defeat of the Japanese at Buna and the Cape Endaiadere thing.
So it was when you got to Popondetta that you started working with Berryman and Herring?
I was working with them all the way through because in my previous


position I’d been directly responsible to General Berryman.
What was the camp like at Popondetta?
It was, we just put it up as we arrived. We had a lot of New Guinea natives had officers with them who were experienced patrol officers and they just built the camp out of bamboo


and things that they could lay on the roof. It was bush camp for headquarters – very nice, very comfortable. Well not comfortable but it was OK.
Did you have your own tent?
Yes I think I probably did. I might have shared it with somebody else, I think I did share it. That was the advanced headquarters and main headquarters were still


back in Port Moresby. General came over and controlled the battle from there, which is a very sensible thing to do because at this stage it was miles away from Moresby.
You did mention that there was an incident where you had to go looking for a general.
That’s right.
That happened while you were at Popondetta?


That happened I think before I was in Popondetta. That happened when I flew over to Dobodura I think it was and he was advancing on that particular track. I’m pretty sure I went over there from Port Moresby


but it was shortly after that we went all over to Popondetta.
Are you able to tell us what your orders were? Why were you looking for him?
Well because nobody knew what he was doing, what his battalions were doing. They were supposed to be fighting down at Cape Endaiadere and when I arrived, I was just dumped by the aeroplane on this


grass strip which was Dobodura. There was nothing there and over in some palm trees there was a bit of smoke coming up from some native huts so I went over there and I found there some of the Americans were camped in there and there was colonel in there making a stew in a pot, an American colonel. I asked him where was the general and he said, “He’s back down the track.


He’s coming along, he’s back down the track.” I sat there all day waiting for the general to come up the track. Nobody could communicate with him and when he arrived…
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 07


As I say I was in this sort of native village and the general finally appeared on the track and he explained that his signaller had thrown away their heavy signal equipment – that’s why he couldn’t communicate with anyone. He said that they got tired and couldn't be bothered carrying it anymore. That didn’t sound too good to me.


Alright I had a talk to him and I more or less found out what they were doing at the other end – not so much from him but the various people that came along. I was then lifted back to Moresby by the plane and reported to General Herring what I’d seen and what was done and he reported to


US General Douglas MacArthur. The result of that was that General Robert L. Eichelberger was sent off from Australia to take charge of the Americans and do what was necessary. What was necessary was done and they discharged this chap and sent him back to America. I was sorry for him but it was just too bad really. You couldn’t be doing that sort of thing.
What did you say in your report about him?
Well I can barely remember


but I just told the story. It was a verbal report that I made to General Herring. The whole situation was just as I described it as – complete chaos. Their units, the… I don’t know what they were doing but they weren’t really getting on with what they were supposed to be doing. We were very concerned that the Japanese would be


reinforcing, bringing troops in at night and they wanted to get this thing cleaned up as soon as possible. General Vasey was further down at Buna and he was battling away with the Japanese down there who were holding beachheads on the sea and we wanted to get this thing cleaned up as quick as we could. Eventually they sent in the 18th Brigade and I had further


liaison duties with them. I think that’s when I got to Popondetta.
How did you find working with the Americans?
I found that I got on well with the Americans when I, this was my first real experience of the Americans I think, as such. There were a couple of American officers on this staff college course I did in Duntroon.


Apart from that I hadn’t met Americans before. They didn’t appear around the Middle East, they weren’t in the war then. So I had no experience of the Americans. I subsequently had a great deal of experience with the American air force when we were planning the Nadzab operation. They were very good chaps to deal with, but this particular chap it was


just unfortunate. 32nd Division it was. The Americans at that stage had two divisions in our area – the 41st and the 32nd and this was the 32nd and had a National Guard division and they were not the regular American Army. He was just not good I suppose, not up to it. I think they were doing the best they could


but for us with a fair bit of experience in the Middle East and their fighting wasn’t very impressive.
How did you feel about being possibly quite instrumental in his dismissal?
I don’t think I had any particular feeling about it then and I don’t have now. I’ve had a couple of arguments with Americans since who thought it was a terrible thing to do, but


I don’t. It clearly wasn’t because General MacArthur agreed and General Eichelberger who I got to know later on who was a marvellous chap and he agreed and there was no problem about that. He’s the chap that gave him the sack. I didn’t, nor did Herring. It wasn’t our business. We made these reports because we were being asked what they were doing. MacArthur’s headquarters was asking as in New Guinea of course,


“What the hell are these chaps up to?” We couldn’t tell them because we were out of communication. So I think when I came back, if I remember rightly General Sutherland, who was MacArthur‘s chief-of-staff was actually present when I made my report to General Herring, I think he was.
Can you explain more your role in the planning process of the attacks in New Guinea?


My real role, the planning had all been done when I was doing this in New Guinea Force Headquarters apart from the day-to-day developments of the operations I was involved in of course but otherwise it was all done. I didn’t really come into the planning bit of it until I was organising in the 7th Division for


the landing in Nadzab. There was an airborne operation and that was a little later in the story. So we were in Popondetta and I stayed in Popondetta until I was appointed G1 of the 7th Division which had by that time had gone back to Australia


and was reforming up on the tablelands, together with the 9th Division which had just come back from the Middle East and they were down on the coast because they were going to take part in this operation too and it was to be a joint operation between 7th and 9th Divisions against Lae to start with. We were,


the plan was we would land inland in Lae at a place called Nadzab where there was lots of grass and the possibility to build an airfield and we were to capture that and then move down behind Lae and the 7th and 9th Division were down on the coast just above Lae and


we were going to meet and carry out a joint attack on the so-called city of Lae, which was really hardly a place in those days, not a place at all these days. It was a centre of Japanese resistance and we were very concerned that it would be reinforced. I think that we had ideas that there were a lot more Japanese than in


fact were there. That was when I did any planning that I did and that was a lot of planning, because well first of all we had to, as I said I was with the division for almost a year doing that job – one of the longest spells I had anywhere. And I came back from Port Moresby and had a bit of leave I suppose and went up to


the Atherton Tablelands above Cairns and joined the divisional headquarters which was getting itself established there.
How long did the planning for…?
It took quite a long time, I just don’t know what the dates would be now. I’ve forgotten just how long it was. It was quite a few months because we first of all had to get the division


ready there and then we had to move, headquarters moved back to Port Moresby, and that’s where we did a lot of our operational planning. It was all done there. Before that we had just done training and exercises. We didn’t send the troops back to New Guinea straight away. We brought the headquarters backs and the troops came later on.


What was the training that you did?
It was just getting the division ready for its next operation. We did a lot of training around Ravenshoe [Atherton Tableland] which is a forest area with the 7th Division and then 6th Division was up there too and we had quite a long period of training.
What was the intelligence that was coming through?


I can’t remember really now the details of it, it was such a very long time ago but we were getting supplied with quite a lot of information about what they thought the Japanese were doing there and where they thought they were. So we had to plan around all of this. We went back into Port Moresby and a lot of our time


was spent speaking to the 5th Air Force who were the air force up there that were going to do the transportation for us. We had to plan out in detail what every aeroplane would contain, when we wanted the various units to arrive and what they were to carry in their planes and what the supply problem was and all that. We had an American parachute regiment attached to us which was a very


good crowd of people and they were to do the initial landing and they landed with some sort of heavy engineering equipment and their job was to clear a landing strip there so we could bring the transports in and then headquarters would go in there then at that stage. One of the brigades and so


on and so forth. I can’t remember the details.
What was your relationship like with General Vasey?
Very good indeed, after he got over the shock of having an amateur soldier made his chief-of-staff . He was very disappointed not to get Reggie Pollard. Reggie had been with him in the latter parts of the Kokoda Operation.


He’d taken over from the man who was an old friend of mine, a very close friend Charles Fry who had been wounded and he was a G1 and he was staff corps officer too, and Reggie had come up and taken over from him. George Vasey was very upset when he found he had an amateur in the job and not a professional.
Did you feel that you had to prove yourself?
Oh well I might have. I had to establish some sort of relationship with


him. He was always very friendly and I’d known him before. I’d known him in Greece and I’d known him Crete. In fact he was in the original 6th Division Headquarters so I’d known him all along. It was just this business of he thought it would be nicer to have Reggie with him because he was an old friend.


But General Blamey thought otherwise and I was directed to take over this job, so George as he was a bloody good man he accepted that and we got on quite well, in fact very well together indeed.
When the troops did land in Nadzab, did you go there?


Oh yes we landed very soon after the, we were in the first group of transports to come in. We had a bit of a land advanced too. Groups of commandos had come down under our command and down onto the Markham and further down and joined up with the paratroops when they landed. We had a Pioneer battalion as well to help


with the construction effort. The Americans landed their troops and we landed engineers to get the airfield going. It gradually got going, quite quickly actually. We were there from, pretty soon after, as soon as the transport planes could come in we landed. I wrote a long report on the whole of this operation, which I saw a copy of


not so long ago. Hadn’t seen it for forty years I suppose. It was a very detailed report of all this planning and the operation. The operation plan which I had to write for the operation was very complicated and a very detailed operation on the supply side – the order in which units should arrive.


One of our problems was when we got over there and then they weren’t arriving in the right order. I was sent back to Port Moresby and I had go and see General Whitelaw, who was commanding general of the 5th Air Force, with a complaint that he wasn’t following our plans so that was interesting. I had General Blamey, I took him along. Not Blamey, Berryman took me along to see


General Whitelaw and had a long talk to him. I met that very nice chap General Kenny who was the head of the whole of the American air force out here. Awfully nice man. I saw him later on after Europe.
Why weren’t the troops arriving in order?
Because they put them on the wrong aeroplanes and got them in the wrong order. They just thought they knew better than we did and they didn’t and we took exception to this and we had to come


back and straighten them out.
How did that confuse operations on the ground?
Well because everything was laid out so that certain units would arrive and they’d move in that direction to that position and so on. The whole thing had been properly arranged so that it would all work properly.
Who did reconnaissance of the ground of the area?


We had aerial photographs and maps. Nobody had physically done a reconnaissance because there was no way you could do it. We had a very good idea what it looked like and where the enemy were. In fact they’d cleared out more or less. Then we landed at Nadzab which is inland from Lae – I don’t know how


many miles but a long way and eventually it became a huge airfield, it was a main airfield later in the operations. All the air force moved up there from Port Moresby or a great many of them. It was a big airfield eventually, but we started it by this landing. We then moved down to Markham toward Lae and the 9th Division landed on the coast


towards Lae and we met there.
You said there weren’t as many Japanese as you thought there were?
Yes. A lot of them had escaped, very wisely and went up into the hills from there. By that time of course our troops had gone down into Salamaua which was the next place down the coast and they’d come down from Wau into there. More or


less the whole part of the north coast of Papua was in our hands at that stage. Then we finished the Lae operation and turned around and went up to Markham and the Ramu Valley. The Markham and Ramu valleys joined up the river and the Ramu runs down one way and the Markham runs down the other way. We went right up the Markham and into the Ramu


Valley with brigades operating in the hills all around and so we were up there and that was very interesting because we were then moving across the mountains towards the north coast.


There we did come across a lot of Japanese. There was a good deal of fighting up there.
Did the divisions sustain a lot of casualties?
I think we did yes. I can’t remember how many. We didn’t sustain in the original landing I don’t think, but later on in the operations up the Markham and Ramu we did.


We captured a place called Kaiapit and we went on up and into the hills and once we got up there the operation became quite an operation.
How were the men faring in this new environment?
Of course by the time we were doing this operation we’d been up in New Guinea quite a long time. In fact we were originally


slated to do the sea operation and then it was realised of course that the 7th Division being in New Guinea for a long time had a lot of malaria, and to have gone down the coast we would have brought in malaria into Australia and that wasn’t thought a very good thing, which it wasn’t. So we were switched. The 9th Division which had never been in New Guinea had come back from the sea-borne landing and we did the inland one.


Of course the 7th Division was involved and had been in Kokoda and all those operations. They were pretty used to New Guinea.
Once you’d actually captured Lae and Ramu Valley, was it soon after that you were seconded to the UK?
Yes we were actually up in the Ramu, headquarters was in a place called Dumpu, when I got a telegram to


say that I was to report back to land headquarters in Brisbane as soon as possible as I was to be seconded with other officers to the United Kingdom, so I was packed up and came back.
Who came in and took your position?
Somebody came in – I can’t remember his name


precisely. We didn’t actually cross over – he arrived a few days after I did, because I had to come out quite urgently. I had a good staff there with me – there were G2s and 3s and they all stayed. This nice fellow came in, I knew him, his name just escapes me for a moment. I just can’t remember it for the moment.


I was extremely fortunate to be included in this party apart from the whole idea of going was most attractive to me – had I stayed I would have been killed because General Vasey came down to Brisbane and I saw him in Brisbane before I left and he came down with his new G1 and on their way back to New


Guinea from there the plane crashed near Townsville and they were all killed. So that was the end – I would have been in the plane had I not left the division.
How did General Vasey respond to the news of you being seconded to the UK?
He wasn’t entirely pleased about that. He thought it was a pretty poor show and he thought I’d pulled some strings to do it, because we’d often talked about it. I used to say to him, “I’d love to


get back to Europe,” and he used to say he wanted to get back to India because he’d done some training in India and he loved that sort of fighting in India. So after that he thought that I’d actually pulled some strings to get the job. I hadn’t – it was an absolute surprise to me. Total surprise.
Why were you chosen?
Well I was a pretty experienced officer. The party they selected was quite small – we were only fourteen of


us and one of us was each from the branches of staff; adjutant general, quartermaster general, general staff and one from each of the arms of service like the infantry, gunners, signallers and engineers and so on. I was chosen because of my experience as G1 of a division – that experience and all the other experiences that I’d had, so


I went over as representing the general staff at a divisional level. There was another officer who was a friend of mine too. We served in Syria. He was an engineer who ended up in the army. He’s a regular army officer he ended up as chief engineer. He was sent over as the general staff officer at headquarters higher than division, so he went to chafe headquarters eventually.


Why were you seconded?
The whole purpose of this because at that stage it looked very much as if we were going to take part in a lot of major sea-borne operations in the western Pacific. For instance in the Philippines and then eventually possibly in Japan itself. We’d had as the AIF had no experience of sea-borne operations other than that little


operation that was done by the 9th Division at Lae. It was thought that it would be a good thing to get a group of officers who went over to the UK, England and watched the process of planning a major sea-borne operation, because that’s what everybody knew it was going to be, with a view of coming back and assisting of the planning of any subsequent operations that we might do.


How did you feel about leaving?
I was delighted of course. Oh no I was very pleased with the chance of getting back to England and taking part in the European war. I was very pleased about that.
Did you have any leave before you went?
Yes I had a few days down in Melbourne, I don’t think it was very long – it might have been a week or so. I went down to Melbourne and saw the family,


had a bit of leave and went back to Brisbane and we went across the Pacific on the American Liberty ship with the fourteen of us and the army plus a big contingent of air force trainees that were going over to the air training scheme in Canada. We had a lot of Americans returning to America


from leave around these parts. The ship was called the Sea Corporal. It was a new, one of these Liberty ships that they built, hundreds of these ships in America. They were very basic ships. Ronnie McNichol was another lieutenant-colonel. There were two lieutenant-colonels, there were about four majors and the rest were captains,


or might have been more majors. It was like that. So McNichol and I shared a cabin which was down in the stern of the ship and over the door was “cabin for three seaman”, so we were down in the worst part of it. The American colonels got better accommodation up near the bridge, but that didn’t matter to us. The rest of them were down in the hold.


Some of them didn’t like that much. It was very basic. We had two meals a day, they were always the same; hard boiled eggs about nine o’clock in the morning and about four o’clock in the afternoon we had bread and potatoes and a few green vegetables, and sort of corned meat I suppose it was. That was all we got and


that was all there was.
How long was this journey?
It was quite a long time. We went right across the Pacific. At one stage we very nearly didn’t make it because we nearly ran into a great reef – it’s well known to be there but the crew of this ship were not very well trained, in fact the captain had only just come out of a captain’s training school.


We were navigating and we were going to go straight into this great reef. We could hear the breakers pounding on the reef and there was an American lieutenant-colonel on the ship who was a navigator. He went up and took over the navigation of the ship, otherwise it could have been quite a disaster. You could hear as we approached this thing, the pounding on the reef.


It was just another adventure. We arrived into San Francisco. We were very well received by the locals and put up in a nice hotel – the Mark Hopkins actually which was one of the better hotels in San Francisco. At least Ronnie and I were. The others were sent out to some camp or other outside San Francisco.


We were all entertained – the locals turned on a dance for us. We were the first Australian Army officers that had been seen on the West Coast, nobody had gone there. So we were quite popular, it was jolly nice and we were looked after quite well. We got on a train and for seven days we travelled right across America by


troop train which had us and I think there about four hundred air force people with us, quite a big contingent. We went via Chicago and there they got onto another train and went north into Canada and we went north to New York.
And from New York?
From New York we went across in the Queen Mary to England up to Greenock in Scotland.


There was a huge number of people on the ship, there were over twenty thousand altogether, and of course they were crammed into every corner. We had a single cabin divided up with six berths in it. Some of the others took it in shifts to sleep. It was a very fast ship by the standards of the day and so we didn’t have a naval escort – we


were too fast for the submarines they thought so we went right down to the Azores to start with. We turned north and went right up around the top of Ireland into Greenock in Scotland where we were met by my old friend that I’d taken over from in New Guinea, Jimmy Harrison who was then G1 Australian staff in London. He’d come up to greet us and take us back to


So you went from Scotland down to London?
We went from Scotland down to London.
Was that by train?
By train yes. That was right and when we arrived they’d made arrangements for us to go into a hotel just near Australia House.
Could you see a marked difference in London?
Oh sure absolutely. The whole of England was a totally marked difference, yes.


From when I’d left they were fighting the war alone, but when we got back all the Americans, a couple of million American troops in England at the time. They took up a lot of space – there were camps everywhere and trucks everywhere.
What about the destruction from the bombings?
Well the destruction of the bombing of London of course was substantial. I saw all that, it was quite an amazing sight. We weren’t in London for very long,


a couple of days and then we were taken down to the headquarters of the 21st Army Group down in St Paul’s school down near Hammersmith I think and there we were told what units we would be attached to and given our orders to move and get on with the job. I was terribly fortunate, I was attached to the 51st Highlander Division which at that time was up in


Suffolk north of London, or east of London. I think they laid on a car and driver to take me up.
What was going to be your responsibility?
As I’ve said I was to be a G1 of a division, chief-of-staff of a division, but of course not straight away.


They wanted to have a look at us so I was attached to the Highland Division and I was one of three G1s, actually they had the proper one who was there all the time and I was attached and there was another British officer attached in the same rank. We were all planning then the landing and after a couple of days when they


got accustomed to me I was then inducted into the secrets about the landing in Europe and the plans for it and what we were doing. The planning part of the divisional headquarters was quite separate from the ordinary part and protected by a barbed wire fence. The divisional headquarters was in an old country


house in England, which you know, these places are pretty big and the mess and our living quarters were in the old house and the headquarters troops and the officers were in a series of huts around in the park of this old house, concealed as far as possible.
How were you received by other members of the division?
I was received very


courteously with some degree of reservation I think. They didn’t really want an odd stranger around the place at this time but they got used to me and eventually I got on well with all of them. They were very polite all the time. I went and called on the general first up as soon as I arrived and he was a very nice chap and he introduced me around to the senior officers. After


three days the G1 came and said, “You’d better come down to the planning department,” and I was taken down to the planning which was a group of huts which were heavily guarded and protected by a separate barbed wire fence and there I was inducted into the scheme of things and made to sign various security documents under oath not to reveal what I knew and


I was taken freely into the plans. It was explained to me over several days in quiet detail what the plans were and what we were doing and from then on it was part of the business.
You were going to take over of chief-of-staff of the division?
Well not that division, a division. It wasn’t specified that it was going to be that particular one. This was the sort of trial period that


they were looking at, you see. Spent a bit of time and eventually not until we landed in Normandy actually I was then transferred into the 50th Division as the G1 and then I was in a fully responsible position. The rest of the time you could regard me as an observer – I was there to observe the planning and do anything they wanted me to do.


When they gave me a few jobs I did a few jobs. I was fully inducted into the plan and so I knew exactly where they were going to land, what they were going to do when they landed. All of this was laid out before me.
What did you think of those plans when you first saw them?
They were absolutely fantastic. I was amazed by the intelligence they had there and maps and models and


photographs, endless aerial photographs of the area. Detailed planning, very detailed, very impressive indeed. I was with a division which had served with great distinction in the Middle East as well, so we had a lot in common, although I wasn’t at El Alamein as British General Bernard Law Montgomery reminded


me on several occasions. They’d been and they’d been in Sicily and the Sicily landings. So they were a very experienced division and it was a great pleasure to be with them. Mind you they had been diluted a lot when they got back to England. They’d taken a lot of officers away and put them in other divisions to build them out


and give them experience, but still they were mostly people that had been in the Middle East.
When did you first meet Montgomery?
I first met Montgomery actually in Normandy after I’d taken over the 50th Division, when I’d joined the 50th Division. The planning went on


some days before the actual landing because we moved down to north London. They’d established a lot of camps for the invasion force, which were really sealed camps. They’d been built by units that either were not taking part at all in the invasion or were going to land much later on. So they were really


rather like, well they did the housekeeping, they did all the, you know, the cooks, guards and all the things you have to have in these camps because once you got into the camp nobody was allowed to go out because of security reasons, except for people who had special pass. In my case I had a special pass because they wanted me to go around to the various units and do jobs outside.


Everybody else was just there and once you got into the assembly area, or marshalling area as they called it you never got out. They did this because all our vehicles had to be properly waterproofed and had to be packed with exactly what they should take, what they should land with. It was very much like the work I’d done with 7th Division in the case of the aeroplanes.


Units had to be allocated to particular ships arriving at a particular time and place so that everybody was in his place when they arrived at the far end. All that had to be done in the marshalling areas.
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 08


Just before we go on to talk about D-Day Bill, I understand that you met your wife in Suffolk?
Yes I did.
How did that come about?
She came to a dance that we were having and we got friendly and when I came back to London again she’d


been moved up to London so I saw her there and we decided to get married.
Did Montgomery give you any pep talks before…?
Oh yes of course. When we were in the marshalling areas he came around and talked to groups of officers all the time and I think he probably talked to troops in some cases. I didn’t see him do that


but he did come around. I think we went to some central hall – the officers of the divisions. He gave us a pep talk then, the usual thing that generals do.
You were in the marshalling area near Tilbury?
Yes well not far from Tilbury because Tilbury was where finally departed from.


Marshalling area well I’ve described what went on in the marshalling area broadly speaking and that’s what happened. In other words we had the final preparations before we moved to the ships and were allocated to our positions in the queue and all the rest of it. In our case the headquarters of the Highland Division we went down to the Tilbury docks and boarded a small English coastal transport there. It


was just the Division Headquarters and perhaps one or two other smaller units.
The actual assault was delayed by forty-eight hours?
Yes it was delayed but that didn’t affect us, or wasn’t aware of that I don’t think. It only affected those troops that had already gone to sea and they had to be brought back and of course arrangements had been


made to have secure areas into which they could go because then of course it was very touchy business. The troops were not briefed. In fact even the officers were not briefed except the COs of units and perhaps their adjutants. Nobody was briefed until they went to sea so they didn’t know where they going or what they were doing and it was only when they went to sea that they opened up rolls of maps


and produced the maps to show people where they and various people that had to have them. They were then properly briefed on the operation. Of course if the units had gone to sea as they had in some cases right down in the far west of England because they had a long way to go, they were at sea when they called the thing off and they had to bring them back because the sea was so rough they would have died from seasickness.


So they brought them ashore and they had special areas, they’d exercised in this plan before, and they went in and guarded and kept to themselves and as we now know in one or two places where we thought that they might have lost the secret, but it didn’t in fact happen. So it was only a short thing and it didn’t affect us. Whether we were even aware of


it, I don’t know if we were aware of the delay.
What time of day then on D-Day did you set off?
We set off very early in the morning. We must have boarded the ship I think just about early, very early in the morning and sailed out down the Thames to an assembly area just off the end of the Thames estuary with a number of other ships,


some of them carrying our own troops that were coming in our convoy and landing roughly the same time and then we sailed on down the English Channel down past Dover keeping very close into the cliffs because the German coastal artillery off Calais were able to shell and they did shell Dover and the sea


areas in front of it. In our case they didn’t. They didn’t do that and we had a naval escort because of the danger of E-boats coming in and disrupting but nobody appeared on the scenes so we just crept along there and down off the beaches of Normandy. We arrived there in late afternoon I think, when the operation had started in the morning. We saw everything was going on,


we were right there on D-Day itself on the 6th but we didn’t go ashore until the next morning, early.
Did you have a sense on that channel crossing of the massive operation?
Oh sure yeah once you got there an incredible collection of ships or all kinds; small landing craft going out to the beach landing troops, going back picking up more on the ships,


supplies going in, tanks going in, constant movement. And of course in the air above constant patrols of fighters and in the background the naval warships and cruisers that were doing the gun support for the troops on land were blazing away. Very noisy and very smoky and


all very exciting scene, it was exciting. It was the sort of thing you’d never see again and never be involved in again. This was the biggest operation of its kind that had ever taken place and the only one of its kind that ever will take place. It was really a very impressive scene and you felt that you knew that this was the beginning of the end for the Germans really in Europe.


That you were taking part in something that was absolutely unique and just unique and terribly interesting and having been involved in the planning I knew something of the plans and I was therefore very interested to see how it developed. I was also, I felt confident that we were to be successful. I don’t know why I felt confident but I did. So I wasn’t really


very frightened as it were by all this that was going on. It was a tremendously impressive sight. Of course on the other hand I’d lived through Crete where the Germans had such a close call of being defeated that I realised that this really could happen to us here in this case and we might get pushed off again, but it happened to the Canadians when they


did a raid on Dieppe which was a trial run for the whole operation. They were badly beaten up and dispersed. I realised that could happen but I didn’t really think it was going to happen because I felt having seen the plans and knowing the strength of the force and also being very familiar with what the Germans had on shore at that stage because we’d had a lot of intelligence when


we were doing the planning and we knew where all the strong points were and indeed where all the German divisions were. So one had hoped, but mind you it could have gone wrong, very wrong indeed in fact. They very nearly did at one stage with a counter-attack up in the centre and nearly got to the coast themselves and the air force saw them off there and Typhoons came in and they were the


aircraft that were designed especially to attack tanks and then attacked this armoured division and really dispersed them.
Where did you land?
I personally landed at Arromanches which was up the far end of our beaches where it was pretty nearly next to the Americans, but the division itself landed along Sword Beach was at the other end. The headquarters landed there at Arromanches


and we drove down the coast and joined the troops at around about outside Caen.
Did you encounter incidents or close calls on the first night?
The first night we did – one German post was holding out which was within range of the road but didn’t interfere with us because we drove down. On the


first night the headquarters was bombed, about the only time the German air force came over and bombed anything. I don’t think they were bombing our headquarters, it was just a general bombing of the area. That was a fairly close call in the sense that some of the caravans were knocked around a bit, but otherwise I wasn’t concerned by this. I was actually sleeping in a little ditch.


I’d got my batman in to dig it which is customary for me and I wasn’t actually in the caravan where I might have been sleeping, which is lucky because that really did get knocked about and might well have been a casualty then and that would have been the end of the war for me.
Another close call.
Well I suppose you could call it a close call.


The main objective of our front was Caen itself. We were the Reserve Division of the 1st Corps. The 1st Corps consisted of the 3rd British Division and the 3rd Canadian Division and the Highland Division was the three divisions of the 1st Corps. The 3rd Canadians and the 3rd British landed on D-Day itself on the beaches and our battalions and brigades landed


later in D-Day, but we were really the reserve – most of the fighting well the fighting had gone before we got there. The main objective of the Corps was Caen itself. We didn’t reach Caen, which was ten or fifteen miles inland from the beach and of course the airborne division that landed on our left and secured the


bridges over the Orne River and they’d had a lot of fighting on the left. We came in as a reserve division. Over the next few days we relieved some of the British units of the 3rd Division and gradually took over some of the fronts there, especially on the left hand side. That’s the left hand side looking at it all.
What sort of resistance did you encounter?


There was a lot of resistance then. The Germans were very keen to hold Caen, they didn’t want to let up on that because that was a key communications centre across the whole front. So they held on to that and in the end they reinforced it considerably, but in the next few days when Hitler had decided to let German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel bring some of his Panzer divisions down from the Pas de Calais,


which is one of the main elements of the whole operation. It was a deception operation which was aimed to deceive the Germans as to where the main strike was going. The deception was that there was another army in Britain that was going to land around Calais, that Normandy was only a diversion in order to draw the Panzer division away


from the Calais area. That succeeded because they didn’t come down for forty-eight hours or so after. Of course Hitler wouldn’t let Rommel… Rommel wanted to move them down long before and had they done that than the landing might have been different, might have resulted differently. He wasn’t allowed to move the divisions. Hitler wanted to take control of that and that’s what happened.


The deception was total and very successful and by the time the first forty-eight hours had gone past we’d landed a very large number of troops and stores and everything else. Just as well because the weather changed and we were then in for several days of stormy weather and nothing can be done, nothing could be landed. That didn’t look too good.


It was quite well known that Rommel was caught off guard?
Well he was caught off guard to the extent that he’d been misled by his staff that the landings couldn’t come that day because of the weather and indeed it was the weather that held the thing up. They had the same weather over there and his weather people said, “It won’t come now until next month.” So he went off on leave


to see his family in Germany and was there when the landing took place, and that’s a well known story and he dashed back and once he got back he started to organise the war a bit better than his predecessor had.
Did you have your own personal view on Rommel?
Well I’d just formed a view that he was a very fine general. We’d heard a lot about him,


whether he was as good as we thought I don’t know. We didn’t realise of course at the time because it was kept such a close secret that he knew from the intercept of signals exactly what the British were going to do and we knew what the Germans were going to do at El Alamein. That’s why El Alamein was such a tremendous success


because exactly what Rommel was going to do and we had much the same intelligence, although it didn’t get to the troops, about what was going on in Normandy. Rommel was undoubtedly a very good German general, very good indeed and gradually recognised that.


Did you succeed in your objective of capturing Caen?
No not while I was there. They battled against German defences of Caen and gradually the Germans built it up and they had more armoured troops coming in and we launched a big attack on Caen eventually under cover of a huge air strike, the first of


the big heavy bomber strikes in support of the troops that were taking place. There were something like six hundred odd aeroplanes, heavy bombers from England came and pounded the defences in one go and we saw that from way back about ten miles back from it we could see a constant stream of aircraft coming over your head from England and dropping their bombs down there, it was really a fantastic sight.


They called in a thousand-bomber raid and they had several later on. Actually there were only about six hundred and eighty bombers involved in this but it did a tremendous lot of damage. Then an attack was put in under cover of that and eventually that succeeding in securing the target. It was terribly demoralising –


bombing of that kind. In fact one German division was entirely wiped out, just disappeared off the face of the map. But still even then it was a long several good days of fighting before we got in. By that time, or closer to that time I’d moved on down to join the 50th Division where they were further down the line.


I saw that raid and I was still with the Highland Division they put in an attack on the left which wasn’t very successful and the Canadians attacked and they succeeded in getting in and so did the Brits. It was then after that there was a lot of hard fighting before Caen itself was secured. It was a key communications centre – all the roads and railways ran through Caen.


We’d already captured Bayeux, that was a bit further back and that was captured. I went in there, in fact I went in and had a bath in the public baths. Otherwise there was no way you could have a bath for days. We used to go in there to public baths. That was the first phase and by


that time I was directed to, because I think the general had reported that I was a suitable chap to do the job, I was then appointed to the 50th Northumberland Division which had landed on D-Day and was battling in the Bocage country a bit further down. That was a great,


I was delighted with that because it at last gave me some actual responsibility as opposed to standing around doing what I was told to do or just observing what was going on. The observing period was quite useful in that I got to know some of the brigade level and I went down to see how they were fighting. It was a very useful period,


but still a bit boring if you’re not actually taking part in the day-to-day operational matters of the division.
What was your role in the 50th Northumberland Division?
I was the GSO 1 – General Staff Officer 1st Grade, which is the head staff officer of the division really. I had all the responsibilities of


then issuing orders and preparing and advising the general and talking to him about what he was going to do and how we were going to do it and seeing that the brigade commanders had got proper orders and writing the orders. It’s a very interesting job.
You reported directly to the general?
Oh yes absolutely.
There was no-one in between?
No, the British


system doesn’t have anyone in between the general staff officer and the general. Then of course there were other people; the AQ – the adjutant quartermaster. He was head of another branch but he was responsible for the supply side of the division and not the operational side.
Which general?
That was General Douglas Graham. He was a very fine man. It was a wonderful division because it


too had been involved in North Africa and in Sicily and very highly trained division and a very big division too because we had four infantry brigades as opposed to most divisions only had three. We had an armoured brigade under our command so it was a very interesting post. And of course it formed


the infantry element of the breakout force. Eventually we joined up with the Guards Armoured Division and the 11th Armoured Division and advanced out of the bridgehead eventually through Falaise and on up into France across the Seine and advanced up through Belgium, France and into Holland.


You covered quite a lot of ground. I’d like to stop and talk about those points along the way. I understand that you were in fairly constant action along the way?
Yes. The 50th Division had been in action since D-Day and never came out of action until we were withdrawn from Holland in late December 1945 [1944], so we’d


had a full six months. I’d been with the division, I joined them in July, early in July.
When you got to the Falaise pocket area did you signs of the German 7th Army?
Oh yes it was really a rather terrifying and frightening experience driving through that area because the bombing and shelling and they’d caught all the German divisions


in the pocket and they couldn’t get out and they were really knocked about terribly badly and there I think ten German divisions involved there and they tried to make counter-attacks to try and release them but they weren’t successful. So they were just decimated there – not only the troops but many of these German divisions because they were infantry divisions in those days in the German Army,


well I suppose most did, they had horse drawn transport so all the horses were there and being knocked about. Dead horses and dead cows and dead Germans and hundreds of tanks and bits and pieces had been knocked about. It was really a very smelly and unpleasant part of my experience to go through there.


It must have been a shocking sight?
It’s a terrible sight. Well that was the way things went in the Second World War in places. It was the same in Berlin, but it was the worst bit that I struck altogether. There was a lot of fighting otherwise but this was just the worst sort of experience


seeing something like that which is really something one never forgets. Although memory dims a good deal of course and you can’t smell it any longer. That was the worst – the smell of it all.
Do you still smell it today?
Oh no. I’m not emotional like that, I don’t dream about it or anything like that. I might tonight. I don’t normally dream about these things.


I dream about anything else but not that.
What were the capabilities of the 50th Division?
We were very, our capabilities were great because we were full motorised – all our brigades could move very fast to keep up with the armoured divisions. We were full motorised division. As I said we had four infantry brigades and we


had a lot of extra artillery and engineers because we had a lot of rivers to cross and canals. We crossed the Seine at a place called Vernon and went up past Paris, we didn’t go into Paris we skirted around Paris. The Americans went in to Paris and the French eventually did too, but we went around. We swept up through


Amiens and the well-known places that you’d read about in the First World War and I’d visited as an undergraduate many of them too. The speed of the operation, everything was moving very, very fast and the Germans were giving way and of course there was a lot of fighting on and off, but we were on a roll.


What were your casualties like?
They were fairly high and certainly in some places we dropped a lot of casualties. By and large it wasn’t too bad. Nothing that you couldn’t handle, but the troops of course were getting tired and had been action a long time and in fact we finally got to Holland and they were very tired.


Otherwise it was all going along well. In France and Belgium it was fairly even going. When we got into Holland and started to go up through, it’s very wet country and the roads are very narrow and on top of dykes and this was very difficult country to get through. Mind you the 50th Division when I first joined


it was operating in very difficult, what they called the Bocage country in Normandy which is a lot of very small fields surrounded by high hedges and the roads are so ancient that they’re like ditches. Tanks couldn’t go across them and only one tank at a time down the road and so much concealment to be held up by very few enemy troops by


machine guns well placed in the hedges. So it was a very difficult country for infantry and for anybody to go through so we had all that experience and then when we finally got up to Holland we had a few pretty solid battles on the way up. Particularly going across the Albert Canal, securing a crossing there in Belgium and going up through France. On and off we


struck a lot of trouble. The Guards and the armoured divisions, they swept past the trouble and that was left for us to clean up you see. That was why there were two infantry divisions in the breakout force. Our job was to clean up the pockets of enemy that were left behind by the armoured troops that went through quite fast. In fact the whole thing was a very fast move, unbelievably fast actually.


Never have thought it could be quite so fast.
Did you take any prisoners?
Yes there were lots of prisoners being taken, yes of course lots of Germans surrendered. That had been the pattern the whole way through – taken in Normandy and a lot more were taken on the way up. Arrangements had been made for looking after them. They were always sent back and other people looked after the prisoners.


These contacts you were having with the Germans, was it hand-to-hand or was it more…?
Well there was a certain amount of hand-to-hand, but mostly it was you were being shot or they were being shot at, you were manoeuvring around them. There was a lot of infantry fighting as well. They were tenacious. Some of their units were holding on and


but then in the end lots of them gave themselves up and that was the end of that.
As you moved through do you remember which was the worst place?
Not really. Once we got out of Normandy we started to move up through France. We had two or three engagements that took us a bit of time to get over and they were quite severe. Crossing the canals, the Albert Canal to


start with was quite an operation. I can’t remember the detail of it now but one that we had a lot of trouble there. Then we took part in what they called the Operation Market Garden, which was when the paratroops were dropped on all the bridges through Holland and


we came up and secured the positions that they’d secured. So they secured the bridges of the main rivers and canals, four of them I think, right through to Nijmegen in northern Holland.
These were British paratroopers?
Well there were two divisions of British paratroops and two divisions of American paratroops, a Polish brigade of paratroopers, but the British went into the far end around Arnhem and that of course


is where that great battle took place that was not very successful and we’d gone up and we’d got through as far as Nijmegen which is the other side of the Rhine, but there was nothing much we could do about getting the last bit across. So anyway caught there and they were evacuated through our, such that some did come out eventually


but that’s a very long story which I wasn’t personally involved in because we were on the other side down near Nijmegen on the lower Rhine. The Americans had some trouble in various places. They had two American airborne divisions; the 82nd and the 101. You hear of now, they’re still talking about them. They’re in Iraq, some of them were,


they’ve been all over the place since. They had troubles and we had trouble getting through on the roads because first of all there was all the traffic and very few roads and not only that the roads were very narrow and on either side of them was swamp, well fields that were flooded so you couldn’t get off the


road and no vehicles could get off the roads. We couldn’t get along the roads because of the vehicles and a couple of the German guns would hold up a whole division or corps for a day more or less because they could command with these 88s, the anti-tank guns, and they were holding things up so we had to skirt around these pockets and attack them from


the other side. There were two or three places like that that were very, very difficult. I wished that I’d kept a full diary so that I could record all the details of these things but I didn’t keep any sort of a diary whatsoever, so I’m completely lost in terms of remembering the details. I just remember the general outline of what was going on.


So what was the objective of Operation Market Garden?
Well it was to secure all the bridges up through northern Holland and then to advance into the German plain and Montgomery’s plan was then you would push through on the German plain right through to Berlin without, because there was no way to stop once you got across the Rhine. There was a great controversy, something that you’ll read


about in the books, between US General Dwight D. Eisenhower who wanted a broad front into Germany and Montgomery who thought by capturing the bridges and linking up with these armoured divisions having the whole support of the 21st Army group as opposed to just the British soldiers he could have gone into Germany and ended the war much more quickly. Well that was the theory, but we didn’t succeed because we didn’t get through the final


barrier and then they had a great slogging match to cross the Rhine and eventually go up through the Ruhr. Down in the south the 1st American Army they were champing at the bit. They wanted to have troops to sweep into southern Germany and into Austria. It became a problem because Montgomery would have had to have a much greater amount


of support and petrol to get his plan going and Eisenhower couldn’t agree to, he wanted to make it slower. Well he might have been right I don’t know. As it turns out the ‘Market Garden’ was a great operation. It got us up onto the Rhine but didn’t get across the Rhine. So then they had to do all, it was after my time – I left the division when the division


left Europe. We came back to England just before Christmas in ’45 and as I said we’d been action the whole time and the battalions were very depleted with troops. We’d lost a tremendous amount of officers – some battalions had lost as many as three commanding officers along the way, all through there. We were a very tired division and not only that


the British Army was then getting very short of infantry and they wanted to have, but they had more artillery than they wanted so they were wanting to turn artillery regiments into infantry regiments. So one of the ways to do this is to withdraw one of the divisions altogether and turn it into a training division and wait and prepare it to go somewhere else, and our division was the one selected to do that.


We had a great send off and got back to England just before Christmas.
As you were moving through with this advance into Europe can you remember the reception of the locals?
Your locals


are always very friendly, although they’d been knocked about a good deal in the course of the war, they were all by and large they were all very pleased to the see allied troops coming in because they’d had a bad time with the Germans or some of them had. They were very pleased to see us, although as I say they suffered a great many casualties themselves. Some of those French villages around Normandy were absolutely knocked


to bits and nothing there. They must have lost a lot of lives. On the way up too there were places that were very badly knocked about. By and large we always had a very good reception when we went to these places.
So you did have contact with locals?
Yes in the sense that you couldn’t avoid them, they were there we saw them.


When things settled down when we finally got to our destination in Holland and after it was realised that the war wasn’t going to go the way it had planned and we were more or less in an offensive position holding the area just south of the Rhine and with a big town, well it wasn’t a big town, Nijmegen was


quite a big place, we were able to organise leave for the troops to go in and they met people there and they had dances and we had to be careful – they didn’t stay the night, they just went in for parties and had a bit of leave and we were all very well treated. We met a lot of locals like that. It was quite nice.
Interviewee: William Robertson Archive ID 2336 Tape 09


Before we go back and talk about ‘Market Garden Operation’ I just want to ask you a few questions. Firstly what uniform were you in?
I wore the Australian uniform the whole time. I might have had a British jacket at some stage as I only


had one Australian jacket. By and large I wore the Australian uniform which is not that different to the British except their jackets were short jackets and we had the rather long ones and people envied me of that. They said, “That must be more comfortable in cold weather?” Some of those photographs that you’ve got show me in AIF uniform.
Did that make if very identifiable for you?
I don’t think so, not particularly. Probably my accent made me more identifiable


than my uniform. Nobody was surprised to see me at all.
No one questioned your authority?
No I was fully accepted for what I was and I was extremely close to my old general in the 50th Division who was a marvellous man, a lot of experience and very easy to get on with.


So I never had any problems at all. I didn’t have any problems with the brigadiers. One was a bit disappointed when I told him he wasn’t coming back to England with us that he was staying with his brigade and he was very upset. I had a bit of a problem with him but that wasn’t my decision, it was made for us by people above.


Strange to say I met him many years later when I went to the Imperial Defence College in London and he as one of the instructors there. I think he still hadn’t forgiven me for leaving him behind in Holland. It wasn’t my fault.
Did you have any contact with Montgomery?
Yes I saw him on a number of occasions. I don’t know if I mentioned the first time that he came to 50th Divisional


headquarters. Just about the time that I took over as G1 he came in and I was introduced to him. He noticed that I had my Africa star on, but I didn’t have the 9, which meant that the 9th Division which was at Alamein. He said, “I see that you weren’t at the Battle of El Alamein.” I said, “No I wasn’t there.” So every time I met him subsequently which was quite frequently he would say, “Oh you’re the Australian that


wasn’t at the Battle of El Alamein.” So that was a black mark with him, he was a funny old chap.
How did you find him?
Well we hardly, you’re not in a position as a lieutenant-colonel to find a field marshal in any way than what he is. He was a very important man, had to be treated as such.


What did you think of him as a leader?
I had a very high opinion of him. I had a tremendously high opinion of our Corps Commander General Brian Horrocks who was a marvelous general and a wonderful man too. He was a terrific chap. Because one of my small experiences with him when we were


halfway up France; my general had gone out somewhere, gone towards one of the brigades and our corps commander’s car drew up outside my caravan and I went down and said, “My general is not here,” he said, “I didn’t come to see the general I came to see you. I’ve found an Australian person in the CCS down the road and I thought we’d go down and have afternoon tea with her.” I said,


“Well I can’t leave the divisional headquarters.” “Oh yes you can, don’t worry about it, you just come with me,” so we went down and had afternoon tea with this rather nice girl down the road and came back. By that time the general had got back, but it was a very nice gesture on his part and that was the sort of man he was – very thoughtful and a wonderful general himself to lead the corps.
In that type of situation was it comforting to find another Australian out there?


I don’t think it was. It just rather nice to have a chat to somebody. I can’t remember now her name. I think she was quite a senior matron or whatever it was this CCS down the road. She was a very nice person and we had a cup of tea with her and came back.


Those little touches he was very good at. My own general was much the same, Douglas Graham. He was particularly good at that touch, be in touch with the troops and he’d go around and talk to everybody. Some of them weren’t as good as that.


As you went through ‘Operation Market Garden’ with the division, what were you equipped with?
We were just equipped as a straight out infantry division. We didn’t have any special equipment, we just acted as infantry troops and as I said we were all motorised so we were able to move quite fast when we could move at all. There was nothing special about that.
What type of vehicles did you have?
The division was just an ordinary transport division,


transport vehicles. I myself had a lot more transport than I needed. As G1 I was allocated a staff car – that was one of those big cars, and I had a Jeep, I had a caravan and I had a scout car so that I could go up into the battle as it were. They were lightly


armoured vehicles that you could drive forward and backwards at the same time, not at the same time but without turning around. It was ridiculous because the only vehicle I used at all was the Jeep. I used the caravan of course because it was my office and my living quarters. I never went anywhere but in the Jeep, the rest were just a waste of time, but they were probably thought to be useful to have around.


Were drivers allocated to each of these vehicles?
Yes of course they were. I don’t know what they did with them when I wasn’t in them. I was never in anything but the Jeep which I just, I supposed they were used for some other purpose when I wasn’t using them.
How often did you take the Jeep into battle?
A lot. I moved around a good deal, much more than I did when I was with the 7th Division in New Guinea but that was because of a


different sort of general. General Vasey liked to be in the forefront of the battle himself therefore it was his G1’s responsibility to keep the headquarters going. Whereas in the case of Douglas Graham he was wanting to be in the battle too but it was a different sort of battle and more open and we were moving around a lot more and I would go off in one direction and give his orders to a brigadier and he would go off in some other direction.


So it was a much more and I had a good staff G2 and G3s and all the rest of it who stayed behind and got on with the business. I did a lot more moving about in Europe than I did when I was in New Guinea. It was a different sort of war altogether. It was more open and I used my Jeep a lot.


Was your job made more easy by going into the battlefield and seeing what the troops were doing?
I didn’t actually go in, very seldom, into anything that was really dangerous. I would go to brigade headquarters at that level and sometimes I would go down to a battalion but only with the advice of the brigade commander. So I wasn’t physically in any more danger there than I would have at the headquarters. We were


always within shelling distance of the Germans. In fact at one point when we were just outside one of the French towns we parked our headquarters near the railway station and we were shelled badly. I had to, the general was away, so I had to move headquarters myself because otherwise it, there was no point staying there. That was near Lille itself on the way up through France and Belgium.


So we were always there, always in a position where you might have been attacked or you might have been shelled. We had a platoon of infantry with us always to guard the headquarters and headquarters company.
I was just wondering having that flexibility of the transport if that assisted your co-ordination?


Sure it certainly did, it greatly assisted the co-ordination of what was going on and also I would get a lot of information about what our troops were doing and was able to come back and tell the general what was happening. I had G3 liaison officers that went and did the same thing, would go to various units and would go down and come back and tell us what


was going on. So we were in touch. Of course communications were so much better, at that stage we had much better communications within the division. We didn’t rely on telephones – we had wirelesses and that sort of arrangement. It wasn’t like Greece or the Middle East where we relied on very primitive communication. We had quite good communications


and radio telephone that sort of thing. Actually in the battle area we could do a lot of work by telephone by radio telephone. It was probably being intercepted by somebody. By the time they sorted out the information the situation would have all changed. We were able to get, I remember frequently talking to


particularly brigade commanders and brigade majors particularly as to what was going on at brigade level. We had a reconnaissance regiment that was a motorised, armoured, semi-armoured rather like our they had them in the AIF too, so I was able to keep in touch with them because they had armed cars and carriers and


small tanks. I was able to talk to the commander of that because he would be out in front somewhere. You had a much better grasp of what was going than we ever did in Greece or the Middle East or indeed New Guinea for that matter. Although by then we did have more air radio communications so we weren’t too


badly off in New Guinea. By the time I got to Europe it was a very different picture.
Were you speaking in code?
No. Certain code words we used to describe who you were and what you were so you didn’t say, “Robertson here G1,” you said, “Mandrake,” or something, we had a code word. I’m sure the Germans knew what the code word meant it’s just that it made it a bit more difficult.


Otherwise not in code. Any sort of long distance communications were of course sent by coded messages from division to corps and so on. There was such a lot of day-to-day communications going on that it would have been impossible to sort it all out. If you were in a static position then you’d have to be a bit more careful about what you said. When


you were moving, like we were, so fast any information that they might have got from our conversations were no use to them, so that’s the way it worked.
With ‘Operation Market Garden’ you explained the objective. Was there much opposition?
Oh yes sure the


paratroops, the airborne division got a lot of opposition. We were there to go to relieve them when they got too much opposition. This is what we were doing on the way up – taking over areas that they had captured so they could go back and be retrained or something of that kind. They seemed to disappear. There was a lot of opposition.


Of course because it was a very defensible area, mind you we had a lot of air force too. The German air force had given up the ghost by the time we did all this, we didn’t see them again. That must have been very bad for German morale I think. We had our own fighters and bombers


and could call on air support because by that time we’d established airfields all through Europe. In fact they established airfields in Normandy in the first twenty four hours and we had fighter squadrons there on the ground so that it was a lot of fighter bombers.
What was the terrain like?


Holland very flat indeed, it’s a very flat country and going up through France it was undulating and occasionally there were places where there were some hills but by and large it was all pretty open and flat. Holland and Belgium of course Belgium is pretty flat too. Holland is very flat and waterlogged, lots of it, a lot of canals and those sort of difficulties you had to strike and cross.


That’s why we had the extra engineers with us to build bridges and enable the thing to get going.
I was going to ask how you got around all the canals?
That was what they did. There were roads but they were very narrow roads and usually on the top of dykes too between places.
Was there one area that you stabilised and established as the base?


We finally when we moved into we crossed the Rhine at Nijmegen, the bridge had been captured by the American Airborne Division and we crossed that and went into an area of low-lying land between the Neder-Rhine or the Waal it was called and the Rhine itself,


quite wide about ten miles wide and that was where we established the defensive position there when Arnhem couldn’t be captured and when the airborne division were not making any progress and that was the end of the operation. We exchanged artillery fire with the Germans and ourselves and it was,


I wouldn’t call it a base but it was a defensive position that we got into there which gradually developed and it was pretty uncomfortable because it was wet and any fences built into the ground filled with water pretty quickly so it was all pretty uncomfortable for the troops to


operate in that area.
When you say it was wet was that from rain or the canals?
Well it was just rain yes and the canals and the whole low-lying country. Holland is really meant to be under the sea, all that part of it is. It is very low-lying. Lots and lots of these paddocks with water lying around. A lot of orchards too,


a lot of apple orchards, so a certain amount of cover up there. Generally speaking it’s a low-lying country.
You were still operating out of the caravan?
Sure I was yeah. We established a headquarters – a big Dutch farmhouse and we lived in our ordinary quarters, caravans and tents and so on around.


Was the farmhouse abandoned?
Yes I think so shortly before we arrived the people had just pushed off. Obviously they were sheltering as escaped prisoners or something of that kind because I found up in the attic when I explored the place a bed in the attic and a book beside it. I’ve


still got the book. It was obviously someone had been sleeping there and gone out quickly. I suspect it was a pilot had been shot down and the people were sheltering him, something of that kind because it didn’t look like a permanent residence in any way. A sort of trundle bed up in the attic and they had a little table beside it


and just this camp bed. The bed was, the sheets were thrown back, obviously had gone out quickly and cleared out. This had been occupied by the Germans on the way up. We had to throw them out of there.
How long were you based there?
Not very long –


about three weeks or so before we finally went back. The Highland Division, the 51st which I’d been when the landing came up and took over from us and they had a great party in the mess and they invited us along and we then went back through Holland and we went down through Ypres and out on the ship to England.


The whole division went slowly down and parted company with our vehicles which were then taken over by somebody else. They went through Brussels and in fact we spent the last night in a chateau just out of Brussels and people who lived there were very kind to us and the divisional headquarters were there and


we had dinner in their dining room with them, just the general and myself and perhaps one or two others and that was very nice.
Why was the division called back?
As I did explain, or roughly, that the army was getting very short of infantry. This division was very tired having done a lot of the fighting, we


lost a lot of the troops and officers. To reform it wasn’t a profitable thing to do so the artillery were taken away to be turned into an infantry and we went back to England to establish, it was originally thought that we were to be a training division back in England to train reinforcements to come over. In point of fact just after I left them, unfortunately,


they regrouped and went to Norway. They were reformed, they had to replace a lot of the units because they were exhausted in Europe. They had to reduce the size of the army in the 21 Army Group by one division. It was decided that our division was the one to go back and do that.


How did you feel about leaving?
I felt alright. Personally I was happy. I’d had a fair bit of it, didn’t particularly want to stay. I did want to stay on and was anxious to go to the corps headquarters and talk to… but there was not a job available for me there so I was quite happy to go back to England. I didn’t realise when I got back to England that I’d been


taken back to the Australian Army and not stayed on with the division, which would have been nice for me. Actually when we got back it was just before Christmas. I was one officer that had no family there and I had no dependents so they said to me, “Well you can hold the fort while we go off and have Christmas with our families,” and they all disappeared except myself and a couple of other officers. I was in charge of the whole business


and just left and we had a nice there in Yorkshire, deep snow everywhere. We had a great English Christmas. It was a pre-prepared camp so there was a camp staff in the headquarters so our own cooks and bottle washers could go off and have Christmas with their families and it was a very nice young English lady officer, captain I suppose, who was in charge


of the camp, camp commandant. And she made us very welcome and we had a great party at Christmas time, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves – those of us that were left which as I said were only three or four. Then the others came back and I got a message from London to say that I was to return to the Australian Army and take my friend Jimmy Harrison’s place in Australia House, which I was quite pleased with that,


I was quite happy to do that and looking forward to being in London just for a while. Didn’t think it was going to be for two years, but that was alright. That was a very interesting job too.
What was that job?
Well as G1 of the army staff in London I had lots of responsibilities to be in liaison with parts of the war office and that sort of thing so I had a very interesting


time there. The general was in fact my cousin’s husband, General Smart. He was a lieutenant-general so he was a fairly high ranking general, the highest rank that had ever occupied that position and he was a very nice chap to work with and there was a lot of responsibility under him and we got on with the job. I thoroughly enjoyed it. We were


getting information from the war office which we were sending back to army headquarters in Australia and he used to write a weekly newsletter to them telling the chief of the general staff what was going on in Europe and how things were progressing. We had lots of responsibilities for Australian officers who came over on courses for training and things like that. It was a


very interesting job. Then we had a big technical staff there. We had a brigadier who was in charge of that and he got with the business of purchasing equipment and the technical side of it and I did the operational staff work with the war office.
Where were you on VE [Victory in Europe] day?
I was in London.


In the war office actually. I watched the march past in Whitehall from the windows of the war office and to my disgust the march was led by old General Graham and there I should have been beside him on the march. I was very disappointed with that I hadn’t got this opportunity. He led the infantry side of the thing.


It was a great march past, a great celebration and there was a lot of fun in London went on. I ended up on the steps of Trafalgar Square with a very old friend of mine who had been in the Australian Army with me and he was the manager of the steelworks down in Port Kembla and he said to me then, that night, “Well what are you going to do after the war?” “Nothing to do at all. I haven’t got any plans.”


He said, “Well you’d better come and join us.” So from then onwards I knew I had a job back in Australia when I got back. In fact I, towards the end of my time in London I was given what they call CRTS [Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme] which is a leave to training before retirement. I did the course at the Imperial College of Metallurgy and I spent a


little bit of time with the steelworks at Newport in Wales and learning the business of steel making. I spent a few weeks doing that. Very pleasant. By that time we’d gotten married and so Jean came down with me and it was quite a pleasant thing.
Was it in these last few years that you were also awarded the OBE [Order of the British Empire]?


Yes. That was for my services in Europe. General Graham told me he put my name in for a British decoration and the French decoration for being handed around and around the division and he called me in and he said, “I hope you won’t be disappointed. I’m not going to put your name down for one of these French decorations because I’ve already recommended you for a British decoration.” Sure enough,


a few weeks later I was notified in the gazette that I’d been awarded the OBE. I then went along to Buckingham Palace and the King pinned it on my chest. I’d already been there once to get my Military Cross – was also bestowed on me by King George VI and then he did it twice. He didn’t know that of course. It was quite


an enjoyable experience.
When you came back to Australia you left the army and when you left the army what did you miss about it?
Well I don’t know, I had to get on with my own life. I don’t think I missed anything. I must say General Raoul who was CGS [Chief of General Staff] at the time called me in and


invited me to stay on in the army, but I was not disposed to do that because I’d already seen what had happened to people that stayed on after the First World War and they’d never really got on very well. In fact the chap who took over from me had been in the First World War and he’d reached the staggering rank of lieutenant-colonel at the age of fifty five or something when he took over from me in London.


So I didn’t really want to stay on in the army. Anyway I had this offer of a job down in Port Kembla in Wollongong and so I just wanted to get on with that. That’s where I went. I was assistant manager at the steel works in Port Kembla.
As we look back on these years in the Australian Army, how do you think it changed you?


I went into the army as a rather young undergraduate, just graduated. I didn’t know very much about the world and I developed responsibilities, I was given great responsibilities at a very early age for the army. I got a great deal of training in man management


and management of all sorts of kinds and so it was a great experience – those six years of growing up as it were and it was very good. Stood me in good stead.
What would you say out of those six years was your proudest moment?


I don’t know that I was proud at any time particularly. Well I was very delighted to be given these various awards that I got. I got the Military Cross as you know for my work in Greece and I was mentioned in dispatches for my work in New Guinea and I got the OBE for my work in Europe. I think they were great rewards, great


experience that. I couldn't have asked for anything more. I was very pleased and delighted about that. Finally I got the French award the other day. All around I have a fair collection of medals. I don’t think I was proud about any of the things I did. I was pleased that I was competent at doing


what I was doing. Everybody seemed to be pleased about that so that was alright. That was all I needed.
Well how would you like those experiences to be remembered?
I don’t think I particularly want them remembered at all. I remember them, that’s enough. There’s no other way you can have remembered really, just that


I was one of thousands of people who went through the war and did exactly the same sorts of things. So there is no real reason why it should be remembered personally by anybody. In fact I don’t think my children have got the slightest idea. I seldom talk to them about it and they seldom ask me any questions about it, so why worry them by telling these things.


I’ve written a little piece that they may read one day if they want to. I’m not really very interested in being remembered at all. Fair enough isn’t it?
What about the 6th and 7th Division? How would you like them to be remembered?
Well they will be remembered of course because of the AIF in the Second World War. I think, I guess they’ll be remembered.


Things have moved on and this was all a long time ago. People are really not interested, at least I don’t think they are. They seem to be interested when we suddenly went over to Normandy. Everyone from the press was suddenly expressed great interest in what we were doing, but I don’t think anybody else is terribly interested. It’s just like any other part of history, just like the


veterans of the first war. I mean people remember them of course but now the people that had intimate knowledge of them are all dead and it’s gradually passing on, part of Australian history and that’s that. There’s no other way they should be remembered I don’t think.
One way we do remember Australian history is through Anzac Day.
Well remember on Anzac Day and we remember it because of War Memorials,


things like that. I hope that Anzac Day will go on. It’s changed its character very greatly. I can remember the Anzac Days when I was a small boy at school when I was perhaps ten or twelve. The marches then were an extensive collection of old diggers and lots of them wore uniform and it


was a great parade. Now gradually it got tied off and then after the Second World War it was exactly the same. The marches were very long. Huge numbers, people turned up. Unit associations were very active and now most of them aren’t very active and most of them have disappeared. Most of the people have disappeared so they’re not going to go on.


The fact of celebrating Anzac Day as a National Day of Remembrance is really quite important I think. I think it’s shown by the fact that the present crowds that go are younger people. There seems to be a revival of interest in Anzac Day by the population, although it’s not nearly at the sort of,


I won’t say sacred day it was it’s not really the day of remembrance that it used to be when families of people who had actually been to the first and second war were still around. Now they’re not around so it’s different, it’s just a generational thing. Young people of today they know about Anzac Day and after all they all flock to Anzac itself.


There are huge crowds go to Anzac and they’re all many generations after these two wars have finished. So there’s a revival of interest like that and I think that’s a good thing. We take much more interest in that than most European countries.


What words of advice would you like to leave for those future generations?
I don’t have any words of advice except if a situation like this ever occurs again well be in it, willing to help your country. I think that’s all I can say. I’m not a great advocate of wars now – I think you must try and avoid them if you can.


Indeed we tried to avoid it too in the Second World War which were not capable of doing it and sadly nowadays they seem to go to war. We’re still having them ourselves, we’ve still got our troops in action in various parts of the world, it’s always going to go on. I really don’t have anything to say to the young except to, as it were, do your duty when you find you have to.


As we come to the end of our interview today do you have anything else you would like to say in closing?
No I don’t think so. I think you’ve got all I need to say on these matters. I’m no great philosopher so I won’t be philosophising about wars and what you should and should not do – that’s somebody else’s business now. So thank you very much indeed, that’s all I have to say I think.
Thank you very much Bill.


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