Herbert Ferres
Archive number: 484
Preferred name: Bert
Date interviewed: 18 June, 2003

Served with:

2/13th Infantry Battalion

Other images:

Herbert Ferres 0484


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Tape 01


Bert, can we start off with: can you give me an idea of where you were born and brought up?
Yes, I was born in St Peters, but my earliest memories was when we moved to Brighton Le Sands, and that was well into the start of the Depression


And looking back, we all moved in and lived with our Grandma. Our father had lost his business due to the Depression, and had no job. So the whole family finished up in the one house in Brighton Le Sands. It didn’t seem to affect us kids much, because we were all in the same boat. And it was quite a happy childhood of mine.


Plenty of room to play in Brighton Le Sands in those days. I can remember as far back as starting school, and I didn’t like it until I left. And I wasn’t very good at anything I did at that school, because I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t play a sport, and I wasn’t very good at the three ‘R’s’ [reading, writing, ‘rithmetic], but


once I got to high school I was very interested, but it was too late then. As you did in the Depression days, when you were fourteen you went to work. No matter what your ambitions were, you had to go and earn money because your father couldn’t work. Because he couldn’t get a job.
What did your father do?
He was a master cabinet maker. And he had his own factory in Rockdale, and the banks must have foreclosed on it,


because we had a federation home in Brighton, and we lost that and the factory, so they must have all been owned by the banks. We just don’t know. It ruined his life more than it did ours, he never recovered and was always depressed. He never really got back into business. I could tell you a bit about the area at that time.


Every weekend the Brighton foreshore was turned into a carnival, night and day. All these rides and the penny arcades and the shooting gallery. And my main ambition was to shoot in the shooting gallery; I think I was about eight years old. I don’t know who gave me the money to have a shot, but I didn’t want the rifle, I wanted to use the pistol, and the chap


running the show didn’t want me to do that, but the crowd made him do it. They pestered him until he gave me the pistol. And so I had my first shot with a pistol. And every time they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, it was always I wanted to be a soldier. They couldn’t get me interested in anything else.
Why did you want to be a soldier?
I think it was the one thing that school did influence


me by; the teachers were all ex-servicemen from the First World War, and they used to drill us like soldiers, and yell at us like soldiers, but they were very kind and good blokes. But if you didn’t study, they weren’t interested in you. They just let you go. There was no pressure to really work.
Did you know anything about where they served or what they did?
No, they didn’t talk about anything that way, it was just they –


I admired them because they were ex-soldiers, there was not many of them around in those days. It was not only the teachers, all the hawkers that would come around, they were all ex-soldiers out of work. They all seemed to be out of work, except the teachers.
What were the hawkers selling?
Well, everything from dead rabbits to clothes props, you name it.


Everybody came around in horse and carts or pushing carts. And the only one that didn’t come around was the butcher. To buy meat was quite a luxury, and you had to go the shop to get that. But everything else, more or less, was hawked around the streets. But I did manage to get into the military when I was I fourteen. I joined the 45th


Battalion senior cadets. You were supposed to be sixteen to join, but I lied again. And I was in that until the war started. And I did an NCO’s [non-commissioned officer’s] course, trained by the regular army. I had one stripe. And I got a bit tired of that and decided I’d join the band because that was more glamorous. I joined the drum corps of


the 45th Battalion, and we did a Trooping of the Colour in 1938. And I used to practice the drumming in the back yard and just about everybody in the street knew there was a war coming. Everyday they’d hear this drum practice going on in the back of our place.
What did you know about the war in Europe?
Only what I read and or seen on the pictures. Not much.
Did you know much about Hitler and what was happening?
I can’t remember what I knew, but I was very influenced that way.


By the time I was fifteen, I’d fired machine-guns and .303 rifles on the range. Done everything but throw a grenade. Done all the marching and drill. Then I played in the band and marched through Sydney many times during 1939 with the band. Then eventually they got rid of me because I was only a cadet. They just took the drum


off and told me to go home. But they didn’t let me join the army, the AIF [Australian Imperial Force], because I was too young.
What was the extent of your commitment, as a cadet? How often were you involved with them?
One night a week and often weekends. But more involved with the band than I was with the other training, once I joined the band. They were always in demand, once the war broke out, doing recruitment


marches and that.
Where were you when the war broke out?
Where was I?
Where were you when the war –
In Sydney.
Do you remember the day?
Well it was in September, 1939. Yes, I was living at Ramsgate then. The family had moved to Ramsgate, we got a government-aided home built. My father had to sell his motorbike to buy the land. The land


was forty pound or something. And the government built the house for us. I’ve got photographs of them there. You can pick them out today, they’re still around in the district, these government houses. And that’s because we were firstly, destitute, at that time. None of the boys were working, then. We were all still at school. Three boys and one daughter, so there was three brothers and a sister.


And the three of us went to the war. But we really only worked a couple of years before we went to the war.
What work did you do?
Well, lots of jobs. Initially I worked in a factory that made toasters, irons, kitchen items like that.


But it wasn’t easy, everything you did you had to learn it, quick smart. And the factories obeyed no safety laws at all. They had us kids on machines with no guards on, and all this sort of thing; presses. Then I got into the furniture factory at Rockdale. They wanted to apprentice me, they thought that would help me, but I wouldn’t be in it


because I lost about five shillings a week, if I become an apprentice. I was only getting fifteen shillings a week. I was always mad about guns, I’m afraid. They sent me to an errand, with a driver who was an ex-serviceman from the First World War, and we had to go to the bank and get the pay. And he had a loaded automatic, and when


we went to the bank, he allowed me to hold the automatic. I was sitting in the middle of Rockdale with a loaded automatic, and I was only fifteen years old, while he went to the bank. He said, “I don’t want it, I’d never use it.” And I thought, “Jeez, you must have shot a lot of blokes.” He said, “I’d settle it with my fists. I wouldn’t shoot anybody.” That was what they were like. I was always in contact with ex-servicemen from the war, worked with them as well.


So it wasn’t easy for me to get into the army because I was still underage. But I cheated again by putting the application, which you had to get your parents to sign if you were over eighteen, over 20, I think it was. If you were under 21 you had to get your parents to sign it, I think. That was the drill. I told them I was 20, and the only reason I got through was because I wore my cadet’s


uniform, which was the same as a militiaman. I took my band badges off, and I was a lance corporal in an infantry uniform, see. And this officer is there picking out all the militiamen for their battalion, and they gave me a piece of paper and it had on it, 2/13. And I said, “Is that the artillery?” “You’ll be right son.” they said and patted me on the shoulder. And I was in the infantry then, we went straight into camp.
Whereabouts did that happen?
That was in Sydney. That


was at the barracks, the showgrounds, the engineers’ barracks in the Sydney showground. And that was 27th of May, 1940.
Tell me about the AIF recruiters were looking for militiamen. Tell me about that?
Well, that was the CO [commanding officer] and his adjutant, and there had been a lot of authority to raise a battalion.


They were all militiamen; no regular army men at all. Even the colonel was a colonel in the militia, but he was a private in the First World War. And his main aim was to grab all the trained fellows he could get, and seventy-five percent of the battalion finished up all ex-militia. We even had Scotties in kilts coming up. It was all a motley


crew of different uniforms. In those days we wore the stiff collar and striped trousers and brass buttons, and piping on the sleeves and that.
How did your parents react to your enlistment?
Well, there was quite a reaction, I’m afraid. I wasn’t game to tell my father. He didn’t even know I joined the army. When they said, “Where’s your father?” I said, “I don’t know where


my father is. He went bush.” So my mother signed the papers, under duress. And I’ve still got that paper there, I got a copy of it. I told them I was twenty, and she signed my consent, and I told them I was born in 1919, instead of 1922. And I think they knew I was underage, but they just took you. If you went along, they took you. Because it was


really a motley crew, they just come off the streets. There were blokes there that were really too old to go.
So when did your father find out?
He found out when I didn’t come home for a fortnight. And then I said – I’ve forgotten the actual time, but he was always threatening to have me pulled out. And when I told him we were going to march to Bathurst, he said, “If you can march to Bathurst, you can stay in.” Well,


I had no trouble marching to Bathurst, so he didn’t pull me out. But there were other people who tried to get me out. The first corporal, he was from my militia battalion, and he was an old man of over 35. And he went to the colonel and said, “He’s too young, he shouldn’t go overseas.” And the colonel just looked at him, and said, “He goes.” Because he went when he was young.


And we were only in the army five months when we sailed on the HMT [His Majesty’s Troopship] Queen Mary.
Tell me about your mother signing under duress?
Well, it was really tough on her, because I was the first to go to the war. My elder brother, he was conscripted. And my young brother, he volunteered, but he was two years younger than me, he had to wait until the war was nearly over.


No, I didn’t see much of him after that. Once I went overseas, I only came home twice in five years. Only had two leaves in Sydney. When we came back from the Middle East after two and a half years we had twenty one days leave, then we went to New Guinea. We come back, had a double leave, then we never come back until the war finished. So we had leave in 1943, and


’44, and that was it. We were in Borneo when the war finished.
What was your parents’ reaction to war breaking out? The war beginning?
Well, everybody in those days was against the war. Because they thought it wasn’t our war. Much the same as the attitude today when they try and start a war. My father,


he wasn’t an ex-serviceman, he was only a young man during the First World War, but he was dead against any of his boys going, because he reckoned we were ‘just cannon fodder’, he called it. But my mother knew just how strong I felt and the war, but it certainly wasn’t easy for her. Because she lost the income for a start. My father soon got work once war started. When he finished up he was making


the Mosquito bombers, because they’re all made of plywood.
So why were you so keen to join up?
I just made up my mind that was going to be my career. Some people want to be engine drivers and pilots, but I knew I could get into the army, and I knew I could do it. I had no particular trade I wanted to do. See I didn’t learn


anything in the army either. I learnt a lot afterward. So really had nothing to be proud of, up until that time. Really was just a drifter. But it was easy for young people to get work, you were never out of work. You could change your jobs like you changed your socks. Because they’d be paying us fifteen bob a week. The most I ever earned was seventeen and six, I think,


when the basic wage was about five pound. Why employ adults when they can employ children? Actually I was very naïve, rather a wimp, really totally unsuitable for the army, but that’s what I wanted to do. And they knock you into shape eventually. And we were lucky to have lots of country blokes join, and they’re


much more of a cheer than the city blokes. The younger ones I’m talking about. Because they’d been raised working from the time they could ride a horse. Just more mature. Where us city kids just knocked around enjoying ourselves, rather than helping the old man.
So why were you unsuitable?
I wasn’t physically up to it, I don’t think, at the time.


First thing I offered to do, when they said, “Form a platoon.” which is a platoon of thirty men, “Into sections; who wants to be the Lewis gunner?” Because we didn’t have modern machine-guns, we only had the old Lewis. And as I knew the Lewis gun and as I could strip it and fire it and load it and all that, I said, “I’ll be the Lewis gunner.” But on the first route march I couldn’t carry it. I carried it about half a mile and tossed it. It weighed


over thirty pounds, and a lot more when it’s loaded. I’ve got a photo of myself setting it up though, in the first couple of weeks I was in the army. I was the Lewis gunner, but not for long.
What was the march to Bathurst like?
Quite easy, really. It was cold, but not when you’re marching, but at night-time. We only camped out in the open about three times, and that was very cold. Frost about this high,


after we left Katoomba. But all the way up the public let us put up in their houses and their halls and RSLs [Returned and Services League clubs] and all that. It took ten days to do it. But the training up there was all right, it was just a lot of route


marching and charging up and down hills. We didn’t really learn much. We didn’t do much shooting on the range. Then we were sent away overseas to be trained, virtually. It was almost a year before we got into action, so we were reasonably trained by then. Did a lot of field work in Palestine.


Always in tents in Palestine, but once you hit the desert, you lived in the desert; you dug your hole. If it was in a danger area, well, you slept on the ground. I think it might be better if you asked me some questions.
That’s okay. Tell me then, was all your training in Australia at Bathurst?
Yeah, initial


training was at Ingleburn, till we could actually form up and march out. And within three months we marched just like trained soldiers, because we were mostly militiamen, you see. There’s a full movie in there of the whole march, we’re marching out of Bathurst, and all the way up to Bathurst. So there was no problem doing rifle drill and marching, but we had no real field work


until we got to Bathurst. Then we did battalion formations of attack and defence. But not enough shooting, in my opinion, on the rifle range, with the machine-gun. But once we got to Palestine, we did a lot more. It did me a lot of good actually, I just topped them up as I went; had to keep up.
When did you learn that


you were being posted overseas?
After about four months we knew we’d be going soon. When the actual day came, we were given final leave; then everybody knew. Including the enemy I think. We were supposed to be moving in secret; we came down overnight on steam trains, right down


to the harbour, and ferries took us out to the HMT Queen Mary. When we were ready to sail the next morning, everybody in Sydney was out on the harbour to wave us off. That’s when I really started to enjoy it. As the Mary went out the heads, I’m sure the bow


was down in the water, that would be the stern down in the water, and the bow up, because five thousand troops [were] on board and they all went to the stern to see the last of Sydney. And I’m right on the bow, talking to the sailor on duty up there, not another soldier on the deck but me, talking. I wasn’t a bit interested or worried about going away, I just wanted to go. And everybody else, they had families seeing them off and everything. But my parents didn’t


even know we were sailing, so – my wife, she saw her brothers off, they were on the same boat. But I didn’t know them, not till after the war.
Why were you so glad to be going away?
I knew I was going to war. And that’s why.
What was the accommodation


on the ship like?
Very good. They were actually two-person cabins, and they put extra bunks in so they were eight to a cabin, but we had our own bathroom. They even had the civilian staff still on, doing the cleaning and what have you. They were proper made-up bunks. But the eating arrangements were a bit tougher, because


they had to use the ballroom as the mess room, and that was two flights down, down the companionway, and you’d get in this queue, and it would go on for hours, the meals, because everybody would go in and eat and go out the other door, then some more would come in. But when you were in a rough sea, by the time you got to where the food was, you didn’t want it. Only those that had good stomachs lived well. You wouldn’t think you’d get very


seasick on the Mary, but when you’d never been to sea you did. The country blokes were the worst, because they’d never been at sea.
How were you?
I got sick the first time out, but I never got sick again. We had a big storm in the Indian Ocean, I didn’t get sick then, but I got sick in the [Great Australian] Bight, in the first place. But we had a – when I say that they


even got drunk on board, we had a beer mess was open only certain times, but you could drink as much as you could drink in that certain time. So everybody would get a bit full. But I wasn’t a drinker then or a smoker, so it didn’t worry me. That came later. But no, the Mary was firstly a luxury [liner], then later stripped right out and made into a troop carrier. Because the Yanks put


ten thousand or more on it. They did the trip on the Mary. But I’ve still got a letter there I wrote on the Mary to a friend of mine. We went to school together and he lived in the next street right up till he died the other day. So we’d been friends for seventy odd years. And it’s funny to read the letter that I


did write at that time. It gives you an idea of how proud I was to be in that situation. I told him that – I couldn’t find it now.
Tell me about some of the ports you stopped off at?
On the way?
There was only one secret port, and I’m not sure where it was, south of India somewhere, where they stopped


for fresh water. And the next port was in India: Bombay. But the HMT Queen Mary was too big to get right into the port, then we stood off for two days. Then they took us ashore in smaller boats. We went inland then, to the British Army Camp at Poona, or a little village outside of Poona called Deolali.


So that was extremely interesting. That first foreign country was Bombay, and I’ll never forget the first duty I had; was with fixed bayonet, was hold back all the beggars. They would just come down in a horde when troops arrived to see what they could scrounge, and I’m pushing them back with my rifle and bayonet like this, and I’m sliding backward and an officer is bellowing at me “Hit them, man! Hit them!


Use your butt!” There’s a sixteen, seventeen year old kid trying to hold them back. The next minute, bloody police came and the Indian police, they belted them with big sticks. And they all just went then. And we were a bit horrified [at] them treating people like that, but that was India: half the population seemed to sleep on the sidewalk of a night and everybody seemed to be starving;


really, horrible in ways. We were there three weeks, when we stayed at the British Army camp, and it was so hot that we weren’t really [UNCLEAR], but the British stopped us doing even that because we weren’t acclimatised for the heat. We were pretty comfortable there. Everybody had a batman to


polish your boots, do your washing, and the British soldiers complained because they reckoned we overpaid the Indians and ruined them for life. Because they didn’t get the pay we got. We got five bob a day, where they’d get a shilling a day, and we’d throw money to the kids and really spoil all the beggars.
Did you have much leave in Bombay?
One day,


or one afternoon, that’s all.
What did you do?
Well, they sorted out the blokes and they picked the quietest ones, because a party had been invited to the girls’ high school for a musical afternoon. And I was picked as one of the quiet ones. We went, sat down, behaving ourselves, drinking cups of tea, while all the other blokes are boozing up, going down, looking at


Bombay. No we didn’t see much of Bombay.
So where did the Mary take you after Bombay?
We didn’t go back on the Mary. I don’t know where it went from there. We were picked up by smaller ships so we could go up the Suez Canal. And we sailed from Bombay, up the Red Sea, up the Suez Canal, and we disembarked in


the Suez Canal and then we caught trains that went across the Sinai Desert to Palestine. I suppose we were travelling for nearly a fortnight to India, then three weeks in India; travelling probably about a month and a half.
And where were you accommodated in Palestine? What was that like?
The whole of the division built their own camps


in ploughed fields. All tent camps, and each battalion put up their own camp, then built another camp for the next unit that was coming. We built; what they call the Gaza Strip now, that was all army


camps, right along there, right along the main road going towards Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But we got on quite well with the neighbours. They weren’t beggars; they were peasants. They had small mud villages, as well as the main town like Gaza. And we’d give them work to do. We had them work in our camps, do our washing, and supplied them with


camel meat, whatever it was they fed us on. And the Gaza was a very interesting place, because that was the place of big battles for the Australian Light Horse and the British Army. There was a military cemetery there from the First World War. And we went out to Beersheba, and had a look at Beersheba. We learned a lot about the history of the Light Horse in that area.


Who taught you the history there? Were you taken around? How did you learn about the history while you were there?
Well, we had returned soldiers in our unit, even in our platoon, but they weren’t Light Horsemen. There was always somebody that knows about it.


I studied a lot of it after the war actually, because I was interested in what the Australians did there. They actually turned the tide of the battle there, the Light Horsemen. The British kept attacking the high ground where we camped, Gaza edge, on frontal attacks, then Aussies outflanked


the Turks on horseback, which caused them to withdraw, I think, at the time. The Light Horse served the whole of the war in that area. Went right through Palestine and Syria, up to Turkey. Didn’t go to France.
Was there a strong feeling for tradition there?
Oh yes there was, yeah.


Especially in the war cemetery, reading all the blokes’ names there. I’ve got a photo in there of the entrance to the cemetery, and there’s a book there, as they usually do in war cemeteries, for people’s comments. And put their name in it. It was good to read through it. The jokes blokes would put in there: “Keep the palliasse warm for me, mate.” and this sort of thing, written in the book at the entrance.


You said you got better arms training in Palestine?
A bit better; not enough range shooting, but plenty of ground movement and what have you. But it always worried me that we weren’t fully trained. And the


army realised it when you read about it. They sent us up to relieve the Sixth Division, and then to finish our training, finish off the desert, you see. And the Sixth Division had defeated the whole of their battalion army and got as far as Africa. And they were coming back and we were going up, and we were passing each other in the trucks. And I always remember one Sixth Divi. [Division] bloke yelled out “What mob


are you?” “We’re the Ninth Division.” we said. He said, “You’re a bit late here with your bugle, aren’t you?” He reckoned the war was over, but it wasn’t. The Germans came. They didn’t fight the Germans. Not in the Middle East. They fought them in Greece. But our battalion was the first Australian battalion to fight the Germans in the Second World War. And that was in


early April of 1940. And that’s where we learned to shoot. That’s when we really did some shooting. But before that we were enjoying it. We camped on the battlefields where the Sixth Division had fought, then we went scrounging amongst the loot. Everybody was loaded down with souvenirs.
What did you find?


At that particular time I got a battalion pistol. A Reliant World War I pistol, which caused a furore later on. Almost a national incident, which I’ll tell you about, but you be guided in what you print about it. It’s in that book. And it was all caused by my revolver. One of our chaps


borrowed it, he was drunk at the time, and he broke into the general in command of the Middle East mess’s cookhouse, and took two shots at his cook. And of course he was grabbed and arrested. And this was before we went into battle; this was on the way up. Anyhow, they


put him in the town jail at the time. And the commander of the Middle East wrote to our General Moreshead about the lack of discipline of the Australian troops. That was the only incident, he said, there were other incidents in the town, and the disgraceful incident at my headquarters. And he said, “I’m going to write to General Blamey in Australia.” Because our general


really got upset about it. That’s all in the books there, too. Anyway, it was all in a [UNCLEAR], he had been court-martialled and sentenced to, what they called ‘fatal punishment’, but nobody knew what the ‘fatal punishment’ was going to be, so they just left him in this jail. But when we moved


up, and the Germans attacked, they let him out. And let him come back to the unit, and nothing was ever said about it after that.
What happened to the pistol?
I don’t know. It was no small event at the time. I only had it as a souvenir but he got dangerous. He was of Indian descent, I never ever found


out what nationality he was. He was a coloured bloke. He just couldn’t drink. When he was on the drink he went quite mad. We had a few like that. So that was the first thing, and as we were going up the desert, we still hadn’t done much shooting, no, none at all, but then we were attacked by German aircraft.
I might stop you there, we’re right at the end of this tape.
Interviewee: Herbert Ferres Archive ID 0484 Tape 02


Okay, Bert, let’s continue with the story.
Well, by this time the Sixth Division had withdrawn, and it was really just a division in training and taking over and guarding and gathering in the Italian prisoners in their thousands.


And they [were] quite easy to guard. They had no intentions of trying to escape. They all wanted to go to Australia. In fact, to get [them] to behave and do the chores you wanted them to do, like digging latrines and putting up tents, we’d tell them if they didn’t behave, we’d send them to India. “No George.” they’d say, “Australia, Australia.” And a lot of them did come to Australia. And stayed here, I think. But the Italians


really didn’t have their heart in the war at all. They weren’t the typical enemies to defeat. And even Rommel will tell you that. He wished they were on our side. He said the only troops the Italians got were their artillery, [they] were quite good. Anyway the first action was we got strafed by five Michael aircraft at low altitude. And we were always


trained to, in an air raid of low-flying aircraft, we’d stand, as we were in a group, and fire our rifles at the aircraft, left, right, rapid-fire. And we trained to do this. We got off the trucks and run like devil to get away from the trucks, and went to ground, and I immediately stood up and loaded and said, “Aren’t we going to do


aircraft?” And they said, “Get down or we’ll knock you down.” I was the only one to stand up thinking we were going to shoot at the aircraft. But there was no point to it. They were so fast and so low, you wouldn’t bring them down by rifles. But we had four men killed; one of them was an officer. And from then on we were very careful, and we watched the sky all the time. It was the only time we were strafed


on the way up. But by this time, we hadn’t had any training at all, and we were informed that the Jerries [Germans] had defeated the British at El Agheila, and our order was to withdraw in regard for the Ninth Division, and hold this pass. The


Benghazi Pass. It was known as the Iwo Jima Pass, because that was the name of an old Turkish fort. But the battalion was spread out pretty thin along there. But they were sure, well, our colonel was sure that the main attack would be on the pass. But my particular platoon


was miles away on the left, to report any outflanking movement by the Germans, to come around the back of us. And anyhow, they attacked our battalion with three thousand infantry and about thirty tanks. On the pass. And we were told where we were that we’re cut off and we’d have to retreat on our own back to


our unit and rejoin them at the pass. And I remember they told us to throw away all our gear except battle order. And we all had our packs with us, with all our personal stuff. And we just stacked them up and left them, for the Germans. And we marched about five mile to rejoin the unit, and by the time we got there, it was dark. And we still hadn’t fired a shot. But they’re all


fighting tanks, in the infantry. You could see tracers going everywhere. The first thing we knew a Bren gun opened up on us, we heard them yell out, “Here they come!” And of course straightaway, “It’s us, you stupid so and so!” And they said, “Hold your fire. It’s our blokes.” And we rejoined the unit, and there was skirmishing that went on for


about four hours. Then finally some trucks came up to pull us out. But we lost eighty people captured, and about twenty killed. We left one company just to hold the pass, and they held it until they had no ammunition left and they had to surrender. And we got on these trucks, and they were battalion trucks, fairly large, but we got onto them about, I don’t know


how many men on each truck. About fifty men to a truck. And I remember I only got one foot on the floor of the truck, and there was a canopy frame up top, and I’m hanging on by the canopy frame, standing only on one leg. But you’re all jammed in tight. One bloke fell down and went to sleep. And we’re standing there staring at him, and I remember saying to the sergeant, “If you don’t get this so and so up, I’m getting off.”


He pushed his way through, and got him on his feet. But that was how we travelled all night long. Just standing up on the back of a truck. And at dawn we disembarked and dug in across the road. Then another battalion took our trucks. We’re standing dug in, waiting for the Jerry [Germans] again, and no trucks to retreat with until night time. But Jerry,


we must have won his respect, because he came up with tanks and armoured cars, and have a look at us with binoculars and not attack. And when night had come we were off for our life again. That was the Benghazi do, that went on for seven days. Until we got into Tobruk, and that’s where the big story starts.
Tell me what did Tobruk look like? What were your first impressions?


at first I couldn’t make it out, because it was facing the wrong way, I thought. They put us on an area that was facing west? North? I’ve got a map of it. Anyway, we didn’t have a map of it, we knew nothing about the fences except it was half circled from shore to shore,


and we were put into a post, on the defences, just full of flesh from the Italians. There were some better Italians but they were only half-buried, and we had to clean it all out, and fill sandbags and try and improve it. Because they weren’t very good for fighting out of. They were good for protection,


these concrete trenches, but there were only two fire bays that you could fire from. So we altered all that. We didn’t have much time.
What sort of alterations did you make?
Sandbags mostly. Because the parapets were concrete. And when the shells hit them, the concrete flew everywhere. And we had an officer killed a few days later, just flying concrete. And the


whole perimeter, in length, was about forty kilometres, But the actual depth, from the perimeter to the harbour, and the township, was about seven miles. And there was only one defensive line. And after the first battle, which was


more or less in the next week after we arrived there. On the 13th of April, we had our first battle, with Jerry. And I remember that we got everything tidied up, and they had been firing their weapons to zero in. Because we had terrific barbed wire, some of it was twenty-five feet deep, the Italians done all this work for us; in 1936 it was built.


And there was a beaut anti-tank ditch in front of us, and twenty-five feet of wire. But all the mines had been deloused, the anti-tank mines, so the engineers were working like mad reloading these Italian mines, and we’re madly filling sandbags and digging extra trenches. And the first day of the battle, we didn’t know what was going to happen. I had the job of making the


porridge. To make the porridge for the team, or the section, we’d soak these army biscuits overnight, and if we had any tinned milk – we didn’t get condensed milk, just tinned, unsweetened milk – we’d pour that on; if we had some sugar we’d mix that in, and that was breakfast. And I was in the secondary anti-tank ditch, which was a concrete one, and


cooking, over a wood fire, cooking the porridge. And I heard the rattle and crash of tanks, and I looked up and there’s a line of tanks tearing along our wire. And I yelled out, “Hey look, we’ve got some tanks!” And all the heads bobbed up: “You silly so and so, they’re not ours!” Then they all swung around and just opened on us. Mostly with HE [high explosives], and we forgot


about breakfast. Then they plastered us for a while, but that tank ditch was too deep for them, so they turned away and they came down on the 17th Battalion, just about a mile away from us, and they attacked them. And they were beaten off the first attack, so they mounted another one. And this time they broke through with the tanks, and the story’s all there from then on, that was


what we called the Easter Battle, and Edmunds won his VC [Victoria Cross] in that battle. They never defeated our infantry; we defeated their infantry. And the artillery defeated their tanks. There was aircraft fighting overhead, terrific shell fire and anti-tank fire, and lots of small arm fire, but we just kept our heads down. Where we were, we


just watched it, virtually, we were out of range of small arms. But we did cop thousands of shells in our area, and that was the worst of it. But that was the initial battle, that was the first time the Germans had ever been defeated in attack in the Second World War, in that blitzkrieg. Rommel described it, he spat chips over them.


He really done his crumpet because they failed in their attack. He sacked the officer in charge. And they had four hundred and fifty casualties, the Germans, just from the Australians.
Were you aware of the historic nature of that victory at the time?
No, we weren’t. We almost enjoyed it. At last we had a go at


them, because we didn’t like retreating. We didn’t know enough to be frightened, you know. It was the shell fire that was the worst, because I’d never had that before. But when we found out what terrific support we had from the British artillery – they were all regular army blokes, in their tanks. We couldn’t have defeated them without them.


All the infantry were Australians, at about that time, but all the support weapons, except for anti-tank (we had our own anti-tank battalion, anti-tank guns), but all our artillery, except one Australian regiment –
So what happened after the Easter battle?
Well, we really got regulated; there was another


battle a month later, a big one, but in the meantime we just started to do typical front line work. With a patrol of the night you stayed awake all night in the front line, nobody sleeps. There’d be blokes in the posts, and there would be the headquarters of the platoon, with an officer, he’d stay in the post, but every bloke had a job. The machine-


gunners would be on their machine-guns in their post in the pit. But everybody else would be patrolling. A man patrolling the inside of the wire, one that way, and one that way. Another two blokes patrolling the anti-tank ditch, and fighting patrols out in front. And everything had to be regimented so that we knew where everybody was so you didn’t fire on the wrong bloke. But


we had some peculiar set-ups. The bloke inside the wire, if he saw anything or was tackled by the enemy, he was to fire two tracers into the air with his rifle. When you’re attacked by somebody you don’t stand there and fire the tracers in the air, you fire the tracers at the enemy. That happened to one of corporals. The Germans challenged him from outside the wire, they had no hope of getting him, they


said, “Surrender.” And he fired one red tracer into the air and the other one at the enemy, so that alerted the whole front line then. And every patrol’s got to come in then. And one defence was active patrolling. It kept the Germans away from our defences, in fact they finished up drawing thousands of yards back, right away from us. And they even shone


search lights to try and stop us, and they chased us with tanks. But they couldn’t stop us. We owned no man’s land, right around the whole perimeter. But there was a major attack a month later, and they attacked with terrific force this time. The whole of the German Afrika Korps attacked, and they took the high ground in Tobruk and they forced what they call


a salient. They took about a dozen of the main two or three miles from the defences. The 18th Brigade, they were from the Seventh Division and they were sent up to us before the siege started, from Egypt. And they were holding that area, and they lost it. And they counter-attacked and counter-attacked but couldn’t get it back. So we dug in and so


did Jerry. And the trenches there were just slippery. The Jerry just dug out one-man or two-man trenches, and that persisted for the whole siege.
Where were you during this second major battle?
I was in another sector, we couldn’t even hear it from where we were. We were in the front line, but in another sector at the time. El Adem Sector or Bardia Sector;


they called the sectors for the name of the next town. The one east was Bardia and the one west was the Derna, the Derna Sector, and the one south was the El Adem Sector. And you usually spent two weeks to three weeks in the line and a week out, but while you were out of the line


all you did was dig the next line of defence. So it was continuous, making defences. But the conditions were worse than the fighting, in one sense. The food was dog, there was a great shortage of water.
What was the food?
Bully beef mainly, tinned bully beef and hard biscuits. But they managed to eventually make a


stew, bully beef stew, that they would bring up every night. During the day you just had bully and biscuits, and then they started a bakery, the British built up a bakery, but the only flour available was old flour that had belonged to the Italian Army, and it was full of weevils. But they still baked bread, when they could. But when they had an air raid the bread wouldn’t rise, from the thump of


the explosions. We’d say “Oh, we got air raid bread again today.” It’d be flat, and full of weevils, because you forgot about the weevils. The only butter we had was margarine, which really smelt and was really salty and used to melt with the heat. And we used to get tins of jam, of all things, from Palestine. Everything was brought up by destroyer. They did a marvellous job


the Australian destroyers that brought the food up. They might only bring twenty-five tons at a time, but they’d get it in and out again, and come up again the next night with another load.
What was so bad about the bully beef and the biscuits?
Well, it was salty. And initially we only had one water bottle a day, but then it got a bit better to one gallon of water a day. But there’s sixteen hours of daylight and about a hundred and twenty degrees


of heat. And if you did drink your water it was warm. We used to bury our water bottle to keep them cool, when we were in the front line, and drink them of the night. Because the food made you thirsty, and so did the temperature. The nights in the sun were all right, but the winter nights were freezing cold.


Despite all of this you didn’t hear any whinging, nobody whinged. Nobody complained. They swore about things and jokingly complained, but everyone put up with it. We always thought it must have been worse than this in Gallipoli, and they just soldiered on.
So the First [World] War was still a big inspiration?
Oh yeah, especially Gallipoli, yeah.
What was the sort


of things you’d talk about.
In Tobruk? When we were going to get out, that was the main thing. How we were going to get out. And was there any mail? Just general things. The only news we got was, there’d be one radio in each platoon,


and they’d either pass the news over the phone, we were all connected by the phone, all the posts were connected by a ground wire phone. We’d listen to the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] over the phone, from the radio. But honestly it was the most boring place, a boring lot. “Does anyone want to go out on patrol?” “Yeah!” You need the exercise. We’d love to go out and have a shoot


up than just hanging around, doing nothing. There was nothing to read. The cards were all worn out from playing.
How did you combat the boredom?
Well, only playing cards was the main thing. Read or – you’d read anything. You’d read your cigarette


packet for something to read. I just found it sheer drudgery myself. I was glad when there was something happening. And there was always air raids, you could always come out and watch an air raid. There was one thousand, two hundred and fifty air raids. Not always on us. Mostly on the artillery, or the town. But we still got shot at every day. There was a ‘morning hate’ and an ‘evening hate’, because that’s the only


times when the enemy can see where their shells were landing, was early in the morning or late in the afternoon. So everybody would open up. And in the salient, you couldn’t put your hand up all day, you couldn’t do anything all day, only snipe if you were game. But of a night time you just got shot at all night long.


You got that used to being under fire, you could watch the tracer, and you might only be fifty yards away, but you knew that he wouldn’t sweep it about, you knew he had it on fixed lines on a tripod, and each machine-gun fired six hundred bullets a minute, where ours fired three hundred. Crackling, little white tracer. And you might be filling sand bags, and you just watch it, keep working, keep one eye on the tracer, soon as something come your


way, everybody into their hole like rabbits. And that’s what it was like in the salient. And we had patrols out, but you had to crawl when you’re on patrol. I was a Bren gunner then, and we had firefights every night. But Jerry always won. He’d always shoot our parapet to pieces, and we’d have to take cover and then just sit there and fix it up when he


stopped firing. My mate and I decided we would try and shoot so he wouldn’t see the flash of our gun. So we put two bayonets in the ground, and a sandbag slung between them, and we’d fire through the sandbag. And the sandbag caught alight, and the next minute we’re huddled down under it again. Knocked us all down again, knocked the sandbag. We were that deep, and there was a sandbag,


and he knocks that sandbag out, and we’re holding our heads down, and the tracers going right over your head like that. And if you put your head up, you’re dead. So we decided we’d try that again, but this time we’ll wet the blanket. We didn’t have any water, so we both stood up and wee’d on them, urinated on the sandbag. But he still woke up to us.


He had us fixed on his tripod, he knew exactly where we were. He only had to just pull the trigger. So we called him ‘Spandau Joe’; some called him Spandau something else. But that was what the fight was like. It was just amazing the amount of bullets you fire and nobody gets hit. And it’s only with mortar and artillery, you get the heavy casualties. You can dodge the machine-gun fire.


This went on for months. The salient was the worst one, because there it was all hand-dug positions, and we were always putting pressure on the enemy, and they were always telling us to move forward, dig in closer to the enemy, which we did, for months, kept on digging closer. And we got pretty short of men in the finish, and that’s what that photo’s about there. There was


only two of us. About three of us left in my section. The Bren gunner, me and the corporal. So they got – there was a whole regiment of truck drivers, the divisional transport battalion, but they had no trucks and nowhere to go, so they put them in the front line where it was quiet and where there was never any


fighting. But they asked them to volunteer to come up and help us, and a lot them did. And they had never been shot at before, and they put them in the salient, and it was terrible for them. Then they asked them to volunteer to stay with us. And out of the four they sent to my section, only one stayed, and he joined the battalion. Nevertheless, they did a good job considering they weren’t trained for it.


How did you get used to being shot at then?
Oh yeah. But honestly it was hardly a night went when somebody wasn’t hit or killed or wounded. But they just carried them out and you just carried on. But we were very short of reinforcement. My sergeant sent me back one night: “Go back to company and bring up some Dannat


barbed wire.” Dannat barbed wire was concertina wire, it was concertinaed down to like a lifesaver, and with two handles like this. You stepped inside and you could walk with it, carried up, and it spread out for about fifty yards. When you stretched it out. He said, “Bring up some Dannat wire and pick up that reinforcement we’re getting. Make sure he carries some Dannat wire, too.” “All right, sarge.” Anyhow, I showed him how to carry the barbed


wire and we’re moving up, it’s pitch dark, and there’s nothing happening. But I knew my [way] out to the ridge, where the front line was, and you navigated by the north star all the time. The next minute burst of tracer, and then it stopped. Then I got up, and I said, “C’mon, she’s right now.” And he wouldn’t get up. And I couldn’t do anything with him. I couldn’t get him to get


off the ground. So I went to the sergeant, and he said, “Where’s the reo [reinforcement]?” I said, “He won’t get up.” And he went out, he couldn’t get him up, and it finished up, they put him under arrest, and sent back to platoon headquarters. The poor bugger, he just wasn’t for it. He was no good at all. But the MO [medical officer] took pity on him, and made him his batman, so he wouldn’t be


court-martialled. And he did it for the rest of the war. He was batman to the MO and he did an honourable job. That MO was right in the thick of all the fighting. It turned out he was a boxer, and a very good one, but he didn’t like being shot at.
How did you react to getting shot at?
I was very quick. I got to ground. You


just stopped, and dived for the ground. I’ve been shot at that many times. But I wasn’t a big man, it’s the big blokes they used to hit. That’s the trouble. In New Guinea I’ve been hit in the tin hat; never got wounded.
So tell me, did the


situation at Tobruk continue as you described until the end?
Between boredom and being shot at and patrolling and complaining about the food and the conditions, and your teeth rotted, and your legs broke out in all ulcers. It was just horrible, but the tension got worse after – that’s why they pulled the Ninth Division out, they


reckoned they were unfit because of the condition of them, after eight months. And there was a big fight with Churchill about it, he didn’t want to do it. And the Australian Government forced him to allow them to relieve the Australians, and put the British troops in.
Tell me about how you came to leave then. How you left? How you got out of Tobruk?


Well, my battalion, we didn’t get out. But all the rest was very well regimented. You could only go when there was no moon. We had to wait for the time of the month when there’s no moon, and the British troops would come in at night, and move up to the front line. We’d get our order to move out, about three miles and hide in the desert, actually in holes, anywhere we could, all day long,


until night time again. Then move down to the wharves and get on the destroyers and go back to Egypt. And they did this leap-frogging of units, in the night-time. And we went through all this; our battalion was what? The last to go. And we went all through this motion, laying out in the desert all day, then down to the wharf, and they took us by barge out to a sunken ship,


which they used as a wharf, and we waited on this sunken ship. And we waited and we waited. And the next minute the colonel says, “Get your gear on fellows, we’re not going.” And you never heard a word. No one even swore. There’s these hundreds of men in this sunken, burnt-out ship. Just a rifle and


a pack. Just thinking about how they’d be drinking beer tomorrow, down in Egypt. And they said, “You’re not going.” They didn’t explain why or anything. They just went back on shore, marched up the road to the British Regiment, [UNCLEAR], for breakfast. They were amazed. There were about four hundred of us, we all arrived for breakfast. We had nothing. We had no gear, no


ammo [ammunition], just our rifles and our backpack. And we’d given away all our stuff to the British troops. We even had captured machine-guns and food we had stolen from the food dump, and all our good stuff, given it to the British troops, and there we were, sitting like paupers. And so that was back on the front line. And we gradually scrounged everything back again. We raided food


dumps at night. That was a court martial offence. You’d get shot by the provos [provosts, military police] if they could catch you. But you couldn’t catch us. We were that used to patrols. We could out patrol the provos. And we got that good, we could shake a box and tell what was in it. We don’t want bully beef, we wanted some tinned fruit, or some tinned milk, or sugar. And that’s what we used to steal. And we’d


walk back. The closest we’d be camped would be five miles from that food dump. And we walked that five miles, steal the food, all we could carry, and walk five mile back to our trenches. We never left the front line, but we left the second line defence to go thieving; all very illegal. And there’s lot of stories about that. Provos did catch some of them.


What was the attitude towards the provos?
Well, they were the enemy. They were about as popular as the Germans were, as far as we were concerned. I had a mate all the way through the BIM [?UNCLEAR], we became mates at Ingleburn, and we stayed together until the war finished. And they used to call us ‘the terrible twins’. Because we were both skinny young blokes, you know, and the things


we got up to, I’m frightened to repeat now. But on one of those errands, we actually stole a staff car, from the bunkery; they were all asleep. We pushed this car out, got it going and away we went. And we knew where the provos were. They had a stone hut, near the crossroads, and it had a wooden


door on it. Just an old hut or house, I suppose. So as we went passed, we both had Lugers, I had a Luger all the time I was in the Middle East, we emptied our Lugers in the front door as we went past. They never come out, and we didn’t hear anything about it. But they wouldn’t have been game to come out when we were out. They wouldn’t tackle the infantry if they’re armed. Their main


job actually was traffic. But if we played up, they could arrest us. Just hit us over the head and take us to jail. And nobody could stop them. No, we had a lot of trouble with provos. But I never fought them myself. Had a lot of good mates have fights with them. And the trouble was they got the wrong types as provos, most of them anyhow. They were real butchers.


One of them I’ll tell you about later, one of them shot one of my blokes dead. I might tell you that. Anyhow what we did was sheer larrikinism. It wasn’t vicious. What else did we do?


Another time we went right into the town, one night, and we went to see the local – what do they call it? It was a canteen, but it was run by the Salvation Army. He had a gramophone player and a radio, and they were both [UNCLEAR] and we used to love going there and


listen to his gramophone and the BBC news, but we shouldn’t have been there. We should have been five miles away. But nobody asked us any questions. And you could get a cup of coffee, and listen to the news. Of course, there were lots of troops in the town, they were doing all the work. All unloading the destroyers and what have you, and all the ack-ack [anti-aircraft] gunners and that, and we were just two soldiers in shorts and shirt. They didn’t know who we were. And we’d try and scrounge


firstly grog, off the sailors on the ships. We’d even go on board the ships and beg for rum: “Got any rum?” And cigarettes. Well, sailors used to get issued with sealed tins of ready-rub tobacco and they hated the stuff, but we loved it. Any tobacco we could get was a big win. And we staggered out of there one night, we had two


tins of water from Alexandria, pure water, a bottle of rum and a couple of tins of tobacco. And we got caught in an air raid, down the wharves. So everybody disappears into shelters. So we went into the canteen, and we were drinking coffee with rum, and we were listening to the news and this air raid was hammering away, and it got that bad, that it hit next door, and we thought we had better


go. By this time we were pretty brave on rum. And we were staggering down the road, and we came to an ack-ack pit, and the ack-acks pumping away. Three point seven, that’s a really big shell, thumping away. And the Bofors guns are all thumping away. And the Pommies yelled at us, “Come in here Aussie, you’ll get killed out there, you silly bastards.” And we scrambled into the ack-ack pit until the air raid stopped. But by this time we couldn’t


care less. We’d drank half the rum by then.
I might have to stop you there. We’ve come to the end of the second tape.
Interviewee: Herbert Ferres Archive ID 0484 Tape 03


Bert, could you tell me about when you got out of Tobruk, how you managed to leave?
As I said the British Army took over, and Rommel, I believe, had built up to


attack Tobruk with the whole of the Afrika Korps; he even set the date. And it was the very day that the Eighth Army attacked him, to relieve Tobruk. And a battle developed that lasted fourteen odd days. And with something like two hundred thousand British and one hundred and fifty thousand Germans involved. And thousands of tanks, in this massive battle. And to help the relief, the British attacked from Tobruk


to form a corridor to link with the Eighth Army. And they had such heavy casualties doing this, that the only fresh troops they had was our battalion. So they sent us out into this corridor to carry out an attack they proposed to do. But the Germans attacked first and defeated the British regiment that was holding the line in front of us.


We went out at night, and the next morning we come under heavy shell fire, so we moved forward on foot. And come under really heavy shell fire. Eighteen shells they were, two hundred and ten millimetre; when they went off, if there any troops in the area you couldn’t find them. There was nothing left. And we walked through this shell fire and took cover in dead ground, behind the


British, but when they lost the position, they just said we’d have to retake it, but we couldn’t get onto it because of the German tanks sitting on it. So we waited until dark. And then we waited until the British cleared the tanks with their tanks, and by this time it was two o’ clock in the morning. So we’d really, we’d had no sleep the night before, all day, and now we’re attacking at two o’ clock in the morning with rifles and bayonets.


And we did a bayonet charge, which caused the whole German front line to collapse. And we took a hundred and seventy-five prisoners, and there was only a hundred and seventy of us in the attack. So we took more prisoners than there were us. I was, unluckily, the completely left hand man of the attack. There was no one on the left of me but the German Army,


then there was a hundred and seventy blokes and the German Army on that side; we just hit them. And I had a Bren gun, and as we went into the charge, we got heavy fire from our left. And in front of us, they were all starting to surrender and run away, but I shot along off onto the left, and three blokes followed me, and we ran straight into a bunch of Germans. I don’t know how many there were. There could have been


a hundred. And they were yelling, shooting, running away, and we went in amongst them yelling out to them to surrender, and I kept firing, then they all put up their hands. That’s the only German I knew: “Put your hands up, or I’ll shoot!” And I’ll stop shooting when they put their hands up. And we grabbed as many as we could, and the blokes with the bayonets, were poking them with the bayonets, and herding them in, but they


were running away as fast as we gathered them. And when we finally surrounded them, there was only twenty-five, thirty odd left. They reckoned we’ll call it twenty-five, nobody counted. But they moved them along and handed them over to the reserve company that was coming in the second wave. And I thought, “Oh well, we’ll rejoin the platoon.” So we went and rejoined the platoon. But unbeknownst to me,


I was recommended for decoration, because they reckoned that I saved the left flank and enfilade fire on our troops. We still lost twenty men, but most of that was due to – an odd British shell landed on one platoon and killed eighteen. That was as we were forming up to attack. We went up in column route in the pitch dark and a shell went ‘vrooom!’, right in one platoon, of


thirty blokes.
When did you find out you’d been recommended?
Not for days afterwards. Until we went back into Tobruk, when the battle was over, and a colonel walked up to – and I’ll tell you that story. I got pneumonia after the attack, and when we went back to Tobruk, we were going to attack another position, and I’m firing the Bren to wear down the enemy. We fired all our weapons on this post, to take it, and


then the tanks went out and they found out the enemy had gone, had retreated. And that night I crashed with pneumonia, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Anyhow, when I came out of hospital, the colonel met me and he told me. And I didn’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t say, “You’ve been recommended.” he said, “Good show up on the ridge there, Ferres.” “Oh yeah?” “How many prisoners did you get? “I don’t know, there were


stacks of them.” He said, “Twenty?” “Nah, more than that. Like about thirty.” “Look, we’ll say twenty-five. That’s our settlement.” I said, “I didn’t count them.” Then I heard from the young blokes then, that the officer had put me in for this decoration. Of course it takes three months to go through. If it’s accepted it goes right back to Britain, because it’s awarded by the King, but


it goes through the whole British – and comes out in the London Gazette.
What was the decoration?
The Military Medal. You could only win three medals for bravery. And that was the VC, the DCM [Distinguished Conduct Medal] or the Military Medal. Well the sergeant on the right flank got the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and I got the Military Medal. And the colonel got the distinguished order of the DSO [Distinguished Service Order]. And


I didn’t know it at the time, but a British officer got the VC, when they first took the ridge. And he was in the Northumberland Fusiliers, they were the machine-gunners. They had whole companies of Vickers guns, no infantry; they were support troops. And I’ve got a bit of a note on this: so there was a VC, a


DSO and a DCM and an MM won on that ridge. And you wouldn’t give two bob for that ridge if you saw it. But according to Rommel, according to the history there, it’s mentioned a hundred times in the write-up of a battle, the importance of the ridge and what happened. The New Zealanders took it first. And then they pulled back, then something else happened, the New Zealanders finished up joining our battalion. The British


lost it, we took it back. I believe even Rommel was talking about knocking it over again. And he was only six miles from us, I see on the map there. And he’s looking at us with binoculars. And the next morning after we took the ridge, we saw the whole of the German Army and the British Army beyond it, in this big valley between the escarpments, they called them.


And the Germans were marching up and down, and they had cookhouses and tents, like it was a picnic, but they were miles away. We couldn’t shoot them, they were too far away. But you see everything through binoculars. And the British Pommy officer comes up from the artillery, and he said, “Oh, we’ll soon fix this.” And he just got on his phone, and the British artillery shot them all up. And I think


they started the retreat from then on. They pulled out. They were between Tobruk and the Eighth Army, where all this fighting went on, and when it was finished the German Army pulled back and went west. The whole German Afrika Korps retreated all the way back to the border of Cyrenaica.
What did being awarded the Military Medal mean to you?


Well, to me, I was flabbergasted. I knew of the medals, and I knew blokes that had won it, but I didn’t think I’d done anything in particular, other than the job. But somebody gets awarded a medal in action, see it depends who saw it, and who recommends it, whether it’s accepted or not. I’ve known a man to win a VC and


be recommended for it and get nothing. He just died. I was very proud. I was only a youngster. I was only eighteen, to win a medal like that. To these days, they seemed to give them away a lot easier. The British Army didn’t give out medals very often, and we were under the British


Army. I think we won six medals in the Middle East. Six MMs, and four DCMs, I think. Anyhow I would say it was a gift from my own blokes, because they would have done the recommending; the men themselves. Put it to the officer. I know the officer questioned me after the battle. But I didn’t know what he was questioning me about, why he was questioning me so hard. And he sent somebody


back to the position that I took to count the dead Germans. And I didn’t know why he did that. He didn’t say that he was recommending me. But he called me to get into his trench with him, there were a few shells coming over, and I said, “No, I think we might be getting a counter-attack. I’m going back to my gun.” “But I want to talk to – ” “Bang! Bang! Bang!” Three shells landed right on us. I said, “See you later.” and went and got in my own hole, and left him there.


So I know they investigated it the very next morning but I didn’t know what it was for. There were seven dead Germans and twenty-five live ones.
So how did that battle finish up for you?
We were relieved by a British regiment that took over, and the battle was finished by the Eighth Army, not us. We really had it. But they brought us into Tobruk, and put us in another


front line, ready for if that other attack I told you about didn’t occur. And I got pneumonia, but by the time I hit hospital, the battle was over. And I was in hospital, and all the wounded were pouring in. It was terrible. And they did whatever they could do for a bloke who’s only got pneumonia. And they put me in an underground hospital near the walk where they shifted out by destroyer. I was pretty crook, but I remember an officer


coming along, inspecting the wounded: “What’s wrong with this bloke?” “He’s got pneumonia?” “Send him to the beach hospital.” The beach hospital is tents along the beach, further up, for recovery. And there was eighteen of our wounded there, and seventeen of them were drowned. If I had gone out, I would have been swimming, but they sunk the boat that they were on.


Anyhow, but when I got out of hospital I heard the battalion was moving, going out, by the wounded that come to this recovery hospital. So we’re all up sticks and said, “Bugger this, we’re going back to the unit.” And we hitch-hiked back to the unit, there was a terrific dust storm and we didn’t find them for two days. We kept on ‘borrowing’ something to eat off the Poms, and they didn’t know anything about the Australians. They didn’t even know Australians were there. We couldn’t find them. Eventually we found them


two days before we left Tobruk. We came out on trucks, and over the desert, not on the roads, by compass, all the way to Egypt. Crossed the Egyptian border, which was a bit of barbed wire and somebody saw a tree. I don’t know what sort of tree it was. But all cheering and yelling that they saw a tree. Because we hadn’t seen a tree for nearly twelve months. And when they [came] nearer a town, they actually saw an old


woman. And they were all whistling to this old woman in the field when we passed. I was dressed like a German. I had a Pommy double breasted greatcoat, the Pommy tin hat and German knee boots and an Italian jumper. Because they strip you naked in hospital and they didn’t give me any clothes when I left. They said, “Help yourself over there.” And there was this big [pile] of clothes as high as this room, from wounded. All bloody and


mucked up and I just picked out whatever was clean and put them on. The German boots were too big for me, but I wore them for a thousand miles –
Can I ask, so you made your own way –
The battalion did.
So you were with your whole battalion?
The whole battalion, but there was less than three hundred. Half of the battalion was back in Palestine recovering from wounds and illness.
Where did you


rejoin your battalion then?
Just before Christmas?
Where? Where?
In Palestine, at Kilo 69, that’s one of the tent camps.
You made your own way to Palestine?
The battalion did, yes. But what happens in a war like that, they give you transport and say, “Righto, at that map reference you can get fed.”


That was in the Sinai. We just fed ourselves until we got into the Sinai, and we went to a British post where they fed us. From then on we were into Palestine, proper. We crossed the Sinai Desert eight times all together. With the going on leave to Cairo and that, which involves going up the desert and back twice.


We did a lot of travelling in trucks, I tell you. But once you got on a main road, you came under the command of the movement and control. They were the ones that looked after your convoys, told you where to get petrol, where to get fed and so on. Or whether you go by train or truck, because there was a steam train right across the Sinai desert.


So we were quite used to travelling. Thousands of miles.
So what did you do in the camp when you got there?
Well, first of all we found out if we had any mail. And then we lived on cakes and parcels from home, and wouldn’t even go to the cookhouse. And beer. They had as much Australian beer as you could drink. You had to pay for it, but it was quite cheap. Because I think we’d had one drink of beer in twelve months.


So they refitted us with new clothes and uniforms. It rained all the time. It was really wintry at the time. And then we went on leave. I got on the train across the Sinai Desert again and went on leave to Cairo. A thousand miles for nothing, I don’t know far it was. Everything was in kilometres. And had a really good leave in Cairo; ten days. And we met a lot of the


Pommy soldiers that we were with in the desert. And the Eighth Army had gone on, chasing Jerry. But the blokes that held Tobruk after we went in, after the Aussies left, we met them on leave in Cairo.
What was your impression of Cairo?
Well, we were only interested in the flesh pots. I was interested in the pyramids. That was about the only thing I saw of any consequence. They wouldn’t


allow Australians into the museums. We might pinch all the gold. We weren’t allowed in the museum. But all Cairo did, it was like King’s Cross, they were after our money. It was the only place in the world where you could drink whiskey on roller skates and firing a rifle range at the same time if you wanted to. There was an open air picture show, a roller rink (that’s a slab of concrete), an open bar


and a twenty-two rifle range. Anything that the soldiers could spend money on. Of course there was the Burka.
The Burka?
That was a whole street of brothels. Everybody went to have a look at that, but it was a matter of choice. It was


your choice not to do anything about it. But you know what troops are like.
What was your impression of the Burka?
Well, I’d heard of it from old soldiers. That’s another thing I forgot earlier: I lived next door to an old soldier so he told me a lot about these places. And he said, “Stay out of the Burka.” you know. (BREAK)


And I was armed, I was always armed. I had a General Walther in the shoulder holster myself. You couldn’t step in a side street without getting murdered in these towns by the town Arabs.
So was it a tense atmosphere?
Only if you


got lost on your own. You always went around in a – there was an incident at this time, you did get shot at. Who it was I don’t know, but the bullet hit the gutter right near our feet. And I [was] always pretty full at the time, and one of my mates said, “You silly so and so.” He thought I’d fired it, so he grabbed the pistol and took it off me and checked that it was fully loaded. I hadn’t fired it. So somebody took a shot at us. But that was what Cairo was like.


The provos couldn’t handle us there. They’d take their caps off, and talk to us. In other words, this is unofficial. “Please lads, would you break it down?” Because we were out of control. Just the booze and high spirits. We never ever hurt the population. I never seen any cruelty against the natives or the women


at all. And, I think, generally we got on well with the Egyptians and Arabs. But there was always the bad ones, too.
Did you go inside any of the places on the Burka?
Yes, only went in the cleanest looking one. And the women were all dressed in evening dress, but nothing else, that’s all they wore is evening dress. The Pommies would be in there with them sitting


on their lap, but they didn’t have any money, they couldn’t pay. The Aussies would just push them off, and wheel the girls off; they could pay. There was no morality at all, but there’s always a decency on the Australians’ side. They got a bad name, but they never did a rotten thing that I saw. We had a bad name for mucking up, drinking hard


and fights. There were lots of fights with the Poms. The only thing was the Northumberland Fusiliers that they knew us, they always fought on our side. I’ll give you an idea, there was a big café, they called it the Bardia, I don’t know, something to do with the Sixth Division I suppose. But they turned it on just for the Australian troops. First of all you got drunk on your own beer, then you went


there and you drank their beer, which was horrible stuff, but it was still alcoholic. And they put on belly-dancing for the troops, and grog and a band. And the band was behind, well, it’s like that wire they use for reinforcing, so they couldn’t get hit with bottles. Because the blokes would play bottles at the band player: “No Al Jolston!” and throw another bottle at the band. And the chairs were all cane


chairs, cane bottoms to them. And they’d all been punched out, where people had put their firsts through and all. A thousand blokes were all drunk in a hall, with belly-dancers and booze and band music, then somebody would start a fight. And they’d all line up, one side against the other, and get into it. Well I walked in there one night, and I had just brought a brand new wristwatch. And the next thing I


know, I woke up back in my hotel room the next morning, and I’ve got no wristwatch, and I got told that some Pommies brought me home. They found out what pub I was in, from an address I had on me. And they pinched my watch, but at least they took me to my hotel. I remember being knocked out, down some stairs. They were wooden stairs, but I think passed out from the grog more [than] the punch. And that was one night out. The next day I decided I’d have nothing


to do with my mates, and I hired a gary, that is a horse drawn taxi, and a guide, an Egyptian guide who was professional, and he took me all over Cairo, and I really enjoyed that day. I never have a drop to drink, and I give him an Egyptian pound, which was twenty-five shillings, for the day. He was very pleased. He took me into two mosques, where I wasn’t supposed to go, and all the bazaars.


I enjoyed it, just like a tourist.
Were you worried about being by yourself?
Not with him because he handled the crowd, you know. He had his whip, with the urchins, he’d just sort of flip the whip at them. He acted as a guide and a protector. He was a professional. He told me – he could speak English – he told me how much they missed the peace time, because they got no tourists at all, only the army.


What was the relations like between the British and the Australians?
Very good, really, but they were always apart, you know. They were British; we were Aussies. It was a bit like the [UNCLEAR], in a way, but if you knew the unit, you were the best of mates. Any of the units that were with us in Tobruk, they were our mates, but then the other units we didn’t know, we’d have brawls


with them. Just friendly brawls I suppose. Because they weren’t like us, they were downtrodden by the whole set-up. They were conscripted, most of them, and underpaid and stood over by officers. When we – this was our own particular section group – walked into Shepheard’s Hotel, which was absolutely out of bounds to the other ranks other than


officers. We sidled up to the bar, and there’s nothing but brass, and high brass, and the fellows with the red caps from headquarters, and they just stepped aside and looked at us, and the barman nearly died. And he pleaded with us to get out, “Get out, get out!” We said, “We’ll get out when we have a drink, and not before.” He served us a drink, then we walked out again. But that was a court martial offence,


to go in there. They could have called the provos, but they didn’t.
Why was that an offence?
Out of bounds. Out of bounds was out of bounds. If you go in there, the provos would get you.
Why was that? Why was it out of bounds?
Because there was no other ranks allowed in, only officers. That was typical of the British Army. If they had been Australian officers, they would have called you in to have a drink, then get out, but


they’d buy you a drink. But not the Poms. There have been some funny stories told about, well, you’ve seen them in the pictures, how the Poms, the officers were shot by British troops. But even the commando school, there were British officers, only one [UNCLEAR], in the ranks, with the other ranks, doing the course. We all did the course as the same rank, no rank.


And it was sort of a qualifying course, and I suppose it was a character-building course, in that it was so tough. But any officer did it, he couldn’t pull his rank on even the Pommies, the private civilians.
When did you do the commando course?
Just before the El Alamein battle. Only three of us went from the whole division. And we didn’t realise


what it was. It was part of Montgomery’s idea, which was to camouflage the date of the attack. Send troops on leave, send them to schools, move the trucks around a lot, do this, make a lot of dust. Anything to confuse the enemy. Because he knew we were going to attack, but he couldn’t pick this day. I couldn’t either, because I didn’t want to miss the attack, while I did this.
So tell me, how did you find out about this commando course?


I was in the front line, right on the hottest spot on the front line, right near the coast, near trig 33, and the officer there said, “Would you like to do a school?”
So you’d already been sent back to the front from Palestine?
No, I was in the front line of El Alamein, and I was sent back to Palestine.
Yeah, yeah.
But they had to find me a uniform and money, and all that sort of thing.
So tell me, I think we’re at the


end of 1941 at the moment, in Palestine?
The beginning of ’42 now.
The beginning of ’42. So how long were you at Kilo 69, after you came back from Tobruk?
Well, not long. We went right up into Syria. We spent about a month in Palestine, about four months in Syria. And when we


come under another army altogether. Another British Army, which was to hold the Turkish line, if the Germans come down through Turkey. By this time the battle had gone bad in the desert. The Japs had come into the war, and all we got was bad news, nothing else. And we spent a winter in the cold country up there.
What was morale like?
Very low. And we really


mucked up, up there. We wanted to go home, you know. Blokes, specially the married blokes –
How far up did you go?
To the Turkish border, on the coast. Aleppo was our main town. From Aleppo we were sent out in standard patrols. We were on the border post, forget the name of the


place now. It was right on the main road going into Turkey, on the coast. And we had a – what do you call it? – a roadblock there. And when we looked up and out and there was a Turkish roadblock, and they had a cannon pointed straight at our roadblock. If they declared war, they only had to pull the trigger. And we waved to them, and they waved back. And they were all dressed as


Germans, but they had the half moon and the star on their steel helmet. So we didn’t know if they were Germans or Turks. But actually, if we went over the border they grabbed you. But a mate and I, we went over the border. There was a lot of land lease equipment going in, given to the Turks by the British. And the Germans were pouring military stuff in the other end, all to keep them out of


the war. The only troops the Turks would let in were South African coast boys, which were unarmed drivers, with a British officer took the convoy in to hand over the trucks, brand new trucks. And a mate and I, we got the idea of going with them. So we put on one of their African woollen caps and we’re dressed exactly the same, except we weren’t black. Anyhow we went in with the convoy,


and a Pommy officer spotted us and he made us lay flat in the trucks and threw canvas over us. He said, “If they spot you, I can do nothing for you. You’ll be prisoners of war.” Anyhow, we couldn’t see the ceremony because we were hiding in the truck. They kept two trucks to carry all the drivers back out again. So we didn’t see much of Turkey, but we went about two hundred mile into Turkey, and out again. Unarmed. And that chap was the brother


of one of the main war correspondents of – I can’t remember now. But he wrote a book on Tobruk. Anyhow, he took over the Bren gun from me in El Alamein, and he was killed. He was like that, he was very adventurous. They reckon he was the first bloke to put his head up the next morning, and he was the first one shot, when dawn broke, after the attack


Tell me more about the mood of the men in Syria?
Not in Syria –
You said that morale was getting quite low.
Did you say ‘mood’ or ‘murder’?
I thought you said, ‘murder’.
Sorry, mood.
I have seen a murder. Oh well,


it developed so bad that my platoon was charged with mutiny, but only by a sergeant major. That was what he was going to charge us with. All because they thought to smarten us up they’d take us out on a night exercise, and they all refused. And we were so badly behaved, they locked up all our rifles, and let us keep our bolts. Or vice-versa, I’ve forgotten now. I think they kept our bolts, and let us keep our rifles.


And each morning they would read out the number of the rifle and you had to go and get your rifle and put the bolt in it. But they reckoned we wouldn’t even look after our weapons because the Arabs could pinch it. We were going AWOL [absent without leave] into town and mucking up. Anyhow, we wouldn’t go out on duty, so he said, “You’re all under arrest.” Anyhow, they charged us, and we saw the officer one at a time. They said, “Why wouldn’t you go on duty,


Ferret? Where did you go? Into town?” I said, “No, I was reading a good book, I didn’t want to go out on manoeuvers.” Anyhow they broke the charge down to a disciplinary charge. And they said, “You’ve got to report to the sergeants’ hut every hour, for twenty-four hours.” And they were in a concert hut, of corrugated iron. So when we reported to them, we pulled our bayonets out and we’d run around


the corrugated iron with our bayonets until they’d plead for mercy inside, with thirty blokes running around rattling their bayonets on the tin hut. But that was what it was like, complete muck-up. And our colonel was at fault. He was living in town and there was no control.
And what was your feelings? Tell me what was going through your mind?
Well again, there was no great worry for me. I was only worried about what was happening at the moment. I was either cold, hungry,


wet and tired, that’s all that worried me. I wasn’t a heavy drinker and I wasn’t a heavy smoker, and it didn’t worry me. As long as I wasn’t bored. That’s all I was worried about.
Tell about – was it Aleppo where you went into town?
Aleppo, we were in the German barracks. There was a German barracks in Aleppo, peace time barracks, with German soldiers. Because they were trying to influence all the Middle East


up that end, before the war. And we were very comfortable there. But the most interesting thing was the bazaar. A two thousand year old bazaar, it was amazing. All covered in, for about a mile or so. No, I don’t have any great memories of that, except for the ridiculousness of the situations. They’d lose in the battle, in the desert.


And we didn’t know how bad it was, but it was a full retreat. Right back into Egypt. Sixty miles from Alexandria. And we got orders to move non-stop, from the Turkish border to Alexandria. And how we were going to do it: everyone was to wear steel helmets and hide his felt hat, because they didn’t want the enemy to know they were pulling the Australians out from the Turkish border. But we had red boots, and only Australians had red boots.


So, we’re marching down to the station to get on the troop train, which was cattle trucks. All the wog [foreign] kids were saying, “Goodbye Aussie! Bang, bang, bang!” They knew we were going back to the war, more than we did. We thought we might be going home, because they told us not to – We travelled on the cattle trucks, slow as hell they were, all the way down through Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, to Haifa.


And then we got onto trucks. And then we were non-stop on the trucks. If we ever needed petrol, we’d all pull in, about fifty trucks at a time, into bowsers. Pull off the bowser, fill up the trucks, then off again. Never got under forty mile an hour. We went right through all the towns, we even went through Cairo at forty mile an hour. Right through Alexandria, at forty mile an hour. I can’t remember getting


fed, we got fed on the journey. You always got sausages and mash there, that’s what the Pommies’ favourite dish was. That’s what I can’t remember. Where we went to the toilet, I don’t know, but we travelled non-stop to El Alamein.
I might stop you there, we’re right at the end of this tape.
Interviewee: Herbert Ferres Archive ID 0484 Tape 04


First off, I’d just like to ask, when you were coming down in the trucks from Syria, did you know what your destination was?
Not initially, no. Not really, until we were in Egypt and we didn’t go towards the Suez Canal; we knew we were going up the


What were you hoping for?
We were hoping to go the Suez Canal, get a ship, and come home. Because that’s the way we had to go. We had to get aboard a ship.
What was the reaction on finding that you weren’t going home?
Oh, lots of comments, but I can’t remember them now. Unprintable comments. But I’m not sure exactly when we found out.


I think that we woke up due [to] the urgency of the trip, that we weren’t going to catch a ship, only up the desert. Because they must have armed us up. We had to be armed, we had to get ammunition and all that, before we went in the desert. They had to do all that. But we never stayed anywhere overnight, that I can remember. When we got to the desert, the division went straight into action.


But our battalion, being the last one to get out of the book, they left us the last to put into battle. And we stayed at an oasis. The first time that we had ever hit a real desert oasis. Palm trees and a water hole. I’ve got photos of that there. We decided we’d better have a haircut, we’re going up the desert. Somebody had a set of clippers and I’ve got a photo of us all losing our hair before we went up the line. Because we hadn’t had a haircut for six months.


The next thing we knew we were back on trucks and we went straight into action, because we relieved a battalion that was going into attack, and we took over their position, and we got heavily shelled as we moved in. We had a brand new officer, and we would always take the mickey out of the new officers when they came under fire, because we knew it was a bad time for them. And


he started giving orders at the top of his lungs. And one of our oldest blokes, he was forty, at least forty odd years of age, and he was an old man as far as we were concerned, but he was the greatest bloke we had. He was a farmer, had his own property in the Riverina, and he was a colonel in the British Army, and private in our section. I was over him, as a lance corporal. And he yelled out


to the officer, “Don’t panic!” And the officer was quite hurt. He was a good bloke, but he thought he’d been slighted I suppose. “I’m not panicking. I want you men to take cover.” Well, we were that used to being shot and taking cover, we didn’t need to be told. And there were plenty of trenches to hop into, slip trenches.
So what was the – was there any panic?
Oh no, never seen panic.


How do troops react under shell fire?
Well, if anybody panics, they freeze. They just freeze until they can’t do anything. But I’ve never seen them run around in panic. I can’t stand American war pictures because they run around all the time, under fire. That’s how you get killed.
So how did you blokes react under fire? What did the soldiers do?


the greatest saying is, “Get your head down!” Because if you can’t see the enemy, get your head down. You can’t shoot back at artillery. If there’s infantry attacking you’d be up and shooting. If you’re not engaged by infantry, you just hug the hole, hug the ground. And sometimes it went on for hours. I remember shell fire, going on all day, eighteen hours sometime. In one


particular place, up at that Ed Doona [UNCLEAR Derna?] place, we got shelled for three days. But seventy hours stand-to, is the longest I’ve done under shell fire. But intermittent, because the Jerries only shoot when they can see their former shot, then they pour it in. And our artillery did the same. It takes a lot of rounds to kill people. But I’ve seen a direct hit.


The first mates I saw killed were a direct hit. This great sergeant of ours, he went over when the shelling stopped, and they were both dead of course, but one bloke was just covered with dust and full of holes from shrapnel. And the other one, all that was left of him was one arm, his shoulder and his head. All the rest of him was missing, the shell had landed right on his stomach. And I’d never seen a


casualty before. That was my first casualty. I went over to see. They were mates that I joined up with, too. We trained together. It was shocking. We were really shocked in that; nobody panicked, but we wanted to get out of that shell fire. We were right next to the British artillery, and they’re trying to get the guns, but they’re getting us. So, we asked for permission, could we move into an erect fort, an old


Italian fort. And one room was standing, it was all sandstone, it was as strong as anything. So they said, “Yes, you can spend the day in there.” So we went in there and we thought, “This is all right, we’ll heat up some bully.” So we lit a fire and it must have made some smoke. We had two batteries of guns, firing on us, hitting us all the time, hitting the building. And we couldn’t see anything in front of our face for the dust. And the noise. You had to keep your mouth open because you’re lungs were going,


da doom, da doom. And your ears would burst, and then I said to my mate, “We can get out of this. If we jump over the wall, we can get out of this!” And the other blokes grabbed us, and said, “You’re not going outside you silly buggers.” And we had to sit it out, for hours. Nobody was hurt, just frightened. But that was the worst day, I think.
Can you describe the sound?


Oh, you can become quite expert. You can tell whether it’s going to be an instantaneous one: ‘Shooom!’; that’s how quick a shell comes in. Mortars are a bit slower, but make a similar sound, but not as loud as that. But the ‘crraaaack!’ of the shell going off is particularly noisy, and the concussion gets you, and goes into your lungs. And the dust just rises off the ground. And the shrapnel will go.


And the closer you are to the shell, it goes away from you. If the shell is away from you, it comes towards you, the shrapnel. And it’s the shrapnel that kills, not the blast. But we used to prefer air raids to shell fire. Because we used to get a lot of shell fire. Air raids, you have to be dead unlucky if you were right underneath an air raid. It’s usually the


artillery under it, or another post. They’re on you if your position is bad. But I was back to Tobruk, to describe that bit of shell fire, but in the open ground, it’s not as dangerous. Being in a building is a very dangerous place to be. I can show you photos of that building. It’s absolutely rubble when they finished with it. We weren’t in it then, when


they finished it right off. The artillery destroyed everything in its path. Just brought it down to rubble.
Tell me then about then, you come back to the desert. Are you relieving other peoples’ positions, then what was happening after that?


They did several things with us. What they called ‘the first battle of El Alamein’ was beginning. The front line was about forty-five kilometers long. And it went from the sea, from the beach, to what they called Witakah depression, which is unpassable land to an army. You can send troops, but not trucks or tanks. And the situation was fluid, because the


British Eighth Army were trying to make a solid front line, but the Germans kept on turning the flanks with counter-attacks and tank attack. And our first job was to move right up along that line, into what they call a drop column. All the infantry on trucks, with its own artillery and tanks, and they moved in, in block, into position and fought like in an British square. And we were just one truck load


in that, ragging along this line, getting shelled, shot out, but doing nothing, just taking it, until we got bogged. And we got horribly bogged. We didn’t have a four-wheel drive truck. And that’s what stopped us advancing along there. We were no further use to them, so they pulled us back to where it was more solid ground. And I remember, of all things, they pulled right up alongside the


British Army headquarters. It wasn’t Montgomery then, it was Auchinleck, and he actually came out from his dug out and abused the officers for parking there and drawing fire on his headquarters. We didn’t even know he was there. But we got strafed by aircraft and shelled, but still we did nothing. So they pulled us back and they put us on a ridge. Which the British were going to attack through us, and take


another ridge. And all the time, you don’t see much. You’re only on one truck or you’re with one platoon in one hole, but I remember a British tank coming through our position, and he tangled in our barbed wire. We couldn’t see anything. But there was a Bren gun carrier in front of it got three dead bodies in it, where a shell had gone right through it and killed them and left such a mess that we buried them.


And that was our view. Just that track vehicle and this tank. And I heard him, he popped up the lid, and I heard him talk back to headquarters to say he out of action, his tank was tangled in wire. And this sergeant comes out, and where he got it from I don’t know; he had a pair of cutters. He strolls over, clears the tank of and says, “On


your way.” to the Poms, and the dirty looks they gave him! They had to proceed into attack. So that’s all I saw of that battle, shell fire and one tank. But it was a massive battle, you’ve got no idea. Hundreds of tanks engaged, and the infantry was just digging in the ground.
What did you do afterwards?
They called that Ruin Ridge.
Ruin Ridge.
We had to support an attack by 28th Battalion,


And the idea was we occupied their trenches as they moved forward in attack, which they did, it was night time, and the job I had was: one bloke was to go out and escort German prisoners when they captured them. And they expected to win, you know. Well, they took their position, but they were counter-attacked that hard they were wiped out.


Four hundred and eighty of them surrendered, the Aussies, and two hundred odd killed or something. Wiped out the whole battalion. But I didn’t know, and my mate didn’t know. And I’m saying to him “Have a look at this!” And he said, “You’ look at it!” He was down in the hole and he wouldn’t get up. The whole place was alive with tracer, and tanks burning and trucks burning. And I’m standing there on my own, looking at this. And my job is to take prisoners of


war back, but I didn’t get any. I only had a rifle, there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t join them. They were half a mile or a mile away. And I stayed there until dawn. And there’s nothing, not a sound. No pot shots going off. And I said, “Well, we might as well have a scrounge.” And we walked forward. And I forget – my mate picked up a


white mosquito net. We all got issued with those in Syria, and that saved our bacon I think. Because next thing I saw it’s a German looking at me, through a pair of binoculars, out of a hole. And he must have thought we were coming up to parlay, or surrender, because it was white. And I said to him, “Just turn around slowly. We’re getting out of here. It’s a bloody Jerry.” And when we walked back, when we walked back two miles,


and saw nothing. I found a live Aussie that had quit. He had gone to ground and hadn’t gone into the battle.
I’m sorry, what did you find?
A live Aussie. We saw a lot of dead Aussies, but we saw a live one. And he had the Bren gun barrel in his pack, so he must have been number two on the Bren, but he’d quit the battle. In other words he hadn’t advanced. He’d gone to ground and stayed there. We said, “What are you doing here? Where are you going now?” He said, “I’m going to so and so


at Cairo, that’s where I’m going.” And he just turned around and walked away. And I never heard any more about it. There was nothing we could do about it. But there is blokes who quit don’t get done, doing their job. In other words, he deserted in the face of the enemy. But nobody saw him, only us two.
Was there other ways that people couldn’t cope?
Oh well, there was people who couldn’t lift their head to shoot, because


of the fear. But only on the odd case. There was a similar case in every battle, but nowhere near mass panic or nothing like that.
Did you ever come across any self-inflicted wounds.
No. It was never that bad. Usually it was a breakdown that could be


expected under situations. But anyhow the next bloke we struck was a Pommy O pip officer and he abused hell out of us, because he reckoned, what the hell were we doing out there. I said, “We were sent out to bring in prisoners.” He said, “They’re all gone.” “Who’s all gone?” “The Twenty Eighth.” And that’s what happened. We lost a


whole battalion, and that was where we called it Ruin Ridge there, not the other one. No, I never saw a great deal of cowardice in the army. But I did see – you could shake [UNCLEAR] sometimes, like I have.
Tell me about one of those incidents?
It was in New Guinea, I think.
We’ll talk about New Guinea this afternoon. But for now,


continue with the story and tell me what did you do after this battle?
Ruin Ridge? We finished up, we moved; all these ridges that they fought for, we pulled away from them. And we formed a box formation on the beach, using the highest features as the main parts of it. And we formed a divisional block on the beach. And they called it the


Ninth Division’s box. And there we stayed until the big battle. There was one other unit, the Fifteenth, they did a big counter-attack, but they got a bad hiding. You couldn’t do anything with the Jerry. He was so strong. They built up that strong, that we couldn’t advance and he couldn’t advance. We just had a battle


and lots of patrolling. I did a heck of a lot patrolling. With that sergeant. He was a terrific man.
Tell me about a patrol? How many of you would go on a patrol?
From one section to two sections. The maximum of about thirty men, on a big patrol. But mostly in about seven-men sections. The idea was to get to the German wire, and the sergeant would take bearings


along the wire. If he found a bend in the wire, an apex in the wire, he’d poke a bearing in it and we’d crawl along to the next one, and he’d take a bearing that way. And this way we mapped the whole of the battlefield. Every now and then we’d get fired on, so we’d take a bearing where the machine-guns were, and marked out all the machine-guns. And you can see maps in those books, and they were hand drawn from the patrol reports. And we mapped the


whole of the German front line. And I’d been out on the patrol, on the wire, and I had the Bren gun aimed at a German while he went to the toilet. Silhouetted against the starlight. And they had a tidy toilet, it had a lid on it and all. But he must have been scared, because he was whistling, and he never stopped whistling all the time. And I was just waiting there, and he finished and he went


back and got in his trench. And the rest of the patrol thought I was going to fire. They were so frightened I was going to fire. And I wasn’t going to fire. We were in his wire. We would all get shot up if I fired. That’s what it was like. You fired a shot, the whole German line would open fire on you. You’d be lucky to get out of it.
How far away were you from the Germans?
About five yards, I suppose. I could have blasted


him to hell, but he couldn’t even hear us. We’d been patrolling for years. But he wouldn’t patrol. They never did patrols like that. They did attack us one night, but they were hopeless. We shot them up.
Tell me about that night?
Well, I was on the highest part of a – it’s called Trig 33, which meant it was thirty three metres high. So it was the highest feature on the whole of the front. And it went downhill, to the sand hills on the beach, and there was mud flats


there, or salt marsh, and that was our frontline down there. When he attacked, he attacked with a battalion of infantry, and he attacked on the flat ground. And he got into our trenches. So we called down defensive fire, on the whole of our front. And defensive fire is the artillery on yourself. You get in your trench and the artillery would come down within yards of it. So, we just sat that out. No Germans got in our trench.


I didn’t fire because I didn’t see a German. One bloke got his legs blown off from shell fire. And my serg – corporal, done his nerve.
His, his – ?
And they made him a sergeant, after everything, but he was no good. All right, you can manage the troops all right, but under fire, zip. Anyhow I was only a lance corporal then.
How were you under fire


by comparison? How did you deal with being under fire?
Well, I didn’t cower, but I took cover very hard. I didn’t want to be blown to pieces. I was scared I was going to be hit. But I didn’t lose my nerve. You see, fear is a terrible thing. You know you got it, when it starts in your stomach.


And what you do, you fight it, until you need it. Very difficult to describe it. Those poor buggers felt it, and it takes them over and they can’t do anything. But, anyhow, I’ve been shot at that many times,


another extra time didn’t matter. I think my greatest fear was being wounded. I’d sooner be killed than wounded. I’ve seen the mortally wounded suffer. We had one young lad, his collar bone was broken with a bullet. And


a real bad break. We didn’t have any stretcher in the patrol, so they put two rifles through a jumper, a woollen jumper, and put him on that, and four blokes carried him on a woollen jumper back about three miles. Now he got over that wound and he come back to the unit in New Guinea. And he wasn’t supposed to be there, he was LOB [left out of battle]. And he came to my section, and he


got killed. But that was what he was like, he just wanted to be in the fight. And he got no thanks for that. No, the wounded were the ones I felt sorry for.
What sort of wound did you fear


Stomach wound. It’s fatal, and it takes a long, long time. Other wounds like lung wounds, sometimes you survive those, if it’s only one lung. But, broken arms and broken legs; very painful, long suffering before you got to hospital. But a


stomach wound, that was it. I used to leave the wounded to somebody else, whenever I could. I wasn’t good with that, because I felt too much for them. Dead people didn’t worry me at all. I was sorry they were dead, but you didn’t feel anything. But, I haven’t spoken about


that for a while.
How long was the Ninth Division camped on the beach there?
It wasn’t a camp, it was the front line.
We were there, in the whole area, for seven months before we made an attack. And we did nothing but patrol or get shot at. But there were leave parties, but we didn’t all get leave.


Did you get leave?
I can’t remember. I remember going up into the school, but that was probably my leave.
Tell me a bit about this school then, how did that come about?
Well, as I said it was part of the camouflage, when Montgomery took over, he was an amazing organiser and started right off at the base. I saw him once, he visited the headquarters and


they’d still be under the shell fire area, but he’d call all troops together and talk to them off the back of a truck. He went right down to the men. And he made each battalion build a land map of the front, and the plan of attack. And I saw all this developing and I thought, “Gee, this is going to be a beauty.” you know. They had hundreds and hundreds of tanks, a thousand guns, and he kept shifting them about and putting in


dummy tanks here and dummy guns there, so the enemy couldn’t keep track of it. And he decided to send men on leave and to schools, and the Arab spies would think that things are normal, and not going to be an attack that day. Because Jerry knew, he was just waiting, he wanted to know the time and the day. He knew it would begin this month; October. They always attacked in


October, it was the best weather. Anyhow, I don’t know how I got chosen, but I think it was because, we were three young blokes, and they wanted to make us LOB. Because they’ve got to make so many LOB in case the battalion is wiped out, so they can start another battalion. They usually pick the most experienced young blokes, so they can give them a break and take over, you know. That’s the


general plan. But I didn’t know they had made me LOB, I thought I was just going to a school.
So you didn’t volunteer?
I volunteered to go to the school. But as soon as we knew the battle had started, we were in Palestine. We read about in the Palestine News, that the battle had started. So we went to the CO of the school, and he said, “I can’t hold you. The school’s finished. You’ve all done very well. You can return to


your units. I’ll arrange it.” So he gave us travel passes and we arranged our own transport once we got to Egypt, on the trains and that. And we hitchhiked on trucks, and we walked into the front line.
How were you received?
“Well, the war must be over, here’s the bloody LOBs.” And they’re laying everywhere, and they’re


buggered. They’d been awake and fighting for ten days, non stop, and there were hardly any of them left. They weren’t committed anymore, those two days I was with them, they didn’t actually fight anymore. And the first job they gave me, and my mate, they said, “Righto, you two blokes are finished here, go out and bury the German dead.”


We were getting our blokes in, but they needed somebody to bury the Germans. And so we were off, but we said, “We’re not going to bury the bloody Germans. We’re going scrounging.” And we scrounged the battlefield before it was even cold. The tanks were burning, the dead were dying, and we found a motorbike. It was a British bike captured by the Germans, and it didn’t have a kickstarter. I rapped the tank and it had petrol in it, so we push-started, we got on


the motorbike and away we went. Why we didn’t get blown up on a mine, I don’t know. We went around the back of the German lines, where there was no Australian troops, or Germans, and we scrounged through there. Then we ran out of petrol and we threw the bike away. We got a lift on a truck then. Anyhow, we spent a whole day scrounging around.


So did you bury any German dead?
No. But we looked at them. We thought, “This gun fought well.” And there’s a photo of the gun there. The ground was absolutely flattened from the blast of their gun, on about a hundred and eighty degree arc. It was an anti-tank gun. A big one, eighty-eight millimetre. And all the crew were dead.


And there’s a photo there, you can see the British tanks they knocked out on the scrubline. They fought really well, those two.
What was your feelings about the Germans?
I didn’t hate them, I just cursed them, when they killed our people. I interviewed two pilots once. They had them at El Alamein,


when we were in the back area, and they built a compound around them, and screened it off with palm leaves from the date palm, so the Germans couldn’t see out of the compound. It was only about as big as this room. And they were pilots, I could tell from the uniform, and I was to guard them with my sexton. And I went in to talk to them. And I


went in unarmed, and the bloke’s standing there with a rifle and bayonet. And I was only wearing shorts and a shirt, but I was wearing my MM ribbon. Nothing else. And then for a joke, he saluted me, or he came to attention with his rifle and bayonet as I walked in. He was only a private and I was only a lance check, but the Germans rushed out and all stood to attention. I said to them, “Sprechen sie Englisch?” “Nein.” “Sprechen


sie Deutsch?” “Nein.” ‘I don’t speak German’. And they said, “Parlez-vous francais?” And I said, “Non parlons francais.” I answered them each time, but they couldn’t say another word. And I said, “Cigarette?” “No, we’ve got plenty of cigarettes.” they said. They didn’t speak English, but they thought I was a pilot. They thought I’d come to question them, I think. Because the pilots got around like that, just shorts and shirt, and the wings, or them ribbons; fighter pilots.


But it was interesting because at that time, one of our oldest aircraft, the Lysander, flew over, and it had fixed undercart, with bomb racks on the back, and it was old as the hills, you know. And they looked at it and they started laughing, and they were leaning on one another laughing at this aircraft. And I was quite ashamed of myself, after their Messerschmitts. It was just a


spotting plane, a pre-war plane But I never hated them. I’d give them a cigarette and have a chat to them. They’d been shot down but I didn’t know what they were in. Anyhow, we only guarded them for a day and a night.
Can I just ask you, you mentioned before Arab spies. Was that a real concern?
Yeah, it was a well known fact. You couldn’t tell one from another. But right to the very bars in the pubs


and the clubs in town there were spies. We only ever heard of them catching one and that was in Aleppo, and she was a prostitute, I think. The Germans had no trouble getting information. You can read Rommel’s papers, he knew everything that was going on. We didn’t know any spies, we never saw any spies. And if we did, we didn’t know it. But we had to be


careful about what we did and said.
So what condition was your unit in after the main El Alamein battle?
Well, physically worn out and mentally tired, I think. It was the worst battle they ever went in. I can’t think of their causalities now, but I think it was


a hundred and twenty killed?
And how did you feel about not being there, in the main? Tell me about that.
When I got back to company headquarters, where I reported, I said, “I want a bayonet.” The quarter marshal said, “What do you want a bayonet for?” I said, “I haven’t got one, I lost it.”


“All right, here’s one. There you go.” I said, “Now I wanted something to sharpen it on.” “What do you want that for? You’re LOB, you’re not going any place.” I said, “Yeah, I’m going up tonight, with you.” He said, “No you’re not.” And that’s how I felt. Except that I got up there anyway. I was that fit I could have run behind the truck. I walked in anyhow.
What role would you have done in that


battle on the –
Well, I didn’t know where they were. Or what they were doing. They were just laying in their trenches. They said, “Bugger it, it’s stopped.” They attacked every night up to then. They were ready to cross the road, and that was the end of the battle. Once we crossed the road, it was the end of the battle.
What happened with your Bren then, if someone else – ?
Well, he was killed. I don’t know who


took it over after him. I’ve got photos of my team with them, the day I got back. I can’t remember who the final Bren gunner was.
Tell me about your friend who replaced you?
Well, he was the bloke that I went into Turkey with. What’s his name?


He was a good fellow, and he was always inquisitive. They said, “So and so, he’s at it. He’s as inquisitive as usual.” First bloke to put his head up next morning, got it straight between the eyes. And they just passed the baton around to the fittest and the ablest, I think, to be in a battle like that.


They used it quite a lot killing Germans, getting out of tanks. That was mostly what they shot at, was tank crews. When the tanks get hit, the Germans try to escape, they kill them getting out of tanks.
And did you fire at tank crews?
I never fired on a tank, no. I’ve been under a tank, or with a tank staring at us with his big gun,


yelling at us to surrender. But he couldn’t get his gun down low enough. It was up like this, and we were down in the hole. He couldn’t get his gun. He was yelling, “Surrender.” And everyone was saying, “Get stuffed!” But we had sticky bombs. That’s all we had to protect ourselves. They were shaped like a ball, but they had this steel cover, and it split. You would pull the pin out, and it uncovered and there was this glass


ball with this sticky cloth around it. A glass ball of nitro glycerine. And I’ve used them on the tank, it knocked it out. And they had a lever on them, you pulled another pin and if you let that lever go, you had fourteen seconds. You had to do a hundred yards in fourteen seconds to be safe. You had to walk up to the tank and smash it on it, let the


lever go and run like hell. As I said before, they could blow a hole in the tank; very dangerous stuff. But it’s all we had for protection against the tanks.
Tell me about after the main battle, what happened to you?
They gave us pup tents, we’d never seen them before. Two-man tents. You each carried half and you clipped them together. I don’t know where they came from.


We never had anything to sleep in the desert; only the desert, before. We dug holes and covered the tops of the holes and slept in them. We called them ‘doons’. And the battle was over, the Germans had retreated, and there was only the Australians left out there on the battlefield. And we slept in these pup tents.
How long did you stay?
The next move was


when the colonel asked for volunteers to go up with the Eighth Army to attack Tobruk, because they wanted Australians to be in the capture of Tobruk. And he got a truckload of us to volunteer.
Did you go?
I volunteered, yes. We were sitting there waiting for the order to move and we sat there for hours and hours. It was all day. And then they


said, “Stand down, they’ve taken Tobruk.” That’s how quick it was. And that was three hundred miles away.
Thanks Bert, we’ll stop there. We’re right at the end of this tape.
Interviewee: Herbert Ferres Archive ID 0484 Tape 05


Okay, Bert, I just wanted to pick up the story. I believe we left off around the time when you were going to be called as reinforcements up to Tobruk, but that fell quite quickly. At that time, you were still waiting in the El Alamein region, were you?
Yes. The troops were still resting. And we didn’t move until we back to Palestine, because we were right out of the battle area then. The


battle had gone right up to where it started from. Then they kept going, right up into North Africa, and then the whole German Army surrendered, in North Africa. And that was the end of two and a half years of campaigning, for the British Army there. Then they went on to Italy.
What was your battalion doing in Palestine, were you given rest and relaxation time?
Yes, it was always our rest and relaxation time, Palestine. We spent three Christmases in


Palestine. 1940, ‘41 and ’42. And there was no threat of war there. It was just a staging area, and we staged there until we were ready to come home. Then we shipped back to the Suez Canal again.
So there was quite a few months there, obviously, between the end of El Alamein and Christmas.


Well, we were back in there for Christmas. October it was over, or the end of October. Then it’s only November, December. I’d have to look up the battalion history to find out whatever happened in that time. But not much. We got leave, just general relaxation.
Do you know what month you returned on board


the Aquitania?
No, I can’t recall. Very early into ’43.
What was that journey back like? How did it differ from the journey over?
It was much more pleasant, we knew we were going home. I liked that ship better because it rode the seas better the Mary. It cut through the seas. It was a smooth run. And I got the know the crew better. I actually ate with the crew most of the time. They had baked dinners everyday


and bottled beer. We were on open decks, slept on open decks. With just wire bunks.
And what was the nature of your connection with the crew members?
Gambling. They taught us to play American crap, because they had been carting Americans, and they won all our money; what we had on us anyhow. But I’ll never forget I had two pistols and they wanted to buy them off me all


the time. I always had them damn pistols. I got in trouble with them, too. But the funny thing is I sold one to a chap who ended up as superintendent of police in Australia. He got in touch with me some years ago, and asked me did I remember him. I said, “Yes, where’s my bloody Luger?” “I haven’t got that now.” he says.
What did you get in trouble for with the pistols?
Funny, they armed us to the teeth and let us shoot people, but


if we had a pistol in camp, you would be in dire trouble. I was deranked back to the ranks for having a pistol, before we came home. I lost my one and only stripe.
Why did you carry one then?
They were just souvenirs to us. When I left El Alamein I was armed to the teeth, but I had to throw it all away. I had a German submachine-gun, three pistols, and Lord knows what.


And then they put raids on us to try and disarm us, but they didn’t completely disarm us.
Were they German pistols?
Two German pistols and an Italian Beretta. Had an Italian Beretta, a German automatic and a Luger, and I had a Spiesler [?] submachine-gun, but I actually threw that off the truck, I couldn’t hide that. But one of the pistols came all the way home


inside a banjo. This bloke used to play it onstage with a loaded Luger in the banjo. And the other one was easy to hide, I had a shoulder holster. Just a small Walther.
So it was the worth the risk to you that you might get caught with the pistols just so you could have them as a souvenir?
It wasn’t worth the risk, it was just stupid. The older blokes didn’t fool around with them. But us young blokes, we always liked to have them.


I sent home a steel helmet, and that got home. And a bayonet, that got home, by mail strangely enough. And I had a German holster, I sent that home. But I brought the gun home on its own.
How did you feel about your punishment? Of having your rank stripped from you?
Well, I was very cranky about that. I couldn’t see why – like I would have


been expecting to get fined and punishment of some sort, but that ruined my career completely as an NCO [non-commissioned officer]. Though they did promote me again to corporal the next time. But I never made sergeant.
And that had been very important to you, wasn’t it? You were working towards a career as a soldier?
No, I thought I was at one stage, but I lost all that.
When did you lose that?
After New Guinea. And when the war finished, even more so. Because I couldn’t stand the


army by that time. By this time we had Australian officers, new officers and lots of reinforcements and I just couldn’t behave myself, I couldn’t be bothered with the army anymore. When the war stopped, I absolutely went on strike, I wouldn’t do anything. And only for one of the senior officers sticking with me, they would have deranked me again I think.
Let’s not rush ahead. Tell me about arriving back in


Australia on board the Aquitania?
Well, the biggest part of it was pulling into the wharf at Woolloomooloo. We came into the Woolloomooloo wharf because the Mary couldn’t get into there, but the Aquitania could. And there was double decker buses, and we were straight onto them and straight to – what’s the camp near Prospect?


Wallgrove Camp. Now they said, “We can’t give you leave passes and money until the morning. You can go on leave in the morning.” And we all walked out, jumped on electric trains and went home. We went all the way back to get our money and our leave passes the next day, but we couldn’t stay in camp overnight. Everybody wanted to go home. And it was very strange, I think we


had a steam train, and it stopped at – what’s the big station there? Strathfield. We said, “This train’s too slow.” We all jumped off and got on electric trains. We wanted to get home quick. But the strangest thing was walking down the street. And there was my whole family walking up the road, somebody must have told them I was coming. And


that was my strange. We had twenty-one days altogether. So we did plenty of things.
Were they expecting your return? Did you let them know by mail that you were coming home?
Yes, I let them know by mail, when I was coming home.
And how did they react to seeing you after such a long time away?
Well, the funny thing is they acted as though the war was over. They even had a community gathering at Ramsgate Baths, the old aquarium


baths, they had a dance hall there. And everybody in Ramsgate come to welcome home. But they were very short of grog. All they had was bottles of plonk from the plonk shop. That was all they could get for the celebration.
Was there anything about life in Australia when you came back?
Oh yes, really it was like on another planet, in respect to socialising. They just didn’t know there was a war on. They had no


idea. They’d heard of everything, but it hadn’t sunk into them, I don’t think. It just didn’t seem to touch them. The only people that were affected were those who had lost people in the war. And of course young marrieds with kids, their families missed them badly. My mother, for instance, never thought past the fact that I was home. She thought the war was over. Even my old grandmother said, “I can die in peace now, you’re home from the war.” But she didn’t die.


The young girls, they weren’t such young girls, but they were still young girls when I got home. And they were really not that much company. You could go dancing with them, and that was it. They were very well behaved girls in those days. And I was just a little bit more advanced than that.
What did they tell of the attacks on Sydney? Of the midget submarines?
I can’t remember. It had happened, hadn’t it? I don’t know, it was a joke as far as we were concerned.


And from what you could see, those direct attacks hadn’t woken up the population in Sydney to the realities of war?
I think so. Lot – because a lot of them were at the pictures when it happened. And they switched the pictures off and they told them they had to stay there. She could tell the story better than me. But everything froze and all the lights went out, but that was it. And when they turned them all on again, it was all over. It was probably bad luck for those sailors. But


it was good for the war effort. It did the war effort more good than harm.
Do you recall hearing of Pearl Harbour and Japan’s entering into the war?
Yes, in fact it spoiled our thunder, because the end of the siege of Tobruk, officially, was the 7th of December of 1941.
Did you get the news through that quickly?
Yeah, we used to get all that. And nobody heard about our big battles and the


relief at Tobruk.
Had you been anxious since that point to get back and defend Australia?
Oh yes, very much so. I think that that was the strongest complaint that we ever had. We’d complain and complain and complain. Certainly the army wanted to bring us home, but it was between the governments: Churchill and our government. Then the Yanks stepped in and gave Australia two divisions to replace us if we could stay at El


Alamein. We didn’t know all this was going on. But they were tossing up. We were expecting to go home. That was the right thing to do. And when we didn’t go we were very disappointed. But it didn’t make any difference to the battalion, or the division in action. They fought their best in the greatest action at El Alamein, but they should have been in New Guinea in my opinion.
Did that create more resentment towards the English and Churchill?


Not personally at Churchill. I think we were more crooked on him about Reiss, that was his biggest mistake. When he made a mistake, they were big ones. And he did visit us at El Alamein, and he walked down the main road, there was only one road through Alamein, it goes a long way west. I didn’t see him, because I wouldn’t put my shirt on: “Put your shirt on, you can go and see Churchill”; I wouldn’t put my shirt on, so I didn’t see Churchill. He was only over the


mound, and he walked up the road towards the front line, and as he walked past, the blokes in the line. “When are we going home, Churchill?” “Soon, soon, soon.” “What about a cigar?” He gave somebody a cigar. But he was a great leader, no doubt. But we didn’t know what was going on in the background at all, but we were at El Alamein, we knew we were still complaining, but that was bloody weeks before


the big attack, we were saying, “When are we going home?”
So what did you know of Australia’s position in early 1943? Were you up to date in terms of the Pacific war?
The biggest shock to us was the loss of the Eighth Division in Singapore. Another shocking Churchill mistake. And their talk was they were going to dump us up over in the East on our way. They were going to send us to Burma. That’s what Churchill wanted to do, but he couldn’t.


When he had to let us go, he wanted us to go to Burma. We couldn’t have stood being thrown off somewhere else.
So did you expect to go up into the Pacific conflict, shortly after returning?
We expected to be rushed up there as soon as we got home, yeah. We were supplied with – we got so much leave: 21 days.
So you had three weeks, what did you do with that time?
Well, I went out to all the dances in town, all the local


dances. Half the time I had three girls on each arm, because there were no blokes in my district. And I knew them all, anyhow, I grew up with them. And I used to [go] along to the local dances. And daytime if they went to work I’d go down looking for the boys, to have a drink downtown. If we could find any beer. You had to go to a pub if you found one with some beer. Then you might see some of your mates, then you’re into it. Then back home, then you go dancing again. But I didn’t have any


strong relations with any of the girls. I was still nineteen when I came home from the Middle East.
So did you reunite at Wallgrove?
Oh yes, we went back there. Now that’s an awkward one to work out; how we did it. I don’t know whether it was before our leave or after our leave, we marched through Sydney. We went back to Wallgrove, put on all our gear, came down on the train


early morning. Got out at Central and it rained like hell. And the whole division, fourteen to fifteen thousand men, were jammed into the old building there. It used to be a museum; I can’t think of the name of it now. After the war it was a big skate rink. Until the rain stopped, then we all formed up and marched through Sydney, fixed bayonets, from Central Station,


down Pitt Street to the Cenotaph in Martin Place, up past the Town Hall then back to Central Station, all marching, with fixed bayonets. And we got a terrific reception from Sydney. The whole roads were four or five deep with the public, right through Sydney. It was a very good march.
Did that make you feel appreciated for your efforts in –
It was marvellous


for the morale of the blokes. They thought, “They’ve forgiven us now, for being home late, but at least they appreciate we’re going to go up and have a go, at the Germans.”
And it was good inspiration obviously for your – to be heading out, –
It’s the same as what they’re doing today. It’s very good what they’re doing today. The biggest they made today, was they didn’t announce what units were marching. They’ve got to have pride in their unit. We had pride in the whole division, see, then in the units and the battalions.
Why do you think that’s so


It’s like football, you stick for your team. And the bigger the team, and the more you stick together, the more effective they are. Ninth Division proved that, they never lost a battle. The retreat we did was put on by the English, not us. We fought until they told us to retreat, then we retreated and then we fought, and we never lost a battle from that day on.
Why then are the smaller units


equally important? Such as your battalion or your section?
Because it becomes more personal then. You virtually know everybody; you know everybody in your company, and you know everybody by sight in the other company. But you’ve got nine hundred men, you can’t know them all. No, that’s very important, morale, in troops. Because it’s such a boring job being a soldier, unless you’ve got something to get excited about. We played inter sports, between the battalions:


football and boxing, even I went into that. For a championship in boxing, I didn’t win. I lost my first fight. But anyhow, I had a go. But we played a lot of sport. You name it, we did it. And we had inter-battalion sport all the time. Swimming and running and fighting, football; not much shooting, that’s what annoyed me, I was a good shot.


You said that you weren’t all that good at sport at school. Was that something you started enjoying more once you were in the army?
Oh yes, because I never had any fitness when I was at school. I was very unfit. I was a – I don’t know what I was. I was just a dead loss.
Did you find you were also more competitive, from your time in the army?
Oh yes. There was no doubt about it that


it saved my life. It set the example for my life. Because I had next to no education. I was stared at for my lack of education right through my time in the army, because – They could have quite easily held education classes, but they never did. It was always sports. So I got into the sports. And I could never have got


any more ranking because of my lack of education. I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t add up. I was terrible. But at school I was good at writing stories; I could write stories. I won a prize for that, that’s all. I even failed at woodwork I think, and that was bedrock, you know, because my father was a craftsman in woodwork, but he couldn’t teach me. He didn’t know I was a mechanic. That’s where I should have been. I’ve been a mechanic all my life. Right up from


motorbikes to airplanes.
From Sydney, after you reunited as a battalion, did you head up to the Atherton Tablelands? Is that right?
Yes, that was a shocking troop train to the Tablelands, it took about a week. We broke the journey to stay in one of the camps, I think it was Cairns. And when we got up there we made our own camp in the –


not the jungle but there was jungle there, that’s why we went there, to train in the jungle. But we built our camp in just an ordinary forest, on a stream, but there was nothing there. We had to put up tents, make roads, cookhouses, toilets; the whole lot. And we weren’t very happy because everything was short. Rations were short, cigarettes were short, we had no beer, no leave. But


luckily we were only there for a month or two, and we did a lot of jungle training. Then we went down and trained with the Yanks on Trinity Beach, in landing craft. And then they – before the destroyers came in, we trained with them. They carried four landing craft each. And we were the first wave; our battalion was the first battalion to land.
What were relations like with the Americans?
Very good.


Had you been surprised when you came back to Australia to see just how many Americans there were about the place?
We were very upset about the Americans, on leave, because they pinched all the girls. I found the Yanks, when I had contact with them, very good. But we had this jealousy between us. They’re down here, we’re going up there, you know. But we never saw any American infantry, not even in New Guinea. But


the other divisions did, the Seventh and the Sixth, they saw them. But we didn’t see them in the Forty Three. And we were with their navy, and they used to call us the Australian 213 Marines. Because they thought [we] were in the marines, because we went into action on their barges.
Tell me about the experience of travelling and landing in a barge?
On the beach they looked very clumsy


craft, and they were. They carried thirty men and two machine-guns for’ard, and a cox’n – “I’m the boss, I’m the cox’n.” at the back – “I give the orders.” And we practised loading them, going to sea, coming back, and charging the beach, down the ramp, and everyone would go out and get wet. We did this over and over again. Then we had to practice getting in and out of them in a sea. Because they lowered them


into the water. First of all they do about twenty knots. And then they slow right down to about twelve knots, the speed of the barges, and you go down scramble nets, and then you’ve got to step in it as the barge comes up on a wave, or you finished up falling in, rifle and bayonet and everything else, until they were loaded. Then they’d get the order, “Away all the boats.” We used to imitate them, all their calls. And then


they’d break away and circle, until they were signalled to form up in a line, then they all went in, in a planned attack.
So both the ships and the landing craft were moving while you climbed down?
On yes, we climbed down into them in the dark.
About twelve knots?
Yeah. In the dark.
In the dark?
Yeah. I can’t remember the first wave if it was dark when we landed. It was certainly dark when we stood to. You were below decks,


there were no port holes, pitch dark, and you just got a red light showing. And when it went green or vice-versa, you moved up, single file, onto your barge deck, in platoons. And our second landing, which I’ll tell you about later on, was all in the pitch dark. But I think the first one, we loaded the barges in the dark, but went in, in the daylight. And it was an unopposed landing. We didn’t get shot


at. We got bombed. There was a heavy air-raid on the beach.
Can you tell me a little bit about the nature of the jungle training you were doing on the Atherton Tablelands?
To us it was terribly strange after the desert. We just couldn’t get used to it. I didn’t have a sense of direction, like the country blokes, and we weren’t issued with compasses. Corporals didn’t have compasses, which was ridiculous. And I used to get lost,


I’d lose my sense of direction. But what they did there, they watched what the corporal did; we had umpires. We had a live firing course through the jungle, and they would all surprise us. Flip up steel targets. Real live bullets firing into a pit, to give you the effect. And an officer/umpire with his armband, “What are you going to do now, corporal?” Most of the time they were


training the NCOs for quick action. You just went through a normal drill, hit the deck, get the Bren gun up, engage that machine-gun, fire a grenade – live grenades flying out – and he’d say, “Righto, move on.” Until we got surprised by another target. Which was good training, it was typical of the fighting, but without getting shot out. And I didn’t mind that. But the jungle [was] worse than the New Guinea jungle because it had stinging nettle and


dengue fever and malaria.
Did they have you taking Atebrin tablets at that stage?
No. I can’t remember taking Atebrin until we landed in New Guinea. And I think we all got malaria the first day, because we ran into swarms of mosquitoes. You had to run out in the sunlight, and they’d all leave you; you went into the shade again, you were black with mosquitoes. And


then the MO [medical officer] woke up and said, “Everybody’s got to roll down your sleeves, do up your shirts, take your Atebrin.” It was too late, we all had malaria, most of us.
Did the corporal have direct involvement in the navigation in the jungle?
Well, I certainly didn’t because I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t have a compass. They’d show me a map, I want to go here and do this and do that, then they’d take it away. And leave you to it. No map, no compass.


You learnt the ground. You learnt which way it sloped, east or whatever, of the natural fall from the high ground to the coast. You learnt to – well, you couldn’t see the sun so you learnt to just follow tracks. You knew usually in action you’d only move a few hundred yards before you were in action anyhow, so you soon knew where you were when they started shooting at you. But


I had trouble because, in my section – I’d never had a section before. They made me a corporal in the jungle. When I got there they said, “You’re the corporal.” And I practiced it, in the Tablelands. I was a corporal the second time we did the Tablelands training. But the blokes in my section complained because they said, “You’re getting lost. You don’t know where bloody north is.” They said, “We’re not going on forward scout if you


don’t know where you’re going.” And I said, “You can all get stuffed, I’ll go forward scout from now on.” And I did. Which didn’t do my nerves any good.
Were you carrying a Bren gun as forward scout?
No, an Owen gun.
Owen gun, sorry.
Owen gun as forward scout. But when I wasn’t forward scout I just carried a rifle, being a corporal.
Tell about having your authority challenged? How difficult was that for you to overcome and regain the respect of the men?


no trouble. I went forward scout. And they had no more trouble.
What were the most important attributes of a good leader?
Well, if you asked a bloke in the ranks he’d say, “A bloke that doesn’t get bloody people killed.” That’s what he’d say; don’t make mistakes. And I would say mainly that you have to show a


good example, in everything. But we all fell down on something; mine was navigation of the jungle. But I had no trouble leading them. They followed me, that was the main thing. And I think it was because of my long experience more than anything else. And I just wasn’t used to the jungle. But I got used to it.
So you did two or three months in the Atherton Tablelands?


The first time – yeah, it’d be about that.
And then did you leave from Townsville to head to New Guinea?
We left from – gee whiz, I think from Cairns, for the first trip. Because – yeah, we went up to Cairns, I’m sure. We went up through the Whitsunday passage, past Moresby, right around the toe of New


Guinea and into Milne Bay. And we went on an old tramp ship, and we were all sea sick, the whole lot of us. We run into the aftermath of a cyclone. And it was “ooowwwrrr” all the way. And then we had native crews on board, and they were feeling it, too. And I know that I slung a hammock, I got hold of a hammock, and I slung it in the well deck, because the only time I felt well was when I was in the hammock. The ship was all painted yellow from the vomit of the troops. You’ve


got no idea. It was just wallowing like that. And the only thing that I lived on was bread rolls that I stole from the officers’ mess through their porthole. Reach onto their table and grabbed them. They didn’t know where their rolls were going too, and I was living on them, dry bread rolls. For about a week or so.
So what was the work you were doing at Milne Bay?
What we did at Milne Bay, we camped along the


air strip, number three squadron one, the fighter squadron. You had to watch when you walked across the strip because the planes were landing and taking off all the time. We were there, staged, and waiting for our destroyers. And when the attack was formed up, the convoy for the attack on Lae, the destroyers came in, and we sent a barge in and then we picked up the destroyers, then we went up and we attacked Lae, initially –
Before we get there,


could you tell me what the state of Milne Bay was like when you arrived?
Yes, there was still evidence of the fight they had there. I walked over where they buried the Japs with the bulldozers, eight hundred of them, or something. The place wasn’t knocked about because the Japanese walked ashore, they came into the wharf virtually. They walked ashore, marched down the air strip, before the – I think it was the militia men fought them first,


and then the Seventh Division stepped in. But it wasn’t knocked around. You can’t knock the jungle around much. But I saw the graves of all the dead they killed there.
What about the air strip there? Was it an impressive operation that they’d set up there?
It was all metal, clipped together strip. All metal. They could only take off and land the same way, out over the sea. And they used to take off in threes, and as soon as they got airspeed up, they’d lift up their undercart and


finish the – like that. They were terrific to watch.
They were mainly Kittyhawks up there, weren’t there?
Kittyhawks. In fact one of the first jobs I did after landing at Lae, was go off to the right. Lae was to the left, but my platoon went off to the right to try and find one of the Kittyhawk pilots that was shot down. And they knew where there was an old air strip, a civil air strip, and our objective was to get up there and search that strip, and see if he landed there.


And we had to cross two rivers. We were away for four or five days. But we ran out of food, because it rained and rained and we couldn’t get back across. We found the air strip. There was no Kittyhawk, we couldn’t find it. But we got bombed, because the Japs knew where we were. But we never struck any Japs. We did a raid on two villages, but they were empty. We ended up living on green bananas


and mowing chooks down with Owen guns and boiling them in kerosene tins, for something to eat. We’d run out of bully beef.
Did you say that your job was your first job upon landing at Lae?
At Lae, yeah.
Okay, let’s fill in the gap between Milne Bay and the Lae landings. You waited in Milne Bay until your destroyers arrived, is that right?
We waited there for the destroyers, yeah to pick us up.
And then did the landing barges come and pick you up from the shore and take you out


to the destroyers?
Out to the destroyers, yeah. We did a couple of practice landings first, on an island out there.
Do you recall which destroyers they were? What the names of the ships were?
They were named after persons, and they were what they called ‘four stackers’, which meant four funnels, pre-war; all World War I destroyers. They had magnificent crew. And I forget what the Yanks used to call them, but our navy called them ‘four stackers’. They weren’t


used in naval warfare. They were used as landing ships for personnel. And it was quite exciting going up to attack, because you travelled, only overnight, but close together. And the only contact was our signallers, on the stern of each destroyer. And they’d whisper to each other over the radio, thinking no one would hear them, but radio silence


was supposed to have been kept.
It had been quite some time since you’d been in action, almost a year.
Were you looking forward to getting back into the action, or were you –
We really wanted to fight the Japs. We couldn’t wait. We weren’t the first to strike them, another battalion did. And when we relieved them we were all around them: “What were they like?” “Like a lot of monkeys.” they said. But we never had a serious fight with them, ourselves.
You said the life of a soldier was very


boring just before, so when you knew that there was some action coming, did you get genuinely excited?
Oh yes.
Did you have any expectations of what you might face in Lae?
Well, we expected to fight, but there was no fight with the Japs there. They withdrew. The whole thing was a big, massive mistake by the people that planned it. Because it was overdone, and they should have foreseen that the Japs could withdraw. They should have


closed off the whole thing, but they didn’t. There were I don’t know how many thousands of Japs there, but only the forward troops got a shot at them. They all withdrew into the jungle and went around us, and went up the coast to Finschhafen.
You must have been concerned about the nature of your landing? You must have been very vulnerable coming up the front of a landing barge onto a beach?
The last minute is really crook, if you were going to get shot at, because they even keep the NCOs and the officers at the back so they don’t get


killed getting off the barge.
Tell me then about preparing those last few moments before climbing down off the ship and into the landing barge. And if you can walk me through climbing from the ship until the time you land on the beach?
Well, the excitement is starting to kick – it first starts to kick over when that green light goes. I can’t think of the – but the Yanks had it all down pat. They


trained the marines to do it. And they just handled the situation, until they gave the order for our blokes to hit the beach. We were all under the orders of the Yanks. And we understood their orders, and did what they said. They went in with guns firing, at the front. And then they said, “Brace yourself, fellows!” Schoomp! Down went the ramps, see, and all off. But you never knew how deep the water was going to be, and I’ll you that the next landing was a shocker. But


this one was a real copybook one and there was nobody on the beach. So they – the weather was the worst thing in Lae, it rained for ten days. It rained and it rained. And every creek that you crossed was up to – you know. And we never got any sleep. But they broke us off to go look for this pilot, but we never found him.
Was that almost immediate that order?


Did you –
I can’t remember. There must have been a delay.
Was there any infrastructure in place at Lae, when you landed?
No, not a thing. It was just jungle. But when we branched off we come to a German mission, that had a big plantation, but it was completely evacuated. And even the natives were all gone. And then there was scattered villages, that we went through. Nobody nicked the chooks, which we shot on the way back.


But I went through the villages, in section charge, as if it was occupied, firing. And we expected the natives to be gone, anyhow. We couldn’t see any natives, so we’d go in firing, on the run, shooting up the houses as we went through. All very exciting, but no Japs.
So you just assumed that the natives would be gone?


As a calculated risk?
I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be there, because if they were, they knew we were there. They never showed themselves. And we didn’t know if they were friendly or otherwise, because they’d been with the Japs a long while.
I’ll pull you up there. We’re right on the end of this tape.
Interviewee: Herbert Ferres Archive ID 0484 Tape 06


Bert, you were just telling us that although you didn’t face any direct enemy opposition on the beach landing, there was in fact bombing raids going by Japanese aircraft, were there? On the Lae beach landing?
On the beach, yes. And there was fighting with the landing troops, but they were just rear parties of Japs retreating. And the Seventh Division had landed in Ramu Valley. There was a whole


division there, and our division coming in by sea. And they expected a mighty battle, and it didn’t occur. The Japs got away; how they got away I don’t know. But they got around us, through the jungle, on foot, and marched fifty miles to Finschhafen, it was about fifty miles.
What sort of aircraft were bombing?
They gave them nicknames, and I can’t remember them all now. They called them ‘Minis’ and ‘Lillies’ and


that sort of thing. They were medium bombers. They weren’t fighter bombers, but they had their fighters spray the beach, the Zero. I tried to shoot at one. But I had no tripod, and I stuck it in the bush, it just fell through the bush. I never got a shot in. Everybody laughed, it was a big joke.
That was your Owen gun?


it was a Bren gun.
What was your personal take on the comparison between a Bren and an Owen gun?
Well, the Owen gun is only good for a few yards. Only good in the jungle. It was no good when you were attacking, if you were trying to take a pillbox, even if it was only made of logs, it wouldn’t penetrate them. But a Bren gun would. It would shoot through. They used to make their pits out of cut down


coconut trees. Well, a .303 would go through a coconut tree where the others wouldn’t. The Owen gun wouldn’t.
How they compare in terms of the weight and ease of carrying?
Oh, the Bren gun was twenty-eight pounds, fully loaded. But an Owen gun was only seven or eight pounds. They were very light.
So for jungle warfare the Owen was a lot easier and more practical?
It was only good for ambushes


on forward scouts. It was no good for attack. Unless you got them on open ground, which we did on one occasion.
Let me ask you, you were sent off on your mission to try and locate the Kittyhawk pilot, who had come down; you were there to find out whether he had landed on air strip to the north of Lae? Is that right?
I’ve got to get it right. I’ve lost my direction again. Because where


we landed, that would have been west, along the coast.
So you needed to go and locate this air field and see if this Kittyhawk had landed out there. You must have been quite concerned about moving through the jungle, which you wouldn’t have known how many Japanese were about at that time, would you?
Yes, it would have been very dangerous if they had been there in any numbers, and they could have ambushed us at any time, but what I was cranky about,


this officer we unfortunately had, he would have been told to do it, but it was ridiculous. We had signallers there with us with a powerful radio; the largest radio, the 108. And they were sending reports back each night. And he’d give them the map reference of where we were camped for the night, and in camp we just dug a circle. Like we did in Vietnam. Like a local defence, but we usually made it along the


beach, or a little peninsula. And he’d give them these map references, and I said to him, “Look, we’re going to get bombed. They know exactly where we are.” Anyhow, they did bomb us the once, but never hit us. One night in the dark, it just went ‘shwoom! shwoom!’. But that was the only action we had on that patrol. But coming back, the rivers stopped. The rivers flash flood, overnight, and


it just stops you going. Once it gets up to chest high you can’t get across, it’s too far. And we didn’t have much tucker with us. That didn’t do us any harm. Plenty of water to drink.
You hadn’t been in battle for almost a year at that point, how was your fitness? Or your battle readiness?
The whole campaign took about seven months. And by the end of it I was a walking physical wreck.


Mentally and physically, because I was evacuated to this casualty clearance station four times. Twice with dengue fever, and twice with malaria. And even flown to Moresby, treated, then sent back to Finschhafen by plane, through this pass. They couldn’t fly over the pass because they didn’t have oxygen for the passengers.


And I went back into action in that condition, but collapsed again, later on, weeks later, and out again. You didn’t go out unless you went on a stretcher. We were losing so many men to malaria, that unless you couldn’t walk, you didn’t leave the front line. The front line was one forward scout after another, with the whole division behind. Until you hit the Japs. Once you got fired on and someone got killed, you’d send up


some more men. If they got hit, you’d finish up, you’d put on a big attack. Then the Japs would pull back again, and it would be on again. That’s how it finished, when there were no more Japs left. But our initial landing was opposed, and we fought from the beach for three days, non-stop.
Are you talking about Finschhafen?
I just want to fill in the middle gap between Lae and Finschhafen. Your physical fitness was quite good


when you arrived in Lae?
And it was quite good when we left Lae, yeah.
And the rain you found there to be very difficult?
That was a constant difficulty in New Guinea. It always rained through the night. You had a good night’s sleep if it didn’t rain.
And did that contribute to injuries and that sort of thing?
No. I didn’t even catch cold. You were cold and wet, all you could do was keep a cigarette alight.


And how challenging did you find the terrain?
Very difficult, once you left the beach. Specially at Finschhafen, we were right on the edge of a mountain range, but that wasn’t any great difficulty. We trained like that. In all weather. You had a plastic cape which was really made for mustard gas.


But we used them as a raincoat, wet, cold. You had that and a rubber groundsheet, and your felt hat. But a lot of us wore our tin hats. Out of habit, we wouldn’t part with our tin hats for a long while. They gave you the option of using the felt hat, instead of the steel helmet.
So when you returned from your patrol to try and locate the Kittyhawk pilot, was it quite soon after


you returned to Lae that the next landing was planned?
No, we did a ten day march, or a week’s march, on Lae. It was slow, we were trailing behind the battalions that were in the action. But we never put up a final attack, we just put up with the weather. It just rained and rained all the time, and we were lucky we didn’t have to fight. The other battalions were fighting.


How were you transported between Lae and Finschhafen?
By destroyer, they came back and picked us up again.
So back onto the landing barges on the beach, taken out?
Same destroyer, yes. Saying hello to the same blokes. And the tucker was terrific. We ate out on deck, because there was too many to eat below deck. And they had aluminium trays, with all the partitions in them, and they had creamed vegetables and meat and


coffee. So we didn’t mind the destroyer. We ate well. They even had ice water, on the inner side of the ship. And when you squeezed past the bridge, you could have a quick drink of ice water out of the tap. And coffee was on twenty-four hours a day in the mess, whatever they called it, they had a different name for everything. But we got used to that. Whenever they were going to make an announcement


they had loud speakers, on deck, “Now hear this! Now hear this!” they’d say, then they’d tell you what they wanted to say.
Now, were you anticipating stronger resistance when you landed at Finschhafen?
Yes. Because there was less of us. In fact we only had one battalion land, that was our battalion initially. Because, again, MacArthur’s headquarters wouldn’t believe


that there was any gathering of Japs at Finschhafen. There were thousands of them there, but they reckoned there was only three hundred. But they were probably on the beach, those three hundred. But they used to send in commandos to have a look. They did that in New Guinea. We never used to hear about it. but these commando companies did marvellous things. Like they’d go in, half a dozen in a rubber boat, lay there all day and observe, then get back out again the next night. That sort of thing. But we never heard about it.


We knew it was occupied, the beach. We landed in the dark. They thought of that old trick, we’ll send the boys in in the dark. But as soon as we come under fire from the beach, the Yankee barges pulled away to sideways, and our barge missed the beach and hit a coral reef. And down went the ramp, and down we charged and out. And


I was at the back, of course, let the other blokes out first. And they just went flop, flop, flop, flop, into deep water. But run to the edge of the barge, and it was only starlight we were in, we haven’t got any light, and I could see steel helmets, and I pulled them two of them up and there were blokes holding them. And I yelled to the officer, and he yelled to the crew, “Take it out and bring it in again!” But by this time, I’d stepped out onto coral. It


was only this deep. And I dragged my men and ordered them up onto the coral and we were able to walk ashore, in the dark. But the Yanks come tearing in again and ripped the bottom out of a barge. It’s still there I think, the barge. So we got ashore, all very wet, but we didn’t lose any – one bloke was drowned on the beach front.
Did you come under enemy fire at that point?
The next fire we come under was the – the second wave was coming in, in big


landing ships for the personnel. They had two ramps, one down each side of the ship. And they were shaped like a destroyer, and they run up onto the beach. But you had to go down these stairs. Well, they come under heavy fire because the Japs still had the beach. We’re not on the beach. But they shot at us, as they’re coming in with Oerlikon guns. They shot up the flanks of the beach, the Yanks did. And they pinned us down with fifty millimetre fire and twenty-seven


millimetre fire.
You’re under fire from the Americans?
From the Americans, yes. And that’s when I had one of my men stick the ground and wouldn’t get up. We got him up in the end. And he was a tough man, too, he had a real problem. He was all right once he got over it. It was such heavy fire he couldn’t move. But I got him up. But unfortunately, I walked into a whole nest of green ants.


And they got all inside my shirt, there must have been a thousand of them. And they all bite. And I’m yelling orders and scraping green ants and there’s all this shooting going on.
In the dark.
And the officer wasn’t worth a bob. Anyhow, we moved down onto the beach, and by the time we got there, somebody had cleaned out the pillboxes. But to get my blokes together, I gave them jobs to do, they were all shaken up, they hadn’t been in action before: “You two, that pillbox, that’s your job.”


And there’s a Jap dying there; I said, “Leave him alone, he’s dying.” And the biggest coward in this section shot him. No need to shoot him, he was dying. Anyhow, that’s how we came out on along the beach. But you only held the beach a few minutes, then you were given orders and away you go. Start the attack. And the Japs defended it every inch, for three thousand yards. And I think we had thirty-nine killed, or twenty-nine killed, and


about a hundred and fifty wounded. I can’t remember, the figures are there. In taking three thousand yards of the beach head.
What had your immediate orders been? What were your orders handed to you from, presumably, the platoon commander?
Well, the first order we had, there was a distinct track going up to this Jap position. Once we got up as far as we could, to ‘take up our position’. Which meant just lie down and face the enemy. We couldn’t see him. That


was the first attack, just to get off the beach, get into the jungle and face the enemy. And my next order, I think, was to go back to the beach and bring up A Company. There was heavy fighting on our right, an officer was killed there, causalities on our right, in our company. And again, Muggins [‘poor fool, me’] was lost again. I thought, “Where the bloody hell’s the beach?” Just that


everything’s green. I had no compass. They just said, “Go.” That’s a hundred men I had to bring up, plus led by a captain. And he’d never been in action. He had just come out of Duntroon. And anyhow, I realised it must be downhill, so I went downhill and I found the captain with his company. And he was typical Duntroon. “Righto man, get your map out. What are their dispositions? Where are we supposed to go?” And


he’s got a map and I said, “Stuffed if I know.” “What do you mean you don’t know?” I said, “I was just told to bring you up.” “Well, you know where to go?” “Yeah, come on!” And took him up, but he still got balled up, and he finished up retiring to battalion headquarters. He had no hope of leading a company. I don’t know what happened to him. But I still had this crook officer all the way through the whole campaign.
Bert, did you find it easier going into battle as


a corporal? As having men to worry about? Did that keep you from worrying about yourself?
Oh absolutely, because you had no time to worry about yourself. You were just in charge. And they’d look to you, all the time. They wouldn’t do anything until you said so. They didn’t know what to do.
And you enjoyed that responsibility?
Not really. [UNCLEAR]


But you did like the fact that your mind was occupied with looking after the men?
Yes, you see, they all got killed and wounded, except two. Anyhow, not in that part of the attack, later on they got killed. That’s


when I was given the order to advance, or when I had to go to the beach, I think that might have been, I went the wrong way. That’s when they said, “You’re lost.” And I was. I didn’t even know where the beach was. And I only left it a hundred yards or so back. Very thick jungle. You had to stick to tracks, but every time you were on a track there were chaps up the other end of it. When all the fighting was on, they were trapped. But


still, we were quite ready to have a go at them, and we did. But, we got into a really serious fight. There’s a big write-up in the latest book. He interviewed me. The general that wrote the book, he put my name in very small print right in the back of the book. But he had to change the written history of that


particular attack, because it was wrong. And it was agreed upon by an ex-officer who was with me in the attack, in another platoon. I’ve got all the correspondence, that thick, from this general that was written by this captain, who went back to New Guinea and examined the ground with the general. And it was all over just this one particular attack. And they rubbished this officer, by name, in the history book.


And my name was mud. Because they said, “Corporal Ferres says this.” in the book. But I didn’t expect they were going to do all that. I said, “He wasn’t a coward.” They were trying to make out he was a coward. I said, “He just didn’t know what to do.” “And what about your sergeant?” And I said, “He was never any bloody good.” And he [UNCLEAR] the sergeant, never saw it.
So when you’re in that atmosphere, where you don’t have


faith in your immediate leaders, how do you project to your own men a sense of confidence?
Well they only did what I told them to do. I was given orders by the officers, but they were all wrong, as I pointed out to the gentleman. It might take too much time to go into great detail. But it ended up, he left me behind and


took only one section with him, and the other section, there were three sections in our platoon, was grabbed by the captain and held back, because we’re all under heavy fire and there’s blokes getting hit. There’s three machine-guns wiping us out. And I said, “Come on.” to my section, “into the creek and we’ll rejoin the platoon where the officer is.” And I had one bloke hit straight away, and he was hit in the bum and he run, and he took the Owen gun with him, so we had only one Owen gun


left and the Bren gunner. We went into this creek, and I had lost my helmet, my shoal, and I fought the rest of the battle with no hat on at all. But we got along the creek under fire to where an officer was, and he’s laying there with the phone, and there’s a bloke lying there with him and he’s shot through the head and he’s dying. And he was very overcome, the officer, but he still


knew what he wanted to do. He handed over to the sergeant of the next platoon, who come over to see what he was going to do about it. And I said to him, before he even spoke to me, “What are you going to do, Mr so and so?” They always called them mister. “You can’t stay here, you have to attack.” He said, “I’m going to. But sergeant corporal said this, and sergeant corporal said that.” And he handed over to the other sergeant. He lost control of his platoon. Now he only had two


sections to attack with. And I put my Bren gunner into action straightaway, against these machine-gunners. We were still under very heavy fire. And the sergeant says when he throws a grenade, charge. So that’s what we did. I never saw the left section again, only my own section. And


when we charged, I spotted – The machine-gunner on the left was very bad. How many men were killed? I think it was eight killed, and eighteen wounded in the charge of our blokes. And it was mostly that left hand gun. I don’t know who silenced him, but I think it was my Bren gunner, just after the charge started. Everything happened


in ten minutes. And we killed fifty-one Japs, so that gives you an idea. And my Bren gunner got the DCM. I saw him go down, he was shot through the chest after he fired on this machine-gun. I don’t know whether he did the first one or not, but I got the second one. I threw a grenade first at it. When it went off, a Jap ran out from the machine-gun, they shot him.


But the machine-gun kept on firing till we charged, so another bloke joined in with me, and we just fired into the pit, and when we got there the Jap was dead. I still don’t know whether my Bren gunner got him. The bloke I was with burned his arm on the machine-gun; the Jap’s machine-gun was still red hot. And ratted the Jap. And he gave me a photo and he took a pen. And I’ve got the photo, still there, of that dead Jap.


By this time, everybody was into it, hand to hand. So I went and joined the sergeant. He’s standing there, bang, bang, bang, as the Japs are charging over this way. I fired ten shots at ten Japs, then the gun was empty. And I got them, right in front of me, as they were going past. They weren’t coming at me, they were going down the left flank of the platoon.


And then, I always carried a spare magazine. Nobody ever carried them. But I kept a loaded spare magazine, so I dropped the first clip, slammed the next one in, got the first shot away, and it wouldn’t reload. And I’m standing there. They’re all fighting, hand to hand, bayoneting each other, and I thought, “Bugger this, I’m not going to use a bayonet. I want another rifle.” “I’m getting another rifle!” I yelled out, and away I


went. And I run over to where the Bren gunner was, he’d been dragged away, and the magazines were still there, in the pouches. They took them off him when he was shot through the lung. And I grabbed that and a rifle and I went back. And I found that there were two that had the Bren then. And really, what happened there, I don’t know. But we come under terrific fire. We found out later that it was another company that were


attacking. Our company had stopped fighting. The sergeant’s hit in the head and he’s calling out for me. The officer’s shot in both legs. And there’s all this dead and wounded. But I didn’t see them, until after the battle had stopped. And there was only me and the other two on the Bren, and all these Japs running everywhere, and all this terrific fire that wasn’t doing very much at all. But I don’t know what we did, whether we kept firing or not.


I just can’t – it’s a blank. And then it all petered out. But there was such heavy fire, the bushes were all just disappearing, the bullets cutting them down. And it was all friendly fire, and I knew it was friendly fire, so I didn’t know what to do. So I just hugged the ground. And when it stopped I got up and I walked back to the officer. And I looked at all the carnage behind us, it was terrible –


But I’d only lost two blokes, two wounded, one badly wounded. And for all this, the officer was discussing who was going to get decorated. He’s laying there with two crook legs. He said to me, “You’ve been mentioned for another decoration. But you’ve already got one, haven’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, what do you want me to do?” I said, “Give it to the Bren gunner, he’s dying.”


And I walked away. And I got my section and we moved up to the next position, where we were supposed to have formed up for the initial attack. There were a hell of a lot of dead Japanese. And the sergeant got the DCM, and my Bren gunner got the DCM, and the officer got the bullet.
Got fired?


Oh well, he wasn’t very active after that. I can’t – well, I never saw him again. He was wounded. So I wasn’t very happy about that blue at all. They gave me another job to do, and both my Bren gunners got killed. So I had two more dead. And I had two blokes left, they were reinforcements, they’d never been in action before. And you’ve never seen such two frightened blokes in your life.


But they did what I told them to do.
What did you tell them about overcoming their fear?
Nothing. You just got to [UNCLEAR]. You can’t psychoanalyze them or anything. I just yelled at them, that’s all.
Yelled at them?
Yell at them. I had to yell at them: “Fire!” “Keep it up!” “Change your mag!” [magazine] “Fire!” And he said to me afterwards, “If you hadn’t told me what to do, I wouldn’t have done a bloody thing.” He said, “I could hear


you saying, “Change your mag! Change your mag! Fire! Fire!’” And that’s how you went, they just go. But when we come home to Australia, there was a number two on the Bren then; he deserted. Never saw him again. He was charged with desertion after the war. I had two deserters after New Guinea.
You had two deserters from Finschhafen?
They went on leave and never come back.
This first night in


Finschhafen then, was very heavy fighting. Did that heavy fighting continue for some time?
Sporadic. It’s always sporadic. It often goes all night and all that sort of thing, then it quietens down to nothing of a night, because you can’t see. You can only shoot at what you hear. As soon as the daylight comes, as soon as you make a move, it’s on again. As long as you move, you get shot at. And that was what it was like. We were trying to take a village,


that was our first objective. But the Japs defended the beach. Then they fell back to the village, and they defended that heavily. We used dive bombers. I’d never seen dive bombers before, I didn’t even know we had any, Vultee engine dive bombers. Artillery. We never had any tanks. And for the next attack,


we formed up and charged but we couldn’t get into their defences. They were so heavy. They were all reinforced with logs and all that. A real proper trench, and it’s still there today. This bloke that went back to go over the ground again, he actually photographed the [UNCLEAR].
How long did it take you to drive the Japs back to the village


itself? To push them back from the beach, through the jungle, to the village?
About three days, to take the –
You had claimed the village within three days of landing?
Yeah. First of all, we tried to take the high ground, I remember now. And the Japs resisted, all the way on the high ground. All the way up, right up to this Crackenback Range, they called it. I think it’s something like that. No, it’s a German name.


Anyhow, we petered out in our attacks and the brigadier decided to flank the Japs, and come down through this really dangerous country, real steep country, and come in on the Japs from that flank. And they were awake to us on that, too. And they met us when we got down there. When we got down to the lower ground, they stopped us again. So then we formed up, and after we cleaned them up, we tried to take the village, with everything. And they pulled


out overnight. They’d had enough. But they even brought in submarines with reinforcements, while we were fighting that night.
How did you rate their fighting ability? The Japanese?
Oh, they were good, because they were Jap Marines. They were big blokes, well dressed, well fed, and they fought very well. And they even laughed while they were fighting, that’s what annoyed me.


They liked fighting by the sound of it. And the Japs’ charge was with the sword.
Did you feel differently about the Japanese then you had about the Germans or the Italians?
Yeah, because we heard so much bad news about the Japs, we hated them. They still frightened us, that lot. But we beat them anyway. But


they attacked us, they didn’t just withdraw all the time. They put on major attacks. They put on a complete divisional attack. I don’t know how many thousands of troops that is in Japs and they attacked us from over here, they attacked our beach head, while we’re miles up a river chasing them. They just disappeared, into the jungle. They get up the river we never saw them again. Went around the back of us again, came down the mountain and attacked our beach head. Miles behind it.


And we had to do a forced march, up this river, while we were being chased, back along the coast, to defend the beach head. But already the troops were in action with them at the beach head, and the Japs were attacking; attack after attack, banzai [‘hooray!’] charges. And they killed, I don’t know how many hundreds. But I went there months later, and everywhere you walked, you thought you were working on coconut, but they were


Japanese skulls and bones. Hundreds of them were killed there. And the battalion that did that was the battalion that was wiped out at El Alamein, the 28th, it had been rebuilt, so – I had one bad job to do then, but luckily I got away with it. We fought very hard there. We wiped out a whole Japanese Army eventually, I don’t know how many.


They reckoned there was fifty thousand Japs died on that coast. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there for the final campaign. They just petered out, you know
What was the bad job you were given?
Oh, to retake a Bofors gun that they thought the Japs had because the crew had to clear out, they had no infantry around. They were ack-ack, and they were off the beach, protecting the beach head,


on a hillock. And thousands of Japs come down off the hills and they evacuated and left the gun there. But they should have sent one or two of their gunners with me. We could have put it into action. But we didn’t know what to do with he bloody thing, we didn’t even know how to load it. But we found out they had better food than we had, so we ate all their food. And we just held the gun position until the battle died down. I went out on a patrol and I found one dead Aussie, and four dead Japs alongside him.


But I never saw anybody else. He must have been from the 28th. But the Japs got right down to the beach head, with this creek on one side, but they kept on attacking on the ridge going down to the beach. So, that was only the beginning of the battle. We had to take a mountain then. It took us three months to take the mountain. It was up a single


track; Sattelberg Mountain. And we got our next VC up there. We got tanks though, they finally gave us tanks. We didn’t have the pleasure of them, but the other battalions did. My company, we walked out of there, twenty-seven men –


What we did was kept the pressure up on the Japs, but we kept on getting casualties.
There was twenty-seven left out of how many?
Yeah, out of about ninety men, I suppose. But we had wounded killed with sickness. But I had to put on another stunt there, forward scouting it, and it was a bad one.


I didn’t see the gun until it opened up, and it fired under my arm, and I had my arm up like that. The burst of machine-gun went under my arm like that. And I fired twenty-eight rounds as I went down. And I wasn’t hit. I looked behind me, they’re dragging wounded out and there’s blood everywhere behind me. And not a soul to be seen. They pulled the wounded out and they all disappeared. And I was underneath this Jap gun,


and I flopped down in the mud, and put another magazine, threw that magazine, slapped that in, and it filled up with mud. And I only had my bloody bayonet. So I screwed myself on the balls of me feet up in the air, and I’m trying to clean my gun, and I’m waiting for this Jap bayonet. I’m surrounded by Japs, but I can’t see them. There are dead ones everywhere. And I must have missed the machine-gunner. I never saw him. I never bothered to go have a look,


later on. And he never fired again, but I had to attack him again, because they ordered me too, and I had two men left. I said to them, “We’re not attacking. We’re going to go up here and we’re going to make a lot of bloody noise, but I’m not attacking with two men.” And they were the two frightened blokes I had left. Anyhow, we did blaze away at him, but he didn’t fire back. But I sent word back I wanted a Vickers gun up there.


It was a silly move but I felt that I wanted some firepower. And they volunteered and they came up with the big heavy Vickers, and set it up, and I said, “There’s your target, up the track. There!” And they fired and fired and fired, and still no sound. And then, they started to get single rifle shots. You could hear them loading their rifles: ‘click, click, bang!’ They’re only fifty yards away, and we still couldn’t see them, and they appeared to be advancing in mass. And the sergeant on the Vickers guns says


“Hey, what are we going to do? The Japs are coming down!” I said, “Get that gun out here.” He said, “How are we going to do that?” I said, “Pull it down, pull it to bits.” And the gunner had his finger shot off. His finger trigger disappeared while we were pulling the gun down. And they laid it on the ground and passed it back. You know they’re heavy bloody things. And I had to hold the track until they got it clear. But then they sent me a runner. They said the rest of the platoon’s


withdrawn. And they were all out of sight. They went off the ridge and tried to get up underneath the gun but they didn’t do any good. So, when they pulled out, we opened fire again and then we run back to the company, which was a couple of hundred yards back. And then the powers that be said, “Well, they’re not budging. We’ll put all the Vickers on them.” So they gathered all the Vickers guns in one spot, and they fired down on the Japs


from high ground all day. They had piles of empty rounds like this. It was all over our heads, all these thousands of rounds. And the Japs had enough. They got out. They were marvellous at getting out of holes. They were surrounded and they got away. A thousand of them. And they had me attacking with two men. One thousand Japs. And I was never any good after that. Luckily I got that ill that they flew me out.
Okay, mate we’ll just pause right there. We’re right on the end of the tape.
Interviewee: Herbert Ferres Archive ID 0484 Tape 07


So Bert, I just wanted to pick up this tape at the end of the last we just finished talking about the taking of Finschhafen, and then moving on to Sattelberg, both of which involved very heavy fighting –
On the Sattelberg track, yeah. The whole of the division was involved on that. And


that’s where the Japs retreated back up that mountain. And they were even supplied by aircraft, with provisions and arms, which surprised us. They parachuted supplies into them. They fought very hard. It was a narrow track, up to about three or four thousand feet. And every corner was a battlefield, on this dirt track, which was really a jeep track.


About as wide as a jeep. And they had to take tanks up there, too. But for us, we were pushed off the track and onto the sidelines, after our fighting and given the job of keeping up pressure on the flanks of the Japs. Every time they held our blokes up, we had to attack them on their flank, which we finished up with a pocket of Japs that we couldn’t move


for quite some time. It was over a month. A thousand Japs held in a pocket. The name of the village, Jenevervin [?UNCLEAR on Sattelberg track], when you mention it to that 17th Battalion; they copped it very badly there. They were surrounded there for weeks, by Japs. And yet, we were that close we could wave to them. And they’d wave back. I was doing that one day, to the –


we’d call out to their CO, he had a nickname, the Fox. The Red Fox, he had red hair and they reckoned he was as cunning as a fox, so they used to call him the Red Fox. And we’d yell out, “Tally ho the Fox!” And they’d yell out, “Tally ho the Fox!” and wave. And then one day a Jap stood up and waved. He didn’t say, “Tally ho the Fox.” but he stood up and gave us a wave. But no doubt about it, they had a fighting spirit,


the Japs, we had to admire. But they were a cruel race, though, even amongst themselves. But we never took any prisoners, they never took any prisoners, in all the time that we were there. You didn’t get captured. If you got wounded, you got killed. They killed off our wounded, and we killed theirs off. There was [no] quarter on either side, which was unusual for the type of the war we’d fought


Did that sit comfortably with you?
Yes, I’m afraid that I was just as bad as the Japs when it came to shooting. But I never shot wounded. If they were dying, I let them die. I didn’t shoot wounded. But it was done, and accepted. There was no way you could capture a Jap. He just fought till he died,


as a rule. Or got wounded and he couldn’t fight anymore. Then he was liable to blow you up, with a hidden grenade in his pocket.
And your section suffered a great deal? You lost a lot of numbers?
Compared to the original only seven men, we had quite a lot of casualties out of that seven men. I lost a lot more than that, on that one. When we were keeping pressure on the Japs. They gave me another officer,


the other one having no legs. And this one had no brains. But anyhow, he wasn’t feared. Fear wasn’t a big thing in officers, they had a terrible job to do. The corporal had a bad enough job with seven men, they had thirty men or more to look after, and keep on the ball. But they weren’t trained properly. And we were only trained by experience, and they’d come in and they’d want to know everything in


a day. But you don’t learn everything in a day about how to fight. Anyhow, I had this officer, he asked me in the middle of a battle, “What do you reckon we should do Bert?” And I said, “I don’t know you’re the bloody officer. You work it out.” And he said, “But you’ve had more experience than me.” And this is from an officer. I said, “Send a runner back and ask for permission to withdraw. We’ve had too many casualties.” “All right, I’ll do that!” The runner comes back, “Insufficient casualties, carry on.


Attack!” And that’s when I only had two left. We were only doing it to keep the pressure on the Japs, to take the pressure off the battalion that was surrounded. We weren’t even making a difference to the battle. Just having casualties. Anyhow, the Japs didn’t win in the long run, they withdrew, but they held us up for some time.


Did you think those mopping up campaigns in New Guinea were worthwhile?
In New Guinea they were, but not thereafter. Not in New Britain, or any of the other islands. Because the north coast of New Guinea was where the Yanks started their attack on the Philippines. And they had a terrific base at Finschhafen. They made a massive base of that, for the attacks on Mindanao,


Celebes. and then Philippines. It was MacArthur’s route. But after that, MacArthur didn’t want anything to do with us because he couldn’t supply the Australian Army. We used different ammunition, different weapons, and he just wouldn’t give us shipping and things to bring up our tanks and all that sort of thing. Didn’t want to do anything for us, really.
How did you guys feel about MacArthur?
Well, I actually saw MacArthur on the beach. I stood alongside


of him, while he stepped out of a barge. That was exciting, to see a man like him. But he was exactly what he looked like on TV [television]. All one big and you know. But he was a very game general. He took terrific risks against a lot of opposition from his own people. And he won battles.
Was he well respected by the men on the ground?
Well, not


as far as we were concerned I don’t think. We didn’t – if you read through the lines on those books, MacArthur’s headquarters did nothing for the Australians. They criticised them and only – we couldn’t do anything without their equipment and their support. But they did it reluctantly. I don’t think they really wanted us there. They didn’t need us.
Do you think the Australians received the due respect they


deserved for their contribution from MacArthur?
No. I don’t think so. No, MacArthur he acted big. It had to be a big result before he even noticed it. He criticised every move the Australians made. Especially the Owen Stanley Ranges. He criticised that. He made MacArthur go up there, and check it out and sacked General [UNCLEAR Savige?]. But the


Yankee army showed just as badly after Milne Bay, around Buna and Gona. They had American ground troops there, and I believe they weren’t that good. And MacArthur had made a big row about that, too, with his own troops. He always demanded the best, all the time, from the men. His own men as well. I have no opinion about him. He was just too high up to worry about. I was annoyed that we were just shoved aside


and not – just used in sideshows, really.
What did the troops think of General Blamey?
Well, we thought nothing nice about him, really. We wished he’d just stayed a policeman. No, he didn’t do anything for the war effort at all, or us, in my opinion. We had a great general in Moreshead, and he should have been in command.
How did their leadership


differ? So that you had a great deal of respect for Moreshead but not for Blamey? How did their leadership differ?
What we most admired in generals? Well, it’s good tactics, and successful campaigns and no major mistakes. But the army were making major mistakes all the time. Sometimes it didn’t cost casualties but it was still – like Lae was a big major mistake. It was a laugh.


Really. And Finschhafen was almost the other way. Insufficient support and men and supplies. MacArthur wouldn’t give us the ships to move the equipment. He reckoned it was only a sideshow. But it was a major set-up, as it turned out. [UNCLEAR] before we could secure the coast. But I’m not a great tactician, this is only what I’ve read. And I don’t have any strong opinions about


generals. Only in the desert. We liked – had good generals like Wavell and Auchinleck. We didn’t like Montgomery, but he proved to be a good general in the long run. He didn’t present himself very well to the men. He tried to be what he wasn’t. He wasn’t a ‘hail fellow well met’ at all, but he tried to be. He was very strictly a tartar.
Let me ask about


your personal leadership as well. At the end of those New Guinea campaigns, having done Lae, Finschhafen, and Sattelberg, you had had a great number of losses, from your unit, and your section in particular. How heavily did those losses weigh on your mind?
Well, forever, actually. You always wonder whether you could have done better, could have avoided those casualties. But when you’ve had plenty of time to think about it, it wasn’t


so much the fault of the leaders, it was the fault of the orders, they weren’t good. The planning went very bad. And that comes out quite a lot in that book, Bravery Over Blunder. He reckons the troops were terrific, but the officers and the higher command were rotten. Mistake after mistake, and blunder after blunder. And he really rips into them. And that’s a book that will be read in Duntroon College for the next hundred years,


because it’s written very well, by an educated general. And he pulled no punches.
From your perspective, at the time in New Guinea, was it a major set back for your morale or your motivation?
What? The casualties?
They were a shocking thing, but it didn’t stop me doing the job. And as long as I was accepted by the men, I was prepared to lead them. But if they had ever complained


about me, I would have stepped down. You can throw in your stripes if you want to. But my only complaint was I was badly led, by officers. And I’m no tactician. I couldn’t sort out a battle after it’s started. I didn’t go to Duntroon or officers’ – I didn’t even learn to be a corporal, they just made me one. I was a Bren gunner. When the war finished we all got drunk on this rice wine, and my last words in the war were:


“What’s an out-of-work Bren gunner do after the war?” I never regarded myself as anything but a Bren gunner, and I was made a corporal, but I preferred to be the Bren gunner. I was a good Bren gunner.
So were you withdrawn from Sattelberg due to malaria? Was that why you were pulled out?
Yeah. I was sent to look for a deserter that was under arrest. I didn’t know him. And I was actually pulled


out in the lead, because they could see I was worn down, and they sent me two hundred yards back for a rest, down the track. They said, “You can look after this deserter.” Well, I let him go down the creek to wash his clothes and he just took off. And the sergeant major said, “You lost him, you go get him.” Well, he could only go one way, and that was down the track. The whole division is advancing up one track, or along the track. And I started off down the track. But I was picked up by an ambulance, a


Jeep ambulance. They carried stretchers on the Jeep. I was laying in the mud, on the track. And they took me into casualty clearance station and they said, “He’s had it.” And they took me to the air strip and shoved me on a plane, and I was all still covered in mud. And I came to with the altitude and it was cooling. We had no oxygen but it was cold in the plane. They’re not lined you see, they’re a parachutists’ plane.
So you had passed out, had you? Collapsed?
I was unconscious


with malaria. My temperature way over the beam. Over a hundred and four or something, a hundred and five. Passed out; delirious, that’s the word. Of course, blokes that I knew saw me at the CCS [casualty clearance station] and they couldn’t make me understand where I was or anything. But I come to on the plane. They took me out of the plane on the stretcher.


Took me into a ward and tipped me into a perfectly clean bed, all muddy boots and everything, sweaty. And a sister came along: “What’s the matter with you? Where are you wounded?” “I’m not wounded.” “What’s wrong? You got malaria?” “Yes.” “Get out of that bed, get into the showers.” That’s how they treated people. That’d make you stop feeling sorry for yourself. They shoved me in the showers.
Was that in Moresby?
In Moresby, yeah.
In the AGH [Australian General Hospital]?
In the AGH, yeah.


So they were army nurses, were they?
Army nurses, yeah, Catholics they were.
That must have been good for morale, to see some Australian girls up there?
It was terrific. In fact another mate of mine that I met in there, he had malaria, too. And he said, “I’ve been here for a week and I’m on a beauty. Put your feet up, and tidy yourself up and say to the sister, ‘Is there anything I can do for you sister?’ And you obey, and you can have cups of tea with them and they give you little light jobs to do.”


And that’s what we did while we were recovering. See they put you on treatment, and you can’t leave until you’ve done the treatment. But outside the hospital, there was an open air pictures and there was a gambling casino. All under electric lights and everything. And I’m playing dice, two-up. Just heads and tails with dice, in my pyjamas. Half the men were in their pyjamas. And I couldn’t


stop winning. And my mates come up to me and said, “Do you realise you’re better against yourself sometimes? Give me some of that money.” So he took a fistful of it and I had the other and we were into it. And I won eighty quid. Eighty pound. That was a fortune. That was more than a year’s wages in the army. And I get to the pay office, in the camp there, and put it in my paybook. And the next morning on the order board was: ‘No more than five pounds is allowed


to be put into any paybook in one day’. Because they realised it had come from gambling, you see. So I went on leave, loaded. And I had a ball, I tell you.
So you were evacuated from Moresby back to Australia?
Yes. The unit was already on the water by the time I recovered, coming home. I never saw them again until I went back. I had a month’s leave. I went AWOL for another twenty days,


I just didn’t turn up. And they’re all in camp and training by the time I got back. But, I thought, “Oh well, I was open arrest for being AWOL in Sydney.” So I went to Brisbane and I went AWOL again. And I thought, “Oh well, I’m going to lose everything, strips and all, might as well have a good time.” But I went to Melbourne, and I wasn’t supposed to go to Melbourne, but I bribed my way on a plane and went down on a VIP [Very Important Person]


plane to Melbourne, to my mate who was in the air force down there, at Werribee. And I stayed at Werribee for a week or so. And on the flight back, his wife posed as my wife, with a baby and cried on their shoulders and said, “His mother’s sick in Sydney, he’s got to get back to Sydney.” And they give me a farewell dinner, or just a muck up. And I thought, “Well, I better get closer to the ’drome [aerodrome], or I’ll miss that


plane.” So I went into town and I shacked up in one of these doss houses where the troops who are just on leave for the night stay. It was run by the Salvation Army. Provos come around, looking at you to see if you are a deserter, in the middle of the night with a torch, and all this sort of thing. Anyway, I didn’t wake up and I missed the plane, and all I had was my toothbrush with me, and I’m in Melbourne.
And you should have been in the Tablelands?
I should have been


in Sydney on my way to the Tablelands. So I went down to the station, and I can’t remember if I bought a ticket, but I’m waiting for the express to Sydney. Then the provos get on: “Show us your leave pass, soldier.” Because they saw me standing there with no gear, waiting for a train, going to Sydney. So I showed it to them. And they said, “This leave pass is for Sydney.” I said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ve got to go there.” They said, “Go away, we didn’t see you.” Because they could see I was just back from New Guinea. I had


five years, four years’ stripes on here. And four medals up, and two stripes. They knew I wasn’t a deserter. And they said, “You won’t get a seat on the train.” I said, “Who ever gets a seat?” I slept in the passageway, people standing over me. In those days you had to change at Albury, and it’s freezing cold, when we were changing trains because of the gauge difference.


Anyhow, I don’t know how long it took me to get from Melbourne to the Tablelands, but it was weeks.
And how were you received when you returned?
The first person I met was the colonel. They had all the stones painted white, and the flag up, and the guards on the gate, and who walks in the gate but me. One lonely soldier coming back to camp. And he said, “Where have you been, Ferres?” “I’ve been in hospital, sir, with malaria.” He said, “Bullshit. I know everybody that’s


been in hospital, and you haven’t been in hospital.” And I went down the line, reported back to the company, never heard another word about it. Someone tore up the papers, I don’t know who.
We’ve heard from other people that AWOL was very common from the Tablelands, due to the long periods without activity –
Yes, but that was serious AWOL. They were leaving their unit. AWOL for leave is, more or less, a disgrace if you don’t go and


stretch it a bit.
But there were quite a few fellows who were leaving Atherton?
Oh yes, going over the hill. Yes. I knew quite a few blokes that did that. They never come back, because they’d get charged with desertion. Because they had families, it was terrible for them. A whole eleven months in camp, no leave.
And what was the major activities they had you doing?
Sport. They never stopped with the sport. There was a beautiful gymnasium.


I could go on a twenty mile route march or action, out in the hills, come home, have a spa on the bank of the creek, and then have a couple of hundred yard cold swim in the river, then go to the mess, you know. I was fit as a fiddle. And I was nine stone nine and lightweight, boxing lightweight. And my mates all boxed. We used to spa a lot, but I only had one


serious fight, where we got paid for it. That was a proper fight. Examined by a doctor and weighed in and bandaged all up. And you have a seconder. And the seconder was a real tough heavyweight. I knew him well. He came from Ramsgate. Smith, ‘Gunner Smith’ he was known as. He ran the Ramsgate Lifesaver’s for years. He was in my corner. Anyhow,


I only won one round, the last round, but I had two black eyes and I lost the fight. And I said, “Well, I’ve done that, haven’t I? I won’t be doing that again.” He said, “Don’t worry, son. “ He said, “I like all my boys to lose their first fight. It stops them skiting [ boasting].” But I never fought again. I only did it for sport. And it was just a dare that I went in a serious fight. There were five thousand troops watching. It was a really big turn-out.


They were all yelling out, like they were at the stadium, “Use your right hook!” Giving me advice. Just an experience. I had blokes that were doing it all the time. They were terrific fighters. Mates.
Did you receive any more advanced jungle training during that year, as well?
Oh yes, we trained very hard up around the Tablelands. We didn’t have as much junk on there as we did in the second camp. This was the second camp. There was only


pockets of it. And we had one particular pocket – they called it ‘the pocket’ – and we did live shooting, fighting, in there. We were quite experienced jungle fighters. We were really ready when we did go. But this time we sailed from Townsville, I think, all the way up. And we went right around New Guinea, and we went past Lae and Finschhafen, and they were


all ablaze with lights, there. And we were on Liberty ship. You know those all welded ships? We used to walk around looking at the welding. Because everybody reckoned they break up, not a rivet in them. All welded together.
Did you have any idea where you were going?
Yeah, we knew we were going to Morotai. That was one of the most recent captured islands. We went there to pick up


our – again we were second float in reserve, and we were to go and land in ship tanks, and go ashore in the alligators. But, I’m not sure whether that was the first or the second landing. I was with the battalion. They made me LOB again, and put me on the HMAS Kanimbla, which the 17th Battalion were on. And I was corporal in charge of


blackouts. That is, I had to make sure all the ships portholes were closed, and I used to have to go in the nurses’ quarters – they had nurses on board, too – and close the portholes. I thought that was all right. And the whole ship; and all night I was fire picket, so I stayed up all night, checking all the – I had blokes posted all over the ship. But while we were in daytime we were free. So I used to sit in with the team


from the 17th Battalion and listen to all their talk about the battle, their orders, what they were going to do, and everything else. And I knew as much about it as the troops themselves. And they were in the first wave, barges. These ships carried half a dozen barges.
Were you aware of the other operations going on in Borneo at the same time?
No, no, I didn’t know anything about it. All we knew was we were going to attack North Borneo,


and I decided I wasn’t going to stay LOB, I was going to go in. So I went in with the 17th. And there’s an article in there, where the officer, sixty years later, has written it up. “Couldn’t remember the corporal’s name.” he said, but when he got ashore he had one extra corporal. He said, “And I asked him what he was doing. He said, ‘I’ve never missed a battle’.” I didn’t tell him I missed the


start of the second battle of El Alamein, but I said, “I’ve never missed a battle that my battalion’s been in and I’m not going to miss this one.” And he said, “Well you can stay with us until our first objective, and then you can go.” And I said, “Yeah, that’ll do me.” So, that’s what I did. But when I left him, I came down the road with my battalion and landed there as support, and they’ve advanced up the road at the high point in attack formation, and who walks down the road but me. All on my own, out of enemy territory.


And one of my mates spotted me and said, “You’re dead! Stay away from Porter.” – that was the captain – “he’s going to kill you.” So I snuck around my company, and got back to the beach head where I was supposed to have been, and I was in charge of unloading barges. And they said they knew all about it, they weren’t going to charge me, but, the sergeant said, “I’m told that your punishment duty is you’ve got to keep unloading barges until


you drop.” Well, I hadn’t had any sleep that night. I went in the landing and I worked all day on the barges, marching them down and into the barges. And I don’t know whether I got into the next night or not, but I did collapse. Go to sleep. But I saw MacArthur land the next day. He landed there.
Why were you willing to put yourself in that danger? When you were given LOB and you went in with a strange battalion –
To be given LOB was a disgrace,


as far as I was concerned. They just forced it on me.
But weren’t they keeping you out because you were experienced and a valuable troop?
Yeah, that was what they were keeping me for. For the next battle. And we were going to land in Singapore. We didn’t know that. We were going to land in Singapore harbour. They were keeping me for that one, but I didn’t know that. I said, “I’m not going to do it.” And they said, “You’re going to do it whether you like it or not.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to do it.” And I didn’t. I went with


the other mob. Anyhow, he gave me a big rap after that. He reckoned that, “I could tell he was a very experienced soldier because he picked the best platoon in our battalion to into action with.” He said, “Even our colonel couldn’t argue with that.” And that colonel finished up a general. But yeah, he gave me a rap, but I didn’t [UNCLEAR] I can’t remember his name. That book only came


out a couple of years ago, so that’s only just been written.
The landings were unopposed?
Only light opposition. The first one, nothing. The one I went to, not opposed until they got into the jungle. His first objective was a Jap headquarters, and when we got in there, there was no Japs. Plenty of stuff, but no Japs. The second day they killed a few Japs, but it was not serious


fighting. And the second landing, again they kept me LOB, but I got ashore, onto the beach head. But it was some time before I could get back into the line, and there was still no fighting, though. Not what I call fighting, anyhow. I was in the front line when the war ended. I was of the section again. There’s a photo of my section, and I took the photo. And there’s a


photo of me taking the first surrender of the Japs. Then they gave me a job Jap-bashing, but I was too tough on the Japs. The Japs complained about me. So they sacked me from that [UNCLEAR] the prison compound. And I said, “Well, in that case I resign.” I put a towel over my shoulder and went down the brigs. All these young officers tried to do something about, but the captain looked after me. The one who was going to kill me for going in on the landing. He said, “Leave him alone.” told the


officers to leave me alone. I was only waiting to go home.
Sorry, the order there is you landed in Brunei, in early June, and then you were there fighting? There was resistance within the jungle there for the next couple of months?
Not for me, because I was LOB. I was sent back to the brig [brigade] ship. After I landed with the wrong battalion.
You said you were in the front line when the war ended?


Yes, at Miri, the next landing. We did another landing further down the coast. But I was still LOB in the landing, so I just went ashore after the troops had landed. And I took over after they took the air field, that’s right. But my battalion went in in alligators. They’re landing ship tanks. They’re like a


tank but the caterpillar tracks scoop water and they can drive around and they’re armoured. But I had no experience in them. They trained in them in [UNCLEAR], but I didn’t. They just didn’t seem to want to use me. I wasn’t terribly popular with the new colonel, we’d had several go-ins.
But you were in the jungle, near the air field,


when you heard news of the atom bombs, was it?
No we were up on the final objective, the high ground, around the town. It was occupied. There was three thousand people in the town. First time I ever fought where there was civilians. What we did, we took the high ground around the town and dug in and held. And we had orders: no patrols, no attacks. And we didn’t know why, but they were waiting to drop the atomic bomb. I couldn’t understand it. That’s why I got in trouble. I put on patrols


that I shouldn’t have done. The artillery nearly fired on us once, but they reckoned – luckily they recognised our helmets, we had steel helmets on again then, and they didn’t fire.
So you were running patrols of your own accord?
I took about two patrols of my own accord, into Jap territory, and I reported back, and then got into trouble for going out.
So you were coming down out of the high ground into – was it


called Miwy?
We were miles out into the – it was open country because it was all cultivated, then the jungle began and there was mountains behind that. But we couldn’t see a Jap. They used to come in of a night. I did two visual patrols, and seeing that I was so keen, they sent me out to a village to protect the village from night attack from Japs. They reckoned they were raiding their gardens, and wrecking their gardens. And I took the patrol out


with – we sat there on the track all night, and what came in, but orangutans! It wasn’t Japs, it was orangutans raiding their gardens.
So how many men did you take on the patrols?
Oh, about seven. But –
They were unofficial patrols?
Yeah, daylight patrols.
What inspired you?
One of them was a sneaky one. I was sent to protect one artillery piece that


moved up on the high ground, to protect a long range patrol that was going out along the beach. They were going to go miles along the beach and they wouldn’t let me go with them. They said, “No, you’ve got to stay with the artillery, and mind the artillery.” So I left it with the Bren gunner and his mate, and I took a patrol into the jungle that a way. And they were going to put me under arrest, and during questioning, they said, “You’re going to be charged with desertion.” And I said, “How you can you say that? I didn’t go the wrong way, did I?


I went that way.” “How far did you go? A hundred yards? Two hundred?” “No.” “How far did you go?” I said, “Two miles and there’s no bloody Japs out there.” They dropped the charges after that balling out.
What was motivating you to risk your entire –
I don’t know. I was quite [UNCLEAR] by this time, really I was. If there was fighting, I wasn’t happy. And I only had the young blokes who had never


fought before. It wouldn’t have been very good.
Were they equally keen to get into the fight, or were you dragging them into it?
No, they were very cranky for the army too. They had been training for years until they got old enough to go to the war. They were all between 18 and 20. Even when I joined them, they said, “You might be a bloody corporal, but you can take your turn cooking same as everybody else.” Because we had scrounged good tucker.


We had live chickens, to get eggs, and fresh vegetables. We didn’t need the army tucker. We set up our own kitchen in the front line. And I couldn’t cook for nuts, but I did what I was told; I had a go at the cooking. But that’s how I fell in with them. They were young and I appreciated their cranky, and they couldn’t care less. In fact the colonel mentioned this once, and he said to a young bloke in his usual aggressive manner, “I hope you washed that fruit before you ate it.” And the young bloke


said, “Are you going to tell me how to bloody eat it next, are you?” And this is the colonel. And I nearly dropped in my tracks, but the colonel just blew his top and swore at him and walked on. But that’s what I liked. They had no discipline, yet they had the best training. They went through Canungra jungle training, all that. But the army had pounded them too much. And they hated us old soldiers: “All you old soldiers


give us the shits.” They know everything, but typical young blokes, arrogant. One got shot by the provos dead, in that town. One got shot as a gangster in Sydney, after the war. Another one killed a Chinaman . And one become a [UNCLEAR], he might have been the one that done over


the Chinaman. And one became a very respectable bank manager. And one became the superintendent of police. Two of the old hands I had with me, had been out wounded and came back, both died of TB [tuberculosis]


very soon after the war.
What happened to the gentleman who was shot by the provos?
I wasn’t with him when it happened. He was in town, drunk, and he had a knife, the provos said, and they couldn’t disarm him, so they shot him. And that caused a real furore because the brigadier was no fool. He pulled all the provos out, off the beach heads and put them to sea. He thought the army


would go out and murder them all, and he was pretty right. Because I put on a raid for the provos, and there weren’t any. We found one policeman, who was a battalion policeman; because he was one of us, we didn’t worry about him. We didn’t find any provos, but we would have done them over if we found them.
You initiated a raid to –
To revenge a bloke being shot dead, yeah. But there wasn’t anything


went into print. I was never charged for anything. They knew what I was up to, but I was never spoken to about it. But by that time I was –
Who did you get together to do the raid? Just gentlemen from your section?
Just blokes from my section, yeah. But there were two old hands, actually, they were the real tough nuts.
And you were aiming to kill – ?
No, just beat them up.


We didn’t go harm, but we were going to revenge the killing. He was buried in Miri, and he’s in there as ‘accidentally killed’. That’s why I don’t want it printed. I don’t know where his family is or anything. They probably never knew that he was killed by the provos. Very few people did, it was kept quiet.
So people could get booze in Miri and Borneo at that time?
Oh yes, very rough stuff. Rice wine.


And was there a great deal of tension given the lack of fighting focus? Or the lack of fight?
I don’t think the new hands were worried about it. They didn’t mind not fighting. But the old hands didn’t like it. We didn’t like Japs sitting there looking at us. Even though we couldn’t see them. They were miles away. We couldn’t understand why they stopped all of it,


that’s all. And when they did stop it, I said, “Well, I’m out of work now. I’m going home.” I was already coming home. I resigned from the army, under request, due to long service. They called us ‘three and two’ men. If you’d been in five years, and you’d been overseas three years, out of those five years, you could accept discharge if you wished. I was discharged for long service. I was never demobilised. But I was one of the last to come home


because you come home on priority. Married men went first, with kids, then no kids, and then older blokes, and then down the line until the younger blokes were last. The four of us young blokes were the last to leave the unit. The originals of the unit were the last four. By that time our colonel was gone –
We’re right on the end of this tape.
Interviewee: Herbert Ferres Archive ID 0484 Tape 08


I just wanted to pick up the story. Could you tell me where you were and when you heard of the atom bombs being dropped?
We were in the front line, on the high ground, overlooking the town of Miri, in Sarawak. That is in North Borneo, it’s a separate state to Brunei.


They decided on a date to actually celebrate it, that the war was over. It wasn’t just on the phone call, it was to say, ‘right, today we’re going to celebrate the end of the war’. So everybody can fire. So the artillery fired, and we fired all our guns, and fired our tracers and beeris [?UNCLEAR]. But unfortunately it killed one poor Chinaman in a heart attack, all this terrific celebration fire. That was a


story, I never saw that. It was then that we thought, “Well, what do we do now?” But nobody told the Japs. They still wouldn’t move to surrender. The air force dropped leaflets on them, telling them the war was over. And somehow or another, they got the Japs to get in contact with Malaya, and they wouldn’t do anything until their general in Malaya told them the war was over.


That’s the story we were told. So we had to stay in the front lines until the Japs surrendered. But the way they had to surrender was, first of all, send in war criminals. They didn’t know they were going to be charged as war criminals, but they were named by the people in the town. And they sent in the war criminals first, and they were officers, and they surrendered. Then they set up a courier service where the Japs exchanged dispatches with our headquarters. But my section


stayed on the line, after the first contact. We sent out a fighting patrol to make contact first. But after we had peaceful contact with them, with everything under white flags, the army went into camp. But we stayed in the front line on this road. And we stayed there for weeks until the Japs came marching in. They all came marching in, with their arms, an open order march, they laid down their arms and we searched


them. Then we marched them into town and made them build their own prison compound. I don’t know how many of them there were.
How long did it take to build a prison compound?
Oh, weeks. There was nowhere for them to run away. They were surrounded by armed men all the time. We made them work and that’s where I got into trouble. I made them work hard. And I wouldn’t let them have a rest. If they were waiting for a truck, I’d make them stand in the sun. I wouldn’t let them smoke. I could speak Malay. I learnt Malay for three months, back


in Australia. And the Japs understood Malay. And I’d give my orders in Malay. They used to do what they were told. And their sergeant major would laugh his head off because me talking to his blokes in Malay, and they’re snapping to attention and doing what I tell them to do. “Put out that cigarette.” And the sergeant major would go “Hoo, hoo, hoo.” He thought it was a great joke. And I got sick of him one day and I walked up and I jobbed him. And then he complained about that.


You jobbed your sergeant major?
No, the Jap sergeant major. I only punched him in the stomach. I didn’t knock him out. He was a real tough looking character. And the Jap officer, I said to my blokes, “I want his sword belt for my sword.” So they wheeled him into a hut and they took the sword belt off him, and gave him a piece of string to hold his pants up, and they give me the sword belt, you see. And he complained too. I disgraced him, you know, taking his sword belt.


So what? He was only a Jap. But I used to walk into that compound, and they used to do what I told them, mainly because they understood me. And I questioned them in Malay because I found – it’s in there. Another patrol claimed it, but I found it first. I found a mass grave of prisoners of war, both British and Australian. You could tell by their badges. And they burnt the compound


down, and killed them and buried them. And I questioned the Japs about that burial. And oh, they wouldn’t say nothing, shake their heads, “No, no don’t know anything about it.” Whether they ever did find out who done it, I don’t know.
Were there problems with Australians wanting to enact revenge on the Japanese prisoners?
Well, they were very frightened about that. They were very strict about it. And I was amazed how – they were lucky they had so many [UNCLEAR]. But if they had wanted to


shoot the Japs, I would have shot the lot of them. But they didn’t want anybody to shoot them, they didn’t want anybody to harm. I don’t know where they got the ships from to send them home. They must have sent them all home before we come home. Well, they were still there when I left, but they got out soon after that.
Tell me about your decision to resign?
Oh well, they gave us the offer if we were ‘three and two’ men, we could resign from the army.


Were you back in Brunei at this stage?
Yes, I was still in Borneo at the time. I’d just had enough. I didn’t like the war, I didn’t like the way they were running it or anything else. I was ready to give it away.
But so, it was all over. You were waiting to come back to Australia?
The war had fizzled out. I didn’t know it was going to stop, when I applied. And my parents were pushing at home, too, to get me discharged.


They approached the government. But it was passed as a law. Anybody could resign, if they had done three years overseas and two years –
So you had applied for this before the atom bomb, before the Japanese surrendered, before being a guard?
But we weren’t fighting. We were in action and not fighting. And that was a bone of contention with me, “What am I doing here?” But I didn’t know they were going to drop the atomic bomb.


I thought we were going to attack Malaya. Because all our prisoners were still in Malaya, and that’s the people we worried about. We thought we were going to rescue them.
So you were amongst the very last of the originals to leave Borneo?
The very last.
Tell me about your second homecoming to Australia?
Oh well, that was – what’s the word for it?


- it was a non event. I started to be demobbed [demobilised] in Brisbane. I come from Borneo in an old land ship tank, with about three hundred other blokes. And that was a sealed ship. You know the ones


that opens up at the front and the tanks come out. It was just a steel hull; no portholes, no facilities at all. The toilet was a trough running across the deck, with salt water passed through it. And when you’re sitting on it, you’re looking up at the bridge at the captain. And there was very little freshwater: no showers – only saltwater showers – and it was stinking hot and we were living on a steel deck, in the sun.


But we didn’t mind, we’re going home. But it took weeks to get to Brisbane. We went up the Brisbane River, and as we’re going up the Brisbane River we’re shaking our fists at the wharfies [wharf labourers] because we’d heard all these bad things about the wharfies pilfering our stores, going on strike. We yelled out, “When are you going on strike you bastards!” And all that sort of thing. It was amazing how people performed when the war stopped. We had folding stretchers to sleep on, and we were told to bring them up on deck


and take them ashore with us. So we brought them all on deck and we threw them all in the Brisbane River. Three hundred stretchers, and they were all floating around in the Brisbane River. Just arrogant, and mad. It’s a funny thing. It wouldn’t happen in any other army, they would have called out an army to [put] them down. Anyhow, we were treated fair enough. We were fed and put on trains and coddled all the way back to Sydney,


where we were just given a leave pass to go home and settle down and come back to be discharged. And nothing happened. It was all a dead loss. Everyday we’d go into town looking for our mates in the pubs, while we were still in uniform. They were mostly waiting for the final discharge to come through.
What was it like to see your family?
Well, it was good to see my Mum and my brothers and that. Even my old man was pleasant,


for a change. And they tried their hardest to cheer me up. But of all things, they took me away for a holiday, which was just plain roughing it again, up the coast. We had to dig our own toilets and everything, camping out up the coast there somewhere. By this time I had brought an MG [Morris Garages]. I couldn’t drive it, I had no license. I learned to drive the hard way. Flat out.


And when I went to get my license, I went and saw a driving school. And he said, “You’ll be right. I’ll put you through today.” And I couldn’t back a car, never learnt. I could ride a motorbike, but I’d never backed a car. And I put it up on the footpath and everything, and they still gave me a license.
Did your brothers both make it safely through the war?
Yes. But one’s dead now and the other one’s very ill.


That must have been an enjoyable reunion?
Oh yeah, but we weren’t all home together for some time. They come home in dribs and drabs. My elder brother was in Moresby for two years straight. He was on the heavy guns. He was conscripted, he didn’t volunteer. He was no soldier, but he did his bit on the heavy guns. And my younger brother was dying to get into it. He wanted me to claim him into my


battalion. And I could have just got him in in time for New Guinea, but he probably wouldn’t have survived New Guinea. He was very tall, about six foot four or something. He would only have been about eighteen. There was no way I was going to take him to New Guinea. I told him, yes, I would claim him, but I never did. And he’s never forgiven me, for not claiming him.
So when you returned, you had a fair bit of pay saved up? Including that


eighty pound that you won?
No, I spent that. That was gone, two years ago. No I spent that in that leave in 1943.
You had quite a bit of deferred pay?
Not much. When you counted it up, I had; In five and a half years I earned eight hundred pounds, I think it was, with all the deferred pay and everything. No, we had –


I don’t know, I had an amount anyway. We didn’t have to go straight to work. They offered you training, straight off, you could be a bricklayer or a carpenter, nothing else. There was no other training available, when I came out. I said, “I’m no good at carpentry, and I’m certainly not a bricklayer.” So, my brother and I, he was out of the army by then, we went off and worked in a factory, sheet metal.


Metal polishers for plating, in the painting game. And we worked all Sydney as a team in that. Worked in all the plate shops, the silverware shops. We did all the polishing for the new Holden when it came out.
How did you settle back down into normal living?
Oh, very hard.
What were the biggest challenges?
I don’t know, I just couldn’t see any future. I couldn’t see what tomorrow


was going to be like. I had no ambition. I knew nothing. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was untrained for anything. And I was drinking with a bloke in the RSL, I didn’t know him from Adam, and I found out he was just as gone as I was. He said, “I come from the bush. Why don’t you go out the bush with me?” I said, “Right, where we going?” He said, “Well, there’s money in rabbit trapping.” Well, there was during the war, but there wasn’t much after.


We still had money left. When we spent it we bought a truck. We bought two rifles, umpteen rounds of ammunition. Umpteen dozens of rabbit traps and a tent, and away we went into the bush. And it was the middle of winter. We got snowed in, and we lost all our traps in the snow. And by this time, we’re pretty broke anyhow. We were used to the army feeding us, but there was [no] army to feed us. So we went to the nearest pub and said, “Where can we get a job?” It was


freezing cold and he said, “You might get a job up the mine. They’re still going. It’s sixteen miles up in the mountains, but it’s a crook track.” Anyhow we got up there, and we asked for a job. And the manager asked my mate what he did, he gave the right answer. I forget, a timber upper, or something. So I said what he said. And we kidded to be miners. I’d never been in a mine in my life. So he gives us a hut with all the other


blokes, and we were fed by a woman who cooked us horrible stew made from – mutton stew. We used to get cold mutton for breakfast, and hot mutton for tea. And a mutton sandwich for lunch. And you paid her so much. And I remember my first trip underground, the foreman nearly died. We were trundling along to the pit head, where you get the skip to go down. He said, “You’ve been in a mine before have you?”


And I said, “No.” Oh God.” he says, “never leave my side. You stay with me all this shift or you’ll get killed.” And it was really rough down there, I can tell you. It was a gold mine, so we had acetylene lamps. But they’d leave you – they’d take you down in the skip and say, “This is your level. We want to loosen all that loose rock there, and knock it off the ceiling. See you later, goodbye.” And they’d go down. And you’re all alone with your crowbar and your little lamp for four


hours to crib time, going round and hitting loose rock. And it crashes down. That sort of work.
Was that lifestyle similar to the army? Living in the huts with the men?
It was very similar to the living style, yeah. But the work was too heavy. It was shockingly heavy work. I couldn’t hold a jack wrench. It used to throw me.
What was your physical fitness like at the end of the war?
Pretty good. Oh yeah.


You hadn’t suffered too badly from the after effects of malaria?
No, I did get it bad, though, after the war, in civvy street. But it doesn’t attack you all the time. No I was physically fit. I think it was a good idea, and I didn’t know it at the time, to go out and rough it because I found I didn’t like the country. The work was too hard and too lonely. And I come back home with my head between my knees.


But once I met my brothers, I was right. We went out to work. We just took the hardest, best-paying job we could find, and we stayed in that game for about seven years. But I got sick, and developed lung trouble and I had to give it up. It was the best thing that happened to me because I got into the PMG [Post Master General’s] as a trainee technician. And I went to tech. [technical school] until I was forty years old. I did everything. Any course that


was on, I took it. When I went to the PMG, that’s the Post Master General, like Telstra, they were very good to me. They took in all the lost souls, there were a few of us there, and they asked us what we wanted to do. I said, “I want to go tech. Whatever’s going, I’ll go.” And I went to tech. for two years. That’s all I did. Go to work, go to tech., come home. And I became a technician in the telegraphs, and


I stayed with that for four years. And luckily I got into a workshop job. We were overhauling teleprinters, and we had all machinery there, so I learnt fitting and turning, and all that sort of thing. And then for some reason or other, they made the job tougher.


I forget what the reason was, but Qantas wanted electrical men for their new Super Connies [Constellations], at the time, this was in the ’50s. And I volunteered to go to Qantas, it was all day, it was an extra five quid a week or something. And they called you a ground engineer when you went to Qantas, that was your title. So I went to Qantas, and I worked on the Super Connies,


I was ground engineer for five years, building engines. Three thousand watt powered twin wasp with a super constellation. But then the jets started to come in, and I said, “I’m not going to work on blow torches.” I was a piston man, you know? So I left. And I left at a very bad time, there was a bit of a recession on, there was no particular jobs available anywhere. In Ramsgate, there was a factory building


jukeboxes, for AMI, from America, here in Sydney. And I walked in there as a technician, I switched back to technician, and I was their chief troubleshooter on the electronics in the jukeboxes. The mechanisms were nothing to me [UNCLEAR] and electrical, and I did that for quite a few years. But it started to go bad, it looked like it wasn’t going to last. There was no permanency in it, but it was a very comfortable job. It was close to


home and everything. So I put in for a job in the railways, in the signals section, as a technician, and went straight to the railways. I forget how many years I spent there. But again I left and went to work for AWI, again as a technician. Worked for them. And I did an army run on teleprinters there for the army, and when that was finished, I went back to the railways. And it’s unheard of, if you


leave the railway and go back to the railway. It’s really a closed shop, the railway. But anyhow I went back, they took me back again. And I thought I’ve done [the] wrong thing, this pay is no good. So I put in for a government job, it was just advertised in the [Sydney Morning] Herald. And I didn’t really know what it was, but I knew it was to do with aircraft. So I played on being an engineer with Qantas. I had the interview, and I don’t think they knew what to do with me because they never had anybody that was in the army. They had


all air force blokes working for them. This was as an aircraft inspector. Anyhow, they gave me the job and I stayed with them for eighteen years. And I became a grade two technical officer and I was given the equivalent of certificate engineer status. And I was in direct contact with headquarters Melbourne and all the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] stations. If I worked a RAAF station, I stayed in the officers’ mess, and all that sort of thing.


But then they brought in – and I worked on the Mirage for fifteen years. On the Mirage jet. I was inspector on the [UNCLEAR] that flies the aircraft. Like the pilot says, I want full revs. His computer says, you can’t have full revs, you’re too low, and all this sort of thing. But it did it all hydraulically, with temperatures and pressures and vacuums, not with electronics.


So they brought out the new aircraft, the F-18, and I couldn’t handle it. By that time I was sitting in the chair as senior inspector, in the big workshops at Rosebery: Lucas Aerospace. Anyhow, it was driving me mad. I was really having panic attacks and everything, going to work. I couldn’t understand computers. And I


still can’t. Everything that was coming in was computerised. All the test equipment. And it was just so; I was just lost. Anyhow I didn’t realise, but they’d already planned to get rid of me. They signed up an officer from the air force, and he resigned from the air force, and they gave him my job, and sent him to Marrickville for training. And I held the job for another three months, then he came back, thanked me very much, and I resigned. And I was only just


turned sixty, but I’d had enough. I overdone it, I never had the training on the maths for that sort of job. And you try and do a job that’s too hard for you, without making a mistake; it’s very difficult. It’s highly technical. And the Yanks were glad to see me go because I didn’t have a diploma. They like to see blokes with diplomas.
Let me ask you then how you feel that your army


war-time experience either assisted or was a hindrance to your employment in the post-war period.
It was assistance. It was well recognised, when you went for a job and showed your army credentials. And I got some very good references from ex-army blokes, like that sergeant who ended up a minister in parliament. I used that one


to get into this government job, and I picked up references at all the other places I worked, too. Even from the factories, but I had no education to show them. You ought to see my application for that government job. All that I had was just one year at high school, and that was it.
What about on a personal level though. Did the things you learned in the army helped you in the way you approached


jobs and future opportunities?
I always got along with everybody, very well. I didn’t have any problems with people at all. Not even the workers, I could handle a lot of workers. There were three hundred workers in that factory, and I had to stamp everything that I considered [UNCLEAR] a standard. Nothing left the factory unless I okayed it.


But you had to know when to delegate and when not to delegate. In those days, everything fell on the inspector. But it’s not so much now they delegate but the whole lot to the company. Let their own inspectors do it. That’s why I don’t like flying anymore. But I was involved in a lot of serious things. Like fatal air crashes with the fighters and that. But when that happened, they used to – everything would shut down on


that aircraft. Every bit of paperwork would be compounded and gave to Victoria Barracks. And they’d verify whose inspector’s stamp went on it, all that sort of thing. But I was never pulled out for ever being responsible for anything. It was always one of those things. Pilot error, or a failure of a component.
Do you feel that your time in the army


and your experience of the war, changed you?
In what ways?
Well, the only full benefit I got was I always had confidence in myself. No matter what I tried I felt I would do it. Even though I knew nothing about it, I reckoned I could learn it. I decided to become a radio mechanic, and I did ten years of tech., two nights a week, for ten years, and I passed and I got the certificate for that. And I was forty years old.


And I had to learn maths. Maths that I had never done before. I learned the slide rule then, they used a slide in the aircraft. We didn’t have computers. We had slide rules and logs.
Was that a confidence you lacked before joining the army?
Lack of education?
No confidence.
No confidence in myself, no. I didn’t think I was going anywhere.


Because I was very, very, well, almost illiterate. And some people call it [UNCLEAR]. But I could write a letter, but I couldn’t spell.
Did any of the trauma from the battle situations you were in accumulate and ever catch up with you in the post-war period?
I think they did, yeah. Because I thought it was the jobs that was


causing my panic attacks, but I still have them. I’ve been in hospital from having panic attacks from where I’ve dropped in the street. They’re not so bad now, I’ve more or less got control. But I think that’s what it left me with.
Just wore away at your nerves, you mean?
I think as I got older, it got worse. But I didn’t know what caused it. I thought it was the jobs, too hard for me. But I think whatever it was, I’d


had enough work. I’ve really enjoyed my retirement I can tell you. It’s been an easy life since I left.
So do you feel that if the army or the government had had something in place like they do now for counselling – ?
They should have been able to test my ability to learn. I had a high ability to learn, but I was a hands-on man, I couldn’t just read blind


theory. I had to be taught. But I could learn. And I had to do it myself. I mean, I went to tech. They didn’t teach me math, I got a young bloke who was going to university next door to help me with the math and teach me math. Otherwise I didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t that serious, it was just to get the trade qualifications. But my own mates in the army never


thought I was anything else but a partly illiterate bloke. Even to this day. Even the bloke that signed that recommendation, he wanted to know how the hell I got that job in the Department of Defence. Because he heard from the Queensland Government, that Bert Ferres told them – and the bloke in Queensland Government was one of our sergeants, too. He was a minister up there. And of course he


talked to this bloke who was minister down here. He said, “I spoke to Bertie Ferres, and he reckons we are going to get those F1-11s when they finish fixing the windboxes. And he’s well up in the RAAF, you know.” And this sergeant got in touch with me: “How did you get that job?” he said. Because he knew I was uneducated. But this was forty years later, I suppose, whatever the years were.


I mean it took me, what, twenty-five years to get into that job.
Bert were you ever able to discuss your experiences of the war with your family when you came back, or your friends?
Only my son. I’ve talked to him about it. Not all at once, he cops all the little incidents over and over again. The funny ones, anyhow.
But in the immediate period when you came back, was it difficult to talk to friends or family about what you had been through?
Oh yes.


There was a lot of silence, really. I tried to talk to them, but we just didn’t get on. My Mother loved me to pieces, but I was miserable. But once I started to work and that, when I met Lottie, that made all the difference. And luckily, I met her very early.
Can you tell me about that?
Yes. By this time we were just wild [UNCLEAR] on motorbike. I’d do eighty mile an hour everywhere.


And that was fast as the bike would go. If I was going into the shops, I would do eighty mile an hour. Just mad we were. And we formed a gang down in Brighton, but they were nearly all ex-servicemen, but the police hated us. They’d break us up every time we pulled together, they’d come and break us up. So we annoyed them, too. We’d go and make a hell of a row along the Princess Highway. The whole pack of us would ride flat out from Kogarah to Rockdale, and then we’d pull up. And you’d hear the


sirens and the police would all turn out, and they’d come racing out to Rockdale. And we were all parked in the gutter. And they’d feel our engines. “It was you so and sos, wasn’t it?” “Not us, officer.”
What did you call yourselves? Did you have a name for the group?
No. We weren’t that type. We were just mad speedsters. Then I took up motorcycle racing. But my brother and I,


and another chap, were prowling on our bikes down at Brighton. It must have been a weekend; a Friday night or Saturday night. And there were three girls walking down the street. My brother and my mate went off to speak to them, and then my brother came back and said, “Come on, there’s three of them.” I married Lottie, my brother married the other one and the other bloke proposed and was knocked back. We just kept going out together and it finished up we all got married.


And we had a wonderful life. But I really settled down, like that, because I immediately got rid of my flash motorbike and got an old beezer to go to work in. And I bought a block of land. I took out life insurance and borrowed enough to get a house built. It took a whole year to get my house built. And I didn’t use my army loan, I borrowed against the life insurance. And that was enough


to build the house. And we built the house at Caringbah and had two children there. And I joined the army again, in 1951. I joined Parramatta Lancers. But I did it for my brother. His wife died, of polio, and that left him with two kids and he had a real breakdown. He didn’t know what to do with himself, but was living with his mother-in-law in Parramatta.


And I said, “We’ll join the army.” And I rode my – I had a little two stroke by then, and I’d ride it all the way to Parramatta every Thursday night to go to army with him, and then rode all the way back home again and went to work the next. day. I did that for a year, or six months.
Did that give him back a focus, or confidence?
Yeah, it did. We both resigned because we were disgusted with the peacetime army, and we told them so. We said, “Wait until the nashos [national servicemen]


get here. They’ll make a fool of you blokes.” And they would, too. Because the NCOs, all they did was go there to go to the mess and get drunk, on Thursday night, and left us to just troop around on our own.
So there was a lack of focus to what you were doing with the – it was the CMF [Citizens Military Force] at that stage, wasn’t it?
The CMF. They had to absorb all the nashos when they first come out. And the nashos were well trained, and


a good type. But anyhow we left that. But it did him some good. And he settled down. But he married again, and just recently his wife died, his second wife died, of cancer in the breast. So he crashed again. But it’s all okay, he’s in hospital now and they’re doing everything for him. But he had a bad trot. He didn’t follow me into the technical. He stayed in the factory game.


He did all right, he become foreman and all that. But he never had a very interesting – And my elder brother become an alcoholic. I don’t know what ruined him, whether it was the army or – but he died an alcoholic.
You said you noticed some major personal changes within yourself, as a result of war, did you notice major changes to Australian society between the beginning of the war and the end of the war?


I didn’t have any time to notice changes to society. I didn’t know anybody in civvie street. I never saw anybody, only on the two leaves I had. I just felt that I didn’t belong in Australian society after the war. I just thought I was just a complete misfit. I had to find my own way. And I found that I could only trust ex-servicemen as a friend, that’s what I found. But I did have teenage friends, which I kept.


Before. We still stayed very good friends. But I never made many new friends. Played in a lot of clubs and that, sports and hobbies. But once I left the hobby I would never see them again. I had no meaning with them, other than the hobby.
Your love and appreciation of guns continued?


Yes. I had lots of guns. I collected guns. I collected Winchesters until I couldn’t afford them, and had to sell them off. If I found one I had to have it. But I was a true collector. I collected one make: Winchesters. I had them going right back into the 1800s, right up until they ceased to make them. And I’ve still got the full history of the Winchester, up on the shelf there; the Winchester company. And I’ve got the number of every gun that


ever come to Australia, every serial number. I went into [it] thoroughly. I got into it. I become a connoisseur of rifles because I started off with the .303, I brought for twenty five pounds or something. And finished up shooting one thousand five hundred dollar rifles, with stainless steel barrels. High faluting rifles. And I went from the small bore they used to – I shot Olympic-style shooting with Olympic rifles,


which cost a lot of money to [UNCLEAR] small bore rifles. Sold them all and put the money in the bank, and went into other hobbies. But this club died out. I was building steam locomotives when I was still shooting, and I couldn’t do both hobbies so I gave up the shooting because it looked like we were going to lose the range, but they never did lose it.


Now Bert, you had a very long war, went through a lot of different campaigns. What was the best of times for you during the war?
Well, I preferred to be in action. It was all right to have a rest, it was all right to go on leave, but that wasn’t the life. You couldn’t lead it all the time, it would become boring. It’s a very dull life, the army life. There’s no


brains floating around anywhere. I mean, the officers had all the brains, and the men were just amusing themselves. That’s all we could do. They never encouraged you to learn anything. Or read anything. It was just physical. Physical action like sport and stuff like that.
What were the worst of times?
I think, the


long, long camps and no leave, no social life, no city life.
And what do you think were the most important lessons you learned from your war-time experience?
There was a lot of men who were better men than I was. I met men that should never have been there. They should have been put out to breed. They were men of – you wouldn’t meet today.


Some of them lived, but most of them died. They died because they were doing something for somebody else, and they looked after me a treat. I wouldn’t have lasted twelve months without them. I could name them all. I marked them all off on the death list. All the great men. They should have been home having families. Some of them had families


when they went. But you have no idea how great a great Australian is. And I was just a skinny kid, you know, doing nothing. I wouldn’t have lived without them.
And you carried the lessons they taught you with you into your life afterwards?
Well, I could never emulate them. I just learnt from them. I learnt how to be wise, instead of foolish. But the way they taught us


was they just dropped a word here and a word there. They didn’t harp on it. But they were always ten to fifteen years older than us. But even my own colonel said to me, after the war; we were both drunk at the time, had a few beers, and we were talking about quality control in the factories and he was the manager, the general


manager of the refrigerator company, the big one. And he found out that I knew something about quality control. And he said, “You know, Ferres, I never thought you had any brains, in the army.” And I said, “Did you have any brains when you were eighteen?” He said, “Oh, you’ve got a point there.” I mean, he could give me twenty-five years. But he didn’t, he thought I was brainless,


probably because I was reckless, I suppose, I don’t know. But I did things that were way out of line, but he let me do them, because there was an innovation and something might come of it. The things I did were, I demonstrated flame throwers, I demonstrated booby traps, I demonstrated things I’d invented myself that you could use in the jungle, like firing a


muzzle practice charges with a live grenade from the hip, which was unheard of –


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