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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –