Ronald Williamson
Archive number: 57
Preferred name: Ron
Date interviewed: 06 May, 2003

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Ronald Williamson 0057


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Tape 01


Ron, where were you born?
I was born in Surry Hills, Melbourne suburb in 1918, the 4th of December.
So not long after the finish of World War I in fact?
Well that’s right, yes, yes I was a post-war baby.
What were your parents’ names?
My father was Leslie


Thomas and my mother was Florence Ellen.
And what did they do for a living?
Well, my father at that stage, was a coach builder. He had served an apprenticeship of sulky making and things like that and of course the motor car had come into vogue and he was a coach builder at that stage.
So did he move from coaches to motor cars?


Well when I say a coach builder, coach builder was a description of a man who made motor bodies so I suppose it was a development of the old coach, horse carriage and then graduated to the motor bodies that were made in Australia in most cases and very high grade ones and then he


got into the motor trade as a result of that. He must have had a feeling for commercialism and he was offered an opportunity to buy into a motor distributorship in Hobart, Tasmania, so as quite a young child, I with my sister and mother, we moved over to


Hobart and lived there for a number of years.
So how many siblings did you have altogether, Ron?
Well, I have three sisters but sadly the third sister was a difficult birth and at my age of 7 years 3 months when this sister was being born my mother had a bad time


and she contracted pneumonia and died and it was quite a sad time. My father was left with three little kids and a brand new baby and it wasn’t easy for him. It was a terrible experience.
A terrible blow, the loss of a mother.
Yes, it was.


But I was so young. I had a sister who was two years older than me and she realised it far more than I did. We were very lucky. My father got on with the difficult birth coming up we moved back to Australia and she was treated here. I can’t give you the details


of it all because I don’t know but, however, we were living back in Melbourne for just a couple of months before she went into hospital.
So your mother did give birth in a hospital?
Yes. At Guildford a private hospital in Canterbury Road, Camberwell. Just behind St Mark’s Church.
But in those days there wasn’t very much they could do?
About pneumonia, no.


And that was sad but my father was able to get hold of a very good housekeeper. Delightful lady. She was an older person but we loved her. She was wonderful. She seemed to be something sent from heaven for us and we had a quite a good rehabilitation


with her and through her. The hospital looked after this new baby. The matron - private hospitals were different in those days and the matron looked after the baby until she was about 10 months old and then two maiden aunts wanted to look after her and raised her right through life and so we had an unusual


sort of a family makeup.
It sounds as though this housekeeper was a great comfort?
Well she was and she stayed with us for quite a while and then after a few years my father found somebody and decided that he would remarry and I don’t, whether the housekeeper didn’t approve of this person or what it was but


she thought it was best that she should leave us and it nearly broke our hearts to lose her. I’ve got a photograph in my den that I still love and it was sad because the second marriage wasn’t something we enjoyed and happened so often I suppose. We were a lot happier


with the housekeeper in that environment.
What was her name, Ron?
The housekeeper? Well we called her Miss Rooney. I can’t give you her full name but she was a maiden lady but an older lady and a lovely lady.
Sounds as though you went through the loss of a mother twice more or less?
Yes and of course I was older and more sensitive


to that and there it was a feeling of love and affection for this housekeeper and a feeling of almost fear for the new carer. A good woman, I suppose, Christian lady if you could call it that but very severe and had no softness in the personality and


the contrast was so great and that feeling never changed through her life and she lived to 90.
How old were you when your father remarried?
I was 10 then. 10½.
And had you moved back to Tasmania by then?
No, no. My father sold the business and he then started


with a motor car company, a big American company that is no longer in business today. They were called the REO Company. They had motor cars called the “Flying Cloud” and they had REO Speedwagon and such things which were very popular in those days and he came as a representative there and he was doing a lot of country work so


we had Miss Rooney looking after us 24 hours a day more or less while he was doing this job and then he came back to Melbourne for a while and joined General Motors and he was a fieldsman for General Motors. Yes, we had motor cars since we were very young.


Because motor cars were something of a novelty still?
Yes, that’s right. There weren’t many around and of course my father was always in a new motor car and the latest model and I was the envy of all the other kids when they used to see my father drop me off somewhere or arrive home with a lovely new motor car.
So you got to ride around in these new cars?
Oh yes, and he was a great one. As soon as I was old enough


he used to let me lean over and steer it so I could steer a motor car and some of these shorter country runs I’d go with him and on the straight road he’d let me lean over and steer the car in front of him and I used to think I was Christmas. It was terrific.
A little boy’s dream, isn’t it?
Oh yes. He was very broad minded that way


and at about the age of, I suppose I was 13, he’d got me to a stage where he used to put the car inside the drive and he’d let me drive it up into the garage so I cut my teeth very early on motor cars and things. Hence my lead into transport in the Army. I think it was just a love of vehicles


and things like that.
Just going back a little bit. I know you were a very small boy and you might not know the answer to this. I’m curious how they fed your baby sister? Did you know whether they used a wet nurse or…?
How they?
How they fed her. Your baby sister. They didn’t have powdered milk then did they or did they?
I couldn’t answer that, really I couldn’t tell you. I wouldn’t have a clue


but she survived pretty well. I was only speaking with her on the telephone yesterday at lunchtime. She lives in Mildura. Married what they call a “blocky” up there. He had an irrigated block for growing grapes and dried fruit eventually and things like that. They are now retired in the town. One of the aunts that raised her was


a retailer and worked with an old company known as “Dymmies” in those days in Melbourne and then she bought a lingerie business in Mildura and established that and did very well out of it.
So, while you were still in Tasmania, had you already started school?
Yes. I started school there


and it was a lovely old school called “Friends”. It was a Quaker School. It was a boarding school, a day school and they were the kindest people. They were lovely but for some unknown reason I hated the thought of going to school and my mother would get me ready and


we’d be about to head off and I’d run away and hide. We had a big home and a big garden and she couldn’t get me to school. It was great trouble. In the end she’d ring my father and he’d have to send a car out with a driver and they’d get hold of me and drive me to school. Once I got to school I was all right but it was this getting to school and


I had a fear of the teachers or something. I must have been a shy kid and they were lovely ladies in this kindergarten. Anyhow my father was a wonderful father and he talked with the headmaster and the headmaster must have suggested that he invite the two teachers to dinner one night at our home and they


came and of course they made a fuss of me and it was in a different environment and we had a different feeling altogether about school after that. It was one of those stupid things that kids do.
Now were your parents Quakers?
No. It was a college, like a small Melbourne grammar or Wesley but just it was run by Quakers and


they are very kind gentle people. They are lovely. The headmaster, it was a family sort of a thing and it’s still there today in Hobart with a wonderful reputation, I believe.
Yes, I was wondering about that because this is not very long after World War One, this is like in the mid-


twenties by the time you were at school and the Quakers are quite committed pacifists.
Right. I mean there was no - we were so young at that age – but there was no feeling of that. It was just kindness. It was an old, I mean it was a very old established school long before the war, I would say by the look of the architecture.


Actually after the war I took my wife back for our first peacetime holiday before I started work again and we went to – I showed her the house we lived in and then I said now we’re going to walk to school. We walked around the streets. I found my way to school without any trouble.


This was so much later and there was the school there. We went in and had a chat with various people and it was quite interesting.
Sounds wonderful. So when you came to Melbourne, where did you go to school?
Well we had a few moves. We started school and then we


were in Camberwell and I went to a state school in Camberwell but then with the thought of my mother’s death and what have you , for some unknown reason, we decided we’d change areas and we went over to South Camberwell. We were renting houses at that stage. My father had


lost a lot of money selling the business and there was no money to go to private schools so we then changed to the South Camberwell School. Then we were there for a few years and he decided to get married and we then went to


a boarding house, a private boarding house in Canterbury Road, Canterbury. Just up from the hospital where my mother died because my father wanted to take my mother with him. He was doing country work for General Motors and we lived in this small private boarding house at 42 Canterbury


Road. Lovely old home and there was another family there as well. Actually it was Sir Francis Bertle, the Australian explorer’s two children. He was out exploring and the children were put there and two ladies were running this boarding house and so we had to change school again and we went to the East Camberwell


School that had just opened and that was half state school to the sixth . grade and the other part was what they called the Domestic Science School for older girls and we went there for a few years. I suppose it was two years and them my stepmother must have thought it was time to settle


down into a home which we did at Canterbury and that meant another change of school so we went to the Canterbury School, so we chopped and changed quite a lot.
And was that a bit difficult for you?
Well, yes it was a bit. I’ll never forget when we came over from Tasmania. The initial form of writing was in print


and when I came to sit in the class at the Camberwell School, everybody else was writing in normal writing script and I couldn’t write and I had to copy this and I didn’t know what to do. I can remember a couple of the kids – strange new boy – into the room called out to the teacher


“He can’t write!” and I couldn’t write. There was no specialised tuition and I just had to battle through and learn to write and in those days we had slates where you had a slate pencil and damp rag and you’d rub it off. Then you got into


exercise books with two fine blue lines and two outer red lines and you had to write between the two lines for the small letters and the larger letters you could go up and that was the thing. I just had to battle away and learn to write myself and today I suppose they’d have specialised tuition. I think in those days the class size was about forty students.


There were changes and some subjects you were a bit advanced on the other kids and in others you were possibly a bit behind.
So, what were your subjects that you were good at then?
What was I good at? Maths, wasn’t too bad on maths as long as it didn’t get too hard. Algebra I was hopeless. Elementary algebra was all right.


I loved geography and I loved history. English so-so, French very ordinary. That was about it.
Now what about high school? Where did you do your secondary education?
Well here again, after I left the Canterbury School I went to an advanced


elementary school called Mont Albert Central. You had to have a reasonably good report book before they’d accept you and I did quite well there and enjoyed it and the Depression came on and it was a very serious Depression. It affected many families and ours


in particular although my father was never unemployed but things were pretty tough because they were working on retainers and commission and things like this. I enlisted, or enrolled rather for the Box Hill High School and during the school vacation my father said, “Ron I’ve been thinking about it and I think that it’s going


to be very difficult to get a job and I think perhaps if we try during the school vacation to get a job if you can and then we’ll see what’s what because you can study at night and finish your education at night.” So my father was the main man and he knew everything. We worshiped him. He was a lovely


man. So we went and he looked up the paper and there was a job advertised and you had to apply at 10 o’clock. So he said “Right, we’ll get there early” and we got there at 8 o’clock and I was the second boy there. By the time 10 o’clock came there were 100 lads waiting to be interviewed for this job.


They asked for the first four boys to come upstairs and be interviewed and luckily I got the first job I ever applied for. So then he thought “Well that might be a good omen and we’ll give it a go. You won’t go back to school and we’ll let you settle in and then we’ll start studies for you.”


Were you excited to have your first job?
Yes, I was a bit but it was hard work. It was in the Dental Depot. In the TNT Building a company called Bosch Naylor and my job was to take supplies to dentists. The dentists in those days there were so many in Collins Street but they were also around the suburbs and you’d


run to the dentists in Collins Street practically and then if you went to a suburban dentist you’d go by tram or bus or whatever it was. I know I used to love to go to the dentists at Coburg because I could get on a cable tram in Elizabeth Street and ride in the sunshine and get off – I think the cable tram terminus was at Moreland Road and you’d walk the rest


of the distance to the dentists at Coburg. I used to enjoy that. I did that for a while and then my father realised that I was racing around and working very hard 5½ days a week and he wondered about the future of the place so he went in and interviewed the manager of the place and wondered about the future. You know


it was only a small company and the other reason he went in, the person above me had reached 18 or 19 and he needed higher pay so he was told to leave and they were Depression conditions.
What was your pay?
My pay at that place was 15 shillings a week and that wasn’t a bad pay I suppose for the time and


anyhow they agreed I could look for another job while I was still working which was very good of them. My father had had a candid talk with them. So I looked around for a while and had one or two interviews and I didn’t get the first job I applied for this time but they used to advertise


in the daily papers “Apply for this job to a number care of the newspaper office” because there were so many kids applying for jobs - young fellows that they didn’t want everybody hanging around their establishments. So we wrote to say, one, two, three care of the Argus office or the Age office and I got a letter


from a company by the name of Brash’s would I go for an interview and that company employed me, and I finished up before I retired as managing director so it was a good move and I studied right up to until time I enlisted and I got my


Diploma of Maths and English.
So you were studying at night were you?
Studying at night with Stott’s Business College, by correspondence, yes.
You must have been very self-disciplined to do that?
Again with the encouragement of my wonderful father. He was a remarkable man. He was just a lovely guy.


Even during the war which you may want to know, he wrote to me every week without fail. Lovely letters. Encouragement. He was great. Yes.
Had your father been to World War I?
No, sadly he hadn’t. He was a country boy and he served his apprenticeship in Ballarat but he had a


sport of bike racing and he raced as an amateur and there was a lot of jealousy
What’s bike racing. Tell me what bike racing is?
Push bike racing. Road racing and he was pretty good I believe and there was a bit of jealousy in this because he was an amateur and the pros were out for the prize


money and he came down, somehow he came down and had a nasty fall and broke his leg. When he was in bed with this broken leg he unfortunately got infantile paralysis which is now poliomyelitis and


of course that left him with a bad leg and sadly he wasn’t good enough. He tried to even go as an ambulance driver because he was incapacitated. His leg was a bit floppy. It was sad. He would have liked to have gone but physically they wouldn’t have him. He was strong in body but just this one bad right leg so no he didn’t go to World War I.


I mean he was quite lucky to have survived. A lot of people didn’t survive polio back then did they?
Well, yes he was lucky and my stepmother had a son with him. You wouldn’t read about it and while I was away at the war he got polio as well and he survived but he didn’t develop terribly well in the chest and


areas like that. Actually, my sister nursed him. He was a Wesley College boy and he was at a military cadet camp at Watsonia and they sent him home because he had a high fever and when he got home my sister more or less guessed what he might be in for and nursed him


right from the start and then my father got one of the finest specialists and kept him at home and nursed him right through. He didn’t have to go on a lung or anything so he may not have been quite as bad as that. But it’s strange in the one family, two cases of polio.
Bad luck isn’t it.


So your father wasn’t able to go to World War IOne. Were there other family members who’d gone? Any of your mother’s family?
No, my mother had sisters and my father had two brothers, one was too young to go to the war and the other was a farmer and they didn’t go to war.
Because I’m just wondering as you


were growing up, what awareness of World War I you had. What you knew about World War I?
Well, I used to love Anzac Day at school. Of a morning on a Monday we would stand and salute the flag and take the pledge of honouring the flag, country, etc.
What was the pledge, can you tell me?


Oh, I (laughs). Cheerfully obey the honour and the law. Oh, I’ve forgotten it. I honour the flag, I honour the Queen, I cheerfully obey
My parents, teachers and the law.
Teachers and the law. That’s right. Of course.
That’s the same one I did at primary school.
Is that right? Yes, Yes.


Goodness that’s a long time ago. I used to love, the returned soldiers would come and talk to us in the classroom and I would love to hear the stories and that interested me and we used to get quite a lot of history of the battles in the time we had World War I history


and I was quite interested in that.
What would they talk about, Ron? What would they talk to you about when the soldiers came to your classrooms? What would they tell you?
Mainly condemning of the enemy. What the enemy did and what we had to do to stop it. That was the part that I liked but


they told us of the tough conditions and I don’t know that I had anybody talk to me about Gallipoli but certainly a lot came and spoke about France and told us of the tough time in the trenches and how the French people were so good to them and things like that. But it was all


the nasty Germans and what they did. The Zeppelins coming over England. Things such as that.
It sounds as though you admired these men?
Oh I did. Yes, yes I did. I thought they were wonderful.
Did you have a sense from them of their suffering during the war?
Well yes


It’s strange when you’re asked these questions to think back. We used to always feel dreadfully sorry if we saw a returned soldier on crutches or with a wooden leg. That was our a main memories and yet there were a lot of sufferers from gas attacks and that didn’t seem to


come through to us because it wasn’t visible but a fellow that had lost a limb was something that we felt very sad about, yes.
And were there a lot of amputees around?
I wouldn’t say a lot but there were enough to be noticeable. There was a sprinkling of them and I suppose they stood out. I can remember watching a march


and they were marching on crutches some of them and they’re the things that stick in your mind.
Did you ever attend the Anzac Day parade?
I attended a couple yes. I was taken to a couple.
By your father?
No, I think a couple of aunts took me, yes.


I think I only attended two at the most but it was certainly of course we didn’t have television but it dominated the papers.
Now it sounds as though as a young man you were working very hard. You were working a full


time job and you were studying at night. Did you have any time to have fun?
Yes of a weekend. We’d work Friday night but I used to enjoy Saturday night and Sunday and I used to go dancing on a Saturday night and that was a regular thing.


You’d dress up in a dinner suit and the girls would wear a long frock and you’d go off to a dance in the Camberwell Town Hall or the Canterbury Memorial Hall. They were all in the local area or the Camberwell Tennis Club and they’d have a small orchestra and you’d have ballroom dancing


and old time dancing and it was pretty good.
So what were your favourite dances. What were your favourite steps?
Favourite step was the modern waltz. I used to kid myself I could do the modern waltz pretty well. I was brought up with this rather strict Christian stepmother and I was in the Boy Scouts and the Scout Master decided


we’d have a dance to raise funds for the Scout Troop and the Scouts were to be on duty and collect the tickets at the door and things like that. I wasn’t allowed to go because dances were a no-no. They might have had liquor or something at the dances so it was a no-no in the earlier days but of course when I was older I


went so I didn’t have a lot of experience in dancing but I’d met a girl and she wanted me to go dancing with her and I told her I couldn’t dance and she said “I can teach you” and well I thought to go to a dance and be a


galoot being taught amongst all these people. So I didn’t tell her but I went to the Johnny O’Lachlan School of Dance in Collins Street secretly and had a few lessons and then we went to our first dance together. I wasn’t too good for a start but she was very tolerant. She was an excellent dancer actually and the only one I really felt that I could dance


with so we started that way.
Sounds like a lot of fun.
Now Rosemary’s just going to change the tapes over, we’ve come to the end of the first tape.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 02


So you obviously really enjoyed the dancing?
Yes, I did and in the early stages I didn’t have a motor car and of course you used to go and collect the girl and then you’d walk to the dances and then walk them home again so it was a different world.
Sounds very romantic


Yes, they were good days, wonderful days.
Can you remember some of your favourite tunes?
Oh, well it was then ’37, ’38. There were a lot of melodic numbers around that we still played.


I suppose I could remember them but I’d have to think about the tunes.
Alright. Perhaps tomorrow.
But they were all melodic numbers.
Jazz? Swing?
Yes, foxtrots, swing. Swing wasn’t so much a common term in those days but foxtrot, slow foxtrot, waltz, modern waltz


and then there was the gypsy two step and all sorts of things like that and the old time dances.
Now what I like about that kind of dancing is that you get to hold each other.
That’s right oh yes and the ones you like you hold a bit closer than the others. No that’s right. It’s


funny, we used to go to other dances that were run by, say, the Masonic Lodge or something and you’d have a progressive Pride of Erin and the older people were there, as we used to think older people were then in about their 50’s or 55 and they were so serious about their dancing


and they’d grab hold of you and rip you round but it was a little bit different to our other sort of dancing. But it was good and that was the main Saturday night entertainment – to dance. Occasionally you’d go to a picture show but dancing was the thing. You used to wear patent leather shoes and a dinner suit always, yes


and then the company balls were a very popular thing. The Banker’s Ball at the Palais Picture St Kilda was a wonderful thing but they were so expensive and we only ever got to one and that was because the company had bought tickets for it and they gave the tickets to me so I was


able to take a girlfriend to the Banker’s Ball and they were really big bands, Tommy Davidson, enormous orchestra and then you’d have supper and you’d have breakfast and I can remember they played a tune “Pennies from Heaven” and they had pennies up in the roof and they would be


dropping down them from the roof when they were playing the tune. It was a stupid thing to do, it could have hurt somebody but that happened at the Banker’s Ball but there were a lot of other big companies that had their balls but the prices were beyond young fellows working at that stage.
Sounds very opulent?
Yes, and then they’d go through to the early hours of the morning and they’d give you breakfast before you went home. I mean a


corny sort of a breakfast but that was a gimmick, you’d have breakfast and then go home.
Gosh, I wish they’d do that now.
You’d save up to get a taxi home after that.
And what was a taxi? That would be a motor vehicle in the thirties?
Oh yes, and you’d possibly get home for about 5 shillings so that was quite a lot of money but that was a taxi fare home say from St Kilda


to Camberwell and that would take your partner home and then you’d have to walk home. So you’d be a bit weary the next day.
So where did you meet your girlfriends, at the dances?
Where would you meet your girlfriends? This particular one was an office girl where I worked and she was a good for me in a way.


I was a bit of retiring nervous type but she brought me out quite a lot and taught me. I owe her a lot. In my life story which I’ve started and I’m about half way through I put in a little paragraph about her because I think she deserved it. Where she is today, I wouldn’t have clue. But yes, and


yes you did meet quite a few people. I met my wife, we both went to the same Sunday School and I played cricket and football for the church teams and her brothers played cricket and football as well and they used to have little social functions.


We went on a moonlight river cruise up the Yarra to the Hawthorn Tea Gardens and I was with a couple of friends and there were three girls kneeling on the seat looking out over the river, and we said, “Well there are three girls over there. They’ll do us. We’ll go and sit beside them”. So we just went up and sat beside them and then they realised someone was sitting and they turned round


and one of them happened to be my wife. So I met her on a boat and I haven’t been able to get her on a boat since so that’s a story.
Sounds beautiful, really beautiful.
(Laughs) but we drifted apart I mean, that wasn’t a serious friendship, we drifted apart.
This earlier girlfriend you mean? This earlier


girlfriend you drifted apart from?
Oh no I mean I’d met Edna before that and we were just kids at school. She was a kid at school and I was working and studying at night and then we caught up a bit later on after the girlfriend who took me to dancing. Yes.


By this time we’re in the late thirties aren’t we? ’37, ’38?
and you were working at Brash’s?
Did you have a particular skill at Brash’s, a particular interest? Were you musically minded?
Well when I say did I have a particular skill I started with the normal junior duties and then I


developed a great interest in the piano industry. There weren’t any pianos being imported in those days. The Depression settled a lot of manufacturers. A lot of them went to the wall. There was quite an industry in Australia where GTV 9 is today was the Wertime Piano Factory and there were several others in Sydney,


also in Melbourne and I loved the history of them. I loved the construction of them. We had a big workshop that reconditioned them with French polishers and skilled cabinet makers and repairers and things and I used to love to watch them. I never worked in the area but I read a lot about them and the industry


there was a lot of competition. There were a lot of piano retailers in Melbourne at that time and it just had something that appealed to me. Alfred Brash, the son of the founder when I started, he was a World War I man and of course he wasn’t a youngster but he was when I started


I suppose he’d have been 45 or more and he was a piano man and I enjoyed it and after a while they let me have a go at selling them. Now, I couldn’t play a piano and I couldn’t read music but I found that


“Old Man Brash”, as we affectionately referred to him, couldn’t play the piano either but he had learnt to tune and the head salesman used to play “To the End of A Perfect Day”, an old ballad and that was his selling demonstration piece. So I thought “What am I going to do?” and you may be familiar with the old player piano or the


pianola with the rolls and you pump it and when the roll goes round and it plays the music the keys go down, so I picked out some rolls with some lovely sounding chords on them and I would stop the player piano at that stage by throwing back the tempo lever. I’d mark on a chart the notes that went down


and then a player piano has a transposing device that will move and change key of that particular chord or note so picking out several nice sounding rolls and marking the notes on charts, I developed a routine where I could run up and down the keyboard of a piano with some rather nice sounding chords and a


few arpeggios that I’d marked as well. It made the piano sound pretty well and I got away with it all my working life and a lot of people that would bring their children in to learn to play they’d say “Oh I hope my daughter can play like this when she’s learnt”. If they only knew, I didn’t tell them but I can remember


Channel 9 came in to buy a lovely grand piano that I wanted to sell them and two directors came in, I can’t remember their names. It was after Arthur Young had retired and Ronnie Rosenberg, the famous pianist was the musical director and head pianist and I think Norman Spencer. I’m sure he came in too.


They were looking at this piano and Ronnie Rosenberg was a great jazz boy and he was sitting down at this lovely piano and he was going “tiddle liddle lee, tiddle liddle lee” on the treble and what have you and saw these two directors look at each other and I didn’t know what they were thinking or what they were doing and I knew Ronnie pretty well and I said “Well now Ronnie,


what about I have a go?” and I put in my chord routine on it and I thought it sounded pretty well better and I told him later I said “I made it sounded a darn side better that you did” but however we sold this lovely well known grand to GTV 9 with my phoney chord routine.
Well you were very resourceful, weren’t you?
Well it got me by. Well you have to be resourceful


if you want to do things don’t you?
Indeed. So now Ron, by the late thirties, the situation in Europe was getting pretty grim. Were you aware of that?
Did you know about Hitler?
Yep. We were aware of it because we used to listen to the radio news. We


would read the newspapers and my father used to talk about it with me. We would go into town together in his car and yes, we were aware of it and we had a number of politicians that would speak on radio and warn you of it and we so much aware of it


that we were feeling that we had a duty to perform and two years before I enlisted in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force], I joined the militia forces because of that.
So you were sure that a war was coming?
Yes we were very conscious that there would be a war or we felt there might be and of course I was young. I was only about 19 I think it was


when I joined the militia forces but there I joined a transport company as well because of my love of transport and I also, I’m not chicken, but I never felt I could kill anybody and yet I wanted to support it. It was one of those things that I led men in action and what have you but when it,


I suppose if it was life or death I would but I couldn’t be a slaughterer. I’m that sort of make up so I went into a transport unit.
And you knew that about yourself?
Yes, I did. I did. Somebody had to do it. It wasn’t cowardly it was just – I could face up to any problem or danger but I suppose I -


I mean when we were in action we were prepared to defend ourselves but I didn’t look for it. That’s me.
I think that self-awareness in such a young man is quite admirable. It’s a kind of courage in itself isn’t it?
Well, I suppose it is. I mean, I admired the fellows that did


but we’re all different, aren’t we?
Yes. Absolutely. Well I don’t think I’d survive a war at all. I think I’d be one of the first running away. (Laughs) So Ron, you joined the militia out of a sense of what?
I just felt that there was something coming forward and I had a couple of friends


and we talked about it and we thought, yes we’ve got to be trained and be prepared to do something when the time comes to defend our country. We felt fairly responsible and that was our feeling at that stage and of course in those days you’d just go to a drill night, march round the streets of South Melbourne and do a bit of


squad drills for discipline and then we did a series of camps and did a bit of work like that.
When you say you felt a responsibility to defend your country, did you then think of yourself as an Australian or British subject?
No, I felt as an Australian. No I didn’t, I’d respected


the World War I diggers so much, listening to them, reading the stories and I felt there was another war coming and we had to do a job just the same as they did. They’d set the example and we would automatically have to follow. Yes.
So you held them in reverence that was…?
Oh, yes in that regard.
It was quite a bit to live up to, wasn’t it? The Anzac


Oh yes, yes yes. Wonderful.
So as militia, you did… what kind of training did they send you on?
Well the training we did was discipline training. Rifle drills, marching, all sorts of drill exercises. Then we had lectures on map reading and things


like this. We had to do a lot of spit and polish and you were examined. You had to polish the brass plate at the bottom of your rifle and the buckle on your belt and the buttons on your uniform and you were inspected every inch of you whether you’d shaved. You know it was pretty tough discipline and then our first camp was


at Mt Martha and we were under canvas, under there and of course we were pretty raw. We’d only been in the militia a few weeks when they put us into the 10 day camp and it was quite an experience. We went by train to Mornington in those days. The train went through and a truck was at the Mornington Railway Station and all


our gear went on that and then we had to march from Mornington to Mt Martha. I don’t know if we knew how to route march but we got there. Then it was lunchtime so we were told to get our mess gear and get down to the cookhouse for a meal. Of course we hadn’t packed the way we should have and our mess gear was in the wrong places so we got our first


abuse from the sergeant major of being nongs and no-hopers and we could go without lunch if we didn’t have our mess gear in the right place. So eventually he allowed us to find our mess gear and we pulled our gear to pieces to find it but that was the first experience.
Ron, I just wanted to ask, how was it for you receiving your rifle? What was it like to hold your rifle for the


first time? Had you handled a gun before?
Yes, I’d shot rabbits with a shotgun on a holiday. I’d handled a gun before but in those days you only handled the rifle for drill. To order arms and present arms, slope arms and things like that. Later we did a little bit of shooting at a rifle range at Williamstown but


no that didn’t seem – we even had bayonets. Lord forgive, we were given bayonets to have and that was a sort of a thing. It didn’t seem to register at that stage. A rifle was a thing for drilling in our minds really.
So when you got the bayonets it did


start to register did it?
No, I don’t know that I did. I accepted that. I mean you’d use that for guard duty. It was part of the drill. You’d take it out and put it on the top of your rifle and put it up there and march up and down. No, that wasn’t – that was just toy soldiers in those days. That didn’t mean so much to us. But I’ll never forget


guard duty or night duty. I’ve never felt so tired in all my life. It was two hours on, four hours off and it was dreadful. I’d never experienced anything like fatigue from that. But it’s funny how you get used to these things. But that first guard duty was dreadful.
Was it?
And we had some permanent Army


soldiers that came down to drill us and really put us through the bull ring and discipline and after 10 days he turned us out as pretty good soldiers. He thought we were pretty good too. So you can be straightened up in no time.
Now you’ve said that you were very aware Hitler and of the problems in Europe?
Were you equally aware of the threat from Japan?


That Japan had invaded China and was committing atrocities against the Chinese and so on?
Look, we’d read about it but it didn’t register quite so much. That was another war and that wasn’t our business. That was my impression of it all. Yes they were there but didn’t mean quite so much at that stage. But


we were very conscious of it and it was unusual. We were getting quite a lot of Jewish people coming out to Australia in the late thirties and they were very musical a lot of the Jewish people and they were coming in and buying pianos and things like that and we got a bit of


experience with some of the things that they had been through and the reasons they’d got out and talking to them. That gave us a feel because after the militia camp of course you were back at work again and we got first hand dealing with the feeling in Europe and the fear and the purges and things that were going on.
How did that affect you, do you think? What


did that, what feelings did that arouse in you? Anger or fear or hatred or sympathy?
Well hard to describe. We felt sorry for them and we listened to them but they were so ruthless in dealing with you that we were not used to that form


of dealing. We had organised and operated as a retail house and we just didn’t experience this haggling and arguing over a price before and quite frankly we were getting a bit jack of it. We didn’t understand it. It was a worry to us. What right have they got to do this


and you know that sort of thing. But that was the European system. We soon learnt. We soon learnt. Yes.
And they would have been people from Germany, Austria and Poland?
Poland, Germany yes.
I find the north western Europeans to be quite abrupt, to be quite sharp in their…
Oh they were tough guys. Yes they were tough, and ruthless. And the females were just as


tough as the males too. It was quite an experience learning how to handle it.
So was that, do you think that was your first encounter with a really different culture?
Yes it was. Yes. The Jewish people who came out that was our first experience and it was, you know, we didn’t like it


and while there was a mix - this is my own feelings - you got to dislike them rather than feel sorry for them because everything you were being screwed down for this and that and what have you and it was a bit of adverse feeling then. Almost I can understand you being kicked out of


something like that but it was a feeling that I had. But it all changed later.
So Ron, where were you when war was declared?
I was at work. It was a Friday night and I came home and I told my father that the Germans had invaded Poland and


he said to me “Ron, that doesn’t mean that we’re at war” and I said “Yes, but it will be only time before we will.” He said “Oh, we’ll just wait and see. That may be over very soon.” Well of course a couple of days later war was declared from England and we naturally followed. But it was


a Friday night at the office and I remember it very well.
Can you tell me about that, about when you were at the office there? Can you tell me about the office when you heard about the war?
Just that we had a five floor building with showrooms on every floor and on our first floor


we had our radio showroom. We had a very big radio business in those days and I can remember one of the staff running down and calling out to us. We were on the ground floor at that stage. We used to wait for our clients to come in and take them to the showroom. He told us and I can remember we raced up to the first floor and listened to the various


news items and what was happening and of course then we - everything went through our minds of Chamberlain who had been over earlier and thought that he’d poured oil on the waters but it just wasn’t to be and we’d been more or less misinformed of the right thing


but it was an unusual feeling but I don’t know that it was any more than that. We carried on as normal for quite a while. The militia went in and did a one month training at Seymour camp and then that was closely followed by a three month period earlier in 1940 and then after


three months we were so unsettled that I felt that I would enlist in the 7th Division that was being formed and so we enlisted with a group of friends in the 7th Division.
Now I’m, that interested me when you told your father the news about Germany invading Poland that your father


felt that “Well that doesn’t mean we’re going to be at war”?
Look, I think he was trying to overcome a fear that I would go to war quite frankly. We were so close and I think he was trying to have a feeling of security that I wouldn’t go to war. Yes.
And you’re his only boy aren’t you?


I’m his only boy by his first marriage. He had a son by my step-mother. The one that had polio. But I’m sure that was the reason.
Because Menzies certainly had no doubt once England was at war it was automatic wasn’t it. Therefore Australia is also at war?
Oh yes and I worshipped Menzies. He


was a brilliant orator and he had me. I would have done anything he appealed to do. I thought he was wonderful and he impressed me greatly.
So there was no doubt in your mind that if England were at war, we must?
Oh yes, exactly. Yes. No


hesitation at all.
Now the first few months of the war, they’ve called it the Phoney War haven’t they because nothing much happened after the invasion of Poland and then they invaded France and then the 7th Division was formed?
The 6th Division was the first division to be formed. We had a lot of unemployed


young fellows. They enlisted in the 6th Division and that was good because it gave them something to do. They were willing and they did a pretty good job the first push up the desert. Then the 7th Division was formed in May 1940


and we didn’t leave for the Middle East until about October, I think it was but the war, of course France had been occupied by the Nazis and our war was in the Middle East at that stage. We moved to the Middle East to back up the 6th Division.
Now prior to leaving Australia


you enlisted with the 7th Division AIF. Did you elect to go into the ASC [Army Service Corps]?
Yes. I did. Because I was in the Militia ASC and we knew several of the people that were in that division, we elected to do this and I was taken down


to St Kilda Road to the headquarters of 7th Division ASC and the commanding officer told me various things to do to go to Caulfield and enlist there at the Caulfield Racecourse which I did and my friends came with me and a group of us


enlisted together.
All in the same unit? All in the ASC?
All in the same unit which was the 7th Division Supply Column. Later known in December 1941 as the Second 6th Australian General Transport Company.
Now you must have been a very skilled driver. You’d been driving since an early age?
I’m guessing that not many people were


back then. Not everybody had a car?
No that’s right. No they didn’t but a number did. We had to do a lot of driver training, instructing. Yes.
And were you able to help the others out because you?
Well actually I – we did quite a bit with the 3rd Division Militia and then when we were in


Puckapunyal with the early stages of the 7th Division Supply Column we didn’t have any transport at all and it was mainly route marches, getting fit, discipline training and what have you. In the end, I suppose in the last month a couple of vehicles were introduced and those that could drive were tested


for military licenses and things like that but it wasn’t until we were in the Middle East that we were taught any ditching and un-ditching and things like that, and we did even more of that before we went to New Guinea. But I suppose you’d say we battled through and those that could drive had


spare drivers and those spare drivers gained experience that way. But there wasn’t a great concentration of driver training at that stage because in Palestine the roads were made. We were driving our normal vehicles, right hand drive vehicles on the left hand side of the road. That was a bit awkward but we got through.
Alright I’ll ask you a bit more


about your training a bit later on but I just wanted to ask you about your family’s reaction when you enlisted. How did your father take it?
Well, I told him that I felt I should enlist and he didn’t object. He just said “Son, if that’s the way feel, you go to it”. So


I left home that morning in my nice little sports Roadster Vauxhall attired for business in what I thought was quite a smart suit and felt hat and gaberdine raincoat and I told you I went down to St Kilda Road and then I went out to Caulfield and they gave me


leave to go home that night. I went home in a gawky khaki uniform and came in the back door and the family were seated down at the dinner table and I just got gasps. Even my severe old stepmother had tears in her eyes so it was a bit of a cultural shock to them. Yes, they didn’t realise that it had happened and then when


I told them I had to go back to camp that night that was a bit of a shock. Yes, it was a shock to them I suppose. It was a bit of a shock to me to be in that sort of uniform and everything happened so quickly and then to be put in a horse stall to sleep the night it was quite an experience.
Look, we’ll leave it there for now because the tape’s just about to finish.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 03


Ron, when you were working at Brash’s, I believe you were involved in importing the first washing machine? Could you tell me about that?
Yes, well I wasn’t involved with the importing but Old Man Brash, as we affectionately called him, was. That was Alfred Brash, son of the founder had wonderful foresight. He could look to the future and


judge what product would be on the market and he decided that washing machines were going to be something for the future so he imported a sample shipment from Canada, from the Canadian Fairgrieve Company of a very good quality washing machine. Not as we know them today. It was a tub on four castors, legs and four castors


and an electric wringer and this washing machine wasn’t quite as easy to market as we thought it was. We advertised it and got a lot of enquiries but the housewife used to do the washing with a copper boiling in the corner of the wash house which was usually an outdoor building and a couple of troughs and


the hand wringer and that’s the way the washing was done. So first of all we had to try and convince them that it wasn’t necessary to wash clothes and have them sterile by just boiling them. We used to tell them that they never ever boiled their underclothes and they had those closest to their skin, so therefore a


washing machine would thoroughly wash and the boiling action really forced the water through the fibre of the clothes and that was part of the boiling process, as the agitator would push the water through .So to sell them we had to cart the washing machine out to their home which I did and I think I must have sold the first washing machine in Victoria.


We certainly imported the first lot of washing machines to Victoria and I put it on the luggage carrier which was on the back of the car, wheel it into the wash house and set it up. We would do the washing for the lady and show her and we would bale the hot water out of the copper into the tub, put the washing machine through its paces


with the agitator then swing the wringer around so that it could feed the clothes from the washing machine into the wash trough, then into the bluing trough by swinging the wringer around then out into the wash basket. I jacked up at hanging the clothes on the line but I carried them out to the line. We would sell the washing machine for £49, just under £50


and usually sold it on time payment of about £3 down and 5 shillings a week. It was hard work and we didn’t sell a lot of them at that stage, I must admit. Very few.
And that was because?
Because the public weren’t ready for them. They were not ready for them. Even Old Man Brash imported the first refrigerators into


Melbourne from Canada and the public were not ready for refrigerators. They preferred the ice chest and the ice man coming. They felt that the ice chest kept things more moist than a refrigerator and there were all these fixtures. Of course when the American Army came to Australia they were very refrigerator


conscious and brought in all their refrigeration and stuff and the wartime converted the housewife into accepting refrigeration and in the early days after the war we used to have long waiting lists for people for refrigerators. The demand was so great and the production was not that great.
Isn’t that interesting? I’ll just pause for a moment there. Alright, so getting


back to your enlistment, your early enlistment. Your first day in the Army you spent the night in the horse stalls at Caulfield Racecourse. Was that your first time away from home?
No, because I’d done the militia camps.
Of course, you’d been on the camps. But it was your first time sleeping in stables?
It was the first time sleeping in a stable. It was quite an experience. It was the stables that the racehorses


used and they’d at least cleaned them out but they were pretty basic. We were issued with blankets and we slept on palliasses of straw and next morning when the sergeant major of the recruiting centre came around to wake us for early morning roll call


not only did we get a cultural shock but I got the abuse of my four Army mates who blamed me for making them enlist so that was my first introduction. They were only joking of course but they certainly gave me a pretty hard time for a while.
What did they say to you?
Well they used to call me Willow. “Bloody Willow got us into this.


You realise what you’ve done?” This sort of abuse went on until we had breakfast. So that was the type of abuse that I got.
How long were you at Caulfield then?
Oh, only – we stayed at Caulfield for just two or three days. We just had to attend roll calls at certain times of the day. Then we had


the freedom of Melbourne and so there was no great discipline then and then we got advice that we were moving to Puckapunyal and we went to the Caulfield Railway Station on a suburban train of course and that went through to Spencer Street and at Spencer Street we got on to


a country train. There were just a very small contingent of men at that stage that went up to our campsite in Puckapunyal and we had to get it ready as the other drafts and enlistees came in.
Now Ron, those two or three days you spent in Melbourne. Were you able to gad about a bit?
Yes, oh yes.
So what was that


like? You’ve just enlisted. You’ve got your new uniform on. Did people look at you differently?
Yes, they did, they did. I think we went to the pub and had a couple of beers and caught up with people. Went to see a few relatives and friends and did things like that but yes we did.


They weren’t any great days of discipline. We were just looking forward to the next move.
And at that point, what were your expectations of the war?. What were you imagining it would be like? Did you think about what it was going to be like?
Look, to be quite honest with you, I don’t think we regarded it terribly seriously at all. We used to say “Oh wait until we


go overseas” then something but it was all the excitement of going overseas rather than the feeling of war quite frankly. Yes. We were told later on in training, you know, some of the things we could expect but the people training us didn’t have the practical experience. It was just a matter of surmising what might happen. But no, there was no great serious


thoughts about war at that stage.
So were your instructors World War I veterans?
No, no they were militia men that had been in the militia quite a long time and had transferred across to the AIF.
And what were they like? Do you have any strong memories of the instructors?
Yes, the sergeant majors were not regarded very highly


but that’s natural for a sergeant major. They had practically no sense of humour whatsoever and they were tough guys but I first enlisted as a private and I knew the officer who


was a militia man for the section that was going to look after the mechanical side of the vehicles which I enjoyed and having the background, my father and the industry I joined his section and I went in as a corporal clerk. So that was my first promotion as corporal and I, then


after a few months I was promoted to staff sergeant and in the mess the sergeant majors were always distant from the actual sergeants. They had a makeup that they were individualists and disciplinarians and so that was – look, some officers were


good fellows, others were different. They were men of all different types from all walks of life.
You were promoted quite quickly then through the ranks from private to staff sergeant?
Oh, well yeah, but it was a brand new Army and we were all privates. They had to have that structure so yes, it came through.


Why do you think they selected you for promotion?
Oh, I wouldn’t know.
Oh, come on you must have some idea.
Well actually I could – if I would do that job I could have the role of corporal. It was as simple as that. If I’d do that job for them, they’d make me a corporal.
So it was your skills and your willingness to…?
Well, I mean,


maybe they thought it was but I was given that promotion to go in and do that job so it was on, maybe, the reputation I had from the militia where I was a corporal and I suppose that was the reason. Then the staff sergeant job came I suppose for the job I was doing in the role of corporal but I also had


the mechanical knowledge to be able to do administration and supervise some of the other side of the business as well. I suppose I was a bit versatile because of my background connections with the motor trade.
Now the mates who joined with you. You said there were five of you joined up together. Was that right?
Were they promoted as well?


All of them were made corporals. All of them because of the militia experience and they were in other sections to me but in the same unit so yes they were all corporals.
So that didn’t kind of create a rift between you and them?
Oh no, no. Far from it.


So tell me what the training involved then at Puckapunyal? What were the lodgings like?
They were galvanised iron huts, wooden floors, unlined and pretty cold. No windows. They had galvanised iron flat windows that you’d prop up if you wanted any more fresh air. A double door at each end


and they were off the ground I suppose two or three feet with steps up to them. Palliasses on the floor and of course neatly folded up through the day with folded blankets and your Army gear neatly arranged on top. Unsewered facilities. No hot water in the shower facilities and


it was pretty rough. A little bit later on in the camp they introduced sewer and that was great and also the ablution areas had hot water and that improved things considerably, and they lined the roof of the galvanised iron hut which stopped the early morning drips


of condensation so it did improve things quite considerably. There was no Army canteen, licensed canteen in those early days. There was a canteen where you could buy cigarettes and chocolate or whatever you wanted. They were pretty rugged times and the ridiculous part about it all was reveille was before daylight.


The sergeant major would get us outside the hut in the freezing cold with a hurricane lamp so as he could see the roll list and call the roll then you were allowed to go back into your hut again. It was all so stupid but the Army always did that so that was the thing to do.
So pre-dawn roll calls?
Pre-dawn roll call, yes.


So how did the rest of your day go from there?
Well usually the morning was taken up in the bull ring as we called it with drill. Marching round, about turning, left wheel, right wheel, left turn, right turn and a lot of that. Round and round. Repetition went on for ages. The afternoon was taken up with a route march. Out


in the countryside and that was quite good. Then when we started to get going I did my corporal duties in administration so I got out of a lot of the bull ring duties but I used to like to go for a route march now and again. It was good and I thought that


was quite good fun.
So in those days was Puckapunyal settled or was it all bush out there?
When you say was it all bush it was virgin country of course and it wasn’t thickly treed but yes it was pretty much virgin


bush and all the tracks around were unmade tracks and there the things we used to walk along but we had a sergeant major of this particular workshop section who was not the old world drill master sergeant major. He was a lovely old fellow. His name was Alfred Kirkland and he had been a leading hand with the


Vacuum Oil Company in their vehicle maintenance section and he automatically came in as a warrant officer because of his experience. He used to take us on these route marches and he used to love to catch rabbits so he taught us how we could catch rabbits by using some fencing wire with hooks on the end of it and twists and we’d put them into the burrows of the rabbits and


get their fur caught up in the twist of the wire and we’d pull the rabbits out of the burrows. So we had more fun rabbiting that we did route marching but it was out in the fresh air and it was good. Look, whilst he wasn’t a disciplinarian he required a very high standard and the boys respected him and would do anything for him. The others, they demanded it and


it was a different feeling. They did it but there was a grudging attitude towards it. But this fellow, the boys would do anything for. Yes.
What did you do with the rabbits once you’d caught them?
Let them go again. A think a couple we brought back to the cookhouse but the cooks couldn’t be bothered with them. It was too fiddly. We’d let them go to catch them again.
So did you go off


road or were you stuck to the tracks?
Off road. We’d walk down the tracks and he would survey what he thought would be a good rabbiting area and we’d go off then through the fields and chase some rabbit burrows down.
How extraordinary. Now back at the camp itself. When did you first receive your weapon?


Well, it’s not so important when but….?
I think I was issued with the rifle at Caulfield. Pretty certain of that.


I think we got bayonets issued at Puckapunyal but I can’t remember having bayonets in Palestine so they may have been issued and withdrawn. I’m not quite sure of that.
Did they begin your weapons training at Puckapunyal?
No, only drilling. Only drilling. We did a bit of rifle firing towards the end.


We’d done quite a bit in the militia but yes, we did rifle firing. There was a rifle range there but that was just towards the finish but not a lot of it, no.
I mean, you weren’t training to be infantry
No, well that’s right.
men were you but nevertheless
Trained to use them. I found the rifle kicked like a mule. I had a very sore shoulder but I got used to that after a while.


So can you tell me, what were the highlights of your time training? What were the best memories of your training time?
In Puckapunyal?
Did you get up to any high jinx?
Well, when I got into the Sergeant’s Mess of course it was wonderful. It was licensed and I had a welcoming party that night and


I know I felt a bit seedy next morning and the officer came in and he asked me how I was and I said “I’ve got a bit of a headache”, and he said “Well, you’ve got to get used to that, you’ve got to drink a lot more than you had last night in the Army” so I didn’t get a lot of sympathy. You know, I hadn’t drunk a lot. I’d been going to parties before


I enlisted but I wasn’t a pub crawler or anything like that but however we soon got into the swing of it and I had my little Sports Vauxhall Roadster in camp. Once we came up by train we went home back to Melbourne by bus for the first leave and then


I got permission to bring the car up and of course I used to drive home on leave and take fellows. It had a dickie seat in the back and I could put two fellows in the front with me and two fellows in the dickie seat and we used to go home and we’d sneak home on unofficial leave. We got official leave every second weekend and we’d go down on the Friday


night and be back on the Sunday night and the unofficial leave you could have from midday on the Saturday until the Sunday night so that was to go into Seymour or somewhere locally but I had my car and I used to sneak off to Melbourne. It was accepted but it wasn’t


Army authority.
And what would you do once you got to Melbourne?
Well, I’d go home. Leave a bit of washing that was done for me and gang up with a few friends.
More dancing?
The boys that I enlisted with would come down. One of the other boys had a car so he’d bring some fellows down


as well. Catch up with a girlfriend or we used to go to the Powerhouse. They had a wonderful jazz band there and dancing on the Saturday night at Albert Park. That was a regular place we’d go to and then we’d head home to camp about 7 o’clock on the Sunday night and we’d


all meet at the Wallan Pub at Kalkallo for a beer and then we’d go onto Puckapunyal. That was the routine on the way home.
Alright so the best part of your training time was the leave that you got?
What was the worst part of it?
Going back to camp and getting up early of a morning. I could never get


used to that. It was dreadful and the Army meals. When I was with the OR – Ordinary Rank Kitchen the jar of the Army food oh it was terrible. I couldn’t stomach it. It was dreadful. But when I got into the Sergeant’s Mess it was different. We had our own chef and had different applications


but I couldn’t get used to that pretty old rough food and the early morning rising.
What were they feeding the OR’s [other ranks]?
Oh, stew and horrible looking stuff.
Could you tell what it was, even?
I can remember one of the very early meals. They had a Mess orderly who used to bring it round in a dixie and then serve it


to you. The orderly officer of the day came in just after it had been served and I was looking at it and he said “What’s the matter?” and I said “Have a look at it. Isn’t it awful?” and he just walked on. They got used to it and survived. It was wholesome I suppose but gawd I hated it and the breakfast. They used to make an Army porridge.


Oh, it was terrible. I couldn’t eat it. Just couldn’t eat it. Dreadful stuff.
I bet you were glad you got into the Sergeant’s Mess?
Yes, I certainly was, yes.
After Puckapunyal, where did you go next?
Well we got our final leave from Puckapunyal. I remember our commanding officer


Major Frank Watts came on to parade one morning. We had an official parade and he said “I’ve just come back from the latrines and there’s a pretty good rumour come around”. The old unsewered latrines were about 20 holes in a long row and of course all the rumours started there. The conversation was quite strong and yelling out


to somebody 2 or 3 holes down and what have you. The sewered ones were a little more civilised but that’s where the rumours started and he said “This rumour is true, you’re going on final leave”. We all cheered. Everybody cheered. That was fantastic. We were going overseas. It wasn’t the thought of going to war


it was just at least we are off. So we got seven days final leave. We went home and that was good. It was a little sad for our family but we did a lot of celebrating and got together and partied up and had a wonderful time. Then we went back to camp.
Just before you get back there I wanted to ask about Edna because you were already


seeing Edna by then, weren’t you?
Not really. Not really. I told you we met on this river cruise and we had seen each other just a couple of times and then we drifted apart. Then I had taken her to a couple of dances only before I enlisted.


Just before I enlisted the wonderful girl that had taught me to dance and do everything we parted. Mainly because of her mother but that’s a long story and so on final leave I thought, I don’t know why, I thought I’d like to let her know I was going away


and I drove down to – she was a Sunday School teacher of little kids and I waited there and she came out and I drove her home and told her that I was going overseas. Would she write to me? But that was all at that stage and it wasn’t until


we were in Tobruk that I wrote to her for the first time. Then I had a couple of girlfriends when I came back from the Middle East, friend sort of girlfriends. Then we saw each other and I spent more time with Edna than the others, then it just went on from there.


So during that final leave after Puckapunyal you went to see Edna and you would have spent a bit of time with your family. Did you pack anything special to take with you?
Yes, my father gave me a Bible which I’ve still got with a little message in it and


he also gave me a gold cigarette lighter. My stepmother frowned on smoking and I was a secret smoker. I didn’t start smoking until I went into Puckapunyal and I - but


my Dad must have smelt it on me as I daren’t smoke at home, so on final leave he gave me a lovely gold cigarette lighter which as if to say “I know, enjoy it”. So they were the two things I carried. Yes.
I hope it was a small Bible, was it?
Yes, oh, yes it was a New Testament.


I’ve got it somewhere in my den. Not that I read it but it was there and it was a nice thought.
So you had a good time that last week. You weren’t afraid?
Oh no, we lived it up. We had a wonderful time. We really had a wonderful – we visited a lot of friends a lot of old aunts as well and


my sister was married to a Country Roads water engineer and they lived in Stawell. He was an engineer for that area or assistant engineer and so I went up to see her to say goodbye and she was pregnant with her first child and I took up her husband’s sister


with two little kids. One in arms and the other a dear little kid about two who I sat on my knee – she was behind the steering wheel – and drove most of the distance that way – dear little kid with her mother and my stepmother was horrified. That I’d taken this married woman away to stay at my sister’s


place alone. I’d taken her alone. Bassinet strapped on the back of my little car for the baby to sleep in and she thought what people will think! That I’ve taken this married woman away up to my sister’s place but I still smirk at that. She gave me a piece of her mind when I got back.
It sounds like it was more a matter of what she thought wasn’t it?
Yes, exactly.


So we visited her. That took a couple of days and the ladies of the town saw me walking down the street and came up to me and asked me was I on final leave and I told them that I was and they said “Oh look, we’re having a function, would you come to it tomorrow night?”


I said “Well look if you don’t mind this time is so precious to me I’d sooner spend it with my sister”. Yes, our uniforms were noticed and of course I suppose a lot of country boys were on final leave as well at that particular time. Yes, we had a lovely final leave. It was great.
So people were very supportive of you?
Oh yes. They were.
Can you tell me, how was it,


the parting with your father?
Well actually we were held up getting away and we were back in camp for at least a fortnight before we finally left and I kept in touch with them by telephone because I’d had to leave my car at home after final leave and my father drove me up.


I told him and he said “Well look, we’ll come up at the weekend and visit you”. So he drove up with my sister and stepmother and my girlfriend at the time and they had the Sunday with us with a picnic lunch and they went back and I think we were in


camp another week before we left Puckapunyal so it was a rotten time really. We were killing time and we weren’t ready for anything. It was monotonous and boring but anyhow we finally got away.
So you departed from Port Melbourne?
No, we didn’t. We went


to a special railway siding close to Puckapunyal called the Disehart Siding and we boarded a troop train and went through to Albury. It was then two different railway gauges so we had to change trains at Albury and went through to Sydney and the train somehow got somewhere down near the wharf


and then we were transported to the big ocean liner the Queen Mary and of course it couldn’t pull into the dock. It was moored out in the middle of the harbour and we had small Sydney ferry boats take us out and put us on board that way.
First time to Sydney?
No it wasn’t the first time to Sydney. When I was in the militia and before the 6th Division


sailed they had to have some transport and we ferried a convoy of vehicles through to Sydney to go on the Empress of Japan for their transport in the Middle East, so we took quite a long fleet of vehicles overland to Sydney. That was my first trip to Sydney.
So you’d seen Sydney before?
For a few days.


Yeah, I was. They had trams in Sydney in those days and all the trams were held up while we took our convoy through and it was quite something, yes.
Alright, well we’re just going to change the tapes over again.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 04


So Ron, tell me about the SS Queen Mary?
Well the Queen Mary was the ship of the time. It was a transport or not a transport but a luxury ship carrying passengers from London to United States. It not only was enormous, I think it was 84,000 ton


but it was very very fast and it held the record between UK and New York so it was a very famous ship. Everybody knew about the Queen Mary. They’d had it in Singapore taking some of the fittings out of it to make it a troop ship but they hadn’t ripped a lot of it out and we


were taken on board and allocated a space and the section that I was in were in cabins. They were down pretty low in the ship I think, the water line or lower but they were cabins and they had a double bunk and all our section got cabins. Some of the boys weren’t as lucky and they were in other


areas that had been stripped out and they were in hammocks. I had a cabin to myself so I asked one of my Army corporal mates if he’d like to come and join me which he didn’t hesitate so he shared the cabin with me for the whole of the journey.
So, you travelled in some comfort and style?
Yes. Yes.
You didn’t get sick?


we didn’t. It was a wonderful ship to travel on. We were all issued with sandshoes and when it got hot below deck the ship was shut right down for safety of a night and with lack of circulation and smelly feet, that didn’t exactly make you feel healthy but


no I fortunately – I don’t think many of the boys were physically sick on that particular ship but it got a bit smelly at times.
What did you do all day on the ship?
What did we do all day? Right. Well we’d get up and have the mess parades or in our particular case we went to the dining room. Then we’d have early morning parade and lifeboat drill.


We all had life belts and we had to carry those on board and we were allocated to our life boats or rafts and we were inspected by the officers to make sure we were – the ship’s officers as well to make sure and we knew exactly what to do if the vehicle was attacked or sunk


or sinking. It has automatic closing bulkheads and they sounded the alarm and if you weren’t out by a certain time you were locked in and, you know, you couldn’t get up to your station. The discipline was very strong and that was it. Then the rest of the morning we would do PT [physical training] and things like that. I


had a bit of experience with PT. I attended the Bjelke-Petersen Fitness School in the city after work a couple of nights a week and so I was able to use some of their training with our boys and we got them pretty fit. We’d have a jog around the promenade deck and things like that. We’d have lectures


in the afternoon and there was a lot of free time as well. They organised a few events. They had boxing events and things like that. No, it was a pretty leisurely style of life.
So nothing there to really challenge you or expectations that war was going to be a bit of an adventure?
No not really. We went a long way south


from Sydney. There were rumours of a radar around and I believe that was confirmed so they did divert from the normal ship lane routes but we picked up another two ships that came out of Melbourne. One was the Aquatania and the other was the Mauritania and we sailed as a convoy of three. We went around to Fremantle


and the Aquatania and the Mauritania were able to pull into the dock but the Queen Mary was too big. The smaller ships got a day’s leave and we had to sit and watch them. Then we set off across the Indian Ocean escorted by warships and then the Australian warships left us


and we were taken over by the British Navy at that stage and taken on to Bombay.
So you docked at Bombay? Well, you couldn’t dock.
We couldn’t dock but we stopped. The Queen Mary was too valuable to take any further. The Italians still occupied Italian Somali Land on one side of the Red Sea and of course they were our


enemy and they couldn’t risk such a ship so we were taken off the ship at Bombay and then we were taken up into the hills behind Bombay by troop train which were fantastic. They were wonderful trains. Wonderfully equipped with dining facilities and things like that. Well organised. Of course the British Army had been working in India for years and


we went to a little place called Deolali, a little village. It was very interesting for us. Our first experience and that sort of thing. We were in lovely Indian made tents – beautiful tents. We were on stretchers and we had a batman to each – that we employed.


They were approved by the Army but we had one dear old fellow and we’d employ him for a pittance but he was so conscientious. He’d clean our boots and would do everything. Make our beds and everybody, all ranks, employed their own batman.
So these were local people?
Local people. Yes, local Indians.


Lovely people.
So you got on well with the locals?
Yes we did. We did. We also were invited to the British Army Mess and we joined them there of a night and they had their wives and daughters there as well and that was quite good. The Army


cooks there were so different to ours. They were in lovely white uniforms and white hats and our fellows usually had a cigarette hanging out of their mouth, old army clothes so it was quite a contrast. One experience we had we carried our meal from where it was served to a table and they have a bird called a kite which is like a crow


that we didn’t have any experience with and they cooked us pancakes for our first meal and these blessed birds swooped down, a swarm of them and pinched these pancakes from many of the boys before they realised what was happening but that was a great memory that we remember quite well. Our first meal in India.
Now Bombay is


a bustling city. What were your impressions when you pulled in?
Bombay. We didn’t have a lot of time in Bombay. We were taken straight to a troop train from Bombay but our impressions there were – it was night time by the time we got off and the people sleeping on the platforms undercover. Homeless


people and every station we went through, hundreds of people sleeping around. It was pathetic to see. The beggars were still around. The betel nut spitting on the footpath. Bright red was another thing that struck us. Then we came back from Deolali before we got other troop ships we did have a day’s leave. We got,


we slept on the train coming back from Deolali and had a day’s leave. We were able to wander round a little bit. We went to the Gateway Hotel for the experience which was famous. That was later blown up by a bit of sabotage later on in the war and we took in, got gharries


horse-drawn gharries. Four of us to a gharry or five to a gharry and went round to have a look at the sights that way. That was the best way to see it. But the crowds of people and the poverty was the part that got to us. That was sad to see the poor little kids begging and deformed people. It was sad. That part got to us. Yes.


Now when you were in Deolali and you had the local people working for you as batmen and so on. Did you get any sense from them that they resented the British rule?
No. No, they were very grateful that they were there to provide them with some work. I didn’t – they were great. The stewards in the Messes were all local people,


the cleaners and the people working in the area. I got the impression they loved – they all seemed so happy. The gharries riding in and out of town. They were yelling out to each other because they were making plenty of money. Maybe the influx of we people created a different thing. What it would be like normally I don’t know.


It must have been a great economic boom for them.
Oh, yes because the boys were buying souvenirs and having gharry rides and all sorts of things like that. No they were doing very well.
And can you tell me a bit about what relations were like between the Australians and the British? Because you then camped with British troops and I mean, they’re Indian British Troops aren’t they?
Yes, well


the fellows in the Mess we meant quite well but I remember one night coming home some English military police stopped the gharry and wouldn’t let it go any further and we had one fellow with us and he thought he was a bit above everybody else and he had quite a tangle with the


English MP’s [Military Police] and we were, he foolishly put his hands on them. He didn’t punch them or anything but he grabbed at them – get out of the way sort of thing and the military police were going to take him in hand but we had to do a lot of talking but they saw our side of it and let him go.


We didn’t have a lot to do with the English Army that way other than being fed and there wasn’t any great association other than that. We met them later on in the desert, yes and got on very well with them but they were good fellows.
So after this respite


in Deolali, then you were back on board a new ship?
Yes, we got on the old British India troop ships. They had a number of them which used to bring the families and the troops out for a tour of duty and then take them home. They were run by P&O, I think and they were fitted out for that. We were on one coal burning ship called the Nevarssa and


that was full of cockroaches and weevils and things. It wasn’t terribly good for the troops but, then again, fortunately I didn’t have to live that way and they looked after the officers and sergeants in a different manner and it seemed all wrong but that’s the way of the Army. Some of the troops, some of the food


was dreadful. It had to be rejected. Just terrible.
What, is was inedible, in fact?
Yes. Had weevils and things in it so it wasn’t good.
So by this time you must have worked out you were going to the Middle East?
Yes, yes and we did because the convoy was much larger. There were six,


seven troop ships and a big naval escort and we headed off and our first experience of what we thought might have been action. There was an eastern style vessel in the distance to the right and one of the escort destroyers just turned on a burst of


speed and raced over to it. We wondered what it was but it was just a normal trading thing but they weren’t taking any risks. Then we were into the Red Sea and it wasn’t long when we had our first air raid alert and emergency and the escort ships moved into different positions and


there were a few shots fired. It was an Italian reconnaissance bomber which was shot down in the distance but that was our first experience but it was something to talk about. We were quite excited about it really, that it had happened. Yes.
So it didn’t strike fear into you at this stage?
No, no. It was more “Oh, that was pretty good”.
Well especially since you won didn’t you?


Well that’s right.
So tell me about coming into Palestine?
Well we went in through Suez through the Betas Lake into the Suez Canal and we were taken off at a place called El Kantara and put on to troop trains and when I say troop trains they were cattle trucks and with


metal floors. They’d been cleaned out but they were smelly. They just had louvres for ventilation. We travelled overnight in these cattle trucks to our campsite in Palestine. The train stopped just near where we were to camp and we got out of the trains. It had been


raining heavily. There was mud up to our ankles. It was the most pathetic sight. It was horrible. Tents had been erected for us by somebody and we were drafted into tents and told to get a bit of sleep and when it was daylight we’d get ourselves organised but that was our first experience of


our campsite at Palestine. The administration huts were made of wood. They were well constructed. The messes were made of wood and what else? All the rest was under canvas. Everybody was living under canvas.
So you would have traipsed a fair bit of mud into those tents?


Oh it was dreadful. You have no idea of the mess that night. It was terrible.
And were you all kind of jittery from having been in the trains all night. I mean that would have rattled your bones a bit?
We were younger and we accepted a lot of that. But the nightmare was it was slippery, mucky, you know and we had heavy weights our kit bag and all sorts of things. It was pretty


heavy. Actually it was quite amusing to get off the ship. To get off the Queen Mary we had a sea kit, our kit bag, our pack we had everything. We all vowed and declared we would restrict our luggage considerably so there was quite a bit of trading done with the Arabs of a lot of our surplus clothing and we whittled


our kit down considerably and the Arabs were a little bit warmer as the result of it and the boys were a little bit better off financially.
And a little bit lighter as well to carry?
That’s right. Yes.
Now by this time, if I’m not wrong, its about April 1941 that the first 7th Division arrived in Palestine. Would that be


about right?
No, no no. We
No, that’s when you arrived in Tobruk.
we were in Palestine in the end of October 1940. We had our first Christmas in Palestine. Christmas 1940.
And then you


spent the next few months training in Palestine, didn’t you?
That’s right. We had five months in Palestine training. Getting our equipment together, getting ready. We had been getting quite a lot of news of the 6th Division and how well they had done. They’d pushed the Italian Army back very easily and everything was going well in that


So you must have been quite keen to get out there and get into it were you?
Well we were. We were anxious to get into it. We didn’t know where we were going but yes, we were anxious because with the 6th Division performance we thought “Well if they can do it we can do it” and yes we’d like to get into action. Yes we were all keen to go – very keen.
So were you frustrated at being still encamped


and garrisoned and training all that time or did you accept it?
No, we accepted it. It was all when we were ready. When the time is right we will go and I suppose we were so well disciplined at that stage that you accepted these things. There was always a small percentage that would get a bit restless and may go AWL [absent without leave] somewhere but that was a very small percentage.


What was your training in Palestine like? What were you taught there?
Well again a bit of drill but mainly route marches. Go on bivouacs.
What was a bivouac?
A bivouac was, we would take vehicles and drive round the countryside. Form up a situation where you could service vehicles in a site. We’d go round through –


I remember we went through the township of Hebron which you may have heard. We had a machine gun mounted on the back of one of the vehicles. That was we were warned a very hostile area. I don’t know what they would have done to us if they had – we had to have armed guard on all night while the boys were sleeping. That was pretty serious stuff. Actually in Palestine we had our rifles


chained to the centre pole of the tent and the bolt, the firing bolt taken out of that and put under our pillows because the Arabs had a reputation that he was a very thief and they valued the rifle very much and we had to take great care of it. Never heard of one being stolen but we had to take care.
And how did the local people respond


to this influx of soldiers in the area? Were they friendly? Were they unfriendly? Did they ignore you or did they….?
Look they were different. They would steal anything that you left around. We had this lovely


sergeant major I told you about. He was taking one fellow for a driving licence test out of camp and into some sandy area and this fellow he was testing didn’t have the experience of handling a vehicle in sand and became bogged and they were fairly close to a village. Arabs came out, realised they were


stuck. Jumped on the running boards of the vehicle and on to the bonnet. In the end this sergeant major got out to try and push them off and he also took over the truck but then when he got back in the truck they realised they’d stolen his watch from his wrist. He had the experience to get the vehicle back out of the sand


that it was in and went to the Palestine Police who were stationed all over Palestine at that stage and reported it to them. They immediately took him back to that village nearby and raided a home and in the back of that home was a fellow with this sergeant major’s watch, filing the back off that was engraved with his name


that it was a gift. They had a mark on that guy. They knew who it was to do it. That watch was a talking point right up to the day he died and he still had it to that day. But that was a hostility. We had to be very careful at night and then again if you had people working for you. They had been checked


and they were very good. If we went on leave to Tel Aviv or to Jerusalem the people were very good. But it was just in the villages we struck a bit of hostility but also, you know, we deserved a bit of it because if we went route marching and they had a lot of orange groves we stopped for a smoko or a


spell, we’d raid an orange tree and of course they’d come out and want money for it and they didn’t get any so I suppose we brought a lot on ourselves.
So the theft worked both ways a little bit?
Exactly. Exactly.
And I’m wondering, you were there for quite a while. Did anyone form relationships with the locals? Anyone see the local girls for instance?


they would only get a two day leave at the most. Mainly a one day leave and there wasn’t much chance for any relationships. They might have a paid relationship but that’s about all.
And did those paid relationships, did that happen in and around the camps or only in the cities?
Oh, only in the cities. There was nothing in the camp area


at all. No.
I imagine you would have had to be very careful with respect to local families?
Oh, I would think so. They respected their – and we were told – we were disciplined very much to that, that they had to be respected, the women folk and the children especially and the boys did. They loved the children. They used to give them lollies and rations and things. There were


always kiddies around the campsite hoping that something would come their way. I never heard of a case of molestation or anything at all with the boys. Likewise the lads in our unit. I never head of any dishonesty at all. You could get your pay, leave it on your bed, forget about it and go away and never ever heard of anything


being taken from one another. But they’d go out and scrounge for anything for comfort from outside but not between themselves.
So there was a very strong loyalty between the men in your unit.
Oh yes. I’m speaking of our particular unit which was 280 strong. Yes.
That’s extraordinary isn’t it?
It was a wonderful feeling.


Yes, it must be. So when did you get deployed to Tobruk?
When were you deployed finally?
Right. Well we didn’t get a lot of information in those days of what was going on. We did later on in the war and we were taken through Egypt and


we finished up at Alexandria. There was all sorts of talk that we were going to Greece to try and hold Greece. That the Nazi pincer movement was going to come round and take Greece and they’d taken the 6th Division in the main out of Libya and moved over to Greece and we were going to follow them


when all of a sudden, Rommel came across the Mediterranean into Libya up around Tripoli and they got word that he was forming his Panzer Division there. There wasn’t a lot in Libya to hold him but there was a very famous artillery unit, the Royal Horse Artillery and there was also


the famous British Tank Armoured Division and they were the main forces but the artillery didn’t have any equipment but there was equipment in Alexandria and we had to go and get these 25 pounder artillery pieces and race them up the desert.
Up to Benghazi?
Up to – no we didn’t


get as far as Benghazi because Rommel had started his move and had taken Benghazi and, as we call it, the Benghazi Handicap was on – the general retreat and we were the only convoy moving west and all the rest of the convoys were going east and they were calling to us “You’re going the wrong way. Turn round and come back.” And of course


we were given instructions we had to go on and there were Air Fforce, there were Army in retreat. There were even wingless fighter plane bodies being towed back to see if they could be salvaged. It was incredible. The roads were pretty rough. They were Italian made roads but they’d had a bit of knocking about and


the wreckage that was along the road from the first battle going up. We didn’t quite know what to expect but there wasn’t any fear. There was just “Well we’ve got to get there and we’ve got to do this”. Our first night we camped at a demolished village. I think it was Sidi Barrani and we spent


the night there then we went onto Salum and spent the night there at the bottom of the escarpment and then we went up onto the plateau and up the Hellfire Pass and we were the last convoy going up and the Tommy engineers were mining the pass and they called out to us


“You might be going up this way Aussie but you certainly won’t be coming back” and they blew it just after we got up there so that was our first experience that something really was happening and then we got
So were you able to deliver the shells? You were able to deliver the ammunition?
No we had cannons. We had cannons hooked on behind for the artillery


and ammunition as well. So we had the lot. But yes we got them all through. We got to Tobruk and it looked so lovely. The moon was shining on the water in the Tobruk Harbour and there were a few buildings left in the township which were white and oh it did look so lovely. We thought, oh this is a lovely resort we’ve come to and we got


through the town and out on the road towards Derna and there was the greatest traffic jam you’ve ever seen. Vehicles coming back. We didn’t know where we were going. We had to find a place to deliver these artillery pieces and there was great confusion and the English soldiers said “Don’t go any further


Jerry’s just over the rise.” So anyhow we turned round and came back and our officer in charge found the delivery point for the artillery pieces and the Royal Horse Artillery took them over and they got them set up and within 24 hours they were in operation and they fired practically continuously for 48 hours to


try and stop them. Of course Rommel couldn’t get in, couldn’t get in to us but he had moved round in behind and we were caught in a siege situation. So that was our first night in Tobruk. One of confusion but by morning things had sorted themselves out a bit but if Jerry had raided us that


night with the roads congested with machine guns and bombs he could have wiped out half the forces but that’s the luck of war. It didn’t happen.
So there was quite a bit of confusion and chaos?
Oh yes. Terrible. But it sorted itself out quickly.
Who was the commanding officer of your convoy?
That was our unit commander who was Major Watts although his sub officers…
And he was able to find


the delivery point?
Yeah well I don’t know who found it but somebody found it.
Because it sounds like that in itself would have been a Herculean task just to find who have we got to deliver this to?
Well yes, it’s amazing how these things do sort themselves out. Yes it happened and it got sorted out and got organised thank goodness.
Well, I bet you were glad you got there?
Yes, well we had


to get there and we heard stories later where Rommel could have cut off the convoy but he wanted to trap as many people in the area before he surrounded it thinking he was going to take the lot quite easily but it didn’t work out that way.
And that drive must have really tested your driving skills. It sounds like a perilous drive?


Oh, yes it was a bit but the dust storm. The dust was terrible and the vehicles weren’t all that hot. They were 1940 pretty rough riding and we picked up a lot of vehicles in Alexandria or at an ordinance depot there. There were all makes and all types. There were Austin trucks and Comma trucks and all sorts


of things and we used to most of them.
And what were you driving that day?
Well we had a Chevrolet three ton vehicle that we took up. I had a driver that wasn’t terribly experienced so I let him be the spare driver and I did most of the driving which he let me do and I felt happier and could keep up with the convoy because it was fairly high speed.


How did the tyres go through all the sand?
The tyres went very well. They were good pre-war tyres virtually. We had a few problems with tyres later on when there was a rubber shortage but that wasn’t until New Guinea days but the tyres stood up pretty well. They were pretty tough old tyres.
No overheating?


Oh yes, we had a lot of problems. We had a tremendous amount of mechanical problems. First of all the dust in the air. The dust on some days was so heavy that there was no enemy action at all and the best way for you to breathe was to wrap yourself in a blanket and breathe through the blanket. You couldn’t see


and it was just terrible. Well now, vehicles trying to operate in those conditions, the air filters were useless and all the vents were taking in dust that got mixed with the oil. With the gritty oil it wore the engines out. Oh we had many many problems.


Right we’ll just pause there.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 05


Now, I think where we left you yesterday, you’d just arrived in Tobruk. You’d done that kind of mad rush around trying to find the Royal,
Horse Artillery
Horse Artillery, that’s what I thought, but I thought that can’t be right but there you go, it was.
That’s an English artillery unit.
Now this is your first experience


of battle isn’t it?
Exactly yes.
What were your impressions?
Well, we didn’t know what to expect. The first warning that we had that the Panzer Division was Jerry’s reminding us or at least the English reminding us not to go on any further because they called it Jerry which we referred to the Germans was just over the rise, so we didn’t know


what to expect. The first thing we had to do was wear steel helmets. Put those on for the first time. It was a matter of wondering where we were going. We turned back and went up one road and the military police stopped us there. It was too dangerous to go any further


and so we had to turn back and they found that our artillery unit were looking for us and found us and we were able to deliver the guns to them and the artillery and then it was a matter of – of course it was very dark – in the middle of the night and no lights. So we went back and scattered our vehicles around the countryside on the edge of the


harbour and we spent the night there.
Did you sleep in the cars? Where did you sleep?
We slept on the ground beside the vehicles. We were instructed to do that in case of air raids and things like that. So we didn’t know what to expect. Next morning we got up and we were all carrying a limited number of rations and


there was nothing happening. The vehicles were just scattered round. We weren’t organised. Actually we thought the war was pretty good. We found a couple of deserted Italian motorcycles and we had a bit of fun riding those round and just filled in time until we got organised and our party moved to a certain spot


and we were scattered over the area for safety and then we had to prepare our vehicles for conditions We had to kick the windscreens out of them so there wouldn’t be any sun reflection on them. We had to smear the vehicles with sump oil and then throw sand over them. That was the form of camouflage


we used and then we set about getting ready for our duties when the place was organised. That was basically the first thing we had to do.
So what were your duties once you were organised?
Well of course it was a matter of getting supplies and the supplies were coming in by ship and that wasn’t easy


because every ship that came into the harbour was sunk. Immediately a ship would come in there was a Stuka dive bombing attack usually about 8 to 10 Stukas, sometimes more, would come in and dive over the area and bomb them and they didn’t last very long. They sent, for about the first week,


they sent in the odd ship with supplies. Some were able to be unloaded and it was so dangerous for the unloading we called for volunteers from our boys to do it rather than detailing anybody and many of them volunteered and it was terribly risky but they


did the job and did it well. Very well.
Now Ron, are you watching as the Stukas come in?
Yes, oh yes. It was part of the entertainment because they didn’t strafe and they would come in over the harbour. We were on the edge of the harbour and we used to watch them because they’d come in overhead and then go into a steep dive


and as they were diving they made an incredible sound, a whistling sound. It was an eerie frightening sound, really. You’d see them release their bombs then they’d go but a Stuka only operated at night – only operated in the daytime. They wouldn’t work at night. Apparently they were doing their bombing by normal sight and not scientifically


and it was the high level bombers that did the bombing at night. But yes, we used to watch them, as we called them Stuka parades. We did quite a lot of observing of those. We knew they wouldn’t drop the bombs on us or we hoped they wouldn’t but we watched them, yes.
So by that stage are you still feeling like this war’s kind of fun or are you starting to feel…?
No, no we started to realise there was a bit of a


risk because at that stage the artillery had set up and they were hopping into it and it was – I think it was Good Friday of that year – that they started and they kept up a continual barrage of artillery fire and it went on for two or three days practically non-stop


but it did its job and they were wonderful operators.
And was there return fire also?
Oh yes, yes. Oh yes it was quite a battle. Actually the Panzer Division tried to get in with tanks and they had the tanks ahead of the infantry forces to try and get in but there were tank traps right around Tobruk that had been constructed


by the Italians and the Germans had destroyed one section of the tank traps and got their tanks through but the Royal Horse Artillery got to them more or less at close range and opened fire and got them out and they didn’t have a very successful attack to get in. Then it was left with the infantry and the infantry


had to retreat. They had a couple of other goes later on in the siege and drove a wedge in but our artillery and infantry boys were very good. They gradually got this salient back into line and then the rest of the perimeter


were a series of night patrols going out on reconnaissance and doing small raids and then it was left for the Air Force to bomb us and there was one very long range artillery set up at Bardia that the Germans had. It was an enormous thing and it could reach our harbour and most parts


of the Tobruk area and that was something. It would open up and fire and you would never know when it was coming or where it was landing and that was a bit scary.
So you could never relax really?
Oh no. No. But when you say you could never relax – if you had a job to do, you did it and it’s incredible how these


things happened. If there was an air raid close to you the anti aircraft guns would go and you’d hear the whine of a bomb and you’d go flat on the ground. A bomb would burst upwards of course and you’d be reasonably safe providing you didn’t get a direct hit.
Now I’ve heard at Tobruk there was the red line, the forward line,


and then there was the blue line and there was the green line. So, as supply were you always behind the green line or did you move?
Oh, no we had to get the supplies right to the front and the infantry didn’t like us going and making too much noise. We’d stir up the dust, attract attention and they used to tell us we were drawing the crabs and


and to get out as quickly as we could. So whilst we were based at the green line we had to have regular trips forward.
And what sort of vehicles would you be driving to?
Chevrolet three ton trucks in the main. We had a few foreigners but mainly we had Chevrolet three ton trucks and they handled the conditions there reasonably well because the sand or the sand of the desert


was a fine sand and it was very heavy shaly rock underneath so it wasn’t a thick desert sand like the Sahara Desert or some of those.
Now by this time you’ve got no windscreens on your trucks?
How was your visibility?
Shocking. I mean of a night the other thing we had to do was disconnect the lights because even an accident of turning on the switch could


be a disaster so the drivers they were wonderful really. To be able to see in very dark conditions and some of the roads were quite difficult and they were working at night in the main because the destroyers used to – once the supply ships were knocked out


the destroyers used to sneak in of a night and bring supplies, ammunition and reinforcements if required and then take out the sick and the wounded. It was all pitch dark work and they had to be very careful and very wary. In a dust storm it was impossible to work –


a serious dust storm.
And what would you be taking up to the front line?
Ammunition and food – rations.
So they must have been a bit happy to see you?
Oh yes. I mean they were happy but “Right get out of it, get away quickly”.
Now Ron, earlier you said that a lot of the supply ships were bombed coming in. Did you


see that?
Oh yes. Yes.
Can you just be a camera for me and tell me what you can see. Try and describe to me the first time you saw one of those ships being bombed.
The first time I saw a ship being bombed it was a small supply ship that had come up and the Stuka raided it


and we had a wonderful anti-aircraft barrage that went up. This ship didn’t get a direct hit but they dropped bombs all round it and the shrapnel from the explosion of the bomb holed the ship so badly that it sank. That was the first one that got the attack.


The next one that I told you about we called for volunteers from the boys that got a direct hit on the aft end of the ship and it got a beauty and it was only one string of bombs that went across it and there was quite an explosion and a sound and it wasn’t long before it went down and the harbour was


strewn with sunken ships. Shortly after that a hospital ship came in and it was sad to see and I didn’t think I’d ever see a hospital ship subject to a Stuka attack but it had come in take off wounded and it was also taking the nurses out. The authorities believed


Tobruk was no place for the nursing sisters and they had to be evacuated and it hadn’t quite finished loading when this Stuka parade arrived and bombed the hospital ship which was a dreadful thing. It was afternoon, I remember quite well. We were a reasonable way away from it but it did get a bomb but


it didn’t damage the ship sufficiently that it couldn’t sail out and it up anchored and got out of the harbour fairly quickly but quite severely damaged but they were very lucky.
Now while this is happening, while you were watching these ships get hit. What’s happening to you? What’s your heart doing?
Well with the hospital ship it was horror.


With the others it was just a matter of abuse really and the term “You rotten bastards” was frequently used and that’s the way we regarded it. The next ship to come in that was attacked was a very shallow draft naval battleship


and it was a dear old thing called the Ladybird. I did hear that they used it in China. It was shallow draft so it would go up the Chinese rivers but they had it in the Mediterranean and they were using it close into the coast for bombardment to help the various Army units going up. This time it came into the Tobruk Harbour. It wasn’t in the Harbour for any more than


hours and over came a very big Stuka parade and sank it but it was right in the shallows and whilst it sank, its gun turrets were still above the water line and I believe it was never decommissioned because it could fly its flag and use its anti aircraft guns right throughout


the period of the siege so that was an interesting one but they gave that a hell of a pasting and they did manage to sink it. Poor old thing.
Now those three ships that you’v mentioned that were sunk, were the crew able to get off?
Some were. Yes they got the crew off. Some were wounded which were treated


at the hospital but in most cases – I never heard of anybody being killed and I can’t vouch for the Ladybird. I’m not sure of that but I think they got most of the crew off.
Still, the supplies were lost, weren’t they?
Well, the supplies were lost, yes. Not on the one I told you about our boys volunteering. They got most of the supplies off that


before they were attacked but the other ships. Yes, they were down but they weren’t completely under the water. Sometimes their funnels and what have you and as I told you I was in a maintenance area and some of our boys were quite ingenious and they rigged up a raft out of motor


tyres and tubes and things and they had a sort of a diving helmet they’d made out of a small drum and with a lifeline to a hand pump one of them dared to go down into the upper structure which was the crew’s cookhouse and got some of the supplies. I remember we had potato and carrots


and some reasonably fresh vegetables that we hadn’t seen for quite a while so they did two or three trips like that until I think it was the third trip, there was a bombing attack on the harbour and whilst it didn’t hit them it blew their raft over and that finished them. They weren’t game to do anymore.


That was one advantage and you asked the other day how we felt about the English soldiers. Well we got on very well with them and to share these potatoes and carrots, there was a nearby Army unit and we invited them to come and enjoy some of the rations so we got on very well with them.
It sounds like a very courageous act from those men diving down under and getting


Well it was really yes. But that was their adventure and they enjoyed it.
Now I’m wondering when you’re driving up to the front to deliver the ammunition and food and water presumably to the men up there. Who takes the wounded out?
That’s the ambulance. The 2/5th Field Ambulance were


up there. We used to service their vehicles but they did the transport of that and I believe did a wonderful job.
And when you’re taking the supplies up there would you wait for a lull in the battle or would you go whenever you were needed?
Oh no, you see the battle was more or less on the perimeter and the supplies would be delivered to headquarters and then they’d


distribute their rations to the various gun posts around the area. They were called pill boxes and they were reinforced concrete and the boys were in those defending the area. So it was just a matter of – and at night there was not a lot of it – patrols were out at night mainly.
So your trucks weren’t under fire when you were driving?


No, just shrapnel from bombs. Yes.
So the risk of bombing was shared by everyone in Tobruk?
Yes, mainly in the green line area. There was not a lot of bombing around the perimeter because of the reinforced pill boxes and the activities and the supplies so I suppose they thought “We’ve got to stop those” so the bombing was done there and the long range artillery


was on the town area mainly.
So Ron, what was the scariest part of it, for you?
Being bombed. I’d moved my section from one part to another and reconnaissance must have picked up the move and they sent


not a Stuka parade but a bomber over to drop a stick across us and that was awful close. Yes that was a bit scary and we didn’t realise he was coming looking for us. We’d heard him and it wasn’t until we heard the whine of the bomb coming down that we dived flat. The fellow that I had told you about that had made the helmet


for the diving, he dived into his dug out and one of the pieces of the bomb shrapnel ripped his trousers off and just scratched his leg. He was so lucky. Very lucky. But that, I think, was one of those scary ones.
I bet you all laughed about that afterwards?
Yes. The most terrifying experience as far as we were concerned of


war really was being machine gunned from the air by fighter planes. The sound alone and I can only describe it to you as – you’d be familiar with the sound of calico tearing. Could you imagine that? Amplify that millions of times and that’s the sound of machine gunning from the air.


It’s eerie. It’s a horrible feeling and then with the spray of the bullets kicking up the dust it’s not very pleasant.
What would you do when you heard those planes coming? I mean diving on the ground wouldn’t help?
You’d just go flat to the ground. You couldn’t do anything else. I mean if they hit you, you were a goner and if you were standing


up you were an easy target but I only lost one boy from my section with that and that was sad. I’d sent him for water. We were able to get a ration of water from a wadi that had a well. It was really a soak it well. Water came in from


the Mediterranean and it was filtered through the rock and the sands and it was reasonably drinkable. It was brackish but I sent him to get some water for us and he jumped out of his truck and went flat but a bullet got him on the leg just near the ankle and word came back that he’d been taken to hospital. I was terribly upset. I felt guilty that I’d


made him do it and anyhow they told me they were taking him to surgery and I went to see him as soon as I could and he was lying there in this bed and I didn’t know where he had been hit or what happened and I thought “Thank God you’re alive” and what have you and he pulled the sheet that was over him and they had amputated his


leg just below the knee. Oh it gave me a horrible feeling. I felt so sad for him. He was a wonderful fellow. He played football for I think, North Melbourne seconds or something like that. He was a great sport, a great character and they evacuated him of course but that was machine gunning from the air.


By now you’re a sergeant aren’t you?
Oh yes, I was a sergeant before I went to Tobruk.
Yes, that’s what I thought. I guess you felt quite responsible for…?
Yes I did. I did. I also felt that I had my fellows’ confidence. Some of them were almost old enough to be my father in my section and yet they came to me. They needed me.


I enjoyed looking after them. We got through and that was important.
Were there any trouble makers in your Section? Any pranksters?
Look, you always get those. Those that are against the Government, against the Army and whingers. You’ll always get a whinger.


We always joked at them and made a joke of whatever they were whinging about.
And who were your special mates, Ron? Were you able to get close to the men given that you were in command?
Yes and no. I felt I had their entire confidence.


My special mate I suppose was my corporal who was our best man at our wedding.
What was his name?
His name was Ken Dunne. He died just 12 months ago nearly but he was a good fellow. We were in the militia together and he joined the AIF a little bit later than we did


because he was younger than me by 14 months and you had to be 21 before the Army would accept you in those days and he could join the Army if his parents signed a form that he could come. So his mother, she was a lovely old lady but a funny soul and she asked me to come


home and see her and she said “Ron” and she pointed her finger at me, “I’ll sign this form providing you promise me you’ll look after Ken”. She knew that he was coming into the section that I was in charge of and yes he was a close friend, but I enlisted with a number of friends as I told you


and we stuck together right through but they were in other sections so yes I did have close friends. But not inn my section, yes we were good friends but not close friends, put it that way.
So the other friends that you enlisted with they were all in Tobruk?
They were all in Tobruk, yes.
So you were still seeing them?
Not a lot of them because we all had different duties


at different times of the day and night but we did see them and catch up but there wasn’t time though for that sort of thing. Quite frankly we were a bit busy.
They kept you pretty busy did they?
Yes. They did.
Because I’m wondering Ron, you say that, you know there’s a lot of talk about mateship and how important it is and so on and you know I completely believe that it is. But I wonder, you say your men had a lot of confidence in you


would that extend to sharing personal things with you like if people got “Dear John” letters or people felt homesick. Did you talk about that a little bit?
Oh yes. Very much so. Yes. A lot of the boys had problems. Some of them were married. Some of them had girlfriend problems. They didn’t get mail. Getting quite upset. Some of them wanted advice whether they could get out of


Tobruk and go home and sort out some of the problems. One of the boys lost his father and he was very upset and he came and wanted to talk about that with me and there were a lot of things -


it seemed to bring us closer together. We seemed to be able to sort a lot of these things out and realise we had a job to do and they were looking after things at home and any of our boys that were knocked about, I wrote to their parents as well to keep them informed. The authorities would do it as well but I enjoyed doing that. As a matter of fact I’m welfare officer of our Army unit


today. I do that work.
It sounds like you’re a very good candidate for that job, Ron?
Well, I had a bit of training. (Laughs)
I’m sure those parents really appreciated it.
Practical experience of it, yes.
And what about your news from home? Were you getting much news?
Oh yes. I told you about my wonderful father. He wrote to me every week without fail. Most delightful letters, encouraging letters


newsy letters. He was a lovely man. A wonderful fella. My stepmother would sometimes put a note on the letter and I’d get letters from friends, a couple of girlfriends. Actually Edna started writing to me at Tobruk. I wrote to her first and I think I told you I


saw her before I left and told her I was going away just briefly. So we started corresponding at that time at Tobruk. We were terribly lonely at night and things like that. That’s all we had to do was write letters. The Navy brought in the mail. The Army were wonderful and I suppose that kept the morale up to have mail delivered to us


regularly but I believe there was a flying boat service to Palestine and it landed on the Sea of Galilee and they would collect the mail from that and put it on the destroyer that was coming up from Alexandria and that would get priority for all the troops. That was a wonderful service. It was a very good move. It helped us greatly.


So thoughts of home were prominent in your mind then?
Oh yes. I wrote to people, wrote to old girlfriends. Anything to get letters. We’d write to anybody. We didn’t have to put a stamp on our letters. They were all delivered free to Australia. Yes, I did a lot of writing.
I guess there was nowhere to buy stamps?


in Tobruk?
No they didn’t. In the early days there was a NAAFI [Navy, Army, Air Force Institute] canteen at the airstrip where the last of our Air fForce was. We had about three aeroplanes left in Tobruk. They were Hurricane fighter planes but they didn’t last long. Two were shot down and the last one they


didn’t use in action. They used it to observe for spotting for the artillery and then they finally chased him home but he cunningly led the Messerschmidt that was chasing him over an anti-aircraft gun and the gun got the Messerschmidt and he crashed or just went straight in


just very close. The NAAFI didn’t last long. I think only two or three days.
Now Ron, while you were in Tobruk there was a change of Government in Australia. Menzies resigned and Curtin became Prime Minister sometime later. Did that have an impact on the people?
None whatsoever. As a matter of fact, unless it was letters from home,


I don’t think we knew anything about it. The Tobruk Echo – there was one fellow typed up a daily news sheet and he used to listen to the BBC and he would get news from that and we could get a sheet and pass it round and that was quite a good move and a couple of


nights we managed to go round to the dugout that he was in and we listened to the BBC. It was wonderful to hear the BBC come in and the news and then later on was a fellow, Lord Haw Haw and he was an Englishman that had gone over to the German side with a very sarcastic way used to broadcast to us


how we would be treated, telling us to surrender making fun of what we were doing and he was the one that christened us “Rats”. “Living in holes in the ground like rats. You’re just Rats of Tobruk” and it stuck and we’re not ashamed of that.
No well it’s become a famous phrase hasn’t it? A famous term. Yes.
Yes that’s right.
And were you living in a hole in the ground?
Oh yes.


Yes. We had to. We first of all – the first couple of nights – it was pretty hard ground to get into. It was heavy shale and we used to dig a slit trench and just lie in that mainly on your back looking up at the anti-aircraft cover or something like that but they put up such a heavy anti-aircraft


barrage that the shrapnel would fall and it would zing down and it was red hot and very sharp and you had to be very careful so we had to dig holes in the ground. Maybe build it up a little way with rocks and then cover over the top with whatever material we could get with heavy rock from that then if we were strafed from the air you had a bit of protection with the rock cover.


Yes, you had to wear tin helmets all the time because of the shrapnel falling down from the terrific barrage. It was a wonderful cover. Really they did a great job.
The hats?
No, the anti-aircraft barrage that they put up. They were English anti-aircraft people and they could cover the harbour so effectively


or any other area they had a series of patterns worked out that they would go after and
We’ll just have to pause there while Rosemary changes the tapes over.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 06


So it sounds as though you were very thankful for the artillery regiment and also to the Navy is that right?
The Navy and the anti-aircraft people. Yes. They were wonderful.
Because sometimes there has been friction between branches of the armed services. Was that different in Tobruk? Was that not the


case in Tobruk?
When you say friction, the Northumberland Fusilier Machine Gun Regiment were in Tobruk and they were very light on. They had lost a lot of men in the battle further up at Benghazi. They were short of equipment and they needed reinforcements and


our unit were the reinforcements for the Northumberland Fusilier Machine Gun Regiment and they mixed very well with them. In battle or in action I don’t think there was any ill feeling between any of the services. The Navy were our lifesavers.


The Air Force were non-existent because they only lasted a few days and all the other boys got on very well together but it was on leave when perhaps some of these feelings came about. Whether it was jealousies from boastings or what have you. I don’t know but I didn’t witness any of it but I believe there were a few battles


and there were quite a few battles with the South Africans and our boys but that was out of action and I don’t know what caused it. It’s almost like a fight between Collingwood and Carlton supporters I suppose. It was that sort of thing which I can’t tell you about because I didn’t witness any of it. I’d heard about it


but I certainly didn’t experience anything. I met some Tommy soldiers on leave in Jerusalem and we went out together and had a wonderful time.
So in Tobruk, I mean the whole of Tobruk was essentially a battlefield the whole time wasn’t it?
Right. Yes.
So people did pull together then?
Oh yes. Yes.
Well, I mean it would have been impossible if they hadn’t,


wouldn’t it?
Oh there was never ever any thought of it. It was just we supported each other and I can remember the last of the fighter pilot boys. I met them because my section was camped just near the airstrip as I told you and they were trying to get some beer from the NAAFI Canteen


and they said “It look’s as though we’re going to have a busy time. Do you think you could get us a beer before we go up?” They were awfully nice fellows. One pilot in particular, I looked at him and thought “You’re just a kid”. No I couldn’t fault any part of it. I thought it was wonderful.
Oh, well that’s great. Now the holes in the ground


that you slept in. How deep were they?
Well, we moved about a lot and there were a lot of wadis in Tobruk.
Now you’ll have to tell me what a wadi is?
A wadi is a little gully that maybe the period of time and flood rains when they came and water they’d wash down cause a little gully that usually went down to the sea but it’s made up of erosion and things


like that and there were caves in these wadis and we used those quite a lot. We didn’t dig them but we did use them. But the fleas in them you would not believe. You’d go in and inspect them to see if they were alright and you’d come out and you’d be in shorts, army boots and socks and you’d roll your socks down


and there would be hundreds of fleas round your leg and you’d have to pull them off. So we still had to occupy these blessed caves and what we used to do was get high octane air force fuel which wasn’t needed any more because we didn’t have anymore aeroplanes and we’d splash all around the floor


and the walls and everywhere. Then we’d run a trail for about twenty yards away, set fire to the trail and it would run up and whoosh and the heat that was generated and with the fire and what have you killed the fleas. It was so hot you couldn’t occupy the cave until it cooled down but we did that. On the other


side when we were not in caves and we were on the flat where we were the first time. We went down as deep as we could with pick and shovel and I suppose we got down about 2’6” and there were a few rocks around and we could gather those and make the wall a little bit higher and fairly thick and then we’d scrounge around


and get a canopy or something from a broken or wrecked battalion vehicle, put that over the top of it and then put rocks over the top of that to have a natural sort of camouflage as well as a safety thing. You’d crawl in on your hands and knees and you’d be reasonably safe unless you got a direct hit of course.
It doesn’t sound very comfortable.


No, well there were a lot of fleas in the sand as well and it was – well look it wasn’t a Sunday School picnic. I’ll tell, you know and of course there weren’t any latrines or anything like that. It was a strange place.
So it must have been quite smelly?
Well it wasn’t


that’s the strange part about it. I mean for a bit of modesty you’d walk a reasonable distance from where you were at and then you’d perform whatever you wanted to do but then the desert is infected with a beetle that lives off the faeces and they would appear from nowhere and gobble it up and it would be all gone


in no time. Horrible thing to talk about but it happened and it kept the place free of so many problems. Had it been any other way and we had to dispose of things and have cans and what have you, it could have been quite a problem but these beetles did the job for us and did a very good job.
Kept everything quite hygienic in fact.
Oh yes. Yes.
So you had the blasted fleas on the one hand but the blessed beetles on the other?
Exactly. Exactly, yes.


There was some talk that they were going to bring them to Australia and let them loose to try and keep the flies down because of the animal manure and stuff that was around. I didn’t hear anymore but I did read about it a while back.
And, again forgive me if this is a naïve question, but did you get any time off? Any time for recreation?


Yes. There were no parades or things. You did your job and when it was finished you didn’t have to do anymore until the next job came up. So we didn’t have any washing water and couldn’t wash our bodies very well and the sea was close handy and you no doubt have been overseas and on


the south side of the Mediterranean you’ve got lovely golden sand and on the south of France and those places, they’re pebbly old beaches. So we had some sandy beaches and we used to go and have a dip in the sea. You couldn’t get a soap lather or anything but at least you could have a good old wash and swim around until Jerry found out that


we were doing that and he used to pay us a bit of attention with the Messerschmidt fighter plane but we could get a dip between those attacks.
If the planes came over while you were swimming, was it a protection to go under the water or would the bullets travel?
Didn’t try it. I was well out of the water. I think that would be too risky. First of all you


mightn’t be able to hold your breath for long enough but there would be an aircraft siren warning that that thing was coming so it was only the foolish that would remain.
I imagine with all the heat and the dust and the noise and so on of the desert and the battlefield that it would have been fantastic to jump in the water. Was it? What was it like when you


finally got some leave and you got a chance to go for a dip. Was that a real…?
Well it wasn’t leave. You’d just wander down from where you were because we were very close to the water and we couldn’t swim in the harbour because it was too dangerous and it was too oily with all the wrecks around and all the oil around we used to swim on the coastline


out of the harbour area and the infantry boys used to come down for a break to the sea but they didn’t like being down there very much. They didn’t enjoy the attention from the aircraft and preferred their own warfare and they used to go – we’d provide transport to bring them down if they wanted to come but a lot of them weren’t very happy in our


area at all.
Now is this where you developed your love of swimming?
No, no. It wasn’t. I’ve always swum. I’ve always enjoyed water sports.
It’s alright. Just wondering.
Yep, I swam at school in the school sports. I enjoyed swimming.
And what were some of


the other things that people did for morale or for recreation just to keep your spirits up?
Played cards. You yarned. You talked for hours. Wrote letters but there was nothing else.
Any music?


Did people use to sing? Did people sing together?
Oh, we tried to. I mean there was a lot of time that you had and you remember me telling you about our Sergeant Major who was a delightful fellow. Not a strict disciplinarian but wanted very high standards and he was an English guy who’d come out as a young fellow to Australia and he was a lot older


than we were. Actually he was lucky to get in. I think he was at least 38 or 39 when he enlisted but he was a great guy and we were trying to sing one night. We were sitting round talking and singing and he said “Now I want some of you to sing ‘igh and some of you to sing low and we’ll see how we go” so we tried to sing and make some


harmony but it didn’t work out too well.
What sorts of songs would you sing?
Oh look, they were mainly First World War songs. “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” because everybody seemed to know them. That sort of song.
So you didn’t have any radio to listen to, gramophones?
Oh no, no. We used to walk to this one fellow that had a radio and he was with the signal company and that’s how


we would get but no they were actually – they were forbidden and cameras were forbidden. Some of the boys did have cameras.
So were there long periods where you were really bored?
There was a longing – “Oh I wonder when we’ll get out


of this place”. Not a fear. It was incredible the feeling when you were in siege. There was a never a thought at any time that the Germans would come and get us. There was always a feeling that we would break out and it was going to be a movement from Egypt up to relieve us and that held fast all along but there was never a


low morale that way and when some of the boys got an “Alex” as we called it we envied them but no, the morale was not real bad. I think a lot of that was thanks to the Army getting letters through and also
The Navy getting…
I know Edna’s mother made a cake and put it in a cake tin and sewed it up


in calico and addressed it and they even delivered that and several of the boys got that way and I can remember one of the boys got a parcel from Melbourne. Charlie Frances, a dear old fellow. His mother-in-law had sent him a parcel and you wouldn’t believe what was in it. A tin of camp pie which is bully beef which was our ration and we hated it. We joked about that


for ages afterwards that she sent him a tin of bully beef that we were sick of.
Were you getting Red Cross parcels?
No. No.
So there was just personal parcels that you received?
Do you think it helped morale that your General stayed in Tobruk? That General Morshead stayed in Tobruk with you?
He was very highly respected and not that we saw


him. I didn’t see our commanding officer the whole time we were in Tobruk, the lieutenant of our section. In the latter stages our officer changed a couple of times but he was with us. We didn’t see him but we respected him because we knew of his tactics and what he was doing but I think as I told you before, in those days in the Army


we were not told where we were going, what we had to do or what we should expect. It was only in the latter stages of the war that this happened and it was a big change and made a big difference to us to know what to expect but the Army was more or less “Well we’ve got it all planned, you just do as you’re told and you’ll be right and this is the job we’ve got to do”. But I think General


Montgomery changed all that with El Alamein. We didn’t do El Alamein, the 9th Division did that but I believe they were all thoroughly informed before they went in as to what to expect and what they were going to do.
And do you think that made it easier or harder?
A lot easier. Oh yes. More purposeful too.
That’s really interesting.
But that didn’t happen with us until we did the Balikpapan


invasion later on.
Well, I’m fascinated that you were convinced you would win at the siege of Tobruk. That you would either drive the Germans back or that there would be a move up from Egypt.
Exactly. Yes.
That’s amazing you had that conviction.
Yes. Everybody was. I never heard of anybody feel that the Germans would get in and take us captive.
Even although they


in fact did capture…
They surrounded us yes.
Well they captured quite a few men from Tobruk.
Oh they did but in percentage wise not a lot. They’d got them further up at Benghazi and places like that. They got a few of the patrols that went out where they had a battle or a skirmish with the Germans but if


one of our boys was wounded and they had patched him up and they weren’t able to evacuate him and our boys had gone out on another patrol or offensive the next night, nine times out of ten that wounded fellow would be there in the area that


he’d been taken with his wounds dressed and water beside him and whilst German fellows were our enemy they were respected in a funny sort of a way and Rommel was respected in a funny sort of a way and yes, we had a different feeling for the Germans that we had for the Japanese


for instance.
A bit later on I’ll ask you more about attitudes to the Japanese. I think that difference is very important. Did you have a sense that the Germans were humane enemies if you like?
I think they played war by the rules. Yes. That was our feeling.
That sounds very significant that they returned the wounded.


Yes, well that’s so. I didn’t personally experience it but I’ve had association with infantrymen since the war and also stories that got round in Tobruk of this happening so I believe it was true. Yes. But some, of course, were taken were prisoner as well that weren’t wounded.
Yes, I seem to recall that quite a few of the 26th Division, 26th


Brigade were taken prisoner in one offensive. Would you have known about that?
Yes. Yes.
And what was the affect on morale when there were losses like this?
Well disappointment that it had happened. They put a mighty effort into getting in and they drove a dent or as they called it a salient into the line and of course


that meant we were not in the defensive pill boxes or have the tank trap with us and it weakened that area quite a bit and I believe they had two or three goes at getting it back and they were unsuccessful and that’s when the prisoners were taken but eventually they put a tremendous effort into getting it back and finally got it back.


But yes, they did get in at one stage.
Now Ron, you talked earlier about how terrifying it was to be strafed by machine gun from the air.
Were there men you saw that broke down under that kind of pressure who couldn’t cope with it anymore?
Yes, yes there were.
Could you tell me a bit about them? You don’t have to name them.


Well, yes there were. Sadly in the main they were fellows that we realised now were too old for war. They were in their late 30’s and could have been in their 40’s and wound the clock back a bit to be accepted and it was sad to see them.


I remember walking in to the headquarters of the particular section that I was at and one of the NCOs. He was a senior technician and we were subject to a bit of an attack and he was virtually trying to climb the wall, climbing the wall. Why he was doing that I


don’t know but it was sad to see. He had to be evacuated. It was too cruel to keep him there. Others were rather frightened and didn’t want to come out of their fox holes. Yes there were a percentage and you were sensitive to that. You could encourage them. You could work with them and then if an air raid


siren came as a warning you could say “Well now I think if you go for cover now might be the best way” and that was one way of helping some of those that were a bit nervous but yes there were a few. They call them bomb happy.
Well I think I would be one of those people.
Oh no you wouldn’t.
(Laughs) How did you overcome the fear personally.


How did you?
Well I think it’s in your make up and the other thing is you were given a responsibility in charge of men which I took rather seriously. I was only a young fellow but as I said I had fellows in my section who were old enough to be my father and I enjoyed having the responsibility and I think that helped me a lot. A great deal.
So you think it was the sense of having to


show leadership and having to be responsible for your men
Yes, I’m sure it was.
that helped you on?
Helped me later in life too. I’m sure it did.
Now you talked earlier – yesterday you mentioned that you’d joined supply because you didn’t want to kill anyone. You didn’t want to have to kill anyone but you wanted to be part of the war effort.
It’s not my make up. I can’t kill a bird.


It’s just me and yet I’m not gutless, I’m just different (laughs)
Well sometimes it’s the cowardly who kill the most isn’t it?
I don’t know about that. But I could defend myself. I mean if anybody was doing – I wouldn’t hesitate.
So were you ever in a position where you had to defend yourself?
No, fortunately, no but I was prepared


particularly you were asking did we have rifles. Well we did but when we went to New Guinea we had revolvers and everywhere I went I carried a revolver. I was quite prepared.
So you got ammunition for your revolver? You did well.
Oh yes. Oh yes.
Others we’ve spoken to got revolvers but no ammunition.
Oh in training periods but not in action.


So you never had to defend yourself with arms?
So that’s fabulous. Did you ever witness somebody else dying? Were you ever present when somebody else was hit?
No, I


fortunately I had one fellow burn to death and that was sad.
How did that happen?
He was on fire, panicked and ran round the desert and we couldn’t catch him. There were flames all over him and finally


we got him and raced him to hospital and I stayed with him while they – he was just in a pair of shorts and boots and he was in a bit of a mess and I helped them get his trousers off and they said “Well, we’ll have to take him now into theatre” but they didn’t have the equipment


in Tobruk to handle that. There was no saline bath or anything. He was so badly burned he only lasted 2 or 3 days and he died and that’s the closest I had. He didn’t die in my presence but he died. I went to see him and he was in a net and


it was sad.
How did he catch on fire?
A drum of petrol exploded and it was dreadful.
So this was the danger of working in supply wasn’t it?
Oh yes. Dangerous working anywhere there.
Did you ever come across self-inflicted wounds? People who


shot themselves in the foot to get out?
A lot of fellows threatened to but they were only joking. No, I didn’t. Towards the end they were saying “I’d do anything. I’ll shoot myself in the foot” or something like that. But no, they never did. Never.
I’m amazed because I think it must have been kind of oppressive that sense of being stuck there.


Was it?
Well, we accepted it. I don’t know. There was a job to be done. We had a wonderful unit, I told you before. A great crowd of fellows. We trusted them so much and we got on with the job and we got it done and we hoped – we were always hopeful of relief and that we were going to be relieved.


We finally were but we were evacuated by the Navy.
Do you think people’s – men’s religious faith helped them. Was that part of hanging on? People’s faith, people’s religious conviction. Was that a prominent part of …?
No. No. No church. I think the Catholic boys may have


gone but there weren’t many in my section. But some of them would but the Catholic priest that was in the Tobruk General Hospital he was such a busy boy and a wonderful boy, wonderful fellow, that he was busy enough where he was. You were asking did I ever see anybody. I attended


the funerals of any of my boys that had to be buried and that was pathetic. That worried me. They put them in the shallow grave because it was so hard to dig and they didn’t have pneumatic tools and things and they buried them in an Army blanket and it was,


they were wrapped in an Army blanket and I think there were safety pins pinning the blanket up and then they’d lower them down into the gravesite and they would sag, you know one at the head and the body would sag as they lowered them in and the Padre would be there and offer a prayer and that was hard to part with them.


Any materials to make a cross?
Yes, there was a little white cross made of wood put at the head of the grave. First of all to identify the grave.
But no flowers, no music?
Oh Lord no. It was all over so quickly because the padres were pretty busy doing that.
So some of the boys in your


section did become casualties.
Oh yes. In our unit.
In your unit, sorry.
I had one amputee as I told you about and then I had two who were killed and that was quite enough for a small section.
And did they die from machine gun


fire or from bombs?
No, one died from the serious petrol burns and the other died, as I told you, we had a maintenance section and whilst we were not always general transport to give our boys a spell our section would go in and do some of the night work for them. The Germans knew we were unloading


our naval ship from reconnaissance and what have you and they’d come every night to try and bomb this naval ship but it was all perfectly dark. It was very hard for them to find out exactly where it was and with the anti-aircraft barrage coming up they would come across and just drop bombs at random hoping that they might hit it. Well this particular night


instead of dropping bombs they dropped a very large mine that they were hoping would float around in the sea and the naval ship would collect it and be blown up. Unfortunately for our boys this naval mine landed on the land and made one hell of a mess. Destroyed a lot


and there were quite a lot of casualties. One of my fellows who was on duty that night and again I felt so guilty. My best friend Ken Dunne, that I told you about was my corporal and he had taken the section that night because I was having a spell. I’d been on the night before and he came back


and told me that this fellow had been killed. Ron Barassi the famous Melbourne footballer was in our unit and he was killed the same night. So that land mine did a lot of damage on land but didn’t get the naval ship.
So after


how long? Five months?
Five months, yes.
Finally you were shipped out?
Well, actually the unit came out at five months and I came out two days before they did. I didn’t know they were coming out. I got very ill and it was the only time that I’d been ill in the Middle East and I went down to


the hospital to the RAP [Regimental Aid Post] centre and I said to the medical officer, I feel terrible and told him the symptoms and how I felt and what I was doing and he pulled down my eyelids and he said “You’ve got an Alex. You report to the hospital immediately and we’ll put you to bed”. So I had a


form of hepatitis from the excessive cordite in the air. It had got into my liver and I was pretty crook for a long time. They put me in a hospital in Alexandria and then I got word through that the unit had followed me out two days later. The Poles had come in


and relieved them so I was pleased that I hadn’t deserted them for ever.
Not the way you’d wanted to leave?
No, it wasn’t. Oh dear it was quite an experience getting out.
And were there Australian nurses in the hospital?
Well that’s another story. First of all one of my pals that we enlisted with heard that I was ill and he came out


on the lighter that put me on the destroyer and made sure I got on safely which was a lovely act for him and he needn’t have done it but he did. I was a stretcher case at Alexandria and taken to an English military hospital and I was pretty sick and I don’t know what happened to me


but I was in a bath and I can remember being bathed by some beautifully dressed English nurses. I thought that I’d died and they were angels or something. I was just all confused. Anyhow they put me to bed and we were in the British hospital for


I suppose a week and after I’d been in bed two or three days I had to stand beside my bed while the English Army medical officer came round and the matron and I couldn’t stand. I had to sit on the bed and the matron said “Stand up” and I said “I can’t”. So then I was paraded because I didn’t accept the discipline and


was told we Australians were a bad influence on their boys and we were going to be moved from the hospital and there was a vacancy in our AGH[Australian General Hospital] in Alex and we were transferred there.
We might have to pause there. I think the tape’s about to run out.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 07


So you were transferred out of the English hospital as a bad influence?
By ambulance yes. Not just me. There were I suppose half a dozen Australians as well so I wasn’t the recalcitrant one. The contrast was so great. They were obviously expecting us and there


were a line of lovely Australian nurses waiting for us with a smile all over their faces. They wouldn’t let us touch a thing. We were walking patients of course at that stage. They carried all our gear, got us into bed and made sure we were comfortable. I was put in a room on my own. I suppose they weren’t quite sure what it


was. I didn’t have any medication the whole time I was there. Just put on an extremely difficult diet. Fat free diet which apparently was the way of treating the liver infection that I had.
So, you hadn’t been around any women for a long time especially not Australian women. How was it to see these Australian nurses?
Oh it was wonderful. Just to see that smile and hear


the Australian voices and a feeling of understanding and of course they’d had such a busy time with the evacuation of Greece and Crete and it was all coming in through Alexandria and they’d been very busy girls but yes it was wonderful. They’d come in and talk to you and it was so different.


I enjoyed it. I was getting better quite quickly. I was up and walking around after about a week in that hospital and I was kept there for another fortnight and the Germans put on an air raid for us while we were there. Of course there was a lot of naval activity in the Alexandria Harbour


and they were flying around and it was quite interesting. I wanted to compare the ack ack barrage compared with Tobruk and I was heading on my way up the stairs to get on the roof of the hospital and one of the nurses was there with a lantern and made me go back to bed. I wasn’t allowed up there to see it.


But they were lovely.
Were there any particular nurses you remember?
No, I don’t.
So once you were well, were you then transferred – posted directly to Syria?
No, I wasn’t. They had a convalescent camp near Haifa on the sea and there were a lot of troops there and I was kept there for


about a fortnight and then when they felt I was reasonably right I went back to a drafting depot in Palestine and then moved to our unit who had come out of Tobruk, had a short time in Palestine and had moved on to Syria.
Now just in that convalescent camp. I’m guessing there were people from all


the services there, all the different divisions.
Yes. Yes.
Was that a chance to exchange news? Did you all chat to each other about the battles you’d been in?
Oh yes. We were all strangers. You’d be in a tent with about six others and yes the usual talk of “Where have you come from?” “Where have you been?” “What have you been doing?”. It seemed to form a pattern. Army chatter. They


were interested in each other and I was amused – I can still remember there was one fellow, an older man but he used to smoke a pipe with a bend in it. He’d wake about every two hours and fill his pipe and have a smoke and then settle back to sleep again. That always amused me. They were good fellows. There were quite a lot of nerve cases that had been there a long


time and I don’t know how they’d finish up or what they were going to do with them.
How were they treated? What was their medical treatment?
It just seemed to be resting and having – you could get leave to Haifa if you wanted it. It was a pretty easy sort of life.
And what were their symptoms, the nerve cases?
What were their symptoms? I couldn’t


recognise any. It’s just that they told me they were in that particular ward. It was a special area and I don’t know how they were treated quite frankly. Same as one of the troop ships we came on. They had a ward of nerve cases and an old school pal of mine I met on


board this particular troop ship, the New Amsterdam and I was surprised to see him and I asked him a bit and he said “Oh, I’m in the bomb happy ward. My nerves are shot.” But he was very trembly. His hands were very trembly. It’s a shame to see them go that way.
Because there was no debriefing or counselling


or anything like that for the soldiers, was there?
Not to my knowledge, no. Not to my knowledge. Medical science hadn’t advanced at that stage to handle that.
And were you missing your unit by then?
Yes I was. I was so pleased to get back. I was. I was always fearful that I mightn’t get back. You go to this base reinforcement


depot and really you don’t know what the Army is going to do to you and they held me for a while because of my experience in Tobruk to do a little bit of lecturing and experiences, stories but there was always that nervousness and you couldn’t do anything about it. Fortunately I was drafted back to


my unit and we went some of the way by road and then some of the way by train.
Now Aleppo is quite a different scenario from Tobruk isn’t it?
Oh, yes we were in Paris we thought. It was wonderful. An old world city. It had trams. We’d never had it so good. It was great. We could get leave to go into


the town of a night. There was no action. The troops were doing the Turkish border patrol and our boys were taking supplies up to them. We were based in Aleppo and the trips would be day trips. It was great. We had a wonderful time in Aleppo. It was more or less a rest time for us.
Because you were then


more or less garrison duty, wasn’t it?
Yes. The action was all over. The main 7th Division did all the action but it was well over by the time we got there.
So tell me about the city of Aleppo? What did it look like? What did it smell like?
Well it had a smell of the East. It had the typical architecture of the East. It had an old fort


there that we used to drive past every day. Magnificent old building. I think the Romans had built it or one of those. They had an enormous cave out of the town a little bit which was used for ammunition storage and that was more or less camouflaged by a cemetery that was over the top


of the cave so it was a natural camouflage. There were trams running through the city and we used to go in. We’d go to the pictures and they’d have text messages in languages. One across the bottom, Arabic on one side and another language coming down the other side and we’d go and see different films and


have coffee at a little coffee house before we came home. I couldn’t handle the Syrian meat. It was a lamb type of thing but it was a rank horrible meat and the smell of it put me off and I think having had the illness that affected my liver helped to put me off this and I couldn’t eat the meat but the boys


in the mess were all waiting on my plate to be brought in so they could hop in and eat it. I’d eat the vegetables but I just couldn’t eat the meat. They used to sell lovely little cooked chickens. Very small chickens and when we went to the pictures or went into the town, I’d buy a chicken and they kept me alive. I lived on this lovely chicken and I think it helped my health


as well.
What did you make of the local people?
They were very nice in most cases. We had civilians working at the campsite. A barber, a tailor and the kids were not allowed in but the shoeshine boys were lined up on the roadway just in front of our barracks. Our barracks were


an old factory. A textile factory of some description and had been stripped out where we had our digs and these kids use to wash our boots then clean them for us for a few pence or akers as they were. Then the barber would cut our hair. We got quite friendly with the barber and he took us home


one night for drinks and some of their food. The drinks were arak and that’s pretty strong stuff and they’d pour one lot to you and then you’d keep adding water to it. It would go cloudy and you’d drink that. He introduced us to his family and what have you. That was the only occasion we went into the home


of anybody. I enjoyed that. We had a lovely canteen and you could buy beer quite reasonably well.
Now you’d been a great dancer before you went away. Did you go to any of …?
No, there was no – you couldn’t fraternise with any females at all in those countries. No. That was frowned upon. I don’t


think they’d be allowed to dance the way we would dance. No, I didn’t experience that. There was one place we used to go to for coffee after the pictures, nearby the picture theatre. They used to have lovely cakes and we loved that. I remember for Christmas the proprietor turned on supper for us


free of charge with cakes. We thought he was pretty good too. But then there were other out of bounds areas that they policed quite rigidly. Some places we were not welcome but they were classed out of bounds anyhow. There were restricted areas.
Why were they restricted?
There were patrols


to keep the troops out of those areas and some of the boys that would get a bit unruly at night would sometimes try and get in these places and then there’d be a little bit of a fracas and military police would come in immediately and close them down. Told them they had to stay closed for a week or whatever it is they had command. Also Aleppo


had an area where there must have been hundreds of brothels and that was out of bounds to the troops. The various units had to make up pickets and we’d go through, if it was your turn to go on duty to go through this area with military police who were familiar with the area to make sure none of the troops were there.


You’d go through all these brothels and what have you and honestly it was an education and some of the prostitutes were old enough to be your grandmother. Horrible sights and what have you but it seems dreadful to say but it was a duty we didn’t mind doing. There was a bit of fun in observing it, these dirty places but it was an experience.
Now after


your time in Syria, by January 1942 the orders come through that the 7th Division is to come back to the Pacific. When did you get your marching orders? When were you departed from Palestine?
It came very quickly. It must have been early in February I would think because we were told to get vehicles ready. Even disabled vehicles to get towbars


for them to tow them down. Everything had to go and go in a hurry. I remember that very well and we set off in shocking weather because we’d had a white Christmas in Aleppo, our first white Christmas and we headed off to the coast through the township of


Syrian Tripoli. There were two Tripolis in the Middle East and then we took the coast road through Beirut and down to Palestine but it was a fairly quick convoy and I can remember I was given control of a section of vehicles. They transported in sections


and I had to ride an English Matchless motorbike. That was the brand of it. In this pouring rain. Had gloves and the rain was hitting me in the face. It was terrible and it was raining but when the weather improved it was quite pleasant.
So you really went from one extreme to the other, from the desert to the snow?


Yes, that’s right. We had one mishap on the way down. One of our maintenance vehicles which was a workshop vehicle was stacked with a lot of stuff and it had equipment and something must have shorted on a battery and it caught fire and it was ablaze very quickly and we had to get a chain


bucket line and put it out. We thought we might lose it but we saved it before it burnt down to the tyres but the front of it wasn’t burnt so we got it home. That was just before Beirut but other than that it was incident free.
That’s quite enough of an incident, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s right.
Now I’m going to skip ahead a bit because we’re going to run out of time otherwise. So forgive me if I jump forward a little bit. Then you embarked


from Palestine?
Do you remember the name of the ship?
The New Amsterdam.
The New Amsterdam?
Yes we went down to the Betas Lakes to get on that or just close to Suez. That was a Dutch luxury cruiser and it had a Dutch crew and they looked after us very well. We had a wonderful trip. We went to


Colombo on that and then we stopped in Colombo for quite a while. Again we didn’t know where we were going but we knew the Japanese were in the war and we had to surmise that we were going somewhere and after a number of ships had arrived in Colombo we were marshalled into


a convoy and we set off with the heaviest flotilla of naval ships I’ve ever seen. There were naval ships all round these troop ships. Even the Ramillies, the HMS battleship Ramillies was there and it was so impressive and we felt so safe. We knew we were going into a danger zone. We didn’t know what to expect but we thought


“My God, with this escort we’re going somewhere hot” and we headed off. We went to sleep that night and we came to next morning and the convoy had changed direction.
Now prior to that, just before you go on. Where did you think you were going?
Well, we knew we were going to Malaya but we weren’t sure but we thought we would be going to Singapore.


And then that morning we woke up?
That morning we woke up and we’d changed direction. We’d lost some of the convoy escort and we realised something had changed dramatically. Then word came through because the ships were in contact with radio that Singapore had fallen and we were heading due south then so we realised we must be heading for Australia.
What was the impact of that news


upon you and your men. That Singapore had fallen?
It was depressing news quite frankly because we thought Singapore was impregnable and it was disappointing. Then we got news that some of our wonderful naval ships had been sunk as well with great reputation. That made us wonder what in the heck was going to


happen next. Also there was the fear that they perhaps would be coming to Australia. We didn’t know but we wondered if that would be next. That was a general concern. Yes.
When you heard that Singapore had fallen did you also learn then that most of the 8th Division had been taken prisoner in the surrender?
No, at that stage we didn’t know


whether they had been evacuated or what had happened. Stories came through later, really when we got back to Australia. Singapore had fallen with no practically action at all. It had been just overwhelmed and no shots were fired.
Now, I’m going to skip ahead many years here and just


refer to something you mentioned yesterday because in fact you did go to Singapore many years later didn’t you?
Yes I did.
Could you tell me about that?
Well this was well after the war and my wife and I did quite a lot of overseas travel and on one particular trip we stopped at Singapore and I wanted to go to the war cemetery. I had a number of friends


who were in the 8th Division and I wanted to have a look at the cemetery. Fortunately none of them were in that particular cemetery but I wandered around and it was a lovely day and it’s a beautiful cemetery. Beautifully kept. It’s very impressive. I said to Edna “Look, I just want you to go and sit


down in the sun and leave me alone”. I wandered around through the graves looking at the ages of them and their numbers and the units they were in and I found myself talking quietly to them and I didn’t feel ashamed that I was doing it. I just felt that I was communicating with them, telling them well done, they’d done a great job and what a shame it was to


finish this way. It’s stupid I know, but I’ve got to admit, I did it and that’s the story. When I came back and told my wife, she gave a second look at me but that’s me.
Sounds really special. Sounds like a really important thing to do.
It was very impressive to me. It really hit me.


So back to 1942 and you’re coming home for the first time in two years?
That’s right. Yes. Well we sailed in 1940 so we arrived in Fremantle and we had leave for a day and it was


great. We went by train from the wharf to Perth and everybody was so pleased to see us. They greeted us and they had a dance and lot of the young girls had come to this dance and they were our partners and we had a wonderful time. But we had to be back before midnight.


Yes it was a lovely reception the people of Perth gave us.
And then you were back to Melbourne?
Back on a ship and we went to Adelaide and we berthed and that was where our sea journey finished at Adelaide. We were in camp in Adelaide and we were there for a few weeks.


So when did you finally get back home?
Oh, the married men with family – married men I think it was – were allowed leave from Adelaide and we then had to take the heavy transport by road through Victoria. They kept us well clear of Melbourne, wisely, took us


up through Albury and Goulburn, Gundagai and we finally ended in a town in northern NSW called Tenterfield and made a campsite at Tenterfield and it was from there we were given leave to go to Melbourne after all this time, we got seven days leave and that was pretty tough.


We made the most of it and by the time we came back from leave, the unit had moved further north to a little town west of, slightly northwest of Brisbane called Kilcoy. Lovely town, beautiful country.
Now on that leave, tell me about seeing your Dad again? How was it to see your Dad?
Well, it was great. We arrived


and again they got news of us arriving. We didn’t contact them but they seemed to know and my father and my stepmother came in to meet me and of course he had his wonderful flash motorcar that he always had that I told you about and plenty of room. I think we took two or three


of the boys home with me because they lived nearby. They were all our pals and they lived locally. I’ll never forget the first port of call was to a Geoff Dunne’s place. Not my best friend – there were two Dunne friends of mine and his mother was out the front of his house with his two sisters and of course we all embraced each other, kissed each other and hugged each other.


I’ll never forget when I got back in the car my stepmother said “You shouldn’t have done that, Ron. That’s not the right thing to do.”
How did you feel when she said that?
It didn’t worry me. It was her makeup and I was used to it by then. Then we got home


and I spent a bit of time at home and by then I’d done a lot of communication with Edna. I think I told you before the war I’d taken her to a dance or two and we’d met on this cruise but apart from that I hadn’t seen her other than to say goodbye. We’d been corresponding and we’d got to know


each other a little bit so I said to my Dad, “Look, I think I’d like to pop down and see Edna”. No that’s not quite true. It was another leave. It was a weekday and she was working and I rang home and her mother told me that she was working but I could ring her at the office.


It was then night time and she’d been working back so I said “Well, I’ll ring her”. I rang her and told her I was in Melbourne. I had sent her a telegram from Perth. We were allowed to send two telegrams when we arrived free of charge and so she was more or less expecting me home sometime.


Then she came out on the train from the city to Camberwell and I took her home. That was really the first time we were together as a friendship, although I had a couple of other friendship letter girls but I spent more time with her and it looked as though she was the one.
So when did you pop the question?


Oh, well that wasn’t for a while later. We spent that time together and then we went back to Kilcoy and from Kilcoy we sailed from Brisbane to Milne Bay and after the action in Milne Bay and things settled down


I was directed to attend a school in Geelong. The Australian Army were to get new vehicles and with my expertise and what have you we were going to check these vehicles mechanically and every other way to make sure we were familiar with them and the way they operated and this was a six week course which was a long course


at Osborne House, Geelong. I came out just before Christmas of 1942 on a Qantas Camilla Flying Boat. It had the inside stripped out of it and it had, I suppose, about 20 fellows in it. It was flown by Qantas pilots, not Air Force and


we took off from Milne Bay with a load of mail and a few other things with great difficulty because the sea was so smooth they couldn’t break the suction but we eventually got off. We only went as far as Townsville on that. It was a lovely trip flying over the Barrier Reef. It was beautiful.
Your first time in an aeroplane?


Yes, it was. First time in an aeroplane. Yes. So I quite enjoyed it. A bit bumpy because they didn’t fly very high. I got used to that. No seatbelts or anything. You just sat on the floor. Anyhow we landed and then we went by train south. It’s a long way from Townsville. We landed in,


I had one Army mate with me who was going on to Perth. He was taking up a posting with his brother in Perth and we arrived in Sydney on Christmas morning and here we were in Sydney. We didn’t know a soul. We didn’t know what to do. So we decided we’d get on a ferry boat and go


over to Manly and the only shop open in Manly on Christmas day was a fish and chip shop so we went in and had fish and chips for Christmas dinner in 1942. We celebrated Christmas that way.
So Ron, was it on that six week course in Geelong that you decided to propose to Edna?
Yes. After about five weeks we got leave and we got to know


each other fairly well. You realise really we knew each other for five weeks and a few days. Apart from that it was correspondence. After about five weeks, about a week before I went. I didn’t ask her would she marry me, I told her I wanted her to marry me. So that was it, yes.


Then I went back to New Guinea.
Did you have any qualms about getting engaged when you were going back into a war zone?
No. Because everybody else was doing it. I think you got engaged or married because everybody else seemed to be doing it. Quite frankly. I remember again


my dear old father. I told him “I’ve got to get an engagement ring”. There weren’t any in the shops for sale. He said “I know a few people, we might be able to find one”. Didn’t have any choice. He just came home with an engagement ring. That was it.
So before you were engaged, you were deployed to Milne Bay in August 1942 was it? Were you there for the Battle of Milne Bay?


Now tell me about that, Ron.
Well, it was mainly an infantry battle. The Japanese were a very strong force. They were Japanese marines and they were in stature – quite big fellas and very strong and they put up quite a good fight but our


fellows had cleared, were clearing an air strip and they had to come through that way and of course they got into the open and our boys were waiting for them and ready for them and the Japanese casualties were very high.
Where exactly were you in Milne Bay? Were you in the depot?
Gilli Gilli. Oh we were scattered around a bit. You had to be with vehicles. You couldn’t have them all concentrated


in the one spot. But the roads were shocking. Our vehicles were not equipped for the conditions. We brought the vehicles from the Middle East. They were new vehicles – wonderful but they had sand tyres on them for the desert conditions and of course we arrived in the mud. Communication was dreadful. We had to get ammunition from the wharf. We had to get fuel


from the wharf and other supplies and take them to the various base depots and the vehicles, the roads were formed but they weren’t sealed and they had high crowns on them and if you got off the top of the crown and slid to the side of the road, you just couldn’t get out even though they were four wheel drives. The tyres had no grip. We were in quite a lot of bother for a long


So what did you do? What did you work out you could do if you got bogged or if you came off the side?
Well, we had smaller four wheel drive vehicles fortunately that had a bit more grip and we had them on the road 24 hours a day with tow ropes or with winches pulling them out. The drivers were just doing the best they could. But if there was a vehicle coming towards you and one had to give way then


it was doomed to go into the side but eventually we got chains over from the mainland and not enough chains to go all round but we put chains on the front wheels of the vehicles so they could get a grip and hold to the crown and then we were able to do a much better job. But we had to have a 24 hour a day road patrol


pulling vehicles out of bogged situations. It was pretty tough.
We’ll pause there just to change the tapes.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 08


So arriving in Milne Bay. Tell me what the conditions were like in New Guinea compared with what you experienced in the Middle East?
The contrast was so great it was unbelievable. We hated the humidity. It was raining. Rainy season. I believe it is the heaviest rainfall area


in New Guinea and yet we had lovely fresh water all the time. We could shower. We could heat water and have showers. Had plenty to drink and that contrast was wonderful. But when you got inland we felt we couldn’t breathe. It was very oppressive and if we possibly could of a night if we were a bit free we would go down near


the coast somewhere just to get fresh air but it was dreadful. The action moved on from Milne Bay and the story is told, we had a wonderful brigade commander. Brigadier Wootten and we are told that when he got to New Guinea for the briefing he was shown on the map the track of retreat


through to Port Moresby and he said “I’m not interested in the track of retreat. Show me the track north to Buna, Sanananda and Saputa”. That was his attitude and the boys respected him. A bit like Morshead in Tobruk he was a great leader of men. An aggressive man and the land


battle in Milne Bay was the first defeat of the Japanese of the war. So it was a great morale builder for all the Australian troops in New Guinea. They knew it could be done and then with difficulty the boys in the Owen Stanleys had a victory and then it was tough but it was victorious from then on.
Now you mentioned earlier in the piece that attitudes to the Japanese


were very different from attitudes to the Germans. Could you tell me about that?
Look it developed from stories we heard after the fall of Singapore. The atrocities, the lovely Australian nurses that we worshiped, machine gunned down and I think there was only one survivor, a Sister Bullwinkle.


That was so repulsive to us that we hated them. Then we heard of other things that had filtered through and the Burma rail and all sorts of things like that we knew nothing about. Yes we developed a hate for the Japanese because of those things. That they were ruthless in their attitude rightly


or wrongly but that was the feeling but we had no respect for them and treated them, I suppose, rather badly. But they would have done the same to us.
In what sense, treated them badly. Can you give me an example?
Well, we didn’t take prisoners.
Did you yourself see


any evidence of Japanese atrocities?
No. I wasn’t at the frontline.
But what about the soldiers who were coming back, the wounded who back from the Owen Stanleys?
I wasn’t in the Owen Stanley area. Owen Stanley was in the Port Moresby area. They moved from Port Moresby over the range that way. We went up the east coast. When I say we, some of our fellows went up further. They went as far as Buna.


And that feeling of hatred for the Japanese, was that encouraged by your superior officers, do you think?
Well, when you say encouraged, they had no respect for them. The way they talked about them so I suppose it does filter through.
It was shared, it was a shared attitude then?


Now one of the features of the tropics is insects. Did you get bitten a lot?
Oh yes. Actually malaria – we understand and I think it’s a fact that 80% of the troops in the area at Milne Bay were down with malaria at one time. That was in the very early stages and it was very difficult.


Including yourself?
Including myself. I got my first attack of malaria within ten days of landing there.
Which is the incubation period for malaria.
I must have been bitten as I walked off the ship or something.
Tell me about having malaria. What was that like?
I didn’t know what it was. We’d been working with these 24 hour patrols and we’d been working quite


hard and I thought that I’d got the ‘flu or a wog or something. I didn’t realise what malaria was and I said to the boys “I’m going to have a lie down for a little while” and there were a few jobs to be done and the next thing I know they must have called an ambulance and they came and took me away.


It was so dramatic I suppose that I should be sick after such a short period. The conditions were shocking. We were in an old cow shed because the hospitals were crowded and this was a sort of RAP station with a few primitive beds up


and nets and they were trying to look after us and treat us. They couldn’t wait to test to see what type of malaria it was. They didn’t have the facilities for that. They started treating immediately with quinine at that stage. It was still available. Later on because the source of quinine had been captured by the Japanese we had to use other drugs


so my first bout I didn’t know what type of malaria I had. I had it a couple of occasions after that and had it treated. More pleasant stay in hospital the next time. It was more under control. They had done a wonderful job on the area as well. They sprayed the area with diesoline. There was a lot of stagnant water around and kept the mosquitos


reasonably under control and it wasn’t nearly as bad.
Now you mentioned that there were quite a few improvements to the Milne Bay area over time?
Oh yes, a base was developed. There were two airstrips. The hospital there was developed. The roads were made. When I say made they were


flattened out a bit and put more gravel on the roads and things like that. It was then a base for supplying further north. It was a main base for the eastern side war zone.
Now your duties in Milne Bay were what exactly?
Well I had charge of a maintenance section and we were very busy because


it was hard work on the vehicles and we had to keep them running. That was my favourite sort of thing to do and I put myself in for that and I had a team of very good fellows and I enjoyed it. Yes.
So did you then get out into the jungle at all?
Oh yes. If we wanted timber we’d go into the jungle


and the rain forest timber was very easy to cut. It was slender and it was straight. Once the action was over and we got settled in we built ourselves huts to live in and with some of the dunnage from the ships we were able to make sort of floorboards and we had reasonable digs. Yes, it was quite good.
So tell me about the jungle.


Did you think it was beautiful? Was it scary? Was it relaxing?
Very very thick. To get into it to get the timber, the timber was quite brittle, we would use a four wheel drive vehicle with chains on and drive into it, pushing the scrub or the jungle down until we got to the piece of timber that we wanted. Then chop it down and bring it out.


We sometimes went for walks through and it was – we went to one little native village, very small village. The kiddies were playing. It was lovely to see them swimming and playing around but the jungle was very thick, very dense.
Did you find


the place beautiful? Milne Bay? Was it pretty?
Well it was very green. The rivers were quite pretty. Take away all the other things. There were a lot of coconut groves there. Very big coconut plantations and we were camped in one as a matter of fact.
So were you


eating those?
We used to get the native boys to climb these for a couple of cigarettes and knock down the coconuts. They used to tie their legs with a rope so they were about twelve inches apart and their feet used to grip the palm tree, then with their hands they’d climb up that way. Like a frog


leaping up. Then they got very independent they were getting cigarettes otherwise and they didn’t have to climb coconut trees so no we didn’t. But we’d get them green and lop the top off with a machete and drink the coconut juice that way. It was very nice.
Very nutritious as well I believe?
Yes, it was good. But we daren’t sit under


a coconut tree because the coconuts would fall – the ripe ones – with a great thud and they could do quite a bit of damage I could imagine.
Oh, they can kill you.
We used to hear them lying in bed, thump thump, all the time.
Now when you say the local boys got quite independent, getting cigarettes other ways. What do you mean? What other ways?
Oh well there weren’t that many in the area and they were employed


in other ways to do things and I suppose paid with food and other things and they were a bit lazy. They wouldn’t climb a coconut tree for a couple of fags.
So would you say generally relations with the locals were good, were happy?
Oh yes, there weren’t very many there. There was that village inland a little bit. But apart from that, the Fuzzy Wuzzy was


so respected they were the stretcher bearer that was further up. We didn’t have the need for them in our type of battle but the way they carried the troops out. They were the most respected and lovable people. Wonderful.
Now the Battle of Milne Bay and your subsequent, more than 12 months, 15 months that you were in Milne Bay.


How do you compare that to your time in Tobruk in terms of the air attacks and so on?
Well we had three or four air attacks the whole time we were in Milne Bay. Whereas in Tobruk you’d have that before lunch. So it


was entirely different from base line troops and front line troops are not subject to a lot of air attacks. So it was an entirely – but sadly we, from those few attacks, we lost people. We had people killed, badly wounded they were after our particular area and knew we were doing no doubt


supply jobs and dropped a bomb in our midst and did a bit of damage.
So did you lose some of your men?
Yes we had men killed and wounded. Two killed and a couple badly wounded.
And what were the burials like for those men?
Well, they could be more deeply buried because the soil was such


but again it was a blanket covering and buried with respect with their closest friends with them at the time. Usually they went and the Padre would do the job.
Was there any particular ritual that you followed after a death. Anything in particular that you’d say or do?
No, no, no. There was a cloud over the


area but that was all.
Would you talk about it afterwards?
Oh yes, yes. It was best to talk about it and make sure that but then the headquarters would advise the dependants and things like that.


Aussie men, in general, are well known, for not showing their emotions. Do you think that changed under the stress of war and with the closeness you developed?
If the change was there it wasn’t noticeable.


So not really. Did men cry for instance?
No. No. I never saw a tear in the Army.
What about afterwards? After the war?
I think so. I think there were tears, yes. I think there were.
When you went to the Changi


cemetery, were you able to cry then?
Yes I was. I’ve only been to one Dawn Service and that was enough for me and that was in the very early days when there were only a few people there compared with today. That was quite sad and all the fellows there. I remember the sight


with felt hats. With felt hats removed for certain parts of the ceremony, with the cigarette coughs going on in the early morning. They’d all been smokers. That was sad. That brought a lump in your throat anyhow.
So before we leave Milne Bay and go on to the next part of your war, was there anything


else significant, any high points or low points in Milne Bay?
We were absolutely jack of Milne Bay and couldn’t leave it quickly enough. We wondered when it would come and it was too long to be in that period of time.
So even though it was fairly stress free compared to Tobruk in terms of you being attacked.
It was monotonous,


it was unexciting. We’d get a picture show, outdoor picture show. They had a wonderful vehicle fitted up with twin projectors. They’d put a screen up under a coconut tree and show, I can remember seeing Mrs Miniver. They’d have quite modern films. We’d sit in the rain in our


gas capes. We’d use them for rain capes and hats and watch in the rain sometimes. We’d possibly get a movie once every six weeks or something like that. But we couldn’t get out of Milne Bay. There was no feeling about that place when we left. I had no desire to go back. The boys went back to Tobruk


but nobody in their right senses would go back to Milne Bay.
Alright, so when did you come back to Australia again? About the start of 1944 was it? End of ’43?
1943. Yes I…
You came back to do that training?
Yes. That’s right. We came back to


the Atherton Tablelands. We were landed in Cairns and we were kept on the Atherton Tablelands for quite a while before they let us get back to Melbourne. I suppose it was to rehabilitate us. Fatten us up a bit. We were all pretty skinny and get us fit before they released us down south and we came down


then. A troop train all the way and that was a pretty rough old trip. It took so long to get down. You knew where you were going. The traffic on the railway lines was so heavy. You had periods of waiting and waiting for another train to come through or something


like that. It was dreadful.
So a lot of frustration and boredom in this period?
That’s right. But the lovely people used to feed us at the railway stations at meal times. Lovely country women and they turned on very good food for us. We enjoyed that. Always a smile and encouragement. That was great.
It must have been pretty heart warming to


get that kind of support from the community?
Oh yes, yes. The Queensland people are famous for it. The others were good too but the Queensland people are just so lovely. They are a race all of their own. They are wonderful. I wanted to go and live in Queensland after the war. I was so taken with them. But Edna didn’t want to leave her mother and she knew I had a job offered me and what have you so


they talked me into staying in Melbourne.
So you were back on leave again, back up to the Atherton Tablelands. Were you put into any further training there?
Oh yes, we did jungle training. We went down to the coast and did invasion training. Vehicles on to LST [Landing Ship Tank] and off and did quite a bit of training yes.
So what was the rumour


mill saying at this stage. Where did you think you were going next?
We didn’t have a clue at that stage. Not a clue. But when we eventually got going we knew we were going north somewhere but where we had no idea and then our first convoy of invasion barges landed at the island of


Moratai and we went into a campsite there. A staging type of campsite and for the first time we were called in, all the sergeants were called in and we were briefed by the CO [Commanding Officer] at that time, a Major Hardy. He told us in detail where we were going,


what to expect, what the softening up process was going to be before we went in and told us that there’d be, possibly the Japanese had radar controlled guns and all sorts of things. Said the Navy was going in first, the Air Force, the Australian Air Force and the American Air Force were going to soften up the place.


Give it a good pasting. Warned that it was an oil port and they felt from their information that the Japanese were going to pour the tanks of oil on the water and set it on fire. That we might have a fiery arrival but we were prepared and it was the first time it happened. We were able to go back and tell our boys the story


again and they knew, so everybody was in the picture. It gave us an entirely different feel. We felt more important. We felt we knew exactly what it was instead of “Oh we’re doing as we’re told” and it was a great feeling.
So much more of a sense that you’re agents in this war?
Exactly. Yes. So then we were put on board


the bigger LST to go on the journey. In the meantime the Air Force had done quite a lot of softening up and we had by-passed some of these occupation islands on the way and we could see some of the bombers going in and dropping the odd bomb on those, perhaps on their way home. They may not have dropped them all at Balikpapan.


We were told of the area and how it was constructed and it was a reasonably important base. By the time we got there, there wasn’t a very important base. The Air Force had done a pretty good job on it and smashed most of the oil tanks and buildings and things but the Japanese were still quite active. They put on quite a show for us.


They didn’t want us there it was quite obvious and they had some fairly heavy armoury and they did have the heavier guns but the Navy kept at them. There was quite a lot of fireworks.
What was the noise like?
You’ve no idea. Yes it was very noisy and the worst part about it was


the area was not suitable for the big LST’s to go right into shore and they had to bring landing vehicles. They’d still take, half a dozen vehicles or more and the ramp for the LST would go down and the ramp for the smaller landing barge would come down and they’d have to


secure the two ships together and the vehicles would move from one to the other. With the panic of the landing and everything going on, on one particular occasion whether it was the panic of the American crew or not but the landing barge wasn’t quite secure and the


vehicle that we had the Brigade switchboard on was halfway across when the vessels parted and this vehicle went down to the bottom and fortunately the driver came up spitting bubbles but with rather a surprised look on his face but he lost his truck and we lost the switchboard. That was the only vehicle we lost in the landing.
I can’t believe that you had to drive these trucks from


one ship on to another in the middle of the ocean under fire.
Well it wasn’t the middle of the ocean
Well in a bay.
but it was in the bay. Yes.
And being fired upon?
Now this is the first time you’d ever been…?
First time we’d ever done an invasion, yes.
What could you see? Tell me what it looks like when you’re coming in.


there were the shell bursts overhead. The Air Force were still operating and doing a wonderful job. There was a lot of – and everybody was so busy. You were concentrating, you had to do it. You had to get to shore because you had supplies and things that would be needed. Apart from that one incident,


things moved reasonably well and the boys on the invasion barges operating them must have done a few other invasions. They must have been experienced because they were so calm. They’d say “Good luck digger”. It operated so well. Then the organisation on the beachhead was fantastic. Supplies were dumped here.


Dumps were made. Vehicles were dispersed and then the organisation took over and distributed them. The infantry had gone well ahead of us of course. They were chasing the Japanese who were in retreat at that stage. They didn’t put up much of a fight apart from the barrage when we were coming in. There was a bit of fighting but not a lot.
Were the oil tanks alight?


were burning but no oil got onto the sea. They had been settled a few days before we went in. They looked pretty burnt out and white.
It sounds like quite a spectacular scene really?
Yes, I suppose it was.
And you said that the crew on the landing, the LST’s were really calm. What about you?
On the small


stuff they were.
On the smaller stuff. What about you and your men? Did you feel calm or did you have butterflies going?
Well, I mean you were on edge, put it that way, but you were wondering what was going to happen next. Yet you had to achieve something so I suppose the sense of achievement and having to do a job. It wasn’t as though you were watching something


going on you were actually doing things and this kept you very busy and I think that was a good thing. If you were hanging around waiting then possibly you could get nervous but we were busy. Our vehicles had been waterproofed and they got through the water very well. The barges couldn’t get right in


and we had to go through water that was up, I suppose halfway up the engine. They’d had waterproofing treatment and they handled things very well.
Did you consider the possibility that you might be killed?
No. Never.
Or wounded?
Well, I mean I suppose that could happen to anybody. You always felt it wouldn’t happen


to you. Everybody was the same. I suppose sometimes lying in bed that night you’d get the cold shivers or trying to get to sleep. I’ve got to admit you had a bit of perspiration and some shivers. That was afterwards when you were thinking


about it not when you were doing it.
I guess while you’re doing it there is a lot of adrenaline in your system?
Must be. Thank goodness. Yes.
And your heart would be….?
Didn’t notice that, no didn’t notice. But I think the adrenaline kept you pumping.
Once you landed at Balikpapan, sorry I pronounced it Balikpapan, it’s Balikpapan.
Well I don’t know. We called it Balikpapan


but I heard it called Balikpapan. I don’t know different pronunciations.
Once you landed there and the infantry had moved ahead of you, did you encounter any Japanese face to face?
No, no just dead ones. Of course in the heat you could detect them before you’d see them. Just a few bodies around.
How was that?


What was it like encountering these?
Well, I didn’t go near them. The smell was bad enough without getting any closer.
So did anyone come and bury those people?
Well, they must have because the smell disappeared so they must have cleared them.
Don’t envy the people who had that job.
But we had other things to do. That wasn’t our job.
Well, what were you doing then?
Well, we had to set up a suitable area


with our vehicles dispersed with organisation to allocate vehicles to various areas. To move troops around and just set up a transport depot that was properly organised and workable.
And what about mines. How did you deal with that risk?


The mines in Tobruk were the heaviest of course and I suppose there were mines. We were not warned of any mines in the areas that we were working that we should be careful of. Not at Balikpapan.
Did you meet any civilians there, were there any local people in the area?
No, no civilians at all. Towards the end the Dutch oil executives


were trying to assess the damage of the plants and what have you but that was before they vacated the place.
Now how long were you in Balikpapan?
I think we were in Balikpapan about three and a half months.
Were you there when the news came through that the war had ended?
Oh yes, the war finished when we were there and quite frankly that was a


very dangerous time. It was. Some of the boys were at a picture show. I was in camp and word came through and it travelled through the area like wildfire that the war was over, peace had been declared and the troops went crazy. They were firing rifles, they were shouting.


They were so excited and quite frankly that was the only time that I was really frightened in the war. It had been a beer night as well. They’d had a ration of beer – not that they got a lot. But it was frightening the carrying on. They just went crazy. I don’t say they all did it but a hell of a lot of them and I


didn’t feel very comfortable but fortunately it quietened down after a while. Some of the boys that were at the concert. They had rifles there. If you went out you carried your rifle with you and the firing went on there. They felt rather uncomfortable. It was an unusual thing.
In the days following the Japanese surrender, did you then have to take


charge of the Japanese around Balikpapan? Did you get people surrendering?
They brought the Japanese in but the natives were coming back in. They’d gone bush or the Japanese had held them and it was a bit pathetic to see them straggling back. We felt so sorry for them and helped them all we could. Japanese prisoners of war were


brought in. They weren’t kept for long in Balikpapan. They were taken back to Moratai and those places where they had suitable places to hold them. I can remember seeing Japanese prisoners of war, particularly in Moratai when we were on our way home under the control of Indian troops who had great pleasure


in making them work because they’d had such a horrible time under them.
So were there instances of cruelty towards those prisoners?
Any evidence of cruelty towards the Japanese? We made them work like hell. Cleaning up areas. With these Indian troops that were in charge of the working party of Japanese had been


prisoners of war in an area somewhere nearby and they had great pleasure in making them work. Made them work from daylight to dark cleaning up the area. But not hitting them, just making them work. We heard that the Indians were treated like dirt by the Japanese.


There is great ill feeling between the Indians and the Japanese even post-war there was. I struck that in my post-war period in Japan and these fellows would make them drink dirty water and things like that if you’d call it punishment but didn’t treat them royally. I can understand their feeling. Yes.
Right, we’ll pause there.
Interviewee: Ronald Williamson Archive ID 0057 Tape 09


So Ron, after you learnt of the Japanese surrender, did you also hear about the atomic bombs being dropped?
Yes we did, but we didn’t know it was an atomic bomb. News had filtered through that they had dropped this amazing bomb. That it destroyed so much around it. We heard a few stories of how it got there. The amazing work the Americans


had done with it. We didn’t know a great deal about it but yes, we did know of this amazing bomb.
And what were your reactions to it at that time?
Well, oh we thought it was great. We thought “That’s terrific it’s the finish”. It’s brought the war to a quick conclusion. Whilst there was a lot of people suffered,


it brought to the war to a finish and I think a lot more would have suffered had it not.
Now in your post-war time at Balikpapan, did you come across any Australian prisoners? People who’d been prisoners of the Japanese?
No, no, no.
What about at Moratai?
No, there were no Australian prisoners held in Borneo and I don’t think there were any at Moratai.


I think they took them straight from the areas they got them. They marshalled a lot of transport and hospital ships to get them back to Australia as quickly as possible. So no, we didn’t strike them. We heard stories that they were going back and of course we had to wait until transport was available to move us and they got those fellows back quickly


because they needed them.
So how long did it take you to get home?
Well, they had a priority system. Married men with families went first, then married men of a certain period of time got the next priority, then I got the next and then the single men got the next. So after


the war finished I suppose I could have been in Balikpapan for 3 or 4 weeks and then they took us to Moratai and that was frustrating. Why we couldn’t go straight home and we had to wait there for a while and then we finally got a ship back to Australia to Brisbane.
What were your expectations of going home?


Were you looking forward to it?
Yes, we were. It was a strange feeling. Couldn’t get home quickly enough and then my wife then and my father heard about us coming home and they were waiting at Royal Park railway station and we were route marching to the discharge centre and


I saw them and broke ranks and joined them. They drove me home. It took four or five days to be discharged. You had to go through a process of medical examinations and all sorts of things. It was slow. There were a lot of troops, a lot of hanging around. I finally got my discharge and one of the most unusual feelings


I’ve ever had in my life came across me at that stage. I walked down the driveway from the de-mob [de-mobolisation] centre to go down and catch a tram and all of sudden it hit me. That I was now a civilian, had a wife and I had a responsibility for a life. The Army had kept me


for five years. I was a young fellow without a care in the world and here I was now exposed to the wide wide world and it was a most unusual feeling to hit me. But it did and it sobered me up quite a bit and I thought “This is a new life you’ve got to lead. The old one’s behind you”. I still remember it so vividly. It was quite something.
So you actually felt quite vulnerable


in a way?
I did really. I felt “Gawd, I’ve got a wife to support” because in those days the wife didn’t work. A married woman didn’t work. Her place was at home because single girls had the jobs, not married girls. Not that she wanted to work. I was the breadwinner and I had to provide it all from then on.
And you’d already been offered a job while you were…?


I had. Before I went to Balikpapan, Old Man Brash, who I’ve mentioned before, wrote to me and he said he had a feeling that the war would be over before very long and he wanted to write and say that if I would come back and join this organisation he would make me manager


of their very big and famous piano department. Pianos were a very popular instrument in those days. There was no TV and it was something. So I wrote to my father and had a word with him because I had intended going into the motor trade. My life was in that and I wanted to know what he thought about


it. Little did I know Old Man Brash had been up to talk with my father and this was all organised and he knew about the letter coming to me. He wrote back with every encouragement that I should acknowledge the letter. He also promised that if I could, what he thought I could do, he would make me a director of the company in time.


So I had a job to go to and I took Edna for a holiday back to Tasmania to show her where I spent my early days and then we had a holiday together, I’d had one small bout of malaria, I went back to work.
So I imagine that must have helped you


to settle back in, having a job to go to and a wife to go to? Was that the case?
Well, yes I suppose it did. I knew I had to settle. The thought was settling down again after this five years of Army life but I managed to settle down.
Was it strange at first?
Oh God yes.


Look it was strange in many ways. A number of the old timers had kept the business going and they’d developed a very independent attitude. Supplies were not there and they didn’t seem to worry a great deal about the customer and I remember we usually met our customer on the ground floor


and took them. We had showrooms on five floors of various departments. I was the first volunteer from Brash’s and I was there, I think it was the first or second morning and a lady came in. I went up to her and smiled at her and welcomed her, “Good morning”. She looked at me and said “I don’t believe this”


and she’d been through the war experience of retailing where it was rather casual and off handed. I said “Well things are going to change around here and there are a lot of young fellows are going to make a change to Melbourne”. So it was an experience and if you put in the effort you could find the stock and we got the business going pretty rapidly again which was good.


And what about your personal relationships? Do you think that the war put a strain on your relationship with your wife and your father or how do you think if affected those relationships?
It certainly didn’t put a strain on it with my father. My wife and I didn’t know each other and she was fortunately very tolerant.


Her father was a retail merchant as well so she was used to the long hours of retailing just as my family were. Fortunately she was quite tolerant and I’d acquired a little weatherboard house in Balwyn during the war. I think I told you I


had rather a nice little sports motorcar and my father sold that and the money that came from that he put as a deposit on a house. A State Savings Bank house and put tenants in it and they paid off in rent quite a lot of the house and then they gave returned servicemen the right to claim their home when they came out so we claimed this house and that was our first home together.


We got on pretty well although I disciplined myself again. A lot of the boys, the Army boys wanted to meet after work and get to the pub and it was 6 o’clock closing and you’d buy up great rounds of drinks before 6 o’clock and swill it down. Well, I didn’t do that and I went home and I think that helped a lot. Some of the


boys ran into trouble but I disciplined myself a little bit stronger than that.
Were you able to talk to your family about the war? Did you ever talk to your father or your wife or your children?
No, no. Or did he ask me? I didn’t want to talk to him. We did talk about fun on leave or something like that. People we met, lovely Queensland people. No we didn’t talk about the war.
Now you mentioned earlier


that you’ve only attended the Dawn Service once?
That’s not quite true. I attended once on my own. Three years ago our lovely daughter Kay that lives nearby wanted to go to the Dawn Service with her husband who is a Vietnam boy and I went with them so I’ve been on two occasions. But


it was so crowded, this last time that it wasn’t quite the same. We couldn’t file through the Shrine quietly and do the things that you did when there was a smaller quantity. Lovely to see everybody and the service outside was very impressive but it was different. I have been on two occasions, two entirely different occasions.
On that earlier occasion, was it just too sad? Why did you not go again?


It got to me.
In what way? What did it bring up for you? What did it make you feel, remember?
Oh, just the waste of lives. That was the thing that hit me. You’re getting me now.
Do you want a break?
No, I’m right.


Now did you dream about the war afterwards? Did you dream about it?
Edna told me I did. Could we have a break just for a moment?
Sure. Ron, with all those feelings of grief that you’ve had, were you still able to feel that it was a just war? At the time did you feel like it was a just cause?
Yes we did.


Do you still think that now?
We thought it was possibly the war to end all wars but it wasn’t to be and then you realise it wasn’t a just war and why do we have wars. I just can’t understand it and I ask this question of several people. Why can’t we settle things another way. There must be. I suppose it


must be my feeling of killing. I just can’t understand that. I think I told you I spent quite a lot of time in Japan on commercial business and I had on my retirement I had more farewell dinners in Japan than anywhere else


in the world. The company gave Edna and I a deluxe trip around the world to say goodbye. Magnificent trip. I first went to Japan and Edna said “You go there alone”. She doesn’t like Japanese and I’d spent a lot of time with them and I had far more farewell dinners and sincere dinners


and friendly dinners than any other country of the world including the United States, England, Germany, France.
So in your post-war life, you’ve obviously had some really good relationships with Japanese people? You’ve had business relationships, friendships even with Japanese people?
Oh yes. I was one of the first businessmen into Japan after the war


and Old Man Brash got hold of me. You know he was a dreadful fellow in a way the assignments he gave me. He got hold of me and said “I’m going to send you to Japan. The first Osaka Trade Fair of post-war is on and I want you to go and get some agencies. We’re not going to breathe a word that you’re going. We’re not going to tell the staff.


We’re not going to tell the trade. We’ve got you an air ticket. We’re not even going to a travel agent to book you a hotel. You’re going to fly to Tokyo. You’ll be able to get a hotel quite easily and go to Osaka and see what you can do.” Well he had no idea of the difficulties. The English spoken


was very rare and as for finding a hotel thank goodness the Qantas staff in Tokyo airport were on the ball and they found me a hotel.
Now, I’m just wondering how you felt about going to Japan when not that long before you’d been fighting the Japanese?
Exactly. Exactly. I wondered the same thing


and I wondered. It wasn’t a matter of going to Japan. I was very concerned about what my attitude would be to them and I was fearful of it and yet we had to do it because there were some fairly good products starting to come out of it and we had to realise


our future could have been there.
So I’m also wondering, once you’d established some good relationships with Japanese people and you grew to know them on a personal basis, how did you reconcile that with your earlier view of your hatred of them?
I was surprised. I was completely surprised and completely confused.


First of all, the welcome, the courtesy shown as we came off the aeroplane. The bowing Japanese. It was a much smaller airport in those days and the treatment. No English spoken except with the Qantas staff that were there. They got me a taxi and if you wanted to go anywhere you had to get a


matchbox of the hotel and carry it with you so you could show a taxi driver and he could read where to take you back to. Things like that. The hotels usually had some English speaking people at the desk and my first hotel was an enormous place, the Diechi Hotel. The foyer was like the


Flinders Street railway station. I eventually got down to Osaka and one of the hotels I was staying at in Tokyo booked me a hotel in Osaka and that’s where I started my first business relationship and that wasn’t easy. The Japanese


on the stands didn’t speak English and the only way I could establish a relationship they had a little box on each stand where you put a business card and after wandering around and being totally frustrated the Japanese were following me around looking at me because I had a leather briefcase and I had leather shoes. They were all


in plastic shoes and I was a novelty to them. The men all had the same coloured suits on and they were funny little tailored suits with short coats and I was a novelty for them to see and I wondered what they were looking at at first but they were looking at my lovely leather briefcase and things like that.
Sorry Ron, sorry to interrupt but we’re going to run out of time in a minute


and I wanted to ask you something else. It’s quite a big question and I don’t know if you’ll be able to answer it. Maybe you can’t but have a go anyway. I was just thinking, you’ve experienced a lot of all the Japanese courtesy, politeness and hospitality over the years as you’ve said and yet you saw when you were in New Guinea and Balikpapan you saw this kind of very ferocious,


ruthless part of the Japanese. How do you explain that contrast?
That’s a very difficult question because the Japanese race is a very unusual race and quite confusing. The Japanese did those things because they were told but instinctively a lot of them are a cruel race deep down


from what I’ve read. I remember reading a book before the war or during the early part of the war called the Three Bamboos by Robert Standish and that was an experience of civilian life with the Japanese and some of the things that they did. Also there are some lovely genuine delightful people


and I still correspond with them and I like them very much. I trust them and they’ve trusted me in business and in the agencies I developed from those very early days, I never had a signed agreement, it was all a handshake and there was no varying from that agreement.


They were honoured right to the – and if there was any hesitancy or that they might have to make a slight variation to it, they wouldn’t do it by letter, they’d come out and personally talk to me. I found them very honourable in business and very trustworthy in the businesses that I was dealing with.
That’s amazing that you had that.
A contrast I know but it’s a country of contrasts and I can’t answer that.


I was out one night after being in an industry just out from Nagoya which was flattened when I was there. There wasn’t a building except one hotel they’d recently built. We were visiting a lot of musical instrument manufacturers and we got together one night and the Japanese don’t drink very well and of course they get a bit


talkative after a while and one fellow was a Kamikaze trained pilot and he had a little English but the other boys told me. But I said “You can’t be Kamikaze pilot, you’re still here!” He laughed and said “Yes, but I didn’t get a job to do” and he was a comical fellow. He was amusing


yet he was doing something for the Emperor or something like that but he was a remarkable fellow. I mixed with all these people, I’ve got great friends. I enjoyed going to Japan.
Ron, I also want to ask you, you’ve kept up with a lot of other veterans, haven’t you? In fact you’ve become the Welfare Officer of your unit.
Are there things


when you get together that you avoid discussing?
You talk about it all?
Yes. When we’re together we do.
The blood and guts and everything?
Yes, everything. But that leaves you as soon as you part.
So that sounds like really important.
Or something, the night Ron Barassi was killed or the night so and so was killed. That’s


talked about. How lucky they were and what have you. Yes, it is. But it’s only then and there, that sort of discussion goes on.
Do you still dream about the war?
I don’t still do it. After the war, Edna told me I did but I don’t recall it but she said I would sit up in bed and call out “Ken keep your head down” or


“Lay down”, “Get down” or something like that and she said quite forcefully it frightened her but I knew nothing about it in the morning. That only lasted for a period of time she told me.
Alright, well we’ll wind up now. I’ll just ask you one last question. Is there anything that we’ve left out or is there anything you’d like to say


to wind up the interview?
No I wouldn’t except I’ve enjoyed your interviews. You’ve come through very well both of you. So friendly, it was very nice and if this can contribute to history and it can be used then I feel I’ve done another job for the country and for everybody.
Well I think you’ve done an extraordinary


job and we thank you very much. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you. Really.
Good. Good.


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