Gilbert Ratcliffe
Archive number: 812
Date interviewed: 26 August, 2003

Served with:

2/4th Engineers
7th Division

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Gilbert Ratcliffe 0812


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Tape 01


Good morning Gilbert.
Good morning.
I’d like to start off today by asking if you would like to tell me a little bit about your childhood?
Well it wasn’t very spectacular I had a pretty poor childhood. My father had a farm and I’ll show you what sort of businessman he was


he sold his farm and one cow he had with horse teams and up till I was six or seven years old I don’t think we lived in a house we just lived in tents and travelled from place to place. Avery violent man he was and a heavy drinker and we were always going to be short of money.


To give you a bit of an example what he was like we missed a lot of schooling he was the type of chap who never paid wages but he worked his children and my older brother he was two years older then me we worked a lot with him as kids. We were carting wheat to a place called Weethalle and it was a lot of cows he had then, horse teams and wagons.


Two or three of these young blokes older than us wanted to get a gallon of beer and none of their fathers drank much or booked up beer apart from my father so they decided to book the beer up, a gallon of beer, which was seven and six to my father which they were going to get off their fathers and pay the next morning but knowing my father he got to the pub before


this and they told him about us booking the beer up to him. He gave me and my brother a flogging with a two handed whip and I don’t know I might have been ten and my brother twelve and he was a bit of a coward. There was a chap there who told him to leave us alone or he’d deal with him and he couldn’t put the whip away quick enough he was a coward of a man. I don’t like talking about him like this but as my brother always said


if you think a bloke’s a B you’d better tell he is because he mightn’t know he is. I’m just telling you as it happened. I left school when I was thirteen because I was put back in classes and behind and so forth I had a gut full of school and he was happy to let me leave to go work with him.


He was fifteen years older than my mother and I remember he could get the pension years before her and when he got the pension he sold his horse team and wagon and put in for a contract to split the posts and fence three miles of fencing and me and my brother, I might have been fourteen at the time and he would have been two years older. We talked about it and we


thought well all we’ll do is do the work and get nothing so we got together and got an old sulky and a horse off the common and we didn’t know weather it would even go in a sulky and we loaded it up and poor old Mum she was crying and of course Dad knew nothing about this. She cut us sandwiches and that and away we went forty miles away to a brother in law, who was a very kindly bloke and


sort of took us in and got us work and that are when we left home. The minute we left and he had no free labour he cancelled the contract he didn’t want it. I hardly ever stayed at home again. He finished up breaking his arm and Mum wrote to us for one of us to come back and do things and my brother wouldn’t go so I


had to go so I went back but at that stage I wasn’t frightened with him no more. I didn’t get on too bad then because I’d stick up to him and knowing what a coward he was. So that’s about my story of my young life.
Where were you born?
I was born in a place called Boree Creek and there were three of us born there my brother was born there, my elder


brother and my sister elder again. I can’t remember of course there I think we lived in a house there but from there he followed a sawmill around the sawmill wasn’t stationary he just went to wherever the timber was and there was a lot of timber around Boree Creek and he was a timber carter and he use to cart the timber to the timber mills. When the timber mills


shifted to, where the black stump is now near Wagga and we lived in tents there and then the timber cut out there and we went to a place called Burgooney out near Lake Cargelligo and we lived in tents there. That timber cut out there and the chap that owned the mill that wound it up and then my father shifted to the West Wyalong district and lived in a tent there


and carted wood to West Wyalong for years right up till he sold his plant. Then when he sold his plant he had a few pounds from that and he bought a house in a village called Yalgogrin and I think the only reason he went there was he couldn’t trust himself with grog and there was no hotel there.


It was in the thirties now the Depression time and thirty percent was out of work and no one had money, not the farmers or none of them and they only employed you in essential times selling wheat or taking it off. I was working on Pine Grove Station when war broke out and then one of the men on the station


we enlisted together. He only died a year or two back but he used to tell people that we wrote out our application form on a log I can’t remember that but we went into the army together anyway.
What do you remember of the war growing up?
To me it was a bit of a relief really for a job but


it was nothing permanent and they had opened up tin mines at a place called Kiowa and I could have got a job there but I wasn’t too keen on working underground and I was only eighteen years old so we decided to enlist and I didn’t mind the army. I went into Wagga camp and did my training there and


by the way my father was a pretty good blacksmith although he never worked at his trade. He taught us a little bit about it and while the camp was infantry the 2/13th Battalion Infantry and they lined us up and said ‘anyone with a trade or a part trade?’ and they wanted us to go to the engineers so a few of us went and joined the engineers


with the idea that we might have got trade pay. I kept saying five bob a day but they tell me I was getting six bob a day but I think it was five. We were drafted from there to the showground and I wasn’t on the draft to go but one of the chaps pulled out and shot through and they were one short so I volunteered to go on the draft which I did do.


We sailed on the Aquatania and I think it would be about the biggest convoy ever to leave Australia was the Aquatania, Mauritania, the New Amsterdam and the Queen Mary and the Queen Mary left us out to sea and went to Singapore with the 8th Division. They only took the big ships as far as Bombay and we were trans-shipped there and were taken inland to a place called Purina and


that is a big Indian military camp there at Purina and they were in a very bad way. There were a thousand of us on the ship and it was about three to five hundred of us in each marque where we ate and we were very hot and the sides of the tents were all rolled up and if you pushed some crusts off your plate there would be black arms, Indian


kids reaching for it. After you had finished your meal you’d put the scraps in a tin and they would be eating out of it tea leaves and everything and we were that sorry for them. We were all on parade and there was an English military policeman leading this young this young Indian boy along by the scruff of the neck hitting him with the butt of his rifle and this astounded us and a couple of our blokes said ‘leave that kid alone’


and we shouldn’t have spoken we were on parade and this Englishman said ‘you don’t know what these buggers are doing’ and they were stealing this and stealing that and two of our blokes started to advance on him and said ‘leave that kid alone or we’ll bloody well flatten you’ and he let the kid go and he ran and that was the worst thing we could do. They reckon we undid twenty years of discipline. The kids were all from town they were shaving us in bed and


God knows what. Anyway the authorities said ‘we have got to stop this’ so we were going to march through Buna, regimentally with fixed bayonets, which we did do and the kids are jumping up on our back hanging onto our rifles so it back fired. So then we had the smaller ships come in and we went to Port Sane


and we were reinforcements for the 2/5th Engineers and we landed at a place called Bejerja in Palestine and we stayed the night and the next morning the colonel of the 2/5th said ‘that the 2/4th are having it a bit tough up in the desert’ and they wanted reinforcements. So five of us volunteered and I was a great one to volunteer wasn’t I?


We volunteered to go up there so we sailed in the daytime and went into Tobruk and the retreat was on from Benghazi with the 9th Division and the 18th Brigade of the 7th Division. We were in Tobruk two days before it became a siege and we were the last ship to come in by daylight.


They were shelling and bombing and troops were coming in mixed up with Germans and of course ours was coming into the Tobruk area as others the Germans were surrounding it and it finished up I got a job with an Indian labour battalion. When the last of our troop trucks was to come through I could blow the tank trap and the Indians were to clean it out.


There were trucks coming and going and shelling and bombing and when’s the last truck, you know and as luck happened I got relieved before the last truck did get through, which I was happy about so that was that. Well the first we done was laid mines


when the company came back in we assembled with them and we were two days and one night, or for one night and two days non stop putting up barbed wire and laying mines and we were so exhausted that none of us when we got back to the dugouts we never got out of the truck we just slept there. They come round yelling out ‘everyone out, prepare to stand to the Germans have broke through’ and we were like ‘bugger them let them break through’,


we were that completely exhausted. Anyway they did break through but not to a big extent they stopped the attack. The only trouble was there and why I found that was the worst part of the war I was in was for the simple reason we didn’t have much equipment, we didn’t have any air force.


There were a few fighter planes when we first got there but two days after the siege they were all shot down the Germans had the Messerschmitt a beautiful place and we had them old hurricanes and they just shot them out of the sky in two days and we never saw another plane for six months. The Germans could just come over and bomb us as they liked or strafe us and the only opposition we had was a bit of ack ack [anti aircraft] gun power.


We had one thousand five hundred air raids in five months and when I say air raids some of them could have been two planes or three planes and four hundred was the most I’d seen. Every night a destroyer would come in with ammunition and food but some say what we ate but I can’t ever remember eating anything bar bully beef and biscuits


the whole time. I remember seeing a bloke with an orange one-day and it took all my will power not to ask him or half of it. Tobacco, that’s where I started smoking I don’t think it was tobacco but cigarettes were issued to us, Wild Woodbine it was called, an English tobacco.


We were on English rations as far as I can remember England ran everything they planned the war they planned everything although General Morshead was our general in charge there. We always reckoned they were getting fed better than we were so one night we stole one of their trucks by the way everything was dug in the trucks were half dug in


and so was ourselves and everything was strict blackout there were no lights. We pinched this truck and went down to the wharf, backed in and we loaded three cases on and we thought we’ll have a feed when we get home with this. We got home but didn’t put the truck back in which gave us away we just left it out in the open


and we opened the cases up and what do you reckon it was? Three cases of khaki shirts. So that let us down there. Anyway we were arrested the next morning because they had the number of our truck that was down at the wharf and it was parked out in the open. So we had to front the CO [Commanding Officer] and we were all under guard, marched up to the CO headquarters. The CO was


in Cairo on a conference and our old major was acting CO and he heard us there but he could have heard us at his own. He said ‘who drove the truck?’ and I said ‘I did sir’ and he said ‘have you got a military driver’s licence?’ and I said ‘no’ and he said to the sergeant ‘see that he gets a driver’s licence, case dismissed’ so we were a bit happy about that.


A little bloke I went to school with we enlisted with him and we sailed with him and we went into Tobruk and he was one of the volunteers and he was killed the next morning. We were going to the unit when they came in and there was a plane that had been hit with ack ack fire and he was dropping his bombs as he went and one hit the end of the hospital and one hit where we were and tipped the truck over and he was the only one killed


there were others that were wounded a bit but he was the only one killed. The only thing was there were three of us sitting on one side were hardly touched and three sitting on the other side were all wounded and one dead but he got up after and a piece of shrapnel had gone in under his arm and out his chest and he would have been killed instantly but he got up and ran to the other end of the truck and he fell over dead over the tailboard


so that was my introduction to Tobruk. I was a real bushy and I had never seen the sea till I joined the army and everything was new to me and it was exciting.
How long did you spend at Tobruk all together?
Just a little under six months.


We came out of there and we went up to Syria and at that time they didn’t know weather Syria was going to come into the war with Germany or stay neutral and so they had defences all up along the boarder. It was a very cold country it snowed there where we were and we went from skinny rakes with sores and ulcers and god knows what to


really fit and big. I was thirteen stone there and after Tobruk I was nine when I came out. We trained there for quite a while and the Japs came into the war and we were sent home. We came to Ceylon, Sri Lanka they


call it now just to refuel we didn’t get off the boat and we sailed for two days but the next thing we were back at Ceylon again. We didn’t know the politics of things then but we found out later that our prime minister and Churchill had had a blue and we were on our way to Burma. Curtin said ‘no they’re not they’re coming home’ and that’s the turn around. One of our


companies did go on to Java and they just got there to be captured. We were the company behind that and we came home and then I think we only got seven days leave. We came into Fremantle and we had a nights leave there then we went around to Adelaide and we got off the ship there and went up the


Barossa Valley and we went on the train from there to Tenterfield I think it was seven days and eight nights on the train. We pulled off for everything goods trains and everything and we were fed at the stations all the way along we didn’t have a bath or anything there were places where you could have a wash. From Tenterfield we went up to Cairns


no we didn’t we sailed from Brisbane up to Milne Bay but I had ruptured myself and I was pulled off and carted off to hospital so I missed that part of that. The doctor who gave me the anaesthetic for the operation was the doctor at West Wyalong who passed me fit for the army Doctor Bouser and he said ‘you’ll be a good while out’ he said ‘you are pretty well knocked about inside’ he said


‘you’ll be three months no duties and three months light duties’ and I asked ‘could I have any leave to go down south’ and they said ‘no you get two days leave anywhere in Queensland but not down south because the war position is too serious’. Anyway I went AWL [absent without leave] and finished up, when I gave myself up


I give myself up to Wagga Camp and they didn’t know anything about me and I shouldn’t have been there and they put me under arrest. I was to be tried at Victoria Barracks in Sydney but it was too big a case for them to here there so I had to be sent from there to Brisbane and when we lined up there, there was provosts and provost marshals and god knows what. They read the charge out and


said ‘deserting in front of the enemy’ and they asked me did I have anything to say and as luck would have it I still had this report from Doctor Bouser. I pulled it out and they looked it and read it and the doctor took me into the room and examined me and took the stitches out and I came back ‘case dismissed’ so I was a bit lucky that I had the letter. I went up to the tablelands and met up with my unit and we went to Moresby


and we went by plane from there to Nadzab and we went up the Ramu Valley to Shaggy Ridge. When that campaign was over things were turning to the allies them days and they gave us fifty days leave. We went back into camp up in the tablelands again and then we sailed for Moratai and prepared for the invasion of Balikpapan and that’s where we were when the war finished and the bomb was dropped


so that was my military history.
Thanks Gilbert, I’d like to now go right back to the beginning and you’ve told me a little bit but why do you think it was exactly that you wanted to enlist?
It wasn’t being patriotic or for the flag or anything like that I think it was just a job.


We trapped rabbits, we picked up dead wool, anything to, and I even had a fight or two in Jimmy Sharmers boxing tent just to get a quid. I think that really is what I was and I never regretted it.
I’m wondering what you knew


as a young boy about World War I?
I had two uncles and Dad spoke to me quite a bit about it. It’s a funny thing both their names are up on the Narrandera Memorial there. One was badly wounded in France and he was married and his wife was living at a little place called Longong just outside Narrandera and she said ‘if I don’t make it


will you look after the wife and kids’ and he didn’t make it and he died and he came back and he married his brother’s wife and they had a mixed family. They were both my cousins but by different fathers so they told me a lot. They were dead against the war and dead against me going but I didn’t look at it that way.


I had no idea what war would be like I thought you jumped off the boat and started shooting and didn’t stop till the war finished but I had a good time as far as sport. I was always sports minded and I was captain of the football team and captain of the cricket team.


have got quite a lot of brothers and sisters, I’m wondering weather any of your brothers enlisted?
Yes my elder brother he didn’t pass he was medically unfit and I think the only reason was he should have had a cartilage operation and he never did and he had a bit of a stiff knee. My other younger brother who was eight years younger than me pretty sad it was with young Jack


he enlisted and he went to Korea and he was a bit of a loner Jack. He was wrapped up with the Newtown RSL [Returned and Services League] club and he was on the staff there and we didn’t hear of him much. He used to come up occasionally but not much. Beryl was looking in the paper there one day at the deaths and she saw this J. W. Ratcliffe


ex-Korean injury man was found dead and I said ‘everything sounds as though it is Jack’ and I got in touch with my sister in Sydney and she enquired and yes it was. The Newtown RSL had folded up and he was boarding in a hotel and they found him and he had been dead two days, they found him with a heart attack. It was a bit sad none of us were at the funeral and none of us knew.


So there were only three and there were two of us in the army and one was unfit. I was a bit sad the other day the younger sister, seventy eight, she was and she was married to an army mate of mine who died two or three years ago


and she went to the races last Saturday week at Rose Hill, met up with my old sergeant major who they used to meet occasionally and she had a fair win on the races. Went home had tea with her friends went to bed and never woke up and she was buried last Friday. The old sergeant major I rang him up to let him know and he was astounded because he was talking to her the day before.


So that was a bit sad because I couldn’t attend the darn funeral which was upsetting. There were six girls and three boys and I can’t remember the old Dad ever putting his arms around any of the kids and giving them a cuddle or anything like that.
I’m wondering what your mother might have thought of you enlisting?


They were against it. As a matter of fact I put my age up to enlist you had to be twenty one in those days and I think I was eighteen, I was twenty when I was in Tobruk. She wouldn’t have signed the papers if she’s have known but poor old Mum she was a very kind hearted woman my Mum


and a lot of tears shed. There was a girl who rang me up from Orange and said ‘why didn’t she leave him?’ but it was a bit hard in them days, where would you go? What would you do? You’ve got a tribe of kids.
I’m wondering who did sign your papers?
Brother in law and sister


but I remember bribing them.
How did you bribe them?
I said I would never speak to them again if they didn’t. We were all very close us kids I suppose because the treatment we got from my father and I know I never ever hit any of my kids I never even slapped them. I think it was a bit of a throwback from


my childhood days. When the bomb was dropped and the war was over I got a bit of a splinter in my arm and anyone who had had five years in the army and three years overseas which I had, they were discharged straight away but you had to be medically fit. I still had these stitches in my arm so they wouldn’t let me go. So all my old mob


has gone only a day or two and the aircraft carrier Implacable had come in it was an English aircraft carrier. So they took me up, took the stitches out and said ‘you’re right to go’ and on this ship and two days out to sea we passed the boat so we were home drunk and discharged by the time they got back. In those days they used to take you to Marrickville


and brief you and hand in your gear and so forth and anyone who lived in the Petersham, Marrickville area there could go home for dinner. At that stage my Mum was living in Newtown and I went home for dinner. I went back after dinner and there was a real riot on there was blood all over the ground and some bloke had come back and shot himself he went home and his wife was with someone else so


he came back and shot himself. They went through all our gear then for souvenirs and any bombs and so forth which was a bit upsetting. That’s what I can’t make out there must have been a million of them discharged they gave us a coupon to buy a suit and rations for tea, sugar and butter and said ‘ta ta’ and that was it after going through five and a half or six


years of war most of them. Nowadays they go to the [Persian] Gulf and don’t see a shot fired and they’re stressed and having counselling and I can’t make it out. Especially the first Gulf War when they just went off on a ship and looked at it but never done anything.
And how did you find it adjusting, being out on the street in civvies?


I met Beryl; there was a little girl who died last week and she worked at White Signets in Sydney and Beryl worked there too. I just went around to see my sister on leave and I met Beryl there and we got together from then on and I corresponded with her through the war and after the war when I come back we got married but I thank her for me


she was a terrific girl and still is she really looked after me. I went working at Tullochs they were a rolling stock and a foundry and I got a job. I was fairly well liked by the union and also by management it must have worked out all right and they gave me a diluting moulder’s Job.


That meant I’d get moulder’s pay because I hadn’t done my time but I would only work on machines. I worked on that till the big coal strike of 1951 I think it was and then I went back to the country and done the harvest. By the way I built a house in West Ryde in Sydney and Beryl stayed there and we had a young boy then. I went down the bush and done a harvest and when I came back we sold the house up and


went to a place called Tongi, just out of Mudgee old Tom Baillieu owned it I don’t know if you have you heard of the name Baillieu? Heard of Baillieu Myers have you? One of that crowd and a very wealthy station owner he was. He owned racehorses and he was a AJC [Australian Jockey Club] committeeman and I stayed there with them for two years as a stockman. Funny


old chap there was no bus run for kids to school and he wouldn’t allow them through his property, I don’t know why. So I had to leave and I went to a place called Baradine to work with an army mate who was in the timber industry and that didn’t work out. I was supposed to get twenty pound a week and the best I ever got was twelve and then I left him and I just worked around


there. Then I applied and got a job managing a station between Temora and Cootamundra and I was managing a property there when I drew a soldier’s block at Weelong near Forbes. I stayed on that till I lost my left eye as you might have noticed, through a cataract operation and I have a cataract on the other darn eye


and they wouldn’t operate on that until they cleaned this one up, which took about twelve months. I sold the farm out at half price to my son and retired into town here. I had the other operation on my eye with the Indian doctor at. Oh by the way there’s a doctor Redman at Orange that did this one and I had the other one done in Concord


in Sydney with a doctor called Capagoda and he has done a really top job. I have been a heavy smoker from Tobruk on and I developed a hole in the lung. I was in hospital up here for quite a while and then they flew me to Sydney to St Vincent’s and the operated with that


keyhole surgery and it was remarkable. They put a tube in my stomach to take the air away from my lung and it went into a little can and they pulled that tube out and put a camera on and put it up and had a look at it and they did this keyhole surgery and they stitched it and glued it and its as good as gold. You wouldn’t read about it but the other one went, the other lung and they sent me down to the Prince of Wales and by this time


I was down to seven stone and permanently on oxygen and the surgeon said I was too frail to operate on and he reckoned I wouldn’t get off the operating table so they just kept me there and kept x-raying me and they said ‘oh its healed’ and I came home by ambulance. I’ve got a gold card by the way and they got that all mixed up


and I got a bill for three thousand odd dollars for transport from Sydney to here. When I got home here I was a real wreck and collapsed that night and I was back up in hospital again the next morning. There is a South African doctor here named Whittaker, I’m not boring you with this am I? He said ‘I’ve heard this happen and if I can get a chemist who’ll mix the


ingredients up’ he said ‘I’ll pour it in over your lung and seal it’ and he said ‘I’ve done it in South Africa and it was done by a fluke’. The bloke was a little bit mental and he picked the can up above his head and it drained in on his lung and sealed it and he said ‘he nearly went mad with pain’ but he said ‘it did’. Anyway over this darn insurance and that he couldn’t get a chemist that would do it so he said ‘I’ll do it myself’. So he got the


ingredients and mixed it up just like mixing a cake and I was in the room with him and he pulled a tube out of my stomach and put it down into my lung and poured it down on it and he said ‘its going to burn like hell but I’ll get morphine in as quick as I can’ which he did do. Then he stood me on my head for an hour so it would flow down over my lung and it sealed it and


that’s just twelve months today that that happened so I can thank him for that.
That’s quite an amazing story.
Interviewee: Gilbert Ratcliffe Archive ID 0812 Tape 02


You mentioned that your dad was a blacksmith what did you learn from him?
Only to weld and temper. Getting back to when we got out of Tobruk and went up to Syria we were digging in along there and of course no one who could do up picks and I said ‘I can


do them up’ which I could draw them out and temper them. They said ‘you’re a blacksmith’ and they paid me black smith’s pay from then on which was eight and six a day I forgot to tell you that little bit.
Well I’m wondering, being a country boy, what type of skills you already had going into the army?
I was pretty skilled in real work


I could use an axe, I could shoot, I could do anything like that, I could drive horses, I had carted in hay and stripped wheat I had done everything as a kid more or less. We were in demand when work was available but it wasn’t always available. Just a little incident with my father


he was the type of bloke he couldn’t even kill a sheep without help from his boys. This day I was supposed to be looking after the horses to see that they never got away out on the common and instead of that I was watching the damn cricket and when I went to look for the horses I couldn’t find them. I came back and I don’t know whether he gave me a hiding or not but I know he told me to go and get the horses and not to return unless I had them and I was only a kid.


I finished up finding out where they went and they went back to where we had been working and it was pretty near dark, it was getting onto dusk and I came to his farm and he said ‘yes the horses went past here about three o’clock’ he said ‘what are you going to do?’ and I said ‘do you mind if I give my pony a sheaf of hay?’ and he was having me on of course and I didn’t know it he said ‘where will you stay?’ and I said ‘I’ll


sleep in the hay stack.’ And he said ‘alright’ and the blokes name was Sam Martin. He took me in, gave me tea and fed my pony and he gave me a bed for the night. The next day I went on and I found the horses at Weethalle and there was an old chap there who knew us and knew the old man. He gave me a bit of dinner and dark that night I got home with them.


I often thought what father would do that to a kid so you can see why? When it finished up and he died me and my brother had to bury him because he didn’t have enough money to bury himself.
Where did you bury him?
At Rookwood in Sydney.


He always worked cheaply, he never had any money I often don’t know how he lived. I think probably early in the piece there was no dole or endowment but later in life I knew he received both.


We’ve mentioned that going into the army for you was really for a job what type of security do you think it offered?
I suppose there was no security really, was it, it was left to yourself when you got out. I never learned a trade, we never learned anything from it.


The only thing you created a lot of fondness with mates and that who I still write to and ring up and so forth.
When you enlisted, I’m wondering had you thought about what you might be confronting or what lay ahead?
No idea.


I volunteered twice, once to go overseas and once to go up in Tobruk and going through without being seriously wounded so I was pretty lucky. I had seven operations, I had two hernia operations, three eye operations and


two lung operations.
How did you find the army once you enlisted?
I handled it quite well. I was always pretty rugged and fit and nothing worried me, training or anything didn’t worry me.


How did you find the officers or your instructors?
Some very very good, others I wouldn’t like to. For instance and I just forget where we were it might have been up at Shaggy Ridge or something like that and it was a bit tricky. There was this officer and Whitman was his name and he never went through the ranks he came from Duntroon and


we found they were the worst and he stopped censoring the mail. It finished up that things improved and he started censoring it again. He got us lined up and gave us a real lecture ‘you’ve got to stop writing letters’ he said. ‘I was up till midnight censoring mail and you’ll have to stop it.’ A big bloke Charlie


Brant who won a military medal afterwards said ‘bullshit’ and old Patty Evans who was an old boxer with us said ‘good boy Charlie I’ll have the bastard’ and he wanted to fight him on the spot but he was a bugger of a bloody bloke. When we came out of there we were a pretty unregimental mob and he’s got us out on the boring like school kids ‘left turn, right turn, quick march’


anyway we are getting that sick of it. The orderly room was just off the ring and the old major was sitting in there listening to all this and one of our blokes, Slopey and he had his rifle on his back and he’s got it out and out and out and at last it’s like a shovel over his shoulder. This Whitman run underneath him and said ‘straighten that bloody slope up’


and this old bloke said ‘out of my way you worm or I’ll sniff you up my bloody nose’ and he went over to the orderly room to put him under arrest and the major said ‘go away if you can’t handle a man don’t come here whinging, get’ so I don’t know what happened to him he left us but we couldn’t get on with him at all but most of them were really top men. The first old major we had in Tobruk he called me in and


he said to me and young Wilkerson who I was with and he said ‘the first man I had killed in my unit’ he said ‘I want to write to his mother and tell her all about him’ that was the type of chap he was but they get things a bit wrong. In that book The Siege of Tobruk, did Don show you that did he? He didn’t? It says that the 2/24th Battalion


in a dust storm in Tobruk went out and lifted so many hundred mines up in the German front line and brought them back and put it in theirs but they had it all wrong. It wasn’t the 2/24th they had nothing to do with it it was the section of the 2/4th that I was in with a Sergeant Steinbeck. Have you ever heard of Muriel Steinbeck the film star who came from Orange? Her brother was


Ted Steinbeck. He went out one night on his own and dug up one of these German mines and bought it back worked it out, make a key, he was a civil engineer, Steinbeck. He made a key that could render it off or on. He borrowed a truck off the Pommies a White truck, not white in colour but that was the name of the truck and he got a covering party of the 28th


Battalion not the 24th to cover us while we were in the dust storm lifting these mines. We had a lot going on pulling them out of the ground and Steinbeck was going along rendering them safe and there were another lot of us carrying them for the truck and others stacking them. We done all that and there wasn’t a shot fired and we drove off. The story that’s in that had got it all wrong.


I think the worst job we done in Tobruk is this going backwards too much? Was the water distillery and the Italians had built it and it was built half under the ground and half above it and it was about thirty foot high. The Germans were always trying to bomb it because it was seawater distilled and that’s what they were drinking and it was very very


salty although it was passable. They had a lot of raids on that and they had a big raid on it and missed it again and they sent us in there to camouflage it and make it look like it had been hit. We were throwing oil around and broken bats and bricks and that and in the harbour there was a little Waterhen boat that had been sunk and part of it was sticking up and there was a bloke on that with a detector. He could detect a raid


coming and he used to run up a red flag and we could all take cover. Anyway this was going on and it was all clear and one of our blokes said ‘let’s finish the job.’ We looked up and then ‘oh Christ they’re coming’. They used to come up behind the sun and cut their motors and the stokers they did and they plastered us. We jumped off that bloody building and hid everywhere none of us got killed.


I’ve heard the saying that blokes got weak knees when that raid was over I had no knees at all I was bloody shit scared.
I’m wondering if that was the moment that you felt like you were really in the war?
Well yes. I certainly did then, yes.


We didn’t look like stopping them they just coming in hoards and racing from Benghazi right down no trouble and I couldn’t see how we were going to stop them but I think before they really attacked Tobruk they had to reassemble themselves too and that give us a little bit of time to get things in order.
Well you mentioned that one of your jobs in the engineers was to


lay long sheets of barbed wire?
Where were you doing that?
In no man’s land in front of our lines, they had two lines there was the green line and the red line and the red line is the front line and the green line was a secondary line that was done which we never had to use thank God. They must have thought we were


because they called the valleys waddies over there and there was one valley that went down into the sea and they had it all, both sides of the waddy forty-gallon drums of oil and that to create smoke. I think that was going to be our evacuation area if it came to that but according to the book Morshead says there’d be no evacuation they’ll either live or die here.


I was up the front line with the 2/10th Battalion and they used to send engineers with them for booby traps and mines and that. We’d been out on patrol in no man’s land and all in the night and we came back that night and we were cement dugouts


pillboxes they were that the Italians had built and here’s my sergeant major walking past and I said ‘what are you doing here Jim?’ and he said ‘what are you doing here?’ and he said ‘we are going out tonight’ and I said ‘going out where?’ and he said ‘we are going to Egypt.’ I said ‘I’ll be buggered’ and he said ‘yes get your gear and come.’ They were all down at the wharf so it was a bit of luck there again and that sergeant major he didn’t come out then, he had to welcome the


Poles in and show them what to do the engineers, he came out three weeks later. I probably would have come out with him at that time. On the way out there were three destroyers I can’t name them now but we got bombed and the destroyers they don’t ride waves they go through them. They were just going through them and twisting and turning and I had a fear of being trapped underneath


and I’m diving up the stairs and there’s an old English sailor sitting on the stairs and he grabbed me and said ‘sit down lad’ and he said ‘the women and kids can stand the bombing in London surely we can stand a bit’ I sat and talked to him until the raid was over.
How did that help you having someone?
It was good he said ‘if you get up there there’s


splashing everywhere, there’s torpedoes flying around’ and he said ‘it’s no good up on deck’
Well you mentioned that when you got to Palestine you volunteered to go to Tobruk?
We didn’t know what we were going into we just thought we were going up to reinforce


another unit up the desert and we didn’t know any of the blokes we were going to the 2/5th they were strangers to us and there was only us five that were together.
I’m wondering if you stayed with the 2/5th throughout the siege or did you rejoin with the 2/4th?
No I stayed with the 2/4th right through.


That’s another thing I never got any mail for about six months the paperwork hadn’t gone from the 2/5th to the 2/4th and all my mail was held in the 2/5th. When we came out of Tobruk I had a full sack of mail and it was six months old. In the cemetery at Tobruk this young bloke who was with me the one I went to school with and he got killed


he is buried as a 2/5th and the 2/5th were never there. In that Rats of Tobruk paper they asked about that and I wrote in and told them the story but someone else wrote in a story and said that they knew him and that he came from Queensland and they accepted their story instead of mine.
That story really does indicate some of the chaos that goes on


in a war?
Yes. There were a lot of things wasn’t right. When we were coming back I didn’t say that we called into India I said we went to Ceylon but we did call at India I don’t know why we did we never took on anything there. We just came into Bombay and we went from there to Ceylon.


In Bombay there’s a hotel it’s called Rams Hotel and it is a very posh place and they had guards keeping the beggars and that back. When we got in there we didn’t exchange money we were putting Palestine pounds up over and getting these washers and square coins and we didn’t know what we had in change. When we got to the barrier where the guards finished there were


all the beggars and the women got their children’s arms amputated for begging purposes pushing them to you. I had this bucket with all this change and I threw it down the road and there were sparks flying with all these beggars getting it they were in a terrible mess in India.
Can I just take


you back before Tobruk, Gill. You mentioned that you’d never seen sea before can you tell me about that trip over from Sydney over to the Middle East?
Oh I thought it was terrific it was very rough and in fact the old sergeant major who I was talking to the other night he said ‘wasn’t it rough when we were going through the bite?’ It was very very rough but the food was good and everything was so clean.


It was a really, really top trip, it was. The poor old Arabs I use to sympathise with them they really helped us. They loaded trains and these mines that we used to plant they were all made by the Arabs. They were like a tin plate with six or eight sticks of gelignite with a tin plate over the top and there was a funnel that went


into the centre and it makes you shudder to think now but we used to put a detonator on a stick and push it up that funnel and just pull the stick sway and all that it would do was blow a chain of a tank or something or kill a bloke that walked on it but there be much damage, six sticks of jelly but they had done all that for us


but the Jews never done a thing. All they done is got the good jobs managing the canteens and stuff like that. Always thought they had more to fight for than anyone but they never had anyone in the army, there wasn’t a army or anything.
You’ve mentioned that when you enlisted you had a few skills under your belt, blacksmithing and you knew how to shoot a rifle and now you are describing engineering jobs of handling explosives. When did you learn


how to handle explosives?
Just as you went. There was a lot of them had hands blown off and things like that they just couldn’t handle it. The Italians had a little from memory they were red and black painted and we called them percussion caps little hand grenades but they were mostly made of tin they wouldn’t


damage or wouldn’t blow a leg off or anything like that but they’d knock you about a bit. See my shin there I never went to a doctor with it or anything I’d just go to the RAP [Regimental Aid Post] of a morning and they’d put a bandage on it and the next morning pull it off and six months and it never healed and it finished up an ulcer on my leg.


When we came out of Tobruk I went to the doctor with it and it got to the stage where I could put my finger in like that and it took a second or two for it to come out again. He said ‘what we’ll have to do is open it up and scrape the bone’ and I said ‘OK’ and the next day I was in Tripoli and I went into an old Arab’s chemist shop and I showed it to him and he sold me a little bottle of red, it looked like thick blood,


and he said ‘paint it on morning and night’ and it fixed it. Hows that?
Well how did you get that injury?
From one of the little Italian percussion cups. I got it one night when we were on patrol. I get a disability pension with my lungs and I had to face a doctor at


Parkes, from Orange, and he was asking me about different things. He had me stripped off and he asked me what happened there and another wound up there and I told him about that Arab doctor he said ‘it might have been blood’ he wouldn’t give him any credit for it but I give credit where it is due don’t you?
You sound like you’ve been very very resourceful and putting a lot of faith


in healing yourself and with the help of others?
Yes. I’m the type of bloke that don’t panic I know up at the hospital when they poked that tube in me the nurse said ‘you’re a very strong man’ and she said ‘you never even flinched’. With doctors and that I just put them in charge and I relax and let them do what they want to do.


I suffered from ulcers and I had this doctor Miller from Orange and he said ‘would you mind having the tube down with the light because we can’t pick them up on the x-ray’ and I said ‘no that will be alright’. He said ‘I want you to strip off and take your glasses off and your false teeth out’ and he said ‘I’ll give you a needle to quieten you down’ and I said


‘look I don’t need it’ and he said ‘I’ll give it to you anyway’ and I laid down and I went to damn sleep. He seen me move and he said ‘are you awake?’ and I said ‘yes’ and he said ‘you can get dressed now’ and I said ‘you’ll have to give me my glasses I’m blind without them’ and he said ‘oh sorry’ and I said ‘when are you going to?’ and he said ‘I’ve done it?’ and I said ‘what?’ he said ‘yes its just like putting a cotton reel in your mouth and just


putting it through down through it’. He said ‘you’ve got a row of ulcers and they’ve been all on the fold of your stomach’ and he said ‘and that is why they never showed up’ and he said ‘you’ve got an active one now’. You wouldn’t know Doctor Miller would you? A very humane man he said ‘when did you eat last?’ and I said ‘I wasn’t to eat last night for tea and I haven’t had anything for breakfast’ and he sent one of the girls away to cut me some sandwiches.


He said ‘don’t drive your car for an hour or so’ and I felt just as good as young and I thought ‘well blow this’ so out I went and got in my car and I was all over the road.
Going back to when you arrived in the Middle East what were your first impressions?
In India I was that damn disgusted with the British for the way they treated the Indians,


starvation and taking the wealth out of the country. When we got to the Middle East it was much the same with the poor old Arabs, everything was taken for war all the shipping, I wanted an orange and they couldn’t sell an orange. That was the other thing you’d be on a route march and there’d be lovely oranges coming over the fence beautiful big Jaffa oranges. They were really good to us the Arabs, really good and


I felt really sorry for them. When we got up to Tripoli there was a chap turned up there, pretty ragged sort of and he said ‘I will make it worth your while it you can get me a pair of boots size eight and a half. He said ‘I’ve got no money the Vichy-French robbed me of everything’ but he said ‘I was the manager of the oil refinery here’ he said ‘they took my home, they took my car’


but he said ‘I’ll come good again’. He said ‘up in the Cedars I’ve got a home’ and he said ‘if you can do that I’ll try and see if you can get weekend leave and you can come up to the Cedars for a weekend’ and we didn’t believe that but we got him a pair of boots anyway. About a month after he turned up in a nice car and looking for these three blokes that helped him


and took us up to the Cedars and it was a good weekend. He was a Syrian Arab.
What did you understand or know about your enemy at that point in time?
I never hated the Germans or the Italians. I reckoned they were doing the same as what we were doing they were just told to do it.


My Doctor says to me ‘I can’t understand why you praise Rommel?’ and I said ‘well if you’d been there and you’d seen what sort of a humane man he was you would praise him’ he visited the front line every day, he done by example for all his troops. Some of our blokes that were captured and escaped and got back to Tobruk said he apologized to them for only giving them two meals a day. He was a pretty good humane man.


What were your impressions of the Italians?
I think they were more lovers than fighters but I could understand them. They were sent out there to populate Libya and I think when war broke out they said ‘you’re in the army’ and none of them wanted to be I don’t think.


The was a section of them the Black Shirts in the north and they fought alright. From Tobruk we all took about thirty thousand prisoners. One lot turned up and the colonel said ‘we can’t take you there are too many of you come back tomorrow.’ It was a funny old war wasn’t it? Right out in the desert


we put up a compound, it was only a barbed wire fence with a machine gun on each corner. You couldn’t get in there to give them a feed or anything. You couldn’t get in with a water cart or anything. It was like pig troughs they had in through the compound just sticking out of the wire about that far and the water carts used to come up and fill them and it would flow in and there they were with their pannikins ‘aqua’ ‘aqua’


and throwing bully beef over the fence to them until they got organised. There are a few around here who were captive in Tobruk, Legris is their name when they were sent out here from Cowra and they worked on the farms around and they finished up buying property.


Yes we’ve heard stories of how Australians, particularly men who were wounded and recovering in hospital becoming friendly with particularly Italians.
When we came back to New Guinea we came back from Shaggy Ridge and they took us back to Moresby and we done a bit of work there and they had a mental ward there


and they were locked in. This day I don’t know what happened but they got out and they had us running them down and catching them. We were digging a pit for the hospital and this bloke looked down and he said ‘they’re only a mob of bloody chocos’ he said. The poor bugger was mental. Some of them thought they were racehorses and God knows what.
We’ve mentioned that the Australian troops


had a high regard for Rommel. What kind of regard did you have for the way the Australian army was being run?
We were sort of controlled by the English, which we didn’t like at all. As a matter of fact when Menzies the prime minister went over to interview us and this English general said ‘how are you getting on with the Australians?’ and he said ‘they are pretty uncouth,


pretty hard to handle’ and Menzies said ‘yes the Italians found that out too’ so I thought it wasn’t a bad answer for Menzies but that’s the way they treated us. We got to the stage if we saw an English officer going up one side of the street we’d cross over the street and wouldn’t salute him because they loved being saluted.


What about Morshead, what was the word around about Morshead?
He was a terrific general no doubt about him. It was him that really planned it and done everything. As a matter of fact we had to go and dig his dugout for him, no we extend it because he had a dug out and we had the best grounds in the world with us


he has died since Herby Ellis. Herby put some of his letterheads in his pocket and when we got back to the dugout that night, Herby never drank but he said to his mate Freddy Hedges ‘would you like a bottle of whisky Fred?’ By the way the air force was gone but the staff was still there and he said ‘where would you get a bottle of whisky?’ and he said ‘over with the air force mob’ and he wrote our a requisition for two bottles of whisky


on Morshead's letterhead, signed Morshead and he came back with two bottles of whisky. No one else would dare to that but he did.
You mentioned that you were at Tobruk for approximately six months and that’s the whole of the siege. Can you tell me where you were living and describe where you were living?


We were in dugouts underground all the time and up in Salient in the front line you never showed up out of the holes in the daylight you stayed underground all day and all the patrolling and everything was done overnight. I don’t think the Germans did much patrolling I know the Italians didn’t. The Italians were funny they


must of thought that it was safety in numbers. They used to dig in in great big heaps and you could walk half a mile through their lines and then you’d run into another lot and always firing tracers off, giving their position away. Where the Germans they dug in like us, scattered across. I was out on a lot of patrols over night and we never ran into a German patrol but we


ran into a few Italians, not patrolling but just in these dugouts.
What would you do, how would you react to them?
We would try and get out of it if we could. We used to send out a fighting patrol and a listening patrol every night and a listing patrol just went out and listened because we didn’t want to get attacked by surprised. The fighting patrol would just fight


anyone who came along but they didn’t come along that often. I know one night we had to go out and we could hear along the German lines, squeak, squeak and we didn’t know what they doing or building. When we dug a trench we put in parados [rear side of trench], we threw out dirt in the front to give a bit of protection but the Germans didn’t. They wheeled everything away and it was really hard to pick them up and that’s what the squeak was


these wheelbarrows. It was the Germans wheeling their dirt away of a night. Did Don tell you that we were up the front line one night and this Australians sang a song to them? The Germans if they bought any wounded in they would always see that their officers were treated before they did and


they were very regimental like that.
Can you describe your, I think you mentioned you were in a pill box?
Can you describe that?
The Italians, they had done it around Bardia too they had a big tank trap


it would be as deep as this room and about twice as wide and I don’t know how they done it but it would have to have been mechanical gear because they wouldn’t have done it with a shovel and every so often they had these pillboxes. It was a concrete living area where you could come out of it and shoot off it. They knew all about that because they built them all. At one stage there on the Salient the Germans captured one of them


and still held it right through and to make up for that we dug one out just behind it and we could hear one another from that area, this was the Salient it was very close.
You hear stories about the exchange of conversations over the front line. I’m wondering if you ever talked?
No, no I never did.


When you went out on patrol what kind of weapons would you take with you?
Just a 303 rifle. There was generally a sergeant, a corporal and seven or eight infantrymen, which was about a patrol and an engineer.


Its very difficult conditions not being able to move around very much during the day?
Back at our headquarters where we would come from we would only be up there for a night to two nights and then we would leave. Then you’d come back and you could walk around back


well we’d be four or five miles back from the front line and you could walk around all right but we always went underground of a night. Fleas, God, fleas and the only bit of relief was we used to spray our dugouts out with petrol and throw a match in there and then we’d get a night or two alright without fleas, they were bloody terrible things. One night


we came back from the front line and some of the blokes had done that to out dugouts and two of the blokes went down into out dugout and one of them lit a smoke and boy did they get burned bad . They had a hospital there in the cave and the use to have their sick and wounded in that cave. There was one that got burned that bad that they couldn’t pass water and we used to go over of a night and had a mug of water and just


poured it from one side to another along side them and it worked it finished up that their water broke. They were burnt very badly the poor beggars.
Interviewee: Gilbert Ratcliffe Archive ID 0812 Tape 03


Gill I’m wondering if you can tell me you spoke a little bit about where you went for training but I’m wondering what training you had when you joined the army?
What training we had when we were in the army? It was just rifle drill and bayonet drill because we were trained as infantry at Wagga. We were at the camp at Wagga at the same time as they had the march from


Ingleburn to Bathurst and the Wagga camp was a reinforcement base for the 2/13th Battalion and most of them from there went to the 2/13th but that’s all it was. Just rout marches and rifle work and discipline, more or less.
What training did you have as part of the engineering?
None at all we just learned as we went.


It must have seemed silly because a lot of people who went up on Tobruk had never even fired a rifle they were very poorly trained.
Was that quite a concern heading off without much training?
Well it wasn’t a concern for me I didn’t know much about explosives we just had to learn about that as we went. I had practically done fencing


and rifle shooting and things like that it was alright.
How do you learn about explosives as you go?
We were just sent out to put these mines down and someone said ‘this is how you do it’ and that’s how we done it. We never went through any school or anything to learn but our mines were very paltry things compared to the German mines; it was a real


nice bit of equipment called an ‘teller’ mine. I don’t know why they called them that but they did. Ours were only tin plates over a few sticks of geli[gnite].
Can you tell me about the process of laying the mines, where you were laying them?
There was a map made of it and as I said there were two lines. We had the front line and the


green line the second line and it was just built like a front line with a wire and mines in front of it in case we had to fall back to that area. The front line because we could only lay them at night we couldn’t do that in the daytime. According to the Germans they had it worse than us all their water had to be carted,


all their food and everything whereas ours was delivered as tours.
Can you tell me about, I guess laying the mines at night?
It’s not real easy you run tapes out, they run white tapes out and you just follow that and every so many yards you put a mine down but you’ve got to keep a record of them, a map of them which our sergeant who was with us mostly Steinbeck,


‘almost finished boys’ and that’s it. I was reading an article and they reckoned they’d be another seven years gathering the mines and they’ve been gathering them ever since. They had Germans engineers and British engineers doing it and there were thousands and thousands laid there.


It sounds like a very difficult process and especially in the dark?
Yes and it wasn’t easy.
Were there any accidents?
Yes there were plenty of accidents. We had two blokes wounded in the hands back in the dugouts which I’m sure was self inflicted. It was never proven that way but it seemed a bit


queer to me that it could happen there.
Could you tell me Gill about some of the accidents that happed laying the mines at night?
Well I was never with a party that did have an accident but others did. The main one is that if you are pushing that detonator in and you foul it and it goes off that might


kill the bloke for sure and probably a few around him. If that funnel that goes in got dinted, it makes you shudder to think of it now you are just pushing it in there, it was ridiculous wasn’t it?
Can you describe actually how you would lay a single mine?
You’d dig a hole and bury it at ground level and the only thing if you trod on it or a tank went over it


it might go off. It could squash down onto the detonator and it would explode the gelignite they weren’t very powerful. They would blow a chain off a tank that’s about all that it would do. The only thing we had over them was our hand grenade, the Mills bomb and it was the world’s best Mills bomb. It split up into forty-eight pieces and it was just like a chocolate bar


and every piece broke away. The nose cap and the firing pin and they were pieces too that made the forty-eight and that would do a fair area. As for guns the Germans had an eighty-eight millimetre gun and that was the best gun in the world. It was made in Sweden and it was used for ack ack but then they wound it down and used it as a tank gun or artillery


and it was a terrific gun.
I wonder just about the minesweeping, how close were the enemy lines when you were laying these mines?
Sometimes it would be a mile apart and other times it would only be a couple of hundred yards but there wasn’t much done in the couple of hundred yards I can tell you. Because they were always putting up Verey lights and once the Verey light goes off you just stop still and it doesn’t show up but if you move in it


it gets you but it lights everything up. There wasn’t much work done in the rough side of the Salient as they called it. Did Don tell you about the fig tree? The only living thing there was a fig tree and just on our side of the front line and they called it


a soak, there was no water there but they called it a soak and it was over a cave. It was pretty well shot up and shot to pieces. The Germans used to fire into it to keep us out of the shade occasionally and in 1982 when they had a reunion and went back there there’s the old fig tree as good as gold. Lots of them bought back cuttings and they all grew. In the book there’s a photo of it.


You mentioned earlier that when you arrived in Tobruk you were on one of the last ships to come in?
In daylight.
I was wondering if you could describe that voyage and what happened along the way?
Not much about it. We got on a little ship at Alexandria and it was only a couple of days from memory from there to Tobruk but everything was pretty quite and the trip was


quite good and everything. The next day that was when the action really started. Not from us but from the Germans. They were bombing the harbour and bombing and shelling and strafing and shooting our few planes down that we had. The first dead man I saw was out where I had to, well I was supposed to clean this tank trap out when the last one came through and this German he was in a fighter plane and he had been hit


with ack ack and he was trying to get over his own lines but he didn’t quite make it he got to our front line and hit a minefield and it blew him up again. I went over to inspect him and he was only a young bloke but from the waist down there was nothing it was gone. He had a blue shirt on and his hair was parted and I felt so sorry for the poor bugger, he was only a kid and I was even wishing they’d all bloody


dead but he was the first one I saw dead.
You mention that a friend of yours, I think you said his name was Wilkinson?
I was wondering weather you could tell us about that attack?
He was very unlucky, when we found out that our unit had arrived on Tobruk they sent six of us


up to join them and we were going in this truck and it was a truck with a canopy over it. As a matter of fact the driver was a bloke named Wally Nichols and he died here last year in Forbes and he was driving the truck and just as we got passed the hospital a German plane was hit a bomber and he was dropping his bombs to lighten his load to get over his lines and he dropped one near the hospital,


one on the side of the road where we were and from memory it was just like someone threw gravel through this canopy. There was this real hissing sounds inside and the truck tipped on its side and we got out and it was over the road from the hospital. Some orderlies came over and one bloke had his arm blown off and another bloke had his shinbone pretty well blown out and the other bloke was killed Wilkinson.


The other three on the other side just only got a few scratches but it was a bit unfortunate that that happened just at that spot.
You mentioned that he was the first from your unit to be killed?
I was wondering what ceremony there was?
None at all I never even went to the funeral. They


just had gravediggers there and they just dug it and buried him. When we left Tobruk they had the cemetery, there were two-thousand odd buried there, they had forty-four gallon drums stacked around the cemetery and the dust and dirt was just starting to seep over the top but that all got cleaned up and its good now but it looked bloody terrible at the time.


So it was a pretty common sight to see funerals it was just like an every day occurrence.
As a young man how do you cope with that?
Well it’s sixty years ago. It’s hard to; I think you were in a bit of fear all the time.


They had a gun they called it Bardia Bill I think they could fire it from Bardia to Tobruk a really big gun and they just fired it randomly it could land anywhere. They never sighted it on anything it was just fired into Tobruk more or less.
You mentioned before, I guess, being scared,


how do you keep going when you are scared of what’s going on around you?
A little bit of bravado with it you’ve got to make out your not scared. I always imagined the officers and more the sergeants more so than anyone. They are the ones that have got to lead them in not so much the officers but the sergeants. I’ve seen a sergeant


refuse to go up the front line and they never penalized him or anything for it. I remember afterwards when we were back in New Guinea and the two sergeants were having a big of an argument and one accused the other of squibbing it and he really done his block and wanted to fight but he was only just trying to protect his own self. I went out one


night. I used to get attached to the 2/10th Battalion there were three three companies, 1st, 2nd and 3rd in our unit and we were attached to the 9th, 10th and 12th. We always had the 10th and number one section went to the 9th and 7th went with 12th. This night I was out with the 10th and this officer said ‘how did you go last night?’


and I said ‘not too bad’ I said ‘we didn’t go out that far’ and he said ‘that sergeant’s a bit frightened’ they knew one another pretty well. But that Steinbeck he was war mad he tried to join the Spanish Civil War but he was a civil engineer and they wouldn’t release him and then when he came with us he’d come under shell fire and


you’d hit the ground and he’d yell ‘get up you cowards there’s more bloody air than shells’ and this was the way. I told you how he left us did I? Well after that raid he done with the mines the colonel of the 2/28th Battalion said ‘if you come over to our battalion we’ll make you a captain’ and they wouldn’t give him a transfer because of his standing with us. When


we came out of Tobruk and went to Bardia he ran amock in the officers mess and shot the place up. He didn’t shoot anyone but he shot the lights out and they court martialled him and took his stripes off him and then they discharged him to the 2/28th. On the Alamein show he got the muscle of his right arm blown out and he went off his head. We went to see him at Concord hospital and he was as silly as a


rabbit. Good soldier he was but war mad he was.
You were living in some pretty extreme conditions. I’m just wondering what were the circumstances when other people couldn’t cope, what did you see?
I don’t know I reckon Australians had lived in a pretty savage climate. It was just like we were talking about the Korean War. The Americans


had to give it up because it was too cold for them that’s what beat them. My brother was telling me that you could have warm water to wash your face and by the time it got to your hair it was frozen. They were whinging about the Gulf and how hot it was and they were stressed and God knows what. We had six or seven months straight and it never seemed to worry us.


It certainly never worried the Italians or the Germans.
I wonder if you can tell me about the weather conditions in Tobruk and how hot it would get?
It got really hot of a day and quite cool at night. All the time I was there I never seen any rain it never rained on the six months I was there. It was very barren but it wasn’t desert it was dust


and it was a shelf with rock underneath it and digging in you needed to have jackhammers and that to dig the rocks up you could only go in that deep. The only thing that grew was camel bush; it used to grew about that high and the dirt used to build over that just like a corrugated road and then every day you’d get a dust storm or every second day. The dust storm like we had up here that was just nothing compared to it


you wouldn’t see that wall it was just a complete blackout.
What would you do in a dust storm?
Nothing that was it you’d just cover your head up and lay down.
Can you describe for me Gill the dugout that you were living in?
Yes. It was dug straight down and then dug out underneath and


there were three men to five men in them and mates would always like to get together. Each battalion that I had to deal with when they dug themselves in up the front line or the green line they all seemed to have different methods. The 2/10th Battalion dug a round hole and dug a seat in it and they sat down there and they could look around at


eye level and you could look all around it was terrific. Others just had this slit trench where you could only look out or back.
What could you do with three or five people in our dugout?
Well it was pretty well a strict blackout; we had no lighting or anything. All you had was a bit of fat with a wick in it and you might be able to get up close to write a letter that’s about all. Most people just


would talk and tell their life stories. We had one chap and his name was Haywood, Wally Haywood quite a good soldier Wal was but every now and again he would tell us his life story. He was telling us that he wanted to rob the jewellers shop in Paddington and the jewellers shop was the same


building as the picture theatre and the wall cut out and he went over and he had it worked out that he’d get under the seats when the picture was about finished and he was a pretty active bloke he used to play football with the Eastern Suburbs. He was going to scale the wall and fill up with these rings and watches he knew where they were. The front door of the jewellers shop was a Yale lock


but he said that he had this door open a few inches. It was about two in the morning and everything was quiet and he clicked it shut behind him and a policeman behind the bush said ‘stop Haywood’ and he went off and the policeman after him. I don’t know weather you know Paddington or not but there’s Paddington Street and little Paddington Street and Paddington Street has a little bend in it and Wal jumped the fence at the bend and the policeman was going to run past but


he had fired a shot or two at Wal by the way. People were out on the balconies and that and the policeman was going to walk past and there was a woman there going like that and he arrested him. They took him out to Parramatta Jail and he was there for a while and I think he said the warder said to him ‘if we let you out what would you do?’ and he said ‘I’d join the army sir’ and he said ‘well see that you bloody well do.’


When he joined up he used to drink at the Bondi Hotel and they give him a lot of sample bottles of grog. sparkling hock and rum and whisky, these little sample bottles. He turned up to the showground he kicked my bed apart and another blokes and he said ‘I’ll cobber up with you two blokes through the war’ and I didn’t drink much then and especially not


spirits. There’s Freddie Hedges and they are into it and come teatime we all went for tea but they didn’t they were still drinking. In the middle of the night there was a knock on the wall ‘put the lights out in there.’ He said ‘who’s that?’ and Freddy said ‘that’s the officer of the day.’ So he said ‘what the bloody hell are you doing round in the night’ he yelled, that was Haywood. He finished up going right through the war with us Wal.


What kind of bloke was he to share a dugout with?
No work it was mostly talk there wasn’t much he could do in there.
What were some of the stories maybe you didn’t believe about people?
Homosexuals I knew nothing about them and until later in the war I got friendly with a chap named


Sydney Potts and he fought under the name of Sydney Peters a very good boxer he was. I asked Sydney and he said ‘oh yes’ he said ‘they advertise and if you can understand their language’ and I picked the paper up ‘smart boy wanted no experience necessary’ and he says ‘you can bet their homosexual advertising’. I said ‘do you have anything to do with them’ and he said ‘yes’. He said ‘back just before the war


when the militia was getting around’ he said ‘there was no work much and he was out in front to Tatts theatre’ and he said ‘what they used to do half of them would buy a ticket to go in’ which was only Mickey Mouse or something like that and then the feature after and he said ‘when we got out we’d tear you the other half’. He said ‘you’d only have to show half and you can go in’. He said ‘I’m waiting outside and a soldier went past’


a militia bloke ‘with a girl on his arm.’ This bloke saddled up to Sid and he said to Sid ‘it’s disgusting isn’t it?’ and Sid said ‘yes’ and woke up straight away. He said ‘what are you doing in here?’ and Sid said ‘I’ve seen a job offered’ he said ‘I’ve come in early to see if I could get some’ and he said ‘where are you going to sleep?’ he said ‘on the bench in the park.’ He said ‘come down to the Vulcan there might be a spare room down there.’ He must have been in with the barman so he said to the barman


‘have you got a spare room’ he said ‘no only that double room you’ve got’ and he said to Sid ‘you wouldn’t be interested in that?’ and Sid says ‘oh yes.’ Up they go and Sid said he was getting undressed to go to bed and Sid said ‘you wouldn’t give me two bob to get a pie I never had any tea’ and he said ‘yes’ and he give him two bob and Sid said ‘I won’t be long.’ At the door there was a tall boy there with a hat on it


and Sid never wore a hat and Sid just switched the light off put the hat on and walked off. By this time the pictures were over and they were all out at central railway station. ‘You’ve got a hat Sid where did you get a hat?’ and Sid says ‘it’s a bit tight for me’ and there was four pounds struck in the hat ‘no I revel in it’ he said.
Did you come across any homosexual soldiers at Tobruk?
I didn’t know them at the time but since I’ve thought


after blokes have told me who it was and I’ve worked out they probably were and nothing like that ever happened to me, no one ever approached me. Getting back to that Sid. I met him on the fifty day leave and the Cleveland Inn I think the hotel and a bloke sidled up to us and said to Sid ‘do you feel like a drink mate?’ he was a civilian


and just then a bloke came along the street pushing a barrow selling fish. He said ‘I’ll be back in a minute I’ll just go and buy a fish’ and there were two older blokes on the other side of the bar and they said ‘that bloke’ he said ‘he’s just bludging on you soldiers for a drink’ he said ‘he won’t shout’ he said ‘I’m telling you that because I’ve got a boy in the army and I wouldn’t like to see him exploited’ and I said ‘thanks’. He come in with a flathead and laid it on the bar and Sid said to him ‘it’s your shout’


and he’s got pennies and threepences and Sid got the fish and hit him over the head with it. They had a bit of a punch up and Sid could fight like hell and knocked him out of the doors and these two old blokes give him a standing ovation and I don’t know what happened to the fish it was still there when we left.
I just wonder going back to Tobruk, what were the difficulties of sharing


a dugout with four or five other men?
We were generally with mates, we generally cobbered up with mates. I don’t’ know I can only remember every so often they would take you down to the sea and let you have a swim. I can only remember doing down once can you imagine not bathing for six months. It said in the book that we used to get a gallon of water a day for all purposes


but I only ever remember getting a water bottle a day, no one bothered shaving and you never bathed there was no water for it. Somebody said ‘but you must of smelt’ but we all must of smelt the same. The only thing we were right for was khaki shirts we were right for them.


We wore tennis shoes a lot there on patrol work because all our clothing was a shirt, shorts and tennis shoes.
Why were you wearing the tennis shoes?
So we didn’t make sound.
I was just wonder how often when you went out mine laying or putting out the wire, how often you would be attacked by the enemy?


No not a lot but we’d be shelled a lot with artillery or machinegun fire but not a frontal attack as such. Earlier in the piece they had two or three days to get in and get out of the place but they had too many casualties and they called it off. I think they just thought they’d wear us down. I suppose you have seen the little


surrender notice, did you? They dropped over us and I think they thought we would but not to my knowledge not one of our blokes surrendered. I have heard that there were so many taken as prisoners of war but they mightn’t have surrendered either.
What did you think if the surrender notice when you saw it?
It was a joke. We all got one but we didn’t get it then.


A lot of them got them and they were reprinted for the world reunion and that’s how I got mine was through it and we thought it was a bit of a joke. Dysentery was bad there; there were a lot of stories about it. It was a funny damn war when you work it out from about dusk


to about nine o’clock at night we never fired on one another on the front line that’s when they used to bring our tucker up as soon as that was over we were into it again shelling one another. They called the toilets thunder boxes they were just in the desert and they never fired on anyone on that. There’s a story going that there was this German sitting on the box and someone fired a shot


into the one next to him; he jumped down into the trench and waved a washer out. I don’t know whether that was true or not but it could have been.
Did that seemed strange to be trying to kill each other one minute and then stopping for dinner?
To me it did. They had a truce to bury the dead there at one stage. What happened the Germans right through Europe and that when the tanks


broke through they had seven or eight soldiers walking behind them but they never had to use them because the tanks broke through and people surrendered. We Australians were told let the tanks go to buggery just shoot the ones behind and they had never struck anything like that and that’s why they were getting so many casualties. There were seven or eight tanks running around Tobruk and they didn’t know what to do. A tank


can’t fire down at the ground it can only fire that arc in front and if there’s nothing out there to hit then they’re useless. They can knock a building down but we had no damn buildings there.
How far from the front was your dugout?
Our headquarters would have been about two miles from the front but you have to realize I never worked out how many acres we had


but it couldn’t have been many and every air raid would effect the whole town because what goes up must come down. The bombs would be coming down and the ack ack fire would be up and falling down and it didn’t matter where you were you were sort of under attack but they bombed the front line and the


harbour mostly.
What would you do during an attack?
Go down to ground get under shelter and the only sheltered was the slit trenches or something like that. You’d get the odd raid of silly bloke you’d get up and tell you what’s happening and that but that’s just being bravo.


We had a bloke and when they raided that distillery that I was telling you he use to smoke a crocked stemmed pipe and he’s got his pipe there saying ‘there’s another one coming’ and he’s only got the stem in his mouth. His chinstrap he had a tin hat on and it snapped off and he finished up in Concord hospital. And I think it fractured his brain and they drilled holes in his head.


Apparently when your brain works to a certain thing and because of the fracture you take a fit and he used to take fits and he died a few years after poor bloke but that was just being bravo.
Can you tell me if you did anything a bit bravo?
Not really.


The only silly thing I done I think was there was a tanker got hit in the harbour and it was all on fire and the blokes are jumping in the water and the water is all on fire and two of there were going to jump in and swim out to help them but we weren’t in the race that was about the silliest thing I’d done.


I read a lot of funny accidents. When we were up in the Ramu Valley I met a bloke and I knew him before the war too Jack Hefron was his name. He really went bomb happy and he got a blackboard from somewhere and he used to go off with it out into the jungle and he used to write a story. Broad Axe Jo was his hero and ‘here I am surrounded by


Japs will Broad Axe Jo get in there in time, look in tomorrow’s episode.’ The blokes were going over there reading it saying ‘he’s bloody funny’ but unbeknownst to us he was going off his head. When we were leaving he wasn’t in the same platoon as me and he came over to me and said ‘I’ll stick with you Gill’ and I said ‘alright Jack’ and he had no gear and he had a fork in his top pocket that’s all the gear he had, he’d lost his mess tins and everything.


When we got to Lae because we were coming home by ship and we got to Lae I wanted to keep with the poor bugger I wanted him to get on the boat I didn’t want them to lock him up there. There were six men to a tent and I wanted to get with four or less and every tent I came to five in here and six in here and I said to one tent ‘how many in here?’ and they said ‘five.’ and this


Jack Hefron said ‘all pigs’. I stopped him from getting into blues and I get on the boat with him and the next thing I heard ‘oh Christ’ there’s a bloke going to bash him up. He’s got an infantry bloke’s pack undone and he’s going to have a shave with his gear anyway I got him out of that. We got him home and he finished up he was in Concord I went out to see him and I said ‘how are they treating you Jack?’ and he said ‘pretty good’ but he said ‘they’re playing bloody coits here all night


at the head of my bed’ he was clear off his head and I’ve never heard of him since and I don’t know what happened.
How are people like that regarded. I guess people who couldn’t cope with the situations, how are they treated by the other soldiers?
Feel sorry for them. We had a bloke and he was a bad bugger and Buttsworth was his name. He was a Don r [dispatch rider] and he shot himself through the


foot with a 303 rifle and he run across the desert that foot wasn’t hitting the ground. I could always run a bit and two or three of us took off after him and caught him and brought him back. That bullet went through the instep and it was only a little hole but it blew all the sole out and I don’t know where he went but they charged him with self inflicted wound and they sent him back to us. When we came back to Adelaide


they give us leave in Adelaide and we went up the Barossa Valley to a place named Gola. Me and a bloke named Eddy Price and some other boy we were one of the last to be ready to go on leave and they stopped us ‘we want you three for guard’ and who did they bring in but a bloke named Buttsworth. They’d


stuck up a minister not a minister or religion a minister of parliament and they took his car off him and the provosts brought him out. They said that we have got to guard him in this tent and there’s me and Eddy Price and I’ve forgotten who this other bloke was that was one of the guards. We missed our bloody leave and the first night back in Australia and this Buttsworth said ‘if you shut your eyes I’ll sneak out the back’


and Eddy Price said ‘if you sneak out the back I’ll shoot you and I mean it’ and I think he would have too so he never snuck out the back so I never saw him again and I don’t know what happened to him but those sort of things happened.
Was there sympathy for people like the don r or were they considered cowards?
He was a real coward. His father was a


policeman in Sydney you never hear of them people after the war. We had a major who took over the old gentleman fellow he left us and a Victorian come to us who had never seen any action Jelbart was his name and he really detested the ones who had seen action


and I don’t know why. When we came back to Tenterfield he put some of them in chains. That’s right the old colonel went to CRE [Command Royal Engineers] headquarters and he came down and he said ‘what are you doing with my boys?’ and he said ‘I read up the manual and I’m doing what I’m entitled to do.’ Anyway we used to unlock them and take them down to a meal and bring them back and chain them again.


They tried to get the papers to write it up or standing orders or something where you couldn’t commit but he didn’t last too long with us. At Milne Bay a couple of them tried to murder him but it backfired. They pushed him in the river but he was a pretty good swimmer and he swam out of it but they didn’t think that he would but I don’t know what happened to him he left and we got another chap


who had seen action. He only died last year he was a really good man.
Were the two men who pushed him in caught?
No they weren’t. Apparently they were corridoring the road with these logs and they said that this log swung around but we all knew that it wasn’t so and they weren’t charged or anything for it.
Interviewee: Gilbert Ratcliffe Archive ID 0812 Tape 04


I just wonder Gill, going back to Tobruk given the conditions, how often would you be hungry or thirsty?
I can’t remember there was always plenty of bully beef and biscuits but the biscuits God almighty, have you seen them? A lot of them used to steam them and make ashtrays out of them they were that hard. The only way you could eat them was to get a pot and break


them up and put hot water on them and eat them as porridge but it was nearly impossible to bite them off. The bully beef must have been a good food it really stuck to you. They must have made a fortune out of bully beef and biscuits those firms. I think from memory there were two to a man tent. Hot weather you’d open it up and it was greasy and it would slip out of the tin when you think of it


but I’ve never had bully beef since.
I’m wondering you were mentioning before the water distillery, I’m wondering what quality was the water it was producing?
Very very salty I’d say it would be like a glass of water with a quarter of a teaspoon of salt in it but it must have been


good enough it didn’t seem to worry anyone. I always remember the meal when we came out of Tobruk I’ll never forget. We came to Alexandria out of bounds and we were such a ragged looking lot and they bought us down the Suez Canal and Australian nurses fed us there and we were bandaged up and poor and skinny and burned from the sun all the time and we


had sausages, mashed potatoes, white bread and butter. I thought just the white bread and butter will do me and I thought it was the best meal that I’d ever had in my life.
I wonder, given that Tobruk the whole time you were there was under siege, was there a


point when you thought that it was hopeless?
Early in the piece we did and we didn’t think we could hold it because the German army had such a reputation. When the 6th Division went up there and just whipped the Italians out the German came down with a few divisions and just wiped us out and they looked like they were just unbeatable. As our artillery got very good


and we had English artillery who were good gunners and we reconstructed a lot of the Italian stuff and fired back at them. A lot of it had no sights of anything but it didn’t matter as long as shells were giving over so we felt a bit safer after that. Then later we found out that they weren’t going to try and take us again they were losing too many men.


What beat the Germans was fuel that’s what really beat them. I don’t know weather you’ve seen a documentary just recently about it where they went up and down there and they said little did they knew they are driving over all the oil in the world. [Libyan President] Gadafi was born when we were in Bass and they said ‘don’t blame any of them’.


I wonder that feeling of hopelessness, how did morale pick up?
As time went on and we felt a little bit more secure. This little Herby Ellis who I was talking about that signed the check we found a boat on the coast early in the piece and we stocked it up with bully beef and everything


and put it in a cave and we reckoned if the invasion did come off we’d sneak off in this. We reckoned we’d have a better chance in that than the whole invasion because they wouldn’t be looking for items or boats but anyway it never came to that. We went down months after and had a look for it and it was gone so someone had found it and took it. They called all the valleys and that waddies over there.


I wonder you mentioned earlier that most of the Australians had quite a great respect for the Germans and Rommel. I just wondered how the men of Tobruk responded when they were called rats in a trap?
I think they liked it really because Lord Haw Haw had done that he used to broadcast and


we couldn’t hear it but some of them did have receivers and they used to listen to him and they used to plant a Tobruk Truth they used to call it. He was dead accurate in everything he said, Lord Haw Haw. He said ‘of the royal air force you’ve only got one plane left’ and at that stage everything that he was forecasting and said was right. He said ‘you are in holes like rats in traps’ and so we stuck to the name.


Henry Joyce was his name an Englishman.
I wonder what did you know when you were in Tobruk about what was going on in the rest of the war?
I didn’t know much was going on. We didn’t know the Japs were in


the war until we got mail with a bit of it burned and it was burned at Singapore Airport bombed and that’s when we first knew the Japs was in the war. One thing I was a little bit proud about was the unit I was in was the first to stop the Germans in Tobruk and the unit I was in was the first to stop them at Milne Bay. We were never at the Owen Stanley’s


we were down the coast. Have you interviewed many that was on the Kokoda Trail? That was a really shocking campaign we never struck anything like that.
I wonder Gill could you tell me what you could do if there was any rest or any chance to relax at Tobruk?


We played a lot of cards but you could only play them in the daytime and that’s about all. You couldn’t have a game of cricket or do anything like that. When you think back on it it must have been a pretty boring time mustn’t it.
I just wonder as a pretty energetic young guy


how did you cope with having to kind of be still for most of the day?
I don’t know now but they were all the same we were all from eighteen to thirty that was an out the age group.
I wonder the siege of Tobruk is something that’s written about a lot. I just


wonder what would have happened if Tobruk had of fell?
It would have given the Germans a very good port where they wouldn’t have had to bring their stuff overland so far they could have brought it from Italy in boats which would have put them pretty close to Egypt had they taken it. It stretched their lines of communication a lot further. It got to the stage with the Italian


navy they were getting too frightened to come out of port. The British were getting on top with their planes and submarines and so forth the second lot of them.
How much did you think about it at the time as how important the siege was?
We didn’t think it was all that important we couldn’t understand why we’d be trying to hold a bit if desert but after we did realize.


[Australian war time Prime Ministers] Menzies and Curtin they all wanted us relieved but old Churchill wouldn’t he didn’t want us relieved at all. It was only a lot of pressure that finished up that we did get relieved and no one had heard of anyone being up the front line for six months but in Tobruk that’s where they were.


The ones I felt sorry for was the 2/13th Battalion down on the wharf ready to come home or commit back to Egypt and to get word to say that their relief ship got sunk. They had to go back to the front line again and stay there two months longer with the Poles.
Can you tell me a little about some of the other forces that you might have been fighting with, the other nationalities that you might have come across in Tobruk?


We met a few South Africans and Poles after we came out but there was a Polish engineering mob who took over from us but very few of us seen them. They struck a medal to give us Don might have shown you his did he? He’s got a Polish medal and we were all supposed to get one but the governments were pretty unstable over there and they only issued five thousand and there was twenty-four thousand


of us there. When the five thousand came they ruled I think what’s happened was it was meant to be a 9th Divvy show but there was a brigade of the 7th Divi there the 18th which I was in and we never got many of the medals but the 9th Divi got a lot. So I missed out on a Polish medal where Don got one and my old sergeant major got one


and a few got one.
Was six months a long time to have been in Tobruk?
Yes it was a long time, yes. There was no civilian population so I thought if there is any place to fight a war that’s about the best.
Why does that make a difference to you?


I don’t know I never realized it until we got to Balikpapan when we got to were there was a civilian population. Hearing bloody kids crying and women Japs kicking them out of their line and then coming through no man’s land to us it really upset me, really.
I just wonder


you were half way across the world, a young country boy, what keeps you fighting for a bit of desert in Tobruk?
I suppose you are more or less forced to you can’t say ‘I won’t’ you’ve more or less have got to do it haven’t you?
Were there times when you didn’t want to keep going?
I was very relieved when


we got relieved put it that way. The only thing I thought that the only way we’d get relieved was the 8th Army coming up from Egypt and would met up with us and we’d fight our way out which they did at the finish of it . That’s the only way I thought that we’d ever get out if there. I was astounded when they told me we were moving out that night it was that secret. We were down on the wharf and one of


our blokes lit a cigarette and they really got on to him ‘put that light out or I’ll send you to Jerusalem.’ It would be a bloody terrible place to send a man.
I wonder, you mentioned briefly that you were told only hours before you were leaving that you were to go?
What was your reaction, what were you thinking?


I didn’t believe it really but when I packed up my gear and got back and the dugouts were all empty and gone I said ‘where are they?’ and he said ‘they are all down at the wharf and they are getting on the boat’ so down we went and that was right that’s how quick it was.
Given that the convoys to and from Tobruk were often under intense fire, how


frightening was it leaving Tobruk knowing that?
We weren’t frightened of leaving I think we had a lot of faith in the navy, especially the destroyers there weren’t too many of them got sunk because they could take evasive action from torpedos and bombs too. All the bombs they dropped they were all misses but those Stuka planes, they are the ones that come straight down,


and to me they must have aimed the plane at the object because they didn’t hit as much as they could have. I don’t know weather they didn’t have good bomb sights or what and all the bombs seemed to come out of the nose and if you were laying on your back in a slit trench you were not game to turn over in case got exposed and the bombs coming at you and it might hit you in the eye a hundred yards away


but that’s what seemed to be coming straight at you. As for the bullets the only place on the Salient where we used to crawl under the wire at night and go into no man’s land. The Germans had the machine gun on that area but we had slit trenches dug each side and if they opened up we use to dive into that


which was just under ground level and the bullets going over you, you could hear the nickel cracking on them. When you hear that ‘je je je’ ricochet it has to be miles away but when you could hear the nickel cracking it was very very close. Don was telling me that they found it a very funny sound but to me that’s all I could hear that nickel cracking. It was travelling at twice the speed of sound isn’t it?


I wonder lying in the ground when there are bombs going off around you, what are you feeling, lying in your slit trench?
You are trying get down as close as you can to the ground and not have anything exposed up because the shrapnel spreads out everywhere.


I just wonder, does the ground shake do you feel?
No not from memory. It was very stable the ground and matter of fact it was next to damn rock. It was rock with a covering of dust and dirt over it. I don’t know weather it was all like that but the bit we struck was.
You mentioned the fleas earlier; I wonder what other bugs or pests there were at Tobruk?


The other spider with the hooked tail, the scorpions there were plenty of scorpions there and there seemed to be all fleas flying around, flies and scorpions. It would be hard to have a cup of tea without that much amount of dust in your cup. There was all dust, dust all the time and then the dust storms.
I can imagine that swim


must of felt good?
Yes. When we came out into Syria it wasn’t so good in Palestine it was a bit too dusty. Good green country and plenty of food and snow and we went from skinny rakes to twelve and thirteen stone.
You mentioned the voyage out of Tobruk before, but I just wonder looking back


now or even then, what is it that makes you proud of having been in Tobruk?
I don’t know. Nearly everyone that was in there really thinks it’s an honour I never looked at it that way. I’m not sorry I wasn’t there and I never thought it was a brave act or anything on my part.


The old chap, there is a photo there of the war memorial in Canberra. The old bloke that done that for me has his photo in it and he was in Tobruk. He loves it he reckons it’s a great thing.
I wonder how would you have fared in Tobruk without the navy?
We couldn’t have, we definitely


couldn’t have. They bought everything in and everything out took the wounded out and brought supplies in and machinery. Not so much machinery but all the bullets and shells and everything they brought everything in. There was nothing coming in by road or air.
Can you tell me Gill about leaving Tobruk on the destroyer,


I guess arriving on land that wasn’t Tobruk?
When we came to Alexandria they wouldn’t let us in the town we were camped out and it was out of bounds and a lot of them sneaked in. They reckoned they had two beers and they were off their head drunk they had been that long without a drink. I know one bloke


he said ‘you are no good unless you’ve got pips or something’ and he got a majors crown and he had it on his shoulder and he got in a fight and got his sleeve torn out and here’s this major but they all got arrested the ones who got in there they picked them up from Alexandria.
Why weren’t you allowed to go into the town?
The ragged look of us I think we hadn’t been issued with any clothes


and you can imagine how dirty and bloody we were. I can’t remember now where we got cleaned up because I know we were pretty respectable when the nurses issued our meal the next day.
You told us about the meal but I guess how do you feel after all that time seeing women?
Very emotional.


There was a bit of a bond between the nurses and the soldiers. I had a fair bit of sickness and troubles and I was in quite a few hospitals with malaria and that and I had nothing but admiration for them. I can never forget I was in Lae Hospital and they flew me down from Shaggy Ridge I had a very very high


temperature and doctors are different today they’ll explain everything and ask you. The army doctors didn’t, they knew everything and you knew nothing. I was at Lae Hospital and they put your records on your chest, all of them and the doctor comes along with the matron and a few nurses and he came to me and I picked them up and read them. He said ‘what’s wrong with you?’ I said ‘I don’t know I’m undiagnosed’ and he said ‘how do you bloody know


that’ and I said ‘it’s in the bloody paper here.’ And my mate had a grin about that wide. It finished up I had dengue but they didn’t know at that stage what I had. They flew me back up there and I was the only one in the plane going down and the only one coming back. The Douglass, the old Douglass transport and it was an old rattly thing with bloody dixies [mess tins]


hanging down I didn’t think it would make it but it did.
I wonder, just going back to seeing the nurses after Tobruk, what were you or the other boys talking to them about?
They were just asking us about our, mostly about our, I still had my leg tied up so they had a look at that and dressed it and how it happened and what happened


just the things in general. We had no nurses in Tobruk it was just male nurses. They might have had them earlier in the piece but not in my day.
I wonder given that a lot of the blokes wouldn’t have seen women for a long time, did anybody try it on with any of the nurses or?
I know blokes that had


some of them got dishonourable discharges but none in our mob. I think most of the blokes really respected them but anyway it didn’t matter there were plenty of brothels and that there was no need to. I’ll tell you a yarn I heard the other day it’s not too bad and it was told by a woman and I thought that it was very very humorous. These two old chaps


they said ‘we haven’t had a women for a long while’ they said ‘well there’s a brothel over the road we’ll go there’ and they said ‘alright.’ The old lady said ‘pump up those two plastic models those old blokes wont know the difference’. Anyway after it was all over they were outside talking and he said ‘how was your’s Bill?’ and he said ‘alright’ and he said ‘what about yours?’ and he said ‘I think she was a bloody witch’ he said ‘I bit her on


the neck to bring her on’ and he said ‘she farted and went twice around the room and out an open window.
I wonder Gill if you could tell me about the first leaves that you had after leaving Tobruk?
Yes that was a bit interesting. We came to this engineering depot and they announced that the officers would be going on leave to Cairo for ten days and when they came back


the sergeants and corporals would go on leave for ten days and then the rest of them which was privates and sappers could go on leave if they had ten pound left in their pay books. Two or three of us decided that by the time it got to us twenty or thirty days we’d have nothing in our pay books because we were only on five bob a day and we were drinking and playing two up


so we decided to have our leave then. We went to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and back to Alexandria where we weren’t allowed to go. Up on to the Egyptian border with Syria and came back and the day we came back the whole battalion was


in parade. I wanted to sneak back to out tents but this Haywood I was talking about ‘no we will go on parade’ and of course there were blokes whispering ‘how did you go’ and ‘where did you go?’ Haywood turned his back on the officers telling them and the old colonel said ‘put that man under arrest for his behaviour’ and Haywood had a few words with him and then the three of us were under arrest. They gave us fourteen days pack drill in the


desert and we got all our pack on at the double all the time. We had an officer a really terrific little bloke he was, his name was Wolf. One of my mates said ‘bloody ridiculous’ or ‘disgusting’ he said ‘bloody blokes have just done six months in Tobruk’ and he said ‘yes’ so he went up to the colonel and he said


‘I want Ratcliffe out; I want him to do some blacksmithing.’ One of the blokes was a painter and sign write and he wanted him for something else and he got the three of us out of it. Charlie Wolf was his name a funny little bloke he was. He’d take us on a route march and we’d be walking to attention and as soon as he got out of sight of the camp it was ‘relax boys, smoke, sit down.’ ‘When the war is over if any of you are coal miners don’t get too much coal up on top’ he said


‘they’ll bloody put you off work if you do.’ He was a real socialist he was.
I wonder going back to the leave that you had, what were you doing in the various places that you were visiting?
Just walking the streets and looking and drinking more or less. There was nothing much we could do. We went and had a good look at Baalbek, the ruins of Baalbek.


I think it’s the Syrian pound note that had a photo of the Syrian ruins on it. There are big stone pillars and they’d be that round and thirty or forty feet high seven or eight of them with a big beam across the top, it would be that by that, not a join in them right across the top and not a stone within a hundred miles. We had a guide there who tells you all about it


and how they built it and he said ‘they had forty-thousand slaves working on it’ and I said ‘I wouldn’t care if they had a hundred thousand how could they lift that high but he couldn’t explain it. That must have been modern at some time.
I just wonder with a lot of drinking going on on leave, how often would Australian soldiers be getting into trouble,


mates that you knew?
Not a lot we were pretty bloody lucky. I remember old Haywood out there in Tel Aviv the Jew shops it was like an old dead pine tree they’d have in the shop with dresses hanging on it and he’d run along and grab them and tear them and run and he’d get away with it.


We had two blokes that delivered the mail in Jerusalem and they took the mailbag of an Arab boy and delivered it they just threw letters everywhere and they got arrested. They were two blokes from Forbes and they are both dead now. They were in jail and the next morning they had to front the provost marshal and when they get up the was a policeman who used to be


at Condobolin and one of them knew him and they let them both off so they were lucky weren’t they.
I guess I just wonder what kind of alcohol were you drinking and what was the quality?
The local stuff was terrible quality they made egg brandy,


crème de menthe and cherry brandy and the beer was called Labatts, terrible damn stuff. When we were in Syria they asked us would we put a roof on a building for a wet canteen so they took a few of us in and I was one of them and the manager said ‘if you get this roof on for Christmas day I’ll give you a carton


of Fosters beer’ and we had it on. We had one nail here and one nail there it was on. It blew off new years day but that didn’t matter. We got the carton of Fosters beer under the table and there were five or six of us there and some artillery blokes came in ‘oh Jesus where did you get that?’ ‘come on?’ One of them was Lindsay Hassett remember the cricketer who played for Australia, Lindsay Hassett was one I can still picture him


only a little fellow Lindsay. It was cold snowy country and he had his military uniform on and you could fit hour hand down his uniform it didn’t fit him at all so that was our job there we fixed that up for them.
I guess you mentioned the brothels before I just wondered how often people would be visiting


I think people were doing it all the time. I think they were organized doctors used to inspect them and they had guards on them. I’ll never forget this little Herby Ellis he was guarding this brothel at Tripoli and he’s strutting along up and down with a heap of keys and his mates come along ‘do you want to go up Freddie?’ ‘yeah’, ‘here, here’s a key’ so


that sort of thing happened.
What was guard duty at a brothel?
To stop them from just going in; they were only open at certain time. There were ones that weren’t, there were backyard ones everywhere.
I wonder


given the number of men was disease a problem?
Yes there was a hospital there and there were a few of our blokes who were in that hospital and didn’t come home and they stayed in the Alamein show for that reason but India was the worst when we were there. We got a tram and it was called Grant Road and that’s a street of brothels, two mile long.


There’s a cage here and one above and there’s half naked strumming like a one stringed guitar singing spitting betel nut out the bars on the footbaths. It was just like blood all the way two mile long. How anyone could go there is beyond you. All of our blokes that did all finished up with VD [venereal disease].


What kind of stigma was there at getting VD?
It wasn’t very popular at all. Some got it repeatedly and I don’t know why because there were plenty of lectures about it and everything.
What were the lectures that you got?
Just about the diseases and how they’d effect you and what would happen,


syphilis and gonorrhoea.
I can imagine lectures like that would be enough to turn a lot of people off?
Yes. Of course the doctors never painted a rosy picture or anything.


I just wonder there was a bit of a problem with people who got disease but was there any looking down on men who did visit the brothels or was it expected?
I don’t think so I think it was more or less expected.
You mentioned the brothels, the Grant Road in India but you hear about the set-ups in other places I just wondered


about the brothels in the Middle East, I mean it’s such a confronting image the picture of the cages I’m just wondering how they were different in the Middle East?
They were more or less in houses and they were clean, they all seemed to be clean. A lot of them sold grog and a lot of them sold meals.


They were vastly different to India.
I wonder was there, I mean brothels are one thing but were there ever any relationships between army men and local girls?
We went into a café in Tel Aviv and I’ve got a photo of a girl


in the book there and there were five or six of us there and as we were leaving this bloke said ‘I’ll be seeing you’ and Amina was her name she said ‘you know my name’ and she threw her arms around him and they went off together but he didn’t know here name at all it was ‘I’ll be seeing you’ and that was near enough to her name. That is about the only instance that I know of.


How acceptable would it have been for Australian men to have relationships with the local women?
I think it was pretty common. See the English soldier was on a shilling a day and we were on five bob a day we were like the Yanks that were out here and money speaks all languages.


There were a lot of different people there were Jewish, Arab and French. Up in Syria there were a lot of French.
I guess you compare the Australians to the Americans when they were out here but you hear the slogan bandied about about the Americans that sort of oversexed over paid and over here.


What would people have said about the Australians in the Middle East?
Nothing, they didn’t seem to care about that. I think the English were a little bit more afraid of the diseases than the Australians were I don’t think they frequent the brothels much at all.


I just wonder you hear about some crazy stories of people on leave and you’ve mentioned some but were there any crazy stories connected to visiting the brothels that you heard amongst your mates?
There was a terrific footballer the captained of New South Wales against New Zealand before the war


and played for Balmain and played for West. He came from Parkes originally; Snowy Harper was his name. They called him the stag but they reckoned that he used to go into the brothels and he wouldn’t have sex with them but he’d try to smother them with a pillow not do it but very near. I don’t know but I think it was pretty true about him.


Why was he doing that?
Just for kicks I think, Snowy Harper.
How much of a relief was it I guess when you were out of Tobruk to be able to go and drink and visit?
It was really good. We did a terrible lot of sport, mostly there it was winter time at that stage and


I used to play a fair bit of football and I captained the football unit and that was mainly our sport it was football. After we got back I played cricket and I captained a cricket side too but we didn’t play much cricket over there. Australia played the English at Rugby League and they picked, I wasn’t selected in the side but they picked


a couple of blokes from this area and one was a bloke named Jock Calgary and a very good full back he was. We had everything bar football nicks and we played in them Bombay bloomers down to your knees and bloody wide. This Calgary was a big man with very thin legs and they used to wrap around his legs and the Pommies thought we’d sent a clown out there until


he got the ball.
Interviewee: Gilbert Ratcliffe Archive ID 0812 Tape 05


Gill I’d like to start off this afternoon by asking you when you enlisted in the army you were a country boy. I’m wondering, you hear stories the army is a great leveller how did you find mixing with boys from the city?
Quite right. It is a


great leveller. We were with graziers’ sons and doctors’ sons and we even had a brigadier’s son with us but it all worked out pretty good. It all depended on the personality of the folk. I found that everyone had a mate, no matter who they, were someone mated up with them. I never knew anyone to be a real loner.


You mentioned that you signed up with a mate but then you got separated?
How did you manage finding new friends?
Well pretty simple. Two that I sailed with I went to school with them and


one of them went to another unit and the other was killed very early in the piece but you soon meet up with mates just like you two have met up and you seem to get on don’t you? A lot of them wouldn’t change a lot of the blokes I went in with at Wagga Camp like Don was in


that was the best unit out no other unit was good and they wouldn’t leave it for the world. I never got that wrapped in the unit because being attached troops you mix with a lot of people in different units.
How did that effect your, because you were posted here and there,


to different battalions how did that effect your ability to find some real mateship?
I don’t know it’s a bit hard to explain you just sort of blended in it didn’t matter where you were or how. I think it’s just what you sort of accepted.


When did you get the opportunity to play some sport?
We never played any sport until we came out of Tobruk. We played sport before we sailed of course but when we got up into Syria we played a lot of sport up there and right up until we came back to Australia and up in the tablelands we played a lot of sport. We never played any sport overseas


in the islands because it was more jungle type.
I was wondering if there was any particular mate that you kind of went all the way through with?
Yes there was a chap and I have a photo of him in there and he rings me ever week or so we went right through together poor bugger he’s like me with


his lungs and he got cancer in one lung and all he can walk is out to the paper and back he’s about had it. He went right through with me, a bloody humorous bugger he was. There was at a place in Syria somewhere and they had no seating and we were sitting around the wall everywhere and they announced that they were


bringing a dancer from Saudi Arabia was coming across and around he came dancing with the bloody gear on. A bloke said ‘that’s one of our blokes, that’s bloody Goose’ ‘shut up you bloody fool’ he said ‘he’s good’ and he was one of our blokes. He was like a humorous bloke like that he did anything and he’d do anything. His name was Frank Dent and his nickname was


Ike because he had a big nose. When we weren’t going too good in Tobruk early he said ‘if we get bloody captured don’t call me Ike; it’s a Jewish name and the Hitler mob…’
I’m wondering if you had like a plan up your sleeve for if you got captured?


No none at all, no. Just go with the flow it wouldn’t worry me whatever happened it happened. I wouldn’t be like a lot of them trying to escape, which was nearly impossible especially in jungle country and if they didn’t get you the elements would.


You’ve mentioned that you were issued cigarettes by the army and that’s when you started smoking. I’m interested why do you think that you really depended on cigarettes at that time?
I think it was probably stress and that started to make it and then it doesn’t take long to get hooked on it and you do get hooked on it too


and it’s very hard to give it up. We used to smoke everything we could get hold of there was a lot of South African tobacco. The worst thing was there was a lot of non smokers who got issued who would sell their tobacco; well they never had any mates them sort of people. I know one chap who went to the hospital, which was out of Tobruk


with a pound of Hogton’s tobacco and I don’t think anyone ever spoke to him in the end. The smokers are dying for smokes and he’s going to Egypt where he can get tons of it if he wanted too. Most of them gave their tobacco to their mates that didn’t smoke but the odd one.


What other things helped you get through?
I don’t think anything in particular I think the will to live was a big thing. I always reckoned that I would get through it alright. A lot of them had their fortune told and in India everyone tells fortunes and quite a lot of them came true but I was never in for fortune telling to tattoos or


any of that. Most of them got tattoos done and everyone could tattoo.
We’ve also heard quite a bit about people carrying lucky charms?
Yes and more so the American Negroes. I said to one up at Buna ‘you haven’t got your lucky rabbit foot’ and he said ‘my own bloody foot took me too far’


the old American Negro. I don’t think I ever thought of anything as a lucky charm.
From the stories that you’ve been telling us today about the Middle East I’m wondering if you feel like the tag larrikin


applied to the Australian soldiers?
I think you would more so than the South Africans, English and the Poles. If you said ‘stand there and stay there until you die’ they’d stand there where as Australians would say ‘no I’ll crawl in a hole’ that’s the difference. They had a lot more discipline than we did.


Can you explain why you felt like you were not quite so disciplined?
It’s pretty hard to explain I think we were a bit more individual. We could improvise and make things


where they wouldn’t it had to be supplied to them and regimented. See them gunners there in Tobruk when the Germans attacked they were firing day and night for days and they were bleeding from the ears and plugging their ears with cotton wool. I don’t think Australians would do that they’d say ‘bugger this, this is the way’ but


they’d do whatever they were told do.
You’ve mentioned some stories this morning about situations where either yourself or others were frightened. I’m wondering if you encountered any acts of bravery when you were over in Tobruk?
I suppose there was a lot of things that were done pretty


brave but in my situation there was no VC [Victoria Cross] winners not like Edmondson and the night he got his VC there and you know what he done but I’ve seen a few brave things done.
Perhaps not bravery so much as kindness?


I found that, say you were supposed to go out on patrol and you had a bad attack of dysentery, there was no doubt about getting another volunteer; there was no one saying ‘no you have got to go’ and to me that’s a big thing, they always stood by their mates. I think the worst


was the shellfire, it’s something you can’t see and the next thing it’s on you. As the war went on it was great to think we had equal power, if not better power but early in the piece we had 303 rifles and


we never had a decent Tommy gun and the Owens came out later and the Yanks had their Thompson machine gun and we even had the old Vickers guns, the First World War stuff. The Bren gun wasn’t much good in the desert it never stood up to the sand and that and the Vickers was an old war gun too, that was about the machine guns we had.


Later in the war we were the same at Alamein we had artillery I think they had a gun to every eleven yards for forty miles and I've got a video there of it and when it went off it was just like day, day and night it was flashes of gunfire.


The Germans was coming out laughing and crying and shell-shocked it was a terrible bombardment and we had the superior air force at that time and the same through the Islands. At Shaggy Ridge they talk about these Mitchell bombers they had seventy-five millimetre guns strapped to them and they shot up the hillsides and mountains and knocked down


palm trees and that with it and you see the plane flying along and stop dead when the gun went off it was recoil. It shook them to pieces but they done the job.
I’ve heard army boys talking about feeling like they were using left over World War I relics?
Yes that’s for sure.


See we all had petrol motors which was nearly useless in the desert. The Italians all had that different fuel the oil fuel and I think we captured


thousands of them and we were using all of them. We scrubbed ours because they were getting blocked up with dust and sand.
I imagine that being in the Western Desert fighting the elements the weather and the sand was almost like fighting a second enemy?
It was really and


the only consolation was they were doing the same they were in the same boat as we were.
How did you react as an individual to being in the sand?
Just looking back on it we didn’t like it but there wasn’t much we could do about it and that was it.
What could you do to protect yourself against the sand?


Not a thing we never had goggles or balaclavas or anything like that we were just open to the elements. The only thing is that when the dust storms were really on there was nothing done anywhere the Germans done nothing and we didn’t. There might have been a bit of shellfire go over but definitely no attack. We used to stand to at dawn every morning and


and at dusk every night but that was only a precaution and that seemed to be the time that they do attack.
In a sense you describing getting to know the patterns of your enemy?
Or the routine of them?
Yes. The


British intelligence was very good we thought at the time that it was terrible but it was actually really good the intelligence.
What do you think was your most valuable possession or item that you had or the most useful possession or item that you had with you?


We never had much I think you never let the 303 rifle out of your hand I suppose that was our most valuable item and no one considered gas or anything like that. They reckoned it just wouldn’t work in that open air so no one considered gas


but they did when they got to Borneo they issued us with gas masks and everything. Am I too early for your Borneo show? When we landed at Balikpapan the next day there was a ridge right across up from the base and they called it Parramatta Ridge and these planes came over spraying and we didn’t know


whose they were or what and one of our blokes rushed out and sniffed and said ‘no it’s not gas.’ it was Yanks spraying with DDT for mosquitoes and that was a bit of a joke because malaria was out biggest killer in the islands.
You’ve mentioned that you were very relieved to leave Tobruk,


I understand you left about a month before the end of the siege?
Yes it would be about two months.
How was your morale when you left?
Pretty high and the longer we were out of it the more it got better. We got up on a good country and got better food.
I’m wondering if you felt


a sense of an unfinished business at Tobruk for yourself?
No I thought we had done our share. I was in a picture theatre in Brisbane and that Damien Parer did a story on the Kokoda Trail and I felt ashamed to be in the picture theatre


I thought I should be up there that’s how touching his story was. The old chap that wrote that book Fuzzy Wuzzy Angles he was in the aid unit [Bert] Beros and he wrote that on the Kokoda Trail and he was in a different section to us. Have you heard the story of that have you?


He wrote that on a scrap of paper and the paper is in the war museum it’s a bit of lavatory paper and when he was writing it an officer came up to relieve him and said ‘what have you got there?’ he said ‘I’ve just wrote a poem about those Fuzzy Wuzzies’ ‘that’s good’ he said ‘do you mind if I send it to the Courier Mail?’ he said ‘no that’ll be alright’ the Courier Mail in Brisbane. They published it


and they wrote to the battalion and asked if they could discharge him out they would give him a job on the Mail and Bert was in the First World War as well as the second; he was getting up to being a forty year old. They made him a B class to let him out of the army and then the Courier Mail wouldn’t employ him because he wasn’t A1. What a set up? Anyway he wrote the book and


I got one off him and he signed it and everything ‘to my mate Gilbert’. I lent it to a doctor and he’s lost it. He was reading it said in the hospital and one of the patients said ‘I’d like to read that’ and he didn’t get it back so it looks like I’ve lost that.
You mentioned that your health improved greatly once you were up


at Syria?
How did you come to arrive back in Australia after the Middle East? Can you tell me about that trip back?
We came on a small Indian boat, it was a coal burner and there was a couple of other good boats but they had to stop for us we were too slow.


We stopped in Bombay for a day or two I don’t know why and then we went to Ceylon - Sri Lanka now - and fuelled up with coal there. What annoyed us there was these big mounds like hills of black something and I said to someone ‘what are they?’ and they said ‘it’s tea’. There was no shipping for tea or anything and they were just heaped up open like wheat stacks. We sailed for about


two days from there and next thing we are back in Ceylon and that’s when the governments were having a blue about where we were to go. I think Churchill wanted us to go to Buna and Curtin wanted us home in Australia.
Can you tell me about the shore leave you had in Ceylon?
No we never got off the boat at Ceylon.


You mentioned that news was difficult to get from home. What did you know about the state of the war at this point in time?
When we got on the ships and that they were getting messages they knew what was happening and we were getting to know it then.


We didn’t know it was so dangerous until we got here the poor old Yanks of course they won every battle and we won none. At the time they came into the war it was turning a bit we had taken Milne Bay and Sanananda and the Kokoda Trail before they came into it really. Although they had planes and ships but on land.


At Buna they came in and they just wouldn’t attack the Japs would start shelling them and they had a saying there ‘down another foot and up another sandbag’ and when the 18th Brigade went in and took Buna in two hours they were amazed that men would get up and walk through fire they paid for it really they lost a lot of casualties but they took it.


The Yank was a good soldier in a tank or in a plane but out on his feet he wasn’t so hot. There at Borneo I was very thankful we were going up this roadway and we turned a corner of the road and this Jap opened up with a machine gun and hit a couple of our blokes and it was a dirt road and you know a dirt road all built up in the middle


with wheel tracks and we got in the wheel tracks and we were pinned down there. One of our blokes was hit in the chest and that’s where I got a splinter in my arm I was pulling him back into us into the wheel track and a Yank came around in a tank and he was out on a turret in front yelling at us to ‘fire on the Japs’ and yelling out to us to ‘jump on the back of the tank.’ The bullets are flying off all around him and


he never got hit this Yank. We reversed back out and as soon as we got round the corner we were right that blokes name was Fred Bartlet and years later me and Beryl were at Ettalong Beach and there’s a bloke standing there with his hands across his knees and I said to Beryl ‘gee that bloke’s got a big scar on his back’ and he turned around and it was Junior Bartlet. It pierced his lung he said and it went through out his back.


When we said goodbye to him the blood was just starting to come out his mouth we never thought we would see him again so they were pretty game the Yanks.
I understand that after you received some jungle training at Atherton you were then shipped over to Milne Bay?


I missed out earlier on Milne Bay because of a hernia operation so I missed the early part of that. My unit landed in Milne Bay before the Japs they were there only a couple of days before and they tell me that the Japs landed right where the militia boys were a lot of eighteen-year olds and they were told to destroy everything as they were retreating. When they


met out blokes they said half the poor little buggers were crying it was the first time they had been in action and the only thing they destroyed was the bloody canteen the thing we wanted. They blew it up but the Japs never got that far but a mate of mine who was there and when we got there they had no food and the canteen was what they were relying on and was gone.


There was a water buffalo cow with a big calf with it and they said to the officer ‘what about letting us shoot the cow?’ ‘oh no’ he said ‘the natives will go mad, you can’t do that’ he finished up and said ‘look I’ll let you shoot the calf then.’ Cliff my mate who had done the shooting said ‘the calf will be a bite each’ ‘no’ he said ‘that’s all I’ll let you shoot.’ So they both run away and they’d be ten yards apart looking at us and everyone’s


looking at the calf and bang and down when the bloody cow. The officer rushed over and said ‘I told you to only shoot the bloody calf’ Cliff said ‘I always knew this bloody rifle was carrying over to the left’ they were about that far apart. So they butchered it and had meat for the day or so. I don’t know why the Jap evacuated there


they didn’t all get killed or get captured they pulled them out. I suppose they knew they were well beaten there they pulled them out.
What part of that campaign at Milne Bay did you manage to catch up your unit?
Right at the finish of it the Jap was gone when I came back. We went around up to Oro Bay and Buna


and then we came home. The war was turning then and they said we could come home on fifty days leave. Then we trained again for a while up in the tablelands and we went to Moresby by LST [landing ship tank] the American ships. We were out on the aerodrome waiting to go up when a bomber fell down in amongst the 33rd Battalion


and it killed a hundred of them and we were on the strip there waiting to go up and it was called off then we didn’t go up for a few more days. We flew over the Own Stanleys to Nadzab and we went from there up the Ramu Valley to Shaggy Ridge and when that campaign was over we come home again and the next one was the landing at Balikpapan.
Can you tell me a bit more


about Shaggy Ridge and what you were doing?
We should never have chased the Jap there he was starving and the natives were against them and they were willing to die whatever. I don’t know why we chased the Japs everywhere. The Yanks they just took an area and held it and let the Japs destroy themselves but


we done it differently we had to kill every Jap or get rid of everyone. There was no need to have go up Shaggy Ridge I don’t think because they had all the high country there was three ridges there. One was the Pimple and I don’t know what they called the other one. All the way along that Shaggy Ridge the Japs were walking in the high country and we were walking up the Ramu Valley and every morning you’d see these little fires everywhere


and they sent a fighting patrol up to see what was happening and it was the Japs cooking their rice in the morning. When the Jap ran away they ate their rice and they reckoned it was really well cooked better than we cooked. They went as far as they could get with Shaggy Ridge and there was a thousands of feet drop so it was either front us or commit suicide and ninety percent of them did they just threw themselves over the cliff


and we never took one prisoner not our section, anyway. But there was a lot killed up there a lot of Japs killed.
I’m wondering you are still with the 2/4th Engineers?
Can you tell me how your job now is different compared to the Middle East?


It was different all together we never laid a mine, we never put barbed wire up we just went and we deloused mines and that was about all. We went with the infantry and the infantry was funny we envied their job and they envied ours. I wouldn’t have liked to have been up the front line with a rifle all the time and they didn’t like being down with mines and


and bombs and delousing them. When we landed on the beach in Balikpapan the Japs had retreated back into the caves on this Parramatta Ridge and we had the job of cleaning the beach up of mines and everything. We found a bit of a dugout there with a bag over it and there was a Jap in there he had this bag hung down


and the poor bugger must have gone through hell with the bombardment and that and he was as mad as a two bob watch. He had a plunger and he only had to press it down and it would have blown the whole beach because it was all mines but he was too bomb happy to know what he was doing but it was easy for us. We just disconnected it and just followed the wire down and deloused all the bombs so we were very very lucky that he was off his head.


Then they gave me a job to go in front of a radar, more or less a radar with the mine detectors and there was that much shrapnel about it was buzzing around all the time. They were so dead scared on this thing and they said ‘is it safe?’ ‘Yeah come on’ but we didn’t know whether it was safe or not


and this is the area we had done and said it was safe. Some infantry blokes came along and lit a fire and put a billy on which everyone did as soon as you stopped you’d put a billy on. This bloke stepped backwards onto a mine and it blew him up and killed a few and this bloke said ‘you said it was safe’ but you couldn’t tell whether it was safe or not. We ended up giving our detectors away and just went along with a bayonet and any fresh dirt, check that out, see if


there’s anything under it because there was too much shrapnel and that about going off all the time. The last job I done we had a little sentry and there was three bombs they were five hundred pound bombs and they filed the thread off and they just had a bit of bamboo through the hole they’d made and the bamboo had sunk like that but if you just touched


the detonator then up she goes and they sent for us to come and delouse these three bombs. This little bloke I tossed him to see if I had to do two or one and I lost the toss and I deloused the first one and the only thing you had to do was to be very careful to pull it out and he done the second one. He said ‘when you finished the first one you were white as a sheet’ and I didn’t realize I was. It was just that the war had got me dead beat


at that stage and it was only a few days after that they had dropped the atomic bomb. I would say fifty percent at least of those who were with me in Tobruk weren’t with me no more they had either been discharged or gone to other units or wounded or something.


I thought when they left me there with this bit of a splinter in my arm I thought this is the end of the world all my mates are gone all the old timers and I’m left with all these young ones. Then to get on this damn boat and catch them up and pass them.
Just going back to New Guinea


You mentioned that you weren’t laying so many mines?
What sort of combat or action was there?
It was more or less Japs retreating, us advancing so there was no, it was no good putting obstacles up because they were the ones that were doing that but we were not doing much either. They’d


fight alright but on the run more or less.
Much has been made of the unnecessary war of New Guinea?
What did you think of that at the time?
We thought it was senseless: the Japs that we did see, most of them were dead. They were puny, poor and starved looking we knew that they couldn’t last long


and the elements were effecting them too. If you’re in a jungle cut off from food and everything there is no way out, is there? I think it was ridiculous us going into Balikpapan looking at it now the Yanks knew a month before that they were going to let the bomb off they knew that the war was going to be finished.


So why was it so necessary to go in there?
What were you thinking or how did you respond to your officers and your chain of command at that point in time?
Well because our officers were only little fish they were doing what they were told and I think they thought they were doing the right thing


from the higher up ones was. I think they thought the Yanks are doing so much we’ve got to do something because the Yanks didn’t want us, they didn’t want us in the Philippines, they wanted to have an all American show, or Macarthur did. Although we landed in the morning at Balikpapan and he landed there in the evening on the beach and he had a fair bit of stomach


but I think he was a pretty conceited man really. He took credit for everything but not any failures.
What about General Blamey?
He wasn’t well liked Blamey and his background wasn’t that good was it? None of them seemed to like him.


Vasey was the one everyone liked, General Vasey he was our general in New Guinea and the old Wyalong bloke Wootton he was our general in Milne Bay.
What was the word amongst the troops about why Vasey was OK?


He was quite a humane man and he went around the troops a lot. I never forget we come to this little stream it didn’t look like a little stream it was really rapids. They reckoned the only way we could get over was to pull this big tree over it and crawl over the tree


and Vasey was there with us doing it, he wasn’t there doing it he was there watching. There was a few good axemen there and they felled the tree right everything was right. We were going over this stream and there was a big bloke we had two brothers from South Australia with us and this bloke was half way over the stream and he lost balance and fell over but he got his arms around it and the water is lapping his shirt. Anyway someone said ‘just hang on there and we’ll put a rope around you.’ so we done that.
Interviewee: Gilbert Ratcliffe Archive ID 0812 Tape 06


I was wondering if you could tell me Gill about the differences between the Japanese, Germans and Italians as enemies. How did you find the Japanese?
We really detested them especially at Milne Bay when we found that they had eaten some of our, buttocks and muscle part of their legs were cut out and we knew they had eaten them we detested them after that. We really hated the Japs.


We never really hated the Germans or the Italians like that. I respected that they were really good fighters they were.
How anxious were the men that you’d served with in Tobruk to come home and fight the Japanese?


That was the hard part to keep sailing again and sailing again. We had two trips to New Guinea and one to Borneo after coming home and you think when you come home you’re finished it’s right but your not. It’s a bit hard to go again and go again. I don’t know which Prime Minister said ‘when they’ve had three years overseas and five years in we’ll discharge them’


Blamey said ‘the cream of the force will go I can’t do it.’ I believe he said to him ‘if you don’t do it we’ll get someone who bloody will’ but anyway the war finished before that happened but we were just on the verge of that happening.
How sick of fighting were the men that you were serving with that had been the whole way through?
As I was just saying I think fifty percent of them


in Borneo weren’t in the Middle East with us they’d left or died or transferred. We had a really new bunch so they were just more or less new recruits but I know I had had it I was sick of it. I don’t know that I was sick of it but my nerves were cracking up


because I couldn’t think of anyone that was in Tobruk with me that was in my section they were all young blokes.
I wonder how could you tell that your nerves were cracking up?
I don’t think you did, but this bloke said to me what a wreck I looked after delousing this last mine that I done. I didn’t realize I was but he reckoned I was


and you get a lot of nightmares. I know just after I was married Beryl reckoned I was throwing punches and kicking and God knows what.
Would you get those nightmares during the war?
Not that I can remember


I can’t remember a nightmare in the war. The main thing I remember especially about New Guinea was it was wet it was always wet all the bloody time. You’d dig a bit of a hole and it would be full of water and that’s where you’d have to stay the night and you wonder why you’d be having disabilities today but it is easy to see why. It rained every day there, every day.
I wonder having


been in North Africa where it didn’t rain at all, what were the difficulties in getting used to the new climate?
It was a lot easier war in the desert than it was in New Guinea. Like in the desert all you had to look out for was a few fleas and so forth and the enemy. In New Guinea there was scrub typhus and all the other, dengue, the enemy, wet. It’s a terrible damn country to


fight a war. That march up the Ramu Valley it was that sever that I’ve seen blokes throwing pounds of tobacco away to lighten the load. Tearing the tail off their shirt, splitting their towel in half and throwing it away it was a shocker because there was no stopping. If you stopped and fell out you stayed out there was nothing coming along


to pick you up there was no road or anything. You wouldn’t strike anything like that in the desert. Of course when we got up to the foothills of Shaggy Ridge they put an aerodrome down and called it Dumpu and from there on we went by plane.
What kept you going on that march?


Just sheer will power. I know there was three of us had a Bren gun between us and of course the Bren gun has got a spare barrel and we’d do a mile, the next bloke would do a mile and then the last bloke would do a mile. The next thing the Bren gun comes along with no spare barrel its gone and when the next round comes around there’s no ammunition left it’s gone. If we ever got attacked we would have been in trouble but to survive you had to do it.


I don’t know of anyone who dropped out of it. The Japs were getting away from us we didn’t know at the time and we were more of less chasing them and there was no need for us to be there.
Do you remember apart from bits of the Bren gun what else you were dropping along the way?
No there was only the ammunition and the


spare barrel is all I know of. Of course then they had the little Owen gun in those days and that wasn’t a bad little gun it was lighter and not so bulky.
I just wonder as a young man but still quite an experienced soldier what were you telling the


inexperienced men in your troop. What could you tell them about soldiering?
They were better trained than us because the war had been going on so long and they done the jungle training camp up in Queensland and they were better trained than us and probably knew as much as we did especially about New Guinea.


On something as hard as that Gill, how important is humour?
Very important yes. We had quite a good crowd in our mob they were very humorous blokes and this Freddy Hedges he lost his arm at the finish of it. It wasn’t through the war but through the war I suppose because his nerves cracked up properly and he


asked me would I go out to Marrickville to see a doctor with him and I went out with him and there they had a row of doctors on the seats outside and I was on the seats outside. The next thing Freddy was coming out with the doctor by the shirt and he threw him up against the wall and yells ‘out of the way Wag I want to see a bloody doctor.’ Another doctor got out and got him and quietened him down and asked me to come in with him.


We quietened him down and the old doctor discharged him out of the army with nerves and for treatment. He went home and he never had any treatment and his brother said ‘I’ll take you up the Hawkesbury fishing, Fred’ and he said ‘alright’ and he was up there for a few days fishing with him, his brother was telling me this. He said he was getting no better and he was vomiting all the time. He said ‘I’ll take you home Fred’ and he said ‘alright’ and they were at Woy Woy station waiting for a train


and there they hooked the second engine on to pull up over the mountain on train goods train. This goods training is coming in and Freddy went over to the side because he thought he was going to vomit but he threw himself straight under it, two engines and three carriages went over him. He has the skin off his leg right down cut an arm off oh he was a hell of a mess and they rang me up I was living in Ryde. They


rang me up and I went up to Hornsby hospital and they asked and I said ‘no I’m just an army mate’ and they let me in to see him but by Christ he was a mess. The next time I went up to see him they said ‘they’d sent him to the mental ward at Concord.’ So I used to go out there and see him but it was a shocking damn place. You’d knock on the door and the chains rattling and they’d peep out and say ‘who do you want to see? ‘They had people there from the First World War. They think they are in France waiting for a boat to take them home


it is a terrible bad set up. Freddy is there with an arm off flying around like an ack ack gun chewing gum as fast as they could. Anyway with shock treatment they got him alright. I’ll tell you about his humour. They decided to give him this artificial arm and he had to see this psychiatrist and Freddy didn’t have much faith in psychiatrists.


He had him laying on the bed and telling him how good the bed was and it was a hard bed and Freddy went to sleep and he woke him up to tell him again and Freddy said ‘would I be able to play the piano? He said ‘oh certainly’ so ‘Christ it must be a bloody good arm I wasn’t able to play it before’ but this was his humour. Anyway he married late and had a family and he got a TPI [Totally and Permanently Incapacitated] pension but with a young family that wasn’t enough and he got a job as a doorman at the Granville RSL Club.


Someone put him in for working and getting the pension so he had to lose that, he was a mean bugger wasn’t he? Then his son finished up a druggie pinching lawnmowers and selling them. He only died a couple of years ago Freddy he was a great mate and a good soldier.
What do you think had got to Fred that cracked him up?
The nerves. He was one that


went through the hospital in the Middle East and stayed on. He went through Tobruk, Alamein, and New Guinea the whole lot and it got too much for him in the end, his nerves got to him. You can imagine how the mind works he knew it wasn’t right but he thought his mother was thinking he wanted to rape her and things like that and he was telling me all these things.


He knew it wasn’t right and he said ‘that’s the way I’m thinking’. The poor bugger he used to come home I used to have to sign for him in hospital to get him home and apparently part of your brain thinks the arm’s still there and Beryl use to cut his meals up for him and everything and he’d go to put his elbow on the table and it wouldn’t be there. His chin would hit the table and he’d get embarrassed about that, we had a battle with poor old Fred.
I guess I just


wonder given how much trouble he must have been what makes you stick by him?
Mateship I think he was a darn good mate. He was one of the few that I first met up with in the 2/4th and we went through a lot of it together.
Can you tell me a little bit Gill I


guess about the time you did have together during the war that made that friendship so strong?
When we went AWL he was with me it was Haywood and Hedges and Batman Price and of course we went broke that’s why we came back to the unit. We were at a little place called the Hovit and that’s where all the Jews were then that’s about all they had that little area there


and we went in and seen this old woman. A lot of us used to go there and eat and we never said nothing to her but when we had finished our meal we would told her we had no money and she went off. We said we’d paid her too when we’d got money anyway she sent for the police and we didn’t want to be captured by the military police so we hid out in the bush. We stayed out there all night and the next morning there was a Jewish bus


coming along and we jumped in it and it was going past our camp. So we jumped onto the bus and this Haywood said to our Jew driver ‘we’ve got no money’ and he said ‘get off the bus!’ ‘get off the bus!’ Haywood is up in the bus in the middle with his hat belting it and saying ‘is there a good Jew among you?’ ‘is there a Jew who will pay our fare?’ but no one would so we had to get off. The next thing we knew an Arab came along in a bus and


said ‘don’t say nothing about no money’ so away we went. We got back to the camp and he let him off and the old Arab’s going of ‘police, police come back here.’ He did want us to pay him so we didn’t pay him. We went through some things with Freddy.
We were talking about humour especially on something as hard as that trek up the Ramu Valley,


I was wondering I guess how you used humour on that march?
Isn’t it a funny thing that it amused me at the time. A grazier’s son from up at Wagga, Nimerson was his name, John Nimerson very wealthy people and he was with us. Going over on the ship he got constipated and we were all playing cards and he went past saying ‘I know what that old saying is you can’t shit in the ocean.’


It seemed to amuse me at the time this poor bloke. He used to always be getting samples of wool sent to him and he was a great wool sheep man and he always wanted me to go up and work with him after the war but I never ever did.
I’m wondering Gill if you could tell me about the first encounter you had with the Japanese


in terms of fighting them?
I suppose it would have been at Shaggy Ridge I think. We never ran into them at Buna and Sanananda the infantry done all the fighting. We were just doing bridgework and things like that along there. Although some of our blokes used to make up bombs out of jam tins and at night go down and chuck them at the Japs which I never did I done what I had to do and


that was enough but some were that keen to beat them up. But no we never did a lot along that area. It was a bit different at Balikpapan and we were in the landing and although I said that we had all the equipment and they had none they had no air force or anything the Japs. The only thing they had was artillery.


We were going through the town area and we were going from house to house and I come to this house and it was a dentist’s house and another mate was with me who had a lot of home dental equipment and in the back room there was a big photo of butterflies captive from all over the world and in velvet.


Done in Velvet very nicely written in Dutch and English all very nicely. I got this under the arm but you couldn’t carry a whole lot of stuff and they come up with the a cook wagon and a little cook Chinaman Arthur Kim I said ‘see if you can sell this to the Yanks Kimmy?’ and he said ‘yes I’ll sell it to them.’ That night I had seen him and said ‘how did you go?’ and he said ‘good I got thirty bob for it’ I was thinking a hundred quid.


That little Kimmy when we were going from Moratai to Balikpapan on this LST a Yankee boat we were overcrowded and the Yanks sent down for a couple of cooks and they sent me down and Kimmy. I don’t know why they sent me because I couldn’t cook for bloody nuts. Anyway we cooked the meal and that and we were back up with the mob but Kimmy didn’t come back he stayed down with the cooks.


We were all lined up on the deck for our meal and it comes over the loud speakers ‘Australian Military Forces chow down’ and we thought ‘Christ Kimmy’s fallen down the bloody stairs?’ He’s never heard of the expression chow down. I was in Victoria a few years ago me and Beryl were down there on a trip and I pulled into the bowling club I was a bit of a bowling fanatic and


I picked up a bowls magazine and in Victoria they have a national day, Chinese, Japs, New Zealand, Australia and Yugoslavs and I saw this Chinese team and Arthur Kim’s in it. I wrote a bit of a story in the Rats to Tobruk about it and someone rang me from Brisbane and said that they’d seen him and he was going well and everything.
How much of a hard time did Kim get for being Chinese in the Australian army?


Everyone liked him and he was a real little gambler and the Chinese do like gambling. He was a good sportsman he wasn’t a bad cricketer, no they liked little Kimmy. He said after that he had never cooked in his life but because he was Chinese they thought he was a cook but he never worked as a cook in his life he reckoned.
How was his food?
Pretty good it turned out really good. With Jockey Peterson there he used to get peanuts and roast


them for us.
I wonder you mention you were sent down to cook with him one day. Can you tell me about what you were doing as a cook?
I think I was more or less washing up and that sort of thing. I know that one of them threw out a rope, it wasn’t a line it was a rope with a butcher’s hook on it and a bit of red rag on it and this was flopping way behind the boat and someone looked out and there’s a bloody great fish on it. We pulled it in


no one knew what it was and we tried to roast it and it wouldn’t so we boiled it and I don’t think we ate it even then I don’t know what it was.
Do you think you would have made a good cook?
No, no ask Beryl.
I wonder Gill you mentioned that after a while in New Guinea you were able to


come home for leave for fifty days I think?
What did you do during that fifty-day leave?
At that period my people were living out in Wyalong and I came home there and went out to a few of my relatives and I was going with Beryl at the time and back to Sydney taking her out and that was about it. It went pretty quick I can tell you.


How hard was it knowing that you had to go back to the war?
That was the hardest part when you knew you had to sail again. I always had it in my head that I would have never married until the war was over I didn’t want to come back with a arm or a leg off or something. Beryl had it made up that when the war was over that is when we’d get married so it was a bit hard to go again.


It was a bit of a fluke that I met Beryl. My sister worked at a factory in Sydney and Beryl went there as a shorthand typist. I think when she got there they put her on chocolate or something until there was a vacancy but she got wrapped up in it and never left it. She wasn’t on chocolate she was on jubes and prune blokes and things like that. My sister worked


there and on a leave early in the piece I just called to see my sister and all the girls had just knocked off and I met most of them and that’s how I asked her out. The first movie we seen was Lassie come home.
I wonder Gill you mentioned earlier that when you were home on leave you went


I wasn’t on leave then I was supposed to be convalescent with my hernia operation and I think I told you that didn’t I about that? I was given two days leave anywhere in Queensland and I think I took the two days leave to Warwick in Queensland and


I changed Warwick to Wagga and I changed from two to twenty one because I had six months of no duties. Do you want me to repeat this story? When I had had a week or two leave I thought I’d better report somewhere and I reported to Wagga that was our depot for reinforcements and they didn’t know anything about me, of course


and they put me under arrest. They sent me to Victoria Barracks in Sydney to be tried and they said it was too big a case to be heard so they sent me to Boggo Road in Brisbane. At that time the 9th Divvy was coming home and there was a lot gone AWL. They used to call out three or four names every day and this day they called my name out and up I went and they


read out the charge and I was charged with ‘deserting in front of the enemy’ which is a dishonourable discharge and lose all medals, ranks, everything. I still had in my pocket the doctor’s certificate to say that I was three months no duties and three months light duties. They asked me if I had anything to say and I pulled it out and handed it over and it was like a killing case, bloody provost marshals and red caps there.


Anyway they all had a read of that and summoned the doctor in and he took me into a room and he examined me, took my stitches out and had a yarn to them and ‘case dismissed seven days leave.’ I was a bit lucky I had that bit of paper wasn’t it?
I wonder what it was that made you change those numbers on that destination?
I was desperate to get down south. I thought


sitting for six months in a camp in Queensland as it turned out I was only about a month instead of getting my six I was only about a month and I was back with it. When they discharged me from the hospital with this do in my pocket I went to Coorparoo, the nursing place, and for some reason I was on a draft and I was really crook at the time.


I was transported up to the tablelands to a staging camp for New Guinea and of course we had to front a doctor before we went and the doctor said ‘oh Jesus, you can’t go’ he said ‘you’re still raw and you’ve got stitches due to come out’ and so I stayed. The next morning I woke up and there’s me, a sergeant and an officer is all that was left there. This sergeant said, getting back to this cooking again,


he said ‘you can do the cooking for us if you like’ and I said ‘buggery I will’ and that’s when I said ‘can you give me two days leave’ and he did so that’s how that started.
I just wonder how hard it was going through sort of a recovery process thinking you were getting yourself well to go back to the war again?
After I had the stitches out


and had seven days leave and that I recovered pretty quickly, I was right I was much stronger then I went back to me unit.
What was it that was so hard about the recuperation period and not doing anything?
I don’t think it was that hard for me from memory I didn’t do much.


From the day I got out of hospital practically I wasn’t in the convalescent camp I only had a day and night or so and I was on leave and then AWL. It amused me a bit this deserting in front of the enemy they really got that wrong.
How worried were you that you were going to be?
Not one bit, nothing worried me. It’s like this day and age and all the operations I’ve had and that


I just put myself in the doctor’s position and that’s it.
You mentioned earlier, I’m not sure when it was or on what train trip this was on but someone had thrown a letter out the window?
That was me coming from the Middle East to home. We were coming through from Adelaide and we went through Forbes here up to Tenterfield and one of our chaps a bloke named Brian Sweeney


threw a letter out here at Forbes just ‘to whom it may concern.’ A girl from here, Meredith Burns picked it up and wrote to him and they corresponded and he came back and married her and he finished up the secretary of the RSL club here.
What was in a ‘to whom it may concern’ letter?
It was jut to anyone that picked it up.
But what was in it?


that we had come from the Middle East, I’m travelling through and if someone picks this letter up would they please write to me it was something like that.
Why would someone throw a letter like that out a window?
It happened quite a bit. I threw one out to a cousin of mine at Berrigan, I threw the letter out and she got it and wrote to me I knew that if I had it addressed to her.


I just wonder if a ‘to whom it may concern’ what did it mean for someone to have a stranger writing to them?
It happened a good bit because a chap that I know very well and he’s still married and he lives down near Huskisson and he was in the air force in Darwin


and a bloke there said ‘I’ve got a pen friend and I’m sick of writing to her, here’ and he did. When he was in Melbourne he though I’ll go and see her and he did and he finished up marrying her. They drew a soldier’s block out here at Weelong and they’re living down the coast now but no it happened quite a bit.
How important was it to get mail?
Very important. I went six months


without mail in Tobruk because of the change over of units where I should have been with the 2/5th and that’s where my mail was going to and I was in the 2/4th and I never got any mail for six months. When we came out of Tobruk I had a damn whole bag full of but it was a bit upsetting when all the other blokes are getting mail and you’re not.


What was it that was so comforting about getting mail?
Just to hear from home and what was happening. A lot of funny things happened we had a bloke and he wasn’t silly but he was a bit backward and he got a telegram to say that his wife had a baby and he was as pleased as punch. Someone said ‘we’ve been over here eighteen months’ he said ‘oh that nothing there’s three years between me and my brother’ that’s how he worked it out.


Do you know if anybody actually broke the news to him?
No I don’t think so and he was that dumb that I don’t think it ever got through to him. There were a lot of funny things oh not funny but sad things. We had a captain and gee him and his wife were thick and he found out she was playing up and he changed all together to a very sour bloke.


Another little bloke we had on the march from Ingleburn to Bathurst his wife walked along side him all way and she finished up playing up and he wiped her but he was a funny little bloke. When they pulled up at Lithgow they were in tents there at the side of the road. There was a widow with a couple of teenage daughters in the house just opposite working in the garden and there was a council bloke cleaning the drain out.


This little bloke Jacky Devon was his name he went over and said ‘what’s the story over here?’ and he said ‘she’s a widow her husband’ I’ll get the name in a minute, he said ‘her husband was killed building the Bateman’s Bay bridge’ ‘oh gees was he, what’s her name?’ and he said ‘what’s her husbands name?’ and he said ‘Bert, Bert March’ and he said ‘oh good.’ Away went the council bloke and over goes Jacky and knocks on the door ‘’Mrs Marsh?


‘yes’ he said ‘I thought I would come and pay my respects’ he said ‘I worked with your husband at Bateman’s Bay’ she said ‘girls there’s a man, come in’ and he was eating steak and eggs and everything and we were eating bloody stew. You get them sort of blokes that do them sort of things. Well his wife she walked all the way on that march she didn’t stay in camp with them of course of the night but every day she went


but she was playing up when he went over to the Middle East.
How much did the mates that you were with worry about their women back home?
I think there were very very few married and all my good mates weren’t. They weren’t married they used to rag one another about them about their girlfriends.


There’s a song I wonder whose kissing her now and all of that.
I wonder if you could tell me, you were talking a bit about the fifty days leave that you had. Can you tell me when you got the new that you were heading back to New Guinea?
I think we knew that the campaign was going to be there


and we knew the campaign from then was going to be Singapore and we were suppose to relieve the prisoners of wars. I knew we were going to Balikpapan. When we were coming home from the Middle East Wooten was on the ship with us, General Wooten and outside his door was a guard put on and on the wall over was a map of the world.


Old Wooten came to the door and he said to this bloke ‘where do you think you are?’ and he said ‘I think we are about here’ and Wooten got him under arrest for not being on guard in front of his door the old bugger.
You’ve mentioned the Balikpapan landing I was wondering if you could describe for me what you did in the landing


and what you saw?
When we went in we got as far as we could in the LST and then we went in these little motorboats and the old Australian battleship the Shropshire. We came in underneath it as she was firing with all guns straight in and there were aircraft carriers and planes and big vats of oil up on the hill and they were hit.


They would light up like day and then would smother in oil and be black and we landed in the morning and we had to clear the minefield, which was quite easy for us. Then we went up onto the ridge, Parramatta Ridge and the Japs used to attack under the smoke screen with an oil screen and there was a blackout. When they’d get out in the open as luck happened


it would come into flame and light up like day and it was pretty easy to mow them down and that went on for quite a while it finished up they started to retreat then, the Japs. They had dug caves into the hills and that was our job sealing the caves. They used to dig down, say ten or twelve feet and then tunnel in under. They called them the Yankee packs


they were like a haversack full of TNT with a fuse on it we use to light the fuse and someone would lay over the hole and we’d sit on his legs and swing up and it in because the Jap would throw it back out and then run like hell and half the bloody hill would fall in. I don’t’ know how many Japs we got like that but as we advanced on we were going to dig one out and


see what and they reckon there was furniture and God knows what in there. Before we got back the war was over and the Race Wallers as we called them dug it all out and got all the treasures.
Before the Balikpapan landing how much did you know about the resistance that might be there?
We didn’t have a clue what it would be the only think that we knew was whatever they had we’d match it.


There at Moratai that’s where we got all our vehicles sealed and everything so we could go through the water. While we were there a Jap come in with his wife, a Jap doctor and she was very very sick and that’s what I was saying about the Japs they just took the base at Moratai and let the Japs starve themselves out. I don’t know what they done with the Jap but she died the woman,


they took him as a prisoner I’d say. It was a dump of a place that Moratai, wet and nothing there. The Yanks had a big screen there they had all their soldiers seeing films before they did at home and we weren’t allowed to go to them. We could go and sit behind


the screen but not in front and it was just the same but everything was left-handed. The Yanks done everything left handed on the back of the screen.
I wonder how you got along with the Americans that you encountered?
Not real well there was a big brawl up in Brisbane.


We were camped at Ipswich when that was on but we weren’t in that thing but we knew all about it. I was getting my hair cut at the barbers shop just opposite the canteen and the barber was telling me and he pointed out that there were bullet holes. He said he was watching a big fair-haired bloke coming in swinging on the side of a tram and he said he kicked every Yank he seen on the way in, on the ground he was watching him


especially. When we went up to the tablelands we took over a camp that the American Negroes had been in and I think it was at Innisfail and we went to have a meal at this café and there was this little Aboriginal girl seventeen or eighteen there waiting on tables and one of our blokes was pitching for her. She said ‘go away you white trash’


she’d been out with the Yanks.
Interviewee: Gilbert Ratcliffe Archive ID 0812 Tape 07


Gill I’d just like to talk a bit more about New Guinea and Borneo if I may. I understand that some of the officers that you had hadn’t seen service and I was wondering if you could tell us about the sort of favouritism that you encountered?
We had a Victorian


took over when we came out of Tobruk and he was a major but he really resented the ones who had been to Tobruk and he crawled to the ones that weren’t the reinforcements.
Can you tell me why that was?
I think just because he hadn’t seen service and we had.


Every year we used to have a game of football it was the thirty year olds playing the officers and I wasn’t thirty but they reckoned I looked over thirty and they used to bring me in and me and another bloke played for the state a bloke named Bourke from Wollongong. They used to bring us in as over thirties and we used to give this bloody officer we used to nearly kill him this Jelbert. He’s the one that


I was saying that put them in chains up in Tenterfield and I don’t know what happened to him. At Milne Bay they tried to kill him but he survived he was a pretty good swimmer and he got out of it so I don’t know what. We got an officer then named Taylor who took his place and he was a beauty a really good man. He only died a year or so ago and was at Woy Woy.


Can you tell me in what way you could tell the new troops who hadn’t seen service were being given some favour over the older more experienced?
They would be given nasty jobs to be sent on. If you were pretty good with an officer he wouldn’t send you on a nasty job


where he would more or less with the ones he wasn’t in favour of.
What was the most nasty job that you could have?
Delousing mines and things like that.
You mentioned that you started


smoking in the Middle East. I’m wondering when you were in New Guinea and Borneo, how you managed to calm your nerves when you were delousing mines?
We were all smokes pretty heavy and we couldn’t get grog in them places either. It was not too much like it was in the desert back in the towns there was of course like Moresby and Lae and them places


but they never sent it up to the troops. I don’t know I think smoking was about the only thing. There was no heroin or LSD in those days. But I tell you we had a bloke and he had a brother captured in Malaya and he only heard about it and he went to the cookhouse


and he got a bottle of essence of lemon and he drank it and it was pure alcohol and he was drunk as a lord and he comes back and he staggers around ‘why aren’t we fighting?’ ‘why aren’t we bloody fighting?’ but that’s about the only alcohol, they used to make it the home brew and they had a still. Anything that would ferment they’d put in it, prunes, peaches and God knows what.


They’d sit over it and bubbling away and bubbling away and ‘oh gee she’s coming on good’ they’d say and the drip would be filling bottles up. When they filled them all up they’d burn brown sugar and colour it like whisky. This old bloke he had a lot of this stacked under his bed and he was in a fibro hut with a fibro roof, flat roof and he had a few of the blokes in there and they were going to buy it. He got another bottle out


‘can we try it?’ and they drank that bottle ‘hey try another one.’ Anyway someone was going past and threw a rock up on the roof and it come through and Freddy Hedges I will be talking a bit about it hit him on the leg. He was a good actor Fred and he swung around and one of the blokes says ‘is it broken Fred?’ and he says ‘yes, look at it.’ The bloke says ‘I’ll take bloody lead for that’ and he flew out the side


of this fibro hut and someone whipped a magazine in a machine gun and fired it in the air and you could hear this bloke hit the ground, woof. Anyway that’s how they brewed it like that this home brew.
What did it taste like?
Some of it didn’t taste too bad. Some can make it up pretty good and others were bloody terrible.


From your descriptions you were called upon to delouse many times. Can you take me through a typical situation that you faced?
I think the worst thing was there was a torpedo fired in the Tobruk Harbour and the bomb came up on the beach


and never went off and they asked us to go and delouse it. We didn’t know anything about a naval one and we said ‘we can’t touch that the navy has got to do it.’ That’s how we got out of that. But everything else was pretty straight forward.
How do you delouse a mine?
You’ve got to render them safe for a start


and as long as you get the detonator out you’re fine and there’s generally a way to do it. With this Steinbeck that invented this tool that rendered them safe you could do anything with it then once you rendered it safe and ours was mostly all Mills bombs. We would never think of using a five hundred pound bomb to kill a man. It was


just like having a sledgehammer to crack a nut more or less.
You see plenty of films where guys are faced with delousing bombs and there’s sweat dripping off them and they’re saying a prayer. I was wondering what you would do?
No I don’t think we ever got to that stage. You got to the stage where death was nothing


and you know you’ve seen that many die that it seemed an every day occurrence. It upset you for a start but not so after. You just thought thank Christ it’s not me, sort of business. I’ve seen a bloke at Buna no one said anything to him but he had a couple of brothers killed I heard but this Jap prisoner and someone give him a


a jiggered bully beef tin is when it’s cut off. Someone give him that full of water to drink and he had it up to his lips and this Bluey Row put the boot into it and squashed it into his face and no one said a word. I understand now why everyone knew that Bluey’s two brothers had been captured and murdered by the Japs but that sort of thing happed. We had a bloke with us


I won’t mention his name but the Japs all had gold you’d think they were chewing bloody gold and he used to smash their face in with the heal of his boot and take it all out and it was only fools gold it wasn’t worth a butt. He didn’t know it at the time that it was but a lot of those sorts of things happened.
You hear a lot about the Japanese being


described as being not a very honourable enemy?
Why did you agree with that?
What they did to the civilians in Borneo cutting them across the instep and cutting their hamstring and the back that really upset me that anyone could do that.


After the war was over in Borneo they captured a pig, a wild pig and you know what they done they poured boiling water down its hair. It went round and round and squealed and they laughed they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen they were sadists you know. They never stopped bowing to us when the war was over


it didn’t matter where they were, they were all bowing to you.
Even so you’ve just described a story about the can being pushed into a Japanese face. What were you feeling when that was being done?
I felt like saying ‘oh gee cut it out Blue.’ but all his other mates. He was a 2/12th Battalion bloke and a good footballer for North Sydney he was, Bluey Row and


not one of their blokes said a word so I thought I’d better keep quiet too.
I’m wondering if that was a moment where you felt enough was enough?
Yes I thought so. I suppose there were some good Japs.


I had a cousin who was captured in Singapore and a pretty truthful bloke there was and he was telling me that a German ship came in for a load of rubber. They sent the Australians down to load the rubber and this German who looked very much like us, was leaning over the rail watching us coming up.


He said ‘I’ve heard the Japs are giving you a pretty bad go’ he said ‘when you get down into that hold get stuck into the tucker and have a feed.’ The next day there was a mob of volunteers wanting to go in this loading rubber and this same German was up there leaning over watching them again and the Jap guard looked up and seen him and thought he was one of our blokes having a spell. This Jap had a whip about that long


and pliable it was and he raced up and into this German because he thought he was one of us and the German into him. He finished up picking the Jap up and got him over the side of the ship and threw him out to sea. The Australians give the German a standing ovation. Things like that happened. We had another bloke and he was telling me he was a batman to Doctor Hinder and Doctor Hinder was a Macquarie Street specialist after but


he was a pretty rough old man. To get through university he used to go picking grapes and trapping rabbits and then he done his term. He joined the army and this bloke, rosy cheeked bloke come from Forbes here was his batman and the Japs thought the batman was the doctor and Hinder was the batman. Anyway this Jap got bitten by a snake or thought he did and he went


behind a tree to do his business and he came out running with an axe and all they had was a rusty tobacco tin with a raiser blade in it. He said to the Jap ‘I’ll lance it’ and he went a bit deep and the Jap went like that and he cut his finger off and he said to the Jap ‘you’ll live, you’ll be right.’ About a month later the Jap’s were coming along the line with a tin of biscuits looking for the medic that saved his life.


That’s what they were like they were queer people weren’t they. He was telling me he saw the atomic bomb drop he said they were in the coal mine and he said ‘I don’t know what’s happened’ he said ‘they were in this dugout when the bomb was dropped and they had a vent. He said it was only a small vent but I was very skinny and I


stand up on these blokes’ shoulders to get out this vent. He said ‘I’m buggered if I know what’s happening, there’s Japs running everywhere, there’s trees bent over touching the ground’ and that was the atomic bomb going off.
I’m wondering if you recall where you were when the bomb was dropped?
I had just


had a splinter in my arm and I just had it stitched and I more or less convalescing in the back of the tent and someone yelled out ‘they’ve split the atom’ and I didn’t know what they were talking about. Then we were sent up to some Japs, they had a few Japs come out from America that could speak English and Japanese.


I think every battalion got one or two of them to go out with them to tell the Japs that the war was over. This came we came to there was a big blackboard that the Japs had and one of their blokes went over and wrote Australia on there and then he rubbed it out and wrote Nippon they were having a bit of fun here but they surrendered their arms and everything. They all asked Tojo to commit suicide and when we said he did they were happy then


he must of promised that he would.
Just going back to Borneo and Balikpapan. You mentioned a bit about how you felt both New Guinea and Borneo were unnecessary but you also hear about the campaign, particularly at Balikpapan


lacking in strategy that it was a bit chaotic. How did you feel at the time?
I was sent along with three or four other engineers to go with the 2/25th Battalion and we were to take a hill and we had just done the township area and we were dug in this night in a big circle around this bit of a hill


and us engineers were just in a little separate section of our dug in. Through the night a fire broke out in amongst our ranks, God almighty it was on. ‘Cease fire’, ‘stretcher-bearer coming through’, ‘bang’, ‘bang’ and on they went. We were to take the next hill but that evening late we sent a spotter plane over


and Holy Moses the Japs opened up with everything on it. Machine guns and they reckon one of the officers panicked and went off his rocker and started firing that night and they shot one another up by golly they made a mess of each other. The old colonel came around and congratulated us and I was made a corporal a lot of times never officially but in action and as soon as I came out I was getting trade pay I didn’t want their corporal thing so I used to resign from it.


I was a corporal in that show and this other little bloke who was a corporal crawled over to me and he said ‘what do you think’s going on?’ and I said ‘I haven’t got a bloody glue Joe’ and he said ‘what are you doing?’ and I said ‘I’m just lying in this slit trench and if anyone puts their head over it I’m blowing it off’ so we never fired a shot just in our little area. The next morning the old colonel came around and congratulated us for not panicking and so forth and it was that bad that they had to call the attack off. There was that many


killed and Christ knows what. We didn’t go on with them I don’t know what happened but we went back to our unit and we never saw the 2/25th again. You know the old Victorian Bloke, what’s his name? The old Ocker Bloke, Buckstein he was in that unit and that was the only campaign he was in


old Buckstein the 2/25th so there was a bit of that sort of thing went on.
We’ve just mentioned briefly the air support because in those campaigns in the pacific you weren’t able to have any real support from tanks?


What was your relationship to the air force?
Very good I always looked up to the air force even when we had none the poor buggers, they were out numbered and out gunned but they stuck into it and got shot down. I always took my hat off to the navy and the air force.


You also mentioned that Macarthur visited the beach at Balikpapan?
What effect did that have on you?
Blamey and that didn’t do those sorts of things they’d turn up when the war was stable or all right but he


turn up on the first day so I can give him a bit of credit for that. He always was a very pronounced man, wasn’t he? He was always straight and he looked the part. I can still see him there on the beach. As a matter of fact I just read a book about him. This bloke come from a little place near Dunedoo I just forget his name he was a General and he was with Macarthur there at that time


and he got Macarthur to get behind a tree. There was a bit of shelling going on and he said Macarthur just didn’t seem to worry, I think he thought he was untouchable.
After you encountered some unexpected resistance at Balikpapan


how was the morale?
Oh very good, yes. We were on top of everything at that stage the Jap was in full retreat really.
You also mentioned a fairly gruesome story about souvenirs. I’m wondering if there are any other stories


of Souvenirs?
The best one I seen was when we were up in Syria General De Gaulle came to interview the Free French and that was in Tripoli and it was out of bounds to Australians. A mate of mine and he’s still alive in Woy Woy in Sydney said ‘are you going in?’ and I said ‘we can’t go in Charlie, it’s out of bounds to us’ and he said ‘I’ll tell you how to get in.’ He was one of those bloody Egyptian


fizzes and Egyptian paper and got in the back of the truck and then we went. We lined up with all the wags and stuff there and watching the parade and Charlie’s missing and next he came back with his bloody coat bulged out in his pocket and I said ‘what have you got there?’ and he said ‘I’ll show you later.’ And it was the bloody radiator cap of General De Gaule’s car. It was a Daimler


car with a woman with her two arms back like this and that’s on his TV set in Woy Woy to this day. There’s a souvenir, isn’t it? I’ve been to his place a lot Charlie and he’s still got it and that would be worth a quid. We were pretty good scroungers.


You also hear stories about taking souvenirs from dead bodies. I’m wondering if you’ve heard any stories like that?
No. There were a few Lugers and Verey pistols that they bought back and sold. I don’t think there was any taken from, not in my mob anyway


or anyone that I was attached too. When we were at Balikpapan this little mate of mine, he found, in one of the houses that the Japs were in he found a big box of Japanese flags not just crook ones they were good silk flags. He was selling them to the Yanks for a pound a flag and if the war had lasted another few weeks he would have made ten thousand pounds but the war finished and the flags


weren’t worth a butt so he was a bit unlucky wasn’t he?
Why do you think it was such a temptation to grab a souvenir?
I don’t know it never bothered me. The only thing I grabbed was them butterflies, which I didn’t keep of course.


One of our army mates give me a little block of gold he got at Wau and I don’t know how he got on to it and a bloke in Sydney one of me army mates too talked me into giving it to someone who would make a ring out of it for me but I never saw it again I lost it.
You mentioned almost in passing


that because you were working on the explosives that you began to feel like death came pretty easily. I’m just wondering what was the defence mechanism about feeling like you might not be there tomorrow?
There was none really. When we were alongside that war zone and the airstrip


in Moresby when we were going up to Nadzab we were to go up the next day and that flying fortress full of bombs never cleared the runway. It hit the trees and exploded all among the 2/33rd Battalion and the old padre buried the hundredth one, that was hundred killed bang.


I was a bit of an improviser and I never slept much on the ground if I could help it. I made up a bit of a forky trudge with a couple of rails on it and put a few bags across and slept on that and that blew me off that bed that blast that’s how strong it was. Of course the campaign was called off and they didn’t go until a couple of days after. We had seen a hundred killed


there as though its ‘oh well it’s a fact of life’. They weren’t our blokes they were the 2/33rd Battalion. The doctor in Orange, which one of you girls comes from Orange? Doctor Mutton well this Mutton who is the doctor in Orange now his father was the battalion’s doctor.


Perhaps you could talk more about, I’m interested, well given that you felt you might not be here tomorrow, how that effected your ability to take care of yourself?
I don’t think I ever felt that I wouldn’t be here I always felt that I would see the war out and be home.


At times when sickness and that you’d feel, especially if you got an attack of malaria or dengue you’d wonder if you would survive. The natives they always had big spleens with no treatment. They’d dig a hole fill it with kunai grass and be shivering with the cold, put a match in it and as soon as the flame died down lay in it


and then the heat would sweat it out of them and they’d get up and walk away that’s what they used to have but they finished up with very big spleens and that through it. That quinine, that was our main, we had that Atebrin all the time which I think was useless but the quinine was good.
And how difficult was it to keep


going when you felt like perhaps you were losing your respect for the command, given that you felt like Borneo and Balikpapan was an unnecessary campaign?
I think you just done what you was told to do and that was it. You mightn’t have agreed with it but you couldn’t do much about it. We had nicknames for all our officers


Pinhead, Boofhead, and the boy bastard they all came in like that. This one bloke Pinhead said to another officer Mackenzie ‘I’ve just found out the boys call me pinhead’ and he said ‘don’t worry about that’ he said ‘they’ve been calling me boofhead for bloody years’ they all knew about it.
What about nick names amongst


We all had nicknames. I was pretty fast and I could run and side step a bit in football and they nicknamed me oily. I’ve never heard of it for years and years but a young bloke called me the other day and he said ‘I was up in Queensland and he met a little bloke who used to play scrum half for you. Joe Bentfield’ I said


‘oh yeah’ he said ‘they nicknamed you oily.’ I’ve never heard that for years. All the Taylors were called worms and all the Clarks were clickers.
Why were the Taylors called worms?
I don’t know but even our major he was called worms Taylors


Ian was his name I don’t know why it was worms. Any thin bloke was called bones. We had one old bloke with us and they used to call him Marmaduke and he asked someone what it meant and they said ‘it means a German spy’ and oh Jesus did he hit the roof.


How did those nicknames contribute to your sense of mateship?
I went down to an Anzac reunion on Anzac time and I took two brothers who were both with me in the army. Anyway


when we were coming back one of our mates had the Royal Hotel in Orange so we thought we’d call in and see him and have a drink. When we got there someone said ‘he’s upstairs having a sleep’ and I said ‘go and wake the bugger up.’ Down he come and I said ‘do you remember Wally Nichols?’ and he said ‘no but I remember tiny’ he was big tall bloke and they all called him tiny but he didn’t know his name was Wally but that often happened a lot.


I’m wondering how you reacted to being called oily?
It didn’t worry me, not one bit, no.


Just before we talk more about after the war and coming home I just have one last question about your job of handling explosives. Perhaps you could sum up for me how different it was handling explosives in the desert compared to in the Pacific?


We didn’t handle them much in the Pacific. As I say we were pretty well advancing all the time and the Jap never seemed to go in much for mines or booby traps or things like that they were more for gimmicks. They’d sneak in around behind your lines and put a heap of crackers up a tree and you think you’re getting attacked from behind and things like that


and silly damn things. They’d learn to parrot a few words of English and they’d yell out ‘hey send your corporal over here’ and then they’d do something silly ‘how’s your grandmother’ or something like that and you’d wake up to it that is wasn’t right. We were told to take no notice of all that because that all happened through Malaya and that just to look out what’s in front of you


never mind what’s happening behind.
You’ve described yourself as pretty resourceful and quick on your feet. I’m wondering how necessary was it to be living and operating by your wits rather than any best laid plans?
I don’t know whether it was an advantage or not.


Some who were just the opposite to me got through the war just a well.
I’m wondering if there was a sort of almost like a one upmanship to play the best trick on your enemy or fool them?
Yes. We didn’t go in for


trickery but the Japs did a lot. As I was saying with their crackers and yelling out and so forth. They were bogged down in Burma and they sent some advisors over to have a look at us how we were beating the Japs and after the summing up this English


lieutenant colonel he said ‘all I can say is up the bastards’ he reckons that’s what Australia did, just charge and go out. He said there was no trickery or anything it was just that. So I don’t know whether he took that back to the Burmese or what. Them Japs they could live anywhere. Them bloody coconut trees were full of ants and they’d get up in that and sit their snipers and the


ants wouldn’t worry them and we couldn’t get up there and they’d live anywhere. At the Brisbane line I don’t whether Menzies thought the Japs couldn’t live in Northern Australia gosh they’d thrive there they really thrived in Burma, the jungles, where our blokes couldn’t live they did.


You hear a lot about Tobruk and the Middle East and it’s almost a badge of honour to be a Rat of Tobruk where as the campaigns in the Pacific don’t have that same sense of history. How do you feel about having served in both theatres of war?
I think the one that should be on top was that Kokoda Trail


they just went through hell them poor buggers there was no doubt about it. The country was so rugged and so dense the foliage that they’d be yards away from the Jap and wouldn’t see him and the gear that they had to carry in. I had a friend who went over there just recently and


he walked the Kokoda Trail and he said he lost two stone in weight just walking, not carrying anything. No it doesn’t rate that high does it the Kokoda Trail? I suppose high but not as much as Alamein or Tobruk Rats. I think what the Alamein was Churchill said ‘we never


won a battle until Alamein and then after that we never lost one’ I think that put it up in the top echelon.
How frustrating was it for you to hear about the difficulties of Kokoda and wanting to be there?
I don’t know whether I wanted to be there but I felt a bit


ashamed that I was sitting in the theatre in Brisbane listening to what the poor buggers suffered and lot of them were only kids, I felt as though we should be all there.
You also here about the blame that those in command put on the soldiers for not having done a good job?


Yes and I think it was Blamey who said ‘they run like rabbits’ but there was no running like rabbits. They certainly retreated but they retreat in every war and everywhere.
How do you feel about having


contributed to the winning of the war?
I feel as though I have done my bit. I was never any great hero but I only done what I was told to do I suppose I contributed a bit to it. I know that other countries. Everyone downs on Russia but God love me twenty million soldiers they lost


and I think we contributed a lot to Russia for winning the European war.
Interviewee: Gilbert Ratcliffe Archive ID 0812 Tape 08


Gill I was wondering whether you could tell me. You mentioned you were at Balikpapan when you had heard that the bombs had been dropped?
I was wondering if you could tell me what you were thinking that night when you heard the war was over?
There was a lot of talking about what they were going to do after the war and all the jobs they were going to have and all the money they were going to make


and it didn’t turn out that way. When I got out I went working at Bradford’s cotton mill for four pound nineteen a week I didn’t stay there too long and I went into Tullochs, rolling stocks and water board material and there was a moulder until the coal strike when everything closed down and then I went to the bush.


I had done a harvest which I was capable of doing, I’d done from as a kid. Then I came back and got a job on a station out from Mudgee and sold the house and Beryl shifted there.
I wonder when you heard that the war had ended what was your plan at that stage?
I always wanted


to go on the land and I knew that they were having a soldier settler scheme that was if you qualified which I did and I had references to that effect so that was my main aim. Of course I used to put in for ballots and miss out and miss out and I didn’t think that I would ever win one.
What sort of things, I guess celebrations were there that night?


Some were very say we had two brothers from Hay, Eletons were their name and a fitter named Williams and they were very good mates. They got some torpedo juice, that’s the alcohol that drives a torpedo and put it with some Wally water and drank it and killed the three of them and it burned their stomachs. The war was over and


this Jacky Eleton, I was working a bit with him and this Captain Rouse, a very nice bloke, he said ‘I can’t get Jacky out of bed and a sergeant will put him under arrest’ and he said ‘go down and see what you can do with him.’ I went down and I said ‘you better get up Jack and come to work’ and he said ‘well give me a smoke’ and I gave him a cigarette. Instead of feeling for it there it was over here and I said ‘it’s here Jack’ and he said ‘I can’t see I’m blind.’


Then he got violent he got his boots and threw it down the hill and I said ‘this is no good’ and I went and got the medic and got him to hospital and the doctor said ‘any more?’ and I said ‘yes two more’ and he said ‘bring them.’ Anyway the old colonel lined us up and anyway Jackie had died by this time and the three of them died within a couple of hours. The colonel said ‘now don’t talk about this to anyone’ he said ‘it might affect their people for getting a pension’


their wives and that. He said ‘it’s self inflicted’ and they sent their insides to a university to study and they reckoned that it killed them and brought all their stomach up to nothing. It was a bit sad because the war was over and they had seen it through and that happened.
Why would anyone drink the juice?
I don’t know why they’d drank it, I don’t know.


I guess what were you celebrating that night, how were your feeling?
I was happy it was over. No we just talked in the tent and you know, talked things out.
What were you talking about?
Mostly about when we got out of the army a lot of them were getting married and a lot were married and a lot had children.


It was a pretty happy time I can tell you.
I wonder you mentioned briefly coming home but I’m just wondering if you can tell me a little bit about the trip?
We came straight to Brisbane and we got off the ship there I’ve got a photo of the


ship the Impeccable. It was an aircraft carrier but there was nothing on it it was stripped of everything and there were bunks everywhere. We came by train from there down to Sydney and got discharged at Marrickville. A chap who was going through my paper work asked ‘any relation to Tom Ratcliffe?’ and I said ‘yes he’s my father’ and he said ‘do you want me to lose your


papers for a couple of months’ and I said ‘no, sign them up and let me get out of this bloody army because I’ve had it’ so that was it.
What did losing your papers for another couple of months mean?
I’d be on the pay for another couple of months and settle down I suppose.
Why did you refuse that offer?
I was sick of the army I wanted to get out if it.


You go in it at eighteen or nineteen and come out at twenty-three or twenty-four it’s had a bit of your life, it’s had the best of your life at five bob a damn day. People would exploit you when Beryl and I got married you couldn’t get accommodation for my wife and I. Anyway we heard of a woman at Dundas


she let us have one room and part of the veranda for thirty shillings a week and we found out she was paying twenty one shillings for the whole house. You sit back and see that they will exploit anyone won’t they?
I wonder you mention that you joined at nineteen. How


had the war changed you, how had army changed you?
I don’t think it changed me much because I had had such a hard life as a kid and with my father. It really softened me a bit I think. My father won’t come out too good in this will he? But as my brother always says ‘if you think a blokes a bastard tell him he is, he mightn’t know he is.’


I wonder how difficult it was after you were discharged from the army to settle back into civilian life?
It took me quite a while. I got discharged on about the 14th of December and I got married on the 19th of January and that was the best thing that could have happened to me. Beryl was a non smoke and a non drinker and


a clean living person and I had to go along with that. I was never a real drinker but I was a heavy smoker up until about ten years ago which she had to put up with.
How much harder would it have been without Beryl and getting married?
I think it would have been pretty hard, yes. Everything I done was for her


if I didn’t have her I would have done it for myself and I don’t know what would have happened.
What did you miss most about being in the army?
I don’t know. I tell you what I did miss kiddies voices see we were a couple of years and


we never hearing an Australian voice and then we got off at Fremantle and there were all these kids cheering and I really missed that. Another thing I missed was birds I never seen a bird at Tobruk or around there. The few birds you’d see there’d be on old Arab trying to trap him to eat him but Australia is full of birds as you know.


No I missed the kiddie’s voices.
What was the hardest thing about having been away from home for so long?
I missed my Mum because I knew she had such a damn terrible hard life and when I


joined the army my father was on the pension and my mother wasn’t. He was a drinker and a smoker which most of it went on. So I made an allotment of three shillings a day and the government matched it, it was six shillings a day which was about equal to a pension and she never ever forgot that. It sort of took her off the dole more or less, she wasn’t on the dole but took her off that


height and that continued right on until the war finished and by that time she was old enough for the pension which I didn’t begrudge giving her. She went through hell with my old Dad.
How did she thank you for that?
In lots of ways, a lot of tears she shed.


She never ran him down I could never understand it. Could you imagine with nine kids well they shouldn’t have had the nine at the same time but travelling in wagons and camping and so on for years and years, yes. My father


in this day and age he would never be out of jail but she would never complain about him.
I bet she was happy to see you when you got home?
Yes and I was a bit of a favourite with her. My father had two favourites and they were both girls. Not to the extent that you thought he would have but he did favour but they would crawl to him a little bit


and he loved that. I think they did for fear of him because we all feared him.
I wonder we’ve talked a lot today about your war experience and a lot of it is very difficult. But I wonder if there is a time that stands out to you as your happiest time, a time you look back on with your fondest memories?


I enjoyed the tablelands we played a lot of football up there and a lot of good mates and they are still good mates I write to quite a few and they ring up a bit. My old sergeant major he is still fighting he rang me the other night. He’s the one that had to


find me up at the front line in Tobruk and told me we were coming out.
How important was it to keep in touch with the men that you’d served with when you came home?
Very, yes. I sent a donation to the Rats of Tobruk Association a few times I have and I write a letter occasionally. It’s surprising how many people


ring me up on it that I’ve forgotten all about. I got a letter from a chap and I haven’t seen him since the war his name is Billy Abbot and he was a lifesaver over at Collaroy and he finished up fairly wealthy Billy and he had businesses and that. His wife wanted


a business so he bought her into a business a hire service and when they bought the business half the cars were missing and half the cars were no good and the books were fudged and she finished up going broke and Billy went broke backing her. The last I heard of Billy he was driving a taxi in Brisbane. He wrote me a letter the other day out of the blue, just before Anzac Day it was he wrote me a letter so say that he was


coming down. He hoped to see me Anzac Day and he was going on to Melbourne to see his brother and he hoped to see me on the way back. He finished up getting sick and going to hospital so I haven’t answered his letter yet. A good footballer I played football with him. As a matter of fact Beryl was looking at some old papers there and she found the old football team. Where we played the


2/1st Pioneers up in the tablelands.
I wonder when you came home did you talk much about the war. Did you talk to Beryl much about what you had been through?
Not a lot now because she had a brother through it and she knew all about it. As a matter of fact a brother in law of mine he wasn’t in the war and he never is, he’s never in anything and we


were down at Windang on holidays and his brother was out from Canada. He was an Australian and went over to Canada teaching and came back on holidays. They were sitting talking as I walked up and I heard this brother say ‘Bill and Beryl don’t seem a bad couple’ and he said ‘no but he gives you the shits talking about the war.’


I said to him ‘one thing about Fred, you’d never give anyone the shits talking about it’ because he was a real coward of a man he was so that sort of shut him up. But I never thought I did talk about it.
How did you fell about men who stayed at home and didn’t get involved?
I thought it was up to each person. Again


I’m against wars now and I was dead against the Iraq War I cant see any sense in it. Of all the wars now what has it done it’s only killed people. The ones that should go to war are the buggers, the [US Presidents] Bushes and [Australian Prime Minister] Howards. Their sons are in Queensland and Brisbane they are not going to the war and never ever have.


That’s what I’m against. The old days where the kings rode the horse into battle, fair enough but they don’t do that any more do they?
I wonder how you feel as a returned serviceman seeing governments glorify war and


use it for their?
I’m dead against it, really dead against it. All the lies that have been told by the Time magazine I’m reading it and all the Americans have turned right against Bush, it is over fifty percent. Where there was seventy percent for him there is fifty percent against him now and of course the bodies are coming back and of course the Yanks don’t like that.


They are saying that the Iraqis are murderers for killing them but what are they for killing them? And the weapons of mass destruction didn’t they ride that to death? They were certain they had it they had it.
I wonder Gill why was World War II a necessary war?
I don’t think it was for us until


the Japanese entered, I think it was against Japan. When you read it all up and that they were pretty well forced into it there were sanctions put on them and God knows what. They were really forced into it. I don’t think they were forced into fighting China. I tell you what they did do, they got a lot of countries their independence didn’t they?


I wonder looking back do you ever wish you had never gone to war?
No it was an experience. If any young bloke asked me about enlisting and that I’d say ‘definitely not’. When I put in for a pension I thought


‘God I’m bit of a wreck’ I’ve had seven operations, both lungs have about had it and one eye gone and they granted me thirty five dollars a fortnight and I could appeal. I didn’t appeal but anyway that went on for about twelve months and a girl rang up from Veterans Affairs and said ‘is that all


the income you’ve got’ and I said ‘yes’ and she said ‘well you’ll get a full pension as from today.’ so I thought thank God someone cares a bit.
Why would you advice a young man against enlisting?
I don’t believe in wars anymore. I don’t think they do anything.


I wonder as a returned serviceman what does Anzac Day mean to you?
It only means comradeship just seeing your mates. I always attend at Anzac Day even though I can’t do the march I ride in the car but I would go to Sydney every year if I could but of course that’s out for me.


But it’s not for the war or anything like that it’s just to see my mates. Don goes down.
What is it do you think that’s made you so anti war now?
I think more or less the way they go into war and for the reasons and the lies. I recently read an article in the Times there


and I’m certain it’s for the oil and that’s why they went there. The history of the oil right through and America has just about run out of oil and Russia is the second highest oil producer and Iraq is one of the top and I think that’s all its about to get the oil.
What lies do you think might have been told to get people into World War II?


The weapons of mass destruction for a start and buying the yellow cake from South Africa which never happened and the Pommy bloke was all on that and putting out photographs with the factories they had and when they went in to investigate it was only a milk factory or something it was different all together. I say with the old Arab I feel a bit sorry for them


they have got their way of life and that but if he’d attacked fair enough to get them out of Kuwait but he hasn’t attacked anyone he hasn’t done anything for nine years. He hasn’t given anything to terrorists or anything but they’ve falsified all that didn’t they?
I wonder looking back living through the Second


World War what lies do you think there were lies told around getting people to fight?
I don’t know. I told you earlier in the piece that I enlisted for a job. The flag never done it or anything to me but just take the lies, you know, the politicians they


left the babies in the water, [Prime Minister Howard’s promises that] ‘there’ll never ever be a GST [Goods and Services Tax] under me’; ‘I’ll give all the pensioners a thousand dollars to offset the GST’ all we got was five dollars. Why the lies? We don’t need them lies.
I wonder just coming back to coming home after the war


you mentioned earlier that you had nightmares when you came home. I’m just wondering what you were dreaming about that was upsetting you?
They were generally Japs. I don’t know why but I never ever dreamed about the Italians or the Germans but I dreamed a hell of a lot about the Japs, I don’t know why. Probably is was closer to home or they were a different race or people or


something like that. When we went in to their camps when the war finished the smell of their camp was really potent they said our camps smelled the same to them. It’s strange isn’t it?
What sort of things would you dream about the Japanese?
Generally being attacked or, you know always in a difficult position that you didn’t look like getting out of.


How did you manage to stop those or
You generally wake up and that’s the finish of it.
I just wonder how you stopped having those dreams all together was there anything in particular?
Just time. At times I’ve got to think, you know,


was I in the war, was I there, you know, as though that time’s gone that far. I was out playing bowls at Orange and an old high school teacher from Parkes got talking to me about the war and he said ‘the ones that I think were a lot of heroes were the ones in Tobruk’


and I said ‘why would you say that Snow?’ and he said ‘bloody six months in the front line and never relieved and the crook tucker’ and I said ‘oh I don’t look at it that way’ and he said ‘if you were there you would.’ I said ‘I was there Snow’ and he actually had tears in his eyes but to me I didn’t look at it that way.


I wonder do you look back and feel that you helped win the war?
I thought I contributed. As my mates used to say ‘me and ten million more we won it’ but I don’t think I done anything. I’ll never forget at Sanananda they give us, there was no tanks there but they give us an anti tank gun and


we didn’t know anything about it and I said to this chap who was with me ‘how do we fire these things?’ I said ‘do you lay down behind it and cradle it or do you sit up.’ He said ‘I don’t know, we’ll have a trial’ so we put a round in it, fired it and it kicked him back about ten yards with the recoil and he said ‘you must lay down.’ Anyway along came an officer to have a look at our position and he said ‘yes, alright’ and we said ‘what about ammunition?’


and he said ‘we give it to you’ and I said ‘one bloody shell, I’ve just fired it off’ and he said ‘well that’s it you’ll have to bluff them.’ what a thing for an officer to say. The tanks weren’t coming thank Christ but we had to bluff them. We had some fairly dumb officers and we had some good ones.


We found the ones who come up through the ranks were really good, to start off as corporals and finished up as officers But the ones that came from Duntroon, just all discipline that’s all they were.
I wonder Gill have you ever been back to any of the places where you fought?
No I was invited back to Alamein and Tobruk, not Alamein but that was included but Beryl wasn’t too good at the


time and I wasn’t going without her so I didn’t go back. I reckon it would be very emotional, I can imagine myself walking around the perimeter and I think I’d have a tear. I can only imagine that I don’t think I would.
Why do you think you’d have a tear?
I don’t know just the memories of the place and what happened there and what we done. Of course it’s a different place all together now. There’s


thousands and thousands live there and there’s oil there and there are big modern motels, it was just nothing when we were there.
You said you’d be thinking of the things you’d done. I was just wonder if they’d be tears of sad memories or happy memories?


I think it would be sadness because we lost a good few mates there. I know that this poor bugger who was in a Hurricane and it was the last one that they shot down and it landed on the aerodrome and his plane caught on fire and a few of us rushed over and he had what looked like a wheel and the sinews from there to there were


stretched out, God poor bugger, you know. They weren’t in the race then the German planes were just that much superior, it was just murder sending them up against them.
I just wonder Gill how you come home and put those sorts of images away. I’m just wondering how you keep going when you’ve seen things like that?


Yes, yes. Look I suppose what helped was we didn’t know them, had we have known them it might have been different. Then later in the war you get to five and a half years in it and you know, you get used to death, you think oh poor bugger he’s gone and I’m not.


How different do you think your life would be if the war hadn’t intervened?
Oh it’s hard to say. I probably would have never seen the city, I probably would have never left the bush, I never seen the sea till I joined the army. They took us right out to the southern part of the rifle range and we all dived in


for a swim and we didn’t all swim we’d all got down to the bloody rip and the lifesaver was saving us one after the other, that’s what our swimming was like.
I wonder Gill just before we wrap up today is there anything that we haven’t covered?


Oh I don’t think so. I think we’ve covered it pretty well.
And I wonder having been involved today why do you think it’s important to remember or to record these memories of war?
I was talking to Don the other day we met and talked about it. He thinks it’s a good think for


future generations and he convinced me it was too.
In what ways is it a good thing for future generations?
To give them an idea of what we went through and I’ve heard the old diggers say ‘oh the kids of today wouldn’t go through what we went through’ that’s the First [World] War diggers. Then the bloody Kokoda Trail blokes who went through it and worse. They’d go through it


and they’d go through it again. You should never underestimate them.
I wonder Gill just before we finish. Do you have any final words or anything you’d like to say?
No I don’t think so I think you’ve covered it pretty well. The only thing is you are two very lovely girls and I am pleased to have met you.


Thank you very much for today Gill and yes thank you for taking part.


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