married. Dad bought…and although he was a tailor, a qualified tailor, he bought a fruit block, grapes, in Mildura. He and Mum lived there and I was born about nine months after they were married which was rather a strange thing to happen. The life there was a very good life. Mildura was a lovely climate and there was plenty of fresh air and fruit and that sort of stuff. And so I had a very, very
good home life I guess because we lived out of town a bit. My nearest two play mates, boys about my own age, they were about a kilometre away and the other one a little bit more than a kilometre. But we got together most weekends and played. Did the usual things that kids do, climbed trees, rob bird’s nests and blow eggs, and climb up the mulberry tree when the mulberries were ripe and get mulberry juice all over your shirt and get into
trouble. But these were things that kids do and they were simple pleasures. There wasn’t much money in the 1920s. My mother and father lived on a very tight budget. They had a debt of course to the cooperative society, which is where the fruit went to, and they got an allowance of two pounds a month for living and that wasn’t many dollars. But in those days they got by
with what they could grow and the fruit that they could preserve and that sort of thing through the year. But schooling? I went to school at the age of five. I started at state school and that was a mile walk to school each day. Mum couldn’t take me because she had a baby, my sister then. So she would walk me as far as the next door neighbour and they had a daughter who was two years older than me. She was seven. So she took me to
school along the sandy road of (UNCLEAR) avenue in Mildura. That’s how I started school, and I went to the state school then until I was about 11 or 12 thereabouts, then I went to the high school which was a bit closer to where we lived. I completed three years at high school. And the Depression,
doing the usual things at school, like play football and get together with all your friends there. But the Depression caught up with Dad and he found he had to sell the property and move away. If he didn’t do that he could see that he would be forced off. So we went through some pretty tough times. Mum and Dad…Dad was 48 I think at that stage and he had to sell up and he and Mum,
two suitcases of clothes and two children, moved to Melbourne to live in their parent’s…that was their parents house. The parents had just died, and he had I think 60 pounds left after 14 years of work. We were never aware of this too much. Mum was a great sewer. Dad of course had been a tailor. Not that he did much in Mildura at all in that regard.
But Mum was a good sewer and we were always well dressed even though the clothes might have been made out of someone else’s hand me downs. If the fabric was ok Mum could do something with it. So that’s the way we went. We were regular church goers. Mum and Dad were great singers. They loved singing and Dad sang in all sorts of things around Mildura and the surrounding districts. And even today, I might be driving the car somewhere with the radio on
and there’s a tenor singing and I hear Dad…regularly almost every week I hear things being sung that I heard him sing when we were little. And that’s wonderful because it brings back memories of a terrific father and mother who cared for us and loved us and taught us all the things that children should know in growing up. So I feel I had a very wonderful childhood.
But we had to come to Melbourne for the reasons that I’ve stated.
for Mum to bottle fruit which a lot of ladies did in those days. Preserve fruit for the other parts of the year. So there was a lot of cooking. Big pots of fruit were cooked on the stove and put in these…what were they called? Fowler Vacola jars I think they were. With a lid and a spring clip on the top. That was a constant job when the fruit trees…and I know I collected the fruit. I
helped Dad down…when the fruit was on the drying racks, and that had to be handled…covered from time to time. It had to be covered or it had to be raked off the racks when it had dried. It was raked off and it would fall down onto big long hessian sheets. Then it would be processed and sent into the Cooperative Society where they would grade it as far as quality was concerned,
and that would be worth so much. So I had jobs such as that. We had a horse and occasionally I help Dad…it was too big for me…it was a draft horse and I couldn’t reach him. I used to sit on him and go somewhere from time to time with Dad. But I would groom the horse where I could….on the lower legs and underneath the tummy with the big brushes that you groom horses with, and Dad would do the top part. Things like that, general things around.
But there was no pressure on me to have to do this or have to do that. I guess we did what we could in the house when Mum asked us. We used to lick out the basins when she was cooking and what was left in the basins, little Johnny was allowed to get a spoon and get the rest out of the basin. So that was always a very good thing when Mum was cooking. In the house there was no running water in the house, it was just tank water
outside so every bit of water had to be brought inside from the tank. In those early days I can remember quite clearly that when I was little, Mum had the usual thing, a big galvanised iron tub which would be out in the laundry and that’s what she washed in. And that would come into the kitchen one day a week, or one night a week. It would be a Saturday night.
The copper outside would be lit and filled with water. The water would be heated up and then bucketed in and put in the oval galvanised iron…not a dish, but a container that you washed your clothes in. And there the youngest child would be bathed. My sister Jess, she’d be bathed first by sitting in it of course. She was small enough to sit in it. Johnny would be next. And then
we’d be put to bed and then I understand from later years that Mum would then have her full strip off and wash down with a washer, and poor old Dad who was probably the dirtiest of the lot, he would be last in line. Mum would top up the water with another bucket of hot water. So he was last in line to have his wash ready to be clean for Sunday and the start of the week. The rest of the week it was a matter of a washer and a basin
of hot water to give everybody a quick sponge over at night before you went to bed. But that was the way it was. There was no reticulated water and you did what you had to do and that was it, and everybody was happy. And of course, years before that, you go back another hundred years or maybe less and the ladies…there was really not the bathing then that we had in my day. They wore perfume to hide
all the smells. So it was a constant evolution of things.
Each piece of hessian was probably around about 20 metres long I suppose, a bit less than that. A bit more than half. Then they could be pulled out from underneath the rack and the fruit would be put into boxes which went to the co-op. Sultanas, they were usually not dried straight fresh, but
dipped first. So…don’t ask me the reason. I’ve forgotten that now. But they were dipped in a solution of some sort and then put on the rack. Then there was another grape we called ‘gordo’ or muscatel, and they made the muscatel which we buy these days. They’ve got a little bit of a bloom on them when you buy them dried, and you buy them at Christmas time and they’re nice.
They too were dipped in a mixture before they were dried. They were normally dried on wooden trays. They had to be spread after they were dipped, on wooden trays about five feet long and three or four feet wide or something like that. They could be stacked one on top of the other because they had edges around them. If you wanted to get them away from the weather you could quickly stack all these together and put canvas over them so they were protected.
A lot of work during the picking season and many a night as a little boy, I could hear rain pattering…our house was built…I’ll just digress a bit. The house we had was fairly basic. Galvanised iron roof and galvanised iron walls outside. The inside, the kitchen was all tongue and groove board. The kitchen was tongue and groove board also.
The big lounge dining room had tongue and groove up to about dado height and then it was hessian. Hessian to the ceiling, and the ceiling and that was wall papered with wall paper. It looked quite ok but in windy weather those hessian walls would move of course, and the ceiling too, would fluctuate because there was nothing to hold it up but a few beams. The beams that were in it and the beams that were in the wall.
And our bedroom, the bedroom that I was in, Jess and I slept in the one room and it was called the sleep-out. It had galvanised iron around two sides about that high with wire netting. And in the winter time they could let hessian down to cover the wire netting and hopefully keep the cold out. So it was a very basic house. Very basic house.
I’m answering the question as you asked me, is that ok? The kitchen, you did ask me about the kitchen. The kitchen as I recall had no sink of course, and no running water. It had an iron stove standing in the kitchen itself with a flue going through the ceiling, and that was ok. It was a stove whereby…
it had to be cleaned regularly and there was stuff called blacking. And with a brush you would put blacking on the stove when it was cold and you could polish up the stove to make it look nice and clean and tidy. So that was the stove and that was a source of warmth during the winter months when it was cold because we’d go in the kitchen to have our meals, and we were little of course, so after our meal we’d be shot off to bed.
And Mum and Dad would continue to do what they wanted to do in the kitchen because the stove had been going probably all day I guess, or when ever they needed it, but certainly at night. It was a deal table, a pine table around about the size of the dining room table we’ve got here. That was covered with what was called an oil baize. It wasn’t contact adhesive but something like that.
But it wasn’t a contact adhesive. It had a fabric back but a plastic sort of top and that was very commonly used back in the ‘20s and ‘30s for covering tables or shelves or things of this nature. And that would get wiped down of course after Mum had done the cooking or that sort of stuff. But there was no sink. There was a dresser, one of the old type dressers,
like you see in various colonial stores today. Cupboards at the bottom, a couple of drawers and then the open shelves going up. And there was a dresser there where the crockery and cutlery was put, and then there was another built in cupboard where the pots and pans and cooking needs and all that sort of stuff were put. A basic kitchen but it worked. There was no refrigerator of course. No ice chest of course
and you’re in a hot place, or hot in summer certainly. So out in the back verandah…it wasn’t really a verandah but a lean-to off another room that Dad used for storage for tools and all sorts of stuff, and it just had a dirt floor. The laundry was down the other end of it, such as it was, and that was a great big wooden box that Dad had got
from somewhere or other. A packing box of some sort, and on that stood this galvanised iron tub which Mum washed in, and she had one of these…I’ve forgotten what they called now, but a ripple board…you rub the clothes up and down the ripple board to try and get any dirt out of the clothes. Then there was the copper at the end of that as well for boiling up the things before you
lift them out with a stick and put them in this big tub and given a final wash and a rinse. And all that water had to be handled from the tank in buckets for the rinsing water. So to do the washing and hang it out and clean up, and with that washing water the floors were always washed after the washing had been done because you couldn’t waste water and it all had to be carted. So a
mother in those situations had a very, very heavy day. Wash day was normally Monday, and I think she must have gone to bed pretty tired at night because the more I think about it and have thought about as I’ve got older, we never appreciated how much work our parents in those days had to do. But I was talking about in the kitchen,
no refrigerator, no ice chest, we had Coolgardie Safe. A Coolgardie is a metal safe about so high and on top it had a flat dish that you could put water into. The sides of that Coolgardie were just made out of perforated metal, and you’d put pieces of flannel from the water at the top over this
perforated panel on each of the four sides. As the breeze blew threw, the water came down through the flannel. You had to keep the top filled with water, and it would feed its way down and these panels of flannel would be wet. The breeze blowing through these wet panels would cool the inside of the safe. So you could safely put your milk and meat and butter sometimes, depending on the weather,
but things like that would be kept cool. But Mum also had a hidey hole underneath the house where she had an earthenware pot where on very hot days she kept the butter, and that kept the butter even better, with wind blowing underneath the house. So very basic. No electricity, all our lights were kerosene,
and that means you didn’t have an electric iron either. You didn’t have a polisher. You didn’t have a vacuum cleaner, so again it was all muscles and work. Ironing, the irons…there were number of…Mum had I think, a kit of three iron shapes with a handle that interconnected with the three of them. So you would have the three of them on the stove
and when they were ready to use she would click the handle into this one. She’d use it until it cooled off, put it back on the stove and click the handle in the next one, use that until it cooled down and rotate the irons around, and she had a hot iron all the time. There was no other water to do it. You could get irons that had their own handle on. You might say these were the super model of an iron with
no electricity. I often wonder where they ended up. They probably got sold. I remember I’ve still got in there when Dad sold the property, all the bits and pieces. There was a tin of this and a tin of that and all the nuts and bolts and bits and pieces. I remember reading on this …the auctioneer who sold everything, on this sheet, he had there a tin…a dip tin. A dip tin was used to dip the fruit in the various mixture.
A dip tin of odds and ends. One and sixpence and all this sort of thing. I think they got about 38 pounds or something for the sale of all their bits and pieces, if it was that much. So that was basically the house.
The salt was even showing its fangs there on sections of that ten acres and Dad didn’t get the return on the grapevines as you would normally expect. Now that’s been an ongoing problem for so long and governments really haven’t done a great deal about it as yet and until something is positively done, more disaster can happen…I think.
But you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes I suppose. I just hope that things are ok, or will be ok. But what happened with the floor irrigation on the land, the way it was irrigated, that tends to bring the salt to the surface. There’s a lot of salt right through that country. Sea Lake, there’s quite a lot of salt right around Sea Lake. There are actually salt lakes, so all that area
is a problem with salt. But anyway that was one of the biggest…well, not in Dad’s day it wasn’t, but it was an increasing problem. But one of the biggest problems is if you get rain at the wrong time of the year and although the weather was generally fairly stable, there were sudden storms that would come in. And if the fruit was getting near ripe
the rain hitting the fruit would split the fruit. Now different things could happen then. If the weather turned a little bit humid, the fruit would then grow a mould and that would bring down the quality of the fruit, and that meant the Cooperative Society, when the fruit went to them, it would be graded low grade and then low cost. And that was what the farmer
was depending on his living, to get a good quality fruit. And it’s classed in crowns - the top fruit would be classed as five crowns, then there’s four, three, two and one. So the different gradings, depending on the quality of fruit when it was delivered. That was the biggest problem and I can well remember as a child in the middle of the night hearing rain drops…you know in the country you get
this sudden thunder and lightning, and the next minute you get these heavy drops of rain hitting the roof. And I was conscious of Mum and Dad scurrying out of bed, lighting the hurricane lamps and racing down the drive to where the fruit was still exposed and …this was when it was being dried of course, and covering up fruit which was out. You wouldn’t necessarily cover it up every night, but you had to drop the sides on the covers, the hessian
covers on the sides of the racks if there was fruit on the racks. The fruit on the grounds, you might have to get the ends of the strips….which as I say might have been 30 feet long, and tumble the ends together and bring all the fruit in the middle and put the balance of the material, the hessian over the fruit to protect it. And that I can remember happening on many occasions. It was a worrying time for people who had
fruit out. And to hear rain drops in the middle of the night, it was all hands. I was too small and I don’t recollect ever being asked to do that because it would be a two person job and Mum and Dad would do that together. They were probably the biggest things, the weather when the fruit was ripening, other than that, not a great problem at all.
Within our own friends and friends that were mostly…well no, not altogether through the church. Dad played cricket so he made friends through that association. The Sunraysia Cricket Association I think it was. And once a month, there was usually something on once month. I don’t know about during the summer season when the fruit was being picked. I think they were all too busy at that stage of the game. But once a month at least
they had either a 500 party and they would go round to different houses. People would come to our place. There might be six or eight or ten. I can’t remember now, but quite a few would come to our place and the adults would play 500 and then they’d go to someone else’s place another month, and someone else’s the next month. Both Dad and Mum being fine singers, they were very much involved in singing in the community
and Dad sang at all sorts of concerts and light opera and Gilbert and Sullivan and all sorts of things, right through Mildura and through the district…for various charity or churches or whatever, or just concerts. When they left Mildura in 1934, the Shire put on a…what was it?
A special night in the Town Hall for Mum and Dad, and gave them…oh goodness me, I can’t think of the word now, but there’s a particular piece of paper, nice paper, it’s printed. It sort of says something about their efforts in the town. That for the life of me, I have no idea where it disappeared to. I’ve not seen it for many
years and it must have disappeared somehow, during Mum and Dad’s time before they died, because I never ever saw it since. Other things, but not that. ‘Illuminated Address’ that’s what it was, an ‘Illuminated Address’. So they had a big night, a big send off and I’ve got outside, a ribbon which has been sewed to be a circle, and on that ribbon has been typed…it’s a wide satin ribbon, the names of all their friends in Mildura.
And I don’t know how many names are on that, I’ve never counted them. The ribbon would have been about that long I suppose, and so whatever number of names you could get on a ribbon about that length, was all the friends they had in Mildura. They were a very popular couple. They had no money but they had lots of fun and they made the most of it.
But yes…and as kids we went to Sunday School in church, we were involved in the activities there. I never played…well I was only 14, and there wasn’t the sport activity in those days as there is today. They start at about this size. It was cricket and football and that was about it, and tennis. I didn’t play tennis then. I started tennis
at 14 when I came down to Melbourne, and I played footy just around the school and that with the kids. But Mum and Dad, yes they were very much involved in community and appreciated by the community at that time too. There we are.
Can you recall an early childhood memory of an event or something that happened to you. Maybe playing with your mates or maybe playing with Jess.
Yes, a couple of things I suppose. You’ve jogged my memory about…we came down to Melbourne for the marriage of my mother’s youngest sister. I was only a little fellow at that time, seven or something like that, six or seven. And you wouldn’t believe it but I was dressed in a white satin suit because all Mum’s sisters…she had six sisters and two brothers…
and most of them were pretty good sewers and they must have…probably Mum made it, a white satin suit. I was a page boy or something of that nature. And we were staying with my grand parents out at Northcote. They were my mother’s parents. And my cousin who was a bit older than myself, Les, he decided he would give little Johnny sort of an aeroplane ride and I had to…he lay on his back and put his feet up and I had to sit on his feet and he was
going to throw me through the air, and I ended up with a green stick fracture of my left arm an hour or so before the wedding. So I don’t think I was very popular. But that’s just one little thing that comes to mind. My sister Jess - Jess was 18 months younger than I. A lovely, lovely lady my sister. And when she was a little girl
Dad and Mum used to get most frustrated at Jess because outside the house…where the horse and carts came up the drive, which was a long drive, around about I suppose 300, 400 yards, there was a turning circle, outside the house where the horse and carts came up and turned around and went back again. And in the wet weather, that used to look chocolaty, and when it dried
out a bit there would be all these brown…it would crack and look like brown bits of chocolate, or Jess thought they were, and she’d go out and eat them. She was only tiny and Mum and Dad used to get so frustrated, and I can even see his big fingers going to her mouth and ripping out what she had in her mouth. But finally it was determined by the doctor that she was lacking something in her system and obviously was finding it in the mud.
But I can still see Dad doing that on one occasion. Another occasion, I can remember I had a dog called Prince, a spaniel type dog, a lovely dog. A black coat with a nice white throat and a bit of white in other places, and we used to play a lot together. And one day I was probably being a nuisance to the dog as much as anything, and
Prince was yapping away at me and I was teasing him, and I must have teased him a bit more and put my face towards him and he yapped. And as they yap their heads come forward and his tooth caught my lip and I think I still have a sign there where his big sharp eye tooth cut me through almost to the other side. So then,
there was no car, no, horse, we only had an old horse and cart. I don’t know how they got me up to the hospital and the doctor, but I got stitched up. So what is there?
You had to make up your own games. As far as the boys are concerned, Eddie Thomas and Colin Smith were my nearest neighbours. And at Eddie Thomas’ place, they had a huge lot of peppercorn trees right down the side of their property, beautiful trees to climb, lots of bird’s nests and we’d go bird nesting looking for eggs and that sort of thing. I had a collection of birds eggs. That would be a no-no today.
You wouldn’t do that today but that was quite an accepted thing to do when you were young. So I’d go bird nesting. The most we did…I can’t say, but we probably played cricket with a ball and a bat. It might not have been a bat, it might have been a piece of timber for a bat. I don’t remember a lot about that. But at Colin Smith’s place
there, they had a dam and one of the popular things to do was to go to their dam because they had yabbies in the dam, fresh water yabbies, and you could with a piece of string and a piece of meat from Mum, you could go to the dam and drop the string in and move it around a bit, and then you’d see a yabby get on the end of it. So you’d quietly pull it in and with a kerosene tin
…the kerosene tin was what we used to buy kerosene in. It was about a four or five gallon tin and you had a little pump that you would pump it out to fill your lamps with. So by cutting the top of that and putting a handle on it you had a bucket. A very useful bucket and that’s what buckets were mostly in those days. So we’d have half a bucket of water and drop the yabbies in the water, and after we caught enough we’d put a fire under the bucket,
cook the yabbies and have a feast. And that was pretty good. We did that quite often. We also decided we’d build…another thing, we’d built a canoe out of galvanised iron, I must say, corrugated iron. So then you’d go up to the main road, Deacon Avenue on a hot day and you’d collect bitumen off the road, hot bitumen. It would melt. Different to what they have today.
way, the best thing to do. Now this couch that you see here, was a couch that was owned by my grand parents, and I’ve had it recovered since we came to this house. But I’ve kept it in the period, and that’s where I slept when we came to Melbourne, on that couch, as a 14 year old boy initially. Mum and Dad took the
front bedroom where my grandma and granddad had been. Aunty Dais and my sister occupied the second bedroom and there was no other bedroom. So that was in the dining room of the house and that’s where I slept for a little while. I had slept on that previously when coming down from Mildura as a young boy. And we had holidays at 127 Sharman Road. So I’ve got an affinity with it,
and when Mum and Dad died and Aunty Dais died, it was in their possession and I inherited it. So I’m very pleased to have it because it’s just a part of our family history I guess, my growing up. But a little bit later a bedroom was established for me in really a passageway between the kitchen and the bathroom in the house. A single bed was put in there and that was my spot until I joined the army.
But things were tight and Dad didn’t start back into tailoring straight away. But his father had been a …my grandfather, he had been a stereotype operator. A stereotyper is a man who works together with a the big melting pot where they melt metal of all different sorts
to make a metal plate which is used then to print the print. And granddad who was a man who for 50 years did different things, for a good many years of his life he worked on a stereo pot, the big metal pots with big ladles and that was where he was working at the end of his life. And his son Bob also worked at the Argus office in the same department.
Dad was able to obtain casual work at the Argus office. It wasn’t a lot, it was casual, and in between times he did anything. Like most people did in the 1930s, they took what they could, they weren’t easy times. He put up fences, he mowed lawns in Toorak and South Yarra, in the finer homes in there, with a push mower for two and six a lawn. Two shillings and sixpence a lawn.
He would do three in a morning and come home, if he just did the three and that was it for the day. But it bought something. Seven and sixpence bought something. A loaf of bread wasn’t very much, a pint of milk wasn’t very much, so it all helped. Today it sounds ridiculous, but the average wage in those days was probably somewhere around three pounds a week. I’m not sure, but maybe something like that. And we existed like that for a couple of years and they
wanted me to do better than just do nothing, so they asked me if I would go…or they might have told me I don’t know. They probably told me that they would like me to go to a business college. And so they started me off at Bradshaw and Everett’s Business College, which was an old building roughly where the
opera house, or where they call it now…just over Princess Bridge, the Arts Centre, I suppose. The Arts Centre, roughly in that position. I would go by train, walk across the bridge, down through Snowden Gardens which was there, at that stage of the game, and to the school. I did that for about a year and a half. And it was accountancy or book keeping and that’s where I felt I was going, to book keeping and
further on to accountancy. I did…what else, typing, shorthand. The typing’s come in handy now because I can type on the computer and use all fingers and thumbs, which even some of the young ones can’t do. They pick away with two fingers. So I think there was English and perhaps one or two other things. So I did that for 18 months and then
one day some visitors of ours who had lived in Mildura and were visiting Mum and Dad, and Mr Harman worked for Griffith Teas, you may have heard of Griffith Teas, they’re still about but not the force that they used to be. And Mr Harman said to Mum and Dad, “Is young John ready to start work yet?” And Mum and Dad said, “Possibly. He’s going to school, but possibly.” And Mr Harman said, “There’s a job as an office boy
at Griffith Teas.” And he said, “I believe John could get it if he applied.” So with that I applied and I started at the age of 16 as an office boy with Griffith Teas. I continued with my studies at night school at Bradshaw and Everett, and that was three nights a week from seven o’clock to nine I think it was, and then I caught a train home to go to bed and then to go back to work the next morning at eight o’clock.
Ok, I was learning things. So I was at Griffith Teas, not as the office boy all the time. I did get a promotion along the way. I became an order clerk for the country orders. They had commercial travellers all around Victoria and the Riverina and they would post their orders in and I was doing the processing of those orders together with another chappie, processing them
ready for despatch to the various area or people they had to go to. So that’s about what happened there. Anything else that you needed to know? I suppose when we came to Cheltenham, my grand parents were associated with the Methodist Church and so we continued then with our association with the Methodist Church. I played tennis.
I became a member of the Senior Boys Group. We had lots of fun. We had picnics and we went away for weekends together. Some of the boys went up to the Dandenong Ranges. We got there by pushing our bikes and our gear. No cars so you did it the hard way in those days. Today you couldn’t set up a tent on the banks of the creek at Monbulk. I think you’d get smartly removed. But we had a number
of good camps up there along the Monbulk Creek doing all the things that young men of 16 and 17 would do. Not getting into any trouble but just having a good time. Usually some of the girls would come up one of the days, Saturday or Sunday because somebody had had a car or a truck and we’d have a day together. And that was really just good,
clean fun. And that’s how we grew up, or most of us grew up in those days. I got associated with a Sunday School and I think I taught Sunday School for a little while until September, until war was declared. So a very good few years. Young people mixing together, girls and boys, doing things that girls and boys should do together to get to
that there were problems over in Europe. But it was such a long way away. Europe’s a long way away from us in those days, not today, but it was the other side of the world. You were concerned about what was going on, but I don’t believe I had a thought that I might end up in uniform and going away, until again it was one of those boy’s weekends that we had,
about half a dozen of us up at Healesville. We were camping up there and we got up this morning and someone went into town and picked up a newspaper and here’s the big headlines, I can still almost see them. ‘War Declared’. It was a declaration of war that had come in, in Britain, and Germany of course, was invading around France and those places and our…
Mr Chamberlain [Neville Chamberlain Prime Minister of Britain] I think it was. He had come back to say there would be no war, but anyway war had been declared and it was on, and sobered us all up. It sobered me up, it’s coming closer. But not realising even then that I might be involved, you don’t know. When you’re young you don’t sort of think about those sorts of things. You think about them but I don’t think they’re the top most priority on
your thinking list. It happened later on, of course. We came home and I continued working at Griffith Teas and continued going to classes at Bradshaw and Everett Business College until we got into the early 1940s, and then things were starting to get sticky and we had 6th Division had gone overseas and we were well aware that Australia was well and truly
involved in a conflict, and ought to be. The reason I say ought to be is the fact that quite different to today, the population of course was much less than it is today. It think it might have been around 4 million, I think. And most of the population had close links to the United Kingdom because most of us, even if our parents hadn’t
come out, or some of our parents had come out from England, or Scotland or Ireland, the previous generation had. My generation, both my mother and father came out of the 1840s, so they had been out for a long time. But my heritage together with the heritage of most people in Australia was with England, Ireland and Scotland. And so
it was felt, they were regarded as the mother country. That word was used quite often…the mother country. And we felt we needed to support them. That’s how I started to feel in the beginning of the 1940s, that if I could do anything I should support the mother country. But at that stage of the game the government was not taking young people, you had to be of a certain age before you could enlist.
And even when I did enlist, I was only 19 and I put my age up to 20 and I still had to have my parents’ consent. So you couldn’t just say I’m 18 and join up. But different people did different things to get in the army, and I had to firstly get the permission of my parents, because they still had to give their permission. I’m very grateful to them for the way they handled
It, they were wonderful. I was the only son, and when I said to them, I would like to join up, we talked about it. They didn’t say no I shouldn’t, but they knew that I should have been 20, and they knew that once I got a bit older, and the war was still on I would have wanted to go and do my bit anyway.
But at the same time my cousin Bob who was about four years older than I, he had decided to join and so, Mum and Dad talked to Bob and said to Bob, we’ll sign for John to join up if you’ll look after him. So that’s how it turned out. There were no recriminations from my parents. They were totally supportive of what I was doing,
but in their hearts there was sadness which I didn’t think about at the time. But as I’ve got older and have children of my own, three boys and a girl who haven’t had to go through that particular exercise, I often think that their hearts must have been pretty heavy at times, particularly when they knew what we were involved in another six or nine months later. But
that’s how I came to join the services on the 30th July 1940, at the Melbourne Town Hall, around about 11 o’clock one morning.
Bob and I, together with another friend from the Methodist Church. Bob wasn’t a Methodist Church member but he lived in Cheltenham. But John Wright was another young man about Bob’s age and actually they happened to be partners in a sports training business. Bob was into golf and he was a professional golfer. John was in tennis and he was a very good tennis player. So they were in tennis and golf in the city.
So they decided to join up and they closed the business down and the three of us went to the Town Hall together. And there we joined a long line of other young men, and we went through the induction process of the usual things. Name, address and all those sorts of things, and then past the doctor who gave you a cursory examination and asked a few questions. And if you could walk and you could see
you were right. I can’t remember all the things we went through but we were there for quite some time with the crocodile queue as these procedure were done. Then when that was finished we were sent out to Royal Park near the zoo there which was called Royal Park Recruit Reception Depot.
And there …we got our uniforms, if I remember rightly at the Melbourne Town Hall. And I think we might have gone home with those sorts of things and had to report back the next day to Royal Park, which we did. That was the start of another different lifestyle. And something I haven’t forgotten - one of
men I met that day and slept in the tent with that night, I can still remember, was the man that we’re burying tomorrow, Frank Washburn. He’s been a good friend of mine every since. That first day and first night at Royal Park. The first thing I noticed, we had lunch…or tea. No, I’m pretty sure it was lunch. I’ve never eaten such
a disastrous meal. You can imagine a whole generation growing up virtually overnight, nobody really knowing what they’re doing and you’ve got cooks, supposedly cooks in the kitchen supposedly knowing what they’re doing. But the meal that I can remember having, compared to my mother’s food, was absolutely revolting. However we survived.
But some of the men that had been inducted and had been into the camp a few days before were already in the tent that Bob and I were allocated to, and Frank Washburn was in that tent too, and there were others who had been on leave. There was a fair bit of leave given from that camp because it was just a matter of getting people together at that stage of the game. And I remember going to bed on my straw palliasse.
It was straw in a hessian bag and it felt terrible. But I was sound asleep and about midnight in came through the flap of the tent somebody singing away and slobbering away, and it was my first experience of anybody who had had too much to drink. And he was maudlin drunk. That’s all you could say about it, maudlin drunk. And his bed happened to be
over there and my bed happened to be here. So he fell over…there was eight of us in the tent. He fell over us all to get over to his corner. That as a rude awakening I can tell you. Anyway, I got used to that sort of thing after a while. I didn’t drink myself. So that was a rude awakening as you can well imagine to
somebody who had grown up in a different atmosphere. But that’s the history, bad meals and a quite a bit of fun at night. But we got to know Frank Washburn the next day quite well and a few others of similar feelings I suppose. It’s amazing how people with similar likes and dislikes gravitate together in all groups. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tennis club or a progress club. That’s been my experience over
the years. People who have the same interests in life seem to some how gravitate together. That’s my experience anyway. So there we were at Royal Park for a few weeks. We had to get up on parade at six thirty I think it was every morning. We had to line up and learn how to march and how to march in three, and how to right reel and left reel and halt, and all those regular things, the basic things in army life.
It was really a matter of just getting the people…a totally disorganised group of men, young men together to make them an organised group of men. That’s what that initial work in the first few weeks was. None of us knew where we were going to end up or what was going to happen. But we had a Regimental Sergeant Major who was in charge of us, who
was very strict but good, and very fair. So he licked us into shape fairly quickly initially. I think about two or three weeks after we had gone into the reception depot, one day we had an officer come out and said to us, “There’s the first light anti aircraft unit in the Australian Army has been formed.
Anybody who would like to join an anti aircraft unit, step forward.” And that’s the way you were getting people. If you wanted to be in an infantry unit, they would be doing that sort of thing. If you wanted to be in something else...this day it was anti aircraft unit. And so a few of us looked at each other and said, why not. So we all stepped forward out of the ranks and so we were gathered together and enlisted. And before long, a few days we were down at the Werribee Racecourse
where an induction of people from the Caulfield Racecourse, which had been a recruit reception depot, and Geelong, there had been a recruit reception depot down there, and then at Royal Park. So there was about 900 of us arrived over a period of 2 or 3 days at Werribee Racecourse which had been made ready for us for training. It had been selected by
our CO [Commanding Officer], Lieutenant Colonel John Rowden it turned out to be. He had been to Puckapunyal to visit a site there and he asked to have a look at Werribee Racecourse and he chose Werribee Racecourse because the air force were using Laverton Point Cook, and also just a landing strip just over the road from the Werribee Racecourse where the planes were…the students were flying but they were landing and taking off from this landing strip, and as they took off our CO
thought we could use that, as an anti aircraft unit to learn how to focus on planes and all that sort of stuff. Plane identification and so forth. So at the Werribee Racecourse, that was interesting. There were three batteries of 250 men plus others. Seven Battery was on the open seats of the grandstand. They slept on where your feet went.
Where you sat, the next one you had your feet on, in tiers. Eight Battery was underneath the grandstand and in tents, and Nine Battery was in the horse stalls and in tents, but they did take the excreta out before they put them in there. And there our training started. Very interesting as far as the army was concerned. You see the equipment was almost non existent, and it was proposed
that we be what you called a Bofors 40 millimetre anti aircraft unit, but I don’t think there was a Bofors in Australia. We never saw one until we got to the Middle East, after we had been through 8 months in Tobruk. But what we had were a few beaten up First World War Vickers machine guns, and it was those that we were supposed to practice on. Not with live
ammunition because there was no ammunition to spare. So all we could use was practice drill in pulling the pieces down and putting them together again. Drills in loading them and unloading them, so we got used to a drill procedure for doing things in the army, and that’s the best we could do. A lot of route marching, a lot of physical activity. All in an effort to build us up physically,
and that was probably one of the most important things that needed to be done. Well I had been, you might say, a desk person so you couldn’t say I was physically fit. But there were many young men who had come off farms and they were physically fit. But everybody had to be physically fit, so it was constant. But they were good times at Werribee because we were getting to know each other. Getting to form associations and
getting to know the people that you felt comfortable with, some you didn’t, and we all found our slots. We formed into not only the battery that we were but from the battery we were broken down into troops, and from troops into gun crews. So you can see how the evolution comes about. I was lucky enough to be given…I had just turned 20 at that
stage. No, sorry I was still 19. I hadn’t turned 20, I was nineteen and a half. And somehow or other I was singled out to be given two stripes. So that was…I don’t know how that came about. I’ve got a rough idea but I don’t know for sure what it is, so I can’t say. So anyway, I got two stripes even though I was one of the younger ones there. But as I said to one of our officers whom I will see next Thursday
week, tomorrow week. I said to him only recently, “How did you select the suitable candidates for Non Commissioned Officers initially?” He said John…he was an officer at the time, and he said, “John, we were told by our CO that we had to look out for prospective young people who would be able to accept responsibility of
having stripes.” And he said, “That’s what happened, and then we would recommend certain ones.” He said, “They didn’t all get them but some did.” And apparently that’s the way the system worked. They just kept their eyes open and thought, well ok he should be ok, he should be ok. And that’s how the stripes were given out. So then we trained like that up till December, the 29th of December, and a week or so before that we were told
we would be going overseas. On the 29th December at 3 o’clock in the morning we were woken; we packed up all out stuff; we cleaned up the palliasses and got rid of all that; we were on a train around about six forty five at Werribee; and we entrained at Port Melbourne. All of these things were supposed to be secret but the number of people who were around railway gates and railway stations,
there were hundreds of people lining the way. It was incredible, and right through to Spencer Street Station. Most of the guys had written notes hopeful of being able to throw them out the windows which they did. Whether they ever got to where they were going I don’t know. Most of them would have been blown under the train and disappeared into thin air. So we got to Flinders Street Station where I remember we were given two
hot pies and a cup of tea because we had had a very early breakfast at Werribee, and then we were…I can’t remember the train…I think the train had an engine on the other end and it took us down to Port Melbourne on the same train to Station Pier where the big liner the Mauritania was at the pier. I think it might have been its first trip with troops on board.
I was lucky to get in a cabin for four with original bunks in it, and it was very comfortable. I had a very comfortable trip. It was an exciting day, an exhilarating day, and so much happened that it’s hard to recall it all.
deep thoughts about it at all except that it was an adventure. No, I think that’s about all I could say about that. We had a quite a good trip over to Colombo. We had a few scares…one or two scares on the way. We were escorted by either one or two destroyers if I remember rightly. They
were out on the sides and they didn’t come close to us. But they were vetting the surrounding sea I guess, to watch or hear for any foreign submarines that might be around. We understand that did some manoeuvre at some stage of the game, but we got to Colombo quite ok. There we had a days leave at Colombo. Again it was interesting to see the local population and the way they came
swarming out to the ship in their little boats, calling for money and different things. And the guys would throw money over, the odd coins over the side and the kids would dive down and try to get them out of the water. All exciting stuff to a young fella that had really come from the country. We had a day ashore there and had a look around the bazaars and bought a few trinkets and things. I don’t know what’s happened to the little tribe of elephants that
I bought, they seem to have disappeared. Maybe they’ve gone off into the bush again. That was an interesting day, and we saw as much as we could in that day. We then had to transfer from the Mauritania onto an English, or a British troop ship. That was, you might say, not exactly a good experience because although it was a fairly new vessel it hadn’t been refitted
for quite some time and our sleeping arrangements were in hammocks over the mess tables. It was…the atmosphere down there was not good, so I together with a number of others, we chose to sleep up on the deck. Take a couple of blankets up on the deck and sleep on the open deck as we were travelling from there through to Haifa, through the Suez Canal. The food was not good either.
The flour I think had been on board the boat for years or whatever, although it wasn’t that old. But we were quite thrilled when we got some bread to eat on the [HMS] Devonshire for the first time. It was fresh bread and it looked like grain bread, a grain in it, something new. On close examination we found it to be weevils. So the bread was full of weevils and that’s how the flour must have been. But however, we
ate the bread and ate the weevils because we reckoned they had been cooked so they had to be alright. So the best part of the food that was on that particular boat was red covered Edam cheeses. It was like a cricket ball, much bigger than a cricket ball. It was just beautiful cheese and being a cheese lover, the taste was great and put that on the bread you didn’t need to worry about the weevils. So we had
probably another few days from Colombo…I can’t remember exactly how many days. We had a good trip on that really. It was different. It was exciting again, and we entered the Suez Canal, to see the canal ahead of us. The desert on one side, on the right hand side, and on the left hand side which was Egypt with a certain about of growth along the
bank with civilisation where on the other side it was just desert. And we sailed through the Canal through to Port Said and then up to Haifa where we disembarked. Then trained to go down to a camp at Hill 95, I think it was, that one near Gaza, down Gaza way where there’s a lot of strife at the moment, which is sad to know about.
So there we found that tents had been put up and we moved into the tents and we had little woven cane beds. You might say woven cane about two feet wide and six or seven feet long in each of the tents on which we put our blankets and we slept on those.
The unit was there for not very long really, or some of it wasn’t. Within about six days, 8th Battery…do you want to talk about that…
And there were no radios of course, you we were just dependent on what we were told. And I don’t recollect that we really knew a great deal except we were going to the Western Desert. I’ve got a strong feeling that it wasn’t until we were on the boat going up to Tobruk that we found out that Tobruk was our destination. We also found out that 6th Division had captured Tobruk and were pushing the enemy further on towards
Benghazi. So the trip up on the Warsaw, a little Polish vessel was not very big. It had our Battery on board. It had a few other troops, mostly Libyan soldiers. They had no facilities at all on the boat, for the two or three nights, I think it was, that we were on the boat.
They just sat up on open hatches. They had nowhere else, just with a blanket around them all night. That sort of stuff. We at least were taken to the…a few decks down…not decks, a stairway down, and it was just where a hatch had been over that deck. We had palliasses stretched around those decks. But we discovered there were some hundreds and hundreds of tons of explosives
right underneath us which wasn’t a very pleasant thought. But however, it was much better than walking and we didn’t walk on water so we were stuck with it. But there were two or three hatches and we were just all on these hatches. And the atmosphere was absolutely feted. You’ve got all these bodies in a closed in area, no ventilation, you can imagine what it was like.
And bodies that hadn’t been washed for a day or two as well. That didn’t help matters much. My cousin and I chose to find a spot up on a very narrow bit of deck where the officers’ cabins and the bridge and so forth were. There was just a narrow passageway down each side of the boat, probably about six or seven feet wide with a rail. So we took our blanket and the palliasse that we had
up deck and we slept up there the first night. It was pretty good until midnight. We woke up. We were sleeping top and tail because of the gang-way on the side. We must have changed direction during the night and we found that instead of being on the leeward side we were on the windward side. The wind was blowing like billyo and it had started the rain. I put my head out from under the blankets and
…we’d been issued with a thick camel hair blanket. They were beautiful blankets for warmth. It was absolutely saturated on the top, it was still right underneath. And Bob, my cousin’s was exactly the same, so we thought about it for a minute and decided there was nothing much we could do. So we just pulled our head under the blanket again and stayed there. So we did. But some time, an hour or so later we must have struck heavy seas and maybe just changed direction a little bit again.
And we shipped to sea over the front of the boat and all the water came rushing down these two gangways on the side. And the first thing we knew we both got lifted in the air a few inches and slammed back down on the deck again. So by the time we put our head again and had a look, everything was just totally saturated. So we decided that the only thing to do was to go down stairs. So we did, leaving our wet palliasse and wet blanket where it was.
That’s no use, forget about that. And we went down stairs. We no sooner got down stairs into this feted atmosphere, Bob who had a weak stomach said…I’ve got to go up. So he spent the rest of the night over the rail. I was lucky enough not to have to do that. I stood there with him in the fresh air but I must have had a stronger stomach. So that was an eventful night. The next day dawned bright and sunny which was good to see. And
here’s these poor Libyans. They had been sitting up on the open hatch all night. Our blankets had both disappeared and they had obviously gained another blanket. So we thought good luck to them. So we were sunning ourselves off and drying a few bits and pieces and we could smell…where we were we could smell food that was issued to us on that trip.
We had taken hard rations in our packs. We had the bully beef and some hard biscuits, and that was it. And it was such a cold night that night before that we had been asked if each…I think each two people, would throw in a can of bully beef and they’d heat it up. They heated it up alright. They put all this bully beef in a big copper and topped it up with water, and then we had a pannikin full of watery stew. But still it was warm. But there were no other rations on board.
Not for the troops anyway. So anyway, this day, the next day, we could smell something beautiful cooking. Bob and I had found a steep little ladder going up beside one of the cabins and we looked up and went up the ladder and found it was the top of the kitchen. The roof of the kitchen. There was a hatch up and we’d been up there sunning and drying ourselves off. We looked down through this hatch. It was about lunch time and the
cook down there was Polish. He couldn’t speak English. But we could see he was cooking meals for the officers…the crew I suppose, the officers in the crew. So we made sufficient gestures to indicate that it smelt very good and is there any spare? We got the nod to send down your plates, so we sent down our dixies and he filled it up with roast pork, apple sauce and vegetables. And boy, was that a great meal.
I’ve never forgotten and I’ll never forget. So we thanked them as much as we could in language they didn’t understand, but I think they knew what we were doing. So that was good. These are some of the nice things that happened in other situations. In that particular boat, the Warsaw, when we went on board initially we checked out the
toilets and if we could have a shower and that sort of thing. And they were absolutely revolting. The toilets were just a structure built off the boat and over the side at the back of the boat. Just a seat with a hole in it, and the sea underneath some 20 or 30 feet down. So all you did there, you sat on the hole and hoped for the best. The wash room was again just terrible, I’ve never seen
anything like it. It had wooden lattice floor over it. But underneath the lattice there was soap wrapper papers, there was filth, there was hair, there was anything you cared to talk about, was down under that. We had to clean it up before it could even be used, which was pretty disgusting really. But however, you’ve got to do these things when you’ve got to do them. So some of the boys got to work and cleaned it up so it made it habitable
anyway, having some ablutions. So that was the Warsaw. We arrived at Tobruk Harbour in the morning, one morning. At that stage of the game the 6th Division had been through Tobruk about 3 weeks before. So all was quiet you might say on the Western Front. So we arrived there and the aldis lamp flicked to the headquarters of the harbour people and nobody knew who we were, what we were and what we wanted to do.
Nobody wanted to own us. So we sat there all day until just about sunset and then we were given permission to come ashore. Lighters, like barges came out and took us all ashore, and then we were told we had a four mile walk to where we were going to camp the night. So it was up gear again and on the shoulders and away we went in the darkness now at this time, being led by somebody to where we were going to camp.
It was to a place called Wadi Odo, four miles from the harbour. And there at Wadi Odo we just threw everything down on the ground when we got there …I don’t know what time it was, into the night anyway. And we just lay down there and had a sleep that night and then looked about in the morning to see where we were. And a wadi, as you probably know, is just a depression which had been a creek or access to the sea. The sea was only down a few hundred yards.
But there was no trees, a few odd scrappy bushes. We spent the next weeks while we got ourselves sorted out and we were told then…of course we had no guns. We had arrived there with I think one old 303 Lee Enfield for about every six men, or something like that. That wasn’t going to do much good to fight a war. So we were told that there was ammunition and anti aircraft guns scattered around the desert that the Italians had left behind,
and to scrounge what we could. See how they worked and that would be it. So out of the 12 gun crews for Bofors we made up 18 of these smaller anti aircraft crews, so we rescued a lot of this equipment from around the desert. Brought them back to Wadi Odo, stripped them down, found out how they worked, cleaned them, found ammunition and tested them out.
And so with the gun drill we had been learning on Vickers guns we had to make up our own gun drill for these because all the rounds were fitted into trays…10 or 12 rounds in a long tray. They were fed in on one side and the empty shell cases were taken out in the tray on the other side. So it was a constant round when you were in action. You had a couple of loaders that were making sure the trays were kept up this way and a couple were taking them.
They couldn’t afford to drop them because the gun was traversing around from time to time. If they weren’t cleared out of the way you could be tripping over and falling and that wouldn’t have been so good. Anyway a few weeks there and then we were told that would be going up to Benghazi where the 6th Division again had pushed the Germans and the Italians, and on the way we left some gun crews at
Barce and some at Derna which were other small ports on the way to Benghazi, which was about, I don’t know about 300 or 400 kilometres up along the coast. And the remainder of us went up to Benghazi.
The buildings…it wasn’t a big town but a nice little town really. Not that we got the opportunity to see much of it. But the wharf, we could see the church…a typical tall church, white. All the buildings were painted white which made it look quite impressive. But it was a small village and there were nobody much around. I think they had all disappeared somewhere. They had probably been evacuated. There might have been a few around. But just a few people but I didn’t get the opportunity
to see much at all, other than go to the hospital on one occasion. But you certainly saw…yes. In the harbour, there were ships sunk in the harbour, some partly submerged, others fully submerged. Pocked marked buildings and certainly many vehicles around that were burnt out. One thing that was interesting was the ingenuity of the Australian troops.
There always had to be a scrounger and no matter what, it was possible for them to get it. At Wadi Odo for the few weeks there, we found out, somebody reported that there was a big food dump put in about a mile across the desert, and it had al sorts of things. I had a look at it and sure enough it was piled high with boxes probably up about 8 or 9 feet high.
There were passage ways all through this big dump and I reckon it must have been at least a kilometre square each way. And it was a dump that had been brought in apparently by the government or the army chiefs. It had been brought in and it had all sorts of stuff there. Stuff for the hospital and a range of things. But the food looked good and we had heard reports of it. But the British Army soldiers were guarding this
dump. They had a permanent guard there, night and day. So that was a bit of problem and nothing happened much there for a day or two. Then we got the message that there was too much stuff being lost from the dump and they were going to change the guards from the British to the Australians. They reckon they would be much better. So that was right down our alley. So our guards would go over. And we’d say now when you get over there
check where the peaches are or the condensed milk or whatever we wanted. And we’ll be over tonight. So night would fall and there’d be these shadows disappearing across the desert at night and you’d whistle up a guard and say, “Fred, where’s the peaches”, or where’s this or that, etcetera. And we’d come back with our bags full of good food. Now poor old Harry Reed, he was the
cook in 8th Battery, and at that stage of course, it was communal cooking and he would do the cooking. So when we got this different sort of food, our huts that we were building to live in there, we’d call down to Harry, “Harry, what’s on today?” And he’d say, stew or something. We’d say, “See you tomorrow.” Poor old Harry was cooking and he must have been throwing half it out I think because we were eating so well. But it didn’t last for too long,
of course. Those things never do. But it was an interesting thing. It doesn’t take the Australian soldier too long, or many of them to find out the good things about life, even if things are tough. And that happened even in some of the prisoner of war camps, I understand. I was fortunately never in one. So we were at Benghazi and we took up positions there. The town, there was still quite a lot of
people in the town and they applauded the Australians and they were very friendly and very good. They probably did the same to the Germans when the Germans were there. They could go along with whoever was in charge. They were tops. But we had no trouble with the local population although we were told that we must watch out for any lights that were shining at night. And we had permission to shoot the lights if they
were there. And they soon went out if you did too. But my gun position was on one of the harbour moles. It was an artificial harbour with concrete moles that went out and made a square harbour, with an entry at one point. They were built in a L shape with a high bottom on one side and a lower level where the transports could come along and the ships could pull into the lower section. So I had one there for a few weeks.
It wasn’t for very long in my case and for three other of our gun crews, but the remainder of our gun crews anyway. There were probably…there must have been about eight around Benghazi. I hadn’t been there for very long when it was decided that some anti aircraft defence was needed back at Tobruk at the Al’Adam Aerodrome which was a drome about 20 miles outside Tobruk itself.
So I was sent back with three other guns to come back to Tobruk which we did. So myself and others who did that, missed the Benghazi Handicap as it was called, when a lot of our troops had been sent to Crete and Greece. And the strength of the 6th Divisions was diminished and the Germans pushed again and they pushed back through Benghazi and then eventually our troops came back. A number were
captured and killed of those who were coming back, and Tobruk then became a fortress. And that was around about April, early April of 1941. I can go on from there if you wish?
before the retreat from Benghazi took place. And that was very difficult for the guys who were in it. There were some Italian or German officers, probably German, dressed in British officer uniforms who at times directed our troops the wrong way. Instead of telling them…because there were MPs [Military Police] and different people directing traffic.
There was only one road from Benghazi to Tobruk, a bitumen road and a narrow one at that, and some tortuous passes both at Derna and Barce. The waddies were very steep, and very winding sort of roads and some detours were made out into the desert and that was organised by some MP’s or some British officers. But there was a couple of places where I understand they were not British, they were Germans directing people
the wrong way out into the desert where they were captured. We had quite a lot of our unit in our battery captured on that retreat. Some were killed and quite a number taken prisoners of war, largely because of that sort of happening, being directed the wrong way. But a
lot were saved by one of our WO1 [Warrant Officer], the only one that a unit has. The Chief Warrant Officer. He was with a group of our men and he was told by a supposed English officer to go this way and follow this track. He said, “No I’ve been told to go this way and that’s the way we’re going”. Those that went that
way ended up in the bag, in a prisoner of war camp. And he got his men back to Tobruk. So it was a pretty difficult situation. One of my friends who was driving a truck. What had happened, the RASC [Royal Australian Service Corps], the Service Corps, they had petrol at different points along the side of the road, off the road but along the road.
And the truck that Bill was driving was choc-a-block [full] with gear and people and stuff. He was running out of petrol and came to a dump and said I’ve got to fill up. And Bill was a big fella, a big farming boy. In fact I expect to see his wife on Thursday at the funeral. Bill himself died 25 years ago with a heart attack. And Bill had been used to handling sheep,
was off a sheep property, throwing sheep around and pushing them around and doing all sorts of things. A big strong man. He races off the side of the road and picked up two cases…the petrol was in these tins that I talked about, kerosene before. Two tins in each case, just a light deal case. He picks up a case in each arm and ran from the dump back to the car. Now that’s adrenaline and strength.
I couldn’t never have done no matter how much adrenaline I had running. But that was reported to me by somebody who was on that truck. So he filled up with the necessary petrol, enough to keep him going. If a truck broke down and couldn’t be fixed in a hurry they would just push it off the road or push it over a cliff and either walk or try and get on the next truck that came along. It was not a very good retreat but there was no way they could do it any other way.
And they got a lot of men back safely and we ended up with about 20,000 men in Tobruk, mostly Australians, the rest were British.
I think we’ve got back to Al’Adam haven’t we, yes. The Al’Adam aerodrome or whatever you call it. It was built by the Italians as they colonised Libya and it was used by them and then by the Germans when they came into North Africa, and later on when 6th Division pushed them out it was used by the
allies and that’s when we came back to Benghazi, for guns, came back early to Benghazi to give anti aircraft support there. We dug in and we were there for a few weeks. Then one night I had a phone call from our officer to say there were Germans outside the perimeter, not far from Al’Adam. “We’re coming in with a truck to pick up your kit bags,” and that sort of stuff,
“And you’ll need to be ready and I think you’ll need to evacuate Al’Adam.” He said, “I’ll ring you in the morning”. And he did at about five or half past five or something like that. He said, “Pack up. There will be a truck out to pick you up very soon.” We raced around and we got ourselves organised with ammunition boxes and the guns ready for the truck. When the truck came he said, “I’ve got to pick up another gun as well.”
So we had two guns and our ammunition, back packs and ourselves and assorted gear on two trucks and it was stacked on. It was stacks on the mill I can tell you. Anyway we got back into Tobruk and it turned out that although we were away from the buildings at the airport and didn’t know, and it turned out that the air force men who were there evacuated during the night,
they didn’t think to tell us. Not that it mattered because we didn’t have a transport anyway, we had to wait for a truck. Then my gun was put on what’s called the North Shore, right on the edge of the sea of the harbour. A good spot, a good gun position, it had been there before. It had been there before. A cement floor, good walls and we had good living quarters in a building about 50 or 60 yards away.
There we spent I think probably another couple of weeks, another week or so anyway. And the other guns were scattered around the harbour also.
I’m told and believe that it was the first time that light anti aircraft gunners fired all the time that planes were diving at them, or down at them. The reason being it was felt that by continuing to fire as the plane was coming down, could cause the pilot to deflect from his course, and thus the bombs not land where he intended them to land.
I think that was proven in practice pretty well. And although we didn’t fire, that I can recall, at a dive bomber on that particular gun site, we did have some high level bombing. We did let go a few rounds but it was higher level bombing that what I think we would have been effective at. We had…I should go back and say that at least the tracer in the shells, that’s the coloured
tracer that’s in the shell would perhaps be seen by the pilots and could cause some consternation that there was a bit more lead up there than he thought. That would be the only deterrent in my mind for a plane that was a bit too high for us. But we did have one night. We were called out and took post on the gun and…but we were bombarded with some very heavy bombs and
even though there was no damage done, we had a lot of shrapnel that landed all around us. We had one bomb that landed about 15 yards away and created a bit of havoc. But fortunately nobody was injured. So the other signs of war were not good. I went down to the sea one day…it was there I had a swim in the harbour, most days we were there. And that was really wonderful
after being out in the desert where water was very scarce. Our ration of water in Tobruk during the fortress days was something like a pint a day. That was for everything, washing, cooking and drinking. So it had to be conserved very much, and I’ll digress a little here and say that while we’re talking about water
was…my particular way of dealing with that was firstly to put about three quarters of an inch of water in a pannikin. I’d clean my teeth and with that water I’d then shave, and then add to that water…and I’d use a washer, I’d wipe myself all over. We cut our hair short because of the lice and so forth, so we didn’t have to worry about combing our hair or washing our hair. We could just drag a wet rag over it.
That’s really how we lived for at least from mid April through to 30th September. Occasionally, very occasionally, I think twice that I can remember, did I get near the sea to have a swim. And the first time it was such a joy that I went in clothes and all and forgot I had my watch on my wrist so that was the end of that. And then
on, I think, two occasions we might have had a 44 gallon drum of sea water delivered to the gun. But that was stopped because the petrol shortage…all the petrol had to be brought in by ships and it was considered they couldn’t afford the petrol to run the trucks to deliver the water around, so that came to a halt. So being by the sea for a few weeks, or whatever it was, it was a joy. The down side though, apart from all the
ships that were half out the water and were sunk…on which anti aircraft guns were placed, by the way. So they were still used as a base for an anti aircraft gun. It was the deaths…and one morning I went down and here’s a German soldier in uniform…well not fully dressed. He was in uniform and I recognised it was German. He was floating in the water, very bloated, and obviously
whether he had come out of one boats that had been sunk or what, I don’t know. But he was in the harbour anyway, had been in the water for quite some time. Very bloated. So I didn’t do anything with him. I just anchored him there and rang the authorities, or rang our headquarters and they organised a recovery team to come and pick him up. So he would have been buried in the Tobruk Cemetery. He had his name on him and they were able to identify him.
But he was again somebody’s husband perhaps, or son, certainly somebody’s son. And there would be grieving wife or parents or children back wherever he lived. That was the down side that each side had to put up with. But after that, for whatever reason, we were taken away from the North Shore. It was apparently decided we were needed somewhere else in Tobruk.
At that stage Tobruk was a fortress and we were sent out to near a place called Fort Pilastrino. It was an Italian fort. It was only just out of town a bit, a couple of miles. We were perhaps a couple of kilometres away from that. There we experienced our first shelling from the Germans. So it must have been fairly early after it became a fortress.
They were outside. They had artillery outside the front line where our Australian soldiers were. It was then….I’m not too sure if the 6th Div had been withdrawn. I think it might have been 9th Division then. We were placed near some trenches. It was sort of trenches where infantrymen came back from the front line to have a rest.
They would be up there for a week or two then they would come back and have a rest away from the front. Very unnerving as an infantryman on the front line…where they would be penetrating the enemy every night. They would send out patrols to penetrate into the enemy to put them on edge so they didn’t try and overtake the front line. So they would come back and have a rest down there. Well we were …and also artillery were back there too. We gave protection for the artillery against dive bombing
and protecting the infantry people who were having a rest back there. We were there for some time. I remember we were talking to an infantryman this night shortly after we had put the gun position in position, and got ourselves settled in. There was a pop over the other side and then we heard a noise, and myself and another guy who was standing with me,
we went to ground like rabbits into a burrow, into a bit of a depression. He laughed and said, “Don’t worry about them. If you can hear them don’t worry about them. They’ve gone over the top so forget about them.” You hear the noise after they’ve gone past. You don’t hear it before. You hear the pop the other side but you don’t hear the noise after it has arrived. It’s gone past by the time you hear that. That was a good lesson to learn. But we didn’t…I don’t think we had any dive bombing action there that I can
recall, until we were shifted to another position. You don’t know why you get shifted to other positions. An order just comes, ok you’ve got to go to so and so and a truck arrives to pick you up and it takes you somewhere else. It was at that position now I remember. We were in the midst of a dive bombing raid, and that was another thing. I personally, our gun personally brought down a plane
that was dive bombing and it crashed a few hundred yards away. After the action I went over to have a look to see what was what and the remains of a pilot, very badly burnt of course, was lying there. You could identify him quite well. You could see what had happened. And I thought, here again is a young man, probably a young man because most of the dive bomber pilots were young men…like myself with a mother
and father, brother, sisters and maybe a wife if he was old enough to be married…and he’s now gone and he was trying to attack us. Well that was the game. So you can’t reflect too much on those things, but I acknowledge the fact that war isn’t really the way to resolve things and shouldn’t ever be. But it doesn’t seem though that the war yet had been able to do away with war.
It is still continuing in various parts of the world. I don’t think in the end result it achieves anything. However, we were there to do a job and that’s what we were there to do. Conditions in the desert were sometimes difficult. Well certainly the water side of it was difficult. And the heat at times was difficult. And I remember in this particular gun site, we
had our gun with sandbags around it to protect us when we were on the job. But for living quarters all we had…somehow or other all we had, we’d scrounged from somewhere a big reddish coloured tarpaulin, or sandy colour really, not red. And we were able to pick up…there were 44 gallon drums all over the place, so we stood some of those up and we put those around
the edges and we put this whole tarpaulin over the drums and that’s where we spread our blankets and where we ate and whatever. It was only 44 gallon drum height. I remember lying in there one day. It was the midst of one of those very, very strong dust storms and they had just come out of nowhere. The sand was so fine it was like powder.
It would leak in everywhere. It didn’t matter where you were. It didn’t matter where you were, it would get everywhere. I remember lying in there and there was nothing happening. Everything just dies. No action, no anything, so you just go down and rest. I was resting in there…we all were, resting in there. Sleeping if you could, if you couldn’t sleep you didn’t. When I got up, when we moved later in the day, I think it had died down
everything, just everything inside was covered with…like powder. It was in your eyelids, in your ears, everywhere. It you stood it would just drop off you like…in any cavity at all it was there. And I remember my brother-in-law, he wasn’t my brother-in-law at that time who was in the 2nd/23rd Infantry Division,
and he was…Infantry Brigade rather…and he was…battalion, I’ll get it right in a minute…battalion. And he was in the front line there and was involved in all this infiltrating the enemy every night. He was a very nervous wreck at the end of the war and died too young. He said to me once…their rations used to come up on a truck after dark. And this night they came up and
he and a couple of guys looked in the back of the truck and they could see custard tart with cinnamon on the top, part of the rations. “Oh, cinnamon tart…cinnamon or something or other, custard, with cinnamon on the top. Great!” And the guy who was driving said, “That’s not cinnamon mate, that’s sand.” So they were quite disappointed. That was the way the sand could get,
just everywhere. So they were some of the difficult days. And heat was another, and the lack of water was another one, on days like that. Stinking hot days when nothing was happening. I know I and others have been underneath…although…I’ll go back a little bit. We had a couple of English guys who were a part of the Royal Army Service Corps, Jeff Debbet and Stan Thirly.
They were two guys who were the drivers of the truck. I don’t know why we had the truck, but we did. So I remember getting under that truck one day, badly dry. We needed a drink of water but we couldn’t afford to have anymore. We were under the truck and sucking little stones to make saliva in your mouth. But we survived.
I can’t remember. But sometimes there were literally dozens of planes in the air at once diving bombing. And usually they would be in threes, a flight of three, and they would pick a particular target and they would come out of the sun. You couldn’t see what they were doing or where they were going until they actually came out of the sun. You could hear them up there and you knew they were going to dive somewhere,
so you had to be watching the sun, and this is the reason that I have cataracts and that’s been admitted by the Department of Veteran Affairs. It can cause cataracts. You have to look at the sun and just stare into it, and that’s not easy to do, and it’s not nice to do and we all know it’s not good to do. But that was the only way because there was no point in firing until you could see the shadow of the plane coming out of the sun.
And that’s when you could start to fire. You all had to be ready at the gun trained on the area where you thought it was coming down into the sun and be ready to pick up the direction and the trajectory and so on. And the lead on your…and you had to judge the lead on your ammunition, so the ammunition and plane came together at the same time.
And usually they would come in threes. And the object of firing as soon as you saw them was to let them know that you were onto them. Keep firing as long as they kept coming. So long as you could keep firing it didn’t matter how far they came. But once they let their bombs go I would always say to the guys, go to ground because you couldn’t do anything about it after that. But hopefully you had deflected them enough, particularly when
they were on to you which happened on a few occasions. And the longer you could fire at them and they would deflect, the greater chance you had of survival. And that’s how it seemed to work. And a few times when they deliberately targeted my gun, and we did that and we got away with it. I think only about twice in all the firing we did. And you’d fire at other
planes that had been attacking and if they were leaving something else that they had attacked you’d still fire at them if you had a chance.
He was a gunner. He was really I suppose…what would you call him in civvies life? A man who makes tools, a tool maker. Does that sound like it? Can do fine engineering on tools and things. ‘Slicky’ Wright. He was our artificer. Slicky Wright, I reckon he came from Fitzroy. He was built like a boxer, he could work like a slave. He cursed like nobody’s
business and drunk like a fish. But boy, would he work when a gun wouldn’t work. But he wasn’t the sort of guy you’d invite home to dinner. Better cut that out. There were all sorts in the army. But when the chips were down that’s when the sharp axes got into operation and they really knew what to do.
And Slicky worked hard at his job. But that was a failure with these guns that they …and I think probably a lot was to do with the number of rounds we were firing and the heat generated in both the breech and the barrel caused a lot of the stoppages. They weren’t heavy guns in one sense. Now with the Bofors later on….now, I never had a gun crew with the Bofors. I was promoted
to a troop sergeant and that meant that I was the senior sergeant over four guns. So I never actually manned a gun…I knew how they worked…I would give drill and that sort of stuff, and later on I became a Warrant Officer which was a different role again. So I can only speak from the point…but I don’t think they had the same problems with the Bofors which were a more heavily built gun, and more effective
I suppose. Bigger range as well. But we did very well. And we reckoned, the 8th Battery reckoned that they were the cheapest that the government employed for using ammunition that wasn’t theirs; guns that weren’t theirs; and didn’t have to pay for it either. We thought we did ok. And over the period of time in Tobruk, 8th Battery brought down, officially brought down 23 planes, damaging
about 14, badly damaging about 14 others, and wounding about 100…and out of that 100 some could have crashed further away, who knows. It depends on the extent of the damage. So we didn’t do too badly with not having had any armament.
They didn’t always stay the same, the gun crews, for varying reasons. Some would get sick for some reason or other and go to hospital and he’d be replaced by somebody else. But generally speaking, I had one man called Eric Harrower. Eric was an older guy than I. I was the youngest in the gun crew. How that happened I don’t know. Eric would have been probably 10 years older than I.
He had been an employee, if I remember rightly, in the railways in some capacity. A nice guy, a good guy, a very argumentative guy. Needed a bit of carefully handling. My cousin Bob, I knew him well enough and he was ok. He’d keep me in control and I could keep him in control. Another guy at one stage who was married
but he also had a lot of girlfriends. An interesting story just comes to my mind. We were at one of these gun positions…I had about four or five gun positions at Tobruk over the months. And he would write to his girlfriend…his wife rather, and I said to him one day, “Why are you using carbon paper?” He said, “I’m writing to my girlfriends at the same time.” Apparently
what he did, he wouldn’t put the name up top you see. Then he’d go through them all after and put, ‘Dear (Wife), whatever his wife’s name was, and then the next one! You’re not listening to this….? I couldn’t believe it. No, we were all different. I’m just trying to think of specifics. I had in one case, it was in the gun position near Fort Pilastrino where we’d been engaged in a pretty heavy
action, and it was early in April. I think it might have been round about the Easter Monday, I think the date was. We had finished the action and we thought to relax for a minute. The planes had all gone, the adrenaline had stopped and you had to start and clean up in case there’s another one. I look around and one of my gun unloader’s had disappeared and
I said, “Where’s ‘Pringy’?” Everybody looked around and no sign of Pringy. No sign of him. So I had to write a report on the action and I reported that Pringy had disappeared. Under the pressure…we’re all different, and I don’t blame him in the slightest. He had cracked it and disappeared. He ended up in Tobruk and was picked up and was shipped out. I never heard what happened to him.
But he couldn’t take the pressure that we were under. And I guess there were others like that. But we’re all different. I was disappointed for him because he probably would have been disappointed in himself too. But we didn’t ever see or hear of him again so, whether he was hospitalised or whether he was put out of the army, I don’t know.
But that’s just one of the little things that happened on my gun crew. I don’t know what happened on other gun crews. As far as the other guys were concerned…they sort of changed around a lot so it’s hard to think of specific... But they were all different. They all had their good points and we all had our bad points. I’m no different to anybody else. But we had one of our gun sergeants, he
received a Military Medal and…and he got that because he was seen to do something that we all had to do. As I said before, stand up while an action was in place and the others had gone to ground, and try and clear a stoppage. That was…medals are given out where people are seen to do things. And they’re reported and acknowledged as being ok. And that’s fine, good luck to them.
In our case, most of us, I don’t think there would be any gun, any one of our gun sergeants…I was a bombardier at that stage who didn’t have to do that sort of thing. We did it because you knew you had to do it. No other reason but that.
and we turned those into ovens. If you had anything you could cook in an oven then you could. But our rations were pretty basic. There was the likes of blue boiler peas, hard peas that you would buy…I don’t know if you can even buy them these days. But they’re just hard dried peas and I can remember the first time we cooked…I can’t remember where it was now. But we decided we’d have some…
or one of the guys decided we’d have some peas for dinner this night, and they must have thrown a whole heap of these peas into a round boiler. Before we knew where we were, they had all swelled up with water and they were spilling out over the top of the boiler and there were peas everywhere. But we learned. We got bread occasionally. They used to make bread in Tobruk and if you were lucky you got a little bit of bread every now and again.
But there was always the army biscuits anyway. We used to break them up and you could make a porridge out of those, or you could make those into a base for something. You name it. I don’t remember much about the food, but you got enough, but it was tinned everything. I know we were issued tinned herrings and tomato sauce, and they were British Army stuff. They must have had them for
breakfast. It was revolting stuff. I couldn’t have looked at a tomato and herring…a herring and tomato sauce even now. But I suppose it was food. But fresh fruit and fresh vegetables were non existent. We might have got an orange occasionally I think. And that was the reason we were eventually pulled out of Tobruk before the battle at El Alamein started.
The idea was for the Army to fight a battle from El Alamein and join up with the forces in Tobruk to push the Germans…because the Germans had got up towards El Alamein at that stage. They had reinvigorated themselves and gone back up again towards Egypt, and we were to break out, that’s right.
Break out of Tobruk and join up with those coming down from Egypt. And it was decided that having been on the rations that we were on for so many months…I think that was from April through to September, that our fitness level wasn’t good enough to be able to do that. So we didn’t think it was any different to what it always was. I guess the authorities knew better.
So it was decided to relieve the garrison in Tobruk in September and fill it with fresh troops so they would be better able to break out. The whole thing went astray and that’s another battle altogether. So I won’t go into that. But that was one of the reasons. They thought we mightn’t have the get up and go or the energy.
From near Fort Pilastrino we were then shifted to near another infantry position, another part that actually goes out to the Al’Adam Airport. We were there for some time, but there we were in view of the enemy so we had to dig in there at night. That was ok and it was cooler at night
anyway than digging in the day time. We had to then sleep during the day. It took us a day or so to get in, it was pretty hard and rocky. So we got in there ok, but we had to sort of lay low a bit and not show ourselves too much. That wasn’t a very difficult position anyway. We were there I think, mainly because there was a penetration through the
infantry lines at one stage of the game and also our little bit of armour that we had was going out through that way on that occasion. And I remember whilst we were there…I don’t think we had much action there as such, but I remember waking up one night and I could hear the rumble of tanks coming in and I thought gripes, have they broken through and are we in their way. Are we going to squashed. But it turned out to be some of our own tanks that were going out
towards the front line and were going to dig in out there somewhere. So that was a bit of a non event. So I don’t think much happened there except we were there. A little bit later than that, our last position was out near a well known feature called the ‘Fig Tree’. It was a big fig tree that grew there. I don’t know who planted it but it had been there for many years and it had a cave underneath it which was used for a bit of a headquarters of some sort.
We were probably about half a kilometre away from it and we had a gun position there and it was called Happy Valley. It wasn’t much of a valley but a bit of a depression. There we got a lot of shelling from the enemy and we could see a lot of shells landing. We had one night…we were anti aircraft protection for an Australian Artillery 25 pounder unit right there and they had had a truck take some of the
soldiers…one of their trucks took some of their men down to the beach this day and they came back with quite a few people in this truck, and unfortunately a stray shell came in at dusk and this was when the Germans used to shell. It was mostly around about dusk. And a shell came in, landed right in the truck and blew them to smithereens. That was one of the unfortunate things that happened. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had very good views of …
…a few hundred yards away of shells falling and seeing three or four men who had come out of a cave in a depression, and I think there was a headquarters over there of some sort where they printed a bit of a newssheet which went around the place every now and again called the Tobruk News. I’ve got a couple of copies of those in my archives.
The shelling came over this night. I think indiscriminate shelling mainly, not to any particular place, and these guys happened to be walking across. And they were as though…what’s the word? Little figures that you dance around on strings…puppets. They were like puppets on strings. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. They were getting blown around. Whether they got injured or not I don’t know. But just the
explosion and the force of it was blowing them over and blowing them around this way and that. And it was only for about 30 seconds or so while half a dozen shells landed amongst them, they were like puppets on strings. And in that fading evening light…the sun was behind me and I could see them against the background of this low hill. Here they were with the shells exploding and these puppets just flying around all over the place.
It was an incredible scene to see really and something I don’t think anybody would see very much. I still remember it very clearly, very clearly. Anyway, from the Fig Tree site, that is where we finished our tour in Tobruk, and we were finally evacuated.
Some soldiers were sent up from Alexandria. They had been on the harbour for about 18 months I think and I think they might have wondered what they had come to. And again, half our gun crew were taken away and we received half of them. We trained them on the gun for a day or so and then we were taken out and they came in. Then we were back nearer Tobruk Harbour
and gathered together at a battery. But whilst that was happening and I was still on our gun crew, another one of those unfortunate accidents where the half of our crew that had been repatriated back to near Wadi Odo again, they were lining up to get a Comfort Fund issue at a tent where this stuff was being handed out. They were queued up and every morning for some time there had been a high level plane fly over Tobruk. It seemed to be just taking
observations. It never did anything, it just flew over. But this morning it flew over and it dropped some bombs. The guys, so used to the bombs being dropped for months there, didn’t really take too much notice. They knew they were coming down, but a casual attitude and they didn’t do anything about it, and they weren’t told to take cover, and one bomb landed right on the tent. We lost a number of our guys that day
that we shouldn’t have lost, which is very disappointing. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did, like the truck with the 2nd 12th I think, Artillery, 25 pounders, lost in their truck. Just one of those things that shouldn’t have happened. It was just one of those things that did.
on a certain track, if they’re going for a certain target. They create a scream with the air going through them at a great rate of knots. The same when you whistle over the top of a bottle, you get a whistling noise. Anyway, from there we all ended up back at the camp and we were there for a day or so, and then we were to board a destroyer one night. And at about nine o’clock at night we were taken to the wharf.
We got to the wharf about nine o’clock and we all lined up on the wharf. We had to be ready. Dead silence, no smoking, dead silence and we were told the destroyer would be in later on. The destroyers had to run and other small crafts, some with supplies and things for Tobruk had to come up from Alexandria and at certain times they were in range of German and Italian aircraft and could be bombed.
Just before dark they could be bombed for a certain period. They had to risk a little bit there and some were sunk. And going out of Tobruk they had to leave no later than, I think it was 1 o’clock or something like that, early hours of the morning to be outside the range of the planes when it became daylight because they knew they were safe if they got to a certain distance. It meant they couldn’t get into Tobruk
until about midnight. They had to leave by one I think it was. They had to unload hundred’s of tons of stores and load on anything that was going out. It had to be a very quick manoeuvre. It meant split timing in everything that was done. So we were told that this was the case and we had to be very slick with everything we did and obey every instruction we were given.
And so we didn’t realise that the ship was actually in the harbour. It came in…there was a wire net across the harbour to stop submarines. The net was removed apparently, the ship came in and it came up to the harbour and it docked beside us before we even knew it was there. We didn’t see or hear a thing. It just suddenly appeared. They Royal Navy my boy, they were magic.
I couldn’t speak more highly about the skill or the dedication of the Royal Navy. They were great guys and more about that shortly. So it pulled in and we just had to wait there patiently for a while because some people had to be taken off. There had to be some hospital patients taken on board first and then there were stores that had to be got off. They were got off one end of the boat.
Then we went on and within the hour we were away, but we were directed down stairs, into the bowels of the boat where anybody who needed a bed could use the sailors’ beds. They gave up their beds for anybody…anybody who was sick or whatever and we were looked after…not that
they had time, but they treated us very, very well and anything they could do they did. Within an hour we were away and out through the boom gate again. We built up to 45 knots and when we got up in the morning…I don’t know if we slept, but when we went out on deck we were allowed to go out on the deck in the morning, we were still racing along at 45 knots. This great white bow coming out the front of the destroyer
and we didn’t have any trouble. I think we must have got out of range anyway. Then we arrived at Alexandria, and got of the destroyer there. That was the HMS Jackal, a British ship. Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.
was just almost solid rock. It was very hard to dig a gun pit and we were having a struggle to get it in and we needed some extra labour. So our lieutenant arranged for three of the prisoners from the prisoner of war cage to come and give us a hand. They were nice guys. I’ve got their names out in a note book out in my memorabilia. I can’t think of them off hand, but they’re there.
So they came in this day and we were struggling to get a gun pit down. We had to build them of a certain diameter to house the three legs that stabilised the gun. One of them shook his head and said, “No, no, don’t do that.” They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Italian, but they indicated that they knew a different way. So they got to work and they built a small sandbag
…with sandbags, a little mound about 18 inches to 2 feet high, a solid little thing. Then they took the legs off the gun because they could be unbolted. They asked us to get around the base plate and we all held the base plate, we lifted the gun up and across, and underneath the base plate was a big metal spike, like so big. So we had to hold the gun up and we dumped it down on the sand bags
and that metal spike buried itself in the sand bags. Now that was enough…and the sand bags were a certain width around, so the whole base plate was flat on the sandbag and the spike held the gun stable in the sandbags. And it worked fine and so it meant we didn’t have to make the gun pit quite so big because with the legs on it we had to have it big enough to get around…because we had to work and step around over legs. We didn’t want to step high over
legs, so if we could get them out far enough we could step over the smallest part or the lowest part which was on the ground. So they happily set this up and we got the gun pit right, they set it up and we were right. into action. And here’s our enemy of such. But their heart was not in fighting. They didn’t want to fight. It was Mussolini who wanted that. So that was one sort of little interesting exercise
with prisoners of war. But we didn’t see much of them. But mostly they gave themselves up very, very easily because their heart wasn’t it. And that was proven when some of our men became prisoners of war, were in Italy in prisoner of war camps there for a while, and the people were very, very good and helped them in every way they could. On one occasion I know
there was a guy who was a prisoner of war and he wasn’t at all well, and they were going through this town going somewhere else. And this lady looked down at him and saw that he wasn’t at all well. She went away and came back and she just let her skirt fall and a nice fat sandwich fell out onto his bed. But she wasn’t game to pass it down. But she hid it there and just sort of walked near the bed and just let
her dress go and it was obviously hidden in the bottom of the dress. That was the sort of thing that some of the Italian people did for many of our POW’s [Prisoners of War]….when they had the opportunity.
Ok. I think we got to where we were back in Palestine and we were settling in. We had much better food of course there and recreation, and finally…of course the Japanese were in the war at that stage of the game and things were not going too well for the Allies in the Pacific. We didn’t hear a lot about those things because without newspapers and without
radio, you only heard what you picked up from rumours and what might have been said by some who got information from different sources. But at that stage the Australian Government decided they wanted Australian soldiers back in Australia or we needed more soldiers in the islands to try and defeat the Japanese who were just rampaging right down through all the Pacific islands
at that time. Java was under threat, so this is why even though the British Government didn’t want us to come back to Australia. They wanted us to stay over there. Our Prime Minister at the time, I think it might have been Curtin [John Curtin], insisted that the Australian troops come back to defend this part of the world. That’s the next thing we got told…that we would be returning
not necessarily home, but we would be leaving Palestine. We assumed…I don’t know if we assumed or we really knew…we didn’t know where we were going but we knew we were heading off. With that we had to pack our guns and pack everything up again and by this time by the way we had been issued with some of the Bofors guns that we were supposed to have before we went to Tobruk.
But the other batteries, 7th who went to Crete and 9th Battery who went to Syria, they both had received their guns, but we got ours after we got back from Tobruk. So everything got packed up and away we went and we went over to Suez and in that direction and we…I think it was the port of Suez
where we embarked on a variety of ships. The majority of the battery…no the whole regiment rather, came back on the Andes which was quite a nice liner…not a huge one but a nice liner. The guns were all placed on various freighters. Two on this freighter and two on this freighter, and they were anti aircraft defence on these little freighters. Now they travelled much more slowly
than the liner the Andes. Well I came back on the Andes with the bulk of the troops and others came back on these little freighters. We came back to Adelaide where we were billeted. This is an interesting exercise. When we got to Adelaide we were told we were going to be billeted with private people and so we were. We go onto trams after we disembarked and our particular unit was taken out to a suburb called Paradise. Sounds good
doesn’t it. There we got to the football oval and lined up and the families had been selected or had offered if they could take troops, and many of the places had four soldiers. Some could only take two. We were all told where we were going. We met the people who we were going to. We went there with our packs on our backs and we settled in for about six weeks.
I can only say that the people of Paradise in South Australia on that occasion were just magnificent people and couldn’t have looked after us better. Four of us stayed at a little…it had been originally a little hotel. It was the end of the tram line and this little hotel had closed from a hotel and was then a milk bar and a little tiny grocery shop.
The people who ran it, Mr and Mrs Fox were really beautiful people. Mr Fox he bred pigeons. He liked to race pigeons but he also used pigeons…and they used them… with meat rationing and all those sorts of things those days, they used the pigeons for meat as well, from time to time. And there is nothing better than a beautifully roasted pigeon. I can tell you, it was very nice. I’d never tasted one before and I’ve never had one since.
It’s not something you see on a menu anywhere. But there’s nothing wrong with a pigeon. The flesh is lovely. And Mrs Fox was a tremendous cook like a lot of ladies are. She provided us with meals fit for a king. I went from I think about twelve and a half stone to thirteen and a quarter stone in no time. I was definitely corpulent.
So that was definitely a very nice six week stay and they we were told that we were needed in Western Australia because of the possible threat of Japanese landings in Western Australia. So we ended up in Perth to start with. But prior to that, just talking about coming back. I had just forgotten this point. We got to Colombo on the way back and
we sat in Colombo Harbour for a week. Now we wondered why we were sitting in Colombo Harbour for a week instead of going home, if that was where we were going. But it appears there was a distinct possibility that we were going to Java because we had all our equipment. But that was on freighters to start with, but in the meantime while we were sitting there in Colombo Harbour, Java fell and the 8th Division virtually suffered badly.
And so it was then decided that instead of going to Java we would return home and eventually go up along the coast of Western Australia. So the Regiment was then spread between Perth and Onslow. Onslow’s up beyond Geraldton so it’s a fair way up. But 8th Battery of which I was a member, we were lucky enough to draw the plum and we had some of our guns spread around Crawley Bay which is on the Swan River
at Nedlands, not far from the University. And we had some very nice gun sites and some very nice troop headquarters on the river. And there we spent a few months. That Crawley Bay was the seaplane base where the American Catalina seaplanes used as a base and they were going out on 24 hour patrols around
the Coral Sea and other different places doing reconnaissance work and other things as well. They were beautiful old aeroplanes. They would land on the river and it was beautiful to see them come in. They were like pelicans coming in landing. So we really didn’t have to do any hard work there. Some of the boys were up with guns where the airport now is in Western Australia and
it was called Guildford. It had been a golf course and they turned some of the fairways into runways, and some of the fighter planes were landing there. A funny story there. We had had such an easy time, or everybody around Perth had had such an easy time for a couple of months that they had got pretty lazy I think, or we all had. I was a Troop Sergeant at that point. I didn’t have a gun crew but I was responsible
for the next in line, our lieutenant who was in charge of the troop. But my cousin who was still a gunner on a gun out at Guildford, he told me one day that our major had a red tabbed general or lieutenant general or something or other come, and he was showing this man off his gun positions
you see, and he came around to Bob’s gun crew and out of the blue, the CEO [Company Executive Officer], not the CEO, the CO I should say, the CO called out, “Change barrels,” because the Bofors came equipped with two barrels and if you were in an action you could only fire so many rounds out of one barrel and then you would have to change the barrel because it would get distorted with the heat. “Change barrels.” Well
talk about the confusion. There were two tools that were needed to take the barrel off. One at the breech end and one up at the other end. They couldn’t find the tools to start with, so it was a great kafuffle while everyone ran around like chooks [chickens] with their heads cut off looking for these tools. And finally the Black Bess…Black Bess I think it was (or was it Phil Stokes?)…it doesn’t matter,
he turned his back in disgust and walked away. So his little display to the General didn’t do him much good. But neither did it do much good to the gunners because they did gun drills…I think it was 8 hours a day for the next three weeks. So they knew exactly what they were doing and how to do it. But these are some of the little things that happen and that just a matter of getting complacent and thinking everything was right.
Anyway that was an interesting stay at Perth and there many of our boys…when I say many, quite a number met girls and married girls from Perth and then went and settled there after the war and brought up their families and so on. We then we up to Geraldton and around the airport at Geraldton. Nothing much to tell there because nothing happened. And then down to Pearce Air Base and did the same thing there. The hotel on
the corner was a problem there. That’s another story. Hotels always become a problem.
The hierarchy might have some ideas but we didn’t have any idea. But finally it must have been in…I think I’ve got the dates over there. It must have been in 1943 then I think, because we must have been in the West for at least 12 months. We eventually ended up in Queensland and a little bit of mucking around in between I think.
We might have ended up somewhere near Newcastle for a short period of time. For what reason I don’t recall, but it was only in a transit camp at Helidon outside Brisbane, at the base of the Toowoomba Ranges there. There again we didn’t do anything except a bit of training, that’s all. Then we finally ended up going through by train from Brisbane
to Townsville. That was in the summer time I know because it was stinking hot and dry. And finally after two or three days camping in Townsville, we were put on board a ship and went up to a place called Buna on the coast of New Guinea. It was one end of the Kokoda Track…
the track across the Owen Stanley Ranges. There we were given positions around the coastline and also at the local airport, the Dobodura Airport. That wasn’t near where I was so I didn’t see much of the airport but that was just another experience. But there again we didn’t suffer any enemy attacks.
That had stopped by the time we got there. As far as my Battery was concerned, that basically as far as I was concerned was the end of the war because we did nothing after that. 9th Battery were up at Milne Bay and Oro Bay and they did. They were involved in the Battle of Milne Bay. Again that’s where the corps troops comes in, you can be here and other parts of the unit can be somewhere else. But New Guinea was a different kettle of fish.
As I say there was nothing of any consequence to do. We just had to watch out for any armaments that might be about but it had all been cleaned up pretty well by then because the enemy had been out of Buna for some little while by the time we got there. But it was certainly a different environment to the desert. I wouldn’t have much to say there.
I could give you a pretty fair idea of what the regiment achieved, but that’s probably not of great importance to know.
So why were you being kept there?
Well the war was still going and I suppose if you leave an area open for attack, the attack might happen and it could be lost. But the tactics of war they’re up to other people to decide and the ordinary people like myself are just the pawns in the game. You do what you’re told and do as you’re told
and hope for the best. So long as you get fed, that’s half the battle. The native population that was still around there, they were very good, they kept to themselves a lot. They still had their village and village life but it must have been severely interrupted by what had been going on.
We didn’t come in contact with them very much. I did go to one of the villages near by…I can’t think what the reason was now and I had forgotten about it until now. I don’t know if we went there to be entertained or not…might have been. I think one of the pastimes for some of the guys was climbing coconut palms and knocking the coconuts off the top. It was pretty good when they didn’t have long pants on and they slid down the truck
when they couldn’t hold themselves any longer and they would take the skin off the insides of their legs. That was a bit of a worry. But there’s nothing much that I can speak about New Guinea personally because I didn’t…I was only there for probably two months, and then I was seconded with another sergeant to come down to Randwick Racecourse and do a course. It had been decreed by the powers that be that the 8th Battery of the 2nd/3rd Regiment
would become an airborne regiment…an airborne battery rather. That means that we would break our guns down, pack them in an aircraft, we’d put parachutes on them and on ourselves and throw them out the plane and jump out after them and put them back together and away we’d go. So the other sergeant was an Australian born of Japanese parents and his parents were largely responsible for the rice growing
that now occurs…they were the first rice growers up in the Murray region. They had been very well educated Japanese people and came out many years ago, and Tac was born in Australia and he was just as Australian as you and I. And he had great difficulty to be allowed to go to New Guinea because of his complexion and looks. He looked Japanese.
And it was said, look you can be on guard one night or coming along in the dark and a guard accosts you and sees your face, you’re going to be a dead man. And he said, “I know that, but that doesn’t worry me. I want to fight for my country.” He regarded Australia as his country, why wouldn’t he. He was born in Australia, grew up with Australian kids. So finally he won the day and he was allowed to go.
So he and I were selected to come down and do the course, and by the time we finished the six week course at Randwick, I was very pleased we didn’t have to jump out of a plane. They were only that high off the ground so that was fine and we didn’t need a parachute. And we passed what ever we had to pass, and we were heading back to go back to New Guinea. And we were told when we got to Brisbane, don’t go any further they’re coming back to Australia. So sure enough they did eventually come back to Australia.
We hung around Brisbane for another few weeks until they turned up and then the unit was in camp in Brisbane and I don’t know what we did for a while, but there was a lot of boredom there. But I took up again the studies I had started at Bradshaw and Everett Business College and I was heading towards accountancy by correspondence and that was what I was doing
with my spare time up to the time that I was discharged. I met my wife in Brisbane during that period and we married. We married right at the end of the war. That’s her photograph over there. And so then being married… oh VP [Victory in the Pacific] Day had happened and so the army was starting to be broken up and all married men were given priority to finish up.
Most of the others who were single were kept in taking down tents and clearing camps and all that sort of stuff it was probably into 1946 before they were discharged. So I was back home again in November 1945. Married in September ’45 and it was then a matter of what will John do for a living.
didn’t know whether she wanted to keep it going. I said think about it for a while. So she thought about it for awhile, and didn’t do anything about it. So I brought the matter up and brought it to a head and said well look, that’s it. Either make up your mind or we’re finished. So I was free and I happened to meet Val in Brisbane and liked her very much and we got on well together, and we got engaged. Her father came
post haste down from North Queensland where he lived to check me out, which I suppose is fairly normal isn’t it. And incidentally, very strange but he was a tailor too. My father was a tailor and I eventually became a tailor also. So anyway we were married on the 30th September 1945. We had a nice honeymoon and then we both came down to Melbourne.
There’s quite a bit of time at the end there insofar as New Guinea is concerned that really, apart from being there and doing what we had to do, there was no interaction with enemy. I’ll tell you what was done a lot in New Guinea amongst our crew anyway, and that was the making of souvenirs. And that was a big thing in New Guinea…out of toothbrush handles,
out of shell cases, you name it, anything at all. There were many capable people. There was one man Frank Hands, I’ll probably see him tomorrow. Frank was a jeweller and made nice jewellery. And he was right into making things out of all sorts of stuff. But men had to have something to fill in their time. I had things to do mostly because I
was a sergeant and I had four gun crews that overall I was responsible for. There were rations that had to be delivered because we were still all doing our own cooking. So provisions had to be split up. They’d come in bulk to troop headquarters. I wouldn’t deliver it all the time, there would be other people at troop headquarters who would do that (You need a cushion in your back?).
There were a lot of camps right along that particular strip of land in Palestine between…I can’t think where it would be, but down around the Gaza way. There was a lot of flat country there. There were orange groves and a lot of Jewish settlements around too. We went to a Jewish Kibbutz one day and that was very interesting the way they worked those. Possibly still do…I don’t know.
We went to Gaza one day. A much different looking city then to what I see in the paper today with the high rises and things of that nature. It was…my recollections are that it was almost like a mud house city with narrow streets…I guess there must have been some wider ones around somewhere. It was an interesting visit as far as I can recollect. A typical
what I would say, a typical Arab village. Nothing very spectacular about it at all. I was interested in going to some of the bazaars in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, and watching the weaving of carpets. The making of all sorts of things with very primitive methods
of doing things in many cases. Methods that would have been used in biblical times even. Where people were manufacturing things with little machines that they worked with their feet…like, what would I call them. I’m no technical person am I? Using their feet…not necessarily
a treadle, it might have been just a thing that spun around and they just kept that going. It might have had a little cord that went around something and they’d work it with their toes and it would spin around and that would drive something else, you know. All sorts of things like that. So they were interesting visits. But you don’t get a chance to really get to know any local people. You only see them as they
see you when they’re talking about trying to sell you something, and they work very hard at doing that. And usually they’re asking about four times what it’s worth. So if you start half way down the scale and work down from that you’ll get somewhere near the right price. And for a fairly country boy I suppose, it was all very exciting and different,
and I think visually uplifting to see what others do as well. And even though they are doing it differently, they’re doing it their way, and mostly doing it very well. So I’ve digressed a little I think from what we were talking about.
who had been my wife for two months at that stage of the game. So we rented a house…we didn’t rent a house actually, we were loaned a house for six or eight weeks. My uncle had lost his wife and he said, “John would you like to mind the house while I’ll go away?” So I said fine. So we were there for six weeks, then he came back and said he was going to sell his furniture and he was going to move out and his daughter and her husband were going to move into the house.
That’s fine. For a hundred pounds I bought the bedroom suite, the dining room suite, kitchen furniture, some carpet squares and we rented my cousin’s house. We put Uncle Jim’s furniture into there and sometime about the end of January or thereabouts, we settled into our own home at Highett which is just adjacent to Cheltenham.
There we stayed for three years. And meanwhile, getting out on discharge from the army I didn’t know what I wanted to do and this was a big question I had just before discharge. I thought well, the army was offering guidance, not counselling but vocational guidance tests. So I thought I’ll do one of those and it might tell me a direction. Do I continue with
and go into accountancy, that profession, or will I go trade wise. So I did this test, and I think I might still have that report in some of my papers there somewhere. After doing the test it was decided that…whoever did the critique, said I would probably be successful in whatever I choose to do. So that was great wasn’t it. That left me exactly where I was before.
So I thought it was up to me to make the decision. So I thought about it and thought I don’t think I really want to be an accountant sitting in an office all day. I think I might take up the same trade as my father. Dad by that stage had gone back into the tailoring. He went back into tailoring about 1936 and had his own shop in Cheltenham. So I said to Dad, “If I take up tailoring Dad, what do you think about that?” And he said, “John…”
And I said, “When I’m finished doing it in the city, I could come and join you, if you want me.” He said, “That would be nice”. But he said, “I only ever have about three months work ahead. What will happen when we catch up?” And I said, “I wouldn’t worry about that, let’s see what happens.” So I started work with a tailor in the city. He had about four staff there making coats and I learnt my trade sitting on a bench about
three feet off the floor, crossed legged as my master did. And I learned tailoring. And it’s a comfortable way to learn to sew particularly on heavy garments. You haven’t got the garment pulling away from you. You have it laid out nicely around you, particularly if you’re making overcoats or tail coats or those bigger garments. So old Harry was my master. He was working for the boss
and I was given to him. He didn’t like using a sewing machine. He preferred to do everything by hand. So I had to do all his machine sewing, so very quickly I learned how to put together ordinary suits, dinner suits, tail suits, overcoats, because he made all of those things. A good grounding for me. And he was a very clever and capable hand tailor. Beautiful stitches.
And he was a good critique. He didn’t do it but he could almost rap my knuckles if I didn’t do what he wanted. So in three years or so that I did that course I qualified as a tailor and received my certificate, and Norm Sol the boss was very pleased. But I said to Norm, “I think I had better leave you Norm.” I said, “Your business is not as busy as it used to be, and I don’t think you really need me now.”
And he said, “That’s alright John.” I had observed that Norm had become rather accustomed to drinking down at Johnny Connell Hotel down on Flinders Street and he was neglecting his business and the business had gone down hill as far as business was concerned. So I said to Dad, “I’m finishing up at Norm’s place, I’ll be down in a few weeks.” He said, “OK John. I hope we can keep
enough work for you.” I said, “Don’t worry about it.” Well Dad and I eventually took over the business and Dad retired and I kept on with the business and it could have still been…no it wouldn’t have been going today because things have changed.
I think it stood me in good stead over the years. The opportunity for having responsibility as a bombardier and sergeant and warrant officer. I think that was unsought but was thrust upon me, but I think that that gave me more strength that I would have thought I might have had. So much so that I was confident enough over the years to
take steps in my business life from the time I started with Dad, right through to when I retired in 1989. At that stage I had a business with over 100 employees, Australia wide and I had a sense of satisfaction. And I believe a lot of that could have come out of the service
I gave in those five and a half years, and responsibility being thrust upon me at you might say a reasonably early age. Because I did have responsibility for the men who were in my gun crew. If I made the wrong decision at any time that we were in Tobruk and put the men in danger, that was on me. Thank heavens it never had to happen. But I was conscious of those responsibilities
and I’ve always been conscious of my responsibilities in the community. I think because of that I’ve wanted to contribute somewhat to the community and I have done just that over the years. Firstly in certain things in the church, I’ve accepted my responsibilities there as various officers in the church as necessary. Not in recent
because others come along to take those places. And that’s how it should be. But in more recent years I took on the secretaryship of the Regimental Association. Other’s had carried the can before me so it was time for me to do my bit. I’ll continue to do that whilst I can. I had the opportunity…I didn’t have the opportunity, I was nominated as we talked earlier, to do a voluntary job
for the community in the cemeteries of this area, and I’ve done that now for 37 years. I’ll keep it going for as long as I can do, and I have no qualms about that. I’ve taken on other simple jobs such as Secretary and Treasurer of a Garden Club at one stage for about eight or ten years or something like that. Not that I’m any gardener, but at least somebody has to pay the
bills and do whatever is necessary from a secretarial point of view. But I think I owe a lot of that from perhaps the confidence that I got from my early responsibilities.
good. Rommel their General was an excellent General. Abided by the Geneva Convention to the letter and I couldn’t speak more highly, as far as I know…I didn’t have personal experience, but talking to some of the prisoners of war who were taken prisoner in the desert. I can’t speak about when they got to camps in Germany and Poland under the SS [Schutzstaffel -‘protection squad’; Nazi paramilitary organisation], that’s a
different story. But the Africa Corps who Rommel was the boss, they were excellent soldiers; they abided by the letter of the law, and they gave our soldiers as prisoners of war as much help as they possibly could, as we did to them, and the Italians of course too. It was one of the good things that comes out of
war, that there was a standard in those days of proper behaviour, and many of the enemy and ourselves upheld that. But I think on the bad side of it, on both sides I think there were people who didn’t, and I think that probably applies to the Allies as well. That not all were as good as they could have been. But no, in Tobruk I never heard a word.
And the airmen were very brave airmen. There was no doubt about it, what I saw they really did their job well. They were out to get us, and they tried hard to do that. So, I think excellent. The Italians were a different kettle of fish. They didn’t want to be in the war so they were quite happy to throw their hands up at the point of being captured. I think one man walked amongst a group on one occasion and just told them they were surrounded and that they
were prisoners of war, and they just said, ok. They could have stampeded over the top of them. So they were quite happy to be captured and not be involved in the war anymore.
line, and if they had been prepared to just stay in the trenches in the fortifications and repel anything that came at them, and forget about any penetration, I think we could have been overrun. But the idea was…and I don’t know whose idea it was, probably one of the generals. It might have been Wavell who was the general at the time, was to,
if we kept probing out into the enemy, you were keeping them on edge all the time, and you take the Indians, the Sikhs and the Ghurkhas, they were like wraiths in the night. And they would go out, and the story was, true or not I don’t know, but once they took their dirk or dagger. Dagger of some sort, whatever they called it in the Sheik or Ghurkha language,
they didn’t put it away until it drew blood. And so they’d go through the line like wraiths in the night. They were clever soldiers. And they could surround a gun emplacement out in the German territory, or it might be Italians, or might be Germans, and they could knock them all off and come back in through the lines and the Germans wouldn’t have even known they had been there until the next day.
And this was the way in which the enemy was kept on edge all the time. And that was regularly done. And the risks that the infantrymen took were not slight because the Germans had planted and continued to plant landmines all out the front wherever they could. So it was a matter of finding a track through those landmines
without blowing themselves up. And in the dark they had to know how to find their way back to their own trenches too. So they had to lay lines. As they went they’d take a string line out with them and lay it as they go along, and then as they finished what they did out there they’d find the string again and follow that back knowing it was a safe way back into the trenches. Nail biting stuff really and I think that that saved
or strengthened the Allies’ hold on Tobruk. It prevented the Germans taking action and feeling confident about it.
When you’re young you can do incredible things really. You can go all night and not bother having any sleep. You can spend a couple of nights without really going to bed and you’ll survive. When you’re my age, unless you go to bed about half past eight, nine o’clock…that’s not strictly true. But you find you just can’t exist. And I think the body is so resilient when you’re young. And also when you’re in a situation like we were
in Tobruk, there were days when nothing happened, particularly later in the months that we were there because the enemy were busily tied up in other places and really all they were doing was maintaining a presence outside the fortress. So there wasn’t the same activity as in those first couple of months, April and May. They were very busy months. And even though we might have been stuck on the months mostly, we had time when we could lie down and have a sleep during the day
or maybe if there was nothing much happening at night you would sleep all night. I mean have a few sentries on so a few of us would get up during the night and be awake in those cold desert nights and my word, they were cold. Even if the days were hot. I’ve stood on guard in Tobruk of a night. Full sleeve dress on, overcoat,
balaclava, a leather jerkin over the overcoat…not sleeves in it but over the body. And I don’t know if I had gloves, I’m not too sure about that, and still cold. Still cold. In the morning, almost from day break it starts to get hot straight away. But just those cold desert nights that you get in inland, even in inland Australia. Real cold night.
But ok you dress for it and that’s it. But we coped with it alright. I was never conscious… I mean it would have been nice to have been doing other things certainly. You think of what else you’d like to be doing. I’m sure you did. But you know you’re there for a purpose, so you’re there and you just do it. Is that one from Nike, just do it.
1939, 40, in Australia or anywhere in the world really. A war is suddenly thrust upon you and the organising of getting so many troops into uniform, and trained, and equipped. The organization behind that is terrific. It’s not all perfect I realise that. It’s not all perfect.
But it’s a huge task. But on reflection I suppose there are people, even today who are in government and in roles that are making sure that if war broke out tomorrow, they know exactly the processes that would happen. For instance, how would we clothe them. That would all be organised right now. How do we get all those number of boots for all those number of feet.
How do we do this, how do we do that. I’m quite sure there would be a plan, but at the time when I joined, I just thought it was an enormous task. It would be an enormous task. I’m not belittling it. But I think there has to be a plan there somewhere that someone is responsible for and that must be updated on a yearly basis, a regular basis anyway. So if anything
does happen to…a need for a country to be defended, that there’s a plan put into action to know exactly how that’s going to be coped with. But that’s just a reflection of my own. I don’t know if it is there but I think that’s the only way it could be done, and that would have to be the case. I don’t believe
that we need to have wars, or we shouldn’t have wars and risk the lives of so many people. And today of course it’s not only the service people who are risk, it’s whole populations, that seems to be the way it’s going. And that’s really sad. People who have no reason to be affected are affected. But I don’t know what can be done about that.
But I also think on the other side of the coin is that…as I say to myself, I believe that the desire to serve your country is strong as it should be, and in my case I believe seeing I came through the exercise, I believe it strengthened my character. I think I handled it the right way.
But unfortunately some people didn’t handle it the right way and that’s sad because a young man who was a sergeant just before me, became an officer and he ended up a wreck after the war. Not for any other reason…he became an officer and had access to the officer’s mess and he became an alcoholic
and his afterlife after the war was total disaster. And he was a most efficient and popular sergeant and officer. So it’s all up to you how you handle your life.