I wonder if you can tell me, Charles, what you knew of World War I or of family members who’d served?
World War I only became known to me through my interest in military history, I’ve always been inclined to read a lot of military history. My father, who was already married when the First World War broke out, and had, I think, probably about five children, obviously didn’t go to that war. So therefore I had no immediate family connection, although uncles went and
so I heard very little about the First World War until I started to study it myself. My, I was born, what, seven months before the First World War finished, so I was too young of course to have learned anything with that, or through that. But no, it was only through reading mainly that I gleaned some knowledge of First World War activities.
But it always seemed to me to be, from my reading, a much more horrendous war than the Second World War. And I suppose my Second World War cronies [friends] will go crook [mad] at me about that, but still, they can put up with that.
fortunate, we being my own company, my own company of 120 or 30 men, were very fortunate in that our Company Commander, Keith Marnio, was appointed as shipping officer on the Queen Mary, and naturally C Company drew A deck on the Queen Mary, which was the glamour deck of the ship. And at that time the Mary hadn’t been converted to a troop ship at all, it was still in its old tourist
form. The only difference was that in a cabin, a big cabin, which normally had a double bed and all baths and hot and cold running water and port holes out the sides, everything, you know, real glamour - instead of having two in there, we had four double bunks. And we still had tons of
room, we still had hot and cold running water, would you believe, and salt or fresh water too, in our bathroom. And we still had the fans on our beds and, the same as the tourists did before. We travelled from Sydney to Bombay on that. And the only other thing I remember, well several things I remember about the Queen Mary, but the major one was the fact that we had pork chops going across the Great Australian
Bight for breakfast. We had them twice, going down and coming up. It was shocking, a shocking experience. I was a bit of runner at that time and we had races on the deck, straight down one side of the deck of the Queen Mary 100 yards, and the 220 yards down the back. And I remember that I, I think I came second in the 100 yards and
I won the 220 yard race on the Queen Mary, so I remember that. And then of course the Queen Mary had a speed, I think it was 33 knots which could out run enemy shipping or enemy submarines and so forth, so she relied very much on her speed. But even so, we were escorted by HMS
Perth and HMS Canberra I think, I’d have to refresh my memory about that, but both of those Australian cruisers were both sunk later on, but the Mary [Queen Mary] was never sunk. She’s still afloat in Los Angeles as a hotel. But I lived in the lap of luxury for a fortnight until we arrived at Bombay.
were nineteen and eighteen, nineteen, twenty. My officers were men probably round about twenty-eight or twenty-nine or thirty. But we were all, I was about average age as I say, and many of us, like myself, had never been away from mummy's skirts much before, and it was decided that we needed lecturing about the horrors of diseases in the, when we got ashore. And I say, we
didn’t know where we were going at that stage. But there was a gentleman by the name of George Lacoota who was a former master of Newington College in Sydney, and George was our platoon commander. And George had been in India, in Bombay, before the war, so George was elected by the hierarchy to lecture us on the horrors of sexual diseases in Bombay. And the particular street,
road was Grant Road in Bombay, we were lectured not to go anywhere near Grant Road, because that was a terrible place to go. The end result was that practically everybody, as soon as we got off the ship headed straight for Grant Road, not to use the merchandise so much as to have a look. That was an episode that I’ve never forgotten. We spent, we only spent a week or so in India. We
had to transfer ships because the Mary obviously couldn’t go into the Suez Canal. And we had to transfer ships at Bombay and we went up to, by train to a British rest camp at a place called Deolali, about a hundred miles inland from Bombay, which was a delight, it was a delightful spot. But then we came back to Bombay, had a day or so leave in
Bombay. Then we went to the other extreme, onto a horrible little ship called the Rhona, R-H-O-N-A, and we sailed on her from Bombay through to Kantara in the Suez Canal. The Rhona, just as a matter of interest, was sunk with, I think it was, 6,000 American troops aboard off Dakar in the Atlantic on the invasion of North Africa by Americans
and British. They lost... no, couldn’t have been 6,000, must’ve been 1,000 I think, but anyway a lot of people were all lost with that ship. So I haven’t got a very good record as far as ships are concerned. I was on several ships at various stages of my military career and the only one that survived was the Queen Mary. I wasn’t on
board the others when they were sunk, obviously.
The eggs I recall very well, they were about the size of bantam’s eggs and when you broke them, and nearly all served hard boiled of course, when you broke them open they, the yoke was outlined in black. Whether that was because they were rotten or whether that was natural or not - but we always reckoned they were vulture’s eggs. Whether they were or not, I’m not sure, I think they were probably pigeon eggs or something,
I don’t know what they were, but they were very small. So the sausages at least, even though they were a bit grim they were still a change. We went from there, from Kantara by train through terrific sand storms up to Gaza, where all the strife’s been in recent years, and we went into camp at Gaza Camp, and we were there for
a month or so. And then my battalion went down to Port Said and we were camped on the opposite side of the canal to Port Said, which is Port Fuad. And then for some reason or other, my section was made, given guard duties on naval headquarters in Port Said. Why the army had to
guard the navy I’ll never know, but anyway that was beaut because wonderful food and a little bit of leave in Port Said. We made some very good friends in Port Said, civilian friends, and on all our visits to Port Said from there on, my section was looked after by our civilian friends. We were given biscuits and cakes and things that we’d never seen before. And a few very nice
drinks, one that I recall which wasn’t...
the rest of my section went on leave into Port Said for Christmas night. And eventually Alf, who was a teetotaller [did not drink alcohol] at thirty-six years of age, he’d never tasted grog [alcohol] in his life - and I was a near miss, I drank very little in those days - and so we eventually finished our job and had our Christmas dinner and then went into town to join the rest, and we couldn’t find them. So we were wandering around lost and nothing to do and I said
to Jack, I said, “Jack it’s Christmas and,” I said, “I’m going to have a drink.” I said, “Will you come in and have one?” So we went in and we had one, and Jack for the first time in his life, and we drank Egyptian Rhum, R-H-U-M. Well Jack then proceeded, he was the quietest, nicest man you’d ever meet, he then proceeded to fight two Gyppo [Egyptian] policemen and two Provos [provosts - military police] over the position of a cane chair that he
thought’d look nice in his tent back at the camp. And of course I had to help out, and fortunately for Jack and myself, the rest of the section turned and rescued us, otherwise we’d have spent Christmas night 1940 in an Egyptian jail. However we didn’t, we got back. But it was such a horrendous brew that I got sea sick going across the Suez Canal, it’s only about a hundred yards wide, but I got seasick. They had to carry me the rest of the way back to camp.
That was one not so pleasant Christmas that I spent, but that, I’ve never touched rhum since. That’s a long time ago.
ten months. And training gets pretty monotonous and really we were hogging to get into some sort of action, any sort of action would’ve suited us. But then, of course, the 6th Australian Division went into action, and very successfully, against the Italian Army, and then eventually we took over from the 6th Division in the desert and that
was our first action. But we had, we still had from Christmas 1940 til February 1941, another two months, we went back from Port Said, back to Gaza, and in February, yes February, about late February, we finally departed for the Western Desert to take over from the
6th Division. In the meantime we were playing football and training and doing route marches and generally keeping fit. And it was in that period, on 26th January, which is Australia Day of course, that I played my last game of football, last serious game of football. I have a photograph of the seven of us who were, the seven representatives from my company in the battalion
team. And I was very badly damaged that day and spent a couple of weeks in hospital. And I just, looking at the photograph a while ago, that of that seven blokes photographed on 26th January 1941, I’m the only one alive today, but only two of us survived the war. One was killed in, Max Jaggers was killed in Tobruk,
Ocker Hannaford and Johnny Lloyd were killed at El Alamein, and Pop Cooper and Harry Taskwell were killed in New Guinea, so only two of the seven of us survived. And as I say, Jock’s dead now. But I’m so far staggering along.
same as they’ve been doing for a thousand years. A bent piece of wood, perhaps with a steel blade perhaps attached to it, but pulled by a donkey or a camel, and they were still using that in 1941 when we were there. But at the same time, right next to our camp, to our tent really, were magnificent orange groves. Of course we took the opportunity to liberate a few oranges, but that was all accepted as part of the act.
And, but yeah, I suppose it would be reasonable farming land so therefore it wasn’t sand. There was plenty of sand about, but there was also plenty of farming land. It wasn’t until we got into the run up out of Egypt, into Libya, and up to Libya that we ran into desert, and even then not desert as most people visualise,
not sand dunes but hard rock, soil, the odd camel bush, about six or eight inches high, and that’s about all. That was pretty rough, but to get into the real desert you had to go further south towards the Sahara.
which we didn’t have, and we trained with those. You’d see a bloke wandering round with a piece of wood which was made into the shape of a machine gun. Another bloke I’ve photographed, there in that album, of Jim Law, with an old four gallon kerosene tin, laying down amongst the camel bush, and he used to belt the kerosene tin and that simulated machine gun fire, because we didn’t have any machine guns. And we were still training
like that when we first went into the desert. We were issued with arms as we went along, and I think I received my first, we had our rifles and bayonets, but I think I received my first Thompson sub machine gun well after we’d been in the desert, was probably a month or two before we got weapons like that. And considerable time before we were issued
with Bren guns [light machine-guns] which were the weapon of the early war. We were still using the old Lewis guns that were First World War vintage. But the run up, when we went up from Egypt, sorry, from Palestine through Egypt and up into Libya, was a pretty
good introduction to all for us, because we were travelling in convoy with trucks, troop-carrying trucks, oh, fifty yards or eighty yards, whatever the regulation distance was at the time, apart, and very susceptible to attack from the air, and the German Luftwaffe [air force] had control of the air at that time. And
that was our first action actually, I was given, now I come to think of it, I was given a Bren gun mounted on a tripod, and established in the back of a utility or the equivalent of a utility, and informed that my job was to shoot the Luftwaffe down when they came to attack. They came to attack a matter of days later, and my sister battalion
lost a few trucks and a few personnel. Whether we got any Germans or not, I don’t know.
three hundred-odd mile an hour, and you’ve got to shoot well in front of a Messerschmitt to hit it, so I don’t think the German pilots would’ve been too concerned about us. But they did their share of damage to us, but we did get our revenge eventually. We travelled from Gaza and Palestine to where we went furthest up the
desert, way beyond Benghazi, to the Salt Lakes, I’d say, oh, give or take a better part of 1,000 mile I guess, and we camped in little holes in the dirt there. And we were camped on either side of the Benghazi to Tripoli Road, which was a bitumen road, a very basic bitumen road. And it was,
the hills rose away on either side of the road and the German planes used to come down and strafe our positions, and they used to fly direction-wise along the road, and we used to fire our Bren guns at them. We had Bren guns by then, we used to fire our Bren guns at them, but in firing at them we were also shooting at our own people on the other side of the road, so that became unpopular. But we did in fact
shoot one German plane down and that gave us a great deal of satisfaction, which was lessened to some extent by a message from division [headquarters] or somewhere that, congratulating us in that we’d also put one of our own Hurricanes [fighters] out of action by damaging its wireless equipment or something. Of course all planes to us were Germans, we didn’t care what they were, if they flew they were German, we shot at them.
But anyway, that was the other interesting thing, that the German pilot and his observer, having been shot down, had the further indignity of being eaten by jackals or something, they didn’t even get buried. But it was the same Jimmy Law, that I said was bashing the kerosene tin to simulate
machine gun fire, had a little L-shaped dug-out, just big enough to lay down in, that’s all, but it was L-shaped. And Jim was occupying one bit of the ‘L’ when the machine gun bullets went straight up the other end of the ‘L’, and that excited him a bit, but he survived. He survived only another two or three months though.
strafing from the air, or anything like that, there’s absolutely nothing you can do. You just lay there and take it, until things brighten up a bit, and you’re just unlucky. If, usually, when I say you’re laying there, you’re laying there in your little dingus [shelter] which might be a foot or so deep, and just big enough to lay your body down in, and you just stay there. And
if you’re unlucky enough to have a shell or a line of machine gun bullets or something pass along the trench, that’s just bad luck. But strangely enough, although shelling is horrendous, and a shocking experience, and you can do nothing about it, shelling isn’t a terribly effective way of disposing of the enemy. It’s, I can remember on one occasion I,
the intelligence section whose job it is to, amongst others, many others, to count the number of shells that might fall on a battalion area in a day and things. I can remember one report late in Tobruk where I think they said something like 2,000 shells fell on our battalion area in the day and only two people killed. But, you know, it’s pretty expensive way of killing people
but effective if you get a direct hit. I was missed by a piece of shrapnel which I still have there, one of my war time souvenirs. A piece of jagged shrapnel about two inches long and about a half an inch wide, it went into my dingus and threw the blanket that I was laying on about two inches from my ear,
and it ploughed straight into the dirt, so I dug it out and kept it as a souvenir. That was the same time that my best friend was killed by the same shell, or the same salvo of shells, yeah. But those sort of things happened all the time, so it was a case of
your best mate being killed and you don’t do anything about it, you just go back to work. You’d probably take half an hour off to go to his burial, and that’s it, which you couldn’t always do that either. A great many of my friends, buried both in Tobruk and at Alamein, particularly at Alamein, I didn’t even know they’d been killed until days after,
and in fact I’d been wounded myself so I was no longer there. And it was oh, probably the better part of a fortnight before I knew that quite a few of my friends, the two I just mentioned, Ocker Hannaford and Johnny Lloyd, were both killed. And another one of my closest friends, Stepper Stevens, was also hit by an air burst, a shrapnel air burst, and
he was blinded. He was left for dead, and he actually left for dead on the battle field and the ‘dead meat wagon,’ as we used to call it, picked him up to bury him and they found he had a spark of life left in him. And he lived to become a fellow minister of mine in the parliament many years later. That was oh, that was only
part of the deal, it’s just a few of the things that stick in my memory.
we were in there for, in Tobruk for 242 days, which is the longest siege in British history, British Army history - and, but in the desert, come about midday there’s a haze comes over, on the hotter days. It can get damn cold at night time just quietly, but in the middle of the day there’s a haze comes over and it restricts visibility just, almost like fog, so it’s a relief
from enemy fire, the enemy fire being probably 1,000 yards or something away. And during the haze at times, we used to be able to get out and play the Tobruk version of cricket. The bat was a piece of, any old piece of wood we could find, and the ball was the end of a sock filled with sand and tied up with a piece of string or something, and so we played cricket. And we were actually having
a hit of cricket with our trenches only just, you know, right there to hop into, just in case, and the haze lifted unexpectedly and a salvo of shells came over and killed Max and I got a piece of shrapnel in the foot out of that, but I was, nothing serious, I just stayed on duty. But, you know, these sort of things happened, but...
That was the only relief really that we got during that haze, because otherwise you couldn’t move at all in the, out of your trench during the whole of the day, apart from that haze at midday, and not every day would that happen either. As I say, it would rise very quickly and very dangerously if, particularly if the enemy spotter plane, the artillery spotter plane was overhead, which they used to fly overhead fairly constantly.
And in that period in Tobruk we used to experience raids by Stuka [dive bomber], mainly Stuka German planes. Aircraft, would be probably forty come over, about three times a day, and bomb the harbour and then strafe the front line as they went home. Sometimes Dornier bombers, big Dorniers, but mainly
Stukas and Messerschmitts, used to come and strafe. And General Morshead has recorded in his memoirs, that on the days that he commanded in Tobruk, he was there for not the whole 242 days - but nearly all of them, probably 230 days - that only one day was free of air raids, in that whole time. So Tobruk
was probably the closest to trench warfare that we experienced. Sometimes our positions were only eighty yards apart, we used to have fun then, sniping at each other, that was good sport. And I had one German with a sense of humour. A friend of mine, Alf Sprat - the bloke that I got drunk with in Port Said - Alf Sprat and I were having fun sniping,
he was observing and I was doing the shooting. And this German bloke used to put up a shovel and, as though we were on the rifle range, and wave a washout [miss] so, you know, we had a bit of fun. And the other bit of trivia - I used to sing a lot, and I was one of twelve people who, all of whom were front line infantry men. But when we were back in so called,
rest camp, we formed little concert party, twelve of us, and I was one of the singers in that group of twelve. And we put on concerts for those troops that were out of the line and could find a safe spot, which happened to be old battalion ammunition dumps. They were actually natural caves which had been dug further out to put ammunition into. And we
entertained troops in there on a number of occasions, and that was recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and I still have the recording. It was recorded on the tape, long before your sophisticated equipment, on a little old wire machine, transferred later on to the old 48 [recording] discs, which I still have, and transferred later still on to the tapes, which I still have. And,
so these sort of things happened. And getting back to this close spot where we were, we’re eighty yards apart, it wasn’t Christmas, but it happened to be the only song that both the German and I knew and we sang “Holy Night” in duet. Silly, isn’t it? And trying to kill each other all the time, and succeeding in a lot of cases too.
and that’s when Japan came into the war. And Japan was... Singapore had Fallen and so forth, and yes, a reaction set in then. A lot of people thought we’d be brought home and the 6th and 7th Divisions were brought home but the 9th Division stayed over there. And some strange things happened at that time, people
getting, being dumped by their girlfriends, wives, whatever, people receiving white feathers because they didn’t have the guts to come home and fight the Japanese. We had no say in that, but we were just told to go and did what we were told to do. I received a white feather in a parcel from my place of employment, who used to send parcels occasionally, and in one of the parcels was a beautiful white feather.
I didn’t know whether it was deliberate or whether it was accidental, but it seemed strange that a white feather appeared in a parcel at that time. A number of people committed suicide, because we were told all the horrendous stories about the Japs were going to invade Australia, they were coming over the Owen Stanleys [New Guinea mountains], they were going to rape and God knows what, and that was very depressing. But apart from that,
it was an exciting time, and despite all the traumas, there were some pretty good times involved too. And I think the human mind has a great ability to brush aside, or forget the bad times, and remember only the good times, remember only the happy hours.
oh, I don’t know whether it was that afternoon or, it was very soon, obviously, he was just wrapped in his grey army blanket and four of us went and, with the old padre, and buried him, and that was that and then back to work. That was all over. The same thing happened with Jimmy Law just, only two months later.
I don’t know how many friends I lost in that period of Tobruk and Alamein but... I’ve never sat down to count them, but I’d say probably forty or something like that. These days of course, I was only talking to our chief organiser for the battalion association, he does all the organising
of our reunions and things, he was telling me the other day that of the 800 of us who sailed on the Queen Mary in 1940, there are only forty-five alive today. A lot of them killed after, died after the war, but a hell of a lot were killed during the war. I have my, in my photograph albums there, I have a photograph of 15 Platoon,
which was my own platoon. Taken at Ingleburn in 1940, and there are four, four alive. How many survived the war, I can’t recall.
You mentioned for Max, the four of you went out and buried him. I wonder, was there anything else you could do to mark the passing of a friend?
Eventually his body was moved from that grave where we put him, down into the Tobruk War Cemetery. And all that was marked there was a can of stones, just a little can of stones, and a little wooden cross put over it, with his name and number on it, and that was made by the engineers. That’s all there was, just
right in the middle of the desert and just this little can of stones with a cross, and that was all. Later on the engineers built a memorial, an obelisk about oh, fifteen feet high I suppose, and each grave progressively was covered with concrete and a better class cross put up on it. And so
the, that was in the cemetery that still exists today. And I’ve been back to both El Alamein and Tobruk cemeteries and they’re beautifully kept. Or were, I don’t know whether they still are. I haven’t been back since 1962, but some of my colleagues have gone back fairly recently. And I must give a plug to the War Graves Commission,
they’ve been tremendous. And I visited war cemeteries right through Europe and through the desert and in Malaya and various other places, and they’re all good, really good.
I wonder how, or if, the death of such a close friend changes your attitude toward the Germans or toward the enemy?
Here again it’s difficult for people who served in the 8th Division here, against the Japanese, to get the message across. I think General Rommel, who was the German commander, summed it up by saying, “The desert war,” that we were participating in at Tobruk and Alamein,
“was a war without hate,” and that’s true. We didn’t hate each other, we just killed each other, because we were told that was our job. There was no hate involved. In fact my wife and I, and two other friends, have been to the Afrika Korps Reunion, that’s Rommel’s army that fought us in the desert,
we’ve been to their reunion in Stuttgart in Germany, and we were entertained magnificently. And they, some of the Germans come out here and visit us at our reunions. There are still, I’m not trying to suggest that we’re all close friends, although there have been some close friendships grow up, but
there are on both sides, people that hated, I suppose - on the German side there were some dedicated Nazis who didn’t want to associate, and wouldn’t want to associate. Even going back to Germany, which I said we attended the Afrika Korps reunion, having done that and been so gloriously entertained, I was staying, I was in,
I was staying at a little German hotel, only about twenty beds, and in the lounge/dine, lounge part of the hotel was a little alcove with the German Afrika Korps sign over the top of it. And I said to the publican, “What’s that?” And he said, “Oh,” he said, “about four members of the Afrika Korps come and gather here every month and just have a few drinks together for old times sake.” And I
said, “Would they be gathering while I’m here? I’ve just come from the Afrika Korps reunion, I’d like to meet them.” And he just shook his head and he said, “No,” and that was all that was said. So they were obviously people that didn’t have any good feelings towards Australians. But generally speaking the Australians and the Germans had a great regard for each other, as soldiers. Some very kind things have been said about the
Australian soldier by German officers. I think I quote one correctly, when one captured German officer, he said that they couldn’t under... this is in Tobruk, after Tobruk, he said they couldn’t understand the Australians, he said, “They fight til they drop and then they go on fighting.” So we all had regards
for each other. And many, I have, even to this day, I have very close German friends. We correspond, we send cards to each other on our birthdays, we’ve stayed at each other’s homes, yeah, stayed at each other’s homes. I think German, my German friends stay here, not stay here, but they come here for parties and things like that when they’re visiting. So there’s no hatred, as far as I am concerned, but that’s
as between the German- Italian Army, as against the hatred that existed between the Japanese and the Australian Army, and still does with some people.
thirty-five men. So a lot of the time in Tobruk, although we were section commanders as corporals or as lance sergeants, or as sergeants, we were acting as platoon commanders at times, because of officers being killed or because of shortage of officers or something like that. So that I commanded, at times, a platoon for a short space of time, or I was platoon sergeant for quite a while,
but basically I was a section commander. And the job of a section commander is simply to lead his section and to look after them, and hopefully they’ll look after me, which they did. You have a lot of strange experiences in that a section commander, particularly, still lives with his men, whether you’re in camp or you’re in action or whatever.
You still live with and amongst your men, and still you have to command them, and that’s a pretty delicate operation at times. Being one of them and yet having to give them orders, it’s not altogether easy at times. But the, if he’s a good section commander he manages to develop camaraderie within the section
and everybody looks after everybody else, and you don’t really have any great problems. And if a section commander can’t do that, well he usually gets the sack anyway.
playing football actually, before that, and I was in hospital for two weeks and my section, I had to go back to the section after a fortnight in hospital, but I wasn’t mobile, I was able to walk but that’s all. And I needed looking after, and my section just looked after me. And two of my section members were fellows who, well
I suppose they’d be described as petty criminals before the war, but they were two of the blokes who were kindest to me, they were tremendous. I had an experience with one of them later on when things were a bit tough. I did mention earlier that, between Tobruk and El Alamein when Japan came into the war, everybody was getting a bit toey [agitated] about whether they should be coming home or not. And
a dissident from a different platoon tried to organise a strike in my platoon, and I was commanding at the time. And this gentlemen who, as I say, I think a petty criminal before the war, just said to his friend, “Look, if you want to do anything in 15 Platoon, you see Sergeant Cutler first.” There was no question of sticking to his friend, he was sticking to me. So those sort
of things happened, yeah. And anyway, the section commander’s job is literally to look after his section, and the platoon commander’s job is to look after his platoon. And that involves, you know, not only looking after people when they’re hurt or injured, it means looking after them in every respect. A good section commander wouldn’t ever think of eating or drinking until his section was well cared for.
A good platoon commander will always ensure that his section is well equipped as they can possibly be. That they’ve got socks, they’ve got the appropriate clothing and things like that. It’s all part of the army, it’s very much a ‘look after each other’ job.
some people who have no qualities of man-management at all, maybe they think too much of themselves and not enough of other people. It’s a hard thing for me to describe, it’s just something that either you have or you haven’t. Everybody has qualities of leadership in them, I think, if they’re given the opportunity. Even
some most unlikely people will show great qualities of leadership when they’re placed under stress. Other people will fall by the wayside, as I say, but I don’t know that there was ever anything conscious that I felt about it, I just did what I thought I should do, and I think that probably applies to all of us, no matter what rank we carried. Obviously the more senior you become
the more you have to carry responsibilities. I learned that, I learned it the hard way by doing it. I commanded everything from a section of ten men to a battalion of nearly 2,000 men eventually, that was in the CMF [Citizens Military Force] after the war. So, I don't know, I suppose according to my seniors I must’ve measured up,
I don't know whether I did or not. But anyway, I made it.
Yeah, I know, I got where we got now, how were we living. We were virtually living like rats in the holes in the desert. No matter what you were doing, you were retreating, you were advancing or whatever, as soon as you pulled up for a break, a stay overnight or something, or whatever, you immediately dug a hole in the dirt and got into it.
And then the longer you stayed there, the more improvements you made to your hole in the dirt. But quite often, if it was only a very short time, you’d use a little trenching tool that we used to carry, some of us used to carry, and with that you’d scrape as much dirt away, sand away, whatever. It wasn’t all sand, it was mainly dirty sand and a lot of rock too,
and you’d scrape a hole as deep as you could and climb into that. And then, if necessary, later on in Tobruk with, mainly with explosives captured from the Italians, earlier, you’d use explosives by blowing up rock and digging your hole a bit deeper. And the use of explosives was rather unusual in that
there were very strict rules of using detonators, of course, as you clamp them onto the fuse with very proper tools so there could be no spark to set them up. We used to clamp them on with our teeth, which wasn’t altogether the recommended way of doing things, but we had no tools so the teeth were the things, just bite the detonator onto the thing with your teeth, and most of us got away with that too. So
the end result in Tobruk, for instance, there were two different types of accommodation for the front-line soldier. One was the old Italian-built concrete posts, which had underground dugout, perhaps an underground dugout, and then firing pits spread round over a radius of about oh, I’d say, thirty or forty yards. And then crawl trenches
between the firing pits and perhaps your sleeping dingus - but all within an area of an ordinary town house block, that’s about a section post. And you’d have ten men living in there, in their holes in the ground, and you’d crawl when you had to go from one area to the other, perhaps to your fire trench. You’d crawl along this little trench which had sharp rocks on the bottom of it and cut your knees about a bit, and they immediately became septic,
and that was pretty rough. But you lived in those holes, no matter how big or how small they might be. Apart from the concrete built Italian defences, we also had to build other defences in between them because they weren’t frequent enough. And we had defences that were just built, dug straight into the dirt, we dug those ourselves,
with the use of explosives where we had to, and they were all dirt, there was nothing at all. And my friend Alf Sprat and I shared a dingus in Tobruk, and it was just big enough, deep enough for the two of us to lay down in, and long enough, six foot long by about three, three and a half feet wide, and about two feet deep, and with whatever cover you could find. It might be old sheet of iron, it might be
an old car, a truck door or something else over the top of it, and then covered over with sand, and we lived in that hole. And Alf and I used to educate each other, we, I had a little pocket diary, a tiny little pocket diary which my then fiancée had given me to take away. And we used to lay in this dug out all day and test each other out on words from the dictionary and say, “What’s such and such mean, or what’s another word
for so-and-so?” So we educated each other by doing that. But for the seven months in Tobruk we, the infantry part of the Tobruk defences, lived in holes in the dirt or in those concrete posts, but it was in dirt pretty well all the time. And laying in the, particularly the dirt little dinguses,
on your half blanket, with your boots under your head as a pillow, it was not at all unusual for rats or moles or things to dig dirt down over the top of you as you lay in there. There was nothing you could do about that because you couldn’t get out and do anything to chase a rat, because you’d get shot in the process. So you’d lay there for some considerable time. But for the whole time,
including the seven months or so in Tobruk, and the earlier run into the desert and the later time, months at Alamein, were all spent in these little holes in the earth, and that was pretty basic living.
Well I know that when you dig a hole really deep down into dirt it smells quite strongly?
Oh, well there were occasions in which they did literally smell quite strongly, not very often because we always had, nearly always had, the crawl trenches that I’ve mentioned, and away on one end of the crawl trench, out in isolation, would be a latrine pit, but there were occasions which you didn’t make the latrine pit. Somebody said to me, I said, “We
lay in a hole in the ground under a cover before the battle of El Alamein, all day from daylight until dark, a period of twelve or fourteen hours.” Somebody was impolite enough to ask me what we did for toileting. I said, “The bloody obvious thing, we toileted where we were.” And that, but that was a, you know, an unusual sort of operation, usually you could make some sort of arrangement. But generally speaking
the desert is a very clean... for an ordinary dingus that you were living in to be ultra dirty, no I don’t ever recall that happening, except on rare occasions, yeah.
that wrote, “Til the Sands of Desert go Cold,” it was a song named that in my youth, he’d never been to the desert. Because that desert can be awfully cold at the night time and it can be awfully hot in the day time and it can be awfully unfriendly with sand storms or ‘Khamseen,’ as they call them I think, in which the desert would literally blow up in your face and you couldn’t see from here
to where you’re sitting now, you know, couldn’t see two yards away. And in fact I remember one occasion I had a, I was platoon commanding and I had to go to company headquarters which was about oh, two hundred yards away I suppose, and it was in a sand storm. And I just walked straight round in a circle, and I’ve got a good sense of direction, but I went straight round in a circle and I came back and hit the front-line wire,
fifty yards from where I’d started, and got nowhere near company headquarters, cause you couldn’t see more than two or three yards in front of you. And of course we used to take advantage of that, not only the haze that I’ve spoken of already, but of the sand storms, to do all sorts of things that we wanted to do that were outside our dingus, because we couldn’t see each other and the Germans couldn’t see us, so that was fine. So the sand storms had their uses.
never any doubt about that. Tobruk particularly, there was no part of the Tobruk defences, including the town itself and the harbour and the defences, that were not under constant fire from artillery or air bombardment. I think the average distance from Tobruk township itself
to the outer defences, would’ve been, I talked in miles, I suppose seven miles in those days, say about ten or eleven kilometres these days. And the, some of the German artillery, we used to call the two big naval guns they had, ‘Bardia Bill’ and ‘Salient Sue,’ were the name of these two German guns, and they could fire shells from their position right into the centre of Tobruk, anywhere they liked. And in
fact we had several people killed on the, actually on the wharf in Tobruk. The person that I talked earlier about running a hundred yard race on the Queen Mary, on the deck of the Queen Mary, and the bloke who beat me in that hundred yard race, Basil Brock, was killed by a shell on the wharf right in Tobruk Harbour, and that was from a gun that fired from,
I don't know, probably ten mile away. We were under constant fire. And of course in the front line you were constantly under rifle, machine gun fire. In other words, you just didn’t appear in the day time at all, you didn’t get outside your dingus at all. You came out and did whatever had to be done at night time.
And night time in Tobruk, and later at Alamein, we spent most of our time patrolling out into No Man’s... so, what used to be No Man’s Land [area between the lines] in the First World War, it wasn’t a terribly common expression in our war but that’s what it was. And General Morshead, our commander, decided when we went into Tobruk that we would take command of No Man’s Land, which we could reasonably claim to have done.
I, myself, did dozens and dozens of patrols at Tobruk and Alamein, out into No Man’s Land. Some dramatic, some quiet, some interesting, some frightened hell out of me.
Well you’ve just described a range of patrols there, perhaps you could take me on an example of perhaps one of your most interesting?
Probably the most interesting one, my section occupied an outpost outside the, our forward defences of Tobruk, outside our own wire, is about 1,500 yards outside the wire between us and the German lines. We controlled this, we occupied this outpost, which was a number of little caves,
natural caves in the desert. And we used to use that as a listening post and being able to sight accurately the enemy lines, and listening of a night time. One of my most interesting patrols was to go out from there, further into the German lines with just one of my mates, Dick Burgess and myself. And Dick was armed with a rifle and bayonet and I was armed with the Thompson sub machine
gun. So we went out to try and discover what was happening in the German lines. And we got into the German front defences, into the mine fields in front of the German defences, and we found that the defences were, the mines were being lifted by the Germans themselves, and we thought, ‘Well there’s something funny going on here.’ So I’m sitting
down taking bearings on my compass, prismatic compass so I can make a report when I get back into camp and into Tobruk. And Dick, who was my minder, heard voices approaching. So we just ducked back a few yards and went to ground and we thought there were only three other people coming at us, you see. They were talking, talking quite openly, and
they thought they were safe way behind their own lines. Anyway Dick and I waited until they got in sight, this is night time of course, until they got in sight, and then we just opened up with our, my machine gun and Dick’s rifle, and did some damage to them I think. But then there were all sorts of noises went on practically all round us, they were the company head quarters of a company coming out to continue on lifting the mines. So Dick and I had to scarper [flee],
and my machine gun jammed which made things worse. But we ran faster than they did and anyway we probably killed the three blokes that were our major threat. But that was one of my most exciting patrols and I got a bit of a commendation from the commanding officer over that one, because we did get some very useful information. In fact two nights later the German tanks and infantry attacked that outpost
which I said we were. But by then, knowing on, based on my report, that outpost had been strengthened to forty-two men as against my ten or eleven, and also from anti tank guns. And anyway the German tanks and infantry attacked us. It was only, the outpost was only an area about a hundred yards across near these caves and
the German tanks and infantry attacked, and heavy German artillery pounded the place, pounded hell out of the place. We suffered, we had forty-two men, we suffered sixteen casualties in forty minutes, and we managed to get out and we got back into Tobruk. Some of us, we were all split up all over the place and my Platoon Commander George Reid, and I went out separately on our own to try and find people that were lost,
and people that’d been killed and so on, with varied results. And anyway the Germans took that and held that outpost from us right up til when we left Tobruk. We lost that, that was one of my most exciting patrols. But I took part in a lot of reconnaissance patrols which were, unless you were unlucky to run into something
desperate, were pretty uneventful. But I took part in a few fighting patrols. George Reid, my platoon commander, was usually the leader of those fighting patrols and I was usually the navigator, in that my job was to keep us on track and guide us exactly where we were mapped to go, probably into or up to the German lines and do whatever we had to do, and get back home
again. So I was navigating, which was mainly done by counting steps and by the stars, and the North Star became our best friend. The North Star saved my life a few times, in that the North Star remains constant whereas all the other stars move. So that was one, of many.
been a bit different in that there was more distance between the jobs you had to do than in the case in Tobruk. But Tobruk yes, my platoon took over a position which we came to know as The Salient, it was the most dreaded place in Tobruk. It was taken from us by the Germans and then we had to fight, try and get it back
again. And we had secondary defences, which meant they were all dug in the dirt, and that was a horrible place. And when the Germans attacked and took it from us in May - I’m not, when I say ‘us’ I don’t mean my own battalion, I mean a sister battalion - the Germans took it from us in May, and then we didn’t go up to relieve our troops in there until June, or there abouts,
and all the bodies from both sides were still left in No Man’s Land. And of course by that time they were stinking and maggoty and God knows what, and the only way you could tell the difference in bodies was by the remnants or bits of uniform that were left. And there, it was a case of going out at night time with a shovel and literally digging a hole and shovelling the remains into the hole.
And whether they were Germans, Australians or whoever, you didn’t ever know except, as I say, by remnants. And if there was a ‘dead meat ticket’ [name tag], a dead meat ticket being an impolite name for a name tag, there, okay you took that to identify. But otherwise it was just a case of shovelling
maggoty corpses into a hole and shovelling dirt back over the top of them, and that was, had to be done under the cover of night. And that went on quite a lot, it went on in particular, in that particular instance with the Germans taking the Salient from us. The Salient was a terrible place, it’s the worst experience I think that most of us had of the,
of the desert war. Because, all being little dug in, little dugouts, and just big enough to lay down in, or fire a rifle or machine gun from, there was no sandbagging or anything like that, that we could use to prop up the sides. So the German mortars, which were a horrible weapon, in that
the shell would land, the mortar shell would land in your trench before you heard the sound of it. An artillery shell goes so slowly that you can hear the sound before it arrives, and you can duck for cover, but a mortar shell you can’t, and that was responsible for many casualties in the Salient. And not only casualties but the blowing in of these sandy little trenches,
in that a shell, a mortar bomb landing, say, a yard away would disturb all the dirt and sand and fill in your dingus and you’ll have to dig it out again. And I remember one of my friends, Ces Greenwood, earning for himself, I thought, and many of us thought a VC [Victoria Cross] but he didn't ever get it. One of his section was, had his leg blown off by a
mortar shell in The Salient, and we were only eighty or a hundred yards apart, the Germans and us, and this is in, right in full daylight. And Ces just got hold of a bit of board of some sort or cardboard or something and drew a red cross on it in Bryan’s blood, and just hoisted it and then picked Bryan up and carried him out. He got nothing.
Still, that’s the way it goes. To get a decoration, a high decoration, particularly a VC, but to get a high decoration, the activity had to be observed and reported on by an officer. So in many cases of, particularly in Tobruk and
Alamein, patrols and so forth, and platoons were commanded by non-commissioned officers, like myself and Ces Greenwood. And so that anything that happened while we were commanding, it was pretty difficult because there was no officer present to witness it, and I think a lot of decorations were missed out on that basis.
two outposts alongside each other but, you know, 2,000 yards apart or more. One was called Bondi and one was called Plonk. And Bondi was taken on the same night and only two people escaped from Bondi. And, as I say, at Plonk we had sixteen casualties in forty minutes in Plonk. And you were so, we were, those who were there in that thing were so bomb
happy [shocked], shell shocked, that we, I don't know, hardly had any feelings left. And then of course, at that time we had sixteen missing, some eventually turned up wounded, but quite a few were killed. So with a mixture of being shell shocked - or bomb happy, as we more likely called it - and
loss of sixteen out of forty-two of your mates, you don’t have much feeling for anything. It takes a while to get over that. I was very fortunate in that I was able to relieve my feelings the next day, in that we had acquired from somewhere, I don't know where, pinched [stolen] it from somewhere obviously, a Vickers machine gun. And that’s not the normal item of infantry equipment.
And I, as I said earlier in the interview, was a trained machine gunner, a Vickers machine gunner before the war, and we acquired by some means or other this Vickers machine gun which had the range to reach Plonk with long bursts. And another friend of mine, who was later in New Guinea, set up the Vickers machine gun and made it very interesting for the occupants of Plonk after it had been taken
from us, so we got a bit of revenge back there.
Well it’s interesting to hear you say that because earlier you were describing the war in the desert as a hate with, ah, as a war with no hate, but still, I imagine, there would’ve been something really pushing you forward sometimes?
I don't know, I suppose pride had a lot to do with it. It was a matter of pride to be able to say that I commanded that platoon or that patrol or I took part in that patrol. Dick Burgess who’s one of the four of us still alive out
of my platoon, and I still compare notes about that patrol and, on the rare occasions when we see each other. Yeah there’s, I think there’s a lot of pride involved in it, and the pride overcomes the fear, overcomes the hate, because after all the bloke on the other side who’s shooting back at you, he’s undergoing the same problems and same difficulties. He’s not getting away Scot free.
I have no averse, adverse, averse... I don't know which is the right word, feelings about still looking over the sights of a 303 [rifle] and shooting a bloke. I’ve got no... you know, I’m not, I don’t feel guilty about that because he was doing exactly the same to me.
And if I was a better shot, that was his bad luck. Lots of my friends were involved in hand to hand bayonet fighting. Jack [John] Edmondson who did, Jack did get a Victoria Cross, the first Victoria Cross of the war. Jack and I did a map reading course together at Ingleburn
only a matter of months before he was killed, and he got his VC in bayonet fighting. And in that fight, apart from his VC there were two Military Crosses, [Frederick] ‘Austy’ Mackell and John Balfe and Shorty [Alfred] Dunbar got an MM [Military Medal] - just in that one action, all well deserved.
And I suppose there’ve been cases in history, I certainly know there have been cases in history, where a recipient of a VC in ordinary life is a bit of a rogue, sometimes the two things go together, being very brave in action and being a bit of a rogue too. I know many blokes who were of doubtful character before the war who, not, didn’t get VC’s particularly, but were very good soldiers. Very good soldiers indeed.
And the fact that you get a decoration doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re something out of this world, you’re still an ordinary person. And I probably have the unusual experience of having a fellow who was a close friend, we weren’t in the same company but we were friends because we did that school together, fortnight’s school together, Jack Edmonds and myself, he was a VC. My own
cousin was a VC, and I served in parliament with a VC from the First World War - and Charles Anderson who was the Member for Hume in the Federal Parliament, one of my own Country Party colleagues, he was a VC from Malaya. So I’ve known a few, apart from all the MCs [Military Cross] and DSOs [Distinguished Service Orders] and God knows what, yes I’ve known a few. And
I think the more senior the decoration, the more responsibility it does throw onto the shoulders of the recipient. But anybody who gets one, they deserve them, you’ve gotta do something pretty unusual to get a VC. And in the case of other senior decorations,
a Distinguished Conduct Medal, a DCM, is a non commissioned medal, non commissioned officer medal, or a non commissioned medal anyway, he can be a private or he can be a sergeant or whatever. And a DCM is virtually, in my opinion, and the opinion of most people who served in the army, a near-miss VC. In fact a number of people who’ve been awarded DCMs have been recommended initially
for a VC. Geoff Crawford, one of my parliamentary colleagues, was a DCM, he was recommended for a VC. The, another one of them was a DSO, received a DSO as a lieutenant. A DSO as a lieutenant is almost unheard of, and certainly would’ve
been a VC recommendation. But, you know, there’s, even the lower ranks of military decorations, oh, they all carry their responsibilities. I think that people look up to them and any bloke, say, air force bloke with a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross] or any army bloke with an MC or an MM, or any navy bloke with a...
naval decorations I’m not terribly well up in but, you know, they’re all people who’ve earned them. The only trouble is in decorations that, for every one that gets a decoration, there are probably three or four that deserve them but were never seen and therefore were never recommended. And that happens frequently.
Well thanks for that, I just thought I’d ask you a bit about that, given you have a VC recipient in your family. And I was wondering if there was, perhaps even post-receiving, there’s been a weight or a family burden there?
I was speaking many years later in, oh somewhere, Temora or somewhere like that I think it was, you know, in political life, and the chairman of the party which I led at that time, waxed very eloquent about me, in introducing me to speak in the street, off the back of a truck. And he gave me the great wrap up of a distinguished career
and I think, I thought to myself, ‘Who’s this bloke talking about? He’s not talking about me, surely.’ Then he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Charles Cutler VC.” Now that was a difficult spot for me. I had to start off by my political speech by getting up and explaining why I didn’t get a VC, why I wasn’t a VC. Anyway we calmed that down a bit, but that was an embarrassing situation. So yes, it washes off a bit. And
we had several experiences. I flew with my wife economy class once from Sydney to Singapore and I thought we were given the (special) treatment a bit. You know, we were invited by the pilot to come up into the cockpit and have a look at the things up there, we were invited up into first class and plied with free grog and things. And we got down off the stairs out of the plane in Singapore and was presented by the head
hostie [host - flight attendant] with a bottle of French champagne. And I thought, ‘God, what the hell’s going on here?’ And as the captain came down to say finally farewell, he said, “Well cheerio Sir Roden, it’s very nice of you to fly with us.” I took the champagne and ran, before anybody woke up. It was no fault of my own that... I didn’t try to pass myself off. I suppose it was a bit confusing for Sir Roden (Cutler), Sir Charles in the same family.
But we had two or three experiences like that.
fact, General Morshead ordered that when we came in that morning, early hours of the morning, after that terrific shelling - I don’t think he realised how severe it was at the time - he immediately ordered that we go back out and retake the place again. Well we tried but we couldn’t get near it, but we went back out again. But, I guess that’s, I guess it’s just a reaction, we just
automatically did things. But you get the headache, a severe headache, well you take, you virtually, I suppose, are concussed. It’s just like being hit over the head with something, I think, but with no physical damage. It’s a physical damage if any is done to the brain itself, but I can’t describe it, that’d be a medical thing I think. I can
only describe how it feels. I had one, one of my friends actually went right round the bend and another who happened to be a champion boxer, poor old Scotty Tanner. Scotty was completely ga-ga [crazy] but only temporarily. One of his best mates, Les Pemberton, who was a champion boxer, just king hit him
and knocked him out. And Scotty was back at work the next day, but temporarily he was completely ga-ga.
just, as I said, that’s what you had to do. I don’t remember ever even thinking of, you know, ‘Why do we have to do this?’ Yes, I suppose we did think, we were probably very critical at the time by saying it’s alright for General Morshead to sit back there and say, “Get out there and do it again,” but we knew that was his job to do it, make us do it, and we
did it, I guess. Or at least we tried, we didn’t do it as it turned out, cause it was a case of a few infantry men attacking German Tiger tanks, there’s not a great deal of future in that. I had a funny experience relating to that. One of the blokes that I’ve already mentioned, one of my football blokes killed at Alamein, came in off a patrol at Tobruk, and they had a, they introduced us to a bomb about
oh, four inches round with a handle on it, and it was filled with explosive and some sort of adhesive, gluey stuff. And the theory was that you were supposed to race up to a tank and bash this thing on the tank and break the bottle that it was contained in, the detonator would then take over and explode it and blow the tank up. That was the theory. And Ocker Hannaford took one of these things out, early in the piece, on patrol
that he was leading, and he came in and wrote his report. And he said, “I chased a Tiger tank with a sticky bomb, but thank Christ I couldn’t catch it.” So you had to keep a sense of humour too.
After one of the big attacks - the first attack on our battalion front when Jack Edmonds got his VC and the others got their MCs and MMs and things - after that big battle the army came forth with an issue of rum for the front-line troops. And some of us, Hal and Bill Pearce, for instance, from down Temora-way, and myself, were virtual teetotallers, we didn’t drink much at all. So
Ron Ford, who was one of our team mates, was an enthusiastic drinker, so Ron drank not only his rum, but our rum too. And at about two o’clock in the afternoon, this all went on in our dinguses under cover, you see, because it was daylight, and it was in The Salient where we were only eighty yards apart, or a hundred yards apart. And all of a sudden there’s a great
commotion, with Ron Ford shouting at the top of his voice, drunk as a skunk on our rum ration. And he’s sitting on top of his dingus, only eighty, a hundred yards away from the Germans who were all doing the right thing, they were all asleep too, singing out, “Come out, you German bastards, and fight!” And that was the result of one rum issue that we had, but that was a rare occasion. I didn’t, well as I say, I didn’t drink much at all, but I don’t recall ever seeing a bottle of
beer in the seven months or nine months that we were in the desert the first time. Second time, yeah, we were getting an occasional bottle of beer through, but I was a sergeant and my mates were officers, some of my mates were officers. And we were getting a bit of beer and the officers were getting a bottle of whiskey occasionally.
as such were, well I don’t know again, because I didn’t smoke. But cigarettes, as such, as I recall were non existent. It was a packet tobacco, two ounce packet of tobacco, and that was an issue, I don’t know how often but maybe once a fortnight or something like that. But we were on, at that time, as I mentioned earlier, we were on 5/-d. (five shillings) a day, privates were on 5/-d. a day, and a packet of, two ounce packet
of tobacco, I don't know what it’d be worth but probably only 1/-d. [one shilling] or something like that. But there were rumours of a packet of tobacco being sold by non smokers, like myself, for 25/-d [25 shillings], five days’ pay. So, you know, tobacco was very much sought after but hard to find. And, but there were no, there were no
things like that, that made life a little easier. We got very cranky in fact in Tobruk when we finally got word through from Australia that we, in Tobruk, were having a wonderful time, with the band in the town square on Saturday nights and the dances and things. There were no dances in the square because the square was under artillery fire all the time. There was no grog, nothing.
And as for women, there were a few nurses in Tobruk early in the piece, but they were all evacuated when things become very tough, so there were no women in Tobruk at all. We didn’t, I didn’t personally, and none of my mob did, I suppose, see a woman of any description - black, white or brindle [mixed colour] from some time in probably
February or March. That February, I think, I remember seeing an Italian girl at one of the settlements, until we arrived back in Alexandria in late October, so it was seven, eight months that we didn’t ever see any. And yet we read cuttings out of Sydney papers, telling us that we were having dances in the square in Tobruk to the town band. It was all complete invention, that upset us.
But nothing much else did.
commander for, from May, this is in the AIF, from May 1940 til, certainly through til October 1941 - so that’s a year and a half, round about a year and a half I was a section commander.
I had no problem in my section of, you know, anything very drastic. I had one occasion in Tobruk where one of my section, who was a reinforcement, not one of my originals, and therefore was virtually untrained and had very little experience
of anything, and probably had hell frightened out of him without, just being thrown into Tobruk, refusing to go on to patrol. But that was the only dramatic experience that I had. There was no such thing in those days as stress. You didn’t suffer stress, you didn’t take a day off because you had stress, you didn’t get admitted to hospital for treatment because you had
stress. The air force had a term for it, which the army didn’t match it, fortunately, but the air force had a term called, ‘lack of morale fibre,’ and that was a court martial offence, and that meant that you were stressed. We’d have been all stressed after that Plonk bit that I was talking about earlier, but had we refused duty we’d have been charged, court marshalled, not given treatment, no way. But that was the way it was.
Stress is a comparatively new term. I still don’t like using it cause, my God, if ever anybody was under stress, it was we blokes over there. But you didn’t get any prizes for being stressed. And I’m not saying that stress isn’t a proper complaint or disease or whatever it is to have, but there was no such thing in those days, it was lack of morale fibre, or the equivalent thereof.
You know, in other words you didn’t have any guts, you were a coward. And you didn’t have enough guts to be a coward, is what it boiled down to I guess.
used to call a Smith’s Weekly soldier. A Smith’s Weekly being a newspaper, I don't know what sort of a newspaper, there’s no such newspaper today. It was a sort of half funny, half nasty, half everything, and that’s... Smith’s Weekly depicted the Aussie soldier as being one of those, you know, undisciplined and so forth. And that still carries to this day, that
scene’s never been disposed of. In fact many British soldiers thought Australians were undisciplined because Australians were not inclined to salute an officer that they saw two hundred yards away. And I’ve had many a verbal brawl with British officers of various descriptions over their description of Australian soldiers as undisciplined. I can only speak of my own division
in which I served and we were certainly not an undisciplined rabble. We’d have our share of them, of course we would, but we were highly disciplined troops, and I think it’s grossly wrong to say that Australians were an undisciplined team. And on the other hand the description I gave you from the German officer
of... it was only he who said, “I cannot understand Australians, they fight till they drop and then they get up and fight again.” But that certainly would not apply as a general rule to the Australian Army. The Australian Army vary the same as every other army varies. You’ve got good soldiers, you’ve got bad soldiers, you’ve got good units, you’ve got bad units. And usually a good unit is one with a good commanding officer, and a bad unit is one with a bad commanding
officer - and there are plenty of those about too. But to say, as some people would have you believe, that the Australian soldier is the best fighting soldier in the world, I would say, “Nonsense, he’s a good fighting soldier when he wants to.” But I would say, “One of the best fighting soldiers in the world is a German and the best fighting soldier in the world is a Gurkha [regiment of Nepalese].” And I have a bit of experience of both.
Not much, unfortunately, with the Gurkhas although I did, at one time, attempt to transfer across to the Gurkhas as an officer - but it didn’t come to anything.
so forth, and the Italians were still a large part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The Afrika Korps itself was an elite German corps, but the Italians served under the command of Rommel, so we came to... I suppose we came to regard the enemy more as Rommel than we did as Italian or German.
And then in Tobruk we, my own battalion, and most of our fighting was against Germans. When we’d go on patrol we didn’t know whether we were fighting Germans or Italians. But at Alamein, at the big, big, big battle of El Alamein, the 9th Division, my own division, was opposed to Germans. We broke through the Germans.
But the Italians were still there, they were still fighting on other parts of the front at Alamein even, until they got finally chased completely out of North Africa. But we tend, the desert blokes, tend to not so much think German Italian Army we think Rommel, because he was the key figure, he was the glamour boy, I suppose,
of the Germany Army at that stage, and a very successful general. And it took another glamour boy in Montgomery and I always think more particularly Alexander, General Alexander to match him. But by that time we had superiority of arms, we had superiority of, certainly of aircraft, we had total superiority at the, Alamein after the Battle of
Alamein. But in Tobruk we had no air force at all after about the first month, they were all shot down, the air force we had. And the Luftwaffe with their Stukas and Dornier bombers and Messerschmitts had a free run of Tobruk, they could go and come as they pleased, later in the piece, apart...
as they pleased, apart from our own anti aircraft artillery, which were very good. Gee they’d be upset if they heard me say the German Air Force could come and go as they pleased. I wouldn’t be game to go to the next reunion if... not that I go any more, anyway.
Italian regiments too. The Bersaglieri Regiment of the Italian Army was a very, very good regiment. And as a matter of fact, one of my next door neighbours, lives just across the road, Jack Crastich, or Giovani his real name is - but he’s Jack - Crusty, he’s a Bersaglieri soldier, and a very good one. But it was very much a,
very much German command in the desert, that’s why the tendency seems to be more on the German Army. And of course the German Army fought right til the finish, whereas the Italian Army gave in, they tossed in the towel [surrendered], what, about 19-, end of 1943, or thereabouts. I can’t remember exactly when, I was home and otherwise engaged by then. But
I suppose we like to big note [praise] ourselves by saying we fought the Germans, rather than the Italians because the Italians did have the reputation of giving in rather easily at that stage. But as I have so often pointed out to people who say it must’ve been easy fighting the Italians, there’s no difference fighting an Italian behind a machine gun five hundred yards away, than there is fighting a German behind a machine gun. And in fact some rather unsavoury
episodes occurred in, just from that practice - that some Italian, some Italian units, or people anyway, were inclined to do just as I’ve described, sit behind their machine gun and fire madly into the midst of attacking Australian or British troops and kill half your mates, and then as soon as you got into their
trench they’d put their hands up and surrender. Well that wasn’t very acceptable that practice, which they learned to their distress.
largely, I think from, a hangover form the First World War. And even in our war, some of the early commanders in the desert were General Neave, General O’Connor, both British commanders, who commanded all forces including the Australians. They didn’t have a high opinion of Australian soldiers and they expressed themselves as such. And I remember General Morshead taking, who was junior to all of them,
taking one of them, I can’t remember which one, very severely to task for being rather abusive toward Australian soldiers, and Moreshead didn’t let him get away with it. But later on Alexander was a great commander, a great British commander and highly respected by Australians. [Field Marshall] Montgomery was
highly respected. And by that stage of the war, the carry over from the First World War had largely been either forgotten or played out. And at the end of the battle at El Alamein, General Alexander, who was overall commander over and above Montgomery, reviewed the Australian 9th Division when we, just before we came home. And I still have
his speech somewhere, and he concluded by saying, “One of the proudest achievements of my career was to have commanded the 9th Australian Division.” General Montgomery said, “I could not have won the battle of El Alamein
in twelve days without that magnificent 9th Australian Division.” So they were the two British officers. Morshead just won respect. See Morshead was a battalion commander in the First World War, you know, commanding eight hundred-odd troops at twenty-six years of age. And
he took command of Tobruk at a very delicate time. Tobruk was not expected to hold, Tobruk was only expected to hold for two months. No, not even that, it was asked to hold for two months. And in fact we held for seven, so Morshead won respect. So I think as the war went on
the regard of, amongst the senior commanders of British and Australian, the respect became greater. I think they largely lived down the First World War bit, and I don’t know whether it was deserved or not, I wouldn’t have a clue. But it certainly wasn’t deserved of the early opinion of some of the British generals, like Neave and O’Connor, certainly were not deserved
by the Australians who fought in the Middle East. They were trained soldiers and they were good soldiers. That is not to say the Brits weren’t, because there are no more magnificent units than the Royal Horse Artillery and the Northumberland Fusiliers who served with us in Tobruk. Tobruk was mainly Australians, but the machine gun battalion, the
Northumberland Fusiliers, Vickers machine gunners, and the major part of the artillery was British, and they were magnificent.
And I’m interested, why does it move you so much to think about the British respect?
My forebears came to, I’m the... where am I? My children, my grand children are 7th. I’m a 5th generation Australian, that means that my forebears came to Australia in 1817 and 1835, so I’m Australian, but I’m British to my backbone. So if anybody asks me, “What is your nationality?” I’ll say, “I’m British, I’m Australian, I can wear either.”
And the only time I got grossly upset with the British was when they made me queue up on our numerous trips to England in the foreigners’ queue, and all the black people from Jamaica and India and Pakistan and so forth came in the queue for ‘British’. That upset me a bit. So I still look upon myself as British, but I’m Australian to the eyebrows. But
it doesn’t stop me being British, any more than a German who’s naturalised Australian. I still think he has every right to still be proud of his German ancestry. Or an Italian, or a Vietnamese, I don’t care where they come from, they’ve still got the right to retain pride in their own background, which I do.
as we knew it, and we’re talking about, you know, sort of from the Egyptian border right through Libya and up through Benghazi, Derna and all those places Tobruk, was a pretty dry country created as a desert. Used to be the, way back in history, the granary of Europe apparently, but created as a desert, and the only available
water was in water holes of some description, you know, wells or things like that, that’d been preserved. So water became a major problem for all of us. And it’s, I suppose, relevant to note that if it’d been a desperate war, a really desperate war, one side
or the other could have poisoned the wells, and that would’ve been the end of the session, not only for the two competing armies, but for the Arab population too. Because everybody relied on that bit of water so, yeah, it was terribly important. From the individual point of view, from the time we went into the desert until we left,
in the main, we were dependent on about, well a water bottle, a water bottle. An army water bottle’d be about a litre of water per day, that was it. And that litre of water, or bottle of water, whatever you call it, the routine used to be, to get a bully beef tin, used bully beef tin, which is only a little tin about,
you know, three inches square, and half fill that with water. And in that you would first of all clean your teeth, if you happened to have a toothbrush, my mate and I shared a toothbrush, so you cleaned your teeth first. And then you had a shave because we carried shaving brushes to have a shave, still dipping in this little tin of water.
And then after that you used whatever was left over in that little bully beef tin to wash ever parts of your body you thought most important. But that was the water supply. Apart from that of course, we used water out of our water bottle for making the odd cup of tea, although tea quite often was brought up in big dixie’s from back line.
And that was about it but, you know, water was terribly, terribly scarce. I had an experience in, when we first went into Tobruk we each had, my ten men and myself, each had our water bottle of about a litre of water each, and that was it. We had no idea where the next water was coming from, we didn’t know whether there was any well in Tobruk or whether, up further where we were going.
Had no idea. But we had that water bottle, and in addition to that, for the whole section, I had two, two gallon cans, in other words - four gallon cans of water - to carry as the section reserve. And the first night in Tobruk, on our way up the desert, about three o’clock in the morning, I heard two raucous voices coming across the desert saying, “Charlie’s not
a bad bloke, he won’t mind.” And I said, “Hello, there’s something wrong here.” And it was ‘Jamma McShane’ from ex-Tamworth and ‘Shirley Temple’ ex-Sydney, with my two precious two gallon cans of water, which they had poured out on the desert and they were refilled with Cognac, which they’d, which had been captured by the 6th Division from the Italian Army. So we had four gallons of Cognac and no water - and I didn’t even drink Cognac -
which upset us all a bit. But generally speaking after that sort of episode, yeah, water was sacrosanct, you didn’t ever interfere with the water supply of either side. I don’t ever recall that a well was poisoned by either the Italians, the Germans, ourselves or the Arabs, because we all depended on that for our lives. So that was water.
I wonder, you’ve talked a lot about the time in Tobruk, but I wonder when you heard you were leaving?
Yeah, we were given only, well, you know, twenty-four hours notice, if that. It was after, I’ve talked about earlier, the battle in, or mini battle, in which we lost the outpost Plonk. And it was only two or three days after that, that we were told we were leaving and we actually left our front-line posts by
vehicle of some sort, I can’t remember the detail of that, and went down to the wharves. And we went off the trucks onto the wharves, onto an old Italian sunken vessel that was right next door to the wharf, and across that onto a British destroyer, which I recall as being HMS Encounter, although some people say it was HMS Endeavour, I’m not sure. But we went onto that and we came out
on 22nd, my battalion came out on 22nd October, 1941. But it was, well it was as necessary in the army, or in those days you didn’t give warnings to anybody what you were going to do, because as I told you, the big guns, the ‘Salient Sue’ and ‘Bardia Bill,’ the big naval guns of the Germans could bomb the
wharf, so they could’ve bombed us as we actually embarked to go out. And in fact they did. Several days later they, or round about the time, I wouldn’t say several days later but round about the time, they did actually bomb the wharves, and as a result the 2/13th Battalion, which was one of our sister battalions, were not taken off. They had to go back and they actually stayed in Tobruk right til the end,
took part in the break out a month or so later. So they earned the honour of being the first people in and the last people out. Cost them a lot of casualties too.
think it is. We had a lot of yellow jaundice as a result of not getting any green foods of any sort, we lived on bully beef and biscuits, and there was a lot of ill health. But as far as the individual soldier was concerned, he wanted to stay. His opinion was that, you know, ‘We came in here first and we’re going to go out last.’ But that didn’t work out. It did work out for the 13th but not for us.
So we were out of there a month before the actual siege was lifted, we came out on the 22nd as I said. As I also said the Plonk outpost battle was two days before, two or three days before that, and
our company commander was very badly wounded in that night. We thought he’d been killed but anyway, it turned out he was very badly wounded that night. And we were, once we got aboard the destroyer to bring us out we were obviously highly elated, we thought it was great. We didn’t have to dodge shells, we didn’t have to dodge bullets, all we had to do was dodge torpedoes, and we left that to the navy.
We could get a drink of decent water, we could even have a wash if we wanted to, but in a restricted style. We could sleep on the deck and in the sun and it was great. But we arrived in Alexandria Harbour and we disembarked in Alexandria Harbour and were given each a bottle of Australian beer, Abbots Lager if I remember rightly, each, and we were happy in the service. We saw the first woman we’d seen in
nine months, so even though she was dressed entirely in black, as the Arab women were, she was still female. That was exciting. And then, as we were enjoying our beer and, well, being as young men were, we were lucky to escape with our lives, we received word that our Company Commander, Frank [Henry] Windeyer, had died of wounds received a few days before, so that dampened the celebration
a bit. But eventually we got over all those things and lived to fight another day I suppose.
You will see in the, I think, my photographic record of these times, such as it is, you will see in there a menu of Christmas 1941, which was two months after we came out of Tobruk. So okay, the menu on Christmas Day was pretty good. But, oh
well, we went back onto fresh foods, we went from bully beef and biscuits... bully beef, biscuits, some captured Italian dried onion sort of thing, mixed together and made into a stew with a little bit of water. That was a front infantry man,
that was his menu. The only thing we didn’t seem to lack was tea. Tea was in fairly generous supply and I can remember that we used to try and trade tea to the Arabs, to the Sinai Arabs, with whom we were in contact, not in Tobruk because we didn’t see them then, but before then. And we’d used the tea and then tried to trade the used tea to the Arabs for eggs. And, you know, the Arabs
weren’t having that, they were a wake up [aware of] to us. But no, they were the four basic things - bully beef, biscuits a bit of captured onion and a round, a little round tin, about two inches round of meat, which we all thought was, it was Italian, and we all reckoned it was horse meat, which it probably was. But that was very rare. But that was the basic thing, we
didn’t... oh sometimes there was a food dump in Tobruk, and where the food, where the good food that went into that went, we never knew. But on occasions we would be posted into reserve, where we were still under fire all the time of course, but on occasions we poor down-beaten infantrymen used to raid the food dump. Highly, highly organised. And we always had the joke
in Tobruk that if you raided the food dump, and I had two or three of my mates that used to do that regularly, you might get a tin of pineapple or maybe a tin of preserved potatoes or something like that, but nothing very glamorous, but it was something different. But there was a story that with the various guards that were on the food dump,
that the Indians, there were a few Indians in Tobruk with us, the Indians, if they were on guard they’d shoot first and then they’d challenge. The English would challenge and then shoot, and the Poles, who came in quite later, they would ask you where you... what you wanted and where the best part was. The Poles and we were
very good mates in fact, because they were fine soldiers. But they came in quite late in Tobruk, they came in about, I don't know, give or take September or thereabouts. And I actually had three Polish soldiers attached to my platoon for, not for training because they were far more highly trained than we were, because they were nearly all officers and NCOs of the Polish Army that’d been overrun. But
they needed experience on desert warfare and on patrolling, particularly, and so I had three of them attached to me for a while. I’ve still got photographs of them and I even visited ones grave when I went back to Tobruk years ago.
I was with my platoon having a very rare swim in the harbour when the Stukas came over and sunk, oh dear, HMAS Waterhen I think it was, and we’d scarpered [run] out of the harbour of course naturally, getting out of the road, and we were sitting on the hillside overlooking the harbour and saw the Stukas bomb Waterhen, yeah, I think it was Waterhen, but I’m not sure.
And I can still remember that ship, little ship, still firing as she settled. But the navy was, well, it was an essential part of Tobruk. It was, there’s no way, there was a fellow by the name of Palmer, he was a British Navy Officer who ran, I think I’m right in saying British, but
I’m not sure about that, he could’ve been an Australian, but he commanded a ship that ran in and out of Tobruk with supplies for the whole siege, and without them we couldn’t have survived. But they brought supplies in, ammunition and food and took our wounded out, so they, you know, the navy was all part of it. Unfortunately, as I’ve said before,
the air force, such as it was - a very little air force - but the few mainly Hurricanes that we had early in the piece, were all destroyed by the Luftwaffe very early. And from having gone in there in April, by, I’d say, give or take by the end of May, we had no air force at all. And yet the Germans had an airport, not so airport, an air landing strip only
a matter of miles outside the Tobruk perimeter, and they were able to constantly bomb us all the time, particularly the harbour and the ships in the harbour and the township itself, but mainly the ships in the harbour.
Palestine, not to Gaza this time, but to a place called Julus, Julus Camp, and that was pretty rugged. It was a tented camp, we were back in peace time virtually, and we had Christmas there, the one I just talked about, the menu. And then in about February of 1942,
we left there, we went, we did further training there, we went straight back into training, even though we’d just come out of action. We needed that, we needed, we needed training, but we needed the training and the discipline of training to sort of, to keep sane and relieve our nerves a bit. And from there we went up to relieve the 7th Division, which is up in, they’d been fighting up in Syria, that’s where my cousin got his VC, and
we went up onto the Turkish border and doing guard duties up there mainly, and training. And we stayed there for about three months or so, doing nothing terribly exciting, having the odd good leave, but nothing exciting. And then of course the German and
Italian Army, Rommel, our friend Rommel, broke through again and came down to El Alamein and nearly got into Egypt, nearly got into Cairo and the Suez Canal. And we were called rather urgently back from the Syrian border, or up that way, and thrown back into the line at, on the Alexandria side of El Alamein. El Alamein, which is world famous
name, is a little concrete building about, oh, I don't know, a hundred foot long by about twenty foot wide. That’s it. That’s El Alamein. And we were tossed in there at, about June I think it was, 1942. But at that time I was
one of a group they called ‘left out of battle,’ LOBs, left out of battle, they were just a group of officers and NCOs mainly who were posted back in the rear areas. And the idea being that in the event of the battalion being decimated, there’d at least be the nucleus of a new battalion, and that proved to be
very wise decision, because it was only a matter of two or three months, two months after that, that the 2/28th battalion from Western Australian were virtually totally wiped out. So I was back there with the ‘left out of battle’ group of the 17th battalion for, oh, only about four weeks I suppose. But it was good, lived on the,
lived on the beach in a house. And I was, at that stage, I was made orderly room sergeant, a job in which I had no experience whatever, but anyway, I was given the job. And I think at that stage my seniors had me, sort of, in the eyes as a potential officer and they were trying me out to see if I had the social graces to do this, that and the other. And I can remember one little episode - a round gadget the shape of a pear
washed up on the beach and Robert ‘Ocker’ Hannaford and Johnny Lloyd, both killed a few months later, I saw this thing and we thought, ‘What is it?’ And we went down and tried to pull it up onto the beach and it wouldn’t pull and we just left it there. And the next day some young blokes from the 2/28th Battalion repeated the performance and it exploded and killed them. Blew em apart,
blew em to bits. So there was another cat’s life that I had. And, as I say, Johnny and Ocker were killed, that was in July, they were killed in October. And still I survived.
I was wondering, you mentioned a little bit earlier about when you heard, I was wondering if you could tell me how you heard that Japan entered the war?
We’ve got to go back up to northern Syria, no, wait a sec. December 1941, was it, yeah, December 1941. Yeah, we’d have heard that when we were getting around to enjoying our Christmas dinner at Julus after we came out of Tobruk, that’s when we’d first have heard of it. But the real impact of
the entry came later on, when we were up on the Turkish border and down round Tripoli and Syria, when Japan, you know, broke through and really came down into the islands, that’s when the real impact took place, took part on our troops. Because our blokes naturally... there were some pretty stupid statements made by a lot of stupid people about the Japs are going to be in,
in Australia and, enemy propaganda of course spread this. The Japs are going to be in Australia raping your wives and your sweethearts etc. etc., and that did the morale a lot of harm, and that’s when we had a number of suicides. But anyway. And that’s when I said earlier, a few of us were getting white feathers [as a sign of cowardice] because we were not game to come home and defend
our own country. But that all went by the board too.
you know, they’d been in the desert for eight, nine months. To use the mod term, which I don’t... dislike intensely, stress, everybody was violently stressed. You know, you get stressed now if you tap a typewriter for two days and you get a sore finger, you’re stressed. I don’t know, there’s a bit of difference in tapping a typewriter for a few days and
being under shell fire for months and months on end, and so forth. But anyway, I suppose we were all stressed and some people are strong enough to cope and others are not. And one of my company, not my platoon but my company, just walked down the hill with his rifle in his hand at, outside of Tripoli in Syria and
just opened the flap of the tent in which my company officers were, and said to Keith Marnier, my company commander, “Sir, have you ever seen a man shoot himself?” He put the rifle under his chin and tried to pull the trigger, and Keith Beard, another of the officers, dived at him and hit the rifle and he shot himself through the belly, and he recovered. He
survived the experience, but others didn’t of course, they deliberately killed themselves. But it was all a matter of extreme stress and mental attitudes that weren’t able to cope with it. And, you know, that applies to everybody doesn’t it, some people can cope with a lot more than others can. And that applied in the army, as everywhere else.
I didn’t ever have the urge. But I can understand, I can perfectly understand those that, some of those that did, because in my own case I went away with good family backing. I went away with a good
fiancé and her family backing, which remained constant, and therefore I didn’t suffer that sort of thing. But others, I think of the thirty-five of us who went away with 15 Platoon, I wouldn’t have a clue how many were engaged or, you know, in a sort of a very happy relationship with girls and, or married. And I think of those who were engaged
or had girlfriends, I think only two of us came back and married the girls we were engaged to. Only two that I know of, yeah, out of thirty-five, but there could’ve been others who were already married that came back to their wives, yeah. But, you know, a bit traumatic when you’re being shot at and wounded and knocked about and so forth, and suddenly you get a ‘Dear John’ letter [letter informing them that the relationship is over] in
the mail, as they used to call them in those days. “Dear John, Your wife’s going out with somebody else.” So I can understand it, but some people have the mental attitude to cope, other people haven’t. So that helped a bit.
I don’t know much about the impact of them. I don’t recall that side of it as ever being a sort of a concern for me. As I say, my then fiancé was an ambulance driver in the army, and I suppose she and all her mates and
all our other friends, particularly around about the areas in which the Americans came, were all under threat, if you like to call it that, but I don’t ever recall that they were terribly concerned about that. In fact I didn’t, I had practically nothing to do with Americans
in my war. I came back to Australia in February 1943 and the first Americans that I recall meeting were in Borneo in 1945. I saw very little of them. Because between ‘43 and ‘45 I spent a lot of my time, much to my disgust, instructing in New South Wales and Victoria and South Australia and Queensland,
so I didn’t see a lot of Americans. And the only Americans I saw were right at the end of the war, where we had a short action against them. They commandeered a little Chinese restaurant up in the centre of Borneo that we thought we owned, and we had a short action against them. I think we won. We suffered, they suffered one broken arm, we didn’t suffer anything, I don’t think.
That was my experience of American troops, so I know nothing about that.
Charles, I’d like to now go back if we can, to Alamein. And you were mentioning earlier that you were in reserves prior to the big battle. Can you tell me what it was like in Alamein at that time leading up to the big battle?
Well the, Rommel’s army, the Afrika Korps, had broken through Tobruk which the Australians held for those seven months, we’ve talked about, was lost by the South Africans in, I think, one or two days. But they were overrun and, as a result, Rommel’s army came right down to the El Alamein area which, as I’ve just mentioned,
is only a little piddling hut. And the El Alamein position flanks on the northern side on the sea, on the Mediterranean, and on the southern side it runs into the ordinary concept of the Sahara desert, you know, it is real desert where even track vehicles can’t travel. So it was virtually a sea on either
side, one of water and one of sand. And in between the El Alamein position was a distance of something like thirty miles, so Rommel had to come through that thirty mile gap to get to Egypt and therefore to the Suez Canal. So that’s where the British Army held out. The British Army at that time, of course, comprised
other colonials, Africans and South Africans and New Zealanders and Free French, and God knows what. But anyway we were called back urgently to there and it was in June that we took up our positions at that place and then that was the period when I was called out to go back and stay in reserve, just in case our battalion was wiped out. And I was one of about,
I don't know, fifty or sixty blokes, I suppose, in that group. And again it became virtually a repeat of the Tobruk thing, it was a static battle that, we were dug in with the same sort of holes in the dirt that we had in Tobruk, the front line extending over the twenty-seven
or thirty mile of that from the sea, down to the depression. And there we just held each other off, and waited for the next move. And then Rommel attacked some time in about July, I think it was the, in the Elam Halfa area that he
attacked, and Montgomery outguessed him and as a result Rommel suffered very heavy casualties in that. But I’ve read since the war, and even recently, that the reason that Montgomery was able to out-guess was that the boffins had cracked the German code, the Enigma Code [secret transmission code], and that the British Army was therefore, had some
sort of warning of what Rommel was going to do. So anyway Rommel suffered very heavy casualties there and had to retire. And then we settled down again to, not trench warfare, because that implies only, you know, a hundred yards or so apart, but we were not trench warfare, we were, in the main, 1,000 yards to 2,000 yards apart, and we occupied each other
by patrolling that area and trying to keep command of that. We did that for three or four months and during that period we did various, you could hardly call them patrols, they were battalion strength. The 2/28th did one and the 2/28th was virtually wiped out completely, having run out of, been cut
off and run out of ammunition, and they were wiped out. The 2/15th did one and it suffered tremendously heavy casualties also. And in this time, while they were doing that, my battalion was occupying the front line, and at that stage I was commanding a platoon, at that stage, in the front line. And some rather exciting
things took part, place in that time. I can remember the remnants of the 2/15th Battalion coming back through my post and I was absolutely horrified, shocked by the, how they managed to do things they were doing. You’d see a couple of wounded people coming back, wounded Australians mainly,
coming back with oh, shoulders half blown off, faces half destroyed, still carrying their rifles and escorting German prisoners back through. I could never understand how they did that, but they did it. Then eventually came the time when we gained almost complete air superiority and the
British Air Force, including Australians and others, were able to really smash the German Army about a bit. And we used to enjoy that, we used to sit there in our dinguses and watch the planes going over to attack, and that was great, in that we’d been on the receiving end for so long in other places. And then we were still training, we were still, on the time we were out
of the line, back in reserve, we were still doing training, and eventually came the time when Montgomery took over. And it was explained to us on sand maps, you know, they’d make a sand map, an area where the attack was to take place. And even fellows down to my rank, I was a platoon commander, were taken back and explained,
had explained to them by senior officers and even General Morshead came and talked to us, even General Montgomery came and talked to us about what was going to happen, and this is what we’re expected to do. That was the preliminary part of the actual major Battle of El Alamein, which only lasted of course for ten, ah, twelve days from October 23rd til the, I think it
was November 6th. That was, there was all the time, there was fighting going in that four month period, between June and October. And I was having fun and games, in that I had a platoon to play around with, and I was only a sergeant still. And
I’ve, as a result of my assessment by my senior officers, I have understood ever since that I was recommended then for a field commission [officer’s rank] which was of course a very great honour. But unfortunately when you’re wounded a recommendation for a field commission lapses, so I didn’t actually get
that field commission. That came much later, not much later, yeah.
In Syria, a leave would be more like a day, a day in Aleppo or a day or two in Aleppo, or a day or two... well, not even a day or two in Tripoli, a day would be the leave. No, very little leave, but very acceptable, just the same. Leave was spent in
various ways. A lot of troops, who like their grog, spent a fair bit of time, you know, drinking and just playing up within reason. But there were others of us who, in my case I loved music, and my leaves in Palestine, for instance, were largely taken up in
places like Haifa and Rehoboth and Jerusalem, attending whatever musical sessions were on. Because, see Palestine was virtually, at that time, still neutral, so the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, which was mainly made up of ex-patriot Germans, German Jews who’d been chased out of Germany by Hitler. You could go to a café
in Jerusalem and be entertained by a magnificent twelve piece orchestra, and that was my scene rather than drinking grog. I went to see the Merry Widow sung in Hebrew, in Rehoboth and I saw, in Jerusalem, I saw [the operas] Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Pagliacci again in Hebrew, I presume,
although that would be... remember that. So, you know, leaves were spent between those two activities, either getting on the grog or involving in some cultural thing like that, and that was very limited. When I say that, I don’t indicate that we were mixing socially with people, we were not. I only remember, and that was at Cavalleria Rusticana
in Jerusalem, speaking to a Jewish lady who happened to be sitting next to me. And that was the only, to my recollection, the only time I ever had any social contact, and that was only just sitting next to each other, only social contact with females in the two and a half years I was in the Middle East. Admittedly I was, at times
sergeant in charge of the brothel picket in Port Said or Jerusalem or Tripoli, or things like that, but I didn’t really communicate to any extent, except trying to keep command of the place, or control of the place. But socially, nil, virtually nil, yeah. We made our own,
we made our own entertainment to a large extent. I was, as I said, a member of one of the Tobruk concert parties, the 20th Brigade concert parties, because I was a singer of some note, or some talent I think. And we had, not only organised concerts,
which we did occasionally, but quite often even half a dozen of us’d sit round our dingus even in Tobruk or in Alamein and have a little sing-song, and having a voice of some reasonable standard, I was usually the leader of the sing-songs. I’ve sung aboard some... I’ve sung aboard the Queen Mary and all sorts of things, you know, some very important spots,
but only in the army. Although I did break out and sing a bit after the war too.
of the army in those days. And so therefore they were nearly all illegally run, they were established area businesses in most places, such as in Port Said, and in Latakia up in Syria, and in Jerusalem and so forth. But where we knew of course, the army knew of course that
whether they were illegal or otherwise, that troops were going to use them, so therefore there had to be some sort of army control. So where there was a brothel which was obviously being used by Australian troops there, there had to be a picket of mainly, as I recall mainly, a senior NCO, a sergeant as I was, and probably four or five
troops - not with rifles and things but with a sidearm, the bayonet, just, that’s all. And you’d get this job of brothel picket every now and then, and I was sergeant in charge of the brothel picket in Port Said, the Golden House, as I remember. And in Jerusalem, which I remember very well,
and in Latakia up in Tripoli, up in Syria, they’re three that I remember that I was officer... at lease NCO in charge of the picket. But very, very... well, I don’t ever recall having any strife, no problem, but the picket was there, well just take control if anything went wrong.
But I think the army was wrong in those days. I don’t know what they do in these days, but the army was certainly wrong in not catering for that appetite, because it’s going to happen anyway. There’s some funny experiences there, but oh, they’re best left alone, I think.
practice. Some very beautiful girls served in brothels. The practice was in Middle East countries that father, or parents, had to provide a dowry for a girl to have a suitable marriage. You know, the dowry might’ve been two camels or a couple
of cows or something like that, but he still had to provide a dowry. And in many cases, and this included all races, all sorts of Middle East races, including French girls from Syria, in many cases the family couldn’t provide a dowry, so the girls only had one source - they provided their own dowry, and there were some beautiful women amongst them. I remember a brothel in
Latakia in Tripoli, in Syria, was staffed almost, as I recall, almost entirely by Somali girls, and I always remember them as some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in the world, tall, elegant and beautiful. But that’s what they were there for, they were there to earn their dowry and went back, probably, to make very respectable marriages.
That’s the way the world lives. But try and explain that to most Australians and of course they’d think you were crazy. And I would think there was a certain respect for the girls in the brothels because the troops generally knew that. But I, as I said,
I did, I did quite a number of, well I don't know how many, but I wouldn’t know, but I certainly did because I can remember the three places. But I certainly did a few and I don’t ever remember the slightest disturbance in any place that I had to cope with. But that wasn’t an unusual experience, that went on every night and I was just one of
hundreds who did the same job. It wasn’t pleasant, it wasn’t unpleasant, it was just something that had to be done.
concealment in the case of the infantry meant that the night before the battle started, we dug a hole in the ground, only big enough to lay down in, and pulled a grass mat of some sort, I don't know where the army acquired those, but over ourselves, and we laid in that hole for the whole twelve or fourteen hours of day light, and you weren’t allowed, not to appear outside that hole at all, so from the air
the desert looked perfectly normal. There weren’t, whatever number of troops, I don’t know actual infantry troops that took place in, but it would have to be in the vicinity of 100,000, but in the desert, laying in these holes were 100,000 troops, but couldn’t be seen from the air. In addition to that, the engineers built dummy vehicles,
made out of piping and hessian, so that there’d be a truck would be there from the air, and that truck, all it was, was piping and hessian. But the night before the battle of El Alamein started, tanks came up and disappeared into that hessian truck, inside it. So the next day when the German Air Force came over to photograph, there was the same old truck in the
same old position, nothing had changed. No infantry, no extra infantry, no extra tanks. So to the Germans, or the German Army, the desert looked virtually the same as it had the day before. In fact the whole, the whole of the 8th Army, a quarter of a million men were virtually hidden, and we were only then probably a few hundred yards short of the start line for the attack. And
then come dark, of course, we climbed out of our holes and had a, for us, a magnificent meal and then at ten o'clock, or twenty to ten, the operation started. But we were able to achieve a considerable amount of surprise, because the Germans didn’t know that we were there, or didn’t know we were there in that quantity anyway.
So that’s how the surprise was applied at El Alamein. Actually the bombardment, which extended over the twenty-seven miles from the Mediterranean down to the Qattara Depression, which is the sand bit that I was talking about a while ago, twenty-seven miles,
I think from memory there was an artillery piece every twenty-seven yards. And then there were ten divisions, I think, again I’m, you know, I’m talking as a platoon commander about an army, so I don't really know a great deal about that, but there were, I think, ten divisions between the sea and the Qattara Depression and, as I say, an artillery piece, I think from memory, every twenty-seven
yards. That concentration of artillery fire opened fire at twenty to ten on the night of October 23rd and at ten o’clock the infantry, having come out of its holes, a few hundred yards back, had moved up onto the starting line which was represented by a white tape running the whole of the... not a straight white tape obviously but a tape running the whole of the twenty-seven miles. The infantry lined up on their tapes
and at ten o’clock on the dot we went over the line, and from there on things started to happen. Unfortunately, not always as planned. The, one twenty-five pounder gun that was covering my section, not my section,
my area of the attack - I was then acting as company navigator, I was the spare platoon commander - one gun was firing what they used to call drop shorts. In other words there’s a fault in the mechanism and it dropped twenty, fifty yards or something, a hundred yards short of where it was meant, and unfortunately that dropped right in the middle of our company and our first, I think, five casualties were
caused by our own gun. The same thing happened with the 2/13th Battalion the next morning when the eighteen Baltimore bombers came over to drop their first load on the Germans, and one of them again mis-navigated and dropped their bomb load on the 13th Battalion, which suffered about four or five killed in that bombing. But still, they’re episodes of war, it’s all got to be accepted.
officers that, officers... I’m mentioning only officers because if an NCO is deficient he just gets the sack on the spot and he goes back to being a private. But an officer is rather different, he’s removed from his position and I, yes I remember officers being removed because they were incapable of handling the situation, yes, a few
of those. A very sore point really with the senior NCOs, of which I became one, was that we had commanded platoons in Tobruk, we had commanded platoons at El Alamein, but we had never been commissioned, we’d not been recommended for commission. And the army practice in those days was to send trained officers in Australia
and send them over as reinforcement to the Middle East and consequently, say, a sergeant had commanded a platoon in Tobruk and maybe a platoon at Alamein, and all of a sudden he’d find an officer newly arrived from Australia with no training, no knowledge of activity at all, come over and take over his platoon from him. And he’d have to take the officer out on patrol to show him how to do it. That happened hundreds of times,
thousands of times probably. But that again was the way the army operated. Used to upset us, yes of course it did. I’ve often considered that quite a large number of my colleagues, who were eventually commissioned, should have been commissioned two years earlier, because they were doing the jobs.
to put it in one, two words, General Morshead. He was a highly experienced officer, having commanded, as I said, a battalion in the First World War, he knew the game of defence very well, he knew that you had to indulge in aggressive defence, you couldn’t just sit on your ding in your...
dingus and not do anything, you had to get out and go for it and take control of No Man’s Land, which we did. I don’t think even the Germans would deny that, I would say if there was one single factor it’d be General Morshead, yeah. But we were all virtually untrained troops at that stage, we had, you know, we learned on the job and
we were all equally bloody frightened. I was, I’ll never forget on my birthday I was nearly killed, I was shot at by one of my own section and nearly killed, and he was a dreadful shot, fortunately. And on April 25th, which was Anzac Day 1941, out on a patrol, we were, that was our first fighting patrol, we were learning on the job, we were out on the middle of the German lines
and we’d, you know, hardly ever seen a shot fired in action before, and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of the German lines. That was all training, that was... and overall was General Morshead’s directions that we should do this and do that and take control of the thing rather than sit back and wait for them to come to us. And the German’s acknowledged that,
that we were a bit aggressive.
just said. I was navigating for C Company then and we went through the first attack and took our objective, and we went through the second attack on 24th and took our objective, and we went on the third attack on 25th and I don’t know quite whether we reached our objective that night. But anyway, wherever we got, we came to a halt and we were
losing people all along the line of course. And we came to a halt and we immediately got out our little trench diggers, little shovels, and scratched a little hole for ourselves in the desert. And I scratched a little hole in the desert and lay down in it and then about five o’clock in the morning, still dark, I heard
the tanks coming in, the Tiger tanks, the German big Tiger tanks, and I thought to myself, ‘This little hole’s not real deep and, you know, a Tiger tank running its track alongside this little hole’s not going to do me a great deal of good,’ so I thought I’ll get out and I’ll deepen it a bit. And I got out to deepen it a bit and I’d dug about two shovel fulls of dirt out of it when I got shot. And my friend, Ces Greenwood and
Ces Field, who was the medical... medico with our RAP [Regimental Aid Post] bit, he was the medico with our battalion, our company - Ces Greenwood - and he came hurtling across under heavy fire and picked me up and hurled me into the little hole, and I reckon they hurt me a bloody sight more than the bullet did, but anyway. And then
come dark again, two of my other mates carried me out and back to the RAP where they put me in a... with rude remarks, incidentally, being made by all my mates, saying, “You lucky bugger, Cutler, you’re out of it.” And got me back to the RAP where the medico Dr Sullivan, Slam Sullivan, was operating. And in the meantime John Denning, my company commander, had poured
a few whiskeys into me, a non drinker, and then I got back to the RAP and Slam Sullivan, the doctor, poured a shot of morphine into me and a few other things into me and then I was violently ill and I was lot sicker with the morphine and the whiskey than I was with the wound. And then finally we got into a three ton truck and a group of wounded, about nine of us I think, were taken back another twenty or thirty
miles and from there we tran...
actually in a tent, on a stretcher, and on one side of me was a wounded German, on the other side of me was a wounded Free Frenchman, and me in the middle. And the Germans and the free French hated each other of course, and all night the less wounded Free Frenchman was trying to crawl across me to strangle the very badly wounded German, and here’s me in the middle trying to defend the German against the Free Frenchman. So
that’s how stupid war is, you know, the day before we were trying to kill each and then I’m trying to defend him against one of my own side. But anyway, from there... I was not terribly badly wounded, we didn’t think, at that stage, and I went to a toilet by hopping across the desert, you know, for twenty yards out to the
can or whatever, and back to bed again. And then the next day we were picked up by the field ambulance, a real ambulance driven by, what do they call them... well, the equivalent of my wife in the Australian Army, the ambulance driver, but she was British. Can’t remember what they called them now, anyway, back to the AGH [Australian General Hospital]
back near Alexandria. And from there it was, after the x-rays and things, it was discovered that the bullet, which came apparently from a German tank, from a tracer bullet, a tracer bullet being one that fires and, you know, you can see when it, and my mates reckon they saw it go through me. And anyway, and we got back
there and the x-ray showed that the bullet had gone straight through the end of the femur and through the bulb at the end of the femur, and I was not allowed to move for a fortnight, having hopped all over the desert going to the toilet the night before. I was not allowed to move because once the bone had shattered, I’d have lost my leg, and therefore been equal to my cousin who lost his other leg in Syria, yeah. Anyway that was the bit of
getting back, and then I was violently ill for several days from shock. And they thought, eventually, that was one of the very early uses of penicillin for treating wounds, and they discovered that I was allergic to penicillin, so the penicillin nearly killed me not the bullet. And anyway, I finally recovered from that and had
a leave or two in Alexandria after a few weeks, and had a lot of fun there. Went to a lot of race meetings and played a bit of golf, and the war had ceased to be as far as I was concerned. And then back to the battalion and I took part in the parade for General Alexander before we came
back to Australia. So that was my Middle East war from... we arrived in the Middle East in November 1940 and left in January, I think it was, yeah January 1943. We’ve had a lot of fun in the meantime but not very many of us... oh no, that’s wrong,
I was going to say not very many of us came over, went over with... that’s wrong that. We were very badly knocked about at El Alamein, very badly knocked about, and our casualties were horrendous there. We had, the 9th Australian Division had heavier casualties pro rata than any other Division on the 8th Army front. I don’t remember the figures now but
you know, with a division, although there were supposedly 20,000 troops in the division, of that 20,000 there’d only be probably about ten or 12,000 who were actually go into action to actually fight. And of that ten or 12,000, I think we had something over 5,000 casualties, in twelve days. So it was pretty grim.
But a lot of those blokes went on, when we came home, they went back and fought through New Guinea and Borneo and so forth. A lot of them were killed in New Guinea, some in Borneo, not many but some. So,
there we are, we’re back in Australia nearly aren’t we?
We sailed from Suez, or Port Suez, on the Aquitania. We were coming home, and coming across the Indian Ocean, tinea, you know, tinea the skin disease, broke out in many of us. It’s contagious to some extent and broke out on the ship and many of us got
tinea not only in the feet but round the crutch, round the, you know, moist parts of the crutch. And we arrived in Fremantle to be greeted with... we were allowed to send telegrams from Fremantle saying we’d be home in a week or two or something, we were on our way home. So, with the result that, those of us who’d survived the war keeping our fiancés or whatever,
we were advised that we were going to be married. I don’t know whether I was ever asked, but I was advised anyway. And you can imagine with all we blokes, not all we blokes, probably a hundred blokes all with this horrible skin rash all round the middle, right round here, round the belly and down, half way down to the knees, arriving home to be married with what looked like a classic example of venereal disease or something.
Oh dear, that was horrendous. Anyway, we got off the ships in Sydney and within a day of getting away from the sea it all disappeared, so all was well, we were able to get married without any great trauma. But any rate, that was the funny part, that was the funny bit coming home. It wasn’t too funny at the time. But anyway, we were married four days after I got off the ship, here in Orange.
I pulled into line one of my fellow arrivals as my best man, and that was that. So we settled down to, I think it was, two weeks leave, or something,
before we went back. And both my wife and I were both in the army at that stage, and she was in ambulance transport, and so we went and had a fortnight’s leave and honeymoon at Sydney and Manly, and then went back to the army again. Still, I don't know, you know, it was, again,
it was just part of the act, it was what you had to do.
I’ve heard a rumour that the, amongst, I think it was several sections of the 9th Division that on their way home to Australia there were certain wagers on who could get their wife, or soon to be wife, pregnant first?
I suppose there would’ve been a great deal of enthusiasm for that but I can’t remember any bets on. Yeah, I don’t really know. About oh, I don't know, I suppose twenty or thirty from my own battalion were married in that three or four days, and so therefore we’ve had an affinity all the way through, in that our wedding anniversaries are all the same. But
I couldn’t even nominate who was the first to produce, but it certainly wouldn’t have been us, because having been in the desert for so long we all thought that we’d lost the art. They used to feed us on ascorbic tablets which are a, what, vitamin C or something, that was supposed to save our virility, which was lost because we didn’t ever get any green food or
oranges or anything like that. And so we were supposed to be all virile but we, in the main, I think we all proved them wrong. But our first child wasn’t born until August ‘45 which was, oh, a year and half after I was back from the Middle East.
You mentioned earlier that, well you’ve just said you went for the jungle training, but that you became an instructor?
Yeah, well we went, my battalion and the others who came back from the Middle East with the 9th Division, we went up to the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland. And then there were eighteen of us from the 9th Division, all sergeants and warrant officers, who’d all been at Middle East OTU, Middle East Officers Training Unit, that was the
British Army. And we were all half way through our British Army officers training after, you know, commanded platoons and everything, and we were withdrawn and brought home and we were told our commissions’d be granted on the ship coming home, and half of us brought our officers uniforms and everything. And anyway the commissions didn’t come through and we arrived back in Australia and went on our leave and told our commissions’ll be through
by the time we came back from leave. No commissions. And then General Blamey issued an edict that no officer would be commissioned in Australia unless they had done Australian OTU, the Officer Training Unit in Australia. So we, who had been in action for two years, two and a half years and had done the British Army Officer Training Unit to some extent, all had to go back and do another three months officer training. And we had to go back,
which hurt us a bit, with, well in some cases we were then twenty-four or twenty-five, and real old digs [veterans], we really were old digs, not in age but in experience. And we suddenly found ourselves shunted back to Woodside in South Australia to do a three month course with kids just out of school who were eighteen and nineteen and twenty,
and we had to tolerate that, and that upset us greatly. And then, following that, we were all posted, those of us who graduated from Adelaide, were posted to the Jungle Training Unit at Canungra and there I fell by the wayside, in that my wounds gave up again, and I just couldn’t do the jungle training.
The old man who, the old gentleman who commanded Canungra... his name’ll come in a minute, appointed me in my company of nine officers, I was the only officer who couldn’t swim, so he appointed me as the officer in charge of river crossings.
Which was very cunning of him because the kids, they were only eighteen year olds, and they’re coming straight in, not national servicemen but compulsory trainees, and they were coming in at eighteen and it appealed to their sense of humour to have a bloke teaching them to cross a river who couldn’t swim himself, which I had to do. But anyway that’s when I was made B Class, I was incapable of doing some of the things that were doing
up there, and I instructed then at Tenterfield, and at Greta, and at Seymour in Victoria for nine months and at Bathurst eventually, and then I finally got back to my battalion in Borneo, but I missed out on New Guinea.
the process of all the nonsense that’d gone on with my leg, I’d lost all the main ligaments in my leg, I had no ligaments. And consequently the jungle training up and down bridges and up and... jumping off cliffs and all this sort of nonsense, didn’t appeal to my leg and I just couldn’t do it, and so I had to put up with that time of instructing, which I didn’t particularly enjoy.
But then I decided I’d enough, and I said to my commanding officer down at Seymour in Victoria... I got into trouble actually over having a bit of a, not an all in brawl but a verbal brawl with some of my fellow officers who I didn’t like much. And my commanding officer paraded me and told me I was a
naughty boy and he said, “What’s the matter with you?” And I said, “Well I don’t like some of your ‘choco officers’” [‘chocolate’ officers - militia officers] as they were called in those days, “we don’t get on.” And he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” He was a very wonderful old man, he was First World War bloke. And I said, “I want to go back to my battalion.” He said, “You know you can’t, you’re B Class.” And I said, “Well, if I can be other than B Class sir, what can we do?” He said,
“You can’t go back to your battalion, you know that because General Blamey said you must go to a different battalion.” “So,” he said, “but you get yourself A1, and,” he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” I used to play snooker and drink beer at that time, I was a confirmed beer drinker, and two of my doctor friends from the hospital used to drink beer and play snooker with me, and so I went across to them and I told them what’d happened and I said, “I want to be A1.” And they said, “Well there’s no point in us
examining you because we can’t make you A1, you’re not, you’re B Class.” I said, “Well okay, let’s have another beer. Another beer, another game of snooker.” And they say, “Give us your AB83,” [A class form] A1, signed it and that was it. And within a week or two I was on my way back to my battalion.
So yeah, I wanted to go back, very badly. I wanted to go back all the time, right from the start, but I wasn’t allowed. And anyway, that’s the way it happened. Oh, the other end of that little episode was that the two doctors, having made me A1 in my AB83 which was the document of the day, so I went back to Colonel Myers and said,
“Here’s my AB83, I’m A1.” And he said, “Right, well,” he said, “the military secretary’s coming up from Melbourne to inspect the camp this weekend.” He said, “I happen to know that he likes beer and he likes playing snooker and,” he said, “from there on it’s up to you.” And so the military secretary and I drank a lot of beer together and played a bit of snooker together, and within days, quite against the rules of the
time, I was on my way back to Borneo. Just like that. So it learned, it teaches you, you must learn to play snooker and drink beer in the army.
greatly because you’re not called upon in, even in the jungle, except on the odd occasion, you’re not called upon to jump off a cliff or do anything like that. And I suppose had I been called upon in action to jump off a cliff, okay I’d have jumped off a cliff., but to jump off a cliff in training and risk damaging your leg forever, was not an option. And it’s
one thing to do it in training, another thing to do it in actual action, so it didn’t occur to me that... well it occurred to me, certainly, but it didn’t worry me that my leg might give out in action, at least I’d been in action and I’d have been there with my mates and with my platoon, so that didn’t worry me. And so in actual fact when I went back to the battalion I didn’t ever have occasion to do anything that might
damage my leg. I can, even to this day, I can walk perfectly well and no problem at all, except if I step down off a steep step somewhere, my knee just gives away. I can’t walk down stairs, I’ve got to have a rail to walk down stairs. I can walk up stairs alright but not down stairs.
and that was comprised of my commanding officer, who was in the same platoon as myself earlier in the war, and my adjutant, who was a fellow corporal of mine, so apart from those two, I was joining people that I didn’t really know, who’d come up as reinforcement officers while I was away. And then eventually my commanding officer, General Broadbent or Colonel Broadbent as he was then,
took sympathy on me and I went up the Marudai River by native canoe with an outboard motor on the back of it and joined my front-line troops up in a place, as I recall, named Marudai. Marudai, right up in, oh, a hundred mile or so inland from the Seris oil fields. And that’s where I was when the war finished.
And I was with, I was, well obviously as I was officer then, and I was with another friend of mine who’d been a sergeant in the same company at the start of the war, Hughie Main, and we both had drawn our grog ration which, for officers, was a bottle of whiskey or a bottle of gin. And Hughie and I were camped in
a little native hut about six foot square and about six foot off the ground to keep you away from the wild pigs. And Hughie was a, he was then a staff officer and he had a wireless, which was one of the rare wirelesses, and we actually heard, the two of us together up in this little hut, we heard Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of England, and Ben Chifley the Prime Minister of Australia, broadcast
on the end of the war, VP [Victory Pacific] night. And so we breached our bottle of gin and our bottle of whiskey, didn’t we? And then Hughie Main decided the urge of nature [to urinate] had taken over and he went down the steps, about a dozen steps to get down. And having got down, he couldn’t get back up because he was too full [drunk] and I couldn’t get down to help him because
I was too full, so we spent VP night apart, even though we were together. I was up in the hut and he was down on the floor. And if a pig had eaten him he would’ve got alcoholic poisoning. So that was the end of my war. I, then took me about another eight weeks to get home. I sang my last song with a concert party at Serea in Borneo,
and then went over to Labuan and spent six weeks on Labuan Island waiting for a ship, the ship that never came. It got the bum [bottom] blown out of it by a land mine and we consequently couldn’t get home. We had to stay for another ship to be allocated to us. And finally we got home on October 31st 1945 when my,
our daughter I should say not my daughter, I get into trouble, our daughter was already aged three months I think, three months, yes she was three months old when I got home.
Certainly we’ve questioned it since the war. It’s a private opinion but one that’s probably shared by a lot of other ex-servicemen like myself, but wouldn’t be admitted by a lot of others who like to think that they fought the war right til the finish and that they were really contributing - I don’t think really
that a lot of the, maybe even, late New Guinea actions were necessary. I don’t, I never thought that the Borneo action, in which some good people were killed, was ever really necessary - but that’s retrospect. You know, the atomic bomb was going to be dropped and the war was going to finish, but
we had an army, I suppose, and the army hierarchy thought, ‘Well, you know, we’ve got to keep the army occupied,’ which they did. And that’s not a criticism of them. I, you know, if I was a senior army officer myself, at that time I probably would’ve done the same thing, I don’t know. But I really believe that a lot of people that were killed late in the war were unnecessarily killed, that the war would’ve
finished anyway. Still, that doesn’t ease the position at all. But overall it was one of the great experiences of life, you see. It certainly did me the world of good, my army experience. I would never have achieved what I
have achieved in my life without my army experience, never. I’ve had three separate army careers, army, in which I finally commanded a battalion in the CMF after the war. I’ve had a reasonably successful career
as a member of parliament, in which I commanded my own party, and was Premier and acting Premier and Deputy Premier of New South Wales for a hell of a long time. And then I went into the business world and I became chairman and directors of a number of companies, and I attribute most of my success in those fields to my army experience. So I don’t like people knocking the army, I think the army
does you more good than harm, but I can understand why some people don’t like it.
about, on dear, July... three months, yes, I was only in Borneo for about three, bit over three months, three and a half months I suppose. I arrived there, went to battalion headquarters, as I say, at the Seris Oil Wells which was still on fire then of course and great efforts were being made to put them out. And my dear friend,
Colonel Broadbent now General Broadbent, said, “Cutler you are just the bloke I want. I want to run a, I want somebody to run an NCOs carder, NCOs school.” And I said, “For God sake sir, I’ve just left eighteen months instructing in Australia to come back and fight a war and you’re going to put me in charge of an NCOs carder?” And I didn’t like that very much. Anyway, being a soldier I did as I was told and I ran an NCOs carder for a month and
that filled in a bit of time. And then Broady took sympathy on me, I think, and sent me up the river up to the forward positions up there, and I finished the war there. I didn’t, as I recall, I didn’t actually take over a platoon there, I was again a reserve officer, but I was ready to take over wherever anybody got hurt. The only reason I didn’t take over a platoon at the actual big battle of Alamein, was that the
first of the officers or reserve officers that was hit was myself, so I didn’t ever get the chance to do that. But, so I virtually finished the war, again as a reserve officer up in the interior of Borneo. But I don’t recall that I was actually appointed as a platoon commander at that time. It was a, rather a, oh a pleasant experience but a dull experience,
a dull end to the war as far as I was concerned.
You know, the army trains you fairly well to take it as it comes and I think that’s what we did, we just took it as it came. It was a good life. Probably the, you know, people serve in the army in peace time and spend all their life serving in peace time in the army, and although I think that’s a bit
of a desperate sort of a profession to spend all your life in the army, it’s tremendous training, and there were other things that I wanted to do with my life other than serve in the army. Yeah, but other people have liked the army so much they stay there forever. Fortunately the army, for people who reach the rank
of major, if they don’t go any further than major, the army retires them at forty-seven. Which, not so much these days, it’s a bit difficult now, but a few years ago it was still possible to get a responsible job at forty-seven. And, but the army training, the background training that the army gave you was so good that there were many, many fellows who came out of the army as majors or lieutenant colonels who filled
very senior positions in other lives. I’m always reminded of, over in England, that a lot of the senior positions of sporting clubs, all those sort of things, you know, big, big sporting clubs, you’ll always find a lieutenant colonel or major So-and-so’s the secretary of the club. So, it does good. I don't know what I’m going to become secretary of.
That’s what they said, purely as an aside, that’s what they said to me when I walked into Kelly’s at lunch time. They said, “What, you going to a funeral or applying for a job?”
senior officer, not at all - but he was never thought highly of by the troops, I don’t know why that was exactly. But early in the piece when the troops of course, or even senior officers of the Australian Army were not allowed to take wives over seas, General Blamey made, what I thought, was a major blue in that he organised
his wife to go to the Middle East as a, I can’t remember what, but Red Cross representative or some damn thing or other, so she was in the Middle East with him when everybody else was denied that right. Now that didn’t go down well with the troops. He was also, in my opinion, a very, very able general but also a very abrasive man, he didn’t
get on easily with people. Now as for his relationship with General MacArthur I wouldn’t have the vaguest idea, I don't know anything about that, but I think it would’ve been almost a case of, what is it... the movable object meeting the whatever [immovable], you know, they were pretty tough, both of them. And again
speaking from the great heights of a junior officer, MacArthur wasn’t the most loved man in the world. He was a very good salesman for himself. I think maybe Blamey stood up to him, which would’ve been Blamey’s style, and that could have been the reason that they weren’t, if they weren’t getting on together, and I don't know that, that could’ve been the reason for it. But that’s only a
junior officers point of view. And as I say, I was not even in Australia for part of the time that MacArthur was commanding out here.
to a wife and a three month old daughter. And we didn’t have an easy time for the early stages of our post war marriage because we didn't have a home of our own, we had to live with Dorothy’s mother for a while. And kind as she was, it was not like our own home, and for quite a while, it was probably a year before
we acquired our own home, and that wasn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for my wife and for her mother for that matter because I was, maybe as a reaction of the war, all the things we’ve talked about, maybe I was the same as a lot of others, I was a bit of nervous wreck, I couldn’t settle down very happily into civilian life.
And I got myself involved in all sorts of other activities. If there was anything going on around Orange, I was inclined to be want to be in it For instance I became president of Apex, I reformed the Apex Club in Orange and I became the first of my war,
first vice president of the RSL, which in those days had 1,000 membership. I became patron of the National Fitness Council, I became President of the Orange District Rugby Union, and it was all a result of missing war time activity and missing mates. I probably drank a hell of a lot more beer than my wife or my mother-in-law
approved of. I can remember my mother-in-law saying, “Charles has got a lovely voice, but he won’t sing unless he’s got a belly full of beer,” and that just about, that about summed it up fairly well. Yeah, it was a rough twelve or eighteen months I guess. And then only about six months after I came out of the army I was
invited to go to a meeting of the local country party branch, the political branch of the Country Party here. And I thought, ‘Well, what the hell, something else for me to do,’ so I went, and worked my up through the branch. And then some silly person said to me only, oh, six months, no, not even that,
probably only three months later, “Look, how about having a run for the seat of Orange in the state parliament?” And instead of saying, “Don’t be so bloody silly!” I just said, “Well, if you want me, I’ll have a go.” And I talked to, naturally I talked to my wife and her reaction was that, ‘I may as well let him go, something’s got to get the army and things out of his hair.” So much to all our surprise, I won. That’s where it all
started. So it was very much a non organised operation. It was accidental really, that I batted on from army days into parliamentary days and later into the business world. And then I elected to stay in the army too, when the army reformed in 1948 I elected to stay in, and I rejoined and stayed in for another twelve or thirteen years after that. That’s the story of my life.
that signed up and were actually engaged in hand to hand combat would be very few and far between. A lot of we old diggers like to give the impression that we were, you know, we were desperately fighting every day of our army career, but I served in the AIF just three days short of 2,000 days, and of those 2,000 days I’d say that a 1,000 and 1,200 of em would’ve been boredom.
And a lot of the others frustration, and then a few on the side where you actually, you know, made yourself useful at something. I did a course in Syria when they were pretty desperate, they thought the Germans were going to come down through Turkey, and I did a course which
I always say is the equivalent of a commando course, in which we were taught to do all sorts of unpleasant things, and even those sort of things stir me along at times a bit too. But it’s all history, they’re the things to forget about. Although we had some very pleasant times in that...
on doing that course, this was up on the Turkish border, and we were up in the snow country, up on the head waters of the Euphrates River, and there were some pleasant times up there. But we were training for some pretty desperate things at the time. Our job was supposed to be to stay behind, and in the event of the German Army coming down through Turkey
and create everything but peace love and harmony in the German Army. Thank God it didn’t ever happen. So we did our training virtually for nothing, but we learned all sorts of nasty thing on that little episode. There were only twenty-eight of us, two officers, and two sergeants of which I was one, and twenty-four digs [privates].
Well I’m wondering, given that you’ve just mentioned a fairly important point about going to war and that perhaps three quarters of your time you’re sitting around passing the time of day, I’m wondering then is that why mateship and comradeship is so vital?
Yeah, I guess so. But you get involved in other activities that help pass the boredom, but you become very close to people. It’s not only when you get into action that you are so dependent on each other, your army unit becomes your home and it becomes your family.
See you don’t think of home, love, and mother, and wife and kids every day of your life when you’re away, your family is your unit, your battalion or whatever, and that’s the job, the army’s job is to keep everybody occupied sufficiently so they don’t worry about the home situation too much, otherwise
it’d be a schemozzle [mess]. So yeah, I see that very much as part of the army activity, to take your mind off the fact that you’re no longer under mother’s skirts.
got me out of that, the army gave me other things to think about, I think the army... I dropped my bundle [failed] educational-wise in that I was pretty good up til about fifteen, and from there on I was hopeless at education, so something happened that destroyed me there, and the army put me back on the track there. By the time I came out of the army I was
anxious to get back to learning, and in fact did. But no, I lost a few years, a few of my formative years between the ages, as I say, of twelve and eighteen, I largely lost them, maybe because of family things, my brother died and all sorts of things happened in that time, and I think the army just helped me out of that. And
by the time I came out of the army I was twenty-seven years of age then and I was ready to start learning again. But maybe that’s the time, they’re the sort of things I would’ve normally done had other events not occurred in my life, early life, yeah. So, I owe the army a great deal.
hell with this, let’s stay in the army,’ which we did. We were, in the main, fairly keen, naturally, because we were volunteers and we were keen to get on and we started to study, and I did a lot of study in the army, I spent all my spare time on army study. And even on the rare occasions when I might get home
for a day or two, I was off to army parades, I was off to Singleton camp for three weeks camp and all those sort of things when I should’ve been, probably, home with Mum and the kids. So yeah, I was keen. But I was keen to study, and maybe I made up in studying army things that I should’ve given to studying civilian things, but I didn’t, I
made the grade and passed all my army exams and made the grade up to lieutenant colonel. And again, in the CMF, made friends who’ve stayed friends until, in the main, they are all dead now, all my colleagues, all, lot of blokes in that photograph there, are dead now, and I still have some very good
friends who I still keep in contact with from those days rather than from AIF days. So yeah, the army was an outlet for me. The CMF was good to me, I think. I was very fortunate in that I served for three years as staff captain of the Armoured Brigade under General MacArthur Onslow, who was a wonderful
tutor. He was a very kindly man but he was a great tutor, in that he used to throw you into the deep end [challenge you] and give you a pat on the back if you did the job, and give you a kick in the tail if you didn’t. And oh, I was very... I can remember Denzil saying to me once, and it was far from true but this was his assessment of me, we were talking about exams and he said “You never seem to have any trouble passing exams, Charles.” And
that was far from true, I had a lot of trouble passing exams, but I gave the impression to Denzil obviously that I didn’t. And so the army helped me, I think the army training certainly helped me in my other career, in politics. When I became Minister for Education for the first time, I said to the then Director General of Education,
Harold Wyndham, Sir Harold Wyndham, I said, “You know, I feel very much at home here,” and I’d never been in a position like that before. I said, “I feel very much at home down here in this office with you blokes,” I said, “it reminds me very much of the army.” And he said, “Why wouldn’t it?” He said, “The army’s been doing administration for 1,000 years,” and he said, “of course it’s like the army.” He was in the air force himself. And so, you know, that was a big
plus for me in that the army training helped me in my political career. And you mentioned my career during the time that I eventually became Deputy Premier, it had never occurred to me that I was Deputy Premier when Vietnam was on, but I suppose I was.
I have always been a person who, even today, who elects a government, on no matter what level - whether it’s the federal government or state government or the local council or the committee of the bowling club over the road. I take my part in electing the government, and then having elected the government I expect them to get on with the job, and do what they
think is correct for Australia or for the club or for whatever, and I was very much that way inclined on Vietnam. I, incidentally, as did many of us, as a CMF officer I was also, and as were others, I wasn’t the only one, there were others, we were also volunteers to serve anywhere in the world, so I could’ve been called up any time for, as an officer for
service in Vietnam, and I was then a lieutenant colonel. I could’ve been called up for service in... I was in fact offered, not a position, but a tour of duty in Korea but for reasons that don’t matter I knocked that back, mainly because my superiors in politics said, “Your job’s here, not in bloody Korea.” So, but,
you know, I was a volunteer, all those years I was a volunteer to serve anywhere in the world, including Vietnam, so. But I let the government get on with that, I didn’t worry about whether we were right or wrong, that was their job, that was the federal government’s job, not mine, and I still adhere to that theory. Okay, Vietnam became a very dirty war, so called, I don’t know how much dirtier a,
one war can be than another. I think Korea was a horrific war, for the blokes who were there, it was terrible. Vietnam was undoubtedly terrible. But Vietnam received a great deal more publicity because Vietnam was the first war in which conscripts were involved. And, but, you know, I know
plenty of Vietnam boys who’ve come out and got on with their lives and become very successful people in life. And although I was patron for several years, I was patron of the Vietnam Association here in Orange, I’m not one, I’m not a person who feels that the world owes Vietnam Veterans a living because they served in Vietnam,
any more than I think the world owes me a living because I served somewhere else. I think it was a war to which we were committed by our government and therefore it was a war to be fought. It was unfortunate that it involved conscripts, but even if it hadn’t there would have been plenty of Australians go to Vietnam. Plenty. In fact there were. I’d have gone.
My, one of the blokes in that photograph, Jack Emery, who was my deputy when I became CO [Commanding Officer], he went to Vietnam as a volunteer. Admittedly only on exchange, but still he went. I could have gone had I so desired but I was too senior in parliament then, for them to call me up.
Vietnam’s something that I don’t like to talk about much. I have every sympathy for people who served there, I have every sympathy for people who were killed, or the families of people that were killed, but I don’t see much difference really in being killed in Vietnam or being killed in Tobruk or in Malaya or in New Guinea. You’re still killed and
you’re still dead. That’s enough of that one.
etcetera, that Australia wouldn’t lack volunteers. I think Australia would still have a volunteer army. But things are a bit different now in that we wouldn’t be defending the Middle East or France or somewhere, we’d be defending our own country, and that, but young Australians’d still be there, I’m sure of that. And I commanded hundreds of national servicemen who were
all conscripts. I think, even as a company commander I had 3000 soldiers serving under me when I was a major, and I don’t know how many finished up in 1960 because by then I think the numbers were running down a bit. But I would still have had, I don't know, probably up to
2,000 men under my command in 1960. Everywhere from Lithgow right out to Broken Hill and down to, oh, down as far as the Murrumbidgee I suppose, I had about a third of New South Wales, army-wise, under my command. And at the same time I had the whole of New South Wales under my Country Party command in politics.
That was my job. I was pretty busy in those days, but it was fun, I enjoyed it all.
I appreciate your, and perhaps understand your unwillingness to talk about, too much about Vietnam, but I’m wondering if you could share with me just why that is for you on a personal level?
Why I don’t want to talk about Vietnam? Yeah, that’s alright, I don’t mind answering that. I don’t want to talk about Vietnam not because of my feelings about Vietnam itself, I don’t want to talk about Vietnam because a lot of Vietnam soldiers and
particularly a lot of their families are so anti Vietnam and everything that happened in Vietnam, and were so anti conscript soldiers being sent to Vietnam, that I don't want to buy into a discussion about whether it was right to send them or whether it wasn't because if I do, I might be inclined to say something that would be hurtful to people like that, and I don’t, I wouldn't want to do
that. I have every regard for people, no matter where they served and for the people that were behind them, their parents and their families and so on. But I don’t want to discuss whether it was right to serve in Tobruk and fight for England in 1941, or whether it was right to serve in
Vietnam in 1965, I don’t want to argue that. I presume, I can only presume that conscripts were sent to Vietnam because there weren’t enough volunteers to make up our requirement there. But, you know, to me there isn’t a great deal of difference between
the Gulf War which has just ground... not even halted yet, and Vietnam. Or the First World War, or the Second World War. They’re all the same to me, they’re all wars and they’re all there to be fought, and some silly bugger about my size and somebody else’s size has got to fight them.