Archive number: 941
Date interviewed: 19 November, 2003Return to Search results
You are listening to the interview audio
Thank you to begin with from our very first thing, thank you very much for participating in this. The whole archive wouldn’t exist without you generously sharing your time with us today, so from us and everyone at the office, thank you very much for participating. To begin with, as I said, we’ll start with a summary and we’ll go through from your childhood, so in not too
much detail, can you tell us a bit about where you were born and brought up?
Yes I was born in Coogee, which is part of Sydney and I spent a great, large part of my early life there really and I went to Sydney Grammar School, after the usual business of a state school across the road. I was
born within the shadow of Coogee Public School you might say, and longed for the day when I might follow other children and go to it. When the day came I was carried kicking and screaming across the road by my mother and delivered to the school, but I enjoyed my schooldays by and large and the later part of it, Sydney Grammar School, was much more enjoyable than the early part of it.
And after Sydney Grammar School I made the mistake of listening to other members of the family and presented myself at the faculty of law at Sydney University, and I didn’t have to spend much time listening to the lawyers talking about law and I was able to decide that law was not for me, so I switched to the faculty of arts the following year and
read history, geography and English. And that I suppose prepared me, in some respects, for attempting to teach things like that, not English. I taught history and geography and I’d just got my first job, 1938, when Adolf Hitler intervened and so I’d
done hardly any teaching when I had to put a uniform on and embark on a much more serious expedition. I’d prepared myself for that to some extent because I’d become a cadet at Sydney Grammar School, and after school I joined the CMF [Citizens’ Military Force] and entered the 30th Battalion of New South Wales
Scottish Regiment and was commissioned in 1936, and that brings us up to the beginning of my serious military experience.
How did, from your entry into the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force], can you take us through your wartime career and where you served and how things panned out from that point?
Just the sort of bare bones of the thing?
Yes, I was not one of the early birds rushing to get into the 6th Division cause I wanted to complete one fraction of my university course which I’d not completed, so I waited until the 7th Division was recruited, which was early in
1940, and entered the 2/13th Battalion, which was being put together at Ingleburn. And just wondering how much detail you want of this.
Well we’ll come back over all the training in a bit of detail but maybe after your training in Ingleburn, just take us through the places that you ended up.
Well we marched from Ingleburn to Bathurst and soon after that we got onboard Queen Mary and sailed for the Middle East. There we found a camp in Palestine and the fortune of war was such that before we’d completed, anything like completed our training, we were off to the Western Desert because
the Germans had interfered in our comfortable war with the Italians and things were looking very serious. We took part in what became known as the first Benghazi handicap and ended up in Tobruk, and we’d begun as part of a 7th Division before we left for the Middle East but again the fortune of war was such that we became part of the 9th Division.
And after some period of some months in Tobruk I swapped places with a senior officer of the battalion and took over his role as, commanding the reinforcement company of our battalion, so I went from the actuality of war to trying to train reinforcements
for what it was all about. And I was sent next to a staff school, AIF [Australian Imperial Force] Middle East junior staff school, and having completed a short course there I was sent to the headquarters of the 9th Division.
What was your role there
at the headquarters of the 9th Division?
I was what was called a liaison officer and that meant liaison from divisional headquarters to one of the subordinate headquarters, such as an infantry brigade or something of that kind. Early in 1942, well not, I’m sorry, not early in 1942. In June ’42
we moved into the desert again and we suffered the Alamein campaign, and that was in some respects a turning point of World War II and that cost the division a very high price indeed. But we took part in a very important victory
and pretty soon after that other things were happening in the other part of the world and Australia was calling for people like ourselves to be returned as soon as possible. We got onboard ships in February of 1943 and got home without incident.
I was one of a group of officers from the 9th Division and from other formations sent then to the staff school that Australia had set up in the area of RMC [Royal Military College] Duntroon and I spent about four months working away with a picked set of people.
And having completed that course I suddenly found myself in New Guinea with, to my horror, a militia brigade, commanded by one of the great officers, one of the greatest leaders and trainers of troops to the 9th Division, our own one H.H. Hammer, Harold Heathcote Hammer, known to the troops of course as ‘Tack’.
And served briefly under him and then to my joy I returned to the 9th Division as brigade major of the 20th Brigade, which was my own brigade and I spent the rest of my war as brigade major, which essentially chief of staff to a great man, Victor Windeyer.
And I was his, worked for him until the wretched business was over and we all came happily home.
We’ll talk about your role as brigade major in some detail later on as well, what campaigns were you involved in in that position?
As BM [Brigade Major] 20th Brigade, the later part of the Finschhafen show in New Guinea and
after that we suffered a whole years training on the Tableland in Northern Queensland, and then went off to one of the most foolishly conceived campaigns of the war, the Borneo business. And we landed in North Borneo, Brunei and
operations were short and sweet you might say there, a fair few casualties to either side but it was a sort of, the war finished on a diminuendo but nevertheless it finished, and we didn’t have to wait very long before we got back to Australia.
That takes us to the end of the war. We’ll come back over all of that as I said.
Can you take us briefly through your post war career?
Yes, all my back pay was delivered and quite a reasonable amount of money that was suddenly mine to do what I liked with, and I spent it on going to read history at Oxford.
One of the officers I was serving with, he’d been to Balliol College where his father had been educated and he, I think Barton Warren persuaded me of the virtues of Oxford as a place to go and read history or read anything which you wanted to work at.
And so I invested my wartime savings in a couple of years spent at Baillieu, a rather lovely way to get the war out of one’s system, although it was on British rations and the British rations in 1946, seven, eight, were pretty sparse. Came back and
again teaching history at Sydney Grammar School and I did that for the next how many years, from 1949 till ’66. And I saw the possibility of a job teaching history in an expanding history department at Duntroon and
collared a job there and happily taught history to cadets of the RMC until 1979 when I found I was getting tired. And the university would have, we’d become part of the university of New South Wales at that stage, not Duntroon itself but the academic staff of the college, and
I thought, “Well I might as well not wait for the investiture to toss me out when I’m sixty five, I’ll go now.” So a couple of years before I would have been retired I gave all that up and have lived happily ever afterwards.
Any family occurrences that you’d like
to tell us about, when did you get married for example?
I got married in 1962. There had been one attempt at matrimony earlier on but that takes two to consolidate these affairs and the other person changed her mind at the critical moment, and I was left lamenting. But
my present wife and I met in 1962 and that was early in the year and by the end of the year we’d been married. And my headmaster, who was a very humane person, said to me when I told him that I was engaged to be married, “Haven’t you got an amount of long service leave due to you?” And I said, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” So he said, “Well
I’ll look into it but I think you have. You’d better take advantage of it.” And so my wife and I spent a very happy six months pottering about Europe in a small Fiat car and having a royal time.
OK, that brings us in the bare bones,
as you say, through your life, just got a couple of questions just I want to pick up before we go on, can you briefly tell us what your rank and role was in each of the campaigns there, in the Benghazi handicap, what were you?
I was acting as a company commander. I was a captain but I was second in command of a company in the 2/13th
and a company commander had been pulled out just as we left for the desert, to go and set up the reinforcement training company in the reinforcement depot and so I was, I automatically took charge of that company and I had that appointment in Tobruk and
I didn’t get a majority until I was appointed BM of 20 Brigade, so that was, where are we, ’43? Probably became a major in 1944.
So in New Guinea under ‘Tack’ Hammer you were a company commander there as well or?
No, I was part of his headquarters. I was what was called a brigade major learner.
which is an obvious step towards becoming the brigade major?
With similar duties?
The AIF developed for learner system staff appointments, so that people moved into a particular area and learnt something about it before they actually became responsible in a role like that, so I was a BM learner at headquarters of 15th Brigade for a matter of months only and just after Christmas
I think it was, yes, just after Christmas ’43 I became a BM, an actual brigade major in 20 Brigade and was promoted major.
And you left the army at that rank?
I left the AIF in that rank, yes.
All right, we’ll come back to all of this but I think to begin with we’ll go right back to the very beginning and talk about growing up in Coogee
during difficult times, can you tell us a bit about what your life was like in Coogee in those early years?
Yes, as I can. This is really delving down through layers of, I think I said but I enjoyed my schooldays but most of all I enjoyed them as a
boy at Sydney Grammar. Coogee we lived fairly near the beach. That was a handy thing, so I spent a lot of time there or at Wiley’s baths, which were just round the corner from Coogee. I wasn’t a madly keen sportsman. I avoided football and cricket, which was a terrible mistake of course
but there it was. That was my attitude and I was able to get away with it.
What did your father do?
My father, he was an officer in the navy, Royal Australian Navy and he suffered as a result of wartime service. He was a sick man for a good many years after the war,
got out of that and then quite suddenly he died in 1931 when I was scarcely fourteen and so my mother, who fortunately was a very strong person, strong physically and a very strong character, she was, became responsible for our house and
home and bringing me up. I hope I wasn’t too difficult a problem for her but it worked out all right.
How did your father’s death affect you as a fourteen year old?
Very hard to answer that effectively, Chris [interviewer].
I can sort of visualise that now, just not having a male in the house to offer all that a good father can offer and does offer. I missed that. My mother was a very good mother
but she wasn’t a male. I don’t think that did me any good but there it was.
Can you tell us a bit more about your mother, you say she was a strong woman?
Yes, well she had to cope with me and she had to cope with the depression years. This was in the very depths of the depression
and somehow we managed to get through that. She had small means of her own and I s’pose she would have had whatever widows were given in those days, or a pension of a junior naval officer who had retired
on account of health, but she was a very outgoing sort of person. She maintained her friendships and her family were good to her. She was very tolerant of me I may say and she lived to a ripe old age. She was
ninety-one when she died.
Why did she have to be tolerant of you, what sort of behaviour did you get up to as a lad?
Well I think I must have been a bit of a nuisance about the place, not very fond of doing all the necessary things about a house and a garden and the rest of it, but
we got along together very well really and I enjoyed my life with her.
Were there brothers and sisters?
No, alas I was an only child too.
Apart from, you mentioned the beach and Wiley’s Baths, what other things did you do for entertainment or what did you enjoy?
Well I enjoyed the beach obviously as most boys of my age did, and I began to develop an interest in music and in the theatre. And as I went on through my teens
what I particularly remember of those days was my developing love of Gilbert and Sullivan opera and also ballet. There was some wonderful ballets performing in Sydney in the 19.., mid to later 1930s, the Ballet Russe, Russian Ballet. And I can’t remember the name of the company that brought Gilbert and Sullivan to Sydney but I think of people like
Ivan Menzies, who played the major comic roles and so on. And I could recite whole slabs of Menzies lines with delight and some of my friends had the same sort of outlook and we enjoyed Gilbert and Sullivan immensely, and I think I mentioned the ballet. That was
a particular love of many people of my age.
What ambitions did you have at that stage?
I was pretty muddled about what to do and my decision to start in law straight out of school was an example of
the muddle my mind was in. I really wasn’t terribly interested in going to law but everybody in the family said, “He’s done well. You’ve got a good leaving certificate.” I got double first in English and history and that to my uneducated family, my mother’s family, seemed to indicate to law and that
was a vast mistake. And I think that when it was all boiled down that really what I wanted to do was get back into the school atmosphere and teach. I played with the idea of the army, and
actually at one stage I was given an introduction to Colonel John Lavarack who was commandant of Duntroon which had been moved to Victoria Barracks, Sydney in those days, the early 1930s. And he offered me a place in the college and he saw that my mind was still probably a bit muddled about these things and he said, “Well
go away, but I’ll give you a week and then you’ve got to let me know definitely.” And I opted not to become a soldier, probably a good thing too.
What other military influences if you like, have there been in your upbringing?
Well the fact my father had been a naval officer I suppose and then the
reappearance of the cadet corps at grammar school that had been dropped for some reason and perhaps had never appeared again after the First World War, and in 1930 or ’31 it was raised again and I suppose I liked the idea of a uniform, a lot of people did. And
we had our first ceremony, was an inspection of the newly raised Sydney Grammar School cadet corps which was inspected by an old boy of the school. The old boy of the school was none other than the great Light Horse leader, General Sir Harry Chauvel, and one part of that story is that forty years
later I wrote his biography, which was published by Melbourne University Press way back about 1979, I s’pose.
What did you know about the First World War, about the, as you say, the Light Horse, about the legends that have become since then?
I didn’t know anything about it then much.
I had read a little bit about it of course, and that was a thing that developed in my university days I suppose, or began to develop then.
What did you learn from your father about his wartime service?
I learnt a little bit about his own experience.
He served in destroyers right through, and the first Australians to go into action in that war were the navy. That was in what had been German New Guinea and the German islands up to the north. And my Dad was in a landing party
that was put ashore, I forget where, and shows you the quaint ideas of war in those days. The sailors were armed with rifle and bayonet and my father took his naval ceremonial sword with him into the jungle. He found it such an inconvenience that he threw it away and
it turned up again. He found one of the members of a landing party was equipped with his own sword, so it got back to him and the family. And they had patrolled, had a pretty miserable time patrolling up in the Dutch East Indies after the New Guinea thing and then came back for
refit and went to the Mediterranean. And they spent about two years in the Mediterranean, largely concerned with the business of blocking up the Adriatic Sea, stopping the Germans or Austrians from getting into it or out of it, so they had two winters in the Mediterranean, which were very miserable times in the very small destroyers.
With all ships of about seven hundred tons I think they were, [HMAS] Torrens, the [HMAS] Yarra and names like that, and they were the river class destroyers. And he was a very sick man when he got back to Australia in 1919, and was thought to have TB [tuberculosis] and
he spent a lot of time in hospital before they got him right and he was able to come home.
Did that continue to affect him up until his death, what was his health like?
He got better and he got out of the navy and found work in Sydney, but
he was one of a generation that smoked pretty heavily. His brother did before him and died before him, and Dad smoked cigarettes but mainly a pipe. But it was going on all the time and I don’t think that helped him at all.
Were there any other male role models if you like, that were in your early life?
No, I don’t think so. I had an uncle who was a timber merchant and his real passion in life was yachting and he had a series of yachts which he named Awanui.
And he promised me that when I was older and bigger and more useful I could be part of his crew but that didn’t come off because he was killed onboard his yacht. And so there was no more uncle and I don’t know what became of Awanui IV, but otherwise, no, I don’t think so.
What was your relationship with the sea, living in Coogee with naval heritage?
My relationship with the sea was that of most small Sydney boys in those days. I liked to get into it but not with any thoughts of naval careers or anything like that, no.
How different was that surf culture then, than it might be today?
Well the beach life?
Surf culture was it, yeh. I don’t think I could give you a useful answer to that question because I’ve lived so far away from it for so long, the last forty years.
Maybe not in terms of comparison then but for instance what did people wear to go surfing in those days or out in the ocean?
our bodies were covered in those days. We didn’t, I don’t remember short costumes for men until probably either just before or just after the Second World War, and women were similarly covered. We were a more
unrevealing age, but we lived near enough to the beach for me to come home from school and get into my togs and hurtle down to the beach straight away.
What was the scene down at Coogee, there was the
Palais or what was the…?
Coogee beach was rather remarkable in those days because it had what was called a shark net, a great steel hawser was stretched across much of the beach, but I think not the whole beach, and that was supposed to keep sharks out and us in, and I don’t recall any shark
tragedies at Coogee beach in those days. It was a pretty quiet place actually.
Was there still a fun park at Tamarama in those days or was that earlier on? I know one got destroyed by a storm once, there was a ferris wheel or…I’m very interested in that. Anyway, we’ll move on, how important, you mentioned
that you had your father and there were some military influences, how important was Empire to you growing up?
One accepted that as part of the scene and I mean my father was an Englishman. My mother was Australian born and bred as her parents were, but about the house people often spoke about getting home and
that could mean only one thing in those days, home with a capital, “H,” which of course was UK [United Kingdom], so this was I think you might, in our family any rate and in many other families, was something that was accepted.
How did you celebrate Empire Day for example?
I think there were fireworks in Sydney in those days but it’s something frankly that I don’t remember very much about. We maintained touch with Dad’s people. I had a grandmother in Birmingham.
I never set eyes on her unfortunately because she died before I ever got to UK. She very kindly left me a hundred pounds in her will. Mother’s parents I never knew. They’d both gone by the time I came along.
Did you feel British or Australian growing up or a combination
I felt that I was Australian but part of the British Empire. That was the normal sort of thing. It wasn’t discussed. It was just accepted, just, as I said, Menzies’ announcement over the national radio in
1939, “Therefore we’re at war….”
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 02
Right down to Coogee Beach, you took it to school, can you tell us about the trams in Sydney in those days?
Yes, the trams that I remember were long narrow things with a running board each side and that enabled you to step up, to get further up into the tram.
And the running board also was the area in which the tram guard functioned, as distinct from the driver. The tram guard had a leather bag which, were he kept his change and so forth, deposited coinage and he also had a book of tickets. It was a long narrow thing and tickets were from a penny up to
sixpence or something of the sort. There were many kinds of tickets, all different colours and the poor wretch had to use one hand if he could, to hang onto, there were rails on the side of the tram and that kept him there and with the other hand he had to manage his change and give out his tickets and so forth. He had to do that in winter too. Eventually they woke up to themselves and they
redesigned the interior of the tram and the tram guard could operate inside the thing but it was a bad business. They had smoking compartments at each end of the trams that I was used to, and instead of having doors they had a sort of blind which you could pull down if the weather was really bad
with rain and that sort of thing. But otherwise they were quite open and the wind blew through them from both sides but that enabled smokers to do what they had to do. They were not so bad in summer because they were the coolest part of the tram. If the wind still blew you felt a little bit better.
The toast rack, is that
known as the toast rack?
Yeh, toast rack trams, yes, with the seats right across.
Was there much traffic on the streets in those days in Sydney?
Well of course nothing like the traffic that we struggle with now, nothing like it. But of course there were, it was all so small. I mean to say I don’t know what the population of Sydney was but the population of the country when
Hitler’s war began was something of the order, what was it, eight million or something like that?
A bit less I think. It wasn’t big. One big event in Sydney in your teenage years was the opening of the [Sydney Harbour] Bridge.
What do you recall of that?
Well Mr De Groote mounted on his horse with his sword, cutting the ribbon.
I recall the excitement and I think sheer pleasure of the completion of the arch of that bridge, a wonderful thing because it grew so slowly, and yet there it was complete. And we’re still driving across the same bridge when we go to Sydney, want to get to the North Shore. It’s a great piece of work.
How far afield did you get yourself, I mean your life was very centred around Coogee as you said, what other travels or sojourns outside that area?
Holidays up in the Blue Mountains, Katoomba and that really is about all that I can recall. We used to do that every summer. We’d go up and stay at Leura
or Katoomba, but I s’pose restrictions on means in those days and my mother not a car driver. We visited friends and family in the usual way, which for us meant
taking a tram to somewhere and members of my mother’s family, the yachtsman whom I mentioned to you earlier, they would frequently turn up en masse on a Sunday at afternoon tea time. That’s all that
sort of comes readily to mind.
What sort of food was on your table during the Depression?
Well I can recall a balanced diet, put it that way. My mother was
very keen on vegetables and on fruit. I can still hear the lilt of the old Chinese who used to bring vegetables and fruit to the door, and he used to talk about, “Bean, pea, cabbagee.” Milk came in a cart and the cart had taps at the back
and the driver would get off his cart and he’d go around the back of his cart and fill a great metal container from one of his taps, which is all out in the open, and he’d march up the side path to the back door of the place and my mother would have to take one of her jugs and he would just tip what he had, whatever it was, a quart or something of the sort, into a jug and get his
cash there on the spot and go on his way. Then the iceman used to bring ice for the fridge, and I don’t recall how long a block of ice lasted, or a couple of blocks, but that kept our food in a reasonable condition. And the other very pleasant
part I recall was the postman of those days, and I’m going right back to the, probably the 1920s now. He brought our mail on horseback and the letterbox was high up on the front fence and he leant down, staying in his saddle, he leant down dropping the letters into the letterbox and he blew a whistle. So it was all a very quiet, civilised
and convenient system. I can remember people who used to send clothes props. They drove around the streets in horse drawn vehicles and clothes props were strips of light timber just cut off trees or small trees being cut down,
and they had a fork at the end of them and they propped a line up with the washing on it but the cry used to be, “Clothes prop.” It was a funny time, wasn’t it?
Certainly very different to the way it’s done today.
What about the sewerage system, was your house connected to a, did you have an outdoor toilet, what was the situation?
We had sewerage. The house
I grew up in was an old stone house. I don’t think it’s there any longer but my mother lived in it until her death, and that area of Sydney was always sewered in my time.
When you moved to Sydney Grammar,
how did you find the mix of boys you were exposed to there in your first, you mentioned it wasn’t so enjoyable at the beginning, it was more enjoyable towards the later years?
Well I was talking about the sort of educational period as a whole then. I can remember the name of only one of my teachers
in my first school, which was Coogee Public School. That was a Miss Lear who was extraordinarily kind and we all liked her. I went from that to the Coogee Preparatory School for four years and I don’t remember very much about that. I can remember a couple of names of the headmaster and I think he was
the owner of the Coogee Preparatory School. We treated him very warily because he had a cane and he didn’t mind using it. I copped that only once. I got six on open hands and I’ve never forgotten it, quite unnecessary too. But Grammar was just so much bigger and more civilised and
a more interesting place and there were all sorts of fascinating blokes who were good. They were good schoolmasters and one of them who came to Grammar in 1930, he was an Englishman, served in the First [World] War, he was still a master there when
I became a master. And after Hitler’s war Douglas Taylor was still there and he was a, I’ve met few men who were so widely loved and admired, and amongst his many qualities was he was an extraordinarily capable administrator. If you wanted some major sporting event or what have you organised,
Douglas Taylor was the man. He was known to us all as Squizzy but he had a great sense of humour, and I s’pose in a way it was quite possibly Squizzy Taylor who persuaded me that what I really, or to have a go at doing, to become a school master and I’m very glad I did, but there were others too.
In the upper school the senior English master was a Cambridge man and his name was Wing, but of course to us he was Wonger and he was a scholarly sort of bloke altogether and a very good man to learn from. And his senior historian was an Oxford man
called Boad. He was known as Gussie. You became very, you admired some of these people and became fond of them. They all had their own peculiarities but they gave us something that I think all of us have carried with us one way or another ever since those days,
so I enjoyed Grammar. I wasn’t a sportsman I’m afraid but I did get into the rifle team, and one of the great disappointments of my life was that I just missed out on getting my colours for shooting.
What about cadets, you mentioned you liked the uniform,
what else did you enjoy about cadets?
I enjoyed the military thing really, just being part of that sort of organisation and we had camps and pretended we were real soldiers. Douglas Taylor was, as I mentioned, Squizzy Taylor, he was the OC [Officer Commanding] of the cadet corps.
And one of the best loved masters of Sydney Grammar School was the other, his assistant, a man called Lumsdane, Keith Lumsdane, known to us as Toby, and one of his peculiar characteristics, which we discovered in camp, was his loud snoring.
And if you were anywhere even moderately close to where Toby Lumsdane was sleeping at night, you were kept awake while he snored magnificently, to such an extent that Taylor wouldn’t let him sleep anywhere near himself or cadets. He was kept, his quarters were kept on the other side of the road, which ran through Middle Head, fortress area
where we were camped, so Grammar was a very interesting time.
Moving on from there to Sydney University, what outstanding recollections do you have or your time there?
Boredom mainly. I think Sydney was going through a rather rough patch and
there were some lamentable people in the history department in 19.., when did I go up there? In 1935. I remember a first year lecturer, I won’t name names, but I found that he would simply, taught what he imagined were lectures or what he
produced for us were great slabs of G.M. Trevallyn’s History of England, and as I had a copy of that book I felt there was not much point in going to hear Mr Brown shall we call him, deliver this stuff from a lecturers platform. I could read it much more comfortably at home.
I didn’t do honours history because that was handled by S.H. Roberts, the professor of history of the day, and he, first year honours course was some great slab of American colonial history, which I couldn’t abide, so I
didn’t do a good arts course at Sydney I’m afraid. I think I must have been a very, not sure, what’s the word that I’m looking for, well I just didn’t take readily to the atmosphere of the place at all. I made a lot of mistakes there.
I didn’t join the Sydney University Regiment for example. I joined the New South Wales Scottish. I would have made many friendships, getting in camps particularly, getting to know men that I didn’t meet because they weren’t doing arts.
Events in Europe at this stage, in the late ‘30s, had started to unfold, what news were you getting about the possibilities of a conflict emerging out of?
I don’t remember having a wireless at home, so one
got ones news out of The Sydney Morning Herald by and large, such as it was. From about 1935 on the Italian war in Ethiopia and ’36 when Hitler re-established Germans
in the Rhineland, it began to look more and more serious. Nobody was surprised when the wretched thing began.
You mentioned Menzies broadcast once, do you remember that day specifically or where you were on the outbreak of the war?
no I don’t to be quite honest. I don’t know where I was. September, I would have been teaching a class at Sydney, College Street and expecting just that.
How much did you think about taking part yourself
or how much was that unquestioned to you at the time?
I expected to. I was commissioned officer in the CMF and was just obvious one would have to get on with the job. I can’t say I’d been trained for it or that anybody had been trained for it in the CMF
but we’d all been in uniform and gone to camps for a number of years. And the CMF was very much World War I because we had the same weapons as the diggers had used in the later stages
of the last war. And in my battalion for example, we were commanded by a man called H.B. Taylor and he was a decorated officer with lots of World War I experience, had a Military Cross and he ultimately was given
the brigade in what became the 8th Division and spent World War II in Changi, but he was a hell of a good battalion commander in those days when the CMF existed on paper really. And you can’t train soldiers on weekly, yes, a weekly
parade night when everybody’s dead tired after a day’s work, travelling from your home in uniform to a drill hall where you perhaps listen to a lecture or you do a bit of drill and then turn around and go home again, because you’ve got a days work to do the following day. And then have a camp once a year for about seven days. And eventually I think they increased
it to ten days but any sort of military elements that you acquire after a week or ten days in camp and you don’t do that sort of thing again for another twelve months, hopeless. You’re not producing trained soldiers and a trained soldier is a very different man from the fellow in uniform who can fire a rifle
and turn, right turn, left turn, quick march and halt. That’s part of the beginning of training soldiers but it’s not turning into people who can actually, usefully take their place in an operation.
How keen were you and your friends in the CMF to join up in the overseas force?
We were keen to get into the AIF and get away, yes. We felt, what people felt they had to do. I think there was great keenness but the fact that
people hadn’t rushed off straight away when it was announced that we were going to raise a division didn’t mean that people were not keen. People were sort of waiting to see how it was all going to develop, and they had things in their lives they wanted to tidy up one way or another. And I think people expected this was going
to be a long war, just like the other one. They didn’t know, they couldn’t know, that Hitler and co. were expecting things to be short. They were going to do it all so quickly and cleanly.
How different was the AIF once you did enlist in terms of professionalism and organisation?
Well it looked real because there we were in uniform being soldiers and training and with, at the end of the day, expecting that you would go
and put all of this into operation. We did not know that force of circumstance would operate against this and we would go into operations part trained and part equipped. If we’d known that I think probably a lot of people would want to get out straight away,
but that’s how it came about. And you can, to a large extent, you must thank the political parties of the time for producing this sort of situation.
What sort of training did you undertake at Ingleburn and…?
Ingleburn and Bathurst, well a lot of it was the very
basic stuff. We could all drill and we could all fire a rifle or a light machinegun. We didn’t have the light machinegun of the day. We had the light machineguns left over from First World War, the Lewis gun, so we were
well meaning, part trained and hoping to get all this stuff and we had a lot of officers who had had experience, senior officers who had experience. Our brigade commanders and battalion commanders were all World War I experienced men but the rest were people who had
spent a lot of time in the CMF soldiering on.
How long was the period of training in the AIF before you embarked?
Before we embarked? Well
something like four months before we got on a ship to go away I s’pose, four to five months.
What do you recall about that embarkation and the leave you must have taken on that occasion before you embarked overseas?
That’s a good question. I don’t know what the answer is Chris, to be quite honest. We were camped in Bathurst when we were given pre embarkation leave
and I know my elderly mother was, she was pretty worried but doing her best not to let that get through and a lot of goodbyes we said to people, friends and family.
I was not married at that stage, so I didn’t have the agony that a lot of men had.
What did you know about where you would be going?
Nothing beyond Middle East. We knew where 6 Div [Division] was. They were training in Palestine and
we expected to go there and find a training ground somewhere close to where they were, which is what happened of course.
Trip over was on the Queen Mary, is that right?
What can you tell us about that ship?
Well it was, we hardly expected to go to war in such luxury and it was, we could continue certain branches of training on a ship like that, things like map
reading and so on, and officers had the advantage of being officers. We sat down in a magnificent dining room and had beautifully printed menus and goodness knows what. It was rather odd really
but it didn’t take very long to get to the Middle East, which we, was rather hard to maintain physical condition on a ship like that and that’s very much part of a soldier’s business.
Can you describe for the archive what kind of a ship the Queen Mary was?
Well it was just so vast. How vast it was, we took away the equivalent of a brigade group, three infantry battalions, an artillery regiment or regiments, engineers, signals, medical, the whole works. There were five thousand I think onboard the Mary for that trip but
little did we know that the Mary was going to carry fourteen or fifteen thousand Americans across the Atlantic at a time, a whole division at a time, later in the war. I think that must have been absolute horror but we were fairly comfortable with a mere five thousand onboard out of Sydney Harbour.
I don’t think the troops were as comfortable as we were but nevertheless they were more comfortable I suspect than they were later when they first got to Palestine.
What was your rank at this stage?
I’d jumped up. I’d just been promoted captain. I think I was captain when I went. Yes, because I’d been removed from the 2/13th battalion, an infantry battalion.
I’d been sent up to brigade headquarters because brigade headquarters had sacked one of the battalion officers sent to them and I’d been sent up to take his place as a brigade liaison officer. And I’d no sooner got there, there was nothing to do as a brigade liaison officer in a training camp
in Australia but I’d been sent for by the brigade major and given the establishment document, so big, the establishment of an infantry anti tank company, and he said, “Well there you are Alec. There’s an infantry anti tank company. You’re to raise it and train it.” And I said, “Well you tell me how I’m to do that sir.” And he said,
“Well of course you raise it. You go and get the soldiers and you bring them here.” And I said, “And what about the training side of it sir?” He said, “Well I haven’t the faintest idea because we haven’t any anti tank guns.” So I put my thinking cap on and worked out a scheme and I went round camps, got permission to go round camps and
preach the virtues of an infantry anti tank company and the bright prospects that such a company had. And I went particularly where I could find light horsemen, ex light horsemen. I thought, “This is going to be an odd sort of show, people will want to know, they’d want to be confident, be able to work at a new thing and
countrymen who are used to machinery and,” I was thinking of guns, “will be the sort of chaps I’m after.” And I rang up two of my friends who’d been CMF officers and whom I had great confidence and told them there would be two or three jobs going in the 20th Infantry Anti Tank Company. And Dick Garnsey and Peter Wellcott,
both of whom later on were decorated and did very well, they joined me and I got another country, a light horseman called Greg Kierath, whom I’ve lost track of completely. I’ve never seen Greg again and so we formed the 20th Infantry Anti Tank Company with myself as the boss. In
Ingleburn there was a light tank regiment known as a cavalry regiment in those days, and they were training and I presented myself to their CO [Commanding Officer] and got permission to come and watch their exercises with light tanks, so I thought it might be some use to my blokes if they saw what tanks did before they started getting guns so
that they could shoot tanks. So we embarked with the 20th Brigade onboard the Queen Mary and got into camp in Palestine, and just before we went up to the desert, somebody had
the view that, “Hill should go back to his battalion and not fool around with anti tank guns.” Even if there weren’t any guns, I should go back to my battalion and I went back and became second in command of one of the companies in the 2/13th and that’s how I went up to the desert, as a 2IC [Second in Command] of a company. And the
anti tank companies did get guns eventually, Brit guns I think on the whole, two pounders, but they were abolished after Tobruk and some of them, that was one of the finest bodies of men I’ve ever had to do with. They were a remarkable set. As I told you, two of the officers were decorated,
military crosses, and some of the NCOs [Non Commissioned Officer] went to battalions in the 20th Brigade and they were, all of them I think were commissioned in due course. They were very, very solid crowd of people, able people, good leaders.
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 03
Alec, just before we stopped, you were talking about raising, your task of having to raise an anti tank company before you embarked to the Middle East. You just mentioned that you, I guess looked to the light horsemen and also to the country boys, can you just tell me why you thought that the country boys were going to be
good in the anti tank company?
Well my outlook then was that the countryman has got to be able to cope with all sorts of changing circumstances and difficult matters, and they’re not going to arrive with any sort of warning necessarily. He’s that sort of man and
being in an infantry anti tank company we hadn’t even seen our guns and we didn’t know really how we would operate, what our tactics would be. The anti tank gunner would have to be a man who could cope with anything as it turned up, ready for change and for difficulties, problems and prepared to solve them, even if he didn’t have an officer with him
to say, “You do this, you do that,” but he should…
So I’ll just ask you that again Alec, I’m just wondering can you tell me about the weapon situation in your anti company, just…?
When we got to the Middle East there were no guns for us and ultimately, after I had been sent back to my battalion,
they did get guns and they did have guns in time for Tobruk but I wasn’t with them then, so I don’t know anything about that side of it, and then anti tank companies disappeared after Tobruk in any case, so that was just one little corner of the war on its own.
Well can you tell me what type of weaponry training you had had yourself?
Weapon training? I had learnt how to fire a rifle. I’d learnt how to fire a light machinegun, a Lewis gun. I’d never even seen the Bren gun with which we were supposed to go into operations. And in fact
20th Brigade were the first Australian troops to go into action with German troops in World War II, and at that stage we had some Brens, light machineguns, in each company, but where there were no Brens, the modern equipment, there were old
Lewis guns. The Lewis gun was a very useful weapon but it was not as good a weapon and not as reliable as the Bren, so we were short of our modern weapons. And 9th Division for example, didn’t take its artillery into
Tobruk, into the desert, let alone Tobruk because there were no weapons for them, and this is the early days of the war and factories were trying to catch up, and they’re trying to catch up under German bombardment and anybody gets them through the submarine infested waters out to the Middle East, it was a very, very difficult
time. and even in 1942 when the 9th Division came down from Syria to the desert again, there were problems about equipping our artillery and we were always short of vehicles in the Middle East. In fact my battalion, when it was, went into action with the Germans for the first time in April of 1941,
had almost, it had virtually no vehicles of its own.
Well I’d like to come back to talking about that first action but before we get there, can you tell us what was your first task leading up to that action, how did you spend that first six months?
Training in Palestine, training the soldiers as members of a section and a platoon and training platoons in their tactics and then you move on from platoon training to company training, where there are three
platoons in a company controlled by a company headquarters and that all, that takes time and it’s not something that can be done easily or very quickly and particularly when so many of the people taking part in that training and controlling
it are not themselves highly trained. This is one of the awful problems of the AIF. There were not enough people who really knew the thing inside out and backwards in those early days. 1942 after Tobruk and before Alamein, a lot of much more realistic training
could go on, did go on because people were so much more experienced and this was like the First World War. The 2nd AIF was acquiring a great deal of experience as it went on, and although you were losing good men, officers and men, in the course of time you nevertheless had that
reservoir of experienced and trained people who could pass on what they knew to the reinforcements coming in. So the quality of the thing was lifting all through the war and the soldiers, for soldiers that landed at Finschhafen in 1943, 9th Division again, they were or they had a lot of reinforcements in the ranks but they had been trained alongside, retrained
with the men who were experienced and the Japanese had to face a very tough and well trained division.
Well I’m wondering how you reacted and responded to being 2IC when you were in Palestine?
I didn’t enjoy it.
I reported, when I came back to the battalion I reported or first of all to battalion headquarters and I was sent then to join my company as a 2IC and I didn’t know the man who was commanding the company. He was much older than I was and he didn’t seem particularly pleased to see me. And
one of the things he said to me, and I’ve never forgotten this, is, “You won’t call me George.” I said, “No sir,” and that was that. He later on was to command the platoon and with some success I may add. So I didn’t enjoy the thought of being second in command to somebody who
sort of had that outlook and I was rather relieved when we were moving up to the desert and all of a sudden he was plucked out of the show and sent back to set up the reinforcement training for the battalion and I inherited the company. That rather appalled me because I felt
I just, I wasn’t equipped and trained enough myself to command a company.
Well I’m wondering if you can recall at the time what it was that you wanted to know that you didn’t know?
Well I think basically the tactics
of handling a company in action, whether it be in an offensive phase or in a defensive phase, particularly an offensive phase of operations. I’d not been trained for it at any stage. And thinking back, as a CMF officer before the war
I had, and as a member of the CMF, I’d had two courses, one was an infantry weapons course at George’s Heights, which lasted about a week, and one handled various infantry weapons and the other one was after the war had broken out but before I was AIF,
and that was a course of about a week and I’m very vague about what that course was now. I think it was something to do with intelligence. In other words I’d had no hard grind of a tactical course at any stage, apart from what you did in a week long camp, and I mean to say that was by no means unique. There were any
number of officers, probably the majority of officers would have been able to say the same thing, so I took command of a company feeling pretty inadequate, quite simply.
Well I’m wondering how did you deal with that and who could you perhaps look
Well one could always look to Joe Kelly, who was adjutant of the battalion. He was a regular soldier and I’d known Joe before he’d been commissioned. He was a warrant officer in the army. If you’re a reader of modern newspapers you might see articles by one Paul Kelly in The Australian. Well Paul Kelly’s
Joe’s son. Joe was a marvellous man. Everybody admired him and liked him and he became adjutant of the battalion and I think he was an inspiration to the whole show. I could always turn to Joe, and at a critical situation later on I did turn to Joe. But
was nobody in a company that you can turn to really because you’re the company commander and the situation I found myself in, so I had to do the best I could with such knowledge as I had, and my resources of intellect and character generally.
Well perhaps what I’d like to do now is ask you if you could take us through, as company commander, the structure of your infantry company and just?
Structure of my company? Right, well if you start at the top. There you are, you’re the company commander and then you have a second in command, an officer
of usually equal rank to your own, and I found myself having as my second in command a young officer who was a graduate of Duntroon. We got on all right together. I was rather painfully aware that he was
a very much better trained officer than I was and he was not a terribly forceful type, and looking back I think to be honest, he was rather lazy but it took a little while just to sort of begin to size him up, but that was the
situation. Here was I, in my own eyes, a fairly ignorant officer commanding a company and my second in command was a professional. Right, then when you get away from the commander of a company, the command of the company, in the headquarters you have a company sergeant major,
who in this case was an older man. He was a good deal older than I was and I think more experienced and very, very good sort of bloke to have as the senior NCO of a company. On a company headquarters you have a number of soldiers, a couple of batmen for the two officers
and there’s a company clerk and a few other people, some signallers. You’re a small group of men. I’m just guessing now, probably about ten or twelve of you at the most. Then you’ve got three platoons and a platoon in those days was
an officer and some say thirty men, each, they’re all the same, three platoons, and the platoon has a commander who is an officer, a platoon sergeant who’s the senior NCO and sort of second in command of a platoon and three sections. In the section there’s a corporal or a lance corporal and
probably about eight men and that’s the, they’re the building blocks of the whole battalion, these little groups of the section, a corporal and eight. That’s the structure of the company. The firepower of the company is the firepower of a section, which
should have been a light automatic and the rifles of the remaining soldiers. The light automatic would be in the hands of two soldiers, one to fire it and one to help him with ammunition and so on, and the other soldiers have their rifles and a bayonet as well if they come into close quarters with the enemy.
And the battalion also has its own fire support for all these sections and by fire support I’m referring to a mortar platoon, which should have in those days, I think it was six mortars and the mortar is something that looks like a
piece of piping and it’s supported by a couple of legs, and it sits up at an angle like that and it has special sights attached to it and a firing pin at the bottom of this pipe. And you drop a bomb, carefully shaped bomb, just shove it down the muzzle and it falls down and it hits the firing pin at the bottom
and that fires a charge which throws the bomb out of the mortar at a high angle and it drops. It’s a very handy thing for getting inside defended positions because rifles and machineguns have a direct fire, which doesn’t rise, the fire doesn’t rise very high and it’s not, it doesn’t search positions, whereas the mortar is designed to do just that. It’s used at all
sorts of targets, so I mean troops in the open can be engaged with mortar fire and the mortar bomb weighed ten pounds. It was a very nasty thing to have, to be close to when it detonated. The only trouble in my battalion was that it had no mortars but Australian soldiers are renowned for their capacity to acquire things that are necessary,
and our mortar platoon had picked up a couple of Italian mortars on its way up the desert, which was a great thing. They had to get used to the Italian sights, which were in metres and not yards and one of the mortars really wasn’t much use because it didn’t have a baseplate. But the tail end of the pipe, this tube,
had to fit into a special steel contraption to anchor it and they had an Italian mortar complete, mortar and baseplate and they had another Italian mortar with no baseplate, so it wasn’t very much use. So that was the mortar platoon’s equipment for our first battle. There was a machinegun platoon but I don’t think we had
any machineguns at that stage and we did have support from a company of British machine gunners who were professional soldiers and who were a Godsend when the time came, so you see, we had our problems, inexperienced officers, inexperienced people generally and part trained and part equipped.
Well you’ve described the company structure from yourself down, as company commander, I’m wondering if you could also tell me about the structure upwards and who you received orders from?
Right, well there were four rifle companies in an infantry battalion and there was a commander of the company which
had the mortars and the machineguns and an anti tank platoon, and there was a commander of, I think we called it in those days a headquarter company, which included a variety of service people. You had transport, if you owned any.
We didn’t in those days, or very, very little and you had your medical RMO, your regimental medical officer, and you had your signal platoon, who had telephones mainly in those days and some radio if they were lucky, and all sorts of administrative folk.
So there were four rifle company commanders and two other company commanders and they received their orders from the commanding officer. The OC of a company was the CO of a battalion, an officer commanding a company, and commanding officer of a battalion, who was a lieutenant colonel, so that was the top of our pyramid.
And who was the guy at the top of that pyramid?
In that battalion
at that time, a man called Burrows, Fred Burrows, who had been a soldier in the first AIF and had done a good job in action at some stage and wore a military medal for his efforts as a result, a military medal which is blue and white stripes, vertical stripes, and he had this three ribbons for the rest of his service in that war.
He was known to the troops as The Boar. He had a very loud voice and was not at all scared to use it. What else should one say about him? I don’t know
but any rate to this stage that’s probably enough. We had our CO. He was energetic, tough, a bit choleric but I think he appealed to the soldiers and he certainly normally great, great care of his men and that was Fred Burrows,
Well that’s a very detailed and fantastic layout of your company’s structure. I’m wondering now if you could just elaborate for me exactly what were your tasks and duties as company commander, what were you responsible for?
I was responsible for carrying out the orders for
whatever we were doing, the orders of the battalion commander. I was responsible only to him and when I’d been given my orders I had to make my plan how those orders should be carried out and then get my platoon commanders together
and give them my orders.
Well you’ve mentioned that one of the things that you felt you were lacking in personally was training in tactics, I’m wondering if you could just talk more about I guess, I mean you’ve just mentioned that you received orders, but what kind of decision making powers did you have?
Well I had full powers within my own company as long as I took decisions within the orders that I’d been given. The system is, it passes down from the CO to his company commanders, and then they’ve got to see that those orders are carried
out and they give their orders, the company commanders give their orders to platoon commanders, and platoon commanders then get on about the battle or the movement of whatever it is, that is to happen. That’s how it was in those days and that is how it is now except that technology has
advanced so far that I imagine, I don’t know how the modern army really works, but inter-communication within armies these days is able to be so much more pervasive than it was in those days, like we did everything by word of mouth.
At the battalion level for a major thing and be it a move from here to there or if a battalion was to say dig in where it was and prepare to defend that position, well probably there would be verbal orders
from the CO himself and there might well be a written order about the operation, printed. ‘Cause the battalion commander had a chief clerk and others to help a chief clerk and they could produce typed material, but that was the end of typed material, battalion headquarters. Company commanders didn’t go in for that. They had to tell their platoon commanders and
that might be a face to face conference or in some situations it might be over a telephone or in other situations it might be the company commander goes up to a particular platoon, sees the platoon commander and tells him what he’s got to do. Does that sort of clarify it?
Well I guess I’m also wondering, you’ve talked a lot about your position of not having great resources, didn’t have mortars, you didn’t have tanks, and I’m wondering how much you, as company commander, needed to be I guess paying attention to the resources of the company?
Well there was nothing you could do as company
commander. I mean so be it these things, the battalion commander couldn’t do anything about it. Equipment is handled at a very much higher more remote level and somebody like the divisional commander, who in those days was General Morshead, could make his representations for getting mortars and getting Bren guns and so forth but that’s the best he
could do. And if Bren guns weren’t arriving from UK and if they run out of mortars, there were none in stocks in Cairo or wherever, well that was the situation. It was very sad but there it was.
And I guess still sticking with your responsibilities and duties as company commander, how did you react to being in the position of leading quite a large group of men?
A hundred, yeh.
Well how did you react to that task?
Well there was nothing that I could do about it. I just had to wear a cheerful countenance and try and keep the troops happy and get on with the job of doing what I was told to do, you know.
I guess I’m wondering, just to try and get a picture of you as
company commander, what type of company commander you were, I’m wondering if you got amongst the troops or if there was distance, what kind of guy were you as company commander?
That’s a good one. I suppose I was,
I got the job when I least expected it and we were on the move going, as we put it in those days, “Up the desert.” I suddenly found myself commanding the company and the company commander, an older and much more experienced man, disappearing. I just had to sort of get on and do what I could. We were on the move. We were in
vehicles provided by the British and I didn’t see very much of the company. We were going along dusty desert roads, getting off at the end of a days movement, march, and making ourselves as comfortable in a bit of unknown desert as we could, rations
coming up and being distributed to the platoons and all the platoons sending parties to collect their rations from where the rations were being unloaded or meal cooked, that kind of thing. We had our own cooks of course.
You’re now talking about your first action?
Well that move
ultimately brought us to our first action, yes, and that was, what had happened was that 6th Division, which had fought very successful battles in the first desert campaign, 6 Division was now wanted for the expedition to Greece and the commander in chief in the Middle East wanted troops to protect
the desert flank while the bulk of his trained and experienced forces went to Greece. And it was the newly set up 9th Division’s unhappy task to become the desert flank of the Middle East situation and the other, all parts of the 9th Division were short of
training and short of troops, short of weapons and the British provided our artillery at this stage ‘cause our artillery had no guns, as I mentioned. And initially we went to a position south of Benghazi, which caused a great deal of unease
in the divisional commander’s eyes because he didn’t think that the possibilities of a highly mobile German- Italian force, that we could really defend the area where we had been sent and
the commander in chief in the Middle East came up to have a look and he agreed with that and we were given new orders and we moved back to the Benghazi area and our brigade, 20th Brigade, was given the task of holding a position
on a road. The road had led from Benghazi eastwards towards Egypt and our battalion was given the task of holding that road on a ridge that looked down onto an airfield and it was, we hadn’t
had very much time there but it was a very difficult position to defend, because while we had excellent observation looking down towards the airfield, it was very rocky country, very hard for, hard to develop defensive positions. In other words to defend a position you’ve got to get underground. You’ve got to dig in and
we didn’t have much in the way of tools to dig in either. That was another shortage. It was all shortages in 1941 but we did have a minefield and the bridge over the road where we were had been prepared for demolition and troops tried to make positions
piling up stones and rocks. There were two companies doing that. One company of the battalion had been taken from us and was guarding prisoners way back to the east of us and my company was given the task of holding a position on the left flank of the battalion.
There was a huge wadi, a huge gully, that led up into the battalion’s position and we were sent down there to stop anybody getting up there while perhaps there was fighting going on where the road was being held, so I took my company down there and we, I allotted platoon areas, two of them, and well that’s how the situation was when the
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 04
OK Alec just before the tape stopped you mentioned that you’d taken your company down into a wadi.
Yes, the Wadi Qattara.
Can you tell me what happened?
Well the battalion was able to see German troops forming up down
on or near the airfield and they got out of vehicles and they had a squadron of tanks. We were waiting for the 20th Anti Tank Company to arrive to help us in case there were tanks. I didn’t think it had arrived at the beginning. We had a company
of British machine gunners fortunately and we had a battery of British artillery supporting us, so we weren’t alone. The Germans came along the road, I won’t try and give you too much detail, but they attacked the battalion position. The bridge over the road was blown and this is,
you’ve got to have luck in war and we had no luck that day I s’pose because the effect of the demolition of that bridge set the minefield off by sympathetic definition and all these blasted mines went off, bang, bang, bang, right across the front of the battalion, so that meant that the tanks had a comparatively easy task to get at us. However there were only half the
battalion was really handling that ‘cause, as I told you, we had one company away guarding prisoners and my company was down in a wadi guarding that flank, so we were not attacked. The Germans probably didn’t know about that wadi and it was a long and hard and sad day, but the soldiers
were just, our men were glad to have a fight. They did their damnedest and they fought long and hard and they suffered a lot of casualties. I was called over. We had a, whether a written message or a telephone, probably a written message came to me asking for one
of my platoons and a truck would be, yes a platoon, a truck came and there was a written message saying that I was to send a platoon, using that truck, and that time ordered 10 Platoon to get into the truck, told Ken Hall the platoon sergeant, who was an officer for them, to report back to battalion. And so a third of my company disappeared and I was ordered to bring
rest of my company up on foot as quickly as possible, so I did that and we got up. I led the company up to where the action was taking place and ran into the battalion second in command
who had already collected my leading platoon, 10 Platoon, and told them to get to attack’ Germans who are in the little railway station. This is all difficult for you obviously, ‘cause you’ve got no map and no picture, and I was ordered to get my company back down the road
to a position which would be shown to us and to be in a position, dug in and hold the road, so that the battalion could be got out when it was possible to get them out and away. That all sounds pretty confused and I s’pose it was. Battles are not nice, tidy things but it worked.
We got into position, across the road, each side of it, and late in the day transport arrived from somewhere and the battalion was able to be bundled onto that and got away. And eventually we got onto transport too and moved eastwards
towards Barce I s’pose it was, and the thing that I remember mainly about that was that I put the whole of my company into two big Italian trucks. Men were just jammed together and any man who’d had a heart attack and died would have remained vertical. We were so crowded. They had a utility which
had the company reserve ammunition and the whole of company headquarters in it, a little utility which was loaded with that and I s’pose ten men, and we got away down that road under cover of darkness and the Germans didn’t come on. I think they’d probably had enough because they ran into
a lot of fire and fight from the two companies which were holding that position. This place was called Er-Regima and we were the only battalion which has that on its colours as a battle honour. As I mentioned to you earlier, we had about ninety casualties
and that was mainly over, it was really all over the two companies which had been in position each side of the road. That’s a lot of casualties, that’s killed and wounded of course. The Brit artillery had supported us nobly but they ran out of ammunition, so they hooked up their guns to their trucks and went
and the British machineguns had played a valuable part too but yes, they came up late, come to think of it, and it was getting dark and they felt they couldn’t do anything in the situation ‘cause they couldn’t make proper arrangements for night firing of their guns, so they went off too. The anti tank
company didn’t get up in time to do anything. They disappeared and then we finally were lucky enough to get transport and we disappeared.
And I’m wondering how you dealt with so many casualties on that day?
Well it was a matter of the RMO had set up
an aid post and we had stretcher bearers in the battalion of course and they got wounded men back. Some were walking wounded and got back themselves, but there weren’t any ambulances for the wounded or anything like that at that stage. There would
have been probably enough transport to get a few of the more badly wounded men away early but that’s just one of those things.
Well I’m just wondering as company commander, how much was it your responsibility to look after the wounded and dead?
No, well B Company, my company,
it didn’t get into the action apart from 10 Platoon and I don’t know that 10 Platoon had any casualties but the other two platoons didn’t go into action. They went back and established a position across the road behind where the action was taking place, so that problem didn’t arise.
And for that Benghazi action I’m wondering what you sort of, the intelligence that you’d received about your enemy?
What intelligence battalion had I do not know, battalion headquarters had, I do not know. We
were told that we were likely to be attacked there in that, and that we were to hold that position and that’s as much as I knew as company commander but I may, my detailed memories of that are, well they’re not detailed.
Still you’ve painted a very good story of that action on that day. I’m just wondering at that point what did you know of the Germans and their capabilities?
Well what we all knew of the Germans was that they’d had an alarmingly rapid
run through the French and the British armies in Western Europe and that the British had got their army away by the skin of its teeth, thanks to the RAF [Royal Air Force] and the navy, out of Dunkirk, and the Germans were victorious wherever they went, and they swallowed up Holland and Belgium and Denmark, and they established themselves in Norway.
We were going to be up against it and what we didn’t know at that stage, was that we had a first rate German commander against us as well, Erwin Rommel, and of course we had an army which was highly trained, had its tail right out because it had been so successful
and was equipped for the job. I don’t think we worried too much about a lot of this and I don’t think the troops sat in gloomy groups and said, “Oh dear, how are we going to do something?” Because cocky Australians, they’ve got a great belief in themselves.
Well as you’ve
described, sometimes in war situations you can have best laid plans that don’t necessarily work out the way you’ve strategically planned them. In that action at Benghazi I’m wondering if you can just tell me how did the action start, like what’s the command to start the action, what do you, what’s the signal?
This depends largely on the enemy doesn’t it? If you’re holding a position and you know where the enemy is and you can actually see him forming up and moving towards you, well the people at the front edge of the whole thing, in the platoons
and the sections, they’re the, platoon commander might well give the order to open fire and if you’re supported by artillery then the artillery have what they call, well those days they called OPOs, observation position officers, who can see
what you can see and perhaps rather more than you can see and when they get targets which are known to be within range of their guns, I don’t know who gives the order to fire, perhaps a battery commander does and we had a battery supporting us. He would have been with the battalion commander and it would have been agreed between
them when fire should be opened on the enemy if you were within range.
And as company commander where would you be positioned in a typical action?
Well in a defensive action the platoons are dug in, if they can dig into the ground, if it’s not too
hard and company headquarters has got to be located in a position somewhere where it can effectively control the battle, which means it will be behind the front edge of the thing, which are infantry sections and the section platoons dig in in depth. In other words some are in front and some are
further back, so that their fire can support the sections in front and it’s a matter of locating a headquarters where it has some chance of controlling its troops but the same thing happens with a battalion. You may have two companies in front and two companies or three companies in front and the other company
or companies giving you depth. They’re dug in further back and of course the 13th was in a very awkward position on that occasion because it had one of its companies away, completely away from the battalion, out of touch and we were rather split up because the CO had decided that B Company should be out on the left flank
and there were only two companies then commanding the road where the infantry and tanks attacked.
And as you say, you managed to find some vehicles to leave at night time.
Where did you go?
Well we, from there we went back in a series of moves
and took up defensive positions each time until we reached a position not far from Tobruk and we took up a defensive position there in case the show should be attacked. And General Morshead had moved into Tobruk
and he had met the commander in chief Middle East in Tobruk, and General Wavell, the commander in chief Middle East, had with him another Australian senior officer, Major General John Lavarack and he, and
reinforcements had been sent up to Tobruk itself. One of our divisions, sorry, one of our brigades was in Tobruk and a brigade of 7th Division had been sent up and it was decided that it was a, the policy would be to hold Tobruk with
the 9th Division plus the brigade from the 7th and the Tobruk Port, which was vital and was what Rommel really wanted at that stage, Tobruk Port could be held. And there was a considerable concentration of British
anti aircraft artillery that made it difficult for the enemy to attack’ from the air, costly. The navy could maintain Tobruk by bringing up stores and ammunition and four brigades plus a powerful group of British artillery regiments could help us to hold
Tobruk, and we had in the bits and pieces there an Indian Cavalry Regiment, 18th Indian Cavalry, and the same regiment of British machine gunners. They were there and available to us and it meant that
a powerful force could be concentrated in Tobruk and that, in the opinion of those who mattered, that force was strong enough to hold Tobruk, so 20th Brigade was ordered to go inside the so-called fortress, fortress area and was allotted a position in the defence of Tobruk.
And that was the beginning of the siege which was not lifted until virtually the end of 1941 and which the division really covered itself with glory. We knew how to, if we didn’t know how to carry out
offensive operations very effectively, at least we knew how to fight a defensive battle and the troops did that with some zest. And they did things that the Germans didn’t know too much about and were not used to and didn’t really enjoy, and that was patrol at night and we’d practised
patrolling at night in our training days but now we were doing it for real and it was a tremendously valuable thing in all sorts of ways, and distinguished the Australians in the eyes of the Germans. They weren’t used to our sort of night time goings on at all and everybody took part in that. I mean to say sometimes you were on what was called a red line,
which was the defensive positions round Tobruk, Italian concrete defensive positions, and new positions we dug in amongst those. And sometimes you were back in a reserve position on the so-called blue line, which didn’t exist but we had to dig. In other words you’re up for a pretty exhausting week or two weeks or whatever it was in the line,
the redline, where you patrolled every night and all the rest of it. After that you went back to the blue line and you created it. You dug the damn thing, so Tobruk was really a fascinating experience. Or what do you want to know about Tobruk?
Well first of all how
long, I mean the seizure of Tobruk went on for approximately six months or so, how long were you there altogether?
I was there from the tenth of April till sometime in early July when I went back to the reinforcement depot and took command of a company, and my company commander went up
and got his company back again.
Well perhaps you can just describe those couple of months that you were involved in the siege of Tobruk, Tobruk is, as you’ve just mentioned, very well known for its slit trenches and difficult desert conditions. Where did you set up your company headquarters?
Well just somewhere to the east of the El Adem Road, which doesn’t help you very much, and I had one of the Italian concrete positions as company headquarters, and
I had two of my platoons were actually in the very front line, and they had some Italian concrete posts and they had to dig other posts. And I, once upon a time I would have been able to give you the number of the Italian post
I had for my company headquarters but I’ve forgotten it. I think it was R something or other in the thirties, but we had telephone communication back to battalion headquarters but I don’t think we had anything else.
And can you describe that concrete bunker that you were in?
I couldn’t really give you an honest description of it. They were not really designed for fighting. That was one thing that was clear to us. None of us liked being in those things.
We all thought it’d be easy, the sort of thing if the enemy were able to get in and get at you, they could be on top of you and dropping grenades into one of those concrete posts and you’d be able to do very little about it, but it’d be very hard to describe the things.
Well I’m just wondering what the general
living conditions were like?
Well it was, we got in there at the beginning of April and of course we’re getting on, this was getting about the beginning of spring and going on towards the summer, and summer in North Africa is a pretty
raw and powerful business. And you must remember that the Australian concept of defensive warfare involves everything happening at night. In other words rations come up once it gets dark and the battalion cooking
was done way back somewhere in the vicinity of battalion headquarters, and then trucks used to bring rations up in hotboxes for the cooked meal and any other bits and pieces which were available, bread, tinned stuff of one sort or another. That would all come up once it got dark and you would have carrying parties from each of your platoons
waiting at company headquarters and they’d pick up the hotboxes, which were heavy things, clumsy sort of things, and their share of bread and whatever else was available, and carry that forward. And they’d have pretty long carries too
and while all that was going on, well of course troops would be standing by for their meals but there’d be the organisation of patrols who were to move out into no man’s land between where the Germans and Italians were and ourselves, and find out what was going on and bring in information about the location of enemy positions etcetera, etcetera.
You didn’t move out of your positions in daylight unless you wanted to offer a target to the other side, and depended where you were, how close they were and so on whether you were fired at. Our first positions in April,
we were not fired at much at all except at night. They knew people were moving about at night and they tried to make it difficult. We existed on a water bottle of day, a quart water bottle and that was for drinking, shaving, washing, the lot.
There was very interesting entertainment often in the evenings before it got dark, but the German liked to use their dive bombers on Tobruk Harbour shipping and there’d be a wonderful display of the JU [Junkers], what are they, JU-87s or were they the 88s?
The dive bombers anyway, they would come over, a whole swarm of them and dive on the ships in the harbour or alongside jetties and at other targets in Tobruk itself. And there was a whole brigade of anti aircraft guns deployed around the harbour and they were large calibre things, three point seven inch anti aircraft
guns and they would put up a great barrage over the harbour and very massive bursting shell, and the Germans would have to come down through this and down they would come. They had all the guts in the world. Occasionally somebody found the prospect too daunting
and he’d swing away from it all, go elsewhere, but they’d come down with, they had sirens on their wings and you had all the roar of this aerial bombardment and the scream of these sirens and then the explosion of their load of bombs. And you could watch that, an April evening, and watch it we did,
sat up there, and I dare say, I don’t know, the Germans weren’t, there wasn’t high ground. I don’t think they could have seen too much of that. They were seeing the air part of it. They wouldn’t have seen the land part of it from where they were probably, depending on which part of the perimeter they were covering, so that was a very dramatic sort of thing, and one could only be very grateful
that they were not doing their bomb dropping where we were. We were just alongside the battalion in the front line in April and it was, what was it, was it the, round about thirteenth or fourteenth of April that
Rommel launched a major attack on the fortress on Tobruk and that attack was launched against one of our sister battalions, which was just beside us and you couldn’t see the area where all this was going on. It was all smoke and exploding shells
and whatnot, tremendous noise and we could only watch and wonder, but down in the midst of all that there were great deeds done. This was where the first Australian VC [Victoria Cross] of that war was to be awarded, Jack Edmondson of 2/17th Battalion, and that is where the
fifty odd German tanks broke through the defences and got into the fortress and then they ran slap into all the British artillery. And they weren’t a company, were used to being accompanied by infantry of course who would take on guns and make it possible for them to operate, but the 2/17th stopped the German infantry. And the tanks got in and they eventually decided
that it was much the better thing to do now was to get out and they had to come back. They had a very rough time of it. They lost about, I think lost about a third of the number of tanks that got in and they had a very nasty snap in the eye on that battle. That was the Easter, Easter Battle it was called, and the 17th did a great
job. We were mere observers on that occasion.
And you’ve mentioned that I understand your primary I guess task was to dig in and offer defensive support?
Yes well we, in my time there
we were not attacked as far as I can remember. I’d remember I’m sure if we had been attacked because we saw what a modern attack was like and what was going on in the 17th area, concentration of fire on the actual perimeter, the perimeter defences. The perimeter defences were what was left of the Italian wire
and what was left of Italian minefields, and then of course the positions where our men were and that was a full scale attack, but the Germans were in a hurry. They rightly didn’t want us to get in and be completely organised and
happy waiting for their attack but they didn’t have proper maps and they didn’t really know anything much about the Tobruk fortress. It was a try and it came off very badly. Rommel didn’t get any good marks back in headquarters in Germany for what he did, in fact so much so that they sent a special senior officer out to
examine the situation on the ground with Rommel and decide what should be done next. We didn’t know that of course, but it’s very interesting knowing these things now. But German headquarters was so disturbed. It had reason to be disturbed of course because if things went wrong in Africa, they already were preparing
for the invasion of Russia and that’s where their thoughts were concentrated and they hadn’t beaten, they hadn’t landed in Britain. They decided that wasn’t on. Their war had really got a little bit out of hand.
And you’ve just mentioned that your company didn’t come under direct
fire. I’m wondering if your company encountered any losses at all or any casualties during that time?
Yes, well I lost the, one of our first casualties was one of my officers. This was a round from a mortar or something I think which landed in his position and he was gravely wounded in the head and
he died of that. He was a fine bloke. I remember him well and I think his platoon worshipped him and they…
I learnt on the phone what had happened, and we’d had a rule by that time that if people were wounded they were not to be moved from their positions until it was dark because you, it takes about four men to carry a man and if they wander about in daylight
some cheerful one on the other side might fire at them. And I reminded a platoon sergeant of that and nevertheless his people disobeyed orders and carried him into company. We could do nothing for Chook
Powell and there was a great blast from battalion about this, as you would expect, and rightly so. I mean to say there might have been five men hit instead of one, and it was silly and the platoon sergeant should not have let his troops do that.
But I think the boy was dead when they brought him in. We got our first German prisoner while we were in that position.
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 05
Just before we get onto where we were, at a time when there is a death in the company, especially if someone respected like the platoon commander, what opportunity do the men have to sort of mark that or in some way hold a service?
Nothing much you can do, no. It’s a heartless game.
And at the end of it all our engineers built a memorial in Tobruk and part of the memorial that was used, was the doorstep of some building in Tobruk, is now with the Tobruk memorial in Anzac Parade.
I think the original memorial was destroyed in one of the wars after Hitler’s war, but the memorial here has followed the design of that original memorial, but that is all. There’s a war cemetery there of course but
by and large there was not the opportunity to do anything.
Particularly happened to the bodies in that, you’re in a siege situation like that?
Well his body was
taken back and would have been given a burial in some area that had been chosen by battalion or had been, not necessarily by battalion but by higher authority. I think they would have arranged for burials in that kind of a military situation.
But everything recorded and possibly some sort of a mark over the grave but that’s something that one didn’t know at the time, at least as I try to look back at it, I don’t think I would have known then anything about that.
You mentioned at that same occasion you took your first German prisoner, could you tell us about that?
Somewhere about that time, yes. This was a patrol on the company front. One night, don’t ask me the date, but it was very early in Tobruk and the patrol was commanded by a marvellous little bloke called Paterson, and therefore he was known as Banjo to everybody.
And Banjo Paterson brought this man in. He was a big German, wrapped in a greatcoat and he had a little bag, and I got the impression that he’d perhaps had enough of World War II and was looking for a way out ‘cause he’d not been in any fight or resistance. He’d just been seen and collared by our people. They brought him into me and
I had some fragments of German left from a year’s German at school, so I was able to say, “Hello” to this bloke and ask him his name and where he came from. His name was Karl Reichberger and he came from, oh dear, where was it? Meisau somewhere, and he obviously felt he was amongst friends because he waved an enormous foot at us which we could see in the
sort of half light of the night. And, I don’t know whether, perhaps there was a moon, but this great foot was waved at us and he said, “Ich bin ein fußballspieler.” And if your German is roughly like mine, you’ll know what that is, Ich bin ein fußballspieler is, “I’m a footballer.” I translated for the blokes and they were terribly amused,
so that was our first German prisoner.
How was he treated when you took him in?
He’d been treated very kindly by the blokes who picked him up and had not been in any fight or scrimmage and we sent him back with good wishes to battalion. I don’t know what they did with him but there would have been a POW [Prisoner of War] compound somewhere under guard and where these people would have been kept
and shipped out from time to time, courtesy of the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.
Tobruk wasn’t the most comfortable of situations to be in, apart from the enemy around the perimeter and the prospect of attack, what were the other major problems you had to deal with on a day to day basis?
Increasing heat. It was a frightful climate and, as I said a little while ago, we got a quart, a water bottle which is a quart per day and you existed on that. And that the general situation was that
flies galore, and you haven’t got to have much imagination to picture the sort of problem that you had coping with sanitation for example, and both armies had that problem. I don’t know how the Germans coped with it and rubbish,
empty bully beef tins, that sort of thing. Frankly I don’t remember what we did about tins. You didn’t want to distribute too much bright tin about the place because it might indicate location of yourself, which would have been of interest to the other side. Sheer boredom and weariness is something that had to be coped
with. And battalion established a little beach spot on a cliff side where soldiers could, who were getting a bit overweary, could go and have a dip in the Mediterranean and just be out of it all for a couple of days, a weekend or something like that. That was a very sensible thing
to do. It was much appreciated. Mail, we used to get mail from time to time, again courtesy of the navies. They brought our reinforcements up
and if you knew anybody in the battalion signal office and you happened to go up to battalion you could always get the latest news from BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation]. They had one of their sets listening in. I remember that particularly because CO had a, was called a COs orders group one night,
and went back to battalion for that, got our orders and I put my head in the battalion signal office before I left headquarters to say hello to a couple of blokes. And they said, “Have you heard the news?” And I said, “What news?” And they said, “The bloody Germans have gone into Russia.”
And I said it, I remember saying at the time, “Well now I know we’re going to win this war.” ‘Cause you didn’t, you know, our experience so far, we knew that the expedition had been kicked out of Greece, and they’d been brought back most of them courtesy again of the navy and we were locked up in Tobruk, didn’t know when, if ever, we would get out of it, and the
Brits had been kicked out of Europe etcetera, etcetera. And now the Germans had been mad enough to take on yet another front, incredible.
How was the general morale in this atmosphere of boredom and…?
I think morale actually remained high in my experience. The troops would have liked to have had a really ding-dong go
and perhaps broken their way out of Tobruk or something like that, but we were in no position to do it of course. But I don’t remember any sort of signs of, I mean people were tired and one thing I do remember is that we began to
notice, I think one was told this because one didn’t go with them. But ration parties at night would come in from platoons and they’d pick up their hotboxes and anything else they had to carry and they’d carry that back to platoon. Well they’d have a walk of many hundreds of yards, and once upon a time at the beginning they’d pick all their stuff up and they had to go like blazes and get back to platoon and start dishing food out to people.
And later on, by the middle of the year, they were going so far and putting it all down and having a spell then picking it up again and going on a bit further and perhaps having another spell. In other words people just weren’t as strong as they were once. That sort of life is not conducive to maintaining a high level of physical fitness
and there’s, everybody knows that death or mutilation is around the corner any minute, and you’ve got no choice, it just happens, and that’s… I don’t remember anybody sort of breaking down under the pressure of
that in my time in Tobruk but I left. I was sent back to take over from George Colvin at the reinforcement depot early in July and I don’t remember any cases. There could have been in other companies but certainly there were not in B Company, any cases of people going gaga and so on.
You mentioned sanitation. In a situation with so little water, what measures were taken to prevent the outbreak of disease?
All that I know of were disposal of faeces. That sort of thing was buried.
But to give you an idea, I mean to say I’ll just tell you the plain facts. I used to visit my 3 Platoon headquarters each night. I’d take a runner with me and we’d go up to platoon and I’d spend time having a talk with the platoon commander and ask him questions. Then I’d go along to another platoon and then to the third platoon and then back to company. And I elected to
stay with one particular platoon headquarters overnight and this was just for my own sort of information to see what they saw by day and just what it was like, and so I spent a night and a day and went back to company headquarters the following night.
And people who needed to do it simply gathered their faeces into an empty bully beef tin or something like that and passed it over the back of their dug in position and waited until it was dark and then they went out and buried it.
I don’t know what people did elsewhere ‘cause I wasn’t elsewhere, but that’s what I actually saw done. And urine was disposed of, by and large in the same way I think. But the possibilities of course, the horrifying… You think of the,
how many thousand people who we had, it varied, but there were sometimes I think more than thirty thousand people in Tobruk when there were a lot of prisoners, and they were right away from the fighting area of course, but the human waste had to be disposed of there. And then you had people dotted all round the perimeter having to cope with this problem, and over the way you had thousands
of Germans and Italians coping with the same problem. Possibilities must have been appalling.
Can imagine the heat and with problems of waste disposal, what did it smell like?
I don’t remember anything being too oppressive because we were out in the, I was going to say
the fresh air. It wouldn’t have been the right term I suppose. No, I don’t remember any problem of that sort.
You mentioned the term fortress, was that the name that you adopted for the emplacement at Tobruk?
That was a commonly used term, yes, Tobruk fortress. It was a fortress. It was a position
with defences, actual physical defences which were manmade, wire, mines and positions dug into the ground and the Italian concrete positions. All that makes the thing a fortress really, so the term
was I think commonly used.
Were there any terms used for those within the fortress at the time you were there?
I’m not quite sure what you mean?
Well for instance the romantic term that’s now taken up is Rats, the Rats of Tobruk, is this something that was ever used at the time?
No, that was provided for us by the Germans of course, as you obviously know.
I don’t think anybody adopted the rat as badge for example, but the term is well known. I think people are a bit amused by it and there is a Rats of Tobruk Association in Canberra of course, and I s’pose
it exists elsewhere in the country.
By 1944 they’d already made a film with that title.
Rats of Tobruk.
It was very quickly taken up by someone, whether or not it was those there. Just want to go back to something you mentioned before and before we go on from Tobruk. You mentioned watching the show put on by the flak and the JU-88s coming in. That’s not a sight that many people have seen. It may be a sight that
nobody’s ever seen before. Could you describe that picture to us in as much detail as you can? What you could see from your vantage point.
Yes. You could, this was, as I said, an evening show. You could see the groups of JU 80.., they were 87s weren’t they? Doesn’t matter, dive bombers, let’s say that. You could see
the dive bombers approaching and then the anti aircraft defences, which were very considerable, would open up. Once they’d got, obviously the people on the ground could judge where, by the way the aircraft were moving, what they were going to do. And then the anti
aircraft defences would open up and you’d have a great blanket of grey to black cloud above the area of the port. You could see the port down there from where we were, and then above it there was this great crowd of high explosive shells going off and then you’d see the aircraft turn over and peel off from their
formations and go down. And they’d have to come through that blanket of bursting shell to drop their bombs and then skedaddle as fast as they could, and they would have been sitting ducks if there’d been any fighters to go for them. There had been I think a couple of Hurricanes left in Tobruk for a while but it was impossible to keep aircraft there. They would come
under shellfire and you wouldn’t achieve anything, so we were without defence from the air except for the ack-ack. One had to get used to being under the sort of wrong end of things in those days. The German air force ruled the air supreme over
Tobruk, as it did over Greece.
How did you and the men you were with react to that show as it was, watching it from your vantage point?
It was damn good entertainment. We’d never seen anything like that before. One felt sorry for the people down in and around the port. It would have been very unpleasant for them.
It wasn’t entertainment at all for them but, you know.
When the Easter battle occurred within which Edmondson received his VC, what news of that VC was there, did that come through at the time or was that something that only happened afterwards?
I don’t know when that would have actually reached the 2/17th Battalion.
There would have had to be talk. Austin Mackell who was his platoon commander, whose life Edmondson had saved, would have had to tell the story at battalion and the battalion commander, suitably impressed, would have to
write the thing up and submit it to brigade, which would pass it on to division, and as it wasn’t an Australian decoration technically, it had to go onto ultimately rest on a desk in Cairo, Middle East. How Middle East handled it I do not know. It all takes time
but it might well have been known in the battalion before they left Tobruk, probably was. I’ve got their history, 2/17th history here.
It would have had some effect on their morale anyway at some point when they found out about it?
You were moved on to take your OC’s job in reinforcement training?
Can you explained what happened to you then when you were moved out of Tobruk?
Yes, I went down to the port and I was told to go and I got onboard a little destroyed called [HMS] Defender
somewhere round about midnight, and we got out of Tobruk port in the very small hours of the morning and she turned on all she had and we roared back, small destroyer laden with troops and going with all her engines could give, so that she could get out of the area where she’d be likely to meet the German air force, simple as that.
The AIF was the reception place in Alexandria, and they would have put me onto transport of some sort to take me up to the reinforcement depot in Palestine. I don’t remember the details of that move other than that. I wasn’t feeling too miserable getting out of Tobruk.
You can imagine. I don’t think I looked forward to training reinforcements with any great glee on the other hand.
That Tobruk ferry essentially kept all the men in Tobruk alive over the course of the siege?
Were they appreciated by the troops at the time, was there a marked?
Very much so. We knew that we wouldn’t last more than a few days if
the Germans could stop the navy and the navy lost ships and lives keeping us going. That was well known. We were there by grace of the navies and people must never forget that the RAN [Royal Australian Navy] had its share of that work and that risk and loss. Destroyer [HMS] Waterhen was
sunk I think, off Tobruk at one stage.
When you got back to Palestine, what was your role there in the reinforcement training?
Well I commanded that company. I was responsible for it and responsible for the type of training laid down, see that it was carried out.
What lessons had been learnt by you and by the army in general by this stage in the campaign?
What the army had learnt by this stage, I wouldn’t like to say. I don’t know. I just don’t know the answer to
that. What had been laid, the army knew that for example that what had been laid down about handling a German armoured attack, our answer to that had worked. We knew that. In other words you don’t let the
armour, the enemy armour and infantry work together. You let the tanks go through. The troops were told this, “This is what you’ll do. You let the tanks through. Never mind them. There are plenty of artillery behind who’ll deal with the tanks. You’ve got to stop the infantry coming.” And they did, so that was known and understood. I don’t know how far that was understood in the rest of the
British and Australian Army outside Tobruk but that lesson was laid down from the beginning. It wasn’t learnt on the way. That was the concept which Lavarack, who was commander of Tobruk in that Easter battle, had laid down for Morshead and Morshead had seen that the division got that message.
What about on a personal level, you mentioned before when you were first asked to take command of a company you felt unprepared and by the time you were back training reinforcements, how much had things changed for you?
I don’t know that I really know the answer to that. I felt more confident. I’d commanded a company and
that had worked but I still felt and I know I felt it in Tobruk that I was not really equipped intellectually for the task and it wasn’t until I got, somebody had decided that I should be sent to the
AIF Middle East junior staff school, that I found people were actually training me for a task. And that was reinforced when we went home after Alamein and I was sent to the Australian staff school at Duntroon and I felt, you know, with some active service experience and solid training, I felt that I did know what I had, was required to do and was capable
of doing, different feeling altogether, bit late in the war but nevertheless there it was and I guess it worked.
Can you tell us how you came to be sent to that staff school in Palestine?
The place had only just been opened. The course I went to was the number one war course. The Brits had a staff school at Haifa,
and there was still the need for junior staff officers and I was interviewed by the distinguished bloke known as Red Robbie in the Australian Army. That’s H.G.H. Robertson who was commander of the reinforcement depot and
he must have decided that I might be more useful if I was trained to be a staff officer and I was sent off. It surprised me somewhat. I thought in due course I’d be sent back to my battalion.
What impressions did you have of General Robertson?
I knew nothing about him at that stage. He was
a pretty, I mean to say I know a lot about his record now, quite a lot, but he was just a brigadier then. And I noticed he had a DSO [Distinguished Service Order] ribbon on his chest and his questions were, he was obviously an alert type of person. He asked some searching questions.
We had a brief discussion and he said, “All right, you’ll be let know.” So I saluted and said, “Thank you sir,” and disappeared.
Can you tell us a little bit more about number one war course, what you were doing there?
What on earth were we doing? Well we studied
military organisation and we studied tactics, mainly infantry tactics and the relationship between the various arms and the preparation of military orders which one might be required to do at, sort
of the brigade level or higher. But mainly I think must have been brigade level. The funny thing was that when that course, which was pretty brief high pressure business, was over, I was one of I think there were nineteen officers, AIF and Kiwis [New Zealanders], who were
sent not to brigades but we were sent to a British Army headquarters in Syria. The wonderful way the army seeks its wonders to perform. Here we were, brand new staff officers, with very brief staff training and we went to the headquarters of the 9th Army in Syria and the senior, we found that at least
one department there was run by an Australian officer, a Lieutenant Colonel Barrett, but I found myself in the operations department there, working under the aegis of a very experienced lieutenant colonel, major, sorry major, who already was
wearing his military cross and all that sort of thing, so I had, how long did I have there? Wasn’t long fortunately, ‘cause you felt a bit out of the war there, living a life like being in an army barracks somewhere in peacetime almost. And we were up in the
headquarters of 9th Army was in the hills up behind Beirut and, was it Beirut? Yes, and one didn’t get much exercise but we solved the exercise problem amongst the group of us. There was a tennis court. We were in a big hotel I think it was, and there was a tennis court and
we used to play six a side hockey on the tennis court, which was good fun, a bit dangerous but it gave us some exercise and we occasionally got into Beirut. But they were interesting people there I got to know
only briefly because he disappeared to his division and I disappeared to mine but a man called Hackett, who was in the 8th Royal Irish Hussars, which was sort of family regiment. But he was a Hackett of the Western Australian Hacketts and he finished his military career as a general and then moved into the academic world, where he became a professor of something or other at London.
But that was the famous Sean Hackett who led the, what was it, was it the 4th Powder Brigade at Arnhem and was a prisoner of war and wrote one of the most marvellous books which came out of World War II about life as a prisoner of war with the Germans all around you. And the Dutch people looked, he’d escaped and a Dutch
family looked after him, and I mustn’t bore you with all the details of that ‘cause we’re getting a bit off subject I s’pose. But that’s the sort of experience you can have though when you’re in a mixed army such as was in the Middle East, Indian divisions, Australian divisions, Brit divisions, a Highland division and so on. You met people from all sorts of corners of the British world.
It was great.
You were then sent to 9th Division headquarters after that?
Yes, I went home.
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 06
Well Alec before lunch you were telling us that you went to number one war course in the Middle East and I understand that after that course you were then posted to Syria, to HQ [headquarters] in Syria?
Can you tell me about that posting?
Well I thought we’d
gone over that? The posting to headquarters 9th Army. Yes, I thought I gave you quite a lot of detail about that.
OK well moving on then from Syria leading up to El Alamein, can you tell me about that?
Yes, well I was called back. I think other officers were moved too,
either just before or just after the campaign in the Western Desert went wrong and it might be likely that we would have a role in the desert again, and I found myself back with my division but at headquarters of the 9th Division. And I was posted
to that as a G3 liaison. Well a G3 stands for general staff officer grade 3, which is about the bottom of the staff scale and liaison was a task of being a sort of commissioned messenger boy between divisional headquarters, and one of the headquarters of the brigades, the infantry brigades,
possibly be artillery headquarters of the division. And you were expected to perhaps take important papers, orders for example, highly secret things, and you were expected to be able to get the atmosphere in a place, learn what is happening and go back with up to date reports of the situation
of where you’ve been. I learnt quite a bit about the task of such an officer in the time I had it, but I upset one of the brigadiers. I think he must have given an awful blast to divisional headquarters and they decided I was not cut out to be a liaison officer.
And I was kept inside the headquarters thereafter just as a G3 operations and that meant that I was working for somebody who was the GSO grade 2 operations and he was a marvellous bloke. We became great friends and remained friends after the war.
But that was a very good time to go back to the division because very soon after that 9 Div was ordered into the Western Desert because the war had really turned rather disastrous, and instead of people fighting up round Tobruk or that general vicinity, the war had moved to within an easy couple of hours drive of Cairo,
with threats to Alexandria, the naval port and base and the Suez Canal itself, who knows what? And this was quite clearly in the minds of commander of the, what is now called Panzer Group A Africa, no longer just the Afrika Corps but Armoured Army Africa, or Armoured Army Group Africa.
So my first task that I remember was being ordered to go into Cairo and that operations for the defence of Cairo were likely, 9 Div should be responsible for the defence of Cairo and we had to have a place for the headquarters. I was told to go and find one
So how difficult was it finding a building for headquarters?
Well it seemed at that particular situation a matter of no difficulty at all because there was a wonderful place which used to be inhabited by the officers of general headquarters Middle East and other people like them, called the Gazera Club. And so I went straight to the Gazera Club
first up, thinking of, remembering its beautiful surroundings and establishments and swimming pools and tennis courts and whatnot, and that seemed to be a marvellous place for a divisional headquarters. But I was caught up with by a messenger when I was actually in the Gazera Club looking around thinking what a layout might be, and
a fellow caught up with me and I had a written message that the scene had changed and we were now going to defend Cairo in the general location of the Pyramids, and to report to 9 headquarters somewhere or other, 9 Div headquarters, so the scene changed as quickly as that. But any rate the
situation in the desert settled down a little for a time, and the division did not go to location of the Pyramids or anywhere near them, and we moved up nearer Alexandria and then finally up to the area known as Alamein. And we settled down there in a defensive position, well not first of all
in a defensive position. We settled down and moved to a position near Alamein and then we became involved in operations and there we remained until November when the war began to move away westwards, back towards Benghazi and then much further beyond that up into Tunisia, and
the 9th Division was under orders to prepare for a move to Australia.
And I’m wondering if the 9th Division had been visited by Morshead or anybody like that?
Well Morshead, Morshead he was the commander of the division, so he saw it
or parts of it, frequently. For example during the big battle at Alamein which began on the twenty third of October 1942, he would visit his brigadiers daily and sometimes a couple of times in a day. He might go forward even to a battalion headquarters. His divisional headquarters remained
back where it could function and he would go forward to see how people were and get the atmosphere and give orders if necessary, and so on. But other people, I don’t know. When Montgomery came out to the desert in
August, one of the first things he did was to come up to the 9th Division, see what we looked like and essentially he came to see Morshead, the commander, and he met other officers. I don’t know, I don’t think he went all round the division on that occasion. He just had to meet a few of the essential people.
And did you ever get to meet Morshead personally?
Not until the eve of Alamein. I never saw him in Tobruk. I didn’t know who he was, and of course he had no occasion to go forward to look at an infantry company in Tobruk. He was too busy.
But on the night that Alamein began, when we were waiting for the thing to start, he came round. We were housed in tents and things like that, divisional staff. He came around and had a little chat with each of the members of the operational staff and perhaps other parts
of the staff for all I know. But that was my first conversation with General Morshead and it was just a very nice feeling that a man who had so much on his shoulders with his division about to go into what could be one of the most critical actions of the campaign, should come and speak
to some of the humblest of his staff like that.
How crucial do you think it was to boost the morale at that point by his visit?
I think that, you know, all of us got a kick out of it that the divisional commander should actually come and have a yarn with them. That was a good moment.
Well can you I guess describe the feeling, I mean a lot has been written about the battle of Alamein, can you describe the lead up to the beginning of that battle, what was the mood?
Well the mood on the whole I s’pose was a very good mood
because we’d had a number of successful operations in which the division had done very well, before Alamein. When I say before Alamein, I mean in the July period. We opened that account with a very successful raid, a raid in company strength, and then we launched an
attack in brigade strength and which largely destroyed an Italian division and went right through to ‘round about the headquarters of the Africa Korps and which captured, had destroyed Rommel’s intelligence organisation. And when I say
destroyed, there were many casualties. Some were captured. Some were killed. Some were wounded, and we picked up all the documentation of that intelligence organisation and that went back to our people, and presumably in Cairo who could handle all that sort of stuff. But that was the first major operation at Alamein for us and then we launched other attacks which were successful, and
one round about the twenty seventh of July, which was disastrous. We lost virtually the whole of 2/28th Battalion but you’ve got to take the hard knocks in war as well as rejoice in the successes, but that was a bitter blow. And things were peaceful after that as far as 9
Div was concerned for the, there was a major battle, the last attack launched by the Germans and Italians and that was, dates just escape me here, I think about the beginning of September.
They made, they launched a major attack but that was seen off without difficulty and Rommel knew he was in trouble then because at the time, well it’s a complicated thing. You’ve got to look at the bigger picture. He was right up at the end of an enormous
long line of communications, which he had to chew up a lot of petrol in order to get petrol forward to his vehicles in the field and to his, particularly his tanks, but all that had to come from, in transport across the sea, from out of Italy. And Hitler himself had decided not to have a go to capture Malta, and so the navy and the air force were operating out of Malta against
a German line of communications, and his petrol and ammunition and food supplies were being squeezed down and down and down, and he had this army stuck way up near Cairo. And if he could get stuff into Tobruk now, because Tobruk was his at this stage. If he could get stuff into Tobruk it still had to come hundreds of kilometres up to where it was needed at the front. He was in a very difficult position.
By this time our supply situation was immensely better and the Americans were in the war and they gave the British a whole division’s worth of tanks, newly built tanks which had been issued to the American army. And the Brits were in dire need of a better tank to ‘Tackle the bigger German
tanks and they, I think it was on the president’s order that the tanks were a complete armoured division. General, what were they, Sherman’s, should be shipped to the Middle East for use by the British, a terrific gesture that. And we already had some American tanks but they were not very good tanks
for various reasons, but this was the latest tank and it would be capable of taking on the biggest and best of the German tanks, so the 8th Army was being got ready in much more, under much happier circumstances than its opponents. And having seen off the last German attack, the
Battle of [Alam el] Halfa, I think morale was at, very much on the improvement, very much on the up and up and we, as a division, had been successful in a new kind of battle, different from Tobruk because this time we were doing the attacking and that had
come off, even though we’d had that awful loss, Western Australian battalion, the 28th. No, what next?
Well I’m wondering, you mentioned earlier on that Morshead came around and visited the night before.
On the very night of, just within an hour or so
of the opening of the party. There was nothing to do then I mean, so everything that could have been done at divisional headquarters had been done, and all the preparations which were required had been attended to in the infantry battalions who would attack, and at the gun positions, so all that
was done. And mere staff officers were waiting to get some work to do, so we went out of div headquarters and sat on a bit of a piece of rising ground by a roadside and we watched, and heard masses of vehicles moving away from us in the darkness until there wasn’t a sound. Everybody had just even stopped moving. And
we all had our eyes on our watches because the artillery side of the thing would open at, I think it was nine-thirty on the night of twenty-third of October ’42, and there was a special plan for the artillery and they would open the battle by shelling the German artillery, and then
at nine, what was it? I s’pose ten o’clock they’d change their task and shell the German defences which were about to be attacked. I think my photographs, I had a little camera and
I took photographs of the artillery positions, all the guns blazing away into the distance, and I think I gave those to the War Memorial, so I can’t show them to you, but in any book on Alamein you can see, I can show you one later on today if you like, show you pictures of that, but it was a very memorable scene.
Can you describe
that scene, what was it like being in amongst?
Well nobody was shelling us where we were, so we were feeling very relaxed and happy. It was very thrilling to see and hear the enormous row kicked up by, I forget how many hundred guns
shelling the German artillery positions and we knew what they were doing. And then we went back into our various offices to make ready to do whatever came in for us to do, was somebody,
in military operations always people waiting somewhere until what the situation requires of them brings them in to carry out their tasks. And one of the things in preparation for Alamein, it was one of the little jobs that fell to me, was to take copies of the order
for the battle, which is a pretty thick document, to people who needed it and were waiting for it, get a signature and return to div headquarters with that signature. And one of the headquarters I had gone to was headquarters of our engineers. I gave them the copy of the order for the battle to the
adjutant of the engineers, who was a very busy man at that stage ‘cause they were still laying mines and they were getting mines up. They were clearing things and doing a whole heap of things in preparation for what was to be a major battle, and he scribbled a receipt and gave it to me and I left him with his copy of the order, which was to go to the commander of the engineers of course. And a day or two later
my boss sent for me and he said, “Alec, engineers seem to be very worried. They haven’t got a copy of the order.” I said, “I’m amazed sir. I gave the order to…” I won’t mention his name, “myself and got the receipt for it, which we have here.” And Tim said, “Well you’d better try and do what you can do about it because Colonel Risson seems to be in a bit of a tizz about it
at this stage of the preparations.” And so I went over and found my friend, the adjutant of the engineers and he was looking very red in the face. I think something tough must have happened to him because he said, “Yes, I know what you’re here for.” He said, “It’s all right, I found it.” I said, “What do you mean, you’ve found it?” He said, “Well I was so flat out and worried when I knew what I was signing for, but I just dug a bit of a hole in the sand under my table
and covered it up, so that I could get on with my job.” Here was a complete order for the battle. He was very frank about it, and I think his backside must have been black and blue. Anyway, we still won the Battle of El Alamein.
That is one of my special memories of that battle. Another one is that in a place like divisional headquarters you don’t expect to be too much worried by shellfire and sometimes there was a bit of shelling, but usually we heard shells going overhead. I don’t know who in the background was collecting them but we would hear these things. And one night a German aircraft,
who must have known our area almost to the inch, came over and he dropped ‘jumping jack’ bombs all over the place. It was horrible. But by and large divisional headquarters was a nice quiet place to be. I was talking to a friend of mine, one of the intelligence officers, one day and all of a sudden just bang, crash. A shell burst slap in the area close to us, which shook us
rather but we were shaken I think mainly, by the fact that it was right on top of the dugout of the chief of staff of the division, and we raced across lest he’d been well dug in by the engineers. We went down some steps and his name was Wells, and he’s known to the army as Bomber Wells, and there was old Bomber in the midst of a cloud of
dust, sweeping the sand off his map. We were just amazed and he looked up and saw us and he said, “Most provoking.” And he swept away the rest of the sand, so we knew that the G1 as he was called, general staff officer grade 1, we knew that the G1 was ok, probably a bit shaken by it but he was lucky that they had built such a tough shelter for him and his maps,
otherwise we would have had a very important casualty right early in the battle.
I’ve heard others talk about the war in the Middle East as the gentleman’s war, do you think that there was an element of…?
Well Rommel, we know now, received some
of the instructions which were not designed for any sort of a gentleman’s war and he tore them up. He wasn’t prepared to carry out orders of the kind that came to him. And the Germans in the desert, stuck to the recognised rules of warfare and handling people of the opposite side when
they fell into one another’s hands. And for example, in one of the later stages at Alamein, one of our brigades captured a sort of blockhouse place, a building which had been constructed. It wasn’t a tent or anything like that, and the German medical
people had been using it as a sort of an advanced, what’s the word, well casualty clearing station, and German doctors were there operating on German wounded and Australia, and the place was surrounded and it fell into our hands, and Australian medical people
moved straight in and started dealing with Australian wounded there. And the German and Australian doctors sewed men up and cleaned up their wounds and so forth, without distinction. Germans dealing with Australian youngsters and Australians dealing with German wounded as they were brought in. So, you know,
it was, as far as you’d ever call war civilised, here was an example of it. And I think one can honestly say, I’ve no doubt there were people in any unit or any Australian formation who would be brutal if they had the opportunity or they felt they had reason to
act that way, but in general I would say we stuck to the rules of war and we treated our prisoners decently. I told you about my friend we picked up in Tobruk who rather liked being with us and said, “I’m a footballer.” He didn’t say what code but.
Well given that story that you’ve just told us earlier of one of your officers having a close call, I’m wondering were there times even at HQ where you might have been a bit nervous or scared?
In a place like that it’s very different from say a battalion headquarters,
going two levels down where battalion commanders are getting wounded or die of wounds or just killed, bang. Battalion headquarters is very close to where all hell is breaking loose. One of our brigade commanders, a brigadier, died of wounds received in this battle.
But division occupies a large slice of ground. Don’t ask me how many kilometres of front. I’d only be guessing and that sort of thing varies according to the situation of the day and so on.
And to be able to do the work of a divisional headquarters, there’s no point, well far from there being no point, it’d be absurd to have the divisional headquarters right up where people are more worried about the next shell than they are about the jobs they’re doing. You’ve got to have the thing back out of the way and in a
position which is convenient to enable the commander to move about the division and see for himself what the situation is, get the feel of the situation. So that means that, by and large, the divisional headquarters is back where it’s a bit quieter, so worries and sort of constantly worried as one would be if you’re a staff officer at a brigade headquarters, or more so at a battalion where you are likely
to cop it at any time. That shell that landed on Colonel Wells’ dugout fell quite close to the chap I was talking to and myself, but we got a shock, a fright, but it was just one shell, whereas if you were at a battalion headquarters you might have lots of shells and you might keep on having them all day, and perhaps all night
too. They’re the people, the infantry are the people who have to stand the strain.
Well I guess what is then the stress and strain for you knowing that the infantry are copping it out there?
Yeh, well people
you know well, mates of your own, may well be in the middle of something pretty awful. We got used to that in Tobruk and it’s just part of the whole wretched business. You’ve got a job to do and you do your best to do it. Other people are depending on things being done right
at divisional headquarters.
I’m wondering if there’s a sense of almost personal detachment that you needed?
Not really. I don’t think you ever get a sense of personal
detachment in these situations, and like my friend Joe Kelly, the adjutant of the 2/13th, he was at divisional headquarters through most of this big Alamein battle. And when the battalion was literally running out of commanding officers ‘cause they were getting killed and wounded and whatnot, Joe
Kelly was suddenly sent for and told he was to go up and take command of the battalion, bang. So that sort of situation, it’s not in the book but that kind of thing can happen quite suddenly and away you go.
Well as someone who was in a position to have access to fairly
high level intelligence and access to the intelligence about the tactics and the strategies of Alamein, what was your view I guess of the new tactics that were being used in this battle?
First, let’s get strategy out of the way. That’s a divisional level, strategy is unknown. It’s not part of the scene. One talks about operations
and what the infantry are doing is tactics, but a divisional commander has an operational role. He handles his division in operations. Now how did this come up? Sorry I’ve lost the beginning of this. What was your question?
Well I’m just wondering, I mean I guess there were
new tactics that were used at Alamein?
I don’t think there was anything new. It was a very intelligently organised battle, but I don’t think that by and large,
anything that we did or the whole of the 8th Army did, was new. I think it was a much better army under the new commander and people felt better about what was being dished out from on high. But that…
I don’t want to get deep into that because you’re getting into the history of the British Army in particular, and for all practical purpose we were part of the British Army certainly. But Morshead was very impressed after his first meeting with Montgomery, the new army commander, and
he said, and it’s in the history books, he said, “This man is a breath of fresh air.” And we needed an important change at the top and we got it.
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 07
What happened for you at the divisional headquarters after the Battle of El Alamein had occurred?
Nothing really, no. The war ran away from us, went westward
and we stayed where we were until we could get into vehicles and go back to Palestine until such time as we could go to Suez and board ships, so that was a period of quiet and the division needed a rest, as you can imagine. And I forget the, you can look in the history books for the number of casualties
but we had some thousands of casualties in a space of ten days fighting. So the division was very tired and it needed rest and it needed to absorb reinforcements, masses of them, and it also had to begin to think about how you got a whole division onboard ships and got them back to Australia.
We’ll talk about that in
just a second, how, the battle has in the history books been noted as a very significant one, how much was that significance recognised in the immediate aftermath?
Well it was pretty obvious that we at last had the Germans beaten and they were on the run with their Italian allies, and the reports came in day by day.
And not so long it was they were back passing Er-Regima and Benghazi and going yet further. The 8th Army was on their heels, so it looked good but how good it was at that stage of course, you couldn’t tell. If you looked at another page of your newspaper or you heard another bit of a BBC broadcast you learnt what was
happening in Russia. I don’t remember the date for Stalingrad but no, the Germans were down on the edge of the Caucuses and this is one reason why of course we’d, after Tobruk, we joined the army which was up in Syria, because we had to have something up there just in case the Germans did come through the Caucuses.
There was also a fairly significant war going on in the Pacific by that stage.
There was indeed.
For Australian soldiers in the Middle East, how did you feel about that Pacific War going on in your own backyard while you were over there?
I think a lot of us were worried because it kept on getting nearer and nearer to Australia.
And we didn’t know what was going to happen and we knew that Australia was not in any way organised or equipped, or trained, to cope with a major Japanese incursion. We felt better when we got the news that a large part of the Australian Corps had actually landed in Australia, a bit disappointed when we learnt that not
all the corps had gone there, but a better part of the division I think had been left in Ceylon. But we, by and large we didn’t know much about what was happening out at home except that the Australian division
and all the Britain, Indian troops in Malaya and Singapore were now gone and that this was a very serious thing. I think a lot of blokes must have been worried sick, particularly fellows that left whole families behind, young families, several children with their mother. If you are going to be involved in the war it’s much better I think, not to be married and the father of a family.
How much mail were you receiving from home during your time in the Middle East?
From my mother frequently, regularly and from a few friends.
What news were they able to give you about what the
situation was on the home front in Australia?
Pretty much what we heard and got out of the newspapers which, we had our own newspapers. Even in Tobruk we published a newspaper there. When I say we published a newspaper, it was on both sides of an A-forty [A4 size paper] sheet or something of that sort.
The Tobruk Truth was it? Something like that.
What sort of thing would be in this, or in the newspapers or the news bulletins you would hand round over there?
Just the barest news that escaped the censorship of our own organisations and the,
what we didn’t know about then essentially were the Americans. MacArthur had his own way of dealing with news and he wrote it of course in such a way as to impress Washington.
What other things were you receiving in the mail apart from letters?
I had a book of
poems by a favourite poet which was sent me for Christmas ’42 I think, either that or it was my birthday in ’42, but an old friend of university days was good enough to send me that, and I still have it up there in my collection of poetry. That, and a few goodies of one sort or another.
People could get small parcels through, all helps.
What was the scene when the mail would arrive, what sort of occasion was that?
Now which sort of scene are you asking me about?
Well obviously you would look forward to it, what, would you have a routine about what you would do with your
mail or what would soldiers talk about?
Look I don’t know how, the mail probably got dished out to companies in a battalion and I s’pose it came to departments when I was on 9 Div headquarters.
Something I’ve never really thought about.
That’s all right but on the subject of occasions, you mentioned your birthday and Christmas, how much were you able to celebrate things like that while at war over there?
Well I had a birthday in Tobruk, which I didn’t celebrate at all.
And then a birthday in Syria I suppose it was. Again I was not with my own unit or anything of that sort or any group of people I knew particularly, so there was, Christmas was always well and truly celebrated in the army. We managed to do that.
What about Anzac Day?
No, I don’t remember anything being done about Anzac day.
When you first arrived in Palestine, when you were there with the second AIF, as a person very interested in history and military history in particular, did you get a sense of the echoes of the
1st AIF gone before?
Yes, places at that stage one had only read about but, and there was so much history in so many places which you came to or that you heard about and found that, for example, which you could get to, I got to Petra. I think after we got back from
Alamein at some stage I acquired a bit of leave and another, two or three of us went to see Petra, which was remarkable, little expedition went up there. But getting to places like Jerusalem, that was always a thrill and
nobody was fighting anybody then. You could go quite safely about the countryside.
What did you do when you got a bit of leave in Jerusalem or Alexandria?
Well you went somewhere like Jerusalem or Cairo. Leave up in, when we were in Syria, we were actually
in a little town called Brumana in the mountains behind Beirut, and great thing there was to get down to Beirut itself and plenty of places there which we… good eateries.
Who would a young officer fraternise with on leave?
Other young officers. There weren’t any women in the army
then except there were nurses in hospitals, so there were always people besieging hospitals and also they had VADs [Voluntary Aid Detachment], Australian girls who offered to come out and be helpers in hospitals. But the commander in chief of the AIF, the good Tom Blamey, he’d set the example. His wife was with him in
the Middle East, which didn’t endear him to too many of his soldiers I think.
How was the absence of women dealt with, was that a problem amongst the men on their own out in the Middle East?
I suppose it was. It had
to have been. When we got back to Palestine after Tobruk, and again after Alamein, troops were
given leave and they could go to towns. There were British and Australian military police about the place, and I think the early days of the 2nd AIF in the Middle East were pretty uproarious and rowdy, and they caused trouble, not as much trouble as some of the Brits said they caused, and we showed what we could do. The
British authorities in Cairo were so pleased with the behaviour of Australian troops in Cairo after Alamein that they wrote letters to people like Les Morshead, our commander, to make plain their appreciation of the
standard that had been set by men of the 9th Division, which is I think an unheard of situation. There’d been nothing like that before. A couple of good military operations like Tobruk and Alamein takes some of the nonsense out of soldiers, as well as
offer species of relief and gladness has to be alive and well but changes their values a bit. The ordinary soldier is just a little bit surprised he’s there to do what he wants to do.
did you have with the local population?
None, me personally, no, none. When I went on leave I usually tried to go to some place that I wanted to see and that could
involve going through gates and places. You paid something. That was simple and that was all but by and large, no, I had nothing really to do with Arabs and the Israelis were not there to shoot at Arabs
or be shot at by Arabs.
After Alamein their preparations were slowly put in place to send the division home, what was the first news you got of that and how did that unfold?
Again, look I couldn’t really tell you after this length of time. We knew that we were waiting to make the move but precisely
when we were told that we, up sticks and get on transport or go by train to Egypt and so forth, I really don’t know.
When you eventually left then in February, were you among the first or were you?
No, I don’t know when we left compared with, some of the headquarters would have been the last to go obviously, and the operations staff would probably have been some of the first of divisional headquarters to go because there weren’t any operations to
keep us busy. But the sort of timetable of all that is in the various, in the history books and you can quite properly draw the conclusion that I haven’t been looking at the history books lately. I should know that.
It’s a good point though, that
sort of stuff is written down, we can read about that. All we’re interested in I guess is your impressions of that time and whatever you can remember is useful to us. The trip back, what were your impressions or memories of going home, how did you feel about that?
Well can I just make one point before I attempt to answer that?
And one thing that does remain in the minds of all who were present at it, the whole division was reviewed on a great plain,
reviewed by General Alexander, the commander in chief in the Middle East, who’d succeeded Archie Wavell. No, that’s not right, he’d succeeded Auchinleck, and that was an occasion that sort of bit deep into ones conscience.
I had to pass, there was a message that needed to go out to the troops while they were waiting on that parade and it’s the only time in my life that I ever addressed a division. I was able to broadcast it over a pretty useful sort of speaker system. It wasn’t my message. I was simply a mouthpiece but it gave you rather a thrill
to stand up on a platform and look out at probably about fourteen thousand soldiers, and say half a dozen words into a mic [microphone] and he spoke very eloquently briefly to the division. And the AIF printing service published a copy of that address, which I still have floating around somewhere in my study.
So that was a big event and soon after that we went down to Suez and got on our various transports, seven big ships again. There was a Dutch one which wasn’t nearly, was one of the smaller ones, the [RL] Slamat. She was sunk later. There was the [SS] Nieuw Amsterdam, a big Dutch liner
and divisional headquarters was on that. I s’pose the Mary was there, unless she was carrying Yanks across the Atlantic at that stage. I forget what the others were.
We saw the British, I’ve forgotten what they call it, wasn’t Pacific Fleet but the British had managed to concentrate a fleet including a squadron or two of battleships in the Indian Ocean, and they were based on some islands in the midst of the Indian Ocean, but they were being kept there because the admiralty knew damn well that those ships were
so old and outgunned by the Japanese, that if they attempted to go into action with the current Japanese fleet, they would have been destroyed. We didn’t know that though. We just saw these great grey battleships and thought, “Wow, this is the stuff.” But it was a good trip home. We were pretty crowded but not all that crowded and we were going home. What else mattered? I mean to say if we’d had little open boats towed
by a few ships, we still would have been pretty convinced it was a good war, or that part of it.
What was it like to arrive home then?
Out of this world, just seeing a lot of people who mattered and family and friends was great,
find they were all there. After all we hadn’t been away all that long, two and a bit years, October ’40 and we were back in Feb ’43, so we had nothing to complain about.
A lot had changed though in the intervening period, both for yourself and the country back home, how did you find you were received
by the Australians now amidst of war in Japan?
We were, our star was pretty high in the sky ‘cause, you know, we’d held Tobruk and we’d taken part in a big victory at Alamein, so they reckoned we were all right I think.
How did your mother react
to seeing you again?
How would your ma react in a situation like that? Poor old dear, she’d married in the course of the First War and had me, and then she had to undergo the same business all over again without a man to support her while I was away, and then she had to go through
it all again when I disappeared to New Guinea, and again when I went north before going to Borneo.
You were sent to staff college again, is that right?
This was in, of all places, Canberra?
Yeh, I was amazed, absolutely amazed.
What was that like?
Canberra? Well Canberra
was Duntroon and it was the War Memorial, which had been opened a couple of years before and it was St John’s Church, Parliament House and a group of little buildings over there, some of which still remain, the arcaded buildings. That was Canberra. There was a track. I don’t think it was a sealed road but there was a track between Duntroon and Civic, and I know that because we used to ride along it at night on our army bicycles.
And we wanted to go into town and get a square meal from, I forget which hotel there, and that was what you did. You got on your, no transport of course. You got on your bicycle and you rode in. They didn’t even have lights on the bicycles and that I’m sure of, because one night there were four or five of us decided to go into town and we were riding in in the darkness. There was no lighting of course,
1943, and there was another fellow but he was going in the opposite direction and he didn’t have a light on his bicycle, so I needn’t develop that scene any further. And of course no lake, no Canberra virtually, and accommodation at Duntroon was
old, some barracks sort of huts on the side of Mount Pleasant and they were not pleasant, cold as cold could be, not lined or anything, however we weren’t likely to be shelled there or bombed, so there it was.
How were your nerves coming back from
a situation where you were a lot more likely to be shelled or bombed?
They were all right. One could relax very happily for a long time and we did relax. We had good instruction at number four war course at…
One of the instructors became my friend and we were together on one or two committees up here after the war. And I was eventually to write his biographical article for the dictionary of biography, but that was a good course. It was, I have a strong
impression that the Australian Army knows a good deal about the business of training its own people. It knows a lot more now but its training in the Australian Army is at a very high priority and its very well done, very well thought out.
Where did you end up at the end of that course?
I ended up as BM learner, brigade major learner, in the 15th Brigade, which was somewhere just outside, it was in New Guinea. I don’t suppose it really matters for any purposes but oh dear. This was before the
movement which resulted in the capture of Nadzab and its airfields, in Lae, Lae, not Nadzab so much but Lae. It was pre Lae, and Lae was taken by a combined operation of the 7th Division and the 9th, the 9th landing on the beach and moving in towards Lae and the 7th
doing an airborne stunt partly, part of the division. They reached Lae before we did.
There’s still some debate depending on who you talk to as to who reached Lae first.
Yeh, I think they reached Lae before we did but they pushed off then up into the Huon Peninsula, and 9th Division was told in a hurry to go and capture Finschhafen in a combined operation from the sea.
But coming back to me, I was BM learner of the 15th Brigade somewhere way south of Lae, but the brigade had driven the Japanese out of the area and was resting when I reached it. And ‘Tack’ Hammer, the commander, said to me, he questioned me to know where I’d come from, what I’d been doing and he said, “Well you’ve just come
from a staff college. You’re just the man I need. I want to establish a school to train all the adjutants and the quartermasters and the intelligence officers in the brigade, in staff duties and staff work.” So the first job I got was one of military education for young officers. However that was handy. It just
I managed to do two things. I said, “Sir well will you send me off to Port Moresby where all my stuff’s in the kit store and I have all the paperwork for my course at the staff college?” And I said, “If you give me that I’ve got the basic material available for the course that you intend to develop.” And I said that. I didn’t tell him
that that was the only reason why I wanted to go down there because I had a girlfriend in a hospital at a place called Donadabu. It was somewhere out of Moresby and I thought it was a good chance for killing two birds with the one stone. So I went and collected my papers and I also went and saw my friend and then went back to war. I saw another friend too. I think I went and saw Victor Windeyer who was commanding the 20th
Brigade, brigade my battalion was in and I went and saw him. He was in hospital somewhere in Moresby, might have been, don’t know which hospital but I went and saw him and that was just to say that, “Here am I and I’m not free sir, but I’d rather like to get back to the brigade.” And I
can only think that he must have made some remark about me in an appropriate quarter and that’s what got me back to my own brigade at the end of the year.
Before we talk about that and actually about being a BM eventually and BM learner, what were your impressions of New Guinea, having been vastly different war in the Middle East, what was it like to arrive in this new environment?
Well no war is nice but
I would choose a desert any time rather than New Guinea sort of country. That really was hard, hard on everybody. I think it was harder to be a good soldier in New Guinea than anywhere else on earth except perhaps if you were fighting in a Russian winter. That might be even worse than New Guinea
but we never got into, actually the chaps who fought in Korea, Korean winters were pretty awful, very awful.
The obvious difference in terrain is there but how did that translate, maybe you could give us a bit more detail on how the war differed and how things?
was so hard to sort of keep clean, be reasonably human. The humid heat and the amount of mud that you came across. And when you add onto that trying to work your way through dense jungle, where everything seemed to be on the side of the Japanese, they used to like
hiding in trees and they always established snipers in trees, that sort of thing. It was just a lousy war in New Guinea and getting wounded out. It was all very, very difficult. And then of course you had jolly things like malaria and scrub typhus and that sort of thing. Eventually we found out that if you kept your
sleeves rolled down and not up, as Australian soldiers like to do, if you kept your sleeves down and you kept your shirt buttoned up which made it nastier and nastier of course, given the climate, and you took your Atebrin tablets every day at the approved time and so on, and the number of the things, don’t ask me how many, I’ve forgotten, probably one a day,
and you, I think we had some stuff we could rub on too to keep mosquitos away from you. If you did it all you had a very good chance of not getting malaria and maintaining such efficiency as you could as a soldier. But our divisional commander, he suffered absolute agonies,
although he wasn’t slopping around in the mud like the soldiers, but George Wootton was the biggest general probably in any army and he weighed twenty something stone, and he just suffered tortures working as a divisional commander in New Guinea. So much so, the story goes, I can’t vouch for this, but the story goes that
the head of his medical staff paraded himself to the divisional commander and said, in so many words, “Sir, if you don’t obey the rules which you and I are supposed to enforce, I shall have to report you to higher authority.” Now that’s a good story. I don’t know whether it’s true or not but it’s, given the quality of the senior medical officers in the Australian Army in those days
I can imagine it would have been true. He had, poor old Wootton. I’ll tell you a nice story. This is in print as a matter of fact and will appear in the dictionary ultimately when volume seventeen is published, but he came up unannounced to 20 Brigade headquarters. Brig Windeyer was forward with the leading battalion, and
I reported to the general, he rolled out of his jeep, and explained the situation, and I said, “I’m sure brigadier could get back in about twenty minutes or so sir.” And he said, “All right, well just let him know that I’m waiting for him.” And I said, “Ok sir,” and, “Would you care for a cup of tea while you’re waiting?” He thought that was a good idea, so I took him over to the brigade mess tent,
gave some instructions to one of the mess staff and I looked round and I watched Wootton. We had, to my horror we had what we had no right to have. Some of the troops made some palm log benches for people to sit on and it was in the law, you didn’t cut palms down. Shellfire, ok, but you just didn’t cut them down and there
was Wootton bending over, his hand on the end of this little log bench and leaning on it sort of testing it you see, and he looked up and saw that I was looking and he said to me, these are his exact words I think, he said, “Hill, when you’re my size you sit with circumspection.” I don’t know what I replied to that. I thought, “What would you say?
Yes sir.” I suppose, poor man.
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 08
Well Alec before we go on to talk a bit more about the campaigns in New Guinea that you were involved in, I’d just like to go back to your I guess promotion to brigade major learner, can you just tell me about the role of the brigade major?
Yes, a brigade major is the chief of staff of an infantry brigade
and also in a division you had a BMRA, a brigade major royal artillery, who is, he was the chief of staff of the commander of the artillery of the division, and in those days at any rate he was the head of the brigadiers staff. And a brigadier
had the brigade major, a staff captain and in the later stages of the war there might also be a brigade major learner and a staff captain learner. There’d be three liaison officers. There’d be a signals officer, an intelligence officer and all sorts of
bits and pieces who helped to keep the brigade headquarters running, doing the work about the place. And in New Guinea there was a defence and employment platoon, or a defence platoon it was simply, because in jungle warfare stray parties of the enemy or determined group of people who want to cause mayhem can turn up way back behind the lines, and the brigade headquarters is
a fairly large target and a very important one, so you had a defence platoon as well. What does the brigade major actually do? Well he’s head of a staff. He’s a senior officer of the brigade staff, so that he has a responsibility for, he’s
commander of the brigade headquarters really, under the brigadier, and one of his main tasks is to put into writing, print, the orders that the brigade commander gives and that is his main job. Going back a war
where brigade commanders were not nearly as experienced as those in the 9th Division in the later part of that war, but going back a war, brigade majors were, they were often, reading Charles Beans’ histories and so on, you get the impression the brigade majors were, they were almost the advisers of brigade commanders.
And I don’t think we were by and large in our war. We were there to do a staff officers work, to help the brigade commander by recording everything, all his orders, and seeing that other work was done. I mean to say the maintenance of the brigade headquarters war diary is an important task and while the brigade major would not be writing that, he would see that it was written up and check it.
And he would help the brigadier in any way that a brigadier required help. My brigadier was a man who finished his civilian career, he was a lawyer, he finished his civilian career on the High Court of Australia. He was Mr Justice Windeyer then. He’d commanded a battalion in Tobruk and
he had a brigade at Alamein and for the rest of the war, so he was a man with a strong mind of his own, a lot of experience. He’d commanded the Sydney University Regiment before the war. I had the pleasure of teaching his three sons history at Sydney Grammar School after the war, and we were both old Sydneans ourselves and he was what, probably twenty years older than I was.
I don’t know whether I’ve answered your question. I may have given you some rough idea.
Well I’m wondering, in a way is the brigadier major almost…?
Sorry, brigade major someone
who I guess is channelling information, or how would you describe it?
Yes, he, material coming in, signals coming in and so on don’t go to the brigadier direct ‘cause he’s got a lot on his hands and he’s going to be busy at any time, or if he’s not busy
he’s getting a bit of hard earned sleep, or he’s out of the brigade headquarters up with one of the battalions and so anything coming in at that stage, it’s the brigade major’s responsibility to see that it’s ready for the brigade commander when he comes back or when he wakes up, or when he puts down what he’d been doing and says, “Well now what have you got for me there?” My brigadier was charming. He had his own foibles
and this is a New Guinea thing. He called out to me one day, and his tent where he operated was fairly close to mine, “Alec, would you bring me that file on decorations?” And I said, “Right sir.” And then I looked around and I remembered that I’d taken it back to him and I said, “I think you’ve got it sir, I brought it back.”
“No,” he said, “I can’t find it here. You must have it.” So I knew darn well that I didn’t have it and after a minute he called out, plaintive sort of voice, “I’m sorry Alec, I’m sitting on it.”
Yeh, I guess, sorry, go on.
that’s all right.
Well it’s interesting to hear, you’ve talked about a couple of stories where there’s been paperwork involved and I’m just wondering because from your role you’ve been at that kind of end and spectrum of the war, I mean I guess I’m wondering was there times when you felt a bit snowed under by that just immense
amount of information?
Well I can remember being snowed under quite literally when we were preparing for Borneo in 1945, and I had to write the order for the brigade and it was a very complicated operation which involved working with the American air force as well as the American navy.
And we’d got all our conferences over and the thing was clear. It was clear in the brig’s mind and clear in mine but it had to be put into writing because the battalions had to have this order, our three battalions, and other people that we were working with. And I don’t know how many hours a day I worked but I did work all day and I slept for a few hours at
night and nothing else, literally nothing else and I got that order out. I’ve got a copy of it somewhere still I think and it’s a great thick wad of paper because it’s, setting up an operation like that is really a mammoth piece of work and you can’t take chances. You can’t think, “Oh well, that ought to be clear enough.” It’s got to be clear
and it’s got to be enough for people to look at it and get clearly and definitely what is wanted, so it’s a matter of very careful writing. And I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that I worked sixteen hours a day and quite possibly more when the time came, to get that order written and printed and that really was being snowed under.
Well I know that we’re probably jumping ahead a little bit but can you maybe just tell me what was in the order, like what did you need to go into so much detail about?
Well an operation order in those days was set out in a definite way. It had an information section and then a section which the brigadier drafted in his own hand
and that was called ‘Intention’, and that’s the vital part of the order because that’s what the brigadier wants to have done. And then you had another long section called ‘Method’ and, golly, fancy going over this again, ‘Information’, ‘Intention’, ‘Method’. I forget what came next and then there was what we called ‘Administration’, and that was the whole logistical set-up of
the operation, transport, movement. You had a medical section and you had paragraphs for all sorts of people, artillery, engineers, air, section for naval matters. It went on and on and on and all that had to be got together and it had to be carefully edited and got right and then printed and checked again and then got out.
That’s another kind of warfare altogether. I mean to say that this is warfare where, time is always important in war. It was Napoleon who said, “Ask me for anything but time.” But you’ve also, you’ve got to get it right in whatever time you have, and that is one reason why
staff officers to do their job properly have got to be trained. It’s only the John Monashes of this world who can do it all with little or no training. What else could one say about that, I don’t know. Does that sort of give you?
That’s very interesting. I’d like to come back to, that was in Borneo you were talking about then?
But perhaps before we do, we should go back to New Guinea and just go through I guess the main campaigns that you were involved in?
Well I was involved, see coming up to 20 Brigade after Christmas ’43, and I don’t know whether it was the week after Christmas or
into January but coming up then the Finschhafen part of the operation, which was the difficult and dicey one, that was over and the Japanese had been broken and they were retreating northwards up the coast of New Guinea, and not really attempting to make much of a fight for that. And we were
following them up and pressing them but we were not any more mobile than they were. The infantry were moving forward on their flat feet just as the Japanese were moving backwards on their flat feet, and we weren’t able to get around them and bring them to battle and destroy them. The Americans had that opportunity later on but missed it absolutely.
They let the Japanese get away to fight another day but we came back. We finished up and left that part of New Guinea to the Americans somewhere about February ’43, February ’44 I’m sorry, yes, and we went home on leave
and then reassembled on the Tableland, somewhere near Atherton I suppose, and we trained up there until into 1945, trained and trained and trained. That was a pretty difficult time in a way ‘cause you had to keep troops active and occupied and interested.
You can’t repeat things too often. It was a very difficult period. It spoke volumes for the commanders at various levels that really there was so little trouble. Men would always much rather be active than just pretending
to do it, even though the pretence had to be highly organised just as if they were going into operations, and that’s where staff have to train at the same time as troops. If headquarters don’t train, when the time comes and the pressure is on, well the headquarters will let the troops down and that has happened of course.
Well I’m wondering, I mean you mentioned off camera that there wasn’t actually any jungle at the Tablelands, how then or what kind of preparation could you do for jungle warfare?
Well you could pretend that it was jungle but it wasn’t like a New Guinea jungle. It was thick country, some of it but nothing like New Guinea cause New Guinea was so
much mud underfoot, mud and slush, and men’s feet would be ringing wet, boots and all, for days, days on end. But we just, as I say, it was pretending that it was jungle warfare and a lot of the training was perfectly, it was applicable to working in New Guinea rainforest.
And everybody was being trained but not under the climatic conditions that they were going to experience in New Guinea, or we didn’t go back to New Guinea of course but Borneo, some parts of Borneo were thick jungle,
but really I don’t think I can say much more about the Atherton thing.
Well perhaps then you could just talk a bit about, you mentioned earlier that you would much rather the desert war conditions rather than the jungle, can you just elaborate a bit about the difficulties, even after all of your war experience in the Middle East, why was the jungle so
Well it is the combination of unfriendly climate as well as unfriendly natural surroundings, and the unfriendliness of the creatures like the anopheles mosquito more than most things.
There were other pests in jungle but the mosquito was the worst pest of all, and the effects of the bite of that mosquito, the malaria that it transferred to you, that was not mastered until we were given Atebrin,
and a proper regime was established for the taking of Atebrin and also for the wearing of uniform and so on. That for a while was a worse enemy than the Japanese because it was knocking out more troops than the Japanese, many more. You had hospitals full of men with malaria. Sometimes they died of
the stuff if they were in a weakened condition, they had too powerful a dose, cause the medical side of tropical warfare is a very big and important side of things.
Well as you say it was
just pretend training in a way at the Tablelands, how did you manage to keep the morale buoyant?
By making the training as realistic as possible, with live ammunition, lots of movement and very well thought out exercises
and by improving camp conditions and the general conditions under which troops lived, by giving slices of leave and entertainment for troops, and to look after them and to make them feel that
they were being looked after. This was important to the powers that be, as indeed it was, and I’d say that that would be the answer to that question. Some commanders have a gift for training. One I’ve mentioned to you before was
H.H. Hammer, ‘Tack’ Hammer, and he was a most gifted trainer, so was Red Robbie, who established the training depot for the reinforcements in Palestine. They’re people who’ve got imagination as well as the technical knowledge, and the two working together make training much more interesting, but there are limits. I
mean to say after a while I think soldiers begin to say to themselves, “What, not again?” And it’s a test of commanders what sort of enthusiasm they can impart to their soldiers. It’s a hell of a hard job being commander of a major unit or force
and we, by the time of that Atherton experience, 1944, early ’45, we had a remarkable group of commanders in our brigade commanders, and
I think that was one of the keys to the situation that everybody knew these men were absolutely rock solid for them and they were rock solid for doing the thing right, getting the job done right.
Well, as you’ve just said, that this was fairly well into the war by this stage,
I’m wondering where were you and the troops hoping to go?
We were hoping to go home with a bit of luck. That’s one of the overriding things in the mind of all people who were unlucky enough to get mixed up with a war, home to Mum.
Well unfortunately that wasn’t quite the case for you.
How did you receive the news of your posting, next posting, I believe it was to Morotai?
We were all going to Morotai. That was a sort of
concentration area for our part of the Borneo campaign. We sent a brigade to a place, brigade group, about five thousand men to seize the little oil port called Tarakan. That was the first Borneo operation and then the rest of the division did North Borneo
and seized Brunei and Labuan. And then 7 Division, they did a big major combined assault from the sea and they had a considerable fight on their hands at a place called Balikpapan on the east coast of Borneo.
And it’s really amazing looking back that all those things worked as well as they did, because nobody was under the least allusion about going to Borneo at that stage of the war, when the Americans had grabbed the Philippines back from the Japanese after bitter and
terrible fighting. But they were back in the Philippines and they were getting ready to go to Japan, so what we could contribute to the conclusion of the war in the way of speed or something else, nobody could see it. We weren’t doing anything. We were losing men, fortunately not many, and
it just wasn’t, they were warlike operations but there were no warlike objectives, or sorry, perhaps I should say objection. These, we were supposed to be getting oil away from the Japanese available to ourselves but there was no shortage of
oil on the allied side at this stage. We controlled the Middle East for example and American oil was American oil but the soldiers accepted the wretched business, and fortunately our casualties were very light. The Japanese were not really too much inclined to mix it seriously at that stage of the war
but there was great upset over some quite old soldiers, people who’d been in Tobruk with us who were killed in Borneo really for no purpose that anybody could see. And 7 Div had quite a lot of casualties at Balikpapan. The Japanese were prepared to defend that for a bit. It’s a major oil port and so on and they were well dug in
Balikpapan was captured but nothing was achieved, so I think the end part of the war was on a sort of diminuendo for the AIF.
Well I’m wondering, given that, how clear were you about your orders and what your role was going to be in Borneo?
Well we were going to launch attacks on Japanese positions, which we had no reason to think would be other than well defended, and these were the orders and they came down from MacArthur, who was controlled by the combined chiefs of staff and that was it. You’re not there at the infantry brigade
level to debate the orders. A debate should have taken place at cabinet level in Canberra and at cabinet level in London. We could only do what we were told and if we had to go and take these places
that had to be properly organised, prepared and so on and carried out.
Well I’m wondering, you’ve just mentioned MacArthur but what about Blamey’s involvement and I guess the division’s view?
I would have to go back to my history books to talk about Blamey’s role there. I’m not sure. He would have been in direct touch with MacArthur, and he kept a very senior and able officer at MacArthur’s headquarters, a Lieutenant General Frank Berryman, so that he could get the latest from, in MacArthur thinking
on these matters. But I’m afraid I’m letting you down there. I should be able to say definitely what Blamey’s attitude was to those operations. I don’t think he would have been strongly for them ‘cause I mean to say he had enough information coming across his desk to know the situation in Borneo and its relationship to the rest of the war.
We had been, earlier the intention had been that an Australian Corps should be involved in the operations in Borneo, sorry in the operations in the Philippines islands and presumably then onto Japan, but
MacArthur eventually decided he didn’t want to be bothered with a group of Australian divisions with all sorts of different training and staff procedures and logistics and all that sort of thing. He had enough troops to get along, do the Japanese thing without them and Japan was quickly finished anyway by the dropping of the second atom bomb.
Well I guess I’ve heard lots of different, varying opinions of MacArthur and Blamey, talking to different troops, I’m wondering at an officer level, what was your view of MacArthur?
Very hard at my level to get a view of MacArthur because you never saw him. He was
a great one for landing somewhere after it had been taken, with enough cameras to have a good record of himself on the beach or whatever it was. He had that very highly organised and he wrote the communiqués which went back to America. We didn’t know that. I certainly didn’t know that then, and nobody at my level at the army, I imagine did know it except somebody of my rank posted
to, shall we say Blamey’s headquarters might have known that there. We’ve read about it since. MacArthur was, he was pro one thing and one thing only and that was MacArthur and that’s how his operations in the Pacific War were written up.
I imagine it must have been fairly difficult to keep up your sense of purpose and morale going off to a campaign that you felt might not have been particularly useful?
Yes, well I s’pose by that time we were not professional soldiers but we’d been at it so long, we were so used to obeying orders and these were the orders,
so we got ahead and obeyed them. You had to for the sake of the troops, if nothing else.
And I’m wondering if there was at all a feeling of being battle weary creeping in?
I don’t recall any reports of that.
If the Japanese had gone on fighting the way they fought at Finschhafen we might have begun to feel like that, and I expect it’s possible there were battle weary American troops in the Philippines who really saw huge operations where there were big casualty bills on
both sides. And I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me but I’ve not heard any reports of that and I certainly didn’t know of any such thing at the time. I think it would have been known quickly and widely ‘cause the division was a very
proud division and it knew it had done a lot of good jobs, and it had great confidence in itself and its commanders, so if an order was given, well that was an order and we do it. People like Morshead who commanded a whole corps, two divisions, at that stage of the war,
they were simply corps commanders and their opinions about things like Borneo were not called for. That was all discussed at the highest possible level, and I think MacArthur could get rid of his Australians by sending them to Borneo where they can do what they liked from his point of view.
Blamey was with 20 Brigade headquarters when the news of the Japanese surrender came through and he called for pad and pencil and wrote a signal which was to be sent out through the army. He landed, another occasion he arrived when Victor
Windeyer was away with one of the other battalions and not anywhere near brigade headquarters, so I had to look after him, and he said he was going to stay the night with us and he’d see the brigadier when the brigadier got back. And I said, “Well what would you like to do sir?” He said, “I’d like to have a look around Brunei.” So I said to him that we’d organise that quite quickly. I took, got a Jeep arranged and
propped the commander in chief in the back and I think he was in the back, or was he in the front? Doesn’t matter really does it? But I took him around Brunei, showed him the sights, quite forgetting that every afternoon, as regular as clockwork, the entire heavens collapsed and the heavens roared down, so I must be one of the few officers who managed to get the commander in chief wet to the skin.
I didn’t get a decoration for that one. However we got back, he was wringing wet, we got back and he had other stuff with him of course, and a well groomed batman, a well experienced batman and he appeared in good order for dinner that night and he was in a pretty good mood in spite of all that. And the signal came in for commander in chief,
which was seized upon by Blamey and he read through it and then he told us the Japanese had turned it in I was to write a signal for the army.
Interviewee: Alec Hill Archive ID 0941 Tape 09
In the subsequent history of the war, the campaigns in Borneo have been recorded as perhaps unnecessary and futile, how much was that opinion prevalent at the time, how much did people perhaps recognise that or think that yourselves while
you were taking part?
Well I think senior officers must have been aware of that. I don’t remember deep discussions about it with brother officers on 20 Brigade headquarters. There may have been, but as I say, I don’t recall discussions about that and thinking, “What the hell are we, what’s Blamey doing to let us in for a thing like this?” But
it’s possible that at divisional headquarters people were saying things like that. I dare say the G1 of the division, whom I knew, he might have been debating the thing with other senior officers in div headquarters or perhaps with the divisional commander conceivably.
I would think that Wootton, the divisional commander, must have had pretty strong views about it but there weren’t any soldiers having protest meetings around the camps or anything like that.
With the benefit of hindsight and all you’ve read and heard since then, what is your opinion of those final campaigns?
I think it was a wicked
waste of good men, absolutely wicked waste of good men, but I s’pose we should say, “Well, thank God MacArthur got rid of us.” Because if we’d gone into the Philippines with the American army we would have had very heavy losses. That’s the only plus that I can see from the Borneo business, “Thank God we didn’t go to the
At the time the armies in the Pacific were rife with rumours about a possible invasion of Japan, what did you hear about planning, real or otherwise, for such an invasion?
Nothing at our level, no, and of course once the decision had been made
we were to go to Borneo, well we had to think in Borneo terms and not in any other terms.
At that stage in the war, how, it’s very hard to put yourself back there knowing that the war ended very shortly afterwards, but how much longer did you see this conflict going?
Well the Japanese were obviously on the downhill run and
we thought that next year would see a landing in Japan, ’46, and how long it might last after that was anybody’s guess. American technology took care of that but we didn’t know about that of course, not until it had happened.
I’ll come to that, the atom bomb, in just a moment but on the subject of the Japanese, from what you saw of them in New Guinea and Borneo, how did you feel about them as an enemy perhaps as opposed to the Germans or Italians you faced in the Middle East?
I don’t think we liked the Japanese very much and the more we got to know about their behaviour
in various theatres of war the less we liked them. Of course we didn’t know about what was, really what the Germans were doing in Russia and what they were doing to their own people, so we might have felt that fighting Germans was all right ‘cause they were pretty decent blokes and did it our way. But
I think we’ve been able to correct our views of the German scene, and I don’t think that the Japanese were regarded as generally a good soldier. I may be wrong in that but they were ill equipped compared with us in the later stages of the war. They were not good gunners,
put it that way. They didn’t have much in the way of artillery and our weapons in general were superior to theirs and this was a big help. Whether we knew anything much about things like the Sandakan death march or the Burma
Railway, look I really don’t remember. We may have known about both. We may not have, and of course what we know about those things now, it’s pretty hard to take and pretty hard to have anything but loathing for the Japanese.
What about the Americans, what contact did you have with Americans in your role?
Mainly with the American air force. There wasn’t much Australian air force involved in our part of the Borneo thing, and I had to deal with Americans and they were much easier to do business with than our own air force.
And that’s not to make any comment on the capacity of our air to do what they had to do but they were not easy people to deal with. And we knew how good, I forget the number of the squadron but there was a squadron which was mounted in Wirraways who used to drop things to us in New Guinea when they were required, and they were remarkable,
just terrific people. We had people known as G3 air, general staff officer grade three air, and they were military officers who were in continual liaison with the RAAF and for example
the Americans retracted, I think I’m right in saying this, they retracted the landing craft which carried the reserve ammunition for the brigade, 20 Brigade, which landed at Finschhafen and they went off with the reserve ammunition, which was a very dicey thing indeed. But
there were some very quick thinking at 20 Brigade headquarters when that happened, and I was not there remember, that we know about this, and they arranged with the air to drop the required amount of ammunition. And that a great ring of torches, soldiers with torches, would be in a set of map references and they would shine the torches up
if the planes coming over would care to drop the ammunition. That worked like a charm. They got almost all that was dropped and they had a reserve of ammunition within about I think twenty-four hours. Well that’s what the air force, our own air force, could do for us when the liaison with them existed.
Why were they difficult or more difficult than the Americans then to liaise with?
I don’t know.
The air force in its upper levels was in a hell of a mess, which was very well known, and the higher command arrangements in the air force were anything but good and I think this created an atmosphere. The American navy could be very difficult to deal with, but then the tradition in the American services with the army hates
the navy, and the navy hates the army, and all this sort of thing. And I think they, American naval people almost rather fight the army than fight the Japanese, vice versa, and we didn’t have anything like that but that was a deep tradition in the American services, from the highest level down. This famous Admiral King, who was
one of the joint chiefs of staff in America, one of the most difficult people our people ever had to deal with. Any rate I’m getting out of our area.
Your dealings with the American air force in Borneo, what capacity were they?
I suppose arranging details of
air support once we’d landed and in the process of landing but that was pretty simple and straight forward I think, and they were anxious to know exactly what we intended to do and how many of us were there when this, that and the other was required. And it was pretty easy to tell them and they were only too glad to promise to do it, which they did.
We’ll move onto the end of the war and the war ended, as you said, through American technology, a sudden thing that you didn’t know about beforehand?
Yes, we didn’t even hear a whisper about.
What was the reaction to the news of the atom bomb?
I s’pose simply just amazement. We didn’t know much about it but I s’pose the
expression, “atom bomb” must have got through up in Borneo pretty quickly but I don’t know that we thought very much about that cause we had other things on our hands. We were expecting the war to end soon and we must have thought it’d
end in Borneo long before the war itself would end but then that, any questions that had been in people’s minds about that were answered by the bomb dropping of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What kind of celebrations or attempt to mark the end of the war
occurred where you were at the time?
None that I can remember, no, general relief all round but I mean to say we were still in uniform. We were still thousands of miles from home and we had to find the Japanese and disarm them and corral them and so on. It was, the
weary deflating business still had to go on, but at least here we were alive and pretty well, and home was sort of just on the horizon.
What contact did you have with Japanese prisoners, if any?
None. That was all dealt with at battalion level. There weren’t terribly many of them either.
We did have a surrender ceremony with the local Japanese commander and that was carried out with stiff formality and his, Ikio his name was, he handed over his sword and his chief of staff handed over his sword, and my brigadier took Ikio’s sword and I got the chief of staff’s sword, so we had nice souvenirs
to take home. I had that souvenir for twenty years. It stood in my study in Sydney, and this is a demonstration to me of what a fool I can be. Instead of throwing it in the back of the car and just driving it up to Canberra myself, I let the movers move it. That’s the last I ever saw of my sword. You may well shake your head. I’m still shaking, I didn’t know I could be so stupid
but there you are.
It would be a museum piece for sure today unless it’s been sold on the black market or something?
How long was it before you were able to come back to Australia, what was the situation at the end of the war?
Well you know when the war ended, August. Germany was out of the war then. The silly Japs
were on their own. Italy had been out for quite some time. We got back before the end of the year. I had Christmas ’45 at home. By that time I was writing letters to Baillieu College and trying to convince them that what they should do is to invest in me for 1946. I had the support of one of our
people and in those primary days, that was that.
When did you get discharged from the army?
Well if you want to know exactly when, I can get my discharge book from the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet now if you’d like me to do that.
I’m sure the date’s probably recorded somewhere.
It is recorded, yeh. I was looking at it only a few
days ago as a matter of fact cause I was looking for something else and I pulled out a file and these little brown books came tumbling out of it.
It was between that Christmas and when you eventually went to Baillieu the next year?
Yes, it was, I was out of the army before Christmas. There was a nice letter from
one of the commander in chief’s most senior staff officers, thanking me for my services and hoping that I would, when the army was reorganised, that I would return to serving in the army etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I did that as a matter of fact ‘cause I rather liked being in the CMF, and there I was, still a single man
but I think, yes, I ended my services about nearly the end of the year.
How had, this is a big question, but these are the kind of wrap up questions. I’ll just ask a few and then we’ll finish. In the time between 1939, you’d been teaching, you ended up
going to Oxford after the war, during that period how had you changed, how had that vast experience affected you as a person?
I think I’d grown up a lot. I had all sorts of responsibilities at various times and I think I grew into my staff jobs later on.
I was happier than I had been as an infantry officer, but by the time I was doing an important staff job. I was a trained officer as well as having some experience of active service, being under fire and that sort of thing. Yes, I think I was a more mature person when I went off to Oxford, a much more mature person than I had been when I went into
the AIF way back in whatever it was, May ’40.
Was your desire to go to Oxford partly due to an attempt to make up for some lost time perhaps, is that fair to say?
Well my interest in life mainly had been history, and at a time
when I should have been developing as a history teacher, master in a big school, when I might have been finding fields of research to work in to back up my teaching and so on. Instead of that I was busy with a lot of other people. Somebody said to me the other day, “Instead of researching it, you were making it,” which was a nice way of putting it. But any rate I was
out of my own field and into another field altogether and I felt a strong need to go back, simply immerse myself in history again, and I couldn’t think of any nicer way of doing it than going and doing it at Oxford. It was a wonderful holiday after five or six years of something which was anything but a holiday.
Was there at the time
or have you ever felt since, any sense of bitterness of having those years taken from you, in a sense?
No, not really. It was my generation’s misfortune and I shared this with hundreds of thousands of others. I would rather not have been to a war, but as somebody who had been
fiddling around on the edges of the army, for what the army was worth in Australia in my youth, I was bound to do something about it. I think politically too I knew enough about what was going on in Germany to feel that if it came to that, well I approved and I’d be in it.
When you look back at that war, with all the benefit of hindsight you have now, how have your feelings changed, how do you feel about it now?
I don’t often think
about it in any personal way. I’m just, feel I’ve been extraordinarily lucky that I should have been through an experience like that and still be here moderately fit and moderately well, really, no better than moderately well, quite well. I broke an arm the other day, a couple of months ago, but that seems to have mended up.
I help keep a few doctors in the comfort to which they’re accustomed but no, if it was to be the fate of my generation, well I was in it and so that’s that. I wouldn’t want to go to another
war now I know a little bit about what it can be like. I hate to see young men going off to this sort of thing. On the other hand there are often very good political reasons why we should intervene in some places and perhaps not in others.
When you do get the opportunity or when in a situation like this you’re forced to think about your own personal wartime
experience, what images stick with you the strongest?
I think the sheer quality of the Australian when he’s trained to do his job. Given the arms and the equipment and the training that they need and certainly
the training they deserve, they’re terrific soldiers and that’s not a sort of lone opinion. That’s an opinion which is held widely in the British Army and the American army. I dare say there are Japanese alive still who would, and Germans, who would say the same.
That’s an enduring picture of the whole thing for me.
Was the Second World War a just war in your opinion?
Well something had to be done about Hitler. We didn’t know the extent of his ambitions
but more began to be known about him as time went on, and then when we began to get information about what was being done to a variety of people, not just Jews, but all sorts of people, what the
length and breadth and depth of Nazism was, then it had to be done. It was a just war all right.
How do you feel about, I know its become a part of your professional life in more ways than one, but how do you feel about war in general today?
Well it’s a
disastrous feature of humankind, wherever they are. They resort to war at one time or another to gain particular ends. It’s just part of the human scene. We haven’t developed to the stage yet where people will bear what they have to bear or use their brains and think
of ways round difficult situations. And of course if you get maniacs like Hitler, and he was a maniac, you have, you’re not only motivated by desire for more land, space for the greater Reich and so on, but you’re motivated by incredible hatreds of other people.
I’m reading now in a book, which is aptly called, Inside Hitler’s Headquarters by a senior staff officer in the operations branch of his headquarters, and he shows what was being done long before the world knew anything about it. But, what was the orders in print for the organisation of what was going to be done in Russia when the Germans got there and
what Hitler confidently said, and I think some of his staff were silly enough to believe, what he confidently said was going to be a quick war. And of course what had happened in the West reinforced his notion that the Germans could have a quick war in Russia but they were going to, what Hitler wanted done to various kinds of people in Russia were all set out in print. The documents are there.
He’s not recalling things from memory but it’s there printed in his book. While humankind can still bring forth people like Hitler, well we’re going to have wars I suppose.
With that in mind, how do you feel about the future at this end of your life?
Now what do you
mean by that?
Well are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, from…?
Yes we are, because one of the uncomfortable features of the humankind is that we don’t learn from history. We’re quite happy to blunder on and repeat these hideous mistakes, but maybe we need Hitlers to prod us and give us another chance to
wake up to ourselves and when we’ve got rid of them, the only decent thing that I can think of that Hitler did was to put a revolver to his head in May ’45.
Last question, should someone be watching this, this archive we’re putting together is for posterity, for fifty years time or a hundred years time. Should someone be watching this in say fifty or a hundred year’s time
and attempting to learn from history, is there any kind of message that you might be able to give them, taking into account your own personal experiences over the course of your life?
It’s a very difficult one but I’ll give you a moment to think about it.
Just first of all repeat the question will you? It’s complicated.
What message do you have for someone who might be watching this in the distant future?
Well whoever is watching it, I can only wish him the amount of luck that I seem to have had, and I don’t know that I’m competent to give him any sort of advice because I don’t know his circumstances
or what sort of a bloke he is, or she is. No, I wouldn’t be prepared to go beyond that.
There’s nothing that’s held firm for you in your own lifetime, personally?
Well that’s getting I think, rather too deep into things. I’m not prepared to
venture any further really.
All right, well we don’t have to go there. Is there anything else at all you’d like to say before we finish today?
Yes, one thing. I’d like to thank the two of you who’ve interviewed me for your obvious competence and your patience and it’s been very good to have you here, both of you.
Well from us back to you thank you very much for your competence and indeed your patience as well and your generosity in sharing your story with us today. Thank you so much for doing that.
Thank you very much. It’s been a very interesting…