Jim Long’s War Years
Just prior to his untimely death in August 1987, Jim Long penned his memoirs of his overseas War service in the Middle East in World War II. The 33,700-word story sees an Australian working-class shoe store worker from Bendigo, volunteer for overseas military service. We hope to add photos to this work in January 2018.
29 Acheron Avenue,
Reservoir – 3073
3rd. December 1986.
Major John Tilbrook,
Corps Historian, R.A.A.O.C.,
Directorate of Supply – Army,
Department of Defence,
Campbell Park Offices,
CANBERRA. A.C.T. 2600.
If I had known that my letters home to my folks some 45 years ago would re-surface in 1986/7, then no doubt I would have taken greater care with my grammar, etc. I was at that time no literary giant, as you will perceive, and I don’t think I’ve gained any ground since then.
A letter home was just that; what the heck if you ended a sentence with a preposition, started a new paragraph commencing with “And” or the letter “A”. It’s strange looking back at that time for we were taught to make paragraphs as long as we could using semi-colons and commas effectually. You will have ample evidence of this.
My wonderful Mother, thoughtfully, and thankfully, kept all of my letters received from here and overseas, and this has greatly helped in providing a source of information. It was not possible, on the other hand, to keep letters received.
In drawing upon my memories, racking of the old brain, there is at times absolute frustration in trying to picture a face for a name, or remember a name for a face. Of course there are many blank patches; uncertainty, and no doubt inaccuracies in that I have endeavoured to recall. In a very broad sense, it was considered prudent, not to recall quite a few things that did happen.
One little credit will be sufficient, thanks. Please feel free to use something like “a member of the unit recalled” etc. Also, feel free please to correct any grammar, tense, or errors, that you will no doubt find.
When I started this exercise I quickly ran into trouble, not only a typewriter that can’t spell was to hand, but it stuttered as well.
I mentioned initially to you, that I would prepare the information so that my family can pass it down the line in the time to come. Although, this of course, means you will be wading through a lot of information that will be irrelevant, it may also help you in obtaining a climate of the times, conditions, food, mail, censor, etc., which I hope will be helpful.
We referred to the barracks in Beirut as Franchet D’Esperey, however, on checking an Encyclopaedia, I see the French General concerned spelt his name as Franchet d’Esperey.
My son who has carried out the photocopying, advises that any photo’s you wish to produce can be copied from your copy. In the event of any difficulty in this regard, please advise and I will forward the originals to you.
Recalled. I joined the Army at the beginning of May 1941. This was just after the disastrous campaign in Greece, and it appeared to me it was a signal for many to enlist at this time. I was 19 with a birthday coming up the following month. To the “Thirty Niners”, those who had joined up in 1939, we were the “Deep Thinkers”. Firstly I joined the AMF (Australian Military Forces) and became a “Choco” (Chocolate Soldier), as my parents refused to give their consent fore me to join the 2nd AIF (Australian Imperial Force). My mother had been a civilian nurse during the 1914-18 conflict and toward the end and afterwards was Matron of a Private Hospital (her own) in a country town. Here she treated and nursed exservicemen for their wounds and affects of gassing, mostly without recompense, according to my father. The appalling injuries she saw no doubt influenced her in not giving parental consent, but this was to change some three months later. Upon enlistment at Royal Park we were questioned in relation to our qualifications, etc., and the branch of the army for which we had a preference. This was where civilian cooks became army drivers and civilian drivers army cooks. My spare time interest was in repairing cars and a moor bike with my preference for the branch of service as the Armoured Division. Not being in the AIF I could not nominate 9th Division Cavalry Regiment as the unit I most wanted to have joined, and in any case not being A1 I had little hope in any case. A bit like the person who said “I’d give my right arm to be ambidexterous”. During the first two days at Royal Park I was issued with my uniform, and proceeded home on leave on the second night. Hat, Khaki, Fur, that was stiff as a board and sat squarely on my skull, Trousers and Tunic that smelt to high heaven of pest control treatment, and Boots so stiff that I walked most unnaturally. They were nice people on the tram, they did not say anything or exchange understanding glances. We did some elementary foot drill at Royal Park and then I was posted to 3rd. Military District Workshops at Broadmeadows. With winter coming on it was a cold hole – the wind starts at Broadie and doesn’t stop as it does another lap. My first job was in the Paint Shop under Staff Sergeant O’Flaherty who was a big bloke – enormous in fact in the eyes of a raw recruit. He presented me with the biggest bass broom I’ve ever seen – Six feet (1.83 m) across I’d reckon – and strict instructions to keep the spray paint booths spotlessly clean. As fast as dust and over spray descended so this enormous bass broom plied back and forth, in an unwinnable war. After awhile I was promoted or demoted to body preparation, that is rubbing down with abrasive paper those parts of a vehicle to be spray painted. This took me out into the vehicle park where there were all types of World War I vehicles in open storage – hard tyred vehicles, Laffleys, Thornycrofts, Macks, Fire Engines, Road Sweepers, etc., which were of immense interest to me. A clerical vacancy in purchasing appeared on the notice board, and having been to night time courses at Business College in Accountancy and Typing, I decided to apply. I think I may have been the only applicant because I got the job. My boss was Sgt (Keith ?) Reeves, possibly a Permanent Military Forces member. He was a terrific fellow with infinite patience, and I owe thanks to him for giving me a start in Workshop Administration that spanned my Army years and later on in Industry.
In 1941 we lustily sang “My eyes are dim I cannot see, I have not brought my specs with me”, in 1986 this may still apply but to which may be added “My memory is dim”. Names without faces, and faces without names. What a shame. Blokes that were really great friends and mates have passed into memory oblivion due to the effluxion of time and human frailty. Sorry fellas, but then you’d reply “Thats OK – Mate”.
My job in the office was chasing up MV (Motor Vehicle) spare parts from local suppliers such as Ford, Motor Spares, Machins, Brooklands, Keep Bros & Wood, etc, and raising Purchase Orders. Being around motor vehicles necessitated an Army drivers licence in order to drive same. Each class required a separate test, that is, motor cycles, sedans and utilities, tonners, carriers and tanks. The licences were hard to obtain and certain practises had to be observed such as when bringing a 5 ton truck to a stop it was necessary to go down through the gears in losing momentum. Many argued it was cheaper to replace brake linings than repair gearboxes.
We worked as a rule a 5½ day week, but often received saturday afternoon duty as duty drivers or instructing officers in being able to ride a motorcycle. Here we took great delight in putting them through their paces on a wet grassy circuit.
Broadmeadows being reasonably close to the city seems to ensure we had plenty of Camp Concerts from civilian groups. We enjoyed them very much and appreciated all their efforts. I think the most enjoyment came from joining in the songs or a sing-song segment. A pretty girl however, never missed the wolf whistles and cheers.
I recall one Saturday afternoon when I was detailed as a Duty Driver. Someone had designed a steel ramp with a level steel section at the end for under chassis service and repairs of vehicles. The level section was about 5 feet 9 inches (1.75m) above the ground allowing a mechanic to walk under or beneath the vehicle. There were no side guards on the ramps (such as on car transporters today) or on the level end. I was instructed by Major Watkins (our CO) to take a 5 ton truck up the servicing ramp – well I got it on the ramp OK, at a thirty degree angle looking upwards at the sky, no guides left or right – I faltered – the good Major beckoned me to reverse which I glady did to level ground. The next driver had the help of blokes left and right giving signals and eventually made the level grad. If this was Mark 1 then it would have been Mark XX before it was safe.
Hugh Gunther was probably one of the most popular Workshops Officers in the Corps. I believe it was at Broadmeadows that I first met him as a Lieutenant. Private or Colonel he treated everybody with respect, and this endeared him to all.
Our RSM was Sarmajor Wells. A waxed moustouche and fine military bearing made him an impressive figure on parade. About this time he was featured in one of the Melbourne Dailies.
To get back to camp after weekend leave it was necessary to get the electric train to Coburg and then catch the rail-motor to Campbellfield siding. The rail-motor was dubbed “The Spirit of Salts”. It was a matter of jumping off as quickly as possible and sprinting for half-a-mile (800 m) up hill along Camp Road to be on parade by 0800 hrs.
Toward the end of July 1941 there was a call for certain personnel to volunteer for overseas service on a draft soon to sail. I applied for a clerical position. This was an express job. Within a few days Capt. Chambers of 2/4th Army Field Workshops interviewed the applicants at Broadmeadows, and I was fortunate in being selected, and now armed with my parents’ consent, was discharged from the AMF on 5AUG41 and enlistment was effected next day in the 2nd AIF.
What an express job this turned out to be. The 2/4th AFW were at Puckapunyal (having moved there from Bendigo) and were on notice to move overseas, destination unknown. The official ware history, Australia in the War of 1939-45, Series 1 (Army) Volume IV, The Japanese Thrust, page 60 erroneously states that 2/4 AFW aboard the “Queen Mary” sailed for Singapore 4FEB41. We were attached to 2/4 AFW, although my records show I was posted to 2/4 AFW.
Anyway there were some several hundred tradesmen, from all states, under the banner of AAOC Reinforcements attached to 2/4th AFW. It was a busy period, with parade ground training, and also for me work in the 2/4 AFW Orderly Room and the Reinforcements Orderly Room under Sgt Ray Lazenby. I also helped in the packing of 2/4th equipment under Sgt. Alf Hedger. Alf was a first war veteran, and I believe had been in the Middle East and had returned to Australia with POW’s. Here he was fronting up for his second trip. I later served with Alf at 2/4th Aust. Base Workshops. So that no one could be accused of being idle we knitted camouflage nets in between times.
We had several Lines of Communication (L. of C.) Officers to shepherd us to where ever we may be going; our Company Sergeant Major was WOII Murphy.
Each morning the Coombe Bros put us through P.T. (Physical Training exercises). Thank goodness they were of the understanding kind in our early rookie days.
The 2/4th AFW had a Pipe Band, and each morning at reveille marched through the tin huts (actually galvanized iron) awakening not only the slumberers, but the dead as well mine-tinkit. If you have not heard a Pipe Band in a Tin Hut, then believe me you’ve heard nothing, but nothing, yet.
We seemed to get quite a few innoculations at the Camp Hospital, and it was not ucommon to see a few “Bronzed Anzacs” hit the dust just as it was their turn to get the jab. Capt. Alexander was the 2/4th AFW R.M.O. (Regimental Medical Officer).
It was certainly a busy time. Enlisted 6AUG41 at Royal Park and marched out from Puckapunyal for embarkation on the 31st, during which time enjoyed or suffered 6 days pre-embarkation leave.
Letter 11AUG41. Everything going fine at Pucka, the meals are good, so that is the main thing. Bernie (Conlan) has caught, like most of the boys, guard and picket work. Tomorrow, Tuesday, I think we will be vaccinated, thats what they do before going home on final leave. We are coming home Thursday for six days. We arrive in Melbourne about 1-30 and go back the following Wednesday by the 7 pm train. Everything is at Pucka, recreation huts, theatre, and several large canteens, one could almost buy a meal if the tucker was not agreeable.
Recalled. Spent six days in bed (all of my final leave) due to effects of innoculations and vaccination. Smart job the army.
Recalled. In our mob we had a bloke Pte “Red” Maloney. He was tallish, red tousled hair, spectacled, and a saxophinist of no mean degree. During our final leave period he was challenged by the constabulary, so the story is told, of riding up and down in a city building lift playing the Sax. When challenged, about same, he replied he was collecting for unit funds. More of “Red” further on.
Letter 21AUG41. I was rather sick coming up in the train but was better this morning; I saw the Doctor or Captain this morning and he told me I had a perfect reaction to the small-pox vaccination and said I could consider myself absolutely immune to small-pox. Today I was issued with my rifle, respirator and several items. You will be pleased to hear this, think we are getting leave this weekend: it may be from 0700 hours Saturday or from 1700 hours.
Recalled. One afternoon, toward the end of August, the boys decided to demonstrate outside the Reo Orderly Room over not receiving their Specialists Pay. Tradesmen were grouped as Class I, II or III and were paid an extra 1/- (10¢), 2/- (20¢), 3/- (30¢) above the basic private’s pay of 5/- (50¢) per day. Class I was the highest and attracted 8/- (80¢) per day. Apparently they had tried in vain over a lengthy period (for some) to have the details in their Pay Books and thus receive payment. So they decided to use a little muscle power on the subject – “No Pay – No Embarkation”. “Mutiny” warned CSM Murphy. Eventually, after some discussion several chaps were led away, one being George Farmer, but it got results. George was small in statue and he certainly proved that it wasn’t the size of the dog in the fight that counted, rather the size of the fight in the dog. Bravo George.
Letter 25AUG41. It seems as if we will be off this week most likely Friday; so I don’t suppose I will be home for awhile, of course you never know we might be here for a month. It seems as this is the time because the Tasmanians who went on leave have been recalled and all leave from the unit is cancelled. Tonight I will type about 6 envelopes, so that I will be able to throw tham out as we are on our way to embark. I will put nothing in them in the event of them being picked up by the military authorities; but you will be able to trace by the postmark and date the time and when I left.
Letter 27AUG41. Well here I am at Puckapunyal still, I don’t know whether this letter will reach you until I am gone as they stop all outward letters from here when a draft is moving out. The latest craze up here is the shaving of the hair, most of the boys are getting about like criminals, it would be worth £1 to see one individually. Some have just little tufts left in places, while Bernie (Conlan) has his shaved on the top and quite normal around the outside, he looks like a Monk.
Recalled 27AUG41. This day I received two more innoculations and copped guard duty, guarding the Parade Ground. Could hardly move my left arm. Rifle at the slope weighed a ton.
Letter 28AUG41. We think we are going this weekend, as a matter of fact it is Sunday. We hope to go on the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, they are both in Sydney. New address –
Pte. J. Long,
PUCKAPUNYAL OR ABROAD.
Letter 29AUG41. Dear Mum, Going Sunday – via Sydney.
Recalled. Of the blank letters posted on the way to Sydney, the following were received by my mother –
From Seymour (2),
Some notes kept leading up to embarkation –
Diary 31AUG41. Reveille 0530. This morning cleaned up everything at Puckapunyal ready to move out. Dinner 1130. Moving out 1315. We arrived at Dysart Siding, near Seymour, entrained at 1400 hrs, and travelled to Benalla, posted two letters here. Arrived Albury 1800 hrs, wonderful voluntary tea arranged by women, entrained in NSW trains, much superior to Vic trains, travelled all night.
Diary 1SEP41. Monday. Awoke in the outskirts of Sydney. Arrived through the outskirts of Sydney to the wharves (Pyrmont) which were closely guarded by police both military and civil, at 0645 hrs. Here I persuaded a guard to post a letter for me. We embarked on a ferry at 0700 hrs and made straight out into the bay passing under the “Sydney Harbour Bridge” which stood up to all its boasting by NSW diggers. The Vic lads of course boasted that at least Princes Bridge was at least paid for. Sydney proved to be a wonderful sight from the “Queen Elizabeth” which is of 85,000 tons, 5,000 tons heavier than the “Queen Mary”. We had breakfast at 0930, and nobody could visualize the size of the Dining Hall without seeing it. We spent the rest of the day investigating the ship, which surpassed anything I had dreamt of. The ferries gave us a great welcome, and ships of all description sailed around us.
I had walked miles on the ship (supposedly fourteen miles of corridors) and my legs were very tired. The boys, or four of us, have got a cabin complete with wash basin, hot water and cupboards. (That which we paid little heed to at the time was that outside our porthole there was a boiler on the deck – in the tropics we had a sauna). There are all kinds aboard, Czechs, Palestinians, Air Force and many diggers. I have promised myself a trip to Sydney after the war.
Diary 2SEP41. Tuesday. Today we furthered our travels on the ship. I think everyone has been lost at some time. At 1530 the tugs came to turn us about, and it was quite amusing to see them pushing head on at our bow to swing us around. We then made out to sea, the Sydney people giving us a great farewell. The Governor General, Lord Gowrie, made an inspection and wished us the usual. At the Sydney Heads he was there to wave us off, he is a V.C. winner. Tobacco is cheap on board 1/6d. (15¢) for 50 of almost any kind. We have been escorted by the HMAS Adelaide and Sydney. There is hardly any movement in the ship and it is like a floating Palace. We got a glimpse of the Queen Mary as we passed her lying at anchor.
Letter 3 SEP41. Just to let you know I am safe and having a good time at sea. I am in a large boat, not the one you thought I would be in, yet it is excellent in every way. Hope this reaches you as it is by bottle. (Note – This was posted by some kind person and found its way to the Censor, where the envelope was opened, and passed for posting. The date is hard to decipher, but Sydney was the place of posting, but I believe it went overboard around Jervis Bay).
Diary 3SEP41. We are anchored in Jervis Bay with our escorts still handy. We are waiting for the Queen Mary to load and then catch up to us. I am enjoying myself immensely. We have had drill today including P.T. At 1800 hrs we left Jervis Bay and made out to sea.
Diary 4SEP41. We awoke this morning to find ourselves well at sea with the Queen Mary approximately half a mile (800 m) away sailing parallel. It is rather calm and so far the ship ha snot started to roll. The escort is well up in front, the Sydney and Adelaide. This morning we had an excellent meal. I am eating like a hunter. The crew say they are not frightened of an attack owing to the tremendous speeds of these large sister ships. This morning I jumped out of bed at 0545 hoping to get already by reveille which is at 0600. We all came second best when we found thats the clocks on the ship had been put back half an hour. Bernie (Conlan) and I have made friends with the Palestinian Police whom are aboard. They are of all nationalities comprising mostly of Poles, yet there are quite a lot who speak Hebrew. If we get to Tel Aviv they have promised us a good time. (Note. The Palestinian Police had escorted Italian Prisoners of War to Australia and were now on their return journey to Palestine). There are several Table Tennis players amongst them and I hope to give them a game. Last night was our first night of the black-out and the Naval Authorities are exceedingly strict.
Diary. 5SEP41-7SEP41. The routine orders of the ship have been the prominent feature of these days. (Lifeboat drill, precaution exercises, etc.) Nothing of really great importance. We have been passing through The Bight, it has been exceedingly rough and may of the chaps have been seasick. Sunday I went to Church Parade, a most impressive service.
Recalled. It was certainly rough going through The Bight. The Queen Mary was travelling parallel to us about 3 miles (5 Ks) on our left side (Port) and she was lifting out of the water so much that the keep could be seen half way along the ship. I remember one morning going down to breakfast and there were only three of us on our table out of twenty.
Letter. Undated. About 6SEP41. You will have no doubt wondered why you did not receive a letter from me earlier, but the mail at Puckapunyal was held up while the drafts were moving out. We are on a good ship, and so far I haven’t been seasick, but of course the journey is not finished and I may be seasick yet. Of course you will realize that we cannot say much in these letters, as they are censored, and very strictly at that. I have become friendly with a Palestine Policeman, and I am going to teach him English, in return he is going to teach me Hebrew which may come in handy some day or other. (Note – We were not allowed to date letters, and it is a guess that this letter was taken off at Christmas Island (Indian Ocean) although it was never confirmed that we actually visited there).
Diary. 8SEP41. We have arrived at Fremantle, and it is unfortunate that we cannot get shore leave. Fremantle seems to be rather a nice place. The Q.M. is lying beside the Q.E. at anchor. The oil tanker has been out to both ships. We were allowed to end a telegram.
Diary. 9SEP41. Today sports. Nothing of any great importance. We have left Fremantle, and making good pace on the Indian Ocean.
Diary. 10SEP41. Sports. Nothing of really any great importance. I am representing our unit in Table Tennis.
Diary. 11SEP41. It is starting to get pretty warm. Today we could see many flying fish. We had a Gas lecture. After dinner we went to the pictures. A beautiful theatre for a ship, but an old film.
Diary. 12SEP41. Friday. Nothing out of the ordinary has happened today.
Diary. 13SEP41, 14SEP41. The Indian Ocean has shown that it is not always as calm as a mill pond. Today, or both days it has been rough with a gale blowing up. Sunday, Church. An amphibian circled over us. We must be near land now. Played Table Tennis.
Recalled. In the Indian Ocean, of an evening, the boys would gather on the bow of the ship for a sing song. Mostly the songs were old favourites. Its a “Long way to Tipperary”, “Does your Mother come from Ireland”, “Danny Boy”, “Sweet Adeline”, etc., several thousand voices, resulting in a beautiful harmony. N’er to be forgotten.
Diary. 15SEP41. We awake to find we are entering a beautiful harbour. The foliage along the water-front makes an exceedingly beautiful sight. It is, Trincomalee, a naval port in Ceylon. The Queen Mary has gone inside the port to refuel – while we are waiting outside the minefield. The water and oil tankers are now alongside and the boys are having a good time with the native seamen. There are no seagulls, instead there are hawks of a brown colour with a white head. They are experts at picking up the morsels with their talons. The hills rise straight up from the waterfront making natural fortifications. The HMS Ramillies is in port with the Q.M. There are also several merchantmen, and the Indian Navy is represented.
Recalled. There was no shore leave for us. A few of the lads swam ashore and back to the ship, against orders, and in shark infested waters.
Diary. 16SEP41. Today we are making our way from Ceylon on the last stage of our journey. Ceylon is undoubtedly a beautiful tropical island of which we only got a glance. It is starting to get rather warm and I am sweating like a racehorse. I weighed myself and have gained 6 pounds (2.7 Kgs) since joining the AIF.
Diary. 17&18SEP41. Have been quiet days. The heat at night makes it hard t sleep, but I always put in my time. Thursday I have writted home but expect it will not be taken off until we disembark at probably Port Tewfik. Today we think we are going through the Gulf of Aden, and we have to be on the alert from now onwards. Today is the final of the ships sports. I expect I will watch the Table Tennis finals tonight. Today is also payday. Thank ….. as I am stony. We can either be paid in Australian, Egyptian or Palestinian currency. I will get Australian as we do not know our destination.
Recalled. One night, about this time, there was a submarine scare. The Queen Mary gave several blasts on the hooter and peeled off to the left at great speed. The Queen Elizabeth clamped on speed, and one could feel the vibrations throughout the ship. Some estimated that she was doing in excess of forty knots.
Diary. 20SEP41. It is very warm and drill and lectures are becoming perspiration promoters. Saturday afternoon (today) we went to the pictures and saw an exceedingly good show. Saturday night I received a picket duty for two hours.
Diary. 21SEP41. It is a beautiful day and the Red Sea presents many sights, Sharks, Porpoises, Marlins, Whales and many types of marine life appear before us. It is like a mill pond. We have just passed the Twelve Apostles, they are 12 prominent rocks rising out of the Red Sea. This morning I saw the most beautiful sunrise one could ever wish to witness. The sun came over the mountains and you could actually see it rising, the rays as they penetrated the clouds provided a sight which one will never or most likely not see again. We are on the alert now. We have to carry life jackets where ever we go. The Queen M. is now up in front, 5 miles (8 Kms) approx. and there are many man-o-war escorting us. We expect to berth tomorrow morning.
Diary. 22SEP41. Today we have been on ship precisely three weeks. The Red Sea is still calm as a mill-pond and it resembles a large lake. Nothing of great importance. Had long talk with Yehuda on the Co-operative Community system practised by the New Hebrew colonies and the system of Kibbutz.
Diary. 23SEP41. We have anchored in Jebba or Cheppell Bay. We can see the coast quite plainly and it is very barren. There are quite a number of ships anchored, nine in all, tankers and merchantmen. There are two Navy ships also as an escort. It is not quite so warm today. I omitted to mention that yesterday I witnessed a burial at sea, the Chief Master at Arms, a member of the crew has died. The heat killed him, but he was elderly. It was indeed pleasing to see the respect paid by the diggers to the dead, at the last honours paid to this man, one could hear a pin drop at the sounding of the Last Post. A tanker is alongside and it looks like a rowing boat in comparison with the immenseness and majesty of Q. Eliz. We are now facing parallel to the Sinai mountains which we find mentioned in our Biblical history. One cannot realize the stature of these mountains and could not appreciate the beautiful scene this range of mountains present. Barren, Sandy, Majestic, these are the adjectives one could attach to these mountains: but there is something which makes them unique in their ugliness. It is 150 miles (250 Kms) from Tewfik. It must be somewhere in this vicinity that Moses led his throng of Israelites from Egypt into the promised land. At 5.30 tonight the Q.E. is making out towards sea.
Diary. 24SEP41. We have been out to sea and we find we are coming back again into the bay we anchored in yesterday. An escort is continually with us now. Yehuda Zimroni has given me a wallet which he purchased while in Egypt. It has a mosque imprinted on one side while on the other the picture is of the Sphinx, Pyramids, and the proverbial ships of the desert. I intend to send the wallet home to Dad. Tonight we have been informed by the OC of the troops (Col. C.H. Lamb, OBE,MC) that we are to disembark tomorrow, so there is a certain amount of excitement amongst us. We were issued with 10 rounds of Ammo.
Letter. 24SEP41. Just a short note, before we disembark which is tomorrow Thursday 25/9/41. A chap who I joined up with is going back on the boat so I am going to get him to post this in Sydney, if he can. I am as fit as a fiddle, we have been treated excellently on board the “Queen Elizabeth” and have been living more like Lords than soldiers. We left Sydney on the 2/9/41 and as you can see, we have been aboard for 25 days. We think we are going to Tel Aviv in Palestine. (Note: what a shock we had in store). Of course we are not sure, but as you can see we are in the Middle East. We are, at the writing of this letter in the Red Sea. We have been to Ceylon and we have had an excellent trip.
Diary. 25SEP41. Thursday. We are now anchoring in a bay in which there is much shipping.
Recalled. We were at Port Tewfik the gateway to the Suez Canal. Later in the day we marched off the Queen Elizabeth in full winter uniform, with overcoats being worn, over which we had full kit, and one of our two sea kit bags. The group I marched off with down the swaying gang plank to a smaller ship did so with bayonets fixed and rifle slung on the left shoulder. If Adolph ever felt threatened it had to be now, bayonets fixed and ten rounds. My bayonet caught in the top of the doorway (hatch?) of the smaller ship, and losing balance on the swaying gang plank nearly ended my days in the Red Sea, fortunately several sailors sprang to my help and saved the day.
It was good to be on land after 25 days. It was hot, really hot, and in full uniform and overcoat we marched off across desert sands to a Staging Camp. The Canal was on our left for a way and I was surprised it was so narrow. We marched around the perimeter of an oil refinery, and everywhere there were signs “Unexploded Bomb”. They obviously failed to explode on hitting the soft sand. Reaching the Staging Camp we were allotted to dug-in tents, the sleeping level being below surrounding ground level. All the tents were camouflaged, painted over with a mixture of sand and water. The evening meal was a stew, of which word got around had been three days on the fires, as we were three days late in arriving. Tasted alright but the bread seemed weavily. It didn’t take long for the “old hands” to start putting the wind up us “Jerry was over last night, dropped a few in the Canal – be over for sure tonight, it’ll be a full moon”. I can’t remember now if we slept or not but it was good to welcome a new day as we knew we were moving out.
And so we entrained on the Egyptian Rail System, bound for destination unknown. The railway line ran parallel with the Canal on the eastern side, and we had stops at Ismailia (a big garrison town), El Kantara, Tel el Kebir (where the Ordnance boot store was blown up in a bombing raid). The carriages were air-conditioned, no glass in the windows or doors. And so we continued our way across the Sinai Desert of Egypt arriving at Deir Suneid in Palestine.
Deir Suneid was one of many AIF training camps. It was then AIF policy that troops proceeding overseas would do an intensive Infantry Training course in the land to which they were sent. The Course was for a period of six weeks, and nearly all of our insructors were from 6 Division Infantry Battalions. The camp was barren, devoid of vegetation, only sand, and plenty of sand dunes. The Camp Commandant was Brigadier Robertson (later Lt-Gen. Sir Horace Robertson KBE,DSO) known as “Red Robbie” and held in awe by all. Our Company Commander was Lt. D’Eglon (known as “Handlebars” and the “Red Terror”), our CSM being WOII Littlefair (also referred to as “Belching Bertha” and “Leapin Lena”).
Our training in the sand quickly brought us to peak physical condition as it was hard going all the time. There was no let up. We had bayonet charges up and down sand hills for considerable periods, for many days. Twelve hour guards were mounted, and we were always posted in pairs because of Johnny Arab. Rifles were locked together of a night in the tent with Bolts being removed and kept in safe custody by the individual.
Oranges were quite cheap, but they never seemed to taste quite as good as those we pinched from the orchards nearby. Couldn’t let all that good tuition on patrol work go to waste.
Letter. 29SEP41. Well I am allowed to let you know that I am in Palestine. You will notice that I am speaking in the singular all the time, as I am not permitted to write in the plural.
Letter. 12OCT41. Today, Sunday, Bernie (Conlan) and I took an eight mile walk, shows you how fit we are. Last week I went on a route march through a native village, and stink and filth I have never yet witnessed as bad. The Wogs as we call them live very crudely. The women do most of the work in the fields as well as tending the herds. They are now censoring incoming letters, so I expect they are held up to a certain extent in Australia.
Recalled. the latrines in the camp consisted of a deep long trench (dug by Arab labour) over which was located a bench type arrangement with about a dozen circular holes cut in the top of the bench, with a hinged lid on each. This was the place to hear the latest news or furphy. Many a take commenced with “The hot news from seat n. 6 is…..”. Generally the latrine blocks were surrounded by hessian and all in all weren’t too bad.
Cold water showers were provided, and the water was very hard. It was almost impossible to get soap to lather. The shower blocks were rectangular, and hessian used for the outside covering. There were a dozen or so shower roses. The first day in any army camp taught one that “Not all men are born equal”.
Outside army camps in Palestine the Arabs were to be seen with their makeshift canvas stalls selling virtually anything and everything. One night there was some trouble at a Camera stall with the owner being stormed by some irate customers, and the poor fellow being left with no wares to sell. Next day there was the inevitable kit inspection, but nothing was to be found and of course the Company was exonerated. Sand had remarkable repository values.
Our tent was the EPIP type. It had at all times to be well camouflaged (sand and water), sides rolled up during the day, and each persons gear neatly or more precisely, immaculately arranged. We had in our tent, the saxophonist “Red” Maloney. Red was a non-conformist, not intentionally, it just so happened things turned out that way. If there had been a prize for the best kept tent, we weren’t in the hunt. When the wet canteen was open, Red played for his supper. He was a remarkable musician, and I never ever saw him play to sheet music. Also in our tent, as I remember, were the Helps –
SX13412 Pte. B.G. Helps,
SX13413 Pte. R.K. Helps,
SX13414 Pte. M.H. Helps,
of North Unley, South Australia.
Letter. 12OCT41. Yesterday afternoon, saturday, I went on a route march. I didn’t think I’d ever do this on a saturday arvo. Went to the pictures in the evening and saw Lloyd Nolan in the “Man who wouldn’t talk”, the admission is 20 mils or equivalent to sixpence (5¢) in Aussie. On pay day we are paid in mils, so it is at least one time I can speak in thousands. I drew 3000 mils which is 3 Palestinian Pounds or £3.15.0. in Aussie ($6.00). Last week we had a sand-storm, it was a beauty. Oranges I buy 6 for 5 mils or 6 for 1½d (1.5¢.), hows that for cheapness, of course that is when I buy them, generally the orchards are quite conveniently situated. It is strange in the villages, the houses or huts are built in a quadrangle style with a high wall all around; the donkeys and camels are kept in the yard so that you can imagine the stench. Disease is great and quite a number of Arabs have something wrong with them, particularly with the eyes, of course you realize what that is.
Recalled. The sand housed millions of sand fleas. Someone wrote somewhere that the ground in Palestine was in a constant stage of movement. Often the bites festered and had to be treated. Sand Fly Fever was also in existence and many caught this malady. Similarly dysentry was always about. Often blokes would be vomiting and suffering diarrhoea at the same time. Picture nights consisted of sitting on the sand or trestles and having a scratch every now and then whilst watching the film under a ceiling of stars. Sometimes an “Air Raid Yellow” or “Air Raid Red” would flash on the screen but we were only troubled once at Deir Suneid. We had been taught to recognize the sound made by enemy aircraft. This night I was on guard duty, a bright moonlight night and I was actually writing a letter in the moonlight in my “off” time when we had a “Red Alert”. A single Jerry plane circled overhead whilst we hugged the turf (or sand). It circled for what seemed an eternity before finally heading towards Gaza, and we heard next day it had dropped several bombs down that way.
Letter. 19OCT41. I will endeavour to tell you the news of last week. The main item was that I went on a three days bivouac and ending it up with a sixteen miles (27 Kms) route march home. In a shooting practice which I participated in I was quite all right up til the three hundred yard mark then of course my right eye which you know is the weaker hindered me. (Looking back I don’t think I could even see the target, let alone hit it). Last night being saturday night I copped a guard duty so I couldn’t go to the flicks. This coming week will conclude my training period, and I can assure you I’m not sorry. I had my first glimpse of the Mediterranean sea last week, so I am gradually becoming a traveller. Last night I heard the rebroadcast of the Caulfield Cup. It is precisely 2-30 pm here, it will be 9-30 in Melbourne, I wonder what you are all doing? The rainy season will be coming on soon, so I expect I will be getting a few drenchings, as it comes down very heavily, it only lasts for three months of the year. So far I have not received any leave so I cannot tell you about any towns. The weather is excellent, very much like a Victorian summer. The food is of good quality but I get sick of stew, so occasionally I treat my stomach to a royal feast at the canteen.
Letter. 25OCT41. It has been rather warm this week but the weather has been good. This weekend marks the conclusion of my training and I am certainly glad although it has made me wonderfully fit. The instructors have been first-class chaps, so that makes things easier. Most likely the next time I write I will have another address, but as long as you use the present address it will find me. I will be able to tell uou many tales when I come home which I cannot write in letters, so if you think my letters are dry, remember The Censor has an eagle-eye. This week I have been very fortunate in only copping a theatre piquet, in which I saw two shows free. This week we had a ceremonial parade in which our photos were taken by the news-reel, so you may see my picture on the screen in Australia between now and a years time. We are lined up in Companies, and I am about the ninth along in the front row. Articles are very expensive over here although some are bedrock cheap, for instance the Australian Pound ($2) is equal to 16/- ($1.60) here, goods from Australia are generally dearer; but washing is exceptionally cheap, a shirt costs 3d. (3¢.), Lemonade is 1½d. (1.5¢) a bottle. The Arabs and the Jews are bitter against one another and I expect that after we leave here (the British troops) they will be into it once again. There’s one thing this war will do and that is it will make the diggers appreciate Australia moreso than ever. The sand gets very monotonous, also the nights are beginning to get chilly. I have seen several war cemeterys over here of Australian Soldiers who fell in this land during the fighting between the Turks and the Aussies in the last war. It is gratifying to see that these graves are being tended to and are kept in a good condition, so it will help those people who have friends lying at rest in these cemeterys to know they are not forgotten here.
Recalled. WOII Southern, a Queenslander was with the Reinforcements at Puckapunyal and sailed with us to the Middle East. At Deir Suneid he took a lesser role as an instructor, the 6th. Division sergeants taking over, as they were battle hardened. Nethertheless Sar-major Southern contributed to our training, being a most conscientious Warrant Officer. He had a very fair complexion with youthful looks, and this earned him the title of the “Boy Brigadier”. Sgt. Baker was a tremendous instructor. An Infanteer, he had a marvellous manner with the boys. “Come on lads, he’d say”. I remember his commands, they were as if being sung, clear and of only sufficient volume to be heard by those he was commanding. Well do I recall him saying one day as we were finishing the course, “One day some of you will be NCO’s, it is only necessary for you to give a command loud enough for the instruction to be heard. There’s no need to shout – I don’t like being shouted at, and neither should you”. He was a mighty instructor. Several years later whilst serving with 2/4th Aust. Base Workshops at Bandiana, I saw him in Albury, virtually surrounded by admiring new young blades. He was a WO.I. and stationed, I believe at Bonegilla. I have always regretted not taking the opportunity of renewing the acquaintance.
Leave at Deir Suneid was handed out as if it was being taken off the Officers own personal leave entitlement; worse than getting a pair of socks from the Quartermaster. Very few received leave, and it was then decided by some scheme of ballot by “selling the horse”. At this time we hadn’t had a days leave since that granted at Puckapunyal some 65 days ago. So the boys decided that “Tel Aviv would be nice”. Getting there was no trouble, getting back was. The Provosts had a field day. I got lost and didn’t have a clue how to get back to camp. Taking the attitude of “Boldness be my Friend” I approached a couple of Aussie Provosts and asked them where the truck back to Deir Suneid left from, and they showed me without asking for my leave pass. You can win – Sometimes.
The Army had a jargon of its own. One, Embussed, debussed; Entrained, detrained; Embarked, disembarked; Emplaned, deplaned; Marched In, marched out; Evacuated to, evacuated from; etc. The date of the happening being the “Date of the Casualty” and the place where it happened being “Place of Casualty.
And so it was on the 7th. November 1941 we “Marched out” of Deir Suneid to a nearby rail siding to await a train. Once again it was a matter of “Hurry up and wait”. Hours later, or could it have been a day, we entrained for Haifa, detrained at Haifa, and embussed for Beirut. Having embussed there was quite a delay in departure and this attracted sellers of wine at 9d. (9¢) a large bottle, genuine product from “Mount Carmel” which appeared for all to see on the escarpment above the town.
Being thrown some tins of Bully and Dog Biscuits (to be whacked up between 3 or 4 blokes nearest the catcher) the meal was duly washed down with some plonk, with some reserves in hand just in case the sorrowful process had to be repeated.
Arak was the demon drink. A medicine type bottle about 6″ (12mm) tall housed a clear (gin like) liquid which had an aniseed flavour. The drinker was supposed to part fill a glass of water and add a touch of Arak, at which the water would turn milky white. The drinker was then supposed to sip the drink. Many an Aussie up ended the bottle and had a neat swig. It cost about 1/6d. (15¢) a bottle – around the world for 1/6d. was a cheap and sorry trip. I once saw a bloke who’d been on the Arak riding a horse, except that the horse had gone home.
Eventually we headed northwards to Beirut. It was common in those days to embrace Lebanon and Syria as one, with the name of Syria being dominant.
The coastal border of Palestine and Lebanon was situated high on a mountain that rose steeply from the Mediterranean Sea. It presented a magnificent panorama of the coastline north and southwards.
As we headed northwards from the border we entered an entirely different land. Green mountains, rivers, creeks, small coastal plateaus, banana plantations, a contrast in extreme to the flat arid sands.
Through Acre, Tyre, Sidon, etc., to Beirut where officially we were taken on strength 9NOV41, our new home 3 Australian Ordnance Workshops Company. (3 A.O.W.).
And what a surprise with our billets. We were to occupy Franchet D’Esprey barracks. A three storey building that had been previously occupied by French troops, and located close to the city. Many of our mates had been dispersed to other units and I was sorry to say farewell to my mate Bernie Conlan, and many others.
Letter. 10NOV41. Well I suppose you will wonder why you have not received a letter from me for an interval of two weeks; but I have been expecting a new address and therefore thought it would be better to wait until I knew the correct address before writing you. As you can see by the above I am now in my unit (3 Aust. Ordnance Workshops Company, AIF Abroad), and that will be my correct address. I am very glad however to have left Palestine behind, and I am permitted to tell you I am somewhere in Syria. It is really great to be in Syria, there is great scenery, plenty of water, and not sand to look at for 24 hours per say. The money system is again different so consequently it takes a bit to get used to. Olives and bananas are the chief fruits, although there are plenty of oranges and such. French, Arabic and many languages are spoken here. It is strange how a hostile country, or actually hostile leaders, can become so inclined toward us. It is also rather strange to be riding in trams when I visited Beirut. The Officers are a great lot, and that makes the world of difference in regard to harmony in a unit. I am in excellent quarters and I may tell uou it is great to be sleeping on a bed once again, instead of the ground.
PS. My french is coming in handy; I didn’t think I’d ever use it while I was at school.
It was a somewhat strange set up for our unit. The British Army provided a Headquarters under Colonel Lord with Major R.T.R. Johnstone-Hall being associated with production.
Our OC was Major W.H. (Harry) Mence, and he was supported by
Capt. George Lappage
Capt. “Curly” Adams
Lieut. “Daddy” Foulsham
Lieut A.E. Hayne
Lieut. Poole (Adjutant)
WO I Jack Quickfall
WO I “Black Jack” Smith
WO II “Monty” Montgomery
Sgt. Vincent du Blet. (Instruments Sec.)
Sgt. Hunt (Orderly Room)
Sgt. Roy Bromley (M.Vehs. Sec.).
Part of the unit was located at “Foch Barracks” on the otherside of town, and unfortunately I never visited there.
Major (later Lt-Col) Mence was a very quiet reserved officer, who never got close to the troops. I served under him, for some three years and I believe he was basically a shy person, being however, savage on defaulters, and from whence his nickname of “Ming the Merciless” was created. The lads, in default, feared the dressing down he handed out “about letting the side down” moreso than the privileges lost or fines imposed. He was in turn OC 3 AOW Coy, CO 2 AOW, Works Manager 2/4th. Aust. Base Workshops and CEME 6 Aust. Division. I am not aware of commands he had prior to joining 3 AOW Coy, or after becoming CEME 6 Div.
Capt. George Lappage was a person of extreme nervous energy and constantly on the move. On parade, he’d shift from foot to foot and have the odd scratch of the buttocks. He became known as “Jumpin George”, and was a popular officer with the boys.
Capt. “Curly” Adams was a person with a close association with the troops. Always a smile for all, and a helping hand when and where needed.
Lt. Foulsham earned his nickname of “Daddy” only due to his age. A first World War veteran, it was thought he was into his fifties when he joined us. In all of the trying physical activities such as route marches he was always out in front urging others on. He’d never give up. He was admired and respected by all.
We were astonished at the conditions of Other Ranks of our English friends. Their pay was about 1/- (10¢) per day as against our pay of 5/- (50¢) per day and 6/-, 7/- and 8/- for classes 3, 2 and 1 tradesmen. On top of this we received about ten per cent for exchange rates. Their blankets were tremendously coarse in comparison to ours and were more like horse blankets. They were, and rightly so, most envious of our daily rates of pay, and we were of course to meet a similar fate when the Americans arrived in Australia.
Discipline was ever so much stricter than ours, and not too many evenings passed without some poor Tommy being seen doing Defaulters Drill under a Lance Corporal. There was always some heckling from the balconies by the Aussies, but being of good nature it was accepted as such, and did not cause any trouble between us.
From what I heard the Officers did not get along too well, but as for the other ranks we got along famously. We were very pleased we could share our parcels from home with them; as they were denied these from their homeland due to rationing and possibly due to transport difficulties.
Very quickly we were able to get under way in regard to our role in the war. (the LAD’s (Light Aid Detachments), Bde Wksps (Brigade Workshops), AFW’s (Army Field Workshops and their Recovery Sections), were all mobile units, whereas we were static and thereby undertook the heavier tasks, such as major engine reconditioning. Although termed Advanced Workshops, we were in essence static or base workshops. We serviced, repaired and modified all types of wheeled vehicles, arms and equipment.
In addition to the three storey accommodation block, the barracks had a HQ block under which was a passage way to the main gates, and rows of workshop bays.
The latrine block housed rows of round holes in the tiled floor, in front of each were two food pads to which one firmly placed one’s feet and squatted over the hole. Most hygienic. The trap for the unwary was that every several minutes an automatic flushing system was activated, and it was so sudden and fierce that unless one counted and stood up, you got a wet behind.
Letter. 16NOV41. In this letter I will endeavour to give you a description of Syria, or to be precise Lebanon and Syria, of which Beirut is the chief town of Lebanon and Damascus the Capital of Syria; but before I go on with it I will tell you about the Curios I have purchased and which I am sending home by the only means, surface mail; for you Mum there is a Mosaic box which will come in handy and two cushion covers, for you Pop there is a camel hide wallet which I hope you will like, I will endeavour to get you a French Briar pipe later on; for my sister there is a handbag which I am sure you will like as it typifies the Middle East; then for Mick a hand carved whistle (Recorder), these souvenirs are all made in Damascus. One of the chief reasons why Beirut is one of the chief towns is because of the presence of the “American University of Beirut” which is of a very high standard, so consequently the mixture of so many foreigners. One cannot go into a town over here with out being pestered to death by the people wanting you to buy something from them, it’s “Shoeshine George”, “Shave or Haircut George” (we were all called George after “King George”), and they’ll sell you anything from a needle to a town hall. The Syrian Pound is equivalent to 2/10d. (34¢) in Aussie money; last time I drew money here drew 23 quid, so you can see I am in the big money now. The weather has really been beautiful, and I expect to see the snow which will prove to be a wondrous sight on the already beautiful Lebanon mountains.
Letter. 28NOV41. You will notice that the letter card has the Xmas Greeting on already, so they are a bit of a novely. Letter cards are scarce else I would use them everytime as you suggested, I only get two a week or sometimes none at all. The parcels are staring to arrive so I hope to get one of mine one of these days. I haven’t received one yet. The rainy season is starting here, last night it fairly teemed, a real thunderstorm. My word I’ll be able to tell you a tremendous lot when I arrive home, it’s a pity we have to have censors but of course they are essential. I would have liked to have gone to the Bethlehem church service Christmas Day. I have been told it is a 24 hour service and all denominations take part. Now I’m sure I’ll miss it, so my Xmas day will most likely be a stew. If you serve me up a stew within 5 years of my arrival home, I’ll have a fit, also rice and eggs.
We were situated close to the centre of Beirut and had access by tram.
It was usual among the civilian population for the men to sit on trams and the women and children to stand. This was quickly reversed as the Australians enforced our homeland rules. At least the women enjoyed their temporary supremacy.
Very often the driver of the tram was relieved of his duties by an Australian ex-trammie, much to the amusement of the passengers, or to their horror (and ours) if he’d had one too many.
The centre of town was a big rectangular garden area, dotted with palm trees, comprising of Martyrs’ Square adjoining Canons’ Place.
Bordering the square was an Australian Canteen, which at some time or other, catered for the three Australian Divisions and Corps troops, whilst on leave. It provided excellent meals and drinks, with a background of music from a local band. It was exceedingly well managed and provided the type of relaxation sought by many whilst on leave.
At one end of the Square was the Bastille (prison or fortress), opposite to which was a street leading into the “Houses of Pleasure” area, which covered some four acres in area. It was generally referred to as “The Marica” after a house of that name. The narrow streets provided easy shopping by a glance left or right, as often the “wares” were displayed in doorways or windows.
Local leave was liberal. If a duty was not incurred then leave was allowed. The Adjutant of the English HQ was a Subaltern (2nd Ltd. – One pipper), we didn’t have this rank in the Australian army during the 1939-45 war, and he was always spic-n-span and sported a very nice walrus moustache. Our lads took to him, and whenever they passed him would give the most immaculate salute any Deir Suneid instructor could ever wish for, “Longest way up and shortest way down”. Probably they’d have just passed one of our own officers, and looked the other way. Anyway it became a feature, every evening when the boys would proceed on leave, this chappie would take up a position near the entrance to the Main Gate for his salute which he got without fail. Undisciplined Australian troops – NEVER.
Beirut was a beautiful city and known as the “Paris of the East”. it had many cobble stoned roads which reflected upon French colonization, same as the British. It nestled in a circular coastal plain, surrounded on one side by the Mediterranean Sea, and landwards by the Lebanese Mountains. There were plenty of Hotels, Restaurants, Cabarets, Cafes, two large Cinemas The Roxy and Empire, and other entertainment. Regretably, the Hotels, Restaurants, Cabarets and even brothels were classified as “Officers only”, or “Warrant Officers and Sergeants only”, the remainder being for Other Ranks. This brought about a lot of resentment. It was considered that if one could afford the venue, then in a so-called democratic society there was no reason to deny entry. After all, there were quite a number of pastoralists, graziers, executives, and business men in the ranks who could “buy and sell” financially, many of the officers. For sure, they may not have been, or wished to be, leaders of men in conflict, but in matters of recreation, it was another matter. Readers of Australian Military History of the 1939-45 conflict, will see more than one reference to this class distinction.
Letter. 9DEC41. Your last letter to date is No. 19 which was written on the 24th. Nov. I was extremely pleased to receive the parcel, especially the eatables as they could not have arrived at a better time. Thanks a million for it. I suppose now that Japan is in, the letter service will be held up and hindered, so our letters may be lost in the future. I have been very busy at my work. My superiors are very decent chaps, and that with being practically my own boss, is a great help. It is starting to become very cold, the mountains are becoming mantled in snow, and the breeze or wind is certainly chilly. I intend enclosing this letter in a Green Envelope, generally only things of personal matter are enclosed: but seeing the envelopes are free once a month, I will make use of them. Last week I sent you a cable, so if it does not reach you in time, a Merry Xmas, and the most prosperous New Year, the dearest Mother, Father, Brother and Sister deserve.
I have already said “Cheerio”, but before I really sign off, I must tell you about the wonderful service and and privileges gained by us throught the generosity of the people back home in respect to the “Australian Comforts Fund”, “Th Lord Mayors Fund”, the “Salvation Army”, and the host of other organizations which are working for the comforts of the lads over here, so if you come in contact with anyone who is actively connected or helps to “cheer the boys” tell them they are not wasting their time or money, but that they are doing a great job and a wonderful service, which some of the boys do not stop to realize; but to those who do realize what a wonderful job they are doing it makes them realize how rotten it would be not to have these clubs, canteens, hostels, and a host of numerous facilities too numerous to mention, but every one an actual God-send in its self, so if you will, will you please pass on these words of “thanks”.
When I arrived in Beirut I was given the task of recording receipt of equipment for repair and details of such equipment returned to units or Ordnance Depots after repair, etc. There were always a host of returns to be completed, such as progressive totals of all equipment received, repaired, awaiting repair, declared unserviceable, etc., and reasons as to delays. I once saw a directive from GHQ, that said, in future the use of S.F.A. (Sweet Fanny Adams) on returns will be discontinued, and the word “Nil” substituted forthwith.
There was always difficulty in obtaining parts. For instance many will remember the early Bedford trucks in which front stub axle breakages were common. The replacements were ex UK so we were dependent on them for supply. The parts problem for a multitude of reasons was always with us. It did however, bring about the best in all in the art of improvisation.
Letter. 14DEC41. I have already written to you this week, as a matter of fact only a couple of days ago; but since then I have been very fortunate in receiving another parcel from you, making two this week, also the cable which I wish to thank you for sending. To tell you the truth, I received the letter first announcing it was coming, so in future I think it is inadvisable to send cables as the usual practice has been found that the cables take longer than the letters. The last letter (I received) namely No. 20, which you wrote on the 30th Nov. I received on the 11 Dec. I am very grateful for the parcel and I am saving the contents up until Xmas day, and then I hope to have a whoopee day. I have been working rather busily, as at present the amount of work as I am concerned, is rolling in, it’s a good thing in a way as it keeps your mind off other things, especially at this time, when the majority would like to be home, while the crisis in the Far East continues. Today is Sunday, and I am on duty, as it is my turn as duty clerk. It is very handy here with a Laundry service (provided by the local populace) it being very reasonable, shirts are washed and ironed for 3d. (3¢), singlets and underpants 1½ pence (1.5¢), and most other things not getting higher than 15 piastres that is 4½d. (4.5¢). You most likely know that the increase of a shilling (10¢) a day has been received over here, and with mine I intend to make an extra shilling allotment home after Xmas. There is rather a wonderful museum over here and the next time I visit Beirut I intend going to pay it a visit; it is a place where they cut people up who have diseases and bottle them, some of the lads who have been say it is something all should go and see before leaving here.
Recalled. Eventually I did get to the French University of Medicine. A student whom I got to know showed me around. In the museum section were hundreds of clear glass jars in which were diseased parts of the anatomy. I was somewhat surprised during the tour to find myself in a very large room in which about ten or so bodies were laid out on marble top tables, all in various stages of dissection. Of course the bodies had been preserved.
Letter 19DEC41. You will most likely have seen by the heading that I have been promoted to the position of a junior NCO. I have the one stripe so I hope it will not be long before I can add the other one which I will be paid for. This week I have been very busy in the office, and have not had a chance to write to anyone. I have had to work back of a night, but it is more satisfaction doing this than getting some one else to do it, and then worrying to see that it is done properly. I think I have told you in the last letter that I received your two parcels and that I am saving the contents to have a good Xmas dinner. Just think that it is only six days off, my word this is a time that it turns a chaps thoughts more than ever towards home. You mentioned in your letter that a Mrs Wright had spoken to Dad about knowing me, it is Harry Wright, he is an excellent fellow and he and I are rather good friends. I first met him while doing a guard duty in Palestine. It is funny how small this old world of ours really is, isn’t it? I suppose every morning you are all anxiously watching the papers to see what the latest developments are in the Pacific. It is good to note that success is coming our way from all parts of the fighting zones, so it looks very much like that it might be as if the homecoming is not so far away after all. The Xmas cakes you sent were A1, and I can assure you that they did not last very long, as over here everything is shared and what is yours is the cobbers of a cobber. Some are not so fortunate in receiving parcels like others, and it is just as wonderful to see the pleasure on the less unfortunates faces as it would be to keep the lot for yourself. Tonight a friend and myself are going to bust up a can of Bartlett Pears, with some Nestles Cream, whacko in twenty minutes.
Letter 29DEC41. The date is as you see 29th, and I will endeavour to give you an outline on how I spent Xmas of 1941. Xmas Eve saw the distribution of the Comforts Fund hampers, and besides a choice of a packet of cigarettes or a bottle of beer (Australian) was available. How different here to the hustle and bustle back home. Xmas Eve I visited the pictures, came home and went to bed. Xmas day the army was exceedingly liberal in allowing Reveille to be blown at 0700 hrs. Now don’t you think thats nice of them allowing us to remain in bed for another hour. Breakfast was the usual army breakfast, the Aspro book would describe the breakfast “as not very startling”; but the dinner a far better expression would have to be used to express the quality and quantity. Firstly the Sergeants were the Mess Orderlies, and then dinner, a beautifully dressed fowl was the prisoner of two men, so a half fowl mixed with green peas, roast potatoes and gravy was a decent feast, then came Xmas pudding, custard sauce, oranges and bananas; really an exceedingly good meal, but as a comparison to home ——–. I was sitting in my office Xmas day afternoon, when who should come along but Bernie (Conlan), so immediately dressed and we went to town in the town of Beirut. I forgot to mention that a Christmas Day service was held during a terrific storm. Sunday or yesterday Bernie came down again, he is in the mountains, and we had a great day out. During the evening the acquaintance of two Foreign Legion Sgts was made and it was very interesting to listen to them and their travels; they were both in the Norwegian campaign, in which the Croix de Guerre was won. Tomorrow night, they are inviting us to an evening, and a good time is in expectation. I have been working hard, and seldom have time to write now. I have bought a camera so if you can buy any 127 films for me, will you send some over, as they are dear and hard to get. I am gradually picking up the French, and I suppose by the end of the blitz if I remain here, I should have it up to the mark. I will enclose a snap that was taken in Beirut with Bernie. The Xmas was really unnoticed as work was again the feature Boxing Day. I must thank you again for the stamps, only enclose a 3d. (3¢) when you write, because things will be very dear in Aussie now. I only wish I was in Malaya, as the others here do, but I expect a job has to be done here.
Letter 6JAN42. Today it is Tuesday and it is not near as cold as it has been the last couple of days. Last saturday and sunday it snowed and particularly sunday when I awoke to find that a fall had occured during the night, and consequently there was plenty of snow, accompanied by ice and later that day hailstones and wind that would penetrate anything. Talk about cold – I will tell you how much clothing I had on before I could get anywhere near warm, 1 shirt, my blue jumper, 2 sleeveless jumpers, tunic, and my overcoat (Greatcoat) done up all the buttons being made use of, to top it all off I had 2 pairs of socks, and my hat turned down, then I went for a long walk while the snow was falling to et warm. It is the first time that some of the chaps including myself had been in an actual snow fall, so it was quite a novelty, although plenty of snow could be seen not so far away, and in this the wind played havoc and came in at six o’clock in the morning just as it was time to get out of a lovely warm bed. I think it is the coldest winter I have put in yet, but it is a novelty at the same time. At the latter end of last week I received your welcome parcel with the socks, and now I will keep them to wear with my summer shorts and rigout, as I am at present wearing my woollen socks at the rate of two a time. I am going to write on both sides of this paper as it is essential that we must cut down on the airmail weight owing to the Far Eastern situation which is the cause for conservation of weight and material. I always seem to receive a letter from home the day after I send one away and complain that I have not received any mail, so at the present I am beginning to think that it is a good thing to complain and then I will receive one the next day. A lot of amusing things happen over here, so just imagine what a time it will be when able to tell you of all the happenings experienced (Just imagine gathered around a good old home fire). I may add that there are a few things that I will not eat when I arrive home, stew, curry, rice or cheese, so how is that for a warning. The general idea is that the war will be over before long but personally I think it will be longer than one can imagine, anyway let’s hope not. You must write and tell me how the New Situation in the Pacific has made the people realize that there is a war on and it will serve some of them jolly well right for not have woken up beforehand. I am always keen to receive any news, even the most trifling things to you will provide news and interest to me, so don’t be afraid to tell me anything. The mountains are providing wonderful scenery at the present time as they are heavily laden with snow. I hope to go to Damascus soon. It is a rule that only two sheets of paper can be used, so if I type on both sides it will help the Postal Corps in the good job they are doing.
Letter 11JAN42. … This week I received your most welcome letter dated 27 Dec and numbered 25; it has just been announced, that mail posted from Aussie has been lost owing to enemy action so I expect that accounts for the missing out of nos. 23 & 24. Yesterday I received the first New Idea, and after I have read same it will be posted onto England, so you will see by this that it is getting it’s monies worth. It is not quite so cold today, really a relief after the very cold spell which visited us over the Xmas & New Year periods. I have not had any long leave yet, but when I do receive mine I hope to go to Damascus, and if I can arrange it, I hope to go to Tripoli and a few of the places nearer the Turkish border, such as Antioch, which I hope I am lucky enough to visit as it’s biblical history is an important factor, and not the actual town itself. The rain has now stopped and it is good to see the sun once again; the boys are all waiting for the summer to come along, because the shorts and shirt, etc., are much better to move around in than the service uniform. You must write and tell me all about the black-out, I expect the people are all moaning about it, but just imagine what it is like over this side where it is continual black-out, not just the seaside towns, but everywhere; it will I hope give them the feeling this war, was not before the Pacific Crisis, fought over here, but should have been an all in go from the very start. Today I seem not to have any news at all; I don’t know whether it is because my brain is dormant with the weather or that there is nothing of importance happening around these parts that I can let you know in a letter.
Recalled. During the November ’41 – January ’42 period there were extensive movements of troops in and out of Syria. The balance of Sixth Division units moved up from Palestine and then the Division moved back to Palestine in January, for their move to Ceylon and eventually Australia. The Ninth Division (after their relief from the Siege of Tobruk) moved up to take over from the Seventh Division by end January ’42. And so this was a very busy period for the unit; the boys ranging far and wide now with in-situation repairs. During the period Christmas Day and New Years Day heavy falls of snow fell in the Levant. It was reported that in Beirut it was the first time it had snowed there for some fifty years, whilst in the mountains, it was the heaviest snowfall for twenty five years. The sudden freezing conditions told its tale on the unwary, with cracked cylinder heads and damaged radiators galore, and this created quite a problem. the army has no respect for weekends, hours or weather conditions when a job has t be done, so the chaps worked under very trying conditions, but as always came out on top.
Letter, 21JAN42. Today is Wednesday and I am not feeling the best as yesterday I received innoculations; they are of a stronger type as consequently, I like the rest of the boys had quite a restless night, the M.O. said that 24 hours off duty was to be granted, I couldn’t be bothered staying in bed so I came to work; my arm is still fairly sore, but I expect that it will be much better this time tomorrow night. I have just finished tea, I will tell you what was on the menu, stew, rice and prunes, a slice of bread (without any butter) and tea, how is that for a tasty meal? Yesterday I received two papers which you had posted, they were dated the 5th and 15th of December or was it November, I am not too sure, anway the chief factor that I could pick out was that Sir Thomas Blamey was giving all his speeches, the other thing was the Melbourne Cup, so it must have been November after all. I have been very fortunate in procuring a couple of letter-cards, and they are a great help as a threepenny (3¢) stamp is a saver indeed. It is not as cold as it was before, and the cold has been taken over by the wet season which has shown us that rain over here is a flood to back home, it simply pours for days on end, I will be glad when summer comes again. Last Sunday a friend of mine (a tommy) and myself decided that we would go for a trip through the mountains, so off we started walking along the road, we had not gone more than two miles, when it started to rain Cats & Dogs, and as we were out in the open we just had to keep walking anyway what should come along but two “Wogs” in a card drawn by a mule, I think that the cart was about twenty years old and the mule of equal age, this got us about another two miles, and we had to get off going up a steep grade, mind you it was raining all the time. Then along cam a motor-wagon heavily laden with timber, and as this was labouring up the steep incline we jumped onto the tail-board, this is where we got properly drenched, anyway it was alright going up the Mountain, but when this “Wog” got to the other side and started putting on the speed going down-hill believe you me, it wasn’t so good to look over the side of the road to see about a thousand foot drop. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, over in the sides of the mountains could be seen many monasteries, just as you read in a book, but this time in reality, looking down into a steep ravine could be seen the river winding in and out of the Mts towards the sea. Also on the slopes of the Mountains could be seen the many terraces of Olive trees, while further in the background the snow on the more majestic peaks. Anyway to get on with my story we got half way up the Mountain when the Convoy of Trucks pulled into the side of the road, and we were duly offered a seat in the cabin which I can assure you we did not knock back. We told the “Wogs” that we were going to see some Major, I forget the name that we put on; but it sounded very good, and I think that by the time we reached the destination that we had just about convinced ourselves that we were well and truly going to see some official. Anyway, to get on with the story we arrived at the place (Aley, from memory) it was still pouring cats, etc., we were chilled to the bone, but after having a beautiful hot meal we were well on the way to recovery, the “Wog” dished up something like curry, I don’t know what was in the thing; it tasted a bit like rabbit but I am sure that it was not this, I expect it was an old mule, but it tasted good as we were very hungry at the time. After satisfying our stomachs we went on a tour of inspection, or the civilian expression of sightseeing, the scene was one that I will not forget for many a long day, here we were away up in the Mountains looking down upon the smaller Mts, and beyond them the plain towards the sea, the little rivers, streams, roads etc., provided wonderful scenery as they were to be seen winding in and out the mountains. The whole scene was topped off by the Mediterranean washing it’s white foam on the rocks around the coastline. There were many rocks around the coast-line which makes the swimming very dangerous, but not only this but the fact that there is a very strong undertow in the Med. How is the black-out now, I expect that you will be getting fed up with it now. I have two clerks working under me now, and as keeping an office going is fairly busy work, I am kept more than occupied, I am very lucky in being my own boss in this respect, I seem to satisfy the powers that be with my work, so that is gratifying to know.
NOTE. HQ 1 AUST CORPS WERE LOCATED AT ALEY.
Letter. 9MAR42. I am afraid that I have no news whatsoever to tell you, there is no news, except that we get in the papers, and that is not very much, I can tell you. It is very dead over here at the present, but who knows what may be in store. I expect that it won’t be only the summer that will be hot, but why worry. … of course I have many a moan, and the biggest and greatest is about the mail, it is six weeks since I received any, and with no hopes or hardly for the future, it is not too pleasant, I can tell you although I expect that you are getting it over your way too, or is the mail still coming through regularly. It was published last week that all the mail posted in January had been lost owing to enemy action, so bang went your mail. I bet that Australia is a very different place now, I would like to see the change, (Cut out by the Censor, W. . Wiseman).
In the paper today it said that a large convoy of Americans landed in Aussie. I will reserve any comment on this, because if I spoke my mind you would be getting a paper doyley home. Every Thursday and Saturday night, I go out to friends places to spend the evenings, they are both religious families, missionaries, and they are very nice, but of course they are slightly on the narrow side and to a soldier on leave, well, you have to mind your P’s and Q’s. I wonder if this letter will ever reach home. I hope so. Do not worry if you do not et a letter for a long time, because it is a fact that the mail is not getting through, and not that I am not writing to you.
Letter. 16MAR42. Well here I am again, and once again I have not any startling news to tell you. The spring has started here, and the weather is not to bad. Spring is indeed a word which conveys a lot of meaning, no doubt it is the main thing in warfare, the good weather, for the mechanised vehicles, as the Germans learnt in Russia, that the winter is not a good time for warfare, although it goes to prove that it is also of importance to those who inhabit these climates, the year round. And the Russians have indeed put up a wonderful show. I have not received any mail since I last wrote, and that of course brings the total up to about 2 months, it is indeed very annoying, and I sincerely hope that some turns up this week. Are you receiving my mail regularly, or is it not coming through, I look at the news every day, to see how things are going down under, and it is unfortunate that I’m not there, but when war is war, and when you’re in the army, you go where they want you to go, and not where you’d like to go. Although I am afraid that this letter may be late, I am in the course of the next couple of weeks remitting home about ten pounds, so I hope that this letter will reach you in time, and that you are not kept guessing. I intend to send a cable at the same time, so there’s warning. How are you all keeping, things are not the best over this side of the globe, and I expect that this place may be the headlines in the near future, but who knows. The real Cafe Au Lait, is served over here, and it is not too bad, better than Turkish coffee, that you always get when visiting peoples’ places, also there is arrowroot, which is very good. It is surprising the number of arabic words that are used in the course of speech, so look out when I come home, because I may have to learn the lingo again. It is good in a way to see that the Yanks are arriving in Aussie, in good force, there are some over this side, but I don’t go very much on them, I generally find that the best of the chaps come from the South Africans and the Indians. I often look at your photos, and think of home a little too often.
PS. I am sending home another “A.I.F. NEWS” this week.
Letter. 25JAN42. The very first thing I wish to do is to wish Pop, “Many Happy Returns of your Birthday”, of course the usual controversy is raging whether it is the 25th or the 26 Jan, anyway what ever day it is kindest regards. You may have noticed that the “L” of the Cpl is now changed to “A”, which signifies that I have received my other stripe, and the most important part being that I receive 3/- (30¢) per day more, making a total I can draw to 10/- ($1). I have not made that allotment that I was telling you about, but now that I am receiving this extra money, I intend to make it 2/- (20¢), therefore the amount will be 4/- (40¢) instead of 2/- (20¢). It is just as well to put some away for after the war. I, like the rest of the boys have not received mail for quite awhile yet, so you may imagine the state of tension that will exist when it is known that our mail is on the way. I think that I told you that I received a Xmas card from Scotts in Bendigo, well this week I wrote them a letter. This is my second letter to you this week, I hope that at least one of them gets through, some of the mail that has been received has been burnt. This afternoon I intend to go for quite a long walk with that English friend of mine, so here I think I will stop, and continue on when I can tell you of what I saw. It is now Sunday night and I am exceedingly glad that I left these remaining lines to tell you of my adventures Sunday afternoon. Here goes, immediately after dinner my friend and I started off into the Mts in a different direction to that which we followed the previous week. After walking for several miles, and riding in a mule cart, we saw away up on the top of a small mountain, a monastery, or the equivalent in Aussie of a Convent. After walking for miles up the steep sides of the mountain, we at last reached our goal, and what a wonderful sight it turned out to be. Right on the very summit, was this Monastery, with Priests and Nuns; the place turned out to be where thay look after the sick and the poor. There were many Nuns, and the place was spotlessly white, as is always the case. At the gate, we were asked whether we were Christians, and after replying in the affirmative the Nun decided to show us over the place. First of all, we were led into the chapel itself, truly a wonderful sight, the paintings of the Lord were wonderful, the chapel was small, but beautifully kept. To one who was a non-believer in religion, this would have been a place that would have changed ones opinion. The most noticeable of the paintings was one, that was about 6 feet (1.83m) and app. 4 ft (1.22m) in width, the scene portrayed that of Christ, after he had been taken from the cross, and buried in the tomb. It would be impossible for me to describe this, as there were so many minor details. We were then led to the outside of the Monastery, and looking over the side was a sheer drop of about a thousand ft. (305m.). In front of the building was a cross of about thirty feet (9.14m) in height, and upon this was an effigy of Christ, even the colouring of hair was visible, and the minute detail, of the bleeding in the side, which reminded me of the song or hymn that we sang at home “From thy riven side which flowed”. After deciding to leave the Monastery, we started making our way down the steep side of the Mt., and upon entering the banana and orange groves, we were met by an Arab, we quickly made friends with him and he could not load us up with enough oranges, I had them in my haversack, pockets, tunic and he finally came to life with a paper bag, which was duly filled. Firstly he took us to his Uncle’s place, where we were entertained and offered coffee, but knowing this Arab coffee, I most courteously declined, and lucky enough for us fate did in this instance not overtake us. After leaving Uncles place, he decided that he would take us home to his place, and as in every home, out came the family album which we looked through. Then he ordered coffee, in arabic, and in it came, they get quite offended if you do not drink with them when they ask you, it is that strong that you feel it tanning your stomach. Anyway, afternoon tea over, he decided giving us the general talk of the lace which proved quite interesting and of educational interest. He showed us his baby daughter which was not more than about sixteen days old, talk about small, she didn’t seem to be any larger than both fists clenched.
These arabs are christians, “Catholics”. Anyway this chappie could not do enough for us, saw us down to the road, and we are going to visit him, sunday week. He intends to take us for a ride through the mountains in his car. I am looking forward to this treat. After leaving these people, we met up with some University boys and girls, and had a good time with them, they being responsible for getting us a lift back to camp. It is not near so cold at the present. I have not received a letter for some time now, of course we know what the reason is, the dirty little …
Letter. 4FEB42. …the Air Mail service is suspended until futher notice. I have not had any mail since about the 10th of last month, my word you have no idea how we miss those letters which came so frequently until the yellow rats entered this blitz, even if I had only to pay them back for the mail I have missed I am sure that I would like to be in the thick of it, but I am afraid that, that is not the only reason that I wish I was in another part of the globe. Anyway who knows, my wish may come true at any time and it can’t come too soon. I am afraid that I have not any news to tell you, as nothing has happened over this way of any importance for the last couple of weeks. Next week I think I will put in for some leave to visit Palestine, and I will try and visit Jerusalem. I have been working rather hard and consequently the time passes rather quickly and it is a good thing in that respect, as if it did not I am afraid that it would make one very discontented over here at the time being. It appears that the mail is not getting through either way, so if it is some time before you get a letter from me you will know the reason and therefore there is no worry to be lost. I will be glad when the summer comes and one can once more get into the shirts and shorts, the winter is or has been very cold over this side. What do you think of the fancy paper that I am using, Auntie Chriss sent it over to me, and as I have no letter cards I thought that I would use this and look highbrow. Last week I went to a concert and it was rather good, something to take your mind off the job. And last night i saw “Drums along the Mohawk”, and old film, but it was good to see again. I think that I saw that at the Plaza in Coburg. The tucker is not the best, and I think that if I complained to you through this letter it would be cut out. Just use your imagination. How are the conditions in Australia now that the war is at the doorstep, it will awaken some of the codgers up, wont it? I may add in this letter that my boss is an English Major (R.T.R. Johnstone-Hall), and one of the best, very different from what I expected to find, but I am told that he is an exception. I have not got those front teeth yet (a casualty of the blitzkreig Dental Centre at Broadmeadows), I find that I can do without them, so until I return home, I will do without them. I am afraid that I am at a loss to tell you any news at all this time, of course you would not be interested in air alerts.
Letter. 22FEB42. Yesterday I dropped you a short line, and today I hope to enlarge on it. I have written or should I say typed a short description on my wonderful stay in Jerusalem, and this I am sending by boat mail. It was not only a good break, but an educational stay thay I will not forget, it seemed practically unbelievable to be sleeping in sheets again, and when they brought round a cup of coffee at seven o’clock in the morning it topped things off, and I think that we started looking for the catch. I stopped in the Old City, that is Within the Walls, just inside the Jaffa Gate, one of the seven gates of the Old City. It was quite a long trip down from Syria, consequently I travelled all day, and I was very tired when I arrived there, we were staying actually on Mt. Calvary, not a hundred yards from the Holy Sepulchre, the place is alive with Priests, Fathers, and all types, but I couldn’t find a Methodist Church in the place. The various places that I went to such as Bethlehem, Jericho, Dead Sea, King Solomons Quarries, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mosque of Omar, the Wailing Wall and many other places. These I have all given a short description of in what I have already mentioned, and I hope that you received it safely. The only trouble with Jerusalem is that it is a rather expensive stopping there, and consequently I ran out of coin before my time was up, and I returned to Beirut to finish off my ten days. I bought several souvenirs of which I am sending off home, one is the carving in Mother of Pearl of the Last Supper, this with some cushion covers is for you Mum, an Arab head dress I got for Micky, some interesting books for Dad, and for Girlie a nice brooch. I have not had mail for about a fortnight now, so I am looking forward to receiving some this week. I always look forward to the news from Aussie, but it is a bit disturbing with the bombing, so I am glad that you are all down south. Today it is very cloudy and it looks as if more rain is about, it was very good weather in Jerusalem so I was fortunate. It was rather cold of a night, because as you know, the city is built upon four mountains, and these are right in the middle of a range. I went to the Mount of Olives, saw the Church of Ascension, from where Christ arose into Heaven, and also the Kaisers Palace, which is also on the Mount of Olives. From the many rumours that are prevalent at the moment I may be ———————– (Censored) in the future, I hope so anyway. Of a Friday and Saturday night, I visit friends, they give us quite a good time, and turn on a beautiful supper. While I was in Jerusalem I ate like a horse, the food was A1, and you could get as much as one wanted, I always backed up a couple of times, and I think that I put on some weight during my stay. It got that bad that the waiters would bring me two helpings when I sat down. I am sending home some snaps so I hope that you will like them. I am afraid that I am not in a very good writing mood, I have a touch of the flu, and I am a bit thick in the dome. It will be good to get another letter from you. You have no idea how we look forward to the mail, and now that the Japs are causing some in-conveniences, it is more than annoying. While in Jerusalem I saw a Russian propaganda film, it was very good, the title was “Hitlers Dream” and it showed some actual scenes on the Eastern Front. It was written in about four different languages, and English was lacking, so I had to just look at the film and guess, but it was jolly good. Yesterday, I went to a Medical University, and saw a museum where there was quite a lot of studies, showing how the diseases affect the body, it was very interesting, and also an education. The chap who took me around, showed me into the Laboratory, where they disect the diseased studies, they had about eight people on the tables, in various forms of dissection, at the first hint of him taking me there, I thought that my stomach wouldn’t stand it, but all was well. Some of the bodies, had been dead for about a month, so they were a bit on the nose.
J E R U S A L E M
I arrived in Jerusalem, and found it totally different to that I had expected to find, it is really hard to explain what you expect to see, but then something totally different to what you have ever seen before turns up, it is, and in this case, an eyeopener. Jerusalem true to biblical history is built upon four mountains, but by the number of steps that were climbed during my stay, I think that another count is warranted. Inside the wall, is of course, Old Jerusalem; whilst outside is the New, which is just like any modern or semi-modern city, and as this is quite a common everyday sight, Old Jerusalem was the goal of the sights. Jerusalem is noted as a city of wars, of which come conquests and defeats, and so the many years of this sacred city’s existence, it has been subject to many peoples and many styles of culture and architecture. The life of the place is really a subject on its own, actually I mean the dates of the various sieges, and its wars, so I will just ell you of what I actually saw, and the impressions that I made.
The first trip was that of the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre” which is self explanatory, on first entering the door is a marble rock, which the body of Christ was laid upon, and washed after the crucifixion before being placed in the tomb. From this the guide took me to the Most Sacred place on earth, that of the Holy Sepulchre. It really seemed wonderful, after learning in Sunday School and reading the bible of the tomb of Christ, but then to actually enter the Sepulchre was something that I would never have thought of even in my wildest dreams. Passing through a very narrow hole in the rock, was the tomb, I can assure you that upon entering it a chill of sensation ran through me, the tomb is divided into three portions, that of the three main faiths, and each faith has the most wonderful carvings and pictures of solid gold, in their respective places. The narrow entrance that I mentioned of course was the entrance that the rock was rolled against, and just outside of the entrance in a state of preservation was the last remaining piece of the historical rock. Leaving the Holy Sepulchre, we were shown by the guide the place of the crucifixion “Golgotha” or “Calvary”, the actual spot of the Cross was shown by the presence of a large silver star, and those of the two thieves, which were about two yards (2m.) to the right and left were also shown. Moving over to the right of this, is a statue of the “Virgin Mary” on which it is claimed to have three million pounds of jewellery, and I can assure you that I fully beleive it, it was absolutely wonderful. I expect that it is the largest single collection of Jewellery in the world, the jewels are far to numerous to name, but there were even gold watches and chains, of which value is stupendous. There are three parts of the actual cross of Christ in the world, one is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (of which I was very fortunate in seeing), one piece in Russia and the third piece in Rome. There are many lights in the church which are kept going night and day by the many Priests and Fathers, of which there are plenty. Many of the Lamps are of Gold and some of Silver, and have been alight for hundreds of years. After leaving the place of crucifixion we were shown to the “Well of the Three Crosses”, this is where the crosses were found. Leaving this Well, which is in a cave, we were shown the Well that Queen Helena had cast the gold and jewels. Leaving the Well, we were shown to an altar, which was erected as this was the place that the Romans had drawn lots for the clothing of Christ. As we moved to the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were shown the tombs of King Baldwin 1, and that of Godfrey de Bouillon. I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on two occasions, but as one is a repetition of the other it is unnecessary to explain. Of course there were many things that I have not mentioned as they are very numerous, but I have told you the principal dedications in this wonderful sacred old church.
The next trip that I wish to explain is that of our visit embracing the Dead Sea. Leaving the Hostel, we followed the Wall around for quite a while, seeing the majority of the seven gates, the most noticeable on this trip was, the Golden Gate, this is the gate that Christ entered the city on Palm Sunday, but after the crucifixion the Jews, who were very afraid, walled this gateway up, and now they believe that on the second coming of Christ, that he will use this gateway. Damascus, Jaffa, Herod. and St. Stephens gate, of course will be self explanatory, that this is the gateway that Stephen was stoned. Our first stop was at the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Lord prayed on the Eve of the Crucifixion, the Olive Trees that are still in the Garden, are suspected of being that old, that they sheltered Christ on that night. Next door to the Garden of Gethsemane is the Church of All Nations, a church which is reputed to be the most wonderful in the world, and something that I can believe, the principal feature of the church is that it is built over the rock that the Apostles slept upon while Christ prayed in the adjoining Garden. It is called the Church of All Nations, because every nation in the world has contributed to the building of this church, the Australian contribution is the border of thorns which encase the rock, this is really a wonder in itself, as the workmanship is truly A1. Leaving the Church of All Nations, we proceeded on our tour and passed through the village of Bethany. I will add here that the place surrounding Jerusalem is nothing else but mountains, rugged, steep and barren. the road that we were following was built over the Old Roman road, and where there was a diversion the Old road could quite plainly be made out. The next sight on the road was the Inn of the Good Samaritan, which is standing even today, although the war through this country in 1914-18 partly demolished it, it is on the top of a small mountain, called the Red Mountain. Of course it is unwarranted to tell the significance behind this place, as the story is well known by all. After leaving the Inn, the next stop was at a tunnel, about six feet in height (1.83m), which penetrated into the side of the mountain to the extent of about 3 miles (5kms), this place was used by robbers during the last war, and it is even possible that it could have dated back to the biblical period, as this place was noted for the robbers, and it is not far from the Inn of the Good Samaritan. The next sight from the road is that of a large Mosque, built by the Moslems, it is built on a mountain and commemorates the dying place of the Prophet Moses, the bible differs in this repect that Moses died in the Moab mountains, which are visible from this spot, but are on the other side of the Jordan Plain. The Moab mountains, are the mountains that from which Moses saw the Promised Land, after spending forty years in the Sinai desert. Coming out of the mountains we are now in a plain which extends between the two ranges, and I have also mentioned it before as the Jericho Plain, driving for awhile in this plain, the Dead Sea is reached, the lowest spot on the surface of the earth it is 1300 ft (396m) below sea level. It is called the Dead Sea because there is not any marine life in it. I tasted the water, just a small drop, and talk about salty, I quite believe that you cannot sink in this sea, it is very hot here, and I was glad to get in the taxi and get moving.
The Dead Sea is 46 miles (77kms) and ranges from 9 (15) to 13 miles (21kms) in width. The bible says that there were 7 cities where the Dead Sea now is, and there is the story corresponding with Lot. Leaving the Dead Sea, the next stop is that of New Jericho, actually I couldn’t see anything new about it, it looked as ancient as the rest. The river Jordan is the next stop, and I passed over the Allenby Bridge into Trans-Jordan. The Jordan looks all the world like the Nathalia Creek (Broken Creek) but not quite so wide. I have often sung the song of “One more river, and thats the river Jordan”, but I never dreamed of seeing it. On the return to Jerusalem saw the Mount of Temptation, on which now stands a Greek Monastery. The next stop was at “Elishas Fountain” which was once salt, but was changed by the prophet and has been running ever since. The following day I went on a tour firstly to the wailing wall, this is a wall, which is the last remaining wall of Solomons Temple, it is 45 feet (13.7m) above the surface and excavations show that it is 65 feet (19.8m) below. It must have been a tremendous temple as some of the rocks are as large as 2 metres in length. One can just imagine the number of slaves that were used as the only method of placing these rocks upon each other was by hand. I visited the wailing wall later, and topped about two hours watching the Jews wailing, many are there as long as 7 hours at a time, they burst into tears and some even faint. They buy candles and say their prayers as they believe that the wall is the shortest way to heaven, and that the prayers will go up with the smoke. The wall belongs to the moslems, but under an agreement in the League of Nations, the Jews have right to worship. Consequently prior to the war there was quite a lot of disturbances, as the Arabs would pour molten lead and tar etc., down on the Jews while they were wailing. Leaving the Wailing Wall, the next place is the sight of the Temple of the Mosque of Omar. The Mosque is built over a rock similar to the Church of All Nations, this rock is the rock where Abraham was sent to sacrifice his son, it is visible that a number of sacrifices were made here a round hole in the rock is where the blood dripped into a well below the rock. I had to put on slippers before entering the Mosque, and the work that was visible inside was truly wonderful, it could be hard to imagine, and the only way wold be to see the actual place. From here we went to the Church of St. Anne and saw the birthplace of the Virgin Mary, and also the Pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the man who had paralysis for 38 years. To arrive at the pools it is necessary to go well down into the earth, as the site of the pools is a good way below the present site of the Church. Leaving the Church of St. Anne the next visit is that of the Via Delorosa, where the three prisons of Christ were seen, and it is from here the Stations of the Cross start. The next visit was to the “King Solomons Quarries”, these are out side the walls, but penetrate right into the city, actually there are three in all, one above the other. They are of a tremendous size, and it is wonderful to think that they are still in such good order after these hundreds of years. I am not intending this to be a masterpiece of literature or tying, and I have not prepared this before so you will realize that I am typing this account as it enters my head, therefore the many grammatical errors will be excused. The next is the best trip, and that is to Bethlehem, I visited this place three times, and it is really wonderful, the main attraction of course is the Church of Nativity. The birthplace of Christ. I forgot to mention that on the way up to the Church of Nativity on the Bethlehem Rd., we passed the Well of the Three Wise Men, whence they saw the reflection of the Eastern Star, also the Green Field where the shepherds were tending their flocks and the Angel of the Lord appeared, telling them that the child Jesus was born. On the left hand side of the road was Rachels Tomb, half of which belongs to the Jews and the other half to the Moslems. It was at Jerusalem that I purchased the Mother of Pearl brooches.
Recalled. During February ’42, as the weather and visibility improved, Jerry started showing an interest in Beirut in which we had the beginning of air alerts with Reconnaissance planes flying over frequently and at great height. The Anti-Aircraft batteries would open up on those considered within range, but no hits were scored to my knowledge. Of course at that stage there were not any aircraft of our own about that could intercept. The French had two biplanes of the Tiger Moth class, and they caused some light hearted laughter when they infrequently took to the air.
Recalled. The threat of invasion was of considerable concern. The Ninth Division was located in the north of Lebanon upwards to the Turkish border, the New Zealand Division was also moved into Syria together with French and British Troops. It was thought that the Germans may use Paratroops on the coastal plain of Beirut, as it was the only area on the coast in which they could be used. Accordingly, all troops in and around Beirut became Garrison Troops and were allotted beach heads and buildings to defend. Most of Franchet D’Esprey troops went to the beaches, the remainder of H.Q. left to defend the Barracks. My post was on the roof of our 3 storey H.Q. For quite a period of time the siren would go off about 3 am and away would go the troops. It didn’t take too long for the boys to lose their sense of humour, and I’m sure if Jerry had arrived, he’d have been greeted by an angry mob. Of course on return to barracks it was a matter of ablutions, breakfast, morning parade and a full days work, so by 5 p.m. the boys were more than a little touchy. Those who then went on to a 24 hour guard duty could be excused for their thoughts. Rumours were rife, and goodness knows how many submarines employed in landings, and their troops, were destroyed.
Letter. 1 MAR 42. Well, here we are right into the third month of the year, my word the time goes quickly, doesn’t it? It won’t be long to Xmas at this rate. I went and saw the picture, “Gone With the Wind” the other night and although it was long, the acting quite good, it didn’t appeal to me as a very good picture, and not worth the extra coin to get in. This week I have sent home several photos, taken while I was in Jerusalem, so I hope that you get them quite O.K. I have not been quite so busy since coming back from leave, and it is alright to have a bit of a let up. I have not had mail for quite a long time now, and this week the papers announced that the air-mail letters would take about five weeks to reach Australia, and the surface mail letters longer than that. I often get your photos out of my wallet and peruse them for quite a while, what I’d give to be right home at the very moment, this places has got whiskers on it. I have never received any mail from the people at the shop, I suppose that they just can’t be bothered writing, although I have written to them. One gets plenty of time for thought over here, as a matter of a fact it’s not good to think too much, but it makes you realize what a great place Aussie is, and of all the good times you have had. I have a pocketful of coins, so I thought that I would add them up to see the grand total, 22 piastres Syrian, and eight Mils Palestinian, about 9 pence (8¢) the grand total, hows that ?
Recalled. I like to think it was devilment rather than dishonesty, or when we were broke it was necessity, about six of us would file into the Roxy Theatre just as the lights dimmed, and the first bloke in line would say to the ticket collector “the bloke at the back has got the tickets, and the end bloke would say the bloke in front got the tickets” and in those few moments of confusion, everyone seemed to find a seat in the darkened theatre.
Letter. 23MAR42. The last couple of days I have cause to be very pleased with myself, and of course the reason is even guessable, and that is that in about three days, I have received three letters from you, the first for two months. What a different aspect it puts on ones life, there’s no doubt that letters are the best tonic that one can get over this part of the globe. The numbers of the letters are 29, 30 and 31, posted on the 17th, 19th and 27 Jan respectively. I am sorry that the mail has not been coming through that end, but you will be able to see that it is the same over this side. The air-mail has, now, been definitely suspended, so it looks as though one will have to wait long intervals between reception of mail. I am in the pink of condition, and sincerely hope that you are the same. Yesterday, being Sunday, I was very fortunate in going for a trip to Tripoli (Tripoli in Lebanon), it is a journey along the coast line, and as I have told you before that this place is very mountainous, you can imagine what a trip it was; the mountains come down practically to the waters edge, therefore, the road is cut into the cliffs, for most of the journey, one false slip, and good-bye nurse. It is very difficult to describe the trip under Censor regulations, so I am afraid that the description will have to wait until I arrive home, which may not be very long. You were saying it would be nice if I walked in on you, and surprised you; it may turn out that way yet. Today it is freezing cold, snow is on the mountains again, and the cold winds they doth blow. Thanks a million for the stamps, but do not enclose any more, as they are useless at the present time. Do not sent any more parcels because I think that they will do a very long trip, there and back. My word the Yanks are getting a good hold of Aussie, I read to the boys where the brag was shoved in the Yarra, good enough, I have my opinion of them and so do the rest of the boys, I will not give it here, it may be rigidly censured. Please don’t tell me what you had for dinner, I’m very likely to explode. It is quite possible that that by the next time that I receive mail from you, if I do, that I will be in a totally different place, if not on the doorstep, it is quite likely, although for the censors sake, I have not committed myself. Well I hope you receive this mail in good order, you will notice that there are no stamps on this, but I have been warned that it is useless to send it air-mail, as there aint none.
Letter. 30MAR42. Well here we are at the end of another month, my word the year is certainly slipping by, isn’t it; it seems absolutely no time since Xmas. I was very pleased to read in the paper during the last couple of days that some of the diggers from the Middle East had arrived safely back in good old Aussie. Well you never know then when ones luck is good, so here’s hoping that the good fortune will not pass me by. Today it has started to get a little warmer, it looks as though summer is here this time. Have not had any letters since the last time that I wrote you, but hope that some will arrive this week. I have been kept rather busy in the office, and so the time passes reasonably quickly. I am having a gold sleeve inserted on one of my eye teeth, they are not as prevalent in Aussie as over this part of the globe, but look very nice. What a thrill it must be for some of the people in Aussie to receive a telegram from their husbands and sons etc., to say they are back in Aussie. I suppose that quite a majority of the crowd got a shock. I have just had a beautiful cold shower and I am here writing to you, stripped to the waist.
(This letter was received 1st June ’42, so there was an in transit period of two months.)
Letter. 6APR42. Well here it is Easter once again, my word the time certainly flies doesn’t it. Yesterday being Easter Sunday there was a Church Parade, and of course the usual appropriate hymns that are the gentle reminders of home. Today, Monday, has been a surprise the powers that be, decided that they would be very generous and give the boys half a day off, very generous indeed, but as there is always a catch to something that does not always seem explanatory, one night this week has to be worked, to balance the war effort. Anyway it is good to get the half-day off, I mean for the others, I was very fortunate in striking duty. It has started to get a little warmer and I have got into my shirts, shorts, etc. There is a “Wog” radio over the road blazing away to its full extent, I don’t know whether you have any idea what this music sounds like, to give you a mild rough idea it sounds like a mixture of chinese wails, and someone undergoing a local operation, its terrible. I wonder what it would be like to swing. The envelope that this letter encloses is a sample of what was captured up the desert, I have a friend in a stationery Depot, who gave me a couple of pads. I see in the A.I.F. News where the people are being rationed to 1-oz (28 grams) of tea a week, you’ll have to modify your tea schedule, Mum. They seem to have the Yanks in force in Aussie, I wonder what the place will be like when we return, it’ll be “sure guy”, “I know whatcha mean”, or something to that effect. There is nothing of very great importance, over this way, of course you will realize that if I could tell you some interesting things, but against that the censor says “wait till the blitz is over”, so there you are. Yesterday I went for a good walk along the sea front, it was a beautiful day and I quite enjoyed myself.
Recalled. We seemed to get on well with the populace generally, being invited into homes of Jews and Arabs of different sects alike. They treated us exceptionally well, and I know of no instance where they were repaid by us, other than in kindness. In one instance a mate and I were invited into a home; (generally everyone from grandmother down to the last born surrounded by uncles, aunts and her children, were in attendance) given drinks and eats we were invited to sing the other version of “Bless ’em all”, it was somewhat embarrassing as obviously (now I wonder) they were not aware of the meaning of the substitute words. We obliged with “Bless ’em all”. At the same time of enjoying the hospitality received by us as individuals, we were aware of a hostility towards the Allied Forces in general. This may have been because we were occupying their land, a hangover from French Rule, a dislike of the British, a preference for the Germans, or other reasons of which we were unaware. Always we knew that if the Germans were to invade, they would have received considerable local support. In some instances, armed Australian Forces were sent to towns as a show of strength if they appeared rebellious. In another instance, in which our unit played a part, they were armed with pick handles only, top form a guard along the procession route for a Royal Visitor. The reason for the pick handles was given that there was no wish to intimidate the population by a show of arms.
One of our guards on duty at Franchet D’Esprey Barracks, took into a custody an insistent French Officer, who later turned out to be a spy.
Letter. 21APR42. I have received quite a host of letters in the last couple of days from your goodselves, ….. also a fruit cake from Mavis and a parcel from Mr. Edwards in Bendigo. The numbers of the letters that I have so far received are 32, 34, 36, 37, 38 and two numbered 39. My Goodness I was pleased to receive them because it is such a long time since the mail last favoured us. It is starting to get warmer up this way, so it looks as though we are in for the Syrian Summer, which I am told is very severe. The place is notorious for the malaria-breeding mosquitoes, consequently every night we sleep with the Mossie-nets over us. It was wonderful to get the letters, a real tonic. I am kept busy in the office, therefore it passes the time away quickly. I was thinking it is now 8 months since we left home and I have been in the army a year. I guess that things are vastly changed in Aussie now, my word I’d give anything just to put that foot ashore. I have a chap working in the office now who comes from Coburg, his father is the Deputy Governor of Pentridge. (This would be the brother of Digger Ross, both brothers were in the unit, and for the world of me I can’t recall your first name, sorry fella). There is a new chap that has come to the unit and I have made a new friend, a decent chap, and something of the same type as Bernie (Conlan). I guess that Bernie is back in good old Aus. by now. There are quite a lot of things that I wish I could say but the censor would not permit – hence I will have to tell you later. I think I have told you that my immediate superiors are quite decent chaps, so that makes things much easier. Tomorrow is pay-day the most eventful part of the fortnight, of course drawing the Cpls pay is very good, as I can draw as much as £6-7-6. ($12.75) a fortnight and that is excellent. Things are very pricey over this way hence it is a great help. Well Folks I will send a cable tomorrow, and I will close here hoping that this letter finds you in the same excellent spirits as it has left me, … .
PS. I received a Sunthis week and also some other papers, but there was no sender on it.
see you soon
Letter. 29APR42. Just a few lines to let you know that I am fit as a fiddle and that all is going fine. I think that I will send a cable every fortnight, it seems the best mode of correspondence, at the present. How are things treating you over your way, I hope the Brown-outs etc., are not too depressing. I have started to polish up my French, and I can now hold a meagre conversation or make myself understood. Last Sunday I went for a wonderful trip up the mountains, it was very chilly up there, yet at sea level it was sweltering hot. It seems very funny driving on the right hand side of the road, but you get used to it. I have received a couple of “Suns” from the February issues, which I was grateful to receive. I have some stamps which I will enclose in this letter for you Girlie, I hope that you like them. I am still in Lebanon or Syria, I wonder where I’ll be this time next year ?
Note – About this time our name changed to 3 Aust. Advanced Ordnance Workshops Coy., or 3 Aust. A.O.W. Coy. Somebody, somewhere, must have come to a decision after a long deliberation, or could it have been a bright NEW idea ?
Recalled. It was somewhere about mid-April ’42 that a chappie (sorry mate – cannot recall your name) was posted to our unit, and worked on the floor above me in Franchet D’Esprey HQ building in Sgt. Vincent du Blet’s Instrument Section. We decided one night to have a night on the town and ended up in a Cabaret called the “Kit Kat” which was open to “Other Ranks”, and was quite popular with members of the unit. I had been there previously with Verg Curtis, having a good time, when the time came for the playing of the National Anthems, firstly “Gold save the King” to which we stood rigidly to attention, then the “Marseillaise”, to which Verg went gracefully waltzing on his own across the dance floor until he realized the situation. He did not know that the tune was the French National Anthem. Did we have to do some fast talking ? Eventually we appeased the peeved, which cost us a stack of dough in buying drinks. On this occasion we were having a quiet drink, when a well dressed local brushed our table knocking over one of our drinks, hastily apologized and insisted upon replacing same. This he did, joined out table, bought the next round, and the next, and we ceased paying for drinks that evening. Our colour patches were, in all probability a dead give away that we were a unit located in Beirut, and ultimately we were asked if this was so, to which we replied in the affirmative. And here is the beginning of a somewhat strange story. During the course of discussion we were asked as to whether we had trucks going down to Egypt, to which we replied that this was the case, as they did so not only for spares, but other requirements. We were asked as to whether we could do him a favour by bringing some parcels up from Egypt, and if so we would be well looked after. In reply to a question as to what was in the parcels he replied “Hashish”. We said we’d see what could be done and were given an address to contact him. This was on a tram route that led northwards from the centre of the City. We both twigged that there was something not quite right in this deal. I thought that the traffic of hashish took place from Lebanon to Egypt, and not the other way; and to this day, I don’t know which is correct. Anyway we decided to report the matter next morning to Capt. Adams our immediate superior. Subsequent to this we were directed that we were to play along with the proposal and that my friend would become a driver, and that I as an NCO would maintain cordial relations with the Lebanese person concerned. We had an appointment with a British Intelligence person, and from memory this was in the basement of the George Hotel, which was built on the seashore and protruded over the Meditteranean Sea. Some 44 years have elapsed since this happening and accordingly the details are somewhat hazy. We received confirmation that we were to play along with the scheme, and went to the address given us on the tram route as previously mentioned. Before continuing with the story, I’d like to say we were very surprised when admitted to the Intelligence establishment, by the number of personnel who were preparing themselves, mostly in Arab robes, to go out into the town that night. The address to which we were to proceed was an apartment, second storey level, and we were royally treated with eats and drinks. Thereafter, whilst my driver friend went to Egypt and return, I enjoyed their hospitality, with some great deal of apprehension. The day came about when I was informed that a clean up was scheduled for that night. I was to go as normal to the place, as before, but on this occasion it would be raided by the military, simultaneously several other points around Beirut would also be raided. I asked Capt. Adams if I could carry a side arm (revolver) and he said “No”, if you carry one now, and you haven’t worn one before, you’ll not only give the game away, but endanger your life. And so I proceeded as before to the apartment of our Lebanese friends. In the past there had always been people coming and going, mostly Gendarmes (police) and all seemed to be armed. About 9 pm that night there was a whistle blast outside, at which I went for the stairs, followed by a shot from behind, which passed by, aimed at me or not. The outcome of all of this was that the so called parcels of “Hashish” were in fact German radio equipment, “Tranceivers”. The people arrested, so I was told, were high ranking Police officers. I wondered at the time, and subsequently, why the transceivers came from Egypt. To me, it seemed it would have been easier to have brought them via Turkey or landed them somewhere along the extensive coast line. The answer may, and I emphasize may, have some connexion with activities described in a publication “Both Sides of the Hill” published in 1985 as an Annexure to: “The Second Twenty-Fourth Australian Infantry Battalion” A history edited by R.P. Serle. “Both Sides of the Hill” tells of the capture of Company 621, a German Wireless Intercept Unit near Tel el Elisa, Egypt – 10 July 1942. It mentions how two German Agents travelled from Cyrenaica, south of the Libyan desert, arriving in Cairo. Could the transceivers have arrived in Egypt by the same means ? and/or could the Beirut incident be linked with the activities of Company 621 ?
Letter. 5MAY42. …. You mentioned in one letter that you would have an apple pie ready for me when I arrive home, so I will have to give you a wire from the first port of disembarkation, but goodness only knows when that will be. The chaps that went home were very lucky weren’t they, I think that Bernie (Conlan) went home in that lot, although I am not sure. Today it has been extremely warm, one could almost slice a piece of the air into a square, I am rather fortunate that I have a cool spot to work, but my word it was cold there during the winter spell.
I haven’t been swimming so far, the whole trouble is that Musso’s Lake is very treacherous with undercurrents so it is not worth the risk. I am very fortunate in being able to have a shower every night, f which I make full use of, I was just thinking how different to Palestine, but who knows whether one may find himself back that way in the future to come. (How true, how bloody true.)
I want to you to remind me to tell you something about a riot I saw over here, it was the fun of Cork, but I am afraid the censor would object if I told you at the present, so don’t forget to remind me.
Well family, news is scarce, so I will “Cheerio” in conclusion, hoping to hear from you soon, or better still hoping to see you soon.
Recalled. One Sunday afternoon I was in Beirut and members of the French Foreign Legion were on leave. They were in high spirits, and as the Aussies always got along exceptionally well with them there was no trouble between us. However, the police must have had more than they could handle, and the powers that be decided to send an armed detachment of Lebanese Militia into the Square. With bayonets fixed they confronted the Legionnaires, who sailed straight into them either with bare hands or with pieces of wood that they wee able to acquire. And so the Militia retreated, step by step, back to the Bastille. The Legionnaires were indeed well trained and evaded the bayonet thrusts. A very funny incident was to see a very tall militiaman about 6’4″ (1.93m) moving backwards, thrusting unsuccessfully at a smallish Legionnaire 5’6″ (1.67m) who managed every now and again to get inside the Militiaman’s guard and give him a whack around the ear with a small stick. Fortunately, no shots were fired and I didn’t see anyone injured. It all looked so comical from a bystanders point of view. The Legionnaires showed no fear whatsoever, and lived up to their reputation.
Letter. 1JUN42. Well here we are again, and as you will observe it is now the merry merry month of June. Of course besides being a notable month for distinguishing the coming of the half year, I will say that the month of June is also honoured because this time next week I will be able to vote. My word the time certainly slips around doesn’t it, I wonder where I will be this time next year ? I don’t suppose that you will recognize me when I eventually reach the golden shores, when I left I was minus some teeth, now, of course I’ve had them for quite a time, and I think that it would be very hard to get a better set, the Wog was certainly a tradesmen or a professional, anyway I paid for them myself and now I am very pleased because nobody would ever know that I had false teeth, and apart from that they are the dead image of the two teeth that I had in front before; and for good measure I got a gold filling in the place where they were relatively decayed. Also on one of my eye teeth I got a gold sheath put on, I won’t tell you the tale about that, because I could write a book, so when I come home, I will give you the low-down. It is starting to warm up over here, theres no doubt about it being the land of extremes. The other day I got very sunburnt, consequently now I am paying the price with a red raw skin on my chest, but I will have forgotten all about it in a couple of days. My word, from the various descriptions that I have had from good old Aussie the place must be very different, blackouts, restrictions, rationing, it sure will wake the people up, won’t it.
(Received 13 July 1942.)
Letter. 10JUN42. Well today it is the 10th and since I wrote you last nothing of any great importance has happened. Although I may add that your eldest son attained the ripe old age of 21. My word he must have been a wonderful baby, he must have been a wonderful child. My extra special lines are the theft from a famous song, and not of my own insignificant ability. It is not bad weather over this side of the globe at the present, it has not properly warmed up yet, so I will not speak too soon. Last week I had a swim in Mussos Lake, and it was very salty in my estimation. I received a cable from Jean and your good elves about the 3 June, and I hope that you have received my cable of grateful acknowledgement. Also last week I increased by allotment from 2/- (20¢) to 4/- (40¢) which will help to swell the old bank account. It is quite probable that you will not receive notice of this for some time to come, as it comes home by the surface mail. Of course I would have made the allotment sooner, but my rank was not substantiated and therefore it would have not been out of their way to have reduced me to the ranks, but of course now that I have been confirmed, the only way that they can take the rank from me is by a Court Martial, and I can assure you that I won’t be having one of those. Also last week I sent off a parcel which I hope you duly receive in due course, I am rather sorry that I could not fill it up as I would have liked to, but the circumstances were that I had to get it off in rather a hurry, therefore, there are some other things I will, if possible, arrange to send home at a later date. The book “Syria as it is” seems quite a decent book to me, especially with the many illustrations that there are to be found. The hat or fez and the Arab headdress are for Mick which I promised to get him beforehand. I am attempting to get for you Girlie a Pendant done in Filigree, they are very nice, so here’s hoping to. Has the money that I cabled home that time reached the Golden Shores yet? I hope that it did not get ambushed or anything. Articles are a shocking price out this way, for instance you will note in the book that in England it was 10/6 (13/1. or $1.30) but out here it was eight pounds syrian which is the equivalent of 24/- ($2.40.) Do you think for one moment that I am begrudging, it is only an instance to give you an idea, and it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been 48/- I would have still got it. My birthday was celebrated more or less quite quietly, four of us celebrated, although there were well wishers. Lets hope that for my 22 I will be well in the land of Aussie. I always scan the news very carefully to see if anything of interest happens down under, but I expect that many things go on that are never published.
Recalled. The Major must have known of an impending move, for a unit party was organized, and the tommies were our guests. We had a real good time, with impromptu acts and well I remember Lt. Foulsham reciting a stirring Rudyard Kipling’s “If”. From memory the beer was a Canadian brew called Black Boar which came in clear bottles and was rated at 8% which is 3.2% above most of our products. This was the strongest beer we’d ever had, so it didn’t take the party very long to get to the stage of merriment. I am told that during the evening the English Colonel wished to relieve himself, to which he was ushered up three storeys to the top of the barracks by a couple of our blokes without finding a urinal (although they were on each floor), marched down again to where the party was taking place, outside of which were (previously ignored) numerous “rose bowls”. Here he was duly enthroned upon one, and being the good sport that he was, enjoyed the joke as much as the others. We enjoyed working with our English counterparts, officers and men alike. It is hoped they can say the same of us. The Major lined up next morning for parade (not his general practice) and when the parade was handed over t him he said “I’ve seen many drunken individuals, but this is the first time I’ve seen a drunken unit”.
Recalled. Pte. Cliff Dexter came to our Workshops Office. Cliff, I believe, had been a Hansard Writer. I’ve never seen anyone as fast as Cliff on a typewriter, he could literally, type as fast as one could speak. Level headed, one who could have accepted responsibility, a wealth of experience, I hope he later received the promotions he deserved.
NOTE – In the event that the photo of the unit party is reproduced, Cliff is fourth from the right – standing back row.
Letter. 16JUN42. Well I have just had three days leave, and of course as I had mentioned before, my first desire was to see Damascus, of which I did, and also to see the other interesting parts around that way. Well to give you the best description that I can, I will start from the beginning, this of course getting to Damascus. I got out along the Damascus road to try and get a lift by the old thumb method, and was rather lucky to get to Damascus by only changing the trucks twice, although the second was rather slow being a petrol wagon. To cross to Damascus it is necessary to pass over two mountain ranges and a vast plain, and although not very wide it is extremely long, practically as I am told, stretching right along the coast between the mountains. It was really a wonderful sight to get to the top of the mountains and look away down into the plains., the variegated patchwork of the tilled fields was really a sight that would only be possible from an aeroplane in any other circumstances, truly a sight which I shall never forget, anyway getting over the second range one moreorless starts to get nearer the desert, which of course by looking at a map you will see that it starts at Damas. (Damascus is also Damas) I suppose that is why this place has been so important all these hundreds of years, the terminus of the Middle East from Irak, Iran, India, Afghanistan etc. Now arriving at Damas, it is rather surprising to notice that you could liken it to an oasis, because you have a town that has plenty of trees, green foliage, water, etc., and then not half a mile (800m.) away one can see the desert, it struck me as very funny to see the beautiful government buildings with a background of Desert Hill. The place is itself very dirty, stinking, and a place of disease, there being very few apart from the Government places and buildings, places that one would give a second look at. Damas is the home of the Moslems, one of the chief places of course is the Mosque, the original being the Temple of John the Baptist. Damas is also famous because of the linking up with St. Paul, of which I will tell you more of later. Damas has, to sum it up, about three or four places which are only of interest to the visitor, the other places just being another Wog Town. the Bazaar is of course the chief, here it is a place that one can buy anything from a pin to an anchor, it is the trading centre from India, Ivory playing an important part as a money maker, and particularly for the soldiers, also in this Bazaar there are the Filigree works, it was here that I purchased the sugar tongs, which should arrive later. The next place of importance is “The street called straight” this is of course the oldest part of Damas and leads to part of the walls of the old Damas. The Mosque leads off the Bazaar and here all day the Moslems come to pray, I did not bother going into this one as it is very similar to the mosque in Jerusalem. The next place to visit is the St Pauls Wall, an original part of the old Damas Wall, and the most notable place being that of where St. Paul escaped by being let through the wall or I should say a window down the wall. I actually saw this window, and my word the place was ancient, it is wonderful that after all these years that some of the places are still standing, of course a lot are held up by newer walls etc. Anyway I left Damas the next morning and went to Baalbeck. I doubt whether you may have heard of this place, but this is one of the places that really opens your eyes, it is the ruins of the three temples, that of course passed through many hands, and in the opinion of many people these ruins rank with the Pyramids of Egypt. There were three of these temples in the original days, each temple taking 200 years to build. Some of the pillars are as much as nine to ten feet across and are said to have been brought all the way up here from the Nile. The foundations for the place are rocks that weigh six hundred tons each, goodness only knows how they were ever put in place. It is impossible to even give you an idea of the colossal size of these places, and it makes you think that these people of the olden times, maybe weren’t so uncivilized. The scroll work on the colonades is Corinthian style. I am sure that when I come home I will be able by the help of the photos that I have sent home be able to give you a better idea of this interesting place. I am afraid that I am not in a very good letter writing mood today or else I would be able to describe these places more fully and perhaps give you a better picture of these places that I have been most fortunate in seeing. I think the main reason for me not being able to give you such a very good description at the moment is I have just been informed that I am to be transferred from this unit to another which is in the desert sands. Just my luck isn’t it ? Anyway still keep writing to the same address until I tell you differently, because I will inform you as soon as I am in the new unit. This place is right in the Sinai Desert, just imagine it.
PS. Anyway, heres hoping that I may have the extra luck to hear/see you soon. Curse my luck, right at one of the best moments of my life, I thought or I knew that I would have been seeing you soon.
Recalled. And so we said goodbye to our mates of 3 A.A.O.W. who were going home and on the 19th June L942 about 20 or so of us marched out and marched into 2 A.A.O.W. which was located at Rafah just inside the Egyptian border in the Sinai Desert. It is a wilderness of sand. Major Ryan had been the previous C.O. of 2 A.A.O.W.
On arrival at Rafah we debussed outside the tent Orderly Room which was next to another tent which was Major Mence’s office. We were duly lined up for inspection by our new R.S.M. WO I Hardy who went to hand over the parade to Major Mence who replied something like :Ragged Sarmajor, again please” to which it was “As you were” and we went through the procedure once again before the C.O. took the parade. My immediate thoughts were we’ll cop it for this as an R.S.M. doesn’t like to be shown up in front of the troops.
It was back to tent life for us, but we all had makeshift beds this time.
My tent was behind the C.O.’s office and the Orderly Room. The tent was partitioned, for the Workshop Office and sleeping quarters.
Everything was well dispersed, the cookhouse half a mile (800m) away, the latrines in another direction, similarly the workshops. It was very hot when we arrived being the middle of summer with the temperatues getting into the 40’s. C. 120’s + F.
We had a Furphy water tank from which to draw our water, someone had planted a maize seed under the the tap and i caught the drips between being turned on and off, resulting in the plant growing to about six feet (1.83m) from the fine sand.
Letter. 23JUN42. As you will undoubtedly have noticed by the addressor of this epistle you will see that I have changed my address (No. 2 A.A.O.W. or 2nd Australian Advanced Ordnance Workshops), well its not a matter to be overjoyed at, but then with this army you just cannot please yourself, as I may tell you … I found that out many a long day ago. The major, who was the commanding officer of the old unit was transferred from and to this unit, so I believe that he picked some of his good men to come with him, and here I am. Unfortunately for me, I am now stationed in what one may term a sandy waste, and I think that the censor will permit me to tell you that this sandy waste is the Sinai Desert, so how is my luck. I believe there is some mail about, so I am keeping a keen look out I can tell you, of course it will have to be readdressed so that means a slight waste of time, today or to be precise yesterday I sent tou a cable informing your goodselves of the change of address. You may remember that some time ago you wee saying Pop that a Mrs. Wright had called into the shop, well do not be a bit surprised to see Mr. Wright in the very near future, he has a message for you. I tell you who you may hear from in the near future and that is good old Horrie Boorer, you know the Golfer, in his last letter he told me that he was going to write you. Tonight I went to the pictures, but I got rather disgusted at the interval, and I decided to come home and write a letter before I went to bed. I wonder how long I will spend in this Egypt, I hope it is not too long, the last couple of days have been as hot as Hades, and talk about losing perspiration, I am sure I must be a human barrel of it. But just the same it appears to be a very healthy life here, of course that is after the sandfleas have had their go, and you survive that. I am rather lucky in having a tent to myself, the main portion of it is an office, of which there is a part that I sleep in, which is partitioned off. One of the troubles, or the main trouble or disadvantage of this place is that every time you want to go for your meals, a wash or to the latrines it is a bloomin’ route march. The tucker is actually the very best that I have ever had over this side of the globe, so that says something for the cooks, although I will add that they have yet a lot to learn to cook like Mother. I am afraid that news will be very much scarcer down this way than what it was in Beirut, so do not get despairing with my boring letters. Of course there is one thing that I am glad in a way that I was transferred, and that is that I think that my new unit, will offer more scope in line with promotion. The soldiers place who I am taking was a Staff-Sergeant, and I think that I know the job off rather pat, even by now. With the tommies in Beirut, I had rather a good education in the clerical line, as of course as it is in many cases the more schemes and experience that one has, naturally the more knowledge and betterment of ideas. Did you receive the money cable that I sent a few weeks ago, do not forget that any time you wish to use any of my money, that it is O.K. with me, and that there will not be the slightest sign or any argu ment regarding it, it is for you to use. There is no doubt about it, one never realizes what and how a value of a home really is until you are away from it for quite a period, my word it won’t be long now until the year is up, just fancy this time last year I had a cushy job in the A.M.F., boy oh boy, I did not realize how lucky I was until I came across to this god forsaken hole, but then of course some had to do it, and I am one of them.
P.S. I must go and have 40 winks now, and let the sand fleas have their nightly nibble of my terrific body.
Letter. 5JUL42. Firstly, Mum,. many happy returns on your birthday, they tell me that there were special celebrations in Australia this year for JuL 4th. Now last week, today being Sunday, I received a letter from you dated the 28th Apr ’42, and as you will observe that it was over two months old, so the service is not so hot, is it? I was glad to hear that you received the Mother of Pearl brooch alright, I was hoping that it would arrive without being damaged, the star that I also sent with it, is called the Bethlehem Star, and its name is of course as its suggestion, the star that the shepherds saw. Today the paybooks have gone in to be analysed by the M.O. (Regimental Medical Officer) so it looks as though a couple of more innoculations will be coming my way. Fair dinkum I think I will extract it all after the war and make a fortune in selling serums to the Government. One thing that I think I forgot to tell you previously was that the two units I have been in over this side of the globe, that the colour patch is the red circle on the blue square. I think that the brooches that you have are the red square on the blue. News is extremely scarce down this way, all there is to look at is sand; then more sand, and when you have seen all that, there’s a bit more. The only attraction is the theatre of which we go to practically every night, as there is a change of programme, it is an open air theatre, and apart from being eaten alive with the sandfleas, it is not so bad. The weather has been cooler, and for the middle of summer it is rather good, one thing the nights are cool, some nights they are too cool, and that is when you disbelieve that about the desert sands never grow cold. Meals are rather good for the army, as a matter of fact they are about the best that I have had over here, but what a lot they have to learn yet. I went to the Dentist last week, the usual inspection and I was passed as dentally fit, boy was I relieved.
PS. Please don’t say what you had for dinner or tea, etc., it puts me off the muck, you know fish, stew, rice, snags etc.
Our cooks at Rafah did a marvellous job, but they were limited in their endeavours by the materials available to them. The army introduced a Tropical Spread, in lieu of butter, but by the time it reached us it was rancid. So we had bread and jam; Marmalade and Plum mostly, day after day, for seven months. I swore I’d never have marmalade jam again, but I did eventually, 35 years later.
Most Sundays, were debugging days, in which our makeshift wooden beds came out of the tents and a blow torch was aimed around any flaws in the timber, and particularly the joints. Fleas we just had to put up with, there was no answer to the problem. There were little sand snakes that would come out of a night, leave a wriggling trail across the sand floor of the tent, and disappear straight into the sand. They were approximately 9 inches (229mm) in length, and non venemous.
The unit had a greater scope of duties, than that of 3 A.A.O.W., including tracked vehicle repairs and wood working section. The volume of vehicles awaiting repair was enormous, and to a lesser degree, other equipment. The volume of vehicles pending repair made us look like a Vehicle Park.
It was a good distance from the workshops to the cookhouse, so at lunch time 5 or 6 blokes would hop into a vehicle to cover the distance, resulting in quite a few vehicles (all mostly unserviceable, no brakes, etc.) being parked around the mess.
Just after arriving at Rafah, the situation in the Western Desert was of grave concern, so many of the chaps had vehicles “at the ready”, that is well gassed up with good stocks of water and petrol on board. I don’t know what would have happened if Rommel had made the breakthrough to Cairo and beyond, as Major Mence had given me a document to take copies off (one for each officer, but not given to them) of our instructions in the event of such a breakthrough by Jerry, and these instructions were to render armaments innocuous and vehicles and equipment unserviceable.
My fears that W.O.1. Hardy would descend on the new arrivals over the arrival incident were soon dispelled. He descended on all with equal ferocity and the event of a previous incident could not have influenced him one little bit, he was already at his zenith. He was known as “Horrible” Hardy. Any greeting such as G’Day Sarmajor would get a retort of “I don’t think so”, “I didn’t ask you to speak to me”, and on parade any movement of the head would bring about “Don’t look at me, you know who I am, you’ve seen me before”. Just about every leave he went on would end up with him coming back with one or two black eyes. It appeared, that if someone offered “him out”, he’d have a go. Horrible as he was, he was scrupulously fair, everyone in the unit got their fair share of duties, regardless of who they were. Verg Curtis joined me in the office and also shared quarters. We were very surprised one day, after we’d been in the unit for several months, for W.O.1. Archibald “Horrible” Hardy to enter our tent, take a seat, and enter into a conversation. We gradually got to know Arch a little better each time, and Verg and I eventually found out he was quite a sick person, but wouldn’t go sick, as he had a job to do.
Anyone who was in 2 A.A.O.W. will never forget Capt. Howard “Blitz” Ramsay. Blitz was in charge of Stores and also our Communications Officer. A former infanteer, reddish balding hair, of fair complexion, he was the epitome of a term we used in those days “full of piss and vinegar” denoting one of get up and go. He was always bustling about and did a great job in procuring spares with his driver Les White. Blitz was also responsible for our phone hook-up which consisted of laying cable across the desert sands. There’d be a break, and it seemed that no sooner did Blitz get it fixed and thee would be another, mainly the breaks were caused by tracked vehicles. If Blitz could spot the villain he’d charge after them telling all and sundry what he’d do with the “split-arsed bastards”, one of Blitz’s favourite terms. Well do I remember when we had returned to Australia in 1943 and were posted to 2/2nd. Australian Workshops Company at Bandiana, it would have been the beginning of April 1943, when Blitz was having difficulty in getting a telephone line outwards, we’d just moved in, tap, tap, tap, on the buttons and in exasperation (he had a short fuse) he bellowed “Whats wrong with you dot dashing split arsed bastards” when the meek voice of an A.W.A.S. replied, “Can I help you, Sir”. Blitz went crimson, he was generally only florid, and dropped the phone. He had very good grace in obtaining some flowers from Wodonga and going over to HQ to see the lass to apologize. I also remember at Rafah, Blitz was Orderly Officer, and he was due to inspect and mount the 12 hour guard, it was raining very heavily and so he took us into a building, where we went through our paces, wearing our ground sheets as caps. With fixed bayonets, standing to attention, something displeased Blitz, and he said he’d show us how the Infantry would do it, borrowed a rifle with bayonet and proceeded to demonstrate, much to our amusement as he ripped his cape. With a grinning guard looking on he exploded with, “I look silly, I am silly, but not as half as silly as you bastards think I am”.
There was a bit of trouble with “two up”, the boys got a bit unruly, so Harry Mence said he’d get a marquee to erect, put in some lighting, the game was to be controlled and finish at 2100 each night, it solved the problems.
Rather than take tradesmen from their jobs we had a permanent Orderly Sergeant in S/Sgt. Austin Zabell, a first world war veteran, he was also given the task of obtaining those extra items for the different messes, and did a sterling job. Later at Bandiana, his daughter served with her Dad.
Letter. 9SEP42. This week I was rather lucky to received some letters, but unfortunately only two of them were from you. Your first letter is dated the 16 June 42, and it is a short note as you were intending to write the following night, so perhaps in a couple of months time, I may receive that one, the second letter is from Micky which is dated the 19 June 42, so you can see that the mail is not too good with the service, it now being September, they took approx 2 months to arrive. It is still as warm as ever over here, today is a little cooler, it gets very cold here in the winter time, of course being no hills to divert the wind etc., it just blows straight across the desert wastes. Rather funny last sunday I had a bit of a whack at the old cricket, everytime the ball was hit, I was expecting that it would have to be dug out of the sand with a spade, the ball would go a few feet and then pull up dead in the sand. Tomorrow is payday, and I will send you another cable, it is the best day of the fortnight, I generally seem to go broke about the end of the first week, and if you asked me what I buy, I would be at a loss to tell you. Lets hope that this blinkin’ war will not last much longer, there’s no doubt about old jerry he can certainly give and take it, but I think that things anytime now will take a turn and I think that we shall never look back, air superiority is at last turning in our favour, and I think that will be the deciding factor, I don’t think the Nippons would last that very long if we could concentrate our forces on him. It will certainly be great to get a foot on old Aussie again, it’ll need some enticement next time I can tell you. It was very nice Micky to get a full length letter from you, and written all by yourself, this time the censor did not have to cut anything out of it. I certainly do miss all those beautiful birds and animals that you talk about, all that we see over here is mostly dirty camels, donkeys, mules, and the dirty filthy Arab, but I can tell you quite a variety of fleas, bugs, insects, etc., every now and again I have to have a debugging campaign, it will be good to get away from these things, but of course just have to put up with them while we are here. I have not received any papers for about six months, its a bit of a nuisance I can tell you, I am told that papers are third class mail, and would not be re-addressed in the event of a change of address, so it looks as though I am stiff until the present address is used. I hope that when we eventually arrive in Australia, that you will have the chance of meeting Verg Curtis the cobber, he is a Queenslander, and I am sure that you would like him for his jovial, sensible ways, he’s actually tops in one word. Of course he hopes that before the blue is over that I may have a chance to see Queensland, I think it would be great to see, although undoubtedly the war has changed it like all other places, vastly. It’s rather funny with some of the captured equipment, I have had a go on an Italian typewriter, and talk about a maze of signs, everywhere, that’s how to explain it, also there is a German motor bike, so different to our own, everything is round about on it also. Well I am afraid that it won’t be very long to Xmas now, we are well into the straight, only another three months after this one, and there it is.
Letter. 4OCT42. Well this last week I have been extremely lucky in receiving a big batch of mail, and about time too, as for quite awhile I have not received what I know has been written to me, it is spread from April to August so thats some effort isn’ it, the last four days I have received thirty letters and twelve lots of papers, all the papers were sent by you of which I cannot thank you enough for, as we appreciate reading matter so much where we are at the present time, especially the Women’s Weekly which gives quite a varied assortment of reading. I received 11 letters from your goodselves plus the twelve lots of papers, seven letters from Jean, four from Mavis, one from her sister Norma, one from Norma Hocking in Bendigo, one from Leslie (Ricketson), one from Miss Paton (the first), one from Tim Bush, one from Leigh Edwards, one from Bob Conning, and lastly one from a Ruth Basset to whom I write to in Adelaide, so thats not too bad is it, although it’s about time again. The numbers of your letters are as follows;-60,61,62,63,65,66,67(2),68 and 69 and you don’t realize how pleased of course I was to receive them, as a matter of fact I have left one out in that batch the number is 55. The oldest letter is May the 5th. so you see that receiving it in October is not so hot is it? but nothing can be done about it unfortunately, lets hope that the Xmas mail comes in time and not six months after. All the boys have new spirits now that the mail is in, and hope that the parcels of which you spoken may come along soon, thanks a million. Regarding the sox Mum, keep those precious coupons of yours, I can buy sox over here when I go on leave, (when) so thanks all the same, also there is no need forstamps as they are not now used. Yesterday we had a sand storm (khayseem) and what a beauty, you could hardly see any further than about ten feet (3m) ahead of you at the height of it, and that time I had cause to do a trip on the motor cycle, boy did the sand cut into my face, but now is the time that the storms will be coming our way, all today there has been a thunder storm, so I guess that tomorrow we may receive another of those flying winds. I have read and re-read your letters time after time, so I don’t think I have missed anything so far, of course they will all get another round of reading.
Letter. 15OCT42. Well since I wrote you last, that is last week, I have received another eight letters and the parcel of which I will tell you about later. Now three of the letters are from your goodselves and of course are the treasures of them all. Also I received another twelve lots of papers etc. from yourselves so the total I received this mail was 39 letter, 27 lots of papers and the parcel, 26 lots of the papers are from you, so thanks a million, the reading matter proved most interesting, moreso at the present time. Well, the parcel arrived O.K., thanks very much, but something drastically unfortunate happened, you did not seal the lid of the cake tine down and consequently the moisture from the sea penetrated the parcel and tin and it went mildewy all through and we could not eat it; you have no idea how disappointed we were after a cake coming all that distance from good old Aussie and then turning out to be no good, but better luck next time, of course the tinned stuff etc. was much appreciated so thanks a million; if you seal the lid with that adhesive tape it will stop any moisture from getting in. I sent you a cable when I received the letters etc., so I hope that you received it O.K. I see where you have been buying up at home Mum with the Blackwood bed, there is one thing when I come home you won’t have to worry about any bed, give me three blankets and I could sleep on a marble slab. I am afraid that my hopes of being home for Xmas are drowned, and I think it may be quite a good time yet. I am glad that Mr. Wright called and saw you, he would tell you much; it was indeed unfortunate in my casebut of course being young it was a logical thing to do, so it was bad luck, never mind, let’s hope that this war will not last too much longer.
Tom Yates was our Pay Sergeant and a good friend of mine. Many were the occasions he helped me with an in between pay, when I went broke midway. Tom was about the most self disciplined person that I have known, each day was meticulously planned, a certain period for reading, walking, physical jerks, and other activities.
Our Padre until just before El Alamein, when he received another posting, was Padre Jimmy James. He was a ball of energy, constantly and busily organizing activities for the troops.
Our Adjutant was Lt. Lillieblade. He just could not seem to strike a rapport with the troops, although I know he wished to and tried to achieve same. He was most efficient in his job. Being an amateur wrestler he sported a cauliflower ear, and any that may have reason for a personal grievance, took the view that discretion was very much the better part of valour.
Major McKechnie was our 2 i/c. A West Australian, he was popular with all. I remember very well his address to the unit, probably 24th October 1942, the day following the beginning of the Battle of El Alamein, when there was wide spread discontent within the unit in that we were not down with the Ninth Division. Our tank blokes had gone to assist and Capt. Sinclair was a Tank Marshal. One chap had gone A.W.L. to carry Ammo. Planes in droves passed overhead. In his address to the troops, Major McKechnie used the theme that we were a team, like a football team, and the Ninth Divvy were our forwards in kicking the goals, whereas we were the backline. Our forwards would have been very ineffectual without the equipment we prepared and repaired for them. How true.
We had a Polish Unit of women move into the area, and as quickly as they established their camp they threw up a barbed wire corden around their camp. We never knew as to whether the cordon was meant to stop us getting in, or for them getting to us. they were big girls and carried out all the navvy jobs that you would see a man doing. Some of our blokes reckoned that many were about two axe handles across.
Capt. Sinclair asked me to type out his report as a Tank Marshal at the Battle of El Alamein, and it was a very interesting document; the detail in planning concerning the recovery of a disabled tank to its replacement from reserve, was a superb exercise.
Throughout the Rafah area there were partially filled in trenches from the first world war, complete with rusted barbed wire entanglements. There were also small shells and rifle bullets, which could be found with a little fossicking around. Placed around the camp were a number of open ended forty-four gallons drums for rubbish and burning up. Some of the lads derived great pleasure in dropping these rounds into the embers so that they would explode with an almighty bang in the middle of the night.
Mick McGeehan was our Q.M. in a hutted store. Mick prior to joining the army had a Hardware Store in Myrtleford, and with this background was a good Q.M. and did an excellent job. Mick also had as a responsibility the running of a power plant, which he did again with the same efficiency, however, like many of us he was prone to panic a little, and one night the petrol power plant caught on fire. As the story is told, Mick circled the QM store three times at Stawell Gift speed before attending the fire. No doubt Mick has a different version.
The mail received from home, that was written between July and December 1942 in the Middle East, must have been subjected to many mishaps, for only about fifty per cent of my mail arrived home. Of course Australia in this period was heavily engaged with the Japanese on the doorstep.
It was mentioned in Series 1 (Army) -Australia in the War of 1939-1945 that the history of the support troops would be written, unfortunately this never eventuated.
2 A.A.O.W. fielded a cricket team in a Middle East competition, I think Sgt. Bill de King (ex 2/1 A.F.W.) was our skipper, if not a prominent player, and we were each presented with a commemorative medal when we took out the premiership title.
We had quite a number of sand storms in the Sinai, Khayseem, and there was only one thing to do and that was to go to bed until one had blown itself out. The war just stopped. Everything was impregnated with sand, and there was always a massive clean up afterwoods. I remember from my boy-hood days the Mallee dust storms that we experienced in Bendigo, bad as they were, they were just babes.
Local leave from Rafah consisted of a trip to Gaza, meaning Gaza House, an Australian Canteen, some distance away, but it helped restore one’s sanity, and to realize that civilization was still existent. At Gaza House we were able to get “Lady Blamey’s”. These were pot size drinking vessels made from Australian beer bottles, by cutting off the neck and part of the body. Most importantly though, they contained Aussie beer. Our leave including travelling time, was generally 1830 hours to 2200 hours, and from memory I only went there 2 or 3 times.
Extended leave (7 days) was able to be taken from a leave entitlement scale, and I went to Jerusalem in August 1942 for 7 days with Wally Swingler (Mildura, Vic), and to Tel Aviv in October 1942 with Verg Curtis (Monto,Qld).
Cambrai Day, I believe is November 20th, the anniversary of the day when tanks were first used in the First World War in 1917. We had a British Tank Regiment in the area and we learnt that they were going to celebrate Cambrai Day with a dance, and they had A.T.S. (Auxilliary Territorial Services) members in attendance, equivalent to our Australian Womens Army Service. So Vergil Herbert Curtis and I decided to have a shufti (look). We reached the venue, and asked at the door as to whether we could enter and have a look at the proceedings to which their R.S.M. who was within earshot, emerged, and said NO, and furthermore we could go forth and multiply. This was totally different to the environment we had enjoyed some six months ago with our tommy friends in Beirut. Verg, 5’6″ (1.67m), barrel chested, would have a go at anyone, big or small, if the occasion warranted, so he called the R.S.M. for all he could think of, asked him outside, during which time the circle of troopers grew and grew, resulting in a shrewd R.S.M. giving ground and inviting us in. We had a wow of a night with the troopers. On the way home we passed through an area guarded by Sudanese troops, they were as black as the night, and we were challenged by “Passee word, George, Passee word”, of course we didn’t know the pass word and kept repeating “Australi, Australi’, until we were eventually cleared.
Letter. 28NOV42. You will be pleased to learn that I have just got my third stripe, so that raises the old pay another bob (1/- or 10¢) a day, that will be a help won’t it ? Last week I sent two letters, one an airmail and the other by surface mail so you will have them most likely by now, I hope so anyway. Last night of course the cobbers did me over properly, stripped and painted with glue, you should have seen the place it took a bit of cleaning up. Xmas is not so far off now, only about another month, my word the time certainly flies round doesn’t it ? I wonder where I’ll be this time next year, it would be great to know. Lets hope that it is in Coburg. Have been rather busy of late, so it helps the time to pass quickly. Have received your letters numbered 90 and 91, one of the letters Mum has been hacked about a bit, and was a bit annoying to receive as you had written back and front and it spilt both sides. But it has been the only one so far, you were speaking about Bolies husband, so perhaps you will remember what you put in the letter. My word I will be looking forward to receiving the cake, of course the parcel too. I hope that you sealed the lid on, or it might turn out like the last one. I hope not anyway, a fruit cake will go well. Well the boys did a wonderful job in the desert didn’t they?, everyone of them is worth a V.C. I will be able to tell you more about it when I see you.
Letter. 23DEC42. I have just received two more of your most welcome and newsy letters, they are numbered 104 and 106 and are dated the 9th and 15th of November respectively. Tomorrow is Xmas Eve, doesn’t the time fly around, I wonder where we will be this time next year, I think that is what I said this time last year, but I am still over this side of the world, but hope that it will not be for much longer, things look a little brighter in that respect, but who knows. Thanks very much for the Canteen Orders, I received them O.K., thanks ever so much. My word Micky you are certainly growing older, and I hope that you will not in your youth experience a war, let’s hope that this will be the end to all the sorrow, misery, and suffering that this war will cause, that it will be the end of all wars, and hope that peace may reign for ever. Quite a few of the lads from the old mob are now in N.G. so they have had some travelling around in this war, over here by wrestled with god knows how many insects, but now they will be getting just as bad. I have not written for a few days, I have been expecting the mail in, but so far it has been rather disappointing with the amount, I expect that it will turn up after Xmas. On Xmas day the Sergeants wait on the men at the tables, well you can imagine the sarcasm that will be flying about; but I will tell you all about it in my next letter.
Prior to Christmas 1942, the unit was able to obtain a building to house the Boss’s office, Orderly Room and Workshop office, so we moved out of the tents to a new abode complete with beds as we had to sleep on the site.
With Christmas approaching we started to accumulate grog for the big day, and every now and again the clink of a bottle could be heard where it was stoushed away. The penalties for having grog in our quarters were such that death by a firing squad would have been more merciful.
With the acute hearing of Lt. Lillieblade, there was only one course to follow, so it was back to the sand and its safety.
Christmas Day arrived and everyone assembled for Christmas Dinner. Our bugler was Pte Henry Ruffles, a teetotaller, who after playing “Come to the Cookhouse door boys”, promptly fell flat on his back in the sand, someone had obviously spiked his lemonade. Henry’s brother Billy was also in the unit and was a made keen Aussie rules footballer.
The dinner was fantastic, waited upon by the Sergeants (of which I had recently made the grade). Boy did I cop some flak. The dinner consisted of Soup, Turkey with seasoning, covered with plenty of vegetables, and three different kinds of sauces, followed by Christmas Pudding with white sauce. An issue of two bottles of beer and forty cigarettes per man, besides plenty of nuts, etc., it was really a good meal. A leisurely repast, two bottles of beer, and then out of the sand came the extra grog, and by about 1800 hours the scene was ripe for some normally sane blokes to produce rifles and start shooting. The message came through from the British C.O. of the Tank Regiment (who was also Commandant of the area) that unless the shooting stopped he would encircle our unit with tanks. Thankfully, that was the end of the affair, no harm done, and a Christmas Day to be remembered by all.
Letter. 25DEC42. It is 10 o’clock Xmas morning, and I felt I would write a few lines to relieve a big lump in the throat. It is a beautiful day so far, and looks like being a real beauty. Just as well, last night was very hectic, it was an imitation I guess of jubilation, it couldn’t be the real thing under the circumstances of war, let’s hope that Xmas ’43 will be different, vastly different, and I shall be having my Xmas dinner at home; I said that last year and I’m still here, but lets hope that ’43 will be a different tale. Tomorrow, I’m getting vaccinated so that is a nice present for Boxing Day, also a couple of needles. I will end here for a while and tell you more after dinner, which by all accounts should be good, anyway tell you later. Well Family it is now Boxing day, but a very poor one as I will describe. It has actually been just another working day, except that I received two innoculations and a vaccination, so I guess that I will most likely have a sore arm in about a weeks time. I hope it doesn’t affect me like the last time. I wish I could have been home for Xmas, but lets hope that the next will be O.K. I think I told you once before that should you not hear from me for a space of time there is absolutely no need to worry in the slightest, you know how this army can shift you about. It will be great to see you all again. Eighteen months is certainly a long time, but then there are many who have been away for nigh on three years, so just imagine how pleased they will be to see those Golden Shores of dear old Aussie. The AIF has certainly done a wonderful job in the Middle East, they should also be given the V.C. in the Ninth Divvy, I guess you have all read of their doings, particularly in the last show in the desert. Well I must tell you about Xmas, in the morning we just lolled about, and then the Sergeants served the men with dinner, which being the same as the Sergeants dinner, I will explain it later. Anyway, the boys had a swanking good meal and I think they were all pleased. The dinner consisted of Soup, Turkey with seasoning, covered with plenty of vegetables, and three different kinds of Sauces followed by the usual Xmas pudding with White Sauce. An issue of two bottles of beer and forty cigarettes per man, besides plenty of nuts, etc., it was a really good day. We received our A.C.F. (Australian Comforts Fund) hampers in the morning, mine coming from a girl in Stawell, of course I shall write and show y appreciation, hope she’s not a bad sort. Then today I received a real surprise, a very nice parcel from Norma Hocking, no doubt being popular with these women (eh)? The Major paid me rather a very nice compliment in the Mess, reckons I was the best statistician in the Middle East, but I told him that it would be correct, as he had an eagle eye for errors.
After the Battle of El Alamein, some of the captured equipment began to arrive in our area and we were ordered to provide night guards. Some of the lads looked upon their new duties most conscientiously, and decided that safe custody could only be effected if they were to take personal possession. When the word came to pack our equipment, we were going home, things such as snipers rifles, a fold-down parachutists motor cycle, and many other captured attractive items, found their way into the packing crates. We were never to see them again, as we were told that the ship with our equipment aboard was sunk off the New South Wales coast. Chaps started gathering goods to take home. I was a non-smoker at the time, and so I hoarded up a supply of cigarettes and tobacco for my father as we were aware of the rationing situation in Australia. So our kit bags became pregnant kit bags.
And so it was on or about 27 January 1943 that we moved out of Rafah, reveille at 0100 hours, but who cared. Here we were leaving the A-hole of the world, after spending some seven and a half months in the ….. place, with most of the older members of 2 A.A.O.W. having been there much longer than Harry Mence’s reos.
About midday on the 28th January we arrived by train at a Staging Camp called El Shatt, near Twefik, and were allotted tents. I heard that the 2/23rd Battalion were coming in so I watched them march in and followed until they were dismissed and went to their tents. Here I caught up with my Dad’s cousin, Lt. Roland Row, who said I’ll have to catch up with you tonight, as we’re moving out again on a route march, “Have to keep the boys occupied”. Roland was an original of 2/6th Battalion and had arrived in the Middle East on the 18th. May 1940. That evening for tea we had cabbage soup, but who cared, we were going home.
We embarked as “Liddington Force” on the “ILLE de FRANCE” on the 29th. January 1943. The Ille de France had been a French luxury ship plying the Atlantic to America prior to the outcome of World War II, and was known, so I was told, as the Brothel of the Atlantic.
We slept on a deck being allotted an area of 6’x3′ (1.83m x .91m). Blackout screens were a fixture, and we were packed in like sardines. For meals (as a Sgt) we went to a Dining Room, which was also for Officers but different times, and sat around a round pedestal table with 4 seats to each. The circular table had a lip around the edge to stop your meal ending in your lap, and the crockery was extra heavy duty. Every so many tables, had a waiter. We told our waiter we would tip him at the end of the voyage.
Apart from going to the excitement of a meal, or up on one of the top decks, one squatted in his 6′ x 3′ area. Major Mence asked me to do some records for the Unit History, so this helped me to occupy some of the time.
Being so congested we just sat in our little areas and passed the time with cards or whatever. It was here that someone offered me a smoke, and with nothing better else to do, I took up smoking for the first time- age 22.
We went to Massawa, a port in Eritrea, and here were some 27 Italian ships sunk in the harbour by the British Navy, with the masts only protruding above the waterline. (This could need verification – it may have been on the Q.E. we visited here, but there is no diary reference).
We seemed to travel southwards, as if parallel to the African Coast, and south of the Cape because it got chilly, then upwards to Fremantle. Here we berthed without obtaining shore leave and encountered quite a few American vessels berthed, in front, behind or alongside. The uncomplimentary banter between Australian troops and American sailors did little or nothing to improve cordial relations.
On the 28th February 1943 we disembarked at Pyrmont, Sydney, and proceeded by train to our home states. We Victorians and Tasmanians arrived at Seymour the next day about midday, and went to a Camp on the Yea Road. About mid-afternoon the call went out for all clerks to report to the Orderly Room where we were told that if we could prepare leave passes for twenty-one days leave plus travelling time, we could proceed from Seymour to Melbourne at 1900 hours that evening. We prepared those leave passes in a time that would have shattered all previous records, had there been any. “How much travelling time to Kerang, Terang, Horsham, Orbost, etc.,” was asked around the Orderly Room, always a liberal answer came back, so we all caught the 1900 hours special to Melbourne. This was a marvellous feat by Movement Control of the Army. Disembarking on Sunday morning in Sydney, and having us home on leave in Melbourne on Monday night, was a marvellous effort.
As we left Spencer St. Station, it seemed strange to see the sand bags around the city buildings. Home to Coburg, what a wonderful feeling it was. The old familiar landmarks along the way, that had formed part of our day dreaming overseas, were now a reality. The old familiar tram stop and Home at last.
It didn’t take long, however, for the young unattached fellows of the Unit to start to seek each other out for the mateship that was missing. Young and Jacksons Hotel, or Y & J’s became our rendezvous at 11 of a morning, if otherwise than occupied, when the day’s activities began. Not long after our arrival home, we received an invitation by mail from the Commandant of the American Forces in Melbourne to join them for a get together one evening at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
This was an enormous undertaking in inviting the Melbourne based members of the Ninth Division and Corps Troops to a welcome home party. Most thought it would turn into an all in brawl, but not so, as we went into the precincts of the M.C.G. there were literally hundreds of American soldiers wandering about with Tommy Guns. From memory Gladys Moncrieff was a guest singer, among many other artists. There were eats and plenty of beer, and it wasn’t long before we were buddies with the Yanks who were occupying the grandstands as sleeping quarters. A good night was had by all.
The 21 days leave passed all to quickly, and so we were back in camp at Seymour.
We had to await the return of our country and Tasmanian members, so the days were generally passed in route marches and drill. I remember taking several route marches to the Trawool pub where we rested, pending the long return journey.
On the 29th March 1943 we marched into 2/2 Australian Workshops Company at “B” Camp, Bandiana, Victoria, close to Albury and Wodonga.
There were some troops already at the camp known as “B” Camp, and also at “A” Camp where there was a HQ and Tank Workshops.
“A” and “B: Camps were to be collectively known as Australian Base Workshops, Bandiana. Later still it became known as 2/4th Australian Base Workshops, A.E.M.E.
“B” Camp comprised three large workshop buildings with overhead crane facilities, hutted accommodation, and amenities buildings.
The proposal was that we were to set about building up workshops that would cater for the repair, modification, servicing, inspection, etc., of all electrical and mechanical equipment that the army possessed. The location at Bandiana allowed for both the Victorian and New South Wales railway gauges to come into area, and at the same time give access to the Melbourne and Sydney supply and manufacturing centres.
Our C.O. was Colonel W.R. Wadsworth a first World War Veteran serving with the 14th. Battalion and C.O. 46 Bn., ? he was the senior Colonel in the Australian Army. In peacetime he was a Director of Thompsons Engineering in Castlemaine, manufacturers of Heavy Engineering and Rolling Stock. Many years ago “Readers Digest” published a monthly article “The most unforgettable person I’ve ever met” or something to that effect, and I’ve always believed that for mine, Col. W.R. Wadsworth fitted that bill. The greatness of the man was that he was so humble. Of an evening, he’d throw his cap on his bed, go down to the O.R.’s huts (a different one each night) and ask if anyone would join him in a walk. (Note: I trust that if Col. Wadsworth’s name can be used in the R.A.A.O.C. History, that the Historian obtain a history of this wonderful person).
All of the Victorian Officers of 2 A.A.O.W. and Major McKechnie from W.A., took up senior posts at Australian Base Workshops, with Major Mence becoming the Workshops Manager.
In May 1943 the Workshops arm of the Australian Army Ordnance Corps, became the Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and so the Workshops story from then on belongs to that Corps.
I look back with great pride on the units in which I served in the A.A.O.C. Into these units were brought together some of the best Electrical and Mechanical engineers in the country together with our best tradesmen, who with improvisation and ingenuity helped to keep things going, generally in adverse conditions. Whilst carrying out my tasks, it was a continual period of learning in workshop procedures and administration, which served me well in my post war employment. I have yet to learn of an adequate description given to the meaning of companionship and mateship we shared.
The motto of the AAOC, is,
Come and have a drink with me,
Say boys, can you keep one down,
My flamin’ oath we can.
and sung to the tune of “The old grey mare”,
The A.O.C. is lost in this territory,
Lost in this territory,
Lost in this territory,
We’ll be here for more than a century,
And nobody bloody well cares.
Nobody bloody well cares,
Nobody bloody well cares,
We’ll be here for more than a century,
And nobody bloody well cares.