On the 1st September 1939 we in Australia were, with the rest of the world, shocked when Germany invaded Poland. Britain, to honour a Treaty then declared war on Germany. On the 3rd September, supporting Britain, Australia did likewise. Before the end of the month the decision was made to raise an overseas force, as was done in 1914.
As this was to be a volunteer force many men were putting their names down. After considerable thought I decided I should do the same. 1 was living at Allambee at the time and was working out in the paddock when I put my idea to my father. He, being an old war veteran from World War 1 was pleased but my mother was not so happy when I later told her. So I sent my name in and waited to see whether I was needed. We, the volunteers felt that if a war had to be fought it made sense to fight it over there rather than wait for the enemy to come to our country after having over-run our allies one by one.
Because of the looming war clouds in Europe, Australia had boosted its Militia forces to seventy thousand. I had joined the Militia in Trafalgar during 1938 and had already been to a couple of camps at Seymour. The custom was for all Militia members to spend at least two weeks in camp each year. Although it could be hard work, most of us regarded the break from our usual jobs as a kind of holiday. After war was declared it was decided that the October camp would be extended to four weeks.
Early in October I went into camp with the 52nd Militia Battalion. On the 5th October, as was the custom, a Military Ball was held at the hall in Yarragon to farewell the local lads going away to camp. It was at the Ball that my pal from the 52nd, Lawrence (Barney) Young introduced me to his sister Shirley. I was interested right from the start and, as Shirley seemed to like me, we spent as much time together as possible getting to know each other each time I was on leave. We corresponded all the time I was on service in Australia and overseas. In June 1944 we were married.
Late in October, while I was in the Militia camp at Seymour, I was sent home with instructions to report on the 4th November to the Dandenong Drill Hall. On arrival I found that there were hundreds of men also waiting. First up was a medical check by a group of Army Doctors. On being classed as "All and fit for active service abroad", I was then sworn in to become a member of the Australian Imperial Forces.
I enlisted on the 4th November, 1939. From Dandenong I went to Royal Park for further messing about. Melbourne men were given overnight leave but we country chaps had to stay in camp for two nights.
We had all signed on for the duration of the war plus twelve months. And what was the princely sum we were to be paid for offering to lay down our lives for our country? Five shillings per day plus an extra two shillings per day deferred pay for time spent abroard. This was exactly the same wages paid during the 1914-18 War over twenty years before. Nobody could have accused our Government of being too lavish with their money.
None of us would have believed just how long the war would last. I think that most "experts" estimated that two years would be the ultimate figure.
On the 6th November a train-load of us was taken to Puckapunyal, a place of which many of we Gippslanders had not heard. It was situated a few miles from Seymour. We were soon to learn quite a lot about it as we were to spend the next five months there.
Prior to catching the train we were all lined up with our luggage on Royal Park Station in groups of eight, facing the carriage in which we were to travel. Our train consisted of what were then called dog boxes, each compartment having a door on each side of the train. These carriages were normally used only on suburban lines. After being counted a few times some "genius" worked out that we had a lot of spare troops. So we had to shuffle around to put ten men to each compartment. While this was going on everyone had his mind set on a window seat. When we had been counted for the tenth time we were warned that no-one was to board the train until the railways officer blew his whistle. The officers and sergeants, moving along between us and the carriages, started to count us again.
Then some impatient person blew a whistle. It was hilarious. Like a tidal wave the troops rushed the train carrying all before them. I poked my head out the window to see officers and sergeants emerging somewhat ruffled and angry from several compartments. They took the hint and sent us on our way soon after.
I decided then that if crazy things like that were going to happen in the A.I.F. it would suit me fine. Many of this first draft were ex-militia and were able to settle into the routine of army life quickly. On arrival at Puckapunyal we were informed that we were now in the 2/7th Battalion under Lt. Colonel Theo Walker. A couple of days later we were divided into companies, I, going into B Coy. under Captain Green, (a bank inspector from Morwell) and later number 2 Platoon under Lieutenant Eddy.
A Section of Infantry consisted of nine men with four sections to a platoon, four platoons to a company. Later "threes" became the norm which carried through to three battalions to a brigade and three brigades to the division.
Our battalion was part of the 17th Brigade, 6th Division. Also at Puckapunyal as part of the Brigade were the 2/5, 2/6th and 2/8th Battalions Infantry, the 2/2nd Artillery Regiment and the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion. When the threes idea was implemented the 2/8th Battalion was transferred from the 17th Brigade to make up a new Brigade.
All that existed at Puckapunyal when we arrived were the buildings, the rest was all dust and stumps. Our job was to convert this into a neat army establishment. We eventually did get the job done and even did some training as well. We were issued with our tin hats (battle bockers) new type webbing equipment and brand new rifles. The rifles were the well known .303 calibre S.M.L.E.s, (Short Muzzle Lee Enfield) of the type which first saw action in World War 1. The rifle had a range on its sights up to 1,000 yards (915 metres) plus a further 800 yards on a sight on the side of the rifle used only for dropping bullets into enemy territory for a harassing effect.
Once we had our packs and haversacks it was easier to keep our bunk areas tidy as we now had ample storage for our odds and ends plus somewhere to keep our spare clothing. Having webbing equipment made us at last able to act, feel and look like soldiers. Before we sailed we were issued with kit bags as well. These were usually stored in bulk store depots while we were in action. All spare belongings were kept in the kit bag. Before each major move we were given access to our bags to enable us to stow things not required in transit.
Training seemed to progress rather slowly. We were introduced to some new weapons including the Bren Machine Gun, a very efficient weapon which was to be our main infantry weapon for the next six years. It was issued one to each section. The Bren combined lightness and simplicity With reliability. Another new weapon was the two-inch mortar, issued one to each platoon. Stan Phillips and I were named as mortar men for our platoon. I was never in love with it.
I am afraid that looking back, I remember the Puckapunyal days mainly as times of guard duties and digging holes. We would go out on regular exercises and take up defensive positions, digging slit trenches in various strategic places Then the word would come to return to camp. Of course, we would have to fill in the holes again. We soon learned not to dig too deeply. The guard duties were taken very seriously and the daily Changing of the Guard had all the formality and ritual of the Grenadiers. Not quite the same precision but we tried.
We, of course did our share of squad drill, marching about and drilling, so beloved of Sergeant Majors. Out in the Bull Ring (the open training area) we indulged in bayonet practice and war games, sometimes using blank cartridges. I consider that the training we received was not nearly as thorough as infantry troops received later in the war. Another skill they tried to impart to us was map reading. It was a favourite way of spending an hour or two without causing too much perspiration. We could go away to a quiet spot out of sight and settle down in the shade of a tree to a quiet hour of yarning without interruption. If an officer came in sight we would be receiving instruction without anyone having to move. We became quite adept at dodging work.
There was one job that was impossible to dodge. Kitchen Duties, which meant peeling bags of potatoes and slicing dozens of loaves of bread with a hand operated bread slicer. Several chaps sliced the tip off a finger in that operation. There were always heaps of vegetables to prepare, especially when stew was on the menu. Lots of insults have been directed against army stews. I always felt that they were tasty and filling which was more than could be said for some of the other ideas with which the cooks experimented.
The only food that I never liked was Bully Beef Stew. Even today I feel like throwing up at the thought. Bully beef was not bad if eaten cold directly from the can but once heated the flavour was completely changed, for the worse in my opinion. I would hate to say just how many cans I have eaten.
There were several organizations who ran welfare huts for us at Pucka. The Red Cross, a couple of churches and of course the Salvos among them. The later ran a picture show most evenings. A problem with the pictures was that the sound was not very loud and most nights a large portion of the audience seemed to spend half their time coughing. One night as the coughing reached a crescendo a large red headed figure leapt onto the stage and screamed "Go home and die you consumptive Bastards and let the rest of us hear the show". It nearly brought the house down, receiving a round of applause from the rest of us. The shouter was a chap named Jock Taylor and we were to see a lot of him as time went by. He could sing many songs, especially Scottish and often conducted the singing.
Each morning there would be a full Battalion Parade on the parade ground during which R.Os. (Routine Orders) for the day would be read out. After that the various companies would march to their chosen assignments. All four battalions and the other regiments did the same thing at the same time, each one to the beat of their own band. Each band had its own signature tune which it struck up first before going on to other numbers. If one was on guard duties or kitchen duties or whatever, one could tell which battalion was moving where by the tune being played. The 2/7th always began with "Colonel Bogey". We troops sang our own words to it. Our words suggested that Goebbels had only one testicle (ball), Goering's were very small, Himmler's were somewhat similar while Hitler had none at all.
About once per month the battalion marched to the Seymour rifle range for live ammunition weapons training, usually staying overnight. I always enjoyed that immensely, not the 10 miles (15 Kms) march each way however. Going there was O.K. but the journey home was tough as, in an attempt to avoid a third five minute break in the homeward trip we went like crazy to reach camp within the three hours. At the range it was good fun as we were tested on the Bren and on the rifle over various distances. I found that I really excelled at rapid rifle fire over 200 yards, being usually first to finish the required number of rounds and still able to post one of the best scores.
On one occasion all the officers were called to qualify with the rifle. Most did quite well except for one Lieutenant who borrowed the rifle belonging to the soldier who had just posted the highest score for the. day. Bad move. When he missed the target with his first three shots he was unable to blame the rifle. He should have used one that had not been tried, thus leaving some doubt as to where the fault lay.
The rifle range was on the far side of Seymour from our camp which meant that we had to march through the town each time. We always sang "Roll out the barrel" as we approached the first hotel. From there we had to march to attention until we were clear on the other side of the town. The bridge over the Goulbourn River was a fairly old structure. We were always ordered to break step whilst on it. It was feared that the sway of so many men marching in step could further weaken it. Marching out of step was customary when crossing bridges. There were some troops who were out of step most of the time anyhow. They were a real pain to march behind.
We also constructed a small bore rifle range close to the camp where recruits could get their initial training with firearms. It was almost ready for use by the time we sailed.
Before I sailed, Dad and I worked out a method whereby I could (quite illegally) keep him informed of where I was or soon would be. I always addressed my letters home to my mother. When wishing to convey a place name I would send the letter to my father. His initials were J.A. To indicate Egypt I would address the letter to J.E. The second letter was the clue. It worked and I don't think we caused the sinking of any troopships.
Lieutenant Eddy was involved in the only occasion in which I put a stain on my otherwise clean record. To get weekend leave one had to get one's leave application into the office early enough on the Friday to get it approved and signed by an officer. One could get a few hours off during the weekend if one could find an officer who knew whether or not you were entitled to have time off. This would normally be your Platoon Commander. On the morning of Sunday the 25th February I met one of the boys from Yarragon who told me that he was on his way to where the 52nd Militia Battalion was camped near Seymour. It was their open day and a special train was running from Gippsland to the camp. This meant that several young people whom we knew would be there.
I tried to get a leave pass signed but all the officers I knew were out of camp for the weekend or for the day. I found out that Lt. Eddy was in Seymour meeting his girl friend so I decided to take the risk. He was the only one who would know whether I had a pass. As I was about to board the bus at the camp gate I had to step aside to allow an officer to alight. It was Lt. Eddy. As he was a good sport and I was a goner anyhow I decided to ignore him and keep going. What I did not know was that he had just had a "falling out" with said girl friend. He was returning to camp in a foul mood. I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Militia camp returning to my own lines only to be summoned to the Company Office (Orderly Room) and formally charged with being Absent Without Leave. On the Monday I was paraded before Captain Green and on pleading guilty was given 7 days C.B. (confined to barracks).
Apart from the fact that I had planned to go home on leave the following weekend it did not greatly effect me. I did however, regret the black mark on my record. Recently I obtained copies of my War Services Record and there it was, in writing too large to miss, the record of my perfidy. Lots of the information in those papers is so badly written as to be almost indecipherable but not that part. About a week later I was alone for a while with Lt. Eddy. He almost apologised for the incident. However he was right and I was wrong so I didn't blame him for doing his job.
While at "Pucka" I took part in what was a rare event in any army, a strike. For a while the rations had been of very poor standard and complaints brought no relief. Breakfast usually consisted of porridge, which was often lumpy and low in salt, bread and meat of unknown origin. The meat was usually referred to as camel meat, being boiled until it was limp and tasteless. The food was alright for quantity and quality. It was how it was treated that we deplored. One morning it all became too much. We all refused to eat the muck the cooks had dished up. Acting on the advice of "wise heads" amongst us we laid formal complaints and refused to eat the meal, then went quietly to our huts. We fell in on parade when called and marched out to the "Bull Ring" to get on with training.
Somebody knew all about Army Law because within an hour the Battalion Doctor had visited the Commanding Officer and pointed out that men in training could not be set to work without receiving a proper meal. The upshot was the arrival of breakfast out to where we were training. This time the quality was vastly improved. From then on the food was much better. There was no more reason for complaints. I was pleased with how it was handled in such a civilised manner.
About three weeks before we sailed the camp had an open day. It rained and rained for the previous forty eight hours so that by the Sunday it was impossible for vehicles to leave the sealed roads to park. To avoid traffic jams within the camp the gate in front of Brigade Headquarters was closed and sentries posted to keep out any who did not have a pass. In other words was not related to an officer. During the two hours that I was on duty if a car contained children or elderly folk I would send the driver into the office to try his luck. If as usual he was knocked back he would take a piece of paper out of the office waste paper basket outside the door and give it to me. A goodly number entered the camp that way. Some offered bribes but that did not help them.