Time for a change
After my return to the training depot, I had to face a Medical Review Board to assess my fitness for active service. They in their wisdom, thought that I would not be able to carry a pack on my back because of the large operation scar. To avoid being class "B", I argued that I was fit enough to join an artillery unit. I could do so as I had an older brother in such a unit. Under existing Army Regulations he could claim me. I argued that artillery personnel never carried packs but rode everywhere in trucks. This was nearly true and they fell fAr it and graded me as "A 1" and fit for active service on the condition that I, at once, applied for a transfer.
My brother Stan was a reinforcement to an anti-aircraft unit. He had only been in Palestine for a couple of months and his camp was across the road from mine. The formalities were soon concluded and I became a member of the 2/3rd Light Anti Aircraft (A.A) Regiment on the 21st January, 1942. I was no longer a private but a gunner and about to learn about Bofors guns which, in my opinion, were the best pieces of equipment in the Army.
When I joined the A.A. I went into number 8 Battery which, a short time before, had been relieved after spending nine months as Rats of Tobruk. While in Tobruk they were credited with downing 100 enemy aircraft, not however with Bofors but with captured Italian Anti Aircraft guns. Our other Battery (number 9) had been on Crete using Bofors. Their losses were very heavy, in the vicinity of 150 members lost. Most of their casualties occurred at Maleme. The third battery of the Regiment did not reach the Middle East.
I found I was able to settle in well as there were a lot of new members besides myself. We were all on the same basis in relation to the gun. The guns had just arrived from England, not even original members of the unit knew very much about them. At last, within a few weeks, I was able to feel I was one of the mob. That meant a lot to me. Although I was happy in the Anti-aircraft unit and enjoyed most of the time I spent there I never did regain the feeling of pride and comradeship which I felt for the original 2/7th Infantry Battalion. Because of my long absence from the 2/7th I had not been able to get a feeling of belonging on my return to the Infantry Training Depot. I never did return to the 2/7th Battalion itself.
While I was away, my old unit the 2/7th Battalion had been reformed with many experienced men transferred from other units plus many reinforcements until it was up to strength again. But the whole atmosphere had changed. Some of the "originals" who had been back to the 2/7th and through illness were passing through the Training Depot said it was somehow different. It would take time to rebuild the old spirit. Any time a soldier left his unit due to illness he had to return via the Training Depot. Had I had gone back after eight months absence there would have been no chance of promotion. I became glad that I had been compelled to make a clean break, starting afresh in a new unit. I would have greatly missed my old mates who were now Prisoners-of-War (P.O.W.s).
During the next few weeks Stan and I met frequently which helped with the settling-in process. We were in the same Battery but different Troop. There were three troops of four guns each to a Battery. Stan's tent was about one hundred yards from mine. We usually met at the canteen after final parade. That way I became friends with his friends. As I became known by more people and the fact that I was the longest serving person in the unit, I was accepted as a welcome addition. That helped me feel comfortable where I now was. Some people just didn't seem able to fit in, for them, the army life was not easy.
Apart from training, we were busy packing for our imminent return to Australia. Naturally we were all getting anxious as we heard the news of the progress of the Japanese forces towards Singapore. We felt we should be home to protect our own country now that it was threatened.
About the 12th of February, we left the camp by trucks, pulling our nice new 40 M.M. Bofors. We reached Port Suez where, after a lot of waiting around, finally were taken alongside a troopship, the "Rajula". We found that our gun was to be mounted on the deck of the ship for the trip home. Each gun of our Regiment was similarly placed, one per ship. If an enemy attacked from the port side, we could have dealt with them. An attack from any other direction would have found portions of the ship in the firing line.
There was one incident I will always remember as a fitting farewell to Egypt. It was the day we left Suez. The "Rajula" was tied fore and aft to bollards on the wharf by cables about two inches in diameter. A barge loaded with timber lay just under the bow of our vessel, also tied to the the wharf so that our cable passed over the barge. The pieces of timber were about 20 feet long and a foot square. They were loaded so that one end was in the barge and the other pointed into the air over each end. When our lines were cast off, the line running above the barge dropped onto the timber with the loop on the end falling neatly over the end of one piece of timber. A fast tide was running and it was sweeping our ship out into the channel.
The dozen or so Egyptian men who had been unloading the timber saw what was about to happen and headed for the shore as the rope tightened. One of them foolishly decided to climb over the tightening rope. Next second he was about 15 feet in the air and going higher, all the while screaming blue murder. He was at the same time, clinging madly to the cable which he was riding astride as if it was a horse.
The man operating the winch on the "Rajula" saw all this happening so let the rope go slack whereupon the unfortunate man plunged back towards the barge, still screaming but on a different note. The winchman, to avoid crashing the man onto the timber, stopped running out rope. This caused the rope with its unwilling passenger still clinging to it, to rise again. This time no more rope was played out. As the rope grew taut, the lines between the front of the barge and the wharf parted. It started to follow us thus allowing the cable to slacken and eventually slip off the end of the timber, depositing the man more or less gently into the water. The last I saw was a motor boat going to his rescue. We half expected to see him still clinging to the cable as it was finally winched on board.
The Gyppo, as we usually called them, had a penchant for doing the wrong thing or doing it the wrong way, a bit like small children. Typical of this was the time when a dozen of them were carrying a long piece of timber with eleven of them carrying it on their right shoulder and the twelfth man on his left. What happened when they tossed it down the bank is best left to the imagination.
The Egyptians were not always losers in encounters with we Aussies. On one occasion some months before, we were moving by train. As the train went slowly past a village at less than walking pace, the villagers were out selling things including water melons. One of our chaps leaned out of a window and waved an Egyptian 1 pound note (about $2.50 Australian), and asked the peddlers if anyone could change it. In a flash one smart kid said "Yes", grabbed the note and dived under the slowly moving train and out the other side and away. The rest of us could only laugh at a poorer but wiser loser. That Egyptian 1 pound was no small sum. Most of us only drew 2 shillings per day. He lost twelve days pay.
Of our position on the "Rajula". a more ideal situation in wartime would be hard to find. Our most senior person on board was our Gun Sergeant Cliff Ross. We had almost a week to settle in during which we were the only troops on board. While we waited, the wharves were patrolled by Egyptian soldiers, who were a very trigger-happy bunch. At night they would fire at any sound of movement such as a rat that failed to answer their challenge.
During our movement around the wharf area, we had observed there were stacks of boxes each containing two two-gallon bottles of fruit juice, Some similar cases contained two bottles of rum. As we did not have access to alcohol on board, a couple of our gun crew members decided to, as they put it, liberate a container for the sea trip. One night they crept out past the guards, with much waiting and watching, and at considerable risk, managed to get one two-gallon jar of the eagerly anticipated beverage back to the ship. There they found that in the dark, they had pilfered a two-gallon jar of grape-fruit juice. They took a while to live that down.
One thing that made this trip extra good was the dining arrangements. We were a crew of ten and at least five men had to be on duty on the gun at all times during daylight. So we had to eat in two shifts in the Junior Ships Officers mess. There, the food was that little bit better than the other troops enjoyed, was served with china crockery by a steward at a table. This almost blissful state started from when we first went on board until we reached Adelaide.
While we were waiting at Suez an Arab gent on the wharf informed us that Singapore had fallen to the Japs. It was sobering news indeed. I had another brother, Ted, a Sergeant in the 2/40th Battalion, stationed on the island of Timor and right in the path of the Japanese sweep south. I was concerned for his safety because from experience I had learned that defending islands was to say the least, a hazardous undertaking.
Eventually some 1200 troops came aboard, the following day we sailed. It was now the 19th of February, 1942. After some hours sailing down the Red Sea we were picked up by escorting warships. As we proceeded, we caught up with other ships and their escorts until we had a fairly large convoy of ships all bound for Australia. After few days sailing into the Indian Ocean we were granted permission to practice firing our gun. We enjoyed sending off a few single shots then a burst of automatic fire. It was the first time any of us had experienced a Bofors gun in action. The noise scared stiff the people on the deck below who had not been warned of our intentions.
Now that we were sailing away from the war zone, the Middle East, we were prone to relax a little. However there was no safe place in the direction that we we were heading. The Jap submarines were spreading further south and west as their armies captured more territory. Before long they would be active well into the Indian Ocean. We also had to learn how to operate a 20 mm A.A. gun mounted on the wing of the bridge. The ships crew were normally in charge of it but we needed to be able to take over in an emergency. The gun was an Oerlikon. I am sure of the name but not so sure of the spelling. It was made in Sweden.
The first stop was Colombo where we waited for a couple of days tied fore and aft to buoys. The "Rajula" had a cruiser tied alongside sharing the same buoys. The battleship Ramilles and a destroyer were tied to our front buoy. I found it most interesting to be so close to all those massive warships. There was no leave this time. In Colombo there appeared to be no facility then for ships to pull alongside a wharf. They had to lay at anchor or tie up to buoys. When I was there, ships at anchor or tied up stretched for miles in rows. Those close in were tied to buoys in twos but further out they rode at anchor singly.
When we sailed several of the warships, possibly about ten, left with us until we were out of sight of land, thus having put on a show for the Jap spies most of them sailed away leaving us with four warships as escorts. They were the Aussie cruiser "Hobart" and three American destroyers, showing that the Yanks were really in it at last. The other troopships that were in the convoy were "Aronda", "Nevasa" and "Dillwarra". All had some of our chaps as Anti Aircraft defence. All mounted 4.7 inch naval guns on their sterns. For a time a medium sized ship accompanied us. When it sailed close by we could see that it was what they called a Merchant Cruiser. It was a fast merchant ship which had been converted for escort duties and fairly bristled with guns.
For us, life at sea was very peaceful. Apart from some gun drill at regular intervals and of course, frequent cleaning of the gun, it was very restful. I spent a lot of time just leaning on the rail watching the porpoises swimming alongside and the flying fish racing ahead. The flying fish of course, were seen only in the tropical waters. I think it was during this period of pleasant rest that I finally fully regained my health.
Life was so pleasant on board ship in the tropics. At night in particular it was restful with the ship sailing almost silently through the water with the outlines of our companion ships dimly visible in the moonlight. From quite a distance we could see the fluorescence around the bows of the ships. One could so easily forget there was a war on, at any moment we could be attacked by an enemy submarine or a German raider. There was known to be one of the latter in the Indian Ocean plus a couple in the Pacific.
After leaving Colombo the convoy sailed south for about a week. Or at least, that is the direction I think we went. it was hard to tell because, in wartime, all convoys zig zagged continually while in hostile waters to fool possible enemy submarines. It certainly fooled me. One morning at daybreak we found we were alone. The escorts and the other troopships had all dispersed during the night. But we continued to go south without zig zagging for many days more until we could tell by the coldness of the air we were well on the way to the South Pole.
While we were in the southern Indian Ocean we encountered some very stormy and rough weather. There were long troughs which we were crossing at an angle. Aiming our bofors gun at the horizon, I found by reading the Quadrant on the gun that we were rolling 28 degrees. At the same time rising and plunging fore and aft. The waves were about fifty feet high and I guess about quarter of a mile apart. When I think of our ancestors in their little sailing ships on the way to Australia, I am amazed that they made it through such seas. They were brave people.
Eventually we stopped going south and sailed east for ages and then sailed north for two days. On the second afternoon sailing north we were watching for land to appear when on the horizon other ships came into view. They fell into place around us in positions where they had been about three weeks earlier. They were the other three ships of our convoy. I think it was a wonderful feat of navigation.
As we anticipated, land was close and we gratefully sailed into Fremantle to land the Western Australian troops whom we had on board. We received only a few hours leave in Perth, just enough time to call on Uncle Phil Belton again. I was hoping he could let the folk at home know I was back in Australia. After dark we put to sea again bound for Adelaide. On the second day after leaving Fremantle we were advised by a Ships Officer to watch ahead to starboard. Our ship was sailing alone at the time. Over the horizon came a huge ship. It was the Queen Mary, she passed quite close to us, her 83,000 tons dwarfing the 10,000 tonners we were accustomed to seeing. She was being escorted by two destroyers. The two Queen ships were often not escorted as there were not many ships in the world that could equal them for speed. They relied on speed to keep them safe from submarines and the records show that this worked. When transporting American troops across the Atlantic to England, the Queen ships each carried ten thousand troops each trip. The value of their war effort was immense.
We disembarked in Adelaide on the 28th of March, 1942. The members of our Battery were all billeted in private homes in the suburb of Paradise. We thought that in the name of Paradise somehow, there was a message for us. We were not disappointed, it was a lovely suburb and the people were most kind. Our guns were unloaded from the various ships and assembled on a local sports ground. Then we had the urgent task of removing all signs of salt-spray and rust. The salt air had penetrated everywhere during our five weeks at sea. Keeping ones weapons clean is always the number one priority.
When that was under control we were given five-day leave passes to go home if we wished. We wished. It was a rush but I managed to get home for three days of the five, arriving in Yarragon on the 7th of April 1942 just two years to the day from when I had last been there on my final leave. While I was at home I learned that my concerns about Ted were justified. The Department of the Army had no word of his whereabouts. He was reported as "missing in action", presumed Prisoner of War. It was to be almost two years before the Red Cross confirmed that he was a Prisoner Of War. He survived the three and a half years as a P.O.W. returning home safely. He survived Changi, then spent over a year working on the terrible Thailand-Burma railway. Surviving that, he with many of the others, was sent to work in the coal mines in Japan. He was still there when Japan surrendered.
Like so many ex P.O.W.s his health was to some degree effected. He died of a war caused illness when aged seventy two. About this time British medical authorities noticed the frequency of Ted's medical problem occurring in other men who had returned from Jap P.O.W camps. All had been starved in camp, had a stomach ulcer and undergone an operation to repair a perforation after returning home. Subsequently some forty years later being diagnosed as having extensive cancer, dying within six to eight weeks from that diagnosis. Medical experts felt that there was certainly some significance in the similarity of those sets of circumstances. Ted lived only five weeks after being diagnosed.
On our return to Adelaide from leave we packed again and went by rail to Perth. There we took up positions at Dunreath around the landing strip of a fighter squadron. Dunreath was a few miles north east of Perth and a short distance east of the Swan River. The squadron was equipped with Kittyhawks and we had some fun during training engaging in mock battles with them. They were a daring lot and one chap when using a gum tree to sneak up on us went through the top of it, scattering leaves in all directions. No harm was done to the plane fortunately.
I had an unusual task one day when a pilot asked me to help him start his plane. He handed me a long crank handle with the instructions to get up sufficient speed on an inertia wheel to turn over the engine, the battery being too flat to do so. It worked, the engine started and away he flew.
Soon after reaching Perth some of us who had been overseas for the longest received four weeks home leave. It took about four days by train to reach Melbourne and the same to return, giving us a good break.
The fighter strip which we were protecting was on the Dunreath Golf Course where our tents and guns and the planes were hidden from the air by trees and camouflage nets. As the ground was low lying and subject to minor flooding, we could not dig a weapon pit for our gun. For safety we were forced to fill hundreds of sand bags and build a veritable fortress on the site. At least it saved having to cut down the scrub to get a clear field of fire. The farmer on whose land we were camped allowed us to use rain water for cooking and showering. Such unaccustomed luxury.
When on day leave I was able to visit Uncle Phil and Aunty Kath Belton again at home and called on him at work a couple of times. He was Sub Editor of the daily paper in Perth. It was the only "Daily" at that time. I was also able to find my father's sister Ida. She was Mrs. Marcus Cocker and lived in the centre of Perth in Hay Street which was the main street. Then Perth was not such a large city. I was able to visit her a couple of times. Aunty Ida owned a fairly large house which she was operating as a guest house for women. At the time of my first visit all her guests were barmaids from nearby hotels. She explained that these girls were the best guests as they always had their board money forthcoming. By the end of their days work they were sick of men and never broke her "no men in the rooms" rule. Aunty Ida was a smart sixty-year-old but I could not talk to her for long enough to really get acquainted as she seemed to be always busy.
On my second visit a couple of months later I found that she had relaxed her rule a little. She had taken an American submarine officer as a boarder. He spent most of his time at sea paying his board in advance whether he was there or not. If I know anything at all, it is because he paid more than the going rate that Aunty Ida made him welcome. Like I said, Aunty Ida was a smart lady. She had been a widow for several years. She had a son named Mark whom I did not meet. I don't think he lived in Perth. I have been told that Aunty Ida's name was really Ada. It was her Father's Pommy accent that caused her to be known as Ida.
After a few months at Dunreath we were transferred to Geraldton, a coastal town about three hundred miles north of Perth. In peace time it was a town famous for its crayfish. Many of them were still being caught. We were able to buy cray from the Fishermans Co-op for special occasions. At reasonable prices too. Our interest in Geraldton was the aerodrome which was very busy with hundreds of Royal Australian Air Force personnel and aircraft. It was the main base in the west for Catalinas (amphibious flying boats).
The area was over-run with rabbits, on days off some of us found it good sport to go shooting. Not that one could eat them because once a rabbit was hit by a 303 bullet what was left was not fit for the pot. A feature of Geraldton drome was that it was on the edge of miles of purple Lupins about three feet high. They were so thick as to make walking through them quite difficult. As the season advanced they dried and the seeds would explode in all directions if touched or as the wind blew. Locals said that sheep lived on the seeds when, later in the year, other fodder was short.
Because of the scarcity of manpower to shear the sheep a couple of men from our unit were given special leave to spend some time shearing on a nearby sheep station.
On the day that our Battery arrived in Geraldton I had what could have been a very serious accident. The quad trucks in which we were travelling had an opening in the roof through which the Bombardier usually stood to watch for signals, road signs, enemy aircraft or whatever. As no-one else wanted the position I sat up there to obtain a wonderful view of the town and coastline as we climbed the hill leading out of the town. As we topped the hill I turned to face the front just in time to be hit in the face by a low slung signal wire running across the road. The wire caught me right in the mouth and dragged me backward. I was able to get rid of the wire by gripping it with both hands and twisting to the side, at the same time going with the wire to loosen it. Apart from a burn to each side of my mouth and a sore neck, I escaped any real harm. was fortunate that the truck was moving very slowly because of towing the gun up the steep incline.
Our Battery Commanding Officer was Lt. Colonel Roden, a rather formidable big man with a strong voice. He also, like most officers, had a nickname. He was "The Boomer". This had some association in thinking with a boomer being an old man kangaroo. The "Boomer" had a habit of making surprise visits to various gun sites. His office staff were good sports. As soon as he was out of their sight they would phone the gun crew with a warning of a pending inspection.
On one occasion he left his office to visit a site which was fairly close to his headquarters. The phone was in use at the moment of his leaving and some time elapsed before the warning came through. The man on duty received the message and sprang onto the edge of the gun pit calling out that "the Boomer is coming". He had yelled it a couple of times when a big voice behind him said "The Boomer is here, so sound the air raid alarm". Everyone held their breaths expecting an outburst but as the crew had manned the gun within a few seconds, and everything appeared in order, "The Boomer" left ignoring the show of disrespect that he had heard.
On active service, Geraldton was within an active service zone, there had to be a minimum crew of five or six men, within ten seconds of the gun at all times. In November, part of the unit was given 28 days home leave. While returning from leave we were on the train between Perth and Geraldton, travelling on the infamous Midland "Snailways" when the little engine pulling us lost all the gear off one side. The train of course, came to a sudden stop. After about six hours another engine appeared but instead of taking us, it hooked onto the crippled engine and took it back to Perth.
This line was only a 3 foot gauge. The whole train used to rock and roll when it reached top speed, about twenty miles per hour. So we waited and waited for two more days before we were rescued and taken on to Geraldton. There were a couple of hundred passengers on the train including a number of Womens Auxiliary Air Force (W.A.A.F.s). It was lucky that we broke down where there was a fair amount of trees and scrub about as the only sanitary arrangements were, Ladies to the left and Gents to the right of the line.
The Airforce Padre at Geraldton had a segment each evening during interval in the picture show. He called it "The Bird Watchers Club". This was a reference to the two Western Australian beers, the Swan and Emu brands. I don't know where he got his information but if any service person, male or female was drunk the previous evening they would get a real ragging with full details including names. He caused a few red faces, especially among the girls.