Archive number: 1790
Preferred name: Ray
Date interviewed: 19 April, 2004
2/9th Field Company RAE
7th Division RAE
You are listening to the interview audio
Can you tell me about your place of birth?
Yes, well I was born in Canterbury. And from what I can tell my father and mother couldn’t decide
what they would call me. So they named me Robert Raymond and then called me Ray. And I didn’t know anything about this until about 1960. When I went to have an insurance policy made out because I was in business at the time. And he came back and said to me, “You are not Raymond Robert
you are Robert Raymond.” So since then, the taxation department and banks, I’ve had all sorts of problems. Wanting to know really who I am. So we have come to the decision now, if any contention, I get Robert Raymond, otherwise known as Raymond Robert. And that was, that was how that all started.
Do you know why they decided to?
No I don’t, it wasn’t a topic of discussion at all. I was Raymond. I always signed myself Raymond Robert, my army records are all Raymond Robert. I’ve always signed checks Raymond Robert. But then all of a sudden the taxation department and DVA [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] I think got together, we’ve got two blokes here
with similar names, but which is which, have we got two blokes? Or is it the one bloke. So I had to give them a statement about what my name really was and how it all came about. Anyway that was Canterbury. Just not far from the Canterbury station in fact. And
then the family moved to Preston, which I didn’t know anything about being a baby. But I came, my memory comes on the air when we came back to Box Hill because during that time my mother had died. And we were left as very young children to my dad’s care. And how he put up with us, I don’t know, because he
had to keep working. I had two sisters who were older by ten years, older than me. And that let another nigger out of the wood pile too, because later on I found out that my mother was married at a very young age. In fact
she had to get special dispensation to get married because she was under 18. And as it turned out, subtly pregnant. A little bit pregnant you know, as they say. And then 12 months later my mother had another child, another girl. Then she had a rest for
for about five years. And then another boy was born, another three and a half years and I was born, 18 months, another brother was born. Another 18 months, another brother was born. So all of a sudden from 13 years of age, the eldest girl to the youngest boy
oh, baby, we had six children. And then Mum, I suppose she was worn out, if truth be known. And she finished up with some chest problem of the day and of course there were no drugs in those days. We are going back to
1922, I think my youngest brother was born. And so no penicillin or anything of that nature. No, but could be brought to bear on the subject if that had been that, she probably would have got over it and carried on. Dad was –
had left with six children. And so my second eldest sister got the job of looking after the family as the house mother. And I was really brought up by her in the early formative years. She did a pretty good job, but we were pretty wild, you know, as young kids.
I was four and a half by this time. And I went to school at the Box Hill Primary School. For a short time, I’m not quite sure. Then we moved house and went to Canterbury again. And I went to school at Canterbury. And then I think Dad thought, oh to hell with this,
I am going to find myself a girl. Cos he was still only relatively a young man at this stage. So he found a lovely lady who was told that she wasn’t going to be able to have any children. And the story in the family is that she decided that she would find a man that had a family, so she wouldn’t
have that problem. And they met up. Unfortunately or fortunately for her and all the rest of us, she did become pregnant. Big time,
because she had twins. And then 12 months later she had another one. So all of a sudden we’ve got 11 sitting down at the table. For meals, can you imagine it? And one income that was worth calling an income to look after the lot of us. It was quite a
family I tell you. We always reckoned later on that we never owned a home because we used to wreck them so fast we’d have to move on to another house so we could wreck that one too. But anyway, that’s what. We finished up in Elsternwick. Near
where my stepmother who had the patience of 57 angels. You know, because she was a wonderful woman and looked after us like her own. In fact it wasn’t until oh, 10 or 12 years ago when one of my – my youngest brother got remarried that the word stepbrothers and stepsisters came into the conversation at all.
It was all family, no them and us sort of thing. It was good.
What did you father do?
He was a tailor. First of all he was a printer, he did train as a printer and he
his father had a business in Little – in Flinders Lane. And for small printing works it just didn’t work after a few years. And The Herald was quite big and The Age was quite big then. My grandfather decided that
he would work within those realms rather than be in business on his own. So Dad at 21 or 22 had to find another job and somebody gave him a job of tailoring firm. I think it was through his mother’s cousin. You know, fairly confused. And he took on tailoring
and finished up, pre war, Second World War, he had 120 staff. So it was quite a big sort of tailoring works, Made suits and over coats and that sort of thing for men. And I think that where he met my mother – mother originally. She was a
seamstress at that particular place. So it was easy for them to get to know one another. I know Dad at that time would have only been about 21 or 22 years of age. Yeah, I don’t know where I can go from there.
How did your family go in the Depression?
Yeah well, the only thing I remember very much about the Depression was that Dad used to come home at half past three in the afternoon, so that we couldn’t go out and play out in the street. Because he didn’t like that sort of thing. He didn’t want that. So we had to stay in the backyard
so we wouldn’t annoy the neighbours I suppose. But generally speaking, although we had a large family and although there was only the one income to speak of coming in, I don’t recall that we ever went, we were deprived of anything. In the way
of clothing or food. We probably were but we didn’t realise it. it do remember a place we were living in Denver Crescent in Elsternwick. Right along side the railway line, and the light in our bedroom was just a cord
with the light on the end of it, you know, the was no trappings, that sort of thing, it was pretty basic. And I remember a time when we, I went up the street, which went going up to Glenhuntly Road to get some shopping for Mum. They used to have big boxes
on the corner of the street, they were the forerunner of the bins that the Salvos [Salvation Army] put out. But they were a timber box with a sloping top to them, and people used to put stuff in that they didn’t want and the Salvos then would come along and take that out and use it. And I remember seeing the, a nice little tin about three by three.
And as a kid it was quite intriguing to see this thing. So I opened it up and here was about four cigarettes in it. So I thought, oh, I was riding a bike at this stage so I probably would have been about 12 or so. So I took them home and I grabbed a box of matches and I went out into the lavatory which was out the back yard. And
smoked two of them instantly, the unfortunate part about it was that my mother followed me down there. When I came out and of course the place was full of smoke, so I got a whack over the ear for that. It’s just as well, one of those amusing things that sticks to your mind. You know you
remember puts other things into context of what happens. And where it happens, although there is no date to it, I couldn’t say it was on Saturday the 4th of April or something like that, just one of those things.
Do you remember the house?
Oh yes, the house is still there,
it was a brick house, Californian bungalow style. With a bit of a bow in the top of the ceiling part and the balcony or the veranda had a dipped wall to it like this, typical bungalow style of thing. It was three or four bedrooms, it had to have because we
as kids we used to bunk up, there’d be three of in a bed, two up this end and one down the other end, as kids. You know that was the way we got over the bedding problem, didn’t have a bed, I didn’t sleep in a bed on my own probably until I was 15, I suppose. Pretty much when we moved to another house.
You said you moved from Canterbury to Box Hill then back to Canterbury?
I was born in Canterbury, then my next recollection was near the Surrey Dive in Box Hill. You know the Surrey Dive, the Surrey Dive’s on the corner of Elgar Road and Canterbury Road. In Box Hill. And it was an old
quarry. And it flooded, they went down so they would come up against the spring and you know, it was of unknown depth, at my time of living there, it had never been depth, nobody could get down there deep enough because there was no artificial means in those days. A lot of things have happened haven’t they? Because they go down
hundreds of feet down now, but they couldn’t get down to the bottom of this on one lung full, and cold of course. Then we went back to Canterbury from there. Then we moved to Elsternwick near the corner of Glen Eira and Orrong Road. We came there I think because Mum’s family, my stepmother, family
lived in that area. And I think it was a case of she wanted to get near her own. And they were a family of spinsters and bachelors. Or a bachelor brother a twin was my stepmother. And there were three other sisters all unmarried.
None of them, Mum was the only one that married in the whole family, they all were spinsters and bachelors. And then of course as the kids, the two, three of the new family we outgrew that place.
So that’s when we moved down to Denver Crescent in Gardenvale. From there we went to Hawthorn Road, Caulfield. That was probably around about 1936 and I say that because
that was where I went into the army in the first place. And it was at that house that I was in that I joined up, into the CMF forces, Citizen [Citizens’] Military Forces. And as a young kid of 16 or 17, the news in the paper was that Hitler was, you know,
flexing his muscles as it were. And I thought, there is going to be a war here, there is got to be a war, the way things are proceeding now, there is going to be a war. So I thought well if there is going to be a war, I’m going to be right in the firing line because of the age group so I want to know something about this caper. So I joined up into the Citizen Military Forces.
And that was in the 2nd Field Squadron RAE, the Royal Australian Engineers. And which I spent, as a cadet, unpaid cadet at 16 two years before I became 18. Then I went onto the payroll and we used to get
8 bob [shillings] a day for the day we were there or less, I can’t exactly remember but it wasn’t much. It was nothing to really get excited about, because you know –
Why did your family move so frequently?
The kids would have had to change schools?
Yeah, yeah, well you see my kids here, I’ve, Cheryl had, my child, had just started school and my son hadn’t started school when we moved into his house. And I have been here now 52 years.
So when they come home, they know everything around here to the finest degree. You know, but we never, I never had that, I used to hate moving because all my mates that I had gathered at one place, all of a sudden would be lost because I would be moving to another house, even though I might not have
moved schools. Might not have changed schools because from Elsternwick, went to Ripponlea State School, when I went down to Garden Vale we walked all the way back to Ripponlea, walked, its quite a hike from Gardenvale to Ripponlea.
There and back each day and then when we moved to Hawthorn Road we still went to the Ripponlea School. So while we moved houses and lost contact with people that we might have been neighbours with and get to know, all of a sudden they were out of our life. So I finished up with no boyhood friends
at all. You know, as such, one who was more an acquaintance than a friend. I met him after the war as well. But we were quite good mates at school. But as I say I moved away and that was gone. But I think the family
as I say, we used to wear houses out, there is no doubt about that we, you know, Dad had no time for gardening or anything like that. If he had some time to spare there was probably three pair of shoes that needed soling and he would sole the shoes with leather and tacks. And sometimes you’d find the tacks sticking through when you put it on and you had to walk to
school with a tack in your boot and you were trying to work your foot in such a way to avoid that tack, you know. Until you got home and get Dad to give it a whack on the last and burr it over so that it wasn’t a problem any more. But he used to put his time in doing that sort of thing. And Mum if she had a, if she had five minutes to spare, she probably found that
there was a blouse to make or a pair of trousers to make which she could do. Pretty self contained, the whole family really, Mum and Dad.
They would have had to be resourceful? People were back then?
With nine children?
I started doing a paper round because there was no money to spare, I mean I never got things like pocket money, oh God. There was just nothing when my grandmother used to come over she, of course all well and dead before she left and in the morning we would find threepence, underneath, threepence, which is about
half of five cents today, in today’s parlance. So it wasn’t any big deal, but to her that was quite an amount of money out of her widow’s pension or what ever she had to live on, I don’t know what that was but, yeah, I
went then did a paper round to find enough money to provide myself with a bike. And paid for it slowly. Diligently and carefully, and looked after it like a bit of gold. But that was the only way we got anything, we worked for it, nothing was handed to us on a platter.
Except I think that things that can’t be given to you, monetarily, we were given values for living, you know, to guide you through life. We, I went to Sunday School until I was about 15, twice every Sunday, we were Baptists.
We weren’t religious in that sense, but Dad made sure we went to Sunday School in the morning and in the afternoon. And one of the best memories that I have about that was when we used to have what we call our anniversary time. And they were –
have a whole church, one end of it would be in forms, in tiers going back. And that whole wall would be filled with people, kids, mostly a few adults. And we’d be all singing hymns of some sort. But it was great time. And at the church we had
dramatic societies and then some clown decided that wasn’t good to have girls and boys mixing up in the dressing room at the same time they were getting changed for various costumes. So the whole thing fell apart. And it was just left it droves. All the young people left the church, poof, left like that. Yeah. Anyway.
What was the reason for that?
Well, they were interested, the people that were involved they would hold these concerts for the church of a particular play or something like that and that required reading and diction and all that sort of thing.
And it kept the people, kids together, kept them off the street. But somebody in the church I never really found out who it was, decided that it had to go because there was too much frivolity. And you couldn’t have frivolity and church in the one place.
But at that place we used to have a cricket club, at one stage there was seven of our family in the cricket club. That was quite a bit of carry on. And we had gymnasium classes for boys and girls at different times. And wonderful times, those places,
I tell you. Flex our muscles and roll around on wrestling mats and doing all that sort of thing. Callisthenics which later on bore fruit as far as I was concerned, I used to enjoy that. And but yeah, they just didn’t care about the kids wants, they were only interested
in ‘it mightn’t be good for them’. So they just canned the whole lot of it. And with the result of that, the kids just said, well I’m not going there. Because although they went to church, they were not churchie people. There would be a few that would say their prayers nightly and that sort of thing, and hope for the best. But
no, they just left it.
What about your parents, were they very religious?
No, no. No they weren’t religious, Dad used to go to the church on these anniversary days because the whole lot of us would stand up on this tiered place that we used to sit on. And we’d get him along then, but apart from that he probably never had time
to, you know, to go onto these, but he used to make sure went, always made sure we went with our pennies to put in the offering plate. You know, always had a penny to put in there. Which was a penny, a cent, well we don’t even have cents now, but that about all
they were worth, a one cent piece. It was about the size of the 20 cent piece, a copper, if you haven’t seen one, a penny. But we always took our penny along and when the plate came long in front of us we’d put our penny on and pass the thing on. And
but he wasn’t, no he wasn’t religious. And neither were we, we didn’t think about it as a religion as such, it was just somewhere to go. We used to have Bible stories and all that. Like any other religion did, but most of the time it was done with a, yawn, sort of effect.
Did you go to the wedding of your father and stepmother?
No, no. Didn’t know anything about that until all of a sudden Mum arrived. “This is your mother, she’s going to be here.” So no argument, good, she was a nice lady, she was a wonderful lady as a matter of fact, she turned out to be. There was never any though in even my thoughts or my brothers’ thoughts
and I know this for a fact. Anything but Mum said in the true sense of love, you know, she did a wonderful, she really was. You hear these stories about the wicked stepmothers, and this was completely the opposite. Couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Your sisters must have been relieved?
Well they went out to work then, although one was at work, the eldest one she was working at the T&G, Temperate & General, on the corner of Russell Street and Collins Street, big insurance company in the day. The other one, the one that was,
Edna the one that was looking after us, as a house mother. She was taught I think a lot by Dad and her, my grandmother, who was a seamstress. I think she was taught a little bit about needle work so that when she went to look for a job, she finished up with a job in The Block [Arcade] in Collins Street
making really top range bridal wear, you know, the firm she was with, that’s all the made was bridal wear. And you know, they had some terrific weddings to cope with, like six bridesmaid’s dresses as well as the bride, full flowing regalia, you know. But she was a good
my mother, my mother used to, was learnt, was taught the trade of seamstress by her mother. Who had a shop in South Melbourne which is still there today, in Clarence Street, South Melbourne. Which was only a hop,
step and a jump from where her family lived at the time, in South Melbourne. And they were the days of horse and carts, you know, I am talking about a normal run of events, horse and carts were the go, by lorry, by leisure vehicle or anything
else, a car was a rarity. I can easily remember a slow old steam roller, great heavy lumbering roller in the front, it would be about four or five feet wide and about that high, with two whacking great wheels at the top which would be five or six feet in diameter. And
it was such a novelty, it was a steam engine, it wasn’t a combustion petrol engine. And used to have a bloke walking in front of it with a red flag so that you know, its speed would be about two mile an hour. And why the hell they would want somebody with a red flag walking in front of it, but that s what they used to have to
have. Way to use people up, give them something to do. But that was the sort of thing that was used to make the Yarra Boulevard. It was all when they were making that, it was all horse drags and picks and shovels that made it, it wasn’t,
you know, extensive earth moving equipment or anything like that.
So that area from Box Hill to Canterbury, Box Hill would have been quite rural back then?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. Almost farm land. Oh yes, you didn’t have to go far and you were in the country from Box Hill. It was
where we were in Kent Street, off Station Street, it was reasonably built up but from there on it was very much rural yes, very much rural . There wasn’t very much on the other side of Box Hill. At that stage. Yes
so that was, I suppose you could say now it was an exciting time in our life because it was before things became modernised you know, there was no toilets as such. There was the toilet out the back, by 30 metres out the back. You know, covered over with honey suckles plants. And
the night man used to come around each day and or twice a week or whatever it was and empty the can out. Which wasn’t a pleasurable job, I don’t think. But they did have lids on the top of them, put them onto their shoulder, they carried then on their shoulder. When you come to think about it, what they do today to collect waste like the bins and so forth. This poor fellow used to have to go from the front of the street right around to the back of the house, ten metres at least to the back of the house, get this can and stick it on his shoulder and walk back to his horse drawn vehicle, you know. That was before modernisations.
Did your father have – ?
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 02
Did your father go to the First World War?
No he was in a protected industry at the time because he was in clothing and his job was making clothes for the army. So he was exempted from that, I don’t think he was unhappy with that, he never said he was unhappy.
His brother also was exempted because he was in the government offices. And he was exempted because of the works that he had to do. In administration work for the government at the time. His claim to fame was that he
eventually became secretary to the treasury, which as you know signs all the pound notes or the dollar notes. So these notes all notes of that era were signed by him. But no, they had these exemptions allowances
for different people in different trades that were better working at home than doing work somewhere else. or trying to be in the army. As I say, Dad could have claimed
three children as a reason not to go if he wanted to do. A wife and two children would have been enough for him to be exempted, but mostly that was all volunteer work anyway, in the First World War. It was all I don’t think it was until later on that Billy Hughes, I think it was,
brought in conscription. Because the First World War fellows, 90 per cent of them were volunteers, as were the first in the Second World War, the first lot of people. They were all volunteers, it wasn’t until later on that they became conscripted and told to be there or else.
You know, so no he never was in the army. Neither were any of his brothers. There was no army history at all. I think I was the first one that took any interest in the army. Pre war,
pre the Second World War. But no well of course you must remember that the war was, the First World War finished in 1918 and I wasn’t born until 1919. When I got old enough to know what was going on the war was
old fellows went to the war, although it might have only been five or six years, they were old fellows that went to the First World War, they were all old blokes. And I suppose when they came back some of them had been in the war four or five years some of them. And
by the time I got to know what was going on, I probably would have been about 10 years of age. Well they were all 30 or 35, so that they were old to me. You know when I looked at them, and thought, “Oh well he is an old man,” 35, oh God. You know that’s the end of the earth, that's what I thought them. I don’t think so now.
Tell me about your school years?
Do we have to go into that?
Just a little bit?
I don’t know where I got it from, but I had very little time for school. Probably it was caused by the fact that I was switched from one school to another. I remember one dreadful time
I had when my father had just produced with his second wife a pair of twins. And I was sent to stay with grandma, my younger brother, Keith, the one in that picture, he and I were both sent to grandma’s place over at Auburn. Which meant that we had to transfer for a short time
to Auburn State School, from Ripponlea State School. I didn’t know anybody, and they didn’t know me. It was a case of ‘oh who’s this turned up?’ Coming into our school, we don’t know him. And I was pretty much ostracised because the others had all been to school for five years or so
at this time and I absolutely hated it. Didn’t like schooling at all. And the result was that when my next door neighbour came to my father and said, “We have got a job for a boy, do you think Ray would like to have it?” Dad called me into the lounge room where he was sitting
and said, “Mr Vince has got a job, do you think you would like to have it?” and I said, “Yeah, when do I start?” And he said, “Well, you can start tomorrow morning?” So I said, “Fine.” So I went and closed my books up and that was the last I saw of them until after the war. And oh,
yeah it was after the war, I didn’t touch a book in that time until after the war. When I came back I found that I needed to do other things and I did a bit of accountancy, didn’t like that either. But I did enough to be able to get by for what I wanted to, to hand over to an accountant to do the rest of the work. And
I didn’t have any time for school at all. I wasn’t good at sport. I was short and all the kids seemed to be much taller than me. And so football was out, cricket you couldn’t get into because everyone wanted to play cricket.
So I muddled along just doing enough to get by, to get grades. And then I went to, down to the Brighton Technical School and I though I was in heaven then, I really thought I was in heaven. Going to the Brighton Tech because they had a quite a
different system to what they had in the primary school, where you sat in front of the one teacher and she gave you arithmetic and spelling and everything else. And drawing and everything else by the one teacher. And I got down Brighton and only had a teacher for an hour and then your had to go to another classroom, you had another teacher. And I though this was
great, because they didn’t get to know you at all you see. But the end result was I did very, very badly. And Dad said, well that’s enough of that son, you are out of there. So well I went back to the state school and finished off my schooling and then went straight into work. And mostly
I never had to apply for a job, never applied for a job. So I was always handed over, they’d say, well we can’t use him any more, but you might be able to use him, “Oh, yeah, I’ll have him.” And this carried on right through. Even after the war the same thing happened. You know I was working for one fellow and he said, “Look I am going to close
this section down. I know if you go and have a talk to Joe Blow I’m sure he will take you on.” So that’s what I did and I never actually had to go and apply for a job ever. I suppose I missed out on some training somewhere. Along the line, didn’t have resumes.
What sort of work did you do? Your first job?
Well it was with Ince Brothers in Swanston Street, they were tailors. And he, this was in the height of the Depression I might add. This would have been somewhere about ’32, I suppose.
Yeah, let me think what happened then. Yeah, Mr Vince said to Dad we only take the boys for a year. And the idea is to give them training about the city, about knowing what the city is made up of, how to get around the city,
introduced me to the despatch department with Victorian Railways and the post office and just general knowledge sort of thing about how to conduct yourself in the city. And I had to deliver parcels around the city.
And then they, the 12 months was up and they said, well your times is up here, but you go down into Flinders Lane and see if Mr Thomas. And because he’s looking for a young bloke. I would have been about 16, roughly, at the time. So I went down to see Mr Thomas and I was
there for two or three years. And then he was a big man in the Freemasonry. And he decided to get out of the wholesale woollen fabrics, which was mostly overcoating. And go into secretary of the Masonry. So that
closed him down and left me. And he said to me, “Well you go along and see Harry down at Majorca Buildings and he wants a young bloke down there.” So I finished up as a – I suppose you could virtually call it a commercial traveller. Going out selling stuff. But I really didn’t know
what I wanted to do then. I mean I was 18, that time, I didn’t know what to do, what I wanted to do, had not a clue. The only I knew was how to sell. That was not learnt, that was just a natural ability. Nobody
taught me how to say the right things to the right person, you know, just happened. And so I went down and saw Harry and I got a job there and I was there until the war started. Then I went back there because, after the war, because of
restriction of imports and that sort of thing. They didn’t have any stock at all in the place, it was bare empty. And then when they did get a roll of material, say from Yarra Falls they might have got a roll of material in, that was knitting or woollen mills in Collingwood, Yarra Falls, have you heard of it? And they used
to make good suitings. Yeah, but it was, just lost it for a minute there, got side tracked.
The difficulty of getting fabric?
Yeah, the difficulty of getting fabric. When I got back to this pace they said, well the government tells us we’ve got to take you on, but
look, it’s bare. So we can only give you a minimum wage, I was married by this time. That wasn’t any good to me. So I finished up going into a place in Malvern, Hattam’s. And that started off a whole new trend, that was after the war.
By then I found out what I wanted to do. But that will come up later, I'm sure.
Did you like working in the rag trade?
I did, I must have, I didn’t know I did, but I must have. Either that or it was something that I learnt and just got
accustomed to. Never had any opportunity to be a plumber or an electrician. Anything like that, the only thing I ever did know about was fabrics.
A lot of little places in the city?
It was all wholesale. Small business mainly, there were a few bigger ones, you know.
Do you remember much about the people who worked in the trade?
Ah, in what regard?
The people that you worked with?
The people I worked with were all genuine top rate
citizens. You know, from the point of view of being in the establishment. I didn’t know at the time but I found out later that Vince’s were big on the Masonry bit. They had no influence on me at all at that stage. Because to
me it was just another job that I went to. It wasn’t that Dad was involved in the Masonry or anything like that, he wasn’t. Didn’t have enough money to get involved with that. But the Vince’s were all big in the Masonry and they handed me over to another man that was in the Masonry. And you know that was they were all
solid citizens, lets put it that way. By standards I suppose they were quite wealthy. The Vince’s had a home in Howitt Road, Caulfield, which was were we lived at one stage. And
he had a quite a large house, he had a tennis court at the back. Now if you wanted to go and buy that property it would cost you millions. In that particular street, it’s like St Georges Road in Toorak. But at that stage I was – well we had very ordinary home there.
You know rented of course, always rented. Something Dad never did own, never could get enough money together I suppose, not with looking after the big family. Couldn’t get any money together to put a deposit down on a house. And there was no, nothing available like there is today, in the way of help to get you started.
Like kids getting what – 7000 or better – just to say, “I’m going to get a house, give me some more money. I need more.” None of that. But and I suppose Thomas’s in Flinders lane, they were, he was well off.
I don’t say he was rich, but by standards of that day he was, he’d be well off, yeah.
What sort of garments was he making there?
No, never made any garments, they were just wholesale fabrics. He would buy, Thomas mostly imported fabrics from England. Yarra Falls were one of the
two or three woollen mills we had here that made suitings, material that you can make suits out of. But the over coatings were mostly came from England and he would import these huge rolls of material. About that round. And they’d have 30 yards of it and it would be that round. I tell you they’d
have some weight too, some pretty heavy weight. Throwing them about might have to, part of my job was to unroll that and cut off three yards of it, because we weren’t in metres in those days, three yards and fold it up and wrap it up and sent it out, take it out, placed it out, laid it out, get a carrier in to take it out
and that was part of the work that I had to do.
Where would that go to?
To a tailors, yeah, tailors or individual, because there were a lot of tailors around in those days. Single man business, one man business. There is nothing like that today, it’s a rarity to find a tailor that can
start in and make a suit right from the piece of material upwards. And Vince’s used to do that they had, oh five or six on the staff making and they would make the suit right from the basic requirements by way of interlinings and lining, and they would –
I can remember the girl sitting down and hand sewing the buttonholes. Hand sewing buttonholes. You know but they might have lasted the life of the garment, they didn’t crack up after about six weeks. You know different values I suppose in those days. People had a single job to do.
Did your father make your clothes?
In the early stages, yes he did. Well there were four boys in the original family and he used to make – he would do the cutting out and Mum would do the making, because she was a seamstress. But Dad would cut it out.
I remember one time I was, I was probably about 10. And in those days the 10, that’s 1929 I’m talking about.
One of the fashions used to be knickerbockers. And that was a trouser that came down to the knee, and then the trousers would be, were tucked in see, you get an effect something like that. See
and that was accepted thing of the day. But something went wrong with Dad’s tape measure because what I finished up with was a pair of trousers with a band and a button that finished up there. They were good trousers, but I had to wear them, oh God.
I was never more embarrassed every time I had to put those damn things on. But I had to wear them because they were my best trousers. You know we had best trousers and we had school trousers. And never the twain did meet, because you know you get to keep your good ones for Sunday School mostly. Because we seldom went anywhere else, only
to Sunday School.
So you knew a bit about fabrics then?
Well, by the fact that I had to handle them I knew what a warp and a weft was and that sort of thing. And I could tell by handling it weather it was good fabric or a bad fabric, it was all basic knowledge.
You know I never, I’ve never seen it made, you know, never sent the fabric woven in a factory or anything like that. It was only that when I picked up a piece of material, I’d say, oh that’s rubbish. Or, oh that’s a nice tuft. I could tell that just by feeling it. But I think
that most people you could do that yourself, pick up a piece of denim and it felt nice to you, you would know whether you were going to like it or not. Or whether it was just a starch filled garbage. So
Was there any difference between what was produced in Australia and what was produced in England?
Produced by way of fabric? Only that
England used to export to the world and we looked after our own little community here. The capacity wasn’t large and by the time say Yarra Falls got through servicing the outlets in Melbourne and Sydney, because there wasn’t much over in the other states to worry about. There was only
Sydney and Melbourne. I mean the other states were there, but they were not any where near what they are today. Probably if you think about your own life, when you think of what used to be the outskirts of Melbourne, we say Dandenong a few years ago, now we are out to Berwick and we are still producing
houses like they are coming out of the ground, you know. So its, thing are all relative. I can remember down here I went to Sir John Monash’s funeral at the Brighton cemetery and Dad took me down there. He looked only further up in Hawthorn Road.
So it was quite easy to get to, but from when we came down there, North Road that is, that was practically the end of the world. The rest of it was only bush and an odd isolated house here and there on farms, market gardens, there was very little buildings as such, as you see them today.
You know, quite a different world today, when you think about it.
Tell me about the quality of the fabrics produced here with what was coming from overseas?
Yarra Falls could hold their own with some of the best of them, yes I could say that. They used to make two grades of fabrics some for the cheaper trade and some for the better trade. But the better ones were as good as anything we used to get from England. Most of it came from England, you must remember that in
those days we were very dependent on England for lots of things, because we didn’t have the industry here to do it. All sorts of things. You used to have to get from England rather than Tokyo or from Hong Kong or from USA [United States of America]. It was always from England. It wasn’t until after the war that we
started to see a lot of Japanese stuff come in the market. There was probably some there but not to the extent, major dealt with Japan and Hong Kong and Malaysia, those sort of things. Really everything that we would get would come from England, by way of fabrics anyway. I don’t know about anything else. But by
way of fabrics, hardly ever did we see, I can’t remember ever seeing anything made in Germany. But they probably have a big industry there too. Or France or America, always England. We were very dependent on England at that stage, very dependent. In more ways that one.
What year was it that you joined the CMF?
The CMF I would have joined about 1934 as a cadet. I’m not good at maths I never was
but I was about 16. So 16 years on to I would have been 15 or 16 when I joined that. And that was, there were two things as I said before. I reckoned there was going to be a war. But one of my outlets which I liked to do was
riding horses. And I had a mate that lived not far away from me and he also liked riding horses. So we used to go down to the livery stable in Hotham Street just near Ripponlea. You know the Ripponlea, heritage place? And we would
hire on Saturday afternoon a horse for two or three hours. I think it cost us about five shillings. Which was a fair amount of money, but I would rather do that than go to the pictures, we had great fun. And when this mate said to me, well I’m going to join up the army
and I'm going to go into a mounted unit. And I said, “What’s a mounted unit?” and he said, “Oh, they have horse to ride.” “Oh, that sounds a good idea.” So he by this time had joined up there and I went along and they said, “Oh, yes okay, you can come in.” So we were
issued with our army uniform. Leggings and all that sort of thing they used to wear, jodhpurs, and leather leggings. For riding. And we used to go away on bivouacs on the weekend and we’d be riding horses and looking after horses. Learning how to feed horses, water horses, groom horse, do everything for
the horses before you would do anything for yourself. So first thing in the morning you woke up you didn’t go and have a shower. You went and attended the horse first and made sure that their stables were clean or their horse lines were clean, and the droppings were cleared out of the way. And they were
fed and watered and groomed, and then you could go and have your breakfast. But it was good training and we used to get engineer training. At the same time mostly how to dig holes, with picks and shovels. But they were good years those, we had a lot of fun.
It was rather funny we would go away for a weekend. We’d go to work in the morning, Saturday morning, 12 o’clock we’d finish up, we’d be down to the drill hall by half past 12. And we’d be either drilling or doing something to do with the army. And by six o’clock
we would go on leave. And we couldn’t get out of there quick enough to go on leave. To go into the city. Because we were highly rated amongst the girls in these fellows in uniform. We had a, I’ve got a photo of some of them there,
we used to have an emu plume or an ostrich feather and I think I was originally an ostrich feather then I think they developed it to an emu feather, but it doesn’t matter, it was a feather. And it used to come right over the top of the slouch hat you know, the slouch hats the ones with the sides up. And these were quite distinctive, quite different. And we would go to the
Glaciarium, ice skating or we’d go to a dance which was pretty difficult because we had army boots on, and they didn’t go well with dancing usually. But when we went skating we took the boots off and had hired boots on, skating boots. And there was always the chance
I never got lucky, but there was always a chance that you might be able to talk a girl into going out with you or something like that. Bu then we’d go home, we’d have to be back at the camp within a certain time. And of course you’d be all on wires you know, with the doings of the day and the night. To the point where you were trying to go to sleep on the
ground. And I can remember just laying awake talking with others that were there. Looking at the stars above us, no tents or anything like that, just lying out in the open. But we did have blankets but we got very little sleep. And then by the time we had to go and start up again the morning
at six o’clock it was by the time you finished the day you were zonked, you know. I would be in bed by 8 o’clock on Sunday night, boom, out. Like a light. They were good days.
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 03
Tell us about the slouch hats with feathers?
Well the feathers when you first got them stood up like cockies, you know, and looked quite funny. I’ve seen photos of other armies that have used a similar feathers.
I think the Swiss army had something like that too, but they used to sit up like a cocky’s [cockatoo’s] crest. So we decided that we would rather have then folding over the top of the hat. And it would look more regimented I suppose. So we were – I would use a steamed tea towel and drape it
over the top of the feather and leave it there until it dried. And then it would conform to the shape of the hat. We thought it looked much batter like that.
Is that something that everybody?
Oh, it was pretty consistent yeah, you see from those photos they mostly looked like that, couple didn’t care. But
we had a competition every year in the CMF and you wouldn’t know but you would be called out on parade on a Monday night which was our drill night. And they would
ask you to open order marks, which meant you opened the ranks up so that people could walk up and down each rank. And the next thing you know they decided who was the best dressed sapper. It had to go from the shoes right up to the top of the head. And the bots the leggings, your belt, your bandolier
which is supposed to have bullets in it, but it never did, it was stuffed out with paper. All your brass buttons, all brass had to be cleaned and not filled with white Brasso, sort of thing. And
I was fortunate one year to be nominated and got the prize for being the best dressed sapper. It was rather strange because on the Sunday night I had nothing to do, so I spent the time spit and polishing all my various bits of leather. Not knowing that that particular next day was going to be the day they would pick. I was always like that.
But yeah, you had to be spic and span, anybody that looked sloppy they got caned. Not caned by frowned upon.
How much of a time commitment was the CMF?
well you’d have your drill nights which were one night a week. Then every so often you would have a bivouac. I don’t know who worked out the program, but it certainly wasn’t me. One of the officers would say we’ll have a bivouac on that weekend, a bivouac on that weekend and we would go to
places like Broadmeadows. Which were the most of the horses were held. Camp Pell in Broadmeadows is in evidence that something used to go on there. That was the camp. Camp Pell. And we’d choose Seymour. Puckapunyal
at one stage we went down to the Epsom Race Course down at Mordialloc on a bivouac. We’d ride the horses down there. Both at Broadmeadows and Puckapunyal. I don’t think Puckapunyal was in existence then,
it was Seymour, we went to the army barracks at Seymour and the horses were kept there too. You know. They had four or five different places where army horsemen used to train the horses.
And they didn’t want things happening that were going to damage the soldiers so some of the horses had a habit of rearing their head back like that . And if you happened to be leaning over the horse and it happened to come back, that would hurt. You’d get it fair in the face. So if they had that habit they had to be brought under control and taught not to do that.
And I can remember one of these trainers, can’t think of the name, officers I suppose, rear mount officers will do for want of a better word. They used to take these horses which were giving trouble. And I remember one of them this horse was doing the same
this sort of thing, pulling its head up, trying to, some of the fellows would hold the bit so they were forcing it and the horse would try and pull it away. It was the bad habit of the driver or the rider more than the horse. But they didn’t want the horse to do that. So they just came around with a, waddy you call it, and whacked its
fair in the ears. And the horse dropped like a bag of spuds. And it was all right I mean it got up, but it temporarily went down. Whether it happened again, I wouldn’t know. But that was one occasion where they had to teach the horse that it had to do what it was told to do, not muck around.
And they did that.
What sort of a horseman were you?
Oh I was just an average rider, I wasn’t a great horseman as such. We didn’t go into any competitions. But if a horse got a bit fractious you had to be able to control it, and I used to be able to do that. The check we would have when
it seemed to be a certain amount of attendance of women but I can remember going to the St Kilda Junction before its like it is now. It was just a cross roads at the time. But it was still a big junction. And the horse I had, if I leant back on it and put my hand on its rump. It would pig root it, kick both legs out and give the effect of bucking.
It wasn’t a buck, but it looked like that so we would do this as we went through and the horse would kick up and oh, get all the stares from the girls. Bit of larrikinism I suppose. But there were plenty of those in the army.
It sounds like with your slouch hat and your ostrich plume and the horse it was a good way to meet members of the opposite sex?
Well, it was a good way but not terribly successful that I ever knew. We had better chances of later on when I was in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] we would go to various places.
And we would get in touch with the local ladies hockey team. A lot of hockey players in our particular unit. And those that weren’t were taught pretty quickly, that all you had to do was whack a ball with a stick. And that was sufficient to be able to get us into parties and
dances and all sorts of things, get invitations. It wasn’t so much a one to one operation, it was a group. You know, like we would play hockey against the girls, usually we would beat them, but that was because we were more physical I suppose. We’d knock them over. And yeah, and we’d
then we’d get invitations to their socials and that sort of thing that they would put on of the army boys you know. It was good, cakes and things like that which you didn’t see much of in the army.
How long were you with the CMF? When did you join?
I joined, actually it would have been somewhere about 1934,
the war started 1939. So I was in it for about five years prior to the war starting. Two years were as a cadet. That only meant that I was there unpaid. As against once I got to 18, then we got paid for it, and that wasn’t very much anyway.
But yeah, about five years before the war. When the war was declared we were, we had organised a camp down at Torquay, it was quite a big camp, the whole company was there. And we had to do all sorts of works, like
making water filtration units and they were pretty basic, you can imagine. It was all done by canvas holding tanks made out of canvas tarpaulins. And we would have pickets driven
into the ground all around the square and then you fold this canvas to make a holding vessel and you tip a whole heap of dirty water into it. Then you’d have to clear it, clean it. It was putting the alum into it and that sort of thing, to produce reasonably clean water you could use. That was one of our jobs.
What would you put in the water?
a flocking agent that brings all the mud and particles down to the ground. It’s quite amazing stuff and it leaves the water reasonable fresh. It still had to be boiled, but you could use it. When you first put it in you thought, yuck, it looked like the bottom of the Yarra. You know when you first put it in. But you had to be able to do this on occasions.
This was only a training exercise by you had to be able to do it. If you had to water your horses you had to have some means of gathering a reservoir of water so that, you had 50 or 60 horses to contend with. Had to do something like that. They were the sort of things we used to try to do.
It was an engineers’ unit?
Yeah an engineers’, yeah.
What was the name of it?
2nd Field Squadron. I think ‘squadron’ because we were horse mounted. Later on in the war, I was in the 2nd Field Company. Which they had no horses there at all. We progressed within a few years,
progressed to tracks and things like that. We had very few, we used to have oh, 1918 war gear to use. In by way of what we used to call limbers, which were horse drawn vehicles that used to carry equipment
and all that sort of thing.
You talk about mounted regiments from World War II, is that how it felt at the time?
Oh no we didn’t have any money to do this and I suppose the government just did as best they could. And it was it was just they had all these rifles and stuff and we were using the .303 rifles that they were using in the First World War.
A lot of the stuff was First World War vintage, hadn’t been changed you know. As I say we virtually had no mechanical equipment at all, in any shape or form. Didn’t have any, picks and shovels were our scientific
instruments. As far as we were concerned.
What was the other work you were doing in the CMF?
In the CMF. Well I suppose basically like any army unit first of all you have got to attain discipline. And your discipline comes about by brain washing you with stand to attention, stand at ease, quick march,
stop, halt, turn left, turn right, all that sort of drill. Its all based to create the thought in your mind that the man said, “Turn left,” I’ve got to turn left, I can’t go right, I’ve got to go left. And when he says I’ve got to go left, and when he says, “Halt,” he said I halt, so I do halt.
And that is all part of the disciplinary training that you have to start with. And that’s where we were we were starting to be trained to do a certain thing which you may not want to do. But he said it, so you do and don’t argue, get on with it. That’s the
I suppose the basis of most armies. If you haven’t got discipline you’ve got nothing. Tell you a little bit about discipline later on, or the lack of it. But then we’d, you might think it’s funny
but we’d learn, we learnt how to use a shovel and a pick. Now you may think, oh that’s silly, but you’d be amazed how many people don’t know how to use a pick and a shovel properly. And there are ways to doing it that make it easier for yourself.
Well for example
if you were using a pick to dig a hole you would work on what we call a face. You would start here and you would dig it out on the face. Now some people and we saw this happen time and time again, they would try and pick it all over the whole area that they wanted to do, it was just a great
jumble and they would get nowhere. I would get three times as much work done because I was working on a face, you understand what I mean by face? Well if you, let me try and explain it. First of all you going to do an
a rectangular hole, right. So I did out the first foot, clear that away. Now it leaves me with a face, I have got that much dug out. Now when I put the pick into that face I’m likely to put the pick in there and I can force all that face
out and its much easier than try to dig it, each little, little pick as they say. The way to use a shovel by using your knee to help you force the shovel into the dirt that you are
picking up, all those things make it a lot easier for those that know how to use it and those that don’t know how to use it. And its one of the, what we call the ‘vol [volume] one’ of military engineering, one of the first things you learn. Because that was how you did it in those days, these days you have got a different thing altogether.
But our equipment was very basic, very basic. We did knots and lashings, we had to learn how to lash two pieces of large timber together.
Now the average bloke hadn’t seen a piece of rope let alone how to handle it. Some of them used to take special course in how to splice rope, either together or on an end. We used to learn knots and lashings, that was a big part of our training. How to tie
knots that will, for instance if I wanted to lower you down, say you are up on the roof there, and I wanted to get you down, but I wanted to tie it up there but when I got you down I wanted to undo that, without going back up there again. So I would learn how to do that particular know. Not many people know.
At all, in fact I don’t think anybody would know it if they hadn’t been involved with knots and lashings. We used to make –
How would you make that knot?
Well you get, the rope long enough to go down to where you are, it’s no good having a piece of rope that only gets you to within 10 feet of the ground. So you’ve
got to have enough rope to double going down to where you want to get to. Then on a beam that might be up there you tie the knot from here, I can’t show you without having the rope, but you make the knot on that beam
so that when you get on this piece of the rope, that knot will hold. But when you get down, you pull the other rope and this whole thing will come away and the rope will come down, and you’ll have it there to use again, you know. So that used to be quite a lot of work that was done.
When you get two pieces of timber that might be 10 inches in diameter and you’ve got to lash them together so that they will hold. You’ve got to know what you are doing otherwise you have all sorts of problems. Making anchorages were another thing that you might have.
What we call shear legs, two pieces like that, you make up on the ground, pull it up there and you attach a pulley onto there and lift the lower things underneath it. It was a fair bit of weight involved in that and if you haven't got somewhere pretty strong to hold that up,
then you are going to have trouble. Somebody is going to break their neck or their leg, or their arm. So you may not have tree that you can get onto, so we used to have big pickets of about five feet long, about four inches, steel pointed, steel collar and we used to tie them into the ground
on various ways. You might have, you might have a three on there, two behind it, and another one behind that again and you would lace them down with the rope, so that when you pull on one the strength of the whole lot had to be contend with and you can make
a much stronger. You might be in sandy type soil and you want it so that its strong you have got to know how to put these together, it’s just a basic thing, but its one of these things we had to learn how to do. Knots and lashings were a big thing. We’d spend hours doing various clove hitches and
reef knots and magnus hitches and the whole bit. And know how to put a piece of rope on a rope, so that if you tie the horse to it, it wouldn’t drag it half way around the world. You had to know that it would stop there and there was a certain hitch to do it. But the average person wouldn’t know how to do it, so you’ve got to be taught.
Was there much weapons training in CMF?
We used to go down to the rifle range at Williamstown and have a shoot off once or twice a year. We had a small
arms rifle range in the drill hall area itself. You used to find, used to use modified .303s, modified to the point where they took a .22 shell. So it was like blowing a dart sort of thing, but we had practice of how to sight
that up. Using the foresight and the back sight and raising and lowering the sight so that you got a different angle to project your guarding, had to shoot over a certain distance, certain area. These all had, they were unnatural talents that we had to learn
it was, you know, these weren’t hillbilly days, these were normal suburban boys who must had never seen a pick and shovel and never seen a piece of rope and never seen a rifle. We were all new and everything had to be learnt. We used to go down to the Williamstown rifle range, I don’t think it’s there now
I think they built over the whole lot of it, or are in the process of building over. On Williamstown Road. But we would go down there on the train, we’d get tickets, vouchers to produce to the station staff, army personnel, we’d go through.
What rank had you obtained by the time you had finished CMF?
I was a corporal. You had to pass certain tests, you had to be able to take a squadron, drill them, you had to be able to instruct them in certain things and largely
impressing the top rank I suppose. He’s a bloke that’s efficient and does his work properly and so forth. So you get a tick and that got you another stripe or something lie that. And I was a corporal when
the war broke out. So we decided that we had better go and join up. So a whole heap of us joined up. About 10 of us joined up and to my knowledge there was three of us left out of that 10, which is not bad when you
consider that, what I’m talking about is 70 years ago. 65 years anyway.
Do you recall hearing the news of war being declared?
Oh yes. Oh yes, there was, there was no
doubt about that it was going to be on because Chamberlain at the time was running backwards and forwards to Germany, I don’t know how he used to get there, he probably got there on the train. Might have gone by plane, there might have been planes sufficient for that type of person to be able to move around. There certainly many planes about at that time.
They were pretty unreliable anyway, but Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of England, he was running backwards and forwards and he was always saying that, no its going to be all right. They had what they called, what became later known as the appeasement policy. But it didn’t work, see.
But, I don’t think there was many people that thought that it wasn’t going to be on at that time. We certainly were quite sure, it was only a matter of time, it was a case of when. And it was the 3rd of September wasn’t it, something like that. That it kicked off.
And I can remember the speeches that were given to the, from the parliament, we used to sit around the radios to listen to the news that would come out, special addresses being given by the various members of the parliament to say that the war was on, we have declared war.
The war had been declared. And while it didn’t feel, as far as we were concerned, there was no joy attached to it, it was a case of, well, that’s what we are here for, what we have been training for. So
as I say there were 10 of us joined up together, one officer went and we all went with him. And we only had army training, there was no, I don’t remember any boffins being in our group anyway. There were the odd eccentrics that sat
and read Shakespeare or something like that. You know, but the average bloke was just what I say, was average. Run of the mill fellows, next door neighbours type of thing.
What was the real spur of joining, patriotism or?
As I said before I reckoned that Hitler was making so much noise and the news reels that we would see in the theatres would show you massive formations of troops. The like of which we had no idea about. Never seen anything like this.
And a parade of army artillery, modern stuff, you know. There was no doubt in any of our minds that it was going to be on, it was a case of when. So I didn’t have any doubts it was going to be on, no doubts at all. That’s why we are here
we are not here to, not, I think the word was formed about that time, that there were certain types of soldiers that were known as chockos, they were chocolate soldiers, they were dress up soldiers. Soldiers that had no intention of being real soldiers
but they liked the uniforms. And that was later transferred to people who were formed in Australia and stayed in Australia. It was an unfortunate word, but it was word that was used. I know because I had, my younger brother was in the same CMF unit as me. He was a tailor and he didn’t join up when
I joined up. But later on I think he was called up and he stayed with the same unit that he had been with as the 2nd Field Squadron. And the army really didn’t recognise it, and still doesn’t recognise his efforts and
they were efforts that he was told to do, the same as I was told to do. Certain things during the army, while I was in the army. And he was to do the same way, he had, he would have got shot if he hadn’t have done it, you know, or words to that effect. But even now to this day, the
government give him nothing, virtually. Compared to what I get, with overseas service.
Was he given a hard time back then?
No I don’t think they were given a hard time, the press used to up a bit. But no, but they sent him to, around to Broome, I'm not sure
exactly why he went there. But he suffered from a war wound, which wasn’t any of his doing. But he never went out of Australia. Some clown that he was, some mate, probably one of those there. Was cleaning his rifle and didn’t clear the breach and the rifle
went off in the tent and Keith got shot in the leg. So he got a war wound and he’d never been out of Australia. I went half way around the world and never got shot, never got more than malaria. So –
It sounds like you had to be with the army to go abroad?
Oh yeah, I was prepared.
I trained to go overseas as a volunteer if necessary. And it virtually was a volunteer initially, it was only later that they brought in conscription. But all the blokes that went over to the Middle East, at least all of those, and there may have been plenty of others, at least all of those were all volunteers. I had a brother-in-law, he was a Rat of Tobruk. Another fellow that I joined up with he was in Bardia, he was shot in Bardia and boarded home because his leg was useless. And finished up with his leg in a caliper. As far as the army was concerned that was it, his leg was in calliper and you know, and he was out of the war.
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 04
Let’s talk about joining up with the AIF?
Yes, well the war had now started. It’s
been going for about three months. And we were in camp down at Torquay. Didn’t have horses with us this time we were just down there, just general training. I can’t remember anything special except that water
clarification exercise that we did down there. But apart from that there wasn’t terrible much going on. But I think there, I remember there were big bush fires at the time and we went out and helped with those. One fellow was unfortunate, the fire was within yards of his house,
so everybody raced down there and took all this stuff out of his house and put it in the middle of the road and all the stuff in the middle of the road got burnt and the house was left. It was all right, so it was a bit of problem. So we talked about the war and that sort of thing and what are you going to do. And oh yeah I think I will join up, I’m not sure when yet.
I’ll make sure it’s going to be on properly, we weren’t sure at this stage what our involvement was going to be. But as time went on and we still going to our normal weekly training sessions with the CMF. But this particular day we said, “Righto, it’s on, let’s decide now, what are we going to do?”
So 10 of us there and an officer and he said, “Well I’m going to join up on the 16th of May,” or the 20th of May whatever it was, “so if you want to join up, then I’ll ask for you to come with me.” He had to go. Officers were over there and men were over there. So didn’t want to mix them up see. So he went and joined and he put in that these
fellows that went there are to go with him. And that’s what happened, we went down, joined up at Caulfield and we had our photos taken in a row. Just been issued with ill-fitting garments like the army does. And then we spent a few days in Caulfield.
And we had some of the horse stalls to sleep in. These were race horses I am talking about now. They put a flooring in these otherwise stone floor. They put these floors and they
issued us with a palliasse, you know what a palliasse is?
What was the palliasse?
The palliasse was a straw, a hessian bag which you used to put straw into and that was your mattress. Which was lovely the first day, not so good by the second day. By the end of the week it might as well not have been there. However, you got used to that.
But we slept, otherwise it was in the open, we had a roof on it but the sides were all open. And I am talking about May, not for the weak hearted, I tell you. The weather was anything but warm. I don’t remember it being so terribly rainy at the time, but it was certainly
cold. But we had our youth, we had warm garments which the army issued us with, and greatcoats, overcoats. So we were fairly well off in that angle.
You would have lost your stripes?
Oh yeah, you join up as a reborn, reborn, but as we had training
we had all virtually went in as lance corporals. Because we knew how to drill the fellows, how to start them on their training. Some of them didn’t have clue where their left hand was. You know you had to say to them, that’s your left hand, that’s your right hand.
When they marched, they sauntered, they didn’t march, just stroll along and that had to be beefed up a bit. Then I went down to, they called for volunteers to do a special training for PE [physical education] instructors.
This is while you were based at Caulfield?
No by this time, we were only a week at Caulfield, just muck around time really, just issuing various stuff and I think we might have been inoculated there. But just to basically being inducted into the army during that time.
I remember one sergeant who was of the First World War, seeing that he did have prior training, the officials at Caulfield decided that they were going to make him camp sergeant. So he lined us all up one day and said, “Are there any drivers here?” Well driving was something that you didn’t do a lot
of before the war because hardly anyone had cars. Certainly very few young fellows had cars, some did but very few. And this sergeant lined them all up and said, “Are there any drivers?’ So I thought, oh drivers, this will be a good cop you see. So a bloke puts his, two or three of them put their hand up. “Righto, fall out, over here
see that barrow there I want you to do and sweep up all this area here and put it in the barrow.” It was a con job. But little instances like this that happened that stick out in your memory. I remember when we went into this, these stables and
we were elbow to elbow, with this bloke, you didn’t have a 10 feet space or anything, you were jammed up. So that anybody that snored, everybody heard him, you know. And this particular day, this fellow was snoring his head off. He was lying on his back, his mouth was open
he was snoring good enough to make the timbers vibrate. And I thought, “God I can’t stand this. This is terrible. I can’t sleep with this racket going on.” So there was only one way to shut him up and that’s to go and tell him to shut up. So I straggled up and up to this bloke, I think I probably had, nothing but nylon, I think I might have had underpants on, I went up to him
and shook him and said, “Hey, hey!” And he sat bolt upright and he was nearly as big as I was. When he sat up. And I said, Jesus he’s a big bugger too. And I said, “You’re snoring,” “Oh, sorry mate, sorry mate.” And everybody settled down and went back to sleep. I remember that.
The way he sat up as if somebody had shot him. And but no, we were only there for a little while. Then we were transported up to up to Puckapunyal. And there we were given the treatment of having to live in iron huts, open at both ends, cold water showers, early morning rises
which none of the fellows were particularly keen about. And it was a pretty tough life there. And but then when I went to do the physical exercise training, the job then was to come back and be physical trainer for the unit
which meant that I had to get them out and they had to do the, one, two, up down, jump around, and run around and I tell you I put them through their paces. And we knocked two blokes who had come into the army from the First World War. And they were, must have been very young when they joined up in the First World War.
And they still thought they were good enough to come into this man’s army. And I had them collapsing on their bed at half past six at night, after they had been running around first thing in the morning, jumping around like frogs. And doing all this physical training. Trying to get their muscles all set up properly and route marching
and doing all that sort of thing. But by seven o’clock at night they were knackered. And it wasn’t very long before they got their discharge early. Go! But that happened periodically right through, fellows failed for one reason or another and they were sent home, they’d send them back. They
were either crook or got into trouble, something like that.
Was there any difference in the way that city boys and country boys coped with the training and discipline?
No I want aware of any differences. Farm boys were more at ease with the, our mechanical equipments, as I say, picks and shovels, they were more at ease
with that and could handle that better than the city boys. But generally speaking they were all learning a new trade. So they all started very much on the one footing. I mean we had speciality fellows that could chop a tree down for instance. And chopping a tree down is not very easy thing if you are
talking about an 18 inch tree, its all right for a sapling. But if you want to pull down a big tree you have got to have somebody that knows what they are doing. And we had fellows, axemen from Tasmania that were good at that sort of thing. So they had special training. But they came with that, we didn’t teach them that. But otherwise
what they learnt was much the same from one to the other. Some fellows liked discipline, some didn’t like discipline. Some you didn’t have any trouble with getting them out on the parade ground and others you couldn’t find them when they were wanted. Because if you heard stories about the First World War fellows, the same story it was just a different generation but the same
scallywags were up to all the tricks if they could work them, you know. And as NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] it was our job to make sure we got our 8 bob out of them each day you know. And half of our unit was formed
here in Melbourne and the other half was formed over in Tasmania. The headquarters was in Tasmania, and that required us to move away from Puckapunyal down to Hobart to join up with the rest of the company. So that we formed the whole company then.
Were you conducting training for that unit?
No this was for the unit, you were
loosely applied to a unit until you proved you weren’t any good at it. Or you weren’t good for the unit. See some officers would come and say, “What do you think about Harry James?” “Oh, he is pretty bloody useless.” And that would be for more reason that one. He’d either be dull, basically dull,
didn’t have a clue, was uncoordinated, no I don’t want him, you can have him but I don’t want him. So he’d be rejected and he’d go back into the training battalion where he’d be shifted to another area. You know some of them were just plain dull, they were just
uneducated of any level, just, I was uneducated enough, but these fellows were far better at it than me. But yeah, they, we sent quite a few fellows back originally to the training battalion for reassignment because they just didn’t measure up to the standards, physically, mentally,
or morally in some cases. You know don’t want him, no he is bad news, get rid of him.
What do you mean by morally?
Well it was just a bad person, you know, he just had bad attitudes in all sorts of fields, it’s hard for me now to just sort of pick one out,
but they were well known in the unit at the time in the unit they were bad fellows. Bad, and they lead very well, put a name on it, a criminal life. And they showed it and they were, the –
Yeah, so we were reject them and they’d go back. Then they’d send up somebody else, this is the way it worked for about two or three months while we
were forming the unit. And everybody was settling down. Then we had a visit from the major, the head honcho from Tasmania, and he lined up the NCOs so that he could meet them one night after all the training had gone on. And after tea, all these NCOs
were lined up and most of them had been in the unit, the 2nd Field Squadron. A lot of them had. So he started off, “What did you do in civil life?” “Oh,” he said, “I was a commercial traveller.” And, “What were you?” “Oh, I was a salesman,” “And what did you do?” and it finished up out of about 12 people
he had six that had salesmanship on their records. He said, “Well if we can’t fight better than them I reckon we can talk better than them.” It was his reaction to these fellows that had come to him in an engineer unit that
had shop training.
Must have bode well?
But he as I say, all of our fellows had the basic training of engineering. The officers were the brains behind the business.
They were all engineers of varying types. Civil engineers, mechanical engineers, mostly civil engineers. So they had the scholastic ability to work out how a ridge was going to be built or what it needed to be a
certain strength. So that they could take the load that were going to be put on it. We didn’t have to worry about that, we just had to put layer upon layer and that was it. Our work was mostly in organising working parties. Because all the fellows that were in our unit were mostly a lot older than us because they were all tradesman. Most of them were tradesmen.
When we settled down to develop the unit and we were selecting fellows there were carpenters and there bridge builders and there were brick layers, and there were axemen and so on. So that if I wanted something to do a job with it wasn’t me that had to have the skills but it was you
you and you. And it was my job to nominate what they did. And that was the NCO’s job, the officers just said. “I want this done, and you are going to get that stores and we’ll do that” And from there you worked it out for yourself as to how you went about it.
So you went to Tasmania? Where was the camp?
Right in Hobart. Well when I say Hobart, it was about 20 miles outside of Hobart at a place called Brighton of all places. It was an army camp. The difference there was the sides were made of timber the walls were made of timbers. They still had, to my memory, they still
had push out type windows. I’ve got a photo of them there. They were a bit better class than Puckapunyal was, but they were also colder. And I mean cold when I say cold. It was degrees
colder than here and still is funnily enough, down there than what it is here. But we mingled in there very well, we settled in. And then they took some of our NCOs back to form another company. They bought them back here as the nucleus of another company.
And the same officer that we joined up with originally came back to form another company, the 2/16th Field Company. And one of – my best mate was given that assignment.
But they only took a few of our fellows back with them and then they formed a new lot here, in Melbourne. We used to get leave from there. Come home every six weeks or so. Spent most of the time we were over there route marching and doing just general
basic exercises. You know, bridge building was another one of the little tricks we got up to. I don’t think anything ever went over it, it was built in the back lots of an area that was small and you could get around it, there was no problem there. But the only time we
ever used what they called bell tents. It was a round tent almost like an Indian tee pee type of thing. All the other type we went into was the standard sloping roof with the walls down, when we were in tents. But over there they seemed to use these bell tents, it was all feet
to the middle. You know, and you put your palliasse around, it was a good wrestling match, we used to have some ding dong battles. you talk about this, what do they call it, tag wrestling where there is about four or five of them having a go, well there’d be six or seven of us all having a go. And the last man standing wins. I tell you we didn’t bite any ears, but
by golly it was close. We used to get stuck into one another I tell you, of course there was your prestige and I had some prestige to keep up with because I was the PE instructor. See, so I was supposed to be pretty hot stuff with the physical stuff. If somebody leant on me, I had to lean on them a lot harder. And we used to have fellows flying all over the place. I
even thumped a bloke on the Mauritania when I was going to the Middle East. He came at me in a ferocious manner and I just grabbed him by the shoulders, lay down on the floor, put my foot underneath his belly and, threw him over the top of me in the cabin. We got
rid of him, he didn’t come back for any more. But that was the sort of thing that you know you had to show your, that you were boss truckie in the place otherwise they would walk all over the top of you.
Did your reputation remain untarnished?
Yes, at one stage I remember a bloke championing for me. We were up in camp at Kew up on the Tablelands, and
it was Christmas Day and Christmas Day the officers always looked after the men. Feed the men, serve them. And there was lots of grog about and this fellow for some reason, I never did know why, but he took a dislike to me, I think he disliked most NCOs.
And he took a violent dislike to me and he came charging at me as if there was no tomorrow, and I thought, “Oh, here we go.” But before he could reach me and one of his mates saw him with his eyes flaring and he saw what was on and he intercepted him. And controlled him, so I didn’t have to have that, but he was coming at me like a mad bull.
But I didn’t have to do anything, so it was all right. But this fellow stood there as my champion sort of thing. I was quite grateful, quite pleased about it. Occasionally that sort of thing happened but not often. The NCOs and men mostly knew that the NCOs had a job to do and as
long as there wasn’t any real cause for fighting, you know, amongst yourselves, well there wasn’t much point to it. We had regular bouts of boxing, you know, we’d make a ring up and it was all Queensbury rules sort of thing you know. With
gloves and umpires and referees and things. But there wasn’t much bickering amongst the men.
Did much betting go on?
Betting? We had one fellow who was, who did all the betting. He ran the two-up schools.
And it was rather strange, he was a Tasmanian and he had control without anybody arguing, he ran the schools. “Is there going to be a school tonight?” “No, no school tonight.” “School tomorrow night?” “Yeah, there will be one tomorrow night,” on a Saturday. And he would run them. And he
ran them from the time we went from Tasmania over to the Middle East and up to New Guinea. And back onto the Tablelands. And then one day he came out and he said, “Right that’s it, I’m not going to run the school any more, that’s it, I’ve got what I wanted out of it.” And what he wanted out of it was a house.
So these clowns that had been putting all their money into these two up schools had built his house for him. So that was the end of it, he didn’t want any more of it. I don’t recall it ever starting up again strangely enough, I don’t, but that was getting towards the end of the war, on the Tablelands.
Still in Brighton, how did the Tasmanians and mainlanders fit in together?
Quite well, no problems. No problems at all. It was in the various messes, everybody knew you were Victorian or you were Tasmanian. But that was it, there was no, “I’m a Victorian, I’m better than you are,” sort of thing. You know none of that.
Everybody fitted in quite well. Never any problem at all. Oh there might have been an odd case and it would be unusual if it wasn’t but I don’t recall any. I mean sometimes you were quite good to the Tasmanian. I remember
I was on picket duty, this was guard duty on this particular day and night, 24 hour duty it was. And the guard house had couple of cells in it to put naughty boys in it who went AWOL [AWL – Absent Without Leave], which wasn’t terribly frowned upon but, had to be
disciplined. And the break, the boredom the various guard officers or NCOs used to allow these fellows to come out and wash up the dishes and sweep the floor. Just give them something to do rather than just bored to tears sitting in a cell you see. And this particular day I am on duty as the sergeant of the guard. And
this peanut came out to do his usual jobs. And then all of a sudden, “Where’s Harry, I haven’t seen Harry?” Harry had taken off, he had gone home for the weekend. Well there was all sorts of hell, I mean it had to be reported, there was no way you could cover it up. Because you didn’t know whether he was going to come back or not, whether he was gone forever and all of a sudden you got
a bloke missing, where is he, did you shoot him? Sort of thing the MPs [military police] weren’t very long before they had him under control and brought him back. But I got a demerit mark because I was in charge, it was my fault. And you got, whoever, you know, the old story, where the buck stops, if you are in charge, that’s where it
stops. And they used to get up to all sorts of tricks to get out of there. But this fellow was just taking the rubbish out in the normal way. And away he went. And that caused me the loss of a stripe as a matter of fact, instead of being made
staff sergeant, no I was to be made sergeant, I was what they called lance sergeant at the time, that an unpaid sergeant, he’s still a corporal, but he’s an unpaid sergeant. Allowed to put up three stripes. And I was put back to –
I was due for promotion and they didn’t give me the promotion I should have had so I virtually lost the stripe. That’s what it amounted to. Anyway that was just another little episode that happened.
What were your other responsibilities in that position? Were you responsible for a section?
I was responsible for a sub section initially. Then there was a, that’s as a corporal. The sergeant would be in charge of say three or four sections and then staff sergeant would be looking after the whole lot of them. Staff sergeant of course is top dog apart from a warrant officer who
is the next in line. The company sergeant major, who is the warrant officer. Next to him would be, on top of him would be regimental sergeant major. Who was gradually expanding his area of control. And then
you came onto the officers from the lieutenant upwards. But a lot of our work was administrative, you know, checking up who’s who and where’s where and who’s no here and why isn’t he here, and is he in hospital or is he AWOL. Something like that as well as your
normal duties of instructing. You were supposed to learn it tonight and teach it tomorrow in lots of cases. Particularly when we started to learn about Jap mines which we hadn’t seen any of. Well we had to quickly learn about them. And then you’d go out the next day and say well this is, I’d like you to come up here. And you had to try to tell them that as if you
knew what you were talking about. It’s mostly they couldn’t care less anyway. It’s a good day to be out in the open, lie back and enjoy the sunshine. Pretty relaxed really.
By the time you were getting ready for the Middle East, were the tools the same or had mechanisation taken place?
Oh no, there was no mechanisation
at all. Well they left the horses behind, we got cars, we got trucks. And we got utilities. We had at our disposal – we had a 13-hundredweight truck to our subsection. And I had a driver who was assigned to drive that truck. And he was the only one that drove it.
I had been the corporal, got to sit on the soft seat next to him. The blokes in the back sat on forms or the like. They were attached to the side, faced each other inwardly. So it was pretty basic again. It was all open. The front cabin
of course had doors and windows but the back was only a canvas top and it sucked in all the dust as you went along. Start with white fellows and you finished up with red Indians because particularly up in the north, New South Wales and Northern Territory, horrible place for dust up there.
End of tape
Interviewee: But –
Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 05
To the day we landed, right across the Owen Stanleys to Lae. In 12 months to the day we got on the boat and came away from there. And I never saw a Jap there dead or alive. You know you speak to other people that were in New Guinea and it was all shot and soil and mud and, we had plenty of mud. But
it was a different world altogether to where we were.
At Brighton, at what point did you know you would have a posting?
Oh well we were pretty much
on the war footing from the time we got to, I think, I man… As NCOs we got little feedback from the officers. They knew it all, we only got what they wanted to tell us. But I think in light on events that our marching orders were pretty well defined as soon as we
got to mix up with the full company, to have a full company. Because remember they got their organised boats. And everything else and from the time we were there which was, some time about, must have been near Christmas time
and within about three months we were gone, we were out of it. So we had to train, come back here for a couple of leaves, go back there, form up all together, come over on the boat, the whole company. And get on the boat here to go over to the Middle East. So from the time we landed our destiny had been decided really
at that stage, they’d have to otherwise, the planning that would have to go into moving a body of men like they were going to, they wouldn’t do it in five days, you know. They’d have to have a long time, months to work it out. So I think that’s what happened.
So you knew?
Well were pretty sure when we went over there that we were going to go overseas. Just exactly
when, we didn’t know but we were sure we were going, no doubt in any bloke’s mind about that.
How much notice were you given?
Well, the real notice came when we were told that we would be going on final leave. This was probably a month before we actually sailed. Because we had to get packed up from there
get across to here, get organised here and quite frankly, I can’t remember just where we landed, I know we came back to Melbourne, just where we got to after that for a month or two I don’t remember until we got on the boat. So
Can you give me an idea of exactly what you
imagined your role would be, in going to the Middle East?
No definite role except to be an engineer to do what we were told to do, when we were told to do it. For the higher ups that might tell us. But we had no information that in a month’s time or three months time we would be at a certain
area at a certain time, I don’t think they knew themselves. See when we left here on the Mauritania we went to India and got off the Mauritania got onto the little steamer called the Khedive Ismail. And went to Port Taufiq, which is in the Red Sea.
And across the bridge, I think we walked cross the bridge, did anything else and got on the train which took us to where our camp was some few hours up the road on the train which was blacked out. It was a pretty eerie experience, as a matter of fact, because everything was dimmed out, the lights were dim
and the shutters were up on the windows so you couldn’t see out of the windows at all, you weren’t allowed to show any light in those days.
Tel me about the journey on the Mauritania?
Well the Mauritania as you know was a beautiful tourist boat. It was one of the largest available at the time. I wouldn’t know how many thousands of people it would carry at
the best of times. And they put a few more thousands in when they were cramming troops in. There was a lot of troops on board. We were lucky because I think it was the first trip that the Mauritania had done and in the army you have other ranks as a mess,
as a mingling area. I think it was called a mess because it was always in a mess. But the officers also had mess and the NCOs had a mess, but in the engineers, corporals and above
were allowed into the sergeants’ mess. Now in infantry battalion that doesn’t happen because they have got a lot of sergeants in infantry battalion. But in the field companies there is not many sergeants, so to build up the numbers, they allow corporals to come in. So the men had their mess downstairs and the NCOs had their mess
upstairs which was the first sitting in the same mess that the officers used. Understand? So we went in there and sat down and the table was as if you’re paying 5000 pound a trip. It was all set up exactly the same with the same waiters, all the staff
was there exactly the same. We had the waiter coming to us with his napkin across his arm here. And what would you like and it was an a la carte menu, have what you like. And when we had finished with that the officers would then come in about 8 o’clock and have their dinner, which was under the same rule that we had. So it was a pretty
nice sort of set up I tell you, as far as the NCOs were concerned. The downstairs where the ORs [other ranks] were, other ranks, they just had ordinary fare. And you know 15 to a table sort of thing. And in sittings, I wouldn’t know how many numbers because I wasn’t down there. But they would have to sit so many at this sitting and so many
at that sitting and so many at that sitting, and then clean them out and get the next lot, you know, to get them all fed. But our facilities were plush. I had a two berth cabin with another sergeant, with a porthole. You try and buy that, you know, it was just fantastic, that was where I threw the bloke over my head that
I told you about earlier.
Tell us why you did throw him over?
Well we got into some sort of scuffle as was the case. It was no ill intent. It was boyish play I suppose you could say, nothing much more than that. But everybody would try to get at me because I was the PT [physical training] instructor
and if they really wanted to flex their muscles they came to see me, sort of thing. And this fellow thought he was going to take me off, well I always had one policy. And that is that if you are going to do it, you do it quickly and you do it fast and you don’t have any arguments at all. You don’t pussy foot around, if you are going to punch a bloke you don’t punch the front of his head you punch
the back of his head, you go through. And I did this when he came at me and I just grabbed him by the shoulders, fell back, put my foot in his face, in his chest, and just threw him over, it’s a known karate type martial art type of thing. But he just went flying through the air, landed on his back.
So that was a lot of fun. And we had to amuse the troops and they needed some amusing we had boxing and wrestling competitions. And again I was holding back, “No I don’t want to be in that,” “Oh come on, you’re the PT sergeant, get in there and show us what you can do.”
I got in there and I showed them what I could do but unfortunately when I came out of the ring, I won my bout but I never got back in the ring again, I was like this for about three days, the bloke had really crunched me. But I’d beaten him anyway so that didn’t matter I was, I had done my part, that was it. I couldn’t move for the next three days. I wrecked my
neck out of gear, like this you know. Dreadful.
How many troops were on the ship?
Thousands. I don’t know numbers, never did know, not that I have forgotten, but there were thousands. And it would take I don’t know how many, but I would say a minimum to make it pay would have to be in peace time at least 1200 to 1500 guests.
So they were treble that at least so there would be 4000 or 5000 troops on board I would say. And with that convoy, it went with New Zealand which was another big ship. The Queen Mary, the Aquitania, and the Mauritania, all big ships. All with troops on, some from
New Zealand I think, the New Zealand boat named that, New Zealand I don’t know whether it was E-E-L-A-N-D I wouldn’t be sure, but any way four big ships. And we had one escort cruiser type boat to escort us over the Indian ocean. Which is a big, big, big
ocean and again we were in the fortunate party because who ever was on the Queen Mary halfway across the Indian Ocean it diverted
that a way, we were going that way, and they went that a way. And they had been leading the convoy, they steam right round, came right round to the back of us and then came up on the other side of us at 30 k’s an hour, or probably in those days it would have been 30 miles an hour. Or 30 knots an hour which is
faster still. If you have ever seen the earth move, that’s what happened, the earth moved because it’s such a huge boat. And it come up quite close to us so that we could all watch over them, ta ta. There were so many fellows on the boat on one side to wave them off that the Mauritania actually took a list like
this, so many blokes were all on the one side, it made a difference. And they went off to Malaya, and of course most of them never came back. They were caught up in Malaya and Java and places like that. That was the first time, we didn’t go there.
This was 1941?
This is 1941, I’d say yeah. I joined up in 1940, this was
early 1941, yeah, early 1941 it would have been. We’d have leave and then we went to Bombay where we stayed one day. We had leave on that day to go
sight seeing around the town. Again that was quite an experience because we had never struck anything like that. By what we found there by way of poverty you know, never seen anything like it. People sleeping in the street, sleeping over drain holes for warmth. At night time it gets
very cold there. And drain holes in the road, there would be heat coming up out from down below for what reason I wouldn’t know but there was heat coming through, you could see the vapour coming up and people would be lying on top of it. In an effort to get warm, you know these are things we had never struck. But they were quite an eye opener. We went and saw places like the Gateway to India and so forth while we were there, and went and saw certain other places
that we shouldn’t have been at, and had a look at that and turned away because they weren’t that crash hot either. They were the naughty houses and they were like animals in there, in cages, these girls sitting in behind iron bars like you’d see a
animal out in the zoo here, you know, turns you off a bit. Then we got on the Khedive Ismail and there again we had, because we were sergeants we had preferential treatment and again I had this same bloke with me, two bunk cabin. And
knock on the door, “Yes,” “Your tea sir,” First thing in the morning. This waiter would arrive with tea for two. It was a great war to go to I tell you. So far it was lovely stuff.
So you got on the second ship at Bombay?
The Key Dive Ismail.
Don’t ask me to spell it, ‘Ismail’ was Ismail. I know that ‘Key dive’ was Khedive, I think, Khedive. It was later sunk in the Mediterranean, I heard. Through enemy fire they just bombarded it to the bottom.
So then it was only a day or two, that’s all we were on that boat. And we got off at Port Taufiq which is the southern end of the Suez Canal and from there we went up to our camp which was,
I’m not sure how many miles, it was called Hill 69. That was our camp and we had to make it our camp. We had tents, put them up, we had to build slit trenches in case somebody started to fire at us, a slit trench is a pit that you make big enough to get into so that you are
below ground level and a (UNCLEAR) hole it might be called. One fellow digging this hole he found that he had a pile of earth that he dug out, there, he dug it out from there and tossed it up there. And he’d been told that you mustn’t have piles of
newly dug earth showing because enemy aircraft could pick that up as something foreign to the surrounding area. And know instantly what that was and to take it advantage of that. So he said to the sergeant and this is fact if I never move of this chair, “What will I do with this soil?” and the sergeant says, “Paddy, you’ll just have to dig another hole to bury it.”
And that’s a fact, Paddy wasn’t terribly bright, Paddy was the sort of thing that shot at a target and hit the ground 15 feet in front of it you know. He was a broad Irishman he was, but he had plenty of brawn, he was a concreter. He had plenty of muscle, but that’s about all he had, poor old Paddy.
What were you seeing in the way of military presence on your journey?
Nothing, nothing. All the action was up that end and in Cairo and further to the west. We were in the extreme east.
And you still had the cruiser with you?
We had plenty of people waving to us and saying, “Hurrah, hurrah!” who later on when we were going like that. It’s a fact you know but while we were coming there they were all pleased to see us. But it wasn’t masses of military gear at all,
What about shipping?
Plenty of shipping about. Plenty of shipping about but not necessarily to do with the war because it’s a great port as you know. So it takes a lot of traffic from all over the world there. But we briefly saw it in the moonlight almost. And then we were away on the train and up to Hill 69.
How far was that?
I don’t know exactly, I’d say 100 miles. Not terribly far.
So a day’s travelling?
A night’s travelling I would say yes. I’d have to have a map to give you a better idea on that, but it wasn’t a long journey.
We were off loaded the next morning and then we started to put up our tents in Hill 69. And we were there until the start of the, what’s became known as the Syrian campaign. We weren’t too sure who we were fighting at this stage.
We did come to the conclusion that ultimately we were fighting the Vichy French. The French that were, had aligned themselves to Hitler which were half the population going this way and half the population going that way. But I think that whole campaign only lasted about 21 days.
The actual fighting, shooting part of it. Then they gave up, they were taken prisoners, if they couldn’t escape any other way. And then we went about our own works doing, we went up to Aleppo. We were stationed in Aleppo for a while. And then we went up
from through the Caribaba tunnel and our job was to mine the tunnel so that should the Germans make a pincer movement coming around from the north to the east and south, whereas the other Germans were coming through Africa and
if they – the thought was that they might come one way around Africa and the other one through Turkey, that they could form a pincer and wipe up out completely. So we had to mine this tunnel so that it would be blown up should the occasion arise. Fortunately we didn’t ever do that.
You moved onto Syria via Beirut?
Beirut yes, spent a few days in Beirut. We had leave, used to have leave in Beirut.
You had leave from Hill 69?
How long were you at Hill 69 for?
Two or three months probably. Didn’t think much about that, it was just another day at the time. But I would say two or three months.
Were you training?
Yes, we were training we were building roads through things like olive groves, we would
build roads. And we would organise the building of the roads, the native population would do the actual building. And the idea was we might want to use those trees as camouflage for guns but we couldn’t get them in over the normal ground so we had to provide them with a road. And
they used the method known as macadam road and where we would build a macadam road by putting large stones and finer stones and finer stones and finer stones, they didn’t have those facilities. So the workmen that we had used to have delivered to them stones that would be
that wide, that high and about that thick. And they would place each one of those stones and tap them with a hammer so that they were all level. Almost like putting down a mosaic. And then on top of that they would fill all the gaps in if there were any,
and there were some. Finer stones and then over the top of that with a finer grain of stone again. But the hand placing of all of these rocks, you’ve got no idea. It was a mammoth job, and but they just went about it, it was days’ work, there wasn’t much else for them to day’s work at, you know. So they enjoyed doing it
because it was – it wasn’t hard work, it was relatively easy work. And we had to do was supervise, from point A to Point B this wide, do it. And that was it. But that was our main work doing there. Some of the other troops had other jobs to do. At one stage we had to
do I think they really wanted to get us out of their hair. And they sent us on reconnaissance work. In the trucks to find out and map where all the watering points were in the area. It didn’t matter if it was a well or a sump or a river, wherever there was water we had to put it down on a map. So that anybody else coming
along later could say that, oh well, that’s where we will find some water. And a lot of them were really just wells from olden days, that had been there for centuries. Put the bucket down type wells, you know, and bring up some water. I remember one well,
it was on the top of a old fortress building it was up God knows how many feet higher than the surrounding town, hundreds of feet, and there as a fort on the top an old castle sort of arrangement and they even had water in holes up there. How it got there, I wouldn’t know whether it came off natural water and just stayed there or not I don’t know.
But that was one of those jobs we had to do, we covered miles of the whole area. And some it was beautiful country, beautiful country, and hilly and got some photos there and I’ve made a remark alongside the photo that these are not aerial photos they were taken from the truck, but they look like aerial photos they are so high. Looking down across the valley, you know,
you think you are in a plane, beautiful country there. And of course we went up to Aleppo from there.
Tell me a bit about Beirut?
Beirut, well when we were in Beirut, it was unspoiled. It hardly had a machine gun mark
on it. Now if you look at it, it’s just a wreck. The whole place has been blown to pieces. But it was a modern city by any standards. Plenty of shops and hotels and things of that nature. To say it was like St Kilda would be putting it down because
it was better than St Kilda, better overall look to it with the nice buildings that were there. And we enjoyed ourselves there, we had leave, there were pictures to go and see, there was shops, gift shops, you know, had a nice experience there.
But that’s only a personal thing, I don’t think you’d want to hear about that.
In a gift shop?
In a gift shop yeah. Well I, girls were pretty short on this stage of the game. And we were all pretty healthy young blokes, as you know, 21, 22. And I was in buying some, in fact, they are up
there, little elephants. I was in buying those things to send home to Mum. And after I had bought them I said to this girl, I said, “Would you like to come out with me tonight?” and she said, “No, no, I can’t do that,” looking around as if to say, “Don’t let anybody hear you saying that.”
So I didn’t think much about it, I just walked out of the shop and two or three of us were there together. We were still looking at the goods in the shop window. And she came rushing out and she said, “I will meet you.” At a certain place and took a deep breath, you know. And so we were due to meet, I was at the appointed spot and she
arrived in a taxi. And we sat down by the bank of some sort of a canal or, it reminded me very much of the Elwood Canal in so much as it had concrete walls to it and sloping banks of earth and grass. And we sat down there and it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
And I wasn’t very experienced with woman at all, I hadn’t had much experience with women. I’d been very much a blokey type fellow.
Had you had a girlfriend?
Oh, casual acquaintances. You know nothing serious, of anything serious type, girlfriends I might have met at a dance and taken her out once and not
gone back there again, but nothing serious. And I really didn’t know what to do with this girl. And sitting on the banks and it was quite secluded place really. Anyway the time came and it got dark and she had arranged for the taxi to come back at half past six or something like that. And that was half past six and I took her back to where she was supposed to be. And she
said, “Look come with me I’ll give you a lift back into town.” So I got in this taxi and he was a madman. He went down all the little streets that you can think of that were lane size as far as we were concerned, and he was doing, he must have been doing nothing less than 40 miles an hour down these, and he knew them and he probably knew there wasn’t going to be anybody there to stop him.
Moving down there. And then this lass came at me, and she was all over me like a rash. And I thought, you bitch, you know. But nothing happened?
Why did you react like that?
Well have you ever tried to get friendly with anybody doing 40 miles an hour down
a narrow street. I mean there is just some things you can’t do. She was making up her mind she was going to have a go at it. And she didn’t get anywhere. So I went home a bit sorrier than when I started. But I was the envy of all the blokes, but they never knew what had happened, that nothing had happened, absolutely nothing. So her
virtue was intact, so she could go back, so.
Did she speak English?
Oh yes, beautiful English, oh yes. But there were a lot of soldiers around and girls that were known to go out with soldiers were a little bit frowned on, you know, fathers were not best pleased. If you get my drift.
So she had snuck out to see you?
She had snuck out
definitely, yeah no question about that at all, very hush, hush and secret. As far as she was concerned. She came, I had to be there but she came in a taxi and the taxi was instructed to come back at a certain time. And you know, but there was another incident not far removed form that. When we were in Aleppo and we brought all our supplies, food wise, from the local market.
And it was one man’s job, the quartermaster to go and buy the goods. Lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, what ever he was needed to fill his requirements for the troops. So it was very off, usual thing for them to get fairly friendly
between the solider and the seller. And he was the local man. But this lieutenant so shall remain nameless, basically because I never did know his name. He went, he asked this fellow could he take his daughter out. He had seen his daughter working in the area. And she was quite a nice lass.
And the father was so pleased, oh, wonderful to think that his daughter was going to go out with an Australian Army officer, with the greatest of pleasure. So the date was set up and he arrived at the prescribed time to pick this girl up, take her to the pictures I think. And while
the girl was getting her coat on or whatever she was doing, the father came into the front hallway and pulled down his coat off the hall stand and started to put it on. And the lieutenant said, “Oh, you are going out too?” And he said, “Yes, we are coming with you.” So he had to escort mother and father and daughter.
His father wasn’t letting him out with it, the army officer. So it wasn’t all bad things you know. As far as we were concerned we reckoned we were the lucky country. We had all the luck in the world. Well we did because A, we missed going to Malaya. Now when we were coming back from the Middle East, I suppose I am
jumping a little bit here. We were half way again home, when somebody comes and says, “What company are you with?” “We are the 2/9th Field Company.” “But you are not supposed to be here, you are supposed to be on your way to Malaya, to Java. I suppose we can’t do much about it now.” Now those blokes went to Malaya and they got off the boat straight into …
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 06
I'm curious about how the military people interacted with the local people?
Well we did, we fitted in. We were accepted, I think that’s the word accepted. No dislike or like, just accepted, right throughout the civilian population. Things seemed to go on around us wherever we were, you know, the world didn’t stop because we
were there, every body went about their business. The shops opened. Admittedly they weren’t shooting at the shops but you know, they just, the company was split up doing various jobs. And I can’t tell you what they were doing because I wasn’t there. I can only tell you what we were doing.
And we were, after we left the camp at Aleppo we went up to the Carababa tunnel. I think I have got that name right, and it’s right on the Turkish Syrian border. And the seasons there when we were there, and I am saying when we were there, not saying it happens every year. It went from
summer to winter overnight. One day it was stinking hot and the next day it was snowing, and it never got stinking hot again, it just stayed cold, all the time. Until there was snow and we were in tents. And sometimes the snow was that heavy that it would collapse the tents.
Our bully beef which we were fed on which is a tin camp pie type meat, corned beef. Set in an aspic jelly, which if the chef puts it out and tells you it’s good well it must be. But it’s pretty hard stuff to eat and under the conditions
that we were in we got blocks of ice, there wasn’t any ice chests around or refrigerators but the temperature was so cold that those tins of bully beef had to be boiled before, nearly boiled before you could eat them, get near them because they were just like blocks of ice, hard.
And yeah it was pretty rugged and the work that the fellows were doing, myself not included, I didn’t work terribly hard, my job was organising. I was a reasonably good organiser. So that I didn’t have to work, but these fellows had to go into this tunnel
go into a tunnel, railway tunnel and they went in in three or four places, that a way into the side of the tunnel. And having gone in there about 10 feet or so they had to go that a way, like a T, so they finished up with a T. So the idea was that you’d fill the end
of that T up with explosives, you fill up all this other part so that the explosion just didn’t follow the T back. It had nowhere to go, so it just blew the tunnel, and the tunnel would collapse and the train line would be of no further use and if anybody came to repair it our guns where there to make sure
they didn’t repair it. So that was our job to do this. Well we had jackhammers, compressors, things of that nature to help do it. But a lot of it was done by hand. Again there wasn’t very many of these jackhammers that you could use. And then in the very confined spaces of working it was pretty hard yakka, believe me.
But that was the idea of it was to stop any pincer movement of troops using the German troops using the railway line to bring their supplies down.
So the engineering of something like that, were you involved in the design?
No, well the officers might. I wasn’t privy to that sort of information but obviously it would come from high up, right higher up, gotta watch that part, cover that, so the word would then filter down to our
unit and our officer would get the order to mine that tunnel. Then it would be his job to design how he was going to mine it then it was our men’s job, so you can see the chain of command coming down all the way. Until you get to the end of the shovel and that’s where our blokes were, to dig a hole big enough to climb into and out of you know.
The hole was that big?
Oh yes, the hole they would dig would be the size of that table, in front on, you put that table up against that wall, it would be that size and they would have to go in. And sometimes you’d strike pretty hard clay ground. That had to be dug out and had to use mining
picks which are one sided picks, a mining pick. An ordinary pick’s got two edges to it, a mining pick only goes there and the handle is there, so you can chip, chip, chip away. It’s what they use up at Coober Pedy and the like. But sometimes they would come up against something that was harder and they would use gelignite and blow it
to pieces, calculated to crack it without blowing everything up. You know miners can do this, they can crack a stone if they want to with, and knowing that that much gelignite will crack that stone open. And you’d hardly get a splash around, it
it will just go boom, and the whole thing would go. Whereas if I put it in, I might put a whole plug in and blow the rocks to the scheisen [shit] house as somebody once said. A miner can blow that just enough to make it handle-able. They worked shift work on that job.
When you say miners, what do you mean?
Our blokes working as miners yeah. Sometimes you might have one fellow with actual experience in mining and he would instruct the other fellows, “Now this is what you do, it’s only hard work, so get to it.” You know, and he would do all that sort of thing.
So you used gelignite to assist?
In breaking it up?
What sort of explosives where they using in the event they would have to press the button?
Gelignite was the main source of, of that sort of work. But there were other things, types of explosives that we used if we wanting to say cut through steel, or
blow something else up, you might use gun powder. Depends on what sort of job you’ve got to do, just what sort of explosives you would use. Gelignite was the one favours mostly though. The other was TNT [trinitrotoluene] blocks about oh, about half the size of a
brick, just in blocks, hard blocks. And you’d put 10 of those together you’d get yourself a man sized bang. You could use that to cut steel with, cut through girders, its got a sharp bang, whereas some of the others have an explosive that blows out like that. But with the TNT it would go bang
like that, it’s a sharp bang, rather than a boom. But they would use gelignite on that situation, they would hammer and tap a hole, if they didn’t have a use of a drill pneumatic drill, they would have this drill which they would hammer
hammer, twist, hammer, twist, hammer, a very slow process. That s the same thing that happens with these jack hammers you see out on the road. But they are going, brrrr, like that, whereas a hammer and tack, it’s the same action, only it’s done by hand. And the hand keeps twisting it with the jackhammer, the
mechanism is twisting it the same time as the hammer coming down and forcing it around.
What was the tunnel constructed out of?
To the best of my knowledge the outer coating of it was brick work of some sort.
Could have been blue stone, volcanic blue stone the same as we use for gutters and things like that, that type of rock, although that’s only a skin to hold the earth back. Once we pulled that out of the way we were straight into the earth.
Can you tell me again what the purpose of this was?
Well, the purpose of
mining the tunnel, it was feared amongst the hierarchy that Rommel would come through Africa, through El Alamein, Tobruk, Bardia, Alexandra, Cairo and then some
another force would come through, German force would come through Turkey, Austria and Turkey, and come down through Palestine and across that way so that you had two trips in what they call a pincer movement. And everything that gets in the middle gets crushed, it’s as simple as that. And they
were frightened that that might happen, it never did happen. One, a lot of things didn’t happen with us. It didn’t happen because Rommel was stopped by partly the Americans coming into the war at that stage, the Australians were there at Tobruk. They caused quite a headache for Rommel. And
things at home weren’t working out exactly as they wanted it in Germany. And so that part of it never came off either. So although we mined the tunnel it was never used. We mined other bridges, I was given a job, what time was it I was told that
some time like four o’clock in an afternoon, one afternoon, I had to go to a place which was hours away by truck. And we had one full day to mine this bridge to
have it ready to blow up in case troops came around that way, which they never did. We had to arrive in the middle of this town, there was no lights no street signs. But I had to find where the stores dump was to get stores to use to do the work.
And our fellows worked through the early parts of the morning when we got there, day break sort of thing. Right through till the next morning without a stop, without much to eat and very little to drink, until they got the job done. To mine this thing ready for blowing. One fellow was so thirsty he said, “Thank God
we’ve got some water,” and he opened it and it just happened that it was a petrol tin and he took gulps of this petrol and he was a very sick boy for days. We fed him all sorts of milk and cheese and everything to try and soak it up, but he took it right down into his guts. And he was very sick boy I tell you, for days after. I was
so tired I had positioned myself in a gutter off the side of the road. Using it like I was telling you about a weapon pit. Sort of thing that the sides of the road, and I would be down below level. The place had all been mined
the, all the explosives and the detonators were all in place and I was the NCO in charge of the exploder which was a electrical device that you’ve seen probably on TV and that, they push the handle down
and everything blows up because when you push the handle down it creates an electric current, instant, you don’t have to rely on mains power or anything like this. And I was lying in this gutter with my hand on the top of this handle and all it had to do was to push it down and the whole place would blow up. And
as the day goes on and I got sleepier and tired, until I went to sleep. And one of our officers came around and I was sleeping on the job. Naughty boy, you shouldn’t do that. But he understood the situation and knew what it was all about, but he did kick me off I must admit.
I didn’t go any further than that.
So you didn’t have to push the plunger down?
I didn’t have to no, as I say, I was ready to, if I got the signal, if I had got the signal to blow it all I had to do was to push that handle down and the whole bridge would have blown up.
What kind of attack was expected?
Motorised vehicles of some sort, probably tanks and the like.
That was never fully explained just what sort of a force it was that was going to comedown that road. Sufficient to say that you had to ready to blow it if you were given the word to blow it. You might blow it 10 minutes before they got there, might blow it two hours before they got there. Nobody would know until somebody else said the word. But we were absolutely
well more than out on our feet, really, we were literally just going to sleep standing up you know. I have a smell that I recall that place, because during the night, early morning as we arrived there the dew was coming up off the ground. And I had
probably it was a market garden somewhere near that had celery growing and the smell of the celery was coming up and that smell now, if I pick up a bunch of celery I get that smell. And it reminds me of that place. But it never happened, as I say lots of
things never happened. We were.
Prior to that you had been in Syria, what had you been doing in that campaign?
We were doing earth works. Making areas easier to access
by way of road building and that sort of thing, mainly our feature at that stage. We had one experience where we watched almost like a picture in front of us, we were up on the road here; we were looking over a big valley to the rise on the other side. And our fellows were all down here. And we could see the
enemy coming down this hill, in line, coming down and down and down. Getting closer and closer and we were way back here, miles away but looking over this scene. And then our blokes started to move up the hill. And then these fellows that were coming down, down, down, started to go back, back, back. Until they
pushed them right over, and we just sat there and watched it as if it was a football match, amazing. You’d see fellows fall over, you know, and some of them got up and some of them didn’t. But it was a strictly an infantry operation that one, there wasn’t many big firing or massive guns like that, just
the infantrymen on both sides.
So no artillery?
No, no, none to be seen anyway, not to my memory. But I can remember these troops coming down over the hill and then our blokes chasing them back up there again. So that must have had, you would have thought the ones up top would have had the better position, the higher
position, but our blokes chased them back up there. And what else did we do there?
Did you have to do any preparation for that?
Not for them, no. No, we were not fighting troops.
But you were attached to an infantry company where you?
Only in a vague way, yeah. At that point, later on our job was
working with the tanks. Making sure they were, there were no mines in their way, we were to find any mines, supposed to. Find any mines. But at that stage our – most of our work was pick and shovel work, put it that way.
Where were you based in Syria?
In Aleppo, in Aleppo. That was only the base camp, then we moved up further up to the Caribaba tunnel. And we were sort of something quite separate. There were either bridges that we were working on too. One huge
bridge, massive length of bridge over a very deep gorge. And we had blokes on that guarding it to make sure nobody got at it. We didn’t want that blown up in our face. Sometimes the native population
would come and fraternise, you know. And, “How much to you want for that George? I’ll buy this from you George, or have you got that, George?” And they would trade with whatever they had, our main thing of trade was, was kerosene. Because kerosene was pretty hard to get it for the lamps. But we seemed to be able to have any amount of –
so this particular day the native population struggled up this huge ravine, to where our fellows were. And they said we’ll bring you some oranges and apples and stuff, you give me, it was mostly done by sign language, nobody could speak the other’s language.
You give us kerosene. So a bloke said, “Yeah, righto we’ll give ’em kerosene.” So a couple of days later they came back to pick up the kerosene and, “Here you are good Kerosene George, smell that kerosene.” It had about that much kerosene floating on the top of the water.
Our blokes, they didn’t have any pride at all. But they accepted all these goods that the other people brought, It was just one of those AIF stories that you hear about, you know, it was still happening even in those days. I don’t know how they got out of that.
The story really ended there. I don’t think they came back for any more. They didn’t bother about bringing more goods up to get more kerosene. They found it was dud so they realised they had been put on. That was the last we saw of them. But that was, I’ve got photos of that too.
What goods were you interested in getting off the local people?
Well it was food. Apples, oranges, whatever. You know, what ever they had
by way of local produce, our blokes didn’t have any of it, they were down to the basics of bully beef and biscuits, that was their ration. So any fresh fruit or anything like that was highly sought after. The fact that they conned the native population is for their conscience.
Most of them are dead now anyway. But they were some of the tricks they used to get up to. Put a beer bottle you know with a cork in it, put a bit of kerosene on the top, all smelt like kerosene.
Were there any reprisals?
No, we weren’t there long enough I don’t think,
but the native population said well, don’t go back up there again, they are thieves and vagabonds. And so it would have been a long way for them to come up that hill, the gorge. A long tortuous trek to get up there and then to be dudded, it wasn’t very nice of them at all.
This is where you were?
No they were another section of our crowd. Had nothing to do with me really, but I, they were, I had a section, they were another section, and we were working in different parts. But the stories came back, so. You know they thought it was great joke, hell of a joke.
I said, “You rotten animals.” Yeah so that’s – we didn’t do much more in Syria, then we got the word to come home.
How did you receive your brief and
how did that tie in with the strategy of the Allies?
Well yes, that’s what happened, we were there, as a part of the while in so much as that our job was to mine the tunnels so that it couldn’t be used, if necessary.
That was our strategy, that was what we had to do. And it would have been a great success had not Rommel been knocked back, if he had come forward, and they had brought their troops down from Austria or somewhere that they might have had then, and brought them down in this pincer movement
then all our work would have been used, as it was it didn’t happen, so we just did the work but it never really had any influence on anybody.
But the other work you were doing in Syria? You were there for months?
Oh yes, well this job took up quite a while we were on that, it wasn’t a fly by night thing we had
all, oh we must have been there at least a month or more in this one position. Then you’d move back, a lot of boredom, you know you’d move back to the main party and you would have no work to do because nobody had given you any work to do.
At all, you know, or you might get some mundane sort of job that nobody else wants. And it wouldn’t be worth recording sort of thing, you know. You don’t even think about it.
Can you give an example of one of those mundane jobs?
Well one that I spoke about a while ago was go out and reconnaissance the area. For
water, we saw it as a great waste of time and energy, because we felt nobody is going to use this knowledge, who would use it? Only if you were fighting the fight up to the hilt would you want to know that information. But some bigwig in headquarters probably said we’d like to know where all the water is so that
if we do need it, we’ll have that knowledge up our sleeve and we can use it. No good thinking about it afterwards, no good waiting until the troops get in the area and think, oh yes, we didn't think about water, that’s a funny thing. So they’ve got to work on these sort of things well ahead. Somebody has got to have the forethought to pre-empt what might happen. And that what
we seemed to be doing most of the time, trying to pre-empt what might happen. So that we were prepared like the boy scout. You know. But trying to think of something else we did there I can’t think of anything else we did there.
What about within the camp? Were you assigned tasks?
Not of any consequence. We didn’t do anything else of any consequence there. We came back from Caribaba, we came back into camp and the idea mostly was get ready we are going home. We weren’t needed, and the Japs were starting to become a problem. Because we were always had that at the back of our mind, we are over here
doing nothing, why don’t we get home, so we can prepare ourselves if the Japs come down here. So that would have played a part in what we were doing. Sort of thing that when we did get home one of our first jobs was to go up in the Northern Territory and make
the road there, from Alice Springs up to Darwin, or repair it or make it better. Or sometimes like that, just in case it might be used. Again we were there, after we had come back and had leave and met my wife. We were pushed up to Alice Springs and all points
north. And again we worked on the road. But again, that wasn’t used very much, but it was something that they were pre-empting we might use. You know. We were there for six months, working on the road there.
In Syria, did you come across any other combat?
We were fired on, one stage, with artillery, which sent everybody flying for the lowest point. We were working on a diversion type road
to get us over, oh I suppose you would say it was deep gutter we needed to get over. There was only one way to get over it was to make a road over it. And we were doing that work, road building again. And there were a dozen shots of artillery came around
our ears. As I say we dived for cover, but no, we didn’t come up against, we weren’t front line troops, it wasn’t our job. It was all behind the lines.
Yes, but you were still there?
We were there, we were doing what we were told to do, you know. And later on they gave us a medal, they weren’t
going to give us a medal for quite a while, but later on they decided they better give us one because we were in the Middle East. So we became eligible for the African Star, just before we weren’t in Africa. But they said we were in Africa because we landed in Africa, we must have been in Africa. The fact we were only there for about two hours was beside the point.
Btu no they bandied it to anybody that was in the Middle East, they all got the African Star. Just another gong.
Tell me about when you were fired upon?
We were virtually on the main road going
towards Tripoli. We had left, we’d assembled for a few days waiting for something to happen, then it started when they made a raid on the Muse Oon [?] fortress castle type of operation, that the
French were holding, and that put our fellows, not our particular company, but Australians had to go in and blow their abutments of this fort. And one of our fellows died there. He had been a member of our unit, he’d gone to the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and they
were in charge of that particular piece of work to go in and blow up the abutments of this fortress so they could get through, get into it, instead of facing a 40 foot brick wall. They sort of blew a hole in the side of so that our fellows could get in. Tackle them inside, this fellow
was killed in that operation. But again we were on the outside looking at what was going on rather than being in the middle of that firing line there, behind the lines again, behind the front line troops. We were, I suppose you could say, support troops rather than you know, and if we did get in the way of firing, we didn’t like that at all, because we weren’t really equipped to deal it. You know we had never trained to be in the front line, so anywhere that looked like being in the front line, we didn’t think very highly of that. And mostly it only came in individual cases where a …
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 07
So tell us about leaving Syria?
Well we were given the word that we were all coming home. So that created great fury as you can imagine. And we came virtually back the same way as we went there. And we got onto an American ship, cruise ship,
the America I think it was called, strangely. It had navy personnel on, it wasn’t only, wasn’t a commercial venture, it was a navy ship. And it brought us back to Adelaide where we were offloaded.
And we were billeted with people in Adelaide, no, no, we were billeted with people in the meadows 20 miles out of Adelaide. And it was a farming community and we were allocated, you in that house, you two over in that house, you in that house and there
were no men in the town because they were in the army . The only other people in the town, men-wise was First World War men that might have been on the farms themselves. And we spent, we were there for two or three weeks and I got malaria and went to hospital. Where I got the malaria from, I wouldn’t know,
but must have picked it up in the Middle East or the way through there. Because it takes a germination period of a few weeks to germinate. And they showed us a good time, then we went home. Then we came back to Adelaide.
We were billeted with another couple in Burnside just out of Adelaide. Very nice people called Mourne. And he was a mains motor type bloke, you might even know of it, Mourne & Seen [?], they were big car retailers. And we stayed with them for about
a month till the troops got all their gear together and we headed up north to Alice Springs on the old Ghan, the very old Ghan, the one that always tried three times to go up a hill. You know, it was very narrow gauge, nothing like what’s going up there today. The trains were more like
tram bodies than trains. In so much as the, remember the old trams they used to have seats going up the lengthwise and so that this had seats going lengthwise like that. We had blokes sleeping on the floor and on these things and some on the luggage racks above. Eventually we got to
Alice Springs where we were put onto tracks that had been impressed from the local people, not army vehicles, they were civilian vehicles that had been commandeered virtually. And they took us up to a place called Elliott, which is about
half way between Alice Springs and Darwin. Then we tried to build, rebuild the road there so that the convoys could get goods through, mostly American trucks through to Darwin. And we worked on that for about six months. Which was pretty boring really.
Very hot, not many amenities. The big deal would be to go up to, travel 40 miles to go to a film, theatre to watch a picture, and 40 miles back again. And then the first truck would leave and somebody else would say, “Who wants to go up there?” And there would be another two or three, hop on
another truck. So there would be three or four trucks going up this 40 miles up, and 34 miles back, 40 miles back. But who cared. Because if we moved from one camp or another I saw them, kick over a can of oil, 44-gallon drum of oil, rather than put it on a truck, we’ll get another one later on.
You know, who cares, pretty lax. Then we came from there and we were basically on our own, within the company, we were on our own. Most of the work there was very tedious and boring. Driving up and down on the roads, or it might be in
the pits that we used to find these, I believe they are bauxite, it’s a marble size clay stone, rounded to a fair degree, not perfectly round, but rounded. And we used to mine these in an open cut mine with scoops and
we used to fill the scoop up, dragging it behind a tractor. And we’d go over the top of a sort of a bridge which we developed in the pit that we were working in. We’d drive the tractor over that, it was like a bridge with a hole in the middle of it. The track
would go underneath, down into it like so. The bridge would be over the top of it, say here, and the bridge has got a hole in it, and as the scoop comes along here, it emptied its load straight into the scoop into the truck and the truck drives away with the load. It was a very basic type of operation before they had these huge grabs of things that they use now.
But it got the job done, even through it was pretty slow.
You were using that to – ?
To form the roads – that was – see there is no, well in the position that we were in, there was no rocks at all. It was just flat as a tack, a plain. So they had to find something that would stand up to
the treatment, and we would lay about six inches of this right across the road. And then later on people would come along and put bitumen over the top of it, you know. But that was the basis of it. About 10 years or so ago, I went with an army mate that only lives down the road here. He is one of the original 10. And we went
looking for the road, but the new road has been put in since with mechanical means. And it’s a two or three lane highway now. And we did find it eventually but they had moved it over about 30 metres, 30 to 100 metres onto the one side to get
right away from that. So while they were working on this road they weren’t fouling up this one at the same time. So although it wasn’t exactly in the same position, it was roughly in the same position.
What distant did you cover in those six months?
Oh probably the distance that our particular company would be working on would be 40 to 50 miles I suppose. It doesn’t sound very much when you are thinking about thousands. But there are a lot of other
units sort of working further up the road. Further down the road, all sort of adding their little pieces into it. We only worked on places that gave them rubble that might have needed culverts putting in which there is not that many. But sometimes they’d find that this was a bad spot, so we would put a culvert in and
then road over the top of that. But it was a very dusty, dry, ‘nothing to do’ sort of place. Outside of the picture theatre which was mostly open air, where all the natives, if there were any, the Aboriginals all sat down at the front, on the grass or whatever.
And the rest of the population would sit on the back on chairs. It was all open air there was no, no closed in theatres. For good reason, A, you didn’t get much rain, and B, if you closed it all down it would be like a hot house. Having it open made sense, you know.
What was your daily routine during those months?
Get up have breakfast go to work, come home, have a shower, go to bed, etc, etc, etc. And that was about it, I mean there was nothing else to do, absolutely nothing else to do. You worked, probably worked the best part of 12 hours a day. You got filthy rotten
dirty, you worked mostly with boots and trousers on, mostly had nothing, no shirt on. So you’d come back, you’d be perspiring like the devil. And of course this white fine dust. I don’t know if you have ever been up into the Northern Territory but they have alongside the road, even today you can see it. They call it
bulldust, its fine, fine, fine dust like talcum powder. Now you get a truck into that and it will control your wheels so that you can’t control them. And many a truck has turned turtle because of it. Dangerous stuff to get into, almost like running into water. You know it just pulls you up dead, shocking stuff, but it’s fine and if the wind
starts blowing or the dust starts coming in the back of the vehicle as you go along. The draft of the vehicle sucks it in and you come out looking a nice shade of red, believe me. I’ve got some of it up there in fact in a glass file up the back there, give you an idea how red it is, you know,
It’s really red. When they say the Red Centre, that’s what it is, it’s red.
What were your roles up there? Still organisation?
Oh yes, I had one group of fellows, used to pull a drag
which was a fulsome type tractor. And behind it they would drag railway lines that were at a point like that. And it would sort of shave the top off the road and take all the corrugations out of it. And his job was to go down the road and as far as he could go. And there was distance that they had marked out, may have been, say
30 miles. And he would sleep there on his own, and he would drive it back the next day. Or sometimes there’d be two of them, he’d drive it one day and one day another bloke would go. And there would be three doing the round trip. All the time you know. Depending on how many men. That’s one of the jobs that had to be done. Other than
have blokes work on the tractor, had to have a man for the tractor. Had to have a man supervise the ‘Chinaman’ as we used to call, it was the bridge over the culvert that the trucks used to run under. All those sort of things, men allocated for the cookhouse. To do the spud barbering, all that sort of activity had to go on. No matter what.
And if you had spare time and you had the water, you had washing to do. Keep yourself nice and clean.
So you would be busy allocating those roles?
That was what I did. I didn’t do much of the physical work, it was mostly organisational type work. Again we would go for months on end and
wouldn’t pick up a rifle. And that was the unfortunate part of the ladies home, or the mother’s sisters or whatever, you went to war, you were fighting the very devil all the time or so they thought. But you know there was a shocking lot of boring times, that’s in between episodes really, that’s what
they were. It was different war as the Vietnam was different. You know Vietnam was something quite strange to us. It was different type of warfare altogether.
Everyone was doing their part?
That’s right and again, see we were only on it for
they had to use us up, we were standing around doing nothing. What can you use them for, they are engineers, send them up on the road. So up the road we would go and we would work on that. And we never saw the start of it and we never saw the finish of it. You know, then somebody else would come along and do another part of it. And you are only part of a huge cog
How conscious were you of being a cog in the bigger machine?
Very conscious, very conscious, you knew you were only a little cog in a big wheel. You didn’t, there was, if there were any wirelesses about they
would have to be battery wirelesses because there was virtually no power anywhere where we were. That applies whether we were in New Guinea or Borneo or in the north of Australia. There was no power, so it would have to be battery operated. And the batteries only last a
certain time, particularly if you are using them a lot. And it wouldn’t be long before you weren’t getting any information except bulletins that might have come out from the army headquarters that something they wanted to tell you. Whether you wanted to hear or not, that was another, I mean, they might come and say that Carlton won the football premiership or something like that
it would be a full line entry into a bulletin. So you didn’t see papers, you didn’t see things like that. See, I don’t remember anybody having a wireless with them. They had photos, they had cameras.
But I don’t remember anybody other than the unit, having a wireless. I don’t think portable ones were made at that time. You gotta remember that you are going back a fair way. I almost, at times I almost feel like those poor old fellows in England, the pensioners that are
dressed up in uniforms, you know the crowd I am talking about?
No they’re, not Beefeaters but they were dressed up like that, Chelsea pensioners. Think they are, you feel that you are a dinosaur, you’re in an age that’s long since finished, you are in a new age and you don’t know
you don’t know really what’s going on, you know it’s happening, but you don’t know why its happening. Don’t know how it’s happening. So even the youngest kids today can pick up that remote and know how to work it without anybody telling them. They’ve seen Dad do it, they’ve picked it up from him. Go away use that, press that, and he’s got it in locked in his memory for ever.
But that’s what I feel anyway, belong to another race.
In a way the Second World War initiated a lot of that technological change?
As you get older, you see, I don’t know what’s going to happen in your life. But you couldn’t in your wildest dream,
think that going to the moon might be an every day job in 60 years’ time. You know, 60 years’ time you’ll only be 90. So it’s possible.
George W Bush reckons we’ll be on Mars by then.
Well that’s, George W Bush says a lot of things, so I don’t believe any of them.
But no, that’s right, I’ve seen almost everything that’s happening at the moment happen. I saw the country when there was hardly a car in it. There were cars when I was got conscious enough to know there were cars. There were some cars we had one.
When I was about 8 my dad had an old T Model Ford. I got used to having cars around fairly early in the piece. But a lot of people will a lot of blokes went to the war and hadn’t driven a car. A lot of them I know because I used to teach them how to drive. And I had a 40 acre paddock and a tractor driving with
the ordinary straight gears, so sync mesh on them. It’s a lot of fun, lot of crashing the gears to. But you know things change, it’s all different. And all this business with the photography, you know, you see the way the kids take to it toady with their mobile phones
and oh, just stick them in the computer, you know. Zim zam, billa bam, and bingo there it is. It’s just quite different to what it was when we got around to Kapooka in Wagga. And we had five o’clock closing, or six o’clock closing. You know, they
didn’t open til five. So you had an hour to get yourself stung. Things change.
Going back to Northern Territory, was there a beer ration or anything like that? Were you able to have a drink to alleviate the boredom?
There was always
some drink somewhere, somebody would get hold of. But I don’t recall them being a ration there. I do recall them when we went up on the Tablelands we used to get a ration of beer. I think two bottles a week we used to get, might have been two bottles a month, I’m not quite sure. At that stage I wasn’t particularly interested in
bee I didn’t drink a lot of beer. Didn’t drink a lot of anything. But I learnt how to drink beer I think, occasional bashes. No, that wasn’t a problem but there was always somebody finding a way to go past a place that did have some beer. They’d’ come back with half a dozen and all their mates
would have a round. But not as an issue from the army, not at that stage. As I say when we got around to the Tablelands after we had come back from New Guinea, then we used to get a ration of grog there. But there wasn’t enough to do yourself damage, unless you
found three or four mates that didn’t want theirs. Then you could barter it for a packet of cigarettes or something. And then somebody would find himself with a stack of half a dozen beer and put one on himself, drinking lively. But no, none to speak of. Unless you had friends in high places.
But even in the army mess there I don’t recall us having much grog. We had an army mess there. But I don’t remember grog being part of it. It may have been that I wasn’t interested in it so it wasn’t something that played a part.
What was (UNCLEAR) like when you were up there?
One of boredom mostly,
you didn’t know what was going on. I mean we were there for six months, while Darwin was bombed. And I was reading some articles that I had put aside of the day, of around about that time. And they were having the be-jesus knocked out of them at Darwin. And we heard there were three planes went over
Darwin one night. And hit an ice cream wagon, or something stupid like that. When I get up there 10 years ago when we were up there, went up to the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] museum, and they had a picture show there a 10 minutes sort of thing, showing the bombing of Darwin. Goddamn it, they nearly blew the place off the earth. It only
came to us as a few planes came up and went over. You know, one was shot down by anti aircraft fire with Tommy guns, for Christ sake, you know, they didn’t have much else there.
So you didn’t have much to do with troops or drivers who might have been up through Darwin?
No. They came from there and went to there, but they didn’t stop where we were.
We were in a hell hole as far as they were concerned, couldn’t get away from the place quick enough. But it wasn’t, it was a fill in, a stop gap, that’s all it was, nothing more than that. Nothing that anybody got excited about. Except later on I could say that I was up in the Northern Territory, big deal.
Because not many people had been there in those days. We were good, even now people say, why don’t you take yourself on a trip. What am I going to see, you know, I’ve been to lots of overseas places and I wasn’t thrilled about any of them. Why should I want to go now?
Can you tell us about the Meadows?
Well the Meadows was a rural community, very much rural community,
what can I liken it to, miniature Drouin, just a very small farming community. It had a dance hall in it and a theatre I think they doubled one to the other. But when we got there, there were almost no young men in the place at all. And here
we were a month off the boat from the Middle East, full of vigour, and amongst women who hadn’t seen a man for months and months and months. So a lot of them got on very well together. I know in the household that I was in there were two girls.
There were three of us all billeted in the one house. And they were quite young. I think one was about 16 or 17 and the other was about 21. And the eldest one was due to be married while we were there. And we
formed, well we pretty nearly ran the place as far as the wedding was concerned. One of our fellows was the best man. Because although the bridegroom had come back from overseas, he was one man on his own coming home to be married. So
he didn’t have any of his mates around him, so we formed the wedding party and he was the best man, my mate was the best man. We formed a guard of honour for the happy couple. We went to the wedding breakfast. And
there must have been 20 or 30 blokes there. Aunties and uncles were out, say in the kitchen, and the rest of us were all in here around a big table eating our heads off because this was real food, this wasn’t army tucker, this was real food. And the
relatives seemed to be doing nothing else but feed us, foreigners, strangers in their midst. I thought that was quite a comical sort of set up. The bride went off to her wedding, to her honeymoon and I went off to hospital with malaria. When I
came back from the hospital and I didn’t want to stay there, I came out early because I was frightened my unit might take off and the word that they were getting ready to move back to Melbourne. And I thought if I get shunted from here into some transit camp or something. I might never get back to the unit. Or it might be difficult, it might take a long while to get back there. So I decided
that I better tell them I’m all right, just give me some pills, I’ll take them and get better, back where I was. So that’s what I did. I took off with permission and took pills with me to combat the last parts of the treatment for malaria. But when I went in, the nurses didn’t know what was the matter
with me. Because I was shaking like that. And this is caused by the red blood vessels, ah, what do you call them, the red cells being eaten by the white cells, or vice versa. Something like that, which causes the shaking, I didn’t know what I had,
just I had what I felt was a cold, but why did I shake you know. Some older nurse with a bit of experience came along and took a blood test and said this is it. That's what it is, it’s malaria. So this was something they hadn’t heard of back here at this stage. Very rare occasion. So anyway I went back home and this lass came home from
her honeymoon. And her husband went back to his unit and we were still there. And I was crook, I tell you, I was still crook. And I was spending most of my time in bed. And this particular day I suppose she must have been feeling a bit lonely. She came in and crawled in the bed alongside me which was very nice, but
completely no use.
You were shaking even more then?
I was too crook anyway. The last thing. But I’m sure if I had have forced the issue, there wouldn’t have been any great problem. But always seemed to happen to the women in my life, nothing happens.
Either a speeding car or malaria?
That’s right. Dreadful, that’s probably why I lived so long.
So you had some leave in Melbourne?
Yes ,I came back to Melbourne and my sister was working at the T&G and she had, she was involved in some
‘let’s entertain the troops’ group and they’d set up a dance that she said, “Why don’t you come along? Might be some girls there.” So she had one, I didn’t know at the time, she had one picked out for me. So she was to have her there, I didn’t know anything about this. So she came along and she brought her
girlfriend with her. And the girlfriend was the one I showed you there. I said, “I’ll be back in a minute. I’ll have the next dance with you.” And she looked at me and said, “Who the bloody hell is he?” So I had a dance with the girl that I was supposed to have a dance with. And then I started to dance with Marge
and that was the end of that. I just carried on from there. And in a fortnight’s time I was engaged to her. Then I went away again. Went away over to, back to re-training. In
Kapooka in Wagga. We trained there for a couple of months or so then went up to New Guinea. That was quite a new experience because it was quite different to the usual run of events that we were involved with. The way we had to do it, what we had to do, the
what shall I say, the strains, the hardships, we had then all over there. Because again, there’s was nothing there. There were people in the way of native people. Who lived in a native
style, tribal style, you know, but there were no houses or roads or anything like that anywhere where we went. So it was very, very basic right the way through.
Can you tell us about Kapooka?
well we did an assault course there. We had to we had to climb, or crawl under barbed wire entanglements while some clowns shot bullets over our heads. Things like that which were quite unnecessary but they were quite a diversion.
You know, it gave you something to think about but quite useless in the form of the training. I mean that was they were talking First World War tactics. You know, with the set barbed wire entanglements and things like that. We never ran against any of that sort of stuff, never ever, anywhere. It was all from a past era they were teaching us. It was one of the problems that I had in the Middle East, just to divert from it. I was sent from Aleppo down to the training camp down in –
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 08
Tell us about Aleppo and the training you did?
Well I was, we’d had combat training, combat experience. And when I went down to the training camp to train new soldiers that were reinforcements that had virtually no training at all.
I got very upset when I found that the head officer in charge of the training camp was still teaching or trying to teach how to build trenches. And the army in by one of the
engineering manual shows in detail how to build trenches á la France type or Gallipoli type trenches. Now I had not seen any thought, or heard of a trench other than a weapon pit or
something like that to disguise yourself into a stone, like getting into a little pit for yourself. I had never seen anything that even remotely resembled that type of thing. So I just through this was load of hog wash. And I let everybody know about it.
And the powers that be didn’t like that, because they thought I was very much out of order by using these derogatory terms about their training. I saw it as complete and utter waste of time, of mine and anybody else’s
that was involved. So the senior officer thought he best get rid of me because I was no damn good to him where I was. But at the same time I had an attack of tropical ulcers. And they had the effect of coming out, they were caused by bites of some sort. They come out in ulcers
as big as your finger nail with a crusty top on them. And they seem to be sort of grow underneath. And the flies and we were basically in shorts most of the time, at this stage of the game, the flies would come along and they would bite that crusty and rip it, and oh. Go like this you know. So
I paraded sick to get these things done. Then it was a case of come back tomorrow. And then come back tomorrow to have them redressed, which was fair enough. But it meant that I, Instructor Watt was never on duty instructing, he was always in sick parade.
Which was all legitimate, no problem. But the next thing I knew was that I was being sent back to my unit which I was very pleased about. And I got back there and the adjutant called me into his office, at Aleppo. And he said
“What's all this about? You are supposed to be one of our head NCO s and I have got a note here to say, “Please don’t send any of your cast off NCOs.” That was pretty blunt. So I said, “Well I can only tell you what’s going on,” he said, “Do.” So I told him.
“Oh,” he said, “All right fair enough, go back to your unit.” And that was the end of it. But I could have got my throat cut out of that. If he’d like to take it another way. But I was lucky I got out of that. So I wasn’t charged or anything. So no problem. So where are we, we are back into Kapooka.
How are things in your unit? Still pick and shovel?
Always pick and shovel. It was always pick and shovel, there wasn’t mechanical equipment as we know it today. As an illustration of that to jump quite a few years. I went to a lecture up at the local drill hall
up in Huntingdale. And he was giving an address a bit on the theme of that letter I gave you to read. And one of the questions that came from the now soldiers, who were listening into what was going on. He put his hand up. “Yes, what’s the problem?”
He said, “Well, Sir, if what you say is right, there are no roads, there are no anything but forests, where do you put all your equipment?” I couldn’t stop myself. I put my hand up and I said, “Our equipment was
very easy, it was picks and shovels, it was all we had in New Guinea.” And axes, not much different to a pick and shovel. An axe. Their world was one of mechanisation. Our world hadn’t; got that far yet. he couldn’t see his army being able to operate in New Guinea the way we were.
He had nothing there, no way of getting his equipment to where he wanted it, it was a different world.
Did you do more training there before you went up to New Guinea?
No there wasn’t, a few headaches. We were practicing at one time, with gelignite to see if
we could blow hole in an RSJ. Rolled steel joist, that’s what they use for an I-beam, sort of thick about that wide, and then it’s got a vein down here, just a thick usual steel girders you see. And we wanted to try and evolve something that would blow
a hole. And somebody had the idea if you moulded a piece of gelignite into a cone and put a hole up the middle of it. When it blew that hole, the air in the hole would be punched straight through the thing. That was sort of the theory of it. Although this required us to take the gelignite out of the
wrapping that it was in, it was water proof wrapping and mould it with your hands around what ever thing you want. Even if you wanted to do it in an ordinary cutting device. You would undo it and make a pack of it. Get it really hard and close up to the girder so there
were no gaps in it. And it would slice straight through. And in this moulding, something comes out of the gelignite into your blood stream and you finish up with one mother and father of a headache. To the point where you want to be sick, you can’t think straight, you are really as if you had been on a fortnight booze up.
You know it all happened in half an hour or so. It taught us not to take the gelignite out of the wrapping. But no that’s all that’s about the only thing there that, oh, you want to hear about a drunken episode? A mate of mine, as a matter of fact he finished up being
my best man and his name was Colin. And he told me that he had found a way to drink but not get drunk. And I said, “How do you do that?” He said, “Well, while you are drinking beer I am only having a small sherry.” Oh good, so the hourly session comes up and it’s a case of one drink, two drinks, three drink, four drinks
thank you very much, you see. And he’s keeping up with drinking these little sherries. Well by the end of the hour he was wanting somewhere to be sick. So the lavatory was out in the backyard of this pub. That’s how old it was, they hadn’t got around to bringing the toilets inside. The
dunny is out the back, no it was a toilet, but it was out the back. Well the upshot of it was he couldn’t stand up. And he finished up crawling into, putting his head into the basin and bringing his
heart up. So we decided, what we’ll do is go down to the park and just slack off for a couple of hours before we go to the dance at night. So we all tramped down, there would have been half a dozen of us. Lay ourselves around in the lawn in Wagga, in the park in Wagga. And it was
a sloping lawn down to a billabong which they had formed to make a sort of artificial lake. And we were all slacking off there, half asleep. And all of a sudden Colin stands up. He said, “I’m going for a swim.” “Going for a swim! What are you talking about?” And with that he took off down the slope so it was easy to run down,
and he was reasonably fit . He got to the edge and he threw himself out into a swallow dive, he landed in the water and he was thrashing the water with his arms and his feet were still out on the grass kicking like hell. But here he was, the wasn’t drunk, not much.
It was the finniest thing to see it happen. He was soaked from there up. And I think he just dried out, I don’t remember him ever going back to the camp at all, he just dried out during the day then we went to the dance at night. And probably had some more beers, I don’t remember that it was a highlight of the day.
How common a sight was it to see a soldier hung over?
Oh it wasn’t unusual. Because of the day most of the day only had beer for an hour and if you and I went in, we might say get in there at five o’clock and we have a drink and then I’d buy an another one, it’s now half past
and we’d have another, then I’d have another one. And the case of well we’ve only got another five minutes. So give us another two will you, give us another two will you, and you finish up with four to six beers waiting to be drunk. When closing time came. So in an hour you’d have five or six beers and my young body, that didn’t drink very much, it sort of took its toll over a
very short period of time. You’d get the staggers or you’d get to a point where you didn’t want to eat because you were half mollered [drunk], you know. But that wasn’t uncommon. Mostly caused by the lack of supply and the one hour closing time, one hour opening time. Six o’clock
closing. Dreadful times. Can you imagine? You couldn’t get a drink after six o’clock!
Absolutely! I mean you didn’t get a drink in a restaurant, you know, because they didn’t have any licence, you had to go to the pub to get a drink.
So you know it wasn’t if you wanted a beer you either bought it or took it home with you. Or you stayed until six o’clock and did what I was saying. It was still going on after the war, still this happening, 19, oh I forget when it all started, I think early ’60s they brought in the open time, open to all hours
sort of thing. Because I know around about ’60 it was still on, so it would have been after that. Anyway. So then we got on board the boat and we went over to, went up to Brisbane, camped
there for a fortnight before we embarked on some vessels known as landing ship tanks. These were able to be opened from the front. So that you could get the tanks out, bit like he ferry down here, loads trucks on and cars on same sort of thing
as that. And we were loaded into this over to New Guinea. And going across the Coral Sea, we hit one mother and father of a storm. And it really tossed the boat around. Two or three blokes and myself had great pleasure standing up on the bow like the girl did in the Titanic,
you know. And we’d go up and, teeuw, it was a classic roller coaster, it was quite a thrill. We eventually got out of that, went to New Guinea. Got to Moresby and they set us into building a hospital. From the concrete up, form the concrete foundations up. We
started in on that we were there for about a fortnight and they all right you are out of there. Start something never seen what happens in the finish. So they loaded us onto a 500 ton coastal steamer. Just our unit. And when I say our unit, I don’t think it was full
unit, I think there were other parts of it went in other directions but the main part of it was on this boat and we were to go about three or four hundred miles to the west and then go into a river. Which was navigable, and
when we got there it was on low tide. And the bar was so had so little water over it that we couldn’t get over. So the captain decided he’d make it go over. So he turned to boat out to sea and he lined it up
when he got out here. Lined it up with opening of the mouth of the river and poured everything onto the engine, and we come steaming in at about 20 knots. And all of a sudden we hit the bar. And talk about put the brakes on, people went in all directions. We couldn’t stand up, because they hit this bar it was like hitting a brick wall. And no sooner had we
done that but the next following wave come over the top of us. And we had scattered blokes right the whole length of the alleyway. And two or three times while they had the engine turning over like it was going out of fashion, and each bump would push us a little bit further over the bar, you know, as the waves came in. And we
eventually got over the bar, in the middle of the night, this is. And all we can see around the edges are trees, forest. In this huge river about three times as big as the Yarra at this point, it’s no comparison, just a wide, wide river. And we stayed off at
a native village there, we go toff the boat, not before it hadn’t turned at the right time, and we finished up going into the bank and we finished up with trees hanging over our heads. We didn’t think he was a very good pilot this fellow, he led us into all sorts of trouble. But he eventually backed out of that. Just muddy areas, luckily there were no rocks, it was
just mud. We backed out of that and we went into the village where it was arranged that we would stay over night. Which we did. That was where I told my son how we invented air conditioning. Did you
hear about that?
The native huts were built well off the ground, of the water really, the water was underneath. And they were made of slabs of the palm tree taken down so that you had a rather convex piece of timber, flat sided on the bottom,
and the natural round of the palm tree over here. And that’s how they formed their flooring, it wasn’t milled in the way that we know milled timber. So we had to sleep on this, so we put our ground sheets down and we put our mosquitos nets up to keep the mosquitos down. It was terribly humid,
just think and you drip with water because it was so humid. And I told my son how to, when these big mosquitos came along, they could smell us for sure, they would come right underneath, they could come full ball and they’d go straight through these palm trees with their stingers
and we’d see them coming they’d stick their heads up and we’d knock them off over so that they couldn’t get out again, and they would stay flapping their wings. So after we had four or five down of them, that created quite a draft so we were able to get to sleep. Regional air conditioning. But they were big mozzies I tell you. We didn’t exactly do that, but that was the story for the kids get a laugh out of it
every time I tell it. And then the next day they piled us into native canoes with an outboard motor on it. Probably about 10 of us in each boat. And we spent all the day going up the river, so you can imagine it was some river. There was very few bends in it, might have been bends on the edges. But you just went straight into it, you
finished up in a staging camp there for the night. And that was where, the only time, at that camp, which was just on the side of, hacked out of the forest, cleared down to the main trees. It had been cleared by the natives. And there had been tents set up for us there to go into, you know.
Now we’d gone from home to Kapooka, we’d gone from Kapooka to Brisbane we’d gone from Brisbane to Port Moresby, we’d gone 200 miles or so what ever it was to the west. And now we were coming up this river for a whole day. We must be on the other side of the
earth now. This was the feeling that you had, you were so far away from home. I got the jim jams, I got he feeling of absolute home sickness. And I don’t think I was the only one either. And I was almost at the stage where I was crying, you know, it was a strange, never had it before or since. And I pulled the blanket
over my head and said, right, you are here for 12 months so put up with it, get used to it. So that was the end of that, I didn’t have any recurrence, it was just that half an hour of absolute lost I suppose you’d say. So the next day we finished up going up to a town called
Bulldog which used to be a very, oh, major town in the area which was no town to us. It was the headquarters of a mining company, mining for alluvial gold. And they had a dredge in amongst the, a big pond and they had gradually worked their way around this, dragging up this stuff
and sort of using the water they were in the sluice this stuff and they’d gradually get the gold out of the ground. They’d have plates with mercury on them which used to attract the gold. And having got all this gold and they see that it’s filled up they take it off, clean it off and so
put it back again and start again. This is the way they got the gold out of the alluvial mines. And but our job, when we went there, again, was to build the road the Wau-Bulolo Road, they called it. And Wau was on the other side of the island. Hundreds of miles away
Our first job was, I think they called it the 20 mile camp where we had to set up, we started first thing in the morning and as we went along and we going up steps like that in full gear. You know you could almost not see where it finished, it was that steep.
Natives had cut sort of thing of pathway through it, and built ladders to help us get up these embankments. And it was hard tough, only for the youngest and the fittest. Anybody else, pack it up and go home mate. Well we cleared most of our older troops out or the
unfit ones by his time, fellows we brought back from the Middle East, who couldn’t hack the pace, they had been boarded out. And we got a new lot of young blokes in. So we walked 20 miles and along the way we’re there, tin hat, don’t need that. Gas mask, that went away, blankets went
that way and something else went this way. I think even a few rifles went, were thrown out alongside the track. Just anything to lighten the weight they had to carry. It was just almost an impossible feat. We’d walked this 20 miles in the day under these fearful conditions. Arriving at our camp spot which had been cleared
by the natives. And along with that, with us, came working parties of natives carrying tents and that sort of thing. And the army had a regulation that I think it was 30 pounds per man. You couldn’t give anybody more than that to carry, just one person. So If you had something that
was 60 pounds in it, you stuck it on a pole and you put one man on each end of the pole and you carried it that way. And the same thing applied with the natives, that was the army regulation. Don’t use, so that if you had something that was 120, then you needed four men to carry it. But then you had to have teams so that they could have a rest and sometimes
you might have three teams, all to carry this one article that was a bit heavier. So you might have a dozen men, at one stage they had a big tractor wheel, it was about that high, each tractor wheel, that needed four men to carry it. And when you think about what the terrain was like, I tell you, you didn’t want to be too old to take it on.
The natives had that work, they were pretty tough kids, believe me they were tough. And
What was the quality of the track?
I had found something the other days that showed what it was like, I had a quick look there a minute ago and I couldn’t see it. But you think of
the worst trek you have ever been on and think that this is four times as bad because it’s up hills like that and down dales like that and then up again, then down again, then up again, and then down again, and very little of it was level. So it was hard work you know. We eventually arrived at this sight to set up camp and then we had to set up
camp. And that requires effort to put up your tents and put all the pegs in and everything like that that’s necessary to go with it. But we did, we got it done. And but this time the cook had set himself a job to cook a meal, I don’t remember what it was, but it must have been something pretty basic. You know like bully beef and biscuits, but he’d have to open the tins up.
Something like that. And we were there quite a while, while we worked on the road. Remember that there is no communication by way of wireless. That sort of thing, portable wirelesses that might have been all right for a 100 yards or 200 yards. But when you are talking about 20 miles there was no piece of cable long enough to
do that. To start with I don’t think. Before it got to where it was supposed to be broken anyway. So if we wanted to communicate with Bulldog which was the basic town, the first town. We had to send somebody down to do it, with a message, 20 miles down this bloody track. And if he wanted to come back he had to come back 20 miles to where he started from.
To bring the message. So he would spend the whole day going the 20 miles, and he’d eat and sleep there. then the next day he would do the 20 miles again. And that was his job, he was only one that would tackle it, he used to love it, he thought it was great. He was as fit as a mallee bull too, believe me. But he had no trouble in doing that, that’s virtually a marathon on every day,
with difficulty. With a degree of difficulty built into it like none of these marathon runners would know about, you know. But he used to do it every day, or every time necessary anyway.
What did you understand as the purpose of the road to Wau?
The road to Wau, when we got there, there was surveyors’ pegs, that’s why talking about surveyors, I think they must
have come through first and put pegs down. Six foot pegs with a white top on them. And that’s where the centre of the road was to go. Our job was to cut the trees down. Give us some axes we will chop these trees down, no trouble at all.
So they brought up fifty or so axes for us to use. They were store sharpened, so they weren’t like competition axes or anything like that. They were just as you would buy them form the store. So righto, we didn’t know anything about axes, we had one axeman, but he only stood back and laughed. Because he wasn’t going
to involve himself in this silly looking lot that are going out there. But we issued the bloke and started them in, there are the pegs, everything that side of it got to cleared off, that side of it, back to 10 feet and just keep going you see. When you get three or four blokes it’s bad enough, but if you’ve got twenty blokes all having a go, you got to give them a bit of space. So they spilled out over about
100 yards. And they chopped the trees down, about that far of the ground. Which is not good when you want a road built. But not only that, once the tree lopped, was lopped and it might have even been pushed off its foundation, it now had to fall.
In New Guinea they had a thing called a loyal vine. It’s a vine that grows right through everywhere, they use it, they strip it, they use it for sting, they use it as it is for binding heavy things. Or they strip it down to almost needle threading size. Depending, this is their reel of cotton that they use.
And it’s useful in everything they do, they make baskets out of it, they make clothes out of it, they bind up their rafts in it, they do everything with this useful loyal vine. And it runs along the tops of the trees. So when you push the tree over, you might push the tree nearly down
but that loyal vine will hang on, like you wouldn’t move it with a piece of blow torch. And so that went that way and then that went that way and the next one went that way, and that one went that way, and that one went that way. So that by the end of the day we had such a hell of 100 yards of half cut down trees like you couldn’t believe. You
couldn’t believe the mess that we had created just by wanting to get in and flex our muscles you know. Fortunately we had a gang of what they called ANGAU [Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit], Australian Native New Guinea Unit, I think. These were men who had been in New Guinea who worked with the natives, knew the native language, organised working parties for us
when we wanted then. If we wanted 50 men they would find 50 men form somewhere and bundle them down into the camp and they would work for the Australian army as a civilian. And the ANGAU men were there to sort out any problem that we might have. And they worked fairly closely with us. And
we said, look what’s happened, we chopped the trees down the damn thing won’t fall. He said, “Righto leave it with me.” So he set his blokes into this mess and I think it took them about four or five days before they got that all cleaned up. This was about 50 men they had. Working, from my memory our blokes were nursing sore muscles. And back. For the next week while these natives cleared the place and they cleared it as natives will do, down to the last leaf. And they chopped and they hacked and they cut, but they cut it away from the bottom first so they could walk through it at least, where we had trees here and bushes there and, they cleaned it all up and worked on it over about five or six days or so, and got it all cut down. Then they had to cut the main trees down, had to lop the top and run up like monkeys, chop, chop, chop, and ride the thing down. Which by this time had gradually sagged and sagged and it might have five feet to drop and they would go down with it. But they were very useful…
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 09
Destroying it would be a good word because it was well to start from that style was something quite unusual. We usually came in and fixed something up rather than trying to create something from brand new, you know. So it was, after we had learnt the lesson
of – we were able to handle it. The natives went ahead of us and we came on and dug out any bad or blew up or did something to get rid of these stumps that were still in the ground. And gradually shaped the road by hand with ordinary picks and shovels so that it started to look like a road. And then we came against the time where you went
along so far this way and all of a sudden the terrain started to go around like that. And you came across rocks. Well that was another story, because we weren’t set up for that. So we sent word back and sent one
of our fellows, while he was sort of a – I was going to say an engineer, he was a mechanic, he wasn’t a trained mechanic, but he had a lot of nous [knowledge] about being a mechanic. Anyway we sent him down back down to Bulldog to bring up what we
called a D4 tractor, tractors are known in size by their number, a D4 is smaller than a D6, the 8 is bigger than a D6. And so on. And so you get a D4 which is a little tom thumb almost type bulldozer, with a blade on the front of it. And it pushes earth out of the way in front of it.
And he had to work that bulldozer from not knowing how to drive it at all over this terrain and he had to find his way back us. Well that required him, well he couldn’t go up a mountain, a slope like this, so he had to find a way around it.
And sometimes he took himself right to the edge of a river with a sloping side right way down there was the river. Might be 100 metres down, so there was no way around it so he had to dig the earth away from the bank, push it over the side and gradually work himself with enough space so that he wouldn’t fall over the side. And that he
could move around the terrain. And by the time he got to us he was quite an efficient operator of the machine. But he had learnt it all his knowledge came from backing and filling and pushing and shoving and carrying on while he got up that 20 miles to where we were. So where we would
skirt round with a hand held picks and shovels, we would dig around some sections of this, just to make path around it. He would then come along and work this machine. So that it widened it up to something that a jeep could run along. And I suppose that’s not very different to what they did around the boulevard
around Collingwood and that area, around through to Fairfield. It started off as hand dug thing by the people that were on the dole. And they brought in the shovels and the horse drawn drags to drag the earth away. So it’s from
little oaks to great trees grow sort of thing, acorns to oak trees grow. The same principle is really being applied, we would make a track and this bulldozer would come down, enlarge us. But without us putting that track in he couldn’t have got into it anyway. That was okay until we came to real rock, real rock.
So the word back there, we want a compressor, we have got to do a lot of drilling to blast rock out of the way. Now how do you get, I don’t know how many tons that a compressor that you drag behind the truck, normally drag behind a truck. You couldn’t have a truck because there was no road
to put a truck on yet. So we had to dismantle this compressor entirely, entirely down to the last nut and bolt. And make it up into man loads. 30 pound per man. And that’s where the reels that I was telling you about came from. They
pulled this tractor down piece by piece, bolt by bolt. We had the mechanics as part of our establishment to have mechanics. They pulled it down they boxed it up and the natives carried it. Hundreds of natives we used for the trek and to make sure they all arrived there with all their limbs. And
still able to do some work, that whole 20 miles. And then having got it there they then reassembled the whole lot of it. And put it back together and used it to drill the holes to put the gelignite in to blast the rock and so make the road go around the bend, out of the rock. So that was
quite a massive undertaking really, for so little equipment. Today they would probably bring in a D8 and go through everything, you know, quite a heady smashed with a big one. We couldn’t get a big one in at this stage at all. So that was all right, then we came across area where we needed to put a bridge in, there was a river.
You couldn’t just put a culvert in, they were huge rivers. At one stage we were moving forward and as a unit, we were moving camp and we came to a time in the day it was about five o’clock. And we said, “Right, I have had enough for the day. Let’s camp here.” And we happened to be at the bed of a river which was running like a little
trickle. So the officer said, “Righto everybody, tools down, make your bed, lie on it and see you in the morning.” So during that time or the following morning it may have been, I’m not sure about that. At a later time the officer report back to his chief
which was probably the major and said, “I’ve got them all camped in the bottom of this creek,” and the major words were, “Well you bloody well get them out of there, and get them out of there quick, don’t stay there tonight.” Because at there, the habit of the rain is to fall during the night. And when it falls and if it falls in your area, it falls with such gusto that
that river becomes a 10 foot wall of water coming down the river. And anything that is in that river base is gone forever, finished kaput. And if he had troops there, they would be all gone. So we were hastily up anchored from there up onto the top of the bank where we camped for quite a while, while we
did further works around the area. And we had to set up, in this particular area, we had to set up a – oh by the way, that did happen. After we got out, it wasn’t the next day or anything as dramatic as that, but about a week or a fortnight later we got a storm that 10 foot boulders were seen to be running down in front of the water that was pushing them.
In that same bed that these blokes had been in. So only a fortnight or so out they could have been caught overnight in the – they wouldn’t have known what had hit them except there was an earthquake was coming. Because that would be the noise that it would create. As these boulders rumble down in front of the water. But we had a
cook house to build to make it look something like an orderly organisation. And we cut these small saplings down so that they didn’t have twig, not a twig on them. They were virtually shaved off with a machete to the point where they were just sticks. And were as big as about my arm.
And they formed the basis of the top. Now before we left there, and we left there probably within the month, those sticks were growing, had branches on them, like you wouldn’t believe. That’s how fertile the ground is, moist, atmosphere, moist ground, fertile ground and just everything
just explodes, can’t stop it. I heard a crack of thunder there one day, you’d swear it was 10 feet away from you, it was like a whiplash a hundred times louder, event the natives got scared of it. It seemed to go off in the bush, you know, just a little away from us. God, what a racket it kicked up.
There were always natives around there. Then we got word that we were doing the road all the time, oh, when they were building, that was an interesting thing, when we were building the bridge they rigged up a pile driver. And they must have got to the weight for the pile driver from
one of the local mining camps or something, because I don’t remember it being brought over land by natives. It would have been tons heavy, it must have something they were able to get locally fairly easily. Anyway they did have it and they were driving piles into the ground to form the basis of this
bridge. The pile driver works by the engine pulling the weight up, then it’s tripped at the top and it comes streaming down this guide rails and it hits the pile, and it might drive it that far. So you lift it up again
and boom, this continuous boom, all day and you might be sinking it that far sometimes, you might sink it that far every time it hits. But sometimes if there is something underneath that you don’t know about and you’ve got a steel tick point on the pier, it can start to go one side or the other. At the top of the
pile, which was probably that round, you’ve got a ring around the top, a metal ring inset at the top so that when this thing comes down, it’s virtually hitting the metal rather than hitting the timber. So if a pile is moving that way the little trick that these jackhammer
men have is to through over the top of this, trow a bag, if you want to pull it this way, you throw the bag there, the pile driver comes down and hits that first and tends to knock it like that. And so straightens it up and as soon as you get it back on line again, you take the bag away,
and so it proceeds to drive it straight. This was very delicate operation. This particular day this fellow who was a bridge builder, he had thrown this bag over the top of the pile and down came the thing, and he had done it again and again and again. To
bring this pile straight. This particular time he, when he threw the bag over the top it, some of it stayed up over the top, so he, that would have caused all sorts of problems. So he went like that to knock it straight, but they didn’t tell the fellow on the other end. And while he had his hand there
pushing, down came the thing, from that day on he was known as claw because his fingers finished up like that, hell of a trouble over that. But it was just one of those incidences that happened when nothing should happen, you’ve done it 500 times before. But this time he just left it there a little bit too long. That was it.
So next thing we knew, we were coming home.
How far had you got along the road?
Oh, 30 or 40 miles I suppose. Not far, there were other crowds working in other areas further along. And further back on both sides of us there were other units working. Doing similar things to what we were doing, they were all engineers’
Did you have the ANGAU people working with you the whole time?
Most of the, when it was needed, they were not with us all the time, but if we needed for some reason, all we had to do was make out a requisition order for them, and they would be supplied to us, like a chain gang sort of thing.
For something specialised?
Not necessarily, they were mostly used to cartage, or for the mundane type of works, they never handled the compressors or anything like that. We did all that sort of work. But cartage and cleaning up forests that we had mucked up. But apart from that they were just manual work really, that’s all they did.
You know, if you sometimes you might somebody to dig a certain area out and you might ask for 20 blokes to come along. And they would do in a week, what half as many of our blokes would do in three days. But they had a good time and had a sing song while they were doing it, nobody cared very much. Life just goes on you know, up in the mountains.
One day there we had a place called Zanag [?], we were camped at one stage and the officers had through that we should have some sort of recreation there was nothing within 500 miles that could cause recreation so they decided it was time we had some recreation.
So they set about damming the creek to make swimming pool, water hole. Sort of thing that our blokes could have somewhere to swim. sort of thing that was all done. That was organised and on this particular day which was party day, so anybody that did have any grog brought it out and those that didn’t put their
swim togs on if they had them, and if they hadn’t they just wore their pants anyway, sort of nothing else. And they all joined in and had fun and had apple on a string competition, you know, over the thing. And the slippery pole and all that sort of thing. Created very childlike exuberance, you know,
and this childish behaviour came out quite a few times while I was in the army. I remember once we were going back to the hockey games that we used to play against he girls. We found a team in Indooroopilly in Brisbane.
We organised that, the girls organised the dance party where everybody had cakes and things, and the games and things that we had were things like musical chairs and rats a rabbits and these sort of kids games. And I’ve seen some of the biggest drunks play those games to their hearts content. Have a
ball, you know, the simplest of things. And this was another case where we had a swimming pool and they entered into it with all the boyish enthusiasms you could find. Everybody had fun, take it in another context and they’d say, what’s up with them, you know. But this stage everybody had fun, I’ve got photos of it where they laughed
their head off. One bloke dressed himself as a butterfly, another fellow made himself a net and they chased one another around the rock. You know, that sort of thing was childish fun, but they enjoyed every minute of it. And then we forced ourselves onto some trucks and went
up over the mossy forests which was the Owen Stanleys the top of the Owen Stanleys up to about 9,500 feet. And then down the other side to Lae. And we got on the boat in Lae. And went back to Melbourne, And that happened I think I said it before
12 months after we landed exactly, to the day.
You said you forced yourself onto trucks? Didn’t you want to leave?
No, that was, one of those funny little jokes, forced yourself, yeah, like hell. No, nobody force anybody, all did it of their own free will and accord.
You must have felt relief?
Yes, there was certain amount of relief because you were going home. We didn’t know at that stage where we were going to next, as I said before somebody does the planning now and in six months something happens. I think this was another case, they knew what was going on, they knew what we were going to do, but we were the last ones to be told.
So we were sent home to re-train. But before they could do anything we had to have leave. So I came home and got married, I had only known my wife a fortnight before I went away before. Now I come home for a fortnight to three weeks leave and we get married. This was an enjoyable institution to belong to. And
I spent three weeks of honeymooning, I suppose you could say. My wife had taken the time off from work. And then I said goodbye to her again. And after
3 weeks and went back up to, I’m not sure where we went to, to be quite frank, but sufficient to say that we eventually arrived back without much ado, up on the Queensland Tablelands up at Kuri [Kuranda]. Where camp had been set up
and we were to train, re-train, still didn’t know where for. It turned out of course that it was to go to Borneo. And re-training was really not the right word to use actually. But that’s what they called it. We were to re-train. We had 9 months there,
the only thing I learnt about was Japanese mines. In 9 months. Now I could teach you all of that before you left home. Before you left here to go home. I was able to learn and that’s how long it took me to learn about these mines. But we had 9 months to do that. The result was that of course the blokes got bored to tears, and
we’d be out teaching them, showing them how to delouse a particular type of mine. And you’d have to wake him up, he’d be asleep in the sunshine. This is what I said before about discipline you know. There was discipline but when there’s really, another instance of boredom, officer said, righto
motor unit, I’m going to come around tomorrow morning and inspect your vehicles, make sure they are all trim, taut and terrific. So the next morning he comes around, “You reckon that’s clean? That’s not clean. Make sure that’s clean. I’ll be back tomorrow.” Or, “I’ll be back Thursday,” or whatever.
And Thursday would come and they would be spending all their time. I don’t know what I’ve got to do to impress you but I mean your cars have to be clean and I mean clean. And this time he came out with a white glove and he wiped it across the engine. And he got an oil mark, “That’s not clean. Clean it.” And that whole exercise
was to divert the blokes from being bored. Firstly they knew by now that they had to get their car clean so they worked like hell at it to get it right. Secondly, they worked up a healthy rage and hatred for officers and anybody that looked like an officer. Because this was pure stupidity what they were doing. But
it gave them something to think about. And so they survived, but it was a shockingly boring time.
Why do you call that a healthy rage? Why was that important?
Well, because it took away, their mind off being bored, it gave them something else to think about. I had that evidence after the war
when I came home, I was talking to a fellow, he made blinds. And I said to him, I said, ‘How is it that I come here in amongst a whole lot of machinery like sewing machines and your place is absolutely spotless, how do you do it?” He says, “Well every now and again we don’t get very busy, so I tell the girls
right, I want this place 100 per cent totally clean.” So they have got to get down on their knees and they’ve got to sweep the cobwebs away from under their machine, they have got to oil their machine, they’ve got to clean the floors around the machine. And after doing it for two days, more orders have come in. All of a sudden he’s got a lot of work that’s got to be turned out, get to it, we’ve got work to do.
So A, they worked like hell, they are not bored to tears, they are not sitting around going, “Oh we haven’t got much to do, we’ll just do it this way.” All of a sudden there is an urgency around the place. He’s got two jobs done, he’s got the place cleaned up, have happy staff and he’s got his work done. So this was all sort of in line with what I am talking about with the officers making such a big deal about cleaning
the engine. There is a way to do it. I had one bloke jack up on me, he said, “I’m not going on parades.” “Yes you will.” No I won’t.” How do you deal with somebody that won’t turn out on parade. Stamp and raise as you like, he’s made up his mind he wasn’t going to do it. I had no alternative but put him on a charge sheet.
Up before the officer, the major, the major says, “All right we’ll sting you through your pocket book.” He deducted two weeks wages or whatever. Next day, nah, righto, that didn’t fix you, so righto, so you’ll have four hours on the bullring. That means
using marching up and down, up and down up and down up and down. Using your rifle for exercises and doing all that sort of thing, and sergeant will take you. So I had to do the penalty as well as him. Now all of a sudden I am getting very dark, because I don’t want to be marching up left right let right, right left, right left, and so on, I don’t want to be doing that. I’ve
got plenty of other things I can do. I can play chess but I had to look after him. And his attitude was I don’t give a damn how I walk, he walked but he didn’t march. He did his rifle exercises as if he had never seen a gun. What do you do with him? Next morning, “I am not going on parade.” Now you can’t physically kick him out.
But anyway eventually that’s that did happen to him. We put him on charge again and the officer called in the bulls as we called them, the military police, and they took him away and that was the last we saw of him. But eventually they dishonourably discharged him and he was out of the army. But it was only a few months short of being finished
anyway. He could have finished it off and been entitled to all his entitlements, as it was, he gets nothing. Dishonourably discharged, he wouldn’t do what he was told to do. Can’t shoot him, just because he wouldn’t stand to attention properly. Anyway he got boarded out. And we learnt about Japanese mines.
Which I was glad of later on when we got to Borneo.
You came across Japanese mines?
Can you describe what they look like? How they work?
Yes, the mines that the Japs used mostly apart from the ordinary anti personnel mines, I’m talking about. Rather than
this one was designed, its called a yard stick mine. It’s three feet long, a yard, three feet, so we called it a yard stick mine. It was about six inches wide roughly. Slightly oval in overall shape. About that wide in an oval and the oval
was designed to take the explosive charge that was moulded to fit that. And at certain areas along, it was placed a detonator. The detonator was operated by pressure but not, wouldn’t hurt you if you walked over it because the pressure wasn’t enough.
It was designed that way, it wouldn’t hurt you but with a tank coming behind you if he ran over it, he depressed it and it went boom. And off would go its tracks and that’s all it was designed to do, to knock it tracks off. And then the personnel in the actual tank would be at the mercy of anybody that wanted to have a pot shot as they got out.
And so the tank was useless. Sometimes the fellows got out, sometimes there was no back up enemy watching that site. Sometimes they put these things down as they did the day I saw them. They put them down overnight. Come in, dig a slight hole, it doesn’t take much to, that deep that’s all the depth of this thing is, that wide, that deep, by three feet. Doesn’t
take much of a hole in a gravel road to stick that in and cover it up and make it look as if it’s all right since yesterday. And then when you bring the tank along and don’t see it, and bang. Away it goes. So that’s one of the ones that we were teaching the blokes, first of all having learnt how to do it myself, how it works. And you read it out of a
newsprint. You know, a book.
So you also learnt how to delouse?
It was all part and parcel of the thing.
How did you do that?
Well you just took it apart, not hurt, it works under pressure, there is no drama. You just take the end of it lie you would as any tubular thing with a lid on it sort of thing. You just took that off and tip it up and let it all run out.
There is no danger to you at the time. But what some of the fellows didn’t understand is that you can look at them, you can handle them, and they won’t hurt you unless you put that pressure on. Well some of them must have been asleep while I was giving that lecture, because when I found this thing on the road in Borneo,
I couldn’t get them to come to me at all, “Come, come, come!” “Not on your life, you sort it out!” And the tanks were waiting to come through and they wouldn’t move because they didn’t have any body to find anything that might be there or to advise as to whether there is something there. So until this was, they must have had some clue that there was something going on.
So we had to go in front of the tank. With our very modern piece of equipment, find where these things had been put. And that piece of equipment was like a steel blade, like a knife blade attached to a piece of steel.
And you’d go along and as you walked along you went along like this, as you walked along you were pushing this stick, fortunately as I was doing this I heard, rechh, my blade hit the metal and skidded. Everybody stopped. And even
the tanks stopped, hold it, wait a minute. “Come over here, come and have a look at how they lay these things.” “No, no. You do it, sergeant.” They were quite happy to stand over there and watch me do it. So I deloused it.
You were confident that was the kind of mine it was?
Oh yes, once I heard it, I was pretty positive that that was the mine that soon
soon proved me right as soon as I started scratching around on the top. To find out what had made this noise. Was it an old tin that was stuck in the road somewhere or what was it. So I very carefully had taken all the earth away from around it. I then found that it was this mine stick, the yard stick. And so I deloused it and
everybody went home. And that was very close to the end of the war. Very close.
Interviewee: Robert Watt Archive ID 1790 Tape 10
What was the attitude to the Japanese? What were they known as, in 1944?
The bloody Japs. I mean if somebody is going to cut your throat you don’t
sing his praises, do you? And they are probably saying, the bloody Australians. So it works out on a balance. But you know we said the bloody Germans too, didn’t we? And bloody Italians and a few other adjectives. That’s that fuels the situation. I mean everybody as I say I was on New Guinea for 12 months, we went from one side to the other.
Never saw a Jap dead or alive. You know blokes that went up through Milne Bay and Buna, I mean they went through hell. And they were chockos, they are the ones that did the fighting, it wasn’t the Middle East blokes that came back. It was these young blokes, and thank God they were young too because they would have had to have been young. Because anybody know going up
there to travel that course, even though it’s been refined like crazy to make it easier. They still find it a really hard tough job. Now these blokes that went there they were absolutely supermen, they were they were supermen, the whole lot of them. The terrain we had to go over was very similar.
The difference was we didn’t have any body pot shotting at us. Which makes a big difference, you know, if every corner you turn you are likely to get your head shot off. No, they did the job for Australia there but they were servicemen from the other divisions than the ones that went overseas.
So on to Morotai and Balikpapan?
Well it’s easy to go to Morotai we went by boat. We got off we found nothing else but a staging camp, a huge camp of all sorts of people all sorts of units from all sorts of armies, mostly American and Australia but there were a few others.
Involved too. There were navy there was army, there was air force there was everything there that you could think of it was a huge staging camp, Morotai. And nothing else happened other than regular duties and getting ready for the big push that we were told was coming. We were going to land at Balikpapan.
And they loaded us onto landing craft tanks I think they were. Landing craft tanks into amphibious tanks known as
alligators. They were just like a Bren carrier, only the tracks were made like you’d make a paddle wheel, say lets put it this way, the ordinary track of a tank would be like that, say that size. But with an alligator, it’s like that size so the track came through the water it scoops it up
and works like a dog paddle. And that was, we were on those, and we had to work our way through all the shot and shell and rockets and big bombs, big shells that were coming
from the naval craft which were standing well out, 10 miles out from shore with no problem for those big guns. And they were lathering the hell out of the shoreline. I saw, I don’t know whether you saw the first day,
the 8th day, what was the name of that show? The landing at Normandy, Saving Private Ryan, that was the one. Now if you have seen that or if you go to see it, watch the landing. Because what happened there was almost exactly the same as what happened at Borneo except we didn’t have
any people firing back at us, of any consequence. Whereas they got shot out of when they were still in the tanks, in the crafts, but they were shot at with a massacre… We had everything but that. We had the entanglements, barbed wire entanglements that had been blasted out of the way by
the navy seals had gone in earlier. And like frogmen, and gone in and blasted all this stuff out of the way. There was rockets coming from the various smaller navy boats. And to see them firing is just awe inspiring, where they might have,
well, I’m not sure how many they have but they must have been firing them off at 20 at a time at least. Like, shoo, shoo and shoo, almost as fast as that, bloody rockets 20 at a time would be going off. In the narrow section of the beach, where we were going to land.
There were bombers, American bombers coming over, constantly, hour after hour. Blasting the place, you think, go nothing can live through that. Nothing could live through it. It was hell on earth there that morning. Absolutely hell on earth. But still some of the Japanese came out of their bunkers and made a nuisance of themselves. That
was all, it was a nuisance, they didn’t sort of overran the lot of them in no time. But we were in these alligators and we hardly go our feet wet. From memory I think we disembarked to the rear, whereas the boats you saw, landing craft
in [Saving Private] Sergeant Ryan, they all came out the front. Well by this time they had woken up to the fact that that wasn’t a good idea, because you could get shot as you came out. They just trained me to train the gun directly. And that would be that. So we came out the back. And dispersed around up onto the beaches.
Very little resistance if any, I never heard any in my section anyway. But our job then was to go in front of these alligators and find any mines or whatever, and we found after we had been on the thing for a few hours. We started to find
trip wires, wires that would run across about that far off the ground. For 50, 100 yards, and when you traced them you found that they disappeared under some of this paper, um, not paper, palm fronds, matting type things.
And in one instance I found one and it had I think of a mother’s ordinary skewer, about that long. Attached to the wire. And then we had heard about these mines that were adapted from these
sea mines, like the ship, ah, well put out and then submarine mines, sink down an blow up when they get to a certain distance. They had been adapted as a land mine. And the operation of it was, the whole size of it was about a 44-gallon drum. Drum stands about that high and about that round, 44-gallon
drum. Down the centre of that there was a tube. Between the tube and the outside of the thing was filled with explosives. At the bottom of this tube was a spike. And held by this pin or skewer type thing
was a billy type filled with high explosives. And held in position, the handle of it was held in position by this skewer, pull the skewer out the handle comes up, the billy drops down, hits the plunger and kaphewy. The whole area blows up,
and it could blow a hole 12 or 14 feet across and about 8 feet deep. So this was quite a blast, you know. I found this tube, this skewer and thrashed it where it should have been and found that there was this thing at the bottom, hauled it up and
realised what it was. Looked at it, it was a dud, it hadn’t gone off. Bu this time there were all sorts of personnel coming around and a lot of tanks. And I called a few of them over and I said, “Look, this is what we are finding. This skewer has come out of this one over here, because I just found one there
that’s come out and it’s got down and it hasn’t gone off.” So we were all standing around this area where it had this matting over the top of it, to camouflage the whole 44-gallon drum, which was sunk right down to the level of the ground. And I said,
“You’ll find when we take these things off.” And I told him what the whole operation, so I proceeded to take the matting off only to find this handle that comes up, and things go, well if ever did a little bit of kicking, that was the time. Because I had probably six or eight tank officers standing around. The weight of those
palms had been enough to hold that handle in its original position even though the skewer had come out. But as soon as I took the weight off, by taking this palm off, the whole thing operated. And here we are all looking at it like this. Now if it had gone off, I
wouldn’t be telling you this story. So it was a lesson that I learn that you don’t take anything for granted. But everybody was happy because instead of having six or eight dead people. Because looking over the top of it, we’d have to be either dead or very, very seriously burnt or blown up or something.
And it wasn’t long after that that a fellow came back from the front line which was only a quarter of a mile up the road from where we were at this stage. With an officer on the back of the tank, a dead officer on the back of a tank. And he didn’t know what to do with him. I don’t know
what to do with him either. Because this was only hours after the landing. So nothing was really organised, chain of command wasn’t there yet. So I said, “All right, we’ll take him off here, leave him with us we’ll do something with him.” So after asking quite a few questions around the place, nobody knew any better than I did what to do with him, so I simply dug a
grave ourselves, being pick and shovel men. And put him in it and put a cross on it and put his helmet on it and so forth. And eventually, later on in the day, a padre came up to me and said, “I’m looking for so and so, so and so.” I said, “Well if you go back down the road about two or 300 yards, you’ll see a cross on the side of the road. I buried him there.” “Oh, good
thanks very much, we’ll go and find him and dig him up.” So he would have gone back and taken him up, buried him with the dignity that was necessary. But it was a bit of a spooky experience what to do with somebody. And seeing a dead person wasn’t new but to have one landed in your lap sort of thing, under those circumstances, what do you do?
So anyway that was all right, got rid of him. And then I think the next couple of days after. There is not a lot of time here because I think it was on and off in about three weeks or something. So I don’t recall exactly how it fits together. But at a later time
by a few days they wanted to bring tanks up the road and wanted to be at a certain point overnight. By the next morning. But they had this bloody great tank trap which was a huge hole dug in the road to stop anything going past it. So the officer said, “I want you to put a bridge over the top of that
by six o’clock in the morning ready to take vehicular traffic.” “Okay, all right. Why can’t they go around it?” Because A, there is houses there, and B, the ground is so wet and soggy, it won’t hold vehicles on it. Only place is to come over
this tank trap on the road. And there is no hardware shop opened that particular day, how do you do it? Anyway we had a tank assigned to us, so I said, “One, two, three, four, five, make it six
telegraph posts, pull them down and drag them up here.” No trouble. So he gets his chains out and sticks it onto this post and out it comes. And put that over the top, and held it down in position by digging the earth into a little bit a groove like this. So
sitting it back a fair way from the edge, so it wouldn’t have any twisting effect or anything like that. All this happened overnight and with no lights. All the lights, I pulled all the lights down if there was any, I would have been pulling them down and mucking their circuits up and doing all sorts of things. We pulled those down, we pulled other areas to pieces to
make decking. I don’t exactly remember where we got those from but they were scrounged. There was nothing came out of a store. We found some bolts, spikes that would normally be used on railway lines. We found them. And we
used this other timber as decking across these telegraph posts and a bit of tidying up. And six o’clock we had trucks going across it, very gingerly to start with I must admit, they went at a dead slow pace you know in case of any accident or something gave way or it wasn’t strong enough and it finished down the ditch.
But everything went fine and it wasn’t long after that of course that they just bulldozed it out of the way and filled the hole up. But for the time it did the job that was necessary to be done. And all the blokes were, hurrah when the first lorry got over the top of it, it was good.
You must have got a good pat on the back for that.
No, just work,
just didn’t get anything that I know of. It would probably be noted that he did this, you know. Because ultimately I did get an MID [Mentioned in Despatches]. But I thought that might be because of the tank, there was an officer of the tank that may have said, “Your bloke did a good job for us.” And it filters back
through the system and it’s a case of oh well we’ve got an issue of five MIDs, three MMs [Military Medal] and who are we going to give them to. This sort of thing goes on. So I got one after, I was back home by quite a few months, a year or so before I read it in the paper. That was the first I knew about it.
Then I got a certificate to say that King George was very pleased. So and it wasn’t long after that we were hearing news that Nagasaki and Hiroshima were being bombed out of existence. And we thought, “It’s got to finish, it can’t go on,” you know, when that’s – and we got word that that was happening,
it can’t go on, it must come to an end very soon. That was the scuttlebutt around the area so this particular day I thought I would take a day off. So under my own say so, I took the day off and went with a couple of other blokes on a scrounging expedition to see what we could find. And when we were pulling these houses down we found there was
a tremendous amount of machinery, machinery by the way of sewing machines that type of thing. Or small engineering, small engineering works, almost backyard stuff. But the place was littered with these small houses that were burnt blown or otherwise
dispensed with, because they were mostly burnt, I think, because they were mostly made out of reeds and stuff like that. And anyway I came across this piece of material which was plain white and about as fine as your handkerchief. And I picked it up and I thought, that feels beautiful. And when I went back to the
fellows and to tell them that I thought this was beautiful, this was lovely stuff, very fine, the sort of things the natives would make undergarments of the women. And they though I was gone off my nut, they thought I was troppo completely. But it said to me then at the time, that thou shalt go along the line of materials.
You know, I got that feeling that whatever I did I wouldn’t do any good unless I could feel those materials. And that was the way it turned out, I came home went into the retail haberdashery and that sort of thing. And eventually after managing three or four shops all to do with fabrics, took on my own business at
Mentone, which is still operating as a curtain business and blinds today. Owned by me worked by them. And its, it was a what do they call it, a money tree because at the time I went down there which was about 1956, the year of the Olympics,
Beaumaris and Mentone area was just building up. And I was right there in the middle of it, fixing it for them and I had 20 good years of work, with an odd hiccough here and there, which took me 20 years and then I retired for the first time. And a mate of mine
died, he was in the same business. And I went to work with his widow for another 10 years, but only as a consultant. And that gave me the time that I needed to sort of settle down and not think too much work and not think too much about doing nothing. I had
something to do but it wasn’t terribly much but it was nice. And that paid. And it was great. So I finished up retiring eventually fully in 1990, I think it was. And I have done nothing but play bowls and do the garden and the house and my wife died
about – in 1989. And just before I retired actually, 1989 she died. And I’ve lived on my own ever since and loved every minute of it. And you know one of the nicest things, I’ll tell you, I won’t tell her, I can fart when I want to and nobody cares.
Excluding now, I hope?
so you know its, I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve done pretty much, I’ve had the luck of the draw. For instance, talk about the luck of the draw, all right, luck as I told you right through, everywhere. A mate of mine down the road here, I was his best man, he was in the army with me. He said to me,
he said, “Why don’t you put yourself in for the Sol Green Homes?” And he had been at me for a long while before this. I said, “All right, okay.” So I applied for a Sol Green home and the advantage of it was that this Sol Green was a philanthropic gentlemen that owned a series of
shops in furnishing shops, furniture shops, right throughout the country and he had put a few millions pounds away. This was a lot of money in those days, in 1945–46. And he started building homes for ex-servicemen that had qualifications
and one of the qualifications was that you had a family, he had a good army record, the longer the better. And when I applied for this, I was lucky, again. And I got this house. And the beauty of it was, there was no interest charges. The trust that this fellow set up paid the interest on the house. And you can believe this or not, but
when the final payments came out, the final quote for the house was about five and a half thousand pounds, which would equate to about 20,000 dollars on today’s prices. And they said, oh no, ex-servicemen couldn’t possibly afford that, we’ve got a bit of money left
we’ll deduct 20 per cent off the price. So I got the whole, everything, house land, road built, everything for just over 5000 pound, no interest, thank you very much. That was good so I have been lucky, lucky all the time.
Can you sum up the Balikpapan period and coming home?
Well when, as I say, not long, only a few days after I found this
piece of material, war was stopped, that was it, that was the end of the army which was formed. And word came out that those who had qualifications would be first home. So I had on my favour, I didn’t have any children, but I had a wife. So that was say 10 points, I had long service, which was five and a half years. I had
senior rank. And I didn’t need anything else that was all I needed to give me enough points for them to say, on your bike. And that’s what happened, when I came home I came into Royal Park and I dropped my rifle where I stood and walked away from it.
And that was the end of my army career. Never went back to it after that day. And I found out when I got home that I couldn’t do what I used to do and that was get drunk until you fell into bed, because my bed was never where I was getting drunk. And from Young and Jackson’s [Hotel] say, out to East Malvern where I was living was a long way on the tram, it took a long
while. And I only did it once; I was bursting by the time I got home, never did it again. So you learn by your mistakes. But no it wasn’t long after that episode that we, as I say, we all reckoned it was only a matter of days, and that’s what happened. It was a matter of days after that the whole thing folded up. And they couldn’t get rid of
us quick enough, because gradually, so long as you had the points, you were shifted home. And once that lot had gone another set of points and then they went home. It might be blokes that didn’t, that were single but had service or had decorations. That gave them enough points to be offloaded and sent home. So that they didn’t have everybody arriving home at the one time, there was a trickle coming all the time. You know from all over the place.
What were the positives and negatives that you took from those five and a half years?
That war was no good. If I had my way I’d knock their heads up and say work it out. Because you are not coming out of the end until you have worked it out. I don’t care what your faults are, they can be talked around.
And if the pressure is enough on them they will find a way to get around it without resorting to physical violence. Because nobody wins in the likes of Iraq for instance. People there bombed out of existence, people here hating every minute that it goes on but can’t do anything about it.
So although we are not really involved, we hate it, don’t like it, it’s not doing anything for us. A job needed to be done, you do it, and we did it. Give or take pieces of luck along the way, could have been killed if you’d have been on that truck that went over
the side or something like that. A bloke up in central Northern Territory there, a bloke who was fixing a tyre, and the rim came off and took the top of his head off, and that’s it. But it can happen anywhere. It’s, I can’t philosophise very much
about it, but I just know that nobody wins out of the situation. And I would do everything to avert it. But even now I wouldn’t shun it if it was forced upon me. I’d be in there supporting in some way if need be. But I’d also work very hard to try to stop it, you know.
In what way did that experience impact your post war life?
Well as I said before I didn’t have any direction before the war. I was now five and a half years older than I was when I came out of the army. So the disciplines
that you learn there stand you in good stead anyway. I was still only 26 and a half years old when I came out of the army. So I wasn’t exactly what you would call an old man. But I’d been through a lot and seen a lot, been near a lot, even if I hadn’t been active in it.
I don’t, I suppose I could say I enjoyed the experience, but that’s only because I came out of it with good health. And without my good health constantly, it could be a different world completely.
You know if I had had a leg shot off or something like that, the world would have been different. As it was I was lucky. Came out of it with good health. The worst I had was malaria, that’s the worst thing I had. Been much the same every since. The worst thing that ever happened to me. Apart from a few cancer spots on my skull and things like that
which are really nothing. Just superficial stuff, I’ve been lucky. I had a good family upbringing. I had good people to teach me, people who had a very
good regard for what they were doing. They liked what they were doing; they liked teaching me what they were doing. And I talk about people that were army, in the army, permanent army, was there, it was their life. The army was their life, they earned their money that way, it wasn’t just a part time
business. And they were all good men, you know, I didn’t find any ratbags amongst them and possibly because of the disciplines that they had to look to. So but, I think that the best thing that happens is to select the right parents.
I think that’s the… If you pick crook parents, or bad health parents, you haven’t got a hope; you are behind the eight ball before you start. But my, although my mother died very young, her mother lived on to a great age of about 90. And my stepmother, although that has nothing to do with me, she went on to 99.
She was always Mum, never called her anything else. She was 99. Both my maternal grandparents lived quite to quite a good age. So that has its bearing on what happens. Both the grandmothers were well into their 90s. One grandfather was about 60 and he died of a heart attack but the other grandfather, he went on to his 80s. You know, and here I am at 85, beaten the lot of them. Well I have past most of them except the women. I’ve past all the men, older than any of the men so far. But most of them…