Real war stories from the Fall of Singapore to El Alamein and the Kokoda Track

I have always loved books, and have been writing reviews for publication since 1966 when I was the editor of The Villanovan, the Villanova University newspaper in the US. I was also the literary editor of The Australian in the early 1980s for two years, and have reviewed books for decades. I am only mentioning this because the review below was written for the Returned and Services League (RSL) magazine, Reveille, edited by John Gatfield. I worked with John at Channel Nine and Sky News, and he asked me to review the book (it was pro bono). I did and he was happy with it. James Brown, the NSW President of the RSL (and son-in-law of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull), ordered the review to be deleted. Why? John said: “He had no desire to do me any favours.” John Gatfield is no longer editor of Reveille. James Brown decided he didn’t want Reveille published by Acumen Publishing, which John and Richard Landels had been doing for nearly 20 years. It is an inspirational book, an excellent gift for veterans and their friends and families this Anzac Day.
The editor of this book of war stories says in his introduction: “My father never talked about his service or experiences in World War II.” Neither did my Dad, who was in the US Navy on supply ships off famous Pacific battlegrounds like Saipan and Iwo Jima. John Gatfield’s father served as a gunner in the Middle East with the NZ Army Field Artillery. Both had, I’m sure, marvellous stories to tell. They would love the 75 yarns written by ordinary Australians, many of whom performed extraordinary feats during the Second World War, from their courageous days as prisoners of war in Changi and the Burma Railway, to the battle of El Alamein (Featured photo above) which turned the tide for the Allies in 1942, to New Guinea and the Kokoda Track where the Diggers fought with dogged determination.
Take, for example, Trooper Bob Ebner’s tale about the “Heroic end of Captain Cobb.” The legendary Cobb led the attack on the Japanese position on Sananandana Road, and ran into machine gun fire. Using his revolver, bayonet, and rifle, Cobb accounted for at least 18 Japanese soldiers before he was killed. Colonel RS Garland commanded one of the units of the 2/3rd Independent Company which attacked and captured Ambush Knoll in New Guinea, a Japanese stronghold, in July 1943. In a bid to recapture the Knoll, the Japanese launched 20 assaults over 4 days. The result: Japanese casualties, 67 killed, Australians, three killed and seven wounded. Garland’s unit comprised “eight, tired, sick and hungry commandos,” but he was ordered by Major George Warfe to hang on to “this piece of ground.” After eight days of fierce fighting, they did. Garland writes: “Our meagre losses … indicate the high qualities of the Australian soldier when his back is to the wall.” Lt Col Bernard O’Dowd commanded the 17 Platoon, D Company of the 2/11th Battalion, known as a very good outfit with a highly developed spirit of mateship in its attack on Hill 710 in Wewak, New Guinea in May 1945. The successful battle was, according to O’Dowd, a “one-day show” that took 13 days and “cost us many good men, killed and wounded.’ He continues: “Nevertheless the D Company soldiers conducted themselves in the best tradition of the Digger, with determination, guts and aggression.” One Digger who showed all those qualities was Sgt Albert Hertzberg, who writes about the assault on Tobruk on January 20, 1941 in his “Diary of a Digger of Tobruk.” “We are working furiously,” says Hertzberg, “firing as fast as possible. We haven’t even time to duck some of the ‘Itie’ shells which land dangerously close.” The infantry breaks through: “Hurrah! It’s over.” Hertzberg praises the coordination of the navy, army and air force, and adds a lovely footnote: “Please excuse the roughness of this letter as I wrote it in the desert (where there are no tables and chairs).” A great piece by Corporal Alby Bannear, “El Alamein: Gate of the Road to Victory,” recalls the 1942 battle that forced Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, into retreat with his once proud Afrika Korps. Banner writes: “We remember the end of the battle that came about 5 pm when every aircraft under the command of the 8th Army went over to be in the kill and to harass the fleeing and confused enemy.”

All the stories are worth reading, but I can recommend a few more: Able Seaman Alf Orton’s “HMAS Yarra: A Survivor’s Story” — after the ship was hit by three Japanese cruisers and two destroyers, only 13 of the crew of 151 officers and men survived. Orton was one of them. Una Keast was a captain in the Australian Army Nursing Service when she and about 150 nurses were evacuated from Greece from fishing caiques to the HMAS Voyager. One of the sailors on board said to Una “Give me your hand, mate.” She said: “”I’m all right, I can manage.” To which he replied: “Strewth! Bloody Women!” He hadn’t realised it was a woman. Una had more poignant moments after the war when she went to New Guinea to look after the POWs. She said it was an “absolute nightmare. We’d go off and cry our hearts out when those fellows came back. It was terrible.”
“Escape After the Battle of Crete” is Signaller Stan Carroll’s amazing story. He bolted for the mountains when the island of Perivolia was about to capitulate to the Germans. He hid in the hills for eight days with some other troops who also escaped. He borrowed a boat and sailed an incredible 350 miles across the Mediterranean to Egypt in seven days. He was at least 10 miles off shore when the mast smashed a hole in the boat. Stan swam, floated and surfed, at the end crawling on his hands and knees to shore. An hour later, he came across an air force listening post with two Maltese officers. He was safe at last. And last but not least, Sister Berenice Twohill of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent who was one of about 350 priests, brothers and sisters interned on New Britain by the Japanese during the war. She told John Gatfield she didn’t hold a grudge against her jailers: “I look at it this way: every soldier fights for his country. War either makes or destroys a man. He either becomes a man or he’s an animal.”
These Australian World War II stories are personal and poignant. There is not a sniff of elitism: the Diggers are down to earth, the brave prisoners endure hell, and the men and women we read about care more for their mates than themselves. This is a book written by and for returned servicemen and women, for their families and friends and for all Australians. Lest we forget.
Great Australian World War II Stories: From the Annals of the RSL, Edited by John Gatfield, ABC Books, 351 pages

3 thoughts on “Real war stories from the Fall of Singapore to El Alamein and the Kokoda Track

  1. I’m confused. Why did John Brown not want to do you any favours? Or was it John Gatfield he didn’t want to do any favours for?

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