War Stories – Tobruk Veteran Bert Le-Merton
This is the Living History podcast, broadcasting live across the airwaves
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and I hope you’ve enjoyed the recent series of special podcasts we did live from battlefields around the world. If you haven’t listened to them, go and check them out because we had an amazing experience over Anzac Day walking the ground at Gallipoli, and then carrying on to Vietnam and walking along Long Tan battlefields, so some great episodes there. It’s a real privilege to always walk these historic sites in the footsteps of the ANZACs, so if you haven’t listened to those ones, go back and check them out, our special series over Anzac Day.
This week’s episode is one I’m really looking forward to bringing you because it’s always a wonderful privilege to speak to a veteran, but this was an incredible privilege. I got to speak to a World War II veteran fairly recently and that’s a rare thing these days. There are not many World War II veterans left. Before long there’ll be none left, so it’s so important we sit down and hear these stories now and so I was fortunate enough to speak to Bert La-Merton and Bert is a hundred years old. You wouldn’t believe it listening to him on the recording, but he’s a hundred years old. He’s a veteran of Tobruk, El Alamein, New Guinea and Borneo, so four of the most incredible Australian operations of the Second World War. It was just wonderful to sit down with Bert and hear his experiences during the war, his attitude to the fighting, and just what he got up to in more than five years of service during the Second World War, so I’m really glad to be able to bring this one to you. Sit down, grab a coffee, and relax. You’re really going to enjoy hearing from Bert about his experiences during the Second World War.
I’m here talking to Bert Le-Merton, a World War two veteran and I’m looking forward to chatting with him. Bert, thank you for coming on the show and thank you for being with us and sharing your story. Let’s start with your childhood. Let’s start with where you grew up. We were talking about this before that you lived in Sydney a lot but you didn’t come from Sydney. Tell me about your childhood and where you grew up.
Bert: Well, I was brought up at the Mount Buffalo resort here for the first couple of years of my life. From there we moved on to Melbourne where my sister and my brother were born, and then in 1920 or thereabouts, we moved back to Sydney.
Mat: Okay and what was it like growing up back in the 1920s? Did you have lots of brothers and sisters? Was it just you?
Bert: I just had one brother and one sister. I really don’t remember much about that period of my life. I can remember a bit about Mount Buffalo. I haven’t got a clue about Melbourne. It’s completely outside my understanding. When we came to Sydney for the first time in effect, we were living in City Road Sydney, we call it City Road Sydney. It’s probably Chippendale, but we were living there in a house just down from the pub. We had one room in that house and my dad was working, of course. my mum was also working but she was taking my young brother with her because he was really a babe and I would take my sister across into the park to what served as a sort of preschool I guess and it was there that we spend most of our days during the course of the week, and we’d come home at about 3 o’clock and just wait for mum to get home from work.
Mat: What did you mum and dad do for work?
Bert: I’ve got no idea. Let’s face it, I was round about five years old.
Mat: Okay, what about when you were older? Where were you living in your teenage years?
Bert: A bit later on, we moved to another house also in City Road and my mum became the lessee of that house and we lived there in two rooms as it happens, and the other rooms were rented out. It was a residential building.
Mat: Okay, what was your father’s career? What did he do for his career?
Bert: He had no specific career. He just did whatever jobs were available from time to time. He worked at the show ground, for example for quite a time as a blacksmith’s striker, building roads in the show ground so that was a long, long time ago.
Mat: Yes, so a general handyman then. He was the definition of a handyman
Bert: Yes and then he got into sales of plants. We could go up to Mascot where the market gardeners were and pick up bundles of plants and he would flog that door-to-door
Mat: So tell us about that period. Tell us about the period of the Second World War. So how old were you in 1939? You must have been in your early 20s when the war started.
Bert: Oh, it was 21. Actually what happened I was one of those 21 year olds who were called up for full-time training in the military, first into the 35th CMF battalion at Rutherford? That would be in January of 1940.
Bert: That was for a 3-month full time period.
Mat: What was your feeling at that time being a young bloke living in Sydney when the war broke out? What did you think about the fact that there was another World War so soon after the last one?
Bert: Well essentially at that time the intention was that we would be personnel who would be used for defense of Australia, and while I was in that camp at Rutherford, I enlisted in the AIF. I eventually came back to Sydney from Rutherford fully armed – rifle, bayonet, all the regular gear that soldiers would have, and then on 27th of May 1940, I attended the AIF section and was transferred to Ingleburn as a member of second 13th Battalion.
Mat: Okay, so did you volunteer to join the regular AIF, or did they just allocate you?
Bert: No, I volunteered.
Mat: What was your reasoning then? Why you… like did were you very keen to join the war effort, or was it just the next step in your military career?
Bert: Well I think it was simply the next step in my military career at that point.
Mat: Were you very passionate about stopping the Germans when the war had started?
Bert: No, no, no. it was something that we needed to do.
Mat: So what about like with your friends? Was the war a big topic that everyone was talking about? Was there a feeling that everyone had to do their bit, or was it just something that was kind of happening in the background?
Bert: I think it was just something that was happening in the background. There was some who felt that they needed to be there, and others who was simply going because it wasn’t going to be very long and they would perhaps get a trip overseas.
Mat: What about this idea that we hear that everyone thought it was going to be a great adventure to go off and fight in a war? Do you think from your experience that’s true?
Bert: Not from my point of view. I didn’t look at it from that point of view. Eventually I realized that it was going to be an important event in my life and in Australia’s life.
Mat: So you were assigned to the Second 13th?
Bert: Second 13th Battalion at Ingleburn
Mat: And what job did they give you in the Battalion when you joined up?
Bert: I went into the light anti-aircraft platoon at that point which seemed a bit odd because I had trained for three months as a mortar man. However I went into the light anti-aircraft platoon with Lewis guns in those days, and we walked all over Ingleburn, of course. Marched all over Ingleburn and we trained with that particular type of weapon along with the ordinary 303 rifles, etc.
Mat: Okay, how was the 303? Was that a good weapon? Did you enjoy shooting?
Bert: it was a good weapon, yeah. Excellent weapon as a matter of fact, but I never fired one in action.
Mat: And so the push on the light here on the anti-aircraft guns, the Lewis guns which are actually a First World War weapon, I think.
Bert: We had trained with those and we became proficient in their use and when we were on the way to the Middle East on the Queen Mary, we participated in the anti-aircraft groups on that particular ship so that they had Lewis guns mounted in a couple of spots up on the upper decks so that we along with 17th Battalion manned those guns during that period on the tip over to India.
Mat: Before you left Australia, what was the training like that you went through? Did you do a lot of training?
Bert: Normal infantry training, in our case. A lot of marching, a lot of weapon training and the use of bayonets on the rifle, but it was simply boring in a sense because I had done it all before for three months. For the civvies, it was new to them. We were the old soldiers – three months old – and they were the new boys.
Mat: Was there a feeling amongst you and your mates in the Battalion that you were well-trained when you first deployed?
Bert: We considered that we were a well-trained unit and we figured that the Second 13th Battalion was also a well-trained unit, especially from the sense that many of the intakes of the Second 13th Battalion were previous full-time soldiers or CMF soldiers. A lot of them came from Rutherford as did I, because our CO had always been a CO of one of the other infantry battalions at Rutherford at that time, so I think he was probably a bit selective in the people who he called into the Second 13th Battalion
Mat: So you did your training. Did you form lots of new friendships with the other blokes in the Battalion?
Bert: You did, especially with your own platoon members. You become mates, close mates with all those blokes. In fact, one of those that you saw on one of that photo in there became my best mate, John-O, John Dickson.
Mat: Fantastic, and so you sailed from Australia on the Queen Mary, you said.
Mat: So this is still in 1940 obviously?
Bert: Yes, that was in 1940
Mat: And you sailed from…
Bert: I have got specific dates in various diaries
Mat: No, that’s okay. So what was it like sailing away from Australia with a ship full of troops heading for the war?
Bert: It was really interesting. It was fascinating in point of fact because this was something which be completely outside the experience of most of the people there, to travel on something like the Queen Mary, I mean. It was a big boat.
Mat: They had it refitted as a troop transport, didn’t they?
Bert: It had been refitted. Because we were specialist anti-aircraft personnel, we had six men to a cabin, which was pretty good because there was other people down on the depths.
Mat: So you had it good. You had luxury passage.
Bert: We had a good accommodation
Mat: Excellent. And so you travelled over, you said you were heading for India. Is that where they took you?
Bert: Yeah, we stopped off at Bombay and we checked up to a place called Dialally in Queensland for several days then we came back and boarded a little Dutch freighter which took us up into… well up into the canal of course, and eventually dropped us off there for transport to Palestine.
Mat: How much did they tell you about what you were going to be doing? Was it simply, get on the ship, boys? We’re heading off, or did they give you an indication of where you’re going and what you were going to do?
Bert: No, we had no idea. We knew we were headed for Palestine for a training camp, but other than that we had no idea what was in store for us.
Mat: You arrived in the Middle East and you ended up at Tobruk, and obviously Tobruk is very famous in Australian history, what were your….because I know your Battalion was well, your battalion was there for longer than just about anyone else. What were the experiences like during that siege of Tobruk?
Bert: it’s difficult to explain. I mean, you just feel… telling somebody else what it was all about, there’s a bit of a problem because although it’s in your head, you sort of can’t express it in words. I can remember that we had difficulties in washing, for example. We had one bottle of water a day to serve all purposes, so a lot of people didn’t shave very frequently because they drank a lot of water, and little things like that that come to mind but you sort of put them out of your mind.
Mat: And how often were you coming under attack from the Germans?
Bert: Not very frequently. I mean there were patrols out. Our air personnel had patrols going out covering his lines, and no doubt he had patrols coming in looking at us too, but the actual attack periods were relatively few.
Mat: Were you involved in those patrols going out to patrol the German lines?
Bert: No, no, no, no, no. I was a mortar man so I normally wouldn’t. I went out on one patrol because the other members of the unit I was with had all been out on patrols the previous night so I went out on one but it was only a short patrol. We only went out about 500 yards and then went left 500 and back a thousand and backed us into an income home kind of thing
Mat: So what was that experience like? Were we glad to get back to the safety of your hole?
Bert: It was a 16 year old experienced rifleman. I agreed our detachment could go out as long as we had an experienced rifleman. I had a 16 year old.
Mat: He was 16 and he still knew what he was doing?
Bert: He didn’t tell anybody else that
Mat: did you know what the big picture was in Tobruk? Did you know why you were there, and what you would do?
Bert: Well we knew we were there to keep the Germans out and make it more difficult for them to progress through to Egypt and the canal. That was our basic purpose in life, remaining there to stop the Germans and of course his Italian counterparts moving on to Egypt and on to the canal and then in effect controlling the whole of the Middle East
Mat: And did you feel proud of the work you were doing to stop the Germans, or did you feel why have the buggers put us in this position? What was the feeling?
Bert: We were proud of why we were there and we were keen to stay there until such time as the Germans could be moved back out of Africa.
Mat: And were the Germans launching air raids on you, on the positions very often?
Bert: Continually. They would send bombers down to bomb Tobruk town itself and the port itself, then they would circle around and follow the perimeter and just blast away with their machine guns at the perimeters as they went by.
Mat: I spoke to some veterans who had served in the Solomon Islands during the war and they said that the most terrifying thing they experienced during the war was being bombed by aircraft because it was just so random. Would you agree with that assessment?
Bert: Well yes, except that in our particular case in Tobruk in any event their bombers were expended on the town and the docks. I only had one occasion when a bomb was dropped on the perimeter and I happened to be out that day. I was running a message for the 6th section commander who happened to be a lieutenant. He was required to send a message across to company headquarters and I took the message because his people have been out at night so I took the message through, and on the way returning we had a bombing session over Tobruk and the bombers came back around the perimeter where I happen to be walking out in the open. So I just hit the deck, pretended I was dead. They dropped one bomb. It was a dud and it rolled until it was about 50 yards away.
Bert: Oh yeah but it was a dud. That happened frequently and we called the engineers and told them about it and they picked it up and took it off to do something else with it of course, and a line of bullets from the machine guns. I could see that that would be close, but I could see that it would not hit me. Otherwise I just simply rolled away but I could see it had missed by about a meter which it did and after they had gone, I got up and walked back to my post.
Mat: That was a near brush with destiny.
Bert: Well, it was a bit close. John Dixon was watching me from the post and they tell the story a lot more glamorously, shall we say. As far as I was concerned, it was part of the job. You lay down and you watched but you didn’t move until such time as you had to, in which case you rolled. I didn’t have to roll because the gunner didn’t see that I wasn’t a dead soldier.
Mat: Were you losing lots of men at this stage? Were casualties high?
Bert: Say again
Mat: Were the casualties high at this stage of the campaign?
Bert: Fairly, throughout the whole of the siege but I’ve really got no idea what casualties were in that time
Mat: Did you lose many mates from your unit?
Bert: No, not from my particular platoon. We had odd ones injured from time to time with shell bursts or something, but we had no casualties at that time.
Mat: Now Bert, I’ve heard people that were in the North Africa campaign talk about the Germans as they were quite a noble enemy, that there was a feeling of respect, was that how you felt towards the Germans?
Bert: Yes. Yes, we regarded the German soldier as being a fair decent soldier who abided by the rules of war. of course you got to kill the other bloke if you can, but they seemed to be more or less similar to ourselves, and after the whole war was all over, our Rats of Tobruk Association for example frequently visited their equivalent association, the Africa Corps Association that is, and they came and visited us from on occasion too.
Mat: Excellent. Excellent.
Bert: We were enemies but we were ready to be friends, as it were.
Mat: And did you actually see much of the Germans? Did you see German prisoners coming in? I mean I know that you weren’t involved in the platoons
Bert: Yeah, from time to time prisoners would come. In our instance, more particularly when the outbreak eventually occurred and the 8th army was on its way up from Egypt. We participated in that outbreak, in point of fact.
Mat: Tell me about that because your battalion was in Tobruk for longer than any other one. So when did you leave Tobruk?
Bert: We were with the Polish Carpathian Brigade until their 3rd Battalion arrived late in November. We moved out back into the Blue Line doing various tasks, sometimes looking after prisoners pretty much that, then when the Eighth Army made its break out from Egypt and started to move on, these British divisions broke out from Tobruk and that was at a place called Eid Judah. On the 20th of November 1941, we were called out to Eid Judah. That was an escarpment about 8 miles out of Tobruk ahead of the normal perimeter where the Essex regiment had been in trouble. The Germans had driven them off their position and taken quite a number of prisoners. We went out and we eventually regained that position and then they let us come back into Tobruk. That was in December, of course
Mat: What about into 1942? What actions did you take part in ‘42 in North Africa?
Bert: No, that was Alamein period. I was in the Alamein box for several months. In June ’42, the battalion moved back into Egypt and we were in the Alamein box and that’s where we remained and that’s where I remained until I was pulled out about three weeks before the final outbreak by 9 Div. and the Brits. I was back in Palestine by then. I happened to be a mortar instructor, a qualified mortar instructor and I was sent back about three weeks before the 23rd of October. That’s when the outbreak commenced. I was out about 2-3 weeks, it’s about three weeks I think in Palestine training reinforcements, so up between June and that time I was in the Alamein box but the actual Alamein breakout, no I wasn’t there. I was back in Palestine training Rios
Mat: What’s your memories of that time at Alamein in the box? What do you recall about that period?
Bert: From our point of view, it wasn’t all that difficult. We were in the Red Line positions of course. There was an attack on the infantry section ahead of us, but it broke off and prisoners came back. We didn’t engage – the infantry dealt with that and that was the only actual situation in which we startled German enemies there. I had a detachment involved in support of the Bulimba, which was an attack by the 15thbattalion, the Queensland battalion. We had a support role in that, along with another detachment from the 13th battalion and a detachment from the 79th Battalion. We were all posted back about 4,000 yards and we engaged from that position until the 15th battalion made their final attack on that occasion. It was unsuccessful of course but that’s the way it goes.
Mat: When you look back on those two big actions in the North Africa campaign, the siege of Tobruk which was about hanging on under those terrible conditions, but then the great success of the Battle of Alamein, how do you look back on them now? Do you think, as someone who participated in both, are you more proud of one or the other? Do you think one was more important than the other? How do you look back on them?
Bert: I think that the question of importance relies on the fact that the siege of Tobruk prevented the Germans making that access to Egypt. Now when they did finally make that access to Egypt, we had sufficient strength to hold them there without enabling them to move right in and take Egypt and then the canal, and of course the final breakout on the 23rd of October. That was the end of the Germans in effect although they battled all the way back and the Yanks eventually came in.
Mat: Eventually! Are you proud of being a Rat of Tobruk?
Bert: I’m proud of being a Rat of Tobruk. I’m proud of the fact that we managed to hold them out of there in our case at any rate for over eight months, because our battalion didn’t leave there until the 16th of December, and we went by road and we didn’t get a boat to [unclear; 30:02]. We went by road. We were supposed to take a thousand prisoners back but we didn’t. We escaped that and just got on their way. No, we were proud of that and I was personally proud of the 9th’s actions in that our final outbreak from Alamein and the trip from there on. Well, 9th Div. bailed out after that main outbreak because they simply lost so many men and the other divisions could carry on without them anyway.
Mat: Did you realize at the time or soon after how significant Tobruk would become to Australia?
Bert: At the time, not at that particular time but later on we realized as we read the histories, we realized how important it was to retain that place for the time we did.
Mat: I certainly agree with that and so North Africa moves on, and you’re now training mortar men. Was that in Egypt you were training mortar men or back in Palestine?
Bert: I became a mortar man in Palestine and I was a mortar man at Alamein….
Bert: …until such time as I was sent out to be a trainer.
Mat: Okay. Where was the training taking place when they sent you out to train? Where was that?
Bert: That was the Middle East weapon training school in Palestine.
Mat: In Palestine, okay. So was that the final chapter for you of the North Africa campaign?
Bert: Pretty much, yes. That’s quite right because our battalion was rebuilt here with three others that I had trained among other things. We lost quite a few men at Alamein. I think there were six from our platoon including the platoon sergeant, in point of fact, yeah.
Mat: What was the state of the men, the men who’d been through Tobruk and then Alamein? Obviously they’d been through a hell of a period. How was the unit by that stage when it was all over?
Bert: By the time is all over and it was rebuilt with Rios and some of those reinforcements had gone into Egypt before the battalion was removed, before the whole division was removed in fact although they didn’t see any action, but they had joined the battalion so that they were aware of what the battalion and the other battalions in the division had done, and I think they were proud of being there and of course we were proud to rejoin them when they got back into Palestine.
Mat: Do you remember when and how word came through that the division would be moved to the Pacific to take on the Japanese?
Bert: No, I don’t know. I can tell when we boarded the boats to come home.
Mat: Do you remember about that time though? Do you remember the mood, because it’s a very big move for a division trained to fight that war, while moving you the other side the world to fight another enemy? What was the feeling amongst the men in your unit?
Bert: Well we were anxious to get home. We were anxious to get home. we knew that Egypt was safe, the Middle East was safe in point of fact, because not only with the Brits there, but the Yanks were there and so we were anxious to get home and tackle this, to our minds, new enemy although we’d known of course it was happening so we were anxious to get home not only just have a bit of leave there with our folks at home, but to tackle the Japanese.
Mat: How long did they give you back in Australia after you left the Middle East?
Bert: I don’t remember. I can look it up.
Mat: It was a bit of time though, wasn’t it? It wasn’t just a few days. It was a bit of time.
Bert: Yes, because we had to retrain. We were all in desert clobber for example, the khaki shirts and shorts and things like that. We had to be retrained. We had to be re-equipped with green gear.
Mat: And where did that training take place? Were you trained back in Sydney?
Bert: It was back in Queensland.
Mat: In Queensland, okay.
Bert: Because Queensland was closer to the general country than anywhere in New South Wales, so that training was up Raven, so in Queensland.
Mat: And how did you find that as an experienced group of fighting men, how did you find that transition? Did the stuff they were telling you about jungle warfare make sense? Did you feel that you already had enough experience? Like what was the feeling of this new way of training?
Bert: We felt we needed the training because the territory would be entirely different, but we were convinced that we could handle it anyway.
Mat: I understand and I think with what came next, you were right as well. So they retrained you and then New Guinea. That was the next stop.
Bert: New Guinea, yes.
Mat: Do you remember when it was that you got up to New Guinea?
Bert: That was on the 6th of July 1943. We set sail from Aussie for New Guinea and we reached Milne Bay on the 10th of July 1943. On the 2nd of September we boarded LSI’s Landing Ships Infantry, and on the 4thof September 1943, we landed at Yellow Beach on the right flank of the main division. We were flanking troops again, covering the flank in case the Japanese came in to attack.
Mat: They always had you on the flank, Bert. They always had you in the exposed position on the flank. They must have known you were good.
Bert: If we could hold the Jerrys off, I guess we could hold the Japs off.
Mat: So which battle was that where you were on the right flank?
Bert: At Lae
Mat: At Lae, okay.
Bert: That was the landing at Lae.
Mat: So that was your first experience of combat in the Pacific?
Bert: First combat, exactly. So we landed there at Yellow Beach and then we boarded the LSI on the 27th of July and on the 22nd of September, we did another seaborne landing at Finschhafen
Mat: And that was some pretty tough fighting through that part of the campaign.
Bert: For us, it wasn’t because there was very little resistance. From our point of view the enemy didn’t resist too vigorously.
Mat: Okay. What was your feeling about this new enemy, the Japanese? You had said before that you thought the Germans were quite a noble enemy. Did you have the same feeling about the Japanese?
Bert: No, we didn’t. We had heard of the treatments they afforded the 8th Division and we knew that we were up against an entirely different foe who had a different approach to fighting. We figured that we wouldn’t be captured alive because we would be dead anyway.
Mat: What was the attitude of the other Australians? Did you serve alongside units that had been fighting at Kokoda while you had been North Africa?
Bert: No, no, we didn’t. No, no.
Mat: Okay. Was there a feeling of common purpose between the guys that had been fighting in the Pacific and the guys that had been fighting in North Africa? What was the feeling between you know across the RAF about the different work you were doing?
Bert: I think there was a realization that we were fighting a common enemy and it just happened that we had experience in another sphere, which perhaps they hadn’t. The 6th Division was in New Guinea. Now they had made the initial advances in Egypt and through Libya, and in fact they were the ones who were actually taken Tobruk in the first place, and we relieved them so they could go to Greece.
Mat: That didn’t go well for them.
Bert: That didn’t go well for them but it’s just one of those things. They had experience in New Guinea but we weren’t in contact with them because they were inland; we were seaborne.
Mat: I spoke recently to a Kokoda veteran who was in a militia unit, and his story was pretty typical of the militia blokes that sort of ended up there and found themselves in the middle of the Kokoda campaign, and they always spoke about units like yours – the Second AIF – that when they arrived. They always say… he spoke about they were older than us, these were soldiers that have been fighting in the desert at Tobruk and Alamein. He said we looked up to them like they were the most remarkable soldiers. Is that what the feeling was like?
Bert: That’s exactly what the feeling would be, exactly and the recruits that came to us had similar feelings with respect to us.
Mat: It’s interesting because of the outstanding work that the militia units did against the Japanese in Kokoda.
Bert: Exactly, exactly. The next time I struck up was the 35th Battalion, which was the same CMF battalion that I had been at Rutherford with. The next time I came up against them was in New Guinea.
Mat: Okay, okay and they had been through a lot by then.
Bert: We relieved them on the trip up the coast
Mat: And they had been through a lot, hadn’t they in ’42 by that time? How do you feel about the remarks that were made early against them that they were Chaco soldiers and what did you think about that?
Bert: Well, let’s face it. I was a Chaco soldier in a sense for three months. No, we didn’t have that regard. We thought of them as blokes who were serving in a battalion which had been formed to protect Australia and that was in New Guinea protecting Australia.
Mat: Yeah. They got the raw end of the deal.
Bert: They got the raw end of the stick, there’s no question about it.
Mat: They absolutely did.
Bert: So as far as referring them to be anything else but decent soldiers would be ridiculous.
Mat: Well said! So after Lae and Finschhafen, what was next?
Bert: After Lae and Finschhafen, we came back home. We got a bit more leave, went to the pictures occasionally and then we were back in Queensland retraining for Borneo. We thought in fact, that we might be going to one of the American islands that had been lost, but I don’t think the Yanks wanted that
Mat: That’s very true. The Americans were obviously trying to run their own show in the Pacific.
Bert: So we finished up attacking Borneo. We did a seaborne landing at Brookton. Our battalion was in reserve there, then we did another seaborne landing at Miri and we were the lead battalion there. In fact, we were the only battalion there. That was at the foothills of Miri.
Mat: And what do you remember about the Borneo campaign?
Bert: From our point of view, it was an easy campaign in the sense that the resistance was fairly light, but there was a lot of walking through the jungle to do
Mat: I can imagine. I can imagine
Bert: We landed at the foot of an airport. There was nothing – there was a couple of wrecked planes on the airport, but there was nothing there to oppose us.
Mat: How many times during this fighting, Bert in the Pacific, in both New Guinea and Lae, how often did you personally come up against the Japanese in combat?
Bert: Well first, not personally. No, not ever. I was on one occasion on the Rim Road, I was part of a platoon group, which was a platoon patrol which was going along the Rim Road and we ran into trouble on that one, but we overcame it. We lost one man but we managed to get out of it after a time and returned…
Mat: Was that a Japanese ambush that you came into?
Bert: Yeah, that was an ambush at one of the river crossings. Les Pepper was the sergeant in the Vicar’s Gunner Platoon. He was killed there but other than that, as I say, we expended a lot of mortar rounds of course. I only had two men, one of the old blokes and one of the young blokes, and I went off down the track running a wire out after me so that I could telephone constructions but I got to within about 50 yards of the actual point where the road entered the jungle and stayed there waiting for whatever might happen. Nothing happened, as a matter of fact so I eventually came back and then later on in the afternoon, the whole platoon came back.
Mat: So you fought at Borneo with your unit. Was that the last action for your unit of the war?
Bert: That was the last action I was involved in, apart from that. That was late into the peace and then the end of the war came into view.
Mat: Tell me about that. How was the feeling? Was there the feeling… I’m sorry if they seemed like obvious questions, but for someone who didn’t live through it, it’s always fascinated me, was there a feeling as you went on that the end must be near? We must be getting near the end. Was that a feeling or do you get a rush?
Bert: You get that feeling and you get the knowledge passed on to you that the bombers are bombing Japan. Well now, you figure if they’re going to bomb Japan, Japan is going to pack it in.
Mat: Okay, and you obviously had the news that the Germans had surrendered in May ’45.
Bert: Exactly. We’d heard that of course and said well good, that bit’s over. This one can’t be much longer.
Mat: So you’d been in at the end of the war, you had been serving for five years by this stage. I mean I know this seems like a silly question but what was that feeling when the war came to a close?
Bert: You know at the end when it came, there was the talk of the occupation of Japan and the occupation units were being formed and you thought, should I hang on or should I get out now? And I decided I should get out now, but I was one of them. One of our battalion was withdrawn from the Ordure battle of course, and I was one of the very late 5 years who returned to Australia. Some of the younger blokes stayed in and joined the occupation forces.
Mat: What do you remember Bert, as your… in all of these great battles that you served in, famous battles – Tobruk, Alamein, New Guinea, Borneo – what was the worst period of the war for you in that whole process?
Bert: The worst I think the Rim road patrol probably was one that affected us most because we were working in territory that we were familiar with from training, but which was totally different to what we had been dealing with in the Middle East, and it was a bit tricky in the sense it you didn’t know what was in front of you. we knew that there were enemy because it was pointed out to me the smoke from the cooking camps so that was the first place I engaged, and then we were fired on from the rear by mortars and at that time we had already packed up and we were preparing to leave. So they fired on us from the rear so we simply pulled the mortar off of the Jeep and loaded it up into the middle of the road and engaged from a point on what was on our right behind us when we were looking back to where we were going, and we engaged and then we engaged on the left, which is also engaging us from behind so that at that particular point, somebody sighted one of our rounds dropping directly onto their mortar so we considered that a kill because they didn’t fire again.
Anyway those were tricky situations because we were unprotected in the sense up in the middle of the road firing a mortar and being engaged from what was initially our rear, and fortunately the bombers from that mortar were dropping down the side of the hill so they were below the level at which we were. That one was the most frightening from a point of view of closest to the extinction.
Mat: That certainly makes sense. It sounds very hairy indeed. What’s your feeling now all these years later looking back on your former enemies, the Germans and the Japanese, after all these years how do you feel now when you look back on those former enemies?
Bert: I’m proud that we were able to handle the situations we were in and redeem the positions that the enemy had sent us. I suppose we only have a few of us left, I guess to converse with but we’re convinced that we did the right thing at that time in joining the services, and that we achieved more than we initially hoped we would achieve.
Mat: You mentioned that your Rats of Tobruk Association met with your German counterparts from the Africa Corps. What was that experience like?
Bert: It went very well we had some of our blokes who went over there to their annual meeting kind of thing and they did the same with our people or their people came to our people. I didn’t attend any of those meetings as it happens. I wasn’t one of the executives. I was just one of the mob.
Mat: Was there any of a suggestion that you would ever do that with the Japanese, or was that just something that would happen with the Germans?
Bert: I think that was something that was never going to happen. I saw a situation in their landing at New Guinea. There was a sniper and somebody had shot him out of a tree and somebody stabbed him. The guy who stabbed him had lost his brother in Malaysia from a Japanese soldier. That was just one of the situations that arose.
Mat: What’s your feeling about the Japanese today after all this time?
Bert: I think in terms of their military, at that time the military were not very nice people. I don’t know about their civilians because until the end of the war, I never contacted a Japanese civilian but from our point of view now, they seem to be good mates.
Mat: Do you think we’ve learnt anything from this experience of the Second World War? Do you think the world is a better place because we did this? What’s your impression of the big picture?
Bert: Well I think the world is a better place because we did it but we’re not ever going to be without war. There’s always going to be somebody who wants to take control of everybody else and I’m not saying anything beyond that.
Mat: Fair enough! Is there anything else you’d like to add, Bert? That’s been excellent! Is there anything else you wanted to talk about that we haven’t covered?
Bert: No, I don’t think so.
Mat: Okay. It’s been really wonderful. Thank you very much for taking the time. It’s been a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Bert: Thank you