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AWM Interview with Ted Medhurst.

3SQN Radio Operator 1940-41.


Transcript of Australian War Memorial recording. 
This historically-important interview has been placed here so that its content is searchable for 3SQN Website readers.
WORKING VERSION - Currently being edited by 3SQN Assn for readability and spelling of technical terms.]

Accession number S00937

Title (6687) Medhurst, Edmund Alexander ‘Ted’ (Flight Sergeant)

Interviewer Stokes, Edward

Place made Not stated

Date made 30 April 1990

Description Edmund Alexander 'Ted' Medhurst as a flight sergeant, 3 Squadron RAAF, interviewed by Edward Stokes for The Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939-1945



The Australian War Memorial is not responsible either for the accuracy of matters discussed or opinions expressed by speakers, which are for the reader to judge.


Copyright in this transcript, and the sound recording from which it was made, is usually owned by the Australian War Memorial, often jointly with the donors. Any request to use of the transcript, outside the purposes of research and study, should be addressed to: Australian War Memorial GPO Box 345 CANBERRA ACT 2601



Identification: This is Ed Stokes recording with Ted Medhurst, No. 3 Squadron, tape one, side one.

Ted, could we perhaps begin by just asking you when and where you were born?

Born in Penshurst, New South Wales, in 1918.

Right. And did you grow up there too?

No, I grew up in Ryde, New South Wales.

And attended school there?

I attended school in Putney which is a portion of the Ryde electorate and at Rozelle and Ultimo Technical Colleges.

Right. And how long, how old, rather, were you when you left school?

Sixteen years of age.

Right. And I think you were saying that during the - this is obviously coming up into the depression years - there was a period there when you couldn't find work.

Yes, that's true. I had great difficulty finding a position. I finally got one through the agency of Legacy in New South Wales as my dad was a returned soldier who suffered certain war injuries, so I was assisted in that respect which was quite good; otherwise I don't think I would have landed a job.

Right. Well, they were difficult times. And I think you did go on to do clerical work before the war.

That is certainly true. I worked in the building industry as a matter of fact.

Just going back to your father for a moment, I think that's interesting, you were saying about the first war and so on. As a youngster were you - besides obviously being conscious of your father's role in the war - particularly conscious of the general tradition of ANZACs and the war, and so on, of what Australians had done?

Yes, I was conscious of the valiant efforts they made under difficult conditions and ...

Do you remember, for instance, going to ANZAC services much?

No, I have a thought on that, and that is that I don't believe in glorifying war. Whilst I admire the efforts of some people to make it known that there was a war and a lot of sacrifices were made, I still can't bring myself to be really, to get really emotional about ANZAC Day as far as marching and flag waving is concerned.

Sure. Going on a little bit. I know you enlisted very early on in the war. Had you any sense of the war coming in the late 1930s or not? I mean, did you read the newspapers much, and did you interpret events in Europe and think that war would occur?

As I recall, I did not think there would be a war but my aim at that time was to simply to get a career position and I applied to join the regular air force and passed all my tests and medicals, ready to go in when the war in fact started in Europe.

Right, but that was, we could say, a career decision rather than a patriotic decision.

I would say that would be correct, yes.

Why the air force, not the army or navy?

I was always fascinated by aircraft.

Did you ever go for joy-rides, that sort of thing, in the '30s?

No, I didn't. I couldn't afford it.

Right. Well, let's move on then to actually joining the air force. I think it was December '39 you went to Richmond where I think you joined No. 3 Squadron


That is true. And I would have preferred to been able to wait until the Empire Air Scheme started and become a pilot but nevertheless I was already on my way into the air force and was, I decided there and then that I'd go in straight away.

That's an interesting point we might just perhaps pursue for a moment. Was there any choice given to you, I mean, was it, for example, suggested that if you deferred you might have an opportunity to train as a pilot, or not?

(5.00) No, nothing like that was said. It was purely and simply an application to become a member of the air force and the WT mustering was offered to me.

Right. But did you yourself realise that the Empire Air Training Scheme was in the wind?

No, it was not mentioned at that time.

Right. Well, going back to the story then. I think when you were saying when you joined No. 3 Squadron there was no training whatsoever, that you went straight off to West Melbourne.

No disciplinary training as such. As a matter of fact I never done any disciplinary training of any kind right throughout my service.

You were a very lucky fellow. [Laughter]

Very lucky indeed, when I see what others had to put up with, including my wife who was training as a WAAAF when I came back from the Middle East and I was able to stand and watch her being drilled in the, on the tarmac at Bradfield Park in New South Wales.

What about the general sort of ambience of service life? I mean, of having to take orders and being part of a big team in a sense, did that work easily with you to begin with, or not?

I've not always been amenable to discipline, I'd say it came very hard for me - any discipline at all, but of course one has to comply.

So you had a somewhat easier beginning did you because there was this lack of ...

Much easier.

... training and that? Well, let's move on because ...

I must add though, that whilst training as a wireless op in Melbourne, the 150 to 200 personnel who were billeted in La Trobe Street in the old Tech were required to march up through the city every morning during the course, which was very valuable for air force recruitment.

That's interesting; to generally wave the flag.


Going on with the West Melbourne period, Ted; your training there. What were the main aspects of training as a air force wireless man? What were the key things you learnt, studied?

Well, the curriculum we had at the Tech, at the West Melbourne Tech, more or less covered Morse code training and basic electrical currents and so forth; the basic elements of electricity and what it does and so on. It was very basic, indeed.

Did it go on to the maintenance and repair of radio equipment?

No, no. No repair work, no practical work of any kind.

I see, so that it was basically ...

Purely theory.

... receiving and sending Morse, general electrical theory.

That's right.

How would you have rated that, the training you did have: adequate, poor, good, very good?

Completely inadequate. As a matter of fact I always felt a liability until well into the war period.

Where did you in fact then - I mean, I realise later you were involved in maintaining equipment and so on - where did you get that grounding?

Purely practical experience; on the job experience; by asking questions and being told the answers.

So, this is working with regular air force men who were better trained?

That's true.

Anything else about that West Melbourne training you think you should add, or not?

Well, if we were going through it today, I'd certainly change it completely. I wouldn't ....

Theory is one thing, practical knowledge is another; and in war, what's the good of theory unless you can apply your knowledge? So, when you're short of time like, we were obviously placed in a position where personnel were required in a hurry in a certain theatre of war and we were bustled over there without any real training.

Right. Well, back in Richmond; I don't think you were there too long before news came that you were to go overseas ....

That's correct.

I guess you didn't know where. What was your reaction then? Was that... good news, or ...?

Good news because there was the spirit of adventure in it, of course. One didn't realise what danger he was placing himself in; and there was always the inevitable conclusion that you are going to be called up one way or another to do your bit. So, I suppose when it's all said and done, you know full well if you go into a battle that you might survive or you might not survive; so it's a sort of a fatalistic approach I suppose.

(10.00) Your parents: how did they feel about all this?

Oh, Mum was upset. I think mothers always are. But Dad, being an old soldier of the 1st Battalion AIF, he was quite proud of me.

And I think I'm right in saying you knew your future wife at this stage?

That's correct. We were together at a very young age. I think Beryl was about seventeen when I first met her - sixteen or seventeen. She waited for me until I came back from the war which was a marvellous thing and ....

That parting must have been quite difficult.

It was indeed, yes. We had a pretty good relationship - and still have.

Right. Well, just for the record too, Beryl is here in the room listening in.

Well, let's move on a little bit. I think it was on the Orontes that you went overseas. The voyage to India, where I know you trans-shipped, what's your recollection of that? Was there any training for instance? Or just filling in time?

Filling in time. We were given leave in Bombay, and that's about all that happened. We had a couple of days' free time and then we were aboard ship for a couple of days and off in a convoy.

But the actual period on board ship; was there any training on board ship or just phys. ed. and that sort of thing to keep people ....

Yes, we trained in small groups, more or less; again going over theory, no practical work.

Right. Any other recollections of the voyage that stand out?

No, only that we were passengers on RSM Orontes which was very nice. The second part of it on the troopship Dilwara wasn't so good, but nevertheless it was a very well ordered

troopship; built as such. And we all had our duties and we all had the usual boat drills, et cetera.

I have heard it said that on the ships, perhaps more the ships like the Orontes rather than the Dilwara, there was a fairly large discrepancy between the comfort of living for officers and men. What's your recollection of that?

That is difficult, I can't really say anything about that. I know this much: the officers were always, given their meals in - at a separate place but I don't think they were segregated in any way. When I say segregated I mean they were on the same level as us and even though they were in the one group, I don't think there was any segregation whereby they weren't in communication with us.

Right. Well, let's move on. And I think it was at Port Tewfik that you disembarked; to me a very, very different world from the one you were all used to: the people, the place and so on. What's your first recollection of that arrival in the Middle East?

Well, indeed, it was a surprise because the people who were round about the area where we

were disembarking were mostly peasant-types. When I say peasant-types I mean people who

obviously were very poor and there were no housing areas as we were used to; no paved

roads; the language was strange; the food was strange. Yes, it was certainly a great surprise


and no doubt something you really remember because it's a complete change from what you're

used to.

Do you remember the 'bum boats'?

What was it?

The little boats that I think often crowd around ships in the port there?

Oh yes. We saw those, quite a few of those in Ceylon, again at Suez and again at Port Tewfik

- selling all sorts of things: fruit and small items like ivory elephants, et cetera.

Right. Well, having got there I think you went directly to a Royal Air Force

station in Palestine - we've got a date here, 1st November 1940 - where there

was training with British Lysanders and wireless training to do with army cooperation.

What's your recollection of that training period?

Very good. There was an attempt made to familiarise us with all forms of signalling, not only

Morse code but Aldis lamps and various other items. But on reflection, one realises that the

equipment we were using was equipment which was invented some twenty, thirty years

beforehand, so that we weren't really going into a war with updated knowledge.

(15.00) And I think you were suggesting that the general organisation left quite a lot to be


Yes, I believe it did. We didn't seem to be anybody's baby and nobody seemed to know what

was to become of us as a unit. When I say, as a unit, I'm talking of the wireless operators who

came with the squadron.

When you said, 'Nobody seemed to know what to do with us', did you mean 3

Squadron overall or the wireless operators?

No, the wireless operators in particular because we seemed to be a group that had been

recruited with some plan in mind, but we could never seem to find out what it was. Our

duties were obviously planned as a form of army co-operation but it seemed to be taking a

terrible long time to materialise.

Yes, could you just perhaps explain in as much detail as you'd like how this

role of army co-operation was to work between wireless men, pilots and

ground people?

The general idea was that we use our equipment to receive a message from the aircraft and

convey it to an army captain, or whoever was in charge of a gun battery, using a certain

defined code to locate shots from field guns.

Right. And I understand there would normally be a wireless man in the plane

too, acting both as a spotter and a ...


Oh well, Lysander aircraft was a dual seat aircraft and there was provision there for a wireless

operator to go up in the plane and convey the radioed information to the ground. No doubt

that could also be done by the pilot with a remote control transmitter.

When there were two men in the aeroplane was it the pilot or the wireless man

who actually did the spotting?

Well, on recollection, I think it was a bit of each. I don't think it was ever specified that only

the wireless operator should do that sort of work. After all the pilot was responsible, I

suppose, for locating the gun sites in the first place and being in charge. No doubt, he would

often take over and relay the information back to the gun battery.

Right. Well, just one sideline, or two in fact, on this first period when you

were with the Royal Air Force. What's your memory of the general

relationship between Australian airmen, troops, and British servicemen? Was

it good, indifferent?

I found it excellent. I think on the whole Australians were always amenable to the humour of

Englishmen and likewise the Englishmen with Australians. We were two different cultures,

no doubt and, but we got on very well together. I didn't see any incidents that I might call

malicious or engendering hate as such.

Obviously there were ups and downs but I guess you're suggesting where there

were clashes it was just the inevitable kind of clashes when you get large

groups of men thrown together?

That is so. We've seen a few 'donnybrooks' at different times, but always ended up on good


There was quite a good story of a NAAFI canteen fight.

Yeah. We hadn't been long in Egypt, and I think our first port of call was Ismailia before we

went across to Palestine and an English army officer, an English sergeant, were orderly officer

and orderly sergeant respectively for the day, and all our crowd were in one very large hut for

lunch. And the officer walked in, announced himself as the orderly officer: 'Any

complaints?'. And before he had time to say another word there was a great roar from the

crowd to say, 'Hats off in the mess'. So the poor old officer went all red and got very

embarrassed and had to walk out; apparently they took umbrage at the fact that he walked in

with his hat on. Anyway, it caused quite a lot of consternation with the CO later and the CO

of the station.

I can imagine. People do generally say that the relationship between

Australian men and their officers was much looser, more casual than that

between British men and their officers. Would you agree with that, or not?

Yes, I can agree with that, but I must say the English airman and soldier had a greater, a much

higher standard of discipline and in consequence of that there seemed to be a greater division

between officer and men; and NCOs I might add.

(20.00) In the British units?


Yeah, in the British units than there was in the Australian units. The Australian units seemed

to be more relaxed.

Right. I know for most of this time you were living in tents and obviously

moved around a lot. What's your recollection of tent life? How comfortable

or uncomfortable was it?

It was as comfortable as you made it. A bed could be a batch of empty kerosene tins with

some cardboard on top, or it could be a groundsheet on the ground if you like scorpions but

by and large it was .... You could make yourself comfortable if you wanted to by using

whatever materials were available.

And toilet facilities, that kind of thing, how hygienic or otherwise were the ...?

Quite hygienic. The usual army style: pits with lime, several of them, maybe six or eight, ten

seats on them with a bit of hessian bagging around, sometimes no hessian bagging around. I

recall one fellow at one place I was at, I can't recall which it was, but he was an armourer and

he was sitting on the 'dunny' one morning after breakfast and an armourer in one of the, he

was preparing something inside his compound and a bullet or two flew out of the gun and

went through the fellow's ear who was sitting on the 'dunny', so he was a lucky man to be


I'd say so. [Laughter] That's a lovely one. He didn't fall in?

[Laughs] No.

How much contact did you have with local people? I mean, obviously there

were times when you were right out in the desert, but when you were in areas

that were fairly close to settlements, communities. Did you have much contact

with people or not?

Oh yes, in Ramleh in Palestine as it was then called, we had quite a good relationship with the

local village. I always recall a Greek who had a little cake shop in Ramleh and we quite often

bought his cakes and had a yarn to him and tried to show him how learned we were in Arabic

language. But we generally found them very friendly, particularly the Arabs.

We were having a look at a photograph before - I'm not sure if it's .... No, it's

not here - but it was the one of your batman called George.

Oh yeah.

How did he fit in? Did he travel with you, or ...?

No, he was stationed at a place called Aboukir which was an engineering, Royal Air Force

engineering establishment just out of Alexandria. And he was looking after the cleanliness of

our hut as a matter of fact. And we used to have him on and pull his leg and he used to enjoy

it, so one day we decided, we dressed him up as an Australian Air Force LAC, leading

aircraftsman, and he thought that was marvellous. And as I showed you the picture of him,


you'll realise he is an Egyptian. He was so delighted with that that he invited us to his

wedding, which was quite an education.

That's a lovely story. Well, going on a little bit. We've got this date here, 25th

February '41. The squadron was sent to another RAF base, I think at Helwan

in Egypt, and there the squadron went through its main organisation. What's

your memory of that period? For example, did you do further training? Did

that improve?

Yes, we again did training but only limited to the extent that our corporal, Les Gibson, and I

think it was Bill Fenton, the sergeant, gave us more theory on the use of valves in radio sets

and so forth; basic stuff, but again, no practical training.

Was that because they really didn't have the equipment to use? Or that they

were on the wrong track?

Again, I think it was lack of communication down the line, or up the line, and I don't really

believe they knew what to do with us.

Right. Was there much wasted time? Or were you kept busy?

We had something to do every day. We weren't allowed to lay on our backs, if that's what

you mean, but it wasn't very absorbing, I can tell you.

Right, so, unproductive time filling.


(25.00) Right. It was at this time, I think, some Hurricanes were coming out to replace the

biplanes, but most of them went to the RAF or to the RAF initially. Was there

any resentment, do you recall, that the RAF were looking after themselves first

and the Australians second?

That's the sixty-four dollar question. I heard a lot of the discussion about that at the time, but

I don't think anybody really knew what was going on, because later we heard that a whole

shipload of crated aeroplanes had been sunk on the way out to Africa. So I think it was a

matter of sharing what was available and maybe the wrong impression had been gathered.

However, that's only an opinion, I don't know whether that's factual or not.

Just another thing perhaps related generally to the morale of the unit, talking

specifically of this time. Did your squadron leader, or any other senior officer,

ever address the whole squadron and give them a sense of where they were

going, of ...?

Oh, that was a regular feature of our whole existence. We certainly never lost confidence in

our leaders.

Right. So you did know where you were going and what generally was to be

expected of you.


When our CO knew anything it was conveyed down the line in an appropriate fashion, yes.

Right. Well, that's interesting. Transport, I understand, was a bit of a

problem. You were saying that the squadron was pretty good at finding

transport ...

Yes. We were the best scroungers in the Western Desert, I can tell you that. As a matter of

fact on one retreat, I think it was the first retreat, I recall, I had a German Opel Ford V8

engine in it, and I carried the whole of the cookhouse equipment on that vehicle on this

particular occasion because we were short of vehicles; we were short of everything as a matter

of fact. And we didn't have any uniformity in dress, we had all sorts of hats, all sorts of boots,

coats, jackets; we were a really odd lot of 'odd bods', I would call it, to use a term. But

anyway I used this particular truck and I had four blokes in the front and three on top of the

truck on the retreat. And the vehicle I had used a quart of oil in every twenty miles, so you

can imagine if we were prepared to put up with a vehicle like that how short we were of


Yes, sure, and I think there is another story to do with that truck, but perhaps

we'll get to that in the sequence of events. Yes, you were saying the squadron

was rather good at scrounging. Was that ...? How hard was that to do, and

was it policed in any way?

No, it wasn't policed in any way. I can recall once a big break-in to a NAAFI dump, a big

NAAFI dump. NAAFI is the Navy, Army, Air Force Institutes canteen organisation. And we

had no food of any consequence at the time and - I wasn't involved in the break-in - but I can

assure you that we got some very nice diced pineapple out of that place; and we had pineapple

for about two months. [Laughter]

Right. And you were saying - I can just picture it - you were saying about your

uniform being rather sort of raggedy. Did officers and men always wear their

badges of rank, or not?

Officers always wore their badge of rank but other staff, as far as I recall, didn't place a great

deal of emphasis on it. As I said, we had a pretty poor lot of clothing for a start and all sorts

of jackets, so I don't think they had their stripes on all their jackets. So, yeah, I'd say it was a

pretty hotchpotch set up as far as NCOs were concerned.

Just to get a better feeling of the sort of general relationships between men and

officers. For example, an officer who, a pilot who you might have had very

direct contact with through servicing his plane, was he always 'Sir' or might he

occasionally slip into first name terms? And also the same thing vis-à-vis

people like NCOs: sergeants, corporals?

(30.00) I don't know about first name terms but I do know that there was a close camaraderie.

After all the pilot relied on us to make sure that the plane was in tiptop order, so I don't

suppose, when you think about it, it would do any good to be offside with people fitting out

your plane - not that they'd do any harm to - but I think it's better to have them onside than



Well, the pilots certainly always speak very endearingly of their ground staff;

but you'd still be calling them 'Sir'?

Yes, I think in deference to their status, yes.



Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Ted Medhurst, No. 3 Squadron,

tape one, side two.

Ted, just one other general thing about rank and that sort of thing, was there

ever any tension between men of the permanent air force and men such as

yourself who'd come in as wartime men, or not?

That's a difficult question to answer. I only had the one direct experience of that, and that was

in the signal section proper, but I found the officer, I think his name was Flight Lieutenant

Barnes from memory, we got on quite well together. There was never any indication given

that we were any different in status than they were, so by and large, no, I don't think there was


Right. Well, moving on to the actual story. It was after this period of reorganisation

that 3 Squadron was generally following the army, going

westwards towards Tobruk along the coastal strip - generally, I think you said,

a tarred road. You were obviously travelling, moving reasonably quickly.

What's your recollection of living during that period?

Well, I suppose you'd describe it as the normal army-style fare: living in tents, and drinking

chlorinated water, and being short of water most of the time; getting dust in your eyes, your

ears, your boots, your hair, your dinner; suffering the hardship of being on the move. I don't

think it would be any more difficult than any army exercise.

How often would you have been breaking camp, moving on? Each day, or a

week or so?

Oh no, not the air force, not air force units would not be but we'd, from my recollection, we'd

stay put for quite lengthy periods when we did sit down at a place.

Right. You were talking about the dust then; I'd imagine in many ways that

really was a great trial. How did it affect your work with radio equipment?

It was shocking because the static levels were so high, and the type of equipment we were

using was so fragile in the sense that we had the old grid system of valves, that it was

sometimes impossible to read signals of any kind, particularly at night-time.

Are you saying that the dust created static because of dust in the air or because

of dust that was in the equipment?


No, it would be dust in the air creating electrostatic energy. It was quite possible to get a

shock sufficient from a truck if you put your hand on it to knock you over at times with the

build-up of electricity within the vehicle just charging through your body.

What about dust actually penetrating the equipment? Was that a big concern

or not?

(5.00) No, not really, dampness was always a problem but there was very little moisture in

that atmosphere.

Yes. Going back to the story of this general advance, do you have any other

particular recollections?

No, not really, only one particular thing that sticks in my mind is the retreat of the Italian

army, which was really a rout actually, and we seen and heard evidence of what our pilots

were able to do to them, by strafing them along the main roads and down beside the main

roads. I always recall one incident, I won't name the pilot, but he came back and told us the

story about it, and he seemed to delight in running them down as they ran along the road; so

he must have had a real field day on this particular occasion, because he reckoned he knocked

out twenty-odd trucks, so that was a fair slice of the convoy.

Was there ever much talk of, amongst men or perhaps your own views, as to

the difference between knocking out trucks, for example, but, or going beyond

that and knocking out men who were running from destroyed trucks?

Well, I think soldiers and airmen and others they adopt a different attitude to the citizen at

home or in the street; they're at war and they always remember that that fellow lives to fight

another day if you don't knock him off; so I can see nothing inhumane about that in a battle,

or at war.

Sure. Yes, you were saying that the Italian retreat was very much a rout. Did

you actually come into personal contact much with Italians who'd been left by

the wayside?

Oh yes, occasionally you'd find groups of them in encampments waiting to be moved further

toward the back lines. They did not seem to have any interest in the war at all at this stage;

they were mostly conscripts of course.

Were Australians, or the two armies when they met, were men ever able to get

beyond the view that that person was a soldier of an enemy power, to seeing

them as individuals much as yourselves?

I don't suppose I was associated enough with the soldiers to be able to answer that question; I

don't really know the answer to that.

Okay, well let's leave that and push on. I wanted to talk a little bit about some

of your work actually in radio co-operation. I was going to come to the story

of the Giarabub incident, but just perhaps before that, as you were going

westwards in this fairly successful advance, what were you involved most of

the time, yourself, doing?


Mostly in the radio van taking messages and sending them forward for decoding.

Were these messages coming back from your pilots, or ...?

No, they were simply headquarter messages through Air Command I would imagine. I don't

know just exactly where they came from other than the fact that I knew they were something

to do with Air Command.

Right. Let's go on to talk about this detour when you went down, I think you

pronounced it, 'Jerrabub', but we found on the map it's spelt, J-A-G-H-B-U-B

[sic], about 200 kilometres inland along, I think, the Libyan-Egyptian border.

Cyrenaica-Libyan border.


Yeah, it was along the wire fence which was a boundary line between the two countries, I

suppose you'd call them. Yes, we were sent up there with a small unit to assist in the spotting

work with one Lysander aircraft. There was an oasis there and it was being held by an Italian

garrison, and it was the last stronghold of the Italians.

I think you were saying the journey inland was fairly rugged?

Indeed, it was. How we ever got there I don't know. It was full of rocky outcrops and

sandpits and there were many gravesides of Italians who'd been buried along the way, so I

assume there was some scouting done in that area at some time. The garrison didn't put up

much resistance, but there was an unfortunate incident I did see there. A lot of Australian

soldiers were killed unfortunately by what I saw to be some lack of liaison between the people

directing the gunfire and the people directing the soldiers to advance.

(10.00) Just to clarify, this is actually at Giarabub and as I understand it the basic kind of

chain of message was from the aeroplane by wireless to yourselves and then

from yourselves on to the army officers controlling the fire power.

Yes, but unfortunately on that particular occasion the static was so bad, and equipment so

awful that we weren't able to get the messages through satisfactorily and a system of flags

were used and messages were dropped by the pilot at low level. So on this occasion really we

didn't, we weren't able to perform.

I see, but you were still the people collecting the dropped messages, were you?

That's right, yeah.

And then passing them on by semaphore?

That's right.


And just to get the story straight; I understand from what you said before that

this was, I mean, not just the matter of the shooting of a few men but a really

quite significant number.

Yes. There were quite a few, and indeed I saw at least thirty soldiers that had been

unfortunately killed in the advance.

Have you ever read or heard of anything about this later?

No, I have never read or heard a word of it.

Did men you were with at the time talk about it?

It was discussed amongst the group I was in. It was later discussed on the return journey to

Salum. It seemed that there was an error of some kind made between the gunnery officers

and the infantry commander.

Right. Just to add one other detail to the story because I think it does give

some feeling of, I suppose, the precariousness of your situation. Tell us the

story of the moving bush. I think this was on the journey to there.

Oh yes. On the first night on this journey to Giarabub we had no support, we were just three

lonely individuals, so we parked the wireless van some way away from the wadi and went

down to the wadi and put our sleeping bags, our groundsheets down and took our blankets

with us. And during the night I heard some shuffling going on and I thought, 'Hello, there's

some scouts here, we've been caught'. And we each had our guns beside us, so I picked it up

and I've got it across my chest with the finger on the trigger and I see this branch move again

and it's a gazelle; so my heart was really thumping in my chest that night.

And there was a lucky gazelle in it too. Going on, Ted, when you got back to

the coast, of course, there was, or very soon afterwards, the retreat began in

earnest when I think the 3 Squadron went back, I think, 500 miles in a very

short period. It must have been very chaotic, very frenetic. What's your

recollection of the ...?

My recollection that is, that we arrived back from Giarabub and we went through Saloom,

down the pass, past Sidi Birrani and on to to Mersa Matruh - by this time they'd extended the

railway line to Mersa Matruh, and there was about forty railway trucks in the siding and we

pulled up beside it, and we hadn't been there for more than half an hour and the whole place

come alight with German bombers flying very low across Mersa Matruh, strafing the railway

line, then we realised we'd pulled up near forty trucks loaded with explosives; so you can

imagine, we did a hundred yards in less than nine seconds on that night. And finally they

strafed them but you wouldn't believe it, they didn't land one bullet on that train, they landed

all along the side; they hit the side of our truck as a matter of fact, so we were very lucky that

night. I think I'd have had my eardrums blown out easily, there was a huge amount of

ammunition in that truck.

How frightened were you?


Very frightened, I thought it was the end because if one of those bullets had have hit it at the

time we would have been blown to smithereens, because we weren't far enough away from it.

But that was a real fright, that was.

Was this the closest you think you'd come to, you know, possibly things going

badly for you?

(15.00) Ah, I guess so, yes. We had one other experience I think with a chap named Eric

Nicholls, not Eric Nicholls, Peter Nicholls, a South Australian. And we got caught out on the

Derna airstrip and Messerschmidt 110s decided to strafe the road, and then he switched over

to strafe the aerodrome; what he thought was an aeroplane on the ground was one that had

crashed, one of their own, and we were laying underneath the wings of it; so he give it a squirt

as he went past, and fortunately he didn't hit us; so that was pretty frightening too because we

were waiting for the rear gunner to give us another squirt on the way past.

What did you really think at times like that, or were you just so sort of

frightened ...?

You don't think, it's just too quick. You're sort of stunned, that's the word, I think.

What about afterwards?

Oh well, you realise how lucky you were; it could have been death. I've still got one of the

armour piercing bullets that went into the fuselage of this decrepit plane.

Incredible. Well, going back to this other retreat, I think, I don't know if it was

the same night, but anyway one of these nights when you were driving your

truck, you I think were almost killed again, but this time it was by alcohol.

Oh yeah, quite amusing. As I said earlier in the story we had this old Opel truck and we'd

been driving all day and we were pretty tired and there were four of us in the front of the truck

and three on top. And the three on top were, as I discovered later, full of liquor and I pulled

the truck up because we'd run out of water in the cabin and I wanted a drink. So I yelled out

to them, 'You got any water out there?' 'Yeah, we've got plenty up here', and they chucked

down a water bottle and of course I just took the cork out of the water bottle, opened my

mouth, lifted the container up, and course you know how those bottles used to, they didn't run

out, they just glug, glug and you get a couple of squirts, it was OP rum, it was Italian to boot,

and of course some of it went down the wrong way and I just about choked to death. It wasn't

funny, I tell you.

How did the boys on the top deck take all this?

They thought it was a great joke, no sympathy.

I rather thought that might be the case. After this period of the advance, you,

and I think about, well, a few other men from No. 3 Squadron, were detached

to a place called Amman, A-M-M-A-N, in Transjordan where you joined a

Scotch Guards regiment. What was the point of all this?


We were never actually told what the exercise was all about, but we gathered from the

officers there that their function was to guard all the tracks around Jerusalem which were

being mined by the Arabs, continually mined by the Arabs, so they decided to set up a

hospital there where all the Arabs who were sick could come and get treatment free, that was

to allay their desire to do us harm, and my only function in going there, as far as I could

gather was to be available to transfer messages in an emergency back to Jerusalem, but other

than that I never discovered what I was there for.

Was there an emergency ever?


So that was a fairly empty time ...

Innocuous exercise.

I think you were saying that their radio equipment was fairly inadequate again.

Hadn't improved, hadn't changed all the time we'd been there. But it was Royal Air Force

equipment that had been in use in the Royal Air Force for many years.

Any other memories or thoughts about that particular period?

We left Jerusalem and we went by train through the back country until we arrived at

Damascus where we rejoined 3 Squadron who were then supporting the Australian Army

Corps in Syria.

And I think this was the period when 3 Squadron were re-equipping with

Hurricanes, but I think you were saying the radio equipment again was not

much better.

It was still the same, still the same TR9, as I recall the classification of the particular radio.

And I understand there was a particular weakness with this set up; this was the

issue of pilots not switching off and jamming the air waves.

Yeah, it was a pretty antiquated method because if a pilot forgot to turn off his transmitter

then that was the end of any communication between the flight. So if it was necessary to

inform one of the wing pilots that there was someone on his tail they couldn't do it unless they

did it by hand signals, which wasn't very good at all.

Why was such an obvious defect not rectified?

I don't understand why it was never rectified; it was such a simple thing to do but it was never

done, not while I was in the Middle East anyway. We did endeavour to overcome it by

putting an elastic return on it so that they had to force it on and then when they let it go it

came back to the receiver side; it was the remote control idea but it was a very unsatisfactory


(20.00) And did this elastic set up have the desired effect?


It worked, yes, so long as it didn't, on the way back, get caught by the catch.

Right. Well, of course this was also the time I think when the squadron's role

was generally changing from one of army co-operation to a more fighter -

clearer fighter role both, and also a sort of ground attack strafing role. How

did that affect your role, your work as a wireless operator?

It didn't really because we were involved, like all the other trades, in daily maintenance. That

meant that if there were sixteen or twenty aircraft dispersed around the aerodrome, every one

of those had to be serviced every day and in between flights, so it was a full-time job just

getting around the aerodrome because the dispersal was very wide; the aerodromes were very

large, of course they weren't aerodromes in the sense that we know them, they were just dirt

surfaces which were flat.

I think you were saying you had little motor bikes to get around the planes.

Oh yes, we always had plenty of Italian motor bikes and some German DKWs, I think they

were. We always had at least two or three of those which were handy for messengerial work

and handy for getting between aeroplanes. And of course, they were also handy when we did

have some time to enjoy ourself on the clay-pans, which were very large and very smooth and

flat, and put a [Wellington?] magneto on them, you could get some very high speeds out of

them with 100 octane petrol, so when they seized up you just throw them away and get

another one [laughs]. That was the only good thing about the delay between activity in the


Right. Let's just try to follow through the story, if you like, of maintaining one

plane. First of all, were you as a wireless man, responsible only for one

aircraft, or for a number?

You would do as many as you were able to do. You'd probably have two or three blokes

doing them, but usually there were one or two, or three flights, A, B and C Flight or maybe B

and C Flight, whatever number of planes were serviceable at the time, and - or available - and

you'd service perhaps five one day, maybe ten the next, it varied from day to day.

In terms of actually maintaining radios you were saying that equipment would

be checked before and after sorties and perhaps even in between when they

were coming and going at short intervals. With the radios, what was the

routine, that you got in the aeroplane and actually tested it and if it was

working: fine. Or did you actually inspect it part by part?

No, the transceiver was down the back of the aeroplane and it would be just a matter of

opening a back hatch and checking that the transmitter was in fact working, but that would be

a very cursory check in the sense that you weren't allowed to transmit; you couldn't give the

enemy any advantages in that respect, whether or not it would go far was another matter but

nevertheless it was something that wasn't allowed. But you could always check whether it

was functioning by other means, but just a cursory check actually.

Right. I'd imagine the whole logistics of keeping spare parts and so on

up to the unit, perhaps especially big spare parts such as engines, but perhaps


also small parts such as all the necessities of a radio set-up, was that ever

difficult? I mean were you ever without spare parts?

Not that I recall.

So that was really well organised?

I'd say so, yes.

And we've talked before about dust. I did have some other things I was going

to ask you but I think probably they're not very appropriate, about how the

radios were maintained. Is there anything else that you think is significant in

the general story of how the radio equipment was kept functioning?

Not really. The only problem with the transceivers was the fact that they were operated from

a two volt lead acid cell, and the lead acid cells weren't always reliable and we didn't always

have the facilities for checking them out properly or charging them. We did have, at one

stage, a captured German generator which we used for lighting. We also had another one for

charging the batteries. We could never get a new - our machine broke down - we could never

ever get a replacement, we did have a German one.

(25.00) I was going to ask, did you pirate radio equipment much as you passed burnt-out

planes, vehicles, et cetera?

No, it wasn't suitable for our use, different frequencies, different size, different altogether.

Right. It was after the period of the retreat that we were talking about, that the

squadron began its conversion to Tomahawks which were really the first more

modern aeroplanes they had.

First American aeroplane, yes.

What's your recollection of that period, those new planes? How did people

react to them?

Oh, marvellous, it built the morale a hundred per cent, because they were modern in every

respect. They had the latest guns in them, they had the latest engines, the latest equipment in

the cockpit. In other words they were on a par with the opposition, which they weren't before.

I have heard it said that the pilots had quite a deal of trouble getting used to

Tomahawks because they were coming generally from much slower, less

powered planes; this is excluding pilots who trained on things like Wirraways,

and there was a very large number of prangs I think. Do you remember that?

Oh, there were always prangs, but I don't know that, but I don't know about those comments,

but I think that it wasn't the easiest plane to handle. I think it was mentioned many times that

it wasn't as manoeuvrable as some of the earlier aircraft that they had.

Did ground staff take much interest in the trials and tribulations of pilots' lives,

for example, getting used to new aircraft?


No, I don't think so, really.

What about in combat? Didn't the ground staff attached to particular planes

have a big stake in that pilot's safety and so on?

They indeed did, and they went to great lengths to get the best out of their planes; even to

waxing them to get another five knots of speed, five miles an hour I should say, of speed.

That was something that was very vital, particularly when they were up against the 109s and

the - the German plane, the 109.

I've never heard that waxing .... How was that done?

Oh, polishing the surface of the fuselage, less wind resistance I'd imagine.

Sure. Just one final thing on this conversion to the Tomahawks, the radios in

them: were they new, were they different, or not?

New and different, much better: better range and more automatic in their operation.

And they overcame this problem?

Oh yes, definitely. I can't recall just exactly what sets they had in them, they certainly didn't

have the ones that were in the earlier planes, I know that, but I can't recall precisely what was

in them.

And getting to know their workings and how to repair them and so on, was

that difficult or not, and who taught you?

We weren't taught about .... We weren't given any conversion on the radios in the American

aircraft at all. I think, if I remember rightly, when a set didn't perform it was taken out and

another one put in its place. In other words they were modular and they could be slid out

much easier than the others.

Right. Obviously in between more active periods there was time, as your

photos show, to get around and see the area. The Pyramids and the Wailing

Wall, I remember those in the photos, are they places that stand out or not?

Oh sure. The Pyramids were something to enjoy because of their size and the fact that they

were built by artisans many, many hundreds of years ago; and how they ever got the great

blocks into place is just something that boggles the mind.

What are other remembered places?

We had the opportunity to go down to Luxor at one stage and we saw the Valley of the Kings.

We were able to see the ruins at Palmyra in Syria. Jerusalem in particular, go down all the

places that were mentioned in the Bible: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Way of

the, I can't remember the name of it now. But anyway they were all historical places and that

was - and the manger at Bethlehem. I'm not a religious person but it was great to be able to

identify these particular places - and Gethsemane.




Identification: This is Ed Stokes, Ted Medhurst, No. 3 Squadron, tape two,

side one.

Ted, just to follow on from that: what were the main kinds of recreation both

when you were in more remote spots and, for example, on the edges of large


Not a great deal to do. Restaurants were, of course, always very popular if you could find a

suitable one. Tel Aviv was a great place; the beach at Tel Aviv, we were able to sit there and

enjoy the sunshine and also to watch all the young women swimming there and see them in

very tight-fitting costumes which was something that was good for the eyes, I suppose. The

fact that they were getting dressed on the beach was something that staggered us all because

we'd never heard of this in Australia which was very much on the prudish side so they were

many years ahead of us in that respect; it wasn't unseemly for a lady to undress on the beach.

That's most interesting. I would have rather assumed that the more, stronger

attitudes to religion and the sort of proximity of Muslim countries and so on

that that would have been ...

Well, that wasn't the case as far as our eyes were concerned, I can assure you, we were

staggered to think that it could happen; but they seemed to be much more enlightened in that


Did men have much opportunity to meet women, or not?

When you say men, you're referring to service personnel? Not really. It was rare to get an

invite to anybody's home. Of course you're not talking about great cities, you're talking about

places not of great population. I mean the cities themselves are more or less isolated from the

bulk of the people, and the well-to-do live in the cities and the rest live out in the 'sticks' so to

speak. No, I don't think we ever went to anybody's home all the time I was away.

Obviously there were a lot of married men and also men with commitments,

such as yourself, but then there are a lot of men who no doubt didn't have any

commitments. How common was it for men using brothels and so on? How

much is ...?

Not as common as you would expect. I think a lot of them were more or less going to these

places 'cause they'd heard their fathers talk about it from the first world war and they wanted

to have a look what it was all about. I think it was called the 'Wazzir' in Cairo and there was

another one in Sista Street in Alexandria. And I think they went down there more or less to

be able to tell Dad when they got home, or write to him and say 'I saw so-and-so. I know

what it's all about', that sort of attitude generally, I think. I don't think it was used greatly at



Sure. And along the Mediterranean when you were camped, relatively close to

the coast, was swimming a popular spare-time activity?

Yeah, if you were close enough, sure. You're right; the water was nice and warm too; it was a

very nice place to be. As a matter of fact that's where we - one of the places we were

stationed at - where we met the late Richard Dimbleby, the reporter, and we heard a great

argument going on in a large marqueé tent not far away in which Admiral Cunningham and

General Wavell were having a great argument, and we never ever got the gist of what it was

about but it was certainly a very fiery session. We gather that there was some dispute going

on about what action would be taken by the navy as far as shelling the pass at Salum.

That's most interesting. Ted, after the period when the squadron re-equipped

with Tomahawks came the Syrian campaign, and I think for some time you

were in Beirut.

(5.00) Yes, we, as I recall, we received the Tomahawk planes north of Beirut up by one of

the lakes, I can't remember the name of the place now, but prior to that we still had a number

of Hurricanes, and I think our unit with 458 Squadron were camped in the olive groves at the

back of Beirut airport and they were sharing the responsibility of protecting Beirut environs at

that stage of the campaign.

Right. Do you remember in more detail how you were employed during that

period in Beirut?

Maintenance again, there was only the one or two aircraft - Hurricane aircraft - remaining at

that stage as far as I can recall, and we moved on to the place where these Tomahawks had

been flown, but for the life of me I can't think of the name of the place, it's a biblical name

and it's a lake and I can't think of the name of it.

Oh well, that doesn't matter too much at all. After the period in Syria with the

Vichy French the squadron went back to the Western Desert, this is about

October '41. By this stage, of course, the Allied army is once again on the

advance. Was that very rapid advance of the army a good period or was it a

difficult period?

Well, the Italians were out of the war as far as we were concerned and it was a very rapid

advance towards Benghazi up the ... through Matruh, up through Salum on the escarpment,

Tobruk, and on to Benghazi. At that point Rommel's army were better equipped with tanks

and they forced the Allied army back again towards Tobruk. We, our army had gone beyond

Benghazi, the forward elements, but the whole army hadn't advanced beyond Benghazi. The

air force planes were stationed at places from Barce to Derna, from Derna to Barce, B-A-R-CE,

and a place called Antelat, A-N-T-E-L-A-T. Unfortunately it rained and it rained very

heavily for about a week, and this place is quite close to the coast where Mussolini had sent a

lot of peasant farmers over to grow wheat.

This is Antelat, I think.

Yes, Antelat.


That's right. So our planes unfortunately, our Tomahawks, got bogged and they were really

bogged. The oleo legs were down to the wings and nothing could be done to get them out.

So knowing that Rommel was advancing there was only one course to follow and all these

planes, I think there were round about twenty in all, they were burnt so the Germans wouldn't

have the benefit of their use.

Were you actually there when they were burnt?

I was. I was at the airport at .... I was at the place where the aircraft were in fact grounded.

That must have been rather horrific seeing these valuable planes going up in


It was sad, indeed, but what could you do? Leave them for the Germans' use? No, they had

to be destroyed. And if I recall rightly there was a four gallon tin put on each wing and

ignited. I think they were done singly, I don't think they were done in mass, they were done

singly as far as I recall.

Right. Well, of course, that was the start of what did turn out to be a very,

very rapid advance on Rommel's part, a retreat on the Allied part - on the part

of the Allies. I think leaving Antelat yourself, you were caught at night in a

hole in the ground and tanks were heard approaching.

Yes, we thought they were the 8th Army tanks because we had seen them earlier in the

advance coming across the desert in diamond formation. And we heard this great squeaking

noise with the bagpipes playing at the front, we thought, 'Hello, they're on their way back too',

but it wasn't them at all, it was the German army coming forward. And we left our wireless

vans some half a mile away and went for our life; we fortunately found a hole and got into it,

and later in the evening it was pitch black and these tanks rolled by us and over the top of us;

so it was a most frightening experience.

(10.00) When you say over the top of you, do you mean literally over the top of the hole you

were in?

Yeah, over the slit trench that somebody dug at some time and we were in. It was six to

seven feet deep, so we were quite safe at the bottom of it, but it was a frightening experience,

but nobody would know we were there because it was pitch dark. They were on their way to

encircle Tobruk which they successfully did, and we had nowhere to go but to Tobruk and be

encircled. So that's how we came to be caught in Tobruk for some period of time.

Yes, well, let's talk about Tobruk. This is after Salum and Sidi Barrani I think

had been taken and the place really is encircled. I think you were saying some

of the pilots and planes got out and some stayed, exactly how many did and


I wouldn't have a clue on what got out but all I saw was, all I knew about was the ones that

were bogged, hopelessly bogged.


Well, the number that escaped or didn't perhaps doesn't matter too much. I

understand during this period and it was two or three months that you were

there, you were attached to the army as a signals man.

That's correct, at army headquarters and my duty along with some of my colleagues was to

man the mobile wireless van night and day to take messages from headquarters in Cairo and

carry them down to army headquarters.

Right. Of course, parts of the period at Tobruk were very tense indeed, I think

you were saying you were there for the first major battle.

Indeed we were. It was awe inspiring, the major battle at night, just like - how shall we

describe it - a night on Sydney Harbour with the fireworks going; it was something to see I

can assure you, and the noise was absolutely deafening.

This is mostly shells or bombs?

Oh, it would be field guns. Field guns and hand to hand fighting on the perimeters - that

place, I think they call it Knightsbridge, that was about half a mile or three-quarters of a mile

from where we were in the wadi down towards the beach, down towards the harbour.

How much did fear come into it at periods such as this, when you were being

bombarded, and perhaps there wasn't much you could do yourself?

Oh, I don't think fear comes into it at all in those circumstances for the simple reason that you

know you're a captive, there's not much you can do about it, they're not going to be looking

for single groups of people, they want to make a breakthrough; once they do that it's finished,

so you're not in real danger of getting killed, unless you're in the front lines of course.

What about from indiscriminate shelling?

Well, they had a couple of very large field guns which they utilised to send shells down into

the wadi and of course eventually they succeeded in doing a lot of damage in the back lines of

the infantry divisions. We had one aircraft available there for spotting, it was a Lysander and

that was made use of successfully to find where they were moving these things about all the

time, and they did eventually wipe the two guns out. But despite that we still lost the

remaining plane which was the Hurricane we had in the sandbag protection there - bay -

because we were constantly dive-bombed by Stuka dive-bombers; it was a regular daily

occurrence. And there was nothing left standing at all in Tobruk and nothing left in the wadi,

any trucks, or vehicles that were out in the open were just knocked out of the war completely.

Let's look at a few of these photographs, these I think you took yourself?

Yes, I took these [inaudible].

Tell us the story of this photograph here, the general scenes of four men

looking over this blitzed out landscape.

What you're looking at there, it was outside the big tunnel which is into the escarpment, it was

formerly used by the Italians as a engineering workshop which housed all their engineering


equipment. But we finally holed up in this huge area underground along with all the other

unfortunates who'd been herded into Tobruk who were inactive; in other words they weren't

in the fight. And the officers' mess tent was outside in the open. And after this dive-bombing

raid there was no longer an officers' mess, it was gone, and there was quite a few lives lost

there too, unfortunately.

I think you were saying before there was a petrol tanker nearby.

That's right. There was some poor, unfortunate individuals decided to hide underneath the

petrol tank of all places and the incendiary bullets very smartly set it alight and they got

cooked alive.

Appalling. This photograph here, Ted, a similar general view, I think in the

foreground your ...

(15.00) Yes, that's our wireless van, and that's the one we had with us all the time. Eventually,

I believe, after I come home they were on their way into Libya again in that, and they ran over

a land-mine and all the guys in it got killed somewhere beyond Antelat, I don't know where it


Right. But again a similarly sort of blitzed out scene really, isn't it?

That's right, yeah, everything was blitzed in there. There was nothing left standing, actually,

other than the hospital and a few administrative buildings down by the harbour.

What were sanitary conditions like in this tunnel?

There was no sanitary inside the tunnel, they were pits out in the open, always lime pits, you


Right, so men got out. I mean, if you had to go to the toilet you got out.

That's right, you had to go out whether you liked it or not.

What about this photograph here, the tents?

Oh, that's the cooking facilities, naturally they had to be outside. They housed all the cooking

facilities we had, and as you can see they're pretty, what's the word?


Inadequate, yeah.

Was this all the men at Tobruk or just your ...?

Oh, only our, those that were attached to our unit that were in the tunnel.

Well, we've talked generally about how unpleasant the big battles were and so

on. Do you have any other general or strong recollections of this period in



No, only that of the prisoners coming in, the German prisoners being lined [up] not far away

from the entrance to that tunnel. And I recall a German spitting in an Australian soldier's

face, and he got a rather severe belting from this particular soldier but he was upbraided by

the officer in charge for doing it, but I think he had pretty good cause to do so. That was the

only incident I seen that was untoward in Tobruk while I was there.

Sure, well, I think finally and this is in December '41, you were rescued or

taken off by the destroyer, Vampire ...

That's correct.

... one night. That must have been a fairly harrowing journey.

Well, it was a journey into the unknown because we left on a moonless night with 130-odd

sick and wounded on the top, on deck, and we were sent down below. It was called a

destroyer but in fact it was just a ferry because it had no operative guns on board; they were

there but they were rusted. So it was just a means of getting people between Alexandria and

Tobruk, and bringing up essential requirements to keep the fort going, particularly medical

supplies. There were a hell of a lot of soldiers wounded in Tobruk. Fortunately we went

back on a zigzag course and without event back to Alexandria, and of course we were quite

glad to get there in one piece; we had no defence.

It must have been a great relief to be out of that hell hole. And in fact I think

Christmas of '41 came very soon after this and we have this menu here, 'Royal

Air Force, Ismailia'.

When we got back to Alexandria, we apparently were at the end of our sojourn in Egypt and

we were sent to Ismailia to await suitable transport to Australia which was a very satisfying

feeling, but mainly because we were concerned with the Japanese advance down the coast of

Malaya, and we'd had a visit by Sir Richard Casey, Mr Casey was then the ...

Lord Casey.

... Mr Casey was ultimately Lord Casey who was the Foreign Minister in the government of

the day. And we made it, the whole unit made it plain to him that we weren't prepared to be

over here when our families, et cetera, were in danger of being overrun by the Japanese; and

next thing we know we're given the opportunity for repatriation.

Did that attitude cover the whole unit through men, officers, pilots, ground


Yes, everybody, yes. Of course those that wanted to stay no doubt stayed; I don't know that

any offers were made, but I do know that the majority came home from Ismailia.

Just while we're on this sort of, what you might call, a kind of administrative ...

Incidentally, we came home on the Mauretania.


(20.00) ... on this administrative level. Was there ever any feeling that because the Australian

men were rather spread out through more numerous British units in North

Africa, and because your senior commanding officers were in Britain that you

were rather ignored in terms of things such as pay, promotion, general

conditions. In other words that the Australians came off second best.

No, I never got that impression at all. I don't think the other country units were better served

in any way than we were, I do not, no. No, I think the whole problem of the Middle East was

lack of supplies right from day one. Once we got the supplies it was no problem cleaning up

the mess.

Right. If we can just go back to a couple of things in the Middle East, and this

might also put what you've just said about Lord Casey in context. I've got a

feeling just from what we talked about before that there was .... You were

there for that other advance back through the desert, after they'd re-equipped

with Kittyhawks, and the visit from ...?

Oh well, we weren't .... Yeah, we were there till November '41 and El Alamein was finished

by then and they were on the move up into Tripolitania; Rommel was on the run.

Right. I'm just trying to re-organise the order of things. There was a period

when you were at Spinney Wood which we'll talk about in a moment. Did the

visit from Lord Casey come after or before the Spinney Wood episode?

Gee, that's a hard one.

This is just to clarify, there is some uncertainty about whether the visit from

Lord Casey came before or after the things we are just going to talk about, but

it doesn't matter. The attitude of the Australians anyway was, as you said it,

about coming back to Australia.

That's correct.

Whenever they did say it.

That's correct.

Right. Well, just going on, and in fact rather stepping back in time perhaps.

This Christmas dinner at Ismailia after Tobruk, after you'd come out of

Tobruk, Ted?

Yeah, well, that was an annual event in peace-time on Royal Air Force stations; when the

officers waited on the men and having, our unit was there at the time and we were invited to

the festivities, which was another indication that there was never any ill feeling between the

British troops and our own.

How much did events like that manage to take the worst edge of some of the

things you'd been through?


Oh, I don't think it made a great deal of difference, it was just a nice thing to happen at that

particular time, I think.

Right. Well, going on with the story. It was after the Tobruk period that you

rejoined 3 Squadron and this was the period of re-equipping with Kittyhawks.

Before the squadron went back to the desert I think this was when you spent

six weeks or so at what was called Spinney Wood. Could you tell us about


Yeah, that was the major signal station in the Middle East. It was a permanent air force

station and it was at Ismailia, and it was a centre for all the main signals from Air Force

Headquarters in England and elsewhere.

And what was your function there?

My function there was simply to take down the high-grade cypher and hand it in to the

cypherer, which entailed many hours at the keyboard.

Tell us about that. I've always thought the whole business of transmitting and

receiving Morse is rather fascinating.

No, I wouldn't call it fascinating, I'd call it routine, very much routine once you were able to

put it down on paper. It's all done in mainly in letters, not numbers, and ....

What sort of speeds would you be getting? I mean how many letters ...?

Oh ....

I mean, are we talking about letters per a number of seconds or a number of

letters per second?

Words per minute they talk in. Well, with cypher you can't very well talk in words per

minute. I suppose that's related to the speed at which you can get down the cypher. Ah, I'd

say about a hundred words a minute, something on that basis.

That's what I meant by fascinating. It always amazes me how anybody can do


It's automatic, it's like typewriting; once you get it in your system it never leaves you. It hasn't

left me yet and that's what? Forty, fifty years ago.

Yeah, right. Well, let's go back then anyway, after this period at Spinney

Wood you went back to the squadron and this of course was the period when

things were going very well, I think, and there was this very fast advance: lots

of planes, lots of equipment. What's your recollection of that?

(25.00) I can only say that we were elated because what we saw was the latest in American

enterprise in the way of Mitchell bombers, Kittyhawks. We had Beauforts, not Beauforts, no,

I'm sorry ....



No, no, no. Beaufighters and we had .... We also had Lightnings. We had an array of the

latest model fighter aircraft and medium bombers, which made a big difference to what the

army could do because they could, at short notice, seek assistance in a certain quarter where

they were getting perhaps pushed and eliminate a problem as quickly as you could say 'Jack

Robinson' which was never possible before.

And the radio side of things, your side of things, had that improved again,or


No, it didn't really change other than we still operated on the same procedures with more up

to date equipment.

But the equipment was better.

Oh, much better.

Had the actual range that the radios could operate in increased a lot, or not?

Yeah, the sets were more powerful, the range was better and the reception and clarity were

considerably improved.

Right. Well, one other thing I'd just like to talk about before we leave the story

of the squadron. Obviously the different commanding officers, or so you've

said anyway, did have a certain bearing on the way the squadron was running -

morale and so on. If we just run through them, how would you recall, for

example, Peter Jeffrey?

Oh, I think Peter Jeffrey had a very great rapport with his men; the sort of situation that you

imagine should prevail in all successful army or air force actions, where you can get the

greatest good from the greatest number of men, I suppose; that's the way you could put it.

But, always pleasant, and always give you pride in leadership.

And Bobby Gibbes and Gordon Steege?

Gordon Steege was a chip off the old block, I suppose, in the sense that he was a

disciplinarian more so than Bobby Gibbes. Gordon Steege was a permanent air force officer

as distinct from Bob Gibbes which made a world of difference to his attitude.

That's an interesting point, if we can just pursue that for a moment. Was that a

common difference between permanent and wartime officers?

Yes, as I said before, there was a more relaxed attitude on the, on those in for the duration as

against those in as a career. And I think the career officer was always conscious of his future

in the air force, more so than the bloke who come in for the duration. I think, sort of a, it

wasn't a personality factor, it seemed to me to just to be something inherent in the make-up of

the bloke. Gordon Steege always gave me the impression, I don't speak for anyone else when

I say this, that he was a bit aloof, and he reminded me of the officers of the British Army


where they were sort of aloof from their men because of the more rigid discipline in the

troops as against the officer ranks.

Do you think that was because the permanent air force attracted a certain kind

of person, or that ...?

In those days it attracted perhaps, perhaps you're right but then I might be only guessing

anyway, I don't ...

Or that once they were in permanent air force officers perhaps inevitably were

looking over their shoulder, making things look nice for their own careers.

I'd imagine it would be very difficult for a career officer to shake that off if he'd been a fellow

that had progressed, say, from a pilot officer through to squadron leader or group captain, it

would have taken him fifteen to twenty years to do that, and it would be so deeply ingrained

in his system that he just wouldn't be able to throw it off, even though he's mixing with a

whole group of duration officers, I still don't think he could just throw it off in the short term.



Identification: This is Edward Stokes with Ted [Medhurst], tape two, side


Just one final thing about this vis-à-vis officers and perhaps particularly

squadron leaders. Were ground staff particularly conscious of the exploits in

the air of different pilots? I mean, was it a thing that was talked about much,

or by and large ignored: who were the good pilots, who were the not so good


No, I don't think they distinguished between the pilots at all in that sense. I think some pilots

had the opportunities perhaps where the others didn't; it's as simple as that.

Right. Of course, that was the end of your period, or soon after that, with No.

3; as you said you came back. The Australia you got back to, was that a

different place, or not?

Only in the manner of speech.

How do you mean?

On arrival in Fremantle Harbour there was a Bushells tea factory along the wharfside in

Fremantle and all the girls were at the windows in their white factory uniforms waving

frantically to us from the, to the ship. And of course calling out as we were docking and to

hear the Australians speak after being away for that period of time was a most strange

experience, because I'd acquired some of the speaking, I suppose, tones or whatever you like

to call it of the Englishmen with whom I had associated. And it was no time before I got back

into the groove, however, but it sounded very nasal and most unusual to say the least.


That's interesting. Americans in Australia: was that a big issue or not?

I never struck many Americans in Australia to be quite frank. I went out to Parkes to train

wireless air gunnery blokes and I don't think I saw an American all the time I was out there.

And I think, well, your meeting up with your future wife must have been quite

a joyful occasion.

Oh, crikey, yes. She was a .... She's got a very peaches and cream, or she did have, a

beautiful peaches and cream complexion as a girl, and it was midday in the middle of

summer, and she was as red as a beetroot and she was doing her preliminary rifle drill right in

the middle of the black, hot tarmac, and I stood there for quite a while watching her, but I

didn't let on I was home. I went home and I saw her the following night I think it was, wasn't

it, Bev?

[I knew he was back in Australia. I knew the ship was down in Melbourne, I heard that

through ... there were some fellows there that you knew and they kept me in touch.]

Well, then, of course, I think it was in your period at Parkes where you were

for two years as a wireless instructor that you married?

That's so, yeah, we were married on 24th April 1943.

Right. Well, just finally, looking back on it all. How had the war been for

you? How had it all seemed to you?

Well, I've said this many times and I'll say it to you: I think it was a waste of time, for me,

personally. A great experience, a great adventure, I got out of it without being injured to any

great extent, and I would have liked to have done a lot more to justify the time that was taken

out of my life. I at least can say, when I come back to Australia, I contributed something

towards the cause but I can't say I contributed a great deal when I was overseas.

(5.00) Well, I guess in fact all the different parts added up to a bigger whole.

Well, that's a matter of opinion I suppose, but that's the way I felt anyway.

Sure. Okay, well, Ted, on behalf of the War Memorial, thank you very much.

Okay, it's a pleasure to deal with you.



[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on  https://www.awm.gov.au.]

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