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AWM Interview with Bill Shoesmith. (1990)

 General Hand / Canteen Sergeant 1942-45.

Fano, Italy. c. February 1945.  Sports day for members of No. 3 (Mustang) Squadron RAAF in northern Italy
was a day out for the local bookmaker, 21352 Sergeant Shoesmith of Newcastle, NSW.  Complete with
bowler hat and bag, he looks the part as the shouts the odds for the 100 yards "Old Buffers" race (32 and over). 
[AWM MEA2218] 

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.]










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


Bill, could we perhaps just begin at the beginning, when and where you were born please? 


I was born at Tighes Hill which is a suburb of Newcastle on the 1st December 1920. 


Right, and that's not too far from here now, is it? 


No.  It's only about eleven mile down the road from here. 


              I think you were saying your father was a baker? 


Yes.  He had a bakehouse at Tighes Hill.  I started working in the bakehouse when I was, oh, about eleven.  I left school when I was fourteen.  I was told I was going to be a baker and that was all there was to it and I was quite happy at that.  I didn't have to worry about lookin' at a job, it was already there for me, and I finished up joining the air force when I was the ripe old age of nineteen. 


Well just going back a little bit, of course those were the Depression years when you left school and getting a job wouldn't have been easy. 




Just tell us a bit more about, you know, working in the bakery because it does connect a little bit with what you did later in the air force. 


Well it was, as I say we had to learn everything right from the word go, and I mean, working for your father, well you couldn't get away with too much.  He was a pretty hard taskmaster, but all in all, we thought he was tough then, but looking back on it, well he was doin', he was makin' sure that we were doin' the right thing.  That was the main thing about it. 


Just a couple of other things about that period when you were a teenager growing into a young man in the '30s.  The tradition of the ANZACS in the first world war - Gallipoli, France and so on - were you very conscious or not of that tradition in your life? 


Yes I was, matter of fact.  I used always be reading all the little books that used to come out about the Red Baron and all those fighter aces of the first world war.  I was very interested in that type of thing.  I always have been, as a matter of fact.  So, yes, the tradition of the ANZACS, yes, that did appeal. 


And the news that was coming from Europe in the years preceding the second world war - Hitler's rise to power and so on - was that something that you and your friends were conscious of or not? 


No I don't think we really thought a great deal about it.  We didn't sort of realise how serious it was.  I know for a fact when I was at Sylvia's place up in Tighes Hill, when we listened to the declaration of war, and I said, I know myself at the time I said, `Well here's one that's not goin'.  I said, `I'm not goin' anywhere to any war'.  But of course things changed.  Your values change and your ideas change, which they did with me. 


What was it that really changed?  Was it the knowledge that Hitler was a real menace to the world, or was it more that you could see a lot of your mates and other young men going off to war? 


Yes, well I think it mostly used to be, I know when I was ....  I used to travel down Hunter Street, Newcastle, on the bread cart at the time - we didn't have the trucks - and they had all these big posters up, you know, `Join the army', `Join the navy', `Join the air force', `We want you' sort of thing.  I had no inclination whatsoever to go in the army, and I wasn't a great sailor as far as going out on any ships.  I used to get sick pretty quick, which I found out later on was still with me, so I wanted to join the air force.   


So eventually I went in and got all the papers.  Of course, when I took 'em home to Mum and Dad, well Dad nearly had a coronary and he was goin' to get me exempt and all that, but I didn't want that.  I wanted to join of my own free will.  I didn't want to be pushed into it.  I wanted to go of my own free will, which is what I did. 


Was that because your father was concerned about your safety, or because he valued your help in the bakery, do you think? 


I think he valued my help in the bakery (laughing) more than anything.  That's what I think anyhow.   


And what about your mother and the rest of the family? 


(5.00) Well Mum was pretty upset about it, which was natural, but the rest of the family, well, they thought, they seemed to think it was a good idea.  I was the first one to break away from the family.  It wasn't long after I left and joined the air force that the younger brother, Eric, he went and joined the navy.  So they lost two of us out of the clan, see, so that made a little bit of difference in the bakehouse, but they got by. 


Sure.  Well, moving on a little bit.  June 1940 you go to Richmond for five weeks' rookie training.  What's your strongest, clearest recollection of those first days in the air force? 


Well my first days in the air force I was so homesick it was unreal, because I'd never been away from home before, and I've got to admit I was very homesick.  A matter of fact, I know one time there I just asked the sergeant could I go home just for the night, just to see how they were in the bakehouse.  He was a very understanding bloke, and I suppose he'd come across a lot of these things, and he just says, `No'.  He said, `You'll be alright, don't worry about it.  It'll be alright'. And eventually I did come good, but I just, when I first went in and I found out that I was sharing a hut with about forty other blokes - we all had showers together and all that sort of thing - Oh God!  (Laughing)  I didn't know what had hit me.   


Yes, that's an interesting point actually, that sudden loss of the kind of personal privacy you have in a home. 


That's right, yes  It does, and like I said, it didn't worry me about getting up early in the morning.  I was used to doing that - I was up at four o'clock every morning at home - but the fact that you had to go and have a quick shave, or if you hadn't had a shower the night before you had to have a shower, and as I say, sharin' it with everybody else, and then lining up for your breakfast.  Oh yes, it was pretty torrid times, but ... 


What about the general parade ground bashing and sergeant-major type discipline that was probably drummed into people a bit in the beginning?  How did that go with you? 


Oh well that went pretty good.  Like I said, we had a pretty good understanding bloke and the sergeant we had, he was good.  He was firm, but he was pretty fair, and I suppose when their job was all the time to try and instil a bit of, what, common sense, knowledge and above all, discipline, into us civvies, well they certainly had a hard job.  But we eventually got through okay. 


Besides the general training in discipline and so on, what other things, what other kinds of training were there during the rookies' period? 


Oh well, naturally we did marching, and rifle drill.  Had us out on the rifle range to make sure we knew how to handle a rifle.  Took us on a few route marches, but I think one of the main things that they instilled into us was discipline, and that you had to do as you were told, whether you liked it or you didn't.  (Laughing). 


Sure, I guess that's the basis of it all in the services.   




Well, you referred before to your wife's name, and I know you married in August 1940 and just before, I think, you'd moved up to Canberra? 


Yes.  We moved up to Canberra in 1940.  That was, we went straight from our marriage - our wedding ceremony I should say - we went straight down to Sydney and then straight on to Canberra, so there wasn't any honeymoon or anything like that.  It was just a matter of straight down to Canberra, and we started our married life down there.  We was down there for, oh, approximately eighteen months before I was posted overseas.   


When I got word that I was posted overseas, I was quite, well I was thrilled to bits with it.  But, 'course when I told Sylvie, she's thought it was, she sort of looked round like a stunned mullet, and she couldn't see (laughing) the humour in it, you know.  But I was quite pleased about it, you know, 'course we didn't know, we didn't have a clue where we were going, and it wasn't till we got to embarkation depot in Ascot Vale that we were told that we were going to the Middle East.  In the meantime, well, Sylvie had packed up things and ....  She wanted to stop in Canberra but I suggested she go home with her mum and her dad. 


When you were thinking of going overseas, what was it that appealed most?  The feeling that you would be actively involved in defeating the enemy, or that overseas was a strange new place where you would see interesting things? 


Yes, I think that had a lot to do with it.  The fact that you were going away, you were leaving Australia, and that you would be, oh, participating in a greater way, but I still fully think that none of us had any idea whatsoever that it was going to be like it was.  We were certainly in for a rude awakening, there was no doubt about that. 


(10.00) Right.  Well, during the period in Canberra, you had been working first as a guard and then on a mustering of general hands, I think.  We might just leave that for now.  We'll come back to it.  You went from Canberra, as you were saying, to Ascot Vale No. 1 Embarkation Depot, down in Victoria, but I think you were only there for a brief time? 


Yes, only a matter of a few weeks and they sort of, well, they took us on a few route marches and were trying to get us fit enough for what they imagined it would be like overseas, 'cause none of them had any idea either.  And I know one time there we went on a route march and we went out that far, and everybody was that, had that much sore feet and everything, we came back by tram, so that didn't do a great deal for our (laughing) health, as far as fitness was concerned.   


I think we was only there about a matter of two or three weeks I think, and then they decided they'd throw the squadron round all over the place.  They sent different blokes here, there and everywhere.  I finished up back up at Bankstown for a matter of a few days, 'cause I had made arrangements to meet Sylvie in Sydney, and I'd no sooner done that than I had to write and tell her, or send her a telegram and tell her not to come to Sydney, that I was posted to Adelaide.  So off we went again. 


Did people find that sort of general, oh, shifting round - going here, going there - you know, everything being a bit chaotic, frustrating?  Or was it just easily accepted as perhaps the inevitable consequence of what was going on? 


Oh I think it was just accepted that that was part and parcel of it.  There was still a certain amount of excitement and thrill about it I suppose. Well, you just didn't know what was what of course, but it was just the excitement of going away. 


Well let's move on a little bit.  March '42 - you've got your corporal stripes by now - and I think it was the 20th March you embarked on a ship called the Eastern Prince, which I gather wasn't very princely at all. 


Oh, it was a shocker.  It was, there were cockroaches.  God!  As we used to say, they could nearly carry your kitbag they were that big.  They were shockin'.  It was the most filthiest ship you ever struck. Oh, it was absolutely filthy, and the cook, they called him `Bug Eyes'.  He had eyes, used to hang out just about on his cheeks, you know, and everybody kicked up so much of a stink about that, I think that we was only on there about two or three days and they took us off, and they put us ... I'm sorry?


No, I was just going to say, when you said you kicked up a stink, did you, were your officers generally of the same mind as the men or not? 


Yes.  They were disgusted with the conditions, and I don't know who they complained to, but they must have complained pretty bitterly, because they took us off and put us onto the Dilwara and it was just the complete opposite.  It was a beautiful clean ship.  The troops' officer on that, he was a hard man, but by God he had a clean ship and he had a good ship.  Yeah, it was good. 


              Was he an Australian, or a British officer? 


No, he was a British officer.  As they used to refer to him (laughing) `a Pommie bastard'.   


              And he was stationed permanently on the ship? 


Yes.  He was the troops' officer on the Dilwara.  He was good. 


Well, the Dilwara's certainly often come up in these tapes.  You set off, on this time, I think you sailed on 3rd April '42, with about two hundred and seventy men.  I think you sailed as a lone ship? 


Yes.  Every day we'd be sayin', `Oh, next day we'll be pickin' up the convoy', you know, `We'll be meetin' the convoy', but after about three or four days, and they told us there wouldn't be any convoy, we was goin' all the way on our own.  Well we went, the first day, we all thought it was wonderful because we was goin' down Spencer's Gulf, and it was as rough as billy-o, and we was all up on the bow of the ship, and she was up and down like a yo-yo, and gradually everybody would start coming back because they was all starting to be sick.  Well I was seasick for about three days.  I couldn't have give a damn whether she'd sunk or floated or what, you know. 


              It's a rough bit of water that in a boat. 


She is, oh yeah, she was terrible and over the Bight, but just the opposite when we come home.  It was just like a mill pond.  Hm, it was good. 


Just going back a moment, when you actually left Adelaide and left Australia, do you remember that as, was that a very significant moment?  I mean, did you think about what lay behind and what might lie ahead or not? 


Well, we knew what we'd left behind, what lay ahead, or what lied ahead, well we just didn't know.  We just didn't have a clue.  The farewelling committee was about three blokes on the wharf, just when they was untying the ship, and said, `Hooray Aussie', and `Good Luck' and `Away you go', you know.  That was all there was to it.  There was still that sense of, that feeling of excitement all the time. 


Well let's talk a little bit about shipboard life.  I know you were sleeping in hammocks, and tell us about that, you know, the general living conditions on the ship - food, sleeping, that kind of thing. 


Yes, well, first of all when they said you could, issued with a hammock, and you had so many people to each mess, as they called it.  I think there used to be about twenty to each mess, and one bloke'd have to shoot down and arrange for all the tucker, and everybody else'd get stuck into it at meal times.  But the humorous part of it was the fact that I'd never ever slept in a hammock and gettin' in and out of a hammock, well I'd just get in one side and completely go straight you know what over backwards, over the other side, which was very much to the merriment of my mate Maxie Walker.  Because he was a more or less an established sailor, and he'd done a lot of sailing in his time, he used to laugh his head off, until he finally taught me the right and the wrong way to get into a hammock.   


After that, as we progressed further north and the weather got warmer, they used to allow us to sleep on deck, and that was good.  Of course, sometimes you'd get a monsoon rain and you'd soon have to scarper out of the way for that, but it was quite humorous in the mornings.  Round about six o'clock you'd hear the Lascar seamen come along and say, `Wakey wakey, washie deckie, water come', and if you didn't shift you got hosed.  Couple of blokes didn't shift too quickly the first time, but they did the second.  So you had to get going. 


Tell us about the kind of things you used to do to spend your day on a ship.  There were obviously many days.  Did you do any training or was it a more relaxed sort of regime? 


Yeah, well quite often they used to give us physical training, a bit of running up and down on the one spot or marches round the decks, that type of thing, and of course, as you would know on a troopship, there was always plenty of games of chance goin' on.  I think there was three decks.  There was a different game on each deck, so anybody that had any money they could go and have a bash on that in their leisure moments, you know.  Unfortunately, I was one of these that, I was one of the real `Come in sucker's', and I used to go down and do my dough quick smart, you know.  


Did the officers, or the officer-in-charge of the troops, did they ever try to put a damper on that, or was it just an accepted thing that that was what men did on ships? 


No, they just accepted that and, after all, we couldn't go anywhere.  They had complete control over, if anything got out of hand in any way, shape or form, well they'd soon stop that.  But they were pretty good. 


What about the danger of the voyage?  Obviously you were going through potentially hostile waters.  Did you have to keep submarine lookout and any of the men in the air force or not? 


No we didn't.  There was a rumour going around at the beginning of it, but of course it was only a rumour, that everybody had to have a turn up in the crow's nest thingamegig.  Well, I was just about havin' a coronary, 'cause I got a horrible fear of heights (laughing).  But it was only a rumour goin' round.  But we didn't have to actually do any lookout at all.  The naval people did that.  Although, I must admit, I saw about four thousand submarines, as I imagined I did, you know, like everybody did.  But one of the nice things about it was you'd see the porpoises and flying fish and all that sort of thing goin' round the front of the boat and that.  That was good. 


              They're beautiful aren't they. 


Oh they're lovely. 


Did you generally have the run of the ship from bow to stern? 


Yes.  We had the run of the ship, 'cause there was only, we were the only troops on board, which we were lucky.  Bit different to when we was coming home on the Stratheden and there was 4,000 of us on board then.  It was pretty cramped. 




But we didn't care, we was comin' home. 


Yes, that's right.  Well you were saying, Bill, that you called at Colombo and later the ship pushed on to Bombay, and we've got a date here from the diary, which I might just add for the record, Bill kept, I think right throughout the war? 


Yes.  Kept a good, oh, a sketchy one, like, that I could fill in a fair bit, 'cause actually we weren't supposed to keep a diary because there was always a fear that if you were captured it could fall into enemy hands and all that sort of thing.  A few chaps did keep them.  I kept one to the, in a really sketchy sort of a way, but I could manage to fill in pretty good on it. 


And that, incidentally for the record, is now typed up into a full record of your years in the air force? 


That's right, yes. 


Well, going on, it was the 4th May that Dilwara got to Bombay.  I think you were then marched off to a fairly unpleasant camp at a place called Colarba? 


That is right, and boy it was unpleasant.  It was run by the English and, once again, there was that many bugs and that there that they just about took over the camp.  And the only way to get rid of 'em, as I said in my book, was you'd have to set fire to any papers or anything you could, and then just tip your bed up onto 'em and hope to God all the bugs went off.  Oh, they were absolutely shocking.  It was a dreadful place. 


Were there any British troops there at the same time? 




Did they react as harshly as the Australians did to these conditions or not? 


(20.00)   No they didn't, they just stood there and took it.  But we used to whinge and bellyache about it.  Not that we could do much about it, because we was only there for two or three days, - I think about five days I think we were there - then we went on board a ship called the Varella. 


Yes, we got that before, the Varella.  Just before we get onto the Varella, Bill, we might just talk for a moment about a sort of related issue.  What would you see as the main difference between British troops and Australian troops or airmen, as you experienced it as you remember it? 


Well, I think the British troops were more, oh, for want of a better word, I think they seemed to be cowed down.  If anybody had a little bit of authority over them, they seemed to buckle down, or knuckle down to it.  I know Australians got a tendency to buck against a bit of authority sort of thing, but by the same token, when the chips are down they know which side the bread's buttered, sort of thing, and they're not backward in coming forward and doin' their share. 


              When it's really needed. 


That's right.  But I think, we always used to say that with the old Pom, give 'im a cup of tea and a football to kick around, and he was gettin' a shillin' a day, he was quite happy.   


And what about British officers as against Australian officers? 


Oh ours'd leave 'em for dead.  Ours were more humane.  The British officers, they had a more or less like a caste system I think.  They felt that they were better than you, but with our officers, well they were different altogether. 


Well, we'll come on to talk about that in a bit more detail with some of those later episodes.  Well, the S.S. Varella, I think you stopped at Aden to refuel, then the Red Sea, Port Tewfik on the 20th May '42.  I'd imagine going through the Red Sea, but perhaps more particularly the Suez Canal, must have been quite a striking experience, just the very different landscape and then you'd land.  What was your initial reaction or memories of the very different culture and people that you were surrounded by? 


Well, just to go back on to the Red Sea part of it, it used to amaze me that of an evening, to see the sunsets there, well I've never seen anything like it in my life.  There was just like mirages.  You'd see castles and God only knows what and minarets just in the sunsets.  It was absolutely amazing.  When we got to Port Tewfik, 'cause we didn't go through the Suez Canal - we landed on this end of the Canal.  And Port Tewfik - well once again it was just something entirely different for us, you know.  We were told, `Whatever you do, make sure you hang onto everything you got, because if you don't you're gonna lose it', which we found out to our dismay later on was pretty true.  They were pretty good on clifty and things, there was no doubt about that.  That was something we learnt.  As you went along, you learnt day by day. 


Sure.  Well yes, of course, Port Tewfik is on the southern side of the Canal isn't it? 




Well from there you went on to a base camp, and this is the main base camp, not the advance camp, of the squadron at Sidi Haneish.   


I think we went to Amiriya first, and then to Sidi Haneish if my memory serves me right.  I think Amiriya was our, the one just outside of Alexandria, and it was from there that the squadron was put into two units, like B Flight and C Flight.  And C Flight went up, and then B Flight went to Sidi Haneish, and C Flight went up to Gambut, and that's how it was for quite a while. 


Right.  Could you tell us your first impressions of the squadron, only in a general sense, of the men, the officers, the morale of the squadron when you joined it? 


Oh I think the morale was pretty high, it was really pretty high.  Um, 'cause there was, like I said, there was just this air about the place that you didn't know what was gonna happen.  None of us knew that, of course, but the morale, I would say the morale was pretty good.  It was good.  Our officers were good.  They were very, to my way of thinking, they used a lot of common sense.  They had a lot of blokes there that didn't know go from whoa, and they were just concerned that they were gonna make sure that everything got into a good fighting machine, as they put it. 


When all these reinforcements arrived, including yourself, was there a parade?  Were you addressed by the squadron leader and given a general run-down on what was expected of people or not? 


(25.00)   Oh yes.  They just give us a bit of an idea about what they thought, what to expect.  The chaps that we were relieving, the original ones, that - incidentally they were leaving Richmond to go away when I was just going in to do my rookies' - they'd been over there about eighteen months or more, and of course they used to say to us, `Oh, you'll be sorry.  When you've been over here as long as we have' and, like I said, we weren't to know.  Originally they said we was only gonna be over there twelve months, but we didn't know we was gonna be over there three and a half years.   


They used to take us, tell us about the hygiene part of it.  They said, `There's no such things as toilets' and all that sort of thing at the time, and when you wanted to go and make a call of nature, well you had to make sure the hole was three inches deep and all this sort of thing.  They told us all that sort of thing, but it's a thing that did just come naturally later on. 


Let's have a bit of a talk about the general routines of camp life.  Of course, your mustering was as a general hand.  What were the main things that you and your mates would have been involved in doing? 


Well we had to put up tents for the officers, the pilots.  If they didn't like them there, we'd have to pull 'em down and put 'em up somewhere else.  I think half the time they did that just to give us something to do.  But if they wanted anybody to go down to the bomb dump and help the transport drivers pick up a load of stuff, well we used to go down and do that.  Anything that was going.   


If any tents to be camouflaged, we'd paint them, and I know one time we were painting one of the tents to camouflage, because we were using ....  We were camouflaging the trucks, that's right, and we were usin' some blood 'n bone stuff, and it finished up the CO come along and told us to stop it 'cause it was stinkin' the place out.  Oh God it was awful!  I don't know what it was.  Nobody would've put up with it.  We just did anything that was needed to be done.   


Right.  During the fairly early period, I think you were saying, at Sidi Haneish, the squadron was strafed and, I think, bombed as well? 




              How close an attack was that and how did you feel? 


Well I was frightened.  It's the first time anything like that had ever happened to me and a lot of the squadron ....  I might have got it wrong there.  I think that was down at Amiriya when we were first strafed and bombed, 'cause most of us, a lot of the squadron was up on leave.  They'd let 'em go on leave up to Haifa in Palestine, and I was with the base camp that was left and Jerrys come over that night and they strafed and bombed us that night.  I was frightened, I'm not afraid to say that. 


              Did you have foxholes to get into? 


Yes.  We had slit trenches.  That was a must.  You had to always have a slit trench dug.  As soon as you got to a 'drome, you dug a slit trench. 


Well let's just talk about that.  You arrive at a 'drome, and of course in the period that we're coming onto, there was this very rapid movement through, you know, a number of 'dromes very quickly.  What was the first thing you did?  Was it digging slits? 


Well the first thing you did, if you had the time, you'd put up your tent, and wherever you put up your tent, you dug a slit trench just alongside of it.  Later on we had a tendency to get a little bit blasť about it, and say, `Oh you wouldn't bother about diggin' the slit.  It'd be right', but lots of times through the night, if we had visitors and they were droppin' their callin' cards or things like that, you'd often hear a lot of shovels goin' diggin' (laughing) slit trenches at a belated hour.  But that was the normal thing, just put your tent up and get yourself organised and get your slitty. 


I'd imagine digging slit trenches in what I think was fairly stony ground often, must have been a fair job? 


Yeah it did.  It got worse later on up in North Africa when we got up to places like Martuba and that, out round near Benghazi and past Benghazi, and that was all very rocky there.  You used to just have to pile - that and Marble Arch - used to have to pile the rocks up and sort of make a slit trench out of it like that. 


Oh right, so building things up rather than digging in. 


That's right. 


Do you have any other particularly clear memories of attacks on the squadron when you really felt very afraid? 


Well, there was one time, it was when we were told we had to retreat.  We come back to Alexandria and the main force, the army held 'em at Alamein, and we just got a big load of supplies in and I was told by, there was two of us told by the officers that we had to stop behind.  Everybody else was moving out but we had to stop behind and guard this big dump of supplies.  And it turned out it was a dump of beer, and I wasn't too fussed on that.  I wasn't too keen on it because I was a non-drinker for a start.  Well the chap with me, we were on guard that night, because it was gonna be picked up because you've got to remember that the two most important things, while anybody's away like that, under those conditions there's two important things - mail and beer.  Well, as it turned out that this is a great big truckload of beer that had just come in that day and they didn't want to lose it all.  They were gonna pick some up the following morning.  Well me being a non-drinker, it didn't worry me a great deal as far as drinking is concerned, but the chap with me, Titch Pinal, he used to get on the grog a bit.  And it was about an hour later - about ten o'clock that night - and I know there was a couple of Jerrys stooging around, and they dropped a few bombs around, done a bit of strafing and that.  Titch Pinal by this time, he was well and truly sloshed.  He was gonna take on the whole flamin' Luftwaffe all on his own.  But I don't think, he was firing willy-nilly at 'em of course, but I don't think he ever hit anybody.   


It wasn't till about - because anybody'd come anywhere near us, we said, `Come on.  Help yourself'.  We gave way a hell of a lot of stuff that night.  Lot of blokes probably thought we were bonkers givin' away cartons of beer - or cases of beer - four dozen in a case.  But we got rid of a lot, made a lot of people happy.  And we finally left, oh, it'd be after midnight, be about one, two o'clock in the morning, I think, when we got away finally.  But, oh yes, that was a good memorable moment.  And I thought, `Gee, it seems rather ironic.  Here's me, a non-drinker and havin' to mind a whole truckload of beer' (laughing).   



Yes, that's right.  Well that's an interesting story Bill.  Well, going on a little bit, it was October '42.  This is, of course, during the period when the Allies begin advancing that, going through to January '43 when they reached Tripoli.  Anyway, it was during this period that you began operating the squadron canteen.  Could you tell us about the canteen? 


Yes.  I was called down to the, I was told I was wanted in the adjutant's caravan, so just naturally, when you wander down to the boss's place you think to yourself, `What the hell have I done now?'.  So when I got down there he wanted to know what I knew about running a shop.  And I said, `Nothing'.  He said, `Right.  From now on you're gonna be in charge of the canteen', because the chap who had it before was apparently givin' a bit of credit out where it shouldn't have been, and so it was in a hell of a mess.  So they told me I had to sell the stuff and not give it away, and all that type of thing, with the result that I made (laughing) quite a few enemies in the first week or two.   


But eventually everything worked out alright, and as I say, actually it turned out to be the best thing that's ever happened to me as far as over there was concerned, because it enabled me to be able to get away from the squadron a lot, go to lots of different places.  Whereas all the other chaps were tied down with squadron duties, I was away floating around trying to find stuff for the canteen.  It was quite good. 


That's interesting.  How did you get over this problem where men wanted cigarettes, tobacco, chocolates, you know, the general stock and trade of the canteen?  How did you get around the problem of men who, for whatever reason, might not have cash in the hand? 


(5.00)   Well we had to make it a fact that if they didn't have cash they couldn't get it, because I was accountable to my officer for it, and apart from that we had to have the cash.  Apart from the rations that we normally got free of charge, of course, we still had to have money to buy lots of the other goodies that we tried to get hold of.   


Sometimes we had problems, like you might get one bar of chocolate between three men and a bottle of beer between two, a bottle of tomato sauce between three and all that sort of thing.  But of course, we always made it a practice that as far as, wherever we had cordials, the non-drinkers got that.  There were quite a few non-drinkers in the squadron - they got the cordials, and the men got the beer.  Oh, somehow or other it seemed to all work out pretty good. 


Were canteens such as this supposed to operate at any kind of a profit or were they just meant to break even? 


No, only to break even really, just so long as you got enough money out of it to finance your next trips away.  That was because you didn't have any unlimited source of money that you could just go and grab hold of, anything like that. 


Tell us about the trips you did for the canteen, Bill, because you have said that you did get away from the squadron quite a lot.  Where were you going to?  What was your source of supply? 


Well in the desert our source of supply was down at Alexandria - that was our main source.  And I'd done trips back from up near Tobruk back to Alex, from up to Benghazi back to Alex, from Tunis right back to Alex - sometimes with a thousand mile each way.  Could be away fourteen, fifteen days at a time.  And it was just a case you had to scrounge.  We used to always get our, whatever we could, allowed to us, and then it was just a case of trying to scrounge around and get hold of whatever stuff you could in whatever manner you could.  Because if you didn't look after yourself, well nobody else did.   


We were very lucky later on when we were connected with the New Zealand Division, because after Alamein was successful and they took the 9th Divvy back home to Aussie, well we, us in 3 Squadron and 450, were more or less the only isolated Aussies aroundabout, and we were stuck out like a shag on a rock.  But the New Zealanders took us over and they gave us full, what, the full run of their rest places, their canteens and, above all, their source of supply.  We could go and get our same source of supply from them as what we were getting from the English.  So we were lucky in that respect because we were getting two bites of the cherry. 


              So you were doing well out of that. 




What was the general routine - if there was one - for men actually having access to the canteen?  Was it a daily thing or only certain days or what? 


Oh no, it was a daily thing.  Soon as we had our breakfast of a morning we'd open the canteen up about nine, ten o'clock, and it just stayed open till seven or eight o'clock at night.  Whenever anybody wanted any stuff we were there. 


Was it affected by operations at all, or were you open most of the time when operations, planes, were coming and going? 


Oh yes, we was operating all the time, 'cause we was just a little bit away from the strip itself.  But the main thing was, like I said, we were there just for, more or less, whenever the blokes wanted anything.  And it just boiled down to the fact of how long your stuff lasted.  Once it went down, and got down to a near zero area, well then we used to just go and say, `Well what about givin' some time off.  We'll go and see if we can get something', see?   


Just talking of that, how did you cope with things such as chocolate in a hot, in very hot weather? 


Well, come to think of it, I don't know how we did cope.  But one thing, once you got it back to the squadron it didn't last long.  It only lasted a day and it was gone, you know. 


              The solution was to eat it? 


That's right, yeah.  It was, well it was a quick seller. 


Well talking about something else, Bill.  During the period advancing towards Tripoli there was - or certainly in some periods - the squadron was going through very very rapid moves from 'drome to 'drome almost within a day, with the two flights leap-frogging ahead. How were you involved in that?  What was the general routine of getting all this sort of, you know, trucks and canteens and tents and the whole lot - how did you get from one place to another? 


(10.00)   Well the transport section - the transport officer - that was Allan Hoy, he had everything pretty well organised and, oh, I think it was just a case of the officers in charge, they'd just say, `Righto, they're going to such and such a destination, and they were movin' out at such and such', and you just had to be ready.  It was nothing for them to come up and say, `Right, you're moving out in an hour', and you just willy-nilly throw everything on wherever you could - the same as when they gave me my own canteen truck, and then Allan came up to me and he said, `Now you can drive it'.  And he said, `Have you ever driven one of these?', which I hadn't.  So he said, `Right'.  He taught me to double-shuffle, which is the only way you could do it, because there was no synchro-mesh gears or anything like that then.  He come up to me one day after I'd only had me permit as they called it, not that you got one there - and he said to me, `Right.  You're going to ....  Have you ever towed a truck?'.  I says, `No'.  He said, `Right, well you are tonight', 'cause we were movin' out in a couple of hours time, so he give me the armament truck to tow.  Well it weighed about seven tonne, see, but we made it.  You just sort of adapted.  You just adapted to it. 


Were there very clearly marked tracks from 'drome to 'drome, or were you navigating by compass bearings and so on? 


Yeah, sometimes it was by road, but lots of times they was goin' right across the desert itself.  We had one officer in particular, he was fantastic.  His name was Ted Tunbridge and we used to call him `Tee-im-up Ted'.  He got that name by the fact that no matter what you asked him to do or get for, he'd say, `Leave it to me, I'll tee it up'.  And he got the name of Tee-im-up.   


              Well he used to get out and he'd drive for so far, and then he'd - 'cause there'd be nothin' goin' across the desert for trucks to be spread out about seven or eight each side of 'im - and he'd go for so far along and then he'd stop, and everybody'd stop.  He'd put up his hand, everybody'd stop, and he'd say, `Right.  Now we're gonna go this direction for so far' - 'cause he was goin' by compass reading.  He never lost us.  He was good.  Personally, I'd stick to the roads myself, but lots of times you couldn't stick to the roads.   


Another interesting aspect, I think, of the squadron's life that nobody really has talked much about before is mail.  It was obviously very important. 


Oh yes.  It would be without a doubt the most important thing of the lot.  Just to get letters from home, oh, it was wonderful.  I know I got seventy one day (laughing) - seventy all for meself - it was lovely. 


There must have been some dedicated letter writers back home. 




Did you always know exactly where mail would be or not? 


No.  We always got the rumour that there was twenty bags of mail down the road.  Well `down the road' could be anything from twenty mile to fifty mile, and sometimes we've gone as far as a hundred mile.  And you might get down there and they'd say they never ever heard of it, you know.  Wouldn't know who you were.  Other times you might get onto four or five bags, and there was one time we struck it, oh, somewhere in the middle of the Bundi somewhere, and we got on to seventy bags of mail. It was the most mail we'd ever had.  We had parcels and papers and letters all over the place.  It was fantastic. 


And the mail was, I think, bagged up to go to specific units? 


Yes.  It was at a field post office and they'd be bagged up just for 3 Squadron or 450 or 112 or whatever it may be.  And, 'cause if ever we was anywhere and we saw 450's mail, well we would grab that too because they was only just on the squadron alongside us. 


Could you recall, could you perhaps describe what it was like actually getting back to the camp and, you know, I'd imagine in many ways a sort of fairly dusty, dirty place, with a truckload of mail.  What happened? 


(Laughing).  No matter what time it was, if you got back, if you had beer and mail, they used to be clambering around the truck.  Well it wouldn't matter what time you got back - unless it was late at night of course and you couldn't do anything in the dark - but the first thing we would do is dish out the mail.  That was the most important thing ever.  It really was. 


              Were there many men who did not get mail? 


I know one bloke that didn't get a letter, but he said he didn't care because he never wrote one.  And he was one of our medical chaps - Snowy Cromer.  I used to say to him, `Don't you ever get any mail?'.  `No', he said, `if I get killed', he said, `they'll notify 'em'.  That's all he ever said.  He never ever got a mail and he never ever wrote one. 


Men who did wish to get mail but occasionally perhaps didn't, was there much sharing around of mail? 


Yes.  Yes there was.  I know I used to read Maxie's mail, I'd give him my mail to read.  There was nothing to hide in it or anything like that, and there were some chaps that hadn't got any mail for a while and it was nothing for us to share our mail around.  You know, let 'em - because to get something from home, that was the important thing, yeah it was good. 


That's most interesting.  Well this is moving on a little bit, but at the end of the North African campaign, the main squadron of course leap-frogged in a couple of movements via Malta and then on to Italy.  You were now a sergeant.  I think you were left in charge of a base party at Tripoli, Bill? 


(15.00)   Yes that's right.  There was about thirty-six of us.  The main squadron, they'd gone from - I think it was from Tunis - they'd gone across to Malta and then from Malta they were going to Sicily and then into Italy.  Well we were camped just outside of Tripoli just near the beach, which was very nice for us - lovely weather, good swimming weather.  And there's about thirty-six of us and we were to go straight from there - when the call came - to go straight to Italy.  We used to look after ourselves there, just like I said.   


I was the sergeant then and there was about thirty-six of us there, 'cause we all had trucks to take over, and we used to supply our own goods and that.  And when you want your ration, well you used to have to just put in a chit as they called it - spelt C-H-I-T - for whatever supplies you had.  So many officers for so-and-so and so-and-so.  Well the first time I put it in I wanted it for one sergeant and thirty-five men, and the paltry amount we got back I thought, `Oh, bloody hell, we'll starve at this rate'.  So I thought the best thing I can do, I budgeted for, I think it was a couple of officers, and six sergeants and seventy-four blokes or whatever it was.  Finished up we were getting about enough food for ninety.  Well that just gave us sufficient to get around on.  It wasn't only a matter of a few days.   


We was having a bit of a problem with the officer in charge of all the movements there and he came along and wanted to know, wanted to find the officer who was in charge of us.  And I said, `Well that's me'.  And of course he said, `Well you're a sergeant, you're not an officer'.  I said, `No, but I'm in charge of it'.  And he said, `Well who signs your ration indents?'.  I said, `I do'.  He said, `You can't do that'.  I said, `Well stiff bikkies, I'm doin' it', I said, `otherwise we'll starve'.  So he said he was gonna take it further.  Well I said, `You do that'.  And, 'cause I knew, I wasn't worried a great deal, because by the time he got around to checkin' it out we'd be gone, and our officers wouldn't 've cared in any case.  The main thing was you had to look after yourself.   


Yes, so you got that food then.  During this period, when you were sergeant-in-charge of the party here, Bill, do you have any other recollections of that period?  What were you mostly involved in doing? 


We didn't have anything specific to do.  If the blokes wanted to go into Tripoli and have a few hours in Tripoli, they just shot through in there.  We never ever had parades or anything like that, which really upset this English officer.  He couldn't get over that.  He said, `You've got to have a parade every morning'.  I said, `No, no need to do that'.  If the blokes went, they'd come back.  We wasn't worried about that.  They used to go down to the beach swimming.  All we had to do was just wait there till we were called to go on the LSTs to go over to Italy. 


And the thirty-six trucks that I think you had, they were carrying the bulk of the squadron's stores and so on were they? 


Yeah, a lot of stuff.  Yes, because the main part of the squadron, well they had to be pretty mobile, going into Malta and then into Sicily.  What we had was just more or less a lot of the, more or less like the leftovers, I suppose, but a hell of a lot of stuff there that couldn't go with the first lot. 


Well, I think after you did leave there the first place you reached in Italy was, I think, Taranto. 


Taranto, hm. 


What's your recollection of that, of arriving in Italy, and perhaps also the voyage over to Italy? 


Well the voyage over was pretty good.  It was nice and calm as a matter of fact and we weren't worried by enemy activity because the Med by then was pretty secure - to a reasonable degree - so our trip over was pretty good.  'Course we were living in our trucks up on deck all the time, and when we first got to Italy, well my first impressions.  Well, I think what it was, when Italy capitulated and we were going into Italy, we all had the false impression that we would go straight up the north of Italy and start from there.  But the old Jerry had different ideas to that.  He made us - or made the army - fight every inch of the way, you know, 'cause we seen around Cassino and those places and it was dreadful there.   


              Hm.  The destruction. 




How did that general destruction of civilian property - homes, buildings and obviously the loss of life that must have gone on at the same time - how did that affect you?  I mean, in the desert you'd been fighting in a very clean sort of place where there wasn't a civilian population. 


That's right.  Well when you see a lot of the destruction there, well it was hard to sort of realise that that sort of thing had to go on.  The loss of life, I think you just, well you just came to accept that because that was part and parcel of the situation.  But I know the devastation that you used to see in some of the places, it was really horrific and we were all pretty pleased with the fact that Australia wasn't going through that sort of thing, which we were very pleased about that. 


Although of course, there was some bombing in a small way in Darwin after the Japanese entered the war.   




(20.00) After that period when Japan had entered the war was there any feeling with the men you were with, or perhaps yourself in particular, that you should be back in Australia, not in the Middle East? 


Yes, yes there was.  There was.  A lot of people used to think, `What the hell are we doin' over here?  Why can't we get back home and protect our own country?', you know.  But of course we didn't know everything that was goin' on.  We didn't know, like, the power struggle and all that type of thing.  But that was the general reaction.  A lot of people thought, well, `We should be back home instead of over here'.  Of course later on, I don't say it wore off, but it more or less lessened down a bit. 


Right.  Going back to the canteen for a moment.  Of course, Italy was a very different place to the North African Desert in terms of what local resources there were.  How could you exploit that?  What sort of things did you get? 


Well, like I say, once the army and that got established in Italy, the New Zealanders - they had a New Zealand Club established at Bari down in Southern Italy.  That's just up a bit from Taranto.  And with that established there they had a big warehouse which - 'cause they had the whole of the New Zealand Army over there, and therefore they had to have a lot of supplies.  And once again they told us we could draw on their supplies as well, so that was a good outlet for a start.  Other than that we used to do a lot of scrounging around and just go here, there and just ....   


No matter where it was, if we saw a village of any description - this is when we was out on canteen runs - we'd just go in and have a, as we say, a `shuftie' around - have a look around - and just see what we could pick up.  Oh, that's a bad word - `pick up' - I mean to buy.  Sometimes we picked up.  If you saw a few chooks or a pig or something or other roamin' round doin' nothing, we used to knock them off and take them home.  You had to eat.  You had to look after yourself.   


There wasn't a feeling there that it was fair enough to clifty things off from other troops, but the civilian population was perhaps different? 


Well, I suppose we didn't, I didn't even think of it that way.  Looking back on it, I suppose we could have thought, `Oh well, we were fightin' them a while back', so it might be a case of `Blow them, we're alright', sort of thing.  But like I said, you had to think of yourself.  If you didn't think of yourself, nobody else did. 


One of the joys, I would imagine, of Italy was that you were surrounded by some very beautiful places and there were chances to get off on leave.  And of course you had this extra ability to go off on your supply trips. 


Hm.  That's right. 


              What are the places you remember most going to? 


Oh I think, naturally, the highest one would be goin' to Rome, 'cause that's [inaudible] eternal city and it hadn't been bombed.  It had only just been touched on the outskirts around the railway yards and that sort of thing.  Very good precision bombing there because it was virtually untouched.  It was very beautiful.  Up in Northern Italy around Lake Como, Lake Garda - which is bordering on the Swiss Alps - absolutely gorgeous there.   


Ah, went to Capri - was nice over there, 'cause when we went over there, well, there was only one motor vehicle - a little three-wheeler motor vehicle on Capri.  When we went over there, well Sylvie and I went for a trip over through Europe about five years ago, and there was that many cars and trucks and even buses on Capri, it was unreal.  But when we were there there was only one little fiddly little thing that was racin' round there.  But those were really beautiful.  And then, 'course, to see Mount Vesuvius which did erupt while we were there and cause quite a bit more havoc.  But, oh, some lovely place to see, there's no doubt about that. 


And what about contacts with the Italians, with the local people?  Did you and your mates get through to local people much, or were you rather apart from them? 


Oh no.  We really got on well with them, 'cause I suppose there was six of one and half a dozen of the other - we helped them and they helped us sort of thing.  Because one of the first things we did when we went to Italy was to learn how to speak the language, and most of us could learn enough to get us around.  We got to know in Bari, we got to know a nice family there - we even corresponded with them after the war for a while.  Max and I used to go there and we'd take a few rations there with us and we'd have a meal.  But it was just to have a homely atmosphere.  That's what I think we missed more than anything was the fact that you're with a family and you could feel at home.   


We did the same in Rome.  Another place just north of Rome up on the coast, we got in with another family there.  And not only me, but there was lots of the chaps.  They all had lots of families and, as I say, it was just a fact of being in the home and having that homely atmosphere. 


(25.00) That's interesting, and I suppose in a way going back to the very start when you were saying how one of the problems with service life was missing just the sort of warmth of a private home. 


That's right, yes. 


              A different sort of thing altogether. 




              You had a nice story, I think, about an accordion. 


Oh yes.  Well, I used to always think if - when we was in the desert - if ever we got to Italy, which we didn't realise at the time, but we would, and I thought, `Oh I'd love to have had an accordion and a Leica camera'.  The two things I always wanted.  So luckily, we was halfway up in Italy, oh, up around the Arezzo or somewhere up round the mountain area, and we stumbled onto this little old village.  And lo and behold, a bloke in there, they're makin' Setimio Soprani accordions.  Well, as it was at the time - it was in the winter months - and our 'drome, or the fighting was sort of bogged down to a certain degree, and we were in this 'drome for a couple of months.  So I was able to organise a deal to do with this chap makin' the accordion, with the result that I used to go up there every two or three days and I watched that accordion bein' made.  I finally bought it home with me.  They let me bring it home, which was good. 


              That's great, and is it still playing? 


Well I only had it home about twelve or eighteen months and we wanted to buy a house so I sold it (laughing).  So I didn't have it for long, but I did have the honour and the pleasure of getting a hand-made accordion from Italy. 


Another issue that I just wanted to talk about briefly, Bill, is the relations between officers and the men.  How close were ground staff, or the men you mixed around with, to the general, to the obviously much greater sufferings of the pilots in terms of the dangers they faced and the loss of so many lives? 


Yeah.  Well I think we had a good, there was a good bondage between us all.  They weren't like officers.  They weren't this type that say, `Look, I'm an officer.  You're an erk.  You keep your place', and all that sort of thing.  They were just one, big, good - a good, big body of men I reckon.  And they all helped one another, they appreciated what the other one was goin' through, and I think ....  There was one thing that stuck in my mind, later on in life.  We were having an anniversary dinner up at Nelson's Bay RSL prior to having a big display at Williamtown, just a couple of years back.  And one of our former commanding officers, he asked all the pilots to stand up.  And they stood up, and he said, `Now you look around', he said, `and all those men that are sitting down, you can thank all those blokes for the fact that you're here today'.  And to me, that was a fitting tribute.  But they were good.   


We had a good bond of friendship between all the men.  One instance in particular, one day there was a chap by the name of Kenny Richards - and they used to call him Pee Wee.  For some unknown reason he had that nickname.  But he was a flight lieutenant, one of our flight commanders.  Matter of fact he got a DFC for lobbin' a 500-pounder down the funnel of a ship, which was a pretty good feat for that time.  But anyhow, Kenny made the remark that he was goin' on leave.  And I said, `Where to?', and they said, `Oh they're goin' over to Como or somewhere', and I says, `Righto, I'll come with ya'.  He said, `Why don't ya?'.  He said, `See your boss, see if he'll let you go'.  I said, `Never mind about him', I said, `You see your boss' - which is the squadron leader - `See if I can go with yous'.  So couple of hours later he come back.  He said, `Everything's okay'.  I said, `Right'.   


So in the morning away we went, and there was five pilots and meself.  But he made one stipulation.  He said, `Now, when you're coming away with us', he said, `wear a shirt without any stripes on it', he said, `because it's no good us going into an officers' mess, an officers' club, and you goin' somewhere else'.  So he said, `If you come with us you're gonna be with us'.  I was made a temporary flight lieutenant for four or five days.  Well that just goes to show the feeling that was between us and I'm happy to say that that feeling of friendship, it still exists right to this day. 


              And did you have a good time on that leave? 


Oh yes, terrific time, yes. 


But towards the end of the period in Italy, Bill, what are your main memories of that period as the war drew to a close? 


Oh well, we was all getting pretty excited and all we could ever think of was, `Well I wonder how long it is before we go home'.  By the time we got right up north up to Cervia, Cesenatico I think it was, and we only had one more move to go - that was up to Udine.  And that was right on the finish of the war.  And when we heard that the war was completely finished - which I was in Rome on a canteen trip at the time, when I heard it was finished - but the feeling of relief, and especially for the pilots, that was terrific, you know.  They really let their hair down (laughing).   


And coming back to Australia, it was all over when you got back.  How did you look back on it all? 


A wonderful experience, met a lot of wonderful friends, comradeship, fellowship ... 





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

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