I Was There

We were in the Winnellie camp for two weeks, just about long enough to recover from the “trots” which everyone had from drinking the bore water on the trip north. The situation with regard to the advancing Japanese was pretty tense, and an invasion was expected at any time, so in the first week of February the Battalion was dispersed into defensive positions around the Darwin area.

We were in the Winnellie camp for two weeks, just about long enough to recover from the “trots” which everyone had from drinking the bore water on the trip north. The situation with regard to the advancing Japanese was pretty tense, and an invasion was expected at any time, so in the first week of February the Battalion was dispersed into defensive positions around the Darwin area.

“C” Company was allocated to the Lee Point area, to occupy the concrete “Pill Boxes” which had been installed prior to our arrival. Fred Jones (Major) was our “C” Company Commander. The three platoon leaders were Lt. Harry Watson (11 Platoon), Lt. Bob Greer (10 Platoon), and Lt. Halliwell (12 Platoon). Lee Point is situated 5 miles almost due north of the Darwin aerodrome. Our “C” Company was a force of 120 men with about 5 minutes ammunition and little or no air support, strung out over more than a mile of coastline to defend Australia against an invasion force of 40,000 plus Japanese.
Our pill boxes were situated in strategic positions at the edge of the scrub and trees facing the beach and the open sea to the north, and were covered by camouflage nets to conceal them from the enemy. Somebody had decided that the enemy must come up the beach. They were not allowed to land somewhere else, and sneak around the back of the chosen positions, just to avoid being shot. The pill boxes looked like two circular concrete water tanks about 2 metres in diameter, placed side by side. They each had a horizontal slot cut into the side facing the beach, and two Vickers machine guns positioned so that they could fire out through the slots. Behind the gun positions was a small concrete room in which the ammunition boxes were stored. Above and between the two gun positions was an observation post with slots to the front and either side, from which an observer had a forward and sideways view of the landscape.

They were said to be bomb proof, but like most insurance policies the warranty was void in case of acts of war, and/or (and especially if) there were any aircraft in the area. 
The roof was a slab about 8″ (20cm) thick, made of rather poor
concrete, which would be useless in the case of a direct hit. A dud 50kg bomb dropped near the RAAF Aerodrome from 20,000 feet
altitude left a neat round hole fourteen feet deep, and anyone in 
one of those pill boxes when it was hit would certainly need a cuppa tea, an aspirin, and a good lie down.
Right along the beach front were barbed wire entanglements which in WW-1 when they were designed, may have seriously deterred foot soldiers for some considerable time. One of our problems in WW-2 was that our entire war effort was based mostly on WW-1 experience which was totally inadequate and outdated for the type of war we had to fight, and the barbed wire in this instance would have hindered us more than it would have hindered a Japanese landing party. The beach was sandy, and extended for about a mile when the 25’ tide was out. When the tide came in, it brought with it tree branches, logs, and all matter of debris which caught in the barbed wire entanglements and pounded hell out of them. One of our daily tasks was to repair the wire.
The living conditions were somewhat less than one would have expected at the Hilton. Tent fly’s which the Army had saved from WW-1 were strung between the trees, and we slept under mosquito nets, four to a tent fly. Rough stretchers were made up by cutting the bottom corners out of two chaff bags, and slipping them over two straight saplings cut about 7’ (2 m) long; these were then supported on stakes driven into the ground to keep the stretcher a foot or so above the ground. There were millions of mosquitoes, spiders, and creepy-crawlies of all description, including scorpions as big as yabbies, and plenty of centipedes up to 6″ (15 cm) long.
If you stayed in the shade under the trees, the mossies ate you alive. If you went out on the beach, the sandflies took over. Precautions had to be taken; shake out your boots and helmet to make sure there were no centipedes or spiders etc. in them before you put them on. White ants too could do a lot of damage; they would eat the soles off a pair of boots left under your bunk for more than a few hours at a time. The centipedes were nasty. They are said to be not toxic to humans, but their bite is extremely painful. Allen Ruwoldt put on his steel helmet one night to go on guard duty, and was bitten on the back of the head. In the early hours one morning, Les Sudoltz, who slept under the same tent fly as I did, gave out a horrible gasping “Arrrrgh!” which sounded as though someone had run a knife through his ribs. I grabbed my rifle and bayonet, ready to join the fray, when Sudy struck a match and started swearing. “*!*x?##!**?centipede!”. Les and the centipede both lived to fight and bite respectively, for another day. The centipede got away, and Les got experience – very painful experience.

Toilets were holes in the ground; bathing initially was a swim in the estuary of Leanyah Creek, until one day we found a fourteen foot crocodile sleeping on the bank waiting for his dinner. After that, we swam in the surf when the tide was in, until a shark shot out of a wave and gave us one hell of a fright, so we finished up staying in the shallow water. Guard duty fell to all the non-commissioned ranks – every night it was two hours on and four off for everyone, with bayonets fixed and a round up the spout. (Sub-title for those of elegant upbringing – the rifle was loaded!). The signal for a general alarm was three shots in succession. One shot fired in the night was the signal for the onset of nervous jitters, and a check to see what the hell was going on.

At two o’clock one morning, when the guard had just changed, a shot shattered the stillness of the tropical night, and everyone was awake in a flash. Investigation revealed that one of the 11 Platoon guards (whose name will be suppressed to protect the innocent [me] from the guilty), being half asleep at the time, had taken his rifle and gone on duty inside one of the pill boxes. It was a dark moonless night, and inside the pill box it was absolutely pitch black. He loaded his rifle, but he held the trigger back when he pushed the bolt home so that there would be a round up the spout, but the hammer was not cocked. When a Lee Enfield .303 is loaded in this fashion, the firing pin rests on the firing cap of the cartridge, but it reaches that position gently without sufficient force to fire. He then realised that he had forgotten to fix his bayonet, so he pulled it out of its scabbard with his right hand, and holding the end of the barrel with his left hand, as he normally would, he proceeded to fix the bayonet. Being half asleep in the pitch darkness, he waved the rifle around somewhat, and struck the hammer on a concrete step. The rifle fired, and the bullet entered the fleshy part of his right hand at the base of the thumb near the wrist. It came out at the base of his thumb, ploughed a groove in the side of his thumb from end to end, covered the open wound liberally with burning cordite, and went on its way at a speed of 2450 feet per second. As it hit the concrete roof of the pill box, chunks of concrete flew in all directions, and he flew out of the door. “Christ!” he said, “It’s a good job I got out before the ricochet got me!” It was about 57 years later that a lady rang to tell me that her husband wanted to join Darwin Defenders. I asked her “Wasn’t he the chap that accidentally fired his rifle inside the concrete pillbox?” “Yes” she said. “He did. Then he went to New guinea and blew up a cook house. So I wrote to the Army for a copy of his war record, because I wanted to find out which side he was on!” That one rifle shot weakened the concrete roof, and while it survived for over 60 years, a few months ago the Darwin Council demolished it in the interests of public safety.
Allen Ruwoldt was the Despatch Rider (known as the “Don R”) for “C” Company, and Ernie McMullin was the “Don R” for “B” Company. Don R’s were equipped with an English Norton motor cycle capable of at least 40 MPH, and in those days before portable radios had become available, they were the fastest means of communication in the field where there were no field telephones. Ernie was on guard duty at about three o’clock one morning, when he saw a strange light approaching from compass bearing three six zero degrees, which was straight out to sea to the north. Instructions were that any strange occurrence was to be reported to Head Quarters immediately, describing what it was, and the compass bearing from the guard post. Ernie grabbed the telephone, and quickly called HQ, and HQ answered: “Major Blackwell here!”
“Sir! There’s a strange light approaching from three six zero degrees!”
“Did you go and investigate it?”
“No Sir! It’s at three six zero degrees!”
“Well why the hell didn’t you go and investigate it?”
“Look Sir!” said Ernie in exasperation, “I’m a Don R, not a Donald Duck!” By the time the argument was finished, the emergency was over.
The lights were the landing lights of a Sunderland Flying Boat which wanted to land in Darwin, but did not know the appropriate password which was changed every day. As a security measure, Darwin was completely blacked out at night. Complete radio silence was maintained and no landing lights were turned on for any aircraft if the pilot could not satisfactorily identify himself. The pilot’s options were rather sticky. He could go somewhere else and ditch out of fuel, or try to convince Darwin of his identity before they turned the guns and searchlights on him, so he switched on his landing lights as a sign of good faith, kept his radio on, and kept on talking. Fortunately someone must have believed him, and he was allowed to land. Passwords were necessary, but they sometimes the cause of some confusion, especially when people who had to know the password were not told what it was.

When we arrived and took up our positions at Lee Point, our vulnerability to attack from the rear was obvious, so it was decided to run barbed wire entanglements around the rear of our positions to offer some protection. In a few days the wire was finished, and guards posted at the entrance with instructions that anyone who could not give the password was to be refused entrance. Behind our positions were a battery of artillery guns. Mostly artillery were in a rear position where they could not see the target, so in a forward position they had an Artillery Observation Post (Arty O’Pip for short) which was connected to the gun positions by field telephone, and from which they could direct the fire. (“Right five degrees-up two hundred yards -” etc.) Unfortunately, on the day the wire was finished, nobody told the Artillery Officer the password. Eventually, he came along as usual on his way to his observation post, and was challenged by the guard. “What’s the password?”
“I don’t know any password.”
“In that case, you can’t come in!”
“But I’m Arty O’Pip!” said the Officer,
“I’ve got to come in!”
“Look mate!”, said the guard, “I don’t care what your name is. If you don’t know the password you CAN’T come in!”
Eventually the guard was convinced he should call his superior officer, and our friend Arty was admitted to his own position.
Shortly after we arrived at Lee Point, on February 8th, the Japanese attacked Singapore, and a week later, on February 15th, Singapore surrendered. Ambon was also taken, and Darwin was within reach of the Japanese land based bombers. “C” Company were not left in their positions at Lee Point for long after the first air raid. As defence positions they were poorly situated and virtually useless, so we were moved to the RAAF aerodrome in a ground defences role, situated adjacent to the southern end of the north/south runway, where we could help to protect the Hudson bombers and the P-40 fighters which were being brought into the area.
There was very little activity from the Japanese immediately after the first raid. On the 4th March, two planes strafed some workers at the four mile position, then there was no further enemy activity until 16th March. The RAAF had based their Hudson bombers on the RAAF airfield, and the USAAF sent their 49th Fighter Group equipped with P-40s (Kittyhawks) to build up our defences against further raids. With the fighters, the Yanks sent a contingent of .5 Browning Anti Aircraft gunners, who dug in near us.
By this time, we had settled into our new positions, and because we were now occupying one of the prime target areas, we had to dig slit trenches, and pits for our equipment. The ground was hard, and the digging was tough. We received an allocation of Bren Gun Carriers which had to be dug in too. There was some indecision about exactly where we should be placed, and after our trenches were dug, we were told that we were to be spread out more, and some of us would have to move across the road a hundred yards or so. The late Jika Pilmore (may God rest his soul) was normally a cheerful mild tempered man, but this made him furious. “I have dug one trench”, he said, “and I’m going on strike! I am not going to dig another trench as long as I well live!”
It was a cloudy day. We were all lined up for mess parade, when without any warning, fourteen bombers which had approached unseen started dropping their bombs on the RAAF close by. Needless to say, we dispersed rapidly. Speedy Gonzales would have been trodden underfoot. When we reassembled an hour or so later, Jika was missing. Someone asked: “Where’s Jika?”
“He’ll be along presently. He has nearly finished his new slit trench!” The Japanese were back, with a vengeance. They raided the RAAF on the 16th March, Darwin on the 19th, Darwin and Katherine on the 22nd, the RAAF on the 28th and again on the 30th. On the 31st March, they made their first night raid, on the RAAF, at about 10.30 pm. I was sound asleep when the siren went, and I remember that in the panic I had great trouble putting my trousers on. When I had taken them off, I had pulled one trouser leg inside out, and I was hopping around with one leg on and the other foot stuck for some time before I realised what the problem was. On April 2nd, the oil tanks at the harbour were bombed. On 4th April (I think it was Easter Saturday), the bombers were back again, with their fighter cover. I remember this day particularly, because it was the first time a successful counter attack was launched against the Japanese in the Darwin area.
The skies were clear. There were seven bombers, in a single vee formation, their colour shining silver against the blue of the sky. As they came into range, the 3.7″ Ack-Ack battery near us opened fire. We were told afterwards that the man on the rangefinder called “22,000!” The man setting the time delay on the shells before they are loaded into the guns set them at 20,200’. If this was intervention on the part of the Good Lord, He was definitely on our side.
The first salvo of four shells burst right amongst the bombers. Four of them appeared to be seriously damaged, but they maintained formation. Black smoke began to pour from one of the bombers, which caught fire, lost speed, and then fell out of the formation. The plane, in flames and out of control, started to cartwheel. One of the crew jumped clear, but his parachute caught fire, and he fell to the ground without it. Meanwhile, the AA guns had their range, and continued the barrage, while the P-40s engaged the Zero fighter cover and the remainder of the bombers in a dogfight over the harbour area. Soon the last remaining bomber was heading out over the Timor Sea on fire, and there were only three of the Zeros left. Apparently the Zero pilots did not relish the prospect of returning home after having lost all of the bombers they were supposed to protect. They turned, and dived in a low level strafing run across the RAAF airfield, one after the other. Perhaps they did not know about the .5 Browning AA guns the Americans had placed around the airfield. As the Zeros approached, the gunners opened fire, and the Zeros went down into the trees, one, two, three.
The entire attacking force had been wiped out. There was one unfortunate incident which dampened our jubilation. There was a rule that our fighters must never fly over their own field during an air raid, and this rule was overlooked in the heat of the battle. It is almost impossible for a gunner to identify an aircraft which is diving at him at a speed of over 400 MPH, so the rule is that your own planes keep out of the way, and the gunners shoot down every plane that dives at the field. Probably the P-40 pilots were so intent on catching the Zeros that they forgot they were so close to their own field, and three of the P-40s followed the Zeros in their dive across the airfield.
The result was that, all in the space of about fifteen seconds, the American gunners shot down the three Zeros, and three of their own P-40s. Fortunately, the American pilots all survived, but the loss of the P-40s was tragic. One of the American gunners near us wept bitterly. He said he put seven tracers through a P-40 before it flashed overhead and he saw the star insignia on the wings. As only every fifth bullet is a tracer, he put thirty five bullets through that P-40. Even though he was exonerated from all blame, it would be a terrible thought to have to live with for the rest of his life.
The next day, the 5th April, the RAAF was bombed again, and then we were given a respite until the 25th April. The P-40s were parked in the trees near our positions, and the USAAF pilots sometimes walked through our lines after parking their planes. Some snatches of conversation from some of these men have remained indelibly imprinted on my mind. Complaining about their Commanding Officer, who wouldn’t let them do things their own way: “Boy! That guy sure is a cork in the backside of progress!” Another time, complaining about one of their fellow pilots: “I tell you, he’s mad, that guy! Last night, when we was a’walkin through here, he just pulled out his forty five, an’ he shot the heel right offa my boot!”
On rations, where we got bully beef, ad nauseam, they had a different problem:
“Goddam chicken again!”
Apparently their tinned chicken was no better than our tinned beef. The 25th April, 1942 was a day to be remembered, especially for “C” Company. It was a clear day with blue skies, and just the occasional patch of white cloud. The 19th M.G. Battalion had been moved into defensive positions in and around Darwin and in particular, the Darwin aerodrome.
The Darwin aerodrome was of considerable importance to our defences at that time, because it was the home base of the American Kittyhawk fighter squadron, our own Lockheed Hudson bombers, and provided a point of service for any other aircraft which may be passing through to or from other bases in the Pacific zone. “C” Company occupied a position spreading across the Stuart Highway to the south of the main airstrip and east of where the main terminal buildings are now situated. Near us was a battery of 3.7″ Anti-Aircraft guns, and closer to the airstrip the Yanks had .5 Browning Anti-Aircraft emplacements. “C” Company had no anti-aircraft guns. Our Vickers Machine Guns were made for ground fighting, and could not be elevated more than about 15o above the horizontal. Our job was to deal with any ground troops, parachutists, or any other enemy personnel who might attempt to enter the area. The call “Action Stations!” for us meant guns loaded, bayonets fixed, steel helmets on, every man to his allotted position and all equipment ready for action.
Close by, the American Kittyhawk fighters were dispersed amongst the trees under camouflage nets. The Kittyhawks were the only fighters we had at the time, and they were having enough success against the Zeros and the bombers to cause the Japanese some concern. The Japanese had apparently decided they would wipe out any of those Kittyhawks they could catch on the ground, and they sent over 24 bombers loaded with “daisy cutters” to achieve this purpose. A “daisy cutter” was an anti-personnel bomb, consisting of an inner shell containing the explosive, and a somewhat larger outer shell, with the cavity in between filled with a motley collection of nuts, bolts and all manner of small metal pieces as shrapnel. Each bomb weighed 110 lbs (50kg), and had a steel rod attached to the nose which caused it to explode above ground level, with devastating effect on anything or anyone even remotely close to it above ground level.
The radar had been installed and was functional, so we knew that when the air raid siren began to wail, the bombers would be over within the next twenty minutes. Every man had his allocated action station, and the siren meant “Action Stations!” The Kittyhawks sprang to life and took off two abreast down the runway, clawing for altitude so that they could meet the Zero fighter cover on even terms. On this occasion, the siren interrupted a lecture by a pacifist from the Government Education Service, who used to come around about once a week in his four cylinder tourer car of about 1930 vintage, to tell us what a wonderful country Russia was, and how Australia would be the absolute Utopia if only we would adopt the Communism system. At the first sound of the siren’s wail, he suddenly lost his audience, and he was left standing, looking somewhat bewildered. Obviously, he had no time to go anywhere else, so we took him into the slit trench with us.
Soon we could see and hear the bombers approaching. Japanese aircraft motors and propellors of WW2 vintage produced a distinctive high pitched droning sound, something similar to the sound of a hive of bees much magnified. Sometimes you could see the bombs fall away from the bomb bays. If they were going to hit a mile or more away, you could also hear the pitch of the motors increase by about two half-tones as their load suddenly lightened, and you might hear the tearing shredding sound a bomb makes as it falls through the air. However, you don’t hear a bomb or shell if you are sitting near the point of impact, because a bomb or shell travels faster than the speed of sound, and it has already exploded before you hear it. The bombers made their run at about 20,000 feet. The ground was vibrating as the 3.7″ heavy Ack-Ack (Anti Aircraft) guns next to us were firing continuously. From where we waited in our slit trenches, the bombers seemed to be right on target, but either they overshot by two or three hundred yards, or the light breeze which sprang up caused the bombs to drift.
The end result was that they completely missed the Kittyhawks, and “C” Company copped the lot. To put yourself within a circle 250-300 yards in diameter and survive when a bomb is dropped in that circle from a height of 20,000 feet does require an element of luck. For over 100 men to survive when 84 bombs are dropped on that same area simultaneously needs a great deal more than luck – it is verging on the miraculous. The remarkable part of it was that not one Australian life was lost. The only serious injuries were three men (Tom Harris, Eric Liddell and Sgt Halliwell) who had a daisy cutter bomb explode 3 feet from the side of their slit trench. They suffered burst ear drums and were half buried, but all recovered. However, some Americans who were passing in a jeep were not so lucky. They suffered grievous wounds and died from injuries received.
My Bren Gun Carrier crew and I were in a slit trench 6 yards from where a 50 kg daisy cutter hit the carrier, there was another one 10 yards the other side of us. The grass over the whole area looked as if it had been mowed right down to ground level. A tree which had been cut off at the base fell right across our slit trench, but we were so dazed that we clambered out from under it and did not even notice that it was there until the next day. The pacifist from the Education Service walked slowly round and around his car. All the tyres were flat; the panels were riddled with jagged holes; the radiator was ruined; the canvas top was in shreds. As he walked around it, he kept up a steady monologue: “The bbs! Look what they’ve done to my car! The bbs! Look what they’ve done to my car!……..” We never saw him again, apparently he found safer places to spread his communist propaganda.
Our equipment was all dug in below ground level and our losses were limited to my Bren Carrier, which had a bomb dropped in the hole alongside of it, and an Anti Tank truck and ammunition pit which scored a direct hit. This started a fire, and the exploding ammunition whistling through the trees kept the interest up for another hour or so. This was the day my underwear was shredded. Fortunately I was not wearing them at the time – they had been washed and were hanging out to dry! One singlet had 6 shrapnel holes, others were so riddled with shrapnel holes that the Quartermaster replaced them without any of his usual arguments. The dust was still settling when Jack Gray came to me holding out two shillings between his thumb and forefinger. The day before the raid he was complaining that he had been sent south to a gas school before the first raid, and he had missed all the action. I had bet him we would have another raid within 3 days.
I had heard a whisper from the Air Force staff that they were to be prepared, because the Japanese were getting their planes ready in Timor, so I told Jack to keep his money because it wasn’t a fair contest. Jack said: “You keep it. I got my money’s worth!” That evening, as we stood in line on mess parade, a voice said: “I could see we were going to cop it, and I knew I ought to pray. The trouble was, I hadn’t prayed for years, and all I could think of was what my father used to say as we sat down to meals: “For what we are about to receive O Lord, please make us truly thankful!”
Rex Ruwoldt