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Ernest Sydney Cope Interview

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Ernest Sydney Cope Interview

An extract of the interviews Ern Cope had with the National Archives Audio History Program was included in the 2012 edition of “Take Post”. The full version of Ern’s interviews are provided below. We are grateful to Ern’s daughter, Dianne Schubert, for making the material available.


Contributors: Peter Jeffrey, Marge Cope (wife), Diane Schubert (daughter).

Ernest Cope was born in Moe on the 15th of September 1915. His father had earlier worked in the timber industry but following that went into dairy farming. His mother was a housewife.

The family owned and worked properties in Camperdown, then Warnambool and finally Yering (the Yering property had about 40-50 cattle). He had two brothers, being himself the middle child. Walter, his older brother, left the family farm to study at the technical school in Warnambool and his younger brother Albert, who was more interested in farm work, stayed to work on the family farm.

Before the war Ern also remained on the family farm to work. By the time the war came in late 1939 his father had started work at Mildura making pipes and had left the farm in the care of Ern and Albert. Ern decided to join the Army to do his bit, and so the Cope lads sold the farm at Yering, the sale being completed by early 1940.

Immediately following that, Ern, wanting to do his share, joined the AIF (6 March 1941) and entered first the Tank Corps, then transferred into the 2l3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, serving with 9 Battery. Albert also enlisted, and went to New Guinea. Although Walter did not enlist, he worked in a munitions factory.

With the Army, Ern trained at Puckapunyal for about three months. He embarked on the Queen Mary from Sydney (the great ship couldn’t access Melbourne because the water level at the docks was too shallow. The Queen Mary took Ern and his unit to the Middle East until the Japanese entered the war. As Australian forces were extracted from the Middle East and North Africa to face the Japanese in the Pacific and Asia, Ern’s unit lodged in private homes in Adelaide and set up their Batteries there.

They subsequently went to Perth and then to Geraldton and Onslow, and to New Guinea, where the 2/3rd saw service in the Buna – Gona campaign. The unit finally served in Borneo before returning to Australia after the war’s end. Before Ern left the Army he worked at an Army surplus store selling off extra rations, blankets, tents and vehicles. In this way he bought various Army blankets, tents and beds for his family, and later, two Stuart tanks, with which he cleared his block in Gruyere for dairy farming.

When Ern and his brother returned to civilian life they worked at Noogee and Toolangi cutting and carting pulp wood, and in this business they used Army surplus trucks. He married during this time and, with the help of his brother Albert and Pat Kelly, a one-legged First World War veteran who provided financial assistance via the soldier settlement program, he bought the farm at Gruyere, which he worked from then on as a dairy farm – carrying on his father’s profession.

There was a run-in with the government in 1972 over the clearing of the Cope property, which was situated in a newly declared ‘Green belt.’ The Copes fought against the restrictions and continued to clear land for farming, which was necessary if they were to gain any income. At one stage at least, there was a threat of legal action, and Ern Cope’s name appeared in a local newspaper article that declared that a local farmer would face imprisonment.

However, an agreement was reached and no action was taken. Years later, one fellow who was trying to put legal restrictions on the Copes commented that they had certainly made a lovely farm. Regarding his war service, if given the chance again to make the decision to go or not to go, Ern would choose to stay home, but he wanted to do the best thing for the country at the time. Certainly, the war’s impact on Ern’s working life was one of a 6-year disruption to a life of farming, as he and his brother were forced to sell their family farm to serve.

However, after the war, soldier settlers’ benefits allowed him to purchase a new farm himself. One final point of importance regarding the tolls and benefits of military service: as Ern served with the anti-aircraft gunners, he experienced noise levels that damaged his hearing. The damage could have been prevented, or at least reduced with the issue of earmuffs or earplugs to the gun crews. In compensation after the war, the government provided hearing aids to the returned gunners. The military took away from the men whose lives it crossed, but it also provided compensatory assistance for the post-war years.


On the old farm at Yering: “We used to send the milk to Melbourne on the train. After a while, there was a pick-up man from Lilydale. He used to come down to the gate. The train used to come from Healesville. The funny thing about that was the horses they used to bring the carts down (to bring the milk). When the train left for Melbourne it’d start blowing the whistle. And the moment they’d blow the whistle those horses used to gallop – they’d got that used to the whistle. And you’d see them galloping down to meet the train.”

“If the war didn’t come up, I’d have just gone on farming.”

“I was against all this fighting, and I wanted to do my share.”

“I went to Puckapunyal for a while, about three months I guess. We got on the Queen Mary, we went to Sydney – the Queen Mary couldn’t get into Melbourne because it wasn’t deep enough. Then we went over to the Middle East.”

Training: “Using a rifle, teaching us how to spot and fire a rifle. At Puckapunyal I remember we went marching through the open paddocks there. They used to have the big guns up there.”

“seeing as the Japs were coming, they put us on the ocean liner and sent us back to Adelaide. In Adelaide they put us in private homes for about a fortnight.

We got off the boat and dug slit trenches around the schools and such. When we got off the boat in Adelaide we marched up the street. And the night before we got off, we had all these steel bunks in the bottom of the boat, and one of those fell over and hit me on the head. And I had this bandage all around my head. And when we marched up the street in Adelaide there were people by the hundred all watching, and I had this big bandage around my head. And this woman – I can see her now – she said ‘look at that poor bloody soldier there, he’s been shot in the head and their making him walk!’”

At Buna – Gona: “Where we were was right on the road going north. And there was this American walking down the beach, and he said, ‘Is there a bone yard down here boys, because I’ve got a kid brother who’s buried down here'”

“We had three batteries, seven, eight and nine. And there were about 25 on each Anti- Aircraft gun. And they fired about 60 shells a minute, they were 4 inch shells, and the barrel of the gun used to go red-hot after you fired one lot out and they used to turn the barrel around (and take it out) and shove the new barrel in.

And by the time that had cooled off you could use it again. Actually you were trained to do anything that they wanted you to do on that gun. Sometimes you’d have to stand on the gun and hold your foot on the pedal, and they’d give you a whack on the backside to let you know they’d fired the lot (of ammo) and you had to fill it up again.”

“The training, they told you everything you had to do. And they made you do what you had to do.”

He came off the farm, so he was a lot better prepared to fight the war than a lot of people from city jobs. He was a lot stronger and fitter: “In fact one day we were lined up outside in the exercise yard, and the bloke training us was a First World War veteran, and he pulled me out, and I didn’t know what for.

And he said, “You strip off down to your underclothes. I want to display you. Show your muscles off.” Most of them were from town and didn’t have any muscles.”

Walking in the sand in the deserts of the Middle East was especially difficult, but Ern was better physically prepared for the hard marches.

“A cobber of mine (Snodgrass?), he wanted to go into the aero plane business – the Air Force. They (the military) didn’t try to stop him.”

Recreation in the Army: “It depends where you were. We played some football.”

They also liked to do a bit of fishing when he was stationed on the coast in Australia. He didn’t often play cards, but many played a game called Two-Up.

“I never played two-up but a lot of them played it. Especially when they were traveling on the boats going to the Middle East and all those places.

There was one chap that played and won a lot in Two-Up going on the boat. And when we were getting off the boat we all had our kit bags, you know, and he had his kit bag half-full of money that he’d won. Anyway, I didn’t see this happen, but we had to march from the boat to the town, and he never got to the town. He dropped dead. They reckon it was the money – the weight of the money in his pack. Whether it was a fact I don’t know, but they reckoned it was a fact. He had all this money on him that he’d won on the boat.

And I’ll always remember that night when we got off the boat, we had to get back on the boat, that was the Queen Mary, and it went out to sea as hard as it could go. And we wondered where it was going. They had got word that the Germans were coming over to bomb us, and they went out to sea as hard as they could go. And the next morning when we’d come back in, here were a few of the boats burning – that’s why they’d gone out to sea. It’s always stuck in my mind.”

He received many letters and cakes from his family, and he wrote letters back just as
Regularly. He heard by mail when his mother passed away. Her sister reckoned that she never had a decent motor, after we left and went to war.”

He went on tours of cities and holy places while in the Middle East, including the place where Jesus was born and the place where he was buried.

They were day trips organized by the Army.

“They had these big brothels over there (in the Middle East). (Many men used to visit them), and quite a few of them got VD as well.”

Ern talks about his mates and their activities on recreation leave: “I was lucky because I used to drink like a fish, and Stan wouldn’t drink. And Stan was always standing behind me, we had to get in a queue and Stan would always stand behind me and get an extra glass of beer or whatever it happened to be.”

They used to be able to buy crayfish for a shilling in Onslow.

In Western Australia: “The Air Force used to go out on the pier. They’d throw out a big hunk of meat with a big hook in it. And when the shark came to get it they used to shoot the shark and take it back to their cooks. Up there the tide dropped 20 meters. Before the war the fishermen would lay out all this metal tape in the sand. And when the sea went out there’d be thousands of fish caught in this net.”

A story from up in Queensland: “There were a lot of pineapples growing around, and Stan said ‘Lets go for a walk through the pineapples.’ Anyway we walked quite a distance and Stan said ‘Come and have a look at this.’ And there was a pond there and a well, and Stan was looking down and he coughed and his false teeth fell out (and went down the well). And you could hear them hit the water way down there.

Anyway when we got back he went on sick parade to get another set. And they wanted to know what happened to the other set. And a bloke said ‘I suppose you were that bloody drunk you didn’t know what you were doing.’ And of course Stan didn’t drink.”

“When I came back from New Guinea I was sick as a dog. I had malaria. I had a few kicks of the football in camp, but a few blokes were going out drinking and they said ‘Are you coming Copey?’ And I said ‘Oh yes I’ll come, I can kick the football any time.’ Anyway, when I got into town I was as sick as a dog. I just said to the blokes ‘You just go and enjoy yourselves, I’ll just sit here.’

And they went away, and I was sitting on the doorstep of this pub and these two women said: ‘Look at that drunken bugger.’ I’ll never forget that. And when I woke up I was I hospital, I had malaria.”

Worked at a store which disposed of old Army gear. Brought home Army blankets and beds, tents and two Stuart tanks.

“I worked at the disposals, and there were quite a lot of Italians there. I’ll always remember, I was having a snooze one day and one had come up and put a lighted cigarette on my leg, and I up and hooked him one. And all the other Italians rushed over and they were going to kill me. And anyway, I yelled out and there were quite a few of our blokes about. And that particular Italian, he went to Dandenong or somewhere and a policeman pulled him up one day and shot him. He died.”

Once, when Ern was working at the disposals he gave an offer to a fellow worker to take home a bag of Army surplus food. “Good eatin’ stuff,” Ern told him, “It’ll save you spending money.” The man took the food home to his wife and the next day Ern asked him how he went with the Army food: “Bloody terrible, my wife made me bury it in the garden,” the man replied: his wife was afraid the Army would come looking for the surplus rations and to catch the man who took them home.

When he left the Army: “We went up to Noogee. We went up there and cut pulp wood (for paper). We bought Army trucks (and carted the wood with them).”

He obtained property in Gruyere for dairy farming, with help from soldier-settler’s funds on Christmas Eve, 1950. Albert got a place at Healesville. Ern bought two ex-Army tanks to clear the block for farming. He bought them for 60 pounds each. He and his wife had a lot of trouble with government authorities regarding the clearing of their land – the property was in a newly declared ‘Green Belt’ and large-scale clearing was prohibited.

However, he went ahead and cleared it anyway. Some lobbyists told him that he would be sent to gaol for doing it. One of the lobbyists returned a few years later, telling Ern that although he had opposed the logging at the time, “I was one of those buggers who were trying to charge you, but by God you’ve made a nice farm.” This difficulty sprung up in 1972 with the restraints on. “We fought.” said Marge Cope. The bans were eventually lifted, and because the Copes had been on the property so long, their clearing was legalized.

“I’ll never forget one day there was four, they might have come from the town. … Anyway they come out here, and said “You’ve got to stop knocking those trees down.” And I said “No I’m not, Iwon’t stop knocking them down.” And they said “you’ll end up in gaol.” And I said “Well, that’s where I’ll end up.”

And I can always remember them, and they were talking to me and discussing, and there was four of them and the four of them said to me “You go outside and we’ll discuss this between ourselves and see what we can come to.” And their car was out there, and I went and got the shotgun and four cartridges. And though to myself “By Jesus you bastards are gonna pay.”

Anyway, when they came out I said “Have you come to some agreement” and they said “yes we have” and I said ‘Just as well for you.” And I never told them that I was going to blow the tires off their car.

Recreation in post-war life: Played for Coldstream Football Club, and did a lot of fishing – taught several local boys to fish.

Where his mates ended up after the war: Stan returned to farming in Berragurra (dairy farm) on a soldier-settler’s block. Les Shields went to an office job and sold machinery.

Affect of military service on working life: It disrupted a life of farming certainly, because Ern and his brother had to sell the old farm to join up. If he could turn back time and was given the choice again to go to war, or not to go to war, “I’d say I’d stay home. But as far as going to war is concerned I thought I was doing the best for the country.”

An extract from Ern’s poem, which he learned at primary school:

“Now tell me all about the war
And what they killed each*other for.
It was the English, Jasper cried, that put the French to rout
But what they killed each-other for I could not well make out.”