Henry Whelan's Story

The Henry Whelan Story is semi-fictional and was written by Henry’s son, Les Whelan.

Henry Whelan (QX11914) was a member of the 2nd/4th Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, which was formed in the Middle East in January 1942.

Fifty-six members of the 2nd/3rd were also transferred to the 2nd/4th upon its formation.

The 2nd/4th comprised three Batteries – 10, 11 and 12 Batteries, with 10 and 11 Batteries being primarily drawn from the 2nd/1st and 2nd/2nd Anti-Aircraft Batteries and 12 Battery drawing heavily on the 2nd/3rd Anti-Aircraft Battery.

We are pleased to include the Henry Whelan Story on our web site due to the very close relationship between the 2nd/3rd and the 2nd/4th Anti-Aircraft Regiments.

For additional information regarding the 2nd/4th in particular and anti-aircraft warfare in general, readers are referred to:

(1) The history of the 2nd/4th set down in the book by Francis West and entitled “From Alamein To Scarlett Beach” (Deakin University Press, 1989, ISBN 073001407X),

(2) The history of the 2nd/3rd (available on our web site) set down in the book by R.K. Bryant, A.L. Harris and C.J.E. Rae and entitled "On Target" (2nd/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment Association, 1987, ISBN 0731600495), and

(3) The article (available on our web site) written by Russell Luckock (son of Charles Luckock, 2nd/4th) and entitled “Days In The Desert”, an extract of which is included in the 2011 edition of "Take Post".

 

HENRY’S STORY

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

Henry stood looking at the darkened shape across the Harbour, the three funnels silhouetted against the afternoon sky.  This was one of the world’s great ocean liners, the Queen Mary.  On the morrow he and his mates would be boarding and leaving Australia for the Middle East.

It was 1941 and the Regiment was to embark to join the 9th Division in North Africa.  Henry wondered if this great ship was anything like the one his father had come to Australia in from Ireland many years before.  “Come on mate, we’ll miss the train,” Rich called and Henry turned and joined the others.  His mind wandered as they headed for the station.  It was only a few years ago he had met Marg, married and now had two boys.  But war had come and so it was off to Townsville to join up.  From there it was by train to Sydney, artillery training, army stuff to learn and an uncertain future to face.

Henry was born the second son of Michael Whelan who had arrived from Ireland in 1889, eventually married, sired seven children and died in Charters Towers in 1935.  Cane cutter, farm labourer, tractor driver and mill hand, Henry met a nurse at the Ayr Hospital and married Marg in 1938 and settled in Ayr and hoped to lead a quiet and fruitful life.  Robert was eighteen months old when Leslie was born.  Leslie was now only nine months old but the country needed soldiers and after lots of thought Henry went to Townsville and joined up.  “I have to go,” he explained to Marg. “you’ll be alright, Dolly and Ken will look after you.”  Marg and the boys were left under the care of Marg’s parents and life continued for them.  But Henry was off overseas.

They marched out of Holdsworthy and entrained to the Harbour and onto the huge ship.  No luxury cabins or ball rooms greeted these soldiers, only crowded decks, temporary facilities, and drab surroundings.  It was November and the weather was hot as they steamed to Jervis Bay and on to Freemantle to embark more troops.  From there it was on to Trincomalee in Ceylon before arriving in Suez towards the end of November.  Life on the ship was full of activity.  There were boxing tournaments, concerts, and even a daily newspaper.  One of the troops expressed his thoughts through a poem.

 

The Stately Ship Sails On

These panelled walls once took a richer hue

As beauty, wealth and rank sailed smoothly on;

Film stars and magnates, dukes, and princes, too,

Dined, wined and danced, and dim lights softly shone

On lovely shoulders, bare above rare gowns,

And portly backs of gentlemen in tails.

No cares these travelers had, no wrinkling frowns,

To check the champagne flow from ice-packed pails.

Soft-footed stewards, hastening to and fro,

Answered their calls, and left with courteous bow.

Luxury , wealthy case and brilliant show

Marked the great ship from stern to speedy prow.

Those glamorous days have passed like leaves afloat,

A nation’s wealth of manhood rides the tide –

The sons of hardy sires, who earlier wrote

Themselves an epic, sail on side by side.

Bronzed warriors from a distant, sun-drenched earth

Now throng the ship and climb the stately stairs –

The couch of magnate now a soldier’s berth.

And homely beer and stew their modest fare.

No film stars now, but nurses in their stead,

Whose beauty is a kind that cannot age.

This liner, with an escort out ahead,

Speeds o’er the seas to write another page.

Henry and his mates found these words a little fancy.  “Bronzed warriors,” they laughed, “Bloody sunburnt Aussies.”   They joined in the activities like boxing and swimming but thoughts of home and what lay ahead made for sleepless nights.  “You alright, mate,” one of Henry’s mates asked.  Henry looked pale and drawn and they were only a week into the trip.  “Better see the Doc.,” they suggested and off Henry went.  “Worried about home?” the doctor asked.  “Yeah,” Henry replied,”but it’s my stomach, I’m worried about.”  The doctor pushed and probed and decided that Ship’s Hospital might be the best place for Henry. “Give you two days, that should fix you.”

The friendly face of the nurse greeted Henry as he entered the ward.  “Over here,” she said, “this bed should be alright.”  Henry’s thoughts turned to Marg.  She had that friendly face of a nurse, and he wondered if she and the boys were managing.  As he lay in the bed, drifting in and out of sleep, he dreamt of the times he would arrive in his Singer 9 at the Ayr Hospital Nurses Quarters and greet the stern faced Matron.  “Is Nurse Waugh off duty yet?” he would ask knowing the Matron was aware of why he was there.  Marg would turn up, often carrying a smouldering tin of manure used to keep the tropical mosquitoes at bay.  “We’ll find a few acres, set up a small farm, have a big family,” Henry would muse.  “We’re not even married yet,” Marg would joke.

“Come on, wake up, it’s time for your medicine,” the nurse quietly said, as Henry looked again at the friendly face.  The Doctor arrived, had a few more prods, pronounced Henry could return to duty and moved to the next patient.  “Pretty nurse,” his mates joked, “You in bed, having a bloody holiday, gorgeous girl, and all,” they continued.  Henry ignored the jibes and decided he needed to write home as soon as possible so that Marg knew he was OK and constantly thinking of her and the boys.  The ship sailed on in convoy ever aware of the dangers that might be lurking.  The Japanese were accusing the Americans of treacherous behaviour, the Russians were holding on in the Crimea and the RAF was bombing Naples in Italy.  Still these events seemed to be going on in another world.  Henry and his mates were on a ‘cruise ship’ enjoying the tropical weather, heading for Ceylon for refueling.  They were going to Africa.  “Read a story about Africa,” Henry said quietly, “something about King Solomon and Mount Kilimanjaro.”  “We’re not going there, I hope,” Bert replied, “I hate bloody heights!”  “Don’t you idiots listen,” Rich exclaimed, “The Lieutenant said we were going to NORTH Africa, bloody desert, flies and Arabs.”

Although Henry and his mates had attended Artillery School at Holdsworthy, and Henry had hoped to qualify as a driver/mechanic they had little idea of their role in the Middle East.  Their artillery training was on Bofors, light anti-aircraft guns but they had no guns and no practice at shooting down planes.  All they knew was that the Australian troops already there were probably coming home, particularly those involved in Tobruk, and that the news from home was not good.  Japan was looking ominous and calls were being made to bring the Aussies home.  “Maybe we won’t be here long,” Jim exclaimed.  However on the twenty-second of November they disembarked and set off to establish camp in Palestine.  This was to be their home for the next month or so as they formed Batteries and trained for their role in any battle.

 

Palestine

Land of camels, Donkeys, Wogs

Land of thunderstorms and boys

Land of jackals, Bints and Dogs

Palestine

Land of Palm trees, sand & flies

Arab kids with blighted eyes

Art thou hell in earth’s disguise

Palestine

Land of tents & army stew

Land where comforts are so few

Land of guards and fatigues & do

Palestine

Wogs who go around in rags

Weaving clothes made out of bags

Kids who want backshee Fags

Palestine

Women weaving veils of lace

Covering up their tattooed face

Leading camels around the place

Palestine

Wogs who till the ground round here

Rigged in any sort of gear

With the donkey or a steer

Palestine

We’ve had enough of this queer land

To Hell with all their Arab band

Their dirty people and their sand

Palestine

The day we sail there’ll be some mirth

For the cleanest land on this old earth

The land that gave to us our birth

Australia.

This was the boys view of Palestine after six months there as Jim wrote one of his many poems. Their home was to be a camp of tents left behind by the departing Australians of the 7th Division and little was seen of training or fighting.  But news from home was worrying.  The Japs had attacked Pearl Harbour bringing the Americans into the war but it seemed that the Japs were intent on attacking Australia and the boys were worried. “Never trusted them Japs,” Phil exclaimed,” their slanty eyes and cruel ways always made me worried.”  “Well we’re stuck here in Palestine and it’s a long way to Asia,” Lofty responded.

 

Christmas came and one of Henry’s mates penned a poem which Henry wrote in his diary.

 

CHRISTMAS DAY

It was Xmas Day in the Army

At a camp in the Middle East

We thought there be stew for dinner

And never expected a feast

It was cold & had rained all morning

And looked like raining some more

As we left our tents for the Mess Parade

And marched to the cook house door.

And word came down there was pudding

Fowl & maybe some duck

That the Comfort Fund in Aussie

Would see the boys weren’t stuck

And each man received a parcel

It sort of made you think

Of the women out in Aussie

And we toasted them with a drink

We finished our pork & our pudding

Then wandered back to our tent

Where we sat in the cold and shivered

And talked of the Xmas we’d spent

We spoke of our wives and familys

Our Mothers, our sweethearts & sons

Whom we left behind in Aussie

When we came here to fight the Huns

And we wondered what they were doing

Out there far over the sea

And if we’d be home next Xmas

To join with our mates in a spree

And we trust that this war is soon over

And we’re all back in Australia again

And not eating our next Xmas dinner

Out here on the Palestine Plain.

 

“Course we’ll be back for next Christmas to fight those Japs,” Alf declared, “there’s nothin’ happening here.”  “Wonder what Marg and the boys are having for Christmas dinner,” Henry thought.  His mind wandered off to the Burdekin and days of family fun down by the river and cutting cane and the birth of his two sons.  “Heard that we’re moving north in the New Year,” Frank said, breaking Henry’s reverie, “to another bloody training school!”  Eleven Battery was one of the three 2/4 Light Anti-aircraft Regiment batteries now in the Middle East and slowly new mates were being made, friendships renewed and things found to fill in the time.  The Padre offered a friendly shoulder to anyone in need, and the Battery Commander attempted to organize activities to keep his troops occupied.  “Let’s have a game of footy,” Charlie suggested.  “Not that bloody aerial ping pong you Vics play,” Arthur replied, “it should be tackle like Rugby.”  “Not that poofy Rugby Union, private school stuff,” Jim responded.  “Let’s just get out there and have fun,” Henry suggested.

The field was rough, sandy and hot and there were no goal posts, but the boys enjoyed a game of there own invention.  It wasn’t soccer, or Aussie Rules or either Rugby type – they just had fun. It may have been fun, but it was also rough.  There were some heavy tackles, pushes and all with lots of laughter.  But later the Regimental Aid Post had a line-up to attend to gravel rash, sore limbs and, in Henry’s case, a lump on his forehead.  “There’s not much I can do for you,” the MO announced, “you’re not dizzy or disoriented?”  “Bit of a headache,” Henry replied, “but I’ll be OK!”

Christmas letters and gifts were dispatched to loved ones at home and the boredom continued.  Then as the New Year came it was announced that a group of Eleven Battery drivers would be off to AT School in Haifa. “At least we’ll have something to do,” Jim said, “and I’ll write another poem about it.”  The men were ordered to pack up and prepare to move to the Transit Camp at Haifa. Henry managed to send a telegram home to Marg letting her know everything was fine although the Censor wouldn’t allow any detail of where they were. In Haifa they were to receive mechanic training and this excited most of them.  At the end, Jim duly wrote his poem.

 

The Mechanics Lament

We belong to Eleven battery

Of the Australian Light Ack Ack

And they told us to go to the Haifa

And hop right in and pack

We arrived at our destination

To attend an A.T. School

But all we did for a fortnight

Was act the Bloody Fool

They told us there was a move on

And marched us to R.H.Q.

Gave us tents to pull down

And guards and Fatigues to do

There was Colonel Whelan from Qld

The place where bananas grow

Barney & Phil from the Gold Fields

They’d worked on many a show.

Ron Thompson and Lofty Treasure

Both from the good old West

And we all came from Aussie

The country we all love best.

And one was there amongst us

Called Chesterfield Pete from Vic

He used to go the Vodka

And by hell it made him sick

But we reckon we’d soon be sailing

Back to old Aussie once more

To have a smack at the yellow Jap

Who is knocking at our door.

And if they take us back again

That’s all we’re asking for

Just leave the rest to the seven of us

We’ll finish this blasted war!

 

The ‘seven’ were now firm friends but it was back to camp where the three Batteries were at last looking forward to some real gun practice and action.  Then in the last week in January the CO received orders that Eleven Battery was to leave for Beirut to form part of the defense of the city.  This part of the Middle East had been French territory retaken from the Vichy French and defended by British troops.  “Wow, now for some action!” Barney said, “there’s got to be lots of things to do there.”  The Battery wags had lots of jokes and jibes to make about the move, French letters, French perfume, French everything, they suggested were in store.  Henry’s thoughts were on other matters.  Son Robert would be two years old soon and he had letters from Marg reporting Japanese bombers over Northern Australia. His hope the family would be safe in Ayr all that way from the battles was now looking shaky and his letters home betrayed his worry.

Off they went to Beirut to find themselves ensconced in the former French Joffre Barracks with huts but poor conditions, few cooking facilities, and a dangerous situation where local labourers had rioted requiring the siting of a Bren gun on the roof of the barracks.  On top of this the guns they were supposed to man to defend Beirut weren’t the Bofors but left over French 75mm.  “Bloody awful things, “Ron declared, “I’ve heard they can blow the whole bloody crew up if you fire them!”  However these were the guns the Eleven Battery were to use against any enemy aircraft that decided to attack Beirut at that time.  Fortunately none did.

Bierut was a thriving city, with little evidence of the war.  There were restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theatres and even a race course.  The streets would have well dressed men and women strolling along, and the best Paris fashions on show at the races.  Of course with little battle action the men were given plenty of leave in the city and life became quite pleasant despite the rations and living conditions.  Henry and Alf went shopping and had their photo taken as they smiled for the camera.  Henry sent the photo home, passed by the Censor provided he didn’t reveal where it was taken, and on the back Henry wrote, “Strange as it may seem, the strongest I had to drink was Orange Juice.  I have my parcel camouflaged under my Great Coat.  It is some of the things I am sending you Dears.  Love and Kisses, Henry.  P.S. See the faraway look in my eyes.”

Alf Dorricott and Henry Whelan in Beirut

It seemed that life in Beirut was pleasant, with shopping, looking up at the olive trees on the hills behind the city and from there beautiful views of the Mediterranean.  The war seemed another world away.  Henry even found a family to visit as he wrote in his diary the address of Mr and Mrs Oliver, Beirut.  But Beirut had its drawbacks as there were charges for misbehaviour, and an increase in Venereal Disease.

At last the CO arranged for the Battery to ‘borrow’ some British Bofors to practice on and the Gunners carried out drills to bring the gun in and out of action, target laying, loading and unloading, making safe, dealing with stoppages and misfires, changing barrels and using Predictors.  This was, all of course, without actually firing the guns.  The Gunners were delighted to have some actual hands-on experience but the driver/mechanics were still pretty bored with little to do.  “It’s all right for you blokes,” Alf moaned, ‘we ain’t got any trucks or transports to learn on.”  But all that was to change.

In March the orders came for the Battery to ‘practice mobility’.  “At last,’ Henry said,”we’ll at least get to drive.”  The Battery was to ‘borrow’ guns and equipment from the British and move them in convoy to protect the Motor Transport Camp and the Petrol Dump.  “There’s dive bombers coming,” Reg whispered, `”and possibly parachutists!”  It turned out the rumours were wrong but over a week the exercise was carried out several times but still no guns were fired.  “I wonder if we’ll ever get to fire them,” Henry thought, “or are we just playing bloody games.  These bloody generals don’t seem to know what’s going on!”  For here were an entire regiment of ant-aircraft gunners, drivers and mechanics supposed to support the Ninth Division and they had no guns or any equipment to do what they were training for.

“Have you heard the news?  We’re going back!” Jim exclaimed, “they’ve finally decided to issue us with guns and trucks.”  In late March the regiment was informed that twelve Bofors and their ’tractors’ were available for issue.  When the other Batteries went to collect their ‘new’ equipment they found that eight three ton lorries, four One tonners, one 30cwt and one 15cwt lorry and fifteen motorcycles were included.  There was jubilation among the Gunners but the driver/mechanics were not so happy.  All the transport equipment had been well used and in poor condition.  The Workshops were busy carrying out maintenance and in early April when 11 Battery returned from Beirut the Regiment was at last complete because more Bofors had been issued. But the boys began to wonder what they were here for. Henry was handy with his hands and he spent his idle hours making things to send home to Marg and the boys.  There was a model of a Hurricane fighter he sent home for the boys and brooches made from tooth brush handles for Marg and his Mother. Henry asked, “Why did we sail half way round the world, to sit here in this stinking, hot, dusty desert while the Japs are heading for home?”  The others nodded but the Sergeant did his best to overcome these doubts.  Jack had been in Palestine a lot longer than Henry and his mates, and had been promoted to Sergeant in charge of driver/mechanics for 11 Battery.  More football games and cricket matches were organized.

Then there was another order to be ready for a possible attack.  “We’re to guard Gaza airstrip,” Jack told his drivers but although an unidentified aircraft flew over there was no attack.  “More training!” the Captain ordered, “We need to practice our mobility!”  So the whole Regiment was to move to Syria for an extensive training exercise.  It was now June, 1942. “More bloody wogs I suppose,” Rich said.  11 Battery managed to head off after the drivers checked their trucks but on the first night they had to sleep under blankets under the trucks.  It was typically cold and next morning there was an incident whereby one of the drivers had managed to get into the nearby village and get a bottle of cherry brandy.  “Come on, wake up you bastard,” the Sergeant urged, ”We’ve got to get underway.”  As they drove on they could see the snow capped mountains in the Syrian interior.

 

They trained motorized movement in columns of route in a true desert formation where Bren gun carriers, trucks, gun tractors all moved in the dust practicing for when a true battle would come along.  There were flies, hot days, cold nights, dust and winds and as a result the sick parade was full on most days. Henry managed to keep reasonably fit and avoid any health dramas.  Because of the dust drivers often had to rely on flag signals.  “I can’t even see the bloody flag in this dust,” Henry said to his companion, “and I’m thirsty!”  Water was in short supply and the troops were rationed to only three quarters of a gallon per man per day. On manoeuvres like these with huge numbers of vehicles and troops involved there were interminable delays.  “Watch out!” Alf called, as a nasty scorpion scurried past where they were sitting on the sand.  Bull ants, scorpions, flies and even snakes meant rest times were short, but there was lots of hanging around waiting and as a result some mucking around.  “Bet you can’t catch him?” Henry replied.  It was becoming increasingly obvious to all that although they were learning a lot, communication was almost non-existent and the officers were still learning as well.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Henry was finding the whole issue was getting on his nerves, but his spirit was buoyed when he received a letter from Marg.  Because the Jap bombers had appeared over Townsville, the Waughs decided it was time to move South.  Marg, the boys, her sister Queenie, and Mr and Mrs Waugh travelled by train to Brisbane to a rented house in Clayfield.  He noted in his diary and on his records a change of address and his mind was able to concentrate on the issues of the time.

The Regiment returned to base camp in Palestine still only partially trained and only 12 Battery had actually fired their guns.  “Hey, there’s a Revue on this week!” Jack told his drivers.  “Anything to overcome this boredom,” said Jim, “and I hear we’re going somewhere else.”  “I heard it was Libya,” Arch responded.  “Bull,” Jack replied,”the Germans are too thick there.”  “Anywhere would be better than Palestine!” Rich said. But the real battles in the desert were not going well for the Allied troops who suffered a number of setbacks.  The Ninth Division was the only complete and rested troops available if things got worse.

On the First of July, 1942 Jack called his drivers together and announced, “We are to move to Egypt,” he told them, “to defend Cairo from the Huns’ bombers.”  “Are the Egyptians like these wogs here?” Barney asked.  “No,” Lofty responded, ”they’re all like Cleopatra.  Haven’t you seen them movies?”  “Will we see the pyramids?” Henry asked.  “I don’t bloody know,” Jack said, “just get ready to move at 1400 hours.”  They moved off at the ordered time and after five hours driving they arrived at Bir Asluj where they camped for the night.  “Come on, wake up you buggers,” Jack said trying to rouse the cold and tired drivers.  By ten o’clock they were crossing the Sinai Desert and about fifty miles from Ismalia they again camped for the night.  Jack had ordered an early start, so at 6am they were on the way again and drove into Ismalia around ten thirty.  “Refuelling time!” was the word that came down the convoy as each of the trucks was filled for the next drive across the Suez Canal. They crossed the Canal and spent the night on the Tantra by-pass road.  By July 5 they reached camp at Amiriya to join the other Batteries. It was now obvious to all that they were a long way West of Cairo. Unknown to most the orders had changed and the 2/4th was now to defend Alexandria.

The drive from Cairo to Alexandria was unforgettable.  “Bloody hell!” Rich exclaimed,” as the convoy found a continuous flow of traffic in the other direction. “How bloody long is this bloody group,” Henry asked as for hour after hour the traffic streamed back towards Cairo.  “You’re going the wrong way,” the other troops called. But 11 Battery’s orders were to head west.  The retreating troops were orderly but much of their equipment was damaged.  “Look at that Bofors,” Henry exclaimed, as a severely damaged gun trundled past. By now all of the boys realized that training was over and they were about to enter a new phase of their time in the Middle East.

“Our luck’s in!” Jack told them, “We’re the ‘Reserve Group’ to defend the city while the others are heading out to the west and south-west of the city.”  The boys were excited that action was imminent, but word filtered back of casualties among the other batteries and enemy aircraft began to become a daily occurrence.   It seemed the Germans were holding on to strategic positions and using dive bombers and strafing aircraft against the Allied forces.  Henry was increasingly concerned that sooner or later they would be ordered to move forward for an attack on Rommel’s Afrika Corp. Orders came for an attack on Tel El Eisa and part of 11 Battery was to support the infantry to move forward.  The attack faltered and the Germans mounted a furious counter attack.  The Bofors found themselves firing constantly at Stuka dive bombers.  “Here comes another one!” Henry shouted as he sheltered under his truck.  “Got you, you bastard!” the gunners yelled as a JU88 was hit and was seen disappearing but loosing height.  Henry was excited but frightened and each time a dive-bomber came over he silently prayed.  He wasn’t a religious man, but in the circumstances it seemed the only thing to do.

They had failed to take the Tel El Eisa ridge, and on the 21st of July the guns were attached to their tractors and withdrawn to a rear bivouac area.  It was 9pm and Henry and his mates were glad of the darkness.  Throughout the rest of July the Batteries moved forwards and backwards in support of attacks and withdrawals and casualties increased.  Then there were ‘wog’ sores, and dysentery as the men endured harsh desert conditions from hastily dug latrines and flies.  Although the front was at last stable there was a major change of command.  Montgomery was appointed to command the Eight Army.  “I’ve heard of him,” Jim declared, “Bloody good general.”  Henry was less sure because he had seen so much indecisive action that he was convinced none of them knew what they were doing.

August bought little change, with the guns in position and very little movement.  This meant the drivers had little to do and although each of the Battery Troops was now a cohesive and friendly group there were still problems.  For the infantry there was a lull in the fighting but for the anti-aircraft gunners the planes kept coming.  As bombs whistled down, and shrapnel scattered among the guns and trucks Henry and his mates dived for cover.  “That was close,” Ron whispered.  Henry turned around to find his truck badly damaged.  An important lesson was learnt and from then on the trucks were sandbagged when possible. “Got to go!” Pete said anxiously, as he raced for the latrine.  Dysentery was rampant but the latrines were not the best place to be when enemy aircraft were about.  The men felt more and more like animals.  “Bloody rabbits,” Rich said, referring to the holes they lived in most of the time.  “They’ve sent Fred back, battle fatigue,” Jack announced.  “But listen boys, I know things are tough but we are here to do a job and that’s what we’ll do!”

Jack then announced that a small ration of beer was available, “But it’s bloody Canadian Black Horse – tastes like shit!” Lofty shouted, “Can’t we have some real Aussie beer?”  The strain of constant air attack, desert heat and dust, flies and septic sores was telling on the boys.  Henry took refuge in writing letters home.  Leslie would be two years old soon but Marg was coping according to her letters.  She wrote to Henry that there was a large American army camp just down the road from the Clayfield house, Kalinga Park, and the Waughs made some of these Americans welcome as visitors to their home.  Henry wished he was back home and every letter he wrote told of his anxiety.  He would be twenty –eight in a few months and instead of leading an idyllic life among the cane fields of North Queensland he was stuck in this dry, dusty, windy, hot desert in North Africa.  At night he would dream of the future when he and his boys could do all those things fathers did with sons - play cricket, go camping and make billy tea – but sleep was often short as the sirens would sound.

By the end of August the German attacks had slowed and there was an uneasy quietness. At times the Salvos came to ease the waiting.  ‘Fags’ were the most popular item as everyone smoked incessantly but sometimes it was a book or magazine.  The Comfort Fund sent cakes and biscuits and they were usually stale but anything was better than the food the army was expecting the men to eat.  Henry loved fresh vegetables and dreamt of the time when he got home and could grow silver beet, carrots and cabbages and plant fruit trees.  He would spend hours talking to Rich and the others who were farmers in civilian life even though they came from States where the climate was totally different form Ayr’s.  He would tell them about cane fires and cutting cane by hand. “That’s how I lost the top of my finger,” he told them, holding up his right hand.  Rich talked about wheat fields and rabbits in South Australia where he came from.  Anything was better than talking or thinking about the war they were supposed to be fighting.

During September it became obvious that there were plans afoot for an attack against the Germans and the guns were frequently moved in support of other Regiments as they readied themselves for an offensive. The Stukas and Messerschmidts continued to attack but there were few casualties.  The main problem was illness but Henry and his mates managed to avoid the infective jaundice and heard some good news.  “The Regimental Trust Fund has decided to give us some relaxation!” Jack told them.  “The YMCA Corporal has got a radio and will come to us so you can listen for a while.”  Meanwhile the Fund had obtained books for a library and the Padre had a gramophone for the Batteries to borrow.  “Great,” Jim said, “some music is just what we need.”  “Decent food might have been better,” Henry replied.  Morale was improving and then even better news was announced.  Not only was a concert party coming but some of the boys were to be given leave.  “Four days leave in Cairo,” Jack announced but to some this was telling them that they were going to be here in this hell hole for a long time yet.

The Germans meanwhile were engaging in a psychological war against the troops. “Hey! Look at this,” Ron shouted as papers floated down from above. The Germans had dropped leaflets which said, “You are defending El Alamein box, what about Port Darwin?”  The leaflets had Boomerang or Platypus insignia on them designed to make the Aussies homesick.  Another leaflet worried Henry as it said,”The Yanks are having a good time in Aussie, what about you?” He thought of Marg’s letter telling him of the Yanks visiting but dismissed any further thoughts of hanky panky as he trusted Marg implicitly.  But the Germans thought that, for many, doubts would be raised.  They were wrong.  Most of the Aussies laughed at the leaflets and pocketed them as souvenirs.  All the battery knowalls were now convinced that ‘something’ was coming but they were unaware that the Eight Army Commanders had by now drafted battle instructions for what was to become one of the greatest battles of World War 2.

October was a month of preparation.  11 Battery was at first to be held in defence mode but late in the month they were given a rousing speech by Montgomery.  It was relayed via a pamphlet to the boys.  “I told you Monty would let us know what’s going on!” Pete said.  They were told that at between 2200 and 2300 hours on the night of the 23rd the battle would begin.  Henry’s group was to be ready to protect artillery and infantry and move forward as the attack progressed and on the night of the 22nd in darkness the trucks were readied and, in convoy, prepared to move.  “Get those trucks going,” Jack called.  The guns and tractors were first followed by the support trucks.  Gears crunched, motors revved, and the excitement grew as they moved slowly forward.  “At last,” Henry thought, “we will send those bastards back to Germany!”  Through the dusty darkness, lights out and in silence the convoy headed into the desert.

Next day after an uncomfortable night camouflaged and dug in or sleeping under their trucks 11 Battery got ready for what was to come. Henry’s truck refused to restart after an afternoon stop and Jack ordered the others to move around it and keep moving.  Henry was left to find the problem and fix it.  “Damn,” he muttered, ”Just my luck.” It was getting late and with his head buried deep under the bonnet Henry struggled to find the problem.  “This bloody dust and heat,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. By darkness he had the truck going but was way behind his convoy.  Travelling in a pitch black night made his task more difficult as he tried to find 11 Battery.

Henry looked at his watch.  It was a around 9.40pm and he stopped the truck in the darkness.  Suddenly his ears were blasted by the biggest artillery barrage ever launched.  The noise was almost unbearable and Henry’s thoughts turned to home.  Would he survive this battle, would he see his wife and boys again? “Hell this noise is deafening!”  For fifteen minutes the barrage continued and then sudden silence.  “Is that it?” Henry wondered.  He started the truck up and headed off again.  After about five minutes the guns opened up again in a creeping barrage as the infantry advanced and he finally found his Troop and spent the day advancing the Bofors to protect the troops and armour from air attack. This was the battle of El Alamein and the next day, the 25th, was his 28th birthday.

The next weeks brought sleepless nights as the German planes strafed and bombed the advancing Allies.  The Bofors fired constantly as wave after wave of dive bombers attacked.  11 Battery tasted success as a plane plummeted in flames and smoke.  “Got one! Nazi bastard!” one Gunner shouted as the German plane disappeared over the horizon in flames.  Jack kept his drivers busy as the battle lines advanced.  By the first week of November the fight was almost over.  11 Battery found itself in German territory, now littered with destroyed tanks, trucks, guns and soldiers’ kit.  The flies and stench were almost unbearable in the heat. “Must be dead Jerries buried somewhere here,” Barney observed as the boys picked through the equipment for souvenirs. “Hey!” Rich shouted, “Look at this!” and he held up an Italian Beretta pistol. “This one’s for me!”

The RAF by now controlled the skies and there was little to do for the anti-aircraft guns.  Rumours were rife.  “We’re going to Tobruk!” was the most common one but again it proved wrong.  December arrived and the Regiment instead moved back to Palestine to Camp El Bureij.  “Back to the wogs and sand and dust,” Jim exclaimed.  It was a time for reflection.  Some of their comrades had been killed, some injured, all had been deeply affected and they were still so far away from home.  Leave in Cairo was given to some while the other prepared for what became obvious.  They would be spending another Christmas in bloody Palestine!

On December 22nd the 9th Division assembled on ceremonial parade. Ten thousand men with bayonets fixed advanced in review order and the Last Post was sounded.  General Alexander, the General Officer Commanding Middle East addressed the gathering in an emotional speech congratulating them on their bravery and commitment.  A copy of the speech was given to every man and Henry neatly folded his and placed it in his diary to take home for his sons to read.  Another Christmas came, better than the last with Comfort Fund parcels, plenty of beer and a great Christmas dinner and Henry posted a Regimental Christmas card home.  All day thoughts were on the future.  Rumours were again raging.  They varied from the Regiment going on to Greece and Europe to the one they all hoped for – a return to Aussie.

New Year came and on the 3rd January it was confirmed that the 2/4 LAA Regiment was returning to Australia.  The men were elated and that day all guns and tractors, trucks and equipment were returned to Ordnance.  Preparations began for the journey home.  All the men were issued with new uniforms, the first new clothes they had been given in over a year.  Henry was delighted to be heading home where he would see his sons. Robert was now almost four and Leslie a little over two years old.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Like their journey to the Middle East the men were to travel on one of the world’s great ocean liners, the Ile de France.  The ship had been converted to a troop ship with all but the top deck stripped out to accommodate as many soldiers as possible.  “I hope it’s not like this on the ship,” Henry said as the men were packed like sardines into trucks and trailers to go to the port.  “Come on you lot!” Jack called, “Into the ferries.”  On board their worst fears were confirmed.  Their beds were hammocks slung over the mess tables and temporary latrines lined the decks.  Six thousand five hundred troops were on board as she sailed through the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean.  The weather was stinking hot and the latrines leaked down through the decks making it unbearable.  “I’m going up on deck to try to get some sleep,” Lofty announced. The others followed enjoying the cooling breeze coming off the ocean.

But soon the weather changed and it became cool with rough seas.  A convoy was formed with other liners and warships as they steamed across the Indian Ocean.  “Geez I feel awful,” Henry said to Rich. Henry was not great at sailing across oceans.  Give him a cane knife in the hot tropics, or a stinking hot truck to work on and he was fine but the constant rocking of the boat became unbearable.  “What’s wrong with you?” the Doctor asked as Henry presented himself at Sick Parade.  He was almost green in complexion, had lost a lot of weight and was unsteady on his feet. “Off to hospital Gunner,” the Doctor ordered and like his voyage on the Queen Mary Henry spent time with a friendly nurse.  “You lucky bugger,” Rich said when he visited Henry, “It still stinking in the decks and no pretty girls to look after us.”  Henry smiled weakly and he tried to tell Rich that he felt so sick he didn’t care where he was.  “As long as I can get back to Aussie!” he whispered, “To Marg and the boys.”  For ten days Henry languished in a hospital bed regularly visited by his mates who were able to keep him up with the rumours.

Despite the problems of the voyage, the men were excited at the prospect of being back in Australia.  With the first to disembark at Freemantle and the rest in Sydney high spirits prevailed.  There were wives and children to see, girl friends to get back to, provided the Yanks hadn’t swooped already, and some decent food.  Ration tickets were provided to all and at the end of February the Ile de France tied up at Woolamaloo.  On the next day a pale and unsteady Henry disembarked and with the other Queenslanders and set off for the train to Brisbane.

At South Brisbane Station Marg waited anxiously for Henry’s arrival.  All she knew was that he had leave for three weeks before he had to return to the Regiment somewhere in North Queensland.  Alf and Henry got off the train and both looked anxiously at the waiting crowd for a familiar face.  Henry saw Marg first.  She was tall and stood a head above many of the other women, and his heart began to beat almost audibly.  “Darling!” he called, “I’m here!”  Marg pushed her way through the throng and they embraced whispering in each other’s ear.  With his kit bag over his shoulder and with Marg’s hand firmly in his , Henry walked from the station with his wife to catch a Clayfield tram.

Leslie stood behind Grandma Dolly’s skirt but Robert ran forward to greet the father he hadn’t seen for so long.  “Dad, Dad!” he called as Henry and Marg walked into the house at Elliot Street.  Henry reached out to Leslie and Dolly pushed him forward.  Henry’s huge hands picked him up and gave him a great big hug.  Leslie smiled as Marg stood beside them soothingly comforting him and telling him, “This is Daddy.”  There were lots of things to talk about and over a cup of tea Henry spoke a little of where he had been.  Pop was full of questions but Henry avoided most of them other than to say, “But I’m glad to be back to fight those Japs!”  Queenie, Marg’s sister, was off to her Volunteer Aid Detachment training so told Henry she would catch up later and Dolly was so glad to see Marg so happy.

The first week went quickly.  Marg arranged to have a photograph taken of the family.  Henry was in uniform with the 2/4 LAA Regiment T Colour patch and the Africa Campaign ribbon.  Leslie sat uncomfortably on his knee, still not sure who this strange man was, while Marg and Robert smiled for the camera.

Henry, Marg and boys

It was obvious the North African experience had affected Henry deeply.  He talked little about it preferring to relax with Marg and the boys, spend Sunday dinners with his Mother, and reconnect with his sons.  He expressed concern for Col, Marg’s brother, and his family, who had stayed on in Ayr.  He was always concerned that Dolly and Ken had adequate Ration Tickets and spent many sleepless nights when air raid sirens sounded and search lights pierced the sky.  “Lots of the blokes were talking about taking off and not going back,” he confided to Marg.  “You’ll be alright,” she said quietly.  Deep down she was worried for the future.  The war had changed Henry and there seemed no prospect of them returning to the North for a quiet life on a small farm.  But like Henry she had a strong sense of duty and told Henry that she and the boys would be safe and that he must ‘get the job done’ and then come home for good.

They waved farewell at the tram stop as Henry returned to camp for rejoining the Regiment.  The Queensland troops were to be taken by train to Atherton on the Tablelands in far North Queensland.  Next day Marg took the boys to Eagle Junction Station in the hope they would see Henry’s troop train heading north.  They waited and waited as train after train packed with troops lumbered around the track at Eagle Junction.  “Hey, Marg!” a voice called.  “There he is boys, wave quickly!” The train rattled past and Marg, Robert and Leslie waved strenuously as Henry disappeared around the bend.

Most of the Atherton Tableland became a huge army camp as troops retrained for the campaign in New Guinea.  The 9th Division was reinforced by fresh troops who were glad to be joining such an illustrious group. Although most knew what the future was there was a month of confusion as Regiments reassembled. There was little equipment and no firm confirmation that they were destined for New Guinea. Henry settled in well as over the first week mates from the other States arrived.  For Henry this was familiar territory.  He had worked at Herberton before he was married and loved the tropical lushness of the Tableland.  “Now boys, watch out for the Stinging Trees,” he would advise his mates.  “It’s so green here, and no Wogs!” Alf observed.  For the next five months the 2/4 LAA Regiment readied itself for a different war.  There would be tropical heat and rain, Japanese rather than Germans, malaria and other health issues they had not encountered in the deserts of the Middle East.

Finally some guns and Predictors came available at Mareeba Airfield so real training could begin with the ‘jungle’ exercises continuing. Henry enjoyed driving around free from the dust of Palestine and 11 Battery was destined to become a unique part of the New Guinea campaign.  Out of the blue, Henry’s Troop was told to move to Cairns, for amphibious training.  The whole battery was to follow to train with an American group in loading Bofors onto and unloading them off Landing Craft.  The trucks were busy towing the guns across the sand but many of the Gunners were skeptical of the whole exercise.  “All we bloody did was put ‘em on, go out into the harbour, come back and unload the bloody things!” Jim complained. “At least it’s cool down here,” Ron responded.

 

But 11 Battery was not going to New Guinea for amphibious landings, they and their guns were going by air!  The Gunners, that is, because some of the driver/mechanics were going to have to come by sea with the trucks and gun tractors.  “Did you hear that?” Henry said, “The Major says we are to become an air borne battery!”  So it was back to Atherton.  The Officers announced that the gun crews had to dismantle a Bofors down to its base plate and then reassemble it in as short a time as possible.  “Sounds bloody stupid to me,” Barney said but the Officers insisted and so training began. Each gun crew had to work out a system for this exercise and before long quite a competition began.  “How long?” Ron shouted to one of the other crews.  “Eighteen minutes!” came the reply. “No good, we did it in sixteen!” Ron boasted.  Before long crews could do the whole exercise in fifteen minutes.  This time was critical as that was the time the plane could remain safely on the ground.  So off to Mareeba Airfield they went to practice in several unserviceable DC3 fuselages.  “Take apart, pack in plane, take out, reassemble,” was the order of the day.

Then Henry and his driver mates came into the equation.  The guns were to taken apart, loaded onto a truck ready to load in the aircraft, taken to the airfield and unloaded onto the plane.  Thus most of 11 Battery was in Port Moresby by the middle of July.  There were numerous stores and trucks and other vehicles that were needed for the Regiment but there weren’t enough planes for everything.  Even finding enough transports for the guns was a problem. Henry and the others waited in Cairns and at the end of the month they embarked on the S.S. Duntroon for another sea voyage, this time to Port Moresby.  Henry’s sea legs were no better and he barely managed to keep going.  However they arrived in Port Moresby in the beginning of August and set up camp.

Despite his loyalty and commitment Henry was fed up with everything.  The ship had made him sick, while the Gunners were all smiles after what for many was their first ride in an aeroplane, and the tropical heat and mosquitoes were unbearable.  After a week, Henry finally cracked and when reveille sounded he refused to get up.  Jack came in and asked, “Are you alright mate?”  “No, I’m bloody not and I’m not doing anything today.  I want to go back to Aussie!” Henry responded.  “Listen mate, get out on parade or you’re on a charge!”  “Don’t care,” Henry said.  His mind was clouded and angry thoughts swirled around in his head.  “What about Marg and the boys?” he thought, “What about me! This bloody war stinks!”  Next day Henry was charged with ‘Conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline’ and paraded before the CO.  “What have you got to say for yourself?” the CO asked.  “Nothing, Sir,” Henry replied.  By now his mates had talked to him and settled his mind down.  They all felt lousy, fearful and dispirited and told Henry he was not alone.  “OK!” The CO said, “The award is ‘Suitably admonished and returned to the ranks.  Now listen soldier, we’re all in this together and the sooner we get the job done the sooner we will all be back in Australia.”  Henry sighed in relief, saluted, and marched out.  “I still think this bloody war stinks!” Henry quietly whispered under his breath.

It was obvious to Henry’s mates that he was not himself and they rallied behind him. “Mates are mates,” Rich said, “and we have to look after each other.”  However Henry’s health was deteriorating and in mid-September he was evacuated to the 2/5 Hospital for two weeks with tonsillitis. Back with the Troop Henry resumed driving duties at the port but the rest of the Battery had already gone by air to Nadzab where they were to protect the airfield. Regular doses of Atebrin for all attempted to keep Malaria at bay. The other Batteries of the 2/4 LAA were heavily involved in the attacks on Japanese in the jungle beaches further north and their conditions were horrendous.  But for Henry and others they were to stay on in Port Moresby.  The 2/4 was split up with two Batteries fighting the Japs along the beaches at Badu and part of the third, 11 Battery, defending Nadzab and the rest stuck in Port Moresby.  Henry was of two minds.  While he was in the capital he was away from the fighting where his comrades were being killed but he was supposed to be fighting the Japs.  Even the officers thought it a waste for a fully trained unit to be held in Port Moresby.

However life went on with training, training, training and occasional trips in the truck to the port to pick up supplies.  Then at the beginning of November Henry and forty-three others boarded a DC3 and flew to Dumpu Airfield.  Henry had never been in a plane and this new experience was almost as bad as his ocean trips.  He hated the noise and unpleasant movement as the plane flew low over mountain ridges through thunder clouds.

“One coming!” the observer called shrilly and the siren sounded as a single Japanese bomber approached the airfield and dropped its load.  The boys had only been here for five days and this was their first attack.  Henry stood by his gun, ready for action but the Bofors was unable to engage the enemy.  Henry’s mind went back to the African desert where the screaming Stukas attacked the guns at almost ground level. “Are there any dive bombers here?” he wondered out loud. “They’re damn Jap Zeros here,” Fred said.  Within two week the action hotted up.  Late one night three dive bombers were observed. “Look at that,” Pete yelled, ”he’s left his cabin light on!”  “Get those guns going while you can see him!” Jack called as the Bofors opened up averting any damage or casualties.

It was hot and steamy with the deadly malaria mosquitoes everywhere.  The cloud covered mountains surrounding the airstrip meant there was little warning when low flying enemy aircraft approached.  If the Gunners arose early just after dawn the mosquitoes were overwhelming.  But this was when the Japs would swoop down from the fog and low clouds strafing the airfield. Bullets buzzed and whistled past the gun crew as they dived for cover, slapping at the biting mosquitoes at the same time.  Over December the Japs attacked regularly, with 11 Battery managing to “get” some especially when they mastered the use of Predictors.

Christmas came and despite regular attacks of malaria the boys were fine.  There had been no casualties and a number of Jap aircraft had been shot down by the Bofors. Then until the middle of January there was sporadic action from more dive bombers.  “These bloody Bofors are made to fire into the sky but when the Zeros come in at a hundred feet we have to almost fire into the ground!” Henry said.  But the Bofors effectively kept the Japs at bay.  When the Infantry advanced in February there was little for the Gunners to do as they maintained their watch over the airfield so it was more training.  “Now they want us to see if the Bofors can be used as ordinary artillery,” Jack remarked.

It was March, 1944  and Henry’s thoughts were of home because son Robert was about to turn 5 years old, but the Japs returned to bomb and strafe.  The Gunners shot one down in flames and the officer ordered, “Follow me, you, you and you, and we have to find that wreckage!”  When the small party returned they reported that there were four dead “bloody yellow Japs” in the plane and some intriguing radio equipment.  Army Intelligence was very impressed with the find.  As the Jap attacks became less frequent it was back to training.  “You’d think we damn well knew it all by now!” Henry moaned.  It was decided to persist with experimentation with the Bofors as support artillery.  They fired at trees, into hills and tried different ammunition types.

In early April Henry was evacuated to the Army General Hospital in Port Moresby with an extremely high fever.  “Malaria probably,” The Doctor pronounced and for the next two weeks Henry languished in hospital. New Guinea was proving a major effort for Henry as his health was poor, and although he was a boy from North Queensland he hated the tropical humidity and mosquitoes of New Guinea.

By the end of May, the 2/4 was to be withdrawn and taken back to Australia.  The ship picked up 10 and 12 Batteries and then sailed south to Port Moresby for 11 Battery and home to Brisbane.  But not Henry!  He was detailed to remain with a small group as a rear party and it was not until the 6th of June that he boarded the old coastal steamer, S.S. Ormiston and headed for Townsville.  Overjoyed to be back in familiar territory he phoned Col in Ayr and Marg in Brisbane to tell them he was coming by train for six week’s leave.  Col watched out for Henry as the train passed through Ayr giving him some fruit and news for the Waughs.

For the next two-and-a-half days Henry endured the rattle and shake, the smoke and smell of the train as it steamed towards Brisbane.  He had hoped he might see his sister Nell whose husband was a railway fettler around St Lawrence.  But he was going ‘home’ to Marg and his boys and all thoughts of the war were put aside.

 

CHAPTER 4

 

Back at Elliot Street Henry settled down briefly and even took Robert and Leslie down to Kedron Brook for a campfire.  Kalinga Park was still a huge military camp, used now as a transit camp for returning troops.  Henry, Marg and the boys would catch the tram each Sunday to Ascot to see Henry’s mother.  Just down the road from her place the Americans had taken over Ascot Racecourse and a nearby park.  Looking to the future Henry eyed off the army huts packed into the park.  “One day,” he thought,” they will be surplus and just might make a great house!” But Henry’s war was not over and at the end of his leave he once again boarded the train north to the Atherton Tableland where the Regiment was to reassemble.  This was a heart wrenching journey for Henry, having once again to leave his family, once again to face the uncertainty of the future and once again to knuckle under military discipline.  The train rattled along with Railway tea and stale sandwiches at Gympie and St Lawrence with most of the troops either playing cards or reading.

Back in Camp the unit came together and again rumours spread.  “We’re off to Borneo!” Fred assured his mates.  But many of his mates were showing signs of their time in New Guinea as Malaria was rife.  Throughout September Henry spent most of his time in hospital with malaria. Henry found time to write home regularly, sending good wishes for Leslie’s fourth birthday in October.  Things slowed down and Henry had plenty of time for relaxation.  He wrote in his diary that at the beginning of November he had read two books All Our Tomorrow by Douglas Reid and Kings Row by Henry Bellemann. In December the unit began a major training exercise.  “We are the ‘pretend’ we are landing on a beach,” the Officer told the boys.  “But this is a bloody paddock!” Barney retorted.  “Get those guns positioned!” the Officer ordered.  The infantry battalions were also involved with simulated attacks on gun positions and convoy movement of troops between Atherton and Mareeba.  One Troop even got to fire their Bofors at a target towed by an RAAF plane.  Then it was off to the Malanda Pool for a swimming carnival.  Henry was glad to at least have some activity but when he and his mates were mucking around one afternoon just before Christmas he we hit in the eye by a cricket ball. He was admitted to hospital with lacerations to his right cornea and stayed there over Christmas and New Year.

The troops were more and more disillusioned as it seemed the 2/4 LAA Regiment was not needed anymore even though officers tried to assure the men that the continuing training and exercises would have them ready should they be required.  Meanwhile Henry filled his days in hospital reading as best he could with one good eye.  After he was discharged from hospital Henry was called up to HQ and informed that from the middle of February he was to report to the Mobile Wing of the LHQ School of Mechanics for further Driver/Mechanic training.  Henry studied well and at the end of the course he qualified with a result of 76% Written and 65% Practical.  On his Confidential Report the Chief Instructor wrote, “This student has returned excellent progress exam results and is considered capable in Dr Mech work.  Recommended for further training.”  It was also noted that Henry “exhibited keen interest and aptitude throughout the course.”

 

Word was filtering back of fighting against the Japanese as the Australians and Americans pushed northwards.  In Europe the Allies had the Nazis on the run and the troops on the Tableland were confident the war would soon be over. In March, after Henry returned to his unit from the course there was little to do especially as the tropical rains fell in buckets and the creeks rose.  Henry sent a card home for Robert’s birthday and endured the indoor lectures the officers were determined the troops needed.  The Regiment organized a number of sports teams and Henry and others regularly tried to have a game of cricket but the weather was lousy and little outdoor activity was possible.

The weather also stopped planned training exercises in early April and the driver/mechanics were given the task of repainting their truck.  “What a waste!” Henry observed.  The boys were convinced that this was just a fill in exercise to keep them busy but worse was to come.  “Have you heard?” Rich asked, “The Germans have been beaten so now it’s just the Japs!”  It was early May and the war in Europe was over.  At this time the 7th Division and the 9th Division moved back overseas but without the 2/4 LAA.  The boys were despondent after having endured first the heat and dust of the desert and then the sultry tropical heat of New Guinea they were obviously no longer needed.  To make it worse the Regiment was split up.  One Battery went to work on the Cairns waterfront but Henry’s Battery was given an even more degrading task.

“What?” Jack exclaimed, when the Officer told him of what they were to do. “You expect these men to become navvies after what they have been through?”  “Orders are orders,” the Officer replied. “Get the trucks rolling.”  The men were to dismantle the camp at Ravenshoe, all the huts and structures.  The timber from this exercise was to be sent to the port. To make it worse the wharfies in Cairns refused to touch any timber with nails in it.  “Sorry boys, but the Commies on the wharf want clean stuff only!” Jack announced.  The timber was to be shipped to the East Indies to help the Dutch reconstruct war damage.  Henry and his mates were incensed and took their time with every task.  “Here mate,” Alf called, “There’s a tack in this one.  Better call the Sergeant and see if it counts as a nail!”  “I hope on of them wharfies gets a big splinter from this bit!” Phil said as he dropped another piece of timber on the pile. “You’ll be on a charge if you lose that hammer!” Jack called as one of the boys threw the tool down in frustration.  While being quartered in one of the buildings they would demolish everything around it until it too had to come down.

A little respite was provided when in June the boys were taken to Rocky Creek to mount guard around the Women’s Services Hospital.  The Officer in charge found he had a handful as those supposed to be guarding the ladies were often socializing with them and serious problems were coming to light.  The single men in particular found the nurses great company and discipline was difficult to maintain.  Henry listened to the tales some of his mates, bringing back memories of his days courting Nurse Marg Waugh at Ayr Hospital.  He wrote home and jokingly told Marg he had met a great local lass called Olga.  This was Olga from Tolga (the nearest town) and Rich and the others often joked about her.

Apart from a visit by the Duke of Gloucester, the Governor General, life went on as they resumed the task of demolishing camps all over the Tablelands.  In July as the war moved closer to Japan it was now obvious to all that the 2/4LAA had finished its war service.  Leave was granted to many and time in Cairns, Mareeba, Atherton and Tolga gave the boys some time to relax. “Have you heard?” Lofty called, “The Yanks have dropped some new type of bomb on Japan and killed thousands!”  It was the ninth of August and a week later Japan surrendered after the devastation caused by the atom bomb.  There was high spirits among the boys.  It now seemed only a matter of time before they would all be home with their loved ones.  But the army had other ideas.  There were still camps to be demolished, timber to be loaded, nails to be pulled, and an army of men chomping at the bit to get home.

Therefore it was not until October 24, the day before Henry’s 31st birthday, and the anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein that the regiment was officially disbanded. The discharge of the troops was to be orderly and the troop trains ran constantly taking Henry’s lot back to Brisbane.  He arrived at Wacol to hand in his gear and then to Redbank for his official discharge on the 9th November 1945.  Henry had spent 1,612 days in the AIF with 798 days overseas and 672 days in Australia. Henry’ war was over.

 

EPILOGUE

 

QX11914 Gnr Henry Michael WHELAN – Although his health deteriorated and he spent periods in hospital Henry and Marg had two more boys – Ronald and Colin, and Henry retrained as a Carpenter/Cabinetmaker. He bought one of those American army huts some sixty foot long he had seen at Ascot and it became their first home at Northgate after the war. He began to experience epileptic type fits and was unable to continue at his first employer but was later employed locally at Athol Hedges Motorbody Builders but his health further deteriorated.  In late 1952 with the help of the RSL he was declared Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) as a result of his war service.  In March 1953 while in Greenslopes Hospital he died from a Cerebral Tumour.  Marg always maintained that it was a result of that ‘football’ match in North Africa.  One month after his death his youngest son Colin died from Leukemia.  Both are buried at Lutwyche Cemetery.  Henry never applied for his medals.

SX12301 Gnr H.J. Richards (Rich) – Rich returned to his wheat farm in south-west South Australia and Marg , Robert, Leslie and Ronald visited him and his wife Janet in 1959 and Rich let the boys fire that same Beretta pistol he had found at El Alamein.  He and his wife later retired to a beach house at Arno Bay.

VX23811 L/Sgt  J.B. Iverson (Jack) – Became a first class Cricketer playing for Victoria and then Australia as a Spinner.  In 1950 Henry took Robert and Leslie to the Gabba to see Jack play in the First Test against England.  Henry managed to have a quick conversation over the fence with Jack while he was fielding in the outfield.  Jack quit cricket, suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1973 on the Anniversary of the battle of El Alamein (24th October).

WX14267 L/Bdr Dyer. E (Jim) – Wrote the poems quoted except the Queen Mary one.  Henry wrote Jim’s poems in his diary.  The Queen Mary poem was published in the QM Daily the newspaper available on board on the trip to the Middle East.

NX30716 Pte Madden, T. - Henry wrote this name and address – Denham Av, Kootingal, NSW, near Tamworth – in his diary. Pte Madden’s name appears on the War Memorial in Kootingal.

WX15685 Gnr King, A.T.(Tony);  WX14660 Bdr Larsen, T.S. (Tom); WX15589 Bdr Mainard, R.E. (Ron) – Henry wrote these names on the back of the photograph showing 11 Battery practicing loading Bofors onto Landing Craft probably at Cairns in 1943.

QX18271 Gnr Dorricott A.J. (Alf) – Went shopping with Henry in Beirut and had his photo taken with Henry which was sent home to Marg.  Henry had written

Alf’s name on the back in pencil.

WX13951 Gnr Thompson R.W. (Ron); WX11906 Gnr Treasure E.H. (Lofty) mentioned in Jim’s poem The Mechanics Lament.

Although this story is fictional it is based on the factual exploits of 11 Battery, 2/4 Light Ant-Aircraft Regiment, Second A.I.F. as recounted in the book From Alamein to Scarlet Beach: The History of 2/4 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment by Francis West, Deakin University Press, 1989, and Henry’s Notebook/diary in which he wrote Jim’s poems, names and addresses and so on.

The Queen Mary poem is taken from the final copy of the Q.M.Daily which Henry kept and brought home together with General Alexander’s speech to the 9th Division.

Henry sent home a series of photos he took in Syria.  The one used here has ‘The Mountain sides are planted with these pine trees which grow freely. SYRIA’ written on the back.

Acknowledgement is also given to the National Archive where Henry’s Military Records are now held.