Europe First: Episode 1 of Paths to Victory podcast series
This podcast is part of the series, Paths to Victory. Join us to explore some of the many paths our veterans took through the Second World War on the road to Victory in the Pacific. In this episode, we share insights of Australians in the European theatre of the war; stories of sailors, troops and others who served in the Mediterranean, North Africa, Greece and Crete, and aircrew who served in Bomber, Fighter and Coastal commands.
Archival audio: The years of blood and tears had ended in resounding victory. Australia joined her allies in an outburst of rejoicing, the like of which her cities had never seen before. The pent-up emotion of 6 years poured out as a flood. Freedom was really theirs.
Rebecca Fleming: There was jubilation on Victory in the Pacific Day in Australia. People spilled into the streets to celebrate the end of the war. Men and women had spent years away from their families and friends, uncertain of a safe return. Their people at home had waited with anxiety for news from loved ones. Now, the war was over. It is hard for those of us who did not live through this moment to imagine how it might have felt. The joy. The relief that a much-hoped-for peace had finally arrived. The grief for those who did not return.
Australians had been at war for more than 5 years. The path to victory had been a long one.
My name is Dr Rebecca Fleming. As a social historian, I’m fascinated by the lived experience of history.
In this series, we hear from some of those who served across the world in the Second World War and learn something of the many ways in which Australian service men and women experienced the war. All served in the same war, but each experience was unique.
As we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, I invite you to join me in listening to these stories.
In this episode, we hear about those who served in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Though the war ended with victory in the Pacific, it began in Europe.
Alfred Passfield: Right from the very word go, I was thinking of escaping. This being locked up behind this wire was no good to me – I had to do something.
Bob Cowper: So we were flying at night, and the first night of D-Day … 2 of them shot down big German bombers – on the first night of D-Day. That was the start of it.
Andy Anderson: I've never heard of them approaching one of our aircraft with less than 4 of theirs. And one of our skippers, Stan Chilcott, escaped from 16 of them. 16!
David Leicester: Searchlights were actually my greatest fear because if you got caught, well, it was almost goodnight.
Doug Gilling: So life and death is the difference between fore and aft as far as I'm concerned, and that really mirrors what life is really about, it's such a thing of chance.
Rebecca Fleming: For many, the journey to victory began with the decision to enlist. As in the First World War, motivations varied. Some felt it a duty to defend nation or Empire, others sought adventure, or opportunities they may not have had in civilian life. Coming at the end of the decade of the 1930s Depression, some were also attracted to the opportunity for a regular wage, food and board. For others, it was a chance to follow in the footsteps of family members who had served in earlier wars.
For those who enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, the chance to fly was often a drawcard.
Andy Anderson had his heart set on becoming a pilot from a young age:
Andy Anderson: From the age of about 12, I was building model aeroplanes. Why, I don’t know, there’s no way I can tell you why I was so interested in aeroplanes. From the age of 14, I was flying gliders. From the age of 18, I was an apprentice aircraft engineer with McRoberts and Millers in Perth. And the reason for that was, although I wanted to fly there's no way my parents could have afforded it. Then the war came along, and then, of course, I was trapped in an essential service. So it took me a while to convince the management that I wasn't the sort of apprentice engineer they wanted, because my mind was not on the job.
And there was one amusing incident I remember, and I’ll never forget it. I was standing on the steps taking some spark plugs out of a radial engine, and one of the McRoberts and Millers pilots crept up behind me and he put his chin on my shoulder and said, “Come down out of that Spitfire”. Because they all knew I wanted to join the Air Force. Anyway, they finally released me and I did join the Air Force.
Rebecca Fleming: Douglas Gilling joined up with the navy as part of the Yachtsmen scheme. At the request of the Admiralty, the Royal Australian Navy began a separate Yachtsmen Scheme in June 1940. Some 500 volunteers, preferably with yachting experience, were selected and sent to the United Kingdom for training as members of the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve.
Doug Gilling: We were nominally called yachtsmen because we were supposed to be sufficiently aware of the sea so that we could do service in small vessels, particularly in Europe. And the basis of that was that you virtually, they wanted to be sure, firstly that you weren't going to be seasick I suppose. And they had a particular need of those people, because of the success of the people that had boats in and around the south and east coast in England, to get the British Expeditionary Force out of Dunkirk, and it was long thought that the yachtsmen were really an integral part of getting a great many of those soldiers away. I think they got a quarter of a million people away from the whole of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. And on that basis, they suddenly thought, well these guys are not in any service at all, so they probably would be useful for us in manning small vessels, particularly.
Rebecca Fleming: Until the end of 1941, the war was fought mainly in the European theatre, which we can take to include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa. Those who signed up in the early days spent time training in Australia before embarking for overseas service. Embarkation was, for many, a moment of mixed emotions.
Alfred Passfield recalled:
Alfred Passfield: Certain amount of sadness. You can't help that. Plenty of tears, especially where the women were concerned – mothers and all that sort of thing. And actually, I was rather pleased when it was over because they seemed to not want to rush the ship away from the wharf and was just hanging on there, trying to smile, smile and all that sort of thing. I think we had streamers – plenty of streamers -that was one thing. They broke the monotony a bit. I wasn't exactly real sad. All we was thinking about was the adventure ahead of us. We was too full of thinking of what was going to happen next and all that sort of thing, than worry about what we were leaving behind.
Rebecca Fleming: The last time Private Jack Hawkes saw his wife was when he was on the train heading for embarkation.
Jack Hawkes: We travelled down by train from Northam, went on the embarkation train. And every place we went to – every town we went through, station we went through – they'd speed up so you couldn't see anyone out of the train. I don't know whether so nobody would hop off or something or other. But, any rate, when we got down to Perth it sped up through the main station and my friend, Jimmy Bone, he saw his girlfriend on the station. And, of course, they couldn't see who we were because everybody was out waving so he was really broken-hearted, you know, that she didn't see him on the way through. Then, when we got down to Claremont, the same thing happened to me. My wife was on the station and I could see her and I was yelling out, you know, “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye”, and she was just glaring at a haze of faces going past, flat out on the train. The train definitely went too fast…
Rebecca Fleming: The experience of the journey to the European theatre varied, often depending on the transport a person was on – some were former cruise liners, some went directly to Europe, others travelled via the United States. Andy Anderson recalled his journey as a pleasant one.
Andy Anderson: The trip over was perfection. I mean, we were given a cabin and all sorts of lovely service. The American troops were coming over and the troop ships going back across the Pacific weren't full. So we had a first-class cabin, and people to look after us, and music on the upper deck and wonderful warm evenings. It was really – across the Pacific – it was really great.
Rebecca Fleming: Others experienced less inviting conditions. Like Andy, Peter Munro travelled first to the United States. His memories of the sea voyage were far less pleasant.
Peter Munro: Sydney to San Francisco took 3 weeks. We were in a disgusting little freighter which just had a single cannon mounted on the rear, and we wove all over the Pacific, especially down cold. We must have been going down the coast of South America because the Australian Red Cross had very thoughtfully provided big sheepskin jackets to go over our uniform. Obviously they knew where we were going, but we didn't. Just to keep us warm. But 3 weeks crossing the Pacific was a hell of a long trip. And that was a revolting ship. 330 men packed into this tiny freighter. It was just not nice.
Rebecca Fleming: Jack Hawkes summed up his journey on the Aquitania in one word – hot!
Jack Hawkes: We left on January the second, 1941, we left. We came down to Freemantle and the Queen Mary was in, and I thought, “You beauty! We’re going on the Queen Mary!” But we didn’t. We went on the Aquitania, another big boat, but the Mary was the one I wanted to go to. At any rate, on the way over it was pretty – we went right down, because of the Eastern Staters coming over, we were the last on so we got right down below decks. And hot! Holy mackerel, going across to Ceylon it was incredibly hot down there. You used to just be a pool of sweat and you could go to – you were allowed to sleep on deck, but by the time we had to have – you weren't allowed up before the certain whistle went and by the time we got our gear up on the deck – you used to take your rugs and so on – oh, bad luck, it's full. So we had to go back again. Every time. We never slept on deck all the way over to Ceylon.
Rebecca Fleming: For some, the voyage across the ocean was simply a method of transport, carrying them to the theatres of war where they began their service in earnest on land or in the air. For those who served at sea – members of the Royal Australian Navy, or the Merchant Navy – the dangers of the war at sea were ever-present.
The Merchant Navy carried out vital work during the war carrying cargo and essential supplies, particularly keeping the United Kingdom supplied. Merchant mariners also worked aboard hospital ships. A convoy system was put in place to try to ensure the safety of merchant ships, as lone ships were more vulnerable to attack. The convoys were protected by warships, and, when possible, aircraft. But U-boats and enemy aircraft remained significant dangers.
John Cummins served in the Merchant Navy and recalled his initial fears:
John Cummins: Well, to tell you the truth, the first night to sea, I got dressed in all my clothes and went to sleep like that. The second convoy I went in, I was in normal sleeping gear. If you get hit, the odds of getting away from it were very small. So, it was no good going to sleep in gear. And don’t forget, it’s very cold up there in, near Iceland. So, you used to dress for the cold. But luckily, I was spared that. But lights, if you showed a light anywhere, there’d be yells and screams to black it out. Jerry used to come with the subs and sit on the outside of the convoys. There’d be 5 or 6 lanes of ships. And at first, Jerry used to stay on the outside. And then they started coming inside the channels of the ships, to get closer.
Rebecca Fleming: Danger also lurked in the skies above a convoy. John experienced those dangers first-hand:
John Cummins: Different ships would come out of the port from London – depending on which way they thought the convoy should go, to the north of Scotland, dodging through the islands of Scotland to get across to the other side, we went all sorts of different channels. And we were attacked by the German aircraft. We were in columns, maybe 5 columns of ships with say 5 ships in each column. Yes, we were just going along doing our business, and some German aircraft came down the centre of the columns and attacked us that way. So, we had to man the guns, and the guns were mainly there for aircraft flying above us, not on the same level. But we didn’t lose anybody, thank goodness. It was very frightening. I think once you’re in it, you forget the fright, you’re determined on keeping them away.
Rebecca Fleming: The Battle of the Atlantic ran throughout the war and Australians serving in Coastal Command were among those protecting the convoys. It was an important role – defending Britain’s lifeline – ensuring the safe arrival of men and vital supplies. Andy Anderson – an RAAF pilot who served in Coastal Command with No. 10 Squadron still remembers the grief he felt for convoys that had been attacked.
Andy Anderson: Convoy escorts were probably the worst of it, because if you took over from another aircraft that had been escorting the convoy and during the night they'd been attacked, then, you know, you'd see all this wreckage and all…
I get a bit emotional about it. These guys in the water that were gonna die. I mean, you couldn't do anything about it because if the sea was so rough there's no way you could land. The Navy couldn't do anything about it because they were ordered not to stop because if they did they'd be a perfect target for a U-boat and the convoy couldn't stop. I mean there's just no way a merchant ship could help these guys. So I mean I just have tremendous respect for them. They were never, ever given the reward that they needed or should have had. They were civilians and therefore, since they didn't wear a uniform there was no glamour attached to it. If their ship was sunk then their pay was stopped. That's assuming they survived, which most of them didn't because what chance would you have?
I mean, you're out there on the western approaches and you might drop a dinghy or a smoke float. But there's just no way people would ever find them. You know? And, of course, the Murmansk run was even worse because it was so cold up there they wouldn't last more than 5 minutes in the water.
Rebecca Fleming: One of the ways Coastal Command crews protected the convoys was through anti-submarine patrols. The work was defensive and required an ability to concentrate for extended periods of time, searching hour-after-hour for the tell-tale signs of submarines across endless expanses of ocean.
Peter Munro served as a gunner with No. 10 Squadron, and part of this role involved looking out for submarines on patrol.
Peter Munro: A box patrol was interesting, that was a navigator's nightmare – you had to keep going in boxes all the way so that you wouldn't miss anything. At the end of the war, the Germans had a clever thing, it was called a schnorkel. This enabled them to progress on the surface and hopefully go undetected. So there's the German periscope and the schnorkel, the sea is going over it, so the Germans conjectured that our radar couldn't pick them up, and we couldn't, either. So they relied very much on our visual sighting. We were trained to look for any suspicious white cap. If there's an unusual looking white cap that does fit in with the general pattern, because we only flew at 1200 feet, which is good visual sighting.
Rebecca Fleming: While in the air, crews also had to be on the lookout for enemy fighter aircraft escorting the U-boats. Evading these attacks involved considerable skill.
Andy Anderson recalled:
Andy Anderson: What we used, the normal tactics to get out of aircraft attack, by waiting until they were almost on top of you and that we could keel it over and pull it back and the aircraft would just spin on itself, almost. It was so maneuverable, and these other aircraft would just shoot past because you were doing about 120, 130 and they were doing 300. So what they did, in the end, was these JU 88s, they were equipped with cannon and they used to sit well back because the range of the cannon was much better than our 303 machine guns. So to avoid that, we would increase speed as much as we could and then when they started to fire we'd pulled right back and slow down and, of course, they would overtake us and then they'd be within range of our 303s. And our tail-gunners, like his Lordship there, were pretty accurate. And they didn't like it. I've never heard of them approaching one of our aircraft with less than 4 of theirs. And one of our skippers, Stan Chilcott, escaped from 16 of them. 16! They had 1 patrol of 8 and when they found Stan they called on another squadron of 8 and he escaped. Now, that is incredible.
Rebecca Fleming: Though their stories are less well-known than others, Coastal Command played a vital role throughout the war in Europe. British Prime Minister and wartime leader Winston Churchill wrote in the second volume of his history of the war ‘The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril’.
Another group who played a key role in the war in Europe and shared the dangers of warfare in the skies were the Australians who served in Bomber Command. As many as 10,000 Australians took part in the bombing campaign against Germany, and more than 4000 lost their lives, killed on operations or in training.
One of Peter Munro’s brothers was in a bomber crew, and Peter was thrilled one day when his brother took him on a trip in a Lancaster. It was a memory made all the more special for Peter, because his brother was later killed on operations.
Peter Munro: One of my own dear brothers was in a Lancaster bomber and killed… Parents take unrealistic views. They were frantically sending cables to another brother and myself to get the facts, but the facts were they were just blown to pieces. They found a bit of his uniform, which was a different colour and that proved he was the Australian.
Rebecca Fleming: For those who served in Bomber Command, life was a contrast between a peaceful existence on the ground and the intense danger, stress and fear of operations. Aircrew were expected to complete a tour of 30 operations before being rested for 6 months, usually being posted as an instructor, and then flying another tour of 20 operations. The chances of survival for any airmen in Bomber Command were, for much of the war, less than even, and often around 40%. Danger took many forms. Fog over airfields in England made landing hazardous. Enemy night-fighters prowled among streams of bombers, and over the target the crews had to look out for, and dodge, anti-aircraft fire.
Many veterans of Bomber Command recall the fear of being ‘coned’, that is, caught in a cluster of searchlights from the ground and being targeted by anti-aircraft guns.
David Leicester: Once an aircraft got coned, or once an aircraft got caught by a searchlight, even one, it was – then every other searchlight looking would cone on that one aircraft. And the cone would become so big, so wide in length, that it was just almost impossible for an aircraft to get out of it because not only could the gunner see the plane, but the fighters could as well. Searchlights were actually my greatest fear because if you got caught, well, it was almost goodnight.
Rebecca Fleming: The loss of men on Operations was harrowing to witness.
David Leicester: When you're sitting there having a meal before, you know, and 8 hours later 20 of them are not there, it's unreal. Then you've got to ring up and tell their parents or their family, and then you've got to get – say if 4 planes are missing, you've got to get 4 in the next day, you've got to get 4 more crews in. It was hard.
Rebecca Fleming: While many Australians risked and often lost their lives in the skies above Europe, members of the Second Australian Imperial Force had their first encounter with enemy forces in the North African desert.
Private John Hawkes, better known as Jack, served with the 2/28th Battalion. He recalled his first impressions of the Libyan Desert.
Jack Hawkes: So, at any rate, from there on we went up, up this desert and, oh, gee, what a place it was. We had no idea that Libya was like this. It was no vegetation much at all, bar a little scrub about a foot high and they are called a camel bush and – nothing. It wasn't the desert as I thought it was going to be – rolling sand dunes and things like that – it was just this sort of – if the trucks had gone over it many times it broke the topsoil – although it wasn't topsoil; it was top mud – and that just made dust. Incredible the dust. It was just like powder. And this dust, you got it everywhere. You got it in your food; you got it in your eyes and you had to have – tried to have goggles on.
Rebecca Fleming: In 1941, Australians fought in a number of campaigns and battles in the desert. In Libya, Australians of the Second AIF fought their first major battle in North Africa against Italian forces at Bardia in January 1941. In June and July others were pulled into the campaign in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French.
The same year, some 14,000 Australian troops engaged German and Italian forces in the siege of Tobruk, supported and supplied by the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy.
Bob Semple, who took part in the siege of Tobruk, praised the work of the navy in supporting the troops during the siege:
Bob Semple: We shall be ever be grateful to our navy, the destroyers and those ships that supported and kept us alive, because without the navy we would not have seen out the distance.
Rebecca Fleming: Bob served with the 2/12th Field Artillery Regiment, supporting the infantry in the desert. It was a dangerous role.
Bob Semple: The hurly-burly of action, of course, the artillery – apart from what they call counter-battery fire, your enemy was on you all the time with the sound ranging and flash spotting equipment, they can pinpoint you pretty smartly. But you didn't have the chance of shifting to another position sometimes, to give you a bit of a temporary break, as you can in other territory. That was a bit hard to take. And our duty, of which, I always consider the infantry the backbone of the army in my book. Our job was to give them every support we possibly could. You ‘stand to’ no matter what and you take it. And the Stukas gave us a fair sort of attention because they used this Stuka, a pretty accurate sort of a thing, it comes down, if you can imagine, and they scream, and they open every door or whatever apparatus they've got and they're screaming all the time. They come down and you watch the bomb come from out under the plane and they're aiming straight at you, like that, and then they pull away. They were hard and the German artillery was pretty accurate.
Rebecca Fleming: Alfred Passfield, who served with 2/11th Battalion, took part in the ill-fated campaign in Greece, an Allied attempt to defend the country against the German invasion in April 1941. Alfred enjoyed the journey to Greece. It offered an opportunity to admire the scenery, and a moment of peace, before the heat of battle.
Alfred Passfield: So we left Alexandria for Greece on my birthday, the actual day, and arrived in Athens in Greece, and immediately was loaded on trucks and everything with all our full equipment, for the front. But, of course, before we got there we went right through from the south of Greece, practically to the north. I rather liked that part of it because new country, and very picturesque, mountainous all that sort of thing, so it took your mind away from what you knew would be in store for you sooner or later, and it was more or less a rear-guard action right from the very start.
Rebecca Fleming: The campaign against the Germans in Greece began on the 6th of April 1941 and ended in defeat and the withdrawal of Commonwealth forces by the end of the month.
Evacuated by sea, to Crete, Alfred took part in the defence of Retimo airfield.
Alfred Passfield: When we got to Crete, there was only whatever we stood up in. Most of us had our rifles and no heavy equipment whatsoever. And we went to our positions about halfway along Crete at a place called Retimo where we had to look after an airfield. And we was there for 2 or 3 weeks, I should say, before the Germans landed with their paratroops and gliders. They towed these gliders – sometimes 2 gliders full of troops behind the big Junker aircraft. The aircraft not only carried a full complement of parachutists, but also towing these great big lumbering gliders behind them. And to see all these soldiers coming down was rather – you wouldn't call it frightening – it must have been more frightening for them than it was for us because we were showering them with bullets as hard and fast as we could, and they were coming down, some alive, some dead, and landing all round us.
After they'd landed all the troops they intended to by paratroop and these gliders, those that managed to not land on us and not get killed managed to regroup further back from our lines, and of course started retaliatory action. It was during one of these skirmishes that I got wounded in the foot. Very, very fortunately, it was only a flesh wound but bad enough that I would have to be helped to the RAP. When I got to the RAP they took my boot off and said, “Well you can't go back in the battle for a little while because you can't get your boot back on”. And then I was escorted to a deli which was about half a mile – walked there of course, or limped there – which was a clearing station.
Rebecca Fleming: Alfred was taken prisoner at the clearing station after the Allied capitulation in Crete. He was transported to Athens for treatment, then to northern Greece to await transport to Germany. Almost as soon as he was captured, Alfred was determined to escape.
Alfred Passfield: Right from the very word go I was thinking of escaping. This being locked up behind this wire was no good to me, I had to do something. I could see that it would be detrimental to me health, especially me brain – I would have gone sillier than I did originally.
Rebecca Fleming: Throughout his time as a prisoner, Alfred made 8 escape attempts. He remembered his third attempt as his best. He made it as far as the Hungarian border on a pushbike.
Alfred Passfield: I got to the Hungarian border and I thought well, it’s sure to be guarded, because Hungary wasn't in the war then. And so I kept well back where I could watch the place where they was crossing the border, where the traffic and everything was crossing, to see just what happened. And after I'd been watching for a few minutes, a cyclist come along and just rode straight up to the bar – they had a red and white bar across the road with a guard on it – and he just raised the pole up and checked the people who were going through and let them through and put the bar down again. And I saw when this cyclist got there, that he just rode through a small passageway for pedestrians and cyclists beside this red and white pole. And he just rode straight through and just nodded to the guard.
So I thought oh that's alright, they're not checkin' on cyclists, so I tried to do the same thing. But when he saw that I was goin' to shoot through, go straight through, he grabbed me back wheel, and called the rest of the guard out from the guardroom and o' course that was it. I was taken inside and not long after, I was only been there about 5 minutes and back came this cyclist. He was a bloke who just – all he done all day was just ride backwards and forwards as a lure to try to egg anybody on like me that didn't know the rules and he must have caught quite a lot of people, especially anybody on pushbikes and of course pedestrians because they all had their credentials checked as well.
Rebecca Fleming: Alfred was ultimately awarded the Military Medal for his ‘commendable determination to escape prisoner of war camps’. He was liberated by the Allies in May 1945. Later in life, Alfred wrote a book detailing his daring escapes, aptly titled: The Escape Artist.
In 1942, Jack Hawkes served with his battalion at El Alamein. The Battle of El Alamein is among the best-known battles involving Australian troops in the Second World War. And one of the most decisive – a turning point in the war in North Africa and a much-needed victory for the Allies, halting the German advance into Egypt. 3 major battles were fought around El Alamein between July and November 1942. During the fighting at Ruin Ridge in late July, Jack suddenly realised he was in a precarious situation.
Jack Hawkes: At any rate, we were there. During the night there was all great bloomin’ things, there was bits of fire going on now and again and so on. Anyway we got through the night and in the morning I get out and have a look around the place and there's me gear there and I thought I'd – I had my haversack taken off and my Tommy gun stuck on top of that so it wouldn't get any dirt on it. And I was just out there having a little bit of a look around and there was tanks in front of us. And I thought, “You bloody beauties that's fine”. Then I thought, “Bloody hell, they've got black crosses on them”.
And then there was some anti-tank guns in front of us – 6 pounder anti-tank guns – and they're – what I first noticed, these were – before I noticed the black crosses – these blokes were shooting at these tanks, you see. They were engaging on them. Then I thought, “Holy mackerel”, and then from behind me a blooming machine gun comes up and it shot all those blooming – all the anti-tank gunners. And I look back and there's tanks behind me with black crosses on them too. Bloody hell, then it was on. The tanks came up and if you didn't get out of your hole they dug you in. Anyhow, the tanks on that and they just came out and they said, “Oust, oust” and it looked like a blooming – the gun they pointed at you, it looked as though it was a foot round, this great big gunner. So you oust.
And I got out and I thought, “If I bend down and pick up that Tommy gun would he reckon I'm going to have a shot at him?” and I thought, “Oh my God, I don't know. These Germans might”. So that’s why I didn't –and I left me pack behind and I had nothing. I had my tin hat; I had my first field aid dressing in me jacket – no, shirt it was, only a shirt, that's right, a shirt – and these shorts that I had cut right off there and boots and socks, that's all I had – nothing. No water bottle, not a bloody thing did I have and, by gee, I was a poor prisoner.
Rebecca Fleming: Jack and Alfred were among more than 8500 Australians taken prisoner in the European theatre.
The 9th Division returned to Australia in early 1943, the last of the Second AIF Divisions to leave the European theatre. By March, only 20 AIF personnel remained in the Middle East. The focus for the Australian Army was now firmly on the Pacific theatre and the fight against Japan.
But members of the RAN and RAAF continued to serve in the European theatre.
After completing his training in England as part of the Yachtsmen Scheme, Doug Gilling was drafted to the Hunt class destroyer HMS Berkley. In August 1942, HMS Berkley took part in Operation Jubilee, better known as the Dieppe raid. The Dieppe raid aimed to test the defences of the German-held French port to inform planning for a large-scale assault.
On their way into Dieppe, the ships carrying the attacking force encountered German vessels and were soon under fire. Doug’s ship – HMS Berkley – was hit.
Doug Gilling: Well, it didn't go down immediately. You know they don’t, they hang around for a while. But as I say, I was lucky enough to be on the after 4-inch gun turret, and the bomb actually hit just forward of the bridge and wiped out the whole of the forward gun turret. So life and death is the difference between fore and aft as far as I'm concerned, and that really mirrors what life is really about, it's such a thing of chance.
I'm aware of the captain coming to the fringe of the deck, looking aft and just going like that. So as the ship was already at about that angle anyway, and I was down here, I didn't have very far to go to step into the sea. And that didn't seem to worry me terribly much, because being an Australian, at least you could swim, which is more than most of the others could do. Most of them couldn't swim so they relied on their life jackets, just to keep them afloat. And that's one of the great differences between the 2 nationalities, that in actual fact, out of a ship's company of about 150, about a hatful of them could swim. It seemed fairly basic to me if you go to sea, it might be a good idea to learn to swim before you took it up. But that was so. And so then I was picked up in an assault landing craft, one of the smallest landing crafts, which had obviously been ordered to come to us, to pick up survivors.
Rebecca Fleming: Members of the RAN continued to make important contributions to the war in Europe. Australian ships took part in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, codenamed ‘Operation Husky’. And members of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve took part in D-Day operations, as did RAAF personnel. An estimated 2500 Australians took part in the D-Day Operation.
Bill Purdy, an RAAF pilot in Bomber Command, was among them.
Bill Purdy: It had no real significance for me, it was just another operation basically. And no one knew that – well, certainly I didn’t know that that was the big day. But we went across and through bad weather, which we never would have flown in normally, but that was why we went out, I guess. One of the reasons of the success was that the Germans thought that no one in their right mind would start an invasion when the weather was that bad.
But having bombed the gun emplacement on Pointe du Hoc, and turning him around to come home, it was on, you could just see an endless row of boats as far as the eye could see, thousands of them. And as I have said before, there were 5000 small boats bringing in the first 130,000 troops, and they were guarded by 300 ships of the line, including 6 battleships, and they were preceded by 300 minesweepers to make sure everything was cleared. So when you can picture those all coming towards you almost at ground level – as I’ve said so often – I could have put my wheels down and taxied back home.
Rebecca Fleming: Australians served in the European theatre until Victory in Europe was won in May 1945. Doug Gilling was still serving with the navy when Germany surrendered. He remembered the moment he realised the war in Europe was over.
Doug Gilling: Around about May, the 8th I think, which is VE Day, we were doing a patrol of the coast of France and suddenly, it was in the evening, just in the early evening, and suddenly we saw the lights come on. And of course, everything in Europe was blacked out at that particular time. The vessels were blacked out, you didn't carry navigational lights or anything funny like that. We knew that the end was pretty close, but it was quite a dramatic moment to suddenly see the lights go on.
Rebecca Fleming: The paths to victory for those who served in Europe varied dramatically. Australians in this theatre experienced moments of peace, and the excitement of seeing parts of the world they would never otherwise have seen, but the war also held many moments of fear and terror. When we remember Victory in the Pacific and commemorate the end of the war, we also remember that the path to victory in the Second World War began in Europe.
In the next episode, we turn to Pacific theatre and listen to some of the experiences of the Australians who fought against Japanese forces between 1941 and 1945.
The interviews for this series are sourced with thanks from the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veterans’ Stories project.
To see some videos of veterans’ stories visit anzacportal.dva.gov.au
Thank you to all the veterans who have shared their stories of service.
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