Gordon Wallace: Stories of Service

Running time
7 min 6 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Copyright
Department of Veterans' Affairs 2020
Gordon Wallace enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1940. He went on to serve in North Africa and New Guinea during the Second World War. This tells the story of Gordon's service as a young soldier confronted with the reality of war and its effects on him and his fellow soldiers. Some of his experiences are revealed through the poetry he wrote to express his feelings about being a frontline soldier.

Student inquiry activities

  1. After their training, Gordon Wallace and his fellow soldiers left Australia on the ocean liner, Queen Mary. They thought they were going to Europe where they expected to fight the German army. Then they were told they would go to the desert of North Africa to fight the Italian army. How do you think they felt when they heard this news?
  2. How do you think Gordon felt when he found out that the German army was in North Africa, fighting alongside the Italian army?
  3. At the siege of Tobruk, German propaganda described Gordon and the other Australian soldiers as the 'Rats of Tobruk'. The Australian soldiers regarded this description as a badge of honour. Read about the Siege of Tobruk. Why would the troops have liked their new nickname?
  4. Gordon Wallace used poetry as a way to express his wartime experience. Other service men and women have done the same, or used music or art to show how they felt. Why would people choose to express themselves creatively?

Transcript

Opening credits - collage of drawings – soldiers, fighter aeroplane; video title ‘Stories of Service: Second World War’; cartoonist drawing two Australian male soldiers in a vast open landscape. Both soldiers are shirtless and wear Second World War-era Commonwealth forces helmets. They appear to be in a large foxhole. The soldier at left has a large machine gun while the soldier at right has a rifle. Both weapons are pointed to the right of the image.

[Music plays]

Presenter Warren Brown sits at a small circular table. Behind him is the wall of a stone building. On the table is the cartoon of the two soldiers in the foxhole. Warren Brown wears a dark long-sleeved shirt. He is visible from the waist up.

'Have you ever experienced something so extraordinary you just have to tell someone about it? Well sometimes situations during war are retold or relived through writing about them, through drawing and painting through music and through poetry.'

Presenter Warren Brown is seen in a more close-up ‘head and shoulders’ shot.

Walter Gordon Wallace was just 18 when he enlisted to join the Second Australian Imperial Force in 1940. He, like many of his fellow soldiers, enlisted to honour and protect Australia, in much the same way their fathers did during the First World War.'

A collage showing a ‘head and shoulders’ photograph of Gordon Wallace in his army uniform and hat, a photograph of three soldiers next to a 1940s-era car (two drink from cups while one drinks from what appears to be a bottle of milk) and a photograph of several rows of young soldiers in formal uniform all raising their hats above their heads. A Scouts badge and an old style rugby ball also appear in the collage.

'Walter Gordon Wallace was simply known as "Gordon" - everyone knew him by his middle name. He grew up in Queensland – attending various schools and participating in scouts and football. When the Second World War broke out he tried to enlist in the army but he was too young, so he joined the militia instead - what we would now call the Army Reserve.'

An old photograph of Australian soldiers marching in two files, They all wear shorts, shirts, boots and hats and all carry on their left shoulders rifles fitted with bayonets. Two buildings that look like army barracks are in the background. The soldiers march from left to right in the photograph. An image of Gordon Wallace’s enlistment form replaces the photograph. The enlistment form is then overlayed with photographs depicting Gordon Wallace posing for induction photographs, soldiers in a training exercise (stripped to the waist, wearing helmets and carrying rifles) and climbing an obstacle course wooden wall.

'Then, when he was old enough, Gordon and four of his mates were able to sign up and joined the second fifteenth Battalion. He said that part of the reason for signing up was because "it sounded like an exciting adventure". The training was tough and disciplined - drill instruction, night marches and weapons handling - but nothing would really prepare these young men for what lay ahead.'

A collage of old photographs, presented in a ‘photo album’ style. The photograph at top left shows soldiers waiting to board a steam train. The photograph at bottom left shows a large ocean-liner with a tugboat at its side. The photograph at right shows soldiers on a ship at a wharf in Sydney in New South Wales. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is in the background. The soldiers are in uniform and all wear life jackets. Some of the soldiers hold their hats above their heads.

'Initially - Gordon was posted to Darwin in the Northern Territory but before long was heading to Sydney ... to board the Queen Mary, a world-famous ocean liner converted as a troop ship.'

A map showing the route the ship carrying Gordon Wallace and the other soldiers took from Sydney to the Suez Canal. The map then shows the route the soldiers took to get to Marsa el Brega in Libya.

'Their destination was unknown – Gordon, like many of the young soldiers he sailed with, presumed they were heading to fight the Germans in Europe. But, having sailed up through the Suez Canal, they learned they would be fighting the Italians in the deserts of North Africa instead. They arrived in Libya and travelled via train and on foot to a place called Marsa el Brega, in March 1941. The North African desert was an important battleground; the Italian forces had been instructed to invade Egypt and the newly arrived Australians were part of the Commonwealth forces sent to try and stop them.'

A collage showing three old photographs. The upper middle photograph depicts troops behind sandbags in the desert of Libya. The troops are armed with rifles and machine guns. One of them looks through a telescope at something in the distance. All of them wear helmets and have their weapons pointing right to left in the photograph. The lower left photograph depicts troops operating an anti-aircraft gun. They all wear helmets and are looking up into the sky. Some of them are shirtless. The lower right photograph depicts four Australian soldiers crouching in a long ditch in the Libyan desert. They all wear helmets and carry weapons. They're all looking to the right side of the photograph, as though they are watching something or someone in the distance.

'It was in North Africa that Gordon gained his first experience of battle fighting against the Italians. While in the firing line, it was also where he first experienced the death of a fellow soldier.'

An animated cartoon sequence. It begins with a depiction of two soldiers digging a grave in the open expanse of a desert. The soldiers are using a shovel and a pick to dig the grave. They are both shirtless and wear helmets. As they dig, the front-on silhouette of an aircraft dives down toward them. The silhouette changes into a depiction of a German Second World War Messerschmitt fighter aircraft, with a camouflage pattern on it. The fighter circles the soldiers as one of them fires at it with a rifle. The fighter, in rear-on silhouette, passes over the soldiers who are diving into the grave. The sequence finishes with a close-up of the fighter, clearly showing the black cross and other markings identifying it as a German aircraft.

'In the middle of the desert with nowhere to take cover, he and another soldier started to dig a grave for their mate who had been killed. As they laid his body to rest in the grave, the pair suddenly realised they were being blasted with machine gun fire from an aircraft above them. They fought back - but the aircraft circled to attack them again. With nowhere to hide, Gordon and the other soldier had no option but to take cover by jumping into the grave as well. But the episode also alerted Gordon to something more. He noticed the aircraft that attacked them did not have Italian markings - it featured large black crosses instead. Gordon realised they were now fighting the Germans in North Africa as well.'

Presenter Warren Brown is seen in a more close-up ‘head and shoulders’ shot.

'It's not difficult to appreciate the sheer terror of such situations but Gordon says "We just did what we had to do."'

A map showing the location of Tobruk in Libya. Tobruk is to the east, or right, of Marsa el Brega where Gordon Wallace had his first experience of fighting in North Africa.

'After surviving the attack by the German aircraft, Gordon and his battalion were sent to defend the port of Tobruk in Libya. The battalion's instructions were simple: "Do not surrender, do not retreat".'

A collage showing four old photographs. The upper left photograph depicts some soldiers and near a tank. The buildings of a Libyan town can be seen in the background. The upper right photograph depicts a trench dug in the ground and covered with rudimentary walls and a roof. The lower left photograph depicts troops operating an anti-aircraft gun. They all wear helmets and are looking up into the sky. Some of them are shirtless. The lower right photograph depicts a soldier operating a machine gun that appears to have been taken from a military aircraft. The machine gun is housed in a simple open-backed turret. The turret is located in a sand-bagged enclosure.

'There were no luxuries in Tobruk, such as taking a bath or shower. Gordon and his mates had to be on alert 24/7 in blinding heat, choking dust and swarms of flies.'

An old photograph showing soldiers digging a large trench in the Libyan desert. The photograph has been animated so that it starts in close-up on one soldier and then opens out, pans left, pans down and then opens out again to show the entire group. Some of the soldiers are shirtless, but they all wear helmets.

'During the day, they endured frequent air raids and artillery attacks. At night, they moved out from behind their defences to conduct patrols in no-man's land, often crawling for kilometres in silence to make contact with the enemy. Yet their courage and refusal to surrender frustrated the attacking Germans, who tried to mock them, describing them as "The Rats of Tobruk", a name given to them by William Joyce, the notorious British Nazi propaganda broadcaster also known as Lord Haw-Haw. He also referred to the Australian soldiers as "rats in a trap". But the troops embraced the term and took great pride in calling themselves the "Rats of Tobruk".'

An old photograph showing two soldiers close up in a ‘head and shoulders’ pose. They both wear helmets and appear to have winter clothing on. They're both unshaven; the one at the right has the butt of a cigarette in his mouth. Both smile at the camera.

'They saw the term as a badge of honour.'

A sequence that starts with a close-up of someone writing in paper, using a nib pen. Only their hands are visible. The next shot is lines of a poem written by Gordon Wallace. The lines appear one at a time and 'flow' down a parchment background until all of the lines are visible in the correct order.

'Gordon was one who proudly wore this badge of honour as he began recording his thoughts in the form of poetry, on scraps of paper given to the soldiers by the Red Cross. His experience of war described through his poetry is sometimes shocking, sometimes revealing and always heartbreaking.'

Presenter Warren Brown sits at a small circular table. Behind him is the wall of a stone building. On the table is the cartoon of the two soldiers in the foxhole. Warren Brown wears a dark long-sleeved shirt. He is visible from the waist up.

'The Rats of Tobruk spent 8 months fighting the enemy before a short period of rest in Palestine and training in Lebanon and Syria. But the war was not over and soon the battalion was sent back to North Africa, this time to Egypt to a place called El Alamein.'

A sequence starting with a map of North Africa showing the location of El Alamein in Egypt. The map changes to a collage of old photographs that show a German Messerschmitt fighter aircraft, a tank, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in a 'head and shoulders' portrait shot, Allied troops operating a field artillery piece, Allied troops advancing through smoke with weapons held at the ready and a ‘head and shoulders’ portrait shot of General Montgomery.

'At El Alamein, the Allied forces, first led by General Auchinleck, stood against the advancing Panzerarmee Afrika, made up of German and Italian forces led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was dubbed the 'Desert Fox'. Gordon took part in the fighting which culminated in the October battle at El Alamein, sometimes known as the 'Last Great Battle of El Alamein', where the Allied forces were led by General Montgomery.'

A series old photographs. The first shows three soldiers lying on their stomachs on bare stony ground in Egypt while in the distance a series of explosions throw up smoke and dust. The soldiers face away from the camera, in the direction of the explosions. The second shows three troops looking through a barbed wire structure. The troops all carry weapons and are looking at something or someone off in the distance beyond the right side of the photograph. The third photograph shows a soldier operating a machine gun placed in a partially bombed-out building. The soldier appears to be aiming at an aircraft in the sky. The fourth photograph shows troops advancing through smoke and dust and across stones and rubble. All of them carry weapons and are crouching down. They are advancing from left to right across the photograph.

'The battle ran from 23 October to 4 November 1942. Night after night and day after day the men fought under frequent artillery barrages. Gordon recalled that the battle was a mass of confusion, with the sound of people yelling and screaming. He saw many of his fellow soldiers fall in the battle of El Alamein. Despite this, the battle was a victory for the Commonwealth forces and a turning point in the North African campaign.'

Presenter Warren Brown sits at a small circular table. Behind him is the wall of a stone building. On the table is the cartoon of the two soldiers in the foxhole. Warren Brown wears a dark long-sleeved shirt. He is visible from the waist up.

'After returning home, Gordon went on to serve in New Guinea, which he described as "a little easier" because at least there was cover - places to hide - unlike the almost treeless deserts of North Africa.'

A long collage sequence that begins with a photograph of Gordon Wallace as a young soldier and a photograph of him in recent years, in a suit and wearing his campaign medals. The next photograph is of three soldiers next to a 1940s-era car (two drink from cups while one drinks from what appears to be a bottle of milk). The next photograph is of Australian soldiers marching in two files, They all wear shorts, shirts, boots and hats and all carry on their left shoulders rifles fitted with bayonets. Two buildings that look like army barracks are in the background. The soldiers march from left to right in the photograph. An image of Gordon Wallace's enlistment form replaces the photograph. That photograph is replaced by an image of the young Gordon Wallace posing for induction photographs. Two photographs then appear in the background depicting troops in training exercises (climbing a wooden obstacle course wall and running over piles of sandbags). The photograph of Gordon Wallace in recent years, in a suit and wearing his campaign medals, remains visible right through the collage sequence.

'After the War ended, Gordon continued to write poems detailing his experiences on the battlefields of North Africa and New Guinea. His poetry gives us a first-hand account of what it was like to live through some of the major battles of the war. This is Gordon's poem, Jungle Patrol: "When you're out in the Jungle, it's a much different affair. There are no static lines - you could be anywhere. When you're out as a forward scout you feel like live bait – to draw the tiger out you know there lies in wait." Perhaps Gordon's poetry was his way of coping with the tragedy and torment of the scenes he witnessed, the mates he lost and the enduring psychological pain of war.'

Closing frame shows the crest of the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

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