Drawing on life in the signals unit

Name: Max Dimmack
Date: 1943-1945
Unit: Signals, 7th Australian Division, AIF
Location: New Guinea, Borneo

Following a concerted German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece, with a force of 15 divisions backed by a powerful formation of Stuka dive bombers and Messerschmitts, the Allied troops were forced to withdraw from Greece.

Among the Australian troops waiting to be evacuated was Frank De Silva, a member of the 6th Division.

On the night of 26-27 April, he was among the 8000 troops who were evacuated on Royal Australian Navy ships, including Perth, Stuart, Voyager, Waterhen, Vendetta and Vampire.

Some years after the war, Frank De Silva was persuaded to write about his experiences. So vivid were his memories that he could even remember the breakfast he was served on Perth on the voyage to Crete.

Frank de Silva takes up the story:

During the evacuation of Greece, all Allied units were gathered on the beaches. Our group, 6th Div. HQ, had only one small landing craft to get us out to the waiting ships, other landing craft had been destroyed by the ever present Stuka dive bombers and Me 109 fighter aircraft.

All movement during daylight hours was at your own peril but we had to take calculated risks in an attempt to get as far down the coast as possible to this beach, our pick up point. In the darkness we could not see the ships, we just knew they were out there. Our orders were to discard or destroy all surplus gear and keep only one small haversack.

Our group had no gear to worry about, Hitler's gang had made sure of that on the day before when 20 Stuka dive bombers attacked our convoy and played havoc amongst our slow moving transport on the narrow road, with its many potholes and a few culverts blown away with all our gear.

We received a direct hit. We did not wait, we hit the dirt when we saw them coming. To make matters worse, we had on board extra petrol supplies Man oh man, what a fireball. Then they came back and strafed us for good measure. I got the impression I had crawled inside my tin hat - well that's how it felt.

Here we were now waiting to be taken out to the ships but the whole movement was slow. The beach party, under very trying conditions (as other landing craft had been destroyed) were doing the best that they could. The next thing we saw were sailors manning their own life boats pulling toward the shore to pick us up, like silent sentinels out of the night.

All noise and sound was kept to a minimum, we were just thankful to be still breathing. All movements had to be carried out in complete darkness as the ships wanted to be well out to sea by daylight, allowing them freedom to alter course, to dodge, the, Stuka dive bombers. We were jammed like sardines on this little landing craft as we headed out into the gloom away from the beach There, looming up out of the darkness, as large as life, a warship.

As we moved alongside, I could her the high pitched whine of motors and generators, knowing that down there in the engine room those mighty engines, at word of command, would roar into action. I was that happy to be rescued by a warship and the Perth at that.

The sailors had rigged up a small gangway and lowered one end down to the water line and as we scrambled aboard, I could hear a very clear and precise voice in muffled tones coming down from the bridge 'got those men on board as quickly as possible, I am moving out at first light'.

Just how they, the Navy, managed to get into those small bays in the dark I will never know. The pilots and navigators must have been wizards. As we came up on deck from the gangway a sailor came up to our group of about 15 men and said 'Right fellas, come with me'. He took us down to the forward mess then he said 'I suppose you fellas are hungry'. We had not had a decent feed in days, only what we could scrounge, mostly tinned food and dog biscuits.

Well we lined up at the galley, the cooks were marvellous, this sailor said 'come and eat with me'. We put our food on the table and sat down together. The sailor moved his plate, I started to eat and then he laid his head on the table and in seconds flat he was sound asleep. I thought 'Well, look at that! These poor buggers are out on their feet. They are really working round the clock'. I felt very sorry to see him like this. It made me realise that these men from the Captain down were pushing themselves to the limit. No, 'Hard-Over Heck' wasn't in command (Captain Sir Philip Bowyer-Smith RN) on this trip.

Anyway, I had almost finished my breakfast (do you know that breakfast was so good that I can see it in front of me now, even as I write) I must have given the sailor a bit of a nudge because he woke up very bleary eyed. He said 'I just needed that forty winks', and true to his word he was as good as gold.

My army trousers wore soaking wet because we had had to wade out up to chest high in the water to reach the landing craft. The sailor said 'Come with me'. He went to his locker, took out a good pair of bell bottoms and said 'Put these on and we will go and get your trousers dry'. To get to the engine room, we went through one door and closed it behind us, then opened another door like an air lock. Well! The heat, the pressure, the noise of the powerful engines, really hit me. The sailor took one look at me, I did not realise the area was pressurised. Then he pointed to the handrail. He had to speak right into my ear, 'Hang them over the rail they will dry in no time'. We went out the same way we came in. The sailor was called to duty so away he went out on deck.

I noticed a thin red pennant flag flying from the yard arm. The message went through the ship 'Red Alert!' The 'ammo' elevator was giving trouble, an overheated motor, so all the Army blokes were handling the four inch ammo for the high angle guns. After a little while the ammo started to get a bit heavy (I am only a little bloke) but I marvelled at the sailors, they were throwing the ammo around just like Steggles Chickens. Is it any wonder that they were out on their feet. They could get their heads down anywhere and be sound asleep, the roar of the guns did not trouble them at all. The sailors were drained of all energy until someone came along, shook them by the shoulders and said 'Come on mate, you have had your forty winks, more action stations'

The Perth landed us at Suda Bay, Crete. I heard a voice coming down from the bridge, 'Come on boys, as quickly as you can'. By the time the last man stepped ashore, the ship was moving away and by the time we had re-grouped on the little jetty, the last I saw of the Perth was heading down the harbour out to the open sea. The skipper had no desire to wait around like a sitting duck, he wanted room to manoeuvre.

As we were being counted off the jetty another small warship came racing towards the jetty, slammed on the brakes, swung round alongside the jetty and tied up. The skipper handled his ship like I had never seen before. I think he must have been at one time, a driver of a double decker bus. As soon as the ship was tied up, the troops were streaming ashore.

This Navy ship had taken part in a rescue operation when the ship Costa Rica went down. She had on board about 1000 troops, plus crew. A 1000-pound bomb just missed her stem and exploded under water, tipping the old Costa Rica up on her stem and she was heading for Davy Jones's Locker. A mad scramble all round resulted.

Anyway, we were watching the troops being unloaded when one, young fella made us laugh. I thought I was the Odd Bod, as I was fully rigged in tin hat, Army jacket and bell bottoms and Army boots. This young fella had been on the Costa Rica and was having his first shower for many, many days. He was really enjoying the soap suds when the ship started to nose dive. He flew out of the shower and headed for the open deck absolutely stark naked. Then he saw an Army great coat, grabbed it and quickly put it on as the rescue ship came alongside, and that was how he came ashore. Yes he was a flasher and he told the story to anyone who cared to listen.

Many were the serious stories told, but some of them had a funny side and these were things that really kept us going. But for the Royal Australian Navy and the HMAS Perth in particular, I don't quite know where I would be today.

P.S. Someone had nicked my Army trousers, hence the bell bottoms. HMAS Perth, I salute you.

The material for this article was supplied by Frank De Silva from New South Wales

Corporal Max Dimmack was always on the scrounge in New Guinea during World War II. He collected every decent scrap of paper he could lay his hands on, including old envelopes.

You see, Max loved to draw and he was desperate for paper on which to record his black and white pencil sketches of life in the Signals, 7th Australian Division, AIF.

"I'd even have drawn on toilet paper but there was never any to spare in New Guinea," he said ruefully.

His real job was unit draftsman, setting out on paper all the information on where and how the various signals systems needed to be, a system that was essential to communications, particular in the hills and jungles of New Guinea.

Max did most of his work before the fighting started, drawing the theoretical information in a way that could be understood by the troops.

"Communications were, of course, vital to every operation."

"When my work was finished, the troops went into action," Max recalled. "That left me with some time to work on my drawings, until I was needed for the next action."

"Of course materials were scarce in New Guinea and I collected anything I could get hold of, including old envelopes, so I could keep a pictorial record of my service."

His drawings were in great demand and have found there way into collections all over Australia, including the Australian War Memorial, various RSL Clubs, the Army Communications Training Centre at Simpson Barracks in Macleod, Victoria, as well as private collections.

"When I looked at some of my drawings at Simpson Barracks recently, I thought to myself I couldn't do them today."

But he certainly did them in New Guinea and Borneo where he served throughout the war.

He did time at Milne Bay, Port Moresby, Lae, Nadzab, Ramu Valley, Dumpu, Morotai and Balikpapan in Borneo.

At one stage, Cpl Max Dimmack was given a .45 pistol by his CO, Col George Parker, so he didn't have to carry his rifle with him.

"But he didn't give me any ammunition with it, so I'm not sure what I would have done if I'd had to use it," Max said.

Like most Australians serving in New Guinea, Max caught his share of malaria and dysentery and also suffered from malnutrition.

But he was full of praise for the army cooks.

"I'm a great admirer of army cooks," he said. "They always managed to produce a meal even when their kitchens had been shot up by the Japanese. We couldn't have done without them."

Max is also a great admirer of the 7th Division, particularly the signals unit. He has recently written a book, Signals of the Silent Seventh, which is the account of a unit

"which served its country, in a time of crisis, with bravery, loyalty, and above all, honour".

Several of the drawings seen here are also in the book.

The material for this article was supplied by Max Dimmack of Victoria


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Drawing on life in the signals unit, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/drawing-life-signals-unit
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