It's just one of those things that you do when you're young
Name: Terence Whatman
Unit: 2nd/8th Battalion AIF
Terry Whatman decided at an early age that he was going to be in the Army. He joined the Militia as a 16-year-old and served for three years with the 59th Hume Regiment before answering the call to enlist.
He quickly earned his corporal's stripes and boarded the Dunera for the Middle East on 14 April 1940 with the 2/8th Battalion. Having joined the transport division, Terry landed the job as driver to the commanding officer.
After fighting in Libya, the battalion was sent to Greece as part of Lustre Force and was soon fighting the Germans at Vevi. Conditions were appalling. On 12 April 1941, the rain which had fallen for two days turned to snow and lay over a foot deep on the hillsides.
The Australians were tired and hungry and began to suffer from frostbite and exhaustion. At 8.30am the Germans attacked the 2/8th Battalion. All day long the assault ebbed and flowed around the Australian positions but by nightfall the Germans were proving too strong and a withdrawal was ordered back to the where the trucks were waiting.
Brigadier George Vasey, commander of the 19th Australian Brigade, which included the 2/8th Battalion, realised his men were not going to be able to stage an orderly withdrawal. But despite being forced to retreat, the troops continued to fight a rearguard action.
"We started out keeping ahead of the Germans and were shoved down a back track where we were cut off," Terry recalled. "We were ordered to destroy our vehicles and lined them up and drove them down the hillside into the river below," he said. "We were supposed to cross the river on a footbridge but this had been washed away. We were lost for three days and our mates thought we'd been captured but we eventually caught up at Larisa."
Other members of 2/8th Battalion were luckier. When it was realised there was no bridge to cross the fast-flowing Aliakmos River, the 2/1st Field Company was sent in to construct a bridge and an approach road for trucks. Armed only with rope, picks, shovels, other hand tools and spikes, the Australian engineers, assisted by British engineers and New Zealand infantrymen, began work at dawn on 15 April. By 10pm a workable bridge spanned the river. The bridge was later destroyed once the troops had all crossed safely.
Having rejoined his unit, Terry was hit by some object, probably a rock, soon afterwards during a German air raid.
"I was sucked off the edge and fell into a ravine about 16 to 18 feet [about 5 metres]. It wasn't very pleasant," he recalled.
But he refused to go for treatment to the Casualty Clearing Station despite his injuries so the doctor gave him some tablets to help with the pain.
"We were young and silly and would do anything in those days," he said. "I knew that if I went to get treated I'd end up getting kicked out," he said. "It's just one of those things that you do when you're young."
His unit found its way to Kalamata where they were taken off and put on board the Dutch ship Costa Rica, which in turn was attacked by German aircraft on the way to Crete and eventually sank.
During the attacks, the troops used every available weapon, including rifles, Bren guns and other small arms, to shoot at the enemy aircraft. Just when it seemed the air attacks had ended for the day, a lone Stuka flew out of the sun and dropped two bombs close to the Costa Rica.
The explosions damaged the ship so badly that she immediately began to sink. But two Royal Navy destroyers which were escorting the convoy, HMS Defender and HMS Hereward, quickly steamed alongside and began taking off the troops and crew.
In the heavy seas the troops climbed down ropes and jumped onto the destroyers as the ships rose to meet them on the swell. But all 2600 men were rescued and the destroyers set off for Crete.
However, fate played its hand and Terry didn't stay on Crete.
"I had been unloading gear and was on board the ship to take more off when they got orders to depart immediately due to an enemy bombing raid and there was no time to get off," he said.
He ended up back at El Kantara.
After some time at Balbec in Syria, his unit was sent back to Australia where he finally received treatment for his injuries. Then it was off to the Northern Territory where he was stationed at Adelaide River and finally to the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland.
Terry's injuries began to take their toll and he was transferred to lighter duties before eventually being medically discharged in 1944.
With his wife, Jean, and two children, he decided to take up farming again.
"I got a bit of land and a few cows," he said.
But his injured back was still a problem and he faced two more operations during which two plates and 10 screws were inserted.
The material for this article was supplied by Terry Whatman of South Australia
8/01/2002 10:38:40 AM