War time travel less than luxurious

Name: David Davis
Date: 1942-1944
Unit: 105 Radar Station, Point Charles
Location: Darwin, NT, Australia

Travelling from Melbourne to Darwin is pretty easy these days. Just hop on a plane and a few hours later you're there. But during World War II the journey took more than a week.

Sgt David Davis, a radio mechanic, had been re-trained as a radar mechanic due to a shortage of technicians, and was posted to Birdum near Darwin. He made the trip from Spencer Street railway station to the Northern Territory in the mid-summer heat of December 1942, along with 200 other RAAF men and 200 AIF.

The train was hot, slow and was constantly shunted onto sidings while heavy rain threatened further delays.

The journey was not without incidents both humorous and serious. Having passed through Ballarat and Horsham they had breakfast in the South Australian showgrounds. For the third meal in a row it was stew.

"Hot shower was good. Wonder if it is the last for some time," Davis wrote in his diary. "Lunch at Terowie not bad at all. Chops. Issued with beer coupons at 6d each. We could not find any girls. What a dead joint. We all decided to go to church to see what was offering. It was a Methodist Church, typically countrified. The Prodigal Son sermon was entertaining and we had tea and sandwiches. The boys each put in 2/6d and we gave the Rector 10/- for church. I guess it was conscience money."

After breakfast next morning the journey continued with the boys "guzzling beer".

"A crate of Orlando was stolen from one of the hotels," Davis wrote. "A kit inspection was held before we left to find out who had it. A search revealed three glasses. Your guess is as good as mine where it is. Like looking for a needle in a hay stack. Twelve bottles among 200 Air Force and 200 AIF."

At Maree the train stopped again.

"Not a blade of grass to be seen. Yet the inevitable pub. Some of its wares repose under the seats. It has been raining and the ground is red and sloppy and flat as a pancake."

Later that day they reached Coward's Springs.

"Opposite this spring is a pub. It is not popular with the boys as it has run dry though God knows how anything can stay damp in this cauldron. Outside the train the ground is positively spawning with empty cans, rusty and abandoned though when we move on bright new ones will be added to their number."

"We sight our first skeleton. Strange as it seems on the side of the line there are strips of the greenest grass you ever saw. Indications of a storm that broke over this area a week ago. The drovers avail themselves of these strips for nourishment of sheep. As far as the eye can see is gravel, sand, saltbush, mulga and utter desolation. For distraction in the distant horizon is the will-o-the-wisp mirage which were I suffering any privation would scornfully beckon at me.

"At long last we come upon a man with two horses who is turning up the land. It seems all wrong for how can life prevail in this wilderness. A puny man, his horses, and the frail mechanism - a plough that can but only scratch on this surface even while the furrow dries underfoot."

The following day they came upon a goods train.

"A goods train has been visited by some of the chaps and pears are being eaten. G. among others were given rifles and detailed to guard the goods train. Each was armed with a tin-opener and the salmon stocks mysteriously disappeared through the night."

When they finally reached the military camp just outside Alice Springs a week after leaving Spencer Street, the showers were barely working.

"We wash as best we can. Our seats were booked in one of the two theatres here. It does seem funny to pay 9d entertainment tax. Don Ameche in 'Down Argentine Way'. The theatre was open and surrounded by a concrete white-washed wall about 6 feet high."

They left Alice Springs by truck, part of a large convoy and the fourth last truck which had a top speed of 20mph.

They stopped overnight at Barrow Creek, a new camp where they managed a shower and had curry for tea. Beer was 2/3d a bottle. By this time they had covered 1900 miles since starting on their journey.

They passed huge ant hills and were covered in flies every time the truck stopped. They erected a tent-like cover on the truck to keep the sun off which prompted an officer to tell them they would have a properly covered truck the following day.

They spent the night at Banks, sleeping out and plagued by ants and mosquitoes, rising at 3am to set off again, eventually reaching Birdum where it was

"as hot as hell with flies that bit and drew blood and water was unpalatable."

Sgt Davis spent the next 15 months at Birdum with 105 Radar Station. The threat of Japanese air attacks was continuous.

On 12 January 1943 Davis wrote in his diary:

"A beautiful moon directly above. Every feature of landscape stands out sharply. A good morning for bombing. I go on duty at 12pm, i.e. 2359. I cannot sleep before this hour. Put on my 'goons' to keep mosquitoes at bay. This morning I know we will be visited by the Nips. The bets are on. Suddenly from Fighter Section comes advice to cover a certain point (with the radar). I do the plotting. It's on. Extra ops garnered out of their beds take over. Out by the 'doover' (radar scanner) I watch meters, yarn to CO while above all that can be seen is a beautiful moon, an iridescent sea and fairy-like trees in silhouette against the brightness.

"The searchlights have picked up the raider. We hear our night fighters droning overhead as they gain altitude. Near to moon is white condensation from aircraft props. It now becomes film and disappears. The searchlights hold the Jap in their beams. The hostile aircraft is surrounded by red flashes and a time elapses before we hear the crack of ack-ack. They drop no bombs and sheer off to sea. We all go back to routine boredom."

Two months later there was a major raid.

"At about 10am 'doover' sick. Aircraft 100 miles away - hostile half an hour 22 bombers twin-engined and many Zeros, an armada of 50 aircraft against this only eight Spits (Spitfire fighters) took the air. The dog fight high in the blue with streams of condensation (contrails) indicating planes. We lose of eight, four. They are said to have lost 14. Narrowly missed by cannon shell tore through the scrub with awful bang. Thorald Smith ace Spit pilot, one of those shot down, is dead. Oil dumps burning, American headquarters PWD depots done over."

An entry on 26 March 1943 stated:

"Thorald Smith found walking about in the swamps."

On 30 November 1943, Sgt Davis recorded the story of survival of the SS Koolama which had been hit by bombs from Japanese bombers off Cape Londonderry but close to land.

"(It was) carrying a crew and passengers consisting of CCC (Civil Construction Corps) workers with wives and children," Sgt Davis wrote.

"Though hit by bombs the ship, despite its sinking condition was beached by the crew, women and children taken ashore where located by itinerant blacks from Benedictine Mission. The Mission lugger took off the passengers and some of the crew. The ship was then refloated and manned by a skeleton crew eventually reached Darwin. A boat picked up passengers."

On the same day he wrote about the amazing survival of a US Liberator bomber crew returning from a raid on Borneo which had involved eight aircraft.

"One engine damaged left to fight rearguard action to allow others to get home. They beat off the opposition and approaching Timor ran into very heavy weather which forced them to fly very low. To great consternation on dropping to a few thousand feet to get below storm they emerged in clear sunlight over a Jap airstrip at Koepang. Soon pounced on by five Zeros and without ammunition they made quickly for the nearest Allied base - Drysdale on Australian mainland. By sheer bluff, skilful manoeuvring the Zeros gave up the chase 18 miles from the coast. Unable to locate strip, almost out of fuel they decided to make for a salt pan on the Ango Peninsula.

"A landing was effected with some damage to under-carriage and nose of plane. Communication was established between aircraft and 317 Radar. Position was incorrect. Searching aircraft located them. Food and water was dropped and mission lugger set sail to rescue them. Mission blacks set out to advise help on way. On appearance of blacks they (the crew) decided to sell their lives dearly and they said chosen phrases hoping the blacks would understand their friendly nature. They were surprised to hear 'Good morning sir' in perfect English. Mission lugger took them to Radar 317 given food (snags). They said it was the best meal they ever had."

There were many more such incidents before Sgt Davis finally moved to Batchelor after 15 months with 105 Radar Station.

Material for this article was supplied by Mrs Jocelyn Davis of Victoria


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), War time travel less than luxurious, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/war-time-travel-less-luxurious
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