Australian war artist Ivor Hele exhibited drawings and paintings of the war in New Guinea in Melbourne in March 1945. In a review of the exhibition in the Herald newspaper, journalist Clive Turnbull called it:
a war of rain and blood - a triumph of the human spirit over appalling conditions.
Another reviewer in Adelaide reported Hele's work as:
truly presenting his fellow-man under conditions of almost intolerable suffering.
Hele experienced these treacherous conditions with Australian servicemen as he accompanied them into the jungle, sometimes only metres from the enemy.
Despite what he endured, Hele has left us an extraordinary legacy of artworks. His illustrations and paintings commemorate the experiences of Australian service personnel at war.
Hele's art studies in Paris and Munich and training in life drawing, portraiture and figure studies prepared him to capture those human experiences, but not the rigours of life on the war front.
Keen to work as a war artist, Hele first enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) as a private and trained as an infantryman. He travelled to the Middle East with the 2/48th Infantry Battalion.
Hele's artistic ambitions were realised early in 1941 when he was appointed as an Official War Artist and promoted to the rank of lieutenant after a meeting with Major General Thomas Blamey.
He spent the next year with troops from the 6th Australian Division in North Africa and returned to his studio in South Australia in 1942 to complete a series of paintings of their actions.
In June 1943, Hele was posted as a war artist to New Guinea where the Australians were starting to take the offensive against the Japanese.
In New Guinea, Hele experienced a very different war from that in North Africa. He accompanied the 2/3rd Independent Company and the 58/59th Battalion through the jungle and mountainous terrain of east New Guinea.
While there, he developed a leg ulcer. Two months later, he returned to his studio at Aldinga, south of Adelaide, to recuperate. While recovering, Hele started painting his New Guinea series, many of which were in his 1945 exhibition.
In October 1944, he returned to New Guinea and spent 3 months with the 2/10th and 2/6th Independent Companies but was involved in a serious vehicle accident in Lae which forced him back to Australia. After his convalescence at Heidelberg Hospital in Melbourne, he returned to Adelaide. Slowed down by ill-health, Hele found it hard work to complete the series of 12 paintings he had begun. He decided to leave the Army.
Up until the 1960s, Hele continued to receive commissions to paint large canvases of World War II events.
During the Korean War, Hele received another commission - this time as a Major, the highest rank ever held by an Official War Artist in Australia - and he spent 5 months there with both the Army and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Hele was the Australian War Memorial's longest-serving artist, and its collection includes almost 500 of Heles' paintings and drawings.
In 1945, at the opening of Hele's exhibition of New Guinea artworks, the following comments, in response to some criticism that had been levelled at his work and that of fellow war artists, were made during the introduction:
The war artist has had to contend not only with enemy action but also with adverse natural conditions. In the Middle East he had to endure extremes of heat and cold, and sandstorms which had to be experienced to be believed. In New Guinea he has encountered completely different conditions - tropical storms, mud and swamps and rain forests. The vast open spaces of the North African desert have been replaced by tracks through dense jungle and kunai grass. In the Middle East the artist did at least enjoy the advantage of transport. In New Guinea he has been forced to accompany the troops usually on foot, carrying not only the same equipment, clothing, arms and operational rations as the fighting troops but also his sketching outfit in addition. Like the fighting troops he has to ward off malaria, scrub-typhus, tinea, tropical sores, and dermatitis; to sleep out not for one night but for many in rain and mud and to live for days at a time in wet clothes. Fresh food is often scarce. These conditions, I suggest, must be allowed for when the work of the artists is judged. The Army, which knows the conditions with which they have to contend, has a profound admiration for what they had done and are doing.
[From 'Exhibition of New Guinea Pictures by Ivor Hele' AWM 93 50/8/15]
Intense fighting scene
Hele recorded many scenes of the intense fighting that took place in New Guinea during World War II. In particular, during the 3 weeks between 15 July and 6 August 1943. At this time, the men in the 58/59th Infantry Battalion and the 2/3rd Independent Company served in actions to capture Bobdubi Ridge and, ultimately, Salamaua.
Hele captured scenes from the 58/59th Battalion's advance onto the heavily defended Old Vickers position late in the afternoon of 28 July 1943. It was not until 6 August that the Japanese conceded defeat and abandoned their attempts to retake their stronghold. Despite being painted 17 years after those battles, Hele vividly depicts the exhausting terrain, the perpetual dampness and the tension of the men in the devastated and gloomy undergrowth.
Death on the battlefield
In July 1943, Ivor Hele witnessed the funeral of three young soldiers who had been killed during an attack on Timbered Knoll, a Japanese position on the slopes of Bobdubi Ridge. The attack, on 29 July 1943, lasted less than 2 hours and involved fewer than 50 men, but it cost the lives of 3 of the 2/3rd Independent Company’s non-commissioned officers and it inspired Hele’s painting.
The men buried at dusk were:
- Sergeant Andrew 'Bonny' Muir, 27, a land agent and auctioneer from Preston, Victoria
- Corporal Donald Buckingham, 35, a mining rigger from Victoria Park, Perth
- Corporal Percival Hooks, 22, from Perth
As the troops gathered around the gravesite, Hele sketched the scene, including the bodies in the foreground. When Hele returned to Australia later in 1943, he worked the sketches into this oil painting.
This scene has also been recorded by cinematographer Damien Parer who was attached to the 2/3rd Independent Company with Ivor Hele. Unlike Hele, Parer has instead concentrated on the desolation of the survivors instead of the corpses. Parer was employed by the Department of Information, a government propaganda organisation that avoided showing Australian war dead in official war films and photographs.