Lenard Mason is sitting quietly near the entrance to the Australian War Memorial waiting for the Last Post Ceremony to start. The 97-year-old was just a teenager when he heard the declaration of war and decided to enlist in July 1940. But the memories remain vivid, and he smiles when I ask why he decided to join up all those years ago.
“That’s a jolly good question, mate,” he said with a laugh. “I think that I was working in a factory at the time, and there must have been quite a few of us, and we all got excited about joining the army, you know.
“I was in … a sort of military thing before, but, no, I got quite excited about joining. My dad had been in the army, so it was just one of those things, and I joined.
“Actually, I joined when I was 17, but they deferred it … and I went in on the 29 July 1940. Then on Boxing Day 1940, I was on the Aquitania [heading] towards the Middle East. I was just 18.”
Mason joined the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion at Middle East Command in December 1940 and helped protect the 9th Army Headquarters in Lebanon before the battle of El Alamein in 1942.
“It was interesting because it was history,” Mason said. “And, of course, we’ve all heard of Jerusalem. And I wanted to see Jerusalem, which I did, and Tel Aviv and Beirut and all these places. And then we were up in a place called Romana on the Syrian border. We sort of travelled all over the place … but it was sort of like an adventure at the start, and I just enjoyed it, you know. But then of course, when it came up to Alamein, that was a different story.”
Mason will never forget the massive artillery barrage that heralded the beginning of the second battle of El Alamein on the night of 23 October 1942.
“Shocking – unbelievable it was, the firepower and everything,” he said.
“We were told to do things and we did them, regardless of what the functions were, and I don’t regret one bit of it.
“I was a number three on the machine-gun – the Vickers gun – and my role was to put a feed block on the guns. The other one had broken down, and that was it. [They would yell] ‘feed block’ and you would rush back to the Bren gun carrier and put it on, and lie down in the hole again.
“But we were a long time in the desert. It wasn’t just the 23rd of October. We went in on the 10th of July and stopped Rommel getting down the Suez, or down to Cairo and past there, because all he was after was the oil. So we did that, and then of course the big show was on the 23rd of October.
“They had two searchlights roaming the sky and they kept flashing around the sky all over the place. The Germans must have wondered what the heck was going on, you know, and they came together at a point, away in the sky, and 1,100 artillery pieces opened up at 10 o’clock at night...
“It was unreal, the noise. You couldn’t hear yourself speak, I mean, you would just about shake with nerves because the noise was so loud.