'I’ve had a pretty good life'

07 May 2019 by Claire Hunter

Leonard Timbrell

Ninety-six-year old Leonard Timbrell was just a teenager when he went away to war.

Like many young men during the Second World War, he lied about his age when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy.

“I wanted to see the world,” Leonard said.

“I was 17, so I suppose I was only a kid, but I just felt like I wanted to see something of the world, and that’s how it happened; my wish came true ...

“I found out that those who were under 18 … had to be accompanied by an officer, or one of the petty officers, when they went ashore … and I thought I wouldn’t like that, so I put my age up to 18, and when I was discharged they gave me my discharge certificate which still shows 18.”

Leonard Timbrell

Leonard Timbrell during the war. Photo: Courtesy Leonard Timbrell

More than 70 years later, Leonard still remembers the day he signed up as if it was yesterday.

Each Anzac Day, he attends the National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to pay his respects and remember his mates. But this year, he almost didn’t make it. He was in hospital, but his doctor let him go home early so that he could attend the ceremony with his family.

“He let me out specially,” Leonard said. “He said since you want to go so badly, ‘I’ll get you out,’ and that was yesterday …

“I wanted to come because I had some good friends who are gone.

“I had three excellent friends who were lost who were on a ship that I was on initially, the Colac, and … another friend who died when a plane that was probably destined to bomb us – I was on the Shropshire at the time – went over because we opened fire on it. He was on the Australia … when it hit and was the first to enlist of those that died, so I like to come and pay my respects to them.”

Leonard Timbrell at the Memorial on Anzac Day.

Leonard Timbrell at the Memorial on Anzac Day.

Leonard was born in Tenterfield, NSW, and was working in Canberra when he enlisted at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney. His younger brother joined the army and his older brother joined the air force; Leonard joined the navy.

He initially served as a stoker on HMAS Colac, one of 60 Bathurst-class corvettes that were built as part of the Commonwealth Government's wartime shipbuilding program.

“It was a bit rough at times, but at other times it was quite enjoyable,” he said of his time in the navy.

“The stoker’s job was to work in the boiler room, heaving coal into the boilers, or into the furnaces, to keep the ship alive, and then I graduated to the engine room.

“It did get noisy and very hot, particularly in the tropics, but I didn’t mind it, I quite enjoyed it …

“At times I didn’t, of course, but generally speaking the comradeship was amazing.”

Colac

Leonard Timbrell initially served as a stoker on HMAS Colac, one of 60 Bathurst-class corvettes that were built as part of the Commonwealth Government's wartime shipbuilding program.

He remembers losing his hearing during one episode.

“We had a few weeks service leave, but coming back out through the Sydney heads we detected a submarine,” he said. “The thing then was to drop a pattern of depth charges – they’re virtually bombs that go off at a certain depth under the water – so we they dropped them, but the trouble was they didn’t carry out the order to increase speed, and get away from them. They exploded before we got well out of range and I lost [my hearing].”

For young Leonard, it was a frightening experience. But more difficult times lay ahead.

He was sent to serve on the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra, but was seconded three days before the vessel was due to sail.

“I was on it for six days, so I didn’t even have time to unpack my goods, and they came around to me and said, ‘Don’t unpack, you’re going to another ship.’

“I would have liked to have stopped on it because it was a lovely ship, the Cannie, but only a few days after I left it, it was sunk.

“Somehow the Cannie got in the way of gunfire, and it was sunk, but I thought, ‘My god, that’s fate for you, isn’t it?”

HMAS Canberra

HMAS Canberra: "I was on it for six days, so I didn’t even have time to unpack my goods."

Canberra was sunk after the battle of Savo Island in August 1942.

Leonard later served on Canberra’s replacement, the heavy cruiser Shropshire, and still considers himself lucky.

“Oh, the Shroppie was very good,” he said. “It was a lovely ship … but it was a big change for me going from a corvette, which was only 780 tonnes, to a cruiser that was 10,800 tonnes … It was beautiful …

“We had a chappy who … was a good friend of mine; he played the mouth organ, very well, and we used to jazz around to his music on the Shropshire ...”

It was a welcome distraction from the harsh reality of war. He will never forget the battle of Leyte Gulf, and life in the Luzon Strait.

“The straits there were very vicious,” he said. “They really made it hairy for us there. They had air jumpers that came out, and they had guns, and we’d duck for cover, but it was just something that happened, and I survived, but I will confess that I said a few prayers, and I still say them …

“Once in Leyte Gulf, when we got word that we were going into action with the American forces, I got outside when bombs were being dropped on us, and because I was young I suppose, a petty officer ordered me to get inside, and I did, and I prayed.

“On one occasion they fired torpedos – two of them– and we got the order to lay down – not sit down – and I can remember, I said, ‘This is it,’ and eventually the skipper said, ‘One has just missed us, but there’s still one to go,’ and eventually he said, ‘It’s hit us, but we haven’t got too much damage,’ and we went back in and sat down.”

He will never forget the relief he felt when it was over.   “I can still remember what happened,” he said. “When I was lying on the deck, I was remembering my mother and my father and my brothers, and I thought, ‘My God, spare me.’”

HMAS Shropshire

HMAS Shropshire: "It was a lovely ship."

It was just one of many incidents that left him frightened for his life.

“If you were going across the Coral Sea, accompanying transport ships to New Guinea, it could get very rough,” he said. “I was all over the ship, and on occasions I had to dive for cover when I was doing something. I remember checking the pumps that pumped the water to the engine room … and on one occasion, I remember they had a message for the captain who was on the bridge. I went from the engine room to give him some information about what was happening, and half way up the ladder, the ship was rolling like heck. It got out up out of the water, and I thought, ‘No, I’m not staying here,’ and as soon as it levelled out, I went for my life. It was a frightening episode … but you got over it, or at least we thought we did.”

Today, the memories remain as vivid as ever, and he still has nightmares about the war.

“I hope there’s no more of these conflicts because Leyte Gulf was terrible, it really was; but there you are, that’s war,” he said.

“One or two things stand out at the moment; when we were in the Philippines there was a battle in the Surigao Strait. It was a sea battle and a Japanese destroyer was hit and some of the men went into the water… A lot of them drowned, and some were injured, but one fellow floated past the Shropshire calling for help. I would have done it, but the officer said, ‘Let him go.’

“I couldn’t do anything. No, you don’t [forget those things].  That stands out a mile off, and I often wonder whether I should have done it.  I think I should have, even now, because the poor guy was really putting his hands up and calling out, it was in English, ‘Help, help, help,’ but they said, no, he was the enemy.”

HMAS Arunta coming alongside Shropshire at sea for vital messages in 1944.

HMAS Arunta coming alongside Shropshire at sea for vital messages in 1944.

More than 70 years on, he still remembers how he felt when the war was finally over.

“We were in the Philippines at the time,” he said. “Word came through that the Japanese had decided to capitulate and everybody went, ‘Yaaaay.’ We thought, ‘We are going home.’”

It was a wonderful feeling.

“It was lovely to come home,” he said.

“The only thing I regretted about leaving the navy was that I was going to lose my friends. I did qualify as a petty officer, [and] they asked me if I wanted to stop on, but I said, ‘No, I’ve got work in Canberra, and I want to go home.’

“I’d been sentenced to three years, and by that time, I thought, ‘I’ve done enough.’”

After the war, he returned to his work at the department of Immigration in Canberra, where he met his wife Geraldine in 1945.

“As soon as I saw her, I thought, ‘She’s the one for me.’

"We were married just down the road [from the Memorial] at St John’s [Anglican Church] in 1948, and we’ve been together ever since.”

The couple have two children and recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Together, they’ve been attending Anzac Day ceremonies at the Memorial since the end of the war, only missing a few years when Leonard was posted to England and Italy for his work.

“I’m very fortunate,” Leonard said, smiling once more. “Overall, I’ve had a pretty good life; no regrets.”