The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of NX5523 Corporal Walter Henry Townsend, 6th Division Cavalry Regiment

Accession Number AWM2019.1.1.27
Collection type Film
Object type Last Post film
Physical description 16:9
Maker Australian War Memorial
Place made Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell
Date made 27 January 2019
Access Open
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945
Copyright Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
Creative Commons License This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
Copying Provisions Copy provided for personal non-commercial use

The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Michael Kelly, the story for this day was on NX5523 Corporal Walter Henry Townsend, 6th Division Cavalry Regiment.

Speech transcript

NX5523 Corporal Walter Henry Townsend, 6th Division Cavalry Regiment
KIA 27 January 1941

Today we remember and pay tribute to Corporal Walter Henry Townsend.

Walter Townsend was born on 2 November 1914 in Eugowra, New South Wales, the son of Charles and Alice Townsend.

He grew up to work as a farmers’ labourer, and in 1935 married Annie Elizabeth Jones at Cowra. That same year he joined the Citizens’ Forces, marching part-time with the 6th Light Horse.

Four years later, Townsend was among the earliest volunteers for the Second Australian Imperial Force, enlisting on 3 November 1939 at Bathurst.

He shifted units a few times before being transferred to the newly established 6th Division Reconnaissance Regiment, and was soon promoted to corporal.

Townsend became part of A Squadron, which was recruited from men from Queensland and New South Wales, and by mid-December had begun training.

A period of leave was granted over the Christmas and New Year period, during which Townsend was given a large send-off in his home town. In January he left Sydney on the transport Strathnaver, bound for overseas service.

After arriving in Egypt in February, the men of the regiment were sent to Palestine where they joined the rest of the 6th Division. They began training on Bren carriers and six old Vickers light tanks and continued until December 1940 when the 6th Division moved into the Western Desert. On 11 December, the regiment – which had been renamed the 6th Australian Division Cavalry Regiment – became the first unit of the 2nd AIF to see action when elements from B Squadron fought a brief encounter with Italian garrisons at Garn el Grein and Fort Maddalina.

In January 1941, Townsend’s A Squadron took part in the fighting around Bardia before assisting in the capture of Tobruk, using Bren carriers and a number of captured Italian M11 tanks, which had been painted with kangaroo symbols.

After Tobruk, the regiment became part of the advance guard in the capture of the coastal town of Derna.

As the 6th Australian and 7th British Armoured divisions advanced, a rearguard from the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment occupied positions around Derna to allow the retreat of Italian forces towards Benghazi.

Although outnumbered, the Italian garrison and vehicles at Mechili, some 50 kilometres south of Derna, slipped through the wide net set by the Allies and retreated to the south-west.

On 27 January, Townsend’s unit moved to follow, probing for enemy forces. Contact was made when it halted within 30 metres of a well-camouflaged dugout and was attacked by anti-tank and machine-guns. A wheel was blown from an Australian artillery truck, which lopsidedly careered away on three wheels and a hub. As the Australians attempted to withdraw, the lead vehicle struck a mine, killing its driver Corporal Eric Ferguson. Sergeant George Mills called in all available troops, but as more troops came up the road, they too came under fire. Mills tried to advance, but when his carrier exploded two mines, he was killed instantly.
Corporal Townsend, who had been driving the damaged carrier, made a dash through fire, but was killed by machine-gun fire.

While Townsend’s unit was forced to withdraw from the ambush, Allied units continued to advance and Derna was entered without opposition two days later. At least two dozen Australians had died during the fighting.

Corporal Townsend, Corporal Eric Ferguson, and Sergeant George Mills were buried nearby on the 30th of January, but were later reburied at Knightsbridge War Cemetery where Walter Townsend’s remains lay today, under the epitaph chosen by his grieving parents: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we remember.”

He was 26 years old

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left, among almost 40,000 Australians who died while serving in the Second World War.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Corporal Walter Henry Townsend, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Duncan Beard
Editor, Military History Section

  • Video of The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of NX5523 Corporal Walter Henry Townsend, 6th Division Cavalry Regiment (video)