Reginald Saunders was born near Purnim, Victoria, on the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve in 1920. Reg, as he was known, was named in honour of his uncle, William Reginald Rawlings, who had earned a Military Medal for his bravery in the First World War. Reg’s father, Chris, had also served in the First World War; however, while he survived, Rawlings was killed in action in August 1918.
Raised by their grandmother after their mother died in 1924, Saunders and his younger brother, Harry, remained close to their father, and the three later opened a sawmilling business together. When his father talked about the First World War, Saunders listened with “ears as big as footballs”, and at the outbreak of the Second World War he was eager to volunteer for service.
Indigenous Australians were prevented from enlisting in the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF), but restrictions were not consistently enforced and both Saunders brothers joined in early 1940. Reg Saunders soon proved to be a natural soldier and an outstanding leader, and was promoted to sergeant within a few short months.
After perilous encounters with German aircraft in North Africa and Greece, Saunders' battalion took part in the ill-fated campaign on Crete. Britain had established a garrison on this strategically important island in late 1940, but few preparations had been made for its defence by the time the German conquest of Greece in April 1941 placed it under threat. By the end of the following month the Allies were forced to evacuate, but there was neither enough time nor ships to transport them, and hundreds, including Saunders, were left behind.