Unfolding over the 75th anniversary year of the Australian War Memorial, A Home on a Southern Hill is a series of exhibitions which tell the story of how the Memorial was brought to being, as well as exploring its history and continuing relevance.

The series takes its name from a poem written by Will Dyson to accompany his 1928 cartoon, Calling Them Home, which depicts a ghostly bugler calling the spirits of Australia’s war dead to the yet-to-be-built Memorial.

They dreamed of leave that never came

The first exhibition in the series, also called A Home on a Southern Hill, is presented across two spaces in the Memorial – the Reg Saunders Gallery and the Reading Room.

The works presented in the Reg Saunders Gallery have been chosen to explore the conception and purposes of the Australian War Memorial: as a place for the living – to remember, grieve, and understand – and for the fallen – as a tomb fitting of their sacrifice, and a place for their spirit to reside.

The exhibition continues in the Reading Room to tell the story of the Memorial building from C.E.W. Bean’s initial sketch, through the 1925 architectural competition and the set-backs and controversies of the 1930s, to its official opening on 11 November 1941.

Further exhibitions in the series

The exhibition series continues in April with To Heal a Nation, which considers the ways in which Bean’s experiences shaped his vision for the Memorial and reflects on the nature of commemoration. 

Winter 2017 sees the third exhibition in the series, Telling their Stories, which explores the role of the Memorial’s museum and archival functions, from dioramas to digital experiences.  

The series concludes in September–November 2017 with The Memorial in Landscape, which focuses on the siting and landscaping of the Memorial.

The Holocaust reveals the extremes of humanity’s capacity for evil, as well as its spirit of endurance and survival. This exhibition represents the Holocaust through the experiences of some of the survivors who made new lives in post-war Australia, as well as those of Australian official war artist Alan Moore, who accompanied British troops as they liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.


The day that I entered Belsen I didn’t expect anything like it. I forgot about doing anything that the army told me that I had to do … I just went quite crazy, I wanted to try and put everything down as well as I could … drawing madly all the time. I wanted to show what it was, what was going on.

Australian official war artist Alan Moore

Official war artist Alan Moore sketches captured SS guards at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The truck behind the men contains the victims of prisoners from the camp.
Alan Moore, P00927.001

Alan Moore (1914–2015) not titled [Death wagon Belsen concentration camp]

Alan Moore (1914–2015)
not titled [Death wagon Belsen concentration camp] 
In his haste to depict the horrors of Belsen, Moore used any paper he could get his hands on.
Drawn on the back of drawings from London, Moore sketched SS guards unloading a wagon piled with victims of the Holocaust. 
drawn in Belsen concentration camp, 1945
ink on paper
donated in 2018

Peaked officer’s cap worn by official war artist Lieutenant Alan Moore at the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. Donated by Mrs Alison Moore in memory of Alan Moore

Peaked officer’s cap worn by official war artist Lieutenant Alan Moore at the liberation of Belsen concentration camp.
Donated by Mrs Alison Moore in memory of Alan Moore

Identity bracelet worn by Lieutenant Alan Moore, inscribed with his name, rank, service number, and status as an official war artist. The 1924 one lira coin was probably attached in 1944 or 1945, when Moore was covering RAAF squadrons in Italy. Moore was probably wearing this bracelet at the liberation of Belsen.  Donated by Mrs Alison Moore in memory of Alan Moore

Identity bracelet worn by Lieutenant Alan Moore, inscribed with his name, rank, service number, and status as an official war artist. The 1924 one lira coin was probably attached in 1944 or 1945, when Moore was covering RAAF squadrons in Italy. Moore was probably wearing this bracelet at the liberation of Belsen.
Donated by Mrs Alison Moore in memory of Alan Moore

Alan Moore (1914–2015)
Blind man in Belsen
painted in Melbourne, 1947
oil on canvas

Within hours of Alan Moore’s arrival at Belsen, another two Australians entered the camp and bore witness to its horrors: BBC war correspondent Chester Wilmot and RAAF Public Relations photographer Cyril Issac. Both used their trades to reveal the horrors of the first concentration camp liberated by British forces, and their images and words reverberated across the world.

In the aftermath of the liberation of Belsen, medical units streamed into the camp to assist 40,000 inmates, many of whom were close to death. Australian Red Cross officer John Nimmo, who was in charge of the distribution of Red Cross supplies to Allied prisoners of war in Europe, toured the camp and later remembered:

My first reaction on entering the Camp was one of over-whelming revulsion on observing the depth to which so called civilised and cultured people could descend in their treatment of their fellow human beings, most of whom were of their own nationality.

Alfreda Marcovitch (1897–1991)
Matron Muriel Doherty, RAAFNS
painted in Australia, 1948
oil on canvas
donated in 1990

Australian Matron Muriel Doherty, a member of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) arrived at Belsen in July 1945. She was instrumental in the care of survivors who remained dangerously ill months after the liberation.  She wrote, “UNRRA’s work now is to transform an acute emergency & improvised Hospital into a well organised, hygienic institution and I am in my element.”

As the months passed, the death rate of former inmates lowered, and many left the camp to rebuild their lives.

Henryka Shaw (née Schermant) survived five concentration camps, including Plaszow, Belsen and Auschwitz. She later emigrated to Australia, married and established a new life. As Henryka’s family grew, she wrote, “I realised that I want my grandchildren to know my story. Above all, I think people should know these things because maybe that will help stem the development of hatred among people.”


Henryka Shaw (née Schermant) , Member’s Identity Card, Selfaid of the Jewish Former Concentration Camp Inmates Upper Austria, No. 1541

Henryka Shaw (née Schermant) , Member’s Identity Card, Selfaid of the Jewish Former Concentration Camp Inmates Upper Austria, No. 1541

Henryka Shaw (née Schermant), Mauthausen concentration camp dress

Henryka Shaw (née Schermant), Mauthausen concentration camp dress.

When Henryka was liberated she was in the Mauthausen concentration camp infirmary, gravely ill with typhus. Her clothes had been discarded because they were infested with lice, and she had only a bed sheet.  This dress is believed to have been made for Henryka by fellow camp inmates in the days after the American liberation of the camp in May 1945. The dress was likely made from fabric scrounged from the SS guard barracks.

Loaned by Tamara Pollak, Naomi Shaw (Silberbach), Yvette Shaw (Bogatin) in memory of  Rudy and Henryka Shaw

Conservation of Henryka's dress
Learn more

The Holocaust: witnesses and survivors is located in the Second World War Gallery on the ground level.


For our Country Daniel Boyd (Kudjala/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Waka Waka/Gubbi Gubbi/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung) and Edition Office 2018-2019 pigmented black rammed earth, bronze, glass steel, concrete, timber 3.03 x 11.17m  Photographer: (copyright) Benjamin Hosking

On Friday 5 June 2020, the Canberra Medallion – the highest accolade at the 2020 Australian Institute of Architecture ACT Chapter Awards – was awarded to For Our Country, the sculptural pavilion commemorating the military service and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, by contemporary artist Daniel Boyd (Kudjala/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Waka Waka/Gubbi Gubbi/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung) and Edition Office.  Reserved for the most exceptional projects, the prize is only awarded if there is a worthy recipient.  For Our Country was also the recipient of the Cynthia Breheny Award for Small Project Architecture, the Pamille Berg Award for Art in Architecture, and the Robert Foster Award for Light in Architecture. Following its successes at the ACT Architecture Awards, For Our Country will progress to the National Australian Institute of Architects Awards, held in July.


Photographer: (copyright) Benjamin Hosking

In 2015 the Memorial appointed an Aboriginal engagement advisory agency which made recommendations regarding commissioning a memorial to recognise the sacrifice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service personnel and reflect on a proud and painful history. An Elders advisory group was established, comprised of representatives from United Ngunnawal Elders Council, Indigenous defence and veteran stakeholder groups, heritage practitioners, and Indigenous art experts. The Elders group selected a design by Daniel Boyd in collaboration with architects Edition Office.

“[T]he intent of it was to create a space for reflection and contemplation so that people can try to understand the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people … It’s about having a space they can all have access to … so I wanted to create a pavilion where you can have a direct relationship with it.” Daniel Boyd of Kudjala/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Waka Waka/Gubbi Gubbi/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung peoples, 2018.

For Our Country is a sculptural pavilion set behind a ceremonial fire-pit within a 10-meter circle of basalt stones. Behind the fire pit is a wall of two-way mirrored glass that reflects the Memorial, the landscape and the viewer – making them an active participant in a living history. This wall is covered with thousands of transparent lenses, highlighting our incomplete understanding of time, history, and memory.


Photographer: (copyright) Benjamin Hosking

At the centre of the pavilion is a ceremonial chamber for the depositing of soil from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations from across Australia. The artist intended that each nation be commemorated in this place, where a piece of real Country join the many lands that ancestors have defended, and from which they came to serve Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are invited to deposit soil when they visit the Memorial. This is promoted through NAIDOC Week, Reconciliation Week, and Anzac Day events, public and educational programs and school group visits.


Photographer: (copyright) Benjamin Hosking

Since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, tens of thousands of Indigenous Australian people have been killed in Frontier Wars, and endured hardships under government legislation and socio-economic and cultural discrimination. Strict criteria existed that prevented the enlistment of people who were not “substantially of European origin or descent” until as late as 1949. Despite dispossession, persecution and legislative obstacles, thousands of Indigenous Australians served their country in every conflict involving Australians, from the Boer War through to contemporary peacekeeping. https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/indigenous

For Our Country seeks to recognise of the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders during and after service, and the experiences of their kin felt through generations. Boyd and Edition Office’s outstanding design honours the sacrifices made, and the hardships endured under systemic racism upon enlistment and returning from service. For Our Country is a deeply moving, dignified, strong and thought-provoking memorial that provides a place for ceremony, cultural practice, and a space for reflection for all.


Photographer: (copyright) Benjamin Hosking

While cataloguing battlefield relics from Fromelles one of our curators came across an item they had not seen before, a German ersatz (substitute) sandbag made from paper. A search on the Memorial's database shows that this was not the only item that used substitute material; there are many items in the collection, including an ersatz felt pickelhaube (spiked helmet) and a packet of ersatz 'coffee'. As with France and Britain during the First World War, Germany brought in measures to save resources for the war effort, these shortages of material and food affected civilians and military alike.

Brown German ersatz (substitute) sandbag made from paper twisted into strands, then woven. The bag is sewn together with cotton tread.

Brown German ersatz (substitute) sandbag made from paper twisted into strands, then woven. The bag is sewn together with cotton tread. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C114458 

This sandbag was picked up at the front a few weeks before the Battle of Fromelles, 19 July 1916. 
The sandbag was made by cutting rolls of unbleached paper into strips. It was then gathered on a spindle which rotated to give the paper the necessary twist. The paper thread was then woven into a coarse cloth. Then it was cut and stitched together with what appears to be cotton, but could be ‘ersatz cotton’ which was a mixture of nettle and willow fibre and small amounts of cotton. Paper based cloth was even used in the production of shirts, one of which we have in the Memorial’s collection.

German military uniforms were also affected by shortages of material. This pickelhaube (spiked helmet) was collected by a stretcher bearer Private Herbert Vincent Reynolds, during the 4 Field Ambulance’s advance along the Somme in August 1918. In a letter home to his sister he states his surprise at finding the pickelhaube especially as the infantry had all ready passed through the village and usually they collected all the good souvenirs first.


Prussian enlisted man's wartime Erastz (substitute) pickelhaube with steel helmet plate. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1253059

Pickelhaubes are normally made from leather but for a short period between September 1914 and mid 1915 were made from felt because of a shortage of leather and the need to quickly equip and outfit the mobilising German army. The German felt hat industry was well establish before First World War and had the technology to produce the amounts of helmets needed. As well as rabbit fur or shredded wool felt, other materials were used as substitutes to leather for the pickelhaube, such as tin plate and steel. Even pressed paper, cork, fibre or lacquered cardboard was used. These were inefficient in wet weather and as with the leather pickelhaubes they were not effective protection against bullets or shrapnel.                                                                                                                                 

Ersatz felt helmets were the same shape as leather helmets but were easier to manufacture. Usually they were pressed from one piece of felt which reduced production time. Some helmets were made up of two or four pieces of felt stitched together or had small additions of leather. They used pre-war fittings made of brass or silver, but as these metals became scarce, grey painted steel fittings were used. Sometimes a combination of both was used. The helmets came in black or field grey felt and were sometimes lacquered black. During 1915 production of the felt pickelhaube ceased as leather became available again. By the end of 1916 German front line troops were wearing the model 1916 steel helmet, although the pickelhaube continued to be worn by troops in Germany.

It wasn't just uniforms that where made from substitute materials. In an effort to save resources for the war effort many clothing items were made from alternative fabrics.                                                                                                             

Woman's paper camisole made as substitute clothing and used in Germany during First World War. The paper used to make this camisol is known as Ersatz

Woman's paper camisole made as substitute clothing and used in Germany during First World War. The paper used to make this camisole is known as Ersatz

Germany was hit hard by food shortages caused by British and French blockade of German ports and by the end of 1916 Germany was forced to drastically tighten its belt. Staples such as bread came to include ingredients such as rye, a smaller amount of wheat, sugar and potato meal. This does not sound to bad and was meant to have been quite palatable. Rye and wheat were not always available and oats, Indian corn, peas and buckwheat meal were used as substitutes in bread. Saw dust was also used by some bakers in their products as well. ‘Meat’ could be made from a mixture of vegetables, nuts and offal, while an egg substitute was made up from maize and potato meal. There was a desperate need for fat and they tried to obtain substitutes from rats, hamsters, crows, cockroaches, snails and earthworms. An attempt even was made to gain fat from hair clippings and old leather boots. Coffee went through varying stages of substitution during the war, from a blend of roasted barley and oats with coal tar flavouring, through to carrots and yellow turnips towards the end of the war. The example below of 'coffee' is dated c 1917 - 1918 and comes in its original packaging. The ingredients of this 'coffee' is believed to be made up of cereal and vegetable matter.  


Coffee substitute made from cereal and vegetable ingredients.

These items from the Memorial's National Collection help us to understand the lengths that Germany went to sustain its war effort. This effort though was not enough, the harsh conditions on the home front, the failure of the German army’s 1918 offensive and the subsequent Allied advance made Germany ripe for unrest. German sailors mutinied in late October 1918 and the revolt spread to the workers on land. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on 9 November and power was given to the Chancellorship with a German Republic announced. The Armistice came on 11 November ending the bloodiest war the world had seen.



While we’re now open to the public again, we know that travel restrictions mean some people will not be able visit us in Canberra. Explore our Museum At Home hub to discover stories about our nation’s servicemen and servicewomen and the Australian experience of war.

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Each month, join the Australian War Memorial online as we peel back the layers of time to explore key moments in history, go behind-the-scenes into the workings of a world class museum, and share with you some of the important artefacts from our extensive collection.



Members of B Company, 30th Battalion (in support) amongst the ruins on the Cambrai Road, Bapaume, during the day on which the Australians entered the town. Left to right: Unidentified; 358 Corporal (Cpl) C Boland; 5796 Lance Corporal R McKinnon (standing) holding a pistol; Private (Pte) Page (wearing a Pickelhaube); 3848 Cpl F McDowell (back); 2267 Cpl Cecil Edward Alcorn Belgian Croix de Guerre (foreground); 341 Sergeant Max Kenneth Dick Arkell (standing) (later killed in action 28 August 1918); 792 Pte A C Walker MM (standing); 466 Cpl W H Linsley.


At the beginning of 1917 victory seemed nowhere in sight. However for a while, from late February, hopes were lifted. Along the Somme front line and elsewhere, the Germans began to withdraw several kilometres to their newly-developed defensive zone which the British dubbed “the Hindenburg Line”. This apparent retreat was a tonic for the allies who advanced in pursuit. But it was an illusion; the Germans were just staging a voluntary withdrawal to stronger and better prepared positions. It was against these solid defences at a point near the village of Bullecourt that four Australian divisions, one after the other, were thrown during April and May 1917.

Basic Map: Bapaume to Bullecourt from the Official History Vol IV, p 156

Download detailed original map of the capture of Lagnicourt on 26 March (PDF file)

A group of German engineers preparing mines in a French village before withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line.

The capture of Bapaume

Bapaume was a large German-held town almost within sight of the Australians’ trench lines throughout the winter months on the Somme. Suddenly, from 24 February 1917 it became evident that the enemy was retiring. The British advanced after them, and by the morning of 17 March Australian troops reached the outskirts of Bapaume. The soldiers’ heightened spirits were exemplified by the band of the 5th Australian Brigade playing amid the burning ruins as they marched into the old town square on the 19th. However booby traps and time bombs had been left behind; one exploded in the town hall a week later burying men and killing twenty-five.

'Rarely did Australian soldiers experience such exhilaration as on that morning when, with the Somme morass finally behind them, they skirmished across green fields.' C.E.W. Bean, Anzac to Amiens


Band of the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade passing through the Town Square of Bapaume on 19 March, playing the 'Victoria March'.

Fighting up to Bullecourt

From February 1917 the German forces facing the Australians began withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line. The Australians pursued them and there was heavy fighting around a network of small villages. Vaulx-Vraucourt, Morchies and Beaumetz were among those captured. But there was stiffer resistance during the attempts to take Lagnicourt, Noreuil and Hermies; the initial hasty attempt to take Noreuil was repulsed. In some of these sharp actions over three weeks five Australians won the Victoria Cross. Finally, by 9 April the vital string of villages leading up to the Hindenburg Line was in British hands. Before the Australians, and within the broad German line of entrenchments and barbed-wire, stood the fortified village of Bullecourt.

An 18 pounder of the Australian Field Artillery behind Vaulx, preparing to shell Lagnicourt.'Fletch & Dan coming back to Igaree Corner from Lagnicourt' a drawing by Will Dyson, 1917.Ruins of Lagnicourt Church 1917 (AWM E04580).Two Australian soldiers among the ruins of Lagnicourt, April 1917 (AWM C00470).


Long, sleek and aerodynamic, the rocket was the product of Wernher Von Braun’s dedicated research and leadership over some 15 years.  Costing hundreds of millions, it was liquid fuelled, consuming 126kg of alcohol and liquid oxygen per second and emitting an ear-piercing scream when it left its launch site.  The fuel lasted for up to 70 seconds, by which time the craft was travelling at 1341 meters per second and was on the verge of  leaving earth’s lower atmosphere.  Fuel expended, the rocket was still subject to Earth’s gravity however, and now entered a parabolic trajectory, arching down towards a target zone some 350 kms away.

But unlike Von Braun’s Saturn V which propelled the Apollo 11 mission on its way to the moon, this rocket had a more sinister purpose, and the landing place was not an empty tract of wilderness.  The target zone instead was London or Antwerp, and the aim was to wreak vengeance on the enemy.  The rocket was the Vergeltungswaffe 2, known to history as the V2.

V2 rocket being prepared for launch

 A V2 being prepared for launch

Germany in the 1930s was a world leader in many areas of applied physics, jet propulsion, engineering, aerodynamics and in the science of ballistics.  The young Von Braun, brilliant, charismatic and highly practical, shone amongst his peers.   A member of rocket clubs from an early age, his stated dream was to reach for the stars, and to see humanity travel to space. 

But in the murky world of 1930s Nazi Germany, his clear ability aligned all too well with the darker ambitions of the German army for a weapon that would replace conventional artillery, travelling further and carrying a greater explosive yield than any artillery shell.

 Initially he and his team worked in testing grounds near Berlin, but the need for secrecy led them to seek more remote testing grounds.  Such an area was found on the northern coast at Peenemunde.  Heavily forested and a haven for wildlife, Peenemunde quickly became the world’s first rocket test centre, staffed by leaders in their fields, well paid and with the best equipment that money could buy.  As with NASA’s Cape Canaveral, it was also fronted with ocean, but unlike NASA’s facility, at Peenemunde secrecy was paramount, and enormous effort was made to keep the site safe from prying eyes. 

Launch of a V2 from Peenemunde

Launch of a V2 from Peenemunde

Three prototype models of the rocket were produced prior to the development of the V2.  On October 3 1942 Von Braun’s efforts paid off, with the first successful launch of a V2 rocket.  The rocket was 14 metres long, and weighed 12.5 tonnes, 70% of which was fuel.  It was guided by an advanced gyroscopic system that sent signals to aerodynamic steering tabs on the fins and vanes in the exhaust. An electronic device measured the acceleration of the rocket, and shut off the motor at a calculated point to allow the rocket to reach the target on a ballistic trajectory.

Inside one of the control compartments of the Australian War Memorial's V2

Inside one of the control compartments of the Australian War Memorial's V2

A sectional drawing of the V2 showing its combustion chamber and fuel tanks

A sectional drawing of the V2 showing its combustion chamber and fuel tanks

The combustion chamber generated about 55,000 lbs (25,000 kg) of thrust on launch, which increased to 160,000 lbs (72,000 kg) when the maximum speed was reached.

Design work on the V2 helped inform the later development of Space rocket engines. This shows the V2’s combustion chamber and fuel feed arrangement

Design work on the V2 helped inform the later development of Space rocket engines. This shows the V2’s combustion chamber and fuel feed arrangement.

It took until 1944 before V2s could be manufactured, delivered and launched reliably.  Much of the manufacture was undertaken in a vast underground factory in the Harz Mountains, by thousands of malnourished, brutalised inmates from a nearby concentration camp. At one stage 160 workers were dying each day, with the total number of deaths thought to have reached 6000. 

On 8 September 1944 the V2 campaign against Britain began.  By this time, Germany was under constant day and night attack from the air, Peenemunde had been heavily bombed, and the German armies were in steady retreat from both Soviet and Western Armies.  But to Hitler and his party, ‘wonder weapons’ such as the V2 could turn the tide and bring the allies to the bargaining table.  The missile could be easily transported, quickly set up, and once launched was unstoppable. 

Over the next 6 months 1,115 were fired against England, 1,341 against Antwerp, 65 against Brussels, 98 against Liege, 15 against Paris, 5 into Luxembourg and 11 against the Remagen bridge over the Rhine river.   Many of the missiles fell into empty countryside or fell into the English Channel.  But a large number nonetheless hit populated areas.   The effect of such a missile strike hitting a city block could  be devastating, both from the kinetic energy of the missile hitting the ground at three times the speed of sound, undermining building foundations, but also from the effect of the detonation of the explosive warhead.  One V2, hitting the Rex cinema in Antwerp, killed 567 people, mainly British and US servicemen, while another, which struck a Woolworths shop at New Cross in London in November 1944, killed 168 people and injured 122 passers-by.   

Almost until the surrender of Nazi Germany, research continued into improving the range and accuracy of the V2.  Further developments in train involved placing small wings on the rocket to increase the gliding range on descent, and a 26 meter long giant two-stage rocket, code-named A-10, with an expected range of 2900 to 4000 km.  Preliminary calculations were carried out, but no detailed design work was undertaken.

The A-10 rocket

The A-10 rocket

Although the V2 was technically brilliant, it consumed vast research and materials, and was not strategically important to the course of war.  Both the Western Powers and the Soviets appreciated, however, that they needed to understand how the rocket functioned, and whether they could use it. Almost as soon as the respective armies pushed into Germany, this process began, with the collection of scientists and the re-building of rocket parts.  Testing and launching soon followed, and continued in the USA during the late 1940s. The first animals sent into space were passengers on board modified V2s, and the first photographs from space, showing the now familiar curvature of the earth were also taken with V2s.

One of the rockets reassembled by the British after the fall of Nazi Germany made its way to Australia in 1946. After being stored at the Weapons Research Establishment in South Australia it was transferred to Australian War Memorial in 1958.

The Australian War Memorial’s V2 rocket

The Australian War Memorial’s V2 rocket

The Australian War Memorial’s V2 combustion chamber

The Australian War Memorial’s V2 combustion chamber

It doesn’t look so terrifying now.  Lying on its transport trailer, with faded paint, and dimpled wrinkled skin, and missing some of its outer panels, the rocket is a technical curiosity from the pre-internet age.  But as we remember and commemorate the excitement of the 1969 moon shot, it is pertinent to remember humanity’s earlier travel through the lower reaches of space.

Bob Semple at his home in Essendon.

Rat of Tobruk Bob Semple at his home in Essendon. "You’ve got your complete trust and faith – implicit faith – in your mates." Photo: Leigh Henningham

Bob Semple turns 98 next month, but he remembers the siege of Tobruk as if it was yesterday.

“I well remember it,” he said quietly. “It was only going to be for a couple of months or so, but it turned out to be 242 days, all told.”

For eight long months in 1941, 14,000 Australian and other Allied troops held the strategic Libyan port of Tobruk in what was to be one of the longest sieges in British military history. They were surrounded by a German and Italian force commanded by General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”, and they withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages and daily bombings in one of the most bitterly fought campaigns of the Middle East and Mediterranean fronts.

“We were no better than any other soldier, but … we were lucky,” Semple said. “I suppose you go wherever you’re put, and you wonder why, but you accept the circumstances.

“There were no trees on the joint at all, and [when we arrived] we thought, God. There were a few picks there, and we were told, you’d better get to work and see if you can dig a hole for yourself because you’ll get some guns in the morning. When the morning came, there was this great heap of old Italian guns … but the biggest problem was they were all in the metric system, and we’d been trained in the imperial system, so you had to convert it all. They’re the tools of the trade, and you just had to go with it, and you had to depend on your mates.” 

They lived in dug-outs, caves and crevices for months on end, enduring searing heat during the day and bitter cold at night, as well as hellish dust storms. 

“It was a bit tough,” he said, simply. “You had one water bottle a day for all purposes, and it would  be 48 degrees, so we were euchred physically as much as anything else, and it’s very wearing on the mental factor.”

Bob Semple during the war.

Bob Semple, far right, in the desert during the war. Photo: Courtesy Bob Semple

He will never forget watching the Stuka dive bombers as they flew in to attack.

“The biggest raid we had on Tobruk, I suppose, would have been about 100 planes,” he said. “They even bombed the hospital, and everything else. It was pretty chaotic. Sometimes you’d get three raids a day [and] 20 or 30 planes would come up, and they’d shoot you up, and you couldn’t move. You couldn’t up sticks and go somewhere else. You just had to take it. And the fleas and flies – the fleas were even worse than the flies, I think.

“We were short of any sort of food, and it was all hard rations, and that’s pretty hard to take, but they’re facts of life, and you weren’t the only one that was dealing with it. You had to think of your mates.”

For Semple, mateship meant everything during the war. “It’s hard to explain, but there was a bond of friendship and mateship money couldn’t buy,” he said. “You’ve got your complete trust and faith – implicit faith – in your mates.”

Even as the siege dragged on, they never thought of giving up.

“No, never,” Semple said. “We didn’t give in, and we didn’t want to give up. When [General Leslie] Morshead, our commander, took a left turn at Tobruk, he said, ‘We’ll hold this place. There will be no surrender.’ I well remember it. He said, ‘There’s only one way out of this – we’ll have to fight our way out.’ And the blokes just took it on. He was a great leader [and] we had great faith in him. They called him ‘Ming the Merciless’, and we were known as the 20,000 thieves.

“There was no alternative. You couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t swim away. It was a long way to go if you did, so you just had to get on with it … You had to try and win the game because if you weren’t there to try and win the game, you were wasting your time. You had to believe in the fact that we’ll win this.

“There was this Lord Haw Haw, as he became known, and he said we were living in the desert in holes in the ground like rats … so then we became known as the Rats of Tobruk and we thought, that’s not a bad name.”

Semple turned 21 during the siege, and will never forget how he felt, when they were finally relieved. “You didn’t get excited about it, but you knew what your mate was thinking: ‘What a Godsend this is.’”

Bob Semple

Bob Semple: "You just had to go with it, and you had to depend on your mates." Photo: Leigh Henningham

But the siege of Tobruk was just the beginning of Semple’s war. He was sent from the blistering heat of the desert into the the snow of Lebanon before being sent back to the desert and the tiny Egyptian railway stop at El Alamein in July 1942.

“That became a different war again,” he said. “It was shock and shell, and it was a big, big show … We lost nearly a battalion in one morning. They got into a mine field and the Germans had it covered… What they didn’t kill, they took prisoners of war … Some battalions had fronted up there, going in with 150 or 200, and there was only about 30 or 40 left…

”When [an armour-piercing] shell hits tanks, it’s horrendous. There were blokes jumping out of them on fire, and the shells are whizzing around inside the tank, and you just had to put the tin hat on, I suppose.”

He will never forget the opening barrage of the second battle of El Alamein on 23 October 1942.

“It was murderous,” he said. “There was something like 800 or 1,000 guns opened up at the one time. It looked just like a whole lot of glow worms had turned up, and the sky was alight…

“Two searchlight beams went up into the air and they locked, and that was the signal. We all had synchronised watches and all that sort of thing…

“The infantry then started to move… and the engineers had to go in. There was that much ironmongery about, with shrapnel and all the rest of it, the blokes were down on their hands and knees in a lot of cases, digging mines out [of the minefield] and then passing them on to one side, delousing them, and then trying to open up gaps in the barbed wire…

“On the 25-pounders, we would have averaged 600 rounds of ammunition between that time and dawn the next morning, and that’s one gun, and there were nearly a 1,000 guns.

“It was unbelievable, the noise. It was just like a series of trains going past … Half of the German soldiers were dopey, of course, after the shelling they’d had in a lot of places, and they were almost round the bend, but we got back a lot of shelling from them too.

“With the vehicles and everything else, the dirt or the sand … was like talcum powder. It was churned up to such an extent that when the wind came up it was like a big fog. 

“They’re just the hazards of the business and it had to be done [but] the sandstorms were hard to take. When the sandstorms came up … it was just like pulling [a] blind down from the sky to the ground as far as you can see.”

Semple considers himself lucky to have survived. “Even as the shells are coming in, you don’t knock off, you just keep going,” he said. “You see blokes who have been hit in a tin hat [who] are not hurt, and other blokes [who] are in bits and pieces. Why does that happen? Why does a shell come into a gun pit and the blast take part of your crew and not others? I don’t know. You just reflect back, and it’s a game of fate, really.”

He admits there were times he thought he wouldn’t make it home, but he tried to put those thoughts to the back of his mind. “I tried to be positive and say, look, I’m going to make this,” he said. “I’ve always been taught to wear it, and don’t be frightened to go the extra mile ... [but] when you haven’t got replacements, or you haven’t got the equipment, you’ve got to be honest and accept the fact you are fighting an uphill battle...  

“There are moments when you see horrible things and you think to yourself, why? But you try to discipline yourself and overcome that.”

Bob Semple in New Guinea

Bob Semple in New Guinea. "It was different warfare altogether." Photo: Courtesy Bob Semple

In 1943, he was one of 34,000 Australian troops who were brought home from the Middle East and were sent to fight the Japanese in New Guinea.

“It was different warfare altogether, and there were no beg your pardons with those fellows,” he said. “It was a case of come home, straight out of the desert, get a change of gear, and then you were in action on the islands … We had to change uniforms into the jungle green type of stuff – and the equipment, we just had to modify it as best we could because the heavy vehicles were not much use in the jungle area… There was nowhere near the amount of ironmongery thrown around – as far as the volume of fire was concerned for obvious reasons but it was more testing on the nerves and your mind. The unseen is a bit hard to cope with … [and] the conditions were pretty frightful.”

His regiment was involved in the sea borne operations at Lae and Finschhafen, where they battled malaria as well as the enemy. “We were swallowing those yellow pills, and all sorts of things, and looked like a canary after a while,” he said with a laugh. “But malaria took a toll on a lot of the blokes. Of all the casualties in my regiment, malaria would have probably accounted for about 60 per cent … Then Japanese were in the bush, and they gave us a bit of a rough time.”

When he returned to Melbourne on leave he married his sweetheart, Isabel Buchanan, at his local church in Essendon. He carried her picture with him throughout the war, as well as the New Testament he’d been given as a boy at Sunday school. They were married for 55 years when she passed away in 1999.

She was the only girlfriend I ever really had,” he said. “We were thinking of getting married [before I went away to war] and I said, ‘No, if I get knocked off you’d be better on your own.’ … I was away then in the Middle East for about two and half years and spent three Christmases in Palestine, and then we got married when I came home from New Guinea. That was in 1944. I had three weeks’ leave, and then went away again to see out the rest of the war.”

But the wedding nearly didn’t happen. “The best man was one of my mates in my troop … and I thought we’d turned up at the wrong church on the wrong day, to be quite honest.”

They were sitting on the steps of the church, but the doors were closed. It turned out they’d “been miscued on the time” and the wedding went ahead.

“We went to Daylesford for what was to be the honeymoon and I nearly died up there,” he said. “Malaria took over, and I got hit. I felt a bit seedy the day of the wedding, and I began to heave up blood and everything else, and so we had to come home from there, and I had to go straight to hospital.”

He was at Beaufort, 50 miles up the Parker River in British North Borneo when the Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945. He was discharged at Royal Park in Melbourne on 13 November. After almost six years of war, Semple’s war was finally over. He’d served for a total of 1,975 days since he first joined up on 18 June 1940.

After the war, he admits he “felt at sixes and sevens” for a while, as did a lot of his mates.

“There were a lot of blokes who could never ever relate to their families again,” he said. “They had to get used to the regularity of working and trying to find something to do that they could live with. They knew where all the pubs were … And some of the blokes – even when you were able to sit down and say, ‘Well listen, how’s Mary going with the kids and all that? How are you tracking?’ – they would just go into a fog.”

Bob Semple in his home at Essendon

Bob Semple in his home at Essendon. Photo: Leigh Henningham

Walking in Moonee Ponds one night with his wife, he was moved to see the Hawthorn City Pipe band playing in Queen’s Park, and promptly joined them.  “That was in October 1945, and I’ve been with the band ever since,” he said.

Semple is now Drum Major of the Hawthorn City Pipe Band and chieftain of Pipe Bands Australia. He has performed in Red Square in Moscow and at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland four times. He will never forget being in Edinburgh, when he was asked to report to the commandant’s office to meet a major in the Royal Highland Fusiliers. Semple had been given luxury accommodation and thought he was in the wrong room, but the officials had assured him it was correct. “He said, ‘You’re a Rat. We’re brother soldiers.’ Well, what do you say? And that’s the only time it gets me stirred up a little bit, when you say, ‘Well, what have I done to deserve this?’

“And I’m not ashamed to admit that when I went across that drawbridge, all these things came back and hit me, and I thought how can I handle this? It brings tears to your eyes.”

Today, he is president of the Victorian Rats of Tobruk Association, which established the Rats of Tobruk Pipe Band as a living memorial to those who fought and died during the siege. He and his fellow Rats talk to school children about the war, and the stories and poems they write to him afterwards are some of his most treasured possessions. He still rises at 5.30 each morning, makes his bed in a military fashion, and goes for a walk whenever he can. 

He has returned three times to the desert, where he has played the lament at the war cemetery at El Alamein, and visited the graves of his mates who are buried side-by-side in the desert sand. Looking back, he still wonders how he managed to survive it all.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I haven’t got any particular qualities that I know of, other than the fact that I was just not meant to go at the time I suppose, and that’s all I put it down to, and accept the fact … You’ve got to be honest with yourself and say yes, it does affect you at times. But the big thing is to accept reality and pay your respects wherever you can.

“I’ve been at reunions where you would just look at one another, and say nothing, and the tears would just roll down the faces … [And] to shed a tear is not a disgrace in my book.”

Rat of Tobruk, Bob Semple, OAM BEM, will be speaking at the Anzac Day National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Bob Semple

Bob Semple playing the lament at El Alamein. Photo: Courtesy Bob Semple

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Bob Semple

Bob Semple: "I’m yet to find a soldier that at some stage of his life was not frightened." Photo: Leigh Henningham

Ninety-seven-year-old Bob Semple knows all too well about war. His uncle was killed on the 25th of April 1915 as the Anzacs landed on Gallipoli. Ten of his mates are buried side by side in the desert of North Africa. And the names of his gun crew are carved into the back of the violin he took to war.

“Never ever forget,” he said quietly, looking off into the distance. “And I keep saying, there are more Victoria Crosses and other high awards buried under the sand of the desert of North Africa and in the mud of the Islands than there are that ever walked about on top of the earth. [They have] nothing against their names, but we know who they were.”

It’s mid-morning and Semple is sitting in the front room of his family home in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon, talking about the Second World War as he prepares to travel to Canberra this Anzac Day to speak at the National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.

It’s more than seven decades since the war, but for Semple, who turns 98 next month, the memories remain vivid. He still considers himself to be fortunate –fortunate to have survived six years of war, fortunate to have married the love of his life, and fortunate to have had a sense of humour and a passion for music that has helped him through it all.

He still has the violin he took away to war, along with the old felt hat and the greatcoat that he was given when he enlisted. They still fit, and the old violin case, marked with his initials and regimental number, still has sand in it from his time in the Middle East and North Africa.

“The old violin went into action,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the old case it was carted about with in the desert, but she’s a bit rough with the old desert sand in it. It got in everywhere, and I had to send [the violin] in for a bit of a polish and that to get it back into action after I got home…. It’s got my gun crew’s names scratched onto it, and it needs tuning, but I still pick it up. Music is the thing of mood really, and I’ve got sheets and sheets of music. I’ll open it up, and I can just sit there.

Bob Semple's violin

The name's of Bob Semple's gun crew are carved into the back of the violin he took away to war.

“My crew were blokes that were nearly all farmers and they were wonderful. What they could do with a piece of wire and all that sort of stuff… Well, I would not swap any one of those blokes for all the money in the world. It was a bond that could be even more powerful than your own wife or your own family, and that’s not being cruel, that’s just being honest.”

During the war, they would dig slit trenches behind their artillery guns and cram into them to try to protect themselves from “all the shrapnel that was flying around” as they watched the German dive bombers fly in to attack.

“I’m yet to find a soldier that at some stage of his life was not frightened,” he said. “But you have to discipline your feelings… [And] when the shells come over, they haven’t got Catholic, Protestant or Hebrew on them, I can tell you that.

“I’ve sat there many times, and the Stukas would fly in and roll over… We’d say, ‘Well, Peter, this looks like it,’ or Bill … and the three of us would be sitting there, and each one of us would put our hands up, and we’d hold each other’s hands. … Things like that, they’re just natural reactions. You do it because you’d say, well, if we go, we may as well go together.”

He will never forget his 10 mates who were killed by the same shell during the siege at Tobruk and are buried side by side in the desert sand. “They went out trying to dig another gun pit, so that they could fire some old 60-pounders that were engaging Bardia Bill, a big heavy German gun that was shelling the city,” he said. “They tried two or three times to get in, and some of those battles were pretty fierce, and we lost a lot of blokes, who were killed one way or another. Ten of them went off in one truck load and they were coming back from digging in a position. A German spotter plane came up … and they were hit by one shell…

“All of those things you’ve got to learn to live with, I suppose. It’s a soldier’s life.”

Bob Semple

Bob Semple during the war: "It’s hard to explain to people now what it was like." Photo: Courtesy Bob Semple

It’s a long way from where he came from. The eldest of four children, Semple was born on 4 May 1920 in Essendon, the suburb in which he has lived his entire life. He grew up during the Depression years, playing “all sorts of sports”, but his mother Lottie was determined that he and his three younger sisters would learn music.

“It’s hard to explain to people now what it was like,” he said. “It was a different society … I didn’t even have a bike as a kid and I walked everywhere, but my mother loved the theatre and she said, ‘You’re going to learn the violin … because you will always be able to get a job if you can play the violin and some other instrument.’

“My [Scottish] grandfather, whose house we lived in, thought it would be a pretty good idea if I learnt the bagpipes [as well] … so I learnt to wrestle the octopus … and I used to bring out the practice chanter, and that’s how I got started in the bagpipes.”

It was to be the beginning of a lifelong love of music and the bagpipes, and at 16 he joined the cadet corps of the Victorian Scottish Regiment.

“The big burly Regimental Sergeant Major in charge of the depot said in broad Scots, ‘What do you blokes want?’ [When] we said, ‘We’ve come to join this regiment,’ he said, ‘Well, I’ve got news for you – get in the queue … and furthermore, you’ll have to buy your own kilt.’

“We said, ‘Hang on a minute, how much are these kilts?’ and he said, ‘3 pound 10’. Well, I started work at 8 and 6 a week … so [after] a couple of months, we begged, borrowed and stole two bob, and five bob, and 13 shillings, and anyhow, we paid the 3 pound 10. I’ve still got the kilt out in the shed … and I’ve still got the old receipt for it.”

He transitioned into the 5th Battalion of the Scottish Regiment when he turned 18 and played the bagpipes in the regimental band. “The battalion had red and black colours, which were Essendon’s colours, so I was happy,” he said with a laugh. “And everything was going right.”

When the war broke out, he was working in “the rag trade” for a company in Flinders Lane in Melbourne, and he heard the declaration of war on an old wireless. “I well remember it,” he said. “I was brought up in an atmosphere of respect for family, king and country, and I felt it was my duty to enlist. It was a war – a worldwide war – and it was only going to get bigger.”

Bob Semple

Bob Semple wearing his hat and great coat from the war: "They hung a pair of boots around your neck with a string, and put a hat on your head, and gave you a coat and everything else." Photo: Leigh Henningham

His mother’s brother, Private John Adams, had been killed as the Anzacs landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, and Semple was determined to join up. When the Scottish Regiment called for volunteers for overseas service, Semple was among the 800 men who turned out at Portsea. “The whole mob took a pace forward,” he said. “But they only picked a few of the officers… and then they sent us home for Christmas.”

Three months later they called for more volunteers at Mt Martha, but Semple and his mates missed out again. “We couldn’t understand it,” he said. “In our way of thinking, we wanted to all go away as mates … and we found that a bit hard to wear, so … in about April or so, the blokes started to blow through and just go out to the racecourse and the showgrounds and put their names down.

“Well, the jockeys and burglars and bank managers and everybody all turned up and they were going in like it was a Grand Final. Well, some of my mates and I, we’d been together for all those years, and we’d had our fights and all our fun and games together, so we all said, ‘We’re going together,’ [and] I … joined the AIF, and became an article of King George’s army.”

He was just 19, and had to get his parents’ permission to go.

“The blokes had been grabbed in mobs of about 20 at a time, and they were holding the Bibles up and swearing to serve the King and Country and everything. Some blokes had never seen a Bible, let alone anything else… [But] they lost my paperwork … and when I went back a second day I had to go through the whole rigmarole again.”

He will never forget being sent to the jockeys’ bar to collect his gear. “It was like handing out the chocolates. They hung a pair of boots around your neck with a string, and put a hat on your head, and gave you a coat and everything else, and said, ‘Now go and sort yourselves out in the stables … to get stuff to fit.’ So blokes you’d never seen in your life before were all sitting in this jockey’s bar at Caulfield – and I’ll never forget it – they’re all sitting around the wall trying on boots and hats and swapping all this gear around.”

Bob Semple

Bob Semple during the war: "I felt it was my duty to enlist." Photo: Courtesy Bob Semple

Semple joined the 2/2nd Medium Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery, and was sent to Puckapunyal in country Victoria for training. He remembers arriving in the early hours of the morning, a moment which would ultimately change the course of his life.

“Fate plays some funny parts, and I’m not a fatalist or anything else, but the war teaches you an awful lot of things,” he said, quietly. “We were unloading in the middle of the night and at about 2 o’clock in the morning they said, ‘You’re going to the 2/2nd Pioneers’ … but I said, ‘No, sir, I joined the artillery.’ I was the only bloke, and … I had to stand aside... The tribes were filling all these trucks … and I found myself a lonely petunia in an onion patch … and that’s how I began in the regiment.

“They ended up in Java and became prisoners of war on the Burma Railway, and I could have been on the Burma Railway with those blokes right there that day when I said, ‘No’. I look back and I think to myself, I got off that train as they said ‘all you men into those trucks’… It’s fate, and you just accept fate, and say, well that’s it, go with the flow and do what you’re told.”

Instead, Semple arrived in Palestine in November 1940, and his regiment, which had become the 2/12th Australian Field Regiment of the 9th Australian Division because of a lack of medium guns, was sent to reinforce the besieged city of Tobruk in May 1941. They had trained by firing off a few 18-pounders in paddocks, and had been told to “imagine this is a gun” as they hooked drag ropes onto horse troughs.  

“Well, I joined the imagination army then,” Semple said, laughing once more. “And from then on, we never had any guns. Britain was on its absolute knees, and we just did not have the equipment or the facilities. They lost all the heavy equipment at Dunkirk … and I did not see a gun until we lobbed into Tobruk. Did not see a gun … [but] the Germans had the finest equipment in the world. Even their water bottles were better – aluminium and light weight and all that – and their tanks cut our tanks open like a tin opener. They were using what I think were the two best guns available during the war … [and] we didn’t even have a gun to train on. Picks and shovels – we had plenty of them, digging holes and what not, and doing drills all about the place … and it nearly drove everyone mad.”

He will never forget arriving at the Libyan port of Tobruk in the early hours of the morning.

“We had to go in … under the cover of darkness or the phase of the moon,” he said. “I went in on the HMAS Vampire with spuds and ammunition and all sorts of stuff hanging onto the side of the boat … We had a water bottle, a haversack, and a few rifles, and sunken ships were all in the harbour. Then the destroyer pulled in alongside and they were saying, ‘Get off, boys. Get off, boys.’

“We were loading wounded on the other side … and we still had no guns. I thought, ‘Christ, what are we doing here? What are we doing in this place?’”

Rat of Tobruk, Bob Semple, OAM BEM, will be speaking at the Anzac Day National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Read the rest of his story here.

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