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.


Bernard Slawik (1904-1991), Loading the freight cars to Belzec, drawn in either Janowska concentration cap, Lvov, Poland, c. 1943, or Sweden, c. 1946, pencil on paper.

In this drawing, Bernard Slawik - a prisoner of Janowska concentration camp Lvov, Poland - represents the freight cars that carried Jewish prisoners to the Belzec extermination camp, also in Poland. With its expressionist style and blunt account of death, this drawing provides a harrowing and deeply personal account of the callous and bureaucratic killing of Jews. Skulls dominate this image, signifying both the actual human remains evident in the death camps and the Death’s Head symbol worn by the SS troops who administered the camps.

Opening Remarks from the exhibition by our Director, The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson AO

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

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.

Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson

The Australian War Memorial’s founder and official historian for the First World War, Charles Bean, landed on Gallipoli with Australian troops on 25 April 1915 and stayed with them to the end. It was in 1916 at Pozieres, where Australia suffered over 23,000 casualties in 6 weeks, that Bean conceived the idea for the Australian War Memorial.

From August 2014 until 2018, we will commemorate the centenary of the First World War, the scars it left and the pride we felt when we emerged from the other side. The events that took place 100 years ago meant a lot to us then and means a lot for our future.

The Australian War Memorial will be commemorating the Centenary of the First World War through a variety of projects.

Our main project involves the redevelopment of the Memorial’s First World War galleries that will be opening in late 2014. The new galleries will explore why Australia joined the war and who we were in 1914. The galleries will also take on a chronological approach to the display of events and feature collection items collected over the past 100 years, many of which are on display for the first time.

A temporary exhibition on the First World War called Anzac Voices has now opened. This exhibition focuses on the individual stories of sacrifice and features treasures from the Memorial’s archives, presenting the voices of the Anzacs through their personal letters and diaries.

From around August 2014 we will also be projecting the names of the 62,000 men and women on the First World War Roll of Honour panels onto the outside of the Memorial building. This project will continue over the four years of the centenary.

Within the Commemorative Area from November 2014 to November 2018, school children will read the names and ages of each individual on the First World War Roll of Honour panels which will play over discreet speakers placed throughout the cloisters. This is an important project that will reflect the individual sacrifices made by the men and women who fought for Australia in the First World War.

The Memorial will also be enhancing its website through a project called Anzac Connections. This new search function will bring together our rich collection as well as the National Archives collection to tell the stories of our soldiers.

Over 140,000 school children visit the Memorial a year, during the centenary, each child will write their name and school on a wooden cross. These crosses will then be placed on the graves of First World War Australian soldiers throughout Europe.

One project we are currently working on is a travelling exhibition for the First World War. This exhibition will travel to regional communities across the country to share the stories of our First World War soldiers. This will be done through the use of collection items, projections of photos onto community buildings, and, potentially, the display of large technology items. The exhibition will have a focus on the Western Front and in particular the battle of Passchendaele. The exhibition will begin travelling from the end of 2015 or early 2016.

What we do through the centenary is incredibly important as it links our past with our future. The sacrifices of the past reflect who we were then, who we are today, and who we want to be for the future.

Dr Brendan Nelson, National Press Club Address, 18 September 2013.

Our fully restored Lockheed Hudson Mark IV Bomber is now on display inside Canberra Airport near the Virgin Australia check-in counter.


The Lockheed Hudson: RAAF Workhorse

The Lockheed Hudson was one of the most versatile aircraft used by the Allied air forces in the early part of the Second World& War. It filled a desperate need for a long-range patrol/bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Based on a civilian airliner, it made its first flight in 1938, modified to include a bomb bay, positions for an operational crew of five, and defensive armament.

From 1939 the Royal Australian Air Force took delivery of 247 Hudsons. These were used in a variety of roles across the Pacific, North African, and Mediterranean theatres, including bombing and reconnaissance operations, air-to-sea rescue, transport, and convoy protection. The Hudson was one of the true “work horses” of the RAAF. 

This aircraft, A16-105, arrived in Australia in early December 1941 and was used to train RAAF aircrews. Between December 1942 and January 1943 it saw operational service in Papua and New Guinea, carrying out supply flights during the Allied advance on Buna on Papua’s north coast.

Restoration of Lockheed Hudson A16-105

After the Second World War, Hudson A16-105 was stripped of its military fittings and flown as a photographic survey aircraft.

Flight controls were re-routed, the nose was swapped for one without windows, and holes were cut in the bomb bay doors for camera equipment. It completed its last flight in 1998, and was purchased by the Australian War Memorial in 2001. 

The Memorial set about restoring the aircraft to its wartime configuration of December 1942. The project took 48 months to complete, and involved the fabrication of more than 5,800 parts and tools, extensive research on the colour scheme and internal fitout, the sourcing of replacement parts and spares through the aviation heritage network, and the reconditioning of the airframe. Reference material was limited, so the complete blueprint catalogue, acquired from the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, became the Memorial’s planning bible.

Read more about the restoration process in a series of blogs written by the conservation team.


Proudly supported by: Virgin Australia               Canberra Airport

  1. Lockheed Hudson - A Lot Has Happened...

    05 December 2012

    Progress report on the reconstruction of the Lockheed Hudson plane

  2. Lockheed Hudson - Upper Turret Milestone

    26 February 2012

    Progress report on the reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  3. Lockheed Hudson - Turret Structure Trial Fit

    23 January 2012

    Progress report on the restoration of the Lockheed Bomber

  4. Lockheed Hudson - Boulton Paul Turret Build

    02 December 2011

    Read about the conservation and restoration of the Lockheed Bomber

  5. Lockheed Hudson - F24 Camera Well

    26 September 2011

    Progress report on the reconstruction of the Lockheed Hudson

  6. Lockheed Hudson - More Holes

    25 February 2011

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  7. Lockheed Hudson - Support structure fitout begins.

    01 February 2011

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  8. Lockheed Hudson - Blueprints

    20 December 2010

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  9. Lockheed Hudson - Upper Turret Support Structure Progress

    25 November 2010

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

Artillerymen train at the Australian-run Afghan National Army Artillery School at Camp Alamo in Kabul, February 2011.

A new permanent display that expands the story of Australia’s involvement in conflicts in the Middle East from the First Gulf War to Afghanistan, opened to the public on the 6 October 2016.

The 150 square metre display is located within the existing Conflicts 1945 to today galleries, and canvasses Australia’s involvement in the First Gulf War, UN weapons inspections, Operation Habitat, the Maritime Interception Force,  as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the first major upgrade to the Conflicts 1945 to today galleries since they opened in December 2007.

The display includes 218 items from the Memorial’s collection and on loan from current and former Australian Defence Force personnel.

The Afghanistan section features Explosive Detection Dog Sarbi, donated by her handler, Corporal David Simpson.

Sarbi went missing in action during the engagement in which Corporal Mark Donaldson was awarded the Victoria Cross. After 13 months, Sarbi was recovered by US forces and reunited with her unit and handler. The Purple Cross medal awarded to her in recognition of her courage, strength, resilience and service is also on display. 

Also on display is a prosthetic limb worn by Sapper Curtis “Kiwi” McGrath who lost both legs in an IED blast on 23 August 2012. When he was wounded, McGrath joked with medics about becoming a Paralympian – four years later he won gold in the K3 canoe sprint event at the Rio Paralympic Games.

Read more:



If you were involved in operations in East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Official History Project Team welcomes your contribution to the Operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor Official History. Contact details are available on the Official History page on our website.

Veterans of the First and Second Gulf Wars and the War in Afghanistan are welcome to sign the Tarin Kowt sign in the Middle East Gallery, and share their stories. The next time you're visiting us at the Memorial in Canberra, simply ask a staff member in the 'Conflicts 1945 to today' galleries for assistance.

Return to Conflict 1945 to Today Exhibition
Trent Parke photograph of a tree

Just as man, at the head of the animal kingdom, is the noblest work of God, so the giant trees of the forest represent His noblest work in the plant world. Monuments of bronze or stone, architectural designs, or imposing buildings may serve as memorials in a collective sense; but the avenue of honour in which each tree commemorates a soldier, introduces a living breathing individuality. The same wonderful vital forces are inherent in both’.

The Argus, 1922

At 22 kilometres the Ballarat Avenue of Honour is the longest avenue of honour in Australia and one of the earliest known memorial avenues to have been planted in Victoria during the First World War. Begun in May 1917 and now comprising 3,801 trees, each tree is planted to honour the service of a particular man or woman from Ballarat who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces. 

In 2014 Australian photographer Trent Parke was invited to participate in the international exhibition The First World War Now. This was presented by the renowned Magnum Photos agency in Bruges, Belgium, to mark one hundred years since the German invasion of the city. In response Parke produced the series WW1 Avenue of Honour, twenty-two images made at the Ballarat Avenue of Honour. 

Parke, who describes himself as a storyteller, was drawn to the Ballarat Avenue of Honour because it is a living memorial where each tree stands for a particular life. In selecting and photographing a particular tree he sought to explore both tangible and abstract parallels between the natural forms as he encountered them and the fate of the individual whom the tree commemorates. Parke undertook detailed research drawing on the Red Cross Wounded and Missing files to find links between biographical records and the appearance of the corresponding tree in planting position, size, shape, texture, irregularities of growth, setting in the landscape or it’s silhouette against the sky. His photographs capture these visual forms as an act of contemporary commemoration. 

About the artist

Trent Parke (b.1971) was the first and currently is the only Australian to be accredited as a full member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency. While working as a press and sports photographer in his early career he received numerous awards including five Gold Lenses from the International Olympic Committee and numerous World Press Photo Awards. Having established a career as an influential artist whose images challenge our expectations of documentary photography, his work has been exhibited and published globally to wide acclaim. His work has been collected by major national institutions including the National Gallery of Australia, The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria. In 2015 the Art Gallery of South Australia presented a major exhibition devoted to his work The Black Rose.

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