The end of September marks the 71 year anniversary of the battle of Dakar. Also known as “Operation Menace”, this operation was endeavoured to be peaceful, with the aim of placing General Charles de Gaulle in leadership at Dakar. It was a significant attempt to set up a Free French government in Dakar (West Africa) by British, French and Australian forces.  The recently digitised Royal Australian Navy Reports of Proceedings highlight HMAS Australia’s three day skirmish with the Vichy French.

Dakar, French West Africa; HMAS Australia; HMAS Australia, seen from an unidentified British destroyer, in action against shore batteries at Dakar

HMAS Australia started her duties at Dakar on the 19th of September before the official dates of 23rd to 25th of September, 1940. The Australia landed the chore of tracking and “shadowing” French Vichy ships. Des Shinkfield, in his book HMAS AUSTRALIA: a lucky ship, describes the chase of the ship Gloire, “the climax came about midnight. Australia was steaming at full speed through a rain squall when, suddenly, on passing out of the rain squall into brilliant moonlight, there, on the starboard beam, and heading for Australia was Gloire, only a cable or two away.  A collision appeared inevitable. Only the smart handling of the ship by Captain Stewart averted what would have been a major disaster.” Captain Stewart’s account of the incident features in the Reports of Proceedings with a description of the Gloire as a ‘lone bird’

What then ensued was ship to ship stalking as the Australia stuck to Gloire’s tail to guarantee she was safely ensconced in Casablanca. Captain Stewart warned the captain of Gloire that if the Australia were attacked by submarines then they would engage in battle with the Gloire. Needless to say the Gloire assured him that they would be very civil! Captain Stewart suggests in the Reports of Proceedings, that the captain of Gloire was fearful and explains “I have no doubt...he went through an anxious moment when I encountered him on opposite courses and put my searchlight on him on the night of the 19th September”.  The Australia forced the Gloire on towards Casablanca; however the Gloire did finish part of the journey herself, and the Australia back-tracked to re-assemble with her team.


During the ensuing battle for Dakar, the Australia was involved in further skirmishes with Vichy French ships from Dakar. The Reports of Proceedings for the month of September describes an incident with the French destroyer L’audacieux on the 23rd of September in a very matter of fact manner.

Harold Plumber, a sailor on board the Australia, describes this situation with more energy in A Sailors Life when he says “she [the L’audacieux] immediately burst into flames from her bridge and right aft and it was a terrible sight watching the poor devils rushing right forward on the FX to get out of the way as she was one mass of flames.”

During the 24th and 25th the Australia continued to help battle against enemy ships on the seas outside Dakar. There were many incidents where the Australia had to engage in attacking and defensive fire. However by the 25th it was clear that this battle was not going to succeed. Australia lost her “walrus” (aircraft spotter) to the sea, and got hit twice herself by enemy fire. Other allied ships were also suffering the marks of war. This battle was over after the faintest sniff at victory. The HMAS Australia successfully carried out everything thrown at her in Operation Menace, albeit with just a few battle scars to take home.

Further reading

Des Shinkfield, HMAS AUSTRALIA, A lucky ship (Ringwood Victoria: 2001)

Peter Taylor, A Sailor’s Life, Aboard HMAS AUSTRALIA (II) (Western Australia: Peter CW Taylor, 2010)

Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships and Establishments. AWM78 44/1 HMAS Australia: Reports of Proceedings August 1939-December 1941

Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships and Establishments. AWM78 44/3 HMAS Australia: Reports of Proceedings August 1939-November 1944

Where there is war, there is love. Almost 13,000 Australian soldiers who fought in the First World War married during their years of service, mostly to English women they met while on leave or during training stints in country.

The Aussie soldiers were an attractive prospect: comparatively well-paid, lively and free-spirited, they offered an escape from bleak surroundings for many young women. Official war historian Charles Bean noted in his diary on 31 January 1916, during a break in London, that girls “are simply throwing themselves at our mens’ heads” – but not all matches, or all girls, were suitable.

He recounted the following:

 Jack tells me that quite a few of our men have been marrying English girls. These marriages are rather lightly undertaken in some cases, I fancy. One of Jack’s men in the 3rd Battalion – a most stolid, dry old bone of a chap ... came back to the office the other day and after much scratching of his head, he blurted out that he too had been married in the interval. “Quite a nice girl too,” he said, half to himself, reflectively, fingering the back of his head. The next week he turned up on sick parade and was seen by Sgt Wolseley, Jack’s little right-hand man. He confessed in the same dry style that he was suffering from a dose of gonorrhoea. “Why, who gave it to you?” asked little Wolseley. “Not your wife, surely?” “Well – no – as a matter of fact, it was the chief bridesmaid,” said the bashful A -- -- mournfully. These Australians!

Tilly Devine was a war bride with a less than reputable past, and an even more notorious future ahead of her. Born Matilda Twiss in London in 1900, she was working as a prostitute on the city’s streets when she married Sapper James Devine, a former Queensland shearer, in 1917.

Jim Devine was quite possibly the AIF’s worst soldier: his service record lists dozens of unauthorised absences, periods in detention, and numerous stints in hospital with “VD”– venereal disease. He served briefly in France with the 4th Tunnelling Company, but spent most of the war in English training camps, or AWOL. When the war ended, he faced court martial for his illegal absences, and served a lengthy sentence in England before returning to Australia in October 1919.

Tilly arrived in Sydney in January 1920 aboard the “bride” ship, Waimana. The couple quickly established themselves as part of the city’s seedy underbelly; Tilly once again began working as a prostitute, and Jim as her protector and chauffeur. She was arrested often: before she had turned 25 she had almost 80 convictions for prostitution, offensive behaviour and indecent language. In 1925, she was imprisoned for two years after slashing a man with a razor.  She gained a reputation as the “Worst Woman in Sydney” and “The Queen of the Night”.

By the late 1920s Jim Devine had further enmeshed himself in the criminal underworld, with dealings in drugs, “sly grog” and attacks on rival gangs. Tilly moved on from being a prostitute to becoming a madam, and more charges followed for her illegal activities. Despite this, she was a very successful businesswoman, employing bodyguards and acquiring properties. By the time the Second World War broke out, Tilly had attained a more affectionate reputation among Sydneysiders and was known for her collection of diamond rings, her opulent dress style and her lavish parties.

Tilly’s relationship with Jim had become increasingly violent and, no longer needing his protection, she divorced him in August 1943 on the grounds of cruelty. It was a boom time for her, as vast numbers of local and Allied servicemen passing through Sydney fed a demand for brothel services. Tilly contributed generously to the war effort and in 1945 she married again, to a seaman named Eric Parsons.

When the war ended the best of Tilly’s years were behind her, but she remained a prominent and criminally active figure and was brought before the court numerous times. She travelled to London in 1953 to see the Coronation procession, and operated her brothel until 1968.

Tilly Devine died in a Sydney hospital on 24 November 1970. She was survived by a son whom she had adopted during her second marriage. Her two children to Jim Devine had predeceased her.

Tilly would undoubtedly be delighted to know that her story lives on, with the current Nine Network television series Underbelly razor based on her and Jim’s notorious activities. The contribution made to Australian society by so many other First World War brides was, of course, of far greater moral and social value, and today there are tens of thousands of their descendants among us.

Sources and further reading

Allen, Judith, 'Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

Fifty Australians exhibition, Australian War Memorial,  /exhibitions/fiftyaustralians/15.asp

C.E.W. Bean, AWM38 Official History, 1914–18 War: Records of C.E.W. Bean, Official Historian.

Visitors to the Memorial’s exhibition Rats of Tobruk 1941 will have noticed the unofficial Rats of Tobruk medal presented, according to its engraving, by Lord Haw Haw. Around twenty of these medals were made at Tobruk, which illustrates one of the earliest examples of the town’s defenders reclaiming the title ‘Rat’, bestowed on them by the propaganda radio program ‘Germany Calling’. Visitors may also notice the brasso caked around the small copper rat on this medal, the result of many years of cleaning. This perhaps gives an idea of the importance of this object in the life of its owner, John Joseph Murray, who commanded 20 Brigade at Tobruk. The care lavished on this object certainly accords with views expressed during Murray’s own lifetime about the pride he felt in having participated in this pivotal campaign. But this medal, while illustrating a highly significant period in Murray’s service career, does not give a full view of the breadth of his service. For a better appreciation of his distinguished career, we must turn to another set of objects, Murray’s medal group, which have recently gone on display in the Memorial’s Second World War gallery.


The medals of Major General J J Murray are impressive by anyone’s standards, and are the tangible result of a distinguished career which spanned thirty years and two wars. A native of Sydney, Murray had already served in the militia when he left Australia with the 5th Reinforcements to 1 Battalion in 1915. This unit had already participated in the first landings at ANZAC, and would remain at Gallipoli until the evacuation in December. Although his unit served at Gallipoli, his service record indicates that Murray did not. This anomaly may stem from the sectarian prejudices of his day, denying this Catholic officer the opportunity of frontline service.


With the doubling of the AIF in 1916, Murray was transferred to 53 Battalion and promoted to Temporary Captain. The battalion was subsequently sent to France, and its first major action on the Western Front was at the disastrous battle of Fromelles on 19 July. For his courage and leadership during this battle, Murray was awarded the Military Cross. In a similar vein to many award recommendations from that terrible day, Murray’s recommendation concludes, ‘[a]ll the other officers in his company were either killed or wounded.’

Murray’s unit participated in the advance that followed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917, and defended gains made during the second battle of Bullecourt. Promoted to Major, his unit saw further service when the AIF’s focus shifted to the Ypres sector in Belgium, where he was Mentioned in Despatches toward the end of 1917.

The stalled German offensive in March 1918 prompted an allied counteroffensive, which saw 53 Battalion in action in the capture of Peronne, where Murray was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His unit was withdrawn from the line at the start of October, and saw no further action in the First World War. After the armistice Murray was again Mentioned in Despatches for his leadership, and returned to Australia in 1919.

Murray resumed his duties in the militia, and after several command appointments and promotions, and the outbreak of a new war, joined the Second AIF in April 1940. He was appointed to command 20 Brigade, which embarked for the Middle East in October. In February 1941 the brigade transferred from 7 Division to 9 Division. Despite being poorly equipped, 9 Division were then sent to relieve 6 Division in Libya. At Er Regima, 20 Brigade were one of the first Australian formations to engage Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps. The brigade successfully staged a fighting withdrawal to Tobruk, where they played an integral part in halting and eventually repelling the German advance on 14 April.

It was at Tobruk that Murray’s experience and leadership became wholly apparent. In his account of the campaign Tobruk 1941, Chester Wilmot described Murray as ‘…a big, genial Irishman who loves a fight. He is personally easy-going but brooks no slackness among his troops and even before Tobruk his brigade was marked out as one of the best-trained in the 2nd AIF. His dogged temperament made him well suited for the defensive tasks that lay ahead. He had shown himself a strong leader in the Great War when he won the DSO and MC and rose to be second-in-command of the 53rd Battalion.’

Overall command of Tobruk lay with Major General Leslie Morshead, whose defensive strategy was one of aggressive patrolling, summed up in his statement to Wilmot ‘I determined we should make no man’s land our land’.  Murray’s First World War experience of static warfare in the trenches of the Western Front was readily adapted to Morshead’s philosophy. It was these tactics that prevented the German and Italian forces from observing the allied defences and kept Tobruk’s besiegers in a constant state of tension.

A good example is the ‘V For Victory’ campaign of psychological warfare that was adopted by Murray’s 20 Brigade in the southern sector during July and August. Murray ordered leaflets stencilled with ‘V Per Vittorio’ and ordered that they be attached ‘by the use of clips, string, nails, pins, etc., to enemy bodies, posts wire, sandbags, sangars, etc., by patrols’. With monotonous regularity, the Italian forces in this sector found Murray’s leaflets in their own defences, left by Australian patrols that they had never heard.

For his leadership during this period, Murray was awarded a Bar to his DSO. He left Tobruk in November with most of his brigade, and was Mentioned in Despatches for the performance of his duties. He returned to Australia in January 1942 and was promoted to Major General. This period of Murray’s career saw several commands at Division level, and the command of Northern Territory Force from March 1945 until the expiration of his appointment with the Second AIF in January 1946 when he was placed on the Reserve of Officers.

In peacetime, Murray worked as Australian trade commissioner to New Zealand from 1946 to 1949, and then to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1949, where health considerations saw him return to Australia. He died in Sydney in 1951.

The Australian War Memorial is proud to be able to display the medals of a soldier to the public whom he served with such distinction. They can be viewed as part of the Tobruk display in the Memorial’s Second World War gallery.

Further reading

For a detailed account of the entire Tobruk campaign, see Chester Wilmot’s Tobruk 1941.

For an insight into Murray’s own thoughts on this campaign, see his recently published account I Confess – A Memoir of the Siege of Tobruk.

Do your bit on the Food Front

A poster produced by the Department of Agriculture and Commerce in Canberra to encourage people in Australia to grow their own vegetables for home consumption.

Floriade (17 September – 16 October) is Australia’s celebration of Spring and Australia’s biggest flower show. This year the Australian War Memorial is creating a Second World War Victory Garden, reminiscent of those grown by Australian families in the Second World War.

In 1942 Prime Minister John Curtin launched the “Dig for Victory” campaign, which encouraged Australian householders to grow their own vegetables. Families across the country enthusiastically adopted the idea, making this campaign and other efforts part of the most ambitious home gardening program Australia has ever seen.

The Floriade Victory Garden will contain over 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables alongside a special commemorative planting of Lone Pine, poppies, and rosemary. The Garden is based around research by staff in the Memorial’s Research Centre.

Over 4000 plants are being grown from seed generously donated by the Australian garden supplier, Yates. A team of eight final year horticultural students from the Canberra Institute of Technology have been busy growing the Victory Garden which moves to the 2011 Floriade site next month.Floriade Seedlings

Throughout the Festival Memorial Research Centre staff will share stories of wartime gardens, kitchens and food production in a series of free public talks and tours both at Floriade, and at the Australian War Memorial. The Hyatt Hotel will also be at Floriade doing cooking demonstrations of wartime recipes with a contemporary twist.

The Victory Garden is a timely reminder of the gardening efforts of wartime families as a new generation of Australians is looking to be self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable.

The announcement of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Japan brought an uplift of spirit among personnel. The end of the war, hitherto a nebulous source of conjecture, suddenly became a definite possibility within a matter of days, even hours. Crowds imbued with eager anticipation mustered round the unit’s radio sets for each news session and gasped with amazement as statistical information about the potentialities of the bomb were unfolded. [57th/60th Australian Infantry Battalion war diary, 8 August 1945]

Whether fighting in the jungles of Bougainville or working in a factory at home, Australians were rocked by the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

The action – one of the most divisive and debated in military history – came as a surprise to the Australian government, who as minor allies with Britain and the United States had not been privy to such top secret developments. But it was not an unwelcome decision: after almost six years of fighting on fronts in Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the war-weary troops were itching to return home, and their loved ones were desperate to have them back. The bomb, it was anticipated, would bring the war swiftly to an end.

More than 200,000 Japanese were killed by the two atomic bombs, nicknamed Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August respectively. On 14 August, following subtle assurances from the United States that the Emperor could stay on the throne, Japan surrendered.

In Australia, the first news of the blasts was focused on the power of the bomb. The Sydney Morning Herald was the only newspaper to report the story on 7 August (other newspapers were a day behind), its front page headline announcing “Atomic Bomb on Japan. Huge Blast Effect”.

“An atomic bomb, with more power than 20,000 tons of TNT and producing a blast 2,000 times greater than the largest bomb previously used, was dropped on Hiroshima (Japan) today,” the correspondent in Washington wrote. “This is the first of many that will be used to complete the destruction of Japan.”

There was no mention of the damage done, or the lives lost.

The following day’s Sydney Morning Herald headline announced that the bomb “May End War. Big Possibilities in Peace”, but its editorial reflected considerable anxiety about this new weapon.

The first atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan has done far more than wreck the city of Hiroshima. It has shaken civilisation to its foundations ... If the invention of gunpowder revolutionised the art of war, the release of atomic power may very well, in time, spell the very end of war itself: either that or the human family is doomed to perish by its own hand.

Such concerns were far from the minds of those Australians still at the front. They were focused on the prospect that this new weapon would win the war. Victory could not come quickly enough for the men of the 8th Battalion, who were still engaged in a difficult and dangerous fight against an aggressive Japanese force in north Bougainville.

“Morale of the troops was raised considerably by the news of the first Atomic Bomb being dropped on Japan,” it was recorded in the battalion’s war diary on 8 August. “Bets are being taken for the day of Japan’s surrender.”

It took weeks, even months, before the real level of damage and destruction in Hiroshima were known to Australians and the international community. By 23 August The Sydney Morning Herald, quoting a Tokyo report, carried news that the death toll in Hiroshima was 60,000 people; another 60,000 had died instantly at Nagasaki, it said. In her essay, “‘The world was black’: initial Australian reactions to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, Kay Saunders noted that journalists knew that “slow lingering deaths ensued from radiation”, but “could not find the words to define or describe the dimensions of suffering ... Certainly no images of the damage to human beings was produced in Australian newspapers in 1945.”

But there was another group suffering, too: Australian prisoners of war, many of them starving in prisons and camps throughout Asia, captives of the Japanese.

Former prisoner Hugh Clarke believed that if the bomb had not been dropped, he would surely have been killed by the Japanese when the Allies invaded the home islands – two massive invasions were being planned, for the island of Kyushu in November 1945 and Honshu in March 1946.

“There was a directive by the Japanese high command that all prisoners were to be eliminated at a certain date [if Japan was invaded],” Clarke told The Independent Monthly in an interview before the 50th anniversary of the bombings.

Clarke was working in a naval dockyard in the Japanese port city of Fukuoka when the bombs were dropped. He said that while he did not know what had occurred, after the first bomb hit Hiroshima on 6 August, “the behaviour of our guards changed ... They stopped bashing us, for a start, and they were pre-occupied among themselves.” Before then, the Japanese had shown no signs that they would be likely to surrender; blanket bombing of the country by the Americans seemed only to strengthen their resolve to fight to the finish.

“They were training women and children to fight with sharpened bamboo sticks and I am quite convinced they would have fought to the last man if there was an invasion,” Clarke said. “Suddenly a whole bloody city was obliterated, they [the Japanese] were absolutely stunned. In the circumstances, it had to be something incomprehensible to the Japs to make them stop. They could not comprehend it; well, we couldn’t either.”

In the decades since the bombs were dropped, debate has raged about the morality of using such a weapon of indiscriminate power, and whether it was necessary to end the war. Back in 1945, Australians were not immune to feelings of unease about atomic power, but there seemed little question about the need for something drastic to be done to bring the bloody fighting to a close. But for the following 40 years of the Cold War, the spectre of nuclear power made very real the possibility of MAD – mutually assured destruction – and shaped politics on both sides of the Iron and Bamboo Curtains.

More information

Two soldiers returning from patrol

Two soldiers returning from patrol to Patrol Base Razaq.

The AWM has recently acquired a significant set of photographs taken by photographer Gary Ramage in Afghanistan in 2010. Photographs such as these, of Australian Defence Force personnel on patrol ‘outside the wire’ in Afghanistan, are a first for the AWM. 

For visiting media, commissioned artists and photographers, the ADF generally permit only a few days on the ground, usually in the relative safety of established bases, and they are escorted at all times by an officer from Defence Public Affairs. These measures help protect the safety of the visiting journalist and our ADF troops, but limit access to the work the ADF is doing in the more remote areas of Uruzgan Province.

The newly formed Mentoring Team Delta (MT-D), as part of the ADF 1st Mentoring Task Force (MTF-1), began operations in the Deh Rawood Valley Region (otherwise known as the Deh Rawood Green Zone), approximately 60km west of Tarin Kowt in July 2010. Key to these operations was the mentoring of the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade, 205 Corps.

The Company was based at Patrol Base Razaq, its first priority being the movement of stores, equipment and supplies, and the establishment of security points. Ramage accompanied MT-D on several patrols in the Deh Rawood region focussing on the crucial task of clearing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from the area.

Members of MT-D, and their explosive detection dog, clearing the area of IEDs

Members of MT-D, and their explosive detection dog, clearing the area of IEDs

Soldier with mine sweeper

Previously a member of 6RAR, and a long serving military photographer with the ADF’s 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit, Ramage is afforded the freedom that many other photographers aren’t when in Afghanistan. As such, we are given a rare insight into the harsh and primitive living conditions experienced by Australian personnel at remote base locations.

Mentoring Team Delta made their way from Tarin Kowt, to Patrol Base Razaq via an overnight stop at Forward Operating Base Hadrian. You can see in this small series, the rough sleeping conditions endured by the unit; wedging themselves between the fortified HESCO wall and the solid bulk of their bushmaster patrol vehicles.

Overnight accommodations at Forward Operating Base Hadrian

Overnight accommodations at Forward Operating Base Hadrian

En route to PB Razaq via an overnight stop at FOB Hadrian.

En route to PB Razaq via an overnight stop at FOB Hadrian.

These photographs also show us the dangers that landscape and environment pose on Australian and Afghan troops. A single patrol route can cover ground that takes them from the sweeping, exposed landscape of the desert mountain ranges, to the dense, vegetation of the green zone in the lower valleys, each terrain posing differing threats and security risks. Patrols often pass through small villages and inhabited areas in the green zone, which is a rich agricultural area. The inherent vulnerability of the patrol group is emphasized by the backdrop of the towering mountain expanses.

Looking over the Deh Rawood valley

Looking over the Deh Rawood valley

Patrol vehicles heading down into the valley from the patrol base

Patrol vehicles heading down into the valley from the patrol base

A patrol leaving Patrol Base Razaq

A patrol leaving Patrol Base Razaq

Patrolling the fertile 'green zone'

Patrolling the fertile 'green zone'

Between June and August 2010, whilst Ramage was in Afghanistan, MTF-1 was to suffer the deaths of 6 of its members, several from IED explosions and one in the Battle of Derapet. This collection of images puts into perspective the conditions faced by ADF troops in Afghanistan every day and we get an insight into how troops on the ground cope with and commemorate the loss of their comrades.

Commemoration to sappers Snowy and Smitty

Commemoration to sappers Snowy and Smitty

Gary Ramage served 20 years with the Australian Army and was the chief photographer when he left. He is now Chief Photographer for News Limited at the National Press Gallery in Canberra. He travelled to Afghanistan independently.

This acquisition will greatly enhance the Memorial’s growing collection of material related to current conflicts. You can view the photographs online at: /advanced-search


It has become known as Australia’s blackest night.

On 19 July 1916, the troops of the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions attacked a strong German position, at the centre of which stood the Sugar Loaf salient, near the small French village of Fromelles. The overnight assault – the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front – was mainly intended as a diversion to draw German troops away from the Somme offensive further south.

The attack failed, and losses were great: the 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 killed and wounded; the 61st British Division suffered 1,547.

A Victorian farmer, Sergeant Simon Fraser, was a member of the 57th Battalion AIF – one of the 5th Division not in the initial “hop over” that night, but who were present throughout the battle of Fromelles. In a letter home dated 31 July 1916, Fraser tells of the battle, its preparations and its aftermath.

“I have been through the mill and came out without a mark,” Fraser wrote, “except for scratched hands through cutting and putting up wire entanglements. “I have been in the trenches since the 10th ... for the first ten days, we were in Hell, bombardments of high explosives and shrapnel from both sides every day, but two nights in particular were ‘horries’.”

Fraser was sent out over several nights before the main attack “to get the barb wire ready for the charge over”. He had become something of an expert in cutting through the enemy entanglements, and was told he would be Mentioned in Despatches for his work – “though why I don’t know, but it is satisfactory to know that you have been appreciated.”

The 57th Battalion were “supporting” when the charge was made, he wrote, “and had to hold our old line; the battalions who went over, met with too hot a reception and suffered severely; the distance was too far: when we came up the artillery was mixing things up a bit; high explosives and shrapnel were flying everywhere. The bombardment kept up all night and a good few of my mates passed out that night; so far, three of my section have been killed and two wounded badly out of twelve.”

When the battle was over, Fraser and others began the dangerous and difficult task of retrieving the wounded from no man’s land. “I must say Fritz treated us very fairly, though a few were shot at the work,” he wrote. “Some of these wounded were game as lions and got rather roughly handled, but haste was more necessary than gentle handling and we must have brought in over 250 men by our company alone...It was no light work getting in with a heavy weight on your back especially if he had a broken leg or arm and no stretcher bearer was handy. You had to lie down and get him on your back then rise and duck for your life with the chance of getting a bullet in you before you were safe.”

 Sergeant Simon Fraser, 57th Battalion AIF, wrote home about the battle of Fromelles

Over three days the men made these missions to no man’s land, looking and listening for those still alive. “One foggy morning in particular I remember, we could hear someone, over towards the German entanglements calling for a stretcher bearer; it was an appeal no man could stand against so some of us rushed out and had a hunt,” Fraser wrote.

“We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in, but it was not where I heard this fellow calling so I had another shot for it and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wiggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh: he was about 14 stone weight [90 kilograms] and I could not lift him on my back, but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 yards [27 metres] out sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.”

Fraser was not decorated for his great courage in retrieving the wounded from the battlefield; his efforts were just part of what had to be done. However, his heroism has since been recognised in a sculpture of him by artist Peter Corlett that stands in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles. More recently a copy of the sculpture was unveiled on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road.

The Victorian farmer never returned home: he was killed at the second battle of Bullecourt on 12 May 1917, aged 40. His body was not found.

One of the more unusual items to be found in the Memorial's collection is the item shown above. It was purchased by an Australian soldier, Eric Keast Burke, while he was serving with 'D' Troop, ANZAC Wireless Squadron in Baghdad, Mesopotamia in 1918-1919 and was originally identified  as a piece of an ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablet.

 Eric Keast Burke

Demonstrating the strong interest in archaeology and architecture he developed while serving in Mesopotamia, Burke collected a number of other items there: A fragment of tile from an unknown shrine in Baghdad; a piece of coarse marble from the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh; basalt he thought might have come from the sacred way in Babylon; and black pitch used as mortar in 'Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon' (possibly Nebuchadnezzar II who ruled from 605 to 562 BCE).

When I first saw this item and held it, I was pretty excited. To hold something so ancient was a thrill and Burke may have felt the same way. However, I knew there was always the possibility it was not a real antiquity so I contacted an expert in cuneiform tablets at the British Museum, who, after studying several images of the item, noted that some of the script seemed to be the wrong way round. He also noted that the surface was curved and looked as if it could have come from a cylinder rather than a tablet. Cylinders were generally used for royal inscriptions and were carefully inscribed - this item was not and after further assessment he confirmed it is a fake.

Eric Keast Burke with the ruins of a lion standing over a prostrate man roughly carved in black basalt, 1919.

Strangely enough this did not disappoint me. In fact I thought it was an even more interesting item. Fake tablets have been made and sold in Mesopotamia since the early nineteenth century, when the area was 'rediscovered' by archaeologists, diplomats and tourists. While not as large as the famous Egyptian trade in fake antiquities, the trade in fake 'Babylonian' tablets was still a decent money earner - especially during the war, when thousands of soldiers made their way through Mesopotamia. This 'Babylonian tablet' certainly is one of the more unusual souvenirs collected during the war and despite not being a genuine antiquity it is still one of my favourites.

Soldiers explore the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Mesopotamia c 1919.

On Saturday 10 July 1911, King George V gave his approval for the Commonwealth Naval Forces to become known as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). One hundred years have now passed since this event. To celebrate the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy, the reports of proceedings for fifty RAN ships and establishments are being made available online via the Australian War Memorial's website. This is part of an ongoing project to digitise the Official Records series, AWM78 Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships and Establishments.

Some of the 166 boxes of AWM78

Within these pages, some of the history of the Royal Australian Navy and its activities since 1939 is revealed. These reports of proceedings were submitted by Commanding Officers of RAN ships, administrative units and shore establishments. Depending on the creating agency, these files cover promotion tests; mess activities; accounting; training; exercises; social events; arrival and departures from ports; visits; official calls; operations; weather conditions and outstanding incidents. There is also a very brief summary of the performance of the ship's machinery and other systems. Some also include photographs and newspaper articles.

A selection of files from AWM78

The digitisation of AWM78 is currently being undertaken by the Research Centre. This project began with a pilot project to scan the files of HMAS Perth on 9 January 2009. HMAS Sydney, HMAS Vampire and HMAS Vendetta followed in quick succession. Since then, we have steadily been working our way through the remainder of the series in alphabetical order. To date, 25 191 images from this series have been scanned and are available online. The files for each new ship or establishment will be released online on a regular basis according to when they are scanned. The final figure for the project is expected to result in about  300 000 images.

Scanning the AWM78 files

While searching through the Memorial’s Research Centre collection looking for stories relating to the upcoming exhibition on nurses I came across the collection of Sister Beryl Maddock (nee Chandler), containing a typed memoir, newspaper clippings, letters and a scattering of photographs. Beryl’s story stood out to me as she was one of a small number of nurses selected to join the RAAF's newly formed Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit in 1944. As a nurse in the air rather than on the ground, Beryl’s wartime experience combined regular nursing duties with airsickness, altitudes of up to 18,000 feet, anoxia and medic pilots who wished they had been fighter pilots (and flew as such).

 As a nursing student in 1939 when war broke out, Chandler watched with some frustration as her colleagues left to join the Australian Army Nursing Service while she stayed behind to complete her training. Off marched her friends Sisters Florence Trotter, Joyce Tweddell, and Pearl Mittelheuser. These girls left for active service and for a wildly different wartime experience to Beryl, however their paths were to cross again at the end of the war. In 1941, after completing her training, it was suggested to Beryl that she apply to join the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service and after a series of applications and interviews she was, to her delight, accepted in May of 1942.

   Northern Australia. Sister Beryl Chandler of Longreach, Qld, at the Medical Receiving Station RAAF with the mascot of the station, a wallaby named "Josie" and a patient, an officer of the RAN.

Northern Australia. Sister Beryl Chandler of Longreach, Qld, at the Medical Receiving Station RAAF with the mascot of the station, a wallaby named "Josie" and a patient, an officer of the RAN.

Beryl’s memoirs record a lively introduction to defence nursing as she acclimatised to sleeping on a bed made of hay, cold showers and the camaraderie of life in the RAAF. It was while working as Sister in Charge at the Air Base in Narromine in 1944 that Beryl heard about a plan to train nurses for medical air evacuations. The idea of being a ‘Flying Sister’ appealed to her and so she applied, and was one of the 25 nurses accepted to No. 1 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (MAETU)- the first of its kind in the RAAF.  After their establishment in 1944, RAAF Medical Air Evacuation Transport Units flew in and out of combat zones taking in supplies and returning with patients, proving vital in rescuing seriously ill and wounded servicemen. By September 1945 Beryl’s initial unit, No. 1 MAETU, which was based at Nadzab in New Guinea, had carried 14, 209 patients since its formation in March of 1944. The use of MAETU were particularly important in relation to New Guinea where an enemy controlled sea coast and the rigours of land travel made medical evacuations time consuming and dangerous. For the nurses, this type of work brought them ever closer to the front line and introduced a new series of challenges. 


A rigorous training course for the ‘Flying Sisters’ had to be undertaken before deployment. This included everything from weapons handling, jungle and ocean survival as well as how to cope with psychotic patients and patients with brain injuries and lung damage at changing altitudes. 


Perhaps the most memorable deployment for Sister Chandler as a member of MAETU came in September of 1945. With the war with Japan ending in August of that year, there were roughly 14,000 Australian Prisoners of War awaiting repatriation in the South West Pacific and on the 13th of September Sister Chandler found her name listed among the MAETU crew whose primary mission was to locate and repatriate a group of missing Australian Army nurses- including many of the girls she had originally trained with. Seeing the names of her friends on lists of Prisoners of War, and reading reports of atrocities such as the Banka Island massacre and the sinking of the hospital ship Vyner Brooke in 1942 added a personal element to her involvement in the search. However upon landing at Palembang on the 15th September, Sister Chandler and her crew found that many of the remaining Japanese either could not or would not provide information as to the whereabouts of the missing nurses. Finally, working from the tip of a Mother Superior who had been in contact with some of the missing women, Chandler and her crew left for Lahat and on the 16th of September 1945 were reunited with the nurses, including Banka Island Massacre survivor Vivian Bullwinkel. On the flight out of Lahat Beryl writes that she remembers checking the list of missing nurses against her new charges and asked one what her name was. The woman replied ‘Chan, you have to be kidding, I am Tweddell’. Due to the physical deterioration during her years as a POW- Beryl had been completely unable to recognise her friend Joyce Tweddell from their training days only a few years earlier. Similarly, Beryl’s memoirs detail a bittersweet reunion with her friend Florence Trotter, and her feelings upon learning the news that Pearl Mittelheuser had died only a few weeks before. A joyful photograph from her collection shows Chandler, Trotter and Tweddell embracing upon their return to Brisbane, their arms full of flowers. Her flying log book for that day, however, reads simply: ‘RESCUE OF NURSES – Palembang Lahat, Sumatra.’

 Flying log entry for the date the POW nurses were rescued.

Beryl’s memoirs record many other adventures with MAETU, including a patient who chewed through the electric wiring of the plane whilst in flight and the loss of a colleague, Flight Sister Marie Craig who died after her plane disappeared in September of 1945. (The wreckage of F/Sister Craig’s plane was recovered 25 years later when the crash site was spotted on the side of a 14,100ft mountain in the Carstensz Ranges in Indonesian Papua.)  She braved nights stranded with her crew in thick jungle and slept in a (vacated) Sultan’s bed while stopping over in Singapore- requiring a ladder to get into it. She nursed soldiers suffering burns, gunshot wounds and terrible shock. She assisted with the repatriation of a young soldier who, as a prisoner of war had had his back broken as punishment for trying to smuggle rice into his boots and another whose legs were amputated in a POW camp, using only a solid punch as means of anaesthetic.

  During her experience as a ‘Flying Sister’, Beryl Chandler/ Maddock felt the camaraderie, joys and sorrows of service and found herself facing the same challenges that seem to appear for many defence force nurses, treating patients returning from active service bearing the physical and mental wounds that only a war zone can seem to inflict. In a note toward the end of her memoirs Beryl writes ‘we who have had the privilege of serving with the RAAF feel a great deal of pride... and congratulate all who have served and are serving today with the RAAF and wish it the great future we know lies ahead.’

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