TED HARDY SERVED WITH THE 9th AUSTRALIAN DIVISION ENGINEERS IN NORTH AFRICA.
I was born over here at Columbia Bay, it was in the scrub, northern 22 that was scrub. The old man was a painter. He had a painting contract, a pretty big business apparently and he got lead poisoning. A lot of them did in those days because they used to mix their own paint and he went to the scrub to recover. He had a little dairy with half a dozen cows and two horses, a bit of a milk run and a horse bus that used to run from Sutherland Station down to Columbia Bay. I remember the horses. He got the first licence when the government licensed the bus runs. All the little bus runs were family concerns. He had to submit a timetable which no-one took any notice of. Out in the bush, most of his customers on the weekend were blokes from the railway down to the ? there, little fishing shacks. My grandfather was the stationmaster at Sutherland. There was a slaughterhouse there, at slaughterhouse Creek would you believe. I remember my father got a job painting the picket fence around the cemetery, painting it white.
Did you have brothers & sisters?
Yes, 3 sisters. Jane died 18 months back, she was the eldest. Doris died quite a few years back, she was the one younger than me. There was Jane, myself, Doris, Gordon – he’s in Victoria, and Lottie and she’s around here.
Did you have a happy childhood?
The usual I suppose. Ran around ragged, in the scrub. Had fights at school.
Did you play much sport at school?
No, not as such. When we moved from Sutherland, we went to Carlton (?), stayed there for a couple of years then went to Bexley (?) when I was about 8 or so. Sport there was swimming on a Friday afternoon. The kid next door to me, Billy Keeble (?) he was a couple of years older than me, we used to go across the Bexley Gulley and walk up the railway right up to the East Hills, it was all scrub, up through Kings Grove. 100 yards beyond the railway embankment you were in the scrub. It’s really built up now.
Did your father enlist in the First World War?
He went to enlist but they rejected him on medical ground. I don’t know what.
What made you join up?
I was working at a little factory in Scarborough.
When did you leave school?
At 14. Went to work up at the nursery, Fryers Nursery. It’s not there now, there’s houses on it now. I was there for about 11 months. It was quite big business with 3 delivery trucks. Most of the trucks round the country had an offsider, a lad who’d load and unload. A mate of mine got a job at a little engineering factory in Scarborough. He was getting 12 and 6 and I was only getting 10 shillings. So I wandered down there and knocked on the door and this big, solid bloke opened it and snarled â€œWhat do you want? I said â€œI want a job, and he said â€œWait! and he slammed the door. That was young Hobbs as they called him, the boss’s son. Then he said â€œRight, start in the morning. I said â€œAt 12 and 6, and he went crazy.
But you got the 12 and 6?
Yes. I was working in the assembly, where they were screwing the nuts onto the bolts, making nuts and bolts. He had 5 automatic machines. Little brass screws for light switches, external pins, knobs for external windows, that sort of thing. When the war got going round Dunkirk, June 1940.
You would have been 18 then?
One Thursday or Friday, I just said â€œI think I’ll go and enlist and he said â€œAlright then, good. Old Harry George, he was a sergeant in WW1, he was a good bloke. Very stern, but a very good bloke to work for. He didn’t take any nonsense. No-one did then.
What did your parents think about you joining up?
They thought I wouldn’t be accepted. Thought I’d be too young at 17 and a half. I went down to Martin Place and there were lines of blokes, there was a patriotic flavour I suppose.
What made you want to join up?
I don’t know. It was just something.I could tell people I wanted a free bus pass after the war!
Do you think it was the prospect of a bit of adventure?
I suppose. I can’t say I gave it much thought. Young Bert, he’s a week younger than me, he done the same thing, put his age up round about the same time. I put myself down as 21. The sergeant said â€œBuzz off! You’re too young! So I went round and altered my age to 19, went into a different line, and the next guy said â€œPiss off and go and do some work, so I went round again and noticed that they were changing shift, so I altered my age again and said 21 again and this guy with WW1 ribbons on his chest said â€œAlright then, if you say so. There were quite a few of us doing that. There was Curly Walker, another one of Joe’s blokes. Then off to training, to Greta. It was a coal mining district then, near Newcastle. The training camps were up there. June 3 to August 30, less than 3 months training. Square bashing, root marches usually when it was dark and raining, a communist plot to make life miserable I reckon!
It wasn’t much fun.
Nah. We dug some rifle pits but we never did any shooting. Never saw a machine gun. Got a bit of instruction in explosives.
When did you join the Engineers?
I was sent over as reinforcement. The lieutenant, forget his name now, he was a sound effects expert for Cine Sound News. He was a great bloke. He was ragged and untidy and his hair stuck out.
This was at training?
Yeah at Greta. He taught us how to put a detonator in a bucket of geli and gave us lectures on different charges.
So it sounds like you’d been ear marked for the engineers then?
Well, it was just this particular bloke had to recruit so many people for the field companies today. Tomorrow he may have been picking people for the artillery.
It was that random.
You never knew.
You shipped out on 30 August. Did you get any leave before that?
We got 8 days, no 10 days.
Were you sorry to be going?
Well, that’s where the troops were going.
Presumably this was your first time on a big ship?
Yeah, first time on a ship apart from the Manley Ferry. The Old Aquitania, one of the sailor blokes was saying that when war was declared, he was on the Aquitania somewhere along the English coast somewhere, going from wherever it was berthed to the scrap yard
He’d signed on because they wanted a scratch crew for this trip and somewhere in the English Channel war was declared and he was told you are now on service, so it was turned into a troop carrier. But it was on its way to be scrapped. They took us to Bombay and swapped us onto the Orion. That was only half the size but it was another P & O ship. The Italians were still up there in Abyssinia and the Red Sea and that part of the world.
Can you remember much about that trip or was it just boring?
Just a bit boring. On the Aquitania we got out in the Indian Ocean and lo and behold we had our live firing exercise. This consisted of 10 rounds. You lined up along the rail and someone chucked a white tin or something over the side and watched it and when he shouted â€œRight you took aim and you fired your 10 rounds at the white thing bobbing in the distance.
Did you hit it?
You wouldn’t know. You’d be very lucky to get a hit, although I suppose the sheer volume of 20 rifles must’ve got a hit.
Did you have any other training on board?
Physical. They had these kapok balls and things that used to fly around. There must have been millions on board because it seemed like a half a dozen would go over board each day.
Were they heavy?
Yeah. Full of kapok, covered in leather. That was the gymnastics for the day.
Had you got some good mates by this time from training and so on?
Oh the usual you know. I was the odd one out because I was younger, but there were 20 to 30 year old blokes there. They was alright.
You went to Palestine first?
Yeah up through the Red Sea..
Through the canal?
No, not through the canal.I’ve got holes in my head, can’t remember the name of the place but we docked and got on a train and went up to Palestine.
Did you know where you were heading before you got there?
No. We thought England, but they stopped sending troops to England and sent us to the Middle East. We went to India and was transferred to the smaller boat, so there was only one place you could go. There were oodles of camps in Palestine, we went just north of Gaza. It was near Christmas time and we had Christmas there and it rained. This was called the 5th and 6th reinforcement group for the 2nd, 1st field company. That was a field company for 16 (??) As was the 2nd, 3rd but there was already a brigade that went to England and then Italy started to play up and any follow on troops went to the Middle East. It was roughly a brigade. Anyway it was Christmas 1940. We were training and that consisted of route marches over the hills and over the sand hills into that echelon; roman columns and so on. Just a little hollow in the middle of these great sand hills, which killed you to climb up and down. This was the idea of all these training camps; if you came out alive, you’re pretty alright.
Were you in tents at night?
Yeah. You dug your air raid trenches round there. While I was digging once I found this lump of clay and I thought it looked a bit funny, and I scrubbed it and it was a steel ball, like a cricket ball with a little hollowed out thing. I washed it and cleaned it and it was one of the old I suppose Turkish grenades. I don’t think we had them at that time. The most I’d seen was the infantry bloke with the Lewis gun and the rifle of course. And this looked like a grenade from WW1. It was still full of junk but the detonator had gone. We dug a trench system which on the WW1 pattern. Wide trenches and fire steps, totally unsuitable for modern times of course. In early January 41, we got split up into different field companies. It was that time that the troops from Britain came back. They’d come round the Cape. They didn’t come through the Med. The Italians had a terrific navy; they had something like 200 submarines I think. I was at Amaria (??) and a group of us were sent to the 2nd, 3rd field company.
So you’d finished your training in Palestine by then?
Well, trained up in a rough sort of a manner. I don’t think I was well-trained but I had a smattering. We were dumped at Amaria, just out of Alexandria, that was a WW1 Australian army camp too, with Tasmanians there, they’d come from England. They’d been sent to England, then they’d come on to the Middle East. They were part of the Australian Division.
Yeah. It was part of the 60th (??) but then some other brigade got put in to the 60th because they was over in England. We got off the train and got stuck into some tents and the first thing that happened was a dust storm came up. It was terrific, you couldn’t see nothing. Everyone just hollowed into their tent, pulled the blankets over their heads and just waited it out. It was so still and so clear. You could hear the wind sort of roaring and whistling and carrying on. The ground was bare, hard, all the loose stuff had gone. The new recruits had to go up in front of the major, Major Roosen (??). He was at a table with all his officers round him. His hat was regulation, square on his head, everyone else’s was out on the side of their head and such. He looked at me and he said â€œHow old are you? and I said â€œ21 Sir and he said â€œYou’re a bloody liar aren’t you? â€œYes Sir and he said â€œMr Taylor, he’s for you. I think Ray was a Water Board Engineer, but anyway he was a platoon lieutenant, so I went into that particular platoon. We got a move on, they’d sort of taken Badia and were moving on towards Tobruk. Actually I believe we were supposed to take part in the Tobruk business, but time and so on.
So what were you doing at this point?
Bridging, water, supply roads, mines, de-mining, wire, fortifications, general field engineering.
Did you find that quite interesting?
Well, yeah, but there wasn’t much sort of travelling. You were just following the mob. About 3 or 4 days after Tobruk fell, we arrived at the perimeter of the Tobruk area. There were still a lot of Eyetie troops wandering around, mainly political (??)people. They were waiting in groups or in compounds. They could have been waiting to move them out or whatever. There was masses of junk all over the place, weapons and such. We pulled up just below the junction of the Alambadia (??) roads. One boy pulled off and across the road was an Italian anti aircraft factory – the big 37’s, 88’s or whatever and that was just dug into a concrete pit. When we came back into Tobruk during the siege there was a gully that went down through there – well, there were lots of gullies of course and that was where our HQ was during the siege and the anti aircraft was in working condition.
So you just used their anti air craft position?
Yeah. There were some barracks dug into the side of the hill and our head quarters people were sort of in there and we were in dug outs round and about. Dig yourself a sleeping pit and make a little burrow. We went up the other side of the perimeter and were there for a week, 10 days doing some road repairs. The Navy had got stuck into some Italian road traffic at some time, and we were doing patch work on that and one of the other companies had come up later and there was a causeway there up this Durna end and it had been blown by the Italians. We had the job of repairing it which didn’t bother us because we were sent further up to Alamein. We drove on up Edjedabeer, up beyond Benghazi, 200, 300 miles west of..
That was right up in Syrenica.
You weren’t in Tobruk for long then?
Not at that time, that was after. We got pulled out of there. They split us up into sections. Different ones had different jobs to do.
Was it like an infantry battalion where you were split up into separate companies?
Yeah, 3 platoons to a field company.
Which one were you in?
Actually, it was 3 field companies to a division. You get 3 field companies to a division and a field par (??) which they ordered after New Guinea. After New Guinea the division was given another 4 company, given another field company and a mechanical company to go with the field par (??) because they found out in the tropics they needed more engineering capability and they cut down on the units they didn’t need. So we had third seventh, third eighth, the 24 ? then we picked up the sixth second 16th field company. That was a corps field company. They’d seen action in Syria. That was after New Guinea.
In your training in Palestine, was that when you were shown how to de-mine and so on?
No. I didn’t have any ? mines as such for a long time, until after we’d come back from Benghazi. We were out in the desert somewhere and then Rommel started his big push and we had a job to disable water wells. It was a job we didn’t like doing. We shoved diesel down into the Arabs water wells and put a charge on there. Actually there was a big windmill – this huge underground cavern of water had a windmill and troughs TURNED TAPE OVER there were a couple of trucks wandering around the desert and we stopped them and they were Pommies. I don’t know what unit they were. We had a netter with them. It sounded like they’d been given a good shove and they were making their way to Benghazi. We said if you carry on this way to Benghazi, you’ll end up in Durban. There were 5 sections to a platoon, 3 platoons to the company. We trucked off through the night and got to Benghazi, and Corporal McLeary went into the army HQ to get some instructions. There was a character in there who was very stiff, he said he didn’t know anything about us, and said â€œI suggest you camp down the road a bit and come back in the morning and we might be able to sort you out.
Did you move around in trucks, 15cwt ones?
Yeah. When we were up in Djederbeer, we kept getting this information from different officers, mainly English intelligence officers – â€œThere are no German forces in North Africa, none at all – way up the road, we’d cleared some rubbish off the road and had checked out a little aerodrome for mines and was coming back to camp and there were a couple of little bumps, we had the tail board down and we always had someone in the back, hanging on like grim death and he yells â€œAir craft so we stopped and scattered and threw camouflage nets over but the back was open – canvas – one of these twin-engined Messerschmidts about this far off the ground. He was right on the road, if he’d put his wheels down he’d have run along the road. You could see him come up, he couldn’t miss. They’ve got that turret underneath and gave us a strafe as they went past.
Was the truck a write off?
No. The tyres were flat, the windscreen was gone, the driver’s cushions were shredded, torn to pieces where Billy Witherall would’ve been sitting. He was a Victorian bloke, I’m sure he had a compass for a brain. He was a terrific bloke. The oil thing was punctured, but surprisingly the radiator wasn’t burst. In the back of the truck we had a 40 gallon drum of petrol and some character had taken his webbing equipment off and dumped it on the top of that and chucked his rifle on top, and that was 30 yards up the street. His rifle was lying on the other corner of the truck and the drum wasn’t hit at all. So we scratched around for spare parts from other trucks. None of our trucks had spare tyres.
That was your first contact with the Germans?
Oh yeah. It was all rather frightening, and sudden. After that we sort of expected it. Where we were camped it was on a bit of a run where they used to come from Benghazi aerodrome. They’d be down low and coming back they’d hit everything that moved. Our little camp just happened to be in the way. After we got out of Benghazi we went to Baas (??) and there were big Italian ammunition storage places and they were all getting blown up and were on fire. Seen the old Major standing there by the side of the road with his ? flapping around and bruised. We congregated and got back together again. I don’t know whether it was sheer luck or what but our section was drawn to blow the second charges out and all these trucks were coming down the road. Another platoon was across the top of the escarpment. That was where the 3rd 8 (??) Italian were scratching around. There was a minefield and a railway coming from Baas up to the top and they blew that. Then we got pulled out of that and made our way back into Tobruk. We were there for a day or so. We didn’t get blow that, someone else got to do that. This must have been around May 41 I suppose. The Engineers HQ was ambushed just out of Baas. We lost a few, plus some from another platoon and got shook about pretty badly. I think there was the colonel, me, the major and a few officers and blokes managed to wriggle up to the road and then walk back down between the road and the coast line towards Tobruk. That was quite a little epic in the Engineers history. Then there was the Magnificent 9 (??).
Most of these books are easy to get hold of. You just have to be sure you get your facts right.When you were out in the desert, you must have got to handle all sorts of mines didn’t you?
Well, one of my first actual mines, the first time, near Benghazi, the green mountain. You’re in the desert and you suddenly come across this expanse of greenery. It takes a load off the old peepers. One of the blokes had lifted an Italian mine, they lift them up and open them and take out the D cap, the detonator, a bronze piece that’s dropped down into a hollow, the primer, like a rifle primer. About so long and so square and had a couple of port holes (??). They had TNT blocks packed in either end and springs with a wire stretched across. They had a striker on and of course a cutter in the lid that went down through that and cut the wire and the striker just whacked into this D cap each end and it opens up onto the charge TNT. And they had a couple of coiled springs to hold the lid up. It was solid and quite effective. That was the first time I saw one. They had quite a few minefields round the perimeter. The first job is to mine and you’ll find a reference in the book there of a platoon of Engineers setting the Commonwealth record of setting 5,000 (??) mines in 24 hours. That was 3 platoon, 2nd, 3rd Company.
That was you?
Yeah. Most of the mines there were the Egyptian local made stuff, the round ones, they were anti tank. They could have been personnel too. The British mine was a round mine about 3inches deep. They had a little steel tube that went into the middle and that was packed with gelignite. That was crimped on. The top was crimped on I think. There was a lump of steel about 2 or 3 inches and that used to press down on the this here where the detonator was and they had a hole drilled through it and a panel pin I think, a long, skinny nail stuck through it and then the top was a cover plate held down by 4 straps of hoop iron I guess. The lid was such that there was sort of no spring, it was just sort of sitting there and the pin sheered when the pressure come off it. The detonator was a turned wooden thing with a detonator on the end and was bound on with ? it looked like brown tape. They put a little glass ampoule of something, probably phosphorous I guess. You dropped that into your detonator and seal the top with something that looked like putty, just to waterproof it and hold it in, but you don’t press it too hard because you’re dealing with a commercial detonator. Then slide that in your tube and there’s just a bit of a steel clip that went round it. Pretty crude but effective and made locally.
So the process of laying a mine would be, you clear a bit of space in the sand, lower it in, cover it over, get the detonator ready and cover it over with a loose film of sand on the top?
Yeah. The Australians set up a mine school in Britain. Apparently at that time the British Army did not have a mine school as such. There were a lot of strange things about the Pommies and the Europeans.anyway, they were pretty cluey, but I never knew a thing about them until I saw that Italian one lying out there..you de-louse them, lift it up and just dropyou might take them in or you might leave them stacked out on the road depending on the circumstances. It’s always a dangerous situation to de-louse mines and it’s not a happy situation to lay them either. You’re dealing with explosives and they’re excitable.
Did you find it a nerve wracking experience laying mines?
It’s a matter of system. When you go along there, the NCO sets his pointup until that time there were 2 rows of mines. All the Italian mines were 2 rows, staggered of course and the English system was based on 2 rows, minefields. Let’s say he goes 5 paces and scrapes a hole and so on and so on. This other bloke goes 3 paces, it was either 3 or 5 I can’t remember. Anyway, you ended up with staggered rows.
You had to be very careful about not stepping on ones that have just been laid don’t you?
On new ground it’s alright. You lay your minefield for a tactical defensive weapon. You lay them but sometimes people don’t like you laying them, and then you get some violence exacted. Then you have to do a lot at night as well and you get some stupid idiot who’s the other side of the fence and decides to shoot a few flares over the top of you. Sometimes it’s a matter of system and routine. You might get the job of digging it, then we get the truck moving down, then you get the job of lifting the mine off the truck and putting it into the.usually the NCO comes along and fuses it and chucks the dirt over it and moves onto the next one. You might put markers out, you might put a barbed wire line of pickets out, tank traps or whatever.
How long were you at Tobruk?
The 2nd 3rd we lost about 30 blokes in the Benghazi Handicap as they called it. It wasn’t very well handled although we didn’t know it at the time. We used to form up and the officers would give you a rendezvous for nightfall. You’d go about your various tasks, demolition or mining or whatever
Once you got to Tobruk, you stayed for quite a long time didn’t you?
Yeah. We came out on HMS Comet (??) at night. It was rather battered, had dents in the sides and that. There was a guy leaning on the rail with a beard and a pipe in his mouth. He said â€œWe got that dent in bloody Naarvik (??) and it’s been there ever since. We’ve only had one boiler clean since Naarvik. The destroyers were worked pretty hard.
When was that?
November 41. Just before the Crusader Campaign. Maybe a week or 10 days before. We got off at Alex and then went back to the camp at Amaria and we had huge feeds of fresh food, beef, vegetables and fresh water and everyone was violently ill. I stood under the showers for an hour. Great long rows of showers with water pouring out of them. We was on double rations
Why were you taken to Amaria?
It was just a stage. There was a railway siding. It was an Australian camp from WW1 I think. We got off the boat late afternoon and the idea was to have a clean up and a feed and get on the train to Palestine. That luxury was no good for desert Indians, not fresh food, it nearly killed us! We were there for 3 or 4 days. There were a dozen camps up that road.
When did you go back to the desert?
We went up there..we were up there a couple of weeks and then they shot us up to Syria. We went up to some god forsaken place near Damascus. I had 5 days leave in Damascus. I have an idea it was north of Damascus towards the Turkish border. The old major who was by then a lieutenant colonel, rumour has it, was taken by a Turkish border patrol.
Were they killed?
No, they got back and nothing much was said about it. Christmas there, we had this huge snow blizzards. Cor! did it snow. We thought â€˜snow isn’t that fantastic after 12 months in the desert’ but phewin January, they sent us down to Tripoli on the coast that was doing concrete pill boxes and tank traps developing a defensive line across there to cover the oil refineries in preparation against an incursion from Germany through Turkey. We were up in the big French barracks above Tripoli. We had teams of labourers and local contractors. We were doing supervisory work. If they were meant to bring 10 bags of cement in, we made sure they did and didn’t steal any. It was pretty good. They were terrific defence works – pill boxes, artillery positions and anti tank gun positions all covered with 2 foot of concrete. You couldn’t see half of them. Then in June, old Rommel got stuck in and (we went ? maybe he means Rommel??) up to Gisala
So all your pill boxes and so on were over run?
No this was in Syria. Then he came down and took Tobruk.
So you were still in Syria when he took Tobruk?
Yeah. A man says â€œThe Huns taken Tobruk – group silence.
You were all gob smacked?
Pretty soon after that, you moved out of Syria?
Things continued with the concreting and so on, then one morning we were told, pack your gear up, we’ve got to be out of here in 20 minutes. And we were!
After 7 months in Syria?
June or early July 42. We drove all the way down by road to Amaria. We were across the road from the original camp. Rommel had given them all a big fright. He was down at Mosa (??). It was busy. There were aircraft coming in there, light bombers and fighters, continuous streams of them. What’s the name of the rail siding there.
Did it give you confidence seeing all the aircraft there?
Well, I suppose but like it says in the book, there was aircraft but they was always the wrong ones!
Did you ever think that Rommel would push you all the way out of Egypt?
It was never a thought. It was just a matter of keeping going. It just shows you the political interference and so on. If they’d just reinforced their forces in Libya and kept going they would have ? the Italians out of North Africa instead of making political promises to
You went back to the desert?
Yeah, stayed in Amaria for a day or 2 and then went up to Alamein by trucks, yes, not far from Alamein. We camped in a place we called Hurricane Flats. (Could be flacks?) The aircraft we could hear coming back, short of ammo and fuel probably. They’d come in low, sweeping down the gullies and the Messerschmidts would be hanging around and picking them off like corks on a pigeon. This was where Rommel was heading when he.Alam Halfa. Where we were, this was where he would’ve come out onto the main road..
So you reached Alamein and then it must have been busy.? You were saying something about Alam Halfa..
Yeah, when Rommel made a dash for Alam Halfa..they was governed by these big escarpments and where we were camped to start with was where he would’ve come to if he’d kept coming on the main road to Alex. It was a sort of natural thing. We got sent up..not quite opposite Alamein Station, a mile or so up the road. That Hill of Jesus that was more or less the start of it. The South African mob sort of checked him there and paid dearly for it too.
What was your principal role then?
Mines and digging trenchesNEXT TAPE.we had the jack hammers out, spades and big picks. We put up wire, mine fields at night, some in the day. Our platoon put in a couple of big mine fields and when things quietened down there were a couple of counter attacks that some of the other companies were wrapped up in, so we were clearing enemy mine gaps.
There was fighting on and off all the time wasn’t there?
Oh yeah. There were a couple of sizeable battles at Alamein. The first one proved to both sides that they were both exhausted.
How much of the battles did you actually see? Were you being mortared and shelled while you were actually laying mines?
Sometimes. You’d get a few shells and maybe some long range small arms fire. A bit of sniping. I’d say about 30% of the time.
Did you just carry on regardless?
It depended on the circumstances.
Did you find all this frightening or did you just get used to it?
You get a dirty great shell crashing round your ears it’s frightening but the average bloke adapts to the circumstances very quickly and most nationalities soldiers were on the same footing. They’re good you know. They haven’t gotthey don’t throw their rifle in a ditch and go screaming off to mama you know.
Did you have many casualties in that period?
Yeah a few. That section was doing a minefield and they copped itartillery fire that just came out of the blue. I think there was about 15 shells in all before they switched to other targets. Both sides used to do it, morning and evening, a couple on this post and a couple on that one.
Were you aware that there was a big build up of troops and equipment going on?
Yeah. You could see the troops coming. They give me a 30 cwt 6 wheeled Morris truck in Alamein. The Pommies had oodles of them, 4 wheel drive with a bogie and a winch on. I was driving around, it was classified as a stores truck, that’s mines. And Louis would say to blokes, what’s the latest rumours? They’d say – We’re going forward.we’re going on leavewe’re going home.! Take your pick!
So you were ferrying mines up to the front line?
Yeah. Mines, pickets, people, stores, wire, gun powder. That sort of thing.
Where were you billeted then? In holes in the ground?
Yeah, scattered. You’d dig yourself a sleeping pit.
And company HQ was a bit further back?
No, about half a mile further up. There were big sand hills there.
So were you quite sheltered?
Yeah but we got straffed. We had a 6 or 8 foot square that we’d sand bagged up about so high and we had a radio that someone had knocked off a German armoured wreck and some smart character.we had some really good blokes..we had it set up in the corner on a pole,
Like a radio mast?
It was just a wooden pole, about 10 footmaybe more. They put the radio on it and hung the wire up and put sand bags at the corners. Where we were, it was where the sand hills ran out and you could look out over the water. A couple of hundred yards further down, the sand hills sort of built up again. It was just a sort of little shell of flattened sand. So these 3 aircraft are coming in, fighter craft. This bloke turned and he’s heading for this little gap and I thought we were a gonna for a minute, but it was one of our blokes and he was in trouble. He’s trying to get between the sand hills and just as he’s coming in, one of the Messerschmidts fired a burst, and the pole fell over, shattered. The bloke’s got to go up because there’s nowhere else to go. There was a lot of dust and stuff and he kind of flipped over the ridge.
Was it a Hurricane?
Did he get away?
Well, these 2 characters circled a while but yeah, I reckon he lost them as soon as he got into the open desert. All the cartridges sprayed out of the tube.it was amazing.
This was just before Alamein was it?
Well it may have been about July. What was Alamein, November?
End of October.
Like you said, we saw the build up of stuff. The 51st Highland Division moved in alongside. They had NCO’s and some of our NCO’s went over there. Alamein was the first time that Engineers had their own radios. 2 to a platoon I think it was. Up til then we’d had to rely on other people’s systems. So that was good. They drew lots to see who was to go with the Scots. I thought I pity those poor signallers with the Scots – they didn’t speak English! They were great blokes. Their last action was Dunkirk and they took a fair loss and they were re-built.
What can you remember about the Battle of Alamein itself?
That artillery barrage that they talk about wasour company wasn’t directly involved the first night, but one of the battalions put on diversionary raids and people from our platoon blew the wire for this down near the railway. Pretty big German post there. About a week before, the whole platoon had done 5 patrols. That’s about the only time I remember the whole platoon operated as a platoon. Usually it operated in small groups. We were clearing mines at night.
That must have been hairy. How did you do it, with mine detectors?
We had a fair idea from the patrols. That was one thing the Australians were really good at was patrol. Even in Vietnam, even Korea. It was something we kept up that other units didn’t seem to do.
What was that, keeping tabs on the mine fields?
Yeah patrolling. Keeping up against the other bloke. Find out what he’s doing and where he’s doing it. Seeing if he’s digging in..
Presumably, you had to clear the mines you’d already laid didn’t you?
Not at that particular time. This first week they just extended the ? We cleared a couple of strings of mines then you’d swing around and come back and sweep the area and the next night they sort of extended down. The L wire I believe they just slammed an artillery barrage and it lifted you off your feet..it was so loud.
What were you doing that first night?
Standing on a sand hill, looking out. There was another party out with the (?) mob to do the road bit. Half a dozen of them to do clearance which we’d more or less done, but it’s always wise to check and that was just slightly before the main assault started. The idea is to make him think he’s getting a big kick in the teeth. Turned out it was a big raid. So I was up there in the sand hills. You felt sorry for them.
What was your role as the battle progressed?
The field company blew the first L (could he be saying OUR wire?) wire I believe. They cut it with cutters and hooked a tank on with grappling hooks and dragged so much out to clear a way through our minefield and once they hit the enemy stuff, they over run a couple of out posts to start with, a couple of listening posts. They were I suppose anywhere from 200 yards outtelephone line and what not and a couple or 3 blokes. Change a man every hour or change the 3 of them every 2 hours, same as we did, set up a sequence so you got a fresh bloke in there all the time. They didn’t last 2 minutes. The idea was to blow a hole in the wire and clear the mine field. There were all sorts of mines there.
So you were involved in this enemy mine clearing?
How do you know where they all are?
We had mine sweepers. We did have detectors but there was that much shrapnel.
How did you get round that?
Well, you can establish a pattern. Field engineering in most armies is fairly similar and they set their mines to a pattern.
Say you’ve located where a mine is, what’s the process of clearing it?
You’re down on your hands and knees and carefully unscrew the fuse.
How long does it take to deactivate a mine?
Well, you have a dozen blokes and it doesn’t take long. A German echelon had a safety gismo on it and you use your jack knife. They probably had a proper key. The manufactured ones weren’t no trouble. These Egyptian mines of ours, you open the clip and pull it out and check that the detonator hasn’t fallen off insidethings like that. The German Jumping Jack S model, they had a prong on them and coil detonators.
Where they harder to deactivate?
The wires were buried in the ground and all you’d get were these 3 little wire prongs. They were a bit harder. They had a safety pin through them and we carried a couple of dozen books of wire, straight pieces of wire with a loop. Once you’d identified it, you’d slide your wire in, bend it over so that replaces the safety pin and stops the pressure, then you can unscrew it. Then you could leave it. They had those types of mine which had a fitting in the bottom, that’s a different kettle of fish.
You must have had to have nerves of steel to do this? Especially as you were probably being shot at. Did you have many casualties at Alamein?
About a dozen out of the platoon.
It must have been pretty tiring. Did you get much sleep?
On a rotational basis. Most of these attacks were at night.
Most times you were clearing these mines at night?
So a line would be cleared at night for people to move through and they moved on and then during the day, you’d carry on clearing the rest of it. I understand what you were saying earlier about a pattern, but how could you see what you were doing? I can’t quite envisage how you were doing it. I suppose you just get used to it.
You just got used to it. Your eyes got used to it. You drive trucks at night with no lights. The desert was open mostly with clear skies, moon and stars. If someone’s put a mine together someone else can take it apart. You just get used to the different methods. Which screw to take out before this one. You get to know because the mine fields are similar to ours. You find a mine here, so there’s probably one there. You get this sympathetic detonation. If one goes off and another one’s too close, that goes off and that’s what governs the distance, so you can’t have them too close and that establishes the pattern.
This rotational system you mentioned, how long would you be on and off?
You’d normally start just before day break. They’d sort of dig in and get ready for counter attacks and re-charge. Alamein was 10 or 10.30 at night when they kicked off.
The pattern for the battle was the same for the whole duration of the battle was it?
Yeah, roughly. The line of advance was lined with a picket (?) either side of them. The minefield was marked with bicycle lights, thousands of them. They had kero tins with holes in them in a diamond shape. They had a green light and a red and otherwise they were white. They were about 20 feet apart.
What happened to you after Alamein?
Our last thing was the 43 battalion.we went between minefields.there were two parties, two lines of advancewe didn’t expect to find mines but we had a checking party just the same. These blokes were about 50 yards apart I suppose. In one truck there were stores and pickets and wire. Some mines, about 30 I suppose. These blokes were sticking the pickets in and we could hear a racket down where they were.sorry Jamie, I can make out words but he’s difficult to understand now, rambling a bitsee if we can dig them out, and the sergeant said no way, we are here for communication and we’re only to take action if we’re directly attacked. This mob reported in that they’d taken casualties and the vehicle was wrecked.Pioneer battalion was moving up and this bloke, this silly German gunner gave a couple of bursts and so the man stopped his Company and took them over and took 50 odd prisonersthere were pits which would not support the weight of the vehicles..somewhere along the line TURNED TAPE OVER.the other one down the front with a Louis and they tied into the Infantry network and that was the first time we had communication. I was quite pleased about that. We had things go out of action for various reasons, it’s dark and you’re spread out over 500 yards. The next night we blew the rails with sticky bombs, dug through the crossing. I went through it and across towards the road..the Infantry people used this tape a couple of inches wide..some German jumped out of the ditch and he was yelling and waving his rifle around and the Lieutenant shot him. I don’t know whether he was trying to give himself up. We went back the next night with a great load of mines. There was a command post with radio sets and various bits of junk lying around..ramble, rambleSouth Africans came down with anti tank guns and steel sided trucks with chains hanging all over them. The guns are bouncing about.
How far into the battle was this?
About the 10th day I should think. Right near the end. We went back to our camp. It was dug in half way between where they were and our original front line. We got there just in time to get breakfast and the next morning we pulled out, hit the main road and went to Darba (??) airfield. It wasn’t far. We checked the place out for mines and such like. We set up camp. The next day the sergeant and me and a couple of blokes.there was a bit of traffic trickling up thereAfrika Corps armoured division from the southburnt out tanks, characters hanging out, take a look inside and there was characters in there too.
Did you get used to seeing dead bodies?
Well, this particular scene was grim. The whole crew was just laying around. Wreckage everywhere. We headed back to the main road and there was so much traffic, heading up towards the desert, trucks, tanks, tank carriers as far as you could see each way, it was the 8th Army on the move. Solid.
Were you quite impressed by that sight?
Oh yeah. It was fantastic.
Did you feel we’d won?
Yeah. We came across this fellow with a red band on his hat in a scout car, a ferret. He carried a pistol and radio. He screams â€œGet that truck out of the road, you’ve got no right to be there. Someone replies â€œIt’s our bloody battlefield.
Did you ship out in January?
Yeah. We drove back to Palestine and had Christmas there and after Christmas we drove back down to Sinai, Ishmalia. They had big pontoon bridges. Went to a camp, drove our trucks into Egypt again and there were lines of trucks. There was a character there, an NCO with a clipboard. We had 2 Bedfords with the same number but I don’t suppose they would’ve worried about it.
Were you pleased to be leaving Africa and going back to Australia?
You put up with the conditions in the desert?
Oh yeah. Flies, fleas and air craft (?).
END OF TAPE sorry Jamie, he really started rambling towards the end didn’t he? Have done my best!! Hope it makes sense!!
TED HARDY SERVED WITH THE 9th AUSTRALIAN DIVISION ENGINEERS IN NORTH AFRICA.