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Kairouan, Tunisia. c. May 1943. Padre R. E. (Bob) Davies, RAAF Chaplain,
addresses a gathering of RAAF airmen from his service vehicle. [AWM MEC0338]
Transcript of Australian War Memorial
interview, conducted by former 3SQN Commanding Officer, AVM Pete SCULLY.
This historically-important interview has been placed here so that its content is searchable for 3SQN Website readers.
[WORKING VERSION - Slightly edited by 3SQN Assn. for internet presentation.]
I was twelve when we set sail from England to come to Australia. I was the eldest of eight at that time. When we arrived in Australia it was nearly the end of the year, but my parents thought it right that I should go straight to school. So I went to Cessnock High School towards the end of the year, feeling very strange and ill-at-ease in a way. The maths master came into the classroom and he said, “What’s going to win the Melbourne Cup ?” All the hands went up, bar mine. I sat there and he noticed I wasn’t putting a hand up and he said, “Come on, what’s going to win the Melbourne Cup ?”
I said, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What’s that ! Come out here.” I went out to the front of the class and he said, “Where are you from ?”
I said, “I’m from England sir.”
“Oh, I thought so by your rosy cheeks. Now then, what would you think of me if I was in London and they played the national anthem and I remained seated ?” Plucking up all the courage I had I said, “I’d think you were ignorant sir.”
“You would; well that’s what I think of you. You’re ignorant. You find out what the Melbourne Cup is and when I come in for Latin after recess I want to know from you what’s going to win the Melbourne Cup.”
So, during recess I naturally had to inquire as to what the Melbourne Cup was and the names of some of the horses running in it and so on and when we returned for Latin he pounced on me right from the word go and he said, “Come on, did you find out what’s going to win ?”
I said, “Yes sir.”
“Well what’s going to win ?”
I said, “Spearmint.”
“That’s not a horse, that’s chewing gum. You mean Spearfelt.”
“That’s right sir, sorry, Spearfelt.”
“Hasn’t got a ghost of a chance.”
- Spearfelt won the Melbourne Cup that year at 100 to 1 and thereafter we were good mates, that master and I. So that was my introduction to high school at Cessnock, at twelve years of age.
The Melbourne Cup crowd in 1926. 118,800 saw Spearfelt win.
Well I worked in my father’s store and my grandfather’s store as time went on and I must have been about 19 when I felt a call to the ministry. There was no sort of bolt from the blue and I hadn’t been evangelised by anybody, as a matter of fact I just thought about it as a challenging job. I went up to my rector - at that time I was hoping to get a job with Burns Philp in the islands as a storekeeper/bookkeeper as that had been my training with my grandfather in his office - and my rector said to me, “Well, I’ll give you a reference for Burns Philps on one condition.” I said, “What’s that ?” He said, “That you think about the ministry.” I said, “Oh I don’t know. What do you mean ?” He said, “I just want you to think about it. Have you ever thought about it ?” I said, “No I hadn’t.” So I began thinking about it and I thought, “Well, it’s a challenging job and there’s a need for good active men in the ministry, who can relate to people and their needs and I gave him the shock of his life one day when I went up and I said, “You know you asked me to think about the ministry.” He said, “Yes.” “Well I’ve been thinking about it, now what do I do next ?” He said, “Well you’d better come down to Newcastle and meet the Bishop.” So I met the Bishop and his first question was, “Have you your matriculation ?” “No,” I said, “I haven’t.” “What have you been doing since you left school ?” I said, “I’ve been studying accountancy.” He said, “Oh, well you come back when you get your matric will you ? Goodbye.” As we left the old rector said to me, “Well that’s cooked it hasn’t it ?” I said, “No, it hasn’t. I’ll get my matric and come back.” Which I did. I studied for just under twelve months, got my matric and went back and reported to the Bishop and I went straight into St John’s College at Morpeth. The wise warden at Morpeth allowed me to go in a little bit earlier to finish off my matric because I was feeling the need to work full time at it before I sat for the exam and I went in there at my own expense just to be a private student working for matric and I got it.
So I went back into college the next year to study for the ministry. When I was ordained the Bishop said to me, “Now where would you like to go ?” I said, “Wherever you feel there’s a need and wherever I’m needed.” He said, “Well you can go to Newcastle Cathedral and be on the staff there and you’ll have a very good man, Tom Armour.” - who was the Dean. I went to Newcastle Cathedral and had a wonderful experience there for five years. It was during the depression and there was an unemployment camp on Nobby’s Beach. I used to go down there and do a lot of work amongst the unemployed and I could tell many stories about that camp.
I got a large youth group going at the Cathedral at Newcastle and had young men from all over Newcastle in it playing all sorts of sports, hockey, tennis, football, cricket and we had a gymnasium up at the Cathedral hall. I tried to mix young men from all walks of life into this club and one leading solicitor said to me one day, “My word that club’s great that you’ve got going up at the Cathedral.” I said, “What do you mean ?” He said, “My boy’s in it and he gets his pocket money every week for cleaning my car. He said to me the other day, ‘Would you mind if Ned from Nobby’s camp cleans your car and not me because he needs the money more than I do.’ That impressed me, that that young son of mine was prepared to forego his pocket money in order that this other lad living in very poor circumstances from Nobby’s Beach could clean the car from me. That’s doing him good. Thanks very much.” Well that’s just one little instance of the effect that this club was having on various people. I can remember years later walking down Hunter Street in Newcastle and a strong young man stopped me and he said, “You don’t remember me but I used to go to the club up at the Cathedral. If I hadn’t been in that club I think I would have spent the rest of my days in jail.” He said, “Now I’m head of so and so.” He told me what he was. He’d risen up the ranks and he said that the influence of that club had helped to change the direction of his life. So one could go on telling of how your work among young people can somehow have far reaching effects.
At the Cathedral I was involved with TOC H in Newcastle which was quite an active movement. A Christian movement but bringing men from all denominations together, some belonging to some denomination, some not belonging to any but it was a great movement and they did great work. There’s some very fine men in TOC H in Newcastle. In the Cathedral at Newcastle there’s the parent lamp of TOC H Australia, I think it’s in memory of one of Lord Foster’s sons who was Governor-General in Australia at one time. Now because TOC H had an active branch in Newcastle I became very much involved and when war broke out, out of the blue there came a request from TOC H to see if I could go to the Middle East and help start welfare work amongst the troops - hostels and clubs and leave centres - and there was another man to go with me from Australia, he was the Australian secretary of TOC H, an Englishman. We were to go over there and work with the British forces and staff would be joining us before long from all over the world and we’d be able to get on with our welfare jobs with the British Army working for all troops in the Middle East.
So I accepted that challenge and finished up sailing on the Queen Elizabeth with some thousands of troops and a little bunch of Air Force chaps, about six or seven hundred of them - aircrew, administrations officers, some groundstaff. All the Army boys had chaplains but the little bunch of RAAF boys didn’t have a chaplain. Because I was a priest I volunteered to look after the RAAF boys if they needed anybody and so that was my first connection with the RAAF, on the Queen Elizabeth going to the Middle East in 1941, June 41. There were some fine men and they’ve been lifelong friends, some of them still alive and I got to know that little bunch very well. The commanding officer was a man named Toohey, Wing Commander Toohey and Squadron Leader Dick Hickson was his admin officer and he’s still about and I see him occasionally at 3 Squadron reunions. Dick appreciated the fact that they had their own chaplain and we were able to organise concerts and sports meeting and various other activities for the boys on the way over, apart from regular services for them.
We had lots of activity on the Elizabeth going over, organised concerts, sporting carnivals and various other activities but one thing I’ll always remember is that on my birthday, 30th July, just before we were to disembark the following day, the RAAF boys gave me a dinner party and I still have the menu and on the back of the menu are all the signatures of these lads and some of them of course I still remember and keep in touch with. It’s a very fine little souvenir of those Queen Elizabeth days to have today.
Now when we arrived at Port Tufic they were concerned that Jerry was out to get these big ships if he could and the result was that they avoided going up to Port Tufic when they were due and I think we stayed for a couple of days at anchor in the Gulf of Suez, just to bide our time to go up to Tufic, which we did and eventually we disembarked and I was able to go up to Cairo. From there I had to report to TOC H in Alexandria and that’s where I spent my first few weeks in the Middle East looking after a hostel in Alexandria, for troops on leave.
I always remember finding that one of the problems we had in these hostels were bugs in the beds. It was very very difficult to keep the beds clear of bugs, so much so that every morning the men who were responsible for making the beds - they were Egyptian servants - they’d strip the beds and just use a blow lamp on the wire mattresses to clean them all out. They’d shake all the mattresses and put them back on again. It was quite a problem making the beds and we tried to do that to keep the bug problem down.
Well one night I was sitting at the desk waiting for the last fellows to come in. We had about three floors of a large building taken over for this hostel and they’d come up from below in a lift to get into the hostel. This day I was sitting at the desk waiting for the last chaps to come in and out of the lift came a young British naval officer in an immaculate white uniform, spotless and when he emerged from the lift he came across to the desk and said, “Who’s in charge here ?” I said, “I suppose I am.” Sitting next to me was a chap I’d been talking to waiting for the last ones to come in and this young naval officer said, “Well, I’ve a complaint, I’ve a complaint.” “Well what’s the complaint ?” “Bugs in the beds, bugs in the beds.” I said, “I know. We’re doing all we can to beat it but it’s very difficult, very difficult.” “It ought to be all right, you ought to be able to cope with a problem like that.” I said, “We’re doing our best but it’s not easy.” “Oh, no”, said he “you ought to be able to manage that all right, no trouble.” This chap sitting next to me got up from his chair and he said, “Look here. Don’t be too tough on the padre, what he said is right.” “Bugs, you ought to be able to get rid of the bugs” he said. “But how can he when you bring them in. Look at this one.” From this chap’s white uniform he just picked this bug off his shoulder and said, “See that. You fellows bring them in. You ride in Egyptian gharries and you go to Egyptian cinemas and you come home with bugs. How can they clean them up when you fellows bring them in.” I’ve never seen a man so embarrassed. Well that was one of the problems, getting rid of the bugs but one of the reasons why was that people brought them in after sit in Egyptian taxies and gharries and cinemas and so on.
On another occasion I remember there came out of the lift a bunch of noisy young Australians. I had occasion to get up and say, “Listen, settle down a bit. There are other fellows trying to sleep down here. They’ve come down from the desert for a few days’ break and you fellows are making a terrific din, now settle down.” One of these chaps said to me, “Are you telling us to keep quiet ?” I said, “Yes, I’m telling you to keep quiet.” “Did you hear that Snow ?” Taking his coat off and giving it to Snow, he said, “Now are you telling us to keep quiet ?” I said, “Yes, I’m telling you to keep quiet.” Then he shaped up to me and he said, “Now I’m a bloody Australian and what are you going to do about it ?” I poked out my chest as far as I could and said, “And I’m a bloody Australian and what are you going to do about it ?” Whereupon he said, “Are you and Australian ?” I said, “Yes.” “Well, what are we fighting for ?” I heaved a great sigh of relief. He’d have made mince meat of me. Those incidents you never forget in trying to run a hostel.
Alexandria: we had a Fleet Club at Alexandria. It was a marvellous place where they had a big beer garden and the chaps would just sit out and drink their Stella, that was the name of the beer, they used to drink Stella beer. Then we had a little - I helped to get it going - an under 20 club. A club for young seamen under 20 years of old and we had special facilities for them. That club went very well. A pall of mine, Peter Booth, used to run it and it was first rate. While I’m on this I can recall some years later I’d been taking POWs coming out of Europe around Alexandria on little trips, to break the monotony for them while they were waiting for transport to take them home, and I said to one of these lads on one occasion, “Do you think you fellows would like to come and see the catacombs. “Oh yes, that would be interesting padre.” “Well we’ll go out and see them.” I’d never been to them myself but I knew where they were. I put these fellows in a truck and we went out to see these catacombs, somewhere out of Alexandria, out in the desert. When we got off the truck and were making our way towards the catacombs there emerged a figure, from nowhere almost, in an immaculate white suit and in a very cultured English voice he said, “I say old boy, could I show you around ?” I said, “Thank you very much, yes. I’d be very grateful.” He started to explain where we were and we’d go in this way and before long he was describing these catacombs and he obviously had a lot of knowledge about them and I started to wonder, “What is this chap ? How much is it going to cost me to pay him for all this ?” I asked him, “Are you at the university here ?” “No, no. Not at the university.” “The museum ?” “No, no, not the museum.” I tried gently to find out what he was doing there, He seemed to come from nowhere and towards the end of the visit to the catacombs which he’d explained wonderfully well I said, “Now look, you’ve been very very kind and I’ve been trying to find out what you do and you’ve probably sensed that.” He said, “Yes I have.” I said, “Well what do you do ?” I came straight out with it. He said, “Well I’m on a ship.” I said, “On a ship ?” and he said, “Yes.” And he named this ship and it was the repair vessel in Alexandria which repaired damaged warships coming in. It was an engineering workshop virtually. I said, “I know a man involved with that, he’s the chaplain, a Peter Booth. Do you know Peter Booth ?” “Oh yes, one of our men.” I said, “One of your men ? Well what are you on this ship ?” “I’m the captain.” I’m so glad I didn’t offer him 20 akas for showing us around the catacombs. But Peter Booth told me later that this chap was terribly keen on archaeology and he spent all his spare time away from the ship out at these catacombs, studying them and learning all about them. Peter laughed when I said that I wasn’t sure just how much to give him for showing us around. I just recalled that story when I mentioned Booth because it’s one I often chuckle about.
Well coming back to Alexandria. From there I went up then to look after a hostel in Cairo. That again was interesting. We had some POWs come in from somewhere in Europe and amongst them there was a young Australian sergeant with a military medal on his chest and I asked him if he’d like to talk to the TOC H group that was meeting that night about his experiences as a POW. And he did and he gave a brilliant talk about his time in Stalag such and such as a POW and the next day the military police turned up looking for him. The matron had been very kind to him preparing special meals because he’d been injured in his stomach and had a big plaster over his stomach and she’d been giving him special food and had been very kind to him and I’d taken him to various places to try and amuse him while he was waiting for further transport back to Australia. When the military police arrived I was surprised that they wanted to see him. I couldn’t work this out and they saw him and they asked him his name and where he was from and “How’s that wound of yours ?” “Oh it’s still troubling me a bit.” “Let’s have a look at it.” They had a look at it and ripped the plaster off his stomach and there was nothing under it at all. It transpired that this chap wasn’t even an Australian. He’d been posing as an Australian, that’s how he got the uniform and the rest of it and he’d been looked after by people who thought he was an Australian and he was a deserter from the British Army. He was able to tell people about his adventures as a POW without turning a hair and he was one of the greatest con men I’ve ever come across. The military medal and all the rest of it was all eyewash. On one occasion I said to him, “You don’t talk like an Australian ?” He said, “Oh, I can understand that because my father was in the British Army and he had me educated in England and so....” One thing led to another and he had answers for everything, he really was a con man.
Well, when I was running a hostel in Tel Aviv I had occasion to go up to Beirut and try and find premises for a hostel there because they wanted to get a hostel going in Beirut. I thought, “Now how do I go about finding premises, it’s not easy in a strange city in wartime.” I noticed there was a YMCA operating in Beirut so I went there and I found the chap running it and I told him my problem and I said, “I’m TOC H staff and we’re hoping to get a hostel going here in Beirut. Have you any idea how I can go about finding suitable premises ?” He said, “Oh yes. The brigadier’s wife and the colonel’s wife, would you be prepared to take them to dinner ?” I said, “Oh yes as long as it helps me get some premises.” “What about if we take them to dinner tonight ?” and he mentioned the name of a five star hotel not far away on the waterfront there in Beirut. So we entertained these two ladies to dinner and I told them what I wanted to do and they were very sympathetic about the idea of a hostel so the chaps didn’t get fleeced in these private places that are run for troops on leave, so they were keen. I suggested that not only did I want premised but I had to get stores and things like that. They said, “Our husbands ought to be able to organise things like that for you.” So one thing led to another and it was all very helpful.
I teed up enough to start work in Beirut before very long and went back to Tel Aviv - oh before I left Beirut, this chap said to me, “Would you like to go to the races this afternoon ?” I said, “Yes, that would be interesting.” He said, “Right, we’ll go to the races.” So we went to the races and when we arrived there he made a bee line for the saddling up paddock where the jockeys were and he talked to this jockey and that jockey and then he said, “Now we’ve got to put something on so and so and so and so. So we went and made our bets and we could barely see the races there were so many people there but fortunately the horses we backed won. The Syrian pound, I forget the values now, but I came home with paper money stuck in every jolly pocket I had, we had such a big win.
I went back to Tel Aviv thinking Beirut wasn’t a bad place with all this money to be made at the race course. Next time I went up to Beirut I went up to the YMCA to ask for this chap. “Oh he’s not here.” “Where is he ?” “Oh we’d better tell you the story.” They told me the story. He’d gone down to Cairo to see the Deputy Adjutant Quarter-Master General about stores for the YMCA and going into this big military building there was a military policeman on duty at the entrance and he followed him. When he went in to see the DAQMG the military policeman knocked on the door and said, “Sir would you mind if I interview this man in your presence ?” “No”. So he said to this YMCA officer, “Aren’t you Private so and so, who deserted from such and such a regiment of the British Army in the early days of the war ?” quoting exactly the places, and he was and he was arrested. What had happened, he’d deserted from the Army, somehow or other he’d joined the YMCA, got this job and he was running a string of racehorses in Beirut, flogging a lot of the rations he was getting and another con man. When I said, “How do you go about getting premises ?” “Oh get the colonel’s wife and the brigadier’s wife and talk to them. You’ll be right.” He knew all the lurks. He and the little lad with the military medal were two of the greatest con men I’ve ever met.
In Tel Aviv we had a very good hostel there and one interesting aspect of this hostel I got going at Tel Aviv was the fact I got a chapel in the house. It was a large house that we’d rented and there was a room suitable for a chapel. On the windows in the chapel I got a very well-known artist to paint little biblical scenes. We had the Bishop in Jerusalem come down to dedicate this chapel and he said to me afterwards, “This is the first Christian chapel in Tel Aviv, a one hundred percent Jewish community. You’ve done something we’ve been trying to do for years.” We were able to do it because it was a military establishment and when I went back to Tel Aviv in 1978 - I was over for the Lambeth Conference and took a party of Tasmanians to visit Israel - we went up to Tel Aviv. The house that we’d taken over for the hostel was still there but was being run as a kindergarten or a little school now and the windows that were in the chapel are still there and the paint’s faded quite a bit but you could see where we had the chapel in those days when we were running the hostel.
It was a very good place. We had wonderful relationships with the Polish people and there were a group of Polish women who used to come and entertain the boys, with musical afternoons and that sort of thing and afternoon teas. We had some hundreds of little boys come through dressed as Polish soldiers and that’s the only way they could get into Tel Aviv, in their uniforms, but they got into Tel Aviv during the war simply because they were regarded as soldiers. They weren’t really, they were just schoolboys dressed in Polish Army uniforms. We looked after those fellows too. You see that painting there above the study. Well that was painted by a Polish artist and I wanted him to give me a strong manly head of the Christ and this man was dying of consumption and he produced this lovely head of the Christ but I feel it was a compassionate Christ that he, as a very sick man, could see and need and so that painting means a lot to me because of the association with that man who eventually died but we did a lot to help. There were some ladies in Tel Aviv that put me onto him, I think they were Quakers, so we gave him this commission to do that painting - he’d restored the famous black Madonna in Poland - I can’t think of his name now but that was one of his great works in Poland. The Polish people knew of him very well.
Well it was while I was at Tel Aviv that I used to go up to Jerusalem and look after the hostel there, we had a hostel in Jerusalem. I remember one evening the phone going and there was a voice at the other end, obviously a Jewish man, he said, “Is that TOC H ?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you do conversions ?” I said, “What do you mean ?” “Do you do conversions. I want to convert.” So I heard later that very occasionally people convert for the wrong reasons. However, I had words with him. But that was an interesting experience being in Jerusalem at this hostel and I’ve been there since during the war.
It was whilst I was at Tel Aviv that the word came through that the Australian Army was being pulled out of the desert because of what was happening in the Pacific and this meant that there would be about eight squadrons in the desert and no Australian chaplain - there were British Army and British Air Force chaplains - but no Australian chaplains, they were all being pulled out with the Australian Army. I was asked if I could get out of TOC H and look after the Air Force boys. I’d had a long link with the Air Force boys because of the trip over in the Queen Elizabeth and seeing them in hostels and clubs over the years run by TOC H and so I was only too pleased to say yes. We had staff coming through from various parts of the world for TOC H so I wasn’t leaving TOC H in the lurch. So I got out of TOC H and went down to Cairo to be interviewed for a job with the RAAF.
When I went down to Cairo I had to see the Liaison Officer, the RAAF Liaison Officer in Cairo, a man named Wing Commander Duncan, Bill Duncan. He said that he’d had word to interview me and to commission me as chaplain for the RAAF in the Middle East. I had on a sort of khaki uniform with epaulettes on my shoulder indicating that I was TOC H. He said, “Well we’d better get rid of those hadn’t we ? We’d better have some RAAF stuff up. Go down to the Kassaranil Barracks and get yourself some RAAF uniforms.” I said, “All right sir.” So I went down to Kassaranil Barracks and I asked if I could have some RAAF uniform. They said, “Sorry sir, we haven’t got any.” “Oh you must have something somewhere.” So they searched and searched and they eventually found some buttons, the little black buttons you used to have on your uniform. “Is that all you’ve got ?” “Yes, that’s all we’ve got at the moment sir.” “Well, you’d better give me a couple of dozen.” So I got a couple of dozen of these buttons, nothing else, not even a forage cap or an officers cap or anything.
So I went back to Bill Duncan and he said, “How did you get on with your uniform ?” I said, “Well I got all they had.” He said, “Well, where is it ?” I said, “Here.” and I showed him the bag of buttons. He said, “Well you’d better go to a tailor and get some outfits eh.” So I went to a tailor and he fixed me up with what was necessary. There was no blue uniform at that time and I think I managed to get - I don’t know about a cap, I don’t know where that turned up from. Anyhow, we eventually got a cap, it might have been fur felt too, I can’t remember now. It took quite a while to get a bit of uniform but all I wanted was a pair of khaki shorts and a shirts and off we went.
He had to go and visit one of the squadrons, I think 459 at Gambut and he said. “You’d better come up to 459 with me” which I did and went to visit the boys at Gambut. Then he had to go overseas to London and he said, “Well you’d better have my driver and my truck and go up to Gambut again.” That was a squadron flying Hudsons and Phil Housen who later became one of the top men in Qantas after the war, a very fine chap, he was there. So I went back up to 459. It was very interesting because on one occasion Phil Housen and the adjutant were talking about their dogs and the more they drank the more they argued as to who had the best dog. Finally, Phil Housen drew himself up and he said, “There’s only one way to settle this argument. I order you to stage the first annual Western Desert Victory Dog Show to be held here on Landing ground so and so Gambut at such and such a date. Got that ?”
So from then on the wheels are set in motion and the photography section started to reel off hundreds and hundreds of little leaflets ‘Is your mutt worthy of the name? If so bring it to Landing Ground so and so on such a such a date for the First Annual Western Desert Victory Dog Show.’ The boys, when they were going out on their anti-sub patrols would shower these leaflets over little units here and there and squadrons here and squadrons there and before long this was the talk of the desert - the First Annual Western Desert Victory Dog Show. I had to go down to Alexandria in my truck to get some supplies for the occasion at the Fleet Club where I could get some beer for them and so on. When I went down to Alexandria I said to Dicky Dines, the chap running the club, I said, “Dick, you wouldn’t have a dog here ?” “Yes, just a minute.” and he grabbed one just like that. He said, “Here you are, here’s one here.” So I got this little dog and we put it on board the truck and we set off for Gambut again with little ‘Fleety’ on board. Now we called her Fleety because she was from the Fleet Club and she was full of fleas. Every time we stopped to boil the billy she’d run out into the desert and we’d have a job catching her. But however, we got her there eventually.
Incidentally, when I went down to get the supplies, the boys all knew that I was going to Alexandria to get supplies for the occasion and there came requests for “would I get a collar for my dog, or a nice lead, could you get something for my dog” and so on and so on. So I went down to Alexandria with a shopping list for all sorts of gear for these dogs. I arrived back and distributed the gear and the day arrived when we had the grand parade for the dogs. Well you’ve never seen such a collection of dogs in all your life. They were on barbed wire, pyjama cords, posh leads I’d bought in Alexandria, some dogs were with collars, some without collars, big dogs, little dogs, fat dogs and they’d come from far and near. When the AOC of the Desert Air Force, who was presenting all the prizes, different classes and so on, said, “And now we come to Class Eight. Padre Davies, your dog Fleety is winner of Class Eight - Bitch on Heat”. So the boys all laughed at that of course - poor old Fleety, she wasn’t on heat she was terrified I think.
But the interesting thing about that show was that it was something on in the desert: there wasn’t a woman within sight but it sort of rallied the boys together and I’ve got photographs of it with the chaps leading their dogs and little Fleety, I got a lovely certificate for her. Neither Phil Housen’s dog nor the adjutant’s dog got a prize and of course that was the reason for having the show, to see who had the best dog. I understand the AOC raised the point after distribution of all the prizes, he said, “Where do all these dogs come from ?” The winner of the whole show was a big pie dog that a little English ack ack unit I think had up in Syria and they’d brought it right down through Egypt up the desert and still with them, a real mascot. The AOC said, “Well they all must eat rations. Whose rations do they eat ?” The boys would share their rations with their dogs, their dogs meant so much to them, though the AOC was a little concerned about the amount of tucker that the dogs could be eating, but it didn’t make any difference. I think most of these units had their dogs and they were companions to them. So that was the First Annual Western Desert Victory Dog Show. That was a Gambut.
Another interesting thing at Gambut was that there was a young bank clerk who used to live with us at Newcastle, at the Deanery when I was there and when war broke out he joined the Air Force. He was, I think, either an air gunner or an observer, I’m not sure. He was on 459 Squadron and he was killed whilst I was there and I had to bury him at Tobruk. That was the first service of its kind I conducted in the Air Force, a lad that I’d known in Newcastle before he joined up - an amazing coincidence. He was the son of the Reverend Hugh Linton who was one of the great priests of the Newcastle Diocese, a great friend of mine and young Geoff Linton was his son. It was a heart-breaking thing to write home to Hugh and tell him but I was so pleased in one way that I was able to do that and bring some comfort to Hugh who is no longer with us, but Geoff, his young son was killed. I think also the pilot, before this tragic accident in which he was killed, the pilot had got a DFC, one of the first DFCs for some time they’d had on Gambut and his name was O’Brien. That was just an interesting thing about the cemetery at Tobruk where Geoff Linton was buried.
Some fine men in those squadrons; first rate chaps. My admiration for these men started on the Queen Elizabeth and went right through the war. They were first rate chaps, you couldn’t wish to have a finer bunch on men to look after and to care for.
Eventually I got a truck of my own and a driver and I think that I’ve been in my truck from Cairo to Casablanca, calling on RAAF squadrons, RAAF chaps in RAF squadrons and that’s what we tried to do. When Fred Mackay and John McNamara joined me, I think it was after Castel Benito, I can’t think of the date when Castel Benito fell. It was the big drome just outside Tripoli I think. When Tripoli fell that was round about the time we got to Castel Benito. I’ll never forget it. I was with Bobby Gibbs who was the CO of 3 Squadron at the time when we got to Castel Benito. It was one of Mussolini’s show places really, a wonderful set up there. Of course before the Germans left Castel Benito they tried to scuttle as much as they could and Bobby was keen to find a place where we could settle 3 Squadron down. He found two aircraft intact; there was one, a large plane like a DC3 and there was a little one like a Tiger Moth. I’ll never forget his words when we came across these two planes that were intact. “Great” he said, “The big one is for the grog run and the little one is for the padre.” He had his priorities right didn’t he ?
Naples, Italy. c. May 1944. Three Australian padres (known as the Terrible Three and greatly loved) meet in
Naples after touring the Italian theatre of war. RAAF squadrons were visited and Australians serving with
RAF units also made the acquaintance of the hard working padres.
Left to right: Squadron Leader Bob Davies of Newcastle, NSW (Church of England); Sqn Ldr J. McNamara
of Brunswick, Vic, (Catholic), and Sqn Ldr Fred McKay of Qld (Presbyterian).
The interesting thing is that the big one was a very useful plane sending down to the delta for supplies and the little one he taught me to fly. We moved from Castel Benito by the time we were having a bit of dual and we were up at the Mareth Line, probably the last big battle we had before going over to Sicily. He was going to give me some dual and we were in the plane, I was sitting in the front and he was behind and I’m just waiting to taxy down to do a bit of flying and I thought, “That engine’s making a lot of noise and backfiring.” I looked around and I couldn’t see Gibby, he wasn’t there and I looked around and he was in a slit trench near the edge of the drome waving to me to jump out. So I jumped out of the plane pretty quickly. We were being straffed, that was the noise, it wasn’t back-firing and Gibby in this book records that incident. I don’t think he admits he left me sitting there. I forget the name of the aerodrome and it was all over in a flash and there were lots of things burning after they’d gone and we took off and the boys all cheered as if we were going off to chase these devils who had just straffed us. I think an air vice marshal or somebody who was staying on in that part and wasn’t going over to Sicily like we were, he thought that little plane would be useful to him. So that was it, that was my only flying experience with Gibby.
Then we’re over to Sicily aren’t we. It was in Sicily that an American chaplain whom I’d met in Cairo turned up from the other side of Sicily . It was very interesting. When we’d met we were at All Saints’ Cathedral at evensong. The place was packed, some thousands there, an enormous cathedral and the old Bishop, Bishop Gwynne advised that any chaplains in the congregation would be welcome at supper at his home just adjacent to the cathedral. So I went along and there were chaplains from Army, Navy, Air Force, British, South African, New Zealanders, Americans and I stood out, I had my navy blue uniform on - I had my RAAF uniform by then - and there was one American and he spotted me and it was my first contact with American servicemen and he said to me, “I see you’re an Aussie.” I said, “That’s right.” “What’s say you and I get the hell out of here and bum around together.” I wondered what I’d struck.
So as soon as we could we slipped away from the supper and he said, “Let’s go down to Shepheards.” So we went down to Shepheards Hotel in Cairo and he started to tell me about himself. In peacetime he was the Dean of Honolulu and he started to ask me about Australia and Australian church life. He said, “Boy” he said, “do you have those things where you have peas in a bottle or a length of a piece of string and you’ve got to guess it ? When I went to Honolulu they had all that sort of stuff and I said ‘Oh cut all this out, cut out the penny chiselling, if you’re going to gamble, gamble’.” I’ll never forget that phrase of his ‘penny chiselling’ ‘cut out the penny chiselling, gamble.’ He was down with the first Army and that’s how he happened to be in Cairo, he’d come down with some high ranking naval officers and he was the senior American Air Force chaplain. They were flying back and he said, “We’ll meet together sometime. When I find out where you are I’ll come and see you.”
I thought, “Like fun, like fun.” But this is what the American is, he’s true to his word and it’s not all talk, he meant it. In Sicily, as I started to say, I was in my tent one day and a fellow came and said, “There’s an American chaplain looking for you.” There was this fellow Pennell whom I’d met in Cairo some time ago and he said, “I knew I’d find you. Here’s some candy here and...” - what else did they have that we could never get, we used to get M & V, meat and vegetables, and they’d get Spam - .... Spam and candy and cigarettes.” He’d brought these American goodies that I’d never seen and it was a reminder to me that the Americans are a very generous people and he was true to his word. He came right across Sicily just because he’d said he’d catch up with me some time or other and that was it. A fellow named Pennell.
At Sicily we were raided one day and a number of the planes were clobbered and some of the boys were killed - that was a very memorable experience in Sicily. I think it was at [Agnone, near Catania], I’m not sure but I think that was the name of the place.
Catania, Sicily, Italy. 1943. Padre R. (Bob) E. Davies RAAF with ground personnel of No. 3 (Kittyhawk)
Squadron RAAF talk with the Sicilian civil police in the main square of the city.
The civil police were appointed by the British Military authorities to supplement the Military Police
in the captured town. [AWM MEA0398]
From there over to Italy and we had to go on some sort of sea transport to Italy. We landed at Bari I think, yes, Bari and we went - I was with 3 Squadron - and we went to a drome, not far out of Bari. We’d hardly arrived there when the CO of the Wing sent for myself and John McNamara who was with me, he was the Roman Catholic chaplain, and he said, “I want you fellows to arrange a service to commemorate the Battle of Britain.” This was the first time the Battle of Britain had been observed with a service. This chap who was the CO of the Wing was a Battle of Britain pilot, his name escapes me at the moment, he was Wing Commander (Jacky Darwin). He said, “Now you ought to be able to have an ecumenical service to celebrate the Battle of Britain and you should be able to get the cathedral at Bari where we could have it, not too far away. So John McNamara and I set off into Bari to see if we could organise this ecumenical service and we had to see the Archbishop. I knew a little bit of ecclesiastical Latin and so did John and we tried to talk to this Archbishop in ecclesiastical Latin because he didn’t understand English. The upshot of it was that he wanted us to see the senior Roman Catholic chaplain in the area, Italian, and we saw him and he said, “You can’t have an ecumenical service. Father McNamara can have a service in the cathedral, you can have the cinema.” The problem was that we couldn’t have one building to hold all denominations. You see they hadn’t moved very far in the ecumenical scene at that time and they weren’t ready for it.
I can remember waiting for a truck to pick us up to take us back to the drome to report to the CO that we hadn’t been very successful, John and I were sitting there waiting for this truck to come along and we started swapping ideas for our sermons the next day on the Battle of Britain. I thought, “that was ecumenicism isn’t it, sitting on the side of the road talking to each other about our sermons for tomorrow.” When we went back to report he said, “Oh well, it looks as if it hasn’t been too successful.” “No it hasn’t been.” He said, “Well we’ll have a service here in the big hangar there.” There was a big hangar where there was an American (Italian ?) plane, a Caproni I think just behind and that would be the backdrop. They had a Roman Catholic chapel on the drome and John said, “I want to have a service in the chapel and Bob can organise a service for the rest in the hangar” which we did. And so on that day when we commemorated the Battle of Britain I had a service in front of this big plane in the hanger and on the front of it we hung an Australian flag which had been sent out from Australia by one of the newspapers to the squadron and John had his service in the chapel. Well, that was the first Battle of Britain service that we had and of course since then it has been observed every year. But that was I think, not quite the first anniversary but the second, I think.
Bari, Italy. September 1943. Squadron Leader R. Davies, RAAF Padre, conducts a service for an advanced
Kittyhawk fighter bomber wing to commemorate the second anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
The service is conducted at the front of a hangar and the Australian flag is tied to a Savoia Marchetti SM.79
three-engined Bomber Monoplane and the Union Jack flag is draped in front of the altar.
In my dairy, this account of the service at Bari may be of interest and reads as follows: ‘This happens to be the third anniversary of the Battle of Britain and today I held a service at Wing in commemoration thereof. Here is a report of the service sent home by our correspondent Flying Officer Robertson.’
Special church services in commemoration of our victory in the Battle of Britain were conducted on Sunday by two RAAF padres who were the first allied air force chaplains to land in Italy. The ceremonies were attended by pilots and groundstaffs of all squadrons in the Kittyhawk wing of which the two Australian fighter/bomber squadrons form part. Those two squadrons were 3 and 450. An outdoor setting was chosen by Padre Davies for his service. The squadrons were drawn up before the opening of a giant hangar. An improvised altar draped with the Union Jack and carrying a cross made for the padre by Italian Air Force personnel stationed on the aerodrome which the Australians are using, had as a background the spreading wings of a Caproni 81. Between the airscrews of the Caproni’s port and starboard engines was suspended a large Australian flag.
‘This flag which is the property of the Desert Harassers, that’s 450 Squadron, arrived from Australia two days before. It was a gift from the Daily Telegraph Sydney and came in response to a letter by A. J. Barr of the Harasser squadron who told how the original flag carried from Tripoli (?) to Tripoli had been damaged by vandals when hoisted in the latter town. Now Corporal Barr who was employed by the Argent Manufacturing Company at Waterloo NSW before joining up approached for a new flag to be sent to the squadron.
‘To a violin accompaniment played by Fitter Bill Blanco, another member of the Desert Harasser squadron, whose home is in Federation Street Mount Hawthorn in Perth, the large congregation standing bare headed sang All People that on Earth do Dwell, Fight the Good Fight, Oh God Our Help in Ages Past and the National Anthem. The padre led the gathering in the recital of the general confession and the Lord’s Prayer. In his address, padre Davies said that the Battle of Britain was the outstanding epic of this war and was the first epic of the RAF. It was an epic that would go down in history as the triumph of the few over the many. It was because of this triumph of the few, he said, that the united nations were able to carry on, but for it we would not be here standing in this aerodrome today.
‘But there was another triumph of the few over the many and that is also responsible for our presence here today, not as members of the Air Force but as Christians. That is the victory that was won by the Apostles in the early of Christianity. before we leave here this morning let us offer up a prayer of heartfelt gratitude for those whose courage, sacrifice and devotion won the Battle of Britain, but let us also offer up a similar prayer to those early Christians who, despite persecution and oppression made for us a world in which we can practise our religion freely. Let us above all, take away with us the thought that the things with spirit do not wear out and do not become obsolete as this Caproni or the ME109 or the Kittyhawk will become in time.
‘The service for the Roman Catholics was held by Squadron J.P. McNamara in the chapel at the Italian barracks at the same aerodrome and was attended by Italians as well as Air Force personnel.’ Flight Lieutenant Robinson continues; ‘Before the war Squadron leader Davies was assistant priest at Newcastle Anglican Cathedral. He came to the Middle East as TOC H padre two and a half years ago and transferred to the RAAF last November. Squadron leader McNamara was stationed at No 1 Engineering School Ascot Vale before he came overseas and he was serving in the Brunswick parish in the archdiocese of Melbourne.’
Then I just continue; ‘thank heavens that’s all Robby wrote.’
Sorry for all that but it was a bit of interest, the flag coming in from the Telegraph and Billy Blanco, he died recently I read in one of the newssheets I get, dear old Bill but he provided the music for that big open air service on his fiddle. Robby, of course, the correspondent who sent this report, he died too - oh dear. Well that winds up the Battle of Britain.
When we left Bari, we moved to a place which had been devastated by bombing and war generally, a place called Fano. I thought, on account of the winter coming on and the conditions at Fano, it was necessary to find some premises, if I could, where I could establish a club where fellows could be warm and enjoy a cup of coffee in between flights, if the planes were able to get off the drome on account of the weather. So I immediately set out to look around for some premises where I could establish a club. Unfortunately there had been a lot of bombing in that area and there weren’t too many buildings still intact but I came across a hat factory which was vacant and it seemed to be the kind of place I could transform into a club. Then of course we needed the equipment like coffee machines, crockery and cutlery, cooking equipment for cakes and things like that. I realised that some of the hotels that had been bombed and were no longer intact must have had equipment somewhere, probably it didn’t all go at the time of the bombing, it was probably moved out and hidden in haystacks or somewhere in the country.
So I made some enquiries and found a fellow who’d had a hotel and had moved a lot of the equipment out to a farm some distance out of Fano. I put the proposition to him that if he could locate this stuff we could move it from where it was back into Fano and equip this club which I hoped to establish with his gear and it would provide work for some of his employees who were no longer working and also some rations which were very very hard for them to get, like sugar, tea, milk and all the basics. So the upshot of it was he said, “Right we’ll go and find them.” We went out to this farm and we found, hidden in haystacks and other places, all the equipment we needed to establish a club in this hat factory. So before long we had this club going and not only did we have trained waiters who used to work in his hotel but they were equipped with white jackets and the lot and they served these boys who’d never been looked after like this in their lives before with lovely cakes made on the premises, coffee and there was a games room where they could play billiards,
Then we got orchestras going and we used to have musical evenings. Some of the locals would come and provide music with their accordions. In short, the club at Fano, Koala Casa we called it, was a great success. We tried to give the place an Australian flavour and as you went into this casa we had a big mural, done by a couple of the chaps who were very good at this, of a well known drawing in the Bulletin newspaper of an aboriginal sitting in front of a fire with a goanna on a stick. It used to be on a column in the Bulletin years ago and one of the boys reproduced that. Thereafter, whenever we established another casa we’d just put another goanna on a stick and so you’d look and see how many goannas were on the stick and you’d see what casa we were up to. It worked very well at Fano; and it meant work for some of the locals and it meant supplies for a few of the locals; and of course it was very much appreciated by not only groundstaff but pilots too. So the Koala Casa got off the ground very well.
Cervia, Italy. 1 April 1945. Easter Sunday services were held in northern Italy. Anglican Padre
Bob Davies of Newcastle, NSW, conducts a communion service in "Koala Casa", the Australian
recreation club which adjoins the RAAF squadrons. [AWM MEB0283]
Then we moved to a place called Cessanatico. That’s a lovely spot on the coast and we started another casa there and I think the second one we called Kookaburra Casa and that went very well too. There was a man there, Mario, who had an orchestra and he was only too pleased to get the boys together and produce music at this casa and we used to organise dances. Some of the local girls would come and they’d be chaperoned. This was a great casa too and on the roof of this casa I’ve got photographs somewhere of the chaps sitting on the roof and being waited upon by waiters in white coats, giving them lovely cakes and coffee and then they’d go off and see the planes off if they were flying that day. Then we moved further up north and we got another casa going at a place called Cervia and that was Koala Casa No 2. I think I had to leave about that time to go somewhere, either to Gibraltar or somewhere to 458 and Fred Mackay turned up and he looked after it. But those Casas proved to be a great boon in the winter in Italy for the men when there were many days when they weren’t able to work because of snow on the ground and their tents would be covered in snow - they were a great boon.
Now so much for the casas, one could go on and on. I had stationery printed for them to write letters home, Koala Casa and it gave a bit of style about it. Incidentally I started all these things with my own money because I wrote to the head chaplain telling him what I felt we needed but by the time money had come through the war would have been over so I started with my own money and I think we ended up making a few hundred pounds, or it might have been more than that but it was put into the RAAF Welfare Fund. We couldn’t help making money although we weren’t charging the boys much at all for these coffees and cakes but they were a great success and I think my TOC H experience probably stood me in good stead in getting these things off the ground. I’d had experience of equipping a place with what you need for a hostel or a club.
I did mention Gibraltar, that was interesting. Gibraltar was where 458 was stationed. They were doing anti-sub patrols in their Wellingtons and they wanted me to go over and be with them for Anzac Day and that was a wonderful experience. I’ll see if I can find in my diary some little account of that. ‘When I arrived at Gibraltar, the adjutant of 458 and the station padre, an RAF padre, had arranged for our Anzac day service to be held in the King’s Chapel next door to the Governor’s residence. The chapel was really beautiful. It was a joy to be in a church again. Wing Commander Rob Mackay, who incidentally was killed after the war just flying over, I think, Sydney or somewhere like that, a very fine man. He led the act of commemoration within the service and I know there were queries about who was to read the lessons and we had nothing better than a first class fitter, a corporal, and that would solve all problems with protocol and so Ron Burgess read the lesson which I thought solved something. Another interesting character who later became a well known actor here in Australia, Flying Officer Teal, he read a lesson also during the act of commemoration. I preached on the permanence of spiritual truth, for example the Rock, stable and sure, a Gibraltar and Anzac as a tradition of spirit, the quality of endurance, fellowship, bravery etc. Those present included the Governor, Sir Ralph Eastward, the AOC, about 250 men from 458 Squadron, a few Australians and New Zealanders. The men from the Squadron marched up the main street and they did a splendid job. A dance was organised by maintenance and a sergeants smoko finished the night in great style.’ Now that’s Anzac Day - interesting isn’t it. I’ve got a photograph of the march up the main street of Gibraltar and the men walking behind the flag.
The next thing was a visit to Spain. ‘A visit to Spain was most enjoyable and interesting and I went with Frank Barnett,’ who incidentally died over in the West some twelve months ago. I have a daughter in the West and I used to go and see Frank when I went over there to see her and I think he finished up as a CO of a squadron at Rathmines, a very fine man. He wanted to take me over to Spain. He knew his way around and I say here, ‘I would like to write an article on the adventure and call it “A Day’s Freedom”. We obtained a passport, you had to have a passport to go into Spain and we had to get out of any sort of military clothing and go as civilians. We obtained civvy clothes and then set out on our journey. The English frontier was easier to cross and no mans land was littered with packets and papers testifying as to the amount of cigarettes, etc etc that were being smuggled across daily. Arriving at the Spanish frontier we again passed on our way quite easily, changed some money into pesetas and stepped through the barriers onto Spanish soil.
‘It was not long before that Frank suggested visiting the nearest town which was La Linea and we tasted there some very nice aperitif. We did visit the scene of the bullfights which I gather are most gory and bloodthirsty affairs. The horses are evidently attacked quite often and we also noticed children playing bull fight games. I returned from Gibraltar to Naples and went from there to Rome to have a few days shopping etc before finally leaving Italy. It was whilst in Rome that VE Day was announced.’ That’s interesting isn't it. I was in Rome on VE Day and later on I was in Jerusalem on VP Day, so to be in Rome on VE Day and Jerusalem on VP Day is something you’d never forget.
Coming back to VE Day, I had the good fortune to renew acquaintance with Judith MacDonald at the YWCA and it was a great joy to be with her during there few days. She was the lass I got to know in Cairo, running a YWCA together with an Australian lady, whose name I just can’t recall, I helped them to get this going in Cairo for service people on leave and it was a great success. Well this lass moved along with YMCA and here she is in Rome caught up with it again. We had a delightful day together visiting Mussolini’s stadium, Castel St Angelo, the catacombs
and having dinner in the evening at the Pinceo Gardens. On VE Day I attended an open air service of thanksgiving at the stadium conducted by allied chaplains and attended by about 6000 men and women. It was a big service. I returned then, together with Squadron Leader Stan Somers and made a recording for broadcast in Australia. I’m not very happy about the text as I feel a great opportunity had been missed to convey a really worthwhile message, however, censorship requirements etc had to be met, so I did the best of a bad job. We had a small party at the ACF to celebrate victory but like the general reaction there, there was too much ahead to warrant much rejoicing. Well, there is VE Day in Rome.
The next place I’d like to say something about is Foggia. Foggia is a city on the Adriatic side which had been very badly bombed and the 8th Army was still trying to push the Germans off the airfield just at Foggia when we got there. I was with Laurence LeGuay who was our official photographer and Robby Robinson who wrote that report for me down in Bari. They had no transport and they took advantage of what transport I had so they came with me. So when we got to Foggia it had been so devastated with bombing our first job was to try and find somewhere where we could camp. We found one or two rooms in a block of flats that had been completely blitzed but they were intact so we decided to just settle there.
In the meantime a message had come through from the CO - I think it was Brian Eaton at the time - that if we were going to do any scrounging, that is getting what we could to make ourselves comfortable, we’d better do it fairly quickly because the military police would be on the job very shortly. So I said to LeGuay and Robinson, “We’d better go and do some scrounging now before the military police get here.” So LeGuay said, “You fellows go, I want to write some poetry.” I said, “Oh, don’t worry Laurie, we’ll wait. You write your poetry and then we’ll go scrounging.” “You don’t write poetry like that” he said, “you fellows you couldn’t write a poem to save your lives. You leave me to it, I’ll write some poetry, you go and do your scrounging.” I said, “What do you mean. I could write a poem now. It doesn’t take long to write a poem.” He said, “Get out, you couldn’t write a poem now.” I said, “I’ll do one now.”
I sat down and wrote these lines which I still remember and it was just due to the impact that Foggia had made on me I think that prompted me to write it. The lines went something like this. We’d been through the marshalling yard and it had been really heavily bombed, trains and transport and all the rest was all....so I started off like this:
Tangled piles of strangled steel
Heaps of rubble where men kneel
Gaping craters stinking deep
Shattered room where kiddies sleep
Dangling wires and broken glass
Isn’t man a stupid ass ?
I said to Laurie, “Now there’s your poem.” And Robbie said, “I’ll write one on Italian skies” and he sat down and wrote one about Italian skies and we said to LeGuay, “Come on now, we’ll go and do some scrounging.” He still wouldn’t have it so we went scrounging and we got into one of Mussolini's modern up to date high schools. I think they called them gymnasia or something like that. We looked through this school and we were absolutely full of admiration at the equipment and everything else in this school; it was first rate.
In one science laboratory there was a full size skeleton in the corner and I said to Robbie, “That’s what I’m going to take back to the squadron. I’ll take the skeleton back.” He said, “What do you want to do that for ?” “I want to take it back to the squadron.” So I took it back to the squadron and the pilots by this time had got a little corner for themselves, a little pilots’ mess and I produced this skeleton for the mess. They said, “Oh what’s that ?” I said, “We’ll have to give him a name won’t we if he’s going to join the mess.” So they called him ‘Stinky Miller’, AC1 Stinky Miller, the lowest of the low. Whenever there was a party in the squadron of course the conversation would turn around to Stinky Miller and they’d promote him. I think he finished up almost wing commander DSO, DFC and Bar on his chest, he had a scarf around his neck and a fur felt hat on and he was quite a character.
He moved with the squadron when we moved from Foggia to somewhere else nearby, Stinky went with them. On one occasion, they hung him outside the mess, they must have had a little house or something in this village and they put him on a pole outside the mess and the locals were very upset about this, they didn’t like the idea of a skeleton hanging outside the mess and of course the local priest came down and asked if we couldn’t do something about this skeleton hanging outside the mess. “Oh no, he was our first CO in the desert.” So the stories about Stinky Miller just accumulated over time, so much so that Robertson in one of his dispatches home told the story about Stinky Miller and there was a request for him to be sent back to the war museum in Canberra. So the boys were only too willing to oblige and they made a crate for dear old Stinky and they put him in this crate and we dispatched him down to Bari or Taranto and he had to be put on board a ship and brought back to Australia to be put into the war museum. As they were loading him off the dock in a net, I think they took the stuff from the wharf in a net onto the ship, the net broke and poor old Stinky landed in the harbour, I think it might have been Taranto, and he rests there to-day as far as I know, at the bottom of the harbour. So he didn’t ever find a niche in the war museum, but he was quite a character was Stinky Miller. And that’s how he got there, I scrounged him from this high school of Mussolini’s in Foggia.
Now whilst we were in Foggia the army was slowly gaining ground and the Americans were coming in in great force and I was in a truck with some of our chaps on one occasion going round the rim of the aerodrome we saw a barber had just opened his barber’s shop on the side of the drome and I asked the chaps to let me off to have a hair cut and they were going to call back for me. So I went into this rather primitive barber’s salon and there were a number of Americans sitting there waiting to be attended to. I sat down and one of these American boys sitting next to me looked at my desert boots. Desert boots were sort of suede shoes we used to get in Cairo, you don’t have to polish them or anything like that, they were very good and were very popular. I remember one of our squadron chaps, a pilot on one of our squadrons said that he was going to make a fortune out of these after the war and he did. His family were in the shoe business and when he got back to South Australia, he got onto this question of making these desert boots and they really went like a bomb. Well, I’m sitting there with my desert boots and one of these Americans sitting next to me he said, “Boy, are they jive shoes ?” Not knowing what he was talking about I said, “Yes.” “Boy, do you fast jive or slow jive ?” Not knowing what he was saying I said, “Oh I fast jive.” “Fast jive eh. Are they GIs ?” I said, “Yes.” “Boys did you hear that, GI jive shoes, we don’t get jive shoes do we ?” I said, “Yes these are GIs.” “And you fast jive, oh boy.”
By that time I think I was in the chair having my hair cut and after I got out I was picked up by the boys on the truck and I said, “Do some translating for me will you fellas ?” They said, “What’s that padre ?” “What’s jive ?” “It’s jitterbugging.” “Oh well, I fast jive.” “What do you meant ?” I said, “Well a yank in there looked at my shoes and he said, ‘are they jive shoes ?’ I said, ‘Yes’. ‘Do you fast jive or slow jive ?’ and I said, ‘I fast jive.’ He said, ‘Oh you’re a boy aren’t you ?’” I said, “What’s GI ?” “That means Government Issue.” So all that translation helped me understand why he was so surprised, getting jive shoes supplied by the government. That was an interesting encounter with the Americans in Foggia.
We’re getting near the end of the war - well we’ve had VE day at Rome - but still things were happening and 451 squadron were in Corsica, that’s where I think Napoleon - was he born there or spend some time there - anyhow I went over there to see 451 at Corsica and whilst we were there they were told that they had to be involved in an invasion of southern France and the pilots would fly over and the ground staff - essential personnel - were to go on landing craft run by the Americans and they were to meet up and go to a certain drome and there the pilots would fly in and begin to operate from there. When we got down to this ship that we had to board, this landing craft, I happened to have a little more rank up on my shoulder than the others and they wouldn’t let me put chaplains tabs up because they wouldn’t consider that essential personnel, but the boys insisted that I was essential and that I was to go. So there was I and the American captain got all the officers together when we arrived and he said , “Boy, I see you’re the senior officer, you’d better be OC troops.” The boys all giggled and I said, “ Oh all right.” And so I had to take them for air raid drill. It wasn’t a long trip that we had but we were going through the night and I can remember that a plane flew over and dropped a flare immediately above us and by golly I felt very exposed then.
However, nothing happened fortunately but when we got into St Thropais, that’s where we landed, we were dive bombed and we all sort of scattered and I happened to dive under a truck or something like that, I don’t know why I did that, but I landed in a pool of water. When I emerged with all my pants thoroughly wet with this water I’d been lying in they all sort of jumped to the wrong conclusion. But we landed at St Thropais and from there we went down to a place called Hyeres where there was a drome and that’s where we operated from. So 451 landed, and incidentally, I think the Germans just weren’t sure where this landing was to take place and a lot of them thought we’d be landing at Marseilles but we landed right up in the Riviera district.
It was an interesting time there and although the Germans had been pushed out of Marseilles, there was still shooting going on around the dock area and I actually saw women who’d been fratenising with the Germans, arrested by their own people and their hair shaved off, just shocking, shocking. One or two of our chaps went down into the dock area and were sniped at by Germans who were still there. It was very interesting that short period we had in Southern France - I think we were only there some weeks and I think the squadron then moved over to England.
I went back to the Middle East after that short spell in Southern France with 451 and I found that there were lots of men in a big transit camp at Cassarfareit, just out of Cairo waiting for a ship to bring them home to Australia. One of the problems in a large transit camp when there’s no ship on the horizon, the men get completely bored waiting to get home and there’s no sign of a ship coming and you can have all sorts of problems. We had a big job on our hands trying to keep these men amused and occupied while this waiting continued at Cassarfareit. So I hit on the idea of taking men up to Israel in three ton trucks, two or three of them and show them around Palestine which I knew very well from my earlier days with TOC H. So the powers that be thought that was a good idea and I started running what you’d call pilgrimages from Cassarfareit up to the Holy Land and I’ve had letters from fellows about these pilgrimages saying just how much it meant to them to have this experience of going around Jerusalem and Galilee and those parts with somebody who knew a little bit about them and I did know a little bit about it because when I was at TOC H at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem I used to do a lot of that work, taking men around these sights.
So we had some quite interesting trips. For instance, when we arrived at Jerusalem I’d take them up to a vantage point up the tower of the New Jerusalem YMCA building and explain to them the environs of the old city and the modern city around it. I’d explain the different groups that were around the old city, the Palestinians, the Jews and the Arabs and so on and give them some sort of background to the whole situation which they enjoyed.
Jerusalem, Palestine. 24 December 1943. Squadron Leader Bob Davies, RAAF Padre, conducts a service in
the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, on Christmas Eve. Many RAAF members attended the service. [AWM MEC2569]
It was whilst I was with a bunch of these chaps in Jerusalem that news came through about the Atomic bomb and then the end of the war in the Pacific, VP Day and so that was all very exciting and interesting too. I had a party of boys with me to go down to the Dead Sea I think one day when all this broke out and we had to stop at the end of the good Samaritan on the way down to Jericho and I was able to use that as an occasion to talk to them about how the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans and it goes right back to those days now and we’ve got the same problem when we get back home, we have to learn how to live together in this world and so on and I’d draw on that a little bit.
I got back to Cassarfareit with these boys and I’ve had some very wonderful letters from these lads. One lad, a fellow named Theo Newhouse, he wrote an article on one of these trips to Jerusalem and it’s quite an interesting article and it shows just what effect it had on him at least.
Well we waited at Cassarfareit a bit longer and then eventually we were told we were all to come home on a ship called the Stirling castle, renamed by the boys the Starving Castle. That in itself was an experience. On board the ship there were a number of married couples and they couldn’t live as married couples on the ship, the women were in one part and the men in the rest. There were lots of Dutch troops on the ship too, I think this was in relation to what was happening over in the East. I can remember walking around the deck one night and there was a fellow I’d married in Italy curled up in a quiet little corner with a rug over him. I stopped to have a word with him before I turned in for the night. I said, “Oh Jim, it’s not fair. Your wife’s down in the back part of the ship with the women and you’re here out on your own on the deck with just a rug around you. Life’s not fair. It will be good to get home won’t it.” He said, “Oh don’t you believe it padre” and he pulled the rug back and here was his wife along side him. That was Jimmy McAlveen, that was a story on its own and we won’t go into that. But he was determined to get married from the moment he arrived in the Middle East and we had to talk him out of it all through Egypt and up through Syria and eventually we capitulated in Italy and he married this Italian girl. He was a cook and he managed to keep this girl beautifully dressed with things he managed to get in Rome when he’d flogged the rations here and rations there. It was the story of Pygmalion all over again, it really was. A lovely looking girl but she was from a very poor family in a little hill town and I had to go and see them about the marriage with his officer, who’d be the equipment officer on that squadron, a fellow named Kruse, Tiny Kruse, who’s no longer with us and Jim’s no longer with us and there it is.
One interesting story about that trip home, after the war I had a lot to do with the student Christian movement. I was doing university work after the war as vice-principal of the University College up in Brisbane and I was involved with the student Christian movement. I went down to give a talk at a conference at Armidale and when I arrived, a fellow in an old RAAF battle jacket turned up - like most of us wearing these things out - and he had his name tag and underneath his faculty, Theology. He approached me and said, “Padre Davies ?” I said, “Yes.” “Oh I wanted to have a word with you.” “That’s good. Sit down and let’s have a seat.” So we sat on a log just near the car and he said. “I want to tell you my story.” I said, “I’ll be very interested.” He said, “You don’t know me but I came home on the Stirling Castle that you came home on.” I said, “Oh yes, this is interesting.” “Well” he said, “I got on board ship in England and we picked you fellows up at Port Tufic coming out. When I got on board somebody told me there was a copy of Forever Amber on the ship and it was owned by a fellow and he was letting chaps borrow it to read and he told me to put my name on the list. I put my name on the list and just after we pulled out of Tufic where you fellows got on I was due to get this copy of Forever Amber. I went to get it only to find that somebody had jumped the queue and it wasn’t there. I was cheesed off and I said ‘blow them I was looking forward to reading that.’
“I went down to my cabin and I put my hand in my kit bag and right down the bottom there was a Bible. My mother gave it to me when I left home and it hadn’t been opened since. It had been in the bottom of my kit bag all those years and I thought, ‘I’ll nark them, I’ll go up and read the Bible.’ So I got up on deck and I’m reading the Bible quietly to myself and a fellow walks by and says, ‘Excuse me mate, I see you reading the Bible.’ I won’t tell you what I said to him. But he stayed and said, ‘The padres that got on the ship here the other day, they’ve started a Bible discussion group and I thought you might be interested, we meet down at so and so.’ I told him where to go but that night I remembered what he’d said and I thought, ‘Well I might go down there and see.’ I went down and sat on the edge of quite a large crowd of fellows, I couldn’t believe there were so many fellows going to a discussion on the Bible.” Fred Mackay and I were doing these things together you see. He said, “I found it wasn’t too bad and a bit interesting so I went back and I didn’t miss one.” We used to have them almost every night. He said, “Anyhow, when I got off the ship at Sydney, I knew what I was going to do with my life.” Forever Amber or the Bible. It was a close shave wasn’t it ? An interesting story - a fellow named Johnny O’Laughlin and I can still remember his name on his name plate, Theolgy 1. But he was ordained and whether he’s still alive today I don’t know. An interesting story, you never know just what you’re going to do. We just thought it would be of interest to fellows and we tried to make sense of what was in the Bible for them and they listened and there it is.
Well now, that’s Forever Amber of the Bible. Now when we got home eventually, I can remember getting into Fremantle and couldn’t help notice the Australian accent. After being away for a few years it hits you doesn’t it, it really does. We got into Fremantle and then we couldn’t get up to Perth quickly enough. I go to Fremantle now and people come down from Perth to Fremantle to shop and to dine. It’s changed its character quite a lot since the Australia Cup. After Fremantle of course then back to Sydney. Sydney to Bradfield Park I think and then Fred and I had to go down to Melbourne to report to RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne. It was interesting because on the train going down there were lots of people going to Melbourne for the Melbourne Cup. I think I started with this conversation about the Melbourne Cup and here am I coming back from overseas service going down to report to RAAF Headquarters and it was closed. The day when we arrived in Melbourne was the Melbourne Cup day and I think most of the fellows had to be at the Melbourne Cup so we had to go the day after. However, that’s how I finished up my days with the Air Force. Travelling on the train going down there were some fellows in the same compartment and they were talking about what was going to win and what wasn’t going to win and so it was all very interesting going down. I think that just about finishes the trip.
I duly reported to RAAF Headquarters and was told that my discharge would be promptly attended to and then I had to start wondering what next. But there it is, a very interesting and fascinating time during the war and I’m so pleased that I met those RAAF boys on the Elizabeth going over because that started a link which I thoroughly enjoyed and I’m still very happy to maintain and enjoy.
An important ministry which we exercised was to the people at home and the Airgraph was a wonderful way of communicating with the people back at home and whenever I met a chap I usually asked his home address and asked him if he’d mind if I wrote home and just say that I’d met him and that he was fit and well and doing a good job. “Oh no, that would be great if you would do that.” So this kind of ministry went on and was much appreciated by the people at home. For instance when there was a certain amount of unrest at home about the men in the Middle East when there was war in the Pacific, both Fred and Johnny and I felt we ought to write an Airgraph to be sent to the people at home explaining the situation and to assist the chaps back in the desert and elsewhere and this is one of the letters we sent in November 1943. The Airgraph read as follows:
‘There is a group of Air Force boys in the Middle East who are almost as famous as the Tobruk Rats and many of them left home shores with the first volunteer draft, before Pearl Harbour or Singapore, before Darwin and travel where you will throughout the length and breadth of the Mediterranean sectors you will find them at every type of task carrying their weight according to the best Australian tradition. As chaplains moving in and out among these fellows we’ve come to have an unbounding admiration for them. You will recognise them by their weather-beaten fur felts, their grease-stained and dust seamed shorts and a desert sore or two. They smile dryly and quietly at any newcomer from Australia who begins to tell them what he’s done. For these men have seen things in the raw from the beginning. They have created a kind of fresh tradition in the Middle East and with all they were the ones who bred and cemented the good fellowship with the AIF. We’re sending this note to the home folk of some of these old contemptibles, their parents their wives and children their sweethearts so that they may have a reminder at Christmas time of our devoted thoughts of you. How these fellows would have loved to have been with you for Christmas and many of them counted on this. How these fellows, every one of them, longed to get home to do something on the Australian front. As a matter of fact certain snippets of information have led them to believe there was a reasonable chance of them getting back soon and we hear some newspapers at home have published misleading statements. These false hopes have been as hard for the boys out here to take as they have been for you at home. The thought of eventual return home is gloriously sweet but another Christmas in the Middle East seems inevitable. Even though it may bring a lump to the throat of many a loved one at home, just give a bracing three cheers on Christmas day for these blokes whose exploits have been unsung and whose sacrifices scarcely known. God bless you all and God bless them all. Yours sincerely, Bob Davies, Fred Mackay and John McNamara. Chaplains.’
That Airgraph was very well received back in Australia and the men appreciated us sending it tremendously. I have a little note here in my hand that I received when I arrived at the squadron and it might help you to realise how important the link with the people at home can be and this letter reads:
‘Bob, I wonder if you will remember me. Do you recall Christmas 1943 with 541 Squadron at El Daba, the first time we had met and since then I have thought that if ever I was pipped, you would be the one who I would like to write to my people at home and tell them how much I love them.’ He goes on and tells me about his family life and his sweetheart that he’d met overseas and I wrote to them at his request and just assured them that they were not to grieve for him.
‘I wouldn’t want that’ he says. ‘I know there is a God, so that I know that we shall all be together again one day.’
And he signed that letter. I was able to write to his parents and his girlfriend in the American services, she was a nurse, just to assure them that this lad was thinking of them and that he had a very deep faith and a life beyond this and assured them that they were in his thoughts all the time even though operational work meant a great deal of risk of safety for him
[3SQN Assn formatted version of original transcript held by https://www.awm.gov.au.]
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