Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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When you weren't able to get on the ship at Darwin, what did you do? What were you doing in Darwin while you were doing all this waiting?

We constantly trained you know. We were trained - we were artillery and we were on the old 18 pound guns you know, they were pretty antique guns. But we also trained as infantry, so we were our own protection, you know. We could fight as infantry or use these damn big guns. And that meant a lot of marching and bivouacking and practising fighting each other, you know. Which wasn't really fighting each other, but you imagine you were, you know. And you did a lot of things that nearly drove you mad. We had to build ramps, so our trucks up on these ramps, and we used to have to clean the bottom of these trucks, the tail shafts and everything that was underneath the truck had to be clean. And they'd come and inspect those damn things and you know...

Why? Why?

Something for you to do, you know, for God's sake. Just something for you to do. And rather than just nothing to do I suppose you'd go mad if you didn't, but oh it used to make me mad. And some of those officers - a lot of our officers were cadets, you know, and back in those days the kids used to go to college or somewhere and they had to do so much training in the army afterwards. What'd they call them? Something cadets. And some of these boys only 18, 19, there were a lot of officers with a bit of age had gone away with the 6th Divvy, and a lot of these kids were made officers. Lieutenants, captains - and see at 22 - I was 22 then I think. And I'd been around quite a lot, a bit more or less grown up. And then these kids giving me orders. This used to rankle me. You know, you walk past them, "You didn't salute me, Gunner." "Bugger it, I saluted you every time today I've been near you." "You've got to salute us every time you pass us." What a bloody lot of rot. And this sort of thing used to really rankle. And the blokes, the blokes that went in when Dunkirk fell, they were most of them were mature people. They weren't kids. They didn't go in in the early part when the war started, because they thought damn it, this isn't - they're not going to get to England. But when Dunkirk fell they came in in droves from the country. And most of our people that were in that regiment were country people. We did get recruits from the city eventually.

You didn't like people throwing their authority around...

No, I hated it. And you see, they eventually made me a sergeant. I think to stop me going crook. Give me some authority. So I'd have to be - I'd be asking a few questions. But I got on terribly well with the troops, even being the sergeant, I didn't have any problems.

Did you ever have to take drill?

Oh yes, oh yes, I did drill them, yes.

Were you a tough drill sergeant yourself?

No. No, no. I used to love to teach them with the bayonet, how to fight with a bayonet. You know, there was no chance I don't think ever, because they had machine-guns this war, there wasn't much bayonet business like they did in the old days. But it was fun just doing it.

And so when did you eventually get overseas with the war?

We spent two years in Darwin, and they more or less health classed us and sent us south to Sydney. We come down to Sydney and we were out in Sutherland, Sutherland Park, Sutherland Park out of Sydney. And they, I don't know whether some troops had been in there before, but we took up camp there, and we spent quite a bit of our time taking over the wharves and loading ships and unloading ships where the wharfies were on strike. Going back on that, who was Prime Minister then? Curtin?

Curtin during the war.

Was Curtin Prime Minister then?

For most of the war Curtin was Prime Minister.

Well they said what a marvellous bloke he was, you know, he got on so well with the workers and that, people. I thought what a bastard he was to let the wharfies be on strike and his soldiers unloading ships. Ships going to New Guinea, you know, the troops were unloading and loading. Ships coming in we were unloading, and loading ships going out. We followed the Centaur, the hospital ship, they sank the hospital ship, remember. We probably were the next ship after the Centaur that went to New Guinea...

Did you go to New Guinea from Sydney or from Darwin?

Sydney. Yeah, we went from Sydney... We didn't actually go from Sydney, but we were in camp there. We went up to Brisbane. We were camped just down from Brisbane at Redland Bay. If you look at a map you'll see Redland Bay. And we were in Redland Bay for, I think, three weeks or a fortnight or a month. Something. And from there we were sent. Our CO that was in charge of us, he went to New Guinea before us and was dead before we got there with scrub typhus. Scrub typhus was a bug that lived on rats, field rats, and if you kill the rat, he'll eat the rat and got on you, bit you, you had a fever that killed thousands of troops. And he died of scrub typhus. And when we arrived there, they outfitted us with clothes and mokka oil. Your clothes were covered in this mokka oil. And the CO said, "I don't want any of you boys bitten with this flea. Don't sleep on the ground. You take transport. But you go to the Yanks, and get those sleepers that they sleep off the ground. I don't care how you get them, but get them." And we did.

How did you get them?

[laughs] I don't really know, I wasn't in the parties that went and got them. But they got them. I don't know, but they got them.

What did you say your uniforms came in?

Mokka oil.

What's that?

It was an oily sort of stuff that you put all over your clothes. And we were very careful we didn't sleep on the ground, or where we could, because often we had to sleep on the ground. Our sheet, we'd put that down, sleep on the sheet.

So during the time that you were in New Guinea, where did you serve and what kind of action did you see?

Oh, we didn't see a great lot of action at all. The action, we were harassing the Japanese because we were hunting them back all the time.

They were already on the run.

They were on the move back, and we got to New Guinea. The biggest - the Waitavelo Feature [Plantation] in New Britain was the biggest hold up there because you'd belt them back out and they'd build tunnels. They were great tunnel builders or earth builders. They'd go back into another trench and we lost quite a few troops there.

What kind of fighting were you doing, Bill?


What kind of fighting was it?

Well I was on the gun, I was sergeant on a gun, and we got orders. You were linked up to a Tannoy set the whole time and you got the - orders take place and you were given the range, angle of sight and all that sort of thing. Line range, angle of sight, and you had to get your gun and so many rounds fire, you know. And then we had extreme range. It was - we had - our shells were done by coloured powder. If it was just - you could fire your gun so it was a like a trench mortar. It would just fire a couple of hundred yards. Your gun would be pointing up in the air, you know, and then it might be three charge and then you get extreme - it was an extreme shell which is as far as the gun would fire.

Could you see the enemy?


Could you see the enemy?

Oh no, you don't see the enemy no. You only see the ones you killed or - the only ones, the infantry, if I'd been in the infantry, yes, I would have seen the enemy.

How did you feel when you saw the ones that had been killed? How did war strike you?

Well it didn't strike me terribly bad until I, we went and found these fellas in Tol Plantation, New Britain, and they were lying out in their sevens and they were elevens, you know, just the skeletons there. The Lord Mayor of Melbourne was one of the 2nd 22nd that did escape. I can't think of his name. If I think of his name I'll tell you. The name's escaped me. Ted Best. Ted Best was Lord Mayor of Melbourne. He was one of about seven or so that escaped across the jungle and eventually was picked up. But I suppose there was 2,000 more of them that were killed, massacred by the Japanese... [INTERRUPTION]

So out of all those boys that you found on - lying there as skeletons that you had to, as it were, bury. Out of that regiment, how many escaped?

I wouldn't know, I wouldn't know exactly. I suppose I should have found out, because Ted Best I know did escape, and you were always going to, but you never ever got around to asking Ted how - how and how many. But it was - see I was over six foot and I was one of the guard of honour when they did something about these boys. We - I was lucky again, right there in New Guinea, because we were flying, we were flying at night, super charged. And one of the boys said "Whoa, Bill, you've got a crack in the breach block". The breach block is the, you fire your shell in and you close your breach block and it's a big block in behind. He said there's a crack. And so I just stood them all down. If I'd have fired that shell, I'd have got that breach block fair in the belly, because I'm right behind the thing. That's where the number one of the guns sits there. Right behind the gun. From there - well, we played a lot of sport there too. I was a pretty good basketball player. And we used to hang these things on these big trees and play and the toughest blokes were the Americans. We could beat nearly everybody but the Americans, they were pretty good. Now, from - I got away before the war finished because I was one of quite a few that had gone to New Guinea and left a baby behind. Because Mavis and I married when we arrived down from Darwin and a baby was left behind as we sailed off and I think Barry, the eldest, he must have been round the 18 month or something before I saw him. Mavis will probably say that's wrong. So you'll have to ask Mavis really about that. So there was me and there was another one, Bob Gorrie, he was killed just before we left. While we were blasting the Waitavelo Feature [Plantation]. He was up with the signallers and the Japanese were pretty good at converting bombs. They'd run out of the proper shells to fire back and they'd converted something out of ships that they were firing and they used to come, instead of coming over, you know, like a bullet would come, they used to come over end over end, and he stood up out of his trench and said "Are you all right boys?" and as he stood up one fell and killed him. And I think it was the same time young Bostock from Mansfield was killed there also. So we did lose an odd one. And we lost a few treading on Japanese sand - you know, what do they call them?

Sand mines?


People talk a lot about mateship in the war and how close you were to those that you were fighting with. Was that your experience?

Oh yes, yeah. On the gun - there was about eight on the gun - we were 25 pound guns in New Guinea. And on that gun was about eight of us and there is now only two of us left. One is Bill Sanders, and he's way up in New South Wales and I ring him pretty repeatedly. One from Geelong was a great friend of mine, Jack Rossack and he was a mighty man. We'd have to dig our guns in you know, and he was so strong he'd be throwing so much in there he'd nearly work in the shade. I used to have to slow him down because we'd finish and have our gun in position and the lieutenant or captain who'd come would say, "Come on Bill, come and give these fellas a hand". So we learnt to slow down a bit.

And you were very close to these guys?

Oh yeah, we were, yes. Yeah, we kept in touch, until - well they're all dead now apart from Bill Sanders and me. See I'm 83, I suppose we're pretty close gone. I've got to the stage now with all these fellas I used to drink with, I say "Now come and have a drink". They say "Bugger you Bill, everybody you drink with dies".

When people died, when mates died up there in war circumstance, how did that affect you? Did it make you nervous next time you went with the gun? How were you affected by death in the camp?

Oh doesn't - you know one night, we were pulling up camp to go. The night before we pulled up in one camp but we moved on. We had to do guard every night. Every night you did guard and it was all jungle you know through New Guinea and that. And you'd lay, you'd have your tapes to get out to the night bloke by a vine. You'd follow that out. And one of the fellas, you had to give a password and then he had to give you the counter password. And this night it was "clear". You'd say "clear", and he should say "lucidly" straight away. And one of the chaps was going out to his post and gave the password, and this bloke was trying to - forgot what the password was, you know. I never forgot that damn password. He'd forgotten what the password was and the bloke shot him. Shot him in the throat. And that's something that, you know, I can hear that scream now. And they said to me the next morning, "Move up, get your thing out, Bill, we're going to bury him here on your site". The one that he shot. And that poor bugger that shot him, you know, that drove him mad. He was never any more good. But see that was the thing, the Japanese used to be all around you. And damn wild pigs over there which trip your strip wires, you know, and let off whatever you had set. All those things do harass you. But it was the - all the way up to the Sepik River along the coast, you were usually pretty close to the beach and that sea swishing in and swishing out. You'd be listening for something [inaudible] while you were doing your two hour guard, and all you'd hear is this swish in, swish out you know. This is the sea coming in and swish out. And then the bloke would come and relieve you. Where have you been?

Did you get sick at all?


With the tropical diseases.

I had dengue fever. I had dengue fever, you had a hell of a fever for a while and then that's gone. That didn't leave any effect. I got malaria after the war. Tell you about that later.

But not through New Guinea?

No, no, we took atoprine, we took atoprine, it left you pretty yellow. It was the yellow type of atoprine and you were pretty yellow in the skin. But you never got it there. We had one chap with us that they found he was a malaria carrier. He'd spent seven years in New Guinea prior to the war, and he never got malaria. But he was a carrier. Mosquito bite him and bite you. And so they discharged him. Bob Gorrie was his name.

Now you came back early from New Guinea. Where were you stationed when you got back?

We were given a certain amount of leave which I spent with Mavis. Then we were - sent to Tatura. That's a place up the back of central Victoria. And I was there to guard Japanese. And most of the old diggers from the First World War , you know, they might have been just a bit too young to get into the First World War, had not got there quite, well those fellows did the guarding. And they were very good, they said "Oh Bill, you know, go to sleep, we'll do it". But I used to go with them and they said, "Well don't take your rifle or machine-gun with you because if they're having trouble, the Japanese, they'll come and try and assault you to be taken out of their camp". Because apparently the Japanese used to have it in for one, they'd kill him or half kill him. So the way to get out when the guards went in, they'd try to attack them so they'd take them out of there. So I went with my machine-gun, I said "Well anybody attacks me, he's going to be a dead Japanese".

How did you feel about the Japanese?

Well, I disliked the little buggers of course. But when I travelled to England on that Japanese boat - that'll come later.

How did you feel then though, just in terms - had you changed your feelings by then?

Oh no, no. You know, I see a lot of them still and I don't particularly like them. And I think, you know, we're trading with the little buggers. And no, I hate the thought that I look at you people and think you know, that's nice, I look at the Australian type. And what are we going to have, an Asian type here. We'll be - when you walk down the street in Melbourne or Sydney now in different parts, you'd swear to God you were in Japan or Korea or somewhere.

So when you came, after you finished there, what - how long were you at the prisoner of war camp before the war ended?

Well, I was there I suppose - don't know if I've got this quite right or not - I was home, I was home on leave and it was, it was declared war was over. I went back to that camp, I went back to that camp, Tatura, after armistice. See the prisoners were there and they were still being guarded. So in actual fact the war was over when I went to Tatura. Armistice was when I was home on that leave that I'd got from New Guinea. So I didn't return. Some of them went back. And see we were in Tol Plantation just down from Rabaul. And those, those of the 2nd 14th that were still there went up into Rabaul and took over when armistice was signed, and put all those Japanese there they put them in barbed wire.

So when the war ended, and - where were you when you got the news that the war was over?

I was in Yea. At home.

Do you remember that?

Oh yes. Oh yeah... Oh, there was great celebrations there.

And was it a surprise to you though? Because you'd been up there and seen that the Japanese were on the back foot by that stage in New Guinea, were you expecting the war to end?

Yes, I was. Yes, I was, and you know we really shouldn't have been fighting there. I think that was very silly that we lost troops up there. I told you the ones we lost and I know that there was quite a few of the infantry lost there. And they bypass there now, you see, they bypass New Guinea. All we were doing was mopping up Japanese that were bypassed. The war had gone past New Guinea. So there was really no need, you know, it was just a matter of sitting there. Don't go in and lose men. And Blamey, I blame Blamey for doing that, you know. That should never have happened.

Was that the feeling at the time up in New Guinea? Was there resentment?

Well we knew damn quite well that the only thing that some of those suicide blokes you had, watch that they didn't come in and try and massacre you too. But they didn't really know, the Japanese that were left there they didn't know the war was over... They didn't know that, you know, Australia had gone past. And the Americans.

Did you have very much to do with the Americans apart from playing basketball with them?

Yes. I built - I knew about building our huts in Darwin. And before we left up there I spent quite a bit of time showing these Americans how to build these huts and live with them. But oh boy, they lived so much better than we did... No wonder our girls used to go for them, because they had the money... And they had the uniforms. They carried, you know, they were smartly dressed. So you can just imagine our young girls going for them in a big way. Plenty of money to spend.

Did you get on well with them?

I got on all right with them, yes. Well, with these fellas that I had to teach how to build these, these huts, yes... But a big mistake they did make you know, there was two of the planes just - there was one lot of Australians coming down and the Americans going up into there. And as they passed the Australians said "You'll be sorry Yank". And the Yanks said "You'll be sorry when you see your sister, too". That was enough, bang. And when we were on our way down, we got down - on the route we came down, we went by truck right across through Mt. Isa and got onto the trains at Mt. Isa. We trucked across from Darwin to Mt. Isa. And then we trucked from there back down to Sydney. But before we got to Brisbane, we were, we were lectured that they'd nearly taken guns to each other in Brisbane, the Australians and the Yanks. So leave them alone, leave the Yanks alone. But while we were in Sydney, while we were in Sydney, waiting to go there, we had lots of fights with the Yanks. We'd go into Sydney, you know, from Sutherland, Sutherland Park it was, and you'd be walking down the street and there was a big fella with me, Jim Heinz, from South Australia. He just wouldn't tolerate Yanks. Put them down. Bang, bang, you know. And there was another big fella with us, Leigh Parr. Leigh Parr grabbed a bloke on the tram, he was harassing one of the conductresses, one of the girls, so he grabbed this by the arse of the pants and pelted him out as the tram went, you know. Phew. But once I got a bit sick of going in with those fellas. You walk into a cafe full of Yanks going "Bloody Yanks" and into these Yanks. And we got more beltings. [laughs] My nose was getting knocked about quite a bit. You know, big nose.

And you would be the ones that would pick the fight. Not them.

... Yeah, I suppose we did, you know. I think a lot of the thing was that the Yanks were having so much to do with our women, you know.

And there was a bit of envy.

I suppose. I suppose there was. They said you know, when the - I think it was the - what was it? - the night they arrived back in and they arrived into Melbourne and they said "Yanks, you better get out before they release us you know". Because they went back in there and any Yank, they belted them.

While you were stationed in Darwin, were you there for any of the air raids?

I was there for 52 air raids. Yeah. I was there for the big one, you know, when they sank all these ships, and yeah. We were in Nightcliff. Nightcliff's now a suburb of Darwin. We built the camp. We built that camp in Nightcliff. We were at Winnellie. Winnellie on the highway going into Darwin, about seven mile out of Darwin. And while we were there our CO said "Look, we want a sporting arena. We'll go out and clean some of the jungle out near Nightcliff". And they - he said, "And that'll be a damn nice place for a camp there, right on Nightcliff looking over the sea". So we did built a camp there. And that is a suburb of Darwin now, Nightcliff.

What was it like when the raids happened?

When the which?

When the air raids came over and the bombing started. Could you describe it?

You could hardly see the place for dust, you know. But they knew, they knew where everything was. There was - they knew where the hotel, the big new hotel, the Hydro Hotel, a beautiful big hotel. They never touched it, because I suppose they reckon, they shot out the things that mattered. They did the post office, they killed about nine people at the post office. And the big oil tank, there was a massive oil tank that supplied ships right alongside the wharf where the ships came in. They never touched that, they never touched that on that big raid. And they didn't touch that for some time. But when they looked as if they weren't going to make Darwin, they bombed that oil tank, and it burnt. And it burnt and burnt and burnt. And as it burnt down it'd melt the sides of the thing. And it burnt there for ages before it burnt all that oil. But it was amazing because they sank all those ships and there was all sorts of people on it. You didn't know whether they were damn Japanese coming ashore. Some - a hell of a lot went down with their ships, or were killed on their ship, but there was a hell of a lot come ashore.

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