Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

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What do you personally remember most clearly about the raids on Darwin?

Well, you never thought about it much until the siren went. There was a siren and there was a little boat in the harbour used to go round and you could hear this boat with its siren also, used to dash around the harbour. But then we'd know that, yeah, there was planes coming. And if we were in a vehicle moving somewhere we'd make sure that we'd move to somewhere where there's a trench or slit trench. And then we'd watch the planes coming in, if it was daytime, we'd watch them coming in, and if they were going to be directly overhead, we'd watch for the bombs leaving their racks. And if they left the racks before they got near us we'd know they were going to fall close, so we'd get in our slip trench or whatever we had. And there in Darwin you know, it was only a very film - a film bit of soil on very hard stone. I don't know what the stone was, whether it was - what type of stone it was. But you only had to look over the cliff and just down a little bit, it was all stone, you know. So normally our trenches was built of sand, just on top of the ground. So these things we used to get into. And we had a fair idea, if the plane was a little bit to one side you could see the plane coming, if it was going to be either side of you, you didn't worry about getting in at all. And you'd hear the explosion some distance away. But if they were coming directly over the top of you and you were watching, watching underneath the plane, and you could see if they dropped those damn bombs. And if they were over the top and let them go, no worry, because they'd land half a mile or a mile further on. See when they leave the rack underneath the plane, they're travelling at the same pace as that plane's travelling. So they're not going to come straight down. They're going to go to hell further on. But we did not worry greatly about them. But at night-time, night-time if you heard the planes coming you got into a trench because you couldn't see whether they were going to be over the top of you or on to the side. So you made sure. And we were pretty damn lucky. The closest a bomb fell to me probably was 50 yards away, you know. And that didn't kill anybody, but it was very close to some of our boys that were in a vehicle. They were on one side of a road and it landed on the other side, and they just happened to be on a raised road, and the daisy-cutters or whatever the hell they dropped, probably just went into the bank and not over the top. And when I talk about daisy-cutters, they were smallish bombs they'd drop and they hit the ground and they'd cut the grass, and they spread and cut the grass. The big 50 pounders and heavier bombs, they went in and they threw up into the air. They weren't near as dangerous to us as what the daisy-cutters. [INTERRUPTION]

During the whole time that you were in the army, what was the most important thing that you think that you did for the war effort, the most significant thing that your group did?

I suppose, I suppose just being there, being a party of some 2,000. See just personally I suppose I did damn little. But just being there and being a part of the thing. I can't say that I contributed much at all. I didn't get any - grab any Japanese personally and take him prisoner. But I probably, by giving the order to pull the gun, you know, fire, because I was in charge of that 25 pounder gun, I possibly killed quite a few Japanese. But I wouldn't know how many, and wouldn't know if I even did kill a Japanese. But that was the purpose of being there, was to defend Australia. And at the time, kill as many Japanese as I could.

Were you, in the army, ever given the order or told or prepared for something that you thought was very silly, stupid, pointless?

Well I used to think about, you know, that they'd bypassed New Guinea and pressing the Japanese when we were only cleaning up. I thought how damn stupid that was, you know. And I thought - see we were having ones on the Waitavelo Feature [Plantation] New Britain being killed and we lost a few there being killed in Waitavelo Feature [Plantation]. And all we were doing was mopping up Japanese. Now all we had to do was sit quiet, just see that they didn't kill us, because they were still about killing us. And just wait for armistice. Because I'd left New Guinea and wasn't home - I was just home on leave for a fortnight and an armistice was signed. So what the hell were we doing, you know, losing people at that late stage?

Did you ever have to prepare for anything that you thought really didn't have much to do with the war?

No, no, never, no. Because I was with...

What about the Duke?

I must tell you about that, but then let me go back to Darwin and tell you about this first raid. The devastation, the devastation of the place then. Because you know, they knew all about Darwin, they knew exactly where we were and who was - what was going on there. And they knew those ships, because they waited to get all those ships in the harbour, and of course when the tide went out in Darwin, those damn ships were stuck there, they couldn't move out. And they had one ship tied up at the wharf. Now they sank that thing there. It was sitting in the mud when the Japanese bombed it. Just imagine all those sailors from all over the world that were there on those ships, come ashore the ones that weren't killed. It was quite havoc, and those - all the ones who were killed though they were buried in a big common grave, you know. There was no way you could pick out and bury this one because you knew who they were. That was rather devastating, but very thoughtful, if you were to think about it. And when that raid came, the AIF, the volunteers that were there in Darwin, they stayed there but there was thousands and thousands breaking their legs getting the hell out of there, because they were the militia. And I don't care if they do print this, you know, about the militia. They were the ones that didn't want to go to war. They didn't want to fight. And there was a lot of people, and I won't bring religion into this, because this is not really good either, because we did have Robert Charlies with us. Not a great lot of them, but we did have them with us. And I don't know whether you know what a Robert Charlie is but...

I suppose you mean a Roman Catholic.

I suppose, yes. And we knew how many we had because when you have a parade for church parade, you know, the ones that fell out for the Robert Charlies, there was never many fell out. So I suppose there was a lot to do when war broke out, you know, because I was telling you about shearing and they said "Ireland was Ireland when England was a pup, and Ireland will be Ireland when England's buggered up", you know. That went right through I think and we don't think about it any more and I don't think that it's - I don't think it goes on so much any more. I think the Robert Charlies are getting a bit more liberalised and they're not governed so much by their church. But this is getting away from the questions in Darwin. Now the place there in Darwin, when those bombers came over the place it was a red type of dust, because the soil was red. And you know, the place you could hardly see for dust from their bombs exploding and the dust that went up. And of course all these ships being sank in the harbour. And there was a Liberator flying around at the time. They never touched that Liberator. But when that first raid went, that Liberator landed. Now it wasn't long before their second wave come in and they knew that Liberator was there and they got the Liberator next time. They bombed out all these special parts, but left the Hydro Hotel, beautiful new hotel. And the oil well, they never touched that big oil, big oil tank. Because you - their idea was they were going to take Darwin. But after the big battle at the sea, we lost the Perth - they sank the Perth and the Houston. Now we - when the Houston was in the harbour in Darwin not long before that big raid, they - we went out on to that thing. And there was about 2,000 Americans on that Houston, mighty battleship. Now the Japanese got her and the Perth in the big sea battle, but we got a lot of theirs. And I think that stopped the Japanese landing on Darwin or attempting to land on Darwin. And while we were there, before we left Darwin, our CO said we must, we must have a look at the mouth of the Mary River, because his idea was the Japanese wouldn't have come in straight into Darwin, in through the harbour, they would come in the harbour where the mouth of the Mary River runs in, in Arnhem Land [?]. So we went in there, the 2IC, myself and several others, and surveyed that area in the mouth of the Mary River. And there was an old fella there running cattle, and that was the only place in the Territory I saw white faced cattle, Hereford cattle. And they were wilder than the buffalo. And the old fella that was there, he'd gone back living black fella, tin hut and he had gins in the hut with him. Very well educated old fella, but he hadn't been in to Darwin for years. Thought there was something going on by the planes that were overhead flying about.

But didn't know there was a war on?

He didn't know there was a war on. We had taken papers with us, so we left the papers. He was a well educated old bloke [inaudible], but he'd been out all the years there and just - firstly in the years when he was younger, he used to shoot buffaloes or whatever he could shoot, skin them and sell the hides, because they used to come in boats up the mouth of the Mary River. And he use to sell hides.

So didn't the people who he was selling his cattle and hides to tell him about the war?

Well he hadn't sold them for years and years you know, or hadn't mustered. There were real old bullocks there and then they just died of old age, you know.

So in New Guinea, in New Guinea, you were telling me you were visited at one stage by royalty.

Yes, yes we were, and we knew he was coming too. So they picked out the six footers and we had to do special training, brighten ourselves up and be very smart. And we were on parade for him when he landed.

Who was it?

It was the Duke of, Duke of - ah, Duke of York. Yep. I think he was the bald-headed one, if I remember rightly. And we had to parade to him and those parades you know, they just marched past, perhaps he gets a look at you as he goes by. But - and then it's all over, you know what I mean. And you've been doing this in the heat for days to be smart for the Duke. Bugger the Duke, I thought.

Now after you came back to Australia, you were sent to the Japanese prisoner of war camp to take guard duty.

Yes. Yes, armistice was signed while I was home on leave. Now I had to go back to camp. It was in Melbourne, you had to report back. And I was sent to Tatura to - where the Japanese - well Japanese, Germans, and Italians - were all in camps in Tatura just up from Melbourne. And I was sent to the Japanese section. And the old fellas, most of them were old returned soldiers from the First World War that were doing the guarding there. And they said, "Bill, when you go in, don't take arms with you, because they're liable to come out and clout you or do something, the ones that might be in trouble in there, and that gets them out of that particular camp". But it didn't worry me, I took my machine-gun with me. I said "Anybody approaches me will die, so what the hell", you know.

Did you feel a great deal of hatred towards these prisoners?

Oh, I don't know whether, I suppose it was hatred, but I hate the - you know, just the look of the Japanese. The shape of the face and the...

Was it - were they well treated in the prison camp?

Were they what?

Well treated.

Oh yes. Yes, they were well treated. But they were, they were grubby, you know. Their camp, their - it was untidy, nothing done in the way of planting trees or cleaning the place. And as you walked through their huts, they were untidy and dirty. Where I believe the Germans, the Germans were beautifully done. They planted trees and, you know, made themselves more or less look like home. And the Italians, the Italians were much better than the Japanese, but not comparable with the Germans. The Germans were rather outstanding. As you went past the different camps you could see the great difference in just how they were looked after. I wasn't there for a great long time. I said I wanted to be discharged and I was, I was, went to Heidelberg Hospital. You had to go through and be checked out to see if you were okay before they gave you - they discharged you. And I said to the nurse, "Have you got an aspirin?" I had a damn headache when I went in there. I thought perhaps it was - I'd drank too much. But anyhow she said, "Into bed with you, you've got malaria". I had a, I had a fever. And you see I'd taken atropine and all the time, they said take it for six weeks after you arrive home. And I did that, but immediately I stopped taking atropine, apparently I got malaria. And I only spent some time in hospital and I was discharged then. And never had a reoccurrence [sic] of malaria ever since. Some reckon they do, but I've never had it again.

Going back now and picking up on your personal life and taking a quite different angle, Bill, when did you start as a young man, way back going right back to when you were a teenager, getting interested in girls? And for a boy in the country, how did you go about meeting girls and so on?

Well I don't know [laughs]...

How did it work, you know, how did you meet each other in those days back there in a country area? Because you were a bit of a loner, you were going from job to job. How did you meet up with girls?

I suppose I was a horseman and I used to go to shows and you'd meet them around shows. Because you know, women were competing on horses also. And the dances, I suppose, the dance meetings.

What were the dances like?

...I suppose I was still looking at girls when I went to school. Because I was 14 when I left school. And there were some damn good looking girls at school, you know. [laughs] But - well dances, I remember dances, you know. I'd get a bit loud at times, because it probably comes over badly. Dances. Yeah, that was - dances was the place I would think. Because there where you picked up a girl and you had a girl dancing close to you. I remember - I was pretty shy. I used to drink, I used to drink a fair bit just to get courage, you know. You know, in those days, girls would be sitting along one wall of the - seats along one wall of the hall. And you'd walk, you'd have to walk across the hall to ask a girl to dance. And if she said no, then you had to walk all the way back. [laughs] That was rather embarrassing. And if I'd had enough to drink I didn't give a damn whether they'd dance with me or they didn't. And I didn't care whether they said no, or they would. But no, mostly I think I was a pretty good dancer. And I think most of the girls wanted to dance with me anyhow... Now that's bragging a bit.

So you felt you had a little bit of a pick of the bunch, did you?

Oh, I don't say I had a pick of the bunch, but... They were great times you know, youth's a marvellous thing. I often look back and it's a pity it's wasted on the young, isn't it?

What sort of dances did you do in those days?

Oh, well there was the foxtrot and there's other dances. I've forgotten now what they were. And I loved the waltz. And I was good at waltzing, you know.

Who played the music? What kind of music did you have?

Well there was usually somebody round the country that could play a piano well. And then there might be somebody that played the violin, but mostly it was - it relied on the piano. And there might be somebody with two spoons, you know, doing a tap as they went. It was great fun, and mostly at those country dances there'd be a couple of fights during the night. And somebody would be pinching somebody else's girl. And a lot of these dances we went to, you know, in the country when I was very young, was on horseback. Girls in jinkers and the horses were tied up outside the hall. And then you'd back on the horse and home afterwards. All hours.

Were you fairly ready with your fists yourself? Did you get into many of the fights?

Oh I suppose I did get into quite a few fights, and probably got more hidings than I had wins. Because I've a big nose and it seemed to cop a lot of punishment... that sort of broke the night up, and everybody, you know, if there was a fight on, everybody out, because they loved to see somebody fighting. And then all back in and start dancing again.

How did you meet Mavis?

I think at dances, probably danced with her, and also around shows. Because she showed horses and so did I. And that's how I think it started off.

How did you decide that she was the one that you wanted to marry?

Oh, she was a brilliant looking little girl, you know. About 17, I think she was 17 or 18, when I went off to the war. And we wrote, we kept in touch by writing. And she said she'd marry me when I returned on leave from Darwin. Well we married, and we were stationed in Sydney, and she had to get from Melbourne to Sydney and it was a bit difficult in those days because you weren't allowed to cross the border. But the train those days used to - they used to have to change trains at Albury, because the line didn't - they were different shaped lines, you know, one was so many metres wide and the New South Wales was different. So there were two trains they had to travel. You'd travel on the train to Albury, and you had to change there on to the other train from Sydney. So the thing was, the things used to cross there from Melbourne in Albury, cross into New South Wales. So that's how they got into New South Wales, just get on the train next morning and away. If you were in the car or something you'd have to cross the Murray and they used to catch them that way. But on a train they seemed to be able to get away with it. So she arrived in, and of course we stayed, we stayed in Sydney, I forget exactly how many months, but we were there for some time. So I used to come and see Mavis. She used to stay with her aunt in Sydney.

Where did you actually get married? Where was the ceremony? And what was it like?

We got married, we got married in Yea. That's the home place where Mavis came from.

So you were able to go back to Yea on leave and got married there.

We got married when we were on leave. When we came down from Darwin they gave us a fortnight's leave and we married then. I arrived straight down, and we married straight away. It was all arranged by letter and that, and the groomsman was one of my army mates. And he's still alive, George La Fontaine.

And then she used to try to come up to see you when you were stationed in Sydney.

No she stayed, she was in Sydney. She had trouble getting - as I was telling you - on that train.


But she stayed in Sydney and she stayed there until I left. We went - they shipped us off up to Brisbane, and we were camped just down from Brisbane, until we got a boat. And we sailed from Brisbane to New Guinea.

Going back to Mavis, you were married and even though she was an army wife, she wasn't allowed to come up to be near you? Even after you were married?

Yes, they weren't allowed to travel around.

Why was that? Do you know the reason for that?

I don't know. Never went into it why. But I suppose we were in the army to fight the Japanese, not to be fiddling around with women. [laughs]

So how old was Mavis when you married her?


And how old were you?

I was six years older, so that made me 27, didn't it.

And what was it like to get married, knowing that you were going off to war and you might get killed?

Well I don't know. I don't suppose I even thought about it. Hell, you know, we're going and what the hell, you know.

Did it give a certain urgency to the whole thing? Did you feel, well this is really important to get married because I might, you know, I don't know what's ahead?

I suppose it was important to get married before she married somebody else, you know. I don't know.

And your first child, Barry.

Barry, you met him yesterday.

Barry was born while you were actually in New Guinea?


And how did you hear about it? How did you hear that you had a son?

Well I thought that was pretty good. Because he wasn't waking me up of a night-time, you know. I was still sleeping soundly and Mavis was doing the worrying about getting up and feeding him at night. And apparently he was a bad baby. Good in the daytime, and a bugger at night-time.

How did you actually hear that you had a son? By what means?

By letter.

Do you remember the moment you got the letter?

Oh yes, I suppose I do, yes.

So was there a sort of celebration among everybody that you had a son back at home?

Well there wasn't much to celebrate you know, because drink was pretty hard to - you got a bottle - they did eventually give us a bottle of beer a week. We got a bottle of beer a week. And we had one captain that used to give his whisky - the officers got spirits, but the also-rans they got beer - and we used to cool our beer in buckets of petrol. You know, petrol is very cold, doesn't matter where you've got it. Petrol is very cold. And we'd put our bottles of beer in a bucket of petrol. You know, we'd got the petrol for our vehicles. And you'll find petrol is very cold and that's how we chilled our beer off. And it didn't go very far you know, one bottle of beer a week. You'd...

And one of the officers used to give you his whisky?


Why was that? Didn't he like it?

He liked beer. He didn't like it. And I think he used to encourage the other officers to give, you know, now and again, give their whisky too, or whatever, gin or whatever they drank.

I guess he was pretty popular.

He was popular. He was a nice bloke. He was Sir Alec Creswick's wife [sic] first husband. She was a - she was a Hordern. You know, Horderns, big people in Sydney. She was a Hordern, very wealthy people. And she had married this officer, but then divorced him after the war. And I think he'd become an alcoholic after the war and he was divorced, anyhow, I know.

Although he'd been giving his whisky away. Yes. Anyway, I - moving on now to after the war was over and you came back and you had a wife and a child. So - and you'd asked to be discharged. What did you plan to do with yourself?

Well there was always the hint - you didn't know for sure then that there would be soldier settlement for returned soldiers. Like they did after the First World War. They settled a hell of a lot of soldiers on the land and around. Orchards you find, Leeton, Leeton was where we - I went there a few times. That was established with soldier settlers. They settled them on orchards, fruit, all sorts of fruit. And of course they did rice and then further out from Leeton of course, there was the big wheat belts. A lot of the soldier settlers were on big farms and grew wheat.

So you were hoping there'd be a soldier settlement scheme that you could get involved in?

Yes... my thoughts were, I hope it will happen. But in the meantime I did different jobs on properties and I was a truck driver in the Forestry Commission. There was a lot of work to be done in the forests. And I drove a tip truck in the forests for some time.

And did Mavis come with you?

No, well I used to return home. I would have the truck and I used to return home to Mavis of a night. Yes. And after that...

Where were you living then?

We were living on Mavis's people's place, on a cottage that they put on their property. So I stayed with them until we branched out. I used to drink at a hotel in Yea, and I was pretty popular with the publican there, and his people were related to Golden Crust Bakery Melbourne. They were big bakers. They used to call themselves the Golden Crust Bakery in Melbourne. They were in a big way. And they bought a property just down from Flowerdale, a big property and they wanted a manager. Now this publican that owned the hotel there in Yea said, told them, "Get in touch with Bill Roycroft. He is from the farming land and he knows about farming". So they wrote to me and asked me would I go to Melbourne and be interviewed, which I did. And I knew about a woman approaching into a room, you stood up and you did those sort of things, just a proper thing to do. And I think his daughter wandered in and I stood up, and I think that probably got me the job, you know. So this bloke, apart from knowing about, about that, he knows about being a gentleman also. So I got the job of managing this property. And we were there, we were there managing this property, and I - it goes back a little bit. There was a chap on the soldier settlement down there that was already on the settlement when a chap coming to settle on this property here was killed somewhere around Werribee coming down to come on the property. So he wrote to me and said "Bill, that place here near me will be put up for selection again. Why don't you apply?" And I didn't really want to be a dairy farmer, because I was managing a sheep property. And - but he said "Come and have a look, Bill. Come and have a look". So I drove down and had a look down there. And really, it's great country this here. And when I walked onto this property it had bullocks running on it, fat bullocks. And there was tons of feed on the place. And I thought, God, you know, this is great country. So I applied for it. I applied for this and was selected to settle on this property. That's how I come to get this place that we're on here now.

[end of tape]

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