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I was 11 when the sombre tones of the Prime Minister announced that we were at war with Germany. But apart from the rush to join up, the knitting bees, sending wartime parcels to England, and the long casualty lists, the war was far away.
The school I attended was built along the railway line and every time a new contingent marched to the train to go to War our classes were interrupted to allow us to line the school fences to cheer the men on their way.
As in England we had rationing, and life was full of don'ts, but with the bombing of the hospital ship Centaur and the city of Darwin and air raid alerts; our lives were changed forever.
The war had come to us/ Schoolyards were dug up for trenches, shelters began to appear in the streets and the bombing started on our coastlines. Mostly we were unaware of the extent of this until well after the war had ceased; but one night the siren went in our town.
As we lived close to the railway, the Gasworks, and the Warf, that uncomfortable night was enough for Mum. She decided we would go to live in the quiet rural area near where she had lived when a child. That was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire - unknown to us the area was now a huge American camp, but Mum's only comfort was that we would never be gassed. (My father had died many years after the first war after being gassed on numerous occasions in France.)
The war was going badly for us, long lists of men and women killed and wounded began to appear every day, and the Japanese getting closer. Manpower was in and everyone was doing their bit. It was inevitable that there would be casualties in the town, and often there would be funerals for men and women who had been killed in air and road crashes, so the population would line the streets to watch the cortege pass to the small war cemetery. It remains a lovely serene beautifully kept area despite being on a busy highway.
I had this notion that I wanted to be a nurse but the starting age was 18, along way off for me. Food was a major concern as we had thousands of American troops as well as our own fighting forces; so at 15, I joined the Australian Women's Land Army.
No glamour attached to this job, always dirty, and often hungry as well, we worked at every rural job through the war often joined by our enemies the Italians.
We were not allowed to speak to them or work near them. They picked and packed fruit at one end of the paddock and the girls at the other end. These were men who volunteered to work and had been billeted with Italian families for the duration. In hindsight that does not seem to be a very good move but it worked quite well and they were willing cheerful workers.
The Japanese were in camp at Cowra and did not work nor were they given the opportunity, but one night they broke out of camp with a resulting loss of life.
The country dances were our sole entertainment, and our weekly wages went on ice cream sundaes, and tins of condensed milk mixed with milo and eaten with a spoon, usually after lights out was sounded.
Work was a 48 hr. week, and our wages 2pnds 50 pence but 1 pnd was deducted for board and lodging. Some matrons insisted on route marches when we had time to ourselves, we also kept the space round our beds clean and took turns at washing up and setting tables etc. We were often punished for some misdeed and I can remember the whole camp being confined to barracks because we had threatened to throw a union organizer into the nearby river if he persisted in trying to make us join the union. We argued that we were an army and wore the King's crown and would never go on strike, so we had no use for unions, but of course the real reason was that we had better uses for our money.
We bathed in a tin tub in front of a queue of other girls waiting their turn, and it was the subsequent loss of privacy that irked most. We lived in old deserted halls or tents with dirt floors, did our washing in tin tubs with a wood copper.
In the beginning we supplied our own clothing, sheets and blankets as factories were working flat out trying to keep the troops clothed. Later we were issued with a uniform, which we wore proudly.
One morning while picking beans on a hillside in Gympie a young farmhand came running and shouting for us to knock off; he said the war was over/ We were put on a train to Brisbane to join the celebrations.
That night lives in my memory forever, all traffic stopped, we hugged kissed and danced in the streets, but it was the lights that made the most impression, after years of blackout there were street lights and neon lights flashing, bells tolling and people singing.
In the morning, those of us who had joined for the duration were given a discharge and a ticket home, no chance to say goodbye, no thanks either but 40 years on a medal
We watched with horror the return of relatives from prison camps, the devastation of cities from bombing, and the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and wondered how it could all be justified.
The only good thing to result from war is the wonderful feeling of mateship and the population's ability to pull together to do whatever has to be done
I served in the Merchant Navy from 1938 to 1949. At the outbreak of WW2 I was aboard the SS "Otranto" one of the Orient Line ships, which was laying off Port Moresby. New Guinea.The ship was ordered back to Sydney, Australia, where all passengers disembarked. The ship was painted a drab battleship grey,guns were mounted before we sailed for Britain,carrying many army/navy personnel.
A short time after our arrival in UK, we again sailed for Australia,on this occasion we left Sydney Harbour with the first contingent of Australian troops en route for Lake Timsah in the Bitter Lakes, Suez.Where our Captain Baxter greeted Anthony Eden (Foreign Secretary)Our departure from Sydney was a most memorable and emotional event. "Gracie" of the Palms night-club in Sydney sang "The Maoris Farewell" (Now is the hour)from a small boat with a megaphone. Small tugs, along with numerous other boats sounded their hooters and sirens "bidding their lads, good luck" Our ship was one of a huge convoy of over 20 liners to sail for Suez Canal. I sailed in various convoys aboard different ships, (of which four were subsequently sunk)these voyages included crossing the Atlantic,and partaking in Russian convoy. I survived WW2 and consider myself an extremely lucky individual. One ship I left in Hull was torpedoed off N. Ireland the following voyage, with all hands. I am hoping to have my book published sometime this year, entitled, "Seeing the world thro' a porthole" I dedicated my book to those many "Shipmates" with whom I shared their lives, their anguish and joys, so many perished and have only a watery grave "somewhere"
I am proud to wear my M. N. Lapel badge, and to have shared so many happy memories with those "Shipmates" despite there having been a war in progress.
Gilbert John Townsend
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