R. J. McMahon, Part 1—Battle and Captivity

Earlier this year, I heard from Linda Veness of Perth, Western Australia.

She wrote, “My father was a POW in Camp 59. He and four other Australians escaped together. My father was R. J. (Jim) McMahon WX4445, AIF [Australian Imperial Force]. His companions were Private Tom Alman from Kalgoorlie, Jack Allen from Kalgoorlie, Lance Corporal Les Worthington of Wiluna, and J. Feehan of Geraldton—all from Western Australia. There is an account of their escape in one of our newspapers.

“Also escaping with them was a Scot. He was a man named Tom Kelly (written on the back of a photograph) who was nicknamed “Jock”—how odd for a Scotsman! I have tried to figure out who he was, where he hailed from, and what happened to him, but with no luck.

“My father wrote an autobiography when he was about 70 years old—15 years before he died in 1999.

“I had grown up with stories about my Dad’s war experiences: never the grim bits, just tales of where he had been and the mates he had made along the way. When we lived in Geraldton, Western Australia, he would catch up every couple of years with all the chaps from the 2/28 Battalion when they had their reunions. It was a regular weekend, I can’t remember which month, but the weather was always pleasant. They had get-togethers for the adults and there was always a BBQ or picnic which their children could attend. I loved those days. The men were some of the ‘best blokes’ you could ever hope to meet. It seemed to be a part of my teenage years, waiting for that weekend.

“When I first read these pages it seemed to me that it was probably unnecessary for anyone, apart from Dad, to have been in the war! He was such a “jack of all trades” that he could turn his hand to anything. That would have been as a result of his years previous to his recruitment.

“My father and his siblings were, in effect, orphaned when Dad was only two years old. He was put into the Catholic system and remained there until he was 18 years old. He had the utmost respect for most all of the Clergy that crossed his path. He learned how to fend for himself, he learned to have a love of words, and he learned how to ‘just get on with things’. After the schools, he went mining in some fairly remote parts of Western Australia. Hot, dry, nothing sort of places. Be inventive when things go wrong, sort of places. Learn to cope, improvise. So when the recruiting Officers found their way out to the mining camps, most of the men ‘were about ready for a change—couldn’t be any worse than this bloody place!’

“And so, off they went.”

What follows is the first installment of R. J. McMahon’s autobiography, 1939–44. This post covers his service in North Africa, capture, and captivity up until arrival at Camp 59 in Servigliano.

The recruiting officers who came to Reedys signed me up and classified me at A1. I pulled out from the job I had and went down to Geraldton. My call up came on 13 July 1940, and I served on continuous service for a total period of one thousand five hundred and seventy nine days, of which included one hundred and seventy four days in Australia at Northam Army Camp in WA [Western Australia], about 60 miles from Perth.

After marching through Perth, we sailed from Fremantle on 3 January 1941, and our first stop was at Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. We disembarked from the Aquitania and were put aboard smaller vessels to take us through the Red Sea, and then we sailed about halfway up the Suez Canal to a place called Kantara. From there we were taken up to Palestine on board a train with only cattle trucks for carriages. I’ll swear to this day that the wheels on one side were flat the way it bumped around. We got off the train and went by truck to where our camp at Derna was all ready for us, which included a decent meal. It was so boggy it must have been the most rain they had ever seen. We were all given a palliase and told to go and fill it up with straw—that was our mattress.

In Palestine we were put through plenty of physical exercise to get up back to tip top order for what was to come. In March 1941 we left Palestine and were trucked back to Tobruk. The sixth division of Australians plus numerous other troops went up there to chase the Italians out of the desert, but the Italians gave themselves up by the thousands. Those who did not surrender headed for Benghasi, where they could board ships to take them back to Italy.

The Germans, under General Rommel, were more heavily equipped than our troops. The English general in charge of the Allied forces had told our troops that they had stopped the Germans and as they had no desert vehicles they could not get past, leaving it quite safe for us to get to Tobruk. The English troops were outsmarted when Rommel bypassed them. Rommel’s troops were at a place called Bardia by the time we got to Tobruk for desert training, and they hemmed us in.

Rommel knew he had to take Tobruk before he could get to Cairo. We had about a 16-mile perimeter around Tobruk and it was well fortified with underground concrete bunkers that were situated a couple hundred yards apart. All the troops were allotted to different sections of this line, which ran from coast to coast.

Each platoon had to look after themselves, which included your own cooking. As this job was not popular and the batman was not a wonderful cook, I volunteered on the condition that I also did my other duties, such as guard duty and night patrol. I was in charge of collecting rations (tinned food) every day. There were always plenty of rations, so what we did not use we buried in case it was needed later. We never had bread because the Germans would smell the bread cooking and bomb the bakehouse every time.

The water cart would come around every day and bring a daily supply. We were supposed to get two pints of fresh water every day, but it was always the same—if you had 30 men, you would get about 50 pints instead of 60. The supply we got was for drinking, cooking, and washing, so you could not afford to waste a drop. In the meantime, we would be taken down for a swim and issued with soap to wash ourselves and our clothes to try and get the stench away. That started off well until the Germans found out what we were doing and would come over and drop a few bombs around. That idea did not last long as we were losing too many men, so they got into another idea of bringing around a 44-gallon drum of sea water every week and we were supposed to wash and shave with it.

I got the old brain working and decided to distil this salt water if I could find the necessary material to do so. When I had everything I needed, I set to and made it all up. I had a two-gallon tin to boil the water in, and seeing it had a top on it for filling, I had to put another hole in it for the steam to escape. All the concrete bunkers had been wired up for electricity, so there was plenty of conduit around the place. I attached that to the steam hole and then from there to a long ammunition tin about two feet long and kept that full of cold water. As soon as steam hit that it would turn into fresh water leaving all the salt back in my two-gallon tin. I had to clean the salt out of it about once a week. As we had no wood, I cut a four-gallon oil tin in half, filled it up with sand, and I had to get some old sump oil and kerosene. It burned consistently. I would top it up when the flame started to get low. Of course, I had to have the same sort of fire to do my cooking.

All the while I was in Tobruk, I decided to build an oven out of bricks and clay. I then asked my officer if he could get me some baker’s yeast and I would make some bread myself. All I needed was flour and yeast and a little salt, and sugar and it turned out quite good. I would make about half a dozen loaves once a week, which the men appreciated very much.

The colonel, doctor, and padre would come around about once a week to keep in touch with all the troops, which made them very popular. On one particular visit, the colonel wanted to know why our officer had no shaved considering the salt water was issued for that purpose. My officer called me out and asked me if I would like to take the colonel, doctor, and padre down to the concrete bunker and show them how I had converted salt water into fresh drinking water. I gave them a pannikan each to try and the doctor passed it fit for human consumption. The colonel was very interested as it was such a simple set up and he wanted to know where the idea had come from. I told him I had done the same thing in the Australian outback.

The Germans did make one successful attack, but they only got as far as about a half-mile bridge head into our lines. As there were many dead and wounded from that showdown, we had to call a truce so we could pick up our wounded and they could pick up their own. It went on for a couple of hours altogether. We buried our dead on the spot and properly marked where the graves were, with name and number of each member, so when the war was over they were all dug up again and placed in a proper cemetery, which is still attended to this day. It seemed all queer walking around talking to our enemy and the ones that smoked were swapping cigarettes with each other, and when it was all done we shook hands, went back to our lines, and the war continued.

It was very uncomfortable being cover in dust all the time, when it really blew you could not see your hand if you put it up in front of your face it was so thick, and the temperature would be about 50 degrees in the daytime. We used to take our clothes off and sit around in the nude. At night when you went on patrol you would have to have everything on you could find to try to keep warm. It would be so cold that it would be down to about zero. These change in temperature caused a lot of our boys to get pneumonia, including myself. I was put in the hospital in Tobruk for about a fortnight before they decided it was serious enough to shift me back to Alexandria to an English hospital, the Sixty-Fourth General. They looked after us very well indeed except that we never got enough to eat. The English Doctor in charge of the ward supplemented our diet with small bottles of stout, but this only increased our appetites, so we would sneak out at night down to Alexandria and buy ourselves a decent feed.

The Destroyers which brought us out of Tobruk were the ones that supplied all our needs. They would leave Alexandria before the moon came up and go hell for leather for Tobruk while we were hemmed in and each night different troops would have to go down an unload them. You would have to go like hell to get all our supplies off before the moon came up. What we could not get off in time was just thrown overboard as the ships were leaving the dock. This gear, and sometimes our mail, would have be recovered later. There was a permanent lot of troops especially there to do the fishing and they would soon have everything out. During my stay there were only two destroyers lost on that run from Alexandria—they sure did a sterling job.

When my mates and I left the hospital in Alexandria we were taken by train to Kantara, the same place we had originally landed. There was a big staging camp there and a hospital ward. The Allies made another push up the desert to force Rommel back and Tobruk was finally relieved. My own unit, the 2/28 Battalion, came back to Kantara. We joined up with them and went back to Palestine on the train with the flat-sided wheels.

We were stationed at a camp called “Kilo 89” until after Christmas 1941. In 1942 we were sent to a rest camp at Tripoli (Syria), not far from the Turkish border. For the six months we were there I continued the cooking. Roll call at 6 a.m., breakfast, then the rest of the day was on our own until 6 p.m., when we had to muster for roll call and tea. After tea we would congregate in the big recreation tent until 11 p.m., then lights out. It was so cold they had one of those pot-bellied fires in there to try to keep the tent warm. For our own tents we were issued with about a dozen blankets each.

Before the war the French had a tourist place up in the mountains, near our camp. It had a beautiful chalet with plenty of rooms for their guests to stay. It was hard for us to imagine that there would be snow on the mountains all year round, considering less than a hundred miles from there you would be in the dessert again. I have a few old photographs of different mates playing in the snow. Of course, the chalet was closed down during the war and not a drop to drink. There was not even a caretaker on the place.

After four months at the camp, they told us we could have a fortnight’s leave. Only one company at a time were allowed leave and you had to tell them were you would be so they could contact you if we had to leave Syria. The reason for our unexpected leave pass was because Prime Minister Curtin wanted all Australian troops back in Australia because of the Japanese threat to our country. Those who did get leave took it in Beirut. At that time Beirut was a lovely city to visit. Only the first company managed one week of their leave when they were called back, as we had to pack up and head off back to Palestine and Kantara, full steam ahead.

We were then taken to the opposite side of the canal where we boarded a decent train for Cairo. We had about a week there, then onto our trucks and back up the desert to El Alamein. That is where the colonial troops had to plug the gap to hold the Germans again. It appeared to me we always ended up at the front when the going got tough.

I had been the cook for about 10–12 month now and I wanted out. To do this I had to front the captain quartermaster. After hearing my request he tried to persuade me to remain as cook with a promotion to sergeant as he reckoned I was the best cook in the catering corps of the entire Army.

I went from the battalion cookhouse back to my old platoon in C Company. About a week after I got back, General Morehead, an Australian, summoned all the Battalion commanders to his tent. They decided that Ruin Ridge was the main hill that had to be taken in the forecoming offensive and my battalion was to be the spearhead.

The plan of attack was passed down the chain of command from the general—colonel—company commanders—section commanders and finally to the diggers. The orders that were handed down to us were, “Ruin Ridge is held by two German battalions of foot soldiers and a battalion of machine gunners. They are backed up by grenade launchers and artillery. The 2/28 battalion will cross the start line at midnight on the 27 July 1942 and go to take Ruin Ridge hopefully by 1 a.m. When this is accomplished the signalers will send a message will send a message back to headquarters to say you now hold Ruin Ridge. The battalion is to stay there. By 2 a.m. the rest of the unit will go in an link up in one continuous line, with the British troops on your left flank and the other Australians, New Zealanders, and Indians platoons on you right flank. At 4 a.m. the tanks will roll through your lines to clean up any resistance in the flats ahead. Then at daylight our planes will fly over an bomb the hell our of the Germans in the heavily fortified bunkers.”

Alas, the military hierarchy made yet another blunder. We attacked at midnight, took Ruin Ridge after heavy hand to hand fighting, and when the objective was secured we sent the required signal. There was no answer to our message and no troops came to back us up. They left us there like shags on a rock. While fighting our way to the ridge we did not stop to destroy any of their equipment because of the expected follow up. Later that morning our Colonel was in touch with headquarters telling them that Jerry was counter-attacking and asked for support or permission to retreat. He was bluntly told to stay put. The Germans closed in around us, salvaging their equipment they had left earlier that morning.

My section at this time numbered 10 and included our officer and section corporal. We held the extreme right position and were out of contact with the rest of our platoon. Our ammunition was rapidly running out and because of our position we did not know what was happening. While our ammunition held we did a bit of damage, like knocking off any scouts that we could see, making the Germans think there were more of us than there really was. Eventually our ammunition and hand grenades ran out, so we were just lying there in the hot sun, waiting to be rescued by our own troops or, if they didn’t show, picked up by the Germans.

We were not taken prisoners until 11 a.m. on 28 July 1942. We were just lying there with our faces toward the ground, waiting, when I spotted a tank coming from behind and told the fellows on either side of me, “Here come our tanks.” It then turned side on to us and I called out, “No they are Germans,” as painted on the side I saw a big swastika. That was the last thing I remembered until ten minutes later, when I opened my eyes and wondered where my tin hat was. I found it away behind me, looked at it and saw a little hole in the front and half the back missing. I put my hand up to my head and gingerly felt it and came away with a handful of hair. I had another look at my tin hat then I ran my hand a bit harder across my head and got a handful of very bloody hair. I recall saying to the fellows along side of me, “Am I dead?” The blood then started running down the sides of my face.

There was this German calvary officer standing near us saying, “UP, UP.” We picked ourselves up and started walking toward him. He was staring hard at me as if he had just seen a ghost. When I got closer to him he was as white as a sheet, for he was sure he had just blown my head off. He then directed me down to their dressing station where they cleaned and bandaged it up to keep the sand, dust, and flies off.

The others waited for me, then with my demolished tin hat still in hand, we were marched to a temporary holding camp. The fellows I had been with told me that I was hit by a machine gun bullet from the tank and went flying back for at least 10 feet. By rights it should have blown my head off, as one of those would kill an elephant. All it did was bore a groove about one eighth of an inch deep and wide through the top of my skull and burnt the hair off on the way past.

We thought we had been the only ones taken, but then we got to the barbed wire enclosure we saw the rest of the platoon survivors were in there already. I kept my tin hat with me and many came over to admire it and my bandaged head. None believed that I was wearing it at the time, but if I hadn’t I would not be standing there with them. No, the bullet could not have had my name on it.

The colonel came and shook my hand, telling me that this was the luckiest day of my life, as from a head count there were about 15 men short.

A German officer told us they would give us something to eat, but there was not enough water to make a hot drink. He also informed us that we would be staying there overnight and the next day taken to a stopover camp, then on to Benghazi.

We eventually got to the large Italian-run prison camp at Benghazi. There were troops of all different nationalities there, including New Zealanders, South Africans, Poles, British, and Indians. Total prisoners numbered around 30,000.

When we went into action we did not expect an extended stay, and were dressed only in our summer fighting rig—shorts, shirt, our underclothes, boots, and socks. Once we became prisoners we noticed it was very cold at night and we would lie close together trying to keep warm. The Italian gave us each one of their ground sheets as a blanket and the ground for a bed. As far as food and water was concerned, it was not very much. Our doctor, who had been taken prisoner with us, told us that the food was scarcely enough to keep us alive.

I had about half a dozen close friends and even though we had little enough to live on and the place stank, due to lack of water, we were determined to stay in the prison camp as long as we could. It was easy enough to get from one camp to another, so when a ship called to take a load of prisoners, we would change our names with anyone who wanted to get out of the place. We stayed in the hope that Alexander and Montgomery would get there before long, liberating the camp. We were looking forward to decent clothes again, as the Italians gave us none at all. We finally decided to make clothes out of the ground sheet. By this time all I had was threadbare shorts. We made up pants and a wrap-around jacket for each of us.

Eventually the Italians caught up with us and put us aboard a ship bound for Italy. With two days’ food aboard, we headed out into the Mediterranean. The sailors had to keep a look out for British submarines that were around, as they had scored the previous night. To the British it was just another enemy ship and they did not hang around to pick up survivors. The rations soon ran out while dodging submarines, which extended our two-day pleasure cruise into several hunger-filled days. I’m sure we sailed around every island twice. The skipper had been to Fremantle a few times and turned out to be a decent chap who could speak English fairly well. After our rations ran out, he acquired stores from the islands that we had passed, and instead of keeping us locked in the hold he would let us out during the days.

Finally we sailed through the narrow Corinth Canal and tied up at Fort Piraeus, the main port of Athens. When we sailed from there we went hell for leather to the Port of Taranto, down the lower side of Italy. There we disembarked and were issued with new clothing, the same as they were wearing. They put us all though a steam bath, which was supposed to get rid of all our lice. It certainly killed the live ones, but not the eggs, which hatched and settled into our new clothing, meaning we had to start the killing all over again.

From there we were put on a train, which took us on to Bari. The conditions there were terrible, as the huts we had to live in were made of straw and it rained every day. Thank God we were only there for a fortnight because we were wet through all the time. Whenever the sun did shine we would sit down and pic the lice off our clothes.

We left Bari aboard a train and we were taken to a place called Servigliano, where we were put into a commandeered civilian prison—a place like Freemantle jail, with 15-foot high walls, broken glass embedded in the top, and a walkway about three feet from the top on the outside. Each guardbox contained two sentries and a machine gun. About every 15 minutes or so, one would patrol the wall, meet his mate halfway for a talk and smoke, then patrol back.

See “R. J. McMahon, Part 2—Escape and Beyond” for the conclusion of this story.