Pte Max Hickman
19th April 1941
I received your very welcome letter of the 31st March yesterday. I’m glad my Palestine letters are getting home but surprised to know that the letters, cables and souvenirs I posted at Durban haven’t yet made the grade. Of course I suppose there isn’t much mail carried between South Africa and Australia. Very sorry to hear that May has had some more bad luck with a sprained wrist and fluid in the joints. She certainly has more than her share of trouble. Anyway I hope she’s well again now.
You asked me in your letter if Dick Schultz and Ken Jenkins are still with us – we haven’t been in the same unit since early in July last year, but lately I have seen quite a lot of them. They’re firm friends now, both being in the First Aid section of their battalion. Dick is actually in the Australian Army Medical Corps [AAMC] attached to the 31st battalion as Sergeant of the RAP and Ken is corporal of the stretcher-bearers.
Dad’s suggestion about writing a book with such characters as Schultz and McDonnell – well, as wags and wits they’re not in the race with a lot of the chaps in my platoon – a better selection of various types of wit you’d never meet in a months travel especially when one person becomes the object of a concerted barrage such as I encountered after my nose dive into the cactus bush when for the whole hour in which I extracted thorns from my skin I faced the combined witticisms of the other seven occupants of the tent. Their wits are kept sharpened by the endless interstate repartee and no matter how tough things are at all times and on all occasions humour dominates the scene. If one could keep a faithful diary of the humorous incidents of our everyday life, Ripley’s ‘Believe it or not’ would be put in the shade.
We spent the Easter in some of the keenest manoeuvres we’ve had, in very desolate sandy country around Gaza Ridge and other places familiar to dad in the last show. Sometimes in sand storms in which you could hardly see your hands in front of you – but it was a great experience and had many humorous incidents. During a break on Easter Sunday night the padre conducted a short but very impressive service and we [joined a] short sing song of hymns before going back to work.
A couple of parcels came in yesterday addressed to me but the bigger one was for McDonnell from Mrs Toomey – socks and handkerchiefs – very welcome indeed and as they were sent last October it gives reason to hope that some more of the Christmas parcels will come in.
As I write two letters have just come in – they are boat mail written about the middle of February – yours on the 17th Mother and one from Jack on the 15th. Both very cheerful epistles and very enjoyable. The barracks certainly gave you appropriate information when they told you we’re moving about a lot – we’re world tourists in a big way. Just what job was Mick going to do with the military?
I mentioned the fact that you hadn’t any letters for six weeks to another chap in the tent and he said that they told him in his letter that his people hadn’t had a letter for three months so my letters are not the only ones that haven’t been getting home. The mail from England to here is very slow too. The latest letters are January mail but there should be some more in very soon now.
So Anne has started school. I’ll bet she likes it too – she’d be the boss of the gang alright.
Well Mother I’ll say cheerio now. My love to you, dad, May and Anne and best regards to Laurie & the boys.
PS I must make my letters shorter mother because of difficulties with the mail authorities and I might even have to write in pencil. Tell May and youngster that I may not be able to write often but will write as soon as I can.
Wags and Wits
The cartoon below was printed in Active Service – the AWM’s Christmas Book for 1941 – and is indicative of the humour referred to above.
Manoeuvres in the desert
The Carriers were in their element in the desert – unfortunately for those like Dad who were trained for this role, the action they were to see was in territory where these vehicles were of little or no use.
Photo from Active Service (‘Christmas Book’ 1941, Australian War Memorial)
From The Footsoldiers (p28)
On the 14th to 16th April we had our first taste of the Khamsin (desert dust storm). Blowing in from the west, it mingled the red dust of the Western Desert with the sand of Egypt. So thick was it that we were unable to see the tips of our fingers at arms length. Wearing towels over our mouths and noses, and the eye shields from our respirators for protection, we endeavoured to pack our war kit and sort out our belongings so that our kitbags could be returned to kit stores, leaving only the essentials with which we could live and fight in the field.
On 16 April ….the CO assembled the battalion and gave us the news that we would shortly move west into action and would train as a battalion until we did……From 16 to 20 April we practised the classic open desert warfare ‘box’ formation in advance, in attack, and in movement across the hard stony desert. In our serge uniforms it was blistering hot by day and freezing in the bitterly cold nights – even in our greatcoats.
At long last the movement order arrived on 21 April and that night, the advance party entrained for the west. On 23 April the battalion entrained at the rail siding into a 3rd class Egyptian passenger train at 1130hours and moved west…..
Can’t see our way for dust….
Although the letter makes no reference to it, Dad’s diary does reinforce Bill Crooks’ comments above (from The Footsoldiers):
working in Q store for morning some mail at lunch time. Two parcels of woollens – one for me, one for McDonnell from Mrs Toomey – very nice pullover & socks. Pete McCowan goes to hospital with dysentry. Letter from Mother written on 31st March – have received mail from Palestine but not Durban mail.
Camouflages with nets – Brens, Carriers etc – Mess orderly – sand storm – left tent to go on parade at ten to two. Met Lieut Mitchell – said I was going the wrong way – wandered for hours in storm – could hardly see hand in front of you – must have been within a few yds of tents all the time – got back to tent at 4.20 – all in – went to RAP – had dose paraffin and aspro and went to bed straight after tea.
Manoever in sand in carriers – a good morning but guns in a hell of a mess – took two hours to clean – lecture in the evening on direction by stars – clean up and go to bed.
And spare a thought for the field hospitals…
Close to where the 2/33 was camped, the 2/9 Australian General Hospital was preparing to receive casualties from Greece and Tobruk. The following extract comes from A Special Kind of Service by Joan Crouch –
The first impressions of Abd El Kader were of desert, dust, heat, fleas and lack of baths or showers….Dysentery, sandfly fever, malaria, enteric fever, influenza and purulent skin diseases kept the medical wards busy…But the dust storms, with their fine penetrating sand, made working conditions almost impossible in the operating theatre, so surgery was limited. On one occasion it blew for three days and visibility was thirty feet. The temperature reached 120F …