The first important lesson-to keep the head down

28th June 1941

28th June 1941 1

 

 

28th June 1941 2

TX 1004

Pte M Hickman

2/33rd Battalion

AIF

Abroad

28th. 6. 41

Dear Mother and Dad

Just a few lines hoping they find you happy and well as I am at present.  I have had three letters during this week.  Two of them rather old but very interesting.  The one you wrote me on New Years Day and a very bright cheery epistle written by Audrey as secretary for Maxwell Osborne.  I was quite surprised to read in both letters that Brian Phillips was in Scotland last year.  I suppose he’s a full fledged Lieutenant now.  Though it never occurred to me at the time he may have been on the same ship as young Roy Cazaly and the other navy chaps I met in Edinburgh on my leave.  Audrey also mentioned that Max had tried to join up but that the department wouldn’t release him.  She didn’t think they would hold back for long though, so he might be in now.  I was very amused with one extract of her letter in which she spoke of her brother Geoff who is a WO in an AMC unit in Palestine.  She said Geoff had a wonderful knack of making friends with the natives and was quite friendly with the mayor of a village who sent him fruit and roses every day.  Of course you would hardly appreciate the joke but to those who are here it’s a highlight.

You remember me telling you some time back that old Claude Hill had been reboarded and might be sent back home.  Well, one of the chaps who’s just come up from the ITB said he hasn’t gone yet but his back is very bad.  He said Ken Jenkins’ arm has gone on him and though he may be here some time is almost certain to be sent home too.   I guess that will suit Ken because he’s been very homesick.

I didn’t know till now that I’m allowed to tell you that I’ve been in action for three weeks.  We’ve been in training so long that when we struck the real thing it was just like a large scale manoeuvre, except that the bullets were lead and not wood and I think I can say I’ve learned the first important lesson – to keep the head down.  Have taken part both in reception committees and as guests of honour in the front seats on the platform.  I think most of the chaps have lost their enthusiasm for soldiering purely as an adventure and have now one desire – to get back home.  The symphony created by the many and varied projectiles had a far more pleasant sound through the radio or the talkies than in its actual presence and I’m not too proud to say I’ve acquired a new respect for mother earth and have even found a bush of thorns more comforting than a cushion.  It is hard to describe how keen one’s faculties become when the air rings with a variety of noises, each of which has a deadly intention.  The screech of bombs, the whistle of mortars, the swi-ish of shrapnel, the whirr of fighter aircraft and the drone of the bombers.  The Ha-Ha-Ha’s of the Vickers and the rat-tat-tat of the Bren and the chippity chop of the Hotchiss together with the ping of rifle fire combine to produce a keenness that would be beyond the imagination of any who had not been amongst it – and through it all there runs a vein of humour that is the mainstay of individual and collective endurance.  Its amazing the limits to which human endurance can reach.  Men who in England have piqued on a twenty five mile route march have under pressure of circumstances stood up to three weeks intense campaigning in some of the most rugged country of the world, often without food and with very little water.  Every Australian soldier can well be proud of the uniform they wear.  The officers almost to a man gave excellent account of themselves and the men have acquired a very wholesome respect for them.

In a week or so’s time we may get a little leave or at least be near a town and if so I’ll try and get you a birthday present Mother – It’ll be a little late but you’ll understand won’t you.  I’ve got a few bob in my pay book and may even be able to get Jack and Lil a belated wedding present.

The situation in Europe is clarifying itself somewhat and I think there’s every reason to hope that the war will be over by Christmas.  The Russian venture must surely end Hitler’s march and I don’t think the moneyed interests are strong enough to prolong this war once the peoples of the world decide to finish it.  What a chaos Europe will be when it’s all over and all because of one man.  If ever a man earned the torments of the damned it’s Hitler.

In the present Mother & Dad I’ll say cheerio.  My love to May & Anne & regards to the boys.

Your loving son

Max

PS (added at the top of page 1) – I have written several letters but of course don’t know how they’ve fared.

Censor : Gordon Bennett

 

Diary entries

Tuesday 24th

Attached B company – with them as flank support in taking Kirbi – later in day sent out on foot to bring in carrier – subjected to mortar and machine gun attack.  Three days just supporting rifle company.

Friday 27th

Transferred to B Coy 10 platoon.  Took over Kirbi position – subjected to worst shelling of campaign.  Two killed, one wounded in night bombardment

This entry does not correspond with any action or casualty description in The Footsoldiers, so the details will have to remain a mystery

Telling the family what they want to hear

Clearly, Audrey Phillips’ brother was also focussed on keeping his family’s spirits up – it would be wonderful for his sister to be told that the local head man was regularly sending him fruit and roses!

Later memories : A near death experience!

In a piece Dad wrote in the 1970’s he shares another incident from this time:

Another incident I recall occurred when the French forces mounted a counter offensive and regained some of the territory we and taken.  Our top echelon assumed they might try a further push.  Minefields were laid to impede any further advance.  I was sent with a Bren gun to take up a position forward of where the mines were being laid.  When the engineer officer and his assistant had laid all the mines they had, the officer said “We will look after the Bren.  You go back down to the depot and tell the sergeant to send up more mines”.  I don’t know why he didn’t send his assistant.  Anyway, without questioning the order, I went along the road toward the depot and had nearly reached it when I stopped to light a cigarette,  A voice yelled ‘Keep coming’ and I found myself looking into four loaded rifles.   I said ‘What the hell’s wrong with you lot?’  They said ‘Who are you?’.  Of course, when I told them everything was alright, but as one of them said, when you have pushed twice in as many days you get a bit trigger happy, and as no-one knew me, I was probably a bit lucky.

From The Footsoldiers : B Company’s activities

The operational order for the attack on Ibeles Saki was issued at 1910 hours on 22 June…..Once there, command of the roads and surrounds should ensure the capture of Merdjayoun. The Little Pimple, C Company’s objective, was an essential preliminary….As a feint to attract the enemy’s attention away from the Pimple fighting, B company was ordered to capture Kheibe.  At 0600 hours [on June 23] Lieutenant Marshall’s 10 platoon supported by two carriers advanced….succeeding in entering Kheibe without a shot being fired by either side.  It appeared the French had withdrawn from the area.  However, while 10 platoon was preparing its defence position, mortars and MG’s suddenly opened fire from then direction of Ibeles Saki, but caused no casualties….From the morning of 25 June until the relief of the battalion on the night of 28/29, A, D and B companies remained in contact with the French…..10 platoon remained at Kheibe, actively patrolling north and  getting fired on from French positions about Rachaya al Fokhar.

Note – In some accounts, the town name Kheibe is spelled Khirbe.  (closer to Dad’s Kirbi)

Gordon Bennett

Captain Bennett (WX335) was at this time CO of B Company.  He served with the unit throughout the war and was awarded the MC.  On two occasions he assumed administrative command of the battalion.

Weapons

According to The Footsoldiers, the battalion had four rifle companies each with three sections.  The section leader carried a Thompson sub-machine gun, with a member with a Bren LMG (light machine gun), with a no.2 to help carry magazines……At platoon HQ’s was a five-foot long Boyes anti-tank rifle…..Also at platoon HQ were two men, no. 1 and 2, who carried and fired the 500 yard range two-inch mortar and carried twelve bombs….As part of BHQ there was also an Ack Ack (anti-aircraft) platoon…..No. 3 Mortar Platoon, the CO’s immediate close support ‘guns’ consisted of two sections each of two three-inch mortars, each mortar named as a detachment.  It fired a 10lb bomb with a range of 1100 yards…..

There is no mention here of Vickers or ‘Hotchiss’ guns.  However, as the Battalion was fighting alongside British Rifle companies, it seems possible that Dad would be familiar with their weapons.

Bren  (LMG)

The Bren Gun, usually called simply the Bren, was a series of light machine guns adopted by Britain in the 1930s and used in various roles until 1992. … best known for its role as the British and Commonwealth forces’ primary infantry light machine gun (LMG) in World War II….Although fitted with a bipod, it could also be mounted on a tripod or vehicle-mounted.

The Bren was a modified version of Czechoslovak-designed light machine guns, the ZB vz. 26 and its descendants, which British Army officials had tested during a firearms service competition in the 1930s. The later Bren featured a distinctive top-mounted curved box magazine, conical flash hider and quick change barrel. The name Bren was derived from Brno, Moravia, the Czechoslovak city where the Zb vz. 26 was originally designed and Enfield, site of the British Royal Small Arms Factory. (ref Wikipedia)

Anti-aircraft_BrenGunPhoto :

Indian troops manning a Bren light machine gun in an anti-aircraft mount in 1941.

Vanderson W G (Lt), No. 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit – This is photograph E 2502 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

 

Vickers (MMG)

The Vickers medium machine gun (MMG) or Vickers gun is a name primarily used to refer to the water-cooled .303 British (7.7 mm) machine gun produced by Vickers Limited, originally for the British Army. The machine gun typically required a six to eight-man team to operate: one fired, one fed the ammunition, the rest helped to carry the weapon, its ammunition and spare parts.[1] It was in service from before the First World War until the 1960s (ref Wikipedia)

Vickers_machine-guns_fire_in_support_of_troops_crossing_the_Maas-Schelde_Canal

Photo info:

Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit Post-Work: User:W.wolny – This is photograph B 10144 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-29)

Vickers machine-guns of 2nd Middlesex Regiment, 3rd Division, fire in support of troops crossing the Maas-Schelde Canal at Lille-St. Hubert (St Huilbrechts), 20 September 1944. Two interesting features are that the troops are wearing MK III British “Turtle” helmets, which were introduced shortly before D-Day. Additionally, the gunners are firing at long-range targets, as shown by the extreme elevation of the barrels

Boys anti-tank rifle (mentioned in The Footsoldiers)

The Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55in, Boys commonly known as the “Boys Anti-tank Rifle” (or incorrectly “Boyes”), was a British anti-tank rifle in use during World War II. It was often nicknamed the “elephant gun” by its users due to its size and large bore.  (ref Wikipedia)

Boys rifle photo

Photo info :

The British Army in France 1939-40 Men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers on the march at Gavrelle, near Arras, 17 October 1939. The two men in the foreground are carrying a Boys anti-tank rifle.

Keating G (Lt), War Office official photographer – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//48/media-48013/large.jpg This is photograph O 758 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Thompson sub-machine gun

The Thompson submachine gun (nicknamed the Thompson) is an American submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson in 1918….The Thompson was used in World War II in the hands of Allied troops as a weapon for scouts, non-commissioned officers (corporal, sergeant, and higher ranking), and patrol leaders as well as commissioned officers, tank crewmen, and soldiers performing raids on German positions. (ref Wikipedia)

9_Div_Tobruk(AWM_020779)

Photo – AAWM 020779 – 9th Div soldiers at Tobruk using Thompson sub-machine guns

 

 

 

 

Hotchkiss  guns

The 25 mm Hotchkiss anti-tank gun was a French anti-tank gun that saw service in the first years of the Second World War….When the British Expeditionary Force landed in France in 1939 it had insufficient numbers of anti-tank weapons such as the Ordnance QF 2 pounder. They were issued canons de 25 which became known as Anti-Tank Gun, 25 mm. Hotchkiss, Mark I on 25 mm. Carriage, Mark I in British service. The BEF was fully mechanised and attempted to tow the weapon behind their vehicles, but quickly found that it was not robust enough, having been designed to be towed by horses. The solution was to use the gun as a portee, that is, carried in the back of a truck. It was the first artillery piece to be used in this way.  (ref Wikipedia)

Hotchkiss anti-tank gun

The British Army in France 1940 Men of 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment load a Hotchkiss 25mm SA 34 anti-tank gun onto the back of a Bedford MWG Portee, Meurchin, 27 April 1940.  Malindine E G (Lt), Taylor E A (Lt), War Office official photographer – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//47/media-47888/large.jpg This is photograph F 4120 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Hotchkiss .303 LMG

Since first publishing this entry, I have discovered that there was in fact also a Hotchkiss .303 LMG in use by Australian troops, and this seems the most likely one for Dad to have been referring to.  (It seems unlikely that the anti-tank gun would have produced a chippity-chop sound).  According to the book – 100 years of Australian Service Machine Guns (Ian Skennerton, 1989) – the Hotchkiss .303 LMG remained in limited service until the 2nd World War; it was declared obsolescent and obsolete at the same time as the Lewis (April 1945).  Its main issue was to the Light Horse and after their disbandment it was relegated to the 2nd line and Home Defence use.

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