At last – a visit to Ken, post amputation – and news of Japanese aggression

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TX 1004

Max Hickman

2/33rd Battalion

AIF Abroad

15th August 1941

Dear Mother & Dad

I think I’ve told you in several letters that I’ve been trying to get down to see Ken.  My numerous efforts having been unavailing, I’d practically given up the idea when Lieut. Weale the sig officer sent for me on Tuesday afternoon and told me that an officer would be going to Dimra in Palestine and I could go with him.

We left camp about half past five and made Haifa about half past nine – you remember my little lapse with Wattsie at Haifa – anyway we had a meal there about the best I’ve had since I was there last – and slept in the back of the truck.  We were away again at daybreak and I was at the seventh AGH at half past eight.  I found out where Ken was and the officer said he would pick me up on his way back about two o’clock.  In spite of being practically tied to his bed he literally jumped out when he saw me.  He was as pleased as punch.  I was lucky to get there in time because he was being moved to another hospital – much farther away – next morning.

Ken was very thin and pale but quite cheerful.  He’s had a hell of a tough trot and it’s only been his knowledge of anatomy and guts that have kept him alive.  I won’t go into the details because he’ll probably tell you the story himself but he couldn’t say anything good enough for Dick Schultz – reckoned he was an absolute marvel and did a wonderful job, working almost without a break.  Both the MO and the other RAP sergeant cracked up under the pressure but Dick kept going right through.  Both the new MO of the 31st and the Head of the Medical services in the Middle East have been to see Ken which says a lot for what they think of him.

Except for the couple of hours during which they were taking the half Thomas splint off and preparing Ken to be moved, I was with him all day.  We talked and yarned all the time.  The sisters at the Hospital are marvellous – they can’t do enough for the fellows.  Ken was a general favourite with them so they made me quite welcome.  I had three meals and numerous cups of tea.  The fresh bread and Aussie butter were enough to make a fellow homesick.

The chap in the bed next to Ken – John Limb from Hobart – dad might know his father – he goes up to the club a bit – he was at High when I was there.  He copped it at Greece and had been in Hospital four months but hopes to be out again at the end of this month.  On the way back we had a couple of drinks at the Australian canteen in Beyrouth and I struck a hell of a lot of Tassies including Archie Blackwood – you might remember him and Don….- the chap who used to work for Campbell.  He asked to be remembered to you.  He’s with the same crowd as old Frank Mulcahy’s son (Major Neil Mulcahy).  They’re camped about fifty miles away from us but we might get down that way sometime.  I believe there are four hundred Tassies in the unit.

I saw Dick this morning when I went along to give Clarrie (Ken’s brother) a message – incidentally he’s been recommended for a Military Medal – Dick’s going down to the 7th div Ammo crowd this afternoon and asked me to go with him but as I tried to explain I only work here.

The sister on night duty in Ken’s ward was one of the famous thirty who volunteered to stay with the wounded at Greece.  A chap who knew her before the war said she had a beautiful head of black hair but is now as grey as a badger but wonderfully cheerful – had something bright to say to everyone.  I met one girl there that I’d met at Websters – Joan Cotton from the east coast – her sister Doreen worked at Websters and (Joan) came in occasionally to see her.  Whilst they were dressing Ken’s stump I went to try and see another chap and enquired at a ward office if he was in that ward.  Whilst the sister in charge (Sister Bruce) was looking up her list of patients, this other girl came in.  She looked at me and said Max Hickman from Websters – I said well yes but a long time ago.  She made herself known and we had quite a yarn together.  It was a real kick to meet a girl from home – a real human being who spoke your own language.  The last time I spoke to a girl who spoke English was when we were at Durban.  The only women we see are the locals who do our washing.

The ABC van came up to our battalion last Tuesday and the Adjutant sent a screed round that anyone who wished to send a short message could do so.  They made records of the messages in state groups.  Unfortunately the Tasmanians were last and as the officer I was going south with was leaving at least an hour before we would be broadcasting I had to abandon my intentions but ran off a few words and asked another chap to put it over for me so when the records reach Aussie and they’re put over you’ll understand the different voice.  I know how much more you would appreciate hearing my own voice Mother but the circumstances left me no choice.

Your very welcome letter of the 28th July and youngsters of the 30th have just arrived. [  bottom of page cut off….ie 2-3 lines of text censored]

The big game of chess still goes on and it seems that Vichy is now openly in collaboration with the Nazis.  I fancy it’ll suit our lot better to know exactly where we stand.  Russia’s apparently still holding the Germans and if they can continue to do so till Winter sets in it shouldn’t last much longer.  The Japanese business has assumed rather big proportions lately but I guess if things were really crook they’d take us to Malaya or somewhere handy to home.

I’m enclosing a snap – it doesn’t really concern me directly.  It was the carrier that got blown up in the mine field.  The chap marked was a bit tinnie and got away with a few shrapnel scratches and a busted eardrum.  There’s one face in the picture that’ll be familiar – McDonnell (he wasn’t in the carrier).  I don’t know what’s come over him lately – he’s been writing letters every spare minute.  I don’t think he’s written a dozen letters since we left home but he’s certainly writing some now – must think we’re going home and is squaring himself off with some of his loves.

I’ll say cheerio now – all the best

Your loving son





A note sent home with Ken

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Dear Mother & Dad

I’m with Ken at the moment but expect to have to leave very shortly now.  Ken will be leaving for home tonight or tomorrow morning and asked me if I had any message.  There’s one message I would wish to send – my fondest love.  Keep your chin up – seeing Ken and knowing the suffering he’s had is an inspiration to carry on.  It makes one realise how small are his own troubles.

Ken knows as much of my doings almost as I know myself and will tell you of our life abroad.  Give my love to May & Anne and best regards to the boys.  We all hope to be home soon.



Travelling south

bridge at Damour

Four hours to travel around 130km from the camp to Haifa is probably explained by the condition of the roads which had been extensively damaged during the campaign – e.g. this painting by Harold Herbert of the bridge at Damour on the coast road (source: Active Service).

The second leg, of only a slightly longer distance (around 120km) seems to have been accomplished in much less time.


7th AGH at Rehovot  

Photos are hard to come by.  There is a ‘panorama from the top of the tank stand’, showing the tents and buildings of the 2/7 AGH at

The Thomas splint

From Wikipedia:  The first widely used model of traction splint was introduced by Hugh Owen Thomas, a Welsh surgeon, considered by many to be the father of modern orthopaedic surgery. Prior to the introduction of the Thomas splint around 1916, mortality from femur fractures ran as high as 80%. Use of this splint reduced the death rate to less than 8%.


Mentioned in Despatches

John Limb: a bit of a mystery – the online WW2 nominal roll shows him not enlisting until 1942, but gives two service numbers – the first TX 642 which suggests he enlisted before Dad (ie before March 1940), and the second T 45009.  This latter is the only one listed in the National Archives record, which gives date of enlistment as July 1942.  I assume he was given a medical discharge after his hospitalisation, and that he subsequently re-enlisted in a support role.

Campbell – Charles Campbell was known to everyone in Lenah Valley, as he had opened a ‘corner store’ in 1914 – which moved to the corner of Augusta Rd and Giblin St in 1919.  At that time, the family lived in the house at the rear of the shop.  Charles’ son Colin continued to run the business until 1974 with his son John (who was a classmate of Anne Fisher – Dad’s niece, regularly mentioned in his letters), and the shop still exists though with different management.

Neil Mulcahy – at the time of his discharge in 1945, Major Mulcahy had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  It seems from his service record and that of Archie Blackwood, that they were in the AASC (Australian Army Service Corps).

Joan and Doreen Cotton – ‘from the east coast’ – Tasmanians will recognise the Cotton name, as it has in recent years been connected with quite a controversy surrounding the so-called ‘Cotton papers’ which, it is claimed, provided accounts of local Aboriginal customs, beliefs and practices from the early days of white settlement. The actual papers were lost in a fire but have been reconstructed and published by Jane Cooper (nee Cotton) in the book Land of the Sleeping Gods.   Francis Cotton, a Quaker, arrived in Tasmania (then Van Diemens Land) in 1829 and settled near what is now Swansea. He was the father of ten children.  His property Kelvedon is now a vineyard.

Max Hickman from Websters

Militia documents from 1930 and 1937 show Dad’s occupation as firstly a clerk and second a salesman.  Either of these could have been at AG Webster and sons, a long established Hobart firm.  however, as he says ‘a long time ago’ we might assume that the clerk was at Websters but the salesman was not.  By the time he enlisted for the AIF he was a ‘contractor’ (builder).  We know that after he left school he spent some time working as a labourer on the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne  – that could have been in 1928/29.  For more on Websters, see


The famous thirty (nurses)

From the Australian War Memorial website:  In early April 1941, as the fighting in Greece intensified, the matrons of 2/5th and 2/6th AGH were ordered to prepare for immediate evacuation. Transport was limited, so not everyone could go. Matron Best of 2/5th AGH asked her nurses to write their names and either “stay” or “go” on a slip of paper. Although staying meant possible capture, “not one Sister wrote ‘go’ on the paper. I then selected 39 sisters to remain [with me].”  With the railway line destroyed, the departing nurses headed south in trucks. They sheltered in a cemetery during an air raid, and arrived at Navplion only to discover several ships on fire. Fishing boats ferried them to a waiting ship: “We … had to judge the gap, and leap to the destroyer, equipped with tin hat, respirator, great coat and a very tight mid-length skirt.”   Despite attacks from enemy bombers, the nurses arrived on Crete and set to work at a British tent hospital as wounded troops flooded in. Meanwhile, the group left behind in Greece struggled on despite the air raids. To make themselves easily recognisable as non-combatants, they wore their red capes and white caps. Finally, in the early hours of 26 April, they too were evacuated.   Three days later all the nurses left Crete for Alexandria.


 I guess if things were really crook they’d take us to Malaya or somewhere handy to home.

It’s possible Dad had seen the front page headline from the Melbourne Argus of July 30: JAPANESE OCCUPATION OF INDO-CHINA IN FULL PROGRESS – Vichy hands over air and naval bases.  The article says that the Vichy government had signed a protocol ‘for the mutual defence of Indo China’.  It also reports that Japanese radio is launching a campaign against Thailand.  It claims the British troops are moving towards Thailand’s frontier and the British warships are patrolling the coast.  and that Lt-Gen Douglas MacArthur had been confirmed by the Senate as the C-in-C of US armed forces in the Far East.    See

Recording messages to send home

Although this photo is not of the 2/33rd, it does show a soldier recording a greeting to be broadcast via the ABC.  (AWM 010443)


This entry was posted in Censorship, organisation, Tasmania, The course of the war and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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