Photos: Dick Lewis
Rough weather in the Bight
4th April 1942
Dear Mother & Dad
This is the first time I’ve attempted to write for over two months – the longest two months I ever remember – every second dragged like an hour. The first few weeks we filled in our spare time – and it was nearly all spare time – playing bridge or five hundred and reading what few books there were to read but after we’d drawn a pay the biggest wave of gambling – for the number of men – I’ve ever seen swept the ship. Nothing else could take our minds off the monotony of weighted time.
I intended writing from Fremantle but as a liaison officer had arranged to send telegrams and there was considerable doubt as to censorship thought it best to wait till we got ashore and phone through, and as we only had a few hours had to waive the idea.
When we first came to our anchorage, the sight of an Aussie town keyed everyone to the skies but we had the tantalising experience of lying within sight of what to every man on board was the shores of paradise for eight days.
We’re now int he midst of the roughest sea we’ve struck in forty thousand miles of sea travel and this little old tub is having a tough trot as huge seas belt her from all directions and great waves sweep her from bow to stern and anything not securely lashed rides through space. Though of course we don’t know anything definite we’re all hoping that we’ll disembark at the next port and with luck we should be at the city of churches within a couple of days and although it probably won’t be possible I’ll try and phone you from there. If it hadn’t been for the monotony and cramped conditions it wouldn’t have been a bad trip. Except for boat drill and action station stuff we’ve had very few parades and the food has been better than on either of the other troop ships on which we travelled. Although there was a lot of bully beef we’ve had bread once a day and timed fruit twice a week.
Well mother I must say cheerio now. When I started writing we were head on but now we’re getting it in the middle and its a work of art to write at all. Give my love to May and Anne and regards to Laurie and the boys. I hope I’ll soon be home with you.
Your loving son
Official mystery (re the Carriers) continues
As with embarkation arrangements, I can find no official record – apart from Dad’s individual army record – of the fact that the Pundit was part of the convoy that left Port Tewfik on February 8 and 9 1942. The following are fragments that fill in some of the blanks.
Dad’s comments about the Pundit many years later (article written in the early 70’s) were – The Carrier and Transport groups along with other transport and heavy equipment and a considerable quantity of explosives came on a ship called the Pundit – a tramp ship that had been condemned before the war and was in the hands of the ship breakers. When the war started it was put back into service. The Pundit was too slow to travel in convoy so from the time we left Suez, we were on our own in an area where Japanese submarines were reaping a harvest.
(Note that the loss of HMAS Sydney in November 1941 demonstrated that German raiders were also active in this area….see maps of the Kormoran’s movements, mentioned below)
Although the Pundit may have been old, she continued to ply the seas after this voyage. In October 1942 she was involved in a rescue in the mid-Atlantic Ocean— coincidentally alongside the Ettrickbank, the vessel that had brought the 25th Brigade Carriers from Port Said to Suez (Port Tewfik) in February. (ref. World War II Sea War, Vol 7: The Allies Strike Back – Bertke, Smith & Kindell 2014). Then in February 1943 her name appears as part of a convoy sailing from the UK to North America – her destination was New York City, and she apparently joined the convoy in Reykjavik. (ref war sailors.com/convoys/on165 )
The document here lists shipping movements through the Port of Fremantle in March/ April 1942. SS Pundit is shown arriving on March 18 and departing on March 29. http://www.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/Parliamentary%20Submissions/PINQ/SUBS/019/PINQ.SUBS.019.0028.pdf The same document contains several maps of the movements of the German raider Kormoran in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal during 1941 and 42.
Experiences on board
More from the early 70’s article : South of Ceylon the ship’s officers sighted what they believed to be an enemy submarine on the horizon. Discretion was the better part of valour and so we turned around in the opposite direction. I am sure we went back further in four hours than we had travelled the other way in two days. From then on, the ship avoided the regular travel routes. It was nine weeks from when we left Suez until we arrived at Fremantle.* Boat drill was carried out every day and that helped somewhat to break the monotony. From Fremantle we sailed to Adelaide – another seven days’ journey. We disembarked at Port Adelaide and joined up with the Battalion who were camped in the Adelaide Hills and shortly afterwards were granted six days’ home leave.
*Actually, 5 1/2 weeks (compared with the 3 1/2 weeks of the rest of the Battalion). The time from Fremantle to Adelaide was not exaggerated – according to his Army record, Dad arrived in Port Adelaide on April 6 : 8 days after leaving Fremantle. (compared with 4 days for those on the Mount Vernon). Nine weeks was approximately the time from Suez to Adelaide.
Boat drill (Dick Lewis photo)
Dick Lewis’ memories (audio, March 29 2041) :
The Pundit was slow, probably because she was too lightly loaded. For the most part she only travelled at about 4 knots – her bow came out of the water with every wave and then the prop came out, so they were constantly having to de-throttle. One night we were lying on the deck and watching as the Southern Cross appeared for the first time. As we watched, we realised the ship was changing direction. Then we heard the Captain shout – Give it your best speed – your B-E-S-T speed! We turned around and travelled away from the smoke or the light they and seen on the horizon. We were probably doing something like 17 knots then.
Very lucky not to be sent to Singapore
Dick Lewis remarked – We were very lucky, that when we got to Colombo, we were NOT sent to Singapore. Curtin saved us, by standing up to Churchill.
One of ours – phew!
Dick Lewis photo
Curtin’s opposition to Churchill’s wishes/ demands
There is a great deal of information available online, about Australian Prime Minister Curtin’s exchanges with Winston Churchill who expected all the Allies including Australia to commit to defeating Nazi Germany as their top priority. He had secured a secret agreement with US President Roosevelt to this effect, but the same agreement (the result of the Arcadia Conference) also made it acceptable for the US Navy to ‘safeguard vital interests’ in the Pacific and seize ‘vantage points’ from which a future counter-offensive against Japan could be launched. The US established a command base in Brisbane, in late December 1941. Some sources include –
From The Footsoldiers :
The journey (on the Mount Vernon) was pleasant, but the spirits of all on board became more downcast each day. On the 15th we heard of the surrender of Singapore and the loss of our 8th Division. With the much earlier news of the sinking of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales*, and now the apparent final days of the Americans becoming hemmed in ….in the Philippines…turned all our thoughts to our homeland. On 18 February we sailed into the packed harbour of Colombo…Though we were not aware of it at the time, our movements had become the cause of telegrams and meetings between the Chiefs of Staff in the UK, the US, the British Command in Sumatra, and our own Chiefs of Staff in Australia, and the Prime Minister Mr Curtin. Burma had been invaded by the Japanese and Slim’s army was retreating. Churchill wanted the 7th Division to land and secure Rangoon. John Curtin wanted us to return to Australia. General Wavell, now heading ABD Command in Sumatra, wanted us to strengthen Sumatra. John Curtin won, and as events proved, luckily, for both Rangoon and Sumatra were lost. All these demands and counter-demands were the cause of our delay in Colombo. At 1800 hours on 24 February, our destination – Australia – resolved, we sailed….On the 25th it was announced that we were to disembark at Adelaide, first calling at Fremantle to take on fuel….the last few days of February kept all anxious lest the next step for the Japanese be to land in Australia before we arrived.
*These two British warships were sunk on December 9 – the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour and the invasion of northern Malaya by Japanese forces.
Receiving the News
On board Devonshire, Sgt W Williams and ship’s wireless officer getting news for the daily bulletin
On board HM transport Devonshire, Sgt Williams of the Military History and Information Section, checking the news with the ship’s wireless officer before issuing the daily news bulletin to troops.
Photo (AWM 011934) from another ship (the MS Sophocles) – but presumably typical of the way in which men received news of home and the war while at sea: One of the most eagerly awaited events of the day was the pasting up of the daily news sheet, picked up on the ship’s wireless and published by some of the ex news hounds aboard.
The bombing of Darwin
Not mentioned in Dad’s letter or in the Footsoldiers, news of the first Japanese bombing of Darwin on February 19 must have caused huge anxiety among the men. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/8233704
The surrender of Singapore
There is an enormous amount of information online about the Malaya campaign and the subsequent surrender of Singapore. (I find the clarity of information on the site http://www.ww2australia.gov.au particularly helpful) Until Curtin’s speech of December 27, the Australian public had probably been satisfied by assurances from leaders including Army commander General Blamey – that Singapore is ‘very, very strong. It faces the future with the greatest confidence.’ http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/47172599
For a recent, more in-depth assessment of the campaign in Malaya and the East Indies, see http://www.army.gov.au/Our-future/Publications/Australian-Army-Journal/Past-editions/~/media/Files/Our%20future/LWSC%20Publications/AAJ/2004Winter/19-OutgeneralledOutwittedA.pdf
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