This story is written from the point of view of a teenage kid.
It is interesting how people’s paths cross. I have been following Geoff Vieritz great story about his Tin Can Bay days as a kid in the CMF – Citizens Military Force now called Army Reserve. I also was in the CMF at this time as a schoolboy but instead of being a low class Infantry Private I was a more up-market Artillery Gunner in 11 Field Regiment. We were at Tin Can Bay at the same time as Geoff’s mob on that fateful wet exercise.
Like Geoff, I found a highlight of the exercise the appearance of the Centurion tanks. They went charging? around the area at walking pace leaving 600mm deep ruts in the soft, wet ground that are still clearly visible from the air in this fragile country 40 years later. I began to realise how restricted tanks are – in fact completely useless on many occasions – when we watched a cast of thousands with recovery vehicles taking two days to get one out of a bog right behind our gun position.
11 Field Regiment (now combined with 5 Field Regiment as 5/11) was based at Annerley but I was a member of the battery at Southport. All the other batterys had Studebaker 6×6 trucks but our Battery was equipped with GMC’s. We had the world’s most over-engineered vehicle, the British Austin Champ, as our light vehicle but Regimental Headquarters was getting rid of those white elephants and replacing them with Landrovers like the Regular Army who had the good sense not to have been involved in Champs in the first place.
Back in the sixties there were still a number of people who had little or no high school and had started work at the minimum age of 14. This might have been OK for Geoff’s mob but unfortunately the Artillery requires a bit of a grasp of maths if you expect to get ahead. My mate, John Salter, and I were grabbed with both hands by the OC when we inquired about joining. John was a obviously a brilliant academic being in year 11 (he did go on to win a Military Cross in Vietnam and become CO of 1RAR)
I was less brilliant only in year 10 but still taken on as a “mascot”. It was another 3 months to my 17th birthday – the minimum age- but they were so short of people and Southport was so far from Regimental Headquarters the CO took me on. I was issued with all the gear and attended all the parades. Having no regimental number I was “locally” issued with 123456 and my name was written in pencil in the book (just in case there was an audit!) Of course I got no pay – who cared about that.
The first weekend after I “joined” there was a truck-driving course and we had three marvellous days racing around in GMC’s. I remember everyone having to climb Nobby’s Hill (where the chair lift used to be) without missing a gear on the changes all the way back to first. There was lots of crunching but everyone made it to the top except John. I think this put Infantry in his head as it took him three goes with the Regular Army driving instructor rolling his eyes and theatrically raising his hands to heaven. The highlight was running around on the Spit where Sea World now is.
Running is a relative term because as any GMC driver knows they are useless in soft sand so the winching lessons did not have to be concocted. Dual wheels on the front only made the truck impossible to steer as it sunk up to its axles in the sand. The day we were on the spit there was also a mob with DUKW’s (amphibious “Ducks”) doing training. I must admit I was impressed for, as we dug those bloody GMC’s out of the sand, the DUKW’s were driving through the sandhills, across the beach and launching into fairly high surf. They burst through the waves to the calm water beyond then turned around and sped back into the beach on the back of a wave. Seemingly without stopping they drove across the sand and disappeared into the dunes, leaving us to our labours.
School holidays had started so I put my self down for every course going. This is a perennial problem with CMF/Army Reserve, finding people with the time. Every Thursday night I slowly completed a signaller’s course. My qualifying details were placed in an envelope in the OC’s desk to be added to my file when I turned 17 and officially enlisted. They wanted to put me in the Survey Section because of my advanced grade 10 mathematics! I did not want to be in a tent with slide rules and calculators (the metal medieval types not push button ones) talking to the guns over the radio – I wanted to be on the guns. So that is where I went.
John and I, having lots of time off during the Xmas holidays were taken under the wing of a kindly old Regular Army Warrant Officer assigned to the Battery. He was a WW2 veteran and it was his last posting before retirement. He would sit down with us during a weekday, when all the other unit members were at work, beside a 25 pounder gun going through everything a gunner needed to know. We progressed in a couple of weeks beyond the level it took a Thursday night-only member over a year to do. I did a couple of trips to Brisbane (driving an Austin Champ with my Army Licence issued to a non-existent 123456 Gunner LR Kidby) to do a layer’s course (the man who sits on the seat aiming and firing the gun – a Bombardier’s position).
I eventually reached my 17th birthday and after a Thursday night parade, I handed in my enlistment papers, signed by my parents, to a horrified Regular Army adjutant, who had not been aware of my “mascot” status. It would not happen today, as no CO would risk having a kid, not covered by any medical or compensation arrangements.
I was the fastest learning soldier in history and with my enlistment papers went the qualifications for Heavy Vehicle Licence (gun towing), Regimental Signaller and Gun Layer. I don’t know how they reconciled the dates but when I got out of the Regular Army 20 years later I received my file and there on the very first page were my qualifications gained months before my enlistment date!!
I was a child prodigy on the 25 pounder. I could sight, correct and load my gun faster than anyone else in the regiment. Our gun crew, led by an amiable sergeant who was a plumber in real life, was regularly asked to demonstrate a shoot for the unwashed masses. We won every shoot on every weekend exercise when the battery would deploy to some dairy farmer’s paddock near Nerang (complete with camouflage nets, track plans, light discipline etc). Number 2 gun was always the first to report “Ready”. There was only one minor flaw in my skill and qualifications – I had never seen a 25 pounder actually fired let alone pulled the handle!
Just prior to my “official” enlistment a 4-day exercise to Tin Can Bay arrived. It takes a full day to drive a convoy of GMC’s towing 25 pounders along with a Blitz water truck and numerous other sundry vehicles from Southport to Tin Can Bay. I did not mind as I spent the drive impressing the troops in the back with masterful, entirely unnecessary, whipping up and down through the gears of the GMC. I wonder what the politically correct would say now about an unauthorised 16 year old driving one of Her Majesty’s vehicles with a gun in tow and 10 of her crack troops in the back.
We arrived in the dark and fortunately arrangements had been made to feed us but no accommodation provided. The officers managed to get a tent up but the rest of us slept in, on and under the vehicles. Luckily it was warm and dry.
I found it hard to suppress my excitement the next morning when the CO, who had arrived from Brisbane, told us the whole next two days would be tactical. Orders were issued, briefings given (the further down the line the less you knew – I made notes of every point of the gun sergeant’s brief. It was not a large volume as my entire instructions were “Follow the truck in front.”)
Off we went on a supposed mission of mercy to save our troops defending against the yellow hordes sweeping in from Rainbow Beach. The only yellow hordes I saw were holiday makers enroute to the beach covered in that terrible self-tanning cream that was popular back in the 60’s.
Racing down tracks was rather exciting. Speed was essential as the defenders were down to their last round and the only thing that was going to save them was an artillery barrage. We wheeled off the road to a small clearing and saw, to our surprise, another battery of 11 Field Regiment setting up. Wow! The barrage at Alamein would have nothing on our performance – 8 guns!
The trucks stopped. The gun sergeants leapt out, talked to the waiting battery captain to get their positions then waved to their truck to follow them. It was a race; first gun ready was everything. I floored the GMC and cut inside the truck of number 1 gun better than Peter Brock as we raced for our sergeants holding their arms up. Next thing the front of the truck went over a log and the bonnet/hood (not fastened by me that morning after checking the oil) flew violently up, bending and jamming completely blocking the view. Undaunted, I pressed on flat out by reference to the view out the door and sense of direction from my last sighting of my sergeant. I knew we had arrived when I saw him flinging himself sideways beside the door to avoid becoming the new GMC radiator badge. I did not really have to see him, as the language was somewhat colourful.
As expected, number 2 gun was first ready. Next thing we saw was the Battery Sergeant Major (my old mentor) coming down the line, looking down the barrel of each gun and yelling “Crested”. I thought he was yelling “Rusted” and smirked in the knowledge our barrel was gleaming, unlike those filthy cretins on the other guns.
Actually he was looking to see if the guns were clearing any obstacles – hill crests for instance or in this case trees. If the shells would hit an obstacle the gun was crested. Next thing there is a flurry of activity, boxes being opened and people racing forward to the tree line with chainsaws in their hands. Now there are only two things in this world on which EVERYONE is an expert. One is tapping a keg and the other is using a chainsaw. I think the only offence these days in the military with a death sentence is cutting down trees in a training area. But this was the 60’s. As I helped the gun sergeant get the ammunition out and screw in the fuses I watched the circus unfolding in front of us.
Twenty experts whose entire small engine experience was their VICTA lawnmower were pulling starter cords with a frenzied passion. PULL, COUGH, FART. PULL,COUGH,FART. PULL,COUGH,FART,CURSE,ROAR.
If the yellow hordes could have seen the mayhem they would have been well satisfied. People yelling, chainsaws roaring then stopping for no known reason, trees crashing within inches of people. Every saw operator had a group around him shouting advice and instructions. I was carried away by the excitement of the colour and movement but looking back it was just a bloody shambles. It was a miracle nobody was killed.
The CO finally was happy with the safety clearance and the attempts to deforest the entire Queensland coast were abandoned. All the crews raced back to their guns.
This was really exciting! The Command Post (CP) were receiving instructions from the FO’s (Forward Observation Officers) who we could picture in the defenders’ position. They had a pistol in one hand dropping the odd yellow hordee (what is singular for horde?) who had managed to break through the defenders’ lines and a radio handset in the other, calmly giving coordinates of the target.
We had been picked to be the ranging gun for both batteries – quite an honour for the first shoot. “Number 2 gun – Load!”. For the very first time I saw the boys ram a live shell into the breach followed by the brass casing containing the correct number of cordite charge bags required for the particular distance.
I sat there, hand in the air beside the sight, waiting for the instruction. The Battery Captain yelled the direction and elevation from the CP. I flashed up to the dials but was verbally kicked in the backside for moving before the gun sergeant repeated the order. Hours of practice in farmer Brown’s cow paddock at Nerang saw my hands a blur as I spun the wheels to bring the bubbles level. Hand on the firing lever, I called “Ready”.
I slammed my hand down on the brass handle just as someone smacked me over the head with a baseball bat!
I did not hear the noise but the shock made me see stars. I nearly fell off the little round seat. My ears were ringing and I was totally dazed.
Out of the mists I could hear someone yelling “Reset! No Back! Left is less you dickhead!” and similar words to that effect.
By the third ranging round I was starting to enjoy it and had a feeling that if I pulled the handle really hard it would make the shell go faster. At last the FO was satisfied we were decimating sufficient of the horde and he ordered 4 rounds fire for effect from all 8 guns (each gun had been following the corrections given to us during the ranging so everybody was set to the same target).
This is where it really gets good. Normally when you get to fire a number of rounds speed is of the essence and it is a race to finish. With a whole bunch of guns side by side, the noise and excitement is unbelievable. The greatest fireworks show in the world is a piss-ant event when compared to being on a gun position during a shoot, particularly at night.
It was a few months before the next exercise during which time I turned 17 and started receiving my first pay! Then the entire Regiment set off for 10 days at Tin Can Bay where Gunner Kidby and Private Vieritz crossed paths without knowing it.
We started off with a full regimental shoot – all guns co-located. At least we gave the taxpayers’ dollars a big send-off.
There was a visit from the Army Chief of Staff and our CO and the CO of a Regular Army artillery regiment also at Tin Can Bay had made a bet. The General and all his minions stood atop a small hill while a gun crew from each regiment competed. My gun, a 25 pounder, against the Regular 105mm was selected. It was a drag race to drive in, set the guns up and blow up a double decker bus situated about 2 kilometres down the range. I was relieved of my dual job as driver and layer and another experienced 17 year old took over my truck to allow me to concentrate on my gun job.
The flag dropped about half a kilometre away from the gun position and the two trucks valve bounced through the gears to reach the spot first. We roared into position beside the other truck with such gusto that I watched the 25 pounder go up on one wheel as it swung around. Everybody was out before coming to a halt. The guns were off the trucks, on their platforms and crewmembers were ripping open ammunition boxes and fusing shells. Our faithful old Warrant Officer was urging me on, pointing out the target for me and giving adjustments.
It soon occurred to me that I did not understand a word he was saying! I had never had anything to do with direct fire where you can actually see your target. Everything previously had just been setting numbers on dials and looking at level bubbles. The 25 pounder has a fitting for a telescopic sight for anti-tank and direct work but we had never seen these so were using the tiny dial site eyepiece with strange (to me) settings. I was stuffing around with the gun pointing everywhere but the target when BANG, the 105 beside us fired and missed. They started to reload at a fantastic pace.
Seeing what was going on in the driver’s seat the Warrant Officer squatted down beside me peering down the barrel and with a “Left, Left OK! Now up OK!” aimed the gun like pointing a stick.
Lo and behold the big blue bus disappeared in a cloud of smoke and when it had cleared we saw it had broken in half! Being carried away with the excitement and only 17 years old, I accepted the back slapping from my mates and later accolades from the CO.
That evening my saviour, the Warrant Officer, came past my tent and, handing me three pages of instructions he had written out for me on direct fire procedures, walked off without saying anything. One of the other guys in the tent said, “I think the sergeant major fancies you the way he just gave you a big wink.”
Then it started to rain. Plans were altered, exercises changed or called off. The Centurions were bogged all over the range. Other units operating in this huge training area were running out of food as tracks closed. Our whole regiment launched off in a big convoy several kilometres long out onto the highway to circle the training area and come in from the North.
Everything we needed for 10 days was on the trucks. 25 pounder ammunition is very heavy – amazingly each round weighs 25 pounds – every vehicle carried around 10 tons (far in excess of GMC’s nominated 6 tons for highway work or 2.5 tons cross-country) plus towed a gun. I was down to first low on a couple of not particularly steep hills and once another truck had to be relieved of his gun to get up at all! Whoever was navigating was a horse’s backside because this huge snake of vehicles plunged into the bush on ever deteriorating boggy tracks.
The whole show of maybe a hundred vehicles deteriorated into a replay of the Second Battle of Mons. Trucks were grinding along in 6-wheel drive, sinking to their axles, being winched along, only to sink again 50 metres later. At one stage I was sitting on my axles with three other trucks in similar mode beside me as they tried to drive around. We had an exceedingly miserable night in the rain. Everybody was wet from the waist up and muddy from the waist down as we huddled in steaming piles on top of ammunition boxes in the back of trucks trying to sleep.
Next day we plunged further into the abyss. All day long we toiled, cut down trees, winched each other out and progressed about 5 kilometres. Late in the afternoon some genius happened to mention to the CO that a couple of trucks had run out of fuel and that they did not run too well on air. What arrangements were there for refuelling? For some reason there was no HF contact with the outside world.
Result was a couple of people running around syphoning fuel out of several vehicles to fill up an Austin Champ to go back to get help. I was going along too as I had caught my hand while removing a gun off the back of a bogged truck and needed a few stitches. The useless Champ was bogged twice on the way back to the road but the RAEME sergeant mechanic driver and I managed to get it out both times.
What luxury! When we arrived back at the permanent camp we were given a hot shower and a feed. After I was doctored and the sergeant had passed on the CO’s wish list to the Area Commander, a quartermaster took pity on us. Seeing us in the mess hut looking like filthy animals he organised to have our mud caked uniforms handed in and exchanged for crisp new ones – including socks and boots!
There was only a CL (a road use only two-wheel drive truck) available to bring fuel up. It would all have to be in hundreds of jerrycans as the army has few fuel tankers at the best of times. This enabled us to have a warm night’s sleep in a proper bed while waiting for the fuel to be organised and loaded. The CO had the forethought to request HF radio communications to be brought back on the fuel truck as well.
Next day we led the fuel truck as far as he could go before risking being bogged and had just pulled up when one of our GMC’s appeared, slithering down the track towards us. In an unusual display of common sense and planning someone had unloaded a gun tractor, syphoned all the fuel out of the other vehicles and sent this truck to meet us. The six of us took over an hour to transfer the fuel across then, sending the CL home, we followed the heavily laden GMC back to the waiting mob. It took us 6 hours to do about 15 km. The useless Champ got stuck more times than the laden GMC. All the time it was raining.
Another miserable night but at least they had put up tents beside the stranded herd. The next problem was that the ration packs issued for the journey to get us to the dumped food stocks at our still distant destination had run out. The RAEME sergeant and I were OK – we had a big feed of bacon and eggs for breakfast and the cook had given us a pile of sandwiches for lunch. The original rations were issued on a truck/gun crew basis and each made their own arrangements. As a result there were some people with food and others with nothing. We had our cooks and field gear with us but the decision was made too late to place all the food under central organised distribution.
Now the HF came in handy. For the first time I saw an Army Aviation aircraft –a Cessna 180 – little did I realise that I would fly that very aircraft a few years later. Over the trees it came with two large tubes about the size of a 44-gallon drum hanging from each wing – Storpedoes. Apparently there had been no parachutes available at short notice so they free-dropped these cardboard containers.
The impact drove the pineapple cans into the meat cans, which exploded and mixed with the plum pudding and baked beans. Nobody cared and the cooks did a marvellous job. When asked what was for dinner they said “Mud Medley”.
A number of days of further disaster ensued and we actually got to fire the guns a few more times before heading home. I faintly recall seeing a skinny little infantryman on the side of the road carrying his pack as he looked longingly at us sitting in comfort in our trucks. I think Vieritz was written on his shirt.