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How the Aussie Diggers Improvised During the Wars

by Alex Bates 4400103 3RAR

The following is an address given by Korea War veteran, Alex Bates, to High School students at a High School Anzac Day service in April 2002. It was first published in the Tennant and District Times. In this address Alex gave a brief history on how members of the Australian Army improvised and scrounged during four wars over a period of fifty years.

During the first fifty years of the Australian Army, supplies were often short of basic needs which made it essential that the Australian soldier was adept in the art of improvising and scrounging. Those from the bush already had these attributes but the others soon developed the necessary skills and a good sense of humour always helped under adverse conditions. It is an interesting fact also, that over the first fifty years the Australian soldier has marched off to four wars - the Boer War, WWI, WWII and the Korean War - wearing the slouch hat, armed with the 303 rifle and supplied with bully beef and hard tack biscuits.

During the Boer War (1899-1902), the main requirements of volunteers for the contingents which were raised for service were that they be good horsemen and good shots. The author L.M. Field, who wrote the book "The Forgotten War" (fifty years later the Korean War was given the same name) states that the Boer War marked the birth of the Australian reputation - one renowned for dash and courage and in the guise of the bushman relying more on natural skills developed in the bush than on parade grounds ... and saluting was only necessary on payday!

The various contingents which left Australia were funded in many different ways from contributions made by the wealthy, calling for public donations, the British Government, State Governments and (from 1901) the Australian Federal Government. The contingents raised had many different names such as the WA Mounted Infantry, the NSW Mounted Rifles and the Bushman's Contingent, to name a few.

Improvisation and scrounging made its mark very early in the Australian Army.

During WWI (1914-1918), the Anzacs on Gallipoli had to survive on bully beef and whatever was available to make stew. For a second course there was bread and dripping and sometimes a third course of bread and jam. It was a monotonous diet and did not ensure good health. As they only occupied a small strip of land in from the sea, there were few opportunities to scrounge, but improvising was a continual part of their harsh and dangerous life in the trenches. Two of the many things they made were jam tin bombs and periscopes.

After reading the full history of the Gallipoli campaign, I asked an old digger who had served there his view in regard to planning during the campaign. After a few huffs and puffs he sat up and said, "Planning? How could there have been any planning? Do you know, those staff officers on that headquarters ship moored off Lemnos Island drank so much whiskey the ship ran aground on the empty bottles they threw overboard!"

Fortunately after eight months, they were given the order to evacuate Gallipoli and to organise the operation themselves. This was one order that the Anzacs were only too happy to carry out and improvisation became the key to a very successful operation. They rigged up wooden frames to hold the rifles in position on top of the trenches with a string tied to the trigger and back down to an empty tin. Above this tin, another tin with a small hole in the bottom was tied to the frame.

After the main body of troops had left the line, a few men kept firing while others moved along the trenches filling the top tins with water which dripped into the bottom tin until the weight of water pulled the trigger and fired the rifle. The few remaining troops moved quickly to the beach and were rowed out to the ships. At about daylight, the last of the rifles had fired and the Turks were looking across at the trenches where there was no movement and an eerie silence. It was some time before the Turks moved across "no man's land" and found the Anzac trenches completely deserted. That was probably the only large scale operation carried out in World War One with very few casualties and, unfortunately, the Anzacs were not always able to plan the operations during the next three years until 1918.

World War Two (1939-1945) again saw Australians marching off wearing the slouch hat, carrying the 303 rifle and with bully beef and hard tack biscuits in their supplies. In North Africa, the Australian Divisions added to the reputation, forged by the men of the previous wars, along with the Navy and Air Force. In their speeches, the enemy leaders used derisive language when talking about the Australians, firstly by calling the Australian Navy in the area at the time "The Scrap Iron Flotilla" but they soon proved there was an iron fist in that so called scrap iron. And when the Australians were besieged in Tobruk they were called the "Rats of Tobruk" but they held out for eight months until relieved and now wear that name with pride!

They could not have survived without the Navy supply convoys - a difficult and dangerous task - but the men on these ships had a very simple and very Australian name for these convoys - "The Spud Run." During the North African Campaign, the Diggers proved themselves many times and their scrounging tactics did not go unnoticed. A book on their exploits in and out of battle was titled "The Forty Thousand Thieves".

The war in the Pacific was very close and many units involved did not receive due recognition for their valiant efforts under extreme conditions during the early part of the campaign. The troops in North Africa were brought home and sent up to New Guinea.

The Americans were building up their strength in men and materials and General McArthur of "I shall return" fame was supreme commander in the Pacific. At one of his staff meetings he made this statement: "Gentlemen, this is going to be a long, hard campaign, driving the Japanese back. At times it may be difficult to supply your troops. You must impress upon your men the need to improvise." At this, all the Australian officers present burst out laughing. This, of course, did not go down too well with the General until it was explained to him that improvising was, and always has been, a fact of life in the Australian Army.

On the 24th June 1950, the North Korean Army, later joined by an even larger Chinese Army, invaded South Korea and for the fourth time in fifty years, Australian soldiers marched off to another war, wearing the slouch hat, carrying the 303 rifle and with bully beef and hard tack biscuits in their supplies. I believe that with that 303 rifle dating back to the Boer War, the Vickers Machine Gun first used in WWI and the Owen and Bren guns from WWIl, the Australians in Korea felt a close affinity with the men of the previous three wars. And there, 35 years after Gallipoli, Australian and Turkish soldiers served together with 20 other nations under the UN.

There was a lot of movement in the first eighteen months of the war with the two armies pushing each other down or back up the Korean Peninsular and with typical soldiers' humour, the backward movements were known as the "Pusan Derby."

It was during this phase of the war, on the 23rd April 1951, that the Third Battalion RAR were in reserve but were given orders to pack up and move in one hour as the Chinese had attacked and broken through the line held by units of the South Korean Army which had turned and run in complete confusion. Along with a Canadian Battalion, an American tank unit and the New Zealand artillery, the Australian Battalion were able to halt the rapid advance of the Chinese after 24 hours of intensive action. The Third Battalion RAR was awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation and the action became known as the Battle of Kapyong. After many years the 24th April became the commemoration day for the Korean War and is now known as Kapyong Day.

Later in 1951, the Australians played a major part in the battle of Maryang San and as peace talks continued at Punmunjon, the two armies dug in along the 38th parallel which is the border between North and South Korea. As the United Nations had achieved their objective, that is, driving the communists from South Korea and the Chinese and North Koreans having suffered huge losses in their human wave attacks without gain, the war was a stalemate.

Through 1952 to 27 July 1953, when the truce was finally signed, the conditions were compared with WWI, The troops lived in sand-bagged bunkers, trenches ran along the forward and rear slopes of the hills with barbed wire strung out further down, and mine fields were laid, encircled with wire and tagged. The winter was freezing with temperatures 20 degrees below zero and the rats were a health hazard. But although there were some attacks on key positions, the main activity was heavy patrolling between the lines while both sides had their artillery and mortar zeroed in on each other's positions. As the United Nations Air Force controlled the air, the communists were subjected to constant air attack as well.

Charles Madden was a correspondent for the Melbourne Sun and in 1952 he wrote an article titled "The Scroungers". He wrote: "The Australians are still the world's best army scroungers and improvisers - they have to be!"

Although the food was better than in other wars, there were still the shortages of other essentials and Madden described some of the clothing - which was not always well made - like the trousers which he said "appear to have been made to fit a balloon with legs and the shirts might have been designed by someone who didn't know the difference between biceps and forceps."

Another correspondent interviewed the British General Cassels who was leaving Korea after commanding the Commonwealth Division which was made up of Canadians, British, Australians, New Zealanders and the Indian Field Ambulance. The General was asked if there were any events which would remain in his memory and he replied: "There are many events which I will remember and one of those comes to mind as it only happened recently and that was the day I was saluted by an Australian."

First Published in The Voice, April 2013 edition