Memories of WWII, a kangaroo, and AIF troops

Sgt A.D. Johnston

This is a story told by my step-father Don Johnston MBE about his experiences moving out of camp at Cowra and travelling on the Queen Mary to the Middle East in December 1940 as part of the Australian 7th Division Cavalry Regiment. Don is now 93 years old, still producing and publishing a regular bulletin for the remaining members of the 7th Div Cav, and their descendants. He will attend the ANZAC Day parade in Sydney today, as he always does.


We, HQ Sqn and C Sqn, were camped at Cowra in New South Wales and A and B Sqns were in Queensland. However this story starts with the NSW contingent. T’was Christmas Day and we were aware that this was our second last day in Cowra and we intended to make the most of it for tomorrow we were to make our secret move. All had been sworn to silence. So we hoed into a slap up Christmas dinner along with liquid refreshments supplied by most of the pubs in Cowra.

Boxing Day 1940 bloomed bright and clear with the promise of another hot day and we were all busy packing all our kit and equipment. As night descended with no let up on the heat side we were packed into three ton trucks and driven in to Cowra Railway station where it became abundantly clear that secrecy no longer prevailed.

Approximately half the population of the town were crowded around the station and we had some difficulty getting from the trucks to the train. However as soon as we had our gear stowed chaps started hopping off and mingling with the locals who were now crowded onto the platform. I must have kissed and hugged most of the pretty lassies and a few of their mums as well. All too soon the train whistle blasted off and loud voices demanded an immediate return to the train and slowly we crawled out of the station with the train whistle doing its best to wake the rest of the town’s population while we sneaked off on the way to Sydney.

Every town we passed through had crowds of people waving and cheering at stations and any available place along the line until in the early hours of the morning we arrived at Darling Harbour, where we detrained with our gear and were moved onto barges which took us out to where the SS “Queen Mary” was anchored in the harbour. No doubt by this time Hitler and Mussolini had been advised of our secret move. 

We boarded the QM (Queen Mary not Quartermaster) and were led by ship crew guides to our salubrious quarters on E Deck Aft, a polite name for a dark hole just above the propeller shafts. We were to learn to sleep on hammocks at toe rumble of those shafts during the next few weeks. The officers of course and some of the senior NCOs were directed to better quarters.

View as QM leaves Sydney Harbour

Later in the day we were joined by some of the A company Queenslanders who produced a kitbag and upended it to reveal a JOEY! We were immediately sworn to secrecy about Joey and everyone took their turn to play with him and enjoy his presence.

The first and immediate problem was how we would be able to feed him. The Queenslanders had brought some grass in another kit bag but it would not last long. After some discussion it was decided to bring some bread and if possible some milk back from the mess hall. So it was done when ever possible. We weaned Joey on the dwindling grass and onto milk and bred pap. He took to rather well. Some times we missed out and Joey would hop around searching for something to eat and we were getting worried.

Quite by accident a crew member came into our hole unexpectedly and spotted Joey. He yelled: “That’s a kangaroo!” he was immediately surrounded by a bunch of angry soldiers and appeared to be in dire danger. He was grabbed and told that: “If you mention Joey to anyone you will be lucky to stay alive.” He swore that he wouldn’t mention it to anyone and we immediately told him of our problem feeding Joey. We told him what we needed and he said not to worry he would get us for us. For a few days he kept the supply coming but then he missed out on day and he came down to us that night rather late and told us that he would have to get his mate to get it for us as he had been shifted to a different duty.

The new chap received the same dire warning and readily agreed saying he just wanted to pat Joey whenever he came down. After a week or so of this system he came down with supplies and told us that the captain was going to do a personal inspection of the whole ship the next day. Panic stations! We smartly posted sentry on the approach to our den and organised a hidey-hole for Joey surrounded with bodies. However the Captain passed us by and the panic subsided.

Next day someone up in the bridge push the accelerator all the way to ‘Full Ahead, Flank Speed” and the Mary dug her heels in and took of like a speedboat. In no time the convoy was disappearing astern but the Mary didn’t slowdown for at least twenty four hours. Life in ‘E Deck Aft’ was hell on wheels! The occupants except for a guard on Joey climbed up to the boat deck to get away from the noise and vibration of those propeller shafts.

Suddenly the call was “Land Ho!” and slowly a thickly timbered land appeared and we were soon in a magnificent harbour at least three times as big as “Our ‘arbour”. This we soon discovered was Trincomalee in the island of Ceylon.

Trincomalee Harbour

We had a couple of peaceful days while the rest of the convoy arrived. Then we were told to pack our kit and we were moved up onto the Boat Deck and told to sit and wait. We waited. Nothing happened. We were told to pick up our kit and down we went to ‘EDA’ where we spent the night. Next day we repeated the operation and waited. Then slowly the top of a mast moved along the side of the ship and stopped.

Naturally we had to see what this was all about so we crowed the rail and looked down. Someone yelled out; “Crikey that’s not much bigger than a canoe. We won’t be going on that” Then the RSM shouted: “Pick up your gear and move down.”

HMT Lancashire

We were once again led by a crew member on a winding track until we arrived at the entry port we used in Sydney only this time we were getting off the Mary and onto the SS “Lancashire” a grubby English Troop Ship. When I say grubby I mean VERY GRUBBY.

We were really packed in, no hammocks this time. We slept on the deck like sardines in a can. There was no cover on the hatchway and just as well as it was like an oven down there and a dirty oven as well. In addition to 7th Div Cav there were a few nurses on board in the officer’s quarters of course.

We were to sail across the top of the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea to Tewfik at the southern end of the Suez Canal. It was like travelling in a dirty sauna complete with a none too lovely aroma and Joey was very soon showing the effects of the conditions. We were very worried as we not allowed up on deck day or night but we had to do something for Joey.

Once again we were caught by surprise this time by the ship’s radio Officer “Sparks”. When he spotted Joey his eyes nearly popped out and then popped even further when he was suddenly surrounded by a group of very angry soldiers. After a short discussion during which certain actions by him could lead to a long swim he got the message and assured us that if we let him get close to Joey there was nothing to worry about. We took his word for it and he squatted down and patted Joey and said that he looked a bit sick. We told him the problem of no relief from the heat and we were afraid that Joey might die.

He promptly said that we should take him up on deck at night and we pointed out to him that we weren’t allowed on deck He offered to take Joey up on deck at night if we had a lead for him. We had no alternative, no time on deck dead Joey, so we promptly fashioned a lead from some cord and he said he would pick Joey up after dinner that night. He arrived about 2100 hrs and we handed over Joey with murmurs about sharks and long swims. He laughed and said; “Don’t worry I can’t swim” So we let him go. He was away for about an hour and he came back with a much happier Joey saying it had been a lot of fun and he would be back again the next night.

Next night he was back again and we handed over Joey and away he went. About forty minutes later the was a great amount of female squealing and then laughter and a few minutes Sparks arrived back with Joey in his arms and told us that Joey had got away and took off around the deck. Unfortunately a couple of the Nurses were taking an evening stroll around the deck and Joey bounced merrily between them, thus the squeals follow by laughter when Sparks sprinted past in pursuit. Naturally the nursed hurried back to Officer Land and spilled the beans about Joey.

We waited for all hell to break loose but all was quiet but we didn’t get much sleep that night. There was quite a lot of muttering going on. Some chaps wanted to do Sparks others said he wasn’t to blame and we would wait and see what happened in the morning.

About mid morning Major Rose the unit 2IC came down into the hold and after a few cheery words and general conversation he casually said; “Well the Captain is a bit upset and he wants Joey over the side.” There was a very sudden silence! After a while Rosie grinned and said; “Well what do I tell him?”

One of the Queenslanders jumped to his feet and said: “Sir, you tell the Captain that if Joey goes over the side he (the Captain) will hit the water first.” Rosey hummed and hawed and then said; “Right I’ll tell him.”  And away he went. We waited to see what would happen but all was quiet.

We found out later that The Colonel Logan and Major Rose has spent the early part of the morning trying to talk the Captain into forgetting all about it but he was adamant. After Rosey delivered our ultimatum he also added that the men loved the Joey and considered it as the unit mascot and he was not at all certain that the officers would be able to hold them in check if he continued with the idea of tossing Joey overboard.

Went we arrived at Tewfik Joey was in pretty good form and we were congratulating ourselves and Sparks for getting him there.  We weren’t allowed off the boat (ship?) but Sparks went ashore and came back with a load of grasses. Foolishly we let Joey loose to eat his fill and next day Joey was very sick and finally died that night. Sparks was very upset and blamed himself for what had happened. We assured him that he was not to blame but we were for letting Joey eat so much grass after weeks on a bread and milk pap diet. We should have known better.

Don with fish, 2009

Joey was given a seaman’s burial over the side so in the end the Captain got his. Fortunately he didn’t comment.

3 thoughts on “Memories of WWII, a kangaroo, and AIF troops

  1. Takes me right back to hearing Dad and his friends talking amongst themselves on Anzac day – the only day they gave themselves permission to look into those memories. The thing I remember from those stories was the innocence of those young men – just like your Step Dad’s mates.

    PS – Sad there’s a link problem with the old Trincomalee shot – I’d love to see how it looked back then.

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