Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Papa Cat's War, Part 1: 1939-1943

It's over two years since my dad wrote down, at my request, his wartime memories so I could blog them. Ahem:

Guest blogger: Papa Cat

When World War II erupted in Europe in September 1939 I was twelve years old and in my second year away from home, going to a regional school about 25k from the farm where I lived with my parents (home for weekends and holidays, of course).

My father, a WWI Digger, who had survived the horrendous battles of the Somme [and Ypres -- Ed], was always huddled over the battery radio at news times. We only had one twelve-volt battery, which he had to take out of the old 1919 Dodge when he came home in the evening. Knowing the areas of Belgium and France from his overseas service, his opinions of events were many, varied and vocal.

At school we learnt the geography of Holland, Belgium and France and traced the advance of the German Army. How fortunate we were to have a Headmaster who believed we should learn history as it was happening. In our spare time after school, and at weekends, we collected papers and bottles and scrounged old rubbish dumps for items made of aluminium (much needed for aeroplane manufacturing). We knocked on doors and collected money for the Red Cross and the Comforts Fund. We older boys were encouraged to attend Church dances, not only to learn, but to partner the girls whose boyfriends and husbands were overseas [O RLY? -- Ed], mostly in the Middle East in the Army's famous 48th Division.

Rationing was introduced early in the war years: petrol, food and clothing. Petrol was hard for country people because of the distances to travel, and of course there was no public transport. A few deals were done between farmers and townsfolk. It was no trouble to swap some farm-killed meat, home-made butter and a few eggs for a petrol ration ticket or two. Of course one did not move anywhere in a car without phoning neighbours and friends to see if they wanted a lift or needed some shopping done.

A horse and cart, or 'sulky', were prized possessions and were a slow but sure means of getting around. Our 'sulky' had rubber tyres and I recall on one occasion, when the tube just couldn't take any more patches, my father -- displaying a stubbornness that probably contributed to his survival in WWI -- attempted to stuff the tyre with straw. I don't remember being around to see whether this was successful or not. Probably not -- I certainly would have heard about it if he had revolutionised our transport situation!

Clothing coupons were quite useless as far as buying a lady's outfit or a man's suit were concerned; one just had to save them up over time to get most things. So hand-me-downs and patching and mending were the go. Wool was needed for service uniforms, so it was difficult to get enough to knit socks or jumpers. As far as clothing was concerned, the solution was simple:

Use it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without.

In 1942 I went to board in Adelaide to do the Leaving Certificate (as it was called then) at Adelaide High School. The city was abuzz, with Service uniforms everywhere. School was good. Plenty of sport. Much study. And how good it was to play cricket on a turfed oval! I just couldn't get used to not dodging stones and cowpats from the cattle that grazed on our oval in the country.

When not studying, I was riding around at night on my trusty Malvern Star, being a dispatch rider for the local A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) Unit. This mainly consisted of knocking on doors to remind people that their windows were not blacked out properly. Not many cars to contend with -- no petrol! Those that were on the road had to have their headlights 'blacked out', just showing a horizontal slit of light about two inches deep the width of the glass.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and from that day it was 'game on' as far as Australia was concerned. No wonder A.R.P was on everyone's lips. And so we teenagers pedalled around our allotted area with our yellow armbands on, doing what we were told. [Fat chance -- Ed] The girls did their bit as well, busying themselves with first aid classes.

Because of the rapid Japanese advance towards Singapore, it was a question of where they were going to stop. It became apparent that the possibility of air raids on the Australian mainland was quite real. Everyone had an air-raid shelter in their back yard. My father, no doubt recalling the WWI trenches, dug a shelter near the house on the farm -- 20 feet long [no wonder the poor old sod had sciatica -- Ed] and narrow, with a zigzag design. People generally were not nervous, just determined to be as prepared as they could be.

An English-style Home Guard was formed mostly in country towns. They had a variety of weapons, mostly owned by farmers, plus old WWI rifles loaned by the Army. They had plans of their locals districts; two-man teams were allotted large trees that could be felled quickly to block main roads; precious petrol made Molotov cocktails. They may not have won, but they would have caused a lot of havoc trying.

Don't miss the next exciting episode, 'Mallee to Matelot', in which Papa Cat joins the Navy.


Deborah said...

Thank you!

A friend's stepfather was a young man at the start of WWII, in Britain, and he raced off to join the army. He was captured early on, and spent most of the war - 5 years or so - in a prisoner-of-war camp. One night, quite a few years ago now, my husband asked him about the war, and he talked about it. That was the only time our friend heard his stepdad talk about the war. He died just a few weeks about.

Sue Ballyn said...

I join in the thanks. Has anybody read The Ghost at the Wedding by Shirley Walker? Well worth reading. Pap Cat's War is well worth a "Thank You" I am about to teach First World War Poetry to undergrads....

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Deborah, I think that pattern may be common -- so much so that I was a bit apprehensive about asking him to reminisce, in case it had terrible consequences! But he had a comparatively easy war and it was not traumatic for him the way it was for many, so there's no sense of having kept it quiet but needing to speak while there's still time. If the way he looked on Sunday is anything to go by he'll be with us for years yet.

Sue, thanks for the recommendation. You may not know that Shirley is the ma not only of novelist, memoirist & academic Brenda Walker but also of one of the best popular songwriters this country has ever produced, Don Walker of Cold Chisel. They're an incredibly talented family -- Shirley (winner, along with her husband Les, of ASAL's Frank Moorhouse Perpetual Trophy for Ballroom Dancing circa 1982) is where Don and Brenda get it from.

Deborah said...

Oops. For 'about' read 'ago'. He died a few weeks ago, so about 15 years after he talked about the war, in his 90, peacefully, after a long illness.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Well there you go then.

Mindy said...

I wish I'd listened harder when my grandmother (Nanny) talked about trapping rabbits for the nuns during the war, so that the nuns didn't starve. I think they still went pretty hungry. Her father was a staunch Catholic and always insisted that they gave the nuns food first. Nanny never touched rabbit after that.

Ampersand Duck said...

Thank you, I love this era; they were/are an incredible generation. I'm eagerly awaiting the next instalment...