Keith and the war won on a hay-bale.

By Jake Watson

Keith was in a Queensland hospital in 1943 when his mate suggested they join the Air Force. They were desperate for blokes to enlist, his mate said.

“I wouldn’t join them buggers,” was Keith’s reply, to which his mate informed him that if he did, he’d get to return to Melbourne, for at least a little while.

Photo by Jake Watson

Photo by Jake Watson

So Keith, only recently off the boat on which he celebrated both his return from World War II and his 21st birthday, transferred from the Army to the Air Force, just so he could return to the Melbourne of his youth.

Born in the Victorian country town of Stawell in 1922, Keith worked for a time on a dairy farm as a boy, for 10 bob a week, plus his keep. Deciding when he was 13 that he’d be better served going back to school, he did so, moving to Melbourne shortly after where his father had a job driving trams.

Keith found a job with the post office, delivering telegrams. When he turned 16, he was given a choice: get the sack, or become a temporary postman. He chose rather to become an electrical apprentice and studied at Swinburne Tech. This was to last a couple of years, before it was interrupted. War had broken out in Europe, and Keith was going.

He turned 18 in February of 1940, about five months after the start of the Second World War. He remembers cries of “You’ll be sorry!” and seeing men run in fear. When Keith was given his uniform, he asked how they knew it would fit, and was told that if it didn’t he could just come back the next day for a new one. This was how it was done in his pre-war training camp.

“The only thing you got that fitted was your boots,” Keith said. “But a lot of buggers were near crippled wearing them-they never realised it had tissue paper shoved up the toe.”

When he was being shown around his new, temporary residence, he recalls wondering one thing in particular-“What’s a bloody ablutions block? I’ll have to check that out.” This was an 18 year old man who had just volunteered to fight in a war on the other side of the world, and his main curiosity was with something that he soon learned was the shower house.

One morning, he was made to clean the toilets by an older soldier. “I didn’t join the bloody army to clean toilets,” Keith protested. “Shut up,” the older man replied. “Do as you’re told.” Keith did, and after he had finished his duty, was led to the straw shed, where he filled a canvas sack; this was his makeshift bed.

The older soldier then took him around to the back of the straw shed, and they climbed up some of the bales. There Keith found a collection of comic books. “Now we stay here ‘til lunchtime,” said the other man.

“And that was how we won the war!” Keith laughed.

After moving to Williamstown Racecourse, sleeping in horse stalls and having his hair gnawed by rats for six weeks, Keith was sent overseas. He stopped over in Bombay (now Mumbai), in India, for a fortnight. They then sailed up through the Suez Canal, and came to Palestine, and to the war.

The Rats of Tobruk were the soldiers, mainly made up of the Australian Ninth Division, who held the Libyan port city of Tobruk against Germany’s Afrika Korps in 1941. They were so named when a speaker on Radio Berlin said the Australians were poor desert rats, caught in a trap. The Australians adopted the name, and showed them what rats were capable of.

Keith was, by this time, in the Ninth Division, and was sent to Tobruk in April of 1941 at the beginning of the siege. He had gone from having his hair eaten by rats in a Williamstown horse-stall to being mocked for fighting like one in the desert. Keith didn’t mind; as he says, “There’s only one good place to have decent war, and that’s in the middle of the desert because you don’t do any damage!”
Keith was pulled back to Palestine in August before going to Lebanon. He was there until October 1942, when the Axis forces were pushing into the coastal Egyptian city El Alamein. This was the beginning of the Second Battle of El Alamein. Keith got as far as Buq Buq before political powers intervened, pulling him back to Palestine, and to home.

During the sixty days of leave Keith had in Melbourne before beginning his Air Force training, he met and married a woman named Lynette. They honeymooned at a friend’s house in Dromana before Keith began training at Point Cook, then at Somers.

He was at Somers for three months where he was made pilot. He learned to fly Tiger Moths in Benalla and Oxfords in Point Cook. He went to South Australia, where he got his wings.

“And then they didn’t know what to do with us,” Keith said. “We hung around the Melbourne Cricket Ground. They didn’t know who was who there, so you could come and go as you liked.”

After several more courses, including a ‘scrub’ course in Deniliquin, into which went 105 men and out of which came just five pilots, one of whom was Keith, he was sent to Bairnsdale to fly reconnaissance and surveillance planes. He was unsuccessful in spotting an enemy submarine, though that was probably preferable to seeing one. He would stop at Western Junction in Tasmania for his lunch, and then fly back. Still, no submarines.

“I saw a whale once, though.”

When the war ended, Keith was one of the first out, having applied for discharge a few months earlier. He went back to Swinburne Tech and completed his electrical apprenticeship, and then moved to Ararat to start an electrical contractors business. He and Lynette had three kids, Brent, Noel, and John.

They moved back to Melbourne, but the boys didn’t like it, so in 1961 they moved to Forrest and Keith opened a general store. He ran it for nine years before moving to Frankston, getting a real estate license, and began practicing real estate in Frankston and Seaford. When he gave that away, he moved to Geelong and built a house with Lynette, living there until 2006, when she passed away.

He then lived with his son for four years before maintenance of the home became too much, and they both went into separate retirement homes.

Keith believes the biggest difference between now and the days of his youth is that we now live in a world of plenty. He remembers his son going “bloody crook” because he needed to buy a bike for his own son to get to tech school. It was going to cost him 200-odd dollars, or about three-quarters of his weekly wage. Keith told him that the best bike he’d ever had was a Hartley Silver Speed racing bike, which cost him 15 guineas; three weeks wages.
“So who’s better off?” says Keith.

Keith’s big piece of advice for young people today is to not get tattooed. “There’s enough bloody graffiti about without carting it around on your body,” he says.

He also laments a lack of discipline in the current generation, and thinks that possibly, mandatory military service could help.
“Nobody seems to have regard for the other bloke,” Keith says. “In the army, you look after your mate and your mate looks after you. In civilian life, I don’t know.”

Keith spends Anzac Day at the Rats of Tobruk hall. He doesn’t march; he goes there for a “few beers and a yarn.” He is one of just two surviving Rats in his unit that they can find in Victoria.

This is the remarkable life of Keith, just a boy from the bush, who would go on to several careers, three children, and a long marriage. The country boy who would have his hair chewed by rats in a Williamstown horse-stall and then, not long after, would fight like one in the desert of Northern Africa. He would celebrate his 21st on a boat in the waters south of Adelaide on his return from war and almost immediately transfer branches for another crack. He would read comics on a hay-bale in aid of the war effort, learn what an ablutions block is, and be told to shut up and clean the toilets.
He would run electricity in Ararat, sell houses in Seaford, and be pulled back at Buq Buq. He would do a great deal in his life, that boy from the bush. He would even see a whale, once.