Beyond the Battlelines of War

AMS Staff

Experiences in WWII

Mention of the Battle of Waterloo tends to conjure up in one’s mind rows of soldiers in formation facing the enemy; likewise sailors manning ships in the Battle of Trafalgar.  Even the more recent Battle of Britain suggests primarily airmen, planes, bombs and anti-aircraft fire, but the reality is a far more complex array of personnel and a diverse sequence of events.  Therefore, how can one ex-serviceman presume to respond to a request “to contribute an article on your experiences in WWII”?  The most obvious fact facing the recipient of such a request is that he is acutely aware that his personal experience of war will bear little resemblance to that of any other member of even one RSL Sub-Branch, for instance.

Extending that observation to encompass the countless thousands of men and women who served in the second World War and the writer is faced with the inescapable conclusion that no one person can be seen as reflecting the experience of other ex-service personnel, let alone, in any sense, representing them.

Diversity of War Service

This fact was recently demonstrated at a Parish Men’s Breakfast.  We have a number of Christians among the membership of the local RSL Sub-Branch and I had been asked to invite a few of them to deal with the question: “Where was God in WWII?”  I chaired a panel consisting of an AIF officer from an engineer unit that had seen front line action in both the Middle East and New Guinea, who received a grazing shot to the head from a Japanese sniper only a few days before the war ended; a RAAF sergeant in air crew who had served in UK and Europe; a soldier stationed for some years in Darwin who became an Army Education officer; and a very experienced pilot, an officer in Bomber Command, who was shot down over France in 1944 and landed his plane into a hillside without loss of life.  The crew had then separated into pairs and tried to reach Spain, being sheltered till VE Day at great risk by a goodly number of French families.  He is still in touch with some of their children and grandchildren. The experiences of these men held little in common and they contrasted still further with my own in Papua New Guinea, Dutch New Guinea and the Philippines in a wireless signals interception intelligence unit.

This combined services unit, Central Bureau, with its HQ in Brisbane, worked in parallel with the American Special Intelligence Services.  It was an integral part of the SIGINT network that had developed from Bletchley Park (as seen in the TV programme entitled “Station X”).  Data was obtained from mainline interception sources, but also by small field units of sigs and intelligence staff located as near to enemy transmitting stations as safety would permit. These included Darwin, various locations in PNG, DNG and elsewhere and eventually in the Philippines. At such low levels of transmission and reception, Japanese signals personnel would often reveal information that might have special meaning either for the cryptanalysts responsible for code breaking or for ‘I’ staff engaged in traffic analysis, that is, observing significant changes in message patterns that might indicate the concentration or movement of troops or equipment.

It was never explained to us that the routine tasks we performed might be having any effect on the course of war and we were only permitted to discuss what we did with those who were in our particular section.  In fact, after the war, we were forbidden to talk about what we had done and were not allowed to meet together for a reunion until 30 years had elapsed.  Then to our surprise, we read about ourselves in the Sydney Morning Herald!  Since 1975 we have joined in Anzac Day marches and met as an Association, locally and interstate, from time to time.

Our experience emphasises a factor that has always applied and is particularly true of modern warfare; yet is rarely given the acknowledgement it deserves.

Significance of Support Roles in War

Apart from the men and women, the wives and families who maintained the life of the community under so many wartime restrictions, there were the innumerable women who, across Australia knitted, sewed, raised money for Red Cross and did endless forms of voluntary service.  When I was invited to speak at the Anzac Day March and Service in Lithgow two years ago, one special aspect of this matter was uppermost in my mind: very many of the citizens of the district had been engaged throughout the War in essential services such as the mines and the Small Arms Factory.  Consequently, I drew heavily on an address I had given at one of our unit Association Reunions in Brisbane in 1996 and it seems appropriate to quote from that address in this article.

We had met at the Australian/American Memorial at Newstead with its motto: “They passed this way.”  ‘They’ include not only the great American leaders recorded in history books, but the many thousands of ordinary American service men and women who made their essential contribution to the total war effort, though now unknown or long since forgotten. This Memorial honours them all, the great and the small.  It was an appropriate venue for our Association’s ceremony because of the nature of our wartime service in signals interception and signals intelligence: one of close co-operation between USA and Australian personnel.

Those present were well aware of the 30 years of enforced silence and secrecy when we could not even mention our war service, and during which we really wondered whether we ever did anything useful at all.    It was encouraging, therefore, to be able to refer to some of the evidence that had more recently become public.  For instance, official reports in books and articles now claim that SIGINT was responsible for shortening World War II by at least two years. In the South West Pacific Area it played a crucial role in victories like the Coral Sea and. Midway and in the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto. Presumably, therefore, in many other less dramatic situations, our rather humdrum contribution from the field and at HQ, was worth all the effort.  Apparently, at least some of the countless thousands of messages intercepted by the sigs and analysed and/or decoded by the intelligence staff, non-stop day and night, month upon month and year after year, did have a notable influence on the course and outcome of the war.  So perhaps we were of some significance after all.  And none of that would have been achieved without the unsung work of the administration, orderly room and Q store staff and the back up provided to the field units by the Don-R’s, cooks etc. Today our Central Bureau Intelligence Corps Association recognizes the role played by each one of us—the great and the small.

Our meeting in Brisbane coincided with the 75th Anniversary of the RAAF. The TV coverage earlier in that year began with the reminder of the important role played in the 1st World War by the precursor of the RAAF, the Australian Flying Corps, including the tragic fact that one third of those Australian pilots had been killed.  The programme then surveyed the far ranging service of RAAF and WAAF personnel in both the European and the Pacific spheres of WW2, including the many Australians who served with the RAF.  In all, 13,000 RAAF personnel never returned.  Naturally the video concentrated on the courageous exploits of the Bomber Command and the fighter pilots where inevitably the greatest losses were incurred and we still especially honour their memory today.

However, none of the pilots or aircrews could have achieved what they did without the back-up service of the ground staff.  Although I was not in the RAAF, I have it on good authority that a squadron of 20-23 aircraft with an aircrew of 250 would have a total staff complement of about 1,500.  Thus well over 1,000 men and women were needed to support the mammoth effort of the bomber and fighter crews.  The ground staff had to man the control centres and also service, repair and maintain the planes while coping with the bitter cold in the fogs and snows of Britain and the blazing heat of the African desert.  They were frequently themselves the target of enemy air attacks in which many were killed.  It was a team effort in which each person was significant.

I stressed that this principle applied across the three services: the Navy, the Army and the Air Force and to the total war effort in its various theatres of action—and even of inaction!  For instance, the many Army units stationed in WA year after year, felt frustrated at apparently doing nothing.  Yet had they not been there the western coast of our continent could have been invaded by the enemy without opposition.  Their service was significant, however they may have felt about it.  They illustrate the truth of Milton’s famous words: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

After the ceremony a war widow, who was present as a friend or relative of one of our members, came up to speak to me, almost in tears.  She told me that this was the first time she had heard anyone in the 40 years since the War publicly acknowledge the value of the service rendered by her late husband as a member of the RAAF ground staff.

One illustration of the point I am making is the increasing fame that became attached to the last few Anzacs and the last few WW1 soldiers as their numbers decreased.  The final three Anzacs had stamps issued in their honour. These men were given special recognition and were seen as particularly significant in the history of WW1 because of their longevity—and quite rightly so.  But surely they always were significant but were unknown and unsung, like the vast array of their mates who predeceased them.

Differences in Individual Experience

Even within the membership of our unit my personal experience was quite different from that of almost all others.  After completing two years of my Arts degree at the University of Sydney, my military ‘career’ began with basic training in the 14th Australian Infantry Training Battalion near Bathurst throughout winter.  Then my prior selection by senior University staff for the recently established and expanding secret intelligence unit took effect and I was transferred to Central Bureau in Brisbane.  There I joined fellow students like Donald Robinson.  After four months training in something I was forbidden to talk about, my posting was to one of many small sigs/interception units in PNG and the Darwin area.  I was sent by plane via Port Moresby to Finschhafen where a year was spent in two locations, followed by a three-day trip by barge to a beach site on Humbolt Bay near Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea.  In due course, we were moved to the hill above Lake Sentani.  From there I was flown via Biak and Palau to the recaptured Philippine Islands and stationed on Luzon at San Miguel near Tarlac until the Pacific War ended on 15th August 1945.

Inevitably, when the war ended there were no further Japanese signals to intercept and we were soon given a week’s leave to ‘North Luzon’.  Some of us interpreted this to mean ‘North of Luzon’ and ‘hitch-hiked’ by American planes to Japan where the American forces were taking over, barely a fortnight after the signing of the surrender.  That was an experience in itself, and I will refer below to its particular significance for me personally.

We returned to find the unit ready to return to Australia from Manila by Liberty ship. When sailing down the coast of New Guinea, I developed an appendicitis attack and was lowered over the side of the ship to enter the American Base Hospital in Finschhafen.  With great difficulty I managed literally to ‘talk’ my way out of New Guinea in time to return to the university for Term 1 in 1946.

I think I can confidently state that no one else’s wartime experience exactly paralleled mine.

Discerning God’s Presence and Purpose

I entered the army as a Christian since childhood with a background of fine Biblical teaching and meaningful Evangelical Anglican worship.  I had been the ISCF leader in 5th Year at North Sydney Boys’ High School and had already had a wide range of experience: teaching Sunday School in two parishes (morning and afternoon), youth fellowship, CEBS leader, membership of the Sydney University Evangelical Union and CMS League of Youth, acting as a leader of (what are now) Scripture Union Boys’ Camp, running a Saturday night boys’ ISCF meeting in my home, even taking church services etc.  This exciting and valuable experience was because young men a little older had all been called up for war service.  Because of a minor medical problem (that was obviously not serious enough to prevent me from being passed A1 when the Japanese had almost reached Australia twelve months later!), I was nineteen on enlistment, having completed two years of my university course on a Teachers’ College scholarship. 

On the 148 mile train journey to Bathurst in a box carriage, I managed to get a corner seat. After dejected silence for a considerable distance, the other eleven began, in florid language, the exaggerated tales that comprise the traditional ‘conversation’ of young males: accounts of sporting prowess, gambling successes, drinking records, sexual exploits, favourite films etc.  Crossing the Blue Mountains I recalled happier times of Christian service and fellowship at “The Grange”, Mt. Victoria and felt even more isolated.  I learned that I was in with a bunch of country lads with minimal education who had been working for three or four years on the land and as drovers or boundary riders.  Later the fund of stories began to wear thin and they turned their attention to their hitherto silent companion.  Eventually came the question: “If you don’t smoke, drink, gamble or go out with bad women, what the———hell do you do?”  So I told a stunned audience of my studies and Christian activities, feeling that the Lord had completely let me down, by submitting me to this early baptism of fire. However, on reaching camp, I was allocated to a 38-man hut that included this very group.  They actually turned out to be quite supportive in many tense situations, as, for instance, when I produced my Bible for the first time and also when I stayed on for Communion after the church parade, while they all cleaned out the hut!.

Like most other Christian servicemen and women, I was a pacifist at heart, but believed it was my Biblical duty to defend the lives of my family and fellows and the freedom of my country from a fate worse than death.  I was never called upon to fight at the front line, but I think I faced that possibility (even probability at that stage in the war), during that part of infantry training that I found most challenging, namely bayonet drill.  We were being taught the technique by a very bad tempered Lance Corporal.  Every time I attacked the dummy I was sent back to do it again.  Eventually I asked what I was doing wrong and he shouted that he had clearly told us that we not only had to do the action correctly, but to grunt, curse, swear and yell at the ‘enemy’.  In great trepidation and to the horror of my mates, I replied: “ I hope to God that I’ll never have to use this skill, but if I ever do I’ll be praying for the person not cursing and swearing at him!”  He got such a shock that he was uncharacteristically speechless—and the training session proceeded.

I am most grateful to God for those months of infantry training as it took me out of my academic isolation and obliged me to live for an extended period of time in close daily contact with a wide range of my fellow human beings whom otherwise I would never have had occasion to meet.  I would not want to wish war service on anyone, but some form of randomised compulsory national or community service achieving these goals in character formation may well be worth considering.

Throughout my time in the army, I found that, despite the inevitable jibe and ridicule, once you had taken a clear stand for Christ, the watchful eye and listening ear of your companions had the effect of keeping you on your toes in Christian witness and standards of behaviour.  You also learned what it means to “pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances” [1Thessalonians 5:17-18 NIV].  So-called ‘Quiet Times’ had to be fitted in in the oddest of places!  Bible reading was no mere formality and the Word became very meaningful.

Being a small unit, often located in an American zone in PNG, DNG and PI, we were sometimes near enough to an American chapel to participate in occasional services. More rarely, there were GI run Bible studies, where I was sometimes invited to lead.  On one occasion in the Philippines an unidentified RAAF officer joined my friend and me at a table in the Yankee mess hut and engaged in general conversation.  After some time he announced that he was a RAAF Chaplain (a Baptist from Melbourne) who was in the area for only a day or two and hoped to be able to hold a service for Aussie servicemen in the American Chapel before he left.  He then said he had been told to track down two AIF men named Langdon and Charlesworth who would be willing to assist him in making the arrangements. It would have been embarrassing had the language and tenor of our earlier conversation made such an expectation inappropriate.

Apart from the church parades in the infantry training battalion at Bathurst, I never had the opportunity to attend an Anglican church services in the army.  Strangely, this had the effect of giving me an even greater appreciation of our Anglican liturgy and the devotional resources of my Book of Common Prayer.  Oddly enough that appreciation was further enhanced when a friend in our unit was sent to Darwin and I was asked to take his place as a Lay Preacher in the local Methodist circuit until I was sent to New Guinea several weeks later. The memorisation of Scripture also became very important.

One highlight of our Christian experience was the opportunity from time to time of attending, and later helping in the leadership of, Saturday night Rallies run by Christian American servicemen (and later women) in Finschhafen, Hollandia and Manila.  These were like the old CSSM ‘Squashes’ and were the precursors of the post-war ‘GI Gospel Hour’, whose news bulletin my friend and I still receive from the USA.

Wherever my army friend and I had the opportunity of doing so, we got to know the native people amongst whom we were stationed, especially the Christian folk in DNG and the Philippines.  This brought us into conflict with some of the Americans amongst whom we were stationed who thought we should support exclusively their chapel services and Bible Studies.  Whenever we could work our duty roster for us both to be off for a full Sunday, we attended church services in Filipino churches such as Tarlac, Capas and San Fernando.  We were reinforced in this decision by the fact that most of them had never heard of Australia (and there were very few Aussie servicemen in the Philippines anyway) and we felt they should know that there were Christians other than Yanks! Several times I was invited to speak at services and youth groups (sometimes through an interpreter) which was a wonderful privilege.  I taught the pastor’s children CSSM choruses which their father translated into Pampango.  The children then sang them in open-air meetings on occasions like the town’s Fiesta Day.

The wisdom of this decision was confirmed when my friend (a Methodist/Uniting Church member from Melbourne) and I went on a FEBC Tour to S.E. Asia in 1999, returning to the Philippines 54 years after the above events.  We stayed on after the Tour and spent a weekend in Tarlac where we were given a great welcome by the now very large Methodist Episcopal congregation as ‘former members’.  We had the privilege of speaking at services and meetings and visiting homes—a real joy and blessing.

I referred above to the fact that our hitch-hike to Tokyo in 1945 (a fortnight after the signing of the surrender) held special significance for me. Geoffrey Charlesworth and I were able to make contact with Dr. Toyohiko Kagawa who was attending the first meeting of Japanese Christian leaders since their release from internment.  We then stayed with missionaries, also just freed from internment, to whom the Emperor had publicly apologised that very day, as announced in the Japanese press.  We also attended the first Sunday morning service conducted by Dr. Kagawa, at which I was invited to give to this packed congregation a greeting from Australian Christians (translated by the Rev. Mr. Ogawa) – a month after the dropping of the bomb.

We also met the CMS representative, the Rev. M.S. Murao, who gave me a letter to be delivered to the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev. H.W.K. Mowll.  This I did on my return to Sydney just before Christmas 1945.  The Archbishop insisted that he take me with him to the missionary session of the Katoomba Convention to report on my six days in Japan, sharing the platform with those who were reporting on their decades of overseas missionary service.

The particular significance of my first meeting with Dr. Mowll was that he took a personal interest in my subsequent BD studies at Sydney University under CRTS on the Grainger post-Graduate Scholarship at St. Paul’s College, and then as a Junior Tutor in Greek at Moore College and as part-time Language teacher at St. Andrew’s Cathedral School.  When the Diocesan Board of Education had been without a Director for a year and had insufficient income to make a senior appointment, the Archbishop challenged me with the virtually impossible task of taking on responsibility for that work in 1950, initially as the Organising Secretary.

In many ways the Lord used my experiences in WWII to develop me as a person, to prepare me for certain aspects of my subsequent Christian service and to lead me into a sphere of ministry in education where its many changes and challenges were to demand my full commitment for the next forty years.

© Canon A. A. Langdon
Alan Langdon is a former lectuer at Moore Theological College, the former Executive Chairman of the Diocesan Education Commission and an Honorary Canon of St Andrew’s Cathedral.