Australian 7th Division close in on Japanese

General Sir Thomas Blamey, GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO, (right) Commanding Allied Land Forces, South West Pacific Area, chatting to members of the 7th Australian Division

General Sir Thomas Blamey, GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO, (right) Commanding Allied Land Forces, South West Pacific Area, chatting to members of the 7th Australian Division before they are flown into the forward area. This was the first time a complete Australian infantry division had been entirely airborne. Pictured, left to right: DX116 Private (Pte) A Stew; NX37382 Pte B Slade; VX78975 Pte R F Bird; NX80817 Pte R L Devenport; unidentified (obscured), and NX58770 Pte E L B Hughes. All except Pte Hughes and General Blamey were killed in an aircraft accident the next day, 7 September 1943.

The Australian 7th Division had already seen service in the Middle East but were thrust back into the action on New Guinea. Here they joined the US forces in the drive for the major Japanese base at Lae.

The U.S. forces had parachuted in, followed by a large part of the Australian 7th Division who were airlifted to front line airfields. The operation began badly when over a bomber crashed into one of the transport planes killing the 11 man crew and 60 men in the transport, more died amongst 90 injured men during the following days. The remainder of the shocked airborne force had to carry on with the operation.

One man who landed in the remote jungle that day was Private Richard Kelliher, a man determined to prove himself. He had been arrested earlier in the campaign for running away from the front lines. In fact his section leader had sent him back for information – but the man had been killed. Without any witnesses to his version of events, Kelliher had to face a Court Martial. He managed to convince them, but was now determined that he would ‘show them’.

Kelliher probably should not have been in the ranks at all, he suffered from very poor health before joining up, the result of Typhoid and Meningitis. In June he had been hospitalised with Malaria contracted on the campaign.

It was only a matter of days later that he got his opportunity to ‘show them’, although it seems his motivation was largely to save a friend rather than any personal heroics. A concealed machine gun post killed five of his section and wounded three more, pinning down the remainder:

I wanted to bring [wounded] Cpl Richards back, because he was my cobber, so I jumped out from the stump where I was sheltering and threw a few grenades over into the position where the Japanese were dug in. I did not kill them all, so went back, got a Bren gun and emptied the magazine in the post. That settled the Japanese. Another position opened up when I went on to get Cpl Richards, but we got a bit of covering fire and I brought him back to our lines.

Richard Kelliher V.C. in 1946

Richard Kelliher V.C. in 1946

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to:—

No. QX 20656 Private Richard Kelliher, Australian Military Forces.

During an attack by this soldier’s platoon on an enemy position at Nadzab, New Guinea, on the morning of 13th September, 1943, the platoon came under heavy fire from a concealed enemy machine-gun post, approximately 50 yards away. Five off the platoon were killed and three wounded and it was found impossible to advance without further losses.

In the face of these casualties Private Kelliher suddenly, on his own initiative, and without orders, dashed towards the post and hurled two grenades at it, killing some of the enemy but not all.

Noting this, he then returned to his section, seized a Bren gun, again dashed forward to within 30 yards of the post, and with accurate fire completely silenced it.

Returning from his already gallant action Private Kelliher next requested permission to go forward again and rescue his wounded section leader. This he successfully accomplished, though under heavy rifle fire from another position.

Private Kelliher, by these actions, acted as an inspiration to everyone in his platoon, and not only enabled the advance to continue but also saved his section leader’s life.

His most conspicuous bravery and extreme devotion to duty in the face of heavy enemy’ fire resulted in the capture of this strong enemy position.


Escape from an Italian POW camp

Laterina POW camp, Italy as pictured by Frank Unwin when he revisited it in 1949. He had three colleagues walked out of it on 12th September when the Italian guards left. The remaining POWs stayed in the camp and were soon in the custody of the Germans.

On the 12th September Frank Unwin had walked out of an Italian Prison of War with two companions, a Rhodesian and two South Africans. Together they had been building a tunnel with a view to escape. There had been a period of uncertainty after the Italian armistice of the 8th September, then on the 12th September the Italian guards had walked away.

The senior British NCOs in the camp had ordered that all the prisoners should stay put and wait for the Allied forces, who had just landed at Anzio, to arrive. It was a situation repeated at most POW camps in Italy.

Unwin and his partners had defied the orders and just walked out of the camp. The following day, 13th September, they were faced with the problem of what they should do now that they had escaped:

We gathered our bits and pieces, all of which did in fact belong to me. I was fairly well clothed, having my desert clothing, a greatcoat, battledress and a fair number of shirts and underclothes, since in the previous forty-eight hours I had been blessed by the arrival of a Red Cross food parcel and also the personal parcel from my family, which included an invaluable supply of chocolate.

One of the South Africans, a tall well-built fellow with a rather distinguished air about him, was dressed in an almost threadbare shirt and had no jacket. Amongst the clothing in my personal parcel was a very good quality, large—sized pair of pyjamas. In the fashion of the day they were vividly striped: red, white, blue and black, in varying widths of stripe. My offer to replace his threadbare shirt with the pyjama jacket was accepted with enthusiasm, and although the effect was rather startling, the improvement in both his appearance and his morale showed at once.

Having got the biggest problem behind us, that of managing to put ourselves on the right side of the barbed wire, our minds were buzzing on what the next steps should be, and we found ourselves in turmoil. The army had always insisted it was a PoW’s duty to attempt to escape, but there had never been a manual of ‘What to Do Next’. A variety of improbable thoughts come flooding in at such a time, and these mingled with a realistic appreciation of how uncertain our predicament was, leaving us in a state of much confusion. Up to this point, the whole purpose of our days had been concentrated on how to escape from captivity.

For me it had started as the germ of an idea in Tobruk fifteen months earlier, and as the months passed my determination had grown. The failure of my attempt from Borgo San Lorenzo had been a blow to my morale, but the immediate offer of a place in the tunnel party at Laterina had lifted my spirits sky high again.

Then the long gruelling days working on the tunnel, exhausting though they were, were a great boost to our morale. This had helped us all enormously, but getting to the other side of the barbed wire had become our horizon to the exclusion of all else. Foolish though it may now appear, we had scarcely thought about what lay beyond the wire. Now, having made the break, the world before us seemed a totally unknown factor that we were just taking from minute to minute.

What to do now? In the aftermath of the Armistice one thing we were sure of was that Italy, and in particular any Italian authorities, would be in a state of chaos; for the moment, all ofcial order would have collapsed.

So as we set off, our minds turned to possible objectives. Until a short time before our escape the only land objective open to us had been Switzerland, but this had changed with the Allied landings at Salerno and Anzio, south of Rome. Even that was some hundreds of miles south, so getting there still posed a considerable obstacle.

The weather prospects were so much better heading south rather than going north towards the Alps that any thoughts of Switzerland were soon discarded. We had heard rumours of a further Allied landing about to be attempted at Livorno, on the coast only seventy miles west of us, but we had learned not to put much faith in such rumours.

As the morning went on the Rhodesian fighter pilot, almost apologetically, put out a suggestion. He thought that all routine order on Italian airelds would have collapsed and that if we could find an airfield it might well be virtually unguarded. If this proved to be the case, and we found a plane ready to be own, he was sure he could fly it to Malta. This called for a measure of faith which was hard to swallow, but desperate circumstances call for desperate measures, and we agreed that if such circumstances presented themselves we should consider them.

The proposal gave the pyjama-jacketed South African the idea that he could put another shot in our locker. He claimed that in pre-war days he had held a commission in the South African navy and that he was experienced in marine navigation. So if we got to the coast and were able to steal a seaworthy boat, he was confident he could sail it to Malta. This was a much less daunting prospect than flying a plane and it was accepted more readily. The only justication for such harebrained schemes was that our position was quite precarious; when circumstances are sufficiently bad, no suggestion seems impossible.

Neither I nor the second South African had any comparable skills to offer. So, bearing in mind those two unlikely possibilities, in the meantime we set our sights on heading towards the Anzio bridgehead. However, in the hope that there might be another Allied landing at Livorno or somewhere along the coast, we decided to move west before turning south near the coast. This would also give us the opportunity to weigh up whether or not the escape—by—boat scheme was available to us. These thoughts occupied our minds as we tramped through the woods at the start of our odyssey.

We were finding the sensation of freedom an exhilarating one, as our walk initially took us through the woods, on the edge of which we had slept the previous night. Our chat was light-hearted and there was a spring in our step. It was not long before we came to cultivated land on gently sloping hills. We were fresh from a barbed-wire compound, and the prospect in front of us was now truly idyllic. We could not have been blessed with a more picturesque countryside in which to start our adventure.

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