David Craven had just finished school when the dogs of war were unleashed in 1939. He served his country as a tankman in the Battle for Australia. He later served the interests of his fellow veterans in his Regimental Association.
Some years ago David Craven compiled some notes on his army service and later transcribed them into some closely typed pages ‘for the possible interest of my family and some close friends ... this briefly covers my army service, starting in May, 1940, in the Militia (now known as the Army Reserve) on part time service.'
Here are some extracts. His opening words capture the initially naive but inspired young man that he was.
"When I enlisted at age 18 on 23 May 1940 at Carrington Road Drill Hall Randwick, I didn't know which unit I was joining. It was the closest to home, I came to realise it was a good choice. Joining at the same time was mate Noel Harrod and others who became good mates induding Jack Curtayne, Murgy Hobbs and John Blackberry. The first experience of anything military after the medicals and paperwork were brisk commands from an impressive, soldierly young corporal named Doug Fems who got us lined up into some sort of form to hand over to Troop Sergeant Fred Fitzsimmons. He looked and acted like a real soldier and then introduced us to our Troop Leader Lieutenant Col Southwell, who saluted, took over and told us we should feel proud to be In the No 1 Troop, A Squadron of the 1st Light Horse Machine Gun Regiment (Royal NSW lancers). We saw no horses and later found there were none.
Knowing nothing of military organisation we thought Col appeared to be someone almost akin to God. No way could I imagine that three years later, having served most time in that troop, I would become its leader."
David came up through the ranks to be troop sergeant. He was nominated for a short three months course at RMC Duntroon "which I topped and was commissioned in early 1943. After a time as OC RHQ Troop in HQ Squadron, I applied for and was glad to be posted back to No,1 Troop, A Squadron. as troop leader. I was glad also to feel that the feedback from the troop members was good."
(In fact, David was only a week with RHQ. He must have been quite persuasive with the CO to have avoided the customary posting of newly minted officers to a unit, or part of his existing unit away from former colleagues. He was succeeded at RHQ by Lieutenant Jim Hartridge who also, after about a week, was transferred to A Squadron. RHQ was always a bit of an orphan.
Continuing from David's transcript: "On that first night I came under the spell of the Lancers, and the feeling for this regiment has been with me ever since.
In 1940 the Regiment was quite under strength having lost a large number who had volunteered to join the AIF and form the nucleus of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion."
David wanted to transfer to the AIF with them but at that time he was regarded as under age and required his father's permission to enlist in the AIF. His father, Norman, who was wounded in France in the Great War refused. David once said that many of those early volunteers did not come back.
Recalling service In New Guinea, David wrote of the regiment's first actions involving C Squadron. "Then It was the turn of A Squadron who had formed a base at Bonga on the coast. We were all ready for whatever lay ahead, and I was quite confident in myself and the eleven members of my troop. Then came the bad news from Captain Bob Watson that 1 and 3 troops were to stay at Bonga in reserve in case needed while the other four troops were to support the 9th Division In their advance along the Rai coast.
My troop and Dick Steele's troop were disappointed to say the least. I wondered why it was us - maybe Bob didn't have as much confidence in 1 and 3 troops or maybe because the other troop leaders were senior to me. I asked Bob for permission to go along as observer - and Bob said: ‘No, stay here.’ We didn't get news of how things were going which was also disappointing. My good mate Murgy Hobbs was troop sergeant of 3 Troop and one time we shared a bottle of warm beer which my father sent by mail in a hollowed out loaf of bread.
I took the risk of braking orders and got a lift in a supply craft to join the main group at Masewang River on Christmas Day, 1943. Found Bob Watson had been wounded a few days before and been evacuated which meant I wouldn't get ticked off. Gave them our news and got theirs, had a nice lunch and then back by the craft to Bonga for our non-alcoholic Christmas celebration. Eventually around mid-February, after two months of operations, the squadron returned to Bonga. All four troops had been in action. No tanks or men were lost in action and the infantry were glad of our support.
Having recovered from his wound Bob Watson re-joined the squadron and at last I could ask him why 1 and 3 troops had missed the actions. He said it was a tough choice he had to make. He had as much confidence in 1 and 3 troops as the others and promised that in any future operations they would be given priority. True to his word in the opposed landings at Balikpapan in 1945, 1 and 3 troops were the first ashore. Ironically, neither he nor I were there.
In May 1944 we went back to Australia but didn’t take our tanks as we expected. They were handed over to the 2/4th Armoured Regiment for their operations in Bougainville and Wewak. We didn’t know this and had hidden cigarettes, cigars and other goodies, obtained from Americans, in ammunition boxes and other places. We heard later that the 2/4th had been pleased with what they found.
After we returned from New Guinea in 1944 we all thought our days of overseas operations were over as there were other armoured regiments, well trained and equipped, who would be sent next. We were wrong. I had dengue fever and spent time in hospital. Then in 1945 I took part in the brigade athletics competition. I broke my ankle in the hop, step and jump event and was sent to hospital in Baulkam Hills with my leg in plaster for weeks. One day I was amazed to be told by another patient that our regiment was about to leave again for overseas service. Got the plaster off my leg and myself out of hospital as soon as I could but the regiment had gone.
I found the regiment was going to Morotai to prepare for a landing and operations at Balikpapan, Borneo. I was determined to catch up if possible but there were frustrating delays in transit. Finally got to Calms and was held up there for some time. Eventually I got a flight to New Guinea by flying boat which wasn't meant for passengers, having no seats and a plank on each side of the unsealed space. We were in tropical shorts and shirts and flying high over the Owen Stanley range was the coldest I have ever been - freezing. We landed at Madang which was pleasant but there was another frustrating delay.
Eventually and thankfully another move this time by an American Liberty ship heading for Morotai. On the ship was Lieutenant Col Watson from the regiment's C Squadron. In the following months we became great friends. On the way the ship stopped briefly at Biak (Dutch New Guinea) which had become an American air base. We had heard on the radio of the two atomic bombs and that the war looked like ending. Much to our surprise a few US fighter planes were going crazy doing loops and swoops over the sea and firing machine guns. This was apparently their way of celebrating.
A day or so later we were arrived at Morotai, the very day the war ended. All were very thankful but no gun fire or aerobatics here. An Australian officer spread the word that a Prisoner of War Reception Group of mixed nationalities was being formed to go to Manila and was seeking volunteers Col and I felt that this would be worth doing and more helpful than re-joining the regiment and filling In time so we volunteered and were soon off to the Philippines. In the shallow water of Manila harbour we sailed between many sunken ships, evidence of Allied air attacks, as was the sight of the city in ruins.
Our camp was mixed, Australian and American while the British and Dutch and others were elsewhere. The Yanks were a good bunch. Our Australian Major OC said. ‘These Americans have to learn how to make tea … they just have little bags with hot water in a mug.’ We also thought it strange to drink beer out of a tin can.
We soon found our job was heavy going but rewarding. It was round the clock work meeting the planes as they arrived full of POWS. They were medically assessed and treated the needy ones going to hospital. Many were in a bad way and just barely made it. Others were got ready to move on to Australia. Each man was interviewed to learn of their experiences. The warm feedback from our POWs was great. Col and I didn't get much time off but toured some of the bombed out city and went to Corregidor scene of the famous General Douglas MacArthur declaration, ‘I will return.' One day we got a jeep and spent a full day exploring and talking to Phllippinos. There must have been a lot of planning to have had things so well organised a credit to whoever did it.
I have no Idea how many prisoners passed through our hands or how many were in our group, but certainly a lot of both. Col and I are the only ones of our regiment who can tell of this episode, a rewarding time. Lighter moments included a visit by Lady Mountbatten who was loved by all. Also cock fighting, widely performed and losing bets. We were In Manila just under two months returning to Australia on 9 November 1945.
I had two weeks in hospital with tropical hepatitis, then three weeks at Lady Wakehurst Convalescent Home. Returning to the army I was glad to get a cushy posting at Victoria Barracks. My job dealt with discharges. Some of our members will never know that their release was fast tracked a bit when I spotted their names in the paper work. I quite enjoyed my time there."
David's final words were: "I finally bowed out on 3 July 1946. ln all just over six years of service in the militia and the AIF. I have to consider myself fortunate that in doing my duty as was required things went well for me in what was an interesting lot of experiences even despite the disappointment of missing A Squadron actions in New Guinea. Another bonus of my time in the army is that I gained many great mates whose friendship has continued through all the years since."
David’s service did not end in 1946. He served almost continuously on the Committee of the Royal New South Wales Lancers’ Association from the first meeting of its re-formation in 1946 until December 2009, almost 63 years. The positions he held included Treasurer, from 1946 to 1954 and Secretary from 1982 to 1995.
David is probably best known to most Lancers’ Association members for his role as editor of the Lancers’ Newsletter, for many years until February 2001.
When the current editor of what is now Lancers’ Despatch took over the role in August 2001 he found it difficult to match David’s exacting standards. He recalls many phone calls and letters with comments and corrections.
Edited by Bert Castellari 2013, the words are those of the late David Craven.