Ian and Blanche

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3.1.6 The War Years

The war came to Australia in 1942. With the destruction of the Northern Territory town of Darwin by the Japanese and their invasion of New Guinea, Australians faced the prospect of enemy occupation. Australia’s forces were engaged in the North Africa and elsewhere outside Australia, and could not easily be brought back to defend the homeland. The British High Command considered Australia dispensable.

Ian registered for military service, but like all farmers in his age group (he was then 39) he was required to remain on the land. However, he joined the Tambellup unit of the Volunteer Defence Corps and participated in weekend military training at the showgrounds. John Gittins was also in the VDC at that time.

With the war came shortages of all sorts of commodities, of which the most important from the farmers’ viewpoint was fuel for their tractors. They received special rations of petrol and kerosene, but these allotments were barely large enough to support normal operations. They also had to contend with fuel thieves. One farmer73  set dingo74  traps for the rascals (or at least put about that he did) and another75  tried to bring them down with a war-service 0.303 rifle. But isolation worked to the advantage of the fuel rustlers, and they always escaped unharmed. There was a need for a substitute for conventional fuel.

The solution was the gas producer, a charcoal-fired furnace which could be mounted on a tractor or other vehicle to produce water gas76  as fuel for the engine. But at first neither Ian nor the Gittins brothers nor anyone else in the district knew how to make an efficient gas producer. Ian, John and Charlie gave over whole Sunday afternoons to ponder this question. Instead of shooting ducks they stood around drawing engineering sections in the dirt by the Gittins’ woodheap to compare the views of this or that self-styled expert. Then they came across a certain Mr. Andrews, a serious, soft-spoken man who really was an expert. The much-needed know-how spread, and it wasn’t long before Ian and the Gittins’ and every other farmer in the district had practical gas producers mounted on their tractors and other vehicles. Aside from a small amount of petrol required to start the engines, they were no longer dependant on rationed fuel.

On the 1942 vacation trip to Emu Point, the McRae family traveled in the Chrysler with a gas producer mounted on the back, while Charlie, John and Maud Gittins went in the Dodge truck similarly equipped and loaded with charcoal sufficient for the return trip. The usefulness of the gas producer was confirmed when both vehicles made it to the top of the long hill south of Mount Barker, without having to stop to change down into first.

In 1943 Mick Miniter died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 53. His death left Ethel in financial difficulties. Mick had left his entire estate to her, but when she returned to the house after the funeral she found that it had been broken into and the will stolen. Consequently, according to law, Ethel had to share the estate with Mick’s estranged sisters. She moved to Tambellup and lived modestly in a house77  near Nurse Turner’s (M on the Tambellup town map.).

Ian continued to attend the VDC parades on Sundays, but one incident undermined his confidence in the VDC. The local commander,78  a World War I veteran known as "Blood ‘n’ Guts," was leading the troops through a simulation of a standard grenade attack against a dug-in enemy, with pine cones for grenades. The exercise was going by the book until one of the "attackers" tossed, not a pine cone, but a sleepy lizard.79  The "defenders" leapt in all directions, revealing their positions by yells of "You silly cows, wotteryer think you’re doing?" Everyone laughed, but the humor was underlain by the realization that for a group of undisciplined middle-aged men to confront the Japs in a conventional military engagement would be pointless suicide. Gradually Ian and some of the others came to think that in the event of an occupation they would sell their lives more dearly as a guerrilla force, sneaking about in the bush to pick off an occasional sentry or setting a fire when the wind was right.

In the event, of course, the Americans came on the scene with the numbers, the will and the weaponry to defeat the Japanese.

An eye-popping series of warships and aircraft came and went at Albany’s hitherto sleepy Princess Royal Harbour, and the submarine mother ship "Holland" had its base there. Evidently the "Yanks" did not consider Australia dispensable.

The Yanks meant business. Tall, polite and cheerful young men, many of them sleek and bulky from being "on good feed" in John Gittins’ expression, they exuded confidence in their cause and their leadership. And they got things done in a hurry. Example: Informed by Albany Shire officials that they would have to wait to get a permit to extend a runway at the airport, the Yanks responded by hauling in a bulldozer80  and finishing the job before the Shire office had even opened the following morning.

After the tide of war changed and it became clear that the danger of an enemy invasion had passed, the VDC continued to meet until the end of the war. But by then the parades were more a rite of fellowship than of military training.

After the VDC disbanded, Ian found fellowship in the Tambellup Freemasons.


Continue reading: 3.2 Vignettes of Life on Gilella


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3. Ian and Blanche (1929-1975) Blanche (-1988)

3.1 Weathering the Depression (1929-1945)

3.1.5 Relations and Friends

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3.1.6 The War Years

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3.2 Vignettes of Life on Gilella


Footnotes:
(click footnote number to go between footnote and text)

73. [First name unknown] Wilkes.

74. An Australian wild dog.

75. Arthur Gittins.

76. Water gas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, produced by the reaction of oxygen (from air) and water with carbon (from charcoal). Charcoal was made locally by partially burning whitegum in a clay pit covered to exclude air.

77. Formerly owned by Mr. and Mrs. Ross Steele.

78. [Probably] Edgar Richardson. Fred Hilder and Ross Steele were also mainstays of the VDC.

79. A slow-moving reptile of alarming appearance, non-poisonous but mildly dangerous because it locks its jaws on anything it touches and never lets go.

80. Bulldozers did not come into general use in WA until after the war.