During a jovial dinner conversation with an editor from News Limited and an elderly man from Raymond Terrace, we somehow touched on the All Blacks and the Haka. The elderly man, having listened to our stories, said “I saw 800 Maori do the Haka once, just before they went in to action with bayonets against the Germans at El Alamein. I wouldn’t want to be on the end of that one”. Nor would I. Bob Anson had just got our complete attention.
Bob’s life has entwined our national mythology of the last century – soldier settlements, The Great Depression, droving in the outback, Nancy Bird, Rats of Tobruk, Battle of El Alamein, jungle warfare in New Guinea, the glory days of the wool industry, public service and Queensland politics with Sir Joh. The list is long, and so it should be – he’s 96. Despite his incredible life (and he’s still going strong), you won’t have heard of Bob Anson. He moved through life under the radar of the media and other forms of public recognition. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine how, but like most of his generation, he just got on with the job.
Bob is my Great Uncle – my Nan’s brother and my Mum’s uncle. I met him as a teenager, and read his memoirs and family research (going back to fifteenth century England), but I had never spent quality time with him. Over the last five days, during his trip (yes holiday at 96) to Lord Howe, we talked about life, love, luck, fate, regrets, accomplishments and memories – a seemingly never ending flow of memories with great attention to detail.
Uncle Bob’s father (my great grandfather) returned from the First World War where he served with the 45th Battalion AIF through the horrors of the Western Front in 1917, notably the Battles of Messines and Passchendaele. During the German Spring Offensive in March 1918, he was gassed and eventually returned to Australia with debilitating injuries to his lungs and foot. He settled on a five acre block near Milperra (now part of Sydney) and raised 10 children. After years of stable life, and triggered by the hardship of the Great Depression, he succumbed to alcohol and the demons of the Western Front – like so many men of that generation.
After his father’s decline, Uncle Bob left to become a drover in north-western NSW. During that time, he made friends with the pioneering aviatrix, Nancy Bird, and flew with her on some of her maiden air ambulance flights. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Uncle Bob was in Sydney learning to fly, through the encouragement of Nancy, but this soon ended when the RAAF commandeered his plane for the war effort. Many years later, and after she was made a National Living Treasure, Nancy Bird-Walton sent Uncle Bob a copy of her book with a message “I still remember those days Bob. I’ll call you sometime”. She never did, and died a few years later. He didn’t say specifically, but I’m guessing they were sweethearts at some stage before the war.
Not wanting to return to the lousy pay of station work in north-western NSW, Uncle Bob joined the AIF in Sydney. Most of his mates from north-western NSW enlisted in QLD and were assigned to the ill-fated 8th Division. After the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces in 1942 the entire 8th Division was captured. Only six of Uncle Bob’s 16 mates in the 8th Division returned home after surviving places like Changi and the Burma Railway.
Thanks to Nancy Bird, Uncle Bob joined the 2/17th Battalion in Sydney, and after a period of training in NSW, he sailed for the Middle East as part of the 7th Division in late 1940. Shortly after arriving in Palestine, the 2/17 Battalion was transferred to the 9th Division where Uncle Bob was trained as a signaller. Part of his job was to communicate between Battalion HQ and the font line companies, and to do this properly in ‘mobile’ warfare, he had to learn how to ride a motor bike. Having been a horseman, he thought a motor bike would be easy, but it wasn’t. After numerous crashes, including one over a partially raised draw bridge into a canal (he said it was like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape, although he didn’t ride away), he was ‘volunteered’ to be one of four Battalion dispatch riders (Don Rs).
The Battalion first went into action at Er Regima in Libya, but the 9th Division was ordered to withdraw to Tobruk in what became known as the ‘Benghazi Handicap’. During the chaotic retreat, Uncle Bob rode his Norton bike up and down the convoys passing messages between officers. At the same time, the convoys were being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe Stukas. Of the four Battalion Don Rs, Uncle Bob was the only one who “got into Tobruk” – the others were killed or wounded. A few days later, General Rommel’s German forces attacked Tobruk along the front held by 2/17th Battalion. During what became known as the ‘Easter Battle’, Uncle Bob had to maintain telephone cables between front line positions and Battalion HQ. It was dangerous work. He was about 50 yards from Jack Edmondson when he won the Victoria Cross on 13 April.
The Siege of Tobruk has become one of the legendary actions of the AIF in WW2, along with El Alamein and Kokoda. Uncle Bob’s memories of the siege were more about fleas, reduced rations, “visits by the Stukas”, heat and patrolling. One of the reasons for the successful defence of Tobruk was the Australians’ aggressive patrolling of German front line positions. There were reconnaissance patrols, fighting patrols and listening patrols. Towards the end of the Siege, the 2/17th Battalion was supported by soldiers from the Polish Carpathian Brigade. Being fluent German speakers, the Polish soldiers patrolled at night up to 4000 yards behind German lines to cut telephone wires, and being the ‘sig’, Uncle Bob had to go with them. He said it was one of the scariest experiences of the war. The Polish soldiers used to “tap in” to the German telephone lines and harass the unsuspecting German soldiers at the other end of the line – to confuse them and also “for a bit of fun”. They were frequently challenged by German sentries, but somehow survived. Most of his Polish mates, who survived Tobruk, were killed during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in early 1944.
After the war, Uncle Bob received four medals from the Polish Government for his actions with Polish soldiers at Tobruk. None of the citations are in English, so he’s not exactly sure what the medals are for (although you can probably guess). He once told a particularly pushy lady at a meeting of the Rats of Tobruk Association that one medal was for “teaching Polish soldiers how to sing Along the Road to Gundagai to accompany his harmonica”. Uncle Bob, like many returned soldiers, didn’t like talking about his experiences.
After Tobruk, the 2/17 Battalion was sent to Lebanon for garrison duties. For a few months the 9th Division occupied a vast area of land from Lebanon to northern Syria, and Uncle Bob rode large distances most days as part of his Don R duties. While he was supposed to ride from A to B with messages, he often took detours and “travelled a bit” through villages and towns. On one such detour through the mountains of Lebanon, he rode his bike off a 1000 foot cliff – only to be caught in the branches of a tree. He was rescued by passing soldiers, but the bike was gone. He was lucky. Sixty five years later he met three young Palestinian girls in the corridor outside his Sydney hotel room, and started talking about his travels around Jerusalem in 1942. After being “a bit suspicious” about his stories and cross examining him about the places he had visited, two of the girls spontaneously kissed him on the cheek – it turns out he had been to their village (and it was a small place). He told me this story a few times – for some reason it was on the front of his mind.
Uncle Bob’s motor bike travels soon ended when the 9th Division was sent to El Alamein, about 100km west of Alexandria in Egypt. At the time, General Rommel’s Africa Corps were advancing on Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal. The British Eight Army (including the 9th Division) was ordered to make a stand at El Alamein. On the first day of the battle, Uncle Bob’s company commander was killed next to him while issuing a message for Bob to send to Battalion HQ. The Sergeant Major and Bob lay side by side as German tracer bullets passed between them, and even in a time of (you’d think) incredible stress and fear they both joked about moving their legs a few inches to the side to get a wound that would send them home for good. Suffice to say, they didn’t move until the German machine gun was knocked out. In the same burst of fire that killed their company commander, Uncle Bob had a 9mm bullet lodged in between his left ribs. It’s still there today. He said that he thought about having it removed and turned into a necklace, but never did.
A few months later during a German counter attack at the second Battle of El Alamein, Uncle Bob watched two German halftracks approach his position, somewhere near Point 29. In an instant, the Bren gunner lying next to him knocked out both halftracks and wounded a German Captain, who was subsequently captured. The Bren gunner was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Many years later, Uncle Bob was travelling in West Germany with his wife, Ada, and a friend from the RAAF. In a small bar, where they were having lunch, Uncle Bob noticed badges and medals on the wall from General Rommel’s Africa Corps. After a short discussion with a man who spoke impeccable English, Uncle Bob realised he was talking to the same German Captain from all those years ago. They drank together for a few hours, told stories, laughed and patted each other on the back. What are the odds?
On the last day of the second Battle of El Alamein, a land mine wounded Uncle Bob and killed his best mate. He had promised his mate that if he were killed, he would visit his wife in Sydney after the war to see how she was going. In 1943, when Uncle Bob returned to Sydney before the New Guinea campaign, he went to her flat in Potts Point and got as far as the front door. Still to this day, he doesn’t know why he couldn’t knock on the door. He walked away and never made contact with her. He still thinks about her seventy years later. I’m only guessing, but we now know about ‘survivor guilt’ and the damage it did to soldiers who, due to nothing more than luck, survived when their mates didn’t.
With serious shrapnel wounds, Uncle Bob was evacuated to the army hospital in Alexandria where he recovered over many months. In the midst of total war, the hospital was a surreal place. The wards were interconnected and each had soldiers from different countries – Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Germany. The ‘walking wounded’ carried bed pans for the immobile patients, and Italian prisoners of war worked as orderlies who delivered meals and cleaned the floor “until it was shiny”. On one occasion, a New Zealander patient opposite Uncle Bob with his full leg in plaster asked an Italian orderly for a second cup of rice porridge. After being refused, the New Zealander got out of bed, hoped to the Italian orderly and poured the entire bucket of rice porridge over the orderly’s head. “There was porridge everywhere and we all got a mouthful from the Colonel”. Not long afterwards, an Australian sergeant came up behind a Scottish nurse with two water bottles and said “stick ‘em up”. The nurse got such a fright that she fell backwards and landed with her blouse over her head. The entire ward of Australians shouted “hooray”. The Highlander nurse was a “good sport”, but still let the sergeant know what she thought…
In early 1943, Uncle Bob returned to Australia with the entire 9th Division and retrained for jungle warfare against the Japanese. The infamous battles for Kokoda, Buna and Gona had been won by the time the 9th Division returned to Australia, so they were trained as an amphibious assault force. In September 1943, Uncle Bob was part of Australia’s first major amphibious assault since Gallipoli, when the 2/17th Battalion landed near Lae on the north coast New Guinea. With limited opposition, the 9th Division reached Lae in two weeks. Buoyed by their success, the 2/17th Battalion was part of a second amphibious assault at Scarlet Beach on the Huon Peninsular. This time, however, with echoes from Gallipoli, the Battalion was landed on the wrong beach under intense Japanese fire. Uncle Bob had “a terrible time”. As the ‘sig’, he was required to carry a radio on his back and became a constant target for Japanese snipers.
After a week of heavy fighting, the Australians captured Finschhafen and then moved on towards a major Japanese force in the mountains at Sattelberg. After a Japanese counter attack, the 2/17th Battalion was cut off and surrounded for a week. Thinking he was a ‘bushman’, Uncle Bob used to sneak out of their perimeter at night in search for bush food, but only made himself and his mates sick when the yams he found were poisonous. The Battalion was eventually freed and continued their attack on the high ground near Sattelberg, until it could go no further – such were the number of casualties. Uncle Bob said they had fought to a standstill. After the fall of Sattelberg, where Tom Derrick won his famous Victoria Cross, the 2/17th Battalion continued towards Sio.
Uncle Bob talked at length about Tom Derrick, and his legendary actions in North Africa and New Guinea. Derrick was the best known soldier in the 9th Division and should, many say, have won a VC three times. Having survived the most intense battles of the war against the Germans, Italians and Japanese, he was killed at the end of the war during the Borneo Campaign. Uncle Bob said the entire 9th Division was in mourning after Derrick’s death. Five years of war and death were bad enough, but to lose such a cult figure at the end was devastating. The theme continued though – one of Uncle Bob’s mates, and “a bloody good soldier,” survived every major battle of the war, only to die in Korea in 1951.
Uncle Bob missed the Borneo Campaign in 1945 due to a lengthy battle with malaria and dengue fever. When he left the army in 1946, he studied sheep husbandry and wool classing and moved, with Ada, to western Queensland. Over the next 20 years, he worked as a district adviser to sheep farmers around Charleville, Julia Creek and Cloncurry. In the late 1960’s he nearly won the QLD seat of Warrego as a protest candidate – nobody had stood against the incumbent Labour member for years, so Uncle Bob thought he’d have a go. However, due to his political naivety, and a few late deals by his rivals, he missed out by 365 votes (after preferences) – “one vote for each day of the year”. His near win paved the way for long standing National Party politician and government minister, Neil Turner, to win Warrego at the next election.
Uncle Bob later moved to Brisbane and became a member of the National Party State Council, as well as a senior official with the QLD Department of Primary Industries. He was friends with Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and was often with the Premier when he “fed the chooks” at press briefings. Uncle Bob thought that Bjelke-Petersen was a good leader and a man “who always had dirt under his nails” – a high compliment in Uncle Bob’s generation. He also knew Kevin Rudd (in his early years) when he was an adviser to Wayne Goss, although I shouldn’t repeat his views on the former Prime Minister.
Uncle Bob regretted never completing a university degree – his work skills had overtaken the need for formal qualifications and his pioneering work with artificial insemination and sheep genetics was well respected. During a work trip to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in England, his counterpart was introducing him as Dr Anson. After a few embarrassing days, Uncle Bob told his counterpart that he wasn’t a doctor – indeed, he didn’t even have a degree. His counterpart said “don’t worry Bob, if they think you have PhD then they won’t ask any questions”. When Uncle Bob returned to Australia he found an envelope containing an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He finally felt like the hard work in western QLD had paid off.
Having missed ANZAC Days when he was in western QLD, Uncle Bob finally became involved in the Rats of Tobruk Association and Legacy – he counselled and supported many Vietnam veterans, and they, in turn, still support him to this day. He is fiercely independent, and until his Vietnam veterans insisted, he never relied on support through Veterans Affairs.
After retirement, Uncle Bob kept himself busy with family genealogy (where he traced our family back to fifteenth century England and Ireland – before www.ancestry.com), and frequent trips with Ada and his siblings. Ada died 10 years ago, and Uncle Bob has continued to live alone in his house in Raymond Terrace, nor far from his son, Lindsay, who is “also retired and on the pension” (after a long career in the RAAF). He cooks for himself, shops in Newcastle and entertains two war widows in his street. He only lost his driver’s license last year (age 95) due to failing eyesight and hearing, but his mind is still sharp.
Uncle Bob is proud of his war service – a few times he told people that “the 2/17th is the Battalion that won the war”, although he’s clearly being cheeky. You could imagine that argument going on for hours at ANZAC Day gatherings. However, not far below the surface, he’s still troubled by the war – even as a “26 year old seasoned soldier” (as opposed to a 17 year old teenager like his brother George), he saw things that people shouldn’t. I suspect he hasn’t talked much about the darker side of his war experience before, and it was a privilege to listen to just a few of those stories. Not because I was curious – I can imagine, at least a bit, but because I think it helped him clear the decks.
Uncle Bob also has regrets – not saying “I love you” to Ada more often and only having one child. But generally, he is a happy character with an amazing story on most topics. He also has a presence, which I guess was once charisma, but now is something I can’t define. Over his five days at Pinetrees, people of all ages stopped for a chat. Our kids cuddled him and blew bubbles with him, our guests all knew him (some sat for hours listening to stories), and the island community was buzzing with talk of the 96 year old Rat of Tobruk at Pinetrees. One morning he played four holes of golf.
When Uncle Bob left to board the plane (by himself), we were both a bit emotional. It was an amazing five days with an extraordinary Australian.
I wrote this in 2013 after Uncle Bob’s last visit. Four years later, Elsie and Pixie still talk about him as the head of the family, and the ultimate authority. They’d often say “Uncle Bob is your boss – you wouldn’t say no to him”. And they were right.
Yesterday, on Remembrance Day, Uncle Bob died from complications of pneumonia. He was 101.
We love him and miss him.