Visiting the Troops

A s Menzies flew out of Australia on 24 January, news came through of the allied capture of Tobruk. Before he had reached the Middle East, Benghazi had fallen. The prospect of meeting the victorious Australian troops was an exciting one for Menzies. After leaving Australia (which itself took three days) Menzies flew to the Middle East via Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Bangkok.

He landed in Palestine 1 on 2 February 1941 and was met by Lieutenant-General Blamey, Commander of the AIF troops in the Middle East and Sir Harold McMichael, British High Commissioner in Palestine. Menzies and his party began a series of official engagements—inspecting a military hospital, a march past and address by loudhailer of AIF troops, the inspection of Australian warships serving in the Mediterranean, visiting troops at Bardia and Tobruk and the victorious 6th Division of the AIF, which had just captured Benghazi. The men of the 6th division were the war’s first Australian volunteers for military service abroad.

At Julius, Palestine, Prime Minister Menzies stands to attention while Commander of the AIF troops in the Middle East, Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey, takes the salute. To Menzies’ left is Major-General John Dudley Lavarack, General Officer commanding the Australian 7th Division, 2nd AIF.

Julis, Palestine

A great day’s programme, driving around the camps–troops drawn up in many places–salutes–great precision–with only the old and bold cooks calling out “How are you Bob?”.

At Julis Camp march past...With amplifiers I address them–a message from them to the gallant people of Great Britain—no cheap promises but a pledge that at home we will endeavour to work for them so as to be worthy of them.

It is a moving thing to speak to thousands of young men, mere boys, in the flower of their youth, many of whom will never see Australia again. War is the abomination of desolation, but its servants are a sight to see. These men are unbeatable.

War is the abomination of desolation, but its servants are a sight to see. These men are unbeatable.

Menzies (top right hand corner) visiting troops in the Middle East. At his right is Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey.

Bardiyah, Libya

Today to the Western Desert, in pursuit of the 6th division. Fly 500 miles of desert. See in distance Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani. Near the latter, the outline of fortified posts, and an occasional abandoned vehicle. The escarpment becomes visible, about 30 miles from the sea, closing in on it at about Sollum. Sidi Barrani is today a mere mark on the map, Sollum is a small village. So is Bardia, perched on high ground.

But at Bardia there was obviously great fortification. A most amazing sight is seen here—in every Wadi 2 or depression hundreds and hundreds of abandoned Italian vehicles. Altogether today I saw thousands! This Italian army had great numbers, superb equipment (our people had only about 100 field guns of light pattern in all), long prepared & well-placed defences, the skill of which everyone admits. All except guts!

In Tobruk Harbour, 36 ships sunk or half sunk—here and there the foremast propping out of the water...

In Bardia harbour several sunken ships could be seen in the water. And so to Tobruk, where the vast perimeter of the defences, about 20 miles, could be seen tank-traps & all, as if drawn on paper. Abandoned guns, tanks, lorries. Large stores of provisions in Tobruk itself. In Tobruk Harbour, 36 ships sunk or half sunk—here and there the foremast propping out of the water; the crane unused; the wireless masts standing drunkenly; a sad picture of what war means.

A most amazing sight...hundreds and hundreds of abandoned Italian vehicles...

Menzies tries to find his way through the crowd of nurses gathered to meet him at an Australian hospital in the Middle East.

Bardiyah, Libya

This morning an inward bound tanker was mined, and it is now blazing merrily near the wharf. The naval men here consider the mines laid by German aircraft who raided the place two nights ago, and, they tell me for my comfort, may come again tonight. N.B. Torch provided, and shown the way down to the Air Raid Shelter.

I inspect and speak to 2 Battalions of Allen’s Brigade 3 – one in a wadi leading down to a decent beach–and the Anti-Tank Company, with 20 Italian tanks to their credit.

They all look splendid, but craving for news of home, and boyishly pleased when I pointed out the world significance of the campaign they have been winning. At these speeches, I had a “sit down and smoke” order given and it was a success.

Before dinner, I wander about in the streets, chatting to various groups of AIF–a dash of humour is the right solvent, and they are friendly boys wise now in terrible things. It is cold here in the wind and our fellows wear a leather tunic over their uniform. They came on so steadily under fire that the Italians reported that they were wearing bullet proof mail shirts.

During his tour of the Middle East Menzies visited army hospitals and chatted with the patients. Lieutenant-General Blamey is on the left. Photographer – Damien Parer.

  1. Palestine Since 1922 Palestine had been a mandate under British rule. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 had asserted that the then British Government ‘viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. Tension between Jewish settlers and indigenous Arabs followed.

  2. Wadi A wadi is a dry riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy rain. The term is widely found in Arabic place names. Wadis tend to be associated with centers of human population because of the availability of sub-surface water.

  3. Allen's Brigade Major General Arthur Samuel ‘Tubby’ Allen (1894-1959). In October 1939 was given command of the 16th Brigade in the AIF’s 6th Division. By 1940, Allen was in the Middle East and his brigade fought at Bardia and Tobruk. In March he left North Africa for the ill-fated Greek campaign, for which he was awarded the Greek Military Cross. His next campaign, in command of the 7th Division against the Vichy French in Syria, was more successful and he was promoted to general in August 1941. In August 1942 he took charge of operations against the Japanese advance on Port Moresby.

Men of the 1st Anti Tank Company at Tobruk. Menzies said “It is not that you have come here to capture this desolate land but you have played a part in helping to smash the Italian Empire.” Photographer – Damien Parer.

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