Soldiers

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2/2nd FORESTRY COMPANY R.A.E.   

Research by Gordon Freegard 2018

This is the rarely told story of the forestry workers that maintained supply behind the fighting fronts. We all know about the behind-the-scenes workers that built and supplied the bombs, the ammunition, the guns, the planes, the boats and the tanks, but little do we know about the soldiers that kept up the supply of the much needed timber. This was needed to build bridges, roads, railways, army camps and to repair bombed buildings and quarters. Some was even used for gliders and barges. Rather than have timber shipped in, the decision was to log and cut on site or as close as possible to the war front. Experienced timbermen were selected to execute this project, which meant top workers were chosen from our forestry teams and sent from Australia. They performed their duties in very extreme conditions from the ice and snow of Scotland to the heat and humidity of the tropics of Bougainville. They had to start virtually from scratch and built their living quarters and then the sawmills. The mills were built along the lines of the true and tested models they were familiar with back in Australia. The local timbers were different the Jarrah and Karri hardwoods of home. Here they had other types such as Beech, Oak and Pine, but the means of processing was still the same. Our Australian timbermen excelled in their trade and their skilful methods meant they set many records for production during the following war years. Enjoy this read as we follow them from England and Scotland through to New Guinea and Bougainville before returning back to their hometowns and sawmills in Australia. These men needed to be recognised for the massive effort they performed in backing the soldiers fighting at the front. Without them life today could have been very different. LEST WE FORGET the men who served in the 2/1. 2/2 and 2/3 Forestry Companies of the Royal Australian Engineers

 

FORESTRY COMPANY
 ROYAL AUSTRALIAN ENGINEERS SHIELD     #1

 

JOHN HENRY (JACK) O’MEAGHER 1940     #2

 

Early in 1940, Britain asked Australia, New Zealand and Canada each to send an army unit that would be able to fell and mill timber in France. These units were to comprise experienced timbermen with a forester in charge. (The French Government had not been impressed with the destruction of some of its carefully managed forests during World War 1.

Two forestry companies were quickly raised in 1940 as part of the Royal Australia Engineers (RAE). The first Forestry Company (2/1) was in Sydney with men from New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia led by Captain Cyril Richard Cole, a professional forester, while the second Forestry Company (2/2) was raised in Melbourne under the command of Captain Andrew Leonard (Ben) Benallack, with soldiers from Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Word went around the local West Australian mills like wildfire. Those interested went for a medical test. Altogether, over sixty-seven West Australians were selected, many of them friends and workmates from the lower South West. Among these was Bill Quarrell, Lou Goodman, George Jones, Hector McDonald, Lindsay Starkie, George Lilley, Jack White, all from Jardee and also Jack O’Meagher who was from Karragullen, and also Felix Carpenter who was mill foreman at Millars’ Timber and Trading Co. at Mornington Mills. Fifty entered Northam Camp to undergo their second medical examinations before intensive basic training in military skills in early May 1940. Another seventeen arrived a few days later.

After completing their basic military training, they had a combined farewell. The Railway and Forestry Units, who were now encamped at Ascot, marched through the streets of Perth, before sailing for Europe on the “Stratheden”. Leaving Fremantle on the 30th May 1940 destined for the Suez Canal. By the time they reached Colombo, France had fallen, so they were diverted to sail via the Cape of Good Hope.

AUSTRALIAN TROOPS ON SHORE LEAVE IN COLUMBO    #4

 

AUSTRALIAN TROOPS ON BOARD S.S. STRATHEDEN     #3

The troops landed in England in July, and spent the first few weeks undertaking further military training at Alton, in Southern England. In preparation to defend England in the event of an invasion. The German attack never came, so the 2/2nd Forestry Company, Royal Australian Engineers, found themselves doing the job they had enlisted to do in the north of England instead of in France.

                  NORTHUMBERLAND        #5

 

Prior to the War, Britain had sourced much of its timber from Scandinavian countries but now had to rely upon its own forests to meet its timber needs. The two Forestry Companies were first deployed to Northumberland during September 1940. Equipment was in short supply and was not what they were used to. Initially crawler-tractors were not available so local agricultural tractors had to be converted to serve in the logging operations. There were no chainsaws, just axes and crosscut saws.

How different things were from home among the Jarrah and the Karri trees. Here, Spruce, Ash, Chestnut, Sycamore, Pine, Beech and Oak trees, too young to cut during World War 1, had grown to a commercial size. The trees were much smaller than the men were used to, and local custom was to saw the trees only 10 centimetres from the ground. The men had to work on their knees, sometimes in the snow and mud, using clumsy kneeling pads attached to their trousers. It would have been hard to get used to in any weather, but what made it worse was that, according to the locals, this was the harshest winter for fifty years.

       FORESTRY WORKERS IN SCOTLAND 1940    #31

 

     

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS IN SCOTLAND 1940    #6

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS IN SCOTLAND 1940     #28

 

CUTTING TREES WHILST KNEELING     #7

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS AT NORTHUMBERLAND 1940    #29

 

STARTING TO BUILD THE MILL     #32

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS  AT NORTHUMBERLAND 1940       #33

 

JACK O'MEAGHER WAS BILLETED OUT HERE     #34

 

NISSEN HUT WORK CAMP     #35

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS  AT NORTHUMBERLAND 1940       #36

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS  AT NORTHUMBERLAND 1940       #37

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS  AT NORTHUMBERLAND 1940       #38

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS  AT NORTHUMBERLAND 1940       #39

 

VIEW OF SAWMILL     #40

 

LEFT OVERS USED TO PROP COAL MINES     #41

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS  AT NORTHUMBERLAND 1940     #30

 

As the need for forestry companies persisted the 2/3 Forestry Company of 150 men was formed in Melbourne in March – April 1941. It was led by Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Richard Cole, a veteran of WW1. Among the thirty-two West Australians that joined were Bert James, Curly Towie, George McAlpine, Stan McKay, Bill Todd and Jim Fox from Jardee, along with Alex Hindes, Ben Hindes, Eddy Hanrahan, Len Hanrahan, Charlie Pitts, Tom Skehan and Sarg Molony from Dean Mill, and Tom Gilbert from Bridgetown. This company sailed from Sydney on 4th June 1941 in the “Themistocles” and the “Largs Bay”, for Great Britain, via Wellington (New Zealand), Panama Canal, Colon, Kingston, Halifax, and across the Atlantic in a convoy of 105 ships with a strong escort of naval vessels. This was one of the few convoys which made the crossing unmolested in those days. To begin with, they were sent to Lockerbie in Scotland, but, as with other units, they were moved around as the timber was cut. The three companies were relocated to Dumfrieshire in Scotland during 1941.

When they arrived in Scotland from England, they were faced with a bare field. They had to cut timber to build their huts and then the mills. For this they had to transport some timber for 30 miles. Incredibly one of the slickest pieces of work was when four men built a large mess hut in five days.

 

DUMFRIESHIRE, SCOTLAND    #8

 

BARE FIELDS ON ARRIVAL IN SCOTLAND     #9

Later so as to maximise the Australian forester’s productivity, less skilled forestry workers from Honduras and Italian Prisoners Of War (POW’s) were place under their control to undertake unskilled work.

Both the Scotch and English immediately took the Aussies into their homes and hearts and did their utmost to make their stay with them as enjoyable and comfortable as possible under the circumstances, and many great friendships were born.

ITALIAN PRISONERS WORKING ON SAWMILL AT LOCKERBIE     #10
Note: The mill was built by the Australians just like ones at home

 

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS IN SCOTLAND 1942     #11

Although it was a lonely life no-one said they found it dull. Most of these were expert axemen – and expert shots too. Their cooks had learnt to deal with deer and other game. “We must shoot when a pheasant “attacks” us.” Said the New South Wales champion axeman, Dick Rielly. The Duke of Burkleugh, who is a big landowner in the district, wrote a letter asking that they make certain that only cocks “attacked” them.

They busily set about building the much needed mills. At one particular site they were laying skids at the loco siding using adzes and augers. Things weren’t going so well and suddenly there was a hearty enunciation of adjectives essentially Australian. For a moment you could have thought you were somewhere in Australia but, no, a little bit of Australia was in Scotland.

 

 

The trees they were cutting are in forests planned by an Australian Rhodes Scholar, Sir Roy Robinson. And the trees were planted by Australian Diggers of the last war who stayed in England. In one forest in Scotland certain trees of a dark foliage were planted so that when they grew they formed a map of Australia. This map can be seen quite clearly from the Glasgow Road.

The Japanese had entered the War and the Australians were very keen to return to Australia, however this was not possible at that time. So keen were some members to return that, on seeing a notice besides a pond reading, “PERSONS THROWING STONES IN THIS POND WILL BE SENT TO AUSTRALIA” they bombarded the pool until their arms ached. They continued their war effort producing timber but later when the Japanese were threatening to invade Australia they were sent home to support the local effort.

In spite of all this, the Australians set records for production. A record cut of 16,400 cubic feet was chalked up when the O.C., of the 1st Company, Major Jack Thomas, bet them 18 gallons of the best English beer. In two years the company sent away 679 trainloads of timber. The timber was used for railway sleepers, wagons and new army camps and to repair bombed buildings.

AUSTRALIAN FORESTRY WORKERS IN SCOTLAND 1942     #12

 

INSPECTION BY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS    #42
 Jack O'Meagher third left of microphone

 

INSPECTION BY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS    #43

 

INSPECTION BY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS   #44

 

Lt CHANDLER LEADING THE PARADE     #45
 Were recognised as best performers of the day. Note all the feet in the same position.
 Jack O'Meagher is unseen eighth down far side

 

SAWMILL AT FARQUAR’S MOSS NEAR LOCKERBIE     #13

 

The smaller round timber was collected for pit props for the coal mines. In one place this was done by two young girls, one of whom became the sweetheart of a Forestry Company Soldier. Local Karragullen soldier, Jack O’Meagher met his future wife, Joyce, whilst stationed in England and after the war she joined him in Australia. She was to be one of the 120 British brides who followed their Forestry Company husbands back to Australia after the war. Jack and his best mate both got married at a double wedding to Joyce and her sister.

The pay of the timbermen-soldiers was limited, but their outgoing and sometimes boisterous manner in the English – and later Scottish – pubs was recognizably Australian. When on leave they were able to travel free on British Rail. Many made contact with relatives known to the older generation in different parts of Britain. They felt welcome and leant about the land their parents called “Home”, but missed the sun and the freedom of Australia.

At one time they were quite near the town of Robert Burns birthplace. One of the soldiers, formerly a kangaroo shooter, spent two hours being shown the local sights which included the house where Burns was born, where he wrote his first poem and where he died. His guide was an enthusiastic resident, who was delighted to discover that an Australian shared his interest in the famous poet. Fortunately, the resident never found out that our soldier’s interest was rather misplaced. He thought the Burns so honoured by this town was Tommy Burns, the famous American boxer.

 

THE ADVANCE PARTY OF THE 2/2nd FORESTRY COMPANY     #46
 Jack O'Meagher & dog "Spotty" middle front row

 

When children from the little village near the Australian camp in the south-west of Scotland, came late home from school, their mothers always know they’re out in the forest watching the timber-cutters at work. And when the children finally came home late in the twilight they are usually carrying their shirts over their arms. It’s a habit they copied from the Aussies, who, when the summer came, worked in shorts, sun tanned backs bare, much to the astonishment of the locals, who called them crazy.

In readiness for the invasion of Europe the 2/3rd Forestry Company designed and built several small semi-portable mills capable of turning out around 6000 super feet (10 loads) per day. These were built in sections and each complete mill, including power unit, was packed on a single six ton truck, which in turn could be driven on to an invasion barge without unloading. Demonstrations proved that a section of men could set this outfit up and have it cutting under four hour. However they were denied the opportunity of realising their ambition to operate them in Germany.

 

PORTABLE SAWMILL PACKED UP     #14

 

UNFOLDING FRONT SECTION OF PORTABLE SAWMILL     #15

 

UNFOLDING FRONT SECTION OF PORTABLE SAWMILL     #16

 

UNFOLDING REAR SECTION OF PORTABLE SAWMILL     #17

 

UNFOLDING OTHER SIDE SECTION OF PORTABLE SAWMILL     #18

 

PORTABLE SAWMILL READY FOR BUSINESS     #19

The Australian Forestry Group moved to Sussex in mid-1943, but shortly afterwards the group departed of Australia. The Japanese were getting too close to Australia, so the Forestry boys were called home. They left Liverpool on 22nd September sailing to Australia via America. By the time they had left, the Australians had produced 30 million super feet of sawn timber.

The huge amount of timber required during the war effort can be gained from the fact that there were around 40 Forestry Companies operating sawmills at that time, in addition to the civilian mills, which were still producing. Three Royal Engineers, three New Zealand Engineers, three Royal Australian Engineers and the balance Canadian and Newfoundland Companies.

SUSSEX         #20

 

They arrived in Boston by 29th September 1943. On 1st October the New Zealanders and the Australians were given a ticker tape welcome on Broadway, New York, in the pouring rain. The Australians, led by Colonel Cole, carried arms with fixed bayonets. It is thought to be the only time the decree of the American Constitution that foreign troops cannot carry arms in an American city had been broken. Mayor La Guardia greeted them with an oration. One of the outstanding impressions of New York was the blaze of electric lights and neon’s after three years of British blackouts.

The next day, they were on their way across the United States by train. They crossed seventeen States and eventually arrived at San Francisco to meet the ship taking them across the Pacific. At Auckland, where they arrived two weeks later, they took “unofficial leave” in spite of the opposition of the American army officer in charge. It is reported that they had all returned by 23.59, being met by an Australian officer who took their names at the top of the gangplank. The following morning they were officially charged with being AWOL (absent without leave) and were given three days’ CD (confined to barracks) – just enough time to get them to Brisbane.

AUSTRALIAN TROOPS MARCHING
 DOWN BROADWAY, NEW YORK CARRYING ARMS        #21

 

FORESTRY COMPANY’S SAWMILL IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY    #22

After arriving in July 1944 the Company operated a sawmill formally used by 11th Australian Workshop and 13th Australian Field Company. Sweating in the Northern Territory’s heat, in three months they cut 500,000 super feet from hardwood forests and swamps where mud and water added to their difficulties. As a relief from their strenuous work the men built a recreation centre – luxurious by Army standards – in the NT bush, in a clearing they erected an open-air hall with growing palm trees for tropical atmosphere and coloured light play over the 50 square foot of dance floor.

 

After their return to Australia, in November they undertook jungle training at Canungra and received some new equipment before being deployed to the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea. The companies had several different destinations. Some went to the Northern Territory and some to the jungle forests of New Guinea at Lae, the Markham Valley and Madang.

DANCE FLOOR CREATED     #23

 

Others were sent to New Guinea and Bougainville. Here there were new problems. Heat, swampy terrain, the threat of malaria and Blackwater fever, and the frequent rain made working conditions difficult. These former timber getters from Queensland and other Eastern States and “jarrah-jerkers” from Western Australia, hacked roads through the jungle, cut timber for bridging, decking and hutments and cleared areas for playing fields. The 55 mile march of the 2/2nd Forestry Company, carrying personal equipment weighing 80lb (40Kg) through almost impenetrable jungle over mountains and surging rivers and through swamps and kunai from Taili Taili to Nadzab in their move on Lae from the north-west, was one of the toughest made in the jungle war.

 

 

BASE CAMP NEW GUINEA     #24

 

AUSTRALIAN SAWMILL AT LAE     #25

 

In one case a forestry unit in seven months cut more than 5,500,000 super feet of timber and hauled in giant 80 and 100ft logs.  This was enough timber for 500 five roomed cottages. With tractors and log-arches capable of supporting 12 and 14 tons, they dragged these forest giants down to the mills as if they were mere sticks. Sweating in the tropical heat from early morning to dark, they cut planks for decking, flooring, carrier beams and uprights for all forms of building and construction. In some areas whole “cities” have risen where a year earlier there was nothing but jungle.

In the forests near Lae they did a remarkable bush job by erecting a sawmill, the largest in New Guinea, in less than six weeks. They equipped it with seven saw benches, taking logs up to 5 feet in diameter and giving an output of 100,000 feet of sawn timber a week, for the use of the Australian and American Forces.

In the forests near Lae they did a remarkable bush job by erecting a sawmill, the largest in New Guinea, in less than six weeks. They equipped it with seven saw benches, taking logs up to 5 feet in diameter and giving an output of 100,000 feet of sawn timber a week, for the use of the Australian and American Forces.

Although it was found that timber from Bougainville was sufficient for their needs, feeling and handling one particular variety caused a skin rash in many cases. The tree’s botanical name is “somecarpus”, although the troops had a different name for it. Contact with it is similar to that caused by poison ivy. Each man was made aware of this particular variety and therefore had to remain fully clothed in the tropical heat, to protect themselves from this irritating rash. This called for heavy physical effort in the clammy atmosphere.

The officers were more than envious of the American mills working in the area. Their equipment was much more modern. A story is told:-

Out of a night of heavy rain two American Army trucks arrived and insisted that their orders were to deliver their loads of sawmill parts to the sawmill (at Busul). They had obviously lost their way, and were anxious to return to their camp. We reluctantly agreed to look after their precious loads.”

 

SAWING LOGS IN NEW BRITAIN      #26

 

In August 1944, part of the 2/2nd Forestry Company went to Torokina in Bougainville, where they took over on American mill, a Corinth Model 2C. They were able to produce more timber with this mill than the Americans had done - and they had less manpower than the previous owners had. Most of the group later moved to New Britain. When they arrived at Jacquinot Bay, soon after the infantry landing, they had to set up defensive positions in case of attack. The attack did not come, and within a day or two the mill was producing timber.

The forests had been the scenes of fighting, and many of the logs had shrapnel embedded in them. When a saw hit a piece of metal, it was likely to shatter the whole blade. This created a dangerous situation for the men. In a letter to head office, the officer in charge asked for some help and was told to “Be prepared to lose one sapper (Man) a day!” One suspects the sappers were not told about this letter. In the meantime, a new saw was introduced. It had removable teeth so that if a metal object were hit, the whole saw would not be shattered. As the war moved further away, timber was brought from areas where there had not been any fighting, so the problem disappeared.

 

JOHN HENRY (Jack)  O'MEAGHER FROM KARRAGULLEN DRIVING BULLDOZER IN BOUGAINVILLE         #27

 

By 1945, the New Guinea mill at Jacquinot Bay was a very large base supporting the army units operating towards Rabaul, as well as some air force units. There were large logs in this area and they supplied materials for jetties and wharfs as well as new huts for the army and for the thousands of Japanese prisoners of war now needing shelter.

Australian servicemen who had married whilst serving overseas and had been compelled to leave their English brides behind were penalised by the Taxation Department. They claimed that as their wives and families were not residents of Australia, and therefore the men should be taxed at bachelor rates. The men had tried to have their wives and families brought to Australia but because of shipping shortages, had been told that the necessary priorities could not be arranged.

At the end of the war, all three Australian Forestry Companies were progressively disbanded but some men remained as late as 1946 to help with reconstruction. Others returned home; some to go back to the jobs they had left, where their experience was often of great value; others to find work in other fields. They all had a reservoir of experience to draw on – a trip round the world, different climates and customs, and different timbers and milling methods – and now, for many, a new life was about to begin.

 

Every endeavour has been made to accurately record the details however if you would like to provide additional images and/or newer information we are pleased to update the details on this site. Please click here to email us at info@pickeringbrookheritagegroup.com We appreciate your involvement in recording the history of our area.

 

Reference:   Article:         Pickering Brook Heritage Group
                                        "Jardee The Mill That Cheated Time" by Doreen Owens
                                        Trove Newspapers

                    Images::     1,  6, 7, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 18, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28      Australian War Memorial
                                      3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 23, 24, 25           State Library of South Australia
                                      22                    State Library of Northern Territory
                                      29, 30              State Library of Victoria
                                      2, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46                      Stephanie O'Meagher
                                      5, 8, 20           Wikipedia

 

 

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