|Between lectures. Frank Owens (very front) leaning back on his arms with legs outstretched. The original Canterbury Racecourse grandstand is top left. Date: 21st October 1940. Courtesy Syd Slingsby and the 2 Australian Corps Signals Association.|
The story of “B” Australian Corps Signals commences on 1st January 1940, on which date arrangements were set in motion at the Signals Drill Hall, Moore Park, Sydney, for the formation of a unit known as Signals, Eastern Command, which officially came into existence on the day in question. The Staff handling the actual formation preliminaries consisted of Major L.J. Jordan, ED, Lt F. O’Donnell (AIC), and Sgt-Maj A Fulcher (AIC), together with Sgt L R Carroll, (AASC).
The nucleus of the new unit consisted of Militia Officers, NCOs, and rank and file transferred out of various signals units serving formations under Head Quarters, Eastern Command, in particular from Sigs 1 Cav Div, Sigs 1 Div, Sigs 2 Div and Sigs 1 Corps. This gave the unit an initial membership of about 250 all ranks, commanded by Lt-col L J Jordan, and including on its strength the following officers:
• Capt D Boden (adjutant-learner), later Colonel, A/SCO-in-C Adv LHQ
• Capt S A Taplin (OC Administration), later Lt-col and Commanding Officer
• Capt S K Hastings (OC 2 Coy) later Major, S O Sigs 11, HQ Eastern Command
• Lt R K Roseblade (Staff Corps), later Major, MBE
• Lt L Meares, later Lt-col, So-in-C’s staff, LHQ
• Lt J O’Brien, later Major and Co Frt Signals, Middle Head, Sydney
• Lts. Henry, Ratcliffe, Orr, Boon, Hamilton and Farrell
Within this framework, Eastern Command Signals was built up during the first six months of its history. After completion of basic organisation and some months of night training and lectures, (including civilian guest lecturers on such subjects as “The Spark Plug”), Eastern Command Signals concentrated at Rosebury Racecourse Sydney on 1 May 1940, where 150 “Universal Service Trainees” marched in and were taken on Strength. These trainees were without exception of the 21 year group, and were largely drafted to Signals by reason of their civil employment in PMGs Department, or associated work. Their first impression of the Army, and of their unit in particular were probably concentrated into a profound awe of the RSM, WO 1 Frank Barnett, a soldierly figure of the last War, who made his presence and authority known within the first hour of their camp experience.
The Regimental and “Q” Officers, messes and lecture rooms were located in the stands and other racecourse buildings, whilst ranks lived in tents arranged with a mathematical accuracy in the centre of the Racecourse. The camp was notable for the variety of uniforms, incoming militia members still wearing their colourful pre-war dress and regimental badges, others Service Dress. Typical of course, of these early days of the War, most items of dress, equipment and stores were in extremely short supply, and whatever was available was naturally being diverted to troops being equipped for the Middle East.
For the first few weeks, training consisted of elementary drill movements and lectures on general subjects and Army organisation. After this members were sorted out and posted into the Company framework of the unit, 3 Coy was by far the largest at this stage, owing to the influx of some 150 infantry and artillery signallers for a six week training course. At the same time, 1 Coy undertook elementary training of 40 lineman members of Signals 6 Australian Division. The rather meagre equipment used for training included Telephones D3, fullerphones MK 11, Wireless Sets No101, line equipment (mostly obsolescent) and multi-airline equipment.
From the earliest days, the “turnover” of personal who constituted the unit was astoundingly large: recruiting for the AIF, RAN and RAAF carrying off most of the old Militia members besides many others, and the secondment and transfer of Officers also entailed constant replacement. Except for more senior officers, these were usually acquired by promotion through the ranks, and also before long Non-Commissioned Officer vacancies were being filled by Universal Service Trainee recruits - something of a local sensation at the time.
Lt-Col Jordan was lost to the unit some six weeks after its concentration, being promoted to Colonel and appointed Chief Signal Officer, HQ, Eastern Command. He took with him the OC 2 Coy, Major S K Hasting, as his Staff Officer Signals and from that time Major S A Taplin administered command. However, the actual control was very much in the hands of the Warrant Officers of the Australian Instructional Corps, whilst the popular Lt O’Donnell reigned as an autocrat unopposed.
With the passing of seven or eight weeks, members had become sufficiently trained to undertake small local exercises, and accordingly, “toy” wireless schemes were implemented in the suburban area, climaxing in a more ambitious “stunt” in the Camden- Picton area in July. During which time the Menangle School of Arts and Picton Town Hall were used as Signal Offices.
Most members had their first rifle shoots at the Anzac Rifle Range, LaPerouse, and it is perhaps worthy of note that small arms were in such short supply in June 1940, that rifles were not an individual issue. They were pooled in the ‘Q’ store, and issued to sections in rotation for exercising.
The actual progress made at the Rosebery Camp is difficult to assess, and in retrospect, something of an operetta atmosphere seems to have prevailed - the general outlook being only semi-serious and the equipment absurdly dated and inadequate. On the other hand the identity of the unit was definitely established, and the foundations laid in general principles and new loyalties for a good of what was to follow.
In June, 1940, the ‘phone-war’ ended, and the sobering effect which the European disasters produced on the general public was noticeably reflected in the scope and intensity of training of such units as Signals, Eastern Command. The unit moved across the city to Canterbury Racecourse in August, 1940, where later in the year Lt-Col H W Mylchreest, took command. There were several intakes of trainees from Marrickville, Ashfield and Belmore Drill Halls, so that almost without exception the unit was composed of New South Wales in fact, of Sydney personnel. This was a far cry from conditions at the end of the war, when both officers and other ranks were proportionately representative of every part of Australia.
A very large number of PMG employees who had been purposely directed into Signals in May were to Industry within the ensuing twelve months. In fact, occupational and compassionate exemptions continued to play havoc with unit Strength right up to early 1942. An appreciation of the changing composition of the unit may be gained from the fact that an examination of Unit Rolls in October, 1941 disclosed the names of over 3000 personnel as past and present members to that date.
Signals, Eastern Command, remained at Canterbury from August 1940 until March, 1941, and a large number of members who joined the unit during that time remained until the end - the tradition of the unit may therefore be said to date “from Canterbury”.
A new regimentality was abroad, and the effects of discipline and prolonged training were becoming more apparent. However equipment and facilities were only slightly improved and many anachronisms, such as the hire of privately owned vehicles, pay sheet method of acquittance and the frequent resumptions of the course for race meetings, (necessitating an entire suspension of training and a complete exodus), still remained. But the AJC tutelage, the gay uniforms, and the “one-pippers”, and general air of “laisser Faire” had ceased to be. Only part of the unit was in training at any one time, the remainder attending monthly Commanding Officer’s Parades at night at the Signal Drill Hall, Moore Park.
These parades seemed largely to consist of interminable roll-calling, stomping around the Depot grounds in the dark under a CSM, and ended with dire threats about non-attandance at future parades. It is amusing to reflect that these parades were paid for at an hourly rate! For those in camp, however, training had become real enough, and the Warrant Officer and NCO Complement more stable in its composition and experienced in troop-handling and training : a fairly rigorous “bull-ring” system was in operation. The officer landscape had changed largely, many junior officers being overseas or about to go, and already trainee personnel were begining to produce their officers-inembryo
Activities moved to Narellan in March 1941, where the unit was quartered in a model camp block, newly erected and well fitted. Here a fresh intake of personnel from the Drill Halls were given preliminary training and allotted to 3 Coy, under command of Major A Mason. Sections formed from this draft at a later date included 1st Aust Med Regt Sig Sec, 12 Aust Army Fd Regt Sig Sec, 1 Aust Armd Regt Sig Sec, 1 Aust Gn Bde Sig Sec, 101 Aust AA Regt Sig Sec and 2 and 3 Aust Air Support Control Sig Sec.. These regimental sections remained as an integral part of Signals Eastern Command until they finally joined their regiments or were allotted elsewhere for duty between December 1941 and May 1942.
The three months spent at Narellan were occupied with routine training and a proportion of 1 and 2 Coy personnel were recalled to the unit in April, after which a few large scale exercises were conducted in the Camden, Wallacia, Picton and Penrith areas. The Wallacia bivouc was the most ambitious attempted up to that date, and included 15 miles of field airline. Finally the unit took part in a review of troops stationed at Narellan by the Governor General, Lord Gowrie.
In June 1941, the unit once more removed to Canterbury, where several hundred partially trained members were recalled and most of the Narellan contingent released. A further 250 reinforcements marched in on 22nd June, and these, together with subsequent allocations arriving on 1 October and 17 November 1941, at last brought the unit strength up to the full War Establishment provision, including regimental sections under the command of 3 Company.
The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Mylchreest retired through illness, and Major S A Taplin again administered command, this time until his appointment as Lieutenant-Colonel Commanding in December 1941.
Around Major Taplin (“fang”) were grouped many personalities whose names stir mixed memories among any who remain from that regime. There was Sergeant MacKie (later Captain, QM), Sergeant-Major Morris, CSM 2 Company - who usually inspired new arrivals with terror; Lieutenant (later Captain) “Goosy” Gillanders Technical Maintenance Officer; Sergeant-Major “Shoey” Peters who had been a Sergeant-Farrier in the horsed days; Sergeant-Major "Deadlegs” Bordley; and Sergeant--Major Carroll, still gorgeous in the scarlet braid of an AIC Warrant Officer. The unit’s Adjutant during the Narellan camp had been Lieutenant (later Captain) J D Honeysett, Staff Corps, but in mid December 1941 he was replaced by Lieutenant (later Captain) H T MacReady, Sergeant-Major Hutchins became and remained RSM, succeeding WO11 (“Ming”) Ferguson, AIC. Lieutenant (later Major) O’Donnell, AIC who had stood ‘in loco Parentis’ to the unit since its formation finally withdrew from the scene and became a Staff Officer, Signals, on Eastern Command.
Training continued, and now sections gradually began to assume their individuality and emerge with something like a permanent complement. The unit was, at that time, composed of a Headquarters, 2 Aus Tech Maintenance and 2 Aust Line Maintenance Secs, 4, 5, and 6 Aust Op secs, 4, 5, 6, and 7 Aust Line Secs and 3 and 4 Aust Dr Secs, together with CCMA Sig Sec under 3 Company. From this time onward section outlook became more distinct, but it was not until May 1943, that they finally established themselves as self-accounting and self-recording sections. 4, 5 and 6 Aust Wireless Secs also formed part of 2 Company.
From September 1941.Signals, Eastern Command provided several very substantial drafts of trained personnel, together with officers and Non-Commissioned Officers, to move to the 7th Military District (Darwin). These parties did not move as section entities, but as “bulk” reinforcements. About the end of the year came a call from 8th Military District, (Rabaul) for 15 Signals Volunteers and that number of personnel marched out the following morning.
These men arrived in Rabaul just in time to anticipate the Japanese invasion in January 1942, and at least two members, Sergeant Robins and Signalman Worman made sensational escapes after the tiny garrison had been overwhelmed. Much later, Signalman “Duke” Worman returned as a member of the unit, and remained with the 2 Australian Line Maintenance Sec until the end. In March, 1942 Eastern Command Headquarters moved to Burnside Homes, outside Parramatta, and in April HQ 2 Aust Corps (GOC, Lieutenant-Gen Wynter), was raised, replacing Eastern Command Headquarters operationally, and command First Aust Army. HQ Eastern Company became HQ NSW L of C area, and this unit’s name was changed to Signals, 2 Aust Corps: its destiny was henceforward linked with that formation.
Nearly one hundred operators, wireless specialists and Drs moved at once to HQ 2 Aust Corps, representing a composite detachment for Maintenance of Corps communications. They remained detached from the unit HQ for some three months. Command Group of Signals 2 Aust Corps, opened for its first office at Corps HQ, this office being then known as the “Signal ‘G’ Room”, and consisting of CO Lieutenant-Colonel Taplin, Adjutant, Capt H T MacReady, Clerk, Signalman Ralton and draughtsman, Signalman Reaney. Here for the first time, the Unit assumed responsibility for Corps Communications in accordance with its role.
A large Signal office was established, working 24 hours daily, and operating: wireless and teleprinter channels to First Australian Army at Toowoomba, wireless to Newcastle Governing Force, Rutherford Rd, teleprinter to LHQ Melbourne, sounder and teleprinter to HQ NSW L of C Area, Paddington, fullerphone to HQ 1 Aust Div and teleprinter to RAAF HQ, Point Piper. The responsibility for the establishment and operation of this office rested largely with Lieutenants F D King and C F Stark.
Signals 2 Australian Corps broke at Canterbury and left that location for good, moving to “Oatlands” Golf Course, North Parramatta in late April - a site adjacent to Corps HQ. A rather peculiar camp set up was necessary here, the Regimental Office, CO and Administration Officer’s offices, and officers’ quarters being located in a pretentious private residence overlooking the Golf Course, whilst the section clung precariously to the sides of timbered gullies fringing the course. The weather was exceptionally cold, and it was not long before the lines were re-named “Pneumonia Gulch” by their inhabitants. From here the remaining Bde and Regiment Signals sections took their departure, 1 Aust Gn Bde Signals Sec to the Hawkesbury area, 110 Aust Hy AA Bty Sig Sec to Cooktown, North Queensland, and 21 Aust Recce Bn Sig Sec (OC Lieutenant, formerly Sergeant, Pratt) to the Liverpool area. For the first time, a Pigeon Section, under command Captain Cornish was placed under command, and steps were taken to select and train cipher operators from unit resources. Before long a large batch of cipher NCO operators under direction of Captain East were functioning in the Signal office at Corps HQ.
During July 1942, the Unit was moved to Queensland and in June 1943 the advance party arrived in Port Moresby where it relieved Signals 1 Aust Corps. In New Guinea the Unit saw service in Port Morseby, Dobodura, Buna, Lae, Finschhafen and Katika Spur. Number One Company Line Section built an airline route further up the coast as far as Kelanoa.
After leave in Australia the Unit proceeded to Bougainville 11 October 1944 being located in Torokina when it took over communications from USA troops. It was here some Wireless Section were posted to surrounding islands such as Green Island, Treasury Island and Munda (New Georgia).
Two line sections and dispatch rider sections detached from the Unit earlier saw service in Tarakan and Balikapan.
As the 2 Aust Corps Signals (AIF) Association considers Canterbury Racecourse their original home, they hold a “Back to Canterbury Reunion” at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL Club every ANZAC. Attendees include members of the ‘2’ Australian Corps Signals (AIF), their wives, children and grand children.
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