‘My years of World War II service’

Francis Kuffer, or Frank as he is known, is 97 and lives at home in theMelbournesuburb of Balwyn North. He served with No.1 Air Ambulance Unit of the RAAF inNorth Africaduring World War II. He received an Order of Australia and was made an Officer of the Order ofSt John, among other awards, for his service.

Frank’s career path was influenced by his father, who worked in the Victorian Railways, including in first aid in the railways’ ambulance corps, and his mother, who was a nurse. Frank says his mother trained during World War I with the idea that she would go to the war, but the war ended before she finished her training.

Frank had the honour of being invited to fly with Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith in the Southern Cross when he was about 10. He worked with the Melbourne Tramways, joining the St John Ambulance division, and returned there after his service, completing 49-and-a-half years of employment.

On Remembrance Day, we present these edited excerpts from an extensive interview Frank did with the Australians at War Film Archive.

Where were you when you heard that World War II had started?
I was in the backyard at home suffering from a quinsy [a throat condition] standing at the side gate and my mother came out and said, “War has been declared”.

At what point did you decide you were going to join up?
I had to get my parents’ consent because I was under 21. They knew I was going into the medical section because I felt it was what I wanted to do. The air force was offering perhaps a more attractive lifestyle than the army, so I went in and did my initial course at Ascot Vale and then went back to Laverton to do the Nursing Orderly course. We were given the manual, the Royal Naval Sick Berth Staff, that was the manual we operated from, and we lectured there until we were passed out as Nursing Orderlies and I was posted to 1 RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] Hospital.

Why did you decide you wanted to join up?
It was a matter of everyone joining up, although I was with the Tramways. Eventually I would have been called up anyway, and I may as well volunteer for the air force as something.

Why didn’t you want to go to the army or the navy?
The air force was more attractive; perhaps it was the uniform. Goodness knows. The air force appealed to me as the more ‘in’ thing. I don’t regret that decision.

How long was your training?
The basic training would have taken about three or four weeks that included firing five rounds out of a .303 [rifle], because that’s all they could afford at the time, going into a gas chamber and doing our foot drill.

Going into a gas chamber?
Yes. To show the effectiveness of the respirator they had issued us with. They put us into a chamber, a group of us, and you put your respirators on and they left the gas off and they would, say the first four or five would take their respirator off and you would get the effect of gas. You would then get out very quickly because it would be unbearable. Just to show us how effective it was to have the respirators on.

Then we would have to march with them on; that was very hard. The discipline there was very strict. For example, if you didn’t have your shoelaces barred and tied with a bow you could have your leave stopped. That was so if you were ever in the water, you could get them off very quickly. Then we did our medical training.

The war didn’t hit home until the Japs came in. When the Japs came in, things took a different complexion.

You did your medical training and then you were asked for ‘preference postings’ and I asked for ‘overseas’ and so be it, eventually I got it but I didn’t get it originally.

When did you find out you are going to be posted to the Middle East?
All that happens is a signal comes through and you are posted to 1 Embarkation Depot, which was down at Ascot Vale for posting to the Middle East, to 1 Air Ambulance with much jubilation. (This was in 1942, after Pearl Harbour.)

How aware were you of what had been happening up in Singapore and through the islands?
The news was devastating but we didn’t realise the extent it had on the Australian mainland, none at all. We did not know thatDarwin had been bombed. We didn’t know that they had lost the British ships and the British had left us because they couldn’t support us. We were being supported by the Americans because when we were at Laverton, we were having aircraft coming in then with bullet holes in them. We knew it was fair dinkum up north, but we didn’t know to what extent.

You were going off to the Middle East, but what did you know about what had gone on there?
Oh well, that war had been going on for a long time and we knew that the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] were there, but we didn’t really know that the AIF were going to be brought home. It so happened that the 1 Air Ambulance Unit had been there a long time, and we were going across as reinforcements and we passed some of the nursing sisters coming home. When we eventually arrived inColombo [Ceylon, nowSri Lanka], they were coming home.

What rank are you at this stage?
I am an LAC, a leading aircraftsman. We didn’t have any other rank at all, just LAC.

So you’re at Bairnsdale and you get your orders. What is the procedure, from there?
We proceed to Embarkation Depot and you are equipped to go to the Middle East. We were kitted and made dentally fit – a lot of dental work done – and make sure all your injections are up to date.

When we got to Cairo, our kits were put into storage and we were issued with British battle dress … We carried our own khaki equipment, khaki uniform, shorts, khaki socks and our ground sheets. The main thing to go into the desert with was khaki of course. All our blues were left inCairo. We wore British battle dress right through. It got cold at night up there.

Did you get any leave before you left?
Yes, we got pre embarkation leave.

What did you do on that?
Went home and saw the folks and said “We’re off”, and that was it.

What was their reaction?
I don’t think they minded. They knew that everyone was going somewhere …

Was this a secret departure?
No. We left from Port Melbourne on a British India ship called theMysore, with two to a cabin, 12 of us on board. It did about eight knots … eventually got toColombo and they took us off.

What was your reaction? Had you been out of Australia before?
My reaction was [at] the poverty, both there and inIndia. It was so frightening, so shocking. The poverty and the beggars – it was beyond our comprehension. I didn’t know what I had struck. We went intoIndia to Madras. We were stationed there for a week or so.

We eventually got onto a troop ship called the Nevasa and there were 30 whites and the rest of the ship was packed with Indians. There were Sikhs, Punjabis, Frontier Force Rider. They took the arms [weapons] off all the troops except the Gurkhas [Regiment of Nepalese fighting under the British Army].

You said you were non-combatant. Is this why you wanted to be a nursing orderly?
No, it was my interest in the medical section because as soon as I got to the Middle East, I soon armed myself. I carried a Luger inside my jacket all the time I was in the Middle East, or a Mauser. I was armed as soon as I got there.

Eventually, the Nevasa steamed into Port Tewfik [Egypt] and we disembark and we go to a place called Al Assa. We were then equipped with British battle dress, khaki, and we kept our slouch hat and my cap field service, the blue one, and we put medical fuses on our battle dress and we were issued with five blankets, which we needed, and a ground sheet. We then proceeded by truck to … a place called El Agheila and another place called Marble Arch. The unit was based at Marble Arch on a strip there.

This is an Australian unit?
Australian unit, 1 Air Ambulance Unit. When we got there, they welcomed us with open arms. They were waiting for reinforcements and we were the first ones to come and it boosted the morale. They had a party that night and we had to sing in the mess. It was the first time I had ever sung in the mess.

Can you remember what you sang?
Yes, I can. “Around her legs she wore a purple garter, she wore it in the Spring time and in the month of May. And if you asked her why the hell she wore it, she wore it for an Aussie who was far, far away.”

When you arrived at your destination, what did you see?
The tents were dispersed over an area [the size] of a football field. Mainly so they couldn’t be strafed. Mines were a problem. We were instructed there that if you were walking anywhere, you walk in the track of a vehicle, a truck or tank. If there were white lines, you would keep in the white lines. We didn’t have any casualties from the mines. Luckily, because at one stage we pulled up for morning tea in a mine field, and a bloke screamed from the road, “Come out the way you went in, come out, you are in a mine field.” The Military Police were very helpful. The closer you got to the front, the more human the Military Police became.

Water was the problem there in the desert. Marble Arch wasn’t too bad but on the way up in a place called Mersa Matruh, we stopped for tea. The tea was shocking, it tasted just like iodine. The wells would be doctored by the Germans and then we would doctor them up and by the time we got there it was so heavily chemically chlorinated that it was foul tasting and we had no water to wash in. We washed our clothes in petrol and at one place we had a water bottle per man per day.

The CO insisted that we shave each day … kept our skin clear. If you ever got any water to have a wash, you would have a jerry can cut off and you would stand in that and wash yourself down, and then you would wash your clothes in what was left. Water was bad; it was a problem. Being a teetotaller, they always brought back a crate of beer but they never brought back a crate of soft drink.

You told us about the celebration when you arrived. What happened the next day?
We had a Flight Sergeant there, Ray Smith, he showed us the aircraft, how we had to load the aircraft, how we had to put on the IFF, which was the Identification Friend and Foe, so as we could be identified.

An Air Ambulance Unit. Is this a unique unit?
Yes it is, in so far as it only carries casualties, doctors, sisters or medical people.

What was the procedure then for your action in the Middle East?
We were under 239 Wing which was an RAF Wing, Wing Commander O’Malley and he would tell our pilots or our CO that there were casualties to be picked up and we would go in at zero feet … and land at the forward fighter strips. We would come in and get off the strip and load our patients and then wait for clearance and get off again. We would take them to a Field Ambulance, [where] they would treat them and take them to a casualty clearing station.

Depending on the aircraft, if we were using the DeHavillands, we used to have to transfer the patients from an army stretcher to a stretcher that would go through the door of the air ambulance. We would have to do that both ways: when we took off and when we landed. When we got to Bristol Bombays, we had wider doors and we could take them without disturbing the patients on the army stretchers.

On the De Havillands, we didn’t carry any dinghies or any Mae Wests [inflatable life-preserving jackets] and we never ever carried a parachute. You could not jump out and leave a plane load of patients up there, could you? We often had to ride in an aircraft that was perhaps defective.

How many patients could you take on one aircraft?
It depended on whether they were walking wounded or stretcher cases. I think we used to carry 12 stretchers. I think we used to carry about 20 in the sitting position in the Bristol Bombays. In the De Havillands, we only had six stretchers and they were mainly stretcher cases.

We would take whatever the army gave us. Sometimes they might be British forces and often as not 51st Highland Division or New Zealanders, the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces were there; we even carried a German prisoner who couldn’t give us any bother because he was beyond that stage. We carried whoever the army gave us and we picked them up from the forward strip and carried them back and there would be ambulances waiting to take them over again. You only had them for that brief period of time.

We had some accidents with them and there was one [that] crashed on landing; we had a full load of patients on. I was on the aircraft. The pilot’s story was that there was someone on the strip and he had to avoid them.

Could you describe the sort of circumstances in which you worked? How did the sand storms affect your operation?
Once the sand storm came up everything ground to a halt. You couldn’t do a thing. We found the ammunition boxes were good things to keep your clothes in because you could lock them up. Your tent would be blown over covered in sand.

They would have these big tents which the cookhouse would keep and it was one in which we would use as a bedding place and where we could sleep. You would have to try to get from the cookhouse where they prepared the meal across to the area where you could eat it. The idea was to back into the storm and try and keep your meal shaded from the sand then scrape the sand away from it.

The cooks worked under shocking conditions; they did their best to keep us going. We used a lot of bully beef and the M and V [meat and vegetables] we liked. We didn’t like the fish that used to be served up. I put on weight with the bully beef and biscuits. They used to make us an unusual breakfast when they felt like it. They would soak these biscuits overnight and then serve them up with condensed milk on it and it was quite palatable with a bit of sugar on it, brown sugar. These biscuits he used for a sort of makeshift porridge. They were quite edible. Bully beef and biscuits, I didn’t dislike them at all. We had a variety of food, it was all hard stuff.

They gave us the patients who would survive best if they were transported by air rather than by ambulances. I think we got the worse cases. A lot of them were head cases. The majority were gunshot wounds except when we got toSicily. When we got toSicily, we were doing 20-minute hops, doing forward evacuations from the most forward strip we could get onto and we were pulling them out and we were bringing out more malaria cases than actual battle casualties. Malaria was rife there.

The casualties were usually seen by medical people, very little required any treatment on our own behalf. We just made sure they were comfortable during the trip, tend to their wants while they were flying and kept them alive and then handed them over without any further injuries.

Did you ever have such a thing as a routine day?
No, you didn’t know what was going to happen, you just had to stand by and what was going to happen would happen. You took it in turns to fly; when it was your turn to fly … that was it.

What was your attitude towards the army?
The British Army were inclined to treat us as colonials and we had our ways of dealing with that. If you had to go to an officer they wouldn’t talk to you [until] they were ready. That didn’t suit us, so we solved that by going in and doing the stamp, stamp and salute. [The officer] would have to put down his pen and pay attention to you. It worked a lot of times.

You found the Italians had kept some things hidden from the Germans?
My wife and both sisters, they scored a beautiful coat. It was a velvet finished waterproofed coat and I got three of them and I packed them up and sent them home and they were the most delighted girls inAustralia.

On the day you were discharged, can you remember how you felt?
Yes. Sort of lost a bit. It was a way of life that became interesting. Sort of a protection if you like. We felt that was the way we had been living, we became used to the discipline. It was a way of life that we had become accustomed to.

You knew your job would be waiting for you back at the Tramways?
Yes. They kept our job open for us and gave us a war savings certificate, which was for each week of service or each month of service, which was a generous thing.

This article is reprinted with kind permission from the Australians at War Film Archive.

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Janelle Ward
Janelle Wardhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/janellewa
Energetic and skilled editor and writer with expert knowledge of retirement, retirement income, superannuation and retirement planning.
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