My Unfinished Father – A Life Lived to the Full
A Life Lived to the Full
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Part 7 – Pages 63 – 72 – Part 1
Our time in Sydney did not start very well. We were awarded a married quarter in a place called Warwick Farm, a suburb in the west of Sydney. It was not an officer’s quarter, and was not really comfortable. Worse still, it was infested with cockroaches. These were creatures we had never seen before but they were pretty disgusting. One had only to open a cupboard to see them scuttling away, all over the place.
I was dispatched to speak to the Housing Officer, a Flt Lt Drummond, whom I would subsequently meet in Butterworth.
I told him that my quarter was overrun with cockroaches.
“Rubbish,” he said. “The flat has been fumigated and it is clean.”
I reported back to Margaret who, unknown to me, made up her own mind what she was going to do. She had a large, empty Swan Vesta matchbox. Into this small prison she stuffed three or four living roaches and departed to see Fl Lt Drummond.
He told her what he had told me.
“Right,” she replied. “What do you call these then?” With which she deposited the cockroaches on to his desk where they scuttled everywhere.
The good Flight Lieutenant quickly changed his mind and within a few days we were given an officer’s quarter in Chester Hill, which was perfectly satisfactory.
The lesson here, for Mr Drummond at any rate, was not to mix it with an East End girl.
Detachment A covered all of New South Wales and Norfolk Island and promised to be an exciting place to work. The Detachment commander was Sqn Ldr Frank Bell, also known as ‘Dinger.’ His second in command was Flt Lt Mike Parker, who was a bit full of himself. He had the unfortunate first names of Vernon Desmond which gave him the initials VD. Everyone understood fully why he called himself Mike. There was a large complement of other ranks, including five woman police. The detachment itself occupied a house at Neutral Bay, on Sydney Harbour, which made it a fascinating place to work.
I soon began to add to my collection of driving licences. I was required to have an RAAF licence for driving service vehicles. If that was not enough, I also obtained a Commonwealth of Australia licence for driving cars belonging to the Federal Government. Thank God I was still residing in NSW.
We visited the famous Bondi beach and the almost equally famous Manly Beach. All the Ocean beaches were delightful. We took the opportunity to visit the Sydney Opera House built right on the Harbour. The Australians are rightly proud of this magnificent building. In 1967 it was still pretty new and visitors thronged it.
In September 1967 we spent the day in Sydney during the Waratah Spring Festival where dozens of floats and people in historic costumes wandered by.
In the meantime an event occurred to spoil the fun we were having. I was summoned to see thje Provost Marshal in Department of Air in Canberra.
While I had been in Williamtown, I had been appointed as a Board of Survey officer whose job was to review all old files. My job had been to decide whether they should be destroyed, declassified or retained with the appropriate classification. I had long forgotten doing this but something happened to bring it to the attention of the Provost Marshal.
I had kept a number of photos of aircraft. I stress that I did not consider any of these I considered as classified, as they had all been overtaken by age. When visiting Melbourne and staying with friends, the youngest man of the house, aged about seven, had admired the photos of aircraft and I had given him some. In due course he had tired of these and had binned them. This would not have mattered much, except they had been found by a person unknown to me. Again, no problem except each was marked ‘Restricted’ the lowest marking in the security classification
The finder had handed them to the Police who had told the RAAF and the photos were traced to me. Although marked ‘Restricted’ they were not. Hence I had to have a ‘cap off’ meeting with the PM.
It went rather better than I had any right to expect. The PM was not available so I had to meet with Sqn Ldr Bob Dent. Here was a man I respected, as much for the pilot’s wings he wore as for his two and a half rings. I marched in, cap under my arm, and came to attention. Bob glowered at me.
Before he could say a word, I spoke. “Sir, I apologise fully for any damage I have caused the Air Force, or the Branch or you personally. And I will accept any punishment you give.”
For several seconds he was speechless. Then he responded.
“For fuck’s sake, Brian, it’s not that fucking serious. Consider yourself bollocked. Let’s go and have a beer.” And we did. And some hours later, feeling that I now knew Bob quite well, I took myself home.
Soon after we moved into our new married quarter, the one without cockroaches, Margaret felt more comfortable and more at home. She announced her desire to have another baby. Rory was approaching his fifth birthday and she felt that the time was right. I was delighted to help. And in very short order, she became pregnant. So the last few weeks of 1967 and early months of 1968 became devoted to ‘the baby’. Still there was no way to know whether it would be a boy or girl.
While we waited we spent a lot of time exploring Sydney and the surrounding countryside. And there was a great deal of countryside to see.
We had days out in the Blue Mountains with their spectacular views. We could imagine the struggles of the first pioneers who made their way across the hills to the plains in the centre of Australia. We also visited the Jenolan Caves although at this distance, I couldn’t say what they were like.
We spent a day at Taronga Park Zoo where Rory was fascinated by all the different animals. This was a fine Zoo, as we viewed zoos in those days. Today we do not accept animals in cages. Its location was above Sydney Harbour with astonishing views of the harbour.
We had a day out in Canberra which was a delightful city, clean and new and sharp. The main reason was to visit the War Museum which was superb. We also went to the Carillion with its bell tower.
We spent a lot of our free time in Sydney, at the Harbour, and on the Bridge. We were fascinated by the Rocks, the old part of Sydney, and one of the most interesting. We had a Harbour cruise and haunted the Opera House.
We felt we needed to make up for lost time as at present, we could get around with a four year old in a way we probably would not be able to do with a baby.
We went to Botany Bay where the First Fleet had set foot in Australia. We also visited the Royal Navy’s far eastern fleet at Darling Harbour.
At work, things were quite quiet and I was less busy than at Williamtown. Much of my time was spent on trips to the ACT with Flt Lt Mike Barker and Warrant Officer John ‘Lucky’ Lebbeck. Much of our spare time was spent on the beach where John and Mike would go scuba diving. I tried it once and determined that I would henceforth sit on the beach and watch the two experts at work.
Just before Christmas 1967, in December, something happened which caused a great shock to all of Australia and placed a great deal of work on the Provost Unit’s shoulders. Harold Holt, the Prime Minister of Australia disappeared while swimming off Point Nepean. There was a big search, of course, but his body was never found.
A memorial service was held which involved the arrival and departure of many dignitaries, including Lyndon Johnston and Prince Charles. As a group we were kept very busy at RAAF Fairbairn with protection of personnel and aircraft.
A number of conspiracy theories grew up around his disappearance, but all were pretty farfetched and most people ended up believing that the 58 year old Holt had got into trouble while swimming and had drowned.
I became involved in an incident which had occurred at RAAF Fairburn. It was a case of some critical damage to a passenger aircraft, a Vickers Viscount of 34 Squadron. I worked with Sergeant Peter Jowell and we concluded that the damage to the engine had been deliberately caused and if it had not been picked up the aircraft might have crashed. We nominated a corporal engine mechanic as the person responsible.
The Provost Marshal accepted our report,
Meanwhile back at the Detachment we were expecting a very important visitor, Sir Colin Hannah. We lined up in rank order to greet Sir Colin. He spoke firstly, to Frank Bell and then to Mike Barker whom he had never met before. He then spoke to the most junior officer in the unit, me.
As he shook hands with me he said “Good afternoon, Brian, how are you?”
It was a pleasing moment and I was pleased that he recognised me. However, a great deal of this was probably due to his ADC being Jack Spencer with whom I had been at Officer’s Training School.
As 1967 became 1968 Margaret and I were more concerned with our impending rise in family numbers. Margaret was in good health and we kept our fingers crossed. Rory was let into the secret and took great care of his mother, variously patting her increasing stomach and saying ‘Hello’ to his baby brother or sister. He had also started school at Chester Hill North Primary school which he seemed to enjoy and where he caused no trouble.
In March 1968 I went off with Peter Jowell for a four day stay in Western Australian. It was only the second or third time I had been on a commercial flight and I enjoyed it. At this distance, I have no idea why we went to WA in the first place but it was a fine open city, in Perth and we enjoyed it a lot.
We met up with Fred Bellchambers, who was the APM in WA. In my time in the Service this was the only occasion when I met Fred. This was typical of Air Force life. You could spend any amount of time just missing people.
We still had a couple of months to go before our big day, so we continued going out. One Sunday morning we bumped into Gough Whitlam, then leader of the opposition but someone who became Prime Minister. I was unimpressed.
While we waited I spent a lot of time doing vetting. This was for applicants to be service police or security guards. It was easy and not hugely interesting, but I got on with it. At least I got to visit parts of the country I would never otherwise have seen.
The ‘big’ day came on 5th June 1968. I was awakened about 7 am by Margaret who told me that the baby was due. I hopped out of bed, made arrangements for Rory and packed Maggie and her little suitcase into the car and set off. Liverpool Hospital was to the west of where we lived so I was quite comfortable with my timings. At least this time her waters had remained intact. The trip to the hospital was about 35 minutes.
When we were about halfway there my dear wife suddenly announced that the baby was not ready to arrive and could we go for a drive. She suggested the Victorian border about a four hour drive away. I was horrified and told her quite firmly that she was going to the hospital By the time we got there, about nine am she was still mumbling about the Victorian border, about 200 miles away and was very angry with me.
I safely handed her over and went home. At least she was in good medical care and not in the hands of the Salvation Army nurses. About eleven I received a phone call from the hospital. I was the father of a daughter, born about eleven. Mother and baby were in excellent health. I gasped when I realised that I might have been delivering our child on the Highway between Sydney and Melbourne. I immediately rushed back to the Liverpool Hospital to meet my little girl. She was beautiful and had sneezed thirteen times on leaving the womb.
The doctor had asked “Anyone in your family sneeze a lot?”
“My husband’ answered Margaret.
“Right, he cannot deny he is the father then.”
The new baby was christened Jenny and we settled down to see out our posting to Sydney. Margaret remained in hospital for a couple of days and was then home. She was perfectly well, delighted to have had a girl and pleased to be home. It was the same date that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Although I had three months to run on my posting there was nothing very special which happened before 3rd September 1968 when we all departed on posting to Melbourne. We were fond of Melbourne which we regarded as home.
I did not regard my career as very much progressed while I was in Sydney. I had enjoyed living in Sydney which is a fine city and rather more exciting than Melbourne but I did not feel I had achieved very much as an Air Force officer. I also felt some concern as the postings I had been given were for a year only, which did not give sufficient time to build a home. And we now had a three month old baby.
But it was a bright morning on 3rd September 1968 when we took to the Princes Highway to run down the eastern side of NSW to drive to Melbourne. We overnighted in a motel somewhere along the way and arrived safely the following day.
We had arranged temporary shelter from friends until I was able to arrange to rent a house in Boronia, a pleasant suburb. My job was as GS1, or Adjutant to the Provost Unit. Of all the positions open to me this was perhaps the most interesting. I was also the OIC of the Police Dog Training school.
We quickly settled down and met up with John and Pat Strachan, who had been our postman in England and whom we had met on the boat in 1965.
As OIC of the dogs I became involved in a number of trips to check out how they were performing. I didn’t really know or understand dogs enough to make a proper judgement, but I did my best. I had a visit to RAAF Townsville, a town in Queensland from where we flew PBY Neptunes. It was interesting but I don’t think I learned much.
I also visited RAAF Toowoomba which was a Stares Depot on the Atherton Tableland at a height of around 5000 feet. It was a weird experience taking off from the Toowoomba strip. One moment you were leaving the ground, the next you were flying freely at 5000 feet.
My involvement with dogs was to take to Launceston in Tasmania and various places around Melbourne, as a gesture of supports to the lads,
I managed, without doing anything, to get into Margaret’s bad books over the dogs. Their training was carried on at number 1 Stores Depot, which was easily reached from Bourke Street which was where HQ Provost Unit was situated.
One day I was approached by one of my WAAFs, a rather pretty sergeant called, believe it or not, Lola Weird.
“Are you planning to visit the dogs tomorrow, sir?”
“Yes, I am. Why?”
“I was wondering if I could come with you. I like dogs.”
“I don’t see why not. I will be leaving about eleven.”
The following morning Lola turned up, dressed in civvies. That was not out of the ordinary, as mostly, personnel were given the choice in a very relaxed unit. Anyway, she looked damned pretty.
We took ourselves off and one of my Training school sergeants showed us round. Lola was delighted and then she pointed out one dog. “Look at that one. He is smiling.”
“Don’t be daft. Dogs can’t smile.”
Then there was a breezy discussion about a dog’s capacity to smile.
At this point a sergeant with a big camera came along. He was from the RAAF News, the Air Force’s newspaper. He joined in the discussion, took some pictures and wandered off again.
It was several weeks before this came back to bite me in the bum. A copy of the RAAF News found its way to my home where Margaret took severe exception to the photograph of Sgt Weird and I crouched down, with huge smiles on our faces in front of the dog enclosure. It wasn’t the photo which caused the problem but the caption which said ‘Flying officer and Mrs Matier inspect the dogs.’ Protests by me were entirely wasted.
It was just after Christmas when I was called upon to deal with a far trickier matter. This involved Bernie Peaton who was a corporal admin in the headquarters provost unit. Bernie had a drink problem and he had just been judged as no longer able to carry out his duties.
Bernie did not report directly to me but he asked me to fill the role of ‘Airman’s friend’. This was a position laid down in Air Force law to explicitly allow anyone facing charges of any kind to be represented by an officer. I was, I suppose, rather touched by his choosing me when there were older, more senior, and much more experienced officers whom he could have picked
Why Bernie had chosen me I did not know. What I did know, or thought I knew, was that Bernie was being rushed out of the RAAF and the whole medical profession was eager to bring about that objective.
Bernie needed someone to help him and he had chosen me. I have no idea why but I said yes. I was strongly advised by many people, including Wg Cdr Ian Tollie, the CO of the Provost Unit that I was wasting my time and that no one could oppose the medical staff. In a way it was like being a Defence Counsel. I had to make a case to present Bernie in the best possible light.
I went with him to his first ‘hearing’ at Command Headquarters. A doctor gave evidence to say that he had observed Bernie and had seen him under the influence on two occasions.
I pleaded that Bernie had a good work record and was highly regarded by his superiors. The matter was adjourned and we had some weeks to wait before reconvening. The process was repeated but with more serious intent. At the end of it all, Bernie was given a warning and allowed to stay in the Air Force. I felt hugely vindicated and was perceived by the junior members of staff as a hero.
Bernie settled down and seemed to have turned a corner.
After my two year posting to Malaysia I returned to HQ Provost Unit and enquired about Cpl Peaton. Sadly, while I was away, Bernie had slipped back into his old ways and had been sacked. It was a sad but not an entirely unexpected fate.
One day Wg Cdr Tollie called me into his office. By this time I had developed a very good working relationship with Ian.
He handed me a letter from the Dept of Air. “Have a look at this and let me know what you think.”
The letter was simple in its intent, but wide ranging in its coverage. It set out that all junior Provost Officers held roles which were established at the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Therefore anyone of a junior rank in one of these positions was entitled to receive Higher Duty Allowance and be paid at the higher rate.
I studied this letter for a couple of days and then went back to Ian Collie. “Sir, what we are being told is that the flying officers in the Branch should receive some back pay.”
“I agree’ said Ian, “Please get on with it.”
I did so with great pleasure and a month or six weeks later the junior officers all received the back pay they were due. In my case it amounted to about a thousand dollars.
In July 1969 we had the pleasure of a fleeting visit to Melbourne by my sister, Aileen, and her husband Peter Jiggly. They came into Station Pier on the migrant ship, Fairsky, a sister ship to the Fairstar which had been our home for four weeks.
They were bound for Sydney so only had part of a day to spend with us. Aileen was six years younger than me so I did not know her well. I didn’t know Peter at all. I guess I found him a difficult person to get along with. He was from West Belfast and was a charmless Nationalist
Aileen and Peter subsequently returned to Melbourne and were living at Hoppers Crossing in Melbourne’s western suburbs when we returned from my next posting. If anything Peter was more obnoxious and he and Aileen were divorced by the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, we, as a family, carried on exploring. We went to Walhalla an old gold mining town near the city of Ballarat. I remember walking across an old wooden bridge, carrying Jenny when my foot went through the wood. Balancing on one leg, it was a position I was forced to hold until Margaret came to my assistance. She comforted Jenny while I sat down nearby, dripping blood.
We also spent a weekend in Adelaide, staying at a motel. On ther way we passed the Twelve Apostles, a series of free standing rocks in the sea along the Great Ocean Road. It was very beautiful country and we, and the kids enjoyed it. Unfortunately the sea has now reduced the Twelve Apostles to about eight which I viewed when I was last in Australia in 2007.
We enjoyed the Dandenongs, a range of hills to the north of Melbourne and we spent a lot of time there.
We joined in some very Australian activities like Anzac and Australia days. We enjoyed Melbourne which we had, by now, come to regard as our home.
We made good friends with Pilot officer Brian Merry who was at OTS at the time. This too was part of the problem. You had no sooner made friends with someone, or some couple, when you were off again somewhere.
The RAAF held the 1968 Christmas children’s party at Melbourne Zoo. There was a big party in September to celebrate my farewell as Provost Unit Adjutant. And, soon, too soon, I was off again on posting. I was beginning to think that once a year was too frequent.
Pages 63 – 72 – Part 1