Voices from the Air, page 5
The next day Cecil had to turn around yet again and return to Ikingi Maryut. When his almost non-stop travel finally halted, he had had been travelling for three weeks and had hitch-hiked 4000 kilometres.
A Tame Finish for the Australians – Benghazi
Wilmot and MacFarlane spent just four days in a ‘pretty little villa on the sea’ in Derna, before they set out towards Benghazi. The first campaign in Cyrenaica, the Italian colony covering the area from Bardia to Benghazi, was coming to an end. Chester and Bill followed the British and Australian advance through the Italian farmlands towards Benghazi. Wilmot wrote: ‘All along the road white flags flew from the houses – and peasants stood in the doorways and waved or else came out with cups and bottles of wine for the troops, and many a brawny Australian hand was lightly brushed by an Italian woman’s lips.’50 Wilmot believed the Italians in Cyrenaica saw ‘only ruin for themselves in Mussolini’s grandiose ambitions’, and he compared the warm welcome from the Italian and Arab villagers to his experience in Vienna in 1938 when he had seen Hitler’s troops march in to ‘sullen looks and forced greetings’ from the Austrians.
The ancient land that was now a modern battlefield was rich in interest for Wilmot, the reporter and historian. Passing through the ancient Greek and Roman town of Cyrene, he took time to marvel at the view over the ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo, perched on an escarpment that fell away hundreds of feet to the farmland below. In his later report, Wilmot described the more prosaic scene that night after the capture of the town of Barce, as tired soldiers huddled around fires against the cold – ‘that night the rain came down in torrents . . . and the campaign which had started in dust was ending in mud’.51
After repairs to a broken spring on the ABC utility truck, Wilmot and MacFarlane hurried over the muddy, boggy roads in the wake of hundreds of army trucks, only to reach Benghazi and find the Italians had already fled. The Australian forces continued beyond Benghazi in pursuit of the remnants of the Italian 10th Army but the Italians were finally caught by British armoured units which struck across country to intercept them. Wilmot recorded several reports on the campaign for Cyrenaica, including the exploits of the British units who defeated the Italian tank force and army at Beda Fomm. ‘When I drove over the battlefield a few hours after the fight ended there were wrecked tanks along the road and belongings strewn beside them as far as the eye could see. At one knoll I counted 26 field guns and dozens of Italian tanks which we had shot up. There was wreckage everywhere.’ Wilmot recounted the story of the capture of the Italian force as told to him by a British commander. ‘It was just luck,’ the commander told Wilmot. ‘If we’d been a little earlier, they might have been warned and stayed back in Benghazi . . . if we’d been a little later, we might have missed them.’52
Wilmot had beaten the rest of the press to the story but many years later in an obituary for Wilmot, fellow war correspondent, Alan Moorehead, remembered his generous attitude towards his colleagues and rivals.
He, almost alone of the correspondents, had managed to get to the scene of the fighting. He had understood at once the importance of it (no easy thing in that flat and confusing space) and because there was only generosity in his nature he related to the rest of us exactly what had happened so that we too could send home an account in our despatches.53
Australian forces had carried the greater burden of the fighting at Bardia and Tobruk during this first campaign and Wilmot reported that it was now ‘all quiet on the Western Desert’. The end of the campaign, wrote Wilmot, had two different finishes, a magnificent and exciting one for the British and a tame finish for the Australians.
The Australians had really been on a wild goose chase in their 300 miles advance from Tobruk, for the only real contact they made with the enemy was at Derna . . . Our forward troops didn’t enter Benghazi at all – And so after their hectic chase the Australians finished up tired and cold at a featureless spot on the desert south of Benghazi without even a chance of having another crack at the enemy . . . That Friday they felt rather what a greyhound must feel when he sees the tin hare disappear into his scuttle at the end of the track.54
Cecil had re-joined them at Benghazi and together the ABC crew headed back to Ikingi Maryut and Cairo. During the Western Desert campaign the springs on the overloaded and much abused utility truck were sometimes bent almost backwards by the weight it had to carry. An Italian blow-up rubber mattress was used to protect the delicate amplifier used in the recording unit, but it also had other uses. Like an overloaded circus caravan, one member of the field unit would sometimes lie on the mattress, balanced on top of the mountain of gear in the back, while the others would sit crammed together in the front of the truck with the driver.
Tall gum trees reminiscent of home in Australia shaded a houseboat at a pretty spot on the Nile in Cairo, where Wilmot now took a break. His coverage of the Libyan campaign and his sharp reporting and analysis were building him a reputation at home and with the Australian command. His reporting from Benghazi had even prompted a letter from a captain at Army Headquarters in Melbourne who obtained copies of his scripts for use in the training of armoured units in Australia.
During Chester’s time back in Australia writing overseas propaganda broadcasts for the Department of Information he had been under his friend and mentor, former Melbourne University professor William Macmahon Ball. ‘Mac’ Ball was an admired writer and broadcaster. Wilmot liked and respected Ball and had enjoyed working with him but, as a journalist, he saw working on propaganda as ‘a very bad atmosphere for one who values his intellectual honesty’. It was, he wrote, bad for ‘a critical faculty and an independent judgement’.55 Chester’s diaries expressed strong views on the war but supporting the war effort did not mean abandoning truth or editorial integrity – even if he could not tell all the truth, he meant to report the war accurately and independently.
Wilmot had now seen the British press at work in the field and was amazed at what he saw as the ‘flagrant dishonesty’ of some Fleet Street correspondents at Bardia and Beda Fomm, who ‘did not hesitate to give eye-witness accounts of incidents they did not see’.56 He was critical of the failure of some correspondents to get their facts right and in a letter to his family was scathing of some of the reporting:
. . . great thriller stuff with the correspondent the central figure right through. The other kind of story is usually vague generalisations . . . usually hotted up by such phrases as “I am now in a position to reveal” . . . they do not seem to be able to tell the story of what happened to the troops and then illuminate that story with examples from their own experience . . . not a bit of this . . . if they possibly can they sprout (sic) a great personal epic.57
In Wilmot’s reports, his own experiences made compelling narratives which framed and highlighted the main story and the experiences of the troops.
The Evacuation – Greece
Units of the 6th Australian Division were sent to Greece from North Africa in March 1941 and Cecil soon managed to get passage across the Mediterranean for himself, Wilmot, MacFarlane and the utility truck and portable recording gear. Wilmot reported: ‘After months in the dead flat, dull desert or in the fetid Nile Valley it’s a relief to find yourself in a country with trees and grass; mountains and streams. It’s a relief to be in a country without dust and smells.’58
Wilmot appeared almost light-hearted to be in Greece and to be covering the war against ‘the real enemy – the Germans’, but the Greek campaign would prove to be a disaster for the Allied forces; and for the field unit the problems of reporting from Greece were exasperating right from the start. Urgent reports were sent to the BBC in London from the studios of Athens Radio, as Cecil explained when quoted in a later script by Wilmot:
The BBC were supposed to listen at a set time and on a particular wavelength each day. But Athens Radio was a little uncertain. They’d change the time at the last minute when it was too late to get a cable to London warning the BBC, or else they’d give
Unknown to Wilmot or Cecil, the ABC could apparently pick up some broadcasts from Athens Radio on shortwave in Sydney. The ABC News editor, Frank Dixon, had listened to the news in English from the Athens studios at 5.40 in the morning in Australia.60 However, there was no system in place for Wilmot to file news directly to the ABC and, to add to the vagaries of transmission from Athens, they were now dealing with a different censorship regime – the most bureaucratic system they had yet encountered.
One talk we sent to London had to be submitted to no fewer than six censors – our own Navy, Air Force and Army plus Greek military, civil and radio censorship. As a rule it wasn’t quite as bad as this, but there were at least three censors to be satisfied each time . . . with the Greek censors . . . the only difficulty used to be that they were in different offices and worked different hours, so that you spent a large part of your day hunting the censor.61
On arrival, the field unit camped with the troops at Glyfada to the south of Athens before Cecil found them a house at Kifissia, north of the city. With a German attack imminent against Greece and neighbouring Yugoslavia, Australian and New Zealand troops were part of the defensive lines in the north and Wilmot, Cecil and MacFarlane headed out of Athens in an army convoy on 1 April.
After a restful overnight stop in a pretty valley, the convoy was swarmed by Greek children cadging cigarettes, biscuits, oranges, and petrol tins which sold well in Athens.62 Soon afterwards, in the forward mountain positions, Wilmot observed Australian troops digging in to replace Greek troops on a steep mountain pass.
I saw one field regiment arrive at the top of the pass about ten o’clock one morning – by noon they had their gun pits dug . . . their guns were in position and camouflaged and they were unloading a fresh load of ammunition. There was no wasting time there, but the infantry had a harder and slower job. I saw one company digging in on top of a ridge . . . everything had to be carried by men or mules up a narrow slippery track which seemed to go at an angle of about 30 degrees most of the way.63
They were with Australian troops in the mountains when Germany launched its attacks on 6 April. News of the German attacks on Greece and Yugoslavia reached Australia in the middle of the afternoon in urgent cables from Hugo Jackson in London. The German attacks forced the withdrawal of Allied troops through the strategic Veria Pass to the south west of Salonika, where Wilmot and MacFarlane recorded Australian troops blowing up the road ahead of the Germans. The introduction to the story read by Lawrence Cecil, outlined what the audience would hear.
Our sound truck manned by Chester Wilmot and Bill MacFarlane waited all day long with the engineers who were to do the blowing up . . . The engineers did a good job – in fact they did so well that when the charge went off the explosion blew us off the air. The truck shook and the cutting head lifted. And so you won’t hear the noise of the actual explosion, but only the sound of hundreds of tons of earth crashing to the bottom of the gully. Pieces of rock fell all round the truck and Chester Wilmot and the engineers with him had to run for the shelter of the bank by the roadside. Because of this you’ll notice that he was rather out of breath when he continued the commentary after the explosion.64
The change from the North African desert to the cold weather in the mountains of Greece brought new technical problems for Bill MacFarlane. The soft coating on the recording discs got so hard in the cold air that the sapphire needle cutting head could not cut the tracks and MacFarlane had to hug the discs to his chest to warm and soften the surface before attempting to record.65 When they withdrew with the Australian rearguard troops after recording the blowing of the road, the ABC truck was the last vehicle to leave the Veria Pass. Chester and Bill MacFarlane then headed further north to where the Australians were confronting the Germans on the cold high ground of the Monastir Gap.
I crouched in an observation post on a hill in the Monastir Valley and watched the first clash between Australian and German troops in northern Greece. At first the Germans were driven back, but then under cover of a blinding snowstorm they attacked once more and kept attacking in such numbers that even though they were repulsed time and again, eventually the Allied troops had to withdraw. But our men had done their job. For four days a few thousand Australian, British, New Zealand and Greek troops withstood the full weight of the German invading force.66
Wilmot’s account of the fighting described how he watched the early German advances over the green valley floor under Allied artillery and air attacks before he climbed to another observation post just before midnight.
. . . there was dead silence . . . there wasn’t even a whisper from the dead leaves on the oak trees around the post . . . at 13 minutes to, the sky behind us flashed and the hills thundered with a long rolling rumble that seemed to run through them for miles. Dozens of shells whistled and whined over our heads and at half a dozen points on the plain sudden vivid flashes told us where shells were bursting . . . there was sporadic firing throughout the night, but we snatched a few hours’ sleep. It was only a few hours, for we expected them to attack at dawn and when we woke about five we could hear the ominous rumble of tanks and vehicles moving across the plain.67
The report’s narrative of the fighting across several days combined Wilmot’s own observations and the words of the troops:
. . . three times that afternoon they attacked through the snow, three times they had to go back. One Australian soldier who was in the thick of it said to me afterwards, “Suddenly you’d see figures appearing out of the wall of snow in front of you, we’d give them all we had and then the snow would close over them again. I thought they’d never stop coming; after a while they did, but all through the night they kept their machine guns on us. Next morning they attacked again, but they didn’t get through. Later in the day we moved back – it was still snowing but we managed to get out.”68
The intense cold of the snowstorm in the battle at the Monastir Gap froze the recording gear so that Bill MacFarlane was unable to record the sounds of the fighting. Meanwhile, Lawrence Cecil had already returned to Athens to relay two of Wilmot’s scripts through to the BBC, and with two earlier recordings which he could not get past the censor. Chester and Bill now also headed south with the withdrawing Australian forces, through Thermopylae and on to the coast. Wilmot’s scripts of the evacuation of the Australian and other Allied troops were written once he was safely back on base in Egypt. ‘The main evacuation was spread over four nights and on each of four nights a couple of Brigade groups – say about 7000 or 8000 men – had to be withdrawn from the line and driven down the only road that led back from the front to the position where they were to lie up during the following day.’69
Around 50,000 troops were evacuated from Greece and in the ensuing chaos in Athens Lawrence Cecil badgered and haggled for passage for the ABC’s utility truck and all the recording gear. With just two hours’ notice he got the truck loaded on a ship at Piraeus and he and Bill MacFarlane began their journey back across the Mediterranean to Alexandria. It was a testament to Cecil’s persistence and powers of persuasion that the ABC truck and equipment was saved when so much else was lost in the hurried evacuation. For Wilmot, the looming defeat and withdrawal was now the story and on 21 April he again headed north from Athens, this time with the photographers Damien Parer and George Silk, and the official Australian war correspondent, Kenneth Slessor. The next day at Thermopylae they watched German planes attacking the road less than a kilometre ahead and hea
Wilmot, Silk and Parer wanted to stay at the front and leave with the troops but were refused and an AIF colonel told Wilmot, ‘You can help the AIF best by getting out now and trying to write the truth about what has happened over here.’70 They were told to get to Piraeus to join a ship that was evacuating Athens Headquarters and British Embassy staff.
We had a most hectic drive to Athens, the road was packed with retreating troops, most of them Greeks in the most tumbledown lorries you ever saw . . . All the other trucks stopped when they saw a plane and while they were stopped we raced past them . . . For the last 60 miles we didn’t stop except once when 42 bombers, on their way back from Piraeus, flew over us and then bombed Thebes about five miles behind us.71
Wilmot raced across Athens to pick up his things from the house and to try to find his batman – the batman could not be found and would end up as a prisoner of war. At the rendezvous point at their camp, Wilmot and the other correspondents finished off the last of their beer and whisky and then boarded the ship at Piraeus.
. . . by the light of shaded hurricane lamps, men were toiling to coal the ship – a little 150-ton tub built around 1900: we picked our way through bomb craters on the cobbled quay to the ship – feeling our way on board over a plank that bounced as you stepped on it and then into the bowels of the ship, already hot and fetid with the smell of crowded humanity – it was the strangest human smell I’ve ever smelt . . . an indescribable feverish smell – as though human beings when in fear gave off some peculiar odour.72