George Watts was born at Summer Hill, New South Wales in 1914. He grew up in Sydney and saw the transition from horse drawn vehicles to motor vehicles. He served in New Guinea in World War 2, witnessing the Japanese capitulation. His history of driving early motor cars provided a base for his career as a driving instructor who helped found the Australia Driver Trainers. This organisation sought to influence community and government in best practice for teaching drivers. This is his story.
“One of my earliest memories was of the 1918/1919 influenza epidemic. We lived in the Sydney western suburb, Summer Hill and we were at Burwood station when I saw all the people were wearing masks because there was a train going through to the Repatriation General Hospital at Concord. It was then that my father said to my mother “Elva, we’re getting the hell out of here.” We went about half way between Sydney and Melbourne to Bega where my father reckoned that would be safe enough till it was over.
“We returned from Bega because my family had a milk and the ice supply business, the Enfield Ice Works. Vehicles were very much in the ascendancy. The horse drawn vehicles had just given way to the motor vehicle and because of that, of this generation, I was “ambidextrous”, because I was involved in horses and I was involved in motor cars. When I was seven, my uncle had a bet with his brother that I couldn’t drive the truck out of the ice works yard into the street. I had been watching what he was doing for so long that I had no trouble driving out. I taught my mother to drive when I was 12 years old.”
George served in New Guinea during World War II.
“I was in the 14th Australian Field Regiment (AIF). We had a South Australian major called Oz Hansen who was flown in from the Middle East and a number of other officers that were flown back. When we were going up they reinforced us with these very bright Middle East people.
“We were told that we had Japanese through our area and we knew that because the Papua New Guinean natives went bush and deserted us, so we were told by the officers. The Japanese were in our orbit in August but it was in September that we started ranging on to them. [Field Guide to the Kokoda Track by Bill James p.l48 shows one of the long 25 pounder guns and gives the official dates and the number of rounds we fired.]
“This was in 1942, September ’42. It was round about 15th September and the Japanese were in sight of our lights at Port Moresby at that time. The AIF troops that went in, the brigade that came back and did such a wonderful job that Blamey didn’t understand, was the 21st Brigade and we were the Seventh Division of the 25th Brigade that had the army, RAA – Royal Australian Artillery to support them and the pioneers. There were three battalions. I’ve forgotten the battalions, I think it was the 25th, 25th was one and 31st was another battalion that we supported and we were assisted by the 2/1 Pioneer Battalion and they gave us help with flying foxes to get our guns in over difficult positions and we only had drag ropes to pull the guns, only capable of seven men pulling and they gave us drag ropes that we could put 100 men on.
“There’s no jungle in Australia like it. It was from Koitaki-Para Rubber Plantation on to Imita Ridge and Oabawa. In certain parts, you couldn’t tell night from day. We tried to catch the Japanese by pulling one gun down and the Pioneers gave us flying foxes to drop the different parts of the gun over the Goldie River and at that stage the infantry, the 25th Brigade, had pushed the Japanese back out of our range. Our Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel Hitchcock who ended up in charge. He became Brigadier before the war ended and they got into terrible trouble over Bougainville and they sent him across to be the CRAA, that was the Commander Royal Australian Artillery. I was lucky, when we were withdrawn, for some reason, I’m not very clear, I was sent back to a higher ranking, what they called the Junior Leaders School and I flew back by courtesy of Uncle Sam’s flying fortress. I think it was a Boeing B15E. It was a B15 and they start with their modifications, and at that stage it was the latest Uncle Sam had sent out. “Our greatest enemy was the Americans. The next greatest enemy, before the Japanese, was scrub typhus because they didn’t have any cure. When you went into hospital with scrub typhus, it was a case of if you live for 14 days, you might even survive for 15 and if you lived to 15 days, you were out in the clear, but most of them died, including some of our generals. Malaria, in those days we were given Atabrin tablets that turns you yellow and didn’t do much good. I was fortunate enough, I didn’t get malaria in the first two campaigns, but in the third campaign I did.
“In the second campaign the Ninth Division were assembled at Milne Bay and we were taken up by courtesy of Uncle Sam’s warships. The infantry went up on landing craft infantry, LCIs and we had 20 guns available because we’d sent four guns across to Goodenough Island. We had 20 guns and gun tractors on a landing ship tank and we went up with the Ninth Division and we landed between Lae and Finschafen Harbour. The Seventh Australian Division was flown in to Nadzab and the Japanese just shot through very fast between the two Divisions. So we were the first troops out of Lae after it fell and we went back on the Katoomba and it was one of the first vessels, up, civilian type vessels that were commandeered by the navy and so we had a beautiful ship back to Australia.
“In the third campaign, our regiment was split up. We had
the 53rd Battery, the 54th Battery and 55th Battery. Incidentally our personnel
were from Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and 200 from Tamworth and the 55th
Battery were mainly Tamworth personnel. Blamey decided, as his AIF troops were
so depleted, that he’d reinforce them with as much personnel as possible. So
all our regiments, NCOs and officers were sent to the Sixth Australian Division
Artillery. That was the 2nd First Field Regiment, the 2nd Second Field
Regiment, the 2nd Third Field Regiment and I ended up with the 2nd First Field
Regiment and we were the only ones, the only regiment because Colonel O’Connell
knew how to beat the medical and he also threatened to resign if he couldn’t
have the long original 25 pounder gun. The poor old 2nd Second and the 2nd
Third had to handle these modified guns made in Australia and designed in
Australia that wouldn’t shoot very far at all, accurately. We were fortunate
enough to have the long range, very accurate field guns. Incidentally, the
original 25 pounders were designed in Great Britain but I was in the observation
post party and they were always free in the observation post party and
observation post officer, OPA/c which was his assistant and a signaller and we
travelled with the infantry always. When they got into trouble, we had to get
them out. And these 25 pounders, every target that I had in all the time in
Papua/New Guinea were close targets and we had to creep, instead of bracketing,
we were afraid of the bottom bracket hitting the infantry and more particularly,
we were with the infantry, so we didn’t want them to hit us and we used to fire
a round and then creep down by 25 yards at a time and they said that, in
artillery, never ever two rounds fall in the same place. Well, I can assure
you, with the Maribyrnong guns that were made in Victoria, and our Australian 25
pounders, I’ve seen more than one lob in the same hole. So they were pretty
good guns, even though the infantry reckoned we were “drop shorts”.
AWM 026852 (Australian War Memorial) Papua, September 1942. 25-Pounder guns of B Troop, 14th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, being pulled through dense jungle in the vicinity of Uberi on the Kokoda Track. They are being assisted by the 2/1st Australian Pioneer Battalion
“At the end of the war, we were at Wewak. We called for support at Cape Wom which was about 20 miles away from Wewak Point and on Wewak Point there were a Japanese naval guns and they were shooting in our direction. So we called for some air support and they sent out six Lightnings from Nadzab and they were manned by the United States forces. They had 250 pound bombs and full ammunition and they dropped the bombs and fired the ammunition on to us at Cape Wom. They must’ve been using Shell maps I think. So you can understand why we were more afraid of the Yanks than the Japs.
“But another thing of interest was the Japanese were more afraid of artillery than they were of anything else during the war. They used to have special patrols, Tiger Patrols, to go out and place explosives on the 25 pounder guns. Some of the regiments had experience of waking up in the morning and seeing Japanese operating with explosives near the guns. One of our reinforcement officers came in from the 2nd Sixth Field Regiment and told me they’d got up early one morning and found these Japanese working on the guns and they were able to get the troops away and fired on them but they didn’t get all the Japanese. They had very smart cookies that they sent out looking for the artillery.
“We were at Wewak at the end. We ended up 51 Battery of the 2nd First Regiment, it was made up of 1 Battery, 2 Battery and 51 and our Battery was sent back towards Cape Wom and the 6th Div Cavalry which were originally in Tobruk. They were supposed to be cavalry, but by the time 1945 came by they were commandos. About the beginning of August, we were sent up to look after this 60th Cav that were being harassed by Japanese and there was apparently more Japanese out there than they had troops and I can remember they had natives as forward scouts. They had from the German missions, [German Catholic missions from Alexishafen] natives that were co-opted apparently. There were four of them with this commando company and they used to use two at a time. They didn’t go out, they just had lap laps on and they used to tie everything up like Vs and head out with a machete into the jungle, not on the tracks. The Australians weren’t good enough at that and they used to come back and say “50 Japan men, all sit down with rice and they’re only 400 metres up.”
“We used to have our commando camp surrounded by the trip wires, 360 degrees and two deep, trip wires. We had IXL jam tins with grenades stuck in them held up by sig wire and if anything came in at night – a pig might come in and one would go off and everybody was still asleep. But when the second one went off, they knew it wasn’t pigs. One of the commandos was bayoneted one night when the Japanese put on a banzai raid. They used to get through and sing out “Banzai” and charge like mad people and one of us was bayoneted and we had to wait until daylight in the morning to go around and neutralise all the trip wires before we could get a patrol out to get him back to the field ambulance. From that time on, we were told by the commando officer, if, because the Japanese had found the mosquito net, that it was okay to cut your mosquito nets out and sleep in the open. He said, “For my part it’s far better to get malaria than to get the Japanese bayonet.” So I took his advice and, about a month later I went down with MT malaria, the malignant tertia. I was taken away, they take you away from the RAP when you go over 104o and I was over 104o and they took me out to the Field Hospital.
“I finished the war as a bombardier. When I was with the 14th Regiment I was in OPA/c, on war establishment. That only carried a bombardier’s rank, that’s equivalent of a corporal because of the fact that I was the senior observation post AC in the regiment, I was 38 at that stage. But they give you a rank, but it’s not supported by money. That allows you to go into a Sergeant’s mess which I don’t ever remember a Sergeant’s mess because I was mainly out of Australia, but when you transferred, when we went to the 2nd First Regiment, you had to go back to your substantive rank. Anyway, that was at the end of the war.
AWM 019296 (Australian War Memorial) After signing the surrender documents, Lieutenant General ADACHI Hatazô hands over his sword to the General Officer Commanding the 6th Division, Major General H. C. H. Robertson.
“We took the salute from Lieutenant General Adachi. Our General had been killed in an aircraft and we were issued with Lieutenant General Robertson, they’ve named “Robertson Barracks” now after him, in Darwin. I was lucky enough to go along with one of the reporters, just the two of us went along. We saw them drop Adachi on one side a naval officer, the other side an interpreter and they marched him the full length of Cape Wom airstrip surrounded by the tallest Australians they could find. But when Adachi came to talk to Robertson, there was a big shemozzle and they were arguing the toss and I found out later that Adachi was trying to convince Robbie that he had 86,000 Japanese men still alive and Robbie didn’t believe that. That’s why we were kept back in Wewak, from 15th August 1945 until sometime in ’46. Because we had to get these 86,000 Japanese and Robertson was afraid of what might happen when the Japanese came down with their arms and there were two islands straight off Wewak. One was Muschu and they put these blokes on Muschu Island but they, as they came in, they got them as quickly as possible out of the range of the Sixth Australian Division blokes out on their own island.
“So I returned to Australia in 1946. It was summer time when we came back so it must have been round about, I’d say somewhere between February and March. In 2000 and they issued all that was left then of the Sixth Australian Division, only the ones that were involved up there, with a new medal with a bar on top of it with PNG on the bar.
“After the war, I was still involved in transport. I heard of the second oldest garage on the south coast [NSW]. Billy Balmain in Bega was the oldest and a General Motors outfit and Harrison’s Garage at Nowra, was the second oldest garage. We heard that the son of the original Harrison was selling his garage and my wife and I went into a joint partnership of Harrison’s Garage – GC & MM Watts, Nowra. It was the NRMA District Depot and we looked after all the people from Nowra to Kiama and Nowra to Milton and Nowra to Nerriga that was on the way to Canberra. We had the Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley and MG franchise. We developed it to a stage when we had about 23 on the staff and I was silly enough to make a decision to go Ford about the time General Motors introduced the Holden. Around about 1950, I decided to go Ford when Ford approached me. To make a long story short, we went from 27½% sales of Ford down to 6% and I told them to go jump in the lake and resigned from Ford.
“A road safety council was formed and I was on that council in 1948. From that time on, every car owner that I delivered to didn’t always have licences so that’s how I became a driving instructor. After my wife died in 1963, I had three little kids to look after because one was only seven, and the other two needed high school education and my daughter who was born while I was in Wewak, had just passed her entrance to teaching. So we liquidated everything that we had in Nowra and went back to Concord West in Sydney and I had no job. So I decided to join one of the driving schools in Sydney.
“In those days, the ABC had the eastern suburbs, Barnes had the western suburbs, inner western suburbs and Macquarie Driving School had the Parramatta and further west and Apex had the northern side and every one of them had over 100 driving instructors. The first one that I approached was Apex and I got the job with them. I then found that Apex never ever allowed two driving instructors to be in the head office at the one time because they didn’t want the driving instructors to talk to one another about the difficult job that we had. I then approached the nearest to Concord West which was Barnes Driving School. When I went out there, I found that they had a chief driving instructor who was a very good bloke and he checked everybody, not like Apex.
“Way back in around about 1975, I went home with a stinking headache and lay down. My wife, Antonia, called the doctor. In his opinion as I was working in the Sydney Harbour basin, the doctors had been told there was a very bad smog affecting people in the Sydney Harbour basin and he did a “shotgun diagnosis” and said that I was one and that I should get out of the Sydney Harbour basin. My son was in Adelaide at the time at the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and when he rang up we told him what had happened and he said “Come down here to Adelaide, there’s no smog down here.” So that’s how we came to Adelaide.
“In Adelaide I was diagnosed by Dr Malcolm Smith, a professor at the Flinders University who did certain days at the Repat General Hospital. He had me x-rayed and sent for an MRI scan. They found that when I landed at Aitape, [during the war] I’d fallen 15 feet on to a steel bars and my blackout in Concord West was because I’d damaged where the hole of the skull fits on to the skeleton. I then had to get treatment to make sure that the spine didn’t get damaged any further.
“A bloke I used to work with at Apex, Alan Collett, had also come to Adelaide and a co-operative was set up with Alan Collett and Peter Butcher on one side and Williams and Scott Matheson and another bloke were on the north side of Adelaide. We had a co-operative of six driving instructors. I joined the three on the south and three on the north and we set up City and Suburban Driving Centre. It ended up with just Alan Collett and me from the whole lot. So in the end I inherited City and Suburban Driving Centre but at that stage I’d teamed up with the bloke that had started it. Bowden Ford were the only car dealer in South Australia with a driving school and the boss of that driving school, when Bowden Ford went broke, formed a driver training organisation including all the driving instructors in South Australia. At that stage, the South Australian government had set up a Road Safety Council and spent millions of dollars at Oaklands Park in Adelaide where they had a whole range of land that even had a skid pan on it. The Road Safety Council had taken over the control of all the driving instructors and they issued an outright dictum of testing every driving instructor.
“I’d been given my driving instructor’s licence with the all the official things on it but they didn’t accept that in South Australia, so I had to go before the Road Safety Council. Bernie Plew was the big chief of the Road Safety Council. I passed my written test, which had to be 100% as Bernie Plew wouldn’t accept anybody who didn’t know every regulation. I’d passed it and gone through about six months and I rang up Bernie and I said “Look, George Watts speaking, driving instructor, such and such a number. City and Suburban Driving School has approached me and they’re getting very upset about me not getting my driver’s licence. What are you going to do about it?” He said “We don’t want you bastards from the eastern states coming over and taking South Australian blokes’ jobs.” But that did the trick because the next week I got a driving test and I got two of these police driving school instructors, one in the front and one in back and they gave you instructions from the front seat. If the front seat bloke missed anything, the back seat bloke didn’t. So they took you out for a whole morning and they took you on dirt roads and on bitumen roads and half bitumen roads and they took you up to Hahndorf where the Germans went up there and back again and they took you one way and brought you back another. So in the end they decided to give me a licence.
“Allan Miller was the Chief Driving Instructor for Bowden Ford and when Bowden went broke he set up Allan Miller Driving School which is still in existence today. Anyway, we got together and Allan Miller was voted the first President of the Australian Driver Trainers and I was voted his Vice-President which was quite amazing because they hated the guts of eastern states people. In the end Allan Miller decided that he’d done enough work for South Australia so he handed over to me as President and then I handed over to Alf Parker, an ex-Marine who came to Australia after the war. As the next President, he formed the Australian Driver Trainers as an Australia-wide organisation.
“The aims of this organisation are to tell the government how they should set up the driver training. Alf Parker and I got together and one of us proposed that we should get government employees that are qualified testing officers to re-test every driving instructor in the state. We were able to get it through our Annual General Meeting and we started from there on to set up a system to advise government. We reckoned that the driving instructors in Queensland and Victoria should be able to instruct the government and all eventually agreed and we got the Australian Driver Trainers. Alf was able to get that through and they made him a life member of the Australian body.
“The main thing that we advise government is that all driving instructors should be re-tested, and they are doing that regularly. We reckoned that the driving instructors were like the drivers in South Australia, not very good. So that’s how things eventually spread and with the aid of the multi-million dollar complex at Oaklands Park. They had army, navy and air force driving instructors that were in Adelaide and they were appointed as road safety field officers. Unfortunately that business in South Australia has disintegrated and first thing that went was the skid pan, because it was too expensive to run. Allan Collett and I told them that the multi-million dollar simulators they’d bought were very good for flying in the air, but they were no good for ground work, but they didn’t believe us. So one of the field officers that was listening to us, convinced Bernie Plew that we should be able to prove whether Allan Collett and George Watts were right. So we picked out 10 people that had been on the simulators and 10 that weren’t, halved them up between us and we were supposed to tell who’d been on a simulator and who weren’t. We got 100% pass, Allan Collett and I, and they sold the simulator. That might recur again because simulators are useless for practical driving on the road.
“I don’t know how many people I’ve taught to drive. All I can tell you is, I used to do 100,000 miles a year while I was a driving instructor in Sydney at Apex and at Barnes Driving School. When I came to South Australia, things were much different. In Sydney, if somebody failed, you could get another test the next week, no problem at all. If you had enough money, you could buy a driving test in Sydney. That’s why I got out because where I used to go to at Fivedock, the Fivedock registry and four driving testing officers and only one of them was fair dinkum. So you fail one, you fail the next one, because they have to give you a different one every week, it would take you a month to get a fair dinkum test.
“The government should be going back to a similar system to the original whereby they had very good quality testing officers that knew where to go to see whether people understood the rules of the road. See, they do it by computer now and don’t tell me with optional choices, they can tell whether people are going to know that they shouldn’t tailgate, and they shouldn’t drink and they shouldn’t take prescriptions while driving. “We need to try and convince executive officers of the Transport Department in every state to listen to the driving instructors. If they consulted with them, they’d be able to get far better results with the road toll. The system today has got a lot of shortcomings.”
(George Watts was interviewed in October 2006).