Jim Stratton

Jim Stratton was born in 1905 at Broadwater on the Richmond River in New South Wales.  He married Miriam Medsen while in England in 1932.  He worked for the NSW Fire Brigade in the 1920s, worked as a policeman in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the 1930s.  He served in World War 2 in Europe and Africa, being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940.  This is his story:

Jim served in the NSW Fire Brigade in the 1920s discharging in 1927.

“That’s when I was a fireman, I was 20.  I got off the mark and I had a good experience there.  I saw the Botany station officer roasted, got into a big fire at Botany.  We were out to it from George Street.  There was a mighty fire in a tallow factory and another firemen walked into hot tallow, scalded his legs, an Irish fellow, good chap.  Another fellow, looking up, down came a plate of sheet glass, nearly cut his foot off, a risky job.  We had to jump from a certain landing into a big sheet, canvas sheet held by 16 firemen, four, four, four, four.  They said, if I missed it, you won’t be here anymore, you’d hit the ground and that was to get the timid ones out.  Anyhow I passed, I jumped out.  They a had big canvas tank of water there for practice, at the headquarters of the fire brigade in Sydney.  I had a good time in the fire brigade.”

 Jim left the fire brigade for adventure in New Guinea.

“Well, I made a big mistake, a big big mistake.  I thought it was adventure, and the fire brigade was a good job with a very good future and I resigned and went to New Guinea.  I thought I’d have some adventure there.  It wasn’t the job I thought it was.  Before I went, there was a headmaster of a school used to come down and talk to the firemen.  He said “You’re making a big mistake.”  He mentioned about the fever, and other things.  And he was right, spot on and I was wrong.  I didn’t listen to what he had to say.  I wanted adventure and I got adventure.  So I got there to New Guinea and arrived on the Montoro.  I got dengue fever as soon as I got there.  I went into the Rabaul Namanula Hospital for 10 days and then I got over that and then I got attack after attack of nasty malaria.  It was the worst malaria area I’d been in.

“As we were going back along the Boo River, I saw fungi on the different trees, it was a tropical place, all lit up, phosphorescent fungi.  I was living in a village, where there was a police station, leaf house, rough house, no doors, no screens for mosquitoes and of course I had massive malaria mosquitos, anopheles mosquitos.  Anyhow I was the “king of the castle” as it were in the village.  I didn’t have much time for clerks, government clerks.  There were a couple of them there.  One fellow was all right but I locked horns a bit with them.  When the big boat was in from Australia, they’d like to have a police boy behind them as though they were someone important as a sort of an orderly and with a white belt, and uniform, carrying their cigarettes.  So I stopped that.  I said “He’s not a police master” I said.  “He’s just with you as an orderly, you can’t do that”.  He was the chief clerk of Salamoa, District Offices and so I locked horns with him and I said “I’m the boss here of the police”, I said. 

“One of my duties was I had to check cargo going through to Edie Creek and no boy was allowed to carry more than 50 pounds up those damn mountains.  You should see those mountains there, up through the bush, just a bush track, and up to Komiatum, up to Wypali.  Up we went and, Komiatum was the first village.  That was a fairly bare hill.  We did a lot of climbing up there.  I never got to Edie Creek.  I didn’t want to go that far.  It was cold and wet.
  “The crimes we had – oh, there’d be desertion from the master.  When the workers signed with the master, they’d put a fingerprint down on a contract for three years.  They could be working on the gold fields, carrying cargo up to the goldfields or it was all carried up by native blacks, helluva of a turnout.  Then they finally got aeroplanes, Ray Parer, I knew Ray, quite a good chap, Ray.  The labourers would sign for three years, and they’d go off and not work.  They’d be arrested by the native police or somebody found them.  Three months imprisonment I think they used to get.  I had the prison to look after in Salamoa as well and I went down there.  I was only at the Lobwe post for a while.  They closed it down and then.  I was there not quite two years – 21 months and three months holiday, that was the contract.  I was damn glad to see the last of New Guinea.” After his time in New Guinea, Jim went policing in the Solomon Islands after he was unable to get American citizenship.

“A fellow called Sid Riley told me America was the country to go to.  But I wrote to the United States Consul and I found out because I was born in Australia, it was four years waiting list, so I wiped America out.  I got to the Solomons and, I didn’t know just what to do.  I didn’t want to go back to New Guinea.  I got on the Solomons, and worked for the Malayta Company.  I had no trouble getting there with my New Guinea experience.  I got appointed for two years in the Solomons.  The houses were better altogether, proper house and it was all gauzed in, altogether different than New Guinea was.  I had a much more civilized job so I got in as an overseer of a plantation in the Solomon Islands, Yandina.
  “They had a lot of Malayta types, the best workers and the more difficult to handle.  Sinarungu and Uru were the two Malayta villages.  They were good workers but aggressive types and they killed a district officer, the year before I went there, because they were collecting taxes.  The natives thought if they cut the right hand off, that’s the one they get the tax with, that there’d be no more taxes.  They killed the district officer, his assistant cadet, white, and 16 native police, massacred before I went up to the Solomons.  Anyhow when I went there that was all gone and the police had caught them.  The government sent out native police and they rounded them up.  So there you are and I walked into that.  I was on the island of Pavuvu and, quite pretty area and that was that.  I had a good time there.”

Jim later went to England and was there when World War II broke out.

“I was on the Reserve and I had a government job, a clerical officer, they called them and a job which I did nothing in, just sit down and talk, waste of public money and then War came.  I was called up and I went through St Nazaire, embarked at St Nazaire and up the road we went.  Guns and trucks and all sorts of things unloaded from the ships going up the road, up to the Western Front.  It was the same old Western Front they had in World War I and up we went.  I slept in a cowshed with others and cows, cattle were there as well, French place.  It wasn’t very comfortable and then from there I moved up to Versailles and up to Avignon and then to Vincent, a Canadian place where the Canadians had a battle.  We were stationed there for a while in Vincent and all the Canadian and German trenches were only a few yards apart there.  The others were there, Vimy Ridge, and I stayed there with others doing next to nothing which they called the “Phony War”, just nothing, no attacks of any kind.  Then all of a sudden, one morning, I forget the date, about 2 o’clock, the whole world let loose.  The German army had Wehrmacht, went right through the three countries, Belgium, Holland and France.  I was in the Maginot Line for six months.  I wasn’t in it, you’re not allowed in it, only the French in the Maginot Line, but I was up there delivering supplies a few times and I had quite a time there, more of a holiday and the skirmishes and the Germans seemed to get the better of the skirmishes.  The graves went up, supplies every second day and there’d be new graves there.  The lies in the newspaper, you couldn’t believe them and the Germans seemed to be making it better off than the British.  All the lies about the Germans, their inefficiency.  They were much more efficient than the British at that time.  The British were all right for parade squares and some very poor types amongst them.  And you can take that from me, very poor types.

“On the Maginot line, we crossed.  There were two great, must have been about 18 inch guns, I’ve never seen such guns in my life, in a little bit of forest there, mighty fellows they were, two French guns and I think they used to blast off at night sometimes and the Germans of course had similar ones on the Siegfried Line.  They had a great big trench down the front of it, dug well down and iron railway sleepers stuck up the side, the tanks couldn’t cross.  The Germans had different ideas, they went round the back of it, across and then they did attack.
  “We were billeted with some French people first – some of the nicest people you could ever wish.  We were only supposed to have accommodation, that was all, just rooms, when we first went up but those lovely French people invited us to tea with them.  And couldn’t they cook, these French wives, really good, tasty food and before tea, evening, before breakfast in the morning, there’d be a small bottle, small jar of cognac, the French and we participated.  We weren’t entitled to it but they put it out.  We sat down with the family, they treated us wonderfully, hospitable people and you couldn’t get nicer people than the French and the cooking was good.  So I was very impressed with them.  And then the big breakthrough came. 

“We were five days before we moved into Belgium.  The road was blocked with traffic and so they go on and we got up past, Brussels, and I knew there was something wrong when we were going back the other way.  We were going the wrong way, backwards.  The roads were jammed with traffic.  The lies about the Germans too they told, about how they were machine gunning the Menin Road.  I was on the Menin Road from Ypres down to Paschaendale and how the Germans machine gunned women and children.  Well, they couldn’t do anything else.  There were troops and all mixed together, propaganda, lies, and you can quote me as saying that.  The Germans were no worse than the others, because I could see it, what I saw in my area, but anyhow, I go down there on the road.  The great retreat was on then, civilians out leaving their homes, taking little parcels under their arm.  It was a sad sight to see.  And women and children getting out, didn’t know where they were going.  Terrible thing to see.  Well, on the road and the drain on the side of the road were very narrow, very shallow, not very deep.  There was an air raid on, bombing through, cause there were bombs there, there were troops there and the British knew they were machine gunning and bombing women and children.  They were all mixed up, they didn’t say that though and the Germans had to do something because otherwise there’d be an excuse to get away.  I’ve seen so much lies and it changed my thinking very much and that thinking has lasted forever, I’m afraid.  It’s changed me and I had a measure of what they call combat shock after this shemozzle.  A lot of others did too.
  “On to the beaches and when we got there, we were not the first on the beaches and the fires, I’d never seen such fires, great oil tanks going up in flames, great volumes of black smoke and bombing as well.  The Germans were bombarding the place, into the bargain.  I was on the beach one long day in the morning.  There was no shelter on the beach on the open sand and that saved a lot of explosions from skittling more of us.  They were up to their necks some of them in the water, getting on to the boat.  They didn’t all get on to big boats.  This boat, the “Bullfinch” was on a sand bar, luckily, it came in too far, it couldn’t get off and the tide went out, otherwise, had it not gone in so far, I might not be here today.  So anyhow, I got out there, pretty well up I stood, there were rope ladders down the side of the “Bullfinch”, climbed up there and on to the boat and it never got off, but it didn’t leave till almost dark, before it got off the sandbar, apparently the tide or something must have shifted, the engineer of the boat, took it up somehow and got off, got off the damn sand bar, luckily, otherwise I might have still been there.  So after getting up on the ship and then it was just about dark.

“There were two German bombers, Heikels.  I couldn’t see them because the boat was packed with troops fleeing from the Wehrmacht.  As I got on to the boat, there were two Heikel bombers.  There was a machine gunner, French machine gunner and a British machine gunner, might have been a Lewis gun.  Any ammunition we had, we passed it up, sort of a human chain up to the different parts of the boat to feed these guns and they kept the planes off.  I think they could have affected their aiming, luckily some of them had ammunition.  The planes came along just about dark and they dropped a couple of bombs.  I thought one hit the boat.  Set off a terrific explosion and one hit the water and it sent water flying and anyhow that part was done and then the boat finally got going and we got to sea and we arrived in England luckily. 

“The boat was packed, the “Bullfinch” and they were not all heroes.  Some of the French were so very good and I heard one or two voices “this is a British boat, they said, we don’t want Froggies on as well”.  That’s only voices of a couple and the way the French people treated them.  They were not all like that but I heard a couple.  They were not all good types and I was a bit disgusted about it because the French were very good to them.  I got over to England and there were people there waiting, women with pots of tea and sandwiches, welcoming the defeated troops of the retreating army that was going to be in Berlin by Christmas.  So that’s the story.

“I was in England for a while, so a chance then came on.  They advertised in the Gazette for volunteer officers and instructors for the West African frontier force.  Well, West Africa is a place I always wanted to go so I applied and of course I was accepted because I had experience in New Guinea with natives.  I had to go to an officer not below the rank of Brigadier for an interview first to see if I was suitable for service with native troops.  So the Brigadier up at York, I told him my experience and “I can see you’ll be right”.  I knew more about it than he did I think.  I had no trouble passing that interview, native troops you see.  I was two years in New Guinea and two years in the Solomon Islands and I was in Egypt before that, in charge of Egyptians.  We got off and I was finally accepted for the West African Frontier Force, Royal West African Frontier Force.  It was a crack unit, but as the war went on so all the privileges and the extra pay and the allowances that went with it, they replaced with other things.  They were quite good though.  I liked it.  So I got to West Africa, to Gambia, what was called the Gold Coast there in Ghana today and then to Nigeria.  I was happy to be at the West Africa Frontier force with native troops.  Learning to drive, a lot of them, we had vehicles there, three ton vehicles, a transport and they were revving these damn things up, put their foot on the accelerators and quite a noise going on.  They became quite good drivers in the end. 

“There were some Polish officers there, seconded to the West African Frontier Force for some reason.  They were nice fellows.  I got very friendly with them.  They didn’t like the British, the Poles, and I told them I wasn’t British and they knew that.  They nearly all had girlfriends, the Poles, African girlfriends and some quite attractive looking girls amongst those Africans, Nigerians.  Nearly all the Poles seemed to have them, even our Doc had a nice little girl, and he was married with two children.  Anyway, I said “I’m home here” this is home to me.  A lot of them didn’t like when they got there.  But I said “this is the same as Australia” a lot of it suits me, in the bush so I was right at home. 

“I was happy from the day I set foot in Nigeria.  I went to Gusau right up north of Nigeria, very interesting country.  I was there for a month doing nothing.  I just brought up this Nigeria regiment, dropping them along the way to the different villages on a month’s leave before they went to Burma.  And you should have heard the drums of Africa, tum te tum dum, banging away and sending messages, the drums.  It was lovely to hear it.  My one good job was cancelled because the Vichy French finished and I’d been to Lake Chad transport for three months, transport of goods to build a road through to Lake Chad.  I was very disappointed.  That was the end of my Nigerian life.  We were shifted to the Middle East then, couldn’t have them doing nothing. 

“They had a good sense of humour those Nigerians too.  I used to talk to them of a night time.  A couple of British NCOs were here with us, Sergeant Jarvis and Sergeant Baldwin.  The Nigerians couldn’t say Jarvis so “yarvis” and “galwin”.  They didn’t like Africans at all.  They said they had their tails on when they got them off the trees, cut the tails off because they were sort of monkeys, you see.  And they were far from that and this was the yarn they got round and the Nigerians took it up, the soldiers, as a joke.  They’d show me their letters from home when family would want money off them.  They’d want to borrow some money because they used to send these photographs back to Nigeria, fake photographs of Egypt, done up as generals or something and the Africans at home believed it all.  When they wanted so much, I said “I can understand it”, I said, “Those people there in Nigeria, they’re still up in the trees”, I said, “As they used to live on the trees”, I said “You’ll have your tails back when the war’s finished, if you don’t displease Sergeant Jarvis and Sergeant Baldwin.  They’re the keeper of the tails, they’ve got the key.  They’re in preservative.” … They didn’t believe me, they just liked the fun.  They were lovely people.  I liked them, the Nigerians, very good.”

Jim reflects on the waste of war and how it changed his thinking about war.

“It was a waste, a waste of money, a waste of everything else.  Britain declared the war, they were going to get to Berlin within a certain time, never ever got there.

“I’ve had a good life.  I’ve seen a fair bit of the world and I’ve seen more than most people.  I’ve been around.”

 (Jim Stratton was interviewed in March 2006).

Jim Stratton died 8 September 2007