What can one say about Puckapunyal? The army has had a presence there since it was first used as a mobilisation centre in WW1, then various uses until it was officially raised as Puckapunyal Camp in 1939. As well as Australian units the USA’s 41st Infantry battalion trained there in WW2. It is now home to the School of Armour, Artillery, Transport and other’s. It has a Tank Museum, which is a much better setup than in 1969. The first link will take you to a photo and spec sheet of the vehicle I trained on as a gunner/radio operator, and the second link will show the pic and spec sheet for what I served on in Vietnam.
I will however put up a couple of pictures of yours truly with his ultimate big boys toys. Puckapunyal or Pucka as it is colloquially known is an aboriginal word and has four different meanings. ‘Valley of the four winds’ is one of them, and in winter 3 out of the 4 winds are bloody cold. The nearest town is Seymour, 10 kilometres away and it is 115 klm north of Melbourne. More on ‘The old Aunty’ later.
Ben and I stepped out of the Land Rover sent to pick us up from Seymour and stood there like a pair of yokels. We each had our kitbags, with slouch hat attached to it proudly bearing our new hat badge and wearing our recruit berets with the spare badge. A short, tubby bad-tempered Corporal stormed towards us yelling abuse and waving his arms wildly. Stopping at my kit bag he ripped my slouch hat off the bag, threw it to down and proceeded to stomp it into the ground. His face had taken on a purplish hue and spittle flew from his mouth. I stood there gobsmacked while questions paraded themselves through my mind: Who is this idiot? Why hasn’t someone come out to protect us from this? This is my gear, why is he stomping it?
Hat badge of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps.
“Excuse me corporal, you’ve ruined my hat.” – “It’s not your hat, it never will be as long as you are in the Armoured Corps. We wear black berets, see this?” He took his off and shoved it in my face, “This is what you wear.” – “Err but we only just got here, nobody told us.” My protestations fell on idiotic, deaf ears. First stop, the Quartermaster store where he worked. We received our bedding, black beret and Ben received a pair of GP boots. They were THE boots to wear, everybody else had them, not this little black duck though. I took size 10 1/2 and they’d run out. So they gave me similar to what I had at Kapooka, only they had a rubber tread on the bottom. I showed them up a few weeks later and bought my own in Melbourne. Aside from the jumped up Napoleon of Nutters everybody else seemed almost normal.
The school was quite widespread and situated next to the 1st Armoured Regiment, they had the Centurion, a British tank and at about 52 tons a tad heavy. Naturally we had arrived before they had enough troops for a course. Lee Bonser, the Squadron Sergeant Major, and a gentleman of the highest order sent us over to the driver training hangar to help change the tracks on a Centurion. First you needed to undo the nut on the pin that holds the track links together. All the tools seemed to have been made for the Incredible Hulk. A long extension bar on the wrench, attach it to the nut and away we went. It eventually came off, then you had to knock the pin out and roll out the track, undo and replace X amount of links. Puff Puff then put it back together. The walk was long and tiring back to the barracks and I made my mind up, Cavalry was the place for me, in a wheeled vehicle.
After my Herculean efforts with the Tank I found myself on kitchen duties for a week. Nobody hassled you in there, the hardest part was keeping the sparrows out of the sugar bowls. The mess hall resembled a squat hangar with a high ceiling, sparrows would make their way in through the louvres and hop around on the tables looking for crumbs. After meals you would race around swatting at the little blighters with a tea towel and put the lids back on. I have to say it felt good to be there, things seemed quite relaxed, there wasn’t the endless square bashing of Kapooka. Your time was your own after you had done your duties, and you could wear civilian clothes. Bliss. The canteen had the best snooker tables I have ever seen, set in a real room designed for them. The only drawback to the place was, the School, it was situated about a mile away from the barracks. Downhill. Going wasn’t too bad, coming back felt a little harsh at the end of the day.
Yours truly posing manfully next to one of the static exhibits ( Landing Vehicle Tracked, or Alligator ) that were scattered around the camp. If I’m looking a little porky it’s because I have a jumper on underneath my tank suit and yes I’m wearing my black beret.
A little about the weather, whenever old soldiers gather and Pucka is mentioned the weather comes up immediately. Melbourne is situated at the top end of Port Phillip Bay which is open to icy blasts all the way from Antarctica, then they make their way straight to Pucka. Whoever decided to set the camp there must have spent their formative years in an icebox. Remember, although I came from England I’d spent 6 years in sunny Queensland. I was acclimatised to the sub tropical delights of that state. Now there are frosts and there are Pucka frosts. The barracks are situated at the extreme end of the camp, then you have something resembling tundra stretching out into the wilds. To see it from your centrally heated room of a morning as white as snow, well it was something else. To stand on the road in 3 ranks waiting for the Corporal to show up, freezing your vitals off is really something else. I put a skivvy on under my tank suit and found myself in deep poo, it wasn’t regimental. I know but it was warm. We had NATO jackets though we couldn’t wear them in the class rooms, don’t go thinking modern school type rooms. These were WW2 vintage huts, they shook when the wind blew, which then found its sneaky way in.
Back to the frosts. A few of the blokes had their own cars along with a lot of friends without transport. I’ll call this character Scott, of Antarctica explorer fame. He had an early 50’s model Holden sedan with the split windscreen. He parked his pride and joy next to the barrack block and was smart enough to drape a blanket over the bonnet so the engine stayed warm. All well and good but he hadn’t put one over the windscreen, which looked like an ice skating rink on its side. Scott didn’t think things through very well. Racing inside he came back out with a bucket and stuck it under the tap, nothing. The water pipes were frozen. Then he was hit with a brainwave, the cold crisp air must have rewired the neurons in his brain. With a trooper holding an arm each they helped him up and onto the bonnet of his car. Standing there shivering and shaking, feet slipping back and forth he pulled up the zipper on his suit. ( They zipped both ways, I’ll leave that joke right there.) With trembling hands he revealed his penis, how could you expose your best mate to those temperatures? Then he began to urinate on the windscreen. The crack echoed around the block along with hoots of laughter as poor old Scott’s windscreen shattered and fell onto the front seat. Human urine comes out of the body at 37 degrees Celsius, the windscreen would have been, ohh, about -7 degrees Celsius. It wasn’t rocket science Scott.
Lightning and Radios. To be an armoured crew member you were also trained as a radio operator. This involved learning the phonetic alphabet, Alpha, Bravo and so on. How to erect antennas in trees and strange places and the intricacies of the different radio sets used in the Corps. On this day we were learning how to tune the antenna on the radio fitted to the Saladin. I can’t for the life of me remember its type or name, what I do know is you had to tune the unit for the antenna, and the corresponding knob on the radio at the same time. Simple really. It was a dark and stormy day, about 9.30 am and the Sergeant instructor called out, “Come on you lot, morning tea time.” A scrape of chairs, berets grabbed and a mad rush for the door. Not me, I had been having trouble fine tuning mine. All the radios were set out on a bench running the length of the hut. Every antenna cable ran from the radios to the huge antenna stuck on the roof. “Come on Smith, I need a cuppa.” – “Yeah, I’m…” BANG!
For a moment in time I became a conductor, neither bus, rail or orchestral but a lightning conductor. It hurt. The world turned into a big flash of light, my head hurt, my fingertips felt like they were on fire ( they actually were ) and I could smell hair burning, mine. I remember turning around and seeing the Sarge standing there, staring open-mouthed, then, “Stop fart arsing around and get out.” The tips of my fingers and thumbs had a small brown hole in the end with a tiny black centre and they were very hot. My right eyebrow smouldered and I felt as if I’d been hit in the head with a bat. Care factor by staff? Nil. My input to the situation as I lurched and staggered towards the canteen, “Duh, uhh, snark, wha?” I did recover, sort of.
A little aside here, when I worked at the woollen mill I assisted the manager to take a bolt of cloth across the road to another section from the weaving room where I worked. We ran back across the road, reached the weaving room door and lightning struck a power pole a foot or two away from us. We were wrapped in a huge sheet of electricity, picked up and hurled through the open door to land in a heap on a pile of discarded wool waste. Driving a tractor across the paddock on the ex father in-laws cattle property, zap, bang a bolt of lightning hit the front of the tractor. The world turned blue and the bolt was as wide as the tractor. In the police, I may have mentioned this in a Policeman’s Lot. I was sitting at the front counter typing away at the computer when lightning hit the tiny substation on poles outside. A bolt of lightning came through the computer screen, hit me in the chest and flung me and my chair back through and into the Sergeant’s office. Since then I have been known to stand in the yard while storms rage, shake my fist at the heavens and cry, “C’mon Thor, Zeus ya big pussy’s is that all you can do? You’re all miserable, lousy bloody shots.”
They might, one day. That’s enough rambling for this week, next week there’ll be some anecdotes about gunnery, more odd barbers and the ‘sinful delights’ of old Melbourne. Cheers, Laurie.
Next week: Gunnery and Melbourne.