Thursday, February 15, 2018

Northwestern campaign Europe 1945


Bede's photo of the German coastal fortifications along the Atlantic sea wall, 1945

The piece below is a first draft of a scene from my book about the life of Bede Smith

Oldenburg, Germany, May 1945  


In early April, the Fourth Division advanced into northwestern Germany. A campaign of targeted bombing by the Allies cleared the way for them to seize the medieval garrison town of Oldenburg. Meanwhile, less than 300 miles to the northeast, in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the streets of Berlin, the Nazi leadership imploded, and on the 30th of April Hitler put a gun to his head.

Events moved swiftly towards Germany's surrender, until the guns fell silent on the 5th of May. Bede was 10 miles from Oldenburg when the news came through of Victory in Europe (VE), and the celebrations began. For him, it had been 276 long days since he'd set foot on the four-mile stretch of grey sand in Normandy.

Several days after VE Day, Bede entered the smoke haze of the officers' mess, the notes of Lili Marlene still ringing in his head from the previous night's entertainment. He wandered over to the notice board and stood, arms folded, scanning the announcements. One flyer outlined the three options available post-VE: soldiers could remain in Europe in the Army of Occupation, volunteer for the Canadian Pacific Force, or apply for a discharge. While Bede was examining the fine print, a separate headline suddenly caught his attention – "Australians Land in Borneo." He adjusted the glasses on his nose and bent lower to read the details. The news item reported a military landing at Tarakan, an insignificant island near Borneo, where the Japanese were still dug in. His middle brother Noel would be there with the Australian Eighth Division. And younger brother Kevin, as far as he knew, was serving in the Solomon Islands. For them, the ordeal continued.

Bede's thoughts were interrupted by a burst of raucous laughter coming from a corner-table in the mess. Despite the sore heads from days of celebration, nothing daunted their spirits. He sauntered over to join the group. The men had copies of the Canadian Forces newspaper, The Maple Leaf, spread out on the table.

'Have you seen this?' his colleague said, holding up the front cover of The Maple Leaf Victory edition. One word filled the full length of the front page – "KAPUT."

'Yes,' Bede laughed. 'The cover's a beaut!' He pulled out a chair and sat down to join the men.

'What else have you found out?' asked Bede
'Some more information about volunteering for the Pacific.'
'You going to volunteer?' Bede asked.
'I'm not sure yet. Are you?'
Bede hesitated. 'I haven't decided. No one can say we haven't done our bit.'
'You've got a wife and child at home. You're off the hook, so to speak.'
'That's true,' Bede said. 'Still, the job's only half done.'

His colleague reached into his uniform pocket, tapped out a few cigarettes and offered them around the table. Bede reached over for one and dug into his pocket for a match.

'Some of us are applying for leave,' his colleague said. 'Going to try and see Paris while we can.'
Bede's eyes brightened. 'That sounds terrific!'

He took a short puff on his cigarette. He'd need to make his decision about the Pacific soon. How would Marg react if he volunteered? All this time in the Europe campaign amounted to a 20-month separation from his family. He'd missed out on Pat's first birthday, and her second birthday. His daughter wouldn't know him when he returned home.

Bede worried about his parents in Sydney who had endured the last five years with fortitude. James and Alice Smith had three sons in the military. As well as Bede, their middle son Noel had served in the North African campaign and was now in Borneo. Youngest son Kevin was a pharmacist with 17th Field ambulance in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Their daughter Nora worked for the government in Canberra, leaving youngest child Joan (Kevin's twin) as the only one at home.

Towards the end of May, Bede's Division relocated south to Almelo, a town in the eastern Netherlands, where they helped distribute food to the starving population. For the Dutch, after the famine and the flooding of parts of their country, the peace was sweet indeed. At a victory parade in The Hague on the 21st of May, Queen Wilhelmina was welcomed back from exile. Dutch red, white and blue flags flapped in the breeze, and the Canadians were hailed as heroes.

After breakfast on the 25th of May, Bede marched across the quadrangle and joined a queue of soldiers filing across the barracks' yard in Almelo. He stood with the morning sun warming his back, as the line inched slowly towards the entrance to a large canvas tent. Behind the perimeter fence, a flock of starlings roosting in a tree chirped loudly, reaching a celebratory crescendo.

When Bede reached the head of the queue, he paused at the entrance to wait his turn. A dozen officers were lined up in a row inside the tent, seated at makeshift tables, each with a pile of papers in front of him. The pug-faced lieutenant at the next available post looked up, raised his hand and summoned him forward. Bede sat opposite the lieutenant and handed over his completed questionnaire.

'I'm volunteering for the Pacific,' Bede said, confirming his intentions.
'Good to hear, Captain,' he said. 'We're short of dentists.'
'So I'll be in the Sixth Infantry?'
'Correct. All volunteers from Europe will be assigned to the Sixth.'
'What happens next?' Bede said.
'You'll be demobbed and sent back to Canada. Then you'll start training for jungle warfare. Very different from what you've been through here.'
'Yes. I have an inkling.' It was not a welcome prospect either – the heat, the rugged terrain, the tropical diseases.
'So, how long before we sail?'
'It could be a while yet, Captain. Word is, they're having trouble locating enough carriers to ship you guys back across the Atlantic.'

Bede's face broke into a broad smile, buoyed by the news. Chances were he'd be in Europe a while longer – time for a trip to Paris.

More than 60,000 volunteered for the Canadian Pacific Force. Bede spent another six weeks in Europe and visited Paris. He also inspected the remains of the massive German fortifications along the Atlantic Sea Wall. The beaches were still covered in barbed wire and discarded military hardware and the once palatial seaside hotels remained boarded up.

Bede sailed back to Canada, on the troopship SS Pasteur and disembarked in Halifax on the 7th of July, 1945. There was much talk among the soldiers on board as to how much longer Japan could hold out. He prayed that this next stage of combat could be averted.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Family History Writing Challenge 2018 starts Feb 1


Every February for the last several years Lynn Palermo has run the Family History Writing Challenge.

Lynn Palermo, who is also known as The Armchair Genealogist   sets out some good reasons to join the challenge:

Why Should You Join the Challenge? 
•    Do you have a desire to turn your ancestor’s dry documents into exciting stories? 
•    Have you procrastinated for far too long?
•    Do you want to start but not sure how to begin?
•    Have you been writing sporadically never finishing a story?
•    Do you need to polish those stories making them more interesting, less of a yawn?
•    Do you need that nudge to finish your stories and finally publish?
•    Are you overwhelmed and need some support in getting started?

I'm so glad I stumbled across Lynn's Family History Writing Challenge  several years ago. It has helped me complete two family history books. I keep coming back and have done the Challenge three times now.

This time around I will be writing about my father, Bede Smith and I have several posts about him already on this blog. I've been working on my book about Bede for about 18 months and hope to finish this year.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A stranger in town

Henry Lawson in 1900. Portrait by John Longstaff in the Art Gallery of NSW collection
A stranger in town

In the early days, Leeton was accustomed to welcoming outsiders. But one stranger who arrived in the district in 1916, attracted particular attention.

My father Bede was only seven at the time. He and his mother Alice were on the main street of town, when a curious disheveled man approached from the opposite direction. He was tall, thin and stooped over a cane. His coat hung loosely on his back and a baggy felt hat covered his head. A drooping, handlebar moustache extended out beyond his jaw line.

'Mum,' said Bede. 'Look at that man's huge whiskers!'
'Sssht, Bede. Don't stare.'

Bede's eyes locked onto the stranger's penetrating gaze. A pungent cloud of tobacco smoke enveloped them as he passed. Alice remember the man from her home town of Gulgong, but he didn't recognise Alice.

'Son, that's the famous author, Henry Lawson. He lives in a farmhouse by the river, down on the Daalbata Road.' Bede turned to look back at the faltering figure receding down the dirt road.

Henry Lawson's friends from Sydney had helped him relocate to Leeton, a dry town, where he could get off the grog and pick up the pen again. Henry stayed two years in Leeton from 1916 to 1917. Among the orange groves by the Murrumbidgee River, his writing bore fruit, producing important new works: Leeton Town and A Letter from Leeton.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Family History Writing Challenge

Bede Smith in 1909.. The ancestor I will write about in the Family History Challenge

Every February for the last several years Lynn Palermo has run the Family History Writing Challenge.

I'm so glad I stumbled across Lynn's Family History Writing Challenge several years ago. I keep coming back and have done the Challenge three times now.

It really doesn't matter what stage you are at – whether you are starting out or are more experienced at writing family history, you will benefit. It's all about setting goals, staying focussed and sharing results with a friendly bunch of fellow writers.


This time around I will be writing about my father, Bede Smith. There is a sad story behind the baby photo in that Bede's twin brother died at birth. His mother, Alice Smith was living in rural New South Wales where medical care was not close by. Bede survived and went on to live a fascinating life which I hope to capture in my writing.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Bede in the Canadian Army 1943

Capt Bede Smith, middle row seated on the left. Photo probably taken in the UK in 1943 or 1944


 The piece below is a first draft of a scene from my book about the life of Bede Smith

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Bound for Europe, 1943 


On 5 September 1943, Bede left the army transit camp in Windsor, Ontario and travelled by train to Halifax, where a carrier waited to transport the Canadian Fourth Armoured Division across the Atlantic. The SS Queen Elizabeth, had been stripped of its luxury fittings and converted into a troop ship. Repainted battleship grey, the modern ocean liner ran the Atlantic at high speed, zig-zagging to avoid encounters with enemy warships and U-boats. There were 13,000 personnel on board for the crossing. With so many troops, all needing to be berthed and fed, the operation was handled with military precision. Bede, like all the others, wore a coloured label indicating in which zone he was berthed. The ship's dining room held 2,000 and meals were served around the clock. No sooner had the last breakfast been served, than lunch began. After lunch the queues formed again for the first evening meal.

Six days after leaving Halifax, the ship landed safely in the United Kingdom. The invasion of Europe was imminent, but no one knew exactly when or where it would occur. All military intelligence was shrouded in secrecy. As it turned out, the Fourth Division would remain in the UK for another 10 months, undergoing rigorous training in an atmosphere of mounting tension.

Upon their arrival in Southampton, the Canadians were transported to a busy military camp in the town of Bordon, East Hampshire in the south of England. The once quiet country roads around Bordon growled with the flow of military vehicles coming and going. Situated in a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and lush green pastures, Bordon offered the troops some recreational opportunities off-base. Whenever he had the chance, Bede took a pass which allowed him to walk into the local town.

More than a month after arriving in Bordon, Bede was returning to barracks by foot along a winding country road. It was harvest time and the haystacks, piled high in the stubbled fields, were touched bronze by the setting sun. In the calm of the late afternoon, the only sound was his own footfall and the plaintive bleating of a lamb. Bede stopped along the road to inspect a flock of black-faced sheep curiously eyeing him from behind the hedgerow. Just then, true to form, a soft drizzle began to fall. The road became shiny and slick with oil residue – time to hurry back to barracks. He quickened his pace.

All of a sudden, came a loud rumble from behind. A vehicle bore down on him. There was a screech of brakes. Bede had no time to react before a truck loomed up and flung him side-ways into the ditch. He hit the ground with a thud, doubling over in pain.

A few yards up ahead the Bedford truck pulled over, its engine still running. A cloud of acrid smoke wafted back and Bede felt himself starting to retch. The driver leapt down from the truck cabin and ran back to where Bede sat dazed on the ground.

'Bloody hell. Sorry, mate. I didn't see you. That bend in the road. Are you OK?'
Bede looked down. The wool of his khaki army jacket was torn at the elbow. He tried to move and sit up, but winced in pain.
'Damn. It's my arm,' Bede said, a sharp tone to his voice.
His hand and arm had taken the full brunt of the fall. Blood congealed around a wound on his hand which was dirty with grit and gravel.
Bede tried to flex his hand.
'Ouch! Christ!'

The truck driver moved in closer. He was a pale, freckled young lad, with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He stared down at Bede and flicked his cigarette on the ground.
'Blimey. You're as white as a sheet.'
Bede sat up and moved his arm and shoulder again.
'I hope it's not broken,' he said, trying to remain civil.

Bede felt like he'd done ten rounds in the boxing ring and was down for the count. Finally he pulled himself up to his full height, shook himself off and straightened his uniform. The pants were soaked through from the muddy ditch.

At this point the driver, observing his rank, started up again.
'I'm dreadfully sorry, Captain.'
'Look. I'm OK.' This lad was starting to annoy him now.
'I'll take you to Bordon Camp.'
'That would make sense,' Bede said, a slight tone of sarcasm in his voice.

In the dwindling light they drove back to the army base. The driver attempted to make conversation, but Bede was occupied with his own thoughts. The injury weighed heavily on him. Some years previously, he had hurt himself playing cricket. Since then, he'd been plainly aware that his hands were his lifeline. Any accident could derail his future career in dentistry. And he hadn't even seen action in this war. He tried to put such bleak thoughts aside and remain calm.

It was dark by the time they saw the lights of Bordon Camp and drove through the security gates. Bede directed the driver to the front door of the hospital, where he hauled himself down from the truck and went indoors to find the duty doctor.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Harvest Past Tense Group Anthology 2017


Our writing group recently published an anthology of members' writing. The title is Harvest:  Anthology of the Past Tense Writing Group at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre. Below is one of my memoir pieces that appeared in Harvest.

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Visits to Labrador

Our visits to Labrador are always on a Sunday when no one else is around. On these occasions, Dad drives into town and parks opposite in the grounds of the colonial hospital. Labrador – a strange name for a building. Mum says it's also the name of a dog that lives on a rocky island off the coast of Canada. But my Labrador is the four-storey terrace building where Dad has his dental surgery.

Sometimes, we see a scruffy old lady with a pile of canvas bags, camped outside Labrador. Dressed in sand shoes, a full-length dark coat and a green tennis shade, she scares me, especially when she shouts out strange words.

'She's speaking Shakespeare,' Dad says. 'She went to the university and lost her marbles.'

I hold my breath as I run past her, to avoid breathing in her smelly old socks.

The building has an old-fashioned cage lift of ornate iron work. After we press the black metal button, the lift comes clanging down from the top floor and shudders to a stop at the ground floor. You pull down on the iron door handle and step inside an open cage that ascends slowly, past all the other tenants, their doors locked on Sunday.

Once inside the surgery, we always make a circuit around the benches, picking up the tiny brown pottery jars and fingering the neatly laid out rows of spikey instruments. Dad lets us mix the amalgam for the fillings, putting the liquid mercury into a china bowl and crushing it with the pestle. The mercury breaks into tiny little droplets that dance around the bottom of the bowl, until he adds some extra ingredient to form a silvery lump.

I climb into the dentist's chair, like queen of the realm, while my sister pumps the foot pedal to send me upwards. The drill has a shrill, noisy motor and Dad ties a ball of cotton wool onto the rotating wire and tell us to 'watch the rabbit going around'. One Sunday I need a filling and Dad asks me to be the guinea pig to try out his new drill. He has just acquired a thrilling new-fangled model that makes a fast whizzing noise and sprays water at the same time. It's all over so quickly. I am always encouraged to be very brave and to this day my dentist can't believe how calm I am in the chair.

Then, one day Dad breaks the news that Labrador has been bought by the bank and is to be bulldozed. In 1958, the site was subsumed for a massive commercial development in the heart of Sydney. Out of the rubble of old Labrador, rose the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of Australia at the corner of Macquarie Street and Martin Place. The eccentric old lady we used to see outside the building, turned out to be the well-known eccentric, Bea Miles, whose life was depicted by Kate Grenville in her novel, Lilian's Story.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Pack Your Baggs, my family history book

Pack your Baggs front cover


Finally, my family history book Pack your Baggs: a family's journey from Newfoundland to Australia has been published. All up the venture took me two and a half years, from the time I learned about creative non-fiction in February 2015 until September 2017. In fact it took longer if I include the time spent in research. Along the way I set up my own imprint, Pawlett Press, and also started this blog. The book is a family history saga, which covers four generations of the Baggs family who originated in Newfoundland.

Copies of my book have been sent to the State Library of Western Australia, National Library of Australia, Library and Archives Canada and the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre.

Here are some lines from the Foreword

"In 1874 my great-great-grandfather, a cod fisherman named Joseph Baggs, boarded a ferry and sailed away from his home in Newfoundland, which was then a British colony off the north Atlantic coast of Canada. He was 54, which would have been considered quite old at that time. Joseph's wife and seven children accompanied him as immigrants to Toronto, Canada. What a courageous decision that would have been! Looking back from our vantage point in the 21st century, it is hard for us to conceive of how close knit life was in an isolated fishing village in rocky Newfoundland, and of the bravery entailed in leaving that life behind. To my eyes, Joseph's journey of emigration was nothing short of heroic.
My book tells the story of Joseph and the three generations that followed him from Newfoundland to Australia in the years 1819 to 2006. There is a chapter devoted to one ancestor in each generation: Joseph Baggs (1819 – 1898), Edward George Baggs (1848 – 1923), Herbert George Baggs (1885 – 1946), and Margaret (Marg) Anne Baggs (1915 – 2006)."