For a short time the officer commanding the Tobruk garrison was General Freyberg VC, the most decorated and successful high-ranking officer in the Allied forces. He had earned his VC during the first World War and had subsequently earned two DSOs. He would eventually acquire two more DSOs, a Croix de Guerre with Palms, etc, etc, receive five Mentions, be wounded nine times, receive a hereditary peerage and a GCMG (God Calls Me God).
The war record of his beloved New Zealand Division was already legendary; his men’s affection for him reaching a state of idolatry. He was already a living myth. We concluded that he was only in Tobruk for rest. Perhaps convalescing from a recent wound. Otherwise, surely he would be with his Division.
It was well proven Army lore that Australian troops were unable to function at full efficiency unless reasonable supplies of beer were available; tea being only a remotely considered substitute. There was soon going to be trouble because supplies of beer were running perilously low.
Things came to a head when the NAAFI, which supplied this necessary stimulant to the war effort, had to admit that the cupboard was bare – but a shipment was expected shortly.
The next night the vessel arrived, but during the morning ten o’clock raid a bomb went straight down the funnel and sank it. I was on the other side of the harbour at the time and saw it happen.
Whether by coincidence or penal intent some two hundred Jerries were captured, brought to the dockside and ordered to sit down in neat rows with their hands on their heads. It was approaching four o’clock. Two Australians armed with Tommy-guns stood by and informed their captives that anyone who stood up during the forthcoming air raid would be shot.
I had my camera at the time and took a few frames of this most unusual form of retribution. Later I learned that in spite of their proximity to prime targets no German moved, nor were the sentries injured; the Luftwaffer devoted its entire attention to the shipping in the harbour.
At the four o’clock air raid warning I took my guitar with me into the courtyard shelter as usual, and soon had the lads singing. As we trooped out after the all clear, a red-tabbed major emerged from the Headquarters building and came smartly towards me. I stood still, fingers crossed since it was obviously me whom he was approaching.
When he arrived I came to attention. "Your name please, Sergeant?"
"Sergeant Thwaites, sir," slinging up a salute for good measure.
"Right, sergeant, come with me. The General wants to see you."
The General. My God!
My mind raced. By now of course I had learned how to make life easier for myself and friends whether by scrounging extra items from the quartermaster’s store or the illicit acquisition of close-season rations; a skill acquired by any full sergeant worthy of his stripes. But nothing – or very little; nothing surely, more than of wrist-slapping magnitude. Absolutely nothing that would have involved a general’s attention ...
I followed the major upstairs to enter a large bare room with windows overlooking the harbour.
Near the window stood a plain trestle table. Behind the table sat General Freyberg.
The major led me up to the general. "Sergeant Thwaites, sir," he announced, while I produced hopefully the finest salute in military history.
The general stood up, came round to the front of the table and sat casually on the edge with one foot on the floor. "Tom, here," he said, nodding at the major, "tells me you keep the lads singing in the shelter during raids."
"Well, sergeant, y’know, it gets a bit lonely up here at times and we were wondering if you’d give us some of your songs," pointing at the guitar I was still holding.
"Certainly, sir. But, ahem . . . they’re a bit rough, you know."
The general leaned forward and put one hand on my shoulder. "Laddie," he said, "I was singing fucking army songs before you were born."
Well, that was good enough, for then followed what became one of my most treasured memories of the war.
I probably started with Fuck ‘em All, the British Army’s most popular song and then ... soon we were all three singing it, followed by old favourites like The Good Ship Venus, Venal Vera, The Ball at Kerrimuire and many more I can no longer remember.
What the administration staff in the adjacent offices must have thought I cannot imagine. Were all VCs a law unto themselves, I wondered, or perhaps they’re expected to exhibit a mild form of eccentricity.
For example, when General Montgomery met the New Zealand Division for the first time, he complained to Freyberg that his men didn’t appear to do much saluting. "Oh, that’s all right," replied the general. "You just wave to them, and they’ll wave back."
Eventually I finished my repertoire and had to admit, "That’s about it, sir."
"Thank you sergeant, I enjoyed that. What about you, Tom?"
"Bloody marvellous, sir," said Tom.
A pause . . ."Do you think we can spare him one, Tom?" asked the general.
"I think so, sir," and from his tunic pocket, Tom produced a key and went to the door of a huge steel safe set flush with the wall. Slowly the door swung open and there, sitting on a shelf were five bottles of Tennant’s lager. He took out three, uncapped one which he gave to the general, gave one to me and uncapped one for himself.
I thanked him, saluted them both and turned to leave when the general spoke.
"Sergeant," he said, "I think it might be safer if you were to drink that up here with us."
Which I did.