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When war hits home

SEVENTY YEARS ON: Maurie Gerdtz reflects on the time when he was part of the defence of Darwin in February, 1942. Picture: DEAN LAWSON

Maurie Gerdtz, 89, considers the pattern bombing of 54 high-level aircraft as his most frightening experience of a Japanese attack on Darwin in February, 1942.
“It’s the one thing that scared me the most,” he said.
“It was the second night and our anti-aircraft guns couldn’t get up that high and there just this feeling of anticipation. You could hear the bombs whistling down before they exploded. The saying was it that was always the one you didn’t hear that got you.”
Despite manning an ancient World War One Hotchkiss machine gun complete with only 17 rounds, Maurie, a teenager at the time, never had the opportunity to fire a shot back in anger during the historic Darwin defence.
But as a member of the 19th machine gun battalion he vividly remembers the time when a large contingent of Wimmera soldiers found themselves amid the mayhem.
He reflected on a time of national anxiety as he looked forward for a trip to Darwin with fellow ‘defender’ Laurie Schmidt for 70th anniversary commemoration services.
The pair will join a Wimmera contingent travelling to the Northern Territory today as Horsham Darwin Defenders committee members and Wimmera schools and students prepare for a service at Horsham College’s I. O. Maroske Hall.
The Wimmera-Mallee and in particular Horsham district retains an historic connection to the events that sent shockwaves through Australia on February 19, 1942.
As waves of Japanese bomber and fighter aircraft unloaded their deadly cargo on an ill-prepared Darwin, an inadequately quipped defence force defended and prepared for what many suspected was imminent invasion.
Among the defenders were almost 1000 Wimmera militia soldiers, many who on New Year’s Day less than two months earlier had crammed with family and friends on Horsham Railway Station platform.
“We weren’t trained at all,” Maurie recalled.
“I had five rounds of ammunition for my rifle and was in charge of an old World War One machine gun which was designed for three people to operate. I had only had one lesson on how to use it but I had never fired it.
“I was based with the machine gun at headquarters near the edge of the RAAF strip and we hadn’t even dug the trenches and were exposed on top of the ground when the first attack happened.
“I was standing up with the gun and I can remember our commanding officer saying ‘forget about the gun son and get some cover’. He was right, the gun was useless. I may as well have had a shanghai.

  • Get the full story in the February 16, 2012 edition of The Weekly Advertiser.

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Posted on Feb 15 2012

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