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On this day… 10 August

August 10, 2011

On this day, 10 August, 1909, Richard Frederick ‘Dick’ Kirwan was born, at Nurse Skinner’s Braidwood Cottage, 169 Charles Street, Perth.  Richard was the younger brother of my grandfather, Frank Greer Kirwan.  Their parents were Nicholas Wade Kirwan and Marion Hanna.  Marion died 20 December 1910, when Richard was 16 months old.

Richard was raised by his maternal grandmother, Rosina (Hammond) Hanna, along with his uncle, Frederick ‘Eric’ Hanna, who was about the same age, and the youngest of Marion’s siblings.

Richard led a fast paced, exciting and interesting life.  He was a dirt bike rider and speedway stunt rider.  In 1931, along with his first wife, he walked to Sydney and then to Brisbane, a journey of many thousands of miles, that took months to complete.  They didn’t walk all the way.  Richard was a mechanic and motorcycle rider, and he assisted motorists along the way, and they received money and/or rides in return, funding their journey and getting them there faster in the process. At the end of the journey they said they had walked only about 800 miles of the total distance.  The story made it to several newspapers, in Western Australia and Queensland.  You can read one account here.

When Richard and Eric were boys, they used to go to the hotel their Eric’s father ran, the Kurrajong Hotel, in Diorite King, in the Goldfields.  It had a dirt floor, and the boys used to collect gold dust that fell from miner’s clothes or out of their pockets.  Richard collected enough of this gold dust to eventually melt down to make a wedding band.  He used this ring to convince jewellers in London to give him an apprenticeship, and hence became a jeweller from that time on.

Richard enlisted in the … Battalion on the ….

The following is a story he wrote about his some of his experiences in the army.  Numbers in square brackets indicate my notes to follow:

Richard Frederick Kirwan’s Story – “Unassuming, Unsung & Undecorated”

I have made my application to the T.P.I. [1] and in a few days now I will have to front up.

I intend to tell them the facts about my tools.  No good telling them any lies because you can be called on for proof.  I am only going to tell them about my tools to get them on-side so that they won’t oppose me from the start.

No certainty of this, it will depend on the state of their livers on that particular day.

I had a certificate to say I was an Auto Engineer, and another saying I was a watchmaker and jeweller, both from London Tech., and I had a bag of emergency tools for auto-racing.  I had very little confidence in myself as a rifle-bayonet warrior, and less after the first enemy we encountered, the Italians who were equipped with sophisticated machine guns firing tracer and exploding round to watch where the tracers went and follow with explosive missiles to blow the enemy apart.  Also the Italians covered the country with anti-personnel mines and booby traps.  Even at this they were easy to capture.

I very soon got a motor cycle on which I could carry my pack of tools, as follows:

Commencing at Claremont Military Camp our first camp in 1939, where I had my tools and equipment locked in a Royal Show pavilion, after performing some crash stunts for the WA Royal Show.

So I stacked my tools into my pack.  Others had usual necessary toilet articles, pyjamas etc. I had my tools which weren’t much good as a pillow in jolting trucks etc., but I need tools.

Our first move was lucky.  Only 200 yards from the showgrounds to the railway station.  Entrained to Northam, where not even a kangaroo noticed a weary private stumbling under 60 lbs[2] of tools.  From Northam by train to Fremantle to board ship for Sydney’s Ingleburn.

No problems except – General Blamey in Melbourne decided he would review the West Australian contingent of his 6th Division.

We were lined up in single file right around the ship in marching order.  Full kit, including packs, haversacks, rifle, bayonet, kitchen sink and plug.

I could see Blamey start his inspection.  One, two, three men he passed without slowing. When he had passed about 200 men, I decided he was not going to talk to anyone and I relaxed.

The General stepped smartly and stopped squarely in front of me.  I snapped my heels together so smartly that the tools all clanked together in the pack.  The General looked a bit astounded but there was a wharfie walking along behind the line with the chain that goes on the gang-plank.

“What is your name and rank, soldier?” the big “G” said to me,

“Richard Kirwan, sir.  I am only a private.”

I was afraid he might need these details to court martial me before I had seen a shot fired in anger, to find out if I would be scared stiff or not.

“You’ll soon put that right, I think.”

Actually, I had said “Kirwan, Richard” the only bit of military form I knew about at that early stage.

This, I think, was what put the big G on my side for those last few kind words he had spoken to me.  Next day, our ship, the Duntroon, Landed us at Sydney’s Circular Quay on Friday evening.

Our commnaders decided to show us off by marching us the length of Sydney city to entrain for Ingleburn, where we were to be further trained in infantry lore.

The march became a horror-stretch, with 60 odd pounds of steel tools on my back, on concrete paving and steel rails for trams thrown in, in glaring heat.

But the girls of Sydney saw us marching with full packs, equipment and empty water bags, and decided to do something about it.  I think a handsome barmaid started it by bringing out a large schooner of beer (Sydney’s schooners are about a pint) to the nearest man in the ranks.

I don’t know how the news got ahead of us but the next hotel produced about 100 beautiful girls with a number of beers each for us.  The only drawback was my load of tools handicapped me in the desire to reach ’em.

By the time we got near the Town Hall the rest of the Battalion were pretty high on Sydney beer.  I and all the non-drinkers (both of them) and “Lightning” Richardson who was too slow to get out of his own road, were so done-over by this hot summer day that we were ready to give the country back to the blacks.

Just then a beautiful little girl raced at me from the footpath, fought her way through the W.A. soldiers, who tried to surround her, straight for me, bunged a parcel in my hands, kissed me, and went back the way she had come.

The bottle label had a telephone number on it.  I shared the contents with “Lightning” ad we danced on the Sydney Central Station with the rest.  I found room in my haversack for the empty bottle by dumping my pyjamas in the railway garbage bin.

I had to have the number to find out what a beautiful girl with an equally beautiful cold bottle of grog with her, could have been doing walking around so conveniently.  Turned out quite interesting.

Had to tell “Lightning” that I was sorry that I saved his life with my grog in George Street, Sydney, because he beat me for a promotion whih made him leader of our section, leaving me in second place.  This, I will never understand.  I, Dick “Crasher” [3] Kirwn who thought I was the fastest soldier in the world was beaten by “Lightning” Richardson who was too slow to get out of the road of about the first bullet that came his way.

Bardia was our first full battalion attack.

Before we went in the Quartermaster hadto give us an issue of rum.  In later attachks the main battle was to get the rum issue.

In the 10 minutes waiting for that first rum issue I said to Lightning that I did not know yet whtehr I was going to run 10 miles away from the first shell, bomb or rifle bullet that landed within a mile of me and he said,

“Christ, Crasher, that’s just what I’m thinking and I’ve told these blokes to follow you and do what you do.”

I then knew I was going to be all right.  I knew that I could not resist doing a performance, even if I only had 9 men in my gallery. So I went in.

The battle commenced.  The crew of an anti-tank gun mounted on an open Australian Ford truck got all seven Italian tanks using armour piercing shells, leaving us nothing to do but take thousands of prisoners.

I had decided that I was going to get a motor cycle to carry tools on.

My opportunity came when an Italian officer decided he was going to put a stop to this taking of his men a s prisoners.  He mounted a motor-cycle, and he knew the Gazelle track that came from the Bardia water hole towards where we had started our attack.

He had “money-box” grenades on his belt a nd a biretta pistol in his right hand which killed his one chance of being effective, because first, he had to be able to ride his motor cycle to come against me.  I saw him coming. I picked the narrowest part of the track near me, put a pack right there and lay on the ground behind it, with my rifle complete with bayonet pointing at the oncoming rider (?)

.  When he saw how I was set up for him he decided to abandon his whole plan and go back to his officer’s mess at Bardia.  But, as he was unable to do a point-to-point racing turn he decided to turn the machine around by hand, which he couldnt seem to do with the Biretta in his hand.  So he threw the pistol away.  About 10 seconds after he threw the biretta away, he screamed like a startled banshee as I pricked his behind with my bayonet.

I turned him over to a member of our section who only had a few hundred prisoners with instruction to shoot him quickly if he tried any tricks, and I went back to the motor cycle to see if it was efficient.  It had to take me and my tools to a suitable position to be made mechanically sound.  I was now expected to do this.

It was a very good special machine and served me perfectly until I was transferred to a newly formed L.A.D. (Light Aid Detachment) and given a 10 ton recovery truck full of tools and spare parts.  With this I was able to recover vehicles that had copped a shell or bomb, etc., but that is another story, which i have dined out on.

Incidentally, the Itie Officer-prisoner was quite a good boy, after I had refrained from pushing the bayonet right through him.

T H E   E N D

[1] T.P.I – Totally and Permanently Incapacitated ex-Servicemen and Women

[2] 60 lbs = 60 pounds = 27.215 kg.

[3] “Crasher Kirwan” was Dick’s ‘stage’ name when he was performing as a stunt rider and racing speedway.

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