How do you learn to operate various weapons to defend yourself?


Go to the US of A and drop in at a corner store and buy some “artillery”?  Or join a rifle club and pay for all your training and ammunition?

There is another way – Join the Army.  Nearly every country in Europe had conscription.  Two years, that’s what you had to give to your country in the military before they allowed you to go abroad.  It started when you were eighteen and was postponed if you studied at university.  But my dad, somehow, got me exempted and I obtained a passport to leave the country without serving.  I never asked my dad how he managed it.


Australians defeated two referenda on conscription (in 1916 and again in 1917.)  Why agree to conscription when the country’s citizens supplied enough bodies and casualties to feed the British war machine voluntarily?


In 1958, this senior “Boy Scout” decided to join the CMF - Citizen’s Military Forces, 9th Battalion, I Section, at the age of 30, just to learn the drill.  Because of my educational standard I was offered a commission in the Pay Corp.  Not for me, I wanted to learn things the hard way, in the field.


First of all they put me through the indignity of something called “small arms parade” and issued me with a .303 rifle, first issued to British troops just before the Boer war.  Very shortly after I joined we had our annual camp at Greenbank (now a suburb of Brisbane) where at last I got my first bit of shooting practice.  You start at 800m from the target in a prone position, then run 200m forward and shoot from a kneeling position.  You keep going forward and each time the shooting position gets more difficult. By the time you get to 200m you have to shoot from the standing position and the target looks as big as the side of a house, but for some reason it keeps moving from side to side and becomes very difficult to aim at.


Shortly after joining we departed for Canungra JTC (Jungle Training Centre) which is an international training centre for jungle warfare.  This is where I had a chance to fire a BREN gun (BR for a Czech city - Brno, EN English city – Enfield), followed by the old .303 rifle, then an EY rifle (a strengthened .303 rifle with a cup on top that houses a grenade and fires like a mortar), and lastly an Owen gun – a beautiful little toy which fires quickly and inaccurately.


I frightened a whole platoon of my infantry mates on the BREN gun range.  The Army did not bother to instruct me how to use it.  Somehow I just had it in my arms and was told to ”Go and shoot”.  As it happened I did not know what to squeeze, how to hold it and generally had no clue. I turned to the left and yelled to the sergeant: “How do you handle this thing”.  I must have also moved the instrument to the left (not down) as a result of which the whole column of soldiers dropped to the ground.  You can imagine what kind of an answer I received.


The next range was for mortar firing.  Somehow, instinctively, I worked out that I have to aim for the sky about half way to the target – and bingo –bulls’ eye.  “Where did you learn that”?  Another lesson was not to lend your rifle (never call it a gun) to anybody.  One of my mates asked me to lend him my rifle.  He claimed that his was not working too well.  The lazy soldier just did not want to clean his rifle.  I did not realise how much more cleaning needs to be done after an extra 10 shots have been fired.  In the JTC we had field exercises with live ammunition buzzing around our ears ensuring we kept our heads down.


Various marches produced 2 inch blisters on my heels, for which the only cure was methylated spirits.  That sure slowed me down a bit.  Marching at moonlight also showed up a smart looking corporal, who was very good at shouting orders and maintaining a crisp step,but looking very uneasy when leading a night compass march.  I think he nearly had an accident.


As an OR (the lowest rank in the army = Other Ranks) I produced a problem for the organisation.  I was the only OR aged over 21.  The others were conscripts from a previous intake, all of whom would have served their 174 days and were now on the occasional weekend and bivouac training for two years.  (This was a tail-end of the 1951 “Korean” war conscription, which came to an end in 1959.)  The ORs did not have a mess and they were under the drinking age, hence not entitled to a canteen, but what do they do with an oldie like me?  Well they made me an honorary non-commissioned something or other, entitled to use a sergeants’ mess.  Problem solved.


We leant some interesting tricks: Such as: How to float a jeep over a river.  Drive the Jeep onto two planks, just wide enough for the wheel of the jeep on each side, with canvass underneath.  Only one man was sitting in the vehicle and he was holding onto the tent ropes from each corner of the float.  Push it into the water, with soldiers steering it in the front and others pushing it in the back.  Sadly, we had a tragedy.  The exercise was a night one and one of the pieces of plank must have hit the head of the soldier in the front and knocked him out.  In the dark, he was not missed immediately.  The army had to call the police and the poor boy’s body was recovered the next day.


One of the more interesting exercises involved our company spending a night in the rain forest (otherwise known as “the jungle”) just downhill from the Gold Coast-Beechmont road towards the Numinbah Valley.  The troop was divided into “friends” and “enemies”, given a day’s rations, and then introduced to lianas (or vines), rooted in the soil at ground level and using trees as vertical support to climb.  By pulling at the vines, you communicated some pre-arranged meaning to your companions.  During the night, communist style propaganda was broadcast, urging us, the friendly forces, to give up our “struggle” and go home to our wives, who are being seduced whilst we were away fighting for the capitalists. The whole business was a charade, as the communists in Malaya, had already given up by that time.  We were advised that our enemies “prevailed” over us at night and literarily walked all over us.  We never knew about it.  Perhaps one should realize that “dark” at night in the jungle really means something more dramatic than one would imagine.


In the morning, we picked up our gear, including BREN guns and ammunition and trudged up the steep hill. We reached the top quite

exhausted.  But there is a happy ending to this event.  On top of the road was a utility truck with Salvation Army officers dispensing tea, coffee or juice to weary soldiers.


Soon afterwards we left Canungra and after 19 months I left the army, which certainly gave me an insight into human behavior and taught me to distinguish between “the fair-dinkum” and the “phonies”.  It also highlighted the leadership qualities of “ordinary” people you did not expect it from and the delicate balance between “commissioned” and “non-commissioned officers.


The Australian army is no longer a British Colonial Institution, it is truly a national one and we are pretty safe with it.




Copyright © Henry Zehr 2013