Honouring the soldiers of the suburbs on Anzac Day

Anzac Day 2022: Honouring the soldiers of our suburbs

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They live quietly in our suburbs. The men and women who served Australia - and other countries - protecting our precious way of life. They tell their stories this Anzac Day.

We see them in the supermarket. Or sitting on a park bench. Or picking their grandkids up for school. Older people who in another life were swashbuckling soldiers fighting in the jungle. Brave young girls leaving their homes to sign up for the navy. Women who persevered with their dream to join the army, despite the misgivings of their fathers. These are our soldiers of the suburbs, understated people who thought nothing of signing up to serve their country

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On this Anzac Day, the 107th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, we honour them and all those who served, their stories ones of sacrifice, resilience and humility.

THE SOLDIER WHO TAUGHT JUNGLE WARFARE

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ian Gollings at home in Mawson. Picture: Karleen Minney

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ian Gollings at home in Mawson. Picture: Karleen Minney

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ian Gollings is sitting in his neat-as-a-pin Mawson home discussing the day he was stalked by a tiger while trying to flush out communist terrorists in the jungle of British Malaya in 1960 during the Malayan Emergency.

"We were patrolling on one side of a fairly narrow river and on the other side there was a large tiger keeping parallel with us," he said. "There were 30 of us and it was unlikely to attack us because we were 30 and it was one. But it was there and it created a bit of interest."

Ian Gollings a young infantry lieutenant in the Royal Australian Regiment. Picture: Supplied

Ian Gollings a young infantry lieutenant in the Royal Australian Regiment. Picture: Supplied

The anecdote is delivered in such a matter-of-fact way, perhaps incidental for a man whose army career was built on teaching jungle warfare to soldiers, not only Australians but the Vietnamese against the Viet Cong and Papua New Guineans forming their own army ahead of independence.

Now 87 and married to his wife of 57 years Shirley, Mr Gollings had a kind of Boys' Own Adventure military experience. He was an early member of the Special Air Service Regiment - "very, very fine men, highly trained and men of great integrity". During his career, he served in British Malaya, Vietnam and Malaysia, often trudging through jungles trying to out-manoeuvre the ever-present threat of the enemy.

That first operation to British Malaya remains vivid in his mind, the young Tasmanian a platoon commander responsible for 30 men.

"I was sent as a reinforcement to the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment to replace a platoon commander who had been evacuated for medical reasons," he remembered.

Only in his early 20s and in charge of much older men, Mr Gollings was worried about how he would be received. "They were the old hands. They'd done a lot of the jungle operations and patrolling and I was the new boy," he said. "They called me 'Sir' and I thought, 'This is terribly formal'. But that was the rule, that's the way it was.

Ian Gollings (far left) briefing his platoon deep in the Malayan jungle. Picture: Supplied

Ian Gollings (far left) briefing his platoon deep in the Malayan jungle. Picture: Supplied

"And after a few weeks they changed their tune, these 30 men, the old hands, and they called me 'Skip' for skipper or 'Cap' for captain. And at last I knew they'd accepted me."

The men would be in the jungle for three or four weeks at a time, before returning to base camp. They survived on air drops of tinned food, rice - and cigarettes.

"The Malayan jungle is one of the most primitive jungles in the world, with tall trees, a very high canopy. Raging rivers going through it, hot and humid all the time."

Mr Gollings in his study at home in Mawson. Picture: Karleen Minney

Mr Gollings in his study at home in Mawson. Picture: Karleen Minney

It would not be his only jungle. He was still only 26 and based in Perth when he was pulled out of the SAS and sent to Vietnam in 1962 as a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). Their job was to teach the Vietnamese the skills they had learned in Malaya about jungle and counter-terrorism warfare.

"We were training the Vietnamese to walk quietly through the jungle when chasing the Viet Cong, the communist insurgents, and to be able to respond to any attack by the Viet Cong, quickly and effectively," he said. "If they were ambushed from the side, we had a certain drill that we would follow to defeat that ambush. Or if the forward scout of our group of men came across a Viet Cong encampment or Viet Cong group of soldiers, we had certain drills which we could follow automatically, without the officer getting up and giving orders and telling people what to do. The Australian army would do things according to drills which we had rehearsed. We always had the initiative. And it was those kinds of things we passed on to the Vietnamese."

But the Vietnamese culture meant the leader had to be respected and most times the troops would still freeze and wait for an order.

Ian Gollings is a former national secretary of the RSL, the Returned and Services League. Picture: Karleen Williams

Ian Gollings is a former national secretary of the RSL, the Returned and Services League. Picture: Karleen Williams

"I spent 16 months in Vietnam and I had a certain sense of satisfaction that we had done our bit but was not convinced the lessons we were trying to get over to them were really going to help them to be more effective," Mr Gollings said

Mr Gollings also served with the SAS in the newly-independent Malaysia, stationed in Borneo, patrolling the border against any threat from Indonesia in the wake of the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation of the mid-1960s. He continued to train Australian soldiers and also, later, Papua New Guinean soldiers, his family living in PNG with him.

A sense of humour was vital. During one secondment in PNG, he recalled the local soldiers tricked him into thinking none could speak English. It had been on the order of his sergeant-major, who wanted Gollings to learn how to speak Pidgin English - and even deliver a farewell speech in Pidgin to the soldiers.

"I'd hardly got a sentence out before the whole parade collapsed. The soldiers just collapsed on the ground. They held their tummies, they rolled with laughter and screamed and shouted. It was the funniest thing they had ever done, because they had set me up," he said, his eyes twinkling.

Mr Gollings' military career spanned postings to England, another to PNG, Victoria and, finally, to Canberra in 1980. He resigned from the army soon after to become national secretary of the RSL - the Returned and Services League, a position he held for nine years.

Anzac Day means a lot to the now proud grandfather. "Anzac Day is a day for me to remember and be thankful for what my forebears did, along with hundreds of thousands of others," he said.

One thing he is "very proud of is the integrity of men in the Australian army".

"I can be with a group of ex-officers, ex-soldiers, and I know that they are men - and women - of very great integrity. I know if they say something, I can believe it."

The teen girl who joined the Women's Royal Naval Service

Queanbeyan great-grandmother Olwyn-Anne Cook was a member of the Women's Royal Navy Service, the Wrens, in her home country England. Picture: Karleen Minney

Queanbeyan great-grandmother Olwyn-Anne Cook was a member of the Women's Royal Navy Service, the Wrens, in her home country England. Picture: Karleen Minney

Queanbeyan great-grandmother Olwyn-Anne Cook is describing the moment she achieved what she had wanted since she was a child - to serve in the Women's Royal Navy Service, the Wrens.

She was just 17 and had moved far from her home in Yorkshire in northern England to HMS Harrier, a Royal Naval shore establishment for radar research and training, near Dale, Pembrokeshire in the far western corner of Wales.

"It was right on the cliff edge and it was November and the winds were blowing and howling and pouring rain," she said. "I felt wonderful. I was by the sea. I loved it. We lived in a mess, about 20 of us in a mess, which was great. I'm an only child and you just got to know people, it was lovely."

Mrs Cook, now 80, lives in an apartment block in Queanbeyan, with views of the planes taking off and landing at Canberra Airport.

She arrived in Queanbeyan in 2014. Two of her three sons had moved to Australia. She settled herself in the local community, cooking for the St Benedict's Community Centre and joining the Queanbeyan RSL.

Olwyn-Anne cook was only 17 when she joined the Wrens. Picture: Supplied

Olwyn-Anne cook was only 17 when she joined the Wrens. Picture: Supplied

Mrs Cook is always up early for the dawn service on Anzac Day, followed by a gunfire breakfast at Walsh's pub and then back for the main ceremony of the day.

"Then I go out and have lunch with the lads. The RSL is wonderful because the lads all get together. I call them my lads. They go from 90-odd down to their 50s and they just get together, they swing the lamp, they tell their stories about where they served," she said. "I get apologised to several times a day because of the language. And I'm like, 'Don't worry about it'. I ran a pub for 18 years in England. I love male company. I can talk about cricket, football, baseball because you had to, because it was the men who used to come in lots. It was great."

Mrs Cook also lived in France for a decade before moving to Australia. Picture: Karleen Minney

Mrs Cook also lived in France for a decade before moving to Australia. Picture: Karleen Minney

The Women's Royal Naval Service, known as the Wrens, was the women's branch of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy. As a child, the sea fascinated Mrs Cook.

"From the age of nine, I knew I wanted to join the Wrens," she said. "A sailor who lived next to my granddad, he told me all about it, and I just wanted it. I've loved the sea since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. So that's what I did.

"When I was 17 and three months, I applied and then went for medicals and joined when I was 17 and two-thirds." That was 1959.

"I was a radar Wren so you used to look at screens and do plots showing where ships were, where aircraft were, doing aircraft direction, talking to pilots. And that lasted for a year there," she remembered.

HMS Harrier closed down and she did the same job at HMS Dryad, home of the Royal Navy's Maritime Warfare School.

"I did a course there to become a navigator's yeoman and I was the first navigator's yeoman to pass out in the Wrens after the Second World War," she said. "A navigator's yeoman is someone who looks at all the maps and the charts and if you get alterations, from buoys to how they flash, or lighthouses, you have to change them all. Because if you're going along, the navigator on board ship needs to know."

A fresh-faced Olwyn-Anne Cook during her service with the Wrens. Picture: Supplied

A fresh-faced Olwyn-Anne Cook during her service with the Wrens. Picture: Supplied

Her final posting was to HMS Heron, a fleet air arm base in Somerset.

"There I used to work in the tower and we used to train pilots to land on aircraft carriers," she said.

She was in the Wrens for three years.

"I met my husband there and when you got married, you had to leave the Wrens because there were virtually no postings where the men were and, also, you had to get permission to stay in," she said.

Her first husband, who was in the navy, abandoned her and their four children. Mrs Cook was working in an office when she met her second husband who loved and supported the whole family. All three of her sons served in the military. One transferred from the Royal Navy to the Australian Navy and is still serving. She also has a daughter and lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Those three years with the Women's Royal Navy Service shaped her whole life.

"It gave me confidence. Being an only child and virtually had no cousins or anything like that. So to be with other people of my age group, it was just wonderful," she said.

The woman who followed the family army tradition

Margaret Flett in the kitchen of her Belconnen home. Picture: Karleen Minney

Margaret Flett in the kitchen of her Belconnen home. Picture: Karleen Minney

Margaret Flett is in the kitchen of her Belconnen town house airing out the banners that will be carried in the Anzac Day parade in Canberra for the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps. She is the ACT president of the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps and Army Women Association and secretary of the Belconnen RSL.

The last two Anzac Days have been very different due to COVID, solitary driveway affairs. Ms Flett has honoured the day by flying the flag and lighting a candle in her driveway. She is excited Anzac Day commemorations are returning this year, although disappointed construction at the Australian War Memorial will stop the national ceremony this year.

Margaret Flett is also secretary of the Belconnen RSL. Picture: Karleen Minney

Margaret Flett is also secretary of the Belconnen RSL. Picture: Karleen Minney

The veterans will be marching, from 9.30am on Monday, but along Limestone Avenue and up the western side of the building rather than on to the parade ground.

Still, Anzac Day is special no matter what. Ms Fleet thinks of her father's service rather than her own.

"Dad was in the army during World War II and he was posted to Puckapunyal," she said. "He met mum and got posted to Darwin. Broke his leg and came back and that's when I came. And after the war, dad became an air force guy and were were at Tottenham and Laverton and, eventually Dandenong, and that was where I joined the army."

Born in country Victoria, Ms Fleet had always wanted to follow in the family tradition by joining the army.

"I also had a brother who joined the army. He went in as a volunteer national serviceman and went to Vietnam with the engineers," she said. "I think it was probably my background. My brother loved it. It was what we knew."

Ms Flett was 21 when she joined the army. "My application sat on the table and I got breakfast and everything on it because my dad didn't want to sign it. He wanted to make sure I really wanted to join the army," she said. "And when I was 21 he said, 'Well, I may as well sign this because you can join if you want anyway'. So he signed it and off I went.

"I ended up getting into officer training at WRAAC school. Women in the army then had their own corps and it was the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps."

She came out of training as a corporal and started with central army records in Albert Park in Melbourne.

"Then it turned out I was the most senior corporal in the women's army so then I ended up in Queensland as the secretary to the director WRAAC of Queensland," she said. "From there, I was promoted to sergeant and became an instructor with the services corps down at Puckapunyal in the clerical wing."

Margaret Flett in the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps. Picture: Supplied

Margaret Flett in the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps. Picture: Supplied

She later returned to central army records in Melbourne. "I was actually in D Division registry and we set up the posting orders and moved the army members to and from Australia and also all around Vietnam," she said.

She met her husband, who was also in the army, in Melbourne. They planned for her to serve out her full six years in the army before starting a family. "It was the best six years of my life. I met so many people and the work was, well, it's different again to being out on civvy street," she said.

Ms Fleet was honoured this year with an Australia Day award for her service to the RSL. Picture: Karleen Minney

Ms Fleet was honoured this year with an Australia Day award for her service to the RSL. Picture: Karleen Minney

She missed being in the army.

"Oh, yes. Very much. I got out in April and had my first boy in December. We planned it well," she said.

The couple had two sons. Her former husband, who was injured in Vietnam, losing a leg, now lives in Queensland.

Ms Flett says she very much felt like she was serving Australia during her time in the WRAAC. Her service hasn't stopped. As secretary of the Belconnen RSL, she organises the poppy and Anzac Day appeals at the Jamison shops. "I have a lot of lovely volunteers who help me here," she said.

Anzac Day is for catching up with old friends. Remembering her dad. And being thankful she and her children and grandchildren live in a free country.

The story Honouring the soldiers of the suburbs on Anzac Day first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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