Arthur Critchley's story
My father Arthur, at 20 years of age, joined the British Army Catering Corps in 1939 prior to the outbreak of war (WWII), he transferred to the Tank Corps in 1940. When, at the request of Winston Churchill, the 1st Airborne Division was formed in 1941 dad volunteered to become a paratrooper. In 1943 he took part in the Allied invasion of Italy before returning to England in early 1944.
The 1st Airborne Division was an integral part of Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Assigned the capture of the bridge at Arnhem the paratroopers were dropped among numerically superior German forces. Dad was among the many allied POW’s and was sent to a POW camp outside of Dresden. He remained a POW, despite two attempts to escape, until repatriated by Russian forces in 1945.
Despite numerous requests from his two sons over the years, until his death in 1987 at the relatively young age of 68, Dad refused to talk of his war experiences. As for the affect the war had on my Dad, I will simply quote my mum; “The man your father was when he went to war was a different man on his return”.
As for myself, I was born in the NE of England in 1940. Mum never really answered the question “Why then, was I a babe in arms in London in 1941, during the bombing of the city?” I suspect Mum, as a Londoner, wanted to be near her family rather than Dad’s in the north east. We stayed there for the duration of the war, and my sister Doreen was born in London in 1944. We moved back to Stockton-On-Tees where I was born after Dad was repatriated.
I joined the Royal Navy as a 15 year old in 1956. Not for any patriotic reason, I just wanted to see the world. I spent Christmas 1957 in Hong Kong aboard my first sea-going ship HMS Cavalier and I have seen a lot of the world since. In 1963 I transferred to the Royal Australian Navy.
Reflecting on my own experiences with conflict or war, namely the Malaysian Peninsula and Indonesian Confrontation conflicts and the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it’s more a case of what could have eventuated rather than what did. A sailors experiences are different to those of soldiers and airmen. However a quote (anon) does come to mind; “It was an accepted condition of a sailor’s duty that there is never a moment at sea which is completely free of danger”.
Whilst serving on the destroyer HMAS Vampire (1963-1966) during the Indonesian Confrontation one incident comes readily to mind. On patrol with two wooden hulled minesweepers in company, we were confronted by an Indonesian cruiser and two destroyers steaming toward us. The skipper addressed the ships company over the tannoy (loud-speaker system) and explained the situation. We were on a lawful course and as such would not be turning away. Further as the senior ship we would engage the cruiser (twice our size) and the minesweepers would engage the destroyers (three times their size). To everyone’s relief the Indonesians turned away rather than engage.
With regard to Vietnam, when notified of my draft to HMAS Sydney in 1967 I was stationed in Sydney. I had just gotten engaged and was planning to get married (in Kwinana) when my service was completed in 1969. The draft changed all that; Gail and I decided we should get married prior to my leaving for Vietnam aboard HMAS Sydney (affectionately known as the Vung Tau Cow).
HMAS Sydney’s role was one of transporting men and equipment to Vietnam and returning those whose tour of duty was over. The most dangerous time for Sydney was when she anchored at Vung Tau harbour, deemed the most vulnerable harbour in the Republic of Vietnam. She had however fine-tuned her “turn around” time between arriving and leaving to a fine art.
Reflecting on my time on HMAS Sydney; as a sailor (engineering branch) I just did the job I was trained to do but the thing that stays in my mind was the difference in demeanour of the soldiers we took to Vietnam and those we brought home. To paraphrase my Mum “The men we took to Vietnam were different to the men we returned to Australia”.