At the beginning of the Second World War, the Commonwealth Government introduced three months of compulsory military training for single men aged 21. In January 1940, 21-year-old Albert ‘Bert’ Le Merton marched into Rutherford Camp near Maitland NSW as a universal trainee in the 35th Battalion of the Citizens Military Force. During his training, Bert said he “came to realise the importance of the undertaking” and was one of many universal trainees who applied for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Albert Le Merton during the Second World War
On 27 May 1940, after a brief time as a “civvy” again, Bert was called up for AIF service and posted to 2/13th Battalion at Ingleburn Army Camp for individual training and then group training at Bathurst Army Camp. By October, Bert and his Battalion were deemed ready for overseas deployment.
The 2/13th Battalion was assigned to the 9th Division and sailed to the Middle East for several months training in Palestine. By then, German forces had arrived in North Africa to help Italy defend its African colonies and the 9th Division was deployed to Libya. On April 4, 1941, Bert’s Battalion saw action for the first time. “When the German Afrika Corps arrived in North Africa, our leaders decided caution might be better than valour and chose to withdraw to a more defendable position. The 2/13th Battalion was 11 miles from the main line of withdrawal, providing flanking cover at a secondary road and a railway cutting on the Er Regima escarpment.”
“That afternoon German tanks and motorised infantry were seen approaching, and at 4.30pm we started firing. The 2/13th Battalion was the first Australian Infantry Battalion to engage German troops in World War II.”
During the engagement, Bert’s mortar detachment expended more than 100 rounds. “As darkness fell the attacking troops apparently decided to bunker down for the night. At 9.30pm our transport started arriving and the 2/13th Battalion left Er Regima in a bit of a hurry.” Bert’s battalion had the distinction of being the first Australian Battalion to engage the Germans and the only Australian Battalion to see out the entire Siege of Tobruk. The 2/13th Battalion played an integral part in the final breakout, recapturing the strategic Ed Duda ridge from the Germans with the support of British tanks and artillery. “The Siege of Tobruk lasted eight months before we finally evacuated by road.”
In early 1943, Bert’s Battalion was recalled to Australia to help fight the Japanese in the Pacific. The Battalion had to be trained in amphibious landing and adapt from desert warfare to jungle warfare. “I participated in two seaborne landings in New Guinea before plodding through the jungle, and then two more seaborne landings in Borneo where we plodded through more jungle engaging the Japanese.”
Bert was in Borneo when the war ended. “There were rumours going around about the war ending from about the 10th August, but we got the final news on the 15th. There was no excitement as such. We were in the jungle and had to maintain normal watches and pickets rather than letting our guard down, in case the Japanese hadn’t heard the news. We were watching out until the Japanese came in surrendering as POWs several days later. After that, you just sat and waited for the boat to take you home.”
On October 28, 1945, Bert boarded a British ship to sail home to Australia. He disembarked in Brisbane on November 15, boarded a train for Sydney on November 16 and arrived in Sydney the next day. There was nothing ceremonious about the end of Bert’s war.
“I got off the train on the 17th November and we were taken out to Marrickville Depot to hand in our gear, then we were told to go home.”
Bert holds a certificate commemorating his service and the 75th Anniversary of Victory in the Pacific
Bert was officially discharged on November 29, 1945. He slipped back into civilian life without any hassles and married the sister of ‘Johno’ Dickson, Bert’s best mate from his service in North Africa. “I used to correspond with Johno’s kid sister Joan. She was 23 years’ old when I finally met her, and shortly after we were married.”
Bert considered himself fortunate to not have the problems that affected some of the other soldiers.