The wartime career of Dennis Davis spanned the globe. He came to Australia from the UK in 1938. Two years later, distressed at the news of the evacuation of Dunkirk, Dennis fronted up at lunchtime to the Paddington recruitment booth and declared himself available to fight the rising tide of German fascism.
His colour-blindness excluded him from the Air Force and he joined the Army Service Corps 8th Division, was then transferred to 9th Division and by Boxing Day of 1940 he was on a ship bound for the Middle East. It was the start of five years and four months of war service, with Private Davis being involved in five separate campaigns.
Dennis became one of the legendary Rats of Tobruk. He drove trucks full of supplies, ammunition and troops in the major battle sites. After Tobruk he joined the peacekeeping force in Syria, and then drove 41 hours without break to get supplies to the First Battle of El Alamein.
Dennis Davis beside a salvaged German troop carrier. El Alemein, 1942
It was hard work and often involved creeping along at night in the dust with no windscreen and no lights.
One night they lost seven out of 13 men when they were caught under artillery fire. On another occasion Dennis had to transport goats and sheep for the Indian army which killed their own meat.
The El Alamein fighting caused one of his greatest setbacks. It had been an exhausting time on the frontline with heavy losses and Dennis had been away a long time with no sign of returning home. In a depressed state he had written a letter to his fiancé. Misinterpreting this letter, Margaret thought he didn’t love her anymore and sent him a “Dear John” letter breaking off their engagement. It got to him on Christmas Eve 1942 in Palestine and he was devastated.
During that time he learnt the value of friendship. The three men fighting alongside him reassured Dennis it would all sort itself out and it did. Dennis wrote a carefully worded response telling Margaret how he felt and it worked. When he finally returned home on leave he visited the young woman. They soon married and were together until her death 61 years later. As for his Army friends, they remained close for years after, even sharing houses, and one man, Les White, was groomsman at Dennis’s wedding to Margaret six days after he returned on leave in February 1943 and later married Margaret’s twin sister.
Dennis Davis with his mates
By September that year, Dennis was in New Guinea. It wasn’t any easier and the smaller 4-wheel drive Jeeps were the only way to transport supplies, munitions and people on the frontline. It was nerve-wracking especially when the Officer he was driving insisted on being driven around an “unsecured” area full of Japanese hiding in the trees.
"You just had a job and you had to do it". Like all the servicemen and women Dennis had contact with, his motives for enlisting and fighting were noble ones about defending one’s country and way of life. But then when you’re on the frontline, those ideals can fade into the background.
“The idea of king and country is the thought you have when you join up. But when you're up there, you're thinking of your own life when you're close to the line, and will I survive the night? "
Private Davis’s Division pushed up through New Guinea to the north and moved along the coast to Lae, securing different battle sites as they went.
More leave followed back in Australia in March 1944 but some of this Dennis spent in hospital grappling with an attack of malaria. His next posting was in Borneo in early 1945 where he was part of 2 Brigades of the 9th Division that took Labuan Island off Borneo.
It was here Dennis heard the news they’d all been waiting for: the Japanese Emperor had surrendered. Less exciting was the reality of ongoing attacks from Japanese troops cut off from all communications.
“They wouldn't know about the surrender so we always had an armed person in the jeep on the look-out."
Dennis was discharged on 12th November 1945, and his return to civilian life had its difficulties. Not being able to get tenants out of his house, he and Margaret had to share a house with best mate Les and his wife. He returned to his old job at the Tax Office but it took a while to adjust.
“The jubilation was over by this stage five months later. After being in fresh air for every day for five years, it was very hard to go back to work in an office.”
But Dennis toiled away and now at 100 years of age he can look back at his wartime experiences and the family he raised and say there’s little he regrets.
Dennis Davis, Anzac Day 2020