Did your father or grandfather arrive in Australia during 1941 on the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth?
I have spent a number of hours this week, walking in the footsteps of Gunner George Davidson Mackie of the Australian 2/1 Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
The diaries of Mackie have been digitalised by the Australian War Memorial and available for viewing: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2662639
Mackie’s journey is the same journey as the Italian prisoners of war who sailed to Australia in 1941; only in the reverse. Mackie travels from Sydney to Port Tewfik on the Queen Mary which was in convoy with the Queen Elizabeth and Acquitania.
As Mackie explains segments of his journey, it is easy ‘to see’ the journey of the Italian prisoners of war in 1941.
Australia’s first Italian prisoners of war boarded the Queen Mary in Suez 7th May 1941 and arrived in Sydney 25th May 1941.
Mackie boarded the Queen Mary on her return voyage from Sydney to Suez: 29th June 1941 to 25th July 1941.
The Queen Mary disembarks the Australian troops one day and the next day embarks Italian prisoners of war and Australian troops for the return voyage to Australia: Suez 26th July 1941 to Sydney 16th August 1941.
Mackie’s diary gives insight into life on the Queen Mary from its closely slung hammocks, beautiful timbered panels in the corridors, stifling heat, ‘jack up’ [hunger strike] by soldiers, the bugle calls, the Queen Mary newspaper: QM Daily, ‘two up’ games [coin toss gambling game] and the heavy seas and seasick men.
c. June 1941 QUEEN MARY AND QUEEN ELIZABETH PASSING (AWM Image 007960)
Mackie describes the farewell out of Sydney Harbour Heads, the tumultuous seas across the Great Australian Bight, refuelling at Fremantle, the sights and sounds of Trincomalee (Ceylon), the passage through the Bab al Mandab Straits (Gate of Tears), disembarking at Port Tewfik, a walk through the French Quarter at Suez and a train journey along the Suez Canal.
The Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth [Lizzie] and the Acquitania travel in convey with the ‘HMAS Australia’ as the guard ship. Mackie comments that the convey is taking 17,000 troops to the Middle East.
29 April 1919 The battle cruiser HMAS Australia passing through the swing bridge on the Suez Canal. Some of the ships crew can be seen on deck and part way up the mast. A row boat is in the foreground. (AWM B03031 Oswald Hillam (Ossie) Coulson)
Mackie expresses that sense of majesty of the convoys of WW2 and the imminent danger. The ‘valiant old Acquitania’ slips in the heavy seas while ‘out front and playing submarines, the Australia still keeps guard while she rolls and tosses to the fury of the sea.’ [playing submarines: disappears under the waves]
Once in Egypt, Mackie feels as if he comes face to face with characters from every book he has read and every film he has seen and feels as if he is living inside The Arabian Nights. He describes the sights, sounds, smells and colours of this foreign country.
On Sunday 27th July 1941, Mackie writes:
Moved from Suez 10am Saturday. Marched from camp to the railway with full kit and bags about a mile. The train’s maximum speed was 25 miles per hour. It was the least boring trip I have had. Every 100 yards contained something of interest. The strangest of all I think was to see natives in ones, twos of little parties appearing in the desert with a pack on their heads, coming apparently form nowhere and going nowhere.
Little native villages appeared now and again. Just little mounds of mud.
There was a great prison camp with thousands of Italian prisoners. They were all pretty well dressed and the officers (who were as numerous as the ordinary ranks) look quite decent and very clean and tidy. They all made Fascist salutes and made signs of shooting us, cutting our throats and so on. We cursed them loudly in good old Aussie swear words. It was done however with a great deal of smiling and grinning on both sides.
GINEIFA, EGYPT, 1941. PRISON CAMP AT GINEIFA, NOT FAR FROM SUEZ. TAKEN FROM PASSING TRAIN. (AWM Image P00237.056)
Then came the great Suez Canal and the Bitter Lakes.
PORT TEWFIK, EGYPT. 1942-02. TROOPS OF THE A.I.F. MARCHING TO THE DOCKS FOR EMBARKATION TO AUSTRALIA. (AWM Image 025659)
The road which runs along beside the canal was continually carrying military transport. Along the canal banks are military posts which are mostly A/A. These posts are manned to a great extent by Indian Troops. To add interest to the canal there was the shipping. Modern liners sliding down between the sand and ancient sail boats.
A British Aerodrome with dozens of Hurricanes was another sight worth seeing along side this is a huge base dump.
The whole country appears to be a huge camp.
Next to the dump is a Native Labour Camp. This stretches over many acres. It is a curious looking camp as the tents are dug down into the sand for coolness and coloured the same for camouflage.
The aerodrome and hangers are completely the colour of sand while all motor vehicles are camouflaged in various colours.
WESTERN DESERT, EGYPT. 1942-10. NEW CAMOUFLAGED TANKS BEING TRANSPORTED TO THE FRONT ON TRAILERS. NOTE THE COMPARISON OF SIZE WITH THE STAFF CAR ALONGSIDE. (AWM Image 025167)
Photos are used for illustrative purposes. Only the photo of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth are relevant to Mackie’s voyage.