Australian Women’s Weekly… the 8th Division in Malaya, 1941
The Australian Women’s Weekly of 29 March 1941, had reporter Adele (Tilly) Shelton Smith excitedly telling her readers she had been given the most thrilling assignment of all her years in newspaper work. She and photographer Wilfred (Bill) Brindle had been sent to Singapore and Malaya as “Special Correspondents.” She wrote that she was going to see the A.I.F. training and find out what the women back home wanted to know most… what the camps were like for the Battalions, the accommodation, the food, the recreation time and what the troops of the 8th Division do on leave. She looked forward to seeing the familiar slouch hat and khaki against a background of native colour. In particular she wanted to send a first-hand account to the women of what their husbands and sons were doing to “preserve the common ideals of which that (pre-war) friendliness is the outward sign”.
Adele Shelton Smith’s first ‘Women’s Weekly’ article from Malaya (on 5 April 1941) was headlined “Gee it’s good to see someone from home”. She had spent a weekend at a “colourful coastal town” and had met troops of the 8th Division swimming in a millionaire’s pool, singing and dancing with the taxi-girls at a cabaret and sightseeing. They had been invited to the homes of several Chinese hosts. She also went sightseeing and saw the troops “out in droves with their cameras” and holding rickshaw races, followed by admiring children calling “Hello Jo” to all the Aussie troops.
Adele Shelton Smith’s second posting from Malaya was published in the ‘Women’s Weekly’ on 12 April 1941, Easter Saturday. She had lunched with Major-General Gordon Bennett in the bungalow he shared with senior officers of the 8th Division AIF. He assured her that the troops were behaving very well, in fact better than when at home. Mail was arriving regularly but newspapers from home were needed. Showing some of the prevailing attitudes of the time she reported that ex-patriot white women were running a club for the troops, providing food, cool drinks and a place to chat about home. The troops were training hard and on their return to camp were able to have showers behind nipah palm shelters. They slept on their stretchers on the school verandahs with sheets changed weekly and mosquito nets to keep out the small lizards. ‘Smithy’ reported that the boys were becoming naturalists and told her about the beautiful orchids and huge snails and scorpions. There were monkeys, orang-utans, panthers, tigers to see… and avoid. The country was criss-crossed with drainage ditches. The officers held a cocktail party, complete with band, for European guests to try to repay some of the hospitality they had received.
The same magazine had a photograph of a soldier becoming acquainted with a “Dutch wife”, a long bolster used to absorb perspiration when sleeping. A third page of information told the womenfolk that the Australian soldiers were known as the “tid apa” boys, very appropriate as “tid apa” means “why bother” or “why worry”. The local rickshaw boys were making a fortune with the frequent rickshaw races, just as often with the owner getting a ride whilst he was pulled along by the troops. They also had an open invitation to the beachside home of a Chinese business man and were able to swim in his pool and have races along the beach. Smithy’s message to the womenfolk back home was “Don’t worry. They are as happy as sand-boys!” and from the many accompanying photographs of them dancing and singing, swimming and climbing trees, rickshaw racing and bargaining for purchases, the troops were having a lot of fun. There was no mention of their hard work or training so one can only wonder what the families of the 2/18, 2/19 and 2/20 Battalions were thinking as they read such reports!
In the third ‘Woman’s Weekly’ article, published on 19 April 1941, Adele Shelton Smith finally had some photographs of the soldiers in uniform and training hard, but no details were given for censorship and security reasons. In her article she reported on a sumptuous Singalese meal given by a wealthy Indian businessman in honour of the troops. Several different kinds of curry were served as well as chutney, pickles and fruit. The local Malay Police band was in attendance and the Aussies sang ‘Advance Australia Fair’ with great gusto. She also reported on the social life in Singapore itself, advising that no night club was permitted to stay open after midnight and the strict rules about evening dress had been relaxed to only one formal dress night in the week at Raffles. She advised that there were more men than women in each party so the girls were treated like “pampered princesses surrounded by courtiers”. Imagine how that was received by the soldiers’ womenfolk struggling alone back home!
In her fourth Women’s Weekly article of 26 May 1941, Adele Shelton Smith reported on the more hum-drum aspects of life in the tropics. The headline was ‘Tip-Top Tucker in the Tropics’ and she reported that the Army seemed to have the same formula as every woman – ‘feed the brute’. The men didn’t like the sweet flavour of the local bread, so they now had an Australian bakery. There had been Hot Cross Buns for Easter. Bacon was from Queensland, meat from Argentina, potatoes, carrots and turnips from England, butter and frozen meat from Australia and jams and tinned fruit from Canada and Australia. Fresh vegetables were hard to obtain locally and the Army cooks had to become familiar with them and learn the best method of cooking. Indian and Chinese dhobis were contracted to wash 30 pieces of laundry per week per man, the dirt literally being thrashed out of the clothes by bashing them onto stones.
The fifth and final article written by Adele Shelton Smith was published in the Australian Women’s Weekly on 3 May 1941. She wrote of the Australian nurses who told her the locals treated them like film stars, giving them orchids and fruit and plenty of invitations to social and sporting events. She said the girls all looked well in their crisp, grey uniforms and red capes. The quarters were plain but comfortable, some rooms with beautiful views. The girls had plenty of family photographs on display. All rooms contained the nurses’ battledress with tin hats and respirators as compulsory equipment.
Following the reports from Adele Shelton Smith several of the troops obviously received letters from home suggesting they were on holiday. Naturally this did not go down well and the Weekly Bulletin of the 2/20 Battalion (issue 2, 21 June 1941) contained a cartoon series with the words “If I could get my hands on the woman journalist who said soldiering in Malaya was a round of dinners and dances, I’d wring her !!*! neck WOULDN’T IT?
The Sixth are getting battered; the Seventh copping hell.
The Ninth are on no picnic, they’re getting theirs as well.
While in the distant jungle, many thousand miles away,
The Eighth are on a “rest cure”, all we do is play.
Because there are no shells here, no bullets flying thick,
We have the name of “Glamour Boys” and that will always stick.
Every time we take a step the sweat falls from our brow,
And if they only knew it, we have B.O. – and how
Ploughing through the jungle with mud up round our waist
With every step a mouthful, it has a putrid taste
Fighting ‘mozzies’ by the score and cobras by the ton
It’s no use denying, we’re having lots of FUN.
If you don’t believe me when I say it’s bloody hot,
I’ll now state a Native custom to show just what is what.
Every man is buried with his overcoat as well
Just because he’ll need it in case he goes to Hell.
Give the Japs malaria, it isn’t worth a zac.
They won’t keep it very long before they give it back.
Although we need the rubber and find uses for the tin
If we stay here any longer, we’ll soon be mighty thin.
Take us to the Middle East, where it’s cold at night
So we can join the others and help to win the fight.
If they grant us this favour Miss Adele Smith may say,
“Those Eighth Division ‘Glamour Boys’ are on no holiday”.