SPECIAL SERIES: Historic war photographs revealed

The Second World War might only represent a handful of years in the life of Herbert Michael Dixon, but as JOHN HOLTON discovered, his legacy lives on, both in his stories and a unique collection of wartime photographs that will now go on public display through a Bendigo Advertiser series after spending more than 40 years bundled in a plastic bag…

VIDEO: Andrew Dixon tells his father's remarkable story

DON'T MISS THE SOUVENIR PUBLICATION: The Bendigo Advertiser will publish Herb Dixon's wartime collection of photographs in a series of lift-outs to appear in the Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday printed editions.

ANDREW Dixon cradles the Kodak Folding Brownie camera in his hands like a holy relic. And to the Dixon family, that’s exactly what it is; an object steeped in memory and family history.

It was entrusted to Andrew as a 10 year-old by his father Herbert (Herb) – 20 years after he’d used it to record his own unique and covert history of his service in the Second World War in both the Middle East and New Guinea.  

“Dad was one of five brothers and the first to put his hand up,” Andrew says.

“He shocked the hell out of his mum. Just walked in the door and threw his slouch hat on the kitchen table.”

Herb could never have known that his first stint with the 2nd/2nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Unit would begin with a cruise on the legendary liner Queen Mary, which had been converted to a troop ship for the duration of the war.

There’s a letter in the Dixon family album that Herb wrote to his mother mid-voyage that reads “…we are having a great time at present and are in the best of health…”

It’s poignant in its irony, given the nightmares that would dog Herb and many others on that boat in the years to come.  

“I remember Dad telling me that the Queen Mary was faster than any battleship in the fleet – none of them could keep up with her,” Andrew says.

“He also talked about one of his commanding officers – a Sergeant who was so hated by his unit that they literally threw him off the ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They went back for him, and by all accounts he was a lot easier to get along with after that.

“Dad’s stories and his photos always highlighted that uniquely Australian way of dealing with hardship; that spirit of not putting up with any bullshit.”

Herb was only 16 when he first attempted to join the army, and only 18 when he landed in Egypt for his first stint of duty. Like so many of his comrades, he was still a teenager – thrown into the most challenging situations imaginable.

His photographic record of the war begins with his time in Egypt and continues on to his active service in New Guinea. The bulk of the photos are from 1941 to 1943 and depict both the preparation for, and the action of battle, along with the everyday activities of young men abroad.

Many are astounding for their ordinariness – young men posing on motorbikes, even skylarking on the beach. They could just as easily have be taken at home on the farm, or on a family holiday. Boys being boys.

Others show the stresses of war more directly. The preparations for battle. There are even several long exposures of anti-aircraft guns firing, not only proof Herb’s deft eye with the camera, but the fact that he was right in the thick of battle.

“Dad was what’s known as a Master Layer. His job was to identify and predict the flight of aircraft as they approached,” Andrew says. “He was very good at his job – topped his class at training.”

Herb’s unit, the 2nd A.I.F., is credited with bringing down 120 enemy aircraft during its service in New Guinea. It also played a major role in supporting troops on the Kokoda Trail.

“Later in life, Dad talked quite a lot about the horrors he’d witnessed,” Andrew says. “He told me how they all cheered and thought it was great when an enemy plane was brought down. Then the guilt that came with the realisation there were real people flying those planes. Young men like themselves.

“Sometimes, when planes did strafing runs, they were so close to the ground that Dad could see the faces of the pilots.

“He clearly remembered seeing enemy soldiers mown down by gunfire. It was the stuff of nightmares and haunted him in later life.”

But throughout the horror, Herb continued to take photographs with his Kodak Brownie. To this day, Andrew wonders how his father got away with it for so long.

“My nan used to send film to Dad hidden inside cakes,” Andrew says, still with a sense of disbelief. “She would auger out a hole in the cake, put the film inside, then plug up the hole with cake and icing. It was all very Hogan’s Heroes.”

Herb’s luck ran out in 1943.

While developing a film under a blanket in his tent (his rudimentary version of a darkroom), he heard the voice of a commanding officer ordering him to pack up his film and photographs and appear before a panel of his superiors.

“All of Dad’s photographs were confiscated – over 300 of them – with some being returned later when they were deemed ‘non-threatening’ to the unit. We’ll never know what happened to those other photos – whether they were destroyed or are still sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere.

“It’s a pity because they are such a valuable record of what the unit achieved – especially those hard-fought years in New Guinea.

Remarkably, all of the Dixon brothers survived the war and returned to Bendigo. Herb stayed on in New Guinea for repatriation and, as he later told Andrew, returned to a home town that had already moved on.

“One of the hardest things for Dad was getting off the train in Bendigo, and walking down Mitchell Street with his kit bag over his shoulder. Not one person said ‘thanks, Digger’, and I know for Dad that was quite hard to deal with – after everything he and his mates had been through.”

When Herb returned to Bendigo he worked in a wide range of occupations; labourer, power worker, earthmover, woodcutter, and insurance salesman, before building his own business – Apex Rental Workwear – from the ground up.

He was also heavily involved in the local community, serving as president of the Golden City Lions Club, Little Athletics and starting the Easter Bathtub Derby in the 1970s.

“Dad was a self-made man – a physical man,” Andrew says. “He was still waterskiing on a single ski at age 70 and was always wanting to try new things.

“I’m sure it had a lot to do with what he’d been through. He’d lost his own dad when he was just six years old. And then all the trauma of the war. It never left him. It was there 24/7.”

“His nightmares were awful. I’d find him wandering around the house clutching the poker from the fireplace. I’d say, ‘Dad are they back again?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, the Jap bastards are in the house.’ He knew the hallucinations weren’t real, but they felt like it to him.”

Despite it all, Herb remained a proud soldier until the day he died. Andrew remembers a very different man each year when Anzac Day came around and he put on his medals.

“I’d watch Dad march in the parade with his chest pushed out – like a soldier. It used to make me cry.

“I’m always a mess when Anzac Day comes around. I take my own son now. It’s a day that will always have relevance.”

Just like Herb’s photographs – a lasting legacy, and a reminder, as Andrew says, that everyone who served their country was a necessary link in the chain; that every single job was important.

“Without the sacrifice of those young men we wouldn’t be living as we do today. I truly believe that.”

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