SUNMAN, Robert Owen
|8 July 1940, Wayville, South Australia
|2nd/48th Infantry Battalion
|Port Augusta, South Australia, 6 November 1914
|Port Augusta, Port Augusta, South Australia
|Port Augusta Higher Primary School, Scotch College Adelaide and Roseworthy Agricultural College, South Australia
|Killed in Action, Egypt, 22 July 1942, aged 27 years
El Alamein War Cemetery
Plot XVI Row B Grave 16.
|Adelaide WW2 Wall of Remembrance, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Port Augusta District WW2 Honour Board, Port Augusta RSL Hall Circular Honour Roll, Port Augusta Swimming Club Memorial Garden and Arch, Soldiers' Memorial Band Rotunda
‘Ever Remembered as “Big Bob”’
Robert (Bob) was the second son, born on the 6th November 1914 in the harbour town of Port Augusta, at the head of Spencer Gulf in South Australia. His parents were Corba Lloydowen (Lloyd) and Jessie Isabel Sunman. Bob had two brothers, Jack and Colin Louden. The Sunman family were considered pioneers, settling in the Port Augusta area in the 1870’s where they were well-known pastoralists. Lloyd was also an auctioneer, Chairman of Port Augusta Water Commission, District Councillor, Member of the Council of Stock Owners' Association and of a variety of sporting bodies. He also stood as the Liberal and Country League candidate in ’33 and was chairman of the Racing Club since 1919. He was particularly proud that Port Augusta's Race Week was famous throughout the State and that its success for the most part depended on the club, its leadership and local workers. Much of the credit for this position was due to Mr. Sunman.
The whole family followed their father’s lead in being actively involved in the community. The boys all attended Port Augusta Higher Primary School where Colin particularly excelled as a scholar. Bob then went to Roseworthy Agricultural College to further his studies. Post school Bob followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a stock agent, initially with Young and Gordon Ltd, then Elder Smith & Co. Ltd. Later he represented Dalgety & Co.
Bob was 19 when his much-loved mother, Jessie died in February ’34. She was described as a keen sportswoman, a leading tennis player and later in golf, traits which Bob also displayed. The local Transcontinental newspaper described her as ‘a very ardent church worker and her services at St. Augustine's will be very sadly missed. In the social life of the town, Mrs. Sunman always took a leading part and with her happy disposition was welcomed everywhere. She leaves a husband, Mr. Lloyd Sunman, three sons, Jack, Bob and Colin; also three sisters and two brothers to mourn her loss.’
Bob was a talented footballer, playing A grade for West Augusta and regularly appearing in the best player list. His 6-foot 6 inch height was certainly an advantage. Overall, he was a gifted sportsman including as a powerful swimmer, winning the Christophersen Aggregate Cup as an 18-year-old in March ’32. He was also Port Augusta’s entrant in the Swim Through Port Pirie competition of ’35, one of ten club representatives, including three from Adelaide. The race was hailed as being the greatest aquatic event in the history of Port Pirie. The following year, Bob highlighted his sailing skills, winning the Keer Trophy in his boat, ‘Viking’. A very social young man, Bob enjoyed organising activities, including the inevitable farewells from "The Tigers' Club” at Port Patterson with the highlight being a bonfire with impromptu acts, speeches and community singing as part of the programme.
He was also instrumental in setting up the inaugural Port Augusta Centenary Bachelor Club in ’36 with an initial twenty-five enthusiastic supporters. The social club was designed to entertain their married friends through activities including popular dances, where the bachelors would have the privilege of inviting a lady friend and a married couple. With Bob as Secretary, the first ball was quickly organised for September in the Town Hall. The group continued to flourish despite Bob being transferred to Elder Smith & Co. Limited’s city office the following month. A huge valedictory farewell was held for him at the Hotel Flinders. His friends made a presentation of a kit bag and a Stein mug. It was obvious that Bob was a well-respected young man. In the speeches that followed, many references were made to his popularity, sporting prowess across a range of activities and his social skills. References was made that ‘the town could ill afford to lose a young man who had grown up in their midst and had taken such a prominent part in the affairs of the town, but all agreed that his promotion was well deserved’. With hearty wishes for a prosperous future, the evening concluded with singing of the timeless "For he's a jolly good fellow."
The local Elders staff also made a presentation of a handsome mulga wood inkstand at the branch office by the Manager who said it was a token of the esteem in which Bob was held by the office staff and business associates. In making the presentation he highlighted the business ability and integrity displayed by Bob in his role of representing Elders and wished Bob a prosperous future. Before going to the city office, Bob spent a few weeks at the Wudinna branch office on the West Coast.
Whenever possible, Bob returned to Port Augusta, helping with upgrades of the West Side foreshore fencing and also assisting with the football oval improvement where it was claimed ‘Bob Sunman, at the chairman’s request, is searching Adelaide for a special type of grass that will spread more quickly than couch.’ Bob remained a delegate for the football club and on the committee as well as sponsoring a medal to the player who renders the best service to his team.
War intervened. Aged 25, Bob was one of the early enlistees at Wayville on the 8th July 1940 where he was given the number SX8315 and allocated to the newly formed 2/48th Battalion. During his pre-embarkation leave, he returned to Port Augusta for a round of farewell functions. They began with a civic farewell in the Town Hall where the Mayor wished Bob the best of luck and congratulated him on the noble step he had taken, where he would meet new adventures in other parts of the world as well as experiencing many hard knocks. However, he added, he “had watched Bob, who was born and bred in Port Augusta, grow to manhood, and was confident that Bob would surmount all obstacles and return to his hometown when the conflict ended.” This was not to be.
The council also had decided to present each departing enlistee with an illuminated address. However, as Bob was one of the first, the tribute was still in the printing stage, but unfortunately these had not come to hand from the printers In Melbourne. They would later be signed and handed to relatives of the soldiers as soon as they arrived. This was to become a precious memento in future years. Bob was also farewelled at the RSA Clubrooms, where mention was made of the pride Lloyd, his father, felt seeing his son preparing to leave with the lighting forces. Bob responded before the singing of 'For he’s a jolly good fellow.' Bob’s friends also organised less formal private functions to farewell him.
From the openness of Port Augusta, in the close confines and cold of the Pavilions, now part of the Royal Adelaide Showgrounds, Bob contracted an illness causing him to return home to recuperate. Then he and other new enlistees headed to Woodside for their preliminary training.
Just prior to Christmas, Bob was home on a week’s pre-embarkation leave. Soon after, he and his fellow 2/48th Battalion, boarded the Stratheden for the Middle East, on the 7th November 1940 and disembarked on the 17th December. The next stop was to Tobruk at the start of April 1941 where the dust, flies, heat, minimal water supplies and constant bombardment were quite a challenge to these fresh new enlistees. Once there, they completed a few months training in Cyrenaica. Bob was to become one of the famed Rats of Tobruk.
Conditions in the Middle East were totally different to life in Port Augusta.
In July ’41 conflicting news was received. Officially his father received advice that Bob was wounded in action. Coincidentally a letter also arrived from Bob stating that he was doing well – a typical response in so many letters posted from the front, but which took many weeks to arrive. The details soon emerged via a further letter, that Bob had been hit in the left ankle with a piece of shrapnel, which emerged through his calf, causing him to be hospitalised in Alexandria. Pte. Sunman was a member of a party of five soldiers who were involved in the explosion of a shell from a trench mortar. One of the men was killed, but fortunately Pte. Sunman's injuries were not as severe as those of his companions. Sandfly fever followed later in the year before Bob was able to return to the 2/48th in November.
At the end of that year, the first of the local Port Augusta soldiers who had permanent injuries returned home. One was Private Horace A Press, SX10627 who had lost a leg in an explosion that had killed three fellow soldiers and resulted in another being taken prisoner. In an interview, Harry listed the locals he had seen, including Bob, adding the importance the local Transcontinental newspaper was with news from home for the troops. A second returnee, Ralph Lang, also commented on meeting Bob in Tobruk, adding that he had “learned to appreciate his sterling qualities. It had been a joy to meet several Port Augusta men on active service.”
Bob was plagued by numerous bouts of scabies in the early months of ’42 before he was able to return to the 2/48th battalion in June. The condition was caused by a mite that burrows into the skin, with the resultant itchy rash being highly contagious. A year after reporting Bob’s first wounding, the Transcontinental had the unenviable task of reporting that 27-year-old Private Ron Sunman had paid the supreme price of being killed in action. 22-year-old Colin Hanley SX13018, also in Bob’s battalion and from Port Augusta, was killed with him in action on the 22nd July, 1942.
‘Profound sympathy was extended to Mr. C. L. Sunman and relatives this week by all sections of the community when news was received that Pte. R. O. (Bob) Sunman, of this town, had been killed in action in Egypt last month. He was the fourth local man to lose his life in this conflict. Pte. Sunman, who was the second son of Mr. C. L. Sunman, of Chapel Street, and the late Mrs. Sunman, was born in Port Augusta and spent most of his life in this town. He received his primary education at the local school and later attended the Roseworthy Agricultural College where he excelled at swimming and won a number of trophies. On leaving school Pte. Sunman was employed, for a time by Young and Gordon Ltd. and then by Elder, Smith and Co. Limited and he was employed by that firm at the time of his enlistment in August, 1940. He saw service at Tobruk and other theatres of battle in the Middle East. It was an unfortunate co-incidence that he was wounded on July 22, 1941, exactly a year to the day from when he met his death.
‘Pte. Sunman took an active interest in various organisations in the town including the Institute Billiards Club, Swimming Club, Yacht Club, and Dance Club and was responsible for good work as joint secretary of the Bachelors' Ball. At the meeting of the Town Council on Monday night the Mayor (Mr. Riches, M.P.), expressed deep regret at the death of Pte. Sunman and as a mark of respect, the Council stood in silence for 2 minutes. A resolution was placed on the books instructing the Town Clerk to send a letter of condolence to those bereaved.’
Bob’s battalion was attempting to capture West Point in a dawn attack. In late June, 42 with Rommel crossing into Egypt, the 2/48th were in an offensive to capture Trig 33, which was achieved on the 10th July. In doing so, over 400 Italian prisoners were taken. The 2/48th battalion then advanced south, capturing the Tel el Eisa station and repelling numerous counter attacks. However, they were eventually forced to withdraw, having suffered over 100 casualties. The 2/48th battalion suffered 215 casualties between the 7th July and 23rd October. Of that number, 64 men were killed and six, died of their wounds. 125 other men were wounded but survived.
In his book, ‘Tobruk to Tarakan’, John G. Glenn described the ferocious encounter;
‘When the troops were well forward of the start-line they came under terrific fire from shells and mortars from the front and left and suffered heavy casualties. With the slow deliberate movement of perfectly trained soldiers both companies continued the advance in perfect formation, over ground that trembled and erupted with vicious explosions. Through this, sometimes obscured by the smoke and dust, the men moved, and, as they advanced, the fire kept place with them, leaving behind the still shapes of fallen men among the camel bush and sand.’
The Chronicle on the 20th August, ’42 listed those who had died in battle or of wounds. From Bob’s Battalion the men were: Killed In Action SX13121 Pte. Reginald W. Charles Brown. 2/48th Whyalla. SX12765. Pte. Charles A. Corfield. 2/48th Clare. SX7166 Pte. Arthur R. Davis. 2/48th Rosewater SX5823 Cpl. G. E. Gay, 2/43rd, Woodville SX13018 Pte. Colin J. Hanley. 2/48th Port Augusta. SX8236 Pte. Gerald J. Hayes. 2/48th Wirrabara SX6297 Pte. Donald S. Ridley. 2/48th Loxton SX11052. Pte. Walter M. Shane. 2/48th Spalding. SX8315 Pte. Robert O. Sunman. 2/48th Port Augusta. SX11021 Pte. Lindsay H. Thorpe 2/43rd Woodville Died Of Wounds SX8087 Cpl. F. W. Fletcher, 2/48th Aldgate SX8454 Cpl. Arthur A. A. Harding. 2/48th Peterborough.
Bob was initially buried in the El Alamein British Military Cemetery before being re-buried in April ’43. He now rests in the El Alamein War Cemetery in Plot XVI Row B Grave 16. He is surrounded by others from his 2/48th Battalion including 24-year-old SX8259 Private Lindsay Earle, 27-year-old SX12765 Charles Corfield, 41-year-old SX7801 L/Cpl Edward Smith, 32-year-old SX127 Lieutenant Frank Threadgold, 33-year-old SX7354 Pte Herbert C.P. Jones and 23-year-old SX8230 Private Ronald Clemens as well as others from the 2/2nd and 2/23rd Battalions. His parents chose the inscription ‘Ever Remembered as ‘Big Bob’.
Bob’s family, his local community, Vi Liersch from Pirie and particularly his fellow soldiers from the 2/48th continued to remember this larger-than-life young man.
Advertiser Tuesday 18 August 1942, SUNMAN.—On July 22, Robert Owen, second son of Lloyd and the late Jessie Sunman, Port Augusta, grandson of Thos. Young and R. C. Sunman, Laura. He did his duty. SUNMAN. KiIIed in action on July 22. our friend Bob. Greater love hath no man.—lnserted by Barbara and Fred Cotton (R.A.A.F.) late Broken Hill. SUNMAN.—Killed in action on July 22, Bob, beloved friend of Vi Liersch, A.A.N.S. TREAGUS Heffron SUNMAN.—On July 22, at Egypt.—This day and always I will remember him, my pal. Bob.—Inserted by Lindsay Bolitho.
Advertiser Tuesday 25 July 1944, In memory of my comrades in B and D companies. 2/48th Bn. who fell in Egypt on July 22, 1942. Inserted and ever remembered by Bill McEvoy (ex-AIF ret). In remembrance of our two pals Lieut Frank Threadgold and Bob Sunman, who gave their all, not in vain, Egypt 1942. Inserted by Gunners Kevin Kinter and Lyall Sunman. SUNMAN. SX8315. Pte. Bob.—ln memory of my friend Bob, killed July 22, 1942.—Inserted by Vi.
Advertiser Wednesday 25 July 1945, SUNMAN. R. O.—-In memory of my pal Bob. 2/48th Batn. killed In action. El Alamein July 22. 1942.—Always remembered. Bob Fotheringham.
Advertiser Monday 22 July 1946, SUNMAN.—Our friend. Bob, killed in action. El Alamein.—Ever remembered by Barbara and Fred Cotton, Prospect. 2/48 BN.—In memory of my comrades who made the supreme sacrifice. Egypt, July. November. 1942.—"Blue." ex B Coy. 2/48TH BATTALION.—In memory of my pals of the 2/48th Btn., who fell at El Alamein. July 22. 1942.—Inserted by Curly Foster. "At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them."
Advertiser Tuesday 22 July 1947, SUNMAN.—In loving memory of Bob, killed in action at El Alamein.—Always remembered by Barbara and Fred Cotton, Prospect. 2/48th.—In memory of my mates, who made the supreme sacrifice at El Alamein, July 22, 1942.—Ever remembered by Curly Foster. 2/43RD BATT.—A tribute to the memory of fallen comrades, who gave their lives at El Alamein, 1942. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them. —Inserted by Oscar Wear. 2/48TH BATT.—In memory of the boys who fell at El Alamein, July-November, 1942.—"Blue," ex B Coy
Advertiser, Thursday 22 July 1948, SUNMAN.—In loving memory of our friend Bob. killed in action on July 22. El Alamein.—Ever remembered by Barbara and Fred Cotton. In memory of my late cobbers in "B" Company 2/48th Battalion. At the rising and setting of the sun I will remember. —Inserted by Flogger Sutherland.
Researched and written by Kaye Lee, daughter of Bryan Holmes SX8133, 2/48th Battalion
Submitted 7 January 2023 by Kaye Lee