IRWIN, Ronald Charles
|5 July 1940, Adelaide, South Australia
|2nd/48th Infantry Battalion
|Hindmarsh, South Australia, 16 March 1920
|Thebarton (Southwark), City of West Torrens, South Australia
|Alberton Public School , South Australia
|27 June 2018, aged 98 years, cause of death not yet discovered, place of death not yet discovered
|Not yet discovered
|Ballarat Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial
World War 2 Service
|5 Jul 1940:
|Enlisted Private, SX7858, Adelaide, South Australia
|5 Jul 1940:
|Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Private, SX7858
|6 Jul 1940:
|Involvement Private, SX7858, 2nd/48th Infantry Battalion
|16 Jul 1945:
|Discharged Private, SX7858, 2nd/48th Infantry Battalion
|16 Jul 1945:
|Discharged Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Private, SX7858
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Biography contributed by Kaye Lee
Mates for Life
Born on the 16th March 1920, in Hindmarsh, Ron’s family lived in the western suburb of Thebarton, SA as did his life-long friend Syd Kinsman born just four months after Ron.
Both boys received their education at the Alberton Public School before Ron began a career as a storeman. However, with the outbreak of WWII, the two friends enlisted within days of each other, Ron on the 5th July 1940, just after his 20th birthday and Syd the following week. Ron nominated his mother, Edith Adelia as his next of kin. They travelled to Wayville where both were assigned to the newly formed 2/48th Battalion. Their initial days were spent in the cold of the Pavilions, now part of the Royal Adelaide Showgrounds. There they met up with an older friend, Raymond Young SX6607 who had enlisted at the end of June. Their lives were to take diverse and quite extraordinary paths, quite foreign to the suburb in which they had grown up. From Wayville, the new enlistees moved to Woodside for their preliminary training.
Following pre-embarkation leave, the 2/48th contingent embarked on the Stratheden for the Middle East, on the 7th November 1940, arriving on the 17th December 1940. Their 2/48th Battalion completed a few months training in Cyrenaica before moving 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. They were to become the famed Rats of Tobruk, a title designed to be derogatory but one worn with pride. Unfortunately in April, Ron spent a few days in the British General Hospital before convalescing at the Australian Depot. It was here that he learned of the death of his older friend, 26-year-old Raymond Young, killed in action on May 1st, less than a year after enlisting.
By the 3rd August ’42 both Ron and Syd were part of the 2/48th fierce fighting for Tel el Eisa, the railway line near the ridges and Points 23, 33 and 26. This was preceded by German tanks charging the slit trenches in which the Australians were sheltering. The fighting was ferocious but also resulted in remarkable acts of courage by individual soldiers against the might of the tanks. In his book, ‘Tobruk to Tarakan’ John Glenn described how the intense action continued “for the next fortnight, bitter and bloody fighting was to rage around this feature until it was finally occupied by A Company… The capture of this coastal ridge turned the whole tide of battle; Rommel’s advance petered out on the slopes of the Tel el Eisa. He had sent counter-attack after counter attack to remove this spearhead that had been thrust deep in his side. The 2/48th Battalion’s casualties for the first day were six men killed in action, eighteen wounded, thirteen missing.” Ron, Syd, Corporal Alvine Montgomerie SX7967 and Lieutenant Colonel Max Richardson SX7532 were some of those missing.
Both Ron and Syd had become Prisoners of War. From there, Ron and the other captured soldiers moved to the Amiriya Staging Camp at Dimra in October. By 30th July, ’42 he was reported by the local Chronicle as ‘Missing in Action believed POW’ along with Private Stanley Martin SX2130 from Albury. This was then confirmed on the August 1st ’42 Ron was reported ‘believed’ Prisoner of war, with this being confirmed officially on the 10th October with him being interned at Camp 57 P.M. 2100 Kilo 89. His records indicate that on the 27th April ’43 he was then moved to Camp 106 P.M. 3100 from which he escaped. He was one of eleven Australians, seven Victorians, and one from each of Western Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia. These were Bombardier Tom Russell, VX32995, Ernest Preiser VX32728, Gunner Bill Waller VX47958, Private Ern Hayse VX34562, Private Brian Smith VX33912, Private George Rhodes VX33373, Private Tom Kelly VX36598, Private Albert (Mick) Barndon WX15376, Driver Joseph Turner TX75, Stuart Lauder QX9995 and Ron. Despite parochial differences, they were all Australians (even though the Victorians who combined to form the 26th Infantry Brigade, called those from the 2/48th "That Mad Mob from the West").
It is challenging to comprehend how a young man, just turned 22 and from the suburbs of Adelaide could traverse the mountainous terrain including a glacier in wintry snow, wearing ragged uniform, often barefooted, hungry and cold whilst constantly avoiding not only the well-resourced German soldiers and Italian Militia but also avalanches. In an interview with fellow escapee coordinated by Sapper William Antony Cole Rudd, VX39694, (https://www.anzacpow.com) George Rhodes described the chaotic aftermath of the Armistice between the Italians and Allies:
“The Officer-In-Charge of our camp gave us the option of staying on in the camp or taking to the rice fields - within two days everyone was scattered far and wide, some heading south and others going north, but within a week we were all back doing a bit of work for our grub. Then the Jerries posted notices to the effect that anybody harbouring an Ally would be shot, so we were off again. Forty of us set off that night for the mountains and Switzerland, travelling 35 kilometres before dawn. Rested up for two days when we joined a larger party, we travelled with them to the foothills, where we stayed four days, living off the grapevines while we waited for the food to come up. It came one morning, but so too, did the Jerries.
A raid was on! I hit the ground while some of our comrades were taken prisoner ten to fifteen yards away. We stayed around all day and the next and with some others who had also got clear, we set out the next night travelling through the bush and scrub by starlight, the mountains ahead our goal. We made them by midday next day and rested up for a day. Travelled all next day over the mountains until we hit Fontanellamoor (?) where we had our first good meal for over a week. Stayed there for two days to fill ourselves. Left the second night to travel up the road to Grasione, the Swiss border and freedom we hoped, but it was not to be so easy. At two in the morning, we met two Jews travelling down as fast as they could. They stopped to tell us it was impossible to get through as Jerries were minding the pass. "You can try if you like, but you will only be taken prisoners again", they said. So we turned back, getting off the road just before daylight.
Made another start next afternoon and had only gone a little way when we heard a yell and saw someone beckon to us down below. We went to where another Aussie had found a chap who would take us to another pass leading into the next valley. Had just got into the house when a Jerry patrol went past. Spent the evening watching an Italian girl hand weave wool. Awoke at daylight to find that our guide had slept in and was not game to travel with us on the road in daylight, so it was left to the ladies to show us the way. Flat out for three kilometres, we travelled the road until we came to a path over the mountain. Leaving our guides here, we travelled all day until we hit a village perched on the other side of the mountain. We were given bread and milk and bedded down with three cows and a goat. To the tune of a bullock bell, we tried to get some sleep. The next day the villagers put us on the way to the top of the next mountain pass, loading us with rye bread they cook once a year.
It is so hard, you have to put it on a stone and crack it with another. Travelled nearly all day till we hit the next casa where we tried bickering with a guide to take us over Mount Rosa but he did not seem too keen, but showed us a shed to sleep in. About 11pm a knock was heard and somebody said “Open Up” and in walked 4 Aussies and our friend the guide and a mate. The four had got in ahead of us but the guides had agreed to take us along too. We would move the next night when they would bring two Tommy Officers along who had contacted them in the village 2000 feet below. In the daytime we were to hide in the pines and they would bring food to us.
Next night there was no sign of them or the two officers until midnight. It was too late to start then as we had to be beyond the German guards and well up into the mountains by dawn, so we had another day listening to the avalanches fall every few minutes on the slope of Mount Rosa. We moved off the next night about seven and hit the snowline about eleven, sliding down precipice slopes and climbing up and around cliff faces where steps had to be cut into the ice, the steps being of no use to the last in line. 17 of us now made up the party of 2 Tommy officers, two privates and 11 Aussies and our 2 guides. We were nearing the top of a slope when the guides called for a spell and the ropes the two officers had knocked up. One of them put his stick down beside him and away it went, we could still hear it going hundreds of feet below. Two of the boys went forward with the rope and hitching up with the guides, pulled the officers the rest of the way.
Five minutes later we were inside a mountain hut used by tourists. We stayed there an hour until daybreak when we made off on the last lap of four hundred metres to the top of the pass where the guides left us at 9 o’clock.
It was a beautiful sight at daylight above the clouds, the only points of land showing being Mt. Blanc and the French border, the Matterhorn and the peak. We were facing the summit of Mount Rosa! The offices had again to be hauled along. BD and Bill volunteering for the job. It was a ticklish job as we had to climb two or three hundred steps cut into the ice up a razorback to the peak at the top. After the guides left us, we headed down the slope only to come to a precipice over a hundred foot drop in most cases, so we had to hunt around until we could find a place where it was possible to get down. Hit on a crevice running in from the cliff face and it was about then that one of the officers volunteered to be lowered down into it and go along to the end to see if it was possible to get down. He decided it was, so we all went down to where he was to find a 30 odd foot drop facing us, so we joined all our bits of rope together and lowered one another over the edge. Lit off down another slope only to run into two more bad places where the ropes had to be used again. By this time we were of the opinion that we were going to join over a hundred other victims that the ice had claimed in the years gone by trying to climb to the peak of the mountain. Ahead of us were dozens of ice crevices and we had no knowledge of how to get by them when to our relief we heard a yell. Three Swiss guards had come up to meet us. With their knowledge we did the rest of the trip in two hours climbing through crevices along razor backed ridges with deep caves of ice on either side and towering cliffs of ice almost over our head. At 4 pm, 21 hours after starting, we were inside the frontier guard house where we drank gallons of tea and broth.
“Welcome to Switzerland” were the words we heard next day October 6 1943 as we staggered through the village of Saas - free at last! Twelve months later, we were on our way home."
The incredible news was announced back home that Ron had arrived in Switzerland from Italy at the start of October ’44; an escaped POW! Health-wise, the journey had probably contributed to him contracting tonsilitis. But he was alive and free. The joyous news was a feature in the local papers back home with the News on the 22nd November proclaiming ‘Fourteen South Australians, who escaped from Italian prisoner-of-war camps and made their way to freedom through Switzerland, have arrived home after an absence of more than three years. Happily re-united with their families and friends, they are still finding it strange to be "running round loose."… all the other repatriated prisoners, paid a tribute to the Red Cross organisation and food parcels, which they said had undoubtedly saved many lives.” Another POW described his enduring upon his return to Australia was of “the welcome they were given in Melbourne. a dinner given by General Blamey where the repatriated men found turkey, strawberries, and ice cream, plus all the trimmings on the menu.” Incredibly, both Ron and Syd were in this group of returned POW’s.
Back home in SA for ‘rehabilitation’ it was not unexpected that Ron should go AWOL but unfortunately was docked pay. Tonsilitis, sinusitis, Malaria and ‘anxiety state’ were also part of his very predictable prognosis prior to his discharge on the 16th July ’45. He had, however, survived.
Those from the 2/48th who survived the war and returned home continued to remember their fallen comrades. These included Mick Salter SX8054, Ron and Syd Kinsman from the 2/48th. Their poignant tribute in ’45 reads “In memory of my pals of 2/48th Btn, killed in Tobruk. —Mick Salter, ex A Coy. In sad but loving memory of our dear pals from the 2nd/48th Batt especially D Company. Tobruk, May 1, 1941. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember you. —Your loving pals Ron Irwin and Syd Kinsman. P.O.W.'s and returned M.E.”
The paper ‘war’ then began with Ron applying for a housing grant in May ’78 and having to prove his service to Australia. Finally, he and his wife, Margaret were able to settle in Loxton in the Riverland where they brought up their five children, Ray, Kaye Allan, Kevin and Mark. Life looked good until 21-year-old Kevin was killed in an accident. In time, Ron and Margaret were able to enjoy seeing their family expand and the arrival of nine grand and seven great grandchildren.
81 year old Margaret (“Tuppy’) died in Loxton in November 2005. Ron had moved to Victor where he died on the 27th June, 2018 aged 97 and was privately cremated.
In a poignant tribute, his life-long mate, Syd Kinsman, placed a tribute in the local Advertiser:
“Mates before World War II, Mates in uniform 1941 – 1945, 2/48th Battalion 9th Australian Division, Rats of Tobruk. Mates until you left us 27/06/2018. Oh what a wonderful friendship we shared. Lest we forget. Remembered forever. Syd and June Kinsman and their families.”
Researched and written by Kaye Lee, daughter of Bryan Holmes SX8133, 2/48th Battalion.