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9th RAE

World War Two

World War Two was another turning point in the history for the Royal Australian Engineers. From a very small pre-war size (233 troops and 1750 militia) it expanded to a total of 32,984 men in 1945.

Some of the many and varied tasks undertaken by sappers in the Middle East theatre of war included clearing the way for the advance in the First Libyan Campaign, keeping the roads open in Greece in spite of German dive bombers, carrying out major demolitions during the withdrawal from Greece, laying minefields and constructing defences at Tobruk, clearing minefields during the El Alamein offensive, and construction of the Haifa-Tripoli railway.

The entry of Japan into the war in 1941 presented the Corps with new, and in many ways, more difficult problems. The redeployment of the 2nd AIF to the South West Pacific not only required adaptation to new techniques and different problems, but also demanded the creation of expanded control elements for the Corps. The appointment of the Engineer-in- Chief with the rank of Major-General and the Directors of Engineer Stores, Fortifications and Works, and Transportation, was the result.

The terrain, climate and general lack of communications facilities in Malaya, New Guinea and Borneo created problems. Roads, airfields, ports and bases had to be constructed almost every where and, as a consequence, by far the greater part of sapper effort was spent on construction tasks. On the combat engineering side, new techniques had to be developed and mastered for breaching obstacles during assault landing and clearing tunnels and bunkers. The Seria oil installations in Borneo provide an excellent example of the varied tasks undertaken by the sappers. Left a blazing wreck by the Japanese, this oilfield was reconstructed and put into production again by the 9th Division Engineers.


  The Bulldog Road in 1943                                                         (AWM 056218)

The Bulldog Road
Letter from Fred to Phena

New Guinea                                                                       
3.10.1945 - VX74662
Spr Wallace Fred
9th Australian field Coy
R.A.E A.I.F Australia

My dear Phena, just a line hoping this finds you and the children well, as it leaves myself at present still kicking.  Well love its Wednesday today.  I have been up all night loading out gear and feel pretty weary just now.  We are moving today - round about dinner time.  We are going to Ambon.  Don’t know how long the trip will take but will write as soon as we land.  We are going over on the West Australia – a pretty big boat, but there is a fair mob going.  There is one good thing – it will shorten our trip home as it’s not far from Darwin – about 500 miles.  They say they are starting from the ones with 217 points first in the demobilising, so I will be in about the third batch, as it goes down to 195 then, so I can’t miss out on the third seeing I have 188.  It is going to be pretty hot here today by the feel of it now.  I have just had breakfast. Such as it was a couple of spoonfuls of stew and no bread or biscuits, There isn’t much I can tell you love, so I will have to bring this so called letter to an end.  Hoping this finds you and the children well and to hear from you soon.


I will close with tons of love and millions of kisses to you darling. 
To my darling Phena from Fred.   I remain your ever loving husband.

To little Shirley and Elaine from Daddy.

Write by return

Private VX74662 - (Cousin)
Fredrick Wallace. (Fred)
9th Royal Australian Engineers.
Served in New Guinea, Wau and the Owen Stanley Ranges.  He was involved in the building of the famous Bull Dog road.  Fred was born on the 9th of March 1913 to John Valentine Wallace & Ilma Selina Browning. Fred was a loving cousin of the Hutchins brothers, and had been hoping for their safe return after the war. In October 1945 Fred thought he was heading for home - instead he was sent to the Island of Ambon for the recovery of the Australians in the mass graves at Laha Airfield, and at the Tan Tui Prison camp. Fred had to identify his cousins and struggled terribly with those memories throughout his life. Fred died on the 20th of November 1980, aged 70. Fred was married to Phena and had 2 children. He is buried with Phena at the Daylesford lawn cemetery.
Eerie Life in Moss Forest

Australian engineers and sappers who built the now famous Bull Dog Road across the central alpine barrier to Wau performed an amazing engineering exploit in one of the strangest regions of the earth
– the eerie, lifeless moss forests 9,000 feet up in the remote mountain fastness of New Guinea.

Staff correspondent – E. Axford.

The few explorers and government officers who had penetrated this inaccessible region predicted failure for any engineering undertaken in such inhospitable country. To reach the foothills of the 10,000ft mountain barrier, they said, would involve 70 miles of river transport and 20 miles of transportation over almost indiscernible native pads. From there the 70 miles of road would have to be blasted out of the side of precipitous rock gorges, cut out of the rain forests and torn through what they considered was the impassable impediment of the moss forests a maze of spongy moss and knotted roots through which men sank up to their necks as in a mire. It was a goblin land, silent and lifeless except for a few strange birds, a land seldom penetrated by white men and feared by the natives who dwelt in the coastal belt. If it was traversed at all it was by a wild tribe of Pygmies – the notorious Kuku Kuku head hunters, believed to be the world’s only surviving tribe of cannibals.
Forbidden Reports

Despite these forbidden reports it was decided that the road must go through. Strategic considerations early in 1943 demanded an overland supply route to Wau and the northern coast. A small party, operating from the northern side, went into the jungle from the Edie creek at the end of 1942 and surveyed the route across the great central watershed, crossing a 10,000ft range of mountains in the process. As a result of the explorations of these men, work on the road began in February 1943, construction being pushed ahead of from both ends of the route. Trains of native porters, sometimes hundreds of men strong were transported 70 miles up the Lake Kamu River, its banks lined with hundreds of square miles of sago swamps, its waters infested with crocodiles, its forests inhabited by plagues of foxes and cockatoos. Bull Dog, where the road begins, is very low – lying and the jungle about it is dense. For the first 20 miles the road follows the swiftly flowing river. Then it starts to climb through the foothills, where a path has to be blasted from one precipice to another. Following an old native pad, climbing crazily, the pack trains moved laboriously up, taking four hours to travel three miles, ascending 3,500ft in that time. The only way to take the road this precipitous course was to construct a series of reverse loops.
Encounters with Pygmies

In this primitive part of the country the road makers had their first encounters with the Pygmies, the adults about 4ft 6in tall, their heads shaven except for a tall top-knot of matted hair, necklets of dogs tails strung around their necks, boars tusks piercing their noses. In these early encounters several native porters were killed by arrows, in the use of which the pygmies are exceptionally skilled. Later, when they discovered the white men were not hostile, the pygmies grew friendlier and showed willingness to barter. At a height of 6,000ft the jungle ends and the rain forest begins, the mountains rise sheer from the beds of deep gullies and the use of earth moving and road making machinery is out of the question. The entire job had to be done with pick, shovel, gelignite, muscle and sweat. At 7,500ft the rain forest ends and the mossy forest begins. This is a chill, uncanny region where the trees are stunted and their branches grow downward instead of upward. From out of the ground the roots rise up in great whorls, creating a fantastic tangle foot through which it is almost impossible to move, and over the whole grows a great green covering of moss. Sometimes the roots and the moss grow 5ft above the ground, producing a false surface. To cross this deceptive carpet, men must pick their way gingerly from root to root, and if they slip they disappear like a stone tossed into a bed of slime.
Disney scene

The engineers who hacked the road through it call it the Land of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. After the heat and sweat of the jungle engineers entered a region where the mornings are cool and the nights are bitterly cold. By midday a chilly mist comes down from the peaks and steady rain sets in, continuing all afternoon and all night. During the building of the road it was not unusual to see air battles being fought in the nearby clouds. For at that time the Japanese were still trying desperately to prevent our bombers pounding Lae and Salamaua. All the time, the work of the engineers was bedevilled by landslides, for the hills were steep and the soil soggy with rain. It was not unusual for a whole weeks work to be wiped out in a few seconds by a large fall of earth. The men who built the road worked in this desolate land for weeks and months without contact with the outside world. A few simple comforts and needs were ministered by a Y.M.C.A welfare officer, Mr H.P Black, who spent months on the track bringing in such welcome oddments as writing paper and envelopes, soap, tobacco, chewing gum, playing cards, and draughts. The staple food was bully beef, but along the river flats and in the foothills the monotonous fare was supplemented by rare indigenous luxuries such as cassowary, wallaby, wild boar, mud turtle and bird of paradise. From the summit of the mountain barrier the road descends to Edie Creek (7,000ft), and so links up with Wau. On august 31, 1943, the first jeep went over the road from end to end. One of the most difficult military engineering jobs ever attempted, either in this war or the last, had been completed in six months.


(AWM 056501)


(AWM 054910)

More letters from Fred to Phena: