A Young Soldier’s Letters From The Front

Soldier Letter

Sydney author’s remarkable discovery leads to an historic family chronicle.

John McNamee meets the niece of an heroic Australian war veteran and pioneering pastoralist.

It was after he was lying in the stinking trenches of Tobruk, watching his fellow soldiers dying under the tracks of Rommel’s tanks, that a young Australian infantryman began writing letters to his mother back home in Sydney.

It was Easter 1941 and the Desert Fox’s hitherto invincible Panzer divisions were rolling across the North African sand dunes on their way to what they expected to be an inevitable victory for the German war machine.

But it was the stern resistance of the Allied troops, among them a group of mainly Australian infantrymen, which was to rewrite history and ultimately lead to Rommel’s unexpected withdrawal.

Among these  raw recruit soldiers was John Murray, a 26 year old former jackaroo. In all he wrote more than 100 letters to his mother, Constance Murray, from that terrifying front describing in vivid details the harsh desert conditions which led to the embattled defenders going down in history as the Rats of Tobruk.

march

John Murray’s 2/13th Battalion marching through Katoomba  on their way to the camp at Bathurst.

John Murray was an original volunteer member of the Australian 2/13th Battalion which went to North Africa and not only became the first AIF unit to be attacked from the air and on the ground by the Germans, but also the last AIF unit to leave Tobruk.

It was during the decisive Easter Battle of Tobruk in 1941 that John Murray and his battalion played their part in an ingenious strategy which eventually turned the tide of war against Rommel.

As they were lying in their special anti-trenches at dawn, the Australians were instructed to duck down to allow the ominously advancing massive tanks to roll over them.

Heavy loss of life was inevitable but as the tanks crossed the trench lines, they left behind their following infantry, now unprotected by the Panzer muzzles.

The entrenched troops, using field artillery and heavy machine guns, were able to encircle the advancing  German divisions and wreak havoc.

It was the first time the Germans had been defeated on land.

anzac day

Former RAT of Tobruk and pioneer pastoralist John Murray with a young family member on ANZAC Day

The 1941 siege of Tobruk lasted for 240 days until the vastly depleted survivors were relieved by the Eight Army.

But Rommel’s previously invincible hold in North Africa was badly shaken and culminated in his eventual defeat at the epic battle of El Alamein in late 1942.
Sydney author’s remarkable discovery leads to an historic family chronicle.

John McNamee meets the niece of an heroic Australian war veteran and pioneering pastoralist.

John Murray survived the North African campaign and returned to Australia where he was appointed an intelligence officer and went on to serve with distinction in New Guina and Borneo.

He also became a pioneering pastoralist, successfully helped establish the tick-resistant Brahmin cattle industry in Queensland and went on to become a Liberal Party Member of Parliament in the Menzies Government (1958-1961) and later a State Member in Queensland.

But it was the discovery of the treasure trove of letters to his mother from the North African front that led to John Murray’s remarkable army career and distinguished later life, being published as part of an extraordinary new book.

Its author is John Murray’s niece … Sydney writer Louise Austin, and her grandmother Constance Murray, was the recipient of the brilliantly  written wartime memories.

Louise has spent the past five years chronicling Captain John Murray’s extraordinary life.

“Of course many of my uncle’s letters were heavily censored but it’s still frightening stuff.. he told me himself of how the Aussie troops had to go out at night and patrol into No Man’s Land where the casualties from the landmines was horrific,” Louise said.

“The description of the shrapnel injuries and the mortifying wounds, the unbearable heat, the constant attacks … unbelievable ,”

It was while she was researching her family history for an autobiographical book, Secrets and Silence, that Louise came across the letters and decided to carry out a series of long interviews with her then 87-year-old uncle.

“He was able to fill in all the gaps of his early life as the illegitimate son of a famous pastoralist, his wartime career, his later political and farming life and it became a real life’s work for both of us.

“I’m convinced that over the past few years it kept him alive… it was strange but despite not talking much about war during his later life, he wanted in his final years for the story to come out.”

Louise said she was able to combine the content of the letters and her uncle’s reminiscences into the book, titled Journey to Tobruk, to be published in August by Murdoch Books.

John Murray, MBE, died in January this year aged 93.

On February 10, the Queensland Legislative Assembly stood for one minute’s silence in recognition of his contributions  as a grazier, cattleman, CMF commander, and Federal and State politician.

“It was an extraordinary journey for me discovering a whole volume of family secrets which are revealed in the book and which were actually part of the history of a famous pioneering Australian family,” Louise said.

Louise lives in Sydney’s eastern suburbs with her husband Terry. Their son, Ben, 38, and his wife Rachel have a baby daughter Ashling and their daughter Lucy, 36, and her husband Stuart have two children, Hugh 7 and Bella, 5.

*Journey to Tobruk by Louise Austin will be published in August by Murdoch Books.

Top picture  John Murray in Officer Training at OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) in Egypt (July – November 1942. John is in second top row – third on right. 

22 Comments

  • Janie Kerr says:

    Re: “A Young Soldier’s Letters from the Front” by John McNamee

    A big thankyou to John McNamee for writing such an excellent article about our wonderful cousin, author Louise Austin, who lovingly and devotedly wrote the biography of our amazing Father, John Murray.

    Our family is most grateful and very proud!!

    Warmest best wishes

    The Murray Family
    c/o Janie Kerr (daughter)

  • This book will make an excellent read I am sure. http://WWW.Western-Desert.De

  • steph williams says:

    I have known Louise since 1970 and am looking forward very much to this latest accomplishment. Lou is a perfectionist and I cannot wait until August.

  • Jane Dawson says:

    I can’t wait to read Journey to Tobruk-what an incredible journey for Uncle Johnny and Louise and how lucky we will be to take part in it.

  • Pippa Mazoudier says:

    I have known Louise Austin for many years and am aware of the time, energy, skill and devotion involved in the writing of her Uncle Johnny’s story. I’m another who can’t wait to read Journey to Tobruk.

  • Malcolm Holmes says:

    Louise Austin is a stunning new talent. Having read her first book, “Secrets and Silence” we can’t wait to read this next one.

  • Kate Shepherd says:

    Oh aunty Lou, am so proud of all your hard work in bringing this story into the the light for so many people. No shit Sherlock….I love you and your talent.
    Much Love your everlovin’ niece, Kate x

  • Claire Hammond says:

    I’ve been privileged to read this wonderful book as it evolved. I was moved to tears, and I laughed out loud. Few I think appreciate Lou’s unwavering dedication over the past five years, born of an admiration (shared) and love for UJ. It’s a wonderful story, one that deserved to be told.

  • Max Wilson says:

    My late father was a personal friend & fellow digger with John Murray. I was fortunate to meet him & several of his sons at a couple of the El Alamein dinners in brisbane——-& I briefly met him again in his wheelchair at one of the Anzac day marches in Brisbane several years ago ( after my father had passed on) He was a increadible man. His family must be very proud.I felt honoured to meet him. I have brought the book & look forward to reading his story at my earliest convience. Thank you for writing it. My father, like many others, refused to speak much of his experiences so you did well to get so much information from him. Congratulations, max Wilson ( Son of Keith Wilson NX 15031

  • louise austin says:

    Dear Max
    It was so exciting to hear from you tonight! I too thought John Murray was an amazing man – and so generous in telling me his life’s story, when much of it must have been so painful for him.
    Thank you very much for getting in touch! I really hope you enjoy the story.
    Warmest best wishes
    Louise

  • Robin Bittner says:

    I read this article with fascination for two reasons. It sounds like a very good read. But more immediately important to me, I think I finally found the relative Constance Murray I have been searching for. If Constance was “Lady”, had a granddaughter Helen who lived on Karuah Lane Turramurra NSW, and was of Macintyre descent she is a cousin. My mother corresponded with her in the late 1960’s, Helen and I wrote back and forth for about a year. If this is the correct Constance, please, please reply. Thank you so much. Robin (Leigher) Bittner (USA)

  • Louise Austin says:

    Hello Robin
    So sorry to disappoint you but I think this is the wrong Constance Murray. My grandmother’s name was in fact Laura Constance Treweek (born in 1890). Constance Murray was an imaginary name she chose to live by in the second decade of the 1900s when she needed to protect herself and her illegitimate children. (Chester Byron Murray was her children’s imaginary father who apparently died of Spanish flu!) Laura became Constance Glanville when she married Charles Glanville in 1934. Good luck with the search for your relative! Warmeset regards, Louise Austin

  • Dennis Ryan says:

    Ms Austin, I just saw this book today and intend to purchase it very soon. Your uncle sounds like a remarkable man. I am particularly interested in the 2/13th Battalion, having read ‘Bayonets Abroad’ many years ago. You may have already covered this in your book, but your uncle is mentioned twice in another book I own – ‘Bravery Above Blunder’, about the 9th Division in New Guinea 1943-44, by Lt Gen (Retd) John Coates. Can you recommend any other books about the 2/13th Bn? Thanks.

  • Louise Austin says:

    Hello Dennis
    I’ve only just read your message – thanks so much for writing! I have read Bravery Above Blunder – it’s great – and I do refer to that book in Journey to Tobruk! You would enjoy reading “We Had Some Bother” edited by Hugh Gillan – it’s a collection of 2/13th “Tales from the Infantry” (but difficult to obtain unfortunately). You could refer to my bibliography for details of all the references I used during the writing of my story. I’d love to hear how you enjoy the book! Thanks again for writing…and happy reading! Best regards, Louise

  • It touched my heart to read about this story.

  • louise austin says:

    Dear Rita
    Thank you for leaving your comment. It touched my heart to write the story – after many wonderful hours interviewing my uncle. Those diggers were extraordinarily brave men – no doubt about that!
    Warm regards
    Louise (Austin)

  • Cheryl Chandler says:

    Dear Louise, I am amazed to learn all this fascinated to be exact, your grandmother was my grandfathers sister my mother was Sara Thelma treweek, her father was Samuel Thomas he died when I was 1yo, I am desperately trying to discover more of our history, I have a John Treweek Married a Mary Anthony, and told that I am related to Julie Anthony and Doug Anthony, but have no dates or any other links.
    Regards Cheryl

  • Robyn Pike says:

    Dear Louise
    I have jsut finished your book and I have felt that I have followed my fathers footsteps (Pte Alfred George Enness) through this book. Thank you for writing it! My father too was enlisted initially in the 8th B’n Wagga and transferred to the 2/13th, Transferred to 20th Bgde HQ and embarked on the QM and so it goes. Dad saw the full theatre of war and he was a transport Driver between HQ and the frontline including moving official personel and stores. In New Gueines it was much the same but he also was required to treat water and became so ill he spent more time in hospital that on the front which may in fact have saved his life.
    I have a breakfast menu card from the QM signed my many, some are mentioned in your book. If at all interested I am happy to share a copy of this document with you. Ialso have a photopraph of dad with the commanders on Christmas day in the middle east sitting at a table. They had swapped hats for the occasion. I do not know the nmes of the men in this photo. I have also a photo of Sgt H Patterson that dad had.
    Regards Robyn

  • louise austin says:

    Dear Cheryl
    I have only just read your email – as I haven’t been on this site for a while.
    It is amazing that we have common ancestors – it means that we must be second cousins?
    Unfortunately I don’t have very much information about the Treweeks, as I suppose my grandmother had to “hide” her story from them? However, I did hear that my grandmother’s brother vowed to get on his bike and travel around Australia until he found his sister….that was shortly before he died. That must have been your grandfather? I will try to find the source of that story and get back to you! Thanks so much for writing!! Talk soon …bye for now, Louise

  • louise austin says:

    Dear Robyn
    It was fascinating to read how similar your father’s and my uncle’s stories were! Thanks so much for writing. What an incredible war history they had – and your father’s sounds to have been full of excitement and danger, being
    a transport driver between stores and the front line at Tobruk. Yes – he probably was fortunate to have spent some time in hospital in PNG – the stories from there were terrible. It’s great that you have some of the mementos from all his years of duty. Thanks again for writing, Robyn. Best wishes, Louise

  • Cheryl Chandler says:

    Dear Louise,
    Thank you for replying, I have done a lot of Family Tree Making since then, and discovered heaps of info, we have a very exciting family history dating back further than William the Conquerer who was related, through John Trewike and Mary st Austyn, email me for more.
    Love Cheryl

  • louise austin says:

    Dear Cheryl
    So sorry I’ve taken all this time to reply. I heard from my cousin, Robbie Murray, which prompted me to go to Go 55s. She’s been in touch with Anita Moylan, whose grandfather was Samuel Treweek.
    I would love to hear more about the Treweeks!!
    My email is louiseaustin@iprimus.com.au
    Looking forward to hearing from you!! Love from Louise

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