Les Williams, Div. Petrol Company/ASC (1st Ech) | 2NZEF (WWII)
#4521 (Wellington) - Greece - Crete - Desert
Date: 15 May 1941 By: Kippenberger, Howard Karl (Sir), 1897-1957
Prison Valley, Crete, Greece, during World War 2. Soldiers in forground unidentified. Photograph taken 15 May, 1941, possibly by Howard Karl Kippenberger.
Les was born, grew up and did his schooling in Wellington. He remembers the hard years of the Depression. Leaving school at fifteen, he got a job as an apprentice mechanic and worked his way up to be fully qualified.
“Pretty tough! You had to be on the ball to survive in those days. We didn’t have a lot of money. I had to take a paper round to earn a few bob, instead of going to school. I think I started work when I was sixteen I think; fifteen or sixteen, at a place called Canadian Knight Motor Company. We were agents for all the ‘c-valve’ motor engines; Willies, Willies-Knights, Thorney-Cross, Whippets; we even had an aeroplane that we were agents for. But they went broke. They went broke in about 1933, just after the big earthquake at Murchison. I picked up another job at another outfit.”
“To give you an idea how tough things were, we used to work and get paid only if the work was there. I got to the stage where I only got 7/6 (7 shillings and 6 pence) for a week’s work. It wasn’t enough to live on. My mother had died, and I was living with my father – we were living together. I had a motorbike, so I said, ‘I’m going north. I’m going to see if I can find a job.’ So I ended up in Palmerston.”
“I got a job there. Not much pay, but enough to live on. Then things were just coming out of the Depression, and I wrote to a firm in Auckland. I got a job with the Morris (British brand of cars) people in Auckland. And I went up to Auckland for a while. I didn’t like Auckland – didn’t like the weather, didn’t like the town, didn’t like anything about it. So I wrote back to the firm I was with in Palmerston, and I got my old job back, and I went back to Palmerston to work.”
“And finally I went back to Wellington and worked for the big firm Wright Stephensons. They had the Vauxhall agency. Then I went to work out at General Motors. I was in charge of the Service Dept at General Motors. My job was to service the vehicles the company owned. Any fault with the car I had to find out what was causing the fault, set time to fix the job… so they would be paid what I assessed it would take to get it done.”
Les joined-up on the first day that war was declared, going into Trentham Camp for training with the First Echelon.
“You could see it coming. It was inevitable. I left General Motors and volunteered in 1939. The day we declared war I volunteered. They asked for volunteers and we got called-up within about a week. You’ve heard that poem, ‘Breathes there the men, with soul so dead, nothing be said…’ You know – he’d serve his country — that sort of thing. And (I was) a bit restless. Prospects of life weren’t all that good, so I thought, ‘Oh well… ’ It was obvious that conscription was around the corner. And I wasn’t happy about the idea of being conscripted, so I volunteered.”
“You know, you felt that you were doing the right thing sort of business. And the old man, he was very pleased with his youngest son joining up; being a typical ‘Englishman’ you might say because he was still English at heart. So was quite proud of his youngest son. General Motors was owned by an American firm, and their attitude was ‘help’ but not in a very active way, you know. I virtually had to resign. They would say ‘well, your job will be there when you get back.”
Not having been in the Army Cadets or Territorials, Army life in camp was a bit of shock to Les, as it was for many men in a similar situation – in the military for the first time. Being a qualified mechanic, Les was assigned as a driver in one of the Army’s mechanical areas – the Divisional Petrol Company.
Sailing with the First Echelon for the Middle East via Australia, Colombo and Aden, Les was soon camped at the newly built Maadi camp just outside Cairo; Exploring the city when not doing desert exercises.
After initial fighting against the Italians, Les was involved in the campaigns in Greece and Crete. On Crete, soon after the German attack on May the 20th he was wounded by shrapnel in fighting around the Pink Hill area near Galatas.
(Interview by Patrick Bronte)