Tribute to Cessnock Electorate Soldiers

I pay tribute to two of Australia’s finest soldiers from the Cessnock electorate who unfortunately passed away in the past couple of weeks. Herbert Joseph Ferres, who is known as Burt Ferres, was one of the Rats of Tobruk. He was born and raised in Brighton-Le-Sands in the electorate of my good colleague the member for Rockdale.

As a 14-year-old he told a small white lie so that he could join the cadets. The joining age was 16. At the age of 17 he told another little white lie while wearing his cadet uniform so that he could enrol in the infantry. He told them that he was 20. This enabled Bert to be on a ship that left Sydney Harbour to head off to the war-torn Middle East. Bert was the only one up at the front of the ship with the officer on duty. Every other person was at the back of the ship, waving farewell to Sydney as they went out through the heads. Bert was looking forward to other things.

Bert ultimately served as a Rat of Tobruk, a badge that all Rats wear with honour. While serving as a member of the 2/13th Battalion during the siege of Tobruk in 1941 Bert was one of the soldiers who held the Libyan port. The soldiers were referred to as “rats” in a German propaganda broadcast about the campaign. It was meant as an insult, but the Australians took it on as a nickname for a unit that became legendary. They were up against the formidable forces of Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, widely regarded as one of the German army’s finest tacticians. Rommel’s Afrika Korps had never been defeated, and throughout the 241-day siege of Tobruk they generally outnumbered the Allies by at least two to one. Nevertheless, the Allies held out.

Bert’s contribution was immense. On 29 November 1941, while posted to the left of his battalion and seeing it come under heavy machine-gun fire, Bert and three other soldiers ran towards the German machine-gun post. They took out the machine gun with their bayonets and hand grenades. They saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives. For that Bert was awarded the Military Medal. In addition, he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour and two other Polish medals, one for services rendered to the Polish army on the battlefield. Bert was one of the few Australian servicemen awarded a Polish commendation. I was fascinated to find out at Bert’s funeral that he was married to a lovely lady named Lottie, who was described as “a sassy lady”. Bert sat beside Lottie’s bed for the last five years of her life, after she had had a stroke, holding her hand so that she could sleep more comfortably. They say it was a love story that was one in a million.

The second gentleman I will speak about is Arthur Francis, OAM, CSC. Arthur and his family moved to Australia when Arthur was eight. They moved first to Cessnock and then to a little village called Kearsley. Arthur spent 33 years in the military, rising to become a regimental sergeant major of the Australian Army. He was one of three soldiers from Cessnock to have achieved that incredible rank. In 1964, at the age of 17, Arthur joined the regular army and was soon posted to serve in Malaya. He spent time on operational service in Malaya and Borneo before volunteering to serve in Vietnam in 1968. After his first 12-month tour he returned to Australia before going back to Vietnam for a second tour. He stayed with the platoon until 1975. At the end of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam in 1973 Arthur went on to serve in Townsville, Kapooka and Brisbane and at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. In 1994 he was promoted to regimental sergeant major and served in the position for three years. Arthur retired in 1996. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia and the Conspicuous Service Cross for his achievements.

Arthur was married to Pam. He had two children, Simon and Stewart. I am happy to call Stewart a mate of mine. I knew Arthur for some years. About 15 years ago we set up an all-ages soccer team and Stewart brought along an old fella to play with our team. At the time Arthur was 55 years old and twice as fit as the rest of us 20‑somethings who were trying to play the game. Since that time Arthur has been a friend. For Stewie’s bucks show treat we decided to go paintballing. I guess it was a tour of duty. The regimental sergeant major was in his camouflage gear on the other side of the ravine. The first whistle went and the buck found himself with a paintball to the side of the temple and his dad giggling on the other end of the rifle. I do not know why we decided to go paintballing with a regimental sergeant major, but we did. My condolences to Pam, Simon and Stewart and their extended family. I commend Arthur and Bert. Lest we forget.