The Merredin Military Museum, Great Eastern Highway, Merredin, Western Australia. Photo: Julian Tennant
The Merredin Military Museum is easily found from the street with this World War 1 Vickers manufactured Ordnance BL 6 inch 26cwt howitzer sitting out the front of the museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Bell 206B-1 Kiowa recon helicopter used by the Australian Army from 1972 – 2019. Photo: Julian Tennant
View of the open air exhibits at the Merredin Military Museum. Some of the vehicles on display include a Mk III Valentine tank, Staghound armoured car, Aermacchi MB-326H jet, UH-1H and Bell 206B-1 Kiowa helicopters and a M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier. Photo: Julian Tennant
Situated approximately 256 km (159 miles) east of Perth and roughly halfway to the goldfields surrounding Kalgoorlie, the town of Merredin was established as a rest stop for travellers making their way to the goldfield region. Being so far from the coast the town also became an important military base during World War 2 when military planners were establishing a defensive line in the event of a Japanese invasion. Merredin was considered distant enough from the coast to be out of range of carrier borne aircraft, close to major road and rail supply routes and in an area where there were good food and water supplies. As a result the town and surrounding district was home to several military bases during the war and since the early 1990’s, home to the Merredin Military Museum.
I had been wanting to visit this museum for some time and after giving the curator, Rob Endersbee a call to confirm that it would be open, I left Perth early on Friday morning for the three-hour drive. Because of its history during WW2, there are a number of military related sites around the area, so the plan was to stay in town overnight and make a leisurely drive back to Perth on Saturday or Sunday, checking out anything that took my fancy on the way.
Despite leaving quite early, I did get a little distracted on the drive when I passed an old service station in the town of Meckering, just over an hour outside of Perth. The gas station had been redecorated to look like a huge SLR camera and was now The Big Camera – Museum of Photography, a private collection of hundreds, if not thousands, of old cameras and photographic equipment that made for a nice little rest stop.
Arriving at the Merredin Military Museum shortly after 11am, I was met by Bill Beer, one of the volunteers and a little later, Rob the curator, both of whom were happy to talk about the exhibits and provide additional information about the pieces on display. The museum was established in the early 1990’s after three local collectors accepted an offer from the Merredin army cadet unit to pool their collections and set up a display in one of their sheds.
By 1998 and with support from the local shire the collections had been relocated to a new home, the old railway communications building less than 200m away from the train station and tourist information centre making it very convenient for any visitor arriving from Perth. The current location houses the three private collections as well as the museum’s own growing collection, so it is rather eclectic and as a result quite fascinating, including items that I had not expected to encounter in a regional town.
The first of these is in the main display room where an extremely rare Folbot (folding boat) canoe used by the Australian Services Reconnaissance Department’s “Z” Special Unit operators is suspended from the ceiling. This was the same type of canoe used by the two-man teams during OPERATION JAYWICK to paddle into Singapore harbour and attach limpet mines to the Japanese shipping. There is also a small display of other “Z” Special Unit items, including a detonator timer and a very rare Australian Army Stiletto (AAS) which is the Australian made dagger based on the famed Fairbairn Sykes design.
Clock timer used for initiating explosives. Part of the “Z” Special Unit display at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
World War 2 period uniform of the 2/23rd Infantry Battalion (left) and Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps officers tunic circa 1945 (right).
World War 2 period RAAF winter greatcoat belonging to WJ (Bill) Allen who served in the Battle of Britain as an Air Gunner and finished his war service in 1945 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Photo: Julian Tennant
Items belonging to WX16991 Jack Flinders, who served with the SRD (Z Special Unit). Photo: Julian Tennant
Other rooms in the building feature an extensive selection of models and communications equipment, including an interesting display relating to one of Australia’s first surveillance units, the 2/1st Northern Australia Observation Unit, whose role was to carry out horse mounted patrols in the arid north watching for signs of Japanese invasion. There are also spaces dedicated to the local military history including several uniforms related RAAF personnel and the nurses who served with the 2/1st Australian General Hospital that was based at Merredin in 1942-3, as well as the Vietnam war, a weapons display and the WW1 Honour Rolls room. This last room reminds us that of the approximately 375 local men who left to serve in WW1, 70 were killed in action. A significant number for any small rural community of the time.
World War 2 period RAAF Air Gunner’s tunic and sign from the old Merredin Hotel. Photo: Julian Tennant
Two of the Australian Army issued booklets on display at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Uniform worn by nurses who served with the 2/1st Australian General Hospital in Merredin, 1942/3. Photo: Julian Tennant
Uniform worn by nurses who served with the 2/1st Australian General Hospital in Merredin, 1942/3. Photo: Julian Tennant
2/1st Australian General Hospital display depicting the tent wards that existed when the unit first relocated to Merredin from Guildford in July 1942. Photo: Julian Tennant
A nice WW2 period Submarine Trench Art piece made from brass shell casings and bullet heads. Photo: Julian Tennant
Royal Australian Navy submariner wearing the Disruptive Pattern Navy Uniform (SW12). Photo: Julian Tennant
Some of the extensive range of model tanks and AFV’s on display at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
A section of the Vietnam War display room at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Australian Armed Forces Vietnam airmail envelopes and an anti-union card which originated after the postal union urged its members not to send mail to the servicemen in Vietnam. Photo: Julian Tennant
Dolls in Vietnamese national dress presented to Australian troops as a token of gratitude from the Government of the Republic of Vietnam. For many, these dolls are best known as the ‘award’ that was presented to members of Delta Company 6 RAR after the Battle of Long Tan in 1966 after the Australian Government denied the Vietnamese Government’s request to award them gallantry medals after the battle. The dolls were, however, given to many Australian servicemen, not just the Long Tan participants. Photo: Julian Tennant.
Vietnam war period 3 Cavalry Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC) beret and badge. Photo: Julian Tennant
Australian infantryman, Vietnam. Photo: Julian Tennant
First World War Australian Imperial Force digger’s uniform in the WW1 room at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
First World War Australian Light Horse uniform in the WW1 room at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
First World War Australian medics uniform in the WW1 room at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Outside and in the vehicle shed are a several military vehicles plus aircraft, some of which are undergoing restoration, including a working Mk III Valentine tank, an CAC Aermacchi MB-326H (Macchi) training jet built under license by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, a 1980’s era Toyota station wagon (something that for some reason I never expected to see in a museum) and an interesting Bren Gun carrier, officially designated the Universal Carrier MG, Local Pattern No. 2 (LP2), that had been converted to carry a QF 2 Pounder anti-tank gun. Designated the Carrier, Anti-tank, 2-pdr, (Aust) or Carrier, 2-pdr Tank Attack, it is a heavily modified and lengthened LP2 carrier with a fully traversable QF 2 pounder anti-tank gun mounted on a platform at the rear and the engine moved to the front left of the vehicle. Stowage was provided for 112 rounds of 2pdr ammunition. Bill said that around 200 were produced and were used for training but he did not think that they saw operational service.
Mk III Valentine and M3 Grant tanks undergoing conservation and restoration at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Officially designated ‘Car, Armoured, Heavy,’ but colloquially known by Australian crews as the ‘Stag’. The Staghound Armoured Car entered service with the Australian Army in 1943, and the last of the vehicles were retired in the late 1960s. Photo: Julian Tennant
Toyota station wagon used by the Australian Army in the 1980’s. Photo: Julian Tennant
Australian Army M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
A WW1 period 18 Pounder wagon/limber that had been converted to be used with the 25 Pounder gun (as seen in the background) due to the shortage of purpose built limbers for these artillery pieces. The limbers had new axel bars, truck tyres, breaks and mud-guards added. These went on to serve in the Middle East and Pacific Campaigns. Photo: Julian Tennant
Australian M3 Stuart tank undergoing restoration at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
The Wiles Junior Mobile Cooker. Invented by Boer War veteran, James Fletcher Wiles, who recognised the difficulties involved in preparing hot meals for troops close to the front-line. During World War 1 over 300 of these cookers were used in Australia, Egypt and France by Australian troops. Photo: Julian Tennant
25 Pounder Gun on display at the Merredin Military Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant
Chatting with Rob and Bill towards the end of my visit, it was quite interesting to hear some of stories surrounding the exhibits, but it also reinforced my respect for the people who keep places like the Merredin Military Museum open to the public. This is a private museum, running on a very tight budget, relying on donations and the goodwill of the public, plus its dedicated volunteers to stay afloat. When Rob heard that I was coming up from Perth for the visit, he told Bill, who actually turned up before the 10am opening time to make sure that somebody would be there when I arrived… which kinda made me feel bad for taking the break at The Big Camera in Meckering.
Rob also told me that despite a lot of information still stating that the museum is only open from Monday to Friday, it is NOW OPEN 7 DAYS PER WEEK from 10:00 until 15:00, but if you’re passing through Merredin and want to visit outside of those hours, give him a call and he will try to arrange to have it opened so that you can get in. That shows real dedication and I definitely recommend a visit the Merredin Military Museum as a day or overnight trip from Perth or if you’re making a trip to visit the goldfields around Kalgoorlie. Finally, if you are interested in exploring more of the sites related to the war history of Merredin and the wheatbelt region this RAC magazine article and this guide from the Merredin Tourist Visitors Centre are also worth reading.
The Merredin Military Museum
Great Eastern Highway
Western Australia 6415
Australia’s special forces trace their history back to World War 2, with the operations conducted by the Independent Commando companies, Navy Beach Commando, the Services Reconnaissance Department SRD (Z Special Unit) and the Allied Intelligence Bureau (M Special Unit). Post war, the skills and traditions were maintained by the commando companies which later evolved into 1 Commando Regiment and then in 1957 by the raising of a Special Air Service Company which became the Special Air Service Regiment in 1964. 2 Commando Regiment evolved out of the re-tasking of the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, to take on the commando role becoming 4 RAR (Cdo) in 1997 and then 2 Commando Regiment in 2009.
Command and control for Australian special operations units was initially maintained by the Directorate Special Action Forces – Army (DSAF) which was formed in 1979 and underwent several changes, becoming Headquarters Special Forces (1990), Headquarters Special Operations (1997) and in 2003 Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Commanded by a Major General, SOCOM also brings other special operations support units under its control, namely the Special Operations Logistic Squadron (SOLS), Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER), Special Operations Training and Education Centre (SOTEC) and Parachute Training School (PTS).
In keeping with the requirements of special forces operations, the activities of many of Australia’s special operations units have, largely, been kept out of the public domain despite a gruelling tempo of operational commitments that has barely let up since the INTERFET deployment to East Timor in 1999. Public interest in the units has grown markedly and this temporary exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra provides a rare insight into the activities of the Australian special forces in recent years.
Developed in partnership with SOCOM, this exhibition features items held behind closed doors in the Special Air Service Historical Collection, Commando Regiment collection and other sources as well as some artifacts from the AWM’s collections. The displays provide some historical insights into the development of the units along with uniforms, equipment and artifacts related to its various roles, tasks and operations with an emphasis recent operational deployments.
It had been several years since I was last able to visit the AWM, so I recently took advantage of an opportunity to visit Canberra and spend a few solid days checking out this exhibition and the other displays. As previously mentioned, From the Shadows draws on objects held in the unit collections and not available for public viewing. There are over 600 artifacts on display and I was surprised to find that many of the SF related items that are held in the AWM collection such as SAS trooper Don Barnby’s uniform from Vietnam or objects relating to Z Special Unit’s operations against the Japanese, remained in their respective exhibition areas which further helps to contextualise these units roles in the conflicts represented.
The photos that I have included here are just a taste of what is on offer in the From the Shadows exhibition and I’ll leave my other photos from the AWM collection for another post. From the Shadows runs until the 8th of September 2018. If you can make the trip to Canberra to check it out, I strongly recommend that you do, it is an excellent exhibition. More details about the exhibition can be found at the Australian War Memorial website. The ABC also did a piece about it when the exhibition first opened in 2017 and it is worth taking a look at. You can find a link to their article here.
‘From the Shadows: Australia’s Special Forces – The Operators’ video that was featured in the gallery during the exhibition