‘We would have been better off in tents!’
It is Easter 1942, and four Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) servicemen sit next to a hole they have dug in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building grounds holding a sign, that reads ‘RAAF Trench Diggers 1942 Champ Team’. The man second from the left is Alan Walton. It may look like fun, but their work is deadly serious.
Just seven weeks earlier, Singapore (then a British colony) had fallen to Japanese forces and Australia suffered casualties on home soil with the bombing of Darwin—the threat of invasion was looming, and the population was on high alert. Trenches were being dug across Melbourne, while air raid shelters multiplied in suburban backyards.
The Exhibition Buildings were a temporary home to thousands of RAAF and Women’s Auxiliary Air force personnel during World War II, training to support the war effort. Alan marched off each weekday to technical college to become an instrument-maker. At night he returned to his bed on the first-floor balcony of the dusty, once-grand building, squinting in the dim light.
‘It was certainly no Hilton! We slept on the balconies…in cubicles of four. We had no lockers or anything, everything was out on display and of course a lot of stuff used to get pinched.
‘It was good for exhibitions, but it was no good for barracks...we would have been better off in tents!’
Alan spent just three months at the Exhibition Buildings. By February 1943 he was working at the Gorrie Airfield, in the Northern Territory—a repair depot for planes including Spitfires, Beauforts and Ansons. These bases were high-value targets for Japanese bombers, and Alan and his fellow servicemen faced danger every day. He finished the war as an instrument maker, promoted to the rank of Corporal.