In February 2019 I had the privilege of attending my great uncle’s ‘Last Post’ ceremony at the Australian War Memorial (AWM). On reflection and although 78 years since his passing in North Africa, it was the funeral and memorial service Harold Redlich never had. Organised by my aunt in conjunction with the AWM historical research staff, the service was reverent and solemn. As the bugle sounded the Last Post and everyone stood in silence, we mourned the loss of a relative whom I hadn’t know personally yet had heard so much about. My cousin Bill Redlich and I, both former infantry soldiers, were proud to lay a wreath together.
Australia’s War Memorial is a valuable asset, the artefacts and memorabilia on display respectfully providing an accurate reflection of the theatres of conflict our service personnel have been involved in worldwide, inspiration for this article dawning as I browsed the WWII North Africa display. Often we here about the personal weapon carried by a particular soldier but I took a keen interest in the enemy weapon and specifically the cartridge we suspect was used to kill my uncle in battle.
A brief history
Born into a timber cutting family at Esk, Queensland in 1916, Harold Redlich was the middle child of five to Latvian immigrant parents. In what was undoubtedly a tough upbringing according to my late grandfather, Harold was restless, yearning for adventure and leaving home at an early age.
As with many young men of his generation much time was spent outdoors with a firearm in hand and recently sourced photos give an insight into his hunting where many a wallaby was shot for skins. After a few years goldmining, an adventure too good to refuse beckoned and Harold answered the ‘Motherland’ call to war in North Africa.
He enlisted in Brisbane on June 5, 1940 and was one of the founding members of the 2/15th Battalion (the original 15th was formed in Queensland and fought with the 1st AIF in the 1914-1918 war from Gallipoli to France). Initially the Battalion was based at Redbank near Ipswich while training was conducted consisting of infantry drills, rifle exercises and bayonet practice, leading to more specialised training required for an Infantry Battalion of the era.
In July 1940 the 2/15th was sent to Darwin by ship to bolster the existing defence presence and by November was back in Brisbane to prepare for deployment overseas. According to letters I’ve read a strong rivalry between the Darwin Mobile Force (DMF) and 2/15 Battalion often resulted in ‘fisticuffs’ while on local leave, something my uncle never appeared to be too far from.
Africa and the Middle East
Following a church service on Christmas Day 1940, the Battalion marched to Redbank railway station for a train to Sydney where they boarded the Queen Mary for the journey to the Middle East. After stopping briefly in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) they arrived in Egypt via the Suez Canal and boarded open box cars for the rail journey to Palestine (Israel), described by many as a ‘nightmare’. Here the Battalion was stationed at Kilo 89 Camp just north of Gaza for additional training.
In February 1941 the 2/15th was sent to Egypt then into Libya using captured Italian Army transport to the front (early stages of enemy engagement saw Australians and Allied troops tame the Italian army in quick time). But a far more formidable opponent in the German Army led by ‘Desert Fox’ Field Marshall Erwin Rommell soon had the Allies on the back foot. The Germans were desperate to take the strategic port of Tobruk but the men of 9th Division AIF were never going to go down without a fight.
The Siege of Tobruk was a bloody affair for Allied forces and the tenacious AIF were a frustration to Rommell’s Afrika Korps as the so-called ‘Rats of Tobruk’ who dwelled in desert holes halted the German advance. ‘Rats’ was intended as a demoralising term for the Allies but was typically embraced by the Aussies as a badge of pride.
In what was primarily a defensive operation, the Australians carried out offensive manoeuvres in the form of fighting patrols, many conducted under cover of darkness resulting in major casualties and equipment losses. The 2/15th was in the thick of it and their night patrols, nicknamed the ‘Mad 60’, were legendary in Battalion history. Consisting of two platoons, my uncle was one of 60 or so men who volunteered for night raids but, as it turned out, one night he didn’t return.
On the night of May 14, 1941 Harold’s fighting patrol had advanced well within enemy territory and close enough to apply the notoriously impotent ST grenades, better known as ‘sticky bombs’ (anti-tank explosives developed by the British) to 88mm anti-tank guns, armoured and transport equipment. The patrol came into heavy contact in the early hours May 15, 1941 and Harold was never confirmed dead or alive again. A letter from the Army to my Uncle Leo Redlich sheds some light on the last of Harold’s movements.
My grandfather Jim Redlich, younger sibling to Harold, told me years ago Harold’s status was ‘Missing in Action’ and for official purposes ‘presumed dead’. This was the status on his war records, updated in 1943, but for my grandfather ‘presumed’ offered no closure. This remained the case until I stumbled across a second-hand book at a Brisbane Gun Show in 2007. The book was compiled from diary entries by a soldier who served with the 2/15th and was co-incidentally one of the Mad 60 the night Harold disappeared.
The diary entry of May 16 by Pte (Snowy) Roselt, later killed in the Battle of El Alamein, says: “One good man killed in Redlick, ‘killed’ charging an enemy machine gun nest.’’ My grandfather, also a WWII veteran, broke down when he read those words just before his death in 2008, as they confirmed his brother’s status as not missing but KIA (killed in action), albeit unofficially.
The word ‘missing’ had always left an air of conjecture, however this information has no bearing on the official war records or relevant documents but did raise some questions. Why Pte Roselt’s version of events, who had witnessed Harold’s probable demise, wasn’t weighed heavily upon in the post patrol report or backed by other men involved in the raid is a mystery but not unusual given the dire circumstances.
We can only assume ‘Snowy’ was the closest section member to Harold during the action when others had begun the withdrawal. Harold may well have been killed instantly but that would have been hard to ascertain in such a short, savage engagement of noise, fear, darkness and confusion.
Upon closer examination my cousin Bill and I concluded Uncle Harold was fatality shot by a burst of heavy machine gun fire during his advance to silence the machine gun post, our summation reinforced by the citation of DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) awarded to Harold’s section commander Cpl Gordan Smithers.
The missing man was my Great Uncle Harold (Lcpl Redlich) and we believe he most likely succumbed to a fatal burst of bullets fired from a MG34, the primary German machine gun of the time.
The MG34 was a pioneering machine gun of the era and its design laid the platform with which a lot of modern ‘general purpose machine guns’ (GPMG) share its DNA. Introduced in 1934 (hence MG34) there were more than half a million produced during a 10-year period. It’s a belt-fed, air cooled and recoil operated machine gun chambered for the 7.92x57 Mauser cartridge.
The MG34 was a quality gun with many components made from cast and milled steel which was costly to produce compared to the later MG42 made largely from stamped metal parts. The MG42 achieved a higher cyclic rate of fire to the MG34 although the MG34 provided the German Army with continuous reliable service until the end of the war. Able to be vehicle or tripod mounted and equipped with a bipod for ‘light infantry’ use, Germany’s MG34 outclassed the Anzac and British forces’ WWI-era Vickers machine gun for its versatility and lighter weight.
Adopted early last century, the 7.92x57 Mauser cartridge was the standard chambering for all German forces of both world wars. Designed in 1888, the M/88 was originally loaded with a 226gr round nose projectile of .318^ diameter which proved too slow and hampered its true potential. The later 1905 pattern 7.92x57 Mauser standardised military load with 154gr ‘Spitzer’ (pointed) projectile of .323^, driven at 2880fps by a more powerful smokeless powder, dramatically improved the effective range and delivered a much flatter trajectory. Unlike the .303 British rimmed case round used by the Aussies, the 7.92x57 Mauser has a rimless bottle neck case design reminiscent of today’s cartridges.
The German round’s muzzle energy of 2835ft.lbf. outperformed the .303 Brit’s 174gr projectile and enjoys a large following to this day for sports shooting and hunting, now known commercially as the 8x57mm or 8mm Mauser. The 7.92x57 Mauser is also thought to be the grandparent case and inspiration for many other cartridge developments, sharing some dimensional similarities. There’s no hiding the fact the 7.92x57 was an effective ‘man killer’ in battle and at close range my uncle didn’t stand a chance against a burst of bullets from an MG34.
This month marks the 79th anniversary of my great uncle’s death. Known affectionately as ‘Red’ to his mates he wasn’t the first Australian to die on active service and won’t be the last, but he was a direct ascendant who died in battle and our family will never forget his sacrifice. Lance Corporal Harold Redlich’s plaque has a space at the El Alamein war memorial in Egypt and Australian War Memorial in Canberra, one of thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice on foreign soil.
As I started writing this article and sought more information I unearthed more details of his death as I went. Countless families have lost loved ones in operational service but Australians are fortunate to have many avenues of obtaining records of service. There’s untold information available from the National Archives and Australian War Memorial in Canberra and I encourage anyone who’d like to find out more to explore those archives and AWM website or call one of the helpful volunteers at the AWM family research centre.
• Acknowledgements - Bill Redlich: The Last Patrol; Margery McDonald Smith: Half a Life: Diary of a Tobruk Rat; Ron Austin: Let Enemies Beware: History of the 2/15th Bn 1940-1945; Bill Chard, SSAA Dalby for sample military ammunition; Brian Labudda, Wondai Traders.