Reading through his family’s defence service records held by the Archives has brought their war experiences to life for Director-General David Fricker. With a grandfather who was an original Anzac at Gallipoli and a father who flew perilous missions in World War II, he has discovered some surprising facts about their exploits. Archives staff member Elizabeth Masters recently spoke to David about his response to his family’s records.
Allen Fricker: original Anzac
‘My grandfather Allen Peterie Fricker was in the AIF first division, the signals company,’ David says. ‘He would have had to run lines of wire up and down and between the trenches, quite an important role in World War I. I feel very proud to have this family connection to what has become one of Australia’s most important traditions.
‘There’s a wealth of information in my grandfather’s service file and, to be honest, I’m still piecing it all together. Sometimes it’s hard to read and fully understand scraps of information that were written in haste, but it’s very rewarding. It’s another piece in the picture of what his life was all about.’
So far, David has been able to determine that his grandfather landed at Gallipoli with the 11th Battalion, which was one of the first units to go ashore on 25 April 1915.
‘Before going through these records I didn’t appreciate that he was wounded in action,’ David says. ‘He received shrapnel wounds to his forehead and his right side in May 1915 and that must have knocked him pretty badly because he didn’t return from hospital until six months later. He then went on to serve in France and Flanders, and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his duty there.’
As the father of a 16-year-old son, David can’t help viewing the file through a parent’s eyes. ‘In those days, when your son or husband went off to war, they might not come home until the end of hostilities. My grandfather was away for four-and-a-half long years. It reveals the extent and nature of sacrifice required to serve your country then, and what his parents must have been going through, just waiting for any piece of news about their son.’
Lyall Fricker: RAAF pilot
David’s father, Lyall Peterie Fricker, served as a pilot in the RAAF during World War II, signing up at the age of 19. One of the surprises for David in the service file was that his father had tried to join the Navy at the age of 13 – but had been rejected with the words ‘teeth not grown’.
‘In all Dad’s life he never mentioned that he tried to sign up for the Navy so I don’t know if he did it with his parents’ consent or not. It seems he couldn’t sign up because he didn’t have all his permanent teeth,’ says David.
‘The language of the time is also interesting. I can imagine my father smiling to learn that he was neither “incorrigible” nor “worthless” and was therefore suitable for military service in the war.’
He likens reading his father’s service record to ‘coming face-to-face with a young person you’ve never met but you’ve become familiar with later in their life’.
‘There’s a picture of this 19-year-old kid and you can tell what a big day it was for him to turn up for enlistment. There’s a certain look in his eyes, it’s all about duty and dedication but you can see youth and naivety in there as well.’
David vividly remembers his father’s story of one particular air mission to target enemy vessels in the port of Venice.
‘It was the first time rockets had been attached to a Mustang plane. Dad had cables coming down the wing and into the cockpit so he could pull on the wire to ignite the rocket and set it off. To aim accurately, he had to point his plane at the ships and then, when he was close enough, release the rocket and immediately climb into a very steep ascent.
‘When you do this, the blood runs away from your head, from your eyes, so the first thing that happens is you go blind and then become unconscious. So you have to be ready as soon as you regain consciousness to immediately take control of the plane, check whether the rockets have left your wings, and then head back to base.
‘In reading the record, I saw that Dad had been awarded the Italy Star, one of his decorations for the work he did in the port of Venice but also in Italy more generally. It really brings to life some of the stories he told us.’
David encourages everyone who knows of someone who was a serviceman or woman to search the defence records in the Archives. ‘Because they’re such personal records, they do speak to us. I think we are having a conversation with the past when we see these records.’