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Anger grew within the RAAF Engineering Apprentice Squadron when they believed the whole squadron experienced starvation. Sometimes, breakfast was a single sardine on half a slice of toast and a cup of tea. Breakfast was followed by 30 minutes on the parade ground, marching or, if it was cold, exercising in double time. The lack of food, plus exercise, caused some of the growing boys to faint.

All fifty two apprentices, of the first intake decided to submit a group application for discharge but something told me there was something wrong. I consulted with an adult corporal, Blue McCarthy’s son, who was a family friend. The advice he gave, was excellent, so, I was able to convince my young colleagues to present a “Round Robin Petition”. That particular document saw 52 signatures in a series of rings so the initial signatory, could not be charged with mutiny, if a single signatory handed the document, to a senior officer. A single witness was permitted, conditional to being twenty paces from the senior officer. I composed the preamble, and the signatures, then took it to our senior administration officer, Flight Lieutenant “Bushy” MacIntosh, whilst another apprentice witness, Stuart Vernon McKenzie-Trout (known as MacTrout), stood back 20 metres, purely as an observer, to confirm the document exchanged hands.

Our action, as minors, was disturbing, for the RAAF senior officers, who had no previous experience in that field. Air Vice Marshal Allan Leslie (Wally) Walters, CB, CBE, AFC was, immediately, flown from RAAF Head Quarters, in Melbourne, to investigate the situation in Wagga Wagga. He quickly sought my presence before him and asked the Commanding Officer to leave his office so we could meet alone. I was overawed by the bloke with his, strong aura, and medals but “Wally” Walters put me at ease by telling me to speak frankly and to tell him why we had taken the action and why I had organised them. I complied with his request and answered his questions on ways I considered necessary to improve the apprenticeship scheme and to maintain espirit de corps. He then congratulated and assured me, our requests would be met. He was a good man who kept his word.

AVM Walter’s investigation was slow and thorough. Some officers, awaiting discharge, were falsifying records and retaining supplies for sale on the black market. The situation, was being investigated, but it wasn’t quick enough for lads who were being given one sardine on half a slice of toast and a cup of tea for breakfast. So I arranged to be on duty in the kitchens, where I made soap impressions of all the keys. When we were in the training workshops, I cut and milled keys from the soap impressions. I was working with my father’s philosophy, “Laws are only made for people who can’t think for themselves”. I organised small groups to use the keys and to join me in a reasonable supper followed by an immaculate cleaning (with no evidence of our attendance).

In May 1948, following one of our suppers, we learned that the apprentice kitchen store had been burgled. There was breaking and entering, with a considerable loss of goods. Some apprentices were seen, near the kitchen, and a truck sighting had been reported. The Service Investigation Bureau (SIB) was alerted and their officers were flown in to take fingerprints. Our officer, Flight Lieutenant Mackintosh, asked us to confess if we were part of the robbing gang. If we did so before being discovered by the SIB it could lessen the inevitable punishment.

My juvenile brain thought it would be better for me, (if I proved I wasn’t part of a “break and entry” gang) to admit to having the keys I made. The confession seemed to intrigue Flt. Lt. McIntosh who kept seeking assurances that I had personally made the keys, from the soap impressions. He also repeated asked about how groups were organised so as to minimise food intake and prevent removal from the kitchen. He was intrigued, by our cleaning detail to ensure that our exploits went undetected. He ended the interview with a gruff, 'That will be all Apprentice Withers, you will hear the outcome of this, from the Commanding Officer, on Monday’s parade'.

The Commanding Officer’s Parade was larger and more formal than usual. There were 1,200 airmen, in a box square, around the periphery of the parade ground. The unit’s band, with its Drum Major, Warrant Officer ‘Chappy” Munn, in a leopard skin cape, was standing behind the flagpole, with the national flag fluttering in a light breeze. The No.1 Apprentice squadron of 52 young ‘men’ were aligned, in ‘Review Oder’, in the centre of the boxed square. The Commanding Officer stood, in front of the flagpole, with the Adjutant and Warrant Officer Disciplinary, beside a microphone.

After a drum roll from the leopard skinned Drum Major, the Warrant Officer Disciplinary’s (WOD’s) voice boomed through the Loud Speakers, 'Step forward Apprentice Withers…March towards the flag. Halt before the Commanding Officer and Salute'. I had seen an American movie, about a prestigious military college, where a cadet was wrongly, accused of stealing. The innocent boy stood in front of the parade and was stripped, slowly, of all buttons from his uniform. The stripping was to the slow beat of a drum. The boy stood to attention but tears rolled, slowly, down his cheeks. I understood, with terror, the thought of being stripped of uniform buttons, and disgraced with a dishonorable discharge, a month before my seventeenth birthday. I silently pleaded to my mind, “Please keep me upright and don’t let me cry, oh please don’t let me cry”. I was deaf with fear when the Warrant Officer Disciplinary (WOD) was plucking at my right sleeve. I saw the CO’s lips speak and end with a smile. I recalled some of his words, 'Congratulations Leading Apprentice Withers'.

I glanced down at my right sleeve and saw a rank previously unknown; it was the first time, it had been awarded in the RAAF, an inverted chevron of a leading apprentice. My addled brain saw the Commanding Officer grinning with outstretched hand. I should his hand, saluted, and returned to my flight in a fog of confusion, emotion and humility. Apparently, the CO was impressed with the technical ‘know-how’, organisation and leadership displayed at a time when the catering was under-estimated for growing boys, so I was the first to be promoted, with three others, for initiative and leadership. Such is life.

Around this time I wrote a little poem,

THE PARADOX Bill Withers on his 17th Birthday

By Buddy Withers 1950.

The ‘Beat’ and the ‘Square, should never mate,

They should maintain a mutual hate.

For Love would bring a paradox,

Of one square peg in one round box.

Hut 154, October1948. Bill Withers is standing in the doorway (second from left). His shirt is paler because it was from his Air Training Corps issue, three years earlier.

The New Duty.

Being one of the four apprentices with the new rank of Leading Apprentice, I was in charge, of Hut 154 with my own room. I initially thought it was unfair discrimination with me in a private room while my fellow hut residents remained in their dormitory locations. I was placated when told I had a room because the four hut leaders were on a roster to tour the camp, after ‘lights out’, to ensure the camp was secure, all locks correct and all lights out except the hut leader’s room. The hut leaders had to write their reports including the “Orderly Log Book” after the inspection. After the experience with AVM Walters, on the subject of mutiny, and my confessions of making kitchen keys to an intrigued Flt. Lt. Bushy McIntosh, I started to think I was on the same pathway as my father, with his attitude to law and survival.

Bill Withers July 2021

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1 Comment

The actions that Bill Withers and his fellow Anzacs took to highlight the errors of the Officers concerned, is certainly worthy of recognition. It shows to me that from that very first intake of Appies the comradeship that I learned at RSTT between 1957 to 1959 was an inherent part of being a RAAF Apprentice. That didn't necessarily exist in other groups of trainees. Some may recall the incident in the mess one summer's lunchtime in 1958, when a call went out from a Tadpole table that there were maggots in the slices of corned beef seved with salad. This quickly turned into a collective cry of "there's maggots in the meat" from the apprentice tables, as more and m…

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