#4 Uncle Walter Johnston

We will leave mum and dad down on the little farm in Tyabb for a little while; I want to spend a few days talking about one of mum’s brothers and then about dad’s parents.

Do you remember that photo of the the whole of mum’s family and the little boy at his father’s side?

That little boy grew up to become my uncle Walter and I never met him. I still had about three years of waiting to be born.

My Uncle Walter died on the first day of the Battle for Bardia. Actually the first day of any battle that Australian Forces were in in the whole of WWll. Bardia is a small town on the coast of Libya about 20 miles from the border with Egypt. It was where the Australians had their first taste of battle in World War Two. Uncle Walter was in 2/5 Battalion of the 6th Division of the Australian Imperial Forces. There are about 16 to 18 thousand men in a Division and there are three Brigades in a Division and four Battalions in each Brigade. So Uncle Walter was one of about 1,500 men in that Battalion. The battle lasted for three days from 3 January 1941 to 5 January.

When the battle was over the 6th Division had lost 130 men killed and 326 wounded. But they also captured 40,000 Italian prisoners and large amounts of arms, rations, equipment and alcohol which they found good use for

On the first day of the battle – 3 January 1941 – Corporal Walter George Johnston VX5844 was killed in action.

The following is a letter written by Major G E Sell to Hector Alexander de Lacy the brother of Eileen Johnston. Eileen was married to Walter’s brother Bill. It is a personal letter and it is clear from a comment at the end of the letter that the  Major knew Hector personally although he did not know Uncle Walter personally.

I will leave you to ponder over the contents of the letter.


Major G. E. Sell      

2/5 Bn AIF      

Middle East Force      

2 May 41      

Dear Hec,

       Your letter only just caught up with me today. I was away from the Bn for a month, and we got no mail during our rather busy period in Greece.

       To answer your query ———-

Johnston was killed at Bardia on the afternoon of 3 Jan by machine gun fire. He had been operating along the wadi on the left of the Bn in his Carrier, but was obliged to leave it because of rough going, and went on on foot. With some others he gathered in about 1700 I.T. prisoners from one section of the wadi. While these were being sent back under escort 300 others broke away. Four men remained at that place which was near the I.T. Corps H.Q. shooting them up. Johnston went on alone round the next turn in the wadi saying he was going to get some more of the b…….s. He actually outran any support.

       We found him next day with a grenade still in his hand, and an I.T. pistol he had taken, ready for use. He came of fighting stock sure enough. Two or three other men, operating alone, were lost in the same area. They were misled by the easy surrenders in the area they had just come through into thinking they could go on indefinitely as individuals roping the old I.T in.

       I got these details from one of the four men I mentioned. The figures seem fantastic, but are correct.

       Am going on leave tomorrow, and have a swag of letters to write, that I must not delay.

       Regards to all at the office, not least yourself.

                                                                Ted Sell

P.S.  I make no comment on the facts above, the bald statement seems to speak for itself.

In the letter the Major refers to Uncle Walter operating in his ‘Carrier’  He would have been referring to a Bren Gun Carrier. The photo is of a museum piece in good working condition.


Here is a brief statement from the Australian War Memorial Site that explains where the Major had been between Bardia and the time he wrote his letter.

After arriving in the Middle East on 18 May 1940, the battalion undertook further training in Palestine and Egypt. The 2/5th took part in its first campaign – the advance against the Italians in eastern Libya – in January and February 1941, and participated in successful attacks at Bardia (3-5 January) and Tobruk (21-22 January). In early April, the 2/5th, with the rest of the 6th Division, deployed to Greece to resist the anticipated German invasion. For the 2/5th, the Greek campaign was essentially one long withdrawal from its initial defensive positions at Kalabaka (occupied on 14 April) to the port of Kalamata, from which it was evacuated on 27 April. A party of approximately 50 transport drivers were left behind in Greece and became prisoners. A similar sized group landed on Crete and, after fighting with the 17th Brigade Composite Battalion, also suffered the same fate.

Mother always referred to Walter as her favourite brother; maybe because he was the closest in age of the brothers. If she saw him, I am told, in the school yard in a fight she was known to rush into the fray, jump onto the back of his assailant and pummel him with her little sister hands.

I think I would have liked him as an uncle.

17 thoughts on “#4 Uncle Walter Johnston

  1. Snap! Remember going to the POW memorial in Ballarat and doing a post on Cyril Staples? So, he was 2/5 Australian General Hospital (AGH), part of the contingent left behind in Greece and ultimately interned as POW in Torun, Poland. I’ve just spent a couple of hours trolling around on this website, which I wouldn’t have been inspired to look for until your post: https://www.2-5agh.org
    He returned and ultimately was awarded an MBE (for other services). Sadly, your Uncle Walter was not so “lucky”.

  2. That’s a very poignant last sentence. Sadly, war makes men die for places long forgotten eighty years later, and so many children are robbed of knowing them as uncles, and, in some cases, fathers.

  3. Am so grateful to my uncle for writing this fantastic blog. I am loving reading it & cherishing that you are putting it on record to have for the future. Thank you 😘

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