1943 – 1945
Excerpts from a Catalogue by Lin Bloomfield produced for an exhibition at The Bloomfield Galleries, 118 Sutherland Street, Paddington, N.S.W. held March 16 – April 30, 1988
Shaggy Ridge in the Finisterre Range, New Guinea, was the scene of a bitter three month long battle between the Japanese who held it and Australian troops. The Pimple was one of three steep elevations rising from the Ridge and the Advanced Dressing Station at Guy’s Post treated many hundreds of casualties before they could be evacuated over a long and rough trail.
The Japanese had established themselves strongly in defensive positions on Shaggy Ridge and both sides flanking it. From the Pimple they found it easy to resist any advance. Often the Pimple was a blur, capped by mist and hidden by rain clouds. The three steep elevations rising from Shaggy Ridge were known to the Australians as the Pimple, Intermediate Sniper’s Pimple and Green Sniper’s Pimple. Patrols and bombarding began on October 21,1943 and the first clash on November 11. By January 23,1944, Shaggy Ridge was in Australian hands.
‘Well, I have at Ieast seen Shaggy Ridge and what a hell of a place it is. Heaven only knows how the boys took it over from the Japs. On either side of a track only wide enough for one the earth falls near sheer. The top of it was riddled with fox holes. After struggling to the top of this bloody mountain I came across some of the lads coming down – we sat and had a cigarette.’
‘1’m somewhat limp after an afternoon stroll (?) up a mountain some 2000 feet higher than the spot where I now sit. All in all that damned ridge is about 4000 feet above sea level. God knows how the soldiers carried their packs up these exhausting peaks. They must have been superhuman. So sharp are some of the peaks that only one man could cross the saddle at one time.’
Painter, Illustrator, Cartoonist, War Correspondent
When William E. Pidgeon became a war correspondent in the Australian Army during World War II, the name, WEP, was already a household word in Australia through his amusing illustrations and brilliant cartoons for Consolidated Press and Women’s Weekly magazine.
Bill was attached as a correspondent to the Australian troops in Northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and Borneo. In his work he recorded their daily lives around the camps, at hospitals, at race meetings, at church parades. As a participant in their lives he drew and painted his subjects with a marked sense of involvement and an unmistakably Australian feeling of casualness. There is no straining after effect in his compositions which are almost always of groups of figures in their appropriate settings. Their style is quite opposite to the style of the official war artist’s portrayal of troops in heroic action. The paintings are usually small in size, with a limited colour palette and restricted by what material was available on the run. They all have a marked air of freshness and immediacy well suited to their subjects.
In 1943 I was asked by the Army to organise a national exhibition of art from members of the forces. The exhibition was to be open to all; the only restriction being that work must portray some aspect of the war effort.
The exhibition was an immediate success when it was shown in State and other galleries throughout Australia in 1944-45. There were first, second, third and highly commended prizes in each of the sections. These comprised The War on Land, The War in the Air and many other categories including Womens’ Services, Medical Services, and The Home Front.
Bill Pidgeon was awarded first prize for his painting Interior, Transport Plane Evacuating Wounded, in the War in the Air category. He also got a first for Advanced Dressing Station and an honourable mention for Operation, Guy’s Post, New Guinea, in the Medical Services section. Amongst other artists to gain prizes in this exhibition were Frank Hinder, Noel Counihan, Charles Bush, Rod Shaw, Douglas Annand, Roy Dalgarno, Donald Friend, Eric Smith, James Cant, Ray Crooke, who, even if some of them were not very well-known then, have since all become professionally well-known and successful.
There has always been a strong tradition of black and white illustrating and cartooning in Australia. Throughout World War 2 and the difficult years after, black and white artists working for magazines and the daily press were able to influence people directly through their work, keeping up their spirits through satire and making them laugh. Drawings and cartoons by such artists as Stan Cross, Sid Miller, George Finey, ‘Hottie’ Lahm with his dog Snifter, Emile Mercier and his down and out characters and his old tin of ‘Gravy’, Jimmy Bancks, the originator of ‘Ginger Megs’, and many others including, of course, WEP, were all greatly admired and enjoyed, and were great morale builders. As early as 1941, a New Zealander, Alan Reeve, in his catalogue for the National Gallery of Canada, War Cartoons of the British Commonwealth praised the work of both Noel Counihan and WEP; WEP especially for his fine style and draughtsmanship.
Following the war there was considerable concentration of artistic talent in Sydney, a general fervour in the air, an upsurge of excitement and release. Returned servicemen and women were everywhere, fairly bursting with creative energy and high spirits. One of our most popular watering places was the Newcastle Hotel in lower George Street where artists and writers drank and talked. On Friday nights especially the pub was packed with teachers and students from East Sydney Technical College, artists and journalists from the Black and White Club and the Journalists’ Club where Bill Pidgeon was of course, a member. Bill was naturally gregarious and popular – an entertaining talker and a good drinker! The painters Bob Dickerson, Frank Hodgkinson, John Olsen, Stan de Teliga, Wallace Thornton, and many others mixed happily with writer Cyril Pearl, poet Ken Slessor, actor Chips Rafferty to name but a few.
The Newcastle Hotel was the only hotel in Sydney in those days to allow women into the bar, so wives and girlfriends were there too. When the pub closed at 6 o’clock (the Six O’clock Swill, it was called) parties would often be formed to go to Dixon Street for a Chinese meal, where the talk would go on.
Not only did Jim Buckley, the publican of the hotel, allow women in his bar, but he encouraged young artists, men or women, in their work by buying their paintings for himself, exhibiting their paintings in the hotel bars for others to buy and helping them when they were in financial difficulties. He often had a few bounced cheques from customers in his wallet!
At the end of the war Bill spent another four years at Consolidated Press, then decided to turn exclusively to painting, concentrating on portraits. He already had a considerable experience as a close observer of people and an ability to create a likeness easily. Apart from the usual technical hazards, some artists have great difficulty with this. It was never so with Bill.
In 1958 he was successful in winning the prestigious Archibald Prize for Portraiture, with a lively, freely painted portrait of journalist Ray Walker, which still hangs in the Journalists’ Club rooms in Sydney today. He was successful again in 1961 with a portrait of Rabbi Porush, and again in 1968 with Lloyd Rees. This firmly established his professional standing as a fine portraitist.
Apart from his painting Bill wrote art reviews for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. He was well-read and informed and his reviews were clear, unpretentious, and totally without jargon, which helped readers to understand the paintings and the differing aims of the artists – never an easy task!
Bill was always supportive of young talent and was one of the first to recognise the potential of the young Brett Whitely when Brett was only fifteen. Living at Northwood near the Lane Cove River, Bill was one of a number of neighbouring artists who met regularly to paint and to discuss their work. Among these were Lloyd Rees, George Lawrence, Reinis Zusters and the young Brett, already showing a great natural talent.
This retrospective of paintings and drawings shows the wide range of his subject matter, his great skill with the black and white medium during the war years, 1940 to 1945, and the strong handling of the demanding medium of oil painting.
William E. Pidgeon is represented in Sydney, Perth, and Newcastle Galleries. His work is in Government House, Sydney, in Parliament House, in the Supreme Court, the War Memorial, Canberra and in many business houses and private collections throughout Australia.
Unknown to many, Bill’s eyesight had been deteriorating for many years, finally necessitating operations to both eyes for glaucoma. A sad thing for anyone, and a bitter pill for any artist. In 1979 he was knocked down by a car in an accident near his home at 85 Northwood Road, Northwood, from which he never fully recovered. He died in 1981.
W.E. PIDGEON: War Correspondent
William Edward (sic) (‘Wep’) Pidgeon was born in Sydney in 1909 and died in 1981. After studies at the J.S. Watkins School and East Sydney Technical College, Sydney, he began his professional career as a cadet artist on the Evening News. He won two first prizes and one highly commended in the Australia at War exhibition 1944-45 and was three times an Archibald Prize winner (1958,1961 and 1968).
When he became an official war correspondent for the Australian Women’s Weekly and Consolidated Press during World War II Bill was already a practising artist and the works in this exhibition reflect his ability to record, with insight and intimacy, the everyday life of soldiers and airmen behind the lines.
Bill’s first posting was to Darwin, from where he moved from base to base covering the war in North-West Australia. The war in the North-West was almost entirely an air war with raid and counter raid. Air fights took place over the bases and bombers attacked opposing airfields, ships and barges. It is probably still not fully realized just how vital this war was to the defence of Australia. The devastating raid on Darwin in February 1942 meant that a Japanese assault on Australia had to be seriously considered. Nine squadrons defended the Darwin area in the NorthWest under the command of Air Commodore Bladin. They were: Australia – No. 2 (Wing Commander Whyte), general-reconnaissance bombers equipped with Hudsons; No.12 (Flight Lieutenant Hooper), dive bombers equipped with Vultee Vengeances; No. 13 (Wing Commander Moran), general-reconnaissance bombers equipped with Hudsons; No. 31 (Wing Commander Read), long-range fighters equipped with Beaufighters; No. 452 (Squadron Leader MacDonald), fighters equipped with Spitfires; No. 457 (Squadron Leader James), fighters equipped with Spitfires. Britain – No. 54 (Squadron Leader Gibbs), fighters equipped with Spitfires. United States – No. 319 (Captain Olsen), heavy bombers equipped with Liberators. Holland – No.18 (Lieut-Colonel Fiedeldij), medium bombers equipped with Mitchells.
“Yesterday I spent with a bomber squadron and managed to get a good set up of the ‘erks’ (as the Air Force call the ranks who do the hard manual labour) loading bombs into a plane.”
The three Spitfire squadrons had been sent from England following discussions between Mr. Churchill and Dr. Evatt in 1942 and were under the control of No.1 Fighter Wing, commanded by Group Captain Walters and later by Wing Commander Caldwell. Highly decorated Wing Commander Caldwell was a brave, confident and resourceful leader who was awarded the D.S.O. for his actions in the North-West. While this war was defensive in 1943, by 1944 it was to support the Allied advance in New Guinea and Morotai.
During 1942-43 the Japanese came over Anson Bay from Timor, frequently with as many as 20 bombers and 50 fighter escorts to bomb the area and it is worth recording that the figures achieved by our fighters in this North Western action were 3.7 to 1, a figure almost as high as was achieved during the Battle of Britain.
As all letters were censored it is impossible to ascertain the exact time of writing but the following extracts from Bill’s letters were written during 1943.
‘There’s been quite a bit of plane activity about here lately. . . 3 of the fighter pilots I was staying with bagged a bird each. Nice going. . . you’ll read about it all in the papers before this letter reaches you.’’
‘We were raided by 18 Jap planes on Friday night. . . we were in the bush not far from one of the air strips (as they called the aerodrome here) when the warning came over The pilots had to dash off to their Spitfires. The lights went off and the bright moonlight was heightened by the light of a parachute flare which one of the Jap planes dropped over the area. A moment later ack-ack fire started – booms and f7ashes split the night. Shrapnel from the bursts fell in the camp where I stayed last week. Fortunately for us the Japs weren’t after the fighter planes – they flew past and dropped their eggs near 2 bomber fields. One of these I described to you as being situated in the hills. I stayed there on Wednesday night . . . there appears to be an expectation of another bash tonight – it being a magnificently full moon . . . they tell me that even an Allied Works Council camp stopped a stick of bombs last night. . . !
Conditions in these bases, while not extreme, were nonetheless difficult. The water pipeline feeding Darwin was exposed to the sun and when the water was tapped into the camps alongside it, the water temperature was incredibly hot, almost too hot to shower under. Food was monotonous and supplies frequently erratic, with the usual mess meal being tinned bully beef. A constant irritation was the mosquito population which Bill described with typical humour:
‘The mosquito craft are zooming about in open formations, manouvering into position. I’ve already received a few direct hits but, retaliating, have got 4 destroyed, 6 probable and 32 near misses. There is no thought of my evacuating – I shall carry on in glory and in honour. It must in all fairness be reported that had the enemy been backed by squadrons of sand flies, retreat would have been both rapid and inevitable. I have never seen a sand fIy. They must have some sort of radio direction finding equipment especially tuned to my wave length. They never miss; the scars on my body bear ample witness.’
Bill’s next posting was to New Guinea in the areas around Port Moresby, Finschhafen, Hollandia and the island of Noemfoor.
After the fall of Lae the Japanese escaped through the mountains northward to the coast and, by swinging to the west, eluded pursuit. The 7th Division had the task of following the enemy through the alluvial valleys which lay to the west of the Finisterre Range; by co-operating with the Fifth United States Air Force they hoped to exploit the air fields. The Finisterre Range rose to a height of 13000 feet, joined the mountain spines of the Huon Peninsula and met the Adelbert Mountains west of Madang. Separating these systems were the Markham and Ramu Rivers.
The Japanese had established themselves strongly in defensive positions on Shaggy Ridge in the Finisterres and in flanking positions on both sides of this formidable razorback. They had fortified strongly with posts and foxholes the three steep elevations rising from the Ridge which were known to the Australians as ‘Pimples’ – The Pimple, Intermediate Sniper’s Pimple and Green Sniper’s Pimple. It was essential that Shaggy Ridge should be captured and the fighting, under exceptionally difficult circumstances, was protracted. Bombing and patrolling began on October 21,1943 and the first clash occurred on November 11. The main attack on the Pimple by the 2/l6th Battalion took place on December 27 after intensive fire by the 2/4th Field Regiment’s guns and strafing by Allied aircraft. The Australians established a position on the Pimple and held it against heavy resistance. Supplies were taken in and casualties out with great effort as the bearers scarcely had room to negotiate the narrow path between the steep rock faces. Finally, by January 23,1944, the Ridge was in Australian hands.
Bill spent some time at Guy’s Post, an advanced Dressing Station on Shaggy Ridge.
He described the majestic terrain in one of his letters written in 1944:
‘The scenery round here is really magnificent, there’s nothing like it in Australia. Clouds encircle the mountains halfway and passing fogs crown the peaks. Up to 4000 feet the hills are treeless except for dark writhing tangles which follow the eroded creek beds slashing down the sides.’
Bill next flew from Hollandia on the north coast of New Guinea to Noemfoor, an island in the Schouten group at the northern limit of Geelvink Bay midway between the Vogelkop Peninsula and Biak. Fringed by a coral reef and about 14 miles long, Noemfoor was an important base which contained three airfields. In a letter Bill described conditions on Noemfoor:
‘You have guessed, I hope, my uninspired letters are due to the overwhelming enervation of the tropics plus the lack of comfort in the tent. I’m sitting on an oil drum which grinds the flesh off my behind, my eyes are fuIl of coral dust, I’m due to start turning yellow from a surfeit of Atabrin tablets which they say are necessary to counteract the excessive loss of bodily salt in sweat and god knows what else. The half of me that is alive is tolerably happy.’’
Morotai followed. By early 1945 Morotai, a small island of the Mouccas, was an important pivot of Allied activity south of the Philippines and one of the largest bases in the South-West Pacific area, despite the fact that only the southern part of the island was in Allied hands. Air squadrons at Noemfoor and Morotai were protecting MacArthur’s Sixth Western Flank.
The weather and close proximity to the enemy contributed to the poor conditions on Morotai and to keep up the men’s spirits units maintained programs of sport and recreation –
‘Have had lots of rain since we arrived on the island – it comes and finishes as a snap of the fingers. We all sat through the movies and the deluge last night huddled in ground sheets while planes and searchlights sliced the sky. I was conscious of the fact that the war is indeed not far away. The pilots we are stationed with are off on a ‘bash’ to a Jap area in the morning – quite a ‘do’ as far as I can gather.’
In another letter from Morotai Bill described the island and his meeting Australian actor ‘Chips Rafferty’:
‘This is a very busy spot – hundreds of planes of all varieties line the strips. It’s a real tropical island – hot, steamy and green. Ferns and lilies grow in profusion. . . it is raining with perpendicular steadiness. . . a pretty stiff breeze has blown up now driving dobbing spots of rain into the tent in which I am writing. The tent, incidentally, belongs to John Goffage (alias Chips Rafferty) who is leaving tomorrow to take over his role in ‘The Overlanders’ I was standing outside his tent when I heard a voice yell ‘Christ, Bill Pidgeon!’ Had quite a yarn with him – he told us to find ourselves a hole to dive into if occasion arose. It still rains.’
Bill’s last assignment was in British North Borneo.
On May 8,1945 fighting in Europe ended but the Pacific war continued. The 9th Australian Division (less the 26th Brigade) was to be the assault force sent to seize the Brunei Bay area of British North Borneo. Rich oilfields were situated at Seria, Miri and Kuala Belait on the west coast of Borneo near Brunei, a town of 12000.
Labuan Island is triangular in shape with the apex to the north and two large inlets at the base; the eastern inlet is Victoria Harbour, a sheltered deep water port. After a preinvasion bombardment simultaneous landings were planned on the island of Labuan and the mainland at Brunei.
The 24th Brigade landed at Labuan on June 10, the 2/32 Battalion on June 12 and by June 21 Labuan was captured except for slight resistance. A few days later Seria, Kuala Belait and Miri were in Allied hands. Labuan became an important base for future operations in the area.
Although there are no letters from this area there are some telling paintings, particularly those of the burning oilfields at Seria and the wonderful cartoon ‘Jeep Train at Beaufort’.
The body of work in this exhibition is not only an historical record of one man’s glimpse of a small area of the Second World War, but is also a very personal statement in which Bill Pidgeon translated his gifts of literary perception into the visual. Painted and drawn under difficult conditions where paper and paint were at a premium and weather conditions were deplorable, they are unpretentious pictures of fighting men behind the lines. It is a different aspect of war which Bill reveals. While many of the paintings, like `Marching Single File’ portray the hopelessness of war and many the pity (Interior, Transport Plane Evacuating Wounded’ and the Guy’s Post works), there are several which vividly reflect his wry humour. Without exception they show his humanity. Perhaps he viewed it all as did Jonathon Swift – ‘War, that mad game the world so loves to play’.
W.E. Pidgeon; War Paintings 1943 – 1945; Catalogue by Lin Bloomfield, Foreword by Hal Missingham;
Exhibition March 16 – April 30, 1988,
The Bloomfield Galleries
118 Sutherland Street,
Paddington, N.S.W. Australia 2021
“He’s a hell of a little barber….an ex ladies’ hairdresser from Farmers or, some say, Borrowmans – anyway cuts a pretty hair. The charge is 1/- of which he gets 6d. You sit on a sawn off log in a parlor of the most delicate hessian”.
“There is a magnificent canteen run by the publican of that new pub set back from the footpath on Botany Road at Mascot….Dozens of tins of asparagus – plenty cigs, tobacco, Minties, chocolate and god knows what!”
Last Updated – 25 December 2017