Corporal Smith, NTF

In April 1946 a Brigadier Brimblecombe wrote a letter to The News in Adelaide complaining that in the war just ended soldiers drank too much beer and risked becoming enslaved to alcohol.

The press carried stories through the war of occasional disturbances in Darwin and elsewhere in the country, inevitably connected to alcohol. The public could be forgiven for thinking drink played too large a role in military life; the Brigadier’s letter would have reinforced that perception.

Meet well-spoken ex-Corporal Hedley R. Smith, who had served with the Northern Territory Force. He wrote a dry replique which set the record straight for probably the great majority of those who served.

I had read Smith’s letter before noting the Brigadier’s own (not reproduced here). I was surprised that even a former, non-commissioned soldier would speak of a serving officer as he did, politely but with a sarcastic note.

When I read the Brigadier’s letter the reason became clear, or more clear: Brimblecombe was an officer in the Salvation Army. Nonetheless, it is clear Smith had no animosity as such to the Sally Ann. He simply felt Brimblecombe’s fulmination was ill-informed and doctrinaire.

The exchange does show nonetheless that alcohol in Australia never had a free pass. A large segment of society considered its use unexceptionable and nothing to apologize for, but that doesn’t mean there was no organized opposition to it. There was, in numerous quarters, the Salvation Army was just one example.

Below is a substantial part of the ex-corporal’s letter. Bear in mind that in Australia, corporals were and are given a form of command responsibility. This means they lead a section of up to a dozen soldiers of private (the lowest) rank. Smith’s letter shows he was well-trained, well-spoken, and surely an exemplary leader.

It is easy to see that Brigadier Brimblecombe (“News” 2/4/46) had little or no experience of the Northern Territory during war years. Concerning the noted religious leader who returned from Darwin with a story of blight and demoralisation directly caused by strong drink, all I can say is that he must have had a very vague idea of what actually took place. Does he realise that the official ration in the early part of the war was one bottle per man, per week, perhaps . . . with the emphasis on the “perhaps”? Up to last August the ration over the latter 18 months had been increased to two bottles per man per week, while on convoy the ration was one-third bottle per man per day, and what is more, the non drinkers could not augment their quota to their mates, as the queue system was in operation and one opened bottle was handed out to every third man . . . money in advance. As for the troops becoming alcoholic slaves, it reflects even more on the brigadier’s ignorance of the potency of beer, if he honestly believes that a man, after travelling about 200 miles, packed 21 to a truck, with a slice of bully beef and half a pear for dinner, follows it up at the end of the day’s journey with the terrific amount of one-third bottle of beer, and thus becomes an alcoholic slave. Maybe Brigadier Brimblecombe should ask for some first-hand information from his Darwin representatives, Majors Walters and Jones, who night after night openly stated what a fine bunch of lads they were in contact with in the north.

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