Forestry Companies.

Soon after the outbreak of World War Two, the British Government requested experienced forestry soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada to be deployed in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

But the French Government had stipulated that they must be commanded by trained foresters so that the wasteful cutting and forest destruction experienced in World War 1 was not repeated.

The Australian Government readily agreed and two forestry companies were quickly raised as part of the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE).

The first Forestry Company (2/1) was based in Sydney with men from NSW, Queensland and South Australia, led by Captain Cyril Richard Cole, a professional forester from the Australian Capital Territory.

The second Forestry Company (2/2) included many Forests Commission staff, local sawmillers and experienced bushmen from Victoria and Tasmania including veterans of the First World War. They were led by Captain Andrew Leonard (Ben) Benallack, a graduate from the Victorian School of Forestry in 1922.

Both Forestry Companies sailed from Fremantle on the Stratheden in late May 1940 and landed in England not long after the evacuation of Dunkirk. They were immediately positioned to guard against the threat of German invasion while the Battle of Britain was in full fury overhead.

Whereas the Canadians came self-contained and brought logging equipment and sawmill machinery with them, the Australian and New Zealand companies had to be equipped in Britain which was in short supply and was not what they were used to. Until crawler-tractors were available, converted agricultural tractors had to serve for logging operations. There were no chainsaws, just axes and crosscut saws.

Later moving to Scotland they worked tirelessly to produce railway sleepers, sawn scantling and pit props for coal mines. And although their work was without the glamour associated with combat troops, they performed an invaluable task by cutting millions of super feet of spruce, poplar, larch, oak and fir which was used in the production of Mosquito bombers, Horsa gliders, patrol boats and other wartime needs.

The winter of 1940-41 was particularly cold and hard on the men. Many had not seen snow before. Another shock was the quaint British custom of cutting trees flush at ground level rather than leaving a stump which meant sometimes kneeling in the snow.

The foresters were recalled to Australia at the insistence of Prime Minister John Curtin in late 1943 because of the War in the Pacific. New Zealand and Canadian Forestry Companies stayed in the UK and were later deployed to Europe after the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944.

Returning via America the LumberJacks were given the unique honour of marching in a ticker-tape parade with fixed bayonets down Broadway in New York on 1 October 1943, said to be the only occasion that armed foreign troops had marched through an American city since Independence. Legend has it that they sang “Waltzing Matilda”.

However, the need for sawn timber was largely being met by civilian sawmills and State forest agencies so after reequipping and some refresher training in jungle warfare at Kapooka the 2/2 Forestry Company was deployed to Lae in Papua New Guinea in May 1944.

This photograph was probably taken in Australia before embarkation to the UK or before deployment to PNG in May 1944.

The RAE Woodpeckers’ Association, a social organisation for members of the post-war Army Reserve unit, the 91 Forestry Squadron, has generously purchased the photo from an Adelaide based antiquarian bookseller and it will now find its way into the forestry museum at Beechworth.

Dedicated to commemorating their predecessors, the Woodpeckers have carried the banner of the WWII forestry units in Melbourne’s Anzac parade since 1977.

The photograph has a generic caption with no annotations on the backing, but it appears to be 1 Forestry Company, commanded by Major Jack Thomas, who became a prominent South Australian forester after the war.

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