02 September 2012

A "Small World" Story

Following the dropping by the Egyptian authorities of charges against Australian free-lance journalist Austin G. Mackell I put a question to him via Twitter to satisfy my curiosity regarding something that I had been wondering about since his name first came to my attention.

The exchange, at about midnight on 30-31 August, went like this:
The Austin “Austie” Mackell that I referred to was a Tobruk veteran who had been Commanding Officer of the Sydney University Regiment during the late 1950s (I would guess until 1959) and who was a great friend of my father, who was at that time a Major in SUR. I met him a couple of times when his regimental duties brought him to Armidale (the citizen-soldier element of the University of New England was the New England Company of SUR), and most notably when the two families had a café meal in Tamworth following a ceremony at Tamworth Airport in 1959, at which Princess Alexandra presented the 12/16th Hunter River Lancers with a regimental guidon (lance). At this stage I was in my second-last year at secondary school.

At Tobruk Austie Mackell was a young platoon commander in the 2/17 Battalion, 2nd AIF who, on the night of 13-14 April 1941, was involved in an action that resulted in him being awarded a Military Cross, and in the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest award for gallantry, to a member of his party, Corporal John Edmondson. The story is probably best told by quoting the citation for Edmondson’s VC, which may be found here:

NX15705 Corporal John Hurst EDMONDSON
2/17th Australian Infantry Battalion AIF
13th April 1941 at Tobruk, Libya

"On the night of 13th-14th April 1941, a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences at Tobruk and established themselves with at least six machine guns, mortars and two small field pieces. It was decided to attack them with bayonets, and a party consisting of one officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates, took part in the charge. During the counter-attack Corporal Edmondson was wounded in the neck and stomach, but continued to advance under heavy fire, killing one enemy with his bayonet. Later his officer had his bayonet in one of the enemy and was grasped about the legs by him, when another attacked him from behind. He called for help, and Corporal Edmondson, who was some yards away, immediately came to his assistance and in spite of his wounds, killed both of the enemy. This action undoubtedly saved his officer's life. Shortly after returning from this successful counter-attack, Corporal Edmondson died of wounds. His actions throughout the operations were outstanding for resolution, leadership and conspicuous bravery”.
[London Gazette: 4th July, 1941]

John Hurst EDMONDSON was born at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales on 8th October, 1914. He is buried in the Tobruk War Cemetery, Libya.

In civilian life after the war Mackell became Managing Director of the Sydney-based chemical firm Scott and Bowne, and in 1961 paid my father an enormous compliment. My father was planning his 1962 sabbatical leave which he intended would involve undertaking a course for postgraduate medical students on the principles and practice of clinical electroencephalography at the Institute of Neurology (London University) at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, London, followed by a period in Montreal working with Herbert Jasper, Professor of Experimental Neurology at Montreal Neurological Institute (McGill University).  For various reasons the idea of joining Jasper’s research team was not practicable – it would have required more time than the University would have been prepared to fund. As Jasper’s research was directly connected to my father’s own research on subliminal conditioning he was very keen to have at least some face to face time with Jasper, but he had no idea where he would find the funds for a side visit to Montreal from London. Succour came from an unexpected quarter; as my father told it in his memoir Psychology at New England: The First Forty Years:

On the eve of our departure from Armidale, I received a phone call from John Dart, who was, at this stage, Assistant Manager of Scott and Bowne, the Scott’s Emulsion firm which manufactured other drugs and chemical preparations at their factory in Sydney. John held a commission in Sydney University Regiment, as I did, and his boss was a former Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Austin Mackell, M.C., B. Ec. (Syd.). … The purport of John Darts telephone call was that the Company had had an Executive-staff Meeting that day and had voted me a gift of £300 to cover my return fare London-Montreal, to enable me to visit McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute.

The eight days that my father spent in Montreal were highly productive, had a lasting impact on my father’s future researches, and led directly to the Ph.D. project he drafted for Helen Beh, and hence to the article in the prestigious journal Science referred to at the beginning of the obituary piece at Vale Helen Beh, 1941-2012.

To return to the younger Austin Mackell, the link he sent me contains some wonderful photos from a visit he made to the Alamein battlefield in company with an Italian colleague whose great-uncle had fought with the Italian Army in the North Africa campaign (which reminds me, if you ever have a chance to see the Italian film about the Battle of Alamein – El Alamein: La linea del fuoco – don’t miss it; IMDb entry here).  See Mackell’s Alamein photographs here.

The younger Mackell’s own account of his travails in Egypt, published in New Matilda on 30 August 2012, may be found here.

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