A brilliant young inventor battling army bureaucracy in a race to save thousands of lives, and a nation at war.
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This is a yarn about the Diggers darling. But before I get too far, i’d better explain a couple of things… for our, international friends. Australian and New Zealand soldiers are called diggers. Now, there is a bit of too-ing & fro-ing about just how this came to be.
Suffice to say they reckon the term started before world war one, as many of the Australians and Kiwis, that’s New Zealanders, fighting in the Boer War came from mining backgrounds. At the battle of Elands river in 1900, the Australian defenders earned a reputation as diggers as they hastily constructed dugout defences in the hard ground.
Another story originates from the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote to General William Birdwood commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - the ANZACS, saying You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe."
From what once might have been a derogatory name, a bit of ANZAC dark humour, turned it into a term of pride, and today regular Aussies and Kiwi’s use the term Digger with the utmost of respect.
Our yarn though, begins just prior to world war 2, and as I said, it's about the Diggers darling. Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Diggers darling was a sultry pin up girl, with Veronica Lake hair-do and long, long legs, but you’d be wrong. The Diggers Darling was the name given to a sub-machine gun, that was brought to life by a most ingenious young man, in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Dick Foye clearly remembers watching young Evelyn tie a rope around the his gun, and throw it out into the surf at Conniston beach. He'd leave it out in the waves then haul it in well clogged with sand and seaweed, slip a cartridge into it pull the trigger, and spray a quick burst into the waves.
This machine gun was revolutionary in its pure simplicity, reliability and ease of manufacture. It would become the weapon of choice for the Diggers fighting the Japanese in jungles of New Guinea. More highly prized than the Thompson sub machine gun - the Tommy gun, or the Sten gun. This simple, home made sub-machine gun, would save the lives of thousands of Diggers, and go on to be used in the Korean War as well as the early years of the Vietnam war. But it almost never happened. If it wasn’t for the chance discovery by a neighbour, of a suspicious looking sugar sack, partly hidden behind a wall in his front yard, adjoining that of a young bloke by the name of Evelyn Owen, His mates called him Evo…
By 1942 the juggernaut of the Imperial Japanese forces are sweeping down through Asia and the pacific nations, conquering all in their colossal and destructive stride. The advance is so swift, and powerful that victories begin to tally up with frightening speed.
On one day, December 7th 1941 - Pearl Harbour, the Phillipines, Wake island, Guam, Malaya, Thailand, Shanghai and Midway are all attacked.
On the 10th the Phillipines and Guam are invaded, on the 11th Burma, the 16th, Borneo, the 18th Hong Kong. On the 23rd, General Douglas Mac Arthur begins a withdrawal from Manila, and the Japanese take Wake island.
On the 25th of December, the British surrender at Hong Kong. Now that’s all happened in just 18 days.
8 days later, January 2nd 1942, Manila and the U.S. naval base at Cavite (Caveetey) are captured.
On the 11th the Dutch East Indies and Borneo are taken.
On the 16th the advance into Burma begins. On the 23rd - Rabaul, is taken and Bougainville is invaded.
2nd of February, Java is invaded, on the 8th & 9th of February, its Singapores turn. On the 14th Sumatra is invaded, and on the 15th, the British at Singapore surrender. Fortress Singapore, that stronghold of British military might, that was assured to stop the Japanese in their tracks, fallen, and 80,000 allied troops taken prisoner.
To those in Australia, this was a serious as serious as it gets. With Singapore gone, there was nothing to stop the Japanese from an invasion of Australia. Then on 19th February, in the remote North of Australia, the city of Darwin is hit by the largest Japanese air raid since Pearl Harbour, the very same strike force led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the very same commander that led the attack on Pearl Harbour. It was on alright, the war had arrived in Australia. The only trouble was, all that remained of the four AIF divisions raised at the start of the war were fighting in North Africa and the middle East. Only the 8th division, raised entirely of volunteers, was able to be sent to the Pacific, and these men were already lost during the defence of Singapore, and in fighting on Ambon Rabaul & Timor. To say the situation was dire, would be a bit of an understatement. Australia desperately needed to recall troops from the North Africa and the middle East to face the now looming threat of Japanese invasion. The most pressing issue was time, and the AIF were over 16,000 kilometres away, they would take over a month to get across to New Guinea.
The only fighting force Australia had left up her sleeve were the young men serving in the Civilian military force, they were mocked by the men of the AIF units who called them Choco’s, or chocolate soldiers, they said that they would melt when the heat was on. The militia men had an average age of 18 & 1/2, they had very little military training, and were poorly equiped. When the Japanese invaded Papua, it was the Choco’s who were sent to slow them down. Out of the 1,500 young men of the 39th division CMF, sent to New Guinea, only 185 survived. It would not be until over a month later, that reinforcements from the 7th Division AIF would arrive from Syria in the middle East. But that wouldn’t be the end of it, nah, not by a long shot. The 7th division were trained and equiped for desert fighting, and they were now entering the entirely new world of Jungle warfare in New Guinea.
Jungle fighting has its own particular set of trials and horrors. High temperatures, tropical humidity, constant rain, and mud. Mud, everywhere, slippery, boot clogging, energy sapping mud. Of course your weapon would get clogged with mud, and fail to fire just when you needed it most. And every time you hit the deck when the Japanese opened fire on you, a bloke would be covered in it from head to toe. It seemed to rain constantly, you were alway wet, it was hot, and you were always sweating, you were always exhausted. There were huge leaches, and all the other slimy and slithering creatures that called this part of the world home. If it wasn’t the leeches sucking your blood, it was the bloody mossies, the mosquitos. Not only driving a bloke mad with their constant biting, but spreading malaria an all.
Fighting an unseen enemy in the jungle was a terrifying ordeal. The Japanese soldier, so it seemed to the diggers, had well mastered that art though. You never saw anything much, just the movement of a tree branch, or a bit of a flutter of a vine. Thats when you had to paste it in. You had to get stuck into it with everything you had, but the 303 was slow, you soon woke to that. It didn’t matter about heavy ammo, the range was always close. You never got time to sight properly, you seldom saw the enemy, just the movement in the scrub. You wanted something that could spray into that rotten green undergrowth around you, you wanted something handy to use, one handed if you had to, and quick. It had to be quick. They reckoned that new Aussie gun was like that, quick & light. Better than the Tommy gun carried by the corporal. The Thompson was heavy, it didn’t like the jungle, and the jungle didn’t like it, It just fouled up far too easily. That new Aussie gun though, it’d let you to spray Hell all around, dealing terrible punishment to an enemy.
Holiday time at River farm by the foot of Macquarie pass, just south of Wollongong, was always fun for Young Evo, he enjoyed camping in tents, swimming and mucking about in the river. The only part he wasn’t keen on was siting around at mealtimes listening to the adults banging on about politics and patriotism. His favourite uncle was uncle Bob, Robert Owen. Bob and Evo had a special relationship, Bob treated him differently, more like an adult than a kid. Evo looked up to Bob, he was a Gallipoli war hero, he had invented a range finder used by British forces during WW1. They understood one another did Bob & Evo. On one of these long Sumer days at River farm, Evo showed Bob a a pistol he had crafted from a piece of gas pipe crimped at one end. It used a fire cracker for propellant, and a gum nut as a projectile. The following year he was able to boast about improvements that included a hole bored for a fuse taken from a fire cracker, and the ability to use the powder from 3 or 4 firecrackers to be rammed in and wadded as propellant. The additional fire power sent the gum nut projectile much further and much faster. A particularly pleasing result for Evo, one which brought high praise from uncle Bob.
Late one summer afternoon, a congregation of the men were sitting up on the verandah, Evos dad Ernest, his uncles Bob & Percy, family doctor, Dr Harry Lee, and Ernest's friend Syd Jones who was an electrical engineer. The group were mellowed with whiskey, and conversation soon turned to that of guns. They talked about shooting and hunting, and with each sip, the tall tales continued to grow. Evo sat on the steps listening to the men. He loved the conversations about guns listening in to the fine wise talk of men. Ernest rose and went inside, later to return with a Luger pistol. He passed it around and Percy gave a lecture about its mechanism. Bob then passed the Luger to Evo. The men kept talking, Evo sat on the steps working the mechanism of the empty Luger, he held it up with two hands, sideways, in front of his eyes. He held it up and looked into the living movements of a gun. Whiskey flowed into the glasses on the verandah, and a sparklet bulb from a soda syphon fell to the floor and rolled across to Evo. He picked it up, rolled it in the palms of his hands, over and over. He looked at the bulb, and looked at the Luger. He held the bulb before his eyes and moved it forward and back like the movement of the bolt of a gun. His father called to him to return the Luger, and the spell was broken.
Time passed and Evo’s fascination and experimentation with guns and gunpowder grew and grew.
And back at his family home in the small coastal city of Wollongong, about 90 Kilometres south of Sydney the neighbours there would always hear explosions going off in the back yard. They would complain, “Theres that boy letting off his guns again”. In time, the neighbours would get used to it, though Evo’s old man Ernest may never have.
Well, as you might well imagine, where there’s gunpowder, and a teenage boy, there’s bound to be mishaps. At one early point in his experimentation, Evo filled a sparklet bulb with gunpowder and set it in a coal heap with a firecracker fuse. The fuse seemed to stop burning, so of course, Evo went to investigate, a puff of smoke, flash, bang, and one the first of many visits from Dr Harry Lee to attend to the injuries of the keen young inventor. Luckily, Evo saw the puff of smoke and covered his eyes with his hat, there wasn’t really that much shrapnel for Dr Lee to remove, his arms his hands, and two pieces from his abdominal muscles. His old man, Ernest was furious.
Well, of course uncle Bob went to visit Evo in his sick bed, but rather than whinge about his injuries, he wanted to know more about guns, he wanted to know how guns could be made to fire continuously. Bob gave a brief explanation of blowback, force & counter force and Evo, quickly grasped the idea, and the wheels once again began turning.
Well, we knew it was on the cards. Dr Lee said that this time it was the direction he bent over the vice that saved him. He bent from the front and not from the side of the bench. The bullet went in across the front, not the side otherwise it would have gone straight in. Luckily it was only a .22 calibre, anything larger could have been messy. Ernest’s face was red with anger, Dr Lee said “well he seems keen to carry on with it. I can’t see you rearing this one Ernie”.
During the summer holidays in 1930, Evo’s mother Constance, convinced Ernest to allow their son to leave school and join the rail gang building the new line down the escarpment from Mt Kembla to the Hoskins steel works being built at Port Kembla. Ernest thought the hard grind and low wages of a Nipper on a rail gang would soon have his wayward son begging to return to school and wanting to complete his education. Well, as it turned out, Evo loved his new job, and before you know it, he managed to get moved into another gang, and you guessed it, a blasting crew, using explosives to cut through the rocky escarpment.
The work on the rail line was nearing completion and Ernest spoke to a chap he knew, an engineer in charge of one of the Hoskins workshops about an apprenticeship for Evo as a metal shaper. To prepare himself for his new apprenticeship, Ernest permitted Evo built a homemade lathe in the shed out the back. Yep, you can see where this is going… His crude lathe was powered by a pedal drive from an old sowing machine, and he used files & cold chisels to cut the metal. Peddling away furiously at his lathe, one morning, Evo was interrupted by a friend of his father’s who was curious to see what he was up to. Syd Jones was an engineer and a friend of Ernest’s, he was bemused to see the state of contraption that Evo was working on. Syd, began to deliver a sermon on the absurdity of trying to make anything with such an apparatus. Evo looked up at Syd, removed the piece of metal he was working on from the lathe, reached under the bench and withdrew his prototype submachine gun. Placing the metal part into where the bolt would go, he then began to explain to Syd each of the components of the gun. “This is a piece from a motorcycle pump, the trigger is made from a shoe horn, this is a piece of gas pipe, and the spring that drives the magazine is from an old gramophone. The barrel looks a bit like one David says is missing from his .22 rifle”. He turned away from the bench and fired 6 shots into the dirt floor of the shed. “It always jams there he said. I think I drilled the carriers of the magazine out of true”.
Syd Jones just happened to have one of the best equipped private workshops in all of Wollongong, and against his better judgement, he invited Evo to finish the gun in his workshop. In the months ahead, they built the first operational Owen submachine gun. They tested it at River Farm, and the gun performed beautifully, non longer jamming after 6 rounds. Syd congratulated Evo, but evo replied “Its still not simple enough”.
As it turned out, Evo’s apprenticeship as a metal shaper at Hoskins didn’t last the 6 month probation. Apparently the boss wasn’t happy when he discovered Evo had used the company lathes to construct some type of automatic rifle. Not only that, but some of the younger apprentices had made single shot pistols designed by Evo. As it turned out, a substantial armoury had been confiscated out of their lockers, and worse still, some of them had taken their pistols home and their parents had complained to the company’s head office.
Well to say that Ernest hit the roof would be an understatement. He wanted his wayward son banished. To keep him away from his father wrath, Evo was sent up to Sydney to work in a cement works for a couple of months. When he returned, his fathers anger had still not abated and it was agreed that it would be best for Evo to be sent down to Shellharbour to work with his brothers in a lime & mortar business owned by Ernest & Syd.
By the end of 1934, it seemed like the depression may have been coming to an end, and with the prospect of electric power becoming available, the family bought a property in Albion Park not far from Shellharbour, and started the first rotary kiln for the continuous burning of lime in the Illawarra region. Evo, became designer & builder of much of the equipment, and before long, the business was transformed into a ready mix mortar plant that could load mortar into giant ladles on top of trucks ready for pouring at building sites. However, the great entrepreneurial adventure was doomed probably before it really began. Contract drivers complained that the the drive from Wollongong was too far, and other sites were opening up in Wollongong making it hard for the Owen brothers to compete. Evo needed a solution, ideally, they would get a loan and buy their own trucks to transport the ready mixed mortar, but this was not going to happen during the depression. Evo decided he needed a stop gap measure to keep the business running. And in typical Evo fashion, he came up with a brilliant idea.
Whilst watching the Brickies at building sites, he noticed that as the height of the wall went up, it took longer for the brickies climbing ladders to get the brick up to the next level. He set about building a machine that would solve the problem and speed up the work. His machine consisted of a motor driven adjustable elevator mounted on a trailer that would travel along the base of the wall and enabled bricks to be delivered to the brick layer atop the wall with greatly increased speed and with much improved efficiency. Brilliant! The only trouble was that the brick layers union wouldn’t touch it. Anything that was likely to reduce the amount of labour required on building sites and cost jobs, was never going to be accepted in such hard times during a depression and as a result Evo’s machine was blacklisted. A week later he trucked the machine, minus the motor and a few other salvageable part down to Albion Park where it was abandoned.
This setback nearly broke Evo. He needed to get away, he bought a motorcycle and began an odyssey of long solitary rides. He met people at roadside cafes and petrol stations, he became a master at crashing parties and flirting with young women. At one point he had a blossoming relationship with an ambitious and driven young medical student named Eliza, but the romance was never to be more than a passing encounter due mostly to their entirely opposing views on where each wanted to go in life.
Evo returned to the new family home at Cliff road Wollongong. In 1938 Shortly after Hitler annexed Austria, Evo’s brother Julian announced that he would go into camp for a month with the 34th South coast training regiment. When he returned home on leave, he spoke of a shortages of arms and equipment, and training with obsolete Lewis guns. Evo was bewildered when he told him there was no training for submachine guns, and that they didn’t even exist.
Evo’s other brother David joined the Civilian military force in February 1939. He too found no official interest in submachine guns, he did however, find some officers who were interested enough to provide contacts for some high ranking officers in Sydney that may be interested in an Own gun.
You see, it was only a month earlier, that an article called Demand for defence, was published in the Australian Quarterly, and it stressed the urgent need for Australia to mass produce submachine guns. Well, this was all the encouragement Evo needed. He slung his submachine gun over his shoulder, jumped on his motorcycle and shot off up to Sydney to speak to the contacts his brother David had given him. Whilst in Sydney he stayed with his sister Eleanor in her flat at Edgecliff, he was surprised that the toll collectors on the harbour bridge never stopped him for a toll, Eleanor suggested it might have something to do with the submachine gun strapped to his back.
Evo received a fair bit of encouragement from the officers he spoke to, but none of them had enough pull to help out. They suggested he take his Gun to the army inventions section at Victoria barracks.
There at Victoria barracks Evo and Ernest were met by an officer named Colonel Wright, an austere fellow with very little charm, and no real enthusiasm for the Owen Gun. He joked that its .22 calibre as too weak and ineffective at 100 yards, and followed up with even though the Americans have their Thompson submachine gun, the British and Australian forces have no use for a such a weapon, and If the situation were to change, Australia would be supplied with these types of weapons from England.
It was now July 1939, and much had been made about the threat in the Pacific from the Imperial Japanese forces. Ernest remarked that if Australian shipping lanes were closed, Australia may not be able to rely on shipments from Britain. Colonel Wright however, quickly pointed out with smug confidence that the British naval base at Singapore had been established to guarantee that such shipments could not be effected.
On the 1st of September Germany invaded Poland, two days later Britain declared war on Germany, and as a result Australia was now also at war. Australia’s ill preparedness for war meant that only troops already in the militia could be fully equipped and trained, Julian and David went to the 34th training battalion, Peter and Evo had to wait, Peter until January, and Evo until April.
Now, shortly afterwards, a curious thing happened. Evo received a rather mysterious letter pertaining to be from a trading company with interests in China & Japan, called the Industrial banking corporation PTY LTD. with an offer to sell the Owen submachine gun in the orient. Even though he was at first particularly delighted at the offer, he had good reason to be suspicious. It turned out that Australian military intelligence were also more than a little interested in this business opportunity. Although Australia and Japan were not at war, Military Intelligence were highly suspicious of covert operations by Japan through business interests, and as such, Evo was watched over by MI as believe it or not, he had now become a person of strategic importance to the war effort.
Around the same time, Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Europe was demonstrating to the world the effectiveness of submachine guns in battle. Allied forces found themselves hopelessly outgunned by the superior short range firepower of German submachine guns, none more so than the British forces in Norway, armed as they were with the 303 bolt action rifle and bayonet.
Well by now, thanks in part to these latest developments, a general interest had been sparked in some of the officers in Evo’s battalion. And when Evo told them that he had invented a submachine gun at home, they dared him to bring his gun with him when he returned from leave. And so in typical larrikin fashion Evo brought his submachine gun back into camp. And believe it or not, a set of unusual circumstances would have the once so dismissive Colonel Crawford calling for a demonstration.
These unusual circumstance that created the request for a demonstration of his submachine gun though were not likely to have come about under normal circumstances. It required a pinch of luck and a whole dash of soldierly skylarking on the train back to the battalion at Bathurst. You see, at one point during the journey, Evo began to notice an odd array of jetsam consisting of slouch hats, tunics, boots and all manner of Kit flying past his window and littering the side of the tracks. It seems that some soldiers though it great sport to relieve their mates of the burden of much of their kit by tossing it out of the windows of the train. Evo panicked. He had left his submachine gun in the privileged kitbag, of his brother Julians Batman. He immediately tried to get to the carriage containing his gun, but of course, army protocol would never allow unlocked doors between carriages on troop trains. There was only one thing for it. Evo swung out onto the outside of the carriage and began to shimmy his way along the outside of the train. He managed to get to the carriage where Julian and his Batman sat, he was relieved to see their boots atop the kitbag containing his precious gun. On his way back along the outside of the carriages, he passed a window with a tray of the most magnificent oranges. Yielding to temptation, he reached in, he managed to stuff three of the oranges into his shirt before being grabbed by a hand from inside. The hand just happened to belong to an officer by the name of Captain Silverstone. I'll have you on parade first thing in the morning Captain Silverstone barked, which is how Evo came to be paraded by the Captain in front of Colonel Crawford.
After hearing the story of Evo’s gun, and sketching plans demonstrating how submachine guns work, Colonel Crawford ordered that a demonstration take place. The demonstration must have impressed the Colonel sufficiently enough, because unbeknown to Evo, Colonel Crawford ordered Captain Silverstone to write a letter to the district inventions board in Sydney.
Once again Evo sat on the train, this time going on leave for what he expected may be the last time before being deployed to the Middle East. As the train pulled in to Wollongong station, he could see the smoke from the stacks of the newly built Lysaghts galvanised sheet iron plant at Port Kembla. Lysaghts built their first steel plant in Australia at Newcastle in 1919 and in Port Kembla by 1939. The Newcastle plant supported the war effort by producing military hardware including bullet proof plate for armoured vehicles and non magnetic armour for ships as well as other such useful wartime things.
Now history often takes strange turns, and coincidence will play its part. The hand of fate is often not too far away from disaster or triumph.
The manager of the Port Kembla plant was a bloke named Vincent Wardell, His brother Gerard was the chief engineer. The brothers, unable to enlist as their work was considered essential to the war effort, continued their mundane routines as everyone else it seemed was getting on with the war. Vincent wanted his Port Kembla plant to become more involved in war production, and his mind was firmly focussed on how he could achieve this as he drove home to his flat at Cliff Road Wollongong that September evening in 1940.
A short time earlier that day, Evo had gotten off the train in Wollongong, and was now at his parents flat in you guessed it Cliff road Wollongong. His parents flat adjoined the very same flat where Vincent Wardell lived. After a brief catch up with his mother and father, he grabbed his submachine gun, now concealed in a sugar sack, and went off down to the beach to fire one last burst from the weapon that he had crafted with his own hands in Syd Jones workshop. He had made a decision, there would be no more designing and building guns. It was time for him to go off to war, and he knew that his Owen Gun was never going to be a part of it.
Evo arrived back from the beach just in time to see Julian and Peter with a couple of mates hopping into a car. They were off to the Oxford hotel for a few beers. Evo stashed his gun behind a low wall in front of the flats, jumped into the car and headed off to the pub.
A short time later, Vincent Wardell still working on the problem of how to get his plant more involved in the war effort, pulls into the driveway. When he gets out of his car he notices what looks like a sugar bag stashed behind the wall out front. Of course he goes to examine, and to his surprise pulls out what appeared to be some sort of a gangster gun from one of those American films. His first thought was to take it inside and call the police.Vincent had moved into the flat whilst Evo and his brothers were away in camp, so he had never met Evo and knew nothing about his hobby as a gunsmith. Just at that moment Evo’s old man Ernest turns up, and say’s G’day. He notices the sack and asks Vincent “where did you get Evo’s gun?” Vincent explains that he found it by the wall. Well of course Ernest was less than happy with Evo’s sloppiness and promised to sort him out when he got home. He then went on to tell Vincent all about Colonel Wright and his rejection of the gun at Victoria Barracks. It was right about then, that Vincent Wardell decided Evelyn Owens future was not at the front.
The following day Vincent met Evo and told him that his future should not be overseas fighting the enemy, but that he should be working here in Australia perfecting his gun. To his surprise Evo protested, he said Lysaghts could do what they liked with the gun, he was finished with it, he was going overseas with his brothers to fight.
Now Vincent Wardell was an influential man, and an acquaintance of his, the managing director of BHP Steel, Essington Lewis was even more influential. Essington Lewis was empowered by Prime Minister Menzies as Director general of munitions, dealing with ordnance, small arms, explosives and munitions, and with a brief from the Prime Minister himself to “…achieve directives in your own way, and in as quick a time as possible”.
Well, where do you think this is going? You guessed it. At the request of Vincent Wardell to Essington Lewis, Evo was ordered to appear before Colonel Crawford where he received a written order to proceed to Victoria barracks in Melbourne the following day, 19th September 1940. He was none too happy about this, as his battalion, the 2nd 17th was boarding the Queen Mary that day to sail for Palestine with his brothers Julian and Peter on aboard, and here he was, heading to Melbourne. He complained to Colonel Crawford that he had joined up to go overseas with his brothers and fight Germans. Crawford replied that they wanted to improve his Owen gun and get them into production quick smart. Anyhow, he said, go and sort it out, then you can join your brothers as soon as you’re done.
Now at that time, the relationship of the British military towards that of the Australian military was one of imperious patronisation. The Australians would send off to Britain, local inventions for their professional appraisal, the British military would discard these efforts and take no notice of the colonial amateurs, and in turn, the colonial amateurs would accept the fact that only British made armaments were any good anyhow.
In 1939, the newly formed ordinance division under the command of Major General Thomas Rhys Williams would be the conduit for all inventions selected to be sent through to Britain for appraisal. All of Williams’ technical officers had completed their training in England where they were schooled in the notion that only British produced armaments were of any good. Not only that, but the Chief’s of staff for all branches of the Australian services were brought out from Britain to supervise the colonials in the proper use of this well proven British hardware. As you can see, getting anything past this lot was not going to be easy, and to say that a few games, complete with a number flaming hoops were now afoot, might be a bit of an understatement.
There was however, one person of influence that could see the importance of the Owen Gun. Captain Cyril Dyer, the 64 year old WW1 veteran was the secretary of the central inventions board. Dyer had a bit of a track record as a military inventor himself. He invented an improved carburettor for WW1Fighter planes that improved their performance in dog fights, and between the wars, he conducted private experiments on liquid propellants for rockets.
Evo travelled down to Melbourne and met with Major General Williams at Victoria Barracks and a demonstration of the .22 calibre Owen Gun was conducted at Williamstown on the 20th September. Well it took over three weeks before the weapon was handed back to the Central inventions board, now with a request for “their” evaluation. Evo was frustrated with the pace of things, he was told that the Central Inventions board would have drawings made up within a few days, but then they would need authority, before the gun could be made up under the his supervision.
Well, the Ordinance section took over the drawings and did their own “improvements” to Evos original design. They decided, either incompetently or malevolently to make a change from the .22 calibre round, to a .38 calibre pistol round which was useless in a submachine gun. A month later they sent the drawings back to Dyer, who passed them on to the principle ordinance engineer Lieutenant Colonel Field, who decided to a few modifications of his own. When Evo said that none of the modifications would work Lieutenant Colonel Field agreed and said that it proved that the army workshops were wasting their time, and the concept of the Owen Gun was to be rejected entirely. In a way Evo was happy, now he could go and join his brothers in the Middle East.
But when Dyer added that the ordinance department also said it would take months to make and would be too costly, Evo blew up. “If I could get into Lysaghts workshops I could build the bloody thing in six days”. Dyer went back to the Ordinance department but they straight away sought refuge in army regulations which stated that all work of this nature was to be done by ordinance, preferably British ordinance.
Dyer telephoned Vincent Wardell and explained to him the level obstruction from the Ordinance section. Wardell told him that Lysaghts would build a mock up gun at no cost. Dyer agreed, and posted an order that would eventually cost him his job.
Evo returned back home to Wollongong where upon arriving he opened his mail. His first letter was from his brother Julian. As an officer Julian could censor his own mail. He wrote that the Thompson submachine gun was now an issue in the desert. It jammed so badly that anyone taking it out on patrol wrapped it in a ground sheet to protect it from the sand. Whoever had to carry the Thompson was dubbed “winner of the death lottery” not only that, the Bren gun was also giving trouble in the sand. Evo, he wrote, how long before you get your gun to us?
The other letter was an order signed by Captain Dyer ordering Evo to report to Lysaghts to begin work on a mock up of the .38 calibre Owen Gun. Dyer had stuck his neck out here, that’s for sure, and as son as army officialdom caught up with him, he would be sacked. Evo on the other hand was following orders, but the army had it in for him none the less, and was not going to let him off the hook.
Lysaghts contacted army minister Percy Spender. Spender was not a man that fell into line with conventional thinking that British was best and even before 1939 Spender had been voicing his outspoken views on the inadequacy of Australia’s defence preparations. He managed to save Dyers career, but only until the end of the year when his government lost the election. Spender retained a great deal of influence however as he was on the the bipartisan Advisory War Council until 1944 and so his influence enabled Evo to get on with it. Evo was to continue at Lysaghts, but was under strict instructions to correspond only with Vincent Wardell, a restriction that was impossible to stick to. In order to bring the Owen Gun to life, two others had to become involved. Fred Kungler, a Swiss gunsmith working as a tradesman at Lysaghts, and Gerard Wardell the Chief engineer, and brother of Vincent Wardell.
Right from the start it was fairly well suspected that the army hierarchy wanted to see the Owen gun fail. The amended plans from Melbourne incorporated design features that were definitely not improvements. They believed the army wanted to see something that was similar to the new British submachine gun, the Sten gun currently under development, this would give plausible reason to disregard to Owen gun when the Sten gun was released.
The new… “improved” plans replaced the original drum magazine with a side magazine and a side ejection slot. Strangely enough, just like the the Sten. Evo knew this design would trap sand in the mechanism but he had no choice, so they went ahead and built it anyway. To add yet another layer of difficulty, the army insisted that the weapon be made to fire .38 calibre pistol rounds, it just happened that there was no ammunition, nor barrels for .38 calibre pistol rounds available. Lysaghts suggested, a .32 calibre version, the army wasn’t too keen on it, but said go ahead anyhow. And, oh, by the way, there’s no available .32 ammunition, nor barrels either. Vincent Wardell telephoned around Sydney sports shops and managed two find 2,000 rounds of .32 ammunition, they also found that a standard army 303 barrel would work with this ammo. In less than a fortnight Evo and Freddy Kungler had built the gun in Lysaghts fitting shop. Kungler designed a new trigger mechanism completely sealed in grease, which became the basis for all future Owen guns.
The three of them, Evo Freddy & Vincent Wardell took the gun out to Allens creek and blasted away. Some local army officers learned of the testing and wanted a demonstration of their own, which they got, and as no surprise they were impressed. Evo however was not so impressed. He knew that the side magazine & ejectors would become clogged with sand or mud.
Evo called Captain Dyer to report on their progress, Dyer ordered him to return to Melbourne with the gun and Gerard Wardell. Dyer was impressed with the gun, but ordinance was not. They said it would require test firing 10,000 rounds before it could even be considered, Dyer asked to set up the test, but as you might have guessed, ordinance said there was no available ammunition. Even though at the time they knew there was 2,000 rounds at Manly, and thousands more being manufactured at Foostcray.
Dyer suggested that Evo and Gerard return to Port Kembla and make a gun in .45 calibre, the same as the Thompson submachine gun, the American Tommy gun was now being shipped to Australia along with plenty of ammunition. Before he left Melbourne Evo drew up plans for the new .45, he also moved the magazine from the side to the top, and the ejector slot from the side to the bottom. Now they needed to get their hands on some .45 calibre ammo. Strangely enough their search lead them to the Melbourne criminal investigation branch, where they found a new supporter of the Owen Gun in Inspector Hobley, who managed to give them six rounds of ammunition and the barrel from an old .45 Henry Martini rifle. It wasn’t much to work with, but its all they had.
The redesigned .45 was built at Lysaghts, and tested with the six rounds they had brought back from Melbourne, and it proved successful. They now returned to Melbourne with the new gun where Dyer asked Ordinance for ammunition to conduct firing trials. Evo now considered his work done, and asked Captain Dyer to release him from the project so that he could join his brothers in the Middle East. Dyer reluctantly agreed, but it seems that the order for his release became lost, misplaced somewhere in the vast bureaucratic army correspondence complex. As a weapons inventor, Evo had no chance of ever returning to military service.
Well, time passed, and the promised .45 calibre ammo still didn’t arrive. It seems that Dyer had misinterpreted his seniors enthusiasm for the Owen gun. Turns out that they were waiting for an opportunity to attack and ruin the Owen gun and its supporters. And in due course Evo handed them their excuse, he foolishly allowed the .45 Owen Gun to be displayed with other weapons at a war loan rally. This was just what the army wanted, they’d fix this upstart private and his cohort of civilian factory supporters. But as momentum gathered for a court martial, it was realised that this might cause quite a bit of unwanted bad publicity, so a reprimand would have to suffice.
Finally the ammo arrived, 500 rounds. But is was not Thompson submachine gun ammo they were expecting, it was .455 calibre pistol ammunition, totally useless. All was not lost though, Gerard Wardell realised this was fairly common ammunition so they decided to make a second barrel from what remained of the Martini Henry barrel. The gun functioned perfectly, and Vincent Wardell wrote to the Ordinance department advising that the gun was ready for testing. He received no reply. He was now beginning to understand just how much red tape the army had at its disposal for tying up projects that they didn’t like.
At around that time, Evo learned that the minister for the army, Percy Spender was to open a new chamber of manufactures hall at Newcastle. It was a long shot, but it was worth a try, he headed off to Newcastle to try and get in to meet Percy Spender. Well, his gamble, against all odds paid off. The minister, curious to see why this agitated young soldier wanted so badly to meet him, agreed to meet Evo, and was surprised to see him waiting in a side room holding a sugar sack. After initial greetings Evo got down to business explaining how the Owen Gun could save the lives of thousands diggers in the middle east. He pulled the parts out of the sack and started assemble the gun, explaining its simplicity, how cheaply it could be made, and above its reliability, how it could be thrown in water, mud, or in sand and would still operate without clogging. He told the minister that the army seemed to be throwing every conceivable objection to giving the gun a fair trial and begged him to help. Spender was impressed by not only the gun, but by its enthusiastic young inventor, he promised to see that it would get a fair trial.
An order for 100 guns was sent to Lysaghts, for muzzle velocity trials. The army said they weren’t interested in either the .32s or the .45s, and that the gun should be built for .38 rimmed pistol ammo. They then advised, in somewhat contradictory fashion, that no other submachine gun in the world fires rimmed ammunition and its use would create special difficulties. To that Captain Dyer suggested that a 9mm version, the same calibre as German submachine guns, and that of the rumoured new British Sten gun, but he was reprimanded for interfering with matters outside of his concern. Then, in another sly move, Percy Spender received a letter on the 26th of April from Ordinance praising the new British Sten gun despite the fact that no one in the country had ever seen a Sten gun. Oh yeah, the army brass were getting right agitated now. How dare a civilian army minister using a civilian war cabinet order the army to place an order with a civilian tin works for 100 guns, outrageous!
Despite all of the obstruction and foot dragging from the army brass, the initial trials took place on 4th September. The .32, .38 & .45 were all tested & proved effective, however, you guessed it, the army insisted that the .38 rimfire rounds were problematic. They also insisted that the Owen guns needed to pass the 10,000 rounds firing test before they would even be considered.
Now, on the day of the muzzle velocity test the army was also testing the new British Sten gun using 9mm ammunition. Evo noticed the 9mm ammo on a table under the watchful eye of a young officer, he nodded towards the boxes, Gerard Wardell walked across to the table Gerard stared down at the young office with a challenging and unwavering gaze. He reached down and lifted a box of fifty 9mm cartridges from the table and placed then in his pocket. Without shifting his gaze a handful of loose rounds were also scooped up from the table and went into his pocket. Thank you he said, the young officer swallowed and looked uncomfortable, Gerard continued to peer at him. The officer turned sideways in his chair and began watching the trials intently, Gerard walked back over to where Evo stood.
The next hurdle was to be the 10,000 round tests. That night Percy Spender received a call from Wardell asking permission to change the trial from the useless .38 to the .45 and now also the 9mm. What about the 9mm ammunition he asked? We have some came the reply. The phone went silent. Oh, very well then.
Drawings for the new 9mm gun started 3 days later. They had 22 days and 60 rounds of ammunition before the 10,000 round test. A highly difficult task for for a large team of expert gunsmiths, and yet here were three blokes in a galvanised iron works at Port Kembla. Together they built 3 new 9mm guns, virtually rebuilt 2 of the .45s, as well as sprucing up three of the .38s.
Well, no one knew who tipped off the press, it may have been Percy Spender, looking to promote his new discovery, or it may have been the army brass believing the .38 calibre would be such low velocity that it wouldn’t even reach the target. But they were all there, photographers, newsreel cameramen. Percy Spender made a point of going over to Evo and shaking his hand.
Ranged against the Owen guns were the American Thompson in .45 calibre, and the new British 9mm Sten gun. Tubs filled with mud were placed along the firing line waiting for the weapons to be immersed. Next to these, piles of sand with shovels waiting to foul the working parts of each of the guns. Spender came over to the firing line and looked worriedly at the tubs of mud and the mounds of sand. The order was given to immerse the guns in the mud, a soldier came up to Evo to take a gun for the test. Evo looks at Spender and asked “may I”? Spender nodded, he burried the gun in the mud. The army’s hopes were dashed, the Sten malfunctioned and misfired. The Thompson stuttered and stopped. Evo lifted the Owen Gun out of the mud. He flung it up, dripping mud and fired it in perfect bursts until the magazine emptied. He handed it over to a soldier and grinned at Spender. Another soldier poured sand over the dripping wet, muddy gun with a shovel, the Sten received the same treatment, again it stopped firing whilst the Owen Gun blasted away continuously. Spender bent over the soldier firing the Owen Gun, the soldier stopped firing. Spender looked down worriedly. “You might get sand in your eyes sir” “Has the gun stopped working”? Spender demanded. “Not this one sir, not this one, she’s a little bloody ripper”. “Then damn my eyes” Spender yelled, “keep firing man”.
Everyone was impressed by the Owen Gun, except maybe the army brass. The press hailed it as a great success passing all tests with flying colours. “Its a winner” said military officers who watched the tests, “this is an amazing performance”!
So after proving its worth against the two other weapons you would expect that the Owen Gun would be rushed into production, you know, get it into the hands of the diggers at the front, the blokes that really needed it. Well yes, an order was drawn up for Lysaghts on 29th October 1941 for 2,000 guns, but three weeks later they still hadn’t received it. You see, the day after the successful testing, a letter form ordinance was received at Lysaghts highlighting a number of modifications required for the Owen Gun prior to the order being placed, the white anting it seems, was to continue. Somehow the press managed to get a whiff of what was happening and headlines began appearing in the papers. At first proclaiming that the hold ups and delays were to end, and that the new army minister Frank Forde had ordered the army to begin production. The paper also outlined how the army dragged its feet, rejecting the Owen Gun in 1939, changing its mind on ammunition and generally trying to kill off the gun in favour of the British Sten. The papers called for getting rid of the obstruction in the army.
By November, the order still had not been received at Lysaghts. The matter reached parliament, where now former army minister Spender raised it on the floor addressing the new army minister Frank Forde. Now to cut a long story short, Forde had ordered the new director of ordinance production, an Englishman by the name of L J Hartnett to get on with it. Hartnett however had industry connections with GMH and Die Casters and believed that they, not Lysaghts would be better at manufacturing the Owen gun. Not only that, but Hartnett had an interest in an alternate Australian made submachine gun, the Austen. The editor of the Daily Telegraph after reading the parliamentary exchange hit the roof. The paper printed an editorial with the headline screaming “GET RID OF THE CULPRITS”. The Herald also printed a piece on the Owen Gun delay. It was now only 22 days before Australia would be at war with Japan.
It would take until October 1942 for the Owen Gun to finally reach the diggers in New Guinea. And it couldn’t have come too soon.
Barney Degan of the 2/12 battalion landed on Goodenough island, he was killed when his Thompson submachine gun jammed from sand.
Major JB McAdam, “Our sole defence was our speed. If we could see a Japanese before he could see us, and, if we had 10 yards start we could get away. What I wanted was a submachine gun so our forward scouts could put the Japanese flat and so get a 10 yard start on them. All the four months we were behind enemy lines I was unable to get a submachine gun.
Private Henry Freyer reported on January 9th 1943 “Some weeks ago, nearly all our crowd were freshly equipped with Owen guns. We had been pushed in to take Gona with light equipment and plenty of ammunition. It was raining like hell and we knew something big was about to come off so we forgot the weather for the time being. Early one morning, some men in my company opened up properly and popped off scores of Japanese. In one burst I killed four Japanese soldiers. The Japanese were clearly fearful of this weapon of ours. They never knew what was coming”.
Private Les Bigland “At worst the man holding one sold his life at a terrible price. At best he shot his way out and left the Japanese to bury their dead”.
Private RB Robertson “Many lives would have been saved if there had been enough Owen guns. An Owen enables you to spray Hell all around and deal terrible execution the enemy as well”.
The 32nd US division were now offering one Thompson and 50 Australian dollars for an Owen Gun. There were no takers.
Many a digger taking delivery of his first Owen Gun found a cheerful hand written message of luck and hope pushed into the hole housing the pull through for the stock.Those messages came from girls like Sally Bowen, Molly Wonson and Mary Staples. Three of the young ladies working on the Owen Gun assembly line at Lysaghts.
The Owen Gun, the diggers darling, continued its service in the Australian Army through the Korean War, the Malayan emergency 1948 - 1960 , and right up to the early years of the Vietnam war
The last decoration ever won by a soldier using an Owen Gun was on 18th of August 1966 at the battle of Long Tan. Corporal J.A. Carter leapt to the roof of his APC after its machine gun malfunctioned. Despite enemy fire coming from many directions he, with the help of his mates who constantly threw up to him loaded magazines subdued the enemy post and was awarded a distinguished conduct medal.
After the war Evo returned to his sanctuary in the foothills below Macquarie Pass. He and his brother Julian built a cabin for him there. It was here in this peaceful valley crowned with Eucalypts and gum trees, with a crystal clear creek brimming with fish and eels, and deep pools for swimming, that Evo was to leave the harshness of the real world behind, and begin his peaceful life. In pride of place above the mantle in his cabin, he mounted an Owen Gun.
His brother Julian had been through a lot during the war, and had returned home with his nerves shot. Evo was expecting the royalties from the government for his Owen Gun to be paid soon, so he approached the bank for a loan to help Julian buy a small farm at Bowral. The expected royalties however were slow in being paid and Evo was now in debt, and with little hope of ever being able to repay it, his disillusionment deepened. For all of his efforts he received a commission which amounted to about 50 cents per gun, and the government taxed him 40 cents of that.
One day wandering around the hills, he came across a hidden camp with some men gathered around a still. Evo, not one to hold back, launched onto a lecture about the still. Not that it was on his property, or that it was illegal. No, he was more annoyed about the poor design the men had come up with. He then set about explaining to them how they should redesign it. In gratitude, the men from left 2 bottles of their sly grog on the table in his cabin whilst he was out elsewhere.
Not long after the men had left, a group of detectives and customs excise officials looking for an illegal still arrived at Evos cabin. Sure enough, they found the grog, and the Owen Gun. Evo was charged with illegal possession of an Owen Gun and possession of illicit alcohol. Depression, debt and sadness, were now his only companions.
On the 1st April 1949, Evelyn Ernest Owen passed away due to massive bleeding from a ruptured gastric ulcer. Dr Harry Lee was unable to save him this time. It was only 6 weeks before his 34th birthday.