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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Norman Alfred Vickery (1917–1998)

by Peter N. Vickery

* Eulogy delivered by his son at his funeral at St George's Anglican Church, Malvern, Melbourne, 10 August 1998

On Sunday evening of 3 September 1939, Astor household radios throughout Australia crackled those haunting words of the then Prime Minister, Mr. Rohert Menzies:

''Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that, in consequence of the persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war."

No one who heard those words was ever likely to forget them. They were heard by a 22-year-old Lieutenant who had gained his commission the year before with the Sydney University Regiment. That young man was Norman Vickery.

Having completed the first part of his education at Shore Sydney Church of England Grammar School and graduated with an Economics Degree from Sydney University, he was more than ready to answer the call to arms.

Like many others, he considered it his unquestionable duty to enlist for active service. Many young men of his day caught taxis to the enlisting office so as not to miss out. Thousands of men who had somehow survived the First World War managed to persuade the recruiting officers that 10 years of their lives had not existed. Many others who were under-age pretended that they had become victims of a mysterious physical phenomenon of time acceleration.

Lieutenant Vickery was one of the first to join the rush and was assigned one of the lowest Active Service Numbers - NX130.

The 2/1st Australian Field Regiment was formed at Holsworthy, New South Wales on 31 October 1939. Its ranks were drawn from civilian recruits who had left behind the office desk, the tractor, the shop counter and the factory bench. This was to he Lieutenant Vickery's regiment.

As a young commander his first responsibility was to mould 30 Queensland miners into a disciplined battery of gunners. They were not angels. They were raw and untrained. They were undemonstrative, facetious, fiercely independent, suspicious of authority and they probably would have looked at their apparently 'toffy' young Lieutenant with a more than critical eye — at least to start with. He was aged 22 years and a number of men in his battery were almost twice his age.

Lieutenant Vickery, with his extraordinary understanding of people and enduring capacity for the common touch' was soon able to gain their undying trust and respect as their leader. These characteristics were to remain with him for the rest of his public life.

Field-Marshall Sir William Slim described a 30 man platoon as one of the four best commands in the service, because, as he said —

"It is your first command, because you are young, and because, if you are any good, you know the men in it better than their mothers do and love them as much". Norman Vickery was very good at his first command. However, not even he could ever get those miners to salute officers.

On 10 January 1940 his regiment pulled out of Pyrmont wharf on Sydney harbour aboard His Majesty's Transport "Orford" bound for service in the desert war in North Africa. The voyage was over when they arrived at El Kantara on the banks of the Suez on 12 February 1940 before travelling by train to Palestine across the Sinai desert. It must have been an enthralling sight for the young man from Sydney. In every sense it was the start of his journey through adult life.

By 16 August 1940 the unit was considered to have reached a sufficient level of training to carry out an active war role as an anti-aircraft regiment. It manned Bofors guns at Aboukir and later at Sidi Bisr and at Port Fuad.

On 4 January 1941 the then Captain Vickery was engaged in a remarkable action in Gaza.

He was detailed as Forward Observing Officer for 2/11th Battalion during the battle of Bardia to look for likely targets for the artillery. It was January 4, 1941, the second day of the Bardia battle and the Australian Army's first battle of the war.

To carry out the assignment he traveled in a Bren carrier. This was a lightly armoured, open-topped tracked vehicle, about the size of a large golf buggy; the carrier was on loan to the under-equipped Australians from the British Army. In the driver's seat was British born Lance Corporal Syd Barker of the Queen's Own Regiment. Crowded into the vehicle were two other Australian diggers, John Fairleigh and Burnie Anley.

They suddenly found themselves in the right rear of an enemy four-gun battery which was engaging our Infantry. The enemy battery was supported by a full garrison of infantry, 1000 men in all. The post was heavily armed with machine guns and anti-tank rifles as well as the four-gun field battery.

Certainly resistance had not been strong from some of the Italian forces. Many were conscripts who did not share Mussolini's grandiose dreams. Yet Vickery could not help but know that during the battle many of their gunners, professional soldiers, had tenaciously resisted, firing to the last from behind their stone emplacements.

As a gunner himself, he was well aware of the effect a high explosive shell would have on the flimsy carrier, should even one of the guns be swung around to engage it.

The temptation was too great, despite his carrier being armed with nothing more than an anti-tank rifle, Captain Vickery ordered the carrier up to full revs and went hell-for-leather charging at the enemy with his carrier at full bore.

The unconventional plan was to bluff his opponents into the belief that the headlong rush was the forerunner of a full frontal assault by the whole of the Australian Army. The concept was utterly outrageous. But the luck held. "A couple of shots across their bows from the anti-tank rifle did the trick," as he once described it. His action succeeded. He somehow persuaded the entire Battery and Infantry Garrison to surrender.

Unruffled by his heady accomplishment the day before, on 5 January, as his official record reports, "Captain Vickery again carried out his duty with conspicuous success moving all the time in the rear of the tanks and sending back continuous information concerning the progress of the battle."

For this courageous piece of bluff, as the regimental history describes it, Captain Vickery received the Military Cross, and Lance Corporal Barker the Military Medal. It was the first Military Cross to be awarded to an Australian during World War II. Vickery cut off two segments of his medal ribbon and privately gave a piece to the other two Australian diggers, Fairleigh and Anley, who were with him in the carrier.

The action has become something of a legend and to this day is known as Vickery 's Bluff". It may have been through this event that he recognised his penchant for dash and persuasion, which set him on a course ultimately leading to the Victorian Bar.

As a gunner he earned the nickname "Hawk-Eye" no doubt derived from his extraordinary technical skill for accuracy as a gunner. But one suspects that it may also have had something to do with that twinkle in those bolt-blue eyes of his.

If it was possible to be humane in war, Vickery was such a man. In another engagement which required shelling a town prior to its capture, the commander, the late Sir Edmund Herring, called upon Vickery's guns to keep the enemy pinned down. Hawk-eye aimed his twenty-five pounders into the Town Square which he knew was vacant at siesta time. His objective was to prevent his shells causing civilian casualties.

The calculations done and double checked by Vickery using, by the standards of today, the relatively crude printed gunnery tables, the calibration controls on the guns' sighting mechanisms whirred into action. The town was captured with no civilian casualties caused by artillery fire from Hawkeye's guns.

He always regarded the desert war as a relatively clean war. That is, by and large it was conducted according to norms which professional soldiers on both sides understood and adhered to. In this way, if there had to be armed conflict, at least it was possible to conduct it in the most civilized way possible. They were principles which he understood and honoured, and by fine example, exercised outstanding leadership in their application.

His humanity was also directed towards his men, with his meticulous eye for their health and well being. He used to tell me with some pride that his first point on any tour of inspection was the cook house grease trap. He knew full well the importance of scrupulous hygiene for the welfare of his troops. Many an ex-digger more than likely came home from those six terrible years in better health than otherwise thanks to his care and attention to detail in those very unromantic areas of soldiering.

In 1941 his appointment as Captain was confirmed and he was seconded to the Australian naval bombardment group. This carried with it the awesome responsibility of directing naval gunfire onto enemy occupied shores ahead of our invading infantry. It took extraordinary skill and accuracy to avoid casualties among our own men and allied troops.

Jack Starke was another digger appointed to naval bombardment. I recall as a very junior barrister dealing with a simple unopposed application, which the late Mr Justice Starke of our Supreme Court requested, be conducted in his chambers. The formalities having been concluded, His Honour leant back in his copious leather chair and said: "So you're young Vickery are you?" "Your father and I had a very good time in Cairo!" It will remain a dark secret as to precisely what they did get up to. Whatever else, one suspects Jack Starke had more than solid grounds for his comment.

He saw action in the Middle East, Ceylon, New Guinea, Borneo and the Philippines.

He was appointed to the rank of Major in 1942.

In September 1945 he was awarded the MBE for services in the Southwest Pacific area prior to the termination of his active duty at the conclusion of the war in October 1945.

Following the war he pursued his first professional love as a soldier with vigour and enthusiasm.

Given the extent of his career it is not possible to detail every significant point within it. However, there were some notable landmarks, including his appointment as a Lieutenant Colonel and service as Commanding Officer of the Melbourne University Regiment between 1951-1954. A period he shared with a young captain Neil McPhee as his adjutant. To this day the Melbourne University Regiment hat badge is backed with a flourish of green felt — an inspiration of Norman Vickery's.

His further military career was graced with appointment as Commanding Officer of the 31st Medium Regiment Royal Australian Artillery in 1955, his appointment as a Brigadier in 1956, his appointment as a Major General and the Commander of the Third Infantry Division in 1963 and his appointment as the CMF Member to the Military Board in 1966 where he served until 1970 with the late Sir Philip Lynch and Malcolm Fraser, the then Minister for Defence and M.H.R for Wannon, Victoria. My father was posted to the retired list in 1974.

Even on retirement his interest in the services was never failing — he took up two honorary positions so he could never be far from his beloved guns — he became Colonel Commandant for the Royal Australian Artillery (3rd. Military District) between 1976-80 and became Colonel Commandant for the Royal Australian Artillery between 1978-80.

His allegiance to his guns is recognised today with the gunner colours, the distinctive maroon and dark blue, in the ribbons on the order of service.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter N. Vickery, 'Vickery, Norman Alfred (1917–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/vickery-norman-alfred-33021/text42387, accessed 19 June 2024.

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