Photo: 2022.5 Claude Relton and Mary Patricia Barker Collection, Anzac Memorial Collection.
Claude Relton Barker was born in Auckland, New Zealand on 26 June 1906. On the outbreak of the Second World War he was living in Sydney with his wife Mary Patricia and was working as a grocer’s assistant. He enlisted with the AIF on 10 April 1940 and was posted to the 2/17th Battalion. Barker embarked for the Middle East on 19 October 1940 and was stationed at Palestine before seeing action in Bardia and at the protracted defensive siege of Tobruk in Libya between April and December 1941.
The harbour city of Tobruk was vital for the allies because of its strategic link to Egypt and the Suez Canal. In 1941, more than 14,000 Australian troops under Major-General Leslie Morshead and backed by British artillery, fought to defend the garrison for eight long months against an Afrika Korps under the command of the formidable German General Erwin Rommel. Indeed, for 242 days, the men of the garrison, mostly Australians, withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages and aerial bombings. They also endured the desert’s searing heat, the bitterly cold nights, and the hellish dust storms, all the while living in dug-outs, caves, and crevasses. Their relentless tenacity was disparaged by the British Nazi apologist Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) who broadcasted enemy propaganda to the UK from Germany during the war. Likening them to rats, he attempted to break their morale. Instead, and in true larrikin fashion, the Australians claimed the attempted slur as a glorious badge of honour. And it worked too, because on 7 December 1941, Rommel was forced to abandon the siege, which had in fact been one of the longest in British military history.
Claude Barker was a prolific and at times colourful letter writer during the war. Despite being under siege at Tobruk, and living in primitive conditions, he wrote regular letters to his mother and siblings back in New Zealand and to his wife in Sydney, often on Australian Comforts Fund headed note paper and in thick blue fountain pen ink. On 24 September 1941 he penned a letter to his brother Reg very proudly claiming the title of a ‘desert rat’. As he noted:
‘…since I joined the 17th have [sic] been transferred to a Queensland unit so don’t forget to take note, yes brother I am a desert rat now and live in dugouts and caves and anywhere I can keep me head down from the shit old Jerry throws over, it’s a great life believe me…’
Indeed, Barker seemed to relish his service whilst based at Tobruk. On 23 October 1941, he wrote to his sister Pauline, confidently informing her that:
‘…this is one place we will never loose and the Huns know it, we had a stunning air raid today 30 stuka planes dive bombed us and not a one was injured and gee did our ak aks give them the works guess every one of those planes has a dose of the small pox (riddled with bullets) there was much smoke and dust to see if any were brought down…’
In November 1941, Barker transferred to the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion where he served as Colonel John Williams batman (personal servant). In 1942, following Japan's entry into the war, the 6th and 7th Divisions were hurriedly recalled to Australia and the 2/2nd began the voyage home on the troopship Orcades. The 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, 2/6th Field Company, and other support units were also on board. En route, they were diverted however, along with other elements of the 7th Division to defend Java against the impending threat of the Japanese following the disastrous fall of Singapore on 15 February. Two days later, the Orcades reached Oosthaven in Sumatra before sailing on to Batavia in Java. Here the troops combined with a battery of American artillery and a squadron from the 3rd King's Own Hussars, and became known as ‘Blackforce’ under the command of the venerated Gallipoli veteran Brigadier Arthur Seaforth Blackburn VC.
The Japanese landed on Java on 28 February and Blackforce went into action at Leuwiliang near Buitenzorg on 4 March. It fought valiantly against the enemy but was eventually ordered to lay down arms the day after the Dutch surrendered on 8 March. Whilst the majority of the 2/2nd survived the fighting (865 officers and men) they would spend the rest of the war as prisoners of the Japanese in camps across South-East Asia. Of these, 258 men died in captivity, most while working under the brutal, inhumane conditions on the Burma-Thailand railway where disease, neglect and starvation were rife.
Claude Barker did not get the chance again to write another lively letter home with his inky blue pen. His service record noted him as missing in action (MIA) in Java in April 1942 and from this date, his letters went forlornly silent. Back in Sydney, his wife Mary waited patiently for news about her husband. On 24 September 1942, the records officer from the Australian Military Forces wrote to her to:
‘… inform you that a broadcast over Tokyo radio intimates that your husband No. NX21644 Private Claude Relton Barker, 2/2 Pnr. Bn., is claimed as being held a Prisoner of War by the Japanese. This information is conveyed to you on the understanding that taking into consideration the circumstances of its receipt and that it originates from enemy sources, it is to be accepted with the reservation that it may not be authentic. Immediately confirmation is obtained through official channels you will be advised of the fact by telegram.’
Yet Mary Barker would have a long and anxious wait because Claude Barker was not officially confirmed as a prisoner of war until February 1944. Until that date he was simply recorded as missing and Mary’s fretful plight was one all too common for relatives awaiting news about troops unaccounted for in the Pacific. However, Claude Barker was to be one of the fortunate ones and he survived the horrors of the Burma-Thailand railway; on 4 October 1945 he was ‘recovered from the Japs at Siam.’ He sailed back to Sydney and was discharged from the AIF on 5 February 1946 ‘at his own request on compassionate grounds.’ Within a few weeks, Claude and Mary Barker had applied for a permit to leave Australia for New Zealand and the couple soon after returned to Auckland where they spent the rest of their lives.
We can only speculate whose decision it was to uproot and leave Sydney which had been the Barker’s home for many years. It is highly possible however, that the frightful experience of being a prisoner of the Japanese influenced Claude to return to the country of his birth to be close to his mother and siblings. To simply want to ‘go home’ was an understandable yearning common to all those who suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the Pacific war, as indeed it would have been for all allied POW’s captured in Europe. After the war, Claude Barker re-adjusted well to civilian life back in New Zealand and was an active and well-regarded member of various ex-prisoner of war associations and RSL clubs until his death in June 1988 aged eighty-five.
In 2022 Claude Barker’s descendants very generously donated a large collection of his wartime effects to the Anzac Memorial. They include the uniform he wore to return to Australia upon his liberation, his medal group, numerous association badges, tobacco tin, souvenirs from the Middle East and the many wonderful letters he had written to his relatives before he was taken into captivity. Both a ‘Rat of Tobruk’ and a prisoner of the Japanese, Barker’s story and his collection are truly remarkable indeed.
Lest we forget.
- The 2/17th Infantry Battalion was formed on 26 April 1940 at Ingleburn army camp, south-west of Liverpool, NSW, as part of the 20th Brigade of the newly formed 7th Division. The 2/17th did its basic training at Ingleburn, before marching to Bathurst army camp for subunit field training.
- Participation in the epic eight-month siege cost the Australian formations involved 3009 casualties (including 832 killed) and 941 men taken prisoner. Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Encyclopedia of Australia’s Battles, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2001 edition, p 186.
- After the war, William Joyce was captured and sent back to Britain. He was executed for treason on 3 January 1946.
- Barker had transferred to the Brisbane raised 2/15th Battalion in September 1941. Letter from C.R. Barker to his brother Reg Barker, Tobruk, 24 September 1941. Anzac Memorial Collection.
- Letter from C. R. Barker to his sister Pauline, Tobruk, 23 October 1941. Anzac Memorial Collection.
- AMF Telegram, 24 September 1942. Anzac Memorial Collection.
- His wife Mary died a year later in June 1989.