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Robert Kerr; a scene from Jack & Sandy by Bob Kerr (Image: Archi Banal)
Robert Kerr; a scene from Jack & Sandy by Bob Kerr (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksJune 24, 2023

The story of my father’s war

Robert Kerr; a scene from Jack & Sandy by Bob Kerr (Image: Archi Banal)
Robert Kerr; a scene from Jack & Sandy by Bob Kerr (Image: Archi Banal)

Bob Kerr’s latest graphic novel is based on his father’s experiences as a merchant seaman who was part of Operation Substance in World War Two – a story that for years was stored away in a suitcase on top of the wardrobe.

“What happened to you during the war, Dad?” 

“Nothing exciting,” my dad would say, and then he would talk about the kangaroo they had on the ship. The kangaroo had been kidnapped in Townsville in 1940. It was still on board when the ship left for the Victoria Docks in London. There’s a photograph of the kangaroo in my father’s album. If you look closely you can see the crew have made a harness for it. They are rather proud of Joey, their new ship’s mascot. You can also see that it was really a young wallaby, not a kangaroo at all.

“What happened to the kangaroo?”

“One morning we found him behind a pile of wood on the deck. He must have died of fright during the night.” 

If nothing exciting happened to my father during the war then why did the kangaroo die of fright, I wondered. At the time all I wanted to know was that my dad wasn’t shot at or bombed or torpedoed. That was great when it happened in the Commando War Comics I read. But I didn’t want things like that to happen to my dad, so I didn’t enquire further. That suited him.

‘Joey’ on board (Photo: Supplied)

Long after he died, I decided to find out more about my father’s war. In the suitcase on top of the wardrobe were the letters he wrote home to his parents in Scotland, his Seaman’s Discharge Book and his photograph album. It was the Discharge Book that was most useful. It listed all the merchant ships he sailed on and where they went, starting with the Accra sailing out of Liverpool in 1935, with young Robert Kerr as the 7th engineer. In 1940 he sailed from Townsville to London as the 4th engineer on the Mahia. That must have been when they kidnapped the kangaroo. In July 1941 he sailed out of Liverpool on the Sydney Star as the 3rd engineer. There is no destination recorded, just a note in pencil saying details to be added later.

The Sydney Star joined six other fast merchant ships taking a cargo of food, medical supplies, fuel, aircraft engines, anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and a regiment of troops to the besieged island of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean. If the convoy did not get through to the starving population, Malta would have to surrender to Italian forces that were bombing the tiny island daily. 

The six merchant ships were escorted by 25 navy warships, including an aircraft carrier. They were expecting trouble and it came on the morning of the 23rd of July one day out from Malta. The convoy was attacked by Italian bombers. The cruiser Manchester was hit and had to limp back to Gibraltar. The destroyer Fearless was sunk. 37 of its crew were killed. 

Later that night the convoy was attacked by torpedo boats. The Sydney Star was hit in its number three hold. Water flooded in. The engines stopped. The ship began to list to starboard. The Australian Navy destroyer Nestor came alongside. In the dark planks were laid between the two ships. The regiment of troops and most of the crew transferred to the Nestor. Those remaining on board shored up the buckled hull plates, and started pumping out the water. The engineers got the Sydney Star’s engines going again. They were determined to get that ship to Malta. 

The Sydney Star, attacked by torpedo boats on the final night of its desperate dash to the besieged island of Malta. (Illustration: Bob Kerr)

As the sun rose, torpedo bombers came skimming low over the water. The ship swerved violently. A torpedo slipped past the stern. In the middle of the morning a group of high level bombers let loose their deadly cargo above the ship. They missed. Then a second wave of torpedo bombers attacked. The Sydney Star, too full of water to make sudden turns, kept doggedly on. This time the torpedo snaked past the bow.

Towards midday dive bombers came screaming out of the sun. Three bombs exploded beside the ship. It heeled over and wallowed in the turmoil. The anti aircraft cruiser Hermionie came racing back from the convoy to protect them and now there was air cover from Malta. 

In the early afternoon the Sydney Star reached the relative safety of Malta’s Grand Harbour.

When the Star Sydney made it to Malta’s Grand Harbour bands played, the population lined the ancient harbour defences and cheered. (Illustration: Bob Kerr)

As a self-centred adolescent I didn’t give my fathers war experience any thought. Before the convoy to Malta he had sailed back and forth to America during the Battle of the Atlantic. Down in the engine room, listening to the gunfire above, did he glance at the exit ladder and think, “If we’re hit, I won’t make it up there”?

The last words in his Discharge Book are, “Discharged from the Merchant Navy. Released on termination of war service, 6 May 1946.”   

The psychologist and parent educator Steve Biddulph describes the 20th century, especially the first half of it, as a nightmare for families. “Most men were involved in planetary wars,” he says; “there were recessions, hammer blow after hammer blow. Dealing with this meant men shutting down and often using alcohol to self medicate.”

“If a dad is with his little boy and the little boy sees a dead pet on the road and starts to cry, the nature of our minds is we want to start crying as well,” says Biddulph. “But that dad has seen his friends dismembered in fields of fire. If he starts crying he will never stop. He’ll go mad. The only way he knows how to fix this is to change the child, so he’ll yell at the boy to ‘cut that out. Stop sniffling.’”

Biddulph talked about this in the many public lectures he gave. Sometimes he would see men leave. He would question the ushers afterwards, and they would say: “Oh that guy, he was in tears”.

His experience led him to conclude that if you took 100 men, 30 of those men barely speak to their fathers, another 30 have a prickly relationship, another 30 have a dutiful, token, go through the motions, type of relationship. Only 10 men out of 100 are close to their dads, he estimated.

Very few men that experienced World War Two are still with us, but the effects ripple on down the generations.

I fell into Biddulph’s “prickly relationship” category. It was fine while I was young. There were horse rides on my dad’s back around the living room and games of hide and seek, but as I grew into an adolescent there were arguments about haircuts and arguments about going to church and arguments about the music I tried to listen to on the transistor radio in the kitchen. There was no need for Bob Dylan to sneer at him that the times they were a-changing. He retired to his workshop in the garage and left any communication to my mum. 

My first car was a Ford Prefect. My dad heard the clattering valves and clanking big ends. He looked at the blue smoke from the exhaust and suggested the engine needed reconditioning. I stood on the side of the garage with the firewood. He stood on the side with the workbench and silently we began to repair our prickly relationship. I came to admire his logical engineer’s approach. Gradually conversation turned from worn piston rings to other things. 

The times they were a-changing.

Some months later there was a phone call from my mother.

“Your Dad isn’t able to go to work any more.”

“Should I come home?”


I understood the code. 

He died of liver cancer three months later.

Robert Kerr, third engineer on The Sydney Star, 1941. The cover of Bob Kerr’s book based on the life of Robert Kerr.

I tried to piece together a future of missing conversations. I went to Greenock in Scotland where he grew up. I went to Malta to get a sense of what it was like during the months it took to repair the Sydney Star. I drew pictures, wrote words, made up bits to complete a story, shuffled them into a graphic novel. 

The best stories are hiding in that suitcase on top of the wardrobe in family photograph albums and letters. But most important are your parents’ or grandparents’ spoken memories. 

Make sure they tell you before they leave.

Jack & Sandy by Bob Kerr (Bateman, $28) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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