“He spent 24 hours a day looking after our interests, sharing in a deep personal sense our triumphs and failures. He was shocked that we were considered ‘enemy’ aliens, and fought to get it changed to ‘friendly’ status.”
Horst Jacobs on the Commanding Officer of the 8th AEC, Edward Broughton.
Acknowledgement is about to be given to a ”misfit” Commander – a half-caste Maori and devout Catholic who was in charge of mainly Jewish men, a father-figure par excellence.
by Alan Gill
They wore Australian uniforms, but were more at home speaking German than English. They were a drill sergeant’s nightmare, but had the best-educated privates – many had PhDs – of any military unit.
As distinct military outsiders, they were given an outsider Commanding Officer: Captain Edward Broughton, a half-caste Maori, one of only two “coloured” officers in the wartime Australian Army. A devout Catholic, his education and upbringing shaped his approach to his task, making him revered among the mainly-Jewish men under his command.
Revered, but – until now – he has been largely unknown to the wider world.
On Monday, September 18, in a ceremony at Melbourne’s Fawkner Cemetery, Broughton’s memory and achievements will be recognised at last with a blessing of his hitherto unmarked grave by senior military chaplain, Monsignor Tony Toms, and the unveiling of a headstone and ornamental surrounds by Retired Major General David McLachlan, Victorian RSL President, whose organisation is meeting the cost.
The movement’s generosity is an unusual turn-around to attitudes of a half century ago, when hate mail abounded, and RSL state branches opposed as “queue jumping” proposals that Broughton’s diggers should receive – in gratitude for their service – permanent residency in post-war Australia.
The force commanded by Broughton was officially the 8th Employment Company, a little known military unit formed expressly to take the famed Dunera Boys. These were German and Austrian refugees, who, having fled to Britain, were shipped to Australia, in September 1940, and deemed on arrival to be prisoners of war.
They were interned in camps at Hay (NSW) and Tatura (Victoria). It took two years to unravel what Winston Churchill called “a deplorable and regrettable mistake”. The “package” negotiated for their release included, for those of military age, service in the AEC or, subject to the availability of shipping, an equivalent force in Britain.
It was an unusual entity – nicknamed “Enjoyment Company” – the only military body exclusively made up of “foreigners”. They wore Diggers’ hats; dressed and drilled like other soldiers, substituting shovels for rifles, but were not allowed on combat duties. They were, in effect “labourers in uniform”. The youngest were barely out of their teens. The oldest had served in World War I.
The 8th AEC had about 700 members. Strictly speaking they were volunteers. There was pride in service. According to one former member: “We worked on wharves, railways, shifting supplies. That was our job. We did it well.” Said another, light-heartedly: “In the Army six people do the work of one. At least it kept us fit.” In what some saw as a contradiction, men who were not allowed to carry arms (though some did so on sentry duty) spent much of their days loading bombs on trucks.
The existence of the 8th AEC was not widely known. Members met with reactions from surprise to cordiality when “discovered” by soldiers from other units. An article about them in an Army magazine said: “Although these people speak with funny accents, and you may think they are Germans, they’ve been through hell and are decent blokes and they are on our side.”
The company was commanded by an officer even more unusual than his men.
Edward Renata Mugunga Broughton was known to his family as “Tip”. His father was an English (or Scottish) farmer, with a holding, Ngapuke, near Hastings. He was descended, on his mother’s side, from one of the chieftains who had signed the Treaty of Waitangi, in 1840. His paternal grandparents had considerable wealth, but the fortune was lost in circumstances which are unclear.
Educated at the pukka Wanganui Collegiate School, Edward Broughton quit at 16, and by falsifying his age, fought with the New Zealand Rifles in the Boer War. After discharge, he returned briefly to farming, later becoming private secretary to the Chief Judge of the Native Land Court in Wellington. He married a Maori woman, about whom little is known, and in 1908 they had a son. In World War I Broughton re-enlisted, serving with the Maori Battalion at Gallipoli. He served with distinction in France and was Mentioned in Despatches and commissioned. He was discharged with the rank of Captain.
His movements between the wars are a mystery. It is thought he came to Australia, living in both Victoria and NSW, working as a professional punter or bookmaker.
In 1940, by now a widower, Broughton again saw military service. This time he reduced his age by 16 years to join the 2nd AIF in Melbourne as a private soldier. He was promoted to corporal, posted to the 2nd 14th Australian Infantry Battalion, where, after three months, his deception was discovered. He was transferred to the CMF, and regained his commission. Somehow he wangled his way back into the “real” Army, was promoted to Captain and given charge of the embryonic Employment Company.
He loved his men and they loved him.
According to Mike Sondheim, President of the Dunera Old Boys’ Association: “He was a father to us, especially the younger ones who by now had guessed what fate had befallen their parents. He knew everybody’s first name and personal details, and was concerned about their welfare.” He told one recruit: “You’re a musician, I want to save your hands.”
Hans Marcus recalls a young member of his troop fronting up to Broughton and asking for a weekend pass. The conversation went something like this:
Broughton: Is it to go out with your girlfriend?
Life in the 8th AEC was not all slog. The unit had talented artists and musicians. (Sgt) Kurt Sternberg, already a film producer in Germany, re-created a camp show, Snow White 53828, first performed at Tatura. Such was the standard that it had several repeats at the Union Theatre, Melbourne, with an appreciative top brass among the audience.
The company was then based at Camp Pell, in Royal Park, an inner Melbourne suburb.
Their Commanding Officer had other charming idiosyncrasies. Younger members, in particular, were impressed by his spartan lifestyle. He liked to sleep in the open air and used a brick as a pillow. He wore a private’s rough serge uniform with officer’s pips and rarely wore a tie. Though himself a Catholic, he was fascinated by Jewish customs and ritual. He held synagogue parades on the Sabbath. “They were not compulsory, but he made sure we all went.”
The men under his command were uncertain what to call him, when off duty. Some chose the term “Skipper”, which seemed to reflect the right blend of respect and friendliness.
Horst Jacobs recalls: “He was reasonably formal. We saluted and called him Sir. He had none of that ethnic or racial prejudice that was so common at that time. Outside the camp, anyone with an accent was immediately treated differently. He would have none of that and wouldn’t tolerate it in any of his sergeants either.”
He had a sharp wit, demonstrated in an unconventional speech when one of his officers, an Australian Lieutenant, died. Wearing for a change a smartly pressed uniform and tie, he said a few words about the departed officer and concluded: “He ate too much. He drank too much. He didn’t exercise and now the angels have him.”
It is interesting to speculate, as many have, how a man like Broughton came to be given his unusual command.
One theory is that the Army was embarrassed at having an officer who was (a) demonstrably brave, (b) of mixed race, (c) eccentric. In military terms he was a misfit. According to this theory, what better solution than to put him in charge of other “misfits”- German and Austrian Jews, until recently interned as “enemy” aliens.
It is likely that his own racial tensions affected his approach to his duties. According to Henry Lippmann: “With hindsight, I think he needed us as we needed him.” Walter Pollak once heard him remark, casually and without rancour: “It doesn't matter how many years I’ve been in this country and what I did for it; in the end I am, and will always remain a bloody Maori.”
In May 1944 Edward Broughton was discharged prematurely from the Army. Another CO was appointed. “He thought he would make a Guards unit out of us but he wasn’t very successful.” Allied victory brought about the disbanding of the Employment Companies. It was generally considered that these “foreigners” in Aussie uniforms had done a good job and earned their spurs.
Edward Broughton worked for a while in Darwin, apparently as civilian manager of the officers’ mess, then settled in the Melbourne suburb of Middle Park. There, he continued to be a part of the lives of the men formerly in his care. “He wrote to us, followed our careers, came to our weddings and our children’s Barmitzvahs.”
On May 9 1955, he suffered a massive heart attack after swimming with the winter swimming club, Brighton Icebergers. He was attended by a local doctor - coincidentally a former Dunera Boy - but died the same day. A Requiem Mass was held at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Middle Park.
The Army has no testimonial archives to Captain Broughton. If anything the records show him as a troublemaker. Yet 60 years on, grown men shed tears at the mention of his name. He was a father figure par excellence.
For over 35 years Edward Broughton lay buried in an unmarked grave, in the Catholic section of Fawkner Cemetery, near Melbourne. It was re-discovered in 1991. The ‘Boys’ of the 8th Australian Employment Company paid for a modest plaque. Mike Sondheim said in a statement of tribute at that time: “He was an extraordinarily sympathetic and understanding man. He had a very difficult task in dealing with a mob of people with different backgrounds, and helped us find our feet. We shall never forget him.”
According to Henry Lippmann: “I was only 20, and had been for some years without my home and parents. It was heartening to have someone not just bossing you around but taking a personal interest. He made us feel like human beings again.”
A bust of Broughton, by the Melbourne sculptor, Karl Duldig, paid for by former members of his troop, is in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. A replica is in the Jewish Museum, Melbourne.
Alan Gill was the Religious Affairs writer for the Sydney Morning Herald for 23 years.