The digger who gave his all, plus another $300,000 to boot


Ernest Brough: Money doesn't count much when you get old. "I get a disability pension. I'm OK."
Photo: Angela Wylie


Greg Baum
April 25, 2007

SOLDIER, prisoner of war and butcher, Ernest Brough has had more cause than most to think about life. For a start, at 87, he has lived a lot of it. Of one thing he is certain: it is worth more than mere money.

He lives humbly in a small, cluttered house in the Geelong suburb of Belmont, with the layers of his life piled around him.

When he sold his country block outside Geelong last year, he donated most of the proceeds $300,000 to St Vincent's Hospital for a new heart machine. "Money doesn't count much when you get old." he said. "I'm doing all right without the $300,000. I get a disability pension. I'm OK."

Brough came from Drouin, and his mother was a cousin of Albert Jacka, Australia's most famous World War I soldier. In World War II, Brough fought and was wounded at Tobruk, which he called "another Gallipoli", and at El Alamein.

He lived with fleas, flies, dysentery, malnutrition and the blood of other men spattered on his unwashed face. He wondered how he would get through the nights, but the whistle of bullets around his ears always galvanised him. "Fear and adrenaline took over," he said. In stifling heat, he survived on one bottle of water a day and did not take off his boots for a month.

Once Brough was sent on a suicide patrol by a commanding officer whose motive he was sure was vindictive. "That'll be the last you see of me," he said as he went. Yesterday he recalled: "Four machine-guns came out of one dugout. I got shot in the arm and backside."

But neither he nor his humanity died. When he came across a badly wounded German soldier, he gave him a cigarette, then piggy-backed him back to his own lines. He and his "passenger" were knocked to the ground by the draught from a shell that passed within centimetres.

Returning to his lines, with his back to the Germans, he wondered if he should run. "I thought, bugger it, I'll walk back," he said. "There wasn't another shot fired. But three hours later, the tanks came."

Brough was captured and sent by boat to Italy. On the Mediterranean, he and his fellow prisoners sang Australian ditties loudly to alert Allied submarines to hold fire.

He ended up at a POW camp called Spittal in Austria, otherwise called Stalag 18A. He still has the tag. One day, the Australians staged a mock meeting of the Spittal Turf Club; he still has the printed program.

On Good Friday, 1944, Brough and two others a West Australian and a New Zealander escaped and embarked on an extraordinary 12-day flight through Slovenia and Croatia to Bosnia, travelling by night, using the moon, a stolen map and a tiny compass he still owns to guide themselves. They swam icy rivers, traversed snowy mountain passes, hid in lofts, copses and ditches and were nearly caught a dozen times, escaping once by pretending to be Germans. They were always hungry.

At a distance of more than 60 years, Brough's memory is remarkably detailed about dates, places, topography and especially food: chat potatoes here, Spanish brown onions there, cabbage stalks and scavenged biscuits elsewhere. He and his mates necessarily developed a survival instinct that was more animal than human. "We were living wild," he said. "Every day was a danger day."

Finally, they crawled under barbed wire and were taken in by Partisans, the Yugoslavian resistance; he still has the cap. They saw more atrocities, for the Partisans were in no position to take prisoners Brough saw one execute his own brother. But they learned to bite their tongues.

They were flown out to Italy on an American plane that had bogged on landing in Yugoslavia and was towed out by 10 pairs of bullocks.

Brough was awarded the Military Medal. He returned to Drouin, to the butcher's shop where he had been an apprentice. He played football for a while with the teenaged Alf Ablett, father of the great Gary. Later, he opened his own butcher's shop at Lakes Entrance. Years later, he learned that he was kept under surveillance there because of his fleeting links with the Partisans, who were communists. The teacher, the policeman, the fire brigade chief and his business partner all knew, but none told him. "For a long time, I couldn't get to sleep at night," he said. "The war used to go through my head all the time. Twenty, thirty years."

Brough and his wife, Edna May, moved to Geelong to be nearer to her people, and he worked until retirement in an abattoir.

She developed Alzheimer's and died in 2004. Last year, he saw an item on television about stem cell research, was inspired and rang the only number he had at hand, which was for emergencies during his wife's illness. St Vincent's, ever grateful, persuaded him that there was a more urgent need for a echocardiography machine, which takes three-dimensional images of the heart.

Now it is being used to treat 5000 a year. Brough delights to think that it recently detected in a patient a small blockage no previous machine would have shown.

"It's a wonderful thing, you know," he said.

He is still in robust health, certain that the best way to treat ailments is to give up medication.

Brough is marching today. He doesn't know if he will see anyone he knows; most have gone.

But he reflects on the many times when only a centimetre or a second stood between him and death, and can only be cheerful.