Cool under fire

By Russell Jones

  Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.

 

Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Harold Clifton Rodda came from a comfortable upper-middle class family living in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. He was born in Hawthorn in July 1892 to Edgar and Alice Rodda, the middle child and elder son of the family.

His parents were immigrants from the west of England, seeking opportunities in the British colony of Victoria. After the gold-rush of the 1850s, Melbourne was per-capita the wealthiest city in the world – a state that would continue until the crash of the 1890s that ended the land boom.

Rodda’s father worked in responsible positions in banking and finance. Despite the straitened economic conditions, the family weathered the crisis, living in a pleasant house in Lynhurst Crescent, Hawthorn. Rodda attended Camberwell Grammar, an Anglican day school for boys, and proved to be a good scholar, placing second academically in the Lower Sixth in 1908.

However, he did not move on to university after completing school. Instead, he obtained a job as a clerk and accountant with the Prahran & Malvern Tramways Trust. Rodda sat the qualifying examination conducted by the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants, and was accepted as an Associate member.

Rodda was a keen amateur tennis player, playing in B-grade competitions with the Auburn Heights Tennis Club. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rodda was not a member of the militia.

Many eager young men volunteered for service with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on the outbreak of war in August 1914. A large proportion of the population held the view that the war in far-off Europe would be over by Christmas, and Australian troops would never have the opportunity to ‘show their worth’ on the field of battle. As a result, many potential recruits did not immediately volunteer for service.

When it became clear by the end of the year that the German forces were not going to collapse, recruitment numbers picked up. Rodda was part of this surge of volunteers, enlisting on 15 February 1915. He was posted as a Private to a new infantry unit, 22 Battalion of 6 Infantry Brigade, which was about to commence training at Broadmeadows on the outskirts of Melbourne.

It appears that Rodda showed early leadership qualities during training, as he was promoted to Corporal on 31 March, and to Sergeant on 1 April.

After completing initial training, 22 Battalion embarked for Egypt on 8 May 1915 on HMAT Ulysses A38. The battalion was deployed to the Gallipoli Peninsula in the first week of September 1915, relieving units of 2 Brigade from the front line. 22 Battalion would remain on the front line until the evacuation of Anzac Cove in December.

  Sergeant Harold Clifton Rodda, 22 Battalion, kneeling on the ground, digging himself a dugout in the side of a trench at Gallipoli, 1915. (Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.)

 

Sergeant Harold Clifton Rodda, 22 Battalion, kneeling on the ground, digging himself a dugout in the side of a trench at Gallipoli, 1915. (Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.)

Although the last major Allied offensive of the Gallipoli campaign had failed to reach its objectives in August, there was a continuing flow of Australian casualties, for both officers and men. Rodda was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant on 21 September 1915 to replace a dead officer.

Australian engineers engaged in tunnelling works to undermine Turkish trenches, including the section of the line held by 22 Battalion at Johnstone’s Jolly. Tunnel C2 was being mined by a detachment from 4th Field Company, under the command of Lieutenant Frederick Bowra.

On 29 October 1915, Bowra was overcome by lack of oxygen at the face of the tunnel, after entering the works too soon after explosive blasting. Rodda led rescue efforts to try to save Lt. Bowra’s life, but was ultimately unsuccessful. For his efforts, Rodda was later mentioned in despatches by General Sir Charles Munro, Commanding Officer of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. His citation reads:

On 29th October 1915 at ANZAC , for his gallant attempts to rescue Lieutenant Bowra of 4th Field Company Engineers, who was ‘gassed’ at C2 tunnel opposite JOHNSTONE’S JOLLY, ANZAC. He twice entered the tunnel in search of Lieutenant Bowra, and only relaxed his efforts when overcome by the fumes himself.

In late December, as part of the evacuation of Anzac Cove, 22 Battalion was withdrawn to the Greek island of Mudros, before it was taken across the Mediterranean Sea to Alexandria on the troopship HMAT Ascanius A11 on 7 January 1915.

During a period of rest and retraining in Egypt, Rodda attended an instructors’ course on the Lewis machine gun, returning to the battalion on 4 March 1916. A fortnight later, he embarked with the battalion for France, arriving in Marseilles on 26 March 1916. Rodda attended an instructors’ course on machine guns later that month, before 22 Battalion was committed to a quiet sector of the front line in the first week of April, at Fleurbaix.

Rodda was promoted to Lieutenant on 23 June 1916, ahead of the battalion’s first major battle at Pozières in July – where the unit suffered very heavy casualties, so heavy that 22 Battalion was not used again for a major offensive battle until the following year.

In September 1916, Rodda was admitted to hospital, with a severe case of psoriasis. After treatment and convalescence in England, he did not return to the battalion until Christmas Day.

Throughout 1917, Rodda fought in all the major actions with 22 Battalion, including the battles of Bapaume in March, and Bullecourt in May. He was promoted to Captain on 8 June 1917 due to the death of his company commander, Captain Joseph Slater, at Bullecourt, placing Rodda in command of the company for the Passchendaele Offensive.

After the Battle of Menin Road in September 1917, Rodda was mentioned in despatches by the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, for his actions at Westhoek. The citation follows:

At WESTHOEK on 22.9.17 for conspicuous gallantry and courage while commanding a Company. His Company had taken over part of the BLUE LINE and was being subjected to severe and sustained bombardments. This officer moved round from post to post under the heaviest fire greatly inspiring the men by his disregard of danger, his example and his cheerfulness. Later, the same night by initiative in altering the dispositions of his line he was able to take up improved positions thus greatly lessening our casualties. He sets a fine example in coolness and resource and got his men to dig deep sections of trench for their protection in spite of their being greatly fatigued. He has on many occasions displayed great courage and ability and rendered most valuable services while the Battalion was holding the line immediately prior to the attack of 20.9.17.

Two weeks later, Rodda was again in the thick of action at the Battle of Broodseinde. For his actions, his was decorated with the Military Cross on 3 November 1917. His citation best describes what he went through.

For conspicuous gallantry and courage during the attack on BROODSEINDE RIDGE on 4th October 1917. The hostile Block House was bringing fire to bear on our advancing waves. This Officer at once organised a party, rushed and bombed the post and prevented it from inflicting any further casualties. He then entered the Block House with a few men and after killing 6 of the enemy captured 15 prisoners and 2 heavy machine-guns. Later he actually supervised the consolidation of his portion of the captured line and moved up and down under heaviest fire cheering and encouraging his men.

Three weeks after the Passchendaele Offensive ended on 10 November 1917, Rodda was again admitted to hospital with psoriasis. He did not return to 22 Battalion until February 1918, after he was assessed as fit for service by a medical board.

Rodda is frequently mentioned in the diaries of the commanding officer of 22 Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Aubrey Wiltshire. It is clear that they had a close friendship, playing cards, having a yarn or going on leave to Paris together. Wiltshire describes Rodda as being popular with his men, and even under the worst circumstances as always being cool, calm and collected. He states on several occasions that Rodda is one of the most reliable of the officers under his command.

Wiltshire relates that Rodda received a nasty shock on the evening of 21-22 September 1917. He was in a latrine while under a German artillery barrage when “…a shell burst and a piece of soft naked body hit him fair in the face – a shell had blown a body to pieces…” This event noticeably unsettled him.

The strain of trench warfare ate away at the courage and resilience of even the best of men. On 23 March 1918, in one of his diary entries regarding Rodda, Wiltshire noted that his friend was looking ‘windy’, or anxious. Rodda served with 22 Battalion until the end of July 1918, when he was seconded to England to the AIF Overseas Training Brigade, as adjutant to 4 Camp Battalion. The last mention of Rodda in Wiltshire’s diary, made on the day of his posting away from 22 Battalion, Wiltshire states:

…Rodda pushed off for the commencement of his trip to London and we shall miss him a great deal. Of late his nerve has not been as good as heretofore.

He remained with the training unit until after the end of the war. Rodda was embarked on HMAT Orca at Liverpool on 19 February 1919, landing back in Australia in Brisbane on 14 April. He travelled back to Melbourne, where he was discharged from military service on 17 June 1919.

On returning to civilian life, Rodda did not stay with the tramways. Instead, he went into business as a public accountant, initially forming a partnership with a Mr Shackell. In December 1919 he was appointed by the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board as one of its auditors. By 1924 it is recorded that he had qualified as a State Government registered auditor, specialising in handling insolvencies, and later that year he was appointed as a Fellow to the Australian Institute of Chartered Accountants.

It appears that Rodda engaged in the social activities expected of an upper-middle class Melbourne gentleman of the era. He was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, and is mentioned occasionally in the Melbourne social newspaper Table Talk as attending parties, dances and other social gatherings. He also resumed playing amateur club tennis.

On 24 June 1924, tragedy struck when Rodda’s father Edgar slipped and fell in front of a train at South Yarra station. He died instantly. At the inquest, the Coroner made a finding of accidental death.

In 1929 Rodda married Ailsa Mary Fitzpatrick. The same year he appeared as a character witness for a nurse accused of theft. Less than two years later, Rodda was found in contempt of court for failing to comply with an undertaking he had given to the Practice Court regarding a company liquidation. An order was made for his committal to the Metropolitan Prison at Coburg, known to all Melburnians as Pentridge. However, it appears that a custodial sentence was not applied.

Despite this circumstance, Rodda did not lose his registration as an auditor, and his business and private life do not seem to have been affected.

Rodda died on 2 May 1945 at his residence at 30 Park Place, South Yarra. In the 1945 annual report of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, his death was noted with the deepest regret. He had been the Joint Auditor of the Board’s accounts since its inception in 1919.

Harold Clifton Rodda was survived by his wife, Ailsa.

Bibliography

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