Tobruk to Labuan: the life and letters of Brigadier ‘Hugh’ Norman (Amanda Hickey)

As to the war souvenirs
From Hugh to Ethel
7 November, 1943

Darling…If you must destroy the letters I suppose you must, but one day I thought we might write a book of letters & they would help to get the current atmosphere of each phase. That’s why I think they should be kept.

Brigadier Hugh Norman raised the 24th Anti-Tank Company in Western Australia and commanded it effectively in Tobruk, earning a Military Cross. He later served on the Divisional Headquarters before joining the 2/28th Battalion with the rank of Major during its reconstitution following Battalion’s battle at Ruin Ridge at El Alamein. On his return to Australia he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and took command of the 2/28th Battalion through their retraining and operations in New Guinea and Borneo. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his fine leadership in New Guinea. 

Brigadier Hugh Norman DSO MC

Brigadier Hugh Norman DSO MC

I was asked by David Norman to catalogue and organise the correspondence and other memorabilia of his father, Brigadier Hugh Norman, as the family had decided to donate it to the Australian War Memorial. I’m a journalist by trade but also a qualified history teacher and, on reading the material, was immediately struck by many of the eyewitness anecdotes. It seemed a shame that this collection might be consigned to a library vault without a public airing first…But what sort of book should it be?

The bulk of the book is stitched together from original correspondence. I was so taken by the letters, the beauty and honesty of much of the language and the events they described, that I resolved to keep them just as they are. They cover aspects of history, much of it social, because military censors prevented Norman documenting much of what he was doing. Yet there are many charming details and anecdotes about the life of a soldier, the concerns of a commander and the lives of the men and their families who depended on his competent leadership. — Amanda Hickey, Editor

A Trip to Jerusalem
From Hugh to his mother
3 March, 1941

My Darling Girl,

Hugh’s mother, Margaret Mary (Robison) Norman

Hugh’s mother, Margaret Mary (Robison) Norman

I have just come home after a splendid day. We left here at 7.30 & went right through to Jerusalem. We went through Ramle (Ram-lea), a fair sized town with a number of crusader relics, and then on to Jerusalem. The olive groves are quite remarkable. The trees are not in rows but the ground in between is cultivated clean of weeds. Here we come into country of stone walls and stone houses…We then walked through the town to Damascus Gate. Part of the way led along the via Dolorosa with the 14 stations of the Cross. At one there is a door with a brass hand as a knocker. This was where Christ was tried and the door is the entrance to a Convent. We walked down the corner where Christ tripped and fell with the Cross. From here we walked through a narrow evil smelling street past a dealer in hides still shrieking what appeared to be maledictions & was probably only ordinary speech, onto a man loading the hides, hot, steaming & bloody onto two donkeys, past shops of all kinds…There were gavels, candlesticks, ashtrays, pin boxes & goodness knows what. Also, there was a small boy with an enormous lantern half as big as himself, who lighted us down to the Quarries of Solomon. With one cry we greeted him as ‘Aladdin’, to be told solemnly ‘George’. George was small but extremely active, too active we found & he has constantly to be called to heel if we were not to be left in darkness. A short way in & we were in an immense cavern…After the biting cold the air was warm and pleasant with a peculiar, odour. Here it seemed that time for once stood still, here there was no change.

A piece of ribbon (The Battle of the Salient)
From Hugh to his wife, Ethel
June 1941

Brigadier Norman’s children, David and Deborah, and his wife, Ethel Norman.

You remember they told me when I asked them what they (the children) wanted me to bring back, they said a V.C. Well, I’m afraid this will have to do instead. The other looks too unlikely at present; also I have no desire to see the action that would gain me one; the 1st of May was hot enough for anything, just as hot almost as it could be except that there was no continual dive bombing, there being only 4 attacks, three with aerial cannon…There is much more, as from the time we started in the morning to the time we came out, it raged for 24 hours in lulls & storms intermittently…One day I’ll be able to give you the full story, but that will have to do you for the present. All those hit have written to ask me to hurry them back — why, I can’t imagine, as this is a ghastly hole & if I were back there I’d be only too happy to be out of it. 

The Exploding Cannon
Recollection by Dick Weston of the 24th Anti-Tank Company

Photo by Norman of anti-tank gun in action

After we had been in Tobruk a month or so I got my own gun, a captured Italian Breda 47mm, plus two stripes and a crew of reinforcements — Norm Hutchinson, Paddy Thomas, Tubby Branson and Doug White. We took the gun to a tank-shooting range to try out the crew and the gun. After digging in, I nominated Paddy as the first to aim and fire. But he declined the offer, saying that as the gun had just come from enemy hands it might be booby-trapped. The rest of the crew followed Paddy’s lead and they all refused. Not wanting to make an issue of it I decided to have the first shot myself. I should have listened to Paddy. He was right; it was well and truly booby-trapped. The body of the gun exploded and the barrel shot back about 5 metres and buried in the sand. If Providence hadn’t been looking after me I would have been mincemeat but luckily, my head was knocked out of the way in the process and all I got was a broken nose, two black eyes and half a paralysed face for a few months, plus being knocked out. I came to under a nearby fig tree with the crew fanning me and happy to see I was alive. Strangely, my mother, back in Australia, said she saw it all happening, like watching a newsreel. She wrote: ‘There you were standing under a tree with blood streaming down from near your right eye, but you were smiling so I knew it wasn’t too bad. That was a bit spooky.

Convalescence Odyssey: Journey into Upper Egypt to the Valley of the Kings
From Hugh to his wife, Ethel
Late 1941

Like many other great ventures this one commenced over a glass of beer, taken on the fore-deck of the HMAS Victoria in company with Queenslander ‘Long John’ Cunningham and other lesser lights of the AIF.

The men of C Company of the 2/28th Bn

The men of C Company of the 2/28th Bn

Having been thrown on our own resources for seven days through pressure of accommodation, we two convalescents — viz Norman and Hickey — being of restless nature and enquiring frame of mind, secured official approval for an expedition into the depths of the Upper Egypt. Hurried arrangements left but three-quarters of an hour to catch Sunday nights train leaving Cairo station at 19.50 hrs. Then ensued a deal of shouting at taxi drivers, baggage porters and various minions of the Egyptian State Railways. By judicious distribution of ‘baksheesh’ to all concerned, two breathless convalescents were deposited in full possession of one first-class railway carriage, with absolute rights thereto for the full journey to Luxor, and the ‘holding up’ of the night express until we were both on board.

Gloating over this shrewd business was rudely shattered by the information that, (a) there was no bar, (b) there was no dining car — and we had not dined before, except on bottled food. This sorry state of affairs was slightly remedied en route by the production, by one of the minions, at a staggering cost, of 4 bottles of Stella beer, slightly chilled, and two minute packets of Marie biscuits. Followed then a sleep, stretched each on a seat of the carriage, but at dawn both were awake, and what a dawn, with the sun lighting the Libyan hills to a faint pink whilst the train raced along the rich cultivated flats of the Upper Nile. 

And so the scene unfolded itself until at 07.30 we pulled into ancient Thebes, or as the Yanks would have it, Golden Luxor. Frantic shouting of our names disclosed a diminutive, middle-aged Sudanese, in the person of one Saleb Hanna. Under Saleb’s care we moved swiftly by gharry to the famous Luxor Hotel, where we bathed, changed and sat down to a much needed breakfast. 8.30 found us setting out on the second stage of our journey, under the firm but kindly guidance of Saleb, to Karnak, site of the famous Temple. Saleb discoursed at length and we hear — above the gharry bell, horses hooves and screams of baksheesh from the local populace — that this Thebes was, in the days of the Pharoahs, a city of 5 million inhabitants…Some hundred yards away is the Nile, and in the far background, the towering Theban Hills, which in the early sunlight were changing from soft rose to rich brown. Thebes, lying on the East of the Nile symbolizes the City of Life, in the Rising of the Sun. On the other bank, among the Theban Hills lies the City of the Dead, which nightly houses the setting sun. Thus in Ancient Egypt, worshiping the Sun God exemplifies belief in the resurrection and reincarnation of Life…

The Anzacs are the finest
From Hugh to his mother
30 August, 1942

Capt. Hedley Freedman and Lt. Col Hugh Norman

Capt. Hedley Freedman and Lt. Col Hugh Norman

Once more Sunday & I start on my weekly letter. We had Church Parade this morning, held by our new padre, Gray Thomas. He is the right type of padre & has come with a great reputation. We are thankful to have him. This morning he just addressed the men, had about 3 prayers and a verse of ‘The King’ & the Benediction — but he caught & held them from beginning to end. 

As I write, I can just see over the bag at the entrance to my dingus. I look over gently undulating white sand in which grows a stunted plantation of fig trees. Over the trees, sand dunes, but mainly of very soft white sandstone, wind-weathered, I can see the blue water, the waves making a shattered sapphire surface with the horizon almost a black line where it meets the very pale blue of the sky. The trees may be almost devoid of leaves in some cases but one is grateful for them & for this scene here at such a time. 

I shall be jolly glad when all this ‘show’ is over. We always seem to nibble at the job instead of taking a good big mouthful with a large mouth as we are quite capable of doing. The Pom is fair enough for the average show, but for the long drawn out fierce encounter with the will to hold to the last man, & the last round, we have proved the Australian & New Zealander stand supreme. The only one to stand by them is the Highland Scot. After these the Indian solder, who has done a magnificent job. If only we had the Australian Corps here now instead of two thirds of it back there in Australia & the Pacific, we would roll the Afrika Korps up so fast it would never unroll itself again. I know what we have done as against others & it has been enough to show me that of the troops in the Middle East the Anzacs are the finest.

The austerity campaign
From Hugh to Ethel
4 November, 1942

Portrait of Capt. Norman taken by Frank Hurley, El Alamein

I am in a new hole since yesterday, 6’ x 5’ by 3’ deep, with my shelter over the top. It’s alright, as I write I’m drinking my 11 o’clock cuppa. The local news this morning is excellent. The fighting has been simply terrific — far worse than anything before. The unit have been especially commended & they have done a super job. My regret is that I have not been allowed to be with them these last 5 days but have been with the cookhouses & stores. If I had been there I would have wished I was not, so there you are. But when it’s over one does regret it. 

Your letters mean so much my love. I seem to want you more and more. Sometimes I even feel that emptiness in my tummy that one has when one knows one’s in love, instead of the tender glow that grows from the knowledge of complete love. I mean that sometimes I feel as though I have just fallen in love with you again & yet all the time I have known more surely than anything in my life that I have given all my love to you, & you only, and that I have a feeling for you beyond anything I had ever dreamed possible, and with it all, the dreams of the days when we are once more together become less tangible, because my mind seems to be incapable of conceiving the heights to which this love may take us, so deep have my feelings grown. But of this I am sure, I always was, I always will be, with all my love

Your Hughie

Death of General Stumme
From Hugh to Ethel
11 November, 1942

I claim no especial gift in the endings of my letters darling. I put down that I think of you, of how I love you, or what I have been thinking about you, in the very best way I can & that is all there is to it. It’s very easy when you adore someone as the most wonderful thing in your life. When I lie in bed just before going to sleep I think up things I should love to write but if I got up & got out my writing materials I should lose it all. I know because I’ve tried & words just fail me or won’t fit. At any rate, not the way one thought & framed them.

I had a lovely swim before lunch with the C.O. & will have another about 3 p.m. After that, it will be a bit on the cool side as the water has got to the bracing stage now. This sun is just enough to warm one’s skin with a cool breeze fanning one. It is just about a cool but sunny day at Albany…To describe this desert, if you take the sand-hills at Cottesloe on the edge of the Mediterranean & immediately on the land side put that part of the Nullarbor Plain that is quite treeless, substituting camel bush for salt bush, and make features in the plain of 10, 15 & 20 feet high, then you have an idea of it. Features of 20 feet become ones of tactical importance bitterly fought for, or I should say have been. A hill on the ridge along the main road, to which I am looking, of 33 ft is a mountain. Such is the desert about the Alamein front.

One of your letters in my left-hand breast pocket
Letter to his wife
30 June, 1943

My Beloved Darling,

Ethel (Fisher) Norman

Your dear letter of 24 June came this morning & it is quite impossible for me to go to bed without writing at least a few words. It is such a lovely thing to have this warm ‘glow’ of love in one’s heart. I know that you have all my love always, but you know yourself that one does not go about every day, all day, feeling as one did when first in love, that really glorious feeling, which nevertheless is glorious even if it seems troublesome. For that is how I have been feeling for a long time now, not fluctuating as this feeling does, & one just knowing that one is in love, with it recurring after certain songs, or happenings, but all the time with me, & in me so that I want to write & tell you about it. I have written & told you about it before from all sorts of places, how longing has been accentuated, but this time it just goes on, & on, so that at no time am I out of touch with you, so that I frequently put one of your letters in my left hand breast pocket so that in spare moments I may take them out & live in some presence or atmosphere of you created by them.

I often wonder how many people, who have been married fourteen years write love letters to one another as we do. It makes me so deliriously happy to know that we can do it. What a precious thing is this love of ours, that has been built out of these years of happiness together, that has survived so many partings & separations. I don’t believe they have helped because of the years we spent together — eight and a half before we parted at all — and all my meetings with other women have only shown me how incomparable you are.

In all this I could not but love you as I do, & I pray that our love may grow ever greater, that we may not be parted long. God bless you and keep you safe to my return, most precious of women. 

Your Husband, Hughie xx


One day, towards the end of this project, I was looking through a folder of newspaper clippings to see if I had overlooked anything of value. Suddenly, a small clipping fell to the floor and, on picking it up, I was forced to look at it more closely. It was a poem, originally published in The West Australian on September 27, 1941, by an unknown writer who simply used the pseudonym of Marcian. He was most likely an injured member of the 2/28th or the 24th A/Tk Coy, and may well have been known to Norman, who was also recuperating in hospital around the same time. I feel it is worth republishing now, as the poet’s insights into that Middle East war remain as current as ever and he seems to speak for all soldiers who are waiting for war to end. — Ed.


by Marcian
from a hospital bed in Palestine

Some day, when all this tumult has been stilled;
When the last raving iron lies cold;
The last poor devil maimed; the last child killed;
The last lie told;
Ah then, perhaps, across the tossing main,
Thinking a thousand thoughts of peace and you,
It may be, sweet, that I’ll come home again
To all that precious life that once I knew;
— And so grow old.

All things are mutable, and yet, somehow,
I think you will not change.
A silver thread or so above your brow
will not be strange;
I think I’ll look to find a line or two
About your kind and comprehending eyes
As you of mine. But you will still be you
And I’ll be I. The stars, the sunset, skies
Will be the same,
And in our hearts, infallibly, shall glow
The sacred flame
Of our unchanging love.

Ah then I’ll know
The old belief in men that now is numb!
The hope that has grown weary, having slept,
May rise again. The utterance now dumb
May be unloosed, and sorrow having wept,
Forget her shame
And it may take chance that men will take to them
The old unheeded Song of Bethlehem

*Feature image: El Alamein, 1942, an unidentified soldier from the 2/28th Battalion runs in front of a dust cloud kicked up by shellfire. Photo credit: Hugh Norman

Tobruk to Labuan, the life and letters of Brigadier Colin ‘Hugh’ Boyd Norman, by Amanda Hickey, is available for purchase at the Australian War Memorial shop and online here

Amanda Hickey has worked with words all her adult life across many mediums — documentaries, journalism, blogging, short films and creative writing. She is also a teacher and gives Storytelling workshops to Not-for-Profits. Her first documentary (Writer & Director) on heart surgeon Victor Chang, won an award for SBS TV. Her latest documentary (Producer, second unit Director) — We Are Many — was long listed for an Academy Award and is currently available on I-Tunes. Amanda reviews for Verity La and is currently working on her memoir.