Brad asked me to look at the Second World War Lee-Enfield 303 rifle that he bought from an Ipswich gun shop about twenty years ago. The initials and serial number of the original owner were carved in the butt of the rifle. The stories that it holds are a remarkable tale tracking Australia’s almost entire military history.
The rifle is a Short Magazine Lee-Enfield No 1 Mk III* made in Lithgow in 1942 at a time in Australia that the genuine fear of invasion by the Japanese was at its peak. The rifle was issued to the original owner the following year. Today it’s used for hunting feral goats and pigs.
“I only paid 100 bucks for it and the original cleaning kit is still in the butt,” Brad told me before I saw the gun. “I usually take it out when I go shooting goats. It shoots well. It dropped a big old billy goat twelve months ago (at about 200 yards).”
A browse of the records at the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia revealed that the original owner was Roderick Roy “Rory” McDonald. He had kindly and clearly carved his identification into the wooden butt of the rifle. He was from the New South Wales northern rivers region and enlisted aged thirty-eight in the Australian army in 1943 when he was issued the rifle.
Rory served in the 2nd/1st Australian Boring Section of the Royal Australian Engineers and was posted to the Northern Territory at a time when Darwin was being bombed by the Japanese. More bombs were dropped in the first raid on Darwin in 1942 than on Pearl Harbor. It caused chaos with most of the essential services being badly damaged or destroyed. Rory was there for the final six air raids in the second half of 1943 although enemy reconnaissance over the region continued the following year.
After the war Rory became a dairy farmer in Atherton. However, genealogical and family history research then revealed there’s a lot more to this story.
Rory was the youngest son among thirteen siblings from Wyrallah near Lismore. He was too young for the First World War, but three of his brothers went. Duncan McDonald enlisted when he was twenty-four years old and served in the 4th Australian Pioneer Battalion. He earned a Military Medal for bravery at St Quentin in France in September 1918. Duncan was a runner for a tape laying party in preparation for a charge across no-mans land, all the men were badly wounded apart from Duncan and yet he carried on under very heavy shell fire, returning time after time for fresh supplies until his work was done.
Rory’s other brothers Ronald and Archie had earlier enlisted at just twenty-one and nineteen years old respectively. They signed-up on the same day together, were issued consecutive service numbers, were both assigned to the 31st Australian Infantry Battalion, and embarked for war on the same ship. On the 19th of July 1916, Ron and Archie went over the top together in the Battle of Fromelles in France in what remains the deadliest single day in Australian history. More than 5,500 Australians became casualties. Almost 2,000 of them were killed in action or died of wounds and 400 captured. Both Ron and Archie were reported missing.
Ron was brought in the next day having suffered wounds to his arm and hand. There was still no sign of Archie. Eight months later his identity discs were returned by the Germans saying simply that he was deceased. Ron transferred to his brother Duncan’s 4th Pioneers Battalion and was there when Duncan earned his Military Medal. They both survived the war but would never speak of their experiences.
With more reading at the National Library of Australia, Australian War Memorial, and the New South Wales Lancers Museum, it became apparent that Rory’s military pedigree goes beyond his brothers.
Rory’s uncle Peter McDonald served in the Boer War with both the New South Wales Lancers and 3rd Regiment of New South Wales Rifles. Peter entered the war in 1899 as a sergeant, attained the rank of captain and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The DSO is awarded to officers for a high degree of gallantry just short of deserving the Victoria Cross. Peter was a member of “The Fighting Twenty-nine” who were the first Australians to engage in the war. He became a prisoner of the Boers for five months in 1900, served throughout the conflict and remained in South Africa for a time before returning home. He holds the distinction of bearing eight clasps, the maximum number of battle clasps on the Queen’s Medal. Peter later served as a Lismore councillor.
More reading and by searching Facebook, Rory McDonald’s Lee-Enfield rifle revealed one more, very modern piece of its story.
In 2007, persistent research by a retired Melbourne teacher resulted in archaeological investigations near the Fromelles battleground where Rory’s brother Archie had disappeared during the First World War. For almost a century 1,335 Australian soldiers including Archie remained ‘missing’. The archaeologists uncovered human remains that had been buried in a mass grave by German troops in 1916. In 2010 the remains of 249 soldiers were reinterred with full military honours at the Fromelles Military Cemetery at Pheasant Wood. Four years later Archie’s remains were at last identified thanks to DNA testing. His headstone was dedicated in a ceremony attended by his nephew Rod and grandnephew David. David was an Australian army veteran of the Afghanistan War and recited the Ode. Today there are still eighty-four soldiers at Fromelles left to be identified.
“Unfortunately (it has) no bayonet though,” Brad jokingly lamented about his fortunate historical purchase of two decades ago. He fully appreciates the one-and-a-half centuries of world history that his Lee-Enfield rifle remarkably recalls.
You’ve read the story, now see the rifle up close in this short film and then please follow the History Out There’s YouTube channel.
If you have an historical artefact that you want researched, contact me via my Research page.
WW2 Lee-Enfield rifle 2020 – my own
Rory McDonald 1943 – courtesy of Rod McDonald
Ronald, Archie, and Duncan McDonald 1916 – photo courtesy of the family via The Western Front Association/Flickr
Group of NSW Lancers 1899 – New South Wales Lancers’ Memorial Museum
Rod and David McDonald 2014 – courtesy of Rod McDonald