Faces of Tamworth: World War II veteran Les Chillingworth

MOVING MEMORIES: Les Chillingworth from West Tamworth has a lifelong list of tales from the trenches – and of mateship.
MOVING MEMORIES: Les Chillingworth from West Tamworth has a lifelong list of tales from the trenches – and of mateship.

The name Chillingworth is synonymous with Tamworth. Brothers Les and Ken Chillingworth were bricklayers but also pioneers in the West Tamworth area. 

Ken Chillingworth was recognised as “the father of Scully Park”. He had a family-run bricklaying business for many years and, as president, secretary and treasurer (among other things), dragged the West Tamworth League Club from near-extinction back in the 1950s to help enable it to become what it is today.

Still today, there is the Chillingworth Room at the club, and nearby there is Ken Chillingworth Oval, home of the Tamworth Pirates.

Brother Les Chillingworth, now aged 96, was a successful bricklayer for decades across Tamworth – some of his work still stands, and he was regarded as one of the best in his time.

But before all that, he lied about his age to go to war for Australia. Here is his story, as told for Anzac Day in 2013.

TALK to any Digger and there is a handful of stories to be told from the trenches.

Like the torrential rain that fell in New Guinea during World War II.

“You had to live in the trenches in the mud. You’d go to bed and then in the morning all your gear would be floating away,” recalls former sapper and Tamworth man Les Chillingworth.

“The living conditions weren’t much to go by, and neither was the food.

“A few of the boys were guilty of stealing rations off the Yanks. The Yanks had the ice cream.”

But the 91-year-old won’t give away too much of the good times, particularly of night-time raids by Aussies intent on finding ice-cream supplies.

A few of the boys were guilty of stealing rations off the Yanks. The Yanks had the ice cream.

Les Chillingworth

Sapper Wilfred Leslie (Les) Chillingworth was an engineer with the 4th troop of the 1st Field Squadron.

That squadron had a few familiar faces from Tamworth, including Nelson Bradbery, who only died last month, and Bill Blanch, Ossie Moore and Bill Holten, also sadly gone.

Ian Gardner, a farmer from Bellata who has retired to Tamworth, and longtime resident Keith Reading are believed to be the only surviving members, along with Les, from this area.

When the men were conscripted in Tamworth in 1941, they reported to the Peel Barracks, the old army headquarters in Darling St, for a medical. 

Not long after they were sent on the train to Rutherford to the army base.

Before he died, Nelson Bradbery had talked about some old days, and a fond memory of when he first met his mate, Les Chillingworth. 

“When we got into Rutherford, the older soldiers were singing out: ‘You piss off or you’ll be sorry.’ And then a voice from the deep sung out: ‘You come out here and you’ll be bloody sorry’ – and that was Les.”

MUD AND SLUDGE: Members of the 61st Battalion at Milne Bay in October 1942. The photo illustrates the difficult conditions the infantry endured. Photo: Supplied

MUD AND SLUDGE: Members of the 61st Battalion at Milne Bay in October 1942. The photo illustrates the difficult conditions the infantry endured. Photo: Supplied

It was that moment which sparked a long friendship that lasted right up until Nelson’s passing three weeks ago.

“It was hard saying goodbye to Nelson,” Les said.

“When you think about how spritely he used to be. He was a good fella. He was the bloke who used to ring up everybody to see how they were. He was a mate’s mate.”

The local men joined the Australian Imperial Forces not long after they went to Rutherford. Being young, this is what they did so they could go overseas.

We were just ... just stupid buggers.

Les Chillingworth

“We were just ... just stupid buggers,”  Les said.

The squadron was sent to Milne Bay in New Guinea in 1942.

As the ship sailed into the harbour, it was nothing short of a wake-up call.

“The first thing we saw was a ship sunk at the wharf. It was a little Australian cargo ship. It had been bombed and burnt out. That was our first impression of the place. Our first thought was ‘well, who’s next’?” Les said.

For five months the engineers installed the fuel supply, building tanks for ships to pump fuel for aircraft as well as building the old Bailey bridges and driving the poles into the ground.

The local boys returned home to Australia safe and sound with the squadron before they were posted back to New Guinea. 

READY: World War II veteran Les Chillingworth, with jeep owner Carl Flannery – ready for Anzac Day. Photo: Gareth Gardner 160414GGD01

READY: World War II veteran Les Chillingworth, with jeep owner Carl Flannery – ready for Anzac Day. Photo: Gareth Gardner 160414GGD01

This time they went to Aitape before heading to Wewak, on the coast of New Guinea, where they would remain until the end of the war in 1945 and until the official Japanese surrender.

“I remember we were sitting in the dark at Wewak. We couldn’t have lights on and the news came through by radio to one of the officers and that was it. Everybody was jumping up and down,” Les said.

A feeling of relief swept through the squadron.

“I reckon,” Les laughs.

Les still pores through his war photos, dog tags and conscription papers but he mainly keeps the stories to himself.

“You get a bit emotional when you think about them,” he said.

You get a bit emotional when you think about them. Well, you’re thinking about the blokes that have gone, you think of the days when you were all young together, you know, and it all comes to an end.

Les Chillingworth

“Well, you’re thinking about the blokes that have gone, you think of the days when you were all young together, you know, and it all comes to an end. 

“It’s inevitable. You think back and in those days it was ... the good mates they were.”

A bad back and old age have kept Les from marching for many years. The emotions of the day probably have something to do with it, too.

“When you hear The Last Post especially, it makes you think of all the mates that have gone. But it’s just not on Anzac Day that you think,” Les said.

“It does get harder each year, because there aren’t many left.”

For more than 20 years, Les’s medals have adorned the chests of his 12 grandchildren who have marched, like many of his fellow Diggers.

And while he keeps his war stories mostly to himself, it’s important we share them.

Because if we don’t, that’s a slice of history we’ll lose forever. 

Lest they forget. And us.

Les still lives in Tamworth and is married to Val – his wife of 69 years. He is the father of six, Dale (Dec.) Merryn, Dean (Dec.), Mark, Shane and Andrew. He is a grandfather of 12 and also a great-grandfather.

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