The Goulburn River Valley region, at Victoria’s heart, has a rich military history of people, places and stories. A history of bravery and sacrifice, determination and devotion to duty, and terrible loss, that unfolds along the Military Touring Route.
Start your journey - a pilgrimage of sorts - in Seymour, 1.5 hours’ drive from Melbourne, honouring those who served in Australia’s most divisive war. Red poppies and a faded blue teddy bear increase the poignancy of the Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Walk: a wall of panels on which the names of the 60,000-plus men and women who served in Vietnam are inscribed over photographs of the conflict.
From here it’s a short drive to the Australian Light Horse Memorial Park, located on part of Camp Seymour.
Strolling around this park, with sun-lit rosellas darting between peeling eucalypts, it’s hard to believe this was Victoria’s largest military training and staging facility before Puckapunyal opened in 1939. Some of the men who made the historic charge of the Light Brigade at Beersheba were trained here and the Victorian “Rats of Tobruk” passed through on their return from Libya.
Still-operational Puckapunyal is our next stop (photo i.d. required), to visit the RAAC Memorial & Army Tank Museum.
Home to more than 70 armoured fighting vehicles, the museum has displays devoted to the history, personnel and technology of the Light Horse and modern armoured corps. Curator Joe Linford loves a chat.
Drive now up the Goulburn Valley Highway to Nagambie and detour 21km west into black box and wildflower country to the remains of POW Camp 6 at Graytown.
Didn’t know Victoria had POW camps? Survivors of German raider HSK Kormoran, which sank HMAS Sydney off Western Australia, and, incongruously, German Jews fleeing Hitler (the “Dunera boys”), were among the more than 7,000 people held in three POW camps and four internment camps in northeast Victoria during World War II.
A half hour north, Tatura Irrigation & Wartime Camps Museum brings those numbers to life, as people who painted and carved board games, wrote poetry and musicals, laughed and loved, and became Australian citizens after the war.
The German War Cemetery at Tatura, consecrated in 1958, is the final resting place of 239 German civilian detainees and eleven German POWs who died during both World Wars. Each POW’s grave is marked with an Iron Cross, each internee’s with a Latin Cross.
The stone ossario (mausoleum) in leafy Murchison Cemetery, midway between Nagambie and Tatura, contains the remains of Italian World War II POWs and detainees whose original graves were damaged by floods.
Ten minutes east of Tatura, two evocative sculptures are central to Shepparton & District War Memorial.
The work of pre-eminent Australian sculptor Charles Web Gilbert (1867-1925), Helping Hand honours Shepparton’s World War I fallen. It depicts Private John Raws reaching down to help his brother from a trench on the Western Front and it is tempting to take his outstretched hand. Mateship by Belo Angyal is based on an image taken in New Guinea by renowned World War II photographer Damien Parer (killed in action in the Pacific in 1944).
The power of art is further evidenced by the sculpture of Australian soldier-surgeon and war hero Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop assisting a skeletal POW, in Benalla Botanical Gardens, 66km east.
Allow time in this town on the Broken River for Benalla Aviation Museum, World War II home of No. 11 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School) Squadron.
The headline attractions here are the unique collection of military training aircraft and the volunteer staff: “The best three years of my life were flying a Macchi [Italian-designed jet trainer],” says ex-RAN, RAAF and commercial pilot Mark Carr.
If you’re lucky, you’ll also meet Doug Williams, author of “War Clouds over Benalla”, No. 11 EFTS Benalla’s war-time history told through individuals’ stories. If Doug writes as well as he yarns, the second edition, due July/August 2017, will be a page-turner.
Fancy going aloft in a historic craft? Perhaps some acrobatics? Phone to check availability of adventure flights in a shiny blue Cold War-era Nanchang CJ-6A, used to train communist Chinese fighter pilots, Australian designed and built Winjeel, or canary yellow open-cockpit de Havilland DH-94 “Moth Minor”.
Safely aground, head south to Euroa, the only Commonwealth town and region to produce three Victoria Cross recipients. Life-size bronzes of light horseman and Boer War hero Lieutenant Leslie Cecil Maygar, and Lieutenant Frederick Harold Tubb and Corporal Alexander Stewart Burton, members of a team that rebuilt a breached trench during a Turkish counter-attack at Gallipoli, stand sentinel on the grassy banks of Seven Creeks, a Goulburn River tributary.
Now for a scenic drive over the Strathbogie Ranges and around Lake Eildon, and a 3.4km return walk (there is some dispute about its length) up Mt Torbreck.
Your goal is a bush memorial to Flying Officer Anthony Daniel and Corporals Francis Hyland, Herman Sass and Ivan Stowdor, killed when their RAAF Avro Anson A4-4 crashed into the mountain on 16 May 1940. Two men mustering stock found their bodies eight months later.
This steep hillside-memorial to four men, combined age 97 years, is a sobering last stop on a journey through the Goulburn River Valley region’s rich military history.