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The Story of John Rischbieth a 39er

JOHN RISCHBIETH, then a pupil at St Peters College, Adelaide, was awestruck when, as a 17-year-old in Germany in 1935, he became surrounded by beaming members of the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) and the Bund Deutscher Madchen (League of German Girls), showing him around the brave new Germany Adolf Hitler was creating.

He saw the brown shirts - the Sturm Abteilung- marching the streets with their spades, picks and rifles. He saw the SS officers with their daggers and revolvers, and he saw the banners, the flags, the Nazi insignia. He felt a sick feeling develop within him.

Mr Rischbieth, 93, was one of the boys who took photos during the visit, many of which he kept for decades until last year when, honoured for his service in World War II with the Royal Australian Navy, he saw fit to unearth them.

Some are in a new book, The 39ers - stories of part-time military who enlisted before World War II and went on to serve in the war, initiated by the Reserve Forces Day Council.

Although taken by innocent schoolboys, they capture the fervour and the militarism sweeping the country two years after Hitler came to power.

Mr Rischbieth, whose grandfather migrated to Australia from Germany in 1853, was with a group of 15 Australian schoolboys taken on a tour of North America, Britain and Europe. They included six from St Peters College.

Mr Rischbieth shook hands with George V, attended a world Rover Scout moot in Sweden, then did a two-week tour of Germany escorted by two blond, blue-eyed ambassadors for German youth, Herbert Roloff and Toni Reinhart.

The boys were accommodated at castles, hostels and camps. In Berlin, they were welcomed by the mayor. "Of course, they insisted the Germans were peaceful and had no intention of upsetting the world and all that nonsense," Mr Rischbieth said.

The boys were shown the stadium being prepared for the next year's Olympics and might have met Hitler himself except the fuhrer was running late and the boys had to catch a train.

John Rischbieth's memories of Germany 1935

But the boys were less than impressed by what they saw. Italy had invaded Abyssinia and they could see the Germans had the same belligerence. "When we got onto the ship for Australia, we started to compare notes," Mr Rischbieth said.

That unease had not been lost in January 1939, when Mr Rischbieth joined the RAN Reserve. "I was convinced the war was coming," he said. "Chamberlain said, 'Peace in our time!' I said, 'Like hell!"'

Mr Rischbieth was mobilised when war broke out, serving initially on an armed merchant cruiser, the HMS Moreton Bay. In 1941, having been commissioned, he joined a light cruiser, HMAS Hobart, and served with it in the Mediterranean, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies.

In the Battle of the Coral Sea, as assistant air defence officer, he was posted on the bridge to watch enemy aircraft and call out "bombs away!" when they released their load, prompting extreme evasive action. The Hobart was not hit by bombs but was strafed.

When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Mr Rischbieth was on a ship coming into Rabaul and, concerned that the Japanese might lob a grenade, he went ashore to speak to an Australian officer. The officer, John DeRavin, had been one of the boys on the trip to Germany 10 years before.

Mr Rischbieth, who returned after the war to work at a shipping company, George Wills and Co, and ended as managing director. He is the last survivor of the St Peters boys who went on the German trip. Three were killed in action.

Malcolm Brown, Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 27 November 2010.

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Reserve Forces Day Council Inc
Patron in Chief His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia
National Chairman the Honourable Tim Fischer AC
National Executive Officer and NSW Chairman Lieutenant Colonel John Moore OAM RFD ED Retd

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