Junee serviceman’s tragic WWII demise | Photos

As Junee prepares to mark the sacrifice and service of the men and women who gave their lives to defend the country, local farmer and historian Graham Elphick examines the story behind one fallen Junee serviceman.

For most people in the Junee district, the name William Danswan would mean little if anything at all.

William Leonard Edward Danswan was the first Australian serviceman killed by enemy action on the Australian mainland during World War II.

He was sixteen when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy on July 14, 1934 and served on the cruiser HMAS Canberra from 1935 to 1941.

He was then posted to HMAS Torrens, a Naval Headquarters Shore Station at Port Adelaide.

By then he was a respected Able Seaman and was qualified in mine defusing.

He was also married and had a daughter named Gloria.

On July 12, 1941, he was tasked, along with Able Seaman Thomas Todd and Lt.  Commander Arthur Greening, to locate and render safe a German sea mine in the ocean close to Beachport, about 450 km through the bush from HMAS Torrens.

In 1940, the German raider PINGUIN and an auxiliary minelayer PASSAT had laid numerous powerful sea mines along the approaches to Australian east coast ports and Adelaide.

Other sea lanes in the southern region were mined and a number of merchant ships were sunk or damaged.

These mines, containing about 300 kg of explosives, were moored in precise locations with an anchor attached by steel hawser.

Around 40 of these mines broke from their moorings and washed ashore over a period.

After indecision by their officer, the mine was moved further away from Beachport and on July 14, an unsuccessful attempt was made to detonate it.

It is believed a wave dislodged the explosive charge so Danswan and Todd approached the still fused mine to attach a fresh charge and were only a few metres away when it exploded without warning, killing Danswan instantly.

Thomas Todd died about twenty minutes later.

A Court of Inquiry into the disaster was held at Beachport on July 21, 1941 and Lt. Commander Greening came under some criticism for his decisions but no further obvious action ensued.

It was generally accepted that a breaking wave had slightly lifted the mine and one of the contact horns had triggered the explosion.

Danswan was buried at the Beachport Cemetery on July 16, 1941 after the arrival of his wife Margaret who had hastily travelled 800 kilometres from Junee to attend.

The following year, William’s body was exhumed and he was reinterred in the Junee Cemetery on December 4, 1942.

Thomas Todd was also buried on July 16,1941 at what is now known as the Cheltenham Cemetery.

We are now in the third year of World War I commemorations and in doing this seem at times to have neglected those who served in other conflicts.

Other district men and women served in World War II and subsequent conflicts, some making the supreme sacrifice, while many of those who did return suffered the effects of war for most of their lives.

Families also often paid a high price.

There are other stories of similar indebtedness to both men and women from this district who have served this country.

We should remember and honour them all.