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Anzac Day history: Rugby League Army heroes

Terry Williams

The overwhelming number of Rugby League players who served in Australia’s defence forces during the Second World War did their service in the Army, and the Second AIF built a reputation just as distinguished as their forebears of 1914-18.

All clubs at every level contributed to the ranks of the Army and they saw action in North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific.

NSWRL referee Leo Baggott was one of the famous “Rats of Tobruk” as were others such as Easts’ Ivo Wyatt and Lt Bob Halloway from Wagga Wagga.

Bill Buckley, a former Newtown forward who went on to later become NSWRL President, served through North Africa as did 1948 Australian skipper Len Smith.

Bill Buckley.
Bill Buckley.

North Sydney forward Harry Allwork was not so lucky – he was killed in action at the Battle of El Alamein in December 1942.

By then the war in the Pacific demanded Australia’s attention and the majority of the Army’s involvement thereafter was against the Japanese. Many Rugby League players were included in the ranks of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice as the AIF stemmed and then stopped the enemy advance.

Newtown’s Lt Bill Ryan, Western Suburbs’ Alan Keato, Eastern Suburbs’ Harold Dalton and Billy Thomas, and St George’s Spencer Walklate were amongst the most high-profile players but there were literally hundreds of others who also gave their lives in defence of their nation.

Jack Argent.
Jack Argent.

Some ended the war in elevated positions of leadership. Parramatta official Colonel Jack Argent commanded the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment throughout the war in North Africa, New Guinea and Borneo and was a revered leader by all those who served under him, while Easts’ classy centre Rod O’Loan ended the war as a major and won an MBE.

With 2020 marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, we remember them all.

Lest we forget.