One-armed? That was an odd detail to write so summarily, I thought. The explanation was left hanging, unanswered.
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Then I wondered at the picture of the two boys: if someone found a picture of me 65-plus years after it had been taken, would I want to see it?
Of course I would.
Curiosity has an instant and easy ally. So I turned to Google.
To my intrigue, John Bevan Todd turned up in a 2015 edition of Scotch College’s old boys’ magazine Great Scot in an obituary for his nephew. The entry said Todd attended Scotch between 1930 and 1931.
I emailed Scotch’s archivist Dr Paul Mishura and asked if he had a contact for any of Todd’s children. Within an hour, Mishura came back with a name and an expired email address for Todd’s son, Dr John Jeffery Todd.
Google told me John Todd had made a submission to a Tasmanian government parliamentary committee on wood smoke in Launceston, some 15 years or so ago. His submission had a mobile number which I texted, hoping it was still current.
A few hours later, John Todd returned my text message, saying he was overseas but could chat over WhatsApp, which we did. Next thing, he was looking at the slides over WhatsApp.
“That’s me on the right,” Todd said with considerable surprise. The other kid was a boy named Hugo Massey, he said.
I showed him another colour slide of a fellow in shadow at the front of a boat. “That’s my dad,” he said, this time with delight, “and that’s boatman Willy in the foreground”.
Out spilled what John could tell me of the father he knew for precious few years.
John Bevan “Bev” Todd, like many of his generation, had a life scarred by war.
Indeed, he was very lucky to survive conflict at all. Born in 1915, he was 24 when Australia declared war on Germany in September 1939.
He was quick to enlist and by January 1940, Bev Todd was setting sail for the Middle East on the RMS Otranto as part of the first convoy of the 2nd Australian Infantry Force.
After six months training in Palestine and then a spell in Egypt, Todd found himself in Libya where, on 3 January 1941, the battle of Bardia began.
It was the first major Australian battle of World War II, pitting battalions of the 6th Australian Division against an Italian stronghold in the small harbour town.
“On the third and final day of this battle, the vehicle my father was in was hit by a shell,” John Todd says. “He was very seriously wounded and taken to the field hospital.”
Bev Todd lost his left arm in the explosion, as well as some of his left ear and shrapnel had punctured his legs and torso.
This detail made me take another look at the shadowed photo of his dad on the boat. Sure enough, his left arm wasn’t evident, although you needed to know what to look for.
Bev Todd was in bad shape from the Italian shell. He was triaged into a medical tent reserved for other poor souls not expected to survive their injuries (the Battle for Bardia cost 130 Australian lives and 320 men were wounded).
But luck has fickle twists.
Though Bev Todd had been unfortunate to be injured, he’d been lucky to live. Luckier still was that he was wounded on the third day of the Bardia battle, for of the 40,000 Italians taken prisoner that day, many were medical staff from the military hospital.
A captured Italian medic tasked with tending to the Australian wounded went into Bev Todd’s tent. He looked over the Australian’s injuries and made a fateful intervention.
“Family folklore says one of the Italian doctors said, ‘No he will probably survive, you better put him in the other tent’,” John Todd says.
Bev Todd was saved by the intervention of an Italian doctor’s unquestioning commitment to the Hippocratic Oath. About the same time, Todd’s left arm had been found in the Libyan desert, still bearing his watch which was duly returned to him.
John Todd remembers his dad wearing that watch proudly – a reminder of the blast that had almost snatched his life in a distant desert, and an unknown Italian doctor who ensured he lived longer.
Discharged, Bev Todd returned to Australia where he immediately re-enlisted, becoming the aide-de-camp to the Victorian governor Sir Winston Dugan, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
“He was the military man who stood behind the governor at all the fancy occasions,” John Todd explains. “I suspect that period between recovering and then moving up in the military is where he learned a lot of his diplomatic skills, which then led him to move into diplomatic service.”
Bev Todd’s first diplomatic appointment was to London, before being appointed trade commissioner to Trinidad in 1953.
John Todd remembers an idyllic Caribbean childhood of sea, sand and boats, of having a cook, a gardener and a chauffeur. But he remembers, too, that his dad had begun to experience tremors.
“I guess luckily for us, the Australian government agreed that being caught in the explosion, that the shock of all that might have triggered his Parkinson’s,” John Todd says.
The Todds were dispatched to the Australian embassy in Washington. Bev Todd could receive still-experimental treatment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in nearby Baltimore.
“In those days it was very crude – they just killed off a section of the brain which was thought to cause Parkinson’s. Apparently, it did reduce the tremor, which was getting quite bad, but it also led to some loss of memory and speech, but it can’t have been too bad because my sister and I as kids, we didn’t notice.”
The family eventually returned to Melbourne in 1959 where Bev Todd’s health deteriorated further. He developed bowel cancer, dying in March 1964, aged 49, leaving two children who knew very little of their father’s war service.
Bev Todd, like many of his generation, hadn’t been one to burden those around him with what he’d experienced in war. What John Todd and his younger sister Sue have pieced together about their dad is from what their mother Enid and family told them, and from public records.
Sue Todd was only 14 when her dad died. “I felt I did not properly know the man who was my father, but like John I’ve spent many hours looking at dad’s war files, his medical records, as well as what I have been able to find on Trove,” she said.
“I have a strong sense of dad being a gentle, thoughtful, courageous, intelligent man with a great sense of humour and a love of TV shows about the wild west. Our mum died young too – she was 61 and had her own significant struggles with health, so I feel I didn’t know her all that well either.
“A few months before dad died he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. Whatever it was I said, he said to me that it sounded like being a psychologist. I recently retired after more than 40 years of being a psychologist. I was blessed that he offered me that option in a time when girls became nurses or teachers.”
Bev Todd lived a short life, even by the standards of the post-war years, but a full one. And from what Sue remembers, he had a touch of modernity rushing through his veins.
It may have been blighted by an Italian bomb in the last hours of Australia’s first major battle of WWII, but his extraordinary life can be remembered again, thanks to a dog called Calypso.
Andrew Probyn is National Affairs Editor for Nine News.
I am Robert Le, the author of the article on the website "Rescuing Pet Dogs" and a person who is passionate about the animal world, especially dogs that have gone through difficulties and were rescued. With extensive knowledge about caring for and nurturing puppies, I not only share useful experiences and knowledge but also bring adorable stories about my journey to help four-legged friends. I constantly learn and research about issues related to pet dogs, and through my blog posts, I hope to spread the message of love and care for these priceless friends. Join me as we explore the adorable world of rescued dogs and learn how you can contribute to their happiness.