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The Last of the Gregorys

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A piece in the short lived children’s edition of the Argus in 1934 expressed the view; Perhaps it is too much to expect that Ross Gregory, aged 18 years, will rise to the great heights of the Gregorys who have gone before him, but one thing is certain, the boy promises to go a long way in the game.

Those who had gone before were Australia’s first ever Test captain, Dave Gregory, and his brother Ned, who lined up alongside Dave in the first ever Test. Ned’s son, Syd, was one of the first great Australian cricketers, retiring in 1912 with 58 Test caps to his name, at that time a world record. Dave and Ned had two other brothers who played the First Class game, Charles and Arthur, and Charles’ son Jack, in a career shortened at one end by the Great War and by a knee injury at the other, proved to be one of the great all-rounders.

What the Junior Argus did not spell out in terms to its readership was that Ross Gregory, a Victorian, was not a member of the mighty clan of days gone by, although I dare say the thought that he might be served only to encourage further interest in him.

An early mention of Gregory in the press paid testament to his popularity, the Sporting Globe of 20 December 1930 observing; A thorough little gentleman, Ross Gregory at the age of 14 promises to develop into a First Class cricketer. He is one of the most popular boys at the Gardenvale State School and his work in the classroom and his skill on the sports field make him a favourite with everyone he meets.

On debut for St Kilda at 19, against Fitzroy, Gregory drew favourable comparisons with Bill Ponsford as he overcame some difficult conditions at the start to hold the innings together in the face of some fine pace bowling from Arthur Liddicutt and Morrie Sievers both, in the words of the Sporting Globe, getting plenty of kick and swerve. The first five wickets fell with just 30 on the board but Gregory held firm, and by the time he was out for 83 St Kilda were in a much better place.

Despite those runs from the opening position in his early First Class matches Gregory appeared to be more of a bowler than a batsman. His debut for Victoria came fully a year before his first appearance for St Kilda although the opposition were a fairly weak West Australia side. The Victorians won comfortably by an innings and Gregory scored just 5 when he went in to bat at number nine. With the ball he had rather more success, taking 5-73 in the match. Gregory was a genuinely slow bowler and in the main produced a mix of leg breaks and top spinners, with an occasional googly.

First Class match number two for Gregory was against a touring MCC side in November 1935. This was very much an English second team only one of whom, Joe Hardstaff Jnr, would go on to play Test cricket with any regularity. That said nine of the others were capped at least once so the team was considerably stronger than the West Australians of twelve months before. This time Gregory batted at number five but he scored only a single before being lbw to the orthodox left arm spin of Jim Langridge. Again it was a different story with the ball however as Gregory took 5-69 in the Englishmen’s first innings before the game, spoiled by rain on the first two days, drifted towards a draw.

The Victorian selectors had seen enough and Gregory played in five of their six Sheffield Shield matches after that. His returns were steady rather than spectacular, scoring 259 runs at an average of 32.37 with three half centuries. The following season, just under a year after he last appeared against them, Gregory played for Victoria against the MCC. This time it was the best England could offer as Gubby Allen’s side arrived to try and emulate that of Douglas Jardine of four years previously and retake the Ashes.

In the drawn match Gregory contributed only three wicketless overs, but he was in this side as batsman. There was no Harold Larwood in the opposition ranks this time, but the pace attack Gregory faced was a very good one, consisting as it did of Allen himself, Larwood’s famous partner Bill Voce, and the distinctly sharp Ken Farnes a man who, like Gregory, was destined not to survive the Second World War.

The tourists won the toss and batted and totalled 344 before Voce and Allen reduced the home side to 27-3. At that point Gregory joined Ian Lee, another promising young batsman. The score had been lifted to 289 before the pair were parted, Gregory being bowled by Farnes for 128. It was to prove to be his only First Class century, but the innings provoked enormous interest. In the Sporting Globe the former Victorian batsmen Roy Park reiterated the comparison to Ponsford. He went on to laud the sure backplay, precise and correct methods, with a dash of individualism, and praised his courageous concentration on the ball and how to score off it and described them as Ponsford characteristics that stamp him as a player who definitely should develop into a Test calibre batsmen, before adding, on reflection, in fact I think he is of Test class now.

Australia held the Ashes, and Allen’s men were expected to face an uphill task but, a couple of lucky breaks with the weather helping them, they took a 2-0 lead in the series. Gregory was nowhere near the Test side of course, but he kept on scoring runs, and although he didn’t take too many wickets he did bowl an economical spell against South Australia in the course of which he dismissed an in form Bradman for 192. This was one of the very rare occasions when Bradman was lashing out at the ball indiscriminately. His detractors claimed he was batting recklessly against the spinners because he didn’t fancy having to bat against the pace of Ernie McCormick, but there were some who were always keen to take a pop at the master batsman, and there seems to be no need to devalue Gregory’s achievement because of that possibility.

The weather favoured Australia in the third Test and with the hosts now 2-1 down Gregory was selected for the fourth. Many expected he would be twelfth man but in the end he was preferred to Jack Badcock. In what was to prove to be the only match of the series that was not significantly affected by rain Gregory found himself, after Bradman had won the toss and decided to bat, coming out to join Stan McCabe with Australia in a tricky position at 136-4. He only scored 23, but first with McCabe and then Arthur Chipperfield he stayed at the wicket whilst 90 were added.

England ended up with a first innings lead of 42 and in the second innings Gregory joined his captain at the fall of the fourth wicket. In a timeless Test with no sign of the wicket deteriorating markedly Australia, 195 in front, were still in a tricky position. They weren’t when Gregory left however, 145 runs later, run out whilst going for a third run after completing his half-century. It may well have been a poor call by Bradman that led to the dismissal, although the primary sources show no unanimity on the point. It must however have been the case that whatever disappointment Gregory might have felt at the mode of his dismissal, having made 50 on debut with his parents in the crowd and Australia winning, that he would have been more than happy with his debut.

Gregory was not yet 21 on debut. All contemporary reports talk of how young he looked. One adjective that crops up time and again is ‘diminutive’ – Gregory was no more than 5’7” in height and was slim and fresh faced. He was not a powerful hitter and at that stage his range of strokes was limited. He didn’t score too many boundaries, just one in each innings on debut.

In the final Test the weather intervened again and, after Bradman and McCabe had both scored centuries, Badcock and Gregory almost emulated them. The Australian total of 604 was plenty and victory by an innings and 200 followed. Gregory was sixth out on 544 for 80 and had looked set to join his teammates with a century when he turned a delivery from Farnes off his hip. Unfortunately for him the ball went straight into Verity’s hands at short leg rather than for the runs his timing deserved.

The season of 1936/37 was one that Gregory could look back on with immense satisfaction. He had averaged almost 50 and was in with a real chance of being selected for the 1938 tour of England, but then there were a couple of setbacks. First in March his house was burgled, and many of the gifts he has received on his recent 21st birthday were stolen.  Then in July 1937 he had to spend several days in a darkened room in hospital after a water heater that he was working on with his father exploded in his face. Gregory himself said the injury did not affect his eyesight, and presumably he would not have been accepted as a navigator for the RAAF had it been significantly impaired. But Bradman for one however always wondered whether he was ever quite the same player again.

As it was the 1937/38 season was a disappointment for Gregory with the bat. He scored a modest 297 runs at 27.00 with just three half centuries. With the ball he did at least remind Bradman that he had a second string to his bow, dismissing him in both innings of a Sheffield Shield match. This time there was no question of Bradman not taking his innings seriously, and he was dismissed on both occasions when South Australia needed runs from him. He was caught at slip in both innings, each time by Morrie Sievers, albeit not until the all-rounder had taken the opportunity of a bit of juggling practice. The double dismissal of Bradman was only ever achieved by five Australians and may perhaps have made Bradman wonder if he should have given Gregory more than four overs in his two Tests.

The lack of runs however told heavily against Gregory and when the squad was announced in alphabetical order he, like Clarrie Grimmett, had his hopes shattered when the announcer went straight from Fleetwood-Smith to Lindsay Hassett. When Sid Barnes was injured early on in the tour there was some talk of Gregory travelling as a replacement, but that came to nought and Gregory was destined never to go on tour.

The 1938/39 season was to be Gregory’s last in the First Class game and his batting improved markedly on the previous summer, his average going up to 41.38. Outside the game Gregory’s ambitions lay in the accountancy, and professional examinations kept him out of the Victorian side in 1939/40. The First Class game continued in Australia in 1940/41, but Gregory joined the RAAF as early as August of 1940, so there was to be no last hurrah.

In 2003 David Frith published The Ross Gregory Story, the centrepiece of which was the complete transcription of a diary that Gregory began on 7 June 1941, and the last entry of which is dated 9 May 1942. Having spent the best part of a year in training in Australia it took almost three weeks for Gregory and his colleagues to sail, via New Zealand where others were picked up, from Sydney to British Columbia. It took another week to cross Canada by rail and that was followed by ten days in Nova Scotia before leaving for Liverpool via ship, on the North Atlantic route.

Gregory’s ship arrived in Liverpool after another 10 days, on 30 July 1941, and it was then that he began moving around Great Britain. It is perhaps surprising that an Australian Test cricketer did not report his first experience of an ‘English’ wicket until almost six weeks later, 6th September, when he took the field way up in the North of Scotland at Forres, a ground that been opened by a visit from Bill Woodfull’s 1934 Australian tourists.

In his diary Gregory described the wicket, unsurprisingly, as rather damp and very slow but nonetheless he quite liked it both to bat and bowl on, and he top scored with 45 in his side’s modest total of 90 all out and took a couple of wickets in the opposition’s ultimately successful pursuit of victory.

It was not until 11 December that Gregory finally saw action, being part of an operation to bomb Le Havre in Normandy. His role was limited, his pilot never putting his crew in a position in which they could drop their bombload, and then passing out and leaving it to the second pilot to extricate the Vickers Wellington from a very dangerous descent.

At this point Gregory was based in Cambridge, and the English weather was, to Australian eyes anyway, at its most spiteful. Gregory spent much more time on the ground than in the air in the coming weeks and seems to have been relieved when he was eventually told he was on his way back towards Australia, to fly in the East, on the fringes of the Pacific War.

It was at the beginning of April 1942 that Gregory finally left England as he and his crew flew first to Gibraltar, and then onto Malta, then the only Allied toehold in the Mediterranean and, to all intents and purposes under siege from the Axis powers as a result. It is clear from his diary that Gregory was deeply impressed by the stoicism and bravery shown by the local populace, and in equal measure dismayed by what he perceived, bearing in mind his own limited workload in England, how little support they received.

The stay in Malta was a short one, just a week, but there were air raids each day, before Gregory and his crew set off for their next stop, Cairo. After three weeks Gregory was clearly sick of Cairo, and making the observation that in six months he had flown just eight missions in anger, together taking up 45 hours of his time – No wonder Jerry makes progress, was his clearly frustrated conclusion.

It was 9 May 1942, all but four weeks after he had arrived in Cairo, that Gregory finally boarded the ship that was to take him to India where his eventual posting was. His diary did not however accompany him so we know little about what happened to him after that. The record of his first year as a diarist was entrusted to a colleague to take back to Australia.

What we do know of Gregory’s role is that he was stationed near Calcutta in West Bengal. The Japanese were already in Burma and there were two complementary tasks for Gregory’s squadron. One was to drop supplies into Burma for their own troops and the other, with a rather different payload, to try and bomb Japanese supplies and communications.

Ross Gregory met his maker at around 7.00 am on 10 June 1942. His crew’s Wellington bomber crashed in a remote location about four miles south east of Gaffargaon in what is now Bangladesh, and was then East Bengal, and soon to be East Pakistan.

What happened to Gregory’s plane has never been made clear. No log books survived and the precise nature of the Wellington’s objective that day has been the subject of contradictory statements, two reliable sources stating on the one hand the crew were tasked for bombing operations against the Japanese in Burma and on the other that it failed to return from a supply dropping flight.

A study of contemporary weather charts went some way to convincing Frith that the most likely cause of the crash was the problem caused by a tropical storm, but he is not a man to leave a job half done. He also knew that the local police had given Gregory and his five crewmates a burial with full military honours almost as soon as the crash site was discovered, and he started to think towards locating the wreckage and repatriating the remains.

In the end Frith got close to working out what happened, and certainly no one will ever be able to finish the job. His enquiries in Bangladesh established that there a number of people still alive in the area who remembered the incident. No other aircraft came down anywhere near Gaffargaon so those who were there and remembered cannot have been mistaking the crash for another incident.

The witnesses quickly ruled out bad weather as a cause of the accident. The consensus was that there was more than one plane in the area, and that the one which came down seemed to have exploded in the air. Records indicated there were no claimed Japanese kills claimed in the area, and realistically it was beyond the range of their airfields. It is possible however that there were enemy planes from a carrier that was in the area, so the other aircraft seen by witnesses might well have been Japanese. It is also just possible, based on one witness account, that it was a case of friendly fire, an allied plane flying above Gregory’s accidentally dropping a bomb that did the damage.

The mid air explosion meant that human remains were found over a considerable area, and all found were placed in a communal grave. The site was unmarked, and the monsoon conditions that struck the area every year meant that the depositing of years of silt would have obscured any marked site anyway, and long buried any remaining debris, so Frith’s dream of repatriating the men’s bodies was impossible to fulfill. Gregory’s last resting place will remain where he died, in the youngest of the Test playing countries.

News of Gregory’s death did not reach Australia until 25 June and a proud nation mourned a gifted young cricketer who, by all accounts, was a delightful man. War changes people of course, and the man who died on 10 June 1942 was a very different one from the wide eyed twenty year old who had made a debut in Test cricket just five years earlier. The once abstemious Gregory both smoked and drank after he joined up, and was not uncomfortable with the use of profanities. He had also learnt to question the judgment of those who commanded him, and he cared little for some of them. But he remained courageous and, certainly to his comrades, intensely loyal.

If he had survived the war Gregory would have been 30 when Test cricket resumed in 1946/47. In 1948 he might well have got the tour place that eluded him a decade earlier, and been one of Bradman’s Invincibles. Maybe it would have been Gregory who had succeeded the great man as captain rather than Lindsay Hassett, and perhaps England wouldn’t have regained the Ashes in Coronation year – of course we will never know.

Comments

ARTHUR Chipperfield.
You’re welcome.
Kindest, DF

Comment by DAVID FRITH | 11:52am BST 1 May 2016

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