Andrew William Barr
Andy “Nicky” Barr was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1915, his family moving to Melbourne when he was six years of age. Nicky went to Kew Public School and while there showed he was pretty speedy afoot, winning the Victorian Schoolboys' 100 yards championship in 1926, 1927 and 1928. There were many factors that influenced him as a young lad, the Kew Methodist church, the YMCA and so on, but what was more important was his association with Power House Club from the age of 15 years.
As Peter Dornan put it in the biography Nicky Barr, “The camp system was modelled on a movement began in 1921 by Prince Albert, the Duke of York, in England, in an attempt to bring boys together from the workforce with public school boys in the hope that they would develop a common understanding and a sense of mutual appreciation and loyalty”.
The Governor of Victoria, Lord Somers, adapted the concept to Australian conditions and began what was known as the Lord Somers Camp and Power House Organisation. The camp was situated at Victoria's Western Port Bay and young boys were invited to the camp “to fully learn the spirit of service and duty and to understand that he had responsibilities to himself and others”. The camp was one thing but associated with it were numerous social and sporting clubs and one was the Power House Rugby Club. Previously he had been attracted to Australian Rules and had been graded in the firsts by the Hawthorn Club. But after a fortuitous invitation to play a game of rugby when Power House was one man short, he was hooked in more ways than one. He became a hooker, perhaps the fastest one of all time, but his normal position was as a flanker.
Victoria in those days played against Queensland, NSW and various touring teams, and his talent was soon recognised in the interstate games. There is evidence of him playing against only one touring team for Victoria, the 1937 South Africans. Victoria understandably lost 11 to 47. On that Victorian team that day were wingers Rudy Dorr and Max Carpenter, fly-half Bill Hammon and forwards 'Weary' Dunlop, Cliff Lang, Stan Bisset and Andy Barr, all of whom would be selected to play for Australia. It was certainly the golden age of Victorian rugby.
When the Australian team to tour England in 1939 was selected four Victorians made it, George Pearson of Melbourne University and Max Carpenter, Stan Bisset and Andy Barr from Power House. Weighing about 80kg and being almost 6 feet tall, Barr was excited to be travelling to the British Isles on the P&O liner Mooltan. Andy took his accordion with him on tour and he and Stan Bisset, who had a rich baritone voice, would regale the team and the passengers. They were asked to compose a team song on the way over but nothing is known of it. Soon after arrival Neville Chamberlain declared that Britain was at war. A game was arranged on the way home in Bombay so that players who had not done so could say they had played for Australia.
On that 1939 team, only Bill McLean and Keith Windon played for Australia again, after the War. While in England Barr tried to join the Royal Air Force, however as he was not encouraged he went back to Australia on the Strathaird and he volunteered for the RAAF. When he was selected, he bought a book, “How to Fly in Five Easy Lessons”, and read it voraciously. He found that he was gifted in the cockpit, as he had been on the rugby field. Dornan, in Nicky Barr, wrote how he got his nickname: “After some time and many misadventures, Nicky's fellow cadets attributed his independent and unconventional nature to some Machiavellian spirit related to the devil. His given name 'Andrew' was forever lost to be replaced by 'Nicky' as in 'Old Nick', the name given by the puritans to the devil (the Puritans believed that Saint Nicholas - Santa Claus - and Christians were Pagan notions)”. So Nicky it became from then on.
The career of Andy Barr in the RAAF is the stuff of which legends are made and the full story is told brilliantly by Peter Dornan in his biography on Barr. It is a long and wonderful story and as Doman wrote his obituary in June 2006, the following summary is added. “He graduated to 'wings' standard in September 1940 and was posted to No 23 Squadron Brisbane at Archerfield. While here, he became aide-de camp for Queensland Governor Sir Wilson.
“He and Dot married in Melbourne on August 12, 1941. Three weeks later, he was posted to No.3 Fighter RAAF Squadron in the Middle East. By November 17, 1941, he began his fighter pilot career flying Tomahawks. The Desert Air Force and the British Eighth Army desperately trying to relieve the besieged Tobruk Fortress in Libya. No.3 Squadron was the pre-eminent fighter squadron among 20 allied squadrons fighting Rommel's famed Afrika Korps, and he was soon in battle.“ Over the next few months, such was the attrition rate, he quickly rose through the ranks to become Squadron leader.
In January 1942, he was awarded his first DFC. On a particular mission, flying a Kittyhawk, he shot down three enemy planes in quick succession. He was then shot down himself, crash landing into the desert. He was injured and stranded kilometres behind enemy lines, but was saved by friendly Arabs who guided him to safety. He was shot down again on June 1 during the 'Battle of the Cauldron', an intense land and airbattle outside of Tobruk. With luck and some determination he was saved as he was reached first by a British army team.
On June 26 he was again shot down in flames. He was taken as a wounded prisoner, badly burned and shot through the leg, to Italy. When he recovered, he escaped by crawling naked and freezing through the sewerage system, but was caught by guards not far from the Swiss border. After a severe belting, he was transported to Germany but escaped by jumping out of a moving train. For the next six months he linked up and worked with Special Operation Forces who had parachuted into Italy, harassing and blowing up German trains and troo trucks. He was caught twice more but escaped each time. Eventually, after 20 months behind lines, he became sick with malaria and malnutrition and led a group of allied prisoners of war to safety over the Apennines in Italy. He received a Military Cross for his services.
Back in England, he flew 108 operational missions from Britain, where he attained the rank of Wing Commander. He was eventually to be officially known as Wing Commander AW Barr, OBE, MC, DFC and Bar and was officially credited with 12.5 aircraft destroyed, to make him number ten among Australian Fighter Aces of World War II.
After the war he became general manager of the civil engineering firm, Thiess Brothers, in Brisbane. He gravitated to other high positions until he became general manager of Maggott Lee, a company in the oilseed crushing industry, eventually becoming executive chairman. His OBE was awarded for services to the oilseed industry.
Andy Barr had a limited exposure to the top level of rugby through the war and one is left to wonder what a hooker who could run 100 yards in football boots at 10.4 seconds might have accomplished. Much of what he became was a result of the dedicated basis of the Power House organisation. He never played in a Test, but represented Australia once, in a game arranged in Bombay, so players could forever claim they played for their country.
Nicky Barr died in June 2006, at 90 years of age a few months after his wife. Four F/A – 18 Hornet jet fighters from the No 3 Squadron overflew his funeral service on the Gold Coast, Queensland. He had a remarkable life, and at his death he was officially Andrew William Barr OBE, MC, DFC and Bar.