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Thursday, 28 May 2009
Australian Wireless Squadron, AIF, Francis Patrick O'Dea
Topic: AIF - Wireless Sqn

Australian Wireless Squadron, AIF

Francis Patrick O'Dea


Francis Patrick O'Dea



A brief military biography of Francis Patrick O'Dea.

Regimental number14253
ReligionRoman Catholic
OccupationWireless Operator
AddressAscot Vale, Victoria
Marital statusSingle
Age at embarkation21
Next of kinFather, Patrick O'Dea, Maldon, Victoria
Enlistment date4 April 1916
Rank on enlistmentSignaller
Unit nameAustralian Wireless Squadron 1
AWM Embarkation Roll number22/16/1
Embarkation detailsUnit embarked from Melbourne, Victoria, on board RMS Morea on 30 May 1916
Rank from Nominal RollWO2
Unit from Nominal Roll1st Wireless Signal Squadron
FateReturned to Australia 15 January 1919


A short history of Frank O'Dea - Andrew Needham

My grandfather was Frank O'Dea. He was originally born in Diggers Rest outside Melbourne and was the son of the local station master. My mother says he learnt to ride fairly early in life and could ride around a paddock bareback.

He joined the citizen forces in 1911 and was trained as a wireless operator. At the outbreak of the war he was recruited as a wireless operator for the RAN Radio Service and was posted to the troop ship HMAT A53 Itria under the umbrella of the RAN Transport Service. However, despite the RAN involvement, he would have sailed under merchant marine articles. At that time wireless was still "cutting edge technology".


Francis Patrick O'Dea, Wireless Operator, Itria.


Itria was fitted as a troop ship to carry horses and carried members the ALH and their horses to the middle east as part of the third convoy in February 1915. She sailed with a total of 207 men, 5 sergeants and 7 officers from the 2nd and 5th ALH along with 250 horses plus an officer from the AAMC and an officer from the AAVC. I'm not sure how many crew Itria carried. The ALH troops and horses were disembarked at Suez on 26-3-15. Itria then proceeded to Alexandria and was subsequently involved with the Gallipoli campaign. An order from Gen Birdwood had several of the Australian troop ships given new numbers for the duration of the campaign and Itria became A20.

I have not identified which troops Itria took to Gallipoli but the ship, and hence my grandfather, were standing off ANZAC on the morning of 25th April. I have several pictures that he took from the deck of nearby naval ships firing onto the shore.

From what I’ve read in the history of Gallipoli, the medical services were grossly inadequate and there is mention of ships that were designed to take horses and with no medical officer on board having to receive the wounded. Obviously several ships other than Itria would fit that description but it is likely they had to take wounded under very poor conditions. He had several pictures of pinnaces carrying wounded which would go along with this.

After this Itria would have been something of a ferry moving troops and supplies of all sorts. My grandfather took photos of French Senegalese troops embarking Itria to be taken to Gallipoli. Apparently they didn't fare well as their bright uniforms made them good targets for the Turks. I doubt they knew what they were getting into because one picture shows they were taking a bicycle with them!

Itria and my grandfather were present at a number of major events other than the original ANZAC landing. In August Itria took the RAN Bridging Train to the Suvla landings arriving at 5am on 8 Aug 1915 and was caught up in the shambles that Suvla became. Bean's official history remarks on "repeated wireless messages" from Itria trying to get orders to unload the RANBT and that shrapnel was continually falling on the deck. Apparently a German aircraft also tried to bomb the ships but it's not clear how much attention was paid to Itria. Itria was later at the Suvla evacuation and one of my grandfather's photos shows the glow and smoke from burning stores on the shore as the ships pulled away.

Itria returned to Australia in 1916 but my grandfather left the ship in Melbourne in April 1916 as he had been recruited for the newly formed 1st ANZAC Wireless Signal Squadron. His Regimental Number was 14253.

As far as I can find out, the wireless squadron was the first ever military signals unit anywhere specifically dedicated to wireless and was one of very few truly ANZAC units as it had a mix of both Australians and New Zealanders by design. The wireless squadron members were mounted troops but were strictly classed as engineers. Because they were mounted they are frequently [and incorrectly] assumed to have been light horse. They were using mobile wireless sets: the larger ones could be moved in a cart while the smaller sets could be broken down and moved on pack horses.

The wireless squadron had been formed to handle communications in the British campaign that ran up through Mesopotamia and into Persia and the unit disembarked in Basra in July 1916. Very few Australians know this campaign existed or that Anzacs were involved. The basis of the campaign was that Britain was worried that the Russians would withdraw from the area due to increasing political instability in Russia leaving Persia open as a route for the Germans to attack India.

The wireless squadron was formed into a number of individual "wireless troops" and generally one wireless troop would be attached to the campaign headquarter and while other wireless troops would follow the main forces repeatedly setting up and then moving their wireless sets again to send and receive messages as the columns moved. In the case of a battle the wireless would be set up close to the action to send and receive messages as the battle progressed. The wireless masts were easily visible to the enemy and frequently drew artillery fire.

My grandfather's particular troop was primarily attached to the HQ and after they entered Baghdad he would have spent a significant amount of time intercepting Turkish wireless signals.

The Russians were also using wireless but Anzac wireless squadron troops were sent to handle signals in English. My grandfather's troops took their turn to tag along with the Russians in Persia in April 1917.

The situation in Persia was very chaotic at that time. The Russian troops were not being paid or supplied and they were in disarray. They would raid civilian markets to pirate provisions then on other days they would trade their equipment for food. The region was in famine, no doubt due to various armies moving though the area plus there was an exodus of Armenian refugees fleeing Turkish massacres.

While moving through the mountain passes my grandfathers unit narrowly missed being killed in an ambush because one of their carts needed to be repaired making them lag behind the small Russian column they were moving with. When they caught up to the Russians they were being attacked by a group of Kurds and had suffered heavy casualties. One of the wireless troop members rode into the middle of the fight and emptied his rifle at the Kurds. That man was Sgt S Ryan who was subsequently awarded the DCM, I haven't been able to access his citation but I suspect it was for this action.

Given the circumstances it isn't surprising that the Russians were cut off from the British forces in Mesopotamia and my grandfather's troop was out of contact for so long that they were given up for dead and another troop formed to replace them. This makes tracking the history difficult because my grandfather's troop was "A troop" and the replacement troop was also called "A troop" [subsequently the grandfather's troop was redesignated "AA troop"].

1st ANZAC Wireless Signal Squadron at Kermanshah, Persia, July 1917.


This period is succinctly noted in my grandfather's service record as "attached to Russians in Persia". I have little detail on what happened during much of this period but the unit history makes an obtuse reference to "adventures" so it's anyone’s guess. Two things really catch my interest, firstly that he kept a photo of a very beautiful young Russian woman who he thought was a Russian noble fleeing the situation back home. We really have no idea who she was but my grandmother used to joke that she was Princess Anastasia [though we know that cannot be correct]. Second, that long after the war he saw a biblical movie and commented on the way out of the cinema that they'd got Mt Ararat all wrong, that it was much more rugged than they'd shown it and he knew so because he'd seen it. Of course there are many purported sites for Mt Ararat but it begs the question which one he'd seen.

The AA troop spent Christmas 1917 in Kermanshah and were treated to Christmas dinner by a British couple, the husband being the local representative of the Imperial Bank of Persia. I've seen a small card from that dinner signed by almost all the men and was fascinated to see they dined on ibex.

My grandfather and his troop returned to Baghdad 17 January 1918.

By chance I found a diary from an English soldier from the 1/4 Hampshire Rgt, Arthur James Foster, posted on the net who records the Aussies appearing down a mountain pass coming out of Persia. I can't properly reference it because the diary has been removed from the net but I will quote it anyway because I really like it:

"Some time passed then we saw some horsemen approaching. When they came up, they were seen to be Anzacs, and their limbers carried a wireless set. Hardy and resolute they looked as they rode in - where they came from and the circumstances of their appearance right up here in the Persian hills is obscure. I have heard that they were operating with some Russians up country, and had to sneak away."

After his return he was made the squadron SSM but had to be invalided to India because he had malaria and he did not return to Mesopotamia. After repatriation to Australia he was promoted to WO II before his discharge in April 1919.

My grandfather never had much to say about his WW1 service and I lot of what I now is from my research. Not infrequently he's say "Johnny Turk was alright" and that you could open a can of bully beef with a bayonet but not much more. He could fix a radio but wouldn't elaborate on how he'd learnt to do it but he taught my brother Morse Code and semaphore for his scout proficiency badges. And he never rode a horse again the rest of his life.


Acknowledgement: Many thanks are given to Andrew Needham for providing a biography and photographs about his Grandfather,  Francis Patrick O'Dea.

Photogaph captioned "1st ANZAC Wireless Signal Squadron at Kermanshah, Persia, July 1917." - AWM P00562.062


Further Reading:

Australian Wireless Squadron

Where Australians Fought - Mesopotamia


Citation: Australian Wireless Squadron, AIF,  Francis Patrick O'Dea

Posted by Project Leader at 2:19 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 28 May 2009 4:57 PM EADT

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