Six weeks after Ern turned 20, on March 28, 1940, he enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force.
This apprentice butcher from Drouin, in rural Victoria, had very little life experience behind him, but the Army deployed him to Libya to protect the besieged port of Tobruk.
He arrived in May 1941.
“It was a case of keeping ’em out. Don’t let ’em in, that’s it. Fight for your life,” he said later.
Following nearly three months of relentless battle, Ern was wounded by German machine-gun fire during a patrol.
He recovered and was then sent to Egypt to fight in the pivotal Battle of El Alamein. Captured by German forces, Ern spent time in a POW camp in Italy before eventually ending up in Stalag XVIII-A/Z, a notorious Nazi POW camp in Austria.
After two years, along with fellow Australian Sergeant Arnold ‘Allan’ Berry, and New Zealander Private Eric Baty, he escaped from an Arbeitskommando (prison farm camp) near Graz and spent two months on a desperate flight through first Austria, and then Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.