The War Years

As the threat of war approached, and with no film work in sight, John went to a ten-day voluntary militia camp to earn a few pounds and attended several one-day exercises.  When war broke out, his efforts to join the AIF as a war correspondent were frustrated by the Manpower Act; skilled instrument makers were in short supply and munitions had a high priority so he was soon employed making precision aircraft parts. Supreme Sound had a contract to produce munitions with J N Kirby, an engineering company, and asked him to work for them as a fitter and turner on the munitions sub-contract. Meanwhile he had become a member of the New South Wales Government’s Film Committee and also a member of the Film Sub-Committee of the Prime Minister’s Committee on National Morale.

During the year his sister Fay arranged a lunch to which she had invited a friend of hers, Bern Gandy. Bern and John clicked immediately and soon after rented the rear of a house in Manly together – two bedrooms and a kitchen with a shower built into the corner. It was the beginning of a valuable, close, lifelong friendship. At the same time, Bern had taken up learning painting at Bill Veal’s Max Meldrum Studio in Castlereagh Street where he met another student, Janet Greenhalgh, and he introduced John to her in a coffee shop at Kings Cross – The California. Janet had a permanent job with an advertising agent doing layout and lettering for advertisements at which she was quite brilliant.

Janet Heyer, nee Greenhalgh

Not long after this first meeting, Janet and he met again at a Meldrum studio party to which she had been taken by a friend. When the party came towards its end, the friend mentioned he was going to get a taxi to take Janet home. Knowing they would go through Kings Cross where John had a room, he used it as an excuse to ask for a lift home with them to which, of course, the friend had to agree. So John sat down on the back seat – between the friend and Janet! John writes “I must have been very smitten with Janet to be so bold!”. That gave him the opportunity to ask Janet if she would come for a picnic the next day at Manly, and, if so, he would meet her at the wharf at 11 a.m. Janet agreed and that was the beginning of their romance.

From then on Janet became a regular visitor to Manly at the weekends to the little flat he shared with Bern.

In 1940, he directed Knowledge Unlimited, a 15 minute documentary for theatrical release for the NSW Government to introduce a State library service that made books on all subjects freely available to everyone. 


In 1941, Australian troops fighting the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea were suffering more casualties from malaria than from the enemy. The Allied Works Council invited John to make a documentary, Jungle Conquest, which showed how the rapid construction and erection of prefabricated hospitals was protecting soldiers from the deadly malarial mosquito. The casualty rate dropped dramatically and the public was made aware of the Council’s vital work.

John’s relationship with Janet became deeper and deeper and they were married on the 19th  November 1942 in Scotch College Chapel, Melbourne. When they returned from their honeymoon in Anglesea, Victoria, they rented a flat in Cremorne in Sydney. Soon afterwards, Janet fell pregnant and the following year their first child Elizabeth was born with some post birth complications. During the same year John became president of the Sydney Film Society and also president of the Federation of Film Societies.

John and Janet Heyer
John and Janet with baby Elizabeth

John recalls “I remember one morning returning to the engineering shop in Sydney, I caught the usual ferry from Cremorne Wharf across to Circular Quay when all of a sudden – bang! – the ferry shuddered. I thought we had hit a rock but, except for the immediate slight panic by a few passengers, we sailed on and got to Sydney as usual. Later on in the day we read in the paper that during the previous night Japanese submarines had penetrated through the anti-submarine net across Sydney Heads to try and sink the two American cruisers anchored in the harbour. Fortunately, their torpedoes went underneath them. It was one of the Japanese submarines, waiting for the net to open, that our ferry had hit”.

In 1943 Harry Watt arrived from Michael BalconEaling Studios in London to make his famous Overlanders in which he introduced Chips Rafferty to cinema audiences. Harry had graduated from John Grierson and the Crown Film Unit with distinguished productions such as Night Mail. He had heard about John and managed to get him released from the Manpower Act to direct the second unit. Dora Birtles compiled a two or three hundred page research script from which Harry and Ralph Smart wrote the film story and John then wrote the shooting script. While Harry got the cast together and organised the main unit in Sydney, John took a second unit to Alice Springs and along the inhospitable Murranji Cattle Track across the Northern Territory.  They also mounted a camera in the nose of an RAAF Avro Anson aircraft and flew across the great plains of Central Australia where vast herds of cattle were being driven from west to east to escape

The Overlanders

the anticipated Japanese invasion. John took with him a collection of look-alike clothing in which he dressed the actual drovers so that they matched up with Harry’s actors in the main unit. The gallant ‘girl’ in Overlanders with her pig-tails flying in the wind as she gallops to control the stampeding herd is in fact one of the drovers they dressed up in the heroine’s shirts with a look-alike hat with pig-tails attached.