Melbourne at war
The forgotten story of civilian Australia's World War II experience.
When young archaeologist Barry Green and his wife and fellow archaeologist Alana investigated a building site at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind in St Kilda Road in 2014, they hoped to unearth a 19th-century fever hospital.
But the excavation yielded evidence of a condition just as alarming: the invasion fear that dominated Australian life for most of 1942.
The pair found the unmistakable outline of a WWII air-raid trench, its zig-zag pattern intended to limit blast damage. This one had an unusual horseshoe design which Barry surmises might have been for area defence of the RAAF and naval units that served here.
While their nearby digs had turned up 19th-century relics including clay pipes, bottles and broken plates marked Victorian Asylum & School for the Blind, their cross-sections of the trench found nothing.
Recalling how archaeologists sought ‘crop marks’ on early aerial photographs for indications of vanished structures, Barry searched photographs of 1945 without seeing his trench outline. He eventually found his ghosts in the grass on Google Earth images.
Other ghosts of this unsettling period – prime ministers Menzies and Curtin, US General Douglas MacArthur and more – were easily conjured up when News and Lifestyle visited the well-preserved War Cabinet Room at Victoria Barracks in St Kilda Road where Australia’s war was managed from 1939 to 1945. Wartime photographs look down on original leather chairs and radiators, blackout curtains, roller maps of empires now dust, a map board easily concealed by lockable panels and a black rotary-dial telephone.
Our guide waved a brass ashtray: “Everybody smoked cigarettes, pipes or cigars… sometimes sessions lasted 18 hours … they installed fans above the door to suck the worst of the smoke into the typing pool.” It’s regrettable that the barracks were closed to public tours following the 2009 terrorist plot aimed at Holsworthy Army Barracks outside Sydney.