Melbourne at war

Plane flying over Melbourne during war

Mike Rosel

Posted November 07, 2017

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.

Men digging trenches outside Melbourne War Memorial

Irish-born Barry Green, who emigrated to Melbourne in 2009 with his Australian wife, had done a crash course in our wartime history, and was startled to discover how little younger generations knew of the near hysteria that followed Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, and Japan’s military advance across South-East Asia.

“I was surprised to find how quickly the civilian experience of the war had been forgotten, including the pivotal role Melbourne played,” he says.

His reading included On The Home Front: Melbourne in Wartime 1939-1945, by historian Professor Kate Darian-Smith from Melbourne University. Prominent buildings were sandbagged or partly bricked up; thousands of volunteer air-raid wardens tried to enforce a blackout; some scared families departed for distant refuges; key museum treasures were removed for safe keeping. There was heavy censorship, rationing and no private petrol.

“There were hundreds of slit trenches,” Barry says.

“Almost two kilometres of trenches around the city alone, notably in Treasury Gardens outside State Government offices, with uncounted others in municipal parks, schools and institutions, and backyards.” These were not the coffin-deep narrow slits you might imagine: a regulation trench was only 1.22 metres deep and a metre wide at the top, built shallow to reduce the chance of walls toppling.

Kate noted that “civilian morale plunged to an unprecedented low” after military disasters.

“Australia was a nation living in fear during 1942, as was clear in my interviews with more than 100 people who endured the wartime city,” she says.

“The separation of families, the nightly blackout and air-raid drills, and the constant uncertainty about the future contributed to feelings of stress and heightened emotions.”

Human nature often conflicted with the Anzac spirit.

This was a spirit-sapping rollercoaster. Australians were stunned by Singapore’s fall on 15 February 1942 (with some 15,000 Australian soldiers captured) and the first bombing of Darwin on 19 February, with around 300 deaths.

Rumours flourished. For instance, some people had claimed to see a small Japanese floatplane over Melbourne early on 26 February. This rumour turned out to be true, if not officially acknowledged until 1945.

View of Melbourne from War Memorial

It was 50 years before author David Jenkins tracked down pilot Nobuo Fujita, and Australians learned how his plane had been taken from a hangar on the deck of submarine I-25 off King Island in Bass Strait. Fujita took off in the dark for his audacious dawn patrol.

While fears eased after American carrier-borne aircraft won the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May, morale took another hit when three Japanese midget submarines penetrated Sydney Harbour later that month.

Spirits soared with the sinking of four Japanese aircraft carriers in the pivotal Battle of Midway in June – and fell as the Japanese advanced towards Port Moresby along the Kokoda Track, soon infamous for jungle warfare that ebbed and flowed until the final enemy retreat in November.

Melbourne breathed again. Trenches became playgrounds for kids such as Noel Carrick, who remembers trenches off High Street, Malvern, as “stinky and grungy” after rain. Some people, focused on moral rather than military welfare, complained that trenches provided privacy for lovers.

The city was invaded, of course, when the 1st US Marine Division arrived from Guadalcanal in January 1943. Melburnians welcomed the American build-up, excepting those men who complained about their competition as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. Citizens were shaken by the ‘Brownout Murders’, when a serial killer throttled three women in May; the arrest of US Marine Edward Leonski did little for Australian-US relations.

Kate investigated recruitment of women for munitions factories and other workplaces, and social and sexual upheavals. While volunteering was popular – from air-aid precautions to “knitting circles for the troops” – human nature often conflicted with the Anzac spirit. The black market thrived, black American troops were not always welcomed, and some unions resisted the women who replaced workmen serving in the Forces. Painter Albert Tucker’s bleak vision of Melbourne’s dark side emerged in his Images of Modern Evil series.

Barry Green says he will be spending time “trying to shed more light on Melbourne’s forgotten military landscape”.