Chapter 10 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]

Chapter X.

It was on Tuesday, while Fergus and I were engaged in the appalling work of gathering the remains of the victims of Saturday, that the patients in the hospital were evacuated to emergency hospitals at Parramatta. We had seen Lynda in the evening, and she told us that she was sleeping at the hospital that night, but would be leaving with some special hospital equipment next morning at 10 o’clock.

Between us Fergus and I possessed about 30/-, all but 1/- of which was mine. No one had any money. Most of the banks had ceased to exist. They had a name but no local habitation. Fergus possessed a cheque book, but told me that, though he knew a bank could go broke, he did not realise that one could go as broke as the branch of his Bank that held his account. It’s site was occupied by a 40 ft. crater.

Red Cross and other workers were being fed at the Town Hall, and of necessity we were living anywhere we could find shelter, and eating at the public canteen. It was only by good luck, on the Tuesday night, that in George Street I noticed a hole blown in a basement. We explored, and concluded the premises belonged to a furnishing shop for the basement was full of bedding. It was here that we camped for the night. We had agreed to meet our burial gang at Paddington at eight o’clock next morning.

We were both dog weary, and the basement being lightless, we overslept. It was a quarter to eight when I was dragged back to life by Fergus. Conscience-stricken, we hurried to the canteen and drank mugs of coffee and wolfed thick sandwiches as we stood. Making up Park Street, which was fairly clear of debris, on our way to our work, we had reached the corner of Hyde Park at Elizabeth Street when we halted and stared eastward. From down towards the Heads we heard the distant roar of propellers.

“Those devils are back again,” I muttered. “Can you see them?”

A moment later Fergus pointed. “Take a line straight across to Bondi.”

There, flying at a great height in the blue, we could make out two formations of dots. “Dod! man,” growled Fergus. “Surely there’s nothing they’ve forgotten to smash. What are the brutes after?”

As he spoke they swept downwards, circling round the Harbour like questing birds. Then they roared almost overhead, and a minute later we heard the crash of a gun from the direction of Darling Harbour and a shell burst high in the air among the planes. A moment later the planes began bombing, and we knew it was the remaining cruiser they were after. Above the roar of the bombs we could hear the regular clearer note of the gun. Then we both burst into a yell as one of the planes shattered to fragments in the air. But, almost before the falling pieces had disappeared, there came a concussion that rocked the tottering walls, and a great burst of smoke billowed up behind the skyline.

We were so intent on the fight that we did not notice two companies of infantry had turned out of Park Street towards Oxford Street. It was the military force in charge of the wrecked city. We hurried after them. We found the young officer who had dealt with our bandits in charge of the second company.

From him we heard the startling news that had been signalled from the Heads. The battle fleet was standing in shore guarding a landing from troop ships. The enemy were coming ashore at both Manly and Bondi beaches. As he spoke there was a terrific explosion from the direction of the Heads. He glanced over his shoulder. “There goes the magazine of the North Head fort. They are blowing up the forts to prevent the enemy getting them intact.”

“But where are you fellows off to?” I asked.

He wasn’t much more than a boy. That lad grinned as he replied. “We’re 188 all told, and we’re off along to the Old South Road to hold them up.”

“But,” Fergus exclaimed, “You haven’t a dog’s show. There’ll be thousands of them.”

“A brigade probably,” he laughed. “But it will be merry hell while it lasts. They’ll have the duce of a job rooting us out of the wrecked building up there.”

“Dod! man! I’m with you.” Fergus’ eyes shone.

“Don’t be a dashed idiot!” the young fellow snapped back. “There’s not a pop-gun in the whole place besides our rifles. You two get back and don’t throw away your lives. They’ll be wanting men like you later.”

“But ——” began Fergus.

“But, be hanged,” he barked. “Listen! We’ve had word from Newcastle that they are massacring women and men indiscriminately, and they’ll do it here. If you’re not mad, you get out, and get quickly. We won’t be able to check them for more than an hour or two, and they’ll be in the city through the Spit by then as well. If you know any women, get them away. Go! don’t be dashed fools.”

He shook our hands and hurried after his men.

“That’s a man,” Fergus commented gravely, as we looked after him.

Then he exclaimed, “Come on! The hospital!” and we went across the park at the double. Before we were half way across we heard the banging of guns in the Harbour. We did not know it then, but all of the destroyers had run out and begun shelling the enemy landing at Bondi and Manly. It was a splendid but hopeless gesture, for in a few minutes we heard the roar of heavy guns to seaward. Then came the planes again. Before we reached the hospital we could hear the crash of their bombs as they swooped on the doomed destroyers.

“Queer thing!” Fergus gasped as we ran. “Those brutes have wrecked the whole city. They’ve murdered thousands and thousands, but no one’s seen one of them.”

When we reached the empty but still intact wing of the hospital, we found Lynda and about twenty members of the staff who had been warned, and were on the point of leaving. Every effort was being made to hurry the people from the threatened area. Despite the riot of shelling and gunfire that roared over the Harbour, Lynda kept her head, and heard our news without making a fuss.

Her orders had been changed. She was to go to Moss Vale where a train load of injured had been sent. A car was waiting for her at the intersection of City Road and Cleveland Street, which was one of the nearest points from which wheeled traffic could move. That was nearly two miles away, and going over the blocked streets would be heavy. There was no time to lose, and as the men of the hospital staff were anxious to be off they were glad to leave Lynda in our charge.

Fortunately the first part of our flight from the hospital through Hyde Park was over cleared ground. Fergus seized Lynda’s small suit case, and we hurried off. Behind us the crash of gun fire died down and broke out again. It was not until we reached Liverpool Street that we began to realise how many people had remained in the ruined area. There were hundreds, mostly men, singly and in groups, all hurrying westward. It was here, too, that in the intervals of bombardment we could hear the faint splutter of rifle fire from the direction of Bondi.

Both Elizabeth and Castlereagh Street were badly blocked, but Pitt Street to the west of Liverpool Street was more open. Even so it took us nearly an hour to reach the wreckage of the Central Railway Station. As we went, Lynda told us that the car that was waiting for her was owned and driven by a volunteer worker named Clifford, of whom she knew nothing. Her orders had been changed before there was any thought of a second attack.

Although hundreds of people were clambering over the debris in Pitt Street, most of the fugitives were making for the Parramatta Road by George Street, so that crowds from both streets, all on foot, converged on George Street West. It was an extraordinary spectacle. We saw very few children. But men and women, whose clothes were all the worse for wear, scrambled and struggled towards open streets and safety. Some were empty handed, but most carried bundles or suit cases containing all their possessions. They were all weary looking, and their faces showed the strain of the terror from which they were flying.

We three talked very little. Fergus stuck to Lynda’s case, and I helped her over the tough spots, and they were many.

Then, just as we reached the intersection of the City Road, a fresh torment was added. We heard a high-pitched whine that ended in a screech and the explosion of a shell that burst among the ruins of the Central Station. Those devils were beginning to fire on the flying throng. That fiendish act was one more proof that the fire was being directed by enemy agents.

That first shell was the herald of a storm that made the last few hundred yards of our journey a nerve racking race with death. As we broke into a run devastation swept down from the sky, filling the air with dust and flying fragments of steel and debris. Across the street a dozen shells burst in the University grounds. We could hear the screams of women and the shouting of men.

During those last few yards my mind was occupied with the question of whether a car would be waiting. I could have howled with delight as we found a big double-seater standing at the corner, in Cleveland Street. Beside it stood a tall, somewhat sallow, young man. His dark eyes rather belied the gravity of the long face.

“Clifford?” I cried as we raced up.

“Right! Is this Sister Burton?” he flung open the rear door of the car as he spoke. “Pile in! This is no place to talk.”

Fergus pushed the suit case in, and Lynda followed it. Then we stood back, hesitating. Clifford ran round and took his place at the wheel. “Hop in, you two,” he shouted.

“But! ——” I began, somehow it seemed like rushing the boats in a shipwreck.

Lynda bent forward and said to Clifford, “They’re my brother and a friend.”

Clifford had started his engine and looked round. “It’s going to be a tough trip. She may need help. Get in. I can’t wait.”

I slipped into the front seat, for Fergus had promptly taken his place by Lynda’s side. The next instant the car turned south on top gear.

I have seen some fancy car driving, but nothing like that with which Clifford covered those first four miles to Arncliffe. That he never hit anything as he sat staring tightlipped ahead, was at the same time a fact and a miracle. The road was full of mad traffic all heading in the one direction. All semblance of order had vanished, and it was every man for himself.

It was not until we passed Arncliffe that he spoke. “I’ll have to try the Prince’s Highway, and make through Wollongong, and over the Macquarie Pass. I hear the Hume Highway is almost impassable.”

“Lord send the George’s River bridge is safe,” Fergus commented.

Clifford’s face lit up for a moment. “My sentiments, too. You’ll notice I’m not dawdling.” He cut in front of a car before us with the needle of his speedometer touching 70.

The air was still echoing to the roar of the bombardment behind us. Then a moment later a shell burst close to the road 100 yards ahead of us. We had still nearly two miles to go to the bridge, but we covered the distance in less than two minutes. But it was a lively two minutes. Inside Botany Bay a destroyer was nosing on some illegitimate business. Outside a cruiser could be seen wreathing herself in puffs of black smoke.

As we raced on to the approach to the bridge a shell swept through the high girders, miraculously missing them, and sent up a column of water half a mile beyond. We were more than half way across when a terrific burst announced a hit behind us.

Fergus, looking back, called out that only a stretch of the parapet had been blown out, and that the deck was unbroken. Almost immediately — we were not fifty feet from the end, and comparative safety — the bridge and car were deluged by a mass of water thrown up by another shell that struck short by a happy fifty feet.

The next instant we were over, and we felt safe. The cruiser would be too intent on the bridge to bother about the road.

By this time we had raced almost clear of traffic. Clifford relaxed, and slowed down to fifty on the wide smooth road.

I turned round to look at Lynda. “Women are queer,” on the authority of Sir Anthony Gloster and Kipling. Though I did not expect hysterics, I did expect her to look scared, or at least anxious. Instead she was looking positively radiant, even to a brother’s eyes.

As she returned my smile, Clifford said over his shoulder. “Thank goodness, you’re not a squealing woman, Sister Burton; and you had reason to squeal just then.”

“We learn to swallow our squeals in a hospital,” she laughed, “and to be truthful, I swallowed one long squeal all across the bridge.”

Then a thought struck me. “Lyn — have you any money?” I asked. “Fergus and I are almost broke.”

“Then we’re lucky,” she laughed. “On Saturday morning I drew £12 from my savings bank account with intent to commit an extravagance, and did not have time to commit it. It’s all here.”

Said Clifford, “I can throw in nearly £17, and we may need it badly.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked. He slowed down and turned in his seat. “Have you heard anything of what has happened at Newcastle?”

Remembering what the officer had told us in Hyde Park, I looked at Lynda before I answered.

She read my thought with her usual skill. I never could keep anything from her. “Listen, you men,” she said. “Whatever is going on, I’m going to be in it. I’m neither a fool nor a flapper. Things are bad I know, but I want to know everything.”

“Sister Burton’s right,” Clifford said. “I’d best tell you everything. They’ve been raiding and slaughtering for miles round Newcastle, and as far out as Maitland. I was warned at the Town Hall this morning that the road down from Singleton and Maitland, and through Windsor to the Hume Highway is fairly choked with fugitives making south.”

“They told me,” he went on, “that conditions on the road are appalling. There is no control of any kind, and the worst element is getting the upper hand. They are stopping cars and forcing the owners out of them, and robbing them besides. Petrol is running short, and they are taking it from people who have it. There have been several murders. I don’t know what it will be like down towards Wollongong, but we will have to be prepared.”

“There may be difficulty in getting food, too, if that’s the case,” Fergus put in.

“That’s certain!” Clifford answered. “Anyway, when I heard what was going on, I decided that we must take the Prince’s Highway. You fellows can’t tell how glad I was when you came with Sister Burton, because, unless I’m a raving pessimist, we are in for a rough trip. But I came more or less prepared, even to the extent of doing a spot of looting.”

“Everything goes these days,” I said. “Ask Fergus where we got the whisky we drank last night.”

Clifford bent down, and picked up an attaché case from the floor. “Open it,” he said, handing it to me. “I raided a shop in Market Street for those.”

When I opened the case I found that “those” were a pair of nasty-looking automatic pistols, with 300 rounds of ammunition to match them.

“I did not expect anyone but Sister Burton, or I could have taken another,” he explained. “But I’ve loaded them both. We may not want them, but if we do, we’ll want them badly.”

“Besides those,” he went on, “I have 20 gallons of petrol in the tank and another 16 gallons in the luggage carrier — That gives us a run of about 800 miles.”

“Then,” said Lynda, “but for the food we have nothing to worry about.”

Clifford laughed. “Don’t ask me how I got it, but there is enough tinned stuff and biscuits there, too, to see us through.”

We did not know Bob then so well as we did later. But this foresight was characteristic. He had a genius for detail that missed nothing. Nor did we know then that Bloody Saturday had cost him his father, his mother, two sisters, and a brother — everyone belonging to him. He had been working for the bar, when the smash came, and had been brought up in a wealthy home.

Behind the mask of his quiet reserve was a cast-iron will and an implacable spirit that stopped at nothing. I suppose, had I been able to pick and choose, I could not have fallen in with two better men than Fergus Graham and Bob Clifford — men of whose existence I had been unaware a few days earlier.

We were not long in learning that anarchy ruled. When we reached National Park we found it swarming with destitute refugees living under makeshift shelters or in cars useless for want of petrol. They were half starved, and were depending on Sydney for help that was not forthcoming. They swarmed into the road and yelled at us for food, or for a lift to escape. It was a sickening spectacle. At the back stood women and children, evidently unused to hardship, mutely imploring with their eyes. The crew on the road were men of a different brand. They cursed and threatened as we sped past. Clifford dared not stop. They would have rushed us if he had.

Fergus had taken one pistol and I the other, at Clifford’s request. Said he, “It’s a case of the survival of the fittest. If it comes to shooting, shoot and don’t hesitate.”

I never heard of what became of those unfortunates but their fate must have been terrible, and I doubt if any survived. Down nearly the whole of the 20 miles to Bulli Pass we overtook groups plodding along in the hope of reaching help below the Pass.

It was while we were passing Darke’s Forest that we received the first hint of what was ahead of us when we began to meet an ever-increasing number of cars racing north, and packed to capacity. Some even had men clinging on their footboards. About a mile from Sublime Point, we found one stopped to change a tyre. Clifford pulled up, and asked the reason for the exodus.

The answer to the question staggered us. The Government had ordered the evacuation of the entire South Coast between Bulli and Nowra, as there was a certainty of an enemy raid and landing at Port Kembla.

We warned them that it was madness to try for safety towards the north, and that they would find Sydney in the hands of the enemy. But they would not listen.

We stopped again at the Lookout. We hoped to add to our food supply, but the little store there had been completely looted. Lynda, who had gone to the platform of the Lookout, called to us, and pointed to the north-east. There, not more than 10 miles away, we saw a great array of ships heading to the south.

The sight spurred us into movement. Already the stream of cars coming up the Pass was almost unbroken. Clifford set off as fast as the descent and the upward traffic permitted. In any other circumstances, I should have called Clifford some unseemly names for the risks he took, but we went down that switchback zigzag at 45 miles an hour from head to foot.

Had the road been clear when we reached the level ground, all would have been well, as it was, the road was a seething bedlam. Down the whole of that long streak of settlement from Bulli to Port Kembla was “tumult and affright.” Panic-stricken people in vehicles of every description filled the roads, byeways and highway alike. We crawled along till we reached Bellambi, and tried the lower road, but it took us an hour to cover the two miles to Balgownie before we could reach the highway again. It was then nearly one o’clock, and we found the road clearer, as most of the traffic was making south. By the time we reached Wollongong, Clifford was able to pick his way without trouble.

We were almost clear of the town when excited people, pointing and staring upward, drew our attention to some planes flying seaward at a great height. Then, as Clifford increased our speed, two things happened almost simultaneously. First, we heard the boom of a heavy gun out to sea; then, in Kembla, ahead of us, a shell-burst sent up a pillar of black smoke and debris.

None of the four exclamations that greeted it from our car were exactly refined. Lynda’s “Damn them!” sounded so heartfelt that we all laughed. That first shell, however, had one good effect, spurring on the thinning traffic. It was time, too, because the first arrival was the forerunner of a series of terrific explosions round the already devastated Port. As we swept through Unaderra, Port Kembla was a raging volcano, but fortunately for us the fire was kept on the sea front. Still, as we fled down the eight miles of road behind Lake Illawarra, we were almost deafened by the smashing concussions of the bombardment. But the peace of the lake and of the beautiful countryside formed a strange contrast to the tumult reigning so near us.

Where the road to Moss Vale across Macquarie Pass branches off Prince’s Highway at the south end of Illawarra, Clifford stopped the car. He turned round to Lynda. “Here’s where you will have to make a decision,” he said.

“Why is the decision to be mine?” she asked.

“Well,” grinned Bob, “at the Town Hall in Sydney I undertook to deliver a nurse at Moss Vale, and I am ready to carry out my contract.”

“Then, why not go ahead?” laughed Lynda.

“Because, if that nurse is wise, I think she’ll order me to drive to Melbourne, rather more than 600 miles, at the best speed we can get out of this bus.”

Lynda murmured “Umm!” and then, ‘‘and what good reason is there that I should desert a hospital full of patients?”

“First,” Clifford went on, “the patients may not be there when you reach Moss Vale. Secondly, those shell peddling blighters will probably be there, too, in a couple of days. Thirdly, Moss Vale is in the line of flight from the north, and conditions there are not likely to be fit for human consumption.”

We three watched Lynda’s face intently as he spoke.

Her level eyes looked straight into Clifford’s and she shook her head decisively. “I undertook to go to Moss Vale. Would you turn down a job like that because it was risky?”

“But a man’s different ——!”

She broke in. “Don’t talk nonsense! You know you’d go. Please don’t let us waste time.”

Bob turned to Fergus and me, hesitating.

Fergus looked at Lynda and shook his head. “I’ve no doubt but that Clifford’s right, but I’ll not try to persuade you against your conscience.” Then dropping into his own speech, he added: “I’m thinkin’ t’wd be a waste o’ guid breath.”

Knowing Lynda, I laughed. “I’m afraid Graham’s right. It would be wasting breath.”

“The amendment is carried by a majority of two.” Clifford swung the car off the highway, and turned west towards the great wall of the Macquarie Range. Behind us the guns were still pounding.

We spoke very little as the car ran through the lovely open country towards the Pass. Most of the traffic was flying south, but there were some cars on the road ahead. We must have been near the end of the stampede.

As we neared a red roofed farm, tucked into a fold of ground where the road began to rise steeply, a plaintive demand from Fergus for food reminded us that we were hungry. Lynda insisted she must have tea or perish.

It was then that Bob admitted he had tea, but no billy in which to make it or cups from which to drink it. Necessity knows no law, and he turned the car from the road to the house that stood a few hundred yards back.

The house was deserted. We knocked and shouted but received no response. I committed a rather bad job of amateur burglary on the back door. A fire still glowed on the kitchen range, and Lynda took charge of the subsequent proceedings.

While the kettle was boiling Bob and I went to the car for food. At that stage, just four days after Bloody Saturday, our social sense was not quite shattered. No doubt there was food about the house; but though I did not mind burglary, we all hesitated at stealing food — that was to come.

Looking back towards the coast we could see heavy columns of smoke rising from the direction of Port Kembla and Wollongong.

I suppose we were in that house less than half an hour. As we drank our tea from borrowed cups and ate biscuits and cheese, Lynda chaffed Fergus and me on our utterly disreputable appearance. Each of us wore four days’ growth on our chins, and were doubtless deserving of her description as a pair of Domain deadbeats. Clifford had shaved that morning, and his clothes looked less unkempt. None of us knew where we could get our next shave.

Lynda was tidying up the table when we heard voices outside. Bob and I went to the door. There were five men examining our car with suspicious intent. They were a tough looking gang.

As we slipped out of the doorway one of them looked up and saw us, and drew the attention of the others.

Said Clifford quietly, “What do you fellows want?”

They exchanged glances, and then one stepped forward. “Well! Since you want to know all about it, we want this car,” he said truculently.

Clifford glanced at me and whispered, “Have you got that automatic?”

I nodded. The weight of it in my pocket gave me a sense of comfort.

“Sorry,” said Clifford, “but we need it ourselves. Bunk out of this.”

One of them laughed. “Oh! — your bloomin’ lordship, you can have ours in exchange. You’ll find it half a mile back on the road — without gas.”

“I told you to get out of this.” Clifford did not raise his voice, but he whispered to me to be ready.

“Well,” said the first man, “since there’s five of us, the vote’s against you blokes. We’re taking it. You don’t think we’re going to wait here to be butchered.”

They turned and moved towards the car. As they did, I pulled out the automatic, and called out, “Stop! And stand back!” As I called, I found Fergus was standing beside me.

They all turned, and one shouted, “Rush them!”

What followed was a matter of seconds. The five started forward together. They were not twenty feet from us. As they rushed, Fergus and I fired. One dropped and another stopped; but the other three came on. We fired again and another fell, and the remaining two backed off.

The man we had wounded first, sunk to the ground, and supporting himself on one hand, gasped horrible threats at us. There was a thin stream of blood from his mouth. The other two lay still.

Fergus turned on the two who were still standing. “I’ll count three, and if you’re in range by then I’ll kill you both.” He pointed up the hill from the road with the pistol. “One!”

The next instant they were legging it as hard as they could put foot to the ground.

I looked round. Lynda was standing in the doorway behind us. She stared at the fallen men. “Oh! had you to do it?” she almost whispered.

Clifford. who was bending over the wounded man, looked up. “We had no option, Sister. These brutes would have left us here without compunction.”

She nodded towards the fallen figure. “Is he ——?”

“Just about!” said Bob, standing up. “The bullet went clean through his chest. We’d better get away.”

Fergus was replacing the empty cartridges in his magazine, and handed me two. I reloaded, and we hurried to the car. By this time the other two had disappeared. Thirty seconds later we were on our way, leaving the three sprawling bodies where they lay.

As we turned into the road, I looked back. So far as I could see over the quiet open landscape, it was empty, but for a car standing in the middle of the road below us. As Clifford drove on I could not help wondering at the queerness of it all. I had just participated in the killing of three men, but I had not the slightest feeling of remorse or repugnance. All the statute and moral laws seemed to have been abrogated. I had a sense of satisfaction rather than guilt.

It was Fergus who put it in a nutshell by saying, “It’s luck you brought those automatics, Clifford, or we would have been in a nasty fix.”

Clifford nodded. “I said it would be the survival of the fittest. I’m afraid that is only the beginning.”

The car ran on in second gear, climbing that magnificent winding road up the Pass. Somewhere near the top we were stopped and questioned by armed men. They were civilians who asked if we had seen signs of the enemy. We told them all we knew, and found they were guards for a party of men who were making an attempt to block the road for wheeled traffic to delay the advance. Higher up, we came on more of them working feverishly.

It was nearly sunset when we reached the head of the Pass, with 15 miles to go to reach Moss Vale. Running through that lovely country with quiet landscapes and shadowed valleys, it seemed incredible that terror brooded over everything. But the village of Robertson, when we reached it, was deserted but for one car that was leaving as we arrived. Its owner asked for news from the coast. He told us he was making south through Kangaroo Valley and Nowra, for Melbourne, and advised us not to go on to Moss Vale as there were rumours that the enemy would make for it. A little later, about half way to our destination, several cars raced by us all packed with men. They shouted as they passed that the enemy had reached the Pass.

At dusk we arrived at Moss Vale. That wide streeted town was in turmoil. Evidently the news that the enemy had reached Macquarie Pass had been magnified to terrifying proportions. It took us an hour to learn that Lynda’s train had gone on. To where, our informant had no idea. We sought the station-master, a much harassed man, who was sticking to his job, endeavouring to deal at the same time with a frenzied railway traffic problem and frenzied passengers for whom he had no trains. He told us that a trainload of wounded and injured people had come in from Sydney, but that he had had orders to send it through to Goulburn, and that it had left before midday.

To Lynda, whose calm was a contrast to the surrounding panic, he confided that all possible rolling stock was being rushed south to prevent it falling into the hands of the enemy. But he knew they had got possession of several passenger trains and locomotives and many goods trucks. He believed they were in Muswellbrook, and were making across to Gulgong. The last message they had from Katoomba was at 2 o’clock, and he feared they must by now be at Lithgow.

We returned to Fergus, who had stayed to guard the car, and discussed the situation. Despite the wild rumours in the streets, we felt that if the enemy had reached the head of Macquarie Pass, it would only be a small detachment to secure the road. It was unlikely that they could reach Moss Vale from Kembla in any numbers before late next day, if then.

“What I can’t understand,” said Fergus, “is why they are not here already from Parramatta. It’s not 70 miles, and if they have got hold of railway rolling stock, you’d think they’d be here to meet their murderous friends from Kembla.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson!” Clifford spoke more lightheartedly than he felt. “They want Lithgow first with the munition works, and they want it intact. That crowd that romped into Sydney this morning have wiped out the naval units they had bottled up there, and they can unload their troopships and make the Harbour a naval base. With Lithgow in their hands they can wait for the Newcastle gang to come down to them from Mudgee.”

“Don’t forget,” I said, “they can fly light. The devils don’t need to wait for their artillery. They have both rail and road open to them, and I expect they have been able to rake in more motor vehicles than they need for the taking.”

“Lord! what a mess,” groaned Bob. “It’s been a walk-over. Just four days and we’re mopped up. Just look how they stand. It’s one step for them from Lithgow to Bathurst. The Newcastle lot can join the Sydney force by two lines from Mudgee and Gulgong. Then the gang from Kembla can use Moss Vale as a base to work through from here to Goulburn and Cootamundra. That gives them the whole vital area from Newcastle to Kembla, inland.”

“And not a whack at them anywhere,” Fergus said savagely. “We’re running. Everybody’s running. Haven’t we a military force anywhere? It’s like driving sheep.”

“But,” asked Lynda anxiously, “surely we aren’t beaten without a blow, or a fight?”

Bob rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose they are concentrating our troops somewhere south in Victoria, and may meet them north of the Murray. But ——”

“Dash it all!” Fergus said, “The thing’s preposterous. There are 7,000,000 people in Australia, and you don’t mean to say they’re licked by a few ship-loads of Cambasians in four days.”

“In Russia,” Bob answered gravely, “a few hundred thousand organised Communists are holding more than 100,000,000 people in abject slavery. Our organisation was wiped out with Sydney.”

“But, Victoria!” Lynda protested, “They could raise 150,000 men there, at least.”

“Twice that number would be useless unless trained and armed. They won’t give us the time. That’s why they’re rushing the three landings,” Bob replied.

“There’s one thing, I know,” I said. “We’ll have to get out of here, and make for Melbourne.”

“That’s my idea, too,” Clifford agreed. “There’s no military organisation here, and if we get to Melbourne they may let us enlist in some kind of force.”

Fergus turned to Lynda. “It’s useless for you to try to follow your hospital train. I think the others are right.”

Lynda submitted without argument, but suggested we should try to get something to eat before we left.

But getting anything to eat in Moss Vale that night was another matter. The mile-long main street was thronged by people whose sole idea was to get out of Moss Vale at the first possible moment. While the others waited in the car I made enquiries for food. There was none to be had. Hundreds of refugees from the north had left the Hume Highway at Mittagong and had come down to Moss Vale. The stories they spread of the devastation and savagery of the invaders had struck terror.

We had no idea of what truth was in the stories, but they were believed. All the shops had been cleared by the crowds. One place I entered was completely wrecked. The owner told me that when he announced his stock had gone a crowd had refused to believe him and ransacked the place.

I finally returned to the car, empty handed, to find Fergus and Clifford in hot argument with four men who demanded places in it. My appearance complicated the situation. They threatened to wreck the car if we would not take them. No one took the slightest notice of the altercation, violent as it was. One of them lurched forward and struck Fergus in the face. I pulled out my automatic and cracked him on the head with the barrel. The others turned on me, and I warned them I would fire. Clifford opened the door and I slipped in. Two jumped on the running board as we started, but I smashed at their hands with the pistol, and they dropped off cursing with rage.

Clifford started through the crowded street, but driving was no easy matter. Again and again we halted, and at each halt threatening or imploring faces peered in at us. It was half an hour before we got through the fear-maddened crowd. It had been an experience that drove home to us how completely the moral fibre of the people had been sapped. At the railway station a demoralised crowd was clamouring for transportation anywhere. They were swarming over a train of empty goods trucks for which there was no locomotive, fighting for places like wild animals. The milling throng in the streets, who were rushing empty shops and hotels, were not the worst elements of the community. They had been ordinary decent Australian town and country folk.

So far as we could see there was no vestige of authority or control. They were beyond listening to reason. The one idea was to escape from the threatened town. All ordinary decencies of life had lapsed. The appalling spectacle illustrated the results of the enemy’s policy of frightfulness. Mob panic ruled.

It was not until we passed Wingello, 15 miles from Moss Vale, that Bob drew the car to the road side and stopped. For ten miles along the road, fugitives on foot had tried to stop the car. Twice we passed cars that had been stopped, round which fighting groups struggled for their possession. Once I had to fire a shot over the head of a man who stood full in our path in an attempt to hold us up. Poring over a road map by the light of an electric torch we discussed our route. Our experience at Moss Vale decided us not to risk passing through Goulburn. Finally, we chose a route by leaving the main road to cut off through Bengonia to reach Canberra through Tarago.

That night, somewhere south of Bengonia, Bob lost the road. So at 11 o’clock he turned the car into a patch of scrub where it was hidden from the track. Here, with Lynda in possession of the car, we three slept on the ground in turns — one standing sentry.

Next morning at daylight we opened and emptied two tins of tongues, and used the tins for boiling water for tea. It is a plan I do not recommend except in case of emergency. But even cold tongue and biscuits with tea of an original flavour were welcome at the time.

It was while Bob was gathering firewood and Fergus and I were opening the tins that I made a discovery. Lynda approached us from the car. She had made some sort of a toilet, but was not looking her usual spick and span best. With a brotherly lack of tact I greeted her with, “Great scot! Lyn, you do look a deadbeat.”

Fergus looked up at the same time, and swung round on me. There was cold fire in his eyes, and as his hand lifted, no man was ever nearer a sock on the jaw without actually getting it than I was at that moment. I gaped at them in turn. Lynda flushed, and put her hand gently on Fergus’ arm. Fergus growled in his throat inarticulately, still glaring. Then enlightenment slowly percolated to my understanding.

“You — you two —!” Even my dense mind could not mistake the expression in Lynda’s eyes as she looked at that bellicose Scot.

“If you hadn’t been utterly blind,” Lynda laughed, “you would not need telling.”

“And, maybe,” Fergus added with a grin, “ye wad no ha’ come so near a crackit on the nose. Deadbeat! An’ ye say that again ye’ll get it.”

“I apologise and withdraw unreservedly.” Mirth overcame me. “But how was I to know? When did it all happen?”

“Yesterday morning on the Georges River bridge while that dashed cruiser was shelling us.” It was Bob’s voice close behind us.

Lynda emitted a startled, “Oh!” Her flush deepened as she stared at Bob in embarrassed amazement.

He dropped an armful of wood. “I had to confess. It was the mirror. I happened to glance up as that shell hit the bridge behind us. Forgive?” He held out his hand with a disarming smile.

“You young devil!” said Lynda dispassionately. Then with a little lift of her head as she looked at Fergus. “Anyway, I’m proud of it.”

We shook hands all round, and I said to Fergus, “Well, of all the times to select for a proposal, I think yours was a record breaker.”

“Well!” he grinned. “I didn’t know where the next shell would land and I wanted to let her know.”

I turned to Bob. “All I can say is, there must be something in it. If a girl will accept a man looking like Fergus with four days’ growth of whiskers on him, she’s prepared for the worst.”

Fergus fingered his stubby chin. “It’s verra embarrassin’, Wally.”

Bob, who was on his knees making a fire, looked up. “Wally,” he said, “your sister says she wasn’t scared, but I know her heart was in her mouth all the time.”

“Fergus!” cried Lynda, her eyes dancing, “Give that young imp what you were going to give Wally.”

“We’ll do better,” Fergus took her hand. “We’ll leave them to get the breakfast,” and they turned their backs on us and strolled away.

Bob looked at his watch. “It’s not seven o’clock yet, we’ll give them half an hour.” And we did, but they took nearly an hour.

In the circumstances we had a lively meal. As Fergus pointed out, apart from his unusual wooing he had asked Lynda to marry him when his sole possessions were one shilling and the clothes he stood in, and they were, by then, nothing to boast about.

On the road again, Bob soon picked up the right track, and by a little after nine o’clock we were in Queanbeyan, and found the town excited, but otherwise normal. We heard that the enemy were in Lithgow on the previous night, and that Katoomba had been destroyed by fire, deliberately. But all the news was vague and unconfirmed. We waited long enough to have a much-needed shave and clean up, and procure some food. Here, too, Bob was able to refill our petrol tank.

Our decision to avoid Goulburn added more than 100 miles to our route. From Queanbeyan, our road described an exasperating letter N. We went nearly 70 miles south to Cooma. One hundred miles north-west to Tumut, and then 70 south again till we reached the Victorian border at Tintaldra. But one advantage of it was that the roads were almost clear of traffic. We were able to procure all the petrol we required, and by great luck Bob was able to buy three empty five-gallon drums, which we filled and stored in the luggage carrier as a reserve supply.

However, it was not until dusk that we arrived at Tintaldra on the Wednesday night. It was here for the first time since the previous Saturday we came on evidence of constituted authority. The crossing of the bridge, as were all other bridges along the border, was under strict official control. We were not prepared, however, for the congested traffic that filled the road from Albury. We found later that the stampede down the main highways had been so great that Albury, and, to some extent, the Hume Weir crossing, had been reserved for Government and military traffic. Refugee traffic had been diverted west to Corowa and Yarrawonga, and east as far as Tintaldra.

A small but efficient organisation took the names of car owners, number of passengers, and point of starting and destination of refugees. They were given a route to which they had to adhere. A warning was issued that no petrol could be purchased on the Victorian side, and that cars must be surrendered to the Government at their destination. Our orders were to go by Tallangatta, Myrtleford, and Whitfield to Mansfield, where we would be redirected.

By the time we had completed formalities, the bridge was closed for the night and would not be reopened until 6.30 next morning.

It was an uneasy night. There were more than 500 cars waiting to cross. The news that petrol could not be procured in Victoria spread dismay and flagrant dishonesty. Again and again uproar broke out through attempts at theft on petrol tanks. It was after a scratch meal of boiled eggs that Bob ran against the controller of the crossing and found in him an old friend. They paced up and down in earnest talk for half an hour.

Bob came back to the car, looking glum. Lynda demanded to be told the worst.

Seated on the running board to keep an eye on our petrol tank he repeated his tidings. His informant was an old friend of his family. “You might as well hear it now,” he said, “I’m afraid we’re scuppered. My friend, who is handling the road traffic between here and Corowa, tells me we have hardly a hope. They expect the enemy will be over the border by Sunday or Monday. They will probably wait until their artillery catches up with them. He hears we are not going to try to stop them until they are well into Victoria. They only allow Government traffic on the Hume Highway, and the cross roads are congested with stock they are driving off the enemy’s probable route. He says Albury is one seething lunatic asylum. The railway on both sides is choked with trains. They’re trying to get the refugees away. They’re coming in at the rate of 1,000 an hour. They’re sending the motor traffic along to Corowa, Yarrawonga and Tocumwal. Nothing but refugees and military supplies are allowed on the rails. There are thousands on foot crowding in by the roads — all destitute.”

“Sounds like a chapter from the Book of Job,” I remarked.

“That’s not all.” Bob went on, “The enemy are devastating and butchering in every town they enter. They are in Moss Vale now, coming down from Parramatta and some from Kembla.”

We had little rest that night. One of us was always on guard on the petrol tank. As I tried to settle down after my spell of watching, Fergus got into a heated argument with a prowler. An exchange of opprobrious remarks led to a scrimmage that drew not only me and Bob, but surrounding campers to the scene. We separated the combatants, and I recognised in the intruder a well-known Sydney stockbroker. When the confusion died down it was found that the tanks of two nearby cars had been emptied during their owners’ absence. Both owners went looking for my stockbroking acquaintance. After that brawls were unattended except by the principals.

It was just after 7 o’clock on Thursday morning that our car turned across the bridge behind another, loaded like a camel with the worldly goods of its owner. Before we left, a well-known Sydney stockbroker with a badly damaged face, was offering £5 a gallon for 20 gallons of petrol, and there were no takers.

Fortunately the weather held. Had we not known that that red war was behind us, and most likely in front, too, the run down to Mansfield would have made a delightful trip. Possibly Lynda and Fergus were the only two people on the road utterly contented with the present and oblivious of the future.

At Mansfield, which we reached by 1 o’clock, we found the residents polite but not cordial. They already had had some experience of refugees that did not make them popular as a class. Near the Kennedy memorial we found an official who gave us one hour to rest, and added directions that our route lay via Alexandra, Healesville, Coldstream and Ringwood. He warned us that any deviation would mean trouble. We were also told we were to drive direct to Albert Park on arrival, and surrender our car.

We accepted no more than 10 minutes of our hour of grace. Our own experience of refugees made us tolerant of Mansfield’s opinion of them. Thereafter, at each town beyond Alexandra, our passes were checked, and we were waved on our journey. As we followed the road among the hills we gradually came to the conclusion that Melbourne had “gone bush.” Everywhere a tent could be pitched or a camp made were families, who, having heard of what had happened to Sydney, had left Melbourne, encouraged by the authorities. On the road we passed scores of transport lorries that had been organised to bring supplies to the campers.

It was nearly 5 o’clock when we passed through Kew, and into the city by Bridge Road. To us, who had gone through those five days from Bloody Saturday, its peace and lack of apparent excitement seemed unreal. Shops were open. People seemed to be going about their business unconcerned. The trams ran as usual, and the evening crowds were converging on the Flinders Street Station. Here and there among the crowd we saw men in uniform. It was only in the freedom of the streets from traffic we saw the shadow from the north. Between Kew and the City we did not see half a dozen motor cars. As we turned from Flinders Street into St. Kilda Road people stared at our car and its New South Wales number. Twice we had been halted and our passes were examined.

Albert Park at last! South of the lake near the Middle Park Station, hundreds of cars were parked, and ours was directed to take its place among them. Here we alighted, stiff and tired. We were four fugitives. Except for Lynda, we had no clothes but those in which we stood. Our joint finances totalled £24. The authorities allowed us to take our food, but the little petrol left was commandeered.

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 101-126

Editor’s notes:
crackit = cracked (Scottish), broken, damaged; may also refer to someone who is “cracked in the head” (crazy, loony, mad); in the context of “a crackit on the nose” it refers to “a crack on the nose” (“a punch on the nose”), presumably based upon the idea that a hard enough punch would crack (or break) the cartilage of the nose

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
an’ (and)
crackit (cracked) [Scottish]
embarrassin’ (embarrassing)
guid (good) [Scottish]
ha’ (have) [Scottish]
no (not) [Scottish]
o’ (of)
thinkin’ (thinking)
t’wd (it would)
verra (very) [Scottish]
wad (would) [Scottish]
ye (you) [Scottish]
ye’ll (you will) [Scottish]

[Editor: Changed “We did not know it then, all” to “We did not know it then, but all” (as per the original story in The Argus, 11 November 1938, page 11); “Is this Sister Burton,” to “Is this Sister Burton?”; “Lord send the George’s River bridge is safe?” to “Lord send the George’s River bridge is safe,”; “attache” to “attaché”; “Neither of the four exclamations” to “None of the four exclamations”; “country side” to “countryside”; “off Princes Highway” to “off Prince’s Highway” (in line with the usage elsewhere in the book; see pages 106, 108); “Have you got that automatic.” to “Have you got that automatic?”; “more motor vehichles” to “more motor vehicles”; “Moss Vale as base” to “Moss Vale as a base”; “Forgive!” to “Forgive?”.]

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