Chapter 4 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

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

Chapter IV.

In our sorrows and tragedies, we humans are individualists. We can never enter into the feelings of another, neither can another enter ours. Each must sit alone in his own little hell. When I began to write this story intended to write every truth, however ghastly. I wanted to burn the story into the minds of all who read it; but when it comes to my own tragedy, I have not the courage, even after nine years, to go on. Even as I reached my home three pale and shaking friends tried to stop me. I will only say this about it. What was there could not be covered decently from human sight, and when I saw what was there I became sick. It was only one of the thousands similar tragedies of that day. Some infinitely worse! But in all the days that have passed since then — more than 3,000 days — those few moments of that day have been with me; their memory is indelible, and that is my curse.

However, I have neither the inclination nor the need to dwell on that one incident — a trifling incident of that day. When the first shock of the blow passed, with its stunned bewilderment, there came on me an urge for action. To stay near the spot was impossible. I put aside the offers of a home from friends, whose manifold anxieties were as heavy on them as my own tragedy. I determined to make back to the office. It was at this time about a quarter to one o’clock. I walked to the Spit Road to try to find means by which to get back to the city. In the mood I was in the thought of danger was not even remotely present. When I reached the intersection of Stanton Street, I paused. The confusion was at its height. There must have been thirty blazing homes in sight, and the thick black smoke was billowing up all round. Then I looked back. Out through the Heads, and about three miles off shore, steering north over still blue water, was a long line of great, squat, grey ships.

Here I must pause to explain what we only knew later. The first attack had been made by a squadron of ten cruisers, which directed part of their 6 inch gun fire on the thickly housed portions of the North Shore. Here Mosman and Cremorne had suffered more than Balmoral, where not more than 50 shells had fallen. In addition, the whole of Manly isthmus had been devastated. Bad as this was, it was slight compared with the appalling havoc that swept over Woollahra and Paddington on the South side, where the thickly-packed houses were plastered with flying death. There is no doubt that incendiary shells were being used, for scores of fires were blazing over the whole district, and there was no hope of checking them, for the reservoirs of the high level water system were emptied within an hour.

What I saw passing towards the north was the main battle fleet — moving unhindered from shore or air. Of the ten, six were 45,000 ton monsters — the first proof we had of the truth of the rumors that they were being built in defiance of the Washington Treaty. I stood watching the grim turreted monsters, fascinated. They were stripped bare for battle, and even at the distance I could see their hooded batteries were all swung outward. At the bow of each was a low white line of foam. How long I stared I do not know. Probably it was only a few minutes before suddenly, the whole line was momentarily hidden by a billowing, black, thunder cloud of smoke that burst from each broadside. Then came the deafening detonation of that fleet salvo. There was an appreciable pause before I heard the echoes of the explosion of the shells come in, booming, from the city.

I did not realise it then; but at the moment nearly 100 16-inch shells had swept from the sky and burst in the heart of the crowded city. The smoke of the salvo had cleared almost immediately, though a dim mist veiled the gray hulls. Then the ships began independent firing by turrets. Why? Later that day I knew. In the midst of the horror that had been the city I came on a blue jacket from the Canberra. He had been on shore leave. Said he, “Believe me, mister, the cows had someone ashore spotting for them. I was down at Fort Macquarie waiting to go off, and, you could see them feeling for the Canberra, till they got her. They couldn’t ha’ done it any other way. And when they found her they smothered her with heavy stuff. She’d dropped her mooring, and was under way, but they got her all the same. She didn’t have a dog’s show. Something must ha’ got one of the magazines. The explosion sat me back hard on the pavement.”

[Burton’s blue jacket was right in his guess. Marsden, in his “Australian Tragedy,” has it on the authority of the naval officers of the Paramount Power that they had more than 50 fixed and portable wireless stations on shore in communication with their fleet. The portable stations were on covered motor lorries which kept to the high ground overlooking the harbour and city. These spotted for the gunners, and directed the fire. In the chaos that reigned on September 23, there was no risk attaching to these agents. These wireless stations were never really eradicated, though most of them were detected and destroyed eventually. But until the end, the naval arm was kept fully informed of troop movements. These stations account for the frightful accuracy of the fire on “Bloody Saturday,” and for the irreparable damage that was done. — Eds.]

As I stood watching, a car pulled up beside me. In it was a man I knew well, Jeff Gage. He sprang out. He was almost incoherent from anxiety. He had been out fishing, and had hurried back at the sound of the first bombing. He had just reached home to learn that his wife and two daughters had gone into the city. I warned him that the chance of getting through was slight, but that I would gladly go with him. Gage had, apparently, not heard of my loss, but was too preoccupied with his own trouble to notice my silence. It was a nightmare drive. Behind us all the time we heard the crash of the great guns from the sea, which were echoed by the explosion of the shells in the city, from which dense smoke was rising. We went by back streets as the tram line was practically impassable.

Eventually when we reached the Pacific Highway and tried to turn south to the Harbour Bridge, we found the road blocked by a dense volume of outward bound motor traffic, frantic with haste, which would stop for no man. We had to leave the car, and move on foot as best we could. It was a risky walk, because in their panic the cars were taking the footpaths. No man stopped for word with his fellows. Near Mount Street we came on a solitary policeman who was seeing more traffic violations in a minute than he had seen before in his life. But he was sticking to his post. He warned us that we were mad to go on, and that the city was in ruins. So far as he knew the Bridge had not been hit or the road traffic would have stopped. He told us he had tried to get news by telephone, but could tell us of nothing but what had passed before his eyes.

By this time Gage was almost frantic with anxiety. My attempts to try and reassure him that his people might have already got away were useless. Suddenly the motor traffic thinned out. It was only then we noticed what should have attracted our attention before: there were no people on foot coming from the city. We hurried on towards the Bridge. As we approached we could see that it was still intact. The firing had died down. It had taken us nearly an hour to cover the mile from where we left the car to the bridge head. It was absolutely deserted. When, between running and trotting, we were half way across we saw the reason for the desertion. A shell, probably intended for the bridge itself, had completely wrecked the steel approach between the pylons and the causeway. Beside the wreckage a block of buildings in Lower Fort Street was burning furiously. Behind, vast clouds of smoke were rising above the city, and were blotting out the sun.

When we reached the spot the spectacle was sickening. Among the wreckage, and beyond on the unbroken bridge, were remains of motor cars and humanity that had been caught by the blast of the explosion. We were able, however, to crawl down among the broken decking, and reach the ground near the Mining Museum, where George Street turns under the bridge.

Here we paused to discuss our plans. I had no heart for anything. To me, even the destruction in the city was at the moment a lesser event than my own grief. I was ready to fall in with anything Gage wished, to take my mind off my own troubles. Finally we decided to try to reach the Town Hall, where perhaps there might be some kind of organisation. I looked at my watch, and it was then ten minutes past three, but it seemed three days since I had parted from Don Ringfield.

From where we stood, except for the wreckage behind us there was no sign of the effect of the bombardment, the thick smoke that overhung the city hid everything. Just as we turned to go we were halted by the sound of planes racing towards us. Turning, we saw them in wedge formations of five. There were five of them, flying at not more than 2,000 feet, as though to show their contempt. I don’t think Gage knew he was shaking his fist at them and cursing them. From somewhere came a clear bark of a gun, and we saw the burst of a shell among them. That was the first shot of defence that had been fired. There were a dozen or fifteen bursts, very close, but the planes were passing almost overhead before the smoke of the shells drifted away.

We turned and hurried towards the city. We had not gone 200 yards when we heard the crash of explosions behind us. “They’re after the Cockatoo dock,” gasped Gage. But we knew later they had other targets. They were bombing the great fuel tanks belonging to the oil companies on Ballast Point, and Berry’s Bay. Again and again came the crash of their devastation that turned the harbour beyond the Bridge into an inferno as thousands of gallons of flaming oil spread from the wrecked tanks over the water, and blotted out land and water alike under rolling masses of black smoke.

The desertion of the street was its strangest feature. Four trams stood in a line, empty, opposite the Mining Museum. It was not until we reached the intersection of Harrington Street that we encountered a human being. Here a well-dressed man stood beside a car in which was a young woman, evidently in a state of collapse. With him were a dozen men, apparently labourers. They were talking in low voices as we joined them. One was saying, “But where are our fighting planes, even if they have knocked out the guns?” They took little or no notice of our arrival.

Gage asked if the way were open towards the Town Hall. One of them said, “You might get as far as Grosvenor Street, boss, but unless you’re thinking of suicide you won’t go any further.”

The car owner put in, “I’ve tried every way, and they’re all blocked.”

“Are the ferries running?” I asked.

One of the men spat and laughed shortly. “There’s nothing running in Sydney but the people who had the luck to get while the going was good, and I’ll bet they’re running yet.” Then he added, “Wish I’d the luck to be with them.”

While we were speaking the planes came overhead again through the smoke. They made towards Double Bay, evidently to avoid the anti-aircraft gun. In a minute or two they were invisible in the smoke towards Bondi.

“What about Macquarie Street?” asked Gage.

The car owner looked over his shoulder at the moaning figure huddled in the back seat. “I tried that,” he said in a low voice. “Thousands of people made out of the side streets into the Botanic Gardens and the Domain. Twenty or thirty of the big shells burst over and among them.” He passed his hand over his eyes. “It’s a shambles. God! It’s awful! They are spread out in masses, and the injured are shrieking. The Mitchell Library and Parliament House escaped, but one wing of the hospital is down, and the State Insurance building and the Law Courts are flat. There isn’t a building standing on the West side of the street.”

Gage turned to me. “I am going to try for the Town Hall by way of Clarence Street; we might get through.”

I nodded. It was a matter of indifference to me.

One of the men called out as we turned away. “You’re a pair of lunatics. You won’t get through.”

We hurried along Harrington Street, meeting only a few people who scuttled by and who took no notice of us. As we went the smoke grew denser. As we reached Wynyard Square, and turned up to York Street, we could see it ablaze from end to end. People lying on the pavement by St. Phillips Church cried to us for help, but we pressed on.

Gage’s had been a good guess. Clarence Street seemed clear, but it was a mad journey. Between Barrack Street and Market Street, there were burning buildings on both sides, and we were almost suffocated by smoke. Three times we had to scramble over piles of fallen masonry. Again and again we encountered what had been human beings. At King Street there had evidently been a traffic jam, because a tangled mass, the remains of motor cars and trams, was still smouldering, where a shell burst had hurled them into a common chaos. It took us a quarter of an hour to pass over the dreadful heap of debris. And from the sounds we knew many people were still alive and suffering among it.

Gage’s instinct served him well, because a little after four o’clock we reached Druitt Street, to find the Town Hall miraculously untouched. St. Andrew’s also seemed to have escaped damage.

After the horrible experience of our journey, the peace of the Town Hall seemed almost too good to be true. In the vestibule there were thirty or forty men in small groups. They were all talking quietly, but with intense earnestness. I left Gage to his own devices for I felt sure I could be of no help. Actually, I heard later that he had recovered his family two days afterward at Katoomba. From what I heard in the following January, I feel he would have been happier if they had been among those lucky ones who were under the ruins of the city.

In the little groups I recognised many a good man. I felt that here would be the beginning of order from the chaos around. Talking to a Supreme Court Judge, who was taking notes, was the chief of police, who was smothered in dust, and had one hand tied up in a handkerchief. There were lawyers, business men, and three doctors of fame. Turning, to my satisfaction my eyes fell on Don Ringfield and the Dinker. They, too, had seen me, and left their group.

Don was about to make some jest, but I think he read my face. He got as far as “Did you ——?” and stopped awkwardly. I shook my head.

“I was too late, Don.” I was able to keep my voice steady.

They looked at one another. “They’re ——” Everything was in the word the Dinker spoke.

“One of the first shells,” I replied.

Thank goodness they understood, and did not try to say anything. The hands they gave me were enough.

By a common consent we turned from the subject. “How about the office?” I asked.

The Dinker summoned up a twisted grin. “Our jobs and the office vanished together. Don and I missed vanishing with them by a cat’s whisker.”

“It must have been hell!” I commented.

“Wally,” said Don, “I don’t know what you’ve seen, but just before the first salvo arrived, the streets were a packed mass of milling, panic-stricken people mixed up with the motor and tram traffic. And then it seemed as though a hundred earthquakes struck in.”

“They didn’t fall straight,” Dinker explained. “They came at an angle, and mostly burst low down throwing the walls out on the struggling mass of human life.”

“How on earth did you escape’?” I asked.

“That was The Dinker’s inspiration,” Don answered, “We were dodging walls, and trying to keep our feet, when we came to where the Mayfair Theatre had been. Dink said they didn’t hit twice in the same place, and we went and sat on a hill of wreckage till it stopped.”

“Did you know Mosman and Darlinghurst and Paddington are blazing’?” I asked.

The Dinker nodded. “We just heard, but there is worse than that,” he added.

“How worse?” I demanded.

“It’s been a hellishly clever job. The Richmond Aerodrome was washed up with time bombs just as the Hawkesbury Bridge was, about 5 o’clock. There is only one plane left fit for service. All the water is cut off from the Prospect Reservoir, and the entire sewerage service is out of commission.”

“And one of the first things they did was to scupper the Bunnerong electricity works. Blew it to a scrap heap in ten minutes,” added Don.

“Mason, the Chief Secretary, was telling us, too, that at Canberra they’re in no end of a stew because since last night they can get no communication of any kind either from West Australia or Darwin.”

“Any news from outside?” I asked.

“Nothing, so we hear,” Don said. “Great Scot! We seem to be mopped up without a hit back.”

We stared at one another helplessly. In reply to my question, The Dinker told me that the Lord Mayor and the Premier were in conference on some plan to organise Red Cross work, and aid for the homeless. There must be thousands of injured here and in the suburbs untended. Then there would also be the necessity of recovering bodies, and preventing looting. “There is some form of sanitary system to be organised or we’ll have the place rotten with disease,” he added.

Here Mason passed again, and told Dink that Melbourne was untouched, and that the R.A.F. from Point Cook was on its way here.

“Well,” I said, “I came in to offer for any job as long as it’s work — sanitary if they like.”

“We’re with you, Wally; let’s hang round till something starts.”

Almost at the same moment the building shook to the crash of an explosion, and the shelling recommenced.

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 39-48

[Editor: Changed “checknig them” to “checking them”. Added a closing quotation mark after “out of commission.”.]

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