Chapter 6 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

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

Chapter VI.

It was about time some strong authority had taken over. While many people returned to help, those ghouls that infest every community also put in an appearance, robbing the dead and looting. Some worked in groups, and there were some unclean episodes when they were interfered with. Lives had been lost on both sides. Had I been told on the Friday that on Monday I should kill a man with a brick and feel better for it, I should have regarded the suggestion as more improbable even than libellous. Yet on three occasions on the Monday Fergus and I came on isolated vermin, redhanded. It was dirty work, but we did not hesitate. Fergus proved to be a purposeful man with his hands. Our efforts at summary justice seemed both natural and quite in order. I remember well how pleased we were to guide a young officer in charge of a squad of men to where we knew a gang of the brutes were working. I do not know what his orders were, but when he had rounded them up the proceedings were wholly informal, but entirely satisfactory from our point of view. We found them in the remains of a lane off Pitt Street. There must have been £20,000 of jewellery in their clothes that the sergeant collected before the final ceremony.

The coming of the military power, with martial law to back it, ended that first phase so far as Fergus and I were concerned. It also brought order where chaos had reigned.

During Sunday and Monday rumour of fantastic dimension had been rife. During that time we had not slept, unless we slept on our feet. The only pause in our heartbreaking job was to snatch meals that some splendid women had prepared for the Red Cross workers. We were too weary and too indifferent to trouble about news. There were no newspapers anyway. It was not until the Tuesday morning that I saw a Melbourne newspaper at the Town Hall, and learned of the catastrophes in the interval.

It appears that after the first bombardment of Sydney, the enemy fleet had divided, leaving a force outside Sydney Harbour sufficient to hold our naval units there. One squadron had gone North with one of two aircraft carriers.

Newcastle had been warned, and Fort Scratchley was on the alert. There was no surprise, therefore, when about five o’clock in the afternoon the roar of approaching bombing planes came in from the east. Then followed the first real fighting. One squadron of Air Force planes from Brisbane took on the overwhelming number of the attacking force, while the second dashed to attack the fleet that lay in waiting some fifteen miles out to sea. This move drew off part of the attack, and the anti-aircraft guns of the Fort got their chance.

It was a hopeless fight against numbers. Between the aircraft and the guns they accounted for eleven enemy planes. But only two units from our two squadrons returned after discharging their bombs and exhausting their machine gun ammunition. The Fort that had got the range of the fleet, began firing, and the fleet responded. But with the air opposition gone, the enemy planes, aided by the fire from the sea, smothered the fort with high explosive shells and gas. In less than twenty minutes from the first shot it was over, and the grim fleet stood in towards the shore. But there was one cruiser missing. That was the only loss admitted by the enemy, though one of the battleships was damaged.

Then as night began to fall there took place a repetition of the disaster at Sydney. The fleet stood off some five miles from Nobby’s Head, and began a slow deliberate fire with but one objective — the Broken Hill Proprietary’s great steel works, and those adjoining it. For half an hour 16, 12 and 6 inch shells crashed down on the doomed area. Recognising what was coming the management had withdrawn all men from the mills so that the loss of life was nil. But by dark the plant that had cost £14,000,000 was not worth that many pence.

We in the camp here at Carrington know how effective that bombardment had been. Four years later the Paramount Power put us on to clean up the mess and salvage what was left before they re-erected the mills. The only satisfaction we got out of it was in hearing their engineers curse their Navy for the thoroughness of the job. But at the time it meant that the second largest steel works in the British Empire was in ruins and useless — one of the principal sources of Australia’s steel had gone.

While the bombardment was going on, four destroyers separated from the fleet and ran for Port Hunter. They turned into the channel with the familiarity of a man entering his own home. Then — it was an act of patriotic folly — the Newcastle battalion of infantry began to rake the decks of the destroyers with rifle fire and machine-gun fire from behind the King’s wharf and the coal shoots on the water front. Swinging their guns inshore the destroyers blazed into the town as they passed further into the basin for room to manouevre. Here, raking the wharf with machine guns and the town with their 18 pounders, they turned and ran the gauntlet again for the open sea. Fifteen minutes later the planes were back again, and, aided by the guns from the cruisers that had stood away to the north, firing over the breakwater, they devastated the town and the water front.

Dusk was falling as the destroyers returned, none saying them nay. They took possession of a loaded oil tanker that had arrived that morning, and was lying close to the Dyke. The tanker was evidently the reason for their incursion. One remained in the fairway, the second appeared to be arranging for the destruction of two colliers, while the remaining pair ranged up beside the tanker. Then retribution overtook them. From somewhere near Adamstown, a battery of field artillery came into action, ranging on the destroyer in the fairway, which was struck by four out of six shells. A second salvo put her out of control, and as she drifted towards the Ferry wharf the second hastened to her aid and drew the entire fire of the hidden battery, the observers for which were giving the range to a yard. Both vessels were replying at random, but the two working on the tanker took no notice. The second destroyer ceased firing and bent all her energies on attempting to take the damaged consort in tow, when with a roar that shook the burning town she blew up.

Even then the two at the tanker did not relinquish their efforts. Their aim was to get it out under its own power, but this was frustrated by the battery turning its guns on the three vessels. A moment later the tanker was ablaze, and, as one of the destroyers shot from behind her, making for the channel, the second could be seen making desperate efforts to release herself from her now terrible charge. Again the battery changed its target for that dashing to make its escape. Luck favoured the fugitive, and in a few minutes it disappeared in the dusk, followed by a savage but ineffective fire. Cascading flames from the tanker enveloped the last of the three doomed invaders. Several men were seen to spring overboard, but the ebbing tide drew them towards the entrance. Ten minutes later she, too, blew up beside the tanker, in a tornado of flame that deluged the wharves and harbour for hundreds of yards round. Next morning seventeen survivors from the first destroyer surrendered, and were saved from being lynched by an infuriated people only by rigorous action by the military authorities.

But three destroyers and eleven fighting planes was a small price for the raiders to pay for the irreparable damage they had inflicted on the chief defence industry of the Commonwealth.

I may say here that some of the first scrap steel we used in the new works for the open hearth furnaces some six years later was that taken from the wreck of the first destroyer, which sank near Stockton Ferry.

That night not a light was shown on the Australian coast. All shipping within range that had not been snapped up by the enemy had been warned of the danger. But there was evidence of enemy destroyers close inshore during the darkness, and that the fleet still watched outside. Nevertheless, the two divisions must have changed stations, because by morning it was the main battle fleet that appeared on the horizon off Port Kembla at daylight.

That the attack would be made was recognised by the authorities as inevitable. Without a gun to protect it, Kembla was naked to the open sea. Along its front were placed the vitally important non-ferrous metal works and the plant of the great Australian Steel Works, second only to those of Newcastle. With these out of the picture the Commonwealth’s greatest sources of munitions would be cut off. At Illawarra Lake sea planes lay waiting, and at a temporary aerodrome a few miles behind the lake, a score of bombers had taken up a position.

Before dawn a seaplane, reconnoitring, discovered the enemy fleet steaming slowly without lights some twenty miles from the shore, and slightly to the north east of the Port. The first advantage of surprise had been lost to the raiders. For this reason they had stationed their plane carrier some 20 miles to eastward. Knowing their presence had been detected, and that the sole attack could come from the air, the fleet, in line ahead, made full speed to come within range by daylight. The message from the scout sent thirty aircraft, ranging for elevation, from the lake and the aerodrome. Doubtless the fleet had sent similar orders to its air support, and at the same time the aircraft from the battleships and cruisers took wing! In the growing light the air was throbbing with the drone of propellers.

Then the cruisers, rushing shoreward in broken formation, picked up the headland and opened fire. Almost simultaneously, the battle in the air began. Evidently the ranges were being passed back to the battleships, which, through the hurricane of conflict above and the explosion of bombs around them, turned their great guns shoreward. Over and short at first, the earlier salvoes blasted the town and harbour, but the growing light and shortening range made the target a certain mark for the gunners.

Volcanoes of smoke and flames rose from among the buildings along the water front, and shattered the beautiful machinery of the non-ferrous works on which so much depended. This was the source of all copper and brass work for munitions, and of all our insulated cable and telephone wires essential to field communication. To the right a hurricane of destruction fell upon the steel mills. With their main batteries and their anti-aircraft guns blazing and indifferent to turmoil of wing overhead, the raiding fleet carried out its work of devastation. One cruiser close inshore was sinking by the head, and a second was drifting out of control enveloped in smoke. From the shore a light breeze was carrying the thick black smoke to sea. Plane after plane plunged downward from above, spinning behind it a streak of flame and smoke as it crashed into the sea. A blast of fire sprang from the bows of one of the battleships where a bomb struck her. She turned out of the fight to the east. Immediately afterwards in response to orders, the fleet turned away at full speed for the east, while the destroyers emitted a smoke screen that surrounded them. Before they left the destroyers made desperate efforts to reach the burning cruiser, but finally turned away after picking up the men who, evidently by order, had abandoned her. Five minutes later her decks and guns roared skyward, and when the smoke cleared the hull had disappeared. No doubt the explosion was deliberately caused to prevent her from falling into our hands.

It was small satisfaction to Australia that 15 enemy aircraft and two cruisers had been the price of the raid, at a loss of one seaplane and two bombers. The real loss had been in the wrecked and chaotic mass that had been, an hour earlier, among our most valuable essential possessions. Within 24 hours from the outbreak of the raid Sydney had been devastated with appalling slaughter, and our three most important industrial undertakings, on which so many others depended for material, were obliterated. Relying on the surprise of a bolt from the blue, the enemy had succeeded in striking a paralysing blow. From that moment the Commonwealth had become something akin to those garden spiders that are collected by wasps as food for their larvae — with their nerve centres deadened alive, but incapable of escape.

It was our misfortune that our essential needs of metals and fuel had been concentrated in a comparatively small area of the great continent. Its seaboard was that stretch of 150 miles between Newcastle in the north and Kiama to the south. It was doubly vulnerable to attack because the needs of settlement and the topography of the country caused railways and arterial roads to run parallel with the coast, and because in scores of places inviting beaches and sheltered harbours, difficult to protect, invited the attacker. Such an area demanded the protection of a fleet strong enough to hold the coast from Cape York downward, backed by a land force of comparatively equal strength. That the enemy were thoroughly aware of the strategic importance of the area was demonstrated by the foresight and swiftness that marked that first day’s raid. For years, with childish disingenuousness, we had laid our weakness bare to all comers. Guide books, with copious details of roads and communications of every kind were offered as a gift to save a prospective invader the trouble of making his own maps. At the same time, air transport offered agreeable facilities for a more thorough photographic survey. Our attackers were as fully armed with the necessary topographical information as we ourselves were. With few exceptions the press and Parliament had kept them posted on details of armament.

What had not been publicly disclosed was evidently easy of access, as the first bombing raids on the Sydney forts testified. “They came in,” said. one survivor, “and picked out the emplacements as though they were at home, and had laid out the batteries themselves.”

But while the enemy had been striking to stun the country with shock temporarily, the fourth blow had also been delivered. The news spread that a landing in force had been effected at Port Stephen early on the Monday morning. And that explained in part what had happened to the Hawkesbury Bridge.

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 56-63

[Editor: Changed “in tornado” to “in a tornado”.]

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