One of the strange and incomprehensible features of that first day is, that though I have prayed to forget the events of the afternoon, and cannot, I can remember so little of its earlier hours — those last uncounted hours of happiness for such a host of human beings. There seems to be a chasm of one moment between two eras — one second of time, but worlds apart. To show how little we value the gifts of peace, let me number the little handful of little daily things that I remember of the last six hours — then weigh them against the rest of my story.
Saturday, September 23, 1939, now known as “Bloody Saturday,” was one of those perfect spring days that only Sydney can show. It was warm without being hot. There was scarcely a breath of wind and the sky was cloudless. I was down on the duty book to do a meeting in the Domain on Sunday afternoon, so I had my Saturday free. I cannot remember bathing, shaving or breakfast. I must have dawdled a good deal because I know I had to hurry when I left home. I had made an appointment at the office with Max Peters, who was giving me some standard roses, and I was to meet him at 10.30. Gwen was quite excited about them. She was washing the baby as I rushed out of the house pulling on my coat. As I reached the door she called out to me to bring home some talcum powder. It was then just about 10 o’clock, and I had no time to spare. I cannot even remember what frock she was wearing or what we talked about at breakfast, the last time — but one — I saw her. The 25 minutes run into the city to Wynyard is a complete blank. The day had brought out an unusual crowd even for Saturday morning, and it took me ten minutes to get across to the office in Castlereagh Street.
The usual Saturday quiet of a morning daily enveloped the building. Our floor, the third, was dead. In the subs’ room I found Don Ringfield, our deputy chief of staff and our police roundsman, Billings, motionless, and intent on something on Don’s table on which I threw my hat. Billings roared at me like the Bull of Bashan for a clumsy so and so nark. It appeared that my condemned hat had cost him sixpence. They were shooting flies with rubber bands at one shilling a pair. Honours were even, and I had ruined Billing’s chance for a sitting shot. Come to think of it, their pastime reflected the state of the collective mind of the Commonwealth at the moment.
The next shooting both of them indulged in was not done with rubber bands, nor were flies their target.
I asked if Max had come in. Said Don with a wide derisive grin, “No roses for you this morning my boy. Your little playmate has gone out to the Hawkesbury on a job. Before he went — I rang him up — he explained that you would be expecting him.”
“Why the Hawkesbury?” I asked.
“Well,” Don drawled, “It appears, from information received, that some warped genius has blown up the railway bridge.”
“Cut out the rotting, Don,” I felt a little nettled. “What’s it all about?”
Don was one of those exasperating men who adopt a pose of never being interested or moved by any event however unusual. He picked up a paper and glanced over it. “According to our correspondent at Brooklyn,” he drawled, “at five ten this morning two spans at each end went sky high from their piers. That makes four spans out of seven — I should say the bridge is a washout.”
“Rot!” I exclaimed. “Why should anyone want to blow up the Hawkesbury bridge?”
“That, my young friend, is just what I have sent Max Peters, plus a photographer, to find out. Any objections?” He replaced the telegram on his table.
“It’s a preposterous yarn,” was my comment.
“Strange to say,” replied Don, “I’m inclined to agree with you. So does Max for that matter. The language he used when I sent him out was enough to blow up the Harbour Bridge.”
“Don’t blame him,” I said. “Did you ring The Dinker?” The Dinker was our chief, and one who did not suffer fools gladly.
Don regarded me with a pained expression. “Wally, the Dinker is away hacking out divots on the Killara Club greens. Can you imagine what he would say if I called him in to tell him someone had blown up the Hawkesbury railway bridge? Be your age, laddie.”
“It would be a bit thick,” I laughed. “Anyway the evening rags will get the cream of it if it’s true.”
“My idea exactly,” Don nodded, “so why worry?”
Just then Billings, who had left the room while we were talking, exploded back again. “Look here, Don,” he barked. “I wish you would get one of the intellectuals to card the hide off the Water Board. The taps in the lav. are dry.”
“’Orrible disaster!” sneered Don. “You don’t wash and you never drink water. Body o’ me! What you got to howl about? Go and buy yourself a beer!”
I left them to it. It was, I thought, thank goodness none of my business. It must then have been about 11 o’clock. What I did for the next half hour I cannot remember. I know I bought the talcum powder. The next thing I remember was that I was walking just below Hunter Street in George Street.
Then it happened.
The whole city seemed to tremble from one roar of explosion. It was a crash that drowned the roar of traffic for a second. I can still see how the entire pedestrian traffic stopped dead in its tracks. Everyone was staring a question at his neighbour. A young fellow close to me said, “Gosh! That sounds like a powder magazine!”
An older man, wide eyed, retorted, “Magazine be blowed! That was an air bomb, and a dashed big one, too. I heard scores of them in China last year.”
Even as he spoke there came two more, almost together. A pause, and then crash! crash! a dozen times in succession followed by a prolonged roar.
Intuition, a pressman’s instinct, something clicked in my mind, and connected the Hawkesbury bridge with the riot. There was a taxi passing slowly. I sprang on to the footboard, and shouted at the driver, “Express office! Castlereagh Street! Drive like blazes!”
The whole city seemed rocking as I slipped in beside the driver. He went into Hunter Street on two wheels. The turn into Pitt Street almost dislocated my neck. We were blocked for a minute at the Market Street turn, but I don’t think it took much more than three minutes before I was going up the office stairs three steps at a time.
Don Ringfield was alone in the subs’ room. For once his pose of indifference had dropped. His face was white, and he was speaking in jerks. As I broke into the room he held up his hand to silence my question.
I heard, “Yes! yes! Are you sure? Five squadrons of seven each! Yes! Both of them?” His eyes registered bewildered consternation. “You saw the marks? Positive it was a red diamond in a black square? Good God, no! They couldn’t! Impossible!” There was a pause, and Don broke in again. “But Ted, that’s crazy; they must have come from somewhere! Yes! Yes! All right! I’m afraid so! Ring again the moment you see anything!” He slammed down the receiver, and sat staring at me with a dead white face between his hands.
“For the love o’ mike, Don, spill it!” I demanded.
“Wally,” he said, and his voice was hoarse, “Unless my brother Ted has gone completely bughouse, thirty-five big monoplanes have blown in from nowhere, and blasted the forts at the Heads out of existence.”
“How from nowhere? It sounds crazy.”
“He says they came straight in from dead east. He saw them come. There is not a ship in sight on the horizon. They were flying low over the water, and only took elevation about a mile out. They seemed to know every gun emplacement, and fairly plastered them with bombs. Then they turned, and went back the way they came. He says there isn’t a whole pane of glass left in Manly.”
“Did you say a red diamond on a black square?” I said breathlessly.
“And that means ——!”
“It does my boy, and it means there’s a fleet waiting below the horizon, and we’re for it.” He sat drumming with his fingers on the edge of the table.
“That accounts for the Hawkesbury bridge,” I muttered.
Don stared at me without answering. Then suddenly he jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “Great scot! the water! Do you know anyone in the Water Board Office?”
I grabbed the telephone and dialled as well as my shaking fingers would let me. I almost squealed with impatience at the delay in getting my man. When I heard his voice, I said, “Burton, Express here, Williams, what’s the dope about there being no water in the taps?”
“How on earth did you hear about it?” the voice demanded.
“Come clean!” I managed to laugh.
“Well, the ‘Herald’ has it, too! Every one of the 72 inch mains from Prospect Reservoir was blasted out in three places beyond the Liverpool Road early this morning. There’s hell to pay here.”
“Nothing to what there’s going to be,” I said as I hung up.
As I broke the news to Don he looked round the room, and said, “Well Wally, we’re having a very nice day for it, whatever it may be. I suppose we carry on nobly — two blinkin’ Casabiancas!”
“Rule me out for five minutes and then I’m with you.” I picked up the telephone and dialled my home. Gwen herself, eager and anxious, answered. I cut short her excited questions about the explosions. “Listen, Gwen,” I said earnestly, “Get the car out. Don’t stop to pack, but throw anything you value that is small into the back seat. Take some milk and clothes for Bunty and yourself, and then get away as soon as you can. Go through French’s Forest to Hornsby. Don’t mind speed limits. Dodge back from Hornsby by the Galston Road to Windsor. Wait there, and I’ll try to get to you.”
“Afraid the city will be bombarded. Don’t go near it for a short cut. Don’t go near it on any account. Have you any money?”
“Yes, about seven pounds, but what about you?”
“Don’t ask questions. Get to it. I’ll join you as soon as I can. Promise, Gwen!”
“All right. But are you sure?”
“Hope I’m wrong. But hurry and don’t talk.” I cut her off to ensure her obedience.
Said Don as I turned round, “Thank God I’m a bachelor, and all my people are at Yass, except Ted.” As he was speaking, the ’phone rang again. He beat me in the grab for it.
I watched the tense expression on his face as he listened after saying, “Yes, Ted.” It was his brother again. Presently he snapped “Can’t you make out their number?” “Certain to be!” “Less than half an hour!” “God only knows.” “I would if I were you.” “Get while the going’s good.” He hung up and said, “There’s a whole mob of ships coming over the horizon. Can’t make out how many. Ted’s going to do a bunk. Don’t blame him!”
We looked blankly at one another. “Great Scot!” I said. “If they start shooting into the city! It’s absolutely packed with people ——”
“Yes, and it won’t take them much more than half an hour to get in range,” Don jerked out. “We might warn them.”
“Someone’s sure to be doing it! The evening papers will have out extraordinaries,” I said. “Try the wireless stations and the Town Hall.”
We each took a telephone, but it was no use. Every number we tried was engaged — Parliament House among them. It was a good sign. Someone must be hard at it. I may say here that although it was barely 12 o’clock, the news was spreading like wild fire. Both the Government and the Town Hall had ordered all broadcasting stations to keep repeating an appeal to empty the city as soon as possible.
My anxiety about Gwen and Bunty increased. I wanted to make sure she had got away. I told Don — and added that if they bombarded the city the odds were against any newspapers coming out. Anyway I would come back and chance it after I had been home.
We made the office the rendezvous, and I left, Don saying he would stick it out, whatever might come.
When I reached the street it looked more like a disturbed ant hill than anything else. There was panic in the air, but the beginning of it only. Though the warnings were being broadcast, they had barely begun to take effect. But when I turned into Martin Place on my way to the Wynyard station, the confusion was apparent. I stopped for nothing, though excited voices were rising round me. I felt if the crowd once began to surge into the streets progress would be impossible. Remember, it was not much more than fifteen minutes since the sound of the first bombing had died down. It was not until I reached George Street, and was within 50 yards of the station that I encountered the first definite warning. A newsboy was running along the opposite foot path with a news placard: WARNING! — EVACUATE CITY!! — HURRY!!! As his message caught my eye he decided to take his own advice, for he dropped his placard and sprang for a west bound tram.
By good luck, as I dodged through the fast-growing crowd in the underground entrance, I found a Spit tram on the point of starting. It was filled almost to capacity with an excited crowd of passengers, few of whom seemed to know or realise what had happened. As we passed out of the tunnel on to the Harbour Bridge, I turned my eyes down toward the Heads. The Harbour was flooded with sunshine. The whole scene was as quiet and untroubled as always — serene, peaceful and beautiful. Close to Garden Island I saw one of the cruisers, probably the Adelaide, but not the Canberra. Three destroyers were behind the island. A motor pinnace with a foaming wake was making towards the cruiser, and the last thing I noticed was a hoist of signal flags on her mast.
Never did a tram seem to move so slowly as that I had boarded. It stopped at every halt, and it was blocked by an increasing number of motor cars making towards the city. But even so the scene did not seem to warrant the sense of desperate anxiety that came over me. I was mentally calculating the possibilities, and the length of time to spare before the attack could come within range. Not for one minute did I doubt that it was coming. All the way I was turning my eyes back over the city wondering why no planes of ours were on their way. Still I hoped that we had an hour of grace.
When it came the shock was physical. We had just reached Cremorne junction when, from over the Clontarf rise, there came a series of sharp detonations, followed almost instantly by smashing explosions apparently close ahead of us. The tram halted with a jerk. There were not more than a dozen passengers left. A woman began to scream. We jumped off into the street. The explosions continued, and smoke began to rise over the houses in the distance. As we stood there was a series of terrific bursts among the massed dwellings of Cremorne and Mosman.
Everyone seemed to be yelping at the motor man or the conductor. The street was full of excited people shouting at one another. I pressed to the front of the car and begged the motor man to go on.
He cried out, “What’s it all about What’s happening?”
“War!” I shouted back. We could hardly make our voices heard. “It’s a Cambasian fleet! They’ll be shelling the city soon.”
He cried back an utterly unprintable comment on the ancestry of all Cambasians. Then, “I’ll take this car to the Spit if you men are game to come.” We all began to scramble on board again. The tram started with a jolt, and raced towards Spit Junction.
There was a pause in the infernal racket of explosions. But it broke out again just as we turned into Spit Road, but the tram sped on until, just before we reached Awaba Street it stopped dead. The conductor who had gone forward to the front of the car called out, “No good, gents., the overhead wires have been busted somewhere.”
I was down in a second and began running towards Stanton Street. Overhead something screeched and hooted, and I heard another series of crashes towards Cremorne.
Thick clouds of smoke drifting up from Balmoral Heights rowelled me on. Panic stricken women and children were in the street or their gardens. There was a little crowd staring blankly at the remains of a shattered house that had been blown half across the road. I scrambled over broken bricks and splintered fence and ran on. I passed a score of people running towards me, but just as I turned into Staton Street my arm was caught by a man whose face was half masked with blood.
For the moment I did not recognise him. But when he called my name, I knew it was Bob Hicks, the odd job man who came to tidy up my garden every Saturday.
“Bob! What’s happened? Are you hurt?” I gasped.
“Only a little cut, sir,” he replied. “It looks worse than it is.”
“My wife, Bob! Did she get away?” I pulled my arm from his grasp and began to run.
He caught it again and held me. “For God’s sake, Mr. Burton, don’t go to your house. Don’t go! You can’t do any good,” he pleaded earnestly.
“My wife! Tell me!”
He stared at me, and I knew what he was trying to say, “Tell me, man! Tell me!” I shouted at him.
“She was just getting into the car. The third shell fell between your house and Mackenzie’s. For God’s sake, Mr. Burton, don’t go there.”
But like a fool, I did not heed him, and, tearing my arm away, ran on.
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 29-38
[Editor: Changed “I saw her..” to “I saw her.”; “ring The Dinker.” to “ring The Dinker?”. Added a closing quotation mark after “game to come.”.]