For more than half an hour, for the second time that day, destruction and devastation swept across the doomed city. This time only four of the battleships and six cruisers participated, the others had disappeared. The fire was deliberate and purposeful. Comparatively few shells fell in the already ruined area. But the district round the Central Station and Redfern, Petersham and further back, Balmain, were drenched with fire by the heavy guns. To the east the still undamaged areas, both north and south of the harbour, were being pelted by the cruisers. With systematic deviltry, every heavily populated area was picked out in turn. When, by half-past five the firing ceased, practically all the inner residential and industrial districts were a blazing desolation. We heard no other sound of war that day until just about sunset when the rumble of a great explosion far to seaward came to our ears. We did not learn until long afterwards that it was the last salute to a very gallant gentleman who had sold his life at a price the enemy could ill afford to pay — but they paid it.
So far I have told the story as it appeared to me only. The rest we learned piecemeal over several days. It must be remembered that on the afternoon of September 23, for the time being, in the chaos that reigned, Sydney was completely isolated. Every form of communication had been destroyed, and even had it not been, there were few in the city who had thought for anything but their own safety. Refugees in thousands who had escaped along the main highways had spread a story so terrible that at first it was thought to be the outcome of hysterical panic. Wild as it sounded, however, in the various State capitals, it was far short of the truth.
The Federal Parliament was in recess, and the only member of the Cabinet in residence in Canberra was the Prime Minister. That morning at six o’clock he had been aroused to read two cable messages that had arrived within ten minutes of one another. One, from London, conveyed the startling notice that an unprovoked air and naval attack had been made on Britain, without a formal declaration of war, by three Great Powers. The second was a mutilated wireless message from Singapore; but there was sufficient in it to convey the ominous warning that the British Pacific naval force had suffered a serious reverse from an unheralded attack.
Knowing that several of the Ministers were in Melbourne, the Prime Minister acted promptly. Leaving his secretary to communicate immediately by telephone with the heads of the Defence force, and the members of the Cabinet to meet him in Melbourne, he ordered a plane to be in readiness for him, and by seven o’clock was on the way south. It was not until after he left that the serious news of the destruction of the R.A.F. hangars at Richmond had reached Canberra. By some unaccountable delay the reports of the destruction of the Sydney water supply and the railway bridge at Hawkesbury did not reach Melbourne until nearly midday. These had been forwarded at the moment the State Government had received news that a state of war existed. In Melbourne, the responsible authorities had acted promptly by anticipating the Cabinet’s instruction by telegraphing warning of probable mobilisation orders to all military centres. These had been sent out by half past nine. The news had actually been broadcast from some stations in Melbourne by 10.30.
Meanwhile, attempts to get into contact with Singapore by wireless had been only partially successful. It was not until 2 p.m. that the full extent of the naval disaster in the East was known. The tidings drove home to the Government the fact that Australia must stand alone. Still, in those early hours it had not entered any mind that there would be no period of grace, and that the hour of trial had already struck. Reports from the Postal Department and from wireless stations that all communication from the West had ceased caused surprise and annoyance, but no apprehension. No one dreamed that by daylight that morning Western Australia had ceased to be part of the Commonwealth, and was in the hands of an alien race.
But while in Melbourne the various councils of Defence, Supply, Transport and Communication were working with feverish energy to bring their emergency regulations into effect, they had been overwhelmed by the news from Sydney. We did not recognise at the time, though the military authorities suspected the truth, that the plan of the enemy was one of ruthless terrorism of the eastern States to prevent any possibility of interference with their initial occupation of the West, that they were determined was to be permanent. The wrecking of Sydney was but the first step in this policy of frightfulness, designed to paralyse our organisation, and to obliterate as far as possible our most essential defence industries.
How complete was the knowledge of our weak points, both in defence and industry, was revealed by the cold blooded thoroughness with which the enemy went about their work of devastation. Their aim was to cow Australia by ruthless slaughter and destruction. They relied on the shock of the surprise of the first stunning blow on Sydney to carry it out without serious opposition. That night as far as Ashfield in the West, Willoughby to the North, and Botany to the South, Sydney was in flames, and the glare was visible from Port Kembla, and even further south. The more important key positions had been given especial attention. One cruiser had stood off Long Bay, and systematically pounded the electric power plant at Bunnerong to a scrap heap across the headland. In the second air attack at three o’clock, the only electric plant left, that at White Bay, was one objective which was fortunately missed by three bombs. It must have been the only failure of the attack, because the three great oil fuel storage plants, the coaling station at Ball’s Head, and the wharves at Darling Harbour, with the Pyrmont Bridge, were showered with incendiary bombs. During the second bombardment, the Cockatoo Island yard was struck repeatedly by 16 inch shells, and there can be no doubt but that this fire was directed by an enemy agent ashore; as was that on the Canberra and on the City generally in the earlier attack.
It was from Don Ringfield and others I heard of the scenes in the city during the first attack. It must have been within a few minutes after I left for Balmoral that the stampede from the city began, through the insistent warnings that were broadcast. Shops and offices emptied their staffs and customers into the streets in panic-stricken mobs. All sense and decency was lost in the wild rush for trams, cars and the underground railway. As early as this the police made some attempt to stop all inward traffic. Trams were stormed and men risked death by climbing on the roofs. To every outward tram, people clung like swarms of bees. The weaker were dragged off by the stronger. In less than a quarter of an hour, the whole traffic system was in chaos. Motor owners took all comers who could find room, even on the car bonnets, but the pace was slow because of the milling panic-stricken crowds, each unit of which was striving for his own course, regardless of others.
Hundreds of cars and trams must have got clear before the blow fell. The Parramatta road was one dense stream of cars. But the streets were still crowded by a shouting, struggling throng when the first salvo swooped into the heart of the city, filling the narrow streets with crashing masonry and blasting the lives from thousands. One horror was in the underground stations. At Wynyard, a shell crashed through the vestibule that was packed with humanity. People crowded in the tunnels stampeded. The lights went out and horror went on in the dark where the fallen were trampled to death. Similar scenes took place at the Town Hall station. Then, to add to the terror, fires broke out in a hundred places. By night, in the space of a mile and a half between Circular Quay and the Central Station, and the half mile between the Domain and Essex Street, more than 60 per cent. of the buildings were destroyed, while all the streets were in flames.
Conditions in the densely populated areas from Bondi into the City, were infinitely worse. In an area of five miles long by two miles deep, the fire of the attackers had been especially concentrated. In this space there are normally more than 350,000 inhabitants. It was not until days after that any conception of the toll of death could be formed. On the North Shore conditions were almost as bad. The inhuman ferocity of the policy of frightfulness was being carried out to the letter.
It will be seen then, that with the whole population of the city either dead, injured or panic stricken; with all forms of transport and communication shattered and with all civil authority either completely disorganised or non-existent, the council at the Town Hall was faced with an appalling task and responsibility. Every man, woman and child who could fly from the stricken area had gone into camp in the national parks and other outlying districts where their food and control presented another pressing problem. At the moment, too, there was not the remotest knowledge of the extent of the catastrophe or its needs. It was not until nine o’clock that night that the Lord Mayor had been able to give the authorities in Melbourne some rough idea of our requirements. There must, then, have been more than 100,000 injured demanding immediate attention, and there were only three doctors available at the moment.
The Dinker, Don, and I found an Italian restaurant still doing business in one of the few unsmashed areas. I had only then realised my hunger. Antonio demanded 10/- each for 2/- worth of food. We gave him 6/-, and Don gave him his left in the jaw. He probably would have received more in his face and less in his pocket had we thoroughly understood the international situation. When we returned to the Town Hall we found the number of volunteers had grown. More than a dozen more doctors had appeared, and a temporary hospital was formed at St. Andrew’s.
I, with others, was drafted to the Domain as a stretcher bearer. God forbid that I should ever see another such night. The nurses in the hospital had stuck to their posts, and had been giving first-aid to the crowd of victims with such medical help as was available, where the dead outnumbered the living by five to one. I do not excuse myself but, until then I had completely forgotten the existence of my sister, Lynda, who was one of the nurses. There was no need for lights, for flames for miles around made the place as bright almost as day. They had formed an emergency hospital in Parliament House, and here a group of doctors, mostly young, were carrying out heroic and desperate work. The Domain had been crowded with hordes of panic-stricken refugees, when a broadside of shells burst over it. The only advantage I gained from this, and the days that followed, was that they hardened my mind and steeled my nerves for things I did later when the chance came. To be merciful we had to be merciless. Only those who showed hopes for recovery were removed from the ground. For the others there was only morphia to quieten their agony. But they were so many and we helpers so few. One had only to experience having to pass by a mother forgetting her own torture, to plead for our help for a broken child, to understand the hate that took root in those hours.
It was somewhere towards morning that, while making one of my endless rounds with an empty stretcher that had become sodden with blood, I heard a woman’s voice call my name from the shadow of a tree, and I found Lynda. She had been working in that hell of pain since one o’clock. With her was a loosely knit angular Scot, with a tow head and a beaky nose. He was acting as her volunteer dresser and orderly, and told me his name was Fergus Graham. They say marriages are made in Heaven. If that be so Heaven takes some queer means to bring them about. Fergus told me later that he was pinned down by a motor car that was on fire, but was otherwise unhurt. Lynda had found him in Macquarie Street, and had levered up the car enough for him to drag himself clear.
My co-bearer, a young divinity student, went mad during the night, and tried to strangle me. I had to quieten him with a slat from a seat that was handy. I didn’t blame him for losing his reason. I must have been pretty near to it myself. We were seeing things and doings things that are not meant for men to see or do. I was annoyed though, at the manifestation of his complaint. Thereafter, for the two days following, Fergus was my fellow stretcher bearer. It was during those two days I learned to know him. It was not until the Monday night that we had our first spell. Then nature took charge. We both went to sleep beside the stretcher somewhere near the remains of the Commonwealth Bank. The military took over the ruins next day. But by then there were no more living among them. They had either been removed or not — mostly not.
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 49-55