Chapter 7 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

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

Chapter VII.

As we absorbed this mass of ill tidings, Fergus rubbed a chin that bore three days’ growth of bristles — we were an insanitary pair — and said thoughtfully, “Mon, if that yarn about the landing at Port Stephen is true, we’re scuppered.”

“Let’s hope it is just another lie,” I replied. “Think of the other fantastic yarns we’ve heard during the last two days. It’s impossible.”

He swept a dirty finger in the direction of the broken and still smoking skyline, and growled, “Look at that, and then say what’s impossible. Yesterday and the day before and the day before that were impossible — but they happened.”

Here let me say that the hand of the censor had — with good cause — fallen heavily on all published news. While the policy was sound in the public interest it bred an amazing crop of disquieting misinformation.

It was not until the Tuesday morning that I saw the first of the Government proclamations posted. One announced that a State of War existed between Australia and Cambasia. To me and those people of Sydney who had come drifting back from various directions, the announcement seemed somewhat superfluous. Another called on all men between the ages of 18 and 40 years to register themselves at the nearest military centre for training. There were others announcing that the Government had taken over the control and distribution of all food supplies. Also that it was illegal and subject to serious penalties to ask a price for any commodity higher than that ruling on Friday, September 22. I smiled as I thought of the way we had forestalled that regulation on the person of the restaurant keeper on the Saturday afternoon. Another notice announced that all road transport vehicles and their drivers had been compulsorily swept into military service. Moreover, to conserve fuel, no owner of a motor car could use it except by official license. The cars of the offenders were to be confiscated.

An appeal was also made to men retired from every description of business to return to work to relieve younger men for other service. By another proclamation, the Government took over a large number of business undertakings that would be carried on by their owners for public service.

It was, however, strange that in Sydney, the centre of the catastrophe, less was known of what was happening than in any other place in the Eastern States. Moreover, in the early days we saw fewer men in uniform than anywhere else. The civic problem was terrific. Water and sanitation had vanished over the greater part of the metropolitan area, and all civic activities had been dislocated. Estimates of the killed and wounded on the first day amounted to more than 200,000. Probably another 200,000 had left the city and were scattered in camps in outlying districts, or were overcrowding the outer suburbs, and complicating the situation in a score of ways. In the inner suburbs, however, there were the survivors of those who had been unable to get away, and who were still living in the ruins of their houses — if any. There was practically no form of transport except by water. The ferry service was almost intact, but the problem of fuel was acute. The running time had been cut down to one boat per hour on each route.

On the Sunday and Monday refugees began to trickle back, intent on visiting their homes or endeavouring to learn the fate of missing relatives and friends. It was strange how self-centred people had become, and the situation seemed to bring out the best or the worst in humanity. One of the finest aspects was the response to the appeal for voluntary workers, and the self-sacrifice entailed was the monopoly of no single stratum of society, regardless of the repellant or harrowing nature of the work.

One of the first tasks, and one that was imperative, was the collection and burial of the dead. Working gangs of 21 members each, were formed, of whom one was chosen as leader. Each gang was allotted a given area. That to which I was drafted worked to the north of Oxford Street, Paddington. So far as was possible, the bearers identified the victims, and gave the names to the leader. It was a grim business, that taxed the fortitude of all concerned in it. Of our gang half were white collar workers — among them a lawyer, a dentist, and two business men, but none shirked where there was every excuse for shirking. There was no possibility of formal burial, and where-ever vacant ground of any kind was available, the bodies were laid in trenches and covered in. Clergymen of any denomination, where possible, read the burial service over the trench when it was closed. It was not until long after, when I paid my first and last visit to what had been my home, that I found a grave in what had been its garden. But I never learned to whom my thanks were due.

What occurred was that Sydney, as a capital, ceased to exist. There was neither trade nor commerce to support it; nor were there the means or the men to carry out the work of reconstruction. Events which followed demanded the services of every available man to preserve those intact places which we still held. Moreover, the enemy were determined that it should not be rebuilt as a centre of possible resistance. It became the practice of every warship that passed along the coast to fire a salvo or two among the ruins. To-day, as I write, the fallen masonry still blocks the streets of the city, and blackened and desolate ruins, inhabited by the few who care to take risk, disfigure the once lovely slopes around the Harbour. I believe that, but for the wrecked approach, the great bridge still stands intact — red with rust where the weather has worn away its paint.

Sydney and its tragedy, terrible as it was, falls into the background. We return once more to Bloody Saturday, when Melbourne had temporarily become the centre of administration. In view of the gravity of the news from London, the Prime Minister’s first act had been to call the Federal Parliament into session at Canberra. Nevertheless, the first Cabinet meeting, at which only half a dozen Ministers were present, was held in Melbourne on his arrival.

Before then, however, the news that Britain was at war had spread consternation through the city. All business came to a standstill. The Stock Exchange, to prevent a panic, did not open for business. After a hastily summoned conference between the State Premier and the Associated Banks, all the banks that had opened their doors at ten o’clock, closed them at eleven until the Monday.

It was, perhaps, as well that the public did not know at once the full extent of the catastrophe. They were prepared for it by rumour, and the truth only filtered through gradually. The Cabinet had scarcely assembled when the news was telephoned through from the Premier of New South Wales of the first air raid on the forts. It was not until nearly two o’clock, however, after numerous attempts had been made to communicate with the defence authorities in Sydney, that the story of the bombardment reached the Cabinet officially from the Navy office at the Victoria Barracks, where it had been received from the Adelaide.

At the time, it was impossible for the Cabinet to gauge the extent of the danger that threatened. Absence of communication from Western Australia, at first regarded as a mishap, caused growing anxiety as the day went on. Darwin also was deaf to all wireless and telegraphic messages. But the news from Sydney with which the city was now ringing warranted preparation for the gravest emergencies. The destruction of the Hawkesbury bridge gave ominous warning that enemy action was projected beyond Sydney, and that Newcastle could be the only objective. Sydney, the natural source of military assistance, had been snatched from their grasp. With the Hawkesbury Bridge out of action, the only way of sending assistance was through Orange or Lithgow, via Muswellbrook. Meanwhile, two squadrons of bombers had been sent to reinforce the fort.

But then, as afterwards, the advantage of the initiative was always with the enemy. They held undisputed control of the coast and struck where they pleased. Although it came as a shock, the story of the devastation at Newcastle on the Saturday, and of Port Kembla on the Sunday, was regarded as inevitable by the authorities in view of the suddenness and the utterly unexpected strength of the attack. Only one really bright note was struck on that grim day by the certainty that the enemy had been crippled by the destruction of one of their two aeroplane carriers.

But during that day, and until late on Sunday, the defence authorities could obtain no certain news of the actual strength of the enemy. It was estimated, however, that ten battleships, fifteen cruisers, and more than 30 destroyers were raiding the coast. But far out to sea, waiting the orders to move in, stood a great fleet of merchant transports, which by daybreak on Monday morning appeared off Port Stephens. It was ascertained, also, that apart from the battleship guard to prevent the remaining naval units from leaving Port Jackson, a wide area round the Heads had been mined during the night of the Saturday.

From one of my shack mates, Bob Turnbull, once a shipping agent in Melbourne, but now a feeder of open hearth furnaces at the works, I heard how Melbourne responded to the news. By ten o’clock it was broadcast that Britain, which meant the Empire, was at war. Special editions of the papers were on the streets at the same time. By half past ten, business of any kind, except in the banks, had ceased. Some of the cooler heads, anticipating financial panic, got in early, and secured enough cash to carry them on. But it was not until nearly eleven, when the city really awoke to the possibilities, that things began to look ugly. Only the prompt action of the Government and the Banks prevented a riot by closing until Monday. There was a lot of noise when the doors closed but the crowd behaved sensibly. Although the streets were thronged, so much so that the wheeled traffic was almost at a standstill, there was very little confusion. There was tense but suppressed excitement. Near the newspaper offices, the streets were impassable through the density of the crowds. But until about half past 12 o’clock, there was no other news posted than the Government’s declaration of a State of War.

“I was standing at the intersection of Collins and Elizabeth Street,” said Bob, “when I heard a sound that was something between a growl and roar of voices from the crowd in Collins Street. Then it died away into a dead silence. I saw the crowd surging and people come rushing towards Elizabeth Street. A man running by stopped and called out, ‘A fleet of bombing planes has attacked Sydney’. That tore it! By jove! if it had been over Melbourne it could not have caused a greater sensation.” During the next 15 minutes something like 300,000 people in the city suddenly awoke to the reality of war. When the first wave of excitement passed Melbourne went cold sober. There was no cheering or shouting in the streets, nor very much in the hotels. People just stood talking in subdued voices in small groups everywhere. The shops closed, and the crowd grew thicker.

“It was towards two o’clock and many of the people were beginning to drift towards the Flinders Street Station. A notice was posted, ‘Sydney is being heavily bombarded by a fleet of warships from outside the Heads. Nationality uncertain.’ After the first wave of sound you could have heard a pin drop in Collins Street,” Bob went on, “then, as by word of command, the crowd began to break up and leave the city.”

“The football final was being played on the Melbourne Cricket Ground that afternoon, but the question of which team could claim the title to premiership was never settled. The only people who turned up at the ground were two gatekeepers, and about half a dozen football reporters. No one had thought to call off the match — it called itself off. By three o’clock the city was almost deserted. The twelve picture theatres in the city could not muster an audience of 50 people between them.

“I said that business had been paralysed, but there was one place where there was too much to cope with, and that was at the Victoria Barracks in St. Kilda Road,” Bob grinned. “I thought I might as well claim the honour of being one of the first to enlist, so I strolled over Princes Bridge. Something like 60,000 or 70,000 others had got the same idea. The crowd of men had backed up over the road, and had overflowed into the Domain. The barrack yard was as full as a tick, and about 50 permanent men in uniform had been swallowed up among them in trying to get them into order.

When I managed to squeeze my way through, an officer at one of the windows was telling the crowd in parade ground English to go and register themselves at their suburban centres. He also told them where else they could go. There must have been thousands of old Diggers in the crowd. You could pick them out everywhere. It was they who started singing ‘Madamoiselle of Armentieres.’ That crowd chanted the lay of Madamoiselle for hours. Many of them drifted off to other recruiting stations, but those who hung on kept the barracks staff working all night.”

Bob got fed up of waiting about six o’clock, and went to his home in North Brighton. It was only about that time that someone at headquarters awoke to the fact that the broadcasting stations had no censors and were sending out everything that came through — and that was plenty. Refugees from Sydney and pressmen were sending through their accounts of what they had seen. At first, people would not — could not — believe it. But before the censors put on the brake, Melbourne knew that Sydney had been pretty well wiped off the map. But even then they had heard nothing of the second bombardment.

It was later that night that Bob Turnbull, by chance, was one of the few people in the East to receive a whisper of what had happened in Western Australia. After dinner he had gone across to see his partner whose son was a wireless amateur. It was about 10 o’clock, when the son broke in on them wide-eyed, with a story that he had been working on the amateur band and had picked up some station working on a battery-operated plant at a place called Gumaling in Western Australia. He was morsing and the signals were very weak, but he had made out parts of the message and written it down. It ran — “How many not known. To . . . swarms of soldiers in streets by . . . machine gunned the . . . no resistance at all . . . Complete possession of Fremantle and Perth . . . motorists shot . . . cars taken . . . Northam by midday . . . railway captured . . . since then no message . . . cannot see, but think red dia-.” It faded out there and the boy tried but could not raise the transmitting station again.

Neither Bob nor his partner was strong in Western Australian geography, but they took an atlas and searched for “Gumaling.” The only place they could find approximating the word, was “Goomalling,” a junction station on the northern line to Geraldton. They guessed there was something in it, and after a hopeless half hour trying to get headquarters by telephone, they drove to the barracks. Here after an hour’s wrangling they finally got hold of an intelligence officer, who read the fragment and hurried them into the presence of a brass hat, by whom they were received with the usual military courtesy. Bob said, on glancing over the paper, his first outburst was to ask what the so and so, such and such they meant by being in possession of an unauthorised wireless set. (The prohibition had not then been announced.) However, after warning them not to repeat the story to anyone, he so far forgot himself as to thank them, and admitted that message confirmed other information they had.

Actually, it was more than six months before an approximately detailed story of what had happened that day in Western Australia was pieced together. It came through in dribbles from scores of underground sources, for the West was, from then, almost as completely isolated as if it had been on another continent. So far as I remember, the first full story from actual eye witnesses was told by two Roman Catholic priests, Fathers Collins and Fairfax. They reached Port Lincoln in April, 1940, in the last stages of exhaustion. It had taken them four months to cover the journey from Esperance after their escape.

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 64-72

[Editor: Added a comma after “military assistance”. Changed “A fleet of bombing planes had attacked Sydney” to “A fleet of bombing planes has attacked Sydney” (and placed single quotation marks at the start and finish of that text, replacing the quotation mark at the start of the text); “how many” to “How many”.]

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