[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]
This story of the occupation of Western Australia demonstrates fully the diabolic thoroughness of the preliminary staff work that put the State into the enemy’s hands almost without a blow being struck. It would be possible only in a country such as ours, that remained persistently blind to the writing on the wall.
During the nights of September 21 and 22 the wireless authorities had had their attention drawn to the transmission of some unknown wireless station either in or close to Perth. The signals were especially strong in the early hours of the morning, but attempts to decipher them were unsuccessful. Early in the evening of the Friday, direction finders were used to locate the station, but the lines of direction crossed at a spot outside Perth on an open road. It was assumed then that a portable set was being used. Although the incident of the mystery station caused a good deal of comment in official quarters, no apprehension was created.
Doubtless this was one of the enemy sets conveying vital information to the expeditionary force at sea. Late that night (Friday) a telegram addressed to the Premier was despatched from Geraldton. It conveyed the information from the owner of a lugger that had been lying inshore about 50 miles north of Geraldton, that he had sighted a large fleet of ships, some of which were undoubtedly cruisers, moving south. Adverse wind had delayed him, and the message was nearly 18 hours late. It never was delivered.
One of the features of the invasion of Western Australia was that it was planned so as to inflict the least possible damage on property. Instead of adopting the plan used in Sydney, of bombing the forts on Rottnest Island in broad daylight, a surprise attack on the forts at midnight was arranged. Towed in boats by destroyers, a large landing party gained a footing on the island. The flashing light on the high ground must have formed a perfect guide. The landing place was well chosen by someone familiar with the whole island, as the movement was carried out without detection. When the forts were rushed scarcely a shot was fired by the garrison, who, taken completely off their guard, were bayoneted to the last man. In ten minutes after the first alarm the island and its batteries were in enemy hands.
The next phase of the attack took place shortly before dawn, when a series of violent explosions shook the city. Every wireless plant had been put out of action. Half a dozen masked men invaded the telephone exchanges, and put their staffs under arrest. At the same time all the telegraph lines and cables had been cut. It was later discovered, too, that rails had been removed during the night from every railway line at various points outside the city area. The explosions that destroyed the wireless stations had been caused by powerful bombs, which did sufficient damage to put the stations out of action for several hours. No means of outside communication had been overlooked. The uproar caused considerable excitement in the city, but the perpetrators of the sabotage had escaped — their work was done.
Meantime, warned that Rottnest was silenced, the fleet had stood inshore. Convoyed by destroyers, the troopships had closed in to the Cottesloe beach where, under the cover of darkness, disembarkation began. Many people heard the unaccustomed movement off shore, but none was curious enough or unfortunate enough to enquire too closely. Before daylight, two battalions had landed and had assisted in securing inshore a floating wharf that was towed in by short sections. By the time day broke, one battery of mechanised artillery had been landed on pontoons, as well as two or three swift light tanks.
At the same time motor pinnaces, armed with six pounders, and each towing four boatloads of infantry with a machine gun unit were making for the mouth of the river. By then the daylight was growing, and all pretence of secrecy was put aside. By this time any hope of resistance had passed. While the troops from Cottesloe were moving into Fremantle by road, two troopships steamed towards the wharves guarded by destroyers. The astounded inhabitants of Fremantle found the waterfront occupied by foreign troops who took immediate possession of the railway station. When attempts were made to communicate with Perth it was found that all telephones were “dead.” The pier heads were guarded by light tanks to prevent any interference with the berthing of the troop ships.
For a little while the soldiers treated the staring civilian population with contemptuous indifference. But that they were not to be trifled with was dramatically shown when an officer abruptly ordered the owner of a motor car to alight and hand it over. The man protested, and without a word of warning was shot dead at his wheel. At a word from the officer the door was flung open by a soldier and the body was dragged out, and pushed into the gutter.
Before seven o’clock, some five battalions of infantry had been landed. By that time too a strange flotilla was making its way up the Swan River.
It consisted of six motor pinnaces each towing four boats, each of which carried 50 men. By half past seven they had passed Mill Point from Melville Water and were steering for the Barrack Street jetty. These landed at 7.45, and were actually the first troops to reach the city, but only by a few minutes, for two trainloads detrained at Central Station from Fremantle before 8 o’clock.
It was one of the tragedies of the day that because of the early hour, several residents of Fremantle who had dashed to the city by motor cars were unable to get into touch with anyone in authority. So that though the news of the invasion had reached the city it was known to comparatively few people, most of whom were incredulous. In some respects, however, the misfortune was a blessing in disguise. At the most only one hour would have been available to organise any form of resistance. Bad as the situation was eventually, the slight resistance that might have been organised, must have been useless, and would probably have led to ruthless reprisals or a bombardment of the city.
As it happened, however, the early city workers suddenly found the streets overrun with foreign troops who moved with mechanical and systematic certainty. Father Fairfax stated that at a few minutes before eight o’clock he was walking down Barrack Street towards St. George’s Terrace. He had reached the Town Hall, when he was staggered by the spectacle of a body of troops coming towards him at the double, with bayonets fixed. Almost at the same moment there was a burst of machine gun fire at the intersection of St. George’s Terrace. One company halted at the Hay Street intersection, close to him, and set up machine guns with which they began to rake the street both east and west. The few who have recorded the events of the morning emphasise the suddenness with which the city was invaded, and callous savagery with which all opposition was crushed by the streets being cleared by machine gun fire in both directions from Barrack Street.
One of the very few men I met who was in Perth on the morning of September 23, was one who owned a service station in the city. If I ever heard his name I do not recollect it now. That was before I was drafted to the Carrington Camp. He had come East as chauffeur to a P.P. officer. He told me that he had gone down to his garage early that morning. The first he knew that anything was wrong was when he heard shooting, and one of his men ran in and told him someone was firing in the street. He tried to ring the police station. At the time he told me his story he seemed to think there was something funny in trying to call out the police that morning, because they shot every man in uniform on sight.
What impressed him most was that at eight o’clock everything seemed normal, and ten minutes later “the city was fairly crawling with the so and so’s.” They seemed to come from all directions. The first he saw of them was when looking through the window of his office a sergeant and six men walked in. One of his men went up to the sergeant, and apparently began an argument, when the sergeant pushed his bayonet into the man’s chest. It was not 30 seconds between the time they walked through the door till the sergeant was kicking the man’s body aside.
Then the sergeant looked round, and saw the owner in his office and walked in. He spoke English, and asked bow many cars in good condition were in the place. Told there were twenty-five, he said. “You show me or I stick!” and with the object lesson of the body of his assistant before him, the owner complied. Just then an officer with a squad of men joined the sergeant. They ran the cars out, and the garage owner was forced to fill their petrol tanks. After that they drove the cars away without taking any further notice of him.
He told me also that they seemed to know exactly where to go for everything they wanted. Cars full of men were driven to the outlying suburbs, and all roads leading out of Perth were guarded. Any cars attempting to leave were stopped, and their owners were shot down. All cars entering were commandeered.
So swiftly and methodically was the entire operation carried into effect that, by 9 o’clock the invaders were in complete possession of the city. A population of more than 200,000 was held in submission with practically no effort, or no chance of an effort, at resistance. Acting on pre-arranged plans, and guided no doubt by the agents who had cleared the way for their coming, bodies of troops took possession of all key positions and services. Rail and tram systems were held up, and the Maylands Air Port was occupied. Every motor car available was commandeered. Those taken in the streets were parked under guard in Stirling Square. Later in the day a systematic requisition was made, and owners were forced to drive their cars to Hyde Park. A squad of enemy engineers took over the electric power station, and all wireless stations. During the day domiciliary visits were made to every owner of an amateur experimental radio set, and all material was either destroyed or confiscated.
Before noon proclamations in English were posted throughout the metropolitan area. These ordered that all firearms should be surrendered by placing them on the footpath in front of the home of the owner. All motor vehicles not already commandeered were to be driven to Hyde Park or King’s Park. All radio appliances for either reception or transmission were to be placed outside homes for destruction. It was also ordered that no citizen was to leave the city. The penalty for any contravention of these orders was — death.
The same thoroughness of system was marked by the manner in which the railways were used to consolidate the hold of the invaders. During the morning, troop trains left for all key junctions. The movements of all incoming trains were provided for. The perfection of the organisation was such that the first knowledge that Kalgoorlie gained of the catastrophe was when, on Sunday morning, a train load of troops took possession of the city. After the initial occupation of the key positions the work of taking full possession of the State was continued with the systematic foresight. So carefully had the work been synchronised, that a cruiser and a troop train arrived at Albany within an hour of one another.
Meanwhile, in Perth, troops continued to pour into the city by rail, road and water. One of the first actions by the battalion that entered the city by the Barrack Street jetty was to march a company to Government House where His Excellency, who had but five minutes earlier been informed of the invasion, was placed under arrest. The Premier was not in Perth at the time, and was not captured until two days later. But the Mayor was taken from his home to the Town Hall, and ordered to find rations for the incoming troops.
It was learned later that two divisions of troops with tanks and mechanised artillery formed the entire invading force. So sure had the invaders been of success and freedom from interference, that only four first class cruisers convoyed the troopships.
After taking over all public buildings, the troops that remained in the city were quartered on the inhabitants. By night, from King’s Park two batteries of artillery held the city at their mercy. Male citizens were requisitioned without discrimination of any kind to carry out the orders of the victors in collecting the firearms throughout the city in motor lorries, and for all laborious work. At Fremantle pressed labour unloaded arms and munitions from the troopships, and transferred them to appointed dumps.
After the firing in the streets on the Saturday morning, by which the city was cowed into submission the people suffered very little violence for the first three weeks, Father Fairfax related. This first morning cost about 800 lives. The invaders showed clearly that they would not brook the slightest question of their orders. Men who in the beginning exhibited the slightest sign of hesitation or truculence in obedience were instantly shot or bayoneted. Otherwise there was at first no great ill-treatment of the conquered race.
It was not until the end of October that the people learned the fate in store for them. By then the entire settled portion of Western Australia was completely under enemy control. Hope for rescue from outside Australia there was none. Rescue or help by land over the Great Western line was equally impossible as the only line of communication was the railway itself. Even had troops been available in the east, the lack of transport for men and supplies, including water for an effective force, made such an undertaking impossible. More so, since the enemy had established a strong air base at Kalgoorlie, that would have rendered the use of the line impracticable. The only hope of relief lay by sea from the east, and the sea had passed from Australian control.
The revelation of the invaders’ plans for administration was heralded by the arrival of a large body of civilian officials, who acted independently of the military body, but who were directed by the military governor of the State, who had installed himself in Government House. The military police were withdrawn, and were replaced by a civil body, that became eventually the terror of the populace, and whose ruthlessness and arrogance were worse than that of the soldiers.
The first inkling of their fate that came to the broken-hearted people was early in November, when all males over the age of 12 years were ordered to transfer themselves from the north to the south side of the river. Women from the south were to cross the river to the north. The women were to cross the river by the Causeway, and the men by the railway bridge at East Perth. No one was permitted to take any possession but as much clothing as he or she could carry.
It was the invaders’ first stroke that showed the manner in which, by the total segregation of the sexes, they had determined to solve the racial problem. The order was forced into effect with relentless thoroughness. No provision was made to house the transferred people, beyond the order that the dwellings should be shared indiscriminately. The appalling act admitted no discrimination. At the same time the policy was made effective in all rural areas.
Then began the drafting of the men into labour camps, and virtual slavery. All work of agriculture, mining, and laborious public services was thrown on the vanquished people, who were treated more as cattle than human beings. The first doomed thousand were taken by transport to the Yampi iron mines, which became the most dreaded feature of a dread oppression. Here in the terrific heat and under cast iron discipline and relentless toil men died like flies. Food and water were inadequate, and sanitation in the camps was non-existent. There was no attempt at medical assistance, and the men were driven to their tasks till they dropped. Had they been flies they could not have been rated lower than they were as human beings. Eventually the toll of the mines became such a drain on the man power of the West, that when the invader made good his hold on the East the iron mines became the punishment of all who offended the Paramount Power. They were the lowest pit in the hell that was Australia.
[At this juncture some 2,000 words of Burton’s narrative relating to the treatment of the women are omitted. Burton gives the source of his information as a metallurgist, and a friend of Fergus Graham, who had been transferred to Newcastle from the West. We have been permitted to compare the text with that of the suppressed passages in Peel and Everard’s, “The Struggle for the Pacific,” and find the two statements fully corroborative. We have made representations to the Government, suggesting the advisability of the destruction of both documents in order to prevent any possibility of their publication in the future. — Eds.]
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 73-81
[Editor: Changed “or Kings Park” to “or King’s Park” (added an apostrophe, in line with the same name as used later in the same chapter); “illtreatment” to “ill-treatment”; “portion of Wesern Australia” to “portion of Western Australia”.]
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