In making this digression on the fate of the lost State, my desire has been to set out fully the situation that the Federal Government was called upon to face during the three first days from September 23 to 25. The few broken wireless messages, such as that brought to them by my friend Turnbull, warned the authorities that a major calamity had overwhelmed Western Australia. Sydney was in ruins, and stories of destruction of Newcastle and Port Kembla added to the ill tidings had thrown the people into a condition bordering on panic. Then over all came the report of the landing force at Port Stephens, the extent of which was at the moment unknown. Silence from Darwin added to the list of misfortune the certainty that it, too, the gateway by air, was in the hands of the enemy.
Messages from Britain warned the Government that the heart of the Empire was threatened, and that for some indefinite time there could be no hope of assistance to regain control of the sea that had been lost in the Naval reverse at Singapore. Our own naval force was bottled up in Sydney Harbour, and even had it been free, the immense superiority of the enemy made its value negligible.
To face the threat to our freedom as a race, was a militia force spread over the entire Commonwealth at a strength on paper of 35,000 men. From this had to be deducted all available in Western Australia, and probably those in Queensland, also. It was clear that if the enemy made good its footing at Port Stephens, an effective use of help from Queensland units would be greatly restricted, if not entirely prevented. Even though the men were available, difficulties in maintaining contact and an adequate supply of arms were almost insuperable.
Even in the first three days our small but precious air force had suffered irreparable loss. Only one machine survived the sabotage of the Richmond air force. And the loss at Port Kembla and Newcastle had reduced the remainder by 14 effective machines.
The only bright spot in the otherwise unbroken gloom was the knowledge of the enemy’s loss of one of its two great plane carriers. This was due to the splendid devotion of Squadron Leader James Garside. In the consternation that reigned when the shattered hangars were examined after the early morning explosion at Richmond, the certainty that the cause was foreign and not of local origin was manifest. Later, while discussions on the situation were in progress by telephone with headquarters, the first air raid on the forts was reported. The necessity for preserving, as far as possible, our fighting planes intact, decided headquarters not to throw the plane away. One machine against such odds could effect no damage, and its loss was certain.
It was at this juncture that Garside submitted a use for the plane, and volunteered to carry it into effect. It was evident from the strength of the air attack that one or more aircraft carriers formed part of the enemy force. These were being kept well out to sea for safety, being among the most vital and vulnerable of the enemy’s units. Garside suggested that the heaviest blow that could be struck, and one by which the defence would most greatly benefit, was the destruction of one of these aircraft carriers.
He, however, pointed out that an attempt to bomb the carrier was uncertain of success, and even a direct hit might do no more than cripple it temporarily. He then offered to take the sole remaining machine up with the maximum possible load of high explosives. With this he should fly southwards towards Jervis Bay, and then out to sea at low altitude, only turning north when he was well behind any possible enemy observation. Then, when finally he was able to sight the fleet, to crash his plane on or against the aircraft carrier.
To gain such a result the certainty of death, he claimed, could not, and must not be considered for a moment. He put forward his offer quietly, and in matter of fact tones, as though it had been a mere question of routine, and retired to await the decision.
Finally, Headquarters accepted the sacrifice, and the man least moved by the decision was Garside himself. In conference with the commandant at the aerodrome, the plan was discussed in detail. It was decided that the plane should leave Richmond, so that its flight southwards, seaward and the turn north should be completed at, as nearly as possible, after sunset. The idea was that the plane, flying in from the east, would itself be in a bad light, while the enemy fleet would stand clear against the light of the setting sun. Garside’s own plan was that, on sighting the fleet, he should fly low, barely above the water, in order if possible to strike the hull of the carrier just above the water line, if possible, amidships.
His contention was that the method of attack would be the least likely to be expected, and anticipated by the enemy. The speed of the bomber would reduce the chance of an effective hit to a minimum if they sighted him in time to open fire. In the final analysis the locality and position of the fleet, and especially of the plane carrier, were unpredictable, and he therefore must be free to act for the best results the situation offered when he reached his objective.
That afternoon Garside took off with his load of destruction, going to his death with a smile and a wave of the hand as though starting on a routine peace flight.
I have already told how, about sunset on the Saturday evening, a deep boom of an explosion was heard in Sydney from far out to sea. At the time an anxious group of watchers on North Head saw a momentary blaze of light from below the horizon, that heralded a sound as though of thunder, that came drifting across the water.
As it reached their ears, the watchers rose to their feet, facing seaward, silent and at the salute. A man had died!
[On the authority of officers of the Paramount Power, Marsden states that Garside’s attack was so sudden, and its method was so unexpected, that the enemy had no time to guard against it. When they first heard its approach all eyes were turned upwards, but the bomber roared in on them from the east almost invisible in the evening light, only a few feet above the water. It charged in at a terrific speed, and hit the aircraft carrier just above the waterline almost amidships. The ship blew up and sank instantly, carrying with it 100 planes, and all but three or four of its personnel. They admitted the seriousness of the blow, but expressed warm admiration of the self-sacrifice that effected it. — Eds.]
But the situation that faced the Government demanded something more than individual heroism. By Monday morning there was none in authority who did not recognise the grimness of the task, owing to the extent to which those first blows had crippled our resources, and shaken the morale of the people.
All plans for defence were based on the supposition that the Commonwealth would have had several weeks’ warning of any probable outbreak of hostilities. Not even the lesson of the Austrian crisis early in 1938, when a declaration of war was hourly expected, taught the authorities the truth that war could break out over night from a clear sky. The one eventuality for which no provision had been made was on them.
At the very least, six weeks would be necessary to mobilise and prepare troops to take the field even under the most favourable conditions. Now, with one State completely lost and beyond help, and with the enemy in actual occupation of a strategic post on the east coast, the call for action had come.
The call had not come to a country intact and corporate, but to a people shocked by major disasters, with a great centre of population, and one vitally important, in ruins. The destruction of Sydney had meant the disorganisation of plans that depended on that city for men who had been slain, and for essential arms and munitions that had been irreparably lost. The fleet had lost its flagship with all its crew, and the remaining units were as useless for action as if they had never existed.
The only branch of the defence force ready for action, the air arm, though strong in personnel, was even at its best too weak for the terrific task that had been thrust upon it. Plans for bringing the strength of fighting planes up to an adequate number had not been completed. In the first three days almost one quarter of its effective strength had been lost. Despite the destruction of one enemy aircraft carrier, the enemy had sufficient fighting strength on the second to meet the Australian air force on equal terms. But from first Newcastle Waters, and then from Charleville, had come news of large flights of planes bearing the red diamond on a black square. Of these 55 had been sighted moving south-east. It was evident that the enemy was being reinforced from Darwin for the losses it had sustained.
Confronted with this situation the Government had recognised that by no possible means in its power could it replace its lost fighting planes. Its aircraft factories were incomplete, and had they not been, they were short of essential materials.
It was imperative, therefore, that the air force at the disposal of the defence authorities must be rigidly conserved. Nevertheless, it was as imperative that the extent of the enemy’s force at Port Stephens should be ascertained without delay.
But, of all the disasters, the news of the enemy’s landing at Port Stephens was that which caused the Headquarters Staff the gravest concern — all the more because of the absence of detail. The first report had been received in Melbourne on Monday morning, September 25. It came from the postmaster at Karuah, at the extreme north-west of the inlet. It announced that six enemy destroyers had entered Port Stephens; the fleet, with a large number of transports, was close outside, and after shelling Nelsons Bay, men from the destroyers were landing. The terror-stricken inhabitants were flying from the district. After that there was silence.
A small squadron of private planes, hastily organised at the Mascot aerodrome, was sent north. These were piloted by officers from the Richmond aerodrome, but not one returned. Later in the day, three air force scouts departed on a similar mission of reconnaissance. Shortly after they passed the Hawkesbury River, they reported by wireless that they were being attacked by enemy aircraft. That was their last message.
It was not until Tuesday morning about 2 o’clock any more definite news was received. It was telegraphed by a resident of Port Stephens, Martin Hancock, a former Major of the A.I.F. He had succeeded in remaining hidden during the whole of Monday. Knowing the fate of Newcastle, when the lightkeeper at Stephen’s Point had given the alarm that the fleet was approaching, settlements round the port had been promptly evacuated. Most of the refugees had made eastward to Morpeth or East and West Maitland, where the news they brought spread panic.
Hancock reported that the troopships entered the Harbour, which had been examined by destroyers and planes. Soldiers had also been disembarked from the warships outside the heads by destroyers. The troopships had anchored in Salamander Bay. In all their movements the enemy seemed to be entirely familiar with the locality. He believed that two brigades with mechanised artillery were disembarked.
Only four troopships had entered the harbour, the rest, of which he counted twenty-two, remained outside with the fleet. During the whole operation at least two squadrons of planes were circling over the port. Towards dusk, leaving one cruiser outside and four troopships and three destroyers in the harbour, the fleet had turned southward. Hancock, who had left a motor cycle at Salt Ash, succeeded in passing through enemy posts along the Anna Bay Road. He did not reach Salt Ash until midnight, when he made across to the Booral Road through Williamtown, arriving at West Maitland an hour later, and dispatched his report.
It is ironical that a base that had been planned as an Australian naval station, and never used, should have been chosen by the enemy to gain its first foothold in the east.
Hancock’s message deepened the anxiety at Headquarters, for the departure of the fleet with the remaining troopships foreshadowed another landing elsewhere.
That the anxiety was warranted was confirmed dramatically on the morning of Wednesday, when two messages reached Melbourne almost simultaneously. The first, from Wallsend, announced that enemy troopships were at the wharves in Port Hunter, and that the ruins of Newcastle were occupied. Troops were already moving along the Maitland Road. The second was wirelessed from H.M.A.S. Adelaide. It was brief, but, brief as it was, it bore tidings of immeasurable disaster. The cruiser was in a hot engagement with enemy aircraft, and was being shelled from outside the harbour. At the same time, landings were being effected at Manly, Coogee, and Bondi beaches.
It is difficult for those who were not present to understand the feelings of General Mackinnon, the Commander-in-Chief, and the General Staff, when confronted with these messages. They and the members of the Council of Defence alone understood their purport. And at the same time they foresaw the inevitable result. The order for general mobilisation had been given on September 23. On this morning of Wednesday, the 27th, the movement was still incomplete. Two days more, at least, would be required to collect the widely-scattered units. And until then it was impossible to offer an effective opposition to the enemy.
On paper, the trained forces of the Commonwealth on a peace footing amounted to 35,000. With Western Australia and Queensland out of the picture, and with the crash of the New South Wales organisation, there were only actually three infantry brigades at the Commander-in-Chief’s disposal. At most he could depend upon two artillery brigades. There was one incomplete armoured car regiment, and an inadequate though efficient engineering and army service corps to complete the force at his command. At the most, less than one complete division of 16,000 men.
Already the strategic plan of the enemy was sufficiently developed for the Commander-in-Chief to realise what he had to expect. The first raid on the east coast was intended to prevent any interference with the enemy operations for consolidating their hold on the west. Now, the landings at Port Stephens, Newcastle, and Sydney disclosed the intentions of striking at the heart of Australia — that vital area, between Newcastle and Port Kembla, inland from the 150 miles of coastline. If a circle of 100 miles in diameter is drawn with Helensburgh, just south of Cronulla, as a centre, the arc, running through Newcastle and inland as far as Bathurst, encloses an area, the possession of which means the possession of Australia. It was for this paramount area that the enemy was undoubtedly striking.
It was clear that a third landing was intended at Port Kembla.
Were that effected, the three forces, working in conjunction, must succeed. Within the area lay some of the richest country in minerals and agriculture in the Commonwealth, and every essential line of communication.
The only hope of fending off the inevitable third blow lay in the air force.
It was not until long after that I heard any detail of those momentous conferences in Melbourne that took place on September 27. Despite the Prime Minister’s call for the assembly of the Federal Parliament in Canberra, it was found that the probable attendance could not exceed 30 members. In view of the urgency of the case, the venue of the session was changed to Parliament House, Melbourne. Canberra was too exposed and too far away from Headquarters. The Victorian capital became the seat of Government.
It was at Parliament House, too, that the Defence Council met, and here it was that, on the afternoon of September 27, General Mackinnon stated the naked truth to the Cabinet. The story was told me by a former Minister, just after the news of the decision of the Berlin Congress was made public — late in 1941. He related how a scared House had met, and in half an hour had passed an emergency appropriation of £250,000,000 — “might as well have made it £250,000,000,000 for all the good it did us,” he added. “Great Scot! What mugs we were.”
The Minister for Defence told the House all he knew, and that was precious little. But he assured them that by Christmas time we would have 100,000 men equipped and in the field. Preparations were being made for offsetting the loss of the Broken Hill Proprietary steel works and those at Kembla, by manufacturing in South Australia and Melbourne. He admitted we would be short of steel supplies for the time being. But he assured the members that there were ample supplies of infantry and artillery ammunition.
But it was the gloomiest session he had ever attended. More than a dozen members, including the Leader of the Opposition, had been killed on Bloody Saturday. The Minister confided to the House that the situation must be regarded as grave. But he was firmly of the opinion that the enemy could not reinforce what he called their “filibustering expedition.” While the loss of life and the damage done was deplorable, he was sure that within a short time the invaders would be driven into the sea.
When the House adjourned McKinnon was asked to meet the Cabinet to discuss the position. It was then that, as my informant put it, “we got it right in the neck.” He didn’t make any bones about it or beat about the bush. He said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I have just issued an order sending the entire air force at our disposal to the South Coast of New South Wales. An attempt at a third landing at Kembla is inevitable. If that landing succeeds I doubt if we can save Australia. As things are there is no other form of opposition I can offer.”
They were all pretty worried faces in the room, but as he spoke they grew paler still.
“We must recognise that Western Australia is already lost, but I do not anticipate any attack from that quarter ——”
“But why not? ——” broke in the Prime Minister.
“Because, sir, it would not be worth their while. They know quite well the hole we are in.”
No one spoke.
He went on. “With all the men I can gather from Victoria and New South Wales, with a mixed brigade from South Australia, I cannot muster a full division.”
Again he paused.
“None of those troops is hardened or fully trained for service. The possibility of this emergency and the peril from the lack of man power have been placed before successive Governments who have disregarded the military representations.”
“We can have 100,000 men trained and equipped by the end of the year,” said the Minister for Defence.
“Mr. Prime Minister. I am afraid the enemy will not give us until the end of the year before forcing a decisive engagement.”
“You mean ——”
“I mean, Sir, that the enemy are already at Maitland and Parramatta. To-morrow they may be in Mudgee. But by that time Lithgow will most certainly have gone, and possibly Moss Vale, if not Goulburn. We must face the facts, Sir. If the air force cannot stave off that landing at Kembla, they will be over the Victorian border in a week.”
It was the Minister for Defence who spoke. “A rather unusual pessimism for a Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps you can give us some grounds for your er — depressing prophecies.”
The stocky figure swung round. He was not a man who suffered fools gladly, and he had been working 20 hours a day since the 23rd. The effort with which he bit back the first words that came to his lips was evident, as he glared at the speaker.
“Yes!” he snapped. “You shall have my reasons. But first, let me tell you all, that I, or any other military officer, who gave you an optimistic estimate of our situation should be shot as a traitor.
“I have less than a division of insufficiently trained troops. It will be two days, at least, before I am in a position to move. The manner in which the enemy have moved from the time the first shot was fired indicates that they are thoroughly sure of their ground and their plans. Just as they knew of the gun emplacements on our forts so they know to a man our weakness. Do you imagine for one moment, with the advantage they have gained already, that they will give us an opportunity to enroll and train a thousand men, much less one hundred thousand?”
He stood up and pushed his chair back, and leaned forward with his hands on the edge of the table. “Listen, Gentlemen! From what we can gather, I am convinced they have already landed at least one division at Newcastle and Sydney each. They left Port Stephens with twenty-two troopships, apart from the men they may be carrying on their naval units.
“We do not know, beyond the fact that they have mechanised artillery and tanks, what their strength of mechanised units may be. But —— from the perfection of organisation and preparedness they have already exhibited, I am convinced they are much stronger in them than we are.”
The group round the table was silent as he walked over to a map on the wall.
“The one great urgent factor is to stop the progress of the enemy so as to allow him no time to consolidate his positions as he moves towards the Victorian border. When I said he would be across in a week, I was too optimistic. This is Wednesday, and I doubt if we have until Sunday.
“Gentlemen,” he said, sweeping his hand to the map. “They have now a practical possession of the New South Wales railway system, and of all the arterial highways and their mobility is assured.”
“But surely we can delay them by blowing up the railway bridges and destroying all petrol supplies on the line of march?” came a voice from the table.
Mackinnon returned and took his seat. “As Commander-in-Chief, my answer is, ‘yes.’ That course would effect some delay. But the answer to the problem is yours — not mine.”
“Problem?” queried the Prime Minister.
For answer, the General took a packet of papers from his pocket. “These are telegrams from Singleton, Cessnock, Liverpool, and other places. Every one of them tells the same story of ruthless slaughter of civilian population in the occupied districts. Every town or settlement they reach is subject to a systematic terrorisation. Age or sex makes no difference. They are sweeping ahead of them a vast, panic-stricken horde of refugees as they move south. These are using every possible form of transport. Some, of course, are moving west out of the line of march. Nevertheless all roads are congested with an uncontrolled traffic.
“You must visualise the situation clearly, Mr. Prime Minister. The evident intention of the enemy is to force you, the Government of this country, to accept their terms at the earliest possible moment. To do this they have adopted a policy of ‘frightfulness.’ They believe a terror-stricken people will force your hands, or that you will submit in order to stop the slaughter. If we cut the communication and destroy the petrol supplies on the line of advance, we condemn those refugees to death. Or, if not all, the greater number of them.
“Gentlemen, that decision rests with you. Thank God! It is not mine.”
“But, surely,” the Prime Minister said, “they will not dare to shock the civilised world with such crime. We have been able to establish communication with the Government of the United States. The report of such an infamy must move them to intervention.”
“That is a purely political matter,” replied Mackinnon. “If I venture any opinion at all it is that, judging from former actions of Washington, any optimism would be misplaced. In any case, intervention would be a matter of weeks; our problem is one of hours. If the enemy have considered such a factor at all, they have offset it in a determination to achieve a fait accompli.”
“You can offer no alternative?” came a voice from the table.
“None!” Mackinnon stood up, and looked round the strained faces. “I must advise you from the military situation alone. As regards the petrol problem I think it will solve itself. Investigation we have made in the past proves that the normal road supply would be entirely inadequate to meet an urgent demand for military purposes. The crowds rushing south will have drained every supply station in the line of advance. Possibly the enemy have made provision for their own supplies.”
“And the bridges?” The Minister for Defence asked.
“The destruction of the bridges must delay them — but not for long. It is you who must decide whether to cut that line of safety for the refugees. I have already given orders to all local authorities to try to turn the line of flight to the west. And I have dispatched a strong party of engineers by road. They are to reach as closely as possible to advanced parties of the enemy, and to cut the roads and bridges in any useful positions behind the fugitives.”
“When must you act?” The Prime Minister’s voice was unsteady as he spoke.
“Every hour — every minute counts. Apart from the assumption that the nearest enemy unit is only a little more than 200 miles from Albury — at Lithgow — there is the other factor of an attack and occupation of Kembla and Wollongong. If they strike there — and there is nothing to oppose them — they will move through Moss Vale and Goulburn to the vital road and rail junction at Cootamundra. That will result in cutting off all refugees north of that line. That would be an appalling situation, but not the worst aspect of it.”
“Could anything be worse’?” said the Prime Minister bitterly.
“Can you not realise what it would mean,” Mackinnon pointed to the map. “If they reach Cootamundra they are in possession of the entire vital area of Australia. With that in their hands ——”
He turned from the map and regarded them in silence.
“You mean that we’re ——” The Prime Minister did not put the thought into words.
“Nothing short of a miracle can save us.” Mackinnon’s voice carried a finality that left no room for argument or dissent.
“Have you formed any plans, General?” It was the Minister for Defence who broke the stunned silence in the room.
“So far as is humanly possible,” said Mackinnon grimly. “You must recognise the fact that the military initiative is entirely in the hands of the enemy. We can only try to anticipate his tactics, but we are positively on the defensive. But I must warn you, gentlemen. I should be failing in my duty if I attempted to minimise the critical nature of our position.”
“Let us hear the worst, rather than temporise with probabilities. We must know what we have to face.” The Prime Minister spoke for the gathering.
“You will need all your courage, gentlemen, but I do not doubt that. I only hope the people will display the same fortitude, for they, too, will be called upon to face the crisis of Australia’s history within a very few days.”
He resumed his seat and spoke quietly but decisively.
“In striking with synchronised attacks at both east and west, the enemy, who is fully conversant with our weakness, aimed at dividing our small force. We have already decided that any attempt to aid Western Australia by land is hopeless, and impracticable. I must jealously guard our small force for the desperate needs of the Eastern States.
“Queensland is hopelessly cut off, so we must rule out any hope of help from that quarter. Tasmania is isolated, though I am risking drawing one battalion of trained men as a reinforcement. When I say ‘risking,’ I mean that I am bringing them across from Burnie to-night to land them, I hope, in Portland to-morrow morning. But the possibility of the enemy sending destroyers to the Bass Straits is so great that I would not have done it had not the demand been so urgent.”
“What about Tasmania, General?” someone asked.
“Tasmania’s fate will be ours, in any case. They will not bother with the island or with Queensland until they have settled with us. Neither can offer any resistance — and the enemy know it.
“Gentlemen, we can only guess at the strength opposed to us, but I fear it is not less than three divisions: say, 48,000 men. But should it be only two, that is, 36,000 all told; the gravity of our position is not much improved. They are moving down to the Victorian border with all the speed they can muster. They know well that there are no means by which we can oppose them, and they know too that they can hold salient points in occupied territory with very small detachments. That is one of their objects in terrorising the country and cowing the civilians.
“I could move up to meet them over the New South Wales border, but believe me, gentlemen, it would take 100,000 troops to cope with the possibilities of their advance to Victoria. My base is here, and there are only too many ways in which they could hold me, while they outflanked me and came in on my rear. And moreover I cannot — dare not — divide my force.”
He held up his hand as the Prime Minister moved as though to speak. “Permit me to finish first, Sir. If I should move north, they may, and probably will, land behind me on the Victorian coast-line at Western Port. The longer their line of march from any one of their three landing places in New South Wales, the more their vulnerability increases. They know they must meet me, and they will do it at the first possible moment.”
“Their only possible line of advance is at one or more of the rail crossings at Albury, Corowa, Yarrawonga, or Tocumwal, but by any or all of these routes they must converge finally on Seymour by road or rail — and it is at Seymour my force is lying. If I do not go to meet them they are compelled to seek me out.”
“Seymour!” exclaimed the Prime Minister.
Mackinnon nodded. “It is the furthest point from their bases I can choose, and the one that will diminish their fighting strength to the greatest extent. Remember we will he fighting on ground we know, and I dare not choose a spot nearer Melbourne.”
“It seems a desperate chance, General.”
“That is what I want to impress upon you all,” Mackinnon said impressively. “It is desperate! but I am convinced that it is our only chance.”
“And if we fail ——”
“If we fail ——” The level gray eyes took in the silent group. “If we fail, then we reap our fools’ harvest. I use the expression without any personal implication. The fools are the entire population of this country, who have been warned again and again, and would not heed the warning.”
“And if you stop them?”
Mackinnon shrugged his stocky wide shoulders and smiled. “It will give us breathing space — but remember this! It will give them breathing space. Don’t misunderstand the situation. I am convinced that they have heavy reinforcements on the way. There is nothing in the Pacific to interfere with their communications. They can withdraw to the north, and consolidate and come again. The battle, even if we are successful, will weaken us too much to permit us to follow up any advantage.”
“You mean to tell us, then, that we must risk everything on one desperate throw, and if we lose it means unconditional surrender?”
“Exactly! All that would be left would be a useless guerilla warfare. It would do nothing more than enrage the enemy and make conditions harsher.”
“I may say, gentlemen,” he added, “that what I have told you is the considered opinion, not only of myself but of my staff.”
Never were there a sicker body of men than the eight Cabinet Ministers who listened to Mackinnon’s news. The utterly preposterous event that they and their predecessors had been warned of had actually happened. All the anxious questions they put to him only emphasised the acuteness of the peril.
None knew better than Mackinnon the almost hopeless task with which he was confronted. He had been forced to make a heartbreaking decision. He had to abandon New South Wales, and face a trained and elated army with half-trained and raw men. His only hope lay in that his men, who would be fresh, and fired by a spirit of high courage, would meet an army, tired by long marches, and who would fight on unfamiliar ground. But even so, he knew in his heart, that even if victorious, he must be eventually the victim of overwhelming numbers.
That night the Cabinet learned that the Government of the United States had protested against the slaughter of helpless civilians in Australia, and had received from the enemy’s Ambassador an emphatic assurance that the civilian population were being treated with consideration and a spirit of conciliation.
That night the Defence Council learned that the enemy had effected a landing at Port Kembla and Wollongong. Though two troopships had been sunk, only seven Australian fighting planes were intact.
At the same time came news of the first attempt at resistance on land by a hastily formed body of some fifty civilians, who, recognising the situation, made a desperate attempt to check the advance over the great bastion of the coastal ranges. They knew that the best line the enemy could take to reach the plateau was through the Macquarie Pass that winds down the precipitous face of the towering rampart of rock.
Arming themselves with shot guns and sporting rifles they piled into cars with all the explosives they could obtain. Half of them were experienced miners. Selecting a spot some third of the distance from the top of the pass they began feverishly to drill holes for their gelignite. An hour later they knew of the approach of a train of motor cars. Some fifteen or twenty went past filled with refugees who cried that the enemy were close behind.
They had left a guard of a dozen men on the bend below that on which they were working. A few minutes later an outburst of fire below warned them of the arrival of the enemy. A tree that had been cut through was hurled across the road by a charge of dynamite. While a dozen workers strove desperately to complete the drill holes that had been begun, the main body, from concealment in the undergrowth opened a steady fire down the pass. But under cover of a raking fire from machine guns the enemy moved up. As the fire of the defenders slackened the chatter of machine guns and the roll of rifle fire increased.
Seeing the attack must succeed, the charges were hastily inserted and exploded in an attempt to effect, at least, some damage. With the roar of the blast some hundreds of tons of rock were flung thundering down the mountain side. There was a momentary silence of firing as the mass of boulders went roaring and crashing among the timber — then it broke out again as the defenders began their retreat to the cars that they had left higher up.
It was a gallant but ineffectual attempt, for the road was only partially closed. As the first car sped round the next hairpin bend it was sighted by the enemy. It got through, but the next was swept with machine gun bullets and blocked the progress of those behind. The rest made a gallant fight to the end. The face above was too steep to climb. Though the men in the first car tried to cover their escape, the position was hopeless. They fell to the last man. Only one carload of six men lived to carry the news to Moss Vale that the enemy held the head of the pass.
The net was closing in.
That night, too, orders were issued for the removal of all inhabitants, live stock, and food supplies and fodder from the triangle formed by the railway, with Mangalore at its apex, and with the Murray at between Albury and Tocumwal as its base.
With the orders went another to the Field Company of Engineers to prepare all the bridges across the Murray in that area for demolition.
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 82-100
[Editor: Changed “Everyone of them” to “Every one of them”; “but beleve me” to “but believe me”.]