Excerpts From Discussion – March 9, 2002
DURING World War Two, Brisbane, as the largest city in the northern part of Australia and General Macarthur’s Headquarters, was vulnerable.
New Farm was considered especially endangered being close to the River and wharves, naval base and American activities. Shell Co had an oil storage base at Montpelier Street, and another near Lutwyche Road, Albion. The “Brisbane Line” meant that in the case of invasion Brisbane would be the “front line” for defense, the lightly populated North of Queensland being expected to fall to the invaders. Brisbane really was a frontier town during the war.
People remembered American servicemen, white and black, and some families made a point of inviting them for Sunday dinner. Note: General Macarthur organised the American support for the War in the Pacific from Brisbane, and Brisbane was filled with American servicemen and their bases and offices. Several Quonset huts can still be seen in the area, for example, two of them in Stratton Street, Newstead. The largest US submarine base in the Southern Hemisphere was at New Farm Wharf, at the riverbank end of Beeston Street (near Elders and Goldsborough Mort Woolstores). An engine room still standing on the riverbank had been built shortly after 1908 to produce refrigeration for cold storage for the Brisbane Stevedoring and Wool Dumping Company. This was used for refrigeration by the US Naval Base during the war.
There was the “Battle of Brisbane”, a clash between Australian and US troops near the corner of Adelaide and Creek Streets, which lasted intermittently for days, and during which there were fatalities.
People recalled the slit trenches in school grounds, the “air raid bag” that children carried that included a peg to be placed between the teeth, and air raid shelters in backyards and in the streets. After the war some of these concrete shelters were broken up and used on the river banks for stabilization. Windows had to be taped to prevent shattering in a bomb blast, and black-out regulations were in force. Petrol and some items of food and clothing were rationed. Some women learnt to make camouflage nets. Many houses had a Red Cross notice stating that for three pence a week “This house helps to support an Australian prisoner of war”.
Daylight saving was introduced in 1942 and school did not begin until about Easter owing to the fall of Singapore and general uncertainty. School hours were staggered, some children attending in the morning and others in the afternoon so that if the school were bombed not all the children were at risk. David Malouf’s novel Johnno has a good description of Brisbane during World War Two.
New Farm had a tree platform observatory at Teneriffe Hill from where the mouth of the River could be seen. There were several air raid alerts, but Brisbane was not bombed.
The Mine Watching Organization of Queensland was a group of women who met each week at the building then known as the Australian Comforts Fund Centre in Adelaide Street (near the Taxation Building). Parcels of food, knitted gloves, socks, balaclavas etc were packed and sent to our Armed Forces from here.
At the weekly meeting women were taught and practised the two methods of communication needed, semaphore and Morse code by torch light. They were also taught to use a compass and sextant so that they could track the mines. Many of the Mine Watching Organisation were members of the Girl Guide Movement and the Ranger Movement.
The theory held by the Mine Watching Organisation was that if the Japanese were to lay mines in the Port of Brisbane it would be done by a submarine, either the night before a full moon, on the full moon night, or the night after. The job of the women, some as young as 16, was to spot these mines and then work out the location and advise Headquarters.
Once each month groups of four women were transported to their allocated concrete air raid shelters. These were built along the river bank and in some cases in the front yards of homes as well, from New Farm to the mouth of the River. Young women took their own sleeping bags, food and communications equipment, and commenced duty at 8pm and finished at 6am, summer or winter. They were to look out for mines, but fortunately did not see any. There was a boom across the mouth of the River which was guarded by the Navy.
On the day war was declared, a German freighter in the River made a hasty getaway, fired on as it departed. The blast was felt as far away as Caboolture where it broke glass window panes.