Start of World War 2 - Goolwa's stories

AROUND THE TOWN Sept’19 by Frank Tuckwell

A significant meeting in Alexandrina Council Centre took place on Friday August 9, when Murray Darling Association’s (MDA) Region 6 met in session to consider notices of motion the regional body is to submit to the upcoming MDA national conference and AGM, to be held in Toowoomba Qld., on October 22 to 25th.

Region 6 of the association takes in all participating Councils in the Lower Murray and lakes from Murray Bridge to Goolwa at the end of the system and covering an extensive area of the state’s Murray Mallee district. The Region was the first established in SA in December 1944, a few months after the national body was formed in Yarrawonga that year. Although the MDA is a non-government organisation, it has become a strong voice for the Basin’s Councils on matters pertaining to riverine and riparian conditions along 12 MDA regions of which the Murray Darling river system flows.

In these interests it is most important for Alexandrina Council to have a strong voice in matters considered within Region 6, and it is vital for the Region to have a stronger voice nationally, both at board level and at Federal Conference where policy decisions are made.

A short history of our local Council 1853-1997 (Part 7)

The Corporation of Goolwa passed into history on amalgamation into the District Council of Port Elliot on May 12,1932, with the new Council being subdivided into seven wards to accommodate Goolwa and Sturt wards (formerly North and South wards). The new Council’s wards were; Hindmarsh Island, Nangkita, Middleton, Pt Elliot, Goolwa, Sturt, and Currency Creek. The nature of the amalgamation caused bitter resentment from Goolwa interests but matured after some time due to the historic connection between the towns of Goolwa and Pt Elliot. The amalgamation in later years, despite the depression period, produced a strong, well respected Council with its head office in Goolwa.

Having overcome most financial and operational hardships, the Council moved forward with confidence in the late 1930’s. However, the approach of WW2 caused effects unforeseen in its outset. The most critical of these was a personal disagreement between elected members in 1939 on the appointment of the District Clerk, which widened to involve Goolwa Returned Soldiers League (RSL) to become known as the “has been” incident.

In discussion by Council members about the qualities required in selection of the successful candidate from the number of applicants received, the suggestion was put forward that returned soldiers should hold preference. In considering this aspect, a heated exchange between members ensued with the words “has-beens” being uttered.

The outcome of the selection was that a young man, Reginald (Reg) H. Bristow-Smith, won the appointment over the incumbent District Clerk, Clement (Clem) Sandland, an ex-serviceman who had held the office for 19 years. Reg, on the other hand was well qualified for the position, and although not a returned serviceman he was young and had an impressive resume. Many Councillors were looking for a younger, active officer with his prime years ahead, rather than an alternative from the candidates reaching an age with a limited employment life ahead – thus in that reference the “has-beens” utterance was probably offered.

However, the state-wide printed media picked up the story suggesting the meaning of the expression was referring specifically to returned soldier applicants. This caused a disturbance among the town’s population. The Goolwa sub-branch of the RSL at its general meeting, reacted to the remark made in Council by branch members who took the words to be an insult to returned service men generally, particularly as their Goolwa branch president was a Councillor, and had voted against the selected candidate. The branch meeting then moved that an apology be demanded of Council for the “has-been” remark, while assuring Council that they held no ill feeling toward the new District Clerk. The Council in reply stated that there was some doubt that the remark had been made in the chamber as its members had only the highest regard and respect for returned servicemen. Within a few short months Australia was at war and within a year or two young Reg Bristow-Smith would himself be on the way to earning his qualification as a returned soldier.


Because this month marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2, and most of the men and women who served in that conflict have passed on, only those few who are left are now carrying the memories of their service. In honour of these precious few who may all too soon pass into history, we honour them and all those who served in World War 2, to which we add the memories of the Goolwa home-front during those years. We will endeavour to reflect in this way, in a series of articles of the way our town served in its own way at home and abroad over the period.


September 1939.

It was hard to imagine here on that pleasant spring morning of Sunday, September 3, 1939, as the little town of Goolwa was going about its business without an inkling that by nightfall each person’s life would be changed forever. The Methodist and Anglican church bells rang to call their members to worship while the Church of Christ and Roman Catholic folk quietly assembled for their services, and around the little village others were stirring from their beds to begin their day.

Tony Gell, local cinema proprietor, was pasting up movie day-bills on the boards around town for the next picture show program at the Centenary hall. Young Jack Berkshire, mechanic and pump attendant, was filling the tank of Eric Mayne’s Chev sedan at Johnny Sharp’s Goolwa Motor House and Garage in Cadell Street, while Ernie “Cook” Godfrey, engine driver, topped up the fuel tank of the big Blackstone engine as it thumped away generating enough power to allow the few customers of the Goolwa power house to use electric irons and other appliances for a short period of hours. Goolwa barrage construction was almost completed and so was the Tauwitcherie barrage at Pelican Point.

Everyone had been aware that there were political troubles in Europe caused by a troublesome set of dictators threatening their own and neighbouring people, and in Asia Japan and China were fighting each other for some years, but hey! - the French will look after Indochina and the Royal Navy will look after the ports and the Malay-Singapore defences, and as the Dutch have control of the East Indies, all’s right isn’t it? The winter sporting season dominated the real and lasting interests of most people right here at home, and now spring and summer events were on the horizon for the 1939-40 season!

As that pleasant Sunday spring day closed, following dinner it was the practice for people young and old, to gather around the sitting room to listen to the radio and its various programs, but always they were to tune into the latest news broadcast. Early evening announcements indicated that the usual political squabbles with Germany were reaching a climax and that listeners should stand-by for an important announcement from Prime Minister Menzies. At 8.45pm (SA), the Prime Minister came on the air and with a calm, serious voice, made the dramatic announcement to the nation:

“Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence by the persistence of Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement.

Great Britain and France, with the cooperation of the British Dominions, have struggled to avoid this tragedy. They have given no cause for aggression. But in the result their efforts have failed, and we are therefore, as a great family of nations, involved in a struggle we must at all costs win, and which we believe in our hearts we will win”.

And so, in just 20 years after the first world war had ended, the great wheel of history had turned to find that despite two decades of peace, the world had neither learned nor remembered the lessons of that conflict, and so were doomed to repeat them. Brave little Goolwa had no space left on the town’s existing war memorials to carve the names of its sons and daughters who would soon answer the Prime Ministers words of the nation’s belief in an eventual and righteous victory.