The War Hits Australian Shores - And Goolwa Prepares for the Worst - February 1942

Goolwa goes to war 1939-1945 - FEBRUARY 1942 - by Frank Tuckwell

The speed of the Japanese advance as they serge towards Australia has brought about a call from the Commonwealth government for all people to prepare for what is ahead. Primarily, must be the response by each person within their capability, to face up to their responsibilities to the defence of the nation. Prime Minister John Curtain clearly states what is expected from of all citizens:

     “I demand that all Australians everywhere realise that Australia is now inside the firing lines. Australian governmental policy will be directed strictly on those lines. We have to regard our country and its seven million people as though we were a nation and a people with the enemy hammering at our frontier.

Australia must be perpetually on guard, on guard against the possibility, at any hour without warning, of raid or invasion, on guard of spending money, or doing anything that cannot be justified, on guard against hampering by disputation or idle, irresponsible chatter, the decision of the government taken for the welfare of all.

All Australia is the stake in this war. All Australia must stand together to hold that stake. We face a powerful, ably led and unbelievably courageous foe.” 

Four days later, on the 19th the Japanese came to hammer on Australia’s frontier doorway, as John Curtain warned, when their bombers rained destruction down on the city of Darwin.

From the 9th of February, all British and Australian forces are being withdrawn into Singapore for the last defence position, among these are several Goolwa servicemembers. On the 15th, Singapore fell to the Japanese as British surrenders all its forces to become prisoners of war. Although it was not known whether they had somehow escaped, were prisoners or dead, Privates Jeff Harris, Murray Burzacott, and Corporal Col Smith were believed to have been in Singapore when it was surrendered.

On Wednesday 14, the people of Goolwa had heard on news broadcasts that the Australian mainland has been attacked by the air might of the Empire of Japan, as 188 war planes pounded the harbour shipping, wharves, and airfields of the port town of Darwin in the Northern Territory. In the first wave of bombers, they struck at the shipping, docks, fuel storage, storehouses, and airfields. At the time of the raid on Darwin harbour, RAAF pilot Captain Bert Hussey of Port Elliot was sitting in a barber shop in Darwin, waiting his turn in the chair when he heard the bombs exploding around the port, he skipped his turn in the chair and sprinted to the docks where his aircraft, a big four engine Short Empire flying boat named Camilla, belonging to No. 11 Squadron was lying at its moorings.

Obscured by smoke from the blazing wharf and so hidden from Japanese, Bert clambered aboard the seaplane, then after a quick check, he roared the engines to life. He took off just in time to prevent their destruction, as the M.V. Neptuna, loaded with hundreds of tons of depth chargers and other explosives blew up at the burning wharf nearby. Two hours later, a second wave of aircraft struck again at the remaining untouched targets in the town and harbour. At the end of this first day of Japanese air raids, the scene in the harbour, crammed with shipping, eight ships were sunk, two were beached and amongst a further thirty-five ships, many had been damaged by bombs or heavy strafing. Among the smoking ruins of Darwin, rescuers were tending the casualties and recovering bodies of those killed.

Japanese troops have landed in New Guinea at Lae and Salamaua, on Huon Bay. Clearly their intention is to begin a drive towards Port Moresby and then Australia. Enemy troops have also landed on the Solomon Islands, underlining Australia’s dangerous situation, as they are now constructing an airfield on Guadalcanal which will give them bomber range over Port Moresby and targets in northern Queensland.

In a checking move, US troops begin to land in Noumea, New Caledonia, to set up a staging base for the probability of mounting an invasion of Guadalcanal.


The 2/3 Machine gun Battalion

On February 1, the ORCADES, a former passenger liner converted into a fast troop transport ship, was on the high seas on its way to Australia from the Suez carrying AIF forces on recall to defend the country from threatened Japanese invasion. On board were members of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion of which three are members from Goolwa.

With Singapore taken, the Japanese continued onward through the Netherlands East Indies, so the ORCADES under Royal Navy orders, was diverted to Oosthaven, in Sumatra on February 15. Here the troops it carried were brought ashore and assembled to provide a defence force at Palembang airfields. Shortly after taking up this position, they were ordered to re-embark on the oil tanker VAN SPILLSBERGEN to catch up and reboard the ORCADES that was sailing ahead on its journey to Batavia.

On landing there, a collection of troops from the ship have been grouped together to create an ad hoc force including a squadron from the British 3rd King’s Own Hussars and an artillery battery from the US 131st Field Artillery Regiment. This force was placed under Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Blackburn VC, now promoted to brigadier, so the outfit would hereafter become known as “Black force.” Within this force were Australians who have escaped from Singapore before it fell.

“Black force” has been stationed as a defence force around Buitenzorg military airfield. On February 22, Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes attacked the base during which one member of 2/3rd Battalion was killed and six were wounded. The Goolwa members with the unit are Arthur Taylor, Tommy Atkins who were safe, with Arthur Westley who was wounded but returned to duty after treatment.

After being engaged in battles with the advancing Japanese forces and suffering considerable casualties, their latest position is on the southern coast of Batavia. The Allied forces on the island are beginning to collapse with confusion within the Dutch military authorities who have command overall of Allied forces and having little ability to overcome the beginning of defence fragmentation. The diversion of the ORCADES under British command infuriated Prime Minister Curtin who had no power to counter the ship’s diversion, or the handing over the Australian troops under Dutch command once landed on Java.


Alone -- Now is the time for BOLDNESS

The Federal Government has been steadily preparing for a war it did not want, not only because it was thrust into it by yet another European cause, but also by treacherous militarists who seized control of the ancient kingdom of Japan. With France and Holland subjugated by the Nazis and the United Kingdom in a mighty struggle for its existence, Australia finds itself alone in the south Asia-Pacific region. To the Japanese, Britain had yielded up Hong Kong, the Vichy French had turned over Indochina and now the Dutch were close to the end in the East Indies.

Prime Minister Curtin had earlier pondered the situation in an article in the Herald Sun in December 1941 when he wrote:

     “The Australian Government, therefore, regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies’ fighting plan. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

On February 23, Curtin asked Churchill for the return of all AIF ground troops in the Middle East to be returned for the defence of Australia, by reasoning that Britain will stand, but without its own troops Australia may go under. Churchill argued against the withdrawal, but Curtain was adamant that they must come home, or they would be ordered home. Finally, Churchill relented but requested the 9th Division be allowed to stay in the Middle East, for exchange in their place, the US army 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division will be sent to Australia by an agreement made with the US Government.

Three months of fighting retreat from down the Malayan peninsula, Singapore and along the island chain of the Netherland East Indies, can now be seen to have given time for the defence of Australia to be put in place. American aircraft, engineering teams, hospital and medical units, equipment and supplies begin to pour into Queensland.

This month, twelve B17 aircraft of the USAAF 22nd Bomber Squadron, arrived in Townsville. These were preceded by thirty-one US P40 Kittyhawk fighter aircraft having landed at Cloncurry, Queensland. US ordered the construction of an airfield at Charters Towers as a dispersal strip for Garbutt, setting a completed construction deadline of 14 days.


Home Defence around Goolwa

The VDC Home Guard have now been fully issued with their uniforms, adding to their feeling of worth and unity of purpose. The Goolwa unit has had 18 months of training and have developed into a cohesive and highly capable Home Guard defence group. The unit still has vacancies and offers this opportunity to serve to any man between the age of 18 and 60 years who are not eligible for other military service.

Goolwa Home Guard members have responded to Department of Defence directive’s regarding preparations for any invasion, by spending the first weekend of February erecting a defence position at the Goolwa Beach car park. The unit has dug a fortification on the western side of the road around 10 feet square, lined by a wall of sandbags, up to three rows above surrounding ground level. The seaward facing wall had an extension big enough to house a machine gun position. The whole outpost was roofed over with widely spaced former electricity power poles, topped with loosely coiled barbed wire.


Black-out begins

Goolwa along with all other towns around Australia, participated in the national “black out” night test recently. ARP Chief Warden Arnold Minns has reported a successful exercise by his patrol team in the conduct of the test. Team members have given advice to residents where minor defects have occurred in their home black out preparations. They also pointed out that it is the law to have complete black out protection with no light escaping the building before internal lighting is required to be switched on. Black out precautions must apply every night and ARP wardens will be on patrol. Persons not completely complying with these regulations will be reported to the authorities by wardens and will be liable for legal action.


Air Raid protection for school students

Eric Gann, the new locum tenens head teacher at the Goolwa Primary School started out this month with the problems of introducing air raid drills and procedures as well as establishing safety practices during what is at present, before and after theoretical air raids. He and his teachers can explain and drills, but what about outside the building? There are no air raid shelters yet provided with which to practice drills related to them. For advice he called on the ARP Chief Warden, Arnold Minns, the new head teacher Eric was happy to find Arnold is also the present chairman of the school committee. Quickly, they met together to plan action to get tthe shelters. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             There were officials that had to be contacted and specifications for shelters to be worked out before work could proceed. It may be weeks before they will be ready unless the Japanese threat forces instant action to take place.


Australian writer, Dame Mary Gilmore’s Singapore poem

Stunned as all Australians are that our nation’s troops were surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore, Dame Mary Gilmore1 writing in the latest issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly reveals the anger felt about British 19th century attitude to defence planning of Singapore in a poem entitled simply “Singapore”.

             They grouped together about the chief,

               and each one looked at his mate,

             Ashamed to think that Australian men

               should meet a bitter fate!

             And black was the wrath in each hot heart,

               and savage the oaths they swore,

             As they thought as how they had all been ditched

               By “impregnable” Singapore.


             In her vaunted place she squatted the sea,

                on a base that was Maginot bred,

             Her startled face looked up at the skies,

                to the enemy planes o’erhead,

             Enemy planes, while ours were where?

                that cry we had heard before,

             Our hearts were wrung as it rose this time,

                 from beleaguered Singapore.


             She brought forth death as her eldest child,

                 with defeat as her second son,

             Then she hung a white flag out on a staff,

                  to show that her task was done.

              and sick with rage the Australians stood,

                   and God! how those Anzacs swore –

              Bennett and all his men alike-

                   at the fall of Singapore.


              Whose was the fault she betrayed our troops?

                   whose was the fault she failed?

              Ask it of those who lowered the flag,

                   that once to the mast was nailed!

              Tell them we’ll raise it on Anzac soil,

                    with hearts that are steeled to the core,

               We swear by our dead and captive sons,

                    REVENGE FOR SINGAPORE!




1.     Dame Mary Gilmore DBE (Dame Commander Order of the British Empire), Australian writer and author. (1865-1962), Dame Mary’s image appears on the Australian $10 note. She was honoured with a state funeral in 1962, as formerly was given to Henry Lawson, in recognition of their contribution to Australian literature.