12/07/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - WA’s war history goes AWOL

12/07/2005 - 22:00


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For reasons never clear to me, the University of WA’s history department avoided focusing on military history.

For reasons never clear to me, the University of WA’s history department avoided focusing on military history.

And this proclivity appears to have intensified after I left the institution in 1972.

In 1981 I was asked to review a recently released book, A New History of Western Australia, edited by UWA academic, Dr Tom Stannage, who now holds the even more influential post of executive humanities dean at Curtin University.

In that review (The Weekend Australian Magazine, August 29-30, 1981), headlined, ‘Out West, war doesn’t rate a mention’, I pointed out that this 850-page tome had no chapters on Western Australia’s role in two world wars and the 1899-1902 Boer War.

A key aspect of 13 of WA’s first 150 years, therefore, was inexplicably ignored.

“During World War II, northern WA, like Darwin, was bombed at a number of points,” I wrote.

“People were killed. Huge forces were stationed throughout the state, including points like Jurien Bay, where a Japanese naval landing was anticipated.

“Not only was there a ‘Brisbane Line’, but a WA counterpart also existed; the ‘Moora Line’.

“Last-ditch stands were considered in the west as in the east. Perth’s seaside suburbs were heavily fortified and Albany, Fremantle and Exmouth were submarine and other bases for the American Navy.”

UWA history department’s tiptoeing around the war that so impacted upon Western Australians’ lives is still baffling.

Thankfully, Premier Geoff Gallop isn’t as shortsighted. At a recent estimates committee hearing he highlighted several small government grants.

“I conclude by saying that this year we will commemorate eight Western Australian communities that were bombed during the Second World War,” Dr Gallop said.

“An amount of $5,000 has been donated to Broome, Exmouth, Derby, Onslow, Port Hedland, Wyndham, Kalumburu and Port Gregory for special commemorative community events.

“The towns were bombed during the 1940s when WA was under threat.”

Dr Gallop next commended former MP Phillip Pendal for a Foundation Day lecture he delivered to the Royal WA Historical Society on the preparation and planning for World War II undertaken by the state government of the time.

“At that time, the threat was seen to be real,” Dr Gallop said.

“Singapore had fallen and there were bombings in the north of the state. Serious consideration was given to moving government offices from Perth.”

In light of this, what could A New History of Western Australia have canvassed in a chapter focusing upon WA at war, especially after Japan’s swift 1941-42 onslaughts?

If a well-informed historian was commissioned, what would have emerged is that northern WA was of secondary concern to Tokyo’s militarists.

The reason was that Japan’s main thrust was through the Solomons, towards New Zealand, to cut it and Australia off from the west coast of the US, after which both these weak south-western Pacific European outposts would be incorporated into Tokyo’s envisaged oriental co-prosperity sphere.

Quislings may even have emerged for Canberra and Wellington, not to mention Perth.

Certainly, if Japan’s New Guinea campaign and the Coral Sea clash had succeeded, Townsville may have been occupied, but probably only briefly.

This didn’t, however, mean northern WA was irrelevant.

Northern Australia was of concern to Japan’s various military arms based in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and beyond.

The same naval-air group that struck Pearl Harbor in December 1941 hit Darwin in early 1942, and proceeded to engage British forces off Ceylon.

Thereafter, Darwin came under ongoing attacks for nearly two years.

With the fall of Malaya/Singapore, Indonesia and Portuguese Timor, Australia’s entire north was vulnerable.

Whether Japan could have landed a sizeable occupation unit remains debatable.

However, just because we now more fully appreciate that Japan’s initial determining thrust was towards New Zealand doesn’t mean that was clear in 1942-43.

War’s inherent partner is uncertainty, and generally lots of it.

Broome, in early 1942, was a prime Japanese target because allied, including Dutch, personnel reached it fleeing for their lives.

Broome was like Dover and other southern British ports after Dunkirk.

It was attacked from the air, as were, at this time, Derby and Wyndham, where the coastal freighter, Koolama, sank after being attacked on its northward journey.

In September 1943, Kalumburu Benedictine Aboriginal mission was heavily bombed, probably because of its airfield.

Northern WA later had several airbases constructed, including at Trustcott, Noonkanbah and further south, at Corunna Downs for use by Australians and Americans to bomb Japanese naval and other facilities, especially on Java.

Long-range Japanese flying boats attacked Onslow and Exmouth during 1942-43. In July 1942, Betty Bombers from Timor struck Port Hedland, killing Private John Adams of Millenden, WA’s only military fatality on home soil. 

A Japanese submarine even shelled Port Gregory, near Geraldton, in January 1943.

Although these were largely nuisance raids they were also reconnaissance ones to pinpoint airfields and coastal facilities.

At least one Japanese intelligence unit secretly landed in the Kimberley, unbeknown to the Australians.

The Japanese were dogged and skillful practitioners of the military arts and undoubtedly felt WA could be a formidable, indeed, determining, platform to strike at their short-lived Asian empire’s soft underbelly.

That, incidentally was why Fremantle and the Potshot submarine facility at Exmouth were so crucial.

Few realise Fremantle was the US’s major base after Hawaii for the Americans’ silent service’s hunter-killer submarines to deprive Japan of oil and rubber.

Fremantle was ideally situated to launch submarine strikes at the Indonesian archipelago to destroy Japanese oil carriers destined for Japan’s formidable and resource-hungry military-industrial complex.

Submarines left Fremantle, stopped at Potshot, replenished with fuel and provisions, and struck deep into Japanese-held waters.

Fremantle was called Fortress Fremantle, which is what it was.

Dutch and British submarines were also based there and it was heavily defended with big guns at Buckland Hill and Rottnest, plus many other locations.

The area between Perth and Geraldton was, for much of the war, manned by up to 10,000 men since it’s here the military believed the Japanese could strike.

An invasion was anticipated.

Here, Mr Pendal’s findings on where the then state governor, Sir James Mitchell, resided during the war in his recent lecture are fascinating.

“In all likelihood it was the Japanese bombing of Broome on March 3 that stung the government into action over Mitchell’s safety,” Mr Pendal said.

“For within 11 days a brief statement appears in The West Australian, to the effect that Sir James and Lady Mitchell and their staff would ‘move to a house in Kalamunda to make Government House available for State Government offices’.

“This was a fabrication, or … a half-truth.

“The story quoted no official, but was in all likelihood published with the newspaper knowing the real truth – namely that it was vital for state morale for the Lieutenant-Governor to be removed to a safer place but without alarming the citizenry.”

And Mr Pendal revealed the existence of a top-secret plan to relocate WA’s capital to Kalgoorlie.

Western Australians volunteered heavily for the forces, including before Singapore fell, fighting in North Africa, the Middle East, Crete and Greece.

WA participated in the Empire Air Training Scheme, with flying and aircrew training facilities at Geraldton and Cunderdin.

So much that should be known by school students, it seems, remains unavailable in an easy-to-read single text.


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