Culture and heritage

Heritage

Thematic Listings Program 2009-2010: World War I and II sites

November 11 2008 marked the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I, with the 70th anniversary of the commencement of World War II being commemorated on 3 September 2009. This provides a significant opportunity to remember two very different conflicts and their impacts on New South Wales.

World War I propelled Australia into a full sense of its national identity, one which was finally accepted by the 'Mother Country'. However the war was largely remote from Australia except for local encounters such as the sinking of the German battle cruiser Emden far off the Western Australian coastline in 1914, the occupation of German New Guinea to the north that year, and the 'Broken Hill Massacre' when two local 'Afghans' opened fire on a picnic train on New Year's Day 1915, killing four and wounding seven before being killed. A lone German merchant raider left a minefield off south NSW sinking the British freighter Cumberland in 1917.

Tocumwal, NSW. C. 1944. Two WAAAF armourers working on a gun turret of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft at No. 7 Operational Training Unit, RAAF Station Tocumwal. ID VIC0376

Tocumwal, NSW. C. 1944. Two WAAAF armourers working on a gun turret of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft at No. 7 Operational Training Unit, RAAF Station Tocumwal. ID VIC0376

General view of the wreck of the M24 midget submarine

General view of the wreck of the M24 midget submarine

World War II brought 'total war' to Australia with full mobilisation of all available citizenry and industry. Heavy fighting occurred close to Australia's borders, such as New Guinea and the Coral Sea. For the first time mainland Australia was attacked with strikes at Sydney, Broome and Darwin. The conflict now involved the civilian community, either indirectly as war workers, or as victims of enemy action.

Though Australia went to war enthusiastically in August 1914, Australians had not been readily accepted as suitable soldier material by the British High Command. This was to be overcome with Australian performances in major battles at Gallipoli, Passendaele, Fromelles and Bullecourt. At home, the primitive state of Australian industry ensured that production of munitions for the war effort was largely limited to the output of government owned factories, including the recently built small arms factory at Lithgow. Australian troops however were clothed, fed and shod well by Australian products. One major initiative though, was the establishment of an iron and steel industry at Newcastle, which enhanced the basic sinews of heavy industry to Australia and formed the basis for later expansion.

Following Britain's lead, Australia declared war on Germany in September 1939. Initially, war did not touch Australian shores and our involvement was limited to the establishment of the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS). This produced pilots and aircrew and left a considerable impact on the landscape. Airfields were built and target ranges constructed in remote areas. In time, some airfields evolved into strategic defence aerodromes, like Bankstown and Evans Head Aerodromes. Army camps to house troops and larger areas for manoeuvres were also set up, whilst the Navy also took over suitable locations and built its own facilities. The Rathmines Seaplane Base at Lake Macquarie played a significant part in coastal convoy surveillance and anti-submarine attacks.

A total of eighteen vessels were sunk in NSW coastal waters as a result of submarine attacks or mine fields during both wars. Today, the archaeological remains of these ships and crews are beginning to be located and visited by recreational divers. The discovery of the missing Japanese midget submarine M24, from the famous 31 May 1942 attack on Sydney, is one such vessel. Scattered along the coast are freighters, tankers and even United States Liberty ships still containing their cargoes of war, a unique physical reminder of the campaigns.

World War II saw a more sophisticated defence industry geared up to produce needed munitions. This time, not only was Australia able to produce small arms and ammunition, but it was able to turn out aeroplanes, armoured vehicles and ships, as well as advanced radio, radar and optical munitions. A range of vital products were produced by private industry in special 'annexes' established by the Federal government. In the later stages of the war, as victory became ever more certain, Australia shifted its focus to food production, a role immortalized in the film, 'The Overlanders'.

Production was spurred on tremendously when Japan attacked the US Pacific Fleet Base at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. Following strikes against Malaya led to a rapid Japanese advance towards Australia. To deal with the national emergency, the Federal Government, under John Curtin, took full control over the Australian labour force, both men and women. Defence works were pressed ahead including coastal defences, anti-aircraft batteries, anti-tank defences, ditches, anti-aircraft shelters and slit trenches. There were plans to demolish major bridges and to evacuate people from strategic areas. (Fort Drummond, Port Kembla batteries; Lithgow anti-aircraft sites; Anti-tank defences at Belmont). Famous landmarks such as Manly and Bondi Beaches became draped in barbed wire.

Yooroonah Tank Traps, near Armidale

Yooroonah Tank Traps, near Armidale

Yooroonah Tank Traps, near Armidale

Yooroonah Tank Traps, near Armidale

Not only were there significant cultural changes with more women entering the workforce, in roles traditionally filled by men, but the influx of large numbers of US servicemen from 1942 caused a level of discontent. To house, clothe and feed American servicemen, new bases were built, property was requisitioned and more pressure placed on Australian output of goods and services. In 1945 Sydney was retained as the major southern base for the British Navy.

In both wars, internment camps held enemy nationals, while Prisoner Of War camps held captured servicemen. Trial Bay and Berrima Gaol's held German internees during World War I. Japanese troops held prisoner at Cowra in World War II staged a mass breakout on 5 August 1944, with a number later committing suicide. In total, three Australian guards and 234 Japanese died in the breakout.

Cowra, NSW. 1944-07-01. Japanese prisoners of war playing baseball on the playing area outside their living quarters at the 12th prisoner of war camp. These photographs were taken for the far eastern liaison office, as a basis for propaganda leaflets to be dropped over Japanese held islands and the Japanese mainland. ID 067189

Cowra, NSW. 1944-07-01. Japanese prisoners of war playing baseball on the playing area outside their living quarters at the 12th prisoner of war camp. These photographs were taken for the far eastern liaison office, as a basis for propaganda leaflets to be dropped over Japanese held islands and the Japanese mainland. ID 067189

De Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd, Sydney, Mosquito - Mk 40 Descriptive manual - Two Packard Merlin 31 or 33 engines, RAAF Publication No 390, Jan 1945

De Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd, Sydney, Mosquito - Mk 40 Descriptive manual - Two Packard Merlin 31 or 33 engines, RAAF Publication No 390, Jan 1945

Industry turned out the products needed to undertake the Second World War. A test for Australian industry was the production of the de Havilland Mosquito, a revolutionary and versatile aircraft made largely of timber. Designed in Britain, it needed a number of alterations to the design to modify it for Australian production. Australian coachwood substituted the Brazilian balsa extensively used in Britain. The aircraft were assembled at de Havilland's newly built factory at the southern end of Bankstown aerodrome with the first coming off the assembly line in July 1943. The aircraft drew components from a wide area with timber sourced from forests on the North Coast, while the Beale Piano Company at Annandale, turned out body panels. Cable plating and compression assembly components came from the Wunderlich factory. The aluminum for the engines was refined at the Alcan works at Rosehill. The engines were manufactured by the Commonwealth Aircraft engine plant at Lidcombe. Propellers came from de Havilland's own factory at Alexandria. Decentralisation of factories and training facilities has scattered important heritage sites across the state.

Many aircraft were lost in training mishaps or on operational sorties, both on land and at sea. One case shows the dangers involved. In 1945 a Mosquito Mark IV bomber crashed into the grounds of Petersham Public School, after both engines caught fire. The body of Flight-Lieutenant David Rochford landed beside frightened school children, still strapped into part of the wreckage. A fast thinking Headmaster, Mr Allmon, covered the pilot's body with a parachute. Today a memorial plaque, constructed out of the plane's wreckage, marks the impact site.

The war reached across the nation, into homes, churches, factories and the human heart. Evidence in the NSW landscsape is widespread but not always well recognised today. This project aims to ensure that sites of significance to both World Wars are located, identified and assessed for their heritage values. Places identified as of State heritage value will be considered for listing on the State Heritage Register under the NSW Heritage Act 1977. This will add key sites to those already identified and protected.

Significant publications

  • Bevege, Margaret, Behind Barbed Wire: internment in Australia during World War II, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993
  • Brown, Richard, 'Defenders of Newcastle: the tank traps of Belmont', Wartime, 5, 1999, pp 39-40
  • Inglis, K S, Sacred Places: War memorials in the Australian landscape, Miegunyah, Melbourne, 1999
  • Mellor, D P, The Role of Science and Industry, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1958
  • Pennay, Bruce John, On the Home Front: Albury during the Second World War, Albury & District Historical Society, Albury, 1992
  • Rigley, Tony, 'The Civil Construction Corps, 1942-1945', Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 25, Oct 1994
  • Robertson and Hindmarsh Pty Ltd (Scott Robertson, Noni Boyd and Terry Kass), World Wars I and II: Survey of buildings, sites and cultural landscapes in NSW, 2006
  • Ross, A T, Armed and Ready: The industrial development and defence of Australia 1900-1945, Turton and Armstrong, Sydney, 1995
  • Scott, Ernest, Australia During the War, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941 (Volume XI of Official History of Australia During the War)
  • Stuart, Iain, 'Of the hut I bolted: A preliminary account of prefabricated semi-cylindrical huts in Australia', Historic Environment, 19, 1, Dec 2005
Page last updated: 01 September 2012