Conditions have altered materially since the fall of Singapore…. [We have] to face the possibility of an enemy landing on these shores. – Tasmanian Premier Robert Cosgrove, 2 March, 1942
‘I have seen what these Japanese bombs can do, and I am horrified to think of what they might do in the cities and towns of Tasmania.’
‘Bombing would not be any different from the disastrous floods and fires which Australia has experienced in the past. Public reaction would be the same. Without thought of inconvenience or cost, the homeless people would be taken into homes in close proximity, where they could rest, and be provided with warmth, food, and arrangements made for their accommodation.’ – Hobart Town Clerk H.J.R. Cole, 1943
Tasmanians always rise to a challenge, and this was no exception. On 7 April 1942, the Mercury published a comprehensive scheme for Air Raid Shelters in Hobart. It included a list of trenches on public and private land, converted private buildings, and concrete pipe shelters. Assuming that 10% of the population was likely to be in the streets when an attack was launched, the planners had to accommodate 3000 people in Hobart at a moment’s notice.
More than 14,000 volunteers (men and women with disabilities, in reserved occupations, the elderly, WWI veterans and others) volunteered to protect their friends and neighbors. They worked in aircraft spotting, coastal defense, coast watching and search light services. They set up emergency hospitals, gas decontamination squads, canteen services, and much more – including the air raid shelters. Others trained as guerillas. Some were paid, but many more worked for free. Every major town in Tasmania had its own branch of the Civil Defence Legion.
Tasmanians were learning their lessons from the Blitz – the Nazi bombardment of Britain that killed more than 43,500 thousand civilians, including their friends and relatives, only a few months before (September 1940-May 1941). Newspaper articles provided tips for your own backyard air shelter, from portable pear-shaped shelters to one that ‘a housewife can erect in a drawing room’ to practical advice on how to fight fire bombs. Parents dug shelters at schools in the Derwent Valley and around the state. There were constant calls for the trenches to be supervised, to safeguard them against children playing in them ‘in a manner likely to be destructive’ and ‘from being used for undesirable purposes by others.’
Placards were placed in public places which instructed people on what to do in the event of an emergency. In any public building – a school, a government building, a library – you would have seen these reminders:
The Civil Defence Legion also circulated pamphlets that gave detailed instructions on what to do during a raid and what the different air raid sirens meant. They also gave helpful diagrams and plans for building backyard and trench shelters.
Luckily, the shelters were never needed. Hobart escaped Japanese bombardment (although a reconnaissance plane, launched from a submarine in Great Oyster Bay, did fly over the harbour in March 1942 – an event that was never reported in the papers). Towards the end of the war, folks were already starting to reminisce about the shelters with good humour about neighbourhood camaraderie and family shenanigans, including this one about the author’s father’s construction of what was lovingly (?) referred to as ‘The Typhus Trap’ .
Do you have memories of air raid shelters? Did your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents help out with the Civil Defence? Share your stories in the comments, we’d love to hear them!
Many thanks to the wonderful Lydia Whitehouse in the State Library and Archives Service, who came up with the idea for this blog and did so much of the initial research for it.
Check out these terrific stories on the Australian War Memorial Blog
There are also some really absorbing exhibits at the Imperial War Museums in the UK!
In the Library
Here’s a list of a few of the resources available from the State Library and Archives Services on Tasmania’s Civil Defence Legion
Jim Haynes, On all fronts : Australia’s World War II.
Michael McKernan, Australians at home : World War II.
John Pimlott, The Viking atlas of World War II.
Gerhard L. Weinberg, A world at arms : a global history of World War II.