Take Cover! Tasmania’s WWII Air Raid Shelters

The next time you’re in Franklin Square, consider this: you’re standing on an air raid shelter. In 1942, the ground beneath your feet was dug up by Civil Defence Force volunteers –  ordinary Hobart residents protecting their neighbours, families, and friends from enemy attack. All around Tasmania, people were digging shelters – in their backyards, at their children’s schools, and in public parks. It’s an amazing story of spirit and pluck in a time of darkness.

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

In 1942, Tasmania seemed to be in grave peril. In December of 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese, and 130,000 people were taken prisoner (including 15,000 Australians). Four days later, the Japanese bombed Darwin. On March 4, the Japanese raided Darwin again, this time strafing it with machine gun fire. Being an island on the edge of the world didn’t mean you were safe – the Japanese invaded Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and bombed Dutch Harbor in 1942. Tasmania might be next in line, and men who had been in service in the Pacific decried the ‘shocking lack of shelters,’ as Mr. N.J. Dutton told the Examiner,
‘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.’

Going Underground

Air raid pipe shelter and trench, Hobart, air raid precautions (ARP), (originally from Box 637), Sharland Box 2. TAHO, NS4023/1/238, Mercury Historical Collection

‘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.

Possible backyard shelter? Air raid shelter, Hobart, air raid precautions (ARP), Sharland Box 2. TAHO, NS4023/1/237, Mercury Historical Collection

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:

Placard, ‘Air Raid Precautions: Instructions to the Public,’ 1940. This sort of placard would have been prominently posted in public spaces all around Hobart during the war. TL.PQ 363.35 TAS

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.

Helpful tips on how to construct a trench shelter. In Tasmania, Civil Defence Legion. Air Raid Precautions, Hobart, 1941. CRO.P 363.35 TAS

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.

Further Reading

Online

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.

Matt O’Brien, Tasmania’s War Effort: a brief outline of the part played by Tasmanians in aiding the war effort of Australia in the World War, 1939-1945

John Pimlott, The Viking atlas of World War II.

Gerhard L. Weinberg, A world at arms : a global history of World War II.

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Author: Anna Claydon

Anna is an archivist with the State Library and Archives Service.

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