Business as usual?

Sydney, c1941

In the Second World War, Japanese aircraft carried out over one hundred air raids on Australia, the most deadly of which, by far, were the first Darwin raid on 19 February 1942, which killed 236 people, and the raid on Broome on 6 March, which killed 88. The major population centres further south were never bombed, mainly because they were much further south. (The only other town of any sized attacked from the air, in three very small raids in July, was Townsville, 1350km north of Brisbane.) But after the fall of Singapore on 15 February, there was certainly an expectation of attacks, if not invasion. One indication of this is the civil defence schemes from the early years of the war that were beefed up and put into action now. All those things that Australians had learned about in the news from the 1940-41 Blitz -- blackouts, shelters, air raid wardens -- now became familiar here, if on a smaller scale. (Though the blackout was usually more of a brownout.) We don't know what would have happened had the southern cities been hit by air raids, but we can guess at how things would have started, based on behaviour during false air raid alarms which occurred early in the war with Japan.

An early one took place in Sydney, less than two weeks after the Japanese attack on Malaya and Borneo (and Pearl Harbor), when technicians working in the General Post Office accidentally triggered sirens across six suburbs. Technically they were 'all-clear' sirens, not raid alerts, but clearly people were not used to these yet. Responses varied. In 'thickly-populated Redfern', for example, 'women and children threw themselves down in the streets, and several women fainted'.1 Redfern was then regarded as a slum, and had a diverse population of poor migrants and Indigenous Australians. Clearly 'thickly-populated' is a euphemism for all that and identifying class and racial 'others' as particularly susceptical to panic in air raids goes all the way back to the First World War. That said, the article does quote at length an eyewitness, G. Gow, who said that

there was no wild rushing about [...] The women only seemed concerned for their children. In these parts, the streets are the children's playgrounds, and I could hear mothers calling their names. Some of the women hustled their families inside. Others lay with them in the gutters.2

The article doesn't explain, but presumably it was understood that lying in the gutter was a sensible precaution to take in an air raid if unable to reach a shelter, to minmise your chances of being scythed by shrapnel. Gow himself admitted that 'I tried to act casually, but inwardly I felt stirred up', and got home as quick as he could. Another interviewee, Mrs L. Cavanagh, was cooking dinner when she heard the siren:

'I picked up a bucket of sand by the stove, and rushed down to the laundry,' she said.
'I was so scared when I got there that I just stood in a corner with my fingers in my ears, waiting for the house to fall on me.
'I did not hear the sirens stop. When my husband got home at 6 p.m. he found me there.'2

Again, Cavanagh had evidently followed ARP guidelines and was prepared to extinguish fires and incendiaries, but then was just overwhelmed with terror. In fact since the sirens began at 5.30pm and went for 10 minutes, on her own account she was paralysed by fear for 20 minutes after they had stopped. Mr and Mrs Joske lived right next to a siren, and reported that 'windows and doorways all along the street were filled with people, but they saw no one go into the street'. Some people had become inured to false alarms (there had been one at Rose Bay the previous Saturday and one at King's Cross on Sunday). Shoppers in Double Bay didn't take much notice -- 'A few people looked at the sky, but most ignored the signal' -- because the siren was so faint there.2 The area raid warden, L. S. Aitken, reported 'no panic in the district'.2

There were fairly regular false alerts in Sydney in the months that followed, some similarly due to technical faults, others due to the intrusion of unidentified aircraft. (One was due to an aircraft carrier spotted off the coast of NSW, which turned out to be a harmless steamer.)3 Two on 28 February 1942 had contrasting responses. The first one caused '12 women to faint at King's Cross centre' (which seems to be a common feature in Australian accounts, though not really in British ones); most people assumed -- correctly, though that's not an excuse -- that the second was also false:

A warden walked into the sector post at King's Cross, took off his yellow NES badge and tin helmet; threw them on the table, and said: 'I'm not going to be made a fool of any longer.'

He said: 'When I told people during the second alert to take shelter they just laughed at me and said, "Wolf, wolf."'4

In June Sydney did actually come under attack, briefly, when its eastern suburbs (as well as Newcastle, further north) were shelled by a Japanese submarine about a week after the midget sub penetration of Sydney Harbour. Only 10 shells were fired, most of which didn't explode; there were no fatalities. Sydney's ARP wardens were quickly at their posts, civil defence plans were enacted in earnest, the blackout/brownout enforced much more strictly. This time, press accounts really give very few examples of anything that could be described as panic or even nerves. Instead there are many statements along the following lines:

Police Reservist W. Forster said he was in the street where the shells were falling. There was no panic. In fact a number of girls and women who came running out of flats treated the affair as a 'good show.'5

So, by this point, either Sydneysiders had worked out the proper emotional control under bombardment, or the press had worked out (or been told) how to describe them that way, or probably a bit of both. ARP drilling no doubt helped, but the Blitz spirit was also held up as an example. A Women's Weekly article, which dubbed the event 'Submarine Sunday' and featured many more examples of stoicism and good humour from women and girls in the bombardment, claimed that people were both better educated about civil defence but also, more importantly, had the right attitude:

Most people did their level best to do the right thing. It sounds trite, but it is true. There were, of course, excited people who switched on the lights, forgot some of the rules. But the incessant hammering of ARP by lecturer, newspaper, radio, and film had its effect.6

But it also invoked the 'London tradition' directly (perhaps a slightly long bow to draw, but understandably in the circumstances):

Thud of shells in the seaside suburbs and we were one with England and her bombed cities. Not all the blitz books and articles ever written can prepare people for the feeling of 'the real thing.' The fear is at once greater and less than expected.7

Some wag evidently made the same connection:

In the tradition of London's blitz slogans, someone had chalked on Mrs Richards' shop window, broken by the first shell: 'Today's [ration] quota blown out.'7

An Australian take on a British idea -- though the earliest example I know of isn't from the Blitz, or even from the Second World War. It was after another naval bombardment, that of Scarborough on 16 December 1914:

In one small shop, the window of which had been blown out, a placard the words 'Business as Usual'" was displayed.8

Image source: State Library of NSW.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  1. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 December 1941, 5. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] []
  3. West Australian (Perth), 7 March 1942, 6. []
  4. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 1 March 1942, 5. []
  5. Queensland Times (Ipswich), 9 June 1942, 3. []
  6. Australian Women's Weekly, 20 June 1942, 13. []
  7. Ibid., 13. [] []
  8. Western Gazette (Yeovil), 18 December 1914, 10. []

2 thoughts on “Business as usual?

  1. Richard

    Fascinating article reminding us in the northern hemisphere that Australia was not just a dutiful 'supplier' of men to the RAF etc..

  2. Post author

    Thanks. It does always still surprise me how anyone can have feared Blitz-scale attacks here in southern Australia (except of course that it did happen to Darwin!) But the fear, at times, was real.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *