End of World War II on M’boro Town Hall Green (note the large pill box shelter).
End of World War II on M’boro Town Hall Green (note the large pill box shelter).

M’boro under threat of WWII Japanese attack

TODAY local citizens have been focused on the threat of COVID-19 to their health and lifestyle, however back in the early 1940s an even greater danger put at risk their very existence.

During World War II the Japanese had been advancing steadily south invading New Guinea in January 1942 and in the following month the first air raid on Darwin occurred on February 19.

Although local concern had been increasing in Australia of possible attacks, these actions brought the Pacific War to Australia's doorstep.

The City of Maryborough certainly would have been a significant target to an invading force.

Home to an RAAF training centre, shipbuilding and engineering enterprises, together with other foundries, sawmills, port and fuel depots plus a large railway infrastructure hub and the main highway north with strategic river crossings, meant that the city would been high on any enemy bomber's list.

Locally the preparing of the city for such a possibility had been in operation since 1939 under the Air Raid Precautions Committee, a part of the Civil Defence Organisation.

Although initially facing apathy, local preparations ramped up considerably as the war progressed steadily towards Australia.

By early 1941 extra police and special constables had been appointed plus numerous specific roles created to deal with the possibility of such an event and its aftermath.

The most remembered of these were the air raid wardens, with their distinctive white helmet with a black "W" emblazoned on it. They had the equivalent powers of police constable during an air raid. The APR Committee organised many other volunteer functions to deal with an air raid. These included tasks such as establishing first aid posts and their associated stretcher bearers, increasing the number of firefighters, establishing rescue, repair and demolition squads. Special groups of men were formed into decontamination squads in case of a chemical (mustard gas) attack. Due to number of men overseas on active service, often women took on a number of these tasks and could also become members of the local Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), whose tasks included providing basic medical care, comfort and cleaning at the hospitals and first aid posts.

For public protection requirements for the city built four concrete pill box type air raid shelters around the CBD with these situated on the Town Hall Green, in Ellena Street near the Memorial Hall, in Richmond Street down from today's fruit barn and opposite the Federal Hotel in Kent Street.



Air raid shelter next to the Anglican Memorial Hall in Maryborough during World War II.
Air raid shelter next to the Anglican Memorial Hall in Maryborough during World War II.

Also constructed were large shelter trenches around the Town Hall and in Adelaide Street opposite the then Tarrant's Ford dealership. The Town Hall even had heavy timber anti-blast walls erected around its ground floor offices. Government departmental buildings and facilities, such as the Courthouse and Railways, also engaged in the construction of shelters for the public and their staff.

A Government wartime decree required businesses and industries that generally had 30 or more people on their premises to have an approved air raid shelter and have special wardens appointed as well as providing sand, shovels and stirrup pumps to fight fires. For the Shamrock Hotel, the publican and neighbouring women cleared out its large cellar of ash so it could be used as a communal shelter.

Many residents constructed slit trenches in their back yards while some built more elaborate concrete shelters. One enterprising local business sold ready to erect air raid shelters, made of heavy-duty corrugated iron with a timber frame, that could be dropped into a suitable hole.

Schools came under special consideration with pupils not allowed to resume studies after the 1941-42 summer holidays until adequate slit trenches had been dug in their grounds. Substantial weekend volunteer labour completed this task with lessons restarting on March 1 with staggered classes. The Convent school ran into trouble when diggers hit hard sandstone close to the surface.

Maryborough's large Base Hospital, seen as a very important facility, undertook its own protection actions. Measures adopted included sandbagging the operating theatre, building protection walls around some of the important structures and digging slit trenches. Essential stock and medicines were split into three parts and storing under protection in different parts of the hospital.



Maryborough Nurses Quarters during World War II.
Maryborough Nurses Quarters during World War II.



To alert the population of an imminent attack five air raid sirens were set up at strategic places around the city. Only once did a genuine air raid alert occur in the city when on August 26, 1942 the sirens sounded shortly after mid-day. ARP personnel went into action however the "all clear" siren was sounded soon after when the unidentified plane was identified as friendly.

The first test of the city's preparedness took place with a trial on August 3, 1941. To provide realism, bombs, in the form of gelignite, were placed in bins and set off in each of the 14 divisions in the city. Other trials included a blackout night test with an RAAF bomber that circled the city to act as an observer for visible lights.

Ten high points in the city, including the water tower in Aberdeen Avenue and at the top of the Flour Mill in Kent Street, became fire watching posts to report sites of incendiary bombs and other fire sources. Another elevated observation post was established in the loft room of the Royal Hotel. There members of the Volunteer Air Observers Corps (VAOC) spent many long hours carrying out spotting of all aircraft traffic with those details being forwarded via the telephone identifier, "Air Flash", to a VAOC Control Room.

One realistic plan to meet the tragic effects of an air raid involved the need for the provision for mass burials. The City Engineer and the cemetery sexton were instructed to select the most suitable site for that possibility.

A Dad's Army" type of a local home guard, called the Volunteer Defence Corps, had been set up in Maryborough in February 1941 by the forerunner of the RSL. Those men participated in parades, various facets of training and field manoeuvres in preparation for any hostile actions and to protect important infrastructure.

RAAF Maryborough, based at the airport, had its own Station Defence Scheme. For air raids their main personnel protection came from numerous open and covered slit trenches located in various parts of the facility while several machine gun posts were constructed around the grounds. Nearly all non-runway sections of the aerodrome were obstructed with fixed wooden stakes driven into the ground and hurdles, built of heavy timber, could be moved on to the runways and dispersal areas if required.



RAAF Maryborough building being relocated.
RAAF Maryborough building being relocated.

On June 18, 1943 the Australian government announced that Australia was no longer threatened with invasion, as the Japanese no longer had the capacity to threaten it and local protection activities began to run down. The war in Europe ceased on May 8, 1945 with that date marked as Victory in Europe (VE) Day. In the Pacific the war continued for another three months with August 15 the end of the war with the surrender of Japan. That date is called Victory in the Pacific (VP) Day.

Locally Maryborough city came alive and joyous with marches, celebrations, speeches and dancing in the streets. Employees of the Maryborough powerhouse installed festoon lighting from the Town Hall Clock Tower to ground level. This installation was very significant as for the duration of the war the city had been in darkness and some normalness then returned to the population.

On August 15, 2020 it will be 75 years since the end of World War 2.



Remnants of World War II here


IF YOU look hard there are still a few physical reminders around Maryborough of the local preparations for a possible aerial attack by Japanese forces during World War II.

These include a recently restored concrete air raid shelter next to the railway station, a similar structure beside the Courthouse and the odd residential backyard bomb shelter, that has survived today due to their novelty.

In the grounds of the Army Reserve Depot is an old Bofors anti-aircraft gun but this is believed to be a war relic as none were known to have been used locally.

Some remanent buildings from RAAF Maryborough have been relocated and repurposed in the city. These include various Scout huts, such as the one for Maryborough West at the corner of Ariadne and Ward Streets, and a former large aircraft hanger used as a vehicle workshop in Adelaide Street.


Information and photos courtesy of the Maryborough, Wide Bay and Burnett Historical Society, and compiled by Tony Clift.

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