Anzac Day: Hornsby Shire during World War 2

Berowra Anzac Day Service 2021
Berowra Anzac Day Service 2021. Image: Oak Street Images

On Anzac Day 2021, Nathan Tilbury, Councillor at Hornsby Shire Council, spoke at the Berowra ANZAC Day service and also delivered the same speech to students at Asquith Girls High School. It was a rare insight into what the Hornsby Shire area went through during the most tense times of World War 2.

Today, Anzac Day is considered our most important national occasion. It is a national day of remembrance in both Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations, and the contribution and suffering of all those who have served. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War. It is a day when all citizens remember and express our gratitude for those who fought for and defended our country.

When we think about Australia’s participation in military conflicts we always think about campaigns overseas in far off places. However, today I want to talk about what it was like for Australians back in Australia during the most tense times of World War 2. It is worth looking at what life was like back home to during the war to better understand what these enlisted men were fighting for, on foreign soil, and remember if they failed it would have meant a very different Australia to what we know today.

Nathan Tilbury delivering this speech at the Berowra ANZAC Day service 2021. Image: Oak Street Images

At the outbreak of World War 2, all local sporting activities were suspended and wide-spread rationing gradually came into effect. And, to aid the war effort, Council set up a number of metal recycling depots all over the Hornsby Shire.

Just like the Great War, the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, greatly impacted and changed our local area forever. Immediately a number of local men enlisted and some of them would not return after being killed.

By the middle of 1941, Australian factories were in full war production mode. Across Australia women were undertaking jobs traditionally held by males such as clerks, factory workers, bus conductors and mechanics. In Berowra local farms had a sudden demand for farmhands after many of their workers enlisted. Many of these job vacancies were filled be local women who, it was said, could do the job as good as any man.
Probably the hardest job at that time was to be the Postmaster or Postmistress. They had the job of delivering telegrams to families that informed them that their enlisted loved one was killed, injured or missing. Berowra’s postmistress was Daisy Foster who had three of her own sons join up. On two separate occasions Daisy received telegrams herself, to inform her that her son Joe Foster (a World War 2 Battle of Britain spitfire fighter pilot) had been shot down and was missing behind enemy lines. Fortunately, on both occasions Joe made it back to the Allies to fly and fight another day. And Daisy had all three of her sons, Joe, Bill & Ernie, return home to her in Berowra at the end of the War, and all three Foster boys played a significant part in establishing the Berowra RSL sub-branch.

Berowra postmistress, Daisy Foster, with her three enlisted boys, Bill, Jack & Ernie Foster

The situation became far more serious at home when conflict broke out in the Pacific. The bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941, followed by the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 brought actual conflict closer to Australia’s shore. These events greatly heightened concerns and were cause for serious defensive measures, which were implemented all over Australia, especially along the heavily populated east coast. The people of Sydney and the surrounding areas were rightly on high alert and extremely nervous of a Japanese attack.

Because of its geographical location and proximity to Sydney, Broken Bay and the Hawkesbury River district were very vulnerable to invasion from the Japanese who, by 1942, had already taken control of most of South-East Asia. It was legitimately thought that Sydney Harbour was too well defended and so any invading force may try to land in a more remote area from where they could organize an overland attack and invasion of Sydney. Allied defence on the Hawkesbury River, and even at Berowra, were seen as extremely important to protect Sydney against an invasion “through the back door”.

One of the 3 destroyed Japanese submarines recovered in Sydney Harbour after its attack on the evening of 31st May 1942

Submarine nets were installed from Brooklyn to Dangar Island and from Dangar to Wobby. Troops were stationed at both Brooklyn and on Dangar Island, as well as other locations up and down the Hawkesbury River. In Muogamarra a historic 100-year-old convict built bridge was destroyed to limit overland road options for any invading force to move around. With this in mind all boats (commercial and recreation) were impounded by authorities and thousands were stored together on the Crosslands flats, with guards under orders to set fire to them in the event of an invasion.

Army personnel crossing the Hawkesbury River by ferry during World War 2 (prior to the road bridge opening)

Soldiers were posted in Berowra, as well as at various locations along both Berowra Creek and Cowan Creek, with the Shire’s sports fields becoming army camps, including Berowra Park. The dance hall on the Pacific Highway, was turned into the central military building as well as a stand-by military hospital in the event of an attack.

Boats being stored at Berowra Waters’ Wollwash, before being transferred up to Crosslands flats

During this period several remote bushland areas in the Shire were used for military training exercises. This included along the Hawkesbury and on Cowan Creek where commandos, named Z Force, secretly trained in preparation for their daring raid on Singapore Harbour in September 1943.

At one stage the bottom end of Berowra Waters Road was mined, just before the hairpin bend. The idea was that an invading force via Berowra Creek could be slowed down by destroying the road. This would give time for support to arrive from other areas.

In 1941 blackout restrictions were enforced which is ironic, as electricity had only been connected to many areas (including Berowra) just two years before in 1939. Many residents boarded up their windows so they could still use lights in their house at night. It was also very tricky driving around at night with no headlights at a time when there were also no street lights. Although, strict night-time curfews and gasoline rationing meant there was minimal use of private vehicles and those motorists that could drive taped up their headlights leaving just a slit to allow a tiny amount of light to be able to navigate at night.

Sydney railway stations had their signage, with station names, removed from the platforms. And, in an extraordinary move, Mt Kuring-gai railway station was lit up making it a potential decoy target for enemy night-time aerial bombing raids, thereby protecting other more valuable infrastructure.

There were a number of conflicts between the soldiers stationed locally and the residents, especially when the local boys found where the soldiers booze stash was hidden and raided it. However, the locals also formed a Civil Defence to support the soldiers in the event of an invasion. They used to train and parade around with pick and mattock handles.

Aircraft spotting bases with an air raid sirens were established around the Shire. Things became real when a Japanese reconnaissance floatplane flew over areas north of Hornsby (these planes could fold up and fit into a large submarine). The fly over was just before the Japanese mini-sub attack on Sydney Harbour that occurred on the evening of 31st May 1942.

The attack missed its main objective of destroying an American heavy cruiser USS Chicago, but destroyed a converted Sydney ferry, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 sailors who were sleeping on board.

This was followed a week later, on 8 June 1942, by simultaneous submarine attacks on both Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and Newcastle, where they unsuccessfully targeted the BHP steel works. Fortunately, neither of these attacks resulted in any serious damage nor casualties.
Meanwhile a number of allied military and merchant ships were being attacked in Australian waters, with many destroyed and sunk, by both Japanese and German forces.

Although media reports of these attacks were heavily sanitized the main impact on the Australian people was psychological. The attacks in Sydney were just few months after the devastating attack on Darwin, which was smashed by an air raid that involved 242 Japanese aircraft, causing widespread damage and it killing 235 military personnel and civilians. Two weeks after the Darwin attack Broome was bombed with 88 people killed. This caused further concern that other more populated areas of Australia would soon be targeted, and they were. In total there were over 111 air raids on the Australian mainland in 20 months, between February 1942 and November 1943. These were mainly in northern Queensland.

The early 1940s was a very worrying and tense time in Sydney and many residents moved their families to rural areas to escape what they believed was an inevitable bombing raid and or invasion. In the Shire’s more populated areas schools and parks had bomb shelters and zigzag trenches established. In aerial images, taken for defence purposes in 1943, clearly show large trenches in Hornsby Park and the hockey field in Hornsby Girls High School.

The threat of invasion and attack did not dissipate until the American and Australian forces started making significant impacts into Japanese held territories in the Pacific. However, Australian domestic defences remained in place until the end of the war, which came with the Japanese surrender on 14th August 1945. At this time Hornsby Shire Council passed a motion;

That Council place on record its thankfulness that the victorious peace so long awaited has now eventuated, its gratitude to the men and women of the Services for their selfless devotion to duty and their share in the successful conduct of the War, its sincere thanks to the personnel of the various organisations at home for their untiring efforts, and its appreciation of the patient consideration and understanding and forbearance of the residents of the Shire during the difficult years of War. –

The War was over, and the immense relief of peace across the world was gratefully welcomed by everyone. Lest we forget.

Follow Nathan Tilbury, Councillor at Hornsby Shire Council on Facebook.

Image Credit: Oak Street Images

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