The Old Brisbane Line: asylum for whom?

Fact or fantasy, either way abandonment and fear, driven by our political classes, were the guiding motives in drawing the Brisbane Line in 1942 and 2013.

Firstly, some family history

On the 31st January 1942 my grandfather enlisted in the Australian Army at Geraldton, on the Indian Ocean shore 400 kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia.  He was assigned to the 10th Garrison, with the rank of private and service number W47600.  Just a fortnight later, on the 16th February 1942 my grandmother gave birth to her second baby, a little girl she named Wendy Beatrice.  She was born in at the maternity hospital in Geraldton.  On the same day, the reputed fortress of Singapore fell to the Japanese army, 3,500 kilometres to the north.

Three days later, on the 19th February, her first-born little girl, my mother, turned four.  It was the same day that the bombing of Darwin began, 2,500 kilometres to the north.  In just three days, the frontline had moved 1000 kilometres closer to home.

My grandmother with her eldest daughter and my grandfather in his Army uniform, Geraldton 1943

My grandmother with her eldest daughter and my grandfather in his Army uniform, Geraldton 1943

On the night of Saturday 21st February, Geraldton was subjected to its first air raid.  Or so many people thought.  Townsfolk were beset with panic and fear as they scrambled for refuge in the sandhills behind the town, contrary to all directions from wardens.  My grandmother and her new baby were still in the hospital.  The local paper reported that, at the hospital, “many people had been greatly perturbed and very seriously inconvenienced”, and that in future such unannounced ‘tests’ of the air raid system must be preceded by evacuating patients from the hospital[1].  There was a lot of finger-pointing about who had ordered the test, but some called for lessons to be learnt as the town was obviously unprepared for the war rapidly descending upon it.  The press reporting makes it very clear that there was widespread panic in the town on the night of the 21st and 22nd of February, from which the hospital was not immune.

As my grandmother and her five-day old baby lay in the hospital, the local newspaper was full of reports on building air raid trenches in school grounds, and the evacuation plan for Geraldton: all women, children, the infirm and elderly, carrying only a backpack, a blanket and a water bottle, were to be removed by trains to inland towns, while the Greenough Flats where my grandparents lived were to be totally evacuated and closed to all civilians and occupied by military forces.  All radios, telephones and bicycles were to be destroyed.  The local Radio Theatre schedule included training films such as “Bombs and Their Effects”, “Bombing of Singapore” and “Man’s Army” as well as movies such as “Whispering Enemies” and “the first garden newsreel, certainly the first in colour” of the new vegetable gardens in the grounds of Buckingham Palace[2].  The Prime Minister called for a total war effort in face of the dire threat to the Commonwealth[3].  There were items on how to meet black-out restrictions, and public air raid shelters to be built by the Municipal Council.  And, to reinforce these messages, they were interspersed with articles detailing Japanese desires to occupy Australia[4], and frontline news such as the Japanese invasion of Portuguese Timor (“the nearest point of approach to Australia … Australian garrison wiped out”), the first air raids on Port Moresby[5], and calls to ignore Japanese propaganda such as the radio broadcasts claiming Japan only wanted to help Australia break free of Britain and America[6].  Even the advertisements reflected the times: the Silver Jubilee Fruit Market had potatoes, onions and cooking apples, but “all other vegetables scarce”, and Crothers Brothers had “Aladdin lamps for air raid precautions”, while the advertisements for Liberty Loans (see below) seem hardly reassuring.  On the other hand, the AMP Society was still advertising its free ‘Planning Your Baby’s Future’ booklet, and Frank Green’s Big Store was selling “Children’s Cotton Fuji Pyjamas … at special prices”.

Advertisement for Liberty Loans, emphasising the destruction of country towns: Geraldton Guardian and Express, 26th February 1942, page 4

Advertisement for Liberty Loans, emphasising the destruction of country towns: Geraldton Guardian and Express, 26th February 1942, page 4

After the triple shock of the fall of Singapore, the Darwin air raids and the Geraldton air raid ‘test’, the frontline continued to stream southwards.  Japanese bombing of Broome (1,400 kilometres north of Geraldton), then full of several thousand refugees from the Dutch East Indies, began on 3rd March, followed by other attacks in the Kimberleys, the Top End, Torres Strait Islands and Far North Queensland, then Port Hedland on 30th July, Wyndham on 21st August.  The front line seemed to be moving closer and closer.

Fears had been raised by the mysterious disappearance of HMAS Sydney off the coast from Geraldton in November 1941, just weeks before the war began with Japan, and local people had given generously to the New Sydney Fund.  But the knowledge that German craft could strike the west coast at any time, sinister as it was, was nothing compared to the advancing Japanese air front.  Throughout 1942 and well into 1943 the war cast a long and deep shadow over Geraldton.  Air raids continued with Exmouth bombed on 21st May 1943, Port Hedland again on 17th August, Onslow on 15th September and Exmouth again the next day.  After the air raid on Onslow, Carnarvon (just 480 kilometres north of Geraldton) was the only un-bombed town of any size between the air front and Geraldton.  The apprehension in the town and district must have been palpable.

On the 2nd July 1942 baby Wendy died, aged just 4½ months.  My grandmother always told me that just after Wendy was born, there was a false air raid on Geraldton and all the babies in the hospital, local babies and refugee babies from the East Indies, healthy babies and sick babies, became mixed up in the ‘air raid’ confusion, after which Wendy was always ill.  Her death certificate says she died, in St John of God Hospital in Geraldton, after two days of bronchopneumonia.  She was buried the next day in the Old Greenough Cemetery, among other members of her extended family.  The local newspaper reports give us some idea of that awful time of fear, panic and confusion, and confirm my grandmother’s memories of the ‘air raid’ and its consequences.

The grave of baby Wendy Beatrice, Anglican Section, Old Greenough Cemetery.

The grave of baby Wendy Beatrice, Anglican Section, Old Greenough Cemetery.

In October 1942, just three months after Wendy’s burial, 3000 kilometres away in the south eastern corner of the continent, federal Labor politician Eddie Ward gave a speech in Melbourne.  He claimed that the previous minority Menzies UAP government had planned to abandon most of continental Australia to the Japanese and defend only the south east.  The rest of the country (such as Geraldton and its hinterland) would be subject to a scorched earth policy, potential battle sites were to be completely evacuated to engage the enemy (such as the Greenough Flats?), and guerilla fighters would remain behind the lines to slow down the Japanese advance.  Ward had no evidence of his claims, and argued that the documents had been destroyed by Menzies when leaving office.  General Macarthur referred to this plan a few months later in March 1943 when he coined the term ‘Brisbane Line’.  Prime Minister Curtin established a Royal Commission to investigate these claims, which found no evidence of either the plan or destroyed documents, and the Curtin government went on to win the 1943 general election.  Ward was promoted to Minister for External Territories (most of which were, at that time, occupied by Japanese forces)[7].  In his 1964 reminiscences (22 years later) Macarthur maintained that there was such a policy to fall back to a defensive line between Brisbane and Adelaide following the Darling River.  Whether the Line existed remains a controversial subject to this day.

One map showing a Brisbane Line arcing from the coast north of Brisbane to the headwaters of the Darling River, and the 'main defence area' shaded along the south eastern coast.  Image Wikipedia

One map showing a Brisbane Line arcing from the coast north of Brisbane to the headwaters of the Darling River, and the ‘main defence area’ shaded along the south eastern coast. Image Wikipedia

The Geraldton Guardian & Express advised its readers to ignore Ward’s claims about the Brisbane Line, casting them as so much ‘political sniping’[8], and after Labor won the 1943 election argued that Ward should be replaced as a minister of the crown by the member for Kalgoorlie[9].  The Guardian’s editor well knew the panic that had swept the town just six months earlier, and was equally well aware that Geraldton was at least 2,500 kilometres on the wrong side of the Line.  He had seen and experienced the power of fear, and the capacity of politicians to harness that fear and turn on a scapegoat for explanation.  To think that Ward could have been correct was too awful a prospect to take seriously.

Now, A Counterfactual

Imagine, now, that the air raid had been real, not a surprise drill.  The invasion did happen.  Geraldton had been evacuated – chaotically, frantically, panic-driven.  The Greenough Flats was the site of a huge but forgotten battle (the vanquished don’t write the histories).  Refugees streamed southwards and eastwards, into the vastness of the deserts, mobbed the Transcontinental train crossing the Nullabor or crammed onto boats and ships heading out into the wild Southern Ocean, all desperately seeking the safety of the Brisbane Line.  All the while they were harassed by straffing Zeros and submarines over thousands of lonely kilometres.  An exodus of 275,000 refugees, fleeing very real threats of warfare, violence, invasion, subjugation and repression.

And, of course, we must imagine that they would have been accepted with open arms behind the Line.  That no one would have resented the presence of a people who only nine years earlier had tried to have their State secede from the Commonwealth[10], who now run away and wanted to share in the material security that wasn’t theirs.  And I must imagine that my grandparents would have made it, with their four year old daughter and perhaps baby Wendy.  Perhaps not.  Perhaps she died anyway, and her tiny body laid in a shallow, invisible grave on the vast treeless plain west of the Line.

Perhaps not everyone fled, perhaps some stayed and tried to adapt to the new regime.  Perhaps my grandparents might have chosen to do that, hoping to rebuilt their home on the Greenough battlefields, after my grandfather burnt his uniform and service papers to avoid being sent to a POW camp.  And perhaps, after a couple of decades of occupation their surviving children, fearful for their survival under tyrannical rule, repressed and discriminated against, decided to make the arduous and dangerous journey to the other side of the Line.  Perhaps my grandparents borrowed money from a loan shark for their children to pay a ‘smuggler’, knowing they could never repay.  The occupiers might not have really tried to stop them leaving, after all they had their own new land-hungry settlers arriving every day.

The authorities in South East Australia, however, may have had a different view.  “We will decided who comes to the South East and the manner in which they come” cried one of their leaders.  A few years later another of their leaders was broadcasting the same message: “Asylum seekers who arrive by boat will have no chance of being settled in the South East as refugees”.  The political class, as always, was speaking as one, regardless of their party branding.

And so, perhaps, my grandparents children, my parents, having paid the smugglers some exorbitant fee, and after days sailing across the Great Australian Bight in a crowded, leaky fishing boat from Esperance, as the shoreline of the hoped-for refuge hove into sight, were intercepted by a vessel of the South Eastern Navy, arrested and taken to the remote Macquarie Island Detention Centre until, after a long, long time they were shipped off, like so much cargo, to the only place the South Eastern government would agree to refugee resettlement, the Japanese colony of Bougainville Island, where there was always work to do in the copper mine for those deemed to be merely ‘economic migrants’.

All is contingent

All history is contingent, as is all future.  None of us can know when we might be the refugee, desperately seeking asylum, being treated like a criminal, extorted for money and possessions.  It doesn’t always take a foreign invasion to create a refugee.  Having the government of your own country turn on you will also do the trick.

AWM Caption: Geraldton, Australia. An anti-tan...

AWM Caption: Geraldton, Western Australia. An anti-tank gun and a Vickers Machine Gun form a defence post at a corner of Geraldton’s main street during field exercises carried out by 2nd and 4th Australian divisions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The real story of Geraldton in February 1942 is a story of fear, panic, conflicted leaders, destroyed documents, unrealistic evacuation plans and the looming threat of cultural annihilation.  It is the story of a community on the verge of descending into chaos.  It is a story of place almost consumed by events way beyond its boundaries.  It is the story of a people who almost became refugees in the most destructive war ever seen, subject to forces way beyond their control.  It is a story of my grandmother, and the loss of her baby.  But decisions and actions taken by others meant the war took a different direction.  The horrors of invasion and occupation were avoided.  My family never became refugees and asylum seekers.  That time.

It could have all been so very different.

The 'Blue Starmarine' asylum seeker boat arrives in Geraldton in 2013; or, in the counter-factual universe, having sailed from Esperance, and avoided the South Eastern Navy, sails into Robe harbour on the other side of the Line.  Image ABC TV

The ‘Blue Starmarine’ asylum seeker boat arrives in Geraldton in 2013, overloaded with Sri Lankan asylum seekers; or, in the counter-factual universe, having sailed from Esperance, and avoided the South Eastern Navy, sails into Robe harbour on the other side of the Line with Westralian asylum seekers. Image ABC TV

Further reading (Brisbane Line)

Randolph Stow’s novel The Merry-go-Round in the Sea (Macdonald, London 1965) provides another history of Geraldton in 1942 and the decisions a local family faced about whether to flee or stay as invasion loomed.  The story is a metaphor for the conversations that took place all over Geraldton at this time.

Further reading (Counter-factual histories of the Japanese invasion of Australia)

  • Birmingham, John (trilogy), Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1, Designated Targets: World War 2.2 and Final Impact: World War 2.3, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney 2006
  • Vader, John, Battle of Sydney, New English Library, London 1972
  • Willmot, Eric, Below the Line, Hutchinson Australia, Milsons Point 1992
  • My own incomplete online story, Sunland,, 2005

All newspaper references can be viewed online through TROVE:

[1] ‘Evacuation Plans | Official Attitude | Approval of Voluntary Removals’, Guardian and Express, 19th February 1942, page 3; ‘The Week-end Alarms | Municipal Criticism | An Explanation Requested’; ‘Air Raid Precautions | Two Night Alarms | Valuable Lessons Learnt’, ‘Civil Evacuation | Plans for Geraldton | Preparing for an Emergency’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, pages 1, 3; ‘Letter to the Editor | “Air Raids” to Order | Good effects of a Jolt’, from WP Edwards, Guardian and Express, 26th February 1942, page 1.

[2] ‘Amusements | Radio Theatre Talkies | Current Attractions’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 21st February 1942, page 2

[3] ‘Call to Duty | Curtin’s Declaration | Battle for Australia | Full Devotion to Efforts’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 17th February 1942, page 1

[4] ‘Japanese Desires | Australia as Prize | Only Country Suitable for Emigration’, and ‘Value of Australia | Possible Enemy Moves | Important Base for Allies’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, page 3

[5] ‘Invasion of Timor | Protest by Portugal | Japanese Claim’, and ‘Port Moresby Raided | First Daylight Attack | Bombers from Rabaul’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, page 3 and 26th February 1942, page 3.

[6] ‘Tokio Blandishments | Radio Fairy Tales | Japanese Naivety’, and ‘Danger of Attack | Australia’s Need | Full Preparedness’, Geraldton Guardian and Express, 24th February 1942, page 3 and 28th February 1942, page 1.

[8] ‘Political Sniping’ (Editorial), Geraldton Guardian and Express, 5th June 1942: 2

[9] ‘Labour’s Sweeping Victory’ (editorial), Geraldton Guardian and Express, 25th August 1943: 2

[10] In April 1933, 66% of Western Australians voted to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia.  The vote in Geraldton was 63% in favour and surrounding Greenough 78% in favour (Western Mail, ‘The Referendum | Count Completed | Secession Majority Maintained’, 4th May 1933: page 15).