1 August 2014: Civil defences in World War 2

Just a few weeks ago, a relic from World War 2 was discovered at Town Hall Station. A painted sign was uncovered during recent works to upgrade the platforms the station. The sign, painted on a steel beam above platforms 1 and 2, had red lettering that read ‘AIR RAID SHELTER’, with an arrow pointing down the stairs.  This 70-ish year old relict reveals how the citizens of Sydney were prepared for all sorts of threats during World War 2.

The war came to the Pacific in World War 2. When Pearl Harbour was bombed on 7 December 1941, commonwealth, state and municipal authorities across Australia started to take precautionary measures. Sydneysiders, similarly to all Australians, were paranoid about invasion and attack from both the air and the sea. The bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, killing almost 250 people, only heightened fear and paranoia on the homefront. The impact of war came ‘home’ when Sydney was attacked on 31 May 1942, as was Newcastle in early June, although these were submarine attacks rather than attacks from the air.

Air raid shelter in Sydney's Hyde Park during World War 2 (Australian War Memorial, 042825)

Air raid shelter in Sydney’s Hyde Park during World War 2 (Australian War Memorial, 042825)

So how did Sydneysiders prepare for war? In response the perceived threat, the city and suburbs of Sydney were decked out with a range of anti-aircraft devices. These included strengthening the coastal defences and major supply routes with anti-aircraft guns and armed sentries. Hospitals and public buildings were sandbagged; there were air raid drills; and blackouts were enforced. Six foot deep ‘zig zag’ anti-aircraft trenches were dug into parks and other open spaces, including school playgrounds.

Air raid shelter in a north shore backyard (Australian War Memorial, P05601.006)

Air raid shelter in a north shore backyard (Australian War Memorial, P05601.006)

Purpose-built bomb-proof and air-raid shelters were built throughout Sydney, including in back yards. Existing underground infrastructure, such as train tunnels, were also put to use as air raid shelters, including at Town Hall and St James stations.

Home made air raid shelter at Bellevue Hill, c1942 (Australian War Memorial, 044550)

Home made air raid shelter at Bellevue Hill, c1942 (Australian War Memorial, 044550)

In addition to building or adapting infrastructure to protect citizens from attack from air and sea, residents of Sydney volunteered in their thousands for the National Emergency Service (NES).

The NES was a volunteer organisation formed in 1939 to help ‘protect, educate and provide aid on the home front’. Over half the NES volunteers were ‘wardens’.

 Harold Edwin Wombey of Fairlight, kitted out in his NES uniform (Australian War Memorial, P10992.005)

Harold Edwin Wombey of Fairlight, kitted out in his NES uniform (Australian War Memorial, P10992.005)

The wardens were on call day and night. Their duties included going door to door to make an inventory of all the residents in an area in case of evacuation; to make evacuation plans for hospitals and other large congregate care institutions; to staff and administer the numerous NES Control Centres dotted throughout NSW; and to dig the aforementioned zig zag trenches. Others volunteered as stretcher bearers.

Although the threat of coastal attack continued for the duration of the war, there were no more immediate threats to Sydney after 1942.

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1 Comment

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One response to “1 August 2014: Civil defences in World War 2

  1. Robyn Lewis

    Harold Edwin Wombey is my grandfather I have always wonder what the uniform was he was wearing Robyn Lewis

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