The late 1920s and 1930s in Sydney were tense times.
From 1929, with the collapse of world markets and the onset of the Great Depression social and political tensions increased. In NSW unemployment reached a massive 31% in 1931 and people began to genuinely fear there might be a revolution, like had already happened in Russia and almost in Germany.
The question was from which side of the political spectrum would it come-the left or the right?
Both the left and the right had their groups of fighters.
However, while the left had paramilitary groups such as the Workers Defence Corps, the Australian Labor Army, the Ex-Service Men’s Defence Corps and the Unemployed Workers Movement, their numbers were never more than a few hundred up to a couple of thousand and the threat was more perceived then real (although the ALA did manage to get 30,000 workers to a rally in the Domain in March 1931).
They did however encourage right wing paramilitary groups to emerge.
From soon after the end of WWI, ex-soldiers, officers and prominent financial and business men were involved in the organisation of a series of groups that culminated in the most public manifestation- New Guard.
A forerunner of the New Guard was known (unsurprisingly) as the Old
Guard. Formed in Sydney in 1930, the Old Guard was a secret paramilitary organisation established in direct response to the re-election of the Labor Government of JT Lang in NSW. The Guard saw Lang as a dangerous communist who was threatening private property, people’s bank savings and taking the state towards a communist regime.
The Old Guard rarely came out in the open, preferring rather to use their political influence, remain vigilant and be there for the police if a situation got out of control. Many did however arm themselves and carried out military training on the rural properties of its members. Old Guard groups grew in all the major cities in NSW as well as larger regional and rural centres until an estimated 30,000 were involved.
While this was going on, in Europe the fascist party of Mussolini in Italy and the Nazis in Germany were gaining strength. Many on the right in Australia looked to them as an inspiration in the tough times and sought to emulate them.
Out of this grew the New Guard, formed in February 1931 by Eric Campbell, a disgruntled ex soldier and Old Guard member. Within three months it claimed 20,000 members, and the end of 1932 boasted up to 50,000. In Sydney they were spread across 93 suburban branches with a particular focus on the North Shore, the Eastern Suburbs and the Parramatta area. The organisation was arranged on military lines with Sydney was divided into 4 zones of control. The Guard’s enemies thought they were getting ready for a coup.
Things began to hot up and fall apart in 1932. In February, 40 cars with 200 guardsmen attempted to break up communist meeting in Bankstown, only to be driven off by picnickers at a nearby Labor carnival and several hundred local residents. This was followed in March by Francis De Groot riding through the official party at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to cut the ribbon before Premier Lang had the chance.
Although many saw it as an odd stunt it was an act of very public defiance by a man dressed in military uniform.
A disillusioned member, GD Treloar, then claimed that the New Guard was planning to overthrow the state, which in turn led to police surveillance being upgraded. This threat appeared to be materialising in May, when members of the secretive Fascist Legion, an elite strike force of the New Guard, bashed Jack Garden of the Australian Communist Party and close associate of the Premier.
These thugs were a little too close to the street brawlers of Hitler’s Nazi party and the increasing militancy of the leadership spooked many members and those remaining Old Guard.
A claim of a plot to kidnap members of Lang’s Government and imprison them in Berrima Gaol led to further disenchantment, increasing public hostility and a series of police raids. Inevitably perhaps it was internal fighting that split the group, this and the dismissal and then electoral defeat of the Lang Government in June.
With the New Guard looking increasingly like a fascist organisation (Nazi salutes at rallies and identification armbands didn’t help), Campbell toured Europe in January 1933 contacting British, Italian and German fascist leaders.
Campbell returned to Australia and forced out any moderate members of the New Guard. He even complained to the German Embassy that his signed photo of Hitler had not turned up as promised. However with the Lang Government gone and the worst of the Depression now over, the movement stalled and then faded away.
By 1935 it had all but disappeared. Still it’s a scary idea to think NSW was on a path that included the likes of the New Guard.
If you want some more in depth history on the subject, check out Robert Darlington, 1983, Eric Campbell and the New Guard, Kangaroo Press; Andrew Moore, 1989, The Secret Army and the Premier, NSWU Press; Keith Amos, 1976, The New Guard Movement 1931-1935, Melbourne University Press.