1942 • Guerrillas in Killara

GuerrillaThrowsGrenadeBookByIdriess

And if we are to be invaded, we have no proper means of fighting back. What have we got? Well, jam tins stuffed with—something nasty. A bottle filled with kero and a wick protruding through the neck. Short bits of lead pipe, twisted shut at one end, which is your handle once you light the other. [RED, page 199]

In the first three months of 1942 Australia seemed to be on the brink of invasion. Pearl Harbor was bombed a few weeks earlier (8 December), setting off fears that Australia would be next. The Japanese were coming down the Malayan Peninsula; Singapore fell on 15 February, and Darwin was bombed four days later. By mid-year even Sydney had been shelled, in what might be thought of as a terror attack.  

A state of fear and helplessness, lasting two months, took hold—not without reason, as our troops and armaments were elsewhere. In his book Flying Visits Alan Wood compared this period (mid-January to mid-March 1942) to Britain’s alarm following Dunkirk.

Newspapers from Darwin to Hobart were printing letters of advice about how to make hand grenades. The popular writer Ion Idriess recalled twenty years later:

A crowd of us formed that nucleus of a defence force because at the time the enemy were expected to ‘fall on Sydney from the skies’ [in a] parachute army, and we were informed that there was absolutely no defence for citizens, even soldiers on guard duty were mostly armed with dummy rifles, the armed forces would be away, barely armed by [the armaments factory at] Lithgow, even our 1914-18 rifles had been hurried away to England. Our idea was that at least the government should arm us with rifles and sporting guns from all commercial stores so that at least we could give enemy parachutists in particular, and beach landers, as hot a time as possible before they could set our coastal towns on fire. The idea developed swiftly. (Ion Idriess to Bruce Muirden, 5 May 1965)

Alan Wood later summed up this moment in 1942: “Australia sent airmen, seamen and soldiers overseas to fight in Britain, Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria [and] the Mediterranean” so that when Singapore fell Australia’s 100,000 best soldiers were overseas, “wherever Britain had asked for them.” When the Japanese moved south they were “met in New Guinea by one infantry battalion and two batteries of field artillery, supported by five anti-aircraft guns, two Hudson bombers, and a Wirraway trainer with one wing off. The only fighter plane in Australia was a Hurricane (without any guns) sent out by the Air Ministry as a show piece for War Loan demonstrations.” In Alan’s view, in early 1942 “Australia passed through a period of peril like Britain’s after Dunkirk, with the same spontaneous rush for such arms as were available: impromptu Home Guards sprang up, equipped with improvised weapons: my aunt in Lindfield, aged 75, stuffed an old stocking full of stones and laid it by in case any Japanese arrived.” (Alan Wood, Flying Visits, Dennis Dobson, 1946, pp. 117-18; see also DT, 8 March 1942, p. 8) 

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Rupert Lockwood, 1942 (DT photo)

The most vivid account of what almost happened next was Rupert Lockwood’s 1942 book Guerrilla Paths to Freedom, which he says he wrote in four days. Lockwood imagined that he and many others would have to form small, democratic, independent units to defend Australia against an invader. They would need “to fight in the dark, to crawl noiselessly through the bush while keeping contact with guerrilla colleagues, … to carry away the wounded to safety and to improvise food supplies … [We] will have to think of all these things, to live sometimes a hungry, roving life, hiding in stubble and haystacks, climbing fences and mountains, jumping ditches and sniping at couriers.” (p. 80) These guerrillas in slouch hats (as shown on the book’s cover) would not only take over the farms and bushland; Lockwood also pictured an Australian innovation, the suburban guerrilla, whose paths would run “over suburban fences and city rooftops”. (p. 83) There would be “tens of thousands [of] men and women who may be called on to show guerrilla initiative in the tragically near future.” (p. 71)

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“The desperation of the hour …”: Lockwood’s book, written in four days.  

A guerrilla unit would replace hierarchy with ingenuity; it’s a communist or anarchist model, based on the Spanish war against Franco (1936–39) and the “scorched earth” war against Hitler in Russia (1941–42). Lockwood hoped that Australian guerrilla units would be driven by “the spirit behind the larrikin push” which was “chivalry upside down” (p. 82; it’s Henry Lawson’s phrase, in “The Star of Australasia”). “Guerrilla war is rank-and-file war, in which every fighter must show the initiative of a field-marshal, and be his own commissariat and general staff. Discipline in the ordinary sense is impossible in guerrilla war.” (p. 81) In place of “ordinary” discipline would be “comradeship” which was the “capacity to combine for mutual protection”. (p. 82) Guerrillas would be enlightened: “most guerrilla fighters of history have battled for the progressive causes”. (p. 72) One of the guerrillas’ weapons would be to set bushfires—a strategy to be “employed scientifically” (p. 75). Lockwood’s exasperation with traditional top-down army discipline was very like Alan Wood’s (and others’, especially the Sydney Telegraph editor, Brian Penton’s). His ideas were also shared by Ion Idriess in several small books on the same topic written at the same time. (We’ll come to them in a moment.)

While not a practical manual, Lockwood’s book recommended “Soviet guerrilla tactics” (pp. 52 ff) which were being used successfully to force German troops back from Moscow at this time. Lockwood witnessed these tactics being used in the Spanish Civil War a few years earlier. 

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(Photograph from W. A. Wood, Cobbers and Comrades, 1942)

Members of these Russian guerrilla units were using their civilian skills where they could. “Each Soviet guerrilla is given a responsible job—a woodsman who knows the forest bypaths in charge of reconnoitring, a medical student tends the wounds of the guerrillas, a journalist has charge of the radio set.” (p. 52) During the Nazis’ march into the USSR in October 1941, “Red Army units were instructed not to surrender when surrounded, but to fight on as guerrilla units. … By the time the Germans had penetrated deeply into Russia their rear was swarming with guerrilla bands”. (p. 53) Lockwood gives examples of night raiding, flares and “psychological grenades”. Even child guerrillas could stretch barbed wire across country roads. (p. 68) At first Australia’s weapons would be unmilitary (bottles, matches, petrol, rag, wire, nails …), but they would soon find the enemy’s conventional weapons; Australian guerrillas would soon “arm themselves from the dead”. 

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Ion Idriess, who unlike Lockwood had personally been a guerrilla fighter, wrote The Australian Guerrilla as a set of practical handbooks. Idriess believed that the only way (without an army) to defend Australia from invaders was to demoralise them. “Smash their outposts; blow up their tanks; bomb their communications; burn their airfields; break their hearts”. (Back cover of Lurking Death in Idriess’ six-book series The Australian Guerrilla 

Idriess sometimes offered a moral fable, such as death by tin can: a discarded metal item caught in sunlight could be seen from enemy aircraft (Guerrilla Tactics, p. 25). And sometimes he tried a blunt warning that his readers might have to “take to the hills and forests and swamps and form into grim, cunning fighters, seldom giving or receiving mercy.” (p. 12) While he made clear that, in the cities at least, a people’s defence force would be fighting “side by side with the regular troops”, he expected the guerrillas to be spontaneous units of friends, separate from the “official” home guard, the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC): “the VDC have their own secrets and we must not intrude.” (p. 12). He pictured a self-reliant band of up to “a hundred men and growing lads”, some as young as fourteen (p. 42). One hundred seems large for a spontaneous group of friends. Others (such as Tom Wintringham, see below) recommended bands one-tenth this size. 

Idriess, unlike Lockwood, gave plenty of practical advice, based on “bush” conditions. For example, an Australian guerrilla unit would have to take care not to betray their location by the smell of eucalyptus fires. They would be spotted if they unintentionally attracted scavenging crows (pp. 27, 29). They should prepare “sound-traps” for the enemy, in the form of dry branches strewn along tracks or suspended from gumtrees (p. 37). Idriess also mentioned the difficulty of concealing tracks to hideouts in the bush once they had been made (p. 26). The first raids would be to capture enemy weapons and vehicles, rather than to kill the invaders themselves. Some idiosyncratic techniques are described at length, such as a tripwire that triggers the fall of a curtain of fencing wire woven with mines. (pp. 83-4)

For his book of “guerrilla tactics” Idriess relied on his own experience and initiative, whereas behind much of Lockwood’s thinking was Tom Wintringham’s New Ways of War, published in Britain by Penguin two years earlier.

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Wintringham, an adviser to the British Home Guard, was influential in Australia as well. The local press (including regional papers) were quoting from this book now, especially its advice about taking cover and making petrol bombs. Diagrams from the book, including instructions in making home-made bombs, were reproduced in several newspapers.

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Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph (2 February 1942) explained how to make petrol bombs and home-made grenades, using diagrams from Wintringham’s book. (I have removed some labels from this image.)

And Sydney’s Sun, which ten years before had warned its readers against a communist insurrection in the streets, now offered instructions on how to blow everything up, based on the Soviet strategy of  a “scorched earth” retreat.

41-12-21 Sun. Smash everything

“Smash everything,” says this conservative newspaper (Sydney Sun, 21 December 1941), adding, “Russia has proved how effective a scorched earth policy can be ….”

Even our “pacific cove” Bill Wood advocated defensive guerrilla war; his thinking was expressed in three booklets he wrote in 1942, One Year of the People’s War, The Defence of Moscow and, with Len Fox, Cobbers and Comrades. Wood and Fox ridiculed parades and drill as useless: “you can’t stop a blitzkrieg by saluting or presenting arms to it” (p. 7), and they expected (or hoped) that those fighting in a “democratic” People’s Army would understand they would be fighting, not for one country, but “for the common people of the world.” 

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Three books on “people’s war” in Australia and the USSR written by Bill Wood in 1942.

Wood, a pacifist, became unexpectedly well known as an advocate for (defensive) war in this brief period. He met Sydney Telegraph editor Brian Penton who was willing to publicise Wood’s ideas on a People’s Army.    

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Left: Bill Wood, 1941. Right: Brian Penton as a young man (1930s)

“Bill seems to be working the clock round at present,” his mother wrote. “Progress keeps him busy as usual and in addition he has the work of the Kuringgai Citizens’ Defence Committee. Here is the programme of his activities since I last wrote. Friday evening. Rifle Parade—Defence Detachment—at Pymble. Saturday evening. Committee of Defence Detachment met here and stayed till 11.15. … Sunday evening. Committee of Executive of the Citizens’ Defence Committee met here. Monday evening. Rifle Parade, Pymble. Tuesday evening. General Committee Meeting of KCDC [Kuringgai Citizens’ Defence Committee] at Gordon Council Chambers—I went with Bill. He was elected President again, and they are arranging for … another big meeting at Turramurra. Wednesday evening. A lecture to the Military Forces.” (Madeline to Fred Wood, 15 January)

 

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Army Minister Frank Forde, 1940. (National Library of Australia)

The minister who would decide whether to permit any formation of a People’s Army was Frank Forde. A traditional Catholic from Queensland, Forde had been deputy PM and Army Minister since Labor’s return to government in October 1941. “A short, stocky man, Forde was always concerned about his physical appearance and health; he was teetotal and a non-smoker. In his early years he liked shooting …”. (Neil Lloyd and Malcolm Saunders, “Forde, Francis Michael (Frank)” in Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Around 22 January the Home Security Minister (H. P. Lazzarini) wrote to Forde that “the Communist Organisation was forming a Civil Defence Army, and that a man named Wood … had been active around the north shore line, particularly at Killara …”. (Lazzarini to Forde, 22 January 1942, in ASIO file A6119 / 89, p. 40). Two weeks later Forde announced his opposition to any such “private armies”: “If these got into the hands of subversive elements they could constitute a very serious menace to the country’s unity.” An editorial in Sydney’s Herald also drew the conclusion that guerrilla units “could be used for revolutionary purposes.” (SMH, 9 February) 

The Herald had already reported that “North Shore residents are forming guerrilla units to patrol the bush … to deal with a possible invasion.” These units expected any invading  Japanese paratroops to take cover in the heath and forests surrounding these northern suburbs. “Meetings have been held at Pymble, Gordon, Killara, Lindfield [and] Roseville.” The organisers were Bill Wood and Mr A. Arthur-Smith who had “eighteen months’ experience as a guerrilla fighter in Libya. The role of guerrilla groups, Arthur-Smith says, would be to ‘hold up paratroops until the military arrive’”. (SMH, 27 January) 

Wood’s approach from 30 January onwards was that all members of a People’s Army “will place themselves unreservedly at the disposal of the Government and co-operate wholeheartedly with its plans.” (Progress, 30 January). Despite this assurance, Forde continued to treat the idea as a “private army”. Progress was premature in claiming that the government supported their plan for guerrilla units:

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The same report in Progress provided a detailed set of instructions on “How to form a detachment of the People’s Army” and began by recommending that any meeting to form a detachment should be chaired by “your [parliamentarian], mayor, or leading alderman”, none of whom are likely to have been communists. The article recommended “the model set down in Tom Wintringham’s New Ways of War”. (Progress, 30 January) A similar set of instructions appeared at the end of Wood’s pamphlet, The Defence of Moscow, which was published before 26 February. His advice on “How to join the Citizens’ Defence Movement” was simple: if unable to join any existing detachment of the official VDC, a committee should be formed “to choose a corps of instructors from the experienced volunteers” and a training course commenced “based on Tom Wintringham’s New Ways of War, chapter 6, in association with VDC Commanders.” (W. A. Wood, The Defence of Moscow, p. 29)

At the time, Hitler’s troops were in retreat from Moscow. Wood listed a number of reasons why Moscow and other Russian cities were saved, including the simple fact that “the people were armed”. In Russia at this time “Every street is a battlefield, every house a fortress.” (Wood, The Defence of Moscow, p. 21, quoting the SMH)

how to join PDA (Def of Moscow)

Above: From Wood’s pamphlet, The Defence of Moscow (p. 29). The instructions emphasise cooperation with official organisations and personnel. 

Below: “The people have decided.” Three editorials support a People’s Army; from the Sydney Telegraph and Smith’s Weekly (27 and 30 January 1942)

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In an extraordinary editorial, almost certainly written by the paper’s editor Brian Penton, the Telegraph told its readers why and how to fight in the streets. “A People’s Army arises out of the people, and is, for the most part, run by the people themselves. … The function of the People’s Army would be: To harass, snipe, confuse raiding parties in remote areas. To wreck trains, pull up rails. To carry out a  thorough scorched-earth policy. To dig trenches, fill sand bags, throw up fortifications, fight in the streets with any weapons they could lay their hands on—shot-guns, home made grenades, anything.” (DT, 30 January)

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Brian Penton. Sketch by William Dobell (c. 1943)

On 1 February Wood convened a provisional committee for the People’s Army, planning to hold a State Conference at the end of February. A “corps of instructors” had already been formed; in planning were “miners’ dynamite squads, … guerrilla cavalry and black trackers”.  Wood invited all who wish to form a guerrilla unit to contact him at his mother’s Killara address, which the Tory Herald happily provided. (SMH 2 February)

The following day, Forde announced that “The formation of an irregular ‘People’s Army’ would be a serious embarrassment to those directing the country’s defence …. The Volunteer Defence Force would be the equivalent of the ‘People’s Armies’ in Russia and China.” (SMH, 3 February) This explanation satisfied few of his critics, as the minister would continue the VDC’s regime of weekend parades without weapons or training in guerrilla tactics. The VDC also excluded women from joining.

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Left: Forde claims that the VDC amounted to a People’s Army. Wood’s reply is conciliatory (right). (Both from SMH 3 February 1942)

Wood replied to Forde, “The people’s army has no intention of competing with the Services for recruits. … The trouble at present is that there are thousands of able-bodied citizens who, by reason of their sex or occupation, cannot join even the Volunteer Defence Corps. We suggest that the VDC should agree to the formation of local auxiliaries, composed of all able-bodied civilians, capable of bearing arms.” (SMH, 3 February) Three days later, Wood’s tone was less conciliatory: “I intend to get this fact into Mr Forde’s head, even if I have to go to Canberra and perform a surgical operation on him.” Forde continued to resist “private armies owing no allegiance to proper authority.” (Sydney Sun, 6 February)

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(Sydney Sun, 6 February 1942)

Penton’s Telegraph claimed proof of widespread support for joining a People’s Army:

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(DT, 5 February 1942)

Brian Penton’s campaigning Telegraph backed Wood’s proposal that guerrilla units should be formed “immediately”. The paper’s opinion survey of “men” in Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle, conducted by Penton’s “special research staff”, found that “Tremendous public interest has been aroused by the proposal to form a People’s Army in Australia,” even though “the Army Minister (Mr Forde) said he would not allow it.” Eighty-four per cent agreed that the government “should form a People’s Army to fight in cooperation with the AIF and Militia if the Japanese invade Australia” and a similar number said that the “People’s Army [should] be formed immediately” rather than “when the Australian mainland is invaded”. Sixty-three per cent of interviewees were willing to join such a force immediately and another 14 per cent were willing “when invaded”. Seventy-one percent wanted the People’s Army to be linked to the AIF and Militia, and less than a quarter preferred the People’s Army to “fight separately”. (DT, 5 February)

To read Australia’s newspapers of these weeks is to realise how apprehensive people of all political persuasions were at the prospect of invasion—even before Darwin was bombed. For example, Lockwood’s guerrilla book received sixteen reviews across Australia, from Townsville to Hobart to Perth, all supportive, even though most of the reviews were in conservative and provincial newspapers. “Mr Rupert Lockwood has great faith in guerrilla tactics and so have we,” said the Northern Star (Lismore, 4 June), while the Queensland Times (Ipswich, 1 June) found his “admirable little volume … convincing.” The city papers, especially in Sydney, were just as enthusiastic.

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(Sydney Sun, 12 February 1942)

The idea of a People’s Army appealed to many enthusiasms. Letter-writers to both city and country newspapers, supported it. Some advocated an arrangement modelled on Britain’s Area Defence System; others, relying on a more picturesque tradition, recommended the “bushcraft” of “men on stations and farms”, “keen-eyed old kangaroo shooters” and the skills of “black trackers”. “First-class shots … who know every inch of the country” should be “divided into police districts” to fight as guerrillas. (DT, 17, 18 and 19 February) Even Rupert Lockwood entered into this nostalgic patriotism of bushcraft defiance, telling readers that the Ned Kelly gang was a four-man “commando unit” that understood the principles of modern guerrilla war, because they were mobile, could strike and retreat quickly, used a “bush telegraph” system, and had the “sympathy and aid of the local populations”. (Lockwood, “Ned Kelly Was Our Guerrilla Teacher”, World’s News, Sydney, 18 April)

Meanwhile, some letter writers defended Forde’s position that the VDC should be the only “people’s” army.  James Mahoney of Ryde NSW, a persistent letter writer (whose opinions started appearing in both city and small-town papers in several states) bravely proposed that the “Volunteer” Defence Corps be made compulsory. He admitted that “There has been no great rush to the VDC in recent weeks,” explaining that “There are too many slackers in this country.” (DT, 23 February)

Part of Forde’s argument against the idea of a People’s (guerrilla) Army was that the official VDC already did the job of training civilians in self-defence. In reply, those seeking guerrilla-style civilian training argued that the VDC had failed to provide this training, firstly because it lacked weapons, and even without weapons its training ignored practical advice in defensive tactics such as those being offered by Wintringham to Britain’s Home Guard. According to one critic of the VDC’s official handbook, its training method “consists of early Victorian parlour parade stuff, ‘fall in,’ ‘slope arms,’ ‘present arms,’ ‘salute Brass Hats,’ ‘fix bayonets’, and so on. Routine drill may be essential for the orderly moving of troops, but it has not checked the enemy in this war.” (DT, 18 February)

Forde’s VDC was also said to be incompetently led. One of its founders in NSW, Lieut.-Colonel Travers, a veteran of the previous war, “resigned from the Corps some time ago as a protest against maladministration at the VDC headquarters” whose members he said were “entirely inadequate and untrained”. (DT, 8 February) While his account supported the Telegraph’s radical policy (“Purge the higher commands”), Lieut.-Colonel Travers DSO and bar could hardly be called a Red subversive. 

you me war cover 400

Brian Penton also arranged for the publication of You, Me and This War in December 1941, a book criticising the government’s war preparedness.

But despite the minister’s assurances, it was hard to see any changes to the practices of the VDC. Penton’s Telegraph was not alone in finding the Corps inadequate. A letter writer to the Herald familiar with the VDC complained that the Corps had been underfunded, that training in guerrilla methods such as the use of hand grenades had been all but ignored, and that there were “insufficient rifles to go round”. (SMH, 6 February) Miners at Cessnock claimed “that the Volunteer Defence Corps was unable to absorb or train adequately all the men offering.” (SMH, 9 February) The Herald leader-writer thought the VDC had been subject to a serious flaw: “uncertainty about the responsibility involved in enlistment in the VDC has exercised considerable restraint on people who might have joined it.” (SMH, 9 February)

Criticism of the VDC sometimes fell into ridicule. In a breakdown of supply, a Townsville VDC unit “couldn’t have a full dress parade today because its members had no trousers.” (Newcastle Morning Herald, 9 February) Frustration at such incompetence led to a sort of panicky sarcasm. A letter writer in Wagga argued, “The Army Minister promised more than a month ago, in response to a nationwide cry for a People’s Army, to expand the VDC to a maximum. No unit of the VDC has yet been permitted to expand by a single man, and only a small percentage has arms or equipment. There is no People’s Army, and only a paper VDC. Now we are asked to ‘stay put’ till the fighting is over. Then, presumably, we can come out and pick up our dead …”. (DT, 16 March)

The Army Minister at last realised his mistake in dismissing altogether the value of citizen guerrilla units. He had perhaps been reading letters like these. “For the present,” Forde now declared, “the Federal Government will take no action against organisations which are seeking to organise ‘people’s armies’.” (SMH, 6 February) Wood didn’t miss this opportunity to embrace his new ministerial friend: “The chairman of the provisional committee of the People’s Army, Mr W. A. Wood, had sent [Forde] a telegram congratulating him on the Government’s decision to widen the scope of the VDC and promising to urge suitable members to enrol in it.” (SMH, 9 February) Realising he best not alarm the army minister further, Bill stopped calling his proposed guerrilla units the People’s Army. It was rebadged an “Auxiliary” of the official VDC: “Bill is still working flat-out for the People’s Auxiliary of the Volunteer Defence Corps,” his mother wrote the same week, “and is hoping to arrange a deputation to the Minister of the Army—but he [Forde] is a much harassed and therefore elusive person these days. Bill wants to make it absolutely clear that the Auxiliary is to work under the control of the VDC, and to consist of people debarred by age, occupation, sex or physical disability from joining the VDC. There is no idea of any body acting on its own authority without the consent of the military or the government. Bill was speaking on the subject at meetings at Epping (Friday night) and Croydon (Sunday evening), King’s Cross (Tuesday) and at a Committee at Gordon last evening.” (Madeline to Fred Wood, 12 February)

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(Progress poster, c. February 1942. State Library of NSW)

By mid-February, Wood was sufficiently persistent to get the briefest meeting with Forde. Madeline’s account of it gives us something of the chaos and anxiety of these days. Her son found a large vociferous delegation, crammed into a noisy corridor, waiting on the minister with their democratic ideas for the war effort—too democratic, it seems. “After a long chase,” Madeline wrote to Fred Wood, “Bill ran Mr Forde to earth at 11 p.m. on Monday night [16 February].” He had been waiting there for some hours. “Bill went along at 2 p.m. to find the passage outside the minister’s door filled with a deputation of 50 women led by Mrs [Jessie] Street demanding the right to defend them[selves]—and making ‘an incredible row’. Bill was told to come again at 9 p.m. Then he waited for 2 hours in the passage but he had a chair, provided by a ‘kind caretaker’, and a book. Finally Mr Forde saw him for 5 minutes. He was ‘quite reasonable’, and favourable to the idea of a People’s Auxiliary to the Volunteer Defence Corps, and promised to bring the matter before the Cabinet. So the [People’s ‘Auxiliary’] promoters are forging ahead. They have an influential Central Committee with Ion Idriess as President and Bill as Chairman, and they are forming branches in the suburbs and country towns. But so far the difficulty is equipment. Bill was speaking at Surry Hills on Sunday afternoon, at Paddington last night, at Five Dock on Tuesday, and he will be at Manly tomorrow. Meantime we have just heard of the first bombs dropped on our country—you can guess where.” (Madeline to Fred Wood, 19 February) Darwin was bombed that morning. The following day Forde felt obliged to offer more support to the official VDC.

On 20 February, the minister surrendered in his skirmish with Bill’s partisans. The mayor of North Sydney, a member of Wood’s committee, told a meeting that Forde would take to Cabinet a recommendation that the guerrillas of the People’s Army be “officially recognised”.  (SMH 21 February)

Women in the army? Unthinkable.

Now, a further note on those women waiting in the corridor to speak with the Army Minister. 

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Jessie Street (July 1941)

On 5 February, the United Associations of Women (UAW) led by Jessie Street, wife of the NSW Chief Justice, asked the Army Minister, Frank Forde, to meet them to discuss acceptance of women into a People’s Army.  

The minister wasted no time in replying. “Mr Forde does not favour the idea of Australian women bearing arms and fighting side-by-side with men in any branch of the service.” (SMH, 6 February) This is his reply to Jessie Street—and also the outspoken Bishop Burgmann, who had said in support of Street, “Women in other countries have shown that they can play a part hardly second in importance to that played by the men. It would be foolish, and wasteful, not to use their talents and services.” (DT, 2 February) 

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Women in training for city defence at Forsyth Park, North Sydney, February 1942. “They are members of the People’s Volunteer Defence Auxiliary, using dummy rifles and ‘hand-grenades’ — socks filled with sand.” (DT, 16 February)

Street made the reasonable point that in an invasion of towns and suburbs, women needed to be able to resist if troops were still overseas. “All able-bodied civilians ready to help, women and men, should be trained to resist the invader in their own localities.” (Sydney Sun, 8 February) Street was talking about women fighting in guerrilla units: “Women should be shown how to take their part in the defence of this country. If necessary, we could stand at street barricades alongside the men.” Another member of the group, H. J. Webster, added, “What we need is a nucleus of trained, disciplined women in every street of every suburb”. (DT, 8 February)

But the minister was horrified at the suggestion that women should take up arms. He admitted his concern was that “our manhood would feel insulted” by this proposal.

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Sydney Sun, 8 February 1942

Street managed to see the army minister ten days later—on that night when Bill Wood eventually saw him. In her meeting with Forde, Street put the matter simply in terms of rights: “Women should have the right to learn to protect themselves.” Her request above all was for training. (SMH, 17 February) Forde advised the women instead to work in armaments factories where more workers were needed. (Barrier Miner, 20 February)

Women did take up men’s work in factories and, through the Australian Women’s Land Army, on farms. They also worked as mechanics in war industries. But the thought of women fighting with weapons alongside men was too much for the minister to contemplate.

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Frank Forde and his family, 1940. (National Archives of Australia)

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