An Unsung Wartime Hero.

Last weekend, while on our history tour of the Hawkesbury River, we had a crash course on Australia’s WWII military defenses along the Hawkesbury River, which  were set up to protect Australia from an imminent Japanese invasion. Aside, from protecting Sydney, these defences also aimed to protect the strategic Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, which provided an essential transport link between North and South.

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Strangely, I had no idea that this bridge, which is now nothing but a row of sandstone pylons protruding out of the Hawkesbury River, played such an important role in our war time defense. Nor did I know that a series of defenses had been set up to defend the bridge and to per-empt an attack on Sydney from the North.  All of this was seemingly dumped in the bottom drawer, that infamous file of no return. However, fortunately, those files are being salvaged before living memory was lost and efforts are now being made to capture and pass on this piece of Australia’s history.

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Characteristic scenery along the Hawkesbury. It hardly looks strategic.

Through hindsight, it’s hard to appreciate the role this sleepy river winding through the bush, played in our National defense. After all, there was no Japanese invasion of Australia.  A couple of midget subs might have entered Sydney Harbour, but they were blown up. Darwin was bombed, but this has been minimalised over time.  Indeed, most Australians would have no idea of the full extent of Japanese attacks on Australian soil.

Yet, when you read newspapers of the day, there wasn’t so much a perceived risk of Japanese invasion, but an expectation…especially after the Fall of Singapore.

My grandparents were courting during 1942. My grandmother was living in Brisbane and my grandfather was living in Dalby, in Western Queensland. Their fears felt very real and it seemed like the Japanese would invade any day. Queenslanders  were definitely living on the edge and bomb shelters had been built throughout Queensland schools.So, we’re not just talking about irrational fears.

Returning to the Hawkesbury River and this sleepy expanse of National Park, this region was actually critical to the war effort. If the Japanese had bombed the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge, there would have been no direct North-South rail link. The alternate route would have entailed travelling an additional 400 miles— via: Lithgow—Dubbo—Werris Creek.This would have seriously affected troop movements and the transport of war supplies. This threat wasn’t too far fetched either. When the Japanese submarines were sunk in Sydney Harbour, the captain of one actually had a map of the Hawkesbury River.

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Defenses were constructed along the Hawkesbury River, including a gun battery at West Head. From the West Head Lookout, you can see where a fleet of five Japanese submarines surfaced in the darkness of night at the mouth of Broken Bay in 1942. Three of the vessels were carrying a trio of midget submarines, which were later launched to attack Sydney.

In addition to the threat of a Japanese attack on the Hawkesbury River Bridge, it’s precarious state of crumbling decay was also a critical strategic concern.As I mentioned  in my previous post, one of the pylons had cracked and the bridge was highly unstable. Speed restrictions of 15 miles an hour were placed on trains going over the old bridge, posing a great handicap to the movement of large wartime traffic on the northern line. In 1945, a further speed reduction to 4 miles an hour and the prohibition of the application of brakes resulted in a 7 minute crossing time for all trains. The replacement bridge wasn’t opened until 1946, after the war was over so all this time, trains were creeping over the bridge one at a time limping along.

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Trains pressure testing the new bridge in 1946.

So, it really is quite amazing that the bridge survived the war but, of course, bridges don’t win any medals…especially when they’re so far from the front line. But when you realise this was the rusty safety pin holding so much of the Australian war effort together, it deserves a bit of respect…as does whoever it was who kept it going behind the scenes. No medals for them either.

By the way, those cracked and crumbling piers from the original Hawkesbury River Bridge are still standing, although the steel trusses are long gone.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that the piers on the new bridge are unsafe. When divers inspected the bridge in 2013, they found major problems with one of the piers. “The downstream pile has a LARGE amount of concrete missing with LOTS of exposed rio bar [reinforcing bar] … concrete continues to flake off and crumble,” said the report, obtained by the state opposition using freedom of information laws (source: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/sydney-to-central-coast-rail-bridge-at-hawkesbury-river-crumbling-at-base-20150913-gjlftk.html)

Let’s hope the government can get its act together faster this time. I can’t see hundreds and thousands of commuters into Sydney being thrilled when they can walk faster across the bridge than the train.

Do you have any similar stories you would like to share? I am seriously amazed by how little I really know about my own neck of the woods and how much I have to explore here without needing to travel overseas. Given the budget, that’s naturally quite a relief!

xx Rowena

 

 

3 thoughts on “An Unsung Wartime Hero.

  1. Pingback: Hawkesbury River Ferry Cruise. | beyondtheflow

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