Geraldton’s Air Raid

On 19 February 1942, Japanese forces bombed Darwin. With the risk of danger increasing, men and women on the home front got to work. They constructed air raid shelters, prepared their homes, and carried out additional training. The Daily News reported, “Everywhere on the Home Front there is an atmosphere of industry and enthusiasm. Realisation of their danger has come at last to West Australians, and they are preparing in haste against it.

The Civil Defence Council of Western Australia conducted Air Raid Precaution exercises where they handled mock incidents in various districts. There were blackouts in the metropolitan area, with conditions designed to replicate an attack during the war. Planes flew overhead, and the army carried out training operations. Residents were advised to behave as if it was real and to follow their warden’s directions.

In the evening, on Saturday, 21 February, Perth and Fremantle went dark. Detonators and simulated bombs exploded in various places, including the Perth Train Station. Burst pipes shot water skyward, while overhead, bomber planes flew as if they were attacking. One hundred people acted as casualties and were rescued by emergency services. The blackout lasted until dawn on Sunday morning. It was the longest staged in the metropolitan area and the most realistic.

Running to an air raid shelter in Perth circa 1942.

The mock attack in Perth and Fremantle was deemed relatively successful, with residents receiving advance warning via the newspapers of what they could expect. What officials forgot to do was to tell the people at Geraldton.

As Perth’s air raid sirens howled, someone in the office of the Police Commissioner wired the Geraldton Police Station. Geraldton police then sent a message to their Civil Defence Committee. Everyone was confused as to what was going on. Was it a test? Or was it a genuine attack? Upon receipt of another message from Perth, Geraldton police communicated directly with the power house and the workers there “got the air raid warnings going good and hearty…

Contrary to the advice circular issued by Geraldton’s Civil Defence Committee, hundreds of people poured out of buildings and onto the streets. Many began walking to the sandhills and took a torch to help them see. Both actions were the opposite of instructions. People were advised to stay inside their homes or seek safety in their bomb shelter or shallow trench. The lights should have been switched off or dulled. The head warden, Lionel Chapman, noted in a statement that it was “…just the very thing they should not have done for the reason that movement attracts attention: many of the hills were alive with movement, with torches flashing, and this would have attracted an enemy to bomb and machine-gun the sandhills as well as the town.

The wrong and the right way to act during an air raid.

Car owners were said to have been the worst offenders. They got into their cars and drove wildly around the streets, some with lights on and some without. Those with lights had not taken any action to dull them. Again, such behaviour was against orders. If they were driving, they were supposed to park by the side of the road, turn off the lights and find shelter.

Anyone wandering around Geraldton at that time would have found it looking strangely abandoned; residents had immediately stopped what they were doing and left everything as it was. “Lights were left on in the houses, doors were left open; pubs stayed empty but open, eating-houses, too emptied, but their doors remained unguarded!” Years later, the Mirror noted that it would have been a great time for burglars to target homes and businesses.

Geraldton people remained in the sandhills until about 2 am. Eventually, the ‘all-clear’ signal sounded on Sunday morning, and everyone returned home. On Monday, questions were asked of the Civil Defence Committee, and people voiced their criticism at the Geraldton Council meeting. The Committee issued a statement that the alarms were not a trial alert but an official test. They also confirmed that they did not know the purpose of the alarms. They were no better informed than the general public.

Opinions were divided. Some people, especially those in hospital, were upset and wanted answers as to why Geraldton received no warning of the test. The Mayor, Richard Carson, proclaimed “if it was good enough to warn the people of Perth, surely similar treatment should have been extended to the residents of Geraldton.

He also described how residents had continually visited his home until after 11 pm. All of them asked him about the cause of the alarms. All of them wanted to know what they should do. He advised them to return to their homes and follow the instructions provided.

Despite the frustration of not being warned, many people looked upon the unexpected sounding of the alarms as a positive. It was clear some Geraldton people had not read the circular issued by the Civil Defence Committee and were not aware of what they should and should not do. The test exposed weaknesses in both the public’s actions as well as in the procedures of Geraldton’s Air Raid Precaution movement. Knowing those weaknesses enabled them to be remedied.

A reporter for the Geraldton Guardian and Express acknowledged that it was better such weaknesses were shown “under the conditions which prevailed on Saturday night than during an actual raid, when the cost of them might have to be counted in human lives and suffering.” Correcting the mistakes was paramount, but at least they had the opportunity to do so. As one person noted, “No longer are we playing round with a war thousands of miles from our shores. No: we are playing round with a war right in our own backyard.

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