World War II Comes to Brisbane

Australia followed Britain into war against Germany when World War II began on 1 September 1939, but it was not until Japan bombed the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 that America retaliated and joined its allies Britain and her Empire against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

As the Japanese military pushed southwards towards Australia, Brisbane suddenly found itself in the front line of defence. 

The Port of Brisbane was important to the Allies during World War II, as it was used for General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Headquarters, from which he managed the one million United States troops that passed through Australia. His office was situated in the AMP Building (now called MacArthur Central) on the corner of Queen and Edward Streets in the city. MacArthur had previously rejected use of the University of Queensland complex as his headquarters, as the distinctive bends in the river at St Lucia could have aided enemy bombers. Also used as a headquarters by the American troops during World War II was the T & G Building on the corner of Queen and Albert Streets in the city.

General MacArthur with Admiral Nimitz in his Brisbane Headquarters (Photo from the US National Archives and Records Administration, Bethesda, MD courtesy of the MacArthur Museum Brisbane)

Brisbane’s population before the war was 350,000, which increased to 750,000 with troops during the war. Some friction between so many troops in so small a city was inevitable, and in 1942, the so-called Battle of Brisbane resulted from a violent clash between US personnel and Australian soldiers and civilians. 

The proximity of enemy shipping to Brisbane was brought home when, in 1943, the Australian hospital ship Centaur was sunk by a Japanese submarine off Cape Moreton with the loss of 268 lives.

To protect the entrance to Moreton Bay, the RAN No 2 mine control station was established at Fort Bribie and the RAN No 4 antisubmarine detection loop station became operation at Woorim on Bribie Island in 1942. There were also three Forts built at the commencement of World War II to protect the entrances to Moreton Bay. The main shipping channel, via the North West Channel between Bribie and Moreton Islands, was guarded by Fort Bribie, a garrison situated on the northern end of the island where the channel passes closest to the beach, and by a similar Fort at Cowan Cowan where the channel passes closest to Moreton Island. Fort Rous, on the southern end of Moreton Island guarded the bay from any shipping attempting to enter via the South Passage. At each of these Forts was a pair of six-inch guns. Bribie was sea firing, Rous was sea and bay firing, while Cowan was bay firing only because the height of Mount Tempest proved too large an angle for the guns to fire over to sea.

The effects on the Brisbane River and its shipping were profound. In1939 the Commonwealth and State Governments cooperated with the firm of Evans Deakin & Co to set up the Evans Deakin shipyard at Kangaroo Point for the building of large ships. From 1941 the South Brisbane Dry Dock was used by the US as their submarine base and World War II blockhouse. In 1945 reclaimed land between Hamilton, the training wall, and the back water was extensively developed for the Royal Navy as a naval repair base. For the repair of American vessels too large to fit into the South Brisbane Dry Dock (e.g aircraft carriers) the Cairncross Dockyard was constructed on the Brisbane River opposite the Hamilton wharves. This was opened in 1944. Nearby at Apollo Road in Bulimba, approximately 800 Chinese evacuees from Nauru and Ocean islands in the Central Pacific were involved in building landing barges for the Americans.

There was also a US submarine Base at New Farm wharf where the US Navy’s submarine tender Fulton was moored.

‘During World War II, seventy-nine US subs operated out of Brisbane, sinking over 100 enemy ships, supporting coastwatchers, carrying out rescues and training local forces. Seven Brisbane-based US submarines with their 426 crewmen were lost.’

David Jones

co-author of US Subs Down Under. Brisbane 1942-1945 

The Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945. World War II was over and Brisbane could revert to peacetime activities.

(Extract from ‘The Port of Brisbane – Its People and Its Personalities’ Peter Ludlow 2012)

3 thoughts on “World War II Comes to Brisbane

  1. Great report, and not so long ago, Peter! Well done again … saw the old concrete bunkers on Moreton Island and the fort on Magnetic Island, great walk up there in Townsville.

    Liked by 2 people

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