Air shelters, evacuation drills and blackouts: life in wartime Launceston | Photos, video

It was 1942 in World War II. Australia was bracing for an imminent invasion; it could come at any day. ZONA BLACK investigates Launceston's war-time contingency plans.

During World War II, news came daily that the Japanese invasion was coming ever-closer to Australia.

The fall of Singapore – regarded generally as a “fortress” – at the hands of the Japanese front meant that Australia was next in line for attack.

There were fears that Tasmania, because of its relatively small size, would be invaded early, taken over, and used as a base from which to further attack mainland Australia.

Authorities around the state flew into action. In Launceston, the approach was methodical, and left no worst-case-scenario unexplored.

The threat of air raids was seen as very real, especially in the wake of the Darwin bombings at the start of 1942, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery historian Jon Addison said.

“This is the fact that people can raid a city without actually invading it,” Mr Addison said.

“This is not just paranoia, this is forward-thinking sensibilities.”

One of the biggest developments to come out of the plans were air raid shelters. There were three types of shelters built, Mr Addison said: Slit trenches, pill boxes, and pipe shelters.

The pill boxes were considered the best of the bunch, while pipe shelters were designed for open public spaces.

There were pipe shelters and trenches in Princes Square, Royal Park, and Cornwall Square that could have held about 500 people.

About 10 pill boxes were built by authorities, and were on council-owned land like the Kingsway, Civic Square, Yorktown Square, and what is colloquially called Birchalls car park, on Paterson Street. A handful more were privately constructed.

However, the state and country was under a war act that meant all civil liberties were removed.

“The Civil Authority had the ability to claim whatever land they wanted,” Mr Addison said, and added that, therefore, many air raid shelters were also built on private property.

There did not appear to be much (documented) opposition to the seizure of privately owned land on which to build the shelters.

“A lot of thought was put into the location of the shelters,” Mr Addison said.

“Should air raids happen in Launceston (it was thought that) the biggest bombs would be in the CBD. That’s where they assumed the 500-pound bombs would be dropped.

“So that’s where the nine-inch reinforced concrete bunkers, the pill boxes, were built. The further out from the centre, the less there were.”

The shelters remained in place for about two years, until it was clear that the war was coming to an end. They were all demolished.

Launceston also began to adopt common wartime practices from around the country.

One of these was mandatory blackouts. Car headlights, street lights, and house lights, were ordered to be shut off after certain times.

By reducing the visibility, it was harder for enemy planes on scouting mission to figure out where the population density in the city was, Mr Addison said.

“The idea was that planes flying overhead, they can’t see where the major congregations of the streets were [from street lights and car lights],” he said.

“There were public light restrictions, all the things that showed the direction of streets …. it was about precision bombing, and navigating.”

Museum research officer Ross Smith had delved through newspaper copies from the era, and found many articles that spruiked other wartime inventions.

An article in The Examiner chronicles the benefits of “smart” air-raid styles, adopted from the ladies of London.

“They are of hessian and covers the wearer’s colourful skirt and jumper in addition to being a protection from flying glass or fragments, they camouflage the wearer,” the article reads.

It talked of the female workers at the city’s textile mills being supplied with the suits, in case of emergency. Documentation from the time shows that the workers frequently partook in evacuation exercises, where they’d be drilled to run to nearby trenches.

Mr Smith said he also found council documents that logged the location of farming buildings in outer-lying areas, that could be used as shelters if invasion occurred.

There were also frequent advertisements in The Examiner, urging the community to sign up for war savings.

The idea behind the war savings was similar to a bond or a pledge, Mr Addison said. If the funds were not used, they were returned.

“It was a way of saying, even on the home front, you can contribute to the war effort,” he said.

While many of these efforts were being undertaken in cities across the country, Mr Addison said it was easily noted that Launceston placed a particular importance on being prepared.

“Launceston has had this, in the past, quite a pre-emptive response to potential disaster,” he said.

“The flu epidemic, post World War I, didn’t hit Launceston as hard as expected. We don’t know if this is because of the preparation done, or just that the less intensive strain hit here.

“This city has always been remarkably prepared for disaster, and has showed a definite willingness to deal with the worst-case scenarios.”