During the Second World War, municipalities around Australia were expected to take their own precautions against air raids. Initially the threat was not taken too seriously in Preston and Northcote, as the chances of bombing seemed remote. The Government waged a campaign to recruit men over 45, who were too old to serve, to be volunteer air raid wardens for Melbourne’s municipalities. The feeling was that the men would still want to ‘do their bit’ in some way. In Northcote at least this initial effort was no where near the success the recruiting campaign for overseas service had been. Until pictures came through of London in late 1940, there was no appreciation of the damage that could be wrought by air raids.
By early 1941 Preston and Northcote citizens began taking air raid safety precautions a lot more seriously as the war dragged on and the threat moved closer to Australia. The Federal Government organized a Military Demonstration and Massed Bands display at Northcote Park in February of 1941 which was attended by 5,000 people. The Minister for Air, John McEwan urged the crowd to support the war effort and warned of future danger to Australia in the Pacific. The fanfare and activity of this display was repeated in April of 1941 as the Government attempted to whip the populous into a frenzy with advertising banners that read ‘The sirens have sounded! The drone from the planes is coming nearer! Seek shelter!’ Any further doubts that existed as to the chances of an attack on Melbourne by the Japanese were eroded by the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Only 11 months prior the Preston Post had assured its readers that Singapore was ‘well nigh impregnable’. When Darwin was bombed for the first time on February 19, 1942, locals needed no further motivation.
A public air raid shelter was built in Merri Park near Northcote High School. Local citizens volunteered as air raid wardens and both Preston and Northcote’s town clerks were appointed Chief Air Raid Warden. Ben Johnson was the town clerk of Preston at the time. Preston was divided into 11 areas, each having an area warden. A similar division of the city occurred in Northcote. These areas were then further divided into sectors based on population density. The warden’s chief duty was to advise people of precautions to take, and to ensure those precautions were taken. In addition, both councils created a Control Room from which drills could be coordinated and information on all local citizens was kept. A large network of volunteers was also organized and managed from these Control Centers. Preston’s Control Centre was manned by 70 staff on telephones and had 60 boy scouts in place as messengers. In Northcote the Control Centre was set up above a shop on the corner of High and Elm Streets.
It was quite common for women to become Air Raid Wardens. Training was carried out at the Methodist Hall in Regent and took seven to eight sessions of about an hour to qualify for the certificate. The wardens were trained in gas chambers to simulate the reality of a bombed city. The trainee warden would have to rescue a gassed person, which required the warden to remove the person’s clothing and carry them and their clothing on their back out of the chamber. Over 600 men in Preston alone were trained to help the air raid wardens. A first-aid post was set up at Preston Girls School and by April 1941 over 800 people had attended first aid classes run by Dr Steele. Other Preston citizens formed demolition, rescue and repair squads to deal with the aftermath of an air raid. One of the area air raid wardens in Preston, a Mr Lewis, was remembered by one local as always wearing a tin hat and carrying a rattle to practice for warnings. He also sold war bonds door to door.
Air raid drills were a common occurrence at West Preston State School. The students were instructed to lie down on the grass in their class groups, with their stomachs and faces down and a rubber tube on a string around their necks. The tube was to bite down on as the kids held their hands over their heads. Air raid drills were frequent throughout 1942 in Northcote and residents set about digging their own air raid shelters, which were usually just trenches, in addition to ones built by Council. The threat remained real to many, especially when Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour in June of 1942.
As the tide of the war turned through 1943 and 1944, the measures taken for air raid precautions slowly diminished. Signs of the disappearing threat were the October 1944 decision by the Government to allow the Northcote Council to fill 2,500 feet of trenches, the disbanding of a First-Aid post which was a part of the Northcote Air Raid Precaution Organisation and the end of practice drills for the decontamination squad.
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Lemon, Andrew. (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
Lewis, R. (2002). The first twenty: recalling 1928-1948. Balwyn East, Vic: Publishing IT.