Historian, Writer, Commentator, Consultant.

Whyalla at War 1939-45

Posted by on Jan 18, 2012 in Books | 1 comment

Whyalla at War 1939-45 (Whyalla City Council, Whyalla, 2004)

Whyalla at War also originates in childhood. In December 1966 my family (which had migrated from Liverpool to South Australia the previous September) moved to Whyalla, a booming steel-making and ship-building city on the shore of Spencer Gulf. I was to live there until I left to attend university in 1975, and my mother and brother live there still.

In the late 1960s Hummock Hill, which looks down on Whyalla’s main street, still bore the signs of the hill’s wartime occupation by an anti-aircraft battery. Visiting Whyalla’s beach we would invariably visit the concrete gun emplacements and the impressive three-storey command post built into the hill-side, now defaced by graffiti and stinking of excreta.

In 1980, soon after starting work at the Australian War Memorial I was leafing through photographs of the work of war artists and came upon drawings and paintings by Frank Norton and Max Ragless. I was startled to find scenes that I recognised, of the Hummock Hill emplacements and familiar streets and houses under construction in the town’s first, wartime, boom. I began to investigate Whyalla’s wartime history, at first out of curiosity, then, in 1984, in order to complete a Litt. B. thesis at ANU.

The thesis concentrated on the town’s voluntary war effort (and I think I was the first person in Australia to identify a ‘voluntary war effort’ as such). I connected participation in voluntary patriotic and defence organisations (such as the Red Cross, the Fighting Forces Comforts Fund, the Volunteer Defence Corps and Naval Auxiliary Patrol) with the stresses the town experienced as it grew from a small, insular company township into a much larger but less cohesive community as workers and their families migrated from rural South Australia to work in the ship-yard and blast furnace. This entailed a minute dissection of the membership and leadership of dozens of such groups (social, sporting, religious and political as well as patriotic and defence). I plotted every adult in the town (of up 7,000 people by 1945) using maps of the streets and hundreds of coloured pins, keyed by occupation: I must have been mad. I was also fortunate to be able to interview or correspond with a couple of dozen people who remembered Whyalla at that time, all of whom are now dead.

Naturally I did much more research than I needed, and in the 1990s I wrote a series of articles in the journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Sabretache, called ‘The Soldiers on the Hill’ (the title I had originally projected for a history of Whyalla’s wartime defences). While I was glad to at last make use of research that had otherwise lain dormant for ten or more years, I still regretted that my work would not be visible to the people who would most be interested in Whyalla’s history, the people of Whyalla itself.

Accordingly, in about 2000 I pitched the idea of a book, Whyalla at War, to the Whyalla City Council which, after more delays and faffing about than I care to recall, commissioned the Adelaide publishers East Street to handle the production. Whyalla’s mayor, Mr Jim Pollock, launched the book in August 2004. I must say that I was proud to be able to give back to my adopted home town a bit of its history. I was also glad that my mother, Marjorie, could be there, and the book is dedicated to her, in gratitude for her part in bringing us to a place where we made new lives.

Though the book sold pretty well through the Whyalla City Council’s excellent Maritime Museum it remains just about the only one of my books that has never been reviewed, anywhere, it seems.

View the Whyalla at War brochure.


East Street Publishers

One Comment

Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Bob Vianello

    I was born in Tanunda in 1938 and my family moved to Whyalla about 1940 as my da was the towns postmaster. I remember well the searchlight practices and the gun exercises from the hill during the war years. We had blackouts and were prepared for invasion (the Japs said so) because we had shipbuilding facilities. Our old house was in Patterson St The post office was on the corner, where I believe it still is although now in a block of shops. I remember them building the Seaview? pub, prior to that there was only the Spencer hotel which was diagonally opposite the Post Office and the Whyalla Hotel which was directly behind the P.O. an our house. One my sisters was an original student at the Whyalla High school and my family attended the opening. My dad was an officer in the VDC (Voluntary Defense Corp) as was my brother who wanted to join the Navy but was an apprentice with BHP. We left Whyalla in 1946 as my father suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes. We moved to Semaphore where my dad died in 1956. Ironically he started his working life at a telegraph messenger boy at Semaphore 49 years previously.
    After the war we kids used to play in the gun placements on Hummocky Hill

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>