Gabo Island WWII

Perhaps my earliest recollection of Gabo Island was the booming of the rockets warning passing ships of the nearness of the Island. It was an incessant, ominous sound that I shall always remember and was associated with Winter’s south west gales but mostly with the mist and heavy fogs of easterly weather. The latter I remember when the ‘SS Christina Fraser’ was missing. Though only about 3 % years old, I can vividly recall clutching my father’s hand, whilst he shaded his eyes with the other one, peering into the pea-soup fog. We Were living at Mallacoota House at the time and, in my child’s mind, I fully expected it to come ‘steaming up the Channel’ to Government Wharf. Sadly, the ‘Christina Fraser’ with the Captain and seventeen crew members, which had left Newcastle with a cargo of coal en route to Geelong, was never found. It had been sighted south of Gabo Island hove to in a very strong gale and, later, wreckage was found on the beach near Lakes Entrance. At the Court of Enquiry it was suggested that all sea-going vessels on the Australian coast should be equipped with wireless (this was in the early 1930s). Down through the years I have often thought of that ill fated ship and realized on what a treacherous coast line we lived!

WWII came and over 100 RAAF radar stations were established around Australia. The RAAF 16 Radar Station on Gabo Island was one of the only five in Victoria. The RAN also had a station on the Island. With convoys of supplies going North and the fear of Japanese invasion it was imperative that surveillance would be full time from the Island, along with the bombers from the RAAF station at the aerodrome watching for submarines. The RAAF awarded Mione and my father (Hugh Brady) the contract for the transport of personnel and supplies to Gabo. Dad purchased a boat, renamed it “Beatrice”, after Mum, and commenced the Gabo Run.’ Years before, my late husband, Rod had bought it from Bill Maddison. Bill was never happy with the engine but, according to the late Bill Bruce, Rod had worked out its idiosyncrasies and was happy with it. Later, when he was in the Pacific Theatre of War, his mother decided to sell it as she was unable to look after it. It had been built by legendary boat builder, Ike Warren and was a wonderful ocean going vessel. Despite only having a petrol engine, the “Beatrice” made an amazing amount of trips to Gabo Island. It now belongs to Roger Bruce.

Many of the children, whose fathers were Light House Keepers, boarded in Mallacoota and went to school here. Over the years we have kept in touch with some of them, particularly Doug and Max Huxley. Their mother was very kind to the RAN men whose station was near the light house. She often had them for afternoon tea and many kept in touch with the family for years. Doug can remember when the “ss Iron Crown” was torpedoed off Gabo Island and he and Max came to the unveiling of the commemorative plaque in memory of the 38 crewmen who lost their lives. It was provided by one of the 5 survivors, George Fisher, when, after he had attended an official function by BHP at Newcastle after the war, he was devastated that they had made no mention of their three lost vessels, “Iron Chieftan,” “Iron Knight” and the “Iron Crown” (the latter sunk off Gabo). So began George’s long crusade to search for information about the ship and the crew. The plaque at the Memorial Rose Garden is a result of his search and I believe is one of the few privately donated in Australia. I keep in touch with George and he was delighted to see the literature about the “Iron Crown” displayed in the Bunker. During WWII the “Beatrice” made many trips to Cape Howe for the PMG as they were renewing the lines to Gabo. Dad had recorded taking a truck, a tractor (on the punt), and 12 poles. The vehicles were taken over quite often along with PMG mechanics and materials. Years before, in 1928, our Mother’s cousin, Bert Egan from Eden, with his bullock team, had the cable brought down to Cape Howe to be laid to Gabo. ‘(see footnote) When weather prevented the “Beatrice” going to Gabo, the servicemen would be bored and Dad employed many of them to help around “Raheen”. Our home was always open to them and many a night was spent “community singing” around the pianola. Sometimes it was someone who could really play the piano. They were happy nights! Not long before his death, Frank Stubbs came to see me. He and his son Philip, a journalist with a Geelong paper, had been waiting for the weather to subside so he could revisit Gabo. Unfortunately, after a week, they had to return. Frank told me many stories of being on Gabo and how the penguins always made their way up to the light house in the evening and how they would virtually have to ‘kick’ them out of the way when they were going on night duty.

The first duty of the day was to retrieve the penguins which had fallen into the slit trenches during the night. One ex-RAAF recalls the night when he was on ‘sub-marine watch’ in the alternator hut which had been camouflaged and built into the side of a sand dune. He was writing letters when he received a terrific blow on the back of his neck, knocking him off the chair. The assailant turned out to be not a Japanese submariner but a large penguin which had fallen through the ventilator opening
above his head. One story Frank told was of the time they left the Island about midday and a ‘southerly buster’ blew up from nowhere, half swamping the boat and the petrol motor. The sea was unbelievable and the little boat was tossed about as the men endeavoured to start the engine. Frank said he would never forget that intense cold and he thought “here I am at 19 years of age about to drown and I have never seen the war, yet.” As they were about to hoist the sail, Dad finally got the engine going. Frank sailed past Gabo many times in the Sydney-Hobart Races and said, when they rounded Cape Howe, he always remembered that experience.

He also told me of another occasion when the boat was well overdue and the Mallacoota Publican, Harry Bolton, became concerned and arranged for anyone with torches to go down to the Entrance. There were few cars in those days to provide light but Frank said he would never forget that little band of people with their flashlights guiding them through the blackness of the night. Harry took them back to the Hotel where a whisky revived them. He said he could still feel the heat of it hitting his frozen body.

Operating the Gabo Run was a tremendous responsibility as, not only was inclement weather a problem, but there was always the worry of getting back to catch the tide as each week the bar was getting shallower. It finally closed and that is when the RAAF was instrumental in having the ‘rail way track’ built at Bastion Point so Dad could keep the boat there. Later, with horses and scoops (wartime meant no mechanised vehicles), the local men ‘opened the entrance’. It had become necessary as the water was banking up as far as Genoa. “Opening the Entrance’ was a big event and we all went down to see it.

The personnel on Gabo waited anxiously for the “Beatrice” to arrive especially if they were going on Leave. They would ring Mrs Dorron, our Post Mistress, to ask her if the weather was alright for the boat to make the trip. She would say “the smoke is issuing freely from the Bakery, so I reckon it will be tomorrow.” She presumed there would be a batch of bread being cooked to take over to the Island.

One story I remember from those years is when one of the servicemen wanted to meet up with his Mallacoota girlfriend at a dance that evening. So he soldered all his clothes into a tin and, with a little bit of help, landed on the far beach. He then walked down to the Entrance, lit a fire and waited to be picked up. A true example that “love will find a way!” Another story I recall is the time when the boat was going to Gabo and a whale dived under it. Dad always said Albert’s face was as white as chalk. When Albert told the story he said Dad’s face had taken on the same appearance. It was with great relief they saw the whale re-surface a safe distance away.

Jim Palmer, from Narrabarba, often spoke of the time when he was checking his cattle down on the coast and saw a submarine with its crew apparently looking for water on the shore. He hid out of sight until they had gone. I guess many wartime secrets have been revealed over the years since WWII ended. A retired solicitor from Ballarat who had been in the RAAF on Gabo told me that no drink was allowed on the Island and it always amazed each C.O. how many times there was so much merriment among the men. Strangely, it seemed to coincide with the “Beatrice’s” arrival so they kept a watchfull eye as it unloaded, omitting to watch it leaving. What they did not know was that on a large hook under the end of the wharf, a bag was often hung, submerged in the water, so the contents were ‘refrigerated’ as well. Dad never told me this dark secret but the “Beatrice” not only supplied food but kept up the men’s morale as well!

For many years our family kept track of many of the ex-service men after they returned to civilian life. One ex-RAN was William Fogarty who, in the 1950s became a Footscray Mayor, was Footscray representative for the Western Bulldogs and, for 15 years, was MP for Sunshine. I hope they all returned safely to their homes after the War.

Apart from scheduled trips, Dad recorded trips to bring ill servicemen to Mallacoota to either seek help from the RAAF station or to catch a bus away. He not only carted food supplies but camouflage paint, generators, films, etc. and because Garratts the contractors were working over there, tim ber, cement, iron rails. Some items recorded were a saw bench, coils of netting and so on.

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