UNLOCKING THE PAST: A look at how Cessnock assisted with Australia's effort in World War II

EFFORT: Volunteers from a mobile NES unit demonstrate first aid techniques in 1942. Picture: Australian War Memorial
EFFORT: Volunteers from a mobile NES unit demonstrate first aid techniques in 1942. Picture: Australian War Memorial

Eighty years ago this month a six-year war began which would go on to take more human lives than any other previous world conflict and still remains humanity's bloodiest encounter - World War II (1939-1945).

Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 impelled Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany and so a new world war had begun.

Two days later Prime Minister Robert Menzies' declared it was his "melancholy duty"' to inform Australian citizens that due to these international events Australia too was now at war.

Cessnock Council acted quickly on September 5, pledging the council's loyalty to Britain. A fortnight later over 300 women met to form a Women's Branch of the newly created National Emergency Services, they urged women to get involved in war effort and "assist in the defence of the civilian population".

The Branch was given use of a room in the Soldiers' Memorial Hall and immediately began organising twice-weekly first aid classes which were taught by members of the Cessnock Ambulance Brigade. The NES gained a popular following and more branches opened at Kearsley, Kurri Kurri and Pelaw Main.

Canny local bus company, Rover Motors, was meanwhile eyeing the new army camp site proposed for Greta and the potential new customers it represented. They soon were granted permission by Kearsley Shire Council and Cessnock Council to run regular half-hourly services directly between the camp and Cessnock. Cessnock Chamber of Commerce were thrilled at the opportunity for local businesses to benefit from this influx of soldiers.

Cessnock Council, meanwhile, saw the soldiers from the new Army Camp as a great opportunity to promote the town. They were encouraged to join sporting groups, buy from local businesses - who were asked to give them discounts - and use the town's facilities, including its new swimming pool.

The seriousness of the war came home to local residents powerfully when Colonel E. S. Anderson addressed a packed meeting at the Regent Theatre on September 8.

He warned that Cessnock should be prepared to get actively involved in the war, our location as an inland centre might be required to provide shelter for Newcastle residents fleeing an enemy attack.

The Colonel explained that the coastal city was preparing for possible shelling from the sea, an event which was to come true on June 8, 1942, but not from a German U-boat as anticipated, but a Japanese submarine.

Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Contact her on kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.