Wake Up Australia: we are becoming Green and Defenceless.
As Australia’s industrial capacity declines, Australia is becoming green and defenceless. History holds lessons.
Back in Dec 1941, Japan suddenly attacked the huge US Naval base at Pearl Harbour. Three days later, two “invincible” British warships, “Repulse” and “Prince of Wales” were sunk by Japanese planes off Malaya. Soon Japanese armies were rampaging through Asia towards Australia. By Feb 1942, the “impregnable” British fortress of Singapore surrendered and Japanese bombs were falling on Darwin. By Sept 1942 the Japanese army had slashed their way down the Kokoda Track and could see the lights of Port Moresby. They were looking across Torres Strait to Australia. At that time, most of our trained soldiers were fighting Rommel in North Africa or in Japanese prison camps.
Suddenly Australia was on its own and needed to defend itself with what we had here.
Armies need soldiers, weapons, bullets, vehicles, fuel, food, alcohol (and cigarettes).
Soldiers volunteered and were conscripted. Australian conscripts formed part of the force that met the Japanese on the Kokoda Track.
Of course Australia had very few engineering tools when war broke out, especially key tools like lathes. F W Hercus Manufacturing started making a copy of the famous American Southbend lathe in the 1940’s. These machines were installed in factories around Australia and used to make small parts for the war effort. Most of the lathe operators were women.
Enfield Rifles, Bren Guns and Vickers Machine Guns were produced in large numbers at the Small Arms Factory at Lithgow supported by feeder factories in the area. Britain lost so many weapons at Dunkirk that Australian factories were sending guns to them. We could not do that now.
Motor oil was produced in limited quantities from oil shale at Glen Davis, but petrol was in serious short supply, and had been rationed since 1940. With the fall of Singapore, this shortage became severe, and charcoal burners suddenly appeared to keep cars and trucks moving. Kerosene was scarce so carbide lights were widely used. The demand for charcoal was so great that firewood became scarce so it was also rationed.
To conserve supplies for soldiers, rationing was introduced for tea, clothing, butter, sugar, meat and cigarettes. Hotels were only allowed to serve alcohol twice a day for one hour at a time of their choosing.
An immediate critical shortage was copper for cartridge cases and communications – Australia had mines producing lead, zinc, silver, gold and iron, but there was a critical shortage of copper. Fortuitously, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, an exploration drill hole at Mount Isa had struck rich copper ore.
Mount Isa was called on to avert a calamitous shortage of copper in Australia. With government encouragement, Mount Isa Mines made the brave decision to suspend the profitable silver/lead/zinc operations and convert all mining and treatment facilities to extracting copper.
The lead concentrator could be converted to treat copper ore, but the biggest problem was how to smelt the copper concentrates. Luckily the company had skilled engineers and metallurgists in the lead smelter. In a miracle of improvisation, scrap steel and spare parts were purchased and scavenged from old mines and smelters from Cloncurry, Mt Elliott, Mt Cuthbert and Kuridala and cobbled into a workable copper smelter. In 1943 the first Mount Isa blister copper was produced. Production continued after the war when Mount Isa returned to extracting the then more profitable silver/lead/zinc. Later new plant was built enabling both lead and copper metal to be produced from this fabulous mine.
This story of the importance of self-reliance has lessons for today.