Battle of Brisbane

Guest blogger: Dr Judith Powell – Q Anzac 100 Fellow.

26 November 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Brisbane, an event that has become so much a part of Brisbane folklore that when Queenslander Jeff Horn met reigning welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao in the boxing ring at Lang Park, the event was billed as “The Battle of Brisbane”.

American military police outside the Central Hotel Brisbane, Queensland, 1942. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 105718

American military police outside the Central Hotel Brisbane, Queensland, 1942. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 105718

After the attack on Pearl Harbour American troops arrived in Brisbane in December 1941 and were given a rapturous welcome. Like all honeymoons,  however, this enthusiasm didn’t last forever.⁠1 American forces commandeered buildings and accommodation. Their soldiers and sailors were better paid and better clothed than their Australian counterparts and only paid duty free prices for cigarettes. Most irritating of all, their manners and appearance attracted Australian women. Divorce rates surged and newspapers complained about ‘moral decay’. As the saying went, the Americans were  ‘over paid, over sexed, and over here.’ On the American side, however, draftees sent to the South Pacific were annoyed that their Australian counterparts – conscripts – could only serve in Australian and mandated Australian territory.

1942 was a difficult year. In February the Australians lost their Eighth Division when Singapore fell to the Japanese and bombing raids on Darwin and Broome brought real threats of invasion. Schools closed, bomb shelters were built, buildings sandbagged, and slit trenches were dug in suburban backyards.

Thursday 26 November was Thanksgiving Day. Hotels closed at 5pm and men moved on to military canteens that stayed open until 7pm. The American PX – housed in a building still standing on the corner of Adelaide and Creek Streets – was opposite the Australian canteen where many Americans chose to drink. An American MP, concerned that some of these soldiers were AWL (Absent without Leave) began checking leave passes.

Scuffles in the street were nothing new. Brawls were common both between and among soldiers from different armies. American soldiers often carried knives and soldiers from all forces were frequently drunk.

On this occasion events developed, as Police Commissioner Carroll would later report, ’like the proverbial snowball’.2  American MPs were attacked and retreated to their PX. Eye witnesses reported seeing Australian MPs remove their armbands to join in the fight and Australian picquets (guards) hand out their rifles to soldiers in the crowd. “You are yellow,” Australian soldiers are said to have shouted. “You bastards, you used the baton on one of our mates but you ran away at Milne Bay.” By 7.45 pm up to 4000 soldiers were rioting in the streets.

Repairing broken windows at the American canteen, Brisbane, November 1942. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 106429

Repairing broken windows at the American canteen, Brisbane, November 1942. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 106429

Private Norbert Grant, a Military Policeman, was off duty when he received notice of the riot. When he arrived at the PX he was set upon by a group of soldiers who tried to prise his rifle from him. The gun discharged. Private Edward Webster died later that day in the Brisbane General Hospital and a further nine men received gunshot wounds. Nine American MPs were also injured.

Headline from The Courier-Mail, November 27, 1942

Headline from The Courier-Mail, November 27, 1942

The following morning Commissioner Carroll convened a meeting of senior American and Australian army and naval officers, together with police and members of the State Publicity Censor’s Office. Although newspapers reported the events of the day, the government tried to contain news and on 1 December state censors were advised “In no circumstances should censors permit reference to Americans and Australians being or having been involved in clashes.”⁠3

Prime Minister John Curtin agreed to requests from Queensland, in particular to loosening blackout restrictions in the city, but he was unable to offer greatly increased numbers of military police.

Private Webster’s widow requested a coronial inquiry but Commissioner Carroll advised against it, arguing that civilian police and military investigations into the events were sufficient.

In February 1943 Norbert Grant was court martialled but found not guilty of manslaughter. He did not appear in court; he was by then serving in the Syrian campaign.

Attempts by authorities to censor coverage of the events surrounding “The Battle of Brisbane” simply fuelled rumours and the numbers of dead and injured grew in popular retelling. In the end, rather than dampening interest in the incident, censorship worked to increase its mystique.

References

1 See recently released CIA report by journalist J. Edward Angly

2 Queensland Police Museum files on the Battle of Brisbane include all witness statements and police reports.

3 Australian War Memorial Misc. File 422/7/8-773/6 “Behaviour of Australian Personnel” cited in E. Daniel Potts and Annette Potts, Yanks Down Under 1941-1945. The American impact on Australia. Oxford University Press. 1985, p. 308.

Dr Judith Powell