<div>A passionate reunion in Fremantle Harbour in 1943, as the AIF's 9th Division return from the Middle East. AWM 029151.</div>

The Return
A passionate reunion in Fremantle Harbour in 1943, as the AIF's 9th Division return from the Middle East. AWM 029151.
Fremantle and War

Deborah Gare

Deborah Gare is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

It always seemed like a good idea for the University to mount an exhibition that centred on its own community. After all, we thought, a project about Fremantle’s history of war would provide our undergraduates with the opportunity to engage in a professional research project and would, at the same time, add meaningfully to the heritage records of our town.

And so the search started. Students trawled through Australia’s leading archives in the search for the rarest and most significant images which have survived from periods of conflict.

After one glance at the assembled images—there were, at first, nearly one hundred of them—it became clear that there must be few towns which have fully shared Fremantle’s experiences in Australia’s history of war during the Twentieth Century.

As the port from which many troops departed, and to
which many troops returned, Fremantle has more than
an average share in the human stories that
make up Australia’s history of war.

The town has seen stories of departure and reunion, victory and celebration, and dissent and activism. It was to Fremantle that many wounded troops and prisoners of war were returned, and so it also shares stories of repatriation and recovery. Its women were marshalled in every war, for service abroad and on the home front. As a result, we find in Fremantle’s experiences a microcosm of the broader Australian story of war in the Twentieth Century.

This is in large part due to Fremantle’s strategic position as the western gateway to Australia. Fremantle was the last port of call from which many Australian troops departed for war in the twentieth century, and the first to which many returned.

As a result there are many extraordinary images from which to choose in presenting an exhibition like this. The departure and return of troops during times of war provoke powerfully emotional scenes. Extraordinary photographs now show those moments in time when Fremantle’s port was filled with hundreds of people, farewelling soldiers, sailors and nurses or rejoicing in their return.

A photograph from 1918, for example, shows the return of HMAS Main to Fremantle. The troops on board enthusiastically clung to the side rails, desperate to catch a glimpse of friends or family on land. The vessel became so unbalanced it looked ready to fall onto the thousands of spectators who clustered on the wharf, but the bunting and flags that were strung overhead gave the crowded port a feeling of celebration.

There are the ships, too, which are pictured leaving Australia, and the story of departure fills Fremantle’s history in the Twentieth Century. In the years of the Boer War, Fremantle was often filled with soldiers and their horses, embarking for Britain’s war in South Africa. In 1900, the 3rd Western Australian Bush Contingent was photographed crossing from North Fremantle as it prepared to depart for service. The Bush Carbineers, as they were soon called, gathered with their horses in the port while waiting to embark.

On days like this Fremantle was decorated as though
it was in festival. Crowds filled High Street and carried flags;
banners overhead proclaimed Australia’s ongoing support
of Britain and Queen Victoria.

Photographs record, too, how ships departed in the Second World War from Fremantle. As troop ships pulled out from the wharf, streamers stretched from their decks to the spectators below. In 1940, crowds broke through barbed wire barriers, fighting off army guards to wave off those soldiers who were leaving the port.

But the return to Fremantle is a theme which extends even to modern conflicts. In 2003 the HMAS Anzac and Darwin returned after service in the Persian Gulf. By this time, the face of Australia’s armed services had changed. Our exhibition shows a young woman sailor being welcomed by her family.

The return of wounded troops and of those who cared for them is an important element within Fremantle’s story of war. Some of the first wounded soldiers to be returned from Gallipoli in 1915 came home on hospital ships to Fremantle. Our photograph of ‘Gallipoli Casualties’ was taken by a journalist who boarded the Kyarra when it stopped in the port in July 1915. His picture captures a group of men on the main deck, wounded and bandaged yet relaxed and jovial. There are people missing from this photograph. Dozens of troops remained below deck at this time, suffering from deep mental or physical wounds. Those soldiers were not allowed to be photographed by the press.

One of the most sobering pictures in the exhibition is the scene in which the hospital troop ship, Manunda, returns to Fremantle on 18 October 1945.  Red Cross ambulances line the wharf in preparation for evacuating those seriously wounded. Their presence suggests the nervous anticipation amongst those who waited.

On board the Manunda on this occasion were four hundred returning prisoners of war. As prisoners of Japan, these men and women had experienced some of the war’s most awful atrocities. Amongst the freed nurses on board was the famous Vivian Bullwinkel. She was the only survivor of the notorious Banka Island massacre which had followed the evacuation of nurses from Singapore in 1942.

Newspapers reported the following day the scene with which these returning prisoners of war were greeted, and that Bullwinkel in particular was greeted by spectators and journalists alike, paraded down Fremantle’s wharf as if she was royalty. Tense and emotional scenes such as this were replayed all across Australia in September 1945, as freed prisoners of war were gradually returned home.

The home front experience is an important one
for Fremantle. As the port to which many Australian
troops first returned, the town’s streets were often
filled with welcome home parades
and celebrations of victory.

A picture which is easy to overlook in this collection is called ‘Fremantle Gratefully Welcomes You’: a snapshot of a welcome home arch constructed at the top of Cliff Street where it meets the port. As a decoration it is suggestive of those late-Victorian arches which filled Australian cities when the inauguration of Federation was celebrated. This arch, however, was built to welcome home troops who returned in 1918 and 1919. Allied flags were placed on its top, including those of France, Britain and Australia. By this time Australia’s AIF troops had served in Gallipoli, the Middle East and, perhaps most significantly, in the trenches of the western front. Yet the arch shows how powerful the popular legend of both Anzac and Gallipoli were by the end of this war: both are celebrated in banners which stretch across the arch, though other theatres of war are ignored.

As troops passed under the welcome home arch they marched down Cliff Street and turned into High Street where the Fremantle Hotel stands. There, in 1919, they were welcomed by parades and streamers. A rare photograph in May captured the return of the HMAS Australia. Those troops on board were led through Fremantle’s High Street by a brass band: shoppers paused on footpaths as the procession passed them and approached the Town Hall.

Australia met its darkest hours in 1942. In the weeks which followed the fall of Singapore Australia’s north-west coastline was repeatedly bombed in Japanese air raids: first in February, with the attack on Darwin, and then almost daily in March. Broome was heavily damaged on 3 March.

The Commonwealth government hastily rearranged its defences. AIF troops were returned from the Middle East to defend Australia from invasion by Japan, and a new alliance was sought with the United States. Fremantle’s strategic value on the west coast was immediately apparent and it became the largest Allied submarine base in the southern hemisphere.

More than 2,000 American and other allied
troops spent much of the war in Fremantle
from 1942, profoundly changing
its home front experience.

But the town’s isolated position and the presence of foreign vessels increased its risk of assault by Japan from the air or sea. The community prepared to defend itself, constructing air raid shelters in back yards. On the water front, Fremantle’s beaches were protected by hurdles that were designed to deter the landing of enemy vessels. Photographs in this exhibition capture some of the many scenes of this home front experience: of the women who were marshalled into war duties they’d never before had an opportunity to engage in; of the submarines filling the port; of the backyard shelters and the impossibly brittle beach hurdles.

Perhaps the most important achievement of this exhibition is that it captures some of the many human experiences of war. Charles Young, for instance, is pictured with his wife and their baby in 1916, just before he departed Fremantle for the western front. Like another Fremantle soldier, Jack O’Brien, he was killed in the defence of Villers-Bretonneux. Elizabeth Young was left a young widow.

Young, O’Brien and hundreds of others were remembered by their community when Fremantle’s War Memorial was completed in 1928. Many hundreds gathered to lay wreaths and share tributes at the Anzac Day service that year.  But as was common in the early Twentieth Century, and as Ken Inglis also notes in his article 'Men, Women and War Memorials', Fremantle's women were largely removed from the official proceedings.  They gathered to mourn their losses and, at the conclusion of the ceremony, laid their wreaths of grief.

And yet there were remarkable, wonderful stories to emerge from Fremantle’s history of war, too. After the Second World War Fremantle became the first Australian port to which many thousands of refugees from Europe and Asia were brought. The picture ‘Dutch Refugees Arrive, 1945’ is filled with the nervous hope that many of them brought to their new home.

Others left. Dozens of war brides departed Fremantle in 1946, intending to meet British and American servicemen they married during the war. Mrs G.C. Lavertu joined the Fred C. Ainsworth in April 1946 with her son, Edmond, bound for the United States.

The photos in this exhibition, and the stories that accompany them, have been collected by students of the University of Notre Dame Australia. Special contributions have been made by Madison Lloyd-Jones, Associate Professor Deborah Gare, Professor Geoffrey Bolton, Professor David Black and Steve Howell. It has been produced by the University of Notre Dame Australia and the City of Fremantle, with the partnership of the State Library of WA, the Australia War Memorial, and the Fremantle Herald newspaper. It is the first in what is intended to be a series of permanent exhibitions regarding important elements of Fremantle’s history. We hope you enjoy the stories.


Deborah Gare

Deborah Gare and Madison Lloyd-Jones

Photographs courtesy of
State Library of Western Australia (SLWA)
Fremantle Local History Library (FLH)
Australian War Memorial (AWM)
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library (JCPML)
State Library of Victoria (SLV)
National Library of Australia (NLA)

Special thanks to
all our contributors

and also to
Sarah Dalziel
Alex Marshall
Brown Cow Design
John Reed
Steve Howell
Pam Hartree
David Bell
Anne Bennie
Geoffrey Bolton
David Black
David Wylie

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Fremantle and War