War Mission: Constable Transports Precious Cargo

Published in Police News Magazine December edition 1995, pages 37-41. Submitted by member Bob Phillips

1995 had been a time of nostalgia, remembering the end of World War ll 50 years prior and recalling countless incidents leading to its eventual end. Many Police officers had exciting and sometimes strange duties to perform during the war.

However, as they operated under a duty of silence those experiences were never recorded and are largely unknown. Fifty years after the war Bob Phillips, then a Constable attached to the Traffic Branch, broke his silence on a top secret assignment to convey an important load to Garden Island. Following is his account of the mission.

It began at the Police Traffic Branch where I was O.I.C. of what was then known as the Permits Section. The Police, at that time, were responsible for issuing permits for the movement of loadings and vehicles in excess of certain dimensions. One morning I received a summons to the Superintendent's office.

I knew something was unusual because in those days Superintendents did not send for Constables.

There was a very official looking, well dressed gentleman in the Superintendent's office who was introduced as Mr X of the Commonwealth Security Service.

"I understand that you have a good knowledge of the roads in this State," Mr X said.

I replied "yes".

"Do you know the Hume Highway is closed to heavy traffic owing to floods?" Mr X continued, to which I once again said "yes".

"What I am now going to tell you is top secret and vital to the war effort, so you must swear to secrecy."

Oath of Secrecy

The Superintendent duly produced a Bible and I swore an oath of secrecy. Only then was I informed of the problem.

"We have a large load, which is vital to the war effort, in Victoria and we must get it to Garden Island as soon as possible. A ship is waiting for it there," Mr X said.

I inquired how large the load was. Mr X said he didn't know the exact size except it was very big. He then said I would be given the authority to use any means to get the load to its destination as soon as possible. He gave me a bulky envelope marked 'Top Secret' and asked me not to open it until I was south of Goulburn.

We shook hands and he left, never to be seen by me again. Somewhat overwhelmed by the situation, I looked at the chief, he looked at me and then with of his one rare bursts of humility said, "What do we do now?"

I said I would need a mate and a good outfit (meaning, in those days, a motorcycle and sidecar) and some sort of official written authority if I were to strike trouble.

The chief agreed to “arrange something” and asked me to pick a suitable man for the job. I picked good old reliable Oss Webb and then made my request for an outfit and a man to Mr A at North Sydney.

Within the hour both man and outfit arrived. I looked at the wreck that had been sent over and said to Oss Webb, "Is that the best they can do? That's one of the old spares that nobody would even think of riding home, let alone take away on an important job that could take anything up to a week".

Oss agreed saying he wouldn't even trust the vehicle to get him safely back to North Sydney.

I briefed Oss, revealing as much as I could, and we agreed to meet at the crossroads the following Sunday at 6 a.m. I also asked him to take the old wreck back with my compliments. I spoke to the chief again and within the hour a shiny new black machine arrived for my use "with the compliments of Mr A."

Oss and I departed on our mission as scheduled and once south of Goulburn we opened the secret document carefully. It contained only a short message, "You will proceed to the southern end of the bridge at Wodonga and will be met by Mr Harold (no surname given) and take your orders. He will be in civilian clothes and will be driving an unmarked green Plymouth sedan."

At Wodonga we met Harold and were escorted to where a large low loader was parked with a very tightly covered load.

Despite the covering, it didn't take a genius to realise the load was in fact a gun. Mick, the driver, was well known to both Oss and myself as a heavy transport driver with the Commonwealth Department of Supply. We were also introduced to other members of the crew. Mr McEngineer, two old security guards who lived in an army caravan, well provisioned with army rations, and what was then known as a 'wrecker' army type. This towed the van which was driven by one of the guards.

First obstacle

We left for Holbrook, made it there by dark and spent the night there. We struck our first obstacle the next morning on our way to Cootamundra Coolac Bridge. This was 10 feet wide with a 12 ton load limit.

We held a short conference. Could the barrel of the gun be swung parallel with the vehicle until we crossed the bridge and then swung back to its original position?

McEngineer and Harold went into a private conference. They decided the load must not be uncovered under any circumstances.

We decided to turn around and go back to Victoria and try to find another route. Oss noted that the Murray Valley Highway was unsuitable because the bridges were too weak. He suggested going back towards the South Australian border and north to Broken Hill and then finding a way to Sydney via the Western Highway.

However, this route would take a few extra days. Another conference was held.

The decision: We would both go, one back and one forward along the highway for about a quarter of a mile and close the road to all traffic until the gun barrel was swung to the rear and the load went safely across the bridge. Thereafter the load would be securely covered again.

However, our best laid plans went awry.

A farmer opened his gate right at the southern end of the bridge to let his cows across the road just as the covers had been taken off. Harold nearly did his lolly trying to send the farmer with his cows back and cover the load at the same time. I was too far back to see what was going on but Oss, in his inimitable way came back, had a talk to the farmer and Harold and managed to smooth the matter over. He told me that the farmer was let into the secrecy of the job and agreed to be sworn into silence about what he saw, at least until the end of the war. This satisfied Harold. I don't think the poor old farmer knew what it was all about anyway. He would have gone straight to the local pub and told some sort of tale that his mates would not have believed anyway.

At the end of Day One, we camped on the outskirts of Cootamundra ready for a daylight start the next day. Harold in his car with McEngineer, Mick in his truck and the security guards well rugged up in the caravan. Ever tried to sleep in a sidecar?

Well that was the first of many uncomfortable nights on that job. It has to be understood that we went on this job cold, not expecting to have to stop out all night doing guard duty. We did wake the other men throughout the night and asked them to make a cup of tea, which they did but that was our only comfort.

We headed for Temora the next morning. The only trouble on this journey was an overhead railway bridge somewhere between Cootamundra and Temora that was too low to pass under. The road was unsealed and there was evidence that a grader had recently been operating in the area. We thought if we could find this grader, it could take a couple of inches off the road and lower it enough for the load to pass under.

Another hurried conference. Oss was deputised to find the grader and persuade the operator to help out, which he did with a little of Harold's kitty and a lot of smart talk. The job was done and the load went under the railway line. Temora at last, quite dark and as Oss and I had not had a decent sleep for three nights, Harold and Mick volunteered to do guard duty for the night while we put up at the local pub for the night.

Flooded creek

We moved off to Canowindra the next day. All of us were a bit weary and edgy. Before long we ran into the next problem, a flooded creek a few miles from Canowindra. The wooden bridge was about eight feet wide and had a load limit of three tons. A notice posted nearby, pointed to a heavy traffic by-pass. We tried this out by putting the wrecker in but the water was about six feet deep. We were in a quandary. Harold was adamant that we could not risk the load on the bridge, although it appeared to have been shorn up underneath recently, with heavy timber.

This time Mick came to the rescue when he pointed out that the bridge was much shorter than his vehicle. He felt the horse (meaning the tractor) would be over the bridge before the low loader reached it. It would mean that we were only risking the vehicle, if the bridge collapsed. Harold agreed in some exasperation.

The next problem was the bridge rails, which were too high for the load to go across. Oss suggested we cut the S and S rails off. A search of the tool kit revealed nothing suitable. Oss went off to Canowindra to borrow some tools. He returned in five minutes with a scruffy looking character in the sidecar, nursing a chain saw.

Oss had picked him up a mile along the road cutting firewood. The man's truck had bogged off the road. Oss had traded a tow out for the truck if the woodcutter would cut the bridge rails off. Minutes later the rails were in the creek. The woodcutter assured us the bridge was safe as it had been shored up by the army recently and would carry a heavy load.

Nevertheless I thought that to relieve a little pressure we might tow the big truck over with the wrecker no trouble.

Success. Off we went to Canowindra towing the woodcutter's truck out of the bog on the way. We camped just over the river from Canowindra for the night and put a short note under the Police Station door late at night regarding the bridge rails.

We thought our troubles were over as the next day found us on the main road to Bathurst, Oss, as outrider came back about midday with bad news. He informed us that we could run into trouble at West Bathurst as the level crossing was narrow and almost right angles to the road. It was truly a problem. The railway crossing was only about 12 feet wide at a 45 degree angle. After conferring with Mick we decided we might just do it but it would take some time. The crossing was attended by a nine-year-old lad who said his father was in charge. As no train was expected for about an hour, the father had gone into Bathurst to see the Station Master.

Trouble on the railway

We decided to give it a go as we wanted to make Lithgow before dark. The wrecker was sent over first. In case we ran into trouble, it would be handy on the other side. Lucky thought. Halfway across, the front of the trailer came up against a large post, no doubt put there to protect the gates from just what happened to us. It was impossible to go back. The train was due in half an hour and would be on time as it was the express.

We telephoned the Station Manager at Bathurst and tried to explain our problem and would he please hold the train until the crossing was clear. "No way", he said "just get the thing off the line".

A little whisper about the importance of the load and he listened to reason; in fact he came out very quickly to see if he could help. A breakdown crew was sent for but they couldn't arrive before the next morning.

"Too late," we said. "The load is due Garden Island." A suggestion that the post be pulled out of the way with the wrecker met with the Station Master's disapproval.

He wanted to wait for the breakdown crew. Once again, Oss came to the rescue.

"How about looking the other way?" he said to the Station Master. "We have to get this thing off the line and in to Lithgow tonight." One of the old Guards tried to pull the post out with no luck. Mick had a go next. He backed the wrecker to the post, gave her full revs and smashed the post off the ground with the cable. In no time we had the load across and reached Lithgow after dark. There, we were able to leave the load and the guards in complete security at the Small Arms Depot. We then made an excursion to the local pub for a little relaxation which we fully deserved.

Next morning saw our troubles over except for a few headaches. We left early via Bell's Line of road to Kurrajong. There were no hassles as we were in familiar territory and knew the road well and expected to reach the Island before dark.

Whilst we were enjoying a quiet lunch at Kurrajong, a large car arrived and out jumped a gaggle of important looking gentlemen. All were in plain clothes and sported very exposed shoulder holsters. "We are security," one of them announced.

"Where have you been? We have been looking everywhere for you for the last two days."

They wanted to take over, but I insisted we were capable of seeing the job through without help from anyone. I invited them to come along if they wished but not interfere in any way and I showed authority for the job.

Japanese suicide attacks

On arrival at Garden Island, Oss and myself turned off at the gates, we were not allowed in for security reasons. To this day we have not seen any of the crew that were on the job with us. I think I can tell the rest of the story now without breaching any security. My younger brother was serving on the destroyer that conveyed this gun to the war zone where it was transferred to a heavy Australian cruiser and was successful in stopping the Japanese suicide attacks on our shipping.

We received no recognition for our part. No doubt someone in the higher echelons got the credit. Our reward: a job well done, just one of the many that came to the lot of members of the Police Service during those years of war.

To my knowledge there is no written record of this incident, the diaries and rosters of both Oss and myself were just marked "Special Duty". In writing this account my goal is to convey to present members of the Service what our workload was like in those days. On this exercise we worked an average of 12 hours a day straight for eight days under tough conditions. But our satisfaction (as it was with many other members of the Service) was that we had done the job allotted to us.

No overtime, just back on the job the next day.