Cairns during the Second World War

With only 52 days until the 75th Anniversary of Victory in the Pacific, let’s look back and see what impact the Second World War had on Cairns.

Between the war years of 1939 to 1945, North Queensland was transformed from a casual tropical, fishing and farming town into a hive of military and civil activity, as service personnel and units from the southern States and overseas all joined forces on our shores. North Queensland quickly became Australia’s front-line with military bases and defence establishments spread throughout the region.

It was a time of ration cards, restricted areas, censorship and backyard bomb shelters. As the Japanese started to make their way down the Malay Peninsula, the Commonwealth Government called for voluntary evacuation of the population. About half of Cairns’s 15,000 population dropped everything and moved south to areas such as Brisbane and the Gold Coast, some selling everything they owned for a pittance. Nearly 1000 Women and children were evacuated by train to the South. A young Eithne MacKenzie recalled that in Cairns the big thing after the fall of Singapore (15 February) was evacuation:
” The women and children left almost overnight. They went to the Tablelands and Charters Towers. Where we lived there were very few women left in the block. There might have been three houses that had people in. The rest were all empty. Homes and furniture were sold at ridiculous prices. There were great auction sales. A lot of people who bought were the auctioneers and agents. After the war they sold and made great profits. Other people left. They just walked out.”

Those wishing to travel north of Tully were required to obtain a travel pass from the military authorities. Censorship and all forms of restrictions and control were strictly applied on military and civilian personnel movements, unit dispersion, communications and photography. Anti-aircraft gun emplacements were established along the Cairns foreshore and at False Cape, and every Sunday night, police would sound the siren so residents would practice air raid procedures including wearing gas masks.

The influx of thousands of Australian servicemen and women to the North, as well as Americans, British and some Dutch and their Indonesian allies had resulted in almost every building in Cairns being occupied by military units. In October 1942, RAAF No. 20 Squadron moved to Cairns. They were located in a row of huts built for them along the Esplanade. Some 3,000 sorties were flown from Cairns, but not all returned. 320 Australian airmen who flew Catalinas in the South-West Pacific theatre of war never came back.

Communications infrastructure was particularly limited in North Queensland with Cape York being served by one single galvanised wire which could only cope with 50 telegrams an hour. During 1942 the military authorities, in conjunction with the Post Master General’s (PMG’s) office, used U.S. Army signals corps troops, Australian Army Signalmen, and PMG linesmen to improve the communication links. Wharf facilities improved, and large storage oil-tanks for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) were constructed 5kms from the wharves at Edge Hill.

The impact of the war in the region was profound, marking a major transition period in twentieth century history. In Cairns and surrounds the changes were mostly seen in the improved infrastructure developments: sealed Gillies and Kuranda Range roads, rail extensions, wharf facilities, an extensive malarial drainage system, not to mention the extension and sealing of many roads on the Tableland. The Cairns Harbour Board for example gained by nearly £ 1 million improvements effected by the US Navy.

Then and now photos

Vasey Esplanade




Royal Australian Navy Fuel Installation




Fairview House




Catalina Base





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