Surviving the WW2 attack on Sydney Harbour

Gloria Ainsley was living in Sydney during World War II when submarines belonging to the Imperial Japanese Navy made a series of attacks on the New South Wales city.

Gloria was staying at her grandmother’s house in the suburb of Newtown just 15 kilometres from the harbour. Warning sirens echoed throughout the city and the deafening sound of explosions and gunfire caused the earth to jolt back and forth.

This historic event may have occurred 75 years ago under the cover of darkness, however Gloria (now 86) still remembers vividly the day the Second World War was brought to Sydney’s doorstep.

“Search lights lit up the sky and the air raid sirens sounded,” she recalls.

“And then the whole city started to shake and all you could hear were loud bangs and booms.

“That night, four of us curled up in bed together – me, Nanna and two of my cousins. We children were so scared, huddled up to Nanna and crying. It was one of the most frightening nights of my life.”

Gloria was nine when the war started on 1 September 1939 and she was four days shy of celebrating her 15th birthday when the war ended on 24 August 1945.

She says back in those days, discussions about the war in Australia were very hush-hush.

“The Prime Minister at the time and those high up didn’t believe they had to tell us poor workers about the war so we didn’t know much about what was going on until it was in our backyard” she says.

“When the Japanese first landed up in Darwin, we didn’t know about it – we didn’t know the impact it was having on Australia. Then the Japanese started making their way down the coast on both sides and eventually they were in Sydney Harbour and it was terrifying.

“When you think about it now, how we weren’t told anything or warned, you realise how dreadful that is.”

Gloria was born in North Sydney in 1930 during the Great Depression. She spent the first 10 years of her life living in the suburb of Londonderry which she describes as “virgin bushland”.

Her earliest memory is living in her first home when she was about four years old. It was a small tent in the outback she lived in with her mother, father and brother Norman.

Later, her father built a house made from bush timer and used flattened kerosene tins for the roof. It was a small, two-bedroom abode – one room for eating, the other for sleeping.

They would sleep in beds made from chaff bags that were slung between two poles cut from tree branches.

The floors were dirt and Gloria remembers her mother using left over tealeaves to sprinkle on the soil so when she swept, the dust wouldn’t rise.

“These were tough years in our history,” says Gloria.

“There were lots of families in the same situation. Londonderry was virgin land in those days and everyone was classed as squatters. There was no money to buy anything.”

Most families were issued with dole coupons, which enabled them to buy food. Gloria’s father walked to Penrith each fortnight to get the coupons.

“He then got the food and would carry it home in a sugar bag slung over his shoulder,” Gloria says.

“And that would take all day because Penrith was about 10 miles from where we lived.”

Back then in the 1930s, there was no such thing as pre-school or kindergarten so Gloria started school at the age of seven.

She says she was lucky because she was a bright student and always top of the class.

The school Gloria attended was initially built with just one room and a small bag room where students left their cases and coats.

After a few years, the school was divided into two rooms – first, second and third class in one room and fourth, fifth and sixth class in the other.

Gloria says she can remember the headmaster at the time – Mr Pead.

“His wife Mrs Pead used to teach sewing classes on the open veranda,” says Gloria.

“I was good at that too and recall winning a prize one year for a petticoat I made all by hand. It had a shell pattern around the neck and armholes. I still have storybooks presented to me for being first in the class.”

It was during her first few years at school Gloria’s father built a second home, this time without dirt floors.

And this time, Gloria was sleeping in a bed – although, it wasn’t a bed of her own. She used to sleep in the middle of her parents and doesn’t recall having one of her own until she was about 11 years old.

The house had a wardrobe that divided one room from the other and no bathroom.

“We had a big round tub in which we bathed,” says Gloria.

“The water was heated in a big black kettle on the wood stove and a sheet would be hung over a piece of rope across a section of the kitchen to keep our privacy.

“I was always first in the tub because I was the littlest, then my brother, then my mum and dad – it was primitive living, honestly.”

Despite recognising that her family didn’t have a lot, Gloria says she had a special and lucky childhood.

“We were never lonely – we might have been out in the bush and isolated but everyone came together and made the most of their time and there was always someone around,” she says.

“It was more of a friendly atmosphere living back then because everybody was in the same boat. Nobody had anything and what you did have, you just made the most of it.”

Times have changed dramatically since Gloria was a child. She says children just aren’t children anymore.

“Back in the days, us kids could do anything and everything for ourselves,” she says.

“We accepted everything for what it is and didn’t expect anymore.

“And we used to have to use our brain back in those days. Nowadays you go to the shop and the person behind the counter can’t add up the cost of a few groceries in their head. It is all done using technology.

“It was a different world we lived in up until things just changed. More women go out to work and families are left to bring themselves up. I think that has impacted things.”

Gloria has three children of her own as well as eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

She met her husband Bill when she was about 13 years old at school. They later got married in their early twenties in their hometown of Londonderry. They were actually the first couple to get married in the first church built in the area.

Bill worked in the mines for most of his life and sadly passed away at the age of 49. He and Gloria were married for 28 years.

“Everyone used to tell me to get married again, that I was too young to be on my own,” says Gloria.

“But I told them to mind their own business – I said I have washed enough men’s underwear and socks to last a lifetime.”

While Gloria spent most of her adult life being a mum and working in admin and office work, her most memorable job was working for the Coledale Post Office where she was employed as a part-time postal assistant.

It wasn’t so much the job that was memorable, but what happened to her while she was working that lingers in her mind.

At about 12:15pm on 20 September 1967, Gloria was alone in the post office when two men entered.  She remembers it clearly – firstly, because it was a terrifying experience, and secondly, because she still has a copy of the original police statement she made at the time.

“I noticed the taller of the two men was carrying an unusual cardboard carton,” says Gloria.

“When he came practically opposite me, he turned around and faced me, and I then saw what appeared to be two barrels of a gun sticking out of the end of the cardboard.”

The two men urged Gloria  to back up and closed and locked the door behind them.

They made Gloria sit on a chair, facing the wall while they tied her hands and legs together.  They then taped her mouth shut.

“Before the man did this he told me not to panic and said I would not be hurt,” says Gloria.

They kept their word and didn’t harm Gloria while they robbed the post office that day.

Gloria says it was equally as terrifying as the night Japanese midget submarines invaded Sydney and admits she still has nightmares of the experience.

Gloria now lives in a nursing home on the Gold Coast.

While she doesn’t like being glued to the television, she says a highlight is when the football is on.

“I love Jonathan Thurston – he is always lovely to watch,” she says. “I can always see him thinking out the next move in his head. He just knows what to do and when to do it.”

When asked if Gloria was ever afraid to get older, she replies with a stern no.

“I never thought about it,” she says.

“There was always something to keep my mind occupied. I can’t understand these people who want to sit in front of a television screen all day because that is all I can do now at this nursing home and I hate it.

“Everyone is on their phones these days and has their head down. When I was out and about I would say hi to people and engage in conversation.

“I remember once I was at the doctor and I started talking to the person next to me. She was enjoying a night out on a ferry in the Sydney Harbour when the Japanese attacked. She and her party were not allowed off the ferry and they witnessed the sinking of a ship. A torpedo struck the depot ship, HMAS Kuttabul at Garden Island, killing 21 soldiers.

“These are the stories you hear when you put your phone down.”

Gloria’s wise words to her younger self:

“Learn as much as possible and make use of that knowledge.  Make sure you make good friends and keep them as long as possible.”

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