Dig or be damned: the University’s trench frenzy

With air raids on the horizon, USyd dug its way to safety.

Image: ABC News

February 1941, World War II was in full swing and the Pacific theatre was hotting up. A war that had previously been concentrated in Europe was beginning to expand in size and scope. For Australia, a once distant fear had come ashore: bombings. In the minds of military strategists and Canberra policy makers, the threat of Japanese air raids was no longer a question of if, but when.

Naturally, the University of Sydney thought it ought to do something about that. As civil defence preparations swept the nation, the University Senate approved an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) committee on 15 February 1941. While, at first, no one wanted to lead it, Professor Alan Stout was eventually cajoled into the Chair. The ARP committee was tasked with three main things: the protection of life, the protection of buildings, and the protection of apparatus, books, and other articles of “special value.” Given a measly budget of £500 (about $40,000 today), Professor Stout set about his task.

At the time, trenches were very much in vogue. Not only were they cost effective, but they did excellent work to shield people from flying debris and collapsing rubble. What’s more, trenches were preferred to deep shelters because any raids the University might endure would most likely be “isolated.” And so, trench fever ran through campus like a bolt. Three locations were identified for construction: in front of the Main Building (the Quadrangle), between the Old Medical School (Anderson Stuart) and the Standards Laboratory (Madsen), and near to the oval. Another three locations were chosen as makeshift deep shelters (a compromise for those most alarmed): the Bank Building basement, the Physics Building basement, and the Buttery (what is now the Cellar Theatre). These locations were to be reinforced with sandbags and additional structural supports with capacity to shelter 500 or so students and staff. But for the majority of the University’s inhabitants, the trenches had escaped distant memories of the Great War and found their way onto Camperdown Campus.

Sadly, a woefully under-resourced ARP found it hard to even build trenches. According to Professor Stout, sales tax was one of the biggest barriers. The ARP had budgeted to purchase materials under the assumption that, as an educational institution, they were exempt. But due to Treasury’s classification of the University as a “private” educational institution, this exemption did not apply, and material costs shot through the roof. Stout wrote to Canberra about this. 

Sales tax aside, the trenches were eventually built. Their zig-zagging lines can be seen in this aerial photo of the University from 1943, with evidence of the trenches in front of the Quad, Anderson Stuart, and the future site of Victoria Park pool.

But what we can see in 1943 is the result of a great deal of arm twisting from the ARP and its affiliates. Student labour had been drafted to dig and the SRC had been enlisted to help organise this effort. In April 1941, Honi Soit published an editorial from the SRC titled ‘Dig or be damned!’. It was surprisingly caustic.

“You’ve been asked to hew out a few ditches so that when the bombs start falling — and don’t think they won’t — you’ll be able to dive into them and save your shabby skins.” Read part of the published condemnation.

With digging organised by faculty, trench shaming was rife. In the editorial, the SRC called out engineering first years for, on the first day of digging, only 60 out of 100 of them showing up, with those who did make an appearance only digging “half heartedly.”

While at the start of the ARP’s endeavours, they had acquired permission from the Vice Chancellor for students to dig during lectures, ‘Dig or be damned!’ marked an end to this, with the scathing write up declaring that “digging will have to be done in spare time.” The student body was a “dog with a bad name” the SRC asserted, and its latest crime was trench tardiness. This escalated in May of 1942, with Honi Soit now publishing a list of trench digging defaulters. Listing off names, faculties, years and dates, men were asked to explain their “absence” from mandatory trench work. Shaming was no longer being conducted at a student body level, nor at a faculty level, it had become deeply personal.

Things presumably turned around after that, with faculties organising a digging schedule for three-week periods. But unsatisifed, some members of staff took it upon themselves to encourage this. In a 1976 interview with Professor Stout, he remembers one professor of medicine who wouldn’t pass his students unless they’d participated in an adequate amount of trench digging. This became a condition of completion for the course.

Trenches weren’t all about the digging though, as a number of accoutrements were required to make it all work. Camouflage was in hot development at the University, for both our own military and the trenches that were planned for campus. Professor Dakin, a professor of zoology at USyd, was a special advisor to the Australian military on camouflage and designed the camo netting that the ARP had declared critical to trench infrastructure. While it may seem peculiar that a professor of zoology was heading up camo development, Dakin explains his process quite eloquently:

“The various devices for concealment in the animal world are so regular in their occurrence that certain fundamental principles can be deduced from them.”

With the camo nettings designed, they just had to be made. For this exact purpose, a room in the Zoology School had been set aside for their production and they were stitched together by the University Netting Group, a branch of the Women’s Auxiliary Army, and the National Defence League. Other than making Sisalkraft sand bags, this was one of the few ways female students could contribute to the ARP’s preparations. 

Animal-inspired camo now ticked off the list, a siren was next on the agenda. The National Emergency Services NSW (NES) promised the ARP a siren in June of 1941, but there was quite some delay in its provision. The masterminds of our University’s civil defence came up with an eloquent solution for the meantime: the Carillon.

According to a June edition of Honi Soit, the Carillon was tested as an air raid siren, but “proved useless.” Presumably because everyone thought it was just the Carillon — which, mind you, it was. But the NES eventually pulled through and a proper siren would later be installed.

With trenches dug, a siren installed, teams of men organized to spot planes, dig through rubble, fight fires, and administer first aid, the University of Sydney was ready for the worst. Even then, the University Senate twice debated whether the campus should be evacuated to the Blue Mountains to protect life and property. But after all that, the bombs never came. The closest they got was Darwin, more than 3,000km away. The greatset disaster to beset campus during the war years was a fire in the Chemistry Building at 2am one morning in 1942. ARP firefighters arrived at the scene in record time, only to discover that the water hydrants had been disconnected in recent renovations. The plucky University firefighters had to run away in anticipation of an explosion and the fire was later extinguished by the City’s own fire brigade.

Today, things are quite different. According to a University of Sydney spokesperson, there are “no specific procedures to respond to an air raid” in operation today — however a “shelter-in-place” approach would be applied. Based on the University’s Emergency Response Plan (ERP), an air raid would most likely be classified as a level 3 crisis event and would fall under either the “Violence against Staff / Students / Visitor” category or the “Infrastructure Issues” category (depending on casualties). So if the bombs start dropping any time soon, don’t worry about alerting the Crisis Committee Team Chair or delegating to the Director of Campus Infrastructure and Services, as per the ERP guidelines, just grab a shovel, nip over to the Quad lawns, and get digging — the Carillon siren certainly isn’t gonna save you.