A Christmas of Chaos – Corporal Allen Hancock, 125 Signal Squadron, Darwin

Christmas in Darwin was always something quite different from that experienced anywhere down south. There really was no ‘silly season’ as such, probably because the ‘silly season’ lasts twelve months up there. Before the introduction of Remote Locality Leave Travel, it was normal for personnel on a two-year posting to remain in location over the Christmas period and not take any leave, saving it for the end of their postings. For this reason, most of the personnel at Larrakeyah Barracks were still on duty on Christmas Eve 1974.

The Larrakeyah Barracks Christmas Party had only just begun to get into the mood that afternoon when it was interrupted by the announcement that we had just been put on cyclone alert. Cyclone TRACY, which had been hanging about for several days, had turned and was heading in the direction of Darwin. The Christmas party was thus cancelled (officially anyway) and all personnel with no specific duties were to go home to make their own preparations.

For 125 Signal Squadron, the news meant the implementation of a pre- arranged plan which involved advising 103 Signal Squadron, Townsville, of the situation. The plan was a reciprocal arrangement whereby if either area was under threat, the other unit would maintain a listening watch until after the cyclone had passed and communications were re-established.

As I was not involved, I went to pick up my wife Lyndal, from work at the Bank of New South Wales. Having been married I only since April, this was to be our first Christmas away from our families and neither of us was really prepared for the events which were to follow. I arrived at the bank around six and was surprised to find that all the staff were still getting into the holiday spirit. I asked if anybody was worried about the cyclone, but the only reaction was “What cyclone?”.

After a couple of glasses of Christmas cheer Lyndal and I headed home to get ready for whatever the night would bring. Little did we know, nor could we have foreseen, the horror that was slowly but relentlessly coming towards us like a monster out of control. By the next morning 48 people would be lying dead or dying amongst the rubble of what had once been a city.

About the only thing I can really remember of the early part of that evening is the screeching sound of a siren coming from the radio, broadcasting the warning that Cyclone TRACY was near and heading towards Darwin. We heard that most of the city had lost power, but already suspected this by the fact that it was very dark.

At around 11 pm the radio suddenly went off the air and we were left completely alone with only imagination to tell us of the nightmare which was going on all around us. We sat in the flat listening to the shrieking of the wind outside. Every now and again we heard a crash from above and guessed that the solar water heaters were being blown away from the roof of the block of flats. A post- midnight toilet trip showed an indication of what was happening, when I discovered about an inch of water on the bathroom floor.

This was from the spray blown through the cracks between the tightly closed louvre windows. It didn’t take long before the entire flat was flooded which is quite an eerie thing in a second floor flat in total darkness.

Dawn finally came and with it the wind died to a comparative calm. I opened the door and looked out on the houses next to our block of flats. Apart from some rubbish lying around there was no major damage to those lying in my immediate view. I stepped back inside and Lyndal went out onto the balcony and froze in shock. I ran back outside, and we looked across the street and beyond the adjoining houses, upon a scene I never expected to see, nor would I ever want to see again.

All around us was total devastation – rubble – nothing but pieces of roofing iron where there was once a prosperous city of 45,000 people. The scene has been described as being like Hiroshima after the bomb, but this was suburban Australia on Christmas morning. It looked like a rubbish tip.

Figure 1. Larrakeyah other ranks Mess from the Communication Centre.

Figure 2. Married quarter. Clowes Street. Larrakeyah. Unsure whether this was that of Lance Corporal Greg Dlickson or Corporal Graham Singleton, both of 125 Signal Squadron.

Figure 3. Gothenburg Cres, STUART PARK. Note upside down boat in driveway on left. This is the one that hit my car. Also note that ‘Bugs’ were quite prolific in the tropical climate.

Figure 4 Main street of Larrakeyah looking towards the front gate and across to more married quarters. Note the top of the sign which has been rubbed to bare metal by the sign spinning in the wind.

Down in the car park I went to see what damage had been done to our brand-new 1974 Datsun 180B. The entire passenger side was stoved in and a large dent in the roof. I looked around to see what had hit it and I suddenly realised that behind the flats the owners were constructing a quite large cabin cruiser. The boat had been picked up by the wind, blown over a wall, jumped over two other cars, crashed into mine, bounced over the roof, crossed the road, flown over the top of the house opposite and eventually landed upside down in the backyard. (The insurance company loved that one).

My neighbour, Corporal Steve Foster, of District Support Unit Darwin, joined me as we decided that we had better get into work. On the way into Larrakeyah, Steve wanted to check on some friends who lived in the Navy Married Quarters near the back of the Botanical Gardens. When we arrived at the house all that remained was a roof. The whole house had collapsed under it and there was the roof sitting intact on the ground. Surprisingly nobody had been hurt and the family had moved into shelter.

All the way into Larrakeyah we saw the same devastation and were not surprised to find that all that was left of the Army Married Quarters was rubble. I made my way to the Communication Centre building where I knew that the Officer Commanding, Captain Peter Kerntke, would most likely be found. I never expected the warm welcome that I received from the members of the unit when I walked into the Operations Room. The cosy feeling was short lived when I discovered that it was because I had the only dry packet of smokes in the place.

Outside the Communication Centre, where there was once a well-tended, lush green lawn, stood a Landrover parked in thick brown mud. This was now our main link with the outside world. As soon as the cyclone had passed, communications were quickly re-established with Townsville. It was thought that this was the first link out but there have since been several claims to the contrary, however, it was still an extremely vital avenue of communication on that first day. The first issue of the Army Newspaper to be received afterwards carried a centre spread about how 103 Signal Squadron had saved the day by establishing this link, but to this day I can’t see how a unit which is maintaining a listening watch can be credited with the deed unless the other end is able to raise itself from the rubble and re-establish it.

My orderly room didn’t look anything out of the ordinary. Filing cabinets tipped over, papers scattered everywhere, files blown out the window and drenched by the rain. Nothing unusual at all. My orderly room at 141 Signal Squadron looks very similar after an Army Reserve training night. After cleaning up a little and salvaging what I could I returned home.

Christmas dinner that day was originally to consist of Duck a l’Orange, followed by Iced Choc Mint Cheesecake made with Creme de Menthe. This ended up as Plumrose canned ham and Kraft cheddar cheese. Under the circumstances it wasn’t all that bad. I still, however, have not been able to convince Lyn to try duck for Christmas again.

In addition to the HF link to Townsville, 125 Signal Squadron also operated a VHF net to support the civil police and the Natural Disasters Organisation (NDO). On Boxing Day, I was sent by the Troop Sergeant of Radio Troop, Dennis Kirkman, to relieve the operator who had been manning the radio at Darwin Police Headquarters. The police station was a hive of activity with people coming and going as countless conferences were held and instant decisions were made affecting the lives of everyone in the city. At one stage an old bald-headed bloke, in a pair of walk shorts stormed into the room and demanded that I get hold of the Commander 7th Military District immediately.

“Er, zero alpha this is police, fetch sunray.”

“Forget that rubbish, give me the radio!”

A major in southern style polys appeared in the doorway and indicated that I should comply. This was my introduction to Natural Disasters Organisation head, Major General Alan Stretton. Throughout the emergency he did not refer to his rank and although the operation was conducted with military precision, the role of the Defence Force was played down to give the civilian population a sense of achieving their own salvation. Unfortunately, this eventually had a demoralising effect on the Defence personnel stationed in Darwin, whose roles were never really recognised.

A later message I was to receive made me realise the gravity of the situation in the suburbs when Corporal Keith Wood called in asking for police assistance with some looters. The reply that I eventually relayed from the police was that nothing could be done.

It was at this time that the word came down to evacuate all families of police and service personnel. I managed to return to Larrakeyah that afternoon, just in time to say goodbye to Lyn, as all the families were herded onto buses and taken away to board evacuation flights south. At that time, nobody had any idea how long it would be before any of us would be reunited.

Once all the families had gone, Larrakeyah took on an aura of loneliness, and it was not long before the entire city would be the same, as more than 23,000 people were evacuated on New Years Eve. As we took stock of the unit, we realised that nobody had showered since before Christmas. A piece of wall for a floor and some broken guttering hanging from the Communication Centre roof combined with tropical rain meant that before long most of the unit was more or less fit to live with.

Uniforms were more of a problem with most of the members wearing what they could salvage. Mixed dress was the order of the day. All we needed now was a Regimental Sergeant Major and it wasn’t long before one arrived from the 1st Signal Regiment in Enoggera, along with some relief personnel and their own some rations.

One of the biggest priorities for the city was to clean out all the rotting meat from household freezers. An army of civilian volunteers joined with the Larrakeyah garrison to begin the sickening job of sorting through the tangled wreckage, of other people’s homes to dispose of the stinking rotten stuff. I was not personally involved in this, but I can still remember the smell of the trucks as they returned to Larrakeyah each evening.

We were all aware that in barracks far away to the south, there would be hundreds of servicemen on standby to fly to Darwin to assist with the rescue and as the New Year approached we were surprised to learn that instead of the battalions flying in, the Navy was steaming up the coast. It was not until New Year’s Eve that the first sign of Defence manpower arrived. On 1 Jan 75 Darwin harbour was beginning to look as it must have during WWII, with a major portion of the Australian Fleet lying at anchor. Soon sailors were being ferried back and forth by Wessex helicopter to take over. Subsequent publicity showed only the Navy carrying out the cleanup, the major part of which had already been done by the Darwin residents and members of 7th Military District.

It was another week before any of us could sit back and relax, to enjoy a delayed New Year celebration. Two cans per man perhaps was a serious binge and we spent what was probably the quietest New Year on record.

The Navy was soon replaced by 3rd Battalion, Royal Australia Regiment and later by other units as Darwin began to sort itself into some order. The decision was made to wind down most of Darwin’s military presence. This included 125 Signal Squadron which was to be disbanded when the Navy took over our static communications role. I was one of the last to go leaving behind a skeleton staff to handle the actual disbandment.

Looking back after sixteen years, the whole experience was something not to be missed, not forgotten, but if I had to do it all again, well…

This article is not intended to cover the technical details of 125 Signal Squadron’s role in Darwin’s communications but is simply my own memories of the time. There are others more qualified than me to tell that side of the story. There are also a lot of others with more horrific memories of that Christmas of chaos.

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