Features Australia

Dockside humour

Thuggery on Australia’s waterfronts has a long and, er, proud history

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

A reader of my book Australia’s Secret War: how unions sabotaged our troops in World War II has sent me an undeservedly forgotten little volume, Humour is their weapon: laugh with the Australian Wharfies, by Communist journalist the late Rupert Lockwood, and published in Sydney by Ellsyd Press.

An academic, one Peter Stanley, complained my book relied on anecdotes by Australian servicemen of wartime strikes and sabotage and did not give accounts by watersiders, who were, along with coal-miners and some munitions and shipyard workers, the most high-profile strikers of the war. I did in fact quote a number of union sources. However, I can here recount further the wharfies’ side of the story, in the opening days of World War II, as Mr Lockwood memorialised it.

I would not call this book a little gem – metaphorically speaking, it is made of another substance altogether. My correspondent described it as ‘despicable’ and I agree with him. However as an historical document it is of some importance.

Heralded by Mr Lockwood as ‘humour’ it is a frequently vicious and sadistic collection of stories of cowardly violence, theft, sabotage and criminality, all told with obvious chuckling approval.

Here is one anecdote a normal person might find less than charming. The ‘attack’ on the communist meetings by soldiers in 1939 described here were, according to press reports at the time, non-violent and consisted of interjections. Army officers who were present calmed them down. Anti-Russian feeling was running high among the troops and public at the time because of the Nazi-Soviet pact, under which Stalin supplied his friend Hitler with war materials including nitrates for bombs, and Stalin’s invasion of eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and especially of tiny, gallant Finland.

The Communist-dominated waterfront unions did all they could to sabotage the war-effort at least until Hitler’s attack on Russia in mid-1941, and in some cases even after that.

This book states: ‘In December 1939 AIF soldiers urged on by important Establishment personalities [unnamed] attacked the Communist platform in Sydney Domain… Bill Bray [a communist boxer] was reluctant to join the other muscular types who were ‘protecting the meeting.’ As a professional boxer, he knew the penalties of knocking down interjectors, particularly when so many police were around. Bill waited till that night in the streets of Sydney where many soldiers strolled. He would sidle up, friendly like –

“Down the Dom today, Dig?”


“Had a go at those Com, did yer?”

“Yeah, the bastards!” Bang! A king-hit from a professional, and the soldier was a casualty, 10,000 miles from the firing line. The party was worried about Bill’s violence. “How many did you knock down?” a party functionary demanded. “Thirteen privates and a captain.” Bill had kept a meticulous tally.’

Very humourous, Mr Lockwood.

Equally rib-tickling is the account of Bill Bray’s alleged invention of an ‘anti-interjector device.’ He would, we are told, at meetings where anti-Nazi, and therefore anti-Communist loyalists were present, move up behind a noisy Empire loyalist and shove a long needle implanted in a pickle-bottle cork tight up his fundamental orifice. ‘The startled and suffering Empire loyalist would cry out, grab the cork and pull it away. But the needle was so placed that it would remain in the most delicate of all anatomical regions. In the taxi on the way to the casualty ward he would have to lie of his side as sitting down would enhance the pain and penetration.’ Another allegedly hilarious prank, by a Jack Leah, was setting fire to the clothes of displaced persons and refugees from the Baltic States, who were ‘fervent anti-Communists…’

‘In extreme cases he was known to apply his boxing skills to bending a few ribs, agitating a few kidneys and concealing his blows with a bundle of papers. He had his alibi ready. To the writhing Displaced Person, Jack would say in his soft voice, “Now don’t you ever put your hand in my pocket again!”’

Omitted from this collection of humour are the Queensland watersiders who, as reported in the Weekend Australian of 25-26 August 1979, serenaded Vietnamese boat refugees with chants of ‘You’re not human!’ and ‘greasy, yellow worms’ (perhaps a little tactless as the watersiders were entertaining North Vietnamese dignitaries at the time) while attacking them with billiard queues.

According to one of my informants, departing troopships off to the ‘capitalist war’ were serenaded by watersiders with choruses of ‘Four bob a day murderers! Hope your ship gets sunk!’ The epithet , incidentally, was invented by Eddie Ward, Labor MHR for East Sydney.

During World War II, as a revenge on the ‘bloody Yanks’ for putting a stop to pilfering by searching their lunch-boxes and kit-bags, Queensland watersiders wrecked American fighter aircraft by hoisting them from ships while their undercarriages were still fastened to the deck, tearing them to pieces. On the Adelaide wharves they wrecked aero engines by dropping them from slings, until Australian troops wiith fixed bayonets intervened. When ‘Sparrow force’ was rushed to defend Timor its radios were apparently wrecked in the same manner. Eventually the American commander wished to move the US fleet bases to New Zealand.

Another good story omitted is that recounted in his memoirs by Malayan Communist guerilla leader Chin Peng. According to this, Australian CP boss Lance Sharkey boasted to a gathering of Asian Communist leaders at a secret meeting in Singapore that in Australia strike-breakers were taken into the bush and murdered. Whether Sharkey was telling the truth or not, according to Chin the inspirational effect of this message helped trigger the Malayan ‘emergency’ – the guerrilla campaign costing thousands of mostly Chinese lives. Anecdotes of pilfering and union election-rigging take up a chapter each, all recounted with warm approval. Equally sympathetic and approving is the Foreword by Hawke Government Minister Peter Morris, who claims ‘Humour comes in all shades.’ He also claims ‘Australian waterfront workers have seldom enjoyed a sympathetic press.’

Perhaps there is a reason for this.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

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