Saturday, 20 December 2014

Cyclone Althea - 1971

On Christmas Eve 1971, Cyclone Althea struck Townsville with gusts of wind close to 200kph.  Three lives were lost, hundreds were injured and 500 Army personnel were recalled from leave to assist with the cleanup effort.
The suburb of Pallarenda, after Cyclone Althea in December 1971.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The suburb of Pallarenda was described in the local press as having suffered the worst of the cyclone in Townsville, with an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of homes in the suburb “write-offs”.

The North Queensland Register vividly described what remained of the suburb, saying “Althea left a shambles of smashed homes and cars, trailing power lines, torn up trees and roads.”

“Roofing iron, timber, fibro and in some cases, whole roofs, were lifted and hurled onto the houses behind them, causing a tremendous amount of damage.”

Many people felt their homes might have withstood the wind and rain, but the flying iron and timber smashed windows and roofs, allowing the wind to “play havoc with the remains.”

As one resident put it, “The house just exploded everywhere. All the second floor went.”
Damaged houses in Pallarenda, after Cyclone Althea.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The Register reported that Army engineers from 18 Field Squadron had constructed a road into the area, which was isolated from the rest of the city when heavy seas damaged Heatley’s Parade.  Electricity, water and all communication to the suburb was also cut.

Pallarenda storekeeper Mr Livio Collesel spoke very highly of the assistance provided by the Army.

“The Army have been magnificent.  They have been a great help,” he said.

“They have been supplying people with tarpaulins and transporting people across damaged roads.”

“They also delivered fresh bread and milk supplies to the people.”
Boats washed up on Palmer Street after Cyclone Althea.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

Within days, the Prime Minister, Mr McMahon visited Townsville, and pledged unlimited financial aid to help restore the shattered city.  The Courier Mail reported on McMahon’s visit, describing it as a “morale building one”.

“We have put no ceiling on Commonwealth aid.  It will be in two parts, for personal hardship and for reconstruction,” Mr McMahon said.

Mr McMahon said the visit had given him “some idea of the total damage” which he said was “completely indescribable”.

“But the people you meet give you an enormous sense of pleasure to know that you are an Australian,” he said.

“They are getting on with the job.  They aren’t grouching.  They only want some help.”

Unfortunately, Mr McMahon’s pledge of “unlimited aid” was to be based on a dollar for dollar arrangement with the State government.  This meant that the federal government would contribute one dollar for every dollar given by the State, so that the funds available were actually quite limited.
Damage to a house in Heatley, caused by Cyclone Althea.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

Mr John Dean, the chairman of the fund committee said that there just wasn’t enough money to go round.

“We are going to have to knock back a lot of people,” Mr Dean said.

“No one is going to get anywhere near enough to replace what he has lost,” he said.

Mr Dean said most grants were likely to be around $100, with the maximum grant amount set at $1000.

In the face of so many appeals for grants, those earning more than $90 a week were immediately deemed ineligible to receive any assistance.

Eighty per cent of the $150 000 fund was shared between pensioners and those whose weekly income was less than $50.

The total amount claimed by people seeking help from the fund was $2 million.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Survivors of the Rangitane sinking

In January 1941, the SS Nellore steamed into the port of Townsville with a cargo of passengers who had survived the sinking of multiple vessels by German raiders in the Pacific in late 1940.
Survivors from the RMS Rangitane and other vessels sunk by German raiders during World War II, arriving in Townsville aboard SS Nellore, January 1941.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

At 3.30am on 27 November 1940, the New Zealand Shipping Company’s RMS Rangitane was about 300 miles east of New Zealand when it was attacked by three German surface raiders – Komet, Orion and Kulmerland.

En route to Britain, the Rangitane was laden with dairy goods, frozen meat and wool, and carrying more than 300 crew and passengers, including a number of women and children, when it was intercepted.  The Rangitane’s captain sent a distress signal to New Zealand and the German’s opened fire. 
Two boys who survived the sinking of their ship by German raiders.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
The heavy shelling claimed a number of casualties and caused fires to break out on the ship.  Passengers and crew were transferred to the German ships by lifeboat and the Rangitane was sunk.

The prisoners spent weeks below decks aboard the German ships in cramped, hot and noisy conditions, with meagre food and water rations.  With so many prisoners on board, the German captains became concerned about the lack of food and water and decided to put the prisoners ashore at an island off New Guinea called Emirau.    

Six days later they were picked up by the SS Nellore, operating under instructions from the Royal Australian Air Force.

The newspapers of the day reported that the survivors had been “disembarked at an Australian port”, unable to give a specific location because of wartime restrictions.  In fact, the survivors were landed at Townsville. 

The Nellore had 496 people aboard who had survived the sinking of seven separate ships by German raiders.
Survivors from the sinking of the Rangitane and other ships sunk by German raiders, aboard the SS Nellore, arriving in Townsville, January 1941.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

Although it wasn’t able to actually say that the steamship had landed at Townsville, the Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on the reception of the Nellore, saying “the refugees received a warm welcome from watersiders and others about the wharves when their ship was berthed”.  A Red Cross truck loaded with fresh clothing and toiletries for the survivors was waiting at the wharf too, along with hundreds of cheering locals.

“Members of the Red Cross Society and the Australian Comforts Fund did splendid work among the raider survivors,” the Bulletin said.  While the former took care of the essentials, the latter handed out cigarettes, newspapers and other little luxuries.

The Cairns Post reported on how grateful the women aboard Nellore were for the reception they received in Australia.

“Although their English is inadequate to express their gratitude, a group of Polish stewardesses smiled their thanks for gifts offered by members of the Australian Comforts Fund and told in quaint, disjointed sentences what had been done for them at New Guinea and Townsville in the way of providing clothes and entertainment.”
Survivors from the sinking of the Rangitane and other ships sunk by German surface raiders.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The Rangitane was the largest passenger liner sunk by surface raiders during World War II.  In a tragic twist of fate, the ship that brought the Rangitane survivors to Townsville - the Nellore - was itself sunk in June 1944, after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.