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South-West Pacific Area (SWPA) Advanced Land Headquarters

University of Queensland Forgan Smith Building

  • Headquarters
  • Brisbane City

Sir Fred Schonnell Drive, St Lucia 4067

The University of Queensland was awaiting the construction of its new St Lucia campus when World War Two began. By 1942, the Main and Chemistry Buildings were near completion when the entire site was requisitioned by the Australian Army. From 1 August 1942 to 31 December 1944, the campus was the site of the Advanced Land Headquarters (Adv LHQ) of the South-West Pacific Area theatre of war. General (later Field Marshall Sir) Thomas Blamey who commanded all Allied land forces in the SWPA had followed the theatre commander US General Douglas MacArthur to Brisbane after the SWPA headquarters shifted from Melbourne. The planning of the successful 1942-44 Allied campaigns in Papua and in New Guinea was conducted at the St Lucia site.

History

On April 1942, the Joint Chiefs of Staff created the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) led by General Douglas MacArthur. SWPA encompassed Australia and MacArthur appointed Australia's General Thomas Blamey to be Allied Land Forces commander. MacArthur shifted his General Headquarters (GHQ) from Melbourne to Brisbane on 20 July. On 1 August, Blamey established his Advanced Land Headquarters (Adv LHQ) in the two unfinished buildings of the new University of Queensland site at St Lucia.

Blamey did not spend extended periods of time at St Lucia. The demands of his command saw him constantly on the move around Australia and overseas. He was allotted a Hudson bomber as transport and personal pilot Flight Lieutenant W.G.Upjohn. Organising Adv LHQ was left to Blamey's Chief-of-Staff Major General 'Bloody' George Vasey. A popular and experienced officer, Vasey had led 19th Brigade (AIF) against the Germans in Greece and Crete in 1941. American generals got nicknames (e.g. 'Blood & Guts' Patton) to enhance their tough image. Vasey's nickname was derived from his favourite swear word.

Vasey organised the new headquarters site, utilising the functional but incomplete Main (now Forgan Smith) and Chemistry (now Steele) Buildings as well as bringing in demountable army huts placed behind these buildings. The grassed area in front of the Main Building became a parade ground complete with flagstaff and temporary saluting dias. Slit trenches were dug downhill from the Main Building as air raid precautions. The army added a sewerage treatment plant, generator sheds, a vehicular garage, a laundry, showers and latrines.

The existing buildings were modified to fit 200 rooms. Blamey was allotted Room A120. His Chief of Staff was next door in Room 101. There was a large temporary Mess Hut serving 500 men and a smaller hut served the 150 members of the Australian Women's Army Service as the AWAS Mess. As Adv LHO settled into the university site, a barber shop, two plunge baths and three AWAS sleeping huts were added. Male staff, except the generals, slept in tents in what is now the Great Court. Blamey's residence was at 29 Ryans Road, and opposite 'Jerdanefield', a leased 14-room mansion overlooking the river, became the mess. It was located at the corner of Ryans Road and Jerdanefield Street. Blamey and his senior staff were served by staff drawn from Chinese war refugees, including Blamey's personal assistant Ching.

Most of the work conducted by Adv LHQ was planning future operations. High-level meetings were held in Room A99 with its attractive wood panelling. Room A93 located nearby contained a concrete vault used for storing secret documents and maps. Two Chinese officers (naval and army) represented Chiang Kai Chek's Nationalist Government at these meeting. They had offices in the Main Building. Diorama maps demonstrating terrain features were constructed at Adv LHQ for strategic planning. The planning for the Allied successes on the Kokoda Track, at Buna, Gona, Sanananda in Papua and at Wau the Markham Valley, Salamaua, Lae, Finschhaven and Madang in New Guinea was conducted by Adv LHQ at St. Lucia.

Communications was another vital function of Adv LHQ, particularly maintaining contact with the constantly moving Blamey. A total of 174 telephones were installed at the St Lucia site. The army laid secure telephone lines that connected Adv LHQ directly with the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section at Indooroopilly and the AWAS Signals Camp at Long Pocket (now Indooroopilly golf course). A PABX switchboard was installed with a capacity to handle 200 telephones. Adv LHQ also had secured lines to MacArthur's General Headquarters (GHQ) in the AMP Building in Queen Street, with Australian Army headquarters at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne and with other major Australian Army camps in Australia.

Intelligence gathering was another important role undertaken by Adv LHQ. In August 1942, was the Senior Intelligence Officer (SIO) at St. Lucia. He oversaw the Australian intelligence operations in Brisbane. An inventory, including examples of captured Japanese equipment, was held at Adv LHQ. A Battle Room was placed in the basement of the Main Building. It held topographical maps plus a large wall map in which a daily update of Allied and enemy positions was plotted.

AWAS members operated teleprinters and the switchboard. They sorted messages for delivery by motorcycle despatch riders (known as 'Don Rs'). They were involved in Brisbane's civil defence by working on the plotting table in Searchlights Operations Room and on anti-aircraft operations in the Gun Operations Room. The AWAS were inspected by their Honorary Colonel and wife of the Governor-General Lady Gowrie in May 1943.

Vasey took command of the Kokoda Campaign and he was replaced as Chief-of-Staff in September 1942 by Lieutenant-General Frank Berryman. Except for a short period when Lieutenant-General John Northcott was Chief-of-Staff, Berryman held the position the longest and had the most influence over the running of the St. Lucia site. By War's end, he led a staff of 360. The University of Queensland received £15,000 p.a. from the Commonwealth for lease of the campus site. £43,644 was spent on alterations to the site including providing AWAS accommodation. The main route to Adv LHQ, along the unpaved St. Lucia Road (now Sir Fred Schonell Dr) was improved. Adv LHQ moved to Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea in late 1944. Adv LHQ left the St. Lucia site on 31 December 1944.

In 1945, the Australian Army presented the University of Queensland with a plaque commemorating General Blamey's occupation of the campus. This plaque is located at the main entrance to the Forgan Smith Building.

Source/comments

Brisbane History Group, St Lucia Campus Heritage Tour, (Brisbane: BHG, 1998).

Norman Carolyn, I Remember Blamey, (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1981).

Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area First Year - Kokoda to Wau, (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962).

Clive Moore, The Forgan Smith, (Brisbane; University of Queensland Press, 2010).

Peter Brown and Jim Mackenzie, St Lucia History Group

The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933-1954), Saturday 1 June 1946, page 4, Trove, NLA.

Last updated
30 June 2014