The first shots of the Second World War were fired on the 1st September 1939 in the middle of Europe, far from the shores of Australia. However, the sound of those shots reverberated all the way to the land down under. Australia realised just how poorly prepared and vulnerable she was to attacks from imperialist Japan. Even though in the 6 years to come the horrors of ground combat did not reach the Australian continent, thousands of Australian soldiers died on battlefields in Oceania, Asia and Europe.
Australia, alongside Great Britain, declared war on Nazi Germany and fascist Italy on 3rd September 1939. At the time, Australia’s regular army consistent of only 2 800 soldiers and officers. Before the war they focused on the organisation and training of civilian militia groups, so-called Citizen Military Forces (CMF). When it was necessary to protect their homeland, their significance grew, and their ranks expanded from 35 000 to 80 000 men and women. In addition, on 15th September 1939 the Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies, announced the formation of an additional and wholly voluntary armed corps – the Second Australian Imperial Force.
The German Blitzkrieg and crushing defeats of the Allies in Europe increased the fervor of new recruitment. 730 000 people put on a uniform to protect Australia. Over 400 000 of these recruits ended up serving overseas, primarily on battlefields in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th December 1941, the threat posed by the Japanese was growing every day. When impregnable Singapore fell on the 15th February, the government in Canberra had to bear the loss of 15 000 men who were captured by the Japanese. Terrifying news was reaching home of massacres of Australian prisoners of war after the islands of Ambon and New Britain fell.
On 19th February 1942 the war reached the Australian mainland for the first time. Fighter planes from four aircraft carriers attacked Darwin Harbour and the nearby airfield. The attack resulted in over 200 casualties and substantial material damage. It was to be the first of a few hundred destructive air raids. It was not until the Battle of Midway on the 7th June 1942 that the Americans turned the tide of the war in the Pacific in their favour and Australia was finally free from the fear of Japanese invasion.
Almost 1000 Czechoslovaks lived in Australia when the war broke out. This was made up of around 650 Czechoslovaks who were already settled in Australia and Jewish immigrants who fled from the Nazis at the end of 1938 and at the beginning of 1939. Half of the Czechoslovak nationals were located in Sydney and Melbourne. They performed mainly working-class professions or worked in services. Females were frequently employed as domestic helpers. Some brave souls even made a living in the mines at Mount Isa in the tropical north.
A Czechoslovak Club was founded with the active help of the Honorary Consul in Melbourne, Edgar H. Peacock. Peacock was very popular amongst the ex-pat community and when officials of the German Consulate attempted to occupy his office after the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands in March 1939, he firmly resisted and called the police to take away the trespassers. The Consul-General in Sydney, František Květoň, gave in to the pressure and before leaving to return to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia he gave the orders to hand over the office to the Germans. His representative, Adolf Solanský, a former legionnaire in Siberia, of course ignored this order and took back the office with the support of the Australian government. On top of that, he immediately joined the newly forming foreign resistance led by Edvard Beneš. By the 4th November 1941 Solanský was named the Consul-General – a function that he held until March of 1946.
When recruitment into the Czechoslovakian Legion and the RAF began after the war broke out, the Consulate also got involved in preparations. Volunteers received Australian uniforms and were deployed to the Middle East, where they were absorbed into the Czechoslovak brigades and later joined battles alongside Australian units in North Africa including the famous Defence of Tobruk.
A Czechoslovak organisation was immediately founded and a campaign was initiated to inform Australians of the Nazi terror in the form of lectures and articles in the press. In the first year the campaign successfully raised over 6 000 USD for the resistance, which was a considerable success given the small size of the community. Solanský founded a special committee which directly aided Czechoslovak forces in France up until their defeat and the following occupation of France by the Wehrmacht. Many significant people were in the committee, including the former Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, and the wealthy banker, Sir Alfred Davidson. In the spring of 1941 the Consulate organised a shipment of 67 boxes of wool (outerwear, sweaters and socks) and tobacco, and sent it to the Czechoslovak Red Cross in Great Britain. This was followed by a range of exhibitions, concerts, bazaars, demonstrations, lectures and celebrations of the birthdays of T. G. Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, as well as other cultural events informing the local public about the history of the Czech and Slovak peoples and about life in the Republic during the inter-war period. In 1944 the first Sokol was officially founded in Sydney.
After the end of the a many Czechs and Slovaks returned to Czechoslovakia. Most of them, of course, decided to stay in their new-found home.
Text by Martin Nekola