Brisbane City Architect Frank Gibson Costello designed the City Council’s air-raid shelters to provide a post-war utility as well as short-term safety. After the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942 and the presence of Japanese submarines off the Queensland coast, Brisbane prepared for the possibility of attack, building more than 200 air-raid shelters throughout the city centre and suburbs.
Shelters had to fit at least six people and were sometimes hand-dug trenches with corrugated iron on top. Newspapers distributed instructions for trench construction, most of which was completed by families, teachers and community working bees.
On 20 August 1942, Brisbane’s first air-raid alert siren sounded. The alert was a false alarm, but air-raid wardens were already on the job, directing people towards the shelters.
On 5 March 1945, before the war in the Pacific had ended, The Courier-Mail announced that the air-raid shelters were to be put to new uses: ‘Council had decided to proceed with the demolition of 169 of the structures … The remaining 69 shelters were capable of being converted for public use.’
Brisbane was never bombed by the Japanese and the air-raid shelters remained mostly unused throughout the war. Of those converted, at least 20 survive today and are still owned by the Brisbane City Council, serving as bus shelters or shade structures in parks. In 2018, the development team for the Howard Smith wharves district uncovered two previously concealed concrete air-raid shelters near the Story Bridge. The shelters have been preserved as part of the site’s history.
Japanese bombing in Queensland
Despite Brisbane’s relative safety during the Second World War, several maps written in Japanese show how extensively Queensland was surveyed by foreign forces.
Featuring regions of New Guinea and the north-eastern Australian coastline, it is suggested that they were used to investigate North Queensland bases in 1942, right as fears of a Japanese invasion of Australia were escalating.
The maps clearly show Horn Island, Australia’s northern-most airbase and a direct target during multiple Japanese air attacks with about 500 bombs dropped on the island alone. The constant bombardment throughout the Torres Strait led to the formation of the Torres Strait Light Infantry, Australia’s first and only First Nations battalion.
Townsville is also well-marked on the map, home to tens-of-thousands of US troops during 1942. The map includes the lighthouse Japanese pilots would have used to orient themselves during three separate attempted bombings of the city. Thankfully, none of the bombings were lethal, except for the destruction of one coconut tree.