In the 1880s a "Russian Scare" swept through Cairns and the rest of Queensland. The Russians were in the Pacific and Germany had annexed the northern part of New Guinea. This frightened the Queensland colonial government. It forced the government to consider the idea of colonial defence and voluntary defence organizations. On the 25th of August 1885, the Commandant of the Queensland Defence Force, Colonel G.A French, noted that the towns of Cairns and Cooktown: "…though now of comparatively little importance, have no doubt a great future before them; they are both on the coast and open to direct attack from the sea, and will in the near future require protection. I would therefore strongly recommend the reservation of certain commanding positions as sites for batteries." This recommendation was to have a dramatic impact on the defence policy of Cairns over the next five years.
Perhaps because of the recommendation, Cairns formed an Artillery Volunteer Corps on 27 June 1887 and its own naval brigade in November 1887. This Artillery Corps began with three officers and 97 NCOs (non commissioned officers) though it usually had 79 NCOs.
Problems soon arose between the two organisations over a gun that was given to the Cairns Naval Brigade in 1889. The gun was a naval gun, and so it was under the control of the Cairns Naval Brigade. However the Artillery Corps wanted it for practice too. The rivalry between the two groups came to a head during a military exercise on the hill above Lilybank (now in Stratford). The two services were told to capture and hold the hill against each other. The mock battle soon became an excuse to bring out service jealousies and rivalries. Many injuries resulted during the exercise and one man's ear was almost cut off by a cutlass.
Major John Andrew Grieve inspected the Cairns Artillery Brigade on Christmas Day 1887. He wasn't impressed but accepted that the poor performance of the Cairns Garrison was partly due to the day of inspection. His comments were: "Inspected on Christmas Day, consequently a poor turn out, and only a superficial inspection made. I expected only to have able to inspect more thoroughly at Camp, but no officer was present, and only a few men."
Two of the best-known military units to serve in Cairns were the Kennedy Regiment and the 51st Infantry Battalion. The Kennedy Regiment was formed out of the panic that gripped Queensland when it separated from New South Wales in 1859. The new colony suddenly realised that it was entirely responsible for its own defence and could no longer rely on New South Wales for protection against potential invaders. Once again, a voluntary defence militia was used for the defence of Queensland, based on Canadian guidelines. It was based in Townsville, which is why it was called the Kennedy Regiment, as Townsville is in the Kennedy Lands District.
The citizen militia had its critics. One of them was Mr MacFarlane, a member of the Queensland Parliament, who stated that: "Fancy an army like that going forth to meet an enemy who were determined to do some damage to Queensland. Very likely they would fly to the first tree for protection on the approach of the foe".
Despite this pessimistic remark, men of the Kennedy Regiment were sent north to guard the Torres Strait and patrol the wireless station on Thursday Island during the First World War. They included 200 Rifle Club members from the Far North, as far away as Chillagoe. They were so keen that 500 of the 700 volunteers decided to keep going and join the Australian invasion of New Guinea. The official Army wasn't impressed. Most of the men were very young, untrained and under-supplied. They were sent back. After being discharged at the end of the war, many of them went on to join the regular army and serve with distinction during the Second World War.
The 51st Infantry Battalion did not have much to do with Far North Queensland to begin with. The 51st was originally formed in early March 1916 near Serapeum on the Suez Canal and was constructed entirely of Western Australians. After achieving a phenomenal total of 208 Honours and Awards in two years of conflict, the battalion was returned to Western Australia and demobilised on May 10th 1919. Then in 1923 the title of the 51st Infantry Battalion was given to Launceston in Tasmania, and a year later to Sydney.
In 1936 the 51st Infantry CMF (Citizen Military Forces) name was given to the 11th Mixed Brigade with its headquarters and one company being stationed in Cairns. Other companies were positioned in Atherton, Mareeba, Innisfail, Tully and Gordonvale. The battalion was soon given a new name, "The Far North Queensland Regiment". It served with distinction during the Pacific campaign during World War Two. Its biggest battle was for Porton Plantation on the island of Bougainville, when 23 men were killed and 106 injured. In recent times it has been used for peacekeeping in Bougainville.
The Far North came very close to having a war fought over it. New Guinea was invaded by Japanese military forces in January 1942, and Cairns was the closest major port on the east coast. Military forces poured into the town. The Mareeba Aerodrome was built to allow United States and Australian planes to attack Japanese aircraft on bombing raids in New Guinea. The Atherton Tablelands became the principal training centre for the 80 000 or more US and Australian military forces in North Queensland. The biggest military hospital in Australia was built at Rocky Creek near Tolga, and there were numerous US and Australian units stationed around the town such as the Catalina bomber base on the Esplanade and the paratroopers at Gordonvale. Landing craft training took place at Trinity Beach.
The people of Cairns began a rapid change of lifestyle. Education in Far North Queensland was first affected, as the Queensland Government ordered all schools in North Queensland to close. Civilians were strongly advised to evacuate to the south. Special passes had to be issued to all residents who lived north of Tully. A blackout system and air raid alarms were also introduced, and aircraft spotters watched the skies for enemy aircraft. Old dray tracks that had lain unused for over 60 years were brushed up and local guides were trained to show civilians where these tracks were in the event of evacuation. This was because the only ways out of Cairns until the middle of 1942 were the Cairns-Herberton railway line and the Gillies Highway.
Women also had an important place in defending Cairns. At the outbreak of World War II "The Women's Emergency Corps" was formed at the Oddfellows Hall, 123 Lake Street. These women were trained and mobilized as quickly as possible to control the expected mass movement of civilians from the northern coastal areas of Cairns to a safer zone, away from the threat of capture by the Japanese, then expected to invade Australia. Atherton also formed one of these types of units. Women also joined the armed services in non-combat roles so that more men could be released for fighting. There was a shortage of farm labour, so the Women's Land Army worked for farmers to keep up the food supply for the war effort, on the Daintree and the Tablelands.
Vera Bradley, I Didn't Know That