Deaths and diamonds

Australia is quietly remembering a series of events that the country hopes never to repeat.

It’s 76 years since the Australian mainland, airspace, offshore islands and coastal shipping were attacked at least 97 times during World War II.

I know it’s not the most cheerful subject for a travel reviewer to tackle. But, as usual, there’s a story behind the headlines – and this one is fascinating.

So here goes, (with apologies to military historians) ……


Remains of Customs House, Darwin – Wikimedia

Between February 1942 and November the following year, Australia and its shipping was the target of bombs, shells, torpedoes and bullets  from Japanese aircraft and submarines.

Aircraft flew 64 raids on the city of Darwin alone – and 33 attacks on other Northern Australian targets, including the towns of Broome, Townsville and Port Hedland.

In all, it’s said that the air attacks killed about 900 people; destroyed civilian and military facilities; and cost 77 aircraft and several ships.

The diamonds

And now for the story behind the story: in one incident, a Douglas DC-3 airliner operated by KNILM (KLM) and carrying eight passengers was shot down over Western Australia.

The plane, which was headed for the coastal town of Broome, crash landed on a beach at Carnot Bay, but was subsequently strafed and then bombed the following day.

Four passengers died.



The fate of part of the plane’s cargo – a package of extremely valuable diamonds – has become somewhat of an Aussie mystery.

I remember my late father’s explanation that the diamonds – destined for Australia’s Commonwealth Bank – were “nicked by fortune hunters who swarmed over the wreckage”.

Apparently, the downed plane did attract a strange cast of visitors in the aftermath of its crash – and more than £20,000 worth of diamonds were later handed in to authorities. In May 1943, three men were tried in the Supreme Court of Western Australia for theft of the diamonds.[5] All were acquitted – and no one else has ever been tried for the loss of the diamonds.

During the air campaign over Northern Australia, the Japanese lost about 131 aircraft.


Darwin Post Office – Wikimedia

Submarine attacks

It’s also heading for 76 years since Japanese submarines attacked Sydney harbour and the city of Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast, as part of a wider blitz of shipping in Australian waters.

Two midget submarines penetrated Sydney harbour defences and sank the depot ship, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 seamen.

On the night of June 8, 1942, a submarine bombarded the eastern suburbs of Sydney and another fired shells into the coastal industrial city of Newcastle.


The guns at Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley returned fire.

See our review of this historically significant fort – and the night it sprang into action.

Aussie stories

Reliving an historic night

Fort Scratchley, located at Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast, is the country’s only coastal fortification to have fired on an enemy naval vessel.

It occurred  more than 75 years ago, when a Japanese submarine shelled the city of Newcastle just after 2am on June 8 1942.


On our tour of the fort and its myriad of tunnels and guns, we heard how the Japanese submarine I-21 rained about 26 shells and eight star shells onto Newcastle.

The submarine targeted key industrial plants such as the State dockyards and BHP steelworks – as well as Fort Scratchley itself.


Luckily, no one was killed in the shelling, but the six inch guns at the fort fired two salvoes at the Japanese submarine before it disappeared.

It was the first time Fort Scratchily had fired in anger since it was established in 1882, in the aftermath the Crimean War, at Flagstaff Hill on the site of Australia’s first coal mine.


But since then, the fort – which is now a fascinating museum – has fired its big guns in salute on many special occasions such as ANZAC Day and the occasional arrival in the port of HMAS Newcastle, the frigate named after the coastal city.

A special ceremonial cannon is fired at exactly 1pm each weekday, except Tuesdays.

Fort Scratchley is a concrete record of the evolution of late 19th and early 20th century coastal defence strategy.

Today, the fort’s Historical Society preserves the military heritage, providing exhibitions and guided tours of the site and its amazing tunnels.

One of the most spectacular vantage points along Australia’s east coast, Fort Scratchley is open each day (except Tuesday) from 10am to 4pm.

Fort Scratchley is at Newcastle, about 104 miles of 167 kilometres north of Sydney.

Main photo of Fort Scratchley by Adam.J.W.C. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

legendary pacific coast

12 remarkable monuments

It’s not a cheery subject, but travellers encounter all types of memorials – many of them quite moving.

Ranging from grand structures to stark, simple and sometimes disturbing statements, memorials cover many subjects.

Some are subtle. Others are deliberately in-your-face.

All give cause for reflection.

Here are 12 of the most remarkable monuments that we’ve seen.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York City, USA


This is a tribute to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as people killed in the World Trade Centre bombing in February 1993.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany.

Located near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, this memorial can leave you feeling disoriented and uneasy. But, you won’t forget it.


The Cenotaph, London UK.

Situated in the Whitehall area of central London, this was originally a temporary structure that became permanent after an outpouring of national sentiment in 1920.


Neue Wache, Berlin, Germany.

This striking memorial for the victims of war and tyranny is incredibly powerful in its simplicity – a room empty except for a mother holding a child under an open roof, exposed to the elements.


World War II Valor in the Pacific, Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

This memorial includes the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, lost in the Pearl Harbour attack.


American cemetery, Normandy, France.

Like much of this area of France, the sea of white crosses certainly gives cause to reflect.


The Australian War Memorial

Located at Canberra, Australia’s national capital, this is an acclaimed and intricate memorial.


Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial and Museum, Oranienburg, Germany.

This was one of the biggest concentration camps operated between 1936 and 1945. A visit to the site is a moving experience indeed.


Topography of Terror, Berlin, Germany

Few words seem to be spoken as people move around this huge display, in the former headquarters of the SS. Not for the faint hearted.


Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument, New York City, USA

An imposing structure in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, this one commemorates Union Army members who served in the American Civil War.


Monument Against War and Fascism, Vienna, Austria.

Simple yet memorable, this stands on the spot where several hundred people were buried alive in a World War II bombing raid.


The Anne Frank Centre, Berlin, Germany.

Located in Berlin’s Mitte district, this memorial also serves a dual purpose as an educational centre. Fittingly, it is somewhat hidden in an unremarkable building – signifying Anne’s life in hiding from the Nazis.


This is far from a complete list of prominent memorials worldwide.

For example, we have not seen the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial at Budapest; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; Arlington cemetery in Virginia; or the Motherland Calls memorial at Volograd, Russia.

However those we have visited each left their mark in different ways. We recommend a visit to them all.

France 1

Manning the rails in Pearl Harbour

You may not have heard of the  US naval tradition of ‘manning the rails’  – but it’s especially poignant at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

‘Manning the rails’  – which involves a ship’s crew  lining up and saluting along the deck  – is a centuries old practice of  showing respect aboard naval ships.

The practice has long been a tradition when US military vessels entered or left Pearl Harbour past the USS Arizona Memorial.


We’ve watched it happen  – and the practice can be quite moving.

The bombing of Pearl Harbour took place at 7.55am Honolulu time on December 7th, 1941 – killing 2,400 people.


The United States declared war on Japan the next day. Three days after that, Germany’s Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States.

World War II had entered a new and decisive phase.

Fewer than 200 survivors of the attacks at Pearl Harbour and on other military bases in Hawaii are said to be still alive.

Main image courtesy  of US Navy’s Melissa D Redinger/Released and The Sextant 


Add Cassino war cemetery to your Italian itinerary

Visiting a war cemetery isn’t a fun occasion.

But it can be moving and a cause for reflection – and, as such, these cemeteries are usually a worthwhile destination for travellers.

This is certainly the case with the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, on the western outskirts of Cassino, Italy.

Located in Frosinone Province, about 139 kilometres or 86 miles south-east of Rome, the cemetery is a burial place of hundreds of Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, British, Indian, Gurkha and South African casualties of World War II.

The Cassino cemetery also contains a memorial to commemorate more than 4,000 Commonwealth servicemen who took part in the Italian campaign and whose graves are not known.[1][2]

Cassino was the scene of some the fiercest fighting of the Italian campaign of the Second World War and most of those buried in the cemetery died in various local battles, from January to May 1944.

One soldier memorialized on the cenotaph is Yeshwant Ghadge (1921–1944), who served in the 5th Mahratta Light Infantry in the British Indian Army. For gallantry, Ghadge was awarded the Victoria Cross.

There are other cemeteries in the area for American and Polish troops.


Operations in and around Cassino included the bombing of Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia.

More than 11-hundred tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on the great abbey on February 15, 1944, reducing the entire top of Monte Cassino to a smoking mass of rubble.

In keeping with its beautiful Italian surrounds, the Cassino cemetery was flawless condition when we visited, with manicured lawn and headstones well maintained.

Like all such sites, it is an important part of our heritage, yet a sobering reminder of the human toll of our conflicts. We are pleased that we visited.

Main photograph courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


New York: a humble tree you should find

The  best travel experiences are often the unexpected ones.DSCN0468

For example, the ‘Freedom Tower’ is a ‘must see’ for visitors to New York City.

Set amid the Financial District of Manhattan Island, the tower and its adjoining September 11 Memorial and Museum stand on the site of the former the World Trade Centre.

A striking view from all sides, the tower complex also contains an unexpected surprise.

While visitors marvel at the cascading waters of the North and South memorial pools and silently read the names of the  2,983 people who died in the Twin Towers, it’s easy to overlook a humble pear tree standing nearby.

Yet this pear means a lot to the Big Apple.

The survivor

Known as ‘The Survivor Tree’, the Callery Pear was pulled from the ruins of the World Trade Centre, where it had stood in the plaza area since the 1970’s.

The tree trunk was charred and covered with ash, but it refused to go down – and was nursed back to health at a local nursery.DSCN0469

After also surviving a massive storm in 2010, the pear tree was replanted in the grounds of the September 11 Memorial, as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth.

Since then, the tree – which is surrounded by more than 400 Oaks in the eight  acre grounds of the memorial – increasingly has become an attraction in its own right – accepted as a living example of  the ability to bounce back from trauma.

Continuing the symbol

With the aim of keeping the Survivor Tree alive for coming generations of visitors, officials at the memorial propagated the fruit of the pear into seedlings, which have now grown into  saplings.

In years to come, a new generation of travellers may be able to visit the offspring of ‘The Survivor Tree’ standing in NYC’s Central Park or other prominent public places.

See directions for visiting the September 11 Memorial and don’t miss ‘The Survivor Tree’.

New York City

Wartime graffiti that tugs at the heart

Most pubs have colourful stories.

But, few tales could be as touching as the story of The Eagle, a public house in the charming British city of Cambridge.

A former coaching inn during the 17th century, The Eagle has a back room known as the ‘RAF Bar’.

And the ceiling of that bar contains some of the world’s most revered graffiti.

It all started in the dark days of World War II when the Eagle was a popular haunt for British and American pilots, fighting a deadly air war with Germany.

Facing death almost every day, these pilots enjoyed unwinding at the pub.

In 1940, a young British pilot apparently stacked a chair on a table and reached up to burn the name of his unit into the ceiling with a candle.

IMG_0048The idea quickly caught on among airmen in Cambridge and the numbers and names continued to be added throughout the war and beyond.

Later, the ceiling at the RAF Bar was preserved during refurbishment of The Eagle and the site is now treated almost as a memorial.  Although off the usual tourist trail, the ceiling is well worth seeing on a visit to Cambridge.

The numbers and names on the ceiling at The Eagle are not the only examples of famous graffiti in the city.

Not far away, in the world famous Kings College Chapel – with its incredible medieval fan vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows – there are much older markings on the stone walls.

During the English Civil War – between 1642 and 1651 – Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian troops occupied the chapel – and scribbled on the walls.

P1010089The red paint marks left by the troops are faint, but still visible and are a fascinating and unexpected aspect of one of the UK’s best known attractions.

Cambridge is full of such surprises.

Harking back to The Eagle pub, it is also well known as the place where, on February 23 1953, two Cambridge-based scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson first announced their discovery of how DNA carries genetic information.

A blue plaque now marks the site.

Visitors can also check the site of the White Horse Inn, where scholars debated the works of Martin Luther in the early 16th century.

The inn earned the title of ‘Little Germany’ because of these debates and is, therefore, described  as “a birthplace of the Reformation in England”.776px-TheEaglePub-Cambridge-BluePlaque

Like much of England, Cambridge also contains silent reminders of an infamous attempt to tax daylight.

Sharp-eyed visitors will see windows in many old buildings permanently ‘bricked in’.

These windows were sealed about three centuries ago in a public backlash against a Daylight Tax introduced by King William III.

The expression “daylight robbery” may also have been coined as a reaction to the tax.

These Cambridge sights are less well known but are absolutely fascinating in a city that certainly qualifies as a  truly memorable destination.image29

To discover how to get to The Eagle pub and other attractions in Cambridge, check the ‘Visit Cambridge’ website.

Located about 50 miles or one hour by car from London, the city of Cambridge is ideal for day trips from the UK capital.

At off-peak times, about six trains run between the two cities each hour.

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