The Battle of Brisbane

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Apr 11, 2005
South East Queensland
The following is an interesting piece of WWII history taken from

There have been many stories about the infamous "Battle of Brisbane" where many Australian and American troops fought it out in the central business district of Brisbane during World War 2 on the evenings of the 26th and 27th November 1942. The varying stories probably pertain to how it started, how many persons were involved, and perhaps who won the fight!

The following version of the Battle of Brisbane is based on the excellent book "They Passed This Way" by Barry Ralph:-


Just before noon on 26 November 1942 an American MP tried to stop a fight in Albert Street. An Australian soldier was hit on the head with an MP's baton and more Aussie soldiers became involved in the incident. It was a short but violent brawl. Nothing like what was about to happen later that day.

The pubs closed at 6.50pm and the streets were cluttered with service personnel. Private James R. Stein (Service No. 36504556) of the 404th Signal Company of the US Army had been drinking in the Australian Army canteen. He left the Australian canteen and started to walk towards the American PX canteen which was about 50 yards up the street on the corner of Creek and Adelaide Streets. This building was still in existence in the year 2000. Private Stein had been indulging himself on the Australian XXXX beer. He meet up with 3 Aussie soldiers who had also had also been drinking. They started to chat.

Map of the "Battle of Brisbane"

As they were talking, along came Private Anthony E. O'Sullivan of the 814th MP Company, who challenged Private Stein for his leave pass. While Stein was fidgeting around to find his leave pass, the MP became impatient and asked Stein to hurry up as he did not have all night. At this point in time his new-found Aussie mates had a go at the MP and told the MP to take it easy and leave Stein alone.

After some cursing, etc, a baton was raised and arms and legs started to fly in all directions. More Aussie soldiers and even a few civilians came out of the dark to look after their mates. More MP's arrived on the scene from the American PX canteen after whistles were blown to attract attention to the disturbance. The MP's were outnumbered and they retreated towards the PX. Private Stein ran and stumbled in to the PX also. Private O'Sullivan however had to be carried into the PX.

By this time there were alarms bells ringing and the milling crowd outside the PX were throwing bottles, rocks and sticks at the PX building. A parking sign was thrown through a window.

1st Lieutenant Lester Duffin of the 814th MP Company arrived on the scene at 7.15pm. He saw about 100 Australian soldiers trying to break through a makeshift cordon around the PX door. Police Inspector Charles Price arrived on the scene as the crowd continued to grow. The Red Cross Club was also apparently under siege. The Red Cross building has since been demolished and replaced.

Captain Robert M. White, an American Liaison Officer observed the fight from the balcony of the nearby Gresham Hotel. He could see Queensland Policemen and US MP's barricading the doors to the American PX canteen.

War Correspondent, John Hinde, was also on a balcony overlooking the "Battle of Brisbane". He was probably staying in the Gresham Hotel. He stated "The most furious battle I ever saw during the war was that night in Brisbane. It was like a civil war."

Sporadic fights spread into other streets in the city area. On American GI, who had just been to the Wintergarden picture theatre had to vacate a Brisbane tram headed to New Farm to avoid a violent battle between some Australian and American soldiers.

Women workers in the city area were escorted from the area by soldiers with fixed bayonets. The Tivoli Theatre was closed by the MP's and patrons ordered back to barracks and their ships.

Back in the PX canteen, Private Stein tried unsuccessfully to retrieve his Leave Pass from the prostrate Private O'Sullivan. He was given a baton and told to help protect the PX.

By 8pm between 2,000 to 5,000 people were involved in the disturbance which continued to rage. A picket sentry, Duncan Caporn detained a small truck driven by an Australian Officer and three soldiers. The truck contained 4 Owen sub-machine guns and several boxes of ammunition and some hand grenades.

The Local Brisbane Fire Brigade arrived but did not use their hoses to quell the disturbance. The American authorities were later to criticise them for not taking this action. Some Australian MP's removed their arm bands and joined in the disturbance.

The 738th MP Battalion started to arm their MP's with 12-gauge Stevens pump-action shotguns. One of these persons was Private Norbert Grant of "C" Company. They elbowed their way to the front of the PX.

Someone in the crowd saw that Grant had a gun and suddenly he was accosted by people trying to get the gun off him. He jabbed one Aussie soldier with the shotgun. Another soldier grabbed the gun and someone else had him around the neck. The shotgun discharged. In all 3 shots were fired.

The death and injuries as a result of these 3 shots were as follows:-

1. The first shot hit Private Edward S. Webster from the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment in the chest killing him immediately.

2. Private Kenneth Henkel was also hit in the cheek and forearm.

3. Private Ian Tieman fell to the ground with a chest wound.

4. Private Frank Corrie was hit in the thigh.

5. 18 year old Walter Maidment was also wounded.

6. Private Richard Ledson (35 years old) had a compound fracture of the left ankle and was wounded in the left thigh and left hand.

7. Sapper De Vosso was wounded in the thigh.

8. Civilian Joseph Hanlon (38 year old) was wounded in the leg.

After a momentary silence, Private Grant then scrambled towards the PX canteen. On his way he broke the butt of the shotgun over an Australian's head. Another casualty was American soldier, Private Joseph Hoffman, who was one of the guards at the front of the PX. He received a fractured skull.

Other battles raged in the various Canteens around Brisbane. (The Battle of the Canteens!)

By 10pm the city had quietened down. The ground floor of the American PX was demolished.

The final tool was as follows:-

- 1 Australian killed
- 8 minor gunshot wounds
- 6 baton injuries
- 100's with black eyes, split lips, swollen cheeks, broken noses and various abrasions

The Chief Censor's Office in Brisbane ordered that "No cabling or broadcasting of details of tonight's Brisbane servicemen's riot. Background for censors only: one Australian killed, six wounded". The Brisbane Courier Mail had a heavily censored article the next day about a disturbance in which one person was killed and several wounded. It did not give any idea of nationalities involved or any specific details of the disturbance.

Robert Bolton of the 911st Signal Company was in Townsville when "The Battle of Brisbane" took place. He only heard rumors about the "Battle of Brisbane", some of which were pretty horrendous. The only thing Robert knew officially, was, as part of his company's censorship arrangements, they were to allow no mention of it whatsoever in mail going back to the States. Robert believes that no mention of it was ever made in the US newspapers. Nobody that Robert subsequently spoke to about it in the USA had ever heard of it.

In the following days, many exaggerated stories circulated about the so called "Battle of Brisbane". Some version had up to 15 Aussies being killed with machine guns.

On the following night, the 27 November 1942, a crowd had gathered outside the American Red Cross building. The PX building was under heavy security following the previous night's disturbance. Some hand grenades had been confiscated by some NCO's in the crowd. Heavily armed American MP's were located on the first floor of the Red Cross building. The crowd moved to the corner of Queen and Edward Streets outside of General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. They shouted abuse towards the building, but MacArthur was apparently in New Guinea at the time. He had travelled to Port Moresby in early November 1942.

Warrant Officer Bill Bentson witnessed both nights of the "Battle of Brisbane". He was walking towards the AMP building on the first night and saw the disturbance. He ran down a lane and made it up to the 6th Floor of the AMP building. He could see a crowd of 500 to 600 Australian servicemen at the intersection of Queen and Adelaide streets. They had formed 3 circles in the street and were passing American soldiers over their heads into the centre of the circles were they would be punched and kicked.

Bentson saw some Aussie soldiers armed with MP batons encounter about 20 US Provosts in Queen Street. The Americans lined the ram tracks and drew their 45 calibre handguns. An Australian Officer persuaded the the American commander to take his men away from the area in a truck.

Two other American MP's were caught in the open and attacked.

An American Officer and his Australian wife were walking towards a restaurant after the evening session at the Metro to watch "Mrs. Miniver", when they were set upon by about 10 Australian military personnel. They heard shouts of "There's a bloody Yank - kill him" The lady was knocked over twice. The crowd kept yelling "Kill him - kick him, kick his brains out." The couple were fortunate enough to escape into a pharmacy run by C.A. "Big Bill" Edwards. He was just closing his shop at the time.

During a Television documentary some 45 years later, "Big Bill" reported " This young couple fell through the door, chased by hordes of Aussie soldiers. I closed the wire grille door after them. "Give us the bastard, Bill, he killed our mate." I told them that he didn't kill anyone, and if they found the one who did, I would kill him for them. After a while they broke up and left".

21 Americans were injured on the second night of the "Battle of Brisbane". 11 of these had to be hospitalised. The numbers included 8 MP's and 4 officers.

Many plans were adopted to ensure that peace would prevail in Brisbane after this second night of unrest. The Units involved in the disturbance were relocated out of Brisbane, the MP's strength was increased, the Australian canteen was closed and the American PX was relocated.

There were many investigations into the cause of the disturbance and many a discussion on how to ease the tensions and avoid a similar event. Besides the obvious effect of the liquor imbibed on the night of the disturbance, the other main contributing factors that seem to have raised the deep-seated frustration amongst the Australian servicemen were:-

- American pay levels compared to the Australians
- smarter American uniforms compared to the Australians
- shops and hotels favouring the well-paid Americans
- Americans pinching their Aussie girls (and in some cases their wives)
- and the Americans' custom of caressing girls in public

Private Norbert Grant was court-marshalled for manslaughter on 27 February 1943 but found not guilty, on the grounds of self-defence. Five Australians were convicted for assault as a result of the "Battle of Brisbane" with one person being jailed for 6 months.
I've read about this incident before. Helluva thing. Allied infighting like that was actually more common than a lot of people realize, although not usually as bad as that. My great uncle for instance was a Canadian para who's battalion was attached to the British 6th Airborne Division, and he hated Limeys with a passion! Can't stand them to this day! He never mentioned Yanks or anyone else much, and it never occurred to me to ask. But rivalries quickly turned to open hatred with quite a few servicemen throughout the war.
I read somewhere that over 1,000 black servicemen were killed in riots and disturbances in the U.S. during WW II. They wanted equal rights with the white servicemen, something they eventually got in the late forties.
The Port Chicago riot comes to mind. The Black naval supply sailors were forced to handle ammunition with no training.

I also think there was an all black B25 outfit that rioted (in 1945?). Their officers were not allowed to enter the white officers clubs, and a general riot occured.
There was always fighting going on between services and countries. One wrong word could get the brawl going. Like when the U.S servicemen first saw New Zealanders in Italy and thought they were British (because of the uniform.) and made the mistake of saying; "How you doing, limeys?"

Inter-service fighting still happens to this day in the British Armed Forces. You should hear some of the stories my dad tells me about these fights. Sitting in the NAAFI they'd be Navy lads and RAF lads and they'd be abusing each other; "Ah, smelly Fish heads!" - "Shut up, you crabs" etc. etc. Then the Army lot would come in and it'd be "Oh god, he's the pongos" and then the Army would say something back and the RAF and Navy lads would pounce on the Army and they'd be a massive brawl that would wreck the NAAFI. Once an Army lad was lifted up into the ceiling fan!
They had trouble in Cyprus all the time with the Army fighting and one Rockape squadron had to smash their way into blocks 'cos some morons had barricaded themselves in (I think they were Rocks too).
there's some friendly rivalries too though, 9 and 617 Sqn still fight about who sunk the tirpitz, they fight over a peice a Tirpitz bulkhead presented to the RAF by the Norwegans that broke her up after the war, last i heard 617 had it, some of their men got into 9sqn HQ as builders and demolished the wall the bulkhead was mounted on and 'ad it away :lol:
syscom3 said:
The Port Chicago riot comes to mind. The Black naval supply sailors were forced to handle ammunition with no training.

If I remember right it was Port Chicago that was destoyed during the war by an ammunition explosion. The dockworkers were all black and their white officers were having competitions to see whos crew could load the ships fastest. No one knows what went wrong but the explosion destroyed the docks, several ships and killed hundreds of men!
Yes, thats correct.

In the aftermath, there wasnt a riot, but a mutiny. The black serviceman refused to load ammo unless they were properly trained for it.

The Navy didnt and many serviceman figured it was better to get a dishonorable dischage than to be blown up.

I think President Clinton started forcing the Navy to clear up the service records of those men, whether they were deceased or alive.
They better. A soldier or sailor needs to be properly trained to do what they are doing. I dont let my soldiers do anything without proper training in it. If you dont do that then you are setting them up for failure.
'Ruperts' always get it.

I bet there were a few 'War of the Roses' incidents too, I'll bet? :shock:

Sensible words there DerAdlere, if only everyone thought the same as you...

Half the time people are expected to mind read. :evil:
I've found that most times things like that just come down to laziness. Some folks can't be bothered to simply take a few minutes to explain things to the new guys (or girls). But when all hell breaks loose they spend enough time trying to point the finger and cover their ass. :rolleyes:
In Liverpool there were a number of confrontations because there were a large number of coloured american troops in the area. At the request of the White American officers the authorities tried to place number of restrictions on civilian pubs, clubs cinema's, etc as they wanted the segregation that existed in parts of the USA to be continued in the UK. Unfortunately for them, the local civilians sided with the black servicemen against the whites. So if there were any problems, the white americans tended to lose.
In the end they had alternate nights where the white troops were given leave and on the other nights the coloured troops.

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