The day two men
attacked a
picnic train

More than 100 years ago Broken Hill saw an event of the kind that still shocks Australians today – a terrorist attack.

On New Year’s Day in 1915, two men, later found to be Turkish migrants, fired on a train carrying about 1200 picnickers from Broken Hill to Silverton.

The attack just near Picton saleyards on the outskirts of Broken Hill left four train travellers (a woman and three men) dead and six wounded, including four women.

After the attack on the train a motorcyclist was shot dead near a hotel. An elderly man was seriously wounded when he answered his door to the two men.

The Turks eventually were cornered by police, military personnel and local residents, including camel-drivers from the local camp. One of the camel-drivers found himself being shot at by both sides amid the confusion that followed and was rescued by police officers. A policeman was seriously wounded in the gunfire that lasted almost an hour.

One of the attackers was shot dead on the spot and the other died of gunshot wounds while being taken to hospital. They were identified as Gool Mahomed and Mulla Abdulla. One was a butcher, the other an ice-cream seller, both from Broken Hill.

Their bodies were found side-by-side, with their rifles nearby and revolvers and sheath knives attached to their belts.

They travelled to the railway line in an ice cream van carrying a Turkish flag.

It was later revealed that the two men left letters revealing their action was driven by a hatred of the British because they were at war with Turkey.

One letter – apparently written for Gool Mahomed by Abdulla – found at the rocks where the pair made their las stand was translated: “I am a poor mar and belong to the Sultan, the Sultan Abdul Hamid, in whose country I have been four times to fight. I have got no chance now to fight. I have got a paper from Abdul Hamid, with his seal. The paper is in my belt. ‘Fight and kill your people, because your people are fighting my country.’ This I am doing, because I feel it so much, I have no enemies among you, and nobody (else) has told me to do this. I have told nobody, as God is my witness, and nobody knows except us two.”

A second letter was translated as follows: “Signed by Abdulla. I am a poor man, and a sinner. Only we two know what we are doing, I have been worried because I have been fined, and I have brooded over it. At the court I asked them to forgive me, but they did not, and I have worried, and been a very sorry man. As I was thinking over it Gool came to me, and I told him my trouble. He told me his. When he told me his troubles, it eased my heart. Then we both prayed Allah that he was no more use to us. No man has interfered with us except at the court, and we have no enemies, I have never worn a turban since the day some larrikins threw stones at me, and I did not like it. I wear the turban today. No one except God knows what we are going to do, and I swear to God that is true.”

The war-time attack prompted an angry response from locals. They marched on the German Club in Delamore Street and set fire to the buildings.

As the flames burnt the people cheered and sang patriotic songs, according to a newspaper report.

Donald McLean, who had been a passenger on the train recalled events for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1948:

“We picnickers of Broken Hill were to go apleasuring in open ore trucks on that sunny New Year’s Day. As we sat waiting for the train to start an ice-cream cart drawn by a bony roan horse went past the station, and we waved to the two swarthy foreigners in it. They whipped up the horse and ignored us.

“When the train began to move it was a gay sight. It carried 1,200 happy men, women, and children in forty trucks and two brake vans.

“As it approached a low bank a couple of miles from town we saw the ice cream cart drawn up by the side of the road. But a red flag, with the white star and crescent of Turkey, now fluttered from the canopy and two red-coated figures crouched behind a bank of earth.

“Nobody was quite sure what it all meant until rifles began to crack. Then the smoke of powder and the whine of bullets made the meaning so clear that screaming women began pushing children down to the cover of the trucks’ steel sides and puzzled men shouted to the attackers to ‘stop fooling or someone will get hurt!’

“We knew it was no fooling when a girl in the next truck screamed that she had been hit and continued to scream while blood oozed and spread from her shoulder through her white picnic dress to her waist. Before the train stopped, other shouts, and groups clustering to help, told of casualties in trucks ahead of ours.”


Japan wary of our
‘national character’

Japan did not intend to invade or occupy Australia during its territorial ambitions in the Pacific during World War II.

An assessment prepared by the Japanese Imperial General Staff in 1942 explained why:

If the invasion is attempted, the Australians, in view of their national character, would resist to the end. Also because the geographic conditions of Australia present numerous difficulties in a military sense, it is apparent that a military venture in that country would be a difficult one. To alter the plan already in force, and to employ a force larger than the one employed in the southern area since the outbreak of the war, to suddenly invade Australia which lies 4000 nautical miles away would be a reckless adventure, and is beyond Japan’s ability.

So why attack Darwin?

On 19 February 1942, Japan launched two air raids on Darwin harbour with 188 planes.

Planes in the first wave were launched from four Japanese aircraft-carriers in the Timor Sea. The second wave comprised 54 land-based bombers. The carrier battle group also included two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, seven destroyers, three submarines, and two other heavy cruisers on distant cover.

Australian hardware casualties were 30 military planes and nine ships. Most of Darwin’s military and civil infrastructure was also destroyed.

The attacks were under the direction of Mitsuo Fuchida, the commander who had 10 weeks earlier plotted the massive and devastating attack on Pearl Harbour.

The attacks on Darwin claimed around 250 lives and injured from 300 to 400 military personnel and civilians.

The Japanese lost four planes including two Zero fighters. One of the fighters crash-landed on Melville Island to Darwin’s north, and its pilot was captured by a local Aboriginal man, to become the first prisoner of war taken on Australian soil.

What was behind the attack?

Apparently, Japan wanted to invade Timor. They did so on 20 February, the day after the attack on Darwin. The Japanese believed Darwin would be the base from which aid could be sent to Timor. It was therefore considered a good idea to take out Darwin’s supply capability to Timor and even PNG.

The air raids would demoralise the Australians.

The thinking for the Pearl harbour attack was similar – take out America’s Pacific Fleet to allow Japan to advance its territorial ambitions unhindered.

The Japanese eyed a lot of the Islands in the Pacific region – New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa – and wanted to establish a seaplane base in the Louisiade Archipelago, 240 km south-east of New Guinea which they already held.

But taking PNG had stretched Japan’s military resources. Invading Australia would probably not have been possible anyway. The Battle of Milne Bay saw Australia inflict considerable pain on the Japanese effort – it was their first loss in a land battle.

The first attack on Darwin happened just before 10am on 19 February. The targets were the harbour and town, the Royal Australian Air Force, civil aerodromes and the army hospital.

Ten US Kittyhawk fighters were the only aerial defenders in Darwin; all but one were shot down before they could engage the attackers.

A second wave of Japanese bombers arrived just before noon and bombed the RAAF base.

The air attacks across northern Australia continued until 12 November 1943, by which time the Japanese had raided the Top End more than 200 times.

The last enemy plane was shot down over the Territory in June 1944. During the war other towns in northern Australia were also the target of Japanese air attack, with bombs dropped on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.

The National; Archives fact sheet on the Darwin attacks records the aftermath of the attacks as follows:

“In the hours following the air raids of 19 February, believing that an invasion was imminent, some of Darwin’s civilian population began to stream southwards. Approximately half of Darwin’s civilian population ultimately fled. The panic in the town was paralleled by confusion at the RAAF base, where personnel were directed in difficult circumstances to other areas in great numbers. Looting and disorder, and impact of the first raids, subsequently led the government to hurriedly appoint a Commission of Inquiry led by Mr Justice Lowe, which issued two reports, one on 27 March and the other on 9 April 1942.

However, within a few months, Darwin was mounting an even more credible defence, which grew to a coordinated response involving fighters, radar, and searchlights. The response grew steadily to involve counterstrike from bombers, largely manned by US forces. Other squadrons involved Dutch and British aircraft joining the Australian effort, and naval units continued to operate against the enemy. By the end of 1942 the tide was beginning to turn and the Japanese started to be pushed back from the lands they had taken in what is now Indonesia and Timor”.

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