A fine site for a park – Witton Barracks Indooroopilly

A Brief History

The area now known as Witton Barracks was part of a 42 acre block purchased at the first sale of government land in the area on 27 September 1859 and subsequently was the site of Tighnabruaich the grand 1890s residence no longer part of the Barracks site but visible from Clarence Road and from the pedestrian and cyclist bridge over the river. In the Second World War (WW2) this was converted to the headquarters of the Allied Translator & Interpreter Section (ATIS), then later was the residence of the General Officer Commanding Northern Command. The Barracks was also the regional headquarters of the Military Police until 1984 then was in use by the University of Queensland Regiment until 2009.

Centrally located in Indooroopilly and on the river, the site has seen many phases of development from the initial boom of the 1870s with the coming of the railway and the railway bridge to Chelmer. Accordingly the residual elements of this site (with the few other nearby significant historic houses) have much significance to the locality and beyond not least its major roles during WW2.

This significance arises from the limited number of owners and uses starting with the grand residence then the owner moving Witton Manor from the site of Ambrose Treacy College (formerly Nudgee Junior) to the site on the river beside the railway line. Witton House as it was renamed was used as the Sergeants Mess during WW2. It was later replaced by the current brick and concrete building with a similar role for the Military Police. Many other buildings and features remain on site not least the stands of increasingly rare Eucalypt trees and the established garden and other structures representing both the residential and the military uses of the site.

It is understood little change has been made to the entire site since WW2 except for the new Sergeants Mess. It is in fact an intact military site suitable for museum and community use.

It has recently been announced that Brisbane City Council has arranged to purchase the site for a bridge to connect to Oxley Road putting the historical significant elements in danger of demolition.

Recent aerial view of the site with railway (left) Clarence Road (right) Lambert Road (top) and Brisbane River (bottom) Google Earth

Recent aerial view of the site with railway (left) Clarence Road (right)
Lambert Road (top) and Brisbane River (bottom)
Google Earth

The photo above shows the site with Tighnabruaich centre right with recent red roofed house to its right at the southern end of Clarence Road. The new Sergeants Mess is at left near the railway line with the main structures of the prisoners precinct and exercise area later used as a parade ground centre. At its peak activity in WW2, the remainder of the site was covered with tents and temporary huts for NCOs while officers resided in houses nearby.

“Witton House” beside the railway line looking over the river The Queenslander 9 June 1932

“Witton House” beside the railway line looking over the river
The Queenslander 9 June 1932

The following is based on extracts which can be found in ‘Between Victor & Vanquished’ by Arthur Page which tells the story of ATIS (Allied Translator & Interpreter Section) from its beginnings, its time at Indooroopilly and its effect on the outcome of WW2. Arthur was a key member of ATIS. Much later he retired as a Colonel in the Army Reserve.

ATIS began its organisational life not as the brainchild of enlightened members of Australia’s military intelligence community, but rather as the result of a directive emanating from the office of Douglas MacArthur, a man whose orders commanded immediate action. The particular directive that saw the birth of ATIS was issued on 19 September 1942 by MacArthur’s SWPA Headquarters in Brisbane. MacArthur sought agreement for the establishment of an intelligence organisation for the interrogation of Japanese prisoners of war and the translation of captured Japanese documents along with the other necessary duties that required a knowledge of the language. [see page 72 for more detail]

Typical examples of the activities and outcomes of ATIS include the following.

[The] Allies knew of the Z Plan. The information contained in these documents proved extremely valuable to Allied code-breakers as it contained Japanese naval codes.

Another important achievement was the translation of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s fateful signal concerning his visit to Bougainville. The signal, intercepted by Allied intelligence, revealed that Yamamoto would be flying from Rabaul to Ballalae airfield on an island near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on the morning of 18 April 1943. Allied fighter planes were able to ambush him and Yamamoto’s loss was such a crippling blow for the Japanese it served to hasten the reversal of their fortunes.

ATIS expanded continuously throughout the Pacific War. By the war’s end the unit boasted over 3,500 Japanese linguists with a total of 20,000 used during the occupation (of Japan). US figures estimate that the Pacific War produced over 14,000 Japanese prisoner-of-war reports, with some several millions of pages of Japanese documents translated. ATIS was one of the best kept secrets of the Pacific campaign. For most of the war the Japanese had no knowledge of the organisation until eventually an ATIS report found its way into the bag of a suspect Soviet diplomat who, it is rumoured passed it to the Japanese.

ATIS was not the only Brisbane-based Allied unit that employed Japanese linguists. Brisbane boasted a plethora of such units, large and small. Prominent among these was the Central Bureau, an American wireless intercept unit located in the suburb of Ascot. Through its liaison officer, Major Hugh Erskine, the Central Bureau worked hand in hand with ATIS to create a vital enemy intelligence picture.

Another, more secretive organization was the Far Eastern Liaison Office (FELO), an element of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB), housed in the Brisbane suburb of Windsor. FELO was staffed by linguists who spoke Japanese, Malay, Indonesian and a number of other Asian languages. It was concerned with espionage and propaganda tasks in enemy-occupied territory from New Guinea to the Netherlands East Indies.

Another part of Tighnabruaich housed the Signals Section under the command of the Royal Australian Army Signals Corps Captain John Lynham. To protect the acquisition of sensitive material such as code books and unusual cryptographic material, these were handled by the Chief Signals Officer who would sign a receipt in exchange for the code books he received from ATIS. [see page 74 onwards for more detail]

As the local community history groups slowly and methodically unpack the secret histories of St Lucia, Indooroopilly and across the River to Chelmer and beyond during WW2, it is increasingly becoming clear just how secret and important were the activities at Witton Barracks and nearby.

No wonder Arthur Page thought of Tighnabruaich as the Australian Bletchley Park or put another way, the Bletchley Park of the Pacific War. As such it is vital the historic physical elements are the subject of very detailed heritage assessment and preservation as the physical memorial to the significance of both the military and local history of the development of southwestern Brisbane.

Prepared by Michael Yeates and Marilyn England December 2015

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