AFP/FBI sting recalls history of criminal activity on our wharves

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Operation Ironside recently helped put away over 200 of Australia's underworld crime figures (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australia's ports and harbours have long been a hotbed of criminal activity, particularly in wartime, writes Dr Michael Tyquin.

THE SPECTACULAR SUCCESS of the sting mounted by the Australian Federal Police and the FBI has been followed by renewed calls for better vetting of those working on our wharves and ports.

But the problem is by no means new. The home front during World War Two shows just how vulnerable our wharves were to criminal activity. From 1940, the Commonwealth Government, first under Sir Arthur Fadden and then John Curtin, enacted reactive legislation to deal with the issue. Despite the legislation (Commonwealth and state), that was enacted, the absence of personnel screening and the lack of police manpower meant that crime on our waterfronts continued largely unabated during the war.

In 1941, Sir George Beeby, Chief Judge of the Arbitration Court, observed of the Sydney waterfront that ‘subversive individuals were becoming a menace’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1941) and that the maintenance of services connected with the war effort was being seriously hampered. Matters would improve little over the next few years.

From January 1941, new laws made it possible for the Commonwealth to prohibit the employment of anyone on a wharf without a Customs Department permit and all shipping companies undertook not to employ anyone who did not hold one. While a few men were convicted under the National Security Regulations for being found on wharves without a permit, wharfies often had one in their possession that belonged to someone else. They would claim to have picked up the permit in the street and could not find the owner.

Security permit (Source: National Archives of Australia)

When police located and questioned the permit’s owner, he would simply say that he had lost it, usually the day before it was found in the possession of the man using it to gain entry to a wharf or ship.

So crimes remained commonplace and shippers and insurers were always ready to inform the Government of their displeasure. The director of one Brisbane firm wrote to the Prime Minister telling him that, despite the Government’s recent legislation ‘the pilfering taking place is absolutely sickening’. He may have been right.

Archival searches can often be fascinating for what they reveal. Among thousands of wartime documents is a memo written by a port watchman.

He wrote that:

‘...the average wharf labourer does not regard pillaging of cargoes equal to theft — his mentality is so bitterly opposed to the shipowners that an incredibly strong solidarity is being practised and even the honest and respectable (there is quite a large percentage of them) wharfy will help and cover any other workman in his thieving...’

Army intelligence compiled a list of men working on Melbourne’s waterfront in 1942. Most had criminal records and considerable experience with the legal system. By way of illustration was one Richard Burles, aka Jack Lee, aka Albert Burles aka “Shanghai” who had spent years in gaol. His criminal activities ranged across three states and included larceny and robbery with violence, for which he had been sentenced to five years hard labour. He had no problems finding work at the port of Melbourne.

There was also the case of dock worker Bill Bennett who was found with 60 watches in his bag. These were part of a shipment imported by the army for troops in New Guinea. In sentencing, the judge could not understand how Bennett, who not only had a long criminal record but also had recently served two and half years in prison, could possess a national security pass.

To help combat the problem, men from the army's Field Security Section were secretly embedded in wharf labour gangs whose members had boasted of their ill-gotten gains from stealing military stores at wharves and warehouses. But military police could do little as they had no legal search powers. In December 1942, William MacKay, the NSW Police Commissioner, reflected the views of his inter-state colleagues when he reported that police everywhere faced a wall of silence and that watchmen and others were afraid to tell them anything.  

He wrote:

‘The wharfies are in the hands of a ring of men, many of whom are criminals; they will stop at nothing. They intimidate watchmen and other men on the wharves...’

Stevedores did not have a monopoly on unscrupulous dealings and members of all three armed services did their bit. Part of the problem was that service police themselves were not immune to temptation and there were many courts-martial throughout the war on this account. In April 1942, the army was warned that ‘the question of pilfering was so serious’ that he had been warned by the insurance industry that it would refuse cover to the army ‘unless the claims diminish’.

Naturally, unions cried foul and the press frequently published statements by union spokesmen stating that if it could be proven that criminals were trafficking in union identity badges, it ‘would be promptly dealt with by the unions’.

Somewhat disingenuously, the secretary of the Sydney Waterside Workers’ Federation wrote to one newspaper (The Sun, 5 July 1944) that it was:

‘...inevitable that a few undesirables should creep into every organisation, but the Waterside Workers’ Federation compared favourably in this regard with any other body in the world.’

While fighting with Japanese troops raged to our north in 1944, the army issued procedures with simple steps aimed at eliminating losses through the pillaging of goods between mainland Australia and New Guinea. Various steps included fencing off docks, building a transit shed, issuing permits to board vessels and stationing Military Police at key points.  The reality was that our port infrastructure was hopelessly vulnerable.

Waterfront crime, strikes ‘and obstruction on the wharves reached such a pitch that in 1944 the admiral in command of the British Pacific Fleet, Sir Bruce Fraser, threatened to transfer the fleet base from Australia to New Zealand’. While organised crime was not as sophisticated as it is now, opportunity and rich pickings guaranteed a thriving port sub-culture during the war.

Dr Michael Tyquin is a former army officer and is a military historian. He is the author of Gallipoli: an Australian Medical Perspective and Madness and the Military: Australia's experience of Shell Shock in the Great War.

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