On 15 August 2020, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
For Trinity College, the year is a moment to reflect and remember the more than 500 men and women alumni of both the residential college and the then Trinity women's hostel, Janet Clarke Hall, who served in the military abroad and on the home front.
Of these, 37 young men are known to have lost their lives, in all theatres of the conflict - from North Africa, Europe, to the Pacific War and in service on Australian soil.
This virtual war memorial and online exhibition remembers these alumni and their sacrifice, and the story of Trinity College and its wider community in the larger narrative of Australia's involvement during the Second World War.
It is dedicated to their memory, and to their families and children who would carry their loss and grief well beyond the end of the conflict.
With the war just over twelve months old, 1940 saw one of the largest 'valete' lists of students leaving the college in many years.
Fifty-two students - some who had only just completed their first year of studies - left Trinity. This compared to the thirty-one valedictorians in 1939; twenty-nine the previous year.
For many of the students, the outbreak of the Second World War was seen as a continuation of the previous world conflict. Many had parents who had served twenty years earlier, during the First World War. Nearly all would have had direct family members who had served. Some had siblings who had enlisted, making the call to 'do their part' all the stronger.
'1939 might well go down to history as the year of Crises', the student Fleur de Lys magazine surmised at the end of that year:
We have been living on the edge of a volcano, which has at last erupted; it is too soon yet to say what damage that eruption will do, and in the immediate future we must look forward to a dislocation of our ordinary life ...
Yet, following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, nothing particular seemed to follow. At least, not so much as it impacted Britain and its colonial assets across the globe. It was the period of the so-called 'Phoney War'.
William 'Bill' Mackie (TC 1940), in his final year of school at Geelong Grammar, recalls those months until the end of the first year of the war as relatively quiet. The morning and evening newspapers delivered to the common room at the Grammar provided updates of what news there was, but the war seemed a world away, with little impact on Britain and the Commonwealth. Then it changed.
I remember more about when I was in Trinity College because the papers there for a year – I was there in 1940 – we got a fair coverage of the Battle of Britain and that sort of thing. And that kept us pretty much informed with what was going on.
In July 1940, the German forces launched a large-scale, sustained aerial attack on England - the 'Battle of Britain'. It would continue for months, only easing at the end of October. Suddenly the war had arrived and its impacts were being felt on the other side of the globe, among England's colonial territories. Australian ties with England had remained strong after the First World War; family connections between the two countries equally, if not more so.
The continuing news coverage of the Battle of Britain and the air force 'caught our attention more', Mackie said later, 'and maybe had some influence in [me] going into the air force later'.
James 'Jim' Guest (TC 1936), studying medicine at the University of Melbourne, remembers 'only two or three who really didn't wish to join up' when war was declared.
Just after we graduated when we were being registered by the medical board and the president of the medical board ... signed you up as a new doctor he said, "And what service are you going into?" So there was a little bit of pressure even then.
The pressure came from both sides of Tin Alley. Clive Fitts (later Sir Clive; TC 1919), Trinity's resident medical tutor at the time, was another defining influence upon the college's medical students. A major in the 2nd Field Ambulance himself, he was forthright in directing students to enlist into the Medical Corps - specifically, the 2nd Field Ambulance.
By 1942, more than 90 recent students and past alumni of both Trinity College and Janet Clarke Hall were serving in the Australian Army Medial Corps. By the conflict's end, the Corps would prove to have received the single largest representation of Trinity alumni across all areas of the military services.
However the emptying college would set the scene for the next stage of Trinity's involvement in the war.
The College in 1942 was 'but a ghost of its former self', the student Fleur de Lys magazine lamented.
In the void, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) School of Administration and Special Duties - which had formerly been at Ascot Vale - moved in to Trinity College.
Established in August 1940 at RAAF Base Laverton, the school trained prospective officers for the RAAF and, later, the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF) of the Administration and Special Duties Branch. The unit’s headquarters moved to Trinity in February 1942, although – until residential accommodation became available on campus – trainee officers would make the daily commute from Ascot Value in to college.
Initially the RAAF occupied Bishops' Building and the Wooden Wing, a temporary timber barracks-like structure that had been erected at the end of the last war to meet demand by returning servicemen. It now housed another generation of servicemen.
However, by the middle of the year - 'by infiltration tactics that even the Warden was powerless to prevent' - those college students remaining had been confined to Behan Building, with the increasing RAAF officers-in-training now occupying all of Clarke Buildings. Well, almost all. The students, and no doubt the Warden, had not been prepared to give over that most sacred area of collegiality, the Common Room.
Around College Crescent, other residential colleges were likewise experiencing the impact of wartime close to home. Queen's College was given over to the WAAAF for accommodation, while Ormond and Newman Colleges had accepted trainee airmen on the same basis as residential students.
The small carpark in front of the Leeper Building was used as a parade ground, while the larger University Oval next door to Trinity was used for physical training, squadron drills, and the ‘passing out’ parades by the graduating officers, marking the completion of their course. The latter event – always an impressive spectacle – captured the attention of Melbourne’s wartime press photographers, who clearly enjoyed the patriotic display as the latest crop of either RAAF or WAAAF officers marched back and forth across the oval with tight military precision.
Exiled to Behan Building, with its 'long trek ... to the Common Room', the at-times resentful students of the college evidently looked on these events in a different light. In November 1942, a group of distinguished visitors to campus - Lady Zara Gowrie, wife of the Governor-General and herself an honorary Air Commodore of the WAAAF, the University’s Vice Chancellor John Medley, and ‘at least 2 air vice marshals’ – found themselves locked inside the college grounds.
Having attended a WAAAF parade on the University Oval, when the party made their way back through Trinity to the main gate it was found to be chained and padlocked. Only after a hacksaw had been obtained and the lock saw off were the group ‘released’ on to Royal Parade. An enterprising student took a photo, apparently, of the comic scene. Just how the gate had come to be locked remained a mystery, though a reported observer wryly ‘it is known college students have fewer inhibitions when the warden is away’.
Chief Instructor of the RAAF School of Administration was Wing Commander James Stewart Noel Harris, known more often as ‘JSN’. For him, the relocation from Ascot Vale to Trinity was a move to familiar ground; he had been in residence for four years from 1925. A keen rower, active on both the college and intervarsity crews, Harris had joined the Citizens Air Force in his college years before transferring to the reserves to pursue a career as a lawyer in Wodonga. With the outbreak of war, he had been called up and served throughout with the RAAF, at an operational base in Port Moresby in 1942, before becoming chief instructor the following May and teaching the next generation of Trinity alumni, among others, as they passed through the officer’s course.
Another for whom Trinity was familiar territory was the daughter of Trinity's sub-Warden of the 1920s, Robert Leslie Blackwood. ‘Blackie’, as Margaret Blackwood was known to her friends and colleagues, had only just graduated from the University in 1938 with first class honours. Yet when war broke out, she enlisted almost immediately in the WAAF, commencing as a drill instructor before working on cyphers – encryptions for communications - for Allied troops in the Pacific region.
Promoted quickly, Margaret soon became involved in the officer training at the University, both to the WAAAF officers housed at Queen’s College but also delivering lectures to the RAAF officers at Trinity on secrecy and security.
For years after the war ended, when she had resumed what would prove to be a highly distinguished academic career at the University of Melbourne, she would often be greeted by excited cries of ‘Blackie!’ by former officers who would continue, saying “You lectured to me in such and such a course in Trinity”.
The college entered 1944 with sixty-five residential students, allowing for Bishops’ Building to be reclaimed, although the RAAF Officers still had use of both Clarke and the Wooden Wing. However, an end was in sight. In November 1944, after almost two-and-a-half years, the RAAF School of Administration left Trinity College to relocate to Victor Harbour, South Australia.
After the deeply-felt loss and upheaval to the collegiate community over the preceding half decade, it was perhaps unsurprising that Trinity's third Warden was one who came with a strong personal understanding and a firm sense of discipline required to move forward.
A former intelligence officer with the 2/27th Australian Infantry Battalion, who had only been discharged the previous October, seemed an appropriate fit. Major Captain Ronald William Trafford Cowan commenced as Warden in 1946.
Adelaide-born, Cowan had attended St Peter's College where he had excelled in all areas; colours in athletics and football, active in debating, a scholarship for Modern History. In 1936, he became South Australian Rhodes Scholar, an offer he took up the following year.
When war broke out in late 1939, he enlisted and fought in Syria in 1941, before seeing action in New Guinea across 1942-43, primarily as an intelligence officer. In 1944, he was transferred to teach at the Royal Military College at Kingston, Canada, before returning to Australia at the beginning of the following year to take up an appointment as senior instructor at the Land Headquarters School of Military Intelligence.
Cowan's appointment as Warden, though vastly different from his immediately previous experiences, nonetheless brought many of his talents together. As one student recalled, that first evening in the Common Room in second term of 1946 when the new Warden was introduced to the students for the first time, 'at close quarters'.
I do no think we were either sympathetic or insightful into the enormous problems he was to face in the post-war years. We looked at each other in slightly veiled hostility, comparing this tough little man with the Olympian proportions of old Jock Behan [the out-going Warden]. He was thirty-two and was junior both in age and military rank to some of the undergraduate members of the College which had a large proportion of ex-servicemen generally and ex-prisoners-of-war in particular. "Treat me right, I'll treat you right. Kick me hard, I'll kick you hard", he said.
With that, Cowan left the room. His position of expected discipline in this most challenging of student communities - broad in both age and maturity, born of the horrors of the preceding years - made clear. Fifteen years later he would admit that, while genuine in the sentiment, he had approached this introduction to his new charges sweating, 'with fear and general foreboding'.
Despite the challenges ahead, Cowan quickly gained the respect of the students and there were few student activities that did not have his attention. He was supportive of the Chaplain, and was particularly attentive to college sports and the Dialectic Society, personal areas of interest from his own schooling in Adelaide.
Even by the early 1950s, with hostilities having ended more than half a decade prior ago, the experiences of those that had served were still strongly represented among the residential student community. As John McDonagh (TC 1952) recalls:
There was tremendous camaraderie at the university in many ways. And college life was quite good, I was in Trinity College. I would say, at least half of us were ex-service.
After a decade in office and with growing demand for student places, a new residential wing was proposed. It would be the first in more than twenty years. Post-war austerity however necessitated a more cost-effective building material than Behan Building's sandstone. Cream-brick, having already been adopted across the University of Melbourne campus during the interwar period, was settled upon as providing a sleek, modern look.
From the 11 tenders submitted, the college opted for the lowest, that submitted by John Holland Construction Engineers. As a further cost-saving measure, the new wing became the first time in Melbourne precast and pre-stressed concrete floor slabs were used in construction, in place of the more expensive process of pouring concrete in situ. These new materials and techniques also allowed for a comparatively quick build; the new wing was completed in eight months and ready for students at the beginning of 1958.
The Memorial Building, as the new wing was named, was designed to house 48 additional students, sharing joint studies situated near their slightly smaller bedrooms. As demand and expectations have changed over the course of half a century, non-loading bearing walls have gone along with the studies, to provide for larger student rooms.
However, the arrival of the Memorial Building provoked a critical attack in the University of Melbourne's student 'Farrago' magazine, decrying the jarring addition to the campus' architecture. At Trinity, students volunteering to live in the new wing were few, with many preferring the rooms of the college's earlier buildings.
As the end of the year approach, Cowan gave his annual 'address' to students to commit themselves to diligence in their academic studies, lest they find themselves in jeopardy. The turn-of-phrase roused the wit of one student who illustrated the Warden's comments in the Fleur de Lys magazine, insinuating that those who did poorly would find themselves residents of the soon-to-be-completed new wing. The name stuck. Within a day or two, even the Warden was referring to the Memorial Building as 'Jeopardy'.
Nonetheless, the building honoured those who had given their lives in service during the past war. A galvanised plaque was mounted at the northern ground-floor entrance commemorating their names. Above the names, it reads:
THIS BUILDING STANDS IN MEMORY OF THE SONS OF THIS COLLEGE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR 1939-1945.
The building - Memorial, or 'Jeopardy' - still stands and throbs with the excited crys of students each February; as bags are hauled to new rooms, as new friendships are formed in the corridors.
The memorial plaque remains, committing to perpetuity the names of those alumni who were not afforded the opportunity to return and continue their studies, or to revel in the collegiality of reunions and reminiscence with their peers. For them, with all their academic and sporting successes, their friendships, loves, and families, their story ended too soon.
Ronald Cowan died in 1964 while in office. His successor, a young lawyer called Robin Sharwood, deeply attentive to the college's history, would write a few years later:
Trinity is not a collection of stills, of fading snap-shots; it is a moving picture ... The only way we can know it - know it fully - it seems to me, is to know it collectively, to hold it in our corporate memory.
It has proved true of so much that defines the Trinity experience for the generations of students since, layered as they are upon the shoulders of those that have gone before. May the names and stories of these fallen alumni, and the experiences of all those that served during the Second World War, always be a part of the college's corporate memory.
If you're an alumni, a member of Trinity College's wider community, related to one of the college's fallen and indeed connected to the men and women that attended the RAAF School of Administration during it's time at Trinity, and have photos or ephemera that documents that you would be willing to share with us, it would be great to be in touch!