Old Man’s Hat, where the 1940 inscription marking the detention of Pierre Loti was carved, offers spectacular views over South Head, the Tasman Sea and hundreds of historic inscriptions left by sailors, passengers and Sydney residents. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.
Saigon bristled with terror in April 1975. As shelling and small-arms fire sounded out an ever-shrinking cordon around the South Vietnamese capital, wails of a different kind split the airspace above the city. On board a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules aircraft, over 200 traumatised children and infants – primarily orphans – were being tended by nurses, doctors and military personnel. Leaving Ton Son Nhat airport on 3 April, these bewildered passengers were then transferred to a Qantas flight bound for Sydney. Numbering among the 2500 children scooped up by ‘Operation Babylift’, they arrived at North Head Quarantine Station just weeks ahead of the final collapse of South Vietnam.
Oddly enough, the Babylift children were not the first displaced Vietnamese to be held at North Head. It would be another year before the earliest refugee boats – the vanguard of a rickety flotilla escaping the humanitarian crisis afflicting Southeast Asia – landed on northern Australian shores. Although two small groups of these arrivals were briefly accommodated at Sydney’s Quarantine Station in 1977, in April 1975 only the Babylift evacuees were being tended by nurses and community volunteers at this hilly headland near Manly.
This memorial to British children evacuated to Australia in 1940 also commemorates the local women who looked after them at Sydney’s Quarantine Station. Image: Ursula K Frederick, Sydney Harbour National Park.
The Polish passenger liner MV Batory seems an odd ship to be commemorated at Sydney’s North Head Quarantine Station, as it never moored there. Yet its presence is captured in concrete: ‘BRITISH EVACUEE / CHILDREN / ARRIVED 16TH OCTOBER / 1940. M.S. BATORY / VA + DS’, followed by 37 names etched into four neat panels.
In fact, despite outbreaks of influenza, measles and ‘school sores’, the Batory was never quarantined. Rather, for the British children it rushed to Sydney in 1940, North Head represented a safe haven from German bombers and invasion scares.