A tiny rural town on the outskirts of one of Australia’s oldest producing wine regions seems about as far from the battle-scarred fields of World War Two as you can possibly get. But, unbeknownst to the casual observer today, the Hunter Valley town of Greta actually played a significant role in both Australia’s war effort and the resettlement of thousands of immigrants who left their war-torn homes in Europe for the chance to start a new life on the other side of the world.
Two months after Australia entered into the war on September 3, 1939, the Federal Government compulsorily acquired 2930 acres of grazing land outside of the township of Greta with the aim of repurposing it for use by the Australian Army.
Less than a month later the Greta Army Camp began training soldiers from the 6th Division 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF), gradually expanding throughout the war into what became one of Australia’s largest military training camps.
Around 60,000 soldiers passed through its gates before the war finally ended in 1945, with much of the Greta camp then being returned to grazing lands.
A section of the property remained under military use, playing a part in training the Australian troops that formed part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) that served with distinction to maintain control of Japan following the war, under the command of US General Douglas MacArthur.
In 1949 the camp was transferred to the Department of Immigration for use as a reception and training centre for migrants fleeing from post-war Europe.
Various centres such as these were set up across Australia, to provide a place where immigrants could learn some English while they looked for a job.
Between 1949 and 1960, the Greta Migrant Camp became the first Australian home for more than 100,000 migrants from 17 countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and Netherlands.
At one point Greta was one of Australia’s largest migrant camps, housing 9000 people at a time.
In 1962 the Army resumed control of the camp, before selling the site and its buildings 18 years later. The property was purchased at auction in 1980 by the Windt family and remains privately owned.
In 1981 Cessnock Council renamed the section of road between Talga Road and Greta Railway Station, which runs past the former camp.
‘Camp Road’ remains the only local tribute established in honour of the historic site, a fact that has attracted criticism and condemnation from many people, including former Camp residents.
Despite the lack of a monument on the site, the history of the two camps has been captured in a number of ways over the years.
Historian Christopher Keating has written the only book on the Greta Army Camp and the Greta Migrant Camp, while writer Alek Schulha, who was born at the camp to Yugoslav and Ukrainian parents, has spent decades researching and collecting the stories of the people who called the Greta Migrant Camp home.
With this year marking the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Greta Army Camp and the 70th anniversary of the Greta Migrant Camp, several events, including photographic exhibitions, museum displays and historical talks, have been held throughout the Hunter to acknowledge the milestones.
This month, a special two-day event will also be held at the Camp Road property to commemorate the anniversaries.
Presented by the Central Hunter Business Chamber, Hunter Multicultural Communities Inc and its sponsors, the family-friendly weekend will feature a military parade, air show and pipe and brass bands, a kids’ zone with a jumping castle, balloons and more, as well as a variety of cultural dance ensembles, international food stalls and local market stores.
The event will kick off on Saturday, November 9 with a full military parade with the Royal Australian Navy Band, Defence Force personnel, Veterans and dignitaries, followed by the official opening by Governor-General of Australia, General David Hurley.
Other highlights over the two days will include flyovers of military aircraft including a C-130 Hercules – heavy-lift aircraft, MRH-90 Taipan Helicopter and Tiger Moths, as well as displays of ex-military vehicles, infantry and light horse drills, and the Hunter Multicultural onsite museum, historical talks and displays.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.gretaarmycamp.com.au. Tickets will also be available at the gate during the November 9 and 10 event.
Images courtesy of Central Hunter Business Chamber.