The prospect of holding increasing quantities of gold in Australia did not, of itself, create a problem, as there was ample strongroom accommodation in the Bank's main offices.
But since these were situated in coastal areas, the situation consequently changed when the initial success of the Japanese compelled Australia to base its plans on the possibility of actual invasion. At this stage the Commonwealth Bank, in addition to the accumulation of Australian-produced gold, was also holding in safe custody a large quantity of the precious metal placed in its care by other countries.
In the circumstances, it was considered prudent to remove this gold from the capital cities where it had been stored, to an inland centre for safe keeping. Broken Hill some 698 miles west of Sydney and situated in a semi-desert, was chosen as a suitable site and arrangements were made with the New South Wales Government for the jail in that city to be made available to the Bank.
The first transfer of gold was effected from Sydney in February 1942, by special train under a combined military and bank guard. So successful were the secrecy measures that certain of the soldiers who, by a series of deductions, had concluded that they were bound for a secret mission overseas, were duly surprised to find themselves members of the escort for a number of very heavy boxes destined for and inland town. More surprised still was one of the Bank's employees. He had been informed that he was required for a secret mission and, in reply to his enquires, someone had added that it was in the nature of a fishing trip. Among his luggage, therefore, was a fishing rod!
A similar transfer was effected by special train from Melbourne in April 1942, and that too, was not without its lighter side, despite the serious nature of the job on hand. The special train, with its valuable consignment of gold, stopped at Jerilderie, a small town which few of the military escort had seen before. A Tasmanian who did not know the Mainland, called to a railway employee from his van and asked the name of the place. When he received the reply: "This is Jerilderie, where Ned Kelly held up the bank," the soldier immediately remarked to his companions in the van that it was a pity Ned Kelly was not there then.
A permanent body of Bank employees, whose sole duty was the guarding of the gold, was stationed at Broken Hill.
At first the gold was housed in the various cells, but within a few weeks, a special strongroom was built within the jail and an elaborate system of alarms set up which provided a continuous security check at least every fifteen minutes. The alterations called for large quantities of cement and other materials and the rumour went round that the prison was being reinforced to house Rudolf Hess and other German prisoners.
As prisons are designed mainly to prevent people from getting out, one or two very minor alterations were made, since the Bank's objective was to prevent anyone getting in.
A few other alterations were effected to make the buildings suitable for persons other than enforced tenants. The housing quarters of the guard were necessarily unattractive, but hobbies flourished and the best was made of the unusual conditions. The prison and grounds covered an area of about five acres and, when weather conditions were good, very commendable results came from the extensive garden. It was then possible not only to provide the "inmates" with a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables, but also to make contributions to the local Red Cross and other charities.
A secret shared by many people does not usually remain confidential for long, but the Broken Hill arrangements were not voiced abroad for a surprisingly long time. Evidence of this first came on Sunday, 29 March 1942, when a police constable arrived from Wentworth, just over 180 miles away. He had with him a handcuffed prisoner whom he wished to lodge for safe custody and was duly amazed when informed that there were no prisoners in the jail and that he should call at the local police station. The prisoner himself was quite self-possessed and suggested to his custodian in blue that "They are making a fool of you boss; it's April Fool's Day on Wednesday."
Subsequent to the initial special consignment from Sydney and Melbourne, newly-produced gold was periodically transferred to Broken Hill under escort throughout the years 1942, 1942 and 1944. By the end of 1944, there was not the slightest doubt that the war had moved away from Australia and it was only a question of time before the Japanese inlands themselves would be visited by the allies. In those circumstances, the emergency storage at Broken Hill was no longer necessary and the gold was returned to the seaboard in April 1945.
This transfer, which was the largest single movement of gold ever carried out in Australia, was also made by special train which, during a forty-hour journey, carried a special guard of thirty senior Bank officers and one hundred military personnel.