“Oh, I can’t believe it’s gone, it’s so sad,” laments Anne Forrest, pointing to the location where a wooden railway bridge once spanned the end of Arnott Street in Hume.
For many years the road under the recently demolished bridge, which Forrest refers to as “Petrov’s Bridge”, was the only road access to her family’s Tralee property.
In the early 1950s, as a child, Forrest recalls, “We’d occasional see a dark-coloured car with tinted windows parked under the bridge and my father would tell us, ‘Don’t look!'"
“When I got older I was told it was between the slats of wood under this very bridge where Soviet diplomat-come-double agent Vladimir Petrov would hide secret papers he was handing to ASIO, prior to his defection to Australia in April 1954.
“While I don’t recall seeing any parcels concealed under the bridge, we did often see lizards between the sleepers,” laughs Forrest, who believes the car her family regularly saw parked near the bridge “either belonged to Petrov or that of an ASIO operative”.
A spokesperson for Transport NSW, unaware of the bridge’s link to Cold War espionage, said the decision to remove the structure “was taken on public safety grounds, following consultation with Queanbeyan Palerang Council”.
According to my Transport NSW insider, “the underbridge had been struck by vehicles on multiple occasions and blue metal from the track was falling onto the road below.
“Removal of the bridge gives council the option to construct a wider road, improving access and safety for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.”
Another Canberran just as disappointed as Forrest by the removal of the landmark bridge is historian Dr Peter Dowling.
“A few years ago, when I was writing a booklet on border walks for the National Trust, I drove and walked under the bridge a few times and gave a thought or two to poor old Petrov,” reflects Dowling, who also recalls driving under the bridge many times in the 1970s when “it was an access point to the Fraser Park Speedway”.
“Petrov was being used by ASIO [the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation] to supply documents from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra and one of the hiding places was this bridge,” confirms Dowling.
“In the 1950s there wasn’t much out there, it was a fairly remote spot, making it an ideal location to leave secret documents and for covert drop-offs.”
As to the contents of documents wedged into the timber work of the bridge, “that’s something we may never know”, Dowling says.
“By its very nature, details surrounding espionage can be murky, but that’s what makes it so fascinating.”
While this column won’t question demolishing the bridge on safety grounds, it would, however, be a pity if future generations were unaware of the former bridge’s historical significance. Perhaps the folk at ACT Heritage could erect a sign (maybe in secret code!) on the ACT side of the railway track detailing its colourful history.
Or even better, perhaps the Queanbeyan Palerang Regional Council could rename the section of road leading to the site of the demolished bridge ‘Petrov’s Pass’?
Just an idea.
The curious case of Petrov’s car
While the fate of ‘Petrov’s Bridge’ has already been sealed, the fate of another tangible link to the tumultuous events leading up to Petrov’s defection, his beloved car, a dark green 1951 Skoda, which he crashed near Royalla in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1953, remains a mystery.
“Petrov, who was bruised and cut, knew he had been lucky to escape with his life,” reports Robert Manne in The Petrov Affair: politics and espionage (Pergamon Press, 1987).
“He claimed he had been forced off the road by a truck and, not unnaturally given his present state of mind, wondered whether his Soviet colleagues were behind some attempt on his life.”
Not surprisingly, there was much speculation surrounding the circumstances of the crash. On April 23, 1954, The Canberra Times reported “neither the Canberra nor the Cooma police have any record of the accident, nor has the hit-run truck been located. When Petrov returned to see if the car could be salvaged the next day, it had been stripped of its engine and gear-box, and all that remained was the charred frame and chassis”.
Manne further reports that “when he [Petrov] eventually emerged from the Soviet Embassy to speak to the Canberra police about the incident, he misled them on a number of points, at least partly because he wished to conceal from them the purpose of his trip to Cooma – a conspiratorial rendezvous with Madam Ollier of the French Embassy.”
While a dig through records of ArchivesACT reveals that the number plates (DC 290) of his Skoda were eventually returned to the Registrar for Motor Vehicles, what became of the car wreck is less certain.
The Skoda’s whereabouts is something that has bugged Ian Williams of Calwell since the early 1980s when his dad, a car buff, showed him a rusting wreck of a 1950s vehicle near Royalla which he thought may have been Petrov’s car.
“A farmer came along and was curious what we were looking at so my father told him about Petrov’s crash,” recalls Williams. “Unfortunately, next time we drove along the road, the car wreck had disappeared!”
The car’s sudden disappearance led Williams to theorise “perhaps after realising its historic value, the farmer towed it into a nearby shed”.
If you know the whereabouts of the wreck of Petrov’s Skoda, Williams would love to know.
The bridge: The now-demolished railway bridge is at the eastern end of Arnott Street, in Hume.
Did You Know? In 1956, the Petrovs became Australian citizens, settling in Melbourne under the pseudonyms Sven and Maria Allyson.
However, Vladimir’s life after defection was not the utopia he had imagined and fearing assassination, he rarely left his safe house.
A tale of two bridges: Last year, this column featured a photo of the Monaro Highway bridge which spans the disused Queanbeyan to Bombala railway line at Ingelara, about 70km south of Canberra.
According to Ruth McFadden’s The Road South: a picturesque and romantic history of a well-travelled track (RNK Publications, 2005), under this bridge was where Petrov “managed to stash his parcels of secrets”.
While it is possible that the Ingelara Bridge was yet another of Petrov’s drop points, two factors point to this being unlikely. Firstly, as Anne Forrest points out, “why drive that far when there were so many other hiding spots closer to Canberra?” and secondly, the only bridge mentioned by Petrov while giving evidence before the Royal Commission on Espionage (1954-55) which followed his defection, was a railway bridge, located on the Queanbeyan to Bombala line “six-and-a-half miles [about 10.5 km] from Canberra.” That is the exact distance from the old Canberra GPO to the Hume bridge.
Spooks and spies: Later this week, on May 31, Professor John Blaxland, lead author of three volumes of The Official History of ASIO (Allen and Unwin, 2014, 2015, 2016) will open Spy: Espionage in Australia, a National Archives of Australia-curated exhibition at the Museum of the Riverina in Wagga Wagga, where it will remain on show until August 12. If you are an espionage aficionado and don’t fancy the three-hour drive to Wagga Wagga, then don’t fret, for the exhibition which reveals the personal experiences of secret agents and the curious history of espionage and counter-espionage in Australia, from federation through to the present day, is expected to be on show in Canberra next year once renovations at the NAA’s headquarters at East Block in the Parliamentary Triangle are complete. Watch this space for details.
Another reader who followed the Petrov affair with great interest was Peter Welch, now of Kaleen, but who in the early 1950s lived in Griffith, not far from the Soviet Embassy.
“Just a lad at the time”, apart from the location of the Hume bridge, Welch especially remembers the Petrov’s beloved pet dog.
“After the Petrovs defected and went into hiding, their dog, a German Shepherd, a breed rarely seen in Canberra in those days, was left behind and wandered the inner south for some time,” recalls Welch.
“It was eventually taken into temporary care by the Stacey family who lived across the park from me in Flinders Way.”
According to the Museum of Australian Democracy’s online exposé on the Petrov affair, the dog, called Jock, “was eventually returned to Petrov, but had to be given away again after it bit Evdokia [Petrov’s wife]”.
The attack on his wife wasn’t the first time Jack’s behaviour had landed Petrov in hot water. According to Michael Thwaites in Truth Will Out: ASIO and the Petrovs (HarperCollins Publishers Australia, 1980), prior to his defection, “Jack’s unruly behaviour inside the Soviet embassy was the overt cause of Petrov being reported to his superiors in Moscow”.
Contact Tim: Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick. You can see a selection of past columns online.
Where in Canberra?
Clue: Celebrating 50 years this year.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to June McKenzie of Fisher, who was the first reader to correctly identify last week’s photo, above, as the ‘Front Room’ at the National Film and Sound Archive in Acton. McKenzie just beat Russell Nankervis and Lesley Cioccarelli to the prize. The ‘Front Room’ is a place where visitors can interact with the archive’s extensive collection, particularly through sound. My archives insiders inform me they are currently putting the finishing touches on a blockbuster exhibition about one of Australia’s most famous actors. Can you guess who? Expect an announcement soon.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday May 26, 2018, will win a double pass to Dendy.