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HomeIssue 15Douglas Lockwood: World news made in the Territory

Douglas Lockwood: World news made in the Territory

Sergeant Ryall puts a stranglehold on one of the Russian couriers whilst he is disarmed. The Crown Law Officer, Keith Edmunds, lays a restraining hand on his arm. Darwin airport 1954.

PART TWO by JOHN P McD SMITH

Territory Journalist Douglas Lockwood’s second scoop he described as “world-shattering”.  

It had the suspense of a spy-thriller, the tensions of international politics, the humanity and inhumanity of man, the tears of a beautiful woman and the machinations of a traitorous husband. 

It was the Petrov affair.

It played out in Canberra and Sydney over three weeks, but its climax was in Darwin.  Lockwood was there again!

It was April 3, 1954 when Vladimir Petrov defected from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. 

Ten days later the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies announced that Petrov had been given political asylum. Petrov became a deserter. 

The key was that Petrov had with him a host of incriminating documents. Petrov left his wife behind! The Russians withdrew their embassy staff and also decided to get Mrs Petrov out of Australia.

The removal of Mrs Evdokia Petrov developed into a media drama. 

She was driven in a black Cadillac seated between two guards to Sydney where 3000 people were waiting at the airport to witness the unfolding theatrics.

Suddenly, as she was being hustled to the aircraft, Mrs Petrov cried out.

“Help me! Save me!” she said in English. Then in Russian she cried. “I do not want to go!”  The crowd surged forward sympathising with the trapped woman. 

“Free her!  Free her!” People shouted. Fighting broke out with the gangway being dragged from the entrance to the plane. Eventually the Constellation took off.

Lockwood’s phone rang in Darwin. Mrs Petrov was flying towards Darwin. 

Lockwood’s attention was quickly aroused. His phone rang again. Did he know that the Prime Minister had offered Mrs Petrov political asylum? No, he did not know that. Lockwood was veritably shaking with excitement. 

Before going to bed Lockwood (at right) did something that he described as one of the wisest and luckiest moves he ever made. 

He sent telegrams to his Melbourne office instructing them to phone him every half hour after 6am. 

He surmised that journalists would not be able to get calls through to Sydney and Melbourne for the lines would be jammed with priority government traffic. 

That is exactly what transpired. Melbourne was able to ring Lockwood on the reverse circuit to get the unfolding drama. At 6am the London morning papers were making up their first editions.

“The landing lights of the huge BOAC Constellation stabbed out of the night like three eyes of a man from Mars,” is how Lockwood described the landing at Darwin. 

Armed police and government officials flooded the airport. Mrs Petrov when she went to the ladies’ room told the hostess that her guards were armed. This information was radioed by the Captain to Darwin.

As the Constellation taxied to a halt police grouped around the government officials. 

Passengers filed down the gangway. The four Russians were the last to appear.  They were Mrs Petrov, the two armed guards and F V Kislitsin, the second secretary. 

The Acting Administrator, R S Leydin stepped forward to offer Mrs Petrov asylum.  The two guards tried to intervene but one of the officials and a policeman got between them. 

One of the guards struck out at the official. Further police acted quickly restraining the guard and disarming him. The other guard went for his shoulder holster. Lockwood who was nearby got out of the firing line. Another police officer restrained the guard who was quickly disarmed.

Lockwood was a direct witness to the unfolding dramatic events that were to grip the world. Mr Leydin drew Mrs Petrov aside asking her if she wanted asylum. She kept repeating: “There are my mother, my father, my brothers, my sisters still in Russia.”

Then she added: “But why should I stay; my husband is dead. I know he is dead.  What is the use of staying here.”  Lockwood surmised that this was the story she had been told to say by the Russians.

She left Leydin in a frantic state literally walking around in circles, chewing her fingernails.  Lockwood declared.

“I have never in my life seen greater mental torment reflected so clearly in the eyes of a human being.” 

Lockwood tried to talk to Kislitsin but to no avail. Then Leydin offered asylum to Kislitsin but he declined. An hour went by with Lockwood being called to the phone where he dictated the story so far. The world’s media was hanging on Lockwood’s words.

Leydin then asked Evdokia Petrov if she would like to talk to her husband. 

“Dead men don’t talk,” she replied. Kislitsin demanded to be able to listen to any conversation. 

Mrs Petrov took the call in the Customs lounge where everybody could hear including Douglas Lockwood. 

It all fell apart because Mrs Petrov spoke in Russian! After a short conversation Mrs Petrov walked towards Leydin.

“No! No! That was not my husband!”  However, as she spoke to Leydin with her back to everyone else she winked. Leydin replied that there was nothing more to be accomplished wishing her good luck. 

However, as the group began to walk towards the exit Leydin asked Mrs Petrov nonchalantly if she would like to have a short chat in his office. She agreed. The Russians were caught off guard. Suddenly she was alone in an office with the Deputy Administrator.

The phone rang. It was Melbourne calling Douglas Lockwood. He was drawn away at a critical moment. The line was bad causing Lockwood to spell out vital information. The tension was stretching nerves. Kislitsin came over to Lockwood to listen to his conversation.

“Nonsense! Lies. All lies!”

“Shut up!” Lockwood snapped in his best undiplomatic Australian.

Then Keith Edmunds, Leydin’s assistant, came up to Lockwood. 

“Go away, Keith. I’m dictating.”  Edmunds gave Lockwood a poke in the ribs as he turned to Kislitsin.

“Mr Kislitsin, I have to inform you on behalf of the Australian government that Mrs Petrov has accepted political asylum in this country. She will not be rejoining your aircraft.”

Lockwood turned from the phone gasping at Edmunds for verification.

“It’s fair dinkum, Doug!” Edmunds replied. The only thing that stood between the world and this scoop was Douglas Lockwood. He immediately dictated to Melbourne for fifteen minutes unfolding the stirring drama. 

The other reporters were totally frustrated. They could only use the press telegram system.

“Damn Lockwood!”

Mrs Petrov admitted to Leydin that she had indeed spoken with her husband on the phone.  He had asked her to stay and join him. 

“They would have used the guns,” she declared.

Mrs Petrov was taken to Government House before the Russians fully realised what had happened. There she had coffee and boiled eggs and there she was safe. The Petrovs never made a public appearance again.

The previous forty-eight hours were Douglas Lockwood’s greatest coup. Archer Thomas editor of The Herald sent Lockwood a telegram which read: “Your by-line leads the paper on one of the excitingest stories I have ever read.”

Lockwood’s greatest story had come from the Northern Territory that he loved so much. 

The outback had become part of him. The Northern Territory has a way of doing that to people. During his fifteen years there he travelled thousands of kilometres to the most remote regions engaging with all types of people. 

Aboriginal people became very important to Lockwood as he grew to appreciate at a deeper level their suffering and their culture. A number of his books focussed on Aboriginal issues bringing them into the wider Australian arena. 

He also came to appreciate the many characters of the outback – people like Ton Flynn, Bill Harney, Bob Buck and many others. 

In 1957 he won The London Evening News literary competition and in 1958 he won the Walkley Award for journalism. His untimely death at the age of 62 greatly saddened the Australian journalistic world.

John P McD Smith is Chair of the St Francis’ House Project. 

Detail for this article comes from the book “FAIR DINKUM” by Douglas Lockwood, published by Cassell – Melbourne and Sydney, 1960. Part One was published on June 6.

1 COMMENT

  1. “Dead men don’t talk.” If their actions in life are humble and profound then their words can endure beyond the grave. Thanks Erwin and John.

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