Defence in the 20th Century

On this page:

FEDERATION
NEXT PHASE OF BUILDING
WORLD WAR I
BETWEEN THE WARS
WORLD WAR II
RETREAT


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Federation

After federation, defence ceased to be a State responsibility: the state military forces were re-organised into a unified Commonwealth Military Force from 1901. The administration of the military establishment at Point Nepean was taken over by the Commonwealth.

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Next Phase Of Building

The next phase of building at Point Nepean was designed to accommodate changes in armament technology. The 6 inch Mark VII guns installed in 1911 remained in use until the end of World War II. A new battery (1911) and barracks (1917) were built at Fort Pearce.

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World War I

During World War 1, the Nepean garrison’s numbers of artillerymen and engineers increased. The engineers at Point Nepean were responsible for the searchlights which were directed at the stretch of water at the Rip to show up enemy ships. The engines to work the search lights and provide other power at the fort were housed in the engine house near the jetty.

First Shot

The first British shot of World War I was fired by the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery from a 6 inch Mark VII gun at Fort Nepean.

The German steamer Pfalz left Victoria Dock on 5 August 1914, just before war was proclaimed, with Captain Robinson of the pilot service on board. At Portsea, the vessel was halted by the S.S. Alvina but given clearance since advice of the outbreak of war had not yet been received. A message was then received at Fort Nepean that war had been declared and the fire commander, Lieutenant Morris, was ordered to stop the Pfalz.

Signals were hoisted at Point Nepean calling on the ship to stop. When the first shot was fired, Captain Robinson with difficulty convinced the captain of the Pfalz that the next would hit the ship. The vessel was brought back to Portsea, where both ship and crew were placed under arrest.40

An account of the event by one of the gunners survives:

… the tide was flowing very fast when we had the word to fire and I pressed the electrical trigger and saw the shot land with a splash in the water; the splash went right up over the bridge of the ship … The last order we had was “Stop her or sink her”.41

The Pfalz was refitted at Williamstown and renamed the Boorara. She served as an Australian transport for the duration of the war.42

Guarding The Heads During World War I

The gunners and engineers stationed at Fort Nepean during World War I found their duties frustrating. Their newspaper, the Fort Critic, which circulated amongst the men at the forts of Queenscliff, Pearce, Franklin and South Channel from its editorial office at Nepean expressed some of their frustrations.

One contributor in a poem entitled “In Self- Defence” complained of:

the slurs of those
who, fighting not themselves,
don’t hesitate
to brand as cowards those men who chose
to serve Australia. 43

To be kept at home to guard Australia’s ports laid the garrison artillerymen and engineers open to accusations of cowardice. The writer found it necessary to assert that the gunners and engineers on garrison duty were not afraid to go to war, but that

. . . It hurts that many seem to think we’re here only to decorate Australia.44

However, in both World War I and World War II, the Nepean Fort was a training ground for engineers and gunners who were subsequently sent overseas.

The pages of the newspaper reveal some of the limitations of the posting at Nepean. The pastimes of the men included swimming, fishing and billiards. The shortage of females at local dances was a constant complaint. Two enterprising men walked fifteen miles to Dromana to a dance, only to find that “there were 50 gents present and 15 females”.45

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Between The Wars

In the 1930s Carl Stillman was stationed at Nepean, going to Queenscliff only for weekends and midweek sports meetings. At that time there were only five or six men living at Nepean. Their rations were brought over in a basket by boat from Queenscliff each day. If the weather was rough and the boat could not deliver the rations, the men had to go down to the Quarantine Station or Portsea for eggs and bread.46

The working dress of the gunner consisted of white canvas trousers, white canvas jacket and a white hat. For those engaged in cleaning and maintaining the guns, the challenge of appearing on Monday mornings in a clean uniform was considerable.47

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World War II

Additional barracks at Point Nepean were built to accommodate the increased numbers of men stationed there during World War II. After the Japanese attack on the garrison at Rabaul in 1942, it was decided that the guns at Fort Pearce should be moved to Cheviot where a two-gun emplacement was built. The existing sites were believed to be too conspicuous and vulnerable to enemy dive-bombers. At Fort Nepean protective concrete shields were provided for emplacements Fl and Hl, and a new Battery Observation Post built. Since the protective shields restricted the arc of fire from emplacements Fl and Hl, a 14 pounder Nordenfelt gun was emplaced at Pearce to cover the Examination Anchorage.48

First Shot

Fort Nepean is said to have fired the first British shot in World War II at an unidentified vessel approaching Port Phillip Heads. On 4 September 1939, a small Bass Strait freighter, the Woniora attempted to enter the Heads without identifying herself. A warning shot was fired from the fort.49

Conditions During World War II

Reports on conditions at Nepean and Pearce during World War II referred to the low morale at the forts.

Long hours were spent watching out to sea for enemy ships, often in cold and damp conditions. As Fortress Engineer G.H.Warr explained:

It was an eye strain, a nerve strain and you did not dare doze for fear you missed something. And it was lonely.

The barracks at Cheviot was known as Happy Valley. Warr recalled it as:

a most miserable and depressing place. The big compensation to the fortress man for hours of watch keeping and standing to… was to be able to return to 1st class accommodation. [Happy Valley] was worse than sub-standard … It was unsewered, flies were a problem. Fly traps were in use but the stench made eating unpleasant. Drinking water was from a tank which had a kerosene film to prevent mosquitos breeding.[The huts held] six men each side in two-tiered bunks. There were no windows and the huts were dug in to the side of small hills and buried 90%… No sheets or pillows, [no] rifle racks, no place to dry wet clothes.50

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Retreat

At the end of World War II, the garrison at the Heads was removed and the buildings at Point Nepean were declared redundant.

Late in 1951, the Commonwealth Department of Health and the Department of the Army reached agreement for the Army to have temporary use of part of the Quarantine Station at Point Nepean for officer cadet training.51 See HERE

The establishment of the Australian Defence Forces Academy in Canberra in 1986 led to the closure of the Officer Cadet School in December 1985.

The School of Army Health and then the Army Logistic Training Corps occupied the Quarantine Station site until 1998.

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