Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

NSW defence history

From the start of European settlement Sydney Harbour has needed to be defended from potential enemy attack. When Britain was at war, all of her colonies thought themselves to be vulnerable. After the discovery of gold the bullion in colonial treasuries was seen as an added incentive to foreign attack. The colonial defences were developed in response to British involvement in wars, and other fears. This meant that they relied more on giving Sydneysiders a sense of security than actually being able to keep foreign ships out of the harbour. Often they were armed with obsolete weaponry or were abandoned while still incomplete when the latest 'scare' passed. The sense of vulnerability continued through the twentieth century, with Australia's involvement in two world wars. In World War Two, Sydney was attacked by Japanese submarines twice, but with little loss of life.

Port Jackson was admirably suited to defence against attack. When Sydney was still a small city, any vessel threatening the town had to venture into Sydney Harbour, past a reef and towering headlands to try to bombard the city. The early gun emplacements were therefore concentrated in the inner harbour, for example Dawes Point Battery, Kirribilli, Benelong Point, Bradleys Head, then Fort Denison. As Sydney grew, and guns became more powerful in the later 19th century it became necessary to defend the outer harbour, up to the Heads. The removal of British garrison troops in 1870 resulted in a building program that fortified South Head, Middle and Georges Heads, Steel Point and Bradleys Head. At the time war at sea was also changing with the introduction of steel ships, steam and later diesel power, and increasingly powerful guns. The gun batteries were continually upgraded and made stronger. By the end of the nineteenth century it finally became necessary to position guns on the coast, to prevent enemy ships bombarding Sydney from the sea. The increasing power of guns culminated in the early 1930s when two powerful gun batteries were installed at North Head and Cape Banks. A range of observation posts along the coast, sophisticated communications and calculating equipment meant that the guns could bring their fire to bear on a ship that they could not even see. Operating throughout World War Two, the coastal defence system was finally decommissioned around 1960, in the age of missiles and nuclear warheads.

The surviving gun emplacements around Sydney chronicle the changing nature of military technology, charting the increasing power of armaments, better communications and new materials such as reinforced concrete. They also demonstrate the increasing responsibility taken by the colonial and then Commonwealth government over defence, which reflects the increasing independence from Britain. At times this separation was countered by the feeling of vulnerability that New South Wales felt it may have to stand alone in an attack.

Denis Gojak
Historical Archaeologist

Page last updated: 31 August 2012