Culture and heritage

Heritage of NSW

Defence heritage in and around Sydney Harbour


The early days: paranoia about Britain's distant wars

Sydney's earliest forts were Fort Phillip, Fort Macquarie, and Dawes Battery. These forts were all around Sydney Cove. They were built to fight off any enemy ships that came close to the town, and to beat down any convict uprisings. Dawes Battery was recently excavated, revealing works from the 1830s.

Sydney's early defence history was generally based on what was happening in England. When there was a crisis or fear of war in England, the colony felt threatened. The colonial authorities would build poorly planned fortifications until they ran out of money, guns, or momentum. The new defences would then be left unfinished or inadequate. Some of the 'scares' included:

  • Fear of invasion by the French, during the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the 19th century. A single rock-cut battery was built around 1801 at Georges Head. It faced the entrance to Port Jackson. The battery was not actively garrisoned and soon fell into disrepair. The threat of French attack faded, and the military focused on policing the convict system.
  • A 'scare' in 1839, when American warships arrived unannounced in Sydney Harbour. A series of defences was hastily built, mainly to comfort the citizens of Sydney rather than ward off any serious attack. The new defences included works at Kirribilli Point, Pinchgut and Bradleys Head. These fortifications were undergunned and poorly designed. They all continued to focus on defence of the inner harbour.
  • The Crimean War, when a scheme was developed to arm the outer harbour. Fortifications were built at Middle Head, South Head, and Bradleys Head. After the arrival of Governor Denison, in the middle of the building program, the scheme was abandoned. The emphasis shifted back to the inner harbour. Existing fortifications were reinforced and completed, and Fort Denison and Bradleys Head were upgraded.

The next phase: the colony has to look after itself

In 1870, the Cardwell reforms of the British Army meant that British garrison troops withdrew from Australia. The British Colonial Office insisted that wealthier colonies such as New South Wales and Victoria should pay more of their own defence costs.

There were many wheelings and dealings about this issue in the second half of the 19th century. You can see their archaeological signature in the complex history of individual defences, such as at Bare Island in Botany Bay National Park, or Middle Head and Georges Head in Sydney Harbour National Park.

In 1871 a number of new defences were built, finally defending the outer harbour. These were at Outer and Inner Middle Head, Georges Head, South Head, Steel Point, and Bradleys Head. They were immediately out of date, especially as the development of armaments continued into the 1880s.

Two military advisers, Scratchley and Jervois, were sent out in the mid-1870s to coordinate the defence of the colonies. Their aim was to make sure that colonial defences had an imperial focus, rather than serving local interests. Among other things, Scratchley and Jervois:

  • Developed the volunteer military system, which included a garrison artillery component
  • Built more batteries in the 1890s in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, to prevent shelling of these areas
  • Designed a fort at Bare Island, to defend the southern approaches to Botany Bay. The fort was supported by two disappearing guns at Henry Head.

The defence work of Scratchley and Jervois served until after World War I, with modification and gradual upgrading.

World War I and II

Neither Federation nor World War I made a substantial difference to the coastal defence of NSW. In the 1920s, however, the development of the fortress system reached its peak. Around Sydney there were two 9.2-inch gun batteries of two guns each. They were at North Head and Cape Banks.

These batteries were supported by smaller guns along the coast. There was also an interlocking system of observation posts and communication and command structures. Together, these meant that the entire coast from Broken Bay to Royal National Park was protected. The defence works developed during this period are well-engineered, solidly constructed, and well-sited. They contrast with the fortifications thrown up during the course of the Second World War.

After the declaration of war in 1939, some defences were constructed. But the pace became more frantic when Japan entered the war in late 1941. Temporary gun emplacements were set up along the coast. In Sydney Harbour, garrison companies were recruited to guard strategic installations including the forts, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. Sydney began to take on a fortified appearance.

In this period, the only real enemy attacks on Sydney were:

  • the Japanese midget submarine incursion on the night of 31 May 1942. This was mainly fought off by water craft, as the coastal defence guns were too poorly sited to provide the necessary fire. There was considerable confusion as to what had actually happened until the next day.
  • the shelling of parts of the Eastern Suburbs by a cannon on board a Japanese submarine on the night of 8 June 1942.

Both attacks put Sydney's defenders on alert. War diaries record a variety of incidents in the following weeks, including shooting at US aircraft and blowing up turtles mistaken for submarines. The defenders were clearly very edgy!

After 1945: the defences crumble

The fortifications built during World War II were put up quickly, and have deteriorated quickly. It is estimated that of about one hundred anti-aircraft positions and searchlight positions, less than half a dozen remain. Almost nothing of the hundreds of kilometres of barbed wire laid during the war survives. Only a few air-raid shelters in back yards are known.

The Japanese threat had passed by the start of 1944. Coastal defence batteries were decommissioned, and experienced crews were relocated further north. The crews left behind were a mixture of Australian Military Forces regulars, Volunteer Defence Corps reservists, and Australian Women's Army Service personnel. Guns continued to be dismantled, and the last of them was decommissioned in the early 1960s.

Sydney's active coastal defence had come to an end. The city's defence installations were used for other military purposes, including training and storage. The tunnels at Middle Head were used to train some of Australia's first troops to Vietnam in the 'Code of Conduct' course (lessons in how to withstand torture and interrogation). The 'tiger cages' built for the trainees still stand in the old engine room of the Outer Middle Head battery. Some of the fortifications have also been used as film sets - most recently Bare Island, in Mission Impossible II.

What people have said

I was much surprised at the fortifications of Sydney Harbour. Fortifications, unless specially inspected, escape even a vigilant seer of sights, but I, luckily for myself, was enabled specially to inspect them…there were open batteries and casemated batteries, shell rooms and gunpowder magazines, barracks rising here and trenches dug there. There was a boom to be placed across the harbour, and a whole world of torpedoes ready to be sunk beneath the water…in viewing these fortifications, I was especially struck by the loveliness of the sites chosen. One would almost wish to be a gunner for the sake of being at one of these forts.

… Anthony Trollope, Australia, 1873

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Page last updated: 06 November 2012