An Attack on Melbourne

A case study of the defence of Australia's major ports in the early 1890s.

The casual visitor to a dismantled fort or battery in any of Australia's numerous coastal defences that predate World War II will usually be impressed by its functional, architectural complexity. On the other hand, on discovering that none of these defensive works were subjected to an attack before 1942, the visitor might wonder whether they were an elaborate and costly extravagance.

As late nineteenth century coastal defences often comprised interdependent but widely dispersed units, it is difficult for a visitor to comprehend (or for a museum to interpret) their purpose. Some visitors – perhaps those with experience of military matters – will be curious to know for what purpose a battery was constructed and what part it served in relation to the whole defence. In short, how was the entire defence conducted? Unfortunately, few defence sites have survived in their entirety. The archaeological evidence that has survived is the product of a process of continuous evolution and superimposition, one in which complexity was replaced by severe simplification after 1909. Furthermore, key components such as submarine minefields, naval and infantry defence provide little in the way of archaeological evidence for interpretation. This is especially significant in the case of submarine mining, which played a vital role in Australian coastal defence from the late1870s until the first decade of the twentieth century. Where it could be employed, it became the foundation on which the whole defence was built; it was, to use the term current then, sine qua non (meaning "without which nothing"). 1

The purpose of this article is to describe the function of Australia's coastal defences at the stage when they were complete (just before the onset of the financial depression of 1893), using the knowledge obtained from published lectures and reports from the period 1886–91,2 and to reconstruct a reliable account of the defence that was planned in the event of a hypothetical attack against one of these sites. A detailed comparative account for all Australian defended ports would not only be too long and too tedious, but in any case would be found to be basically repetitious. For that reason the scenario of an attack on Port Phillip Bay in 1892 has been selected for examination. This choice is determined by doubts that there is sufficient available archival information to reliably do the same for Sydney in the 1890s, and certainly not enough to attempt Hobart or Brisbane, and the fact that for 1892 there is an exact and detailed record of the armament, ammunition and matériel held in each battery and fort defending Melbourne. 3

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Author: Michael Kitson

Article and Image Source: http://www.cerberus.com.au

Keywords: Australia, Defence, Ports, Fortifications, Artillery


Michael Kitson

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