Mike Scanlon | Why Port Stephens was slated as a home for nation's submarines

Imagine if the whole Salamander Bay-Soldiers Point residential and tourism development didn’t exist.

Instead, imagine Port Stephens as one vast industrial area incorporating everything involved with a major Australian east coast naval base.

It would have been like Sydney’s Garden Island complex – but on steroids.

A map published in the Commonwealth Gazette in May 1916 gives some idea of the plan to build a submarine base at Salamander Bay.

The concept was huge, involving almost 1190 hectares.

Focused on Salamander Bay and Wanda Wanda, or Round Head, the base extended west to include the whole of the Soldiers Point peninsula, Mud Point,  Cromarty’s Bay and almost down to Taylors beach. 

To the east, the proposal involved taking over land at Corlette Point (where The Anchorage is now) to Sandy Point.

To the south, the Commonwealth gazetted the whole of the present Mabo Wetlands Reserve right down to and past the present expanded Salamander Shopping Centre.

Site managers and surveyors arrived on site near Wanda Wanda headland secure in the knowledge that the proposed base, while initially to house the Royal Australian Navy’s two submarines, meant other larger RAN vessels would follow.

The land, after all, had been earmarked for potential naval use as far back as 1910, when retired British Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson described Port Stephens as a “very good harbour”.

The Commonwealth then resumed the Salamander Bay land in 1913 as part of its long-term defence strategy. 

Work began to clear the site in 1916, engaging 250 unemployed miners from Newcastle.

Rock was blasted from Wanda Wanda headland to create an access road and other facilities.

Drainage ditches were dug and work began on a wooden jetty where Australia’s two submarines would berth.

But fate had already intervened.

Australia’s submarines – the AE-I and the AE-2 arrived in Australia only three months before World War I was declared. 

They both soon sailed off to serve Australia’s interests overseas. But, unfortunately, both underwater boats then vanished.

One of them, the AE-1, mysteriously vanished in Papua New Guinea waters with the loss of 35 crew on September 14, 1914, only about six weeks after WWI was declared.

Months later, the AE-2 sailed for Europe. Soon after the Gallipoli troop landings on April 25, 1915, the AE-2 became to first Allied craft to enter the highly defended Sea of Mamara. 

After a brief campaign harassing Turkish forces, the AE-2 was badly damaged, then scuttled by her crew, who became prisoners of war. Suddenly, building the naval base near Wanda Wanda head didn’t seem so relevant, with both of Australia’s submarines now missing in action.

Anyway, fighting had moved to the European theatre of war.

Work around Salamander Bay soon ground to a halt. After WWI, all activity stopped completely in 1922 when all site improvements were dismantled, according to Port Stephens Historical Society. Over decades, some of the improved shoreline even washed away. 

The early submarine base plan had depended on deep water, but a later study in 1919 had proposed dredging a huge, costly channel from the ocean entrance to Port Stephens down to Salamander Bay as well.

It must have all seemed too much of a problem, so all the naval base land was eventually sold to Port Stephens Council in 1955 for what today seems like a bargain price of 50,000 pounds (possibly about $1.6 million today). 

The rest of the story is, as they say, history, as residential areas rapidly sprang up on the prime real estate 

But what made the Commonwealth hang onto the land for another 33 years from the decision to abandon the site in 1922?

It may have had something to do with the continuing urge to somehow capitalise on Port Stephens. And it was used in World War II, but around Shoal Bay instead.

As far back as mid-1912, defence authorities thought of the strategic value of  Port Stephens as a ‘flanking port’.

Besides Salamander Bay, close to the Hunter Valley and its rich coal fields, the other port was Jervis Bay, to guard Canberra.

The late Hunter historian, John Armstrong, though once suggested Port Stephens could never have become a naval port because of the shallow water. 

Naval historian Dr Ian Pfennigwerth, of Salamander, has disagreed. He’s written that, in many respects, Port Stephens had ideal qualities to turn it into a successful naval harbour.  

After all, naval strategists “of impeccable credentials” saw the port’s topography as no barrier to naval development, Pfennigwerth wrote. 

The earlier mentioned Admiral Henderson’s 1910 report regarding possible bases and facilities marked the start of the modern naval heritage of Port Stephens.

Henderson’s shrewd ideas also included recommending the development of Cockburn Sound in Western Australia to berth the majority of Australia’s submarines. That idea became a reality.

What many people remember most about that era, however, were comments made by the Admiral of the British Fleet Lord Jellicoe, from the famous Battle of Jutland.

Jellicoe toured the Dominions in 1919 to report on Australia’s port-war naval needs. He endorsed Henderson’s findings, but also thought that the entire fleet that was based in Sydney should be moved to Port Stephens.

This would have involved a massive development based near Wanda Head. As the primary naval base on Australia’s east coast, it would have meant a major shipbuilding and refitting yards being established for light cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

There would also have to be a 20,000 tonne coal storage area, storage for 72,000 tonnes of fuel oil, storehouses, an ammunition depot, a hospital and harbour defences.

The proposal never went ahead, possibly influenced in part by the British Government’s decision in 1924 to proceed with the Singapore Naval Base.

Today, around the south side of Wanda Head and elsewhere, there’s no trace of the giant naval plans that once existed.

Author Pfennigwerth has pointed out, however, that near Wanda Head, where the waterfront Cook Street now runs, Port historian Kevin Russell believes the stone breakwater around the headland was built using spoil from the proposed submarine base site.

Today there’s a 3.3kilometre Mariners Walk Heritage Trail, including around Wanda Wanda headland.

Due to severe erosion, about 120 tonnes of rock were dumped to build a sloping wall here in 2001.

Then 200 tonnes of gravel were laid to re-establish a pedestrian path around the headland.

And in December 2107, after 12 unsuccessful searches after 103 years, Australia’s oldest naval mystery was solved when the missing Aussie submarine AE-1 was finally found 300metres underwater off the coast of Papua New Guinea.