Rottnest Island once the heart of ‘Fortress Fremantle’

Big hitter: A rare, surviving 9.2 inch World War II gun on Rottnest Island in Western Australia.

Big hitter: A rare, surviving 9.2 inch World War II gun on Rottnest Island in Western Australia.

THE guns of Rottnest Island, off Western Australia, are today heritage icons. Once they were a crucial link in a national defence chain during the dark days of World War II.

The 11 kilometre long, low-lying sandy Rottnest Island was once the heart of ‘Fortress Fremantle’, so named after WA’s nearby port at the entrance to the Swan River, with Perth beyond.

Rottnest, or ‘Rotto’ to the locals, was one of seven similar gun emplacements built from 1937 to protect major Australian ports from bombardment by enemy warships.

Near the centre of Rottnest is Oliver Hill Battery, significant because, like at other bases, its main feature was a pair of powerful 9.2 inch breech-loading guns capable of hurling an armour-piercing shell about 28 kilometres towards a battleship.

So, picture the scene not long after World War II began: Darwin and Broome were bombed, Singapore had fallen and the Imperial Japanese Navy was soon expected to arrive and maybe even invade.

The heavy guns at Oliver Hill, pointing out over 3000 kilometres of vast Indian Ocean, were the front-line defence for WA. Strategic port Fremantle also had a surprising secret (to me, anyway). That was more than 160 submarines (including Dutch vessels) served from Fremantle during WWII, making the port the biggest Allied submarine base outside of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.

Luckily, the expected enemy attack never came. Rotto’s guns were never fired in anger, possibly because the 9.2 inch guns effectively increased the ‘no entry’ zone around Fremantle to about 50 kilometres.

Lucky to survive: One of Fort Scratchley’s restored 6 inch Mk VII guns points out to sea, still protecting the Port of Newcastle.

Lucky to survive: One of Fort Scratchley’s restored 6 inch Mk VII guns points out to sea, still protecting the Port of Newcastle.

The port of Newcastle, however, with a similar defence set up at Fort Scratchley and Fort Wallace (Stockton) wasn’t so fortunate. The giant Japanese submarine I-21 attacked ‘Fortress Newcastle’ in June 1942 shelling the city and port for 16 minutes, the prime target being the then State Dockyard and BHP Steel Works. 

Fort Scratchley’s twin 6 inch Mk V11 guns roared back, repulsing the marauder out at sea from Nobbys.

Yet, these historic, ‘close defence’ guns disappeared in 1965 and were lucky to not have been scrapped. Instead, they were erected as WWII monuments below the Obelisk, near King Edward Park.  

Meanwhile, the mighty 9.2 inch Fort Wallace guns, designed for long-range enemy engagement, never fired. Later it was claimed because the I-21 was so close inshore in Stockton Bight, their barrels couldn’t be depressed low enough to fire

But back to Rottnest Island’s historic Oliver Hill guns in WA. By 1962, Australian batteries everywhere were declared obsolete and closed, including around Newcastle harbour.

On a recent visit to Rottnest Island, Weekender discovered that while all other bases were stripped of their armament, Oliver Hill was the exception. The Rottnest Island Board negotiated with the Department of the Army to leave the Oliver Hill guns in situ as an historic site for thousands of island visitors to inspect each year. 

As such, it’s claimed to be the only intact military emplacement of its type in Australia.

But there are still vivid comparisons with Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley on its East End headland overlooking Nobbys.

For a start, both have a maze of underground concrete tunnels linking the gun sites, both have sweeping views and, in Newcastle’s case, our historic 6 inch Mk VII guns were finally returned to their original sites in 1978 and are still fired regularly.

A Rottnest counterpart, Bickley Battery at the eastern end of the island, wasn’t so fortunate. Its two 6-inch Mk XI guns were removed by the army in 1963 as part of the disbanding of all Aussie coastal defence batteries.

Oddly enough, there’s a military barracks called Kingstown close by. Kingstown also just happens to be one of the few original names around 1801 for early Newcastle. But it may be just a co-incidence, a grand name for a real estate venture that failed. The plan for a Kingstown township was proposed in 1830 when 177 lots were offered for sale. Only seven were ever taken up and no attempt at building a town was made.

Early European settlers first came to Rottnest Island (earlier called Wadjemup) after the establishment of the Swan River Colony (Perth) either to escape the hostile mainland natives or with plans to make a living from farming, fishing and salt collection.

Because of the island’s remote and potentially dangerous position, a lighthouse was built in 1851.This old light strangely was given a distinct green tinge for a very important reason: to differentiate it from the fires lit by natives to chase up game to eat. Eventually, a new light was erected in 1896 and the old one demolished.

But before that, Rottnest entered a shameful, even sinister, era. From 1838 to 1931, almost 4000 Aboriginal men and boys from across WA were imprisoned on Wadjemup. In harsh conditions, many probably bewildered inmates were sent down for multiple offences and so never returned to their homeland. More than 370 Aboriginal warriors, elders and lore men are buried in unmarked graves on Wadjemup.

Ironically, Wadjemup means ‘land across the sea where spirits dwell’, based on the belief of mainland natives that when they died, their souls drifted over to Rottnest.

The popular island, hosting 63 beaches and pristine, turquoise waters is today 18 kilometres off the WA coast on a 25-minute fast ferry trip from Fremantle. About 500,000 visitors come each year.

A main tourist attraction is the island’s small furry marsupial  the quokka, which has thrived because of the absence of predators. This cute island mascot actually gave the place its name. Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh visited here in 1696, mistakenly seeing a “kind of rat as big as a common cat”. He then named the site as ‘rotte nest” (or ‘rat’s nest’).  

Back in Newcastle, the mystery remains, what happened to Stockton’s twin 9.2 inch guns? Each weighing more that 28-tonnes including an 11.2m (36.8ft) long gun barrel and breech mechanism and capable of hurling a 172kg (380lb) high explosive shell almost 30kms, it seems impossible they would just vanish. But vanish they did, right into the scrap furnace to be melted.

And what of the rumour that the missing crucial firing pins for Fort Scratchley’s Mk VII 6 inch guns came from Rottnest Island?

“Not true,” former Fort Scratchley Historical Society president, Bill Hopkins, said this week.

“We did make copies finally, but from South Australia. I’m sure though our fort gunner Andrew Griffiths searched everywhere, including on Rottnest Island and in New Zealand for these (1911) firing mechanisms.

“We’re lucky our guns survived. The restored barrel loading (cannons) out front of Scratchley also had a narrow escape. They were in scrapyards waiting to be melted down when saved,” Hopkins said.