Sydney is famous for having one of the largest and most beautiful natural harbors in the world. The thought of our harbor being invaded by a foreign military force does not even cross the mind of the modern Sydneysider. Our attitude to our coastal defences has come through living in one of the most geographically isolated country’s in the world. Vast oceans have (for the most part), separated our country from war. Australians have not always been so laid back about our national security. In fact at some points in time, the Australian public were downright paranoid at the prospect of being invaded.
The fear of foreign navies appearing on the horizon suddenly, and invading our country lead to the building of coastal fortifications.
In all, 13 forts were constructed around Sydney’s coastline.
These consisted of heavy gun emplacements, underground ammunition storage, interconnecting tunnels and even underground triage hospitals. Today many these forts lie abandoned and largely forgotten, slowly decaying and being reclaimed by the native vegetation.
To understand the building of these forts and the attitudes of the people at the time you first have to understand one very important fact. Australia was not officially an independent country until 1901. Before that it was considered a colony of England.The people of Australia (especially in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s) considered themselves to be British Ex-pats. If England was at war with any country, it would be unpatriotic for the people of New Holland (as it was then known) not to support “the mother country”. Any enemy threat to England was treated with the same level of seriousness here in Australia, as it was back in “The Old Blighty”.
Sydney’s coastline is scattered with the remnants of this Victorian Era military paranoia. To go through the entire history of these sites would require a full-on novel. So for today I’ll be focusing the history of one sight; The Middle Head Battery and I will put some pictures in that I took for good measure.
Middle Head is located next to the swanky Suburbs of Mosman and Balmoral. Today the surrounding area is most notable for having some of the most ridiculously expensive real estate in Australia. Many of the waterfront mansions can reach well into 8 figures! 215 years ago, Middle Head was seen as highly valuable for other reasons; as a prime strategic location for a fort to defend Sydney Harbor.
As its name suggest, Middle head is a headland that lies right smack bang in the middle of South Head and North Head. Middle Head has a clear view out to sea and any ship that enters Sydney Harbor has to pass past this narrow piece of land.
The 1801 Fort
The first Fort Built at Middle Head is Known as the 1801 Fort, as it was built in 1801. You can probably tell by now, us Australians are a literal bunch! The Fort was built in response to tensions between France and England which would eventually lead to the Napoleonic War (1803-1815).This Fort is now the oldest surviving fort in Australia.
The 1801 Fort is a very simple structure being a very thick, angled sandstone wall in the shape of a semi-circle. The fort was armed with 4 X 12 pounder and 2 X 6 pounder smooth bore muzzle-loading guns. These guns were dragged up to the fort by hand from Obelisk beach, as at the time there were no roads to the site.
The site also featured a building with a gunpowder storage and filling room that had walls that were 3 ft thick. Some sort of accommodation barracks was also built on the site. Both these buildings are now long gone.
The fort proved to be a complete failure as it was extremely isolated and hard to re supply. The fort was completely abandoned by around the year 1808, only operating for a slightly pathetic 7 years!
Today the 1801 Fort can be accessed by a short, easy walk known as the Don Goodsir track. This track is packed full of bird life and another WW 2 era gun emplacement can be accessed by a short track that goes off into the bush. Look for a small step on the right hand side of the metal boardwalk.
Outer Middle Head Battery
When people Visit Middle Head, this Fort is the limit of what most people see. The fantastic views of the harbor and grassy hills make this a popular picnic location. From 1854 Sydney’s defences were beefed up in response to the Crimean war. Russia had now replaced the French as the supposed threat.
Construction on the Outer Battery began in 1854, but was almost immediately stopped in favor of other inner harbour defence positions. It would not be untill 1871 that work would resume. A total of 9 gun pits were dug and constructed of solid sand stone. They were connected by a series of zig zaging trenches dug to a depth of 6’6″ (1.9 m) and featured an underground gun powder magazine.
In 1882, the Fort was modified and five of the gun pits were removed for the construction of two larger pits. Each of these pits were armed with a 10 inch rifled muzzle-loading gun weighing 25 tons a piece. The remaining pits were armed by 4 rifled muzzle-loading 6 inch guns tipping the scales at 5 tons each.
The armament of the Outer Battery was very quickly rendered obsolete as the muzzle-loading guns were very slow to reload. The 10 inch guns were removed in 1907. 2 breech-loading, rifled 6 inch guns were installed some time between 1911 and 1914. These had a range of 13 Km (8 Mi). A recessed ammunition magazine building was built between the two guns.
The Fort remained in active service until 1918 and was officially listed as “in reserve” until 1927.
During WW2, the guns were of little use to the coastal defence of Sydney. Modern Japanese battleships could easily sit over 20 Km (12.4 Mi) off the coast and accurately rain down shells that weighed as much as a small car! Thankfully this never happened! The site was instead used for a lookout/searchlight position.
All of the guns on the site were removed by 1953, but that was not the end for the Outer Middle Head Battery. During the Vietnam war, a underground generator room that provided electricity for searchlights, was re-used for a new top-secret purpose.
Australian Special Forces (SAS) Soldiers undertook a “code of conduct” course. This was more accurately named by the troops who experienced it as “torture school”. The men were locked in “tiger cages”not much bigger than a dog kennel made of corrugated iron. The room would then be flooded with cold water and speakers were installed into room which played loud recordings of people screaming in Vietnamese for days on end. The men were then interrogated to see if they would snap under the pressure. Today you can still see these cages through the locked gate of the generator room in front of the old gun carriages.
Inner Middle Head Battery
Most people who visit Middle Head don’t even realise this battery exists. This is probably because the signage in the area isn’t very good and the track to reach it isn’t immediately obvious. Those that don’t visit this part of Middle Head really are missing out as it has some of the most interesting and accessible features in the area.
To get to the Inner Battery, first walk down the road to the Outer Battery untill you reach the old wooden gun carriages. If you turn left and walk behind the gun carriages, you will find a dirt track which will take you the Inner Battery.
Along this track you will find two old machine gun nests, which are linked by a tunnel. This tunnel is easily accessible by a set of stairs, but is often flooded to about ankle-deep. If it hasn’t rained for a couple of weeks, you might get lucky and find the floor is just muddy. Wear some good hiking boots (if you have some) and bring a torch.
There is also a small rangefinder building off the side of the trail. An optical device was used to find the distance to the target. This distance was then passed on to the gun crews to help them aim the guns.
The Inner Battery was built in 1871 and was originally armed with a single 10 inch rifled muzzle-loaded gun and 4 X 68 pounder rifled muzzle-loading guns.
In 1890 the fort was heavily modernised. The 4 X 68 pounders were moved to the Outer Battery and the 10 inch gun was removed.
In their place, 2 X 9.2 inch breech-loading, rifled “disappearing guns” were installed. These guns were very high-tech for the 1890’s and were featured at various points along the Australian coastline. The guns were loaded by the gun crews in a recessed pit made of thick sandstone, with an armoured metal roof. The guns would then be hydraulically raised out of the pit and fired. The recoil of the gun would then force it back down into its concealed position.
This was a great idea in concept, as the enemy would not know where the barrage was coming from. It also gave the crews some much-needed protection when under fire.
In reality, whilst the disappearing mechanism of the guns worked quite well, the massive smoke cloud left after the gun was fired was a bit of a giveaway!
The two gun positions were liked together by a network of tunnels which featured ammunition storage, an elevator to bring shells up to the guns and engine rooms to provide hydraulic pressure to raise the guns.
The Inner Battery remained operational until 1911, lasting a relatively short 21 years. As with the outer battery, the reason for the closure was due to the massive increase in the capabilities and firepower of modern battleships. The site saw its final military use in WW 2 as a lookout/ searchlight position.
WW 2 Era Fortifications
Of all the forts at Middle Head, the Installations built in the 1940’s probably were the most likely to ever be used. The bombing of Darwin and the Midget Submarine attack on Sydney bought WW 2 right to Australia’s doorstep.
Military strategists at the time had detailed (and scary) plans of what was going to happen if Japan invaded Australia. With a land mass the size of the United States and a comparatively small armed forces, Australia would have had to rely very heavily on the US for support. If we didn’t get the help we needed we would have been screwed! Luckily none of this ever happened.
This is by far the least known about part of the Middle Head fortifications. These features do not feature on any maps or signs and even finding information about them on the internet is very hard. I only managed to stumble across some of these forgotten installations by wandering down very overgrown tracks and following the clues.
The first Location as I mentioned before can be accessed from the Don Goodsir track. Look for a small step to the right of the metal boardwalk and a track that leads into the bush. This track takes you to a very secluded WW 2 Era concrete Lookout tower and Gun Installation. The only information I could find about this site is that it housed a rapid fire anti submarine gun.
There are series of underground ammunition storage rooms and I think it is linked to the lookout tower behind. I say I think, because I didn’t have a torch on me at the time so I didn’t venture in. It is easily accessible so go in if you dare!
A word of warning however. This location has a very dodgy/creepy/seedy vibe about it. How can I say this? Um… Judging by the writing on the walls and the condom wrappers everywhere, this seems to be a place where men have casual interludes with other men…if you get my drift! Basically the place looks like a murder scene and I wasn’t keen on hanging around for long by myself!
The second Example of WW 2 fortifications can be found at the Inner Battery. If you go inside the small WW 2 lookout/Machine Gun Nest building at the point of the headland and look to your left, off in the distance you can spot an odd looking platform. This peaked my interest and my sense of adventure. I had to see what was there! In anticipation for the steep climb ahead, I packed away my camera, so unfortunately I don’t have any photos of this.
Another word of warning. Do not attempt what I am about to tell you in Summer, as the risk of snakes is much higher (still keep your eyes/ears peeled). Also, don’t attempt this if you are not fit or experienced in hiking very steep rocky terrain.
This area may have had tracks 70 years ago, but now it is almost completely overgrown. Use the water as a reference to what direction you are heading. This keeps things simple as the water is on one side and the hillside is on the other. Be careful. If any of these words sound daunting, do not attempt this. Attempt at your own risk!
To reach the platform, you first need to climb down from the gun emplacement. There is a way down on the left hand side of the photo, looking almost like steps. Clamber down and keep walking straight in the same direction. You will ultimately find yourself near the edge of a cliff. You will now clearly see the platform, but don’t attempt to reach it from this way, it’s too dangerous. Take note of how far away the platform is from you.
Retrace were you have walked back to were you started. Remember the distance between were you were standing and the platform? You are now going to go into the bush for that distance. There is a small clearing in the trees where you climb underneath a tree branch. Once you have walked the distance turn right and go through the bush. You will pop out of the bush and find some concrete stairs that lead down to the platform.
The platform itself is a mystery to me. Maybe a searchlight platform? To be honest I was slightly disappointed once I had reached it. The view was awesome, but there wasn’t much else there. Then I looked down to the left and noticed something interesting. Below the level of the platform, about 100 m away is what looks to be a 2 story high watchtower/machine gun nest. It looked completely untouched by vandals, meaning nobody has been there for a long time. Once again I had to get to it!
I was tempted to try a direct route to the machine gun nest, hugging the cliffs edge. I decided that this would be almost suicidal, as the terrain is so steep and the ground was covered with loose rocks. So I decided to cut back through the bush and try to find a way down to the same elevation as the building and then walk in a straight line towards it. Sounds easy right? Yeah, not so much!
As I walked away from the machine gun nest, I tried to find a safe way down the steep slope. The bush was so thick that all I ended up achieving was scratching my arms and loosing my sunglasses somehow. I was pissed off, but I was not going to let this defeat me!
I returned a week later.
Armed with my trusty Bear Grills Machete, a thick jacket and a new pair of sunnies! I made sure to keep my Machete packed away until I was deep into the bush, thus avoiding looking like a serial killer! This time I managed to get a lot closer than before. The machete helping to cut through the small annoying branches.
All was fine until I came across a series of fallen down trees. These probably require a chainsaw, not a machete. Through the trees I could just make out the roof of the machine gun nest. It would have been under 50 m away. So close, yet so far! I was still about 2 stories too high and could not go any lower due to a 10 ft high rock shelf. So once again I returned defeated.
I am a very stubborn person at times. Once I get my mind-set on something, I obsess over it until I achieve my goal. I am still mulling over my next plan of attack. The biggest problem is getting down to the same level as the machine gun nest.
After looking on google maps, there appears to possibly be an easier way. The walking track that goes down to Cobblers Beach (clothing optional apparently), spits in two. One track goes down to the beach, the other loops around into the bush and eventually rejoins Middle Head Road.
It might be possible to leave the track somewhere around the turn and then climb down the hill to the appropriate elevation. From there it would be a case of bush bashing your way there.
Now where’s my machete?
If you are interested in getting a detailed up close look at the forts the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service runs a guided tour. This Includes access into underground parts of the fort usually locked off to the public.