Rotary preserves Wollongong military history on Australia Day

One of the highlights of this year’s 2018 Australia Day celebrations at the Belmore Basin area, was the re-enactment march and firing of the Cliff Rd Battery (Smiths Hill Fort) guns by members of the Rotary Club of Illawarra Sunrise.

Re-enactment: Members of the Rotary Club of Illawarra Sunrise re-enact the march and firing of the Cliff Rd Battery (Smiths Hill Fort) guns on Australia Day.

Re-enactment: Members of the Rotary Club of Illawarra Sunrise re-enact the march and firing of the Cliff Rd Battery (Smiths Hill Fort) guns on Australia Day.

Members (and friends) of Rotary dressed up in 1880’s Army uniforms, and led by a police motorcycle rider and accompanied by the Illawarra Pipe Band, marched from the Old Court House, Belmore Basin area up to the Cliff Rd Battery, where the re-enactment firing of the two 80 pounder muzzle-loading main guns took place at 1pm.

The march was led by Wollongong’s Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery - who is an honorary Rotarian, and who dressed in Mayoral attire from the 1880’s. The march was met at the Battery by the current Club President Brian Ashe who was also dressed in period Army costume.

A large crowd watched as the Rotarians (accompanied by wenches, who are Friends of Rotary) also dressed in period costumes, re-enacted the raising of the British flag - accompanied by the Illawarra Pipe Band playing the British national Anthem - which was a deliberate symbolism to remind the audience present that when the Battery was built in the 1880’s - when there was NO Australia as such, Wollongong was part of the State of New South Wales and we were all ruled by the then British monarch - Queen Victoria!

After the flag was raised, the Lord Mayor welcomed all present, paid tribute to our first Australians past and present, and spoke on the positive meaning and significance of the day to us all.

The next speaker was Professor Michael Hough, who is a retired Army Lt Colonel and also a Rotarian, who reviewed the history and reasons for the Battery.

Lt.Col Hough then directed the re- enactment team commander to fire 4 (four) rounds, and the Battery Commander took charge and then the two gun teams of Rotarians - dressed in military uniforms - then re-enacted the firing of two rounds from each gun. (The actual firing was undertaken by licensed pyrotechnics technicians employed specifically for this purpose by Wollongong City Council).

After the firing the re-enactment soldiers emerged from the Battery and lined up to both lower the British flag and raise the Australian flag - at which time all present sang the current Australian National Anthem with the Illawarra Pipe Band and led by Molly Jancetic.

President Brian Ashe then thanked all present for a great event and reminded all present that Wollongong has a relatively unknown but very significant military history - as typified by the Cliff Rd Battery being the only undisturbed fort of its type remaining in Australia.

Once again, this ceremony served to remind us of the role of Rotary in providing “service above self” and adding value to the Community by this re-enactment.

The Rotary Club of Illawarra Sunrise meets at the Northbeach Novotel Hotel on Cliff Rd for breakfast at 0700 each Friday morning and would welcome guests. Please phone Brian the Club President on 0435 296 784 to ensure you will receive a warm welcome!

If any reader would like to get information about other Rotary Clubs and activities in this region please call Rtn. Dot Hennessy PHF on 0412 120314M 

The following is a summary of the main points made in  Professor Michael Hough’s speech:-

THE SMITHS HILL FORT (also known as the Cliff Rd Battery)

WHEN BUILT? – The fort was built over the period 1892-1893 and is now 125 years old. It was authorised and funded by the Govt. of New South Wales as there was NO Australia until Federation in 1901- approximately 8 years later.

COST - The tender for the fort’s construction specified the total cost was 2000 Australian Pounds. The plans for the fort have now been copied and lodged by Rotary into the Illawarra collection of the Wollongong City Council library, after they were discovered in the Victoria Barracks Army Museum historic collection in Sydney.

WHY BUILT? - In fact two forts were built at this time - both to protect Wollongong Harbour from a threatened Russian forced landing in the Harbour to raid for coal and supplies.

LAYOUT - The  still existing Smith’s Hill Fort was built to be the Outer Battery protecting approaches to the Belmore Basin harbour. They also built an Inner Battery - which is now dismantled to enable the construction of the Flagstaff Point road system, and the guns of that inner battery are still on display facing towards Sydney - and are located adjacent to the modern lighthouse on Flagstaff Point.

HISTORY OF OPERATION OF THE BATTERY – The Smiths Hill Battery operated for a quite brief period from 1893 till around the 1900’s when it was decommissioned due to being obsolete. It became derelict and an eyesore, and in 1946 the Fort was handed over to the Wollongong City Council, and the Council requested A.I.&S. (now known as BlueScope Steel) to dump slag and cover the battery, so that it was then covered by lawn, and the area was known as Battery Park.

A group of military history enthusiasts successfully applied for a Bicentennial Grant to uncover the Battery as part of the 1998 Australian Bi-Centenary. There was a re-enactment firing, and the battery was then left uncovered.

The Rotary Club of Wollongong Central then approached Council to take over the battery as a service project, and this began a long association of Rotary looking after the Battery. In 2007, the Rotary Club of Illawarra Sunrise adopted the project, after the RC of Wollongong Central ceased to operate as a Rotary Club.

THE GUNS OF THE BATTERY – The two big guns are still in their original positions (although they were sent to Bendigo Ordnance Factory for restoration in time for the 1988 Australian Bicentenary celebrations).

The two big guns were constructed in 1872 at the UK Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich England. They weigh 5 tons each, and they muzzle loaded i.e. from the front, and fire 3 types of shell: a solid (80 pound weight), shrapnel (containing 288 metal bullets), and case (containing 50 eight ounce smaller shot).

The effective range of the gun battery is shown by the range distances which are painted on the battery wall near the northern main gun.

HOW DID THE GUNS OPERATE? – The Guns have never been fired in active service against an enemy. They are operated by a Gun Team of 9 men, with each gun under command of a Sergeant. The Officers controlling the battery worked in the DRF (Direction and Range Finding) Post on the Northern (Sydney) side of the Guns. An underground ladder leads up to this position”