TRANSCRIPT: You’re listening to a podcast from Backyard Battlefields with me James De Leo, thanks for downloading this edition of the program, for more information visit BackyardBattlefields.com
(AUDIO: GUNS FIRING) These are the sounds that would’ve been heard if enemy warships had attacked the port of Fremantle. They are 6 inch naval guns of the type which used to sit at the Leighton Battery, part of the Fremantle coastal defence fortress of WW2 which we’re going to be exploring today. For anyone new to military terms the word ‘Battery’ in this context refers to an organized position of artillery….not energizers. The Leighton Battery is located West of Buckland Hill, just off Stirling Highway in the swanky Western Australian suburb of Mosman Park. Buckland Hill was named after William Buckland, a prominent British theologian and it’s thought that Willem de Vlamingh, the Dutch navigator landed close by this feature in 1697.
Following the Federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, it was decided the defences at the port of Fremantle needed to be upgraded and gun batteries were built at Fort Forrest – North Fremantle and on the south side of the harbour at Arthur Head, work was completed on these batteries in 1908 and Buckland Hill was used as an observation post. During the Great War, (Incidentally I never liked that term, ‘Gee what a great war!’) aka WW1, this observation Post also served as the Port Signal Station, a naval facility used to signal vessels in Gage Roads which is the name of the sea channel for traffic, leaving and entering the port of Fremantle. For sailing aficionados, Gage Roads was also the site of the 1987 Americas Cup.
After WW1 industrial development in Fremantle blocked some of the fields of fire of the existing guns and consideration was given to moving Fort Forrest to Buckland Hill. But as the terminal for the overseas telegraphic cables ended very close to Leighton Beach there was concern that concussion from the guns would interfere with the instruments of the cable station. So the Fort Forrest guns were instead emplaced at Swanbourne, within the current location of Campbell Barracks a topic which will be discussed in a later podcast.
In December 1941, 2 weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.an anti-aircraft site was commissioned at Buckland Hill. This was Fremantle’s second air defence site the first being located on Skinner St where the John Curtin College of the Arts Sports Oval is now situated. The 3.7-Inch Q.F guns used a 12 kg shell and were Britain’s primary heavy anti-aircraft gun during the second world war. It was roughly the equivalent of the famous German 88. It had a slightly larger calibre of 94 mm and a rate of fire between 10 and 20 rounds per minute.
Towards the end of 1942 the Fort Arthur Head guns were moved to Leighton where they could fulfill their task of ‘examination battery’ more effectively. The purpose of an ‘examination battery’ was to fire a warning shot at any vessels approaching the port that refused to stop to be identified. If this was ignored, they would then be engaged as a hostile vessel. So these guns were 6inch or 152mm MKVII naval guns which could fire a 45KG shell up to 14 kilometres. They were temporarily mounted as it was planned to eventually replace them with modem weapons from the UK. The concerns about the telegraphic cable station were now moot because it was closed for the duration of the war. Thanks partly to the generosity of local business one of the barrels has been restored and it is still mounted at the battery site. It’s interesting to note that the writing on it indicate it’s a Mark 6, model, NOT a Mark 7. Controversy! With the guns came the construction of over 300 metres of tunnels for ammunition magazines, communications, and amenities for the approximately one hundred and thirty personnel employed within the complex. The battery was commissioned in February 1943 and barracks, searchlights and support facilities were also added.
By 1944 work commenced to replace the older 6inch guns with three 5.25-inch Coast Artillery/ Anti-Aircraft guns and by 1950, the Battery was sufficiently advanced for 1 Fixed Defence Brigade and a group from the School of Artillery to conduct a six-month training exercises. This made Leighton the only battery of this type out of the eight planned for Australian port defences to become operational and in 1951, – 25 Medium Coast /AA Battery, Citizen Military Forces was formed to man the facility. It continued to operate in this capacity with several changes in title until 1963 at which time the unit was disbanded, the guns disposed of as scrap and the emplacements filled with rubble.
The battery had once formed part of the University of Western Australia’s land endowment before it was acquired by the Commonwealth in the 1940’s. It was returned to the State Government in 1979 and the land sold for housing with one third of the area kept as public open space. The area was subsequently made an “A Class Reserve” and the THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN ARTILLERY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA was authorised to develop the facility as a militaria museum. The site has been entered in the Register of the National Estate as a significant World War Two Coastal Defence Facility.
If you’d like to visit the Leighton Battery Heritage site, tours of the tunnels are run every Sunday from 10am – 3pm but you can visit the general area anytime. Of particular interest is the 3.7 inch Anti-aircraft gun on display and the gun pit for the battery’s main armament which gives you a good idea of how large the actual guns were. The views from the top are spectacular and you can see why it made such an excellent location for the defence of WA’s ports.
( ED: Thanks must go to: www.artillerywa.org.au and the Australian War Memorial (AWM) for some great images and information. To download the podcast just visit https://itunes.apple.com/au/