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ROTTO GUNS: Rottnest Island, Western Australia

March 17, 2015


TRANSCRIPT: “Rottnest is an island lying about 20km off the coast of Western Australia. It’s is very popular with families and as a ‘schoolies’ destination, as I can attest because this is where I came as a young punk after my year 12 exams a very long time ago.

Rottnest was so named by early Dutch explorers who mistook the Islands miniature Marsupials for giant rats. During the early years of the Swan River Colony, the original name for the British settlement in Western Australia, it experienced steady and varied use and part of the islands darker past was as a prison for native Australians, who called it Wadjemup meaning ‘Land across the sea’. The area is of significance to aboriginal people and Archeological artifacts have been found on the island indicating a presence dating back over 6500 years. Its connection with the military began in 1839 and it was used for military training until World War 1 when it became a holding camp for German and Austrian internees and P.O.W.s awaiting transportation to the main concentration camp in Holsworthy, New South Wales.

After the war, holiday makers were permitted to return to the Island, but that changed in 1935 when it was decided to make Rottnest the site of a main link in a series of gun emplacements which would form part of the dramatically named Fremantle Coastal Defence Fortress.

Setting up the Rottnest Guns was a massive undertaking, as thousands of tonnes of raw material needed to be shipped over. In charge of the project was Lieutenant BF Hussey of the Royal Australian Engineers who quickly got to work. He started building two emplacements, one at Oliver Hill in the centre of the island and a smaller site at Bickley Point on the Western side closer to Perth. The overall construction took 3 years, but before it could even start, significant infrastructure, such as a bigger jetty and railway needed to be built. So what guns would be placed there and why? British coastal defence strategy was based around 3 types of threat. Class A – Attack by Battleship, Class B – Attack by armoured cruisers and Class C – Attack by smaller ships such as unarmoured cruisers, torpedo boats and ‘blockships’. A ‘blockship’ incidentally was a vessel used to block a passage of water…. not made of Lego.

To defend against Class A and B attacks, which were the bigger ships, the Oliver Hill battery was equipped with two 9.2inch Naval guns, H1 and H2. It’s easy to get bogged down when talking about artillery in bore sizes, inches and cms, but to help visualize the seriousness of these guns, they could fire an 172kg projectile over 30KM. Broadly that would be like throwing a fridge from Perth to Joondalup or from Sydney to Mona Vale and one more time for the benfit of our international subscribers and fans of Ali G London to Staines.

These guns were originally to be placed at Mosman Park on the mainland but it was realized that this position wouldn’t prevent the bombardment of Fremantle by enemy Cruisers. To outrange the enemy, the guns had to be further out to sea. You can find out more about the Mosman Park gun position by downloading the Leighton Battery episode.

The H1 gun barrel is still on display at Oliver Hill and weighs 30 tonnes. It was originally supplied to the Royal Navy for fleet use in Hong Kong. Each gun, it’s mountings and other equipment installed at Oliver Hill cost over 40,000 pounds each, that would be approximately 2,000,000 today. That’s excluding the cost of other construction such as tunnels, magazines and store-rooms etc.

The Bickley Point Battery was two 6 inch Mark XI naval guns with a maximum range of 16 kilometres. This was deemed sufficient for Class C threats. Their role was as a close defence battery to deny ships use of the South Passage. The emplacements were built by the Todd Brothers of Leederville for a contract cost of 8,471 pounds. Very precise.

An interesting note given the debate on womens role in the military today was that the fire control instruments were manned by the Australian Women’s Army Service. Whether or not this was due to a tacit acknowledgement of a woman’s greater ability to multi-task is unknown.

The guns were built to deter an attack Fremantle, which at the time was the largest Submarine base in the Southern hemisphere, hosting British, US and Dutch submarines, in addition to surface ships, port facilities, fuel storage tanks and many, many other accoutremant of war. It would’ve been a tempting target if Japanese or indeed German, submarines or surface raiders had not had their hands full elsewhere.

By the mid-1940s, the focus of threat moved to Northern Australia, so the fixed defences at the Rottnest Island Fortress were reduced. The 9.2-inch guns were mothballed and only the 6-inch guns at Bickley remained manned. The period of intensive military activity on Rottnest Island ended with the guns never being fired in anger and they were effectively retired at the wars end. They only exist today as a priceless historical site because it would’ve cost more to remove them and ship them back to Perth than their scrap metal value. As a consequence, of the seven 9.2 inch batteries which protected Australian ports during WW2 this is the only intact example remaining and one of only a few left anywhere in the world

While these days the only thing Fremantle needs defending from is an invasion of Hipsters and Lime Green utes, the Rotto guns stand as a reminder of a time when Western Australia played a critical role in not just Australia’s defence but as part of the total Allied war effort and they truly are a fascinating piece of Australia’s defence heritage.”

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December 29, 2014



I was recently walking around Sydney on a rainy day when I came across a ships cannon. Obviously I was very excited because it’s not something you see everyday. It was sitting in Macquarie Place, at the corner of Bridge and Loftus Streets near Circular Quay.

The item in question is a 6 pound ships cannon reputed to be from a British vessel, HMS Sirius, the flagship of the ‘first fleet which sailed to Australia in 1788. I must say, before I go any further I find it very difficult to not think of Harry Potter every time I say the word Sirius. I’m struggling not to call the ship HMS Padfoot. That’s one for all the Harry Potter nerds out there.

HMS Sirius started it’s life in 1780 as HMS Berwick a merchantman serving in the latter days of the American War of Independence. In 1786 it’s name was changed to Sirius and re-commissioned for the voyage to Australia. Sirius was a 6th Rate, a type of small warship which could carry up to 30 guns. It had a crew of 160 and was 30 metres in length. It was lightly armed for this voyage with 10 guns; 4, 6 pound long-cannon and 6, 18 pound carronades. A carronade was a basically a giant shotgun. Guns and cannon in the age of sail were classified according to their pound rating: theoretically, this was the weight of a single iron shot fired by that bore of cannon. A 6 pounder fired a 6 pound ball, a 12 pounder a 12 pound ball etc. Be warned, This story will be a cocktail of metric and imperial references. So get ready.

Sirius was also transporting 10 extra guns which were packed away for use in the future Australian colonies. For those unfamiliar with how ships cannons of this era worked the basic procedure for firing one was:

A wet swab, which looked like a giant cue tip, was used to mop out the barrel, to extinguish any burning embers from a previous shot which might set off the next charge. Then gunpowder usually in a cloth or paper cartridge with holes poked in it was packed down the barrel and a cloth wad pushed in tight behind it. Next a projectile was rammed in, again usually an iron ball, followed by another cloth wad to prevent the ball from falling out if the ship rolled or the barrel was depressed. Because like all of us even gun barrels get depressed sometimes. The barrel sat on a carriage with wheels which was then ‘run out’ — men heaved on ropes and tackles until the gun barrel protruded out of a hole in the side of the ship called a ‘gun port’. This took quite an effort on the part of the gun crew because the total weight of a large cannon could be over two tons, a 6 pounder by contrast weighed about 700kg, but still a dangerous weight to have rolling around a ship. Gunpowder was placed in a cavity in the breech of the gun called a ‘touch hole’ and to fire the gun this was ignited using either a trigger mechanism that contained a flint, like that on a musket or with a stick holding a slow burning fuse called a ‘linstock’.

It fired several types of ammunition. These were designed to do 3 things, kill the crew, disable the ship or destroy it. In the broadstrokes they were either small balls, large balls, chains or red-hot heated shot. There was also my favourite – a Double shot, and in todays parlance it would be 2 espresso coffees fired simultaneously, but in the days before espresso it was actually two round shot loaded in one gun and fired at the same time. Very destructive.

HMS Sirius was one of 11 ships comprising what was to be called ’The First Fleet’. It’s purpose was to establish a penal colony in New South Wales on land claimed for the British crown by Captain James Cook.

It was made up of 6 transports carrying convicts; Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penryhn, Scarborough and Prince of Wales, 3 store ships: Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove and 2 British naval vessels, His Majesties Armed Tender Supply and His Majestrys Ship Sirius. Sirius sailed under the command of Captain John Hunter and carried on-board Captain Arthur Philip who would be the first governor of the new colony. The Fleet left Portsmouth England on the 13th of May 1787 and arrived at Botany Bay on the 21st January 1788. It was decided that Botany Bay wasn’t suitable to establish the settlement, so Port Jackson further down the coast was selected instead.

Sirius worked hard for the new colony ferrying food, troops and other supplies. It was on one such mission that she came to a sad end, unfortunately running aground off Norfolk Island on the 7th of March 1790. The cannon you see in Macquarie Place is said to be one of those recovered, between 1790 and 1792 and returned to Sydney.

In 1907 it, along with a salvaged anchor, (one of several Siruis carried) were established in Macquarie Place.

The cannon and its carriage have been restored by the Australian National Maritime Museum and the City of Sydney, as part of its Public Art program to maintain and preserve the City’s artworks and historical monuments. There are several places in Sydney named in honour of HMS Sirius, including Great Sirius Cove which is usually called ‘Mosman Bay.’ Another piece of trivia is HMS Sirius itself was named after the brightest star in the night sky. It comes from the ancient Greek Serios meaning ‘glowing’ or ‘scorcher’.

If you go and visit Macquarie Place you’ll see a plaque on the cannon which reads: “This gun is believed to have formed part of the armament of the HMS Sirius the flagship of the first fleet, which entered Port Jackson in 1788. The gun was returned to Sydney after the HMS Sirius was wrecked at Norfolk Island in 1790 and used as a signal gun at South Head. This gun was placed here in 1907”

The Sirius cannon is profound link to European settlement in Australia. It is located in a lovely part of Sydney and there are some beautiful colonial era buildings and artifacts located around Circular Quay. There are also amazingly detailed models of the first fleet ships, including His Majesty’s Ship Sirius on display at the Powerhouse museum in Sydney. If you can’t get down there in person you can see them at the museum website, there is also a link to the Sirius page on our own website

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(The musical audio featured in the podcast was – The Bushwackers Band – Shore of Botany Bay, Royal Navy – Heart of Oak and the Harry Potter theme )

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