Today, Port Stephens is an idyllic holiday spot, sought out for its natural beauty and serenity, but it was once an integral part of Australia’s war effort, providing a training ground where tanks and soldiers stormed the dunes while planes bombed the beaches.
People travel far and wide to visit Port Stephens, in search of experiences like whale watching, scuba diving, or swimming with dolphins. On any given day, you’re likely to see families with young children splashing in the water and building sandcastles. It is also a popular destination for retirees who are drawn to the peaceful, communal atmosphere. To look at it now, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Port Stephens was once a key training ground for the Australian Army during World War II, home to over 20,000 troops, and once intended to be a key naval base.
During the war, it was strongly believed that an attack would be made on Australian shores, and there were in fact a few local incidents, including the 1942 bombing of Newcastle by a Japanese submarine. It was targeting the shipyards, but fortunately caused little damage and no casualties. At this time, an army base called HMAS Assault was established in Nelson Bay, whose purpose was to prepare troops for the war in the Pacific. It was quite a disruption to the quiet, coastal life of the 1940s. Residents received permits that had to be shown at checkpoints to and from the bay. Planes from nearby Williamton Airbase would fly over the beaches and drop bombs and live ammunition was fired in drills across the dunes and scrub.
There are physical remnants of this wartime history to be found in places like Fort Tomaree, which features a massive emplacement that formerly housed a Hotchkiss Mark 1 Gun — capable of hitting targets 13km away — as well as searchlight stations, a radar tower, torpedo tubes, and barracks. There are often reports of unexploded mortar shells being dug up by dogs and rifle casings turning up on the shoreline. I have personally found a heavily rusted rifle shell near Anna Bay.
According to local historian Mike Scanlon, there were actually plans to transform Salamander Bay into a naval base from as early as 1916. Almost 1190 hectares would have been given over to housing two submarines and providing naval training grounds. Work had in fact commenced on the project, employing 250 retrenched miners to dig ditches, blast the headland, and build jetties, but they were interrupted by the onset of the First World War, during which time the AE-I and the AE-2 submarines disappeared.
In addition to the various tactical exercise that took place, the army experimented with landing tanks on the beach from the water, at Shoal Bay, and other locations like Zenith, Wreck, and Box beaches.
Amphibious landings were obviously an important strategy for the Pacific theatre, and the isolation of Port Stephens provided a perfect area to train. In October 1943, there were an estimated 141 ships and landing craft based at Port Stephens. When the war later ended, the township had, by and large, returned to its natural state as a sleepy fishing hamlet, although the smaller, six-wheel-drive amphibious ‘Army Ducks’ would occasionally return for exercises and demonstrations throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s.
After the war, in 1947, ownership of the Tomaree Head military camp was transferred from the Defence Department to the Department of Public Health, where it was then used as a convalescent hospital for patients from across the state. Some of the Port Stephens military bases, such as Gan Gan Army Base, continued to be used for operations and international billeting throughout the rest of the 20th century.
Images c/o State Library of NSW + Mike Scanlon