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History Lesson

Submarine miners prepare mines on board a steamer at Chowder Bay, date unknown.
Photo provided by courtesy of the State Library of NSW

The view across Sydney Harbour to Chowder Bay today.
Photo by Bill Cunneen, Army newspaper.

The miners of Chowder Bay

Engineers who defended Sydney Harbour

By Cpl Troy Hutchinson
BEFORE homes in Australia had electricity, the defence of Sydney Harbour was conducted by way of gun emplacements and electronically-detonated mine barriers.

Mines were attached to cables that ran under the water to the other side of the harbour.

They were designed to be electrically detonated if an enemy ship entered the harbour.

Amazingly, electric detonation of weapons was considered cutting-edge technology at the time and was a British idea, given to defend the colony.

The responsibility of placement, maintenance and firing of the sea mines fell on the shoulders of the fledgling Engineer Corps of NSW and within that unit were employed the submarine miners.

These men were a mixture of Torpedo and Signaller Corps with the Engineering Corps after the units were amalgamated in 1882 as an Army unit.

The submarine miners were stationed initially at Berry's Bay in a small store that was deemed quite unsuitable by British Maj-Gen Edwards, dispatched to the colonies to examine and assess the defences and report on the military forces dated October 9, 1889.

The facilities at Chowder Bay were much improved on the old location and the submarine miners then went in search of a suitable ship to act as a minelayer.

£800 a year was the cost to hire the steamer Lilian that was found to be totally unsuitable for mining yet was all the submarine miners had.

Subsequently an inquiry was dispatched to England to purchase a specially-designed boat, suitable to the needs of the submarine miners.

The first inquiry for a new vessel began in May, 1890. The shipwright company, J.S. White and Co, signed the contract after the War Office finally approved the purchase nine years later on July 25, 1899.

The corps' worst peacetime tragedy occurred on Friday, April 3, 1891.

The day before, NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes and Col Spalding, Commander of the Military Forces had witnessed the laying of mines and the detonation of a harbour mine.

On that fateful Friday it was to be the Governor's chance to observe the destruction of ageing sea mines. Lady Jersey was to be invited to throw the switch to fire two mines.

A large crowd had gathered to see the mine detonated and were waiting for the Governor and his wife to arrive. The crowd was becoming restless as the VIPs were lingering over the luncheon in the officers' mess.

Col de Wolski, the Royal Engineer officer in charge of the establishment was beginning to get worried.

The docks were crowded with people to witness the blow and he had two live 250-pound sea mines waiting to be detonated in the shipping lane.

The cutter sat beside the dock with three 100-pound charges of condemned explosive aboard that was also to be detonated as additional viewing for the public and the Governor.

The Colonel made a command decision. He ordered the cutter out to prepare the charges of condemned explosives. The eight oarsmen shoved off and rowed in good order about a few hundred yards off shore while others aboard prepared the explosives. They lowered the first charge into the water attaching a flagged buoy to mark its position and moved away, spooling out the firing cable as they went, to about 100 yards from the marker.

The crowd witnessed the signal from the cutter and the go-ahead reply from shore.

People lining the docks waited in anticipation as the cable was attached to the exploder and an officer cranked the handle. Nothing. A misfire. Submarine miners aboard the boat were seen as they scurried about checking connections and wires.

The officer cranked the exploder again as the stunned crowd witnessed the cutter disappear as 100-pound of explosives detonated beside the boat hurtling the 13 occupants of the small craft in every direction amidst the great uplifting of men, cutter and seawater.

Four men died and a number of others were severely injured.

So what went wrong?

Accounts taken from the survivors believe that in the tangle of unmarked cabling on the floor of the cutter, it appears one Cpl McKee, an experienced submarine miner on loan from the British Royal Engineers, made a fatal error. The cable he passed to the firing officer was not leading to the submerged charge 100 yards away, but to a second charge lashed to the side of the boat.

Was it over-confidence that caused the error? Perhaps it was hurried nervousness having so large a crowd and VIPs in attendance to view the blow?

Needless to say that even in tragedy we can learn, as highly-qualified specialists conduct current explosive handling in a far more professional manner under strict observation.

Members of the submarine miners and the affiliated Volunteer Artillery raised monies to construct a suitable memorial for their mates lost in the accident. On May 6, 1894, an impressive 26-foot memorial was unveiled at Waverly Cemetery that still stands today.

Chowder Bay remained the home of the submarine miners until 1922 when they were disbanded after another report, this time from Lt-Gen Brudenell White as Inspector General, decided their trade was obsolete.

The facilities at Chowder Bay remained under RAE control as a depot until it became the School of Military Engineering, Anti-Aircraft and Fortress Wing in 1939.

SME remained at Chowder Bay until 1942 when the need for water transport operators was identified. SME moved the Anti-Aircraft and Fortress Wing to the middle head of Sydney Harbour and the site at Chowder Bay became the Transportation Wing of SME, designed to train deck officers and seamen.

School of Maritime Transport is now located at Ross Island Barracks, Townsville, where they occupied new facilities in North Queensland in 1997.

Australia reassessed its defence of Sydney harbour during WW2 and established a submarine net across the harbour that Japanese mini-subs breached in May 1942.

Chowder Bay is open to the public every day from sunrise to sunset and a walking track links Chowder Bay to Georges Heights.

The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust now controls the former site of the Submarine Miners Depot that maintains the buildings and features of Chowder Bay.

  • With thanks to Warren Ennis, SME, and the Australian Army Museum of Military Engineering, Moorebank. References taken from Chowder Bay by Lt-Col Phillip Cameron and Disaster at Middle Head by Maj Fredrick Clark.

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