miners prepare mines on board a steamer at Chowder Bay,
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.
miners of Chowder Bay
who defended Sydney Harbour
Cpl Troy Hutchinson
BEFORE homes in Australia had electricity, the defence of Sydney
Harbour was conducted by way of gun emplacements and electronically-detonated
were attached to cables that ran under the water to the other side
of the harbour.
were designed to be electrically detonated if an enemy ship entered
electric detonation of weapons was considered cutting-edge technology
at the time and was a British idea, given to defend the colony.
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.
men were a mixture of Torpedo and Signaller Corps with the Engineering
Corps after the units were amalgamated in 1882 as an Army unit.
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.
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.
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
an inquiry was dispatched to England to purchase a specially-designed
boat, suitable to the needs of the submarine miners.
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.
corps' worst peacetime tragedy occurred on Friday, April 3, 1891.
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.
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.
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'
de Wolski, the Royal Engineer officer in charge of the establishment
was beginning to get worried.
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
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.
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.
crowd witnessed the signal from the cutter and the go-ahead reply
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.
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.
men died and a number of others were severely injured.
what went wrong?
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.
it over-confidence that caused the error? Perhaps it was hurried
nervousness having so large a crowd and VIPs in attendance to view
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
of Maritime Transport is now located at Ross Island Barracks, Townsville,
where they occupied new facilities in North Queensland in 1997.
reassessed its defence of Sydney harbour during WW2 and established
a submarine net across the harbour that Japanese mini-subs breached
in May 1942.
Bay is open to the public every day from sunrise to sunset and a
walking track links Chowder Bay to Georges Heights.
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust now controls the former site of
the Submarine Miners Depot that maintains the buildings and features
of Chowder Bay.
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