I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published July 5th 2013
Port Phillip - The Gibraltar of the South
Looking west along the spine of the narrow isthmus that is point Nepean the landscape is strewn with derelict fortifications, gun emplacements and the remains of Fort Nepean seemingly teetering on the edge of The Rip.
This Fort Nepean gun emplacement fired the first Allied shot of World War 1.
Following the greatest gold rush the world has ever seen Victorians were nervous about their security and newspapers of the day painted a grim picture of the colonies defenses. The ARGUS reported, "we are in a very defenseless state and that the fact of being known all over the world that we have few millions worth of solid gold within cannon shot of the Bay is a circumstance which renders us peculiarly liable to attack".
When British troops were withdrawn from Australia in 1870 a report was commissioned on colonial defenses which, when finally tabled in 1877, recommended the fortification of Port Phillip Heads.
Fort Nepean includes a maze of underground tunnels and powder magazines
Work on Point Nepean's defenses began in 1882. The first permanent gun emplacement was operational in 1884 and manned by members of the Royal Victoria Volunteer Artillery Regiment. Several upgrades were completed and by 1888-89, a formidable array of artillery combined with other nearby installations to earn for Port Phillip the title of "the Gibraltar of the South", the most heavily fortified port in the southern hemisphere. Those armaments included state-of-the-art 'Disappearing Guns' designed to retract into a bunker for reloading and to make them more difficult for the enemy to locate.
Fort Nepean's engine house sits on the western extremity of Point Nepean, inside the Heads
John (later Sir John) Monash was attached to the Garrison Artillery at Fort Nepean and eventually became its Commanding Officer in 1897. Monash of course went on to command Australian Forces fighting in World War 1 and was widely regarded as one of the great Generals of his time.
Much of the Fort is built into the hillside
Some of the underground magazines include displays depicting life on Victoria's front-line
Fort Nepean's guns, designed specifically to engage enemy shipping attempting to enter the Bay, weren't fired in anger until 5th August 1914, just minutes after the declaration of war. It was then that the Command Centre at Fort Queenscliff, on the opposite side of the Bay, ordered Fort Nepean to fire on the German freighter SS PHALZ as she attempted to escape to the open sea. A single shot across her bow, the first Allied shot of WW1, forced the PHALZ to turn around and surrender at Portsea. Forty-five years later, on 4th September 1939, another Point Nepean gun fired the first Australian shot of World War 2 when a coastal freighter failed to identify herself and also received a shot across the bow. The ship was quick to identify herself as the Australian coastal freighter SS WONIORA.
This sign tells the story of the firing of the first shot of WW1 on the German freighter SS PHALZ
There were few if any luxuries for troops stationed at Fort Nepean. Cold and windswept in winter and hot and mosquito infested in summer, even as late as World War 2 there was no running water and only cold showers to be had.
Fort Nepean is part of the greater Point Nepean National Park, just 560 hectares of scrub covered sand and rock but a microcosm of 200 years of Victorian history. It's one of those places that every Australian needs to visit at least once in their lives.