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As time passes, we still get the usual collection of the bearded unwashed telling us how wrong we were/are for participating in any war because we should be celebrating peace.

These angry verbal shots are not the first, nor will they be the last salvos we ordinary grateful citizens will be subjected to by this ignorant element in our society. Ignore them and roll with the punches.

When one talks about the real angry shots and the peaceful scene of Port Philip Bay in Melbourne, Australia, on a calm and cloudy day,  one does not normally connect the two in the same sentence but on 4th August 1914, and 5th September 1939, they did.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany had collected a sizeable colonial empire in the Pacific and the Far East. The core of this colonial empire was based in the Chinese port city of Tsingtao where the German government had negotiated a lease. This city was the base for a formidable naval squadron and was the control point for wireless stations situated on various Pacific Islands, including New Guinea. At that time the Northern part of New Guinea and the offshore islands was a German colony.

The naval squadron, known as The Pacific Squadron, was built around two heavy cruisers, the Emden and the Konigsberg. Both of these ships were able to roam the western Pacific and the Indian Oceans. They caused significant damage to unarmed merchant ships in the early part of the war.
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The German high command had, in 1897, developed a plan for the conduct of war against major European powers and Russia called the Schlieffen Plan. The object was to avoid having to fight a war on two fronts and part of it was at the moment war was to break out all German ships in ports around the world were to immediately return home or coal up and head for South America.

On the fateful day, 3rd August, 1914, war broke out and messages were duly sent to all German ships. A German merchant ship named the Pfalz, was due to sail on that day from the port of Melbourne but on receiving the message had to delay departure until 5th August to take on extra coal for the journey to South America.

On 2nd August, after weeks of rumours that war was imminent, the Naval Board set up the Port Examination Service designed to inspect all shipping going in or out of our major ports. The Pfalz departed the port under the control of the pilot and was instructed to proceed to the Heads and anchor for the Port Examination Service to arrive. The ship was reportedly bound for Sydney. It passed inspection but while at anchor the tide had swung the ship side onto its intended course causing further delay while the pilot kept manoeuvring the ship.


The crew at the coastal gun which fired on German merchant ship SS Pfalz at 12.45pm on August 5, 1914.

During the delay, a number of German consular officials appeared on deck alerting the departing inspection crew that Sydney might not have been the intended destination. At about the same time a message was received that war had broken out. A pennant was broken out at Fort Nepean ordering the ship to stop. A fight broke out between the pilot and the master during which time a shot was fired from the Point Nepean battery which landed near the stern of the ship.

That was enough for the master who surrendered his ship to the pilot and returned to Port Melbourne.

The shot from the Point Nepean battery was the first shot fired in defence of the British Empire in WW1


The damage to the SS Pfalz.

After the Pfalz returned to Port Melbourne it was commandeered by the Commonwealth, re-named the Boorara and used as a troopship by the RAN for the duration of the war. In 1919 she was transferred to the Commonwealth Shipping Line to repatriate troops from England back to Australia.

During the Crimean War substantial fortification works were undertaken at Point Nepean and Queenscliff. Both sides of the entrance to Port Philip Bay were heavily fortified and armed. In addition, there were other fortifications built within the bay itself. These were designed to blow the Russian navy out of the water should they attempt an invasion.

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Fort Nepean was built between 1878 and 1942 to protect Australia from an enemy invasion.

These works were carried out while Victoria was still a separate colony of Great Britain. The fortifications at Point Nepean are not apparent from a seaward aspect. They are all underground. Queenscliff on the other side of the bay was built as a traditional fort to enable it to withstand a siege cut off from Melbourne for 6 months. A ship like the Pfalz had no chance of running that gauntlet.

Coincidentally the first angry shot of WW2 was also fired by the same gun at the same fort; Fort Nepean.

This time it was not fired at the enemy but was still fired in anger. An Australian coastal freighter on 4th September, 1939 only hours after war had been declared, approached Port Philip Heads and failed to respond to the recognition signal. A shot was placed over its bows and the correct response was given much to the relief of all concerned.

The Commonwealth Defence Department took over Point Nepean as a defence training establishment and quarantine station. The general public were not permitted to enter until 2009 when it was transferred back to the Victorian government and is now a national park.

If one can remember the cry “Australia will be there”, the words “from the beginning” could be added and not be out of place.

The bottom end of Port Philip Bay is a rather little known area other than to those who live and sail there. It is extremely rich in the history of our nation being the place of the first attempt to establish a colony in Victoria and a place where Matthew Flinders entered on his circumnavigation voyage, climbed the mountain which he named Arthur’s Seat, and from a tor now known as Flinders’ Lookout, saw the huge expanse of water to his north and west and decided it was too large for him to undertake further exploration there.


As part of our military history, the fortifications at the Southern end of the bay, on both sides, compare with anything that was built in Sydney and are well worth devoting a good deal of time to any visit one might make to Victoria.

During my time in the Army I trained there on many occasions. One thing that always struck me as ironic was the brand of the steel manufacturer on all of the girders and steel beams cast into each section. The brand was KRUPPS.

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