Backward Glance: Bribie Island Fortifications – WWII

Did you know that in 1941 Brisbane was Australia’s third largest city?

Backward Glance: Bribie Island Fortifications – WWII

Did you know that in 1941 Brisbane was Australia’s third largest city?

It was still very much a small quiet town and isolated from the rest of Australia with a population of around 344,000.

In December 1941, the war came suddenly to the Pacific with the bombing attacks on Pearl Harbour and the escalation of fighting within Malaysia. The sheer speed of the Japanese advance resulted in the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942.

What had once been a remote situation was now on Brisbane’s front door. Brisbane became the headquarters for both US General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the Allied Forces in the South West Pacific area, and Australian Commander in Chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey. The Brisbane River was busy with naval shipping including submarines.

Well-known Caloundra identity Lt Colonel Dan Evans, a decorated officer from WWI, was in uniform again at the outbreak of World War II as chief engineer, Northern Command.

Colonel Evans established the Evans Deakin shipyard at Kangaroo Point. The construction of a 1200-ton lighter commenced on July 27, 1940 and became the first of 17 naval and merchant ships built in wartime.

During WWII, Brisbane became a repair base for submarines operating on the east coast of Australia and was an advance debarkation port for the US Army. Brisbane’s area included the Brisbane River and the Moreton Bay waterways both of which were vitally important strategically. The shipping channels on the north and south entrances to Moreton Bay were controlling factors in the defence of the area with the northern entrance shipping channel classed as being the most vulnerable. The south passage, Moreton Island and Stradbroke Island shipping channel was seen as being sufficiently shallow to be blocked conveniently if needed.

It was against this background that Bribie Island and the nearby mainland of Brisbane was on full alert.

Bribie Island is the smallest and most northerly of three major sand islands including Moreton Island and North Stradbroke Island forming the coastline sheltering the northern part of Moreton Bay.

On July 6, 1942 Allied Land Headquarters issued orders for the raising of the coastal artillery batteries, of which Bribie Island was one.

Colonel JS Whitelaw designed the layout of the fort on Bribie and recommended its completion by early 1942. The construction cost of Fort Bribie’s concrete structures was $110,000 or 55,000 pounds. A heavy artillery regiment was cited on Bribie and along the Sunshine Coast machine guns were placed in concrete pillboxes to deal with any unexpected invasion. Barbed wire was strung along the Sunshine Coast’s beaches.

Bribie Island had tactical advantages over Caloundra as it was closer to the vital North West shipping channel. The most effective site for guns was the closest point to the channel bends. The guns had a range of 19 kilometres.

The first Australian Imperial Force (AIF) company to arrive came from Redbank army camp and was a composite group of three rifle platoons, one machine gun platoon, signallers, trench mortar, engineering and intelligence personnel. Units during this time stationed on Bribie Island included a Garrison Battalion, an AIF composite company, a Militia Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps also helped with construction on the island. The camp site was about 400 metres square and troops were not allowed outside the perimeter unless in battledress.

Because there was no access to Bribie’s northern end, all equipment was transported by barge via Pumicestone Passage from Caloundra. It was only a short distance to cross from Caloundra to the Bribie Fort. Caloundra’s Ray Tilney secured the job of transporting equipment to Bribie Island from the mainland.

Sallaway Brothers of Maleny transported six-inch gun barrels surplus from WWI which weighed over nine ton from Caloundra’s Tripcony Park near Maloja Avenue to the fort. The guns had significant history, being taken off the World War I cruiser HMAS Sydney.

Soldiers were on standby 24 hours a day for if and when enemy shipping arrived. Such was the size of the military guns, Caloundra locals reported their crockery rattling on the shelves if the guns were fired for practice.

Food and other supplies came by boat from Caloundra and included ice for chilling perishables. Bribie was a primitive, hot, mosquito ridden place and though not far from the mainland, was isolated.

The Australian Women’s Army Service arrived on the island in 1943, and was involved in most aspects except the artillery guns.

Two days leave was allowed each month with just enough time to have a brief period of leisure with a scheduled boat bringing the troops to Caloundra. At Caloundra they could go to the dances at the School of Arts and had the opportunity to take part in social gatherings at places such as Landsborough.

Occasionally troops would swim across to Caloundra - perhaps they were absent without leave - and many were seen at the local dances where they could meet a sweetheart or just visit for company.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, the coastal batteries were scaled down, including Fort Bribie.

In early 1993, a conservation study was carried out and identified eight reinforced concrete structures on Fort Bribie. Today, Brisbane and South East Queensland including the Sunshine Coast have changed so dramatically that few signs remain of those war years.

Most of the members of the defence force who served on Bribie Island are now no longer with us. Gone are their memories but remaining still are the little-known Bribie Island Fortifications batteries which face out to sea and the stories of the war years that impacted on so many lives throughout the region.

There is no doubt the Bribie Island Fortifications are an important part of Queensland’s history.

Learn more about the Coast’s unique history by reading our Backward Glance series. There’s a new story every Wednesday.