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RAN Mine Depot Swan Island

Introduction

Swan Island is a sand barrier island at the western entrance to Port Phillip in Victoria, Australia. Before being used as a Mine Depot, it had a long history of use for military purposes, dating back to pre-Federation times.

Foundation

On 22 December 1917 Captain Thring, then Director of War Staff and Director of Naval Ordnance wrote to the First Naval Member:

"The Commonwealth Cordite Factory is now turning out a certain amount of gun cordite. The first lots will be made up into practice charges for 4" guns and below. It is proposed to carry out this work at Spectacle Island..."

Thring went on to point out the unsuitability of Spectacle Island for such work and indeed for any storage of explosives and concluded by recommending:

"In my opinion the magazine should be removed to a safer locality before the return of our ships and I submit that this question should receive early consideration by the Naval Board."

At the conclusion of the First World War, the Naval Board not only had to consider the storage of the ammunition outfits of returning ships but also the manifest unsuitability of Spectacle Island for storage of explosives. In addition, in 1920 the Naval Board accepted the offer of 2,000 "H" mines as a free gift from the Admiralty. These mines arrived in Australia in August 1920 and were first disembarked at Flinders Naval Depot. The question then arose of providing proper storage accommodation, and a site at Swan Island in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, was selected and buildings erected. The mines were moved to Swan Island in 1921 and certain additional accommodation, in the shape of an old fort, was taken over from the Army. Depth charges were also removed from Sydney between about 1921 - 1923 and were also stored at Swan Island.

(Note: Early British mines had both a "type" letter and a Mark number. "H" mines were buoyant horned mines, with Hertz (acid) horns. "T" mines were similar, but with Trigger (switch) horns. "L" mines were shore-controlled. For more information on mines, visit the NavWeaps website.)

The Swan Island depot was considered to be a very good one for the purpose, well isolated and capable of expansion. As it existed at the end of 1923 it provided storage accommodation only, and it was planned to proceed with further development in financial year 1924/25. This was to comprise a Ready for Issue Store and a pier to enable mines to be prepared for laying and embarked in a Mine Layer.

Photo of south pier at Swan Island in 1953

South Pier at RAN Mine Depot, Swan Island, 1953

World War 2

The Argus of 6 February, 1939, in an article on Australia's rearmament plans, quoted the Prime Minister Mr Lyons as saying that a "Mines Depot will be re-established at Swan Island...". (This suggests that operations at the depot were wound down during the depression years of the 1930s.) A similar announcement was made by Prime Minister Menzies when announcing plans to lay defensive minefields along the coast of Australia (The Argus, 12 September 1940, page 1)

During World war 2, the depot was supplemented by subsidiary depots at Fyansford and North Geelong.

For further information about production of mines in Australia during World War 2, read or download Volume V – The Role of Science and Industry (1st edition, 1958) - Chapter 13 – Torpedoes and Mines (Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 4 – Civil - Volume Vol 5.)

Commander Norman Calder, OBE, RAN was the Commanding Officer of HMAS Bungaree, the RAN's only specialist mine laying ship during the war. An extract from his NHSA Monograph No. 179, HMAS Bungaree - Australia’s only Minelayer, 2003, provides an additional perspective on the mining effort.

Post War

In 1948, the depot was described thus:

"The R.A.N. Mine Depot consists mainly of a large number of buildings containing explosives, Mine and Depth Charge Stores, area approximately 400 acres - space not occupied by buildings is swampy or covered by Ti-tree, buffalo and maram grass. The Island suffers from an over-issue of rats, rabbits, opossums, mosquitoes and snakes, the latter providing some exciting moments while the summer grass cutting is in progress.

During the war subsidiary Depots were opened at Fyansford and North Geelong for assembly of Mk 14/15 and 17/17 Units and storage respectively under the supervision of Lieut. Comdr S.S. James M.B.E., R.A.N. who, assisted by a staff of 52 male and female employees, serviced R.N. and R.A.N. minelayers in addition to assembling one large shipment for use in European waters. This enabled Swan Island staff to give more time to magnetic and loop services and to carry out instructional classes for the benefit of R.A.A.F. and a number of Assistants (M.D.)

Swan Island staff including administrative, has been reduced from 119 including Police and Naval Guard to 66. ...

A 3 ft. gauge railway service to all Explosive sheds and main non-explosive stores is maintained by the Department of Works and Housing.

Electromobiles, chain driven by a motor supplied by 2 banks of 15 cells at 60 volts are the medium of power for haulage of double bogie trucks. This equipment is safe, sure but extremely slow.

Two motor driven trucks, 3 ton and trailer, and 30 cwt. respectively, provide the main means of transport between non-explosives stores and a 2 ton mobile tractor crane has rendered yeoman service in lifting heavy items stored in the open. ..." (RAN Mine Depot Swan Island Newsletter, May 1948)
Mine shells in storage at Swan Island

Empty Mine Shells in Building 32 at Swan Island in 1953

Naval officers known to have worked at the depot include:

ENGINEER-CMDR George W. Bloomfield, RAN

ENGINEER - CMDR Barry Hocken, RAN

CAPT Edwin S. Nurse, RAN

LCDR Frederick G. H. Bolt, RAN

LCDR George T. Saunders, RAN

LCDR W. Payne, RAN

LT R. Soley, RAN

Closure

The depot is likely to have closed around 1961, as this is the last year that it appears in the Navy List. The only person named is a Senior Clerical Officer, suggesting that decommissioning was occurring.


Dot point  Take a mid-20th century photographic tour through this depot.

RAN Armament Depot Photo Album circa 1949-1953

Dot point  The RAN Mine Depot Swan Island Chronology page contains additional information.


This page is a placeholder pending further research. If you can contribute information, photographs or memories, please contact the author at the email address given at the foot of the page.

Material on this page may be copied for personal use. If you intend to republish any substantial part of the page in any manner, please acknowledge the source and provide the URL of the page.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au