How Garden Island became the Garden Island Defence Precinct

Sydney’s Garden Island Defence Precinct has been an important naval base since 1856, and its significance seems likely to grow with Defence Minister Richard Marles’s announcement in February 2024  of a further $11.1 billion to more than double the Australian naval fleet. This follows the Albanese Government’s adoption of the Independent analysis of Navy’s surface combatant fleet  recommendation to acquire 11 Tier 2 surface combatants, a number of which seem likely to be homeported in Sydney.

The area that is now known as Fleet Base East has been greatly expanded over the last 100 years.

Despite its name, at first glance Garden Island appears to be another headland. This article explains why, due to its important history as a naval base, what was originally an actual island, is now connected to the mainland.

Prior to white settlement, the site was referred to as Bayinguwa by the local Aboriginal people.

In 1788, only 16 days after a British colony settled in Sydney Cove, the Royal Navy recorded the island as a site to establish simple gardens and plant vegetables. HM Ships Sirius, Supply (I), Supply (II), Lady Nelson, Porpoise and Buffalo used the island for this purpose until 1807; hence its moniker Garden Island.

An aged bridge crossing a serene body of water.

Source: State Library of New South Wales [a089877 / SPF/877] (Mitchell Library)

Between 1811 and 1866, the island was transferred to the governor’s estate, although the transaction was not legally binding. This made the transfer of land back to the British Royal Navy seamless, with plans for the construction of a mast house, boat house, carpenters shop, and store houses from 1874.

After the removal of the southern hummock in 1885, Garden Island saw an explosion of activity and expansion throughout the 1890s. This included the construction of a rigging shed and sail loft, a rigging workshop, kitchen block, anchor store, chain store, factory workshop, spar shed, residences, a battery workshop, main offices and barracks building.

Garden Island was officially handed over by the British Admiralty to the newly established Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1913. HMAS Australia was the flagship vessel of the RAN, arriving at Garden Island on 4 October 1913, with HMA Ships Sydney, Melbourne, Encounter, the torpedo boat destroyers HMA Ships Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra, as well as the 2 submarines AE1 and AE2 commissioned in 1914.  

At the outbreak of the First World War (1914–18), Garden Island became the principal source of supply for the RAN in the Pacific, with the workforce on the island growing from 950 people in 1914 to 3,000 by the end of the war (Frame, 74). The workforce expansion was seemingly short-lived, as by the end of the war, strikes, the Great Depression, as well as poor living and working conditions, saw a rapid decline in the island’s favourability for naval activity over nearby Cockatoo Island (Frame, 178–181).

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s tensions between state and federal naval control over Garden Island were particularly high. In the late 1930s, believing that Australia’s ability to defend against naval attacks would depend on an Allied effort in the Pacific, the federal government sought to reinforce the ‘Singapore Strategy’ and in principal approved the construction of a graving dock in 1938.

Despite the enormous cost of the dock’s expansion, Prime Minister Robert Menzies told Parliament on 22 May 1940:

A dry dock of a larger size than any in Australia has become an important strategic consideration since the size of capital ships has increased so greatly … It is estimated that three years will be occupied in the construction of the dock. The estimated cost of the dock on the selected site is, in Australian currency, £2,997,000 …

Work to reclaim 121,406 square metres of land between Potts Point and Garden Island began shortly thereafter, with 51,816 metres of sheet piling and approximately 611,644 cubic metres of stone and core filling used to form a cofferdam from which the sea was pumped (Figure 1). In addition, 382,277 cubic metres of sandstone was quarried from nearby Balls Head Reserve to support the banks, and over 1,529 cubic metres of concrete was poured every day (Frame,190–191).

Figure 1               Cofferdam completed, Garden Island 1942

An old black and white photo of a harbor with construction equipment in the foreground.

Source: Naval Historical Society of Australia

The attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces in 1941 stoked fears of an aerial bombardment on Sydney, prompting the federal government to invest £15,150 in a network of tunnels beneath the island. The tunnels were originally designed to protect 1,400 people from 70 tons of bombs in a 24-hour period. As of late 2023, the tunnels have been serviced as part of infrastructure upgrades.

On 17 February 1942, the pumping of water from the cofferdam commenced, with work hastened day and night following the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces. Two days later, on 19 February 1942, Darwin was bombed by Japanese forces and on 31 May 1942, Sydney Harbour suffered its first naval attack by 3 Japanese ‘midget’ submarines. At the time of the attack, the HMAS Kuttabul – a passenger ferry converted for naval use – was moored off Garden Island when a torpedo struck the sea wall beneath the ferry, killing 21 sailors.

In 1944 the federal government purchased Garden Island from the NSW Government for £600,000, and by September 1944, the site was ready to have 259,122,000 litres of water pumped for periodic dry docking. Construction concluded in February 1945, making the site the largest graving dock in the Southern Hemisphere. The first ship to arrive in the dock was the HMS Illustrious, arriving 2 weeks before the official opening on 24 March 1945 (Frame, 199).

With the island now connected to the mainland, the Captain Cook Graving Dock housed a 226-ton hammerhead crane, capable of lifting 254-ton ships (Figure 2). Towering at over 60 metres in height and 40 metres in radius, the crane would have made for impressive viewing from Sydney Harbour, until its eventual decommissioning in 1992.

Figure 2               Garden Island hammerhead crane [middle] c1965

A black and white photo of a crane standing gracefully in the water.

Source: Naval Historical Society of Australia

By 2020, stage one of the Garden Island infrastructure recovery program began, with stage 2 expected to be completed in late 2024.

In November 2023, the Albanese Government announced funding of $2 billion to maintain and sustain Australia’s naval fleet, with the defence contractor Thales securing $700 million to enhance fleet sustainment delivery, and ensure RAN vessels are prepared and effective in maritime operations. With these developments, Garden Island will continue to play its part in Australia’s naval history.

Aerial view of Sydney cityscape with iconic landmarks and harbour.

Source: John Carnemolla/Shutterstock


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