By the time European colonists reached the Pacific, the days of large, fixed fortifications were almost over. However, because Sydney was the largest city on the entire continent of Australia, the British invested heavily in its defense. By the time British-Japanese tensions reached their height in the interwar years, Sydney had become the second-most fortified heavily British city in the Pacific after Singapore. Although all of the sites are now obsolete and most have been retired, there are a few places where intrepid explorers can still visit to see the old city fortifications. Probably the best of these are Fort Denison, Bare Island Fortress and the George’s Head Battery.
The last continent to be extensively explored by Europeans was Australia, and the last part of Australia to be visited was its remote southeastern coast. Aside from a few isolated island groups in the Pacific, the area around what is now Sydney was among the very last places on Earth to be brought into the European orbit. Established as the Botany Bay penal colony in 1788, Sydney did not even merit serious military consideration until the 19th century. The original defenses consisted only of a small battery located at Dawes Point to control access to the harbor.
By the end of the Napoleanic wars, Australia was firmly under the control of the British. Thanks to its isolated location, Sydney faced virtually no threat from either rival colonial powers or its small indigenous population. However, by the mid-19th century, the powers of Europe were growing increasing hostile to one another, and thanks to technological advances in communications and shipbuilding, Australia became less remote by the year.
For much of the 1800s, Sydney faced only minor threats from the naval forces of Spain, France and Russia. But in 1839, a pair of American warships sailed in and out of Sydney harbor unchallenged. This prompted the British to take the city’s defense more seriously. Larger and more modern fortresses were constructed, including Fort Denison on Pinchgut Island and later a fort on Bare Island.
As the 20th century approached, even greater defenses were constructed, mainly in the form of massive new artillery batteries designed to defend against steel-hulled ships. By the outbreak of World War II, Sydney was the most heavily defended city in the Far East south of Singapore. However, throughout a century and a half of occupation, Sydney was only directly attacked by a foreign power on one occasion: a Japanese sub raid in 1942 which failed miserably. Most of the city’s fortifications were decommission after the war, and many are now preserved as tourist sites.
Fort Denison is the oldest of colonial Sydney’s forts still standing. Extending completely over Pinchgut Island, it is large, but with a low profile designed to minize exposure to cannon fire. Its most prominent feature is the round Martello-style tower which offered a first lookout for any ships sailing into the harbor. This was one of the very last medieval-type towers constructed anywhere in the world. A cannon on the fortress walls still fires at one o’clock every day. The fort is now home to a museum of aboriginal history and culture.
Bare Island Fortress is located further out from downtown Sydney, but is directly accessible on foot by causeway. Covering most of Bare Island, it is a compact standard-design gunpowder fort. Its thick outer walls are backed by packed earth, with a small complex of buildings inside to house the garrison. Because of its excellent location near excellent coral reefs, the island and fort are now most popular as a diving location.
The Georges Head Battery was one of the last of the harbor defenses to be built, and consisted of one of the strongest and most modern artillery batteries in the South Pacific. Built of thick concrete walls, the battery includes a small labyrinth of underground tunnels connecting casements and mechanized gun turrets. It remained in military use until the 21st century. It is now open to the public.
Fort Denison is located in the harbor and is accessible by ferry from several locations. It is generally open from 9:30am-4:30pm. As of this writing there was no information regarding cost of admission. The Bare Island Fortress is located about ten miles southeast of Downtown Sydney and, except for the inner buildings, is effectively an open site. The Georges Head Battery is located on a bluff overlooking both the city and the harbor. The exterior of the fort is an open site. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.fortdenison.com.au (official website of Fort Denison); www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au (official website of Georges Head Battery)
As the single most important port in the South Pacific, Sydney boasted a number of other major fortifications around the harbor. Among those still standing in whole or in part are the Bradley’s Head Fort, the Middle Head Fort and the Lower Georges Heights Command Fort. There are also a few remains of the early Dawes Point Battery near the Sydney Harbor Bridge.