The Naval Base that had been planned for Cockburn Sound in 1911 never materialised, but the name stuck around. For decades the site, partially built and then mostly demolished, remained a pleasant beach area for picnicking, fishing and camping. Lying on the southern side of Woodman Point, the site was perfect for leisure-seekers, but it would find a different use when war was declared in 1939.
Since the announcement of the grand Naval Base plans in 1911, the land stretching from Coogee Beach to Point Peron had been held by the Commonwealth Government. Though it offered various government agencies ten- or twenty-year leases throughout the 1930s, it never released its ownership of the land.
The Commonwealth Defence department was hedging its bets in the climate of global unease, and as the 1930s drew to a close, this proved to be a wise decision.
Pre-war camp use
In the early 1930s, the site of the Naval Base (in the general Mount Brown area south of Woodman Point) was used occasionally by campers, beachgoers and picnickers. As car ownership became more common and the economic depression deepened, leisure-seekers searching for a cheap outing could travel farther away from home, and semi-isolated spots such as Naval Base became accessible. Further south the Naval Base Hotel was built, with tennis courts, a dance hall, and stores for food and camping supplies.
The Boy Scouts used Naval Base as a campsite from 1933, and in late 1938 Toc H, a charitable association for boys, was granted a 20-year lease on a stretch of beach for a permanent campsite. They raised funds to build permanent buildings, but were not able to use their site for long once war had been declared.
Military uses in the 1930s
In 1930, officers from the 11th and 16th Battalions (Western Australian infantry battalions from the First World War) held tactical exercises in the vicinity of Naval Base,
and from 1934 the 11th Battalion Association held their annual social picnic at the beach.
December 1938 saw 18 officers from the 10th Light Horse Regiment engaged in tactical exercises ‘in the vicinity of the Henderson Naval Base’.
During the Regiment’s annual camp at Claremont in March the next year, these officers led their troops to a large-scale cavalry exercise at Naval Base, where they split into two groups and played as invaders and defenders near Mount Brown.
The beaches at Rockingham, further to the south, had been the main training grounds for the 10th Light Horsemen during the First World War, so they had a long connection with the area.
A month before the war games, in February 1939, 80 members of the 28th Battalion held tactical training at Naval Base, including their Machine Gun Company and involving many new recruits.
All of these militia units using Naval Base as their exercise site meant that, when war was declared in September 1939, it was considered a regular militia site and was immediately held aside as army training grounds.
Western Australians enthusiastically offered themselves to military service when war was declared in September 1939. By the middle of that month, men were queueing at the gates of recruitment centres to join up, though the military had hardly got its head around raising a regular force again.
Militia units - such as the 28th Battalion and the 10th Light Horse Regiment - who were already organised and ready to train, were given precedence at their regular camps while the Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF) was raised.
These regular camps were Northam, Karrakatta, Swanbourne, Rottnest, Henderson Naval Base and Rockingham.
Another camp at Melville was quickly established and became a central training ground. The camps were rapidly updated and much work was done to prepare them for the large influx of new enlistments expected.
Site of the camp
According to an article written by a visitor to the camp in December 1939, when the 10th Light Horse were in training there, the Henderson camp was ‘on the rising ground east of the Naval Base-Rockingham road, just south of the Woodman's Point quarantine station fence’.
This puts it approximately on the site of today’s Wastewater Treatment plant entrance on Cockburn Road.
First militia units
The first militia unit to go into training at Naval Base was supposed to be the 10th Garrison Battalion, a newly-formed unit of men between 45 and 60 who had been soldiers in World War One. This did not materialise, and they went instead to the Melville camp, probably because the Naval Base camp was not ready yet.
10th Light Horse, November 1939-April 1940
The 10th Light Horse were the first unit to actually go into training at Naval Base. They entered camp on November 14 for a month, had a Christmas break, and went back into camp for another three months on January 5 1940.
An estimated 75% of the members of the 10th Light Horse were rural men from the south-west of WA, places like York, Harvey, Bunbury, Toodyay, and Waroona, and most were farm workers or farmers leaving their property in the hands of family or staff.
They brought their horses into the city by train, alighting at the Spearwood station and walking to Naval Base.
The rest were from all over the Perth metropolitan area, men with businesses and jobs on hold for them while they undertook their national duty.
600 men, with 600 of their own horses, were encamped at Naval Base during that summer period. The camp was modern, with huts, stores, and kitchens, all with electric lights, and the regiment included cooks, bootmakers, saddlers, and tailors.
Life in camp
The troopers’ days began at 5.45am and involved physical exercise, horsemanship, and training manoeuvres in small troops and large squadrons, with a focus on becoming a coastal defence unit should Western Australia ever be invaded. They took every chance to swim their horses at the beach, which attracted huge quantities of sharks to the area - one night in late November local fishermen caught 24.
Machine gun exercises were regular, and the noise of the bullets echoed around the district. Journalists on a visit for the Perth newspaper the Mirror quipped that ‘motorists driving along the main road to Mandurah might have been excused for thinking that a battery of woodpeckers were at work in the foreshore bush’.
By most accounts the 10th Light Horsemen enjoyed their time at Naval Base exceedingly, but the concerns of home were never far from their mind. Sitting in the YMCA hut on camp surrounded by fellow recruits playing bobs and table tennis, one man wrote ‘I have just enjoyed three days' Easter holidays, which I spent in complete relaxation. I really enjoy camp life, but have worries at times like the rest of the farmers in camp’. There was, he said, a lot of work for him to do on his farm once the camp broke up in mid-April.
3rd Field Brigade and Army Ordnance, April-July 1940
As soon as the 10th Light Horse broke camp, the next lot of militia units were ready to move in. On 12 April 1940 the 3rd Field Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery and the Workshop Company of the 5th Australian Army Ordnance Corps arrived to begin their three months’ training.
The 3rd Field Brigade were newly equipped with pneumatic-tyred tractors, guns, howitzers and trailers, most of which had been converted from old wooden-wheeled structures by the Workshop Company, and the howitzer guns had been constructed almost entirely in the Midland Junction Railway workshops. These adjustments made for a vastly improved training schedule, and the three months passed usefully.
The highlight of the camp for many men was the adoption of a dog as the 3rd Field Brigade’s mascot. Discovered wandering the streets of Fremantle by some of the gunners on a day’s leave, Mons (as she had been named by her new owners) rapidly adjusted to camp life, including the regular firing of large guns, and was officially listed on the brigade’s rolls and given a collar with two stars.
AIF training camps
By the time the 3rd Field Brigade had left camp in early July, recruits for the 2nd AIF were flooding in. Though the main site for AIF training had been developed at Northam, it was not yet able to handle the numbers being processed through the reception depot at Claremont. Naval Base and Melville camps were both set aside as camps for AIF recruits to do some of their preliminary instruction. Staff and officers from the 3rd Field Brigade remained behind at Naval Base once their troops broke camp to instruct the new recruits.
New camp facilities
By October 1940 Naval Base was home to between 300 and 400 AIF
troops, under the camp’s Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel C.L. Biles.
The camp had been worked on heavily as an official AIF centre, and was considered a luxurious posting. It had large a large canteen and mess hall, a full-time band, barbers, hairdressers, flower gardens, a library, and magnificent sea views. Regular concerts and movie nights were run to keep the troops entertained, and as one wrote in April 1941, ‘I don’t think you could get a better camp in all Australia. There is almost every facility a person could wish for.’
Social work and the Army Baby
AIF recruits in camp at Naval Base were always on hand to help out local causes, and spent a good deal of early 1941 fundraising for patriotic causes. They sponsored a baby in the 1941 Popular Baby contest, known as the Army Baby (to differentiate it from the Navy, Air Force, and Civilian babies) and went so far as to send some of their men out dressed as babies to raise money and put ‘their’ baby ahead of the game.
In March 1941, 75 AIF recruits were sent to the bush near Waroona where a bushfire was raging. They joined over 100 other men fighting the fire, and were reinforced after a couple of days by 130 more soldiers from Naval Base, who battled the blaze until it was under control.
Troops were called to fires in the area twice more over the ensuing weeks, working untiringly and saving many properties and lives.
AIF’s final months at Naval Base
Advertising for a visitors day in April 1941 noted ‘this will be ‘the public's last opportunity of seeing the AIF boys in a camp in the metropolitan area’.
Through the winter months new recruits continued to arrive at Naval Base: in June a draft of 200 recruits coming out of initial training at Claremont was followed one week later by another 150.
Packing up camp
But by September the winds were changing: at 5.30 on a ‘cold, stormy morning’, the troops camped at Naval Base were raised by Reveille, ate an early breakfast, packed their kits and marched to Coogee where they boarded a train bound for Northam.
This was the last major group of AIF trainees to be based at Naval Base, which was already undergoing the changes required to turn it into a large convalescent home for returned soldiers. The camp remained a big part of life on the Cockburn coast for many years to come, but the days of ‘woodpecker’ guns and beachside drills were done.