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Melbourne's history as a defence centre is best considered as falling into three main periods: from first British settlement until the withdrawal of imperial troops in 1870, from 1871 until Victoria joined the Australian Commonwealth in 1901, and the following era of federal defence responsibility. Melbourne was the interim national capital 1901-27 and continued to house the nation's defence headquarters until 1961.

The British twice attempted settlement at Port Phillip in 1803 and 1826 to forestall settlement by the French, but permanent settlement came only in 1835 when squatters crossed Bass Strait from Van Diemen's Land and the Murray River from New South Wales. Sydney recognised the fait accompli of settlement in 1836 when Governor Bourke visited, and thereafter the Port Phillip District was garrisoned with British troops. They occupied temporary camps at Flagstaff Hill, Batmans Hill and Princes Bridge.

Separation in 1851 from New South Wales as the Colony of Victoria was soon followed by the discovery of gold. In the 1850s clipper ships exploited the strong winds and open waters of the Great Circle Route across the Atlantic and around Antarctica, with Melbourne as their first landfall. For a time Melbourne became Australia's busiest port: on most days in 1853 more than 300 ocean ships were anchored in Hobsons Bay, some 40 000 tons of shipping and £5 million in gold. The surge in Melbourne's population and prosperity caused British authorities to send four companies of the 40th Regiment in 1852, to despatch the sloop Electra in 1853, and to transfer the military headquarters from Sydney in 1854. In that year Victoria became the first British colony to order a warship, and the sloop Victoria became the first Australian warship. Troops were housed in a permanent 'New Military Barracks', known from 1866 as Victoria Barracks, south of the Yarra River on St Kilda Road that led to Hobsons Bay at the head of Port Phillip Bay. Until 1857 the Victorian Government paid the troops. After British troops were withdrawn from the colonies in 1870, these barracks housed the headquarters of Victoria's military and naval forces.

The long peace enjoyed by Britain in Europe from 1815 to 1914, and the vast distance between Europe and Australia's southernmost mainland colony, did not assuage Victorian feelings of vulnerability. While membership of the world's greatest empire with the world's dominant navy gave an ultimate guarantee of safety, Melbourne was thought to be at risk of reprisal raids, and even invasion, whenever the Empire went to war. Melbourne's valuable gold and wool exports, plus the British shipping that mostly carried them, were perceived as endangered should Great Britain clash with another major power. In short, the imperial connection threatened eventually to involve the Australasian colonies in hostilities.

Melburnians were alarmed on several occasions in the 1850s and 1860s by the possibility of attack. Britain's confirmed enemy, Russia, was the main fear. The Crimean War was on the mind of members of the hastily formed volunteer militia who rushed to the Bay in September 1854, alarmed by the noise of cannon fire and the sight of rockets - but it was merely the Great Britain marking her release from quarantine. In 1865 Governor Darling worried about the possible shelling of Melbourne, when a deserter alleged the Russians were planning attacks on Australian harbours. But Melbourne's real vulnerability was demonstrated when the Confederate Raider CSS Shenandoah sailed into Melbourne overnight on 26 January 1865 under Captain Waddell, who threatened to fire on the town if he were prevented from repairing, coaling and recruiting. The visit went off smoothly and amicably (who was going to argue the point with him, after all!), and the Shenandoah sailed from Melbourne in mid-February 1865, although the legal and financial ramifications of Victorian hospitality were considerable.

Such scares moved Victoria to improve Melbourne's defences. Two warships were obtained, the Cerberus, an ironclad monitor, and the Nelson, a steam sailing ship of the line. The government also arranged for imperial ships to have priority use of the Alfred Graving Dock at Williamstown, built to accommodate the largest ships that could enter Port Phillip. As a result Melbourne became an important fleet facility for shipbuilding, repair and resupply. At a time of tension between Britain and Russia in the 1870s, Russian vessels were among the visitors to Port Phillip, including a fleet of ships in 1882. No less than the Age newspaper was hoaxed about an imminent attack, and several invasion stories and novels rehearsed assaults (usually Russian) on Port Phillip and on Melbourne; The battle of the Yarra (1883), The fall of Melbourne (1885) and The battle of Mordialloc (1888) were the most substantial of these. Governments augmented the Hobsons Bay defences with improved forces and up-to-date technology: torpedo boats and the gunboats Victoria and Albert, a paid militia and permanent forces of artillery and engineers, and fortifications on both sides of the Port Phillip Heads at Point Nepean and Queenscliff-Point Lonsdale. In 1883-84 Victoria became the first of the Australian colonies to create a Ministry of Defence, with the day-to-day running of the new Department in the hands of a Council of Defence. A war scare in 1885 pushed on defence preparations which, largely completed by the end of the decade, won praise from imperial figures. Victoria had the strongest defences among the Australian colonies, a reflection of the anxiety that came with boom-time prosperity. Marvellous Melbourne was a prize that had to be protected.

Rifle clubs and school cadet corps were flourishing in the 1880s, and staff at Victoria Barracks assessed citizens volunteering enthusiastically for local defence. Volunteers were dispatched to real wars in South Africa (1899-1902) and in China (1900), when a naval contingent was sent to help suppress the Boxer rebellion. Upon Federation in 1901, with Melbourne as the interim capital, and the transfer of the defence power to the Commonwealth, the Victorian Department of Defence was absorbed into the new federal one, the head becoming the first departmental secretary, and Victoria Barracks becoming the military headquarters of the Commonwealth Defence Forces. Much military and naval pomp attended the opening of the first federal parliament in Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building in May 1901. A large fleet of British, German, Russian, US and Dutch warships entered Port Phillip for the occasion. Japanese naval visits occurred in 1904 and 1906, on either side of the Russo-Japanese War, and in 1908 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin secured a visit of US President Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet during its world cruise designed to demonstrate American (and white racial) might.

Although the seat of Commonwealth government moved to Canberra in 1927, the Department of Defence remained in Melbourne until 1961, and the full transfer of functions took some years. Melbourne therefore constituted the nation's centre of defence planning and war administration during two world wars and Australia's first military engagements in South-East Asia (the Malayan Emergency of 1950-60 and the Korean War of 1950-52).

It was from Victoria Barracks that the expanding staff of the Defence Department administered the recruitment, formation and dispatch overseas of military units in 1914-18, and again in 1939-45. And it is claimed that the first shots of both world wars were fired at the Heads when warning shots were fired across the bows of suspect ships attempting to leave Port Phillip Bay after news of Britain's declaration of war had been received. World War II saw the creation of a War Cabinet, which met in the War Room at Victoria Barracks for the first time on 27 September 1939, and in 1940 of an Advisory War Council, created by the government in October 1940 to keep the opposition informed. As the headquarters of the three services and the departments of Defence, Munitions and Supply and Development were located in Melbourne, almost as many meetings of the War Cabinet were held in Melbourne (126) as in Canberra (150), and more than half the meetings of the Advisory War Council.

When the Pacific War opened in December 1941, the defence and military pace quickly accelerated in Melbourne. Prime Minister Curtin's declaration that 'Australia looks to America' was made in the Herald on 27 December 1941. Early in 1942 American headquarters were transferred south from Brisbane, and General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Melbourne from the Philippines in March to take charge of American troops. Appointed commander of the South-West Pacific Area and charged with stemming the Japanese advance, MacArthur established his headquarters in Melbourne in April, moving to Brisbane in July to be nearer the centre of military operations. While in Melbourne, MacArthur lived at the Menzies Hotel in Collins Street and exercised his command from St Kilda Road, first from Victoria Barracks and then from the Repatriation Building.

A Melbourne journalist, Erle Cox, had in 1938-39 published Fools' harvest, the most graphic of several 1930s Australian novels intended to awaken the country to the danger of an Asian invasion. In the panic-stricken opening months of the Pacific War this nightmare threatened to become reality, with invasion by the Japanese daily expected ('Darwin Bombed - Footscray May be Next', one local newspaper memorably declared). An evening 'brownout' was instituted, arrangements were made for evacuating schoolchildren to the country, and plans were drawn up to destroy bridges, wharves, shipping and supplies of war materials in and around the Port of Melbourne, so as to deny them to the enemy. The invasion never came, and Japanese naval operations off the Victorian coast resulted in a single reconnaissance flight over Melbourne on 20 January 1942. Nevertheless, even as the danger of invasion receded in 1943, the defence of Melbourne remained of critical importance, given the city's central role in the production of war materials (in particular munitions, chemicals and rubber), the importance of its harbour and docks, and its continuing significance as a centre of defence policy formulation and defence administration.

In the post-World War II years the defence significance of Melbourne declined as that of Canberra increased with the transfer to the national capital in the 1960s of the Department of Defence, and of the national headquarters of the RSL. If the rusting hulk of the Cerberus in Half Moon Bay off Sandringham, the carefully preserved Victoria Barracks in St Kilda Road, and the nearby Shrine of Remembrance still testified to Melbourne's historic role in the nation's defence history, in the era of the Cold War, nuclear weapons rendered major cities like Melbourne likely targets and quite indefensible. Nevil Shute's novel On the beach (1957) employed Melbourne not as the site of a spectacular atomic cataclysm but as the melancholy place where the last survivors of global nuclear warfare resignedly awaited their fate.

John Lack And R.S. (Bill) Billett