Darwin war history
Written by Norman Cramp, Director of Darwin Military Museum
The belief that there are wartime tunnels in and around Darwin has existed in Darwin since those dark days of 1942 when terror rained from the skies on an almost daily basis and the threat of invasion seemed very real.
Over 75 years have passed now and the belief, myth and rumour that there are numerous tunnels in and around Darwin and an underground hospital at East Point remain and persist.
So, are there wartime, military-constructed tunnels in or around Darwin or is it all just a myth based on wartime rumour and gossip?
We know for certain there were tunnels dug into the escarpment in the area below the Administrator’s residence (Government House) and near the oil storage tanks situated at Stokes Hill. However, these ‘tunnels’ were designed to store the precious fuel oil required for the allied naval ships that ported in Darwin. They were not designed to house people, headquarters units, as was the case at the Battle Box, Fort Canning, Singapore, or defensive fighting units, such as the Maginot Line in France. No, they were constructed to protect the fuel oil from Japanese bombing attacks.
The myth that tunnels exist at East Point has circulated, according to one source since the wartime and was often ‘trotted out’ in the days following the war. The late Frank Geddes, OAM, came here in 1949 and heard the stories of the East Point tunnels then. When I arrived here in mid-1974 the myth was still circulating and as I knew Frank well and knew he was a local (amateur) military historian, I asked him if such tunnels existed. The answer was a catergoric NO! Other ‘old timers’ such as Capt. Neil Benton and Capt. Allan Ogden who both served in the Artillery Units at East Point post-WW2 also swore there were no tunnels at East Point – but many people were not listening.
Regardless, the myth persisted and it wasn’t until 2010 that a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey was conducted within the Darwin Military Museum (DMM), then referred to as the East Point Military Museum, in preparation for the construction of the Defence of Darwin Experience building. The complete block was surveyed with no sign of any tunnel(s) being discovered.
In 2014, a gentleman (possibly Peter Roberts) visited the DMM and asked to see the Director (me). He had a photograph (reproduced above) that he claimed was of the construction of a tunnel between Gun Emplacement 1 (GE1) and the Command Post (CP) at East Point. He them mentioned the ‘trench’ could have been part of the foundations for the ‘underground hospital’.
He told me he had served at East Point during the war and that he clearly remembered ‘tunnels’ being built in that area. He left a copy of the photograph with us on which he, or someone had written, ‘Underground excavations for RAP (Regimental Aid Post) in jungle behind centre of East Point Battery approx. Oct/Nov ’42. Big Bill Capewell in photo – taken by Pete Roberts WX33728 – running approximately north, nor-west and situated from my memory behind 9.2 emplacements. If anything I feel behind #1’.
The photograph was shown to members of the NT Heritage Branch who decided to conduct another GPR survey in the general area behind GE1. Once again the survey failed to identify any tunnels or concrete infrastructure that resembled a structure such as a building. So, in short, the scientific evidence is that no formed tunnels exist at East Point. Although it is possible that communication trenches, such as the ‘trench’ shown in the photograph, may have been dug to allow safe human movement from the gun emplacements to the CP in times of enemy attack as there were areas identified by the GPR survey that showed signs of ground disturbance – but no concrete or block structure(s) in the vicinity.
So, how and why did the myth start? Geddes, Benton and (the late) Ogden were of the opinion the ‘rumour’ started during the war as East Point was a restricted military area where ‘secret’ things were happening (ie: construction of the gun emplacements etc) and the rumour mill was alive and well! It’s easy to imagine what was suspected of going on at East Point and perhaps some of the soldiers were having a bit of fun by spreading the rumour?
The myth may also have been perpetuated by adults and children who lived at East Point post-war referring to the entrance portals of GE1 and 2 as ‘tunnels’. This could be correct, as both emplacements had earth embankments as bomb blast protection and entrance to the emplacements would have appeared to be like a tunnel.
Alas, we’ll probably never know how, when or why the myth started but we know it is exactly that – a myth!
Darwin Military Museum
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Darwin Military Museum