05 November 2011

In fear of the Tsar's navy

Approach to Fort Ballance, Miramar
Fort Ballance sits atop Wellington's Miramar peninsula, and while it's currently shrouded by trees and little visited, in its heyday it served as the main naval defence for the harbour entrance. And it's older than you probably think too. Instead of being a part of the well-known World War 2 gun emplacements at Makara and Wright's Hill in Karori, or even of a World War 1 defensive network, it is actually Victorian in origin, having been built in the 1880s and come into service in 1885.

The enemy it was built to defend against was the Russian navy of Tsar Alexander III. The isolation felt by the New Zealand colonial authorities led to considerable nervousness about the ability of the stretched Royal Navy resources in the Pacific to counter any possible invaders. Russia was developing its Pacific fleet and constructing the Trans-Siberian Railroad to link its eastern territories to its heartland in eastern Europe.

There were also strained diplomatic relations and ongoing sabre-rattling with Britain over Central Asia and the approaches to the lush resources of imperial India. The Panjdeh Incident of March 1885, in which Russia seized territory in Afghanistan and killed about 600 Afghan troops, also tested the nerves of the isolated colony, because for a time it was feared the matter might lead to war. The Auckland Star of 23 March 1885 reported a telegram from London the day before, headlined 'The Threatened War: Russian Intrigue at Panjdeh', while the Otago Daily Times of 16 April 1885 contains reports from the Australian colonies, which were taking 'precautionary measures in view of a possible outbreak of war between England and Russia', including stronger controls on entries to Australian ports, the establishment of a permanent militia camp in Victoria, and a naval patrol service in the Gulf of St Vincent.

Russian naval forces never threatened New Zealand's ports, and the only naval incursions that actually reached our coastal sealanes were German raiders in both World Wars and Japanese submarines in World War 2.  But Fort Ballance remained a key part of Wellington's defences until it was superseded by the more modern Fort Dorset in 1911, and it continued to serve as an auxiliary facility, acting as the capital's main ammunition depot from 1924 until 1959. Fort Ballance also provided army accommodation from 1946 until as late as 1990, although it must have been a cold and windy place for a soldier's billet.

Now the fort is a Category I-registered historic place, and serves as a reminder of the impressive works Victorian engineers undertook in fear of the Tsar's navy. It's an isolated and almost forgotten spot that has attracted plenty of graffiti, but the structures seemingly remain sturdy and will hopefully be protected for many years to come as reminders of our military history. Indeed, some are keen to restore the fort, with local historian Allan Jenkins favouring the reinstatement of the 8-inch 'disappearing gun', which he believes was buried nearby in the 1970s:

Given that the mounts are still in the gun pit and the shields are buried nearby ... it's fair to say I'm fairly excited about the prospect of the gun making a very short trip back into its original home. It was a huge thing. It was the biggest and the best at the time. 
- 'Historian keen to see big gun restored', Dominion Post, 2 November 2011 

Images from Fort Ballance, 16 October 2011:


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