Williamstown Naval Dockyard &
HMAS Castlemaine, Williamstown, Melbourne

Response

Whether it be through farewelling troops, building and supporting naval capacity, providing supply ships, welcoming Allied soldiers, or ushering in the thousands of new migrants who would call Victoria home following the war, our waterways were a critical aspect of Victoria’s war response.

A colour photograph of a timber pier with a large grey battleship anchored beside it. In the background are many small ships. HMAS Castlemaine, Gem Pier, Williamstown. Source: Susan Gordon Brown for the Sites of Significance program.

At the beginning of World War II, Williamstown was one of Australia’s three major naval dockyards, making it integral to Australia’s war response. The Williamstown Naval Dockyard’s 178-person workforce was swiftly mobilised to undertake construction, conversion, and repair activities, as well as the servicing and staging of allied Naval ships. As part of the Commonwealth Government’s wartime shipbuilding program, the survey vessel Warreen and eight Bathurst Class minesweepers were built on-site, including HMAS Castlemaine.

A black and white aerial photograph of a dockyard. The dockyard is made up of several buildings, piers and ships. Aerial view of Williamstown Naval Dockyard, c1925-1940, by Charles Daniel Pratt. Source: State Library of Victoria.

HMAS Castlemaine was one of sixty Australian minesweepers (corvettes) built in Australia during World War II. She was launched at Williamstown on 7 August 1941 by Mrs RG Menzies, wife of then Prime Minister Robert Menzies. The corvettes were versatile ships capable of performing a range of tasks including convoy escort, anti-submarine, surveying, and troop transport duties. During this period there was considerable concern about Japan attacking Australia, and the use of corvettes was a useful defence mechanism as they were able to lay depth charges to destroy enemy submarines. HMAS Castlemaine predominately served as a convoy escort during the war period, and she is now the last remaining Australian corvette. HMAS Castlemaine is now permanently berthed at Gem Pier, Wiliamstown and operates as a memorial and museum run by the Maritime Trust of Australia Inc.

A black and white photograph of a military ship anchored at a jetty. Industrial buildings can be seen in the background. HMAS Castlemaine, c1941-1954, by Allan C Green. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Another maritime memorial, not far from Williamstown, is the national memorial to HMAS Yarra II located in Newport. HMAS Yarra II served in Australian waters, the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean, and in February 1942 rescued 2,000 men from a burning troop ship in Singapore. In March 1942, HMAS Yarra II and its small convoy to Australia were destroyed and sunk by three Japanese cruisers and two destroyers in the Indian Ocean south of Java. Only 13 sailors survived following their rescue by Dutch submarine KX1 five days later. The memorial serves as a reminder of the global movement of our naval forces, and the vast ocean in which battles were endured and lives were lost.

More broadly, Western Port Bay and Port Philip Bay were pivotal to Australia’s World War II response. When war broke out, HMAS Cerberus in Western Port Bay—a primary Naval training base since 1921—was quickly expanded to accommodate the influx of over 400 new wartime enlistments per month, which by 1942 included women. Over the whole World War II period, more than 1,000 Naval officers were trained here.

A black and white photograph of a large group of military personnel stand in formation in a parade ground. Official visitor of Lord Keyes, British Director of Combined Operations, to Flinders Naval Base, 1944. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Station Pier and Princes Pier in Port Melbourne also played a significant role in the embarkation and arrival of Australian troop ships and hospital ships. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the US entered the war and Australia became a central base for them to mount their South West Pacific campaign. In 1942 Princes Pier was used by the US Navy and became the main supply port for US Military equipment for the Pacific campaign. Melbourne hosted one of the largest gatherings of US troops in the country, with 30,000 troops stationed here by mid 1942 and in January 1943, welcomed 15,000 US Marines for nine months recuperation following the Guadalcanal campaign. In order to accommodate the influx of troops, Melbourne’s inner city was transformed—Royal Park became Camp Pell, Melbourne Cricket Ground became Camp Murphy, and South Melbourne Cricket Ground become Camp Robinson.

A black and white photograph of a group of men stand at a bench drinking bottles of softdrink. Christmas decorations are hung above the men. American troops drinking Coca-Cola at the US Red Cross Hospitality Centre, C1942-45. Source: State Library of Victoria. A black and white aerial photograph of a large crowd gathered on a pier. The words welcome home are written on the awning of a building. Princes Pier with men, women and children waiting to see returning members of the RAAF, c1946. Source: State Library of Victoria.

But the US presence also had a significant influence on the cultural and social dynamic of Melbourne and Australia more broadly as the soldiers spread the ideas and products of a developing consumer culture: jazz music, chocolate bars, Coca-Cola, nylon stockings, and other luxuries scarcely known by locals. With many Australian men absent, Melbourne women also forged friendships and relationships with the US troops, who themselves were far from home and battle-weary. However, these relationships became a source of community friction, particularly from Australian servicemen who perceived this to be an exploitation of Melbourne women. In February 1943, tensions culminated in the “Battle of Melbourne”, a street brawl between US Marines and men of the AIF 9th Division in the city on leave. At the end of the war, as many as 15,000 Australian war brides journeyed to the US. Overall, the influence of US troops in Australia forged a stronger connection between our countries and would have a lasting influence on Australian culture and society.

At the conclusion of World War II, Princes Pier was the scene of significant jubilation as Melbourne welcomed home troops, and the Pier was repainted and decorated with bunting and streamers to mark the occasion. In the years following the war, Station Pier was the arrival point for new immigrants, welcoming an average of 61,000 passengers each year between 1949 and 1966. These new immigrants were to transform our State over the coming decades, truly turning Victoria and Australia into a multicultural society.

Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands and waters.