Royal Australian Medical Corps Drill Hall, Melbourne

Response

The many drill halls that are dotted across our suburbs and state are representative of the incredible contribution of both our citizens and specialist services throughout World War II. Their abundance is a tangible reminder of the mass mobilisation of the Australian populace in the defence of Australia.

A colourful photograph of a large brick building on a winters day. Royal Australian Army Medical Corps Drill Hall, A’Beckett Street, Melbourne, 2020. Source: Damien Kook

From 1935 to 1939 there was a dramatic increase in defence spending as the threat of war loomed closer. This was coupled with the reintroduction of compulsory military training by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1939 to bolster the existing Citizens Military Forces (CMF, or militia). As a result, drill halls were built across the state to provide administration, accommodation, and training spaces for both the armed forces—the Second Australian Imperial Forces (2nd AIF)—and the CMF.

The Defence Act 1903 only allowed volunteer soldiers to fight overseas, and as such, the 2nd AIF was purely a volunteer army. In Victoria due to the compulsory CMF utilising many of the drill halls for training, new camps had to be set up for training of the 2nd AIF, including Puckapunyal Camp, which opened in November 1939.

The Royal Australian Army Medical Corps Drill Hall in Melbourne is a fine example of a CMF drill hall. Built in 1938, it was designed by the Commonwealth Department of Works architect, George H. Hallendal, who was responsible for many of the drill hall designs across Victoria. It is an imposing red and cream brick building and its design reflects a combination of several stylistic influences including Colonial Revival, Art Deco, Classical and Moderne. This is reflective of many inter-war military buildings.

A black and white architectural drawing of a building depicting its side and top elevations. Original drawings for the Royal Medical Corps Drill Hall, 1938. Source: National Archives of Australia.

The Medical Corps Drill Hall was purposely designed to be the central location for all functions of the Corps. It included an indoor parade ground for marching and equipment drills, a gymnasium for physical training, and a social centre which offered activities such as dances and film nights. The mezzanine level allowed for observation of activities on the floor of the hall, and the ceiling design reflected suburban cinemas of the time. The Medical Corps Drill Hall now operates at the headquarters of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and is also home to the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.

A blurry black and white photograph of a large brick building. A truck is driving past the building and four cars are parked next to the gutter in front of the building. Exterior view of the 2nd outpatients depot in Victoria Street, 1945. Source: Australian War Memorial.

Hallendal also designed the nearby Royal Melbourne Regiment Drill Hall on Victoria Street, built in 1937. The building, which shares distinctive stylistic features with the Medical Corps Drill Hall, was used by the Regiment in the lead-up to World War II. With features including offices, mess rooms, lecture rooms, and a basement firing range, it was used for various defence purposes during the war, including outpatient services in 1945 for the 2nd Battalion.

A black and white photograph of the interior of a hall. A number of people in uniforms are seated on benches. Patients seated outside the optical workshop at the 2nd outpatients depot, Victoria Street, 1945. Source: Australian War Memorial.

Drill halls played a significant role in the training of the CMF. The restrictions of the Defence Act 1903 did not allow the CMF to fight beyond Australia and its territories, and it was largely made up of young men from the suburbs. This contributed to some animosity between the CMF and the 2nd AIF, who referred to the CMF troops as “Chocolate Soldiers” who would melt in the heat of battle. However, after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, the threat of war had stretched closer to Australia. As Papua and New Guinea were territories of Australia, it enabled the government to mobilise the CMF in the Australian defence campaign.

A black and white photograph of a row of men in military uniform stand in front of a building with a thatched roof. A jungle canopy can be seen in the background. Members of the 39th Battalion, AMF, parade after weeks of fighting in dense jungle during the Kokoda campaign. Source: Australian War Memorial..

The Hawthorn-Kew regiment of the CMF formed the 39th Battalion and were sent overseas to fight. In July 1942, this young battalion fought alongside the Second AIF in the grueling seven-month Kokoda Trail campaign. The success of the campaign was a crucial point in stopping the Japanese advance across the Pacific and towards Australia, however it resulted in the loss of more than 600 Australian lives, and another 1,680 were wounded.

By late-1942 the CMF consisted of 262,000 troops compared to 171,000 troops in the 2nd AIF. The significance of these numbers and the continued pressure of the Japanese forces in the South-West Pacific Zone led the Curtin Labor Government—formerly a vocal opponent of conscription—to extend compulsory service overseas, and in February 1943, the Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act was passed to enable this.

Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.