The Coastal Gun Batteries of Port Moresby - Then & Now
by John Douglas
Most people who dwell in Port Moresby are only vaguely aware of the concrete structures to be found on Paga Point. They are the remains of a coastal gun emplacement built in the desperate early years of WWII; when all threats off danger seemed magnified and urgent, defensive measures were called for.
At the end of the nineteenth century; a wave of official hysteria swept the South Pacific. The Russians were coming and coastal cities needed to be defended against their raids and possibly even invasion. Coastal guns were called for and the several were actually installed in coastal cities around Australia and New Zealand, and planning was commenced for the smaller countries of the South Pacific as well. Port Moresby was no exception, and plans were draw up and land reserved at Paga Hill to deal with these vague threats. Time passed and the threat receded in bureaucratic minds. Bridges, schools, roads and hospitals took their place as more urgent matters worthy of their attention.
In 1939 when war broke out in Europe, these old files and plans were extracted from dusty stores; and the Paga Hill gun battery construction recommenced. Two six inch coastal guns were installed and work continued in the supporting infrastructure (magazines, access tunnels, observation Posts etc). Paga Hill was chosen because of the excellent elevated perspective over looking Basilisk Passage; through which any invading fleet would probably approach Port Moresby. When the war with Japan broke out in December 1941 the old coastal defence plans for Port Moresby were quickly examined and realized to be inadequate, due to the improved capabilities of Navy Forces in the period between 1900 and 1940.
Plans for expansion were hastily drawn up. Additional battery locations were decided upon and the search for suitable guns and supporting equipment begun. Port Moresby had to compete with mainland Australian cities for this equipment but no extra coastal guns, beyond the initial two already installed, could be provided at short notice. The normal source of coastal guns was the United Kingdom who was fully occupied in 1942 with its own desperate defence. Alternatives had to be found, and General McArthur ordered several mobile 155mm – “Long Toms” from US sources, along with supporting equipment, including searchlights. These guns were highly mobile but they also had a range suitable for coastal defence, even though they were originally designed in 1918.
The planning for, and development of additional locations for coastal guns in the area around Port Moresby continued during the period 1942-43. Eventually coastal guns were installed at Bootless Bay, Gemo Island, Idlers Bay and at Boera as well. In all cases the guns were manned by Australian Army Gunners.
None of the Port Moresby coastal guns ever fired a shot in anger. Each coastal gun battery equipped with either two mounted permanent guns or two mobile American 155mm guns; an Observation Post with plotting equipment, ammunition bunkers and accommodation. In September 1942, the equipment from America began to arrive and worked commenced at both Boera and Gemo Island. Boera had two 155mm guns installed, while Gemo Island was equipped only with twin 6 pounder guns for close defence.
At the same time the Bootless Bay Gun Battery construction was began. Initially these guns were installed on Kila Beach due to the perceived urgency of the time (Japanese forces were on the Kokoda Trail advancing towards Port Moresby and a coastal supporting invasion seemed a real possibility). They were moved shortly to a more elevated position on the coastal hills overlooking Pari village. This was only a temporary position however and a few months later they were again moved to a hill behind Taurama Barracks overlooking Bootless Bay. The observation lookout and one search light was placed high on Pyramid Point.
The Idlers Bay gun battery (Basilisk Batteries) was constructed much later, and two more permanent 6” guns were made available out of Australia. This gun battery was nearly completed by 1945, when the threat had long passed. The mobile guns at Bootless Bay, Boera and Gemo Island were removed in 1944 and then used in Bougainville and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. The permanent guns mounted at Paga Hill and Idlers Bay (Basilisk Battery) were de-commissioned in 1946.
Time has passed and today these abandoned concrete structures can be viewed by casual visitors. Nothing formal is organized by either the city fathers or by the Department of Environment and Conservation to provide any interpretation needed. Several of these structures are in use on Paga Hill today as dwellings, toilets and are not readily open to public view. The gun emplacements however are easily inspected and the advantageous position they occupy for both coastal defence (and property development) can be readily appreciated. What is usually not known however that the Paga Hill gun battery was only one of five gun batteries installed to protect Port Moresby from marine invasion. Each of these battery gun emplacement was visited by the Author initially in the early 1990s (Paga Hill) and more recently in 2003-2004. All of the concrete structures remain present, being to strongly constructed for local scrappers to demolish for the minimal returns that could be gained.
The structures at Paga Hill have to some extent been infilled with dirt and other debris. Graffiti is to be found widely here and some of the structures are in use as dwellings or storage. A service tunnel runs from the top of Paga Hill, forward to the gun structures, but access to this tunnel is sealed.
Basilisk Battery at Idlers Bay
Accessible by road through Roku village or by boat direct to Idlers Bay. A climb up the hill to the west of Idlers Bay reveals the undisturbed splendor of the Basilisk Battery with its grand views over the sea approaches to Port Moresby. This Battery had emplacements for 3 x 6” guns but only two were ever installed.
An observation post is on the hill top and the three gun positions on the coastal flank. The rear areas contain concrete bunkers for ammunition and for shelter. This is a excellent example of a coastal gun emplacement that any other country would long ago been afforded conservation protection (along with the Paga Hill site).
Accessible by boat only. They are on the seaward flank of the island, and only the cement platforms for twin 6 pounder guns, of much light calibre than elsewhere can be found here.
On the coastal hills immediately behind Boera village. These guns were the American 155mm mobile guns and had slightly different structures built to emplace the guns. This too is a remarkable site, well preserved in its entirety. The supporting search light positions are all easily identified and the gun emplacements seemingly need only the guns to be reinstalled to make them effective once again.
Bootless Bay Battery
Progressively developed at three locations. Little remains of the initial location at Kila Bay but the earthworks can, with care, be identified. The follow up structures on top of the hill behind Pari village may be reached by climbing up from the village. Some concrete structures remain, but the final location is another grand example of a coastal gun fortification.
Two gun emplacements are found, along with trenches to assist in local defence and several bunkers as well. Some marks of chalk on blackboards in the bunkers record the number of rounds of ammunition on hand at the time of the last inventory in 1944. Very little modern graffiti has been inscribed; the sites are clean and are certainly worthy of a visit. If a trip is considered, be sure to consult in all cases with the local landowners and get their permission on each occasion.
Also spread throughout the Port Moresby area are a range of anti aircraft guns emplacements as well. These are usually to be found on hill tops throughout the city and around the various airfields developed during the war years. These sites are usually recognizable by numbers of earth and stone filled 44 gallon drums placed in a circular fashion in a scooped out hollow in the hill tops. That is a story still to be told.
Other Gun Batteries In New Guinea
The American guns were also later installed as semi permanent emplacements at Milne Bay, Lae and Buna; once the threats perceived for Port Moresby had diminished. These guns were also used in a mobile role at Wewak and at Bougainville later in the war. The 6” guns probably still exist in a store somewhere in Sydney.
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