Remembering West Head
In 1941 a group of young men were sent to West Head overlooking the mouth of Broken Bay and Pittwater to install two seven inch naval guns to protect this part of the coast from invasion by enemy forces during the WWII. The small complex of forts were long forgotten until recently when the NPWS and a community group got together to clear away the vegetation that had completely enveloped the structures. Ninety year old Jack "Bluey" Mercer was an 18 year old who was sent to West Head to install the guns and his lively recollections are compelling viewing. This is an extended interview recorded with Bluey about his life during theis period in history, part of which featured in the short "Fighting fit" about the West Head Forts.
Extended interview with Jack “Bluey” Mercer
The remains of the West Head Battery or West Head Fort are located in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, overlooking the entrance to Broken Bay and Pittwater, in New South Wales. The battery comprised two Quick Firing (Q.F.) 4.7" Mk IV ex-naval guns, an observation post, ammunition storage and two nearby searchlight posts.
Photo: via Andrew Bevan Anti-submarine boom net across the entrance to Pittwater. Barrenjoey Lighthouse can be seen in the background.
Eighteen year old Jack "Bluey" Mercer was one of 80 servicemen sent to the site to establish West Head Battery and install the two Q.F. 4.7" Mk IV guns in the 3rd week in January 1941. He did his rookie training at North Head Barracks and he then went to Middle Head to learn the skills he would required when he moved to West Head Battery. A Major taught them the art of repository, which in artillery terms meant the ability to move heave weights with relative ease using basic materials. All their work was done by hand and they used block and tackles, levers and wedges etc.
Before "Bluey" had arrived on site the site had been cleared by the Fortress Engineers and they had installed the cutting, the gun emplacements, a vertical railway line and a horizontal railway line between the two gun positions. The huts had also been installed by that time. "Bluey" and his group were tasked with moving the guns from the top down to the bottom of the cliff and then installing the guns and making them operational.
They would wake up at 5:30am, have breakfast at 6:00am and be down at the bottom of the cliff at 6:30am to start their work for the day. They would take a break at lunch time and come back up to their camp area and then go back down again and worked through to about 6:00pm at night or until they ran out of daylight. "Bluey" Mercer said that all the men loved their cook. Their food was very good. Any of the men who collected firewood for the cook would receive some special goodies, so the cook was never short of firewood.
Their first job was to get one of the 7 1/2 ton gun pedestals off the truck onto a platform on the railway line. Once it was off the truck, they used wooden rollers to move it on to the platform. It was too late for them to attempt to move the pedestal to the bottom of the cliff. They were up at 5:00am the next morning to start work. Unfortunately the brake failed and the gun pedestal went to the bottom at an uncontrolled speed and a 2 1/2 ton concrete counterweight came to the top of the hill at the same speed which caused the Major to tell the men to scatter. The concrete counterweight became airborne for a short while and speared into a gantry. The gun pedestal flew off the platform and had to be recovered. This caused a few weeks delay in their program. They used a dolly on the horizontal line to move the pedestal to the gun site.
The Australian Army work boat Korree supported the men at West Head Battery with equipment and supplies. Jack Kelly was the coxswain of the Koree.
The first gun that was installed was fired five times, to test it to make sure it was properly installed. This is called a "proving shoot". This was done at night time in conjunction with testing the searchlights. When the guns fired a lot of houses in Palm Beach turned their outside lights on despite the blackout restrictions.
While he was at West Head "Bluey" was sent to a number of Artillery Workshops for training and he eventually qualified as an Armament Artificer.
"Bluey" left West Battery at the end of March 1942 and the two guns at the Battery was totally operational by that time. He moved to Jervis Bay to assist with installation of a Battery there.
There was a telephone cable installed between West Head Battery and Juno Point Battery.
A report by the 5th Australian Anti-aircraft and Fortress Company RAE (5 Aust AA & Frt Coy RAE) indicated that the guns emplacements at West Head had scrim camouflage netting and mock rock installed for camouflaging the gun sites.
It would appear there may have been a Bofor Anti-aircraft battery on the Bairne track near the West Head Battery.
"Z" Special Unit had their Camp Z located on the top of a cliff at Cowan Creek, at nearby Refuge Bay. They carried out mock attacks on the West Head Batery location and other military camps in the general area.
On 24 November 2014, the NSW Heritage Minister and Member for Pittwater, Rob Stokes, announced $200,000 for works at the WWII West Head Battery which will be used to build new stairs and restore access to the old soldier’s track at the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park site. This money was in addition to the $6500 already being used for new signage.
Photo: Jim Macken Collection
Probably the arrival of the men who were to install and commission the two guns
Photo: Jim Macken Collection - The Naval gun mounted on its pedestal mount
Photo: Jim Macken Collection - Proud of their work installing the gun
Photo: Jim Macken Collection - One of the gun positions
Photo: Jim Macken Collection - The camp area at the top of the hill
Photo: Jim Macken Collection -The horizontal railway line between the two gun positions
The rear of one of the bunkers.
Possibly the Battery Observation Post
"Fighting fit" - saving the West Head forts from invasion
A History Of Pittwater - West Head Fortress - Pittwater Pathways
The story of the WWII fortress at West Head up to March 1941, including the installation of the guns as told by the man who was there - Jack 'Bluey' Mercer. The history of Commodore Heights, attempts by speculators to subdivide Kuringai Chase and the building of the Hawkesbury River railway bridge. An over-arching strategic theme from 1882 onwards reveals how the defence of Pittwater, Broken Bay and the Hawkesbury River railway bridge was essential to the war effort and the defence of Sydney.
More Recently The Member for Pittwater Rob Stokes officially opened the rebuilt Army Track at West Head in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
The NSW Government provided $370,000 to support the project which has restored access to West Head’s historic WWII gun battery site.
Also unveiled was a display model of the gun battery provided by the volunteer West Head Awareness Team and 4HResearch Group.
“This is a crucial piece of local military history and helps tell the story of the defence of Australia during WWII,” Rob Stokes said today.
“West Head was a key defence site and played a strategic role in the protection of Pittwater, the Hawkesbury River and northern Sydney.
“Of particular concern was the real threat of German naval activity in 1940 and the vulnerability of the Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge.
“West Head was chosen due to its strategic topography and its ability to prevent landing craft from entering the Pittwater.
“Bluey Mercer was among a group of around 80 young men who scrambled to help fortify Sydney when war broke out in 1939 and it’s fantastic that he’s able to be part of this occasion,” Rob Stokes said.
Environment Minister Mark Speakman said the new track would improve access to the historic site.
“Volunteers have worked at the site for more than 15 years, but in the past 18 months volunteers and National Parks and Wildlife Service staff have worked to clear thick bushland covering the site and piece together the Battery’s history,” Mr Speakman said.
“The WHAT volunteer group, formed in 2012, is made up of local historians, authors, ex-military personnel and Royal Australian Artillery Association members.
“Volunteer Peter Rae, helped by veteran Jack “Bluey” Mercer, designed technical drawings of the Battery and volunteers from the Gosford Men’s Shed built the models.
“Difficult access at the site meant guns and seven tonne pedestals had to be moved down a 50 degree slope to the selected site.
“Army engineers devised a rail system with counterweight pulley to transport the materials. All work was done with hand, block and tackle as there were no cranes available,”
Mr Speakman Said.
Vic Rae - Photo Courtesy Pittwater Online News
Firm supporters of the project, Members of Pittwater RSL Sub-Branch attended the unveiling of the new signage - Photo Courtesy Pittwater Online News
Avalon Beach Historical Society's Geoff Searl, Patron Jim Macken and MP for Pittwater and OEH Minister,Rob Stokes. - Photo Courtesy Pittwater Online News