Archaeology of the Russian Scare: The Port Adelaide Torpedo Station

01st June 2006

Martin Wimmer

BArch(Hons), Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, October 2005

This thesis examines the Port Adelaide Torpedo Station, a colonial era coastal defence facility in South Australia. It seeks to understand how the material culture of the site can reflect changing attitudes to coastal defence in that state between 1877 and 1924.

The Torpedo Station bridges colonial and national defence theory and practice, having been operative in both regimes and is representative of the evanescent nature of industrial era warfare. Conceptualised at a time when theorists of coastal defence advocated investment in shore-based fortifications and regarded naval vessels as no more than seaward accessories to these static structures, the Torpedo Station was very much a product of its time. By the early twentieth century this attitude to coastal defence had changed dramatically due largely to evolving technology and Federation.

Federation brought a rationalisation of Australia’s naval assets and a unified national defence strategy. Defence theory shifted from one of isolated land-based military installations and a haphazard reliance on ships of the Royal Navy, to a national naval capability and deterrent. Investment in a naval fleet took precedence over expenditure on static land-based defences and sites such as the Port Adelaide Torpedo Station became superfluous to this new defence policy.

The archaeology of the Torpedo Station provides a greater understanding of how the military scenarios which led to its establishment were era-specific and relevant only as long as the available military hardware and related theory remained immutable. The site, never modernised during its operational life and never reused after abandonment, presents a pristine military stratigraphy. The material culture of the site represents a manifestation of particular ways of seeing the world and reflects specialised experiences of time and place.

The site is now severely degraded and unrecognisable as a former military installation. Despite this degradation, a pre- disturbance survey of the site has found the spatial integrity of the Torpedo Station to be largely intact. It contains remains relating to a discernable stage of intellectual development which are in the same arrangement now, as in a previous age. The cultural site formation processes which led to the site’s degradation are intimately tied to rapidly evolving armaments technology and shifting attitudes towards coastal defence.

The fact that so little of the fabric remains visible above ground and that the Australian Navy transferred the site to the South Australian Harbours Board in 1924 is testament to its loss of strategic importance and reflects the changing attitudes to coastal defence in South Australia and by extension Australia.

Martin Wimmer
Archaeology of the Russian Scare: The Port Adelaide Torpedo Station
June 2006
Thesis Abstracts
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