Fortress Adelaide

Tuesday, 23rd Feb 2016 by John Pedler

Fort entrance

I knew what I was waiting for. The 64-pounder cannon was sitting quietly on its platform pointing calmly out to sea, but with 3.30pm approaching that was all about to change.

I was at Fort Glanville in Semaphore and had already heard the loud crack of the little 2-pounder and the impressive blast from the 16-pounder.

Firing the 16-pounder
The 16-pounder in action

But the 64 was another beast altogether. Standing well above head height it was designed to launch a 29kg shell more than four and half kilometres.

The 1850s Crimean War between Russia and everybody else saw the British-ruled Australian colonies grow increasingly anxious about the possibility of a Russian invasion. In the late 1800s, further international conflicts heightened the fear of attack.

It was decided that the Adelaide coastline was in need of fixed defensive positions, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that the job was completed.

Fort Glanville was ready for business in 1880 and Fort Largs in 1883, but the proposed Glenelg barracks never got up.

A raid on the beaches of Adelaide might seem far-fetched but on the morning of February the 26th, 1882, the good folk of Glenelg awoke to find three Russian ships parked in Holdfast Bay.

The Russian Navy had telegraphed ahead to advise of their impending friendly visit but a postal clerk had forgotten to pass on the message, possibly resulting in his first and final warning.

Fort compound
Fort Glanville compound

Connecting the three sites was a length of carriageway that became known as Military Road.

Needless to say, Gulf St Vincent never witnessed an invading armada from Russia or anywhere else. Eventually Fort Largs became the South Australian Police Academy, Fort Glanville became a scout camp and then a caravan park, and Military Road became Military Road.

In what can best be described as a heritage miracle, the main structure of the fort has survived curious scouts, enthusiastic holidaymakers and every wild tempest nature could throw at it.

Restoration work began in 1976 and it’s now in the care of volunteers 16-Pounderfrom the Fort Glanville Historical Association.

Heavily armed and hidden among the dunes, this was not a stronghold to be messed with.  As well as two 64-pounders there were also a couple of ten inch cannons which were capable of hurling a 181kg explosive shell (that’s about the weight of a male lion) up to 6km - the distance to the horizon.

One of these monsters has been fully restored at a cost of around $200,000. It’s operational and ready to go, but at $500 a shot it remains silent for most of the year. Of course if you have some spare coin for a special occassion, I’m sure they’d be only too keen to fire it up.

A self-guided or guided tour takes in the soldiers’ barracks, which has been decked out as if the troops were prepared for inspection, folded uniforms and all.

The downstairs mess is still functional, and in an evocative brush with the past I bumped into several volunteers enjoying a lunchtime sandwich platter, while dressed in their finest 1880s military regalia.

There’s also access to the ammunition magazine, the loading gallery for the 10-inch cannon, and the long tunnel of the caponier, which provided sheltered passage to supplementary supplies located outside of the main fortifications. 

Magazine entrance
Magazine entrance and 10 inch cannon

The day’s activities include drills and parades and there’s even an opportunity for the kids to get involved.

It’s also worth spending time in the Visitor Centre where there’s an incredible collection of photos and memorabilia covering the history of the fort and the role South Australia played in defending its shores.

At the sound of the 3.30pm bugle blast I set myself up in the perfect position to photograph the moment of ignition. The canon was rolled into position and the gunners of the Historical Association tamped the explosive charge into the barrel.

The primer was readied and the 'stand clear' order given.

The mid-afternoon air was then riven by such a startling din that I managed to take a slightly out of focus shot of the sky. 

The 64-pounder

Nuts and Bolts
Address: 359 Military Rd, Semaphore Park
Phone: 0413469344 
Opening hours: 1pm to 4.30pm every 3rd calender Sunday from September to May. 

Fort Glanville

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