Lake Macquarie History

Rathmines within a Century of War

When Australia federated in 1901, colonial troops were engaged in the Boer War. By March 1901, they became recognised as the Australian Commonwealth Military Force. While this military force would be expanded and undergo a series of name changes, it would be engaged in wars and peace-keeping deployments in every decade of the twentieth century. This continual state of war required the nation to be in a continual state of war readiness. Rathmines encapsulates a fascinating period in this national history of militarism and war readiness.

The Rathmines base began full operation in 1941, the same year that Prime Minister John Curtin uttered the now famous words "Without any inhibitions of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom." This statement was in response to the inevitable fall of Singapore, the British naval base that had long been held as the military foundation of Australian security. No nation could invade Australia because Australia was protected by Singapore. But with the looming fall of Singapore and the British focused on the Battle of Britain, a new ally was needed quickly, as Australia did not have a military contingent large enough to defend the entire continent as well as its immediate neighbours. While Curtin initially expected the relationship with the USA to end with the war, this relationship was solidified with the signing of the ANZUS Pact in 1951. However, Australia’s new ally was keen to engage in military actions throughout South East Asia in an attempt to stem the spread of communism. As a result, Australia’s military need did not end with World War II. It continued into the 1950s.

Rathmines existed for a technology contemporary to World War II – sea planes. But it was also a place of education, and it was this educational purpose that saw its continued use after World War II for career officers and the growing numbers of national servicemen.

The need for personnel post World War II was seen as a serious problem, and one for politics to solve. While the Defence Act 1903, one of the earliest pieces of legislation for the new nation, protects citizens from being conscripted into military service in foreign lands, national service in Australia was not prohibited. This was the tool used in Australia to increase its military preparedness and ensure the nation’s ability to protect itself. The third national service scheme ran from 1951-1959. Until 1957, all men under 18 had to register for national service and undertake various forms of military training. After training, the national servicemen were required to remain in the Army Reserves for 5 years.

photo: recruits from no. 2 national service training unit, 1 flt, 17th intake. rathmines on way to or from training mission at gan gan army camp, nelson bay road, port stephens, nsw, november 1956. corporal john denman at the front of the image in an airforce cap.l

In 1957 the universal requirement for national service was ended and the entire scheme was concluded in 1959. However, with the scheme training 33000 men in its first 6 years, large and well-equipped training bases were required and Rathmines was perfect for this task.

While training was vital to Australia’s military pursuits in Asia over the next 30 years, the people who trained at Rathmines still fondly remembered some of the "education" they inherited from the World War II veterans who had occupied the base prior to them. While completing his Basic Fitters Course in 1952, Tom Foley remembers:

"One Friday afternoon the word came out that all weekend leave was cancelled until the culprit owned up to throwing plates into the lake adjacent to their Airmen’s Mess… It finally was blamed on wartime aircrew. It was said that they would have a late meal on returning from a mission and they would skim their plates out (pre Frisbees) across the lake. It also saved washing up."

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