Exploring Rottnest Island's dramatic history as a military base

Exploring Rottnest Island's dramatic history as a military base

Last Updated: 24 Aug 2023
Elise Matheson

Remnants of Rottnest’s military past are scattered across the Island. With heavy involvement in both World War I and II, Rottnest Island’s history includes a lengthy chapter on prisoners of war, artillery guns and secret plotting rooms. For a historic moment, Rottnest was not a holiday paradise but a critical base for the Australian army to defend its naval port across the water at Fremantle.

Rottnest’s military history

During the First World War, prisoners of war were housed on Rottnest, and in the build-up of global tensions before the Second World War, the Island was once again identified as a critical point for Australian military interests. This was due to its position in relation to the port at Fremantle. The attack on Pearl Harbour had incited insecurities and Fremantle housed a covert submarine base, utilised by allied forces during WWII.

A defence program was established on the Island, with the aim of guarding Fremantle from bombardment by warships coming across the sea. Development ensued with the construction of batteries and tunnel systems at Bickley, Oliver Hill and the army barracks at Kingstown. Powerful nine-inch guns were positioned at strategic locations and a plotting room was buried deep in the network of passageways beneath the ground. From 1940 until 1945, all recreational activity on the Island came to a halt.



The guns at Rottnest were never fired in action. At the end of the war, military activity slowed as units were disbanded, with only the barracks at Kingstown serving use as training grounds for the army. It was not until 1984 that the Army finally renounced all claims over the Island. Amidst the influx of holiday-makers that journey to the Island every year, it can be easy to overlook this monumental chapter of Rottnest’s history.

Guided military tours

For those interested in discovering more, the Rottnest Island Authority offers a guided tour exploring the guns and tunnels at Oliver Hill year-round. The tour takes you through the tunnel system beneath the battery at Oliver Hill, giving you a sense of what it was like to travel stealthily between vantage points undergro­und. The gun at Oliver Hill is one of the only guns across Australia left remaining in its position following ceasefire, and provides a rare example of war-era weaponry in its original encampment.

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ANZAC Day on Rottnest Island

Strategically situated just off the coast of Perth, Rottnest Island became entangled in Australia’s military operations during both World War I and II. Taking place on the foreshore of Thomson Bay, Rottnest’s dawn service is timed to coincide with the landing of ANZAC troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the early hours of April 25, 1915. Beginning at 6am the service is followed by a range of ANZAC-themed activities that everyone can get involved in, kids included.

Historical Sites

Discover more of Rottnest Island's History

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