Over time I am learning more about Lithgow and its history, and I was vaguely aware that it played an important role in providing guns for Australian troops during both World Wars. Lithgow had been chosen as the preferred site for small arms manufacture in 1909 after much lobbying and extensive consideration of various sites in regional Australia. A combination of cheap coal and an established steel industry in the town helped with the site selection.
In June 1912 the factory was formally opened with its own powerhouse, tool room and forge shop, employing nearly 200 people. This swelled to about 1300 during World War I; following the war the numbers fell steadily during the Great Depression before picking up again during World War II. But along with increased employment demands, there was the growing threat of air attack after Japan entered the war. As the factory was making the rifles and machine guns for the Australian Army, it was considered a potential target. Lithgow was an important location due to its mining, manufacturing and transport industries.
On 10 December 1941, 20 officers and men from the 9th Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery arrived in the town to set up sites for guns in two locations. Scenic Hill, on the approach from Windsor, and South Bowenfels, were the selected locations based on the likelihood of any attack coming from either end of the valley. The gun emplacements were commenced on 22 December 1941 and were operational on Scenic Hill from 2 January 1942, and at Bowenfels shortly after. The sites were manned 24 hours a day. A Lewis Machine Gun detachment was assigned for the close defence of the Lithgow Small Arms Factory with the machine gun installed on the factory roof.
The Bowenfels site had been a farm, and the existing infrastructure was used to provide camouflage. There was a farmhouse, manse, cattle yards, outhouses and pigpens: these were put to use by the soldiers who manned the site. Further modifications included the skeleton construction of a barn and gravel roads to give the impression of a normal farm layout from above. Sections were removed from the barn roof for observation and rangefinder areas, and one gun was located within an orchard. Trees were shaped out of scrap metal and nets used to disguise the guns. Concrete slit trenches surrounded the emplacements to protect against aircraft attack and enemy troops dropped near the guns. There were also dummy emplacements set up as decoys.
As the threat to Australia moved further north, the guns were removed during December 1943 and January 1944. It is thought that the guns and the artillery crews were sent to islands off the northern coast. The ‘hoax farm’ buildings were auctioned off after 1945.
In recent years, the Bowenfels site has been restored and replica guns installed in three of the emplacements. The site is located near Tom Lesslie Place, off Kirkley Street. It is signposted with access carved out between housing and commercial developments. The emplacements, nestled into the hillside, are surrounded by scrub and a wide scattering of rabbits. It remains as a physical reminder of a time when Lithgow was identified along with Bathurst as a valuable location under threat outside of the Sydney Fortress Area. Fortification of the industrial areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Port Kembla were the priority, but the threat of a land based enemy invasion was real and precautions were taken to prepare the town. There is an article on a re-enactment that was planned for the site here.
Sources: Lithgow Heavy Anti Aircraft Gun Stations and Dummy Station, Office of Environment & Heritage; Lithgow Mercury; Lithgow Tourism; Proud Valley – Lithgow by Ian Kirkwood, 2003; Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum.