During the First World War (WW1), the island’s dockyard processes evolved to accommodate an increase in naval activity. Later, when Australia was drawn into the Second World War (WW2), the island served as the main ship repair facility in the Southwest Pacific.
The Royal Australian Navy and WW1
When the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was formed in 1911, a naval dockyard was needed to service their fleet. In 1913, the Australian Government bought the freehold title to Cockatoo Island for £96,500. They paid an additional £350,000 for the Sutherland and Fitzroy Docks and another £400,000 for the buildings, workshops, houses and equipment.
Despite this huge sum, the dockyards were disorganised, there was no continuous power supply, and there was a shortage of skilled workers. However, after WW1 commenced, demand for the dockyard increased and its processes had to evolve to accommodate the increase in naval activity.
When HMAS Huon was built on the island in 1916, it represented the first modern warship to be wholly completed in Australia. During WW1, nearly 2,000 ships docked on Cockatoo Island and the workforce rose to 4,085 by 1919. However, the utility of the island was questioned after WW1 ended. A Royal Commission was held about whether the island’s dockyard should remain open. The consensus was ‘yes’, and in 1933, the shipbuilding and repair facilities were leased to a private company, Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Co.
On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that Australia was at war and Cockatoo Island once again rose in importance.
Ship repair facilities during WW2
By 1941, Japan had entered the war and the Pacific was the stage for much naval war activity. After the fall of Singapore, Cockatoo Island became the only dockyard in the Southwest Pacific where major repairs could be carried out.
At the height of WW2, 400 people were employed on the island. Australian, United States and British ships were coming to Cockatoo Island for conversion and repairs, and some of these ships arrived heavily damaged.
During WW2, there were major repairs on 15 US ships, 9 British ships and 11 Australian ships. By the end of the war, 250 ships had been repaired on Cockatoo Island and 750 ships had docked there.
As Cockatoo Island was of great strategic importance to the Allied war effort, steps were taken to protect it from enemy attack. This included the construction of air raid shelters as well as a searchlight tower on the upper island. The tower guarded the harbour and had an alarm that would sound in the event an enemy was detected.
Following WW2, shipbuilding continued at Cockatoo Island. This included the construction of the Empress of Australia, the largest roll-on roll-off cargo passenger ship in the world. For more information, see: Working harbour and industry.