By Alec Smart
The history of St Ives Showground includes it being a military training ground during World War Two and being part of a network of defence installations preparing for possible invasion from Japanese forces.
Soldiers from 14th Battalion stationed at St Ives Showground, c1941
St Ives Showground Origins
The showground was originally founded in 1926 as an arena for the Northern Suburbs Agricultural and Horticultural Association (formerly known as St Ives Fruit Growers, a coalition of orchard and market gardeners who previously exhibited at Hassall Park).
The bushland the showground repurposed on the northern fringe of St Ives residential area was known locally as Paddy’s Forest and the timber merchants who felled trees in the vicinity called the adjacent rocky landscape First Rocks.
There were reportedly many Aboriginal engravings on the opposite side of Mona Vale Rd (then known as Pittwater Rd and not officially renamed until 10 Jan 1951), around the site that became the NSW Police Driver Training School in 1962 (HART Rider and Driver Training since Nov 1999).
St Ives Showgrounds in World War Two
World War II began on 1 September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Most countries entered the conflict siding with one of the two military alliances: the Allies (principally UK and British Commonwealth nations); and the Axis powers (primarily Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain). The USA joined later, in December 1941.
Bren Gun Carrier at St Ives Showground, c1941
On 3 September 1939, in a public broadcast transmitted on every radio station, Australian Prime Minister Bob Menzies announced Australia was militarily involved in the war.
From 1941 - 1944, the St Ives Showground was occupied by the Australian Army, mainly the 18th Battalion. The arenas were divided between zones for marching drills and bayonet practice (using sandbags suspended from wooden frames), whilst target shooting was practiced in surrounding rock escarpments.
As a lad, I remember a pile of mangled rifle bullets near Ku-Ring-Gai Creek that schoolboys would rummage through to find an occasional intact bullet head. Close to Richmond Rd (where there was an Italian Prisoner of War camp in 1946), we called it ‘Bullet Hill’.
Council contractors smothered the shrapnel with a bulldozer, circa 1975, to widen a trail for fire trucks to access the Wildflower Garden. Nearby there were concrete steps to a firing platform (now disintegrated and absorbed by the bush). On a rock ledge above the creek, 12 holes remain revealing where targets were mounted on steel poles.
Ku-Ring-Gai Creek near Richmond Rd, St Ives. A concrete shooting platform used to be on the right above the track, and metal stumps from the remains of the original rifle targets are still embedded in the rock ledge by the creek on the left. Photo: Alec Smart
At the showground there was limited infrastructure in case Japanese aerial surveillance revealed it was a military installation. However, the soldiers dug sewage channels and constructed a number of timber buildings for workshops, a bar and ‘mess’ halls (troop dining sheds).
The soldiers themselves were accommodated in rows of tents in two separate camps to the north and west of the main arena.
A brick ‘ablution’ block (showers) still stands beside a dirt track 100m to the left of the Conway Ave front entrance, although trees have almost completely reclaimed it.
The historic shower block in St Ives Showground, being reclaimed by nature. Photo: Alec Smart
Between 19 February 1942 and 12 November 1943, Darwin was bombed 64 times, with the initial surprise attacks involving two separate raids, which killed 252 people and destroyed 57 ships.
Tensions in Sydney heightened from 16 May 1942, when seven Japanese submarines began attacking Australian and Allied Navy and merchant ships along the NSW coast, sinking nine vessels and killing over 50 sailors.
On the night of 31 May 1942, three midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. Whilst two were detected and intercepted, the third slipped through towards Garden Island Naval Dockyard. In an attempt to destroy a US heavy cruiser, the torpedo missed and struck HMAS Kuttabul, a ferry converted to Navy accommodation, which exploded and sank, killing 21 sleeping sailors.
Raising the Japanese midget submarine that was sunk in Sydney Harbour on 31 May 1942
The attack was followed on 8 June by Japanese submarine I-24 firing 10 shells into Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs from just 10km off the coast of Malabar, using the beam from Macquarie Lighthouse to guide its weapons’ trajectory.
The shells destroyed houses in Woollahra district, but the only casualty was an American pilot who died after he crashed his plane on take-off whilst attempting to confront the submarine.
As a consequence of the mid-1942 raids on Sydney, roads leading up from the Northern Beaches were mined, and Dumble tank stops (timber bollards), dragon’s teeth (concrete 1.5m high pyramids), iron stakes and rolled barbed wire were installed along Sydney’s beaches to prevent a coastal invasion. (A row of timber tank traps still exists in Dee Why Lagoon.)
Defensive dragons' teeth pyramids and Dumble stop timber bollards in Bayview during WWII.
Beach Defences in World War Two
Between Manly and Palm Beach, 300 dragon’s teeth tank traps, weighing approximately 2 tonnes each, were strategically placed along the shoreline, the first group of eight on Fairy Bower Beach in Cabbage Tree Bay, Manly. (A single one still stands in the mangroves at Bayview.)
Surveillance crews from the 18th Battalion were stationed on Barrenjoey Headland and other strategic points overlooking the South Pacific Ocean. They were ordered to report back to their commanders at St Ives Showground every hour via telephone from The Beacon Store at Avalon Beach.
Troops from 18 Battalion on lookout at Barrenjoey Headland, 1942. Photo: Fred Powderly
In 1943, a concrete three-dimensional map of Broken Bay and the Northern Beaches was constructed adjacent to the main arena in the showground. According to Ku-Ring-Gai During War – An Oral History of the Ku-Ring-Gai Home Front during the Years 1939-1945, by Margaret Wyatt, “The St Ives map was built specifically to show the roads in relation to the coast and the location of mines along the roads...”
The map familiarised soldiers with the local topography, revealing vulnerable points where an invading army may land.
This reporter remembers the concrete map as a kid, when groups of us would run across its craggy surface, unaware that it was an important link to the past and our nation's defence.
The concrete map is still in place, and apart from a metal black fence enclosing it, it is exposed to the elements and slowly deteriorating. I wish Heritage NSW would preserve it for future generations.
The WWII 3D military map of Barrenjoey + Pittwater eroding in St Ives Showground. Photo: Alec Smart
Ku-Ring-Gai Historical Society are of the same opinion. As long ago as April 2006 they declared, “Many readers would have seen a large concrete map of the St Ives/Hawkesbury area at the St Ives Showground and wondered what it was all about. It was constructed by the 18th Battalion (The Ku-ring-gai Regiment) when preparing to defend our country from possible assault by Japanese forces landing near the Hawkesbury or northern beaches.
“Its purpose was to help our troops gain familiarity with the topography of the area. Weather and time have had their effect and it badly needs attention if it is to survive as tangible evidence of our local history. For many years, Ku-ring-gai Council has deferred any decision on its fate ‘pending a heritage study’. Some members of the 18th Battalion and I met heritage consultants there recently giving hope that some preservation of this significant site might be forthcoming…”
D Company, 20 Pioneer Battalion, heading to their campsite at St Ives Showground, 28 June 1945
End of World War II
In Sept 1943, with around a million US military personnel stationed in Australia and Japan on the retreat across South East Asia, Prime Minister John Curtin declared that “the danger of invasion has passed.”
The 18th Battalion was disbanded on 8 Nov 1944 and troops were amalgamated into the 41st and 42nd Battalions.
In 1945, after the war ended, a number of the showground’s military buildings were auctioned off to private purchasers, dismantled and taken elsewhere. Others, such as the cluster of timber buildings to the right (east) of the Conway Ave entrance, were repurposed into the Agricultural Show Office and Dog Hut B, whereas the amenity buildings to the north and east of the main arena were stripped back to their concrete foundations and converted to horse washing platforms.
The 22nd annual St Ives Show resumed at the showground in 1949 after a seven-year break.
One of the former military huts still in use in St Ives Showground. Photo: Alec Smart