The Allies’ first shot in World War One. The crew at the c 1890, probably 6 inch coastal gun, which fired on the German merchant ship, SS Pfalz at 1245 hours, 5 August 1914.
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)
On 5 August 1914, the German steamer “Pfalz”, a 6,500 ton cargo steamer operated by the Norddeutcher Lloyd shipping company, departed Victoria Dock in Melbourne, and headed up Port Phillip Bay, carrying an assorted cargo of German merchandise. In what was one of the unluckiest pieces of timing in modern maritime history, war had been declared between Britain and Germany just a few hours before and word of this was passed to the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery station at Fort Nepean, near the head of the Bay.
The Garrison signaled to the “Pfalz”, ordering her to come about, but the ship ignored the directive and continued on its course out through the Heads. The officer in charge of the Garrison then ordered the loading of one of two the big six-inch Mk VII guns mounted at the fort and directed a shot across the bows of the “Pfalz”. The shell landed about 40m from the ship and reportedly created great consternation amongst the crew. However the warning shot had the desired effect and the vessel then put about and returned to the dock. The crew was arrested and the “Pfalz” confiscated by the Australian Government.
The ship was later commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy as a troop carrier and renamed the “Boorara”. It experienced an eventful operational career including twice being torpedoed in the English Channel, but sailed on into the 1920’s, well after the war was over.
By an enormous coincidence it is believed that another shot from the fort, some 25 years later, was also the first Australian shell fired in World War Two. In this case, during the early hours of 4 September 1939, a shot was fired across the bows of a ship that had not correctly identified itself as it passed the fort below. This however turned out to be the Australian freighter SS Woniora that eventually passed without further incident.