Captain Cook Graving Dock
The need for a naval graving dock in Australia became critical with the deteriorating world situation in the 1930's. There was little doubt that Australia's security would depend on its commercial sea lanes. The country's ability to maintain the rate at which its naval forces could be repaired and returned to sea would play a large part in its ultimate survival.
After investigations, three sites were identified and it was decided that the construction of the graving dock between Garden Island and the foreshore would best fulfil all the requirements. It was already well protected, provided easy entry for the fleet, and would enhance the importance of the existing Garden Island Naval Depot.
The Prime Minister, R.G. Menzies, told parliament on 1 May 1940: "A dry dock of a larger size than any in Australia has been an important strategic consideration since the size of capital ships has increased so greatly. I do not need to elaborate the great value to Australia of a dock capable of accommodating not only the largest warships but also merchant ships of great tonnage. The possession of such a dock would make Australia a fit base for a powerful fleet and would, in certain contingencies, enable naval operations to be conducted in Australian waters without the necessity for ships to travel 4,000 miles to Singapore for purposes of refit and repair. It is estimated that three years will be occupied in the construction of the dock."
In addition to the construction of the graving dock, new workshops and modern machinery would be provided on the island, together with construction of a repair wharf with a 250-ton crane.
This would be the greatest engineering feat in Australia's history surpassing even the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It would involve the reclamation of 30 acres between Potts Point and Garden Island and the construction of the graving dock approximately 1,140 feet (345 metres) long, 147 feet (45 metres) wide and 45 feet (14 metres) deep.
Sheet piling (170,000 feet) and approximately 800,000 cubic yard of stone and core filling were used to form a huge coffer-dam from which the sea was pumped, leaving a large basin in which the dock would be built. The coffer-dam, known as the "Burma Road", was commenced in December 1940 and completed in February 1942. The fall of Singapore to the invading Japanese on 15 February 1942 added to the urgency of the work. The dock in Singapore was now unavailable and Cockatoo Island was engaged in the construction of new ships for the Navy.
Work on the graving dock continued day and night, with additional labour being hired as the project progressed. Pumping of the water enclosed by the coffer-dam commenced on 17 February 1942. The average workforce was 1,750, rising to a peak of 4,125 in July 1943. It was an amazing sight, especially at night when the blaze of lights illuminated the work area contrasted by the darkened city.
Most of the plant required for the dockyard was manufactured in Britain and shipped to Australia. This was a risky undertaking, given the possibility of attack from German U-boats, bombers and Japanese submarines during the long voyage, but fortunately only two shipments were lost through enemy action.
While the dock was itself being constructed, the caissons were also being built within the area enclosed by the coffer-dam. There being no suitable launching facilities available. Their construction was one of the most difficult undertaken in Australia up until that time. The caissons, made of welded steel, were fitted with buoyancy tanks, tidal chambers and ballast tanks designed to enable their floatation and sinking within the dock grooves as required.
The dock was ready for initial flooding in September 1944 and pumps allowed the dock to be emptied of its 57,000,000 gallons (259,122,000 litres) of water in about four hours. The construction was sufficiently advanced to allow the emergency docking of HMS Illustrious on 2 March 1945, three weeks before the official opening by the Governor-General, the Duke of Gloucester on 24 March 1945. The graving dock was named in honour of Captain James Cook, R.N.
In the inauguration speech delivered at the opening ceremony the following was noted, "It was indeed a bold move at the time for Australia, which had no capital ships of her own, to decide to construct a dock for such ships. The war with Japan has clearly shown how vital such docking facilities are to naval forces of the Empire and of our allies. I extend my sincere congratulations on the skill and workmanship which has brought this great project to completion."
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