For more than 130 years, the Moorebank area served as a training ground for various branches of the army and has played a significant role in Australian military history. Over 200,000 men and women have trained and lived at the Moorebank camp prior to military service.
Soon after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, European colonists began to explore and settle south of Sydney, including the Liverpool, Campbelltown and Camden areas. The area around the Georges River was first explored by Europeans in the 1795. The first land grants in the Moorebank area, located close to the Georges River, were given to settlers from 1798. Small allotments were granted to convicts to grow wheat and vegetables, and larger grants around the Georges River were given to officers, civil servants or free settlers.
Thomas Moore, 1840, W.Griffith (Samuel Marsden Archives, Moore Theological College)
Thomas Moore, a ship’s carpenter, arrived in Australia in 1796 and was appointed as Master Boat Builder in the dockyard at Port Jackson and Surveyor of Timber. He married convict Rachael Turner in 1797. In 1809, Moore was awarded 1300 acres of land along the Georges River’s eastern bank. Naming the property Moore Bank, Moore supplied the fledgling Colony with meat and timber from his rich land. Moore became the first citizen of Liverpool and was commissioned by Governor Macquarie to oversee the building of the Liverpool township. Moore acquired great wealth through his property, building, farming, banking and business interests, steadily adding to his land grants to became one the Colony’s largest landholders. He was a generous benefactor to churches and banks in Liverpool and Sydney. By the mid-1820s, Moore was residing in Liverpool and leasing out the Moorebank estate. Moore died without an heir in 1840, leaving his 6400-acre Moorebank estate to the Church of England. The Church leased parts of the land to new arrivals in Australia, particularly farmers and gardeners. In 1856, the Church established Moore Theological College at Moore’s former Liverpool residence in Elizabeth Street. After over thirty years in its Liverpool location, Moore Theological College was relocated to Newtown in 1891.
Liverpool’s military connections date back to 1811, where British troops were housed in barracks near the new township. From the 1890s, annual training camps for NSW citizens’ forces were held in the Liverpool area including infantry, light horse, artillery, engineers, signals training and mock battles.
In 1895, William Alexander Smith built a brick cottage called Arpafeelie in Moorebank Avenue. The cottage ended up playing a role in the military development of the site.
In 1910, Prime Minister Deakin invited British Field Marshall Kitchener to inspect the operations of Australia’s land defences. Lord Kitchener stayed at Arpafeelie in January 1910 during his military review at Liverpool. During WWI, the cottage was an Army isolation ward and nurses’ home. Arpafeelie was acquired by the Commonwealth in 1926 and used an officers’ mess, nurses’ home and quarters for Signal Corps members of the Australian Women’s Army Service during World War II and Army Special Investigation Services during the Vietnam War. The cottage was renamed ‘Kitchener House’ in the late 1950s, honouring the late Lord Kitchener.
View of cottage used as HQ during Lord Kitchener’s visit, c1910 (Australian War Memorial)
Nurses home at the Liverpool camp, 1915. (National Library of Australian, ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ 1915)
After visiting the Liverpool training area, Kitchener recommended the establishment of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) and a site specifically for military field training purposes. The government purchased 54,000 acres along the George’s River for the Liverpool Field Training Area in 1912, covering parts of Moorebank and Holsworthy, east to Heathcote and south to Eckersley. Along with basic military facilities, the site was equipped with a remount depot for the Australian Light Horse Regiments. Before the outbreak of the WWI, around 2,000 troops slept in tents at the training area.
View looking east from the railway line across the George’s River to Liverpool military camp, 1910-11 (Campbelltown City Library)
Easter encampment at Liverpool camp, 1913, World War I (Wollongong Library Collection)
A group of soldiers stand outside their hut to bid ‘bon voyage’ to reinforcements who are leaving their camp in New South Wales before embarking for service overseas.1916 (Australian War Memorial)
During WWI, a permanent barracks replaced most army tents together with a field hospital, railway, kitchens and weapons stores. The camp was used as an initial training ground, with 125,000 new recruits and 40,000 horses passing through Moorebank before they were sent overseas to war. Conditions at Moorebank were difficult, and construction could not keep up with the growing number of recruits and visitors to the camp. Up to 17,000 troops occupied the camp at a time, with weekend visitors swelling numbers to 32,000 – more than double the population of Liverpool at the time.
“We went to Liverpool camp, where we were stacked 18 men to each tent for the time being… the first few days in that wilderness of dust and humanity were misery for the average boy. No privacy at all; washing and other conveniences were appalling – so different from the later days at Liverpool, when huts were used and even warm showers were possible… From physical drill and route marchings, we graduated to dummy rifles, and at last came the day when proper uniforms were issued…”
The diary of Lieutenant B.W. Champion 1st Battalion AIF, 1915
A ward in an Australian Army Field Hospital with patients in beds and staff standing by.1914-1918 (Australian War Memorial)
Group portrait of members of D Company, 18th Battalion, taken in Liverpool camp shortly before the troops embarked to take part in World War I. 1915 (Australian War Memorial)
NSW Lancers at Moorebank camp, 1914, Wold War I. (State Library of South Australia)
Liverpool to Holsworthy Military Railway
Built in 1917, the Liverpool to Holsworthy railway used second-hand steel and rails due to war-time materials shortages. Stretching east from Liverpool across the Georges River, the railway was an important connection between the military site and the town. The railway was a dual project of NSW Railways and the Holsworthy Internment Camp: 5.7km of the 7.9km-long railway was constructed by internees as part of their labour requirements. Despite these cost-cutting measures, the final cost of construction was £35,000 – over three times the original estimate.
The Liverpool to Holsworthy railway opened in January 1918. It had two sidings: the first served the Liverpool Army Camp just across the Georges River, and the second served the Remount Depot, home to Australian Light Horse Regiments. Later sidings connected the ordnance and ammunition stores. At the end of WWI, military traffic on the line decreased dramatically and the railway deteriorated. After a period of restoration in WWII, the line was eventually closed in 1977.
Soldiers and a civilian (probably a railway employee) gather at a train loaded with Army Service Corps wagons, 1920s. (Australian War Memorial)
During World War II the Liverpool military camp at Moorebank underwent further developments, and a number of new units were established including the School of Signals, the Armoured Fighting Vehicle Trade Training Centre, the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Australian Women’s Army Service and the School of Military Engineering (home to the Corps of Royal Australian Engineers). It was established on a permanent basis in the Liverpool District in September 1939 in the area known as the Hospital Block.
Moorebank Sand Mine
The converted truck used to haul rail trucks for the Moorebank Sand Company, Moorebank, c1930s (Australian Railway Historical Society)
In 1932, Samuel Henry Jackson, a chartered accountant who served in both WWI and WWII, gained Commonwealth approval to remove sand by rail from the military area near the eastern bank of the Georges River at Moorebank. Forming the Moorebank Sand Company, Jackson extended the abandoned tracks of the Holsworthy rail extension, laying a branch line off the existing Ordnance Stores siding. The 3km line was ready for service on 1 January 1933. A converted truck was used to haul rail trucks to the Ordnance Store siding where NSW Railways took over. During its operation, over 50,000 tons of sand were removed by slurry pipe and pump.
As part of the lease agreement, the Moorebank Sand Company undertook to maintain the new line, as at that time military traffic was negligible. However little maintenance was done, and the line was declared to be unsafe for trains.
By 1938 the business was in financial difficulties, only loading about three trucks a week, and it closed in May 1940. Soon after, the School of Military Engineering was constructed on the site and the railway track was removed.
During the 1940s new ordnance stores and workshops were established as facilities at the camp expanded. Over the course of WWII, 40,000 troops were trained at the camp, and 7,450 students were educated at School of Military Engineering.
The artillery stores section at No. 3 sub depot, 5th base ordnance depot. Moorebank, 1944. (Australian War Memorial)
In preparation for Australia’s role in WWII there was a nation-wide expansion of defence manufacture and storage sites. In 1943 a large ordinance store depot was established on the eastern side of Moorebank Avenue covering more than 80 hectares, and by 1944 it had expanded with fifteen large timber post-and-beam warehouses, a carpentry workshop, inflatable storage facilities, administration building, offices, amenities and a quartermaster’s store. A further three massive prefabricated timber and steel warehouses were shipped from the US in the 1940s and installed on site. The area accommodated the 2nd Base Ordnance Depot, 5th Base Ordnance Depot and 2nd Base Workshops during WWII. In 1972, these became the 21st Supply Battalion and 2nd Base Workshop Battalion respectively. In 1990, the facility became the Defence National Storage and Distribution Centre (DNSDC), and underwent refurbishment where five of the original timber post-and-beam warehouses were demolished and replaced with larger modern buildings, and other original warehouses reclad. The site was vacated by the Department of Defence in 2015 and after an archival recording of the WWII buildings was made, they were demolished to make way for the new Moorebank Intermodal Terminal.
In 1942 the RAE Training Centre was established at Kapooka, outside Wagga Wagga on the same site as 1 RTB. The centre was used to conduct basic field engineering training for other ranks.
An overturned tank being recovered by a recovery tank at Land Headquarters Electrical and Mechanical Engineers School.1944, World War II (Australian War Memorial)
Members of the Senior Officers Course, Land Headquarters School Of Military Engineering erecting a commercial box girder bridge.1944, World War II (Australian War Memorial)
Private F Angelini, at 8 Advanced Workshop, Corps of Australian Electrical And Mechanical Engineers, handling an engine which is being boxed for dispatch.1945, World War II (Australian War Memorial)
SME site, 1950s (Australian Army Museum of Military Engineering)
Since WWII, the Moorebank site has supported Australian involvement in more recent conflicts. In 1953 a specialist military dog training facility was established. At the start of the Korean War the range of courses expanded and the establishment increased to include the Trade Wing was formed and was responsible for trade training and works service instruction, today this wing is known as the Construction, Mechanical and Electrical (CME) Wing. Within the grounds, during the Vietnam War (1962-1975) and the introduction of selective National Service, the existing Depot Sqn (now FE Wing) was expanded to cater for the increased number of soldier’s being allocated to the RAE. A mock Vietnamese village was built to familiarise troops with guerilla warfare tactics and military raids, and a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare wing was constructed.Commemorative tributes, such as Vietnam War memorial, gardens, memorial entrance gates, a chapel and a military dog cemetery were built.
Moorebank’s military dog cemetery was part of an archaeological study. Several dog graves were exhumed, with many containing items and memorial plaques made by the dog handlers, and were relocated to a nearby Department of Defence site. The most distinctive grave belonged to a dog named Jasmine, who was adopted by a military family after retirement and was buried wrapped in a crochet blanket with a red lead, frisbee and tennis ball. Most of the dog graves were hand dug, and many dogs were buried with balls, military issued blankets and flags, giving testament to the emotional connection between the military dog handlers and their dogs.
Layout of SME Casula 1986
Moorebank has a proud history of innovation in architecture, engineering and industry.
The CUST (Cullen Universal Steel Truss) Hut, one of only three units owned by Australian Defence Forces, stood at Moorebank for more than sixty years. Originally constructed in the Northern Territory, the CUST Hut was relocated to the School of Military Engineering site at Moorebank in 1948 after the Royal Australian Engineer Training Centre at Kapooka was disbanded. Invented by Lieutenant Colonel Dan Cullen in WWII, the clear vaulted structure was used as a warehouse by the School of Military Engineering. The CUST Hut was originally open at both ends with an earthen floor, and was modified to include ‘enclosing ends’ and concrete floors in the 1950s. In later years, the spacious CUST Hut was used as an exhibition space for the Australian Army Military Museum of Engineering collection. The CUST Hut was demolished in 2017.
CUST Hut, Moorebank, 2010 (Pam Browne)
STRARCH Hangar, Moorebank 2010 (Pam Browne)
The STRARCH Hangar was another key feature of the School of Military Engineering. It was a unique example of a massive deployable clear-span hangar building system erected in 2008 as part of the Australian Army Military Museum of Engineering. The STRARCH structure provided the RAAF with low-cost, pre-engineered hangars to house the F111 Squadron when they first arrived in Australia. The name of the building comes from the ‘STressed ARCH’ building design invented by Bruno Gatzka and Christopher Olsen in the mid-1980s. Its design consisted of a post-tensioned steel truss roof tied down to large concrete footings. The design can still be found today in warehouses, aviation facilities and shopping centres throughout Australia and internationally.
Moorebank’s STRARCH hangar was demolished in 2017 as, despite efforts to find a new home for the hangar, no organisation was able to take it to ensure its future use.
Part of the Steele Barracks Memorial Gates
As the School of Military Engineering expanded to include new training services, it was renamed Steele Barracks in 1999 after Major General Sir Clive Steele, an army engineer who played a key role in WWII.
Major General Sir Clive Selwyn Steele, KBE, DSO, MC, VD
The Steele Memorial Gates which stood at the entrance to SME Casula since 1956 have been relocated to the new Steele Lines and now form the backdrop at the front of the parade ground.
The Memorial Gates are symbolic of the bridge conceived and designed by Maj Gen Sir Clive Steele (then Brig) KBE,DSO, MC, VD. The bridge was manufactured in Australia during WWII when Bailey Bridge supplies were unavailable.
With spans up to 120 ft, the Steele Bridge proved to be invaluable in the South West Pacific campaigns until the more sophisticated and expensive Bailey and Australian Panel bridges became available
Many of the buildings on site were renovated throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and continued to be used for their original functions until the Royal Australian Engineers, the Army Museum of Military Engineering and other units on the site were relocated to the Holsworthy training area in 2015. The Australian Army Museum of Military Engineering now at Holsworthy holds an extensive collection of materials.
Today the SME trains all ranks of the RAE in the following areas:
ARA and ARes Initial Employment Training (IET), specialist training in trades employment and promotion qualifications, young officers from both Australian and overseas in military engineering and to prepare them for service as engineer officers within their own army, for the management of engineering projects and resourses, and practical apprentice tradesmen tasks.
The entry to Holsworthy Barracks
The RAE Memorial Chapel
The RAE Memorial Chapel, located within the Holsworthy Barracks, was erected in 1968 by Royal Army Engineer tradesmen and apprentices. The Chapel is made from sandstone blocks originally cut by convicts at Campbelltown and WWI POW interred at Holsworthy. Funds for the chapel were raised by ‘sappers’, the equivalent in rank structure of an army ‘private’.
The chapel contains handwritten copies of the Honour Rolls for WWII and post-WWII, memorial plaques and Australian flags that hang in dedication to fallen sappers.
The Chapel is non-denominational and is a place where civilians and military personnel alike can marry, worship or eulogise those that have passed from us.
Dozer with the RAE Memorial Chapel in the background
Memorial Wall and Brick plaques
The Mick Mace Club
Australian Army Museum of Military Engineering
The Australian Army Museum of Military Engineering (AAMME) showcases the contribution of The Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) to our nation’s military history and involvement in virtually every conflict and peace mission including those mounted by the United Nations.
About The AAMME
The Australian Army Museum of Military Engineering showcases the history of the RAE across a large open gallery. Visitors can learn about the history of the RAE, see equipments and artefacts at home and overseas.
There are displays covering the role played by the RAE in Colonial Australia, to the participation and security success of the 2000 Olympic Games and the continuing work in remote and indigenous community developments.
A tour of the museum encompasses the main display building, the diorama display, examples of equipment used for gap crossing and the many large items of engineer plant and armoured vehicles developed not only for construction tasks but also for land clearing and land mine destruction and clearance.
Australian Army Museum of Military Engineering
Alec Campbell Drive,
Holsworthy, NSW 2173
Phone: (02) 8782 8822
As the museum is located within the Holsworthy Army Barracks, please observe these security restrictions:
- Open to the public: Tuesday & Thursday – 10.30am – 1.30pm
- Visits must be arranged 72 hours in advance
- Visits at other times are available by appointment.
- Visitors 16 years and older must provide:
- government issued photographic id (Driver’s licence, Passports, etc.);
- to discuss a donation or for research purposes contact the museum directly.
Sources; Artefact Heritage, AWM, RAE Association (Vic)