Tianjara gunnery range the full story revealed

LAUNCH: Tianjara author Bob Snedden (left) and collaborator Cris George with Shoalhaven Mayor Amanda Findley during Tuesday’s book launch.
LAUNCH: Tianjara author Bob Snedden (left) and collaborator Cris George with Shoalhaven Mayor Amanda Findley during Tuesday’s book launch.

Tianjara, the story of the former artillery training area west of Nowra, was officially launched by Shoalhaven Mayor Amanda Findley in Nowra on Tuesday.

Written by Bob Snedden the book traces the early exploration and settlement of the area and the requisition of the land from graziers during World War II under a permissive occupancy (PO) to be used as an artillery range.

The land remained in the hands of the Commonwealth from 1942 to 1981-83 when it was returned to the State of NSW and was incorporated into the Morton National Park.

Mr Snedden said the issue that led to the book’s publication was the disagreement over the extent of the area used for military training from 1942 to 1983.

“Until 2010 the historical use of the entire Tianjara had never be studied,” Mr Snedden said.

“Together with this, during its transition to National Park / Wilderness from 1968 to 1996 there had never been an audit of the potential conflict between the risk of unexploded ordnance [UXO] and range waste etc and public recreation.

“There was an acceptance by Defence UXO existed but beyond that the management was to be guided by opinion.”

Mr Snedden’s concern was the area, which is also popular with bushwalkers, had never been properly defined where firing took place and where UXO may exist.

He said the first time the issue of risk surfaced as a management issue was in 1997 when the Shoalhaven Council proposed a long distance walk linking the Shoalhaven River to the Clyde River.

“The walk was a great concept but the NPWS Nowra District advisory committee expressed concern over safety along the Tianjara Trail where it traversed the former range and they sought confirmation via NPWS from Defence,” he said.

“The problem was much to do with information given to the map publisher the Budawang Committee. When first published in 1960 Defence gave a boundary of the range. There was no impact area per say because at that time as the records reveal, none existed.

“It didn’t emerge until 1986 when the Budawang Committee decided to extend the map to the Main Road 92.

“Defence gave an extended boundary outline which included an impact area (IA). The first time that had been made public.

“But Defence contended that that area around Mount Tianjara was the main target and therefore presenting the main, if not the only risk.”

Although Mr Snedden put the story together, he said he was greatly assisted by a colleague Cris George, a retired former naval airman risk assessment (RA) professional and auditor on the Army Safety Management System.

He had also been involved with range management from Albatross.

“Cris and I had contended for some years the entire area had been used for weapons training. It was in the records, but it proved remarkably difficult for us to get that accepted,” he said.

There has never been any incident, death or injury to visitors at Tianjara, as a result of UXO, so a culture of scepticism and denial emerged, however local knowledge showed UXO and shrapnel existed well outside the marked areas on both sides of the Clyde Gorge.

The types of  weapons used on the range and where they were actually fired was always a bone of contention.

Having spoken with more than 70 personnel during their research the extent of the range use slowly came to light.

The book is a narrative assembled from a variety of sources from official records which have been confirmed and corroborated by accounts from former service personnel.

“In 2012 through then Gilmore MP Jo Gash, Defence confirmed the entire area had been used, giving a the level of contamination, slight and substantial,” Mr Snedden said.

“This meant in the slight area approximately 8000 hectares unlikely to be no more the four unexploded bombs per square kilometre and for the substantial area, 4800 hectares, more than four.

“Translated it meant in the slight area [approx] there would be no more the 32,000 UXO, quite different to earlier advice there was potentially none. The substantial area was likely to be more than 21,000, which led to a review by Defence, which in 2014 concluded the high risk area was substantially greater and the potential risk was probably over an area two times the original area - virtually from Pigeon House Mountain in the south to Sassafras in the north.”

Along with Mr George’s vital input, Mr Snedden paid credit to Terry Barratt, local historian Alan Clark, Cliff Searle a former forward observer who had instructed and trained service personnel at the range from 1973-79, Kevin Mills, Kelvin Officer,  Sue Feary and Jo Gash who helped in producing the book.