The colony's defence forces were raised with one purpose only - protection against invasion. The question inevitably arises - was invasion ever a real possibility? This cannot be properly answered, but a memo by Major-General E. Harding Steward, dated 17 November 1884, and on a file of the Victorian Defence Department (0/2/1/1)¹ gives an interesting but unfortunately unverified ² account of one such planned invasion. Obviously General Steward felt the incident to be true.
The account states that the Russian Colonel Bodisco during his stay in Japan in 1878, married the daughter of an American lady from California. The Best Man was an officer of the Royal Marine Artillery. This officer gradually became friendly with Bodsco and with the Russian Admiral, and pieced together from their indiscretions the following information.
Bodisco, who was possibly a Russian secret agent, arrived in Japan in 1877 at the height of the crisis between his country and Great Britain. To the Admiral of the Russian Asiatic Squadron he carried two plans, one of which (at the Admiral's choice) must be carried out immediately news of hostilities between the two countries was received by wire. As the Japanese telegraph link to Europe was through Vladivostock, the Russian admiral should obtain the information ahead of the British. The first project was to atack Hong Kong, supposed to be "in an imperfect State of defence" and then Singapore, "not at that time provided with any fixed defences". This plan was rejected, mainly because the Russian admiral calculated that he might not be sure of leaving Singapore and getting well on his way across the Pacific in time to avoid meeting the British squadron.
The second proposal, which was chosen by the Admiral, was an attack on Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne. The five fast steam cruisers of the Russian squadron would leave Japanese ports singly, and rendezvous and call at one of the Ryukyu Islands. They would then make direct for Newcastle, shell the town, compel the port authorities to fill the bunkers of the cruisers, and seize two steam vessels and load them with coal to accompany the squadron. They would then go to Sydney, attack it, and if successful exact surrender of all the bullion in the bank. This operation was to be repeated in Melbourne, after rushing the Heads. The plan then was to circumnavigate Australia, destroying all British vessels encountered en route, to call again at Newcastle for coal, and then strike across the Pacific for San Francisco. Of course, war did not break out, and consequently the scheme was never attempted.
Is the story authentic? It is known that a Russian squadron visited the Australian ports shortly before, diligently seeking information about each harbour. The Russian Admiral went so far as to exercise some of his officers in marine surveying in Port Phillip, and became most interested in the shoals and their possible alteration. He was also kind enough to allow the port authorities to compare his record of soundings with theirs. General Steward writes that what is not known is that in the winter of 1876, five of the Russian officers revisited Melbourne as private individuals, returning to their ships in the spring, and that Colonel Bodisco had with him while in Japan, a complete, set of Admiralty charts of the Australian ports. The Royal Marine Artillery officer, who is said to have obtained this information when friendly relations between the two countries was restored, speaks of the Russian admiral as one "who appears to have posessed the instinct of a true buccaneer" and who "became almost too frank, especially over his post prandial cups". He adds, "On one occasion he went so far as to say, Striking his thigh at the same time with considerable energy, "Fancy one, after all, missing such a chance! Six millions Sterling! Why, there would not have been such a coup since the days of the Spanish galleons!"
¹ Victorian Defence Department File (0/2/1/1)
² In a lecture to the United Service Institute on 12 October 1894, Major-General Tulloch said that it was well known that Russia had, only a few years previously when hostilities were imminent, arranged for a raiding expedition on a large scale against the Australian capitals.