Every civilisation must, at some juncture, deal with the problem of where to keep its prisoners. Regardless of reason for imprisonment, be it good or bad, the prisoner must still be kept somewhere that cannot be escaped, and where no harm will come to them.
In Melbourne, one very special prisoner has been kept on the shores of Hanns Inlet, between Sandy Point and Stony Point on Western Port Bay, since 1920. The prisoner was captured, far beyind the fields we know, in 1918, in the dying days of World War One, and transported aboard the then flagship of the Royal Australian Naval fleet, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia to a specially constructed prison.
The story of his capture is a strange one. It begins in 1915. By September of 1915, it had become obvious that the invasion of Gallipoli was stalled. However, its very existence provided an excuse for the navies of various Commonwealth nations, including Australia, to maintain a presence in the Aegean Sea – a presence that also served as a cover for a very top secret operation: a close investigation of the land and sea around Cape Matapan, a part of the Kingdom of Greece.
The reason for this investigation was to determine whether or not the ancient tales of a portal to the Greek Underworld – variously styled Hades, Erebus or Stygia in RAN documents of the time – were true. In late 1915, it was confirmed that they were, and the second, and more dangerous, phase of the plan began.
In January of 1917, a crack team selected from the finest fighting men of the Australian Navy and Army was dropped off at the portal by the HMAS Brisbane, then en route to Malta. Their mission, which was carried out in full cooperation with combined Greek forces, was to enter the realm of Hades and free various Greek heroes, who would then rally the Greek forces against the Ottoman Empire. It was hoped that this plan would provide an alternate path to capturing the Dardanelles.
In the event, the assault met with almost complete failure. Attempts to negotiate with Hades himself for the temporary freeing of the prisoners fell apart, largely due to poor timing: during the Northern winter, Hades’ wife Persephone abandons him to spend time with the other gods, leaving the ruler of the underworld in a really bad mood. Hades ordered his forces to attack the living soldiers, who returned fire. All but three of them (two Australians and a Greek) were killed, but they brought back a souvenir of their trip: Cerberus, the gigantic three-headed dog who guarded the Hadean bank of the Styx.
Cerberus was taken into custody by the RAN, with the intention of deploying him against the Ottomans – strategy by now had swung to favour a land-based assault on the Turkish mainland, in support of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab uprising that he lead. Unfortunately, Cerberus was impossible to control or order, attacking constantly at any point that he saw an opportunity to escape. As one of his handlers noted, “he would have made a fine weapon, if only he’d run in the direction he was pointed.”
After the war, the beast was brought back to Australia as a spoil of war. He was installed at what was then the Flinders Naval Base, but which would grow to cover a much larger area and eventually be considered a suburb in its own right. The base would become a major training facility, used not just by the RAN but also by the Australian Air Force and Army, and occasionally by trainees from friendly nations. A central part of the training, and one which goes a long way towards explaining the fearlessness of Australian troops that so impressed Rommel and Ho Chi Minh, is tradition of the vigil: at some point during training, each candidate must spend an entire night alone with Cerberus in its pen (though not within the bars that confine the beast). Failures have their memory of the event erased through a judicious use of the waters of the Lethe, also obtained during the original mission.
From 1963 onwards, the facility has been formally known as HMAS Cerberus, it being judged by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies that the decline in both faith and classical education in Australia made it unlikely that anyone would realise the truth behind the name.
Suburbs near HMAS Cerberus:
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