Wartime Operations in Northern Australia

Extracts from the book  "Always First" by David Wilson

The threat to northern Australia was demonstrably real. On 19 February 1942, the first of 20 raids on Darwin occurred before 1 Mobile Works Squadron (1MWS) commenced its move north from Melbourne on 19th June 1942. To meet an urgent requirement for a works capability in North Western Area, Flight Lieutenant M.G. Murchison commanded a works detachment of two officers and 198 other ranks, which moved to Darwin in February. Official records of the activities of this detachment before it was reorganised as
No.3 Works Maintenance Unit (WMU) on 1st May is sparse, although members of the detachment, Frank Beale and Syd James, have left an informal account of its activities.
Syd recalls those six trucks and twelve personnel departed from Ascot Vale on the morning of 28th February 1942 under the command of Pilot Officer T.O. Littlejohn, staying overnight at the RAAF Base at Nhill before proceeding to Adelaide. Frank Beale was in a group, which departed by train on 5th March. After a weekend's relaxation in Adelaide the group boarded a train for Terowie where the road and rail elements of the detachment were united.

Two days after arriving at Terowie, the vehicles were loaded on flat top railway carriages and the men offered the dubious comfort of cattle trucks for transport to Alice Springs. It was hot and dry, ideal conditions for a welcome beer at the Peterborough Hotel, although the refreshment may have been of transient value due to the train's early departure resulting in a rush to catch up. At Quorn, the Country Women's Association regaled the men with one of the best meals they were to have for months to come; a welcome variation from the usual repast of bully beef, biscuits and tepid tea. However, the problems were not only domestic. The linkages connecting the railway carriages were so worn that, while the train was climbing a long slope, a coupling released. Half the train reversed down the slope. Even though one of the detachment members, Jimmy Goode, applied the brake to retard the errant flat cars, it still took an hour for the engine to reverse and reunite the train.

The trip from Alice Springs to Birdum was more exciting. In addition to having to contend with fresh flies with every meal, the proximity to operational activities was very evident. Some distance north of Alice Springs the convoy deviated around a large hole in the road, caused by the explosion of a truck load of 1,000 pound bombs, resulting in the following dialogue between Army and Air Force travelers:

Air Force: `You've got a mighty load there, you must have one of those 1,000

Pound bombs.'

Army: `No. I got enough here to wipe all Darwin.'

Air Force: `What is it?'

Army: `A truck load of toilet paper.'

There were serious moments. Syd James recalls that an Army truck loaded with anti aircraft shells caught fire. Shrouded by a ubiquitous cloud of bull dust, it was well alight before being noticed. The driver of Syd's vehicle rapidly reversed behind a protective bank, where the airmen sheltered from the conflagration and resultant explosions before clearing the wreckage off the road. The convoy pushed north, overnight at Daly Waters due to radiator problems with the vehicles ironically, when the troops arrived at Darwin it was discovered that a proportion of one load was a new truck radiator. On arrival a Birdum, the vehicles and men were loaded onto flat cars and into cattle trucks for the train trip to the `four-mile' opposite the gate to RAAF Station Darwin, where they detrained on 14th March.

Two days later the detachment suffered its first casualty during an air raid on the airfield. There was no warning. Syd James recalls that `... we heard planes and then bombs. No slit trench, so we lay down under a gum tree and all hell broke loose, bombs fell all around us ... PO Littlejohn ... was killed. He was running out of the officer’s mess, carrying his steel hat and was hit in the head by shrapnel. He may not have died if he had been wearing his steel hat ... he was to return south the next day. Littlejohn was one of two fatalities that day. Eight Australians and one United States Army Air Corps member were injured in the bombing.

Jimmy Goode observed this raid from the radar station site where he was employed setting the foundations for that facility. Constructed under the overall supervision of Warrant Officer McLaughlin, the preparation of the radar site was one of the many tasks undertaken by the detachment. Huts were removed from Fanny Bay and re erected at the airfield at Hughes. The airfields at Strauss and Livingstone were maintained, and bomb damage at the RAAF Base repaired by a 14-man working party under the control of Corporal M.S. Sleep. There was a likelihood of danger. Twenty-three enemy raids were recorded on the Darwin area between March and June 1942, which resulted in six fatalities and 15 injuries among Air Force personnel. Such activity did not dim the aggression of the airmen. The airfield had been strafed by six Zero fighters on the 22nd, and Syd James remember that `two Zeros strafed the place. One of our brighter chaps decided to take a pot shot at one of the Zeros as he flew past and also used some ten bullets, only to be seen by the other Jap, who took a dim view of that. So they both decided to strafe us. We sure pulled our heads in. One could hear the bullets thud into the ground around us'. There was little respite. On 31st March, a high level raid resulted in 13 bomb hits on the runway, which were repaired. That night the north end of the airfield was bombed and the subsequent repairs meant little rest for Corporal Sleep's repair crew.

Syd James recorded that he was a member of a party of 20 personnel from the detachment who travelled by mission boat to Bathurst Island in June. Ten personnel were employed felling trees across and excavating holes to disable the runway at the Mission to prevent its use by the enemy. The remaining ten members travelled to Point Brace. Equipped with picks and shovels, the men were rowed ashore to undertake a week's employment in preparing an emergency airfield for use by light aircraft to supply a three man observation post at the site. The mission boat, on its return, was loaded with bombs, other ammunition, and explosives. After departing from Point Brace late in the afternoon, the captain was advised that a flight of Hudson bombers returning from a raid had reported that an enemy submarine was tracking the ship. The men manned the Vickers machine guns at the bow and stern of the ship and the ship sought the sanctuary of the shadow of cliffs at Gordon Bay to await the darkness of the waning moon. The trip back to Darwin was uneventful.

The members of the detachment at Bathurst Island suffered from scurvy due to deficiencies in their daily diet. Three bottles of fruit juice syrup per person each week, purchased from the canteen for two shillings and sixpence, remedied the situation. The purchase of such a beverage was no compensation for rudimentary camp conditions. Frank Beale reported that the carpenters had erected makeshift shelters in the bush, consisting of two poles leaning on a tree trunk covered with a tarpaulin. Mosquito netting was lacking and, as a result, `nearly all the men caught dengue fever'.

In the meantime Squadron Leader D.J. Rooney arrived at Ascot Vale on 14th April 1942 to assume command of 1MWS, four days after the first airmen posted from recruit training arrived. In all six drafts of airmen were posted to the unit before Rooney led the first of six convoys to North Western Area on 19th June, following the Terowie to Alice Springs route. Trevor Mitchell was one of the 126 airmen, and his recollections of the trip are of children `asking for pennies and railway workers wanting papers' at each stop where the local ladies supplied food which would `have been accepted in any top class hotels'. At Alice Springs he was impressed by the efficiency of the cooks and remembered a service policeman trying to ride a motorbike through the bull dust: he rode for a total of 82 metres before retiring a `sick and dusty airman'. The first convoy arrived at Willing, 30 kilometres north of Pine Creek, on 1st July and Pilot Officer R.L. Daws and 106 airmen commenced the construction of North Western Area Headquarters at Coomalie Creek on the 16th.

With the arrival of the final 1MWS convoy on 30th September there were two RAAF construction squadrons operating in North Western Area. However, plans to expand the number of units in the Area meant that construction tasks could not wait until 1MWS had reached its full complement. On 15th August the Air Officer Commanding North Western Area ordered that the construction of an airstrip at Coomalie Creek, which was to become the operational base of 31 Beaufighters squadron, be commenced immediately and that the Hughes field be extended to 1,829 metres. To ease the administration of these projects, Headquarters 1MWS moved to the site on the 25th. The first stage of the project   the preparation of a site for 1 Medical Receiving Station   was commenced on 3rd September.

1MWS and 3WMU worked in tandem until 14MWS was formed on 20 July 1943, undertaking numerous vital tasks including the construction of splinter proof revetments (initially using scrap iron off bombed out buildings nailed to bush timber frames) at Darwin and Coomalie Creek, the repair of runways at Bathurst Island (presumably undoing the damage created by the July 1942 party), camouflaging and sealing the fighter strips at Strauss and Livingstone, taxiways at Pell and work at the major heavy and medium bomber bases at MacDonald and Fenton.  Conditions were harsh and uncompromising. During March 1943 12 days of continuous rain played havoc with the roads and seriously dislocated the construction schedule of both units. The men had no control over the weather and problems with equipment tested their technical ability and resourcefulness. Fred Satchell was a welder with 3MWS and recalls that the axles of four wheel drive trucks consistently broke when the trucks attempted to pull out of the gravel pits. An ancient welder had been `scrounged' from the meat works at Wyndum enabling Fred to be `kept busy welding [repairs to the broken axles]. It was not a complete answer as we did not have a heat treatment furnace to do them properly.' Another example of the ingenuity of the men was when an unused underground tank and lengths of pipe were excavated, mounted on a truck, and fashioned to spray oil on the dusty surface of the Darwin airfield.

Construction work could be dangerous. Aircraftman Class 1 Shaddock of 1MWS was servicing a tractor at the Hughes gravel pit when he suffered extensive petrol burns on 15 October. He was admitted to 1 Medical Receiving Station, but died next day and was buried that afternoon at the Adelaide River cemetery. Leading Aircraftman M.R. Clark was drowned on 16 January 1943 while swimming near Mataranka. Enemy air attacks on Coomalie Creek during the morning of 27th November 1942 and at Fenton on 30 June and 6 July 1943 did not cause any fatalities among the constructions squadrons, but left a body of folk lore, as Syd James recalls:

Two of our chaps who didn't believe bombs landed in the same place twice, were both disillusioned. On one day when the siren went, they got into a large bomb hole on the edge of the runway only to be blown out by another bomb, not seriously hurt. But with the theory blown to pieces.

Two of our gang was in a trench with logs along each side; a near miss shifted the logs along with dirt on top of them, giving them quite a fright. They had to be helped out. After things got back to normal, we got back to work. There was two walking wounded kangaroos, one with a broken tail, the other head wounds, one ear gone, also a bomb happy dingo running in circles...

Members of 1MWS travelled far and wide on duty. On 2nd May 1943, Flying Officer Richardson and 20 men departed from Headquarters to undertake the establishment of a radar station at Wessell Island. Also aboard the 70 ton Islander was another party of 34 airmen bound for Millingimbi, and unexpected excitement. The arrival of the ship at Millingimbi on the 9th coincided with that of seven enemy `Sally' bombers, which dropped twenty 100-kilogram daisy cutters, causing damage to the runway and the Islander. Two members of 1MWS were injured. The following day nine Zeros strafed the stricken ship and left it, and all the personal effects of the 1MWS staff, on fire. Squadron Leader F.A. Maw, who had assumed command of 1MWS on 3rd February, flew to Millingimbi on the 11th to oversee the re-equipment of his men with new arms, clothing and other personal effects. Personnel of 1MWS remained at Millingimbi until replaced on 7th July 1943 and were therefore witnesses to further aerial activity over the base. On 13th May six Zekes made a reconnaissance of Millingimbi and an unidentified enemy aircraft was sighted north of the base on the l5th. A third raid occurred on the 28th, when eight bombers and five fighters destroyed 50 drums of oil and damaged a salvaged aircraft and a mess hut. A force of Spitfires intercepted this force. Three bombers were claimed as destroyed and one damaged for the loss of two Spitfires.

The second phase of the expansion of the works force commenced in January 1943. The administration of individual Airfield Construction Squadrons and the technical oversight of tasks were outside the expertise of a normal Area headquarters. To administer Nos. 1MWS, 3MWS, 8MWS, 9WMU, IIWSU, and 1SDU, Wing Commander D.J. Rooney established 61 Works Wing at Camp Pell, Royal Park, on 7th January 1943. Rooney flew north on 20th January, and was followed by the advance party on the 25th. Two of the more important reactions to the deployment of the wing headquarters were that negotiations commenced to transfer certain construction responsibilities to civilian authority and the units already operating in the Territory were reorganised. Negotiations with the Department of Main Roads, Public Works Department, and the Allied Works Council progressed slowly. However, on 20th September 1943 agreement was reached where the Allied Works Council and the Country Roads Board would concentrate their efforts in the Gorrie Area. The war situation had improved by 25th April 1944, when Rooney was advised that AWC labour was available in the area to commence RAAF projects for which funds were available. On 1st September 1944, 5 Divisional Works Office was `reconstituted for the general supervision of RAAF works' being undertaken in the north west.

On 12th June 1943, discussions were held between Rooney and Group Captain Knox, the Director of Works and Buildings, on relieving 1MWS as an entire unit. It had completed 12 months tropical service. The opportunity was also taken to rationalise the works organisation in the area. 1MWS was to be split into two standard sized squadrons   1MWS and 14MWS. The former proceeded south and 14MWS absorbed all newcomers and those personnel who had not served a full tropical tour. 14MWS was officially raised on 20th July 1943, and took over 1MWS works responsibilities next day.