Extract from the book "Always First" by David Wilson
According to advices received by the Ministry of Munitions from the Department of Works and Housing, the latter Department is unable to muster from civilian sources personnel or plant required for the construction of the airfield and other works required in connection with the Long Range Weapons project under which circumstances those Departments propose that RAAF personnel and equipment (Airfield Construction Squadron) be provided for the purpose ... I concur in principle in those proposals on the definite understanding that the Department of Works and Housing cannot provide its manpower and equipment needs.
Arthur Drakeford, Minister for Air, 9 April 1947
There exists today a very great civil engineering capacity in all localities, however remote, as compared with the situation 15 20 years ago
Air Vice Marshal C.G. Cleary Air Member for Supply and Equipment 1st November 1972
After a visit by the British Rocket Bomb Experimental Mission in March 1946, Prime Minister Chifley announced that a range would be established in central Australia to enable the testing of bombs, anti aircraft missiles, guided bombs and long range missiles. The Long Range Weapons Project agreement between the governments of Australia and Great Britain was signed in September 1947 and Woomera, South Australia, selected as the administrative centre for the range. 2ACS reformed at RAAF Base Mallala, South Australia, on 19th May 1947 with the specific task of building the airfield and facilities for the Long Range Weapons establishment at Woomera. Prior to the main body moving to the rail head at Pimba, personnel were detached to Darwin and Uranquinty, New South Wales, to disassemble surplus pipes and the control tower, respectively, for use at the desert airfield. The main body commenced its move from Mallala to Pimba on 19 June. The Headquarters arrived on the 25th.
Between June 1947 and November 1951, 2ACS constructed two airfields, one at Woomera, and the other at Koolymilka. In addition, the squadron constructed access roads to various facilities, such as the Launching Site, Short Brothers' Missile Range
and a Bomb Ballistic Range. Additional tasks were the erection of domestic buildings to replace the original tent accommodation and the layout and establishment of streets and excavating trenches for the Postmaster Generals' Department in the Woomera Village. By January 1949 the squadron had erected 498 prefabricated huts and built individual messes for officers, sergeants and airmen, latrines, laundries and a water reticulation system based on a 318,500-litre water tank fed from Lake Richardson. To supply drinking water a 6,825,000 litre capacity dam was excavated.
The main airfield at Woomera was a complex of two, later increased to three, runways, and associated taxi ways, hardstandings, hangars, control tower and access roads which was commenced in July 1947. The third runway of 1,829 metres was approved in November 1950 but was not completed before 2ACS deployed to Cocos Island at the end of 1951. Progress was retarded by the lack of water to consolidate the airfield, and high winds formed corrugations on the finished surface, which had to be evened out before work could progress. The lack of water was a problem until a 644-kilometre pipeline was laid to the Murray River by the Department of Works and Housing, but there were occasions when an unseasonable downpour would delay construction. Six days were lost in September 1949 almost four metres of rain had been recorded in the year, compared with the annual average of one but did have the advantage of enabling maintenance work to be undertaken on equipment. In April 1950 the commanding officer reported that `rain was badly required to alleviate the dust menace'. During the following month eight working days were directly lost to rain, but the actual loss in productivity was due to the `slowness of drying out [of the airfield] preventing the use of mechanical plant'. However, these were exceptional circumstances. A description of conditions in December 1949/January 1950 is indicative of the conditions met by the men: `... some very hot and trying weather, the maximum temperature having exceeded the century on a considerable number of occasions, and on one occasion reached a maximum of 120 degrees in the shade'.
A detachment of 2ACS commenced serious work on the Koolymilka airfield in June 1949 and 20 accommodation huts were moved from Pimba as quarters for the men involved. However, the squadron was not able to fully commit itself to this project until August after participating in mining operations at the Ben Bullen open cut mine near Lithgow, New South Wales. This deployment was in response to a general strike called on 27th June 1949 by 23,000 coal miners organised by `a sprinkling of militant unions and the Communist Party' in direct confrontation with the Federal and New South Wales State Governments, the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Within a fortnight the number of national unemployed reached a million and soup kitchens `dotted Sydney's industrial suburbs'. On 27 July Prime Minister Ben Chifley announced that the Army, with the assistance of Navy and Air Force personnel, would be used to break the strike. The Services started coal mining on 1st August.
On 31st July three Bristol Freighters, a Vickers Viking, and a Dakota flew 123 members of 2ACS from Pimba to the RAAF Base at Schofields, from where they moved to Marangaroo, north of Lithgow. 26 officers and men who had been recalled from leave and four others who travelled from Pimba in four buses and a flat top truck joined the main party. After a survey of the coal field by the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Harrison and his Works Officers, Flight Lieutenants Lings and A.H. Perry, it was decided to familiarise the airmen with the equipment that they were expected to operate. At one minute past midnight on 2nd August 1949, the first shift of 2ACS personnel commenced work at the Ben Bullen mine and two shift operations continued until operations ceased at midnight on 14th August. Initially the coal output was relatively small due to the low serviceability of the Joint Coal Board owned equipment and the operator’s inexperience. Due to the superb efforts of the fitters equipment serviceability increased and the developing experience of the operators themselves increased output. It was a matter of pride for the squadron that during the period of operations those 13,756 tons of coal were produced. And that the `... high spirit shown by all ranks ... [resulted in the squadron producing coal at a rate higher than] ... the coal miners themselves and, proportionately, ... [produced] more coal than the Army'.
Two Bristol Freighters and two Dakotas flew 103 officers and men back to Pimba on 19th August. After refueling at Broken Hill, the last aircraft arrived at 6pm to enable the weary men to rest before recommencing work at Woomera and Koolymilka on the 22nd.
On 15th May 1951 Koolymilka airfield was officially named Evetts Field in honour of Lieutenant General J.F. Evetts, who led the English party that selected the Woomera site for the Long Range Weapons Project, and handed over to the Department of Supply. The construction had not been without problems. Limestone was one rock used to form the runway, but over watering and heavy rolling created a surface `unfit for sealing', so the process required `fine judgment and careful supervision' to obtain a suitable surface. Another problem arose in June 1950. The surface primer tended to bubble and flake. It was considered that the heavy application of water from Koolymilka Lake formed a concentration of salt in the surface layers of the airfield. After many trials a procedure was adopted in November, which appeared `quite satisfactory'. However, the permanent solution was natural rain dissolved the unwanted salt and, once the surface was impervious to water, the problem did not recur.
Given the problems faced by 2ACS the squadron's achievements were remarkable. It was chronically under strength. The monthly average deficit in manpower was 13 officers and 301 airmen. It was only in October 1951, just prior to its deployment to Cocos Island, that 2ACS was at peak strength 14 officers and 530 airmen compared with a manning level of 14 officers and 553 airmen. Such deficiencies placed heavy responsibility on relatively junior members of the squadron. For example, in July 1949 there was only one Works Supervisor on strength and he was awaiting discharge. The supervision of the construction of the handstands and technical area at Woomera was the responsibility of a corporal plant operator, who undertook this task under the overall guidance of the Senior Works Officer. 12 Despite efforts to redress the situation, the lack of motor transport and works fitters and the related serious delays in the overhaul of works plant is a recurrent theme in commanding officers reports.
Conditions at Woomera were `rough but livable'. 13 Squadron members became involved in local sporting competitions, playing tennis, cricket, and football on purpose built facilities. In August 1949 Leading Aircraftman D.K. Prizibilla and Aircraftman R.J. Mahoney tied for third place as the local football competition `best and fairest player' award and Leading Aircraftmen Saint, Morgan and Badke were selected in the Woomera Area cricket team which participated in the Country Week competition at Adelaide during March 1950 which they won. Snooker, billiards and table tennis tournaments were popular indoor sports and the thrice-weekly film show proved extremely popular. The open air theatre was threatened by fire in February 1951, and it was only by the prompt action of Leading Aircraftman T.W. Leahy and Corporal A. Shand that the damage was superficial one reel of film lost and slight damage to the projection box. Both men were hospitalised with burns to their arms and legs. Despite this alarum, most members of 2ACS who served at Woomera would probably agree with Ron Ramsay and say that `I enjoyed my time there.