5ACS DARWIN EXTRACT FROM GOING SOLO By Dr, Alan Stephens
During most of the RAAF's peacetime years there has never been a flying squadron stationed permanently at Darwin: it has been as a transit and exercise post that the airfield has earned its keep. Yet Darwin arguably is the most important base for the air defence of Australia, its location at the northern gateway making it not only the first port of call but also the link between the mainland and overseas strategic airfields. Darwin's significance was never more obvious than on 19 February 1942, when heavy Japanese air raids devastated the RAAF and exposed Australia's vulnerability. Continuing raids over the subsequent months marked the low point of the RAAF's history.
Immediately after the war Darwin resumed its role as a transit post. In order to facilitate that task, the major objective of base development was to clean up the war damage and improve living conditions for the permanent staff who looked after the continual succession of VIP, ferry and training flights. It was almost a decade after the war before the first serious attempt was made to make something more of Darwin Air Marshal J.P.J. McCauley provided the driving force. During a tour of all USAF Fay East Air Forces bases, the CAS had been impressed by the high standard of facilities, which enabled those bases to handle any aircraft in the USAF's inventory, current and planned. They were, McCauley observed, 'true strategic airfields'. The RAAF needed to follow that example and, as the only base in the north from which major operation could be mounted, Darwin was the logical place to start. McCauley wanted Darwin to become the 'main Australian base for war', both for operations on the mainland and deployments to Southeast Asia.
No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron had started work on a new main runway at Darwin in 1955 but not to the 'strategic' standards the CAS wanted.
On his return to Australia McCauley convinced the government to spend the additional money needed to upgrade the runway." Eventually 3350 metres long and sixty metres wide, with associated taxiways and hard standing, the runway could accept the most advanced heavy aircraft, including the RAF's nuclear-armed V Bombers. With that work close to completion by the end of 1961, Cabinet approved the expenditure of a further $2.57 million on works, which would enable the RAAF to deploy to and operate from the north in strength. Operational readiness platforms and arming areas were added for RAAF's strike force of Canberra’s and Sabers, while extra technical and domestic buildings allowed an additional 1500 people to deploy to Darwin during exercises.
Still that did not meet the RAAF's definition of a 'strategic' facility. Air Force commanders wanted the flexibility to divert forces and avoid overcrowding, two deficiencies which had contributed to the disaster of February 1942; further, in a major war the capacity of a single airfield might not be adequate. Only a second airfield would provide the answer.
EXTRACTS FROM THE BOOK ALWAYS FIRST by David Wilson
During March Wing Commander Harrison had discussions with the Director of Works and Buildings, Group Captain Dale, on the move of the squadron to undertake runway construction at Darwin. The advance party departed in a British Hastings transport on 11th March. Sergeant A. Fort and three persons travelled by similar means to join them on the 20th, and RAAF Dakota aircraft deposited further personnel at Darwin on the 21st and 22nd. Arrangements were made for the equipment to be forwarded to Darwin by rail and aboard the Tyalla before the main body (241 officers and men) embarked aboard the New Australia at Darling Harbour, Sydney, on 26th May 1955. The equipment forwarded by rail was delayed at Bowen due to the flooding of the railway line to Mount Isa.
Road connections were also disrupted, delaying the departure of Warrant Officer W.T. Smith, a party of 28 airmen and a convoy of 12 vehicles for Darwin until 13th April. This convoy arrived at Archerfield on the 16th after being delayed by minor mechanical breakdowns and the sickness of Leading Aircraftman Morgan en route. Morgan was admitted to Tamworth hospital and later airlifted to a RAAF hospital. Two days after arriving at Archerfield, the convoy departed from the Roma Street goods yard for the second stage of the journey to Mount Isa. Although a passenger carriage was supplied for the airmen there was inadequate space for them to sleep comfortably. Meals were a problem as many of the railway refreshment facilities were closed; even when they were open, meals and the purchasing of supplies had to be rushed. The convoy arrived at Mount Isa on 24th April. Next day the party participated in the Anzac Day march before commencing the lonely road trip to Darwin on the 27th.
The convoy crossed the Northern Territory border before a slight accident occurred between a civilian utility truck and one of the semi trailers. One of the four-wheel drive trucks was forced off the road and temporarily bogged. The convoy passed through Frewin's Road House, Phillips Creek, Renner Spins, Stuart Plains, Larrimah, Mataranka, Katherine, Pine Creek, and Adelaide River with the men camping in the bush at the end of each day. Fuel for the vehicles was in short supply, and they often required re-fuelling from stocks carried by the convoy. Despite slight illness suffered by Leading Aircraftman Johnston and Leading Aircraftman Socrati, the convoy arrived at Darwin during the afternoon of 3rd May after a journey of 5,416 kilometres, of which 2,706 had been spent behind the wheel. It had been a journey through the vastness of northern Australia which members of the `party will remember ... for the rest of their lives'.
Although 5ACS was to be based in Darwin the work at Williamtown had to be completed and Detachment `A' was raised on 26th May 1955 for this task. The asphalt overlay of the runway was completed on 12th June 1959. Whilst at Williamtown, the men had built the officers' mess, a swimming pool, diverted the Medowie road, and erected hangars and aircraft crash barriers at each end of the runway. The detachment remained active until June 1963. A second detachment was raised to undertake projects at Brookvale, Richmond, and Regents Park. The commitment at Brookvale was to erect buildings, which had been removed from Richmond. The Richmond program included the repair of runways, the erection of Pentad hangars, the construction of a swimming pool and the removal and re erection of a hangar from the old Rathmines site on Lake Macquarie. This structure was dismantled and the components placed aboard lighters, which were towed down the coast then up the Hawkesbury River before being unloaded at Windsor.
Detachment `D' was raised at Amberley on 12th July 1962 to reconstruct the main runway.
5ACS constructed domestic facilities and amenities before work commenced on the centre line of the main 3,963 metres Darwin runway on 5th July 1955. But this was not their only task. The Department of Civil Aviation took over a new control tower from the squadron on 2nd February 1969 and the unit was also responsible for the construction of new accommodation for airmen and non commissioned officers as well as undertaking major renovations to the airmen's and sergeant's messes and a maintenance hangar. In undertaking these tasks, the squadron set new standards and records. When constructing the pavement for the fighter operational hardstanding a record 1,346 cubic metres of concrete was placed in an 8-1/2 hour period. Flying Officer Ron Lopaten and his men surpassed themselves a few days later, placing 1,679 cubic metres of concrete in nine hours.
Working conditions were less than favorable. The heat and humidity sapped energy and red dust clogged nostrils, penetrated clothing fabric, and permeated into mechanical components. While the annual `wet' gave some relief, it sometimes but not always delayed construction. Gordon Worrall records that on one occasion he was in charge of a small concrete hatching plant when the rains broke. He and his men headed for the protection of the site shed, and Worrall considered that work would cease for the day. But not so; `the guys took off all their clothes and returned to work, wearing boots only'. The `wet' could be malicious. On 1st February 1962 a severe storm was centered on the 5ACS airmen's lines. The roof of a Rudnev but was separated from the walls and deposited on the roof of the hut next in line. Four other accommodation huts were damaged beyond repair and 40 personnel had to be billeted in Base Squadron huts for a week while repairs were made.
An important source of raw material was opened on 23rd August 1955 with an advance party travelling to open the Darwin River Quarry. The life style there was informal, as Gordon Worrall discovered when he arrived to convert the crushers from diesel power to electric. He arrived on Friday afternoon just in time for the biggest party he had ever seen. There `were eight 18 gallon [81 litre] kegs and a bus load of sheilas from Darwin'. A celebration of this magnitude had more than social repercussions. It had been planned to detonate six tons of explosives primed in a tunnel which had had been dug into the quarry face on the following Monday. At midnight eight sticks of gelignite were detonated behind the huts bringing the party to a dramatic halt. All thought the tunnel had blown. As retribution the squadron administrative officer attempted to put the camp on the `dry' but his ban could not be enforced. Personnel at the quarry worked, and drank, hard. The crusher was always in motion, making it impossible for Worrall to fit the electric motors until a fire broke out `in the oil soaked ground around the Gardner diesel on the primary crusher and destroyed most of its alloy parts. Fitment of the electric motors them became top priority and I had the crushers operational again in three weeks'.
Every morning the delicate tracks of small lizards traced a path through the layer of thick fine dust, which covered the site. Never sighted, these little animals were named `gernomees' and blamed for breakdowns and loss of equipment. At other times nature was not so benign. Worrall recalls one Willy Willy extending several hundred metres into the air, wandering through the buildings `collecting dried grass and airmen's washing. Then it found what it wanted the motorbike shed. It rushed between couples of buildings, grabbed the motorbike shed, and demolished it, adding numerous sheets of corrugated iron to the spiraling debris. It was very spectacular'. The `wet' resulted in mud, not dust, and was a contributing factor in the accidental death of Warrant Officer J.C. McLean on 4th March 1956. He had been directing the towing of a semi trailer through a boggy section of the Mount Finniss/Southport road 64 kilometres south of Darwin when, attempting to mount the running board of the towing vehicle, he slipped and fell. The rear wheels of the vehicle passed over him. McLean, a willing, effective, and tireless worker had served with Airfield Construction Squadrons since January 1943 and was survived by his wife and two sons, Maxwell and Lionel.
While the squadron was based at Darwin there were two other projects, which required its construction expertise and an incident requiring the use of its equipment. On 5th February 1961 a pontoon equipped Trans Australia Airline helicopter crash-landed in Darwin harbour. A Navy launch towed it to a wharf where a 20-ton crane borrowed from the squadron was used to lift the aircraft from the water on to a low loader for return to the airfield. In January 1965 Flying Officer Lopaten led 15 airmen to commence the preparation of the 2 Control and Reporting Unit site at Lee Point. To provide power for these establishment two separate parties travelled by service air to recover powerhouse equipment from Manus Island. The first party, led by Flight Lieutenant P.L. Ashley departed on 26th April. The second party of Flight Lieutenant D.B. Willis, Sergeant J.A. Kropp and Leading Aircraftmen L.B. Lee, G.V. Blake, M.B. Blackhall and R.W. McCluskey flew to Manus on 3rd July to pack and crate the equipment. The second construction task was the development of a site for the (SAM) system for the deployment of Bloodhound Surface to Air Guided Weapons from four-launcher pads and associated electrical and water reticulation services Squadron at Williamtown. Work on this project commenced after a party headed by Wing Commander J.S. Latham surveyed Darwin sites during the period 12 14 January 1965.