Extract from the book “GOING SOLO” By Dr, Alan Stephens
During World War II an airfield was developed near Learmonth on Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia as a base for fighters giving air protection to the navy base and as a staging post for aircraft movements along the west coast. On 11th April 1964 the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Valston Hancock, signed a memorandum recommending development of the existing airfield to meet current defence requirements. Recommendations were made against a strategic assessment, which identified a general threat to South East Asia, by Communist China and anxiety as to Indonesia's ambitions. Having identified that most Indonesian military facilities were located on the island of Java, Hancock compared the advantages and disadvantages of staging the RAAF's newly ordered F 111C strike aircraft through Learmonth and Darwin. The former was 483 kilometres closer to potential targets and less vulnerable to interdiction by enemy aircraft.
As far back as December 1945 funds had been allocated to buy about four hundred and fifty hectares of land at Learmonth to construct a new airfield and signals facilities the site of a wartime strip. Finalizing the sale took five years, by which time the priority for airfield construction had turned to the Cocos Islands and Momote. The 1954 tour of American bases, which had stimulated Air Marshal McCauley’s interest in Darwin, also prompted him to turn the RAAF's attention towards the northwest again; while by 1957 the impending deployment of Canberra’s and Sabers to Malaya as part of the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve added extra urgency to the need to develop alternative strategic routes. Cabinet allocated £450,000 for the development of Learmonth to the minimum standard necessary for ferry flights and the occasional operational deployment.
In the early 1960s rising tensions with Indonesia and the selection of the F 111 to replace the Canberra indicated a need for further works at Learmonth. As long as the Canberra was the Air Force's main strike weapon there was little point in spending more money on Learmonth, since no amount of infrastructure could overcome the obsolescent bomber's limited range. The F 111, though, was a different matter. Chief of the Air Staff Sir Valston Hancock informed Minister for Air David Fairbairn in April 1964 that with its radius of action of 2700 kilometres, an F 111 operating from Darwin could attack all major Indonesian targets in West New Guinea and Java with a 2700 kilogram bomb load. Strikes against Jakarta, however, would be at the limit of the aircraft's range, an operational handicap that would adversely affect planning, route flexibility and maneuverability. Because the F 111s would be operating at their maximum range, they would have to attack Jakarta along predictable lines of approach, which in turn meant that detection by Indonesian radar warning stations sited on the island chain between Timor and Java would be likely.
But if Learmonth were available the F 111s would be about seven hundred and twenty kilometres closer to key targets in Java, enabling the RAAF crews to vary their attack directions and make a greater portion of their run in at low altitude to stay underneath the radar defenses. Hancock told Fairbairn that once the F 111s were in service, Learmonth would assume great importance as a forward base 'for mounting operations against Indonesia's vital centres in Java'. The CAS concluded by giving the minister a short lesson in deterrence theory. There is no point in adopting a strategy of deterrence, he suggested if the object of the strategy does not know he is supposed to be deterred. Air Marshal Hancock defined the significance of Learmonth in precisely those terms. Indonesia's
leaders would base their assessment of the RAAF's effectiveness on the ability of Australia's bomber aircraft to attack vital areas in Java, and any airfield extensions at Learmonth would not go unnoticed. By itself that seemed sufficient reason for further development. Other reasons strengthened the argument. Better facilities would give the RAAF the option of filling part of the gap in Australia's air defenses, as fighter aircraft and mobile control and reporting units could be deployed at short notice; while Learmonth's location also made its utility for maritime patrol and transport operations self evident. Cabinet agreed and in April 1966 approved additional works to bring Learmonth up to a standard suitable for unrestricted operations by F 111, Mirage, Hercules, Canberra, Neptune, and Orion aircraft. The runway was to be extended from 2140 to 2600 metres (later increased to 3000 metres), taxiways, and aircraft hard standing constructed, and existing buildings and services upgraded. While improving relations with Indonesia and delays in the arrival of the F 111s saw the project suspended shortly afterwards, No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron eventually started work at Learmonth in strength in 1971 under the leadership of Wing Commander J.D.G. Lessels.
Two thousand one hundred and sixty six hectares of land were resumed to permit the expansion of the runway and an area of 19,035 hectares to the west of the airfield was purchased as an air weapons range. When the runway was officially opened on 15th December 1972, the quantity and quality of the work undertaken by the squadron was evident. The original runway had been covered with a five-centimeter mat of asphalt and extended to 3,080 metres. A parallel taxiway with eight associated taxiways linking it to the runway, alert bays, servicing and civil terminal aprons and associated access roads, car parks, drainage and domestic facilities had all been constructed. One of the unusual aspects of the design was the construction of a 14-kilometre levee bank to protect the airfield from cyclonic tidal waves.
Moving equipment from Tindal and Amberley to such an isolated site as Learmonth was a huge logistic problem. Warrant Officer L.D. Alexander and Leading Aircraftmen J. Pollard and L.S.Sandwith arrived at Learmonth by air on 19th March 1970, in time to meet the first consignment of plant and motor vehicles from Amberley. The complex move of heavy equipment across the continent was organised by the Commonwealth Railways. The first stage of the move was by rail to Larrimah, then south. The final move was by road to Learmonth and the transfer of equipment to and from different modes of transport caused `disastrous [damage] Sgt T. Wilson unloading the road transports reported ... heavy articles were stacked on top of lightweight equipment' and lifting brackets on the heavy plant had been completely ignored, with slings wrapped around weak points causing massive damage.
The un-serviceability of equipment was a factor, which delayed construction. In the period February/April 1971 the power scraper and water tanker serviceability rate fell as low as 25 per cent. The Western Australian representative of the suppliers, Mr. K. McGuiness, spent a month with the squadron to give assistance. He returned in May to assist in the rectification of further problems. However, even though the plant serviceability improved as the workshops gained more expertise and spare parts backing, the power scrapers remained a problem. In October 1972 the squadron stopped using this machinery due to the `un-serviceability of the scrapers [being so] bad that they could no longer be taken into account in project planning ... they caused ineffective and inefficient use of construction personnel, and have been a sink for workshops labour, which could be ill afforded'.
The vagaries of the weather were beyond human control. The commencement of the project was delayed by Cyclone 'Rita', which crossed North West Cape in late January 1971, and periodic rain prevented any work being undertaken at all. For example in the five months to May 1971 520 millimeters, double the average annual rainfall had fallen. If the heavy rain did not curtail work, the presence of moisture in the heavy clay soil in some areas made working conditions extremely difficult. When it was not raining extremely high temperatures, combined with a layer of characteristic red dust, gave no respite to man or machine.
Moreover, the effort was not without a social cost. The original advance party of Detachment `E’ arrived at Exmouth on 26th August 1970 and was housed in the Commonwealth hostel until service accommodation became available. With the arrival of the main body in January 1971 the housing problem became critical. During the months of January/February 1971 a dozen married quarters became available, but this did not ease the situation. By 30th April it had been planned that a further 30 homes would be made available, but only one actually was allocated to the squadron. The commanding officer, Wing Commander John Lessels, was to comment in June that some squadron members were facing matrimonial crisis. To many there was no escape. As Lessels reports, marriages `are breaking down under the stress of domestic and financial pressures. Some wives want to take their children, leave the area, and return to their homes elsewhere in Australia but cannot afford to do so'. Families were forced to find accommodation in the Exmouth Caravan Park or local guesthouses, and the overcrowding of the limited domestic resources, high cost of living, and high rents exacerbated the problem. The absence of their men folk, often working on shifts at the construction site some 48 kilometres away, did not ease the situation for wives and families. Married men, separated from their families, saw little hope for a reunion in the immediate future and this led to `letters full of tales of sorrow and trouble' and subsequent personal pressures between separated spouses. Despite efforts to ease the situation, the last married quarter was not made available until 3rd March 1972, eight months later than originally planned.
Running parallel with the problems related to married quarters were efforts to improve sporting facilities and develop social contacts. In June 1971 the sporting facilities at Learmonth consisted of a volleyball court, an un-grassed oval and three 12-foot dinghies. It was planned to build a squash court and to obtain materials for use to construct a tennis court. By February 1972 the squadron had entered two teams in the four team Exmouth Cricket Association competition. As an example of personal association with the local sporting community, Flight Lieutenant J.F. Kennedy, as well as starring with the bat, was the president of the cricket association. Corporal T. Whitelaw won the Exmouth yachting trophy for 1972 in his catamaran, and RAAF personnel successfully competed in softball and ten pin bowling competitions held at the US Navy base at North West Cape. Although recreational facilities improved, there was one proposal, which caused some disappointment. M.G. Kailis Gulf Fisheries Pty Ltd were required to vacate, dismantle all structures and clean the site which they occupied on Commonwealth Land by the end of December 1972. It was assessed that some of the structures would be suitable for recreational use by members of 5ACS and Lessels approached the Department of Air for permission to use the buildings for this purpose. On 22nd December 1972 advice was received from the Department of the Interior, Perth that `the facilities would be left at the Lyndon Location for use by 5ACS'. But Lessels' plan did not mature. On 28th May 1973 he was to complain that the buildings had been seriously vandalised. Windows were broken, internal fittings torn out and toilets stuffed with paper. As late as 21st August, Lessels was still reporting that there `was no significant change to the situation ... The Kailis Fisheries old area is still a mess'.
Squadron personnel participated in community life and assisted in a successful search for a local resident missing in the Cape Range. A total of 130 members of the squadron joined the search over the period 8 14 February 1972. Next day 5ACS members were involved in controlling a serious scrub fire which had been started by a lightning strike 29 kilometres south of Learmonth.
During August 1973 the announcement that 5ACS would disband produced `an understandable reaction of shock and concern'. The squadron commander, Wing Commander A.G. Woolley, recognised that there would be uneasiness associated with the future careers of members in the specialised works mustering. Therefore the decision to delay the disbandment of the unit until 15th December 1974 was `received with some relief. During April 1974 the strength of the unit declined as members sought immediate discharge, posting and retraining. The end result of this process was that by May the unit was seriously under strength in specialist categories, and supplementary manpower was sought to enable planned works to be completed. The administrative procedures related to winding up the unit progressed steadily to enable the disbandment date to be met. Items of plant and equipment were transferred to the Army or sold to civilian contractors. The married quarters became the property of the Navy or the Commonwealth State Housing Authority.
5ACS at a civic function on 21st September 1974 were farewelled by the population of Exmouth. The squadron marched through the town and then joined the community of 2,000 at the town oval for the formal addresses, a barbecue, and refreshments. On 27th September 1974 a Squadron Disbandment Ball was held in the Exmouth Shire Hall where three former commanding officers, Air Commodore P.G. Lings (Rtd), Group Captain A.M. Harrison (Rtd) and Group Captain J.D.G. Lessels, joined the Air Member for Supply and Equipment, Air Vice Marshal L.J.K. Holten and local dignitaries.
The final comment of Wing Commander A.G. Woolley in his Commanding Officers Report dated 30 October 1974 is appropriate:
This is the last monthly report submitted by the seventh and last permanent Commanding Officer of 5 Airfield Construction Squadron prior to his departure in late October 1974, on retirement. Apart from the final stages of disbandment, it marks an end of 32 years of achievement in war and peace the end of a special chapter in the history of the Royal Australian Air Force.