A Kipling-like character

Auctioned in London a few weeks ago were the gallantry and campaign medals of a long-forgotten Queenslander whose adventures read like something Rudyard Kipling might have penned.

Remarkable not only for his military exploits, Major George Edward Clerk, D.S.O. had a more-than-passing connection with Queensland, aviation, Longreach and Q.A.N.T.A.S.


Clerk served initially with the Queensland Imperial Bushmen in the Boer War and was later severely wounded in the Zulu rebellion of 1906

Returning to his home State of Queensland in late 1934, he brought with him a ‘flying circus’ accompanied by a small cadre of engineers and pilots. Contemporary newspaper reports described him as

…a member of a Queensland family of pastoralists. He was crippled in a motor accident in London a few years ago. He manages two flying organisations in Wales, and is understood to be a wealthy supporter of aviation as a hobby. His accident does does not deter him. He conducts flying operations from an invalid carriage.

Owner of Cleeve station north-east of Longreach, Clerk joined the 5th Queensland Imperial Bushmen Contingent and left for the Boer War in 1902. He made his first return visit to Longreach in 1935 having established Austral Airways in Toowoomba the previous year.

In the same article Clerk compliments Q.A.N.T.A.S. for generously supporting his own fledgling enterprise. His hopes for Austral Airways however were never realised and on 9 October 1941 Clerk passed away, aged 67.

Austral’s fleet included Fairey IIIF VH-UTT which had come last in the 1934 England to Australia Air Race. It was later sold to Ray Parer and wrecked in Papua New Guinea. This photograph is thought to have been taken in Toowoomba, Clerk possibly being second from the right
(Crows Nest Historical Society Museum ).

Same as it ever was

For some years now I have been trying to locate the surviving Skippy (1960s Australian television series) helicopter VH-AHI with a view towards having it repatriated and preserved in Australia.

After serving in PNG it later appeared on the U.S. civil register as N1164T. In 2012 it was permanently deleted from that register however in 2014 I was eventually able to track down its current owner – a helicopter spares dealer in Florida – who was happy to sell the unairworthy but mostly complete airframe for $US5,000.

VA-AHI on location ourside the Waratah Park Ranger headquarters.

Despite my best efforts, neither the National Museum of Australia, the Powerhouse Museum, the National Film and Sound Archives or the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (which now owns Waratah Park where the television series was filmed) expressed the slightest interest in this proposition.

This unique item of national cultural heritage significance has now been scrapped. The dealer in Florida emailed me last week to say he would sell VH-AHI’s logbooks and manufacturer’s plate for $US1,500.

Was a time, once, when I would have pulled out all the stops to ensure these also found a home in a suitable Australian collecting institution. A hard lesson.

Unexpected

Corrosion is already evident
Corrosion is already evident

The demand for war memorial furniture here in Australia has been so great, for so long, that it’s now difficult to obtain the military-grade anchors, propellers and guns that were once the entitlement of every R.S.L. club. Next-best-things, such as diminutive Cessna propellers which began appearing on memorials some decades ago, have now become acceptable substitutes for the once commonplace P&W giants.

With memorial accessories tending to become smaller, and increasingly modern, it was something of a surprise to find this 1932 Gipsy IIIA metal propellor adorning the newish Beerwah war memorial in south-eastern Queensland.

Gipsy IIIA, Fairey Metal Airscrew, F.R.3148, DRG.No.94518.AX3D March 1933 (Beerwah Library, and Queensland)
Gipsy IIIA, Fairey Metal Airscrew, F.R.3148, DRG.No.94518.AX3D March 1933 (Beerwah Library, and Queensland)

The IIIA was the first inverted Gipsy, eventually fitted to a large number of aircraft including the DH Chipmunk. The blade tips on this particular propeller have been squared off and slightly shortened at some time, indicating that it could have been damaged. Still though, perhaps such an early – and uncommon – blade as this deserves to be preserved?

Going, going….gone.

This unusual piece of early Australian [aeronautical] silverware realized $4,700 at auction in Sydney earlier this week, selling for more than three times its estimated reserve.
This unusual piece of early Australian [aeronautical] silverware realized $4,700 at auction in Sydney earlier this week, selling for more than three times its estimated reserve.
Aviation heritage has never attracted broad investor interest, the inclusion of such items in high-end auction catalogues being more the exception, than the norm. Indeed, there is no such thing here as a established aeronautica market, as there is say for antiques or fine art.

While it was not altogether unusual to see an item of early Australian aeronautical silverware auctioned in Sydney earlier this week, the [comparatively] high price realized in this instance was somewhat unexpected.

Noble Numismatics‘ catalogue described The Evening News Cup (left) as “a highly polished 9 ct rose gold, affixed atop the lid is a miniature model of a WWI Sopwith Camel plated with yellow gold and satin finish for contrast (85g; 12.5cm high), on the side is attached a winged kangaroo standing on a mound, above is inscribed, ‘The Evening News Cup/New South Wales/Aerial Derby/Inaugurated 1920’, and below the kangaroo is inscribed, ‘Australian Aero Club/New South Wales Section’, around the base is inscribed, ‘Made by Angus & Coote Sydney’. Small dent in one arm, otherwise extremely fine and extremely rare.”

Only four of these gold replica cups have been awarded, one to Captain G. C. Matthews for winning the inaugural 1920 Aerial Derby and three to Lieutenant (later Captain) Nigel B. Love who won the inaugural 1920 Aerial Derby Handicap and in the second Aerial Derby in 1922 he won the event and was also Handicap winner. As the cup offered here has the inscription ‘Inaugurated 1920’ it must be assumed it was one of the two awarded for the first race held in 1920.

Here’s hoping that it went to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. The Powerhouse).

High above the Dardanelles

Queenslander Alfred Warner served in the Dardanelles for more than two-and-a-half years, far longer than any of his compatriots, and yet you won’t find his name mentioned in any Australian military history. As Australia’s only airship pilot (and airship station commander), his war experience was singularly remarkable, much of it spent floating high above the sea lanes and battlefield of the North Aegean in what was [then] a state-of-the-art war machine.

Alfred Warner (right) in the gondola of his Sea Scout airship, which was essentially a modified RAF B.E.2 aircraft fuselage (Simon Warner Collection)
Alfred Warner (right) in the gondola of his Sea Scout airship, which was essentially a modified RAF B.E.2 aircraft fuselage (Simon Warner Collection)

Australian military involvement in the Dardanelles effectively began on 25th April 1915, and ended with the successful allied evacuation the following January. These dates broadly define the Gallipoli Campaign which – a century on – still resonates here forcefully, especially with Australians of Anglo-Celtic origin.

Following this evacuation Australia’s military focus shifted mostly to the Western Front and indeed, it wasn’t until after the Armistice in early 1919 that a small A.I. F (Australian Imperial Force) contingent – led by official war historian Charles Bean – returned to the Dardanelles for the purposes of documenting the campaign, and collecting relics for a recently proposed Australian War Museum.

Despite having also served in the Dardanelles, Alfred Warner’s remarkable war service runs counter to this mainstream narrative. Unlike his Anzac compatriots who fought mostly on the Gallipoli Peninsula, or on – and under – its adjoining waters – his war was fought high above the Dardanelles in a truncated aeroplane fuselage, suspended beneath a huge hydrogen-filled balloon.
What makes his story even more remarkable is that his service in the north Aegean lasted more than two-and-a-half years, and commenced long after the last Anzacs had evacuated the Dardanelles.

A grazier from the remote township of Talwood in south-western Queensland, Warner was twenty four when he travelled to England in early 1915 to enlist – his elder brother Herbert having been killed on active service just prior to his departure. In May that year he was granted a provisional Flight Sub-Lieutenant commission with the nascent Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Although he’d trained in conventional fixed-wing aircraft he subsequently qualified as an airship (a.k.a. dirigible) pilot.

Sea Scout envelopes were inflated with 60,000 cubic feet of explosive hydrogen gas. Remarkably, there is no record of any having exploded during the war (Simon Warner Collection).
Sea Scout envelopes were inflated with 60,000 cubic feet of explosive hydrogen gas. Remarkably, there is no record of any having exploded during the war (Simon Warner Collection).

The British Admiralty had entered the war with just seven airships, hundred more being delivered – and ordered – during the following years. These were mostly two-person single-engine types, suspended below inflated [non-rigid] envelopes. Since they were used principally for anti-submarine patrol work (and for naval bombardment spotting), airship stations were also in the main situated in proximity to important sea lanes, or port approaches vulnerable to sea mines and torpedo attack.

Following the Gallipoli withdrawal British forces remained active in the eastern Mediterranean, supporting the Macedonian Front with ground, sea and air forces. The latter, comprising both fixed wing aircraft and airships operated from both Mudros and Kassandra, 52 and 130 nautical miles, respectively, west of Anzac Cove. From here, the RNAS’s airships could guard the southern and northern approaches (i.e. the Dardanelles) to the Aegean Sea. Mudros was being bombed regularly by both German and Turkish aircraft, when Warner joined the Airship Expeditionary Force (AEF) there in mid-1917.

Alfred Warner escorting King George V (Simon Warner Collection).
Alfred Warner escorting King George V (Simon Warner Collection).

Enemy submarines were a constant threat then for ships using the Gulf of Salonika, and the RNAS was alert to the possibility that SMS Goeben or SMS Breslau (German warships which had sought refuge in the Bosphorous at the outbreak of the war) might make a dash for the Mediterranean. In order to counter these threats the AEF had been assigned half-a-dozen Sea Scout (SS) airships which had been developed in great haste – in 1914. Although submarine sightings were rare the SS proved to be both an effective surveillance platform, and a deterrent (for German submarines). From a just a few thousand feet, a single airship could reconnoitre a vast area for anything up to seven hours at a stretch.

Spared the horrors of trench warfare, airship crews nonetheless had to endure their own unique psychological stresses and physical dangers. With a top speed of 50 mph (80 km/h), and a bomb load of 73 kg, the SS’s performance was marginal. Envelopes were inflated with highly combustible hydrogen gas, the higher temperatures experienced in the Mediterranean further reducing both performance and load carrying capabilities. Engine failure was another ever-present hazard, with crews also having to endure prolonged exposure to cold winds (and rain) – in winter.

This photograph of Warner is thought to have been taken at Kassandra in Greece, where he was stationed for most of the war (Simon Warner Collection).
This photograph of Warner is thought to have been taken at Kassandra in Greece, where he was stationed for most of the war (Simon Warner Collection).

Despite these risks and limitations, the airship station at Kassandra was still able to conduct long-range patrols on an almost continual basis, averaging eight hours of flying each day during August 1917. By November that year Warner had been given command of the Kassandra air station, its airships completing twelve flights that month lasting 80.5 hours (and covering 2,715 miles).

These operations were seldom uneventful. AEF reports mention a submarine sighting on 7th April 1918, adding that that the pilot was prevented – by engine trouble – from pursuing the engagement. A submerged sea mine was also discovered – five days later – near the Greek Island of Skiathos. That same month, anti-aircraft fire was encountered (from the crippled SMS Goeben) during an aerial reconnaissance of the Bosphorous.

Warner’s wartime pocket compass (Queensland Museum Collection, H19508).
Warner’s wartime pocket compass (Queensland Museum Collection, H19508).

By war’s end Warner – then a Captain – had logged more than 760 airship flying hours, which far exceeded the times typically recorded by conventional (i.e. heavier-than-air) military pilots. Following his return to Australia in late 1919 he resumed his grazing interest, re-enlisting with the Royal Australian Air Force the same that war was declared (viz. 3rd September 1939). He eventually relinquished his commission – at RAAF Archerfield – in 1941, and died in 1959.

In1986 his son, former Queensland Parliamentary Speaker the Hon. John Warner (Qld), presented the Queensland Museum with the pocket compass that his father had carried during his long wartime patrols. Also gifted at this time was a chair which Alfred Warner had made from wooden airship propeller blades. Fitting tributes to a remarkable military career.

Opportunity Lost

Pf Heatwole Sepr 1979 (ii)Back in 1979 a leading State Museum was offered the nose section of a Douglas A20G Boston. The would-be donor described the aircraft, and it’s salvage, in the following terms….

It came from an entire crashed airplane from which a few parts such as doors had been removed prior to my finding it….I put it on top of my Beetle volkswagon and drove it to the nearest railhead, which was Julia Creek, Queensland, and shipped it by rail to Armidale, NSW, where it resided for many years on my front porch. I offered it to the XXX Museum and was told that it would be picked up, but years passed and no one came to take it. Later a private collector passed through Armidale and saw it. He wanted it, and so I gave it to him.A20G(iii)

And so I’m left wondering…..which Boston? The only A-20Gs that I know force-landed or crashed in this part of the continent were 42-86724 (# 14125) and 42-86620 ( #14021), which force-landed on Bountiful Island (see: http://www.ozatwar.com/ozcrashes/qld256.htm).Pf Heatwole Sepr 1979 (vi)

The latter is only 276 nautical miles north-west of Julia Creek, and the absence of any impact damage is certainly consistent with contemporary descriptions (and images) of the Bountiful Island incident.

What ‘s confounding however are these penciled bulkhead numbers still visible in this 1979 slide. I was expecting some correlation between these, and the corresponding USAAF (or manufacturer’s serials). This isn’t evident however, 42-86620 being Douglas serial number 14021, and 42-86724 being Douglas serial number 14125.

 

A20G(i)

 A20G(ii)

Project 1381

Surrounded in every direction by sugar cane fields, the steel and concrete remnants atop Charlies Hill south of Home Hill (North Queensland) reveal little now of the anxieties that led to its construction, nor the secrecy that once surrounded the operations of this former wartime radar station.

 

Built in anticipation of a possible Japanese aerial attack against Australian mainland targets, Charlies Hill was one of nine British ACO (Advanced Chain Overseas) radar stations completed in Australia by the end of 1943 – four of which were in Queensland (viz. 211 at Charlie’s Hill; 209 at Benowa (since demolished); 210 at Toorbul; and 220 at Bones Knob, Tolga. In the United Kingdom where it was codenamed Chain Home (CH), similar installations had been used to form the world’s first early warning radar network – also the first military radar system to reach operational status.

Charlies Hill, 20 June 1945, with one of the station’s twin 125′ high antenna towers visible in the background. A motor transport driver, Harold Tanner (center) recalled having to do ‘sleeping guard duty’ at the top of the hill every third or fourth night (Harold Tanner collection).

There was nothing new or secret about the CH (ACO) system’s radio technologies. However, by combining existing technologies with new control and reporting systems, Britain was able to create a highly effective early warning defensive system.1

Situated about 1.7 kilometers east of the Iyah rail siding, the Charlies Hill site was one of many chosen by Tasmanian Flying Officer Rex Wadsley during a nationwide search for suitable early warning radar sites. Although ‘blinded’ to the south-east by nearby Mount Inkerman, it nonetheless offered convenient road and rail access with uninterrupted signaling potential to the north and east – from where an aerial attack seemed most likely.

As Australia was then fighting a defensive war the emphasis was on ground air warning radar installations. Only later in 1943, when the allies went on the offensive and the frontline moved to the islands north and west of the continent, did the emphasis shift to transportable or mobile stations such as the low-cost Australia-made Light Weight Air Warning (LW/AW) system.

Japanese bombers had begun attacking northern Australian in February 1942. It was not until 18 September however that the Air Board (Agenda no. 4240) finally approved the Charlie’s Hill development, and the requisitioning of the necessary land (via National Security (General) Regulations). Just a few weeks later the Minister for Air (Arthur Drakeford), using powers delegated by the War Cabinet, also approved the land acquisition and complex development as ‘an urgent war measure’ warranting the highest ‘A.1’ priority.2 Somewhat curiously though, the Minister’s approval described this an ‘M.B. Type’ radio installation.3

Built to standard Air Ministry (British) specifications, the site’s twin 125′ antenna towers would have appeared conspicuous to any aircraft in the vicinity (Australian War Memorial, AWM Accession Number P00603.019).

Although operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (R.A.A.F.) final site layout details were determined in conjunction with a ‘pre-planner’ from the Camouflage Section of the Department of Home Security with a view to ‘maximum concealment from the air.’

Concealment was an overriding objective…‘access ways necessary for carrying out the works should be so arranged that they can be obliterated on completion – they should not be formed in any way…on no account must gravel surfacing be used. In general the greatest possible care is to be taken to preserve all natural features to avoid all earth scarring. All windows and external doors are to be provided with blackout screens… Avoid as far as possible removal, lopping off or damage to trees or shrubs and the disturbance of natural conditions.’4

Even the sites 2 x 2,000-gallon water tanks were set into the hillside to aid their concealment, as was the 500-gallon fuel tank (which was installed underground). It would appear though that no effort was made to conceal either of the concrete control buildings or the 125’ high antenna towers, each of which was surrounded by a 7’ high barbed wire fence.

In June the following year however the BBA (Board of Business Administration) authorized the expenditure of another £1,260 for on-site accommodation for 23 W.A.A.F. (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) personnel – previously billeted in Home Hill. This amount was additional to the £13,100 already spent on developing the site. At £4,640, the provision of main and emergency power supplies – including a 25 K.V.A. sub-station – was easily the site’s most costly expenditure, the two concrete control building (which survive today) only costing £900.5

Charlie’s Hill was operated by the RAAF’s No.211 Radar Station which formed in Sydney at the start of September 1943 commanded by twenty-six year-old Sydneysider Flying Officer John Edward Jones (61588).

Its initial complement of two officers and thirty-four other ranks arrived at Home Hill – by train – three weeks later only to discover mains electricity from the Inkerman Irrigation Scheme power house in Home Hill hadn’t yet been connected. During the following months an airstrip was cleared in the adjoining paddocks, the erection of an explosives store also receiving priority (in case it became necessary to demolish the site, following an enemy invasion).

‘The massive, even majestic [antenna] towers were sold to a contractor for £10 apiece. This contractor has purchased them for the bolts and nuts that they will supply…not caring for the valuable timber that is in the uprights, [he] has already razed one to the ground by charges of fracteur’ (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 18 December 1946, 5).
Power and water supply failures, grass fires, storms, flooding, radio calibration challenges and equipment failures combined to produce delays such that it wasn’t until mid-March 1944 that the unit finally became ‘unofficially’ operational.6

Even temperature inversions would occasionally make operations difficult. By August that year the unit had still only achieved 50% efficiency, although it did (on August 9th) record a one-day maximum of 615 plots and 115 tracks. Two days later a Curtiss P-40 fighter aircraft was used to help test the accuracy of the site’s height calibration equipment – by flying a triangular course between Townsville, Ingham and Proserpine. Unfortunately, the result was very unsatisfactory. At 8,000 feet the aircraft was not detected, and at 12,000 feet only a few heights, not enough to be of any value, were obtained.

Life at Charlie’s Hill was mostly a routine of tracking, maintenance and repair occasionally interrupted by unusual developments, as first happened on 3 November 1944…

‘Operators report peculiarity of fading echo plotted at 34º at 76 miles reappeared 48º at 76 miles alternately appearing and disappearing. Finally faded after plot 89º at 86 miles. No logical conclusion could be drawn for such a condition to exist.’7

With the Queensland coast heavily trafficked by allied aircraft, and with military air bases nearby (at Giru, Townsville, Reid River and Bowen) staff at Charlie’s Hill would have been kept very busy tracking and reporting.

In a clear indication that the threat of enemy attack had passed, and that the station’s days were numbered, instructions were received in early January 1945 to immediately reduce operations at Charlie’s Hill to just six hours per day. On 11 September No.211 Radar Station was ordered to cease operations, its final diary entry being dated 28 September 1945. Ironically, only weeks earlier the station had recorded a record track of 384 miles (618 km) and record range of 200 miles (321 km).

The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported a year after that war that the station’s buildings had been purchased by the Main Roads Commission as accommodation for work-men engaged on the construction of the new high level bridge across the Burdekin River…

‘the power lines which transmitted electricity from the power house of the Inkerman Irrigation Scheme will [also] be removed to supply current to the quarry at Stokes Range and also to the site of the new high level bridge across the Burdekin. All the buildings are in process of demolition for removal to the site about four or five miles away. The massive, even majestic [antenna] towers were sold to a contractor for £10 apiece. This contractor has purchased them for the bolts and nuts that they will supply. The contractor, not caring for the valuable timber that is in the uprights, has already razed one to the ground by charges of fracteur.’8

Lacking its own early warning capability, Australia was only too pleased at the start of the war to accept these bulky and costly CH (ACO) units. However, even as it was being calibrated and commissioned in early 1943 the equipment at Charlie’s Hill was already becoming irrelevant and obsolete, one 1946 internal report determining that the war ended ‘without [it] having made any major contribution to the war effort.’9

The concrete control rooms were all that remained at the site when this aerial photograph was taken, fourteen years after the war had ended (QImagery Ayr 1959, QAP0903, Frame 063).

This may though have been an unnecessarily harsh assessment. Charlie’s Hill and dozens of similar installations strung out along the eastern seaboard never detected incoming enemy aircraft simply because there never were any – at least after July 1942. Allied commanders couldn’t have foreseen this and indeed, Japanese military commanders might have felt more emboldened had these early warning stations not existed. Although the threat diminished Australia’s civilian and military populations continued benefitting psychologically from the knowledge that our most populated coast was still guarded by this long-range protective veil.


That tabua

It is not generally known that the Queensland Museum holds the most comprehensive and important collection of Charles Kingsford-Smith memorabilia, none of which have seen the light of day since returning to Australia on 9th June 1975 (coinciding with the anniversary of the first Pacific flight).

Credit for securing this extraordinary collection comprising more than a hundred objects belongs to former Librarian Edward (Ted) Wixted who initially encouraged the aviator’s widow (Mrs  AllanTully, and son, also Charles) to consider donating the collection to Queensland. As a consequence, the latter wrote to the state’s then Premier on 6th October 1974, expressing the view that ‘Charles and I agree they [CKS’s memorabilia] should be shared with the people of our homeland and properly displayed.’

Suva, 7th June 1928. Charles Kingsford Smith is seen here holding the tabua presented during a Qaloqalovi ceremony at the Grand Pacific Hotel, the previous evening. Along with the rest of his collection, this has remained in storage at the Queensland Museum since its return to Australia forty-five years ago (National Library of Australia, PIC/8392/112 LOC Album 1033/2).

In a follow-up letter to the Museum’s Director dated 14th March 1975, Charles (son) elaborated…’ You may not be aware that most of the documentation we have consists of several scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, and a large quantity of photographs. Unfortunately we don’t have any original correspondence or other such material of the nature that usually interests historians. The most important items of original documentation we do have are my father’s log books, covering approximately the years 1921-1932, and nautical charts he used with his courses plotted on them. We would consider giving these to the Museum as indefinite loan, if adequate copies could be made. The bulk of the collection of memorabilia we have consists of numerous awards, medals, trophies, etc.’

All but one of these items are of European manufacture and it is this exception which I find the most intriguing (because of its mysterious inscription). The crew of the Southern Cross had spent Wednesday, 6th June 1928 inspecting possible take-off sites for their final leg from Suva to Brisbane. That evening, a ball was held in their honor at the Grand Pacific Hotel…’A feature of the entertainment was the Fijian chiefs’ welcome. Rato Joni Mataitini, one of the leading chieftains, presented a whale’s tooth to Captain Smith. This is the greatest welcome ceremony that can be given by Fijians to high chiefs or officials.’1

‘Thick plainted fibre rope attached to tooth at both ends through steel eyelets ‘ 17 x 65 x 40 (cm). Photo: Queensland Museum.

An important cultural item in Fijian society, these polished sperm whale teeth were known locally as tabua. They were traditionally given as gifts for atonement or esteem (called sevusevu), and were important in negotiations between rival chiefs.  Originally they were very rare items, available only from beached whales and from trade from neighbouring Tonga (where the practice may have originated).

Sadly, the significance of this gesture was lost on at least one Australian newspaper which attempted, instead, to make light of the gift.2

Particularly intriguing in this instance is the inscription which has so far resisted all online attempts at translation. I put this problem to the Museum of Fiji some years ago which, much to my surprise, was also unable to offer a translation. Like so much in this remarkable collection, this object demands further research or, at the very least, as Lady Kingsford Smith stipulated in her original letter of offer, to be ‘shared with the people of our homeland and properly displayed.’

What does AVIMEKI (or AIMEKI) mean, in this context? (Queensland Museum H10899)

GAF Jindivik programme, August 1966

bin saves

I cannot be sure when or where it was exactly that I retrieved these, but I am guessing this might have been around 1995 during the Maribyrnong Munitions Factory or RAAF Laverton closures. Whichever, I simply couldn’t let these Kodachrome slides get carted off for land-fill.

Dumpster-diving isn’t taught to museum studies students, and is never likely to be. That’s a shame because museum employees are often – as happened in this instance – given privileged access to important sites before they’re irrevocably altered, or lost.

Here we have a uncommon glimpse of an era when state-of-the-art fighter aircraft were locally hand-crafted under the one roof by tradesmen employed on the basis of their skills, rather than their age.

 

 

Unsolved

In late March 1943 fifty-one year old baker Rigas Carsas and thirty-six year old engineer Roy Clarke, both from the nearby sugar milling town of South Johnstone, were fishing at night near the mouth of Liverpool Creek in North Queensland when they noticed a bright flash in the sky.[1]

 

This was sometime between March 20th and 26th, Carsas later recalling that the weather was very bad with a strong south-easterly wind and heavy overcast. Neither man knew what had caused the flash, and nor had they heard an explosion.[2]

A few days later, Carsas was again fishing near the mouth of Liverpool Creek, when he saw ‘three canvas bags which were securely closed, and some three or four chains away, I saw the bodies of four American airmen. The canvas bags and the bodies were on the creek bank, just above high tide mark.’[3]

His companion on that occasion was fifty-one year-old local farmer Peter Danelchenko who immediately set off to inform the nearest policeman at Innisfail some twenty-seven kilometers to the north, and later that day four American air force officers visited the scene… ‘These American officers took possession of the bodies from the creek bank, and also the canvas bags. They told me that the canvas bags contained mail for the troops in New Guinea. They also told me that one of their air craft [sic] was missing and this machine had a personnel of seven men and a nurse, and was carrying mail and the pay-roll for the troops in New Guinea.’

Liverpool Creek (mid-frame left) and the Barnard Islands (bottom center) photographed from 25,000 feet on 28th June 1994 (QImagery File QAP5249, Frame 163).

North Queensland residents were accustomed then to the sight and sound of transiting military aircraft, dozens of which disappeared offshore – and onshore – without trace. For national security reasons however, these losses were never publicised.

For the next ten years Carsas remained deeply affected by what he had witnessed, these feelings persisting until late 1952 when a seemingly unrelated incident firmed his resolve to do something about it…

‘About a week before Christmas 1952, I was fishing from a small boat between the South Benard Islands [sic] and King’s Reef [sic], about three quarters of a mile or a mile from King’s Reef, and about 2 to 2½ miles from the South Benard Islands.[4] The water at that particular spot would be about 80 feet deep. An aboriginal named “Black Paddy”, who lives at Murdering Point, near Silkwood, was fishing from another boat, about two or three chains away from me, when he called out to me and told me that he had hooked up on a piece of aeroplane. I called out to “Black Paddy” and told him to take particular notice of landmarks, so that we could come back to the spot again. After some time, I returned to the beach at Murdering Point and “Black Paddy” did likewise. I then saw a wire cable about 15 feet in length and about as thick as an ordinary clothesline. The cable was very much rusted in places, and after making an examination of it, I was of the opinion it was a cable from an aeroplane. I did not take possession of the cable and I am unable to say what “Black Paddy” did with it. I did not report the matter at that time, as I was not certain that “Black Paddy” or myself could return to the spot where the cable had been brought out of the sea.

On 31st January 1953, I was at Murdering Point, when “Black Paddy” told me that he had been back to the spot where he had hooked up the aeroplane cable, and had hooked up a part of the door of an aeroplane. “Black Paddy” did not tell me what he did with the part of the door from the aeroplane and I did not ask him.’[5]

 

A few days after the discovery of this submerged wreckage, Carsas reported the matter to Innisfail’s Stipendiary Magistrate Mr E J Pearce who, in turn, caused local police to undertake further investigations…

‘On Friday, 6th February 1953, I accompanied police to Innisfail, where I went on a motor launch, which was in charge of Mr Shearsmith, the pilot from Flying Fish Point. I told Mr Shearsmith that I wished to go to Murdering Point to pick up “Black Paddy” who could return to the spot, where the aeroplane parts had been hooked from the sea. Mr Shearsmith said he would not go to Murdering Point, he was only going to the South Benard Islands. I then decided to get off the launch and travel to Murdering Point by road to pick up “Black Paddy”, after which I would proceed to the South Benard Islands in my own motor boat. On arriving at Murdering Point, I found “Black Paddy” and went to my motor boat, which was anchored in a small creek. On arriving at the boat, I found that the tide was too low to get it out of the creek into the sea. I then saw a man named Joe Borg, who owns a motor boat at Murdering Point, and asked him to take myself and “Black Paddy” to the South Benard Islands. Borg consented to do so. When we got in the vicinity of the South Benard islands, we saw the pilot launch from Flying Fish point heading back to Innisfail. We took a run around the South Benard islands, thinking the pilot launch may return but it did not do so, and we then returned to Murdering Point, after which I returned to my home at South Johnstone.

I am not certain that I can return to the spot where the aeroplane parts were hooked from the sea, but I am confident that “Black Paddy” can do so. It would have to be fine, clear weather before a successful attempt could be made to locate the sport, and landmarks on the coast have to be seen to pinpoint the spot.’

 

In his written statement to police at that time, Carsas described himself as a sixty-one year old mill greaser employed by the South Johnstone Co-operative Sugar milling Association Ltd. of South Johnstone.

Perhaps more than anyone else, he alone had tried – unsuccessfully – to solve the mystery of this wartime crash. Knowing that he had done everything reasonably possible might have delivered some personal satisfaction and yet there would always remain the gnawing suspicion that, just maybe, “Black Paddy” had found the cause of that flash he had seen in the night sky a decade earlier. Rigas Carsas died on 1st June 1961 having never learned the answer.

 


[1] Carsas is thought to have migrated from Spain, arriving in New South Wales on 12th October 1915. While the 1943 Herbert (encompassing South Johnstone) Electoral Roll does not record a ‘Roy Clarke’, it does show an Assistant Engineer named ‘Roy Donaldson Clark’ residing at South Johnstone.

[2] C-49 41-7694 disappeared a fortnight later while flying Townsville to Cooktown and later in the war, also in this vicinity, radar contact was lost with a Douglas A-20G Boston bomber (42-86748) of the United States Army Air Force’s 93rd Service. Flying direct from Rockhampton to Cairns in daylight, and with favourable weather, it was presumed to have crashed at sea. See Missing Air Crew Report number 14466, Record Group 92 (U.S. National Archives), https://catalog.archives.gov/id/91154760.

[3] “Liverpool Creek (offshore) – circa 20 Mar 1943 – possible aeroplane incident – canvas bags and 4 American Airmen’s bodies found,” Queensland State Archives, Agency Control Number 1861M/181, Item 2177830, 1, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM2177830.

[4] Thought to refer to the Barnard Islands and king Reefs which are seven kilometers south-east, and east of the Liverpool Creek mouth, respectively.

[5] Written statement given by Rigas Carsas to Sergt. 2/c Alexander William Berghoffer at Innisfail Police Station on 7th February, 1953, Queensland State Archives, Agency Control Number 1861M/181, Item 2177830, 1, https://www.archivessearch.qld.gov.au/items/ITM2177830.

 

Blast from the past

 

In 1995 the Commonwealth provided National Estate funding for a pilot study of Victoria’s aeronautical and astronautical heritage, the first state-level thematic study of its kind. This investigation identified more than a hundred significant sites, three of which related to astronautics. The latter included the Graytown Proof & Experimental Establishment near Puckapunyal; the Ravenhall Static Test Facility in Melbourne’s Deer Park; and the rocket static test site within the former Explosives Factory at Maribyrnong, these last two having been operated by the same agency.

Six years earlier an amateur rocket group comprising mostly Monash University students had launched their first rocket, a liquid fueled vehicle based upon a modified Pacific Rocket Society design. Called AUSROC I  it was launched on 9th February 1989 from the Graytown Proof & Experimental Establishment adjacent to  Victoria’s Puckapunyal Army Base.[1]

Mark Blair assembling AUSROC I at Graytown Proof and Experimental Establishment, Victoria, 9th February 1989 (ASRI). https://www.sworld.com.au/steven/space/ausroc/images/ausroc03.jpg

That flight lasted one minute, reaching 3.5 kilometers in altitude and peaking at 600km/h. Although the recovery system failed to operate as planned during this first flight the propulsion system worked very well, as did the electronic and telemetry systems. Privately funded, AUSROC’s ultimate goal was ‘to develop a satellite launch vehicle capable of placing a micro satellite (20-50kg) into a polar low earth orbit.’[2]

This was the country’s first private rocket launch, also marking the renaissance of astronautics in this Australia. Significantly, AUSROC still continues (as the Australian Space Research Institute) providing opportunities for space-related industry and technology developments. Subsequent AUSROC launch vehicles were test fired at the Ravenhall Static Test Facility in Melbourne’s west. Nearly all the Australian rockets launched from Woomera (South Australia) were also test fired here, including all the rockets manufactured at Maribyrnong.[3]

In December 1994 Australian Defense Industries (ADI) sold the site to Victoria’s Justice Department for a proposed prison development. Museum Victoria did offer in March 1995 to dismantle and remove the  Ravenhall test rig installation but, perhaps not surprisingly, this was a bridge too far  – for the Department.

Whereas the site’s associated magazine and storage facilities (dating from the Second World War) are listed on the Victorian Heritage Inventory (as Historic Places H7822-0174), the rocket test facility appears to have never been afforded any similar protections. Indeed a 2013 heritage assessment of the region makes no mention of the Ravenhall Deer Park site, and a recent Google Earth search suggests all evidence of the rocket test rig has since disappeared.[4]

The AUSROC II regeneratively cooled, rocket motor was static test fired at the Ravenhall Test Facility in Deer Park, Melbourne on three occasions during 1991-92. These trials were performed to validate the system performance and familiarize the launch crew with operating and safety procedures associated with liquid fuel rocketry (ASRI), https://asri.org.au/project/ausroc-ii/

A similar fate appears to have befallen Maribyrnong’s rocket static test site. There appears nothing in the subsequent heritage assessment or listings acknowledging this structure’s existence, or significance as the test site for all the Australian-made rockets (Malkara, Ikara, Rodinga, Winnin, Murawa, Lorikeet, Kookaburra etc). Perhaps this structure has also been demolished?

Following are some of the 1995 Victorian aeronautical and astronautical survey images of the Maribyrnong and Ravenhall static test sites, and the Graytown launch range site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Blair, MA. Blair, “AUSROC – Australia’s Amateur Rocket Program,” National Space Engineering Symposium (7th: 1992: Canberra, A.C.T.). Seventh National Space Engineering Symposium 1992 & a Short Course on Spacecraft Engineering: ‘International Co-operation – Regional Space Opportunities’ (Conference Proceedings. Barton, ACT: Institution of Engineers, Australia), 26, https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=703245008440150;res=IELENG>

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Mark Blair, “AUSROC II Update,” October 1991, https://www.sworld.com.au/steven/space/ausroc/ausroc91_10update.txt

[4] Viki Vaskos et.al, Historic Heritage Assessment: Water for a Growing West Project Stage2 (Heritage Victoria Ref.No.4329), 39, https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/6613/2013-11-Attachment-G-Historic-Heritage-Assessment.pdf

No Survivor

In 2000 a CBS film crew, surrounded by secrecy and security, spent some weeks at North Queensland’s remote Kirrima Station filming the second Survivor series, then the highest-rated television series in the United States. Most likely, they then packed up and returned to the States, oblivious that another American crew had also arrived there fifty-eight years earlier, and never departed.

 

Kirrima’s thirty-two year old owner, Arthur Dowse Collins, was mustering cattle in the Herbert Gorge region (North Queensland) on Sunday, 31st October 1943 when he and his aboriginal stockmen came across the wreckage of an aircraft.

…from markings on the Aeroplane and other gear that was with it he judged that it was an American Air Force Aeroplane…it was in a very damaged condition…both engines had been knocked off the main portion of the Machine, which had come down in fairly heavily timbered forest Country. [1]

A B-25C from the 3rd Bombardment Group (USAAF), the same unit to which the Kirrima Station plane belonged. This photograph was taken near Charters Towers in 1942 (John F Heyn collection).

The following morning Dowse set off to report his discovery to the nearest policeman in the tiny coastal community of Caldwell, forty-two miles distant. On duty when he arrived there was forty-six year old Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, whose type-written report recounts how Collins ‘had made an examination of the scene and found what he took to be six skeletons of men round the main body of the machine, and that these skeletons were only small heaps of bones, and [that] they appeared to have been there for some months at least. He obtained two small identity cards and brought same to this Station and the[y] appear to have been originally possessed by Lieutenant A F CROSSWHITE and Sergeant Gardner F GALEUCIA No.110243567.’ [2]

Military officials in Cairns were immediately notified and the following morning a convoy of American military vehicles – accompanied by Cunneen – set off for the crash site, arriving around 5 p.m..

‘The force of the falling engine made a crater about three feet deep and six feet in diameter. The prop was torn from the engine and all the blades were badly bent.’ (Color photographs of the crash site reproduced here were taken in the 1990s and kindly made available by Pat Kenny, Townsville)

Investigating the crash site were personnel from Base Section No.5 USAOS (United States Army Services of Supply) in Cairns, who later described having to hike the last eight to ten miles through ‘Sparse forest with considerable open rangeland but numerous water troughs and small streams with precipitous banks together with some bog or marshland [which] make it impossible to reach the site except as here described and when the rainy season arrives it cannot be reached.’

Their full report, now available online, describes the scene in great detail, the wreckage being…

 

Visible through the woods for a distance of from 200 to 300 yards, depending on the direction of approach. Elevation is probably 2000/2500 feet…Debris is scattered over an area extending north south from 150 to 200 yards and east-west from 200 to 350 yards, parts of wings, fuselage, landing gear, armament, panel instruments, parachutes, etc. (main body of wreckage) fell in an opening among a cluster of trees topping two medium sized trees about 25 or 30 feet above the ground on the way down. The twisted condition of this wreckage plus the fact that numerous parts were completely destroyed rendered identification of the various parts practically impossible. All signal equipment was either destroyed completely or rendered valueless. One wheel of the landing gear was destroyed, the tire being burned, the wheel disk[sic] broken in three parts, and the hydraulic mechanism burst and twisted. One engine, with prop attached, landed almost 75 yards south of the main wreckage and borrowed into the ground about two feet, one propeller blade driving vertically into the ground and the other two describing a normal angle from the prop spindle but bent considerably out of shape. The other engine fell about 85 yards southwest of the one first described. The force of the falling engine made a crater about three feet deep and six feet in diameter. The prop was torn from the engine and all the blades were badly bent but appeared not to be broken, and some parts of the engine appeared to have been burnt. Life raft was suspended by chords from branch of a tree, about 50 feet above the ground, approximately 100 yards west of main wreckage. One tail assembly, intact, found 145 yards west of main wreckage, bore the number 113091. The other tail assembly was torn into two sections but the number 113091 was also plainly discernible on it. Still west of this a large section of wing assembly was found and farther west yet small fragments of metal were widely scattered. Six parachutes were open and stretched out on the ground, chords fully extended, all within 30 feet of fuselage, landing gear, and other parts. All chutes show the effects of long exposure to the weather.

Only a relatively small number of bone fragments were found scattered generally in the area of the main wreckage. [3]

 

B-25C Mitchell 41-13091 had been returning from Port Moresby to its base at Charters Towers on 15th November 1942 when it disappeared. Weather conditions at the time were poor, and the aircraft was presumed to have crashed into the Coral Sea.

It is thought to have participated, the previous day (14 November 1942), in a sustained allied aerial offensive against a Japanese naval force attempting to resupply troops in the Buna area of New Guinea…


Under cover stormy weather and darkness, the convoy anchored near the mouths of the Mambare and Kumusi Rivers, and motor landing craft began to land troops from the ships. The Japs also floated crates of supplies ashore in net fastened to oil drums. At dawn with the landing still incomplete, allied planes roared across the mountains through a drizzling rain. P-39’s, Beaufighters, A-20’s, B-25’s, and B-26’s made what was described variously as “26 bombing and strafing attacks” and “96 sorties.”…. The bombing however was not particularly successful. Visibility was poor. [4]

 

Allied aircraft crashes were commonplace throughout Queensland at that stage of the war, another three American bombers having been lost along the same route in the following days. [5] Whereas most that crashed were quickly located, it was uncommon for military aircraft to disappear altogether over land, especially along the heavily trafficked Queensland coastal route. 

Although transiting military aircraft would have been alerted at the time of the B-25’s disappearance, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) was then so short of planes that it simply could not afford an extended search for this or indeed any of its other missing aircraft.

Crash site investigators concluded the plane had been destroyed by mid-air explosion while travelling north by north-west, salvage being considered impossible owing to terrain inaccessibility and the onset of the wet season (which would render roads impassable).

Documentation recovered from the wreckage was used to identify six of the eleven crew and passengers known to have been on board at the time (being those for whom identification tags couldn’t be found). Intriguingly, a 1943 Investigation Report had not discounted the possibility there may have also been a twenty year old female passenger on board named Miss Peggy Mitchell – although some officials dismissed this possibility ‘due to place of take-off.’ [6]

Peggy Mitchell (left) and Lady (Emilie) Coote at the American Red Cross Officers’ Club, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. This is thought to be the same Peggy Emily Mitchell whose letter of enlistment was recovered from the Kirrima Station wreck. Despite having been a well-connected business woman, occasionally photographed for the Sydney newspapers, the author has been unable to find any post-crash references to her (AWM P00561.030).

This open finding was based on the discovery – at the crash site – of an Australian Army letter dated 18th May 1942 directing Peggy Mitchell ‘to report for her medical test preparatory to going into training for service with the Australian Women[s] Army Service.’ [7] A confidential message sent to the U.S. a year later concluded that Miss Peggy Mitchell could not have been aboard the stricken plane. Curiously though no post-crash references (e.g. engagement, marriage, births, divorce, electoral roll etc.) to this person have been found to date. [8]

Miss Peggy Mitchell appears to have been a-well connected business woman with interests in both Sydney and Melbourne. She managed her own company as well as her father’s property interests, and was reportedly involved with administering personal commitments on behalf of servicemen. [9]

The final act in this tragedy played out the following year when Virginia Crosswhite (whose younger brother Alfred was piloting the B-25 at the time it crashed) wrote to the Cardwell Police Station on 4th June 1944 asking, imploringly, if someone there could help answer several innocuous, yet specific questions regarding her brother’s death…

We are very anxious to contact the person who discovered the wreckage…A letter from him would mean so much to us. We would please like to know the following:

    1. How the discovery was made.
    2. Description of the terrain.
    3. Is that particular section inhabited.
    4. Apparent cause of the crash. Did the plane crash into a mountain peak, or was it attempting a forced landing? Did the plane burn?
    5. Did evidence at the scene indicate whether or not anyone survived the crash. We would appreciate your frank opinion on this.
    6. By what means of conveyance were the bodies removed to the American cemetery

It was two months later when she finally received a brief reply from the Queensland Police Commissioner, declining for ‘security reasons’ to answers any of her questions. [10]

_______________________________________________________________________________

[1] Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, Report dated 4th November 1943, Kirrima Station via Cardwell – found 31 Oct 1943 – US B25 Mitchell Medium Bomber – fatalities – identity discs/cards Lieut CROSSWHITE, A F; Sgt GALENCIA, Gardner F; VANHOT, Max; OVERS, Thomas O; Staff Sgt LOUALLEN (Queensland State Archives, Item ID 2177751).

[2] Sergeant 2/c J E Cunneen, Ibid.

[3] Memorandum, 15 December 1943, page 4 (Missing Air Crew Report number 16497)

4] Watson, Richard L. Jr. USAAF Historical Study No. 17: Air Action in the Papuan Campaign, 21 July

1942 to 23 January 1943 (Washington, DC.: USAAF Historical Office, 1944): page 61.

[5] These included The B-24 Lady Ann which crashed on nearby Hinchinbrook Island; the B-25 Eight Ball Esquire which crashed into the sea north of Cooktown; and B-25 41-29706 which crashed into the ocean north of Osprey Reef.

[6] Missing Air Crew Report number 16497, folio 13

[7] Memorandum, 15 December 1943, page 8 (Missing Air Crew Report number 16497)

[8] Her enlistment folder, held at the National Archives of Australia (NAA: B883, NFX179875) would likely hold the answer to whether she was, or wasn’t on board the Kirrima Station B-25C.

[9] Runs Three Businesses During War, The Sun, 7th February 1943, page 8.

[10] C J Carroll to Virginia L Crosswhite, 4th August 1944, Kirrima Station via Cardwell – found 31 Oct 1943 – US B25 Mitchell Medium Bomber – fatalities – identity discs/cards Lieut CROSSWHITE, A F; Sgt GALENCIA, Gardner F; VANHOT, Max; OVERS, Thomas O; Staff Sgt LOUALLEN (Queensland State Archives, Item ID 2177751).