The Australian Government had little expertise or interest in radar technology at the start of the Second World War. By 1942 however the continent’s coastline was dotted with scores of radar stations operated by locally-trained technicians using, in many instances, Australian-designed and built radar equipment. This is the story of one such unit – Bowen’s No.55 Radar Station (RAAF).
Built in anticipation of a possible Japanese aerial attack against Australian mainland targets, approval for development of the Bowen radar station (costing £9,700) was granted in early November 1942.1Encl. 27A, Air Force Headquarters – CAS [Chief of Air Staff] (Organisation) – Establishment – Radar Stations – General, NAA: Series A705, Control Symbol 231/9/1031, ID 3336324, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=3336324&T=P&S=107. Land and buildings necessary for the development were then requisitioned via the National Security (General) Regulations). The site selected for the installation was an elevated sandstone plateau at Cape Edgecumbe, two miles north-east of the port.
These developments came seven months after a Japanese invasion force had been defeated north-east of Queensland in an engagement subsequently referred to as the Battle of the Coral Sea. Considered an “A1 priority” vital for the defence of Australia, the radar site development was initially, “for purposes of security,” only ever referred to as “R.A.A.F. serial No.1381, Bowen Queensland.”2Air Board Agenda 4385 (RAAF) – Radio Installation at Bowen, National Archives of Australia (Canberra): Series number A14487, Control symbol 27/AB/4385, Item ID 24488805, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=24488805&S=1&T=P&R=0. Bowen was one of twenty-three such AW. Mk.3 COL (Chain Overseas Low) installations nationally, ten of which were erected along Queensland’s eastern coastline.3Group Captain D. of O. to S.A.B., “Personnel at radio stations (Encl.36A),” Air Force Headquarters – CAS [Chief of Air Staff] (Organisation) – Establishment – Radar Stations – General, memorandum, 17 November 1942, NAA: Series A705, Control Symbol 231/9/1031, ID 3336324, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Gallery151/dist/JGalleryViewer.aspx?B=3336324&S=30&N=133&R=0#/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=3336324&T=P&S=99. These were export versions of a British pre-war design modified for detecting low-flying aircraft (instead of coastal shipping). Similar installations (codenamed Chain Home) had earlier been used throughout Britain to form the world’s first early warning radar network – also the first military radar system to reach operational status.
Originally designated No.42 Radio Station, the unit is thought to have formed in 1942 with Merinda (west of Bowen) shown as its initial location. The following year however it was redesignated No.55 Radio Station retaining this title until September 1943 when all British forces (Australia included) adopted the American term ‘radar’. From thereon it was known as No.55 Radar Staton. As Australia was then fighting a defensive war the emphasis was on ground air warning (AW) 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.
Although operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) 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“R.A.A.F. serial no.1381, Bowen, Queensland (C.H.L. Type),” Air Board Agenda 4622 (RAAF) – Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force accommodation at Radio Installation Bowen, National Archives of Australia (Canberra): Series number A14487, Control symbol 30/AB/4622,Item ID 24489045, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=24489045&T=P&S=3.
Stations like Bowen were initially staffed exclusively by men, each location typically having a complement of thirty personnel. Drawing on the British experience the Air Force recommended in April 1942 that women be used to replace men as radar operators. This suggestion however was fiercely resisted by the Minister for Air Arthur Drakeford who contended that the employment of WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) personnel in isolated places was immoral. Another year would pass before the Minister reached a compromise agreement with the RAAF, conceding that WAAF personnel could serve with No.55 Radio Station at Bowen.5Wing Commander A.G. Pither, “An account of the development and use of radar in the Royal Australian Air Force,” December 1946, 23, https://www.raafradar.org.au/pdf/Pither_RAAF_Radar_Part1.pdf. As a consequence the Air Board in March 1943 approved the expenditure of another £2,200 for separate accommodation, recreation, laundry, latrine and ablution facilities.
Tropical radar operations would have been difficult, each six hour shift spent in a dimly lit windowless cabin peering at a cathode-ray screen. With the Queensland coast heavily trafficked by allied aircraft, and with two seaplane squadrons operating from the nearby town, staff at No.55 Radar Station would nonetheless have been kept very busy tracking and reporting.
By mid-1944 the threat of enemy attack had diminished such that the station was operational only four hours each day, twice that month becoming operational for emergency reasons at the request of Townsville’s No.103 Fighter Control. Commanding the unit at that time was thirty-one year old Flight Lieutenant William Henry O’Donnell, formerly an electrical engineer with the Sydney City Council.6“O’Donnell William Henry: Service Number – 265572,” NAA: Series A9300, Control symbol O’Donnell W H, ID 5251908. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, O’Donnell had previously commanded similar stations at Bombi Point, N.S.W (No.19), Dunk Island (No.27) and Mitchell River (No.320) also in Queensland. Arriving at Bowen in early May 1944, he remained in command there until January the following year, his departure coinciding with a downgrade in the station’s operational status.
Radar Operator Betty Juleff of Sydney had also been posted to the same unit a few weeks prior to O’Donnell. Twenty-three years old when she arrived, she and O’Donnell were married in July the following year.7O’Donnell, Betty: Service Number – 98541, NAA: A9301, 98541, ID 4959466.
Also in his early twenties, Robert (Phil) Loh of Sydney remembers being posted there in late September 1943, spending his first days fighting a bushfire which had come up from the town swamp right to the unit’s boundary…“The doover [radar] was on top of a nearby hill disguised to look like the rock that topped the next hill It was an exhausting climb from the beach up past the power igloo from whence phone messages emanated, warning operators to don blouses before the OIC arrived at the doover.”8Quoted in Ed Simmonds (ed.), More Radar Yarns (2007), 126, https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/43251728/edited-by-ed-simmonds-radar-returns. The station survived a second bushfire threat in late May 1946, vide “Fire brigade fitghts to save radar station,” Bowen Independent, 24 May 1946, 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/195690403.
To help pass the time, unit personnel were assisting Red Cross personnel on a daily basis.9“Appendix to Unit History Sheet – 55 Radar, Report of O.I.C. June 1944,” Commanding Officers’ reports – Monthly reports and unit history sheets (A50) – Radar Stations No 7-131, National Archives of Australia (NAA), Series A9435, Control symbol 232, ID 12144315. https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=12144315&S=536. Although full time (i.e. 24 hour) operations had been discontinued some months earlier a visiting inspector reported in August that “morale and esprit-de-corps on this unit exceeded that of any other unit in the area.”1055 Radar, Report of O.I.C. August 1944, Monthly reports and unit history sheets (A50) – Radar Stations No 7-131. It was later acknowledged that this was due in large part to the “swimming facilities afforded by the Unit’s [Horseshoe Bay] location.”11“Appendix to Unit History Sheet – 55 Radar, Report of O.I.C. December 1944,” Commanding Officers’ reports – Monthly reports and unit history sheets (A50) – Radar Stations No 7-131, National Archives of Australia (NAA), Series A9435, Control symbol 232, ID 12144315. https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=12144315&S=541. Catalina crews from the resident flying boat base would periodically visit the station for briefings, which included radar jamming demonstrations.
Professional entertainers would occasionally visit Bowen, station personnel having “much enjoyed” a performance – in September 1944 – by well-known Australian pianist Philip Hargreaves. The following month station personnel were tormented for three days by a plague of sand flies, some WAAF members suffering severely from the effects of bites. Fires of gum leaves were kept burning, delivering some relief.
The station’s personnel strength had steadily diminished then such that by year’s end the unit could only manage two operational shifts. Despite this reduction, and the almost total absence of green vegetables, health and morale within the unit remained high, or at least that’s how the station’s commanding officer (C.O.) described the situation in his monthly report. The Bowen installation however may not have always been blessed with good leadership, one official assessment finding – in relation to one of the station’s former C.O.’s – that he displayed little interest and that “he would be very satisfactory if employed in something more suitable to his temperament.”12R.A.A.F Form P/P 29, Part III, 28 June 1945, NAA: Series A9300, ID 5251908. At least four commanding officers are known to have commanded No.55 Radar Station with O’Donnell’s six month posting being the longest in that role.
On 8 January 1945 the station finally ceased maintaining its operational watch, reverting to a care and maintenance status although this in no way diminished the endless routine of military fatigues. Most station personnel were posted out the following month leaving behind only a skeleton crew (sans the cook). Allied commanders fully expected the war would continue through to 1946 and yet, in February 1945 the station’s four remaining personnel received instructions to return all their weaponry to the town’s other lodger unit, No.1 FBMU (Flying Boat Maintenance Unit). Like dozens of other radar and radio stations it was being mothballed, and remained so until late that same year. Whereas most other Australian radar stations were disbanded (or disbanding) in 1945 No.55, for reasons unknown, was instead selected for reactivation, Pilot Officer W. G. Tyrrell assuming command in October.
A commercial traveller before the war, twenty-nine year old Pilot Officer William George Tyrrell was assigned the daunting task of recommissioning the Bowen radar station after many months of dormancy. Arriving in early October 1945, he had previously served at the Home Hill radar station (No.211) 93 kilometers north-west of Bowen – the former having disbanded a month earlier.13“Tyrrell William George: Service Number – 42553,” NAA: Series A9300, Control symbol TYRRELL W G, ID 5256061. Exactly why the station at Home Hill continued operating fully eight months after the Bowen radar station first disbanded is puzzling given that there were no military air bases at or near that small sugar cane township. Bowen on the other hand was both an important port and base for allied seaplane operations. This could have reflected the Commonwealth’s greater investment at the northern (i.e. Burdekin) station where twin 125′ high wooden antenna towers also had to be built.
With Tyrrell’s arrival the unit resumed a busy daily schedule, this being reflected in the monthly reports which now ran to a few pages (rather than a few paragraphs). Much of the initial effort was directed towards refurbishing and repairing temperamental electronic equipment which had been stored for months in harsh tropical conditions…
“The technical troubles of the unit were numerous during the month due to condensation setting in on various parts of all the equipment. The C.O.L. Mk V equipment received a thorough overhaul and many alterations and replacements were necessary before it was 100% operational again. Continual breakdowns occurred after the overhaul as condensers and potentiometer broke down under continual use after such a long period of inactivity…The W/T [AT5/AR8] equipment also required complete overhaul and some minor troubles or overcome. A Counter-poise aerial system was erected and on the first test with A.D.H.Q. Townsville excellent results were obtained…So far the unit has not been working operationally but all operators have been in action on the equipment to familiarise themselves with the local conditions. Operations cannot be commenced at present due to a lack of telephone services.”1455 Radar, Report of activities by C.O., October 1945, Monthly reports and unit history sheets (A50) – Radar Stations No 7-131, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=12144315&S=544.
The station eventually resumed operations on a one-watch (six-hour) basis on November 20th by which time, its routine was also well established. By the following month fortnightly evening dances at the Bowen School of Arts were reinstated, these having been organised in conjunction with the R.S.S.A.I.L.A. Women’s Auxiliary.
Early in the new year No.55 Radar Station was also given responsibility for the FBMU’s ASV (Air-to-Surface Vessel) radar, the latter’s beacon being housed in a steel hut nearby the C.O.L. installation atop Cape Edgecumbe. Severe tropical weather caused a reduction in traffic during this period, only 125 aircraft tracks and 608 plots being recorded during February 1946. The region was struck by a cyclone in early March, gale force winds and the heaviest rains ever recorded in North Queensland causing extensive property damage and service disruption, land-line communications with the unit being disrupted from March 2nd to 19th. Although radar services were otherwise unaffected this proved to be No.55 Radar Station’s final trial, an order to disband being received soon thereafter – on April Fool’s Day.15Group Captain D.O.S.D., “Organization Memorandum No.992, Disposal of Radar Stations,“ Air Force Headquarters – CAS [Chief of Air Staff] (Organisation) – Establishment – Radar Stations – General, 1 April 1946, NAA: Series A705, Control Symbol 231/9/1031, ID 3336324, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=3336324&T=P&S=33.
As it happened this was to prove an eventful time for the whole town with several BOAC flying boats (carrying British dignitaries) stopping over on goodwill visits. An S.O.S. distress message was also picked up from Middle Molle Island on March 19th however, this later proved to be a hoax perpetrated by schoolboys. Later that same month a Catalina seaplane called at Bowen offering joy flights for those residents who had contributed to the Commonwealth’s Security Loan appeal16RAAF Unit History sheets (Form A50) [Operations Record Book – Forms A50 and A51] No 1 and No 2 Flying Boat Repair Depot June 42 – Nov 47 and No 1 and No 2 Flying Boat Maintenance Unit (FBMU) Oct 43 – Jan 47, March 1946, National Archives of Australia (Canberra): Series number A9186, Control symbol 405, Item ID 1360023, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=1360023&S=295.
It was all downhill from there, the first weeks of April spent packing and storing the unit’s equipment with remaining personnel leaving for Townsville on 24th April 1946. Within a matter of weeks the Station’s final Commanding Officer, thirty-eight year old Flight Lieutenant Leonard F. Sawford, had also been discharged by the Air Force.
A caretaker (A. J. Weeks) had arrived earlier in the month, occupying the Mess Hut until the Commonwealth Disposals Commission finished its disposal work some time later. The nearby FBMU was also disbanded at the same time, Qantas having decided then against using Bowen as a base for commercial flying boat operations. By early the following year responsibility for some of the former Air Force buildings along the foreshore (i.e. Thomas Street) had begun transferring to the Department of Civil Aviation.
The Bowen Station and dozens of similar installations strung out along the eastern seaboard never did detect any incoming enemy aircraft (or vessels), simply because there never were any – at least not 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 with each passing year Australia’s civilian and military populations continued benefitting psychologically from the knowledge that our most populated coast remained guarded by this long-range protective veil. Moreover, the RAAF’s wartime radar programme helped fast-track the development of domestic research, manufacturing and operating capabilities that were to serve Australia well long after the war.