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.
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
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).
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
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.