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.


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.

 

 

A camoufleur’s art

For more than a century official war artists have helped shape our understanding of Australian military history. Often selected on the basis of their pre-war reputations, the works produced by official war artists such as Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Streeton and Albert Tucker have become staple offerings for a nation now locked into a  permanent cycle of military commemoration. 

Far eclipsing the output of these official war artists however is the great body of work produced by Australia’s unofficial war artists. Despite its greater authenticity (much official war art having been produced by non-participants, after the event), this vast output remains largely undocumented, unstudied, and unappreciated.

These unofficial artists painted, sketched, and drew for their own pleasure, depicting what they liked as they liked without the thought that their works were destined for public collections. They drew and painted to hone their artistic skills, to record their experiences, to relieve the boredom and isolation, and in the case of many, as a means of therapy, helpful in unfamiliar situations disconnected from everyday life.

Unencumbered by military directives these unofficial artists could access and observe subjects that were not ordinarily available, the informality of their art contrasting with the oftentimes formal and heroic tone of official war art.

 

Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland)

 

Although Australian servicemen and women were never actively encouraged during the Second World War to sketch and paint (as they were in Canada), many uniformed personnel took pleasure in doing so. While some of these unofficial artists were self-taught, others had received formal training and were so employed – typically as commercial artists – prior to the war.

 

This June 1943 list of official camoufleurs reads like who’s who of the Australian art world (National Archives of Australia, NAA: A649, 224/600/374 page 102).

To this last category belonged many of Australia’s camoufleurs, members of a small but prestigious group of practicing artists, photographers, designers and architects (both men and women) tasked with assisting the Army, Navy and Air Force to camouflage its facilities and equipment, and with training military personnel in the science of camouflage.  

In early April 1941 the Australian War Cabinet had approved the establishment of a Defence Central Camouflage Unit and an experimental camouflage station at Sydney’s Middle Head, both operating under the auspices of the Home Security Department. National Security (Camouflage) Regulations were approved later the same year. Recruitment began almost immediately, no more than about sixty ‘officers’ having been appointed in all.

Arthur Francis (Frank) Rowland (1912 – 1976) received his camoufleur certificate number 19  around May 1943, being initially posted to the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) newly constructed satellite airfield at Brymaroo near Jondaryan on the Darling Downs (Queensland). Seldom used by aircraft, and with no hangars and just a handful of wooden structures to camouflage, there would have been little else for Rowland to do at Brymaroo  – other than paint. It was around this time that Rowland is also thought to have joined Brisbane’s influential Half Dozen Group of Artists.

 

In 1943 Rowland was billeted on the Brymaroo property of Ann and Lionel Mason, this watercolor typifying the landscape in that part of the Darling Downs. Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland).

 

In a mid 1943 war art exhibition review, Brisbane’s Telegraph newspaper counted Rowland ‘Amongst the painters who rise above the depressing level…though his drawing is not perfect, [he] has a sense of character in a portrait of a CCCworker, and has captured the movement and atmosphere of a man working at a gravel-crushing machine.’

The following year he was posted to Darwin and although employed as a civilian, he continued  working for the RAAF. Only camouflage officers working in forward areas were required to wear uniforms, being issued with Air Force officer uniforms adorned with Home Security Department badges, buttons and armlets (with the letters ‘A C’).

It was only after camoufleurs in Australia’s  North-West Area had begun ‘illegally’ wearing epaulettes with the words ‘Accredited Camoufleurs,’ that the Department – in April 1943 – had issued its first official insignia bearing the correct ‘Authorised Camoufleur’ insignia.

 

Frank Rowland, n.d. (State Library of Queensland).

 

The Japanese had long since ceased attacking northern Australia by the time Rowland arrived there, the allied advance having also moved far offshore to the north-western islands. No longer a front-line combat zone, much of his art from this period is concerned with the ordinary and the routine of everyday military life.

After the war he returned to Brisbane where he resumed his career as a commercial artist, while continuing to judge, exhibit and teach art (at the Queensland College of Art). He eventually retired in 1961 after a twelve year career with the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper.

The works shown here were exhibited at the Royal Queensland Art Society’s Petrie Terrace Gallery in 2016 and remain with Rowland’s family, another thirty-two of his works being with the State Library of Queensland.

 

Unplanned

A Mk.V Spitfire over northern Australia, similar to that which Flying Officer Morton force landed near Gundare Station in south-west Queensland (author’s collection).

In early June 1944 the RAAF’s No.457 Squadron, one of three Spitfire units recalled from Britain for homeland defence, began exchanging its near-obsolete Mk.V aircraft with more effective Mk.VIIIs. As deliveries of the latter began arriving in the Northen Territory, squadron pilots would ferry equal numbers of the former south for overhaul and re-assignment – typically to Operational Training Units or mainland fighter squadrons.

Originally from Emerald in Central Queensland, twenty-one year old Pilot Officer Alexander Henry Morton (405639) was one of ten 452 and 457 squadron pilots tasked mid-July 1944 with ferrying Mk.Vs south to No.6 Aircraft Deport at Oakie [sic] in south-east Queensland. Delayed by one day, and escorted by a Beaufort bomber, the ferry flight left Sattler (N.T.) at 0740 on July 12th on a 1,590 nautical mile route tracking via Tennant Creek, Cloncurry, and Charleville.

Only seven of the eight planes that departed Cloncurry the following morning however, made it to Charleville that day. A corresponding entry in the squadron’s Operational Record Book records…’A signal has been received that P/O A.H. MORTON, flying A58-208, is missing in the vicinity of AUGATHELLA (Q) and that a Beaufort is conducting a search. A further signal has been received stating that P/O A.H.MORTON had made a forced landing, wheels down, in a paddock near AUGATHELLA. The airplane is undamaged and the pilot is unhurt.’

NAA BP243-1, K1065 PART 1 Page 277

The senior seargent at Augathella police station takes up the story….

…at about midday on the 15th. Instant, seven fighter planes piloted by R.A.A.F. Pilots, flew over Augathella and circled the town on several occasions. All of the planes then left. Shortly afterwards two of the planes were seen to return. I then received a telephone call from R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Charleville, informing me that the two planes were off their course, and asking me to arrange for smoke signals to give them the wind direction at some suitable landing ground near the town, as it was thought that they were short of petrol.

I immediately with the assistance of other town people, hurried by Motor Truck to Holley Downs Station two miles from Augathella and had smoke signals ready. At that time the planes had gone out of view. I left men at the scene, ready to light smoke signals should the planes again come in view. I then went in the truck to Holley Downs Station Homestead close by, and contacted the R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Charleville, by telephone. They informed me that the two planes had landed safely at Charleville aerodrome, but they informed me that there was still one plane missing.

A plane was sent out from Charleville shortly after, and after circling about Augathella located the missing plane on the ground at Gundare Station, and the Pilot signalled them that he was all right. The plane had landed about 20 miles from Augathella, and about four miles from Gundare Station Homestead. Flying officer Gould, who was in the searching plane gave directions to Pilot Officer Morton, who had made the forced landing in the Spitfire Fighting Plane, of the direction to take to Gundare Homestead, and then flew back to Charleville.

Lieutenant Mines of Augathella, who is head of the V.D.C. at Augathella, was at Gandare Station at the time, and located Pilot Officer Morton on his way to the Gundare Homestead, and took him to the homestead. The pilot was none the worse for the experience, and was unhurt, and had landed the plane undamaged.

Pilot Morton contacted the R.A.A.F. Charleville and with Lieutenant Mines of the V.D.C. arrangements were immediately made for a V.D.C. guard to be placed on the plane. At 6.pm. members of the R.A.A.F. Charleville arrived at Augathella, Flight Officer Gould being in charge. I had a conversation with him on his arrival and he assured me that everything was all right, and that he was going out to Gundare to pick up pilot Officer Morton to take him to Charleville, also to make arrangements for petrol to be taken to the plane to have it refueled to have it flown to Charleville.

I accompanied the RAAF men to Gundare Station, where I saw Pilot officer Morton who was unhurt, and he informed me that he had sufficient petrol to get to Charleville had he known the direction, but he did not know his location, and seeing a suitable landing ground he decided to land which he did without mishap.

We attempted to get to the site of a plane, but owing to the recent rain we were unable owing to the boggy state of the ground to get to the Plane. As there was a V.D.C. guard on the plane we brought Pilot Officer back to Augathella.

Sergt. 2/C 2513
Augathella Station

(Queensland State Archives: ID 320040)


Morton completed the half hour flight from Augathella to Charleville on May 18th, departing from there at 10 am the following day for No.6 Aircraft Depot, Oakie [sic] where he landed one hour and fifty minutes later.

Having survived the out-landing at Gundare Station, Spitfire A58-208 made another forced-landing the following month (due to engine trouble) while being delivered from No.6 Aircraft Depot to 85 Squadron in West Australia.

Since he is referred to in these squadron and police records as ‘Pilot Officer’, Morton – and his commanding officers – might have been unaware that his promotion to Flying Officer had in fact been formally gazetted just a few weeks earlier (Government Gazette. 29 June 1944, Issue No.127, page 1326).

He returned to Central Queensland after the war and became a farmer at Sunny Hills, Ridgelands, north-west of Rockhampton.


Ipswich Railway Workshops

Mitsubishi A6M engine valve cover sent to the Ipswich Railway Workshops for metallurgical analysis during the Second World War (Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich)

As a consequence of the 1939 British Air Mission to Australia, the state railways in Victorian, New South Wales, and South Australian each became involved in the production of military aircraft and aero engines.

Following a visit to Queensland in March 1939 by the Mission’s Technical Member L C Ord, serious consideration was also given to expanding the state rail workshops at Ipswich, west of Brisbane, so that aircraft and engine production could commence there.

Ord had ’empasized the necessity for spreading production of aircraft as widely as possible over industrial areas of the Commonwealth’, adding that …’It was preferable to use existing offices and buildings if a quick start were desired.’ (The Courier-Mail, 25 March 1939 Page 2)

Negotiations between the Queensland State and Commonwealth Governments commenced earnestly mid July 1939, points of difference appearing almost immediately. Ord had estimated a minimum floor space requirement of 30,000 square feet, only 10,000 of which was then available. Although the Commonwealth was prepared to fund the expansion, it insisted on being ‘reimbursed the salvage value of such provisions or alterations when the buildings are no longer required for the purpose.’ This proposition was rejected outright by the Queensland Premier in a letter to R G Casey (Minister for Supply & Development) dated 14 July 1939:

‘…the Queensland Government does not regard with favour the proposition that it should spend £30,000 on buildings that are not needed for the State’s own requirements and may never be used.’ (Queensland State Archives Item 267150)

The Commonwealth responded the following month by sending the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation’s General Manager (the unfortunately named – Mr Clapp) to Ipswich, the latter finding ‘that the facilities available in the Ipswich railway workshops, as well as in private engineering establishments in Queensland, were incompatible with the carrying out of the work which it was originally tentatively proposed should be allocated to Queensland.’

The Ipswich facilities which Ord had described in March 1939 as ‘impressive’ were, barely five months later, deemed by Clapp to be ‘incompatible’. The latter’s findings effectively put an end to the proposal, triggering an immediate recall of the four Queensland Railway employees who had been sent to England mid year for production aircraft training (a fifth trainee, Toolmaker Wood, remaining in England to complete his training).

Although during the war the Ipswich Workshops were mainly producing munitions they did, by virtue of their of their metallurgical expertise, occasionally have some limited involvement with military aviation.

Vince Preston, who worked in the Tool and Gauge Room at Ipswich during the war, recalled how these engines pieces – recovered from a Japanese Zero fighter aircraft – had been sent to Ipswich for metallurgical analysis (hence, the drill holes)….’we were under a lot of pressure to provide quick and accurate results.’

Gundaroo’s Ventura

I just remember the biting cold thinking, all the while, that perhaps we shouldn’t have been traipsing – in winter – through bush-land in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, especially while it was sleeting. Thoughts of all that wasted organisational effort might have dissuaded me from postponing, along with the knowledge that any future date – that winter – could have been just as bleak. We were young, and the prospect of visiting a Lockheed Ventura crash site, so close to Canberra where we all lived, must have been incentive enough.


Squadron Diaries (Form A50s) need to be approached with some cicumspection, this 13 Squadron entry showing A59-55 departing for repairs a week after it had been destroyed at Gundaroo. The navigator on that occasion was E G Whitlam, who returned to Canberra years later as the Australian Prime Minister (NAA A9186,35).


It was the early 1980s although I cannot recall when exactly (this was long before image date stamps and metadata). Although he doesn’t appear in any of these images, it was the late Bob Piper (RAAF Historical Section) who most likely led us to the site near Gundaroo.

The RAAF’s No.13 Squadron had reformed at Canberra in August 1943 and immediately began transitioning from the locally-made Beaufort bomber, to the U.S. made Lockheed PV-1 Ventura. A59-55 was among the first Venturas delivered to the squadron, arriving at Canberra on 16th September 1943. Three months later, while on a daylight training flight north-east of the capital, it was observed diving into the ground at a steep angle – killing all five crew members. No cause for the accident was ever determined, although the Aircraft Accident Data Card (NAA A9845, 114) records that the pilot had only logged 13.25 hours on the type.

Entrepreneur Dick Smith has since built a private residence and airstrip just a short distance west of the crash site.

RAAF Fairbairn Photographer, Kevin Ginnane.

Australian War Memorial Curator, Mark Clayton.
RAAF Fairbairn Photographer, Kevin Ginnane.
RAAF Fairbairn Photographer, Kevin Ginnane.

The code ’34’ was found in most part numbers, confirming that this was indeed the wreckage of a Lockheed Model 34 (a.k.a. Ventura).
Original dark blue paint was still evident on many exterior surfaces.

Araluen

Official records reference ‘Merricumbene’, but for me it will always be the ‘Araluan Valley’

Bordered by the Monga and Deua National Parks, the Araluen Valley south of Braidwood (N.S.W.) is breathtakingly beautiful – as it was that day in November 1984 when I found myself lurching along one of its ridge-top tracks in a 4WD. I’d been invited by Bob Piper (RAAF Historical Section) to visit the crash site of Wirraway A20-116, which had failed to return from a coastal photographic survey of Batemans Bay on 16 September 1943.

School of Army Co-operation (NAA: A9186, 357 Page 41 of 118)

I don’t recall the route we took or, indeed, the wreck’s approximate location. However, I do remember that it was a relatively short and easy walk from the track to the crash site.

These images can speak for themselves.