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.


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.