World War II in the North West

When travelling through the Kimberley and Pilbara, one surprising story reveals itself in towns, communities and far-flung remote locations – the story of World War II in the North West. 

2017 will mark the 75th anniversary of a number of air raids carried out across the North of Australia during World War II. The North West saw eleven air raids in 1942 and 1943, and Broome experienced the second worst air-raid on Australian soil on 3rd March 1942.

Due to its proximity to Allied operations in the Pacific, the North West was of strategic importance during World War II. Ports and airfields served as vital refuelling, staging and communication posts and as part of the evacuation route for the Dutch East Indies after the fall of Java to the Japanese. This proximity also led to concerns about the potential for land invasion by enemy forces, and women and children from across the Kimberley and Pilbara were evacuated to safer areas. Since 1939, the Kimberley had also been under consideration as the potential site for resettlement of Jewish refugees, a plan that had been put on hold during the war. This idea was eventually vetoed in 1945.  

There’s also a more secret history – a number of RAAF bases were established in extremely remote areas to serve as staging airfields for Allied reconnaissance and air raid missions, and a guerrilla warfare group was established, arming and training Volunteer Defence Corps on Kimberley pastoral stations and undertaking a 6 week overland trek from Mt House Station to Walcott Inlet to investigate reports of enemy landings. These operations were classified during the War, and even within the last few years not much was known about the operations of the guerrilla group.

World War II sites and war memorials can be found throughout the Kimberley and Pilbara. 

WWII aircraft wrecks in Roebuck Bay

Wreckage of the Catalina Flying Boats in Roebuck Bay, Broome.

Broome

While many residents had already been evacuated, Broome was still a busy transport hub in early 1942. Both the airfield and Roebuck Bay were transit and refuelling points for aircraft and the Catalina and Dornier flying boats transporting evacuees from Java, and in the last two weeks of February 1942 it is estimated that over 1,000 evacuees passed through the town before continuing their journey southwards. In addition, RAAF and American troops were transited through the airfield, with a small RAAF base there.  

In the morning of 3 March 1942, ten Japanese fighter planes were spotted overhead, and in a short attack the airfield and the flying boats moored in Roebuck Bay were bombed and strafed. There were as many as 100 fatalities during the raid, most of whom were Dutch evacuees, including women and children. An American Liberator bomber, carrying mostly injured military personnel was also shot down shortly after take-off with the loss of all but one person on board.  

A plaque on Carnarvon Street in Broome commemorates the events of 3 March 1942, and the Broome Historical Society Museum at Town Beach has dedicated part of its exhibition space to the attack. The wreckage of the flying boats still lie in Roebuck Bay and are exposed on certain low tides of 1.3m or lower. These wrecks may be viewed by walking out from Town Beach. The ABC have a podcast guide to the wrecks, which is available here and a heritage trail guide which is available here. In 2012, the Netherlands Embassy in Canberra published a booklet commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Broome strafing, and a copy is available here.

At Cable Beach, the Beaufighter Memorial commemorates RAAF Flight Sergeants Ronald Smith and Ronald Kerrigan, whose aircraft crashed into the sea shortly after take-off in September 1944. Tidal movements hindered efforts to locate the wreckage and the bodies of the airmen, and it wasn't until 2012 that a local historian and helicopter pilot found the wreckage site. This memorial was unveiled in 2014.  

Carnot Bay

As Broome was under attack on 3 March 1942, a Dakota DC-3 piloted by Captain Ivan Smirnoff was en route from Java carrying evacuees with 11 adults and 1 child on board. About 80km north of Broome the Japanese Zeros returning from the Broome raid spotted the Dutch plane and strafed it, injuring crew and passengers and leading to a forced landing on the beach at Carnot Bay.

Without water or food supplies, the group spent four days stranded before their rescue by a group from Beagle Bay Mission, 60km north of Carnot Bay. By this time the group had also been found by an RAAF plane who had dropped supplies and confirmation that rescue was on its way, however Maria van Tuyn and her 12 month old son Johannes, Dann Hendriksz and NJ Blaauw had already died from injury and sickness and were buried in the sandflats.

A monument on what is now known as Smirnoff Beach at Carnot Bay commemorates those who died in the attack as well as the survivors and their rescuers. 

This flight became known as the ‘Diamond Dakota’ due to some valuable cargo carried onboard – diamonds said to be worth over $20m today. The diamonds were not recovered in the immediate aftermath of the crash, and a beachcomber named Jack Palmer later handed in a portion of the missing treasure. The mystery of the missing diamonds has never been resolved, and although Jack Palmer and two others were charged with their theft, they were acquitted by the High Court in Perth. 

WWII aircraft wreckage at Kalumburu

World War II aircraft wreckage alongside the old runway at Kalumburu.

Kalumburu

During World War II a small army base and radar station operated at what was then known as Drysdale River Mission, and the RAAF used the two airfield runways to conduct operations against the Japanese in Timor. On 27 September 1943, 21 Japanese bombers with a fighter escort bombed and strafed the airfield and mission, killing 6 people including 4 children from the mission. Mission and airforce buildings were also damaged.

Following this attack, operations were moved 32km north to the Anjo Peninsula, the closest point of the Australian mainland to Java. This new base was the launch point for raids by heavy and medium bombers (B24 Liberators and B25 Mitchells). The existence of the Truscott Airfield was not acknowledged until after the war.

Drysdale River Mission was renamed Kalumburu in 1951. Visitors to this small community on the Mitchell Plateau can see the remains of the airstrip, as well as the wreckage of WWII aircraft alongside the runways. The Mission Museum houses more artefacts, and a plaque was erected on the 70th anniversary to commemorate those who died in the attack. 

Wyndham

Wyndham Port was an important offloading point for fuel during World War II and the small town was also home to an RAAF airfield, both of which were targeted during a raid by Japanese Zero aircraft on 3 March 1942.

Docked in the port was the M.V. Koolama 1, which had been attacked on 20 February 1942 approximately 150km south of Wyndham – the first aerial attack in the Kimberley. Beached after its first attack, the ship was bombed again on 21 February at a site now known as Koolama Bay, at the mouth of the King George River. A rescue operation by the residents of the Pago Mission 80km away by pearling lugger, seaplane and on foot brought about 180 passengers and crew to safety. Meanwhile, the remaining crew succeeded in refloating the ship, making a slow journey back to Wyndham. The air-raid on 3 March 1942 was the end for the Koolama, it was once again bombed and sunk at the wharf. A plaque located near the start of the Wyndham Port Heritage Drive commemorates the 50th anniversary of the air-raid and the sinking of the Koolama.

Near Wyndham at Parry Lagoons, Telegraph Hill was the site for a WWI wireless station, the remains of which can still be seen today. A short 800 metre walk with informational signage takes visitors through the remaining foundations of buildings that housed the station workers. 

Onslow War Memorial

ANZAC Day 2016 at the Onslow War Memorial. Photo courtesy of the Shire of Ashburton.

Onslow

Onslow was a refuelling stop for the Australian Navy who were patrolling the waters and on manoeuvres. In 1943 Onslow was the site of the most southern bombing during the war, when the airstrip was targeted by a single plane which dropped three bombs.

Onslow’s war memorial is a spectacular sculpture based on the insignia of the ADF’s Rising Sun cap badge and is positioned so that each Anzac Day, the rays of the rising sun shine directly through the arch. 

Corunna Downs

A secret airfield operated at the original site of the Corunna Downs homestead from 1943-1945, with the task of staging aircraft and personnel for raids on Japanese bases and shipping. Two bitumen runways of over 1,500m and 2,000m were constructed, and the airfield was known as the “invisible airfield” due to the camouflage over buildings and revetments and the natural heat haze which obscured the airfield from overhead.  Over 200 operational heavy bomber sorties were flown out of Corunna Downs while it was operating, with approximately 300 personnel stationed there at its peak.

Corunna Downs is located approximately 31 kilometres south west of Marble Bar. Abandoned since the end of WWII, only crumbling foundations, revetment outlines and the runways remain today. The airfield may be visited, and more information about the airfield and its operations is available at the Comet Gold Mine museum. 

Port Hedland

Port Hedland’s airfield, the No. 78 Operational Base Unit (RAAF) was bombed on 30 July 1942. Over 70 bombs were dropped on the site and one young soldier, Private John Adams, was killed during the raid. Port Hedland’s War Memorial is located on the Esplanade, just across the road from the Esplanade Hotel. 

Whim Creek

At Whim Creek, a memorial commemorates the services of the Lockyer Brothers, five young aboriginal men who grew up in the area and worked on several pastoral stations around the Pilbara. The Lockyer Brothers signed up to the army and air force during WWII. While Edgar, Albert and Elliot returned home to their family, Arnold and Eric Lockyer were killed in action. An annual ceremony held at the memorial honours the brothers as well as all Indigenous Australian Servicemen. 

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