The Heritage GalleryPoint Cook | Australia’s Aircraft Industry | RAAF Medical Industry | RAAF Chaplains | WAAF and WRAAF | World WarI | World War II | BCOF | Korean War | Vietnam War | Peacekeeping | Internationl Coalition Against Terrorism | Civil Aid
In early 1913, English aviator Lieutenant Henry Petre travelled hundreds of miles by motorcycle to inspect possible sites for a flying school on behalf of the Australian Government. Petre selected Point Cook. This former sheep paddock was purchased from the Chirnside family for ₤6,040 2s 3d and was to become the birthplace of military aviation in Australia.
In 1913 the new Central Flying School received five aircraft from Britain to train pilots for the Australian Flying Corps, and on the morning of 1 March 1914, a Bristol Boxkite aircraft flown by Lieutenant Eric Harrison made the first flight at Point Cook.
The first flying training course at Point Cook commenced on 17 August 1914, just two weeks after the start of World War I. Lieutenant Richard Williams was the first of the four officer students to graduate in November 1914.
Between 1914 and 1917, eight flying training courses were conducted at the Central Flying School, Point Cook. Hangars and wooden accommodation buildings gradually replaced tents and temporary buildings used by the first small group of instructional staff, students and mechanics.
The RAAF expanded steadily between 1921 and 1939 and Point Cook remained a busy training base for landplanes and seaplanes.
A Seaplane Flight was formed at Point Cook to cooperate with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The RAAF provided the RAN with aircraft and crews to undertake reconnaissance, mapping and range-finding for naval gunfire. Two large Southampton flying boats were also used for coastal reconnaissance and parachute training at Point Cook between World War I and II.
Point Cook was the home of military flying training in the RAAF from 1914 to 1992. The Central Flying School, No 1 Service Flying Training School and No 1 Flying Training School (FTS) were the major RAAF training units based at Point Cook in this period. Pilots from the Army, Navy and overseas also received their basic flying instruction at Point Cook. The last flying training course at No 1 FTS graduated in 1992.
More demanding academic and technical training for the RAAF led to the establishment of the RAAF College at Point Cook in 1948. The College combined academic study and flying training and became the RAAF Academy in 1961. Graduates received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Melbourne. In 1986, the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra assumed the role of the RAAF Academy.
The RAAF School of Languages moved to Point Cook in 1946. Courses in Japanese, Russian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Arabic languages were conducted according to requirements. In 1993 the school became the Australian Defence Force School of Languages and is now based at RAAF Base Williams, Laverton.back to top
Australia's Aircraft Industry
In 1909 the Commonwealth Government offered a prize of ₤5,000 for an Australian-designed flying machine "…for military purposes". Several entries were received but none of these were suitable. A year later John Duigan built and flew the first all-Australian made aircraft at Mia Mia in Victoria.
The first military aircraft to be constructed in Australia was a Bristol Boxkite built at Point Cook in 1915 by the Central Flying School. The first aero-engines were also made in Melbourne when six 70hp Renault engines were built during World War I.
After the formation of the RAAF in 1921, an Aircraft Experimental Section developed several original aircraft designs before closing in 1928. The Commanding Officer of the Station was Lawrence Wackett who was an early trainee pilot at Point Cook and became the leading figure in Australian aircraft design and construction.
In 1936, a group of leading industrialists formed the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) to produce military aircraft for Australian conditions. Wackett was appointed as Manager and adopted an American design to be known as the Wirraway. A factory was built at Fishermens Bend in Melbourne.
At the start of World War II, the De Havilland Aircraft Company and the government-owned Beaufort Division of the Department of Aircraft Production were gearing up to build Tiger Moth trainers and Beaufort bombers for the RAAF. About 44% of the workers building Beaufort bombers were women, most of them had no previous experience of factory work.
By 1945, Australian factories had delivered some 3,500 aircraft of nine different types and 2000 aero-engines. This was a remarkable achievement for a nation that did not build complete motor cars and laid the foundation for much of Australia's post-war development.
In the 1950s and 1960s, CAC and the re-named Government Aircraft Factory were producing military jet aircraft under licence from American, British, French and Italian firms. In the last two decades the aviation industry in Australia has gone through many changes of ownership and is now part of international companies such as Boeing. More than 90% of aircraft components produced in Australia are now exported.back to top
RAAF Medical Services
From modest beginnings in a hut at Point Cook in 1921, the RAAF developed a specialised medical service of its own. It grew to include medical research, aero-medical evacuation, a nursing service and seven RAAF hospitals located in Australia and overseas.
Most RAAF aviation medical activities were based at Point Cook and Laverton between 1944 and 1995. Important testing and research work into problems such as motion sickness, night vision and oxygen starvation (hypoxia) was carried out in this period.
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Just as RAAF medical services have cared for the physical health of RAAF members, the role of the Chaplain in the Air Force is to care for the spiritual health of members and their families.
RAAF Chaplains provide emotional support and advice to servicemen and women at home and on deployment overseas in places such as Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and Iraq. They conduct religious services, visit family members and assist with welfare support for those in need.
In 1987, the role of Point Cook as the 'spiritual home' of the Air Force was further enhanced by the dedication of the RAAF Chapel of the Holy Trinity.back to top
WAAAF and WRAAF
Prior to 1940, women were not permitted to serve in the RAAF. Rapid expansion of recruiting during World War II led to a shortage of men with essential skills such as wireless telegraphy. From a first intake of 37 recruits in March 1941, the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force expanded rapidly to number just over 18,000 women by 1944.
The initial aim was to release men for combat duties but the WAAAF soon became a vital part of almost every RAAF activity in wartime Australia. Women were not permitted to serve as aircrew but carried out more than 70 other roles including radar operators, parachute packers, instrument repairers and drivers.
The WAAAF demobilised after the war, but in 1950, the formation of the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) signified the important need for additional support for the peacetime RAAF. Despite lower rates of pay and a requirement to leave the service after marriage, WRAAF officers and servicewomen fought for better conditions and opportunities. In 1977, women transferred to the RAAF and the WRAAF was disbanded.back to top
World War I
Rabaul and the Half Flight
The start of World War I in August 1914 coincided with the birth of military aviation in Australia.
Australian pilots and mechanics from Point Cook were soon required to take part in the campaign against German colonial forces in New Guinea. The rapid capture of Rabaul in November 1914 by Australian naval and land forces left the small Australian Flying Corps (AFC) contingent with little to do and it returned to Melbourne with two aircraft still packed in crates.
On 20 April 1915, four officers and forty-one airmen commanded by Captain Henry Petre sailed from Melbourne for Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Known as the Half Flight, the Australians were to operate with British forces against the Turkish Army with aircraft supplied from India.
Flying primitive aircraft in a harsh climate, the Half Flight fought until almost all of the original aircraft were destroyed and three of the four pilots were dead or captured. Lieutenant George Merz was the first Australian airman to be killed in action when his Caudron aircraft force-landed in the desert. Hostile tribesmen killed Merz and his New Zealand observer. Turkish forces later captured nine Australian mechanics after the siege of Kut. Seven of these men later died as prisoners of war.
Australian Airmen In the Middle East
Formed at Point Cook in January 1916, No 1 Squadron AFC arrived in Egypt in April 1916 to support British Army and Australian Light Horse formations fighting Turkish and German forces in Palestine.
Flying a mixture of aircraft types, the squadron took on tasks including reconnaissance, photography, bombing and air fighting. It was now possible to see and strike beyond the enemy's front line and Australian airmen in the Middle East took a leading role in the development of air power. Unlike the Western Front, fighting in the Middle East was highly mobile, allowing aircraft to find and attack the enemy across vast distances.
By September 1918, Turkish defences in Palestine were collapsing and No 1 Squadron AFC, along with British squadrons, bombed and destroyed most of the Turkish Seventh Army of 7000 men that had been trapped in a valley. Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Williams, who planned the attack, was one of the first four pilots trained at Point Cook in 1914 and now commanded a Wing of three squadrons, including No 1 Squadron AFC. Williams later wrote that
The Turkish Seventh Army ceased to exist and it must be noted that this was entirely the result of attack from the air.
No 1 Squadron AFC also supported Colonel T.E. Lawrence's Arab Army with Bristol fighter aircraft and a giant Handley Page bomber.
Over the Western Front
Fighting the first war in the air required all new tactics, training and equipment. As part of the army, the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) operated in support of Allied ground forces in Belgium and France but developed a distinct Australian identity.
Three AFC squadrons served on the Western Front between 1917 and 1918, integrated with the British Royal Flying Corps. Nos 2 and 4 Squadrons were equipped with single-seat SE5a, Sopwith Camel and Snipe 'fighting scout' aircraft and No 3 Squadron with RE8 two-seat reconnaissance machines.
Flying and fighting the Germans over the Western Front in open cockpits was as uncomfortable as it was dangerous. Pilots and observers did not wear parachutes. Captain George Jones, a Sopwith Camel pilot with No 4 Squadron, later wrote:
We all wore knee-length leather coats, fur-lined leather flying helmets, goggles, fleecy-lined thigh boots and silk gloves beneath our leather gauntlets, but even with all that we suffered and found it very difficult to concentrate at times because of the cold.
When the war ended on 11 November 1918, 178 Australian airmen had been killed.
Several hundred Australians also served with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. These elements combined to become the Royal Air Force in April 1918.
Training For War
Point Cook remained the home of the Central Flying School, where many pilots received their initial training before being sent overseas. Australian Flying Corps mechanics were initially recruited from skilled civilian tradesmen.
The New South Wales Government also sponsored training courses for pilots, observers and mechanics at a State Aviation School located at the site of the present-day RAAF Base Richmond, near Sydney. Many of these trainees joined the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service.
Four Australian Flying Corps training squadrons were based in Gloucestershire, England, between 1917 and 1918. Nos 5 and 6 Squadrons were located at Minchinhampton and Nos 7 and 8 Squadrons at Leighterton. Pupils received basic flying instruction and had to complete twenty hours solo flying and pass a series of tests before gaining their 'wings'. Experienced instructors passed on hard-won lessons in air combat, as well as familiarising novice Australian pilots and observers with the types of aircraft they would operate over the Western Front. Mechanics were trained at Halton Camp in England.
Flying training was dangerous. Twenty-five Australians who were killed during their training are buried at Leighterton cemetery in England.
A Divided Nation
As part of the British Empire, most Australians viewed involvement in World War I as a natural response. However, the war exposed political and social divisions, especially over the issue of conscription for overseas military service.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes strongly supported conscription and put the matter before the people at referenda in October 1916 and December 1917. The rejection of conscription on both occasions was accompanied by heated debate and led to Hughes leaving the Labor Party following the 1916 referendum.
On 11 November 1918, World War I ended. Four years of conflict had cost the lives of 61,720 Australians.
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World War II
An Air Force for an Empire
On 3 September 1939, two days after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Britain declared war on Germany and World War II began. The RAAF had just 3,489 men. As members of the British Empire, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were also at war.
All these nations recognised the decisive role of air power in the new struggle. A joint approach to training the many thousands of volunteer aircrew required for the war against Germany was quickly agreed and the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) was signed in December 1939.
Australia would provide 36 per cent of all aircrew for the scheme at a rate of 806 new aircrew per month, some of whom would go to Canada to complete their training. A total of 18 RAAF squadrons were to be raised from EATS trainees to serve under the operational control of the Royal Air Force.
By August 1945, the RAAF had expanded to 173,622 men and women, an astonishing achievement made possible by the Empire Air Training Scheme. The cost was high, with 2,832 RAAF aircrew killed in flying training accidents.
RAAF airmen who flew over Europe with RAF Bomber Command faced the greatest risk of death of any Australians serving during World War II. Over a standard 'tour' of 30 operations, it was statistically impossible at certain times between 1942 and 1944 for the crew of a bomber aircraft to survive. Overall, the chance of survival was about 40 per cent.
Despite the odds, the strategic bombing offensive against Germany was the only means by which damage could be inflicted directly against the centre of Nazi military and economic power for most of the war. As a result of thousands of operations, Bomber Command severely disrupted the enemy's war effort and forced the Nazis to keep men, fighter aircraft and guns in Germany, which were badly needed elsewhere.
Most Australians in Bomber Command served within RAF squadrons but there were also eight RAAF squadrons: No 460 flying Wellingtons then Lancasters; Nos 463 and 467 flying Lancasters; and Nos 462 and 466 flying Halifaxes. Nos 455, 458 and 464 were also part of Bomber Command for a time.
The Pathfinder Force was an elite group within Bomber Command assisting the main bomber force to find their target by marking it with flares and incendiaries. The Pathfinders were led by an Australian, Don Bennett, a Point Cook graduate who became the youngest Air Vice-Marshal in the RAF.
The courage of the young aircrew was underlined by the high price they paid. More than 3400 RAAF airmen were killed while serving with Bomber Command, approximately 12 per cent of all Australians who died in World War II.
Fighters in Europe
Australian fighter pilots joined Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons and fought against Germany in the skies above France and Britain between 1939 and 1940. Many of them had learned to fly at Point Cook before joining the RAF on a short service commission.
At least thirty-seven Australian pilots were among "the few" who flew in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Three RAAF fighter squadrons were formed in Britain in 1941. Nos 452 and 457 Squadrons flew Spitfires in daylight operations over the English Channel and France before being sent to defend Australia in 1942. No 456 Squadron was a specialised night-fighter unit.
By late 1942, the only RAAF Spitfire squadron in Britain was No 453, which could only take a small number of the 240 Australian fighter pilots who were scattered over fifty-one RAF day-fighter squadrons in that year. No 453 remained on active service until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. Its pilots took part in the invasion of Europe (D-Day) and the liberation of France, intercepting German V-1 flying bombs and attacking V-2 rocket launching sites in Holland.
German surface vessels and submarines (U-boats) posed a grave threat to Britain's ability to fight the war by sinking the ships that transported people and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean and within British coastal waters.
Australians served in large numbers with RAF Coastal Command squadrons which flew long patrols and dangerous strike operations along the coast of occupied Europe and far out into the Atlantic Ocean. Nos 10 and 461 RAAF Squadrons flew Sunderland flying boats and sank 13 U-boats out a total of 213 enemy submarines destroyed by Coastal Command.
No 455 Squadron was transferred from Bomber Command to Coastal Command in April 1942 and later flew Beaufighter aircraft as part of the Banff Strike Wing in Scotland. The squadron flew very hazardous low-level attacks on German shipping, harbours and bases along the jagged coast of Norway.
Along with the Royal Navy, Coastal Command was largely responsible for the destruction of the German U-boat force, a major factor in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945.
The Western Desert and Mediterranean
Italy entered the war on the German side in June 1940. The threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal meant that outnumbered British and Commonwealth forces were immediately committed to defend North Africa. No 3 Squadron was the first RAAF squadron to reach Egypt in August 1940. Initially flying obsolete Gladiator biplanes, No 3 Squadron later became the top-scoring fighter squadron in the Desert War.
In June 1941, No 3 Squadron took part in the invasion of French-controlled Syria to prevent the pro-German Vichy forces from threatening Palestine. In just 10 days they completed 117 operations using US-built Tomahawk fighter aircraft.
Seven RAAF squadrons served in North Africa and the Mediterranean along with No 1 Air Ambulance Unit, which pioneered the use of aircraft to evacuate battlefield casualties. Nos 450 and 451 Squadrons flew fighters while Nos 454, 458, 459 and 462 Squadrons were bomber squadrons. Australians were also among the Allied airmen defending the island of Malta.
The Allied invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland marked the beginning of a grim struggle against the Germans following the surrender of Italian forces in September 1943. Nos 3 and 450 Squadrons specialised in ground attack operations over Italy, often using a 'cab-rank' system where fighter-bombers were called in to attack targets chosen at short notice by liaison officers with Allied ground forces.
"Regret Inability to Supply Fighters"
The Japanese assault on South-East Asia in December 1941 exposed fatal weaknesses in the Australian, British, Dutch and American forces defending the region.
The only RAAF fighter aircraft was the inadequate Brewster Buffalo, which equipped Nos 21 and 453 Squadrons in Malaya along with the Hudson bombers of Nos 1 and 8 Squadrons. The Hudson bomber crews were the first Australians to engage the Japanese landing force at Kota Bharu beach, just a few hundred metres from their airfield. Several Japanese ships were sunk and damaged in a series of determined attacks but, along with other Allied forces, RAAF airmen were pushed back to Singapore by the speed and violence of the Japanese assault. RAAF Buffalo pilots battled against the technical failings of their aircraft and were overwhelmed before Singapore fell in February 1942.
Isolated RAAF units fought the Japanese across the area north of Australia. At Rabaul, north of New Guinea, eight Wirraway trainers from No 24 Squadron attacked more than fifty Japanese aircraft on 20 January 1942. Within ten minutes, six airmen were dead and five more were wounded. The commanding officer of the squadron, Wing Commander John Lerew, appealed to Area Headquarters for modern aircraft and was informed in a signal: "Regret inability to supply fighters. If we had them you would get them."
China, Burma and India
Although no RAAF squadrons served in the China, Burma and India (CBI) area, over 1000 RAAF aircrew served with Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons in this vast theatre of war against the Japanese.
Just as the Japanese had pushed Allied forces out of South-East Asia, British and Indian troops were fighting to protect the Indian frontier after retreating from Burma in March 1942. The long campaign to recapture Burma between 1942 and 1945 has been called 'the forgotten war', as it has not been given the attention afforded the war in the Pacific. Nearly 250 Australian airmen were killed in the China, Burma and India campaign.
Air power was a vital factor in cutting off Japanese supply routes in Burma and in supporting Allied troops. Australian airmen attacked targets such as railways, ports, bridges and supply dumps. Many RAAF pilots flew the American-built P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft, which proved to be as effective in ground-attack operations as it was in air combat with Japanese aircraft.
Prisoners and Evaders
Australian airmen taken prisoner during World War II faced very different fates depending on where they were captured and who captured them. Germany and Italy respected the 1929 Geneva Convention, which governed the treatment of prisoners-of-war (POWs). Japanese military forces generally treated prisoners with contempt. Those who escaped execution suffered from beatings, disease and starvation.
German and Italian forces captured nearly 1500 RAAF officers and airmen during World War II. Forty-one of these men escaped from captivity but only five made it back to Britain. Nearly 150 RAAF aircrew shot down over Europe evaded capture, usually with the help of resistance forces. RAAF Bomber Command squadrons took part in 'Operation Exodus', flying thousands of former Allied prisoners back to Britain after the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
In the Pacific, just over 500 RAAF personnel fell into Japanese captivity, 127 of these men died before the end of the war. One of them was Flight Lieutenant Bill Newton, who became the only RAAF recipient of the Victoria Cross in the war against Japan. His Boston bomber was shot down near Salamaua, New Guinea, in March 1943. He was captured and beaten before being executed.
After the war against Japan ended in August 1945, the RAAF evacuated thousands of Australian and Allied POWs to Singapore and then on to Australia. Many required medical attention to treat injuries and illnesses caused by years of neglect.
Australia at War
For many Australians, the war against Germany and Italy was a remote conflict. The introduction of petrol rationing in 1940 proved unpopular and placed extra pressure on crowded public transport.
Despite calls to allow women into the armed services, only a small number could do so. Women could take up 'war work' in factories or join auxiliary organisations such as the Women's Air Training Corps and the Volunteer Air Observers Corps. This attitude soon changed after Japan entered the war in December 1941 and Australia came under attack. Strict rationing of food and clothing was introduced for all civilians and continued after the war ended.
The war had already come close to Australia in November 1941 with the sinking of HMAS Sydney by a German ship off the coast of Western Australia. Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin on 19 February 1942. A small floatplane launched from a Japanese submarine flew over Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart, and midget submarines raided Sydney Harbour. Japanese aircraft also bombed Broome, Townsville and Port Hedland. Air raids on Darwin continued until mid-1943, suffering losses from defending Kittyhawk and Spitfire squadrons.
Between 1942 and 1945, Japanese and German submarines sank 151,000 tons of Allied shipping off the coast of Australia at the cost of 654 lives. The RAAF was constantly engaged in anti-submarine patrols, losing several aircraft, which disappeared without trace.
Fighting Back in the Pacific
By early 1942, Japanese forces occupied most of the South-West Pacific. New Guinea was the key to the defence of Australia. New Kittyhawk fighter aircraft had arrived from the United States to re-equip the RAAF. They were sent to Port Moresby and Milne Bay with their inexperienced pilots.
When No 75 Squadron arrived at Port Moresby on 21 March 1942, only four of their twenty-one pilots had any combat experience. Over the following forty-four days, these pilots fought desperately against Japanese air attacks until only three Kittyhawks were left and most pilots were dead, wounded or sick from tropical diseases.
The Australian Army and the RAAF inflicted the first defeat on Japanese land forces in August/September 1942 when the Japanese landing at Milne Bay, New Guinea, was repulsed. Nos 75 and 76 Squadrons cooperated with Australian infantry to strafe and bomb Japanese ships, barges and troops close to the airfields. The Japanese attack failed completely and the few survivors withdrew by sea.
Japanese attempts to cross the Owen Stanley Mountains to take Port Moresby were thrown back in desperate jungle fighting. RAAF aircrew flying Wirraways, Beauforts, Beaufighters, Bostons, Catalinas and Kittyhawks attacked Japanese airfields, supply lines and shipping. In March 1943 the decisive Battle of the Bismarck Sea proved the value of air power, when United States Army Air Force and RAAF aircraft destroyed an entire Japanese convoy of troop ships.
By 1944, the RAAF had grown to become a formidable strike force, which included Liberator heavy bombers. The First Tactical Air Force supported the Australian operations in Borneo and operated independently to cut off Japanese supply lines to their occupied territories in Bougainville, New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies. Japan surrendered in August 1945 after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Occupation of Japan
Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945 following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Australians were part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), based around Hiroshima. Three RAAF fighter squadrons equipped with Mustang aircraft arrived in 1946, along with maintenance and radar personnel.
By 1950, No 77 Squadron was the only RAAF Mustang squadron left in Japan. The outbreak of the Korean War meant that plans to send the squadron home were scrapped and it was sent into action.
Post-World War II Conflict and Operations
British Commonwealth Occupation Force
In early 1946, the RAAF commenced occupation duties in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. The south-western half of Honshu and the entire Shikoku area became the responsibility of Commonwealth Forces. At that time, the RAAF squadrons constituted half of the total Commonwealth air power in the Japanese islands.
The RAAF's No 81 Wing, consisting of Nos 76, 77 and 82 Squadrons, flying the Mustang fighter, were placed on daily standby to carry out land and sea search operations. They were supported by No 111 Mobile Fighter Control Unit, No 481 (Maintenance) Squadron, No 381 Base Squadron and other minor units.
When the Royal Air Force began an unplanned withdrawal from Japan in January 1948, surveillance patrols by RAAF squadrons increased significantly. Flying training and wing formation flying was also stepped up. Later that year, most of the RAAF squadrons and units ceased operations and returned to Australia.
The RAAF component of the Australian Occupation Forces was then reorganised and consisted of No 77 Squadron. Routine activities continued until July 1950 when No 77 Squadron was committed to combat operations in support of United Nations forces in Korea.
Air Bridge to Berlin
With the end of the war in Europe, Germany was divided between Russia and the Western powers. The city of Berlin was located inside the Russian occupied zone and was split into four sectors.
In June 1948, Russian forces sealed off land access to Berlin in an attempt to force America, Britain and France to abandon the city. The only means of suppling fuel and food was via three air corridors. A massive Allied airlift operation was organised. The British called it 'Operation Plain Fare'; the Americans called it 'Operation Vittles'.
In August 1948, 41 RAAF aircrew joined the airlift. Flying RAF Dakota transport aircraft, they completed 2062 supply flights to Berlin, often in appalling weather conditions. By the end of 1949, the Russians lifted the blockade after it became clear that the Allies could supply the city indefinitely.
War Above Korea
Just days before their scheduled return to Australia in June 1950, No 77 Squadron in Japan learned that North Korean forces had invaded South Korea. Their Mustang aircraft were amongst the first to go into action.
For the next three years, the squadron flew combat operations under the auspices of the United Nations, often under extreme conditions against determined enemy opposition including North Korean, Chinese and Russian pilots flying the technically superior MiG-15 jet fighter.
After re-equipping with Meteor jet fighters in 1951, No 77 Squadron shot down five MiG-15s but flew mostly ground attack operations using rockets. These low-level attacks were met with heavy ground fire and casualties were severe, with 25 per cent of pilots being killed or captured during the conflict. By the time a cease-fire agreement was signed in July 1953, the squadron had flown 15,071 operations.
Dakota aircraft from No 86 Transport Wing maintained a lifeline between Korea, Japan and Australia, bringing mail and supplies and evacuating casualties.
A Cold War World
The post-war conflict between Russia and the West for political and military dominance was played out across the globe. Australia provided RAAF support in Europe, the Mediterranean and increasingly in Asia. Compulsory military service for all 18-year-old Australian males was introduced in 1951. When the first National Service scheme ended in 1959, almost 18,000 trainees had served in the RAAF.
In the early 1950s, the RAAF's No 78 (Fighter) Wing was stationed on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean to provide fighter defence. Flying British Vampire jet fighters, Nos 75 and 76 Squadrons were able to train alongside foreign air forces, sharpening their skills with air-to-air gunnery competitions and formed the first RAAF jet formation aerobatic team.
In Australia, the Long-Range Weapons Project at Woomera in the South Australian desert was Australia's most significant contribution to the Cold War. For several decades, the RAAF supported the British-Australian weapons trials, which included the development of rockets, guided missiles and nuclear weapons.
The Malayan Emergency and Confrontation
Beginning in 1948, Communist Terrorists (CTs) in Malaya conducted an increasingly violent campaign to remove British colonial influence and take power. Australia provided military air support to the civilian administration as part of 'Operation Firedog' along with British and New Zealand aircraft. First to arrive was No 38 Squadron flying Dakota transport aircraft to drop supplies to soldiers and police in the jungle.
Between 1950 and 1958, No 1 Squadron flew operations from Singapore against CT jungle camps in Malaya using the Australian-built Lincoln bomber. Given the difficulty of finding CT camps, the effectiveness of the bombing campaign has been questioned. The main impact seems to have been in keeping guerilla forces on the move where they could be ambushed by troops. The Lincolns were replaced with the Canberra jet bombers of No 2 Squadron operating from Butterworth in northern Malaya. The 'Emergency' was declared over in 1960 but isolated CT activity continued for many years.
A new threat emerged soon afterwards as Indonesia resisted the formation of the new state of Malaysia in the early 1960s. 'Confrontation', as the Indonesian policy was termed, included the use of its military forces in small border raids. RAAF Sabre jets, based at Butterworth, were placed on alert for any attempt by Indonesian aircraft to breach Malaysian airspace. RAAF Iroquois helicopters were deployed in Borneo. Confrontation ended in 1966 as internal conflict threatened the Indonesian government.
Forward Defence: Butterworth and Ubon
Australia took on a much greater military role in Asia throughout the 1950s and 1960s as Britain withdrew from former Asian colonies such as Malaya and Singapore and closer ties developed with America. The concept of "forward defence" guided the activities of the RAAF as bases were established in Malaya and Thailand to ensure that rapid air support was available to combat the threat of Communist expansion.
Butterworth in northern Malaya became the RAAF's major operational airfield in Asia throughout the Cold War. Thousands of RAAF members and their families were based at Butterworth over more than three decades between the 1950s and 1980s. Butterworth had its own RAAF School and radio station.
During the Vietnam War, Butterworth played a key role as the location of No 4 RAAF Hospital, which treated wounded servicemen before they were repatriated back to Australia.
Between 1962 and 1968, the Sabre jet fighters of No 79 Squadron were based at Ubon in Thailand to provide local air defence and support the growing American military involvement in Vietnam. RAAF Airfield Defence Guards patrolled the perimeter of the base, which became a target for guerilla activity as American aircraft flew from Ubon to strike targets in Vietnam.
Vietnam Airlift Support
By the early 1960s, Vietnam had been in turmoil for almost twenty years, as French colonial forces were defeated and communist insurgents (Viet Cong), increasingly moved into the southern part of the country. American and Australian military forces were then committed to Vietnam. It became the RAAF's longest war, lasting from 1964 to 1975.
Six Caribou transport aircraft arrived in Vietnam during 1964 to form the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RTFV). The flight carried out a vital role from its base at Vung Tau, flying troops and supplies throughout South Vietnam as part of the American airlift network. It soon became known as 'Wallaby Airlines'. In 1966 the flight became No 35 Squadron and continued to fly in and out of primitive airfields, often under fire from enemy ground forces. By the time the Caribous were withdrawn in 1972, two aircraft had been lost in the course of 81,500 missions.
No less vital were the Hercules airlift support missions flown by Nos 36 and 37 Squadrons. Besides bringing in supplies to support the growing Australian military presence in South Vietnam, more than 3000 sick and wounded Australians were evacuated by RAAF Hercules aircraft to Australia and Malaysia.
Helicopters in Vietnam
Australian involvement in the Vietnam War coincided with the introduction of helicopters to RAAF service. No 9 Squadron was the first RAAF helicopter unit to be formed using the American UH-1B Iroquois.
In June 1966, the squadron arrived in Vietnam to support the Australian Task Force based at Nui Dat. Helicopters provided a flexible, rapid means of moving troops and supplies around a battlefield. Under intense pressure, No 9 Squadron air and ground crews responded to rapidly changing demands. Their handful of helicopters were called on to insert and extract soldiers from rough landing pads, evacuate casualties, deliver food and ammunition and perform odd tasks such as leaflet dropping and 'people sniffing', using an electronic device to detect humans hiding in the jungle.
In 1969, the first heavily armed "Bushranger" gunship version of the Iroquois became operational with No 9 Squadron. The Bushrangers protected the more vulnerable troop-carrying helicopters, known as "slicks", and carried out attacks against Viet Cong positions. By the time No 9 Squadron returned to Australia in December 1971, it had completed 223,487 operational flights in Vietnam.
Bombers in Vietnam
From 1967, No 2 Squadron flew Australian-built Canberra bombers from Phan Rang air base in South Vietnam. The squadron operated independently of the Australian Task Force as part of the United States Air Force (USAF), although it was not permitted to attack targets in North Vietnam.
The RAAF crews proved that the ageing Canberra was still an effective strike aircraft. A mix of high- and low-level bombing operations was flown using visual and radar-controlled target identification. Two Canberras were lost on operations. One crew of two men survived a night in the jungle before being rescued after ejecting from their aircraft.
RAAF Airfield Defence Guards protected Phan Rang air base from Viet Cong attacks. The guards constantly patrolled the base perimeter and engaged enemy guerillas on numerous occasions. Airfield Defence Guards received four of the ten Distinguished Flying Medals awarded to RAAF personnel in Vietnam.
Flying with the Americans
Thirty-six RAAF pilots flew as forward air controllers with the United States Air Force (USAF) in Vietnam. Flying vulnerable O-1, O-2 and OV-10 aircraft at very low altitude, they marked ground targets for air strikes. Their courage under fire led to the award of more Australian and foreign gallantry awards than any other group of Australians serving in Vietnam. Six other RAAF officers flew as crew members of USAF F-4 Phantom jets.
Peace-keeping, civil aid and recent conflicts
In 1947 the RAAF was part of the first United Nations peace-keeping mission. RAAF Wing Commander Lou Spence joined three Australian Navy and Army officers sent to monitor a cease-fire between Dutch forces and Indonesian independence fighters in Java.
Since then, Australians have been involved in more than fifty United Nations peace-keeping missions. These missions have been spread over most of the globe. They often require the use of RAAF aircraft and personnel to transport humanitarian supplies, provide medical care and communications, or to monitor borders after cease-fires or peace agreements between former combatants.
Since the 1980s, peace-keeping and peace enforcement operations have accounted for most RAAF overseas deployments. RAAF Iroquois helicopters served in the Sinai desert between 1976 and 1979 and again between 1982 and 1986 to monitor a cease-fire agreement between Egypt and Israel and then an Israeli withdrawal from the region.
During the 1990s the RAAF was particularly active in support of major UN peace-keeping operations in Cambodia, Bougainville, Somalia and Rwanda. In the new century, the RAAF commitment to East Timor was reduced but a new regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) began in 2003 to disarm militant groups destabilising the government. A detachment from No 38 Squadron provided airlift support in the Solomons with their Caribou aircraft.
Humanitarian relief in the aftermath of a natural disaster requires the rapid movement of people and supplies. RAAF transport aircraft and helicopters have been used on many occasions to bring food, shelter and medical aid in response to bushfires, floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones in Australia and overseas. Even during armed conflict, the provision of civil aid is an integral part of modern military operations.
When Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin on Christmas Day in 1974, Australia's largest evacuation and civil aid operation swung into action. Every available RAAF transport aircraft were involved in bringing supplies and evacuating 9678 people.
The RAAF provided immediate airlift support for the aid effort in Indonesia following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. Nine Australian Defence Force personnel, including three RAAF members, died in a helicopter crash during relief work in Indonesia in 2005. Hercules aircraft with specialist RAAF aero-medical emergency (AME) teams were also dispatched to Bali to evacuate critically-injured survivors of the nightclub bombings in 2002.
Other more unusual civil aid tasks have included on-going participation in Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica and assisting with the rescue of several stranded sailors in the Southern Ocean by locating their position using Orion maritime patrol aircraft.
In May 1999, the Indonesian Government announced that it would allow the people of East Timor to determine their future by voting on a proposal to remain within Indonesia or gain full independence.
As part of a United Nations (UN) force overseeing the vote (UN Mission in East Timor - UNAMET), the RAAF transported passengers and supplies from Darwin to East Timor. Escalating violence by anti-independence militia groups following the vote in favour of independence caused the rapid evacuation of election staff, foreign nationals and refugees by RAAF Hercules aircraft in September 1999. "Operation Spitfire", as the evacuation was called, brought 2478 people to Australia.
A United Nations armed force (International Force East Timor - INTERFET), drawn from 22 nations and led by Australia's Major General Peter Cosgrove, was formed to restore peace in East Timor. RAAF Hercules and Caribous provided a non-stop airlift service along with aircraft from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand and Germany. RAAF Bases Darwin, Tindal and Townsville became centres of non-stop activity as personnel and supplies moved in and out. Other RAAF aircraft and crews were placed on stand-by. RAAF RF-111 aircraft completed several reconnaissance flights over East Timor with permission from the Indonesian Government.
On the ground in East Timor, RAAF Airfield Defence Guards from No 2 Airfield Defence Squadron quickly secured Comoro airfield from militia attacks and RAAF medical staff worked with Army personnel to provide care to local civilians. No 6 RAAF Hospital was sent to East Timor in 2001 to work with the UN Military Hospital providing care to local civilians and UN military staff.
Afghanistan and Iraq
The destruction of the New York World Trade Centre and the attack on the Pentagon in Washington DC, USA, on 11 September 2001 brought about a new era of conflict and uncertainty. RAAF aircrew on exchange duties in the United States were immediately involved in flying air combat patrols.
Afghanistan was the base for the al-Qaeda leadership who had planned the attacks in America, protected by the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic government. Coalition forces led by the United States launched attacks on terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan in late 2001. Australian military involvement included the deployment of four RAAF F/A-18 Hornets to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Two RAAF Boeing 707 airborne refuelling aircraft from No 33 Squadron were based at Manas in Kyrgyzstan providing air-to-air refuelling for Coalition aircraft operating over Afghanistan.
In March 2003, as part of "Operation Falconer", RAAF F/A-18 Hornets in Iraq became the first Australian fighter jets to fly in combat since 1960. RAAF Hornets completed some 350 defensive patrols and strikes against ground targets in support of Coalition forces.
The Air Force contribution to operations in Iraq and the Middle East also included Orion surveillance and Hercules transport aircraft. The RAAF provided air traffic control (ATC) services at Baghdad airport to assist the airlift operation following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The RAAF ATC detachment handled up to 650 aircraft movements per day.back to top