Recollections of the Radar war, by John McKinlay

The 60th anniversary of VJ Day, 15 August, prompted me to post this story written by my father who, was a radar specialist in northern Australia during the 1939-1945 war. It’s good read, I think.

Some recollections of the radar war, 31 July 1942 to 7 February 1946 by John McKinlay

Radar Training, Richmond NSW.

Following the usual three weeks drill course we trained at the Radar School at Richmond in NSW. I recollect that the course was very easy and very close to boring. I had a background of experience and training in wireless technology and in spite of my protest was prevented from a mechanics course due to defective colour vision. Aircrew was out for the same reason.

I was wryly amused by the interaction between the officers and men but that was the way things were so we lived with it. All of the Radar goons, that is to say us, had to have a one and a half inch red circle stencilled on the sleeves of our overalls to identify our ‘calling’. I presume this was to keep the uninitiated out of the ‘secret’ areas. Radar was very hush-hush at this time. Fortunately the leave provisions were quite generous, so a good time was had by all.

No. 132 Radar Station, Knuckey’s Lagoon, Darwin.

Final posting was to 132 Radar Unit and departure for Darwin approx 1st Nov.1942. Half of the unit travelled overland via the ‘old’ Ghan through Alice Springs. I was more fortunate and accompanied the Doover (radadr set) on the ship from Sydney. A great trip although the 50% of the cargo being munitions rather took the edge off the pleasure trip idea. Practise with the 4 inch gun mounted on the stern and the news from the captain that a Jap sub was prowling about sharpened up the lookout duty.

The ship called at Brisbane to load ‘Comforts’ parcels destined for the prisoner of war camps or front line troops. Then on to Cairns, Thursday Island, and Groote Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Here the tide was way out and we spent quite a few hours up to our chests in the water passing boxes from ship to shore. The usual comments about sharks and salt water crocodiles gave us little comfort.

First camp was at the 11 mile radio station. I don’t think it was operational at the time. Two 150 ft. ? steel towers were still intact which of course presented a challenge to the adventurous. A few made the climb before the CO clamped down on such risk to life and limb. The only feature of this stop was the notable absence of food. The cook, bless him, tried to concoct a stew from a couple of kangaroos. The gravy was fine but the meat uneatable. We had a stock of army biscuits so for the most part all retired at least fed. Mention could also be made of the incredible stink that assailed us on dismounting from the trucks. The source was tracked down to a herd of very scruffy goats which in great haste were driven off into the bush. Some of the boys made noises about goat steaks but the smell put us off that idea.

dooverNext day was a build camp, pitch tents, etc. at Knuckey’s with the priority to get the ‘doover’ operational. We were introduced to our new equipment and this was very interesting. It was an unusual set of gear. Direct from England, the ‘doovers’ were set up as an integral part of giant diesel trucks (?Thornicroft), one for the transmitter and receiver and the other with twin diesel generators. The antenna array was fitted up to a trailer. This was later changed to a fixed tower to give more height.

The whole unit as first conceived could be used as a very fast mobile intercept radar. A feature of the unit was the use of a 12 inch PPI (plan position indicator) cathode ray tube. This was very state of the art and would have been I think ideal for intercept work during raids. Its design capacity was hardly used in the Knuckey’s Lagoon location.

This rig, we were told, was to be linked to the Capstan squadrons which were to be stationed in Darwin and had come out with these aircraft from England. Such a usage never happened, much to our collective regret. [When the Spitfire fighter aircraft came to Australia they had the code name Capstan because their arrival was hush-hush.]

The location was excellent as this was a large flat area, which made the calibration etc much easier. The mech’s worked their butts off getting things up and running. The only excitement was the discovery of a wasp’s nest in the Pandanus palm which as luck would have it grew just outside the door of the ops van. Chaos reigned until some bright? twit put a match to the top of the palm. The CO nearly had kittens, having visions of the van going up in smoke. We survived fortunately, without stings, and without a major conflagration.

Once established the operation was mostly routine. We had American Army tents and these were appreciated. They were more accommodating than the usual Aussie type but could be interesting when the wind blew hard. We supplemented the rations with a bit of hunting in the marshes. Wild geese were plentiful and very tasty as a relief from the interminable M & V (tinned meat and veg.)

Also very plentiful were the mosquitoes and at certain times sandflies. Nets for sleep time were essential and the risk from malaria and particularly dengue fever very real.

The doover operated very efficiently and seemed to be more accurate in height estimation than the smaller Australian units. An excellent system for antenna control made plotting faster and the PPI gave a better appreciation of the ‘big’ picture.”No 105 Fighter Sector Darwin.

I was transferred to No. 105 Fighter Sector to begin duties as a filterer on the main plotting table. It was thought at the time that a trained radar operator might have better insight into the operation of the various types of units in the area and assist in accurate focussing of the defence information during air raids. At this time the unit was stationed at the old hospital (?) buildings about seven miles (?) out of Darwin The actual operations room was a ten minute march into the bush along a rather dusty track. This was later made into a passable road. The hospital buildings were very comfortable quarters and were in use by No. 105 until about June ’44.

filterFighter Sector Ops room was a big structure for that time, a bush timber structure of quite heavy logs roofed with the usual corrugated iron and a concrete floor. It would have survived a strafing attack, but a well placed bomb would have been a different story. There were two large rooms. One was used as the filter room. It contained the map table, radio telephone stations with chalk boards in a U around three walls, and a raised platform for the duty filter officer and phone clerk. The second, a bigger area, had a very large map table upon which the filtered plot was displayed in response to the phone clerk’s call. This was based on the filterer’s analysis of the incoming radar station reports. Overseeing this big table from a raised platform was the duty air controller. He also had visual access to the filter table through an open window. His was the ultimate responsibility for the unit and the direction of the fighter squadrons in the air until intercept. Officers from the Navy and Army were also on duty to direct anti-aircraft batteries and navy units as required.

This unit and its supporting radar stations developed into a very effective defence system for the Darwin area. We knew, often at ranges up to 150 miles north of Bathurst Island, when the Japanese forces were on their way in and had planes in the air in time to combat them. Only once that I recall did a group slip under the radar guard. A large group of Zero fighters came in unde
r a group of bombers and mounted an attack before we were aware of their existence. Probably this was the 2nd March ’43 raid that strafed Coomalie Creek, the Beaufighter base. This was a flaw in the radar defence at that time. Low level flying was very hard to detect. Fortunately the Japanese didn’t seem to be aware of the weakness, much to our relief.

Most of the time was spent in tracking and identifying friendly aircraft. They usually had operating IFF (identification friend or foe) a signal which enabled us to tag our own. One of these not operating caused a major flap. At eleven o’clock one night an aircraft came in off the correct track and at the wrong height showing no IFF. A night fighter was scrambled and much to everyone’s satisfaction made a perfect intercept. He was closing for the kill when by some miracle the supposed intruder’s IFF began to operate. He was a very lucky Beaufort pilot who received a mighty rocket, I understand, for coming in at the wrong height and course.

During 1942, the defence of Darwin was undertaken by the American Kittyhawk squadrons. When they left their tally was 79 Japanese aircraft shot down for a loss of 21 Kittyhawks. High flying reconnaisance planes were difficult to get at and the Zero was a problem for the Kittyhawk. Following the arrival of the Capstan wing in January 1943, the problem of high flying planes became easier. Up to this time the Japanese recce aircraft had it all on their own. The Kittyhawk was just not able to intercept at the recce height (30,000 ft. I believe). Capstans changed that dramatically and on 6th Feb ’43 made an easy intercept and the incoming Dinah was shot down. The pattern from this point seemed to be bombers with Zero fighter escort.

The duties of Sgt Filterer became rather hectic during the raids. The plot table became a scattered plethora of coloured plot circles to be interpreted. Radar at this time was accurate in range but the bearings, height estimates and speed of transmission to the centre could vary widely. These factors all needed to be considered and from them speed, height and anticipated position of the target at the point in time when the final plot landed on the big intercept table accurately estimated. This was the task of the filterer. Individual radar units also had to be controlled in terms of areas to sweep, constant tracking of the target and narrow or wide area search.

On reflection, and knowing the weaknesses of these early radar sets, it’s a small miracle that the system managed to intercept so well. Every effort had been made to overlap each station coverage but there were still holes in the cover. Just our good fortune the Japanese didn’t know where they were.

The last bomber raid came on 12 Nov 1943 although high flying reconnaisance ‘Dinahs’ kept appearing from time to time. Final score for the Capstan wing was 76 with the loss of 36 Capstans. The grape vine told us that losses were heavy until the lesson of not dogfighting the Zero and a better understanding of fuel monitoring was learnt. Very few Australians realise that over 150 enemy aircraft were shot down over Darwin during the war years.

Filter Course. Richmond. NSW.

I returned to Sydney in June of 1944 to complete a ‘special’ course purported to train personnel for the duties of Filterer. (46 Filter Course 101 FCU. ) Frankly I really applied to get a break from Darwin and a bit of leave. There was nothing in the course that I didn’t already know. On reflection, perhaps I should have been one of the instructors. The greatest horror was to find myself posted back to the boredom of Darwin on 5 August 1944.

This time I did travel by the old Ghan. What an experience that was! At many points along the way it was possible to hop off and walk beside the train. A very slow mover the old Ghan. Meal times meant a stop and meals were doled out beside the track. The evening meal meant a longer stop while the cooks cooked up a meal on the side of the track. The tucker kept body and soul together but was definitely not haute cuisine It’s difficult to imagine how a train could travel so slowly. From the Alice it was the back of army trucks to Birdum, then the narrow gauge in cattle trucks to Darwin. One stop was memorable with the sleeping racks made of 3 inch mesh. No mattresses and the dirt too infested with crawling life of the unpleasant kind made that night a fascinating experience. A rough trip for the new chums who wilted in the heat and suffered ferocious dysentery from the bore water.

There had been great changes to the H.Q. camp while I was down south. A new camp had been built near the Ops Room and tents, kitchens, etc were in full operation. It was fair enough but it became plain that the war had moved on to the north. The likelihood of more Japanese attacks became less and less as the weeks went by. Fortunately for me, No. 105 was overstaffed and soon after arrival I was posted out to Radar Unit 38 on Bathurst Is.

No 38 Radar Station. Cape Fourcroy Bathhurst Is.

This was one of the pioneer units for the Darwin area. Established in June 1942, it was most times the first to pick up incoming aircraft. The doover was an Australian built unit made by AWA. This model did sterling work in the radar defence of Australia. It had only a small screen and needed expert operators to get good results, but not many aircraft passed undetected.

For someone quite happy to rough it in the bush the camp was high grade primitive. Tents were set up for a long stay and ingenious structures built from bush timber made each tent an ideal place for a spine bash or whatever. Some clever cook had build a clay oven and so newly baked bread was on offer. After sieving out the weevils from somewhat dubious flour of course.

I was very fond of the dog biscuits (army biscuits were called this). Spread with jam and cheese I found them a good source of satisfaction. I still like the combination to this day but the biscuits, cheese and jam are now a bit (a large bit) better quality. The only other notable food was a never ending supply of tinned sausages. We protested to the CO at one stage and he sent for an update of protein. You guessed it, the first load back … tinned sausages.

Crawlies of every kind were the curse of the island. I learned this the hard way. I forgot to check my bed roll and a very annoyed centipede gave me cause not to forget again. Snakes, and the largest rats I have ever seen were indigenous to the island and had set up a seemingly balanced ecology. Most of the snakes were the harmless variety and it was rare not to see several curled up on or near the path to the doover when going on duty.

A small group of aboriginals lived on the island near the camp. I got to know one of them well. He had lived near Darwin before the war. He told me that Bathurst was good living, with plenty of bush tucker available. For the most part they were like shadows in the bush and we saw little of them.

It was about a ten-minute walk to the doover from the camp and duty watches were the usual routine; 360-degree scan in endless monotony. Air traffic was tapering off and the Japanese attack had ceased. The doover gave little trouble. We had a bit of a flap when the wind tried to toss it off the cliff but a few stout ropes solved the problem.

The boys did a great job setting the unit up originally. The expectation was to pick up a contact between 100 to 150 miles but this was very dependant on the target height. At under 10,000 feet they could get in a lot closer. Taking weather reports was part of the duty scene and visual reports were expected on anything that moved on the sea or in the air. A better life than H.Q. which had, by now, more than its share of parades and salutes, etc.

Contact with the mainland was by Dragon Rapide. This twin engined ancient brought out weekly mail, (well sometimes it did) essential gear and personnel as required. Landing and take off from the beach was routine. Flying in that old machine was an experience. It rattled and vibrated in ways not calculated to in
spire confidence but it flew and very reliably indeed. We had an old tractor to lug the goods up from the beach and it did little to inspire confidence in its ability, puffing smoke and receiving the curses of the unfortunates who had to maintain it. Still it went and that was the main thing. During the dark days the boys manning this station were very exposed. A Jap landing would have meant curtains for them. There was no way to escape except to disappear into the bush.

Sometime during my time on the island the US Army built a wireless navigation station about 3-4 miles away from our location. We were invited over a few times for a social visit. It was rather like going home on leave. The luxury of their quarters and the food was quite something. I can still remember the taste of the bacon and eggs to this day. Generous guys and we were given VIP treatment whenever a visit was possible. They made great popcorn.

After VJ Day, operations were scaled down and we waited our turn for the return south. A points score operated and consideration was given to length of service in the north, etc. I was posted to Darwin for travel orders and was lucky enough to hitch a ride in a DC3 transport to Brisbane. Before that, I spent a few weeks at the Darwin RAAF aerodrome helping to load and unload planes from the north. Some were transporting released prisoners of war from the Japanese prison camps. I’ll never forget the experience. How any of mankind could treat another with such cruelty is difficult to comprehend. “God is a good God”, my mate used to say, “and the devil is a bad devil.” It’s a good explanation for such evil.

The rest of the story is just routine. The trip to Melbourne and subsequent discharge were no different to thousands of other servicemen.

Written in March 2000.