- Wright, Ken
- Naval technology, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Ken Wright revisits one of Australia’s first coastal radar stations and remembers the time when busy shipping lanes were menaced by enemy ships and planes.
The Japanese submarine I-25 lying just off Cape Wickham lighthouse at the northern end of King Island in Bass Strait had launched the Yokosuka E14Y float plane approximately two hours before dawn on Thursday 26 February 1942. Using the Cape Otway and Point Lonsdale lighthouses as navigational aids, Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujito and Petty Officer Shoji Okuda flew their reconnaissance mission over Laverton RAAF Base, Melbourne and the docks, then down Port Phillip Bay, past Cape Schanck lighthouse and back to the waiting submarine.
Fujito had previously flown over Sydney and would go on to carry out reconnaissance missions over Hobart, Wellington, Auckland and Suva. Later the same year, in September, he would attempt to set fire to the Siskiyou national forest in Oregon, USA, with two 100-kilogram thermite incendiary bombs. His historic flights might have come to an abrupt end in the skies over Melbourne if Victoria’s first radar station had been operational.
Coastal Radar System
In 1942 Britain upgraded its coastal radar system and as Australia did not possess radar at the time, a number of these superseded British units were shipped here. The unit known as 13 Radar combined an Australian receiver with an English transmitter and was one of the first radar installations on the Australian mainland and the first in Victoria. The site chosen for it was Cape Otway, Victoria’s most western promontory and a key navigational point on the sea lanes in and out of Bass Strait. German U-boats were known to prowl these lanes.
Built among the sand dunes and tea tree on top of the cliffs, the unit’s blockhouse (known as a ‘doover’) had concrete walls 35cm thick. It was divided into three rooms to house the wireless telegraphy operator, the radar itself and its operator. This blockhouse also served as an air raid shelter. Power was supplied by two Ford V8 engines with direct drive to a 240-volt generator housed in an underground concrete bunker. Close to the blockhouse were two huts to house officers and non-commissioned personnel, a mess hall and shower and latrine facilities. Water from a spring was supplied by a small windmill. 13 Radar became operational on 27 June 1942 and, together with 14 Radar at Wilsons Promontory, was able to detect the movements of shipping and aircraft entering and leaving Bass Strait between Tasmania and the mainland. Other radar stations in Victoria were 15 at Metung and 16 on Gabo Island.
In November 1940 an American ship, City of Rayville, had been sunk by a mine off Cape Otway.
Leading Aircraftsman Eric Mittag, writing in 1944, describes the operation of the radar unit.
‘The radar operator would manually sweep the antenna (by a small wheel attached to the gearing) 360 degrees looking for blips above the ‘lathoole’ ray oscilloscope trace line on his screen. If an aircraft or ship was detected, he would focus the antenna and pass range and bearing to a second radar operator. These co-ordinates were then plotted on a grid and passed on to the wireless-telegraphy operator for transmission to headquarters in Melbourne.
If an aircraft was detected, a series of coded short and long sequenced blips transmitted by the aircraft would appear on the bottom of the operator’s screen. This code was known as IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). If no IFF was detected, an emergency signal was transmitted to headquarters and further action would be taken.’
Service Conditions in Wartime
Postings to 13 Radar were usually seen as a rest assignment. Because the station was an early link in Australia’s new radar program, it was an ideal place for new personnel to learn the operating techniques of the system. During winter, the station would shut down when gale-force winds reached Force 6 or more. The antenna needed constant cleaning on account of the flying spray from the sea below the Cape Otway cliffs.
In the mess hall, a billiard table on loan from the local hotel ‘for the duration’ and books provided the basic entertainment, but during the warmer months there was the opportunity for more challenging activities such as cliff-climbing, swimming and fishing. Outside the mess hall a vegetable patch took shape. The most sought-after recreation was the chance to go into the nearby township of Apollo Bay to a local dance, a movie and of course the pub.
Naturally the service personnel could not have everything their way. There were inspections, machine-gun, rifle and grenade practice with competition shoots and more inspections to keep everyone on their toes. Many enjoyed hunting – if one could call shooting rabbits with a .303 hunting (nor would there be much left of the unfortunate rabbit for the cook’s stew- pot).
Detections and Incidents
Had Warrant Flying Officer Fujito and Petty Officer Okuda made their reconnaissance flight four months later, 13 Radar would almost certainly have spotted them and alerted HQ of their presence, with the float plane possibly being shot down by aircraft from the RAAF base at Laverton or anti-aircraft guns at Williamstown. As it was, their presence passed unnoticed. Not so that of Korvettenkapitan Heinrich Timm, who was to stir up some real action two years later.
Timm and his crew of the German U-862 had been looking for shipping to sink in the sea lanes near Cape Jaffa, some 250 kilometres south-east of Adelaide. On the morning of 9 December 1944, high seas, rain squalls and wind prevented the submarine’s sonar detection from picking up the approach of the Greek freighter SS Ilissos until the ship was too close for U-862 to manoeuvre into a submerged attack position. Timm decided to surface and attack the freighter from astern. It was a tactical mistake. The freighter was still out of range of his flak gun and the submarine’s gunfire was answered by the after deck gun on the freighter. The U-boat had to crash-dive to avoid being hit.
Call for help
The Ilissos’s call for help started the largest submarine hunt ever carried out in Australian waters. 13 Radar went on a 24-hour alert, since it was expected the U-boat would move east to attack shipping in Bass Strait. However, U-862 managed to slip away to do her real damage elsewhere. She sailed down the west coast of Tasmania, past Hobart and on towards New Zealand, sinking two Allied Liberty ships on the way.
The Cape Otway radar station continued operations until June 1946, when the unit was disbanded after four years of important but uneventful coastal surveillance. The concrete blockhouse and generator bunker still stand as a reminder of a war that now seems so long ago, and perhaps hard to imagine for the holidaymakers and other visitors who come to the site.
The concrete blockhouse of 13 Radar station is adjacent to the Cape Otway lighthouse and is open seven days a week from 9am to 5pm. The track to the blockhouse is signposted on the path between car park and lighthouse and an information booklet is obtainable at the kiosk. For further information please ring the ranger on 03 5237 9240. The former lighthouse-keeper’s house can now be rented for overnight stays.
- Coast of Ruthless Beauty, Coast & Country, Autumn-Winter 2004
- Battle Surface by David Jenkins, published by Random House.
- U-Boat Far From Home by David Stevens, published by Allen & Unwin.
- 13 Radar, edited by Morrie Fenton and available from 27 Lasscock Avenue, Lockleys, SA 5032.