THE RAAF WORKS UNITS
By Syd Kildea in Speech to Rotary Apr. 2002
The First Air-Raid on Darwin on 19th February 1942 marked the beginning of an era of RAAF Works Units which went on continuously until 3 weeks before Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin on 24th December1974.
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the formation of the RAAF Mobile Works Squadrons and RAAF Works Maintenance Units, later in July 1944 to be designated the RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons.
In all 10 Squadrons were formed and much of their good work has been documented in Tom Wilson's CD ACS Histories and it is not possible to record it all in a short article such as this, but in those dark days of 1942 the need for urgent RAAF works and airfields in forward areas became a dire necessity.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention and it certainly was in those days, many airfields had to be built in a hurry in Northern Territory, Western Australia and Northern Queensland and as the Army was fully occupied it fell to the RAAF to build their own airfields and this we did.
In July 1942 the Japanese forces landed in New Guinea and the need for an additional airfield in Port Moresby became top priority, so a detachment of No 1 MWS called No.1 MWS (Special Works Force) left Melbourne on 26th July 1942 and arrived in Port Moresby on 7th August. By this time the Japanese forces were rapidly approaching via the Kokoda Track and continued to do so for many weeks. In this time we built Wards Drome and by 12th September 30 Squadron Beaufighters arrived, followed by
22 Squadron Boston's..
Much has been written about the heroic deeds of the Army on the Kokoda Track but little has been published of the important part played by the air support they received from the RAAF and the American Fifth Air Force, making the Japanese long supply lines unusable and forced their early retreat.
In November 1942 the RAAF found it too difficult having No 1 MWS in Darwin and No 1 MWS (SWF) in Port Moresby so we became No 5 MWS, as No 2, 3 and 4 Mobile Works Squadrons had already been formed. To be followed shortly by No's 6,7,8 and 9 with No 14 being the last formed in July 1943.
Early in March 1943, Wards Drome was used to it's capacity during the Battle of The Bismarck Sea when over 90 RAAF and American aircraft, intercepted and sank a convoy of 16 Japanese ships full of troops bound for Lae, to reinforce their army, which was locked in battle with our troops in the Markham Valley, a turning point in the Pacific War.
On 24th March 1943, No.5 MWS left Port Moresby, and after a stop over in Milne Bay arrived at Goodenough Island to build another airfield closer to the large Japanese base in Rabaul, at this time we were the furthermost north of all the Allied forces and this base contributed to winning the air war in New Guinea.
This story was repeated throughout the islands of the Pacific during World War II with the RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons landing with the Infantry and getting the airfields repaired or built from jungle to operational in a matter of days.
Each one of the squadrons performed remarkable feats of engineering under the most hazardous conditions you could imagine. The performance of the three MWS's at Aitape where they landed with the American infantry on Sunday 23rd April 1944 and had the airstrip serviceable in 48 hours so impressed General Kenny that he put Air Commodore W.A.C.Dale RAAF in charge of all the Allied Engineers in future operations and used No 3 ACS at Mindoro in the Philippines, the only Australian unit to be used in that operation, and they received an American Citation for their achievements.
At the end of World War II most of the ACS's were disbanded, only No.2 and No.5 carried on the good work in Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and other parts of the Pacific. Some of their latest projects were at Tindal near Katherine in the N. T and Learmonth in WA where in December 1974 the Government of the day decided they were no longer needed. Only to be confronted three weeks later with Cyclone Tracy and members were called from all over the country to help clean up the mess.
The achievements, history, stories and photographic records of all the Airfield Construction Squadrons are much too vast to document in one book, but with the help of modern technology one of our members Tom Wilson is endeavouring to do this on a CD ROM, which he has been working on for many years. He has gathered many diaries, stories and photographs from various sources and hopes to have this gigantic task completed in time for the ACS National Reunion in Melbourne July 2004,
Which has been instrumental in publicising the work of the RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons. (His email address is email@example.com or phone (07) 5476 7246.)
The Chief RAAF Historian and Anzac Day ABC Commentator Dr. Alan Stephens, has always been an admirer of the achievements of the Airfield Construction Squadrons, in his book "Going Solo" he said they were the "unsung heroes" of the Pacific War and the post war period. Then in his latest book for the Australian Centenary History of Defence Volume II entitled "The Royal Australian Air Force", amongst other praiseworthy tributes, he quotes,
"No combat support group made a greater contribution than the self styled 'flying shovels' of the airfield construction squadrons".