Past informs future: recognising 80 years

Past informs future: recognising 80 years

It was 1940 and World War II was in full swing.

Realising it didn’t have adequate resources to maintain the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the impending air war in Europe, the British government put forward a plan to jointly establish a pool of trained aircrew including pilots who could then serve with the RAF. 

Under the scheme, Australia agreed to provide 36 per cent  of the total number of proposed aircrew — 28,000 aircrew over three years.

Across Australia, seven RAAF schools were established to support the Empire Air Training Scheme, including No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at Evans Head on the NSW north coast.

Reportedly the largest RAAF training facility in the southern hemisphere during World War II, the aerodrome was distinguished by its four runways, associated taxiways and aprons and 17 Bellman hangars.

Extensive bombing and gunnery ranges were established to the north and south of the aerodrome as well as a sea leg to the south.

More than 5500 air force personnel passed through No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School’s training programs, including the famous Australian actor ‘Chips” Rafferty and flying hero Leonard Fuller, DFC.

At its peak, the school had some 70 Fairey Battle single-engine light bomber aircraft as well as extensive bombing and gunnery ranges in active daily use to the north and south of the of the Evans Head township.

August 26 marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School and while many historical events have occurred since that date, one thing remains certain – the bond between Air Force and the Evans Head community remains strong. 

“When I was a boy, the airfield was still an aircraft graveyard,” Dr Richard Gates recalled.

“It was our playground.

“We made sailing boats out of aircraft parts before the aircraft were stripped”

Dr Gates, a retired neuroscientist, spent his childhood at Evans Head, before moving away after his father, the local chemist, passed away in 1959.

He returned in the 1970s to find that while much had changed, a lot remained the same for the holiday destination that boasts pristine beaches, national parks and a quiet river.

“I have vivid recollections of the airfield because my father was a pilot under the Empire Air Training Scheme and he loved watching aerobatics,” Dr Gates said.

Now the president and life member of the Evans Head Living Museum, Dr Gates has undertaken extensive research into the history of the Evans Head aerodrome and recalls numerous significant historical events.

In late 1941, with Japan entering the war, nine gun pits equipped with .303 calibre Vickers machine guns were constructed on and around the aerodrome as a defensive measure.

In 1942, Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force members arrived to fill vital roles where there was an acute shortage of men.

On a tour to raise funds for the War Loan in October 1943, the first Lancaster Bomber to fly in Australia, ‘Q’ for Queenie, piloted by Peter Isaacson, overshot the runway, coming to a stop in a ditch, ending the tour.

In December 1943, having supplied sufficient training for the war effort, No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School was disbanded and No. 1 Air Observers School relocated from RAAF Station Cootamundra to Evans Head.

Approximately 630 aircrew passed through this school, flying mainly Avro Anson and CAC Wackett aircraft until it, too, was disbanded in 1944.

In 1949, the weapons range south of the Evans Head Township was officially designated as a bombing, air-to-ground gunnery and rocket firing range and the north range became Broadwater National Park. 

Since then, the Air Force has continued to utilise the southern range as a primary training area for honing the skills of aircrew flying numerous military aircraft, including the Bristol Beaufighter, Canberra Bomber, F-4E Phantom, F-111C, F/A-18F Super Hornet and, most recently, the F-35A Lightning II.

Today, the site of the Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome is listed on the NSW State Heritage Register. 

Dr Gates said that almost 3000 letters were written in support of the aerodrome being added to the State Heritage List in 2002.

“That shows how well all the veterans worked together to make sure the aerodrome would be preserved,” Dr Gates said.

“They want it kept as a working airfield.

“Every time an aircraft goes out, that’s a working recognition of the men and women who served there.”

As Officer in Charge of the Evans Head air weapons range, Flight Lieutenant Jason Van Rysbergen, from No. 23 Squadron Combat Support Group, is proud to be living in a town rich with Air Force history.

“The Evans Head air weapons range has been and will continue to be a vital training asset for Air Force,” Flight Lieutenant Van Rysbergen said.

“The graves of 22 airman that died during training are here.

“We’re very lucky to have strong community support for the range and our small team feel extremely privileged to represent Air Force in such a unique location.”

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