ON 24/25 APRIL 1942


An Air Recce was carried out of an area near Cape Melville on 23 April 1942 following intelligence reports of suspicious activities submitted some weeks previously. The Air Recce reported as follows:-


2 two-masted schooners anchored 350 yards off EAST coast CAPE MELVILLE Stop Rowing boat carrying five men seen approaching shore Stop No buildings but tracks visible possibly leading to caves.


Earlier Intelligence Reports referred to the presence of two flying boats, use of caves for storage places and many tracks visible on the beach. A Japanese submarine had engaged one of our aircraft within the area between Cape Melville and Rabaul on 23 April 1942. The 11th Brigade was tasked with investigating the Cape Melville area, the caves, the two schooners and any likely areas away from the beach to which the tracks appear to lead.

The following entry appears for 0200 hrs on 24 April 1942 in the War Diary for the 31st Battalion:-


C.O. and O/C Patrol, Lieut R.D.B. Smith, called to Bde where he received orders for party of 1 Off., 2 Sgts and 15 O/Rs including 1 signaller to embark in a Flying Boat at 0700 hours. Party were to take with them 2 BREN guns, 3 carbines, Ammunition, and 4 days rations. They are to carry out special mission under sealed orders."

"Lieut R.D.B. Smith of "A" Coy is chosen for the job, together with men from that Coy."


Captain Theodore, the Officer Commanding "B" Company woke Lieutenant Barry Smith and asked him to go to Battalion Headquarters where he was told to lead a patrol to investigate reports that a Japanese submarine had a refuelling base somewhere in Princess Charlotte Bay near Cape Melville in north Queensland.

The party was scheduled to fly by Sunderland Flying Boat piloted by Mick Mathers (or "Mad Mick") leaving the wharf in Townsville at 0700 hrs on 24 April 1942 for a 3 1/2 hour flight. They were to land approximately 1 mile to the west of the target area and proceed overland to the area. If the vessel or vessels in the harbour was found to be an enemy vessel they were ordered not to board, but they were at liberty to engage the enemy should they refuse to heave to. In the event of Japanese or other enemy nationals being found they were to disarm them and take them as prisoners. One prisoner was to be sent back as early as possible.

Lt Barry Smith became a bit concerned when the pilot Mick Mathers showed him the charts he was using the determine the safest spot to land. It had been drawn by Captain Matthew Flinders in 1803.

At 1700 hrs on 25 April 1942 the party on the special mission returned as reported in the War Diary below:-


"Fighting patrol returns from CAPE MELVILLE without any scalps. Investigation showed that there was no trace of the enemy in that locality. Lieut. R.D.B. SMITH furnished written report."


Many of the men of the 31st battalion had volunteered to take part in this patrol.

When the flying boat arrived at Cape Melville the two schooners were anchored approximately two miles from the western coast of Cape Melville. The party landed about a mile from the cape at 1020 hrs. The landing party went ashore in a small dinghy and was covered by three RAAF Machine Guns and one of their Bren Guns. It was then that they discovered that the signaller attached to their group had left his equipment back at the wharf in Townsville. They later had to use a torch to send signals back out to the Sunderland. The islanders from the "Medlar" walked down the beach to meet them. They were all unarmed and friendly.

It was subsequently discovered that the two masted pearling lugger "Medlar" owned by Jack Dunwoody of Cairns and manned by 14 Torres Strait islanders under the command of Bill Samson, also an Islander, had anchored off West Coast of Cape Melville on 23 April 1942 to get fresh water. A second two masted schooner was abandoned in the same area due to damage to its hull. There was water up to the floor of the hold and the engine was approximately a third under water. There was nothing suspicious about either vessel. The caves were actually openings caused by large granite boulders. Only two of any size were found. An old fire was found in one of the openings. There were no caves located.

The second schooner "Goodwill" had been seen by Bill Samson about a month previously at Thursday Island with a number of women and children refugees from New Guinea on board. Its hold was found to contain approximately 30 bags of crude rubber, 10 bags of Kapok and several bags of some sort of resin. They found an envelope addressed to Mrs Janet Cowling of Daru, New Guinea bearing a USA Postmark. Also another letter addressed to Sharratt, apparently Miss Cowling, and signed by John. A chart on the wall of the schooner indicated the vessel was owned by Mrs. J. Cowling and registered in Port Moresby.

Many tracks were seen and followed, with most of the tracks having been made by cattle. Two tracks led to a small water hole and were made by the islanders from the schooner. An empty weathered case of 22 Long Solid Rim Cartridges was found at the water hole. along with an empty tube of Pyrex Tooth Paste.

There was nothing to show that the area was being used by the enemy as a refuelling depot. On their flight to Cape Melville three two-masted pearling luggers and a 300 foot long motor launch were sighted well south of Cape Melville and were investigated by Fl/Lt Mathers. These sightings were later reported to A.C.H.

The landing party also found a tombstone erected in memory of the 300 or so pearling lugger sailors who were killed in the big cyclone of 1893. They also came across some evacuees from New Guinea walking south along one of the beaches headed for Townsville.

The party was not able to finish its search by 1600 hours so the flying boat flew back to Cairns for the night and the party camped in the open space with two sentries posted overnight. More searching only revealed more cattle tracks. The Flying Boat returned at 1010 hrs and took off with the search party on board at 1215 hrs. Lt Barry Smith then reported to the Brigadier at Combined Defence Headquarters in Sturt Street, Townsville.


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This page first produced 22 February 2002

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