OBSERVERS SCHOOL RAAF
IN AUSTRALIA DURING WWII
By Des Lang
The history of Mt Gambier airfield and the RAAF No 2 Air Observers School is given in Ron Telford’s book “ A’OSIS AIRFIELD The History of No 2 Air Observers School, Royal Australian Air Force 1940-1947 and Mount Gambier Airport 1916-1966” (Telford 1997). Much of the information herein is taken from this comprehensive publication.
The civilian airfield was (is) located about 10 km north of the town of Mt Gambier. During the late 1930’s, the RAAF started making use of the airfield, partly due to instability overseas and partly due to its ideal location from the RAAF airbase at Laverton.
The Empire Air Training Scheme
Following the outbreak of war in Europe the multi-national Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) was set up. Its aim was to provide aircrew for the Royal Air Force from Commonwealth countries - principally Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia. Australia was responsible for the formation of 36 training schools – ten Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS), eight Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS), four Air Observer Schools (AOS), four Bombing and Gunnery Schools (BAGS), four Wireless Air Gunner Schools (WAGS), one Radio Operator School, two Air Navigation Schools and three Initial Ground Training Schools.
The Formation of 2 AOS
No 2 Air Observers School (2 AOS) was one of the first Australian schools to be established under EATS. Its primary function was the training of air observers and navigators.
During the first few months of 1940 the government moved to acquire the Mt Gambier airfield and, in the latter half of the year, construction began on aircrew training facilities. Accommodation, lecture rooms, store houses and hangers were constructed, the runway was extended, and water, sewerage, electricity and phone connections were made.
No 2 AOS was officially formed at Mt Gambier on 6th February 1941 when an advanced party of about 10 officers and 50 other rank arrived to take up duties. The first commanding officer was Squadron Leader R. H. Shaw (RAF), who came to Australia in June 1940 to assist in establishing the EAT scheme. He had recently been with No 1 AOS at Cootamundra, NSW.
The twin engine Avro Anson was the main aircraft allocated to 2 AOS for training. It was used for advanced observer and navigator training and at least 52 Ansons were based with 2 AOS - the exact number is uncertain as some were allocated without their serial numbers being recorded.
Photo 1: Avro Anson A4-1 (ADF – Serials)
In addition, seven De Havilland DH84 Dragon and
eight Fairey Battles aircraft were allocated to 2 AOS.
Photo 2: De Havilland DH84 Dragon A34-30 (CIC)
Photo 3: Fairey Battle L5156 (ADF – Serials)
One Moth Minor and two Ryan STM’s are also recorded as being allocated to the unit.
Although Tiger Moth and Wirraway aircraft were used extensively for basic and advanced training, none were recorded as being allocated to 2 AOS.
In order to keep the training aircraft in good airworthy condition, engineering workshops were established to service, repair and maintain aircraft. 2 AOS developed into quite a large training air base where up to 1,000 personnel were stationed at any one time. It was effectively a self-contained mini township with WAAAF members labouring alongside the airmen in a wide range of essential positions.
Photo 4: Aerial view of Mt Gambier RAAF base 1942
“The first course of 44 air observers commenced training at Mt Gambier on March 6th, 1941”. They had first completed an eight week course at an Initial Training School and were expected to make their first flight within a week of introductory lectures. The majority of “trainees came from South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria, although there was one or two from New South Wales and Queensland and one from New Guinea.” This group “graduated from 2 AOS on May 28th, 1941”.
Unfortunately, an inevitable part of air force training was accidents.
The first accident occurred on 12th July 1941 when two Ansons (W1966 and W2020) were on exercise in bad weather. As both aircraft emerged from a severe rain squall they collided. W1966 crashed just south-east of the airfield with three of the crew of four being killed. The crew of W2020 were uninjured and landed their damaged aircraft at the Mt Gambier base.
One of those killed in W1966 was the Chief Navigation Instructor, Flight Lieutenant G. K. Peacock, a RAF Officer on loan to the RAAF. He was a popular officer not only with the airmen and staff but also with the town’s folk. His funeral was attended not only by his 2 AOS colleagues but also by a large crowd of local citizens, an occasion reflecting the close association between the air base and the Mt Gambier community.
The other two airmen were from Moonta, SA, and were new trainees.
Twenty six airmen were to lose their lives in fatal crashes that occurred during the operational life of 2 AOS. Fortunately, most of the crashes or forced landings were not fatal.
Life in 2 AOS.
On 17th September 1941 airman J. R. (Bob) Lang was posted to 2 AOS from 1 Engineering School Ascot Vale. As a Fitter 2E he was part of the contingent of ground crew whose job it was to repair and maintain the growing fleet of aircraft.
Bob, like many of the trainees and ground crew, had never been to Mt Gambier and he intended to take full advantage of this interesting posting.
To begin with the town itself was a focus of attention, in particular locations such as the Ozone Picture Theatre and Jens Hotel which were popular spots with both locals and airmen.
Photo 5: Commercial Street East, Mt Gambier, with
the OZONE Picture
Theatre and, across the road, the RSL building. Jens Hotel and the
Town Hall Clock are visible down the end of the street, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Many of the airmen had never been in limestone country before and so the sink-hole gardens were a curiosity. The WWI Memorial in Vansittart Park Gardens was also on the initial visiting list.
Photo 6: Sink-hole Gardens, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 7: The WWI Memorial, Vansittart Park Gardens, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Just outside the town was the famous Blue Lake, located within the 5,000 year old extinct volcanic crater. Not only was it a popular recreational location for both local citizens and 2 AOS personnel, but it also served as an “excellent visual landmark for young budding air observers and navigators”.
Photo 8: Brown Lake (foreground) and Valley Lake (behind), Mt Gambier, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 9: Blue Lake, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 10: Mt Gambier from Potters Point Lookout, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 11: Mt Schank from Centenary Tower car park, Spring 1941 (JRL)
It took a little time to become acquainted with the other airmen, to become familiar with work requirements and base life and conditions – and the unauthorised taking of photographs.
Photo 12: Believed to be the accommodation barracks, Mt Gambier RAAF base (JRL)
Photo 13: Believed to be the parade ground and buildings, Mt Gambier RAAF base (JRL)
However, this being done, it was now possible to arrange transport and leave passes for a visit, with chums, to Port MacDonnell and the Dingley Dell Museum, passing the extinct 5,000 year old volcano Mount Schank on the way. Dingley Dell is the home of the well-known poet Adam Lindsay Gordon and is located 40 km south of the airbase.
Photo 14: Mt Shanks on the way to Port MacDonnell, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 15: Dingley Dell, Port MacDonnell, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 16: Unidentified airman at Dingley Dell, Spring 1941 (JRL)
A little more difficult was arranging an excursion down the Great Ocean Road. As this location is more than 250 km from the airbase, the airmen had to ensure that they had adequate time and good transport for such a visit.
Photo 17: Unidentified airman surveying the Great Ocean Road, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 18: Hey! I found a penguin, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 19: Better let the penguin go, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 20: Three Cheers on the Great Ocean Road, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 21: The Grotto, Great Ocean Road, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Photo 22: The Pigs Head, Great Ocean Road, Spring 1941 (JRL)
Unfortunately all did not go as planned. Sometimes airmen got sick and had to stay behind. They missed out on the little excursions and were none too happy about it. But such is life.
Photo 23: Unidentified glum airman in a hospital bed, Mt Gambier (JRL)
As there was a good relationship between airmen on the RAAF base and the towns folk there was always time for a game of bowls at the Mt Gambier Bowling Club.
Photo 24: Mt Gambier Bowling Club (JRL)
All was well with the RAAF ground crew in 2 AOS as Mt Gambier geared up for the Annual Show on 22nd (Wednesday) and 23rd (Thursday) October 1941. Those that were not in lectures or rostered on work duties were free to attend the show. With war 15,000 km away the men were happy to let their hair down a little, take a few photographs and watch the Grand Parade.
Photo 25: Unidentified airmen (JRL centre), Mt Gambier Show, 22-23 Oct 1941 (JRL)
Photo 26: Unidentified airmen (JRL 2nd from right) and a local, Mt Gambier Show, 22-23 Oct 1941 (JRL)
Photo 27: Airmen (JRL front) enjoying the Mt Gambier Show, 22-23 Oct 1941 (JRL)
Photo 28: Unidentified airman chatting with the locals, Mt Gambier Show, 22-23 Oct 1941 (JRL)
Photo 29: Watching the Grand Parade, Mt Gambier Show, 22-23 Oct 1941 (JRL)
For the next six weeks all was quiet with 2 AOS. The only exception was the action of Aircraftman 1 R. Fry who, on the evening of 30th November 1941, rushed onto Commercial Street to snatch 3 year old Margaret Higgs from the front of a motor bus. Margaret escaped without injury but A/C 1 Fry was struck on the arm by the bus. In May 1942 he was awarded a Bronze Medal by the Royal Humane Society for his quick thinking and bravery.
But then, on 8th December 1941, the quiet routine was rudely interrupted by the Japanese assaults on Kota Bharu, Guam, Hong Kong, the bombing of Pearl Harbour and Singapore, the sinking of a British gunboat in Chinese water, and the Japanese declaration of war. Two days later 76 Japanese aircraft attacked and sank the new British battleship “Prince of Wales” and the older battle cruiser “Repulse” off the east coast of Malaya. The mess rooms, corridors, workshops and hangers rang with excited talk and astounded looks of disbelief.
On the day that the two warships were sunk, airman Bob Lang was promoted to Aircraftman 1.
The Empire Air Training Scheme was to now take on a whole new perspective. The trainees were now no longer inevitably headed to Europe, the ground crew were now not thousands of kilometres away from the war zone, while the Avro Ansons, commonly known as Faithfull Annie or Old Aggie, and the Fairey Battles, while reasonably adequate for training, were hopelessly inadequate to face the Japanese as they advanced relentlessly south towards Australia.
Later, on 19th January 1942, the day Singapore
surrendered, service rationing and censorship began, and a tightening of
security around the airbase was clearly evident.
Following the Japanese air raids on Darwin on February 19, 1942, air raid precautions and blackouts were introduced. Later, two Ansons from 2 AOS inspected Mt Gambier and the surrounding area and found that, with a very few exceptions, the blackouts were effective.
On 4th March the United States Army Air Force arrived at 2 AOS. There followed the usual friction as the US airmen, flushed with cash, splashed it around the town. However, there would also have been a certain amount of excitement with the arrival shortly later of the Bell Aeracobra front line fighters. They did not stay for long as most departed about 2nd April for Sydney and Port Moresby. However, the record card of BW-176 suggests that it and a few others may have remained until 14th May.
Photo 30: USAF Bell Airacobra P-400 fighter, BW176 at Mt Gambier 1942 (JRL)
On 15th April 1942 Leading Aircraftman Bob Lang was posted to 5 Aircraft Depot (Wagga Wagga) thus ending his association with 2 AOS.
A second fatal crash occurred on 20th May 1942 when Anson W2020 crashed at Eversley, Mt Cole, near Ararat in Victoria. Four of the crew of five were killed. W2020 was the surviving aircraft of the first fatal crash in July the previous year.
On 2nd June Wing Commander Shaw relinquished command of 2 AOS and was replaced by Wing Commander H. T. Hammond from No 1 AOS Cootamundra.
During June and July 1942 the Japanese were knocking on the door of New Guinea and on 23rd June notification was received that all leave and all Home Leave Passes and Travel Warrants involving interstate travel would be suspended until further notice, presumably due to the worsening situation. Parades, physical training, and bayonet and rifle practice were obligatory for all personnel. Airmen were allowed to fire 15 rounds and airwomen five rounds.
The third fatal crash occurred on 11th August, 1942 when Anson AW678 crashed at Reedy Creek near Kingston, SA, killing the crew of five.
On a brighter note, a ball was held on 14th August 1942 to provide 2 AOS with additional comforts and facilities. In spite of the sad occurrence of a few days earlier it was a very successful function.
On 29th March 1943 fire broke out in the officer’s mess which caused considerable damage. The fire interrupted the bases routine and resulted in much amusement among the lower ranks.
Wing Commander Hammond relinquished command of 2
AOS on 14th April 1943 with Wing Commander I. S. Podger taking over command five
days later, on 19th April.
Another training accident occurred on 20th May 1943 when an Anson crashed near Nhill, Victoria, killing the crew of five. Only seven days later, on 27th, an airman was killed in an accident over Port MacDonnell.
On 31st August Wing Commander Podger relinquished command of 2 AOS with Wing Commander F. Headlam arriving to take command. Four months later, on 10th December 1943 Wing Commander Headlam relinquished command of 2 AOS with Wing Commander F.A. Wittscheibe taking command.
Another training accident occurred on 15th
February 1944 when Anson AW878 crashed on Lady Julia Percy Island, near Port
Fairy, Victoria, killing the crew of four.
On January 17th 1945 acting Group Captain Wittscheibe handed over command of 2 AOS to Group Captain D.E.G. Walker.
Following VE day in Europe (8 May 1945) and the now obvious near end to war in the Pacific, the need for navigators, observers and wireless operators was reduced and training at Mt Gambier ceased. The airfield now became a destination for flights from other training airbases, mainly in Victoria and NSW.
On 27th July 1945 Group Captain D.E.G. Walker handed over command of 2 AOS to Wing Commander C. Steele.
2 AOS ceased operations on 1st January 1946.
I would like to thank Des Lang for providing all the information and photos for this web page.
Des Lang is indebted to his late father (Bob Lang) for his photographs (JRL) and the occasional story.
Des would also like to thank Yvonne Conroy for the use of a photo (Photo 2) from the collection of her late husband “Bluey” Conroy (CIC).
Photographs of the Avro Anson (Photo 1) and Fairey Battle (Photo 3) aircraft were obtained from the ADF-Serials website www.adf-serials.com.au while Photo 4 of the Mt Gambier RAAF Base was obtained from The Australian War Memorial’s Photography Collection (AWM P05005.003).
Information, including the Record Card, for the Bell Airacobra P-400, s/n BW176 (Photo 30) was obtained from the US Department of the Air Force, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Archives Branch, Alabama, with thanks to the Archivist Archie DiFante.
Telford, R. J. (1997) A’OSIS AIRFIELD The History of No 2 Air Observers School, Royal Australian Air Force 1940-1947 and Mount Gambier Airport 1916-1966. Publ. Ron Telford, Mt Gambier.
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© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 3 March 2018
This page last updated 04 March 2018