SNAKE BAY AIRFIELD
(ALSO KNOWN AS AUSTIN AIRFIELD)
MELVILLE ISLAND, NT
9 Mobile Works Unit (9MWU) RAAF built the fighter airfields at Snake Bay on Melville Island in the Northern Territory. Austin Airfield was named after Flight Lieutenant John Sanger Austin, DFC (400363) of 2 Squadron. F/Lt Austin died of illness on 9 November 1943 and his grave is located at the Adelaide River War Cemetery.
On 27 January 1944, the following RAAF personnel carried out an aerial inspection of the site in a Catalina:-
9MWU obtained the services of about 40 Aboriginals to assist with the construction through Lt. Gribble at the Snake Bay Naval Watch Station. In April/May 1944, 12 Survey and Design Unit RAAF completed a survey of the site.
Dual runways, 1,829 meters long, were to be constructed at Snake Bay. The site would have been capable of accommodating 2,290 personnel as follows:-
- a RAAF Fighter Wing HQ
- 3 RAAF Fighter Squadrons
- 1 US Fighter Group HQ
- 3 US Fighter Squadrons
- 1 Operational Base unit
It was to be part of a strategic plan by RAAF Command to create a Task Force to support amphibious operations by Allied forces against Tanimbar and Kai Islands. Radio silence was maintained by construction units to maintain the secrecy of the new airfield.
General Headquarters reassigned priorities to the Papua New Guinea operations which meant that the strategic plan involving Snake Bay did not go beyond the planning stage. The airfields were built however.
The advance construction party departed from Darwin on the 4 July 1944 on board three ships. The "Southern Cross" carried 25 tons of equipment and towed two barges of equipment to Snake Bay. The Army ship, "King Bay", carried 50 tons of equipment and 20 personnel and towed a single barge. The "Amaryllis" carried two personnel and 10 tons of equipment.
The equipment was landed on Banjo Beach. Work started on the access road to the airfield site on 6 July 1944.
6 Communications Unit RAAF started a courier service that ran every second day between Batchelor airfield and Snake Bay. The ships, "Amaryllis", "James Cook", and Toorbul" also maintained a regular ferry service from the mainland.
On 15 July 1944, the "James Cook" arrived with 123 personnel from the following units:-
- 9MWS RAAF
- 19th Works Employment Company (Army)
- 2/3rd Docks Operating Company
The construction of the airfield started on 7 July 1944. The marsden matting had been laid by 14 July 1944.
The airfield was operational by 30 August 1944. They had to grub out approximately 4,000 to 6,000 tree roots. Explosives were used to shatter the roots which were then removed with a Power Rooter and a 90horsepower tractor.
The construction personnel started to leave Snake Bay on 22 August 1944. They had built two runways, plus hardstands and associated works in 21 days. Quite an achievement.
On 31 August 1944 at about midnight, the legendary "Doc" Fenton, of 6 Communications Unit, landed a De Havilland Dragon to evacuate a seaman from HMAS Fremantle who had been injured in a shooting accident. Truck headlights were used to light up the airfield runway.
MILITARY AIRCRAFT CRASHES AT SNAKE BAY AIRFIELD DURING WW2
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"Always First - The RAAF Airfield
Construction Squadrons 1942-1974" (page 33)
by David Wilson
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This page first produced 22 September 2002
This page last updated 03 April 2015