HMAS COONAWARRA (VHM)
W/T STATION, AND D/F STATION,
DARWIN AREA
DURING WWII

 

The Royal Australian Navy W/T Station Coonawarra commenced operations on 18 September 1939 under the command of Warrant Officer Telegraphist W.R. Phuap, RAN.

 

Outside HMAS Harman, in Canberra, HMAS Coonawarra (VHM) was the largest naval wireless station, and was part of HMAS Melville (Darwin).

 

HMAS Coonawarra consisted of three separate areas:-

Later on, due to Japanese air raids and other developments, a small transmitting station was erected at Adelaide River to cope with any possible emergency at HMAS Coonawarra.

In 1940, a number of “Permanent Navy” personnel were drafted off HMAS Australia (then in England) to HMAS Coonawarra: They were Bible, Marryat, Laidlaw, Brimblecombe and Ashton.  In addition twelve RANR and RANVR Telegraphists were drafted from Flinders Naval Depot as part of an ongoing increase in staffing levels at Coonawarra. There were sixty personnel there by mid 1941.

In November 1941, the operators at HMAS Coonawarra were ordered to contact HMAS Sydney. They did this without success. They leant of the fate of HMAS Sydney about a week later.

When the War in the Pacific commenced, wives and loved ones of some of Coonawarra wireless staff were moved south on "Zealandia". The Australian Army's 2/11 Field Engineers brought sand by truck from Rapid Creek to fill sandbags for the protection of the Receiving Station. 

In April 1942, a faint signal was received at Coonawarra.  It was from the Australian Army's 2/40th Battalion (Sparrow Force) remnants left in Timor that had been trapped behind Japanese lines.  They had been joined by the 2/2 Independent Company and were still fighting. The signal was from a scratch built radio and the message read:-

”Force intact. Still fighting. Badly need boots, money, quinine, tommy gun ammunition”. 

The reply to this signal was sent the following night.  This resulted in contact being made on 27 May 1942 when Lt L J Joel in HMAS Kuru, a 55-ton, 23 metre wooden boat, meeting up with the force at Betano Bay.  The successful resupply (Operation Hamburger) was completed by 29 May 1942.  This resupply was the first of several more in July 1942, by HMAS Vigilant, a 106-ton ex-customs launch built in 1938 and sporting a small 3-pounder, making three trips to Timor under the noses of the Japanese.    

On two occasions, the Coonawarra D/F station was able to alert the RAAF of an imminent Japanese air raid. John Moran, ex HMAS Coonawarra relived his time at Coonawarra in Iris Nesdale's "Spin me a Dit" (1984):-

“At Coonawarra a constant watch was maintained on ships in our area, especially those departed on special missions.  Survivors of HMAS Voyager were lucky.  They were stranded ashore with enemy forces advancing on them, and it was not known until the evening of 23 September 1942, when Coonawarra was informed by another Darwin wireless station, of signals on a frequency which Coonawarra did not monitor.  Darwin could not read them.

Tommy Baulk, a Coonawarra Leading Telegraphist, a man of many years experience, tuned in to the frequency, picked up the almost unreadable morse signals which were being transmitted, and with extreme concentration and skill he was able to receive the message in full.  It was from Voyager, aground and stranded at Betano in Timor whilst landing troops and supplies.  On receipt of this signal NOIC Darwin organized the rescue of Voyager’s crew, and brought them back safely to Darwin.

Little or nothing has been known of this shore establishment, yet a very high standard of operational efficiency was maintained during 1942 especially, her most critical year, perhaps.  It was a very happy place, and the next laugh was never far away.  There was no trouble; there were no punishments, no jankers, no stoppage of leave, no leave and no Divisions.  Morale was high in spite of the very long period of service under difficult conditions endured by original Coonawarriors.

It seems fitting, and certainly pleased old Coonawarriors when the Navy saw fit to perpetuate the name Coonawarra for all time by commissioning a ship crewed by land-going sailors, HMAS Coonawarra, with the very appropriate motto, “Swift and Secure”.

The first Japanese air raid on Darwin had been carried out on 19 February 1942 by the aircraft from by the aircraft carriers Soryu, Hiyu, Akagi and Kaga under Admiral Yamamoto’s Top Secret Order No 92.  The force also included five heavy cruisers and twenty destroyers and the aircraft were launched when the force reached the Banda Sea.  The attack on Darwin came as a complete surprise and caused widespread destruction and loss of lives and property.  Several ships were sunk in this raid and in many of the following raids causing many casualties.  It was a miracle that Coonawarra escaped major damage and the fact that it had been established in a farm house may well have been what saved it.  From the air, that’s exactly what it looked like – a farm.

G.P. O’Hare, the OIC of the Coastal Radio Station VID in Darwin, reported on the raid by the Japanese and reported the damage to the station and the action taken to re-instate a viable communications service to merchant shipping and the coastwatchers organization.  He reported:-

“VID went off the air at 5.20 a.m. Coonawarra naval station took over 500 kc/s [the ship/shore frequency] watch at 5.30 a.m.  At 10 a.m. we had the Coast Watching Service functioning satisfactorily from SSDO (Secondary Signals Distribution Office) at Naval HQ.  Coonawarra and SSDO are still carrying on these essential services.”

When completed Coonawarra's H/F facilities had a range of approx 8000 miles and monitored several frequencies and maintained communications with southern stations, in Perth and Canberra. The equipment was installed under the direction of the AWA engineer Mr Jack Doggett.  This station changed its communications duties somewhat after the Japanese air raids when VID the coastal radio station was severely damaged and some duties were farmed out to Coonawarra and naval headquarters.

At the beginning of the war there were just four ‘Y’ operators monitoring foreign wireless traffic. Initially, the operations carried out by the Coonawarra operators was for H/F long range ship to shore communications for allied shipping, both naval and merchant shipping and the naval broadcast as part of the ‘I’ intercept method and for monitoring and D/F of Japanese wireless traffic and aircraft transmissions.  The monitored traffic was not decoded or analyzed in Darwin, but passed to Melbourne for this work to be done. A lot of this traffic was also passed onwards to the American codebreakers in Hawaii and the British in Singapore and the United Kingdom.

 Like the staff at Harman, the ‘Y’ operators at Coonawarra mainly concentrated on reading Japanese ‘Kana’ morse code, during the war.  This code consisted of seventy five characters, some normal morse symbols and others were barred characters, ie two morse letters combined as one character.  The normal morse letters did not, however, carry the same meaning as international morse code.  The Coonawarra operators simply read the characters and the coded Japanese signals were sent on for processing.  Inroads into the new Japanese Navy code was slow, although it had been read before the war for several years.  With the outbreak of war the code was changed (from JN25 to JN25b) and work had to start all over again.  As progress was made exchange of information between Australia, the British, Dutch and American codebreakers were made which greatly helped in the recovery of more and more of the code.  The Admirals Code used by Admiral Yamamoto to plan his Pearl Harbour attack was never broken.

 It has been stated that the work of the operators at Coonawarra during World War 2  was essential in providing communications in support of General MacArthur’s thrust into the southwest Pacific during the war and ‘was formally recognized on several occasions by Allied Commanders’.

The ‘I’ intercept method of communications used during the war by the navy is best described by Lawrence Durrant in his book “The Seawatchers” (A & R, Sydney, 1986):-

“Normal commercial communications with ships were suspended for the duration of hostilities.  All ships maintained radio silence except in emergencies or, in the case of naval ships, on those occasions when the exigencies of active service made the use of radio necessary.  All ship-to-shore communications emanated from the RAN, whether addressed to naval vessels or merchant ships.  Ships radio officers did not acknowledge the receipt of messages.

Communications with Allied naval units was accomplished by what was known as the ‘I’ broadcast method. A coast station with a message to send would address its message to another Australian coast station, transmitting on two frequencies simultaneously.  The second station would then repeat the message back, again on two frequencies, addressing it to the originating station.  Naval ships thus had two broadcasts, each on two different wavelengths, from which to copy.  Each relay between stations had its own identification letters and each message was numbered so that a complete set of signals could be maintained on any particular circuit.

Except in situation of dire emergency, all communications between ships and shore were encoded before transmission.”

Messages sent under the ‘I” system were sent between Sydney and Darwin, Darwin and Perth and Perth and Sydney and each route had is own channel identifying letters and each message was numbered in sequence so that missing messages could be identified and read again when the messages were repeated.  The ‘I’ method didn’t remain in service for very long and when the naval transmitting site at Belconnen was commissioned the ‘BL’ (Bells) Broadcast began, the ‘I’ method was discontinued.   

Frank Holmes, in a letter to the RANCBA newsletter in 2000 wrote of his memories of Coonawarra when he was there in 1943-44:-

“We had a D/F station in Knuckey’s Lagoon, with a duckboard leading out to it.  The receiving station was upgraded in 1943, leading to more operating positions, and new aerials, and the transmitters were serviced, especially the electrical tuning apparatus, and remote control equipment.

We also had a Cockatoo, and a Dodge truck.  The emblem was “Cockys” perch, when the truck went to Darwin.  Picture nights, he/she? loved the setting up of the screen, and the focusing of the projector, where he could make gigantic flying shadows, and squawks, encouraged by the patrons sitting like mushrooms, during the “Wet”, wearing tin hats, and gas-cape, on an up-turned bucket… Cocky blotted his copy-book when during Sunday Divisions, he rounded up the station’s dogs, got them into a snarling, barking, scrabbling mob, and flew in and out of the ranks, perching on tin-hatted heads, with the Padre trying to bless the congregation.

The CO wasn’t amused later, when the messages left on his desk, ended up looking like confetti.  Strangely, I can’t remember the bird swearing, although he had plenty of teachers. What happened to it ? Anyone know ?

After a particularly bad strafing from Jap planes, we were ordered to arrange for all white clothes to be dyed khaki. But what with ? ..  Condy’s crystals were used and gave us a nice colour, although the cloth disintegrates after a week or so ..  Our motor Mech. came up with something, which was used until proper dye came up from ‘down south’ …Old soxs were boiled with whites.

After the floor of the receiving station, which was concrete, had been chiseled out by hand, to allow the co-ax cables to run to each position, the floor was then sealed using “Water Glass”, and egg preservative, and then, Malthoid was laid over it.  We wanted to paint it, but were not allowed to do so.”       

The first inquiry into the use of Coonawarra for communication purposes by the US Navy was made in April 1940, but this fell into abeyance after the Japanese air raids on Darwin.  Then in June 1942, the Submarine Commander of Task Force 51 (later Task Force 72 and part of the USN 7th Fleet) submarines, Rear Admiral Charles Lockwood  USN, sought the approval of the Naval Board to use the communications facilities at  Coonawarra.  This was to provide communications for his submarines operating in the waters to the north of the Malay Barrier and in the South China Sea, against the Japanese.  As a matter of interest, Rear Admiral Lockwood was later promoted to Vice Admiral and sat as the president of the court martial of Captain McVay of the USS Indianapolis in 1945.

The role of NRS Coonawarra had changed dramatically in 1942 when the Japanese bombed Darwin.  The area received many more attacks from Japanese aircraft on the town and the shipping after the initial raid.  During the raid on 27 August 1942, the CRS station VID had been severely damaged.  Transmitters and buildings badly hit and services off the air (including coastwatch reception).  The navy at Coonawarra and the Naval Port Signal station took over several services, including the 500 kcs distress frequency watch, the Coastwatch service and some other duties which the navy then retained.  The CRS staff at VID were given, around this time, uniforms and naval rank, providing some security as servicemen, should the Japanese invade Darwin.  It was considered at this time a real possibility that an invasion would follow these bombing raids.

As a prelude to the first Japanese air raid on Darwin in February 1942, it has been commonly stated on many occasions that warnings had been received from coastwatchers by Coonawarra and these warnings were not passed on to the relevant authorities.  The statements regarding Lt John Gribble, on Melville Island sending a warning to Coonawarra is incorrect.  He was on Melville Island but had only a coastwatchers’ wireless set which had two crystal controlled frequencies.  Coonawarra maintained watch on neither of those frequencies.  The coastwatchers transmitted to VID, the commercial station.  Coonawarra took over some of VID’s receiving duties only after VID was badly damaged in August 1942.  Even then the coastwatch frequencies were monitored at naval headquarters, not at Coonawarra.  Father McGrath on Bathurst Island did send a warning which was received at VID and passed on the relevant RAAF authorities.  If this warning had been acted upon the loss of shipping in Darwin Harbour may well have been much lighter, as it was many ships were caught at anchor in very exposed positions. 

John Leggoe in his easy to read book "Trying to be Sailors", published by St George Books in Perth in 1983 also has a small section on Coonawarra worth repeating.  He wrote:-

“That night Commander Tozer told me that I had been appointed Executive Officer of Coonawarra, a naval wireless station five miles out of the town on the main road south.  It was an odd kind of job.  Before the Blitz Coonawarra had been a unit of the Naval Shore Wireless Service, a naval establishment manned by civilians, many of whom were telegraphists who had retired from long permanent naval service.  The station, therefore, had civilian accommodation – individual tropical bungalows set on high concrete stilts, comfortable and well appointed.  It was built on ten acres fronting the main north-south highway and past the front gate ran the Darwin-Birdum railway, the pipeline from Manton Dam to Darwin and the main southerly power line.  Adjoining us on the Darwin side was the Winnellie army supply complex while on the other side was an army 3.7in ack-ack battery.  Beyond the battery a road turned south to the Berrimah Hospital and the RAAF Fighter Sector Headquarters.  The road led on to the quarantine station on East Arm, where there was another ack-ack battery.

Two other establishments which were part of Coonawarra were a direction-finding station half a mile into the bush across the railway, and the transmitting station three miles down the road at Coonawarra East, where half a dozen technical petty officers and chiefs lived in splendid isolation.  There was also at Adelaide River a shadow station established after the Blitz for use in the event of Darwin being invaded.  Here a few hands lived a hermit-like existence.  By the time I reached Coonawarra they had been virtually forgotten and that probably suited them.

The main Coonawarra station consisted of the receiving station with its associated masts, a storage shed, an army type recreation hut and a dozen or so tropical bungalows set on high concrete stilts.  A gravel driveway ran from the front gate a couple of hundred yards to the receiving station and halfway down its length this was intersected at right angles by a second driveway.  At the intersection stood a small guardhouse and the white ensign fluttered from a tall steel flagpole.  The neat bungalows were located up and down the driveways and in the rich red soil most of them sported small gardens of tomatoes, cucumbers and melons as well as bananas and pap-paw trees which grew like weeds in the wet season.  There was a tennis court and in the bush between us and Winnellie was strung the screen for the bush cinemas which played such a big part in the lives of all services in the Northern Territory.

When the civilian staff and their families were sent south after the Blitz the station was manned by serving naval personnel with a commissioned warrant telegraphist as Officer in Charge.  He was Skip Wilmetts, or Shorty, a short sardonic man in his late forties with a lifetime of experience with the navy.  After long years of permanent service as a telegraphist he had retired with the rank of commissioned warrant officer and taken a comfortable civil job with the Shore Wireless Service at Canberra, where he had built his home.  To be plucked from this, recommissioned in the navy and sent to Darwin in charge of a wartime Coonawarra had left Skip with a large chip on his shoulder.

Skip guarded his little domain at Coonawarra against intrusions from the top brass in Darwin as jealously as Commander Chook Fowler guarded his authority over the Boom.  Anyone who had risen from the lower deck to become a commissioned warrant officer is a master of naval politics and intrigue,  Skip was no exception and he knew to a hair’s breadth how far he could go in needling and insulting the brass hats in Darwin and get away with it.  The fact that he felt himself a civilian press-ganged back into service made him even more contemptuous of his Darwin superiors, who were out of their depth in the technology of the Shore Wireless Service.  As a result a sort of armed truce existed between Coonawarra and HMAS Melville and we were largely left to ourselves.”   

The war resulted in enormous increases in wireless communication traffic, as might be expected, so to this end much of the traffic which had previously been passed by the CRS was handled more and more by the navy.  The result was a huge increase in personnel as more men were trained and drawn into naval service.  This began the introduction of coders as a separate group within the communications branch.  With the introduction of wireless electricians to carry out maintenance on sets, this also relieved operators of much time-consuming work and they could be inducted into the service with a minimum of training, their civilian qualifications being satisfactory.

 One of the major changes in the war years, radical at the time, and not done without some problems and opposition on the part of the government, saw the entry of women into the communications branch.  Enough pressure had been placed on the communications branch so that men had to be released for sea service and women operators were to step into the gap. After the suggestion of their entry was finally accepted, the use of women telegraphists at Harman became a great success story.

Newspaper advertisements lead to the recruitment of women operators from the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps.  With recommendations made by the Director of Signals and Communications that women be employed and final Naval Board approval eventually led to the establishment of the Womens Royal Australian Naval Service and telegraphists were the first to be recruited.  On 25 April 1941, twelve of the WRANS were drafted to HMAS Harman in Canberra.  It rapidly became apparent that the WRANS were filling an important role and their numbers soon peaked during the war at 105 officers and 2,518 ratings.  Fifty of those were telegraphists, active in many stations around Australia, but virtually all of whom had volunteered for overseas service as well, but were disappointed when their duties were restricted to within the Commonwealth.

The first draft of WRANS arrived in Coonawarra in March 1945.  Although many WRANs had previously volunteered to go to Darwin during the early war years this had been decided against by the Naval Board.  M. Curtis-Otter writing for the Naval Historical Society mentions the arrival of the WRANS in Darwin. 

Not all of the WRANS were at Coonawarra, some were employed at the degaussing station and were living at Larrakeyah Barracks.  Curtis-Otter writes that they were:-

“ ….. invited on occasions to Coonawarra W/T Station where, but for the early end of the war, many more Wrans would have been stationed.  Two cottages, tropical versions of those at Harman, had been tentatively set aside for the expected draft, one of them having the unique advantage of directly overlooking the open-air picture show.  In those pleasant, homely surroundings, with tropical fruits and exotic flowers substituted for southern varieties, Wrans would have worked in air-conditioned offices, and although tucked away in the country would have been near to Night Cliff Beach and its excellent bathing.

Harman Wrans had good cause to know Coonawarra, for in the dark days of 1942, as Pacific Station after Pacific Station was blotted out, there came the inevitable time when only Coonawarra, of one particular circuit, remained on the air”.

 

Senior Staff at Coonawarra Naval W/T Station

WO Tel W. R. Phaup,   SWS, RAN.    18.9.39   to  24.4.42

WO Tel S. J. Willmets, SWS, RAN     25.4.42   to  23.10.43

WO Tel H. J. Boxall, RAN                   24.10.43 to 12.12.45

 

REFERENCES

"The Seawatchers"
by Lawrence Durrant,
published A&R, Sydney, 1986.

"Trying to be Sailors"
by John Leggoe,
published by St George Books in Perth in 1983

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank James Eagles for his assistance with this web page.

 

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