Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Catalina No 11 and 20 Squadrons Base Camp

Cairns Catalina Flying Boat Camp

Military camp

141 Esplanade and Minnie Street, Cairns 4870

The steady drone of a Catalina flying boat taking off from the waters of Trinity Bay became a familiar sound off Cairns from late 1942. By 1940 a hard-pressed Britain could no longer supply Australia with frontline patrol aircraft and the government turned to the United States. The first order for a total of 18 PBY-5 Consolidated Catalina flying boats was delivered to the RAAF early in 1941. By the end of the war 168 Catalina aircraft had been delivered to Australia and they equipped four squadrons, various air-sea rescue flights, clandestine operations and communications units, and also an operational training unit.

RAAF Catalina No.11 and 20 Squadron base camp on the Cairns Esplanade, was ready for occupation in February 1943. It comprised rows of three-ply gable-roof huts to house about 350 men. The camp extended along the Esplanade from Kerwin to Minnie Street, where the orderly room, medical, dental, radio and operations rooms were situated. The site is now occupied by beach-front apartments and the courts of the Cairns Tennis Club. Nearby stands a 1976 memorial to the 320 RAAF Catalina crew members who died during World War II.


Within days of the declaration of World War II in September 1939, RAAF No. 11 Squadron was formed at Richmond, New South Wales, with Empire flying boats and Seagull amphibians. RAAF No. 20 Catalina Squadron was formed at Port Moresby in mid-August 1941 and two weeks later took over six Catalinas from No. 11 Squadron, leaving them with four Empire flying boats. Advanced operational bases were established at Tulagi, Vila and Noumea, and both squadrons used these bases while patrolling for German submarines and merchant raiders.

From December 1941, with the Japanese entry into the war, the large Empire flying boats were heavily involved in evacuating civilians and military personnel from northern New Guinea and the Pacific islands with many of the flights arriving in Cairns. They were also in heavy demand to deliver stores and equipment to vital positions, so much so that in February 1942 No. 33 Transport Squadron was formed using the few Empire flying boats transferred from No.11 Squadron and No.11 was equipped with Catalinas.

With Japanese bombing of Port Moresby a safer base had to be found on the mainland and in May 1942 Bowen was selected as a Catalina base and remained the home of No.11 and 20 Squadrons until November when both established their base camp at Cairns. The Cairns-based Catalinas commenced their nightly operations known as the 'Milk Run' early in November 1942. These were nightly patrols to blockade Japanese shipping movements from the north into the Buna, Salamaua, Lae and Finschaffen districts. For nine months the Catalinas left base in time to reach the approaches to the patrol area about dusk, usually landing at Port Moresby or Milne Bay in the morning to refuel for the flight back to Cairns. In the first four months of operations from Cairns, No.11 and 20 Squadrons between them, flew a total of 20,152 hours and dropped a total of 480 tons of bombs.

In July 1944 No.11 Squadron moved from Cairns to Rathmines, the major RAAF Catalina base on Lake Macquarie near Newcastle, separating the two squadrons after serving together for almost four years. In September No.20 Squadron moved from Cairns to Darwin, ending Cairns association with the Catalinas. Flying boat duties in Cairns were taken up by RAAF No.41 Squadron with Martin Mariner aircraft.


Pearce, Howard (contributing author).

Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.

Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.

Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.

Roger Marks, Queensland Airfields WW2: 50 years on, Brisbane, 1994.