Augustus Downs Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Airfield
Augustus Downs Airfield
Augustus Downs Station, Burketown Road, Augustus Downs 4830
Representatives of the RAAF North Eastern Area Command and US Forces in Townsville ventured into the Gulf country in early 1942 to seek a suitable location for an advanced operational base (AOB) in the region. In April a landing ground site was chosen north of Augustus Downs homestead on the Leichhardt River. The cattle station was located over 160 road kilometres to the nearest railhead north of Cloncurry at Dobbyn, to which it was connected by an unformed track that was impassable in the wet season. However, a landing ground was urgently required in the region and construction was initiated by Burke Shire Council. By the end of May a single strip 6500 feet (1981 metres) in length had been cleared and graded. The powdery clay surface of the runway was consolidated with a thin layer of gravel and bitumen. A second runway running parallel to the main landing ground was cleared as an emergency strip for use during the construction, however no evidence of this strip remains.
Communications and camp facilities constructed at the Augustus Downs landing ground included a combined operational cypher and signals room and an underground building for wireless telegraphy; in addition to latrines, ablution block, mess huts and kitchen. Access roads were also built. As with other remote area aerodromes, the work was completed by the Queensland Main Roads Commission. The difficult supply route involving a ten hour truck journey from Cloncurry to the site contributed to the cost of the isolated project.
A ground staff detachment of RAAF 29 Operational Base Unit was stationed at the airfield. With operations ordered to commence from Augustus Downs in late November 1942, an inspection of the landing ground was carried out by officers of RAAF 7 Squadron who discovered that due to the lack of dispersed hardstandings the main runway could not be used operationally in the wet because aircraft had to be parked virtually on the strip. Furthermore, although the camp was completed and well camouflaged the connecting road was impassable after rain, and the water supply from the Leichhardt River was contaminated by cattle.
A detached flight of three Beaufort bombers landed on 28 November for a mission the following day. Bombing up of the aircraft was carried out by the flight crews themselves with the use of a truck in the absence of bomb trolleys. Weather forecasts for their route were unavailable and the next morning only two aircraft could depart as all crew were affected by a form of dysentery from the water supply. The RAAF began having second thoughts about Augustus Downs as a Gulf AOB due to the cost of constructing an all-weather strip at the location and it was decided to abandon the landing ground and remove most of the facilities to a new airfield site at Inverleigh station nearer Normanton.
There was a final flurry of activity at Augustus Downs in April 1943 during what became known as the 'Gulf scare'. This incident is said to have originated from a report by a stockman of a Japanese barge landing men and equipment on the coast near Inkerman station, north of Karumba. Six Boomerang fighters were urgently dispatched from Townsville to locate the landing party. However, after several days of searching by aircraft and local Volunteer Defence Corps units no evidence was found of such a landing taking place.
By August 1943 the landing ground was abandoned except for several guards left to maintain the installations and a year later the RAAF had determined it had no further need for Augustus Downs. Since 1946 the Department of Civil Aviation has licensed the use of the airstrip to Augustus Downs pastoral station.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Main Roads Commission, The History of the Queensland Main Roads Commission during World War II 1939–1945, Government Printer, Brisbane, 1949.
Roger Marks, Queensland Airfields WW2: 50 years on, Brisbane, 1994.
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.