Horn Island Airfield
Horn Island (Ngurapai) Airport
- North and Cape York
Airport Road (Airfield); Double Hill (GS 442); King Point Road (GS 443), Horn Island 4875
The RAAF’s Horn Island Advanced Operational Base (AOB) was constructed between late 1939 and 1941 and was upgraded during 1942. The airfield, located at the northeast corner of Horn Island, was an important staging base for Allied air missions against the Japanese, and a stop-over for fighter aircraft heading to New Guinea. The two wartime runways (136 and 81 degrees) have since been upgraded as the Horn Island Airport’s runways number 32 and 26 respectively. Surviving elements include some concrete-lined trenches and bunkers located east of the southern section of runway 136; and the aircraft dispersal area extending north-eastward from runway 136, which consists of two taxiway loops with dispersal bays, some protected with earth mounds. Two concrete Bofors gun pits are located on a ridge (known as Bofors Ridge) a kilometre east of the east end of runway 81. The bitumen surface of a wartime runway extension to the west of runway 81 remains intact. The area southwest of the intersection of the two runways contains a section of taxiway and five surviving dispersal bays, a series of concrete lined trenches and four bunkers intended for airfield defence and runway demolition (Strong Point No.1); several light machine gun pits, and 18 identifiable Japanese bomb craters. The site of the Operational Base Unit (OBU) camp is located in bushland immediately south of the airport manager’s house and fuel tanks. Airport Road follows the route of most of the taxiway west of the OBU camp. Aircraft wrecks/components near the airfield include two B-17s on the coastline northeast of runway 136; a B-17 east of the east end of runway 81; and a P-47 Thunderbolt near a dispersal bay further to the east. Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Gun Station 442 occupies the summit of the north-eastern of two small hills that form Double Hill, off Quarry Road, partly on a recent residential allotment. Surviving concrete elements of the gun station comprise a central command post/plotting room (CP); four in-ground octagonal gun emplacements; and three magazines. The fourth magazine has recently been incorporated into the interior of a house. The CP has been adapted as a swimming pool, and the underground plotting room has been sealed. The camp area for Gun Station 442 is located on the hillside 250 metres south-east of the battery. Gun Station 443, approximately 4.8km northeast of GS 442 as the crow flies, occupies an area off King Point Road near the coast of King Point. Surviving concrete elements of the gun station comprise a central CP; four in-ground octagonal gun emplacements, and three magazines. An unidentified building containing a concrete floor slab and underground room forms part of the group. Two of three reinforced concrete magazines are earth covered. The third magazine has been adapted as a dwelling and is occupied. The camp kitchen site for Gun Station 443 is located about 100 metres north-east of the control room.
During the 19th century colonial defence planners had recognised that the Torres Strait was strategically and commercially important, and Thursday Island was fortified in the early 1890s. Concerns about Japan’s intentions, even before that country entered World War II on 7 December 1941, led to additional coastal artillery defences in the Torres Strait, and in addition Horn Island (Ngurapai) was chosen as the site of a RAAF Advanced Operational Base (AOB).
The RAAF undertook aerial surveys over north Queensland during 1938 in response to a plan for the establishment of an AOB network in the region as the likelihood of war with Japan increased. A decision was made to develop an airfield on Horn Island despite the twin difficulties of poor water supply and the lack of adequate wharf facilities. Approval for construction of an all weather landing ground with limited facilities for RAAF supplies was announced on 31 August 1939, three days before the commencement of World War II in Europe. The Queensland Main Roads Commission (MRC) was made responsible for the construction of the airstrip.
Ships carrying MRC engineers and surveyors began arriving at Horn Island in late 1939 and early 1940. Assisting the MRC were Torres Strait Islanders employed on the project. By May 1940 clearing of the north-south 136 degree runway (today known as Runway 32) had been completed and earthworks and grading were proceeding. Runway 136 was completed and ready for use as a gravel runway by February 1941 and clearing had begun on the east-west 81 degree runway (today known as Runway 26), which was ready for use by late 1941. The two runways were each over 1200 metres long. The first dispersal points were constructed in November 1941, along with bomb dumps, machine gun posts and petrol storage installations. After Japan entered the war the MRC also built aerodrome obstructions and splinter-proof traverse walls around key buildings, including the wireless receiving and transmitting huts.
The strategic importance of Horn Island was emphasised in January 1942 when the Japanese captured Rabaul and made it their main South West Pacific base. On 14 March 1942 Horn Island Airfield received its first Japanese air raid; from March 1942 until June 1943 eight bombing raids were made on Horn Island Airfield, which became the only military installation in Queensland to be regularly targeted by the Japanese. One soldier was killed during the third air raid on 30 April 1942. As a result of the raids a dispersal field for Horn Island was cleared on the tip of Cape York at Jacky Jacky Creek in late 1942, and was later named Higgins Airfield.
Responsibility for the overall administration and operation of Horn Island as an AOB was performed by RAAF No.28 Operational Base Unit (OBU), formed in May 1942. The OBU was responsible for rearming, refuelling and wireless telegraphy communications. Both RAAF and USAAF aircraft used the airfield as a stopover for fighters flying to Port Moresby, and as a staging strip for refuelling and rearming in preparation for raids on targets further north. Some squadrons were based at Horn Island, while others flew in, stayed overnight and then flew out the next day to complete their mission. The Consolidated Catalina flying boats of RAAF 11 and 20 Squadrons also used Horn Island for refuelling and repairs.
The Allied Works Council (AWC) was formed in February 1942 to step up construction of defence works and ensure a coordinated national approach to projects. The Civil Constructional Corps (CCC) was established in April 1942 to provide the manpower, while the AWC organised the heavy equipment and contractors. Works were supervised by the MRC or commercial building contractors. During June 1942 a requisition was made to the AWC for substantial improvements to Horn Island AOB. Company ‘A’ of the US Army’s 46th Engineer General Service Regiment arrived at Horn Island on 24 June 1942 to work on a western extension to runway 81, which was lengthened to 7000 feet, or 2134m. During August the United States Army Services of Supply (USASOS) organisation requested the AWC to complete the sealing of both runways at Horn Island as an urgent priority. Runway 81 was sealed by December 1942. However, by September 1942, as the threat of invasion lessened, airfield demolition works at Horn Island were cancelled. By this period one demolition tunnel had been constructed part way under the intersection of the runways and other tunnels had been commenced.
In June 1942 the first moves had been made to provide anti-aircraft defence for the airfield when A and B batteries of the US 104th Coastal Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) were deployed to the island. However, the gun crews were only equipped with light .50 calibre machine guns which were ineffective against high flying bombers. On 23 June 1942, detachments of the US 94th CA (A.A.), equipped with searchlights and 3-inch guns, were moved to Horn Island.
The anti-aircraft defence of Horn Island was augmented by the 34th Australian Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Battery, which arrived at Thursday Island on 14 October 1942. The 34th HAA was accompanied by the 157th Australian Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Battery, equipped with 40mm Bofors guns to provide low level protection. The men of 34th HAA Battery commenced unloading guns, equipment and camp stores at Horn Island jetty on 15 October 1942.
On Horn Island the 34th HAA Battery was split into ‘A’ and ‘B’ Sections each forming a 'Class A' Heavy Anti-Aircraft Gun Station (GS) of four Quick Firing (QF) 3.7-inch guns and one QF 40mm Bofors gun for close air defence. The first camp was formed on Double Hill, west of the airfield, which was initially known as Section ‘A’ and subsequently became GS 442. On 16 October the men began excavation of gun emplacements and the construction of kitchens, stores, ablutions and latrines. A supply of drinking water was another early problem faced by the unit. By November 1942, with the wet season approaching, priority was given to the completion of the reinforced concrete structures for the gun stations.
Each gun station would consist of four 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns on static mounts within in-ground gun emplacements of octagonal shape. The interior walls of each gun emplacement contained recesses where ready ammunition for each gun was stored. The guns were arranged around a reinforced concrete semi-underground Command Post (CP). The standard CP design included a roofed plotting room plus open concrete pits outside for a height finder and predictor (a mechanical computing machine that predicted the future position of a target). Nearby were four magazines of reinforced concrete.
By 10 December GS 442, along with Section ‘B’ GS 443 at King Point north-east of the airfield, were operational and ready for action except that no ammunition had arrived. The 3.7-inch ammunition finally arrived at Horn Island on the last day of December 1942. The guns at GS 443 were successfully proof fired on 2 January 1943 and at GS 442 on the next day. All ammunition was stored on site under cover, until construction of permanent concrete magazines (which occurred by the end of May 1943). On 30 January 1943 the battery took delivery of an AA No.1 Mk II short range anti-aircraft radar transmitter and receiver (also known as GL 2 or AA Mk2 Radar) for GS 443. By the end of June 1943 camouflaging of GS 442 was well underway. Gun emplacements for GS 443 were completed during July and camouflaging commenced.
In late 1943 the 34th HAA Battery was reformed as 131 Australian HAA Battery, 51 Australian Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Composite), Royal Australian Artillery. The redesignation combined the 34th Australian HAA Battery, 157th LAA Battery and 74th Searchlight Battery together into one composite unit.
Meanwhile, work on the airfield had continued. After the US 46th Engineers moved on to Port Moresby in December 1942 the RAAF’s 4 Works Maintenance Unit was directed to complete stump clearance and drainage works, and consolidation of the aircraft hardstands ahead of the approaching wet season. Heavy rain during January 1943 led to the failure of a timber log drainage channel and a bridge which carried the western extension of runway 81 over a creek. Failure of this extension put paid to plans for operation of a heavy bomber squadron from Horn Island and underscored efforts on the mainland to complete Higgins Airfield on the tip of Cape York. However, 5000 feet (1524m) of runway 81 remained serviceable.
By January 1943 detached units of RAAF 7 and 75 Squadrons (Beauforts and P-40 Kittyhawks respectively) were based on Horn island. RAAF 6 Squadron, with Lockheed Hudsons, had been present in late 1942. Other squadrons based on Horn Island included RAAF 32 (Lockheed Hudsons) during 1942 and RAAF 23 (Vultee Vengeance dive bombers) during 1944.
USAAF units which spent some time based at Horn Island included the 71st and 405th squadrons of the 38th (Medium) Bombardment Group in late 1942. Most aircraft of the US 5th Air Force passed through Horn island at some point.
Water storage remained critical on Horn Island and a dam was high on the list of works to be completed. The first successful bore was sunk on Horn Island during July 1943. A second successful bore was sunk during November 1943 and a 13 million gallon dam was finally completed by the 17th Field Company in late 1943. Although recently supplemented by a much larger dam, the wartime Army Dam still provides water for Horn Island residents.
By July 1943 the need for splinter proofing of aircraft dispersal bays was receding and Horn Island and Higgins were the only AOBs in Queensland where this remained a priority. At Horn island, 18 splinter proof pens were constructed in late 1943. Almost every type of aircraft then in service used the base, and thousands of aircraft used Horn Island AOB at its busiest between early 1942 and late 1943.
The phasing down of Horn Island AOB in favour of Higgins Airfield was underway by early 1944. However, in March 1944 the island still hosted a number of RAAF units including 28 OBU, 36 Radar Station, 112 Mobile Fighter Sector Headquarters, 84 Squadron (P-40 Kittyhawks, previously Boomerangs), 75 Wing Headquarters, 1 Repair & Salvage Unit (detachment) and 7 Squadron (detachment).
131 HAA Battery departed from Horn Island in October 1944 and was disbanded in Melbourne the following month. In October 1944 a decision was made to transfer the radio transmitter and aerial from Horn Island to Higgins. On 15 December 1944, 28 OBU on Horn Island was disbanded.
By August 1945 Horn Island Airfield was being used by the RAAF for the aerial survey of Cape York. The airfield was taken over by the Department of Transport and maintained as the gateway to Thursday Island and the Torres Strait. Terminal facilities were upgraded during the early 1990s and in June 1995 the Torres Shire Council took over ownership of the facilities from the Commonwealth. The airfield is now known as Horn Island (Ngurapai) Airport.
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