RAAF 52 Radar Station
Mutee Head Radar Station
- Radar/signal station
- North and Cape York
Mutee Heads Road, Injinoo 4876
RAAF 52 Radar Station at Mutee Head was built during 1943, and its surviving radar tower and aerial is the only intact example of a World War II Air Warning radar tower on its original site in Queensland. The radar station ceased operations in September 1945 and in 1947 the abandoned camp buildings were offered as emergency accommodation to the Saibai Island people. The site at Mutee head is about 8kms west of Injinoo, or over 30km by road.
The radar structure, on top of the Mutee Head headland, comprises a 3.4 metre high tower; a turntable and spindle about 2.5 metres in height; and an aerial approximately 4.5 high and approximately 9.4 metres wide, making a total height of 10.4 metres. The Australian transportable (prefabricated) Air Warning (AW) radar tower is of bolted steel construction, and the aerial is a five bay Australian CHL/AW type constructed of angle steel fastened by bolts and plates.
Two circular machine gun pits are located near the base of the radar tower. Evidence of a camp area extends south of the radar tower for several hundred metres, including remnants of the kitchen fireplace, kitchen and mess slab and grease traps. The concrete base of a large (80,000 gallon) water tank is located about 300 metres south-east of the radar tower.
Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) 52 Radar Station was built during 1943 to provide air warning coverage for port facilities at Red Island Point, and the nearby Jacky Jacky (later Higgins) Advanced Operational Base (AOB).
Jacky Jacky airfield (now Injinoo/Bamaga airport) was built to supplement the RAAF AOB on Horn Island in the Torres Strait, which was built during 1941. With the Japanese advances into the South West Pacific Area, Horn Island airfield became an important staging base for Allied bombing missions over New Guinea and Rabaul, and for the transit of fighter aircraft to Port Moresby. By May 1942 Horn Island airfield had received four Japanese air raids resulting in service casualties and destruction and damage to a number of aircraft on the ground. As it was not possible to provide an effective dispersal strip on Horn Island, attention was turned to mainland Cape York. In late June 1942 it was reported that a suitable airfield site had been located south east of Red Island Point (now Seisia).
By 8 August 1942 two companies of the US 91st Engineer Battalion (African American troops) had arrived and were in the process of unloading heavy equipment. By October the US Engineers were working on the airstrip and roads, and were also engaged in pile-driving for a jetty “at Red Island Point".
Some disagreement exists over whether the harbour for supplying the airfield was built at Red Island Point or Mutee Head. US records in August 1942 suggested the port of entry was moved from Red Island Point to Mutee Head. However, records of US improvements at Higgins included a 10 mile (16km) access road and a 120′ by 12′ (36.6m by 3.7m) wharf approach and a 80′ by 12′ (24.4m by 3.7m) loading leg. If the road ran from the wharf to the airfield, then the distance matches Red Island Point, not Mutee Head. In addition, by October 1945 a “D” shaped jetty (with three sections about 52m, 33.5m and 55m long) and a pontoon landing existed at Red Island Point for unloading fuel for the airfield. At this time it was reported that the jetty at Mutee Head had never been used, its position being unsuitable for tying up boats. A “well constructed” road also ran from Red Island Point to the airstrip, and a cold store existed about 2 miles (3.2km) south of Red Island Point.
Work on Jacky Jacky Airfield (called Red Island Airfield by the Americans) ceased as the wet season got underway and the US Engineer units were transferred to New Guinea. The Queensland Main Roads Commission (MRC), under the Allied Works Council (AWC), recommenced work on the airfield early in 1943 and the MRC also continued working on a road network to connect Mutee Head and Cowal Creek (now Injinoo) with Jacky Jacky (renamed Higgins in June 1943) Airfield and Red Island Point. In response to the build up of activity around Higgins and Mutee Head, a RAAF radar unit was assigned to the area to protect the airfield facilities, and to assist lost aircraft.
The Mutee Head radar was a British Mk V COL set, equipped with an Australian-made tower and AW Mk II type aerial. The transmitter/receiver set was designed by the Royal Air Force for use in coast defence. COL (Chain Overseas Low Flying) was the overseas version of the CHL (Chain Home Low Flying). CHL stations were for low flying aircraft detection and formed part of the British Chain Home network. RAAF 52 Radar Station at Mutee Head was the fourth Mk V COL station of the ten established in Queensland, the other nine being: 26 Radar Station, Cape Cleveland; 25 Radar Station, Sandy Cape; 23 Radar Station, Lytton; 24 Radar Station, Caloundra; 136 Radar Station, Alligator River; 55 Radar Station, Bowen; 49 Radar Station, Point Lookout; 58 Radar Station, Paluma; and 56 Radar Station, Cooktown.
RAAF 52 was formed at Mascot, New South Wales, on 27 January 1943. After travelling via Townsville, Cairns and Horn Island, two officers and 36 airmen disembarked at Mutee Head on 29 March 1943. The radar tower had already been erected on the headland of Mutee Head. The unit was equipped with one vehicle, and had also obtained a dingy by May 1943. In June the radar equipment was overhauled, and power was connected in early August, with calibration test flights taking place that month. The unit logged 721 hrs operational in August, and on 30 August a Japanese reconnaissance flight was tracked over the area.
On 29 December 1943 a maintenance party from 42 Radar Wing installed an IFF (Identification Friend Foe) interrogator unit on the set. Round the clock operation was often interrupted by short stoppages for overhauls, calibration and the repair of usually minor technical breakdowns. Work had also begun on a new camp on 8 December 1943, with J Stubbs and Sons being the contractor, and by February 1944 work was completed on a kitchen, an airmen and officers mess, administrative building, store, and airmen’s barracks. In addition, three more barracks for airmen (10 men per barrack) and a building containing a medical section and officers and sergeants quarters were completed in March 1944.
A number of Australian Army units were posted to Mutee Head during March 1944 including ‘B’ Company 5 Machine Gun Battalion; 2/18 Battery, 2/9 Field Regiment; and 27 Field Company, a total of 420 additional troops. With the exception of the machine gun company, these units provided labour for construction of a jetty on which work was already underway. During April 1944 a traverse wall was completed to enclose and protect the radar transmitter and receiver rooms, located under the tower. Two machine gun posts were excavated near the radar tower for anti-aircraft defence, and other construction included two sheds to house diesel engines and a building for use as an armoury. A two thousand gallon tank was installed on a rise at the rear of the camp.
During June 1944 the Army completed the jetty and finished upgrading the road to Higgins Airfield. That month the machine gunners of ‘B’ Company returned to their headquarters on Horn Island and the 27th Field Company departed for Merauke. In September the No. 4 Marine Food Supply unit camped within a quarter mile of the radar camp, next to 57th Field Park Company, but these two units departed in October 1944. The same month RAAF 52 began pumping water from the Jardine River to a new 80,000 gallon (363,687 litre) tank, which supplied water to visiting boats.
Operation of RAAF 52 continued to assist navigation for Allied aircraft, particularly those lost or suffering mechanical problems. However, there was also time for recreation, and activities included cricket matches against RAAF units at Higgins Airfield, movies at Higgins, swimming in the Jardine River, and card evenings. Rations were picked up from Red Island Point, and a fish trap also supplemented the men’s diet.
The Pacific war ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered unconditionally on 14 August 1945. By early 1945, RAAF 52 was only operating for a limited time each day, extending its operational hours when required to assist in air searches for missing aircraft or in other emergencies. On 11 September the station was ordered to cease operations and commence disbandment procedure. All serviceable and salvageable equipment and all records and files were packed and the camp area cleaned up. The camp was vacated on 24 September and the remaining personnel were temporarily quartered at Higgins Airfield. The unit was officially disbanded on 29 September 1945.
In 1947 the abandoned camp of RAAF 52 was used to house Saibai Islanders, whose low-lying village had been impacted by a series of extremely high tides. The Saibai leader, Bamaga Ginau, negotiated with the Queensland Government for the use of Mutee Head until a permanent site for a new settlement could be decided. Water was scarce and a decision was made to locate a permanent settlement inland from Red Island Point near Higgins Airfield. The new township was surveyed and named Bamaga in 1949, after Chief Bamaga, who had died in February that year. The small cemetery east of the radar station site, about 250m south of the beach, is now the only reminder at Mutee Head of the Saibai Island exodus.
What remains of the Mutee Head radar set today comprises an Australian-made tower, turntable, spindle and aerial. It is known from records that British COL electronics were installed, but the tower and aerial could equally well have been used with Australian LW/AW (Light Weight/Air Warning) Mk I or Mk II electronics with only minimal modification. The tower and aerial are of a transportable type, sometimes referred to as a CHL/AW tower.
Mutee Head Radar Station and Camp, Queensland Heritage Register reported place 602662
Pearce, Howard. January 2009. WWII-NQ: A cultural heritage overview of
significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. EPA, Brisbane.
Marks, RR. 1994. Queensland Airfields WW2—50 Years On, R and J marks, Brisbane.
Bradley, Vera, 1995. I didn’t know that: Cairns and districts, Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, service personnel and civilians. Boolarong, Moorooka.
Simmonds, E and Smith, N, November 2007. Echoes over the Pacific: An overview of Allied Air Warning Radar in the Pacific from Pearl Harbour to the Philippines Campaign, Radar Returns, Hampton, Victoria
Simmonds, E, and Smith, N (eds), 2007. Radar Yarns. Radar Returns, Hampton, Victoria.
National Archives of Australia, 590. RAAF Unit History sheets (Form A50) [Operations Record Book - Forms A50 and A51] Radar Stations 46 to 53 Jan 43 - Apr 45
National Archives of Australia 171/93/742; Director of Works and Buildings - Property - Higgins Field Qld - Operational Base - Hiring of site, 1943–1947
National Archives of Australia, QL656 PART 2. Higginsfield (Jacky-Jacky) RAAF Air Strip, 1943–1970.