Iron Range USAAF/RAAF Advanced Operational Base
Portland Roads Airfield; Gordon, Claudie and New Claudie airstrips; Lockhart River Airport (former Gordon airstrip)
- North and Cape York
Lockhart River Road and Lockhart River Mission Road, Lockhart River, Iron Range 4874
The three airstrips at Iron Range Airfield were constructed between mid 1942 and 1944 as part a US bomber airfield. Gordon Strip has been upgraded as Lockhart River Airport, located about 4km west of the Lockhart River Aboriginal community, while the other two strips are abandoned. Wartime access was from a jetty at Portland Roads, now a 35km 4WD trip to the north.
Claudie Airstrip, southeast of the airport, is a bitumen surface about 2000m long usually covered with seasonal grass. Wartime clearing of rainforest is still evident as are bitumen sealed dispersal bays at the north end. At the south end of the strip a bitumen taxiway heads towards the longer New Claudie Airstrip, which was never sealed. The latter is parallel to Claudie Strip, about 1300 metres eastward. The strip and connecting taxiways are now covered by rainforest regrowth.
Two Heavy Anti Aircraft (HAA) 3.7-inch gun stations also survive. Gun Station 446 is located 1000 metres north of Gordon Strip, just west of a section of the Lockhart River-Portland Roads Road. Located in dense rainforest, known surviving concrete elements include: a semi-underground Command Post (CP); three of four in-ground octagonal gun emplacements (in an arc west and north of the CP); one of four semi-underground magazines (south of the CP); and a slab of the mess kitchen southeast of the CP.
Gun Station 447 is located 1000 metres west of Claudie Strip, in open woodland on a high bank above the Claudie River. Concrete components include: the CP; four gun emplacements (in an arc south of the CP); four magazines (west and northeast of the CP); and the concrete slab of the mess kitchen is located about 180 metres north-west of the CP.
With Port Moresby’s airfields under regular attack by Japanese aircraft in early 1942, it was clear that a fall-back airfield was needed on the north Queensland coast, from where bombing strikes could be mounted against the large Japanese base at Rabaul.
In late May 1942 RAAF and USAAF personnel conducted a ground survey of Iron Range, guided by the local miner Jack Gordon. A flat area of dense coastal rainforest was chosen just east of the Claudie River, as this was the nearest suitable airfield site to existing harbour facilities at Portland Roads—where a jetty had been built about 1938 to service goldfields in the area. The only alternative route to Iron Range for truck convoys was overland from Townsville via Chillagoe, the Mitchell River, Coen and Batavia; a trip which took 10 days.
Iron Range Advanced Operational Base (AOB) was initially referred to by the Americans as 'Portland Roads', although Portland Roads was in fact located 35 km north of the airfield. A radar unit (RAAF 43 Radar Station) and a coastal gun battery (east of the jetty site) were located at Portland Roads during the war.
An advance party of the US 46th Engineers General Service Regiment left Townsville by sea for Portland Roads in early June 1942, accompanied by a Queensland Main Roads Commission (MRC) team. In addition, an advance party of RAAF No.26 Operational Base Unit (OBU) arrived at Portland Roads on 10 June to establish wireless communication with Townsville.
The US Engineer companies began operations by improving the road and clearing a short landing strip (northwest of the later Gordon Strip, located south of the intersection of Lockhart River Road and Portland Road) for use by a DH-89 Dragon Rapide aircraft. On 12 July more units of the US 46th Engineers arrived equipped with bulldozers, graders and large trucks. After completing the clearing of the 120 degree runway 'Gordon Strip' the engineers turned to clearing aircraft taxiways and dispersal bays, and clearing of the 160 degree runway 'Claudie Strip'. Work was rushed to make Gordon Strip ready for use by USAAF medium bombers, and it was completed as an unsurfaced and unsealed runway by 18 August 1942.
On 9 September ten B-26 Martin Marauder medium bombers of the 19th Bombardment Squadron (BS) of the 22nd Bombardment Group (BG), USAAF, arrived and two days later proceeded on the first operational bombing mission from Iron Range. A second squadron of B-26 Marauder bombers (33rd BS, 22nd BG) landed at Iron Range two weeks later. In late 1942 B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers of the 43rd BG also commenced operations from Gordon Strip and three squadrons of this Group (64th, 65th, and 403rd BS) flew from Iron Range until the last squadron of the Group left in late November 1942.
The airfield was initially protected by light anti-aircraft units, but a defence against high-flying Japanese aircraft arrived in October 1942 when eight 3.7-inch Quick Firing (QF) A.A. MkII guns of the 36th Australian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery (Static) were unloaded at Portland Roads. The guns were transported to Iron Range where two gun stations were established almost 5 km apart, one north of Gordon Strip and one west of Claudie Strip.
Both gun stations consisted of four 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns on static mounts within in-ground concrete gun emplacements of octagonal shape. The interior walls of each gun emplacement contained recesses where ready ammunition for each gun was stored on wooden racks (some racks still survive). The guns were arranged in an arc, and were co-ordinated from a reinforced concrete semi-underground Command Post (CP) in the centre of the arc. Within the CP were a roofed plotting room, plus open pits for a height finder and predictor, the latter being a mechanical computing machine that predicted the future position of a target. Nearby were four semi-underground magazines of reinforced concrete. Gun crews were housed in tents near the guns and a nearby camp with kitchen, mess and ablution block was attached to each gun station. Construction of the gun stations by the MRC was delayed due to shortages of labour and the difficulty of obtaining transport for men and materials. However, construction was almost completed by early April 1943 when funds were allocated for camouflage of the gun stations.
Australian Civil Constructional Corps (CCC) workers were employed at Iron Range to assist the US Engineers with the construction and maintenance of the airfield. By early November 1942 a total of 48 gravel-surfaced dispersal bays had been formed; three camp sites between the strips had been built for 400 men each and an earth dam had been constructed on the river near the north end of Claudie Strip. Early November saw the commencement of bitumen sealing of Claudie Strip by the 46th Engineers, and the taxiways and dispersal bays were also sealed. Gordon Strip, still only a gravel surface which required constant watering to control dust, became the only useable runway for several weeks while sealing of Claudie was underway.
The first squadron of B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the 90th BG (with four squadrons) arrived at Iron Range in early November 1942, and by this time Iron Range had become congested. With Claudie Strip still being sealed the Marauder medium bombers of 22nd BG were sharing Gordon Strip with the Liberators of 90th BG, while one squadron of Marauders continued to use Claudie. Aircraft were parked nose to runway both sides of Gordon strip, where the rainforest was retained close to the edge of the strip for camouflage. The decision to operate heavy bombers, rather than just medium bombers, meant that wing-tip clearance was further reduced. The narrow strip, parked aircraft and dust led to an accident during a takeoff of the 90th BG during the night of 16–17 November 1942. One B-24 collided with parked aircraft and exploded, killing 11 men.
Also in November, the US requested that the Allied Works Council (AWC) take over and complete the construction of Iron Range Airfield. The 46th Engineers left for Port Moresby between 19 November 1942 and 2 January 1943, and MRC personnel arrived in mid-December 1942. However, heavy rain and flooding during late December closed the unsealed Gordon Strip and threatened to close the sealed but low lying Claudie Strip.
Early 1943 saw an exodus of USAAF units from Iron Range when the 90th BG headquarters with the 319th, 320th and 321st BS moved out, together with the 19th and 33rd BS of the 22nd BG. It was decided that the 400th BS of the 90th BG and the 28th Service Squadron would also depart. On 14 March the RAAF No.26 OBU moved to the vacated 28th Service Squadron camp between Gordon and Claudie strips.
In May 1943, due to concerns over the lack of construction progress, the Headquarters of USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) took over responsibility for construction. The US Fifth Air Force had decided to build up Iron Range as a heavy bomber base and the
United States Army Services of Supply
(USASOS) requested that the AWC organise the sealing of Gordon strip, and construction of 24 blast pens. A third airstrip (New Claudie) was also requested, to replace the flood prone Claudie Strip, along with a further 10 blast pens. An AWC Works Requisition for the above projects was issued on 2 July 1943, and in August the USASOS also requested reconstruction of the road to Portland Roads and two new camp sites at Iron Range airfield - one north of the east end Gordon Strip, and one south of the west end of Gordon Strip. These were each constructed with 6 buildings plus latrines and bath houses.
Although Gordon strip was sealed, the road was reconstructed and the two new camps were completed, the blast pens were cancelled, as was the sealing of New Claudie Strip. All work was cancelled on development of Iron Range as a heavy bomber base on 15 May 1944, and
AWC plant and personnel were withdrawn during August 1944. The 3.7-inch HAA defences were withdrawn from Iron Range during June 1944.
From 30 June 1944 onwards, the RAAF assumed total command of the base. The Australian Air Board subsequently decided that the airfield was no longer required as an operational base, although it would be available for use by aircraft flying the coastal route to and from New Guinea. This decision necessitated the maintenance of only one runway and Gordon Strip was chosen. With the lessening of activities at Iron Range, RAAF No.26 OBU was disbanded in December 1944 and a small operational base detachment of No.27 OBU became responsible for the maintenance of the airfield which functioned as an emergency landing ground for the remainder of the war. No.27 OBU was disbanded in April 1946.
After the war the RAAF leased Gordon Strip from the State of Queensland, the airfield being held in the category 'retained but not maintained', with the Commonwealth Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) in permissive occupancy. In March 1954 the lease was transferred from the RAAF to the DCA. In recent years Gordon Strip has been upgraded as Lockhart River Airport.
- Iron Range Airfield and HAA Gun Stations 446 and 447, Reported Place 30496, Queensland Heritage Register
- 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.
- Michael Musumeci, Iron Range Airbase: Carved in the Cape York Jungle 1942–1945, 2008.
- Casey, Hugh J., ed. 1951, “Volume VI: Airfield and Base Development", Engineers of the Southwest Pacific 1941–1945, Washington, D.C., United States Department of the Army.
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- Marks, RR. 1994. Queensland Airfields WW2—50 Years On, R and J Marks, Brisbane.
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- Marks, RR, 15 June 2004. A photo memoir of the World War 2 period at Iron Range Airfield and Portland Roads, …An area nowadays known as Lockhart Community… or more simply as the… Lockhart Coast. RR and AJ Marks.
- National Archives of Australia 7/1/1484, DWB [Divisional Works Buildings] - RAAF Aerodrome - Iron Range [Cape York Peninsula area] - landing ground 1942–1946.
- National Archives of Australia 171/94/167, DWB [Director of Works and Buildings] - Iron Range Qld - Operational Base - acquisition of site - 1943–1954.
- National Archives of Australia 34/301/2196, Iron Range Aerodrome, North Queensland - aerodrome & dispersal works and other facilities, 1944.
- National Archives of Australia T1581, Iron Range Gordon Strip Camp Sites Layout, 1944
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- Google Earth
- Google Maps