Portland Roads Coastal battery
- North and Cape York
Portland Roads, Iron Range 4874
During December 1942 the Allied Works Council (AWC) received requisitions for construction of a coast artillery battery to cover the vital US anchorage for Iron Range air base at Portland Roads on Weymouth Bay. The work involved the construction of two 60-pounder gun emplacements, a battery observation post, searchlight posts, magazines, shell recesses and other works for the erection of camp facilities. The work was carried out under the Public Estate Improvement Program with PEI teams operating under the Main Roads Commission (MRC). During the same month requisitions were also received for construction of Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Gun Stations 446 and 447 at Portland Roads, including two command posts, eight gun emplacements, shell stores and other facilities. The requisitions were confirmed in January 1943 and the works were probably completed during the first half of the year.
Today the reinforced concrete defences of the coast battery remain hidden on a hill overlooking the remnants of the wartime jetty. The concrete structures include a command post, battery observation post, upper and lower gun emplacements and two coast artillery searchlight posts above the beach. The gun emplacements now serve as footings for a recent dwelling.
With the coming of war to the Pacific, Portland Roads became crucial to the operation of the US advanced operational air base at Iron Range. Prior to 1942, because of its fresh water supply and jetty, Portland Roads was a watering point and anchorage for fishing boats and small coastal vessels trading the east coast of Cape York and Torres Strait. It was also a port for supplying the remote Wenlock and Iron Range goldfields. A timber mill operated by JM Johnston cut flitches for shipment to Cairns. Besides the mill workers and timber cutters there were a number of solitary prospectors working alluvial gold claims and others employed in treating the cyanide tailings at Gordon’s Iron Range mill. A few small-crop farmers resided in the area, in addition to Aboriginal people deported to the Lockhart River Mission.
The early north Queensland aviator, Tom McDonald, had commenced an aerial mail service from Cairns to remote homesteads and mining camps on Cape York Peninsula, landing and taking off on short grass strips. By 1938 McDonald’s North Queensland Airways was operating a fortnightly DH-89 Dragon Rapide service from Cairns to Coen, Wenlock, Iron Range and other Cape York settlements.
By 1939 the RAAF was searching for an advanced operational base site on Cape York Peninsula and an area north of the old gold mining settlement at Coen was selected. However, construction and maintenance of Coen aerodrome proved difficult without harbour facilities and alternative air base sites were examined, including the Iron Range area which was accessible by road from the Portland Roads jetty.
By early 1942 with Port Moresby airfield being regularly attacked by Japanese aircraft, it was clear that a fall-back airfield was needed on the north Queensland coast from where bombing strikes could be mounted against the Japanese bases at Rabaul and Lae. In late May 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 large enough for several bomber strips was chosen just east of the Claudie River, 35 kilometres south of Portland Roads.
The first ground units of the US Army 46th Engineers General Service Regiment began arriving at Portland Roads by sea in May 1942. The first task was to unload heavy earth moving machinery to open up the track from Portland Roads jetty to Iron Range. At Portland Roads work began on heavy anti-aircraft gun emplacements, supply stores, workshops and accommodation. The jetty was extended out into deeper water to enable large Liberty ships to berth and unload ordnance, machinery, troops and supplies without having to transfer equipment into lighters and barges. A site was selected for a radar station overlooking Portland Roads jetty, to provide air warning for shipping at the busy anchorage and assist lost and damaged Allied aircraft in transit. RAAF 43 Radar Station became operational at Portland Roads in January 1943.
At Iron Range, Gordon strip was completed as a gravel runway in August 1942. By December a second runway-Claudie strip-and dispersal areas had been constructed and sealed by the US 46th Engineers before their transfer to Port Moresby. Construction and maintenance operations were then handed over to the AWC, and continued under the supervision of the MRC.
defences were scaled down during 1944 as the war front moved northward and by June of that year the personnel and equipment of the coast defence artillery and HAA gun stations had been transferred from Portland Roads.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Allied Works Council (Queensland), AWC Minutes 1942–1945, BP1/1, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.
Roger Marks, Photo Memoir of Iron Range Airfield and Portland Roads, 2004.
Michael Musumeci, Iron Range Airbase: Carved in the Cape York Jungle 1942–1945, 2008.
Howard Pearce (Ed.). Heritage Trails of the Tropical North: A heritage tour guide to far north Queensland, Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2001.