Mareeba Airfield

Hoevet Field/RAAF Station Mareeba/Mareeba Airport

Type
Airfield
Region
Atherton Tablelands

Kennedy Highway, Mareeba 4880

Mareeba Airfield was constructed between May 1942 and early 1943 and was used by both RAAF and USAAF units. The southernmost runway, which runs roughly east-west, is located about 6km south of Mareeba on the Kennedy Highway and now functions as Mareeba airport.

To the north of the airport, west of Ray Road, are the remnants of a second runway, which runs roughly north-south. The most obvious section is located south of Jennings Road and consists of about 700m of the original 2286m (7500ft) length. Curving wartime dispersal taxiways are still evident in the farmland between the runways.

The reinforced concrete elements of Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Gun Station 448, the northernmost of two HAA gun stations at Mareeba, are spread over a number of properties south of McIvor Road to the west of Ray Road. There is a single room underground Command Post (CP); two octagonal in-ground gun emplacements (of four that were laid out in an arc west and north of the CP); and four semi-underground magazines. The magazines are covered with earth mounds, and each has two entrances with stairs down to a central corridor, with a doorway to a single room.

HAA Gun Station 449 is located on farm land south of the airport, west of the Kennedy Highway. The four gun emplacements were laid out in a square, but only three are evident. Each has been filled to varying depths. It is probable that the missing fourth gun emplacement and underground CP are also buried. Four ammunition storage magazines are located nearby.

History

A Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby and gain a foothold in the Solomon Islands to isolate Australia was thwarted by US and Australian ships and aircraft during the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought from 4 to 8 May 1942. Plans to expand Cairns Airfield were changed during the final days of the sea battle with a US decision to establish a new Advanced Operational Base (AOB) alongside the Atherton Tableland railway line, at Mareeba.

Work on Mareeba Airfield began around 11-12 May 1942 under the supervision of the Queensland Main Roads Commission (MRC), which was given eight days to have a strip ready to receive aircraft. Clearing was carried out using plant and equipment from Mareeba and other Atherton Tableland shires. A gravel strip was ready for No.100 Squadron RAAF, which arrived in late May.

The Beaufort bombers of 100 Squadron began operations from Mareeba in June. By this time two runways, one east-west and one north-south, had been completed as gravel strips. It was decided that the northern runway would be substantially improved to cater for the planned arrival of a USAAF Heavy Bombardment Group (BG). An inspection on 20 June 1942 found that the east-west runway was “in use", and the north-south runway was “ready for use". No.24 Operational Base Unit (OBU), RAAF, was formed on 25 June to coordinate the responsibilities for administration and servicing of airfield operations at Mareeba. No.100 Squadron departed from the airfield in mid 1942.

By 2 July the runways still unsealed, and on 10 July 1942 the Allied Works Council (AWC) ordered the building of bomber hideouts at the airfield with the work to be supervised by the MRC using Civil Construction Corps (CCC) labour. Camp and workshop facilities were also constructed by the CCC. Additional work included the construction of taxiways and dispersal bays, some gravelled and some sealed. Part of Ray Road (then the main road from Mareeba to Atherton) was used as a taxiway between the runways, and could also be used as a fighter runway. By 8 August 1942 work on sealing the north-south runway had started, and five arched hideouts (49m by 26m) had been completed (a total of 15 were built). A severe shortage of bitumen led to experimentation with molasses to keep down the dust on the east-west runway until it could be properly sealed.

In July 1942 the 28th, 30th and 93rd Bomb Squadrons (BS) of the 19th Heavy Bombardment Group (BG) of the US Fifth Air Force, equipped with B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, moved from Cloncurry to Mareeba Airfield. The B-17s would fly from Mareeba to Port Moresby, load up with bombs and fuel, raid the Japanese at Rabaul, and return to Mareeba for rest and maintenance. Later they were able to resupply at Mareeba. The 19th BG had been fighting since the Philippines were attacked in December 1941, and in late 1942 it returned to the US to rebuild. One squadron left Mareeba in late October, while the other two left in November 1942. Mareeba Airfield was unofficially referred to by USAAF personnel as Hoevet Field after Major Dean Hoevet, whose B-17 crashed into the sea off Cairns in August 1942 with the loss of all crew.

Although Mareeba was a base for bombing raids on the Japanese, it also required protection against Japanese attack. Early anti-aircraft defence of Mareeba Airfield was provided by the US 94th Coastal Artillery (AA) Regiment (equipped with 3-inch guns and .50 machine guns) and the Australian 33rd Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Battery, and during the war AA emplacements of earth, stone and gravel were constructed around the airfield. Mareeba received further anti-aircraft defences against high flying Japanese bombers during September 1942 with the arrival of the 37th Australian Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Battery (Static), equipped with eight 3.7-inch (94mm) Quick Firing (QF) Mark II guns. Two HAA gun stations were then established - ‘A’ Section Gun Station 448 was positioned near the northern end of the north-south runway and ‘B’ Section Gun Station 449 was positioned about 7 km south near the eastern end of the east-west runway.

In October 1942 the Cairns firm of T.J. Watkins was awarded the contract for building the gun stations and battery accommodation, and AWC minutes indicate that the construction work was nearing completion by late February 1943. The owner of the land on which the northern battery was built received extra compensation from 1 November 1942, as more land was required than originally thought. During January 1943 both gun stations were provided with 40mm Bofors guns for close aerial defence, becoming Class ‘A’ HAA installations. Units of the Australian Women’s Army Service were subsequently added to the establishment of the battery.

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 timber racks, and the bases of the emplacements contained a circle of steel bolts to fasten the gun mounts. The guns were arranged around a reinforced concrete semi-underground Command Post (CP). Nearby were four semi-underground magazines of reinforced concrete. 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). Only the plotting room is evident at Gun Station 448’s CP, while Gun Station 449’s CP has been totally buried.

Meanwhile, between August and November 1942 the 63rd, 64th and 65th BS’s of the 43rd BG (B-17s) arrived at Mareeba Airfield where they replaced the 19th BG, receiving some of its aircraft and personnel. By early October the airfield was being used by an average of 80 heavy bombers and was occupied by between 2,000 and 2,500 personnel. The 63rd, 64th and 65th were stationed at Mareeba until leaving for New Guinea in January 1943. A plan of the airfield dated 31 January 1943 lists the north-south runway - 7500′ (2286m) long - as sealed, while the east-west runway—7000ft (2134m) long—was still gravelled, with 50% primed for sealing, with the connecting taxiway (Ray Road) also primed. Both runways were listed as sealed by 26 June 1943.

Control of many north Queensland airfields was passed from the USAAF to the RAAF in May 1943. However, Mareeba stayed under the control off USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) for the purposes of operations and construction well into 1944. From January to May 1943 Mareeba Airfield was occupied by the B-17 crews of the US 403rd BS (43 BG), returning from Milne Bay to re-equip with new B-24 Liberator bombers. Also during the first half of 1943 squadrons of the US 8th Fighter Group were sent to Mareeba from New Guinea to rest and re-equip with P-38 Lightning and P-40 Kittyhawk fighters. In June 1943 No.5 Squadron RAAF, equipped with Australian-made Boomerang and Wirraway fighters, completed a shift from Kingaroy to Mareeba, where it served a training role in ground support for the Australian Army formations on the Atherton Tableland.

By January 1943 the Australian Army had commenced the 'Atherton Project' involving large scale troop rotation between New Guinea and the Atherton Tableland and by mid-1943 numbers of Australian troops were passing through Cairns and Mareeba on their way to the jungle warfare training and recuperation camps. The Atherton Tableland was chosen as the location for such facilities for a number of reasons: it was close to New Guinea; near a port (Cairns); had a cooler climate yet was suitable for training in jungle warfare; and it was a mostly malaria-free area for the hospitalisation of those suffering from tropical diseases. The physically exhausting terrain and climate of New Guinea meant that Australian troops had to be regularly rested and rehabilitated, preferably close to their theatre of operations.

Mareeba Airfield was increasingly used by C-47 transport aircraft engaged in parachute training for newly established airborne regiments, ferrying troops and supplies in and out of Mareeba and transporting wounded back from the New Guinea front line to the US Station Hospital at Mareeba Primary School and to the large Australian General Hospital at Rocky Creek near Atherton.

On 16 August 1943 the 37th Australian HAA Battery was renamed 137th HAA Battery of 56 Australian Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Composite), Royal Australian Artillery. In accordance with general policy, this brought associated light anti-aircraft (40mm Bofors) and searchlight batteries with all necessary workshops, together into one composite unit. The Mareeba HAA gun stations were transferred to the command of the 35th HAA Battery in Cairns on 25 November 1943 and 137 HAA Battery left Mareeba for Cairns in early December 1943. The guns had been removed by November 1944, and as the battery sites were no longer required, at this time consideration was given to destroying the gun pits; but it was decided that they should be retained for the duration of the war.

By November 1943 the Ray’s house at the western end of the eat-west runway was occupied by a RAAF Photographic Unit, and from May 1944 No.1 Mobile Parachute Maintenance Unit were quartered at Mareeba Airfield using one of the disused bomber hideouts. The Australian Army’s No.1 Parachute Battalion was camped east of the railway in the original USAAF camp site. No.5 Squadron RAAF departed from Mareeba Airfield during mid-November 1944. It was the last full squadron to occupy the base and the two runways were only occasionally used during the last months of World War II. In late November 1944 the airfield was being used by six Vultee Vengeance aircraft of No 5. (Communication) Unit RAAF and six Avro Ansons of No.8 Service Flying Training School.

The Pacific war ended in August 1945 and RAAF personnel vacated Mareeba in March 1946. The North-South Runway with the wartime taxiways and dispersal bays was made available for agricultural use. The southern-most east-west runway continues to be used for general aviation purposes as Mareeba Airport.

Source/comments

Mareeba Airfield and HAA Gun Stations 448 and 449. Queensland Heritage Register reported place 602740

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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.

Wilson, PD 1988. North Queensland WWII 1942–1945. Department of Geographic Information, 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.

Simpson, B, “Mareeba’s Anti Aircraft Batteries", Heritage Bulletin, Number 7, November 2007, Mareeba Historic Society Inc.

Fowler, SR, November 2007. Plans and photographs of elements of northern Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery site.

National Archives of Australia 175/6/109 PART 1, DWB [Director of Works and Buildings] - Property - Mareeba Qld - Aerodrome - Hiring of site, 1942–1948.

National Archives of Australia 823, Mareeba 1942

Dunn, P. Mareeba Airfield also known as Hoevet Airfield Mareeba, Qld during WW2

Dunn, P. 94th Coast Artillery (AA) Regiment, 40th Anti-Aircraft Brigade in Australia during WW2

Australian War Memorial photographic collection

State Library Queensland, John Oxley Library photographic collection.