Royal Australian Air Force 53 Radar Station
Mount Lookout/Radar Hill
- Radar/signal station
- North and Cape York
Gulf Developmental Road, Mount Surprise 4871
No.53 Radio Direction Finding (RDF) Station, Mt Surprise, was established in 1943 as one of 25 RDF stations controlled by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No.42 RDF Wing Headquarters in Townsville. Intended to provide early warning of air attack on Townsville and allied units training on the Atherton Tableland, it operated uneventfully between August 1943 and January 1945.
The remains of RAAF 53 Radar Station are scattered over Mount Lookout/Radar Hill, located just north of the Gulf Developmental Road, about 4km northeast of the township of Mount Surprise.
The collapsed 'Doover' hut and control tower minus the transmitter/receiver (radar screen) is located on a small terrace beneath a rocky knoll at the northern end of Mount Lookout. Other remnants of the installation are located on the summit and several other terraces descending to the south: two collapsed concrete bunkers with associated machine-gun mountings in pits; remnants of a wire/barbed wire fence strung on bush poles; at least 8 small 'sentry posts' constructed from local rocks; Ironwood and Ironbark trees used as telephone poles; and a number of concrete slabs. The former encampment area at the southern base of Mount Lookout has been impacted upon by a gravel extraction operation.
In response to the Japanese military threat to Australia, a network of RDF (Radar) stations was established throughout the northern inland and coastal regions of Australia and Papua New Guinea and the islands of the western Pacific, and the RAAF constructed 25 RDF stations in northern Queensland.
RAAF 53 Radar Station, Mt Surprise, was a key link in the detection of low flying aircraft heading from the Japanese occupied Dutch East Indies in the direction of Townsville or the Atherton Tableland. Its other roles were to provide assistance to the Catalina flying boats returning to base in Townsville, following long-range patrol over Java, and in the training of radar personnel.
The equipment installed at the Australian radar stations was mostly an Australian version of the original British technology, designed for the tropics and lightweight and portable for installation in remote locations. The installation at Mt Surprise was Australian designed: an Air Warning (AW) aerial on an AW tower weighing 12 tons, with AW electronics. It is likely that the station operated AW Mk2 equipment, designed to be assembled on site from a kit provided. The kit, known as a 'Doover', comprised the control tower, a hut for radar operators and mechanic, turning mechanism and radar transmitter/receiver screen and was hauled to the summit of the hill by flying fox.
The Allied Works Council (AWC) constructed RAAF 53 Radar Station in early to mid 1943, and a camp was constructed at the southern base of Mount Lookout which consisted of mess, kitchen and toilet/washroom facilities and accommodation tents.
No.53 RDF was formed at Richmond, New South Wales on 15 May 1943 with a strength of 35 men and one officer. The unit arrived at 42 RDF Wing in Townsville on 22 July, and some personnel reached Mt Surprise on 29 July, with the remainder arriving by 14 August 1943. At this time investigations were under way to locate a suitable airstrip. The radar installation was completed on 15 August 1943.
By the end of that month, a camouflage party from the Department of Home Security was engaged at the station. During this time black-out lighting was installed, preparation of slit trenches was under-way, fixed weapons had been installed and small arms were issued to the airmen. The camp’s tents were replaced by prefabricated masonite huts from late November 1943.
Station morale was maintained by the periodic visits of various padres on chaplaincy duty and officers of the 25 OBU (Operational Base Unit) who showed educational films and discussed technical courses. Fraternising with locals generally took place at the nearby Mt Surprise Hotel; at the weekly dances; and at cricket matches. Other recreational pursuits included gymnastics and swimming. Overnight fishing expeditions to Elizabeth Creek were organized through the local police station and there were shooting expeditions to the surrounding country. Rations were supplemented by the raising of young pigs captured during these expeditions.
Diary entries record the occasional disruptions to radar watch caused by maintenance or technical difficulties and the periodic visits of RAAF technicians to undertake maintenance. Other interruptions arose from the occasional storm and disruptions to the power supply and interference to the otherwise poor telephone communications leaving the station totally isolated.
From 22 May 1944 the previously continuous radar watch was reduced to four hours daily and by the end of June, operational strength was reduced to 18. On 8 January 1945 the station was placed on a 'care and maintenance basis' with reduced personnel, after which its operational strength rapidly declined as staff were deployed elsewhere. The station was relocated to Pitt Town, New South Wales on 2 June 1945.
No.53 RDF Station. Queensland Heritage Register 602259.
Simmonds, E. (ed), 2007. More Radar Yarns. Radar Returns, Hampton, Victoria.
National Archives of Australia. Control Symbol 590. RAAF Unit History sheets (Form A50) [Operations Record Book - Forms A50 and A51] Radar Stations 46 to 53 Jan 43 - Apr 45.