The Military History and Significance of Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome

“The importance of an aerodrome during wartime can be determined by the number, length and design of the runways”. If this is the case, then the Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome was a massively important wartime aerodrome. Distinguised by its impressive 4 lengthy runways and assosciated taxiways and aprons, the aerodrome is an all wind, all weather remnant of WWII. Its strategic coastal location and sheer size give an indication of the role it played in the defence of Australia and its coastline, maritime surveillance, and the training of thousands of troops for war in Europe and the Pacific. It is estimated that during WWII the Evans Head No1 Bombing & Gunnery school was the largest airforce training facility in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the only aerodrome listed in the NSW State Heritage Register.


The aerodrome was the first Bombing and Gunnery school built in the early stages of WWII under the Empire Air Training Scheme. It started life as a quickly erected emergency airstrip in 1936, but was quickly idendified as an ideal military base and was resumed by the Commonwealth for defence purposes in 1937. With the outbreak of war in 1939, Australia in collaboration with other commonwealth nations, agreed to train up to 11,000 ground & air crew a year for the RAF. To accommodate this planned training, air bases were established throughout the east coast of Australia, with the Evans Head location becoming home to the No1. Bombing & Gunnery School under the command of Sir Valston Hancock.


Evans Head was ideally located for this training ground. With large tracts of flat coastal heaths to the north and south, and habitation limited to a small pocket close to the mouth of the Evans River, bombing and gunnery training could be safely carried out without fear of mishap to the local community. The small areas of high ground to the south of Evans Head allowed for the all important observation of bombing exercises. When the Japanese entered the war, the airbase’ close proximity to Brisbane meant it acted as the frontline to protect the Brisbane Line, the agreed forward aircraft attack point. At this point in the war, Evans Head had the most aircraft in the country in readiness for a Japanese invasion.


Within 7 months of the signatures on work orders, the first trainees were arriving at Evans Head to find 2 tar-sealed runways (later expanded to 4), bombing range facilities and an additional 25.9 hectares of surrounding land, fully cleared to the perimeter. A Marine section for the provision of search & rescue, and target towing had been established, as well as wharves and support buildings in the village of Evans Head. Timber huts were used as accommodation on the airbase itself and at its peak, could accommodate up to 1400 personnel at any one time. The base had its own cinema, hospital, garbage collection service, sewerage plant and playing fields. Offices and stores huts were also constructed on the base as well as 12 prefabricated hangars. The hangars used were the British newly designed Bellman Hangars and by the end of the war, 17 had been built, of which only 1 remains today to stand testament to the urgent technical innovations of wartime.


The Womens Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAF) also numbered amongst the personnel of the airbase. WAAF’s started arriving in 1941 and took up duties such as bomb-fall spotting and transport driving, as well as the more mundane but essential housekeeping, cooking & cleaning work.
The base had some 70 Fairey Battle aircraft, as well as Wirraway & Avro Lancaster aircraft from the Amberley RAAF base, and these were used for extensive bombing & gunnery practice, as well as being used for night surveillance of local offshore waters. With the size and location of the airbase, came the added danger of being made a potential target of sea-based raids following Japan’s entry into the Pacific. Defence of the aerodrome comprised 19 machine-gun pits, fitted with .303 Vickers. The remnants of two of these pits are still to be found on the site.


It is thought that by the time the No1 Bombing & Gunnery School closed in 1943, over 5500 crew had been trained at Evans Head as pilots, gunners, bombardiers, wireless operators and observers. These crews left our shores going to war in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, with over 1000 being killed in action.


With the closure of the No1 Bombing & Gunnery School in 1943, came the immediate opening of the No1 Air Observers School. Aircraft using the airbase now included the Ryan, Avro Anson, Tiger Moth and Wackett. This school trained a further 630 crewmen before the base was officially wound down in 1944 and handed over to a care & maintenance unit.