Wireless operators kept an eye on Northern Australia

Name: Bruce Samuels
Date: 1942-1945
Unit: 15 Line of Communications
Location: Western Australia

Communications in the vast open areas of northern Australia have always been a challenge but a hardy band of wireless operators spent much of World War II doing their best to cover the area, often living in primitive conditions as they scanned the skies for enemy aircraft.

And there were plenty of Japanese planes flying over northern Australia in 1942 to keep the observers busy.

Whilst the air raids on Darwin are well known, one particular raid on the coastal pearling town of Broome caused major damage with 17 flying boats in the harbour, six planes on the ground and one which managed to take off, all destroyed, along with at least 70 lives.

The raid occurred on 3 March when a wave of Japanese Zero fighters, fitted with long range fuel tanks, strafed the harbour and airfield, destroying 24 Allied aircraft which had carried refugees, including children, from Java.

One US Liberator bomber managed to get airborne but was shot down into the sea. Of the 33 people on board only one survived.

The raid caused a mass evacuation from Broome but as the people fled south, wireless operator Bruce Samuels was heading north by plane.

As he flew into Broome he could clearly see the destroyed aircraft in the water and on the ground.

Bruce Samuels learned that the Japanese planes had come in flights of three.

"The lower two dived to attack the flying boats in Roebuck Bay," Bruce recalled. "The higher flight of three remained above to ward off any Allied aircraft that may have come to intervene.

"It was the cannon fire from the six attacking Zeros that set fire to the fuel laden tanks of the ill fated flying boats, which were 17 in number. The crew and refugees had no chance. I saw the remains - heaps of ashes and twisted metal."

Bruce Samuels was joined by Frank Hall and Terry Butler-Milton for a mission to establish a remote station at Sandy Point. They loaded a "bitza" truck, put together from parts taken from various abandoned vehicles, and set off on 14 April, driving slowly due to their heavy load.

After a stop at Beagle Bay Mission, where they were given a hearty lunch and a good supply of fresh vegetables grown at the mission, they continued their journey along a barely discernible track.

As night approached they suddenly found their vehicle bogged in an area of tidal flats and were forced to unload everything off the truck and carry it to dry ground. Next morning they rescued and reloaded the truck and continued their journey, eventually arriving at their destination and setting up camp as Coast Watch Station 15 L of C Signals.

"Our duties as coast watchers were to observe and report by coded radio messages to Broome any unusual happenings by land, sea or air," Bruce recalled. "Obviously it was a dawn to dusk duty.

"Only once did we see any land action. It was to the south and barely distinguishable. It appeared to us to be people exercising on the beach, disappearing altogether behind a large sand dune from time to time and then reappearing briefly.

"The place was miles from anywhere. No swimmers were seen. The ocean was too full of 'nasties' for that. There was no sign of a ship. We concluded whoever they were came from a submarine, be they friendly or otherwise. Then, whoever they were, they moved south and disappeared from sight."

Bruce said shipping was minimal and far out to sea - just a dot on the horizon.

"Japanese aircraft were daily visitors. They flew at a fairly low altitude and were recognisable as Zeros and searching for something to destroy.

"Whether or not they were aware of our presence we did not know but we did nothing to indicate we were there. We just kept very still and hoped."

One morning they saw a flight of fast moving aircraft heading in the general direction of Broome.

"We counted nine in all - could have been more," Bruce said. "Must have been hostile planes. At the time, Allied aircraft were very much slower."

A message was hurriedly encoded and radioed to Broome but the flight bypassed Broome and went on to attack the airfield at Port Hedland.

The trio were eventually relieved in August and somewhat reluctantly returned to Broome where they continued their wireless operating duties.

Having just completed his shift at 2am on 23 August, Bruce Samuels heard an aircraft approaching. Realising it was not their weekly supply flight he gave the alarm.

"Fortunately the navigator or bomb aimer was off target as the bombs exploded harmlessly 70 to 100 yards clear of the buildings," Bruce said. "It was a clear night, the moon was near full and the whitewashed roofs of the buildings below must have been clearly visible from above. For whatever reason we were all very fortunate."

An inspection next day showed that 23 bombs had been dropped.

"There were mainly large deep craters, some completely cleared areas indicating anti-personnel or 'daisy cutters' had been used, plus evidence of three unexploded bombs below ground level," Bruce said.

"Two bomb disposal experts (BDEs) arrived by air from Perth next day to deal with the situation, the result being (that they found) burnt out incendiaries, much to the relief of all, and no doubt the two BDEs, who at least had a break from mundane duties in Perth."

In October 1942, the order came to close up and move south. The authorities had decided to form the Brisbane line, a strategic position stretching from Brisbane to the west coast.

The plan, according to Bruce Samuels, was to withdraw forces from the sparse area to the north and to defend the country south of the line.

Bruce Samuel's unit was ordered to Pippingarra, a sheep station some 17 miles south east of Port Hedland to set up their wireless station. After home leave he was then posted to a wireless station at Kalamunda where a wireless station was being operated by the Australian Women's Army Service [See story AWAS operate secret wireless station at Lesmurdie].

It was there Bruce Samuels met his future wife Ethel Campbell.

The original material for this article was written by Bruce Samuels of Western Australia

Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Wireless operators kept an eye on Northern Australia, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 16 October 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/wireless-operators-kept-eye-northern-australia
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