History of the Rathmines RAAF Flying Boat Base

Marine Section

The early days of RAAF Marine boats can be traced back to the early days of the Australian Flying Corps at the Central Flying School at Point Cook in Victoria prior to the RAAF being formed. Boats were used to assist in mooring and removing the early seaplanes such as the Fairey IIID from the water every night.

In February 1938 the RAAF received approval to purchase the 01 Class of Target Boats from England. When the war in Europe started the RAAF placed orders for many new marine craft. The RAAF had not finalised its expansion program for its Marine Section when the war in the Pacific started on 7 December 1941. A massive building program commenced with boats coming from the following suppliers:- Botterill & Fraser, Halvorsen & Sons, Spring & Dinard and Slazenger.

As part of the catch-up the RAAF started to build some small boats at Rathmines. In addition numerous boats were requisitioned from civilians. This was usually achieved by loan, secondment or contract. Boats in Australia became a rarity as the RAN, Australian Army, US Army were also acquiring as many civilian boats as they could. At the peak of its activities, RAAF Marine Section had a fleet of over 600 powered craft and over 700 un-powered craft.

The Marine Section at RAAF Station Rathmines was situated on Styles Point, due west of the slipway, with a large bay adjacent. It was often a scene of noise and activity. Many types of watercraft were on the base, including bomb and fuel barges, fire tenders, 38ft and 44ft crash boats (or Fairmiles).

Halvorsen’s Boatyard in Ryde, Sydney was commissioned to deliver the first thirty-four vessels to Rathmines. This company was credited to have built one hundred and seventy three reserve boats, forty three Supply boats, sixteen Fairmiles, a 12ft assault boat and seven 26ft Assault boats for the RAAF. Magnus Halvorsen himself even personally delivered the last Crash Boat (02-12) to Rathmines, two months before the end of the war in 1945.

Accidents unfortunately did occur and Marine section crew were often called out. Usually they were minor incidents, such as a damaged float, a leaking hull, or to fix the flare markers, which were often under repair. Flare markers were a 5ft x 3ft dinghy initially fitted with a fuel lantern but was later changed to be battery operated. They would be lined up at about 20-30ft intervals lighting up a path for night flying incoming aircraft; damage was frequent.

Sometimes the incidents were of a more serious concern; a Sikorsky (Kingfisher A48-7) lost flight and went down in Myuna Bay, another rescue happened when a Walrus float plane misjudged the landing area and ran out of water, the hull split when it collided with the trees on land.

In 1943 a Catalina training on rough water landing tipped on its tail when it encountered an unexpected wave, eight of the crew of ten unfortunately died. The road from the base entrance to the main hall was renamed Higgins Avenue after this incident, a memorial to one of the aircrew lost that day. In the 1950’s a Mustang fighter plane on a flight from Sydney ran out of fuel and ditched into the lake near Pulbah Island near Wangi Wangi. It had sunk into the mud and lay about a half mile from the island. It was eventually recovered.

The Royal Australian Navy was initially responsible for the air-sea rescue services in the northern area of Australian waters using acquired craft and Fairmile launches. From 1942, RAAF Marine Section took over this role in partnership with the Air-Sea Rescue Units of the United States 5th Air Force.

As the Allies pushed the Japanese further north, RAAF Marine Section was left to continue air-sea rescues in northern waters. RAAF Marine Section obtained more boats and also took over mooring assistance, supply and refuelling for flying boats and carrying of stores to isolated units such as remote coastal radar units by sea.

Most RAAF Marine Section crews were trained at Rathmines. The roles of Marine Section crews could be quite dangerous at times. RAAF Stores vessel Wanaka sank during a cyclone on 16 December 1941 with the loss of 10 lives. Catalina A24-206 and bomb scow 010-12 were both destroyed on 20 June 1945 when depth charges on the bomb scow suddenly exploded.

Many recruits and enlistees did not qualify for air service and so the next option for those keen enough was training for watercraft deployment training. They would be trained at Sale or Rathmines, and then move on to a base scheduled for establishment or one that needed a reinforcement of crews.