At the start of World War 2 the war must have seemed quite remote to the people of South Australia. The conflict was happening on the other side of the world in places most people had never heard of. Many more people lived in the country back then, but ties with England were very strong across Australia.
Of course, the First World War had prepared people for the shock of losing loved ones. Families had been torn apart twenty-five years earlier, and some were still recovering from the loss. Despite this South Australians gave generously. They enlisted to fight, and worked tirelessly to support the war effort and their loved ones.
The Scenic Setting Overlooking Kangaroo Island Where Yankalilla Radar Station Stood
Once Japan had joined the war and attacked the United States in Pearl Harbour, the mood in Australia changed dramatically. A real gut wrenching fear permeated the population as the Japanese steadily advanced closer to Australia. In Fort Largs and Fort Malta the defences were increased significantly. Public air raid shelters and underground bunkers were built. It soon became clear that more defences were needed urgently.
Military chiefs worried about Japan's mighty fleet of aircraft carriers. Darwin was bombed by aircraft carrier planes in 1942, and High Command was concerned that carriers could also attack Australia from the south. Defences were needed urgently to protect our own coastline from air attack, and a network of secret World War 2 radar stations in Adelaide and the rest of Australia was planned.
A Concrete Block House or Doover at Victor Harbor Radar Station
These radar stations were often in lonely, isolated places. Far from the cities, WAAF and RAAF radar operators peered into their consoles through the night. They worked in concrete block houses with 35cm thick walls, while the tall transmission towers sent their wireless beams probing the ether.
The RAAF made plans to install radar stations covering the approach to cities, ports and shipping lanes. In South Australia radar stations were planned for Wedge Island, Elliston, Whyalla, Yankalilla, Robe, Victor Harbor, Cowell and Wingfield. But following enemy losses in the Battle of the Coral Sea and at Midway, the threat to South Australia was considered much reduced. The RAAF plans for some of the long range stations and a control centre at Wingfield were never implemented, although construction of some of these stations had already started.
Unidentified World War 2 Radar Station (Image: Australian War Memorial)
The Victor Harbor radar station was completed in 1943, but radar equipment was never installed. It's on private property and is one of the two best preserved RAAF World War 2 radar stations in South Australia. It includes four concrete shelters (called doovers by the technicians), the bases of two demolished towers and a gun pit.
Victor Harbor Radar Station on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia
The Navy had requested operational stations be set up to watch over the approach to the St Vincent Gulf, as there had been considerable enemy activity in the southern waters. It was decided to build secret radar stations in the hills near Yankalilla, and on Wedge Island 100 miles west in Spencer Gulf. These were never mentioned in the press before 1945.
1944 Drawing of Yankalilla Radar Station by Max Rugless (Image: CC BY-NC Australian War Memorial)
Yankalilla radar station was equipped with Light Weight Air Warning (LWAW) equipment, and was able to track planes as far as Mount Gambier and Port Pirie. It was operated mainly by around 50 Women's Australian Air Force (WAAAF) personnel with an armed guard on site. To reach the radar station, staff caught a train from Adelaide to Willunga, then a bus trip from there.
The radar station was camouflaged to look like a ruined farmhouse with double garage doors painted on one wall. Three diesel engine sets used for power were housed in an underground room nearby and were also disguised to look like an old building. The staff quarters were in a nearby gully with the huts laid out to resemble sheep shearing sheds and other buildings on a sheep station homestead.
Staff Quarters at Yankalilla Radar Station 1944 (Image: Australian War Memorial)
Wedge Island received the Australian Light Weight Air Warning (LWAW) system which was installed in a transportable tower. The remoteness of Wedge Island made it difficult to reach: at times it took two or three days in a small boat from Port Lincoln.
Fishing Boat Temptest Brought Stores to Wedge Island Radar Station (Image: Australian War Memorial)
Both secret radar stations were carefully camouflaged and became operational in March 1943. The Yankalilla station closed in late 1944 but was briefly reopened after German submarine U-862 was located in South Australia's waters. It was finally closed and movable equipment disposed of in 1946. Equipment from the Victor Harbor radar station fetched £900 when sold at the end of World War 2.
South Australia had two operating radar stations in World War 2, three others were built but never commissioned, while a final three radar stations were not built. But the question remains as to what could have been done if an attack was detected. There were few anti-aircraft batteries, no warships were stationed in local waters, and no combat aircraft kept at the RAAF bases. Thankfully we will never know what would have happened.
Sketch of Yankalilla Radar Station (Image: Morrie Fenton)
I went to the State Library and looked through Morrie Fenton's pamphlet on 10 Radar at Cape Jervis; it includes a hand-drawn map of the location of the radar site, which seems to be just where the communication towers now stand at the intersection of Range Road and Main South Road. If that's correct it makes sense, as both communication towers and radar would need to be in a local high spot.
I really appreciate your article -very interesting. Do you know anything about the armed guards who protected the 50 women working on the Yankalilla radar? A few men from Mt Compass were employed along the coast near Sellicks to supposedly watch out for shipping & planes. I have seen a photo of them in uniform holding rifles and am now wondering if this was a cover story for the protection of this radar station?
In 1977 I was on Kangaroo Island and one of the locals pointed out to me (with a telescope) the site of a WW2 radar station near Cape Jervis, although I have not been able to find it since then. I note that the AWM describes the Max Rugless drawing as being at Cape Jervis. Were Yankalilla and Cape Jervis the same site?