July 2018

Apart from events in early April that were mentioned in the previous newsletter, not much of special interest has happened in the past three months in regard to historical writings and related activities. The item below would have been deserving of more attention had we not been absent from Australia during May, on a European holiday booked in the middle of last year.

Yarram marks Australia’s first military operational flight

On 26 May an unusual and interesting ceremony took place at Yarram in South Gippsland, situated close to the western end of the Ninety Mile Beach, recalling the occasion when the town played host to the first operational flights in Australia’s history that were carried out with warlike intent. These were sea patrols in April-May 1918, during the last year of World War I, to detect the presence in coastal waters off south-eastern Australia of German ships, submarines or aircraft. The flights undertaken by the army detachment sent from Point Cook flying school, outside Melbourne, were matched by a similar party sent to Bega in southern New South Wales, although the Bega detachment started later and ended sooner than at Yarram.

To commemorate the centenary of Australia’s entry into the realm of maritime reconnaissance from the air, students at the Yarram Secondary College had been working for two years on a half-sized model of the British-built FE2b two-seater pusher-powered biplane that was flown over Bass Strait by the Yarram detachment. Two days earlier the fruits of the students’ handiwork—five metres long and constructed in steel, hardwood and fibreglass (in preference to the original aircraft’s wood and canvas)—had been mounted on a tall pylon in Yarram Memorial Park, ready for its official unveiling.


Left: The FE2b preparing to leave Yarram on patrol, with Capt. Frank McNamara in the pilot’s seat at rear. The observer/gunner was Warrant Officer Roy Hendy; right: Yarram’s replica of a FE2b now on display in Memorial Park.

The unveiling ceremony itself seems to have given rise to the usual journalistic misunderstandings and misconceptions about the events of 1918. Contrary to popular belief, the air patrols were not needed to deal with activities of the German raider Wolf. That vessel had already passed through Australian and New Zealand waters the previous year, and was long gone. It was publicity generated by German boasts about the success of Wolf’s mission that triggered a flood of reports to the Commonwealth’s department of defence, alleging all manner of further suspicious activity in coastal waters, which really compelled defence authorities at act. Public alarm verging on mass hysteria could not be ignored.

Anybody interested in the true details of what lay behind the Yarram and Bega air deployments will find the situation fully explained in the biography of Captain Frank McNamara, VC (the pilot of the Yarram detachment) that I wrote 20 years ago, and also a Pathfinder bulletin that I wrote for the RAAF’s Air Power Development Centre back in October 2006, which is accessible online. Although I had been informed by friends with local connections about the Yarram project and planning for unveiling the replica, and provided what information I had about the episode by these same means, it seems the organisers didn’t feel the need to get in touch.