World War II plan for secret inland airfields shows how Australia was preparing to defend itself

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Motorists travelling on Emmaville Road near Glen Innes in Northern NSW might not be aware they are following the taxiway of a secret wartime emergency airfield.

Key points:
The RAAF leased farm land for the secret air field
Two taxiways and revetments for 18 bomber aircraft were planned
Clairville became the site of the Glen Innes airport
Little remains of the "Clairville" facility planned by the Royal Australian Air Force in 1942, which later became the site of the existing civilian Glen Innes airport.

But a PhD student and airpower archaeologist, Daniel Leahy is documenting what does remain for a public catalogue of Australia’s wartime airfield designs and locations.

Maps obtained from the RAAF Museum show runways of over 6,000 feet (1.8km) in length at the Clairville site, and several revetments; earth features that surround aircraft to protect them from potential bombing and air attack.

"What I wanted to establish was if these features were actually built," said Mr Leahy

During a recent visit to the site, he discovered some of the taxiways on the map were actually built, and a bridge constructed over an open drain.

A gravel bridge over an open drain in a paddock

Looking west along a former taxiway. Note the crossing over the open drain.(Supplied: Daniel Leahy)
"That was about three or four car widths wide, so it’s not built for local traffic or farm traffic," he deduced.

Mr Leahy also believes he found revetments surviving in the landscape on what is now private property.

"They kind of looked like modern-day farm dams, he said.

"Today, they have water in them, but back then, they would have had hard sand for an aircraft,"

RAAF confirms the site as part of strategic war plan
The Royal Australian Air Force confirms it did have significant plans for the "Clairville" site in 1942.

The war with Japan had escalated; Darwin had been bombed, and the RAAF was creating a strategic inland defence network.

"The plan was to establish airfields in inland Australia for both regular operational use and as emergency airfields should it be required to evacuate other airfields closer to the coast and under constant attack," said Air Force Historian Martin James.

"Clairville was selected as part of this strategy of airfield depth around Australia, and it was determined that it would be suitable for two unsealed runways and aircraft revetments of up to 18 twin-engine bomber aircraft," he said.

Under the plan, 575 acres (233 hectares) of land was leased from local farmers, the vast majority from a Mr F D Lane who was paid 245 pounds rent and 4,100 pounds compensation for 507.5 acres (205 hectares).

While materials and funding were set aside to camouflage the revetments, they were never needed.

By the end of the war, there were 310 of these regional Air Force facilities around Australia. Some of them had significant airfields attached to them. Some of them were a simple emergency landing strip, said Mr James.

After the war, the RAAF had no further use for the airfield and handed the lease to the Civil Aviation Authority in 1946, which was developing its post-war plans to open up regional Australia to aviation. Glen Innes airfield was later created.

Seeking tangible evidence
Mr Leahy plans trips to as many of these small airfields as possible for his research into the different changes in airfield design and location once Japan entered the war.

Instead of training aircrew to go to war in Europe and North Africa, he said, Australia started building defensive airfields with camouflaged spots for aircraft to be serviced and refuelled.

Sealed road beside bushland

"This is one of those things we see in the plans, at least for Clairville, with revetments and taxiways spread amongst bushland," he said.

He hopes his photographs and research will augment our knowledge.

"So instead of being just reliant on the history books, we’re actually using the physical remains, and documenting that, and trying to work out how certain things came about," he said.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-22/world-war-ii-australian-inland-airfeld-secrets-revealed/13249692

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