to the Radar Returns website.
The main aims of this site are:
- to keep World War II RAAF and WAAAF veterans informed and to stimulate and record their memories;
- to draw attention to the role of radar as a key factor in the defence of Australia in WWII, a story long suppressed for security reasons; and
- to record the developing role of RAAF radar and of radar people since WWII.
Precise details to be decided nearer the date. Cost should be similar to previous reunions + inflation, plus travel and accommodation.
Phillip Marsh, Reunion Administration, email@example.com
Following the Annual Pilgrimage service by the RAAF Association at the Air Force Memorial on Sunday 8 November 2009, a commemorative plaque was dedicated, honouring the contribution made during WWII by the School in training thousands of RAAF, WAAAF and USAAC technical personnel as wireless, radar and electrical mechanics and wireless operators.
The ceremony began with an Introduction by Bob Mainon, WWII radar mechanic, followed by an address by Alex Culvenor, President of the Victorian RAAF Radar Association, on The History of No 1 Signals School (see below).
The plaque was unveiled by Florence Coutts (WWII WAAF Wireless Telegraphist trained at the School) and W/Cdr Terry Fisk (representing W/Cdr Barbara Courtney, Air Base Executive Officer and Commanding Officer Combat Support Group, Williams) and dedicated by S/Ldr Keith Lanyon, RAAF Chaplain.
An address by A/Cdr Ken Watson, Commander Air Force Training Group, brought the ceremony to a close
History of No 1 Signals School (A slightly edited version of Alex Culvenor’s address)
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
The history of Australian RAAF radar and Point Cook Signals School both begin in Shepparton, Victoria. Air Commodore Alfred George Pither, CBE was born in Shepparton in 1908 and educated at the local High School. He gained admission to the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1927 and graduated as Lieutenant. In 1930 he was appointed to a commission in the RAAF and in the following year took the No 10 Flying training Course. He also achieved a distinguished pass in the Australian Signals Officer course. A botched appendix operation and an infection resulted in the loss of a kidney. He was judged temporally unfit for flying duties. Pither then began to specialise in Signals.
Following a year at the RAF Long Signals Course at Cranwell, England. In 1939 he was appointed to command the Signals School at Laverton with the rank of Squadron Leader. Not satisfied with what he inherited at Laverton and recognising the need was imminent for large numbers of communications personnel, Pither established a signals school at Point Cook in October 1939. This was the school we honour today.
Shortly after the outbreak of WW2, Pither was transferred to RAAF headquarters for staff duties connected with signals training and as part of this work he introduced a new curriculum at the Signals School. The new curriculum would also be adopted for Wireless Mechanic training at the Melbourne Technical College. Then in 1940 Pither was posted to the United Kingdom and attended a special officers course on Radar (RDF). He returned to Australia and was promoted to temporary Wing Commander in charge of Radar (or Radio Direction Finding (RDF) as it was known at that time). His direct influence at the Signals School now ceased.
Wing Commander Pither is applauded by all radar veterans for his outstanding achievements in radar - being directly responsible for training, equipment development and production and the organising of a chain of 126 radars throughout Australia and the Pacific.
If radar units were not able to communicate to their control units by direct landlines, then wireless was the only option. Each of the remote radar units were staffed by at least four wireless operators providing for a 24-hour operation. Then, of course, at the other end of the link, there would be additional operators on listening watch. In busy areas like the Admiralty Islands and PNG each communication link would require a total of six to eight operators for the 24 hour operation. Therefore graduates from the Signals School were essential staffing for each radar unit.
The Signals School at Point Cook developed rapidly under its first Commanding Officer, Flight Lieutenant D J MacPherson. Early courses were for wireless operator/mechanics. It was evident to the RAAF that large numbers of wireless operators and mechanics would be required. To speed up training the long course for wireless operator/mechanics was abandoned in 1940 in favour of two trade musterings: operators and mechanics
Signals School was renamed No 1 Signals School Point Cook in June 1940 and for several months it operated in parallel with Melbourne Technical College for the training of wireless mechanics, during the period needed by Melbourne Technical College to expand its facilities. About half of these went on to study as radar mechanics at Radar School at Richmond NSW. From late 1942 all wireless mechanics received their training at Melbourne Technical College.
The recruits for the Radar School were selected from No 1 Signals School Point Cook and we have one such graduate mechanic from Radar School here today: Peter Yeomans, who completed a wireless mechanic’s course at Point Cook. The US Army purchased approximately 60 Australian LW/AW early warning radar sets and the 200 to 300 radar mechanics they needed were trained in basic radio theory (the American term for wireless), at the Signals School before proceeding to Richmond, NSW.
In December 1941 Flight Lieutenant W J Deane became the Commanding Officer of the school and in January 1942 Flight Lieutenant R D Austin assumed command. Command was then handed over to Squadron Leader G Finlay in October 1942. The strength of the School at that time had increased to 524 trainees, made up of 15 W/T operators, 19 US Army radio mechanics, 12 US Army radio operators, 439 Telegraphists, 31 Signals Clerks, and RAAF and WAAAF Direction Finding operators.
By the end of the war the total number of graduates of RAAF and WAAAF exceeded 7000. This included: 1515 W/T operators, 2690 Telegraphists, 465 signals clerks, 120 cypher assistants, several hundred wireless mechanics (including US Army radio mechanics), 630 electricians, 220 electrical fitters, 37 signals officers and graduates of numerous refresher courses.
In late 1941 the school was given the task of training pigeons for release from aircraft or small boats. In the early experimental stages, the birds were purchased from local pigeon breeders, however even after a period of living in a new location a few birds returned to the lofts of their original owners. A local breeding program was then established at the school. In July 1942 the project was handed over to Army signals. There is no record of the pigeons being used by the RAAF in operations.
It is only in recent years that the public has been made aware of the outstanding and very secret WW2 role of the dedicated RAAF wireless Units. The Allies had cracked the Japanese security codes. The wireless operators listened to and recorded the Japanese messages transmitted in the KANA Code – the Japanese equivalent of Morse Code. The information from the decoded messages provided vital information to the Allied Command. It is claimed that the Allies were often in possession of critical information before the Japanese recipients of the message.
The operators for the first wireless unit were recruited from the Ballarat Wireless/Air Gunners School and trained as KANA operators at the Melbourne showground. However most of the recruits required for a total of six wireless units were graduates of No 1 Signals School. The history of the wireless units and their success in reading Japanese KANA transmissions is recorded comprehensively by Jack Bleakly in his book The Eaves Droppers The wireless units were the only Australian units to accompany General MacArthur back to the Philippines.
The Japanese surrendered in August 1945. As a result, almost all training establishments were rapidly closed down; No 1 Signals School was disbanded on 20 November 1945. From the perspective of history we can see what was achieved by RAAF Signals, and all the requirements for successful communications in WW2. The high level of achievement reflects the equally high level of instruction at the No 1 Signals School. The dedicated members of staff were able to visualise the tasks that would confront the trainees in the field.
It is a privilege, on behalf of all veterans, to honour the role played by No 1 Signals School in ensuring that the RAAF had well-trained technical staff for the challenges of war.
If it were possible our thanks should be recorded by more than words on a polished plaque.
Alfred George Pither, promoted to Group Captain in March 1950, was appointed Director Telecommunications and Radar in 1954 and Officer Commanding RAAF Base Laverton in 1961. He had finally returned to signals and to flying.
George Pither retired in 1966 and died on 2 July 1971.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience.
With special thanks to Nancye Lennon, Sydney, who was trained as a MFDF operator in course no 5, March to July 1943. Direction finding equipment (goniometers) were installed at eight RAAF communication centres around Australia. To maintain 24-hour operations at least 4 operators were required at each. When contacted by an aircraft wireless operator they were able to take a bearing to it and, in conjunction with a DF operator at another comm centre, could fix the position of the aircraft. This covered a greater range than radar. Having fixed its position a course could given to the crew to make a safe return to their base.The life of Alfred George Pither has been recorded by Ed Simmonds and Warren Mann and published in Radar Returns, Vol 14 No2 (pp 5-7). I thank Warren for permission to access this work for details of his Air Force career.