The DCA's Role in the Second World War: Part 1
by Roger Meyer

DCA’s role in World War II is a surprisingly broad subject, as this series of articles will reveal.

As the war clouds gathered over Europe, governments prepared for the coming emergency. In Australia, civil aviation’s role was recognised when, on 26 April 1939, J.V.Fairbairn became both Minister for Civil Aviation and Minister assisting the Minister for Defence. When the Defence portfolio was divided on 13 November, Fairbairn became Minister for the Air (i.e. RAAF) whilst retaining the Civil Aviation portfolio.

How prepared was DCA for the war?

By June 1939 DCA was responsible for 71 Government Aerodromes and 147 emergency landing grounds. There were 215 local aerodromes licensed. Advances had been made in airway and aerodrome lighting, including rotating beacons and obstruction and boundary lights. Strip maps for pilots were being produced. Aeronautical radio facilities were of two types; communications and navigation. Permanent Aeradio stations were being constructed at 17 sites, with temporary facilities at six more. The AWA Coastal Radio Service was, at this time, used extensively for air-to-ground communications. Ultra High Frequency Lorenz 33 MHz radio range beacons existed at Brisbane, Kempsey, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Launceston, Hobart, Nhill, Adelaide and Perth.

Air Traffic Control had also begun. In March 1937, Aerodrome Control Officers were appointed at Archerfield, Mascot, Essendon and Parafield. Meteorological facilities were also being provided, with full forecasting stations at 12 airports, and secondary stations at 11 more.
So when war came, much had already been done to put in place a civil aviation infrastructure, but much more was needed, and DCA was immediately involved in providing it.

Organisation and personnel

The enormous increase in the Department’s responsibilities and activities led naturally to an increase in personnel. The increase resulted, in part, from the many officers who enlisted or were loaned to the defence departments.

In June 1939, there had been 251 officers and employees, 275 by June 1940 and 524 by June 1942. On 20 April 1942, the Department had been declared a ‘protected undertaking’ under the National Security (Manpower) Regulations. This meant that staff could not leave the Department without special authority.

During the war 77 officers of DCA enlisted in the armed forces for full-time service. Eight of these men gave their lives. By 30 June 1946, all but two of the survivors had resumed duty with the Department.

On 13 August 1940 Minister Fairbairn was killed while a passenger on a RAAF Hudson aircraft which crashed near Canberra Airport. Also lost were the Minister for the Army, the Chief of the General Staff, the Vice-President of the Executive Council, a staff officer, Fairbairn’s private secretary, and the aircraft crew.

Fairbairn was followed in quick succession by Arthur Fadden and Jack McEwan. On 7th October 1941, when the Curtin government took office, A.S.Drakeford became minister. He remained a very effective minister until 1949.

A.B. Corbett was Director-General at the beginning, was almost due to retire, but because of the emergency, his appointment was regularly extended for short periods until 17 February 1944 when Daniel McVey was appointed. As McVey could not take up duty until 5 August, Corbett soldiered on before finally retiring on 4th August. Much of the burden throughout the war was borne by the Assistant Director-General, E.C.Johnston and a small group of senior officers, including the Chief Electrical Engineer, R.M.Badenach, the chief Aeronautical Engineer, A.G.Berg, and the Chief Inspector, Ground Organisation, A.R.McComb.

Read The DCA's Role in the Second World War Part 2

Acknowledgement: Some of the material in this article is from an unpublished manuscript written by former Historical Officer James Walker.


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