GIPPSLAND ARMED FORCES MUSEUM by Dion Makowski
Gippsland is a region located roughly two hours / 200kms south-east of Melbourne, Victoria. In the region can be found the West Sale Aerodrome which is a destination no that familiar to most aviation enthusiasts. More recently known to warbird and military enthusiasts for the small fleet of 11 ex-RAN Fleet Air Arm Grumman Trackers which have now been removed in pieces to the USA, West Sale features a growing, volunteer-run military museum highlighting the role played by Gippslanders in the Australian military forces.
During December 2016, Down Under Aviation News had the opportunity to have a look through the Gippsland Armed Forces Museum collection.Based on an original collection of military memorabilia from Australian Army’s earliest origins, the museum features a significant aeronautical collection. Our hosts were President, Rick Hanning; former Korean War army veteran, Lester Jackson and Mr Alan McEwan.As with many similar regional museums, it is most inspiring to hear the stories and research gathered, and view the restorations being conducted on site by passionate volunteers.
THE GIPPSLAND REGION ROLE IN RAAF WW2 TRAINING
During WWII, the Gippsland region hosted a complex of no less than three active airfields in the operational and training roles:
RAAF Base East Sale opened as a training base on 22 April 1943. Initially, the base was home to No.1 Operational Training Unit (1 OTU) equipped with Bristol 152 Beaufort light bomber aircraft and Airspeed Oxford crew trainers. Over 3,000 crew were trained here for operations in the South West Pacific Theatre of Operations. Convoy protection and maritime patrol (general reconnaissance) operations were also flown from here.
Following World War II, the RAAF Central Flying School – one of the world’s oldest military aviation units, was relocated from RAAF Base Point Cook (where it formed in 1913) to East Sale in 1947, operating DH Vampire trainers, Macchi MB-326H and currently, Pilatus PC-9s.Several of the RAAF’s iterations of display teams have called East Sale home, including the Red Sales (Vampire) and Telstars (Macchi) and presently, the Central Flying School’s Roulettes (PC-9/A). (Phil Buckley photo).
The School of Air Navigation (which once operated Hawker Siddeley HS-748 Navigation trainers) is now incorporated into the School of Air Warfare. Currently, the base is home to several other units including No 32 Squadron (which flies the King Air 350 multi-role aircraft), RAAF Officer’s Training school and School of Air Traffic control. (Phil Buckley photo)
RAAF Station, West Sale for two years from 1942-43 was home to 3 Bombing and Gunnery School (3 BAGS) and 1 Air Gunnery School (1 AGS) 1943-45, whilst operating, amongst other types, Ansons and Fairey Battles for target towing duties.
RAAF Station, Bairnsdale No.1 OTU Beauforts were flown from Bairnsdale until relocated to East Sale. General Reconnaissance School (GRS), formed at Point Cook in 1940, with Ansons was also resident here from 1943 to 1946.
Koo-Wee-Rup airfield was constructed in 1942 as a protective fighter base outside Melbourne to protect the vital Yallourn power stations from air attack, while Monomeith Park aerodrome complex was partly completed in 1943 but further work was curtailed due to the tide of war moving in the allies’ favour.
GIPPSLAND ARMED FORCES MUSEUM GALLERY
Located in the old National Safety Council of Australia Sport Complex, the original squash and basketball courts allows this museum to stage separate themed displays. There is a large Army display in what would have been the basketball court while some Navy items are displayed in the foyer area including German WWII sea mines recovered from Bass Strait – the result of the raider, Passat casting her attentions on our sea lanes. An Anson cockpit, seen right, from airframe MG872, is restored in Bombing and Gunnery School configuration.
Probably the largest part of the aviation collection, at least by volume, is the WWII collection. The visitor will see many components which have been sourced from crash sites – ingeniously displayed with photos of the site and history of the aircraft and/or crash reports. Many of these components have significance to the area, having been retrieved from scrap dealers, farmers or donated by locals. Other material can be seen which has been recovered by members of the team on their interstate travels, investigating WWII crash sites.
Items from further afield include captured data plates obtained from wrecked axis aircraft in North Africa, and donated to the museum.
There are memorial boards dedicated to those 195 service personnel killed in training or operations from the three principal RAAF bases in Gippsland during WWII. Of these, 191 were aircrew involved in operational training accidents and of these, 53 are still listed as missing off the Gippsland coast. The vast majority, were Beauforts fatals, with 97 aircrew killed. The infamous “Gippsland hailstones”.
Some of the components recovered from crashes, below right, tell a sad story. Gippsland region features some rough country where many aircraft came to grief and many went missing. Several were rediscovered only years later:
Near Walhalla on 10th Mar 1942, a US Army Air Corps pilot, Capt. Joseph P McLaughlin of the US Army Air Corps, flying a P-40E Warhawk 41-5526, crashed in a remote hilly area. The site was only discovered in 1948. Rick was involved in the rediscovery of the wreckage and the US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii, attended the site to recover and identify any human remains. These were brought together with partial, fragmented remains discovered in 1948 and buried as “unknown’ in Hawaii, and were subsequently reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC. The story is told in a booklet which can be purchased at the museum’s gift shop, the Walhalla P-40.
A USAAC Brewster Buffalo crashed, on a mountainside on 1 July 1942, killing Lt Henry Orous Null, USAAC from 4th Air Depot Group, Laverton (possibly on a delivery flight). A RAAF Republic P-43 Lancer crashed in remote mountain country past Healesville. It was A56-7 and P/O Alan William Green was killed in this crash. A6M2 Zero components are displayed, very typically Japanese in appearance, which feature anodised green metal. The origins of the fuselage from which these came is unclear, it is possible the aircraft was a captured example tested for intelligence purposes then later converted into a target near Sale. Tendered for scrap in 1949 (and seen on base by Lester), it was buried in the local RAAF landfill. Data plates, in Japanese, indicate these originated from an A6M2.
Lester provided a story which emphasises the challenges of wartime operations in Gippsland. When several P-40s were lost locally on delivery to Laverton, whilst following the coast to West Sale (East Sale was still being built) and only the flight leader had external communications. He decided to land and the rest (there were possibly 14 aircraft) followed him. When the flight arrived, only 87 octane fuel was available, whereas P-40s ran on 100/145 octane. A train load had to be sent from Melbourne the next day.
On another occasion of following the coast, a flight of P-40s found themselves lost near Wilsons Promontory. Told to go to Sale, they were to “Look for the aerodrome – it looks like a country town“. They found the “country town” and to announce their arrival to the base, instead ‘beat up’ the real town (Sale or Maffra)! The leader flew low over the railway station looking for signs, which had been removed per wartime regulation, so he landed at a house, left his aircraft ticking over and was nearly shot by the lady owner. Discreetly landing further up the road to ask a farmer directions, he was directed “to the nearest gate”, that was East Sale aerodrome.
Various jet and prop displays form the basis for the Post War Gallery covering aviation in the Gippsland region.
One of the most important post war events the museum pays tribute to is the loss of a major RAAF aircraft, a Boeing 707 off the coast. On 29th October 1991 while on a training mission, RAAF 33 Squadron Boeing 707, A20-103 “Wilberforce”, crashed into the sea off Woodside beach, killing the crew of five. The crash occurred whilst manoeuvring on asymmetric thrust (both live engines on one side were shut down). A small engine and flap components are on display here.
Post war the history of East Sale predominantly, as that station continued on as a RAAF base, including the Central flying School and the School of Air Navigation. An HS-748 synthetic trainer, components, photographs, models and uniforms together paint a fascinating picture of the way the base has expanded in partnership with the communities in the area.
A3-75, a Mirage III, crashed at Dowd’s Morass, near East Sale on 18th Feb 1980. Pilot Officer J W Carr, ejected safely from 3,500 ft at 230 knots. Recovered components are on display here.
On external display, we satiated our Top Gun predilections with a “sortie” in one of two Macchi’s the museum has on display – A7-015, still resplendent in its’ 76 Squadron camouflage scheme. Nearby is the fuselage of A7-014 in the Roulettes Fanta-can scheme. This is said to be the first locally assembled Macchi for the RAAF and was planned originally to be mounted on a pole in Sale proper but this plan was discontinued due to the expense. These airframes were apparently sourced from RAAF Base East Sale on disposal of the Macchi fleet in 2004.
An unidentified BAC Strikemaster has appeared in recent times while a radial engine mockup from the movie The Pacific, rounds off the external displays.There is a display which focuses on the RAAF display teams operations, which also touches on the Sale-based demonstration teams Red Sales, Roulettes etc within the “postwar aviation” hall. A major RAAF Roulettes display focuses on the operations of the PC-9/A. The display highlights an ejection from one of the aircraft in 2005 with the ejction seat nearby a pilot display.
Worth seeing in it’s own right is the United States flag, presented to Australian Field Marshal Blamey, following the surrender ceremony on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945. This is a true icon and an exhibit the museum are justly proud to display.
Among the many exhibits (featuring items from the Boer War and two World Wars to the present day) are applicable aviation exhibits. RAAF Korean War Pilot F/O George Hale and his Gloster Meteor Mk.8 “Halestorm“, A77-871 are featured. Also present is the tail fin off an Army Bell 206B Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter, A17-016. There is a small restoration shop within this part of the museum, featuring Beaufort nose A9-164, which was an acquisition from another restorer. This is an active project with many smaller parts already prepared and the cockpit gradually taking shape.
Many components ready for inclusion, are on display nearby and are easily seen before they go into the project. A post-war Link Trainer, A13-150, A D-4 Mk.1 version, on loan to the collection, demonstrates the early value RAAF placed on ground-based ab-initio, advanced refresher and currency training, in this case for bomber and transport pilots.Admittedly, it is a large space for a small number of volunteers to manage – they seem to do it well, and we can forgive them for some displays being “works in progress” or seemingly placed somewhere as there was no room elsewhere. I find the most interesting part of visiting such a museum is taking the time to look at everything – in every corner of the display cases, or underneath, or in corners – you may be surprised what you find!
The museum honours the lost lives of WW2 training with this memorial.
As with many smaller museums, volunteers are most welcome. Museum opens Saturday-Monday, 10am-4pm, or by appointment. Entry is a miserly $4.00 AUD (I always support these smaller museums with a few purchases of merchandise and they do have some publications and memorabilia for sale).
Call +61 3 5144 5500 (during their operation days) or call in at Lyon Cres, West Sale Airport, Fulham VIC 3851. Email contact is firstname.lastname@example.org.