Monday, February 20, 2012

70th Anniversary of Norfolk Island Airstrip

Christmas Day this year will mark the 70th Anniversary of the first ‘unofficial’ landing of an RNZAF plane on the Norfolk Island airstrip. The plane delivered food and Christmas parcels to the Kiwi forces stationed here during the war and no doubt took some of the limelight from the first official landing of two Hudson bombers on the 28th December. Three more planes landed the following day. The drama, and excitement, of war was well and truly upon the island. Throughout the duration of the war, an average of 200 planes a month staged through Norfolk, bringing sixteen different types of aircraft.

While today it is almost impossible to imagine coming here any other way than by air, up until 1942 the only option was by ship. No enemy invasion occurred on Norfolk during the war. However the impact to the island was possibly far greater than any previous event, leaving profound changes that are still with us today. The airstrip opened up the island to the outside world like never before.

It was Japan’s entry into the war in 1940 that dramatically changed the island’s war time role. To begin, a small Australian detachment of fifty-seven men was dispatched to reinforce the local detachment and prevent sabotage of the cable station at Anson Bay. This was where the cable from New Zealand joined the Pacific Cable, linking Australia and Canada via Fiji.

However it was Norfolk’s unique and strategic position in the South Pacific that brought her fully into the war. The US Navy & South Pacific Commander, Vice-Admiral RL Ghormley decided that an airstrip would be ideally located here. It would be a staging depot for land-based aircraft moving over the waters between New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia and the Solomons; a base for anti-submarine patrols, and refuge for aircraft in distress. With an airstrip, Norfolk would have a role as a centre for maritime reconnaissance and surveillance.

The site was chosen on the south western side of the island. In total 171 ha of land was compulsorily acquired, representing one eighth of the island’s total area - a vast amount of land to be given by Islanders for the furtherance of the war effort. Aside from the removal of many family homes, the “Tree of Knowledge”, a large tree where local notices were historically posted was also removed, along with one mile of historic 30 metre high convict planted pines known as “The Pine Avenue”. With the enormous impact to so many families, it is hard to imagine the land being able to be acquired in any other circumstances than war.  

A New Zealand company, the 36th Battalion designated as ‘N Force’, made up of 1,488 personnel was dispatched to protect the airfield. N Force also comprised the 215 Composite Anti-aircraft Battery, 152nd Heavy Battery and a mobile field troop. They were stationed here between 1942 and 1944 and as a result, Norfolk’s war history is closely tied to New Zealand.

The overall effect on Norfolk was enormous. The local population at times was outnumbered by 3:1 from military personnel, with a peak of 2,000 servicemen in the first half of 1943. This brought the island population to its highest ever, impacting on the availability of fresh food. Roads were widened and re-built. A 20 bed hospital was constructed. Islanders’ homes and the Old Military Barracks at Kingston were converted for war-time use. A disused sawmill was put back into operation producing 65,000 superficial feet of timber per month (ultimately leading to a significant loss of timber reserves). And a radar station was built at Mount Bates by the RNZAF in May 1943 serving to save both lives and aircraft.

The photo is of the first official landing and is from the Road Transport Authority. There are plans to mark the 70th anniversary at the end of the year with exhibitions and displays and other events. The story of the making of the strip, its war time use and post war impact on the island is a big story. As the details emerge we’ll keep you posted.

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