Mallacoota Bunker

Response

The Bass Strait shipping lane was a strategic location for enemy forces to disrupt defence activity and launch attacks on Australia’s vast and vulnerable coastline. The Mallacoota Bunker was an integral link in Australia’s RAAF coastal intelligence, but due to the nature of the service, its story has largely gone untold.

Secrets from the Mallacoota Bunker. Courtesy of the Mallacoota & District Historical Society, produced by Tiny Empire Collective.

When considering direct attacks to Australia during World War II, most would think of the Japanese bombing of Darwin and north-west Australia, or the Japanese midget submarine attack in Sydney Harbour. However the war also came startlingly close to Victoria.

Between June 1942 and June 1943, 13 Japanese submarines were known to be operating off the south-east coast of Australia. These Japanese submarines were some of the largest in the war and were capable of carrying a midget submarine or a floatplane. During this time, they claimed 17 Allied ships, 12 of which of were Australian, killing 194 people. In addition, five Allied ships were sunk by Germany, four by mines, and one by torpedo.

A faded black and white photograph of a Japanese submarine breaching the surface of the water. A misty mountain range can be seen in the background and there is faded Japanese text printed on the side of the image. Japanese B1-type I-15 Class submarine—these submarines launched midget submarines, float planes, and torpedoes in Australian waters. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Following the attacks in Darwin and Sydney, the Mallacoota Bunker, or Underground Operations Room, was established as the headquarters of RAAF coastal intelligence activity for the region. The East Gippsland region was sparsely populated and the long coastline was considered to be vulnerable to attack. The main purpose of its operations was surveillance of the area to assist in keeping our sea lanes open, and it formed an important link in a chain of defence bases located along the Australian coastline. Mallacoota was also selected due to its proximity to Gabo Island, where a RAAF Radar Station was established.

A grainy black and white photograph of a young radio operator focused on a pen and pad. He sits at a bench in front of morse code and radio equipment. Radio operator working at Mallacoota Bunker during World War II. Courtesy of the Mallacoota & District Historical Society.

The Bunker listened to coastal shipping, decoding and collating the coastal surveillance intelligence which was then sent via a separate transmission station back to Melbourne and the War Cabinet Room. A RAAF Landing Ground was also established in Mallacoota as part of the RAAF coastal reconnaissance, acting as a staging facility for the refueling, re-arming, and maintenance of aircraft.

Unbeknownst to the public at the time, the Japanese used floatplanes launched by submarines to undertake surveillance flights over Australia. A local example of this was the flight over Melbourne by Japanese pilot Nobu Fujita in February 1942. This flight was launched from Japanese submarine I-25 and was the only recorded flight of any enemy aircraft over Melbourne. Despite being witnessed by numerous people it was not reported on until 1945 and remains a little-known story today.

An aerial black and white image of a World War Two fighter plane flying over a city. A manicured garden with zigzagging trenches and a large classical style building can be seen below the plane. An Australian-built DAP Beaufighter 21 aircraft in flight over the Shrine of Remembrance, 1944. In 1942, a Japanese spy plan also flew over Melbourne. Note the zig-zag trenches to either side of the Shrine axis, which were for shelter should the Victoria Barracks be attacked. The zig-zag design was to minimise exposure to a bomb blast along the length of the trench. Source: Australian War Memorial.

The only Australian vessel sunk by a submarine in Victorian waters during the war was the SS Iron Crown. The Japanese submarine, believed to be I-27 which also launched one of the Sydney midget submarines, torpedoed the freighter in June 1942, 70km off Gabo Island, claiming 38 lives. A memorial for the SS Iron Crown is located near the RSL Cenotaph in Mallacoota.

A black and white photograph of two large ships anchored at a jetty. SS Iron Crown alongside the SS Hagen, New South Wales, c1920s. Source: National Library of Australia.

Earlier in the war, three other ships were sunk in Victoria. Mines laid by the German auxiliary cruiser, Pinguin, claimed the SS Cambridge—the first Allied ship to be lost in Australian waters during WWII—and the MS City of Rayville in 1940. The final vessel sunk was HMAS Goorangai, a mine sweeper that collided with an allied passenger liner. The loss of these ships highlights the strategic importance of the Bass Strait shipping lane and the extent of enemy activity off the coast of Victoria.

The significant influx of servicemen to Mallacoota brought a flurry of activity and economic stimulus to the small community. At its height, 70 RAAF servicemen were working at the Landing Ground and 35 men were stationed throughout this period at Gabo Island. However, the strategic importance of the Mallacoota Bunker was largely unknown to locals. The Bunker was strictly off limits to the general public and was heavily patrolled by armed guards. Explosive charges were laid around the perimeter, so that in the case of a Japanese invasion the whole facility could be destroyed.

The Mallacoota Bunker serves to highlight the sophisticated coordination of the Australian intelligence service during the war and the role of regional Victoria in the defence of our vulnerable coastline. The Mallacoota Bunker now operates as a museum run by the Mallacoota & District Historical Society.

More broadly, the Gippsland region hosted a significant RAAF presence during World War II, with aerodromes at Bairnsdale, West Sale and East Sale all contributing to the war training effort. RAAF Base East Sale was declared operational on 22 April 1943 and is one of only two still operating air bases in Australia established during World War II, the other being RAAF Base Williamstown in New South Wales.

Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.