Hangar 2, Werribee Satellite Aerodrome

Response

Some of Victoria’s top architects and engineers were engaged to work on the construction of buildings for the war effort. They often worked in conjunction with American engineers on projects across the country including hospitals, supply stores, and hangars. Through this exposure to efficiency, practicality and experimentation, their approach to design was transformed and became an instrumental part of the wave of Modernist ideas post-war.

A black and white photograph of two men standing on the precarious unfinished timber trusses of the Werribee Satellite Aerodrome. Carpenters working on the roof trusses of an “igloo” store shed for the Australian Army Canteen Services, 1942. Source: Australian War Memorial.

In early-1942 Japanese forces had firmly established strongholds in Southeast Asia and by April conflict had moved into the Southwest Pacific. Australia was strategically positioned to assist with the building of crucial infrastructure to aid in the war against Japan. As a result, the Allied Works Council (AWC) was established in Melbourne in February 1942 and coordinated a vast program of building works across the country until 1945.

The AWC was a collaboration between Australian architects, engineers, and the US Army Corps of Engineers based in Australia. The AWC needed to respond to two major constraints in the production of these essential structures. Firstly, the buildings had to be lightweight, constructed quickly, and dropped in by air as easily handled, pre-cut packages. Secondly, due to a critical lack of standard building materials, unseasoned or “green” Australian hardwood—rarely used in the production of buildings—was the most readily available building material. These circumstances influenced unprecedented innovation in the production of lightweight structures and would go on to inform Modernist architecture practice in Australia in the post-war years. An example of this innovation can be seen in the aircraft hangars at the Werribee Satellite Aerodrome.

In February 1940, the Commonwealth Department of Air requested the lease of land in Werribee from the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW, now Melbourne Water) to establish a satellite aerodrome to the nearby Point Cook and Laverton RAAF airfields. Land at the sewage treatment farm along Geelong Road was considered the best site for this purpose. In 1942, five timber trussed hangars designed by the Allied Works Council were constructed. This design, which originated in the United States, was adapted to use the unseasoned Australian hardwood and steel sheer connectors to produce Pratt trusses with clear spans of 130 feet (39.6m) and 96 feet (29.3m). The outline of the hangars formed the shape of a parabola which earned the name of “hog-back” trusses. Another design for large clear span buildings from this period utilised the elegant “igloo” truss, a number of which can still be found across Australia.

In their article, “Invention from War: a circumstantial modernism for Australian architecture” in The Journal of Architecture, architectural historians Philip Goad and Julie Willis observe that “the ethos behind the design of all of these structures was one of improvised minimalism and a ruthless engineered economy ...these buildings were not the result of the necessity of artifice but born from the necessity of production.”

A high contrast black and white photograph depicts the mid construction timber skeleton of a aircraft hanger. Hangar 2 under construction, 1942. Source: B-24 Liberator Memorial Australia.

Other buildings constructed at the aerodrome included administration buildings, workshops, storage tanks, armament stores and accommodation huts. In 1950, the MMBW purchased the hangars, workshops and huts from the RAAF. The hangars became an integral part of the farm’s operations and were used as a carpentry workshop, timber treatment plant, machinery and equipment storage, transport depot, and for storage of baled hay.

The Werribee Satellite Aerodrome hangars are an embodiment of ingenious collaborative design that not only responded to a broad and challenging engineering task, but went on to have a lasting influence on Modernist design ideas and practice in Australia.

A black and white photograph of nine pilots and one mechanic in air force uniform walk towards the camera. In the background is a World War two bomber plane that has a highly reflective metallic panelled exterior with transparent windows. B-24 Liberator crew leaving their plane, 1944. Source: Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Today, only Hangars 1 and 2 and the workshop remain at the former aerodrome site, and Hangar 2 is now the workspace of the B-24 Liberator Memorial Australia association, which is restoring a B-24 Liberator aircraft dedicated as a national memorial to those who maintained and flew the Liberator during World War II. In defending Australia against Japanese aggressors, seven squadrons of the RAAF flew a total of nearly 300 Consolidated B-24 Liberators, the largest aircraft in service during the war. Though more than 18,000 of these aircraft were built in the USA during the war, only a small number remain worldwide. Aircraft A72-176 is the only survivor from the RAAF's wartime fleet of B-24 Liberators, and the only example of a Liberator remaining in Australia.

The aviation heritage of World War II is also celebrated in regional Victoria at the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre, which is home to a number of historic aircraft including an Avro Anson, a Wirraway, and a flying Tiger Moth, as well as an operating Link Trainer (flight simulator). A RAAF training base was established on the site in 1941 and operated until 1946, training more than 10,000 men and women during World War II.

Located on the lands of the Wadawurrung people.