Faced with an imminent threat of Japanese invasion in the darkest days of World War II, the only real air defence available to Australia was what the nation could manage to produce itself. The CAC Boomerang, the first combat aircraft to be designed and built in Australia, evolved from quick sketch to actual flying machine in a matter of months, faster than the major American and British companies could normally produce their new models.
In the spirit of rapid improvisation, the stop-gap fighter was adapted from the existing Wirraway trainer that itself was derived from an American design, and incorporated technology transferred by its designer, an Austrian Jewish refugee, from front line aircraft used by Australia’s enemies Germany and Japan. The engine used in the Boomerang was the only one available.
That Australia, whose total population during World War II was just over 7 million, could hope to mount effective air defence at the moment of greatest peril, or indeed had any local aircraft industry at all, was due principally to the efforts of three men: Essington Lewis, Lawrence Wackett and Friedrich (known as Fred) David. In different ways they pioneered the design and mass manufacture of aircraft in Australia.
More than two decades after the first powered flight in Australia had taken place in 1910 at Diggers Rest, courtesy of visiting American daredevil Harry Houdini, there were no aeroplanes being built here in any significant numbers. The Australian government preferred to look to Britain to supply Australia’s aviation and other defence needs, an arrangement that was quickly revealed as untenable after war against Germany was declared in 1939 and global conflict ensued.
Lewis was the South Australian-born industrialist who was Managing Director and then Chairman of BHP from 1926 until his death in 1961. After visiting Germany and Japan in the mid 1930s Lewis had become concerned that Australia lay essentially defenceless. Foreseeing the need for Australia to have its own defence manufacturing capability, Lewis used his contacts in the private sector to set up a company that could build aeroplanes in substantial numbers.
Aviation entrepreneur Lawrence Wackett, a Queenslander who during World War One had been a highly decorated pilot in the Australian Flying corps in Egypt and France, joined the BHP-backed Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in 1936 as general manager. Wackett had spent the interwar years designing and building aircraft in Australia in small-scale projects that mostly went no further than the prototype stage.
With the establishment of CAC, Wackett could realise his dream of the mass production of aircraft in Australia. In his memoirs, Wackett noted: “At the peak of the war we reached an employment figure of 10,000 men, a large factory staff by Australian standards of those years”.
Wackett recalled that when the Boomerang was first discussed with government officials: “We explained that we knew the fighter we could build would not be as good as the best Spitfires used in Britain but, then, Australia had no fighters at all, and what we would offer would be vastly superior to any aircraft at that time in Australia. Any fighter which could destroy a Japanese bomber or ship-borne reconnaissance aircraft would be of value, if only for second-line defence”.
In late December 1941 the specific task of creating the Boomerang became the responsibility of enigmatic refugee design engineer Fred David. David, who died in the early 1990s, was an Austrian-born Jewish refugee who had worked for the Heinkel aircraft company in Germany and was transferred to Japan by his sympathetic employer Ernst Heinkel after the Nazis began persecuting Jews. When Germany and Japan became military allies, David made his way to Australia, where his skills and experience were utilized even though David himself was officially deemed an “enemy alien”.
It has been estimated that of the 10,000 civilians interned in Australia during World War II, around 2,000 were of German-speaking Jewish origin. At the same time as David was working at immense speed and in official secrecy to provide Australia's front line air defence capability against a possible invasion, he was obliged to report to police once a week.
David, who in the decades following the war moved from aviation to medical technology, looms as an enigmatic as well as instrumental figure in the Boomerang story. Keith Meggs, President of the Aviation Historical Society and author of a multi-volume definitive history of Australian aviation says that it was David, a naturally reticent man, “who first argued the case for Australia to produce its own fighter plane rather than rely on British or American imports”. At the time, aircraft were being promised for delivery to Australia only to end up being diverted elsewhere.
The development of the Boomerang took place in an atmosphere of deep crisis. Prospects looked bleak for Australia in the face of Japanese expansion in the Pacific. Japanese troops advanced into Indo-China in July 1941. In the first half of December 1941, the same month that design work on the Boomerang was commenced, two military disasters occurred - the attack on Pearl Harbour and the sinking of the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales which had been sent to Singapore by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to aid in the defence of Australia.
In February 1942 the Australian Government formally placed an order for 100 Boomerangs. Later that month the British forces in Singapore finally surrendered to the Japanese and the first Japanese air raid on Darwin, which was almost entirely undefended, took place, killing over 200 people. The prototype Boomerang flew for the first time on 29 May 1942, two days before the attack by Japanese submarines on naval ships anchored in Sydney Harbour.
Production of the Boomerang was organised by Essington Lewis, who was appointed by Prime Minister John Curtain as the director-general of the newly created Department of Aircraft Production. According to his biographer Geoffrey Blainey, Lewis wielded enormous power during World War Two as Australia’s munitions supremo, and introduced considerable innovation into large scale manufacturing. “Much of Australia’s industrial expansion after the war was based on wartime techniques which he introduced”, writes Blainey.
In October 1942, the Australian War Cabinet agreed to increase the order for the Boomerang to 200 planes and eventually a total of 250 were ordered. As aviation historian Stewart Wilson notes, this decision was taken “as insurance against overseas fighter aircraft not arriving as promised”.
The last of the 250 Boomerangs to be built was delivered in early 1945, by which time the plane had been overshadowed as a frontline fighter by Spitfires and Mustangs, the latter being built in Australia by Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. After the war, CAC continued to produce fighter aircraft, parts and engines for the RAAF before being acquired by the partly UK-owned aircraft company Hawker de Havilland in 1986, which in turn sold off its Australian operations to Boeing Australia and Tenix in 2000.
Throughout the latter part of the war, squadrons of Boomerangs were based in Australia and saw service overseas in the Bougainville and Borneo campaigns. The resemblance of the Boomerang’s design to German and Japanese planes that Fred David had worked on meant that tragically some pilots were shot down in “friendly fire” incidents.
One of the pilots who flew Boomerangs with RAAF No.5 Squadron at Bougainville is Jack Hearn. Hearn, who lives in Melbourne, recalls flying low altitude missions over the jungle that included dropping smoke bombs to mark Japanese positions to guide bombers and strafing enemy soldiers working in vegetable gardens. Hearn says the Boomerang had its technical flaws though he appreciated the reliability of the plane’s engine: “At that level, if it failed then you had no hope”.
Military historians today regard the Boomerang, a few restored examples of which are still flying, as having served in the World War Two with credit, if not distinction. For a stop-gap fighter conceived in haste during a time of national crisis, the Boomerang proved durable and adaptable.
According to Stewart Wilson, “the Boomerang had only limited use in the role for which it was designed but it did find a very useful niche in the field of army cooperation flying, a role in which it excelled due to its manoeuvrability and good low altitude performance”. The plane flew so low, in fact, that “it was not uncommon to find the Boomerangs returning from a sortie with small branches and debris attached to some part of the airframe”.
Perhaps for the pilots that flew the Boomerang such an occurrence gave particular meaning to the expression “flying by the seat of our pants”. And indeed it seems an appropriate way to travel in the aeroplane that was born uniquely of a national emergency.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Weekend Australian on 24 April, 2010.