New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company

The New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company formed in Port Moresby in late January 1942 and was granted “Separate Independent Establishment” status in October 1943. The company’s “founding father” was Major Don Small, who had witnessed Japanese air raids on Rabaul and realised that having lacked an effective early-warning system around New Britain meant that the defenders were taken by surprise. At the time, gaps had also appeared in the coast-watching communications network because the territory administration ordered the withdrawal of civilian wireless operators when Japan entered the war.

The first influx of men into the company consisted largely of volunteers from the 39th Infantry Battalion, which was stationed at Port Moresby. Initial training was rudimentary, hasty, and was sometimes even carried out on en route to a new station. The first party of company personnel, or “spotters”, left Port Moresby as early as 1 February 1942, bound for the strategically important Samarai area, at the tip of Papua.

In the first month of the company’s existence 16 spotter stations were established on the coast of Papua and in the mountains around Port Moresby. At the end of 1942 there were 61 operational stations being run by 180 men. The company’s high-water mark was in late 1944, by which time over 150 stations had been set up in Papua and New Guinea behind enemy lines.

On 3 February 1942 the company issued its first air warning in Papua, when spotters at Tufi saw Japanese aircraft about to attack Port Moresby for the first time. The following month the company was responsible for the first Japanese killed in action in Papua by Australian ground forces, when spotters from Gona engaged the crew of a downed Japanese bomber. And in July 1942 the station at Buna signalled Port Moresby with news of the Japanese landings in Papua, marking the beginning of the Kokoda campaign.

The dangers involved in the company’s work had also been made clear by this time. In July 1942 a party of spotters attempting to set up a station at Misima Island, off Milne Bay, was intercepted by a Japanese destroyer, resulting in the company’s first operational losses.

Anticipating the direction of the campaign as a whole, the company’s focus moved north and north-west over the three years of its existence. In May 1942 a network was set up in the Wau area in association with the activities of Kanga Force. As part of the Wau network, spotter Ross Kirkwood audaciously constructed an observation post overlooking the Japanese airstrip at Salamaua. Kirkwood’s position was photographed by Damian Parer on the understanding that the pictures would not be published. They nevertheless appeared in a Sydney newspaper. The day after the publication of the photographs the observation post was attacked by the Japanese and Kirkwood was lucky to escape.

In June 1944 the company’s headquarters were moved to Nadzab. By that time, spotter stations existed behind Japanese lines, as far north as Hollandia, and the company began to train Americans to perform similar work in the Philippines.

In early 1945 the company moved to Balcombe, Victoria, where its members were posted to other units of the Australian Corps of Signals.

Glossary

Battle Honours

  • nil

Casualties

  • 11 died

For more information please see the Roll of Honour and Second World War Nominal Roll (external website) databases.

Commanding Officers

Decorations

  • 1 MBE
  • 10 MM
  • 10 MID

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

References

  • Crogan, Tom, In search of a war, ([Mosman, N.S.W. : T. Crogan, 2005)
  • Mansfield, Alan, A brief history of the New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company (A.I.F.), ([Melbourne : s.n., (Melbourne :Kenneth James.)], 1961)
  • Perrin, Alex E, The private war of the spotters : a history of the New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company, February 1942-April 1945, (Foster, Vic. : A.E. Perrin, E.D. Cosstick and M.J. Lindsay,, 1990)
  • White, Ray, History of New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company (AIF) (Aust. Corps of Signals), (Nadzab, New Guinea : R. White, 1944)