Australia's undersea aerial Armada
: the aviation archaeology of World War II flying boats lying in Roebuck Bay, Broome, Western Australia

  • Silvano Vittorio Jung

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    In maritime archaeology, the integration of historical and archaeological data generally focused on historic shipwreck sites to enable research into past lifeways (Muckelroy, 1976). The sea, however, holds many aspects of past human behaviour that relate not only to shipwreck sites and the societies that built those ships, but also to aviation. This study shows that the application of a combined study of written and oral historical records, together with archaeological data, can provide insights into the cultural material left in the archaeological record of a recent past event in Australia. The assemblage of 15 flying boat wrecks left on the bottom of Roebuck Bay tells a story of how they were lost and what has happened to them since their sinking.

    The aerodrome at the Western Australian town of Broome (Rubibi – the traditional lands of the Yawuru people) was the target of a Japanese air raid on 3 March 1942. The aim of the air raid was to neutralise the aerodrome and to destroy all aircraft in the area in order to close the aerial escape route from Java in the Netherlands East Indies, or NEI, now Indonesia. The rapid Japanese expansion into the NEI forced the evacuation of thousands of Dutch civilians and Allied military personnel by sea and air to Australia. The Java air lift to Broome, however, finished on 27 February 1942. The Japanese invasion of Java on 1 March 1942 forced the remaining naval aviation units of the Marineluchtvaartdienst (MLD), the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Navy (USN) to evacuate to Australia. The destination for these units was also Broome.

    Two flying boats of the USN and two Short Empire flying boats (one operated by the Royal Australia Air Force - RAAF and the other by the British Overseas Airways Corporation - BOAC) were already at Broome on the evening of 2 March 1942. 11 Java-based flying boats arrived there early the following morning. The scene in Broome’s Roebuck Bay resembled a floating armada. Within hours all of the flying boats and all of the aircraft at the aerodrome would be destroyed. While nothing remains of the terrestrial sites destroyed at the aerodrome, in the sea the remains of the flying boats endure, as well as another two land based aircraft, American and Japanese that are yet to be found.

    This thesis demonstrates that the Broome flying boat wreck sites represent a significant archaeological resource that provides insights into the air raid and nomothetic principles of site formation process of a new class of archaeological site – submerged aircraft. New data are presented to predict wreck site location, as well as the likely condition of the wrecks. This thesis identifies the sites of ten of the 15 recorded flying boats destroyed in the raid, and provides information on the possible location of the remainder. Analysis is undertaken of how the wreck sites have re-entered a living context as important places not only for tourism, but also as a memorial to those that lost their lives. This thesis provides interpretive data that can be used to increase the public awareness of these sites. The processes of formally identifying wrecked aircraft enables links to be re-established between the people associated with the air raid and the cultural material record in Roebuck Bay. The research in this thesis, furthermore, develops our understanding of how humans behave in a time of crisis. The stories recorded are of suffering, hope and survival from this devastating air raid. They are an insight into Australian, Dutch, British, US and Japanese history that was not previously confirmed, a history whose associations with the archaeological record became lost and forgotten on the sea bed of Roebuck bay.
    Date of Award2008
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorAlan Powell (Supervisor) & Clayton Fredericksen (Supervisor)

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