RAAF 11 and 20 Catalina Squadrons, Cairns, World War 2

RAAF 11 and 20 Catalina Squadrons, Cairns, World War 2

The Catalina Memorial stands on the Cairns Esplanade near the Hospital.  It occupies the area of the 11 and 20 Squadron base camp, roughly from Muddy’s to the tennis courts and the Hospital car park.


11 and 20 Squadron crew accommodation huts on the Esplanade

Left Side Inscription

“During the early critical months of the Pacific War, Catalina Flying Boats of 11 and 20 Squadrons, Royal Australian Air Force, played a significant part in slowing the initial Japanese advance.  Operating from northern island bases as emergency bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, although deficient in speed, arms, and armour, they exerted an influence out of all proportion to their limited numbers. As these inexorably dwindled, and their bases were overrun or became untenable, the survivors withdrew to mainland Australia and – briefly licking their wounds – renewed the fight from the waters which this memorial overlooks.

Armed with bombs, depth-charges, mines of torpedoes, they reached out from here, in single flights, to the Solomons, New Britain, New Guinea, and the Netherlands East Indies; and by stages, and in increasing strength, to the Palaus, the Philippines, Formosa and China.

In January 1942 the two Squadrons attacked Truk, the great Japanese naval base in the Caroline’s; by June the enemy flood had reached the Solomons and the Catalinas were bombing Tulagi, the centre of the group:  Three years later in May 1945, with the reinforcement of 42 and 43 Squadrons, they were mining the South China Coast; and in July, as the test atom bomb exploded in New Mexico they were at full strength, mining the Banka Straits off Sumatra.”

Right Side Inscription

“In the years between, these four Squadrons attacked most of the enemy strongholds within this great rectangle; many of them many times.  By night Catalinas bombed them, and mined their harbours ; swept their sea lanes with radar eyes, and parachuting supplies, or setting down on unlit reaches, maintained our coastwatchers in their midst.  And at all times, in the role they were designed for, the flying boats escorted armadas of ships, harried submarines, and plucked from the sea soldiers and sailors, and many aircrew – some from within rifle shot of the enemy.

Not all these missions were mounted from Cairns.  Neither the first strikes not the last took off from here, but from the attacks on Tulagi onward, for two hard years, this city was the Catalina`s operational base, and its people the refuge and strength of those who flew them.  It was perhaps unique among the settled communities of Australia in having a fraction of its population in almost daily contact with her enemies, and in pulsing night and day to the passage of armed aircraft directly attacking them.

In those far off years this placid spot resounded some three thousand times to the labouring take off of a loaded Catalina, and a day later heard its whispering return – but not three thousand times.  From all Australian Catalina operations in the South West Pacific theatre three hundred and twenty airmen failed to return.  Nearly all of those who died were temporary citizens of Cairns.  Their resting places are mostly unknown.  This is their memorial.”

The memorial was unveiled by His Excellency the Governor of Queensland, Air Marshal Sir Colin Hannah, K.C.M.G., K.B.E., C.B., on 9th October 1976.

It was built by the people of this city in 1976, its centenary year, and by surviving members of the wartime Catalina Squadrons.

Cairns, 1944, a Catalina flying boat taxis out for a long range mission.


Bill Ernst, LAC Fitter 2E, 20 Catalina Squadron RAAF wrote “We had a bomb dump at Sandy Creek, on Mr R. Cowie’s sugarcane farm at Sawmill Pocket near Edmonton.  One day when the armorers were bringing in a bomb they stopped outside the Imperial Hotel (Abbot and Shields Street) where a beer session was in full swing.  They put the bomb on the footpath, and for a small charge of sixpence invited anyone who wished to send a message via the bomb to TOJO, Japan’s Prime Minister, to do so by putting their signature on it.  In no time at all it was completely covered and some local charity benefited by the impromptu act.”


Monuments Australia


Australian War Memorial


RAAF Association – Cairns branch


Places of Pride


“I Didn’t Know That”, BRADLEY Vera





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