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Flying boats in the Second World War, 1939–45

Flying boats provided a vital service for Australia during the Second World War. In particular, Catalina flying boats played a unique part in daring missions by Australian airmen in Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

A Catalina Flying Boat of the RAAF on patrol over the Pacific Ocean off Sydney, 1942, by Richard Ashton, oil on canvas on cardboard, 40.6x45.5cm. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial ART23667

The Catalina missions included long-range mine-laying, torpedoing, rescue, evacuation, and holding open far-distant lines of communication. The Catalina was to Australia what the Spitfire was to Britain. In addition to the activity of the Catalinas, existing passenger flying boats were converted for military work, and two squadrons of Australian flying boats based in Britain successfully sought out and sank German U-boats.

Empire flying boats – new roles and loss

Empire flying boats Centaurus and Calypso and later Coogee and Coolangatta were taken into service with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Their luxurious seats and fittings were stripped out and replaced with machine guns and bomb racks. The aircraft were then put into service transporting troops and later evacuating civilians, and performing patrols and reconnaissance flights. When Italy entered the war in June 1940, the Mediterranean was closed to allied planes and BOAC and Qantas operated the Horseshoe Route between Durban and Sydney using Short Empire flying boats.

In June 1942 a Japanese submarine off Bondi Beach shelled Sydney Harbour. Many considered Rose Bay flying boat base was the target of the attack, and indeed a block of flats was hit in Manion Avenue, just a few streets from the base.

By 1944 almost all the Empire flying boats that had operated in Australian waters during the war had either crashed or, in the case of Centaurus, Corio, Circe and Corinna, been destroyed by enemy fire. By 1948 the only Empire remaining in Australia was Coriolanus, which was broken up for scrap in January of that year.

A Dutch crew from a visiting Dornier Do 24 flying boat in Roebuck Bay being taken into Broome by launch in 1941. AWM 044613

Flying boats with evacuees bombed in Broome, March 1942

Flying boats of Qantas Empire Airways were in service in February 1942, in Broome Western Australia as part of an air shuttle service from Java for hundreds of evacuees who were ferried to Broome in Dutch, American and Australian military and civil aircraft. During the last weeks of February 1942 over 7000 people, including those who had escaped from Singapore, passed through Broome. On one single day, 57 aircraft landed there.

On 3 March 1942, without warning, Japanese fighters attacked. The attack lasted no more than 20 minutes, during which time 25 Allied aircraft were destroyed and dozens of people were killed or wounded. Many victims were Dutch women and children packed into flying boats on the harbour either waiting to be unloaded and ferried ashore or waiting to depart for the southern states.
Australia's War 1939-1945, Air raids, Broome

The Japanese attack on Broome in March 1942 destroyed 16 flying boats.

Short Sunderlands in Europe

The RAAF also purchased Short Sunderland flying boats, which mostly saw action in Europe and only flew in Australia towards the very end of the war. In Britain they played a valuable role seeking and destroying U-boats.

RAAF Sunderland flying boat attacking U-boat, 1967, by Dennis Adams. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial ART27572

Seagull and Empire flying boats for cruisers and bases

Supermarine Walrus aboard HMAS Australia, Canberra, Sydney, Perth and Hobart

The Supermarine Walrus (formerly the Seagull V) was initially developed for service from cruisers at the request of Australia and was designed by Reginald J. Mitchell who designed the Spitfire. The RAAF ordered 24 Supermarine Walrus which were delivered for service from cruisers, and were the first amphibious aircraft in the world to be launched by catapult with a full military load.

The first Supermarine Walrus was handed over to the Royal Australian Air Force in 1935, with the last, A2-24, delivered in 1937.  They served aboard the HMA Ships Australia (MTO (Mediterranian Theatre of Operations)), Canberra (MTO, SWPA, lost at Guadalcanal in 1942), Sydney (MTO, SWPA, lost off the coast of Western Australia 1942), Perth and Hobart. (Watch the Supermarine Walrus in action)

Seagull and Empire flying boats first based at Port Moresby

At the outbreak of the Second World War 11 Squadron moved to Port Moresby, having been formed as a general reconnaissance squadron at Richmond in New South Wales on 21 September 1939. The squadron's small flight of Seagull and Empire flying boats immediately began patrolling the Thursday Island, Tulagi, New Zealand, and Bougainville. In 1941 the unit began flying Catalina aircraft, with one detached to join the search for HMAS Sydney and any survivors.
11 Squadron RAAF

A restored Catalina returns to its new home at the former RAAF Base Rathmines on Lake Macquarie 2008, once the largest flying boat base in the South Pacific. Courtesy of the Catalina Flying Festival

20 Squadron was formed at Port Moresby in New Guinea on 1 August 1941. Equipped with Catalina aircraft and Empire flying boats, the unit's first task was to conduct extensive seaward patrols and clear three Japanese vessels from Australian waters. Squadron aircraft continued to carry out bombing attacks against Japanese shipping at Rabaul and other targets on Japanese-occupied islands.

Surprise Japanese-aircraft attacks on Port Moresby during March resulted in the loss of several Catalinas and the squadrons were forced to relocate to Bowen in Queensland on 7 May 1942.

'Black cats' – the versatile Catalina flying boats

PBY Catalina of the 'Black Cats' returns from a 14 hour mission against Japanese shipping in the Pacific during the Second World War.

The war also saw the arrival in Australia of large numbers of the Catalina, perhaps the best known and loved flying boat of all.

The PBY Catalina is regarded as the most successful flying boat ever made. Catalinas were in production from 1935 to 1945 by Consolidated Aircraft in the US and Canada. They were designed for reconnaissance but were adapted – minimally – into very long range bombing, mine laying and even torpedoing craft through the entire period of Japanese involvement in the war. (From Sea to Sky)

The Catalina flying boat was a slow aircraft, vulnerable to enemy fighters. A number of Catalinas were lost while on reconnaissance flights, such as those over the Coral Sea in early May 1942. The Battle of the Coral Sea was the largest naval battle ever fought so close to Australia. It was fought entirely by aircraft attacking ships.

RAAF Catalina flying boats in action over the Pacific

The RAAF Catalinas 'took the war to the Japanese' through long-distance flights to lay mines, despite their relatively low speeds and the vulnerability that created. The Catalina 43 squadron had an operational base at Kurumba, Queensland from 1 May 1943 and flew from Bowen. Operations from Kurumba included attacks on Amboina, Babo, Langgoer, Ambon, Sarong, Toeal, Kaimana, Jefman and Taberfane. The Squadron transferred to Darwin on 9 April 1944, where it commenced new operations; the laying of mines in enemy waters and harbours along with 42 Squadron based at East Arm. In late 1944, RAAF mining missions with Catalinas sometimes lasted more than 20 hours and were conducted sometimes at only 200 feet, in the dark.

Crew member of a Consolidated PBY Catalina aircraft on port blister watch with machine gun AWM-P08233_009

The RAAF employed Catalinas as night raiders. Four squadrons laid mines from April 1943 to July 1945 in the southwest Pacific deep in Japanese-held waters. They blocked up ports and shipping routes and pressed ships into deeper waters to where they could be targeted by United States submarines, and they tied up the crucial ports such as Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, from which most of Japan's oil supplies were shipped.

RAAF Catalinas trapped the Japanese fleet in Manila Bay to support General MacArthur's landing at Mindoro in the Philippines. They also mined ports on the Chinese coast from Hong Kong north to Wenchow. The RAAF Catalinas regularly made nuisance night bombing raids on Japanese bases, with the catchcry 'The First and the Furthest'.

The Catalina also flew air-sea rescue sorties in support of long range bomber strikes on targets in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and other places. On 6 April 1945, a Catalina flew from Darwin and arrived to pick the survivors from two RAAF Liberators that had been shot down in action in the Sawoe Sea (Timor). After the rescue Catalina landed to pick up survivors it was staffed by fighters and caught fire. The crew as well as the Liberator survivors were force to abandon the aircraft.

The Double Sunrise: Qantas's secret Perth–Ceylon wartime service

Captain Russell Tapp uses a compass on the Indian Ocean Catalina service, 1943.

When Singapore fell to Japan in February 1942 Australia lost its air connection to Britain. A new route was urgently needed. Hudson Fysh, co-founder of Qantas, wanted to establish a civilian service between Australia and Sri Lanka, despite the fact that at this time Japan had complete domination of the Indian Ocean, but civil aviation authorities ruled that this route was too dangerous to attempt.

In 1943, at the urging of the British Government, the Royal Air Force in Britain supplied Qantas with five Catalina aircraft, if Qantas agreed to open a flying route from Perth to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was to be the world's longest regular non-stop service – a total distance of 5632km (3520 miles). The weight of fuel limited the Catalina's load to only three passengers and 69kg of diplomatic and armed forces mail. The flying boats travelled at 160 miles an hour.

Qantas Empire Airways began to operate the Catalina flying boats between Perth and Koggala Lake in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This extraordinary, top secret, civilian service made 271 crossings of the Indian Ocean with no loss of life, continuing right through to the end of the war. In the process they delivered 860 high priority government and military passengers, large quantities of microfilmed mail, and urgent war-related freight – a major contribution to the war effort.

These Catalinas were completely defenceless, carrying no weaponry, and with all armour plating removed so that the planes were sufficiently light to make the long crossing of more than 6480 km. In order to remain undetected by the Japanese, they flew by night using celestial navigation and without radio, except for a very brief midnight weather bulletin in Morse code. The average length of the flights was 28 hours. Because the journey was made by night, the crew and passengers saw the sun rise twice, hence the name 'Double Sunrise' service.

The Double Sunrise service still holds the record for the longest non-stop commercial air route and the record for the longest ever non-stop commercial flight – 32 hours 9 minutes. The last Double Sunrise flight departed from Sri Lanka for Perth on 17 July 1945. (Secret Order of the Double Sunrise)

To Singapore and south-east Asia for evacuation of POWs

A Catalina flying boat landing in Singapore Harbour AWM-P02018_047

At the end of the war, the flying boat squadrons dropped food and medical supplies to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps across south-east Asia and flew survivors back to Australia.

In August 1945 nine Catalinas were sent to Singapore carrying medical stores, personnel and records in preparation for Unconditional Surrender by the Japanese in 1945. The Catalinas arrived at Rose Bay in Sydney on 27 August 1945 and loaded their cargo. They flew back to Rathmines to refuel before flying to Cairns and onto Darwin the next morning.

RAAF PBY-5 Catalina, A24-1 crashed on take-off from East Arm, Darwin on 30 August 1945. Catalina A24-1 was towed in to the mud flats after the accident. The remains of the Catalina can still be seen to this day. Altogether there were three RAAF and another three US Navy Catalina flying boats lost in Darwin Harbor, which have been listed on the NT Heritage Register. One of them, bombed by the Japanese in 1942 was located in 2008.

In early September 1945, a low-flying Catalina of the RAAF sighted Australian prisoners of war in the islands adjoining Timor.

The prisoners were sighted at a barge staging point on Loblem Island, about 150 miles west of Timor, and appeared to be wearing slouch hats. In response to a message from the Catalina the prisoners formed up a rough V formation on a part of the beach screened from the Japanese. They also held their arms aloft in a V sign.
Telling Prisoners the News, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 1945

Veteran Catalina RAAF radio operator Richard Udy described the planes as 'very secure' and 'wonderfully airworthy'. Most of the missions he did with Catalinas were by night. His said his most significant and happy time was bringing prisoners of war home, those healthy enough to fly, to Rose Bay in the flying boats at the end of the war.

RAAF Flying Boat Bases

Following the escalation of attacks on the earlier RAAF flying boat bases at Port Morseby, Papua New Guinea, Bowen, Queensland and Darwin, Northern Territory; the RAAF established a base Lake Boga in Victoria. This complemented the base at Lake Macquarie in New South Wales.

RAAF Base Rathmines

RAAF Base Rathmines, Lake Macquarie, early 1940s, photographer unknown, early 1940s. Courtesy Qantas

The RAAF Base at Rathmines was once the largest flying boat base in the South Pacific and key to Australia's war effort. Rathmines is located on the shores of Lake Macquarie, near Newcastle, New South Wales. The base held a wide range of flying boats, including Sikorsky aircraft and Dutch Dorniers.

About 3000 personnel were stationed at Rathmines at the height of the war. Of the Catalina flying boats based there, 32 went down in combat, with 332 lives lost. The base operated from 1939 until the early 1950s. It remains mostly intact. Many of the original buildings, as well as the slipway, still survive.

In 2012, 19 former Second World War personnel watched the Catalina seaplane return to Rathmines, the former RAAF seaplane base.  In 2013 more than 20,000 people attended the Rathmines Catalina Festival.

RAAF riggers working on a Consolidated Catalina flying boat at the RAAF Flying Boat Repair Depot, Lake Boga, Vic. 15 August 1944. AWM 141570

RAAF Flying Boat Base Lake Boga

When the Imperial Japanese attacked Darwin and Broome in 1942, 16 flying boats were lost and a safe haven was needed. Lake Boga, in inland Victoria, was made into an RAAF Flying Boat Base. It serviced and repaired Australian, Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force and United States flying boats. The station at Lake Boga closed in November 1947.

The underground Communications Bunker at Lake Boga has been transformed into the Lake Boga Flying Boat Museum, and a Catalina has been rebuilt as a memorial to the personnel who served at Lake Boga during the war.

Where to see flying boats

Flying boats are well loved and a few have been carefully preserved:

  • PG Taylor's Frigate Bird II Catalina, in which he and his crew crossed the South Pacific from Chile to Australia for the first time, is on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
  • A restored RAAF Seagull 5 flying boat is at the RAAF Museum, Point Cook, Melbourne. It was wrecked and lay icebound in Antarctica for many years.
  • A Catalina flying boat was bought in May 2013 in Puerto Rico to go on display in a new museum in the former RAAF base at Rathmines, New South Wales. Enthusiasts have been searching for a Catalina for years for this purpose.
  • Whale World at Albany in Western Australia has a Catalina of Australian wartime origin that was used as a spotter in the whaling industry after the Second World War.
  • Lake Boga Flying Boat Museum display a restored Catalina.
  • Qantas Founders Museum at Longreach in Queensland will soon have a Catalina on display.
  • Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin, Melbourne, has a Catalina fuselage on display and being restored.

Useful links

Look listen and play

Exhibition and events

Organisations and restorations

Film and DVD

Online resources

Print resources

  • Historic Houses Trust and Museum of Sydney, Flying boats: Sydney's Golden Age of Aviation, 2008, exhibition brochure and other information
  • PG Taylor, Bird of the Islands: The Story of a Flying Boat in the South Seas, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, 1964
  • B. Freeman, Lake Boga at War, Catalina Publications, Swan Hill, 1995
  • D. Morrissey, A History of Air Transport in Australia, Macmillan Education, Melbourne, 1998
  • David Embry Jones, Wings on the River: Flying Boats on the Brisbane River and Redland Bay, ,Boolarong Press, 2007
  • Norman Barnes, The RAAF and the flying squadrons, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 2000
  • Robert Frederick Honan, That's that : memoirs of wartime service 1939-1945, R.F. Honan, Trinity Gardens, S. Aust., 1989
  • Jack Riddell, Catalina squadrons, first and furthest : recounting the operations of RAAF Catalinas, May 1941 to March 1943, J. Riddell, Murwillumbah, NSW, 1992
  • Albert Minty, Black Cats: the real story of Australia’s long range Catalina strike force in the Pacific War, Solomons to Singapore, Cairns to the coast of China, RAAF Museum, Point Cook,1994


The exhibition 'Flying boats: Sydney's Golden Age of Aviation' at the Museum of Sydney, 2008 is acknowledged as an extensive source of information.
Thanks to Matthew Holle of Sydney Living Museums and to Graham Malcolm, Chairman of the Australian National Aviation Museum, Moorabbin, for valuable information and insights.

Last updated: 30 October 2016
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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