Preston Air Defence HQ
During the Second World War, Preston Town (City) Hall played an important role in coordinating defence against any enemy air attacks.
Radar stations in Victoria reported to a group located in the Town Hall, mainly run by RAAF units but the Army and Navy were also involved.
The RAAF took possession of the Town Hall on 10 April 1942 with Preston Council receiving rental of £21.13s.4d per month. This exclusive arrangement was in place until 28 February 1946 only after the Council requested the termination of the hire contract so the hall could once again be used for the local community.
The organisation was known as Air Defence Headquarters or Fighter Sector HQ amongst other titles, or simply F.S.
The operation, which functioned 24 hours per day, had a large number of telephone lines, some directly linked to radar stations and a telegraph signal link as a back-up. Eventually there were 26 Officers and 101 other ranks involved.
Staff were housed locally with RAAF and WAAAF personnel staying in leased premises nearby and Army staff in a drill hall at the corner of High Street and Raglan Street.
Officers of the RAAF also lived at the Council Club Hotel on the corner of High Street and Cramer Street, with the officer’s mess housed on the corner of High Street and Showers Street. The Scout Hall in Town Hall Avenue, Mayfair Hall and the sports pavilion at the Preston Oval were also used.
There were two main sections to the operation involving two plotting tables in separate rooms known as the Filter room and the Main Operations room.
The Filter room received reported plots of planes and ships, work initially done by WAAAF airwomen with experienced radar operators where required.
Reports from sources including a network of civilian observers (VAOC – Volunteer Air Observers Corps) were taken in the Main Operations room. Specially trained civilians undertook this highly sensitive work. Plots were identified by small metal arrows of various colours place on the Filter room map table showing the Victorian coastline and surrounding sea.
Reports of unidentified aircraft and ships were followed up and in some cases air raid warnings or aircraft sent to investigate. On occasions a training aircraft had gone off course and in February 1943 some suspicious echoes proved to be whales!
Another room in the old Shire Hall acted as an operations centre for the Army’s searchlight and anti-aircraft units.
As the war progressed and plotting activity decreased, social activities and civilian visitors came to the unit e.g. with lectures on returning to civilian life presented.
In 1945 at the end of the war, a few news reports surfaced mentioning the end of the operation saying that ‘this is the first time ADHQ has been mentioned as being at the Preston Town Hall. It was always very hush-hush during the war.’
In September, as the last of the 350 volunteer air observers ended their shifts plotting and tracking aircraft, parties were held to celebrate and thank them for their participation.
McKellar, Ian Campbell (2004). History and memories of 14 Radar Station Wilsons Promontory. Heathmont: Ian and Margaret McKellar.
Parties for C.O. (1945, September 20). Herald (Melbourne, Vic.: 1861-1954), p. 4
Plotters at play (1945, March 21). Herald (Melbourne, Vic.: 1861-1954), p.4