Finding the Target

Searchlight battery at Ramsgate c1943.
Australians At War Film Archive

History Week 2020, organised by the History Council of NSW, runs from 5-13 September. This year’s theme is ‘History: what is it good for?’, and the aim is to make us take a closer look at our community.  In 2018, Georges River Council initiated an annual programme creating heritage markers at locations around the district, and this year’s five new heritage markers are soon to be installed.  These markers, chosen from suggestions from the community, together with the ten installed in previous years go some way towards reminding us of significant people, places and events. The first of this year’s markers commemorates the WWII Oatley anti-aircraft searchlight battery.

During WWII, women who enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service might be assigned to duty on an anti-aircraft searchlight battery.  Searchlight batteries operated at Ramsgate, Moorefield Racecourse and Oatley.  The Oatley battery is thought to have been located in the vicinity of present-day nos 27-29 Baker Street; examination of a 1943 aerial photo of Sydney shows an area of bare ground to the rear of where those houses now stand which would have been suitable for the purpose.  It was co-ordinated with another searchlight located where the Scout Hall now is in Gungah Bay Road.  A lane at Oatley was informally signposted as ‘Searchlight Lane’ some years ago.

In an interview for the Australians at War Film Archive, a former AWAS Gunner, Phyllis Smith, recalled:[1]  “Bankstown was quite rural in those days, and where Roselands is now, somewhere like that, we had a station, and Ramsgate and Maroubra… and Oatley.  For each battery (you’d have about four or five different sites) you’d have about eighteen girls on each one. Ramsgate was very heavy, because all night you had to ‘take post’, as they called it. Jump out of bed, the bell would go – every plane that went over you had to jump out of bed, get out and put the beam up and identify it. Sometimes, it would be every hour of the night, sort of thing. And besides that, you did two hours guard. You had about eighteen girls, eighteen, twenty girls on a station. We did our own cooking.  We did our own maintenance on the equipment, we did everything, we didn’t have any of the men. Our rations came out every day by truck and that was it.  We had a bombardier in charge, that’s equal to a corporal, two stripes.  It was all female at the stations.”

Phyllis was asked how the women recognised the types of aircraft, and she replied: “You picked them by sound. And you had to identify how high they were, like you went down into your command post or you’d scream out, “Target seen.” And the spotters would be in swivel chairs that laid back, and they’d swivel around that, they’d say, “Target seen, target seen right, or target seen left”, or wherever it was. And they’d keep saying, “Target seen right, target seen right, target seen right.” And then number five would put the beam up. You’d have to work to where it was on your instrument and get it up. And they’d sing out, “Exposed.” Then you press the thing and the light would go onto it. Hopefully, you’d be on target and you’d scream out then, “On target!” 

The full interview with Phyllis Smith is well worth exploring.  It is at:

To judge by the photograph she supplied of the battery at Ramsgate, the cheerful AWAS servicewomen of No 52 Anti-Aircraft Searchlight Battery were proud to do their bit.

[1] accessed June 2020.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.