Serving 'POM' in R.A.F found refuge at 3rd attempt during Cyclone Tracey
by Stephen Mawdsley
During 1974/5, I was 1 of 4 UK RAF personnel attached to RAAF Darwin. 3 of us were in Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974 and 1 was on holiday in Perth.
I had taken a girlfriend to a Christmas dance which was planned to be held in a marquee at the rear of a Darwin hotel/bar. The wind started to whip up around 10pm ish and we decided to return to the RAAF base. We went to the girl's sister's house in the 'married quarters' area on the base. Around mid night, the roof of the house started to lift and deteriorate so we left and went our seperate ways. She took refuge in a nearby house and I started to walk back to my accommodation.
I now realise that this was somewhat foolhardy given that the air was full of flying debris. Fortunately, I was picked up by a passing friend from the RAAF. He drove me to my accommodation and I took refuge on the floor of my hut, lying on a mattress, with pillows over my head !
By this stage, overhead power cables had been brought down by the storm and therefore we were in total darkness. I then could feel water around my feet, and I initially thought that surely water could not have risen to the height of the hut on stilts which stood approximately 12 feet above the ground. I then quickly realised that the roof was damaged and rain was pouring in. The roof started to lift so along with my colleagues in the RAF and RAAF, we moved quickly into a more substantial 2 storey building nearby.
Some families had aleady been evacuated from their vulnerable houses and were being housed in this barrack block. I remember helping to place wardrobes against the shutter windows in order to provide some extra protection. During the lull of the storm, we went outside and surveyed the devastation and this made us realise the dangers that we had endured so far.
As the storm came back from the opposite direction, we re-positioned the wardrobes against the corresponding walls and hoped for the best. I had just taken off my footwear in order to dry my feet, when the wind blew-in the windows and almost demolished the wardrobes. We quickly jumped up and pushed back the wardrobes and other pieces of furniture. This is when I sustained a cut foot whilst standing on some glass. Fortunately it was only a minor injury, and we managed to keep the wind at bay.
My abiding memory of these few hours was seeing the evacuated excited children opening a few of their Christmas presents which their parents had quickly packed as they were collected from their houses. When daylight came, we all helped with the general evacuation of Darwin. I helped with sanitation, whilst 1 of my RAF colleagues (an electrician) in the RAF helped provide temporary power to a hospital and the other (a ground equipment fitter) provided mobile generators and air conditioning units etc. We also drove around the RAAF married quarters and collected various families in order to bring them to designated emergency centres.
The area looked as though it had suffered a nuclear explosion. The trees were bare and there was neither sight nor sound of any birds. A quite eerie feeling. We then worked for the next 36 hours without rest in order to assist with the evacuation by emplaning evacuees onto the multitude of aircraft which descended on Darwin.
A couple of days after the cyclone, I handed over to a visiting RAF Group Captain and received a bottle of whiskey in return!
Eventually we were "pulled out" of Darwin in February 1975 and returned to the UK via Adelaide.