In Werribee a town in Victoria is a very unique piece of Australian military history. The restoration of the last remaining Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Consolidated B-24 Liberator (and the only one in the southern hemisphere) is taking place there in an old air force hangar. The B-24 was a large (wingspan 33.5 metres/110 feet and length 20.7 metres/68 feet) 4 engined long-range heavy bomber with a 4 ton bomb load designed by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation of San Diego, California. It was used by the Allies in both the European and Pacific theatres of World War Two for bombing, maritime patrol and transport duties.
The XB-24 prototype of the Liberator was ready for flight by the end of 1939 and proved a successful design. Redesignated the B-24, the aircraft was then put into mass-production with 18,482 being constructed between 1940 and 1945 (the most of any heavy bomber). At the peak of production a factory could produce one airframe every 55 minutes!
Due to the vast numbers of Liberator aircraft available in 1943, it was decided by Allied commanders that the RAAF was to be equipped with the B-24 to assist the USAAF in the strategic bombing role in the Pacific theatre of war. The first RAAF B-24 became operational for use against Japanese forces in February 1944 and went on to prove to be very effective in the heavy bombing role in places such as Borneo.
287 Liberators (B-24D, B-24J, B-24L and the B-24M models) eventually served in RAAF bomber squadrons No. 12, 21, 23, 24, 25, 99 and 102. Most RAAF B-24 crews were trained at the No. 7 Operational Training Unit in Tocumwal, NSW. The Liberator was the only heavy bomber used in the Pacific by the RAAF and they operated from the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Morotai in the Netherlands East Indies and Palawan in the Philippines.
In the latter stages of the Pacific War, RAAF No. 200 and 210 flights also used small numbers of B-24’s for special covert and electronic surveillance missions (under the direction of the Australian Intelligence Bureau). These special missions were conducted in 1945 over Borneo and the Netherlands East Indies. 200 flight was equipped with 8 B-24’s and their operations included dropping “Z-Force” special forces behind enemy lines (officially they were known as Z Special Unit). 210 flight operated 2 B-24’s from Darwin in the Northern Territory conducting electronic countermeasures against Japanese radar and radio communications. The last Liberator was retired from RAAF service in 1948 when they were replaced by Australian-built Avro Lincoln bombers. The fact that so many aircraft were built and so few remain today, makes this last surviving RAAF Liberator very special (there are only around 14 complete airframes surviving today with a couple still flying in the USA).
The Werribee B-24M (RAAF serial number A72-176) is being restored at the former Werribee airfield by a dedicated group of volunteers from the B-24 Liberator Restoration Fund. The fund was incorporated in 1989 and the members of the fund and the volunteers come from all walks of life.
A72-176 did not see combat, but was used by No. 7 Operational Training Unit to train B-24 crews. At the war’s end most B-24’s were no longer required and were scrapped for their metal which was then melted down for more urgent use. So much metal was required for the war effort that once peace came it was put back into essential items for daily life from pots and pans to cars and the like. Luckily A72-176 avoided this fate as it was required for use as a geographic survey aircraft before its last flight to RAAF East Sale in 1946 where it remained as an instructional airframe until 1948. The airframe was then sold as scrap (minus its wings and tail that had already been sold)
Although a suitable B-24 airframe was located in 1988, the restoration project did not commence in earnest until 1995 with the recovery of the airframe from a property in Moe, Victoria where it had sat for the last 47 years. At some stage the owner had been living in it while his house was built! Later it became a chicken shed!
The majority of the airframe parts, equipment and engines have been sourced from around Australia and the world, plus through generous donations. The wings and tail were recovered from a USAAF wreck shot down by Japanese fighters in 1943 over New Guinea – these were discovered by a fund member and were recovered with the assistance of the RAAF in 1992. There are over 1,000,000 parts in a Liberator bomber but they have managed to put together virtually all the required parts (what can’t be found or is unusable is refabricated)!
A lot of hard work and long hours have gone into this big project and although the Liberator is being restored to its original appearance (it is looking fantastic) it will not be to flight condition (it is too rare to risk). The intention is to have the B-24 be capable of starting the engines up for taxiing purposes only and for it to displayed in a museum which will eventually also include other restored aircraft such as the Avro Anson and Airspeed Oxford that were used to train crews that would go on to fly in the B-24.
Despite the historical significance of this being the only surviving RAAF Liberator, as far as I know the restoration group have received no significant funding from the Australian Government other than assistance in recovering the aircraft wings from Papua New Guinea and still have no permanent home when it is completed. This is a shame really – the site of this restoration is only a short drive from the historical home of the RAAF at Point Cook (also the location of the RAAF Museum) and the volunteers are mostly getting on in years (3 of them sadly passed away last year).
The fund of course needs all the help they can get to finish this project and enjoy all their hard work. Luckily they have received support from the public, various businesses and the like over the years and after almost 20 years the restoration is making slow but steady progress even after a number of setbacks.
In 2004 the hangar that was used to store 500,000 aircraft parts was badly damaged in a storm and became a safety risk that stopped restoration work for some time until it was rebuilt. During this time some valuable parts were stolen including wingtips that had taken 4 years to build! In another later incident someone stole a lot of their tools! These were a major setback at the time that just wasn’t needed in a grassroots restoration such as this. Hopefully the fund can work something out with local government and the land owners to get a permit to extend their hangar and create the museum they have planned to show this mighty old girl off in style (apparently the signs are looking positive).
ADDENDUM October 21st, 2014: The Victorian government announced it has secured the future of the B-24 Liberator Memorial by signing an agreement for the transfer of the land between the state government, Melbourne Water and the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund (Melbourne Water will transfer about 1.475ha of land through the state to the B-24 Fund). The B-24 now has a permanent home and the restoration can continue, which is a much better option than building housing on the site!
If you get a chance please visit this B-24 restoration project and help bring back to life an important piece of Australian history. All monies from your entry fee go towards the project (you can also become a member of the fund or make a tax-deductible donation) and volunteers are also more than welcome to apply to help out with the restoration and the running of their store. I have visited this B-24 on a number of occasions over the years and always enjoy seeing its progress. You can wander around the airframe and even take a look inside. The level of work that goes into a restoration project of this size is enormous. It will be fantastic to one day see the completed Liberator restoration!