RAAF Officers' Mess to be restored for public use

For more than 50 years a former Royal Australian Air Force Officers’ Mess has been deteriorating into a state of disrepair as it lay dormant and unused at the Ballarat Aerodrome.

Now finally, with its roof caving in and stumps sinking into the ground, the historic site that once housed wireless air gunner trainees will be restored for public use.

Years of public campaigning has paid off for RAAF Association members determined to see the site, now known as Hut 48, returned to is former glory.

Ballarat City Council has agreed to a deal with the association that will see them and another four community groups potentially given space within the building.

State government funding will be needed, but council also has money allocated in its 2017-18 budget.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War a RAAF base was constructed in Ballarat in 1940.

The Wireless Air Gunners School – more commonly known as WAGS – operated under the Empire Air Training Scheme established by the British.

More than 28 schools were established across Australia to train 900 men a week.

It was in Hut 48 where many of these airmen were housed during training.

The training scheme’s aim was to rapidly train Australian, New Zealand and Canadian crews for British Bomber Command’s fight against the German Air Force in Europe.

After the Second World War ended the base became a radar training school and Hut 48 was turned into the Officers’ Mess.

RAAF Association member and Vietnam veteran Peter Schoutens said the approval for refurbishing the building had been a long time coming.

“We have been contacting council over the years because I could see the building getting worse and worse,” he said.

“We are now thinking about a monument similar to the one at Lake Wendouree.”

Parts of the former RAAF base are already being used by community groups, such as the Ballarat Four Wheel Drive Club.

Hut 48 is a P-Type hut that was built with a bar area, dining hall, smoking room and kitchen.

The kitchen’s concrete floors make refurbishing it a difficult task and will not be included in the handover to the RAAF Association.

By the time the war ended more than 5000 trainees had through the school, which was formerly disbanded in 1946, but remained property of the RAAF until 1961 when the radar school moved to the RAAF’s Laverton base in Melbourne.

It also hosted the ground section of a United States Air Force heavy bomber squadron in 1942.

The first commanding officer was Wing Commander C.O. Fairbairn, an Australian Flying Cross recipient and the creator of the Ballarat base.

Wing Commander Fairbairn oversaw the training of more than 3000 men during his four years in charge.

The Skipton landowner and keen pilot flew with both the original Royal Flying Corps  – and its successor the Royal Air Force – before joining the RAAF.

Council infrastructure and environment director Terry Demeo said there was a long planning process ahead of the planned refurbishment of the building.

“If funding is successfully secured, through both Heritage Victoria and the city’s 2017-18 budget, it is proposed funding will be allocated to Hut 48, which has been referred to as the former Officers’ Mess,” he said.

“It is hoped the renewal of this structure will house approximately five community groups.

“At this stage the project is in its infancy with further consultation and scoping of the required works continuing.”

Following council’s takeover of the building in 1961 it saw a number of uses until it was closed in the mid-60s.

For a short-lived period was a dance hall, but by 1970 the dances were no longer being hosted there and the building had started 50 years of neglect and decline.

Part of the RAAF Association’s plans for the site includes a memorial to all the Wireless Air Gunners who lost their lives during the war, to recognise the airman who received their training in Ballarat but never returned from Europe.

The Victorian Heritage Register lists the site as being significant because of the technical training aspects of the wartime development and operation of the RAAF.

“The Ballarat RAAF Base is a good example of the bases constructed to train aircrew,” its website said.