AWAS Army Camp (site), Bibra Lake, comprises the ruins of a World War II army camp, established for a Searchlight Troop, staffed by the Australian Women’s Army Service. Although all prefabricated buildings and infrastructure were removed immediately after the War, there are sufficient traces on the surface to identify latrines, shower blocks, and tracks.
The traces of the camp extend over an extensive area, but there is no evidence that they have ever been investigated archaeologically, and no plans of the camp are known to exist.
In October 1942 approval was given for the expansion of the anti-aircraft defences in Cockburn Sound. As troops were now needed to fight in New Guinea, there were minimal numbers of men left to defend the western coastline.
Therefore, more women were recruited to Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) to be trained for the Artillery Corps. Recruitment commenced in July 1942. Training included use of .303 rifles, the Bren Gun for guard duty, identifying aircraft, and technical issues such as operating lamps, generators, and communications.
Although the ‘searchlight girls’ were supposed to be non-combatants, as more men were transferred from the coastline defences, the responsibility for firing guns now lay with the women. On completion of training the AWAS women were posted to gun and searchlight stations.
66 Searchlight Battery became operational on 8 April 1943, with stations located in Bibra Lake, Swanbourne, Como, Mosman Park and Kings Park.
One troop attached to 66 S/L Bty was camped at Bibra Lake, where prefabricated huts were erected. No account of day-to-day life at Bibra Lake itself has been uncovered during the writing of this report. However, an equivalent Queensland AWAS Searchlight Station reveals likely similarities:
[Sixteen] women—members of the AWAS—control a searchlight station…
It is an all-women show, this searchlight detachment… The girls start, maintain and manage the large, portable generator motors; manipulate, swing and control the lights, look after the control pillar and sort out their own calculations.
In addition, they do their own cooking, wait on themselves and stand their own sentry across the rough track that leads into the camp.
They maintain a 24-hour ‘spotter’ watch for aircraft, log the coming and going of planes and, when necessary, turn out to their stations on the lights at night.
They're doing a 24-hour day job, those girls, and the tidiness of the camp, the clean, dull gleaming parts of the big searchlights and the motors, the smartness with which they move, say that they are doing it well.
There is nothing palatial about their camp. They sleep in tents that are perched on the hilltop, stony and dusty, dirty…
They remain there six days a week, constantly polishing, always ready. Then, on one day, they are free to go below and enjoy the life of the town.
The average age of the girls is 19—which is very young for the highly skilled job that they are performing…
All these girls have attended various service schools—aircraft recognition, electric plant maintenance and straight out schools for searchlight members. Most of them have 12 months’ service to their credit.
A Searchlight Station at Fremantle gives an indication of the type of buildings likely to have been at Bibra Lake. These included:
Combined Mess Kitchen and Recreation Room, built to represent a house, 36ft x 30ft x 25ft, with 6ft x 9ft lean-to at back. This was constructed of weatherboard, partially lined with jarrah dado and sisalkraft, a corrugated asbestos roof, a galvanised iron roof on the lean-to, and a wooden floor (at least in sections)
The Ablutions and Laundry block was 36ft x 9ft, constructed of timber with asbestos walls and partitions, and a corrugated asbestos roof.
The Latrines were 12ft x 9ft, with a timber frame bolted to a cement floor, with sheet asbestos walls and partitions, and a corrugated asbestos roof.
A Store Shed was 12ft. x 9ft, erected with second-hand galvanised iron and which had an earth floor.
Timber Command Post.
Other material on site included Steel Pickets and Barbed Wire.
In October 1945, all of the buildings on the site were auctioned, along with any water tanks, piping, and other structures associated with the camp. Aerial photography from just a few years later suggests the removal was effective, since no trace of the camp is visible.
In 2015, the former camp is now part of Beeliar Regional Park.
Other Searchlight Stations included:
55 Australian Battery, Alfred Road, Swanbourne
Searchlight Station 6, corner Victoria & Manning Streets, Mosman Park
108 Searchlight Troop, Bay View Terrace, Mosman Park
AASL Station 15, Mt Brown, Naval Base
AASL Station 11, North Jandakot
Searchlight Stations 7 & 136, North Lake Road, Applecross